Who Watches the Watchmen in Vietnam? by mattsteinglass
April 4, 2009, 3:32 am
Filed under: Books, Media, Vietnam

Not many, as it turns out. “Watchmen” has been playing at the Hanoi Megastar Cineplex since March 20; when I went at 8:15 pm tonight, the seats were half full. I went largely because I wondered how the Vietnamese censors would deal with the sections of the movie in which Dr. Manhattan wins the war. The answer: incoherently. They left in the sequence in which the good Dr. strolls along pointing at Viet Cong guerrillas, who obligingly explode; they left in a conversation between Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian in some kind of Vietnamese bar, where The Comedian says “If we had lost this war, I think it’d have driven us crazy”; they left in a moment where Dr. Manhattan says “Nixon asked me to intervene in Vietnam, something his predecessors would not have done.” There was clearly some Vietnam footage cut out, as there was a significant jump-cut right after the Vietnam bar scene and somewhere else. But there was certainly enough in there to get the gist of things.

And how did the Vietnamese audience react? Generally pretty unexcited by both the Vietnam portions of the movie and the other portions of the movie. I talked to a 20-year-old university student afterwards named Thong Duc Thanh. “This was maybe the third or fourth worst movie I’ve ever seen,” he said. He found it boring. And what about the provocative America-wins-the-Vietnam-War scenes? “I think it’s the same idea as if America had used nuclear weapons in the war,” Thanh said. “And if America used nuclear weapons, the Russians would have used nuclear weapons. And then we wouldn’t be standing here talking about this now.” Guy has a point. On the “boring” allegation, it was pretty clear that the Vietnamese audience had no understanding of many of the telltale alternate-reality-signaling plot points. When we see a newspaper headline “Nixon Reelected for 3rd Term,” that means nothing to Vietnamese; they don’t know that US Presidents are limited to two terms, they don’t know Nixon was forced to step down midway through his second term, so it doesn’t register as a bitter joke. Neither does the last scene, where a newspaper kid announces Ronald Reagan may run for President in 1988 and the editor dismisses the suggestion; Vietnamese don’t know when Ronald Reagan was president.

I actually quite liked the film, though I was disappointed at the absence of lesbian cab drivers and gruesome pirate comics.


Guns, Germs, and Shibboleths by mattsteinglass
December 26, 2007, 9:47 am
Filed under: Books, Environment, Science

George Johnson has a very confused critique of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” in today’s Science Times. It begins inauspiciously, as he acknowledges that his first exposure to “Collapse” consisted of listening to the first chapter of the audiobook while driving from the airport to an academic colloquium on the book near Tucson. I know reporters are busy people, but is it too much to expect someone to read the book before he attends the conference? Then we get a weird interlude in which he visits a kitschy souvenir store advertising something called “The Thing”. This turns out to be the mummified remains of an Indian woman and child. Then he gives us a far-fetched interpretive reach:

“The Thing” looked human, or maybe like pieces of human dolled up with papier-mâché. Either way, it seemed like a fitting symbol for the complaints I’d been hearing about Dr. Diamond: that through the wide-angle lenses of his books, people appear not as thinking agents motivated by dreams and desires, ideas and ideologies, but as pawns of their environment. As things.

If these really are the complaints he’s been hearing about Diamond, they seem like weird complaints. That first chapter of “Collapse”, about the Easter Islanders denuding their own island of palm trees in an irrational beggar-thy-neighbor competition to build larger stone moabs, hardly characterizes the islanders as “things”. “Things” don’t have status competitions.

Johnson goes on to explain the critique a bit better: Diamond is accused by some anthropologists of giving undue weight to environmental and geographical factors in determining the long-arc paths of human history, rather than cultural or volitional, human-determined factors. One Deborah Gewertz, of Amherst, complains that in Diamond, “The haves are not to be blamed for the condition of the have-nots.” Which pretty much tells you where she’s coming from. But then Johnson moves seamlessly on to Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii, who contests Diamond’s account of the fall of Easter Island:

Deforestation, he said, was caused not by people, but by predatory Polynesian rats, with the human population remaining stable until the introduction of European diseases.

