Archive for April, 2008

Moments

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

      for a song

And so one night you stop and think
Of all the times before
You settle down and pour a drink
And total up the score
Was there a moment when you knew
The tide had turned away?
You would have told her, wouldn’t you?
The time, the place – the day

The heart had spoken, as it must
To tell me I must go
And all those secrets turned to dust
Those secrets that I know
The moments when I saw, but oh
Those moments fade to gray
I’d tell her this, I would, I know
If it were yesterday.

We only get a moment’s chance
Not time to wonder why
The music starts, we rise, we dance
And moments? They slip by…
I never told her when I could
I never thought to say
Or tell her what I knew. I would
If it were yesterday.

Having gone there…

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

Having gone there, I guess I should complete the thought.

I think the danger to the Obama candidacy of his recent statement is that he has revealed himself to be, at heart, a pacifist. On the surface this sounds like a positive thing. It’s certainly something that I support. And yet I suspect that deep down our nation’s citizens recoil away from pacifists, although most people wouldn’t put it that way. We are an odd amalgam – a culture that professes a love of peace, and yet which has derived enormous economic leverage from our outsized ability to wage war.

When I was an undergrad at Harvard, we were visited by representatives from the CIA, who were there to fish for recruits among the intellectual elite. One rep was quite frank with us. Since he was trying to recruit us, it behooved him to be frank. He explained that the major utility of our military might its role in keeping the hearts and minds of our nation-state clients around the world. In this way we achieve favorable trade status, and assert control of the international economic agenda. I suspect that the CIA would have been much less frank with the Press in going over these talking points.

Notice the first thing that Senator Clinton did when Obama appeared to say something negative about Americans and their guns: She reminisced fondly about her girlhood as a hunter. Cannily, she was positioning herself as a warrior. After all, the U.S. president is also referred to, respectfully, as “The Commander in Chief”, which is very much a military characterization.

I suspect that this strategy will not work for Clinton – the cost she is paying in looking ever more like a mean spirited attack dog is simply too high. But by amplifying the perception among general voters, implied by Obama’s recent words, that he may not be a proper gun-toting American, ready and eager to kill (although nobody ever puts it that way), Senator Clinton might succeed in getting John McCain into the White House.

Isn’t it ironic? Obama makes the mistake – which might cost him the nomination – of revealing that he may have a distaste for killing innocent fellow sentient beings in cold blood, something Americans do just because, [irony on] well you know, because it’s really fun to kill. What could be more empowering, more of an adrenaline rush, than that terrified look in their eyes, that heady mix of fear and confusion and pain, just before the moment of death? And it’s all perfectly legal! [irony off]

Obama’s rhetorical slip creates an implication – immediately exploited by his Democratic opponent – that he might not have the heart to arrange for the killing of large numbers of fellow humans. And that therefore he may not be qualified to represent our great nation and its values.

Wow. This is the liberal party! What kind of a country are we?

Should I go there?

Friday, April 18th, 2008

Should I go there? I’ve been debating this to myself for several days now. It’s been so tempting, but those fires burn hot, and who knows which way the flames will blow.

OK, I’ll go there.

I have been marvelling (I think that “marvelling” is the right word here) at the odd spectacle of Senator Hillary Clinton, in her argument as to why she is the rightful heir to the throne (oops, I meant presidency), pointing out to the American people that Barack Obama is unelectable.

No, not for that reason, the one people are not allowed to actually say out loud (here’s a hint: a word that rhymes with “grace”). No, it’s because he has finally crossed the line by saying the unthinkable.

I’m not talking about something trivial or unimportant here, like making up out of whole cloth – and repeating for months – a self-serving fib about having been in the line of fire in Bosnia. No, that’s really ok. We want our politicians to be practiced liars, to say untrue things that give us plausible deniability. Isn’t that kind of the point, in fact what we’re paying them to do? Isn’t that exactly the job that George W. Bush has been doing for the last seven years?

A country like America, whose citizenry consumes at a level vastly out of proportion to its population, is by definition built upon exploitation. The clothes we wear, the energy we burn, it’s all based on an artificial economy, one in which we arrange not to see where things really come from, and under what conditions. We could not exist any other way at our current rate of consumption. And if we were forced to look at the situation squarely, without pretense, we would likely go mad. The trick, as a culture, is to not look at things squarely. We pay our politicians to say all the right things, so we never have to blame ourselves.

