Monday, April 25, 2011

The Fighter

(Movie Review)

I don't need to tell you that this movie has been highly praised by the critics and the Academy Awards. Plus every one I know who has seen this movie has recommended it to me. And I really like Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale.

I was still reluctant to see this movie, just because I don't generally like sports movies.

I'm not a sports fan. I never understood why it should matter to me why one person I don't know won a boxing match against someone else I don't know. Plus I find sports movies to be pretty predictable.

I suppose someone who just admitted to still watching Batman cartoons (see previous post) can't really become an intellectual snob about sports movies. But logical or not, we all have our instinctive likes and dislikes.

Not being a sports fan held me back from embracing this movie completely. I didn't really accept the premise that the whole self-worth of Mark Wahlberg's character relied on him winning boxing matches.
And I never understood why I should want him to win instead of his opponents (who presumably had trained just as hard.)

But, this is also a film which aspires to be a lot more than just a sports film. There is a lot of family drama. And this film is about a man trying to assert his own individuality against a family that wants to swallow him up.
And Christian Bale's story arc (about hitting bottom because of drug addiction) gets almost equal time with that of Mark Wahlberg's story. I know Bale won best supporting actor in this flick, but he's really almost a co-star.

And this film gets another point from me for having a great feel good soundtrack. Thanks to this film I've discovered a new great band, "The Heavies". Their high energy song "How you like me now" does a great job of starting the movie. (And if you're unfamiliar with this song, check it out on youtube--link here.)

Not that I agreed with every single song this film used. (I've always thought "Here I go Again" by Whitesnake was pretty cheesy.) But on the whole it's a great soundtrack.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Solutions for Central America

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Batman: Under the Red Hood

(Movie Review)

One of the disadvantages of doing a movie review project, in which I review every single new movie I see, is that I can no longer hide my guilty viewing pleasures.

So, as much I would like to say I spent the other night re-watching "Citizen Kane," the truth is that I was (sigh) watching yet another cartoon movie about comic book superheroes.

Guilty pleasures, almost by definition, can not be defended intellectually. But if I were asked why, as a grown man, comic books still held some sort of attraction for me, I would answer that it was the idea of collaborative story telling being extended over a period of several decades. (I used this same excuse previously in another post, when reviewing "Inheritance," and discussing the evolution of some of the former teenage sidekicks in the DC comic book universe.)

This is what fascinated me as a kid: the idea that modern comic books were continuing a story that had started 60 or 70 years ago, and that a comic book written today could reference some past event from another comic book written 20 or 30 years ago, and tie it into a story arc going on now.
And, although I no longer regularly read comic books, to the extent that I still keep half an eye on what the industry is up to, this continues to be the attraction for me.

Not, of course, that the industry always takes full advantage of the artistic opportunities offered to it by this medium of story telling. Not by a long shot. Most of the time they're just out for quick buck rather than trying to re-create Faulkner's tapestry of interconnected stories. But I still find the inherent potential of the medium interesting.

(There's a certain type of person who is interested in this kind of thing. We're called geeks. If you're not already one of us, I suppose the appeal probably can not be explained to the uninitiated. I have no hopes of making converts here-- I'm just trying to explain why some of us find it interesting.)

This particular movie is based on a story arc that played out in the comic books in 2005-2006, and as most comic book stories do, it ties together threads from several previous comic book stories.

There is a superhero called Batman (created in 1939) who adopted a young orphan named Dick Grayson, and trained him to be the first Robin (1940). Dick Grayson eventually grew up, and left the role of Robin at age 18 to become Nightwing (1984). Batman adopted a new young boy named Jason Todd, and trained him to become the second Robin (1983). Jason Todd was eventually killed by the Joker (1988). But then Jason Todd returned from the dead (2005), this time disguised as the Red Hood. (The Red Hood, of course, being the Joker's former identity before he fell in the vat of acid and went insane (1951).)

[A quick sidenote here:
I remember in 1988 when Jason Todd was killed off. I was still in elementary school, and I didn't yet have access to comic books at the time. (I wouldn't be able to get my hands on comic books until I had some money in my pocket and a driver's license to take myself to the store--so I didn't start collecting until I was 16.) But like all young boys I was interested in comics, and the death of Robin was one of those big media events that made it into the general culture. I suspect other people my age may remember some of the buzz around this.
My classmates at school talked about Robin's death, and I was absolutely horrified that DC would kill of my favorite character. (Watching Superfriends, or the old Batman cartoons, I always identified with Robin because he was supposed to be around my age.)
It wasn't until years later, when I actually started reading comic books for myself, that I realized the Robin they had killed off hadn't been THE Robin, Dick Grayson, but rather just the replacement Robin, Jason Todd. This was perhaps a bit of dishonest marketing on DC's part. (They had advertised it as the death of Robin, without any qualifications.) But it definitely got people's attention.]

