the Studio and the Church

On Twitter, Ross Douthat tells me that in Hail, Caesar! — a movie I dearly love — “The studio is the church, a corporate entity w/cosmic purpose that polices morals for everyone’s own good…. With its own necessary hierarchies, its place for everyone, its direct line to God (the invisible studio boss), etc.” and that therefore the movie is in a fundamental sense about the Catholic Church.

Sonny Bunch is forcing me to write this reply.

I think Ross’s interpretation is impossible, because the Catholic Church actually plays a role in the movie, primarily through Eddie Mannix’s frequent recourse to the confessional: If the studio equals the Church, then what does the Church itself represent? So it seems to me that Ross’s logic won’t hold up. Plus, what Ross says about the studio is generally true about the Communism that the group of writers in the movie adhere to (that they must be faithful to despite the invisibility of the Boss, etc.). That whole subplot echoes the Christian narrative in other ways as well: its group of faithful disciples in a boat, on the sea, with their leader! Who had previously “prepared a place for them”! Who then undergoes an Ascension, as they look on in awe!

If you look at the Communist subplot alongside Eddie Mannix’s struggle to reconcile the apparently conflicting demands of Church and Studio, then I think you can see that one of the movie’s major themes is the way that models of Value that rival the Christian account, those serious competitors for our attention and loyalty, must create their own structures, their own rituals and practices, that mimic those of the Church. Communism and the Studio both, in their different ways and for different purposes, strive to effect a kind of transfer of charisma (to borrow Weberian language) from the Church. The big difference is that Communism does this straightforwardly, repudiating Christianity and claiming the power and authority to overthrow it, whereas the Studio emphasizes that it is deeply respectful of biblical religion and wants to pay proper respect to it — which leads to one of the funniest scenes in recent film history.

Whether the Studio, or more broadly the Movies, and the Church are indeed so compatible is a question the movie leaves wonderfully open. On the one hand Eddie Mannix comes to believe — and several events, especially those made possible by the sleuthing of good, honest Hobie Doyle, conspire to help him believe this — that the Church and the Studio are not rival authorities, but rather that he can serve God through serving the Studio. (After all, “the story of the Christ” is “a swell story.”) On the other hand, there’s the fact that the movie that’s supposed to be about “the Christ” is called Hail, Caesar! — which seems to miss a little something about what we’re supposed to render to whom. And then there’s the sublime moment when Baird Whitlock delivers his great soliloquy about the new cosmic meaning, the transformation of our lives that, when we look upon the Christ, we could achieve had we but … had we but … Dammit, what’s the word? And as Whitlock proclaims that noble speech all the people on the set sit up a little straighter, listen a little more closely, hoping and trusting that right then and there the Studio can deliver to us Truth we can live by. Would that it were so simple.

At the risk of ruining the effect of my absolutely perfect final sentence, I have to comment on this:

I see we’re now enacting a drama in which Ross employs a multivalent interpretative scheme closely related to patristic/medieval Catholicism’s fourfold exegesis, while I (typecast here as the Reformer) am insisting that we stick to the historical sense as our only guide to valid interpretation. We need a script doctor stat!

two kinds of world-building

The builders of fictional worlds, in science fiction and fantasy, come in two chief types, the meticulous and the speculative. The meticulous world-builder delights us by thoroughness of invention, the speculative by surprisingness. For the former, and for readers of the former, much of the pleasure of a fictional world arises from the working out of details; for the latter, and for the latter’s readers, what especially delights is the quirkiness or oddity of the invention, and the “what-if-the-world-were-like-this” questions so aroused.

The master of meticulous world-building in fantasy is of course Tolkien; in science fiction it’s Kim Stanley Robinson. Speculative world-building is more common, because it doesn’t require so much detail: there is no genuinely meticulous world-building at less than 750 pages or so, I’d think. But that doesn’t mean that the speculative type is easier to do well: it requires an instinct for the telling detail, the most distinctive and provocative ways in which a given world differs from our own, and an equally shrewd instinct for what doesn’t change. Keith Roberts’ Pavane, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist, all strike me as especially wonderful examples of speculative world-building.

There are bad ways to read both kinds of world-building. You cannot reasonably expect a meticulous work to be lively all the time; you cannot reasonably expect a speculative work to be perfectly consistent in all its details. But some readers have unreasonable expectations. The fair-minded reader of the meticulous text will deal graciously with longueurs; the fair-minded reader of the speculative text will smile forgivingly at inconsistencies. The masters of the meticulous are also skilled at limiting drearinesss; the masters of the speculative avoid capriciousness. (Aside: no one has ever handled the need to fill in the details of an imagined world more brilliantly and charmingly than Susanna Clarke, in the footnotes of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.)

