Friday, December 16, 2011
I strongly recommend Hitchens' biography, Hitch-22. In all likelihood, given his slow death from cancer, Hitchens will be remembered most for his vocal pro-atheist stance, and his consistency in maintaining and defending his beliefs even in the face of a fatal disease. For me, however, the more interesting and compelling side of Hitchens was his political metamorphosis from left-wing radical to staunch pro-interventionist supporter of both Iraq wars. Like great left intellectuals of the early 20th cent. (e.g. Aldous Huxley or George Orwell) Hitchens gradually grew to realize the inconsistency between the rhetoric of the left (pro-worker / underdog) and its actual policy choices and implementation of those policies (Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, or take your pick of any practicing communist country out there). Amongst many other amusing anecdotes and diatribes, Hitch-22 details Hitchens gradual realization that the libertarian and collectivist tendencies of the "left" (communist?) ideology were in profound and inherent conceptual conflict. Facing a choice, he chose liberty, freedom, and the autonomy of individuals over the dogmatic adherence to collectivism, developing a surprisingly (disappointingly!) idiosyncratic, but internally consistent and well-motivated, stance, unique on the political scene.
He will be sorely missed, both for his courage to hold consistent and reasonable views, and for his eloquence in defending them.
Explaining what the "left" would have to be like for me to identify with it.
If there is a heaven based on merit, Hitchens will go there; and if it is based on faith alone, it won't be worth going to . . .
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
It strikes me, however, that the scene is more of an homage to Dennis Potter himself (and his work as a whole), a talent who, upon reflection, shares much with Gilliam and surely must have influenced him greatly.
Dennis Potter wrote a sequence of powerful teleplays for British TV, including Pennies from Heaven, Brimstone and Treacle, The Singing Detective, Lipstick on Your Collar, and Karaoke. He had a cunning knack for combining powerful drama (often drawn from his own personal experience) with fantasy and humor. A trademark of all his teleplays is the thorough integration of music into the story, often involving lip-synced routines during hallucinatory or revelatory experiences by the primary characters.
In the Wikipedia referenced "Dry Bones" scene, doctors are indeed arranged around a patient (a standin for Potter himself, who also suffered from a debilitating skin condition) experiencing a combination of nervous breakdown and dissociation from reality, much as in the Twelve Monkeys scene. In Twelve Monkeys, however, the song being sung is not "Dem Bones," but "Blueberry Hill," a song referenced by Potter in the later teledrama Lipstick on Your Collar (where the Fats Domino version is lipsunc by a young, debuting Ewan McGregor):
[For completeness' sake, it's worth noting that in Gilliam's scene the doctors actually sing (relatively poorly) the classic tune, while in both Potter scenes, the songs are lipsunc.]
A crucial datum here is the dates: Potter died in 1994, succumbing to pancreatic cancer a mere 9 days after his wife's death from breast cancer. Given that Twelve Monkeys appeared in 1995, it was likely being shot or written in 1994 when Gilliam must have heard of Potter's demise. What better way to memorialize him than to insert scenes (not just the singing itself, but the setup when Willis hears "Blueberry Hill" in 1995) combining Potter's love of period music with his realization of that love through musical numbers?
Most telling of all, however, are the thematic continuities between Gilliam's work and Potter's. Of course, Gilliam is a mature artist in his own right, with a very distinctive style, so it would be a mistake to attribute too much of his voice to the influence of Potter. Nevertheless, there are telling similarities—at the very least, Gilliam must see himself as participating in the same tradition, realizing the same spirit, as Potter.
Most compelling to me is the example of Brazil (1985). Brazil, in both theme and execution, is strikingly Potter-like. Gilliam combined personal experiences of a harrowing sort (albeit with bureaucracy rather than disease) with a passionate love story, all transported to a fantastical setting. He unifies these diverse thematic elements with a compelling musical subtext, in this case the song "Brazil":
Brazil is notable for a) the smooth juxtaposition of humor and horror, and b) the rich inner life of the main character, as illustrated through numerous surreal episodes indicating his dreams / fantasies / imaginations. Both elements are found in all Potter teleplays, yet are (unfortunately) rare in cinema as a whole.
Of course, only Gilliam himself could tell how great Potter's influence, and the exact significance of the telling scene in Twelve Monkeys—what seems clear is that the scene serves as an homage to more of Potter than just The Singing Detective, and that the deep thematic coincidence in the works of Gilliam and Potter deserves further scrutiny.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
California Proposition 65 Warning:
WARNING: This Product May Contain A Chemical Known To The State Of California To Cause Cancer, Birth Defects Or Other Reproductive Harm.
This trivially true, completely uninformative, and anticonstructive, unorthodoxically capitalized scaremongering was found attached to a rather nice new piece of luggage.
Friday, September 30, 2011
Reviews so far have focused (perhaps unsurprisingly) on the objectionable political content. Muslims are portrayed without subtlety as evil terrorists; the heroes are devoid of character except for their righteous indignation and glee in slaughtering terrorists.
But "content," whether it be plot, character development, or political commentary is not the level of which this book was meant to work. Miller himself has described the project as "propaganda," but there is no pretense here to affect the views of the reader, to manipulate him into any particular view.
Rather, Holy Terror is a passionate rant, an explosion of pure emotion onto the page—in some cases, quite literally.
The comic works on a purely visceral level; as much a cathartic purge for Miller as anything, the reader nevertheless feels the sweep of Miller's rage, even if he can't quite grasp its target. Of course, Miller's targeting Islamic terrorists, also terrorism in general, also (perhaps) something political? Cultural? Some pages filled with caricatures and random evocative images are clearly not narrative, just splatters of Miller's scattered thoughts.
Some reviewers have criticized the lack of characterization of the Fixer. Supposedly, since he isn't Batman, we need backstory, characterization, some reason to sympathize. Despite certain deliberately non-Batman moments (the Fixer uses guns, he explicitly says he suffered no childhood tragedy at the hands of crime), the Fixer is unmistakably Batman—not the Batman of lore and continuity, but Miller's Batman. Miller has earned the right to tell stories with that icon, and he clearly does so here, even after discarding the baggage the historical DC Batman has accumulated over the years as part of his mythos.
Miller's Batman was a Batman pushed to the breaking point, turning his frustration at the world into violence. Unabashedly taking justice into his own hands, a vigilante in the purest, truest sense—however ugly such a thing may be. Targeting fascists, he himself was also a fascist. Just the right fascist. This was the message already in Dark Knight Returns, and the Fixer is in many respects the logical extension of this idea.
