Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

"Ten things I hate about Tom Cruise"

Usually we have some pretty serious shit on this blog. But here's something shallow, to show how deliciously shallow we as a nation are. It's a piece about hating Tom Cruise.
Over at Blogcritics, one Sekimori has so far gotten over 250 passionate comments with this Cruise-hating post. Generally, a good Blogcritics piece about say, Iraq, may get 50 comments, tops. I post her piece because it will give you a major insight into our nation -- that parsing pop culture means way more to us than parsing the nation at war. Read what really gets our nation's goat:

"I realize that some of you ladies (and men) out there will take great offense to this, but I can't stand Tom Cruise. I don't care that he's been in some of the top grossing movies at the box office, I think he's a hack. I don't care who claims he's the sexiest man alive, I think he's a troll. If I had to nail down the exact reasons why he makes my skin crawl, they would be as follows:
1. He's Short.
Short men bug me. And before the hate mail starts pouring in, let me explain. My personality is very alpha - blindingly alpha. Some men are intimidated by this, short men more so than most. This makes them either instantly hostile towards me or aggressively sexual as if, A) they have to prove something to me, and B) I actually give a shit. I make absolutely no apology for being a strong willed, sharp minded, sexually mature woman. Therefore, short men bug me.
2. The Whole Nicole Kidman Thing.
I believe the consensus in this instance is that he's the ass. Even if it turns out she was carrying Raoul the Pool Boy's child, there's no excuse for causing a woman to lose a pregnancy. And, yes, I do blame that on Tom Cruise. He and Red had reportedly renewed their vows in a "romantic Christmas ceremony" then he filed for divorce in February. Shit, if that's romance, I'd hate to see the results of an actual fight!
3. He's a Scientologist.
The popular rumor is that Robert Heinlein (one of the greatest sci-fi writers of all time) and L. Ron Hubbard (not) were shooting the shit about religion, when they made a bet: whoever could make the most money off of religion would win. Robert Heinlein wrote the culture changing classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Elron plagiarized a dozen different sources, wrote Dianetics, then formed the laugh-fest that is Scientology. Borrowing the worst of pulp sci-fi, cheap Russian brainwashing techniques and Psychic Friends Network infomercials, Scientology gives the rich and stupid a place to unload both their insecurities and their cash. Their allegedly renounced policy of Fair Game against all unbelievers should be, in and of itself, enough to allow them to be shot on sight. Well, that and Battlefield Earth.
4. His Fake Name.
Tom. Cruise. Now, Cruise is not his real last name. It is his middle name. Whatever. It's kinda sleazy. Mapother is his real last name. Mapother. Never mind. He can keep the 'Cruise.'
5. His Litigious Habits. 
I totally understand suing the guts out of someone to protect your children from actual harm. How is someone calling you a Nancy Boy going to hurt your children? Who are adopted, by the way, aren't they Nan ... I mean Tom? Adopting is good. Many, many kids out there need good homes and adoption is a nice alternative to abortion, even though I would like to state for the record that I'm completely pro-choice. I'm just wondering why you didn't choose to father your own children? Anyway, back to your homosexuality … oh, did I just write that? Silly me, wouldn't want to get sued … you suing a penniless writer would hardly be good for your "heterosexual action star" image, now would it? No? Thought not.
6. He's Not an Action Star.
A friend once asked me, "How is it that he came to be considered an action star when he is approximately the size and shape of a Smurf?" That is a fine question. In fact, I believe there is an entire contingent of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology working on that very thing.
7. Risky Business.
Hated it. Even when I was 16 I hated this movie. The BVDs, the Ray Bans, Rebecca DeMornay (who unfailingly reminds me of a bull terrier), the train scene, the music, the "sometimes you just gotta say, 'what the fuck.' " Hated it all. A worthy edition to the ever expanding library of Films Your Kids Must See if You Want Them to Grow Up to be Assholes.
8. His Foolish Hair. 
I realize there's only about three things a guy can do with his hair (unless he's GAY), but I do think it's about time Mr. Cruise gave the Ken doll back his hair.
9. Eyes Wide Shut.
The fuck? Never in my entire existence have I seen an alleged actor bring less emotion to a project. Mr. Potato Head would have turned in a better performance than this … and had significantly more chemistry with Nicole Kidman.
10. He's Not Sexy. 
He's not. And it's more attitude than appearance. Nan … I mean Tom seems supremely certain of his place in the universe, no doubt because he's paid the Church of Scientology many, many dollars to divine it from the swirl of the hairs on his ass. Well Tom, you ain't all that. You've driven your wife to miscarriage, you make tedious movies (even with John Woo directing) and you've got teeth like big Chicklets.
So there."

THESE thoughts hit our nation where we live (not some pundit's ideas about Iraq or red-blue states). Maybe there's room for a Major Successful Magazine here: a People-type forum that lets writers and readers hold forth on what they hate about particular celebs. Call it People We Hate. Hey, someone do it. Start scouting venture capitalists now.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Heartfelt thanks to our misled and unprotected warriors

On Memorial Day, we'd like to express sympathy to our soldiers, through no fault of their own, for tragically serving our Supreme Commander in restoring the opium trade in Afghanistan, in plunging Iraq into chaos, in lining the pockets of our administration's cronies, Halliburton and Bechtel, and in watching the proud name of our Army defaced by torturers who were given the greenlight by the Supreme Commander and the Secretary of Defense, who let the grunts take responsibilty for abusive practises that they encouraged.

Proud warriors all, you had the misfortune to serve under a Supreme Commander and a Vice-President who made it their business to evade the military service you so valiantly provide, and who as selfish cowards were all the more ready to commit all you brave soldiers to an unnecessary war under false pretenses, and without such bare necessities as vehicle protection against explosive devices.

We are sorry that you continue to die and be horribly wounded for their lies, and sincerely hope that you will one day be allowed to return to our homeland to heal your wounds -- physical, psychological and moral -- in peace.

What are celebrities for?

What are celebrities for? Not to serve as role models, or as people we admire or envy, or as people we emulate or follow. No. We need celebrities for one absolute necessity: to have someone to gossip about. Now that so many of us live lives of isolation in big cities, instead of lives of community in small towns (our only community is the office), we need celebs to give us a sense of community. We need them so we have something to share. We used to gossip about the neighbors; now we gossip about celebs. Thank God they're there to fulfil this most vital of human needs. That's what makes Paris Hilton so appealing. As a rich, spoiled, pretty, shameless hedonist, she's the ultimate gossip fodder.

Quote of the week

"Men are not conditioned to live by reason alone, but by instinct. So they are no more bound to live by the dictates of an enlightened mind than a cat is bound to live by the laws of nature of a lion." -- Spinoza.

The most valuable 30 seconds ever

Merv Griffin wrote the 30-second "Jeopardy!" theme in less than a minute. He says it's earned him "close to $70-80 million."

Saturday, May 28, 2005

GOP torn between Evangelical Talibans and Country Club elite

The Country Club Republicans, whose God is money, are getting fed up with the Evangelical Talibans in their party. First they got embarrassed when Frist and DeLay sucked up to the Evangelicals over Terri Schiavo, and made the Republican Party look like a bunch of intrusive meddlers into the nation's private family affairs.

The Country Club Republicans don't mind using the Evangelical Talibans as their "useful idiots" when it comes to election time, like the Dems don't mind using their own useful idiots, the African-American voting bloc, for election purposes either. But now that the Country Club Republicans find the dicks of the Evangelical Talibans too deep up the asshole of their party, they're starting to gag.

No wonder some reason-based Republicans went behind the backs of faith-based Frist and DeLay to strike a deal with the Dems to nuke the nuclear option that was going to nuke the filibuster. And one day after Frist lost control of his caucus, 50 Republican House members defied Bush's promised veto over stem cell research, his latest sop to the Evangelical Talibans. (After all, stem cell research can help millions of suffering Americans. For example, diabetes afflicts 18m Americans, because of the shit food they eat at McDonalds. Many are children. Diabetes cost us $132 billion in 2002, one of of every 10 bucks spent on healthcare. 213,000 people will die of it this year. Stem cell research might supply a cure. Try telling the nation Jesus doesn't want to cure diabetes. When religion tries to stop science, science always wins.)

The Country Club Republicans are gagging on another sop to the Evangelical Talibans, the undiplomatic bully John Bolton. His ride to the UN is getting bumpy. Meanwhile, Bush is still pushing for social security "reform" (translation: he wants to destroy it), which nobody is dumb enough to buy.

What are the Country Club Republicans to do? They had a winner in Bush, because he combines a silver spoon in his mouth with an Evangelical Taliban dick up his ass. But his faith-based robber-baron ideological platform has left the Republicans with nothing reason-based to run on, come the next election. Besides, the war issue is turning against them. 57% of Americans think the Iraq War wasn't worth it, and their numbers will increase.

The only good guy the Republicans have left to run for president is John McCain, but since he's a donkey in elephant costume, he'll get creamed by any real donkey. The Democrats, on the other hand, have a full slate of appealing candidates, from Hillary and Edwards on down.

The Country Club Republicans correctly fear they might lose elections for the next 20 years, unless they manage to squeeze the Evangelical Talibans out of their posteriors. But those Talibans are way past the sphincter of the Republican Party, and firmly lodged in their prostates. Watch the Republican Party begin to roam the political wilderness soon. The Evangelical Talibans will go down in history as having screwed the Republican Party into oblivion. Don't think oblivion can't happen to the Republicans. Look what happened to the Tories in the U.K. They once ruled under Margaret Thatcher, and now they're a desperate, powerless minority with no chance of ever ruling again. Just like the Republican Party will be.

