Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bait and Switch: NYT edition:

It's true that any actor in a Broadway show has a tremendous opportunity, and that might be worth taking a risk. Even if that show is less a play than a "Ponzi Scheme with Costumes." And even if the risks are less "bombing with the critics" than "never walking again."

Still, I'm not sure this front-page link from the 12/26 New York Times entirely reflects the tone of the story it leads you to:

Sometimes I think they do this just to spite me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mailing the Knife

In high school, perhaps some of you wrote letters to your future selves. Maybe you told futureyou not to forget about the importance of rocking out or keeping it real. Or maybe you wondered if you ever met someone you could love as much as (choke) the one who broke your heart (sob sob sob). It’s a cheesy exercise, but it has its charms, as well as its cringing embarrassments at what a melodramatic little crapsocket you were.

I was reminded of that exercise this morning when I read about the tax deal Obama is negotiating with the Republicans. Democrats got outplayed at every turn on this issue, and now the wealthiest will get budget-busting special tax breaks over and above the cut everyone else gets.

It would be bad enough if that were all. But the worst of it is that the Republicans' ostensible concession-- a 2 year extension, rather than a permanent one. So come election time 2012, we can now count on another round of this exact same demagoguery. It's like putting those words in a time capsule for our future selves to enjoy. Except the letter isn't to ourselves. It's to the GOP. And it's not a letter. It's a knife. And not even one of those decorative knives engraved with words on it. Just a plain old stabber.

I'm not averse to compromise, or even to our side taking a few wounds at the knife fight. But do we have to give them the knife?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sentence of the Week: 7/24/2010

"After all, life, for all its agonies of despair and loss and guilt,
is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing, full of
liking and of love, at times a poem and a high adventure, at times
noble and at times very gay; and whatever (if anything) is to come
after it, we shall not have this life again. " --Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond,1956

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Marvel Keeps Using That Word. I Do Not Think it Means What Quesada Thinks it Means

Marvel likes its sub-lines, like 1602 and now Noir. The last year has filled out the line with Daredevil, Luke Cage, Punisher, Wolverine, and two series each for Spider-Man and the X-Men. This week brought us an Iron Man for the Noir-iverse, and it has fine art, a fast-paced story, and loads of Easter Eggs for the longtime Marvel fan. But if this first issue is many things, this Iron Man is emphatically not noir. It is pulp. The pain of it is that one could easily produce a noirish Iron Man story, if not for one problem: Tony Stark.

Though Film Noir is a notoriously slippery genre, with fairly elastic boundaries, there are a few defining features. Among the most important is the nature of the protagonist. He is generally not a man of action or great achievement. If he is distinguished, then his glory days are long passed. Think of Mitchum in Out of the Past, Kirk Douglass in Ace in the Hole, or Joseph Cotten in the Third Man.

Having this kind of protagonist at the core has serious implications for the plot as well. The noir hero never initiates the plot. He is dragged into it by a femme fatale, or by a larger scheme (as in Third Man) Occasionally, he is resentful in his reduced circumstances and stumbles upon an opportunity to seize his main chance (as in Ace in the Hole). But he is almost never in control of circumstances. (A Google search for "film noir" and "in over his head" returns more than 200,000 hits). So the noir character is a regular guy, caught up in a much larger game. And generally, that larger game is the corruption of the world. From a gumshoe caught up in a new age of apocalyptic warfare to a cynical Angeleno bearing witness to the ugly rise of the modern American city, film noir suggests that one person can't ever win. The best they can hope for is to wring out a little measure of dignity in an increasingly dehumanized world.

In this context, how can we look at this Tony Stark as a noir hero? He is supremely confident, always in control. He fights Nazis in lost cities, searches for Atlantis, and has a "Men's Adventure" amanuensis following his every move. He isn't Mike Hammer, he's Doc Savage. Now, there's nothing wrong with being Doc Savage. This guy, this guy, and this guy all have more than a touch of the Man of Bronze in their makeup. But none of them are noir. They're pulp heroes. They're larger than life, not living their lives; not mensch but ubermensch. But, then again, how do you take a character defined as swinging playboy and millionaire superstar and put him in a noir story?

Easy. You don't make him the viewpoint character. Tony Stark isn't a noir hero. His exalted position in society makes it almost impossible. We never meet the noir hero when he is a lord of all he surveys, and the genre generally takes a pretty ambivalent view towards the socially powerful. They are signs of the rot and corruption that the noir hero struggles against in vain, architects of the fallen world. But if we don't see inside Stark's head, we can put him in that ambiguous role. A millionaire with a secret agenda-- that's noir. The Noir line has used such viewpoint characters before, as in the original X Men Noir, which used the Golden Age Angel to investigate the more outre X-Men cast.

So imagine this: It's 1948. A washed-up boxer is looking for work. A beautiful redhead hires him for a job-playing chauffeur and bodyguard for her boss, one of the richest men in town. There's an immediate spark between the boxer and the secretary. And the boss is sweet on her too! But the boss is strangely frail. He spends hours each day in that iron lung contraption. They say he got sick working on that bomb that ended the war. The guilty nightmares that haunt him drive him to seek forgiveness, though most nights he goes looking for it at the bottom of the bottle. It would be so easy to take everything. And if the money isn't enough; well, there's another redhead who will pay handsomely for Stark's research notes...

