Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Why "Expect the Unexpected" is Such a Stupid Saying

I have long disliked the saying "Expect the unexpected."

It seems I am not completely alone in this dislike. But I am, for the moment, concerned with my particular dislike of the saying.

One might as well start with the saying's origins--in a line from a play by Oscar Wilde, specifically the quip "To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect" in An Ideal Husband.

As those familiar with Wilde's work know, his stock in trade is the sort of ironic remark that made pretentious Victorians titter in their salons.

It can be very annoying. And certainly it made me annoyed with the mere mention of him. Of course, eventually I came to appreciate there was more to him than just the irony-mongering, that he did often have real insights to offer. But it was in his irony-mongering mode that Wilde was in when he wrote that line.

As a piece of Wildean irony-for-its-own-sake (of which, again, I am no fan) I think the line is just fine (if a bit shopworn and trite after so much usage).

The real problem is when--let us call them what they are, idiots--treat that saying, the provenance of which they are likely to be completely ignorant, as if it were some thoughtful, deep, meaningful, useful, actionable piece of advice (I think we can all think of examples--and if you can't, you shouldn't have any problem digging them up; just Google it and see what you get), because it is the furthest thing from that. Anyone with the most basic command of the English language should understand that by definition cannot "expect the unexpected" (or, at the very least, endeavor to offer witticisim when meaningful, useful, actionable advice is what is called for), with the result that judged by that standard the straight-faced repetition of that saying as if it were meaninfgul advice cannot be deemed anything but a confession of stupidity on the part of the speaker.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Of Hecklers, Heckling, Critics--and Bullies

I recall stumbling upon Jamie Kennedy's documentary Hecklers way back when it first hit cable.

To put it mildly it was an imperfect work that did not put Kennedy himself in a particularly good light. The title of the film also gave the impression that he did not know how to use simply words correctly. The reason is that hecklers are not just any critic, even abusive critics. Rather they are people whose criticism disrupts the performance. Many of those who appeared in the documentary (stand-up comedians like Lewis Black) really were in positions where one might be heckled, and gave their thoughts about it, but the bad reviews of a movie, published after the movie was wrapped up, do not qualify under that definition.

Still, recalling the film does set me thinking about artists, critics and why the enmity of the former toward the latter can be so intense. This is not simply a matter of how no one likes being criticized, or how artists may be more sensitive than others, or how their work is more personal than it is for someone doing workaday "alienated" labor for the money and nothing else, or the public nature of the criticism that would make it an appalling breach of civility in actual life, even if these factors are not irrelevant.

Rather what seems most important is the extreme imbalance between the two where the stakes are concerned, and where the matter of power is concerned. The artist's livelihood is on the line--and vulnerable to negative reviews, which may have a disproportionate effect relative to positive ones. At the same time the critic is likely to have nothing on the line, and indeed, to be virtually unaccountable for anything they say or write. The fact is galling enough with even the most fair-minded negative review--and much, much worse when the review is abusive, as negative reviews so often are. After all, it is in the sad, ugly nature of bullying that authority and society give the bully a pass, and judge the victim for reacting instead. (Critics' meanness can always be passed off as simply "in the line of duty," while public opinion tells their victims that they "need a thicker skin.")

Few critics wholly escape the temptation to take advantage of that position throughout the entirely of their careers--many embrace the opportunity, in fact--and as a result artists are likely to suffer this as a common experience. (Some artists may be more vulnerable than others. There is a big difference between the lot of a nearly untouchable longtime superstar, and someone at only the beginning of their career, for example, or in only a marginal place in their profession--but no one is really immune, and those to whom life has been kind can be all the touchier for it.) And I suspect that the extreme reactions we sometimes see on the part of artists to critics reflects that--people who have been bullied, perhaps a great deal for a long time, reacting, rightly or wrongly, to what they perceive as more of the same.

A Place in the Sun?

I read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy some time before coming to George Stevens' famous adaptation of the film. The book was, and has remained, a literary touchstone for me, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Karamazov Brothers, or Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, or Honore de Balzac's Pere Goriot and Cousin Bette.

Naturally I had high expectations for the film--the more in as it was so well-received in its day, and so much of the criticism since has been of the hypocritically sneering "Movies shouldn't have any social comment in them" varieties (from persons who, invariably, applaud movies that contain comment of which they approve; it's not "comment" unless it's someone else's comment). The distaste of people who engage in that kind of stupid hypocrisy is, for me, practically a seal of approval.

Alas, when I actually did see the film I found it a deep disappointment, and predictably so. The entire book before the arrival of the protagonist (Clyde Griffiths has been renamed George Eastman) in town to take a job with his wealthy relations--the whole of Book One and early portions of Book Two, a hugely formative, and frighteningly powerful, near-fifth of the novel--are simply excised, reference to their events reduced to a few hints later in the movie. As might be guessed given the movie's being made in the days of the Motion Picture Code, the crisis into which the protagonist is thrust by his girlfriend's pregnancy is treated in highly censored fashion. Far more problematic, Dreiser's unrelenting naturalism is compromised by the transformation of his relationship with the rich socialite (Sondra Finchley is now Angela Vickers) into a "romance," which, especially light of the excision of the earlier material, makes that part of the drama more central and leaving less room for the social panorama that gave the book such force. It is even the case that the bleakness, the horror, of the aftermath of the death at the center of the book, in which the hero is not damned for what he is but what he is not, is considerably blunted.