So when Clinton lied about Bosnia, that was ok. It just meant that she knew the score.

But Obama did something far worse. He did the unforgiveable: He suggested that America’s love of guns and hunting is a product of bitterness. Yes, he quickly took it back, realizing his strategic mistake. Both Obama and Clinton have been falling all over themselves this past week to assure America that killing for fun is really quite nice.

But the damage has been done.

I’m going to continue this tomorrow. But meanwhile, try to keep in mind the image that Senator Clinton herself cheerfully put in our heads several days ago to prove why she, unlike her rival, is electable: It is an image of a young Hillary Rodham back when she was a girl, gleefully picking a rifle and setting out to the woods to go hunting.

Bambi’s mom avenged

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

At long last the man who killed Bambi’s mom has left this earth. It is not a cause for celebration, but for quiet reflection and deep appreciation of a life well lived. Ollie Johnston, who passed away on April 14 at the age of 95, was the last of the “nine old men” – the original crew of great Disney animators. But Mr. Johnston in particular was quite important. It’s not that he killed Bambi’s mom. It’s the way he did it.



An unsuspecting Bambi and his mom

Traditionally, American character animation is constructed “pose-to-pose”: A character’s behavior through time is built out from a succession of carefully planned “hero” poses, which are then “in-betweened” to create the illusion of continuous movement. This approach provides a reliable way for the audience to get inside the character’s head: Because each successive pose distills a precisely delineated moment of thought or intention, an audience finds it very easy to visually read a character’s intentions.

On the other hand, pose-to-pose can lead to a kind of emotional distancing. On a subliminal level you are continually being cued in that you are watching something that is not really happening. This generally works quite well for comedy, but can tend to limit the emotional impact of drama. One recent example of comic use of pose-to-pose style is found in Madagascar from DreamWorks Animation:



Striking a pose

Animation students are often taught to develop their character by starting with a set of hero poses, and then proceeding from there. This way of thinking about animation has much in common with the style of much nineteenth century American stage acting, the influence of which could still be seen in many films of the silent era. This stylized approach to acting quickly passed out of favor in live action films with the advent of talkies. A silent-era performance by Pola Negri or Theda Bara that was highly acclaimed in its time will now come across, to modern audiences, as stilted and overly melodramatic:



Theda acting

Ollie Johnston was always a force away from from pose-to-pose animation and toward a deeper – and much more difficult to master – approach, in which all action must come from continuous shifts in the underlying thoughts and motivations of the character, as well as the emotional dynamic between characters in a scene.

I think this is one reason that the death of Bambi’s mom was such a powerful and even pivotal moment in the history of American character animation. Audiences who were watching Bambi in that scene were not seeing a pose-to-pose style. Rather, they were seeing a tragedy acted out, in an uncommonly subtle and naturalistic way, and therefore were not positioned at a safe distance from that tragedy. To this day, that scene can make people break into tears.

In modern American character animation I think that the natural heir to Johnston is Brad Bird. Yes, of course The Incredibles is a great film. But perhaps the greatest scene in that film, certainly the most stylistically transgressive scene, for my money, is the one in which we first see Mr. and Mrs. Incredible having a serious argument. This is the first point at which the audience becomes aware of the depth of the emotional cracks in their marriage, of the possibility that they may not survive as a couple:



A relationship on trial

There are no special effects in this scene, no super powers, gorgeous painted backdrops or fancy camera moves. Just rich characters, subtle shades of emotion, and carefully observed acting and directing. And that, my friends, is part of the legacy of the late great Ollie Johnston.

Scenes from the novel VII

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

It had taken only seconds for everything to change. One moment they had been holding hands, walking together on a beautiful cloudless evening, under the full moon. She had just needed to run in to pick up her prescription. And then he had found himself staring at an abyss where the drugstore had been. The street sign was gone, as well as exactly half of the car on the side nearest to the fire hydrant, as though a giant blade had sliced into the world. Which, in a sense, it had.