In Holy Terror, the climactic terror event, the proxy for 9/11 (after a sequence of nail bombs explode all over the city), occurs when terrorists fly an airplane into a large statue on the city's waterfront. Reviewers have commented on the obvious similarity with the Statue of Liberty, and one even claimed a simplistic liberty-oriented symbolism: "The terrorists somehow scramble fighter jets (several of them) to blow up a thinly veiled Statue of Liberty (because they hate us for our freedom)."
But this interpretation is bizarre. Although it obviously references the Statue of Liberty, Miller's statue is of Blind Justice. And this is no mistake, for liberty is not a virtue in Miller's world. It is not freedom, but justice which reigns supreme in the world of the vigilante, and it is the destruction of justice for which Miller faults the terrorists, not of liberty. Likewise, it is not even the defense of justice which motivates and explains the actions of the Fixer, but rather the realization of justice. It is just that the terrorists die, the consequences of the Fixer's actions to eliminate them and their collaborators beyond their deaths are simply irrelevant.
Ultimately, Holy Terror suffers from many defects. Criticisms of plot and character are not at all misplaced. But the book works at the level of a rant, and it is a rant of beauty and passion. The art is indeed uneven and schizophrenic, but here again, every style has its moment. More importantly, the unevenness of the art strengthens the feeling of raw power. It's as if Miller is blinded by his own emotions, he can't even see straight while caricaturing Obama, or Michael Moore, or whoever those are supposed to be; he can't even put into words his response because it occurs at gut level. There is no reason, no rationality behind the response, just an intense feeling of injustice and a fantasy to respond and correct.
And in this sense, Holy Terror is more honest and true than many responses to 9/11. There's no pretense here, for better or worse. And let's not forget that Miller is still (at least) a profound talent with images. However chaotic the emotions, facile the story, or uneven the storytelling, Miller can still make the jaw drop with his neo-noir blasts of black and blood and light and shadow.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Saturday, August 20, 2011
[Spoiler? ~ the idea that Batman is being "distracted" (by "clowns" (Joker, Riddler, etc.) who "escape" (yeah right) on a regular basis from so-called Arkham Asylam) from some real, deeper (implication: non-clown) problem / conspiracy / evil.]
Why did the series disappear? It appears from dropped sales and (more specifically) a lack of solicits. Neal Adams himself put out a plea to fans to encourage their local stores to solicit the rest of the story. Help the cause! Don't you want to see the "neanderthals, evolved dinosaurs, magicians, war, death, gnomes, trolls and tests, the like of which Batman, the modern Ulysses has never faced in his life... all happening in a real underworld" ?
If you doubt, check out this extremely entertaining review / summary / homage.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Saturday, July 23, 2011
The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.
~ Adam Smith (1759) The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Saturday, July 9, 2011
It is for a reason of the same kind, that a certain reserve is necessary when we talk of our own friends, our own studies, our own professions. All these are objects which we cannot expect should interest our companions in the same degree in which they interest us. And it is for want of this reserve, that the one half of mankind make bad company to the other. A philosopher is company to a philosopher only; the member of a club, to his own little knot of companions.
~ Adam Smith (1759) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 33-4
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Friday, June 10, 2011
Thursday, June 9, 2011
And, of course, Europeans don't know Alex Jones, but I find some of their responses puzzling. Two from this forum:
1. "I don't know who Alex Jones is, but he asks me to protest against a group that came up with the ideas for the EU and the carbon tax. I like the EU and the carbon tax ideas... but I like his line 'in the remote village of St. Moritz'."
Um, yes, remote to the rest of the world, though I know the Swiss hate to think globally. And, um, the point is not the policies, but their source. Agreeable policies laid down by an authoritarian force is the way all dictatorships arise (Hitler, Mussolini, Quaddaffi, . . . ). Maybe the Swiss are just so ready for slavery, they don't care if they have any say in their own domestic affairs (um, so why resist the Euro? Do you even know your own country's policies?).
2. "Someone has to be in charge, so why not our elected people taking advice from a group of unelected experts?
If you are British, do you remember Prime Minister Edward Heath twisting the Queen's arm and making her sign up for the EU? She wasn't elected either. Did you protest at that? No.
Haven't the IMF and World Bank been "lending" money to the elected governments of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland ? Did you protest at that? No.
Has the world changed since President W. Bush went to Evian? A friend of mine is a Swiss union leader, her son is an anarchist. They both went to Geneva to protest, and were both beaten up by the Geneva police, both requiring hospital treatment. Did that change anything? No.
Sorry I won't be going. Save yourself the train fares and watch it on TV."
Um, so I don't protest either. And I also don't think it changes anything in general. But the attitude here seems to be, let it all slide. Other people are in control, deal with that. Seems unacceptable to me. I may not believe in protests, but I'm not a fatalist. And I may think those who protest are naive, but I'm not going to ridicule them for getting beat up.
And why the fuck are we fighting in Libya?
Um, cause if we don't oust Quaddaffi, then we "lose"? WTF?!?!?!?
Monday, June 6, 2011
More recently, Inception (2010) used a similar setup (entering the dreams of others) in order to explore the possibility of an idea being implanted in one's subconsciousness while one was asleep and dreaming (the "inception" of the title). In this more focused investigation, it is argued that dreams within dreams ("deeper levels" of dreaming) provide access to deeper levels of the subconscious, and thus facilitate the planting of a new idea.
I've experienced dreams within dreams on several occasions, and there are two features of the phenomenon which Inception certainly got right: 1. the dream within a dream tends to be more surreal / bizarre / "unrealistic"; 2. after waking from it, there is a feeling of reality, one has just woken up, which may then be subverted by further dream weirdness. This is a feature which has been exploited to great effect in a variety of places in popular culture—not just the aforementioned movies, but also genre pieces such as Neil Gaiman's Sandman (e.g. the character trapped in an eternal sequence of nightmare wakings at the end of issue #1).
But there is a weakness with the dream within dream approach to inception—if one does succeed in convincing oneself that one is awake, then whatever is remembered of the levels of dreaming that had occurred is judged a part of dream land.
Compare this with another phenomenon: dreaming about dreams. Suppose for example, one experiences a rather vivid and lucid dream, which closely adheres to an actual event, changing it in relatively small respects. Then suppose, as sometime happens, after brief awakening, one dreams a more surreal and bizarre dream, a subconscious response to the incidents of the earlier one. When one awakes from the second dream, the certainty that one is in fact awake, and that the preceding events were in fact dreamed, is not evidence against the reality of the previous dream (in the way it is when dreams are embedded). In fact, if the second dream was sufficiently vivid, one can become uncertain about whether the incidents which inspired it were produced by reality or a previous dream . . .