Stem cells let paralyzed rats walk; humans next

Thank God that science always wins in the battle between science and religion -- as proved by Galileo vs. the Catholic Church. Here's good news (and another reason the pro-life Evangelical Talibans should shut the fuck up about stem cell research):

"Researchers studying embryonic stem cells have revealed how they enabled rats with crushed spinal cords to walk again. Hans Keirstead, an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology, has been showing video of his rats since 2002. One clip shows a rat dragging its feet, unable to lift its tail. In the next clip, the rat can lift its tail high, bear its own weight and move about. Keirstead reported the rats also regained bladder and bowel functions.

"Many scientists believe the cells will lead to treatments for many diseases, and they're determined to pursue the research despite President Bush's limits on federal funding of stem-cell studies. In Keirstead's latest study, the scientists injected injured rats with cells derived from human embryonic stem cells, which usually come from embryos discarded at in vitro fertilization clinics. The researchers injected one group of rats seven days after injury, and another group ten months after injury. In the recently injured rats, the cells, called oligodendrocytes, formed myelin, a protective insulator of neurons. The myelin wrapped around damaged neurons in the spinal cord, and within two months the rats were walking. But the rats with 10-month-old injuries failed to regain motor skills, because scar tissue surrounding the neurons prevented the cells from forming myelin."

KIND of heart-breaking, really: it looks like only those people will be able to walk again who were injured shortly before the breakthrough with humans is going to happen. Those with longstanding paralysis will have to wait for a bigger breakthrough. Meanwhile, no thanks to Bush and his Evangelic Taliban for doing the Christian thing -- like helping those in need, instead of banging on about their medieval ideology.

Derridadanalia: the death of theory at the hands of plain prose

Will "Theory" be dying in English Departments (and if so, what will they teach?). There's more and more grumbling about where it has taken us.

Apropos: the attacks launched on ''The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism," 985 pages, $80 (Jesus, these textbook prices!).

Here Christopher Hitchens launches a few handgrenades (has the Hitch given up booze entirely? I see his byline everywhere; he must be scribbling day and night, sleeping on a campbed in his New School office, sexually deprived and alcohol-probitioned). In true form, he wields his scalpel like a Combine Harvester gone amuck on a putting green:

"A professor at the Ecole Normale Superieure is popularly supposed to have said: 'I agree that it works in practice. But how can we be certain that it will work in theory?' In the course of the past few years, sections of the literary academy have had to endure a good deal of ridicule, arising from this simple jest. The proceedings of the Modern Language Association, in particular, have furnished regular gag material (gag in the sense of the guffaw, rather than the less common puke reflex) for solemn papers on 'Genital Mutilation and Early Jane Austen: Privileging the Text in the World of Hampshire Feudalism.' (I paraphrase only slightly.) The study of literature as a tradition, let alone as a 'canon,' has in many places been deposed by an emphasis on deconstruction, postmodernism and the nouveau roman. The concept of authorship itself has come under scornful scrutiny, with the production of 'texts' viewed more as a matter of social construct than as the work of autonomous individuals. Not surprisingly, the related notions of objective truth or value-free inquiry are also sternly disputed; even denied.

"A new language or 'discourse' is often considered necessary for this pursuit, and has been supplied in part by Foucault and Derrida. So arcane and abstruse is the vernacular involved that my colleague James Miller, dean of the graduate faculty at the New School, wrote a celebrated essay inquiring 'Is Bad Writing Necessary?' He took up the claim made by Judith Butler that 'linguistic transparency' is really a deception, fettering critical possibilities and inhibiting those who wish 'to think the world more radically.' Butler agrees with Theodor Adorno, who argued in his 'Minima Moralia' and elsewhere that 'plain words' are the building blocks of consensus and authority, compelling people in effect to employ notions that have been preconceived for and imposed upon them. In the opposite corner is the linguist Noam Chomsky, who tends to agree with George Orwell that honest language is a weapon against obfuscation and propaganda.

"The effusively respectful entry for Judith Butler in 'The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism' reads, in part:
'Drawing widely from Nietzsche, Michel Foucault on discursive formation, J. L. Austin and Jacques Derrida on speech act theory and iterability ... Louis Althusser on interpellation ... Jacques Lacan on subjective foreclosure and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's work on queer performativity, Butler fashions a notion of performative identity that 'must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ''act,'' but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.'

"Thanks to this notion of performativity, Butler has been able to contest a misinterpretation of Nietzsche's work on the difference between 'being' and 'doing.' To quote from a section discussing her book 'Bodies That Matter':

" 'If she were arguing that gender simply was a kind of theatrical performance, "that could mean that I thought that one woke in the morning, perused the closet or some more open space for the gender of choice, donned that gender for the day, and then restored the garment to its place at night." But as Butler makes clear time and time again throughout her work, 'the reduction of performativity to performance ... would be a mistake.'

"So the dancer and the dance are not the same after all. But does one really require a new language or theory to disprove the claim -- made by whom, incidentally? -- that gender is a mere role, or only a costume for that role?

"Wondering how the opposite case might be summarized by the editors, I turned to Orwell and found that he isn't even mentioned in the index. Nor, for that matter, is A. J. Ayer or Ernest Gellner. Perhaps the editors (Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth, who teach English at the University of Western Ontario, and Imre Szeman, who teaches English at McMaster University) assume that everybody has already assimilated 'Politics and the English Language' or 'Language, Truth and Logic' or that great critique of J. L. Austin and Oxford linguistic philosophy, 'Words and Things.' But then, they grant a servile entry to the exploded figure of Raymond Williams, wrongly credited as the pioneer of cultural studies. Or perhaps they imagine that the argument began with Butler? Chomsky does receive an entry of his own as well as some mentions under other headings, and he is sternly reminded, by one Nigel Love, that he 'has nothing to say about genuinely innovative uses of language -- creativity that consists in going beyond what is generated by the rules -- ultimately, perhaps, because radical innovation calls into question the fundamental structuralist tenets of the enterprise.'

"Adorno once remarked (this was also in 'Minima Moralia') that a film of true aesthetic value could be made, and be in full conformity and compliance with all the rules of the Hays Office, as long as there was no Hays Office. That was, if you like, an ironic and paradoxical appreciation of the transgressive. However, Adorno did not mean that there were no rules or that they were made only to be broken, and what is true of celluloid and entertainment may be even more true of the language that we must (if it really is a language and not a jargon) speak in common."

PERHAPS the point is that bad theory cannot pass if it has to express itself in plain prose, let alone good prose. The abstruse dies in the daylight of clarity, like a vampire who couldn't get back into his coffin in time.

(How about that Hitch, hey: he can stand toe to toe with any right-wing asshole or good old leftie, and sling it to the Theory-crats to boot. You've got to hand it to the man. He's made a career out of being attractively and dazzlingly odious.)

Is your house overvalued?

The stock bubble screwed a lot of us when it went pop. Will the housing bubble ruin your property value? This article tells you how to guage the real value of your house. After getting rich in the stock market fever five years ago, and losing it all in three weeks, I promised myself to buy real estate next time I have money, so I read this bit avidly:
"Take the price of a typical house in an area, divide it by the amount that house would cost to rent for a year and the result is what might be called a rent ratio. In San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., the rent ratio has spiked to nearly 35 on average -- or about equal to the price-earnings ratio Microsoft's stock reached in 2000. In West Palm Beach, Fla., and San Diego, the ratio is almost 30. In New York, Miami and Los Angeles, it is about 25. In only a small number of areas (Washington, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Jacksonville and the Long Island suburbs of New York) are rents rising at a decent clip. Nationwide, the rent ratio remains around 17."
NOW you know. Work out your rent ratio. If it's over 35, sell. You're living in a bubble.

Saudis desecrate Koran every year

"The Saudi state religion is the primitive and austere Wahhabi version of Islam, which defines many traditional Islamic practices as idolatrous. Notably, the state bans the importation of Korans published elsewhere. When foreign pilgrims arrive at the Saudi border by the millions for the annual journey to Mecca, what happens to the non-Saudi Korans they are carrying? The border guards confiscate them, to be shredded, pulped, or burned. Beautiful bindings and fine paper are viewed as a particular provocation -- all are destroyed." -- A nice quote from the odious Weekly Standard (05/30/05).

We were never a Christian nation

Contrary to what the Evangelists think, we did not start as a very Christian nation. It's true that before the Constitution, all the states were theocracies: so much so that in Congregationist Massachusetts, they hanged Quakers in public for being Quakers. That's why our founding fathers banned the practice of public officers having to swear a religious oath (and didn't mention God at all in the Constitution). For the first time in the history of the world, religious orientation was not a qualification for office. Jews, Protestants, Deists, atheists, Satanists, whatever -- you could be anything and still run for President or any other office. We were founded as a nation of religious equality. It was essential that the Constitution separate the church from the state, because all the state churches hated one another so much. See Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy by Frederick Clarkson.

Now the same hate is back. Our Evangelical Talibans hate America, and their hate has been given a voice by the Bush administration. At a time when 60% of us believe in the actual existence of the Devil, Professor Mark Lilla from the University of Chicago writes an interesting essay on the role of religion in our history. He concludes:

"The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith. American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the 'end times,' the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement -- all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.

No one can know how long this dumbing-down of American religion will persist. But so long as it does, citizens should probably be more vigilant about policing the public square, not less so. If there is anything David Hume and John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers."

Prof. Lilla is right about this, but what he does not pursue is the need, or at least the appeal, of an ecstatic group psychology.

Why am I a child of the 60s? Because we were swept into being by an ecstatic movement. The freedom and joy of pre-marital sex; the invention of the tight band/group as the fulcrum of rock 'n roll (bands who wrote their own songs); the protest against colonial war (Vietnam); the justice of civil rights -- this was an ecstatic movement, fueled by the convenient availability of ecstasy-creating drugs. It was like religion, and that's why it was so formative and normative for an entire generation.