Anyway, remembering the death of Jason Todd as being a pivotal moment in the comic books of my youth, I was curious to see how his return played out.

The movie starts out with the Joker beating Jason Todd with a crow bar. And right from the beginning we see that, although this movie is a cartoon, it has earned it's PG-13 rating.
(At the risk of sounding like a media prude, I've got to say I've got mixed feelings about mixing this kind of brutal violence with comic book superhero movies. This scene is straight out of the comic book, but because of the different nature of the medium, it didn't seem quite as gruesome on the page as it did played out on the screen. I'm not sure I feel comfortable with this kind of bone breaking brutality mixed in with my escapist fiction.)

Shortly after Jason Todd is killed, we cut to 5 years later when a new mysterious supervillian, The Red Hood, is trying to intimidate Gotham's existing crime lords. Because of the sudden transition between scenes, it should be obvious to anyone with any intelligence at this point that the Red Hood is connected to Jason Todd. (One of the reasons I haven't been worried about revealing any spoilers in this review is because the movie doesn't even try to hide the surprise. I guess they figured that most people who would rent this movie probably already knew the story anyway.)

However there are several chase and fight scenes between Batman and Jason Todd (with Nightwing making a few cameo appearances) before Batman finally figures everything out.

The movie has several high adrenaline fighting scenes, so I guess you get what you expect with a comic book movie.
And even though this is a low budget direct to DVD movie, they don't hold back on the quality of the action scenes. There's plenty of choreography that looks like it took a bit of time for the writers and animators to plan out.

Although by the end of the movie, the fighting did get repetitive. At least it did for me.

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" (to compare with another animated Batman movie), did a good job of mixing up the various action scenes, so you don't get too bored with any one thing. There was fighting on motorcycles, fighting on an airplane, fighting with a jet pack, a giant suction engine, et cetera.

"Under the Red Hood" by contrast has a lot of fighting and chasing scenes that are all pretty much the same thing. It's well done for what it is, but I found myself getting slightly bored.

The plot is decently complex for a comic-book movie. There are several different players involved with different motives. Batman is fighting the Red Hood, who is fighting the Black Mask, who is trying to establish control of the other Gotham crime lords. And the Joker is also involved, switching his alliances as the events suit him.

If you're a comic book fan, it's probably worth the rental. If you're not a fan, don't bother.

[Second side note:
Over the years there have been a lot of snickering comments about Batman's need to surround himself with young boys. After Dick Grayson grew up, Batman immediately replaced him with another Jason Todd. And when Jason Todd was killed, he was immediately replaced by yet another young boy as the 3rd Robin (Tim Drake, 1989).
Of course from a marketing standpoint, it's easy to see why DC comics is doing this. Batman and Robin are a well established brand, and for the brand to remain familiar to the general public you always have to have the same old Batman, and some sort of recognizable Robin. You can kill off one of these characters to temporarily increase sales, but then you better replace them with someone who looks almost exactly the same.
The obsession in comic books with protecting the brand recognizability, rather than focusing on story telling or naturally evolving characters, is the major thing hindering the potential of the medium. (I wasn't clued into just how big a deal brand recognition was in the comic book world until I started reading the blog of former DC insider "Occasional Superheroine").]

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky critiques ideas by both politicians and citizens to achieve Mideast peace

Also: From Peter's blog, an interesting post explaining the real reason the Michigan economy is in such bad shape.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

(Book Review)

So here I am, only now as an adult finally getting around to reading this classic piece of children's literature. (Although I suspect I might be in good company on this. I'd be curious to see if most other people read this book as a child or as an adult.)

As a child I never cared to read this book. Partly because I was so over-exposed to the story that there didn't seem any point in actually reading the book.
As a child I saw multiple versions of this story on film. Mainly the Disney version (which, as a big fan of Disney animation I watched more times than I can count). But school teachers also seemed fond of showing us other movie versions back in elementary school. And at least once (in fourth grade I think it was) my class all got taken to a play of "Alice in Wonderland." Also in my house we had the Fisher-Price deluxe comic book and tape set of Alice in Wonderland, which retold the story in an abridged form.

So, like a lot of childhood classics, this story was spoiled for me by overexposure long before I developed the reading ability to try it for myself. (It's a shame, most children's classics are probably spoiled for children in this way.)

