Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Zach's turn -- happy birthday!

Yup, in an effort to streamline the birthday party thing, my brother and sister-in-law have clustered their children's birthday's at the end of July. A mere year ago, Zachary came into the world, and spent much of his first year with a deeply suspicious and slightly bewildered expression on his face. As you can see from the pictures below, he's lost that bewilderment and is now jumping into the world with both feet. Look at those eyes!

Happy birthday, Zachary!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Supervillain round-up, part the firste

OK, so I'm a little late on this post, having let a week and a half go by since seeing The Dark Knight without posting my review. Suffice to say, I was blown away (and apparently inspired to rhyme cheesily and inadvertently). If you haven't seen it yet, everything you've heard hyped is true, especially about Heath Ledger's sublimely chilling performance.

Do I need to offer a spoilers warning?

More on Heath in a moment, because I first need to cite the all-around strong cast: Maggie Gyllenhal as Rachel Dawes is a welcome change from Katie Holmes (would that we could have had Maggie in Batman Begins!); she plays the role with just enough snark and steel, and a very subtle pathos as well. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, the elder statesmen of the film, bring gravitas to what would otherwise be merely functional characters. Gary Oldman, unlike in Begins, is given some nice moments on screen.

It's perhaps a bit of a cruel irony that, having gotten the exposition out of the way in Batman Begins, Batman (or rather, "the Batman"), tends to be the least interesting character present. And with more dialogue than in the previous film, Christian Bale's hard-boiled rasp when in the cowl gets really irritating after a while. That being said, I still think Bale's the best Batman we've had yet -- if for no other reason that his moments as Bruce Wayne are so well drawn.

But I do think that one of the things that most impressed me about The Dark Knight was Aaron Eckhart's performance as Harvey Dent, later transformed into the villain Two-Face. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am, largely because Dent is presented in the film as a pretty one-dimensional character, and possesses some of the most stilted dialogue--as well as having some of the cheesiest things said about him (yeah, he's the white knight, as opposed to ... what was that other type of knight, again?)--in what is otherwise a pretty solid script. What's impressive is that Eckhart overcomes the poor hand he's been dealt in the script, and brings to Harvey Dent a depth and sympathy that few actors could accomplish with those raw materials. All of which makes his transformation to Two-Face the more poignant.

If I have a broad criticism for the film, it's that it tries to cram too much in. Dent's descent into insanity and subsequent criminal career as an agent of violent chance should have been the substance of the next film. As it was, having spent nearly two hours dealing with the gleeful machinations of the Joker, the film feels as though it does a somewhat uncomfortable shift and we get a hurried half-hour dispatching the Harvet Dent story. It felt tacked on: though done well for all that and containing some of the best moments of the film (this was where Gary Oldman's aforementioned acting moments appeared), it was a waste of such a subtly realized character.

But back to the best part of the film: with Heath Ledger, we get a raw, terrifying Joker, all the more frightening for his complete unpredictability, but also for the fact that as capricious as he is, he always has a plan. He's like Richard III, without the superego. Ledger's performance is also oddly restrained: whatever the temptation in playing such a character to chew the scenery (I'm looking at you, Jack), he's at his most frightening when he's quietest. I think the moment that sums it up best for me is just a brief instant when, upon seeing the batmobile for the first time as it causes some carnage to his henchmen, the Joker's head swivels to follow its path ... and he utters a interested "Hmm." In that moment, we see his mind take this new element in stride, curious but not shaken; it's a very subtle counterpoint to Jack Nicholson's oft-quoted "Where does he get such wonderful toys?"

That being said, I think that comparing the Christopher Nolan Batman with the Tim Burton Batman (we'll conveniently forget Joel Schummacher's attempts, shall we?) is a bit of a fallacy. It's like trying to compare apples and Vespa scooters. Both are great artistic accomplishments, and both changed the nature of the superhero film. And both have iconic moments: the shot of Heath Ledger's Joker dressed as a nurse walking through a hospital parking lot as the hospital explodes behind him will one day find itself on the cover of a film studies textbook.