That's why it also scared the bejesus out of all conservatives, so much so they're still fighting the 60s, even though they've lost.

Anyway, where is the ecstasy and idealism of the left today, to posit against the ecstasy of the radical right, our Evangelical Talibans? We should make the war on poverty (the best way to merge all the good antis, like anti-racism and anti-sexism), which Martin Luther King was about to launch at his death, a campaign of idealistic fervor, of ecstatic righteousness, of religious craziness -- if we sincerely want to replace the psychosis of greed and aggression and war in our Republic with true compassion. Intensity is all. Let's get ecstatic about our beliefs. Meet the ecstasy of hate with the ecstasy of love.

Bookplanet: Pynchon's pecker sucked panoptically

Some amazing thoughts on Pynchon in the new Bookforum.

Don DeLillo: "It was as though, in some odd quantum stroke, Hemingway died one day and Pynchon was born the next. One literature bends into another. Pynchon has made American writing a broader and stronger force. He found whispers and apparitions at the edge of modern awareness but did not lessen our sense of the physicality of American prose, the shotgun vigor, the street humor, the body fluids, the put-on. I was writing ads for Sears truck tires when a friend gave me a copy of V. in paperback. I read it and thought, Where did this come from? The scale of his work, large in geography and unafraid of major subjects, helped us locate our fiction not only in small anonymous corners, human and ever-essential, but out there as well, in the sprawl of high imagination and collective dreams."

Jeffrey Eugenides: "The most brilliant epigraph in the history of literature comes at the beginning of Gravity's Rainbow: 'Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.—Wernher Von Braun.' When I first read those words, as a college freshman, I took them at face value—as scientific proof of the reality of the spiritual realm. I had no idea that Von Braun, developer of the V-2, was Hitler's chief rocket scientist. Still less did I know of his salvation at the hands of American troops, or of his rehabilitation in the United States, where he became Nixon's chief rocket scientist and a member of the NASA team that put the first man on the moon (no wonder Von Braun believed in life after death). Let's appreciate everything this epigraph accomplishes: It stems from, and summons, the historical period Pynchon writes about; it simultaneously inspires and lampoons religious sentiment; and, with savage irony, it comes out of the mouth of someone personifying the novel's central theme—that the Powers That Be operate behind the scenes, owing allegiance to no nation or ideology ... Pynchon's estimate, back in 1973, of the path the postwar American imperium would take, only seems more acute, valid, and prescient today that it did at the time."

Richard Powers: " 'Information. What's wrong with dope and women? Is it any wonder the world's gone insane, with information come to be the only real medium of exchange?'
'I thought it was cigarettes.'
'You dream.' (Gravity's Rainbow)
I remember the thing homing in, soundless, of course, on its parabolic arc, that purified shape latent in the sky. No clue, no advance warning until it hit. I thought I knew how fiction worked, what fiction did, the proper object of its only subject. Then those sentences, screaming across the page, each one skywriting: You dream. For three decades, I've retraced that arc once a year, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return. The war is everywhere and real, our terrors threatening to perfect us, the technologies of our desire extending into networks too complex for anything but unhinged and macaronic fiction even to hint at."

George Saunders: "Pynchon is our biggest writer, the gold standard of that overused word inclusiveness: No dogma or tidy aesthetic rule or literary fashion is allowed to prefilter the beautiful data streaming in. Everything is included. No inclination of the mind is too small or large or frightening. The result is gorgeous madness. I have often felt that we read to gain some idea of what God would say about us if someone were to ask Him what we're like. Pynchon says, through the vast loving catalogue he has made, that we are Excellent but need to be watched closely. He says there is no higher form of worship than the loving (i.e., madly attentive) observation of that-which-is, a form of prayer of which Pynchon's work is our highest example."

Gerald Howard: "In 1973, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow landed on my brain and exploded there like, well, a V-2 rocket. It was precisely the book I needed at the time, which tells you something about my mental and spiritual condition. Hey, it was the '70s. The country was low in the water and so was I. Tar-black humor, crushing difficulty, rampant paranoia, accelerating entropy, jaw-dropping perversity, apocalyptic terror, history as a conspiracy of the conjoined forces of technology, death, and sinister Control—it was all good. I preferred having my spirit crushed by a great American novel to the everyday humiliations of my first year of postcollegiate life and the cultural and political demoralizations of the era."

Is Pynchon the most Major of our Major Post-war Writers, Bellow included? What do you think?

Bookplanet: what the fuck makes The Alchemist so popular?

So I finally got around to reading The Alchemist, and I can't for the life of me figure out why it's so popular, besides being written in simple children's book language. This thing has sold gazillions. Is it because of its New Age Santa Fe mysticism? Someone enlighten me. Here is a link about Coelho's visit to Egypt, where he sells like hot cakes, too, and here is another one, for those of you who think he's a classic writer of enduring world literature.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Bookplanet: Crime and Punishment on your iPod

The barbarians who listen to books are growing outside the gates of culture:
"Jim Harris, a lifelong bookworm, cracked the covers of only four books last year. But he listened to 54, all unabridged. He listened to Harry Potter and Moby-Dick, Don DeLillo and Stephen King. He listened in the car, eating lunch, doing the dishes, sitting in doctors' offices and climbing the stairs at work. 'I haven't read this much since I was in college,' said Mr. Harris, 53, a computer programmer in Memphis.
And yes, he does consider it 'reading.' 'I dislike it when I meet people who feel listening is inferior,' he said. Fewer Americans are reading books than a decade ago, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, but almost a third more are listening to them on tapes, CD's and iPods." More here.

WHAT'S more, "digital audio that can be zapped onto an MP3 player is also luring converts. The smallest iPod, the Shuffle, holds roughly four books; the newest ones include a setting that speeds up the narration without raising the pitch."
Hmm. I've never listened to a book before, but wouldn't it be a brandnew cultural experience -- very Barthes -- to tackle Joyce's Ulysses via one's ears?

No more terror alerts; desecration of Bible urged

There's at least one good thing about the Presidential election being over and done with: no more terror alerts. Now that the Bush administration is back in the saddle again, terror alerts are down. To absolutely zero, in fact. Of course, those terror alerts weren't related to the election at all. Homeland Security never stooped to electioneering. It's just a coincidence that there's nothing to be scared of these days.

In related news, controversial academic Yale Professor Craphogger is urging all U.S. citizens to desecrate the Bible. "If we desecrate our Holy Book, that will make Muslims feel less bad about the Koran being desecrated, and save many Muslim lives. I call upon all true U.S. patriots to come to the aid of our country in this humanitarian effort.

"I don't recommend trying to flush the Holy Bible down a toilet, though. The Bible is too big. It will just block the toilet. Better to tear out the pages and chew them into spitballs, and flush the spitballs down the toilet.

"In urban areas, the pages may also be used to poopscoop. For those who cannot bring themselves to commit such dire desecration, even when so many lives are at stake, drawing crescent moons over the pages of the Bible is a milder form of desecration."

Professor Craphogger says he will approach the Pope about other forms of desecration that might meet the desecration standards of the Catholic Church. "Perhaps gluing the pages of the New Testament together might be an acceptable form, or pasting nude photographs of women on the pages of Genesis or Revelations. But we have to act fast, to save the Muslims from themselves -- from erupting into terrible, temperamental rages, like those spontaneously exploding drummers in Spinal Tap."

Professor Craphogger also hastened to add that desecrating the Bible was not actually desecrating the word of God. "It's not as if every Bible was personally penned by the hand of God. The Bible is only paper and ink printed by a publishing company, who is making money off the word of God, which in itself is a form of desecration."

Professor Craphogger last venture was selling toiletpaper stamped with images of Osama Bin Laden.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Bookplanet: betting says Dumbledore snuffs it

I hate reviewers who spoil books by tellling the story instead of reviewing the book (film and play reviewers do it, too). But here it seems that betting is spoiling a plot surprise. Reports the Guardian:
"Ever since JK Rowling hinted that a major character would meet their death in the latest Harry Potter chronicle, speculation on the subject of where the axe will fall has been rife. Fans were expecting to have to wait until the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is published on July 16 to find out. However, a Sun newspaper investigation into odd betting patterns may have unearthed the secret a month early. And the future, it seems, is not looking bright for Albus Dumbledore. According to the Sun, the betting website Blue Square, which is running a book on the question of which character will be bumped off, has recently been inundated with punters wishing to place bets on the demise of the Hogwarts headmaster. But eyebrows were only raised when it transpired that most of the bets originated from Bungay - the town which is coincidentally home to the printers, Clays, who produced the previous five books in the Potter series."
I guess she'll have to print the next book in Katmandu.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Palestine's big new friend: China

Did you know that the Chinese are signing up trading partners and strategic alliances all over the world, faster than you can read Mao's Little Red Book? Hey, not only have they got our economic balls in their pocket, because we owe them so much money -- they're also beginning to outflank us politically.

Their latest partner? Palestine. Yep. They're lining up on the side of Palestine, like we're lined up on the side of Israel. It's nothing less than a direct challenge to our hegemony. You're looking at the beginning of the Chinese Century. They're the third largest economy in the world now, and they'll pass us as the biggest economy in another two decades. They're also reaching out to take over from us as the political leader.

From Culture of Life News Breaking:

"The Chinese push to line up a web of interlocking alliances and accords and trade agreements, is historic and astonishing and amusing to witness, particularily since 90% of this activity is deliberately hidden from the American people by our own media, which considers this to be a non-story.

It is the biggest story. Bar none. Bigger than anything else going on right now. Tracing this activity and understanding what it means is very important. The latest conquest without firing a shot: Palestine.

