Monday, December 24, 2012

faith sucks, belief rules

I’ve been thinking about the concept of faith a lot lately. This is due to my recent Bart Ehrman kick. Erhman is a biblical scholar focussed on the New Testament who specializes in textual criticism, which is the art of figuring out how much of the original ancient texts are reflected in the versions we have now. I never thought about this, but back in the days of hand copying mistakes were common, and some copyists would also purposely change texts.  This means we don’t truly know exactly what was written by Plato or Confucius or, as Ehrman points out in books like Misquoting Jesus, the authors of the Christian bible.

Misquoting Jesus is a fascinating book that describes the attempts to figure out what parts of the New Testament are authentic. At times it reads like a detective novel, as he explains how textual critics compare writing styles and check other sources to figure out what is original and what was added later. Sometimes things were added long after the original documents were created - that “let he without sin cast the first stone” story is an example of that. Sometimes words were miscopied by barely literate copyists. Sometimes minor changes were made to, for example, deemphasize the role of women in the Christian religion or to deride the beliefs of competing Christian groups like the Gnostics (an interesting group who I learned about in another Ehrman book, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. They believed that the God of the Jews was a crazy asshole and that there is another, better, higher God to worship).

Ehrman was brought up an evangelical Christian who considered the Bible the literal word of God, but he eventually concluded the book was very much man made, and that its authors each had their own points to make. He points out that Jesus is portrayed quite differently in each gospel; he says we must respect the authors by reading each story on its own, rather than doing a Jesus Christ Superstar-style mashup.

Misquoting Jesus made me wonder if Ehrman was still a Christian after coming to understand what a mish masch the New Testament is. And in the book I’m reading now, God’s Problem, I learned that Ehrman is, in fact, an agnostic. But not, apparently, because of the conclusions that lead him to write Misquoting Jesus.

Erman begins God’s Problem by saying that he has “lost his faith,” and I found that an interesting statement. He makes it sound as though he lost an appendage, like his hand, and he still misses it. And as I thought about it I realized that while he had faith, when I believed in God as a child, I only had belief. Which is a very different thing.

I believed in the existence of God when I was young. I also believed in the existence of Santa Claus. In both cases my belief was based on the information I had been given. My parents, who I considered a reliable source, told me there was a Santa Claus. They would take on any questions I had; when I asked how he could get down our skinny chimney, they would say they left the back door open for him.

But then I discovered that not everyone believed in Santa Claus, I found the illogic of the Santa myth increasingly difficult to overlook. I expressed my doubts to my parents and they eventually admitted there was no Santa Claus.

My path with God was very similar. I believed there was an all powerful supernatural being who had created everything and was in charge of the world. I used to talk to him, either asking him for a better life or, when I was in a more charitable frame of mind, asking him to end suffering throughout the world.

By the time I was in Junior High, I discovered that not everyone believed in God, and just knowing that made me think about whether the whole God thing made sense. I concluded that it did not. I did ask the minister questions, but was unsatisfied with the answers.

Just as with Santa, I had a belief, I became more intellectually sophisticated, analyzed my belief and found it wanting, and decided to believe something different.

Erman became an agnostic not because the evidence for the existence of a savior was insufficient, but because he ultimately found he could not reconcile his faith in an all-powerful, all-loving God with the horrors of the world, both man-made horrors like war and natural horrors like disease and disaster.

I couldn’t help wonder though, why just the fact that the texts upon which his beliefs were based were an inaccurately copied set of documents written and chosen to fortify one of many competing views of Jesus.

And I realized it all came down to faith. Because faith is not contingent on anything. Once you have faith, you don’t need proof. Proof is irrelevant. Ehrman could see that the New Testament was not the literal word of God but still believed in God and Jesus, because that’s what faith is; believing regardless of everything.

Ehrman’s problem was he had faith in a very specific God. I believed in God as a child, but I wasn’t that clear on what he did. I didn’t really think about the issues of being loving and all powerful yet allowing suffering, because I was not a sophisticated nine-year-old. By the time I could think about these things, I was done with God.

God’s Problem is a book about how the bible deals with suffering, and he apparently found nothing in it that fit with his faith. His faith wasn’t, seemingly, in the God that tortured Job to win a bet with Satan, killing his family in the process, or the God who punished children for the sins of their parents. I still don’t understand why it  took him so long to reach that point, but faith is a powerful thing.

Beliefs can be changed with new evidence; faith cannot be. Yet, insisting on proof for what you believe is considered somehow petty and mean.  If you don’t believe in God, or ghosts, or psychics,  or astrology, many people will see you as a cynic with no sense of childlike wonder, as though unquestioning belief is far more admirable than trying to really understand the world through careful study and a rational exploration of factual evidence. Instead, we admire what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”; believing in something there is no proof for because you feel it in your gut.

