Friday, December 25, 2009

The True Meaning of Christmas

You know, with all the commercialism of the holidays, sometimes I fear that the true meaning of Christmas gets forgotten. So it's good to take time out from our busy holiday season, and remember why we celebrate on Christmas day.

So gather around children, and I'll tell you the story of the very first Christmas.
You see kids, even after Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, people still wanted to celebrate the pagan holidays around the Winter Solstice. And can you blame them? It was just too much fun. The gift-giving, the tree decorating, the festivals of lights, and the coming together of families for the holiday season.

Since the Church wasn't successful at entirely banning these activities, they decided to co-opt them by creating a Christian holiday at the same time. And so, on December 25th each year, the Church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Even though nobody really knew the exact date that Christ was born. And even though birthday celebrations were not a part of Christian or Jewish cultures at the time.

And so, Christmas was created. And it took all the best parts of all the other winter festivals. For example, gift giving was taken from the Roman holiday Saturnalia. The green colors and lights come from the Roman New Year. The Christmas tree and Yule log both come from Druid celebrations in the Winter Solstice, and pre-date Christmas by centuries.

Centuries later, the Christians then decided to become really thin skinned about this holiday. They would complain whenever shops didn't say, "Merry Christmas" loudly enough, and they decided that this time of year it was their right to shove their religion down everyone's throats, because they thought they had created the whole idea of a winter festival.

So please, as we all become busy in the holiday hustle and bustle, take some time out of your day to remember the true meaning of Christmas, and the reason for the season. And don't worry. Although it appears that the days may be getting shorter and shorter, with enough lights and greenery I'm sure we can propitiate the sun god.


If I was ever going to write a children's book explaining the meaning of Christmas, I imagine it would go something like that.

If this sounds a bit cranky, then maybe I've been paying too much attention to the religious right commentators this month (I've been able to track them through the magic of the internet). And I saw one too many comments on Facebook asking everyone not to forget the real reason we celebrate Christmas.

Although I often blog about how much I hate Christmas, I guess I don't really hate it all that much per se. The time spent with family is something I enjoy, and something I really miss over here in Japan.

In fact, as the history indicates, perhaps every culture does need some sort of Winter festival to get us through the dark cold days. In Japan, for example, the main winter celebration is New Year's, which takes on all the significance here that Christmas does in the West.

But man, what really burns my buttons is the cultural war aspect of the holiday season (as I've blogged about before). This is the time of year when certain people feel that not quite enough attention has been paid to their particular brand of religion, and they get really whiny and touchy about it.

You know, even growing up in the church, I always thought that Christmas was kind of a cruel bait and switch. They bait you by getting you really excited about the decorations, the food, the presents, the school holidays, and cookies, et cetera. And then you get dragged into Church, where you're told you should feel guilty because you've been focusing too much on these things, and you haven't been thinking about "the true meaning of Christmas."
So, wanting to be a good little kid, you try and direct your thoughts in the appropriate direction, and meditate on the Christmas story and the little baby in the manger. But then the following Sunday, you are reminded that you haven't been focusing enough on "the true meaning of Christmas". So you try even harder to focus on the story of the baby in the manger. But then the following advent Sunday...
Well, you get the idea. How much is it possible to focus on this one story throughout the whole month? I mean, what do they expect from these little kids. We get it already, we're focusing on Jesus's birth, lay off a little bit.

Well, what would religion be without some guilt over not being quite pious enough.
But this is all within the Church. When the Church goes on the attack against secularists, that's when it really gets ugly.
And that's when it becomes part of the culture wars to even try and acknowledge in public that not everyone who celebrates Christmas is a Christian, or that other faiths have different holidays during this season.

Since I waited until Christmas day to post this, I guess I missed the entire Christmas season. But keep it in the back of your mind for next year. When someone tells you to remember the true meaning of Christmas, feel free to give them a little history lesson.

Link of the Day
Class War Driving People From Defiance to Compliance

Friday, December 18, 2009


(Movie Review)

This is one of those movies I knew I had to see eventually. It was recommended to me by a number of people, and it seems to always pop up in any bar-room discussion about religion. (Bork also wrote a few words about it on his blog--link here).

It has not, as of yet, hit the video stores in Japan. Possibly it never will. But I was feeling in a movie watching mood the other day, so I did what you always do when you can't find a movie in the video store--I watched a copy on-line. Full movie is available here on youtube--at least at the time of this linking.

As always, when reviewing a movie like this that everyone else has already seen and written about, I'm not going to find much new to say here. But for what it's worth, here is my own personal reaction.
I like Bill Maher. I don't always agree with him 100% of the time (he has some libertarian leanings which tweak my leftist sensibilities), but I agree with him most of the time. And I think he possesses that rare combination of being funny, witty, and intelligent. Although I've been removed from American TV for most of the past 10 years, Maher is somebody I've followed through the internet and youtube.

Therefore, one has high expectations for a movie which matches Maher's humor and wit to a juicy philosophical topic like religion. Sit back, pour out the lattes, and let the pondering begin.

However, instead of a well structured discussion, the movie's structure seems to throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks.

A quick five minutes over here to laugh at some rednecks in a rural church, another 2 minutes over here to laugh at the guy who believes Jonah actually survived inside the whale, 2 minutes to laugh at Scientology, a quick few jabs at the Mormons, over to the orthodox Jew, the Cannabis Ministry in Amsterdam, et cetera.

The movie's focus might have been improved if Maher had limited himself to one of these topics. The obvious choice would be the dominant form of of religion in America: mainstream Protestantism. Of course then the Christians would have whined about how he was picking on them, but those people are never happy. (Having grown up in protestant circles, I'm well aware of the fact that these people have a big persecution complex, despite the fact that they represent the dominant philosophy in American culture.)

The problem with criticizing religion in broad strokes (as I mentioned in my review of Dawkin's book) is that religion in all it's various forms is too much of a moving target. You can go over and have a few laughs about the die hard creationists, but that ignores all the more moderate Christians who believe in evolution.
Christopher Hitchens (if you watch his various videos on line, as I do) will occasionally mention this in the talks he gives. "After debating several Christians about my book, I realize I should really have written a different book for every single religious person out there, because no two of them seem to believe exactly the same thing." (Paraphrasing-but something close to that).

However perhaps here is where the title of this movie comes into play. Dawkins and Hitchens are both hard core atheists who scoff at any faith of any kind. Maher is more of an agnostic, who goes after organized religion.

Human beings are essentially rational creatures, and if left to themselves they will look for ways to make their own religion as rational as possible. Thus the various moderate intellectuals within each particular faith can occasionally make some degree of sense.
But if you look at any organized structural institution of religion, you can find plenty that is ridiculous. Organized religion is filled with people who claim to speak for God, and tell you that they know with certainty what God wants and doesn't want. Any organized system of religion which seeks to recruit other people into a belief in something inherently irrational is ridiculous.
Faith in a God may not be so crazy, but when institutions extrapolate this to believe that they alone have insight into the mind of God, and have the power to create rules on every aspect of human behavior and sexuality, and then try and press these rules on everyone else, then you have a subject ripe for satire.

So if it seems that Maher is just going after the low hanging fruit by laughing at the fundamentalists, that's what I would say in his defense.

Most of the movie is not so much a well built argument as just Maher laughing at religious people. But with a subject like religious fundamentalism, perhaps the only thing left to do is just to hold it up to ridicule and laugh at it. It's not like you're going to have a logical discussion with these people based on rational thought and the scientific evidence.

Still, one can't help wishing the film had more to offer. As entertaining as it was to see Bill Maher travel the world to laugh at what people believed, it wasn't enough material to justify a full length film. That, and I'm not sure Maher brought in anything new or noteworthy to the discussion. He's hardly the first comedian to attack religious dogma, and he doesn't have a lot of groundbreaking material. Lots of times he will simply listen to what someone believes and then respond with, "Oh come on, you don't really believe that do you?" And then he'll chuckle a bit, and we cut to the next scene. Admittedly, this simple laughing at religion does a lot to deflate it, or highlight the ridiculousness of it, but the audience has a right to expect more.