Visiting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas received the pledge from Chinese leaders to provide economic aid health care and housing by the signing of five bilateral agreements in Beijing. Abbas, on his first three-day state visit to China since taking over from the late Yasser Araft in January, held talks with President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan. President Hu said the Chinese Government and its people supports the 'just cause' of Palestinians, saying the way to establish an independent Palestinian state is to conduct political negotiations on UN resolutions, and resume the Road Map peace plan.

China is basically going to be the primary sponsors in the Security Council for the Palestinians. This is going to be a formal relationship whereby the Chinese will directly funnel Palestinian political demands into debates in the Security Council. This puts China at total odds with the USA who is the primary sponsor of Israel.

This sponsorship also means that Palestine, who lost the sponsorship of Russia when the communists there fell, is no longer friendless and easily pushed around. What is more, the sponsor of Israel owes tremendous sums of money to the sponsor of Palestine.

This is a fun thing indeed. Abbas also visited the Beijing urban planning centre. Yin said 'the tour showed Abbas's desire and preparation to build and design his city rather than fight with Israel.' Premier Wen Jiabao told the Palestinian visitor the two countries should expand human resources development and training, adding China is willing to help Palestine nurture even more professionals. In recent years, China has sent its special envoy Wang Shijie to the Middle East several times in an effort to move forward the peace process.

This means China will integrate Palestine within its growing Co-Prosperity Sphere. America has put all its energy into promoting Jewish colonialism. The Chinese are not trying to colonize Palestine, so the potential for conflict is near zero, and the benefits of accord are high. Connect this with China's new bilateral relationship with Iran, and one sees clearly how they are exploiting the rising tide of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. American unpopularity is making diplomacy there nearly impossible for us.

In the past, nearly always when there was a fracas, the Israelis hit back at will. No one could stop them, since Palestine had been pretty well isolated, with no real allies. This is rapidly changing. This editor expects Abbas to return with a series of initiatives and actions that will alter the way Palestine has reacted to events. Previous to this, all they could do was rage. The repeated comments in China about peaceful resolutions and strengthening Palestine are designed artfully to reassure -- as well as warn. Namely, this is no longer a war, and it is up to the Israelis to pull out swifty. So far, the Israelis have been groping for excuses concerning this pull out, which moves with glacial speed. They imagine they have all the time in the world.

This is a delusion. If the Chinese move in aggressively to build alongside the Palestinians, one thing they will not allow will be Israeli interference. The first thing that will happen is the establishment of a large port and airfield, to accommodate the potential trade. China is willing to take a loss on this trade, for the value of this will lie not in money, but in setting up and controlling a very valuable stone on the international Game of Go.

Right after 9/11, Bush went to the UN and suddenly announced he supported the creation of the State of Palestine -- and since that day, nothing but death and misery has been poured on the Palestinian people. It is altogether too sad that the Knight on the White Horse is China, not us. We could have developed a sane state building relationship, since we bankroll Israel, and therefore hold the strings to power there. A lost historic moment and not the last by far."

THERE you go. That's the news of the day that most of us remain unaware of. China is deliberately reaching out to the many nations that don't like us anymore. They're fast adding South America to their sphere of influence, for example. And now Palestine. Bush has opened up all the space in the world for China to move into -- against us. I wish we had a smarter bunch running our country, but we don't. Strategic fuckwits. We're going to be forced to get out of Iraq, and have an Iraq-Iran alliance against us, caused by no one but ourselves and our blundering ways, and backed by China, who will compete with us for Middle-East oil, which they'll scoop up for themselves. There's nothing we can do about that, because China has got us by the balls anyway, since we owe them so much money. I suppose it doesn't matter that we're such fuckwits, actually -- sooner or later China will lead the world anyway.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

If you like Neil Diamond, are you hideously kitschy?

Interesting how we define ourselves by the music we listen to. And very narrowly. If you're a metal fan, you might not follow hard rock, and never somebody like Neil Diamond. Music listeners can be very non-electic. They find their genre, and that's it. Some find their artist, or a couple of them, and that's it. But musicians aren't non-eclectic. You'll find Metallica listening to classical music, and Neil Diamond working with a well-known rap producer on his next album.

Neil Diamond is one of those MOR figures who are so heartland-beloved even the rockist snot-nosed will dig him, but mainly under the guise of an ironic embrace of kitsch. Yet songs like "Sweet Caroline" (or the Village People's "YMCA") are so DNA-engrained in pop culture -- how many songs attain wedding band status? -- they transcend genre.

Our musical tastes can be ridiculously exclusive. We think of our taste in music as this pure part of ourselves. We might've become an accountant, but hey, when it comes to music, in our souls we're pure and fine and free: we're still a diehard Van Morrison fan. In music we don't make compromises with the world. Music is what we really are. An art that defines us, the way somebody reads only mysteries, or can't get over their original enchantment with French New Wave movies.

You'd think Neil Diamond would be the one seeking out the rap producer, in some pathetic quest to update his sound. No. The rap guy pursued him. He is Rick Rubin, a founder of Def Jam, and producer of Jay-Z, the Beastie boys, L.L. Cool J and Run-DMC. And they'll make an album that's neither kitsch nor updated. More stripped-down, back to the original singer/song-writer thing. (Full story here.) Says Diamond, who at first wasn't interested in working with the rap guy: "It all comes from the same source, whether it's rock 'n' roll or country or folk. I'm not afraid of these rock 'n' roll guys. I was there at the beginning. I'll be there at the end."

If you want to update yourself, the canny strategy is to go back: either sing standards like Rod Stewart, Carly Simon and countless others, or strip yourself down to the original demo Unplugged you, like the new Diamond album promises to be.

Monday, May 23, 2005

A new major at the Pope's College: exorcism

The Pope's Regina Apostolorum University in Rome is to offer courses on Satanism and exorcism. The courses for novices and trainee priests will start in February next year. They will cover demonology and the devil in holy texts, as well as pathology and medical treatment of people allegedly "possessed by Satan". One teacher, author and journalist Carlo Climati, said the seminars would end with two exorcists sharing their experiences. They would explain how to tell the difference between a sick person that requires medical treatment and someone possessed by the devil. If you try to exorcise a devil from someone having a heart attack, the person might go to heaven sooner than necessary.
In related news, Yale Professor Craphogger has designed a way to impregnate impressionable youths with an otherwise harmless succubus that leaves their souls intact, but enables them to execute projectile vomits that shoot right across a room. "This will become a very necessary weapon for kids in their battles with their parents, teachers, and other representatives of a repressive establishment. It's difficult to exercise authority over a kid when you've got his half-digested fried egg all over your face."

When you rank nations by life expectancy, how do we rate?

Here's an amazing article from Le Monde (link here for French readers). It's about how life expectancy is the best to rank countries. The case is argued with that deadly and rather odd logic of the French, the folks who practically invented the Age of Reason. Of course, it's also a none-too-subtle attack on us, but hey, we spend a lot of time thinking badly of those snot-nosed Frogs who bent over to the Germans in the middle of the last century and would still be living with panzers up their asses if we hadn't chased those Nazi tanks out of their garlic-smelly posteriors. Anyway, enter the crystalline world of French logic, and bear with it, because you'll learn somethin':

"If we were to measure a nation's wealth by its inhabitants' health, we would have a different picture of the planet's countries than the one given by the rate of growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which has become the premier, if not the only, measure of a nation's success. This consensual reductionism has been denounced many times for reasons at once technical and philosophical: GDP, in fact, provides only a few inadequate indications of the global income and savings of a country. Gross Domestic Product does not take peace or social justice into account, and questions about the environment are totally foreign to it. The supremacy, moreover, of this uni-dimensional way of conceiving of progress presupposes a consumerist and utilitarian philosophy of the happiness of nations: people are only on earth to produce more so they can consume more and possess still more.

On the other hand, choosing life expectancy - a global indicator of health - could be justified in the first place by a logic appropriate to recall, even if it appears to be a statement of the obvious: in order to enjoy possession, a person must be alive. It seems that the vast majority of human beings have a taste for living, all the more so because, contrary to what we hear about daily, not only do most Westerners live to be older, but also, in the course of their passage on this earth, they have the good fortune to be ever less dependent. Referring back only to 1970, barely 35 years ago, the life expectancy at birth of French people was 7.2 years less than today (that's a lot: 7 years in a life!) and the average French person was dependent in old age for 12 months. The latter figure is now only 9 months. These years of life gained are years of autonomous life, good years.

Life expectancy measures the essential condition for any eventual enjoyment of earthly goods - existence itself - but that is not its only merit: this criterion is easily calculated and easily broken down by sex, age, social milieu, the different territories in a country, which is not the case for GDP, estimations of which are long, onerous, and tedious.

The life expectancy measure says that it's better to be Japanese (81.5 years in 2001) or European from the fifteen countries of Europe (over 79 years, also in 2001) than a resident of the United States (77.1 years). Not only are these differences important (more than 2 years between the United States and France), but they are growing (5 months in 1960, 2.1 years in 2001) in spite of the fact that the inhabitants of the United States spend two and a half times more on health care than the British and the Japanese, and almost twice as much (1.88) as the French.

Medicine at the cutting edge of progress is not always synonymous with good health and obviously remains unable to compensate for the effects of the conditions of life. American epidemiologists deem moreover that, given the growing obesity of the inhabitants of their country, life expectancy will stagnate, then decline. Without being excessively simplistic with regard to the social origins of obesity, it is also undeniably a mark of social status: the poor in the United States are overweight: the average weight of Americans is inversely proportional to their social standing. Doesn't their food intake betray a sort of tragic triumph of consumerism? I am poor, certainly, but as a citizen of the United States, I am rich enough to eat more than I need, to participate in the consumer society. Obesity is not an individual affair: it is promoted notably by the disappearance of the ritual of meals.

