I heard about "Guardians of the Galaxy" a couple months ago when I read some trivia stating that Zoe Saldana (Uhura in the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies; Neytiri in "Avatar") was going to star in it. At the time, I rolled my eyes: what sort of suck-ass title is "Guardians of the Galaxy"? Who the hell can take that seriously? Even for Marvel, this seemed a stretch, a step off the cliff and a plunge onto the jagged rocks of corniness.
Then I saw the trailer.
And I'm sold. The trailer is hilarious, and "Guardians of the Galaxy," I now know, was never meant to be taken seriously as a title: the whole thing is one huge ironic pose. The movie is based on a Marvel comic that came out only recently—around 2008, I think. I imagine it's supposed to take place in the same Marvel universe as Spider-Man and The Avengers, but it looks to be more of a spiritual cousin of Spielberg/Lucas efforts like "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." In fact, that early scene in the trailer, where Quill grabs the globe, strikes me as a "Raiders" homage to Indy's golden-idol moment in the Peruvian temple.
Chris Pratt stars as Peter Quill, a.k.a. the arrogantly self-titled Star Lord, who seems to be a young, bumbling fusion of Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Zoe Saldana is Gamora, a deadly, green-skinned assassin who looks as if she would eat James Kirk for breakfast. Physically imposing MMA star Dave Bautista is Drax the Destroyer, who seems very angry about something. Bradley Cooper is the voice of Rocket, a genetically engineered, trigger-happy raccoon with a Napoleon complex. His huge silent partner, the tree-like humanoid Groot, is stoically played by Vin Diesel.
There are two reasons why this trailer was so seductive. First, it was edgier than other Marvel outings. Peter Quill gives the camera the finger; Gamora looks strung out on drugs and not quite sane (Saldana totally sells that look); Rocket Raccoon is shown snarling and firing an automatic weapon; Drax is all business, wanted for 22 counts of murder. Only Groot comes off looking cute and adorable. Together, this motley group gives off a definite Island of Misfit Toys vibe that automatically endears them to me (anyone else get misty when watching that part of the old Christmas special?).
Second, the trailer did two brave and unexpected things: it blasted the 1968 Mark James/BJ Thomas "Hooked on a Feeling," with its primal u-ga chaga u-ga u-ga! chant, and at the very end, it showed our heroes in a criminal lineup, just standing there and doing... well, nothing, except looking around, yawning, and sneering. For five full seconds. That's a lot of air time to waste on characters doing nothing. And I thought that was awesome. It gave us some time just to drink the characters in and to ponder their potential for mayhem.
So "Guardians of the Galaxy" has gone from object of contempt to my newest must-see movie. Judging by the 13.3 million views that the above-linked preview trailer has gotten so far, I'm not alone in thinking this movie is going to rock. The trailer sells itself. The movie comes out in the States this August.
Friday, February 28, 2014
I heard about "Guardians of the Galaxy" a couple months ago when I read some trivia stating that Zoe Saldana (Uhura in the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies; Neytiri in "Avatar") was going to star in it. At the time, I rolled my eyes: what sort of suck-ass title is "Guardians of the Galaxy"? Who the hell can take that seriously? Even for Marvel, this seemed a stretch, a step off the cliff and a plunge onto the jagged rocks of corniness.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
How do we know what a dog is feeling? Unless we're telepaths—and telepathy is bullshit, last I checked—all we have are outward signs to clue us in to a dog's mental state. Tail is wagging hard? Happy. Eager. Tail and head are droopy? Sad. Ashamed.
Are we sure our dog is actually ashamed, even when he seems to be giving us "the look"? This CBS Sacramento article says no: we can't be sure what the dog is feeling just because he adopts the "shame" posture:
The next time you start shaking your finger and shouting “Shame on you!” because your dog chewed up your favorite fuzzy slippers, just remember that no matter how guilty your dog looks, it doesn’t know what your rant is about.
Behaviorists insist dogs lack shame. The guilty look — head cowered, ears back, eyes droopy — is a reaction to the tantrum you are throwing now over the damage they did hours earlier.
In the study, she [Dr. Alexandra Horowitz] used 14 dogs, videotaping them in a series of trials and studying how they reacted when an owner left the room after telling them not to eat a treat. When the owners returned, sometimes they knew what the dogs had done and sometimes they didn’t and sometimes the dogs had eaten the treats and sometimes they hadn’t.
“I found that the ‘look’ appeared most often when owners scolded their dogs, regardless of whether the dog had disobeyed or did something for which they might or should feel guilty. It wasn’t ‘guilt’ but a reaction to the owner that prompted the look,” Horowitz said.
“I am not saying that dogs might not feel guilt, just that the ‘guilty look’ is not an indication of it,” she added. She also believes there is a difference between guilt and shame.
Agreed: there's a difference between guilt and shame. It's a commonplace, in cultural studies, to differentiate between "guilt cultures" and "shame cultures." Guilt is inwardly oriented, whereas shame is outwardly oriented: a guilty person has a conscience that can afflict him even when he's alone and no one is looking; in a shame culture, what matters most is how one appears to one's fellows. American society is a mixture of guilt and shame cultures; Korean society is much more of a shame culture.*
I'm not so sure, however, that I agree with the results of this research. There's a compelling video on YouTube that shows, amusingly, an owner of several dogs who interrogates his pets, one by one, to find out which one had done a bad deed. Eventually, the owner lights upon the last dog, who hangs his head in shame and is obviously the guilty party. Why didn't the other dogs act ashamed? The above-quoted researcher likely has no answer, not having tested this situation. Admittedly, this cute YouTube video is merely one data point and not a comprehensive, systematic study, but the evidence it provides is grounds to conduct studies that proceed much as the video did: will one guilty dog out himself in a group situation?
Another reason to be suspicious of the study is the behaviorist approach itself. A behaviorist doesn't assume that minds exist; instead, he sees organisms as complex nexuses that navigate the world through stimulus and response. (One of my psych profs used to joke, by way of explaining the behaviorist perspective, "Do minds exist? Seen one lately?") I, on the other hand, know I have a mind and am just as sure that a dog is a sentient creature that experiences some sort of inner life. What that life is, I can't imagine: I have no access to a canine consciousness or sensorium. That said, it seems to me that, when a dog looks ashamed, it probably is ashamed about something. Now does the dog feel guilty? Probably not: given the chance, the dog might commit the exact same transgression a second time—and only a short time after having been scolded for the first transgression.
It's an interesting mental exercise, pondering canine epistemology and phenomenology. How do we know what a dog is going though? What's it like to be a dog? I can't say, but to me, it's a pretty good guess that dogs can feel shame.
*Shame, in shame cultures, is linked to concepts like honor and face. Prestige, rank, and standing are all important concepts in such cultures: what matters isn't whether you are guilty; it's whether you look guilty. Witness Dr. Hwang Woo-seok, whose quack genetic science continued for years until he was outed and shamed. Once shown to be a fraud, Hwang made a big spectacle of how sorry he was, even going so far as to appear sick by going to a hospital and allowing himself to be photographed while bedridden. Korean politicians and business leaders, when caught up in scandal, routinely offer operatically tearful apologies to the public, pathetically begging for forgiveness—all in an attempt to restore some standing. When these appeals fail to move the public, the marginalized person may even kill himself, as President Noh Mu-hyeon did. Such is the power of shame: if society can't live with you, then you can't live with yourself.
In America, by contrast, it's hard to find a politician who can be motivated by shame to apologize for anything. Chris Christie hasn't fallen on his sword for Bridgegate and the other scandals now collecting around him; Kathleen Sibelius hasn't tendered her resignation for botching the Obamacare website's rollout; Bill Clinton, despite being a serial sexual predator, still has no trouble showing his face at pro-feminism events.
One could counter that, in the above American examples, something like the shame culture still obtains. How so? Because in each case, none of the politicians was definitively shown to be guilty of wrongdoing. Scandals can be spun; US politicians often talk about optics, i.e., how a situation looks to outsiders. That sort of thinking is very much rooted in a shame-culture paradigm. Clinton feels he can show his face because, at worst, he had an "inappropriate relationship" (his words) with Monica Lewinsky, and those other sex scandals are far in the past. In Clinton's mind, that's enough to exculpate him. Chris Christie, despite his "buck stops here" reputation, still maintains he knew nothing about the Bridgegate scandal that unfolded right under his nose. For Christie, the maintaining of innocence is enough to allow him to show his face in public. Kathleen Sibelius has dodged guilt through spin: even Apple has problems when it rolls out a new e-product, she claims, so it should come as no surprise that Obamacare's website has some minor glitches. Positive spin repairs the optics; as long as things look good, they run smoothly. Are any of these powerful people kept awake at night by their lack of integrity? No—of course they aren't.
For Koreans, though, even the taint of scandal is enough to provoke shame. Some politicians will try to worm their way out of the shame zone, but for many, this isn't possible: public pressure is just too great. In America, by and large, this taint comes specifically with sex scandals (witness the self-destruction of Anthony Weiner, for the liberals, or the Reverend Ted Haggard, for the conservatives): for an American, even to be accused of sexual impropriety is enough to destroy a career. Rich, powerful politicians might spin their way out of such a mess, but a lowly high-school teacher accused of having sex with a student has no recourse to money and privilege. Such a teacher, even if not guilty, must wear the scarlet letter forever.
