Archive for November, 2009

The Week in Consumption, 11.30

missed last week due to thanksgiving shenanigans!

Each week, Luke takes a look back at all he’s seen and heard. The Week in Consumption is a record of his thoughts, worries, and reflections about these objects, caught in amber. Perhaps in some future time, scientists will be able to clone Luke based on the material.

Chronic City Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. Fuller thoughts here. Lethem’s writing about the connection between pop culture obsession and engagement with the world. See also his most acclaimed novel The Fortress of Solitude, and The Disappointment Artist, a slim collection of essays. For me, this was his most moving articulation of the idea that popular culture can unmask reality better than anything else. Michiko Kakutani fans should note that the the plot is slippery, the characters thin, and so on.

Fantastic Mr. Fox Yesterday I fleshed out how this new film treads on familiar ground for Wes Anderson films and family movies. Yet it trumps them both with a sober, somewhat harrowing assessment of how individuals can best contribute to communities. In the months leading up to its release, the animators complained about Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic work methods and inflexible decision-making. My first impression is that WA was right to be so stubborn. The real fur, to name one example, looks marvelous. The plot does lose its momentum in the final third; readers might end up in an aesthetic coma.

Blindsided: Why the Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts This thin little volume, by KC Joyner, applies Bill James-ian statistical analysis to the NFL’s big questions. How likely is it that another team will go undefeated? How important is a star running back to team success? I’m unconvinced by his findings, because he approaches football as if it actually were baseball, making no real effort to account for all the extra variables the gridiron provides. The title essay is especially unconvincing. Joyner feels the left tackle is overrated because its numbers are no better than any other line position when you compare sacks allowed and running yards gained. He doesn’t account for 1) scarcity of great left tackles, 2) the fact the a left tackle is more likely to face the best defensive lineman, or 3) the ways that having superior players elsewhere in the lineup creates vulnerabilities elsewhere on the field. I really would have appreciated a chapter outlining and justifying his statistical methodology.

By contrast, I found his chapter on coaching style compelling. There, Joyner borrows from Dungeons and Dragons instead of Bill James, developing coaching alignments along two axes: personnel/scheme and athletic/hitter. This was totally useful on thanksgiving day, as it was easy to apply to the coaches of the six teams, and yielded insight about why they operate the way they do.

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read Pierre Bayard’s supremely witty book about dealing with deficits in cultural capital. Translated by Jeffrey Mehlman. Bayard sits at the crossroads between sociology and psychoanalysis in order to lay out the different situations in which your knowledge of a book is called into question, and the different ways one might be ignorant of a book’s real content. Although Bayard feels that shame is inevitable, people must learn to be more comfortable with inadequate knowledge. When we’re busy trying to be faithful to a text and glean a deep understanding of it, we’re stifling our own creative impulses. For example, I finished this book three days ago, and I’m not certain that I’m summarizing it correctly. It’s already a Forgotten Book. But I’m exercising my creativity by manufacturing a new book in my mind, bearing the same name as Bayard’s, and by telling you about it.

So it’s a strange kind of self-help book, with lots of entertaining content. And it’s very easy to read! Bayard is like a cat with a ball of yarn, but he never gets tangled. I’ve got some questions about how its lessons may translate outside of literary situations. Bayard conjures up a litany of different social situations in which we’re asked to display our literary knowledge. These are almost all casual. What if we raised the stakes a little bit? Do Bayard’s insights apply outside of literature? What if we forget what we learned from, say, statistics? What if we forget crucial organizational rules? What if we follow philosophical dictates without recalling the chain of logic that led us to them?

Alice Bear with me; I feel like I only have banal things to say about Jan Svankmajer’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. The film itself is anything but banal. It recreates the story with unusual faithfulness. Stop-motion is a wonderful tool as it seems to recreate my sense of toys as a child. I love the conceit of using the same room over and over again, decorated differently, to represent different parts of the story. That also rings true to my experience. Svankmajer’s puppets are constantly losing their insides, getting their heads chopped off, and losing power. This world is fragile.

Nanook of the North Robert Flaherty’s documentary is one of the most revered of all time, and a great “teachable text’ about Western representations of racial Others. But our present-day knowledge of Flaherty’s many fictional touches doesn’t hurt the film much at all, entertainment-wise. If it were labeled a fiction film, it would still be a classic. The nature photography captured something utterly foreign. In one scene, Nanook quickly builds an igloo and adds a window made of ice. It’s jawdropping. Later on, Nanook & Co. hunt Walruses! I can safely say I’ve never seen that before.

In the Realm of the Senses Oshima Nagisa’s most famous look at how sex, death, politics, and isolation intertwine. Wikipedia tells me that the film is still banned in Japan, which I find really surprising. Hideo Ito’s lush photography elevates this version of the Sada Abe affair to another plane–everything seems so warm and florid. In 1930s Japan, a servant woman (and former prostitute) begins an affair with her boss after he molests her. Their compulsive, affectionate lovemaking leads them to spurn any semblance of normal life, stirs incredible possessiveness, and culminates in experiments with asphyxiation. Frankly, all their lovemaking gets a little repetitive, but Nagisa sets up some powerful tableaux and inventively renders the human form on screen.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I just saw Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’m a big Wes Anderson fan, so of course I loved it. There’s so much to discuss: the clothing, the strangely touching closeups, the impeccable voice work, the skill with which the makers direct your attention in the first minutes. It’s also not a perfect film by any means. The last third drags. (I wouldn’t say I was bored. I was impatient.) But for now I’d like to concentrate on how the movie executes a theme common to Anderson’s work and family films, and in my opinion trumps them both.

Like every Dahl book, the story pits rebellious individualism against a stifling social code. Like many recent children’s films, Fantastic Mr Fox attempts to forge a middle path between the extremes of selfish individualism and soulless conformity. But it suggests that the path is less stable, less certain, than we’d hope.

Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney–it’s the role of his career) was once a successful chicken thief. But he’s settled down and become a family man. His old urges kick in, however, and he concocts a grand heist of three local farmers. Their retaliation endangers his family and the entire community, and Mr. Fox has to apply his talents to save his friends.

It’s a plot point familiar to Wes Anderson fans. His focal characters misplace their emotions and pursue selfish goals until realizing how their unique skills can serve others. Rushmore is a story of artistic transformation. Teenaged Max Fischer produces plays that mainly call attention to his immense talent. But when the world refuses to conform to his wishes, Max finds himself in danger of losing his friends. Max returns to the stage in order to right wrongs and honor the people he’s met, using art to reconcile differences, rekindle friendships, and provide emotional closure. It’s my favorite movie of the ’90s.

Anderson’s other features employ similar turnarounds. Royal (of The Royal Tenenbaums) first schemes for self-benefit, then for the benefit of his children. Documentarian Steve Zissou (from The Life Aquatic) has lost sight of the sublime nature of the ocean thanks to the pleasures of fame, the expectations that come from his financial backers and audiences, and the tragic death of his dear friend at the hands of a rare and elusive shark. Finding that shark reconstitutes his being. Each of these characters find purpose only after suffering losses, although Anderson and his characters often project the full emotional wallop of these losses in finicky styles, juvenile attitudes, and reckless behavior. The opulence of his films is density in disguise.

Contrast these efforts with the most enjoyable family films covering similar terrain. Pixar’s ten films concentrate heavily on resolving the tensions between individual and community spirit. This is most evident in Brad Bird’s films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, in which extraordinary individuals are first encouraged to hide their genius, turn to using it surreptitiously, then direct it outward, saving worlds and stirring memories. This theme also appears in the Toy Story franchise, Wall-E, A Bug’s Life, and even Cars. Pixar is not alone here, either; consider the Shrek films, in which various weirdos from fantasy literature quit their isolated lives and find love and purpose in a shared life. Our heroes (such as Buzz Lightyear) struggle mightily trying to figure out how to serve others while remaining themselves. When they figure things out, it’s usually in the form of an epiphany that overwhelms the narrative trajectory. They suggest finding that balance is inevitable, and the resolution is tidy. Of course they do; they’re movies for kids.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is different. It’s still, mainly, a kid’s movie. I saw it in a theater packed with children, who laughed along with every sight gag. What I mean to say is that we’re brought in sight of striking that balance, finding a suitable public role for individual talents, and then it’s pulled away. By the end, we’re not even sure what those talents are.

Mr. Fox and his family, along with other wild animals, live in imitation of human beings throughout the film. They buy homes they can’t afford, wear suits, and hold human-like jobs. Mr. Fox wants to catch chickens, but the introduction of humans to his world has domesticated him. We never get to see the animals in the movie in a pre-human state of grace. But we’re to infer that humanity has colonized the animal world so successfully that animals are completely out of touch with their “true” nature. Mr. Fox admits, first guiltily, then proudly, that he’s a wild animal, and he attempts to rouse his fellow animals into combat by using their latin names, invoking their DNA, and utilizing their “animal” skills in an attack on the farmers.

Mr. Fox and his friends find success with this strategy (although, in keeping with Dahl and Anderson, that success comes at a price). But are they really turning to their animal natures? Mr. Fox thinks he’s being a wild animal by stealing. But his particular gift is in manipulating human security systems, marshaling his fellow animals, and buoying them with promises of the future–all gifts we more readily associate with humans. Badger presents himself as a demolitions expert, which comes in handy for providing a counterattack. Mrs. Fox uses her skill as a painter to assist in battle strategy. Ash fulfills his dream of being an “athlete” not by applying pure physical talent, but for reading a human environment as if it were a sports field. Kylie, the opossum, asks Mr. Fox what his natural talent is, and receives no real answer, which dissatisfies both him and me.

Nor is it at all certain that the characters are learning how to successfully channel their natures into assisting the community. Mr. Fox’s return to thievery produces blowback on an intense level. First he loses his tail, making him more human than ever. Later, his home is destroyed by the farmers. Eventually, the entire community is displaced. Fair enough, he hasn’t had his epiphany yet. When he realizes the consequences of his actions, and orchestrates his neighbors into a new home, they set up in a sewer system. Once they lived on the margins of the human world. Now they live beneath it, becoming even more dependent on a world that looks in their direction with hostility. The final scene of the film, in which Mr. Fox finds the path to a new food source, a grocery store, is not the tidy solution it first appears. The store is owned by the same farmers who drove Mr. Fox and company out in the first place. When they find out that the animals are ransacking their store, they’ll respond in the same manner as they did to the original thefts.

I don’t really know if Mr. Fox and his friends would be better off some other way, though. And that gives me pause. The film demands that we find some way to make our individual pursuits worthwhile to others, but it argues that the path is fraught with peril, that costs and sacrifices will be made, and we’ll never feel quite as confident about our position as we wish. Those are some hard truths. Toward the end of the film, Mr. Fox, Kylie, Ash, and cousin Kristofferson spy a wolf in the distance. Throughout the story, wolves had been discussed with fear and reverence by Fox and Kylie. The wolf they meet walks on all fours and does not speak. He’s still wild. He’s also alone. Mr. Fox raises a fist in a gesture of solidarity, which the wolf returns. Everything stops for this exchange, each side privately wondering if the other is better or worse off for the choices he’s made.

My current TV viewing habits

Here’s a brief description of my current TV viewing habits. When I was in graduate school, I had HBO, a DVR, and a broadband internet connection. In those days, I was on top of my TV game. Since then I’ve moved back home, and had to adjust. My movie mission has necessitated a drastic cutback in the amount of TV I watch.


