Monday, May 30, 2011

Sights West

I just spent the not-long-enough weekend near Gleneden Beach, Oregon, where sights like these are not just possible, but astonishingly common. You will therefore understand my reluctance to speak of having returned, or of the experience in the past tense, as doing so only serves to remind me of where I would still rather be. Sigh.

While there -- specifically while running on peninsula that forms the western side of Siletz Bay -- I didn't see an eagle. I saw two bald eagles sitting side by side on a log, one of whom was so untroubled by my presence that he/she allowed me to pass within 30 feet with no more dramatic a response than a bit of nonchalant feather pruning. It would have been nice to get a photograph of her/him, but it's probably best that the scene has to live in my mind.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Few Too Many Words on Our Sense of Decency

It's probably tautological to observe that a public scold obsesses about things that others find no reason to obsess about, but what else is a blog for if not a few tautologies? Ross Douthat is a scold who recently  typed a revealingly large number of words -- mind you with both hands -- about pornography:

The notion that pornography, and especially hard-core pornography, has something to do with marital infidelity has been floating around the edges of the American conversation for a while now, even as the porn industry, by some estimates, has swollen to rival professional sports and the major broadcast networks as a revenue-generating source of entertainment ...

But the attention paid to the connection between porn and infidelity doesn’t translate into anything like a consensus on what that connection is.
Heh. He said swollen.

All the passive-voiced vague attributions fail to disguise the fact that Ross Douthat is the one doing all the pained musing over the equation of pornography and adultery, concluding, to everyone's complete surprise, that pornography and adultery are, if not tantamount, and if not ugly facets of the same depraved shame, then certainly knocking boots regularly. They're probably sitting side by side in the back row of the movie theater, hands and lips entangled, paying no attention to the feature, a dark coat draped suspiciously over their respective laps.

Somebody call the usher, for the stakes are desperately high:
[I]t's so easy to say that the spread of pornography means that we're just taking a turn, where sex and fidelity are concerned, toward realism, toward adulthood, toward sophistication. All we have to give up to get there is our sense of decency.
Wow, really? Ross Douthat just spilled -- my word processor tells me this -- 3,086 words to establish that "our sense of decency" is under threat? Evidently he was tapped out before specifying what "our sense of decency" amounts to, as he conceives it; or why anyone should care about what it means; or why we should care about losing it; or for that matter, who this "our" refers to.

Such is the way of scolds -- so many agonized, alarmist words that say no more than a brief whine of outrage would have said.

(via Eli H.)

Apres Ceci, Le Deluge

This very recent image of Puddle-Town's Steel Bridge, known and traversed by every runner and cyclist who frequents the downtown area, shows the crystal-clear Willamette River getting just a little too close to flood status. It is one of several excellent photographs recently posted by Jonathan Maus at the BikePortland blog.

The image to the right is perhaps the most revealing to those of us who regularly walk, run, or ride the Eastbank Esplanade --- a view of the floating dock section, which under normal conditions bends down and then back up to form a brief but substantial metal hill. Today shows it at almost level with the surface of the water.

Calm down, dear river. We have heard your rage and, well, we can't do a thing about it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Escapades

Bob Dylan turned 70 a couple of days ago, and this is my favorite among's "Dylan through the years" photographic retrospective.

It shows him the way I imagine him when he is not donning a veneer, playing a role, assuming a guise, or even particularly considering listeners. It is also the way I most want to imagine him: in the act of making great music.

From 1965, this photo was almost certainly taken during the production of Blonde on Blonde, the album that includes, among other desert island songs, "Visions of Johanna."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Oh Canada

As with all web-based questionnaires, this one is legally binding and utterly definitive, so I will need to move to Canada, Australia, Sweden, Norway, or another of the nations that fit me best according to the OECD Better Life Index.

The USA is surprisingly near the upper end of my list -- predictably above such also-rans as Estonia, Mexico, and Turkey, but also, surprisingly enough, slightly above England, France, and Germany.

I can't account for the relatively poor showing of these three countries, but most of Canada's high rank is surely due to these cookies and Leonard Cohen.

