Sunday, November 29, 2009

Throw me to the rancor: Some almost-heresy on Star Wars

I know I'm hardly the first to say this, but with each subsequent viewing, the Star Wars original trilogy seems a little more threadbare to me.

To be fair, Lucas had great production design (from the late great John Barry), great practical effects work (now watered-down with some crappy CGI) and a supporting cast of great British actors to buoy his American neophyte actors and his awful dialogue. And occasionally, Lucas knows how to frame a shot or shoot a sequence.

Of course, Lucas did away with most of his advantages for the prequels, even as he tried to compensate for at least a few of his weaknesses (like the ringers who polished Revenge of the Sith's screenplay). Somewhere in those films, there are even some interesting implications and ideas to gloss the "original" trilogy with (like a religion whose "miracles" are based in a genetic mutation!). But that atrophying of his few talents/advantages is why the prequels' awfulness hit so hard.

I think Lucas' true genius was in consolidating so many pulp/b-movie cliches into one setting. Look at Episode IV. We start with a war/thriller angle (the pursuit of the Rebel cruiser and shipboard battle), detour into desert adventure (the C3PO/R2D2 travels) with a dash of Western (the Tusken Raiders as Indians, the Mos Eisley cantina scene), and get back to the spy/thriller before a rousing finale straight out of any war movie. The characters are just an amalgamation of different cliches, made interesting merely by the sheer oddity of combinations. Darth Vader is a robot/wizard/samurai, Han Solo a pirate/Wild West outlaw, and Luke a combination of hotrodding teen, young gun and brooding superhero.

And yet, most of the sci-fi and fantasy films have been ripping off these cliches for the past thirty plus years. No wonder s-f/fantasy is so creatively bankrupt.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bonafide hustler, making my name: Liveblogging In Praise of Commercial Culture

Chapter 2: The Market For the Written Word

Okay, so first, the prose style gets a little better once Cowen has a narrative to hold onto. I wouldn't say he holds interest as well as Malcolm Gladwell, for example, but neither of them is Joan Didion. Which is to say, neither is a prose stylist who uses that style successfully to convey a deeper understanding of the world around us. Gladwell is a prose stylist, but he's a little too flip with his philosophizing, trying to draw conclusions because he can. Cowen has some understanding of the big picture, but he can't use his writing to add an aesthetic dimension to his argument.

It helps that Cowen is talking, in this section, about a little-explored aspect of literary history, specifically the economic pressures of publishing in the British Enlightenment. We might have read works (by Swift or Pope) that deal with those economic issues or were written because of them, but that specific context sometimes doesn't even make the footnotes.

So this chapter is about Samuel Johnson, one of the first people to make their living solely through writing, versus Swift and Pope, among others, who believed that "fame" was the sole reason to write and that the government should choose who was talented.

And Cowen is willing to tackle Swift and Pope and bring to light their most troubling ideas. Though his arguments that Swift was a vehement establishment figure who believed in the healing benefits of central power does not seem to jive with Swift's basic misanthropy. I think he misreads at least some of Swift's work. As much as the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels might represent some sort of ideal, I don't think that even Swift expects us to totally accept them. I think there is some significance in the fact that our narrator (who has difficulty in detecting irony or recognizing the way other societies generally reflect his) ends the book currying the favor of his own farm animals. And "A Modest Proposal" is as much an indictment of central planning refusing to recognize the realities on the ground as it is of anti-Catholic sentiment.

And there are hints of other problems with capitalism as supporter of the arts that this chapter suggests. For one, Cowen expresses disappointment at Johnson taking a government pension at the end of his career. But given how Johnson hustled to provide himself a living for much of his life, is it really a surprise that he would desire a reliable source of income.

Because Cowen's idea of why capitalism is good for the arts relies heavily on creative destruction. Artists will become less popular, lose their edge and give way to new forms and new artists. Which I think is great for the arts.

But it sucks for the artists. Once the skill has faded and the passion has ebbed, an artist still requires sustenance. As this economic downturn (and previous recessions and depressions) proved, even very smart, skilled businessmen stink at long-term planning. Even as it regards their own personal finances.

