From the archives: November 2008

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Quantum entanglements

Tuesday, 18 November 2008 — 6:30pm | Film, Full reviews

Watching Casino Royale was like witnessing the restoration of a rejuvenated monarchy. It restored the name of James Bond to a credible position of leadership in espionage cinema when the genre needed a capstone to its brief renaissance, with Munich arriving the year before and The Bourne Ultimatum and Lust, Caution hot on its heels—and while all four are destined to be spy classics, Casino Royale had the further distinction of being an old-fashioned popular action flick when blockbusters as a whole were sorely lacking in grit. It wasn’t merely a great Bond film: it was an admirable piece of cinema by out-of-franchise standards.

I spent most of Quantum of Solace missing Casino Royale.

I missed the absolute clarity of the wide-angle view we had of the action, stitched with a pulsating tandem of escalation and diminuendo that pervaded the showpiece sequences with a shot-to-shot rhythm rivalling the finest fruits of Steven Spielberg’s longtime collaboration with editor Michael Kahn. I missed how Bond was constantly and seriously endangered on all sides. I missed the dutiful preservation of Ian Fleming’s greatest balancing trick: the ability to draft characters that look like comic-book figures on paper and still make them belong in a milieu of hard-boiled, no-nonsense realism.

Nowhere in Quantum of Solace will you find anything to match the tension at the poker table, the tics of Le Chiffre, or the topping of Daniel Craig’s devil-smile when the airplane sabotage sequence finished with its controlled-explosive kerplop.

This isn’t to say that Quantum is a bad time at the cinema. It’s good fun, it’s technically accomplished, and it retains the brains, topicality, and calculated coarseness of its predecessor. There is even a shocking homage to Goldfinger‘s most iconic image that literally drips with the post-9/11 ethos, capturing the essence of the new James Bond in a single frame. And I know it’s a cosmetic trifle, but the locational title cards are superb.

But they borrowed the right Fleming title, for this film is a quantum indeed: discontinuous, and in need of a unified theory.

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Unintentional fallacies

Monday, 17 November 2008 — 4:36pm | Literary theory, Literature

I am pleased to see that Jonathan McCalmont is writing again. I followed his SF Diplomat blog quite regularly before he abandoned ship, and have yet to find a suitable replacement for the aggregation of insightful commentary on speculative fiction that he consistently provided.

That said, I have to hold him to account for his recent post on Futurismic, “How to Dismantle the Wall Between an Author and Their Work”, for its egregious misrepresentation of the intentional fallacy. I recommend that you read the full text; despite its flaws, it is an ample demonstration of when it is valuable to take the author into context when reading a work of fiction. Permit me to quote some of the boldfaced declarations:

  1. “[The intentional fallacy] is a denouncement of the idea that one can ever infer what an author was intending when he wrote something and [the affective fallacy] is a rejection of the idea that the effect that a text has on a reader is any kind of basis for thinking about it.”
  2. “There is no ‘logical’ reason why one should not interpret a book in terms of what one knows about the life of the author.”
  3. “[…] if one cannot infer from a book what an author means then one cannot infer from anyone’s words or actions what they are thinking.”
  4. “The inner life of an author before they write a book is as much a part of that book’s meaning as the words on the page.”

Unfortunately, statements (1) and (2) rely on a disingenuous summation of what the intentional fallacy is and how it is put into practice. Furthermore, an argument for the validity of biographical criticism is not equivalent to an argument for its primacy or necessity. The latter opposes the thrust of the intentional fallacy, but the former does not.

