Confessions a 20th century ne'er do well: Drinking, fighting, stealing and other things one generally ought not do

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Trends in British fantasy adventure stories

I always knew my man Walt was the real life Indiana Jones. And that is why I like being under his tutalage in the blogosphere. Which leads me to my trends-in-literature observation of the week. This week, I have observed that our favorite time traveling clinician, Doctor Who, borrows a charming plot device from another paragon of British scifi/fantasy.

My favorite part of the Lord of the Rings books is the very end where the hobbits return to the shire. (this scene was unfortunately omitted from the movie in favor of really long boring scenes with the likes of Kate Blanchette and a bunch of other characters who are never developed enough to warrant so much screen time. It's almost as though that series would have needed to be longer for them to work!) The peaceful hobbits had been overrun by evil men. Having fought along side with Middle Earth's finest warriors and generals, Frodo et al are easily able to mobilize the hobbits in a way that swiftly dispatches of the ruffians. It is an inspiring moment. One of the charms of Lord of the Rings is that the heros are not the main actors in the battles. They are like children allowed to accompany grown ups on a great adventure. This of course makes the books easy to relate to for average readers. Who wouldn't want to be allowed to accompany and assist great men doing something great? And who wouldn't like to believe that they'd be changed to reach a potential they only dreamed of in their own lives for having done so?

I just saw the preview for next week's Doctor Who. Apparently, Rose has, since leaving the Doctor, become the leader of some world saving fighting force. Martha Jones, upon leaving the Doctor's service, moves on to lead Torchwood. And of course, Sarah Jane Smith is leading her own team of Earth saving adventurers.

On another note, I actually like what they're doing on earth. It's actually reminiscent of future earth stories, only they're present day. But, they've already introduced the idea of alternative realities - such as the one Rose is in - so it need not contradict our own experience.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Spoiler alert. Invasion of the bad movie stylings snatchers.

The only thing worse than Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull has been the reviews of the movie. Seemingly, they all miss an obvious point.

I had left the theater feeling empty and perplexed. The plot was nonsense, and unlike other Indiana Jones movies, I summed it up by saying “Nothing awesome happened.”
Raiders had been a perfect movie. Temple of Doom had weaknesses. There was no archeology, for one (why would an archeologist ancient remains to a gangster for a diamond?), and the protagonists were completely reactive – they merely reacted to changing circumstances without real direction, as opposed to the other two where the characters choose to undertake a challenge and followed a self directed path, facing challenges as they arose. But for all its weaknesses, Temple of Doom was nothing if not a series of one awesome and memorable scene after another. The song and dance in the beginning. Entering the Indian village. The interactions between Willie Scott and the jungle animals. The dinner scene. The heart getting ripped out. The mine shaft chase. Indy cutting the bridge. Most scenes in between. Most dialog was memorable. The characters were loveable.
In Last Crusade, the banter between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford was top notch, and the supporting cast was as well (especially the guy who also played an art plunderer in Dr. Who’s City of Doom episode).

But Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had none of this, and seemingly didn’t try. I couldn’t even understand what they were trying to do.

Finally, I read one line in a blog review, and “got it”: “….the entire shift of the movie went from the adventure series of the 30's (as originally intended) to the sci-fi B-movies of the 50's…”

Now, I got it. While the first three movies were homages to movies that everyone holds in high regards, this was a spoof of movies that are generally considered to be terrible. Each scene was a slice of what might have happened in such a movie. While it is absurd that someone might survive a nuclear blast riding in a fridge in real life, it is not absurd that someone might do the same in a bad 50’s sci-fi movie. Every bad and inconstant scene can be explained in this way. At one point, blacklisting was the enemy. In another, communists. Why? Because each scene was a spoof of a different movie type. Killer ants. Crazy old hermit. Psychic bad guys. Aliens.
In the originals, the hero wears a fedora, like a Humphrey Bogart movie. His younger heir in this movie, wears leather and rides a motorcycle like Marlon Brando in the Young Ones or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. (and he’s obsessed with coming his hair, while Indy is insistant about wearing a hat)

