Thursday, July 30, 2009

What are the school league tables for? A review of Torchwood: Children of Earth

Children of Earth what BBC did instead of a third season of Torchwood. As probably everybody on Earth already knows before me (I waited till it was available on Netflix, not getting BBCA,) Captain Jack Harkness in 1965 turned over eleven children to aliens. The twelfth is left to lay the groundwork for the climax. They return, this time demanding ten percent of all the Earth's children. The UK government, to cover up the previous deal, tries to execute some of the survivors of the previous deal, which involves blowing up and killing all of Torchwood for some reason. What determined which people who knew of the previous deal could survive is unknown by the movie's end. The aliens, for some reason, make all the children of the Earth speak in unison some of their dialogue, so everybody is thoroughly freaked. The Torchwood team is running around trying to escape or rescue Jack. The government takes out insurance by seizing Jack's previously unseen daughter and grandson.

Which they do. They manage to recruit a secretary to record the secret meetings. What with everything, Jack realizes it's the old aliens back. Jack then uses the recording to blackmail the government into permitting his meeting the alien spokesman. Jack makes a defiant speech, the alien calls the bluff and releases poison into the building where the secret meetings take place. Ianto perishes. The government then proceeds to go forward on the surrender, while Jack calls off releasing the recordings of the plans for the surrender. He is taken to his daughter and grandson. The implication that Jack caved to save them is not quite drawn. Gwen and Reece try to save Ianto's previously unseen niece and nephew. The government assassin who has religiously tried to kill Torchwood has a change of heart, releasing Jack and helping him fight the aliens. In a sensational turn of events, this demands sacrificing Jack's grandson. Ianto is dead, Gwen is pregnant and Jack goes off into space for rehab time from the gruesome tragediness of it all. In short, hardball negotiations on actor contracts for any more Torchwood are GO!

Of course, Torchwood, as a Dr. Who spinoff, suffers from merely recounting the plot. Dr. Who has always suffered from childish beliefs about how if it's not mundane, there's no rhyme nor reason. Unlike other shows, it has at least used imagination and a certain amount of heart to turn out a superior product, usually. This latest outing shows both the advantage and disadvantage of such disdain for science, society and sanity.

The ostensible heroes get rather less screen time than is usual. They are extremely ineffective. It mostly plays because the government itself has kept Torchwood from working effectively, concentrating on killing everyone. When Jack and Ianto confront the alien spokesman, though, it appears they had no plan beyond shooting the glass of their atmospheric chamber. When the glass is bullet proof, Jack can only scream "Not him!" This sets up much emo as Ianto dies. And when for some obscure reason the grandson is the only child in reach to sacrifice to kill the aliens, it is extremely difficult to accept that 1.) it really is the only way to attack the aliens, because it doesn't actually make any sense and 2.) it is not at all clear why the kid has to die and 3.) the old guy whose death was supposed to be the clue to the mechanics of the final jeopardy died without anything of the sort being clear. It is forced upon the viewer that this is all about Jack emo. And the silly idea that to save us it is necessary for heroes to take the burden of sin upon themselves and commit terrible crimes. Enjoying the climax is strictly a matter of how much affection a viewer has managed to invest in Captain Jack Harkness and whether the political moral resonates.

So much for the disadvantage of thinking the science in science fiction is a synonym for magic. You get to thinking that any childish fantasy is acceptable. But what about the advantage?
The advantage is that you can use thes gaudy excesses as disguises, to leave a certain emotional space. Or as hightlighters, to draw caricatures. Caricature is underrated. A good caricature is more recognizable than the original precisely because it emphasizes some real aspect.

In the government discussions on surrender, one character asks the question "What are the school league tables for?" In context, plainly, to identify the loser children. In the story, the children sacrificed to the aliens are plugged into the aliens as a sort of prosthetic attachment for chemicals that make the aliens feel good. Since the school league tables in real life mean exactly that, to identify the loser children who get plugged into a system that makes its masters feel good, the Whovian huggermugger in this movie highlights the real horror of a system where the masters knowingly write off whole swathes of the population because, basically, it feels good, for the pocketbook as well as the ego. We get to see what "we" really do, everyday, in disguised form that lets us deny it as simply sensationalism. When the group decides to sacrifice the children the drama climaxes. There is something of a counterparallel climax, where the civil servant doing the dirty work, informed that his children have been selected as tokens of elite sacrifice to the system, goes to his home and slays wife, children and self. The awfulness of the system and the impossibility of standing up to it are driven home.

This is far too intense and real (despite the sf trappings) to let stand. Lois Habiba, the offwhite secretary who records the session with Torchwoodian contact lens (which Gwen and Reece had at home for DIY porno with extreme closeups---that is very Torchwoodian!) is at first sneered at as a revolutionary! Captain Jack of course is no rebel. He's a Rebus, whose maverickness signs true dedication and whose flaws are really not so bad, in fact, something someone like him might need to do the job. The sacrifice of children to the system has to be made, because nothing's more important. Therefore, Jack has to sacrifice a child. To be a hero, instead of a pathetic loser like John Frobisher, the suicidal civil servant, Jack has to not only sacrifice his child but somehow win. He not only survives but defeats the aliens. Frobisher's secretary (and lover, for a time, at least) Bridget Spears, had gotten the contact lens from Habiba. She recorded subsequent conversations, which are, we are shown, will force the evil PM Green to step down. The main villain punished! The show does at least hint that his replacement will be just another of the ones who argued for the sacrifice.

Thematically, the recordings should have been released. The alien threat should have been shown to be either a bluff or the consequences of defiance dealt with.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Learning to Despise the Military Mind

Learning is lifelong. The latest lesson was prompted by a quarter copy of Robert Heinlein's Expanded Universe, which I don't think I have actually read. It must have been one of the first Heinlein works to come out after I'd matured some. I'd started noticing things terrribly wrong with I Will Fear No Evil. Then, Time Enough for Love proved there was not time enough in my lifetime to continue loving the Heinlein oeuvre. I was grateful that Friday and Job were at least readable, if not read too closely.

But a quarter at the Goodwill is quite enough to justify enough someone as disreputable as Heinlein. Of course, he isn't disreputable. That right there says altogether too much about the fans of science fiction. Somehow, Andre Norton, the other dead giant of YA SF, is absently mindedly dismissed. But Heinlein, Heinlein is somehow still respected.

The thing about this collection is that it contains some of Heinlein's overtly political fiction and nonfiction. Two essays in particular, about a tourist trip to the Soviet Union, are also revealing about Heinlein the man. In those essays, Heinlein announces his conviction that Moscow's population was falsified. The railroad yards, the shipping on the Moscow river, and the testitmony of other brave and forthright military officers expert in logistics are cited to confirm the astounding inability of the West to see through Communist lies. Since the famous Moscow Metro was also famous for carrying freight at night, Heinlein's survey of railroad yards proves him either a halfwit or a liar.

I tend to favor the latter. Also in these essays, Heinlein gives tips for dealing with Intourist. His prescriptions are really quite simple. They merely elaborate on the sociopath's only wisdom, that most people are fundamentally decent, thus disarmed against an aggressive foe unencumbered by empathy. He recommends refusing to move, leaning into personal space, open insults (with helpful hints on what is particularly vile by Russian standards,) screaming. In Heinlein's other fiction, such tourists come in for authorial abuse. This was no doubt very amusing for him, in effect bragging about what he got away with. The notorious incident with his vicious attack on Arthur C. Clarke at Greg Benford's place shows how Heinlein was a practicing socioopath in his US domestic life as well. (If it pleases you to substitute mean, lying dirtbag for "sociopath," feel free.)

Which puts his other fiction in a different light. Jubal Harshaw's asides about manipulating sentimentality in his audience, the political dirty tricks and spying also seem to be autobiographical. It is interesting to speculate about Heinlein's real motives and role in Upton Sinclair's EPIC campaign. A naval officer retired young for TB, with some contacts via free love (Heinlein's first wife) with the left, is ideal for a second career as a political operative. Like those "disilliusioned" Vietnam vets were ideal for infiltrating antiwar movements. We'll never know, most likely.

One of the pieces repeats some of his favorite subterfuges re Starship Troopers. Since everyone with the slightest education knows that the franchise in ancient democracies, as in the well known example of Athens, depended upon service in the military, Heinlein's basic thesis, that the responsibility of service stabilizes, is false, and known to be false, throughout the entire book. The occasional sentence thrown in about Federal Service not being military service were deliberately inserted for polemical purposes. If ninety five percent of the Federal Service were nonmilitary, there was no need for the scene in which examiners talk about forcing a cripple to withdraw by deliberate harassment. Counting the hairs on a caterpillar was the example, I believe.

The anthology also contains his Patrick Henry appeal. Apparently he tried to ride this political hobby horse somewhere. Then it turned out not to be Republican party policy. I don't think Heinlein ever forgave Eisenhower. But as a general, Eisenhower was exempt from real criticism. The appeal itself was the most ludicrous, vicious Red Scare mania imaginable. Vicious personal slanders, equation of disagreement about facts equated with treason, non sequiturs and double standards abound. Heinlein knew very well what the US military was up to, in the past and in the present. He just didn't care. In Glory Road, though, he really only cared to explain how his Hero didn't screw outside his race. The man knew how to duck. He threw in miscegenation in Farnham's Freehold to sweeten the pill of black on white cannibalism. People still tend to sort of glide over Farnham's Freehold, like it didn't even exist. Ah, but it did. What does it say to pretend it didn't?

The funniest thing of all, is that with a little maturity, reading Mark Twain, and a little Jack London and H.L. Menchken, reveals how unoriginal Heinlein's style really was. His play with scientific ideas was nowhere nears as imaginative as Arthur C. Clarke's. So he used his grasp of basic science in juveniles, where excessive creativity would have been a handicap. Of his adult work, the influence of John W. Campbell on the Future History stories gave them an interior strength. His later "adult" work is notoriously bad, with even trash like Spider Robinson unable to make a coherent case. (The defenders picked up one thing from the poisonous toad they worship: The best defense is a good offense. They trash the motives and politics of Heinlein critics.)

