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Wednesday, Nov 1, 2006

Earlier at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen wondered why more people seem to be smoking in New York City then in Northern Virginia:

1. Social networkers head to Manhattan, and social networkers smoke.
2. In Manhattan it is more important to signal you are cool.
3. Air pollution is higher, so the marginal health cost of smoking is less.
4. New York is colder, and that makes cigarettes more enjoyable.
5. The “artsy” variable is doing most of the work; of course this is related to #1 and #2.
6. NYC life is more stressful, and smoking calms some of these people down.
7. Many of them are poseurs, and these smokers don’t have such valuable human capital.

Cowen claims to lean toward #2, which makes sense; being cool is more significant when you are amidst a greater concentration of strangers to whom you must signal your importance, strangers who themselves are likely to be ambitious and judgmental by virtue of being in New York City in the first place. All this ambition makes cool a currency; it has value when you are among people who treasure it; cool is not so valuable when you are in Perkasie or Moorestown. In New York, you feel the pressure to leave an impression at a glance almost every minute you are in public (which is far more frequent, with most transportation being public), and perhaps some conclude that smoking is a means to do this, especially considering all the attractiveness and sex appeal that advertising has labored to attach to smoking. The grammar of smoking gestures immediate cast a person into a familar role; these gestures—the composure of a person who enacts the ritual of having mastered fire—are legible to everyone. But I wonder if the cool of smoking hasn’t been diminshed recently by the inconvenience now associated with it via indoor smoking bans. Cool and convenience, both pillars of consumerist ideology, are closely associated; smoking may require too much effort to come across as casually cool, yet it has no aura of connoisseurship to make its difficulty valuable.

A perceptive commenter adds:

(8) Smoking allows people to take breaks in offices without signalling shirking. There is greater fear of shirking and supposition of shirking in New York for cultural reasons.
(9) Because New York is denser and higher volume the perception of number of smokers is inflated. This both effects your measurement, but it also encourages more smoking on the margin.

These were two notions that occurred to me too when I first read this. The indoor smoking ban creates a opportunity for this kind of break excuse, and then the bunch of smokers milling in front of skyscraper office buildings creates the illusion of Parisian levels of smoke exhalation. Ultimately I think smoking organizes time usefully for smokers and provides an excuse for idle, open sociability while also generating a rhythm that makes such communication flow more naturally. It creates a quotidian reward system to augment our brain’s failing one; I think in this way it complements stress and seems to relieve it. But all it does is set little meaningless goals in the face of stress having wiped out our ability to see our way through to more meaningful ones or having destroyed our natural, hormonal reward system.

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Wednesday, Nov 1, 2006
by Jennifer O'Connor

Jennifer O’Connor Tour Diary, Entry #3
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Hello! It’s been almost a week since my last confession. We left off in Missouri, I believe, where we played the Randy Bacon Gallery. They were super sweet there and I especially liked the poster display outside the club on the sandwich board:

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Tuesday, Oct 31, 2006

Don (2006)
Dir: Farhan Akhtar

Poised to open on the biggest holiday weekend of the Indian calendar, (October 20th-21st, the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali) which fortuitously coincides with the Islamic celebration, Eid-al-Fitr, Farhan Akhtar’s Don is perhaps the most highly anticipated Bollywood movie of the year. That means that over a billion people, from Mumbai to Lagos, from Singapore to London - even all the way to Jackson Heights, NY, await its arrival in thrall. The film marks the return of star Shah Rukh Khan, to the screen. It’s been three years since his last picture. To his legion of fans, three years is like an eternity. Shahrukh is a celebrity demi-god: Tom Cruise before he succumbed to “creative suicide,” Leonardo DiCaprio circa Titanic. Mass hysteria hounds him wherever he goes.

Don is a remake of the 1978 gangster movie of the same name, which was then Bollywood’s answer to Shaft.  Chandra Barot’s original movie exudes Bombay blaxploitation—mod costumes, violent brawls, harshly erotic love scenes, and an atmosphere that oozes 70s funk.  The plot centers around a rakish, good-natured street-performer named Vijay who is the spitting image of a sadistic, Goan mafia kingpin named “Don.” The Indian police quickly put unsuspecting Vijay to work as Don’s decoy, allowing them to penetrate the leader’s seamy underworld. But the mafia is on to the police plot, and they kill the only inspector who knows Vijay’s identity, leaving Vijay fighting for his life to outfox the mob and the police on his own.

Akhtar’s Don does away with some of silliness of the 70s film in favor of plausibility. Here, Vijay is a struggling single parent, trying to make ends meet as he reluctantly agrees to the dangerous assignment. Updated to the 21st century global sensibility, the movie takes us to Malaysia, where international crime bosses evade the grasp of the Indian police to control the Mumbai underworld from afar.

