Saturday, December 02, 2006


Outkast's feature film debut suffers from the same problem that has plagued their recent musical output. Andre "3000" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton want to work separately, to follow their own individual muses and work in wildly divergent styles, yet they're never more successful than when they work as a team.

All the best Outkast songs feature the duo rapping together and all the best scenes in Idlewild (namely, the musical numbers) prominantly feature both performers. But like the smash-hit Outkast double release "Speakerboxx/The Love Below," (which provides most of the film's soundtrack), Idlewild constantly shifts focus to the point of bipolar disorder. A romantic comedy one minute, a violent gangster drama the next, with some far-out fantasy sequences and Christian moralizing thrown in for good measure, Idlewild feels like a rough outline for an opera cycle or an HBO series.

That's not to say it's a bad film. Quite frequently, it shows the makings of greatness. Writer/director Bryan Barber demonstrates some genuine filmmaking ability, and pulls out some terrific sequences. (His previous claim to fame was the terrific video for "Hey Ya".)

It's refreshing to see a black filmmaker taking on a period piece, working with an entirely black cast, who's given a reasonable budget and some creative freedom. The movie doesn't always work, but Barber was clearly provided with some room to breathe and some opportunities to take chances.

The Prohibition-era Southern setting is a perfect choice for an Outkast musical, considering the boys' Atlanta roots, heavy blues and gospel influence and interest in the cultural history of Black Americans. Better still, Barber's production really captures the era's odd mixture of demure formality and frank sexuality, particularly in terms of the sensational costume design. (An opening musical number starring Macy Gray and a stage-full of naked lesbian dancers sets the tone right from the start). Idlewild resembles a lot of boundary-demolishing '30s films - classy but sleazy movies about very good people who operate in a very bad places.

(Coincidentally, three of these '30s films will also be released on DVD this Tuesday in the Turner Classic Movies "Forbidden Hollywood" collection. Of particular note is Baby Face, a melodrama about a conniving but ambivalent gold-digger that shocked 1933 audiences despite significant pre-release cuts demanded by the New York Board of Censors and Warner studio chief Walter Brennan.)

In this case, our lost souls are Percival (Benjamin), a reserved mortician and part-time piano player, and his best friend Rooster (Patton), a relentless schemer and part-time singer. They perform together at The Church, a speakeasy and dance club run by the slimy Sunshine Ace (Faizon Love). The two leads are still a little green as actors but they manage to get by alright in roles designed specifically for their personas. Benjamin has appeared in smaller parts in several other films (including the never-released Guy Ritchie fiasco Revolver), but Patton gets the more interesting, likable character and more compelling storyline.

Percival's the quiet dreamer who is finally getting his shot at life, but he's almost too introverted to be sympathetic. Barber makes a few mistakes in developing Percival's character, including a really heavy-handed and obvious sub-plot about his cruel taskmaster father (Ben Vereen), but no misstep is more crucial than the paucity of songs. We're told early on, in a sequence featuring animated sheet music, that Percival composes his own songs, but we never really get to hear a full tune until the end of the film. The bits we do hear, including an odd half-melody about Chronomentrophobia, the fear of clocks, are repetitive and unfinished.

Love gives probably the films most enjoyable, lively performance as the perversely greedy Ace, but he's gunned down inside the first 20 minutes by Trumpy (Terrence Howard), a mean-spirited thug looking to get rich quick in the hooch business. With Ace and veteran bootlegger Spats (Ving Rhames) suddenly out of the picture, Rooster is placed in charge of the club, and therefore assumes Ace's rather considerable debt to Trumpy, along with various other headaches.

These scenes at The Church thankfully feature a few zippy, fun song-and-dance numbers in the midst of all the throwback gangster cliches. Tracks like "Bowtie" contain literally dozens of anachronisms in a '30s setting, both musically and lyrically, and I liked how the movie tosses them off without concern. (I find it unlikely that anyone in 1935 would refer to themselves as a "gangster mack.") The dancing is shot with a lot of flair, but not so much as to be distracting. (The end credits sequence, a nod to Busby Berkeley's '30s musicals starring Benjamin, doesn't work at all because the guy can't dance. It's a great idea that's so poorly executed, I assume it was meant to be funny.)

Despite the enthusiasm and affection on display towards the Cagney and Bogart classics of the genre, much of the actual plotting here is overly familiar. Howard, a really watchable actor, tries his best to bring some life to the stock villain role but doesn't really succeed. Unfortuantely, when Barber does try to move beyond referencing old films or relying solely on formula, he fumbles. Rooster has a talking flask (voiced by Diddy's former butler, Farnsworth Bentley), but the character adds nothing and gets irritating fast. A large-scale, CGI-enhanced gunfight and car chase looks kind of cool, but Barber makes the unfortunate choice of setting it to a poorly-chosen Big Boi song ("Church"), which throws off the timing of both the on-screen action and the music. There's a reason musicals don't usually set the songs against loud, quick-cutting chase sequences.

I should also mention, Rooster's random encounter with an impoverished but deeply faithful granny (Cicely Tyson) is meant to give the film some additional weight or deep meaning or something, but it's pretty ridiculous and out of place. The uber-convenient resolution of this plotline feels like something tacked on at the last minute.

The lugubrious Percival storyline collapses under its own weight. While Rooster at least gets a car chase and some songs, Percival's stuck in a predictable romantic arc lifted directly from Moulin Rouge. His sheltered, meek songwriter meets the glamorous singer Angel Davenport (Paula Patton) and is smitten immediately. That she likewise seems interested in him, and wants nothing more than to perform some of his original compositions and sleep over at his Dad's house, doesn't tip off Percival that something is not quite as it seems, but it was kind of obvious to me.

Though the script is credited to Barber alone, I'd have to imagine that both Outkast guys had some creative input in terms of story and character. So I don't understand why Benjamin would want to play this near-silent sadsack in his own film. Rooster gets all these big, show-stopping musical numbers and Percival gets a few dimly-lit scenes playing snippets on the piano to himself in an attic. When he finally gets to solo, he sings one of the weaker "Love Below" tracks - "She Lives in My Lap" - at the least appropriate moment possible. Every time I hear that song from now on, it will have a creepy undertone. Percival is just kind of a zero and Benjamin even seems bored playing the guy. It's no wonder Rooster spends so little time with him, despite claiming to be his best friend.

