Monthly Archives: August 2010

Mondale as Debater

I am intermittently working my way through the archives of the London Review of Books and have now reached late 1984. An article by Alan Brinkley about the Mondale-Reagan presidential race mentioned one of their debates, and I remembered that I might have actually watched that when it happened. Thanks to the miracle of the Reagan Presidential Library, a handsome copy is available on Youtube for all to see, and I was just browsing around in it.

In one segment, young firebrand Morton Kondracke asks Reagan a tough-seeming question about his policy in Lebanon, and Reagan tells the audience that you can’t just put your finger on a terrorist group like you can a government. Furthermore, he adds, if you indiscriminately target terrorists, you might endanger innocent civilian populations, leading to spiraling problems. Now, knowing the actual policies of the Reagan administration up to this point and subsequently, combined with the remainder of post-Reagan U.S. policy on this issue, leaves the viewer dizzy—if not briny—with irony. (Reagan mentioned Brighton as the site of the latest terrorist attack.)

There’s lots of good stuff in the LRB, needless to say. I delight in the prose style of Edward Luttwak, and his pieces on mild populist economics and Pablo Escobar are wonderful. (Escobar had beauty contestants race in the nude for the chance to win a Ferrari for instance, and, for Luttwak, such an Atalantean aesthete couldn’t have been all bad for U. S. interests.)

Inception (2010)

What can be now be said about Inception?

I have a serious interpretive problem with films of this type, where there are significant commercial considerations impeding upon what might be the narrative aspirations of the director, considerations absent from Shane Carruth’s Primer, for instance, or even one of the Buñuel films that some reviewer mentioned (perhaps it was Denby in the New Yorker; I don’t remember). Anyway, my problem is that I don’t know how seriously to take the construction of the plot. With something like Primer, which also features intricate layers of nesting, I was willing to credit the director with anything as complicated as I could think of, provided that it fit. A $7000 budget warrants obsessive attention to detail. Here, with the gratuitous, multigenre action sequences; gravity-distorting stardom; and flagrant acts of miscasting, I was left very unsure of the interpretive boundaries. I mean, it’s one thing if it’s just done for fun and is not intended to make any sense at all. I can accept that. Done well, with a refusal to take itself seriously, this mildly cynical professionalism can suggest depths that more earnest efforts never plumb.

But Inception is an earnest, humorless film. The flagrant miscasting (there might have been others, including the lead, but this is the big one) was Ellen Page as Ariadne (which, see above re interpretive charity/plausibility, etc.) I don’t know what the fuck the deal is with the Cisco commercials, first of all, but Page seems to me to be more closely typecast from Juno than Kyle MacLachlan ever was with David Lynch films. The twinge of sarcasm everpresent in her voice is almost impossible to erase from even the most translation-friendly, banal dialogue of the summer action feature; and I was cringing in anticipation of some extradiegetic popular culture reference whenever she opened her mouth. If I were extending infinite credit to Nolan, I might suspect that the name and the combination of this unusual casting choice is supposed to indicate to the audience that she is an implant from a different level than we are exposed to in the film proper, who is intended to guide the lead (what was his name, by the way? I just saw this like seven hours ago, and I’ve already forgotten it. Samuel Borr?) to a certain outcome (or inception). And thus we the audience should sense that she does not really fit with the rest of the corporate espionage trappings (which trappings are explicitly described as pseuodoevental or simulacra themselves, but this character’s hermeneutic suspicions are not easily identified with the audience’s.) I made a note to myself that I thought at the beginning that Page’s character was an “as you know, Bob” feature; and, sure, there’s some of that.

I brought a notebook with me to see this, which I rarely do at the theater. Here are some of the notes I made (since it was dark, I wrote over several of them, rendering all illegible): “return of the repressed,” “what’s the population density of Japan?”, “PKD plot,” “pharmacology and silicon,” “good plot for a video game,” “subconscious—Freud abandoned topological metaphors, should be ‘un,’; but what of basement, elevators, etc.?”, “Mombasa?”, “technology compels limitless complexity in plot generation, infinite rewatchability only way to ensure continued buzz, viewership, both tv and film (dvd) SBJ.”