All of that being said, Americans are still capable of being "shameless" in a way that Koreans can't. Madonna has survived any number of disreputable situations; in fact, she thrives on such things: they make her edgy. The same goes for British actor Hugh Grant who, thanks to his encounter with an American prostitute, can now trade on something of a "bad boy" reputation. (Ditto for Russell Crowe and his anger-management problems.) What goes for American celebrities can apply, in some cases, to American politicians. Anthony Weiner, mentioned above, incredibly felt that it was his duty to run for mayor of New York City despite having texted embarrassing images of his tumescent genitals to women who were not his wife. Shame obviously didn't hold him back; his ego proved more powerful than any sense of shame. Korean movie stars, by contrast, have been harassed to the point of suicide by scandalized, abrasive "fans." The Korean sense of rejection can be strong enough to override rationality, pushing the ostracized person to the spiritual limit. It's a sad fact that, for many Korean celebrities who commit suicide, their suicide notes generally include some sort of apology to their fans.
Keanu Reeves's 2013 directorial debut, "Man of Tai Chi," stars his stuntman buddy Tiger Chen as a fictionalized version of himself. Chen plays a modest man who is the lone student of Master Yang (Yu Hai), the only living exponent of a unique fighting style known as Ling Kong Kung Fu. Reeves stars as the film's satanic antagonist, Donaka Mark, a rich expatriate who manages a fight ring and is always looking for new, naïve talent.
One day, Mark sees Chen on TV, participating in a local martial-arts contest; Chen is victorious, and during his post-fight interview, he says he wants to show the world that tai chi is an effective fighting system. Because Chen has something to prove, Mark knows how best to corrupt the younger man. Mark eventually persuades Chen to fight for him; Chen refuses to fight for money, but accepts handsome payments, anyway, to help his parents and keep his master's temple from being razed. With each successive fight, though, Chen gives in to his native viciousness until he finally realizes he is in danger of losing his soul and hurting the ones closest to him. Mark, meanwhile, revels in Chen's moral corrosion.
The film gives us a rare opportunity to judge Reeves as both an actor and a director. Reeves is no classically trained Shakespearean, and I can't say that his acting in this film is going to win him any awards. All the same, he conveys his character's malevolence convincingly, and stalks about his shadowy domain with the deadly grace of a predator. As a director, Reeves shows both more talent and more potential: he has a very good sense of atmospherics, and he understands the technical aspects of filmmaking, such as timing, pace, lighting, and editing. His fight scenes are clear; they allow the stunt work of fight choreographer Yuen Wo-ping to shine. (Yuen choreographed "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as well as all three Matrix movies.) Reeves doesn't seem interested in gimmicky, swooping camera moves or other forms of cinematic trickery; his style is unpretentious and unintrusive.
The story's setup stands in contrast with the general silliness of the wuxia genre. Although the movie's plot and dialogue dip us, the viewers, in a rather shallow pool of East Asian philosophy, the underlying theme strikes me as Judeo-Christian: this is a film about a person making a deal with the devil and attempting to find his way back to redemption. I was reminded of other movies: "Platoon" immediately came to mind as a similar story about a young man caught between two father figures—one who is wise and gentle, and another who is dark and cynical. "The Devil's Advocate," in which Reeves also starred, came to mind as well, for it seemed to me that, in "Man of Tai Chi," Reeves had assumed the tempter's role originally played by Al Pacino in that other film.
The movie's plot is kept straightforward and coherent; there's the "A story," in which we track Chen's temptation and fall; there's also the "B story," which follows the police's efforts to bust Donaka Mark for his illegal fighting ring. What I liked best about the plot was its focus on character. Most wuxia films of lesser quality tend to fixate on the fighting, eschewing depth for spectacle. Also praiseworthy was the fight choreography, which used a minimum of wire-fu (Yuen Wo-ping may be evolving along with his audience, as wire-fu has lately fallen out of favor), and which also—surprisingly—showed the fights as unpolished. Fist and foot impacts were accompanied by only modest sound effects; the camera tended to hang back, allowing us to see that a flurry of blows might land, but might not always land with great force. This was a risky move on both the director's and the choreographer's part, but I thought it added a bit of grit and realism to the fight scenes—another trait not often seen in wuxia cinema.
The only truly disappointing aspect of the film was that it relied on "Karate Kid"-style trickery at the very end. You may recall how, in both "The Karate Kid" and "The Karate Kid Part II," Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) learned a "signature" move that allowed him to defeat his opponent. This was easily the weakest element in both Karate Kid films—more gimmick than substance. In "Man of Tai Chi," there's an aggressive chi move performed by both Master Yang and Tiger Chen that I found completely unbelievable. I still enjoyed the overall story, but I felt that this bit of fakery had no place in a morality tale that had, otherwise, attempted to keep things grounded in reality.
As directorial debuts go, "Man of Tai Chi" is quite respectable. I think Keanu Reeves has an enriching career ahead of him. I'm tempted to say that he should go the way of Sofia Coppola, who quickly discovered that she was awful in front of a camera but a maestra behind one. But I'm not willing to concede that Keanu is really all that awful as an actor: his line deliveries and facial expressions tend to be wooden, yes, but he's photogenic, not to mention an amazing physical actor, as his performance in the Matrix movies proves. Also, he's no longer young: in 2014, Reeves stands on the brink of fifty, and time has at last begun to bestow some world-weary gravitas upon him.
I've tried to avoid talking about how the movie ends. You may think you know how the story goes if you've seen the preview trailer, and you may think that this review has dropped hints about Tiger Chen's eventual redemption after swimming for a time in darkness. But the ending isn't quite as clear-cut as all that. You'll just have to see the movie for yourself to understand what I mean. After that, it's up to you to decide whether "Man of Tai Chi" truly ends happily. You might end up wondering: Did the Devil in fact win?
ADDENDUM: Another excellently written review of the film is here. Always a pleasure to read people who take pride in their writing.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Congratulations to my buddy, Dr. Charles La Shure, who will be moving up in the world. He was already a well-liked translation prof who taught grad students at the prestigious HUFS (Hanguk* University of Foreign Studies); now, he's experienced a promotion of sorts, and has joined the faculty of South Korea's top college, the Harvard of this peninsula, Seoul National University. At SNU, Charles will be teaching Korean Studies. He's been a professional translator for years—since well before he received his doctorate—so I doubt that the change in pedagogical focus will deprive him of further opportunities to translate something.
Congratulations, Charles, on moving south of the river. May your future be a bright one.
*Hanguk is often misleadingly romanized as Hankuk, which of course leads to mispronunciations. HUFS romanizes its own name as "Hankuk University of Foreign Studies." Personally, I can't bear to write "Hankuk." It's like shooting Old Yeller.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
How sad: actor and director Harold Ramis is dead at the tender age of 69.
Ramis was a childhood icon. "Stripes" came out before I was old enough to see it in the theaters, but I got an eyeful of female boobage when I saw it on video at my cousin's house. (My cousin was easily one of my most corrupting influences.) I was, however, old enough to enjoy "Ghostbusters" in the theater when that came out. I was in high school at the time. Ramis's 1990s "Groundhog Day" provided plenty of grist for my philosophical/theological mill; whether it's a film about karma/karuna, or metanoia, or tikkun olam is open to interpretation, but there's no doubt that it gets you thinking.
My mental image of Harold Ramis comes from the 1980s: he's tall, lanky, and quietly cerebral. Photos of Ramis in his later years—like recent photos of Carrie Fisher—never failed to shock me. His death from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis came as a surprise. Like most everyone these days, I found out about his passing via Twitter—just another update in a constant stream of updates. Ramis would have appreciated the humor in that.
RIP, Mr. Ramis. You were one of the great ones.
Monday, February 24, 2014
One of my good friends comes from New Zealand. Another of my good friends just spent a few weeks in New Zealand with his wife. Both of these friends seem perfectly happy with New Zealand, and the second friend recommends that I get my ass down there at some point before I die.*
Out of idle curiosity, I typed "basic Maori expressions" into Google and was rewarded with this site, which offers 100 basic Maori** words and expressions that plunge you into the thought-world of that culture. Simple, straightforward, and very educational.
When I finally buy my two dogs, I'm going to name them Raho and Tou.
*A friend and coworker from my previous job also visited New Zealand, and she was just as charmed by the land of Peter Jackson.
**The word Maori is not pronounced "mey-yori." It's pronounced "mao-ri." Like the Chinese Mao. Think of a confused Chinese-Korean guy named Mao Rhee.
Orientation was mercifully brief today. I'm still sick, so it would have been hard to sit through a prolonged snorefest. Luckily, everyone who spoke was lively and straight to the point. I skipped the faculty lunch to visit the registrar and extend my KMA privileges until June. After that, I lumbered straight home. And here I am.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
It's been an interesting, albeit arduous, vacation, but March is around the corner, and the time has come to get back to business. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a two-month break from my primary duties. Now, however, I'm topping the final rise before I reenter the Vallye of the Shadowe of Worke. Tomorrow, we've got a departmental orientation at DCU, and the following Monday, March 3, we begin teaching. I won't be relinquishing my side jobs, however; I'll be doing them on top of my day job.
