Latest Blog Posts

In the Atlantic, Paul Bloom has an article about the ways in which having multiple personalities is not a disorder so much as it is a natural part of our psychological apparatus. (The disorder comes when our multiple selves grow unruly.) Bloom is interested in how this proliferation of identities relates to the sorts of questions that often come up in behavioral economics, the conflict between short-term gratification and long-term rational prudence.

We used to think that the hard part of the question “How can I be happy?” had to do with nailing down the definition of happy. But it may have more to do with the definition of I. Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist.

The latter part is what caught my attention, because I’ve had an interest in the concept of vicarious pleasure from when I studied 18th century novels. Bloom notes the ubiquity of vicarious pleasure and it’s centrality to modern life:

The population of a single head is not fixed; we can add more selves. In fact, the capacity to spawn multiple selves is central to pleasure. After all, the most common leisure activity is not sex, eating, drinking, drug use, socializing, sports, or being with the ones we love. It is, by a long shot, participating in experiences we know are not real—reading novels, watching movies and TV, daydreaming, and so forth.
Enjoying fiction requires a shift in selfhood. You give up your own identity and try on the identities of other people, adopting their perspectives so as to share their experiences. This allows us to enjoy fictional events that would shock and sadden us in real life.

I always figured the roots of that primacy of vicarious pleasure were in the development of the novel, since the novel, the printed book, was the first reified form of that elusive pleasure that comes with being able to escape into fantasy, to become another self for the sake of entertainment. For the first time, the kind of self-fashioning became a product that could sit dormant on a shelf instead of an elaborate experience that required social engagement. Typically this pleasure that novels reliably supplied on demand was condemned as “escapism”—and it is an undeniably antisocial pleasure to withdrawal from company into a guided tour of your own imagination.

Novels were also condemned for setting bad examples, for divorcing experience from moral responsibility; as Bloom points out, fictions allow us to experience as pleasure the sadistic doings of a Tony Soprano. Lots of early novels, especially during the “age of sensibility” in the second half of the 18th century, made this their explicit subject—they investigated our ability to sympathize with others and in a way become them, and they encouraged readers to experience vicariously such dignifying scenarios as giving alms to the poor and protecting innocent virgins and so on. Adam Smith founded his moral philosophy on this notion of sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

But the special pleasure of fiction is that you can imaginatively experience both the side of the hero and the villain simultaneously and vicariously derive pleasure from both, nullifying the presumed moral edification that was supposed to be involved. Fiction doesn’t yield just one new self, but multiple selves simultaneously. This proliferation is rightly recognized as a subversive form of pleasure, though early entrepreneurs quickly seized upon it, and used it as the foundation of marketing, which in turn spawned the profitable market for mass-manufactured consumer goods. In trying to sell these goods, the entrepreneurs, proto-Barnums all of them, took their cues from how novels worked on their readers; they presented the goods as opportunities for buyers to imagine new selves for themselves, not mere opportunities to simply acquire useful household items. Goods were transformed into implements of a fantasy lifestyle, less useful in and of themselves than as prompts for deeply imagined fantasies. (Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch offers an extreme illustration of this. In the novel, workers who are marooned on a inhospitable planet are supplied with miniature, doll-house versions of the comforts they have been forced to surrender and a drug that lets them project themselves into the universe of the doll house, and imagine a whole luxury-filled life based those miniatures. The drug proves irresistible and highly addictive.) The early middle class’s experience with fiction, with the forced fantasy of moral sympathy and sensibility, prepared them for the pleasures of lifestyle marketing, whose efficacy helped grow the consumer goods market. From our handling of fictional narratives, perhaps, grows our facility with maintaining multiple selves in a way that is pleasurable rather than psychotic. But do we become addicted to the procuring of new selves rather than developing and integrating the ones appropriate to our situation in society?

Typically, critics of vicarious pleasure (me included) argue that it robs us of the opportunity to experience some true, authentic pleasure, that would presumably reflect our true natures. But if the research that Bloom highlights is correct, it substantiates what postmodern theorists have also suggested, namely that there is no one authentic self whose pleasures and desires need to discovered and privileged—no master self whose integrity is threatened by the simulacrums offered through vicarious experience. Instead we are by nature a plurality of possibilities, anchoring our sense of self in contextual clues, in the exigencies of the moment, and delighting in the freedom of being whatever we can imagine in the circumstances that present themselves, whether it prompted by prepackaged entertainment or by the sort of situations we manage to blunder into in our lives.