Both kinds of storytelling are adaptable to different media, but the requirements of meticulousness incline such makers to books rather than movies — though the rise of the long-form television series is pretty well-suited to meticulousness. The speculative is perhaps more dependent on style than the meticulous, but that style need not be linguistic: it can also be visual.

All these thoughts are prompted by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I saw last night and absolutely loved. I could say a good deal about various elements of the film, but in this post I just want to focus on the world-building, which was, I think, superb. I really do believe that if I hadn’t known that J. K. Rowling wrote the screenplay I would have guessed, because it bears the marks of her particular gift, which is the speculative.

Because there are seven Harry Potter books, and now a series of ancillary media — the little books of Fantastic Beasts and Quidditch Through the Ages, the Pottermore website, a play, this new movie and the four (!) sequels to come — it’s natural to think of Rowling as one of the meticulous world-builders, spooling out stories from a secure repository of well-worked-out details. In fact the Potterverse isn’t very meticulous at all, and has ten thousand holes in its fabric, as readers have pointed out from the very beginning.

No, it’s the curious, provocative, stimulating detail that Rowling specializes in, and here that gift is manifested best in Newt Scamander’s suitcase, which wonderfully extends an idea Potter readers learned about first, I think, with the Ford Anglia that Mr. Weasley enchanted in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: in the magical world, objects can be bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. In Newt’s suitcase the creatures that others fear but that he loves and wants to protect (from “the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans”) find safety and affection. And, in Eddie Redmayne’s wonderful portrayal of Newt, we see an awkward, mumbling, socially uncomfortable man transformed, when he enters the little Ark he has made, into an expansive and confortable figure, a skinny ginger Noah. Watching all this just made me happy.

I’m not convinced that the four movies to come will work as well as this first one did, and I’m especially nervous about the Grindelwald story that will clearly be a prime plot driver. But Newt Scamander proves, to my surprise, to be an utterly captivating protagonist, and I will eagerly await his further adventures — without expecting the strict consistency and precision of world-making that the meticulous craftsmen offer.

more on speed

A bit of a follow-up to this post, and to brutus’s comment on it (which you should read) as well: My friend Matt Frost commented that Jeff Guo is the “bizarro Alan Jacobs,” which is true in a way. Guo clearly thinks that his problem is that there’s not enough new content and he can’t consume it fast enough, whereas I have argued on many occasions for slower reading, slower thinking, re-reading and re-viewing….

And yet. I’ve watched movies the way Guo watches them, too; in fact, I’ve done it many times. And I’ve read books — even novels — in a similar way, skimming large chunks. So I’m anything but a stranger to the impulse Guo has elevated to a principle. But here’s the thing: Whenever we do that we’re thereby demonstrating a fundamental lack of respect for the work we’re skimming. We are refusing to allow it the kind and amount of attention it requests. So if — to take an example from my previous post — you watch Into Great Silence at double speed you’re refusing the principle on which that film is built. When you decide to read Infinite Jest but skip all the conversations between Marathe and Steeply because you find them boring you’re refusing the fundamental logic of the book, which, among other things, offers a profound meditation on boredom and its ever-ramifying effects on our experiences.

I think we do this kind of thing when we don’t really want to read or view, but to have read and have viewed — when more than watching Into Great Silence or reading Infinite Jest we want to be able to say “Yeah, I’ve seen Into Great Silence and ”Sure, I’ve read Infinite Jest.” It’s a matter of doing just enough that we can convince ourselves that we’re not lying when we say that. But you know, Wikipedia + lying is a lot easier. Just saying.

Aside from any actual dishonesty, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with viewing or reading on speed. But it’s important to know what you’re doing — and what you’re not doing: what impulses you’re obeying and what possibilities you’re refusing. Frank Kermode, in a brilliant reflection that I quote here, speaks of a threefold aesthetic and critical sequence: submission, recovery, comment. But if you won’t submit to the logic and imagination of the work in question, there’ll be nothing to recover from, and you’ll have no worthwhile comment to make.

All of which may prompt us to think about how much it matters in any given case, which will be determined by the purpose and quality of the work in question. Scrub through all of The Hangover you want, watch the funny parts several times, whatever. It doesn’t matter. But if you’re watching Mulholland Drive (one of Guo’s favorite movies, he says) and you’re refusing the complex and sophisticated art that went into its pacing, well, it matters a little more. And if you’re scrubbing your way through ambitious and comprehensively imagined works of art, then you really ought to rethink your life choices.

Transhumanists are searching for a dystopian future

As part of a Washington Post series this week about transhumanism, our own Charles T. Rubin offers some thoughts on why transhumanists are so optimistic when the pop-culture depictions of transhumanism nearly always seem to be dark and gloomy:

What accounts for this gap between how transhumanists see themselves — as rational proponents of a cause, who seek little more than to speed humanity along a path it already follows — and how they are seen in popular culture — as dangerous conspirators against human welfare? Movies and TV need drama and conflict, and it is possible that transhumanists just make trendy villains. And yet the transhumanists and the show writers are alike operating in the realm of imagination, of possible futures. In this case, I believe the TV writers have the richer and more nuanced imaginations that more closely resemble reality.