People love the famous editorial in which a newspaper man tells a little girl that yes, there is a Santa Claus, even if there’s no proof, a piece wonderfully rewritten by Greta Christina as No Virginia, There is No Santa Claus, a paean to rational thought I found through a lovely post on the allure of irrational belief by my friend Tim Martin.

I don’t have faith. I don’t believe I have ever had faith. I have believed wrongly, but only because I was lacking information, or was trusting the wrong sources, or was too lazy to really consider all sides of an issue. But I can’t recall ever having blind faith in anything; I remain open to information refuting what I believe, and the model of the world I keep in my head is still constantly changing as new information arrives.

Certainly I have opinions I will not release. For example, I believe the world should devote more resources to feeding those who starve than to building weapons. This is not based on fact. Starvation is not inherently wrong, it is a natural part of nature. But I don’t think you could really talk me out of this belief - you can’t use facts to persuade me I shouldn’t worry about people starving to death. Even then, you could, if you martialed your facts, possibly persuade me that starvation is inherently unsolvable, and that attempts to feed the world would ultimately just make things worse. I haven’t heard such an argument, but I feel certain someone out there is ready to make it. And if a good case could be made, I would adjust my beliefs accordingly.

Faith is not as easy to adjust. It isn’t based on proof, so it cannot be disproved. Asking for proof is not faith, and in fact, those with faith would say wanting proof demeans faith. As Kris Kringle explains in Miracle on 34th Street, "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to."
 

Thomas Paine once wrote that it would make no sense for God to give man the ability to reason and then insist that he not use that gift. It’s exactly the sort of reasonable statement that faith easily discounts.

While faith is portrayed as beautiful, it actually an example of man at his most primitive, the confused cave man fearfully offering chickens to unseen spirits because he just doesn’t know any better. For centuries, man has been creating something beyond faith, something much, much better, based on rational thought and experimentation. I believe that is a good thing. But I have no faith in anything.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

TV Series Review: Perception


I love Oliver Sacks’ popular psychology books, which showcase oddities like a man who tries to put on his wife’s head like a hat or a man who falls out of bed while trying to hurl away his own leg, thinking it is a severed limb.

You know who else loves Oliver Sacks? My guess is, everyone working on Perception, a TV series featuring a psychology professor/detective whose cases revolve around prosopagnosiacs (people who can’t recognize faces), aphasiacs (people who have lost the ability to understand human speech), and anterograde amnesiacs (people who can’t form memories).

I should add the caveat that these are all worst-case scenarios; some aphasiacs just have trouble thinking of words, some prosopagnosiacs just have trouble with strangers’ faces.  But Perception has no interest in those people. It is only interested in the guy who can’t recognize his own wife and the forty-something woman whose brain is trapped in a single day in 1986.

The psychologist is Dr. Daniel Pierce, played with jittery intensity by a slightly disheveled Eric McCormack.  Pierce is not just an expert on psychological anomalies; like the president of the hair club for men, he’s also a member; a schizophrenic prone to hallucinations. He even employs a live-in teaching assistant whose main responsibility is to tell Daniel whether the person he’s talking to is really there.

When he’s not teaching his students about the vagaries of the mind, Pierce works as a consultant for the FBI alongside special agent Kate Moretti, played by Rachel Leigh Cook. He’s a little sweet on her, and she’s a little sweet on him, but he doesn’t consider himself good dating material and lives in fear that she will witness one of his “episodes.”

I generally think of schizophrenics as tattered people talking to themselves on the street, but like everything else I’ve googled in Perception, the functional schizophrenic turns out to be slightly less far-fetched than one might expect; a schizophrenic law professor teaches at USC.

Still, I suspect most schizophrenics don’t have symptoms as helpful as the professor’s. During each case, Pierce is visited by at least one hallucinatory person who will plead with him, threaten him, cajole him, or just try to run him over with a bicycle. Conveniently, these hallucinations act as clues to each mystery; offering egress to Pierce’s subconscious observations. 

While this is a bit ludicrous, it works well as a mystery-series device, offering a new way to dole out Agatha-Christie style clues. Much of the mystery is figuring out what these hallucinations represent, and in classic whodunit style, the viewer always feels on the verge of solving the mystery before the detective, but never does.

McCormack is quite good as Pierce; one moment clever and thoughtful, the next ranting about the radiation in a security scanner. The rest of the cast is also quite likable, with Cook maintaining her professionalism while staying alert for a romantic signal from Pierce and Kelly Rowan yoga-teacher-soothing as Daniel’s favorite imaginary friend.