But also I have to say that I never really particularly cared for the story of Alice in Wonderland.
For one thing, at the end of the story the whole thing turns out to be just a dream, and as I child I always hated stories that turned out to be just someone's dream. (I'm still not wild about these kind of stories actually.)
Also I didn't much care for the episodic nature of the story, and the fact that it did not have any sort of linear plot. And, I also shared Alice's frustration with the way everything in Wonderland refused to make sense. It's not that I didn't understand all the puns and jokes. I got them, but I didn't think they were all that funny, and I shared Alice's frustration that none of the characters in Wonderland were able to give up their literal view of looking at words and so the conversation just went round in circles.
(I don't know if this says anything in particular about the kind of child I was, or if this is just common for lots of children.)

But, now as an adult, I've decided to finally go back and check this book off my reading list. Why?
1). The standard desire to be a well read person and work my way through all the great classics
2). Because of my interest in Victorian era history, I've also been trying to read more Victorian era literature.
3). Increasingly it seems like more and more authors I read quote from Lewis Carroll anyway, so I thought it might be worth while to go back and read the original book for myself.

For example Stephen Pinker in his book "The Language Instinct" quoted often from Lewis Carroll to illustrate the peculiarities of English grammar. When describing a dummy element in a sentence that exists only to satisfy the rules of syntax, Pinker quotes the following passage from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

I proceed [said the Mouse]. "Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, declared for him: and even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable--"'
`Found WHAT?' said the Duck.
`Found IT,' the Mouse replied rather crossly: `of course you know what "it" means.'
`I know what "it" means well enough, when I find a thing,' said the Duck: `it's generally a frog or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?'

And indeed, the whole book is filled with these types of plays on the English language.
As is probably true of any story that relies excessively on puns for humor, there are some real groaners mixed in as well. Observe:

”If I’d been the whiting,” said Alice, whose thoughts were still running on the song. “I’d have said to the porpoise, “Keep back, please: we don’t want you with us!”
“They were obliged to have him with them,” the Mock Turtle said: “no wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.”
“Wouldn’t it really?” said Alice in a tone of great surprise.
“Of course not,” said the Mock Turtle: “why, if a fish came to me, and told me he was going a journey, I should say, “With what porpoise?’”
“Don’t you mean ‘purpose’?” said Alice.
“I mean what I say,” the Mock Turtle replied In an offended tone

I leave it to you whether the pay off for that joke was worth the set-up.

[Quick sidenote: reading this book did get me curious as to how "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is translated. Because I know it is popular in many other languages. While I was living in Japan, for example, I knew the books was available in the Japanese language as "Fushigi na Kuni no Alisu." I never really thought much of it at the time. Most Western classics are popular with the Japanese in translation. But after having read this book myself, I can only imagine how much headaches it must have caused the translator.]

Just as some of the word play in this book struck me as better than others, so I found large sections of this book to be quite clever, and other parts seemed just silly nonsense.

Although after having consulted the wikipedia entry on this book, I am wondering now if large parts of this book I did not appreciate because it was simply over my head.

For example, consider the excerpt below:

"I'll try if I know all the things I used to know," [said Alice]. "Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is - oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate! However, the Multiplication Table doesn't signify: let's try Geography..."

When I read this I just thought: "well that's pretty stupid. Is this what passes for humor?"

According to Wikipedia, however: This explores the representation of numbers using different bases and positional numeral systems: 4 x 5 = 12 in base 18 notation, 4 x 6 = 13 in base 21 notation, and 4 x 7 could be 14 in base 24 notation. Continuing this sequence, going up three bases each time, the result will continue to be less than 20 in the corresponding base notation. (After 19 the product would be 1A, then 1B, 1C, 1D, and so on.)

Well that went right over my head. Now that wikipedia explains the joke to me, I can appreciate it, but I certainly didn't get it at the time.

Likewise, a lot of the nonsense poems that pop up in this book I thought were just pretty stupid the first time reading them. After wikipedia explained to me that Lewis Carroll was parodying other poems already in existence, I appreciate them a lot more.

I was in the bookstore once, and I saw a book called "The Annotated Alice" (W), which has extensive margin notes explaining everything. I regret to say I didn't buy it. But if I ever read this book again, I think I should get the annotated version.

A couple other sidenotes:
1). I'm not sure the characterization of Alice in this book was entirely consistent. She seemed to be very childlike and naive at sometimes, and very adult like and intelligent at other times. It seemed to me that in any given situation she just had whatever reaction was needed to set up the joke or pun. But maybe I'm being harsh.