Of course, the effect depends crucially on the plausibility of the first dream. The essential point here is just that arbitrarily plausible embedded dreams receive an evidential refutation which arbitrarily plausible dream-inspiring dreams do not. Suggestion for a future inception technique?
Sunday, June 5, 2011
Monday, May 30, 2011
Dreams are imperfections of sleep; even so is consciousness the imperfection of waking.
Dreams are impurities in the circulation of the blood; even so is consciousness a disorder of life.
Dreams are without proportion, without good sense, without truth; so also is consciousness.
Awake from a dream, the truth is known: awake from waking, the Truth is—The Unknown.
~ Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies (1913)
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Enki Bilal is a comic book illustrator/writer and movie writer/director who was born in Yugoslavia in 1951 and emigrated to France at the age of nine.
Bilal's art and vision are magnificent, both on the page, and on celluloid, but a theme which runs throughout all his major works (including those he only illustrated) is the role of the revolutionary. It's natural to assume that the atmosphere in post WWII Belgrade influenced this trend, plus perhaps, and more personally, his own family's history (apparently, his father was once a tailer to Tito; more importantly, his father was Bosnian, while his mother was Czechoslovakian).
For whatever reason, the revolutionary, the anti-establishment anti-hero, has featured as a leading character in all of Bilal's significant works. The role of this character, however, has evolved over the course of Bilal's career: from hopeful successes, to temporary victories, to pessimistic post-heroes, doomed to relive the consequences of their revolution(ary act), without even the recollection of its motivation.
The initial phase is clearly visible in Bilal's work with Pierre Christin, who wrote a trilogy of fanciful political commentaries for him, eventually collected as Townscapes. In each of these three stories, a mysterious stranger interferes in some bizarre way to bring about a surreal political statement, heartily endorsed by local disaffected townspeople. In the first two, Cruise of Lost Souls (1975) and The Ship of Stone (1976), there's a strong sense that change is achieved, if only on the local level.
With the third book in the trilogy, however, The Town that Didn't Exist (1977), a strange foreboding appears. The local factory has been shut down, and the workers protest for better wages and benefits. When the old man who owns the corporation dies, his crippled daughter inherits his wealth and his business. She employs her financial resources and political influence to construct a utopian dream city for the inhabitants of the old town—here they may do as they please without worries about finances or security.
Here, the progressive social goals of the trilogy's enigmatic protagonist appear to have been achieved, yet when he leaves the new city, he is joined by several of the former factory workers, one of whom proclaims "that town doesn't really exist." Interpretations abound here—is utopian success a dream? Is philanthropic behavior such as that of the daughter in principle impossible in capitalist society? Or is it the workers who are blind to what they can achieve, who doubt the validity of the Marxist utopia that could await them if only they found the right resources? The text is silent on interpretation, but the darkness and ambiguity of the ending casts a long shadow over the earlier stories.
Perhaps the most optimistic of Bilal's revolutionary stories can be found in the first volume of the Nikopol trilogy, his most famous work. The titular character, Alcide Nikopol, unlike almost any other Bilal hero, is not actually a full-fledged revolutionary, but a mere deserter, sentenced to life-long hibernation. When incompetence awakes him on a corrupt future earth, he is partnered with Horus, a "revolutionary" figure in the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Horus wields his supernatural powers to place Nikopol in political power over the Paris of 2023. A fascist dictatorship is overthrown, Nikopol is free to implement the progressive policies of his choice, and Horus abandons control of him for more godly matters.
Yet, despite La Foire aux immortels (1980) evincing the first instance of widespread political control and change achieved by a revolutionary (albeit a reluctant one), the atmosphere at end is far from optimistic. Nikopol goes mad and his son (who looks like his twin due to Nikopol's period of government mandated suspended animation) is placed in control in his stead. By volume 3, Froid Équateur (1982), just a few years later, we learn that Nikopol's son's progressive government has been overthrown by the fascists: revolution is short lived. And Horus himself, the revolutionary deity, is on the run throughout the entire trilogy, defeated multiple times by his peers. (Though in the final scenes of volume 3, after the Egyptian gods' pyramid-shaped space ship is accidentally destroyed, Horus' leadership is finally welcomed.)
During the decade+ it took to complete the Nikopol trilogy, Bilal collaborated again with Pierre Christin on The Black Order Brigade (1979) and The Hunting Party (1983) (collected as The Chaos Effect). Both books paint a much bleaker picture of the revolutionary than Bilal's earlier work with Christin. The Black Order Brigade, in particular, features the first introduction of a common theme in Bilal: the ex-revolutionary. Here, a group of passionate progressives who had fought in the Spanish civil war, reconvene in their old age to combat the titular "black order brigade," a fascist death squad with whom they had had many skirmishes during their glory days.
Unlike in the war itself, however, when the young progressives had been suffused with idealism and optimism, they find their new quest quickly sours. The pains of old age, the indifference of the general public, and the futility of correctly conveying their message (in the media, they are treated as terrorists, no different from their fascist counterparts) drag down their spirits and motivation. By the end, they succeed in eradicating the black order brigade, but at the cost of all lives but that of the original organizer and narrator. In the final panels, as he relates the conclusion to their saga, he mournfully proclaims "I . . . got all my friends killed for a reason I can't even really remember anymore."
Ironically, the mysterious traveling revolutionary of the earlier Bilal / Christin collaborations makes a brief appearance as an accomplice—sympathetic to the cause, but largely outside the specific plans and woes of our heroes. This war is not for him, and its Pyrrhic "victory" hints at the impossibility of radical social change. Idealists cannot succeed, and, more importantly, they cannot even maintain their idealism should they try.
In The Black Brigade, ex-revolutionaries choose to resume their activities, with ambiguous, arguably disastrous, consequences. In Bilal's films, e.g. Tykho Moon (1996) and Immortal (2004), the lead characters are ex-revolutionaries forced back into revolutionary action. In the case of Tykho Moon, the title character is a former revolutionary suffering from complete amnesia. He recalls neither his revolutionary acts, nor why he engaged in them.
Nevertheless, Tykho is forced into transgressive acts anew by the bizarre lunar dictatorship of the Mac Bee family, whose degenerative disease demands organ transplants, and with whose genetic code Tykho is uniquely compatible. Although Tykho eventually succeeds in executing the last of the Mac Bees and escapes the moon with his love interest (herself a hired killer and former employee of the dictatorship), the motive is never revolutionary change, but mere survival. An actual revolutionary (from earth) who assists him is spurned on the the topic of political idealism and dies in the violence of the finale.
