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by Bill Gibron

6 Nov 2008

Hollywood hates poking fun at itself. While it’s handled its fair share of good natured cinematic ribbing, once we get to the seething scalding takes like The Stunt Man or The Player, amiability turns instantly to animosity. Heck, even a comedy like Tropic Thunder seems overwhelmingly mean-spirited. Ex-members of the Tinsel Town elite are notorious for burning as many drug and debauchery induced bridges as possible, with examples like the late Julia Phillips’ tell-all tome You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again arguing both in favor of and totally against personal reserve. Now comes What Just Happened? , based on Art Linson’s memoir about his (mis)adventures as one of the industry’s leading producers. With Barry Levinson behind the lens and Robert DeNiro heading an all-star ensemble, what could go wrong? The answer - EVERYTHING!

Ben has big problems. The test screening of the film he produced starring Sean Penn was a disaster, and his latest movie won’t start shooting because its lead, Bruce Willis, has arrived on the set overweight, angry, and covered in a mountain man level of facial hair. While his boss, the no nonsense Lou Tarnow, wants these issues resolved pronto, Ben hasn’t the backbone to figure out how to fix them. Instead, he obsesses on his second wife, the beautiful if insecure Kelly, and worries about Zoe, his teenage daughter from his first marriage. In between, there are battles with hot tempered directors, egomaniacal actors, ineffectual agents like Dick Bell, and a friend/screenwriter who, when not pitching scripts to Ben, is possibly pitching woo to Kelly. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, or death. Ben, however, is barely driven to distraction.

What Just Happened? commits so many cardinal motion picture sins that it should be excommunicated from the entertainment arena on principle alone. It wastes the talents of several sensational performers, leaving actors like Willis, John Tuturro, and Stanley Tucci looking absolutely lost. It takes what should be a potent insider skewering and turns it into a pseudo-sudser where the character’s melodramatic meandering substitutes for La-La Land insights. It proves that, where once he was a mighty maverick of individual filmography, Barry Levinson is now back in tattered Toys mode - self-indulgent, lazy, and utterly lacking in artistic, creative, or commercial merit. And this after the one two bombardier-ing of Envy and Man of the Year. But perhaps the greatest abomination created by this 104 minute affront is that it is never, ever funny. Not when DeNiro does his sheepish schlep routine. Not when Willis goes bug-butt over his beard. Not when a Tarantino like filmmaker argues for the aesthetic integrity of a scene where criminals kill a dog in a full blown head shot.

It goes without saying that What Just Happened? is stiflingly bad. It has one redeeming element, and she - Catherine Keener as a no bullshit studio executive - is on and off screen so rapidly she barely has time to register. The rest of the time we are left with characters we care little about, problems that have no basis in the real world, and plot contrivances that push the very boundaries of the “based on a true story” paradigm. Linson may indeed be taking liberties here, going far too fictional to protect the innocent (or the regularly litigious). In the book, Alec Baldwin was the prima donna celeb, and Fight Club was one of the incredibly troubled productions. On screen, such authentic intrigue would have been a welcome internal connection. Let’s face it - viewers love gossip. But when turned make believe, the already larger than life facets go rogue. As a result, they reinvent the narrative into something like a fetid Aesop’s Fable, sans moral.

The cast, of course, is no help. They see this as their chance to bite the fiscally beneficial hand that constantly overfeeds them, and when they’re not chewing up the scenery, they’re mentally checking the zeroes on the end of their paycheck. Willis is especially weird, ranting and cursing during his hackneyed hissy fits like he forgot the cameras were rolling. He’s constantly threatening to break out into a ‘wink at the audience’ smirk. Similarly, Tuturro milks his cowardly yutz agent for less than 10% of his narrative worth. This is perhaps the worst performance he’s ever given - and no, we aren’t forgetting Transformers. Only Keener and Robin Wright Penn (as the iconic Kelly) save face, and it’s no thanks to Levinson. Directing in a manner that uncovers no pacing or comic timing, What Just Happened? winds up looking like a badly dubbed foreign film.

And then there’s big Bob. DeNiro has never been an easy fit within the comedic genre. Unless he’s playing with his own tripwire type (Meet the Parents), he comes off as a Shakespearean snob doing dinner theater. Here, he’s actually not bad, affecting a neurotic nebbish persona that could best be described as Woody Allen via Hell’s Kitchen. There are times when he is just a Paul Rudd impression away from being a total cliché, but he imbues Ben with enough dimension that we don’t instantly dislike him. No, it takes nearly an hour and one bathroom pick-up later to find our lead to be loathsome. Once Ben goes overboard into stalker mode, everything about What Just Happened? fizzles and flops. The ending seems anticlimactic and unimportant, the resolution offering the standard middle finger salute to audience attentiveness and consideration.

