Friday, January 29. 2010
The final episode of Joss Whedon's sci-fi series Dollhouse aired tonight. I'm going to seize this last occasion to write about Dollhouse, since I will probably never feel motivated to do so again. The overall reaction to Dollhouse, from myself, the geek community and perhaps even Joss himself has been . . . meh. Whedon fans watched it, but they never really committed themselves to it.
So, a few final comments (warning, spoilers follow):
Best Character: Topher Brink. The egotistical, amoral technical genius went through a believable transformation into someone who cared, and therefore someone we care about. His style was so distinctive that you could never mistake his lines for anyone else's (the first law of memorable dialog).
Best Character (runner up): Adele DeWitt. The iron-fist-in-silk-glove leader of the L.A. Dollhouse had style, grace, and sophistication. She also went through a believable development, showing vulnerability as well as ruthless resolve. Somehow we always wound up cheering for DeWitt, even when she was being bad. In her final post-apocalyptic days, she was stripped of her title, power, and make-up, but she still had the bearing of authority. Her nursing of the deranged Topher was touching -- it was perhaps the first time her British stiff-upper-lip notion of moral duty was overshadowed by unadorned love. Amazing how restraint magnifies the impact of the smallest gestures.
Adele narrowly edged out Alpha for the runner-up position. Alpha really wouldn't be in the running at all, except that I enjoy Alan Tudyk so much and hope to see him again in future roles.
Worst Character: Echo. I loved Eliza Dushku in Buffy. She's a good actress . . . but only good. I don't know whether to blame the writers or to blame Dushku for the role of Echo falling flat. I had predicted from the very beginning that the conceit of beaming a new personality into her every week would prevent us from bonding with her, but it's more than that. All I know is that all the actors around her managed to make us care about their characters -- Topher, Adele, Boyd, Paul, Anthony/Victor -- and yet somehow I never really cared about Echo. This would be the second time that Joss managed to build a series around an actress who was consistently outshone by her ensemble cast. (I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but never really bonded with Buffy herself.)
Best Acting: I'll go out on a limb and say Enver Gjokaj's portrayal of Victor/Anthony showed the best acting chops among the whole cast. Most of the Dolls could never quite make me believe in the premise of uploadable personalities, but Gjokaj could. When he was imprinted with Topher's mind, he was a perfect Topher. Now that I think about it, he got the most widely varying roles -- Russian mobster, English playboy, American soldier, psychopathic killer, corporate villain, etc. -- and he played them all with equal convincingness. Use him again, Joss -- he can handle whatever you cook up for him.
Best Plot Twist: Adele going from kinda-good-guy to washed-up good guy to bad guy to really-good-guy in the course of three episodes. Joss kept me guessing -- how will she wind up? And when the dust settled, it was all believable in the realm of Adele's character.
Best Plot Twist (runner up): Whiskey/Dr. Saunders shooting Bennett. Joss openly acknowledges that all romances must be cruelly frustrated in order to make for good TV, so the moment Topher kissed her I knew Bennett was toast. But I didn't know she would be toasted quite so fast. And for Joss this was a two-fer, since it simultaneously shattered the romance of Boyd and Saunders. Speaking of which . . .
Worst Plot Twist: Boyd revealed to be the super-villain. It just . . . didn't . . . work. It's the sort of revisionist twist that signaled that Angel had jumped the shark. The romantic arch between Boyd and Saunders was carefully developed and then . . . totally forgotten about. You will never convince me that the writers planned to do that from the beginning, and I can't support such twists unless they were planned.
Best and Worst Themes: Mind and identity. The good news was the show was alive to all the mysteries of consciousness: what makes a person a person? Is person a body? A mind? Memories? Relationships? But the show's grasp of the issues was so muddled that it took different perspectives without even realizing it. One moment they act like the mind is identity, and the body just a shell -- a "suit" to be worn and discarded. But then the characters feel moral compunction for the body -- say, Echo trying to save Whiskey, even after she's been imprinted with an evil villain. But then when Paul is suddenly killed, Echo is reunited with his mind when she uploads him into herself. The premise of programmable people turns out to be too big for a prime-time series to sustain smoothly. We have to believe in the impossible on a regular basis, but then believe in enough limitation to sustain dramatic tension. For instance, we have to believe that Topher can reprogram an entire world of people with a bomb made of spare parts, yet somehow he can't rig it with a timer and has to blow himself up with it. When everything is possible, all limitations become arbitrary, and we stop caring. We drop them like, um, dolls, and go play with something else.