This movie was more similar to Kill Bill than Raiders, which I believe holds up without the 30s movie analogies.
The difference between Crystal Skull and Kill Bill is that Quentin Tarentino’s masterpiece was based on an obvious love for the second rate movies he ‘spoofed’ He took all the good qualities from a rather horrendous group of genres, kung fu, blaxploitation, and westerns, polished them and reset them in a way that proved their worth. The values and effects that were buried in the camp of the 70s were used to their maximum potential. Everything in Kill Bill is in those movies, but most people can’t get past the other lousy qualities of those movies.

In Crystal Skull, I get the idea that Speilberg holds the 50s spacesman/ redscare/ giant monster movies in contempt.

This understanding did soften my disappointment in the movie, although I still think Spielberg did a disservice to the series.

It is rather artistic what he did, and I don’t think I’ve heard it mentioned before. He did something similar in War of the Worlds. Another nonsensical movie, taken at face value. One moment the aliens are wantonly killing humans by the thousands. The next, they’re painstakingly searching for two random individuals hiding in a basement.
But War of the Worlds wasn’t really meant to be an integral movie. (at least I hope not – I’m worried about letting Spielberg handle sharp objects or drive or whatever one doesn’t let mentally incompetent people do if it was!). It seems to me that it was quite purposefully meant to be a series of vignettes demonstrating to a younger generation what it might have been like to live in Europe during World War II. In reality, these shorts weren’t even meant to be related. First, Blitzkrieg. Next, hiding in the attic from Nazis. After that, being separated from a loved one during battle. Finally, being rounded up in a cage being brought to who knows what horrible fate.
I think he did a good job in that respect, but might have done a service by spelling it out for the audience. I believe this was his goal because Spielberg has a history of chronicling World War II experiences.

Perhaps Sean Connery sat this one out because they were a few years away from stepping on sacred ground?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I have solved my dire reading situation

No more about Atlas Shrugged. That book is so massive that even after I put it down, it somehow lives on!
I think the thing to remember is that the contractors who build the homeless shelter do as much if not more for the people inside than the people who run it. More importantly, their good is objective, while social interventions can be corrupt. For example, the guy who put the nails in the roof literally and inarguably did that, while inside could be a completely mismanged and dangerous place. The people raising funds for the building of the shelter have completed something objective, but the builders themselves could build the shelter without the fundraisers, while the fundraisers could not build the house without the builders, engineers, and suppliers. Do we often think of construction workers as people who dedicate their lives to helping the homeless? No, but they literally do more to help the homeless than anyone else! They turn homeless people into homeful people! If there were no builders, everyone would be homeless. If there were no fundraisers, a small percentage of the population might be homeless. I don't know why it should be one versus the other though. The Rand argument comes in when people try to diminish the role of industry in improving peoples lives. Suppose a guy drives a truck full of food to a town - it's full supply, for some reason - and feeds the 90% of the population who can afford to pay him, while community workers work to make sure the other 10% get some of the food as well. The truck driver may become rich, and people might look to him to feed the rest. But why would it be up to him to make sure that additional 10% get food? If the other 90% won't help, why would he, who fed 90% of the town be held in contempt for the 10% he did not feed?

The real world is of course more complicated, but also simpler, I think. Simpler in that I don't think it would be that hard to find agreement for some people to chip in so that that the alzheimers patient could eat, and the legless guy with no money, and the guy with the mental age of a four year old, and heck, even the chronically drunk guy would probably get a pass. That's kind of how it works now.