"The Last Living Rose" as Singalong Anthem

If I understand English football ("soccer") fans and the habits of football fans in general -- and I am pretty sure I don't, but here goes -- I say PJ Harvey's "Last Living Rose" would make a perfect stadium anthem, especially in matches pitting an English team against a non-English team:

Granted, it might need to be pared down a little. Maybe.

I expect to appreciate and understand international football fans more and more as the Portland Timbers take a greater and greater share of this town's, and my own, interest in professional sports. Trailblazers? What Trailblazers?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let Her Drive

The "Arab Spring" lurches haltingly forward, but as as if to illustrate the two-steps-backward component of the lurch, authoritarian thugs in Saudi Arabia answer:

Saudi authorities have arrested an activist who launched a campaign to challenge a ban on women driving in the conservative kingdom and posted a video on the internet of her behind the wheel ... The YouTube video ... shows Manal Alsharif, who learned to drive in the US, driving her car in Khobar in the oil-producing Eastern Province ... "Police arrested her at 3am this morning," said Maha Taher, another activist who launched her own campaign for women driving ...
It's almost tempting to dismiss The Right to Drive as a minor, even trivial exercise of personal autonomy. Almost.

Whatever its excuses -- political, theological, whatever -- the Saudi regime demonstrates its illegitimacy by such thuggish restrictions.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

I Choose (D)

With only a handful of time zones still clinging to May 21 as of this writing, the world persists much as before, meaning that (a) that death-cult that spent all the money on billboards and other publicity predicting the world's ending either prayed away gawd's wrath for another brief respite; or (b) the world did end exactly as predicted, only it was a "spiritual" sort of world's end, the details of which will be expatiated in tedious detail to anyone who cares to listen over the coming weeks; or (c) the principals of the death cult will announce a series of revisions to their calculations that will delay the world's ending long enough for more fundraising; or -- I am just throwing this one out there -- (d) the entire thing was bullshit from the start.

I assume I speak for almost everyone when I say it has been a delightful world's ending, and I look forward to the next one.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sights East

Three weeks ago I didn't know Cove Palisades State Park existed. Now I have been there and deliver you, both readers, the following images:

western tanager  (it was in focus in real life)
Golden-mantled ground squirrel. It will thank you not to call it a chipmunk.
western fence lizard (fence not shown)

View down a cliff over the convergence of the Crooked and Deschutes rivers

Nearing sunset over the Billy Chinook reservoir. "Billy Chinook?" Yes.

sage aplenty

Gopher snake that wants humans to think it's a rattlesnake.

The park and vicinity features, among other things, the weirdly-named Lake Billy Chinook; western tanagers who love dropped pieces of pasta; bald eagles who love staring out commandingly over the lake and soaring above it all alongside golden eagles, osprey, turkey buzzards, red-tailed hawks, and other raptors; western fence lizards who do adorable push-ups to prove their rock is their rock; golden-mantled ground squirrels who are a little too willing to allow human photographers to sneak a little too close; gopher snakes who appear from nowhere and scare the parks service employees more than they want to admit; and very, very cold nights, especially when experienced within a tent that doesn't quite want to close.

In short, it offers spectacular and varied high desert scenery.

Thoughts for the Morrow

If you are reading this from somewhere other than Christian Heaven or Christian Hell or Christian Purgatory*, it means the world did not end tomorrow as predicted by the latest batch of eschatology-enthusiasts-with-a-publicity-budget. Or maybe it means you're reading it from somewhere in the world where the time zones have not yet turned the date to May 21, such as the time zone from which I am writing this, in which case there is still time for you to repent, or call dibs on your Christian neighbors' unspoken-for belongings, or whatever.

I will not be repenting**, and I have called dibs on several of the better cars, swimming pools, houses, and pieces of A/V technology in the vicinity of my home. They can be distinguished from similar-looking items in that I have claimed them, and that's enough said about that. If you are in doubt, ask me.

And no, you may not borrow the Mercedes. We don't have long until the Final Conflagration, and I will be driving it. I might allow you to pump gasoline into it if you're nice.

