Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Summer at the Movies

Yes, we've seen Batman. Twice, now. And yes, it is freakin' awesome, although I am sure that you don't need me to tell you that. The one thing that I would warn against is going to see it at night in Chicago, because when you get out of the theater, you will be constantly looking up in case you get a glimpse of the Bat-Man jumping about up there and, y'know, that's how people get hit by cars.

So I'm not going to talk about the movie. Instead, I want to talk about the trailers before the movie.

Personally, I'm always a little skeptical about going to the theater to see a movie. Tickets here are now more than ten bucks each (if you buy them online), and I'm not always sure that I want to go and sit in a dark, sticky, overly air-conditioned Cave for two and a half hours when I could just wait for the damn movie to come out on NetFlix in a few months. But that's because I forget about how much I love trailers. At 'The Dark Knight," there were at least three tailers that got me excited: Burn After Reading, Blindness, and, of course, Disaster Mov- I mean, Watchmen.

Gayatri Spivak, a philosopher and translator of Derrida, wrote about how "the preface harbors a lie. 'Prae-fatio' is 'a saying before-hand'."and that it involves "a pretense at writing before a text that one must have read before the preface can be written." Something similar can be said of a prologue, which, etymologically, is a speaking before the speaking begins. The challenge of these sorts of writings is that their task is to introduce the reader to a text in such a way that doesn't make them redundant; the very existence of any kind of extraneous introduction should immediately cause the reader to ask, "Well, why can't the story introduce itself?" (It's a little like going to a movie and seeing trailer of the movie that you're about to see. Of course, trailers are also known as "previews", i.e., see it before you see it.)

The most common solution for this dilemma is for the introductory writing to provide some sort of context or unique perspective on the text that you're about to read. This can be biographical information about the author, or the socio-historical context in which the piece was written, or, if it wants to be risky, some major themes for the reader to trace while she reads. In other words, background. But the preface has the added advantage of knowing that you can go back and re-read it after you have finished the main text, and then actually "get" what the author of the preface is trying to say. I remember the Foreword to Dostoevsky's Demons and not understanding a word of it, because the author was trying to talk about the political importance of the novel's end without telling me how it ended. Plus, he was always referring to the role of all these characters that I didn't know. But if I read the foreword afterwards, well, then it makes a lot more sense.

Back to the point: A movie trailer - and I mean the full, 2-minute spots that you see in theaters, not the 30-second small screen commercials - has the same burden of being an introduction to a piece that the audience has never seen before, but it also is an advertisement, and has the primary aim of getting butts in seats. On top of this, most trailers are made from footage of the movie for which they are advertising/ introducing. This means that a trailer has only two minutes to acquaint the audience with a two hour long movie, give them a sense of what the movie is about, and then convince them to pay go to see the entire movie when it comes out. And it has to do that using almost entirely borrowed material, with nothing in it that is actually original to it.

This strikes me as a kind of mission: impossible, and makes it all the more awesome when a trailer is actually able to accomplish all of these goals and still be able to stand on its own as an aesthetically pleasing piece. Take the three trailers that I linked to above. The first two follow pretty standard formulas. I recognize / enjoy Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich, et. al. I like movies by the Coen Brothers. Spy movies can be hilarious. I'm sold! A similar tact is made by "Blindness" - I recognize the cast, the movie has gotten good reviews, the basic plot point is easily articulated in less than sixty seconds. But the trailer for "Watchmen" takes a completely different route. It doesn't tell me who any of the actors or characters are. There's nothing about the plot. There are no assurances from the New York Times that it's good. All it gives me is the Smashing Pumpkins, lots of things on fire, and a giant, blue, naked, man. And yet, as a whole, it works. It plays on certain images and themes to "speak" for the film without taking away the film's voice. Super-powered humans, impending sense of apocalypse, the aesthetics of violence. And it does its job as a commercial because now I have to go see the damn movie to find out what it's about.

Post-Script: In full disclosure, I have read the graphic novel Watchmen and liked it, a lot. So maybe I would be more out to sea concerning the trailer if I was really coming at it from a blank slate. Also, I feel like the kind of trailer used for "Watchmen" increases the odds of the movie not living up to its own preview. I am pretty certain that "Burn After Reading" will be good (if not great) based solely on knowing the director and the cast. I don't have this assurance with "Watchmen." It reminds me of "300", (which has the same director as "Watchmen", Zack Snyder.) which got me so excited by the trailers. Then I went to go see the movie, and was like, "Oh. This is poorly written slop, at best, and morally corrupt propaganda, at worst." So there's an example of the trailer actually being better than the movie. But, as R.A. has pointed out to me, the author of "Watchmen", Alan Moore, is a crazy, anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist left wing nut (see: "V for Vendetta"), unlike the author of "300", Frank Miller, who's a crazy, anti-authoritarian, anti-papist right wing nut. (see: "Sin City")

Post Post-Script: If you think that I spend way too much time analyzing movie ads, check this out at Rotten Tomatoes.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Must We Mean What We Say? Part Two

I want to keep talking about this.

