Saturday, October 31, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

There's a particularly great scene in Where the Wild Things Are when Max and Judith, the most disagreeable and distrusting of the Wild Things, get into an argument over whether he plays favorites. It quickly devolves into something else:

I can see how it is, the king has favorites. It's really cute. Do you have a favorite color? Can I be your favorite color? Heh heh heh...

Max (sneering):
Heh heh heh.

Judith (also sneering):
Heh heh heh.

They exchange a few rounds of mocking and increasingly loud and obnoxious laughter. It stops after Max leans in and shouts as loud as he can. There's a brief pause.

You know what? You can't do that back to me. If we're upset, your job is not to get upset back at us. Our job is to be upset. If I get mad and want to eat you, then you have to say 'Oh, okay. You can eat me, I love you. Whatever makes you happy, Judith.' That's what you're supposed to do!

Max stares, dumbfounded, for a few seconds. The Wild Things are composites, condensed figures in the Freudian sense - they are, variously, analogies for Max's parents, his sister, and himself. And depending on which position they enact at any particular moment - and there are reversals aplenty - they also force Max into their opposite and show him to be equally variable. If Judith becomes Max, then Max becomes his own mother.

It's easy to take away a message akin to 'childhood is hard and then you grow up', or to suggest that the film has something to say about the process of childhood, the difficulty of growing up and letting go, or childhood's end. The Wild Things show anything but linear growth: they go sideways, back and forth, up and down, and in circles. And Max's character-arc isn't exactly unambiguous, either. (Perhaps it's less ambiguous than in the book, where it's not clear that Max learns anything. Or that there's a lesson to be learned.)

'Effective' endings

[This is the last post I'll make about Paranormal Activity - promise!]

One of the common responses to complaints about the ending of Paranormal Activity - it even popped up in reaction to my first blog about the film - is that the ending is "effective". (I'd link to the response to the Youtube clip as evidence of this, but it appears the clip has been pulled.) I suppose that "effective" is being deployed in a very utilitarian sense, here - it's a scary movie and the ending is scary. Which has to be the most banal and meaningless use of "effective" that I can imagine.

It's also just plain wrong. The demon-face ending is not effective. I could see someone making the case that it's affective - it's definitely frightening, in the moment. But that moment of affect detracts from the effectiveness of the film as a whole, and it does this in two major ways.

First, it plays up a scare that violates the generic logic of an ostensibly 'realist' first-person POV horror-film, a genre replete with certain implicit rules and precedent - Blair Witch or REC - about how scares can and should be depicted. Explicit CGI alterations like the face or Micah's flying body fall well outside those boundaries.

Second, it violates its own internal logic. The epigraph thanking Micah and Katie's families establishes a certain boundary within which the ending must land - if we're to believe, even if only for the duration of the film, that this was made and legally distributed, then the film can't obviously end in a way that would logically lead to it becoming police evidence. Or in a way that would cause to wonder why Katie's family would ever agree to its release, much less Micah's. It doesn't make sense, and clearly one or the other - the epigraph or the ending - needed to go.

Sorry if I'm being repetitive. I must be feeling particularly whiny.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

One of the alternate Paranormal Activity endings...

I complained about the ending to Paranormal Activity (it seems to be referred to on YouTube, at least, as the 'CGI-demon face' ending) and mentioned the existence of at least two other endings. This, apparently, is one of them. (Though it still has the creepy, but dumb, evil-smile right at the beginning of the clip.)

It's better than the theatrical ending, though not by much. The complaint that it's anti-climactic and drawn-out much too long are well-deserved, though Katie's death is legitimately surprising. (Couldn't it have simply ended with her rocking and/or leaving? Something subtler, and more in keeping with the subtly creepiness of the film on the whole?) And it still suffers from that 'realism' problem. If the theatrical ending is bad because it's horribly 'unrealistic', it is also bad because there's no way it ever would have escaped police custody, much less been distributed as a movie - and that latter complaint applies just as readily to this ending.

Blair Witch, at least, could plausibly be released because it would have been impossible to prove whether the film was a hoax because the filmmakers corpses were never recovered and none of the three was obviously implicated in the murder of the others. But Micah and Katie's bodies would be all too real.

I still haven't been able to find the third ending, which actually sounds like it would be the best one. (Though, to be fair, based on the description I was expecting this one to be something else entirely.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Canada's Economic Action Plan and stimulus for actors

The Conservative government in Canada has been working hard on a recession-busting campaign that they refer to as "Canada's Economic Action Plan". There have been a lot of complaints about its efficacy - about how the money has been apportioned and how much of it has actually been paid out. Equally disturbing are the things that the government is taking credit for - what should be routine maintenance, like replacing old door-knobs, is being touted as Action Plan spending, complete with signage. That kind of desperation isn't inspiring. (Nor is the partisanship of it all - the Tory-blue website and signs are not particularly subtle.)

