A price above rubies

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) and Christina Hendricks (Joan).

What price does a woman put on her soul?  How blurred is the line between integrity and compromise?

As Puritanical attitudes towards what is acceptable to a television viewing audience have softened, the portrayal of women has evolved as well, with the smiling apron-wearing June Cleaver giving way to ever more complex characters, where what it means to be a woman, in all its wonderful, contradictory glory, is examined on a psychological level – much more deeply than hacky debates on the best make of shoes or how sexually inadequate their partners may be.  Last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman,” after four and a half seasons of examining the ways in which men compromise themselves in pursuit of wealth, sex and power, took its two strongest female characters and forced them to ask themselves what their own price might be.  Joan agreed to an indecent proposal in exchange for a partnership in the company, while the lately taken-for-granted Peggy decided her worth couldn’t be expressed in numbers and chose to walk when that was all she was offered to stay.

The buxom redhead Joan has been described by the show’s creators as man-like in her full command of her sexuality, a beautiful woman who is well aware of the effect she has on those obsessed by mammaries.  To their (and Christina Hendricks’) credit, she has never been portrayed as the kind of vampy temptress such a description usually fits; she isn’t working from the Erica Kane playbook, but rather striving, consistently, to prove herself as the best at her job.  As to her relationships with the men and the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, one will forgive what sounds like a puerile argument when the symbolism of Joan as mother figure is expanded upon.  Even those who have expressed sexual desire for her, whether fulfilled like Roger Sterling or unrequited like Lane Pryce, have found themselves in the position of whimpering babes at her ample breast.  Others, like cardboard husband Greg, have been unable to cope.  (Greg escaped, ironically, to the boys-only army.)  Her relationship with serial womanizer Don is perhaps the most complex of all – ironic that the two best-looking people on the show have never taken it much beyond a brother-sister level.  Don is man enough, in the end, to recognize that Joan agreeing to sleep with a lecherous car dealer in exchange for securing the Jaguar account isn’t the path she should take.  The episode played expectations by staging Don’s last-ditch attempt to change Joan’s mind without revealing until later that it took place well after the deed was done.  Was Joan truly as compromised as most reviewers of this episode tend to believe, or was it a logical progression in her evolution – a conclusion on her part, regardless of what we may think of its validity, that to get where she wants to be, she has to use every talent at her disposal, regardless of the collateral damage to her spirit?  Coincidentally, this week’s Game of Thrones featured a scene where the ruthlessly ambitious Cersei Lannister drunkenly observed to the virginal Sansa Stark that a woman’s greatest weapon lay between her legs.  Has Joan crossed that line now?  Has she decided that being good at what she does is only going to take her so far?  One thing is for certain, in the jubilation that accompanied the announcement of SCDP’s winning the Jaguar account, newly-minted partner Joan was as out of place as a prostitute at a church picnic.  Perhaps inside, that was how she felt.

Peggy, on the other hand, while she has had her share of romances (and one ill-advised fling with Pete Campbell, whose abject disinterest in her since that early episode indicates that she was strictly a novelty to him) is the little chickadee to Joan’s mother hen.  Unlike Joan, she’s never really had the option to full-out Mata Hari lecherous men into helping advance her station in life, and so her drive to prove herself comes more from a place of not having much of a choice otherwise.  She and Joan both find themselves brushing against the glass ceiling, and for Peggy, going down the road suggested by Cersei Lannister is not only unpalatable, but unnecessary.  Peggy’s worth is not tied to her future at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – it is, after all, only one of many companies out there where her talents can be of use, as is quickly proven by her meeting and ultimate decision to go work with Ted Chaough.  When she admits this to her mentor, Don – while incredibly empathetic in his encounter with Joan – cannot reconcile the idea that Peggy’s problem cannot be solved with just more money.  But Peggy is in as much a crisis of spirit as the one faced by Joan.  Oddly enough, Joan’s loyalty to SCDP and its people – her mother’s instinct again – was probably what led her to make the choice she did, the dangling carrot of a partnership aside.  Peggy, by contrast, realizes that to grow as a person she must, in a Buddhist sense, divest herself of her attachment to Don Draper and the old gang.  The little chickadee has to leave the nest.  It is a much healthier decision, and explains the smile on her face as she steps onto the elevator for the last time, with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” playing in the background in a final brushstroke of symbolism.

Proverbs 31:10 says that the worth of a virtuous woman is far above rubies.  Joan let herself be bought, some would say for far less than rubies.  Peggy didn’t.  What is most important, however, is that in the end, the choice was theirs.  They may indeed have a price, but they are going to be the ones to decide what that price is.  These women defined themselves instead of letting men do it for them – a greater achievement in the sexist era in which Mad Men takes place.  They were willing to accept the consequences of that definition, whatever they may be.  And taking absolute charge of one’s destiny is, to risk a cliche, true empowerment.


In fairness, I did like The Lord of the Rings too (Part 1)

Frodo eyeing Sting for the first time, duplicating my skeptical look at the prospect of a Lord of the Rings movie.

The Huffington Post quoted me praising Star Wars in their “battle of the franchises,” in which, following preliminary rounds that have seen spirited contenders such as Harry Potter and James Bond fall by the wayside, Jedi now fight hobbits in the quest for the ultimate prize – the top rank in a meaningless, statistically-flawed survey of genre popularity.  Judging such things is a bit like trying to assign criteria to beauty – everyone has his own preference, and for infinite different reasons.  The same can be said for how I and many like me weigh Star Wars against The Lord of the Rings.  How we view them depends on who we are, what our circumstances are when we experience them for the first time, and how those experiences evolve as we grow and accrue the cynicism of wisdom to find endless fault with what once sparked only wonder.