The Venture Bros. (Midnight, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim) I’m not feeling this season as much as I did S3, but I’ve also been missing out on, I’m guessing, about half of the jokes because I’m not recording and re-viewing. Hank and Dean Venture, the sons of former boy adventurer Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, are going through typical growing pains: rebellion, body hair, adjusting to their father’s new bodyguard. Their old bodyguard, Brock Samson, has left them for mysterious reasons. Their archnemesis, The Monarch, has become listless in his pursuit. But it’s the Monarch’s henchman No. 21 who’s undergone the most shocking transformation and become the most interesting character. After his friend No. 24 perished last season, 21 has remade his body, packing pounds of muscle onto his stout frame. He’s also upped his ambition by taking over the henchmen training, selling his old comics, and taking pains to appear violent and cruel. Recently, he’s begun talking to 24’s skull . . .


How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 8 PM) This show finds its groove whenever it forgets about the main premise (how Ted Mosby met the mother of his children) and focuses on the interaction between Ted and his friends. It’s an extremely fast-paced show, constantly jumping back and forth in time. Unlike other shows that make a heavy use of crosscutting (30 Rock and Family Guy spring to mind), this show does everything in service of character, which makes the experience enjoyable even when it isn’t very funny. Most of this fall’s episodes have centered on a budding relationship between Robin (Ted’s ex) and Barney, a habitual womanizer. The result was a series of plotlines revolving around pretty banal relationship issues, given a light charge thanks to Barney’s cartoony understanding of the world. Luckily, the show seems to have axed this approach, so it’s free to focus on smaller, more amusing character quirks.

House (FOX, 8 PM) I only watch the second half of House, which has its advantages. Nothing important ever happens in the first half hour; Gregory House’s diagnostic team just chooses the wrong solution over and over again. If you start watching at the half hour mark, they’re usually just one or two diagnoses away from the final solution, you’ll have to do some energizing mental legwork to figure out what you’ve already missed, and you’ll get one or two short scenes in which House does something disturbing or hilarious.

Gossip Girl (CW, 9 PM) Manhattan’s social elite go to college, sort of. The college subplot hasn’t lived up to my expectations. The show has become simultaneously more boring and more poignant, as that rake Chuck Bass now resembles a good man, and Serena and Blair struggle to redefine themselves in new environments. Their efforts to find a purpose illuminate New York’s elite social world, revealing it to be more of a refuge than anything else.

The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 930 PM) I flip back and forth between this and Gossip Girl. GG repeats so much information from scene to scene that it’s pretty easy to guess what I missed, and I’m only interested in about half of the BBT’s episodes anyway. That half is whichever part involves Sheldon, the breakout star of this comedy about socially maladjusted scientists. Sheldon’s exploits had always been the focus of attention–one persistent point of fan discussion is how closely his behavoir resembles that of people with Asperger’s. But this season he’s been the beneficiary of added dimensions. At least three episodes have highlighted his difficult upbringing, while he’s also become more aware of his social limitations and endeavored to read interactions better.


I’m skipping critical darling Sons of Anarchy because I missed the first episodes, and I think the impact of what happens next would be dulled without them.

30 for 30 (ESPN, 8 PM) I missed the Jimmy the Greek episode, which was supposedly the best yet, but I’ve been underwhelmed by this series of documentaries on minor subjects in recent sports history. Maybe they’ve been overhyped by television critics. I still eagerly await the Bill James doc on Allen Iverson.

V (ABC, 8 PM) There’s not a whole lot to this remake of the 80s miniseries. I like the general sense of unease that Monica Baccarin, as the lead alien, creates whenever she appears. I’m a fan of byzantine plots that really don’t obey any kind of logic. But I’m pretty ok with just hearing what happens, instead of actually taking the time to view them. And at least in November, V is moving at a pace I’d welcome more in a regular series.


Glee (FOX, 9 PM) I find this musical about a high school glee club more enjoyable than I thought I would. They’ve even managed to turn a secret pregnancy plot into something worth being emotionally invested in. The songs are auto-tuned to death, which sounds like how microwaved food tastes. But I’m scratching my head trying to think of the last longform musical comedy. I want to see what it would take to work over the course of a season or longer. The opportunities for character development on a musical tv show are intriguing.

Modern Family (ABC, 9 PM) I sometimes catch this online the next day. I don’t think it’s the next great comedy or anything but its structurally sound. It’s a family comedy though, and you have to fight pretty hard to keep those from sucking outright. Families are just not funny.

The Ruins (MTV, 10 PM) It’s the Real World/Road Rules Challenge, yet again. This show is comfort food for me. Remember all those attractive douchebags from high school? This is your chance to catch their faded (or ruined) beauty on display as they prove they really are even dumber than you suspected. When they turn their knives on each other (breaking inept alliances, getting in fights, conducting merciless teasing) you can rest easy knowing that every single one of them deserves it.


It breaks my heart to give up Fringe, but I think I’ll enjoy it better as a DVD marathon anyway. My Thursday viewing habits are predicated on keeping mom happy right now, which currently means EXHAUSTING COMEDY SCHEDULE.

NBC block 8-10 pm

Community Every week, the plot is exactly the same. Disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger, who is getting a real degree to make up for the one he forged, must learn to use his talents for good by helping out his classmates. Why is it worth watching? The dialogue is superb, featuring rapid-fire bursts of banter that you can’t really find anywhere else. Plus, the characters are repetitive in a comforting way. They’re reliable.

Parks and Recreation Just like its brother The Office, the key to finding comedy gold was fleshing out the supporting cast. In particular it slays me whenever someone puts down Jerry. What’s more, the show has gotten very skilled at presenting the perils of politics in a nonjudgmental way.

The Office I think the show’s on its last legs, creatively. Last year’s Michael Scott Paper Company was a breath of fresh air, but it may have been a last gasp. I can already see a killer final episode though: identical story as the first episode, with Jim in Michael’s role, Erin in Pam’s role, and Andy in Jim’s role.

30 Rock Zany as ever, but too predictable. I don’t know if there was a single plot point you couldn’t see coming a mile away. My feeling is this blunts the humor.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Every episode only gains in hilarity in retrospect, and I think season 4 has episodes that match the quality of anything they’ve done before. My favorite so far was the World Series episode, in which the gang tries to sneak their way, by hook or by crook, to see the Phillies play. After a slow start, Charlie has really picked up speed. He’s already racked up several classic moments (milksteak, impersonating a lawyer, kitten mittons, being followed by cats). I do wish they’d try do to something with the bar more often.

Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City

I had to return this book to the library, so I’m flying without a net, but here’s what I thought.

Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel takes us back to familiar territory: the mysteries of Manhattan and the transcendent power of popular culture. Sure, it doesn’t really have any plot or characters, but I’m one of those readers who doesn’t mind as long as the author gives you something else to think about.

This is ostensibly the story of Chase Insteadman, a former child star all grown up. He’s dating an astronaut trapped on a space station. Her love letters home have become a news sensation, and have made him a star all over again. Chase falls in with a coterie of oddballs: Perkus Tooth, a film critic and creature of peculiar obsessions; Oona Lazlo, a cold, prolific ghostwriter; and Richard Abneg, a former squatter’s rights advocate who now fights for the opposing team in the mayor’s office. The majority of the book consists of this group hanging out, smoking pot, listening to music and eating deluxe cheeseburgers. That’s what critics mean when they say it doesn’t have a plot. But if you’re the kind of person who stays up all night talking about nothing, or is nostalgic for those days, these sections emanate light and heat. Meanwhile, the city around them grows stranger. A pea soup fog descends over the financial district. A giant tiger escapes from the zoo and wreaks havoc. An environmental artist produces an urban fjord. In other words, this is the kind of book that predictably warrants the wrath of Kakutani.

Admittedly, none of these characters are all that fleshed out. Chase, who narrates most of the novel, seems deliberately, infuriatingly empty (those who have read the book might characterize him as chaldronic–see below). But the four characters work well as a refraction of the contemporary psyche. Chase is an actor in more ways than one. He privately questions his affections for his astronaut girlfriend, but finds himself impersonating a grieving lover at dinner parties. How can you be sincere when you don’t know your own feelings? Perkus, pontificator of curiosities, stands in for everyone who wonders about the true utility of their hobbies and obsessions. Oona is a hardworking hack, which has a familiar barb to knowledge workers everywhere. And Richard performs the difficult navigation between idealism and realpolitik.

Eventually the smoke clears and something like a main story comes into view. Perkus becomes obsessed with a vase-like object called a chaldron. When gazes upon a chaldron (or even a picture of a chaldron) it reveals the falsity of the real world. Chaldrons are the latest in a line of objects that, for Perkus, serve as reliquaries. These sections are Lethem’s best-yet articulation of what it means to escape into popular culture. We seize onto objects, for our own idiosyncratic reasons, because they seem to reveal something about the world that’s been buried and hidden. And yet, these objects are common currency, out in the open for just about anyone to see. People know who Marlon Brando is, have a sense of his importance as an actor, and have at least watched The Godfather. But when Brando comes face to face with reality, reality flinches, briefly. People spend the rest of their lives searching for those moments of upheaval, hoping that next time, it’s permanent. But pop culture is kind of like Penelope; it unravels its work at night, simulating and exposing at different turns.

A minor caveat. The book does lapse into some 9/11ish NYarcissism, lamenting that no one else can understand the special pain of what it’s like to live in a city under attack, when nothing can be further than the truth. But I can forgive it, because otherwise the book looks outward to ours. The strange things happening in the New York of Chronic City don’t see so strange when they’re applied to our world. Our newspapers print “war-free” editions in everything but name, Wall St. has lost contact with the rest of the world, and fantasies forcibly assert themselves in reality.

The Week in Consumption, 11/16 Part II

Here’s the movies I viewed in the past week. Well, almost all of them.

Belle du Jour–In this slow-burner about a housewife-turned-prostitute, Catherine Deneuve starts off timid and awkwardly antisocial. She entertains fantasies about being tortured, dirtied, and raped by her husband and servants. So it’s basically the same character she plays in Repulsion. What a fine surprise when she relaxes at the drop of a dime, settling in nicely to her afternoon routine of servicing her clients. Of course, her two worlds are destined to collide, which frankly isn’t as interesting as her eccentric clientele. As in any Bunuel film, there are three or four indelible images whose power exceeds explanation–I’m thinking in particular of the final shot, of the lane through the fall foliage.

Pickpocket Robert Bresson’s exploration of theft as religious experience. A young man dedicates his time to becoming an excellent pickpocket, against the wishes of a girl and his mom. Martin LaSalle, as the lead, is an unprofessional actor and it shows. But it works too. His Michel moves and speaks hesitantly, which makes every theft seem like a miracle. His oversized suit and lean face resemble a child’s. He and the film move through the story without a real care as to what’s going on. Get arrested? It’s no big deal. Mom’s dying? He’ll send some money, but . . . Michel’s mental terrain leaks in, slowly, until he’s underwater. How we feel about everything is a little more up for grabs. Michel pays, in various ways, for his crimes, but the camera seems to argue for them through their loving depiction.

Kings and Queen–that Amalric/Desplechin combo dazzles. Not wild with the main storyline, in which Emmanuelle Devos deals with her father’s death and her own guilt over a selfish life, but I find Mathieu Amalric riveting in every frame. (I even enjoyed him in Quantum of Solace!) I love his wild smile and froggy eyes, and the way his voice seems to wind through his lines rhythmically. His portion of the story involves being forced into a mental health facility and losing his job. Well-trod territory, but I don’t mind.

The Men Who Stare At Goats–A tonal mishmash. It’s mostly farcical, which is all well and good EXCEPT that this is a military movie, and military farces are ethically dubious. Ewan MacGregor plays a down-on-his-luck journalist who uncovers a special paranormal unit of the army. Their experiments are diverting, but TMWSAG betrays its source material by not exploring how these efforts are related to the same military impulse that practices torture, or haphazardly bombs hospitals.* Oh there are moments, isolated instances in which this connection is glanced, but they’re undone in the finale.

* Of course, I suppose the opposite could be true as well–the insertion of countercultural principles might have undone all the things that make armies toxic–but that’s not what happened.