Most recently, the joke seems to be that the Action Plan's only obvious economic impact has been in its own promotion: in the past couple weeks, $100k on a press conference and $50k plastering ads the side of a train have gotten a lot of attention. In total, the estimates vary between $35 and $60 million.

What's been mostly unremarked upon, though, are the numerous slick commercials that have been produced. I can't embed the commercials, but follow this link and click on the very first video and pay particularly close attention to the bit that starts around the 34 second mark. "What does the Economic Action Plan mean to Canadians?", it asks? It means that an out-of-work actor from Student Bodies can find a job in propaganda.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The RCMP's guide to Radicalization

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have this helpful internet guide to identifying and understanding 'radicalization' and how it contributes to domestic terrorism. Let's take a look!

Radicalization, they explain, is

the process by which individuals — usually young people — are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views.

They do, thankfully, also explain that this is not necessarily "bad" thing - Martin Luther King and Jesus are listed as two examples of benevolent radicals. But the list of "good" exceptions is super-short. And they continue:

The English word “radical” comes from the Latin radis, or “root.” Its connotation (as in the word “radish”) is of being buried in the ground, rooted, fundamental. So a radical is a person who wishes to effect fundamental political, economic or social change, or change from the ground up.

"Buried" and "fundamental" - spooky! But the buried bit is also worth drawing out a bit more, because the site is actually concerned with discern which otherwise normal (that is, "normal", but more on that in a minute) people are terrorists in disguise.

The assumption that domestically radicalized terrorists are somehow “different” is belied by the “Toronto 18” trial. The media repeatedly draw attention to the “ordinariness” of the defendants. This is borne out by the wiretap recordings being played in court, in which defendants communicate in a sort of “hoser-gangsta” patois, talk about how much they love Tim Horton’s doughnuts, and exclaim over the wintertime beauty of rural Ontario.

“Ordinariness” is a key factor in the domestic radicalization phenomenon. [...] There is no reason that Canadian born terrorists would not like Tim Horton’s doughnuts. It would be more surprising if they did not.

Evidently, the RCMP loves to put things in "quotes". And check out the words that they single out in this way, especially "different" and "ordinariness". (Twice given this treatment in the few sentences above.) The words assume an undeniably suspicious and malevolently ironic character: the suggestion is that these radicals are different, just not different in the way one would expect (that is, we would expect that they should not like Tim Horton's doughnuts); that they are playing at being "ordinary" because they have learned the art of "ordinariness".

Many ethnic, cultural and religious constituencies in Canada remain deeply concerned about “homeland” issues. Indeed, continued identification with communities and countries of origin remains a component of the Canadian approach to multiculturalism. The Islamist “single narrative” — propagated by Islamist ideologues of every stripe, from Osama Bin Laden to street corner preachers — is fundamentally different however. Not only does it lie at the heart of the Islamist extremist worldview, it also identifies Canada as part of the problem.

"Real" Canadians, of course, have no "homeland", much less a nefarious "single narrative". Unless, of course, you count the narrative of Western progress and the mythology of middle-power Canada and its benevolent peacekeeper identity. But I suppose it could be argued that these are two narratives. (Not that I would buy that argument.)

There is a tendency in the media to portray conversion to Islam as a sort of “fast track” to terrorist action. However [...] [m]ost converts to Islam are simply that — average people who have found that Islam speaks to them as a faith.

Note that "average" isn't placed in quotation marks. No need to qualify something as self-evident as the averageness of the white Canadian, right? They don't practice "ordinariness", after all - they simply are ordinary, even if they're Muslim. So to be clear: brown Muslims pretend to be "ordinary"; white Muslims are average.

Women are also lending their voices to the Islamist ideological message, often employing a strange inversion of the language of struggle and emancipation. In 2005, Shabina Begum, a British teenager [...] observed that [...] “young Muslims, like me, have turned back to their faith after years of being taught that we needed to be liberated from it.”

A "strange inversion" because, clearly, emancipation can only operate in one direction - from white folks to brown folks. But I suppose it makes sense that the RCMP, a body with the sole purpose of providing Canadians with protection, would be unable to make sense of people who want to be protected from "average" Canadians.

But seriously, I have no idea how this document is supposed to help anyone identify radical terrorists. Look for "ordinary" people who aren't actually ordinary, I guess.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch, and bad endings

Spoiler alert!