And that's what it really comes down to in the end. Idlewild is supposed to be the Outkast movie, but it's really just an stylish period piece starring two musicians in barely-connected storylines. The golden rule of film criticism, which I violate all the time, is that you should review the film as it stands, not the film you wanted to see. So I've tried to present my feelings on Idlewild in its actual real-world form, but it's hard not to wish these two guys could get their heads together, get on the same page and work cohesively as a unit again.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Gooooooo Boooooooooosh!

I really should have become a sociology professor. I've been saying this stuff for years:

Lohse, a social work master’s student at Southern Connecticut State University, says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years: a direct link between mental illness and support for President Bush.

Lohse says his study is no joke. The thesis draws on a survey of 69 psychiatric outpatients in three Connecticut locations during the 2004 presidential election. Lohse’s study, backed by SCSU Psychology professor Jaak Rakfeldt and statistician Misty Ginacola, found a correlation between the severity of a person’s psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush.

Shocking...Just shocking...And James Dobson always seemed so centered and in control of his mental faculties.

“Our study shows that psychotic patients prefer an authoritative leader,” Lohse says. “If your world is very mixed up, there’s something very comforting about someone telling you, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. I would have thought the more direct correlation would be stupid people and Bush voters, but psychotic sounds correct as well. Certainly he would appeal to people who are confused and angry, which I suppose applies to the psychos among us.

Unfortunately, if this is true, around 20% of our population (the hardcore Bush base) is made up of psychopaths. Remember that the next time some friends in Tuscaloosa want you to pay them a visit.

Now, if there are any conservatives left among my readership, you're probably thinking to yourself that this is another biased librul study from some secret librul enclave designed wholly to discredit Dear Leader. Well, it's simply not so:

The study was an advocacy project of sorts, designed to register mentally ill voters and encourage them to go to the polls, Lohse explains. The Bush trend was revealed later on.

This explains a lot. Not only how Lohse stumbled upon the link between psychotic mental disorders and Bush fandom, but how Republicans managed to have such electoral success over the past few cycles...More and more mentally ill people have been going to the polls!

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with encouraging the mentally ill from voting. An American citizen is an American citizen, whether or not they have severe OCD. It's just interesting that there's a major advocacy project designed specifically to target these potential voters. What about all the young women who aren't mentally ill who don't vote? Shouldn't we go after them first, if only because there's so many more of them, and then worry about the lunatics?

“Bush supporters had significantly less knowledge about current issues, government and politics than those who supported Kerry,” the study says.

I don't know...To me, this is the more compelling link than the mental disorder thing. People who vote for Bush are fucking stupid. As George Carlin explains, it's not hard to spot them. (You have to get through about 2 hilarious minutes of material on cancer before getting to the part about stupid people, but it's worth the wait.)

Thanks to The Editors for the link.


I promise, this Wonkette post will be the most awful-yet-hilarious-yet-squirm-inducing thing you read on the Internet all day.

Trust me.

Invasion of the Jihadi Snatchers

My thanks go out to every sarcastic liberal on the Internet (but particularly Tbogg and Sadly, No) for bringing this hilarious and yet also disturbing post to my attention.

A Delusional Nerd Coalition, calling itself the 910 Group (because the acronym DNC is already taken), has posted a call to arms against Muslamonazism on a blog called Gates of Vienna. The blog title, by the way, references the 1963 Battle of Vienna, the first major battle of the Great Turkish War and a turning point in the struggle between the Ottoman Empire and Central European monarchies. So, these people think of themselves as the "Gates of Vienna," the only thing standing between "Christian" Europe and the foreign (in this case, Turk) hordes.

It gives the whole blog kind of a Race War-Bill the Butcher-xenophobia vibe that I, for one, quite enjoy.

And that's just the blog's name. The author of this post calls himself Baron Bodissey, which sounds like a character in a British gay porn film but which is actually a reference to a character in novels by Jack Vance. But while Vance's Baron Bodissey has been known to say:

[On religious wars] of all wars, these are the most detestable, since they are waged for no tangible gain, but only to impose a set of arbitrary credos on another.

...his online counterpart is just itching for a Clash of Civilizations.

The Coalition to Preserve Civilization

by Baron Bodissey

The Great Islamic Jihad is certain that Western Civilization is about to come to an end.

The Great Islamic what? Doesn't he mean the Crimson Jihad?

The Great Islamic Jihad will continue smuggling nuclear weaopns into your cities by storing them inside cumbersome Persian statuary until our demands are met!

Islamic Fascism looks forward to the rule of the new Caliphate, in which the whole world will swear submission to Allah and bow five times a day towards Mecca.

Authoritarian religious nuts trying to force everyone to worship exactly like them? Thank goodness we don't have anyone like that in America.

But even as this beast tears at our throats, a new defensive force is being born, a determination to preserve all that is good and right and true within the Western world. Even as we are abandoned by our leaders, by the sophists in our academies, and by the propagandists of our major media, ordinary people are connecting with one another, and are ready to stand up and defeat those who would destroy us.

Baron Buttmunchausen thus far hasn't given us any indication of what he means by "The Great Islamic Jihad" or "Islamic Fascism" or "this beast" that's tearing "at our throats." Does he mean Sunni Muslims? The Shia government of Iran? American Muslims like Brandon Mayfield and Representative-Elect Keith Ellison?

My guess? He means Muslims of Middle-Eastern descent.

(By the by, his use of the term "sophists" to refer to university academics is projection. This is an apolitical, ahistorical rant that contains little to do evidence or even corroboration. Thus, it's a textbook example of sophistry. He hopes that by making the most passionate, angry, vehement anti-Muslim screed possible, he can win a few recruits to his cause. As in sophistry, rhetoric trumps reality.)

Still, it's kind of hard to take a political manifesto seriously when it's calling for all-out war against a vague enemy like "Islamic Fascism." Last I checked, there weren't any Middle-Eastern governments that could technically be referred to that way, and fascism is, in fact, a system of government as opposed to a personal philosophy.