BUT .... from the sublime to the ridiculous:

In what has to rank in the top five idiotic op-ed pieces I've ever encountered, Andrew Klavan writes in The Wall Street Journal "What Bush and Batman Have in Common." Seriously:

"The Dark Knight, currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past."

I'm honestly at a bit of a loss as to how to approach this, other than to repeat, Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? First of all, I'm not entirely certain what film Mr. Klavan was watching, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the same one I was. What is brilliant about Nolan's treatment here is, in part, a return to the central paradox of the Batman mythology: that he and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, that the Batman's vigilantism has less to do with altruism than his own borderline psychosis -- he fights the way he does as a means of confronting his own demons, and as a result is always already ambivalent about their methods and effects. Secondly, the "need" for vigilantism in The Dark Knight has less to do with an extraordinary enemy than with the fact that the system itself is corrupt and broken. The Batman is an acceptable ally to Chief Gordon and Harvey Dent because they know they simply cannot trust any of their own people.

Thirdly, while the Joker is undoubtedly a terrorist, he is no ideologue -- except insofar as anarchy and chaos are the basis of an ideology. Part of his glee lies in forcing people into situations where they make choices that dehumanize them. One of the great pivot-points of the story is the Joker's version of the Prisoner's Dilemma: two ferries dead in the water, wired with explosives, each of them with a detonator that will blow the other ship up. If neither ferry blows the other up by a certain point, the Joker will destroy them both. On one ferry, normal civillians; on the other, hardened criminals being transported. The point of the episode is that both ships choose humanity, much to the Joker's puzzlement and disappointment. Which choice do you think the Bush Administration have made, given their systematic dehumanization of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib? (For the record, the orange jumpsuits worn by the prisoners made my mind jump to Gitmo while watching).

Sigh. Here's a few more choice tidbits:

"The Dark Knight, then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year's 300, The Dark Knight is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans."

"Why is it then that left-wingers feel free to make their films direct and realistic, whereas Hollywood conservatives have to put on a mask in order to speak what they know to be the truth?"

"Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course."

"And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values; and that while movie stars may strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes, true heroes often must slink in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised -- then and only then will we be able to pay President Bush his due and make good and true films about the war on terror."

I think my favourite moment is when he cites 300 as an exemplar of "the values and necessities" needed to fight terrorism. I hope Bush reads this and realizes he's only got a few more months in which he can kick the Iranian ambassador into a well.

I read this column incredulously, wondering what the hell has happened to The Wall Street Journal that this kind of tripe gets printed? And then I remembered: Rupert Murdoch bought it.
Speaking of people who need to be kicked into a well.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The President that might have been

Watch this. Please.

This is exactly the kind if call to arms that Roosevelt issued when he said "There is nothing to fear but fear itself," and when Kennedy said "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." It heartens me that Stephane Dion seems to be working in the same vein.

When did we become so afraid of vision? Of big answers to big problems?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Happy Birthday, Morgan!

My wee niece Morgan turns 3 today, which seems impossible to me ... I'm pretty sure it was just yesterday that she was a tiny little loaf wrapped up in a hospital sheet. And look at her now!

Happy birthday, Miss Morgan! I'm so sorry I can't be there to celebrate #3 with you ....

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Things I considered posting these last two and a half months

Oops, there went a week without a post. Did I worry you, my last three or four readers? Well, I won't make extravagant promises about returning to the old frequency with which I posted once upon a time, but I'll try to maintain a minimum of one post a week. Hopefully that will get me back into the blogging habit.

At any rate, my online silence didn't come about for lack of postings. Quite frequently topics presented themselves to me, but as a result of busyness, ennui, or simple laziness -- all coupled with the blog-killing tendencies of Facebook (damn you, Facebook!) -- these posting ideas receded into the horizon of my thoughts, finally becoming old news-enough that it felt odd to waste electrons on them.

So here's the Coles Notes, then -- all the stuff in a nutshell that was on my mind since the beginning of April. There's more than this, actually ... these are just the greatest hits, as it were.