Good luck, Joss, on whatever comes next. Please let it be a Dr. Horrible sequel.
Tuesday, January 26. 2010
I love all pop culture that dares to be smart. Still, I had not fully realized how much of an economics geek I had become until I watched "Fear the Boom and Bust", a rap video recently featured on NPR that contrasts the philosophies of John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek. This beautiful work manages to be unapologetically thick with ideas and still convey the core of the debate to a layman's audience. I've been reading the Wall Street Journal for the past twenty years, so the on-going battle to retrieve our nation's fiscal policy from the Keynesians is familiar to me, but the video makes it much more dramatic.
On the outside, economics looks like the driest form of abstraction. It took writers like Dubner and Levitt (Freakonomics) and Ariely (Predictably Irrational) to remind us that economics is really the study of human decision-making, which makes the field both accessible and endlessly fascinating. Or, to put it another way: economics is the study of how people work together in a society. I'm not sure if you can have a really well-developed sense of fairness, freedom, or the meaning of life without some basic understanding of economics.
Monday, January 25. 2010
When I described the Axe and Dove ads, and how they demonstrate the need for media awareness, I was only relating the lesson as it was presented in the workshop. I had some other thoughts on the matter. As Kenny points out in the comments, feminist interpretations of things are fraught with contradictions.
Why (Kenny asks) is the Axe ad supposed to be offensive? Can anyone pretend to be surprised to find out that young men (and who are we kidding here – all men) like to look at scantily-clad women? Well, no. I think the most rational feminist explanation would go something like this:
"The ad shows women primarily as sexual objects and not as human beings. The young man on the beach does not know or care who these women are. He is gleefully happy to have any of them, all of them. In that sense, the ad is reaffirming and tacitly justifying a dehumanizing view of half the human race. The women are also portrayed as being sexually enslaved by the technology of a man, reduced to slavering animals by a mere scent, which is degrading and insulting."
All this is true, but it doesn't change the sad and obvious fact that the ad is more or less correctly portraying the real attitudes of men. It is a scientifically established fact that, barring the restrictions of moral codes or established relationships, nearly all men are willing to have sex with nearly any woman. (Consider, for a moment, if an advertisement featured hoards of slavering men clawing their way through a jungle to attack a woman. It wouldn't be funny, because, well, it's too close to the true state of affairs.) Our societal codes of modesty and chivalry are not intended to deny our animal natures – they are very explicit recognitions of our animal nature, and a rational attempt to transcend them by constraining when and how our animal instincts are engaged. So, I agree with Kenny that all men are transfixed by nudity – that's why we don't want to be let advertisers to take advantage of it.
If the Axe ads are offensive, you would think then that most feminists would be champions of modesty. Some are – some even renounce heterosexuality entirely – but they are a minority, I think. Far more feminists see the exposed thigh and breast as signs of a progressive and free culture: women liberated from their slavery to marriage and free to pursue their own pleasures. Feminists want to have their sexual cake and eat it, too: they want to be free to present themselves as sexual objects, and yet not be regarded as sexual objects. To the women who want the freedom to present themselves as sexually attractive beings, I say: great! But don't be offended when men stare at your chest.
My feminist straw-person would probably excoriate the Axe ad but praise the Dove ad as being a positive message for girls. But actually I think the Dove ad doesn't get off that easy. Even though the Dove ad attacks the media-enhanced images of beauty, and tries to praise "real beauty," it's still focused on beauty. In other words, it is still encouraging women to define themselves primarily by their ability to be attractive to men. If you really want to encourage young women, you would break that cycle entirely, and talk about women building businesses and curing cancer. But, of course, this is an ad intended to sell soap, and beauty turns out to be more compelling to young women than mere comfort or healthy hygiene.
