Race And The Oscars

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race and the oscars

Image via Wikipedia.

Over the last decade or so, the Academy Awards have received a long-deserved thrashing for their sameness. The people all look the same, the names all roll off the tongue with the same ol’ thump, and — at least for the more discriminating among us — the films, themselves, are pretty much identical, year after year. Nor does it help things that the winners are overwhelmingly white, and part of a medium that, more than books, television, or music, utterly forges people’s conceptions of art, relationships, and our day-to-day human drama. It is (rightfully) assumed, then, that the life depicted on screen is NOT the life ‘we’ lead: a trite point, really. More relevant, however, is the fact that those who end up constructing this screen-life, from the sound-people to the actors, the directors, technicians, and apparatchiks, aren’t drawn from reality either, but a tiny slice of it, and can, therefore, give very little back to us. Enter thus the ‘race’ that is race and the Oscars.

Now just ignore, for a second, that a cursory look through the Oscar wins from 1929 on will leave most filmgoers confused. Indeed, just as with the Nobel Prize for Literature — another trendsetter for ‘serious’ artistic work — most of these names are now unknowns, probably for good reason, in the same way that best-selling books from a century ago are but missing quanta today. This is because awards are, by their very nature, popularity contests, and whimsical ones at that. But while some things are better left to mass perception, art is, historically, best evaluated (and leveled!) by time. These days, I hear very little of Crash, Million Dollar Baby, or even Slumdog Millionaire, despite the fact that they’re fairly recent wins, and seemed to utterly control people’s conceptions of cinema only a decade back. You’d see articles, analyses, and academic discussions, even, of nothing in particular, yet still providing so much small-talk for the parties and the after-parties that those on the outside wished to be a part of, if only to joke with the stars, to hobnob with bad directors, to get the taste of, if not outright caviar, then downright shit: because when art is reduced to a mere vote of confidence, it all looks the same from such a vantage, anyway. For too long this cocktail party — of politics, wealth, and now, the human image — has tended to the same guests. It is predictable, then, that the rest of the world, the real world, perhaps, wants in, if only to do the same ol’ shit, to entertain with the same idiotic tricks, that everyone else has done, hoping for the same reaction.

And, ok: that’s fair enough, I guess. My issue, of course, is not with racial justice, but with a few, ah, human tendencies that have not been properly addressed, by ANY side. Blacks, recall, got tired of getting beaten up by cops, but when … Continue reading →

Review Of Alex Gibney’s “Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer”

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Client 9 Alex Gibney Eliot Spitzer

Alex Gibney’s Client 9. Image via Wikipedia.

Although the Eliot Spitzer scandal elicited 3 responses — support, hostility, and puritanism — Alex Gibney’s excellent 2010 documentary, Client 9, hammers home how idiotic all 3 really were, revealing, as it does, how such extremes arise in the first place, as well as the costs of norms that stray too far from the mean. Yes, Spitzer is in the middle of it all, but in a sense, the film’s periphery shows men and women exhibiting precisely the things hated in him and that Spitzer hated in turn: selfishness, hypocrisy, single-mindedness, and the way that culture, on all sides, tends to refract such. And while Spitzer is painted as an extremist, in ways necessary, in ways not, he is also revelatory of the things around him, something that the ‘middle’ — in its  dilution of itself — often cannot do.

Client 9 begins on such a note, with a Spitzer ad extolling ‘right’ bore alongside mock advertisements for the scandal, as if New York is celebrating both the man’s importance and his downfall. Spitzer is immediately apologetic, calling his story a “classic tale of hubris,” which is nicely paralleled with the paintings of New York artist and former pimp Hulbert Waldroup, who muses on human beings’ dual nature. None of this is particularly deep, but still sets up a controlling metaphor for the film’s remainder, ensuring that Gibney has much opportunity to play with images and ideas as the film goes on. Spitzer then gives a brief ‘in’ to his childhood, noting how his father “cruelly” beat him in Monopoly to teach his son a lesson. This leads to Spitzer’s distinction between violent and white collar crime: that while violent crime is glamorized, and visible, white collar crime is neglected but just as important (in fact, I’d argue it is worse overall, for feeds and enlivens the former). And, indeed, for the film’s many examples of white collar crime sum to trillions in damage, millions of cumulative years shaven off of workers’ lifespans due to the related stressors, and other abuses that — rarely punished — point to a discrepancy that favors one class of thug over another. This offers an informational edge for those that want illumination. More importantly for the film’s narrative, however, its focus on real, named criminals props up a number of characters, many of them interesting and mysterious in their own right, that will serve as antagonists to Spitzer and offer some hints to the ‘how’ of his eventual downfall.