1. Puffins, Icebergs, and my Mom.

My lovely mother visited me for a week in mid-May and was treated, much to my chagrin, to some of the most frigid May weather I've ever experienced here. She was also treated, much to her delight, to the biggest crop of icebergs in recent memory. Everywhere we drove, as long as we could see the ocean, we could see icebergs. To cap it all off, we drove down to Ferryland one day (the weather had mercifully warmed somewhat), and walked the trail past a massive grounded berg; and then drove to Bay Bulls and took the O'Brien's boat tour to get up close and personal with the ice ... and see puffins. Which, I must add, are the most comical of animals, even edging out penguins and ducks. Watching them try to take off from the water and end up skipping like stones while trying to get their speed up counts as one of the most hilarious experiences of my life.

2. My Father, the (Not-so-Ancient) Mariner

While my mother was visiting the Rock and bundling up against the cold, my father was in St. Maarten in the Caribbean preparing to sail with some friends to New York City. A friend of my parents, a member of the same yacht club as them, has been tooling around the Caribbean with his wife on their 36-foot sailboat for a few years. Unfortunately, the wife's health has deteriorated, precluding further shipboard life ... leaving the husband with the task of bringing the boat home. Enter my dad and two other sailor friends, who agreed to help. For somewhere in the neighbourhood of four weeks they sailed north, with a stop in Bermuda, braving everything from Coleridge-esque doldrums ("Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down, / 'Twas sad as sad could be, / And we did speak only the break / The silence of the sea") to a few genuine Atlantic gales. Said my father when all was done, he was happy he was able to do this ... and now, he'll never do it again.

3. The Endless Democratic Primary

Yeah, I'm not saying any more than that. I'm just happy we're on to the next stage.

4. My First Time as External Examiner

Back in, oh, April I think, I got an email from Kristen saying that Tim Blackmore -- a friend, and professor of Media Studies at Western in the faculty she works in -- had been casually asking her about when I might be visiting London this summer. I had just booked a flight for late June, but she couldn't remember the dates exactly, so she suggested I email him directly. This I did, telling him when I'd be in town. And received this response, in I think minutes (those who know Tim will recognize his markedly calm and retiring manner): "AHA AHA!!! I want to borrow you, son, for a verrrrry important, important I say, defense! (Some Foghorn rolled in last night)."

The long and short of it was, Tim needed someone as an external on a Masters thesis he had advised, and given that there is no money available for Masters' externals for travel &c, the fact that I would be conveniently in town anyway rocketed me to the top of the list (hey, it's an honour just being nominated).

I was, needless to say, quite delighted to be asked -- it was my first external examination, the thesis looked cool, and I was happy to do a favour for someone I hold in high estimation both professionally and otherwise. The thesis in question, "Augmented Ability, Integrated Identity: Understanding Sapienism, Adaptive Technology, and the Construction of Disability," was written by a quite remarkable student named Jeffrey Preston, whose muscular dystrophy has confined him to a wheelchair since a young age. Did I say confined? I mean he has been liberated by his wheelchair, a technological device that gives him a freedom of mobility he would not otherwise have. His thesis very thoughtfully reconsiders the cultural values and stereotypes attached to disability, and focuses on the way in which dystopian narratives of technology actually contribute to the negative perception of such devices as wheelchairs. Suffice it to say, it was a remarkable piece of work for someone that early in his academic career.

5. Rachael Ray: Terrorist

This one's my favourite.

You are probably familiar with that annoyingly saccharine Food Network personality Rachael Ray; what you might not know is that she's a terrorist sympathizer. In addition to her other (too many) appearances on television, Ray has been schilling for Dunkin' Donuts. In an ad for some iced coffee product or other, she is wearing a patterned scarf. Conservative pundette and blogger Michelle Malkin -- who now has the dubious distinction of being slightly more insane than Anne Coulter -- posted on her blog that the scarf in question is in fact a "keffiyeh" of the sort routinely worn by Arab men (Yasser Arafat would be the most obvious example here). OK ... I can see the resemblence ... but Malkin, making with the insane, goes further to note that this is an example of "jihadi chic" and "hate couture," and that she hopes Ray's fashion choice "was spurred more by ignorance than ideology."