Here in the 910 Group this force is symbolized by the Phoenix, reborn from the ashes of the World Trade Center in order to resist the onslaught of Islamofascism.

Yes, they have an Official Bird. And a logo. Sure, maybe it seems a bit premature, but hey, these Internet Dorks are battling fascism, okay? They have to do everything in their power to prevail, even if that means staying up until the wee hours with MS Paint.

Shouldn't it be the 912 Group? They don't want us to return to that deadly pre-9/11 mindset, before the very mention of the word fatwa sent us all into a pant-wetting frenzy of screeching, tooth-gnashing terror. They want us all to feel like it's permanently 9/12 - victimized, angry and afraid, like a cornered animal fearing imminent death.

Unless I've just missed the meaning entirely, and it's some kind of "Star Trek" reference. (The number of times the Baron has rubbed one out thinking about Seven-of-Nine?)

Synergy and synchronicity are at work here.

Oh, well, synergy and synchronicity? Never mind, then. Forget I said anything.

The 910 Group was initiated in the comments on a Gates of Vienna post and is barely two months old. Yet it is growing incredibly rapidly, and is much larger than all of us.

"But, Baron, what exactly does the 910 Group actually do?"

"What do they do? What don't they do!? Oh, they do so many things--they never stop. Oh, the things they do there, my stars!"

We are an international movement, with members in India, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Norway, and Canada, as well as the U.S.A. We comprise a self-selected group of people who share common goals:

(1) To determine once and for all who shot first, Han or Greedo.

to oppose Islamic Fascism wherever it threatens us, and to promote the emergence of liberty in all the dark corners of the planet where ordinary people are degraded and oppressed.

These guys use the term Islamic Fascism so frequently and in so many different circumstances, they have now robbed it of any meaning it might have had. What is it and where does it threaten us? To my mind, the only group you could even remotely think of as being both Islamic and Fascist would be Muqtada al-Sadr's army (though as a militia with government and international alliances, I doubt it meets the strict political science use of the term).

And if the Baron is 100% committed to opposing Islamic Fascism wherever it threatens us, and defines "Islamic Fascism" as the army of al-Sadr, I'd suggest immediate enlistment, because there are immediate opportunities for membership in an American fighting force doing that very thing. As he seems unwilling to do so, there's really no reason to take the rest of his "manifesto" seriously...He's interested only in spewing angry, warmongering, barely-coherent rhetoric, not in actually doing anything.

A new “network of networks” has formed under the 910 umbrella, and now another synchronicity has opened the door to a larger alliance, one that calls itself The Coalition to Preserve Civilization. The rallying cry for this new group is a speech by Senator Rick Santorum from October 30th, 2006. Sen. Santorum’s speech is entitled “The Gathering Storm of the 21st Century”, and is posted at To The Point News.


That's the mark of a truly worthless fictional organization. It takes as its rallying cry a speech by SOON-TO-BE-FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM!

Which speech is that, Baron? The one where he compared the Iraq War to the super-exciting climax of Peter Jackson's Gay Hobbit Fantasia? Or the one where he claimed to have the really-really-real evidence of Saddam's massive WMD stockpile?

That is our choice: we can win or lose, but we cannot opt out and walk away from the greatest threat and most resistant threat this country has ever faced. --Little Ricky Santorum

Think about this for a second. These people think that al-Qaida is the greatest and most resistant threat this country has ever faced. More pernicious than Hitler's Germany and Hirohito's Japan. More deadly than a British Army at the height of its imperial power. More potentially tragic than the divide between North and South that seriously threatened to split the young nation in twain.

What is this based on? One terrorist attack pulled off by a bunch of crazed fundamentalists? Timothy McVeigh blew up a smaller building, but no one was spouting off about how angry rednecks were directly bringing about the end of Western Civilization. I can think of only two explanations for this kind of full-throated, delusional rhetoric:

(1) Both Lame Duck Senator Rick Santorum and Baron von Warporn suffer from undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, causing hallucinations in which Middle-Eastern men sneak into their homes, fondle their wives, pinch from their stash and eat all the leftovers in the fridge without asking.

(2) Both NEARLY-UNEMPLOYED UNIVERSALLY DESPISED EX-SENATOR Rick Santorum and Commandant Asstard are xenophobes who dislike and fear Middle-Easterners for personal reasons, then attempt to rally others to their cause, in the eventual hopes that our country will declare larger war on the religion of Islam.

And you thought it was only Charlie Manson who dreamt about Race War. Silly rabbit...

Wait, I was about to wrap this post up, but I still haven't had my original question answered: what exactly will Club 910 actually do?

This is primarily an information war, fought via the television screens and computer networks across the entire globe. The enemy is very adept at it, and has a head start. But the Islamists lack our major advantages: originality, flexibility, technical innovation, and a tradition of free enquiry. These are the skills we will use to build our networks and destroy theirs.

Oh, blog posts. Gotcha.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

If You Want to Destroy My Shweder

My brother bought me a copy of Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" for my birthday. Also, a Toby Keith Christmas CD. Seriously.)

I'm about halfway through it and enjoying it so far. (The book, not the CD. Haven't quite worked up the guts to throw that on yet.)

Dawkins case against religion is, naturally, rock-solid. It's not that hard because 99% of world religions are based on storybook logic. More interesting are the little digressions, which provide ample fodder for arguments against rabid theists.

I really enjoyed the first chapter, which debunks the popular image of Albert Einstein as devout. Though Einstein did, in fact, speak about "God," he did not mean an Invisible Sky Man, but more of a "God is Everything"-style pantheism that bears very little similarity to mainstream American faith. Here's a particularly choice Einstein quote, from page 15 of the book:

"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

Another really useful section of Dawkins' book deals with the notion of having a moral compass without God. This topic comes up all the time in online atheism arguments (in which I have become embroiled with alarming frequency lately.)

To me, it seems perfectly obvious that humans could set general moral guidelines for behavior without a God to tell them what's right and wrong. (That word "general" will become important in a moment.)

As Dawkins points out, we generally think of moral decisions made without consideration of consequence or punishment as being more moral, not less. In other words, not stealing from a friend's wallet out of consideration for that friend is a morally superior choice to not stealing from a friend's wallet because you're afraid of getting caught. I know that, in Judaism, it works the other way as well. Charity given anonymously is a greater mitzvah than acknowledged charity, because you're not doing something good in anticipation of earning a reward. The noblest choice of all is goodness for its own sake.