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American People Accidentally Enjoy Family Guy

Friday, 14 November 2008 — 3:36pm | Animation, Film, Television

The funniest thing I’ve read all week: “Indian People Accidentally Enjoy Roadside Romeo.” For those of you who don’t know, Roadside Romeo is a Disney-distributed CG production by Yash Raj Films that I have heard described as a Bollywood Lady and the Tramp; you can watch the trailer here, if you dare. It’s also a runaway hit. Amid Amidi proposes that all animation be removed from the nation of India, and I think he’s only half joking:

We’ll try the plan for two years. Don’t worry, good ideas like this take time. When the fine people of India feel they’re good and ready to respect the animation art form, I will personally send over a print of One Froggy Evening. If you enjoy that more than you did Roadside Romeo, we’ll send you Dumbo the following month. If you still enjoy Roadside Romeo, we’ll take more drastic measures like defrosting Walt and sending him over to help you see the light. Either way you’ll finally be able to see that your enthusiasm for Roadside Romeo was one huge terrible fucking mistake. Don’t feel too bad, even animation-savvy countries make mistakes sometimes.

It’s a satirical piece (“Additionally, any DVDs containing animation can be dumped in useless neighboring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh”), and all the more effective because the plan would garner my full support. Honestly, sometimes I think we need drastic measures like this right here in North America—my fellow Canadians, that includes you—and I can’t think of a better remedial syllabus.

Let’s set Roadside Romeo aside for a moment, since I haven’t seen it. When India pulls off its equivalent of Spirited Away, which earned its way to becoming the biggest domestic success in the history of Japanese cinema by also being one of the best animated features in recent memory, then we’ll talk. Of far greater concern is the link in the last sentence I quoted. The Cleveland Show? This is like milking a diseased cow. Is Seth MacFarlane out of his giggity mind?

I make it no secret that I consider Family Guy a televised disgrace, a cancer upon the storied art form of Walt Disney, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, Nick Park, Brad Bird, and everyone else who belongs on my abbreviated list. And that’s to speak only of its offence to animation, never mind comedy (or, for that matter, Americana). I’m not sure when it became fashionable to equate “adult” animation with crude construction and crass immaturity; I grew up believing that adults were people who grew up. Maybe this is the same audience that never grew out of the adolescent sensibility of feeling too cool for cartoons.

The Family Guy franchise bothers me considerably more than the usual decadent pop-culture rot because of how it has managed to swindle so many otherwise intelligent people, possibly including Seth MacFarlane himself, into believing that it is in any way clever. It’s dumb-as-bricks entertainment that purports to be smarter than the average bear. It’s like a Dan Brown novel (which makes the ineptitude of Family Guy‘s onetime jab at The Da Vinci Code all the more ironic), though it casts a loftier net. At least trashy bestsellers fill the coffers of publishers who can then make risky gambles on unknown authors. (There was a rumour going around that Doubleday’s recent layoffs happened because they expected the next Brown novel to show up on this year’s ledger, though it was denied.) Family Guy begets more Family Guy, be it in the isomorphic stupid-to-make-you-feel-smart sitcom family of American Dad or the selfsame nucleus in The Cleveland Show. It has no excuse, and I will celebrate when it dies.

One often forgets that Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons attempted spades of pop-culture “references” (as distinguished from parody). Shorts like Hollywood Steps Out have declined into trivial irrelevance for all but the most serious collectors, and I say that as someone who recognizes classic film stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson; still, at least the drawings back then were actual caricatures. And one would have to admit that 8-Ball Bunny gets a little stale by the third time Humphrey Bogart’s character from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre shows up to pester Bugs.

True classics like One Froggy Evening will prevail as they always have, as will the best of the parodies—your What’s Opera, Doc?, your Carrotblanca. And there’s no question that there’s a lot of great animation being produced today, be it in North America, India, or anywhere else. The problem is the undiscerning audience that never sees any of it, and is stuck with deplorable examples of what animation can do. Unfortunately, that audience comprises a great many people. Some of them may even be your friends. I fully support their systematic inoculation, and if we have to haul Uncle Walt out of the freezer, so be it.