But no more about that! I pushed it away. For those of you following my reading travails, I have settled on Toilers of the Sea, by my man Victor Hugo, who has never let me down so far, and on the side Plato’s Republic. I feel like I should probably write a paper or something on the Republic, since it’s a college type of book, but the philosophy writing style of the book-about-which-I-will-write-no-more, along with Candide earlier this year got me interested in philosophical discourse in general. I’m not really hooked yet, but still interested. I think I like the slow and methodical way the writers make their points. Instead of long run on sentences, they explore each point before moving on to the next which either debunks or elaborates or both on an earlier point. Patience seems to be the permeating feeling of the Republic, because they haven’t said much yet, but I suspect they are going to say so much more (than not much). I haven’t picked up on a thesis yet.

Toilers of the Sea has a playful tone, full of the kinds of details that characterize the writer. A tongue in cheek description of the causes of misunderstanding of a person’s nature. It’s early, but as of now, Toilers of the Sea has washed the bad taste that a Thousand Little Pieces and Atlas Shrugged left in my mouth.

Friday, May 09, 2008

More career development musings

I occasionally wonder whether it might be worthwhile to pursue a PhD to follow my drive for knowledge? I’m not sure. One can write without credentials. But what of the dialog? Where do I test my foil? Most importantly, who wants to hear from me? In an academic program, you’re paying someone to listen and answer back. As a professional academic, you earn a situation where you’re paid to be published, and are expected to defend your ideas. I enjoy this kind of activity.
What would my focus be? Sociology seems obvious, as it is permeative - it applies to many different situations. But who are sociologists? Of what use are they? “Quick! Get me a sociologist!” makes no sense. As before, I’m not attracted to the idea of self sustained knowledge.

In fact, I long to create. Not a work of art, but some kind of systematic construct. I suppose an ideal job would be director of publications and conferences for some kind of think tank or institute. The other side is that I'd like to be more involved in business development. I’ve often said that I am one good idea away from starting my own business. The conference industry is a good place to be at the moment, but I guess now my reflections serve the purpose of defining the endgame.

I think I pulled the trigger too fast when I decided to go into Journalism. I hadn’t been trained in what makes a ‘good’ news story. The sensationalism that permeates the media is the driver of success in the news industry. My skill has been to see beyond that sort of nonsense – to the drives that direct human behavior. Innate drives for attention, money, servitude of various sorts. This is not to say that people are not driven by positive reasons, but their story is not often the story in the news. It is obviously more newsworthy for an entertainer to take an interest in New Orleans for a few months than it is for the Red Cross volunteers who serve disaster victims weekly. But in all honesty, their story isn’t that large. It’s a story of individual lives – often pathetic lives. Little about the higher concepts that excite the populace.
In all honesty, there is not that much that happens on a day to day basis that is particularly interesting or important. But a newspaper can’t wait for newsworthy events. And the politicians and marketers who are hungry for publicity don’t wait either.
I suppose it takes at least a modest level of discretion for a casual reader to recognize a trumped up ‘slow news day’ story. But you quickly gain discretion when journalism is your chosen profession.

Becoming jaded by the press is an old story – not particularly newsworthy – but it helped derail my career pursuits. I enjoy investigating and writing, but straight journalism wasn’t for me. Honestly - have you ever read a newspaper cover to cover? Imagine having to seek out, research, and write whatever story is on page B-27? Ugh.