The Oliver Sacks influence suffuses the series. At one point we see an aphasiac man laughing as he watches video of George W. Bush’s Saddam Hussein/WMD speech. Daniel explains that as the man has lost the ability to understand speech, he has become a human lie detector who finds lies very funny, an allusion to a Sacks report of a roomful of aphasiacs laughing at a speech by Ronald Reagan. The scene upset some Republicans, even though the series ends with the same guy laughing as Bill Clinton denies having had sex with Monica Lewinski.

As the latest of many series about brilliant but unstable detectives, Perception can be quite entertaining, using psychologically-damaged characters to craft elaborate, sometimes convoluted mysteries. But as a show about mental illness, the series is decidedly shallow. What makes Sacks’s writing so intriguing is his use of aberrant psychology to ponder on the nature of reality and explore whether personality is inherent or is simply the result of activity in the brain that, if diverted, can change us into someone entirely new. But Perception trots out its brain-damaged guests like a series of parlor tricks; every time McCormick introduces us to a new oddity one expects him to shout out voila! and take a bow.

To be fair, Sacks himself has been accused of putting on “a high-brow freak show.” Unfortunately, that seems to be what Perceptions’ writers like most about him. 

TV Series Review: Bunheads


Watching Bunheads is a lot like mistaking someone on the street for a friend.  You catch site of a woman down the block and say, is that Susan? You get closer. It looks a lot like her, but isn’t the hair a little shorter? Would she wear that hat? You get closer still. No, that’s not her. Pretty definitely not. Then you yell out “SUSAN!” to see if she turns around.

From a distance, Bunheads is The Gilmore Girls. Both shows were created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, so they unsurprisingly have her trademark sharp, witty dialogue and quirky, engaging characters.  But it goes beyond that. Sutton Foster, who plays a Vegas showgirl transplanted to a small Californian town called Paradise, bears a notable resemblance to Lauren Graham, who played Lorelei Gilmore. They even have similar voices. Kelly Bishop, who played Emily Gilmore, shows up as Foster’s mother-in-law, while the spunky daughter of the old show has been supplanted by a quartet of teen dancers in the new one (one sweet and unsure, one prickly and arrogant, two generic).

At times, the series seems to just be Gilmore Girls with some dance numbers thrown in.

Bunheads began oddly, with Michelle, a dispirited Vegas showgirl, drunkenly agreeing to marry a gift-giving admirer she never particularly liked. He takes her to Paradise, where it turns out he lives with his mom and her gaudy tchotchkes. While we are assured over and over that this guy is a really, really nice guy, one can’t help thinking that a nebishy man becoming obsessed with a showgirl and luring her to the oddly decorated home he shares with his mother would make a good foundation for a horror movie.

If you don’t like the premiere episode’s premise, don’t worry about it, because it has pretty much nothing to do with the series itself, which turns out to be about the relationship between Michelle, her ballet-teaching mother-in-law Fanny, and four of Fanny’s students.

Like Gilmore Girls, Bunheads is mainly about relationships. A big difference between the two shows is that while Lorelei was comfortably ensconced in a world of friends and family, Michelle finds herself dropped unceremoniously into a town of strangers; one of the first townspeople she meets is her new husband’s hostile, fiercely disappointed ex. While Lorelei always seemed to have a strong idea of where she was going in life, Michelle is lost and scattered, and while the series is developing its plot points slowly, it appears to be a show about someone finding her place in the world. It’s a journey that is looking to be filled with missteps and confusion.

While you can easily discover differences between Sherman-Palladino’s two pretty-lady-in-a-small-town series, these are less obvious than the similarities. And that’s fine with me. After contract negotiations fell through, Sherman-Palladino left The Gilmore Girls, leaving the final season in other hands. If Bunheads is like your friend’s doppelganger, the last season of Gilmore Girls was like the mother at the beginning of Invasion of the Body Snatchers whose son insists that, even though she looks like his mom and has her memories, she isn’t his mother. That last season was disturbing, with a Lorelei Gilmore who had the looks but had lost the spirit of the woman I had loved so much that I could never decide if I wanted her more as my girlfriend or my mom.

For me, Bunheads is the sorely missed Gilmore Girls come back to life. If I may indulge myself in one more comparison, it is like losing a loved one, and, years later, having her knock on your door and say, it was all a mistake, I never really died. And even though her hair is different, she’s wearing glasses and she walks with a limp, you’d still recognize her anywhere.

Welcome back, Gilmore Girls, welcome back.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

why murder is funnier than rape

Recently comedian Daniel Tosh was accused of joking about rape. According to a blogger, Tosh started talking about how rape jokes were funny, and the blogger shouted out that rape jokes are never funny. Then Tosh said, "wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now?"