Frankly, something like this works better on the page, the brain free to recreate the scene where studio execs literally dodge some of the directorial choices made by David Fincher in Fight Club. We can do a much better job of watching the prose Linson lumbered across the Ethan Hawke version of Great Expectations than watching a English dope fiend argue why a dog has to get shot in the noggin. One might argue that What Just Happened? is too inside to connect with everyone. Only those who truly understand the business called show will snicker at Levinson’s labored satire. Everyone else should steer clear. Movies about the movies and those who make them usually don’t deliver in the way a typical mainstream effort would. What Just Happened? proves this point over and over again.

by Rob Horning

6 Nov 2008

Andrew Gelman’s rundown of what happened in the 2008 U.S. presidential election has attracted a lot of attention, much of it directed at his finding that Republicans lost voters among the young and the very rich. This seems to be the fruits of running a jingoistic, anti-intellectual campaign that appealed to base forces of ignorance, race hatred and xenophobia. Will Wilkinson characterizes the cause of this as “secularization”:

Rich people who don’t go to church are especially socially liberal. The richer they get, the less they prioritize economic issues over social issues, as Inglehart’s “post-materialism” theory predicts. And, if I recall from recent surveys, there has been a big decline in religiosity among the young, which tends to go along with an increasingly socially liberal cast of mind. The overall effect is that the Republican Party has become too socially conservative for increasingly secular wealthy people and increasingly secular twenty-somethings. The GOP is now pretty clearly the party of the religious, white, middle-aged and elderly middle class–not a group with a shining political future.

An interesting assertion, since we so often hear that America is an extremely religious country and growing more so all the time. Candidates who reject evolution are not immediately laughed out their attempts to run for national office. Much political energy is expended debating the role of the words “under God” in the U.S. pledge of allegiance to the flag that many public-school students are basically forced to recite. Politicians who plainly reject church-state separation and seek to build their base by using the church as the basic building block are rife. Megachurches are presumed to be growing more and more mega, and prosperity gospel seems poised to become even more appealing as what will likely prove to be a long recession takes hold. But I hope Wilkinson is right, and that the same forces that encourage the exploitation of religion politically have also been at work in the media, prompted various outlets to trump up its omnipresence to cater to what is in fact a dwindling niche.

This fits in with my sincere hope that a stronger Republican party (or some new center-right third party) emerges from this election. Already there are signs of civil war in the G.O.P. with the proudly ignorant wing of the party trying to root out the “lepers” who gave “aid and comfort to the enemy” in questioning Sarah Palin’s qualifications. For those who dread the influence of religious bigotry on politics, nothing can be better than this rupture between those on the right who wish to engage in serious debate and the overgrown children who are excited by loyalty oaths, enemies lists, demagoguery and mass manipulation in the name of imposing their simplistic world view. (For another sampling of this mentality, read this WSJ op-ed, which Steve Benen suggests might be the most foolish editorial every printed in a national newspaper.)

So I agree with Greg Mankiw when he worries about the disappearing Young Republicans (as if such inquisitional campaigns as “Operation Leper” weren’t enough to permanently alienate young people still making the effort to think). “So what does the Republican Party need to do to get the youth vote back? If these Harvard students are typical (and perhaps they are not, as Harvard students are hardly a random sample), the party needs to scale back its social conservatism. Put simply, it needs to become a party for moderate and mainstream libertarians.” I wouldn’t join that party personally, but it would sharpen the public debate over meaningful issues that actually admit discussion. After all, when a party’s politics are basically religious tenets, as they have become for the G.O.P., there is no room for discussion at all.

It seems almost intuitively clear that nothing about the Republican platform has much appeal for the young: the essence of social conservatism is to legislatively constrict choice for the preservation of society as it has already been crystalized by an earlier generation and passed down through religious institutions. Historically, it’s an ideology that has been imposed on youth only by force. The high-profile young Republicans of the 1980s seemed to be overrepresented in media presentations, but these P.J. O’Rourke types seemed to be attracted not by the social agenda so much as the freedom from political correctness (that bogus specter so dear to right-leaning demagogues—complaining about political correctness is tantamount to whining, “Oh, come on, let me be a bigot. It’s funny!”) and the Republican championship of greed—the freedom to say whatever you want and hoard as much as you want.  Considering the manner in which tax cuts have been at the heart of every Republican campaign since Reagan, greed has really been the essence of the Republican appeal across the board. Can the young be inspired to be greedy rather than idealistic once again? Will there be an uplift fatigue, a weariness with the sort of earnest crusading that is already becoming trendy and found dramatic expression in the righteous street celebrations of Obama’s victory?