As the film progresses, these names come fast, reminding one of the jigsaw-like quality of Gibney’s earlier Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room. There is Henry Blodget from Merrill Lynch, whose fraud — while merely a scapegoat for a much bigger problem — shows how ingrained the thug mentality really is, with Blodget privately poo-pooing the criminal investigation since fraud was so prevalent, and, therefore, a kind of entitlement. Then there’s Richard Continue reading →

Soylent Is A Dismal Art

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Image via Meghan Telpner.

A few years ago, a new foodstuff called Soylent hit the market. It purports to be a meal replacer for people who, like me, hate the inconvenience of cooking (I do it every day anyway, the import of which will be apparent by essay’s end), or even eating, but wish to get what the human body needs without the typical sugar overload and poor, refined oils such things usually entail. To be sure, Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s creator, is a tricky one. He initially tried to live on Soylent alone for a while, and survived the few months without issue, even submitting blood-work to show that was, indeed, possible. Predictably, Rhinehart eased off of Soylent, mixing regular food into his diet, as well, all the while insisting that others can remain on a Soylent-only diet. Yet the signals are quite mixed, from Rhinehart’s poorly-timed self-study that ensured no chronic issues could begin to surface, to encouraging others to blend Soylent with real food, thus turning the thing into a de facto supplement, to the fact that, for all of its supposed completeness, not even the creator, himself, is willing to live on it for the long term. And, in fact, I’d argue that no one should, since the relationship between food and disease is — save for some basics — a virtually unknown quanta, and even that little bit of knowledge is colored by ideology, falsehood, and outright manipulation.

Now, as a former fat guy, I’ve had to learn quite a bit about cooking and nutrition, but as an all-around curious type, with little inclination towards ideology, I’ve also learned how much bullshit — how much ignorance — goes into nutritional ‘science’. Indeed, it seems to me that the average nutritionist knows as much about food as the average literary critic knows about craft, thus confusing otherwise intelligent people, like Rob Rhinehart, into accepting things that can never be. And this is not simply because they have too many wrong answers. It is also that, for every question they purport to answer, there is a deeper, more important one that was NOT asked due to the original bias. Perhaps more importantly, it wasn’t even thought to be asked, and — worse! — cannot logically be asked under the conditions. Remember that, in art, the question is: how does it all cohere? And in science, the question is: how does it all cohere? You can read this statement left, right, up, or down, for the inflection will be the same; the meaning will not change; the spirit will not molt.

Art begins (or should begin) with a subtle understanding. If art’s a ‘thing,’ then it is, logically, a thing distinct from other things: from philosophy, say, or historiography, or politics. Perhaps it might have elements of each. And perhaps it might draw on multiple disciplines in order to sum up to its own thing. But if two things can be conflated with nothing lost whatsoever, then … Continue reading →

Review Of Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” (2015)

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Emma Stone Joaquin Phoenix Irrational Man Woody Allen

Image via FlickeringMyth.

Yes, the question of ‘why’ is often a satisfying one, but it is just as often immaterial. And while there are many reasons for this, just one should suffice: that people, being quite curious, will apply their curiosity towards questions that are insoluble, wrongly assuming that, since the cosmos offers up some answers, it can provide all of them. It simply won’t, however, since the questions we have learned to ask are not questions we have adapted to. In some cases, this is easily solved by letting go, by recognizing appropriate human limits. In others, however, it is more so that the relevant terms have never been defined, out of ignorance, out of inability, or both.