I grew up with Star Wars, but can’t say the same for The Lord of the Rings.  I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated version at a friend’s birthday party when I was six or seven and what I recall most was the entire group of youngsters finding it tiresome and cheap and quickly shutting it off to listen to the newest Duran Duran record instead.  As I got older, it was one of those elements of popular culture that I was always aware of, but never terribly interested in exploring further (kindly recall that this would have been when the idea of sitting down with three enormous volumes of Tolkien prose would be quickly supplanted by the sight of a shapely pair of tanned legs strolling by).  And I was jaded by cinematic fantasy throughout the 80’s and 90’s:  endless chintzy, low-budget productions with lousy special effects, cruddy-looking monsters, embarrassing writing, hammy acting by D-list performers and the infuriating cliché of the “magical portal to Los Angeles.”  After all, why pit your dashing heroes against dastardly villains in a wondrous setting of visceral imagination (you know, something you’d actually have to pay somebody talented and expensive to dream up) when you can have them duke it out on Sunset Boulevard while hip-hop plays over each swing of their enchanted swords?  On television, mainstays like Hercules and Xena were amusing diversions, but drowned in smirking, anachronistic pop culture references, and characters’ ability to die and resurrect ad infinitum, what a friend once called “a day pass to the underworld,” undermined any sense of stakes when the scripts could be bothered trying to aim for it.  You got the sense that the creative sorts behind these ventures considered their target audience strictly ADD-afflicted kids.  Given little consideration was any semblance of “the big ideas” that fantasy can tackle, or any sense that these characters were remotely human.

Around the turn of the millennium I’d heard rumblings here and there that a new movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was underway.  Oh yeah, that crummy cartoon, I thought to myself.  The CV of director Peter Jackson was not encouraging either; the few minutes of The Frighteners I’d seen were silly.  When the appalling Dungeons & Dragons limped its way onto the screen in 2000, I thought it was a pretty accurate barometer of how the new LOTR would turn out.  Nobody could do this right, not with the kind of verisimilitude that fantasy cried out for, and this unknown New Zealander with a few weird-ass movies on his IMDb page certainly wasn’t going to be the first.

Then, in early 2001, someone sent me a Fellowship of the Ring promotional calendar.  And I was floored by what I saw – portraits of esteemed actors like Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm in richly detailed costumes as wizards, elves and hobbits.  Steven Tyler’s daughter looking simply radiant as Arwen.  North and Rudy as Frodo and Sam respectively.  The grizzly-looking guy who played Satan in The Prophecy as Aragorn, and what’s this… the MAN himself, Sean Bean as Boromir.  Okay, I thought, there might be something to this after all.  Especially since the quality of this calendar proved that some serious coin had been poured into this endeavour, it wasn’t a one-off “let’s-cut-our-losses-and-sell-the-rights-to-Taco-Bell” promotion.  Maybe, I dared to hope.  Maybe this time, they’ll get it right.  Thus, unbelieving me decided it was finally time to set about reading the books, so I could see how, despite all this incredible design work, the filmmakers would screw everything up.

Certainly a lot of Tolkien’s original work is decidedly uncinematic (not that it’s a bad thing, just some stuff fundamentally works better on the page).  Goofy Tom Bombadil seemed like a train wreck waiting to happen, and I cringed every time Sam burst into tears or characters broke into song at the drop of a wizard’s hat like they were starring in a Middle-earth revival of Guys & Dolls.  Realistically, I thought, for this to be adapted faithfully you’d have to turn it into a ten-hour musical.  But coming to it late, in the shadow of the upcoming films, I didn’t find any story beat I was particularly attached to, or dying to see realized in 35 millimeter.  I thought it could have made a great movie; I was just saddled with memories of 20 years of bad movies and could visualize the visible matte lines, crude animation and histrionic over-emoting under a synthesizer score that could have resulted.  Even as the months ticked away, trailers leaked out into the world, a traveling exhibit of the movie’s props and artwork made a stop in Toronto around my birthday, part of me tempered my excitement with a pestering reminder that after all of this promise, the inevitable letdown was soon to come.  It still could have gone so wrong.

Then, just after midnight on December 17th, 2001, the lights went down and the screen came to life…

(To Be Continued)

We get letters

“This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again, how sheep’s bladders may be employed to prevent nonsensical blog comments.”

Spam, as the old Monty Python song reminds us, is ubiquitous – you get it whether you like it or not.  We’re all familiar with the Viagra ads and the dubious promises of freaky sexual encounters that show up in our email inboxes.  The spam you get on blogs is a bit different; I’ve yet to be assured that I can expand my manhood by several inches in only 30 days, or that Prince Nbeke Mbala desperately needs my help in extracting his oil fortune from Lagos, Nigeria, if only I can send him my bank account details and exclusive rights to my firstborn.  Really, the spam you get in the comments is quite dull.  No one is trying to sell me anything, or asking me to click on a weird link.  What if these are genuine comments from lonely people just looking for a connection, cruelly barred from my site by the unfeeling, unsympathetic Akismet?  What if all they want is an answer?  Well, let it never be said that I don’t consider the needs of my fans.  Here we go:

“Omar” writes:

I thought your video was very intgihsful. I’ve been blogging for about a year & just like Missmikela I’ve yet to make any real money. How did you join Glam, were you referred & also who do you recommend for text links.

