I’m Educated

October 31, 2009

Last night I went to An Education at QFT, and the showing was surprisingly full… of people not my age. I really wasn’t expecting that, but then I suppose I should just assume that people older than I am are more willing to go to an art-house cinema than people still in school.

The plot of An Education concerns a school girl, Jenny, played by Carrie Mulligan, embarking on a relationship with an older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Her father, played by Alfred Molina, has been pushing her to complete her studies and go to Oxford. You get the feeling he’s been pushing this vision of a future on the girl since she was in utero, and only a very determined performance on Molina’s part prevents the character from being totally overbearing and one-dimensional. Even a man so obsessed on his vision of his daughter’s future is swayed by Sarsgaard’s smooth operator.

He’s a shadowy guy, specializing in “liberating” art pieces to sell on for profit. (100% profit, not coincidentally… but I digress) Red flags go off for viewers almost immediately when he lies to cover for a trip he wants to take with Jenny, but both she and her parents, all of them stuck in suburban 1960’s England, are enthralled by the much more exciting life promised by David. It makes sense that a person stuck in her room studying all the time, who has even her hobbies chosen for how they’ll look on an Oxford application, would be drawn to this; but surely her parents know better, right? Maybe it’s just the years in soul-killing suburbs, but neither father nor mother put up much of a fight with David.

In fact, it seems that the only people who are willing to encourage Jenny to stay in school and not give up her studies and her dream of an education are the people at her school. Obviously, they aren’t exactly speaking from a position of real strength, and their justifications didn’t even convince me, much less Jenny. (Edit: It occurs to me after originally posting this that some of my resistance toward the justifications offered by the teachers may have as much to do with my skepticism that the education I’m getting is going to do me any good as it does with their actual arguments being weak. Take it with a grain of salt.)

Inevitably, it all comes crashing down on her head, and here is where the film infuriated me. Up until the last fifteen minutes the movie had assumed I was smart; assumed I could pick up on David’s lies when Jenny and the parents didn’t; assumed I could draw moral conclusions from the events on screen, even if the participants weren’t quite as quick on the uptake, and then it threw it all away for a pat, “Very Special Episode” ending telling us all what to think of this woman’s experience. Moments like this, when films lack the guts to live up to their convictions, drive me up the wall.

Special notice has to go to the clothing department in this movie, and David and his associate Danny, played by Dominic Cooper, look razor sharp in their suits. I lost count the amount of times I experienced shoe-lust. Furthermore, Rosamund Pike has got to get recognition for playing a completely vacuous woman– Danny’s girlfriend, Helen– so convincingly.

So there you go; it’s out in the States. If it’s near you, go see it, if not netflix it or something.

Spoilers Ahead

Edit: I did way too much talking about plot here and not nearly enough time talking about what was actually going on, so the whole thing got an almost complete revision. I’m not sure a single sentence remains from the original…

I really can’t discuss this movie critically without discussing the end, which in turn means spoiling it, so beware. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is Terry Gilliam’s latest movie, and the Monty Python alum has become famous for films that make viewers say to themselves “Wait… what?” That’s at least how I felt watching this film. Here commences the obligatory plot rundown:

Christopher Plummer plays Doctor Parnassus, an immortal Eastern mystic type guy whose adversary in the story is appropriately enough The Devil played by Tom Waits. (Yes, Tom Waits. Awesome.) He’s made a series of wagers with Mr. Waits, leading us up to today: his daughter Valentina will be taken away from him if he is unable to get five souls to do things his way. So… how’s this accomplished?

The Doctor is joined by his daughter and two others, Anton and Percy, in putting on a stage show: The Imaginarium. In the course of the show people go through a magic mirror and enter the Doctor’s mind. Later on they are joined by Heath Ledger’s Tony, a shadowy character, and race the devil to five. The scenes inside the Doctor’s head are exceptional. People are confronted with their temptations and offered a way out. Once Tony gets inside the Imaginarium things get a little bit more interesting, as his personality and past messes with things, allowing the Devil the even the score.