Art falls somewhere between these two realities, partly because it is more a question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ to begin with. Take, for instance, the issue of artistic trajectory: the inevitable arcs that all artists seem to go through, and, despite thousands of years of examples, these same artists’ failure to recognize them, much less avoid them. In short, it is true that most great artists will eventually start to repeat themselves in rather pallid ways; most great artists will forget how their art came about in the first place, content, as they are, to merely re-capture the spirit of youth; most great artists will, for lack of a better term, dull, dull, dull, and many (if not most) will never notice this in others or in themselves. Indeed, it is as if their decline somehow forces the world — or at least their conception of it — to acclimate to such, wherein nothing seems to move, nothing seems ‘wrong’. Sure, it is easy for people to see a boxer as washed-up, or smile at a fat, aging baseball player with the knowledge of what they had once accomplished. But this doesn’t seem to apply to the arts, for while every animal has a functional body, the human mind is somehow thought to be unique. It does not age. It doesn’t go. And this conception does not die, or else it is assumed that there was not much there to begin with.

Yet as limiting as this view of art and the artist is, connoisseurs can be quite rabid, which is sometimes a good thing. Recently, this has been the case with Woody Allen’s Irrational Man (2015), a mediocre film that (as with other films he has done over the past decade) borrows heavily from earlier masterpieces. Yes, this is a common plaint, but the deeper point is that he’s borrowing things with little understanding of how those elements worked so well in the original films: the real sin, in fact, since a borrowing that leads to artistic greatness is no sin at all. Thus, I find myself in agreement with not only the consensus surrounding the film (42% on RottenTomatoes, which is about the same score that Woody’s 2007 classic, Cassandra’s Dream, Continue reading →

Tale Us Of Your Triggers

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Lenny Kravitz Trigger

Image via Mematic.

It seems that while human violence is on the ebb, the world’s arsenal is maturing for a very different kind of war:

In a way, this is to be expected. Material concerns have no future. Poverty, in time, shall no longer be in business. And if ideology is less and less in vogue, there must be other things — other means of self-expression — to club each other over the head with. But while the weapons have always been around, their location tends to shift according to the needs of civilization. Today one prods the world for signs of power yet comes up short. One looks for strength and is turned away. Such values are no longer a point of negotiation, for strength is undemocratic- is deemed tyrannical– and has, therefore, been replaced with victimhood and frailty as a new ideal.

Yet the club is no less heavy; is not, to be sure, to be put away merely on account of personal weakness. After all, the drive is still to hurt, to outdo- to overpower. To this end, there’s been a long list of hurts written somewhere in the ether: a catalogue of ills, attachments, and offenses — called “triggers” — that people can freely choose from and indulge as part of their natural identity. Their numbers are numberless, and by extension can pretty much be anything. There’s racism, rape, homophobia, there’s sexist thoughts, ‘fatphobia’, the wrong feelings, or the right ones expressed at the wrong time. In fact, the more of life is seen, the longer this list becomes, for any desire to take offense — and it IS a desire — will forever search for new stimuli, new ways to engage a rapidly narrowing world. Of course, none of it is new at all: it merely comes in greater quanta to satisfy this ever-growing threshold for pain. The lust, here, is to take on as many hurts as possible, to really FEEL them until the world is little more than the sum total of one’s own eye.

Indeed, you could even argue that this is all a hermit kingdom with its own rules, its own army, and its own peculiar sense of decorum. The rule is simple, really: do not offend. Or rather, learn to read the cues to KNOW what offense entails. As for enforcement- there is anger, of course. There are guilt-trips and mobs to help turn others in acolytes. There are emotional fits meant to keep the ‘debate’ (whatever it may be) from crossing the parapet. At times, these kingdoms are too distal, too fucked up, emotionally or otherwise, to truly let others in. At other times, however, a confederation of the offended will come together to- essentially- find ways of never moving past the safety of these walls. Sure, a few might turn into genuine relationships- I do not doubt this. But they will be friendships that, instead of building upon one another’s best, tend to wallow … Continue reading →