His true strength was a certain kind of fantasy characterization, straight from the pulps, to the reader's vicarious daydreams. For the mature reader, Isaac Asimov far excelled in his portrayal of real human beings. Since no one makes a brief for the Good Doctor's literary talents, that really shows how truly awful Heinlein is.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Welcome to Promise City

In the series finale, Great Leap Forward, Danny Farrell, was assured by Kevin Burkhoff that he was sure to survive the promicin injection, making fifty/fifty last season. Danny took the injection, acquired the power to continuously emit contagious promicin. The promicin killed his and Shawn's mother (and Tom Baldwin's sister,) and sparked a massive outbreak at the hospital, which escaped into Seattle at large, including NTAC headquarters. Meghan Doyle (replacement for Samantha Ferris and Karina Lombard!) Marco Pacella, his new Theory Room girl friend whose name I've already forgotten (!), and Garrity survive, acquiring 4400 abilities.

Tom Baldwin was safe from the contagion as he and Jordan Collier were being held prisoner by the Marked. Isabel Taylor turns on the Marked, sacrificing her life to save Tom and Jordan. Instead of arresting Jordan, Tom gives him the list of the Marked, realizing that the Marked were beyond his NTAC authority, leaving Jordan free to deal with the Marked.

It was unclear whether "Cassie's" real plan was for Isabel to actually terminate the 4400 movement by turning Jordan. It is not obvious that freeing Isabel was the only way to deal with the Marked, especially since it required knowing that Isabel would have a change of heart so powerful and sincere to demand self sacrifice of life itself. Diana Skouris is discovered to be immune to the promicin contagion. Investigating this, Kevin Burkhoff more or less instantly discovers that a homone, ubiquinone, prevents the acquisition of promicin. And it turns out this is already a commercially prepared medicine. Shawn takes revenge on Danny for killing his mother, albeit at Danny's request, by taking his life. Thus ends the epidemic.

The deaths number about nine thousand, implying that there were about nine thousand new 4400s surviving. Overwhelmed by the catastrophe, Seattle NTAC asks for Collier's help and Kyle implements the plans Jordan has made for taking over Seattle. The series ended with Kyle telling Tom it was time to take the shot; a montage of the NTAC 4400s discovering their new abilities, and Welcome to Promise City written upon a road sign on the outskirts to Seattle.

Instead of writing a huge, series changing climax, which the next several episodes spent time undoing, Behr wrote this season finale (which of course became the series finale) which maintained the status quo. The uncontrolled spread of promicin was instantly controlled. The end of fifty/fifty meant that promicin could spread safely, but the discovery of ubiquinone meant that promicin spread could be stopped. There were still zero indicators as to the nature of the catastrophe. Collier was still arbitrarily written as somehow equal in villainy to someone like Dennis Ryland. Collier was shown as pleading with Tom to kill him before the Marked could finish turning him, but everything Collier does is rejected as fanatical and/or revolutionary.

There are two follow up novels planned for the series. Greg Cox has written the first, officially released Tuesday but now available by preorder. The status quo remains unchanged. Tom does not take the shot. This fits the series, which exhibits a visceral fear and hate at the thought of the future being different. The notion of common people become powerful seems to the stumbling block. As THE HERO, therefore, Tom must reject the temptation to evil promicin offers. The name "promicin" of course alludes to the false promises of the future, revolution, power for the common man. The title of the series finale, "Great Leap Forward," was meant to inspire fear and revulsion by alluding to Communism.

On a personal level, with son and nephew, girl friend(s), boss and coworkers as 4400s, Tom's feeling of being left behind, should be a factor. Even more important, the feeling of helplessness should be even more a factor. And even more important than that, the feelings of guilt over being used by the Marked to murder two men should affect his feelings over promicin, which is what the Marked are supposed to be fighting.

The novel focuses on huggermugger over Danny Farrell's body being used for research to recreate the contagious promicin. Although the series has always showed Collier holding to his insistence that promicin must be voluntary, as noted above everything Collier does is suspect, especially for motive. This is not true of Dennis Ryland, who is back for the novel, which is also true to the series characterization. As in the novel, Ryland desires the use of promicin as long as it remains in elite hands. The possibility that the catastrophe is the monopoly of promicin powers by the elite is unexplored. Therefore Jordan's insistence that everyone take promicin is simply fanaticism, not democratic.

The basic premise of the story is that the effort to recreate the contagious promicin would be the trigger for a military attack on Promise City. Not only is Danny's body missing, showing there is a real plot, there is also an effort by Ryland to establish Collier as responsible as a justification for attack. Collier is shown as manipulating Richard Taylor into attacking the Marked in revenge for Isabel's murder, while maintaining deniability. This is supposed to leave it open for Collier to violate character and be equally responsible for the new plot.

There are a couple of problems. First, the notion that Ryland or the government needs any justification beyond loss of power is nonsense. Second, the notion that Collier would bother to manipulate Richard seems unlikely. Collier has no deniability because Baldwin knows exactly what he's doing, for the good reason Baldwin wanted him to do it. And Baldwin's superiors know who the Marked were supposed to be, because Tom tried to do it the legal way to start off with.

The narrative deals largely with the attacks. There is a little bit of unintentional wheel spinning when Richard is sprung from jail, then is recaptured, then is sprung again. The emotional story is the repudiation of immoral (subtext reads, "revolutionary") violence. Kyle is sickened by having to kill Marco's new girlfriend (who was converted to the cause when she became a 4400.) Richard is sickened by killing one of the Marked. Burkhoff and his girlfriend Tess are sickened to the point they abandon the 4400 cause completely, not just Collier, as previously shown.

These conversions to the forces of law and order are unconvincing. Kyle's grief over killing people in self defense situtations is particularly symptomatic. Kyle thinks Cassie is a manifestation of his own prophetic ability. Kyle released Isabel so she could kamikaze the Marked. Kyle loved Isabel. The inescapable conclusion is that Kyle sacrificed his lover. Ignoring this is false characterization. Making Kyle feel guilt over self defense instead is a way of imputing guilt to the 4400 movement in general, and Collier in particular for violence even in self defense.

Richard of course is converted to nonviolence even against the people who killed his own daughter, over whom he supposedly feels much guilt for his own errors and failures. Yeah, right. Assuming the absolutely unacceptable awfulness of violence by ordinary people is the only thing that makes this believable. Burkhoff's obsession with his research is one of his defining traits, which makes his withdrawal also unbelievable. But it makes it a more powerful statement against Collier.

Kyle's belief that Cassie is merely his feminine side does not keep him from having sex with her. The logical possibility that Kyle was, in the original plan, taken as a 4400 whose ability was to communicate with a person in the future, as a liaison with NTAC authority Tom, is not broached. Since the elites began interfering with the plan, starting with Isabel, then by subverting Kyle to assassinate Collier, it seems logical that Isabel and Kyle are still agents of the elites, knowingly or not. The peculiar differences between Kyle's release and Tom's release could be retcon. Or it could be that Kyle was abandoned because his cover was blown. Or something else? The further possibility that the elites took over the future end of the Kyle link, either by putting Cassie in place or by Marking her, is also not broached. The fact that Cassie seemed eager for the promicin plot to succeed therefore reads more a hint of what Collier's faction really stands for, which is still supposed to be the slaughter of half of humanity. Why there wouldn't be a promicin power to give people the ability to survive the shot escapes me. Cassie's eagerness for the plot to succeed would then read as eagerness for an attack on Seattle.

Shawn is basically written out of the story with the statement his political career is over, due to the catastrophe. I'm sure that every anti-Collier force would favor Shawn as a counterweight within the 4400 community. Following up on the father/son relationship between Jordan and Shawn would be too favorable to Collier? In any event, the 4400 movement has to be reduced to the personality of Jordan Collier. Because all revolutionary movements are fraudelent personality cults?The final volume is titled Promises Broken. This suggests that Collier will fall to Baldwin and promicin will be exposed as false promise and eternal human nature will not be violated and the future will be the same as today. And this novel is just marking time til the real end.

Howard L. Myers

A Sense of Infinity collects about half of his total work, including his two novels. Myers himself, judging from the copyrights was a pulp author, mainly Analog, main Sixties and Seventies. The short stories, considered as a light hearted variant of Robert Sheckley, are engaging enough. But they could be considered as less imaginative and less evocative than Sheckley. They share a similar loose regard for the science part of science fiction.

This is not literally true of the novels Cloud Chamber and Ultmo Novo (a fixup of two novellas.) Cloud Chamber takes it titular image from the scientific instrument. But it involves antimatter entities, which are therefore antilife, their machinations against a science hero of our universe and his eventual triumph. The science in this one explicitly avows that thought is prior to matter, that the human soul is eternal and the ascent of humanity culminates in a kind of paradise, called here Avalon. The science here regards openness to metaphysical discoveries as part of science. By a curious synchronicity, I read this in conjunction with an internet discussion with Hal Duncan, wherein he avows the need for such an openness. It was a perfect commentary on the possible consequences. Incidentally, the Lafe in the glimpse of heaven we get, there is a Lafe, coworker with Siggy in the field of the mind, which is surely Lafayette Ronald Hubbard.

Similarly, Ultimo Novo, which centers upon the hero's triumph in true science, holds that the false scientists who rule out the value of psychic powers (as evolutionary regression,) explicitly holds that science must accept the possible validity of metaphysical entities superior to matter. Indeed, even the scientististic scientists are at least advanced enough to accept that the human will affects evolution. Is it Lamarckism if psychic powers are involved? Science demonstrates that materialism is a justified belief. Pragmatically, there is nothing else that could be called truth or knowledge. There is no reason for insisting upon opennes to other metaphysical possibilities except the hope or wish or pretense that such nonsense as Myers', isn't.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

(continued from below)

The way that fans of a particular genre are familiar with previous works, take pleasure in the tension between novelty and familiarity, evaluate intention and success in meeting intention in their search for the best, is nothing unique. Dedicated readers or playgoers do exactly the same. For what is dubbed literature, works that are not commonly marketed as specific genres, professsional academics are a major portion of such an audience. Because of their credentials, what they call literature is commonly accepted as being in some respect of genuinely higher quality. The notion that literature is the Good Stuff is exactly paralleled by definitions of science fiction that smuggle in notions about genuine scientific plausibility or the meaningful exploration of scientific issues in fictional form.