In Tykho Moon, we see the personal details of life (survival, love, the chance to dance with a beautiful woman) overwhelm revolutionary priorities. One who simply lusts for a life to himself is forced into revolutionary action, and consequently, his actions are drained of idealism, and suffused instead with necessity. Obligation, unavoidable and personal. At the end, although the dictators are overthrown, we are given no promises about the future political situation on the moon. Our heroes do not aim at reform, merely survival.
Similar themes can be found in Immortal, Bilal's screen adaptation of his own Nikopol trilogy. Unlike the Nikopol of the comics (and much like Tykho Moon), the Nikopol of Immortal is an ex-revolutionary. He has been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in suspended animation on a floating prison. A freak accident sets him free prematurely. The fascist NYC in which he finds himself is ruled by a "medical dictatorship," but his name survives as a rallying cry (the "spirit of Nikopol") amongst those who oppose the regime.
Just as in the books, a large chunk of plot is devoted to Horus' attempt to impregnate Jill via Nikopol. Just as in Tykho Moon, the very personal goals of love and survival motivate Nikopol's actions, and the execution of fascist dictators and general social upheaval which take place along the way are largely incidental. In Immortal, not only the whims of the fascist elite, but also those of the gods force Nikopol and Jill into a sequence of bizarre situations. No longer is the blame for the revolutionary's actions foisted solely upon the state—here fate, or at least its proxy, are equally, if not greater to blame.
So, while Bilal has continued to focus on the revolutionary as character throughout his career, we see a gradual evolution from the revolutionary as active instigator of social change to the revolutionary as accidental instigator of social change. The reluctant revolutionary is at first forced into this position by the very authority figures he eventually destabilizes, though later, it is fate, or forces beyond his control generally rather than merely political forces which motivate his actions.
The most recent chapter in Bilal's evolving depiction of revolutionaries is the so-called "Hatzfeld tetralogy." Unfortunately, only the first two volumes are available in English (as The Beast Trilogy: Chapters 1&2), so the overall trajectory of the work is as yet unclear to those of us who are linguistically limited. So far, many similarities emerge with Bilal's earlier works. Just as in the Nikopol trilogy, the backstory is elaborate, involving various layers of authoritarianism and fascism. Religious dictatorships, terrorist NGOs, evil policemen, bizarre alien intrusions, all make an appearance, buffeting the world our characters inhabit.
Unlike in the works discussed above, the protagonists are not (yet) explicitly terrorists themselves, but rather mercenaries, scientists, and prodigies for hire to the various competing forces which shape their world. No longer is there an "evil" authoritarian power force, and a "progressive" outsider revolutionary, but rather a sequence of authoritarian forces with various religious and political motivations. There is no "right" side for the would be mercenary to choose, and given the trajectory of alienation from idealism we've seen in Bilal's previous works, it's perhaps unsurprising that the protagonists here do not begin with an ideology, but rather a skill set of interest to ideologues.
The Hatzfeld tetralogy draws more explicitly on Bilal's Yugoslavian heritage than any of his previous works. The story centers around a trio of "Yugoslavians" of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Their origin is retold by the protagonist Nike Hatzfeld, who's gift is a complete photographic memory (contrast with Tykho's amnesia!) which dates back to his very first days of life, when he and Amir and Leyla (the other two Yugoslavian orphans) lie next to each other in a Sarajevo hospital as it is ripped apart by violence.
The chaos of the future world inhabited by Nike, Amir, and Leyla somehow mirrors the violence of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Bilal focuses on individuals buffeted by larger political and religious forces beyond their control. The revolutionary becomes an employee when there is no right or wrong, but only conflict.
[If we're lucky, the re-emergence of Humanoids as a North American publishing force will result in new editions of the Nikopol trilogy (now, sadly out of print and exorbitantly priced) and the Hatzfeld tetralogy.]
Friday, May 20, 2011
(Even if you are obviously joking, say? And you say you are joking, and you are referencing the particular details of your personal life (say, you are raised by a Jewish father and told by your mother on her deathbed that he was not in fact your biological father)? And you explicitly reject those features of the ideology which are damning (e.g. WWII) and emphasize your sympathy for the human being (no matter how "evil") who inspired the ideology rather than the ideology itself?)
Or is sympathizing with an ideology acting upon it, say by demonstrating fascist ideology through the censure and control of the speech and acts of individuals? Who here is acting "contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity"? Who here is the real nazi?
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Monday, May 9, 2011
First, a caveat: I have not actually finished the series. I read the first book many many times, and it is tied very closely in my memory to various experiences during my formative years even my love of reading itself. I read the second and third books hungrily and was quite excited by them, but did not resume consumption of the remainder until some time after the fourth was published and the series resumed.
After the third book, my experience was with audio books. I listened through about a third into the final book. I still have the audio book on my computer, but doubt I will ever be able to stomach going back to it.
The success of the first Dark Tower stories lies entirely in their imagery and atmosphere, the old west, the Beatles, dark magic—these elements seamlessly blend into an organic whole which evokes a magical picture in the reader's mind.
By the last few books in the series, however, Stephen King had fallen in love with his characters. For a storyteller, this is the death of their craft, in particular, the death of arc and character—after he fell in love with his characters, he was scared to kill them off, and, correspondingly, unable to produce legitimate tension in the story; after he fell in love with his characters, he was unable to make them cruel, and, consequently, Roland the anti-hero became Roland the kind and wise uncle whose supposed willingness to sacrifice his loved ones for the quest was given lip-service, but not realized in any convincing or tension-inducing way.
Furthermore, King's near-death experience induced him to force a post-modern turn on the series, emphasizing a multiverse perspective, fatalism, and introducing himself as a character. Fatalism kills suspense, it kills character, it removes the incentive for motivation, which drives both character development and plot—fatalism is the the bane of modern genre storytelling.
So, fuck the end to the last Dark Tower book: King, you had your chance and punted—if a Dark Tower movie adaptation is going to be any good whatsoever, it will have to follow the first rule of adaptations in a very serious way and feel free to violate the source material.
Usually this means feeling free to replace features of the source material inappropriate for the relevant new medium. For example, the Harry Potter films erred on the side of including incidents from the books rather than developing characters in the spirit of the books. Less time spent on including all the scenes from the first books in early movies, and more time spent on showing us in a manner unique to the medium of cinema the same character features that were demonstrated in the books in a manner unique to the medium of text would have greatly improved the quality and efficacy of the early movies. (I refrain from commenting on later ones as I am unqualified.)
So, the rules for adapting the Dark Tower books to the screen effectively are
1. Ignore the NYC plotline; ignore the multiverse aspect; ignore everything that is self-referential.
If the multiverse is included, everything will become convoluted, in-joke, inaccessible, and directed only at the fans or King himself. If it is abandoned, then there is some hope of telling a story which stands on its own, and is compelling to the viewer whether he has read the books or not.
