Wednesday, August 19, 2020

2015's Fantastic Four: Another Look

I recall being, if not pleasantly surprised, then at least intrigued by Josh Trank's Fantastic Four when I first saw it. There were aspects I was dubious about--the young adult turn in the characterizations, for one, and the inconsistency of the tone--and yet there were others that did interest me.

On a recent (if casual) reviewing of the film I was more impressed by those aspects, not least the film's handling of the scientific research at the heart of the story. The film does make concessions to silly, outworn Edisonade convention in having a high school student working with scavenged junk happen on a key part of the solution to the problem of interdimensional travel. But afterward the film displays, to a far, far greater degree than most of what comes out of Hollywood, a striking awareness, and acknowledgment, of the realities of Big Science. Its agendas and politics, which have the Suits, not the scientists, calling the shots. And the reality that science is not nerd-magic, but a lot of hard work--collaborative, protracted, at times grueling hard work that builds on the bits of the puzzle others have solved, most of that by people unlikely to get any of the glory.

Such things, small as they seem, are rare enough and significant enough that they appear to me to rate an honorable mention.

A Techno-Thriller Revival?

In writing my history of the military techno-thriller I was concerned principally with the main line of the genre--its early flickerings dating back to the seventeenth century; its coalescence into the "invasion story" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; after the shock of World War I and its aftermath convinced many that war could only mean universal calamity, its giving way to other genres it helped inspire--spy fiction, military science fiction, post-apocalyptic war fiction, "war scare" fiction; and then by way of those remnants, the revival of the old-style invasion story in the 1970s and 1980s (begun by British writers like Frederick Forsyth, Craig Thomas, John Hackett, but most identified with Tom Clancy); before the end of the Cold War turned that boom to bust.

As a result my book handled the post-Cold War period as an epilogue to the main story. Today, however, the world appears a far more aggressive place than it did a decade ago, let alone two decades ago.

Even the '90s, of course, were not without their share of crises--the Norwegian rocket incident, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the NATO-Russia confrontation at Pristina airport--yet today it seems the blood is actually flowing at a lengthening list of flashpoints where armies that once upon a time would not have fought each other are doing just that. The war in Ukraine is not over. In Syria, in Libya, NATO member Turkey and Russia are engaging in regular shooting incidents, while that same NATO government engages in hostilities with Greece and confronts the French(!) at sea. Scarcely a year after India's exchanging air strikes with Pakistan for the first time in nearly a half century (this, they avoided even in the 1999 war), Chinese and Indian troops have fought in the Himalayas (with clubs and rocks?), while China for its part remains at odds with its neighbors over its claims in the East and South China Sea.

Meanwhile everyone is chasing military capabilities and overseas bases they did not think they needed a short time ago. Not long ago most sat out the fifth generation of fighters, making do with older gear--but now everyone wants in on the sixth, while hypersonic cruise missiles may be the object of a new arms race (one perhaps responsible for a mysterious nuclear explosion in northern Russia). Britain is deploying its first full-deck carriers begun since the '40s, while German opinion-makers talk about having a carrier too (and maybe much else). There are even hints of a revival of conscription, thus far limited to smaller nations like Sweden and Peru, but Sweden's action is strongly linked with the elevated fear of war in northeastern Europe, while the French President, who has continued what for that country is an extraordinarily large-scale and long-duration mission in Mali (compare this to its post-Algeria record of African interventions), gives the impression of inching toward the same in his country . . .

It feels as if we are living in a Tom Clancy universe these days. Or, rather, a Dale Brown universe. (Yes, Turkish super-drones attacking Russian mercenaries in Libya feels more Dale Brown.)