Creative destruction doesn't care what you did for the last twenty years. It cares about what is happening today and tomorrow. It's like Alec Baldwin's character in "Glengarry Glen Ross", it doesn't care if you're a good father or a nice guy. Or a talented artist.

So Samuel Johnson takes a pension. He's a man that's dealt with awful depression and grinding poverty for years. What's Tyler Cowen's advice for one of the greater essayists of English literature? That he should have kept being talented and never felt that exhaustion in his bones?That he should never have gotten old? That he should have died before he became old?

I'm not saying we should get rid of capitalism. It's like the old saw about democracy. It's the worst system, except for all the other systems.

But a capitalist who loves artists or a capitalist who loves people needs to come to grips with the way capitalism shows no mercy to the weak and the old. And they need to suggest what we can do, instead of shrugging and muttering something about charity and the private sector.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


"Isn't that rough on him?"

"I don't know," Eitel said, "there are parts and parts to Collie. He enjoys being a martyr."

"Sounds like a sad character to me."

"Oh, everybody's sad if you want to look at them that way. Collie's not so bad off. Just remember there's nobody like him in the whole world."

- from The Deer Park by Norman Mailer, Part 2, Chapter 7

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Money: that's what I want

Also, Tyler Cowen loves to chalk normal psychology up to economics. So anxiety of influence, egotism and idealism become an economic need to innovate. When you've got the hammer of economics, everything looks like a pro-capitalist nail.

Also, I can't trust anyone who thinks Rebel without a Cause is "unintended farce, rather than a rousing story of an angry young man" (28). Um, has this guy seen the same version of Rebel without a Cause that has been released on DVD? Or any other Nicholas Ray film, ever?

Art is a kid, art is a kid, in a bull market: In Praise of Commercial Culture

You thought I'd forgotten all about you, didn't you? Maybe even my ramblings about commercial art and the like. Not quite.

For example, I finally got a chance to take a peek into In Praise of Commercial Culture by economist Tyler Cowen (one of the influential voices behind econoblog Marginal Revolutions). Only about 20 pages in, but I still have a few thoughts.

  • Cowen's writing is probably best suited to blogging. I suppose that, given the normal quality of the stereotypical professorial paper, mere readability is a rarity. But he makes Malcolm Gladwell look like Joan Didion. Perfectly adequate prose sentence plods into perfectly adequate prose sentence. For a book dealing with art, there's very little art. In small doses, clarity is fine. For an entire book, it's a slog.
  • So much of it is him putting down examples of his point. "You think artists don't care about money? But Beethoven said this. And Gaugin did this. And this person died in poverty." That's only slightly exaggerated. I hope later on he gets into a specific, piece-by-piece analysis of one work of art or artist.
  • To Cowen's credit, it's refreshing to see someone who points out the fallacies in all the well-crafted but contrived cultural polemics that seem to be the main way any pundit/philosopher makes money these days. He's not saying everything is perfect, but he is willing to point out that, yes, life has become less nasty, brutish and short for more people and to consign those people back to the status quo ante for some weird sense of cultural homogeny is stupid.
  • On the other hand, his triumphalism really vague. Some of his points, about the decrease in prices for materials as basic as paper have opened up the art field, make sense. Other arguments seem to boil down to, "hey, people have benefited from this technology/advance, and that's because of capitalism. And since artists are people, artists are benefiting from capitalism." Which is technically true, but, well, he decided to write a book about how capitalism benefits the artist specifically. It's not titled In Praise of Modernity.
More to come. Maybe next time, I'll get to his thought experiment (in blog-form) about how just recycling pop culture every 50 years would be perfectly cromulent.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"Just tell me I'll live forever... then I'll be happy": Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes is such a weird, disappointing movie. It's beautifully shot (imagine Michele Soavi or Mario Bava making a Disney film, with that same sense of the surreal), has a couple of great performances by Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce, and it has such a specific and terrifying vision of small-town life, adult desires and childhood.

But most of the other actors are either wasted (poor Royal Dano and Pam Grier) or just wooden.

Maybe more later. But seriously, what works in it works sooo well (especially the scene in the library and the parade/manhunt) that anything less than great is a disappointment. And as the movie shows, disappointment breeds evil.