2). I was a bit surprised to find out that many of the characters and poems I associated with this book (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Walrus and the Carpenter) never actually made an appearance. Turns out (again according to Wikipedia) that they are all from the second book "Through the Looking Glass." (Maybe I'll have to read that one next.)

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Anarchism (Rare UK Radio Appearance)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


(Movie Review)

Well, another film classic I can now check off my list as having seen.

For years now, Chinatown has been one of those movies that has been vaguely on my list of movies to see. Every time I would go to the video store, I would see it staring back at me from the racks. And I would think to myself, "This is supposed to be a great classic film. I really should see it."
And then I would usually think, "I don't know if I'm in the mood for a great classic film tonight. Why don't I numb my brain for a while by watching something stupid?" And then I would go and rent some junk movie or something.

A few years ago, when I was on my classic hard-boiled - detective - movies - kick, I would see "Chinatown" in the hard boiled section. And it would intrigue me. And confuse me. 1). Wasn't this movie from the 70s, not the 40s? And 2), isn't Chinatown a bit of an odd place for a hard-boiled detective story? And 3), wouldn't Jack Nicholson for the lead in the a hard boiled detective movie?

As it turns out, the answers to these questions are:
1) Although the movie was filmed in 1974, it is filmed in a bit of a retro style that seeks to evoke the old hard-boiled film classics of the 30s and 40s. (Or at least there are elements of this movie that are meant to evoke older movies, such as the opening and closing credits being obvious examples.)
Of course by now, the 1970s filming style is every bit as dated as the 1940s film style, so it is a bit strange to see one type of old movie trying to evoke images of another type of old movie. It's like retro-kitsch piled on retro-kitsch.

2). It turns out that the film actually has nothing to do with Chinatown -- aside from some throw away lines, and using Chinatown as a backdrop for the last scene.
The reason the name Chinatown was used as the title I actually never really understood until I watched the DVD featurettes, where the symbolism behind the name was explained much more clearly than it ever was in the film.
The title refers to a conversation the screenwriter had with a policeman who used to work in Chinatown. The policeman said that when he worked in Chinatown, they deliberately tried to do as little as possible, because they didn't understand the language or the culture, and they had no idea if they were helping a situation or making it worse by getting involved.
In this respect, "Chinatown" refers to a state of moral ambiguity where you don't know if your interference is helping or not. Which is why the film has almost nothing to do with Chinatown the place.

It's an interesting concept, but if the screenwriter hadn't spelled this all out very clearly in the DVD featurette, I'd still be scratching my head as to why in the world the movie had this name. This either means I'm a bit dense, or that the title was never fully explained in the film itself. (And, if as I suspect the latter, this raises the question of whether the film and it's meaning should be self-contained, or if it's fair to include bits that require further explanation.)

And 3): Jack Nicholson does an excellent job as a the laconical sarcastic detective. This comes of right from the opening scene, when a client of his realizes his wife has been cheating on him, and in despair clutches at the Venetian blinds. "You can't eat the blinds, I just had them installed," Nicholson says in his usual drawl.

It's also interesting to see Jack Nicholson in his prime. Not that this is my first early Jack Nicholson movie by any means. (I've seen at least 3 Nicholson films that predate this one: "Hell's Angels," "Easy Rider," and "Five Easy Pieces".) But these days you get so used to the older Jack Nicholson being on the screen you forget what he looked like when he was young.

And speaking of Hollywood superstars past their prime, "Chinatown" was directed by the Roman Polanski.
Now I never heard of Polanski until there was that big arrest controversy a few years ago. So it was interesting for me to finally match a film to this now infamous director. (Actually, wikipeding Roman Polanski, it turns out I've also seen another film of his: "The Pianist.")

(Uh-oh, I just realized I'm several paragraphs into this review, and I haven't even started yet. I've just been making stupid comments about who's in it, and what the title means. I better get started.)

The screenplay for this film is actually pretty intelligent. It works on two levels: on one level it's a murder mystery with a few surprises thrown in along the way. On the other hand it works as a history of some of the issues that surrounded the development of Los Angeles in the 1930s, specifically disputes over water issues.

I'm not sure everything resolved itself....

[Maybe I just missed something, but I still don't understand why the water company was dumping water in the middle of the night. The only explanation given, that they were helping the Orange tree farmers, I thought was disproved by Nicholson's character. If there was another explanation that came up I missed it.]

...but it was still a good story.

The only thing was: you know when you're in the video store, and you are deciding whether or not to rent a classic film, and you think to yourself, "You know, because this is an older film it's probably going to be really long and slow paced, and is going to be hard to sit through"?
Well guess what.