Both the Dove and Axe ads are preying upon the sexual insecurities of young people in order to sell stuff. That is understandable; sex sells. I don't think sex is bad. I just want my life, and the life of my children, to be more than just sex. And to achieve that end, I think we would be better off with fewer ads like these.
Saturday, June 27. 2009
Ethics, in the classical Greek sense, is an attempt to answer the question, "How should we live?" Or, to put it another way, "What would be a good life?" If you develop a system of ethics, you should be able to apply it to your own life, or any other life for that matter, and answer the question: "Was that a good life?"
Which brings us to Michael Jackson.
Yes, sirree, that's a real stumper.
People find meaningfulness in all kinds of things: success, fame, power, impact, uniqueness, love, happiness, virtue. On some of those measures, Michael was off the charts. He was enormously talented, enjoying the kind of fame and fortune and cultural influence that was shared by few, and not likely to be repeated again in our hyper-fragmented culture. Thriller not only holds the record for most albums sold, it's actually still a really good album; popular music doesn't often have that much staying power. The economic productivity of this one life is staggering -- Jackson's annual residuals alone are about 100 times greater than my entire lifetime output. He generously supported lots of charities, which almost lets you forgive the new levels of personal extravagance he reached with his Neverland. And man, could he dance. It must have been fun, to be able to dance like that. So, yeah . . . a lot to admire. Who could say it wasn't Good?
And yet . . . there is the other side. It's hard to gauge whether he was happy, since he was so far withdrawn from reality, but the smart money would guess he was miserable in his freakishness. Lots of people withdraw from reality, but few have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal to propel their weirdness. We accept that great artists sometimes suffer for the sake of their creative powers, and even behave badly. We are not used to them becoming barely recognizable as human. Robbed of a real childhood, he spent the rest of his life trying to get it back, and becoming more and more grotesque in the process. (The Onion, as always, nailed it with their headline: "King of Pop dead at 12." I doubt that he molested those children, but I do think he lusted after their innocence in a manner that was disturbing. None of this was immoral, exactly, though it was repulsive.
So how do you add all that up? Was it worth it? Had a 12-year-old Michael been offered a vision of his future life, would have accepted the whole deal? Unparalleled fame and accomplishment, along with misery, isolation, suspicion, and disgust? Some people would, but I know I would not and, I suspect, neither would Michael. Achievement is pretty empty when you find yourself cut off from the rest of world. It's not the sort of life one would choose. That, I think, is the source of the international mourning – people recognize the tragedy of someone being so poor while being so rich. Now that the awkward man-child is gone, everyone is free to embrace the good things of his life and try to forget, or at least forgive, the shadows. I like to remember him playing the Scarecrow in The Wiz, when he was at the peak of his powers, still recognizable as a black male with magnificent talent and vitality, and not yet transformed into mythological figure, the fey creature with the one white glove.
Friday, January 23. 2009
This week the New Yorker had an article about the resurgence of Scrabble in American and world culture. I have been silent on my relationship with the game for a while. Like many addicts, I went from pursuing an innocent pastime to nursing a disruptive habit. When my kids took to referring to my Treo 650 as my "Scrabble phone," I knew I had taken it too far. I realized that I probably looked no different than the eight year olds I have seen zombified by Game Boys, trailing silently behind their parents in department stores in an unseeing stupor. I swore off the game for several months, then tried (with partial success) to enjoy it in moderation. I stopped playing in front of my family; I squeeze in games in private moments, in the bathroom, between tasks during the day. The pattern is not unlike someone who smokes.
The article's author described Scrabble as "both mindless and cerebral, which may account for its appeal to writers…" It's quite true – it creates the illusion of mental accomplishment without undue strain. Its effects are like nicotine, simultaneously creating a relaxed feeling while increasing your heart rate.
You might think that I would be pleased that millions of other players and a respectable pantheon of celebrities (including our new president) enjoy the game and aren't ashamed to say it. It would be nice if an ability to play were socially useful, like knowing how to play golf or tennis or bridge. And yet, the resurgence is mostly happening online – stolen moments of goofing off from millions of students and office workers. I have yet to be in any social situation where Scrabble skill was more an advantage than a goofy sort of shame. Unless Barack Obama calls me up and invites me to a game on the White House lawn, I'm not likely to get any sort of recognition for this skill, except from those equally marginalized for their geeky hobbies.