In short, happy End Times to all. I look forward to comparing and contrasting this end of the world with the previous ends of the world we've seen over the ages. We have seen a few.

* Note that the eternal, changeless truth of the Christian god shifted in recent years such that Purgatory may not, you know, exist.

** As to what I would repent if I decided to do so: big things? Small things? Other things? Who gives a shit? That which is not worth asking is not worth answering.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


The vigorous pace of this precious, precious blog will slow for the next several days as I am traveling to a new-to-me spot in the quasi-wilderness of Cascadia. I expect to return with photographs and hope to return with fresh insights, surprising news, delightful vignettes, charming anecdotes, and peerless witticisms.

It's likely I'll return return with a photographs and smart-ass remarks.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Making the Best of Visual Coincidences

This disturbing image, now widely circulating on social media sites, suggests either that the recent royal wedding was foretold by some Disney movie or other, or that the recent royal wedding was patterned after some Disney movie or other.*

Either way, it suggests, albeit indirectly, that Disney movies and royal weddings have achieved what they were ever going to achieve for humankind and should cease. By now they're just repeating things that were, from the start, not worth representing in the first place.

I propose that Disney begin the cessations by canceling the release of yet another execrable Pirates of the Caribbean film, slated for a 20 May 2011 release and thus still not too late to call off.

There is still time to rip down the posters, drop the remaining advertising and promotional campaigns, and destroy all copies of the film. It's not too late.

* It does not show the instances in which participants and high-profile guests of the recent royal wedding did not eerily resemble drawings in feature-length Disney cartoons. It remains true that royal weddings and Disney films have had their time but need to stop.

Kentucky, As Represented

Rand Paul feels the foul gates of slavery closing upon him:

With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.

Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services — do you have a right to plumbing? Do you have a right to water? Do you have right to food? — you're basically saying you believe in slavery.
I don't know, Rand Paul. I could point out that as a physician, you take a rather famous oath that puts you right in the path of delivering medical care to people, one that does not address the terms of payment; or I  could point out that no one is forcing you to be a physician in the first place -- you're free to give up your license any time; or I could point out that you're free to take your medical practice to some less regulated, presumably happier and freer clime, such as rural Guatemala, anywhere in Haiti, any number of places in Africa, or the border region of India and Pakistan (to name a handful). No meddlesome government bureaucrats would threaten you with enslavement in such places if you said no, hell no, to delivering medical care when some irresponsible layabout got sick or injured in your vicinity.

Since you're evidently stuck in the USA, and stuck with that medical license, and bound by an oath, and surrounded on all sides by supplicants for your services, and living under a rather fully-developed legal system, I guess you're right to call yourself a slave if that's what slavery is. That isn't what slavery is, but let's roll forward with it for a few revolutions.

If, say, a band of rifle- and pitchfork-wielding rioters decided to storm your private estate to take whatever they found -- like, say, the water or food you say they have no inherent rights to -- you would demand that the police, and thereafter the courts and the penal system, stop them in the name of your right to property. It would be their professional and legal duty to enforce your right to property. You dirty slaveholder, you!

This is true even if you had sidestepped the hated state and arranged your own private security arrangements. Those private security arrangements would be the product of a contract, and if it is a legal contract, there you've gone and enslaved at least one contract lawyer, a notary, and, ultimately, the courts in addition to the hard-working private security providers.

So please, Rand Paul, stick with this view of slavery. I question whether being pro-slavery is really, politically speaking, such a bad thing in Kentucky, and even if it is, there's something to be said for representing Kentucky in the Senate with a combination of idiocy, bluster, and crudity. Call it verisimilitude.

(via Eli Horowitz)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sorting It Out

To add but a little to Ophelia Benson's comments -- these comments, these other comments, and also these comments -- responding to Chris Mooney's latest twaddle delivered by way of a "guest" appearance on a recent Point of Inquiry podcast: Mooney remained fixed on what will and won't succeed in changing the minds of believers when communicating about science. At no point did he speak a word in favor of the truth, or at the truth-seeking function of science.