The comedy club manager tells the story a little differently, saying someone else brought up rape and that after the blogger yelled out, Tosh said she sounded like been raped by 5 guys. Whether you prefer the story as told by the angry heckler or the manager, who says he didn't hear it all clearly, Tosh seems to have definitely made light of rape.

And the reaction, which included a petition to get Tosh fired, started me wondering: why is it okay to tell jokes about murder, suicide, amputation, blindness and many other terrible things, but not rape?

Usually when people ask that question it is meant as an argument, like, "why are you so mad about my rape joke but didn't say a word about my blinding baby seals joke," but that's not what I mean. I generally find rape jokes discomfiting myself, but I'm okay with a little murder humor.

As I thought about it, I began to think that part of the problem is, when people joke about rape, there is not a clear presumption that the one telling the joke really is that bothered by rape.

Everyone agrees murder is bad, except for psychopaths. No one wants to be murdered, and while people might say, "I could kill that guy," most people in reality would find killing someone a deeply unsettling act. So when someone tells a joke about murder, there is an unspoken preamble that goes something like, "murder is a really terrible thing. It's horrible to even contemplate it, but because often humor can work like a steam valve, relieving pressure, and because this not wanting to be murdered thing is something we all share, I'm going to tell a joke about killing someone."

Sadly, there cannot be that presumption about rape, because rape is not something everyone has a problem with. The idea that women are "asking" to be raped is so common that every once in a while some judge horrifies the world by saying it from the bench. In an Amnesty International poll in 2005, a frightening number of people felt that women who flirted, wore sexy clothes, or got drunk were at least partially responsible for their own rapes.

In a way, I think it's similar to the reason white people aren't supposed to use the "N" word. The problem is, there are still bunches of white people who use the "N" word in its very worst connotation, and as long as that is true, how can you ever be sure that the intent behind the word is benign when spoken by someone white?

I don't believe any topic is off limits for comedy. Sarah Silverman can get away with telling a rape joke, because we all know it's not something she's actually in favor of. Louis C.K.and a few others have also managed it. Much of the Tosh controversy may well be that he always comes across as an ass (this is based on watching his TV show for five minutes; I really can't tolerate the guy). As some blogger said, Tosh just looks like a guy who has some roofies in his pocket. He may be a really nice guy, he may think rape is a terrible, terrible thing, but if so, his persona does not convey that well. A guy like him should probably just stick to something safe, like jokes about killing people.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Video Game Gender Wars Explode!


There is a huge battle of the sexes going on right now in the world of video games. Two battles in fact, one between the developers of Tomb Raider and some angry women, another between a blogger and some hostile boys and men. In both cases there is a target – the blogger, Tomb Raider – in both cases there are attackers – angry males, angry females – and in both cases the attackers are reacting less to what their targets are actually doing and more to their own underlying fears and concerns.

Case 1: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

Let’s start with the blogger.  Her name is Anita Sarkeesian, and she recently started a Kickstarter project to raise money for “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” which is to be a series of videos “exploring female character stereotypes throughout the history of the gaming industry.”

The series is a follow up to “Tropes vs. Women,” which dealt with certain common film stereotypes of women, like the “evil demon seductress” and the “manic pixie dream girl.” The video game version will include such game staples as the “damsel in distress,” the “fighting fuck toy,” and the “sexy villainous.”

Sarkeesian figured she could make her series for $6,000. She raised that quickly. But she also raised the fury of male gamers who posted savage comments on the kickstarter video’s youtube page mixing rage, sexism and a big dose of anti-semitism. Sarkeesian encountered a lot of hostility elsewhere, including the hacking of her wikipedia page.

The hostility was particularly extraordinary because her proposal was so mild. She said she wanted to look at clich├ęd female video game characters. Anyone who’s not a complete idiot would have to readily admit that these are quite common. But the attackers acted as though she were going to single-handedly destroy all they hold dear with her series of feminist videos. True, many of the attackers were certainly just sullen 13-year-old boys, but sadly, there are a lot of asshole gamers of every age. On the bright side, this nastiness resulted in a strong counterpunch; Sarkeesian’s project received almost $159,000, and will now have over twice as many videos with higher production values. 

Case 2: Tomb Raider

Around the same time this was going on, a trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider game and an interview with its executive producer created a massive feminist backlash against the game, which, like the Sarkeesian’s video series, does not actually exist yet.

Tomb Raider aims to be a “reboot” of a series that has been rebooted several times before. The game, to be released next year, focuses on Lara Croft before she became the self-assured adventurer of previous games. In the trailer we see a young woman lost in the jungle and terrified, desperately trying to make her way to safety and getting bruised and injured in the process. She is far more vulnerable (and less endowed) than previous incarnations.

