Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Duck Comics: "Zero Hero"

I don't know why Summers seem to be so slack in the duck comics department--I actually have a half dozen ideas/half-written entries in the works. Anyway, for now, enjoy "Zero Hero."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fetal Opinion Columnists

If for whatever idiotic reason you've been following these things, you'll know that the right has this weird propensity for elevating extremely young opinion columnists to the national stage: the loathsome Ben Shapiro (seventeen when discovered), Kyle Williams (twelve--and sixteen or thereabouts when he voluntarily withdrew after realizing that he was being used and that his opinions might not be fully-formed. Very admirable, actually), and Jonathan Krohn (thirteen). Why? I suspect it's part of a desperate effort by right-wingers to subsume that persistent, gnawing feeling that demography is against them. Maybe it's also an unconscious effort to mimic those Geico commercials ("Wingnuttery: So easy, a fifth grader could do it").

The latest right-wing version of Samuel Johnson's dog-walking-on-its-hind-legs is eleven-year-old Sam Besserman. Two problems: one, all of the anecdotes about the poor lad's alleged preschool indoctrination are obviously fabrications; and two, this was not written by an eleven-year-old. You could more or less believe that Williams' columns were written by a precocious tween, but here--not so much. The least-dishonest-case scenario is that the kid wrote something that was then edited to within an inch of its life by an older wingnut.

How does a precocious eleven-year-old write? Well, not to tout my own horn (as my old business teacher liked to say), but I think I was in the upper percentile of writers at the time. And I wrote like this:

Once upon a time there was an evil king named Klunkez. He ruled the Empire of Eggs. He also loved to go bowling but thought that the tickets were to expensive, so being an evil king, one night he tried to steal them. Unfortunately, they escaped from the box in which he had trapped them, and now they were running loose all over the kingdom.

The king had a henchman named Sir Lagalong. He was very clumsy and not to bright either.

Now, in the corner of the realm, there lived an old mermaid named Martha. She was the only mermaid in the kingdom, because the king didn’t like merpeople and would kill them on sight. Martha had survived for two reasons: firstly, she was an accomplished spellcaster, and secondly she had a cute little pet dragon named Chipper. He was about the size of a housecat, and his scales were sparkling black in color. He was very loyal to Martha and had saved her life on several occasions. King Klunkez detested him. His very favorite food was bowling alley tickets, and he was very, very, very good at catching them.

One day, the king was fretting about how hard it was to catch bowling alley tickets, when suddenly he thought of a plan.

He called for Sir Lagalong. When the knight got there, Klunkez ordered him to capter Chipper to get him bowling alley tickets.

Sir Lagalong put on his armor, which was two sizes too big for him, and set out.

After a while, he came to a field, where he found Chipper in the process of hunting a bowling alley ticket. Sir Lagalong snuck up behind Chipper and lassoed him around the neck.

The walk back to the castle was a knightmare for Sir Lagalong (Get it?). Chipper was struggling at the leash and singeing him with small spurts of flame. Eventually, the dragon quieted down and the knight began to relax. Suddenly, Chipper hit him with a huge burst of fire, and Sir Lagalong let go of the leash, ran and ran until he came to a duck pond, and hurled himself in.

Meanwhile, Chipper began to search for dinner as he had not finished his previous repast. Suddenly, two huge, mutated bowling alley tickets leapt out of the underbrush and started chasing him. Chipper spred his wings and took flight, with the tickets close behind him. He flew over the castle, and the tickets trampled over it, raizing it, as Chipper watched in glee. He then turned and spit a bit of fame at the tickets, incinerating them.

The tickets were the best he’d ever tasted.

Whereas THIS young hero, we are to believe, writes like THIS:

When I switched schools in 2nd grade, I suddenly found myself surrounded by bleeding-heart liberals. We were taught that minorities were victims and therefore good, and members of the majority were, by inference, bad. Similarly, we learned that America was the big, bad exploiter, and the countries my parents grew up believing were evil were not so bad after all. I asked my father about these issues practically every night, and he taught me the meaning of moral relativism. I thought he was being too kind, and I characterized it, instead, as moral inversion.

Believable! And if an eleven-year-old WAS somehow writing in this fashion, he really ought to be prostrating himself before the mind-bogglingly great teachers he must have had, rather than whining about them in so unbecoming a manner.


Robert Byrd

All elected officials--especially at the national level--are imperfect, and never more so than in our terribly-flawed nation. Still, I think Byrd was pretty okay, under the circumstances. I admire him, at any rate, for renouncing his (incredibly) racist past. When you grow up, your views--especially irrational views--tend to become calcified, and it's damned hard to change. So in that sense, he was better than most.

Maybe now republicans will knock off the "Robert Byrd was in the Klan forty years ago; therefore, all Democrats are racists forever no take-backs" two-step.