Where the Wild Things Are Most of the film is an elaboration of the first ten seconds, which demonstrates how children can be such unthinking terrors. This is an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s perennial children’s classic about a child who runs away to be king of the wild things. The story drags quite a bit, and the dialogue is repetitive, but when my mind drifted it drifted somewhere else on the screen. It’s beautifully shot. The creatures seem to glow from within, and it’s easy to imagine the texture of every setting from the ways they’ve been filmed.

Astro Boy The theater was surprisingly packed. Children laughed and screamed. Always a good thing. After a long development history, Osamu Tezuka’s manga about a loving robot boy has finally come to the big screen. The character design is sterling, but then they have Tezuka to thank for that. Coming after a million Pixar movies (and CG also-rans), there’s nothing surprising in its look, plot, or major themes. Astro Boy is an outsider who will save the insiders and gain their acceptance. Humans are too dependent on technology, which will save them anyway. Yawn.

Of course, my favorite bit involved the Marxist Robot Resistance Front, a collection of discarded robot workers planning to overthrow their human oppressors. They’ve even got posters of Marx and Lenin(!) in their headquarters. Their dialogue owed more to Groucho than Karl. It’s no surprise to see Marxism played as comedy (“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”), but the film makers are not concerned with mocking communism itself. Instead, they’re making fun of one of science fiction’s hoariest tropes: robots attaining class consciousness and rising against their human masters. They draw an implicit comparison between the dogmatism of vulgar Marxism and the dogmatism of Asimov’s laws of robotics, suggesting that there are other, more worthwhile stories we can tell about robots. Astro Boy, in this incarnation, is not one of them. But one can hope.

The Week in Consumption, 11/16 Part I

Each week I take a look back at the items I’ve consumed: mostly books, comics, music, television and film.

Eating the Dinosaur Chuck Klosterman’s latest collection of essays on popular culture.

When reading CK, I get the feeling that he hates himself. He constantly reminds us of pop criticism’s adolescent and narcissistic tendencies, but that doesn’t stop him from indulging in them. He never really fights for it as essential or vital. Instead he usually castigates the subscribers to pop fantasies, whose numbers always include himself. I’m similarly ambivalent about the amount of time I’ve spent immersed in pop cultural detritus, which bonds me to him.

In these essays, however, CK hovers nearby a Major Theme: how we share subjectively experienced truths with other people. Popular culture is Klosterman’s royal road to truth.* It can be found in basketball careers, classic films, celebrity interviews, and sitcoms. He even has a whole piece on the subject of literal truth that compares Weezer to Nader. His essay on time travel argues that pop culture is the best approach to identifying mutually agreed upon truths because it all takes place at a level of remove from experience:

All philosophical questions . . . deal with hypotheticals that are unfeasible. Real-world problems are inevitably too unique and too situational; people will always see any real-world problem through the prism of their own personal experience. The only massive ideas everyone can discuss rationally are big ideas that don’t specifically apply to anyone (54).

This argument undersells our emotional investment in popular culture. But I don’t think too many people are looking toward Klosterman to explain the social production of truth. We’re reading for the pleasure of his company. CK is an excellent bullshitter. It’s a pleasure to allow him to lead us down the garden path, although that pleasure is ephemeral. I never sit around aching to read another essay about ABBA, not this late in the decade anyway.

If you’re up for more than bullshitting, he can be a frustrating conversationalist. For one thing, as my friend Cinda would say, CK has a stunning grasp of the obvious. Klosterman delivers his obviousness with such aplomb that he invites kneejerk contrarianism. Take this example from an essay on surveillance: “Ignorance is not bliss. That platitude is totally wrong. You will not be intellectually happier if you know fewer things. Learning should be a primary goal of living.” (91) Now that’s confident writing. He really makes you feel like he’s sticking his neck out, right? But once you figure out that he’s not, this style grates.

Second, note how he fingers us in the above quote by using the second person, indirectly suggesting that we’ve been believing “ignorance is bliss” all along. He’s pretty condescending toward his imagined audience, which is easily misled and has a skewed view of their intellectual individuality. From the time travel essay: “People who want to travel through time are both (a) unhappy and (b) unwilling to compromise anything about who they are. They would rather change every element of society except themselves.” The fact that CK includes himself among this crowd doesn’t make the charge any less noxious.

Third, because Klosterman is bullshitting, he’s not at all invested in the ideas he throws out. There’s been a little bit of press about an essay in Eating the Dinosaur that compares Kurt Cobain to David Koresh. Klosterman’s links are tenuous at best (Koresh thought he was God, Cobain thought other people thought he was God) but I don’t think he really cares if we come away convinced. He just wants to write about them both.*

*This essay also rubs me the wrong way because it insists on reading Nirvana through how the band hoped to be perceived by others. That means it misses out on all the other things that make In Utero an awesome record. The myth of Kurdt can’t be dismissed outright, but by and large Nirvana fans are music fans. People didn’t listen to Nirvana in hopes of getting closer to Kurt Cobain; they read gossip about Cobain in order to better grasp the music.

If you go into Eating the Dinosaur with flippant, carefree attitude, it’s a wonderful way to spend a few hours. If you try to take it seriously, you’re going to get burned.

Julian Casablancas, Phrazes for the Young When the Strokes released Room on Fire, many critics spotted their influences shifting from Punk to New Wave. Now the Strokes frontman returns with an album of New Pop. By my reckoning this has two tracks I’ll enjoy for months and two minor growers. The rest is unmemorable. Opener “Out of the Blue” has a motor and a hook, can get stuck in your head for days, but it’s a little overlong. This is the closest thing to having another Strokes song. Unfortunately, the lyric was assembled by a primitive computer program: “yes I know I’m going to hell in a purple basket/ at least I’ll be in another world while you’re pissing on my casket.” Bright “11th Dimension” is more repetitive but better with lyrical flourishes that suggest Casablancas might actually be a weird guy, the bass line from “Bizarre Love Triangle”, and chimey synths that punch holes in the ceiling. The other two I rate, “4 Chords of the Apocalypse” and “Ludlow St”, are genre exercises that float on Casablancas’ vocals.