Dawkins argues that morality does not depend on religion, only absolute morality. From page 232:

"Absolutists believe there are absolutes of right and wrong, imperatives whose rightness makes no reference to their consequences. Consequentialists more pragmatically hold that the morality of an action should be judged by its consequences...Not all absolutism is derived from religion. Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones. The only competitor I can think of is patriotism, especially in times of war."

This gets right at the heart of the moral and intellectual vacuum at the center of contemporary American fundamentalism - These people are absolutists, which is highly compatible with their religion but not at all compatible with modern life.

Dawkins goes on to quote Luis Bunuel, always a good way for any book to rise in my estimation:

"God and Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed."

Now, I agree with Bunuel's sentiment, but it does bring up perhaps my largest problem with Dawkins' book. Like most of my family members, Dawkins is an evangelical atheist. He's openly advocating atheism and seems to believe the world would be much better off without religion. (In the preface, he claims to merely offer the possibility of atheism as a potential worldview, but I'd say he's actively encouraging skepticism towards all organized religion in his readership.)

I'm just not convinced that the mass abandonment of religion would have some overwhelmingly positive effect. I feel like people are greedy, violent assholes and they would probably hurt one another and fight amongst themselves whether or not they believed in magical fairies who record their every movement in order to determine their post-life housing options.

Dawkins seems to feel that the elimination of religion would lead to some sort of atheist utopia. He named his recent BBC special on religion "The Root of All Evil?" The question mark notwithstanding, I'd call that kind of an extreme view. (Dawkins himself points out the absurdity of the claim in the book, concluding that, of course, no one thing could possibly be the root of all evil.) Still, I think of religion as more of an excuse for our intolerant, violent and selfish behavior rather than a root cause. It's easy enough to point out that many terrorists are religious zealots, but I still say that the Twin Towers fell because of international politics and economics, as opposed to reverence for Allah. That's just marketing.

I'll admit, it can be a delicate balance. I can't deny that I find the vast majority of religions to be entirely stupid, and that I sometimes pre-judge people if I find out they are deeply religious. (I've jumped to the wrong conclusion before, assuming a religious person was an idiot and then discovering that they are actually quite intelligent, but it doesn't happen very often.) But I wouldn't really advocate any sort of organized anti-religion movement. I think everyone should think hard about their place in the world, decide for themselves what they believe about the Big Questions and then act accordingly. If your contemplation leads you to embrace Catholicism, I reserve the right to think you're kind of weird, but it's totally your call.

I think atheist groups like the Center for Inquiry are kind of silly. As a group, atheists don't have very much in common. That's the whole fucking point! Independent thought based on rationality and personal choice! I don't really see myself as "against" religion at all, so long as it's goofy rules, archaic traditions, homophobia, misogyny and general creepiness are not being forced upon me. But if special magical underwear, organ music and wafers that substitute for your savior's body work for you...hey, enjoy yourself!

Which (finally!) brings me to University of Chicago professor Richard Shweder and his Op-Ed about atheism from yesterday's New York Times, courtesy of Amanda at Pandagon. Shweder pretends to seriously engage the question of why a rash of books (including Dawkins') are suddenly making strong cases against God, but he really just wants to get in some cheap shots at atheists and (get this...) the Age of Enlightenment. I wasn't really even sure it was possible to rhetorically attack an entire Age, but Shweder managed.

Among the cosmopolites who live in secular enclaves, religion is automatically associated with darkness, superstition, irrationality and an antique or pre-modern cast of mind. It has long been assumed that religion is opposed to science, reason and human progress; and the death of gods is simply taken for granted as a deeply ingrained Darwinian article of faith.

Shweder teaches something called Comparative Human Development, which I guess involves making a lot of general, vague assumptions about people whom you lump together in meaningless categories like "secularists." So, okay, he's talking about people like me...A non-religious person who lives in a big coastal city. And, yes, I do associate religion with superstition, Rich. Becuase it's a fucking superstition. I also associate strawberry tarts with pastry and grouper with fish. Call me crazy.

I'd like to hear Prof. Shweder distinguish between the words "religion" and "superstition." I'm not being sarcastic, either. I'd genuinely be interested in how he goes about making this distinction.

Also, New York and Los Angeles atheists aren't to blame for religion being viewed as anti-scientific and positioned against reason. If religious leaders want to stop being seen as anti-science, they should stop attempting to replace real scientific theories with alternative, fake versions in our public schools and stop lying to their followers about established scientific principles. This is reactionary identity politics of the most unsettling kind..."Those of us in the Real America love God, and those secularists in their enclaves just assume that makes us dumb! Oooh, that makes-a me so mad!"

Why, then, are the enlightened so conspicuously up in arms these days, reiterating every possible argument against the existence of God? Why are they indulging in books — Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell,” Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation,” and Richard Dawkins’s “God Delusion” — in which authors lampoon religion or rail against the devout under the banner of a crusading atheism? Books dictated or co-written by God sell quite well among the 2.1 billion self-declared Christians and 1.3 billion self-declared Muslims of the world. What explains the current interest among secularists in absolutely, positively establishing that the author is a fraud?

Over at Pandagon, Amanda points out perhaps the single most ridiculous facet of Shweder's editorial. His whole point about atheists overstepping their bounds is based around the fact that a few atheists wrote books on their beliefs! Can you imagine the nerve of these people, writing down the way they view the world and selling it to other people? Why can't they just keep that shit to themselves, the way no other authors are ever expected to?

It goes back to a double standard that pervades the whole piece. Religious people should be free to express themselves in any way they please, but atheists who do so are elitist assholes who are intolerant and take deep satisfaction in putting down the beautiful, deeply-held spiritual beliefs of others. It's right there in that paragraph - books about God are commonplace, so what makes these dirty infidels think they should be able to publish?

The most obvious answer is that the armies of disbelief have been provoked. Articulate secularists may be merely reacting to the many recent incitements from religious zealots at home and abroad, as fanatics and infidels have their ways of keeping each other in business.

