This week: This hospital needs new doctors, or at least someone to spell check the medical forms that patients sing. Er, sign. When helpless patients, charismatic doctors and spelling errors on procedural documents are this common, it’s easy to see why you might need a brain transplant, right?
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At the NYT site, Stanley Fish recently posted this essay in response to Francois Cusset’s new postmortem, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Having recently re-read 1984, the discussion had extra salience for me, as most discussions of theory eventually get around to the attempt to control thought and reality through language, as Orwell illustrated with Newspeak.
Walter Benjamin argued that “the only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” Orwell in 1984 was implying the same thing. The Party obliterates the past and makes its hope inaccessible. Was deconstruction doing the same thing?
French theory is usually taken as an assault on Enlightenment thought, and therefore a threat to liberal society as we know it. Fish modifies this slightly:
what was involved was less the rejection of the rationalist tradition than an interrogation of its key components: an independent, free-standing, knowing subject, the “I” facing an independent, free-standing world. The problem was how to get the “I” and the world together, how to bridge the gap that separated them ever since the older picture of a universe everywhere filled with the meanings God originates and guarantees had ceased to be compelling to many.
The solution to the problem in the rationalist tradition was to extend man’s reasoning powers in order to produce finer and finer descriptions of the natural world, descriptions whose precision could be enhanced by technological innovations (telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, computers) that were themselves extensions of man’s rational capacities. The vision was one of a steady progress with the final result to be a complete and accurate — down to the last detail — account of natural processes. Francis Bacon, often thought of as the originator of the project, believed in the early 17th century that it could be done in six generations.
This is what Fish calls the Baconian dream, the Enlightment project of an airtight scientific explanation of all observable phenomena, which replaces the need for God as an explanation. Secular folk generally take this sort of thing for granted nowadays, and we tend to have a blind faith in the benevolence of science.
Summing up the general thrust of deconstructive theory, Fish invokes this quote of Hobbes’s: “True and false are attributes of speech, not of things.” In other words, truth is manufactured in discourse and is malleable. 1984, which is preoccupied with the totalitarian implications of a Berkeleyesque idealism (wherein there is no reality outside the mind), takes the absence of a 100 percent verifiable real truth outside of human minds and runs with it. In the novel, the Party must eradicate once and for all the fantasy of independent, noncontingent truth to reduce everything to power, which they monopolize. This supplants what Fish calls the Baconian dream in providing “the final word” on nature. The Party is the final word on everything in 1984, and it utters that final word in whatever form suits them as the unknowable Real moves on. The novel makes clear that science is at the mercy of politics, and serves political ends, not objective, neutral ones.
But Fish is right to say that deconstruction, which sets out to expose the political agenda of seemingly objective practices like scentific method, is itself apolitical. As he explains,
No normative conclusion — this is bad, this must be overthrown — can legitimately be drawn from the fact that something is discovered to be socially constructed; for by the logic of deconstructive thought everything is; which doesn’t mean that a social construction cannot be criticized, only that it cannot be criticized for being one.
But though some academics harped on social construction of gender and the canon to try to expose and unsettle established “natural” hierarchies, most others realized that the deconstruction game was a never-ending spiral that pulls down all authority if pursued to its logical conclusion. It’s not a very useful tool in and of itself, since it can be used only to make one argument—there are no given truths. But the inescapability of this conclusion led ultimately to an enhanced interest in “historicity” among academics in American English departments—in the absence of absolutes, various socially constructed phenomena (i.e. everything) could be compared and critiqued after being “situated” in a historical moment through close reading “texts” (i.e. everything). And various discourses regarding said phenomena could be surveyed and a dignified role for literature asserted—it’s constructing historical reality! You can then bypass more-tedious research and its decidedly undramatic conclusions for intuitive leaps of insight derived by sensitive readings of novels and tracing patterns of tropes. This means that you don’t have to do much more than parse the rhetoric in a text to draw historical conclusions from it and start making a transhistorical case for the “invention” of this or that ontological category. Then you can write books discovering the invention of the fact, the invention of shopping, the invention of woman, the invention of basically everything. Better yet, these categories are constantly reinvented because they have no firm universal basis.
The problem with French theory is less its assault on truth, but its assault on clear straightforward expression. Its jargon is an even more recondite Newspeak than that spoken by Enlightenment rationalists, with their zeal for coining words to categorize everything. The near-incomprehensible discourse in your average text by Lacan or Derrida became a convenient tactic for professionalizing academics to adopt in order to demonstrate that what they were doing was over their philistine critics’ heads. It also made for a useful test of graduate students’ willingness to play by the rules (will they write in this putrid style to keep enemies at bay?) and doggedly attempt to follow absurdly nuanced trains of thought, which make needless distinctions apparently designed to confuse and alienate the less learned, who can’t even begin to contextualize what is at stake in such dithering. One night with Kristeva or Spivak quickly weeds out the nonbelievers.