Dr. Diamond, he said, “shifts all of the burden to people and their stupidity rather than to a complex ecosystem where these things interact.”

Okay, wait a minute. A second ago, Diamond was blamed for putting all the blame on environmental factors, rather than on human decisions. Now, he’s blamed for putting all the blame on human decisions, rather than on environmental factors. This critique, it might be noted, is no more accurate than the first one. One of the major factors Diamond finds determining civilizational sustainability on Pacific islands in “Collapse” is the distance of the island from the “dust plume” blowing off the Asian mainland, which replenishes island topsoil. Easter Island was especially vulnerable because it’s the furthest island from the Asian dust plume. This “shifts all the burden to people” rather than “a complex ecosystem”? Really?

What is this, other than a bunch of people whining, for different reasons, about an academic whose book is more famous and successful than their own?

The Hague by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2007, 11:13 am
Filed under: Books, Oddities, United States

An odd English transliteration of “Den Haag”, short for “‘s-Gravenhage”, “the count’s hedge”; in its abbreviated and universally recognized form it simply means “the hedge”. As everyone knows, it’s the capital of the Netherlands and the headquarters of the International Court of Justice (or “World Court”) and, more recently, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court. It is the place where the world, in its perhaps arrested moment of international humanitarian consensus in the late ’90s, decided it would send people like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Liberia’s Charles Taylor: heads of state who planned, executed or abetted genocide, mass rape, the amputation of hands and so forth.

Robert Lowell’s poem “Stalin” compares the state to a hedge.

The state, if we could see behind the wall,
is woven of perishable vegetation.
Stalin? What shot him clawing up the tree of power —
millions plowed under with the crops they grew,
his intimates dying like the spider-bridegroom?

Lowell wrote the poem during Watergate, a political moment closely analogous in its comprehensive frustration, disgust and despair to the present one.

The laws and institutions that hold the state together are precisely as strong as people’s instinctive commitment to following them. They are surprisingly easy to kill; one need only have a parasitical body of some kind, a weed, which wraps itself around them, tighter and tighter. With enough people inside the hedge who no longer care about the aims and rules that structured the hedge, the hedge dies. There are a large number of such parasitical actors inside our government at the moment, who could use a stern reminder of how their actions are killing off the “perishable vegetation” of the state. Perhaps we could send them to The Hague for a lesson.

David Brooks is appallingly stupid by mattsteinglass
May 29, 2007, 11:56 am
Filed under: Books, Media, United States

It just needs to be repeated, from time to time, when he writes idiotic crap like this.

Addendum: it’s often hard to know where to begin refuting grade-school garbage like the piece Brooks wrote today, but here’s a try. Gore’s book analyzes a broad de-emphasis on reason in the public sphere over the past decade or two, an embrace of spin and sensationalism over dispassionate analysis of data and coherent argument.

Now, a rejoinder to Gore’s critique might argue that this isn’t really true, that reason does remain important in the public sphere. Or it might argue that reason wasn’t any more important in previous democratic epochs, that propaganda and fear-mongering played a tremendous role in American democracy in the 1940s and ’50s as well, and were often important in the victory of causes Gore himself probably supports.

But it takes a David Brooks to argue, in response to Gore’s book, that reason is bad and that, because he believes in the importance of reason, Gore is a nerdy weirdo:

He envisions a sort of Vulcan Utopia, in which dispassionate individuals exchange facts and arrive at logical conclusions…. [The horror. – ed.]

This in turn grows out of a bizarre view of human nature. Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.

The reality, of course, is there is no neat distinction between the “higher” and “lower” parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the “rational” mind and the “visceral” body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore’s simplistic pseudoscience….