American sociologist Philip Slater indicated in 1970 that the pursuit of solitude had already become the distinguishing feature of American society. This solitude is expressed in eating behaviors. More often than in Europe, Americans of every age eat alone, at any time, any sort of food, to the rapid rhythm of television ads that teach them what they must ingest. Food is not the only cause for the United States' bad indicators: a young black man living in New York has the same life expectancy as a Sri-Lankan. American society is a violent society where, proportionally, there are 8 times as many people incarcerated as in France, where wounds and deaths by firearms or slashing are frequent, which leaves its mark on life expectancy statistics.

Finally, at any given moment, 43 million Americans - or about 20% of the population - do not have any health insurance or other social coverage. This figure hides an even greater level of insecurity since, over any 2-year period, close to 40% of the population at one time or another over the 2 years will not have any health insurance. The most powerful, the richest, the most medicalized nation on earth is not the one - far from it - where people live the longest.

The political and social system leave their mark: the Canadian neighbor, also a great country of immigration, enjoys a life expectancy at birth that puts it among the premier countries in the world (79.7 years in 2001, more than France the same year). It enjoys a universal healthcare system.

The countries that offer their populations the longest life expectancies at birth (Japan, Sweden) turn out to often be those where the difference in incomes between the social classes is the least. In study after study, it has been demonstrated that everything that benefits social cohesion contributes to growth in life expectancy. Social democracy is good for health.

The crisis of the Soviet system could be read in the USSR's life expectancy statistics well before the Berlin Wall collapsed. In fact, Russian life expectancy began to drop in 1980 (71 years). This drop persists. You don't have to go there to know that this society still suffers: with a 67 year life expectancy at birth in 2002, Russia at the beginning of the 21st century is behind Vietnam (69 years), Algeria (69.5 years) and Tunisia (72 years), which, however, do not have the benefit of the same sanitary infrastructures. As for black Africa, its drama can be read in the World Health Organization (WHO) data. During the first year following the conflict in Ivory Coast, its life expectancy dropped 10 years! Sierra Leone, at war since forever, revived life expectancy statistics that compare to those of France at the end of the 15th Century or to those of Roman citizens during the Empire: 35 years.

To return to debates in today's news: if Turkey gained 20 years life expectancy between 1960 and 2003, at 68.3 years, in 2002 it was still very far from Western Europe (79 years) or Eastern Europe (75 years). It is appropriate to emphasize also the excellent performance of Italy (79.7 years in 2002) and Spain (79.3), better than France, and to remark on the negative side - without being able to explain it - Denmark's rather poor performance (3 years less than Sweden at 77 years).

With regard to France, with 25,000 fewer deaths in 2004 than in 2002, it has gained 10 months of life expectancy and - men and women taken together - passed the 80-year threshold in 2004, which is remarkable. A little more than 10% of this improvement is attributable to the progress in road safety. As far as the rest is concerned, it's a sign of the proper functioning of French society and French medicine, but we are not able at this stage, to sort out the share of each. This note of real optimism is all the more justified in that progress in the birth rate remains slight in our country, which is not the case in Germany, Spain, or Italy.

Let us remember that the destiny of peoples can first be seen in their demography."

MAN, those Frogs have a different way of talking, don't they? But the dude makes some good points, doesn't he? Let's face it, our #1 priority has got to be our fucked-up health system. It's killing us -- years earlier than we need to die.

Bookplanet: read translations

I went to a panel about translations of literary novels featuring Dennis from MobyLives, Michael from Literary Saloon, and Chad from Dalkey Archive Press. One disquieting figure: out of the 185,000 books published last year in the U.S., only 874 were translations of novels. It costs $35,000 to publish and market a translated novel, which only makes about $13,000 selling to a small audience of university libraries. So I made a promise: for every English-written novel I read, I'm going to read a translated novel. One man's lonely quest to broaden the isolation in which English keeps him. Join me. One reason the Muslim world is so pre-modern (a kinder word than medieval) is because so few books are translated into Arabic.

How big a failure will history judge Bush?

Let me state it loud and clear: in the eyes of history, the Bush presidency is going to be seen as an abject failure, a bottom-of-the-barrel presidency. Simply on a matter of effectiveness, what has this President achieved, besides tax cuts for the rich? He started a war with Iraq to secure its oil for us and to plant U.S. military bases in the middle of the Middle East, and when that blew up in his face, he spun it as an attempt to bring freedom to Iraq -- but so far all it's brought is terror and destruction and one great big fucked-up country.
Now, in his second term, he's trying to destroy Social Security with a lot of spin about private, er, personal accounts, but the country is having none of it. Watch him become a lame-duck president years before his term ends.
His biggest 'achievement' is this: He took a country that, after 9/11, could have added moral leader of the world to its titles of military and economic leader (let's not forget there were huge candle-lit vigils for us in Iran right after 9/11) -- and he turned us into the skunk of the world, a pariah nation. He destroyed our good name.
Clinton almost got impeached for fucking a woman -- what punishment does a president get for fucking his country? The verdict of history. Karl Rove won't be able to spin that one.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Review: Revenge of the Shitty

I just saw Revenge of the Sith. It was like watching George Lucas's bowel movement: all this immense effort and strain, and then out comes this little turd.

The acting: to call it wooden is an insult to trees. Anakin and his lady love have the chemistry of a fossil with a relic. The dialogue was written by a drunk inspired by the sight of his own sullen vomit. I can only imagine that George Lucas has lost his mind for good. Looking at special effects for the last couple of decades has fused his synapses into cheap plastic, his brain force-fed on a million blotters of bad acid.

What was the plot? This dude dreams his wife dies giving birth to his child, and is persuaded by a man in a rented monk's habit that if he listens to this monk, he will be able to save the mother of his child from dying. He must go over to the dark side, apparently some place harboring a cosmic electric socket that sits in a dark alley, where he'll be able to charge himself with the ability to shoot sparks out of his fingers. This is beyond silly. Beyond mediocre. Beyond banal. The English language does not have the words to stoop low enough to describe this dreck.

And the music. It never shuts up. It pumps every second with a hard-breathing pomposity, trying to persuade us that we are watching something exciting and suspenseful, when all we are watching are stupid spaceships flying from one fight scene to the next. The entire movie is a string of fight scenes. No daring rescues. No chase scenes. No helpless people in peril. No reversals of fate. No surprises. No adventure. No suspense. Just one damn fight after another. Two guys fighting each other. A man and a robot fighting. A man and a metal praying mantis fighting. A man in a wheel fighting a man on a dragon. A man and a gremlin fighting. A man and a man fighting.

The art direction is as mediocre as an Elvis painting on velvet. The new worlds look like tired old sci-fi illustrations, sans the charm. There is no charm in this movie. Not a smile, not a quip, not a vestige of human feeling. Plenty of posturing, but no emotion.

This entire movie is not worth five minutes of Spiderman. Shallow isn't the word. It has the depth of a puddle. It's not fun. It doesn't make you smile. It doesn't stir you. It doesn't make you want to clap your hands with joy. It merely calls on you to endure. It offers nothing new. It has all the originality of a Big Mac with French fries and a Coke.

What were the reviewers thinking? One guy said it was better than Star Wars. It was no better than the last two pieces of putrescence. In other words, it was a big stinky nothing. The movie was emptier than the North Pole without the ice.

I felt I was the hapless victim of a cinematic mugging. The dupe of a conspiracy, like the lies that got us into the Iraq War. We live in a world where marketing screams at you relentlessly, hey, you are going to enjoy this movie, it's great, and then we sit there, splattered by the constant diarhee of special effects, and come out lambasted like tongue-tied parrots, and chant, yes, it was great. We are being lied to, and we suck it up. This is the Emperor with a tiny loin cloth forged from bits of soiled toilet tissue.

Thirty minutes in, my girlfriend said to me, I am so bored. I gritted my teeth, as on screen, some old geezer in bad Dracula makeup dithered on about the dark side of the force, the villain in an amateur school production. If this is entertainment, having a root canal is a transcendent encounter with the divine. Give it a wide miss. You're better off going to the bathroom and enjoying your own shit, instead of having to sit through someone else's.

Quote of the day

"You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing." -- Seamus Heaney

Deep Thoughts: What does art give you?

I was amazed reading the following passage, because it pretty much sums up what art does for me. George Steiner ruminates on Schiller, the 18th century German lit warhorse not read much outside Germany. They make TV movies out of his plays in Germany, like they make TV movies out of Jane Austen novels in England, but we never see them.

"For Schiller, art is religion. Art offers transcendence. Only through art can humankind come closer to the divine. In art, human mortals discover and experience the only true freedom. Schiller states his credo: If humanity has lost its dignity, then it has been saved by art. In ontological terms, art may be deception and illusion, a 'realm of dream,' but the truth lives on precisely in this deception, and out of mimesis, the aesthetic after-image, the original image is restored: 'Before truth causes her triumphant light to penetrate into the depths of the heart, poetry intercepts her rays, and the summits of humanity shine in a bright light, while a dark and humid night still hangs over the valleys.'"

BUT the next point I'm not sure of. Art connnects us with transcendence, but that doesn't mean it also necessarily teaches morals. "Art is instructive in absolute terms. The aesthetic is the ideal praxis of pedagogy. Through art, the human individual becomes an ethical being. Schiller’s bold, almost anti-Kantian paradox reads: In its freedom, art is a game, but the human individual is 'only wholly human when he plays' (Homo ludens). For us today, however, the proud innocence of these views is no longer convincing. We know how far-sighted Walter Benjamin was when he said that the works of high culture stand proud on a foundation of barbarity and injustice. We know that they can even serve as ornaments to inhumanity."