I watched Paranormal Activity on its opening night. Simply put, all of the comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are wholly justified. (Apropos of nothing, it's the first film I've seen in a theater since Penelope was born. There's no particular reason why this film was the first - it just worked out that way.)

The way that PA starts with subtle scares - creaks, lights turning on, gently moving doors - and gradually escalates - bangs, spontaneous combustion, slamming doors - is damned effective. By the time the sheets on the bed begin to move we're scared in part because, well, the scene is scary but moreso because we're already anticipating its escalation to... well, it's one thing to spoil the plot and another thing entirely to ruin one of the most terrifying scenes I've ever seen.

If PA improves on the BW model in any respect, it's with its rather rigid structure. It moves back and forth between what the stationary camera in the bedroom records in black-and-white at night and the characters' discussion of what's happening and what they should do about it in color during the day. And those breaks - knowing that the characters, and we, are safe when it's light out (that is, until the film nears the end, when even the day is no longer off-limits) - keeps us from feeling exhausted and keeps the film's scares from seeming arbitrary or, worse, dictated by the cliché structure of a genre exercise rather than the internal logic of the story.

And they also make the nights that much more frightening, the anticipation that much stronger, and the pay off feel that much better because it's deserved. I noticed that the audience would nervously, and collectively, shift in their seats as we transitioned to the stationary night cam near the beginning of the movie. By the end, people were gasping simply because the title for "Night 23" appeared on the screen and the picture faded to black. You know they're doing something right when we're scared by the expectation of being scared but still haven't any clue how it's going to happen. (As opposed a scene in a typical horror film where the scare is practically choreographed for us: If the perspective is over the hero's shoulder and a few feet behind, is there any way that it won't end with someone grabbing him/her from the back?)

But I didn't particularly like the last 20 seconds or so of the film. In Blair Witch, the ending is ambiguous but powerfully suggestive, harking back to one of the myths that we heard in the first 1o minutes and leaving us with little concrete evidence of the characters' fates even as it leaves us with a strong sense that we know what happened to them. (Even if we don't exactly know how it happened.)

Paranormal Activity missteps, though, and it starts with the day preceding the final night. It's implied that Katie might be possessed by the demon that's been haunting them, but this comes entirely out of nowhere. (She had been sleepwalking earlier in the film, yes, but that episode made seem fearful, not sinister.) When night falls, the scene unfolds incredibly alike the finale in Blair Witch - off screen screams, a character racing downstairs, a commotion in the dark, and silence. When we hear footsteps climbing up, it's not certain that things have gone wrong. And then Micah's body flies at the camera - which is terrifying, but wholly inconsistent with the more mundane scares that we've seen to this point. And if that weren't enough, the possessed Katie, who has presumably thrown Micah at the camera, shuffles into the room after him, bending over his body, and then roaring at the camera and breaking it. Roaring with a computer-enhanced demon-face. That's right. A movie that began by exploiting our all too real fears that creaking doors might not "just" be creaking doors resorts to bad CG and a demon-face. What. The. Fuck.

While I was writing this, I checked Wikipedia because I remembered hearing that there were alternate endings. And there are two, apparently: one in which only Katie returns from the ground floor, and she sits on the floor beside the bed; another in which, again, we only see Katie and enters the room only to slit her throat in front of the camera. I would have preferred either one. And then I read this on the same page: "The ending currently attached to the release of the film was suggested by Steven Spielberg." Spielberg, incidentally, wanted to remake this film and had to be convinced that this was far scarier than anything they could do with a bloated budget. Why am I not surprised that his one (ostensibly) contribution is the very worst of the bunch?

(And while no one asked, I would've gone with an ending quite unlike any of the three they made. I wouldn't have had Katie return from the ground floor at all - it would have been Micah. And if anyone cares to ask, I can try to explain what and why in the comments.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The half-life of funny (to offensive)

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective made $72 million in 1994. (It was the 16th highest-grossing film in North America that year; for comparison's sake, Slumdog Millionaire was 16th last year and made $141 million.) And given that it was so popular, you'd think I would remember if it had earned any complaints or criticism for its rather questionable portrayal of a certifiably insane trans/queer villain and a homophobic hero. Here's a reminder of the latter:

I can easily imagine a character like Finkle/Einhorn still featuring in a comedy in 2009, but I can't fathom anyone including a scene like the one above. Ace's reaction was evidently thought harmless, even funny, by most audiences in 1994, but this sort of humor has all the charm of hate speech, today. And that's a really short turnaround, isn't it? To go from 'acceptable for a general audience to laugh at' to virtually unfilmable in 15 years?