Sometimes stuff is called literature just because professors say so. For some reason, it is much more popular to rail against the professoriat. In fact, the marketing specialists have a great deal to do with labeling works as genre or literary or classics. Or mislabeling, as when science fiction and fantasy are lumped together. Certainly no publisher would bother to separate alternate history from alien invasion, even if both are separate genres in the science fiction mode. Perhaps it is easier to criticize professors than big corporations?

But it is still true that while genres are commonly select tastes, what is called literature includes not just the select tastes of the professoriat, but works that have stood the test of time. Things like the novels of Charles Dickens or the Sherlock Holmes stories have been grandfathered into literature with a capital L. The implicit suggestion that this is all merely snobbery is absurd and a little offensive. People tend to rate such things more highly not because they think they're supposed to but because they do in fact find them more engaging, more meaningful than simple genre works. People who are love Jane Austen, for instance, in fact tend to be defensive about imputations of snobbery. Further, genre works remembered over time are also grandfathered into literature with a capital L. All these are popular works in the best sense of the word, as well as being literature in the best sense of the word.

The main points of contention are in literary and dramatic criticism. The process of evaluating literature and drama highlights issues of the functions of literature and drama, both their ethical import and the implications about the reader or audience. First, there is the fact, confirmed by simple observation, that most literature is basically wish fulfillment fantasies of one sort or another. Either the reader gets off on the scenario, or he/she doesn't. Generally there isn't much more to be said. There is little to argue for there is nothing to praise or condemn. But there's no getting around it: If enjoying 24 means the viewer is getting off on torture, then that is going to be felt as a personal insult.

Second, there are the James Fenimore Coopers or Edgar Rice Burroughs, who create something new. There are the Star Wars which rearrange the old with new style. Such originality is uncommon. Often it is accompanied by noticeable deficiencies of another sort. The question of how to add up points for originality and how much they compensate for points lost for characterization or seriousness or literary style is both unanswerable and not worth answering. The tendency to rank things is a game. It may played like ice hockey on the internet or in some English departments but it's still a game. The difficulty is that criticism means examining what something is. One inextricable aspect means evaluating what it means to do, and whether it does it. Both of these are factually contentious. They also practically beg for the rating game to be played, because comparisons between works, authors and genres are part of critical evaluation.
The endless disputes are as absorbing and as meaningless as the BCS. Time and numbers are the best cure for fads, academic or otherwise, but not very helpful for current works. This is why Literature tends to seem to be rather embalmed. It's a sampling error. What can be safely guaranteed to works that aim high and succeed

Third, there is the criticism of genres. In evaluating what genres do, there is an implicit evaluation of what the fan of the genre. To like classic westerns is to like the racial subtext. This realization can be painful. It is in fact so painful that criticism is constantly mired in the refusal to accept simple observation; the willfully obtuse denial of the very existence of subtext; the obscurantist denial that generalization is possible; the cynical denial that objective discourse is at all possible, even about grammar, spelling, punctuations and the facts of history and nature! Seeing what is there, correct reading of subtext, correct generalization, objectivity to sum it up is never easy and never perfect. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Fourth, there is the criticism that based on literary theory. This leads to all sorts of disputes between the popular and the academic.

One fundamental principle is, in a good work of fiction, all elements contribute to the desired effect. This is the kind of criticism that notes a science fiction story may be a western with ray guns, aliens for Indians and spaceships for covered wagons. Then it concludes that the science fiction is merely decoration. The further conclusion is that it is not true art. This assumes that decoration is not art, which simply isn't true. The idea seems to be rooted in some sort of commercial pragmatic, even when the art aims at some sort of spiritual epiphany. The attitude is that if it doesn't make money (contribute to the desired effect,) now, it's not worthwhile. The indifference in much commercial fiction to any concerns other than immediate sensation (the "money shot" is what they call it in the movies) is a prime example, showing that all literature, not just the best, is literature and has the same problems.

Another is the fundamental principle that some kinds of writing are objectively better than others. This should be the least contentious principle of all, but it is not. Nonstandard grammar, spelling and punctuation are usually bad, because they are less comprehensible. Demotic spelling, grammar and punctuation may be better because they are more comprehensible.

Another fundamental principle is that literature should model the good. This is contentious because what is good is in dispute. Also, some people like being bad.

A related fundamental principle is that literature should model the real. This is not opposed to modeling the real unless it is tactily assumed, either that only the perfect is the good, or that the real is bad. Some people explicitly dislike the real.

Another fundamental principle is that true art addresses something called the human condition, which is eternal. This is extraordinary since living memory tells us that it isn't.

A related fundamental principle is that true art addresses character. The notion is that human nature is reponsible for the human condition.

Possibly you might distinguish another fundamental principle but this is a fairly complete set revealing the discords that leave literary criticism a constant cacophony of arguments that miss confronting each other because they do not agree on first principles. Further, because these first principles are derived from deep seated attitudes about our culture they are usually unexpressed, apt to misunderstanding or even argued in bad faith.

What is generally regarded as literature, in the sense of being the best, is often marked by technical pragmatism at the expense of meaning; acceptance or rejection of the demotic for class reasons; ideological exaltation of unreasonable ideals: ideological denigration of real people; a denial of history, past and future; pyschological determinism denying the reality of society. All these of course are just restatements of the basic principle just listed. In their positive form, many people would instantly agree. They would strenuously argue my comments, particularly the observation that history tells us that times change, and the people didn't act the same.

The negative formulations would inspire huge dissent.

In the end, it comes down to, as said, why do literature and drama matter? The people who claim they like it for escape are never required to participate in the critical project, and would have no reason to. The ones who insist on the perfect validity of escapism almost invariably mean they want the conventional wisdom affirmed and strenuously object to anything else. The bland observation there's no arguing taste is only true for food. Otherwise, it is the sign of a liar.

What is conventionally regarded as good literature denies the reality of our existence as social beings, in favor of versions of the soul, usually called human nature. (The precise alias hardly matters.) It denies that there is a future that will be different, which is mad. It denies that the past is equally worthy of our attention. Plainly, all this is ideologically motivated. This kind of literature and drama is sadly impoverished, worse, self castrated. Standard literary criticism is the chief defender of this ideology.

Postscript on Style

Appreciation of style is first and foremost a matter of experience. This may not sound like much, but it is everything. With experience, the difference between an allusion and something borrowed from books becomes obvious. With experience, the difference between a simple style speeding a story or a difficult style stimulating thought becomes obvious. Style is usually something adults can appreciate. This is disheartening for the young at heart. But there you are.

Mode and Genre, Literature and Criticism, with Postscript on Style


The word's main meaning, style or fashion, is probably the one to keep in mind when discussing modes of literature. It is obviously related to modality, technically a grammatical term referring to something like tenses: might have been, might be, may becomce vs. should have been, should be, should become, for example.

In fiction, the style of narration is the first aspect noted by the reader. First person addressing the reader, third person omniscient, epistolary, stream of consciousness and so on are immediately apparent. But as the work progresses the other aspect, the way the fictive universe is fashioned for the reader, are soon noticeable. The specific mode of any work is primarily the amalgamation of the styles of narration and the style of fictive world displayed in it, whether its mere decoration or a central concern.

People have no difficulties considering narrative mode separately. They are aware that all sorts of works, in different genres, can have different narrative techniques. The fictive setting, where "mode" comes closer to "modality" is more problematic for people. The realist mode is typically the default mode in works that do not detail background. The reader is expected to assume the fictive world is pretty much like the "real" world. Fiction of course is not real, by definition, which means that "realism" is technically a matter of artifice, whether it aims as commerce or art. The realist mode selects aspects of reality. Bias in selection distorts the whole reality. Randomness in selection misses aspects of reality. The realist writer wishes to epitomize reality, correctly selecting the salient facts that tell the story. Some people of course reject the very notion that reality can be epitomized by fiction, and boast of reading only nonficion. It is naive of them to think these problems are not also present in nonfiction, but there you are.

This mode has exactly the same basic difficulties as journalism (which broadly speaking includes travel writing and essays,) history and biography, nonfictional modes of literature. The rule of thumb is that every detail should contribute to the story. But, life is full of details that do no. The problem is even more fundamental: It is not clear what the "story" is, in journalism, history and biography. This is so profoundly true that real life stories are notoriously difficult to fictionalize (or dramatize.) It is the great charge against the very concept of scientific history. The nonfictional modes are criticized as not true. The realist fictional mode is criticized as not true to life. Analysis and evaluation of literature will reflect the philosophical positions (whether the reader and critic has trouble to formulate them or not) about these fundamental issues. Generally, what is published will be acceptable to the views of the prevailing ideology of the rulers of society. And generally, what is not, if it makes it into print or stage or screen at all, will be marginalized. Some people hold that these problems cannot be successfully resolved and therefore accept only genuinely "realistic" fiction and drama. It is naive of them to think that realism is always problematic in fiction, which is by definition not true, but there you are again.

There are two pseudorealist modes, which ostensibly describe a reality that is not physically real but purports in the work to be so. They are of course historical fiction and science fiction. The past is gone, so historical fiction is not really describing it. And the future does not yet exist, so science fiction is not really describing it. The fundamental technical questions in writing either are identical. Is there a story of an individual person, especially one that is a wish fulfillment for the author/reader? Is there a story at all? How much detail of setting is useful for artistic effect? How do you meaningfully join together the quotidian lives of characters and the broad sweep of social changes? How do you depict change, the passage of time? (This is extremely difficult for realistic drama in particular.) How closely to known fact (historical or scientific) do you adhere? How much exposition is needed? How is exposition to be gracefully and compellingly written? Is dialogue to be anachronistic or suitable to the period, past or present? Do you use viewpoint character(s) who is not richly individualized because there is no need for the distraction?