He stared down at his empty hands, acutely aware that they were indeed empty. He suddenly felt so useless, so … extraneous. He had known for some time that there were forces here at work, forces that could change everything. He had felt so sure of himself, certain he had read the portents, had followed the signs. He had thought he had been prepared for the maelstrom, had been ready for the moment when the winds of change would once again flow through him, guiding him. But it seemed that these forces were not flowing through him after all, but rather around him, as a stream will flow around a useless rock within its path.

He remembered once again the poem from when he was a boy. It had always been the same poem. He could not remember whether he had learned it or had heard it in a dream. Probably a dream, as if that made any difference now. In any case, there it was again, running through his head. And then he realized it had been running through his head over and over, for the last several minutes, all the while that he had been standing there staring stupidly. He tried to concentrate now, to make out the words. The poem had played in his mind many times down through the years, but it had been so very long since he had really paid attention to the words.


    And then she will be gone away
    And all will dance, and all will dance
    In moonlight, break his supper bread
    The song will play within your head
    And we will dance again

    One day the burning wall be broke
    From far away, from far away
    So clean the blade, so quick the slice
    Then he shall come and circle thrice
    And we will dance again

He shivered, and pulled his coat more tightly around his shoulders. It was a stupid child’s rhyme, that’s all. Just a coincidence. That summer by the lake when he was seven. “The summer of the dreams” they had called it. That was when he had caught the fever. He could remember his mother’s haunted eyes looking down at him, while she pressed cold compresses against his forehead, her hands trembling. Soon after that he had first come into his powers. But that couldn’t have anything to do with this. Not with this.

A perfect object

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Recently I bought a toy for a friend of mine. I know you’re supposed to buy toys for children, and this friend is a grown-up, but I just felt she really needed this toy. It is called a Flower Cube, and in some ways it is, I think, a perfect object – a confluence of design, technology and spirit that hits the mark. It was made by the Japanese company Takara Co. Ltd, the same folks who brought you the toys known in the U.S. as Transformers.

The Flower Cube is quite simple really. A plastic flower toy that you put in a window sill, at which point sunlight hits a little solar cell and the flower responds by swaying. Which it will continue to do forever, as long as there is a Sun; no batteries required. Nothing fancy here – just a simple whimsical statement of joy and happiness. This is what it looks like:



Like all perfect things, the Flower Cube has a tragic side. After all, perfection without a tragic side would be intolerable – it would call into question so many things. In this case the tragedy is that the Takara Co., Ltd. was merged on March 1, 2006 with the Tomy Co., Ltd., a giant Japanese toy manufacturer. It was the beginning of the end. The Flower Cube has been discontinued, although you can still locate a few stragglers in select toy shops, if you look carefully and you’re lucky. That’s how I found the one for my friend.

There should be more perfect objects in our lives. Not fancy, overwhelming, commanding objects, which demand that we bow down before their magnificence. No, merely perfect objects that remind us that life is, at its best, a symphony composed of a million small pleasures and delights.

Does anybody else have a perfect object?

The Galaxy Quest Scale

Monday, April 14th, 2008

There are a lot of lists of “the 100 best [fill in the blank] of all time” and other such nonsense. For example, the American Film Institute has famously published a list of the 100 greatest American Movies of all time. How good is this list? Allow me simply to point out that Cabaret appears nowhere on it. Enough said.

It seems rather nonsensical to try to choose between, say, Schindler’s List and Duck Soup, and perhaps unfair. For one thing, Liam Neeson dresses a lot more nattily than Groucho Marx. Although, on the other hand, both films are about problems created by the crazy antics of dictators… But I digress. The underlying flaw in the entire enterprise is that the goals of different movies are so wildly disparate that it makes no sense at all to compare them directly.

 


He wants his shirt

 

It seems to me that it would be far more interesting to twist the game a little, mix it up, maybe make things more interesting. To this end, I propose a new scale for measuring movie greatness, based on the 1999 film Galaxy Quest. According to my scale, this modest little comic homage to Star Trek fandom is perhaps the greatest film ever made. Allow me to explain.

When you enter a movie theatre, you arrive with certain expectations. Maybe you’ve read a positive review of the movie, or a friend has told you they liked it, or perhaps you’ve only heard what folks in Hollywood like to call the “high concept”. This is where the entire film is reduced to a single phrase, ideally one you can blurt out to a potential funder over hors d’oeuvres at the Chateau Marmont in less time than it takes the poor bastard to escape, once he’s realized that you crashed the party just to pitch your screenplay. An actual example of high concept: “Three Jews on a Dude Ranch”. See? Now you don’t even need to see City Slickers. You have just experienced the entire movie in six words.

