17 November 2014

Lost American institutions

Today I tweeted Jason Segedy's manifesto The Rising Tide, which calls for Generation X to step up as we enter our middle years and reclaim the American public institutions which were destroyed when we arrived on the scene.

My generation has never known an America that had much in the way of authentic community.

We came of age at a time when things were atomizing and fragmenting — our cities, our corporations, our public institutions, and even our very own families.

....

Now we are becoming middle-aged. And slowly but surely, we are learning that for good or for bad, we are the leaders. We are the system. We are “The Man”.

We still fear that no one is going to come help us. But we also now know that we are on the hook. We know that if we break it, we buy it. We know that if we do break it, we will have no one else to blame but ourselves.

In a Twitter reply, Stacy Lawless calls shenanigans on the age before our own.

That togetherness culture we lost? Was white. Wealthy. Post-WWII. Always been many Americas. What Gen-X lost was not really worth keeping imho — Leave it to Beaver hegemony.

I agree with Lawless about the hollowness of the lost shared institutions of American life because they excluded people of color (and others).

But that's why we need to return to those institutions, and include everybody.

What killed that (White) “togetherness culture” that Segedy describes in America before the era of Generation X? We dismantled it because of White bigotry.

An apocryphal story says that Lyndon Johnson said that signing the Civil Rights Act cost the Democratic Party the South for a generation. Though almost certainly not factual, the story is true. When American liberalism declared itself dedicated to racial equity at public institutions, movement conservatism figured out that it could sell the destruction of public institutions by hinting that Black people benefitted too much from them. And so even Whites who hunger for a stronger public sphere turned against it out of bigotry: if they couldn't keep Black people out of public institutions, then they would rather not have them at all.

Generation X and Millenials like to imagine that we have overcome the bigotry of previous generations, but that's a fantasy: we have plenty of bigotry ourselves. But we are better than previous generations, and the demographics of Xers and Millenials are Blacker and Browner, and we are hungry for a vital public sphere. The time has come for another bite at the apple. We can build public institutions better than the ones we had before, not least in including everyone.

The alternative is give in to the “fear that no one is going to come help us”, that public institutions are impossible, and walk into the neo-feudal neoliberal nightmare that is being prepared for us, thinking that no alternative is possible. But I remain hopeful that we will choose otherwise.

Misreading a story

Yesterday I tweeted a link to a post on Bill Murray Stories. I said:

Bill Murray: the only person in the world who is truly free

I said that because I've long been fascinated by the legend of Pablo Picasso. Late in his career, the story goes, Picasso realized that his fame meant that he could stop handling money. He would go to a fancy restaurant, and when the cheque came, rather than pay it he would draw a little doodle on it and sign it. The restauranteur would be able to sell the cheque with the doodle for much more money than the meal cost ... and likely wouldn't even sell it, but keep it as a memento and curiosity.

It is widely reported that Bill Murray is among the few people who have entered into a similar space, traveling around having little adventures enabled by his fame. This is connected to Murray's eccentric, funny, unthreatening persona.

That persona affected how I read the story, and helped me miss something really important.

Bill said, “Look a wedding — I think we’re all invited”. So we all followed Bill over to the wedding.

That's a setup for a classic Bill Murray Surprise story. He's gatecrashing a wedding. Now here's the bit that I misread:

Bill walks right over to the bride and groom, takes the bride in his hands, leans her over and sorta kisses her, stands her back up and says, “There, now she’s all warmed up for you.”

Picturing Murray, I imagined all this as a quiet, surreal, silly moment. Most of Murray's performances as an actor have him delivering a kind of deadpan calm at his own nuttiness that still winks at us that he knows that we think his behavior is bizarre. And he moves slowly, letting other actors react. So I saw Murray approaching the Bride, her bemusedly accepting his lead into a little faux dancer's dip, him feigning a light kiss on the cheek. When he declared her “all warmed up”, it was funny in my mind because I imagined the joke as being that the “kiss” was deliberately awkward and sexless, making “warmed up” the furthest description possible from the truth. Sweet and silly.

But that reading of the story is not a safe assumption at all. If heard this story about Not Bill Murray, maybe some big dudebro, that story is skeevy as hell. It is, in fact, sexual harassment and assault. He grabbed her and kissed her and declared her “all warmed up for you”? Ugh.

Now Murray is not a big dudebro, he's a slight, scruffy-looking old guy. But picturing Not Bill Murray primes one to think of all the ways that this scene could have been ugly. Real Bill Murray isn't Movie Bill Murray. He doesn't have rehearsals and multiple takes and a director's eye to help him get to the version of this scene that reads as safe and goofy. So while I submit that there are ways that we might imagine that scene which are innocent, there are a lot more ways that are creepy and wrong. And they're a lot more likely.