Does this portend a revival of the genre? I, for one, doubt it. If scenarios of high-tech, conventional, military conflict look more plausible now than before it should be remembered that the readiness of a broad audience to consider discussion of the "next big war" as relevant is one thing, that audience's readiness to accept the depiction of a war as entertainment is another. Where the appeal of such is concerned it seems most susceptible in a moment where that audience has had a comparative respite from war, some years without what it thinks of as a really major conflict, at least, with decades better still. (It is worth remembering that the techno-thriller emerged as a popular genre not in the 1940s or 1950s or 1960s, but in the late 1970s and only really took off in the 1980s, many, many years after the end of Vietnam.) Of course, this is something audiences in America and the West generally cannot be said to have had, and very clearly would like to have had. Indeed, even the political right gives an impression of weariness of foreign war, especially when one gets away from the professional hawks to which the media gives so much press. (One might add that the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq has been a very different thing from the withdrawal from Vietnam, with less division in the U.S., less anti-militarism, and at the same no desire for some kind of "redemption" on the part of the right that we identify with "post-Vietnam" evident or even plausible, diminishing the interest in an imaginary "refighting" of the conflict.)

The public seems more open to the genre, too, when at least part of it is being led to believe that a big war is somehow thinkable, somehow winnable. This attitude never wholly recovered from the world wars, with the result that the two defining big war novels of the techno-thriller revival--Hackett's book, and Clancy's Red Storm Rising--had to come up with a dodge to let the West get the upper hand without the conflict going all-out nuclear. I see no evidence of such a mood these days. Rather than the '80s I think a better analogy would be the '30s in this, as in so many other ways.

So people may be thinking about the danger of war more than before--but not in such a way that I see them making a bestseller out of some latterday Tom Clancy. In fact, I wonder if the H.G. Wells tradition would not find a stronger echo--save for the fact that I imagine the mandarins of Park Avenue to be exceedingly averse to publishing a work of the type.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Remembering The Pretender

Watching The Pretender it seemed that pretty much nothing about the show made sense--not that I expected much from a network TV show at that time--while I suspected an essential vacuity behind the opaqueness and the teasing. (Remember, these were the years of the original run of The X-Files.)

What was the Center? A think tank we were told--apparently a think tank that centered on the intellection of one captive savant. (The writers seemed to make up the biogenetic bits of intrigue--clones and the rest--just as they went along, with this suddenly becoming more important as the season finale approached, and then once renewal happened, receding into the background . . .)

And of course, that particular savant never made much sense, least of all in his abilities. "Genius" was an extreme understatement for what he was, even by the risible "dumb person's idea of a genius" standard to which TV adheres. He seemed instead a realization of the Faustian (I mean Goethe here, not Marlowe) will to do everything, know everything, go everywhere--as Gary Stu/Mary Sue as a figure gets. Between one episode and the next he was able to master a skill, a trade, a profession to which people devote entire lifetimes (pilot today, symphony conductor tomorrow, surgeon the next week), while having the time to contrive the fake paper trail and other deceptions necessary to pass himself off as really what he appeared to be--all with his brain not functioning as a palimpsest, with one set of skills displacing another, but one set of abilities added to the next without loss of what he had previously acquired so that his repertoire had him walking about with the equivalent of the capacities of hundreds of world-class experts of the most diverse types in his head all at once.

Of course, that complicated the writing of the show somewhat. The protagonist was in new surroundings, performing different tasks, surrounded by different people in pretty much every episode, pretending to be a different man with a different history--while he was somebody who didn't have a conventional past to begin with, making him harder to establish even as a Fugitive-type character. (It was, of course, one reason why the episodes spent so much showing what the folks back at the Center--pretty much his only consistent acquaintances--were doing.)

Still, the writers knew enough not to make him a tedious, egomaniacal mass of quirks like so many of their "geniuses"--while also being astute enough to make his eccentricities elicit amusement and sympathy rather than grate (delight in some pleasure of which he had been deprived by the Center growing up--like ice cream). They did this the more easily because he was essentially written as a sympathetic, empathetic human being.

That little lesson, I think, TV writers have since forgotten.

Reflections on Independence Day: Resurgence

According to the data set over at in 1996 Independence Day opened with a then-record $96 million July 4 extended weekend (five-day) gross. That made it #1 at the box office, of course, a position it held for the next two weekends, then held on to the #2 spot for the two weekends after that, and stayed in the top five for two more, on the way to banking $300 million, a sum which made it the top-earning movie of a very vigorous summer movie season, and a very good year for Hollywood overall (which, not incidentally, launched Will Smith's long career as a sci-fi action star).