But deconstruction—the idea that ideology is constructed and malleable—has mainly been a boon to advertising, supplying a working model for undoing prejudices against, say, wasteful spending or frivolous identity-making. Deconstruction immediately opens the possibility of ongoing, perpetually incomplete (and perpetually profitable) reconstruction. Hence women are always “becoming” women and men, men, and so on.
Happiness [Video] (Releasing 14 April on 2 x CD, 7” picture disc and download in the UK)
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Tae Parade [MP3]
Bobby & Blumm
In Future Present [MP3]
The Other Side [MP3]
Hozanna (acoustic) [MP3]
To Be Gone [MP3]
The Sweetest Tooth [MP3]
It’s bad enough that European gamers have to wait longer than gamers in the States for consoles and games. But the recent Rock Band pricing announcement for Europe really sticks it in and breaks it off. In the UK, the cost for the whole thing will be roughly $350 in American dollars, and the rest of the continent has to pay around $375 American. While the VAT tax is being used, at least partially, to defend the price hike, that tax is around 17.5%, which doesn’t really translate to doubling the price.
One of the most ridiculous defenses comes directly from Rob Kay, director of design at Harmonix. In an interview with videogamer.com, he said: “This is a different experience. You cannot have a multi-player, multi-peripheral game be in the same price point as a regular game. What it delivers is so much bigger and so much better. We understand that people are going to feel a little bit aggrieved about it but we hope that playing the game will override that feeling.” I’m having trouble understanding how this “different experience” is different from the “different experience” that was released in the US last year for half the price.
I can’t justify spending the price of a console for a game, particularly one where the high price comes from peripherals. Steel Batallion, anyone? You almost had to buy the second game in that series to justify having blown $100 on the first one. I guess it remains to be seen if the money I’ve spent on the Rock Band peripherals will be a decent investment. Harmonix is starting to have a history of not supporting interoperability between the peripherals it produces and the various games for which they probably should work. I had trouble deciding to whether to purchase Rock Band, even living in the States. If I lived in Europe, I’d almost certainly just have to play at a rich friend’s house.
At first, the headlines were so bizarre as to be hilarious. The German government, or more specifically, the department in charge of the nation’s motion picture production approvals and locations, was refusing to let Tom Cruise make his new movie, Valkyrie, in their country. It had nothing to do with the storyline—a failed WWII plot among Nazi officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Though still a slightly tenuous subject, the German people have become less sensitive on the subject.
No, the stated rationale was that Cruise, as a member of the controversial Church of Scientology, was a prominent member of a ‘dangerous cult’. The country would have no part in his presence. The firestorm surrounding the decision caused the standard back peddling, and within days, Valkyrie was welcomed with open arms. Oddly enough, if the nation wanted a more legitimate reason for banning the movie, they need look no further than the director in charge.
And apparently, such a sentiment has born the bitterest of motion picture fruit. While it was originally set for a Summer 2008 release, Valkyrie was pushed back to Fall in what many saw as a bid for awards season cred. Now, word has come down that the almost completed picture will wait until Spring of 2009 to debut…you know, those notorious cinematic dog days of January through April (13 February to be exact). Like being given the death sentence, such play date exile signals one obvious sentiment - the movie is a bust. But when you consider the name behind the lens, that’s really not too surprising.
That’s because Bryan Singer is a hack. In a flummoxing fanboy realm where every movie he’s helmed has been deemed an instant classic, he’s barely better than a dozen far more despised directors. What, for example, makes Singer better than Mark Steven Johnson? Both have overseen half-baked comic book movies, and yet everything Mr. Ghost Rider and Daredevil does is condemned. The same lame characterization and average action sequences also appear regularly in Singer’s sloppy oeuvre.
For that matter, why does our X-Man get labeled a true devotee of the funny book artform when Sam Raimi holds a similar Spidey stature? Could it be that Singer fails to own an Evil Dead like cult constantly circling its unwelcome wagons around its maker’s many moves? Indeed, you’d think Raimi would rate higher than this wannabe auteur, and yet so many give big Bry a pass that you’d swear they were on his personal payroll.
Looking back over the six full length features he’s helmed—and discounting the independent effort Public Access for now—it is clear that Singer lucked into a situation that, once it occurred, he found almost impossible to repeat. Said circumstance was the happenstance of buddying up with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. A high school friend, the two budding filmmakers collaborated on a pair of projects, one of which would go on to skyrocket the duo to instant Tinsel Town fame.