No one was happier than me that Obama won; I felt an enormous sense of relief. But I wonder about the people who would have felt uninvited to those street celebrations, and fear their hardening into a silent reactionary majority. Republicanism may rise again out of sheer contrarianism, a weird inversion of identity politics that has individuals choosing party allegiance out of novelty and the need for distinction rather than any ideological sympathy. No doubt much of the youth vote is earnestly liberal, but the profusion of Obama T-shirts and buttons reminded me of being in Philadelphia, seeing all the Phillies regalia people were wearing. Obama’s triumph among the young seems less a triumph of ideology than a triumph of an excellent, stylish youth marketing campaign. (McArdle makes a related observation, that Obama became a rooting interest, and his “fans” are now gloating.) Clearly there is a bandwagon effect with Obama, and he appeals to voters at a vicarious level. He enhances people’s sense of themselves without securing a single political accomplishment. If the ideology of youth is ultimately consumerism, Obama has proven a very attractive lifestyle good. But he will lose this appeal as he becomes a familiar, oversold brand.

by L.B. Jeffries

5 Nov 2008

In response to the fuss caused by the Mass Effect “Sexbox” controversy, a lot of bloggers and YouTube Critics were quick to note that the game hardly features any real sex. A little bit more digging however, and a frank reality began to strike some people: it’s not like sex has ever been handled maturely in video games anyways. Daniel Floyd’s excellent video on the history of sex in games makes a simple conclusion: if sex is an expression of love, then we need to handle the topic maturely and allow players to express in appropriate ways. Which I heartily support and believe sounds great in theory.

It’s just that I can’t think of too many times in an artistic medium where the first forms of sex depicted were done for any reason other than…depicting sex. Thinking of that as an ends rather than a means may be crude, but it’s also a bit more realistic in terms of how one gets the ball rolling. There are several interesting sex games out on the web now that vary from the tasteless to the tasteful that explore this. Starting with the tasteful is the free to download Dark Room Sex Game. Using the keyboard or Wiimote (provided you have a bluetooth rig), you have to develop a rhythm with the moaning in the game until you can induce an orgasm. The game has no graphics and is instead entirely based on sound and in the Wiimote’s case, vibrating. You press keys until you match the pace of moaning with the partner, trying to synchronize so they can have an orgasm. The game gets much more interesting once you use the co-op or orgie-op modes of play as each partner has to coordinate the moaning with the person standing next to them. It’s an interesting game because it responds to Floyd’s chief complaint about sex in games being belittling to women thus far. Playing the game with your partner (or orgy members) is going to result in requests to ‘slow down’ or ‘speed up’, etc. Rather than the sex being a one-sided affair, it instead takes on a supportive and team-oriented game design. I’m not trying to give myself an orgasm, I’m trying to give one to the other person.

Back on the subject of tastelessness is the recently released indie game BoneTown. Acting like a cross between Grand Theft Auto and a Ron Jeremy Sex Guide (he’s actually in the game), BoneTown is basically an exercise in masculine empowerment. You go on missions to improve your style, cash, and ‘balls’ power. This, in response, lets you increasingly score with more women and pleasure them better. I’m not going to really defend the game one way or another since I haven’t played it, but it has good production values and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It would probably be more respectable if it let you play as a woman, but that’s a psychological mirror even my male, job before social-life, mid-twenties singledom brain might not be able to handle responsibly. But at least the game is honest about the RPG mechanics it’s using and it beats the creepiness of two World of Warcraft players arguing over whose sword is better. At the very least, it gives people something to say whenever a deranged parent or news network is raving about some barely nude kissing sequence in a videogame. “That’s not a video game about sex. This is.”

by Bill Gibron

5 Nov 2008

Michael Crichton was a big man, and not just in stature. At 6’ 9”, he definitely did tower above his peers - at Harvard where he graduated summa cum laude, at the prestigious university’s medical school where he earned his doctorate; among his fellow science fiction writers; and on the set of his hit TV series ER. But he was also a man of big ideas, big successes, and toward the end of his life, big controversies. His accomplishments play like a greatest hits compilation in the main mediums - literature, film, television - he worked within. But upon his passing from cancer at age 66 on 4 November, 2008 one fears he will be remembered for his more contentious nature than his artistic accomplishments.