This film will no doubt tweak the noses of a lot of religious people, and give them something new to complain about, but it doesn't make you think about anything you haven't thought about before.

One wishes he would have narrowed his focus, or squared off against someone capable of going toe to toe with him and forcing him to expand his arguments--because if you watch his show, he's a smart guy. But he almost needs someone to challenge him to bring out all his wit to the fullest potential.
I also suspect that some of these conversations might have existed at one point, but have been left on the cutting room floor. Maher at times appears to be talking with intelligent people, but only small sound bites from these conversations appear in the film. If so, it is a pity the editing couldn't have been better.

...Well, as you can tell, I've got mixed feelings about this movie. I appreciate what it tried to do, I wish it had done a better job of doing it.
The best thing I can say for this film is the speech at the end, when Bill Maher tried to tied all the themes of the movie together. To get the full effect it should probably be watched with the visuals intercut to illustrate the various points. But I thought it was still good enough to justify reprinting here in it's entirety.

"Plain fact is religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people. By irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken. George Bush prayed a lot about Iraq, but he didn't learn a lot about it.
Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction.
Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says, "I'm willing, Lord! I'll do whatever you want me to do!" Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.
And anyone who tells you they know, they just know, what happens when you die, I promise you, you don't. How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not.
The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong. This is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you comes at a horrible price.
If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you'd resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife, for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end here, or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let's remember what the real problem was. We learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That's it. Grow up or die."

I'd agree with a lot of that. But let me just add this note.

Part of the arrogance of religion is the idea that everyone who doesn't believe the same thing as you is going directly to hell. It doesn't matter if they're intentions or actions are good, if their doctrines of faith are misguided then they're eternally damned.

There's perhaps a parallel to this among the new atheists. Anyone who doesn't share exactly the same intellectual outlook they do is not only misguided, but evil.
(And here I'm addressing only to Maher, but also Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Penn Jillette, all of whom accuse religious moderates as being just as bad as religious extremists.)

Joining a religion isn't the same as joining a political party. Most of us don't join a religion, we are born into it. People struggle with it their whole lives. Some people grow out of it, but some people are never able to completely break from it. But all of us humans are stumbling around in the dark, confused about the meaning of life, and most of us are trying our best to do good.

Every religion has violent elements and peaceful elements. If someone takes the religion that they have inherited, and seeks to remove the violent elements and instead make it into a peaceful philosophy, I have no problem with them. If they are using their religion to try and make the world a better place, and as long as they don't force it onto other people, I'm on their side.

I believe the good a person does in this world outweighs their intellectual beliefs about the nature of the universe. Ultimately, I would feel much more comfortable around a liberation theologian than I would around a fascist agnostic, even if I believe the liberation theologian is misguided in their view of cosmos.

So I wish Maher and his friends would lay off the moderates. But I do believe they are right on the bigger point. When people try to force their religion on us, or when they use their religion to justify violence (whether it be the Islamic Jihadists or the Christian Just War Theory) then we need to push back hard.

Link of the Day
When Elites Fail

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

(Movie Review)

Before I get started, quick recap of my Harry Potter related blogging to date.
Book Reviews:
* Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,
* Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ,
* Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and
* Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
(The first 3 books in the series I read (or listened to rather) before I had started up my book review project.

Previous Movie Reviews:
* A review of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" here,
* Some thoughts on the Goblet of Fire here,
* A brief mention of "The Prisoner of Azkaban" here,
and everything else was before I started regularly reviewing movies on this blog.

Although now that I've gone to the trouble of linking to all my past reviews, I have to admit upon re-reading them that none of them are really all that great. Well, they were first impressions, straight off the cuff, and you can take them for what they are worth. As with this review.

At the risk of repeating myself too much from my previous reviews, the whole "Harry Potter" franchise is a bit of an interesting cultural phenomenon.
The movies make enormously huge money for the Hollywood studios, (this one broke records (W)). Which is quite a feat when you consider that none of the movies are really all that good--at least standing alone.

Don't misunderstand me, they're very faithful adaptations of the books, and act as a nice tribute to them. But if you compare them to block-buster movies of the past, "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" or what have you, then it's obvious by comparison that in the Harry Potter movies the pacing is all wrong, the plot isn't streamlined enough, and the climaxes are in all the wrong places.

The experience of watching these movies is a lot different than, say, "Star Wars", which was deliberately designed as a tour-de-force of cinematic story telling.

In other words, these are movies that are based on books, and they feel like movies that are based on books. But even though they're not great movies, the books have become such a cultural phenomenon that even non Harry Potter fans feel obliged to see the movie just to find out what all the fuss is about.
As I did with the first 4 movies, until I finally got curious enough to check out the books.

So the buzz from the books brings people to the movies, the movies convert new people to the books, the buzz behind the books gets greater, and the cycle continues.

[Speaking of the books, I've been re-listening to a couple of Harry Potter audio books this past week. It strikes me that the brilliance of this series is that takes many elements usually reserved for adult literature and makes them accessible for younger readers, such as careful plotting, character development, and an eye for detail. And perhaps most importantly, conversations that flow naturally, and the major plot points of the story are always revealed in dialogue rather told through the narrators voice. This is a big difference than a lot of the children's books I remember from my youth, where the narrator's omnipresent voice always directed everything.
Of course the movie doesn't have the luxury of spending time on all these things.]

All that being said, I liked this movie. It did a good job of condensing the story, and bringing it to the screen.

At 2 and a half hours, it felt a little long to sit through, and yet when it ended I couldn't help but feel sorry for all the things they cut out. (Well, such is always the case with movies based on books.)

For example:
These Harry Potter movies have assembled a very impressive cast of actors, it's a shame that as the story progresses each of them get so little screen time. The child actors who portray the Hogwarts students (now almost all grown into adults, but still passable as teenagers) do such a good job, but many of them have just been reduced to brief cameos as the story progresses.

The adult actors are even more brilliant, and even more criminally underused. Alan Rickman is perfect as Snape (and in fact, I believe he manages to bring more life to the character than is in the book) but it seems that in the past few movies we only get to see brief glimpses of him, even as he becomes more and more important to the plot.
Robbie Coltran, Ralph Fiennes, Helen Bonham Carter, and so on, all do such a great job it's a pity we get to see so little of them.

As for the plot and pacing:
The beginning of this movie did a good job of setting the tone, reintroducing us to all the characters, and establishing the story. Even though they had a lot of material to cover, they did this in a way that didn't feel rushed.

Unfortunately, it's the end of the movie that suffers as a result of this, where key plot points that should have had a more dramatic reveal are just rushed through. (I know movies are written in advance and then typically shot out of order, but one almost gets the impression watching this thing of the production staff saying "Oh no, we only have 30 minutes left to conclude this thing. Quick, rush through everything else!")

There were also a few missed notes.
The destruction of the bridge at the beginning of the movie was an event whose significance was explained in the book, but not in the movie. In the movie we just see the bridge being destroyed, and then it's on to the next scene. I know this provided a bit of excitement for the opening, but it's probably something they should have cut out since it had no relation to the rest of the movie.

Other events are underplayed.
The identity of the "Half Blood Prince" was a reveal that was a dramatic point in the book, but ended up being just mentioned in an off hand way at the end of the movie.

The action sequences in these Harry Potter movies always seem to suffer a bit, and in the last couple movies at least have just consisted of people firing wands back and forth at each other. I know it's a movie about wizards, but with a little bit of creativity in the choreographing I think they could have made these a lot more exciting.
The battle between Harry and Malfoy in the bathroom, for example, was rather lackluster. Along the same lines, the ending of this scene, in which Harry, experimenting with a new spell, horribly injured Malfoy, was a dramatic point in the book, but seemed underplayed in the movie.