Hi, Omar, glad you found the video full of intgihs.  I’m pretty sure she told me she was eighteen, but I wasn’t sure what the stuffed elephant was for.  Anyway, I’ve been to Missmikela’s site and quite frankly, with the questionable theories she puts forth about French deconstructionist literature and its relationship to early Marxist writings, I’m not surprised she hasn’t picked up any spare coin.  My work with Glam kind of began the old-fashioned way – I was enjoying a malted in the soda shop when the agent walked in, handed me a card and asked if I’d done any modeling.  The shabby furniture in the office should have been my first clue, but sometimes it’s just nice to be noticed.  Besides, you can barely tell it’s me in the pictures.  Thanks for writing!

“Gabriela” says:

So much good stuff! Can’t wait for these. I love the new extra weapons some of them come with. I was gttieng tired of the previous ones, so many already and all the same ones. These have more of a mix of weapons.Aside from that, so many great figures, even the repacks. Don’t care much for the game though.

Hey there Gabriela, I know, I was just saying the other day that when I really need to kill something it’s good to be able to choose between the rocket-propelled Semtex grenades and the super-high-velocity repeating bolt action rifles.  A week ago some guy in the mall was looking at me funny and I thought to myself, “if only I had my depleted uranium shell crossbow, I’d show him a thing or two.”  I agree, I much preferred the first version of the game where the princess was in the other castle and there were only twenty-six mushrooms to jump on while avoiding the giant monkey.  Appreciate your thoughts!

“Edinaldo” opines:

First, I’ll give you an example for me. I have a nomarl blood sugar reading of 72 and the nomarl should be 80 120. Sometimes, our bodies can get use to something and that can be our nomarl. As for your situation 90/47 is a very low blood pressure. The bottom is low and the top isn’t to bad. However, you do not want them running close to each other because of risk of stroke or pass out. The nomarl reading for blood pressure is 120/80. So, if you take that into account your blood pressure is moderately low but your body could be use to it.There is no reason for concern.

Wow!  Thanks for the reassurance, Doctor Edinaldo.  Are you the guy from that weirdly compelling telenovela?  I was a little worried after eating that triple cheeseburger with the fried chicken bun and the barbeque sauce when I started feeling palpitations in my thigh.  The weird thing was I was running a half-marathon at the time.  But as long as I increase my daily ice cream intake and follow it with a few good shots of straight vodka at bedtime, I should be able to get this rash under control.  The twitching and night sweats should stop shortly thereafter.  Have a great day!

And finally, from the very cranky “Vasile”:

Well What do you think? It’s not rocket siccnee. I was complimenting you. Where in that sentence did I say, It sucked and was a bad movie ? I said that I remember the good old days using Intel Play and that it couldn’t have been any better with the amount of technology Intel Play provides. Now this I don’t get: Are you a kid or a teenager or what?

I understand where you’re coming from, my friend.  There were script problems from day one and honestly, when you’re dealing with a diva like Marjoe Gortner it’s tough to keep the big picture in perspective.  I’ve never been a fan of Intel Play – I thought their first album showed potential but their misguided foray into Turkish hip-hop was a load of pretentious tripe, and what the hell was with that eighteen-minute timpani solo on “Who Loves a Sailor Then”?  I dig a good set of kettle drums as much as the next guy, but come one, even artistically speaking a little goes a long way.  In answer to your next question, yes, I may come off sounding like a guy in his thirties but I am in fact just on the high side of seven, and I am mocked on the playground constantly for my references to Proust and Aeschylus, but then again, at least I don’t wipe my nose with my sleeve very much anymore.  All the best!

Hat tip to East Bay Writer who publishes her blog spam as a regular (and hilarious) feature.

Dear Pasty Republican Billionaires: Haven’t You Got Anything Better To Do?

Founder of the new Super PAC, “Americans for a Prosperous Tatooine.”

You can’t read U.S.political news lately without seeing a story about a septuagenarian Republican one-percenter with a hate-on for the President pouring millions of his fortune into a new Super PAC.  Thanks to Citizens United, right-wing sugar daddies are emptying their coffers to Karl Rove and ilk to flood the airwaves with ads blaming President Obama for everything from sunspots to the common cold.  Figures like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess and most recently, Joe Ricketts, are positioning themselves as the new architects of what is left of American democracy.  You’d think that achieving staggering levels of wealth would be enough, but apparently, multiple mansions and car elevators are not where it’s at anymore.  These oligarchs-in-waiting are determined that the government is destined to be a rich guys-only club, and who gives a damn how many poor people get steamrolled out of existence in the process.  In fact, the more poor are simply obliterated, the better.

Stories about Republican Super PAC funders seem to have one thing in common – the men in question are uniformly old, bloated and incredibly sour-faced, as if their soul has been eaten away by a lifetime of stress, drinking, smoking and rage.  Paul McCartney told us that money can’t buy me love; these characters are the embodiment of that axiom.  These real-life Charles Foster Kanes have conquered the business world, crushed enemies in their wake and accumulated wealth to rival that of the pharaohs.  But love remains elusive for them, no matter how many zeroes in their Cayman Islands offshore holding account.  Nobody loves these guys.  No young boy goes to sleep at night dreaming of being a hedge fund manager and forcing people out of their homes.