2. Ignore cutesy references to other Stephen King books / The Wizard of Oz.
Same reasons as above for the first; for the second, it ridiculously undermines the atmosphere.
3. Acknowledge you cannot tell the whole story.
Making a good (series of) movies about the Dark Tower series means acknowledging you cannot reproduce every detail and nuance of the series of seven (sometimes very long) books. Confront this fact and meditate on it. If you do not, you will fail. Begin with the idea that only a very very tiny fraction of the material will make it to the screen—in the case of a series of this magnitude, we're looking at less than 1/20th, even if, say, a trilogy is green lit. Probably less.
4. Once you have meditated on 3, pick moments from the book to collect in each of the films which (a) will stand alone, (b) are cinematic, (c) will constitute a compelling story for someone who hasn't read the books, and (d) allow for an organic and internally consistent development of the characters. How many and which moments you collect will depend crucially on the scope of the series which is funded.
For example, suppose a trilogy is funded: you might break the story down such that:
I. includes the first story in detail, the discovery of the boy, and the Gunslinger's sacrifice of the boy.
II. The Drawing of the Three? Introduce the coherence of the quest, and the secondary characters? Culminate, perhaps, in the grand train journey across the radiated countryside?
III. Some kind of climax - combining features of Wolves of the Calla, and Song of Susannah with an actual confrontation with the Man in Black at the actual Dark Tower. If the cutseyness, the NYC scenes, the meta-fictional world crossing are left out, and one focusses entirely on a) scenes crucial for character development, and b) cinematic imagery which also advances story, one may be able to compress key elements together into a coherent conclusion to the story.
Then, keep the flashback story in Wizard and Glass in reserve, to use as a prequel if one hits financial gold with the trilogy.
Key point: Don't bring "the boy" (Jake) back!!!!!! Bringing back Jake was the beginning of the end for The Dark Tower—it is the abandoning of consequences, the undermining of Roland (the Gunslinger)'s character, and the introduction of multiverse, metafictional, self-indulgent, character-loving idiocy.
Follow these rules, and a powerful adaptation could be made. Abandon them in favor of the full details of the story, and you court pathetic, self-referential claptrap. Tell a good story! This is more important than faithfulness to the exact text of King's novels. Remember that it only takes one man to create a novel, but an entire team of individuals and millions of dollars to create a movie. There is much less room for ego and self-indulgence in the realm of cinema. This brings us to
5. If Stephen King doesn't sign over the rights and agree to 1, 2, 3, and 4, then don't waste any of (our) time or (your) money, just forget about the project, and go reread the books instead.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
For one thing, glee at the death of someone else, no matter how "evil," seems in poor taste. More significant, however, is the mistake of thinking Osama was the enemy, or the ultimate cause of 9/11.
9/11 was caused by ideas—the radical fundamentalist muslim idea that the murder of non-believers is permitted + the terrorist's central idea that creation of fear in one's enemy is a means of bringing about political change. If I'm going to feel some kind of catharsis about 9/11, if I'm going to feel "we did it!" or "at last!" or "victory!", then it's only going to occur when I see evidence we've done something to combat these ideas. Are there fewer people today who hate the US? Who think that violence against citizens of the US is both permitted and righteous? Who believe that the suppression of alternate belief systems is both permitted and righteous? If there's evidence to this effect, then I haven't seen it.
With respect to the death of bin Laden itself, the source of my ambivalence is uncertainty about the effect of his death, and the manner in which it was achieved, on the propagation of these dangerous ideas. Whatever guidance (financial, conceptual, or spiritual) bin Laden gave to al Qaeda and related terrorist elements, the fact of the matter is that terrorist acts require hardly any resources at all. Bombs can be built in the kitchen from household chemicals. The most important commodity for terrorism is willingness. If the (manner of the) death of bin Laden creates a greater willingness in potential terrorists to carry out violent acts / sacrifice their personal wellbeing in the name of islam, then it is not a victory, but a mark of increased danger for the American people.
Of course, I already think the real dangers of terrorist attacks are overblown—I'm not advocating public fear here or (heaven forbid!) increased security measures of any kind. The point is that this is a question we should be asking ourselves. If your glee at the death of bin Laden is simple revenge fulfillment, fine, I sympathize. But if you think it has somehow reduced the terrorist threat, lessened the influence of radical islamic ideas, or made America safer, then you presume to a far greater insight into the psychology of the muslim world than I do.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
That we cannot devise as many laws as there are men must be admitted; but the laws can be lenient, and so few in number, that all men, of whatever character, can easily observe them. Furthermore, I would demand that this small number of laws be of such a sort as to be adaptable to all the various characters; they who formulate the code should follow the principle of applying more or less, according to the person in question. It has been pointed out that there are certain virtues whose practice is impossible for certain men, just as there are certain remedies which do not agree with certain constitutions. Now, would it not be to carry your injustice beyond all limits were you to send the law to strike the man incapable of bowing to the law? Would your iniquity be any less here than in a case where you sought to force the blind to distinguish against colors?
~ de Sade (1795) La Philosophie dans le boudoir
Friday, April 29, 2011
Friday, April 22, 2011
The NPR article describes two strategies:
1. culling - reject large categories of items as not worth consuming
2. surrender - acknowledge that time is finite and one just won't get to some items which are (nevertheless) worth consuming
As The League and some of his commenters pointed out, in practice most people utilize both strategies, and both indeed seem necessary in this era of information oversaturation. But it still leaves the question of whether or not it is still possible to be "well read," and if so, what that would mean. The suggestion of the NPR writer seems to miss the point of the original phrase.
If "well-read" means "not missing anything," then nobody has a chance. If "well-read" means "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully," then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we've seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can't change that.
"Well read" when said of Thomas Jefferson (The League's example) or David Foster Wallace, or a witty conversationalist one meets at a cocktail party certainly does not mean "not missing anything." And "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully" doesn't seem very helpful for those who wish to be "well read."
A natural way to interpret the phrase is in terms of a list of must reads, works anyone must have read in order to be "well read"—as The League points out, however, if this list is identified with the canon as taught in high school, it seems problematic. How was it chosen? Why Thomas Hardy, whom every schoolboy hates?
If custom, or even whim, dictates some of the members of the high school English class canon, how can we separate out the wheat from the chaff? I think there is definitely a unique set of problems which arise post-20th century for this endeavor.