(Or am I simply wrong in thinking that homo/transphobia can't be quite so obviously celebrated and laughed at anymore?)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When ads lie: frozen pizza

I have never eaten a good frozen pizza.

'Passable', sure; 'digestible', most often; 'not worth it' a good third of the time. But never 'good'. And all frozen pizzas are plagued by the same shortcomings: the cheese either isn't mozzarella or it's the cheapest possible kind, the frozen vegetables are identically tasteless, the crust can always be mistaken for cardboard, and it never heats evenly - sometimes the middle is still cold even as the crust is burnt.

So given that frozen pizza is generally quite bad, I guess it makes sense that frozen pizza brands often liken the quality of their food to that of a pizza delivery place. A couple of examples:

The problem is, to my mind, that they are always wrong - frozen pizza is never as good as the worst delivery or take-out place. And it's not just that they're stretching the truth. I'm sure that every pizza slice, for instance, is the "world's best" in someone's mind - someone surely must appreciate the cardboard crust, or at least think that the price-point and convenience outweigh the deficiencies in taste. But even those people could never confuse a frozen pizza with one that was never frozen, much less one made by a place that specializes in fresh-made pizza.

What's worse, the brazenness of their lie always reminds me that frozen pizza is just plain bad and will always be bad. Why not make more modest claims? Advocate for their brand on the grounds that it's cheaper than delivery? More convenient than take-out? McDonald's might as well claim that the patty in a Big Mac is better than veal cutlet.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Because the Winter Olympics aren't already white enough

I can almost understand why people like Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort have an audience. They, and their audience, perceive science to be a legitimate threat to their theology and, thus, their way of life - and they're right, it is. So it makes sense that desperate, if not particularly critical, people would want to rally around them.

What I don't get are the people who say shit like this:

Who is fighting to ensure that the immigrants of European descent* are adequately represented at next year’s Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games?

"Adequately represented"? 80 countries were represented at 2006 Winter Olympics, only 33 of which sent 10 athletes or more. Of those 33, only seven are not located in Europe or North America and only four of the seven are not countries overwhelmingly populated by white people: Australia (40 athletes), Brazil (10), China (78), Japan (112), Kazakhstan (56), New Zealand (18), and South Korea (40). The seven largest contingents - Canada, Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States - combined for about half of the total number of 2500 athletes.

People of European descent are overrepresented. And Rachel Marsden? You're a moron.

Canada or the USA without European immigrants would look somewhat like Africa.

Which Africa, exactly? The one that was fetishized by European Renaissance explorers as one of eternal sun, populated by people of such outstanding moral character that they were understood be nearer to God than all others? The one that was fetishized by Enlightenment conquerors as one of unending dark, populated by people of such lecherous nature that they were understood to be hardly better than demonic children? Or the Africa of the 21st century, the one that has endured centuries of colonial oppression, exploitation, and systemic dehumanization of its people?

It’s no coincidence that the best countries in the world are either European or founded by Europeans.

Oh, snap! In your face, Japan!

It's easy to be "best" when you've amassed your wealth via the enslavement and robbery of entire nations. The hard part is being merely "good" when you've already been taken for everything you had and, to add insult to injury, need to ask favors of the people who enslaved and robbed you in the first place.

And it's no coincidence that the biggest genocides in the world were perpetrated by European nations or those founded by Europeans. Of the 12 genocides that happened between 1490 and 1950, 10 were undertaken by Europeans or their descendants. And white folks hardly escape the blame for many of the latter genocides, even where their influence isn't as obvious. But I'll get to that...

Everywhere they go, European immigrants make things better – until they’re asked to leave, at which point everything usually descends back into chaos. Not that they ever get any thanks for it.

How terribly unfair. If only they hadn't wiped out - sometimes intentionally, sometimes not - entire nations of the indigenous population of the Americas with small pox. But the dead are ungrateful assholes like that.

But let's look at Burundi and Rwanda, apropos of nothing. Belgian colonizers took the Tutsi/Hutu class distinction and reinscribed it in law as a racial distinction, organizing the two "ethnicities" in hilariously arbitrary fashion - for example, by measuring nose size. And what is generally agreed to have been a pretty stable social system ("descends back into chaos" supposes an original chaos that did not exist) became, less than 100 years later, so divisive that it led to not one but two genocidal civil wars: in Burundi in 1972 and Rwanda in 1994.

Yeah, I'm sure that the 1 million or more who died would really like to thank Europe for sharing the logic of racial superiority and ethnic war.

So how are the Vancouver 2010 Olympics paying tribute to these increasingly marginalized European immigrants and their defining contributions to Canada? By ignoring them completely, it seems.