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Derrida for Dummies: a hinge for the rest of us

Friday, 14 November 2008 — 12:26pm | Literary theory, Literature

About a fortnight ago, Joseph Kugelmass wrote a post at The Valve entitled “Derrida’s Obituary, or, Is Literary Theory Too Abstruse?” (to which my answer is “yes”). It subsequently spiralled into a debate about the validity of layman’s introductions or simplifications—Derrida for Dummies, if you will. I’ve said my piece before: I don’t think literary theory does itself any favours as an intellectually respectable discipline so long as it clings to the tangled prose of philosophers instead of extracting the ideas within. Obviously I recognize the necessity of bushwhacking through original texts in serious study, but it’s also high time to admit that many philosophers were terrible writers, and that their ideas can be described in simpler terms without losing too much in the compression. (Derrida is actually quite tame compared to many of his protégés and forebears; once you figure out what he’s trying to do, the Derrida negation test will give you no trouble at all.)

I jumped into the comment-box fray myself, but—in an ample demonstration of exactly what I was saying—others in the discussion phrased the same ideas in more succinct and elegant terms.

Rich Puchalsky:

But basically I agree that if knowledge is to be knowledge, it has to get past its original writer. If you can only understand the concepts in Derrida by reading Derrida, then you’re not reading him for knowledge, you’re reading him as a literary text.

Luther Blissett:

At their best, [good summaries and guides] provide us with the foundation to read better when we turn to the original text. Even when the roadmap is over-simplified or not quite right, I find that students can question the map more effectively having used it than they could if they only had a first reading to go on.

Ironically, that always seemed to me to be the point of Derrida’s work: to provide a reading—not a reduction but a distillation—of a certain aspect of a philosophical text, so that when we return to the foundational texts—Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, Heidegger, Descartes—we do so with fresh eyes, standing on the shoulder of a giant, so to speak.

It’s odd that Joseph is defending the host/parasite binary in a defense of Derrida.

I also recommend Andrew Seal’s excellent response at Blographia Literaria. Seal makes a crucial distinction that I have been advancing for ages: that a call for more transparent philosophical writing is not populist pandering, but an urgently needed reform for the sake of maintaining a healthy intellectual culture. An excerpt:

Derrida, then, becomes nothing more than a genial literary critic of his own corpus, writing to and for Derrida enthusiasts. This kind of flight into the personal is precisely the move conservative critics take as a sign of the weakness of post-structural thought. Whether or not this is fair, it is highly important to question the value of such a move if it ends up inevitably sticking us with charges of “meaninglessness,” “relativism,” and “charlatanry.” This is the bedrock problem of the mischaracterization of post-structuralism, gender/queer theory, critical race theory, post-colonialism, etc.—the reactionaries listen to us denounce repeatedly the notion of an integrated, coherent, autonomous subject, and then we say something like “well, Derrida didn’t mean for everyone to understand his work—his books are intimate and personal writings for people who take the time to really get to know him.” I’d throw my hands up too, if I weren’t typing.

When some defender of theory does make one of these appeals to the “personal,” what they’re really doing is making an appeal to the hieratic: if you’re not an initiate, you shouldn’t be paying attention. If you haven’t taken the time to make Derrida “personal,” you don’t have standing in this field.

Let me be clear: I’m not attacking this move on populist grounds. I’m attacking it on elitist grounds: this is an incoherent and unstable elitism, one more dangerous to the elites than to the masses.

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Wednesday Book Club: The Siege of Krishnapur

Wednesday, 12 November 2008 — 11:31pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) by J.G. Farrell.

In brief: An early winner of the Booker Prize, a prestigious annual award for the best English-language novel about India, Krishnapur is an insightful, action-packed, and surprisingly funny look at how Victorian idealists conduct themselves in the face of destruction at the hands of mutinous sepoys. As a fair assessment of India under company rule, it appreciates the complexities of empire while avoiding the trap of revisionism; as historical fiction, it is an old-fashioned delight.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Siege of Krishnapur, keep reading below.)

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