It is regrettable that science is not in all cases convenient, soothing, or compatible with our wishes, but if science means anything -- science going back to its etymology, from the Latin scientia, signifying knowledge as distinguished from whimsy, passion, or opinion, and also distinguished from broader aspirations like wisdom, insight, and philosophy -- it has to prioritize the truth and the rigorous seeking of truth.

Persuasion is nice --- it's certainly worth trying. In all cases, even in cases where persuasion fails, separating the truth from background noise, popular nonsense, and pleasing narratives is better.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Neko Case Draws Near

Somebody fan me --- Neko Case is playing Edgefield in July! Yes, the Edgefield, that self-same Edgefield -- the Edgefield I practically stumble over on my way to and back from the box store.

I live just down the way from Edgefield. OK, well, I live within a 13-minute drive of that place (so say the maps of the google), and running there takes more like 40 minutes if I'm not in a hurry. I plan to hurry there on the day of this show, whether I have a ticket or not.

(via DC)

Ad Dumb

Amanda Marcotte unpacks an ad for Chrysler's shitty vehicles:

The assumption is that men resent having to be responsible people who get shit done, and women relish it. In a way, it's that different from the 50s, when the assumption was that women are completely fulfilled by wiping asses and men and only men needed to have a public life with meaningful work to feel fulfilled. In fact, it's basically the same message. The one thing that's improved dramatically is the notion that women are too stupid to tie their shoes without a man's guidance, but the underlying message that women aren't really people continues to dominate much of advertising.
I don't think this ad partakes of the assumption that women relish being responsible for the tiresome necessities of life; it supplies no direct information about that unless through a couple of removes of strained inference, and if we're going to start trading in strained inferences, we might as well just accept Godwin's Law and declare modern civilization a failure that died in the ovens of Treblinka.

[Clearing throat] The ad doesn't say much about what women want from life apart from a list of annoying-to-men particulars cribbed from stereotypes. Not long after the ad appeared, a self-labeled "spoof" appeared taking women's side:

Much of this is puzzling in its excess of abjection -- "I will watch Paul Blart: Mall Cop twice;" "I will elect male politicians who will make decisions about my body" -- but it's not obvious what makes it a spoof. It's a straightforward rejoinder, thankfully without any insipid equation of muscle cars with human liberation. Arguably, a retort in kind to a statement that was a self-parodying whine must count as a kind of spoof, but I think we should expect better of spoofs.

All sides are basically right -- the man, the woman, Amanda Marcotte, that Godwin guy. The thing Marcotte has very right is that the ad does nothing to make anyone think women are people; at the same time, it must be said it does little more to suggest that men are people. Advertising is a rather weak form when  it comes to representing the fullness of the human persons it marshals.

Even the aforementioned maker of shitty cars has done nothing more objectionable than to pander to some of men's self-pitying vanities and then offering a shitty car as compensation. This is awful in its way, but converting mindless doxa to product demand is what advertising exists to do, and while I am roughly as sympathetic as the next tee-vee viewer to shuttering all the advertising and marketing agencies by this time tomorrow, I recognize it's a free society, mostly, and that free societies can be counted on to produce that which antagonizes, insults, and manipulates us. It's what reminds us we're alive when nothing else manages.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Er, The Movie or the Planet?

The Silver Jews provide the soundtrack, somehow, to these visuals from one of the Planet of the Apes films.


Monday, May 9, 2011

That Pots Don't Stir Themselves

If you're like me, sometimes you mind your own beeswax and go about your day, at other times you wonder why people keep talking so much about former Senator Santorum, and at still other times, you long for a way to add that final finishing decorative touch to your right-wing neighbor's car, boat, camper, pet, or residence. Now the latter is inexpensive and easy.