Essential X-Men Vol. 2: X-Men 120-141, Uncanny X-Men 142-144, Annual 3-4.

This volume includes three of the essential X-Men storylines: the battle with reality-shaping mutant Proteus, the Dark Phoenix Saga, and Days of Future Past. It also includes some great character moments: Cyclops taking on all of the X-Men at once, Jean Grey falling under Mastermind’s spell, and Wolverine crawling up from the sewer to fight the Hellfire Club.

Last week I praised the internal monologues and the artwork; now I’d like to note how the worldbuilding is starting to take shape, moving beyond foundations. Earlier issues had implied that the X-Men were “feared and hated by the world they swore to protect”–the resolution to their battle with the Hellfire Club, which leads into trouble with Senator Kelly, makes this explicit again. After about 50 issues with the same cast, we’re starting to get to know the cast in greater depth. As a group, the X-Men are lovable losers, still regularly falling to the likes of the Hellfire Club, the Shi’ar, Arcade, and even Alpha Flight. It wouldn’t be accurate to say they defeat these opponents–in fact, they usually settle for escaping from them. By the end of the volume, however, the X-Men are able to put down the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Wolverine is emerging as a star, and the series seemed like it could go anywhere.

The Week in Consumption, 11/9

Each week I take a look back at the items I consumed.

The Fire Within Director Louis Malle’s 1963 big leap forward. Maurice Ronet plays Alain Leroy, an alcoholic who decides to commit suicide. But first, he returns to Paris for a day and visits his old friends. Ronet doesn’t seem sick of the world at first. He’s playful, engaged. But as he reunites with old friends, and sees them carrying on in the world, everything begins to seem depressingly static. It culminates in an awkward dinner party, during which Leroy is offered alcohol, insulted by guests, and drunkenly lashes out in turn. There’s a neat bit of editing that has Leroy turning around in a loop as his mind jumps from one subject to another.

His friends, for the most part, seem familiar and warm but unable to really reach Leroy or speak with him on his terms. I’m not sure how the film managed to convey this so well, but it feels strikingly similar to what I go through when I talk to friends while being depressed.

This is (to my knowledge) the first of Malle’s films to use Erik Satie’s piano music in the soundtrack–later on, Satie’s Gymnopedie No.1 will appear over the end credits of Malle’s My Dinner with Andre.

The Exterminating Angel One of Luis Bunuel’s more tightly coiled films. A bunch of well-to-do folks arrive at a mansion for a dinner party, only to find themselves unable to leave the living room. As hours turn into days, the guests must learn to live with each other’s filth. It’s a lean film, only 90 minutes or so, well used. Bunuel claims that there are 20 repetitions of shots of dialogue, which give it a hypnotic quality. I don’t know if it adds all that much new to Bunuel’s body of work about the strange barriers that religion and class put on how we think, but I found it more effective, more restrained than most of his other work.Somehow it all works to give me a sense of genuine terror. There’s some technical sloppiness at parts. I saw a microphone sticking out from under a table at one point.

The Blind Side The book, not the movie. Michael Lewis is such a talented writer. Even when the structure of his books seems transparent, he’s usually got a few tricks up his sleeve. This is the true story of Michael Oher, a physically imposing, stoic kid from the wrong side of the tracks who gets adopted by a rich family and becomes a great offensive lineman.* Lewis uses this heart-warming tale as an entry point to his pet topics of economics and complex systems–or is it the other way around? Lewis uses three sections on the history of football strategy to set up some of the main conflicts and emotional expectations of the the story. For instance, the opening section is devoted not to Oher but to the legendary Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. This piece not only set up the reason why left tackles became so valuable, it also establishes one of football’s dark truths–its best players are often sociopathic. Although Oher is a supremely aloof, gentle presence for much of the book, many around him react as if he was just as ruthless and bloodthirsty as some other football stars, and fear it carries over into other sections of his life. Later, a section on Bill Walsh’s solution to facing linebackers like LT explains why the modern left tackle is so rare and valuable–but it also anticipates the problems Oher will have succeeding with a Walsh-like coach in high school.

* I’ve only seen him play 2 or 3 times, so I’m just assuming his greatness. Interestingly, he’s currently a rookie playing right tackle for the Ravens, not left. I don’t know if this is because he’s a disappointment or if the learning curve is really steep from college to the pros or what.

The biggest impact of the book was on my football-watching this weekend. Since we get a replay of nearly every successful offensive play, I finally decided to take my eye off the ball and just focus on the linemen. It’s very confusing, because I only have a peripheral understanding of a play’s success. I’m also not very good at picking up on patterns. But with practice, I’ll get it. I think.

The Importance of Being Earnest the 1952 film version of Oscar Wilde’s farcical comedy about love and impersonation, directed by Anthony Asquith. I think the actors served their material well, but there weren’t really any surprises to this film version–except for the piping on Jack’s white suit. Then again, do I really want a surprising version of The Importance of Being Earnest? The play still manages to suck me again every time, mainly because it’s easy to forget the exact way that Jack and Algy get out of their predicament.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle A 1973 slow-burning gangster classic, directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt), with sterling performances by Robert Mitchum as the title character (a low-level criminal) and Peter Boyle as a bartender who does crime on the side. The plot is basically the same as every single Jean-Pierre Melville movie: Coyle, who got busted recently and doesn’t want to go away, ponders trading in some of his colleagues in crime for time served. But because its the 70s, we get plenty of local color, some seriously odd-looking character actors, heist and stakeout set pieces, and the scummiest locations imaginable. I’ve seen a handful of those 70s films where The City Is Going To Hell–The Warriors, The Taking of Pelham 123, The French Connection–and I don’t know if there’s ever been a dirtier city than the Boston of this movie. Because Mitchum, as an actor, belongs to a totally different era, his presence conveys a man-out-of-time feel that really suits his character. Boyle, coming off of the surprise success of Joe (and right before the making of Young Frankenstein) has never been better.