The world of the Imaginarium is a fascinating one. The people who enter are given a binary choice, black or white, to decide their fate. True, that choice is definitely shaded towards the person failing, as it appeals to temptation, but while an interesting conceit, I find it doesn’t reflect the real world that effectively. At least, it doesn’t until Tony enters for the last time, intending on deciding the contest between The Devil and the Doctor for good. At this point, everything gets grey and muddied. See, Tony goes into the Imaginarium for an ostensibly good reason. He wants to save Valentina, but things already look shady when it’s revealed that Tony’s intentions toward Valentina aren’t quite the best. Before too long The Imaginarium uses Tony’s past (He ran a children’s charity) to cook up a great set piece; here’s where we see the conflict of good intentions and evil urges. Underneath his work for kids lies a glory hound, and this ends up being his downfall. Valentina is so disillusioned by the events and the revealing of Tony’s character that she ends up being the deciding soul, winning the game for the Devil.

But it isn’t quite done, you see the Devil didn’t really want to win that way; he’s really after Tony, so he offers the Doctor one final bargain. Tony in exchange for Valentina. This is an incredibly dark turn, and I’m still not sure what it means. The whole movie through the Doctor had been trying to get people to turn and embrace their goodness; here at the end, the Doctor sets Tony up to be killed (Really, he kills himself) in the Imaginarium. Is Gilliam implying here that some people are simply beyond redemption? Or that some lives are worth more than others? (Daughter over corrupt charity head?) Or that the Doctor’s view of humans is simply wrong, and the Devil is closer to the human truth?

The movie’s out in December in the States. If you see it, let me know what you thought.

The Post-Grad Diet

October 30, 2009

This last month and a half has been pretty interesting as far as my eating habits are concerned. For the first couple of weeks I was functionally vegetarian, which was not near as bad as half of you are thinking. The simple fact of the matter is that meat is expensive, and I didn’t have any extra money. Like, none at all, so I had to be really careful with the money that I had brought with me from the US and make it go as far as possible. So I got to eat a lot of nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

Now that I’ve got a few extra pounds the menu is considerably less ascetic. When I make food for myself it tends to be a pasta with some vegetables or a sandwich. I eat oatmeal in the morning, too, which is delicious. Really. You get used to it. If I eat out, it is at Boojum or Common Grounds; yes, I’m a creature of habit.

Anecdotally, I feel pretty darn good; so maybe for the sake of the national health we should just put everyone in grad school on a limited budget and watch waistlines shrink… or something.

An Extra Lost in the Scene

October 30, 2009

st-vincent-actor-cover1

Marry Me, St. Vincent’s first album, was an interesting collection of songs, but it never really hung together as a whole for me. Sure, “Jesus Saves, I Spend” and “Paris is Burning” rank among my favorite songs to just put on and listen to, but I don’t find myself wanting to put the whole album on and listen the whole way through very often. Her newest, Actor doesn’t have this problem for me.

The whole album sticks together conceptually unbelievably well. I guess “conceptually” is too far to go here, as this certainly is not prog-rock concept album. Instead, this album is thematically arranged around themes of alienation, deception, and fakery. The second song, “Save Me From What I Want” finds St. Vincent struggling to come to grips with the fact that her desires are not good for her. (The title kind of gives it away, huh?) Her vocal delivery is what nails it here, lilting lazily along, only half-affirming the sentiments expressed by the lyrics, the dissonant harmonies undermining the solidarity of the words.

By the fourth track, “Actor Out of Work” she’s switched her target to other people, “You’re a liar, and thats the truth,” she sneers, as the song uncurls menacingly underneath her voice. “I think I love you, I think I’m mad.” Again St. Vincent lets her music keep the tension up, rhythmically laying down a single, ominous chord, letting fuzzed out keyboard flourishes maintain a sense of unease.