Crichton was born in Chicago on 23 October, 1942. A prodigy of sorts, he was interested in history and the humanities from a very early age. His mother would take the family to museums and other cultural experiences in and around New York City (the Crichton’s had relocated to Roslyn, Long Island, when Michael was still small) and the strapping student would often offer extra papers to his teachers. Growing faster than the other children, he survived the occasional razzing by losing himself in writing and books. He even wrote a play at age nine. By the time he reached Harvard, he was a bit of a wunderkind. He started writing novels, and publishing them under the pseudonym John Lange. Eventually, he penned The Andromeda Strain, and in 1969, it became a bestseller. Using his given name, it established Crichton as a genre author of formidable note.

And the hits just kept on coming. Among the over 100 million books he was responsible for selling, he crafted The Terminal Man (1972), The Great Train Robbery (1975), Congo (1980), Sphere (1987), Rising Son (1992), Disclosure (1994), and Prey (2003). But his biggest success came when a chance conversation with Stephen Spielberg revealed the plot for Crichton’s upcoming dinosaur-oriented thriller. Mr. Blockbuster snapped up the rights before it was even published, and with that, Jurassic Park became a literal monster. Not only did it bring CGI to the otherwise ordinary giant b-movie creature feature, but it turning Crichton and his catalog into the go-to oeuvre for future book to film adaptations.

Of course, many forget that, in addition to writing, the gentile giant was also a decent director of big screen fare. With the amazing success of Andromeda (which was made into a wonderful film by Robert Wise in 1971), Crichton was given a chance behind the lens. When the TV movie Pursuit (based on his political assassination tome Binary) was well received, he made the leap to the theater, delivering one of 1973’s most provocative and profitable films. Westworld told the tale of a theme park where robots fulfilled the fantasies of its patrons. When a gunslinger android goes rogue, it’s up to a group of visitors to avoid his preprogrammed wrath. Successful enough to mandate a sequel (1976’s Futureworld), it provided the creative carte blanche that Crichton needed.

His next film would be an adaptation of Robin Cook’s organ bank fright fest, 1978’s Coma. It representing a weird kind of aesthetic synchronicity, as both men were medical doctors turned successful novelists. With Michael Douglas in the lead, it turned into a sizeable smash, and this allowed Crichton to pursue more personal projects. In 1979, he adapted his own Great Train Robbery as a vehicle for Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. Unfortunately, the follow-up, 1981’s Looker, was a plastic surgery disaster. While staying well within Crichton’s signature themes of science gone astray and technology trumping common sense, it was not the cautionary tale triumph of previous efforts.

Prior to hitting paydirt again with Park (which he merely scripted with help from David Koepp), he offered up the unexceptional sci-fi slop Runaway, perhaps best known for its casting of Kiss’s recently unmasked Gene Simmons as the main villain. After taking on the turgid Physical Evidence (1989) as a director for hire, Crichton seemed uninterested in continuing in film. While he contributed to the script of the Jan de Bont disaster smash Twister, Crichton seemed content to sell his stories to the studios, and then watch as adaptation after adaption failed to live up to his words. But when Park became a worldwide phenomenon, Critchon recalled the first project he and Spielberg discussed. A proposed novel about a doctor’s life in a bustling hospital emergency room, the TV take known as ER bowed in 1994. This year, 2008, marks its 14th and final season on NBC.

Over the course of his three and a half decades in the spotlight, Crichton never shied from his scientific background or his own interests. He wrote four non-fiction books - Five Patients (about his experiences in Massachusetts General), Jasper Johns (about his personal friend and renowned artist), Electronic Life (an introduction to the home computer) and Travels. He also did extensive programming for both the Applesoft and Basica PC languages. But as the new millennium approached, Crichton stopped sitting on his simmering beliefs and began spewing what many thought to be misguided and mean spirited attacks on environmentalism, the media, and what he considered to be the ‘contestable’ theory of global warming. He even went so far as to offer up a band of mass murdering eco-terrorists as the main plot point for his 2004 work State of Fear.

As each new novel was met with a decreasing level of excitement, Crichton appeared to turn inward. In his last published work, the 2006 “missing link” genetic research shocker Next, the author introduced a minor character named Michael Crowley. Described as a pedophilic Yale Graduate with a small penis, it was seen by some as a petty retort to the real life Crowley, himself a Yale grad and writer for the New Republic. Apparently, he penned a column highly critical of Crichton, and the resulting literary reference was a rather obvious if crude attempt at payback. When he learned he had cancer, Crichton asked that his soon to be published book be held until after his death. The still untitled effort should be released sometime later this year or early next.