Nonrealist modes, such as fable, fantasy, myth, allegory by contrast have a fundamentally different set of problems. Do you use traditional motifs? Do you create an imaginary setting or surreptititiously use a default conventionality? How do you integrate the real with the imaginary? How do you follow an internal story logic when there is no reality testing of plausibility? Do you create figures who have names but no real characterization to permit reader or audience identification? How do you write exposition of the fantastic nature imagined? What constitutes a good imagination, a stylish creation?

Some of the technical problems overlap with science fiction mode, obviously. Nonetheless, the internal claim to some sort of realism, some connection with our contemporary world (even if only in the past, as in alternate history,) fundamentally separates science fiction mode from fantasy mode. The pretense to realism in "realism," historical fiction and science fiction answers the question: Why does this matter? This question just does not have the same kind of answer in fantasy, surrealism, "magic realism," and so on.

Drama is almost always realistic in the sense that it usually tries to be visually plausible. In the movies, even if a car turns out to be a Transformer, they try to make the FX "realistic." Nonrealistic drama almost always turns out to be a dream or madness. Even the outright fantasies try to capture some sort of visual "realism," even for magic. But the differences in dialogue between science fiction and fantasy movies is usually noticeable.

Poetry as a mode is generally not even narrative, so much so that many critics viscerally hate narrative poetry. Essayistic poetry as well is often despised. Curiously, nature poetry, potentially a realistic mode for poetry, generally is accepted as being true poetry. Perhaps this is because (in my limited experience) it rarely gives details about nature, and expresses the poet's response? In any event, poetry is the last preserve of the militantly elitist. I dare not venture unarmed into the battle of the wits. So, no more about poetry.


We should think of "kind" when we talk genre. What kind of a story is it? We know perfectly well that some kinds of stories are specific kinds, so we call them genres. There are mysteries, and there are westerns, and there are romances. We know the mode is not the same as genre. You can have an epistolary romance or third person omniscient western or even a first person mystery. (Yes, it's been done. Successfully!) And you can have historical romances stories and science fiction mysteries, as well as science fiction romances and historical mysteries.

The western of course perfectly illustrates the difference between mode and genre. By definition, the western is historical fiction. But we know perfectly well that the classic western is characterized by a false history. The noble frontiersman (who is always white) fights the barbarous Indians and redeems the empty land. It is impossible to do both, but that is the classic western, isn't it? We know the romanticized sheriffs and gunslinger and range wars are stories that have little connection to real fact. We have known this so long that the modern western tends rather to be correctives, commentaries, rebuttals, outright subversions of the classic western. This explains why the modern western is an occasional thing. The western will never die. But the classic western was about race in a way that was never stated. It was manifest in the subtext, in its deviations from reality, in its suspicious omissions, in its deliberate refusal to address the problems of historical fiction, such as fidelity to fact. When times changed, when open racism became less popular, the classic western died with them.

The great lesson of the history of the western genre is that genre works are stories and plays (stage, screen or television) that have a specific emotional appeal. When the occasional subversive work comes along, it is espcesially, even more consciously, about that specific emotional appeal. The romance novel is about women finding love. The war novel is about war. The mystery is about threats to social order being resolved by the discovery of who threatens it. And so on and so forth.

The people who develop a taste for a certain genre commonly read or watch a great many works in that genre, precisely because it has that emotional payoff. Being well versed in that genre, they are aware of the previous works. Each new work is assessed for novelty in approach as well as the recognition of the fundamental task of the work, which is to deliver the emotional payoff. Originality in execution combines the shock of the new (albeit a shock more like scuffing your feet on the carpet than the plug for the electric toothbrush) with the climax of recognition. Even the subversive works approach their task by using the tropes and tools of previous works in the genre.

No one who picks up a science fiction or fantasy novel or short story, or goes to see a science fiction or fantasy movie knows what kind of emotional payoff to expect. They do not know what previous works will be referenced, implicitly or maybe explicitly. There is a sense in which science fiction can be considered to comment on now by imagining the future, perhaps in a straightforwardly cautionary way. But a more oblique approach is possible as well. Fantasy, in which anything can happen, seems ideally suited to commenting on now by manifesting our deepest wishes, the ones we dare not articulate nakedly.

What readers or viewers usually do is market research. They look for a specific genre in science fiction or fantasy. It might be space opera or sword and sorcery. Or something else. There are genres like these specific to science fiction and fantasy modes. Then there are the genres done in science fiction or fantasy mode. Isaac Asimov wrote mysteries in the science fiction mode. Richard K. Morgan wrote noir thrillers in science fiction mode. Kage Baker, Justina Robson, Catherine Asaro, Juliet Czerneda write assorted types of romances in science fiction mode. The fact that science fiction is not a genre but a mode is why there is such an astounding diversity of allegedly cross-genre works. That is a misnomer.


It is customary to separate the multitude of genres from something called "literature." This is literally absurd. Literature is everything that is written, which includes the scripts of plays. The distinction is partly political. "Literature" is that work which best expresses the ruling ideology. The stuff that entertains the masses is not literature for the simple reason that the ruling class is never about the masses. It would be nice if that were all there were to the question of literature. It isn't.

First, literature is not the plaything of the ruling class, which is personally generally rather ignorant and commonly downright brutish. The exceptions are exceptional and usually not members active in the daily business of their kind.

Second, literature is a valued esthetic experience for many people, of all classes. A ruling ideology attempts to transcend class as part of its anodyne function. There is a fundamental failure but the attempts by so many people of such varied personalities and considerable talents could never be presumed to be universally failed. In the early days of the advent of a new ruling class, there are real advances (which is the ultimate impetus for their success in the first place,) that are reflected in the highest expression of their views, literature.)

Third, quite ordinary people disdain other genres they do not care for. And more are indifferent. This is not quite the same thing as distaste for fiction or difficulty in reading at all. There is an inherent sense in which genre works are not aimed at everyone but only at fans. This limitation is something that makes genre works less than the ideal of "literature," which is undefined. Literature qua literature can be about anything. That makes it potentially bigger than genre literature.

Fourth, there is the general acceptance by people of all classes of the ruling ideology. This is the opposite of valuing literature for its successes in transcending class. This is valuing literature precisely because it doesn't. Aspirations to appreciation of literature are expressions of desire for betterment in the world as it is. It may shade into the snobbish disdain for the lower tastes of the vulgar, but it is not quite the same thing. The faux populist desire to dismiss literature in the high falutin' sense dismisses the idea of betterment in every sense, not just an illusory one. The lower orders should desire to be better, as well as more prosperous. Criticizing literature for its falsehoods is to criticize everyone, not just the big shots.

All this is commonly dichotomized as good and bad taste. Favoring educated speech and writing over demotic speech is not good taste, though it can be labeled such. Ignoring vague, meaningless language on the grounds that it is the people's tongue is bad taste, even if it poses as rejection of elitism. You must always be aware of the class issues or what you say will be nonsense. This will always be difficult to do, and contentious in practice. That's intellectual life.

The real treachery of the taste metaphor is that it's too literal. Taste in literature in not the sense of taste. The tongue has cells that respond to chemicals and send signals to the brain. This taste is a biological phenomenon, unique to the organism. Cognition has only a limited role. The response to literature, positive or negative, is not some unarguable attribute, which ends all discussion. Someone either likes this much salt on the steak or they don't. There's nothing more to say. This is never the case with literature. Even worse, biologizing the response by this metaphor also evades moral considerations.

That brings us back to the western. The racial subtext in the western exposes why genre literature, despite its superficial independence from snobbery, expresses the ruling ideology. As with all forms of literature, there are exceptions, some conscious, but genres are in fact limited. Although, being limited, they can be successful, this very limitation makes them as a rule less engaging for people in general. They matter less.

Of course, whether works that aim to be literature succeed, is an entirely separate question.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Jesus, Interrupted

This latest book from Bart D. Ehrman repeats a great many facts from previous books. And it is totally repetitive of their themes, so much so that he helpfully bullet points their main ones in this book. Since Professor Ehrman is one of the few theologians who both makes and effort at truthfulness and an effort at communicating clearly to ordinary people, this is a good thing. In the end I have to strongly recommend reading this book as well as his Misquoting Jesus, Lost Christianities and Lost Scriptures. His books on the gospel of Judas, the Da Vinci Code and Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene (all together) are probably informative but I haven't read those. Professor Ehrman has the courage to call contradictions what they are, and the word "forgery" is used.

How can you condemn such a writer? He is a shining example of the academic standards found in the best seminaries and university schools of divinity and departments of religious studies. Any shortcomings would be those of the most highly esteemed institutions and scholars. It is, although people dislike admitting such a possibility, possible to dot every scholastic i and cross every academic t, to industriously mine the sources and footnote the references, to write unread theses valued by merely weighing the bibliography, yet still produce nothing of value. The history of Soviet Studies proves this too, but historically the greatest reason for skepticism about the real importance of academic standards has been theology. Academic standards will not prevent a professor from merely regurgitating the accepted ideology. Even worse, in theology, academic standards are not even required. Ehrman's doctorate (Princeton Theological Seminary) I believe, is in principle not one bit better than the doctorate Jerry Falwell boasted.

I say this to emphasize the by comparison to much of his competition Professor Ehrman is an intellectual and moral giant. He would disdain this comparison, I think: He would much rather be in their company than in mine. The point is that the following points, although they rather call into question his fundamental understanding, is not a personal attack at all, but criticism of the entire field of theology in general, and New Testment studies in particular.