It may not read better or sell better than Iron Man Pulp, but it would be the start of a story that would actually be Iron Man Noir.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sentence of the Week, 2/28/10--3/6/10

“If the present beautiful weather continues I shall be compelled to go and be happy in the country but at present I prefer being miserable in London.” –Erasmus Darwin

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sentence of the Week, 2/14-2/21

"It’s already been explained that in a complex world of jet-apes and time travel death is the least of your worries, so let’s not go there."

Amy, Mindless Ones, 2/15/2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sentence of the Week, 2/7-2/13

"The head-lice shampoo developed at Purdue was marketed by Nature’s Sunshine."

--Claudia Golden, "Tales out of School," The New York Times Book Review

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ben McGrath is a Bad Journalist

Journalists serve a specific function in society—to help maintain an informed populace, so that they might better participate in government. The earliest American political journalists were unabashed partisans, but that kind of open advocacy has fallen out of favor, confined to the op-ed page and replaced by the rarely attained ideal of objectivity. There are two basic philosophies as to how journalists can achieve that ideal. The first model calls on the journalist to gather information, and to adjudicate conflicting claims in order to uncover an underlying truth. Those who are more skeptical, or simply cagier, about absolute truth claims pursue their goal through a second model, in which the reporter simply gathers and transmits those conflicting claims, leaving it to the reader to decide whose claims best reflect reality.

Both philosophies are defensible, and no journalist is an absolute exemplar of one or the other. But one can learn a lot by observing when he or she follows each philosophy. When does our intrepid reporter make declarative statements, using the authorial voice? When is the truth value of differing claims left ambiguous? Let’s take a look at Ben McGrath’s profile of the Tea Party movement in the Feb. 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.The main thrust of the article is that the Tea Party phenomenon runs broad and deep, cutting across a broad cross-section of American society. McGrath uses both authoritative and ambiguous voices to advance this argument.

McGrath tells the reader that Democrats “mistook” the meaning of Doug Hoffman’s defeat in the NY-23 special election and “made the mistake” of criticizing Scott Brown. Indeed, Schumer’s criticisms “invited talk” of a challenge in November(48). When McGrath ratifies Democratic claims, it follows on the lines of David Axelrod, who “admitted” that they underestimated the strength of Brown’s support in the Bay State (48). McGrath is also more than happy to use the authorial voice to describe the existence of republicans in New York City as “tremors in the social bedrock, if not the earth’s crust,” and to explain that the Teabag volunteers were “not crazed sign-carriers, but quietly dedicated engineers, and winemakers and singers.” (48)

By contrast, when Democrats point out the extensive support undergirding Tea Parties from major establishment organizations like Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, McGrath can only sympathetically observe that the outfit has an annual budget of “only seven million dollars a year.” He notes “a blog post linking” Armey’s outfit to a strategy memo, but also that the memo was written by a volunteer. So, what’s the truth? McGrath gives us no way of knowing. Perhaps thinks the question irrelevant , as suggested by his earlier remark that the Armey men would “be cause for greater skepticism” if those TP folks weren’t already on the job. How important was Armey specifically, or other lobbying interests in general? Again, McGrath gives us no way to know.(47)

When the TPers themselves level their charges, of communism, Islamism, and subversion, they never “dismiss” countervailing evidence, or “mistake” anything. Their declarations sit without comment. Their sincerity is unimpeachable, and the veracity of their statements unquestioned. When one TPer declares that environmental causes are now the refuge of “weirdos” who want “all buildings, all industry, all fossil fuel would stop,” McGrath never intervenes, as he consistently does when discussing the critics of Tea Party Nation (44). Similarly, the origin of life on Earth is evidentially all a matter of perspective, just like the nature of “Barack Obama’s past associations with figures like Bill Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn.” (45)

Perhaps the clearest example of this contrast comes in the one passage of the article in which McGrath acknowledges that facts actually matter. McGrath begins his account of the 9.12 rally in Washington by telling us politics comes down to numbers, before offering attendance figures that range from ABC’s “lowball” 60,000 to a 2,000,000 driven by the “natural excitement surrounding 9.12.” (42) This is not incidental information. McGrath, as author and adjudicator, tells us that Tea Parties matter and that they represent large numbers of people. This would seem to make the ACTUAL NUMBERS significant. He even quotes one TPer declaring that “there are more of us than there are of them.” (42) Another pair of TPers marvel at how clean they left the Mall, despite a gathering rivaling the size of Obama’s inauguration, ascribing it to “the caliber of the people involved.”(46) Again, the actual facts would be relevant here. But McGrath gives us no basis on which we can decide what the actual numbers are, only the tell that the ABC number is a “lowball,” leading the reader to assume that the higher estimate is closer to the truth. But what is the true number? And why won’t McGrath intervene here, as he does so frequently in the article? For that matter, in what sense is the political enthusiasm of the TPers a “natural excitement?”

Ben McGrath is an experienced writer. He knows when he is using ambiguity and authority. And he consistently uses them to ratify the self-serving image of the TPers. He may not be much of a journalist, but he has a hell of a future as a publicist for Tea Party Nation.