David Walsh has called Dreiser "arguably this country's greatest novelist" and An American Tragedy "the greatest work of fiction ever produced in this country", not implausibly, and it deserved a film worthy of it. Sadly A Place in the Sun is not it--though in fairness I am not sure that a two or even three hour movie could ahev done it justice. Perhaps in this day and age of 10-part prestige projects it would have a chance--but I would not hold my breath for a contemporary version which would get the adaptation of this extraordinary work right. It is simply too remote from the concerns animating contemporary "prestige TV."

But maybe there is hope for a Korean version. After all, Korean producers seem to be more willing to back this kind of thing these days, and find audiences for it, even as the cultural mandarins at the likes of the New York Times sneer . . .

Friday, April 22, 2022

Who is Allowed to Think of Themselves as a Writer?

When one reads about publishing one every so often runs into some statistic claiming that there are x number of writers--as in "writers of books for the general market"--in the country.

"How do they decide that?" one may wonder. As a glance at web sites like Inkitt, or even the offerings on Amazon, show, a great deal of activity and a great many people are left out. One may work at their writing, produce something, get it out there. However, even if they put in the hours, produce work of genuine professional quality, and look to their writing for their incomes--and even find paying customers, maybe as much as some of those "in the club" do (if more because of how poorly even they are doing these days)--they are generally not recognized as writers, the label overwhelmingly reserved for the very few whose names appear on the cover of books published by traditional presses, especially big New York presses. The distinction has nothing as such to do with "talent" or "hard work" (many of the most prominent "writers" write nothing at all, not only politicians and celebrities whose books are ghostwritten for them, but those actual "authors" who "somehow" have their names on the covers of six or seven fat new books a year), but rather, no matter how much the sneering, snarling elitists pretend otherwise, access to the small, closed world of Park Avenue and its suburbs to which what their generally public school-educated British counterparts would call "the plebs" simply have no entree.

You can see the exclusivity reflected in the articles and books that claim to be coming from a place of sympathy for writers in this age in which the price of "information" has plummeted even as the price of everything else just keeps going up. When they talk about protecting the interests of writers they don't mean all those people working on their craft, they mean the handful of folks in the club, whether actually writing or only pretending to be writers when hawking their mass-marketable garbage in the media--while everyone else is not merely ignored, but seen as part of the problem. Studiously ignoring all the economic, technological, cultural changes that are making it harder for writers to earn a living (like, you know, the plain and simple fact that the public in the age of the smart phone, streaming and Wi-fi everywhere all the time has so much more access to other kinds of entertainment all the time), they prefer to fixate on those plebs who refuse to "know their place," respect the industry gatekeepers who told them to forget ever having a career without ever even looking at their submissions, and keep their writing in the drawer rather than going the self-publishing route.

Considering the lot of most writers, and how they get treated, not only by the world at large but by their fellow writers, and above all that small "professional" club, I find myself remembering that bit in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-house Five when Billy Pilgrim comes face to face with Vonnegut's longtime recurring character, Kilgore Trout. Billy asks Trout if he is Kilgore Trout "the writer." Trout is honestly, literally, confused by the question about there being a "writer named Kilgore Trout" at all, let alone that writer being him. Vonnegut explains that the reaction was a result of the fact that Trout "did not think of himself as a writer for the simple reason that the world had never allowed him to think of himself in this way."

So it goes for the vast majority of us who have ever put their thoughts to paper, even when what we have put down finds its way to a readership--and it seems to me that there is a great injustice in that.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Of Elaine May and Mike Nichols

Considering the career of Elaine May and especially the setback--and indeed, kind of setback--Ishtar dealt her career I find myself thinking of her old comedy partnership with Mike Nicholas, and what Andrew Sarris famously said of him very early on in his career (way back in 1968). "No American director since Orson Welles had started off with such a bang"--he was speaking here of that classic, The Graduate--"but Welles . . . followed his own road, and that made all the difference. Nichols seems too shrewd ever to get off the main highway. His is the cinema and theatre of complicity."