It seems like this New Yorker cover is one of a handful of incidents in this campaign (so far) that have caused a kind of violent reaction, or have provoked a public outcry that has (quite literally) shouted down the disturbance. The others that I would include in this group are Jeremiah Wright, Hillary Clinton mentioning the RFK assassination, and McCain's underling suggesting that a terrorist attack would benefit McCain's candidacy. There are others, probably, but those are the ones that stick out in my mind. And I think this because each of these instances have hit a nerve in the American public mind - in each of them there is at least a kernel of a truth that nobody really wants to address.

With the New Yorker cover, part of the problem is that what the artist is doing is merely re-iterating what a lot of people have already said about the Obamas. Like, I said, if this cartoon is satire, then it is bad satire because it's not adding anything novel to the conversation. But, furthermore, this cartoon has been a spark because it mocks people's beliefs without articulating what it is about those beliefs that deserve mocking.

The only analogy that I can think of is if a friend of mine admits to me, "I hate Muslims," and then I say (meaning it as a retort, or perhaps as some kind of refutation of his belief) "You hate Muslims." Perhaps I consider it as self-evident that someone shouldn't hate Muslims and that my friend is making a moral error when he says that he does, but this obviously isn't going to get us anywhere, let alone convince my friend that he is in the wrong. I'm merely repeating what he already said to me, and (maybe) insulting him in the process, depending on the tone of my voice.

And this is a very real and serious problem that needs to be dealt with. As evidence, check out (very, very quickly) The author of this post obviously thinks that (a) Islam is evil, and (b) Barack Obama is working to ensure the Muslim take over of the United States. This seems to be exactly the position that is being mocked and (unsuccessfully) satirized in the New Yorker. And I'm not saying that these positions shouldn't be mocked. I'm just questioning the effectiveness of the strategy of this cartoon.

So what? I mean, The New Yorker is a private institution, a member of the free press that publish what they want, right? They're definitely not obliged to tow Obama's line, right?

This April 1, 2008, USAToday poll found that "While a majority — 53% — identify Obama as a Christian, 16% of conservative Republicans, 16% of white evangelical Protestants and 19% of rural Americans believe the Illinois senator is Muslim." Is it a joke? I don't think so. A March 13, 2008 Wall Street Journal Poll showed that 13% of Americans believed that Obama is a Muslim. And, of course, you've got to love this:

But, in that case, shouldn't we be singing the praises of the New Yorker for having the courage to call out these voters, to expose their prejudices and mistaken beliefs?

Well, yes. If that's what I thought the New Yorker were doing. If it ends up helping
to dispel these Muslim rumors, then that can be counted as a positive outcome of this entire episode. But in what way is it helping to address anti-Islamic sentiment in
America? Or, for that matter, racism? I think that Kareem Shora, the Executive
Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said it very well in
the latest issue of the New Yorker:

But we should look past the noise about whether or not the cover is offensive, a red-
herring issue with fairly predictable responses on all sides, to the deeper questions:
Why is the label "Muslim" such a powerful and popular weapon against Obama? And what
should the Obama camp be doing, instead of denouncing a magazine cover?

Personally, I don't put much blame on the Obama camp. After all, they're just trying
to win an election. But as for the rest of us, well, we need to start coming up with
some better ways, be they satirical or not, of addressing these deeper questions.

And we haven't even begun to look at the figure on the other side of the cover!

P.S. - Remind me to start talking more about the Duck-Rabbit. It is lurking somewhere behind the scenes here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

5 Thoughts on a Thursday

1) I am still unemployed. Today marks two weeks since my German class ended, and I am still arbeitlos. Last week, I had an interview for a job with the UChicago Press. The interview, I think, actually went quite well, but at the end of it the man who was interviewing me said something that nobody fresh out of graduate school wants to hear: "Well, you're obviously qualified for the job, and seem like a wonderful person, but we've had so many strong applicants for this job." And this is for an administrative assistant job, too, not exactly the work that you need a Master's in Humanities for. Of course, I am still not sure what kind of work you DO need a Master's in Humanities for. Hopefully I'll be able to get back to you on that one soon.