But the day job shouldn't be terrible: I had originally been scheduled to teach seven classes this coming semester, but that got reduced to the regular complement of six, which is fine by me. I'm still off on Fridays, which means I can teach at KMA on Fridays and Saturdays. And the Golden Goose job is flexible enough that I can do GG-related projects during my free time.
So this coming week is the final sprint, in terms of prep, before the semester begins in earnest. There's still some information that I don't know re: grade distributions for one of my classes; I'm hoping we learn everything either tomorrow or sometime later this week.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
The flu struck hard and fast. I must have caught it from someone while I was out either Thursday or Friday—sore throat, severe coughing, fever, chills, headache, joint aches, runny nose, mucus, and sensitive skin. No nausea, luckily, but that may be partly because I've made an executive decision not to eat anything today. I'm resting, washing my hands every few minutes, spraying my bedding with Dettol (a Korean version of Lysol), gargling with salt water, taking aspirin, and using a multi-symptom cold medicine that the pharmacist recommended to me after I had described my symptoms to her (the twenty-something chick at the counter didn't look or sound much like a seasoned pharmacist; she seemed rather unsure of herself, and latched onto the term jong-hap gamgi-yak—multi-symptom cold medicine—when I mentioned it to her).
Later this evening, I'll bundle up, go out, and buy either some orange juice or some clementines for the Vitamin C they afford. Ever since I ran out of Vitamin C (and other pills) in the middle of the previous semester, I've felt a bit more vulnerable. It was a wonder to me that I had managed to last this long without once getting truly sick, but now, it appears my number is up. The timing couldn't be worse: I'm finishing up a major project for my Golden Goose job, and on Monday, we've got orientation. I also didn't bother to get a flu shot this year... but then again, I never do.
What inflames me with desire? I'll tell you; I'm a simple man with simple pleasures.
There's a local grocery store that sells comestibles—including Western food items—for remarkably cheap. Huge bags of mandu go for under W5000 (a half-size bag at a typical grocery goes for about W6000). Large bags of red or white "cod blocks" go for about W4000 (under $4) per bag.* Pasta—Western spaghetti and macaroni—sells for W900-W1000 per bag, and each bag is the size of a typical box of pasta back home. Those are better than Wegmans prices,** and I can't find them at any other local store. There's whole salmon for W18,500, which is better than Costco's price for the same thing. A bag of frozen strawberries goes for W4000. Small, single-serving packs of udong (Japanese udon) go for W900 (about $0.82). Bags of frozen veggies are W4000 apiece. A Costco-sized brick of frozen chicken breasts is a very reasonable W14,000. For the frozen items, the bulk items (including ice cream, spaghetti sauce, tuna, and mayonnaise), and the pasta alone, this store is amazing. I only wish it also sold more than just bland American cheese and equally insipid mozzarella.
Before I forget—the store sells one other thing that has me jumping for joy: bacon scraps. I've extolled the virtues of bacon scraps before on this blog (see here and here); they're a cheap, equally tasty alternative to sliced bacon. All the scraps require is a good, thorough broiling to crisp them up, and you're good to go. Crumble and serve in quiche, on salads, with escargot, or in whatever manner your sclerotic little heart desires.
And here's another lust-inducing thing: while browsing Amazon.com the other day, a thought occurred to me, and I typed in "Encyclopedia of Religion." This set, edited by the late, great historian of religions Mircea Eliade (author of The Sacred and the Profane, The Myth of the Eternal Return, and Treatise on the History of Religions), used to cost in the thousands of dollars. Now? There are EoR sets in halfway decent condition on sale for a mere $200. One set, in above-average condition, is going for $450; I'd gladly pay that if I had the cash. I've had my heart set on that encyclopedia for years.
So yes, these are the things that set me to craving. How about you?
*Let me explain cod blocks: imagine frozen cubes of pure cod, about 1.5 inches on a side. Obviously, no cod is big enough to provide chunks of meat that are that large; when you look closely at a cod block, you see right away that the meat has been flaked off, mashed together, and then frozen. The result looks reminiscent of crab meat. I'm going to find out what sort of fritters these cod blocks make.
**Because Wegmans is a store that sells high-quality, high-end products, I initially thought the place would be expensive. Strangely, it isn't: a box of spaghetti at Food Lion—and I'm talking about Food Lion's own el-cheapo house brand—might set you back $1.50, but Wegmans sells its spaghetti at about $0.90 per box. Incredible.
Friday, February 21, 2014
"How to Train Your Dragon" stars nerdy, nasal Jay Baruchel (of "This is the End" fame) as Hiccup, the wimpy son of burly Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), chieftain of the seaside Viking village of Berk. Berk is constantly raided by dragons that steal the villagers' livestock and kill the warriors. Hiccup badly wants to do his part to prove his warrior's mettle, but his father is convinced that Hiccup doesn't have what it takes to be a proper Viking. Beautiful Astrid (America Ferrera), on the other hand, is tough and competent, and Hiccup has a crush on her. So Hiccup spends his time apprenticed to Gobber (Craig Ferguson), sharpening swords, readying weapons, and trying out new inventions that can take down dragons, including a dragon known as a Night Fury—fast, mysterious, and the most feared of all the flying reptiles. One night, Hiccup uses one of his weapons (a bolo-launcher) to take down a Night Fury, which he tracks into the local forest. He readies himself to kill the helpless beast, but has a change of heart and releases it instead. The dragon proves unable to fly away because its tail has been damaged; Hiccup befriends the dragon, whom he names Toothless, and that friendship sets up all the conflict, comedy, and adventure that follow.
Viewers will immediately be reminded of "Avatar," which came out the previous year ("Dragon" was released in 2010; "Avatar" in 2009). Unlike what happens in "Avatar," however, the human reaction to Hiccup's cross-species friendship isn't quite so tainted with destructive avarice and murderous speciesism. The basic theme of "Dragon" is the overcoming of prejudice, and while the message isn't exactly subtle, it's delivered in such a way as not to insult the viewer's intelligence. "Dragon" is a good-hearted, fun, coming-of-age movie, with plenty of magnificent flying scenes and a very impressive (albeit hilariously corpulent) superdragon at the end. It features the voice talents of a whole boatload of Scotsmen (why the casting director chose Scotsmen and not Scandinavians to play Vikings is beyond me) from Gerard "This is Sparta!" Butler to Craig "Ooh là-là!" Ferguson and crazy-eyed David Tennant (you'll remember him from "Hamlet"). The Picts are balanced by a North American contingent—lone Canuck Jay Baruchel and his cohort of Yanks: Jonah Hill, Kristin Wiig, America Ferrera, and Christopher "McLovin/Red Mist" Mintz-Plasse. "How to Train Your Dragon" was ninety minutes well spent. I'll be curious to see the two planned sequels, one of which comes out later this year.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Things that straddle categories can be annoying because they're hard to classify. Look, for example, at the following picture of a container of Coca Cola:
It's made out of the same thin aluminum as a regular Coke can, but it's shaped like a bottle. So what is it? A bottle? A can? A cottle? A ban?
I'm going to call it a teen, because it can't decide what it wants to be.
Two articles caught my attention—one linked by Dr. Vallicella titled "Why Privatizing Marriage Can't Work," and another linked by Malcolm Pollack titled "Gay marriage: a case study in conformism."
The first article is short enough that I'm going to quote it in full and respond to it right here.
An important discussion is occurring among young Evangelicals over whether the government should even be in the marriage business. According to those who are advocating this option, the most important reason for commending state withdrawal is that it seems to promise a permanent vacation from the most contentious battle in the culture wars. You can still believe that same-sex conduct is immoral and that Christian marriage is between one man and one woman while at the same time saying that you advocate “marriage equality,” since if no marriage is legally recognized, then everyone is “equal” to pursue his or her vision of the good life without interference from the state.I haven't taken my own survey of young evangelical Christians, and as far as I know, American Protestants don't have their own version of humorous-but-truthful Catholic sociologist of religion Father Andrew Greeley (who died just last year). I'm just going to have to take Dr. Beckwith at his word, and assume that his cynical interpretation of the motives of the evangelical youth is correct.
In other words, you can in good conscience put an equal sign on your Facebook page, in order to announce to all your progressive college friends that you are not a dangerous bigot like the rest of your faith community, while telling the members of that same community in private that you support the biblical view of marriage. You can be, to borrow a phrase from another cultural dispute, “prochoice [sic] but personally opposed.”I think we can add condescension to cynicism.
It’s easy to understand why young Evangelicals find this approach so attractive. Who, in their right mind, would want to bring upon themselves the derision and marginalization that typically attends embracing views that are not in cultural ascendancy? In the age of social media, the [once-dreaded] vice of succumbing to peer pressure, as they called it when I was a kid, has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Today, peer-pressure [sic] is now a virtue, with its own Facebook page and “like” button.I'm not sure I understand this. Is Beckwith suggesting that there's cyber-bullying happening on Facebook? I'm not on Facebook—haven't been a member since 2010—but the last time I was there, I thought Facebook was little more than a microcosm of the greater Western Internet. I associate cyberbullying with a very limited subset of people in the West—mainly immature teens who drive each other to suicide through merciless taunting. For real and rampant cyberbullying, you need to go to East Asia or any society in which groupthink is prominent, and being ejected from the group is considered a tragedy. Korean Netizens have been known to drive rich, prominent actors and actresses to suicide through their vitriol.