Gee, do you think so? Somebody get Dr. Shweder some grant money, pronto! This would make an excellent follow-up to his intensive five-year study on why children like ice cream. (Hypothesis: They enjoy its sweetness.)

A deeper and far more unsettling answer, however, is that the popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real.


No, seriously...What?

The Enlightenment story has its own version of Genesis, and the themes are well known: The world woke up from the slumber of the “dark ages,” finally got in touch with the truth and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe.

See, that's not the Enlightenment's version of Genesis. The Book of Genesis is a collection of myths that didn't really happen, some of which involve talking animals. It's an imaginary story about where humans came from. The Enlightenment, on the other hand, is just a term to refer to a whole bunch of events that all really happened. You can look them up. They're historical and shit.

To call The Enlightenment "illusory" is like calling "The Bronze Age" or "The Ottoman Empire" illusory. Agree with its governing principles or not, that shit happened!

As people opened their eyes, religion (equated with ignorance and superstition) gave way to science (equated with fact and reason). Parochialism and tribal allegiances gave way to ecumenism, cosmopolitanism and individualism. Top-down command systems gave way to the separation of church from state, of politics from science. The story provides a blueprint for how to remake and better the world in the image and interests of the West’s secular elites.

Science is not equated with fact and reason. It is based upon them. Is Shweder implying that scientists sit around in labs all day and just make shit up off the top of their heads, and that their formulations therefore have no more or less validity than Scripture?

Even so, I still don't see how you can argue that this Enlightenment stuff didn't happen. "I'm telling you, Rousseau never wrote The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right. It's all in your mind!"

I mean, maybe Richard Shweder wishes there had never been an Enlightenment (though that might impact the existence of both the University of Chicago and the New York Times). Maybe he thinks things like cosmopolitanism, individualism and a separation of church and state are bullshit. That's his opinion. But they exist as concepts or movements, and started to exist (or blossomed) during this period we refer to as The Enlightenment, for purposes of simplification.

Unless Shweder wants to seriously argue against these well-established observations, gleaned over centuries of study and analysis by actual historians based on a wealth of primary sources, what's his fucking point?

Unfortunately, as a theory of history, that story has had a predictive utility of approximately zero.

What does this have to do with anything? "Predictive utility?" That just means, "knowing about The Enlightenment has not helped humans to determine what is going to happen in the future." Ga-juh? Does he mean something like "perceptive utility" or "analytical utility," like, "knowing about The Enlightenment has not helped humans to understand the world around them?" Or does he mean that the lessons learned during The Enlightenment did not allow the period's own scholars to predict the future?

Because I don't see predictive utility as having anything to do with his argument that the Enlightenment was "illusory."

At the turn of the millennium it was pretty hard not to notice that the 20th century was probably the worst one yet, and that the big causes of all the death and destruction had rather little to do with religion.

Okay, I'm starting to get Shweder's overall message after paragraphs now of inane rambling. He apparently sees, within The Enlightenment (even though it's just a name for all the intellectual thought going on in Europe throughout an entire century or more), the promise of forging a better future, and he doesn't see that as having actually happened. Therefore, the whole idea of The Enlightenment was a fraud and we should all Go with Christ.

But this is an extremely odd approach to studying the history of 18th Century European philosophy. It's too focused on causality - these ideas are written down and then they cause positive change, and if they fail to create a significant enough amount of positive change, they are somehow invalidated. Human development is extremely chaotic and impossible to judge in that way. I mean, sure, horrible atrocities went down during the 20th Century, but the Enlightenment made some good stuff possible as well. I mean...Anaesthesia? Civil and human rights? The Internet? America? It wouldn't be fair to credit all the positive developments exclusively to John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, so it's likewise not fair to blame them for Hiroshima.

(Also, how stupid is this guy? The major causes of death in the 20th Century had rather little to do with religion? Unless you were being rounded up based on your religion and shipped to death camps, I guess.)

Science has not replaced religion; group loyalties have intensified, not eroded.

I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that science is going to replace religion or cause everyone to live together in peace. Granted, Dawkins has a bit more optimistic view of a world without religion than I, but his book doesn't try to make this case.

The collapse of the cold war’s balance of power has not resulted in the end of collective faiths or a rush to democracy and individualism. In Iraq, the “West is best” default (and its discourse about universal human rights) has provided a foundation for chaos.

Can anyone out there really follow this argument? Again, you run into trouble attacking something like "The Enlightenment" because it's only a category and has no set, objective meaning. It would be helpful if Shweder had selected a writer or two, or even a field of inquiry or two, on which to focus his attack.

Even so, he's sort of inaccurate and evasive...The end of the Cold War did bring about a rush to "democracy," if you consider the founding of several new democratic nations a "rush." I wouldn't say it's working out exceptionally well for all those countries, and some of them are turning back towards totalitarianism even as we speak, but let us not forget that global politics is complex business and capital-D Democracy isn't even necessarily an Enlightenment value. (It's a Greek word, after all...) The French Revolution was inspired by the Enlightenment and it produced an Empire, not a Democracy, and the American Revolution produced a representational republic.

The Enlightenment is best summed up as a return to the predominance of Reason pioneered during the Classical period, a movement away from the rigid doctrine and strict hierarchies of the Dark Ages towards a more rational, humanist philosophy. Shweder, I suppose, argues that the ensuing chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union proves that this rational, humanist outlook is somehow wrong or inaccurate or non-utile. I wouldn't say he does a very good job. At least, he doesn't convince me.

Even some children within the enclave are retreating from the Enlightenment in their quest for a spiritual revival; one discovers perfectly rational and devout Jews or Hindus in one’s own family, or living down the block.

Does this prove atheists are wrong? Doesn't it work the other way? Don't some deeply religious families wind up with atheist members? Does that prove there's no God? And are the children of secularists who embrace Hinduism really "retreating from the Enlightenment"? What the fuck is this guy spouting off about? There's no basis for any of the arguments he's making here, which I suppose is appropriate, because he's debating the very notion of "logic." Still, it makes for a frustrating read.

If religion is a delusion, it is a delusion with a future, which it may be hazardous for us to deny. A shared conception of the soul, the sacred and transcendental values may be a prerequisite for any viable society.