Instead, Republican billionaires squirm and twist in a constant state of paranoia, terrified that colleagues, friends, family members and even the postal carrier who slips on the ice in their two-mile long driveway in Aspen are scheming to take everything away.  It’s no surprise, given the path a man has to take to claw his way into mega-millions.  You simply don’t get there by being adored.  How frustrating, then, that others of far more limited means can still manage to find love.  Joe Ricketts’ recently announced plan to dredge up Reverend Wright again centers on trying to make voters hate the President.  Not disagree with his policies; hate him.  So, presumably, the President can then feel as down-trodden and hopeless about life as Joe Ricketts must.  You get the feeling that we could have been spared the phenomenon of the Super PAC had their mothers just hugged these people more.

What Ricketts and the rest of these billionaires despise most about President Obama is that he is everything they are not, and will never become.  Truly self-made; someone who came from nothing and got where he is by working hard and applying himself, instead of being parachuted into accidental greatness by a generous trust fund.  A man with a beautiful wife he clearly adores beyond words and a happy, loving family.  President Obama is a greater embodiment of the American Dream than any of these grumpy old guys.  Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he has the ability to inspire people across all walks of life, and around the globe.  Hope and change remains a potent campaign slogan because it appeals to our better angels.

For crusty old billionaires, this does not compute.  They believe everyone is as greedy and money-grubbing as they are; that altruism is a fool’s game, that no one ever does anything out of a simple wish to be good.  And it positively bakes their collective noodles that not everyone wants to be rich.  The majority of us just want to earn enough to look after our families, so they don’t have to worry about getting sick or feeding themselves or having a roof over their heads.  Amazingly, you can still do that without millions in a diversified asset portfolio, and working hard at that goal despite difficult odds is far more likely to earn you genuine love than the extra fifty million you’ll earn if Obamacare is tossed by the Supreme Court.

Simply put, a heart that is rotting cannot lift others.  The Koch brothers may have helped the Tea Party become a ground-shifting political force, but no one would ever accuse David and Charles Koch of being inspiring men.  They and those like them don’t inspire with words and ideas; they push with threats and cattle prods, because they don’t know any other way.  And they come to envy and hate the ones who do.  Whenever you see Karl Rove’s picture, this pudgy, balding sinister figure without a kind word to say about anything left of Genghis Khan, you can’t help thinking that he must have been the fat kid who was always picked last for the team, and is continuing to take his revenge on the popular kids forty years on to satisfy some long-simmering Freudian dysfunction.  And it is all so futile.  Mitt Romney could sweep all 50 states and half of Australia and these people will still be stewing in their self-loathing and cursing their inability to feel any better.  No one will love them any more.  They’ll feel even worse if they blow all this cash and President Obama still wins.

So here is my modest suggestion.

Take the money you had intended for your Super PAC and found a charity instead.  Build a school.  Refurbish a hospital.  Fund cancer or AIDS research.  Erect a nature preserve.  Start a new business and hire some people, for god’s sake.  Then go visit one of these places anonymously and look for the genuine joy in the eyes of the people you’ve been able to help.  Just stand there and soak it in – the sense of gratitude, of warm feelings.  Let your heart quicken.  Feel the love.  Then think about how you can do even more.  How good it will feel when a child whose life has been saved because of an initiative you backed mentions you in their prayers before going to sleep at night?  Wouldn’t that be amazing?  Don’t you like the idea of being remembered, like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of the story, as “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world”?  Or would you rather spend your money on TV ads demonizing the President of the United States, ads that will be as forgotten as swiftly as you will be the day your rotten heart finally croaks its last beat?

Ball’s in your court, Super PACs.  I know I’m sleeping fine tonight.

Aaron Sorkin takes on Steve Jobs

But can it sing “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”?

He has said he loves his Mac, so I guess it’s no shock that Aaron Sorkin has agreed to write the upcoming big-screen retelling of the life of Steve Jobs.  What can we expect from this new venture?  I can see the fateful moment of the founding of the world’s biggest corporation unfolding something like this:


STEVE JOBS, STEVE WOZNIAK and RONALD WAYNE are standing around their first, crudely built computer.

JOBS:  What do you think?

WAYNE:  It’s ugly.

JOBS:  What do you mean it’s ugly?

WAYNE:  It’s ugly.  As in “unpleasant or repulsive in appearance.”

JOBS:  I was thinking “ugly” as in “involving or likely to involve violence.”

WAYNE:  Violence?

JOBS:  As in what I’m going to do to you if you don’t shove that Silenian gloom and doom up your ass.

WAYNE:  Forgive me for being the only one in the room worried about aesthetics.

WOZNIAK:  It is kind of ugly.

JOBS:  Kind of ugly?  There are degrees of ugly?

WOZNIAK:  Well, yeah, I suppose… there’s “yeah, whatever” ugly and “I-am-Oedipus-gouge-your-eyes-out-to-purge-the-horrible-memory” ugly.

JOBS:  It’s not that ugly.

WAYNE:  It’s pretty ugly.

JOBS:  Pretty ugly is another degree of ugly?  Like gorgeously abhorrent or beautifully hideous?

WAYNE:  Beautifully hideous, that’s good.  That suits it.

WOZNIAK:  What are we going to call this beautifully hideous thing?

JOBS:  Somehow I don’t see “beautifully hideous” as an effective selling point.

WOZNIAK:  Depends who you’re selling to.  You’d clean up with Dadaists and deconstructionists.

JOBS:  Yes, because they’re well known for their interest in computers.

WAYNE:  I can’t think of a good name.

WOZNIAK:  Me neither.

JOBS:  Come on, guys.

WOZNIAK:  I’m very good at integral and differential calculus, not naming things.