The baby-boom generation that once decried the machinations and political power of “the Man,” and called for all right thinking people to resist him, has become “the Man,” and now calls for all right thinking people to embrace his machinations and political power, or else. The cultural avant-garde that once told its peers to open their minds and “protest the rising tide of conformity” now [tells] its children to set aside their critical faculties so that they are “not on the wrong side of history.”I fully agree with the first sentence of this paragraph. The reversal that Beckwith is talking about is screamingly obvious: American liberals have gone from the 1960s "Stick it to the Man!" (where "Man" means "government" or "authority") and "Trust no one over thirty!" and "Freedom of expression!" to "We love big government!" and "Be politically correct in thought and speech." It's a bit like watching George Lucas and Lucasfilm transform from upstart rebels into the Empire. As John Malkovich says in "In the Line of Fire," "The irony's so thick you could choke on it."
But the reversal, and its attendant hypocrisy, isn't just on the liberal side. Law-and-order conservatives, at least since the younger George Bush, have embraced big-government policies (the creation of Homeland Security and TSA, the economic jiggering with Big Pharma, the insistence on dictating aspects of sexual conduct). It's hard to know whom to believe anymore. Both sides have traded places.
Young Evangelicals are not stupid. They see the writing on the wall, and they don’t want to drown when the approaching cultural tsunami hits land. Their suggested compromise makes an enormous amount of sense to them. Unfortunately, it cannot work.The second article I'm going to respond to, right after I'm done responding to this one, suggests that the "cultural tsunami" is a tide of conformism: people fear being different, being outcast, and in the American context that means going with the herd when it comes to gay marriage. Personally, I'm not convinced that there's a tsunami at all (see my remarks on East Asia and groupthink, above). Gay marriage is far from a settled reality in our culture. I agree that the tide is moving in that direction—i.e., in the direction of wider acceptance of gay marriage, but we've got a long way to go before the acceptance is nearly total. In the meantime, people like Dr. Beckwith and Dr. Vallicella and plenty of other outspoken social conservatives will continue to rail loudly and unapologetically against equal marriage rights. How much of a tsunami can it be, then, if so many anti-gay-marriage folks still exist and are still vocal?
Imagine, for example, as one of my former doctoral students once suggested in a dissertation that defended this idea of privatization, that marriage becomes exclusively the domain of “the church.” Suppose Bob and Mary, both devout Catholics, marry in the Church under the authority of canon law. Over the next decade, they have three children. Mary decides to leave the Church, however, to become a Unitarian and seeks to dissolve the marriage. Because the Church maintains that marriage is indissoluble, and Mary has no grounds for an annulment, the Church refuses her request.I admit I'm fascinated by this scenario. Beckwith teaches philosophy, after all, so casuistry doubtless comes naturally to him. This is an interesting case study.
Mary then seeks the counsel of her pastor at the Unitarian Church. She tells Mary that the Unitarian Church recognizes her marriage with Bob, but maintains that divorcing him is perfectly justified, since the Unitarian Church holds that incompatibility is a legitimate ground for divorce. So, Mary now requests a divorce from the Unitarian Church, and it is granted. The Church also grants her full custody of her children, since, according to Unitarian moral theology, what Bob teaches their children about contraception, abortion, and same-sex relations are “hate sins,” and thus is a form of child abuse.On second thought, I wonder how plausible this scenario is.
So, who wins in this case? Suppose you say that because it was originally a Catholic marriage, it should remain so, even if Mary changes her religion. But who has the authority to enforce such a rule? The Catholic Church? The Unitarians? What if the Catholic Church agrees to it, but not the Unitarians?This may be a good time to be more precise as to what constitutes "authority," and what the scope of such authority is. Beckwith is obviously leading up to something. He's going to tell us, momentarily, what authority (presumably a higher authority) is operative here.
Suppose Mary, on the authority of the Unitarian ruling, simply takes the children and moves out of state. Is that kidnapping? Can a Catholic ecclesial court issue an order to a local Knights of Columbus office to return Mary and her children to their original domicile so that she can be tried in an ecclesial court for violations of canon law? And if she is convicted, can the Church put her in an ecclesial prison or fine her?I had a good, long laugh at the notion of an "ecclesiastical prison." Then I looked at Islam and quickly sobered up.
Suppose that Mary not only leaves with all the children, but also empties the couple’s bank accounts and donates their contents to the Unitarian Church? Is it a crime? Who decides? Imagine that all these issues were addressed in private contracts that Bob and Mary drew up and signed upon the commencement of their marriage in the Catholic Church. Who has the power to make sure these breaches are remedied and compensation given to the wronged parties?Beckwith is still building up to his point. What's the higher authority? Wait for it...
The only way to resolve these disputes is for the state to intervene. What to do with children, property, state residency, freedom of movement, etc. when marital relationships break down are public issues. They are not private ones. Consequently, in such a privatization of marriage scenario, the state would actually become more intrusive into ecclesial matters than it is at present.Aha—the state! I find it fascinating to follow Beckwith's train of thought. Is this the train of thought that a Muslim would follow, i.e., that above the holy (canon) law, there exists a law that is even more authoritative—a higher law of the land? Although I agree that, in a pluralistic society, the secular law of the land should trump religious law (e.g., I believe that Muslim women should not be allowed to cover their faces when getting their driver's-license pictures taken), I'm still left wondering how it is that Beckwith, a religious conservative, so easily leaps to that same conclusion. I assume it's partly because he—as I do—buys in to the idea that there should be a separation of church and state. He probably also buys into the quasi-pluralistic idea that there should exist a neutral, secular ground on which ostensibly religious disputes like the one in his example are settled.
In order to resolve these problems, it would have to spell out the limits and scope of ecclesial jurisdictions, not to mention what religious bodies are permitted to do with married citizens from different religious traditions that hold contrary perspectives on everything from child-rearing, spousal authority, and religious training to culinary practices.Here, things get murky. To what degree can the state muck around with organized religion and its internal jurisprudence? If there's to be a separation of church and state, what mechanism allows the state to act so intrusively in religious disputes? There's a lot going on, in Beckwith's hypothetical example, that remains unaddressed, and unfortunately, we're almost at the end of his article.
Despite their best efforts, there is no high ground to which young Evangelicals – or any of us – can retreat that will not be covered by the cultural tsunami.So that's the conclusion. This entire piece felt a bit disjointed to me. Let me see if I can reconstruct what I believe to be Beckwith's thesis.
Part of what Beckwith is saying—and he doesn't devote much space to supporting this claim—is that there is a "cultural tsunami" happening, a wave of political correctness that threatens all free-thinking people (i.e., social conservatives, in Beckwith's view), promising to force them into publicly affirming things they privately deny—specifically, that homosexual marriage is a legitimate form of marriage. In the final paragraph, Beckwith gloomily implies that there's "no high ground" to which free-thinking people can escape: the wave will swamp everyone. But this is strange: does Beckwith seriously believe that he himself will start publicly affirming the legitimacy of homosexual marriage? I doubt that. And I further doubt that others in Beckwith's camp—of whom I can safely assume there are millions in America alone—will be similarly converted with the arrival of that wave.
But we still haven't located Beckwith's thesis. I suspect that his thesis is buried in the subtext of this article. And it is this: homosexual marriage is not a legitimate form of marriage, and young evangelicals are fooling themselves if they think they can get away with paying lip-service to homosexual marriage while privately believing otherwise. Note that Beckwith is rather coy, in the article, about what his personal stance is. If he's a religious conservative, however, I think I'm on solid ground when I assume he's against gay marriage.
This puts Beckwith in about the same ballpark as conservative writers like the Reverend Donald Sensing, who has claimed that the right lost the fight against gay marriage decades ago. Sensing, too, has been coy about what he personally believes, but in his case, he's saying that there's really no use in fighting this social trend. Is Beckwith making the same point? Is Beckwith advocating giving up? And why is Beckwith, who seems like a conservative sort, so quick to tack toward the state? His article left me with more questions than answers.
On to the next article:
"Gay marriage: a case study in conformism," by Brendan O'Neill, initially struck me as an anti-gay-marriage screed. That's not the article's point, however: instead, the article is focused on the "tsunami" that Beckwith referred to. In O'Neill's view, this is a tsunami of self-imposed conformism, and conformism is toxic because it means the excision of one's critical faculties in an effort to blend in and belong. O'Neill's thesis, unlike Beckwith's, is easy to find. It is here when he writes:
How do we account for this extraordinary consensus, for what is tellingly referred to as the ‘surrender’ to gay marriage by just about everyone in public life? And is it a good thing, evidence that we had a heated debate on a new civil right and the civil rightsy side won? I don’t think so. I don’t think we can even call this a ‘consensus’, since that would imply the voluntaristic coming together of different elements in concord. It’s better described as conformism, the slow but sure sacrifice of critical thinking and dissenting opinion under pressure to accept that which has been defined as a good by the upper echelons of society: gay marriage. Indeed, the gay-marriage campaign provides a case study in conformism, a searing insight into how soft authoritarianism and peer pressure are applied in the modern age to sideline and eventually do away with any view considered overly judgmental, outdated, discriminatory, ‘phobic’, or otherwise beyond the pale.