Ha-ha. Sorry. Just a little joke. I apologize if it seemed inappropriate. But seriously--they'll keep repeating it until the Sun goes super-nova, or past that, if they can somehow swing it. You'd think that a bunch of putative Christians would like a redemption story, but alas, they've spent all their Christian forgiveness on republican senators with unusual sexual proclivities. Whatryagonnado?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

They call it "instant justice" when it's past the legal limit.

'Cept it turns out there IS no legal limit. Ha ha! Joke's on you, Declan!

(It hopefully goes without saying that the ruminations in the following post can and should be generalized far beyond capital punishment--that was just their catalyst and a convenient jumping-off point)

I was reading this story about the death row inmate who wanted to be executed by firing squad, and I felt kind of bad--not that this is materially worse than any other execution, really (I wasn't too struck by the "firing squad" aspect--one way's as bad as another if you ask me), but when you get down to specific details, it comes home in a more concrete way. Like:

Gardner, who once described himself as a "nasty little bugger" with a mean streak, spent his last day sleeping, reading the novel "Divine Justice," watching the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy and meeting with his attorneys and a Mormon bishop.


None of Gardner's relatives witnessed the execution, at Gardner's request. "I would have liked to be there for him. I love him to death. He's my little brother," Randy Gardner said.

Two brief observations:

1. This was for a murder committed twenty-five years ago. Are you the same person you were twenty-five years ago? Fuck, I can barely recognize myself from just two or three years back. I have to point out that even if you're really, really into vengeance, chances are very good that you're not killing the person who did the crime. And I find it HIGHLY alarming that the pro-CP response to that would almost certainly be, well then, kill him SOONER ("quick--before he has a chance to reform!").

2. In addition to everything else--capital punishment inflicts a serious psychic assault on a whole network of other people. Any case in favor ought to have to consider that as well as everything else. I remember, after Timothy McVeigh's execution, seeing a picture (in stupid Newsweek, probably) of his father in his grief. It was pretty stark. McVeigh was a nasty piece of work who inflicted a lot of pain, but were his actions REALLY enough to justify inflicting that same pain on someone else?

But that's not my main point. My main point is: if you're still trying to maintain a belief that people are basically good, I would NOT recommend reading the comments section on that article. I'm not going to pollute this blog by reprinting examples, but it's pretty much wall-to-wall sadism, with people helpfully suggesting ways to make the process more painful and like that (and doesn't it just make it that much worse when the sadists in question are represented with those little sparkly, fashion-doll Yahoo avatars?). If you've ever thought to yourself--possibly after suffering some sort of severe head trauma--"you know, I'm pretty sure our country uses capital punishment for sober, rationally-considered reasons, and not just out of sheer, atavistic bloodlust"--well, this oughta snap you right the hell out of THAT delusion. I would never cast aspersions on a murder victim's loved ones talking like this. I probably would do the same. But these are not they; they're just complete strangers who get a REAL kick out of reading about the state killing people.

(I tried to post my own reply, but it doesn't seem to have shown up--I think it might've gotten filtered out for including the word "fuck." Imagine if some innocent child was innocently scrolling through the death-cheerleading thread and suddenly, without warning, was exposed to DA EFF WORD. Boom--instant trauma.)

There's a very dark, cynical corner of my mind in which reading such things makes me feel a bit less bad about the oil spill, in a "burn, Washington burn" kind of way--anything that leads to the faster ruination of a country that breeds such monsters can only be for the best. I try to repress that kind of thinking, but it's very tempting.

Because, okay, say you DON'T want to give up on humanity. You think there IS some way to rise above this kind of diseased thinking. Very nice. I applaud you. And then I ask: how? How do you expect to reach the kind of people--and there's a goddamn lot of them--who, at the SLIGHTEST excuse, are willing to drop all pretense to civilization? Not a facetious question. As a grad student, I've heard a lotta ideas about "teaching for social justice" tossed around, and hey, it can't HURT for a few more kids to be forced to think about these things, granite, but it seems like kind of a drop in the ocean.

How did I go from being pro to anti? Not quite sure. It just sort of happened at some point. I know I was in high school, because I remember that I had to bring in some sort of newspaper article for some class when I was in ninth grade, and I chose one about some death row inmate's appeals and being all GRR! No more appeals! Kill! And then I remember being one of only TWO people in my twelfth-grade social studies class (thanks for your support, Laura, wherever you are now) to be against when the topic came up. What happened in the interim? It's a mystery, but I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that it could well have had something to do with Karla Faye Tucker. "Embarrassed" because one likes to think that one's beliefs have a foundation more solid than "oh no! Pretty white woman in distress!" I do remember feeling bad about that, though. Still, I think that if something like that works, good for it. It is a universal truth that humans tend to be swayed more easily by emotional appeals than by cold hard logic.