2) On the other hand, unemployment has provided for the opportunity for me to catch up on some much needed work and errands. For example, in addition to writing in this blog (finally) I have also been able to read a little bit of Henry James, to e-mail some old friends and professors, do my exercises, work on my resume and cover letters, and, oh yes, spend hours online. Hours upon hours online. I read the New York Times, check up on the latest presidential poll numbers, go to my Facebook page, check all of my Facebook applications, go to, then to, then to, then to, and so on and so forth. You get the idea. So, my question is: Does anyone know of any way for me to ban myself from certain websites? (And then maybe forget the password or something?)

3) Also on the other hand (which I suppose ought to be the first hand) R.A. and I have a new apartment! Yes, we signed the papers yesterday to move up to the first floor of an old graystone house in Roscoe Village starting on September 1. Roscoe Village is pretty far north, and is chiefly populated by young, urban, professional couples who all either have dogs or very small children. Being that we're moving up there from Hyde Park, that may take while getting used to. However, what won't take getting used to are the hardwood floors, the dishwasher, the backyard, and the lack of drug using/ child abusing neighbors. (If you don't know, don't ask.)

4) I am a little disappointed in the way that the New Yorker Obama cover outrage has dissipated so quickly. I got the latest issue of the magazine in the mail today, and other than a few letters to the editor, there was no mention of the political implications of that cartoon. An issue with which I am still concerned is the New Yorker's defense that the illustration was not racist because it was intended to be racist. I think that is, at best, a shoddy defense, and completely underestimates the importance and the impact of this kind of politically motivated art. There is a larger conversation brewing here concerning the responsibilities and obligations that independent organizations like the New Yorker may or may not have to the broader political discourse, and it's a conversation that we should and will have. But all I want to say for now is that Goethe never intended for "The Sorrows of Young Werther" to cause a rash of suicides amongst the German gentry, but he apologized for it anyways and included a warning against suicide in the second edition of his novella.

5) "It is always irony to say something and yet not say it." - Søren Kierkegaard

Friday, July 18, 2008

How I Spend My Free Time

People who know me know at least two things about me:

1) I like to drink.

2) I have a bizarre obsession with coming up with games that have strangely intricate and unnecessarily complicated rules. I'm sure that my parents remember coming into my room to call me down for dinner only to find me kneeling in the middle of my floor, surrounded by pages and pages of un-lined computer paper, each page filled from top to bottom with (to what them must have seemed like) random words and numbers usually scribbled in #2 pencil.

"Watcha doing, Joel?"
"Umm.... nothing. I'll be down in a minute."

It wasn't that I didn't want to tell anyone what I was doing, it was just that it would take so long to explain that I had "invented" a new sport called Deathball that was roughly a combination of rugby and polo if polo were played on various carnivorous mammals instead of horses and that, after a grueling overtime victory against Kenya, French Guyana had an outside chance at winning their group and advancing to elimination play if only Ukraine can score an upset win over powerhouse Mongolia. (They were the first to play the game back in 1258 after the sack of Baghdad.) See? I bet that even you at this point are inclined to say, "Uh-huh. That's great, Joel. I have to go put on the water for the pasta, now. You have fun."

This habit of mine has gone through various permutations over the years, but it has never really gone away. Partially, it is a substitution for video games, as the last system that I actually bought was a Sega Saturn, and that I haven't actually been able to use a controller since Sega Genesis. (Who needs all those buttons, anyways? Does XBox really have to have an L1 and an L2?) But it is also a way for me to channel my particular brand of OCD and other neurotic tendencies. Yeah, I could stay up all night worrying about the effects of Global Warming. Or I could stay up all night deciding whether or not Rousseau can hang on to defeat Descartes in Ultimate Philosopher Championship in order to win the French Division and advance to meet either Locke or Hume in the prestigious Elizabeth's Cup. You tell me which is better for my mental health and longevity.