As evidence, O'Neill points to a slew of news reports, over the years, that have documented a sea change in American attitudes toward gay marriage. He also holds up his own experience of being criticized by both the left and the right for speaking on the topic of the uncomfortably rapid rise of acceptance of gay marriage:
This is the only issue on which, for criticising it from a liberal, secular perspective, I’ve been booed during an after-dinner speech and received death threats (‘If you’re dead, you can’t talk shit about gay marriage’). It’s the only issue on which both hard right-wingers and the wettest leftists have told me to STFU.
Much like current conservatives who bemoan the latest social trends and attitudes, O'Neill locates the gay-marriage sea change in the elites. By "elites," I assume O'Neill means something like "those with superior power, money, status, and influence," i.e., people with the means to change the opinions of the masses. Is there no chance, though, that the source of attitudinal change is more grass-roots? Perhaps many grass-roots Americans are waking up from their stupor and embracing gay marriage as a legitimate life-choice. Or perhaps the reality is somewhere in the middle: Americans watch TV, where Hollywood has programmed more and more shows featuring alternative family lifestyles, and as people have gotten used to seeing such lifestyles, they've become more accepting, and have come to actively advocate for social change. A feedback loop of acceptance isn't beyond the realm of possibility.
I have to give O'Neill credit for at least trying to provide evidence that a cultural tsunami exists, and that it's swamping minds. I'll even grant that he may be on to something, though not necessarily with regard to gay marriage. True: American liberals are notoriously bad at supporting free speech when the ideas being presented go against the leftist agenda. Witness the numerous occasions at which leftist college students will block a conservative speaker by shouting, by ripping away the speaker's microphone, and by resorting to other sorts of bullying tactics. Witness the PC censure of people like former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, whose biology-based comments on sex differences got him ousted from his post. O'Neill isn't wrong to think that there are plenty of intolerant elements out there.
But as I said about Beckwith, I'm not convinced that this tsunami—whether or not it exists—is going to prevent people of conviction from expressing their opinions. It certainly hasn't stopped O'Neill himself, who risks further censure with this latest article. So whom is O'Neill fighting for? The easily malleable middle-of-the-roaders, the flabby centrists who can be swayed one way or another, and who are the most likely victims of any psychic tsunami?
O'Neill also makes a bizarre move later in his article. He claims that there's a disanalogy between the campaign for gay marriage and the older campaign for black civil rights—namely, in the 1960s, people actually got out on the street and literally fought for their rights. Things got bloody, and often. Where is there a similar struggle in the LGBT community?
As O'Neill puts it:
Certainly, the idea that the ‘seismic shift’ in political and public opinion is down to the fighting of gay-marriage campaigners is spectacularly unconvincing. One Guardian columnist, liberally borrowing from the black civil-rights movement, says the ‘breathtaking’ progress of the gay-marriage issue shows that Martin Luther King was right to say ‘the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice’; it shows what campaigners can achieve when they combine ‘idealism with action’. What action? Where? Bringing King into the picture only highlights the unusualness of the gay-marriage campaign: there has been no mass march on Washington for same-sex marriage; no streetfighting; no getting water-cannoned by the police, mauled by dogs, chased by the KKK, thrown in jail. There has been no real public action at all, certainly not of the sort that might have terrified the US Senate so much that its members felt the urge to bow one by one before the issue of gay marriage. If gay MLK-style campaigners are responsible for the transformation of gay marriage ‘from joke to dogma’, then they must have achieved it through osmosis, since they certainly didn’t do it through any kind of mass, messy uprising.
My response: so what? Are velvet revolutions inconceivable? Does every major social change need to occur through violence? Think about how heterosexual marriage has evolved over the years: we're long past the days when marriage was mainly a matter of pragmatic convenience, with not a hint of love and romance.* We're long past the days when a man could think of a woman as his property—or at the very least, as his "pet." How did this change occur without widespread violence? People these days also engage in "open marriages," in which swinger couples have sex with partners they're not married to. Where's the enormous backlash against this relic of the free-love era? And how did open marriages come to be, and to be tacitly accepted, without violence? Or look at a social change like the move from slavery to abolition: in America, yes, the change was extremely violent, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. But in 1807 England, the Slave Trade Act came into effect, abolishing the buying and selling of slaves. Then in 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act became law, and slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire—without violence.
But O'Neill still strives to connect the current PC mentality to the elites. See here:
So for all the comparisons of the gay-marriage movement to the civil-rights movement, in fact the most striking thing about gay marriage is its origins among the elite. As Caldwell says, ‘never since the Progressive Era has there been a social movement as elite-driven as the one for gay marriage’. In his new book, Michael Klarman describes how judges, not streetfighthers, spearheaded the gay-marriage campaign; he even bizarrely calls judges a ‘distinctive subculture’ of the cultural elite, which ‘tends to be even more liberal than the general public on issues such as gender equality and gay equality’. Another favourable account of the rise of gay marriage notes how it was led by ‘lawyers and professors’, who counselled against engaging with the public since making ‘open demands for gay marriage [could] trigger a backlash’.
For a liberal writer, O'Neill sounds remarkably conservative in the above passage: like American conservatives, he appears to be blaming "activist judges" for the change in American society. But this implies that American citizens simply have no choice about what to believe, as if a judgment handed down by a court must be greeted with humble acquiescence. I don't think this gives the masses very much credit: as I mentioned above, I suspect that the truer scenario is more of a feedback loop, and it matters little where the initial impetus came from. Let's grant that the elites, in the form of judges this time, actually did do much to advance the cause of gay marriage. Even so, the people had to make the choice to accept this state of affairs. Had they not accepted it, there would have been open revolt, perhaps even violence.
O'Neill isn't wrong to warn us against the powerful, ambient social forces that can seem to govern opinion. At the same time, I don't think he's correct to depict the rise in acceptance of gay marriage as a movement spawned by elites in an environment of robotic, social-media-enforced political correctness. It could be that treating gay marriage as a legitimate form of marriage is simply an idea whose time has come.
*Of course such marriages do still occur in modern America, but they're no longer the rule, and are in fact a diminishing minority.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
I saw, on my Twitter feed, some noise about how the Talmud is supposedly a bestseller in Korea.* So I went over to the linked article, which is written from a non-Korean (specifically, from an Israeli) perspective, and I'm still not convinced that the Talmud is a bestseller. I think that much of what's in the article is plausible, e.g., that Koreans admire the Jewish emphasis on education. I even think it's plausible that some Koreans might go so far as to give their kids the Talmud to read because they think it might help smarten the kids up. But as to the question of whether the Talmud is flying off the shelves in Korean bookstores, I'd like to see some hard sales data before I believe any claims of bestseller status.
I have other doubts as well. There are at least two problems with this picture of Korean admiration of Jews. First, there's a nasty streak of antisemitism in Korean culture. Here are three links: refresh your memory. Many Koreans, unfortunately, buy into the stereotype of Jews as money-grubbing power-mongers who have somehow managed to insinuate themselves into the most influential centers of American society, whence they subtly direct American foreign policy, media culture, and money. The above links all deal with a particularly scandalous comic book that purports to teach Korean children something about world history. The comic in question, Far Country, Neighboring Country, puts forth the odious 9/11 conspiracy theory that the World Trade Center attack had Judaism as one of its root causes. The fact that everyday Koreans could so blithely buy into that crackpot worldview says much about the overall culture's attitude toward Jews. My own experience dovetails with this general notion: years ago, I was watching Al Pacino's "Merchant of Venice" with a Korean audience, and it became obvious that, although Pacino's version of the story did much to highlight the plight of Jews in old Venice (Pacino had, effectively, turned the story from a comedy to a near-tragedy), the audience's sympathies were entirely with Antonio, the abusive Christian. At the moment when Shylock was told that he could take a pound of Antonio's flesh, but absolutely none of his blood, the audience gave an appreciative, satisfied sigh, and laughed at the foolish, feckless Shylock. I could tell that, in terms of headspace, I and the rest of the viewers were on two completely different planets.