And yet...most people WEREN'T swayed by the case in question, were they? There was plenty of bwahaha-ing about Tucker, and I frankly suspect that there was a very creepy psychosexual subtext to some of it. And let's face it: I was always on a trajectory to reject morally indefensible right-wing positions. It was gonna happen sooner or later (probably sooner). It's not as though I needed it.

So this leaves us back where we started. Seriously, if anyone has any ideas about why I should not just give up all hope for this crapass country, speak up. 'Cause I'm coming up empty here.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

We can't let the smoking gun come in the form of a lost silent film.

You don't have to be a film buff to recognize that this is super-cool. Even if I never see any of the movies on the list, I will still be glad to know that they have been recovered. Makes you wonder what ELSE New Zealand is keeping from us. I say we invade their country, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. If they're already Christians, we'll convert them to something else and then convert them back. This is SERIOUS BUSINESS, people!

Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control (2009)

This truly, undeniably, is the most pretentious movie I've seen in...well, EVER, maybe. It stretches the Jarmuschian aesthetic to the breaking point, and possibly beyond. If his films tend to be light on plot, this one pushes itself as close as it can to absolute zero--perfect entropic stillness. If his protagonists tend to be on the uncommunicative side, Limits' unnamed central character is practically catatonic. I can absolutely understand why it has an average rating of forty-one percent on Rottentomatoes. Fair enough: the movie does its damnedest to alienate anyone coming in with traditional cinematic expectations, so in a way if would have failed had it not confused and irritated a lot of people. I suspect its critical reputation will improve as time passes--remember, most critics hated The Recognitions when it first came out, and there was rioting at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps. That's just how these things work.

I, at any rate, found it to be gorgeous, mesmerizing, and generally brilliant. It may not totally succeed at what it's doing, but if it's a failure (which I'm not convinced it is), it's sure as hell a fascinating failure, and, to my personal taste, it's never, ever boring.

The "plot" is as follows: an unnamed man (Jarmusch favorite Isaach De Bankolé) is on an unspecified but clearly illicit mission in Spain. He sits in a lot of outdoor cafes and drinks a lot of coffee. At the beginning, he is given a matchbox containing (possibly) a coded message, and a whole string of people (including John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, and Youki Kudoh (one of the leads in Mystery Train--seeing her in another Jarmusch film is super-cool)) show up, have one-sided conversations with him on seemingly arbitrary topics, trade his matchbox for another matchbox, and leave. There are also a LOT of shots of him lying in bed, fully clothed, staring into space. At the end, there is a climax of sorts, but let's not get carried away.

(Though I'm not a huge cinephile, I'm sufficiently clueful to recognize that there are a lot of references to European directors like Godard and Buñuel--there's one scene in particular (where Swinton's character is abducted by parties unknown) that I would swear is a direct nod to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.)

What does it all mean? Nothing, quite possibly. All of Jarmusch's films have a bit of an existential tinge to them, but this one really goes to the wall in that regard. All the matchbox messages appear to be the same, and at the end, he tosses the last one in the trash--it seems quite probable that our tendency to try to find order in chaos is being mocked here. The title, though obviously polysemic, may in part refer to the limited extent to which a meaningful system can be imposed upon, and thereby make sense out of (and, by extension, control), semiotic chaos.

But the question of "solving" the movie is really beside the point, as Jarmusch fans should a priori expect. The reason to watch the film is to savor the visual poetry induced by that uniquely Jarmuschian strung-out-and-wide-awake-at-four-am atmosphere, which is present in spades. Bankolé is wonderfully expressively inexpressive (and MAN does he ever have splendidly angular features), following and expanding upon the roles of Johnny Depp in Dead Man, Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog, and Bill Murray in Broken Flowers. He's just fascinating to watch, and if you suspect that Jarmusch is trying to drive you insane by showing him in the same or very similar scenes over and over and over…well, maybe, but I think it's at least worth considering the possibility that, rather, he's trying to shock you out of your deeply-entrenched assumptions (so deeply, in fact, that you don't recognize them as assumptions--you just assume that that's how things naturally ARE) about what film can do and can be.

Does that sound terribly pretentious? Well...yeah. As you will recall, I copped to the film's being so at the very beginning, and if the film is, it seems only fair that a review of the film also be. I don't think that has to be a pejorative, though. Maybe it's just self-indulgent dicking around; maybe not. Regardless, I thought it was great. Will YOU like it? Beats me. If you didn't like Jarmusch's previous movies, it's an easy call: stay the hell away. If, unlike Roger Ebert, you had the good taste to recognize the brilliance of Dead Man, then...well, still no guarantees, but it's at least worth a shot. It might just change your life.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back.