That's George Steiner going off again on one of his hobbyhorses: what use is art if Nazi death camp commandants could deal death during the day and enjoy Beethoven in the evening? It's a good question, but a false one. Art can ennoble, sure, but that doesn't mean it automatically creates good behavior. Murderers can enjoy art, because they're human, too. You don't have to be nice to be an art lover. Himmler collected great art; that didn't make him a great human being. In fact, shitty people can produce great art. Was Picasso nice? There's a sense in which all great artists are profoundly selfish.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Bush promises probe into Saddam underwear pictures

I swear, that's a Reuters headline. It wasn't written by the Onion or Private Eye.
Now that Washington has "promised an investigation on Friday into how pictures of Saddam Hussein in his underpants were splashed across the front-page of Britain's biggest-selling daily newspaper," I am personally prepared to pay the following money, hard cash, for these pictures:
Dick Cheney in his underwear: $1 million.
Tom DeLay in his underwear, with a good view of his package: $2 million.
Tony Blair's balls: $3 million (for a single ball, with a partial view of the other, $2 million).
Saddam holding hands with Donald Rumsfeld, both in their underwear: $100 million.
And if you can photoshop any of these, I'll pay you $5 a picture and put it up on this blog for universal disssemination. Saddam has shown the way. Let's have pictures of ALL our political leaders in their underwear. For too long have they been hiding behind boring suits. It's time to out the lot of them. We need to see what we're voting for.

Is there self-censorship in U.S. media?

Oh yes, there is. And after the roasting of Newsweek, watch the media play their traditional role even more submissively as the Suckups to Power they are.

Latest case in point. Some days ago, British M.P. George Galloway was called up in front of a U.S. Senate Committee. They accused him of having been part of Saddam's Oil-for-Food rip-off. The MP was much offended, and went on to offend the U.S. Senators as much as he could, showing no deference to the august body whatsoever. I'm going to tell you what he said because you won't find it in the MSM.

"Far from having worked with Saddam," he said, "I was an opponent of Saddam Hussein when British and American governments and businessmen were selling him guns and gas.

"On the very first page of your document about me, you assert that I have had many meetings with Saddam Hussein. This is false. I have had two meetings with Saddam Hussein. In fact I've met him exactly the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld met him. The difference is that Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns and to give him maps the better to target those guns."

Before the hearing started, Galloway dismissed the panel as a ''neo-con, pro-war, Republican lynch mob.''

Addressing the Committee chairman, Major Cheney Dickhead Norm Coleman, Galloway continued: "Now I know that standards have slipped in the last few years in Washington, but for a lawyer you are remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice. I am here today but last week you already found me guilty.

"Now, Senator, I gave my heart and soul to oppose the policy that you promoted. I gave my political life's blood to try to stop the mass killing of Iraqis by the sanctions on Iraq which killed one million Iraqis, most of them children, most of them died before they even knew that they were Iraqis, but they died for no other reason other than that they were Iraqis with the misfortune to born at that time. I gave my heart and soul to stop you committing the disaster that you did commit in invading Iraq. And I told the world that your case for the war was a pack of lies.

“I told the world that Iraq, contrary to your claims, did not have weapons of mass destruction. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to al-Qaeda. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that the Iraqi people would resist a British and American invasion of their country and that the fall of Baghdad would not be the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning.

"Senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong and 100,000 people paid with their lives; 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies; 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever on a pack of lies.

"If the world had listened to Kofi Annan, whose dismissal you demanded, if the world had listened to President Chirac who you want to paint as some kind of corrupt traitor, if the world had listened to me and the anti-war movement in Britain, we would not be in the disaster that we are in today.

"Senator, this is the mother of all smokescreens. You are trying to divert attention from the crimes that you supported, from the theft of billions of dollars of Iraq's wealth. Have a look at the real Oil-for-Food scandal. Have a look at the 14 months you were in charge of Baghdad, the first 14 months when $8.8 billion of Iraq's wealth went missing on your watch. Have a look at Halliburton and other American corporations that stole not only Iraq's money, but the money of the American taxpayer. Have a look at the $800 million you gave to American military commanders to hand out around the country without even counting it or weighing it. Have a look at the oil that you didn't even meter, that you were shipping out of the country and selling, the proceeds of which went who knows where?"

Strong stuff. But you won't find it reported in the NY Times or the Washington Post. Or find anyone trying to find answers to the questions he raises about a massive Iraq boondoggle. People are stealing money left and right from the American taxpayer in Iraq while our soldiers remain under-equipped. Are our newspapers of record on record about this? No, they've got their noses too far up the sphincters of their official government sources. They don't want to risk losing such valuable sources of crap.

Chicks ain't what guys want them to be

Should women soldiers serve on the frontlines, and have their legs blown off?

I'm used to women being in the Army, but the idea of them being in total harm's way, where they can lose limbs, let alone life, freaks me out. Guess I've still got a few of the "I Am A Male Animal Who Must Protect Helpless Females" sexist genes left in me. The idea of women in combat messes with my gender stereotyping.

When it comes to really messing with gender stereotypes, nothing beats the documentary "Pumping Iron II: The Women." It's about female bodybuilders (the Schwarzenegger doc was Pumping Iron I). They show these women in serious body building training, with real muscles. BULGING muscles. MASCULINE muscles. It's freaky.

As a guy watching this truly revolutionary movie, I defensively and quickly latched on to the female body builder whose body most resembled a familiar sex object (big tatas, narrow waist, big butt). But as the movie continued, and I got used to bulging muscles on the ladies, some of the others who didn't look like standard women began to look bonkable to me. My standard of bonkability changed. I was like the frog in the pot of water being slowly brought to boiling point so it never jumps out until it's cooked. I could imagine myself in bed with a muscle-bound Amazon, something which would've repulsed the hell out of me before the movie began to condition me to look at muscular women and not necessarily lose my libido.

I also began to wonder what it would be like to sleep with a woman who was demonstrably stronger than me, and would be able to fuck me up if I didn't fuck her right.

But the real freak-out was this. In the finals of this body-building contest, there was a woman who had worked so hard, and was so muscle-bound, she didn't look like the stereotype of a woman anymore. She was just a muscle-bound creature. Neither woman nor man. She had basically trained her breasts away. She looked like an alien. She made you feel uncomfortable in the way a man dressed none too successfully as a woman might -- or as some transgendered people do who still retain too many characteristics of the gender they're trying to transition from.

There was this truly bizarre scene before the final judging, where the judges sat down, obviously in a quandary. Should we declare this woman the winner, who doesn't look like a woman anymore? She deserves to win, but should we let her? If we give her the big prize, won't it put women off our sport, and lose us our following? We need someone to represent our sport to the world, and she does not look like a poster child for female body building at all. In fact, she looks like an anti-poster child. It would be bad PR for us if she won. Even though she obviously deserves to win, because she's got the most muscles.

This woman had had the balls to take the logic of body-building all the way, and was thereby threatening her sport.

From an Amazon review: "Pumping Iron II: The Women centers on a major question that cuts to the heart of female bodybuilding: What should a female bodybuilder look like? This is not a frivolous question, because even though you would have thought the star of this show was going to be sexpot Rachel McLish, at the heart of this film is Bev Francis, a bodybuilder from Australia. The problem is quite simple: Bev's body looks like a man's. There is not a doubt in the world that her muscles are bigger than any other woman's in the competition; it is not even close. But in the minds of the judges -- not to mention the other competitors, the sponsors, and the fans -- that might not be enough. After all, the sport of bodybuilding is about physical appearance. This film raises some fascinating questions about the criteria that defines this sport (and its ultimate social implications), all of which are debated rather explicitly in this documentary. You cannot help but be involved, figuring out where you stand on these issues and how you would cast your vote."

The judges couldn't resolve their impasse at the meeting, but when the finals came, they didn't give Bev the prize. They gave it to a more womanly-looking body builder.

Muscle-bound Bev was justifiably very upset at this unfair result, and so was her male trainer. They had worked harder than anyone else, and rightly felt they had been robbed by ridiculous criteria. There was a heart-breaking pathos to their searing disappointment.

This movie should be mandatory in all gender studies. You think you're above gender stereotyping? Rent the movie. It'll challenge you to the core if you think you're quite open-minded. If anything, it will expand your notion of what a woman can look like. Try it. But don't do drugs at the same time. Your psyche might not be able to hold up under the onslaught.

Our golden writing couple

Two nice interview pieces with Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss. The Foer piece reveals a traumatic childhood incident, which caused the 9-year-old Foer "a nervous breakdown that lasted almost 3 years." These two might just go down as our first First Literary Couple. We've had these couples in theater, why not in literature? They could give the whole scribbling business a needed shot of glamor. And imagine their children: talk about born writers.

Friedman's The World Is Flat knocked flat

I don't know why, but I like it when a Brit reviewer kicks the stuffing out of the latest American piffle. You won't find an American reviewer dropping turds on Thomas Friedman like this. After all, Friedman is a COLUMNIST for the NY TIMES, which means he must automatically be a Major Exhibit in the Pundit Hall of Fame.

Sample quote from the review: "In her introduction to Graham Greene's The Quiet American, Zadie Smith says of Alden Pyle, the American of the title: 'His worldly innocence is a kind of fundamentalism.' She goes on: 'Reading the novel again reinforced my fear of all the Pyles around the world. They do not mean to hurt us, but they do.' Greene has Pyle travelling with books such as The Role of the West and The Challenge to Democracy. A modern-day Greene could substitute the works of the real-life Thomas Friedman - a contemporary quiet American. Like Pyle, Friedman is 'impregnably armed by his good intentions and his ignorance'. In The World Is Flat, Friedman has produced an epyllion to the glories of globalisation with only three flaws: the writing style is prolix, the author is monumentally self-obsessed, and its content has the depth of a puddle."

And that's just for openers. If you love snark (and who doesn't?), check what remains of Friedman's chewed-up and spat-out bones here.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Feminism in dire need of a pro-sex feminist

Why do so many women not want to call themselves feminists? I sincerely think it's because the word carries the stigma that feminists don't like fucking -- least of all fucking guys.