1. Maybe sufficient longevity of popularity is enough to ensure the read-worthiness of some works (e.g. The Iliad or Shakespeare), but this process is open to artificial corruption (e.g. continued "popularity" of Thomas Hardy as measured in sales of books to students for whom it is required), requires culling itself (e.g. must one today have read Caesar's Gallic Wars to be well read? Even if that might have been the case 200 years ago in England?), and, perhaps most importantly, does not apply to contemporary works which one must read to be "well read."
Strangely, Ebert's musings are set off by reminiscing about authors considered required reading in the mid-20th century, but whom have become forgotten, irrelevant, or both:
"Consider: who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his "field") is reading Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, John Berryman, Allan Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Anne Sexton, Alice Adams, Robert Lowell, Grace Paley, Owen Barfield, Stanley Elkin, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, R.P. Blackmur, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen Spender, Daniel Fuchs, Hugh Kenner, Seymour Krim, J.F. Powers, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Rahv, Jack Richardson, John Auerbach, Harvey Swados--or Trilling himself?" [Ebert quotes Ozick]
But this brings us to:
2. Being "well read" seems context specific. Certainly, temporally context specific—if Ebert's discussion is presumed to be relevant, than a greater onus falls upon he who would be "well read" to pursue the top works of his own time, than those of the past. Or, to put it in the above terminology, his culling of contemporary works is assumed to be less severe.
Also, here, one might want to add cultural or geographic context specificity. Can the "well read" Englishman and the "well read" Spaniard be expected to read the same (or even largely the same) books? Surely one is to read Shakespeare in the original and the other to read Cervantes. But in an age of increasing informational contact between cultures, how much from outside and how much from within is the "well read" supposed to consume? Am I expected to read every Nobel Prize winner? Has anyone? What if their works have not been translated into my language? And also here, one must temper the value of such works by the cost of translation: a lesser work by a writer of one's native language may have a greater positive effect in improving one's rhetorical and linguistic skills (marks of the "well read"?) than a superior work translated from the original.
3. The problems of media and genre. The League rightfully defends the value of cultivating genre interests. Part of the benefit of being "well read" comes in uncovering layers of meaning in new works, of spotting allusions, of recognizing influences and references, of fully understanding the language they use—yet this endeavor seems possible today only within a narrowly defined genre / medium. Although I cannot grasp all the languages in communicative use today, I may be able to grasp the language of film, of poetry, of comics, of the mystery novel, the sci-fi novel, the pot-boiler, or some other one or handfull of the myriad niche markets which have arisen.
As the amount of available information increases, inevitably, the expected overlap in background knowledge diminishes. While a British novelist in the nineteenth century might have been able to assume a broad familiarity with Shakespeare and Chaucer and major Latin works amongst his readers (hmm, here also contextualization by class?), the modern writer can make no such assumptions. Within the confines of genre, however, expectations are heightened. If you would only be reading this piece were you a fan already, and being a fan implies reading such and such other pieces, then the writer / creator can assume you've read them, and reference them and build on them. Ideally, heightening the complexity of their work (and also your enjoyment of it). Not that things always work out this way.
I think these worries speak against the possibility of a list of canonical works for the "well read." I don't think this defeats the possibility of being "well read," though. To me, the word refers to one who has read widely, but also has digested and internalized the information he consumed. There must be a familiarity with classics, particularly those which shaped modern thought and language (Shakespeare on every list here). In terms of contemporary works, allowances for culling must be made. I would not withhold the term "well read" from someone just because they had not read (say) David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, even though that work is superior to most of those on Ebert's list. It's simply too much to expect.
Perhaps, though, the bottom line is just that to be "well read" is no longer meaningful. One could read the works that made one "well read" once upon a time, yet not achieve the same effect—understanding the context of every remark, catching every reference, spotting and understanding every allusion. And no alternative strategy seems able to achieve that effect either.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
[Exception which proves the rule: the recent trite crap "completion" of the Star Wars saga. nuff said.]
[Of course, in media other than the written word, unfinished status can be conferred by situations other than the writer/creator's death: go watch post haste if you have not already, Andrzej Żuławski's On the Silver Globe, the greatest unfinished movie of which I am aware—and be moved.]
There are, of course, famous examples here, e.g. Kafka's Amerika or Nabokov's Dying is Fun—although in both cases an ethical question arises since the respective authors requested their unfinished works destroyed upon their deaths.
In the case of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, I know of no such request. The question does, nevertheless, arise: what legitimates publishing this unfinished work and distributing it widely?
Apparently, upon Wallace's suicide from depression, he left behind on his desk "a neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling nearly 250 pages" and "hundreds and hundreds" of additional pages and notes for the novel scattered about his office. (There was, however, no outline, or explicit description of the novel's intended structure and ordering of events / written sections.) His editor on Infinite Jest, Michael Pietsch, was tasked with assembling this chaos into something that could be published, and make money for the publisher / the estate.
Graciously, the details of these circumstances are described in an introductory editor's note.
So, when reading the book, there are many questions: is this the right order of the information? Would this chapter have even been included? In this form? Questions which, when reading a completed work, are not raised. And worries (questions / confusions / imaginations) about the structure of the work are no longer criticisms of the author (and, perhaps, only on some occasions criticisms of the editor), but rather merely circumstances under which one might imagine one's own perfect version of the work, or extrapolate its completion into the ideal work for you, the reader (even if not one that's realistic for the author to have produced, editor to have approved, etc.).
Was it right? ( . . . to publish this unfinished, to charge $27.99, etc.?) In the case of The Pale King, I know of no countervailing demands expressed by Wallace, and I emphatically agree with Pietsch's assessment that there is plenty here for the reading public to enjoy / value. (Even if there is some sense in which the dead are being taken advantage of, you, the $27.99 reader are not. I say this only a fifth of the way through the book, and already having earned back the cost through insight, amusement, and beatific and sublime experiences.)
The first chapter (only a page and a half) is almost worth the price of admission alone for sheer beauty. There are ups and downs, but chapter 9, the "author's forward" definitely confirms the value and insight of the work, no matter how disjoint, and (ultimately, despite the fact that only Wallace's name appears on the title page) collaborative the work in this form is. (Look, chapter 11 is just notes, it would not have appeared in a finished novel by Wallace. And the influence of its content on the novel would not have been felt at the precise place in the ordering in which it was placed. Pietsch knows this. But he acknowledges it and, more importantly (consequently?) you the reader know it as well: this affects your processing and interpretation of chapter 11.)
I have to admit, however, a spooky feeling, when reading passages like
. . . this right here is me as a real person, David Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829—deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true.