So did it seem in the late '80s. In the same years in which it would seem that a dislike of its politics fed into the significantly exaggerated and undeserved blowback against Ishtar Nichols, after satirizing conformist careerism with "Plastics, Benjamin," followed that main highway through its hundred and eighty degree turn to exalt Wall Street careerism in Working Girl, with Carly Simon singing a benediction over it as the New Jerusalem as the final credits roll (Why does no one get how weird this was?), to a far, far friendlier reception than Ishtar got. And then when, for what was ultimately to be his final directorial credit, Nichols turned his hand to a big screen comedy about covert action in the Greater Middle East the result was Charlie Wilson's War--a very different sort of thing, which also got a friendlier reception from the critics (even if, where audiences were concerned, one not as friendly as its backers seem to have hoped). Thus does Sarris' criticism of Nichols stand a half century on--not only in contrast with Welles, but with May, whom it seems found a milieu even less friendly to going one's own way than Welles did in the years of William Randolph Hearst's rage, studio boss control, and the blacklist.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Foundation vs. Robot: Reflections on Science and Story

After recently returning to the Foundation novels I have found myself thinking about the parallels between these and Asimov's other most famous sequence, his Robot stories and novels. In particular there is the way they both concern the explicability of behavior in rational terms--indeed, quantifiable terms (psychohistory, robopsychology working from the Three Laws of Robotics)--and the possibility of experts using the knowledge of the relevant principles (psychohistorians like Hari Seldon and his successor, robopsychologists like Susan Calvin) to channel the behavior of their objects of their interest (human masses, robots) in a constructive direction (the resurrection of civilization, the rendering of robots more reliable tools).

In making plots of this theme the Robot stories tend to hew more closely to the framework of the "tale of ratiocination"--the "scientific" detective story. Thus do they tend to feature a protagonist confronted with anomalous behavior on the part of robots, requiring explanation and modification, a process the readers get to follow along, the same as they do any other fictional process of "detection."

By contrast in the Foundation stories the problem has already been solved to a significant degree (initially by Seldon, later by successors of his), even if we do not always know it (especially as we observe the development of some crisis, remember that Seldon dealt in probabilities rather than certainties, and how, past a certain point, we become clearer on how his work was not the completed "plan" it earlier seemed), and by the end of the piece we find out what the solution previously arrived at by the Movers of Events happened to be.

I personally thought the approach less satisfactory in the Foundation stories than in the Robot stories. This seems at least in part a matter of the foundations from which those who reasoned out the problem and its solution. In the Robot tales the protagonist generally dealt with a single machine behaving oddly--not a galaxy of humans--with the mystery typically reducible to the interaction of a mere three laws with their environment. The simplicity permitted a certain explicitness--those three Laws laid out for the reader early on, in "Runaround," where reasoning things out from them one character remarked that the life-and-death crisis they were in was as tidily clear "as a syllogism," and so did it often go. By contrast the reader of the Foundation novels had nothing but hints of what psychohistory contained--and the promise that Seldon had worked out a syllogism from premises no one ever showed us. Even so, the differing approach did afford the Foundation sequence a greater variety of scenario and structure, and in the end it did produce a saga whose interest has certainly endured.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Returning to Isaac Asimov's Foundation Saga: Reflections

I suspect (partly because of my own expectations from way back when) that when a great many readers pick up Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, they expect from the premise the melodrama of an empire's fall and the aftermath--harrowing scenes of chaos and destruction, the glamorous pageantry of feudalism, the brutal exoticism and exotic brutality of barbarism, and the swashbuckling adventure to which all of the above lends itself so well --and then are disappointed that there is so little of such stuff, especially in the earlier part of the narrative. To the extent that they are there they are generally alluded to rather than depicted--part of the background rather than what for him is the main event. Rather this consists of dialogue-heavy maneuverings among older functionaries in court rooms, conference halls, offices. Of course, the quotient of adventure gets higher as the story proceeds. The second book, Foundation and Empire, has its space battles, but these are mentioned rather than depicted, and when the Foundation falls Asimov does not depict his principals' escape from the invading forces, but only closes the chapter and in the next shows them in their exile, with the events in between reduced to exposition presented in a brief, chance remark. ("[T]hey say she had the most tha-rilling escape--had to go through the blockade, and all--and I do wonder she doesn't write a book about it" one character says of Bayta Darell--but Foundation and Empire isn't it.)

The comparative unimportance of the derring-do in particular is not just a matter of what Asimov writes, but the manner in which the plot progresses. "Let us leave heroics for the fools who are impressed by it" one of Asimov's characters says. Still more harshly, "[v]iolence is the last refuge of the incompetent" says another (repeatedly, to the point of its becoming his catch phrase). After all, as still another says, the Foundation's founder "[Hari] Seldon . . . did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology." And indeed these remarks prove not supercilious dismissals of men of action by men of reason, but how things actually go over the course of this saga. Through the first book especially the plot turns on the leaders of the Foundation outthinking the barbarians, nipping their brutish resort to brute force in the bud at every turn. And when in the second book the Foundation, under a leadership whose quality has degenerated considerably, is forced to fight (the incompetent taking that refuge), the results are often less than dazzling, while those characters in the story's cast, when looking to play the hero, find themselves all too often failing or irrelevant. Thus when in the episode of "The General" Ducem Barr and Lathan Devers clonk their captor on the head and set off to save the day it turns out that their personal heroics matter less than the cunning of history, while Captain Han Pritchard's attempt to assassinate the Mule is similarly pointless. Indeed, the only really effectual piece of violence on the part of the Foundation's defenders (through the end of volume two) is exceedingly unheroic--the cold-blooded murder of a comrade on the verge of entirely innocently revealing critical information in front of an enemy--while it is later revealed (in the third book) that this, too, was not what it seemed, the physical act merely a riposte in the duel the telepathic psychohistorians fought with the Mule, whose role in its way exemplifies Asimov's principles. Hari Seldon's plan did not see the Mule coming, and the consequences of his coming were thus unpredicted and unallowed for. But the Mule's career, dramatic as it was, changed very little in the end, while the Foundation, and history, ground on, and might have managed to do so as long as the Foundation survived his coming to continue realizing the work of Seldon--which, in line with the principles of science to which he adhered as the rest of the galaxy forgot them, was never treated as finished and closed off for all time.