Journalist, Sukhetu Metha, writes that the term “underworld” is really a fallacy in India, and in Asia in general. Crime there exists in an overworld. Dons are pictured in society pages. They manage international narcotics rings and inaugurate hospitals. Lawlessness permeates every aspect of urban life in the business and media, from the small family mom-and-pops to the multinational corporations. It only augments the sense of helplessness of the individual and widens the abyss between the wealthy and the rich.

Elements of John Woo’s Hong Kong films pervade the storyline—the stylish characters spiraling towards destruction in a city controlled by ruthless triads. Woo’s flamboyant American debut, Face/Off, is a strong influence: two men with the same face, the cop posing as a gangster, the gangster posing as cop, two versions of the same anguished man.

The clothes and technology have changed, but the badass sensibility still remains. Don is an unequivocal star vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan precisely because Barot’s original film was also a star vehicle, for the young Amitabh Bachan, India’s biggest and most beloved movie star. Khan is stepping into big shoes here. Yet the show is his and his alone.

Even though Sharukh Khan is, at this moment, in the very epicenter of stardom, his position is precarious.  He is Muslim in a predominantly Hindu country where the emotional and political divide between religions is as explosive as the one in Northern Ireland.  Market analysts have surmised that Don will do well in secular, urban centers and in the Arab and East Asian market, but not in so well in Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of India, the hotbed of Hindu fundamentalism.

In spite of the communal tensions surrounding its release, Don cleverly captures the essence of India: the glitter of the metropolis, the cultural mélange of Muslim and Hindu, the rustic honesty of the Indian worker, and the unyielding power of greed. The movie is set primarily in Kuala Lumpur. The Petronas Twin Towers, Malaysia’s national landmark, standing tall at over a 1, 400 feet, serves as the centerpiece to many of the film’s pivotal action scenes, bathed in green light against the night sky; Through gaze of Akthar’s lens, Kuala Lumpur positively glistens with mystery and menace. 

Malaysia is a modern, inclusive Muslim state. Many of the extras are Muslims, the women in headscarves and the men in skullcaps. And yet the song sequences on the street are deeply rooted in Hindu culture and phraseology. Particularly “Khaike paan Banaras-wala” (“Chewing a paan from Banaras really opens up the mind!”), sung after Vijay is stoned on a traditional Indian marijuana-laced milkshake. It is full of the vigor and rustic charm that’s reminiscent of tribal India.

Khan’s song sequences are the high points of the movie, if only for the sake of the sheer amount of energy he pours into them. Like with all musicals, the bulk of characterization in Don plays out in the songs. And the composers, Shankar, Eshaan, and Loy, have created the perfect score to set the film’s mood.  They move from Don’s cool menace to Vijay’s earthy playfulness and provide some entertaining respite from the barrage of action. “Main Hoon Don” (“I am Don”), the obligatory villain entrance number, is a P. Diddy style spectacle with Don clad in sunglasses and velvet Shanghai Tang jacket surrounded by glitzy shindig dancers and swirling cigarette smoke. Though lacking in substance, “Main Hoon Don” is dark and atmospheric, bringing us into the mobster’s tantalizing lair.

The same mood is evoked by the better written and staged, “Aaj Ki Raat” (“Night Falls…”), a retro-disco number with an eerie, seductive feel. The real showstopper, is the rousing religious hymn, “Maurya Re” (“O Lord, O Father”), sung by Vijay in devotion to the god Ganesha. The entire sequence is saturated in vibrant colors, full of graceful temple dancers, gleeful extras, and clouds of pink powder. There’s a recurring sprightly melody played out on the electric guitar that’s positively infectious.

But the boldness of Don is the ending, in which the plot unravels to reveal a surprisingly equivocal turn of events. It’s one of those haunting denouements, along the lines of the ending in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll. Throughout the movie, Akhtar explores the question faced by Vijay: Are we good people pretending to be bad, or are we bad people pretending to be good? In a movie that seems to glamorize the mafia, Akthar fervently condemns them and the men who invariably get away with it all because they’re masters at exploiting our vulnerabilities, our need for justice.

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Tuesday, Oct 31, 2006

After nearly a month of horror highlights (and some significant lowlights) SE&L will be regaining its critical composure. As part of the post-terror healing process, we present five days of Forgotten Gems - films that have fallen through the cracks and that definitely deserve a second look. Beginning with the latest in Bollywood wonders, our retrospective will cover everything from Dogma ‘95 efforts to classic period pieces. But don’t worry, we’ll be back Monday, 6 November with a bunch of brand new features, including a Beginners’ Guide to Exploitation, a look at the best that Criterion has to offer, and that most maligned of motion picture presentations, the Misunderstood Masterpiece. Until then, enjoy.