Yeah, this is an older film that moves at a bit slower pace, and is a bit harder to sit through. I guess our generation is just so spoiled by fast past action extravaganzas, with lost of explosions, and a really upbeat rocking sound track, that it's just hard to go back to these older films. (Sad how quickly things get outdated these days. Makes you wonder what people will be saying about the films of today in 35 years.)

But, if you're in the mood for an old classic that moves at a slower pace, and if you want to see some of Jack Nicholson in his prime, go ahead and check this movie out.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on the Internet

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

(Movie Review)

I know this movie had gotten somewhat mixed reviews, but I wanted to see it anyway. I had enjoyed the two previous installments in "The Chronicles of Narnia" series (see my review of "Prince Caspian" here).

And, like everyone else in the Western World, I had a childhood nostalgia for the original books by C.S. Lewis.
("The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "Prince Caspian" had both been read to me. Twice. Once by parents and then again by my first grade school teacher. "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" was the first book in this series I actually read on my own. I was curious to see what became of the Narnia characters, and so I asked the parents to buy me the book when we were on vacation in 3rd grade. I think I actually read this book twice, once in 3rd grade, and then once again in 6th grade. But I haven't read it since then, and so aside from one or two things sticking in my memory, I can't claim to remember it very well.)

And I also saw the BBC TV miniseries version of "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (W) back around the same time, which I don't remember other than thinking it was pretty hokey.

I'm therefore very pleased that this new movie series has come along and is trying to give the Narnia series the big screen treatment it deserves.

It is a pity that this is likely to be the last installment in the series. (Based on what I've been reading, at least. After the disappointing box office performance of "Prince Caspian",this movie only just barely made in the first place. And then because this movie didn't do exceptionally well in the theaters, I'm not expecting the next installment in the series to get any funding. But I'd like to be proved wrong.) But I suppose this series was not the first attempt to film "The Chronicles of Narnia" and it will likely not be the last. Hopefully in another 20 years someone else will take another crack at it.

One of the things that separate the Narnia series from some other book/movie fantasy movie franchises out there is that every story in the Narnia series is quite different from the one that came before it. Unlike, say the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, or "Harry Potter", where each movie has a very similar plot to the one that came before it, the Narnia stories have very different plots for each different book.

"The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" was more or less a straight up fantasy story. There was a lot of wonder about seeing a new world filled with fantastic creatures, and a standard good versus evil epic battle scene at the end.
"Prince Caspian" added in an element of legends and myths. The events of the first story are so far removed in the past that they are only vaguely remembered in the second story, and are treated much like far away mythical subjects.

"The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is yet again much different in tone than the first two movies. It's a sea voyage type story. It almost reads like a fantasy version of Captain Cook's diaries: you go to an exotic land, you encounter strange new people, you go off to the next exotic land.

It is tough material to make a coherent movie out of, to be sure. And because of this, it does require that you be a little bit more forgiving when you watch it. But for those of us who remember the books fondly it is fun just to see the film makers take make an attempt at transferring the story to the big screen.

Despite the fact that this film reportedly was made on a much reduced budget than the previous two films, I did think they did a good job working with the money they had. The various oceans and landscapes that pop up in the film look beautiful, and it is visually very impressive.

I would have preferred to see a few more fantastic creatures. I understand this is partly just because the script didn't call for as many new fantasy creatures, but in the two previous movies, there were lots of exotic creatures just hanging out in the background. Their reduced presence in this movie might have been due to the budget.

The character of Eustace Scrubb is very annoying, but then he was supposed to be written as annoying, so I guess you can't complain about that.
He is also supposed to serve as a lot of the comedy, and this really falls flat in my opinion. He is able to be "plain-annoying" just fine, but he never really rises to the level of "comically-annoying." In my opinion a lot of the attempts at humor in this movie were just embarrassing.

On the other hand, kudos to this movie for working in a cameo for the two older Pevensie children Peter and Susan, despite the fact that the book didn't include them. It was a nice little touch to continuity. As was the return of the White Witch from the first movie.
I'm disappointed that my favorite comedian, Eddie Izzard, did not return as the voice of Reepicheep, but since the character was animated anyway it's not so noticeable when they switch voice actors.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky--the current crisis in the middle east

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox

(Movie Reviews)

I saw this movie based off of my friend Brett's recommendation.
Brett had apparently gone into this movie with his younger nieces and nephews expecting your standard animated children's film, and had been pleasantly surprised to discover it was full of Wes Anderson's quirky sense of humor.

Like Brett, I too consider myself a Wes Anderson fan. I haven't seen everything the man has done, but I have enjoyed "Rushmore", "The Royal Tenebaums," and "The Life Aquatic."