If feminism wants its good name back, it will have to come up with a pro-sex, highly bonkable feminist spokeswoman, who is seen to fuck guys, and to like fucking them. Often. A feminist who digs cock.

Feminist Catherine McKinnon is the big case in point. Even though she is highly bonkable herself, she has placed porn at the center of male domination. She holds that it's because of porn that women aren't free and equal to men, which, in today's sexualized environment, comes across like she has something against fucking itself.

To men and women who've grown up in a porn environment, where they watch porn together for their personal use -- to make their own fucks hotter -- this must seem like the height of silliness. Any male-domination role that porn has historically had, has long since collapsed under the fact that young people today use porn like they use alcohol, dope and chocolate: for its turn-on consumer value.

McKinnon's analysis is not without merit: "Sexuality, as socially organized, is deeply misogynistic. To male dominance, of which liberalism is the current ruling ideology, the sexual misogyny that is fundamental to all these problems cannot be seen as a sex equality issue because its sexuality is premised on sex inequality. Equality law cannot apply to sexuality because equality is not sexy and inequality is."

This is very witty, and the wit, although misplaced, continues here: "Women are commonly raped, battered, sexually harassed, sexually abused as children, forced into motherhood and prostitution, depersonalized, denigrated, and objectified – then told this is fun and equal by the left and just and natural by the right."

You have to admit, she's very deft. I'd like to have a lawyer like her on my side in front of a judge. She's also plenty angry: the ACLU is the center of the “pro-pimp lobby”.

On the other hand, here's a Major Chick Pundit who must be applauded for the pioneering work she's done in furthering the cause of sexual harassment, a very new and necessary crime in our law. (Shit, I hope I'm not sounding patronizing. Any man who ventures into a feminist discussion knows that uncomfortable feeling of putting his very balls, two sensitive and easily bruised organs, on the line.)

OK, let's get down with her argument. Look, many men, including me, share MacKinnon’s belief that many men fear and despise women. But, as this article on McKinnon's new book, Women's Lives, Men's Laws, states, "the idea that pornography bears a significant causal responsibility for all this is remarkably unimaginative and is not supported by evidence that sexual violence increases when pornography becomes more available in a society. Some of the most misogynistic and abusive cultures are those with the strictest censorship, and some of the least misogynistic, such as Sweden, were the first to lift restrictions."

The reviewer continues: "MacKinnon is right to insist that the unequal status of women pervades sexuality and is not limited to the public sphere. But this causes her to undervalue sexual pleasure, which we all have to take where we can find it. The huge pornography industry serves this end by feeding people’s fantasies. Since she finds most male fantasies revolting and degrading to women, and most consumers of pornography are men, this doesn’t matter to her. In fact she wants to stop it, and therefore fixes on the illusion that she can fight inequality by controlling men’s fantasy life.
What about female sexual pleasure? MacKinnon mentions it only once, in a riposte to Judge Richard Posner’s unwise claim that men have a stronger sex drive than women. This, she says ignores 'the clitoral orgasm, which, once it gets going, goes on for weeks, and no man can keep up with it, to no end of the frustration of some. (This underlies the often nasty edge to the query ‘Did you come?,’ when it means, ‘Aren’t you done yet? I am.’)' We are evidently in a war zone."

The reviewer adds: "MacKinnon’s anti-liberal credo seems to me to require a moral justification that she does not even attempt to provide." In order to redress social inequalities, state power cannot simply invade the personal autonomy of individuals (which an attack on porn will be). If individual rights are "given no weight and automatically overridden by claims of group inequality and group subordination, we will get tyranny in the name of equality – a familiar result. Catharine MacKinnon should either explain why her contempt for rights of privacy, autonomy and freedom of expression does not have this consequence, or else explain why it is acceptable."

As someone who grew up in apartheid South Africa, where most of the West's literature canon was banned on sexual grounds, I can attest that the greatest human right is freedom of expression. And that is what is wrong with feminism as it is popularly perceived: they appear to be against freedom of expression, especially freedom of sexual expression. Which more or less puts them in the same camp as Evangelical sex-hating gay-bashers.

Until some sexy cock-happy feminist appears to gainsay this stereotype, feminism will remain lurking in the shadows of popular culture. It needs a poster child bad.

South Korea will rule the world

Two things you should know about the South Koreans. They lead the world in broadband access. And they invented movable type, hailed by the world's scientists as the greatest human invention ever, long before Gutenberg did. And now they've taken the lead in stem cell research, by cloning the human embyo to produce stem cells. It also happens to be the great leap forward towards the cloning of human beings, which will happen, no matter what the Catholic Church, Bush, and even you, may have to say about it. China may be the East's new America, the industrial powerhouse of the world. But the Koreans are the ones whose scientific advances will revolutionize our world.
"The South Korean scientists worked hard, said Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who visited their laboratory and helped the scientists, whose English is limited, write their paper. 'They work 365 days a year except for leap year, when they work 366 days,' Dr. Schatten said. 'They have lab meetings at 6:30 every morning except Sunday, when they have them at 8.'"
On work ethic alone, they cream the rest of the world.

We need a National Nurse

I love this. A columnist in the NY Times suggests we throw out the Surgeon-General and replace him with the National Nurse.
"After all, nurses are considered the most honest and ethical professionals, according to a recent Gallup poll. It's the nurse whom the patient trusts to explain the treatment ordered by a doctor. It is the nurse who teaches new parents how to care for their newborn. It is the nurse who explains to the family how to comfort a dying loved one." More here.
She goes on to say: "Now, I'm not saying that a National Nurse will become a household name immediately. But given all that's at stake - the health of a nation - and given the surgeon general's inability to connect with Americans, it seems to me that we should at least give nurses a try."
YOU GO, GIRL. I actually think a National Nurse would immediately become a household name. A nurse is like a fire-fighter: a good guy of the absolutely noblest type: the self-sacrificing. And like a fire-fighter, there's something sexy about a nurse. Sexy never hurts.

Famous fictional characters

There are many famous characters from fiction: Emma, Anna, Becky, Jane, Lily, Gatsby, Heathcliff, Oskar, Bloom, Zorba, Ahab, Humbert, K, Gulliver, D'Artagnan, Tristam, Copperfield, Meursault, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, Quixote, Portnoy, Yossarian. But there is a particular group that becomes archetypal, almost cartoon-like, in their fame: Dracula, Frankenstein, Marlowe (Chandler not Conrad), Scrooge, Faust, Bond, Peter Pan, and, perhaps the most famous of all, Sherlock Holmes.

"He has been the subject of at least 100 movies and nearly as many plays and radio dramas, and he has inspired an entire library's worth of books. There have been countless sequels and knockoffs - among them Nicholas Meyer's trilogy, which paired Holmes with figures like Freud, Oscar Wilde and the Phantom of the Opera; Laurie R. King's Mary Russell novels, about a young heiress who teams up with the retired Holmes; and "A Samba for Sherlock," by the Brazilian writer and television personality Jô Soares, which transports a fumbling, nearsighted Holmes to Rio to solve the case of a stolen violin. There is also a vast and ever-growing trove of serious and semiserious Holmes scholarship." More here.

What's interesting about the list above, is that we can picture all of them vividly in their physical aspect (except for Faust, the man who makes a bargain with the devil). What they look like, how they dress, is part of their fame. That's what probably constitutes their cartoon-like essence.

New words: wetware and treeware

Wetware: human beings
Treeware: books

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Lucas to return to personal, underground films

Steve Silberman talks to George Lucas about the films he was born to make: underground films.

"'I like Star Wars, but I certainly never expected it would take over my life.' Now Lucas says he is determined to leverage that security to make the kinds of movies that no one expects from him. He claims to have a stack of ideas piling up on his desk for 'highly abstract, esoteric' films even more daring than his 1971 debut, THX 1138. An expansion of one of Lucas' student projects at the University of Southern California, THX anticipated the cyberpunk aesthetic of William Gibson's Neuromancer and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, depicting a pharmaceutically numbed society of the future under constant video surveillance. After Lucas spent a year digitally restoring the film for its theatrical rerelease and DVD debut in 2004, a longtime employee observed: 'I've never seen George so excited by any other project at the company.' Lucas says the restored THX was just a preview of even edgier films to come that he will finance and direct himself. 'I've earned the right to just make things that I find provocative in my own way,' he says. 'I've earned the right to fail, which means making what I think are really great movies that no one wants to see.'

If earning the right to make movies no one wants to see seems like a dour forecast for the next phase of his career, it may be because Lucas has never felt at ease with his own mainstream success. For the past couple of years, he's been telling interviewers that the breakout popularity of American Graffiti in 1973 'derailed' him into the business of mass-market filmmaking and that his career was 'sidetracked' by Star Wars. His ambivalence about presiding over a commercial empire has even led him to identify with his arch-villain, Darth Vader. In the career retrospective included with the 2004 Star Wars DVD set, Lucas declares: 'I'm not happy that corporations have taken over the film industry, but now I find myself being the head of a corporation, so there's a certain irony there. I have become the very thing that I was trying to avoid. That is Darth Vader - he becomes the very thing he was trying to protect himself against.'

Though Lucas says he's looking forward to 'a whole new adventure' as a director of 'very out-there' films, he admits that he faced this crossroads at least once before and chose to go down the more familiar route of embellishing Darth Vader's backstory. Now he'll have to tap his inner Luke again - the searcher eager to leap into the unknown. But if the father of Star Wars isn't the real George Lucas, who's the man behind the mask?