Of course, Shweder falls back on the very same idea that Dawkins spends the better part of a chapter handily debunking, the old "you can't have society without God" line. What a joke. If you want to see this argument not only refuted but pulverized, I'd highly recommend The God Delusion. It's the book Deepak Chopra doesn't want you to read!

Instead of waging intellectual battles over the existence of god(s), those of us who live in secular society might profit by being slower to judge others and by trying very hard to understand how it is possible for John Locke and our many atheist friends to continue to gaze at each other in such a state of mutual misunderstanding.

So...don't be atheist? Or, if you are atheist, don't think that those who believe in God are wrong? That seems kind of unfair. I mean, people who believe in God think I'm wrong.

Is Shweder saying I have some kind of moral imperative to support those who disagree with me, to make them feel better about our disagreement? Even, to tell them that they are right and I am wrong, so as to create a more "viable society"?

What a load of shit. Why not tell Christians that they have to be more tolerant of me? That they should be slower to judge others and try very hard to understand why Pope Joey Ratz and I don't see eye to eye? (Also, that John Locke line is just obnoxious, implying that any secular humanist necessarily agrees with John Locke about everything. As if reading An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a pre-requisite for losing one's faith in Yahweh.)

It's amusing to me that Shweder namechecks Richard Dawkins in the actual editorial, considering that Dawkins could rhetorically disembowel him in minutes. In fact, almost all the arguments Shweder makes are torn apart in the very book he cites! And think about this unsettling quandry...If an article this guy has carefully prepared to run in the New York Times is this uninteresting and specious, what must his fucking lectures be like?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Let Us Bask in TV's Warm Glowing Warming Glow

TV Land has made a list of the Top 100 TV catchphrases and quotes. The whole thing can be found here, in alphabetical order.

They've naturally done a good job of choosing characters and shows for the list, but also tend to pick inappropriate actual quotes.

For example, "The Simpsons" makes the list, but the quote chosen is "D'oh." Now, I'd say that's a noise, as opposed to a quote or catchphrase, but it seems like the classic, obvious choices would be "eat my shorts" or "cowabunga, dude." If they were going for the most quotable quote, I might suggest something from the Ralph Wiggum school. Perhaps "I bent my wookie" or "Me fail English? That's unpossible."

Here's another strange pick. From "The A-Team," TV Land has chosen Hannibal's catchphrase "I love it when a plan comes together." Because we all know how often people haul out that old chestnut during casual conversation. Guys...I mean..."I pity the fool." Ring any bells? Like the fact that Mr. T still goes on Conan and does that line, decades after "The A-Team" went off the air? There are teenagers with no idea that line's even from a TV show. They just think there's this creepy, overly aggressive dude going on comedy shows and telling fools that he pities them.

Even more staggeringly, the "Star Trek" quote is Kirk's opening salvo, "Space, the final frontier..." Wrong wrong and wrong. It's either "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor!" or "That's not logical." Or even "To boldly go where no man has gone before." (To be fair, "Live long and prosper" AND "Resistance is futile" are both also on the list).

Some items on the list should not even be rightly considered original catchphrases. "Holy crap!" is not a line attributable to Peter Boyle's character on "Everybody Loves Raymond." It's a universal expression of surprise. It's obvious they needed to include the mega-popular "Raymond" on the list so, out of desperation, picked a generic line that one character said a lot. BOOM! Instant classic catchphrase.

Ditto "heh heh" from "Beavis and Butthead." Granted, their laugh was distinctive, but it is not a quote or catchphrase. Might I recommend "I am Cornholio" or "You are a beautiful woman...You will be with me, tonight."

Okay, so having said all of that, it's a decent list. I like that "Ren and Stimpy" and "Chappelle's Show" made the cut. (If it takes you more than 2 seconds to think of what Chappelle quote they used, I hope your 6 year stint in a Turkish prison went smoothly.)

If I were making it, I probably would have included more goofy Bob Costas quotes. I swear, one time, I heard him say "he's, as the blacks would say, representing" when a guy was doing an end-zone dance. Plus, "...and now for something completely different" from "Monty Python." That one seems obvious.

Boozy, Snoozy and Floozy

Did you guys see Lindsay Lohan's letter of condolences to the family of Robert Altman? Hi-larity. I will now republish it here in full.

"I would like to send my condolences out to Catherine Altman, Robert Altmans wife, as well as all of his immediate family, close friends, co-workers, and all of his inner circle.

"I feel as if I've just had the wind knocked out of me and my heart aches.

"If not only my heart but the heart of Mr. Altman's wife and family and many fellow actors/artists that admire him for his work and love him for making people laugh whenever and however he could..

"Robert altman made dreams possible for many independent aspiring filmmakers, as well as creating roles for countless actors.

"I am lucky enough to of been able to work with Robert Altman amongst the other greats on a film that I can genuinely say created a turning point in my career.

This, of course, being the point where Lindsay magically transformed from strung-out teen billionaire to strung-out teen billionaire with a bit part in a bad Altman film. Truly, it has been a stunning metamorphosis. Lindsay and the Iraq War share a remarkable ability to reach turning points without actually changing in any way.

"I learned so much from Altman and he was the closest thing to my father and grandfather that I really do believe I've had in several years.

"The point is, he made a difference.

"He left us with a legend that all of us have the ability to do.

"So every day when you wake up.

"Look in the mirror and thank god for every second you have and cherish all moments.

"The fighting, the anger, the drama is tedious.

"Please just take each moment day by day and consider yourself lucky to breathe and feel at all and smile. Be thankful.

"Life comes once, doesn't 'keep coming back' and we all take such advantage of what we have.

"When we shouldn't..... '

"Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourselves' (12st book) -everytime there's a triumph in the world a million souls hafta be trampled on.-altman Its true. But treasure each triumph as they come.

"If I can do anything for those who are in a very hard time right now, as I'm one of them with hearing this news, please take advantage of the fact that I'm just a phone call away.

God Bless, peace and love always.

Thank You,
Lindsay Lohan

Guh? Or, to put it more accurately, ga-juh? It's like Lindsay's using the opportunity of a widow's loss to teach Catherine Altman a peppy little message about life. My guess is, Lindsay recently watched Dead Poet's Society and that wacky Robin Williams bastard really hit home, what with his bad impressions and Latinate slogans, and she just wanted to pass along some of his wisdom.