But what if you arrive with no expectations? What if you know the film is going to be atrocious, an utter waste of your time? Your decision to see it has merely been a clever ruse for getting out of the house on Christmas day, while trying to find someplace, any place, where you can get away from those annoying Christmas carols. You are walking into this one with your eyes wide open, knowing full well what perilous fate awaits you. All of the ominous signs are there: It stars Tim Allen, it’s some sort of Star Trek parody, and the previews have led you to expect that it will be painfully cheesy. On the other hand, it does have Alan Rickman, and that’s promising, although you remember that in the trailer he was wearing some kind of alien thing on his head that made him look vaguely like a turtle, which can’t be good.



But you go anyway, settle down with your jumbo sized popcorn and strawberry Twizzlers, and prepare for the worst.

One hundred and two minutes later you emerge, amazed, enthralled, reeling with disbelief. It was funny and clever and actually had a plot with parallel character arcs that really worked and theme and back story and timing and great comic performances and just the right rueful sense of irony and Rickman was in utterly top form and even Tim Allen somehow got the whole “yes, I may be William Shatner but it’s ok because I know I’m William Shatner” thing and …. which is about the point where you realize you are hyperventilating and you go to find a chair in the lobby and sit down to think.

And that’s about the time, to make sense of what has just happened, you are going to need a little thing that I call the Galaxy Quest Scale (GQS). It is a rating system for movies that works like this: You assess your expectation going in of how good a particular movie could possibly be, given what you know. And then you assess your opinion of the movie after you’ve seen it. Divide the first number into the second number, and voila, you have computed that film’s GQS. It’s really that easy. Below is a simple diagram that explains the somewhat arcane mathematics involved:

 

how good the movie is
GQS =
how good you expected it to be


 

Does anyone else have a film that they feel rates a particularly high (or low) GQS?

History, Part III

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

On April 13 2003 the libraries burned.

Among the burned and looted books and documents dating back almost two thousand years were eight million documents in the Iraqi National Library and Archive, 45000 books and rare texts from the Central al-Awqaf library, all the documents in the “House of Wisdom” library, including rare holy books dating back to the 9th century and documents about the Jewish community in Baghdad, all of the 175,000 books and manuscripts at the library of the University of Baghdad’s College of Arts, the entire principal library of the University of Basra, as well as the entire contents of dozens of libraries across Iraq.

What was destroyed, while the occupying forces stood by, was the documentation of the Mesopotamian cradle of Western civilization, the basis of our own culture, our heritage, the roots of Judeo-Christian culture.


***

I love my country. I believe in the great American experiment, and I believe myself to be a patriot. The noble and daring idea that each of us is entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was the central philosophical premise that informed my childhood.

But how is any of that compatible with what happened five years ago today? Where is the love of learning, of human advancement, the belief that we are here on this Earth for a purpose?

In ten thousand years, when future peoples think back on our era, and they hear the phrase “The United States of America”, what will be the first thing they think of? History remembers, above all else, the destruction of history. Particular noble ideals of this nation or that may recede into the mists of time, but events such as the destruction of the great library of Alexandria are forever.

My worry is that all of our nation’s great accomplishments might end up being subsumed by this unnecessary fire. Lincoln, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Twain, Poe, Dreiser and Dickenson, all of these may become forgotten. But George W. Bush may be remembered, throughout all eternity.

As horrific as it was for me personally, and for those I love, the eleventh of September 2001 might one day be seen, through the long lens of history, merely as a prelude, as a point along a short and tragic line stretching from March 1, 2001, when the great Buddhas fell, to April 13, 2003, the day the libraries burned.

It is possible that of all Americans, only George W. Bush will achieve immortality. When people think back on our great nation, and ponder the arc of its rise and fall, all they may remember of us, in the end, is that one of our leaders presided over the destruction of History itself.