My first job out of graduate school was as a case worker in the New York foster care system. The city hires independent contract agencies to manage the children and foster homes
It was often my role to represent the agency in court. It was up to the judge and ACS to determine the fate of the children, whether they would be sent home, remain in foster care, or whether some other intervention was necessary. I never really understood what my goals were. I think it was more objective than I really understood. At the agency, I used to flinch when called upon for my opinion.
The first client I had, Baby Boy Lastname (what babies are called when they’re taken from the hospital before being names) was born to a drug addicted prostitute. I met her once or twice, but she really wasn’t looking to get this child back.
Within my first few weeks of work, I met with the father. He was a short young black guy. I mention that he was black because one of the only things I remember was him telling me something to the effect that he was defiant because of the guy who had been dragged to death in Texas. At some point he told me has a gun. I think it was more of a posture than a threat – that was how I felt about it at the time.
I had a hard time thinking past myself. I felt like I was handling the situation wrong. It wasn’t until years later that I became able to realize that angry or difficult people had their own issues. Especially those who have displayed behavior that has their children taken away. At the time, I felt like I had brought his anger upon myself, or that by handling the situation differently, I could have avoided the antagonism.
It is the default preference for the system to search out a relative who can care for a foster child, called kinship care. The purpose is to avoid separating the child from the family.
There was a grandmother who was willing to take the child. She lived in Brooklyn, by Prospect Park. It was a railroad apartment, and tight quarters. The crib would have been in the middle room.
I was acutely aware that I was used to a middle class upbringing, and that acceptable living conditions differed for those less fortunate – when it comes to keeping a family together. Something didn’t feel right about the home, that was for sure, but I wasn’t sure how to objectively assess the home.
So, I was ill prepared for my first case meeting, where the program director asked if it was an acceptable placement for the child. My chest fluttered. I didn’t know what to say. What stood out in my mind wasn’t the home, as much as the grandmother. She seemed very tentative. She smiled nervously like someone who is desperate to be accepted. Outside of the home, the mother was in and out of the picture. I seem to recollect something about the father skipping town. I don’t think he really did, but either way, he was pulling himself out of the picture. I couldn’t be sure that the mother or father weren’t going to show up at the grandmother’s house. Neither were allowed unsupervised visits. With the grandmother’s uncertainty, I couldn’t be sure that this placement was what it was supposed to be. But I could be fairly certain that this infant would never be raised in his own family if he didn’t stay there. As an infant, perhaps he could be out of the system before he knew anything.
None of this made me sure of what was right. In retrospect, my decision seems more sound than it did then. I went with my gut and said, “No” the baby’s grandmother wasn’t a suitable placement.
I felt awful because I didn’t feel like I had gotten the appropriate guidance to make that decision. I didn’t quite understand my role, that my opinion was only one factor. Again, the problem of not thinking beyond myself.
It was months and cases later that I first had to appear in court about a client. I was there to represent the agency. I remember the judge asking me how many children were in the foster home in question.
“Four,” I answered. It was a pretty matter of fact question. (The legal limit, I believe was for a home to have no more than six foster children)
“What is this, a business?” The judge asked angrily and accusingly.
Again I had the desire to shrink into my skin. Did she think I personally had decided on how placements work? Did she realize that it is difficult to find a family willing to take in an additional child was a constant search? I think she may have strong opinions about the system and decided to blurt it out from the bench. I didn’t even understand at the time what I think she meant now – that the foster mother, not the agency, was treating it like a business, getting paid for having more children. But the law was the law, so I don’t understand what snapping at me was meant to accomplish. I was fairly new and not comfortable making decisions about what kind of placement was acceptable beyond safety and basic needs. I hadn’t seen enough placements to know what was typical, good, or bad. I hadn’t seen enough movement within the system, or worked with enough peers to have an idea of the reasonableness of any placement. By this point, I knew that actions weren’t taken solely based on my own recommendations, and I had no choice to trust the other members of my team, and more importantly my supervisor and other more experienced workers involved in the decision.
Still, I’m not comfortable passing responsibility onto another – especially, since if something went wrong, I would be first in line for accountabiljavascript:void(0)ity, rightly so.
I wonder. Is it correct for a system to rely so heavily on the judgments of minimally experienced 25 year olds for decisions about the lives of children? I always thought my role was more appropriately one of information gathering, with the decisions being made by the leadership – the judges and program directors of the world. I had thought that my presenting them with facts should have been sufficient. I still do. I still look to older, more experienced people for insight.

I'm twice defeated. I really really need something to read.

I abandoned A Million Little Pieces. Man, did that book suck! It’s about a guy who keeps throwing up and fighting with people. Now, I’m quitting Atlas Shrugged, despite a good start.