Of course, even in this "autobiographical" section, there are deliberate obfuscations and falsities. But from the style, from the circumstances, we know that one day Wallace sat down and wrote these words, and he wrote them from a perspective in which the novel was finished, and published, and it had only taken 3 years to write. We know that he put himself in that frame of mind, and "talked" to the potential reader. But within 3 years he had become so completely unable to find this frame of mind in which the novel was done again that he committed suicide.
This is a man talking directly to you, the reader, from beyond the grave, yet it was not him who decided that you would hear him, but his estate and publisher and editor. Again, not that that's wrong (this is the start of the aforementioned chapter 9, well worth the price of the book alone in terms of insight and depth), but that it's certainly spooky. And you allow yourself to imagine Wallace cutting it, or rephrasing it, or (more likely, my imagination), dropping the conceit that the work is real, and introducing the (admittedly, startlingly profound) discussion of the history and nature of American taxation into it in a more organic way. To imagine that this was an exercise in the style of his popular nonfiction essays to bring together information that ultimately would be more effectively (?) conveyed through fiction.
But then that's just my fantasy of David Foster Wallace, and what he might have done. But to even take the first tentative steps on this staircase, to even find a direction in which to look, is not only worthwhile, but strangely creative as a reading experience.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
The next suitable person you're in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, "What's wrong?" You say it in a concerned way. He'll say, "What do you mean?" You say, "Something's wrong. I can tell. What is it?" And he'll look stunned and say, "How did you know?" He doesn't realize something's always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn't know everybody's always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they're exerting great will power and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing's ever wrong, from seeing it. This is the way of people. Suddenly ask what's wrong, and whether they open up and spill their guts or deny it and pretend you're off, they'll think you're perceptive and understanding. They'll either be grateful, or they'll be frightened and avoid you from then on. Both reactions have their uses, as we'll get to. You can play it either way. This works over 90 percent of the time.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
Mirren plays Prospero ("Prospera") in Julie Taymor's The Tempest (2010), played by Gielgud in Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991).
Mirren also plays Hobson in Arthur (2011), originally played by Gielgud in 1981.
. . . perhaps that's why she's a Dame and he's a Knight . . .
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Monday, April 4, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Of course, understanding the intended referent depends crucially upon viewing the phrase as salient. If one doesn't think "hook" upon hearing "butcher's ___," it will be awfully difficult to conclude the intended meaning is "look." As such, cockney rhyming slang has inspired some awfully amusing parodies. For example, 1 min. in or so, Reginald Perrin's son begins using completely obscure and ridiculous rhyming slang:
including, for example "chitty chitty" for "rhyming slang" (since "chitty chitty bang bang" rhymes with "slang").
More recently, Stephen Fry has had his bourgeoise way with rhyming slang:
using, for example, "bulletproofs" for "guests" (from "bulletproof vest") and "Barney" for "double" (via "Barney Rubble").
Now, the difficult trick with rhyming slang is that the sound of the unspoken word is relevant for determining the meaning. But we can see a similar effect, when it is the meaning of an omitted word which gives a compound meaning. For example, consider the sequence "cyberpunk," "steampunk," and "icepunk." The foremost was coined by Bruce Bethke in 1983, and combines the terms "cybernetics" and "punk." The basic idea, of course, was a mixture of the information-flow, artificial intelligence, computer programming nerd priorities associated with the computer age (for some early sci-fi writers, cybernetics was synonymous with AI (e.g. Stanislaw Lem)) with the hip anarchic attitude of 80s punk rock.
But once the term caught the public imagination, "steampunk" was coined. Steampunk still assumes a technological acumen, but now focuses on counterfactual developments, including in particular the possibility that sophisticated technology might be developed with an alternate power source, such as steam. The funny thing here, of course, is that there's more of the "cyber" at issue than the "punk," even though the latter half of the term was preserved while the former dropped. "Cyberpunk" as a whole came to stand for hipster technology, and the "technology" part could be replaced with the word "steam," and yet the new compound could retain the technological connotation. As such, "steampunk" is a kind of semantic rhyming slang, depending upon the missing morpheme (cyber) to imbue it with the appropriate meaning.
But then we reach the back jacket of the recent (first English language) reprint of Jacques Tardi's The Arctic Marauder, which describes it as: "a vintage 'icepunk' graphic novel."
First, what might "icepunk" mean? And why the scare quotes? Certainly not because a preexisting word is being quoted; though it's almost as if Fantagraphics wishes to imply they're merely picking up the lingo of the "hip" kids. Except they aren't. And the meaning? Well, there's nothing "punk" in the sense of "hip" or "anarchic" about the story, at least not in an 80s kinda way. In fact, it's a deliberate homage to the sci-fi style of yesteryear, esp. Jules Verne. The story is set in 1899, and ostensibly features technology which barely supersedes that in theory possible during the late 19th century.
But, whereas "cyber" (the style of information flow idea) had previously been replaced with "steam" (power source for the technological device), now it is replaced with "ice" (merely stuff that's around for most of the story). The whole thing makes no literal sense; nor does it make strict analogical sense.
Instead, the sense depends upon semantic rhyming slang. Only someone familiar with the previous terms cyberpunk and steampunk could piece together then intended meaning (anarchic (in the 19th, not 20th cent., style) sci-fi (in the Verne, not Gibson, style)).
Of course, if you're into Verne, and beautiful art, and the 19th century style of anarchy, the story is awesome and highly recommended.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Saturday, March 19, 2011
One strategy: found object, synthetic documentation from within the void.
Crudely documented by the participants themselvs, we follow the debased and shocking actions of a group of true sociopaths the likesof which have never never been seen before. Inhabiting a world of brokendreams and beyond the limits of morality, they crashagainst a torn and frayed aAmerica . Borderin on an ode to vandalism, it is a new type of horror - palpable and raw.
(Typos reproduced as accurately as possible.) Trash Humpers features 4 "elderly" protagonists with identical faces who vandalize, crack cheap jokes, mingle with white trash eccentrics, and, most frequently, "hump" trash (cans, bags, also electrical poles, trees, and pretty much anything else at hand).
Later in the "fanzine" (mostly nighttime photos of the films protagonists) we find this phrase (scrawled in deliberately childlike handwriting, like much of the document):
this movie is more like an artifact, its like something found somewhere and unearthed an old vhs tape that was in some attick or buried in some ditch
Now, Trash Humpers does seem to be shot on video, and it's clearly been run through several generations to of vhs copying to degrade the image quality and introduce the familiar analog noise of an old videotape.
On the other hand, before its video release, it was shown on the big screen in 35mm. The DVD packaging lists New York, Toronto, AFI, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, London, and SXSW festivals. This is hardly a screening pattern typical of a found object. The supposed "fanzine," is clearly not made by any fans of the film (as the fallacious and self-aggrandizing quotations above should indicate)—one can only hope it was not made by Harmony himself given the flagrant inconsistency of vision and message between the movie and the packaging / "fanzine" insert.