History, Part II

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

And so it continued, the taking of Baghdad, five years ago today. On April 11 the ransacking of the museum had begun, an act of fury wrought by mobs of people who had been oppressed by Saddam Hussein. On April 12 the museum was still being burned and pillaged. Desperate curators pleaded with the U.S. military to scare off the looters, but the military had no time for such things (they did cordon off and defend one public building – the oil ministry). Thousands of years of history gone, lost, scattered to the winds. U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld’s response was – these are his precise words: “Stuff happens.”

I do think the invaders meant well. We honestly believed we were doing good, helping a people to fight against tyranny. But here’s a question: If somebody came to save our own country from an evil tyrant, someone who truly cared for us, for our democracy, our civilization, our history and its dignity, how would we feel if they then looked on, unconcerned, as the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were torn out from their cases and ripped into pieces, the Lincoln Memorial razed, the Statue of Liberty toppled (with pieces of the torch made available to a black market of the curious)? What if the Smithsonian Museum were ransacked, and everything scattered or destroyed, from the Wright brothers’ airplane to Mr. Rogers’ orange sweater?

We might try to get inside the mind of our well meaning friends who were idly standing by, watching, while such things happened, these helpful foreign saviors with their guns and serious expressions. Perhaps we’d ask ourselves “What could they be thinking? Aren’t they even curious about us, this nation of people they wish to save? What is it about our culture, exactly, that they value?” And we might not be able to find any answers.

And yet this was all a prelude. In a sense it was a warning, a lead up to the following day, a kind of test to see whether the U.S. actually valued the culture it was attempting to liberate, or whether it was, in fact, even paying attention. The following day would be worse.

I am reminded of Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, which he was moved to write in the wake of the devastation wrought by World War I:


    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? 

History, Part I

Friday, April 11th, 2008

Why do I write these words every day? Why does anybody write anything? Presumably we wish our words to connect with other people, a larger purpose, or even history itself. Just as there is really no such thing, in any meaningful way, as a human being living in isolation from other human beings, it is clear that there is something about us, about humans, that only comes into its full dimension within the flow of history: Personal history, history of our community, of our tribe, a sense of our particular time and place on this planet.

When I think back on what I consider the most significant lives lived, the lives that for me have done the most to break through the bounds of mortality and echo down through the centuries, inspiring those that came after, I think of those who have broken through time and space, by virtue of the sheer power of their words and their ideas.

To name only a few among many, each in their unique way: Shakespeare, Goethe, Austen, Chaucer, Cervantes, Siddhartha, Aristotle. Do these individuals not represent the very promise of humanity? They remind us, by the example of their ideas, that we may create something out of these extraordinary minds of ours, and then pass that creation down to others. One more lamp lit against the darkness to make sense out of life. Why else are we here? What other sense does any of it make?

What would be the greatest of tragedies to us as humans? Not so much the loss of our lives, for aren’t we, each of us, destined to leave the planet soon enough anyway? No, I think far worse would be the loss of our legacy, of that hard-fought cumulative birthright of knowledge and wisdom that we have been gradually building, brick by brick, and handing down to each other through the generations. This is why, so many centuries later, the loss of the Library of Alexandria is still seen by scholars as a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions.

And so we come to April 11, the beginning of our own very strange modern tragedy, a tragedy that unfolded over several days, that should have been averted, and that may very well come to define us, to define even our era in history.

I think that the specific events that led to this tragedy began somewhat earlier, on Thursday, March 1, 2001, in Kabul. That was the day that the Taliban militia began to carry out the edict that their supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar had handed down to systematically destroy the giant statues of Buddha which had stood for two thousand years in Afghanistan.

I remember being puzzled, at the time, that there was not a greater outcry from the United States. Of course there were diplomatic words of bafflement, of disappointment, but there was no sense of emergency. And yet it was clear that something unprecedented was happening. History itself was being destroyed deliberately, systematically. Cultural memory was being wiped out on purpose.

On that day, I remember feeling that a line had been crossed. Somehow I had naively thought that the United States would step in when it came to the destruction of history itself, that the United States would understand that this signaled a new kind of malignancy loose upon the world, unlike any that had come before.

But I was wrong. The U.S. was completely oblivious. And that is how we came, gradually, through a series of unspeakable events, to April 11, and then April 12, and even then it was not too late. But the day after that it would be.

More on this tomorrow.