Lastly, once in a while, you wonder if the LA Lakers got swept out of the NBA playoffs who-cares-which-team. Well, did they?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

David Hume at 300 and One Day

David Hume was born 300 years ago yesterday, and via Henry at Crooked Timber, I here offer a nice passage from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding explaining the superfluity of the supernatural:

I deny a providence, you say, and supreme governor of the world, who guides the course of events, and punishes the vicious with infamy and disappointment, and rewards the virtuous with honour and success, in all their undertakings. But surely, I deny not the course itself of events, which lies open to every one’s inquiry and examination. I acknowledge, that, in the present order of things, virtue is attended with more peace of mind than vice, and meets with a more favourable reception from the world. I am sensible, that, according to the past experience of mankind, friendship is the chief joy of human life, and moderation the only source of tranquillity and happiness. I never balance between the virtuous and the vicious course of life; but am sensible, that, to a well-disposed mind, every advantage is on the side of the former. And what can you say more, allowing all your suppositions and reasonings? You tell me, indeed, that this disposition of things proceeds from intelligence and design. But whatever it proceeds from, the disposition itself, on which depends our happiness or misery, and consequently our conduct and deportment in life is still the same. It is still open for me, as well as you, to regulate my behaviour, by my experience of past events. And if you affirm, that, while a divine providence is allowed and a supreme distributive justice in the universe, I ought to expect some more particular reward of the good, and punishment of the bad, beyond the ordinary course of events; I here find the same fallacy, which I have before endeavoured to detect. You persist in imagining, that, if we grant that divine existence, for which you so earnestly contend, you may safely infer consequences from it, and add something to the experienced order of nature, by arguing from the attributes which you ascribe to your gods. You seem not to remember, that all your reasonings on this subject can only be drawn from effects to causes; and that every argument, deducted from causes to effects, must of necessity be a gross sophism; since it is impossible for you to know anything of the cause, but what you have antecedently, not inferred, but discovered to the full, in the effect.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sport Degraded

I want to see badminton succeed as a sport in the USA (Cf.) , but this is not helping:

The BWF has received feedback from various parties with regards to the introduction of Rule 19.2 of the General Competition Regulations which require female players to wear skirts or dresses for Level 1 to 3 tournaments.
The Badminton World Federation issues a qualification:
The BWF has developed guidelines ... to ensure that it will not in any way discriminate against any religious or other beliefs and respects women. Players will continue to wear shorts if they wish but simply wear a skirt over the top of the shorts, as is often practiced already by some players.
Just as women living under conditions of Islamist fascism can wear god-displeasing garments under the mandatory full-body wraps that (somehow) shield their hideousness from the eyes of Allah, so too female badminton competitors can wear what they wish so long as they put a skirt over it. After all, the statement notes, some women are already freely choosing to wear two layers, the outer of which is a skirt. Problem? What problem?

Fuck you, BWF. Or as Ophelia Benson puts it:
Well why stop there then – if it’s a matter of marketing, why not make a new rule saying women have to wear makeup and long flowing hair and V-neck halter tops and stiletto heels along with their skirts? Why not tell them to stop playing and do a pole dance instead?
One of the ways sporting events expand in performance and appeal is by innovation in equipment and clothing. If you doubt this, try running five miles in a pair of Converse All-Stars, and then try it again in a pair of ASICS or Brooks you can pick up in any specialty running store today. As amazing as he was, ponder what Jim Brown would have been able to do with modern day shoulder pads, helmet, and face mask.

To ossify the selection of garments for women badminton players is not only sexist, it is a short-sighted hindrance to the growth of the sport.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Dumb or Orwellian?

Isn't it funny how Ron Paul has to so carefully explain the idea of freedom and limited government to an audience of rabidly self-styled "pro-freedom" and "anti-government" Republican conservatives in South Carolina?

Isn't it funny? No. It's not funny that the American conservative movement, as a strong rule, either doesn't understand its own rhetoric, or is actively subverting the meaning of its rhetoric. They're either incredibly badly informed or Orwellian.

On this small point we agree: on the whole, Ron Paul would not make a good president.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A List (Naughty Bits Omitted)

  • Finally! We can feel free to mock, ridicule, and belittle the Americans who fought in World War I because the last American veteran of that conflict has died at 110. Doing some quick back-of-the-envelope math and adjusting for increases in medical know-how, I calculate that we'll be similarly free to mock, ridicule, and belittle American veterans of today's war by the year never.