Second, the way in which serious Jews approach the Talmud is probably nothing like how Koreans are appropriating it. The Jewish approach, especially for those Jews in rabbinical studies, is hardcore exegetical: it involves a long and intense plunge into the messy, murky field of hermeneutics, i.e., the art and science of interpretation. To be done right, hermeneutics requires a culture of discussion, something that Korea still largely lacks (see Jeff Hodges on this point; Jeff has written extensively on this question). I have a hard time imagining a Korean going twelve rounds with a serious Jew on the topic of this or that Talmudic tractate without losing his temper and stomping out of the room. Talmud study—much like Tibetan monastic debate—requires a razor wit along with impeccable logical and rhetorical skills. The Jewish temperament also brings with it something that's hard to find in Korea: good old chutzpah. The closest term for chutzpah in Korean might be something like baetjjang, which means, roughly, grit or nerviness. But Korean culture is very hierarchical; social order is important, and bucking the trend isn't encouraged. Social order is also maintained through social notions like "face," "honor," and so on. Chutzpah, by contrast, is transgressive. The rabbi's protégé is encouraged to tussle in as spirited a manner as possible with his teacher; it's hard to imagine authority being questioned to such an extent in Korean society.** Are Korean kids who read the Talmud really engaging the text in the way a Jew would engage it? Is there any actual intellectual wrestling going on? And who in Korea has the necessary training and experience to lead such an involved discussion of Talmudic ideas?
One of my books, Comparative Religious Ethics, contends that chutzpah is something unique that Jews, and Jews alone, bring to the religious table. They and their Hebrew forebears stood up to the ultimate divine power, questioned him, and even interposed themselves against his will (cf. Moses beseeching God to repent of his wrath against the Hebrews). Comparative Religious Ethics cites Job, in the Book of Job, as an example of chutzpah in action. In the midst of his seemingly nonsensical suffering, Job actively questions God. Do Korean Christians do the same? Do Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhists, chided by the monk after messing up during dok-cham (sort of a dharma-dialogue in which one's mind is tested), spar with the monk or accept his judgment fatalistically?
Talmud is casuistry. Are young Korean readers even getting that point?
*Which Talmud? The Babylonian or the Jerusalem? The article doesn't say.
**This isn't to say that Koreans are completely incapable of nerviness. Witness the disrespect that a Korean driver shows to the cop that pulls him over. (Witness Koreans' disrespect for the police in general!) But certain kinds of nerviness are sanctioned and supported in Korean culture because of history: Koreans have a long tradition of satirizing, and even rebelling against, people in authority; this has been a response to oppression. Even today, Korean students are infamous for their protest culture. But a nervy response to perceived social oppression is not the same animal as the bold questioning of received wisdom from a moral or spiritual exemplar. Chutzpah primarily cuts at ideas, not at ideologies.
Barely fifty yards down the hill from the entrance to Hyangrim-sa, the local Buddhist temple, I caught sight of this new graffito:
For those who can't read Korean—it's an English word: "SEX." A lovely juxtaposition with the sacred haven of mindfulness mere yards away.
I did a "revert to draft" on the gay-marriage post, which I've been working on. Sorry, Nathan—I enjoyed your comment to that post! The comment is still preserved in my "published comments" queue, so maybe it'll reappear when I republish the post.
Monday, February 17, 2014
Saturday, February 15, 2014
My KMA side job has proven quite enjoyable. What's more, I got paid almost a month earlier than my anticipated payday. Even more: I heard—obliquely, through my friend and spy Tom—that I had made a good impression on my business-English students. How good of an impression, I have no clue; I'll have to ask my supervisor for my evaluation results.
But it was a delight to see almost W800,000 more in my bank account than I had expected to see today. KMA is rapidly proving to be my kind of side job.
2000's "Battle Royale" is directed by Kinji Fukasaku and stars Takeshi Kitano (a.k.a. "Beat" Takeshi) as Kitano, a teacher who is also in charge of a dystopian Japan's gladiatorial contest called Battle Royale. The contest pits middle- and high-schoolers against each other on an island that's been divided up into zones; the kids are given backpacks full of provisions, survival gear, and a special item that might be anything from a gun to an axe to a GPS device to a pot lid. Once on the island, the kids, who all wear explosive neck collars, have three days to kill each other off; the last kid standing is declared the winner, but if more than one child is left by the deadline, then all the survivors' collars will explode, leaving no winners. We learn that this horrifying game was put in place by the government to combat social decay: Kitano claims that it's the kids themselves who are to blame for their predicament—their lack of respect for adults and authority, coupled with their general lack of industry and direction, has eroded the nation's robustness. Most of the movie is devoted to the kids' struggle for survival: the surreal process of being thrust unwillingly into the games, the formation of cliques loosely based on school affiliations, the settling of scores, and the examination of personalities. Some kids take readily to the game while others reject it and commit suicide as a way to escape. One heroic group does its best to subvert the game before time runs out.
The viewer can't help but see "The Hunger Games" in all this. In fact, "The Hunger Games" was accused of ripping off "Battle Royale" (itself based on the 1999 novel of the same name); both films feature a Lord of the Flies-style scenario in which children brutally kill children, and both films select the children by lottery (shades of Shirley Jackson). Quite a few Western reviewers of "Battle Royale" see the film as an exaggerated metaphor for teen angst or as a trenchant social commentary on the dangers of authoritarian government. The movie's violence, unlike that of "The Hunger Games," pulls no punches; there's blood and gore aplenty—cartoonish almost to the point of being funny—and no death (barring one exception) is ennobled or sanitized. The concept for "Battle Royale" obviously comes from a much deeper, darker place than does Suzanne Collins's trilogy. Both "Battle" and "Games" have messages; I suspect that the message of "Battle" is just as political as that of "Games." Some of the kids in "Battle" are genuinely unlikeable, and it was with great Schadenfreude that I watched them receive their comeuppance (especially that snotty little Nobu near the beginning). It's hard to figure out what genre the movie belongs to; perhaps horror/thriller is better than action, but there are black-comedy elements as well. The scenario is ridiculous enough that I couldn't take the movie that seriously (unlike the earnest "Hunger Games," which craves your respect and occasionally veers toward the overly solemn), and the violence was horrible enough that I was startled into shocked laughter. My guess is that Fukasaku was, like Juzo Itami, striving to make some sort of social commentary; many Japanese directors seem to critique Japanese culture and society directly or indirectly. Was "Battle Royale" worth seeing? Sure; it's what "The Hunger Games" should have been in terms of viscerality.* But be warned: if you can't get past the notion of children killing each other, this movie will be a rough ride for you.
*Yes, I realize "The Hunger Games" is based on a young-adult trilogy, which explains why its violence has been sanitized. But the forcefulness of the trilogy's political commentary is undermined by the timidity of its portrayal of gladiatorial violence.
I love watching preview trailers on iTunes, and while most of the previews I see are for crap films, there are, on occasion, a few flicks that look as if they might be worth a viewing. Here's a short list of movies that have recently caught my eye:
• "Joe," starring Nicholas Cage and Tye Sheridan
This looks to be the story of a man with a dark past who befriends an abused kid. So long as the abuser gets his comeuppance, I'm in.
• "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson
I'm fueled mainly by morbid curiosity. I missed the first "Captain America," but might see this one, which also features Robert Redford.
• "Particle Fever," directed by Mark Levinson
A documentary about the Large Hadron Collider and the pursuit of the elusive Higgs boson.
• "Jimmy P.," directed by Arnaud Desplechin, starring Benicio Del Toro and Mathieu Amalric
A film supposedly based on the true story of a troubled Native American World War II veteran who intrigues a French anthropologist. Looks mighty interesting.
• "Girl on a Bicycle," starring Nora Tschirner, Vincenzo Amato, and Paddy Considine
I don't normally go for romantic comedies, but the trailer shows a scene in which three people are screaming at each other in three different languages (French, English, and Italian)—a moment that I immediately found charming. Polyglots tempt me every time.
• "The Grand Budapest Hotel," directed by Wes Anderson, starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody
I'm not a fan of Wes Anderson's quirky notion of comedy. I saw "Rushmore" and didn't like it. I saw "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and didn't like it. It's against my better judgment that I'm putting this film on my list, but the preview actually looked funny for once. Someone needs to explain to me what Bill Murray sees in Wes Anderson, and why they keep collaborating on films.
• "Odd Thomas," directed by Steven Sommers and starring Anton "Chekov" Yelchin
It's "The Sixth Sense" meets "Army of Darkness" meets "Constantine." The selling point is that the movie is based on a Dean Koontz novel (I've never read a single Koontz book). Still, the trailer looks semi-promising.
• "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, and Jamie Foxx as Electro
The only reason I want to see this film is to see Jamie Foxx as Electro. I never saw the first reboot; wasn't interested. This looks more interesting.
• "Tim's Vermeer," directed by Teller (of Pen and Teller)
Fascinating premise: an inventor and graphic designer named Tim Jenison tries to solve the riddle of how Vermeer was able to paint so photo-realistically. The documentary is essentially the chronicle of one man's attempt to reinvent the wheel. Does he do it? Can he create a Vermeer so authentic that experts will be fooled into thinking it's an actual "lost" Vermeer? I have to see this.
• "Le Week-end," starring Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, and Jeff Goldblum
An aging couple comes back to Paris for the first time since their long-ago honeymoon. Looks charming.
• "Sabotage," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Williams, Mireille Enos, Sam Worthington, Harold Perrineau, and Terrence Howard
This could be a good, solid, ass-kicking action flick or a total turd. But the preview looks good, and what I like most about it is that Arnold seems to be playing someone fallible and vulnerable. Perhaps, as he gets up there in years, he's decided to pull a Clint Eastwood and reveal his weaknesses instead of trying to preserve his 80s-era image as an invincible, inhuman superhero. Dialogue seems solid, and the story looks almost as if it might be intense. This will probably be a better vehicle for Arnold than his two earlier, post-gubernatorial efforts, "The Last Stand" and "Escape Plan." (Watch the red-band trailer here. A red-band trailer is a trailer that includes all the naughty stuff, like swearing and boobies, that you can't see in a normal trailer.)