The climax of this movie is a rather bizarre scene in which Dumbledore has to drink an entire potion. It is straight out of the book, but the first time I read the book I remember thinking, "That's a bit of an odd scene. It may work in a book, but it's going to seem strange in a movie. They should probably try and down play this when they film it."

On the other hand, the book describes a huge battle at the end which the movie completely cuts out.
I know these movies have a lot of ground to cover, but you would think a movie that is aiming for a summer block-buster crowd would want to include more of these spectacular action sequences, not cut them out.

I suppose it's to the credit of the story telling power that these Harry Potter movies have turned into such a huge franchise without even needing a big action finish at the end. But personally, I felt the ending was a bit boring, and I would have gladly put up with another 10 minutes or so to get a better climax.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Central America

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

(Movie Review)

Since there's no movie theaters in my town, I always have to wait for everything to come out on video. And so with this movie as well I waited for it to come out on video. Despite the fact that my long history with Star Trek might make you think that I would been first in line opening day, I waited a few months for this to come out on video, just like everything else.

Those of you who know me well know that I have a bit of a history with Star Trek. When writing up a Star Trek review, the question is whether I go into all that baggage, or whether I just give the abridged version and skip to the film itself.
After some consideration, I've decided to go with the long version. Because I figure, if you can't be self-indulgent on your own blog, then where can you be self-indulgent? So in addition to reviewing this movie, I'm going to go into my history with the series, some of my thoughts on the franchise as a whole, and the standard geeky questions about continuity. If you don't want to read the whole thing, I've put in bold topic headlines so you can skip around.

Starting with:
My History with Star Trek

Although - I - have - mentioned - "Star Trek" - in - passing - several - times - on - this - blog - in - the - past - few - years, I've never before gone into my history with it before.
I was first introduced to Star Trek on a family vacation when I was 9 years old. We watched "Star Trek 4" in the hotel one evening, and in the space of 2 hours I went from "never even heard of it" to "fell in love with it immediately."
And that's where the obsession began.
Soon I found out that there were other movies in the "Star Trek" series. And that there was an animated cartoon (being re-run on Nickelodeon at the time) . And then I discovered the original TV show was being re-run twice a week on my local TV station.

By the end of 4th grade I was as into "Star Trek" as it was possible to be. I not only watched the show obsessively twice a week, but in the hours when it wasn't being shown I read everything I could about it. I memorized all sorts of "Star Trek" trivial facts. I read so much of the "Star Trek" pocket book novels (W) that my concerned mom eventually forbid me from reading two of them in a row. (I had to read at least one non-Star Trek book in order to get permission to read another Star Trek book).
I wrote fan mail to the entire cast of the original series. When we were assigned in 4th grade to write a short report on a topic of our choosing, I wrote this huge report on Star Trek several pages longer than any of my classmates. In fact for the next few years all my school projects revolved around "Star Trek". When I graduated middle school, my year book caricature said that I would always be known for my joint love of wolves and Star Trek. ("pointy eared creatures" was the common theme the year book staff found between the two).
I read the comic books, I collected the action figures, I played the video games...Well, you get the picture.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" came out when I was in 5th grade. By this time I had already been a die hard original fan for over a year. (Which doesn't seem like much in adult time, but for a kid that's an eternity). And like a lot of original fans, it took me a while to warm up to the new version. At first I didn't care for it. Then I tried to watch it for a while to try and make myself like it. Then I went back to not caring about it. Then I stopped watching it for a few years.
But like any franchise worth its salt, they make you feel like you're missing out on something if you don't follow the entire thing. There were an increasing amount of tie- ins between the shows. For example, when one of Worf's ancestors had a part in "Star Trek VI", I felt like I hadn't been doing my duty as a Trekkie because I hadn't kept up on Worf and the Next Generation gang. So eventually I came back to it.
And by this time, about the 5th season, the Next Generation had finally gotten over it's initially awkwardness, and had started getting good. And so I now set about trying to catch up on all the Next Generation seasons I had missed, and the obsession was now extended to both shows.

Shortly thereafter Deep Space Nine came out, and then Voyager began, and I was trying to be obsessive about 4 shows at once. (Two of them in reruns by this time, but still on the air).

And then abruptly, shortly before graduating high school, I just dropped the whole thing.
By this time (fall of 1995, about) the franchise was already beginning to go down hill. But I don't think it was the decline in quality that got to me. I think I had just outgrown it.

I was (somewhat belatedly perhaps) beginning to realize that being a huge Star Trek fan was not a productive use of my life. I had also started watching "Saturday Night Live", and had realized (again, somewhat belatedly) that huge Star Trek fans like me were not very popular with the girls, and that if I ever wanted to become popular or get a girlfriend this was a habit I should probably get rid of.
But more than that, I realized (once again, belatedly) that there was more to life than obsessing about a TV show.

I felt like I had wasted my youth, and I was determined not to repeat the same mistake at college. I knew my natural sedentary instincts were to just veg out in front of the TV if I allowed myself, so I didn't allow myself. I was very strict with myself about not watching TV or movies during the school year. Only reading and studying that was absolutely necessary for my classes, and the rest of my time must be devoted to being social.

Initially, I decided that I could watch movies with friends as a social activity, but couldn't watch them by myself. However by the end of Freshman year, I decided this was too big of a loop hole. The guys down at the end of the hall had movie night every single night, and I was wasting too much of my precious youth just sitting on their couch watching videos.

Therefore for the rest of my college career, whenever someone would turn on the TV or pop in a video, I would abruptly get up and leave the room. I was extremely strict on this, and there would be no exceptions. If we went to someone's house for the night, I would bring homework with me just in case it ended up being a video night. And while the rest of the gang was watching the video in the living room, I would study on the stairwell.

Eventually I extended this prohibition against TV to include all forms of passive activity. What was the difference between watching a two hour movie and a two hour play? So the school play was out. Music concerts were out. Lectures and talks not strictly required for my classes were out. And church was out.

It was a very strict policy that was to result in lots of arguments with friends over the next few years. Brett was very upset when I refused to go and watch him perform at dance guild sophomore year. He was also appalled when Elie Wiesel came to speak at campus, and I refused to go see him. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see someone like this, I can't believe you're not going," he said. We argued about it all week, and then eventually he went with out me. (Although when the gang got back to the dorms, Brett got flack from everyone else for sleeping soundly through the whole speech.)

And, although at any other college campus it might not have been an issue, at Calvin my refusal to go to Church led to no end of arguments, debates, and even a few botched romances (there were a couple girls at the time who liked me, but refused to date me as long as I was not going to church). Eventually I just solved the whole thing by creating my own church which, instead of passively sitting in pews, was entirely based on active conversation and participation.

It was over extreme, sure, in retrospect maybe slightly crazy. But given my sedentary temperament, the danger was that I could have spent my college years zoned out in front of the TV screen, and I'm glad I at least avoided that.

But of course college dorms are not real life. In college one never runs out of distractions. There's always more studying that needs to be done, and there's always some sort of sophomoric shenanigans going on down the hall.
Now that I'm out living by myself, without a very active social life, I find myself slipping back into my old sedentary habits, and spend an embarrassing amount of time just watching movies and reviewing them on this blog. Despite my best efforts, I've relapsed back into my geek nature, and it's probably something I'll spend the rest of my life struggling with.

Anyway, obviously I've gotten slightly off topic here. Back to "Star Trek".

Thoughts on the Franchise
Most people in my generation, if they were Trek fans, usually were fans of "the Next Generation" primarily, and the original series maybe secondly. As I've just mentioned, I was the reverse, but I'll start with the new Trek.