JOBS:  We need to think this thing differently.  You know, when Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree, he vowed not to rise until achieving enlightenment.  Part of enlightenment is what Buddhists call the concept of “sati” – the awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness and being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion.  Gentlemen, we are not moving from this garage until we come up with a name for this product, and I don’t care if we sit here until we are all so old and beautifully hideous that we can’t stand the sight of one another.

WAYNE:  The tree.

JOBS:  Pardon?

WAYNE:  The Bodhi tree.  What kind of tree was it?

JOBS:  A fig tree.

WOZNIAK:  “Fig Computers”?

JOBS:  No, something more primal.  Something indicative of beginnings.  Genesis.  Garden of Eden.  The fruit… the fruit of knowledge.  Apple.

WOZNIAK:  “Apple Computers.”

JOBS:  Apple Computers.

No one speaks for a moment.

WAYNE:  It’s ugly.

WOZNIAK:  Pretty ugly.  Beautifully hideous.

JOBS:  We’ll go with that then.

Not coming to theaters anytime soon…

Matters of no importance

Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor.

“Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.” – Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), Superman

During the month of March I made a consistent effort to blog every single day, and for the most part, managed to stick to that schedule.  (Sundays were a little scattershot depending on the preceding Saturday night’s extracurricular activities.)  Both the news and the mundane quirks of my life offered ample fodder for linguistic rumination – and there could always be additional pontificating about The West Wing if either of the former were found wanting on any given day.  Lately I’ve gotten a bit lazy, and it isn’t for a lack of inspiration, but rather that I find myself less satisfied with writing things that have no deeper meaning.

Perhaps it’s a natural evolution as time and experience add up.  Maybe it’s the pressure of starting to build an audience – there is certainly a form of liberation to one’s self-expression when few are listening that diminishes as expectations begin to rise (don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for each and every one of you out there reading me!)  When one occasionally scratches at the edges of greatness, or, more to the point, writes a post that really touches someone else, the demands of living up to that standard increase exponentially.  It isn’t a matter of seeking constant validation – it’s more that when you see what you can do with that space, you find yourself less comfortable wasting it on posts about space vampire zombies.

Lest this be dismissed as the lament of another struggling writer feeling sorry for himself, let me first say that I too find literary navel-gazing to be tiresome.  I still recall watching a panel discussion of scribes about fifteen years ago and finding myself repulsed by a pretentious cigarillo-smoking douche who droned on about how he’d hadn’t been able to write a play in ten years.  It isn’t by any means that I think I can’t write, or that I’m finding the muse elusive.  I just don’t want to write crap.  I don’t want to write it, and I don’t want to ask anyone out there in Internets-land to read it.  I want what I write to be meaningful and thought-provoking.  To be consequential.  I’d rather let a day or several go by without a solitary word than publish hackery for the sake of having something to post.  So yes, when you’ve written in tribute to President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage and its greater historical and emotional context, what do you do for an encore that even comes close to a subject of such importance?  Reviewing The Avengers or talking about the sixth season of a TV show that’s been off the air for nearly seven years doesn’t quite cut it.  That, I suppose, is the danger in “very special episode” syndrome – you run the risk of making the rest of your work look like substance-less piffle.

Yet you can’t shy away from tackling the big questions if you feel you have something to say about them.  To do otherwise is to not be truthful to who you are and what you believe.  And that brings up an interesting point.

Writing is therapeutic for many people; a chance to process our confused feelings about a world that fails to make sense most of the time and strip away the layers of contradiction to find the truth at the core, and at the same time, peel the layers of self to unveil the essence of our soul.  It’s rather like sculpting – the masterpiece is there underneath, you just have to chisel away the unneeded bits of the stone.  Devoting a post or two to cotton candy instead of meat and potatoes can still be a worthwhile exercise, inasmuch as there can be a sculpture waiting inside every size and shape of rock.  Some stones may shatter into pebbles when you begin to carve them, and some may turn out to be nothing more than misshapen lumps, but the potential of art always remains, the supply of stones is endless, and each stone contains a grain of truth.  So maybe those posts about breakfast and reality television interspersed with the grand philosophical musings are all necessary stops along this journey, and we shouldn’t fret so much about whether or not a less-imposing topic is worthy of our discussion here.  You’re arguably more likely to stumble across something unexpected and wonderful when you start from an otherwise innocuous premise.  For me, the potential of that discovery is worth saddling up more often than not, because regardless of what you think the destination is, you don’t really know where you’ll end up until you actually start moving.

I can’t worry about gay marriage; I’m too focused on my own

There is a first-season episode of The West Wing in which a pollster played by John de Lancie advises President Bartlet that he can sew up re-election by supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, as the numbers indicate that a vast majority of Americans are in favour of such an amendment.  Faced with the prospect of a gut-wrenching policy flip-flop to the dark side, the news is dispiriting to Bartlet’s staff, until another number-cruncher (Marlee Matlin) gives them her figures on how little the issue is of importance to the average voter, and that the total number of people whose vote would actually be swayed on flag-burning alone is insignificant.

This exchange was at the forefront of my mind as I read about President Obama’s announcement of his support for same-sex marriage yesterday.  The people who are so tyrannically obsessed with this issue that their vote hinges on it (the Santorums of the world) were never going to support the president anyway, even if he announced he was cutting taxes on the rich to 0%, declaring Planned Parenthood enemy combatants and appointing Pat Robertson Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  In strictly political terms, the president has lost nothing, energized the liberal base that first elected him, and forced his presumptive opponent into defending bigotry.

All in simply doing the right thing.