(Although I did write in my review of "The Life Aquatic":
Like all Wes Anderson films, however, this has a tendency to go on for a little bit too long, and get bogged down in the middle. I had the same criticism of “Rushmore” and “Royal Tenebaums.” )

This wasn't as true with "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Perhaps because at 87 minutes it's shorter than any of the other Wes Anderson movies I've seen so far. And perhaps because, as a children's movie, the plot and pacing is kept a little tighter. But there were a few moments when I was squirming in my seat slightly. That last scene at the end, for example, seemed to go on for just a few beats too long.

And yet, as with the other Wes Anderson films I've seen, I always walk away chuckling. Sure they may have some slow moments, but I always walk away remembering the funny parts.
And the Wes Anderson humor grows on me. There are bits that the more I think about it, the funny they seem to be, so that I usually find the movie much funnier two days afterwards than I did when I was actually watching it. (I don't know if everyone reacts that way to Wes Anderson films, or if it's just me.) Like for example, the newspaper column Mr. Fox writes, and which he complains that his friends don't read. Or Mr. Fox making a recording of his chicken stealing plans for his records. Or pretty much any of Bill Murray's lines.

(Incidentally, Bill Murray became one of my favorite actors after I started seeing him in Wes Anderson films. Before Wes Anderson, I had been largely indifferent to Bill Murray, but Wes Anderson really knows how to make full use of Murray's dry humor. I hope the two of them continue to have many more collaborations in the future.)

Aside from the story about animals, and aside from the animation, there seems to be very little to mark this as a children's movie. Wes Anderson's unique brand of humor doesn't seem to be made any easier for the children to grasp. You would think that the studio would have inserted a lot more obvious punchlines or slapstick humor or something to make this movie more marketable for children, but, astonishingly, they resisted that temptation.

Actually the one concession that Wes Anderson seems to have made for the children's market is that all the cuss words are replaced by the word "cuss." As in "He's a cuss of a lot bigger?" or "What the cuss are you talking about?", et cetera.
This becomes a bit of humor in and off itself with the word "cuss" popping up in all sorts of situations.
It's the usual Wes Anderson ironic humor, of course, but if you like that thing it's on full display here.
(It's also a brilliant satire on the American tendency to assign moral values to phonemic utterances. When you substitute one semantically meaningless word for another semantically meaningless word, does that make it less morally bad? It obviously confused the MPAA ratings board. They ended up settling on giving this film a PG rating for what they called "slang humor.")

My only big complaint is that I wish they would have gotten younger voice actors to play the parts of the adolscents in this film. Their voices I think come off as sounding way too adult, and it takes me out of the film a bit. Other than that, a brilliantly done film.

Link of the Day

Monday, April 04, 2011

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

(Book Review)

Put this in the category of "books-I-really-should-have-read-a-long-time-ago-and-am-somewhat-embarrassed-to-admit-I'm-just-getting-around-to-now." It's been on my reading list forever, and but I've only now actually sat down and read it.

And, like most books in this category, once I finally did start reading it, I wondered why in the world I had waited so long. It's an extremely readable little book, and moreover one that really gripped me. Once I started reading it, I had a hard time putting it down, and I finished off the entire book in a few days. (Which, for me anyways, is a bit of a feat. I'm one of those people who usually takes about 6 weeks to finish a book.)

But before I get into how great this book is, let me start at the beginning and explain why it had been on my reading list.

For starters, I'm a big George Orwell fan. I have not, to my shame, read a lot of his books (I'll have to work on remedying that), but what I have read has made an impression on me.
"Keep the Aspidistra Flying" I read during my college years, when I was trying to reconcile my idealism with my middle class lifestyle and the book did a lot to shape my evolving world view.
The first time I read "1984" (again back in college)I went in expecting a political book, but was instead amazed at how beautifully it was written. For this reason "1984" was one of the only audio-books I brought with me to Japan (in an effort to keep up my English literary skills despite being surrounded by a foreign language environment.) And it's one of the few books that I've listened to so many times I've practically got it memorized. ("Animal Farm" was also included as a bonus on the same audio book.)

As for this book, Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" may not be well known to the general public, but it is often read and often quoted in the crazy leftist circles I hang out in. It is practically required reading for anarchists, and as a nominal anarchist myself it's high time I finally got around to it.