As might be guessed from all this--and true to Asimov's reputation (of which I had only the haziest ideas when I first picked up the books)--the novels concentrated on and the stories were driven by ideas rather than "character," with plots turning on rational problem-solving, and, like the "psychohistory" on which the Foundation was established, more interested in "men in their masses" than in individuals; in the line of events rather than the minutiae along the way, in contrast with so much of conventional literary expectation.

Still, as that rising adventure quotient implies, Asimov does, depending on one's view of conventional literary standards, either make more concessions to them, or embrace them in the course of becoming a more mature and skillful writer--as we see when comparing the first "Foundation" to "The Mule," and still more the narratives of the third book, Second Foundation, Asimov shifting from merely dramatizing his ideas with a portrayal of the climax as seen from the top to telling stories of those crucial events from a wider variety of viewpoints, more thoroughly fleshed out generally and more attentive to character--and to characters, likewise of more varied type--particularly. Indeed, in the concluding installment, "Search by the Foundation," Asimov devotes much of the proceedings to the misadventures of Batya Darell's fourteen year old granddaughter, with the opening scene leisurely beginning with the girl writing a paper for school. Still, in the end he adheres to his saga's intellectual premises and the literary approach it broadly dictates, and it is less the conventional literary pleasures than the intrinsic interest of his ideas, Asimov's skill at concocting compelling "scientific detective" stories (less satisfactory than in his Robot stories, but impressive nonetheless), and his focus and economy as a storyteller, that carried the memorable narrative. And speaking for my own part, if not finding the books quite what I had looked for on that first read, I find that I have become much more appreciative of this way of telling a story since--the more in as others seem to be appreciating it less and less than they did in the past, alas, for reasons that have not been healthy ones for the genre or anything else on the whole.

Monday, April 11, 2022

What Does the Public Really Think?

I remember that it was when reading Angus Calder's The People's War that I first encountered reference to "Mass-Observation"--a social research project that was operative in Britain from the 1930s to the 1960s. As the name implied it was an attempt to document what people said, did, thought in everyday life--which object existed because what people actually say, do, think in everyday life is something we rarely understand so well as we think we do. This is especially the case when it is a matter of the broader public--and it seems that in this area we have regressed rather than progressed.

That may seem a surprising statement to make in this "information age." However, the fact is that the "information" in which we are saturated is overwhelmingly the opinions of the elite, who are derived from the very thin and privileged social layer that has access to major media platforms, and virtually no one else's, with the Internet, if anything, increasingly reinforcing that tendency. To go by what the search engines serve up, what the Internet does is amplify those views that were most loudly heard to begin with--those views coming from the most prominent, best established, best resourced platforms--rather than giving others a chance, with the concern for "authoritative sources" amid the alarums over "fake news" an overt commitment to such favoritism. (Search for any information on current events or public issues and then look at the list of results. Your odds of finding anything from outside a major news outlet in the top three hits, or even the top ten--past which point one might as well not put it up at all for all its chances of being seen.)

All of this seems to me to be underlined by the way in which the argument over what undeniable expressions of the public's attitude really mean, as with elections. Even setting aside the way in which these days every vote-count is a nightmare of bad-faith contention, when the numbers are accepted as a settled matter the bad-faith contention becomes about why people voted the way they did. For example, responding to a right-wing candidate selling economic nationalism were they living up to the bigoted, reactionary "hardhat" stereotype or was it because they were self-interestedly responding to the contempt the ostensibly liberal party showed for their economic concerns? The argument goes round and round in circles because, as is so often the case in this age in which postmodernism has become a default intellectual mode those who are in any position to be heard simply don't care to do more than express their prejudices, such that they might as well be Medieval lords arguing over how the serfs see their lot for all their connection with the reality of the lower orders.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Angus Calder's The Myth of the Blitz--and the Myth of the Blitz

I remember when picking up Angus Calder's The Myth of the Blitz (1991) I had expected to see Calder do his damnedest to tear the myth to shreds. And in the Preface to the book Calder acknowledges that it was with such an impulse the project began, with "anger . . . over the sentimentalisation of 1940 by Labour apologists," and the Churchillian poses of Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War, driving him "to seek, every which way, to undermine the credibility of the mythical narrative."