My absolute favorite track, “Marrow” stars out pleasantly enough, with an airy passage that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the first scenes of Snow White. That soon ends as she starts singing, with a propulsive drum beat underneath moving the song quickly out of any sort of happy sounds. Once the chorus starts, a wall of filtered guitars and woodwind instruments, St. Vincent singing “H. E. L. P. Help Me. Help Me.” the menace is full on.

By “Just the Same But Brand New” the musical atmosphere has lifted a little, but as she repeats the title of the track, indicating she feels freed, its almost as if she’s exhausted herself getting to the point, and just has nothing more left. No triumph this, more a surrender.

The album’s probably not great sunny summer day listening, but hey, winter is upon us. Give it a chance, I think you’ll find you like it.

Going through a minefield… hope I keep my limbs.

These are some additional, half-pondered thoughts after going through class today and my seminar presentation:

I ended up using Soviet propaganda posters as visuals, just to give people a concrete identifier of how gender roles are sometimes articulated. For your perusal, these are the images I used:
Soviet Propaganda
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15
13
1974 sovetskie_cea8d79157

One of the things I like about these images is how they show the malleability of Soviet rhetoric on gender. The last one shows women being engineers, agrarian workers, and factory workers; in other words, doing everything a man could do. The third image is a Soviet Rosie the Riveter. “The men are all off fighting, keep them fighting!” The second? The Soviet Union is embodied as a woman calling on people to sign up to fight to defend her. The women in the last poster don’t need defending, though.

Another thing I noticed in my reading is that masculinity need not be the exclusive province of males; which seems self-evident, but look what happens when a woman leads a country. Most leadership positions in nation-states have been masculinized, so when Angela Merkel was elected Chancellor of Germany, people started calling her The Iron Frau. Maybe (I don’t really know) this is a subconscious reaction to the event of a woman taking on a masculinized role. “Of course a feminine person could never run a country! Right?” (Necessary disclaimer: not what I think.)

Furthermore, another author described “nations” as hetero-male. This does a couple of things:
A. It marginalizes homosexuals, because they can’t reproduce the nation. I don’t have space to go into this all, but I did run across some literature on this.
B. It discounts non-western conceptions of gender. For example, in India there are (at least) two more genders: hijras and sadhins. Hijras are men who take on a feminized societal role, including dress, and sadhins are women who take on a masculine role, also including dress. Now, you may say these folk are just cross-dressers, drag queens, etc., but that’s importing a Western conception of gender. To the Indian mind, these aren’t men cross dressing or women cross dressing, they’re hijras and sadhins. Different things entirely. This kind of phenomenon is common in language. The example that comes easiest to me is a Russian one. English has one word for truth, and if we want to clarify we add adjectives. Russian has two: правда and истина. правда is generic, scientific truth. истина gets at more fundamental, universal truths which hold the world together. They aren’t two different kinds of truth; they’re different things altogether.
C. It fetishizes women as reproducers and guardians of cultural heritage. If homosexuals and their non-reproductive nature are anathema to the nation, then a woman who is bearing children is the Holy Mother. The population boundaries of the nation are set by who the women give birth to, the women teach their children what it is like to be part of the nation, and if these women are violated then the nation has suffered a grievous insult.

That’s all for now, comment away.

Apples And…

October 29, 2009

Or: A Brief Post on the Logic of Comparison

One thing that positivists really love to do is compare things. I hear you asking why. Answer: because when you compare things it lets you say interesting stuff about them! I think that justification is crap. Proponents would say that you can never really know anything about anything unless you know how it exists in relation to something. For example, if you want to know what women are like, you also have to study men, in order to see how they’re different. This is probably the historian in me, but if I can find that 60% of women think one thing or another, it doesn’t matter how that sits in relation to men; I have found out something interesting about women. Here’s the catch, though, that information is rather useless unless I can contextualize it. It is just a raw number. It is interesting, and I can say things about it, but the utility of the data can’t really travel very far from me.