Marvel Comics Essential X-Men Vol.1: Giant-Size X-Men #1, X-Men 94-119

This volume is a black-and-white reprint of X-Men from the beginning of Chris Claremont’s long and storied run as writer. The X-Men started as a ripoff of DC’s Doom Patrol. Both teams were led by an older guy in a wheelchair, and combined superheroic adventures with characters with low self-esteem, freaks who believed they were freaks. Mutants are different from many other superheroes. They were born different, not survivors of some radioactive incident. Their goal is to help protect the world, mainly from other mutants with ill intentions, but most of the time they have enough trouble just staying alive.

X-Men’s sales paled in comparison to the others on the Marvel roster. Claremont came in, revamped the lineup, and upped the emotional quotient considerably. The book reflected the characters’ marginal status in the industry.  Other Marvel creations were amazing, incredible or fantastic; the X-Men routinely lost fights, lost control of their powers, and proved death-prone. Most of them could even walk around the city without getting recognized!

But writing an action-packed yet reflective ensemble book poses a steep set of visual challenges. Clarement used copious word balloons to clue us in to his characters’ mental states, which crowded the panels. Penciller Dave Cockrum gave his creations a surrealist edge, but struggled with layout and detail work. When John Byrne joined the book as artist and co-plotter everything reached a new summit of clarity. His photorealistic drafts helped sell our heroes’ mental anguish and added an array of interesting angles. He expertly deployed space. His panels accommodated a half dozen characters at a time, but never felt cramped. His background art gave the series a life of its own, creating a more credible mansion, Savage Land, you name it.

Claremont has a habit of delivering crucial information as if we already knew it, which can be frustrating at first, but ultimately makes us question everything going on in the series. He’s never in too much of a hurry to fill in the blanks, either.* For instance, we’re introduced to Moira MacTaggert as Xavier’s housemaid. A few issues later, Prof. X casually reveals that they used to be lovers. Later, we learn she’s had extensive training as a geneticist, and has a huge lab on an island. Just who is this person, anyway?

* the sad decline of the X-books can be linked to the other writers’ desire to fill in those blanks instead of creating something new. There’s always some long-missing sibling harboring ill intentions, some villain insufficiently snuffed out.

It’s a lot of fun watching the characters become the people long-time followers know so well. Wolverine starts off as a rude guy with claws and a stolen haircut. It’s only over time that he rounds out into a mysterious badass. Cyclops, the lone holdover from the old X-team,  was a generic leader type, but his grief over a teammate’s death morphs him into the anal captain we’re familiar with.

The stories in this volume are not always entertaining–it’s basically a merry-go-round of villainy, with the X-Men continually relearning the values of friendship and teamwork. But the little moments manage to keep interest. Once Byrne arrives, the issues become aesthetic marvels of economy. And the best stuff (The Dark Phoenix Saga, for example) is yet to come.


The Week in Consumption, 11/2

Fewer movies this week–I did some reading instead.

Dodes’ka-den — Akira Kurosawa’s first color film, made after his disastrous stint filming scenes for Tora!Tora!Tora! We follow a motley assemblage living in a shantytown just outside of Tokyo. What little plot the film has is stretched amongst the ensemble cast: a girl is raped by her uncle and retaliates by stabbing a neighbor boy; two couples swap partners and barely notice the difference; a father and son, living in a broken-down Bug, contract food poisoning. There’s not much light. This was a difficult sit at 140 minutes–it might be the worst film I’ve seen from the Criterion Collection, certainly the worst from Kurosawa–but the colors pop and some images have staying power in excess of their meaning.

Flesh for Frankenstein Unfortunately, I have not seen Paul Morrissey’s adaptation of Frankenstein in 3-D, as intended, but it was fun anyway. Baron Frankenstein assembles two perfect undead humans to begin his new master race. The problem is, his male monster doesn’t swing that way. This has some of the best bad acting I’ve ever seen. The stilted line readings by Udo Kier, as the Doc, and Joe Dallesandro, as a stableboy, charge the film with a weird energy. Every once in a while, the movie surprises with a moment of real beauty, like when we witness a corpse being lifted from a tank. Mel Brooks, a fan of midnight movies, must have been taking notes; his Young Frankenstein followed a year later.

Solo con tu pareja Alfonso Cuaron’s lithe romantic comedy/AIDS PSA. A young cocksman is caught cheating on a nurse. In retaliation, she falsifies his HIV test. Will he commit suicide, or will his pretty new neighbor convince him life is still worth living? It plays out like your quality, modern American romantic comedy, with a few tweaks. 1) Instead of just talking endlessly about sex, the characters actually do have sex 2)it’s more beautifully shot than any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World) 3) It finds humor in suicide and STIs instead of pretending they don’t exist. These elements, of course, provide the film with an implicit critique of formulaic American romantic comedies–there’s even a tryst at the tallest building in Mexico City. Now those tweaks may be impossible to replicate in a Hollywood film, but otherwise, I don’t see why an American remake wouldn’t be a box-office smash.

The Host one of those movies that came to Iowa City six months late, and I missed because it was too cold to leave the house. A mutated monster kidnaps a little girl and causes a massive health panic. Her family makes a rescue attempt, having to fend off the beast and the World Health Organization. Joon-ho Bong’s monster movie is worthy of comparison to Jaws. Both films become long character studies about the nature of family, and the balance between law and freedom, and both keep their monsters offscreen, using them for surgical strikes on the characters. Since The Host arrived more than 30 years after Jaws, it has to find ways to make its story fresh and interesting again. Sometimes it uses that queasy Korean blend of pathos and embarrassment. Most of the time, it telegraphs the main plot points well in advance, which can be satisfying in its own way (audience members checking off boxes in their heads), and also allows Bong to get maximum mileage out of the few places where he betrays tradition. Sometimes, the sheer iconicity of the action transcends its formulaic nature; this movie features flaming arrows. There’s a lot going on in the film about Korean-American relations which I don’t fully grasp, but the commentary track by Bong and masterful film critic Tony Rayns helps fill in the blanks.