Perhaps the only new idea in the book is the suggestion that Judas did not just reveal the location of Jesus, but revealed his secret teachings, namely, that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. This reminds me of Courtway Jones' Arthurian trilogy, which posited Kay to be the true villain of Arthur's career (misreading the seneschal's role of being the bad advisor who says no to everyone begging favors.) At best, Jesus is historical in the sense that Arthur is historical. The current favorite historical Arthurs, if I'm not out of date, are the old standby Ambrosius Aurelianus, who is not named Arthur, is not a king, and rather more Roman than British; the other is a Sarmatian cavalryman (this was dramatized in the last big Arthurian movie.) That one is at least named Arthur, though he's not British at all. The point is, of course, that what people really mean by "Arthur," didn't ever exist. What did, isn't what they meant. Ditto for Jesus. And if Arthur is dubious, no one has made a case for Modred. How then do we know Hyam Maccoby isn't right and Judas is as fictional as Modred?

Ehrman holds to the conventionally accepted crucifixion date of c. 29. The only reason for this, near as I can tell, is that it makes Jesus' life a little more comfortably out of reach for Paul. Paul's mysterious silence on Jesus' life is thus a little bit easier to ignore. If someone named Jesus were crucified in 36 (possible even if committed to crucifixion by Pilate,) Paul, who began writing perhaps as early as 50 has no real reason to be so ignorant. The obvious point, that the mysterious appearance of Herod Antipas in some sources (including canonical ones!) as judge of Jesus, as well as Pilate, makes it uncertain who actually crucified him, is ignored by Ehrman, just as it is ignored by most of the orthodox.

The related point, that Jesus is held to historically be from Nazareth with the Bethlehem orgin scripturally inspired, exposes some of the terrible vacuity of academic orthodoxy. Jesus could have been held to be from Nazareth as a way to explain the title Nazarene (also Nasorean.) This is commonly held not to be developed from the same root as Nazirite (some one dedicated to God from birth.) The technical aspects of the argument about Greek linguistics is beyond me. I'm not even sure that Greek linguistics are relevant, how the possibility of an Aramaic loan word suffering a little mangling is ruled out. Then I see how Ehrman doesn't even notice how Jesus' biography is adjusted to attach him to the much beloved, highly respected and well remembered figure of John the Baptist. The historicity of Jesus' birth in Nazareth is suspect! If they do not even see that, how can I trust their arguments on technicalities of Greek. Wouldn't such be a great way to dismiss an opposing argument? Especially when Acts specifically retails an incident where the Baptist's followers know nothing of his supposed cousin.

The gospel of John is held to be as late as 95, primarily because of its supposedly advanced theology. (Ehrman cites the authority of Raymond Brown, for one.) John A.T. Robinson was notorious for arguing that John was earlier (and Dorothy Sayers was ignored) but the similarity of the Word to Holy Wisdom in Jewish intertestamental literature suggests the possibility that Robinson was right. Brown et al.'s assumption that the traces of a human Jesus were the original Jewish sect is doubtful. The divine man common in Greek culture would affect the Greek speakers who took up the Word, and they would imagine him in that way. At the very least Professor Ehrman neglects to explain (when he is usually so careful to do otherwise) how the transformation from Aramaic speaking to Greek speaking occurred.

Revelation is also held to be later. It has never been clear why the opening portion, with its letters to Christian churches in Asia Minor, so similar to those names in Paul's journeys, don't make us think of an earlier time, before Roman and Alexandria and Antioch were great centers of Christianity. Even more to the point, the apocalyptic thrust of Revelation is unexamined. Ehrman is quite clear that Jesus (overlooking his ill defended assumption there was such a person at all,) was an apocalyptic. The thing about apocalyptics is, just like the Tim LaHayes and John Hagees and such today, they are incredibly political. The politics of these apocalyptics is left undiscussed.

Partly that is because the orthodox never confront dissent. In most fields, there is at least lip service toward confronting differing views. Not so in theology. Discussing the possible political implications of apocalypticism would mean confronting the arguments of S.G.F. Brandon that the real Jesus was a revolutionary (my sentimental choice, but hey, I'm trying to go by the evidence, not wishful thinking.) Trying to justify the real existence of Jesus in any sense meaningful to a modern day Christian would mean acknowledging the existence of G.A. Wells and Alvar Ellegard. Amusingly enough, Ehrman tells of being baffled by emails from Sweden. It seems pretty obvious that they were informed by their awareness of Ellegard's work, while Ehrman had no clue such a person existed.

Another problem is the late dating of Docetism, in its various forms. The tale of Simon of Cyrene, who supposedly carried the cross for Jesus, powerfully suggests that there was very early on a story that Jesus was not crucified at all, but Simon of Cyrene was. Traces of this, as early as Mark, which could have been written as early as 65 (when a politically astute person could sensibly predict the destruction of the Temple,) a mere 30 years after Jesus' possible crucifixion, recasts Gnosticism as a broad religious movement in Judaism that was a wellspring of Christianity, not a later heresy.

Perhaps someone should write a book. Till then, such works as Ehrman's, unlike most, can serve as materials for genuine thought.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Emmy Thoughts

COMEDYBEST COMEDY SERIESEntourageFamily GuyFlight of the ConchordsHow I Met Your MotherThe Office30 RockWeeds
BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES Alec Baldwin, 30 RockSteve Carell, The Office Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords Jim Parsons, The Big Bang TheoryTony Shalhoub, MonkCharlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men
BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIESChristina Applegate, Samantha Who? Toni Collette, United States of TaraJulia Louis-Dreyfus, The New Adventures of Old ChristineTina Fey, 30 RockMary-Louise Parker, WeedsSarah Silverman, The Sarah Silverman Program
SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIESJon Cryer, Two and a Half MenKevin Dillon, EntourageNeil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your MotherJack McBrayer, 30 RockTracy Morgan, 30 RockRainn Wilson, The Office
SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIESKristin Chenoweth, Pushing DaisiesJane Krakowski, 30 RockElizabeth Perkins, WeedsAmy Poehler, Saturday Night LiveKristin Wiig, Saturday Night LiveVanessa Williams, Ugly Betty

This is easy: 30 Rock, Jim Parsons, Tina Fey, Neil Patrick Harris, Kristin Chenoweth

DRAMA BEST DRAMA SERIES Big LoveBreaking BadDamagesDexter House LostMad Men BEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIESSimon Baker, The MentalistGabriel Byrne, In TreatmentBryan Cranston, Breaking Bad Michael C. Hall, Dexter Jon Hamm, Mad MenHugh Laurie, House
BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIESGlenn Close, Damages Sally Field, Brothers & SistersMariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVUHolly Hunter, Saving GraceElisabeth Moss, Mad MenKyra Sedgwick, The Closer
SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIESChristian Clemenson, Boston LegalMichael Emerson, LostWilliam Hurt, DamagesAaron Paul, Breaking BadWilliam Shatner, Boston LegalJohn Slattery, Mad Men
SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIESRose Byrne, DamagesHope Davis, In TreatmentCherry Jones, 24Sandra Oh, Grey's AnatomyDianne Wiest, In TreatmentChandra Wilson, Grey's

This isn't so easy. Oh, Aaron Paul for best supporting actor is obvious. But I haven't seen any of the supporting actresses. For lead actress, Holly Hunter emotes up a storm in a crap show. Glenn Close I haven't seen but I suspect it's the same. Sally Field is superb but Kyra Sedgwick is also excellent and is more essential for her show so I guess I'd pick her.

But best actor? Both Hugh Laurie and Simon Baker do shows that would be unwatchable without their performances in fundamentally absurd characters. I think of them as leads in TV shows dedicated to the proposition that the asshole is erotic (or at least erogenous.) They do it superbly, but is it really worth doing? I watch The Mentalist every time, and it's charming for me. But an Emmy? Bryan Cranston and Michael C. Hall are both in outstanding shows but I haven't seen the third instalment of Dexter. Cranston for the repeat?

And it gets really difficult in best drama, partly because I haven't seen Big Love, Damages or Mad Men.

It is puzzling how Lost can still be nominated. It has undergone the collapse so common to heavily serialized shows. The plot is contorted beyond hope of satisfactory resolution. The characters have repeated their essential stories, then been rewritten at random for an illusion of change. For a long time now, Lost has been relying on the Farscape principle: It doesn't have to be good if it's something new (to TV, at least.)

Supporting arguments? The grave importance of inputting the numbers, to prevent catastrophe, was nonexistent, a fake conflict. The season spent showing Ben manipulate Jack into surgery was pointless. The island, as a character, was so schizophrenic that the writers had to split it into two separate characters, at least, with the smoke monster a possible third, to justify its past actions. Except that unveiling the fundamental conflict after four seasons means the rest was pretty much a waste. As for the characters? Jack/Kate/Sawyer have gone around as many times as John and Aeryn, and like Farscape it has devalued their story. Locke has been rewritten as mysterious and wimpy so much they've killed him off and it was hard to tell! I believe they should use the opportunity and actually reset the timeline. This could be rationalized as Jacob beating his opponent by removing Locke from the board. Then the opponent, internet nicknamed Esau, could spend the last season trying to manipulate the key characters onto the island, in full view, so we have the real story unfolding for once.

Breaking Bad finished with a symbolic expression of Walt's continuing fall into depravity. Relying upon symbolism in a realistically styled series is an unfitting diversion. It is obviously caused by the "need" to extend the show chronologically. Walt's resentment of Walt Jr.'s handicaps needs to emerge in his mistreatment of Jesse. The symbolic resolution of Walt's manslaughter of Jesse's girlfriend delays that resolution. This ratcheting down of tension will probably demand a fair amount of time wasted. The wife's resentment of Walt's weakness in getting sick is irrational, if human. But even she should notice that she is letting her boss ride when she won't let her own husband. Dean Norris as Hank is excellent but the proper resolution is for Walt to kill him, even if he doesn't admit to himself how much his resentment leads to do so.