I can’t pretend to understand the fervour that drives certain elements of the conservative religious population to spend so much time, energy and money in attacking the LGBT community; I haven’t been to a regular church service since I was nine, and even then it wasn’t exactly one of these old-time fire-and-brimstone parishes either.  Like the lily-livered liberal latte-sipping literati atheist that I am, I believe in treating others as I would like to be treated, and that the consensual relationships of two adults, straight or gay, are none of my damn business.  Frankly, even if I were of the abhorrent mindset to want to dictate to other human beings how they should be permitted to love each other, I don’t know where I’d find a spare moment.  I’m busy working on my own relationship.  I’d say my plain old man-woman marriage is generally a happy one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t constant effort.  I simply don’t have the time to worry about anyone else’s.

When we think about the complexity of love, its many twists and turns and ups and downs, and its perpetual evolution and change as two people try for decades on end to figure out how to share their lives with each other, it is a difficult enough road without having elements of society, even family, castigating you at every turn – looking askance at the two of you as you walk down the street holding hands, or whispering sarcasm out of earshot as you share a kiss in a tender moment in the park on a sunny afternoon, or smirking smugly after you’ve had a fight.  Love is a journey to be explored, a discovery awaiting each of us as we wind our way through life, and each of us deserves the chance to find and experience the love that we long for.  Who we love forms our identity, and asking our LGBT brothers and sisters to turn away from their natural feelings is like asking them to disconnect part of their soul – condemning them to a slow death of the spirit.  No one deserves that, and I cannot believe it’s what any truly loving god or goddess would desire for their creation.  Nor does the evidence indicate that a broad societal acceptance of same-sex marriage will bring forth any of the apocalyptic visions foretold by the dubious media soothsayers who adore citing nonsensical “slippery slope” arguments such as the forthcoming rise of man-dog, woman-horse, boy-tractor and girl-Cayman Islands holding corporation marriage.

A friend posted on her Facebook status yesterday that she was disappointed in the dearth of common courtesy these days, in the almost complete absence of “please” and “thank you” in our daily interactions.  Whether it’s the economy, sunspots, Mayan prophecies or too much Fox News, the world of 2012 seems stalked, like Winnie the Pooh, by a persistent little thundercloud.  Gloom and a general unpleasantness are humanity’s dominant tone.  I can’t help but wonder if we are obsessing too much over other people’s lives and failing to attend to our own, to the root causes of why we are so unhappy, why our own relationships are struggling.  A man who spews homophobic invective is clearly not smiles and sunshine deep inside, and rather than blaming the same-sex marriage boogeyman for his woes, he needs to take a good, long look at what is lacking in his own soul, at why, instead of trying to make a positive contribution to the world, he simply be hatin’.  What is so wrong with his own marriage, his own life, that he turns that loathing outwards instead of confronting it.  For hatred will not heal self-neglect.

We only make our marriages better by never taking them for granted, and by ensuring that our marriage, and ours alone, is our singular passion.  Our LGBT friends should be able to enjoy the same challenge, the rewards and even the pitfalls that may come with it.  That, I think, is how one preserves the sacred institution of marriage – by making our own an example of the best that it can be, not fretting fruitlessly over whether other people can or can’t get married to the person they love.  It would seem, based on his announcement, that President Obama feels the same way.

Quis custodiet ipsos numeros?

An emergency board meeting in Margin Call.

Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a 2011 movie about the 2008 financial crisis that stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Zachary Quinto (who also produced).  It features a topical storyline, some strong, subtle performances (particularly from Irons and Tucci), interesting characters and key ethical questions to be asked about the spiritual worth of the pursuit of money.  It is also somewhat difficult to follow if you do not have experience in high finance.  Characters drop references to commercial securities, asset valuations and market fluctuations so fast, without pausing for a breath to catch the audience up, that you almost find yourself wishing for subtitles.  Even when characters make jokes about not being able to understand what they’re looking at, and plead for facts to be explained in plain English (or as Irons says at one point, as if one is speaking to a small child or dog), what follows remains untranslated biz jargon.  Cobbling together what you do comprehend, you conclude that a major investment firm has gotten too greedy and has purchased too many high-risk assets that, due to changes in the market, are about to become worthless, necessitating a massive pre-emptive sell-off that will, in itself, precipitate a further worldwide decline, but may, it is hoped, save a portion of the firm.  (I hope you got all that because I’m still trying to figure it out.)  The moment this becomes clear is when Irons puts it into colloquial terms, declaring, “The music is about to stop and we’ll be left holding a bag of odorous excrement.”

One cannot help but be reminded of the Star Trek trope where one character proposes a long technobabbling resolution to a crisis, summed up by someone else with a much simpler metaphor:  “If we reconfigure the deflector dish to emit a synchronous stream of alpha-wave positrons along a non-linear coefficient curve, we might be able to produce a stable gravimetric oscillation that would divert the asteroid’s course.”  “Like dropping pebbles into a pond… make it so!”  As tiresome as this became, it was done for a reason.  When setting any scene in a foreign environment – be it another country, another world or simply an exotic office – the writer has to walk a tightrope between being truthful to the environment and servicing the demands of drama.  The audience has to be able to relate to what’s going on in front of them, or it might as well indeed all be playing out in Mandarin Chinese.  Yet you don’t want to dumb things down for mass consumption, and you can’t succumb to the dreaded “As you know, Bob” epic fail:  characters stopping to explain things that they already know, and would have no reason to discuss given the course of their day.  If you’re an accountant, are you going to spend any time explaining to your veteran colleague what a trial balance is?  Is Alex Rodriguez going to pause mid-game for a five-minute exegesis with Derek Jeter on the infield fly rule?  Nor does it make any sense for these experienced brokers to sermonize on the basics of brokerage.  Usually a writer gets around this by introducing a “fresh-faced intern on his first day” who can ask the “business 101” questions on behalf of us dummies watching.