Compare this with August Underground, a film which also was deliberately degraded by several generations of video copying, also was shot handheld, simulating the homemovies of socio/psycho paths, also features them marauding through a desolate suburban landscape, and also features faux-snuff (though this plays a much more prominent role than in the few scenes in Trash Humpers). Arguably, if there is a purpose to August Underground (beyond its status as gore-exploitation (and maybe there isn't any such further purpose)), then it is as a commentary on a disaffected portion of society, with no sense of social boundaries, a lack of respect not just for law and property, but for human beings themselves, a complete selfishness and entitlement which permits all, at the cost of permitting only the most base repetitive and meaningless actions. (i.e. the exact same purpose we might plausibly attribute to Trash Humpers)
[Tellingly, it appears that once one rejects boundaries and respect, once one rejects the humanity of one's fellows, there isn't much of interest, value, or complexity left for one to do.]
August Underground, however, rather famously, preserved the appearance of found object in its initial distribution. It was mailed in neutral packaging on an unmarked VHS tape to likely reviewers of extreme gore, and thereafter passed through the underground amongst aficionados of the genre.
Of course, if Trash Humpers attempts to create appearance of a found object and fails, this in itself isn't a criticism unless the success of the movie stands or falls on this illusion. And in order to answer this question, we need to understand the point of the endeavor: what would it mean for Trash Humpers to succeed?
We could go to the director's own comments on this point, but they're largely unconvincing:
Much more convincing are the comments he makes in character, while driving the other trash humpers to a new location for humping, presumably (note, this monologue is completely out of character with the giggling and leering which characterizes the rest of the film, amply demonstrated in the first 1:12 of this vid):
Safe to say, there's to some extent a glorification, and to some extent a recrimination of a certain type of devil-may-care, libertarian rejection of social norms and morays. A "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" attitude that originates, not in mystical visions, but in a combination of a permissive society, devoid of overseers, and a lack of motivation to instill the order / structure that such overseers might themselves have implemented.
Of course, the classic source for this attitude is an explicit rejection of authority. I hump trash because it is forbidden, and because the powers that forbid it are too ineffectual to prevent me. A sense of rebellion and degeneracy which appears in all of Korine's works, though perhaps the closest in spirit here is his Gummo.
If this is correct, though, then the motivation behind the serial killing in August Underground is actually more complex than that in Trash Humpers—yes, there's the libertarianism, yes there's the "because I can," but there's also a de Sade power-trip, a getting off on using others as objects, as means rather than ends. The trash humpers, however, seem oblivious to the owners of the trash, or the effect their actions have on them, they are merely amusing themselves through juvenalia.
So, suppose both the point is correctly identified, and that the criticism is warranted (i.e. there is a degenerate and selfish libertarianism at the heart of the American experience), then how does the "found object" strategy serve to make that point? The idea here is to produce an artifact of that degeneracy, and comment on it through immersion: you the viewer are forced to confront a side of society which you do not (yourself) participate in, recognize their practices, and reflect on the circumstances which brought them about.
Fair enough, but then the crucial element for creating the desired effect is authenticity. To the extent that the viewer is not convinced by the purported found object, he is divorced from the experience, and no longer reflects upon the circumstances which produced said object, but upon the filmmakers own ineptness and confusion in thinking he understood it.
Which brings us to acting. The primary characters in Trash Humpers are four supposed old folk, all played by quite young folk (e.g. Harmony and his wife Rachel) wearing old folk latex masks (the effect being all the more disturbing because the masks are all identical). To be fair, these characters are quite compelling and, besides the obvious surrealism of their faces being identical, are convincing as demented artifacts of a corrupt society. Unfortunately, the secondary characters they interact with are totally unconvincing, bombastic in the delivery of their lines like any second rate actor, and clearly the products of Hollywood and not the suburbs. As such, their presence undermines the authenticity of the film and destroys any purported status it pretends to as found object, and thus also as insight into the American experience.
For comparison, Harmony's first film, Gummo, brilliantly combined professional actors with local amateurs caught candidly engaged in their usual white trash activities. Although it didn't purport to be a found object (using voice overs, still frames, and other clever filmmaking techniques), it succeeded far better in immersing the audience in a particular experience.
Likewise, the August Underground series succeeds in immersing the viewer in a plausibly naturalistic scenario. Of course, not all films from Toetag have succeeded equally, nor does the extremity of the content reflect as widespread a social disease (although, one must assume here the trash humping stands in for a broader category of social pathologies—trash humping itself may actually be more rare than serial killing for all I know), nevertheless, the abstract point, about subversion of libertarian values in an American wasteland, is even more effectively conveyed. In fact, I'll go one step further—not only is the acting more convincing in the August Underground series, but the characters themselves (when not engaged in their pathological behavior) are more like us. Ordinary folk one might see walking the streets.
Better even still, both on the realism front, and the social commentary front, however, are the actual found objects of the nihilistic American suburbs. I'm thinking here of the countless shock / trash videos to be found in underground music stores, or available for cheap download—actual documents of social deviancy, not faux documents of such by an alienated and pampered NYC art house elite. A prime example for comparison are the Bumfights videos.
If you want to know the sickness that lies in the interstices of the libertarian American dream, then Bumfights will certainly show it to you. Of course, videos such as this exploit the poor and homeless (arguably true of Gummo as well?—even if to a significantly lesser degree). Certainly, it would be reprehensible to encourage videos such as Bumfights by purchasing them or in any way allowing more money or power to end up in the filmmakers' hands. And to watch such videos with glee, to empathize, not with the desperate, the victims, but with the psychopaths, the filmmakers, the de Sadian exploiters, would be sick sick sick.
On the other hand, what to think of the audience for a film like Trash Humpers? Its protagonists are also killers and vandals and exploiters. It also has no plot, but is just a sequence of degradation-glorifying vignettes. Only, unlike in Bumfights, or August Underground, the exploited are unconvincing, are absent or patently in league with their supposed exploiters. Wink wink, nod nod—we're all really intellectuals here! And the cost? No empathy, no redemption. At least the goal of depicting the anarchy in the interstices succeeds with the true found object, or the authentic found object. But without that authenticity, there can be no empathy, and without empathy, there can be no redemption: neither spiritually, nor aesthetically.
Personally, I'm much more worried about whatever head-up-his-ass pretentious nihilist dickwad who awarded Trash Humpers the grand prize at a documentary film festival than the skate punk degenerates who paid money for Bumfights. At least the latter feel something.