In fact, the fantasy of a master self whose authenticity is sacrosanct and unalterable, is one of the appealing fictions that marketing most masterfully exploits. It is always promising us what we “really” want, encouraging us to find and gratify our true desires, to become who we really are, to get in touch with our nature. This “true self” may in fact be the best fictive creation of advertisers, their most pleasing fantasy on offer—the “real” you” that knows no contradiction or insecurity or indecisiveness about what it wants. Perhaps it is no accident that shopping has become the primary forum in which we seek to discover the authentic self; that may be the only habitat in which such a creature exists.

It holds a sacred place in the science fiction fan’s heart. It’s also the source of much engorged geek consternation. Science aside, the narrative joys and plotpoint illogic of time travel has fueled a great deal of future shock cinema. From assassin androids traveling to the “past” to erase the human responsible for their eventual destruction to present practitioners running through history rewriting the record book, the notion of messing with space and chronology has delivered a fair amount of speculative sturm and drang. For many, one of the best examples of the genre is The Final Countdown. It’s ‘world at war’ storyline seems to avoid many of the pitfalls while supplying a good amount of realistic revisionism.

While on maneuvers in the Pacific, Captain Matthew Yelland receives civilian observer Warren Lasky on his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. Under strict orders from his boss, Mr. Tideman, Lasky is supposed to observe, then report back to the mysterious man responsible for the vessel’s design. This bothers Air Wing Commander Richard Owens a great deal. After passing through a freak storm, the Nimitz suddenly finds itself lost in time. The year is 1941, and the world is in chaos. In fact, the date is December 6th, one day before the Japanese attacks and destroys Pearl Harbor. Thus, a quandary is created. Does the Nimitz and its crew prevent the surprise ambush, thereby rewriting history? Or do they let events play out, recognizing that any interference could condemn their own existence? Over much onboard handwringing, a surviving Senator and his daughter may also play an important part of the overall equation.

A prime example of enthusiast devotion circumventing some dated cinematic approaches, The Final Countdown is one of the best examples of the “what if” genre ever attempted. And because of its subject matter, it’s also one of the most frustrating. For those with a knowledge of America’s battle-weary past, the concept of a modern aircraft carrier arriving in the Pacific in time to stop the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is just too good to be true. A whole set of futuristic free associations come from the juxtaposition of contemporary technology with 1940s fighting power. Once the Japanese had been defeated, would Germany have been far behind? Would we have needed the A-bomb and millions of deaths to finally stop the Axis rampage, or could a group of misplaced modern warriors wipe out war once and for all? Or maybe, interference would have aided in a Nazi triumph?

It’s this sort of speculation that makes movies like The Final Countdown work, and for a while at least, actor turned director Don Taylor indulges them. A true Tinsel Town journeymen, the filmmaker responsible for everything from a musical version of Tom Sawyer to the first Omen sequel has a wonderful way with actors. He brings out the best in such top flight talent as Kirk Douglas (Yelland), Martin Sheen (Lasky), James Farentino (Owens), Charles Durning (the Senator), and Soon-Teck Oh (an enemy prisoner). Their seriousness and sense of purpose really drives the authenticity of what could have been contrived and rather unrealistic. For those who like action and effects however, The Final Countdown is sort of a let-down. Indeed, in those pre-CG days of 1980, the aerial dogfights and ship to shore spectacle can feel a tad…antiquated?

But thanks to the cooperation of the US Navy, which went out of its way to help the production, and Taylor’s no nonsense cinematic approach, The Final Countdown succeeds. It may be more provocative than thrilling, and does raise questions that the otherwise solid script (a group effort by four separate writers) fails to fully address, but it’s the internal mechanisms, the ability to wonder about the effect on history - and consequentially, our current global situation - that really sell the situations. Tempers may flare and scenery might occasionally get chewed (with Douglas, Sheen, and Farentino around, that’s a given), but Taylor’s matter of fact filmmaking keeps everything comparatively in check. That’s why fans keep coming back to it even after nearly three decades. 