  • What happens when glass is heated to 2300 degrees Fahrenheit? Can it be stretched like taffy and made into all kinds of improbable shapes? Does it cause terrible burns and cuts if you aren't careful with it? Yes and yes. The image at the top is Tacoma's Museum of Glass as seen from the outside, where they routinely do things like this taffy-stretching seen at the right. It's quite a thing to see.

  • I hold out the possibility that I am underthinking, but I accuse Pamela Gerloff of overthinking things:
    Plenty of people will argue that Osama Bin Laden did not respect the sanctity of others' lives. To that I would ask, "What relevance does that have to our own actions?" One aspect of being human is our ability to choose our own behavior; more specifically, our capacity to return good for evil, love for hate, dignity for indignity. While Osama Bin Laden was widely considered to be the personification of evil, he was nonetheless a human being. A more peaceable response to his killing would be to mourn the many tragedies that led up to his violent death and the thousands of violent deaths that occurred in the attempt to eliminate him from the face of the Earth; and to feel compassion for anyone who, because of their role in the military or government, American or otherwise, has had to play a role in killing another.
    As for AOL Keyword "sanctity," the example of Osama Bin Laden is a tidy illustration the limitations of the "sanctity" or (another AOL Keyword) "dignity" of human life. I have no quarrel with recognizing that Bin Laden was a human being -- he was; nor do I have anything to say against mourning the massive suffering and death associated with the layered conflicts that culminated in his death a few days ago.

    Loaded words like "dignity" and "sanctity" do not cover it. We are obligated to draw distinctions that are more finely-tuned than the presence or absence of human DNA. The unavoidable truth is that some individuals act in ways that forfeit any rightful claim to go on living, and in my judgment, Osama Bin Laden deserved to die. This is to say his death, even his violent and ignoble death, is a gain for human civilization -- that a properly measured reverence for humankind calls for a just and merited reaction, which is not necessarily "the most peaceable" reaction.

    What Bin Laden's death means in terms of "closure" I will leave to the fanciers of that loaded AOL Keyword except to say it sounds a little too much like people are taking this too personally. Perhaps it sounds odd given what I said above, but I don't think so: this is not personal.
  • Notwithstanding my first bullet point, I have nothing against the veterans of WWI except to say they're comically old.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011

    Needle Touching Down

    Today I am off to sunny Tacoma, Washington, a city with half an airport, a dome, a zoo, and several car dealerships.

    It must have more to recommend it since, if nothing else, Neko Case wrote at least one complete song about it, and an even better song -- one of her best, which is saying something -- that mentions nearby Spanaway.

    The image of the snake with the man wrapped around his nose has little or nothing to do with the song in question, "The Needle Has Landed" --

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Points Scored

    Hey internets, I was hoping to find some cheap political points-scoring over the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Is such a thing available?

    Looky! Literally the first paragraph of the first item I found on The Corner has some of what I am after:

    In ordering the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hiding spot, President Obama evinced a military-minded approach to the War on Terror, former attorney general Alberto Gonzales tells National Review Online. “He did not send the F.B.I. into Pakistan to retrieve Osama bin Laden as if he were a common criminal,” Gonzales observes. “He sent our military because this is a war. And Osama bin Laden is a military target; he’s a military leader.”
    You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall, because this is war, declares dauntless warrior Alberto Gonzales, who, it seems, has bounced back from the catastrophic loss of memory that so bedeviled his latter years in the Bush-Cheney administration. Why is anyone, even The Corner, asking him for input? I can't recall.

    I am neither fair nor balanced, but if I were, I might note how little scrolling I needed before locating points-scoring on the left-liberal Balloon Juice blog:
    Multiple news outlets are reporting that the United States military killed that motherfucker—and on the anniversary of Bush’s famed “Missioned Accomplished” photo op.

    Not a bad week for our Kenyan-in-Chief.
    Zing! Or whatever.