I had forgotten: The Fountainhead had profoundly influenced the way I thought as a teenager. I read it in school at the age of 16. The Ayn Rand Institute gives free copies to high school teachers as a way to keep Rand’s philosophy top of mind. I thought it was interesting when I read this NYtimes article: that the writer hadn’t connected the lead paragraph which says Atlas Shrugged ranks 388 on the Amazon best seller list with a much lower paragraph which states that the ARI buys and distributes 400,000 copies each year. 400,000 copies would certainly up the ranking. Political organizations often buy their own books to up the ranking.

Originally, I had written about how I was enjoying Atlas Shrugged. But 600 pages later, I had to abandon it. I made it almost to page 800, and it became too laborious. It had become cumbersome about 400 pages earlier, but I wasn’t completely turned off, but now it’s too much. Her characters are so uninteresting and unhappy – she says they’re happy, but never describes them as happy. But mostly, it’s a boring story.

There were things that kept my interest early on. Some of her antagonists were familiar to me – the world is full of useless people harping on their needs, but these are mostly peers, none of them are truly needy. Also, the book is science fiction. It takes place hundreds of years in the future, as surmised to mention of technologies lost ‘generations’ ago, and the fact that every country except America is called People’s Republic of….. Also, there seems to be no threat of war. This setting makes the characters completely unrealistic behaviors and unfamiliar tropes seem part of this future world, but she really goes lord knows where with the story.

Rand seems to think need is amorphous, as though someone can ‘need’ a yacht, but I think basic needs are fairly obvious – food, shelter, safety, healthcare. I think that’s about it. A moral society can see to it that those things are available without crippling everyone. Beyond that, she seems to paint a picture that if people were all purposeful in their activities, there would be plenty to go around for everyone. In her utopia, basic goods are exceedingly inexpensive.

Someone on TAB’s blog said her followers often have a ‘piss off’ attitude towards people who are unable to take care of themselves. But Rand does mention them with pity. It’s people who are unwilling to take care of themselves who she opposes.

I'm familiar with what her followers believe, and frankly, I'm fascinated. Because, they apparently didn't read the same book I was (quit today approaching 800 pages). For example Alan Greenspan was noted as a big fan of hers. Yet, the Utopian society touched on in Atlas Shrugged ran on the gold standard. Greenspan was the head of the Federal Reserve. the Fed is the organization that the use of the gold standard was meant to criticize. He would be analagous to Robert Stadler, the physics professor who was hated by the heros of atlas shrugged (They often 'shudder' at the thought of him. ) Stadler was hated because he used his genius for a government agency rather than the private sector. Greenspan's life was dedicated to supporting an organization that was contrary to Rand's philosophy as well.

Homelessness and basic needs are clearly used as a scourge in Atlas Shrugged to illustrate how government regulations hurt society - To illustrate the greatness of free markets, she uses common social problems as examples of how the world is hurt when free markets are constricted. If one could morally say 'piss off, too bad' to people living in dilapidated or subhuman conditions the book wouldn't make any sense.

Rand barely mentions truly needy individuals, instead, focusing on manipulatively 'needy' individuals - "I 'need' price controls so my business can compete". Those are the bad guys, and their actions make life worse for the truly needy. For example, without electricity to power a town, there would be no hospitals. Most homeless guys in the book are former workers who lost their jobs when the industrialists were squeezed out.

As a reality check, all the great industrialists, J. Paul Getty, Henry Ford, et. al - the real life versions of the characters in Atlas Shrugged - used their fortunes as the engines of the country's largest philanthropic foundations, which exist to provide funds for non-market entities.

I'm not even defending her philosophy, just clarifying it because, it does seem as though Randites preach evil in her name. It is forcing people to help you in the name of 'helping others' that she objects to, not helping others on one's own. Idle chatter and purposeless behaviors are what she opposes, not trying to survive.