There is also a scene where she encounters armed bad guys. While her hands are bound, one of them corners her and does something you’ve seen in dozens of films, he leers at her and runs his hand down her thigh. Then, in a less common occurrence, she bites his ear, gets his gun and shoots him.

At the same time this trailer came out, the game’s executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, was interviewed by Kotaku. During the interview, as he was explaining how the game makes the player feel for Lara, he said “they try to rape her.”

That created a huge explosion. Tomb Raider would be a game in which Lara Croft is bruised and bloodied, almost raped, tortured for the pleasure of male gamers. The developers quickly declared that there was no attempted rape, that what you saw in the video was all there was, but by then all hell had broken loose. It didn’t help that Rosenberg had also said that players see Lara not as an extension of themselves but rather as someone to protect, which suggested that he thought all gamers were male (and that all males could not emphathize with women).

The irony is that one of the purported goals of the game was to create a less sexualized, cartoonish Lara Croft, a goal furthered by choosing as lead writer is Rhianna Pratchett, who has been working on the game since “it’s early inception” and whose game Mirror’s Edge contains one of Anita Sarkeesian “all time favorite female characters.”

What is Going On?

So, a woman says, I’m going to talk about sexism in video games and she is met with outrage, an outrage that seems to have bypassed her previous series on film sexism. A game’s few seconds of sexual menace becomes a huge controversy, even though movies have shown far worse.

What’s going on?  Here’s my take on it:

In the early days of video games they were primarily a male pursuit. In fact, they were primarily a nerd male pursuit. But over the years they became more mainstream and less geeky. While at first only the nerd females were joining the nerd males, eventually gaming was a huge part of the culture, and as women became more and more interested in video games, they began to ask to be treated as something more than interlopers.

Women started asking questions like, why if I choose a female character in a MMORPG do I have to wear a bikini? Why do so many games feature heroic men and simpering women? Why can’t we have games where women are cool, smart, tough, and properly dressed for being shot at?

And when they asked those questions, men who thought of video games as their thing heard, “we are going to ruin games. We want them to be really easy and full of unicorns with pink saddles. We want to get rid of foul language and blood and have lots of games with Barbies. We are going to ruin the thing you love most, because we are terrible bitches who don’t want boys to have any fun.”

And that is the subtext underlying these reactions. Furious boys look at Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and see women coming to take their toys away. Women hear talk of rape in Tomb Raider and think, those men are doing it again, turning us into pathetic torture-porn mannequins.

What is really happening is: video games are evolving. It’s an inevitable process in any art form, but it’s a very messy process, action and reaction, steps forward and backward. And the final irony of these two controversies is that those under attack are essentially on the same side. Sarkeesian wants a dialogue about how women are portrayed in games. Tomb Raider is attempting to portray a tough and resourceful human being rather than a buxom cartoon. Both want games to evolve.

There is something very personal about video games. You do not watch them, you inhabit them, and the video game gender wars are not just about what we play, but what we want our second world to be like. Video games have a pre-feminist quality, and women are fighting battles in the video game world that their mothers fought decades ago in the real world.

Expect the yelling to continue.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Favorite French Films of a French Film Hater


No country has put out quite as many tedious films as the French.  If you are looking for a movie of boring people having long, uninteresting conversations, check out Godard’s Breathless or Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach.  If you want a tedious film that goes nowhere, try Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman or Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.  If you want a comedy that isn’t remotely funny, try anything by Jacque Tati.

For years I found myself facing a seemingly inexhaustible supply of “classic” French films that ranged from painfully tedious (La Jette, Weekend) to rather dull (Rules of the Game, Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

For a long time my response to any mention of French films was to say “I hate French films,” but that’s not really true.  While the vast majority I’ve seen are pretty awful, there are a few that are actually amazingly good.  Even though they’re French!  So for any other French-film haters out there, here are a few movies that, in spite of their country of origin, are genuinely entertaining.

French Films I Love


Wages of Fear
After seeing so many bland, talky French movies, I was shocked to discover Wages of Fear, a gritty, suspenseful film with very little conversation and a lot of edge-of-your-seat moments.  Not just a good French movie, but an awesome one. My IMDB review.

The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe
This movie and its sequel (The Return of the Tall Blonde etc....) are witty slapstick movies that have the feel of the Pink Panther series with the stupidest parts removed.  Incredibly clever and funny, these movies prove that the French are actually capable of being shamelessly silly.

City of the Lost Children
Intense, bizarre, surreal, visually stunning, this movie, from the folks who made Delicatessen (another pretty entertaining French film), is almost the opposite in every way of the typical French movie.  It’s hard to believe these guys are French at all.