All of which makes this, the first blu-ray release from exploitation experts Blue Underground, both completely understandable and a tad curious. With a huge stockpile of material to draw on, The Final Countdown seems like a surreal choice for the fledgling format. Indeed, when one thinks of high definition releases, a movie from 28 years ago doesn’t typically draw one’s immediate attention. Sure, fans will celebrate, but getting the uninitiated interested will take something more than definitive technical specs. Luckily, the updated transfer is truly excellent. As part of the HD process, the 1080dp image is very strong. The colors are smooth and there is a decent amount of grain. There are nice black levels, a strong sense of detail, and an impressive “modern” feel to the filmmaking.

As for the aural aspects of the release, the lossless 7.1 DTS HD Master is excellent. The speakers get a real workout during the infrequent but effective battle scenes. There is also a 7.1 TrueHD and a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround mix. The DTS is the best. When it comes to added features, however, the Big Blue U grabs a few extras from previous standard DVD releases and makes them available here. The full length audio commentary is interesting, but since we are only getting the limited purview of cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (no other member of the cast or crew participates), it can be very dry at time. On the other hand, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (who acted as Associate Producer and played a small cameo role) gets a chance to vent about his ‘horrific’ experience on the film. The pilots involved in the production also get a 30 minute featurette that is quite fun.

Sure, some will argue that the movie is nothing more than a dolled-up propaganda film for the US Navy, the magic hour shots of planes circling the Nimitz inspiring enough jingoistic joy to get even the most sensible citizen oiled up and aiming for their nearest recruitment center. And then there’s the whole space/time continuum argument, a bubbling brain buster than can have even the most learned MIT graduate crying cinematic “Uncle”. Still, for all its specious sci-fi friction and old school stuntwork, The Final Countdown is actually quite entertaining. It may not satisfy those still smarting from their own time travel trauma, but it does meet with the genre’s provisional motion picture aims. And on the new digital format, it’s never looked better.

Beware of tricks and treats kiddies, for tonight is Halloween. The last Friday in the month also promises from interesting cinematic candy, though some may be a bit sour. For 31 October, here are the films in focus for the weekend of the 10th:

Zack and Miri Make a Porno [rating: 10]

With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.

Thanks to its mainstreaming by the media (and the ever-present lure of easy access via the Internet), pornography has gone from stern community scandal to goofy necessary evil. It satisfies an obvious craving while providing suspect psycho-social suspicions. It also fosters a multibillion dollar industry, and as they say, money changes everything. Some adult stars have even made the semi-successful move into straight entertainment. Jenna Jameson touts her books and b-grade horror films, while Mary Carey turned her addiction into a run on VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab. Now Kevin Smith is getting into the act, turning the plight of two Pennsylvania pals who are low on cash into a clever comment on Bush’s America, human ingenuity, hardcore histrionics, and the map of the human heart.  read full review…


Rocknrolla [rating: 8]

Decidedly darker than previous Ritchie offerings, Rocknrolla struts and preens like a chuffed chart-topper with a debilitating drug habit should.

It’s been easy to dismiss Guy Ritchie as of late. The soon to be former Mr. Madonna has done little outside the limelight to distinguish himself, and the career choices he’s made since marrying the Material Girl, are suspect to say they least. He bombed with both his remake of Swept Away and the lame Las Vegas heist pic Revolver. Now Madge is pulling the plug, and Ritchie appears reinvigorated. While no one will mistake it for anything remotely original - especially in light of his two international hits Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - Rocknrolla represents a true return to form. Inventive while staying exactly the same, Ritchie reminds us that his kind of cock-up comic crime thriller can be incredibly satisfying…and why he was once its UK king.  read full review…


Changeling [rating: 7]

Changeling is a very good movie that misses being great by the smallest of margins.