In 2016 the sequel Independence Day: Resurgence pulled in a mere $41 million, putting it at #2, and was down to the #5 spot a week later, after which it continued a fairly quick plummet through the rankings. At the end of its run it had about $103 million banked, which, in inflation-adjusted terms, is a good deal less than the original made in just its first five days, and under a quarter of that movie's overall gross. The result was that it barely made the #27 spot for the year, just ahead of the far lower-budgeted horror movie The Conjuring 2.

In short, it could not but be considered a disappointment in light of the original's massive success, and for that matter, its massive $165 million budget--without at the same time gaining a measure of cult-y success.

That failure, of course, does not seem to require much explanation. The second Independence Day movie was a sequel, arrived long after the original had passed from the very short pop cultural memory of most--the more so because of the kind of movie it was. In 1996, when we had about a half dozen really big would-be blockbusters that summer, most of them quite different (the others were Dragonheart, The Rock, Eraser, the first Mission: Impossible and Twister), Independence Day was something we hadn't seen before--the subject matter at least as old as H.G. Wells, but the handling of the spectacle still something that stood out with its grandiosely CGI-powered depiction of a massive alien attack on Earth's major cities.

Now it's entirely standard.

Due to the genre's scaling up, and going science fiction-al in the process, every action movie is now likewise a disaster movie--and a monster movie, and an alien invasion movie in some way or other--any "respectable" CGI-packed tentpole apt to have otherworldly creatures wrecking the core of at least one major city before the end credits (as was the case in the same year's X-Men Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, Superman vs. Batman and Ghostbusters, to say nothing of the city-busting we saw in Rogue One). As with so many prior action movie phenomena--James Bond, Star Wars--what was once special about the movie became routine, except that it never really acquired the kind of brand name that a film franchise could go on trading on after it has ceased to be fresh and new (the dashing of which hope is all too evident when one looks at the closing scenes, and their desperate laying of groundwork for a third movie that is almost certain to not happen).

It did not help that ID: Resurgence was, in spite of some dazzling effects, a fairly mediocre example of the type, in a far more crowded season--which promptly saw it shoved out of the way by other, more vigorous movies, through the rest of the summer and after it, and then in the next year.

In fact you probably already forgot all about it until I mentioned it just now, didn't you? (I know I did until recently happening on it when flipping channels.)

Why Does Everyone on American TV Know How to Use Chopsticks?

Watching TV these days one gets the impression that all Americans are adroit users of chopsticks. Suspecting this to be, to put it mildly, a gross exaggeration, I went looking for data on the subject.

An item at Statista claims that, based on self-reporting (people answered the question "How good are you at using chopsticks?"), 4 percent of Americans are "expert," 11 percent "very good," and another 19 percent "fair."

By contrast 43 percent are "not very good" or "terrible," and 24 percent say they have never even tried to use them.

Let us accept these numbers as a starting point in the absence of better. Considering them my guess would be that, because this is a matter of self-reporting, people overstate their proficiency--and even with that just one in three claims to be fair or better at chopstick use, meaning at least two-thirds are less than comfortable with them, with a quarter never having handled them at all.

Why does TV give such a different impression? Barring some deliberate effort to master these utensils as an end in itself, the vast majority of Americans, especially in the absence of especially strong exposure to East and Southeast Asian culture due to personal heritage or travel, or very close connections with people who have had that, are probably only likely to learn chopstick use in the course of frequently going to restaurants serving East Asian cuisine, and there specifically insisting on learning to use the associated utensils--something far more likely for affluent (not the 1 percent necessarily, but at least the top 10 percent) residents of big coastal cities than working class folks, and especially working class people from rural, small-town, provincial areas. This seems all the more plausible given the extraordinary snobbery with which Americans have surrounded some aspects of such dining, for example, sushi consumption (in stark contrast with the very different Japanese tradition).