Of course, that only betrays my bias. I have a hard time acknowledging anything as being valid use of time unless it has a direction and a purpose. Games are to be enjoyed; there is no other purpose. But where does my personal enjoyment fit into the grand scheme of things? Some people forgive simple pleasures if they sustain a person and enable them to continue work: words like "recharge your batteries," "clear your mind," and "rejuvenate" are all common justifications, purposes assigned to purposeless pleasures. But this only leads me back to tail-biting loops and contradictions: we work so we can play so we can work so we can play, etc. ad infinitum. A life without personal pleasure seems meaningless; all work and no play does indeed make Jack a dull boy. But a life lived with one's own personal pleasure as its goal seems equally pointless and empty of meaning. All that points back to vocation – the only way to resolve the contradiction is to remove it, so that your idea of fun and your idea of work become one and the same thing.
Thursday, April 24. 2008
In response to some of the comments on my post on the Founding Fathers and religion in America:
The biggest contradiction in American religious attitudes is how differently the religious and non-religious interpret whatâ€™s going on in the culture. The fundamentalist Christians look around and see a world in which values are forgotten, faith is ridiculed, self-control denigrated, and more and more people are foresaking their traditional churches. They see it as the beginning of the end of the world. Any moment the forces of secularism, consumerism, and greed will overwhelm the culture and religions will be wiped out.
Meanwhile, the atheists see a world in which having the correct religious beliefs are still a litmus test for holding public office. (Last night I saw Karl Rove on CNN give his analysis of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary results, and he made it clear that Obama is paying dearly for having claimed that people in small towns â€œcling to religion and gunsâ€ out of â€œbitterness.â€) â€œIntelligent designâ€ is being taught in schools right next to evolutionary theory. Even in modern times, increasingly dangerous wars are being fought primarily along religious lines for religious reasons. They see a world in which Reason could be drowned out at any moment by the religious.
So . . . whoâ€™s right? Both sides seem to think that the other is winning.
When I said that religion is a â€œradioactiveâ€ topic in academia and politics, I didnâ€™t men that it was never talked about. I meant that it is dangerous to talk about it. It can be referenced, but not openly discussed. Politicians will play a game of nodding their heads, implying that they generally believe what everyone else believes, without actually asserting a belief in anything in particular. Academics play the opposite game, pretending that they have no personal beliefs whatsoever, lest someone think their objectivity has been marred by moral convictions. In both cases, nothing substantive is happening.
Why do we have this bifurcation in the American mindset? Yesterday I saw a show on the History Channel about the Scopes â€œMonkeyâ€ trial, in which historians discussed exactly this issue of American attitudes towards religion. One explanation they offered was that America was originally populated by two kinds of immigrants: the religious sects looking for freedom to practice their particular faith, and the practical-minded pragmatists looking for an opportunity at a better life. Those two strands of culture, they suggest, have continued along side by side in America for the last few centuries, and a culture has evolved to accommodate the two mind-sets without ever completely resolving their differences.
That explanation makes sense, but I think itâ€™s more than just an age-old divide. I suspect we are at a point where our culture is struggling to unify its worldview, and yet is unable to give up the other side of the coin. We look to religion to provide values and purpose that transcends reason, but we chafe at the logical inconsistencies of dogmatic superstition. We want a primarily rational worldview, but also recognize that reason can cannot create values. Neither a dogmatic religious view nor a starkly atheistic one can provide us what we seek, and so we grope around for a middle way.
Thursday, March 27. 2008
My friend Joanna was going to be at the PSFK Conference in New York this week, and she turned me on to the blog of one of the speakers, Grant McCracken. I enjoyed it â€“ it's the sort of cultural commentary and philosophical review that I like both to read and to write. So of course I have to start things off by critiquing it mercilessly.
McCracken had a today about the NFL's proposed rules to ban long hair, and was bemoaning it as an instance of individual expression being curtailed by cultural powers-that-be. I commented on it:
Americans are by and large "instrumentalists", then, although they might delude themselves into thinking otherwise. The only reason we pay attention to Troy Polamalu at all is because he can really play ball. His "expressive" hair is rather accidental, a slight differentiator for his personal brand. It's his instrumental value that provides the bedrock of our interest in him. I doubt he would disagree, either. He might not like the League trying to quash is his personal branding, but he would rather be remembered as a great NFL player than "that long-haired guy."