Since I dropped "Star Trek" in 1995, I never saw the end of DS9 or Voyager. And I never watched any of "The Enterprise" series. That came out after I was in Japan, so I couldn't have seen that anyway.

Of course, these days you can watch anything over the internet, but you know what, even though I waste tons of time watching videos off the internet every week, I just can't sit through those new Star Trek episodes. I've tried to watch "Enterprise", and I just can't make it through an episode.

Even "The Next Generation" I have a hard time sitting through these days. It just seems really bland. The characters are bland. The episodes are, well, okay I guess, but nothing I really get excited about.
And although some characters do develop slowly over time, nothing much changes from one episode to another. So you're never really in much suspense over how an episode is going to turn out.

Anytime you go back and revisit something from your childhood, and it's not the same as you remember it, the obvious question is: "well, what changed? Did I just grow up, or did the culture change?"

Perhaps "the Next Generation" is one of those shows that is a victim of its own success. It helped pave the way for a television science fiction revival, but now it just can't compete with the TV shows it inspired. If you compare "the Next Generation" with shows, like "Lost", "Battlestar Galatica", "Firefly", "Heroes", et cetera--shows where there's actually a story going on and things actually happen--"the Next Generation" is incredibly bland and boring by comparison.

I mean the show is alright, I guess. There were some decent episodes, don't get me wrong. But it's nothing you would want to rearrange your whole life around and dedicate yourself to. And yet that's precisely what Trekkies like me used to do back in the 90s.

As for the original series:
The original series doesn't hold up very well from an adult perspective. But no wonder I fell in love with this show when I was 9. What kid wouldn't love it? Every week a new adventure on a new planet, battling exotic aliens or space monsters. And almost every episode ended in some sort of bare knuckled fist fight with that infamous Star Trek fight music playing overtop.
Plus, the creative science fiction plots were just right to engage the mind of a 9 year old kid. Yes, there were some stinkers in there, but the better shows really did make you think, at least for a kid.

As a kid, I never even noticed all the flaws in this show that seem so obvious to me now.
I never noticed how ridiculously primitive all those flashing lights and manual switches looked on the bridge of the Enterprise. I never realized how bad the special effects were. And somehow (although now I wonder how I ever missed it) I never noticed that all of the fight scenes were incredibly poorly choreographed, the punches were obviously not connecting, and the jump kick Kirk would always do was just blatantly ridiculous.

Well, of course kids by definition are less critical than adults.

And perhaps the time period was a factor as well. "Star Trek" was only 20 years old when I started watching it. It's doubled in age since then, and perhaps the discrepancy between 60s TV and modern TV has become so much more pronounced that even kids can realize it.

For that matter, perhaps the fact that my own TV viewing was so restricted made me easier to impress than my classmates. Before "Star Trek", the only TV I was allowed to watch was reruns of old 60s era Disney movies on the Disney Channel. The idea of a science fiction adventure show was a real breath of fresh air to me. But my classmates, who grew up on "The A-Team", "Knight Rider", "Miami Vice" and other 80s adventure shows that I had not been allowed to watch were not so easily impressed. This may explain why, despite my repeated efforts to evangelize my classmates from 4th grade on, not a single one of them ever became a fan of the original Star Trek, and many of them openly expressed their contempt for it. (Some of them liked "the Next Generation", but no one wanted anything to do with the original show.)

Well, you're only 9 years old once, and so I'll never get another chance to view this series through the eyes of a child. So even though I don't know what kids today might think of it, all I can say is that for me as an early pre-teen it was absolutely amazing.
But I certainly wouldn't call it adult entertainment. Besides its nostalgic value, it's mainly interesting to me now as a time piece from another era of television.

Anyway, I think I've indulged myself enough. Onto the main review:

The Main Review

There was a time when the idea of rebooting the whole Star Trek universe and starting over would have absolutely horrified me. But at this point in the franchise history it seems like, "Well, whatever they do, it can't get any worse than the crap they've been doing the last couple years." The franchise seems dead anyway, and the once die hard fans seem to have all drifted off with it. (At least that's my impression. Maybe I've just been out of the country for too long, but the phenomenon of the obsessive Star Trek fan seems to belong to another era).

So, let the rebooting begin. Show us what you can do, mainstream Hollywood movie machine.

It's a bit difficult to critique a "Star Trek" film because a lot depends on what lens you want to look at it through. Geek culture in the US is perhaps defined by applying adult criticism to children's entertainment (such as superhero comic books, and space operas like Star Trek and Star Wars.)

When I re-watch the old Star Trek films or TV shows now, I notice tons of plot holes and bad science. I never noticed these when I was 9 years old.

So for the moment put aside all your adult criticism of this movie's plot, and just imagine watching it as a 9 year old boy.

From that perspective, this would become one of the greatest movies ever!

It might seem like that is giving the movie a free pass (and we'll get to some of its flaws in a minute) but remember that creating a fun and exciting movie is no easy achievement. You've got to be good to get the chemistry just right, and these guys are good. The action sequences are great, the humor is mixed in really well, and the pacing of this movie is spot on.

I got a bit of flack on Whisky's blog (link here) for not seeing this movie on the big screen. And, although I still maintain that no movie is worth sacrificing your whole day to get to a decent theater and back, I completely understand what they mean now after watching this film. There are several spectacular space battles which really deserve the big screen. I can only imagine how awesome this movie must have have been in the theaters. I would recommend everyone to see it on the big screen if you have the opportunity but, unfortunately, if you're reading this review you've already missed your chance.

The re-imagining of these characters was fun too. All of them were good. Some were exactly spot on, some were just close. But the great thing is that this is a completely new timeline, so the characters don't have to be the same ones we grew up with. This isn't the old James T. Kirk, this is James T. Kirk as he would have been if he had been raised by an abusive step-father.
And, assuming the butterfly effect would have rippled through changes in the whole universe, it means every character has the freedom to go in a slightly different direction. And some of the different directions they chose to go in are pretty interesting, such as the Uhura-Spock romance.

Plus having Leonard Nimoy back to play the original Spock is a nice bonus.

However, as Whisky stated in his review (link here) this movie is just the set-up. How well this movie will stand the test of time is somewhat dependent on where it goes from here. The entire movie is just a build-up to re-establishing the crew of the enterprise, so once we finally get to the ending where everyone is assembled, it feels like it's just the beginning.

How well this new crew will fare, what new adventures they will have, and whether they'll be able to get everyone's contract and schedules renegotiated for all the mandatory sequels remains to be seen.
The film does feel like a pilot for a new TV series, but it's not. It's trying to reboot the movie franchise. And while a TV show can support 7 characters with ease, a movie franchise is going to have difficulties juggling all these character threads. But we'll see what happens I guess.

After having read so much about how this new Star Trek was redesigned to pull in a new audience of non-Star Trek fans, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many nods to old Star Trek continuity were included.

In fact, there were so many references to old "Star Trek" continuity, I'm not sure this film did a good job of pulling in new fans at all. I can only imagine the reaction of someone who walked into this film completely cold. "Wait, what's happening now? Who are these guys? The Romul-whats? Why do they look like Vulcans? What's going on?"
If anyone out there is a non-Star Trek fan, I'd be interested in your reaction. But contrary to the hype, this story didn't strike me as newbie friendly at all.

Also, if you want to nit-pick, there's no lack of stuff to nit-pick at. I mean, sure the Grand Canyon isn't in Iowa, if we're going to be picky about that sort of thing. And alright, the villian isn't so much a character as a plot device, and sure, I will grant that his entire plan and motivation don't really seem to make a lot of sense. And the entire story seems to rely on a series of unlikely coincidences. And I'm still not entirely sure how Captian Kirk went from a suspended starfleet cadet to the captain of the whole ship. But all of these points have been raised by other reviewers, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time on them.