The popular myth of Lucas' life is that he grew up as the son of a conservative businessman in Modesto, California, and became obsessed with car racing until his teenage dreams of being a professional driver were cut short in 1962 by a near-fatal accident. With little interest in cinema beyond Flash Gordon serials and Adventure Theater reruns on TV, he went off to film school, emerging after American Graffiti as the architect of the Blockbuster That Ate Hollywood. While this kind of talk suits Lucas' image as an ordinary billionaire in a flannel shirt who wanted to upgrade the old-fashioned cliff-hanger so generations of kids could learn to dream again, it obscures the crucial part of his life when he first glimpsed his own destiny. Understanding these early years not only casts light on Lucas' current yearning to make experimental films, it reveals the frustrations that drove a self-proclaimed Luddite to finance the creation of digital tools that forever changed the craft of moviemaking.

Like the journey of Luke Skywalker, the journey of Lucas the filmmaker began with a cryptic transmission that hinted at the existence of a universe more vast than the one he grew up in. While he was zipping his souped-up Fiat through the dusty Central Valley flatlands that provided the model for Luke's home planet of Tatooine, another kind of momentum was building to the north in San Francisco, where poets and painters were picking up Army surplus handheld 16-mm cameras to launch the first wave of independent cinema on the West Coast. A filmmaker named Bruce Baillie tacked up a bedsheet in his backyard in 1960 to screen the work of indie pioneers like Jordan Belson, who crafted footage of exploding galaxies in his North Beach studio, saying that he made films so life on Earth could be seen through the eyes of a god. Filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner had equally transcendent ambitions for the emerging medium: Brakhage painted directly on film and juxtaposed images of childbirth and solar flares, while Conner made mash-ups of stock footage to produce slapstick visions of the apocalypse. For the next few years, Baillie's series, dubbed Canyon Cinema, toured local coffeehouses, where art films shared the stage with folksingers and stand-up comedians.

These events became a magnet for the teenage Lucas and his boyhood friend John Plummer. As their peers cruised Modesto's Tenth Street in the rites of passage immortalized in American Graffiti, the 19-year-olds began slipping away to San Francisco to hang out in jazz clubs and find news of Canyon Cinema screenings in flyers at the City Lights bookstore. Already a promising photographer, Lucas embraced these films with the enthusiasm of a suburban goth discovering the Velvet Underground. 'That's when George really started exploring,' Plummer recalls. 'We went to a theater on Union Street that showed art movies, we drove up to San Francisco State for a film festival, and there was an old beatnik coffeehouse in Cow Hollow with shorts that were really out there.' It was a season of awakening for Lucas, who had been a D-plus slacker in high school. A creative writing teacher at junior college in Modesto opened his eyes to the pleasures of reading, which led him to the writings of Joseph Campbell, a decisive influence on Star Wars.

Then Lucas and Plummer migrated south, where they discovered another filmmaking revolution in progress. They made pilgrimages to the New Art Cinema in Santa Monica to take in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, François Truffaut's Jules et Jim, and Federico Fellini's 8½ - movies that used handheld cinematography and in-your-face editing to deliver life unfiltered through the stale conventions of the Hollywood studios. At an autocross track, Lucas met his first mentor in the film industry - famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, a fellow aficionado of sleek racing machines. Wexler was impressed by the way the shy teenager handled a camera, cradling it low on his hips to get better angles. 'George had a very good eye, and he thought visually,' he recalls. By the time Lucas entered film school in 1964, he was already on his way to becoming the director who would combine the visceral excitement of Flash Gordon with the visual language of transcendence.

At USC, Lucas joined the first generation of film students who were influenced more by the explosion of world cinema than by the silver screen canon. One of his classmates, John Milius, the future cowriter of Apocalypse Now and director of Red Dawn, introduced him to the epics of Akira Kurosawa, whose depictions of Japanese feudal society were a key influence on Star Wars. Lucas' sense of his own mission crystallized in animation classes and in a course called Filmic Expression, which focused on the non-narrative aspects of filmmaking - telling stories without words by using light, space, motion, and color. The professors screened animated shorts and documentaries sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada, which has been funding cinematic exploration since the 1940s.

The work of three Canadian directors in particular excited Lucas about the potential of experimenting with the tools of filmmaking. An animator named Norman McLaren explored novel ways of creating images and sounds with every film he made, mixing human actors, animation, and special effects as Lucas would do digitally 20 years later. Lucas was also impressed by the documentaries of Claude Jutra, who used the artistic strategies of Godard and Truffaut to tell real-life stories. One of the reasons the first Star Wars film seemed so vivid compared with previous sci-fi fare, Lucas explains, was that he shot it like a Jutra documentary, covering the scenes with multiple cameras and staging them loosely on purpose so they would unfold with an edge of spontaneity. (Another reason was the salty insouciance of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, blissfully unaware that they were about to become action figures.)

The film that made the most profound impression on Lucas, however, was a short called 21-87 by a director named Arthur Lipsett, who made visual poetry out of film that others threw away. Working as an editor at the National Film Board, he scavenged scraps of other people's documentaries from trash bins, intercutting shots of trapeze artists and runway models with his own footage of careworn faces passing on the streets of New York and Montreal. What intrigued Lucas most was Lipsett's subversive manipulation of images and sound, as when a shot of teenagers dancing was scored with labored breathing that might be someone dying or having an orgasm. The sounds neither tracked the images nor ignored them - they rubbed up against them. Even with no plot or character development, 21-87 evoked richly nuanced emotions, from grief to a tenacious kind of hope - all in less than 10 minutes.

Lucas threaded the film through the projector over and over, watching it more than two dozen times. In 2003, he told directors Amelia Does and Dennis Mohr, who are making a documentary on Lipsett, "21-87 had a very powerful effect on me. It was very much the kind of thing that I wanted to do. I was extremely influenced by that particular movie." Deciding that his destiny was to become an editor of documentaries who, like Lipsett, would make avant-garde films on the side, Lucas worked in the USC editing room for 12 hours at a stretch, living on Coca-Cola and candy bars, deep in the zone.

'When George saw 21-87, a lightbulb went off,' says Walter Murch, who created the densely layered soundscapes in THX 1138 and collaborated with Lucas on American Graffiti. Lucas never met the young Canadian who influenced him so deeply; Lipsett committed suicide in 1986 after battling poverty and mental illness for years. But like a programmer sneaking Tolkien lines into his code, Lucas has planted stealth references to 21-87 throughout his films. The events in the student-film version of THX took place in the year 2187, and the numerical title itself was an homage. In the feature-length version, Duvall's character makes his run from a subterranean city when he learns that the love of his life was murdered by the authorities on the date '21/87.' And in the first Star Wars, when Luke and Han Solo blast into the detention center to rescue Princess Leia, they discover that the stormtroopers are holding her as a prisoner in cell 2187.

The rabbit hole goes even deeper: One of the audio sources Lipsett sampled for 21-87 was a conversation between artificial intelligence pioneer Warren S. McCulloch and Roman Kroitor, a cinematographer who went on to develop Imax. In the face of McCulloch's arguments that living beings are nothing but highly complex machines, Kroitor insists that there is something more: 'Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God.' When asked if this was the source of 'the Force,' Lucas confirms that his use of the term in Star Wars was 'an echo of that phrase in 21-87.' The idea behind it, however, was universal: 'Similar phrases have been used extensively by many different people for the last 13,000 years to describe the "life force,"' he says.

The lessons Lucas learned from filmmakers like Lipsett, McLaren, Jutra, and Kurosawa helped shape the creation of all of his later work. 'My films operate like silent movies,' he explains in an unused portion of an interview for a documentary on editing called 'The music and the visuals are where the story's being told. It's one of the reasons the films can be understood by such a wide range of age groups and cultural groups. I started out doing visual films - tone poems - and I move very much in that direction. I still have the actors doing their bit, and there's still dialog giving you key information. But if you don't have that information, it still works.'

The side of Lucas that wants to get out of the box has more allies than he may realize. Film critic Roger Ebert is already intrigued by the possibility of the director of Star Wars maturing beyond his well-worn role of being a dreamweaver for kids. 'Lucas is obviously great at science fiction, and he could combine his indie origins with his natural inclinations in smaller-scale sci-fi films,' he says. 'There's a lot of mind-bending speculative fiction by Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov that has never been filmed. A movie like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is science fiction, though it was never described that way.'

While Lucas promises that his new films will tackle philosophical issues ranging from theology to slavery in contemporary society, he says they'll be 'short projects, like normal people do. You shoot a few months, they're finished in a year, and if you want to do another one, you still have time off.' Given a powerful enough vision, as Yoda might say, size matters not. A 32-year-old former coder named Shane Carruth walked away with the Sundance festival's coveted Grand Jury Prize last year for a knotty thriller on the subject of time travel called Primer. Total cost of production: $7,000.

'I'm proud of George, but I'm worried about him,' says Lucas' former cinematography instructor, USC professor emeritus Woody Omens. 'He was trying to speak a different cinematic language at an early point in his career, and he's still trying to get to that. If he wanted me to mentor him again 40 years later, I would say, "Let go. Do something that explores the non-narrative side of human expression from the perspective of a master and a veteran. Go and make the movie of your life."'

The myth of Luke Skywalker hinges on courageous acts of liberation. In our conversation at the ranch, Lucas sums up the central theme of his films from THX 1138 to Revenge of the Sith: 'How do you personally get to the point where you wake up out of your stupor and take charge of your life and do dangerous and scary things?' Now that Lucas' odyssey in the land of droids and Wookiees is over, he has an opportunity to tap the bravery of the younger self who mapped out a universe at his desk with a No. 2 pencil. The masters of independent cinema and the digital rebel alliance have assembled outside the gates of Skywalker Ranch to deliver a message: 'Lucas, trust your feelings.'"

WELL, GEORGE, GOOD LUCK TO YOU. It might be the greatest career switch since Rimbaud went from poetry to gun-running. But Rimbaud revolutionized poetry in his teens, and dropped it in his 20s. George is 60. Strike back soon, Luke.