People who try to define themselves by their "expressive" nature -- their looks, their tastes, their arbitrary whims -- are usually the people who don't have any instrumental value to speak of, either because they are adolescents who haven't yet had enough opportunity to distinguish themselves by their achievements, or because they are losers. If expressiveness has utility, because it leads to great art or self-confidence or candor, then we can admire it. Otherwise it's just trade dress.
Americans are supposed to be individualists â€“ we are focused on personal achievement and personal fulfillment, rather than defining ourselves by our membership in collectives. Yet that celebration of the individual sometimes blurs into a celebration of individuality for its own sake . . . as if there was some inherent virtue in being unique. This "expressive individualism" seems hollow to me. I do believe people find all kinds of enjoyment and virtue in self-expression . . . but to believe that "expressing yourself" is inherently good and meaningful is merely narcissism.
Sunday, March 23. 2008
Kenny forwarded to me a presentation by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who experienced a massive stroke and got to experience first-hand what it's like to lose portions of the brain's functioning. It's an interesting talk, so go ahead and watch it if you haven't already.
Saturday, February 9. 2008
My wife and I have been slooowly working our way through all five seasons of Six Feet Under for the last . . . well, six years. Now that we're just three episodes away from the end, I believe I have finally cracked the code and have the formula for writing a "Six Feet Under" story arc:
See how the pattern matches (warning: massive spoilers follow):
Continue reading "Six Feet goes Under"
Friday, May 25. 2007
When I wrote yesterday about judging one's life, I was coming at the whole question from a teleological perspective: that is, I was evaluating a whole life from the perspective of where you end up. It's the final end, or teleos, that matters, and everything else is judged by how it gets you there. From a traditional Christian perspective, that approach makes perfect sense: we are preparing for a final Judgement Day, and how things play out on that last day is supposed to have eternal consequences.
That is not, however, the only way to go about thinking about meaning. You could start evaluating meaning at the other end of time: the present moment. A rich tradition of mystics across ancient and modern traditions would assert that past and future are only projections of the mind, and that only the present moment has reality. In the context of that theology, the question of the meaning of one's life becomes very different. Instead of saying, "What's the goal? Where I'm I going?" the question changes to: "This is it. All I have and all I ever will have is right now. So . . . how do I feel about right now? Is this the life that I want? Am I the kind of person I want to be?" And, if you feel like your life ought to be different, you change it . . . right now.
This flip in meaning evaluation -- from "The End" to "The Present" -- was brilliantly captured in my very favorite episodes of Angel ("Reprise" and "Epiphany", Season Two). Angel, the vampire cursed with a soul, struggled for centuries to enough good to redeem himself of all the evil his vampire-self has caused. A sense of redemption continually eludes him, though. When a "senior partner" from the demonic law firm Wolfram and Hart visits from the "home office," Angel seizes the opportunity to go through the demon's portal. Clearly he wants to make a suicide run at the source of all evil, to use himself up completely in his fight against wickedness. But when he arrives at the "home office," he finds that he's . . . back home in Los Angeles. Evil, it turns out, is in the hearts of humanity, and no permanent victory is possible. In describing his "epiphany," Angel later says, in effect, "If there is no final victory, no end, then all that matters is the good that you do right now. And that good, no matter how small, is the most important thing in the universe."
Whether you accept the non-teleological theology or not, focusing on the present moment has a lot going for it. Rather than making grand speculations about the end of life and the end of time, the present moment has an existential simplicity that cuts through endless rationalization. You don't have to posit the meaning of capital-L Life to be able to discern what's better or worse in the present moment. Richard Rose called it "backing away from untruth" -- rather than presuming to know what the truth will ultimately look like and setting out to find it, we start where we're at and reject the less-true in favor of the more-true. Even if you believe in ultimate truth and ultimate ends, the best way to get there might be to pay attention to what's right in front of you.
(Page 1 of 1, totaling 10 entries)
Syndicate This Blog