But then Calder tells us he decided that this was superfluous, "that the negative effects of the Myth on British societies have almost worked themselves out" amid the passing of an earlier generation, the backlash against Thatcherism and much else, and indeed had some disparaging remarks for another book which had taken that very approach of attacking the mythical narrative, Clive Ponting's 1940: Myth and Reality. Granting that such a work had its "uses," he virtually accused its author of simple-mindedness in equating "myth" with "lie," and "writ[ing] as if exposing scandalous untruths and cover-ups" when "virtually nothing in his book . . . was not known by . . . all interested members of the public . . . in the sixties." Very shortly afterward he was talking about Roland Barthes (always a bad sign).

And so rather than debunking the myth he concentrated on the making of the myth, which he treated with some sympathy (closing his book with the thought that the mythmaking may have played some part in "making a juster and friendlier society" than the one that had existed before).

Taken on its terms the book was not wholly without its interest, discussing as it did the portrayal of those crucial history events to the public and the world at large. However, I still thought that Calder had been unjust in his assessment of Ponting's project, and deeply wrong about the waning of the Myth's significance, mistaking his era for one of more consequential progressive potential than was to be the case. If what Ponting was writing had been reported before the facts in question were, as far as the general public, at least, was concerned, buried under the unending, colossal, quite deliberate reassertion of the Myth--such that so far as much of the public was concerned Ponting was unearthing it for the first time, and the snark about the fact wholly unwarranted. Moreover, just a few years on it was to be clear that where the enervation of Labour's leaders, the march of Thatcherism, were concerned, this was merely the beginning--with the same going for British leaders striking Churchillian poses, as might have been guessed from the reality that the country was once again at war in the Levant, as it remains to this day, all as a new generation of Tories strikes new Churchillian poses over grand visions of a "Global Britain" returned to east of Suez, made the more recognizable by the endless train of big screen retellings of 1940 in those myth-affirming terms (The Darkest Hour, etc.) to the same effect as before. In all that it was not Ponting who failed to appreciate the moment and its needs, but Calder.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Supervillains and their Weather Control Machines--and What They Mean For Us in 2022

In one of his more memorable essays (included at the end of his James Bond-meets-H.P. Lovecraft "Laundry" novel The Jennifer Morgue) science fiction author Charles Stross had some interesting remarks about spy fiction, the passing of its "Golden Age," and the way in which yesteryear's supervillains have lost their relevance.

One can go on quite a bit discussing such themes, and many have. But one aspect of this issue I have yet to see anyone remark is the old scenario of the villain with the weather control machine, which was pretty common once upon a time, as this handy list from Gizmodo shows. (I think it worth emphasizing that these were not usually "Frankenstein complex" scenarios of somebody doing something technologically that goes very wrong, but all about the danger that they could do exactly what they intended.)

As the list also shows, the popularity of the idea seems to drop off after the '90s--and the fact seems unsurprising. Now, I think, the fear is not that humans may be able to control the weather, but that they will fail to do so. Hence instead of supervillains like GALAXY or Cobra Commander or Sir August DeWynter, we either get scenarios like Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow, where having done nothing about the climate crisis climate change hits us hard, or where (consistent with that tiresome Frankenstein complex logic) some desperate attempt at controlling it through geoengineering goes wrong, like in Snowpiercer.

That seems to me a reflection of an increased technological pessimism compared with those decades of radical change in the twentieth century--a sense that, for all the saturation of our lives with techno-hype, we are unable to actually do anything really useful, really important, with our know-how, either not trying at all or trying and failing miserably. And of course, there is what has made that pessimism more cutting, namely the fears aroused by the experience of climate change and the anticipations of far worse to come, which have precipitated a veritable mental health crisis. The result is that rather than being alarmed that someone has learned how to control the weather and might use that power to hold the world to ransom, we would expect that someone would develop such a thing--and that that party, far from looking to gratify their thirst for wealth and power by threatening to use technology, gratify it by threatening to not use it, naming their price for employing it to stop climate change.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Notes on George Seaton's Teacher's Pet (1958)

As of late I have been writing a great deal about centrism, and especially the ways in which centrist politics have been manifest in the character of the news media's coverage of current events (and this as anything but an even-handedness in its coverage).

Where the news is concerned one significant factor in the view of many has been the way journalism has changed, not least in its "professionalization."

Thinking about that I find myself recalling George Seaton's 1958 romantic comedy Teacher's Pet.

I cannot remember a single reference to it in the film history and criticism I have read, in spite of its having apparently been well thought of at the time (scoring a number of prestigious award nominations, among them a Writer's Guild award, a pair of Golden Globes, and Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor Gig Young and Best Screenplay for Michael and Fay Kanin), and being notable in assorted other minor ways (not least its place in the careers of its leads--as one of Doris Day's last before Pillow Talk permanently redefined her image, one of Mamie Van Doren's few appearances in a movie that was not an "exploitation film," one of Clark Gable's absolute last).