Hiroshima Mon Amour
One of the greatest films ever made, this classic of the French New Wave is a brilliant example of cinematic art.  While I like many of the movies on this list because they seem very un-French to me, this is definitely a French film, with long conversations and not much in the way of story.  It just happens to be an amazing, ephemeral movie that redefined the boundaries of cinema and is a must-see for anyone who loves film.  It is the best work of director Alain Resnais, but really, everything I’ve seen by him was well worth watching (but I can’t add them to this list, because honestly I don’t remember which ones I’ve seen or whether I loved them a just found them intriguing. I only know I haven’t seen anything of his I didn’t like).  The guy was brilliant and one-of-a-kind, and I find it odd that I hear his name far less in discussions of French filmmakers than I do Godard’s. My IMDB review.

Des nouvelles du bon Dieu
I saw this movie on a local PBS station, and sadly I have never seen the first half hour.  What I did see was a brilliant black comedy about a bunch of people who decide that life is not real and that they are characters in a book.  They eventually go on a search for their author.  I would so love to see the beginning of this film, but it’s pretty much impossible to find anywhere.

Amelie
This was directed by one of the co-directors of City of the Lost Children, but it is a very different kind of movie, sweet and romantic.  But it is just as wonderfully quirky and imaginative as COTLC. It’s also one of those movies that just makes you happy. My IMDB review.

The Artist

A silent film called “The Artist” sounds like something you’d expect to be arty and dull, but instead this best-picture Oscar winner  is a giddy love letter to the silent movie era, a movie that unironically gives us a heroine with moxie and a human-saving canine, but that also plays with our expectations of silent films.  My IMDB review.

French Films I Like


I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I hate all French movies except a handful that are absolutely brilliant.  There are some that I just like.  

The Passion of Joan of Arc
A silent movie that  a film teacher told me had both made and ruined its lead actress, who was so hugely successful in the role that no one could accept her in any other.  Wikipedia, on the other hand, suggests that she found filming this so grueling that she had just had it with film.

Kaena: The Prophecy
A cartoon about creatures living in a big tree, or something.  I barely remember this, but I recall really liking it, and I know I was impressed by the animation.  I recall it getting reviews that I felt were unjustly critical.

Fantastic Planet
This wildly imaginative movie has an interesting story involving humanoids kept as pets by giants, but is most memorable for remarkable creatures and plants doing strange things.  My IMDB review.

La Belle et la Bete
This visually striking filming of Beauty and the Beast has some wonderfully surreal moments, with a castle that is alive in weird and wonderful ways.  

Delicatessen
I don’t love this bizarre dark comedy as much as some people do, but I do appreciate its grim quirkiness.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

why hyperbole is no more okay on the left than on the right

Lately, many of my Facebook friends have been posting a link to the provocatively titled essay in Jezebel, Why Rick Santorum Would Have Killed My Daughter.  It's a very interesting article, and I'd recommend reading it before you continue reading my response.

To boil it down, it is author Sarah Fister Gale's telling of how a pre-natal test saved her unborn daughter's life, and includes a picture of a very cute little girl.  Gale says  the test, called amniocentesis, saved her unborn daughter's life. She goes on to say, "If Rick Santorum had his way, I wouldn't have been able to get that test, and she most likely would have died."

As I read the article I kept expecting her to offer a quote from Santorum, or a link, or something, but that never happened.  It sounded like she was saying he wanted to outlaw amniocentesis, but Gale doesn't ever actually state what his position is.  This left me dissatisfied, so I looked at the comments to see what others had to say

One woman certainly had felt the same way.  I think her name was Barbara, although since I can't find any way to see any of the older comments I can't find what she said now.  But I remember she started by asking Gale to cite Santorum's statements, and then apparently just went off and googled his comments.

What Santorum had said was, without a doubt, moronic.  He feels, like a lot of idiot religious right wingers, that businesses affiliated with religious organizations should be allowed to customize the insurance they offer to deny approval for any procedures they might object to, such as contraception. One procedure he felt they should be able to disallow was amniocentesis, because he says it leads to abortion.  In other words, parents discover their child could be born disabled and have an abortion.

This is, of course, pretty stupid.  It's like saying we shouldn't test for cancer because it increases suicides.  The goal of medical tests is to give information, not to influence behavior.  And as another comment noted, if we allow all religions to determine what insurance can offer, Jehovah Witnesses could deny coverage for blood transfusions, which they don't believe in, and Christian Scientists could disallow everything.

So yes, Santorum is an evil idiot.  But would he have killed Gale's baby?