    What are the chances that Andrew Sullivan sees this development as another happy culmination of Obama's 11-dimensional long-game chess strategy? If you guessed anything less than 100%, it's time to recalibrate:
    Obama killed Osama. A few tea-party fanatics will have their heads explode. And the Big Lie that Obama is somehow not a strong president is debunked - because strength doesn't actually mean being inflammatory on Fox News, it means exercizing patience, quiet and resolve to get what you want.
    The squabbling and points-scoring is predictable, and even when truthful, skates by fecklessly. The essential and good thing is that Bin Laden is dead.

    Sunday, May 1, 2011

    In Defense of Sausage Fests

    Amanda Marcotte offers two reasons why The Shawshank Redemption enjoys the highest ratings of any film on IMDB:

    2) Mediocrity rules ... I actually feel bad dinging the movie for these, because in a way, it's unfair. "Shawshank" isn't a mediocre movie---the acting, the script, the directing are all pretty damn good. But it still rises to the top for the same reason that mediocrity rules. It plays it safe. And not having female characters in it is one of the most important ways it plays it safe ... The idea behind "mediocrity rules" is that true greatness always runs the risk of offense, or at least turning people off. For one thing, greatness is innovative, which means that you lose huge portions of the audience that wants a warm bath of not being challenged at all ... "Shawshank" doesn't have anything in it that's going to chase people out the door. It appeals to the smart and the stupid alike, the liberal and the conservative. Everyone can get behind the story of a man redeeming himself after the system grinds him down unfairly. It's set in the past and outside of the world, minimizing the chance of referring to anything that triggers people's distaste. There's nothing polarizing about it ...
    I have no interesting disagreements with any of that -- it's true to say there's little in this story that dares to divide the audience by taking a controversial stand, as by asking the audience to accept an evil character or reject a good character. An uninteresting qualification would be to observe how the film's broad acceptance testifies to the fact that compelling film and challenging film bear no necessary relationship.

    What about Marcotte's first reason?
    1) It's got no female characters ... I would argue that its lack of any real female characters contributes to the feeling that it's safe ... Women are polarizing figures in our society in general, because of the eternal rule of the patriarchy that a woman is never doing anything right. Everyone is eager to tear at women and judge women and examine women closely for perceived slights against what they personally believe a woman should be like. There's also the feminist urge to examine women closely to see if they're rising above the gender trap. Simply by being Other, women capture attention and controversy. There's a reason that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin both are more polarizing figures than their male counterparts. Putting a woman onscreen causes the audience to start dividing against itself. But "Shawshank" is a bunch of dudes. This contributes to the non-challenging aspect of it. Even the rape somehow gets removed from the toxic gender norms that create rape (and therefore allow men to become victims) by the magic lady erasure of the movie. [emphasis mine]
    Um ... no. First, off hand, I can't think of another film that observes so explicitly that rape arises not from sexual desire but from the desire to dominate, violate, and demean, a claim that I would expect Marcotte to embrace.

    Second, while I can agree that the removal of women from a story can simplify it with respect to several well-worn strands of human conflict -- for starters, all the conflicts and tensions among men and women -- I would add that narrative fiction necessarily simplifies human experience in the service of story and theme. Quick -- how many films or novels show the details of food preparation and intake? What story of valor lingers on the tendency of terrified warriors to shit themselves, as the king of The Game of Thrones comments in episode three of the HBO series? What does The Stranger tell us about Meursault's view of his father, and what does Crime and Punishment tell us about Raskolnikov's teenage years?

    The only question is what will be highlighted and what will be hidden, and the most that can be said of a story that features all men and no (or incidental) women is that it has made a particular narrative and thematic choice -- the same choice that other stories have made, none of them necessarily presenting tidy, accessible, crowd-pleasing worlds at that: Frankenstein, Moby Dick, 12 Angry Men, and There Will Be Blood spring to mind as examples of complex, challenging sausage fests.

    Men and men's perspectives are overrepresented in film, and unchallenging films far outnumber thoughtful ones. These are problems, but they are distinct problems.