I don't want to let the movie off the hook for these. Every flaw in the story diminishes the movie by that much. All I'm saying is that if one were to take a careful look at any other Star Trek film or series, you would find at least as many problems.

Which brings me to:
Continuity Errors
Having already admitted that I've spent a good chunk of my life as a major Trekkie, this part of the review is mandatory. You can't have a hard core Trekkie review without some whining about continuity errors.

Of course the whole culture about continuity obsession is kind of absurd on it's face. What is it about male genes (it is usually males) who take stories that are blatently absurd like superheroes and space operas, and then obsesses about whether or not there are any inconsitencies in them?
I like Whisky's explanation that many of us develop the habit of justifying narrative inconsitencies from our Bible studies (Link here), although the less charitable explanation is that many of us do it as a substitute for having real lives.

(Via Whisky's blog, here's a link to another interesting essay about the obsession with continuity).

For the sake of brevity, I'm going to limit myself to continuity errors between this movie and the rest of the series. I'm not going to attack plot holes inside the movie itself (we'd be here all day). This is just what I notice off the top of my head, and isn't a complete or authoratative list. If you notice something I've missed, feel free to chime in on the comments.

Now, because this film rebooted and started it's own continuity, they gave themselves free reign on a lot of stuff.

I'm assuming that we're all laid back enough to allow artistic license on visual representation. That is, if some of these actors don't look exactly like their predecessors, or if the technology for special effects and computer machinery has increased since the 1960s, no one's going to get too uptight about that.

And because (as noted above) this is a new universe, the characters can even have slightly different personalities or be written in a different direction than before.

The only big problem is the concept of time travel itself.

It is hinted at that Nero's time travelling created an alternate universe. The old Star Trek Universe is still preserved out there somewhere, but a new tangent universe has gone off which we can play in without disrupting the original continuity. We get to have our cake and eat it too.

It's a neat concept, but if you're a Trek fan you know that this is not the first time the series has dealt with time travel. They do about one time travel episode per season. In fact Wikipedia has a list of all the Star Trek episodes that involve time travel (link here).
Now, to the best of my knowledge (and granted I'm not as well versed in some of the newer Trek) every single other time they've travelled back in time, the changes in the past have impacted events in the future in the current Universe. They've even done several episodes ("The City on the Edge Forever" (W) comes to mind) where the whole story revolved around trying to fix events in the past so that the future will become right again.

Well, as Whisky says "The franchise treatment of time travel remains laughably superficial, but it's much too late to correct any of that now".

Alright, leaving aside the time traveling paradoxes, there's not much to criticize because there's not much continuity they have to deal with in this alternate universe.

The only thing we're really locked into is that the respective age differences between the characters should be the same. And I think that works out. Bones is slightly older, Chekov is slightly younger, everyone else is about the same age.

I was a bit surprised to see Captain Pike as an older man, since he seems pretty young in the original "Cage" episode. But I suppose all this means is that a significant amount of time elapsed between the events of "The Cage" and "Where no Man has Gone Before".

Kirk should have an older brother somewhere around (he would have been born before Nero changed continuity) but just because we didn't explicity see him doesn't mean he's not out there somewhere I guess.

Assuming the time line didn't change until the moment Nero's ship came out the black hole and into the new time line, it's also a bit strange that Kirk was born out in space. In "Star Trek IV" he said he was born in Iowa. Technically his birth didn't happen until after the time line changed, but that would have meant even before the time line changed his mother was still heavily pregnant and out a long way from Iowa.
That's a nit-pick admittedly, but that's the kind of thing we do here.

The other major problem is the Romulans. The first time Romulans are introduced in "Star Trek", in "Balance of Terror" (W) it is established that starfleet had previously fought a war with the Romulans, but there had been no visual contact and no one had known what the Romulans looked like. It was therefore a complete shock to all (Spock included) when the Romulans were revealed to look just like Vulcans.

Ever since then, this has been a delicate line for Trek writers to walk. Romulans are somehow related to Vulcans, but the connection has to be distant enough that no one realized it for hundreds of years.

Also whether Romulans share all the Vulcan attributes, like incredible physical strength when angry, is sometimes inconsistent. (For that matter, sometimes the Trek writers appear to forget that the Vulcans themselves are supposed to have incredible strength).

In the new time line, everyone knows what Romulans look like, and everyone apparently knows they're related to the Vulcans. All this can't be explained by Nero's one attack on a starfleet vessel, however (again assuming the butterfly effect) the ripples must have somehow caused a new timeline in which starfleet and Romulan history has played out differently in intervening years when Kirk was growing up.

The only thing that really bugs me is that at one point, the communications officer says that Vulcan and Romulan dialects are so closely related that he can't distinguish between them. This strikes me as unlikely, given that, in the original time line, starfleet never figured out Romulans and Vulcans were related until they had visual contact.

But the treatment of language in "Star Trek", like time travel, is perhaps a can of worms better left unopened. I mean, then you get into the whole thing of whether the whole galaxy is speaking English all the time, or whether it simply appears that way due to the universal translator, and what is this universal translator and how does it work, and where do they keep it anyway? And how come it still appears to work after they're taken prisoner and have all their equipment confiscated?

That's all I've got for now. If you can find any other nitpicks, let me know.

Whisky, if you're reading this, sorry for linking to you so many times in a single post. What can I say, I'm a fan of your work.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Commonwealth Club Of California
Also my good friend Peter was on the radio recently talking about Michigan politics. I enjoyed listening to him, even though a lot of it was over my head. Keep up the good work Peter.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Frost / Nixon

(Movie Reviews)

Well, I'm a bit of a sucker for these political / historical dramas, so I was eagerly waiting for this movie to hit my video store in Japan. And it had gotten good reviews, so I was confident it would be good.

It's okay. Not quite as cutting and witty as I had been lead to believe, but certainly an interesting exploration of one of the most famous television interviews in history.

...Um, although I've got to admit, history buff though I am, I never even heard of the "Frost Nixon Interviews" before this movie came out. Is it just me? Did anyone else out there know about these interviews prior to this movie's release?

The Wikipedia entry on this (link here) questions the film's historical accuracy. Specifically, apparently this interview was never the huge television event the movie makes it out to be. And, Nixon was not ambushed on the Watergate questions as portrayed in the film.

The directors commentary, if you watch it, also points out that a lot of the conversations in the film were fabricated, including some of the dramatic interview moments.

Now, I hate to be that guy who's always whining about historical accuracy but....well, I'm going to be that guy for a moment and just get it out of my system.

In some movies, you care more about historical accuracy than others. As long as "Spartacus" has big battle scenes, "Tombstone" has cool gunfights and "Titanic" has a big CGI ship spectacularly sinking, you don't really care about how historically accurate these films are.

When the entire film consists of a series of conversations, and when your whole interest in these series of conversations is based on the fact that you believe it to be a pivotal moment in political history, I think the film loses a lot when it turns out to be largely fictionalized.
Put another way: this is the type of film where your interest in the events taking place is in direct proportion to your belief in their accuracy.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I'm going to take a step back and say that I did learn a lot from this film about a story I didn't previously know anything about. And if you're a stickler for historical accuracy (like I am) I recommend watching the directors commentary, and of course the standard geeky internet research afterwards.

At any rate, whether the original interviews were a television milestone at the time or not, this movie has pushed them back into the public consciousness again.
When Condoleezza Rice recently said:"by definition, if it was authorized by the president [Bush], it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture" every talking head on TV immediately referenced this movie.
And Rice herself had to later correct herself by saying specifically, "This was not a Nixon / Frost moment" (even though it totally was).

The film makers couldn't have anticipated that Rice would say something so stupid almost immediately after their film was released, but it shows how timely this movie is, and how it's subject matter is once again very relevant.