This is where comparison is a great tool, but there are other situations in which it simply isn’t applicable. Comparing across societal paradigms (I hate that word so much, but I couldn’t think of a better one.) is one. I think this is particularly true across time. Comparing the function of Athenian democracy and a modern, Western one is of limited utility in understanding either. The best way to understand Athenian democracy– comparatively– would be to compare it to a different contemporary system of governance. Likewise, the best way to understand a modern democracy is by comparing it to a current alternative system. The two democracies look similar structurally, but they sit in entirely different positions within their respective worlds.

It is also dangerous to pull back the focus too far and expect to still be able to make decent comparisons. Iran being a Middle Eastern Country does not qualify it to stand in as representative of the Middle East in all scenarios, just as The United States being a North American country does not qualify it to stand in for an entire continent when making comparisons. So, comparison is useful, but limited, and it has to be used judiciously.

Emergence

October 28, 2009

After my seminar for my methods class I got to thinking about emergence. This is a field of science that studies the sense that comes out of nonsense; the rationality in chaos. Why? We started the night talking about Rational Choice Theory.

Yes, that again; look, I think it’s fascinating. So a couple of more points that have occurred to me today and I’ll be off… to talk about… other things. One very interesting thing to think about as regards emergence is the human brain itself. Think about it; open up a neuron, and what will you find? Not a thought. Neurons just speed chemicals along through a brain, the thought arises apart from the neurons. Look too closely and you’ll miss the point.

The same is true of ant colonies. Zoom in on one ant, and they’re hopelessly stupid creatures. Pull the camera back a little bit, and all of a sudden the whole thing looks fairly rational. Quite amazing, actually. Now, in the case of an ant colony this is because of something that one scientist I read liked to call “inevitable accidents.” In other words, it is a totally random occurrence that any one ant might find a piece of food to bring to the colony. However, as that ant returns to the colony it leaves a scent trail of sorts, and when another ant stumbles on the piece of food, it does the same, doubling the strength of the trail. Before too long, the colony has a highway leading the colony to its goal, but it starts with a completely flukey incident.

Now previously, economists has thought that markets worked differently. At the base were rationally functioning things, so as the picture was scaled out it continued to look rational. The emerging picture is one of irrationality at the base, and as it zooms out, the whole thing begins to look like an ant colony. Good luck understanding it, because it one thing goes awry everything falls apart.

The Gendered Nation

October 28, 2009

Tomorrow I’m supposed to give a quick presentation in seminar about our readings for this week, which revolve around the interplay of gender and nationalism. So, here’s a quick taste of some of the ideas I’m working through:

The first doesn’t touch on the reading specifically, but instead talks about a radio program. Specifically that Radiolab episode I told you all to listen to a while back. A neurologist went to Africa to study baboons (I’m not sure which country), and while he was there he heard about this resort that had started to throw its trash out back in a big heap. A troop of baboons found this dump and moved in. Normally baboons are incredibly violent and exceedingly active. These ones got lazy with such a huge supply of food right in front of them. It wasn’t too long before another troop figured out what was going on and sent some raiders in to fight and steal food from the lazy troop. The story would end there except at some point a piece of infected meat got thrown out. They later determined that the infection was tuberculosis, and while it moves slowly in humans the disease goes through a baboon like wildfire. Every baboon in the sedentary group died, and so did the marauders from the other group because of their close contact. Here’s where it gets really interesting; those marauders were the alpha males of the group, and with them gone the women essentially took over the troop. Now, twenty years on the troop is peaceful. Basically, they don’t act like baboons. Its a bit of a stretch, but there’s the kernel of an idea about gender in here.