Noam Chomsky himself is a huge fan of this book, and often talks about it in articles and interviews.
Chomsky talks about the importance of the contents of the book (although not completely uncritical of the anarchist movement in Spain, Orwell does portray them as the true voice of workers' control and workers' democracy, in contrast to the totalitarian methods used by the Communist party.) But Chomsky also thinks it's important to talk about the publishing history of the book. It was suppressed when it was first published in 1938. Only a few copies were sold in England, and the book wasn't even published in the United States. According to Chomsky, the reason has as much to do with the institutional left as it does with the right. In the 1930s communism was very fashionable among intellectuals, and it was unpopular to criticize the established Communist party. In the 1940s, the Soviet Union was our ally against Hitler. It was not until the 50s that this book was finally published in the United States, and then it was only because of the red scare, and this book was presented as cold war anti-communist propaganda. "Orwell, who had died already, would have hated it" said Chomsky (link here).

[Incidentally, while on the subject, another one of Chomsky's favorite Orwell stories is that Orwell had originally written an introduction to "Animal Farm" (W), in which he said that press censorship is not only a problem in totalitarian governments, but a form of it exists in England as well. It's just that in England, people are a lot more subtle about censorship. As if to prove Orwell's point, this introduction was suppressed.]

Anyway, all these are reasons why I should have read the book long before now. As to the actual book itself:

The book is a memoirs of Orwell's time in the Spanish - Civil - War. It describes how he arrived in Spain full of enthusiasm for the Republican Government, and then gets disillusioned by the totalitarian tactics of the Communist Party (although he remains an ardent anti-fascist till the end.)

Politics are the main thrust of this book, and yet to focus too much on politics would be to do an injustice to Orwell's writing. The real joy in this book is that it's just so well-written.
In this regard, the book truly is an overlooked gem. Not only do we have a first hand account of the historic Spanish Civil War (something invaluable in and of itself) but it's written by a writer who is worth reading--someone who knows how to use just the right words to create just the right images, and does so in a way that makes the book really flow.
Right from the beginning of the book you know you're in good hands.

In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers' table.

He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gazing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the officers had open on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend--the kind of a face you would expect in an Anarchist, though as likely as not he was a Communist. There were both candour and ferocity in it; also the pathetic reverence that illiterate people have for their supposed superiors. Obviously he could not make head or tail of the map; obviously he regarded map-reading as a stupendous intellectual feat. I hardly know why, but I have seldom seen anyone--any man, I mean--to whom I have taken such an immediate liking. While they were talking round the table some remark brought it out that I was a foreigner. The Italian raised his head and said quickly:


I answered in my bad Spanish: 'No, Ingles. Y tu?'


As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard.
Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.

These wonderful descriptive passages continue on all through the book. In fact, if I had to choose to quote another passage to illustrate how well-written this book is, I'd be somewhat spoiled for choice. There's a very interesting passage in which Orwell gives a very detailed account of what it's like to be shot in a war and to think you're about to die (which someone else has excerpted for their website here) and there's vivid descriptions of the street fighting in Barcelona, and of the scene in which Orwell's wife warns him that the Communist Police are looking for him.

But I'll limit myself to one more long quotation, and the quoted passage below will just have to serve as an example of the pleasure that is found reading this book:

There seemed no hope of any real fighting. When we left Monte Pocero I had counted my cartridges and found that in nearly three weeks I had fired just three shots at the enemy. They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, and at this rate it would be twenty years before I killed my first Fascist. At Monte Oscuro the lines were closer and one fired oftener, but I am reasonably certain that I never hit anyone. As a matter of fact, on this front and at this period of the war the real weapon was not the rifle but the megaphone. Being unable to kill your enemy you shouted at him instead. This method of warfare is so extraordinary that it needs explaining.