In short, it seems to me a matter of exactly that subject which remains anathema not just to the right but much of the "left," socioeconomic disparity and social class--and in this case, the social class background of the people who write for TV, and the kind of characters they happen to put on TV (overwhelmingly, affluent coastal types).

Do I think that the hacks in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue are deliberately signaling social class when they casually pack the screen with adroit chopstick use, however? The way that, for example, they so often present characters whom they wish to impress us as not just our social and economic superiors but also our cultural and intellectual superiors by having them play the piano with concert performer proficiency, or fence like masters (a visual shorthand that, condescending from the start, is now painfully cliched)?

Of that I am more doubtful. I take it, instead, as simply another reflection of the extreme cluelessness of the hyper-privileged of medialand about the existence of anything outside their painfully cramped little world.

Why Is There So Much Talk About NEETs in Japan?

I remember being introduced to the concept of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) when watching Welcome to the NHK.

Later I was surprised to find that the concept was not Japanese, but actually originated in Margaret Thatcher's Britain.

I was surprised again when I found out that Japan is remarkable not for a particularly high percentage of NEETs, but perhaps as low a percentage as they get next to any other country. The World Bank actually has the International Labor Organization's data for the "Share of youth not in education, employment or training total"--in short, the share of the country's youth who are NEETs--up online here. Japan's last recorded figure was 2.9 percent--compared to the 11.5 percent average for the "high income" countries, and the 28.3 percent figure for "lower middle income" countries. (For the obvious reason that poorer countries have fewer jobs to go round and more limited education systems, high proportions of NEETs tend to go with poverty, not wealth, and things are generally worse there that way than in the richer nations.) The U.S. figure is 13.1 percent, and in Italy, in exceptionally bad shape by First World standards, it is 18 percent, six times as high as the Japanese figure--but probably without six times as much talk about the issue. (In Britain, the home of the concept, the figure is 10.5 percent, three and a half times as high as Japan's, in spite of which, so far as I can tell, I cannot remember a single reference to NEETs in British news media or British pop culture, for whatever that may be worth.)

One might wonder if Japanese official statistics do not underreport the problem. Still, I am unaware of any evidence that Japan is going so much further on this count than other states, hardly less inclined to play such games, and so for the moment I will take it at face value, raising the question of just why all the fuss? One possibility that comes to mind is that right-wingers looking for scapegoats for the failure of their economic policies in other countries, while certainly quick to slander and libel young people as playing video games in their mom's basement all day, have a greater abundance of other targets for their venom. They can also slander and libel minorities, immigrants and ethnic Others generally as the source of their nation's woes. However Japan's comparative ethnic homogoneity, insular geographic position, and historically tight immigration policies mean less in the way of such options for those pursuing such a political line. (The Ainu and Ryukyuan peoples together comprise about 0.4 percent of the Japanese population. And fewer than 2 percent are foreign born. By contrast the population of Britain in 2011 contained some 12 percent or so in the minority category, while about 13 percent of the country was foreign-born.)

It might be added that the sense of Otherness in Japan's case in relation to the great majority of its minorities and foreign-born residents is, compared with many other nations, slighter for their overwhelmingly being from neighboring Asian countries, and often, ethnic Japanese from the Japanese communities in South American countries like Brazil. It seems worth noting, too, that Japanese right-wingers, like their counterparts elsewhere, are inclined to claim that, whatever one says about other people's imperialism, theirs was uplifting, and point to countries they colonized like Korea and Taiwan--the very countries from which so many of their immigrants come--as success stories testifying to the beneficence of their rule. And this, of course, makes claptrap about those "lazy, backward" Others and their "s---hole countries" less tenable. The result is still plenty of xenophobia in all its ugliness--but not much of a basis for its utilization in "foreigners are ruining our economy" scapegoating.

One result is that when it comes to the slowing of the nation's economic progress (these days, it should be admitted, not really so much worse than anyone else's; the twenty-first century has everybody hurting this way), the young catch that much more of the flak.

The Hikikomori Phenomenon: A Sociological View
The Hikikomori and the Lost Decade That Never Ended

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