Friday, February 14, 2014
Joe McPherson of ZenKimchi posts about a "must-see" video by directors Park Chan-wook (known for his naughty classic "Oldboy") and Park Chan-kyong, who as a team share the moniker "PARKing CHANce." Their film is a collaborative pastiche of normal citizens' videos about Seoul that had been submitted at the behest of the Korean government as part of a larger promotional effort. I encourage you to read Joe's blog entry, which expresses my own sentiments perfectly. At one point, Joe writes, "This was not as much an exercise in directing as much as it was an exercise in editing and narrative. It’s a warts-and-all love letter to Seoul. It’s also the ballsiest city promotional video I think any city in the world has ever produced." That's it. That's exactly it. Would the promoters of Paris be as brave? Could they show us a Paris that is gritty and unsanitized, without resorting to accordion music?
Like Joe, I'm impressed that the Korean government had the cojones to make this sort of effort, which essentially involves seeing Seoul through the eyes of Seoulites, Korean and expat alike, in all of the city's unvarnished mundanity. The video confirms my long-standing conviction that Seoul's charm isn't to be found in soaring, memorable architecture, haute cuisine, or civilizational accomplishments: its charm is more subtle, hidden in the dark corners, in the alleyways, in the hesitant or open smiles of its people. You have to make an effort to see Seoul for what it is, but once you see it, you'll fall in love.
If you have an hour, go visit Joe's blog and watch the video. If you've lived in Korea for a while, it'll resonate deeply with you. If you're a relative newbie, you'll gain a better, clearer impression of life in Seoul than you would through any other promotional medium. Trust me. (Well... trust Joe.)
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Actress Shirley Temple Black, formerly Shirley Temple, has died of natural causes at the age of 85. Her cousins were Regulus and Sirius Black, both of whom were killed by magical means while fighting the forces of darkness.
"She was an amazing woman," said an obviously moved Harry Potter.
Some newspapers have crassly referred to Black's passing as "the Shirley Temple Black Death." Thousands of pubs, taverns, and bars have been serving free Shirley Temples in the actress's honor. Black gained fame as a child actress; at school her favorite professor was Horace Slughorn, who claims to have taught almost the entire Black family, except for Sirius. Along with being an accomplished actress, Black was a formidable Quidditch player who flew as a Beater with the second-tier Middlesex Maggots, striking such fear into her opponents that she earned the moniker "Carrion Crowe."
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch claims Black as one of his Quidditch idols. Cumberbatch, whose lithe form destined him to be a Seeker while he perfected his skills at both Hogwarts and the Royal Shakespeare Company, says he has long admired Black's vicious playing style. "On the pitch, she was legendary—an absolute madwoman, a bone-breaker," Cumberbatch said. On having an American woman as part of an English Quidditch team, Cumberbatch laughed and quipped, "I wish they all could be California girls!"
Black is survived by Kraken, her pet tarantula.
From my brother:
BIOFUELS! Converting algae to oil in an hour.
BOOM! Jihadi instructor accidentally blows himself up, along with 20 aspiring martyrs. The Good Lord hates a useless death.
CRACK! Malcolm's son Nick has a new baseball-themed website: Pitcher GIFs.
AWWW... the story of Orlando, the heroic seeing-eye dog. And the follow-up.
DAMN! Holden Beck still in hospital; he's been through three surgeries now.
POESY! Jeff Hodges continues the discussion of Frost's illogical poem over at his blog.
Monday, February 10, 2014
All good things come to an end, and my long vacation—which hasn't been much of a vacation, given the work I've been doing—is drawing to a close. On February 24, I and the rest of my department at DCU will have to meet for an orientation. March 3rd, the following week, will be the first day of the new semester. By that time, I'll need to have created the textbook I'll be using for my pronunciation class, assuming the class isn't canceled for lack of registrants. (A cancellation would be frustrating, given the effort I'm putting in to making the textbook for that course.) I'll also need to have completed my syllabi for my regular speaking/conversation courses. Much work to be done. Assuming no cancellations, I'll be teaching seven classes this semester instead of six, which means a wee bit of extra pay for yours truly.
Meanwhile, my "golden goose" job is still on the table, still a viable option for later this year. M, my supervisor at that company—let's call it GG for "Golden Goose"—is still very interested in working with me. He wants me to be on good terms with Ms. Harridan, but I told him, quite honestly, that I was skeptical. Joining GG might be awkward given my sub-optimal relationship with that lady, who is M's underling, but M wants me to work more closely with him on his projects, which means I might not see that much of her. I guess we'll know more eventually; everything's still up in the air. I have months to decide on what's coming next, and there's always the chance that I'll snag an English-teaching job with HUFS-Yongin. HUFS would pay less than GG, but it'd still be substantially better-paying work than what I do now.
Given the turbulent, unsettled nature of my future work schedule, I'm thankful that KMA has proven to be so accommodating. My schedule is flexible there. In truth, I wouldn't mind joining KMA as a full-time teacher at the generous hourly rates it offers, but it's my understanding that KMA doesn't do full-time hires. My first two days of work at KMA proved quite enjoyable; were I to teach classes for 100-120 hours per month there, I'd be earning a fortune, assuming the hourly rates were honored.
That's the murky future into which I stare. Some things are less murky than others: vacation will inevitably come to an end, and I'll have to be ready to teach, which will mean having drawn up a textbook for my pronunciation class and having made syllabi for all seven (six?) of my upcoming courses. In the next day or so, I'll have finished my second massive lesson plan for KMA, after which I ought to be free and clear for the rest of 2014, as I'll be asked to teach the same classes over and over. But many things remain to be settled: where I'll be working after the summer foremost among them. Will I be at HUFS-Yongin? Will I be with the Golden Goose? Will I be somewhere else in Korea, or heading back to the States, tail between my legs?
You should also know that I still have thoughts of restarting my trans-American walk. As I've mentioned before, if I restarted it this time, it'd be dedicated to brain-cancer awareness and research, not to religious diversity. The latter goal was nice, for what it was worth, but given all that's happened in my life since 2008, I think my focus needs to be more on people than on the gods. The gods can wait. Mankind is my business.
Sunday, February 09, 2014
It was received wisdom, back in high school, that chicks loved the poetry of Robert Frost. His most memorable poem, "The Road Not Taken" (sometimes mistakenly referred to as "The Road Less Traveled," a phrase that almost appears in the poem itself, and that is also the title of a book by Dr. M. Scott Peck), is often cited by both men and women who see it as a call to live a more interesting life by being unconventional. Most people understand the poem to be saying that, when confronted with two paths, the poet took the one used by fewer people. When I recently reread the poem, however, I found myself shocked by how nonsensical it is. First: taking a path that is "less traveled" isn't the same as taking a heretofore untraveled path. What's so unconventional about the less-traveled route? Far from being completely unconventional, it's only slightly less conventional. There's no rejection of boring conformism here—it's merely watered-down conformism. Second, and more damningly, Frost provides almost no evidence, in his poem, that the supposedly less-traveled path actually is less traveled. Let's go through the poem so you can see what I mean. My comments will be in red.
The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Technically, one road diverged and became two. We're already off to a bad start. Note, meanwhile, where the stanza ends: it's autumn ("a yellow wood"); the poet stands at the fork and is examining one of the two possible paths.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
Frost skips the moment in which the poet explicitly examines the other possible path, instead moving straight to the next phase: a comparison of the two paths that lie ahead. Are these two paths equally appealing? This stanza is frustratingly ambiguous on that point. The "grassy and wanted wear" remark is blatantly contradicted by the "just as fair" and "worn them really about the same" remarks. If the paths had really been "worn... about the same," then one of the two paths would not appear distinctly more grassy and wanting wear. So: which is it, Bob? Are the paths equally worn, or aren't they?
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
Here again, the paths seem equally trodden—or rather, untrodden: "equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black." By this point in the poem, the poet has made his decision as to which path to take (see the second stanza), although I fail to see how he made the decision, given his sloppy, illogical thinking. So now we've gone from a "more trodden/less trodden" comparison to an "equally untrodden" state of affairs!
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Again with the "two roads"! This is scandalous. "I took the one less traveled by"—forsooth! But which fork, Robert, was "less traveled by"? Hellfire and bloody damnation!
There are further questions, to be sure. Is road the appropriate term for a forested path? The word road normally implies the existence of vehicles. If vehicles—carriages, say—could use either of these roads, how could either road afford to be overgrown with plant life? And why would the poet be looking for evidence of foot traffic instead of looking for wheel ruts? Also: what if Frost wasn't mistaken when he wrote of two roads that diverged, and was literally referring to two roads that ran parallel to each other for a time before finally diverging? If that's the case, then where was the poet standing? In the tree-filled median between the two roads? What sort of weirdo walks in a forested median when two clear, walkable paths lie on either side of it? Was the poet on one of the two roads? If so, had he already been following one of the two roads for a while? And why would two parallel roads be running through a forest, anyway? Environmentalists would have kittens.
