Thursday, August 20, 2009

Greetings from Montana

I've been taking baseball fairly seriously this season. I've visited seven stadia, I have a fantasy team, I regularly peruse half a dozen baseball-centric blogs, and I've caught a fair number of games either on TV or on the radio. I figured it was time for a break, so I flew out to to Missoula, Montana which is the closest major airport to Turner, Montana. Turner, Montana is special because, according to the excellent Flip Flop Fly Ball, it is the American town farthest from a major league baseball team, clocking in at ~646 miles distant from Safeco Field in Seattle.

OK, that's not really the reason. I still like baseball. But I think it's cool that the FFFB guy figured that out. I heard there are cool mountains and stuff here in Montana. I'm going to walk on top of them. It's called, I believe, hiking, and you just walk for an extended period of time. It might be a soft "h." I'm not sure.

And but also, this is the last time I'll have access to the ol' internet machine, so no posts for the next 10-14 days.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Quick Lesson on Being Interesting

You could, of course, try to be more like the most interesting man in the world.

Or, you could try being less like the least interesting man in the world.

But, for those of us who don't approach either extreme, it might be wise to heed Russell Davies' advice (via Kottke):
The way to be interesting is to be interested. You've got to find what's
interesting in everything, you've got to be good at noticing things, you've got
to be good at listening. If you find people (and things) interesting, they'll
find you interesting.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Inconspicuous Consumption

This past Sunday I had the distinct honor of chaperoning 35 children--preteens, mostly--while they visited Wal-Mart. This particular excursion lasted two hours, giving one preteen the opportunity to buy $150 of candy and soda. I usually get antsy after 25 minutes of shopping (and I only bought $125 worth of candy and soda) so I ambled over to the magazine section and purchased a copy of Vanity Fair, mostly because the cover advertised the presence of an article written by Michael Lewis (which was, not surprisingly, excellent). This is the first time I've cracked open a copy of this particular periodical, and I was impressed with what I found. This is mostly because of a piece written by James Wolcott, titled "What's a Culture Snob to Do?" In it Wolcott says,
Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices. As we divest ourselves of once familiar physical objects—digitize and dematerialize—we approach a Star Trek future in which everything can be accessed from the fourth dimension with a few clicks or terse audibles.
It's a good question that Wolcott raises: now that our books and music and movies are all contained in shiny but indistinguishable iPhones and Kindles and whatever comes next, how can people communicate their intellectual consumption?

Wolcott raises other questions related to the preponderance of these devices (for example, what will become of album cover and book jacket design?), but, to me, the shift of our reading material from conspicuous to un- is the most interesting. Here is Wolcott's conclusion:
I suspect that once this downturn plateaus and shrinks in the rearview mirror, we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics—our progressive virtues. A place where we could play host to Barack and Michelle and feel assured they’d find nothing amiss.
I'm not sure that I agree with him. Humans have been using objects to communicate certain characteristics to the general public for a long time now. I'm not sure that we're ready to give up this personal marketing system just yet. I like knowing what people on the train are reading. I feel a modest kinship with those people who read The New Yorker on the subway. I don't even have to see the cover; the three-columned layout and interspersed cartoons and poetry are distinctive enough. I would hate to give that up, and I imagine other people would agree with the general sentiment. I base this partly on the habit people have of posting their currently playing music choice on Google Chat. Are we going to figure out a way to continue broadcasting our reading habits? Would the Kindle be a better product if it allowed for the option of listing the book currently being read? (The optional part would allow people to hide from embarrassing reading choices.) Is this the type of thing that might eventually migrate to a Twitter-integrated reading device? That would ruin most of the fun, because I already have a general sense of what types of things my friends like to read--it's way more interesting to try to judge strangers based only on the book they have open. I can't know for sure--and I have no idea what the mechanism might turn out to be--but I have confidence that intellectual snobs will figure out a way to continue making snap-judgments of others.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Don't See Movies That You Know Are Bad

From A.O. Scott's recent The New York Times article, "Open Wide: Spoon-Fed Cinema:"

Nearly every big hit so far has been part of a franchise built on an established
cultural brand.

In the case of the comedies, raunchy or romantic, the
genre functions as the brand, and in the case of “Up,” the Pixar label, almost
uniquely in today’s Hollywood, carries its own cachet and appeal. But otherwise
(and to some extent in these cases as well) the last few months have been a
festival of the known, the stuff you already bought and, from force of habit or
loyalty or maybe even satisfaction, decided to upgrade.