Seriously? Seriously. Malkin later defended her comments by claiming that western designers have deliberately marketed such scarves as statements of solidarity with Palestinians. Even if this is true -- and I deem it highly suspect -- the easy conflation of Arab=terrorist, or sympathy with Palestine=support of Hamas is rhetoric of the worst, and laziest, kind. As one person commenting on this idiocy mildly observed, "what about all the Arab men who wear the keffiyeh who aren't terrorists?" Let me dig that particular ration out of my notes .... (Incidentally, once of my students wore a nearly identical scarf to class this week. I congratulated her on bringing America one step closer to destruction).

What makes matters worse is that, in an act of cowardice that makes the Lion in The Wizard of Oz look like John Wayne, Dunkin' Donuts pulled the ad. I wish we had one in St. John's so I could boycott it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

When irony fails

So this morning I was contemplating a return to blogging here after my rather unintentional hiatus, rolling around a tongue-and-cheek entry about the controversy over the recent The New Yorker cover, in which Barack Obama is depicted in Islamic regalia and his wife Michelle in circa-1968 Blank Panther gear. I was considering writing a mock-serious constitutional discussion saying that conservatives afraid that Obama's secretly a radical Muslim shouldn't worry, because while he'll certainly convert the executive branch to Wahabism, he'll have difficulty getting around the separation of powers to do the same to the legislative branch ... and indeed that the sheer difficulty of getting the senate to confirm his jihadist cabinet and Supreme Court nominees would effectively bog down his administration for pretty much the entirety of his first term.

Or something to that effect. Anyway, I was kicking this around in my head as I walked back from the student center with my lunch, only to sit down at my computer to see this: in an online poll conducted by WorldNetDaily, 59% of respondents said the image "isn't too far from the dangerous truth about the Obama family."

America, meet satire. Satire, meet America.

Of course, given that WorldNetDaily is an online forum that stands slightly to the right of Genghis Khan, this should not come as a surprise. What bothers me is that a lot of people on the left, including the Obama campaign -- which called the cover "tasteless and offensive" -- are taking offense at what is very obviously a satirical answer to the right-wing attacks on Obama's patriotism (why doesn't he wear a flag pin??), his wife (do we really want a militant black First Lady??), and of course the ongoing harping on his middle name and repeated suggestion that he's secretly a Muslim ... right down to their adorable little fist bump, labelled on Fox News as a "terrorist fist jab." Um ... what?

Part of my annoyance here is fueled by my increasingy frustration with what seems to be Obama's gradual shrinking from the kind of principled stands he started with. He's wearing the lapel pin now ... honestly, the presence or lack of which should never have been a story, never mind a major issue, but once it did he was going to get grief over it either way -- if he didn't wear it, he wasn't patriotic, and if he did, he was a flip-flopper. So why not leave it off? But no ... I swear to god, if he dresses up in camo and goes hunting a la John Kerry, I'm pitching myself off signal hill. (Incidentally, scrutinize the picture of John McCain here: do you see a flag pin? I guess he hates America, too).

I won't catalogue any of the other ways in which Obama has started pandering, reversing positions, and otherwise lurching to the right -- lord knows, you can pick all that up from conservative pundits gleefully fitting the senator out for a pair of flip-flops.

No, I'm just disappointed that his campaign felt compelled to respond to The New Yorker with the language of offense when this was a golden opportunity to rise above the fray like he has at times in the past: to point out that this is satire, and to further note the simplistic thought that underwrites the assumptions being satirized -- that Michelle Obama's ostensible lack of "pride" in America translates into black militancy, that a reluctance to be a jingoistic flag-waver translates into a hatred of country, that being Muslim translates into extremism. I would dearly love to hear Obama stand up and say, "I am not offended that people think I may be Muslim. But I am offended, as all Americans should be, by the suggestion that being Muslim necessarily makes you a potential terrorist. It's the equivalent of seeing every rural Midwesterner as a potential Timothy McVeigh."

Because, really, that's what The New Yorker is saying -- it's pointing to the absurdity and indeed stupidity of that mode of thought.

I suppose Jonathan Swift is lucky he's not writing today. Half the readers of "A Modest Proposal" would try to get him arrested, and the other half would be eagerly flicking on the Food Network in hopes of picking up some recipes.