Still, the result strikes me as worth mentioning here is its relevance to this specific issue. In the movie Doris Day plays a journalism professor into whose class Clark Gable's veteran reporter, following an initial (non-face-to-face) contact that rubbed him the wrong ways, comes posing as a student to "show her up"-- this rather light comedy compound of petty resentment and petty deception having roots in social changes and social tensions within a changing world, in this case representative of that older generation of journalists who came in from the street, started at the bottom, and worked their way up learning their craft through hard experience, and the college-educated younger folk.

Fairly typical of the era's mainstream as Peter Biskind has described it, the story ends with a reconciliation between Gable and Day's characters, and their perspectives, with Day's holding Gable's experience and accomplishments in some respect, and Gable's coming to appreciate what higher education can do for a journalist, enough so that he advises a young copy boy who looks up to him as a role model to go and get that education.

Of course, today we live in a very different world--a more complicated one where earlier adherence to pieties like the value of formal education can seem to have at the least come to seem a much more complicated thing in the eyes of all but the credulous. Where in the '50s access to higher education was broadening immensely, now, even as colleges graduate ever-larger numbers of students, it seems that access is ever more difficult, while enjoyment of the rewards it is supposed to yield become elusive (as the intensifying obsession not with merely going to college but specifically getting into an elite college, getting graduate degrees, mountains of students debt, etc., etc., all testify). This seems to especially be the case in the news business, where professionalization has played its part in making journalism a more socially exclusive, socioeconomically elite occupation with regard to the background, aspirations, status and attitude of its members, especially those at the top (who count all the more amid the decline of local news in favor of national, the concentration of ownership, the exploding rewards enjoyed by the most "successful," and the way it most definitely turns their heads), with all that implies for how they go about their jobs, reducing them ever more to courtiers of the powerful. Such influences apart there is plenty of room to question whether all the extra years of education (and the fortunes spent paying for it) is making our journalists any better at their jobs than they used to be even to the extent that are prepared to do them--whether the issue is their ability to grasp complex issues and explain them lucidly to the public, or simply produce readable prose. (I, personally, am ever horrified and disgusted by the quality of the result.) The result is that, while Teacher's Pet--a work made by people more engaged with an issue of the day more connected with and more interested in reality than anything we are likely to see these days--it is also a reminder that much of what could be plausibly and sincerely said at mid-century offers little help as we struggle with the problems of today.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Were the Star Wars Prequels Too New Hollywood for a 21st Century Audience?

When we read about the New Hollywood (for instance, in Peter Biskind's famous history, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) we are likely to read about Star Wars less as part of that New Hollywood than as what would do so much to end the New Hollywood, the rise of the merchandising and franchise-friendly "blockbuster" that equipped the Suits with a reliably, massively profitable model of moviemaking that left them less at the mercy of willful artistes.

Yet George Lucas, and Star Wars, were definitely of the New Hollywood. George Lucas discovered the San Francisco underground film scene, studied at USC, learned about Kurosawa and Godard, made movies like THX 1138 and American Graffiti, worked on projects like Apocalypse Now (only late in the game bowing out of helming it to do Star Wars instead). He certainly aspired to be an auteur, and seems to me to have gone about the making of Star Wars--at the time an extremely unconventional project that saw the director fighting endless battles with the executives--as an auteur (and learned the hard way that this was one thing when making an American Graffiti, another when it's a $10 million movie shot on three continents with a giant FX budget for envelope-pushing effects, learned it so well he didn't direct anything else until The Phantom Menace). And one might add that the earlier versions of the Star Wars script were at least somewhat more political, much more adult, New Hollywood stuff, before, realizing the tension between that and the more Bruno Bettelheim, fairy tale-type aspiration he held for the movie, opted decisively for the latter. When he made The Phantom Menace he ended up making something more like those earlier versions of the script for Star Wars, with its more elaborate world-building, and its political themes. And of course, that seemed to play a big part in turning much of the fan base off to the films. In that there would seem a significant irony--that Star Wars, so often slighted in discussion of New Hollywood film, saw its prequels treated as badly as they were because they were too New Hollywood for fans who had come to expect the very different kind of film that Star Wars had done so much to make routine.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

The End of the 1990s, and the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century

Over the last couple of decades I have found myself paying less and less attention to international security in the "traditional" sense of the term (the state-centric, realpolitik-minded, military affairs-heavy stuff), and much more to economics (which, for me, broadly includes the socioeconomic and the ecological).

It seemed the natural thing not only because economics seems to ever more primary and politics ever more secondary, but, I suppose, because I came of age in the 1990s, after the Cold War. I think I was less credulous than most when it came to the claims for what we then summed up as "globalization" (the term a shorthand for the neoliberal package), and especially its beneficence. (Thomas Friedman's writing seemed to me drivel from the start.) Yet if globalization meant a world of worsening economic stagnation, inequality, vulnerability to shocks of every kind and decreasing capacity to solve pressing problems (like climate change) it also seemed to me that it was likely to go on rolling over any obstacles in its way for a good long time to come, with the old power politics among nations on the backburner.