I don't mean this exegesis as an indictment of Bill Murray. I'm not even certain that any of this took place; there's a very good chance that the story on the website is a misrepresentation, or even an outright fabrication.

I mean this exegesis as an indictment of me. I was bewitched by the legend of Murray's adventures and his persona into being able to conceive of the innocent version of this encounter. And since the author of the post wasn't horrified, I subconsciously presumed that it wasn't horrifying, taking the innocent version as the obvious way to imagine the story. But that's not a safe presumption at all. Why didn't I see it? In large part because I'm a fella and don't need to worry about it, and it took Facebook comments from a couple of women to bring it up for me.

So that's my unhappy reminder of rape culture for the day.

Interstellar

F*%&ing Nolan.

Interstellar stinks. It stinks as only something created by an army of capable people can stink.

It is not a noble failure. It is wrongheaded root and branch. It indicts all of Nolan's films which I have enjoyed as strokes of luck.

It invites comparison to other space films like Sunshine and Soderbergh's Solaris and Mission To Mars and Gravity and — of course — 2001 and it suffers next to each of them.

I left the theater angry.


Mild spoilers ahead.


This was one of those bad movies with a lot of good things in it, so I can confess to a number of things that I liked:

  • Nolan's use of practical effects as much as possible. He is a champ about using practicals — I think my favorite thing about Batman Begins is the palpably real Batmobile. There's still a lot of computer graphics in this picture, but only when really necessary. A lot of stuff was done with models and puppets and real sets, and it makes a difference.
  • Good actors did their level best to sell the script they'd been given.
  • Cooper's reply to the nose-pinching schoolteacher who has a problem with his daughter is delicious. My cinema companion said, “good parenting” because McConaughey delivered it so convincingly.
  • The chase after the drone was fun and quietly science-fictional.
  • Looking into the wormhole and seeing the other side gravitationally lensed through it was cool for a physics nerd like me.
  • Romilly's face when he sees his crewmates again after a long wait tells a lot of story in a silent moment.
  • The first scene when we see Mann is cool. We can smell it coming that this will be an uncredited actor who will give us the character with their persona just by showing up, and sure enough we get the exact right actor.
  • The robot's spinning run is nifty. Really, all the stuff with the robots is nifty; I wanted more of them.
  • The look of the Borges Thing Inside The Wormhole is flat gorgeous. A friend commented that it would make a good setting for a Japanese horror film.
  • The look of the black hole was gorgeous, and the story behind it is pretty great.
  • The use of relativistic time dilation as a plot device on Miller's planet was some proper science fiction.
  • Sound cutting out for the exteriors in space was often really affecting. An old trick, but still a good one.
  • TARS' line “I'll see you on the other side,” is cool in itself, and then pays off a little later in the film.
  • Michael Caine is great.
  • Jessica Chastain's cheekbones. Zowie.

But.

The main problem is that I simply didn't believe the characters. The worst thing about them is we get several people too wrapped up in their own selfish BS. It kept making me think of Sunshine, a movie I love despite the catastrophic misfire of a third act. In Sunshine we have people on a mission for The Only Chance To Save The Earth and they are — as people who would undertake that mission would be — quietly aware of the stakes. They are prepared to make whatever sacrifices they need to for that purpose — compared to the fate of the Earth, their own lives are unimportant — and they've already come to terms with that before we even meet them. They don't even discuss it, it's just part of the silent background, so the movie lets us in the audience do the math and find it noble and tragic.

Even Michael Bey's Armageddon understood this.

But the characters in Interstellar are wrapped up in themselves and do dumb things because of it. It's obviously supposed to be heartbreakingly human, but it read to me as implausible and inhuman. It takes Mann to a place that feels not like honest characterization but absurdly unrealistic behavior which is just there to move things in the way Nolan wants to set up an effects sequence and the next round of plot machinery. I flat did not believe it. Nolan is a chilly filmmaker, and that can be okay, but in this picture I felt like I was in the hands of an alien trying to manipulate my Strange Hu-Man Emotions.

The other big problem is that the film is just not well-crafted on a technical level. There are some striking images, but Nolan doesn't know how to assemble the elements into good cinema. Here's Tony “Every Frame A Painting” Zhou (* * *):

Interstellar confirmed many things I’ve felt about Chris Nolan: he is who he is, I am who I am, and this is where we respectfully part ways.
I’m honestly just not feeling it anymore. I don’t wanna sit through 169 mins of shot — reverse shot, handheld, lazy staging, and loud music.
I wasn’t moved emotionally. I couldn’t soak in the majesty of space. I wasn’t inspired by a single shot. I thought the editing was rly bad.