Q. Why do I not write something about the oil spill?

A. Because there's nothing I could do but shake with rage and/or sob uncontrollably. I can't read something like this without crying. You might point out to me that, at the very least, the fact that there are so many people working tirelessly to help the pelicans has to be worth something in terms of one's faith in human nature. And you're right. You are absolutely right. There are good people out there.

But I'm not at all convinced it's enough. Because THIS IS WHAT CAPITALISM DOES. It's what it's fucking DESIGNED to do. Believe me, I don't feel any sympathy for BP executives. The probably-apocryphal story goes that the Parthians killed Crassus by pouring molten gold down his throat, symbolizing his endless hunger for money (oh, those Parthians. What irrepressible li'l scamps.) I'm feeling like a similar fate, only with petroleum, would be appropriate here (of course, instead, the only thing they'll suffer will be the mild social discomfort of knowing that millions of people like me wish they would die--god forbid there should be any meaningful penalty for destroying an entire ecosystem and thousands of people's lives).

But in a more abstract sense, you can't blame the fuckers. They are what the economic system MADE them. And when the system's only message is money money money money money--well fuck, why would they possibly care about anything else? Safety protocols? Pfft. There's nothing about THAT in the manual. As long as we live by this insane fucking system where material wealth is ALL THAT MATTERS, things like this are utterly predictable.

Of course, we could at least AMELIORATE the situation by making the penalties for things like this MEAN something. I got an email from Barack Obama. Maybe you did, too. He ASSURES me that BP is being fined sixty…nine…MILLION dollars! That's right: Million. Can I just say something here? Fuck you, Barack. What is this condescending horseshit? Just how stupid do you think we are? Stripping them of all their assets wouldn't begin to cover the damages--nothing could, really--but it would at least serve as a disincentive for other soulless corporate monsters. Charging them such a laughable drop in the ocean is almost WORSE than nothing, since all it does is rub it in: you can't touch us. We can fuck the shit out of your country, and there's nothing you can do about it. Ha-ha.

But, of course, it's not REALLY Obama's fault, is it? Well, I suppose it is in some abstract sense, but no President would do more (possible exception: Undead Teddy Roosevelt), because doing more would be a tacit admission that the free market is ineffectual, and that you need the government to come down HARD on a motherfucker in order for any real progress to come about. And we have been SO COMPLETELY PROGRAMMED by this insane death-cult of free-market capitalism that anything else isn't just undesirable; it's literally inconceivable. So instead, he has to do the impossible balancing act of trying to look like he's doing something while actually…not doing anything. I don't envy him, but my sympathy is extremely limited.

Look, I'm not an economist; I don't know what the best way to run the world is. Hell, I'm not necessarily convinced there IS an optimal way. Humanity is not like an Ikea dresser, where there's a set of instructions, you follow it, and maybe it doesn't QUITE work perfectly, but you know you've done what you're supposed to do, and it more or less works. We don't have anything like that in our programming. Why would we? Instead, we're like a whole bunch of different pieces from different dressers and bookcases and sofas and chairs and nightstands and endtables and MAYBE there's a way to jury-rig them all together in a more or less stable, harmonious way, but no guarantees.

But what I CAN do is open my eyes and look around me and see that whatever the best possible solution is--even if it doesn't turn out to be very good at all--this ain't it. More and more, The Wire is looking more and more grimly accurate as a microcosm of our society every day.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Just imagine how bad this would be if racism WEREN'T dead.

As the story notes, ironic distance withers and dies when presented with something so awful. What we have is a whole bunch of unspeakably vile Byron de la Beckwith wannabes whose diseased little minds sizzle with incoherent rage when they're reminded that the spic'n'nigger kids are allowed to go to school with their own inbred, ofay spawn. The best (worst) part is that the mural depicts ACTUAL KIDS from the school, so these awful creatures aren't just saying "we don't like looking at pictures of brown kids;" they're in fact saying "the very EXISTENCE of you brown kids is unacceptable."

Why the fuck is Arizona, of all places, contending so mightily for the title of "biggest racist shithole in the country?" You'd think the frontrunner would be Alabama or Mississippi or the like. I suppose it must have happened thusly: freak-out over illegal immigration-->"papers, please" law that you can pretend isn't pure racism if it helps you sleep at night-->unreconstructed racists emboldened to show their true colors. I tend to suspect that you could find similar horribleness just about anywhere if the circumstances were right. Though I dunno--Arizona was the dead-last state to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so there may be a long, inglorious history here that is only now starting to gain the national notoriety it deserves.

But in any case, my lord. You like to think that this country is at least making SOME degree of progress, however slow and bloody the process is, but things like this really make you think that we haven't actually created anything real and solid: all our advancements are just a very thin veneer, easily scraped away by the idiocy of right-wing demagogues and the general vileness of human nature.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Duck Comics: "The Beachcomber's Picnic"