The Clint Eastwood renaissance has been a joy to behold. While many thought his 1992 Oscar for Unforgiven would mark the culmination of an amazing, four decade long career, the new millennium has seen an amazing string of cinematic gems. In the last three years alone, we’ve witnessed Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Now comes Changeling, a 1920s period piece about the notorious Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, and the one woman who stood up to the incredibly corrupt LA county police system. Naturally one expects a stumble after such a string of special efforts, but this is not the fall. Unfortunately, it also has a hard time fitting in with the rest of his considered classics.  read full review…

For a debut single, especially from a band of wide-eyed and excitable young rock ‘n rollers, “Love Me Do” feels like a curious selection. It’s a decidedly mid-tempo and almost drifting amble that showcases patience far more than promptness. The Beatles don’t achieve any sort of boisterous rush within its running time and clearly didn’t intend to. The lyric, which simplifies the pursuit of love down to a mere request, seems underdeveloped and repetitious even by the standards of early ‘60s pop. As Steve Turner points out in A Hard Day’s Write, the word “love” makes over 20 appearances (it’s noted that Paul began writing this when he was just 16 or 17 years old. Even so….). And the song’s focal point, not to mention its most effective asset, is John’s performance on the harmonica, which provides well-measured texture throughout the chorus and verses, a quirky solo that memorably stands in for what might have been a guitar part, and, of course, the fluttering, blues-thick intro. Evidently the harmonica section helped convince George Martin of “Love Me Do’s” potential as a single. He had originally wanted to release the Fab Four’s cover of “How Do You Do It?” as he would again the next time around before agreeing to “Please Please Me”. It’s a testament to the Beatles’ underlying ingenuity and Martin’s solid pop instincts that they arrived at this oddball-ish tune for the group’s historic entry onto the radio waves. It peaked at #17 on the UK Singles Chart in late 1962.

However, listening to the song in 2008, I’m not certain that it’s among the Beatles’ imperishable classics. On Please Please Me alone, I think “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Twist and Shout”, and the title track belong in the first tier of quality with “Love Me Do” atop the second. Maybe it’s the modern urge for easy climaxes and quick gratification that prevents this inhibited and leisurely paced number from fully satisfying (my ears, anyway). Maybe my sensibilities are more at fault than the song’s casual way about things. Undoubtedly, “Love Me Do” is a charming song with skillful components and passages: the aching unison that Paul and John strike on “Ple-ee-ee-eeease” right before the chorus, Paul’s at times expertly tempered vocal, and the thumpy rhythm that naturally incorporates Ringo’s tambourine hits (Andy White played percussion on the UK album version which I’ve used for my commentary here). But, overall, it seems slightly less than the sum of its parts and lacks the spark to have been fast tracked for the Beatles’ canon. It strikes me as overrated but not unreasonably so.

I am very happy that the pro-sports team that I care about the most, the Philadelphia Phillies, won the World Series last night, something I have often doubted I would ever see again. Their triumph seemed to vindicate a by-the-book approach, as “baseball lifer” Charlie Manuel, the Phillies manager, stuck to familiar recipes for success and trusted his players to perform, while opposing manager Joe Maddon, regarded as a kind of baseball intellectual primarily because he wears distinctive 1950s-scientist eyeglasses, tried some unconventional moves that ultimately didn’t pan out.

It’s a novel experience for me to have the baseball season end with my team winning the last game played, but what I’ll probably remember from the season is less that sense of total relief when it’s finally over but the recognition of the passive spectator’s impotence that grows as the stakes get higher for the team you’re rooting for. As the Phillies progresses through the playoffs, I became more and more superstitious, assigning significance to entirely meaningless aspects of my life—which door did I enter work? which train did I ride to my friend’s apartment to watch the game? which chair did I sit in? what beer glass did I use?—as if these things would have an impact on the outcome of games. I desperately wanted to feel like what I was doing mattered to something that had become (perhaps disproportionately) important to me, but the more important the games were, the more desperate my ludicrous magical thinking would have to become. But it’s only when the Phillies secured the last out and they were celebrating in a pile on the field did it struck me with a bolt of undeniable clarity that my watching had nothing to do with it. My sense of agency had left me completely, and I was filled with pure vicariousness, a peculiar baseless pride that is bound up uniquely with participating in mass fandom. It’s exhilarating but also sort of scary.

I’ll probably forget that feeling as it is replaced with nostalgia for what just happened, and agency will be restored to me in the way I describe the big plays and the peculiar way I felt about them as they happen. I’ll turn the Phillies’ World Series win into a story about me, for anyone who’s willing to listen.

//Blogs

The Best and Worst Films of Spring 2015

// Short Ends and Leader

"January through April is a time typically made up of award season leftovers, pre-summer spectacle, and more than a few throwaways. Here are PopMatters' choices for the best and worst of the last four months.

READ the article