More particular gripes:

  • There's a heck of a lot of exposition in the movie. Despite it, I still had to work hard to figure out what was going on, supporting it with some outside knowledge of physics, and even with all that I felt lost some of the time.
  • That effects sequence with all the spinning? I sure would have been impressed by it ... had I not already seen Gravity.
  • In fact, Gravity showed what was wrong with a lot of the exterior shots in space in Interstellar. The frame in Gravity always felt like it contained more than I could take in, but in truth it was just a little more than I could process because it never kept me from following the main thing that was happening. In Interstellar there are many shots and sequences that are so busy that I got entirely lost.
  • Speaking of visual noise, the movie is also full of audible noise. Loud music. Loud background sounds. Sometimes the dialogue was inaudible. After the half-inaudible villain in The Dark Knight Rises, you would think Nolan would learn.
  • I do not believe that lady astronauts have time to keep their eyebrows that well groomed.
  • Given Plan B, why did they only bring one lady astronaut? Why were there any boy astronauts at all, in fact?
  • What was up with Topher Grace showing up out of nowhere? Obviously something wound up on the cutting room floor, because I think we were supposed to care about him. Or at least know who he was.
  • The Power Of Love? Really?
  • That amount of forced Closure is M Night Shalaman's signature move. We enjoyed it that one time with The Sixth Sense, but we do not admire him for it.

03 November 2014

Apple

Stanislav, eccentric operating system designer of Loper OS, points out the obvious about Apple's unique position in the tech industry.

I argue that Apple now has not one but two monopolies:
  1. A nearly-total monopoly on computer (and pocket computer) systems designed with good taste.
  2. A total monopoly on the Microsoft-free, hassle-free personal computer.

It goes on to say that Apple's exceptionally good and coherent design depends upon Steve Jobs magic, which I don't think is true. Other companies could deliver good and coherent design — in fact, there's a lot of room to do categorically better design than Apple's — but other companies don't. It's not that they don't know how, it's that they don't understand what design is.

02 November 2014

2014 California ballot endorsements

Some friends have asked how I'm voting in the California election on Tuesday, since there are a number of tricky ballot initiatives. So these are my endorsements. I drew a lot on the voting guides from KQED and the reliably-progressive SF Bay Guardian. (Update: After posting this, Peter Merholz pointed me to Pete Rates The Propositions, which makes the surprising and surprisingly persuasive argument that one should vote Yes on every proposition right here. If nothing else, you should check out his discussion of 48 as a witty piece of writing.)

It's worth noting that as a general rule, I'm hesitant to support California ballot propositions, because they create changes in the law that are very difficult to update. This is especially true for propositions which affect taxation and funding. A big part of why California has a budget crisis almost every year is because the accretion of rules and set-asides from past ballot initiatives has made budgeting into a kind of unwinnable Jenga game.


Water infrastructure bond

Proposition 1 — Yes

I think we don't spend enough on infrastructure, and this year's drought is a reminder of California's dependence on complex water infrastructure. One can certainly conceive of a better policy, and better mechanisms for funding it. But politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the conceivable. Without this bond, California water infrastructure will suffer.

Why might one vote No instead?

If you want to strike a symbolic blow against bond issues because you are stupid and think the state should never take on debt, or because you want to strike a symbolic blow against California's water management infrastructure because you read Cadillac Desert, you might want to consider voting No.


State rainy day fund

Proposition 2 — No

This looks likely to pass. I understand the appeal of the idea, nobody serious seems to oppose it, and the legislation seems reasonably well-crafted. But as I'm a crank who is opposed to this budget-by-proposition process, I'm voting No.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

It is an improvement to the ineffectual old law, and the Rainy Day Fund is not a bad idea.


Health insurance rate regulation

Proposition 45 — No

This initiative to tweak California's health insurance regulatory apparatus gives more power to the Commissioner, which might be a good idea. Or might not. It's hard to say.

Again, when in doubt, I vote No.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

Health insurance companies are spending a lot of money to fight this proposition. When it comes to health insurance regulation, you could do a lot worse than run the opposite direction from where insurers are pointing.


Medical malpractice regulation

Proposition 46 — No

This is a bundle of several forms of regulation, including drug testing of doctors.

There's stuff in here to like, but making doctors pee in a cup offends me. And there's a lot going on in the proposition, which spooks me. If part of the policy is good and part of it is bad, it's going to be difficult to dislodge if it passes.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

The core element of this proposition — raising the malpractice suit award limit — is probably a good idea.