There are no interns or other such clichés in Margin Call, which chooses not to explain its dialogue in digestible nuggets for the masses.  Characters in this glass-enclosed world debate, ruminate, decide what they have to do and proceed with their financial chicanery, complicit in what may turn out to be their own destruction.  And after scratching your head for an hour and a half, you discover that what is sneakily clever about Margin Call’s screenplay is how it turns the incomprehensibility of its subject matter into a revelation about its subjects – the wheelers and dealers of the Wall Street world, men and women who are as much prisoners of an impenetrable capitalist system as those of us who can scarcely be bothered to look at our mutual fund statement every month.  No one understands this stuff, not really; they just want it all to work seamlessly and invisibly to make them rich, which is part of what makes the system so vulnerable to collapse.  Depressingly, here in the real world, four years on, the same cycle of greed has circumvented the installation of proper safeguards to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.  It’s too complicated, no one really gets it, they can’t be bothered, it’s trivial, that’s the other guy’s problem, the market will regulate itself as it always has.  But the genie is long out of the bottle.  In a moment of insight, Jeremy Irons’ character judges this world thus: “It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.” 

The problem is we are killing each other over these pieces of paper – we are letting the numbers control our lives, and as Margin Call demonstrates, no one is truly in control of the numbers.  It’s all gambling, and as any experienced gambler will tell you, no matter how well you play, in the end the house always wins.  I’m not sure who “the house” is in this case, but I’m fairly certain that it isn’t us.

The Force should be with you, always

I first saw Star Wars on Beta.  (Those of you born after 1985 are scratching your heads right now wondering what that is.)  It was a bad, commercial-laden dub off the local TV station:  the picture quality was dreadful, the sound was worse and the story was interrupted every five minutes to try and sell me pantyhose and dish detergent.  Regardless, my young self was completely transfixed.  Set aside the sheer whiz-bang factor of cool spaceships zipping around shooting lasers at each other; for a quiet, lonely kid who grew up looking at the stars and dreaming, Star Wars was that dream given shape – the idea that from the humblest beginnings could arise an adventure to span the galaxy.  Star Wars and its every subtle quirk – characters with a half-second of screen time, unusual inflections on innocuous line readings – burned itself into the zeitgeist and became an instant allegory for our own troubled history.  “May the Force be with you” was more than a secret sign between members of an exclusive cult; it evolved into a universal greeting of peace and goodwill.

Thirty-five years later, our post-Star Wars world is a far more cynical time, when the wide-eyed eagerness displayed by young Luke Skywalker is seen more as tragic naïveté than an admirable sense of hope and optimism.  Thus, the enormous anticipation afforded to the prequel trilogy could not help but lead to an equally enormous letdown, a sense that despite all the ingredients being there, the recipe wasn’t gelling.  One can waste gigabytes citing all the familiar criticisms:  poor acting, dodgy writing, wooden characters, Jar Jar Binks.  But it seems to me, as someone who admittedly experienced the same disappointment as The Phantom Menace unspooled, that what was missing from the equation was us.  We didn’t have the same optimism, and we weren’t looking at the stars the way we used to.

It’s no surprise, then, that the newest iteration of Star Wars would fail to penetrate that jaded shell, erected by decades of frustration with the failures of our leaders, our increasing obsession with the banal, and a realignment of our values – towards the shallow, the material and the increasingly out of reach.  How could even the most masterfully crafted Star Wars film compete against that?  The clearest indicator of our cynicism, for me, was that in the months leading up to the release of Episode I in 1999, buzz centered largely not on the question of whether it would capture our imaginations and spark a cultural phenomenon the way the first movie did, but whether it would outgross Titanic – ironic in that Star Wars has always been a victim of its own success, and to examine it only in financial terms, as we seem to do with everything these days, is to miss its fundamental meaning.

Star Wars represented something that has gone somewhat astray amidst the background noise of our modern discourse, and deserves to be brought back in full vigor.  That connection with the old stories, with the passions that have driven us since we first stood erect, and the myths we have handed down across generations almost as genetic souvenirs of what matters most to us about our collective human experience.  It has endured, because it is the best of who we are and who we have ever been.  Star Wars stokes the hunger to set out upon a journey and to emerge triumphantly at its end, not as a wealthier or more famous man, but simply a better one.  To become more than what we are.  That is what we are truly wishing each other when we say “May the Force be with you” – may your spirit be emboldened by the force it needs to achieve its greatest potential.  Not a bad sentiment to express on May the Fourth – and something worth keeping in mind all year round.

Rise of The Dark Knight

The Christopher Nolan Batman trifecta.

After groaning through a prehistoric glacier’s worth of ice puns in 1997’s Batman & Robin, I was done with the Caped Crusader.  This was back in an era when I could usually find something positive to say about any movie I went to see, and my comment upon completing a slow funereal march out of the theater along with dozens of other disappointed audience members was, “That was $100 million that could have gone to feed starving children.”  Batman & Robin was a two-hour sensory middle finger, stitched together to become less than the sum of its parts like some ungodly Frankenstein’s monster by accountants and focus groups.  The old Adam West-Burt Ward TV show had been an after school ritual for me for many years, but the kitsch that worked so well in 22-minute installments in the late 60’s was excruciating when blown up for the multiplexes.  What was fun and oddly sincere in one medium became insulting in another.