Its name was The Usual Suspects, and thanks to a critical community desperate for something different in the standard crime/caper genre, the talky, showboating cinematic stunt became a sleeper hit. It also gained the pair unexpected Hollywood clout, thanks to many appearances on year-end lists and a pair of Oscars (neither for Singer).
Yet the next step for both seemed highly unusual. McQuarrie, who actually owned one of those two Academy Awards, worked on a failed television pilot (something called The Underworld) while Singer took over the adaptation of one of Stephen King’s beloved Different Seasons stories, Apt Pupil. In fact, he had long wanted to tackle the project, and sent the famed horror author a copy of Suspects as kind of an audition reel.
Bringing in another childhood buddy—Brandon Boyce—to write the script, Singer made sure to walk as carefully to the edge of the story’s controversial narrative (a young boy discovers a nasty Nazi war criminal in his neighborhood, and picks up his violent mantel) without ruining his mainstream mandate. Unfortunately, a specific artistic choice got the entire production in hot water (Singer filmed a non-sexual shower sequence featuring several unclothed male minors), and in the end, the movie was only mildly successful.
All the while, another friend named Tom DeSanto was planting the seeds for the filmmaker’s first mega-success. A lifelong comic book geek, the production executive desperately wanted Singer to take on the big screen adaptation of the fabled Marvel characters, the X-Men. With its obvious undercurrents of racism and intolerance, it was a project that intrigued the director. Numerous scripts were floating around, many of which were quite faithful to the characters origins and attitudes.
Singer, however, wanted to somehow bridge the gap between the fictional and real worlds, and he imposed changes on the property to ‘modernize’ its approach. Devotees of the characters were instantly up in arms (Issue #1—the new black ‘Batman’ like suits) and many feared Singer couldn’t appreciate the importance of this long delayed adaptation.
It was clear that, in the end, he really didn’t. X-Men stands as the sloppiest of big screen comic book movies, a leap in artistic logic that believes in manipulating material to fit both the demographic and business model the film is forged within. Thanks to advances in special effects, the various mutant powers owned by the characters are convincingly realized, but Singer fails to find actual personalities within each supposed hero and/or villain.
In fact, he seems to think that backstory (Magneto as Holocaust survivor) and the stench of abject racism (the narrative revolves around a politician who wants to expose the mutant population as a possible threat to society) will fill in the obvious blanks. Suffering from average action scenes, an excess of explanatory exposition, and way too many players to properly manage, the movie remains an ineffectual mess. While there are those who find it almost flawless (especially compared to the plethora of similarly styled movies that it spawned), it’s really nothing more than a magnified misfire.
Still, money talks in the BS world of moviemaking, and with nearly $300 million at the box office, X-Men was viewed as an unqualified success. Singer was heralded as the new voice of comic book cinema (soon to be overtaken by others more deserving, including Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro) and he tried to parlay that professional delineation into his next few creative choices. But Hollywood loves to lock artists into previous payoffs, making sure that their triumphs are owned outright and reliably repeatable.
Contractually obligated to make X-Men 2, Singer had to drop out of a couple of high profile projects in order to accommodate the studio’s sequel needs. Wanting to take a more ‘human approach’—i.e., focusing on the reactions of society against the unusual and the different—the director drew up a new motion picture battle plan. Of course, he ran directly into the suits desire for more of the same, and it wasn’t long before X2 (as the newest installment was called) arrived, easily following the dollar-based directive.
While a step up artistically, especially in the epic scope and size of the storyline (an almost unlimited budget will do that for you), X2 shows that Singer still has no idea how to combine heroics with emotion. The main characters remain icons, unable to break out of the special skills that more or less define who they are, and without Ian McKellan as prime villain Magneto and Patrick Stewart as good guy Dr. Charles Xavier, the central conflict of the film would have no performance power or potency.
Actresses Halle Berry and Famke Janssen lobbied hard for more significant screen time, and the balance between male and female mutants frequently feels shifted based on star quality, not storyline needs. With the action only slightly improved from the first film, and an inconclusive finale that simply sets up the next installment in the series, X2 was a preachy, arrogant attention whore. Naturally, the viewing public ate it up, twisting the turnstiles to the tune of nearly $400 million.
It’s at this point where Singer starts throwing his movie franchise muscle around. In 2004, his TV medical drama House, M.D. , found a home at Fox. Later that year, negotiations began for X-Men 3. But Warner Brothers, desperate to get back into the superhero game, were looking for someone to helm their Superman revamp. A long dormant disaster, everyone from Kevin Smith to Tim Burton had taken a swipe at reviving the Man of Steel, and with moneymen behind the mutants balking at Singer’s latest demands, Kal-El’s keepers saw a chance to get one of the two main names in the genre (Raimi, the auteur behind the ridiculously popular Spider-man series being the other). Singer jumped at the chance to reimagine Kyrpton’s last son, and Fox responded by handing over the reigns of X-Men: The Last Stand, to the Rush Hour reject, Brett Ratner.