Occasionally, others have gotten involved with these games, or at least been made aware of them. For example, in college there was the iTunes Game. The rules were simple: I would put my iTunes on random shuffle, and each time a song got played, it got 2 points. If I skipped a song, it would lose a point. And if I absolutely had to listen to a song at that moment and broke the randomization in order to play it, it got 3 points. I would keep track of the scores on a spreadsheet and at the end of six weeks, the top 24 songs would compete against each other in a single elimination tournament. Simple, right? Well, as it turned out, a little too simple. Eventually, my friends started to figure this out and started to mess with my rankings! (And hence, my ability to sleep at night.) I would go to the bathroom and come back to discover that Heavy Metal James had played "Kill You Tonight" by Type 0 Negative, like, five times. Or that 'Viva had gone through the shuffle mix and removed all of the Modest Mouse songs because she was rooting for Daft Punk's "Around the World" to make the Final 24. After that, I decided to make my private games much more convoluted, esoteric, and arbitrary in order to make it that much harder for other people to understand them, and, therefore, mess with them.

I tell you all these things because sometimes the internets provide me with new opportunities to invent games, opportunities that I never would have come up with on my own. On they have the "Presidential Election Electoral Vote Tracker" that "gives you historical election data and lets you look at possible outcomes for the 2008 election. Create various scenarios, save your choices and send them to a friend." Basically, it's a map of the United States with each state designated with the number of electoral votes it gets this Fall. You (!) get to color in each state according to who you think will carry it in November, thus have power to create a near infinite number of different electoral outcomes. (I've found 2 so far that result in perfect 269-269 ties.)

Of course, I've taken this several steps further and created numerous other games with this map. How about some Electoral Tic-Tac-Toe? Or how about trying to see if you can get Obama to win without having any of his states actually touch each other? (I can get him to tie, but not to win.) I've also played a little bit of Electoral College Risk, where every large state gets to "invade" the smaller, weaker states around it. Hell, why not try recreating the Civil War. Could the South win today with all the huge electoral power of retired Jews and Cubans in Florida? Try it out for yourself and see! The possibilities are endless!

What's my point, you ask? Well, none, really. Except that this game is awesome. Oh, and this fact: If Obama can carry every state that has voted Democratic since 1992 plus one big one or two or three smaller ones, he will win the Presidency. That may be a rather big "if" in that sentence, but at this point it is looking good. According to as of today, Obama has 312 votes to McCain's 199. Sure, the election is a long ways off, but you should play that vote tracker game for yourself. (The actual one, not the one's that I made up. Unless you want to.) I think you will find it really hard to come up with a realistic way for McCain to win a victory. (Short of the expert opinion of Obama being suddenly eaten by giant pill bugs.)

And while you're doing that, I'll be busy trying to find a way to pitch the video game version of "Ultimate Philosopher Championship" to Sony for exclusive use on the PlayStation 3.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Must We Mean What We Say?

I went to get a haircut the other day (the German word for haircut is der Haarschnitt! Isn't that great? You can almost hear the scissors going schnitt schnitt schnitt!) when the song "Ironic," by Alanis Morissette, came on the radio. "Hmmm," I thought to myself (schnitt schnitt schnitt) "This is a song I haven't heard in a while." And so I started listening to it, and actually paying attention to the lyrics, and then I realized that this song wasn't about irony at all. It was more just a list of things that suck.

For example, "a black fly in your Chardonnay" is not irony. It just means that you need a new glass of wine. And "rain on your wedding day"? It may rhyme with Chardonnay, but if you think that that's ironic, then it probably means that you hired a very bad wedding planner who didn't order enough tents. The worst is probably a "traffic jam when you're already late". These are not instances of irony. They're minor annoyances.

Irony, on the other hand, entails (on some level) the distinction between what is and what ought to be. A successful application of it sets up all of the parameters for a situation in order to make you expect a certain outcome, but then it pulls the rug out from under your feet at the last minute by showing how all of these parameters actually lead to this other, unexpected conclusion. (A conclusion that is usually the opposite of what was expected.) Most importantly, irony - along with its mitlaufer satire - is supposed to show something that you thought you knew or understood or otherwise had figured out in a new light, so that you say to yourself (hand on forehead) "Ohmygod! I had never realized this truth about this thing that I encounter every single day before!"

For example, being told that "none of woman born shall harm" you and then getting skewered by a dude who was born via C-section, that's ironic. Being invited to your brother's palace for a feast only to find out after the fact that he fed you your own sons? Also ironic. But that "free ride, that you've already paid"? That's not ironic. That's just not paying attention to all of those signs that say, "Free Ride." (But, then again, signs can be tricky.)