Looking back it seems that this vision has been falling apart for a long time, with 2008 a turning point--this the year when it the conclusion that the financial crisis clearly underway by the preceding year was no mere hiccup became inescapable, from which point on the growth of international trade and investment stalled, the already anemic economic growth of the neoliberal era became more anemic still, and amid the widely felt pain of the events and government response to them (bailout for some, austerity others, and you know full well which persons got what) nationalism resurged; and the post-Cold War competition between the U.S. and Russia turned into a shooting war between Russia and Georgia, an event that soon proved not some last aftershock of twentieth century geopolitics but the beginning of something bigger and more dangerous, with those flattered as statesmen by a sycophantic press never missed a chance to prove to all and sundry that the patients are in control of the asylum, defense budgets resurging, hot spots around the world getting hotter and conflicts for a long time bloodless ceasing to be so.

And so, with regret, I find myself returning my attention to war--in which many, maybe most, members of the human species may not be interested, but which these days is most certainly showing its unfriendly interest in them.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Farewell, Zombie Apocalypse?

It seems to me that in twenty-first century popular culture certain themes have been remarkable for their staying power. Novels featuring Dan Brownish religious-historical mysteries and the adventures of youths rebelling against the rulers of dystopian future societies, forensics-themed police procedurals in network prime time, Jason Bourne-ish spy thrillers and Bucket Brigade/Frat Pack comedies at the movies--these burned very brightly indeed for a time, and then flamed out, not leaving all that much of a legacy.

Others have proven much more enduring, some in just one medium (as with reality TV, regrettably), and others across the media spectrum--with, of the latter, the outstanding examples superheroes and zombies, the latter often bound up with a broader societal collapse scenario.

Recently I have found myself writing about that popularity--and particularly attentive to the way in which references to zombies have become standard in economic commentary, with leftist writers remarking a "zombie capitalism" or "zombie culture" in the neoliberal age, while Establishment analysts have increasingly come to use the term "zombie firm" (you can actually find the term used right here on the web site of the Federal Reserve itself!) in regard to businesses that, because they can much more easily do so in this age of ultra-loose monetary policy and ever-more hyperabundant credit (and the old adage that if you owe the bank a million dollars it's the bank's problem) have a Blanche Dubois-like dependence on the kindness of creditors.

Considering the events of the twenty-first century--and how science fiction has responded to them--I find myself thinking of a factor that would seem to merit attention, namely the way in which a "zombie apocalypse" so easily gave audiences a post-apocalyptic scenario without referencing the real-world problems threatening civilization. Rather than having to bring, for example, nuclear war (which never went away, though people seemed to forget about it until recently), or climate change, into the matter, they had this other basis for imagining a survivalist scenario in which they got to slaughter lots and lots and lots of dehumanized Others. Not everyone played things that way, of course. (The Night of the Living Dead films, at least, started off with a left-leaning politics, and I think one can say that of the Resident Evil movies, too. Certainly Max Brooks had something to say about the actual world in World War Z, while he opted not for a tale of survivalism but of "Greatest Generation"-type collective effort.) But it certainly seems to me that this was part of the appeal--a purer "post-apocalyptic porn" as Birdman famously put it, unmarred by any sort of social content, for which there seemed more room in an age in which so many brushed off big dangers like war and ecological crisis.

But that may not be so easy in the coming years. With, as Michael Mann observed, climate denial selling so much less well that the "anti-climate" crowd is changing tactics (emphasizing dealing with climate change as an individual issue rather than a systemic one, and indeed encouraging a defeatist attitude); while in the wake of the conflict in Eastern Europe even the stupidest observer of the international scene finds it much harder to pretend that the danger of nuclear war is not a serious threat to humanity; and also that COVID-19 thing that somehow just keeps going and going and going; I see no reason to expect us to become less cognizant of those things--let alone find good reason to be less concerned about them--but quite the contrary. And amid all that I suspect zombie apocalypses will lose some of their appeal to audiences.

By contrast superheroes will probably keep on selling tickets at the box office through it all . . . or if they don't, not on account of those same factors.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

The Return of Nuclear War to the Public's Consciousness?

Back in the 1950s and 1960s we saw Hollywood take older science fiction works and write the theme of nuclear war into them where it had not been present before--so pressing a problem of the day did the prospect of such war seem. Thus where the reader of Pierre Boulle's original Planet of the Apes contains nothing about such a calamity, the end of the 1968 movie version gave us its most famous scene, and indeed one of the most iconic scenes in film history, in Charlton Heston's character coming to the pained realization in the shadow of a Statue of Liberty reduced to a colossal wreck out of Shelley that nuclear war turned the Earth into the "planet of the apes"--while the sequel developed the theme even more shockingly with its nuclear bomb-worshipping telepaths, and its exceedingly bleak and ironic ending.