Wherever the lines were within hailing distance of one another there was always a good deal of shouting from trench to trench. From ourselves: 'Fascistas --maricones!' From the Fascists: ''Viva Espana! Viva Franco!'--or, when they knew that there were English opposite them: 'Go home, you English! We don't want foreigners here!' On the Government side, in the party militias, the shouting of propaganda to undermine the enemy morale had been developed into a regular technique. In every suitable position men, usually machine-gunners, were told off for shouting-duty and provided with megaphones. Generally they shouted a set-piece, full of revolutionary sentiments which explained to the Fascist soldiers that they were merely the hirelings of international capitalism, that they were fighting against their own class, etc., etc., and urged them to come over to our side. This was repeated over and over by relays of men; sometimes it continued almost the whole night. There is very little doubt that it had its effect; everyone agreed that the trickle of Fascist deserters was partly caused by it. If one comes to think of it, when some poor devil of a sentry--very likely a Socialist or Anarchist trade union member who has been conscripted against his will--is freezing at his post, the slogan 'Don't fight against your own class!' ringing again and again through the darkness is bound to make an impression on him. It might make just the difference between deserting and not deserting. Of course such a proceeding does not fit in with the English conception of war. I admit I was amazed and scandalized when I first saw it done. The idea of trying to convert your enemy instead of shooting him! I now think that from any point of view it was a legitimate manoeuvre. In ordinary trench warfare, when there is no artillery, it is extremely difficult to inflict casualties on the enemy without receiving an equal number yourself. If you can immobilize a certain number of men by making them desert, so much the better; deserters are actually more useful to you than corpses, because they can give information. But at the beginning it dismayed all of us; it made us feel that the Spaniards were not taking this war of theirs sufficiently seriously. The man who did the shouting at the P.S.U.C. post down on our right was an artist at the job. Sometimes, instead of shouting revolutionary slogans he simply told the Fascists how much better we were fed than they were. His account of the Government rations was apt to be a little imaginative.' Buttered toast!'--you could hear his voice echoing across the lonely valley--'We're just sitting down to buttered toast over here! Lovely slices of buttered toast!' I do not doubt that, like the rest of us, he had not seen butter for weeks or months past, but in the icy night the news of buttered toast probably set many a Fascist mouth watering. It even made mine water, though I knew he was lying

You'll notice, if you read the above quote, the humor that sneaks into it. And this is also typical of the way the whole book is written. While reading this book the corners of my mouth were constantly twitching upwards in little half smiles at the subtle humor Orwell infused throughout his writing.

Actually, although the book is most famous for its politics, the majority of the chapters are just about describing the every day nature of the war. In fact Orwell is almost apologetic when politics intrude into his narrative:

"If you're not interested in the horrors of party politics, please skip [this chapter]; I am trying to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters for precisely that purpose. At the same time it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle. It was above all things a political war."

Orwell first arrives in Barcelona to see that the anarchists are in complete control of the city. He describes the kind of revolutionary society the anarchist have created:

The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. ... It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senior' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

Orwell enlists in the anti-fascist republican cause, but he soon discovers there are deep divisions with in the anti-fascist side. On one hand there are the anarchists, who see the war as a working people's revolution. On the other side are the middle-class republican capitalists, who see the war as a way to re-establish bourgeois capitalism, and want to roll back the gains that the working class had made during the early days of the war.

So far so simple. But here is what Orwell claimed very few people outside of Spain actually understood: the Communist Party was actually against the working class revolution, and it was the Communist Party more than anyone else that wanted to restore bourgeois capitalism. The official Communist Party at this point was completely controlled by the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union didn't want to upset its various international alliances by having a revolution in Spain. And so it was the Spanish Communist Party which was responsible for crushing the worker's revolution, destroying worker's control of factories, and throwing all the revolutionaries in jail.

Orwell was in Barcelona when street fighting between the anarchists and the Communist controlled police broke out, and he describes what he saw.
Orwell himself had joined the militia as a member of a Trotskyist organization, and so in the end had to flee from Spain for his life after he saw many of his friends rounded up and jailed.

The Communist Party, of course, placed all the blame for the violence on the anarchists and Trotskyists. The Communist newspapers in Britain repeated the official line, and even the capitalist newspapers attacked the anarchists. As Orwell writes:
The reason why a one-sided version has been accepted is simply that the Spanish revolutionary parties have no footing in the foreign press. In the English press, in particular, you would have to search for a long time before finding any favourable reference, at any period of the war, to the Spanish Anarchists. They have been systematically denigrated, and, as I know by my own experience, it is almost impossible to get anyone to print anything in their defence.

Orwell dedicates a whole chapter to examining the lies and misrepresentations of the English press.

Although Orwell apologizes for the political chapters in his book, in my opinion they are the most interesting. It's a pity this book was so little circulated when it was first released, because the journalists he named in this chapter really deserved the public shaming he tried to give him. In particularly Orwell goes after the Communist controlled press.

Orwell showed that the journalists write so many logical absurdities and self-contradictions that, even though they were hundreds of miles away from the actual events, they must have known they were lying.
It's a beautiful thing to see a brilliant mind like Orwell's simply rip apart all of these articles. (It's also not hard to see why this is one of Noam Chomsky's favorite books. Orwell's media critiques are very similar to Chomsky's own style.)

And finally, one can see in these chapters Orwell's frustrations with political manipulation of the truth, a theme of course that he would develop further ten years later in "1984."

A fascinating little book. At only 232 pages, it's well worth the short time it will take you to read it.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Mumia Abu-Jamal & George Orwell (Recommend skipping to the 5 minute mark to skip the introduction.)