Because even though a lot of the conversations in this film are fictionalized for dramatic purposes, all of the subject matter and background information they are talking about is completely true. When Nixon and Frost debate the bombing of Cambodia or the Watergate cover-up, the conversations themselves may have been fictionalized but the facts they talk about are all genuine.

In fact, considering everyone under the age of 40 really has no memory of the Watergate hearings, there's a surprising amount of background information this film expects you to be aware of. For example if you don't know who Haldeman or Ehrlichman are, you can tell they're connected to something bad when Nixon and Frost throw their names around, but the movie never explains what their actual role was. Ditto John Dean, Chuck Colson, the laundered money discussed on the tapes, or a whole bunch of other details.

In my case, I had just re-watched Oliver Stone's "Nixon prior to watching this movie (see previous post), so I walked into this movie nicely refreshed on all these people and events.
Otherwise, it's still possible to watch this movie. You can still enjoy the tete a tete between disgraced former President and TV talk show host, but you have to accept that some of these little details will go over your head.

What's nice about this movie is that it takes it for granted that Nixon is a dirty lying crook.
(I remember after Nixon died there was an effort by the right-wing to rehabilitate him as a great statesman who made a few mistakes, but if this movie is any indication of pop-culture, people aren't buying it. It's somewhat unfortunate that a lot of Nixon's former associates have continued to have political careers in the Republican party, but that's another subject.)

The illegal bombing of Cambodia is one of those things that often disappears down the memory hole. (Since it is not in the history textbooks and rarely mentioned on the mainstream media, most people born after the event have no idea it even occurred). So it's nice to see this movie put that issue front and center again.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky at SOAS answering a Question on Sri Lanka

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


(Movie Reviews)

Well, as usual this movie got a delayed release in Japan. And, as usual, by the time I get around to reviewing it, everything that can be said about this movie has already been said. But I'll jot down a few thoughts anyway.

I like Oliver Stone. Looking over the movies he's done, we seem to have a lot of similar interests (classical history, classic rock, Vietnam War, Latin American Revolutions, and recent political history). On paper you would think I would be the biggest Oliver Stone fan ever.
If it weren't for the fact that his movies are so long and boring to sit through.

Now don't get me wrong, when he's good he's very good.
But "Nixon" was hard for me to sit through. And "Alexander" was absolutely awful. And there are a few more Stone films I had a hard time getting through.
And actually, now that I think of it, even his good movies usually have a few slow stretches in the middle.

So with all that in mind, the good news here is that "W." is a very entertaining movie to watch. The last 20 minutes or so Stone started to lose me a little bit, but on the whole I was not only entertained, I was glued to the TV the whole time. I didn't want to miss a word.

No doubt part of the increased interest is due to the relevance of the film. "Nixon" was released after the former President had passed away, so it was just another biopic of a dead president.
"W." came out before George W. Bush had even finished his Presidency. So, even if you watch it a year later like I did, the whole time you have a feeling like it is hitting below the belt.

But besides that, I think this film is just better written and better acted than "Nixon", and is just generally more entertaining all around.

Josh Brolin is really great in this movie.
I had never heard of Josh Brolin until a year ago, when I saw him popping up in "No Country For Old Men", "Planet Terror" and "American Gangster ." He did a great job in all of those movies, and he does a great job in this one. In fact he plays the part so well, it's hard to believe he was really a last minute replacement for Christian Bale.

I had read reviews of this film long before it came to Japan, so I knew that the film wasn't so much a liberal hack-job against George W. Bush (although there are a few jibes thrown in here) as it was an almost sympathetic view of a tragic life. So I was prepared for that going in, and knew there would be more character examination than politics.

Actually it's really both politics and personal tragedy, and that's what makes this film so engaging.

Bush's personal story, at least the way Oliver Stone has retold it, does have very Shakespearean overtones to it. Specifically Bush is the perfect Young Hal from "King Henry IV".

[In fact (short digression here) I remember the first time I heard George Bush Junior's name. In 1990, my 7th grade history teacher was telling us about John Adams and John Quincy Adams, at that time the only father-son Presidential team in American history.
"Can you imagine how strange that is?" he said. "It would be like if George Bush Junior ever became president."
Somebody in the class who was better informed than I was in those days let out a short laugh, and some comment was made about George Bush Jr's drinking habits. And the teacher said, "Alright, admittedly in the case of George Bush Jr it could never happen."]

However unlike Young Hal, Bush does not go on to become Henry V, one of the world's greatest leaders. Instead Bush has the bittersweet distinction of achieving the world's greatest office, only to go down in history as one of the worst Presidents.
In this final regard, the story of a man who overcame all his personal demons to become President, only to leave the office disgraced, the themes of this film are remarkably similar to Stone's earlier film "Nixon."

With such a polarizing subject as Bush, and such a polarizing film maker as Oliver Stone, the film's accuracy can be debated ad infinitum. And if you read the reviews across the internet, you can see that it already has been.

So for the most part I'm going to try and stay clear of it.
Obviously Stone is not above inventing fictional conversations to create the necessary scenes that serve to fill out the themes of his movie. At the same time though, after doing a bit of internet research, I agree with the review in Slate by Timothy Noah (link here) which says that often the scenes you most expect to be fictional turn out to be the ones drawn directly from real life.

I also agree with Timothy Noah that this film is not nearly as hard on Bush as it could be. There are numerous scandals the film could have explored which it leaves completely untouched.
And the film also gives Bush the benefit of the doubt by assuming his good intentions. I would not have been so generous had I been writing it.
However the choice to play Bob Dylan's "With God on our Side" as the end credits roll was absolutely brilliant. Simple, and yet devastating.

Obviously, this film is the first draft. It was released in theaters before Bush's term was even over, and I'm assuming writing and filming started some time before it was released. 20 years from now, when we have a more complete view of Bush's legacy (and when a few more tell-all books have been written by insiders) it will be time for someone else to take another crack at this film.

And I'm also assuming production on this film was rushed through a little bit so it could get released while it was still timely. In that case, it's amazing the film turns out to be as interesting and as engaging as it is.

Update: After re-watching "Nixon", I've decided it's not a bad film at all. It's quite a piece of art in its own way actually. The problem is that it goes on for 3 hours. "W" clocks in quite nicely at just over 2 hours, and thus is much more watchable. (And it would have been even more watchable if they had trimmed another 20 minutes off of it, but I guess you can't ask for too much.)

Link of the Day
Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

(Book Review)

Yes, that's right. The infamous "War and Peace". I finally knocked it off my reading list. I now plan to spend the rest of my life at cocktail parties bragging about how well read I am.

Actually, a friend of mine noticed this book on my lap at one point when I was about halfway though it. "Ah, reading 'War and Peace?" she commented.
"Why yes I am," I answered proudly.
"I thought you had already read that," she answered.
"No, this is my first time."
"Hmmm. It just seems like the kind of book you would have already read."

And at that point I realized with horror that I was going to go through all the work of reading this book, and instead of getting credit for it, people would just assume this was the kind of book I would have already read.

Well, in a lot of ways it is I guess. At the very least, it's been on my reading list for as far back as I can remember.

As a young adolescent, I was always the kind of kid who was trying to tackle the great classics just because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. (I'm sure you other geeks out there can identify).
And, as a typical boy interested in war stories, a title like "War and Peace" was something that aroused my curiosity.

I never got around to this book as a youngster, but it got back on my radar screen again when I was a college student and was becoming interested in politics and revolutionary movements. I learned that Tolstoy had the same politics as me--he was an anarchist and a pacifist--and that the inspiration for "War and Peace" originally came partly from a novel by Proudhon, and partly from the Decembrist uprising.

Like most people I kept putting this book off because I was intimidated by its length, but it's been on my list of "books to read someday before I die" for a while now, and I thought this year was as good a time as any to knock it off. And so, the last time I was in Oita city I picked up a copy from the Oita Prefectural library.