Reduced criminal sentencing

Proposition 47 — YES YES YES

This is the key item which I feel excited about. It turns a lot of minor property and drug crimes that are now felonies into misdemeanors. If you're reading me, then you're probably familiar with all the reasons why I would say that the criminal justice system is harsh in the wrong ways, which makes this a welcome change.

Why might one vote No instead?

If you're a vindictive person who supports the racist prison-industrial complex, you might vote against this proposition.


Off-reservation tribal casino

Proposition 48 — No

Allowing casinos is bad policy: there's no stopping people from gambling, but creating a wealthy, powerful corporate entity with an interest in encouraging gambling is asking for trouble. Despite that, I support casinos on Indian reservations because I'm adamant in support of the independence of governance of reservations. But this casino is not on a reservation.

The arguments in favor of this proposition are such weak tea that looking at the official pro-48 website actually made me less sympathetic to the initiative. So again: when in doubt, I vote No.

Why might one vote Yes instead?

Given a horrific history of genocide and oppression, at this point it's a good idea to try to err in favor of giving Native Americans what they want.


State offices — The Democrats

If you know me, you know that I'm a believer in “partisanship”. Saying “I don't vote for the party, I vote for the candidate” isn't a demonstration that you're above bonehead politics, it's a demonstration that you're naïve. Given the options, I'm voting for all Democratic candidates on the slate.


Superintendent of Schools — Torlakson

My trusted informant on school policy tells me, “Tom Torlakson is doing a good job, and Marshall Tuck is a charter school asshole.”

I've been following the charter school movement for some time now. I'm sympathetic to a hunger for serious school reform in the US, but like a lot of progressives I've become very critical of the charter school movement, which reflects not reform-minded educators but rather meddling amateurs motivated by neoliberal ideology.

Gems of Netflix Instant

For now, this is a short list, but I'm putting up this post as a place to keep short reviews of surprisingly-good obscure films available on Netflix Instant View.

Resolution

I hesitate to say too much, because I saw it on Max Landis' advice ...

go in knowing nothing. no trailer. not even genre.
... which proved to be wise. But my mission here is to provide a review which tells you whether you want to see the movie. It's not for everyone, but it's a terrific little film in its way.

It's sort of a psychological horror film. That is a somewhat misleading genre description, but serves well enough to tell you if you don't want to see the film.

There are no jump scares. No frightening or disturbing images. There isn't even spooky music. Just some scary ideas that the film admirably takes its time setting up for us.

A big part of the charm is its zero-budget cleverness. It was obviously made on a shoestring, very simply shot and assembled using the simple tricks of post-production that a filmmaker on a budget can achieve with cheap software on their laptop. It asks very little of its actors other than being not-awkward on screen, though it gets quietly good performances out of all of its major players. Being able to achieve so much with so little makes it a treat for a cinephile.

Equilibrium

A perfect mid-budget science fiction action movie. I've been meaning to write a long post about it for years, but a short review will suffice for my purposes here.

The film is a weird cocktail. Like a good pop song, it revisits a bunch of familiar moves but makes that familiarity not tired but part of its satisfactions. There's dystopian imagery lifted from 1984 and Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, including some great use of location shooting in ugly concrete Eastern European buildings. There's preposterous fight scenes featuring a martial art called “gun-kata” which is exactly what it sounds like, but they work in the context of the film.

Fun to watch, and just smart enough.

The Trip

Part food-porn travel movie, part windy comic actor's showcase, this movie mostly exists to give the wonderful Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon an opportunity to banter, though there's also an affecting core of character drama that sneaks up on you. The bit where they argue over who does the best Michael Caine impression is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

The Believer

This scary, compelling little film emerged from the director reading about an American neo-Nazi who was Jewish. What could possibly motivate such a person? The film offers a plausible-feeling answer in its protagonist, played by a magnetic and not-yet-famous Ryan Gosling.

The Station Agent

A charming, odd little character study that is the kind of thing one hopes for when going to see a “quirky” independent film. It's full of funny, human performances, low-key humor and drama, and inventive little bits of cinematic storytelling. Seeing it made me smug about knowing what a terrific actor Peter Dinklage is before Game of Thrones made him into a celebrity.

Punch-Drunk Love

Director Paul Thomas Anderson describes this film as his own entry into the genre of “Adam Sandler movies”. And it does star Sandler and it does hit all the notes of Sandler's personal mini-genre ... only it's shot as if by David Lynch, surreal and disjointed and horrifying. Small wonder that few people have seen it.

It's not entertaining, and I'm not sure I even could claim to have liked it, but it surprised and amazed me at every turn, so that I sure am glad I saw it.