First off, Gale doesn't say if she got her insurance through a religious organization, so we don't know if Santorum's ideas would have affected her personally.  She does say she couldn't have afforded the test without insurance, so if her insurance had denied the test it's fair to say the child might have died.

But Santorum has not actually proposed to make amniocentesis illegal, although he may want to. And so for me, the whole "Santorum would have killed my daughter" thing doesn't totally fly.

Of course, you can make an argument that really, his policies would wind up killing some kids.  But the problem is, you can make an argument for all sorts of things.

For example, "death panels."  You may remember when idiot queen Sarah Palin said that Obamacare would lead to Death Panels that would decide who lives and who died.  It was a nonsensical thing to say, of course, since it implied that somehow we didn't already have insurance companies deciding whether to provide care to keep people alive or refuse that care.  She was describing something that happens all the time as though it was something that would be ushered in through health care reform.

But while it was misleading, it wasn't exactly untrue.  There would be people deciding whether or not to provide life-saving care.  The fact that it already is that way doesn't change the fact that it would still be that way under Obamacare and thus there would be, after a fashion, death panels.

In other words, it's not the facts so much as the implication that was untrue.

And that's how I feel about Gale's article.  You can make an argument that yes, Santorum would have killed her daughter, but it's a weak argument.  It's so weak that she didn't offer a single quote from Santorum, or link to anything he's said, because she knew the piece would be less powerful if she introduced the messiness of his actual positions over the clarity of his implied positions.

But why not call Santorum a killer?  Won't that work as propaganda, and save us from a Santorum presidency?  "Death panels" was, after all, a very effective way to undermine health care reform.

And yes, it will work, with some people.  Many  will unquestioningly accept that Santorum must want to outlaw medical procedures.  In fact, this approach is probably most effective with Santorum supporters, because they're all idiots to begin with (do I have any evidence to support that?  Just listen to five minutes of Santorum and decide if anyone who was not an idiot could possibly vote for the guy).

In other words, it will work on people who don't question, who don't ask for proof.  But for those who want more than blanket, unsupported statements, this sort of hyperbole simply makes us suspicious of everything someone says.  If you say 99 true things and tell one lie, many people will dismiss those 99 true things, because you are a liar.

Thus, beyond the morality of hurling charges of dubious merit at one's opponents, there is the risk that an important message can get lost because of a stupid, unnecessary exaggeration.  Santorum can be shown to be so horrible on so many levels, there is no need to accuse him of theoretical homicide just to make a point.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

tips on tips on Sleep No More

Last night I saw the theater performance dance piece Sleep No More, which was fantastic.  In brief, the audience is masked and wanders around 4 floors of an old hotel while actors act out Macbeth in dance and pantomime.  It's really cool.

Because it's so unusual, people who have seen it like to give advice to those who haven't.  My friends did, and you can find tons of SNM tips online.  Many tips are repeated over and over, forming a common wisdom, but some I feel were, for me, a little off the mark.  So I thought I'd offer my takes on some common tips.  This is based on a single viewing, and every person's experience varies, but this is what I thought.

But First: Tips on whether to search for tips

Because Sleep No More is so unusual you might be tempted to try and maximize what you get from the experience by gathering advice.  I did that, and it worked well for me, but my girlfriend says she thinks she would have preferred going with less knowledge and expectations.  I think the ideal way to approach Sleep No More would be to see it twice, once totally ignorant of what you are in store for, and a second time before which you could look up how to see all the most interesting things (you'd have to go several times to see everything of note).  Sadly, my budget does not allow for that.

Outside of a few basics, like knowing there are bathrooms on the fifth floor and that you need to wear comfortable clothes and shoes you can run in, you might consider whether you're the sort of person who would prefer to just explore without preconceptions, or the sort who really wants a very specific experience comprised of the "best" moments.  Act accordingly.

Tips on Common Wisdom Tips 

Read Macbeth, or at least a synopsis, before going: Everyone says to do this, but I don't know how useful it really is.  I've read and seen the play, and I read a synopsis before I went, and I still didn't know who most of the people were.  And even when I knew who people were, and what scene was being acted out, I didn't feel that knowledge added anything to the experience.  If you're trying to get to specific scenes it's useful to know who the characters are so you know who to follow, but that's about it.  Truthfully, I think an argument could be made for experiencing Sleep No More with no idea of what Macbeth is about.  Then you and your friends could all try and figure it out afterwards.

Look in every drawer, check every door: People say if you open all the drawers in all the bureaus and desks you can find neat stuff, and that if you open closed doors you'll find secret rooms.  But there is so much to look at and so many rooms to see that unless you've already gone a couple of times it's seems kind of silly to bother with.  I did not find any secret rooms; closed doors generally just lead to rooms I'd already gone into through an open door, and while it's cool that you can open a drawer and find faded baby pictures, the diaries and date planners and whatever I looked at never had anything interesting written in them.  Personally I would rather see the performances than search for tchotchkes.  Of course, if you want to find secret rooms, google around and I imagine you can find exactly where they are.