I don’t want to write all of those up here, but I think you can see where I was going. I didn’t get a good look at the “postwar British artist” either, though the glimpse I caught didn’t look like Francis Bacon. I’ve never made it all the way through Metal Gear Solid IV, which came with my PS3, but the metaleptic gestures and general feel seemed very similar. I’m not joking about this. I also wrote “videogame aesthetic” in my notebook. (And am dying to read the Nicholson Baker piece in the latest or last week’s New Yorker, also.)

[Update: I fixed some typos, including a brutal misspelling of Kyle MacLachlan's name, for which I am sorry, Sex and the City and all. Also, I just now read over the Salon guide to the film, and I see that the video game angle has been worked pretty extensively, which is just more in the way of presence of presence, if you follow me.)]

Tracer Cookie

In a discussion of Wallace’s “Mister Squishy,” I believe, a member of the wallace-l discussion list made a comment about how he didn’t seem to understand computer jargon very well, despite his penchant for deep research. I don’t know if I thought that was entirely fair at the time, but I would like to offer the following passage from Thomas Harris (an often deep researcher himself) for comparison:

“The FBI has a closed system and some of it’s encrypted. You’ll have to sign on from a guest location exactly as I tell you and download to a laptop programmed at the Justice Department [. . .] Then if VICAP hides a tracer cookie on you, it will just come back to Justice. Buy a fast laptop with a fast modem for cash over-the-counter at a volume dealer and don’t mail any warranties. Get a zip drive too. Stay off the Net with it.” (Hannibal, 234)

Pynchon in Poland

Here’s a neat piece on a Pynchon conference in Poland. The thesis of the paper the author presented sounds somewhat similar to some ideas I had about Lemuria in the book when I wrote about it a while ago.

I’ve only been in one gathering of Pynchon specialists before, and they were nowhere near as eccentric as those Nick Holdstock describes. n+1 academic conference descriptions always, at least in this and the Elif Batuman versions I’ve read, sound closer to something out of The Futurological Congress than those I go to; but I haven’t been terribly adventurous in my choices either.

I googled Holdstock, as I sometimes will do, and found linked a degree or two from his personal blog this essay in the finding-Pynchon genre by Robert Goolrick, which I don’t remember reading before. And this struck me as odd, because I did a senior research project on Pynchon that I thought had involved reading most everything in English that had published on him at the time, including specifically biographical-type pieces. Perhaps I exaggerate my thoroughness, or I did read it and forgot about it. I admit to being curious about the rest of the letter mentioned here, and I have examined some of Pynchon’s graph-paper letters in person.

An unrelated question: Hannibal is clearly self-parody. But was The Silence of the Lambs also?

Demolition

I read Denis Johnson’s Shoppers tonight, a collection of two related plays that were written and performed in the early aughts. The first, Hellhound on My Trail was genuinely good on the page, though I wonder at how well it would translate to the stage in every particular. The other play, Shoppers Carried by An Escalator into the Flames, gave every indication of being written without revision of any type, and I can’t imagine how it could have been performed, though the introductory material claims that it was. I almost get the impression that Johnson had tired of playwriting at this point and was fulfilling some type of fellowship obligation. Perhaps that’s uncharitable, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But it’s by far the worst thing of his that I have read.

Another book I started soon after was George Akerloff and Robert Shiller’s Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, And Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. I’m particularly interested in the psychological material in this book, but I’ve only read the foreword thus far. My notes on the first page or so are only WTFs about how something called a “free market revolution” was brought about by such heroes as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Deng Xiaoping, but the writers find their way past this baroque and fanciful speculation to make a compelling analogy between demolitionists and financiers. It’s apparently—and I love learning about gritty facts such as this from economists—quite hard to find an honest demolitionist. The asbestos and such is much easier to deal with by dumping it in a river than having to go through all the pesky environmental regulations, apparently, so you can’t make money in it unless you cut corners. (Unless there are strict regulators, they point out. It was unclear to me if they think the U.S. has them, though I suppose if this was a plot point on an episode of The Sopranos it’s safe to assume otherwise.)

The book does argue for the necessity of increased financial regulation, and the authors seem largely Keynesian, which I approve of insofar as it’s a mild corrective to the market fundamentalism which dominates their profession. It’s always interesting to me to read a book written by mainstream economists after having recently immersed myself in something from the New Left Review, for example, and realize again the extent of Orwell’s problem.