Though slightly hurt, Singer couldn’t have cared less. He had Clark Kent’s alter ego to deal with, and the problems were paramount. The project had little believability or bearing and the graphic novel basis for much of the jumpstart was forged out of publicity ploys (the Death of Superman) and Dark Knight style stunts. Looking over the character’s cinematic arc, Singer proposed something radical.
He would forget everything and anything that came after Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s ‘70s interpretation of the material, and make a movie that picked up where Superman 2 left off. While fans were flummoxed, Warners was sold. The new direction was approved and casting commenced. Chalk one up for Singer’s sense of what would sell. Unfortunately, it would be the last cognizant decision he would make as director.
His first significant stumble came with his choice of actors. No, Brandon Routh would turn out to be a wonderful choice (he’s a great Man of Steel), and old pal Kevin Spacey (who won one of his two Oscars under Singer’s guidance in The Usual Suspects) was an obvious - and rather easy - Lex Luthor. But Kate Bosworth is a hideous Lois Lane, incapable of bringing anything remotely realistic to her portrayal of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She’s a lousy damsel in distress and an even worse example of self-sufficiency. In this post-modern, post-feminist world, she crumbles the minute danger rears its routine head. She is supposed to illustrate the broken dream of Superman’s disappearance, but she’s really nothing more than an un-pretty pie face playing with the big boys.
Then there is the overall art design. Somewhere along the line, Singer fell in love with the notion of tweaking the image as far over into the blue spectrum of color as possible. Noticeable even to the untrained eye, the azure tint to everything from cars to clothes is oddly unsettling. Perhaps he thought it would give the entire production a more comic panel feel. Instead, it frequently feels like someone has purposefully fiddled with your retina’s rods and cones.
As for the action, the opening space shuttle crash is wonderfully executed, and when the Daily Planet’s trademark globe is dislodged from the top of the skyscraper, Superman’s rescue of said object is powerful in its impact. But the rest of the movie is undermined by a real lack of focus—specifically, in what Lex Luthor plans on doing with his newfound appreciation for crystals and kryptonite.
From a sloppy haired super offspring (who looks about as threatening as a Little Rascal’s waif) to a finale that’s all spectacle and no substance, Superman Returns was not the pinnacle of Singer’s production powers. Indeed, it once again highlighted all of his inherent flaws. Unlike Raimi, who perfectly balanced emotion with excess in Spider-man 2, or Nolan, who found a flawless combination of psychological and physical conflict in Batman Begins, Singer’s characters are all flash.
They appear to be reaching for depth, but unless they are capable of seeing beneath the surface (like Routh did for his turn as Superman), they end up coming across as flat and totally dimensionless. Even the heroes he chose to highlight in the X-Men series—Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm—are more outer shells than insular individuals, defined almost exclusively by their special skills. The intriguing thing about Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne is that, at least in their current cinematic incarnation, they are people first, pillars of super heroism second.
This is why Singer sucks. He’s all about the surface, his constant concerns about subtext all smoke and unskilled mirrors. Outside the genre, he’s had limited direct success (Suspects was McQuarrie and Spacey’s baby, the vast majority of House is helmed by others) and so few people have seen his Sundance winner Public Access that it really doesn’t count. Any other filmmaker would be called a wounded one trick pony, especially since the X-Men have now been largely overshadowed by other, better comic book movies.
This doesn’t mean that we should write off Bryan Singer for the near future. It merely indicates that, as some kind of savior, as a go to guy for every epic idea that comes down the pipeline, he should have to wait in line like dozens of derivative others. He’s not the greatest director of kinetic eye candy, and his films can’t compare to the efforts of those who’ve followed.
Valkyrie could have changed all that, but now it looks like it won’t get a chance (not that it deserves one, obviously). Of course, if it does manage to resonate with audiences, it won’t be a solo Singer success. He will once again have a lot of significant help. McQuarrie is back penning the script, and Cruise still holds some clout, even if his pre-War of the Worlds/Mission Impossible III antics cost him some demographic percentage points. But having the German government diss you before a single frame a film is shot (granted, it now seems like a massive miscommunication) and now having a studio shuttle you off the box office main stage is not the most promising of possible omens.
And yet, when Bryan Singer is involved in a project, it seems that something has to be slightly askew. It helps explain his ineffectualness come opening day, providing a built in excuse where something more personal is definitely the issue. How this translates into his status as an A-list director is still astounding. He’s no different than a dozen mediocre moviemakers (Tim Story, are you listening?) who get lucky tapping into an uninformed audience zeitgeist. He not special—he’s substandard. This makes his continued ascension into the ranks of motion picture powerhouses as puzzling as ever.