Some great philosopher should write a book about people — and there are many of them — who flee from discussions of substance and try to turn them into discussions of process. Utterly at a loss when asked to talk about virtue and justice, they try to shift attention to technology and methods of communication.

What unbelievable idiocy. Appalling, anti-intellectual garbage. Because Gore wants to analyze the effects of different media on political discussion, he is “at a loss” regarding virtue and justice??? Unbelievable. At least it’s clear what has led Brooks to support the Bush Administration for so long: he thinks logic is bad and fear is good. Okay then.

Mark Helprin is a Greedy Man by mattsteinglass
May 21, 2007, 9:33 am
Filed under: Books, Law, Media

The right-wing hack and author of “Winter’s Tale” (which all my friends who grew up in New York seem to love) makes a plea to extend the duration of copyright privileges to…forever. This completely moronic idea, which would have every high school in the English-speaking world paying the far-flung relatives and heirs of Shakespeare every time they put on a production of “Romeo & Juliet”, is so extraordinarily bad that it seems impossible even to begin to describe its badness. Try this one on: if copyrights last forever, why shouldn’t patents? What makes the writer of a great novel more worthy than the discoverer of a miracle cure? Okay, then: imagine a society in which Bayer still had monopoly rights to aspirin, and it cost $5 a pill. Here’s another one: say I’m a young indie director and I want to make a nostalgic movie about my childhood in the early ’90s. What music should be playing in the background? “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, right? But guess what — I can’t put that in my movie. Not unless I have tens of thousands of dollars. Now, what the hell gives Geffen (or whoever owns the Nirvana rights these days) the right to prohibit me from making art about my childhood unless I pony up fifty grand? Copyright does. We tolerate the inhibiting effect of this limited-monopoly system on art about the recent past, because it’s necessary as an incentive to creators to make their art. But what Helprin is proposing is to extend this system to FOREVER. So no one will be able to make art about ANY period, ever, unless they strip it of all references to the media products which were circulating at the time, or pay every author and performer of every bit of art that’s included.

Let’s put this even more simply.

Dear Mr. Mark Helprin,

It has come to our attention that you are the author of a novel entitled “Winter’s Tale” (1983). As the legal representatives of the heirs of William Shakespeare, we hereby demand that you alter the title of your work, which bears an unacceptable similarity to the title of a work by Mr. Shakespeare, “A Winter’s Tale” (1610). Your work violates our clients’ long-established trademark in that title, creating a risk of confusion on the part of customers between the two works — a risk which, we contend, you are deliberately exploiting in order to increase sales of your own work. We further demand that you immediately recall all copies of your work currently distributed for sale. Finally, we claim monetary compensation for your past exploitation of our trademarked title, in the sum of 20 percent of all revenues from the work, as well as 20 percent of any revenues you have derived from the sale of rights to a motion picture adaptation of said work.


Perp, Etual, & Monopoly, Attorneys-at-Law

Dear Mr. Eric Rohmer,

It has come to our attention that you are the director of a film entitled “Conte d’Hiver” (1992)…

Poetry in Novels by mattsteinglass
May 17, 2007, 11:01 am
Filed under: Books

I’m reading Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty”, which is wonderful, and in Book 2, Chapter 2, she pulls off a trick few novelists could manage: she inserts a poem ostensibly written by one of the characters, the renowned poet Claire Malcolm; and it’s good. (It had better be, given that the Malcolm is supposed to be a tenured, first-rank poet.) The poem, notably, is entitled “On Beauty”, which is doubly risky because clearly now the poem is intended to be read thematically towards or against the entirety of the novel — so if the poem fails, then there’s a substantial risk of throwing the weight of the novel itself awry.