Dexter's second season was weaker than the first. It, like so many character driven dramas, repeats the delicious character story. In this case, Dexter is offered a chance at an relationship based upon the open acknowledgement of his murders, and he refuses and kills the person who tried to force a choice upon him. To do so, they series had to get uncharacteristically sloppy in the plotting. In particular, Doakes has to act the idiot for the plot to work. I gather the third season does something similar? To be properly resolved, Dexter has to make the choice when either Deborah finds out about Harry. She should for a start find out about Harry's suicide. Finding out how crazy Harry was of course leads to the possibility of discovering Dexter's other side. Marriage with Rita should be a dramatic choice for Dexter, but his frameup with Paul has not been properly dealt with by her. What is she going to tell the kids? Honestly, the series should end with Dexter getting killed by a victim, getting caught or committing suicide.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Court of the Air

This was an impulse purchase, largely because of a sudden irrational belief that the last paperback copy must mean all the others were bought because the thing was good. Plus it appeared to be very inventive. Well, there is all sorts of cute phrasing (Greenhall instead of Whitehall,) and original notions (coke powered robots.) There are two young heroes, Sally and Oliver. Sally early on is apprenticing in a brothel while Oliver is sheltered. Not to fear: Sally is properly virginal in mind as well as body, while Oliver is properly bold.

In addition to being the opposite of what their circumstances would lead you to expect, the twenty year olds are Very Special indeed. Molly inherited steampunk nanomachines while Oliver is the son of a Goddess. Curiously, the vast bulk of this vast bulk involves Sally and Oliver being constantly in grave peril, only to be rescued by the brave self sacrifice of assorted comrades glad, glad, glad to validate their Sally or their Oliver. Eventually, after five hundred pages or so, the author (finally tired?) has the hero and heroine exercise their natural talents and terminate the plot by defeating the dastardly foes. The expectedness of it all is overwhelming.

The villains by and large are caricatures of Jacobins and Communists! The martyrous assistant heroes are dukes turned pirates, penny dreadful writers (and exbombardiers,) raffish spies, counterrevolutionary emigres turned assassin and such ilk. There are incessant paeans to the noble English spirit. Is there a slight hint of irony in the fictional name of this green and pleasant land,? (To wit, "Jackals.") ((Pronounced in that mystifying English way, jakes?))

I think not. The dead hand of Sam Walton has picked my pocket again. How mortifying.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Summer Series, House of Suns, True Blood and The Steel Remains

Summer Series
Eyestrain limits the amount of reading. And money limits the amount of really fun stuff to do. So it is nice that there is some summer television fare that passes the time. The Closer of course is quite good enough in its Cops-as-Avenging-Angels-of-Justice way for any season, if you can buy into the unreality of it all. And NBC is burning off Kings, a topic burning in mind for giant posts of its own. Our screens are also graced with The Listener, Burn Notice, In Plain Sight, Merlin, Eureka, Warehouse 13 and Saving Grace.

The Listener has the premise that a mysterious orphan, Toby Logan, is a telepathic paramedic. Being in the helping profession, he runs into people in crisis on the mean streets of Toronto. After the initial impulse to laugh is quelled, the stories actually have a modestly interesting diversity of cultural and social themes: A transgender runaway, Chinese immigrants and so on. Toby's best friend is Turkish. So the setting is more various than the usual on US television. The telepathy is an inconsistent mixture of random voiceovers and video montages. So far it is relying on telepathy being an old scifi trope dating back to the Thirties and Rhine's work at Duke University. If such things could be legislated, I'm tempted to decree that telepathy's sole remaining scifi rationalization would be engineering by Clarkean alien technology (a la Babylon 5 and Threshold.) So far the telepathy is just a plot device for the ever so sensitive Toby to help people. There are dark hints of the now obligatory wish fulfillment arc, though it is mercifully in abeyance as yet. The Turkish partner is also comic relief, as is the black ambulance service director. Oz the partner hasn't always worked well and the director isn't funny at all. Given the unimaginative and inconsistent telepathy, the watchability of the show rides on the novelty of the setting and the personal charms of the star. I think he's cute and very likeable but if you don't, give this one a pass.

Burn Notice is its usual charming self. The voiceovers actually do give the lead character a unique voice. The bits and pieces of "spycraft" are neatly done and intrinsically interesting. Any show which has managed to inform its audience that torture is not an effective interrogation tool should probably earn a Peabody Award for public service, except that the Peabody is officially worthless since BattleStar Galactica won it. The overriding arc of the show is gradually destroying it. For example, the latest entry had a psychotic genius find a security leak that was leading to the deaths of US operatives. Said psycho (played, very amusingly, by Michael Weston!) has to get unofficial assistance, for no sane reason except there would have been no episode, from our Michael Westin. Our Michael, for no clear reason, has to unmask the traitor himself, instead of going to the authorities. The mechanics are very neatly done, with suspenseful twists. The upshot is that Michael declares again to Fiona that he was born to do this job, to save American lives. The joke on the show is that our Michael didn't need his unique skill set to do counterintelligence: He just needed it to do counterintelligence without police assistance and official authority. The value of the US operatives is tacitly assumed too of course. The latest contact with the company is at a air charter business, a CIA front. The voiceover manages not to mention the value of such a firm for renditions! The closer Michael comes to getting the old job back is the closer he comes to turning into a villain. Wanting that is wrong. Sacrificing Fiona and genuinely worthwhile work for it is even worse, it's stupid. Evil heroes may be entertaining for a while (a short while for my tastes,) but evil and stupid is a dead waste of time.

In Plain Sight had a certain basic competence. The premise, a US marshal, caught up in the lives of people in the witness protection program, has the necessary hook of a major life changing event. (Shows that have the stars undergo life changing events on a weekly or semiweekly basis rewrite their characters like plastic. They are soaps, and this absurd characterization is what makes them soaps.) So why don't I like it? The marshall is a beautiful blonde (that's not a negative) who has no impulse control and is mean (which is.) And because she's so beautiful and great at her job, everybody basically adores her, even secretly the curmudgeon who's out to get her. Yeah, right. Don't believe it and that's fatal.

Merlin reminds me a great deal of Sanctuary. Like Sanctuary, it relies on being shamelessly over the top, instead of using actual plotting and real motivations. It really is dumb even in its own terms. Unlike Sanctuary, where the two leads are pleasant people who want to do good things, its not quite certain what anyone in Merlin wants. But we are supposed to care because it's Merlin and Arthur. Sorry, no. When you get to the heart, this show is much more like Fringe, despite Fringe's drabness and lack of imagination. The writers imagine that we will be invested in the characters, just because. If we don't buy in, it's dull. Pass.

Eureka is back! Every season ends with some godawful serious crisis. This show is so ludicrous that gravity is death. Levity should be king every second, not least because the show does it so well. They have made some missteps. Matt Frewer's Taggart is gone. Lupo is being saddled with Zane instead because of the mysterious desire to give her a serious love life. But until this season's obligatory serious arc kicks in, good times. Here's hoping they save it till the last episode.

Warehouse 13 looks to be short of characters. It shares the general stupidity of Sanctuary and Eureka, which is a difficult sell. About the only way to do it is either to be wildly imaginative (shamelessly extreme, if you can't manage that, anyhow,) or to have such charming characters you enjoy having them in your living room an hour each week (a la Colin Ferguson.) Warehouse 13 is so goofy that I can't imagine the straight arrow lead will do more than get pie thrown in her face every week. Speaking metaphorically, at least. I don't think this will be entertaining very long. The male lead, who will essentially be the pie thrower in the sense that he will be the one who looks good every week, lacks the gravitas or the empathy to carry that off. And Saul Rubinek's curator doesn't have many scenes with people! Will they really be able to come up with enough comedy routines with props to keep his role going? Well, we'll see.

Saving Grace
This is the sort of thing that gives fantasy a bad name. People with ideological drivers about the nastiness of humanity probably find this all fascinating. It's tiresome because it's so silly. Just to arbitrarily pick one thing, Holly Hunter's Grace is supposed to be a tireless drinker, villain hunter, cusser and fornicator. Okay. She is also supposed to be a major figure in her young nephew's life, warm, maternal, reliable, very June Cleaverish. Drivel. The moral sophistication of this show was revealed in the very first episode where a young pedophile's wickedness was established by listening to Goth records in German! Not only is he sexually perverted but he's violent. This is so bad I find myself mentally downgrading all past Holly Hunter movies.

House of Suns
There is a love story in here, and it has a happy ending. This is a shocking departure for Alistair Reynolds, and has commensurate impact. There is a torture scene for his obligatory The Future is Grand Guignol trope, but it turns out to be not so important and doesn't disgrace too many pages. (This is getting kind of tired after all.) So the reading experience was rather enjoyable, despite some logorrhea. It takes about a hundred pages to tell us as much as the dust jacket does! After closing the book, there is a feeling of dissatisfaction. I think it's because through most of the book, space war is regarded as natural, common and proper. Extinction of species is regarded as inevitable and quick. None of this is actually justified. I don't know Reynolds personal politics but if he's like most people he unconsciously repeats most conservative "ideas," and this is an excellent example in my opinion. Suddenly, at the end, the revelation is made that space war (and implicitly) extinction are not natural, common and proper. But a matter of choice. With all those pages, couldn't this have been explored a little more? I enjoyed the love story but that kind of character driven story didn't need any of the imagination Reynolds lavished. Reynolds went so far as to rename force fields "impassors!"

True Blood
I'm part way through the first season. The series is like a master class on how fantasy has perils that mislead authors into making junk instead of art. Some of this is Alan Ball lapsing into old bad habits. There is a wonderful drug dealer in this show, just like American Beauty. I didn't believe that ignorant twaddle then and I don't now. Except that now I have to put up with it for thirteen hours instead of two! As might be guessed, vampirism, always a metaphor for illicit sexuality, is in his hands a metaphor for homosexuality. Since there is real homosexuality available for drama, the need for this is not one bit obvious. And since the show has to make vampires evil, it backfires on gay lib, whatever Ball thinks. This is particularly true of the antigay movement. If magical vampires exist, then magical God can exist. And obeying his every whim, no matter how cruel it seems to us, might in fact be the very definition of virtue!