The Book of Basketball For a 700-page book, it feels incredibly narrow. Author Bill Simmons has always been interested in every strand of the sports experience. That’s why it’s disappointing that the book is mainly about measuring the greatest NBA players of all time. The first few chapters are tough going, as Simmons tendentiously compares Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell’s careers, then labors through a year-by-year history of the NBA. Things do perk up as he begins counting down players. The book produces the intended effect; it is a lightning rod for discussions about basketball greatness.

Simmons Unchained is a little scary. After reading this, I prefer him reined in and at smaller doses. His vices–foul language, occasional misogyny, a ballooning addiction to gambling–mar the voyage. Additionally, he’s pretty conceited about the book and its place in basketball history. The most troubling thing about the book is his attitude towards racism. He casually accuses most basketball fans, historians, and sportswriters of racism in their selection of stars and heroes, but demonstrates his own racist beliefs in his assumptions about innate athletic ability, attitude, and so on. Again, this stuff is present in the column, but in smaller doses it doesn’t grate as much.*

*As cloying, insensitive, and blind as this book can seem at parts, it’s intensely personal and expertly communicates a sense of self, of lonely nights spent watching basketball, and of the kind of identification forged between himself and the Celtics. In terms of broadcasting the thoughts, perceptions, and habits of a person, this is the sportswriting version of Ulysses.

It feels wrong to say this, but I wanted more. Why not have a piece about “critically acclaimed” teams? This was Simmon’s term in his column for great, entertaining groups that never won a championship. How about a frank discussion of different basketball arenas, and how the experience has changed? What about the music, argot, and other lifestyle choices that players have popularized? How about contrasting different systems and styles: the press, the triangle, Larry Brown’s Right Way? These items, not always connected to winning, have everything to do with why basketball is beloved.

I hope that the next FreeDarko book, about the history of basketball, will address these issues without going too far Into The Mystic.

Shop Class as Soulcraft Rand and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I half-kid, but there are some disturbing tendencies in Matthew Crawford’s short work, subtitled An Inquiry into the Value of Work. I’m willing to concede many of his criticisms about today’s workplaces: white collar work, in many cases, can be as intellectually dead as blue collar work; consumers chase a false notion of freedom into tighter constraints; conceptual analysis alone will fail in practical situations. But I detest his rhetoric, and I’m pretty suspicious of his claims about what is concrete, what is useful, why we should welcome authority, and how we properly build community.

Crawford uses his experience as a motorcycle mechanic to illustrate a different path than the one most inquisitive people take. His efforts to repair bikes ground him in the real world, where the very laws of physics must obey the realities of oil and grime. As he services bikes he serves their owners, connecting him to community of like-minded individuals. Seeing his tangible efforts in a repaired bike gives him pride that wouldn’t be possible when dealing in messy abstractions, and makes him responsible in ways that can be measured. His “authentic” bond with a crew contrasts with the slippery, plastic relationships he had with other knowledge workers. And his abasement at the feet of maintenance masters is justified by the perceptual insight they slowly release at their discretion. While his realizations took place in the bike shop, Crawford speculates that they could be learned anywhere else that useful, practical work is done.

What sticks in my craw is that the concrete, for Crawford, is a way to come face to face with objective reality, an idea I’m a little uncomfortable with, especially since he spends so much of the book trying and failing to wrap his head around the idiosyncracies and frailties of human perception. His argument against abstraction is that it conceals and suppresses reality. That it does, but sometimes it reveals as well, and Crawford doesn’t give conceptual work its due.

I’m also suspicious of the model of education he proposes, since much of the advice Crawford received didn’t explain the why and wherefore. For example, one day Crawford spins a bearing while drying it. His old teacher had told him not to, but didn’t know why. Someone else at the shop that day knew why, however, and as Crawford goes through with it, he steps out instead of telling Crawford what will happen. The bearing exploded. This is how we should be learning?

For someone who’s making an inquiry into the value of work, he also never really stops to question the labor theory of value. Similarly, he accepts Heidegger’s claim that doing reveals being with too much ease. Is it necessary to turn to work in the first place?

By offering up a vision of local community based on one-to-one interaction and practical work, Crawford refuses to address the world on its current terms. That world is gone forever; we’re affecting the lives of unseen others no matter what. In the process we’ve become mutually entangled. His unwillingness to examine his passion for motorcycles is a case in point. What do they run on? Where does waste go? Where do they come from? He leaves the work of forging new public policy, which could stem the corporate onslaught on our ability to think, to others, but it’s our responsibility. It’s everyone’s responsibility. The liberalism he reviles as ineffective is ineffective because he’s not participating in it. Being ethical on a large scale is difficult, nearly impossible, and government offers many opportunities to willfully or accidentally avoid that ethical responsibility. But that doesn’t mean governing is optional. Dealing in abstractions is hard, necessary work, and toiling in the sureties of a shop looks like an evasion to me.*

*Crawford goes to great lengths to assure us that the challenges of a shop are unique and constantly shifting, but at bottom it’s always a matter of  whether the bike can be fixed, and the answer is yes or no. Political life never offers such guarantees.

Lastly, Crawford excludes women from his picture of the working world. Throughout the book he proposes several hypothetical situations, all starring young males who have been led astray by society. He rails against the dampening effects of multiculturalism and sensitivity on the male psyche. I can’t help but harbor the suspicion that women aren’t allowed in the shop, or privy to the sense of well-being it’s supposed to provide.

All of my critiques have their origins in various strands of postmodern theory, a body of work that has been heavily resisted, parodied, and ultimately become passe. This is the work of someone for whom postmodernism is truly dead–he doesn’t even feel the need to recognize and fight their arguments. So in a way I think this book clarifies what we lose when we forgo postmodernism’s difficult abstractions.


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November 2009