But now, having listed all the reasons why I was attracted to this book, I should add that none of them are a good reason to read it.
For the politico, there's very little revolutionary, anarchist, or even pacifist themes in this book.
And the for the military nut, battle scenes, while they are very impressive (more on this later) make up only a small portion of this 1441 page book. The book spends much more time in dance halls and living rooms than it does on the battlefield.

The best description of this book I can make is to compare it (with apologies) to Quentin Tarantino.

Back in 1997 when "Jackie Brown" was released, I remember catching an interview with Tarantino on, I think it was, the "Charlie Rose Show". Tarantino was saying something like,
"A lot of people have criticized 'Jackie Brown' for being too long. Well, whether you like it or you hate it, at least give me credit for it. I meant to make it that way. Very seldom in movies do we get an opportunity to just hang out with the characters, but in this movie, I was trying to create scenes where the audience got to do just that, just hang out with the characters."

I imagine that if I had walked into "Jackie Brown"unprepared, I would have hated it. But because I saw this interview, and I knew going into the movie that the plot wasn't going to move very fast and that I was supposed to just relax and hang out with the characters, I loved it.

In the same way, "War and Peace" is a novel where the story doesn't move very fast, and you spend a lot of time just hanging out with the characters.
Fortunately, the translators introduction prepared me for it, and got me in the right state of mind before I started reading it.
From the introduction by Rosemary Edmonds: "Tolstoy never loses sight of his aim as an artist, which, as he said in a letter to a friend, 'is not to resolve a question irrefutably but to compel one to love life in all its manifestations, and these are inexhaustible. If I were told that I could write a novel in which I could indisputably establish as true my point of view on all social questions, I would not dedicate two hours to such a work; but if I were told that what I wrote would be read twenty years from now by those who are children today, and that they would weep and laugh over it and fall in love with the life in it, then I would dedicate all my existence and my powers to it.' "

If that sounds a bit boring, the good news is that Tolstoy has created characters in this novel that you enjoy spending time with.
Now I don't want to superimpose my own prejudices onto you, but if you're anything like me you tend to be doubly wary of a book like this. First of all, it's over 100 years old, and second of all it's from another country and another culture. I was worried the characters would all be stiff 19th century Russian nobleman walking around spouting off boring platitudes.

Instead, the book is filled with characters who are so life-like that I felt they were real people I knew.
The characters were almost all either people I strongly identified with personally, or they reminded me of people I know in real life.
I mentioned the same thing in my review of "Anna Karenina", but it's true in this book as well. As Tolstoy described the thought processes of these various characters, I felt like, "Yes, that is so true. That's exactly the way I think." Even when the characters make bad choices, we're given a glimpse into their thought processes to see how they justify it to themselves, and I always thought, "Yes, my mind works exactly the same way."

None of the characters ever feel flat or unrealistic, and none of the choices they make ever feels contrived. We understand exactly why they do everything they do.

In fact, reading this book, one can't help but be struck by how human nature remains unchanged, even across cultural and generational lines.

Recently, one of my students was talking about the brutal history of Russia, and saying what a savage race the Russians were. I reached behind me and grabbed this book. "If you read this," I said, "You'll feel that they're just the same as you and me."

The second piece of good news about this book, for those who might find its bulk intimidating like I did, is that the whole thing is character driven. Long it may be, but it's all story, unlike many other 19th century door stoppers. Unlike, say, a novel by Dostoevsky, this is not simply a 700 page philosophical discussion bookended by 300 pages of story.
Nor, like Victor Hugo in "Les Miserables" does Tolstoy leave the narrative to go off on a 50 page digressions giving this thoughts on religion or society.

In short, I was pleasantly surprised that this book read so much like a modern novel, and not like a dusty classic.
Someone was recently citing this book to me as the classic example of a book which intimidates people, but need not. And that is so true.

Now, there's no getting around the fact that it is a very long book. My edition was 1441 pages, and that with tiny print and very small margins.
So, if you're in a hurry to get finished, you're probably not going to enjoy it. And if you're impatient for the plot to get moving, this book is going to drive you crazy.

But if you can clear out your reading schedule and just let this story develop at it's own pace, you'll enjoy this book.
I'd be embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to read this book (cough, cough***9 months***cough), but even though it took me a long time, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This book covers Russia during the period of the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1812 (with a brief epilogue several years later on the eve of the Decembrist revolt).

However it's somewhat misleading to think of this book as historical fiction, because the the vast majority of the story, well over half of the book, is just about the personal struggles of the characters as they search for happiness or meaning in life.

Nevertheless the historical sections are an important part of the book, and it is these sections that, in my opinion, stick in your memory most after you have finished reading.

If you don't know much about this period in history, don't let that stop you. Like all good historical fiction, this is a book that teaches you history as you read it rather than demands that you already know it.

The book begins with Russia and Austria in an alliance against Napoleon. This part of the book is very interesting because it describes the awkward cooperation between the two armies, and the sometimes ambiguous chain of command as they prepare for battle. It reminded me a lot about the squabbles among the allied command you sometimes read about in World War II, and was a reminder that the Napoleonic Wars were the equivalent of the World Wars for the 19th Century.

In 1807, Napoleon and the Russian Emperor Alexander make peace and divide Europe between them.
But in 1812 the peace breaks down, and Napoleon invades Russia. Moscow is occupied, and ends up burning down to the ground.

This is the climax of the novel, and it's a climax that really pays off. Because we've spent so much time getting to know these characters and get involved in their lives, the climax has much more of an emotional punch.
Even though as a history geek I knew the burning of Moscow was coming, it was hard to believe it would actually happen. This city was the whole world to these characters, and because their world seems so real to the reader, you can't imagine it all being so completely shattered.

There are also several battle scenes in this book, and they are all amazingly well-written.
I knew very little about the life of Tolstoy before I started reading this book, but as I was reading about the battles and about army life, it seemed so real to me that I felt it must have been based on real life experience.
And sure enough, a little bit of research on Tolstoy's life reveals that he fought in the Crimean War, and based the battle scenes off of his personal war experience.

I suppose comparisons to "The Iliad" are cliche, but I couldn't help but be reminded of Homer as I read through this book. Like "The Iliad", "War and Peace" describes the progress of the battle as a whole, but also effortlessly switches back and forth between the greater battle and the experiences of individuals in the fight.

Unlike "The Iliad", however, this is not the story of mythical heroes gloriously fighting each other. But nor is this book like "All Quiet on the Western Front," constantly hitting you over the head with the miseries of war every second. Instead, like everything else in the book, we get a very human portrait of war in all its aspects.

We see, for example, the soldiers preparing for battle, knowing that many of them will not be there tomorrow, but doing everything they can to avoid talking about it.
There is also the nervous joking that goes on when the men are actually under fire.
There is the confusion of the battle: people aren't sure what's going on, and when a Frenchman and a Russian grab each other, neither is sure who has taken the other prisoner.

After the battle, a young man who spent the whole time being thoroughly confused as to what was happening, feels the need to describe the battle to his friends in terms of his heroic charge, because he feels they'll never understand if he tries to tell them what actually happened.

Battles aside, we also get a lot of glimpses into the daily lives of the soldiers. Although I've never been involved in military service, I loved Tolstoy's description of army life.
"The Bible legend says that the absence of toil--idleness--was a circumstance of man's blessed state before the Fall. Fallen man, too, has retained a love of idleness but the curse still lies heavy on the human race, and not only because we have to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow but because our moral nature is such that we are unable to be idle and at peace. A secret voice warns that for us idleness is a sin. If it were possible for a man to discover a mode of existence in which he could feel that, though idle, he was of use to the world and fulfilling his duty, he would have attained to one facet of primeval bliss. And such a state of obligatory and unimpeachable idleness is enjoyed by a whole section of society--the military class. It is just this compulsory and irreproachable idleness which has always constituted, and will constitute, the chief attraction of military service." (p. 574)

Tolstoy occasionally intersperse his historical sections with his theories of history. Except for a 40 page epilogue at the very end, he limits himself to one or two pages at a time, so you don't have to worry about a big long digression from the narrative, but it is a major theme of the book.