Anyway, it looks like Lindsay Lohan's taking the loss of Robert Altman pretty hard. Here's a photo of her last night on Santa Monica Blvd., searching desperately for comfort in the arms of two transgendered prostitutes.

Oh, no, wait, that's just her hanging out with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Can you imagine being a celebrity photographer and suddenly seeing this image before your eyes? It's Christmas in November! You can blow off work till the New Year and then some once you've hit the Burnout Slut Trifecta. Get Madonna's bare ass in there and Courtney Love flipping someone the bird and you've got the Paparazzi "Last Supper".

This is the sort of event that calls for not just one goofy caption but several.

10. "Is it just me or does anyone else smell chlamydia?"

9. "Or that one scene where Albert Finney's shooting the guys while Danny Boy plays in the background? Classic. Miller's Crossing fucking rules."

8. "No, when I called you 'firecrotch,' I was just trying to say that in all those pictures of you where you aren't wearing panties, your vagina looks, like, really really hot. Like, on fi-yah!"

7. Here we see the last known photo taken before Lindsay, Paris and Britney were killed by an oncoming semi, on what would forever after be known as The Day the Music Continued Right On Living Like Nothing Had Happened.

6. I'm not so sure about this new Back to the Future remake.

5. "Alright, truth check...Who else here fucked Borat?"

4. "Well that's all fine, Paris, but I think you overstate Heidegger's relationship to existential philosophy. I mean, certainly, Sartre was influenced by Being and Time, but let us not forget that the man's early work was deeply rooted in hermeneutics."

3. "I'm just saying, my ex was a humiliating no-talent whiteboy hack pretending to be a musician, a constant embarrassment to the entire entertainment industry, not to mention me personally...But enough about John Mayer."

2. Here we see the first publicity still from the CW's latest series, Penetration Point.

1. Lindsay Lohan thoughtfully averts her gaze from friends and fans, hoping to protect their delicate skin from her face's carcinogenic, radioactive orange glow.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Marie Antoinette

The modern collides with the historical in Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola's feminist pop attempt at historiography, focusing on one of Europe's most infamous monarchs. Most of the buzz around the film centered on its gleeful sonic anachronism, the peculiarity of placing Adam Ant and New Order songs on the soundtrack of a film set in 18th Century France overwhelming all the writer/director's other daring tweaks to the conventional period biopic formula.

In borrowing a gimmick from A Knight's Tale, Coppola forces her audience to view Antoinette from a contemporary perspective. There is no historical context provided for her story, save the most spare, faintly-sketched indications of trouble brewing down Bastille way. Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), a 14 year old Austrian princess, marries the 15 year old French dauphin Louis (Jason Schwartzman) to cement the alliance between the two countries. She moves to Versailles, leaving behind her family, friends and all her worldly possessions, and must immediately begin the process of birthing a viable male heir to the throne of France.

That's about all that Antoinette knows going in to her adventure, and so it's about all the information Coppola gives us. She provides quick signposts along the way - the French army becomes overextended fighting in the American revolution, Antoinette has trouble conceiving with Louis, who appears sexually disinterested in her, bread shortages and mounting poverty cause riots in nearby Paris - but the conflict in Marie Antoinette all occurs within the palace at Versailles, and more closely resembles a coming-of-age drama than a sweeping historical epic.

As in Shekhar Kapur's acclaimed 1998 Elizabeth, Coppola investigates a specific moment in the life of a young female monarch. Both Britain's Elizabeth I and France's Marie Antoinette were expected to sacrifice their personal aspirations and private lives for the good of their nation. The former approaches the topic optimistically, as if the surrendering of the Self to the Communal is an achievable and commendable goal, while the latter sees it as ludicrous and farcical to expect of a teenaged girl.

Antoinette's arrival in France, then, is a series of dehumanizing and depersonalizing rituals, designed to break her individual spirit and enforce upon her the responsibilities of her new position.

When crossing the border from her native Austria into France, she must strip naked and leave behind all the possessions of a foreign court (even her beloved dog). Having arrived at Versailles, she's instructed by the Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis in the film's best performance) on all the limitations on her life in court; she must not ever reach out for anything, she must pay proper respect to the correct nobles while slighting others, she must obey myriad inconvenient and counter-intuitive regulations and she must sacrifice every last moment of privacy. Once entering into marriage with the future king, in other words, Antoinette ceases to be a person and becomes a personification of the power and nobility of the French state.

It's here that the similarities between Elizabeth and Marie Antoinette end. In fact, Coppola's film could be described as the anti-Elizabeth. Like most historical dramas, Elizabeth focuses intently on socio-political intrigue and context. Though altered and punched-up for the sake of entertainment, the conflict nonetheless arises from the actual business of Elizabeth I's early reign, particularly the various coups and attempts on her life and crown. Unfortunately, most historical events are too nebulous and complex to accurately depict in an entertaining narrative film, so movies trying to summarize them are often more about the illusion of historical accuracy than anything else. Glory and Lawrence of Arabia are based on real history, but they are entertainments above all else, pieces of fiction primarily concerned with pleasing audiences.

Coppola's film evades this issue entirely by using history as a setting and not a subject. She intentionally leaves out most of the pertinent information about France in the 1770's. Perhaps this is out of fidelity to the lead character's perpsective. It's never made clear whether Antoinette simply doesn't care about what goes on beyond the palace walls or if she's specifically disallowed to find out, but the life she had before coming to Versailles and the life beyond its carefully-manicured grounds don't intrude at all into her world until it's too late. But I think Coppola made the choice because of her preference for visual storytelling and montage, rather than a lot of weighty, expositional dialogue. A simple scene of Antoinette and her young daughter gathering eggs at their small country farm advances the story she wants to tell better than 3 lengthy conversations about the French government's waning finances.

Marie Antoinette is just what the name implies - a story about a girl. In particular, one who buckles under the weight of the world's expectations, who ultimately fails in a near-impossible task but nonetheless manages to have some fun along the way. It's a relatively small, quirky film, slyly funny and idiosyncratic, but one that strikes me as more daring and true to itself than most other 2006 offerings.