Since ’97, the theaters had been flooded with one superhero movie after another, some decent but most not, as studios plumbed their back catalogue to find some obscure character in a mask whom they could dress a star as and plug into basically the same script with a hip-hop soundtrack and thus secure a pre-sold blockbuster.  Drubbed to death just as thoroughly around the same time was the concept of the prequel.  “We’re going back to show you how it all happened.”  It wasn’t enough to let a character exist with some mystery about their backstory; now it all had to be spelled out with each personality quirk given a deep, long-simmering Freudian rationale.  (We can all admit that we thought Darth Vader was much cooler before we heard his boyhood self squeal “Yippee!” in The Phantom Menace.)  So when I heard there was a new Batman movie coming out and that it was a prequel, my excitement level was roughly akin to what it would be if someone told me today’s special in our work cafeteria was a bowl of hot concrete.

The trailers for Batman Begins didn’t spur much enthusiasm either.  Liam Neeson doing his Jedi mentor routine again.  Bruce Wayne angst-ridden about his parents, even though we’d seen him coping with that in movies one through four.  The only thing that seemed promising was the casting – heavyweights like Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, each of whom has the freedom to pick and choose and certainly wasn’t going to sign on for the same old same old.  After Jack Nicholson stole the first Batman, successive films had tried to compete by doubling the number villains and cramming whatever A-lister was available into the roles, regardless of whether or not the story was served by it.  Screenwriter William Goldman, when discussing working with Batman Forever‘s cowl-wearer Val Kilmer, commented on this pattern by observing that “Batman is and always has been a horrible part,” and that it existed solely for the more over-the-top villain roles to play off.  The casting of Christian Bale in the lead this time, not an unknown but not exactly a seat-packing screen presence either, seemed to suggest that there were slim pickings in the ranks of volunteers to succeed Kilmer, George Clooney and Michael Keaton.  The trailer scenes showed a very low-key approach to the storytelling as well, almost pleading “um, excuse me, if you don’t mind, that is, if you’re not busy, we kind of have a sort of new Batman movie for you.”  The director, Christopher Nolan, had made the fascinating low-budget Memento, and the plodding higher-budget Insomnia.  Truthfully, it all added up to a spectacular non-event.

Imagine one’s surprise when Batman Begins turned out to be merely spectacular.

The reasons why?  Well, Christopher Nolan made one crucial decision in crafting his film.  Aside from the usual reasons offered – treating the material seriously, dialing down the camp – he defied both expectation and tradition and deliberately made Batman/Bruce Wayne the most interesting character in the movie.  Admittedly borrowing a lesson from the casting of the first Superman, where Oscar-winners and other screen legends surrounded the unknown-at-the-time Christopher Reeve, Nolan uses his stars to reflect their light onto the lead.  The movie remains Batman’s story through and through; while there are villains, they are not given equal billing, nor is any significant screen time wasted on the complexity of their origins (the burden of all the Spider-Man movies).  Like the best villains, they exist mainly as challenges for the hero to overcome – impediments to his growth as a human being.  Even in The Dark Knight, the Joker comes out of nowhere and simply is, like a force of nature – he lies repeatedly about how he got his signature scars, in effect taking the piss out of the tired “villain’s motivation” trope.  And there is a mystery to be solved; an actual plot to unravel piece by piece, instead of the bad guys running around trying to kill Batman for two hours.  It keeps moving forward in so compelling a fashion that you forget you’re actually watching a character study, that happens to have some cool fight scenes in it.

In addition, Nolan created a complexity to Bruce Wayne heretofore unexplored on screen.  He has three personas:  Batman; the private, troubled Bruce Wayne; and the flamboyant, spoiled rich 1%-er Bruce Wayne – a new dimension to the man, unseen in his Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney iterations, where Wayne seemed to be just a decent guy who happened to be extraordinarily rich.  Bale’s public Bruce is a trust fund brat, careless with his millions, the last guy you would ever expect to want to be Batman, let alone actually do it – which makes it even more logical that he would choose to act this way.  Bale’s work is so good in the part that he’s actually more interesting as Wayne than he is in the Batsuit – which is just as well, because it’s over an hour into the movie before he finally puts it on.  The Dark Knight continues this dichotomy:  Bruce Wayne continues to act like a colossal entitled douchebag, deflecting all suspicion that he could possibly be the noble, driven soul determined to save Gotham City from itself.  In Nolan’s Batman films, the true battles are not “Biff!”  “Zap!”  “KaPow!” but the ones going on inside these incredibly damaged people who are essentially representatives of the conflicts and contradictions inherent in all human beings.  Batman isn’t just a token good guy – he’s us.  He’s what we like to think we’d do, given the means, but more importantly, the will.  And like us, he is a man who must overcome significant flaws and weaknesses to push himself beyond that limit.

The forthcoming conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, takes place nine years after Batman went on the lam, blamed for the murders of Harvey Dent and several police officers.  It isn’t much of a spoiler to suggest that Bruce Wayne’s challenge in this movie may be to question whether he can truly leave the mantle of Batman behind, if the path of a hero is ultimately futile in that it has no end, no final triumph, way to know for certain whether the entire journey has been worth it.  With apologies to William Goldman, Batman is no longer a horrible part.  Truthfully, it never was – he just happened to end up in some horrible movies.  Handled properly, he is an ideal vehicle for an exploration into the concepts of heroism, sacrifice and morality – the stuff of what the best stories are made.  So go on and rise, Batman – we’re going to miss you when the last of the credits roll.