Wear contacts if you need glasses: Since you have to wear a mask the entire time, it makes sense to not wear glasses if you can avoid it, for the sake of comfort.  However, I feel people exaggerate the importance of this .  My number-one worry about seeing the play was the my glasses would be a big problem, and they really weren't; they were probably less of an issue than when I watch a 3D movie.  Of course, if you have those really big, square plastic frames it might be more of an issue, but for me it was really fine. So wear contacts if you can, but don't fret if that's not an option.

Go it alone: People generally say that if you're going with friends, don't try and stay together.  Split up and follow who you like.  This is reasonable advice; since you can't talk you can neither coordinate actions well nor share thoughts on the performance, but it's also fun with a partner.  If you want to go as a pair, my advice is, decide on one person to be in charge.  You have to respond quickly sometimes, and since you can't say things like "I hear a sound over there, let's check it out," or, "this is kind of boring, do you want to look around?" it's easier if you just have one person lead the other.  You could of course switch leadership roles at some point if you like, just make all decisions ahead of time. I saw half the play by myself then teamed up with my girlfriend for the second half, and I think that's the best of both worlds.

A Couple of  Tips of My Own

Finding events: At times you will find yourself wandering around aimlessly with no idea where any of the actors are.  In this case, I found it is usually helpful to move towards the music that is pumped through various speakers.  While some areas simply always have loud portentous music, hearing an old song or a sudden rise or change in the music somewhere is more often than not a sign that something is happening there.  My girlfriend suggested that these are musical cues to help the actors know where they should be, which seems likely, as they all need to be tightly coordinated with each other to make this work.  The other thing to do is look for people moving purposefully.  Often they are either the actors or people following the actors or people who have seen the play before and know where something is about to happen.

Don't worry about missing stuff: There's a lot of stuff to see, and if you get a lot of advice and schedule things just right you could tailor-make a tour of great moments the way people with a week in Europe tour all the famous places.  But that's not really how SNM is set up.  It's an experience; take what comes, explore, and don't get hung up on every little thing (although it can be worthwhile to know of a couple of the coolest scenes and how to find them).

Come early regardless of start time:  We had a start time ticket of 8 (note: if you want maximum exploration time, get the earliest possible ticket, as regardless of when you enter you can stay until 10), but we were let in something like 20 minutes before that.  

Hang out a while after:  There's a nice little nightclub where you wait before the play and return to at the end.  You can see very good live music there, so hang out.  They also have drinks, and while I don't really drink, I had a sip of the absinthe drink my girlfriend ordered and it was very tasty.

Comments on my personal experience

These are just a few thoughts based on what I saw.  These are very specific, so if you want to go without knowing specifics, don't read this.

Who to follow: I followed Macbeth for a good while, and he has a lot of cool scenes.  I also followed one of the witches for a while, which was worthwhile, although a scene where she moves the forest goes on a little too long.  Macbeth or any of the witches can be followed to lead you to the cool strobe-light orgy scene.  I didn't follow the pregnant woman, but I came across her in a couple of good scenes so she's probably a good one to follow.  My girlfriend followed Lady Macbeth for a while and said she was very entertaining.

Lady with a suitcase: At one point I saw some meeting between a man and a woman, and then the woman went into a room, sat at a table, unlocked and went into another room, got a suitcase, and wandered around some more.  I followed her far longer than I should have, as she's really boring in that part.  So if you see her my advice is go elsewhere.  I hope she gets to do something interesting at some point.

Card game: If you're in the pool room and people are playing cards, it will go on for a while but then there will be a very entertaining scene.  You'll know it's coming when you hear music cues and a scuffle outside (I considered running out to see what was going on, but by that time I was probably better off waiting where I was).


Lady Macbeth's bath: If you want to see Lady Macbeth naked you can (right after the banquet scene), but I didn't think it was a very interesting scene.  

Who's who

Macbeth is dressed in dark clothes and has blood on his face for a lot of the play, but other characters are harder to describe without just describing the actors, which is pointless since they're not always the same.  There's a scene in a banquet hall with people moving in slow motion that is useful to figure out who's who.  In that, Macbeth is all the way to the left, Lady Macbeth is all the way to the right, and I think the guy in the middle is the king.  Two of the witches, one male, one female, are on the right side of the table; If I remember correctly, Banquo's ghost sits between them.  The other witch is on the left side making out with two people at once.