Ah, yes. Because the TV spots starring all those white athletes, as narrated by Donald Sutherland, certainly seem to indicate that white folks are being ignored. And the Olympics' and team Canada's major corporate sponsors - like VISA, McDonalds, or Coke - may well be ubiquitous, but that's really just code for "marginalized". Because we all know that the execs at Lakota are actually calling the shots, right? I bet the vendors won't even sell one can of Coke - it'll be raw seal for everyone!

And seriously - haven't we had enough of this white self-victimization bullshit, yet? Attempts of this sort to level the playing field**, as it were, do not marginalize the people who occupy the center. The goal, I imagine, is to reduce exclusivity - to make the center more inclusive, rather than force the center to the margin. Requests that over-representation be corrected - and to ask for equal representation is not to ask for under-representation - shouldn't be taken as an excuse to run for the margins.

I’m descended from the people who built my country, but they’ve been forgotten.

I'm not sure whether this is best described as hyperbole or idiocy. Both, probably.

*I'm not really sure what she's up to with this "European immigrants" schtick. My guess is that she wants us to think that she's poking fun at political correctness. And, if we believe that, then maybe we won't be cognizant of how utterly and obviously racist her diatribe is. Seriously - read the article but replace her euphemisms with "white".

** It's up for debate whether the aboriginal iconography of the Olympics, which is what the author is whining about, actually attempts to do this or whether it merely pays it lip service. Miga, Sumi, and Quatchi - the official mascots - were chosen for their cuteness and marketability, not because they are in any way an accurate reflection of aboriginality or because they want to displace Ace or Youppi. This is the worst kind of multiculturalism - the kind that makes other cultures suitable for consumption by the dominant social group without ever opening dialogue, that asks them to enjoy it rather than to understand it.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

"Balance" and "theory"

I often watch The View when I feed Penelope her lunch, and turned it on this morning just as their panel was discussing the new Cameron/Comfort edition of On the Origin of Species. (The equally absurd and awful contents of which I blogged about a few days ago.) During the discussion, Heidi Montag and Sherri Shepherd (mis)used two words that, when deployed in these arguments, drive me absolutely nuts: "balance" (as in, the introduction provides "balance" to the evolution vs. creation debate) and "theory" (as in, both evolution and creationism are "theories").

1) To call the Cameron/Comfort edition "balanced" is outrageous - even if I agreed with Heidi's definition of "balance". Comfort is writing in the 21st century, Darwin in the 19th - genetics wasn't even a word when Darwin wrote, which makes Comfort's discussion of DNA both anachronistic and irrelevant. (Irrelevant to a debate about Darwin and/or evolution, but it's obvious that Comfort's actual target is science as a field, not Darwin as such.) Comfort can - and does - misrepresent Darwin's argument while Darwin, for obvious reasons, cannot refute his erroneous claims. Heidi also commits a sin that I'm all too familiar with as a teacher - she conflates complaint and critique, mistakes a wholly fallacious straw-man argument for rigorous analysis. Bringing balance to a debate requires, at the very least, some responsibility on the part of the commentator to accurately represent the position that is being critiqued. What Heidi calls "balance" would probably be libel if Darwin weren't long dead.

2) a. The "theory" bit is equally annoying. At some point, it became conventional outside academic circles to use "theory" as a derisive or pejorative term - the implication being that a "theory" is not simply unproven but is purely speculative, a mere hypothesis. Of course, if you can use Wikipedia, much less know anything about science, you know that a theory is far more complicated than this, that it's an analytic concept and that it proceeds from controlled observation - it's deductive - rather than preceding it, as would a hypothesis. It's on this basis that the Darwinian theory of evolution is astoundingly incomparable to the "theory" of creationism.

b. What's even more annoying, of course, is that creationists - and Sherri was doing this, implicitly - collapse i) the Darwinian theory of natural selection as the reason for evolution with ii) the fact of evolution. Evolution has occurred and we have a fossil record that proves it - hell, the non-fossilized remains of much smaller human beings from several centuries and millennia in the past are evidence of evolution, too. What remains is not for us to determine whether evolution occurs, but to determine how it occurs. And while the fossil record for the entire world is small, yes - the conditions under which organic material is fossilized are quite specific and rare - this shouldn't give us reason to doubt that evolution has occurred. It's a problem, yes, but insofar as it presents us only with the transitional forms - because all life is a transitional form that evolved from something else, which is transitioning to something else - and not with a roadmap of how it got there and where it was headed. And that's where the theory bit comes in.

The funny thing is, of course, that I'm actually quite critical of the way that scientific "truth" is produced and sold. Too often, scientists have encouraged us to conflate fact and theory just as eagerly the creationists do. But they get a well-deserved free-pass on this one.