Next is the idea of gender-centrism. I’m sure there’s an academic name for it, but I’m trying to bring it up alongside ethnocentrism. Similarly to ethnocentrism, gender-centrists take for granted that their view of the world is the “neutral” view of the world, the objective one. In the context of nationalism, where movements have traditionally been led by men, this leads the nation to take on unconscious gendered characteristics. I think we actually had a great example of ethno- and gender-centrism this summer in the United States, as a bunch of grumpy old white guys grilled a Latina Supreme Court nominee for having the temerity to suggest that it was possible to view the world differently.

Another example of this is to think of the way that territory is talked about. During times of peace a nation’s territory is often talked about in masculine terms, but as soon as that territory is threatened (I’m generalizing from the West) it becomes feminine. Specifically, look at Soviet propaganda during the Great Patriotic War, in many of these images, images of women exhort men to defend their country. Pictured is the best example I could find quickly using google. It’s telling you not to talk, the implication being that if you do you’ll doom her. (Kinda like “loose lips sink ships.”)
images

That’s all I’ve got for now, still working!

Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

October 27, 2009

Coincidentally, the name of a very good album by The Low Anthem.

So, tonight I watched Creation the film about the writing of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Two nights in a row of good movies; I’m starting to like QFT more and more. Now, I have heard this film described as a ghost story, and the description works. For a little bit of backstory, Darwin was married to a very religious woman, Emma, and had several children. Even when he was courting Emma, Charles was troubled at the implications of his discovery towards his religious faith, and this was a question the two worked through together their entire married lives.

In 1851 Darwin’s oldest child, Annie, died of scarlet fever, and this event understandably devastated the man. The repercussions of this event echo throughout the film. Paul Bettany portrays a Darwin violently ill with grief, blaming himself for his child’s death. Here, I think Bettany does a wonderful job portraying a man wracked with guilt. As he struggles to write his book his hand trembles and he hallucinates his dead daughter. To some extent the story ends up being rather conventional and trite. The man is haunted by his past and cannot move forward until he confronts it. The movie is saved here by good performances from Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, playing Emma. The two are married in real life, and this spills over onto the screen as they’re able to portray an easiness in each other’s presence that must come, I suspect, from actually living with each other.

So there it is; rather conventional, not at all surprising, but still very well made.

Interestingly, having watched this movie and reflected, I can’t help but despair that Darwin came up with his theory (When do we get to call it a law?) when he did. Of course The Enlightenment laid the philosophical and intellectual framework for him to pursue this theory, but it also laid the framework that led the church to adopt intellectual positions so starkly at odds with these discoveries. In all honesty the theological problems that lead so many to staunchly oppose Darwin are fairly new, and I can’t help but feel as though in an earlier time such discoveries wouldn’t have been seen as so contrary to the existence of God. Nevertheless, things are as they are.

Pessimist?

October 27, 2009

Listening to Radiolab today, old episode, and they were talking about space. One of the things they brought up was the Voyager program, and the back and forth between Jad and Robert (The hosts) on one point was just wonderful.

One of the things on the Golden Record on board the Voyager vehicles is a brain scan of Carl Sagan’s wife right after they had decided to get married. Needless to say, she was twitterpated, and both she and Jad thought it was incredibly romantic that one of the things on the record– there for other civilizations to discover– was a human brain in love. (I actually think this is incredibly cool, too.)

Robert decided to rain on the parade, pointing out some mathematical/probabilistic realities here. Basically, scientists figure we’re going to get about 10 million years (or so) to do our thing here, and then we’ll be gone. In a universe that is 14 billion years big, and getting bigger all the time, the chances that a civilization will get here while we’re aware of it– instead of having already been here, before we had anything to say, or after, when there’ll be no-one around to talk to– are incredibly small.

Jad pushed back, pointing out that when pessimists in the past have thought that certain voyages just couldn’t be done, before too long someone proved them wrong. After all, the Pacific islands were settled by people in canoes.

To which Robert responded, “Sure, but you’re talking about the Pacific Ocean. I’m talking about the f(censored for radio)n’ universe!”

So, pessimist or romantic?