If this is how Robert Frost actually thought and spoke in his lifetime, I cringe to imagine how he would have been as a witness at a murder trial.
ATTORNEY: So, Mr. Frost, you did see the two defendants and you can say which one killed the child?
FROST: I can, sir.
ATTORNEY: Please elaborate.
FROST: Two men appeared in front of me, and one of them killed the little boy.
ATTORNEY: And which man was that?
FROST: Why, the more murderous one, of course.
ATTORNEY: Which man was the more murderous?
FROST: They were equally murderous, truth be told.
ATTORNEY: I'm sorry? Equally murderous? Could you please clarify?
FROST: What I mean to say is that the two men were equally peaceful.
ATTORNEY: I... see...
FROST: It's all quite simple, really. Two men approached a child and I, I saw the one raise his axe high, and that has made all the difference.
ATTORNEY: So you're saying, Mr. Frost, that—
FROST: It may have been only one man, at that.
ATTORNEY (exasperated): Which man, sir?
FROST: The one with the axe, of course.
The moral of the story: Robert Frost can't count, can't compare, and can't think. Enjoy, ladies.
(Either that, or Frost was a Buddhist prophet of nondualism for whom concepts like number and distinctness didn't matter.)
Saturday, February 08, 2014
Cell-phone chat dialogue:
BRO: Whut yew dewin
ME: On the pot, bout to poop. Yew?
BRO: On the pot, baby
ME: Yew bout tew poop?
ME: So we do this at same time, then
BRO: Do it!
ME: Yew ready?
BRO: OH YEAH
BRO: mine wuz BIG. Here, sending pic...
ME: mine was rabbit raisins. And gassy.
BRO: U git pic?
ME: Impressive. Most impressive. I can almost smell it
BRO: Y U not send yr own pic
ME: too ashamed
BRO: eat mor fiber
ME: wish I had my Metamucil
There is a school of thought—how legitimately scientific this school is, I don't know—that contends that, at every moment at which I have a choice, this universe splits into many universes, each incarnating one of the possible choices. In the kitchen, I pick up a knife. Now what do I do with it? The cosmos splits, and I do everything it's possible to do: in one universe, I cut up a potato. In another, I stare blankly at the knife for a while. In a third, I direct the knife's point at my face and carve out an eyeball. So to answer the question, "What did Kevin do at that moment—A, B, or C?", I would have to reply, "Yes": all the possibilities are instantiated. To be honest, this way of thinking confuses me because it seems the total raw number of universes created depends on human freedom.*
So it's time for a thought experiment: what if we aren't free? What if Sam Harris is right and we exist in a hard-deterministic universe in which only one state of affairs is possible from moment to moment? That would seem to imply that, no matter how much the cosmos might want to shatter into different world-lines, it can't: only one world-line can ever be actualized. The narrative of the entire universe could be rendered as frames in a linear film. It seems, then, at first blush, that the many-worlds hypothesis and hard determinism are incompatible.
I've written about the many-worlds problem before. In fact, I also feel that human freedom is impossible in a many-worlds scenario. See here.
*Random quantum fluctuations might also cause universe-splitting: in Universe A, a particle zigs; in Universe B, the same particle zags; in Universe C, the same particle zogs; in Universe D, the particle zegs, and so on ad infinitum.
So I was in Seoul Wednesday, Thursday, and much of Friday. I had been asked by KMA to teach an Advanced Presentation course on Thursday and Friday, so I elected to train up on Wednesday (my supervisor kindly spotted me the money to make the trip and to stay at the same yeogwan again). This gave me a chance to visit KMA a day early and look over the teaching material; I was going into this cold, and I had never taught a presentation course before. Luckily, the material proved to be solid, which was a relief, because I hate having to fake my way through a lesson when I don't believe in the product I'm pushing.
My students were three adult men; two were coworkers from a German-run company, and one was from the Incheon International Airport Corporation. They were all great students, but they were also tired as hell, and at some points it was a struggle to keep them awake. I gave frequent breaks, and the students would take advantage of those breaks to catch up on some much-needed sleep:
The course I taught was divided into two 8-hour sessions. That sounds like a marathon, but the days actually went by a lot faster than I thought possible. I had also worried that I would finish the material far too early, but my supervisor assured me that that wouldn't be the case. He was right: I ended up having to rush because we were taking too long to get through some of the course modules. In the end, I finished on time and a few minutes early, but that was mainly because one of the three students had to leave at 3PM instead of at 6PM; his absence allowed me to move a bit faster.
KMA very kindly gave me an W8000 stipend for lunch in the form of meal tickets (shik-gweon). On Thursday, I did lunch with my supervisor; on Friday, I ate with my students. Both times, we went to a nearby noodle place where I ordered the golbaengi bibim-guksu, i.e., thin pasta with crispy julienned vegetables in spicy chili sauce—with snails. (I've written about golbaengi before: see here and here, for example.)
After class came to an end, I passed out certificates of completion to the students. They filled out course-evaluation forms while I stood outside and fretted over whether I would be able to make my 7:10PM train. I asked my supervisor's coworker what the fastest subway route from National Assembly Station to Seoul Station would be; he told me to transfer from Line 9 to Line 1 at Noryangjin Station. After saying my goodbyes at KMA, I hastily lumber-waddled out the front door and over to Line 9, National Assembly Station. In checking the Seoul subway map on my phone, I noticed that there were two Noryangjin Stations, and they didn't appear connected. As it turned out, transferring from Line 9 to Line 1 meant leaving the Line 9 Noryangjin, going up to street level and walking about a hundred meters, then going into Line 1's Noryangjin: instead of being fused into one gigantic underground transfer station (such as can be found at Samgakji or Jongno 3-ga or Seoul Station), Noryangjin is actually two stations that sit so close together that they're effectively a single station. That said, you still have to use your traffic card to punch out of Line 9, then use your card again to punch in to Line 1.
And that's where the problems started.
I tried to pass through the Line 1 turnstile after touching my card to the turnstile's sensor, but the damn turnstile wouldn't let me through. It flashed an error message and refused to turn. I tried two or three other turnstiles before giving up in frustration. I knew it would be useless to wait for a subway staffer to come over and offer help, so I turned around and sought a taxi to get me the rest of the way to Seoul station. Luckily, I found one right away.
The ride was long—partly because it was rush hour, the worst time of day to take a taxi, but also partly because it seemed as if the driver were taking the long way to Seoul Station. We crawled along in heavy traffic; when we could move fast, the ajeossi drove a twisting, turning route that seemed to make no sense to me. I pondered how to frame the rude question that threatened to boil up into my consciousness and leap past my lips. Finally, I remarked:
"I never knew Seoul Station was so far away."
The ajeossi wasn't stupid; he caught my accusatory subtext right away and launched into a lengthy justification of his actions, to wit: people taking a taxi to Seoul Station should find their taxi on the other end of Noryangjin Station; at the place where I had flagged the taxi, a taxi driver would have no choice but to twist and turn, since no U-turns are possible. But instead of ejecting me from the cab, this ajeossi saw my heavy bags (those were his words: "mugeo-un gabang") and felt he had to give me a ride. Furthermore, this was a high-traffic time—rush hour. I listened to this explanation, then asked the ajeossi how much longer he thought it would take to get to Seoul Station; I had a 7PM train that I needed to catch. He surmised that it would be another ten minutes. He turned out to be right, and I paid a heavy price for that slow, circuitous ride: W12,000. That was mighty inconvenient, but the taxi didn't piss me off nearly as much as the goddamn malfunctioning turnstile at Noryangjin Station. I kicked myself: I should have gone my own way, which would have been slightly longer, but would have avoided any turnstile problems.*
Fortunately, I reached the bullet train with plenty of time to spare. I was in the cattle car, i.e., unassigned seating, so I grabbed an empty seat and settled in for the two-hour ride to East Daegu Station. Smooth sailing all the way home. I was glad: I had imagined arriving at the bullet train much later and being forced to stand for two hours, as I had done once before.
On Thursday night, I met my other boss—the one from the "golden goose" ed-pub company. Despite my problems working with his harridan underling, he still wants to work with me, so it seems there's still a chance I might snag a lucrative full-time job later this year (right now, I do only part-time freelance work). I had wanted to meet some other friends while I was in Seoul, but my lack of funds and lack of time prevented any other appointments. Maybe next time.
Now I'm back in Hayang, and I've still got a frighteningly busy February ahead of me. Lots of effort, but no immediate payoff: KMA doesn't pay until March, alas, so I won't see any fundage from this teaching gig for another whole month (I had mistakenly thought the wait would be no longer than two weeks). The "golden goose" ed-pub company doesn't pay until the textbooks I'm working on get finalized and published, so again, I can't expect to see any pay for a long time. The hazards of side jobs. I just have to keep faith that at some point this will all come to fruition.
*My way would have taken me to a transfer station at Line 4, and I would have taken Line 4 directly up to Seoul Station. I wouldn't have had to exit the station and reenter. Now, I'm left to wonder whether my traffic card will even work the next time I'm up in Seoul.