The SE&L Staff

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Tuesday, Oct 31, 2006

As someone who tried to figure out things that were way over his head at a very early age (in elementary school I tried to build a working ATM machine from post-it notes and paper clips), I have a romanticized notion of autodidacticism, of the fortifying rigor of trying to teach yourself things not for anyone’s approval or for good marks or for career advancement but for the sheer expression of curiosity, which will then have become something like a pure expression of the life-force. Having balked at becoming a professional academic, I also have a vested interest in imagining that being in graduate school for a long time with no degree to show for it is a badge of honor, proof that I was in it for the love of learning, that I wasn’t going to sell out by finishing that dissertation. I think some legitimate gripes can be made about professionalization—it distorts the incentives behind performing various kinds of research, for instance—but these are no excuse for a full-scale retreat from the conventions of knowledge certification. Communicating ideas and having them ratified by the attention of others is integral to learning anything. (That’s largely the reason why I write this blog.) Without that one plays at going through the rituals of learning in order to foment pleasing daydreams—about mastering electronics, about being able to build furniture, learning Hebrew, programming in Java or whatever.

The Internet has ushered in something of a golden age for autodidacts, because it provides both the free information and the sheltered universe necessary for autodidacts to thrive. Autodidacticism does not purify education; it’s just self-protection. And it easily slips into dilettantism, where one explores a subject only up to the point where it requires some discipline. Autodidacticism is probably as much about miserliness and fear as it is about curiosity—it’s often an attempt to amass a kind of theoretical power from knowledge while preventing oneself from ever having any occasion to test it. It’s an expression of a fantasy about knowledge—that it is not socially created but is instead laden with inherent value, like gold, and can be possessed and cherished in isolation. Autodidacts withdraw knowledge from the social circuits and contexts that make it useful and meaningful—that facilitate the exchange and syntheses that produce knowledge—and hoard it, using it to seal themselves off completely from the judgments of peers.

At 3 Quarks Daily, Justin E. H. Smith, a philosophy professor, shares a saddening exchange he had with a self-taught crank, in which he makes many insightful remarks about the plight of the autodidact. He prefaces the exchange with this apt question: “Why, oh why, would anyone choose the parasitic social role of the self-trained loner philosopher, who enjoys none of the social capital of the professional, and who inevitably will be unable to communicate with anyone whose opinion carries any weight at all in society, never having learned the appropriate behavioral and lexical cues that make communication possible? What are the social factors that make these men (and they are always men) possible?” (I’ve ventured my answer above—you begin by wanting the illusion of authority without the danger of failure and end up in the hermetic world of the outsider artist who has invented his own language and mythos and who mistakes incomprehensibility and obscurity as proofs of superiority—call it the Gaddis conundrum.) Here Smith highlights that influence (or recognition) rather than information mastery alone is the typically the point behind education, and professionalization is the means by which influence is organized —influence is a form of capital, subject to scarcity, and there’s an economics to its management. Influence is produced, distributed and consumed according to socially constructed rules; but the dream of the autodidact crank is a short-cut around those rules: the power of the novel idea is supposed to trump all social processes by the sheer explanatory power of its insights, yielding the lone genius the resepct of society without his having to build the coalitions to give his ideas currency. Once again, for the crank, ideas are not currency and their value is not contingent—they are inherently valuable and precious, like gold or diamonds.

After Smith is insulted by his correspondent—who wrote that Smith’s refusing to entertain his radically comprehensive ideas about the nature of civilization was a “failure to uphold truth” and “a betrayal of your duty, your community, and yourself”—he replies with some bitter medicine: “It is not at all surprising that no one has been interested in ‘refuting’ what you have to say. What you have to say seethes with outsider frustration. It is a call for attention, not an invitation to dialogue.” To needlessly extrapolate: When one spirals too far into autodidacticism, one’s yearning for recognition can become totally distorted and all-consuming. The crank becomes fixated on getting recognition precisely for ignoring the accepted methods for procuring it, and the pursuit obscures the possibility of actual communication. Everything becomes personal, yet the autodidact believes he is transcending petty problems like personalities and networking and so on.

Naturally, the crank did not take this well, and Smith made a final attempt to reach the crank by holding up a mirror to him, describing him as “the autodidactic outsider who retires from an intellectually undemanding career in which he was never able to cultivate stimulating idea-based relationships, and at some point gets it into his head that he has something far more important to say than he in fact does.” This is a fate I personally fear, and one of the reasons I’ll periodically return to Marx’s idea of importance of meaningful work as the basis for human fulfillment. Many jobs are in fact designed to prevent idea-based relationships, while the jobs that do foster such relationships seem to be increasingly held by a clique, which only intensifies the outsider feelings that produce cranks like Smith’s interlocutor. At some point the gap between those with the ability, the social/cultural capital, to work within the system to procure social recognition, and those without becomes unbridgable, despite the enormous opportunity afforded by the Internet for communcation among people of different levels of professional qualification. Internet-assissted autodidacticism seems as though it would permit sincerely interested people find the conversations that could enrich them, and certainly it does that, but it also becomes another forum in which the self-obsessed can glumly experience their neglect and pyrrhically revel in the absence of conversation—it permits the illusion of communication without requiring a writer to make any efforts to obtain an audience; it allows one to be ignored on an even grander scale.

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