That's because this is Charlaine Harris' story. The Ball trimmings, however illsuited they may be, are not essential. Her story is two sisters, one the slut and one the virgin. Well, technically the slut sister is Jason, the brother of the virginal heroin Sookie Stackhouse. But this is a fantay and one is well advised not to be misled by such minor details. That story is something like Sense and Sensibility except that there is no affection between the sisters, and the sensible sister is merely judgmental instead of geneuinely sensible. Ball misreads the basic story I think. He neither corrects the flaws in the Sookie character nor sees her honestly. We are supposed to love this character when she is oblivious to most people around her. The only scene where the character is confronted with anything but adoration is when her brother slaps her for getting their grandmother killed. (The scenes where people think nasty thoughts about Our Heroine exist to make her the Suffering Heroine and those people are the usual detestable common humanity.) Obviously the real killer is the one to vent on but he has a point about her bahavior, especially since the grandmother had prudently asked her to use her telepathic powers to find the killer. Sookie is such a dunderhead that telepathy can't make a good detective! There are an appalling number of people who make their heroes or heroines the ones who are winners, instead of good. This heroine is neither.

There is also an incredible unreality. There is a little speech where Ball tries to liken the magic of vampirism to the miracle of all life. Aside from being just plain dumb, it still doesn't address how regular people address the reality of their inferiority to the magic people. They somehow are supposed to be floating around in everyday life. Ball can throw in a subplot about best friend Tara (a magical Negro for Sookie,) and her alcoholic mother getting an exorcism which the daughter pays for from sheer niceness. But it doesn't matter. This series is a fantasy in the pejorative sense. Or Ball can throw in a touching sequence about a Civil War veteran bonding with an Iraq veteran but basically, this is about the Glorious Sookie, Suffering Heroine, getting not icky, seminal sex, but Really Cool, Ecstatic, Magical Sex, safe from AIDS and syphilis and pregnancy and it's not tawdry lust but Magical True Love. And she will somehow save everyone despite being dumber than a box of hammers. And they talk about her brother being stupid!

The Steel Remains
There are ordinary people roaming around a magical landscape but keeping a materialist mindset, practically atheist. And others have the attitudes of many religious believers today, where they routinely act as though there's no magic, and technology is the thing to rely on, but in the back of their mind they'll beg the sky for a miracle when they're dying. But there is magic. So these people are idiots. A novel full of idiots is hard to care about. And, as far as the heroes being the winners go, the main hero is supposed to be a killing machine, but he's not magic so how can he be? He's not a nice guy at all, in any way. I think we're suppsed to sympathize with his sufferings as a gay man but if there are Gods, how do we know that homosexuality isn't an evil?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Endless Forms Most Beatiful

Every cell has all the genes necessary to become any cell. How each cell "knows" which genes to actually use (to be expressed, is the usual expression,) was generally labeled cellular differentiation. Hox (short for homeobox) genes were discovered to play a role in development of the organism from the zygote. And it was discovered that the hox genes were found in numerous very different species, in a highly conserved form. Embryological evidence was always a major source of evidence for evolution. This discovery added the power of modern genetics to the study of evolution and the use of evolutionary theory to explain embryological development. Sean B. Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful aims to bring these developments (nicknamed Evo Devo) to the general

There is a plate with photos of homo sapiens sapiens and homo sapiens neanderthalensis skulls.
The text takes the now prevalent view that they were different species. There is a table whose caption includes the word "homonin." The orthodox spelling, used in the text, of course is hominin. There is a diagrams of the developmental tool kit with terms that are unidentified in the text. The distinctions between Hox genes, the homeodomains, genetic switches and so forth I think are clear in Dr. Carroll's mind but not clear in the text, at least not for me. Copy number variants are not discussed. As I recall, the number of chromosomes in chimpanzees is different from the number of chromosomes in human beings. But this goes unmentioned in the chapter on human evolution. There is no discussion of chromosome structure at all. That was odd enough in Molecular Biology of the Gene which I read thirty years ago. It is entirely inappropriate in this context. As I don't recall, the word "intron" is not used at all, while it too should have a clear explication in this context.

I'm usually fairly good at following explanations. At the worst, usually, I can spot the sentences and paragraphs where I get lost. But I can't follow this. Given the gross errors in editing, I believe the problem is that Dr. Carroll got no editorial assistance worthy of the name. I must suggest avoiding this book unless you already know a fair amount on the subject. Then perhaps you can fill in the blanks and appreciate the new material. It is a real shame because it is clear that Carrol had original research insights to share.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Cook, Coyne and the Collected Mysteries of Julian Symons

The Fate of Katherine Carr
Thomas H. Cook, one of the best mystery writers working in the US, has gone metaphysical, and metafictional, on us. Doing both at the same time strikes me as a kind of hedging the bet, a way of meaning two opposite things at once, which is to say, meaning nothing. The novel is set as a story told on a tour of the Amazon by a travel writer whose young son had been murdered some years before, the perpetrator never caught. Working as a small town newspaperman specializing in personality profiles, he tries to write a profile of a retired detective who had worked on his son's disappearance and murder. The detective tries to interest the journalist in the story of a disappearance, judged suicide, some years before of a young woman, Katherine Carr, a minor poet emerging into the world after some years nursing an invalid grandfather. She was savagely attacked and left for dead. She became truly reclusive, and eventually disappeared, last seen near the river. She left behind a poem and a short story. The detective parcels out the story in stages. The journalist gets caught up in the story because another subject, a young/old victim of progeria, who is interested in mysteries, is fascinated with it.

The story is divided into alternating sections, written in the first person by the author herself bu labeled the past, and discussions between two mysterious men, labeled as the present, about recruiting Katherine for a mysterious sacrifice. The gist is that they presented proof of guilt and the identity of the man who attacked her. Katherine's sacrifice is some sort of supernatural exaltation that turns her into an avenger of crimes left unpunished.

Unnaturally enough, there is the appearance of a number of mysterious women. And the mysterious disappearance of a local man. The progeria patient dies. The journalist criticizes the sentimentality of the story and the scansion of the poem. There is a great deal of angst over the dead son. Is that all? Of course not, the story leaps out of the past sections into the framing story on the Amazon tour, turns everything upside down, and leaves us wondering if the journalist told us the truth.

The thing about Cook's angsting characters (and he is fond of them,) is that Cook's wonderfully heated style is just right. It balances reflection on the past, the pervasive sense of times lost with human interactions in the character's present and mature attempts at self control. In particular, Cook knows that you don't sprint the marathon. Cook's novels are generally shorter than the commercially driven impulse to give the reader the most words for his money. Few if any go past three hundred pages. The simple decision to keep it shorter takes much of the wear from the prose. (It's very similar to Robert B. Parker containing his cutesiness by shorter novels than most.) Most of his books since Evidence of Blood approach the essence of the mystery genre, the unravelling of social order, by putting the tear in some other time or place. The cure of time repairs to some degree, the function of the detective or the police, but the ravages of time simultaneously undoes. The gravity of crime is never lost in a sentimental certitude that Sherlock or Sipowicz with set things right, that Happy Lie that tends to reduce the crime novel to mere genre.

PS Ian Rankin, are you reading?

Why Evolution Is True
Wonderfully well done presentation of the evidence. It is interesting that such a competent scientist and thinker is reluctant to talk much about evolutionary psychology. Indeed much of what he says can be construed as fundamentally quite negative, precisely because most of his book is extremely clear. But his discussion there is not.

The same is true of his discussion of sexual selection. It is striking that Coyne admits that there is very little experimental evidence for sexual selection for traits exemplifying fitness. And he forthrightly admits that there is evidence that quirks of evolution produce sensory bias. Again, the unusual lack of clarity is symptomatic of an argument not well founded on fact and logical deduction, but ideologically driven. It would be interesting to see discussions of sex and evolution include the fungi, which as I understand it have multiple sexes in some species. There is a conspicuous lack of "kin selection," which is a staple amongst evolutionary psychologists/sociobiologists.

In a widely variant population, upon which natural selection has been acting weakly (because it is expanding into an empty environment post mass extinction?) sex between too geneticaly different organisms would be less successful. Response to some sort of marker of genetic similarity would increase likelihood of reproductive success. To put it another way, natural selection would develop sexual selection to maintain species boundaries. The emergence of the sexual selection mechanism would be contingent upon mutation and genetic drift and would not itself be "perfect" but the usual good enough tinkering created by natural selection (instead of a designer.) This is not fundamentally different from the usual position. But it is not phrased in terms of male competition for choosy females, a formulation that is useful primarily for confounding conservative notions about human nature with biology.

The Collected Mysteries of Julian Symons
are not on sale, nor are they announced. What the hell is going on? He was one of the best myster writers England ever produced. This is just wrong!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Wire

Watching all five seasons in just a few weeks leaves you amazed. The time available to a series has rarely been used for long stories that have a definite shape and resolution. The continuing storyline has become a commercial necessity, it seems, with television shows determined to make viewers come back for the ending that never quite comes, or comes long past any satisfying meaning. The Wire in the first season is the story of a single investigation, of a drug ring in Baltimore. The twelve hours are wisely used to simulate the passage of months.

This is unusual enough. But The Wire takes the time to show the lives of both the dealers and the cops. The backgrounds of the dealers show some of the pressures and temptations that lead them where they are. The institutional background, the internal politics of the police as the higher ups respond to political pressures and jockey for promotion, are extremely well done. Various incidents in the lives have the indisputable ring of truth. Partly this is because the main writers, David Simon and Ed Burns, were a newspaperman and a policeman. Partly it is because the show, unusually for any television, recruited mystery writers. The usual notion that television writing is the important skill was completely disrespected. The Wire boasts screenplays by George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. The first season ends with the arrest of the ring head, Avon Barksdale, but the escape of his chief lieutenant, Stringer Bell. And, for their temerity in trying to pursue the drug money into its political connections, the lead investigators are demoted or forced out.