Coppola's approach to history mirrors the narrative non-fiction bestsellers of David McCullough. This is French history as a young adult novel, focused on vivid personalities and courtly gossip rather than international diplomacy and macroeconomics. It's a bildungsroman based on the life of a real French woman rather than some hypothetical writerly creation. Antoinette begins the film as a child, giggling with her friends as they gaze a locket bearing the image of her betrothed, and ends the film as not just a woman, but a queen. Her journey will mirror the struggle of other young people, particularly young girls, as their own desires push back against the expectations of an unjust patriarchal society that tries to corral them and place ceilings on their ambitions.

Like Elizabeth, Antoinette lusts for a man she can't be with, in this case a hunky Swedish soldier, Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan). Coppola occasionally plays these sexual frustrations for laughs, as in a scene when Antoinette gazes out the window and fantasizes about her man in the heat of bloody combat, but also makes the stakes of extramarital flirtation clear. The strength of her marriage directly corresponds to the strength of Austria's ties to France. Should she fail to produce a male heir, or fails to otherwise please her husband or his grandfather the King (Rip Torn), she threatens the security of not only her mother (Marianne Faithful) and extended family but her God and country. A terrific sequence in which her brother (Danny Huston) comes to Versailles to do a little marriage counseling drives this point home. He's willing to do whatever it takes, even providing the second-in-line to the throne of France with delicate sex advice, in order to secure the future of his lineage.

It's only one case out of many in which Antoinette's personality and privacy are subservient to her official duties as France's Dauphine. An ex-prostitute named Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), the laughingstock of Versailles, has become the mistress of King Louis XIV. Though it will harm her reputation with her friends and fellow royals, Antoinette has no choice but to make nice for diplomatic purposes. As part of her humiliating morning ritual, Antoinette must disrobe in front of a room full of servants and aristocrats, the highest-ranking of whom get the privilege of helping her to dress for the day. Every time she wants a glass of water, she must ask for it specifically and wait for someone to bring the glass on a silver tray. She even has to give birth to her daughter in front of an audience of eager spectators.

Lacking any kind of real purpose or self-determination, Antoinette explores the ways in which she is permitted, as a royal, to express herself. This includes gambling and drinking excessively, holding lavish parties and buying fancy shoes.

(The film implies that, in addition to the bread shortages and foreign wars, Antoinette's spending habits helped to cripple the French economy and spark the French Revolution. This sounds dubious to me, but I don't exactly fancy myself an expert on the period, so I'll shut up. I guess it's enough that the people felt that her spending exacerbated the problem.)

Modern parallels can clearly be drawn. Some have suggested online already that the film may mirror Coppola's own biography. Born into a famous, wealthy family and thrust into the public eye at a young age, Sofia Coppola found out the hard way the privileges and costs of early noteriety. It's hard to imagine the effect of her Godfather III infamy on such a young mind, but there's certainly a shadow of that situation in Antoinette's sudden disfavor among the French citizens. (They see her extravagant lifestyle as indicative of all that's wrong with the aristocracy, just as audiences viewed Coppola's casting as indicative of her father's egotism and failure to cap his trilogy in satisfying fashion.)

Though compelling in its own way, this kind of auteur interpretation can only take you so far. Perhaps some of the details of Marie Antoinette apply to Sofia Coppola's life because they are widely applicable for young people, especially young women. Though more direct and forceful than is typical, there's nothing unique about the expectations placed on Antoinette by the landed European aristocracy.

Young women still get married under the expectation to look good, keep up appearances and procreate. They are still seen as status symbols and a form of currency, particularly here in Los Angeles. (Is Coppola's Antoinette the original "trophy wife"?)

Certainly, she did not invent the grandiose luxury of Versailles single-handedly, and though she eventually gets caught up in and consumed by the excess, Coppola sees this as a slowly-developing crutch rather than a personal tendency. Like David Bowie's alien at the end of The Man Who Fell to Earth, Antoinette has vast wealth and privilege, but seemingly no control over her own destiny. Their successes leave them feeling empty, so they each sink into a morass of alcoholism, despair and self-pity.

It's interesting that Antoinette becomes a touchpoint for the anger of the French mob as they storm Versailles and arrest the royal family. She insists that the famed quote "Let them eat cake" is a fabrication, yet her spiraling debts and party-girl lifestyle come to represent all that is loathed about the ruling elite. (A montage shows a portrait of Antoinette with various angry rants scrawled on top, in English, to demonstrate the anger of Parisians against their spend-crazy queen.) This, too, has its applications to the modern day, with heiresses like Paris Hilton and even the Bush twins standing in for the average America's rage at greedy fatcats, and Kanye West delighting millions with put-downs about skanky "gold-diggers."

Coppola opens the film with a provocative shot, showing Antoinette in a bathtub licking icing from an elegant, tiered cake off of her finger. There's something of a punk rock aesthetic to the shot, from the music on the soundtrack to Dunst's cockeyed gray bouffant wig to her Courtney Love-esque lethargic demeanor. It's almost as if Coppola presents us with the traditional view of Marie Antoinette up front - spoiled boozy rich girl - before slowly peeling back the layers and showcasing the ruined victim underneath.

I enjoyed the film, though from a purely technical level, I think it's probably Coppola's weakest to date. Lance Acord, who also shot Lost in Translation for Coppola and Being John Malkovich for her ex-husband Spike Jonze, renders Versailles and its environs prettily but unremarkably. The most memorable visual sequence, from which that above still was taken, is a Parisian masquerade ball to which Louis and his wife sneak away one night. The hazy sepia tones give the sequence an almost storybook quality, appropriately nostalgic considering that it's the first meeting between Antoinette and her sometime-lover, Count Fersen.

Though most of the song choices work well (particularly Bow Wow Wow's "Candy" set against a montage of Antoinette buying shoes and eating puff pastries and a pair of moody songs by The Radio Dept.), some are just as glaring and intrusive as you'd expect. Particularly the Strokes song "What Ever Happened?," which comes out of nowhere, totally violates the atmosphere of its given scene and seems artificially plunked into the movie so that audience members born after the mid-'80s would recognize at least one song on the soundtrack.