Whatever the subject - and speculation among the messageboard faithful is fierce - it is clear that the standard Crichton commercial craftsmanship will be there. Issues that don’t ring true to him will be challenged and chopped up, fed like fodder to a mainstream audience who may not even understand the expressed nuances. Much more than just the man responsible for bring dinosaurs back into the pop culture conversation, Crichton was like Arthur C. Clarke without the knack of precognitive tech accuracy. He took on the growing influence of Asia with Rising Sun, and argued about sexual discrimination - in reverse - with his controversial Disclosure. He often bristled at criticism, complaining that many made their condemnations without actually thinking through their arguments. Up until the end, he remained a contentious contemporary thinker.

But one shouldn’t forget his pre-politics persona. As one of the few science fiction writers with an actual commercial following, Crichton proved that the speculative genre could be as compelling and profitable as Stephen King’s horror or the seedy soap operatics of someone like Jacqueline Susan. Indeed, long before he gave us the return of the T-Rex, Crichton was commenting on the frequent future shock society experienced with the endless march of progress. It’s no surprise then that many of his books take on and deconstruct the big picture painted of the world around us. After all, with someone like Michael Crichton, everything was and still is big - even his legacy.

 

by Rob Horning

5 Nov 2008

Writing in the New Yorker, John Lanchester compares the current credit crisis to a Derridean aporia:

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect.

Often, the temptation in graduate school was to deploy this insight to assert that there are no essential meanings, no essential values, that basically everything is relative and nothing—say, authorial intent, a person’s identity, an emotional experience, the aesthetic merit of a text—could ultimately be authenticated. I’m not sure the same thing is happening in the financial world with derivatives—which are well-explained at this site. By definition, derivatives derive their value from something else, but in the financial realm, the “movement of the trace,” as Derrida would have called it, is not arbitrary—the value of derivatives are not at the mercy of random concatenations of contiguous assets. Bankers may have neglected the black swans, as Nassim NicholasTaleb has argued, but the nature of the derivatives themselves did not alter depending on the perspective of who was trying to decipher them. The peculiarity of derivative is that they allow investors to go short or long on concepts (say, the idea that G.M. will go bankrupt) rather than physical assets. This makes it sound as though there is no there there, which makes it seem very postmodern. But the key distinction in Saussurean linguistics is that the relation between the signifier and signified is entirely arbitrary. The premise of derivatives is just the opposite; contracts are drawn up to bind the parties around some very specific relation of an asset to its future value.

What is so “decentering” about deconstruction is the notion that meaning is constructed in the arbitrary relations of signifiers to other signifiers, and the total detachment from the signifieds. Financial derivatives don’t detach from the underlying assets, as I understand it, no matter how opaque they may become. The problem in the crisis is not that value, like meaning, is inherently fluid (and that isn’t even meant to be a pun on the illiquidity problem) but that the original amount of valuable stuff was wildly disproportionate to the amount of value being circulated in the financial system. The system was overleveraged.

The closest postmodern equivalent for this would be the notion that there is no value to begin with at the heart of things, only a convenient fiction that value exists: a Master Signfier that seems to give stable meaning to the rest of the signs and allows the joy of the free play of signifiers to begin. If you accept this, then you can argue that the crisis has come because somehow people began to question the necessary fiction (I’m not sure if this is what causes the aporia in Derrida’s argument) and began believing that it wasn’t fiction at all. The peculiar notion that gold has some intrinsic value is a better example of this; the value of gold is in what you can exchange it for, so it must keep moving. If you hoard it, thinking you are gathering value to yourself, you have become lost in the delusion of original, inherent value. The point is that all value is constructed in circulation. Meaning is created through the movement of the trace; the trace itself has no inherent meaning—it’s not the master signifier, even though people may need to believe it is so to start it moving.

Anyway, the tendency to mystify the doings of financial “geniuses” with this kind of postmodernist analysis is dangerous, I think, because it masks the much more apprehensible truth that the credit bubble had become a Ponzi scheme, a game where continued returns depended on recruiting new suckers—new unqualified borrowers, new pension funds to buy up fallaciously rated AAA CDO tranches, etc. That makes for a better metaphor for the crisis than the word games of postmodernists, and is more likely to inspire the sort of regulatory action we should be taking in response to it.

Famously, the only option left open to us by postmodern philosophy is a kind of hopelessness, the “fatal strategies” of apathy or silence or heedless surrender. These are appropriate if you truly believe the entire notion of meaning or value is a sham, that every action helps reinforce the system you want to escape from. But if you believe that companies in a capitalist society actually are productive, that GDP really is a measure of value, that the economic output of a society consists at some level in things we all need to distribute and consume, then postmodern strategies are rhetorical disguises best used to distract people from that actual value while you try to secure more of it, i.e. more power over how the output of society is distributed, for yourself.

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