The second season pulls an amazing switch, to a different locale, the ports. The longshoremen's local head is taking money from the Greek, a wholesale drug importer and all around gangster who we learn has FBI connections, selling information on "terrorism" for protection. The longshoreman is using the money for political influence buying, trying to win government renovations of the port. When a number of women are smothered to death in a shipping container, a chain of events unfolds which leads to his death at the hands of the gangsters. The cop heroes of the first season manage to win their way back into the fold.

In the third season, the investigation of Stringer Bell, the efforts by Avon Barksdale to get out of prison early, the scheme of a retiring division commander to effectively legalize drugs and the election campaign of a reforming mayor all intersect. Barksdale ends up back in prison, Bell is slain, the cop heroes, with the conspicuous exception of the legalizer, are heading for the top of the police force, as the crusading crime buster new mayor promises a new day.

The fourth season changes the scene yet again. One of the cop heroes, Prez, had in the third season accidentally shot a plainclothes cop in a dark alley. Cashiered, he becomes a teacher. Four of his students become entangled in various ways with the new drug ring led by Marlo Stanfield and ex-con Cutty. This season starts with the new mayor entangled in a financial crisis putting everything he promised on hold. It ends, not with a natural ending point, but the discovery of twenty or more bodies entombed in vacant housing.

The final season expands to the Baltimore Sun newspaper. One of the heroes, McNulty manufactures a serial killer scare to get a budget. An editor at the Sun discovers one of his reporters is fraudulent. Marlo Stanfield is forced into retirement while his hit men are killed or convicted. The hero cops are also forced into retirement. Once again, the money trail is not followed, while the mayor neglects business for his gubernatorial run. The return to the end of the first season is not accidental: It is a statement of futility.

The whole thing is remarkably tightly written, with the Cutty character and his subplot perhaps the biggest dead end. The testosteronal highs are written like David Mamet arias. This does get tiresome, eventually, but it is also quite impressive even when it's old. It distinctly drops in the fifth season, when the semisociopathic aggressiveness becomes painfully obvious in the newsroom. The use of "nigger" is constant, and offensive, because whatever black people tell themselves about how they can use it, it fosters racism amongst the whites who are looking for racist validation. That is a difficult point to accept and it's hard to blame the show for not getting it.

Nonetheless, presumptuous as it may seems to criticize a genuine work of art, I will. There is a distinct softening of the portrayal of cops, though it is far, far superior to the NYPD Blue level of dreck.

There is only one brutal cop.

Police racism is minimized greatly.

The only crooked cop main characters both reform, one before the series' time frame. The systemic racism of neglect of black neighborhoods isn't well drawn, though they do attempt to do it.

The lesbian cop is romanticized and supposedly well admired. The male homosexual cop is a repulsive bureaucrat.

The labor union has no trace of left wing politics, nor any notion that labor criminality and right wing politics are commonly associated.

The division commander who attempts to legalize drugs does so in a preposterous childish way guaranteed to fail. The show is committed to the futility of political action and the inevitability of corruption.

The mayor, faced with the fiscal crisis, is tagged a sellout for not accepting an aid package from the Republican governor that would permit termination for cause for teachers. Since there is no contract in this country that does not permit termination for cause, this is completely stupid. Since the fiscal crisis drives the action, it is not a minor point either. Even worse, his insistence on truckling to the teachers for his political benefit is supposed to be his great sell out! After this, he is a moral failure.

There are some totally lame plot developments. McNulty faking serial killings being an enormous one. Entertaining but an ill fit is the amazing Omar, a black gay man who specializes in robbing drug dealers. The actor sells it, even doing full frontal, but the character comes from some sort of would be adult comic book, maybe one written by Alan Moore in a fit of comprehensibility.

Highly recommended nonetheless.

Political Movies

The Lives of Others
I think this one won an Oscar for best foreign language movie. A Stasi agent, set to spy on an East German playwright because the minister overseeing theater is sleeping with his actress girl friend (sort of a casting couch) and wants the playwright out of the way. The movie devotes a certain amount of time to the mechanics of interrogation and bugging an apartment. and typewriter identification. It's crisply done and bears the interest of the real world. The Stasi agent who listens in becomes entranced with their lives. He begins falsifying his reports, saving the playwright from the consequences of his increasing activism, even omitting to report the playwright met with a West German editor of Der Spiegel to publish an attack on the DDR, a piece about the state's refusal to publicize suicide statistics. Other Stasi agents follow up on a lead provided by the minister himself, manage to get information from the girl friend (but not the precise location of the draft of the Der Spiegel article.) The hero of the story then ironically is called in to interrogate the woman himself. He succeeds, natuerlich, but runs to the apartment and removes the proof. The girl friend, depressed, (but unknowing of what he did, even though the man had spoken to her and clearly referred to their conversation!) upon her release a little later immediately commits suicide in front of the apartment. The hero then is demoted to steaming open mail in the Stasi basement.

When the wall falls, he gets up and walks out. Years later, the playwright, when his play is restaged in the glorious West (we saw the girlfriend as the lead in the opening of the movie,) he meets the minister. When asked why he wasn't followed or bugged, the minister says that "We knew everything." The audience knows that the falsified reports are why a trap for the Stasi failed to go off, but the puzzled playwright goes to the Stasi records, now public. He realizes that agent HGW 27 falsified reports. He finds HGW in a menial job delivering magazines, but decides against making his presence known. He then writes a book, Sonata for a Good Man, dedicated to HGW 27. The movie ends when HGW, asked whether to giftwrap the book, says to the clerk, "It's for me." He smiles, for the very first time in the movie (he didn't even smile for the hooker.) Freeze frame.

The love story between the playwright and the actress girlfriend is essentially the tragedy that converts the HGW from soulless automaton to good man. The playwright finds out about her sleeping with the minister when HGW rings the apartment building bell so that her lie about what she was doing is exposed. He confronts her and she breaks it off. The moral of the story is that good and lovely people are tyrannized by evil socialist bureaucrats. After the fall of the wall, the playwright goes on to the proper success he always deserved, cherishing the memory in his heart. The easy assumption that things were great after the fall for the people of the east is nonsense of course.

It is particularly comical to think that the childish "play" put on would be successful in any medium (some BS about a woman who has psychic powers to predict death.) In the first, socialist version, the woman is a factory worker. Part of the playwright's motivation for rebelling is that his preferred director was blacklisted. In the western version at the end, there is just an unworldly set of screens and wraithlike females. The notion that this represents the triumph of art reveals some of the malignant ideological animus infesting this movie.

As is so often the case, reactionary social positions lead to falsification of character. The hook that allows the Stasi to turn the girlfriend into an informer was, wait for it, her drug addiction. The plot demanded some way for the villainous socialist tyrants to undo true love. Unfortunately the idyllic love affair is completely absurd. This disembowels the whole movie. On a minor point of the same ilk, the Der Spiegel editor conducts himself like some sort of James Bond. But the movie treats this without a shade of irony.

The Conformist
Jean-Louis Trintingnant's face is largely expressionless in this movie. But the body language, with its sudden bursts of action, sudden leaps and pirouettes, bespeak the volcano of emotions. The big reveal is that the conformist was haunted by his belief that as a boy he killed a chauffeur who was making sexual advances at the end. Trying to fit in, he becomes a fascist. At the fall of fascism, he sees the chauffeur making advances to a street hustler. Suddenly, he shrieks to the night that the chauffeur is the Fascist who killed Professor Quadri and that his blind friend (whom he abandons,) is a Fascist too. Of course he himself was involved in the murder as finger man, after he slept with the exiled professor's wife on the conformist's honeymoon in Paris. Then he has sex with the street hustler (coyly revealed by the guy's naked buttocks on a bed in an alley.)

The fascist phase of his life is marked by his effort to talk the professor's wife out of going on the trip where the ambush was laid. The action, such as it is, is laid against enormous, often empty sets, extremely stylish. The couture also is extremely stylish. The women's breasts are large, buoyant and bare. I have the distinct impression the director (Bernardo Bertolucci) was one of those who think they are the auteurs, instead of the writer (Alberto Moravia.)

I don't think the inadvertent (?) equation of homosexuality with the roots of fascism is of much interest. Trying to portray conformism in a handful of scenes with wildly eccentric people in small groups doesn't make nearly as much sense as showing it in large groups in normal life. The heart is in the right place. The scene when the conformist confesses the "murder" just to have the priest interested only in the sex acts performed actually approached the ostensible subject matter. But it's hard to rate the movie very highly. The novel?

The Edukators
A couple of young leftists have taken up burgling rich people's house, putting art in the toilet and the stereo in the refrigerator and such. They leave notes signed the Edukators, saying stuff like "The fat years are numbered." One goes off to Barcelona. His girl friend falls in with the other, they hit it off. The guy tells her about their nocturnal hobby. She finds that her bete noire, a wealthy man whose Mercedes she rearended is one of the villas they can break into (because the original boyfriend has a set of security codes.) Vengeful, they break into the man's home and trash the place, smashing wine bottles and throwing the sofa into the indoor swimming pool. They also leave a cell phone. When they return for the cell phone, so does the owner, who of course recognizes the girl. Calling the just returned boyfriend, the trio, in desperation, carries off the businessman to an uncle's mountain cabin. There in a few days, they realize that they can't kill the guy, that this one was really about revenge (not politics,) and saving their asses, that they are a free love threesome (that involves a little fisticuffs to work out.) So they let the guy go, who as it turned out had a radical past and assured them all would be forgotten. The movie ends with three in a bed and the cops pounding at the door and giant satellite antennas. Not to fear, it's deceptive intercutting. They are in a motel, planning to blow up satellite receivers for Europe's telephone systems. By avoiding the grossly maudlin, as in the kidnap victim really did forgive them or having the original boyfriend nobly pass the girl on instead, this amiable nonsese manages to preserve a veneer of believability for willing suspension of disbelief. Very charming.
If you are of a certain political persuasion.