Specifically, Tolstoy believes that history is shaped not by great men, but by historical forces beyond their control. Although it may appear as though Napoleon's ambition was re-writing the history of Europe, Tolstoy believes when you carefully examine history you find that Napoleon is no more than a puppet of historical forces.

This is contrary to the way most of us have been taught to read history. It also seems to go against common sense. And, needless to say, it's a controversial view.
(Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, in his introduction to the "World Leaders: Past and Present" series, states that the whole purpose of creating
this series on world leaders and their influence was to refute Tolstoy's view of history).

Personally I was not entirely converted to Tolstoy's view, but it was interesting food for thought. He makes some good points that are worth pondering over even if you don't buy into the whole thing.

Final verdict: length of this book aside, it's much more readable than you think it is. If you make the time for it, you will enjoy it.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Humanism

Friday, October 23, 2009

Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs, Bender's Game, Into the Wild Green Yonder

(Movie Reviews)

So, last time I reviewed Bender's Big Score,and I said I would only review the other movies if my self-control broke down and I found myself wasting more time on the internet.

Well, guess what?

Now according to the rules I set out for myself on this project, I should give a separate review to each movie.

But then again, these movies were split up and on TV aired as season 5 of Futurama. And I don't usually force myself to review television shows. It appears I'm in a bit of a grew area.

Although they were originally released as direct to DVD feature-length movies, none of these really feel like real movies. They feel like TV shows. And in fact, they each have long meandering plots that seem like they were intended to be split into 22 minute segments rather than be watched all at once.

So, obviously I've decided to split the difference and review the remainder of this series as one post instead of 3 separate ones.

There's not a lot to say here that I didn't cover in my first review. The series is still a delightful mix of random and morbid humor. There are plenty of futuristic and alien gags to spice up the story line whenever things start to go dull.

The guest stars that they were able to attract are impressive: Stephen Hawking, Rich Little, George Takei, Snoop Dogg, and Penn and Teller. (Actually, really just Stephen Hawking is the only one who's truly impressive out of that group).

It's a waste of time, but it's a very pleasant waste of time.

Link of the Day
Your World is a Forgery Noam Chomsky Speaks Truth
and Were They Poisoned By Camp Lejeune Water Supply? Stricken Marines Seek Help First of all, if we had national health care, those who served wouldn't have to beg for help with medical bills. And it never ceases to amaze me that we'll throw billions of dollars to incompetent but politically-connected war profiteers, but we fight the claims of those who put their bodies at risk while in the service. Unbelievable:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


(Movie Review)

This is yet another movie that has been flying under my radar because I've been in Japan. I've seen it in my video store for a while now. And they have been advertising it as a cult classic. And recently a few sequels have been coming out. So I thought I would check this out.

I'm not sure if the pleasure of fantasy films can be explained to the uninitiated, but if you're a fan like me you know that the real value of these films is not the action sequences, but the pleasure of being able to immense yourself in a new world. The more imaginative and intricate this world is, the more you enjoy exploring it.

That was what I was hoping for, and that was precisely what I did not get from this film, which was largely just a waste of 2 hours with flat boring characters walking across the screen.

The movie is about a war between vampires and werewolves. And, if you listen to the directors commentary, you know they're quite pleased with themselves for coming up with this idea. "There are a lot of vampire movies out there already, and there are a lot of werewolf movies, but nobody had thought of combining them. That's what's really exciting about this story." (Paraphrasing-but that's the general tone).

However the old proverb "less is more" comes to mind here. There have been many vampire movies in the past which manage to immerse you completely in the vampire mythology, or (more modern movies) create a secret world of vampire politics and competing factions.

You get hints of that in this movie, but because it splits its time between both the vampires and the werewolves you never really get fully involved with either.

Problems are evident right from the opening scene, when we get treated to an explosive, loud, drawn out gun-fight between the werewolves and the vampires, before we know who any of these characters are or have any reason to care about the outcome.

We see some interesting visual distinctions between the vampires (who live like Gothic royalty) and the werewolves (who live more stray dogs) but that's about as far as the development goes.

The special effects in this film are pretty decent. And after all the cgi films lately, it's nice to see a film using a lot of old fashioned stunt work. But perhaps more energy could have been directed into the storyline instead.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky The Contours of World Order & 50 Years of the United Nations
and Jeremy Scahill: ACORN Got Pennies Compared to War Contracting Firms- Their Crimes Pale in Comparison
and The Rachel Maddow Show: The Truth About the Lies About ACORN

Friday, October 16, 2009

Burn After Reading

(Movie Review)

Because I live in Japan, I never even heard of this movie until it hit my video store. But it's another Coen Brothers film.

Now, as I said in my review of "No Country For Old Men", I like watching Coen Brothers' movies, but hate reviewing them, because of the legions of film school students and cinema buffs who are huge fans of these movies and have already critiqued them to death. I'm always worried I'm just going to expose my own ignorance.

So, once again I'm going to try and avoid the temptation to try and sound smarter than I am, and just write some off the cuff honest reactions I felt as I watched the movie.

Assuming everyone stateside is better informed than I am, I guess everyone knows the plot to this film, but I'll recap briefly anyway.

It's a black comedy about a series of misadventures involving bumbling spies, and bumbling blackmailers.
As black comedies go, it doesn't really get much blacker than this. None of the characters are likeable. And (spoiler slert) half of the characters get killed in the end. And the ones that don't get killed, you almost wish they did. (The characters who are the most selfish and who are manipulating the other characters for their own selfish ends are the ones left alive at the end).

As a comedy, I found very little of it laugh out loud funny. But it's one of those cleverly written stories with several different character plot lines all woven together that at least kept me interested as I was watching it.

The best parts of the movie are the discussions in the CIA headquarters. The CIA supervisors know everything that's going on and are keeping track of it, but because of their position they are forced to take seriously a convoluted series of events that they would rather have nothing to deal with. Their deadpan delivery as they talk about the case is just spot on. Brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, and very funny.

But aside from the spy story, this movie is really more about relationships. And it presents a very depressing view of romance.
Almost everyone in this movie gets screwed over in some way by romantic relationship. People in this movie are interested only in what they can get from the relationship, and no one really cares about the other person's needs. Instead, romantic love is presented as something that kicks you when you're down.

One striking example of this is how after John Malkovich's character loses his job, his wife divorces him and puts all his things outside in the rain.

The characters in this movie are often seen watching a movie-within-the-movie "Coming up Daisy". We don't see much of this movie, but just enough to let us know it is a typical romantic comedy.
However just this little taste is enough to evoke the comparison between the typical light-hearted Hollywood view of romance, and the more pessimistic view of romance presented in this film. Which view is more realistic is left up the viewers to decide.

Star studded cast for this film includes George Clooney. Who, for some reason, didn't look at all to me like he usually did. In fact with his beard, and his wide buggy eyes he reminded me of someone else. For most of the movie I couldn't quite place it, until I finally realized he reminded me of Paul Krugman.
I did a quick google search to see if it was just me, or if anyone else thought so as well. In fact there are several web pages with the same idea. Sample results here and here.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Freedom of the Press
and Our awesome post-racial society
and The anchors are too dumb to realize the police are using sonic cannons, instead referring to it as "an annoying siren."Our America grows more authoritarian by the day, and the election hasn't changed that. Citizens are seen as the enemy, corporate interests are sacred and the police are the ultimate authority, answering to no one. They deploy weapons developed for war zones against civilian populations - and nothing happens.