But one of the tricks Smith uses to artfully set the poem up is worth noting: Claire is depicted, through the first 150 pages of the book, as someone who may well be shallow, and is certainly more than a bit irritating. She launches into left-wing political harangues at the slightest provocation (and sometimes without it), with an ungrounded literary academic’s flightiness and hyperbole, perfectly captured but not belabored in Smith’s dialogue. She is insistently, wearyingly enthusiastic, forever hauling out recherche adjectives to capture the purported aesthetic quiddities of experiences that are simply not that interesting; she seems compelled to demonstrate at every moment what an inspired person she is. Even her presentation of her 30-year-old poem, in the scene, is falsely coquettish (“God, I look so ridiculous!” she says of the author photo, in which she is stunningly gorgeous at 23; after she reads it, “Oh, it’s just old crap”) — so we are prepared for the poem to fail, or to succeed. We approach it with suspense: will it be good? Is Claire Malcolm a fake? And when, as it turns out, it is good — when it appears that, despite her apparent shallowness, Claire has depth — then we get one of those fabulous moments, like in Flaubert or Dostoevsky, where a character oscillates kaleidoscopically between absurdity and grace. Of course, the illusion of “depth” is created here by allowing this character to share, for a moment, the voice and concerns of the author (with the irreducible conflict between moral empathy and the sense of, or desire for, beauty); this is a trick of focus, sketching a character deliberately shallow against the voice of the author, so that when the character then becomes a channel for the voice of the author, there is a sudden transition to depth, which becomes an analogy for the kind of epiphanic depth of vision regarding our lives which we pray for, for ourselves, and which is the whole point of novels.

Anyway, this reminded me of a similar maneuver executed by Graham Greene in “Orient Express” (a book which he, also false-coquettishly, termed one of his “entertainments”, rather than a real novel). Towards the end of the book, he has another character discover a few lines jotted down on the back of a photo of a beautiful young lady who is the kept lover of the tough lesbian reporter, Mabel Warren. We’ve seen Mabel, so far, as a vicious, pitiless, constantly scheming woman, smart as hell but apparently contemptuous of feeling or sincerity. Her relationship with her lover is one of possession and fear of loss. And then, with Mabel off the scene, we get these few lines, clearly written by Mabel, read by a character who has no inkling of what they mean; and they are wistful, regretful, contemplative, gracefully composed, and sad without sliding into self-pity. We know, for that matter, that Mabel’s lover lacks the literary sensibility to appreciate the lines written to her. These are lines offered to no one, to the universe — the sort of wasteful communication one might have expected Mabel to disdain. They must be taken as addressed to the reader directly, since they can be addressed to no one else. And again, this flat, ironic character telescopes out into tragic depth.

In contrast to these two successful insertions of poetry into novels, one might set the poetry written by the John Ash character in Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”, which is frankly pretty crappy. It fails in the way I think most poetry in novels fails: it sounds like poetry written by a Wallace Stevens-ish Connecticut WASP mid-20th-century poet ought to sound, but without actually having any autonomous legitimate substance to it. One can make a number of excuses for this — Nabokov was attempting to write poetry in a second language, and then present it through the eyes of a hilariously unreliable narrator; and Nabokov is himself a rather cold and mathematical writer, in Russian as well as English, so it’s not surprising if the poetry comes off as rather formal and crossword-puzzlish.

But I also think Nabokov makes a narrative-stance choice which sets the poetry up to fail: he casts his poet, Ash, as the sound, legitimate voice of genius, filtered through the ludicrous and shallow madness of his unreliable narrator (who persists in absurdly interpreting Ash’s poetry as a set of coded references to the comical history of the pederastic kingdom of Zembla). This sets the reader’s expectations too high. Ash’s rather dull poetry can’t bear the weight of expectation Nabokov places on it. (It is of course possible that Nabokov intends for Ash to be a pompous and overrated poet, but that seems to me to render the whole novel a bit dismal.)

The message for novelists is: if you’re going to insert a character’s poetry, make sure to cast the poet as, at least potentially, a shallow fake or a hard-assed cynic. Set the reader up against the expectation of beauty or sincerity. Then drop in the lyricism. You need the flatness to make your depths look deep.