Commercial success may represent the public’s embrace of a piece of
creative work, or it may just represent the vindication of a marketing strategy.
In bottom-line terms, this is a distinction without a difference. A movie that
people will go and see, almost as if they had no choice, is a safer business
proposition than one they may have to bother thinking about. In this respect
“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is exemplary. It brilliantly stymies
reflection, thwarts argument, arrests intelligent response. The most interesting
thing about the movie — apart from Megan Fox’s outfits, I suppose — is that it
has made nearly $400 million domestically.

This last point might be the most important one Scott makes. There's only way to break this cycle of the movie studios spoon-feeding films to the public that appeal to the lowest common denominator, that gain approval based on marketability and not quality, that are familiar and un-inventive and bad: we need to vote with our wallets. Transformers received some of the worst reviews I've seen. I made an exception to my long-standing rule of avoiding movie reviews before actually seeing the film in order to read Roger Ebert's reaction, because I had heard that he offered such a thorough evisceration that his review turned out to be way more entertaining than the actual movie. And yet, the movie was a success because it earned tons of money.

The saddest part about the rise of a system which rewards studios for playing it safe is that we miss out on what should be cool films. I had about 8,000 G.I. Joes as a kid. They were my favorite toy, by far. The only way to keep me from seeing a movie based on my favorite childhood toy would be to inform me, in various ways, that this movie stinks. Paramount managed to achieve that. By refusing to let reviewers see the movie in advance and by releasing an awful trailer, Paramount communicated to me that they had decided to rely on nostalgia and familiarity--and not good movie-making--to draw in viewers.

If we want better movies we need to stop seeing movies that we know are bad.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How We Remember War

There's really no objective reason to connect these two things I'm about to compare. It might be nothing more than an accident that I happened to, on the same day, read a The New York Times story on the day after it was published and watch an Israeli documentary first released in June 2008. But the topics are similar (and, more important, distinct) and I'll take advantage of the happy coincidence of running across them on the same day, in order to think through how we remember war.

I find war monuments to be just about the most interesting things in the whole wide world. They reveal in a very tangible, very visible way how these major human events are thought of, in retrospect. That would be interesting enough in its own right, but, I posit, war memorials do more than that. As times passes and first-hand knowledge of these wars fades, these memorials play a huge role in determining how the wars themselves are remembered. That's why I found this The New York Times article about a dispute over the inclusion of a bronzed representation of a South Vietnamese fighter in the Veterans Memorial Park of Wichita, Kansas so interesting. Some American veterans want to maintain the American identity of the Park. Some Vietnamese-Americans want to have their cooperation in the war effort remembered. And according to The Times, "after long, tense talks, a compromise emerged last month at City Hall: the monument will sit just outside the John S. Stevens Veterans Memorial Park (named for a former local official and veteran), set apart from the rest of the memorials by a landscaped, six-foot earthen berm, with no sidewalk between."

I'm not sure which side is in the right here. The important point is that this decision matters, and that the players involved (in addition to Monica Davey and the editorial staff of The Times) recognize that, more than 34 years after the last of the American personnel was evacuated from Vietnam, we're still struggling to come to terms with how our official memory of this event will be formulated.

The 2008 Israeli documentary Waltz with Bashir follows director Ari Folman as he attempts to overcome the official memory of Israel's 1982 Lebanon War. This film has gained a measure of notoriety for being an animated documentary. The animations and illustrations are routinely breathtaking--especially the repeated use of a toxic yellow, hinting equally at the trauma of the original event and the danger in remembering. But the documentary is important for reasons far beyond the decision to offer the tale in an animated form. At the start of the film, Folman finds himself unable to recall his involvement in the war. His memory is stirred through conversations with friends and fellow-soldiers, and he slowly pieces together what happened in Lebanon and what he did or did not do. The film contains conversations with psychologists and trauma experts who explain that the human brain can turn off, in a way, certain disturbing memories. The psychological basis of Folman's memory outage is fascinating, but I can't help but think that the official Israeli policy of embarrassment and silence contributed to the difficulty with which an individual soldier finds himself able to remember what happened. This is a case of an individual digging through the standardized national memory, in order to arrive at a more personal--and, perhaps, more authentic--memory of an important event.