I don't really mean to be hating on Alanis Morissette so much. I just feel that it's important to be able to distinguish between what is irony and what isn't. Especially in this day and age, when I feel like I hear the phrase, "Oh yeah? Well you can just go to Hell!... Wait, we're you being ironic?" more than I ought to. Irony is especially big among a certain demographic with which I share class, race, and education level. But most importantly, as it turns out, all of these considerations came to a head two days ago when this little drawing hit the internets:

Oh, yeah baby. You know you want to see it again. This image, as I'm sure you all know, has caused quite a stir. A dust-up. A hullabaloo, one might say. (German: das Tohuwabohu.) Detractors of the image claim that it is racist, sexist, fear-mongering, and generally in bad taste. (Which is a whole-nother issue that needs to be addressed.) It's defenders, on the other hand, claim that:
Anyone with an ounce of wit and a passing acquaintance with what's been going on during this presidential campaign will recognize Blitt's illustration as a compendium of the various false and defamatory allegations about the Obamas that have been spread across the Internet in what amounts to the cyber-spatial equivalent of an old-fashioned whispering campaign...
Or that the "Barack Obama magazine flap shows an irony deficiency". (Footnote: There should be a law against referencing maybe the highest form of comedy, irony, using probably the lowest form of comedy, a pun.) Or this, which, I think, is at the heart of the matter:
The fact is, it's not a satire about Obama - it's a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama.
My problem with this cartoon isn't that it is dangerously ironic or that it might (ironically) backfire and that large swathes of the population might not be in on the joke and therefore might think that the New Yorker is really saying that Obama is a Muslim and that Michelle Obama is a Black Panther. Most people, according to Timothy Egan, get that it's not a satire about Obama. Rather, the problem seems to be that it is just a bad example of satire. There's nothing new or clever in it. It doesn't have that enlightening, often times crushingly tragic, moment of realization that is the trademark of all good irony. The New Yorker's cartoon is more like those Seltzer and Freidberg movies that (and I am paraphrasing Rotten Tomatoes here) can't tell the difference between satirizing something and merely referencing it. The way I see it, the real crime of this picture is simply that it's not funny. All I see it doing is re-stating lies that have already been said, only maybe a little louder and cruder, in a way that completely misses the reason for and purpose of irony.

And it ought to be added to the list of things that suck.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Adventures in Plumbing

The water in our apartment building is being turned off today. They do this to us quite often, ostensibly because they are doing repairs on the building's plumbing, but I suspect that it is really a subtle form of psychological warfare/ conditioning. Their plan is to slowly wean us off of our dangerous dependence on running water. One day, I am sure, the water just won't come back on, but we will blissfully carry on with our lives, and the property managers will save all that money.

Usually, not having running water during the day is not big deal, because you're really supposed to be at work. Work, however, is the curse of the drinking class, and I for one refuse to be a part of it. Unfortunately, this means that I have been hanging around the apartment all day with the water turned off. This wasn't really a problem (showering is for chumps)until after my second cup of coffee....

So I'm sitting here, starting to gently rock back and forth, and wondering what's the worse that could happen if I used the cat's litter box, when this terrible whooosh starts coming from the bathroom. The toilet is running again! I'm saved! And by running, I mean it is in a perpetual state of flushing. Not wasting any time, I quickly squat over the raging Charybdis in my toilet bowl. It tickled, kinda like a bidet. Finished and satisfied, I return to the living room to promptly blog about my last bowel movement.

But then something terrible starts to happen. The toilet doesn't stop. It keeps going, and going. And it's leaking. And then I realize that I have no means of turning the toilet off. I call the manager's office.

"Help! My toilet is trying to kill me!"
"We're working on the pipes today sir. Your water will be turned off for most of the day. You should have gotten a notice under your door."
"The water being off is not my problem. I would love it if the water were off."
"Oh... Would you like me to fill out a work order?"

We filled out a work-order to have one of our bedroom doors fixed last September. We're still waiting.

"No! I need someone to turn off the water to my apartment! My bathroom is starting to flood!"
"Calm down, sir. They'll be working on the water all day today. Would you like me to fill out a work-order?"
"No! Are you even listening to me? And why is there no valve for me to turn the water to my toilet off?"
"I don't know, sir. I can fill out a work-order and have someone look at it for you."

I considered my options.

"Yes, please. I would love for you to fill a work-order. Thank you. That's very kind of you."

So now I'm running into the bathroom every few minutes, mopping up the floor, moving everything off the tilefloor or out of the room, and looking for my lifejacket. And waiting for the work-order to come through.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Bow Down to Our New Monkey-Robot Overlords!

I know that I've been slacking lately on the whole blogging thing, but here's something that caught my eye a while ago and I've been wanting very badly to share:

Monkeys Control a Mechanical Arm with Their ThoughtsLink

If nothing else, this article ought to win a prize for best headline ever.