So did it also go with The Day the Earth Stood Still. An adaptation of Harry Bates' "Farewell to the Master," the original story also contained nothing about nuclear war. But the theme was also at the center of the film version, where the emissary from the stars came to warn the Earth that it was on a course for self-destruction, and were it to persist in it would not be allowed to endanger other worlds--with the others of the galaxy prepared to stop it by force if need be.

Of course, since the end of the Cold War the exact opposite tendency has prevailed. All too characteristically Hollywood has, rather than going back to the source material and trying to do something new with it, generally remade the adaptations, while eliding the nuclear war theme from the new versions. Thus the two twenty-first century remakes of Planet of the Apes (2001, 2011) have been Luddite, Frankenstein complex-type stories about biotechnology-gone-wrong. Meanwhile the new The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) switched its emissary's concern from the destructiveness of human nationalism and militarism in the nuclear age to humanity's conduct toward its environment. The theme of nuclear war, one supposes, simply seemed passé to them, or at least, less pressing than other dangers.

The judgment may have not seemed unreasonable at the time. (The biotech plots of the Planet of the Apes movies did not impress me, but it certainly has seemed at times that the ecological crisis was, if less dramatic, then at least in its inexorable progress, and the extreme hostility of business and government to its redress, more likely to get us than the Bomb.) But anyone who thought that the danger of nuclear war was somehow past was plainly ignorant. After all, Cold War or no, the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers remained--reduced, but still vast, with the creakier nature of the arsenal possessed by a fragmented and impoverished Soviet Union elevating the by no means novel risk of a major nuclear war starting as a result of a purely technical accident. This was all the more the case given that the international system and its potential for conflict remained, with the demise of Communism as an international political force far from automatically translating to the "world peace" of a Miss Congeniality. Indeed, if major states coming to blows less likely the period nonetheless saw one crisis after another--the 1995 Norwegian rocket incident; the 1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis; the open testing of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan in 1998 and the fourth Indo-Pakistani War in 1999; and perhaps most incredibly, the stand-off between NATO and Russia over the former's intervention in the Balkans which saw General Wesley Clark order future pop star James Blunt to destroy the Russian force and (General) Michael Jackson overrule Clark with the words "I'm not going to start World War Three for you" (just in case anyone didn't get what was at stake), after which James Blunt has publicly assured the world that even had Michael Jackson not told him to stand down he would have himself refused to obey the order (such that, yes, one can now found innumerable headlines, online comments and the like screaming things along the lines of JAMES BLUNT SAVED THE WORLD FROM WORLD WAR III!--and even MICHAEL JACKSON AND JAMES BLUNT SAVED THE WORLD!).

Still, the fault for that ignorance lies first and foremost with the press, which tended to treat such events lightly, distantly, belatedly, as remote curiosities less important than the latest piece of tabloid idiocy, with the doings of an Amy Fisher, a Tonya Harding, an O.J. Simpson infinitely worthier of the public's attention (Blunt wasn't famous yet, and that part of the story wouldn't come out until 2010 anyway)--while even those who did not go in for this stupidity at least had some room in which to think that those crises were last aftershocks of the twentieth century's conflicts. (For my part I thought that the danger of major war, while not so small as some seemed to think it was, and certainly not incapable of resurging, was at least in the short term on the wane, and that even if the economic and ecological stresses could reverse that, that may have been some way off, and I then dared hope, avoidable.) Amid all that it seemed that the public, and even its so-called opinion-leaders, had forgotten that nuclear war was something to be afraid of--indeed, perhaps even come to fear it less than a "zombie apocalypse."

Recent years have put the issue right back on the agenda. Thus far the public has been slow to remember what it once knew and feared, not at all helped by the way in which governments and the press continue to act as if they have forgotten the harsh realities of the nuclear age (as perhaps, indeed, they have, the people in charge never the geniuses their sycophants would have us believe they are). But it seems unlikely that this can remain the case for long, with the Russo-Ukrainian War dragging into its second month--and unlikely that it will not mean some kind of political or cultural response.

I hesitate to make guesses about what shape it will take. We could see a revival of the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-war movement, calls for world government, and perhaps even a broader renewal of radical politics. Yet it could also be that the reaction will deepen the pessimistic, survivalist impulses already ever more in the air, while translating to more nationalistic, more militarized societies (with the second tendency, the more consistent with the trend of a deeply disappointing twenty-first century, so far prevailing in the entirely predictable press coverage, the actions of governments as austerity in every other area goes along with profligacy in this one). Much will depend on how long this war goes on, and the course it takes, and, one supposes, the way in which all this interacts with the constellation of other problems the world faces (from inflation in the West to food security in Africa and the Middle East). But it still seems bound to mean something, and that enough so that I suspect that intelligent filmmakers remaking a science fiction classic of yesteryear will no longer look at the theme of nuclear war and dismiss it as passé--and that when they shrink from it they will do so because they find it too relevant than because it is insufficiently so.

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