You can read the entire article here.

Tony Stark and the view from above

Many people writing about the new Captain America: Civil War have commented on what seems to them a fundamental irony driving the story: that Tony Stark, the self-described “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” who always does his own thing, agrees to the Sokovia Accords that place the Avengers under international political control, while Steve Rogers, Captain America, the devoted servant of his country, refuses to sign them and basically goes rogue. But I don’t think there’s any real irony here, for two reasons.

The first and simplest reason is that the destruction of Sokovia, which we saw in Avengers: Age of Ultron, was Tony Stark’s fault. Ultron was his creation and no one else’s, and in this new story he is forced to remember that the blood of the people who died there is on his hands. There’s a funny moment in the movie when Ant-Man is rummaging around in Tony’s Iron Man suit to do some mischief to it, and when Tony asks who’s there, replies, “It’s your conscience. We don’t talk a lot these days.” But Tony’s conscience is the chief driver of this plot. Cap was not responsible for Sokovia, and so doesn’t feel responsible (even though he regrets the loss of life).

But I think another point of difference between the two is more broadly significant, and relates to one of the more important themes of this here blog. Tony Stark is basically a plutocrat: a big rich boss, who controls massive amounts of material and massive numbers of people. He sits at the pinnacle of a very, very high pyramid. When the U. S. Secretary of State deals with Tony, he’s dealing with an equal, or maybe a superior: while at one point he threatens Tony with prison, he never follows through, and Tony openly jokes that he’s going to put the Secretary on hold the next time he calls — and does just that. Tony Stark’s view is always the view from above.

But Steve Rogers was, and essentially still is, a poor kid from Brooklyn whose highest ambition was to become an enlisted solider in the U. S. Army. That he became something else, a super-soldier, was initially presented to him as a choice, but quite obviously (to all those in control) a choice he wasn’t going to refuse — he wouldn’t have made it into the Army if he had not been a potential subject of experimentation. After that, he did what he was told, even (in the first Captain America movie) when that meant doing pep rallies for soldiers with a troupe of dancing girls. And gradually he has come to question the generally accepted definition of a “good soldier” — because he has seen more and more of the people who make and use good soldiers, and define their existence.

I think the passion with which he defends, and tries to help, Bucky Barnes, while it obviously has much to do with their great and lasting friendship, may have even more to do with the fact that Bucky, like him, is the object of experimentation — someone who was transformed into something other than his first self because it suited the people in power so to transform him.

Tony Stark is, by inheritance and habit and preference, the experimenter; Steve Rogers is the one experimented upon. And that difference, more than any other, explains why they take the divergent paths they take.

I spoke earlier of a recurring theme of this blog, and it’s this: the importance of deciding whether to think of technology from a position of power, from above, or from a position of (at least relative) powerlessness, from below. My most recent post considered the venture capitalist’s view of “platform shifts” and “continuous productivity,” which offers absolutely zero consideration of the well-being of the people who are supposed to be continuously productive. Even more seriously, there’s this old post about a philosopher who speculates on what “we” are going to do with prisoners — because “we” will always be the jailers, never the jailed.

As with politics, so with technology: it’s always about power, and the social position from which power is considered. Tony Stark’s view from above, or Steve Rogers’s view from below. Take your pick. As for me, I’m like any other morally sane person: #teamcap all the way.

a few words on Age of Ultron

A few random thoughts about Avengers: Age of Ultron:

  • It’s fun.
  • It needed two fewer massive battle set-pieces.
  • James Spader’s Ultron voice is wonderfully creepy and sleazy. (By the way, don’t we live in the Golden Age of voice acting? I think Pixar is largely responsible for this.)
  • Joss Whedon knows that his job as director is primarily to give us those massive battle set-pieces, and he does that, but I have a feeling that his heart really isn’t in it — in part because, as writer, he knows that those simply ruin narrative coherence. So he always has strategies for threading the story together.
  • One way he does this is through creating themes that the characters respond to in their varying ways. Perhaps the biggest such theme in this film is: marriage and children. It’s really a wonderful stroke on Whedon’s part to create a (surprisingly and to me gratifyingly long) breathing-space in the movie set in Clint Barton’s ramshackle house in the country, with his wife and children. That sets all the major characters — except Thor, who, you know, is Thor — thinking about what value they place on such a life. It’s because of this theme that Hawkeye — the one Avenger who has no superpowers, genetic modifications, or mind-and-body-altering training — becomes possibly the most important single character in this movie. (I just wish Jeremy Renner were a better actor, because I don’t think he quite brings it off.)
  • The other way Whedon builds continuity is through geeky jokes that recur throughout the movie. There are, as always with Whedon, several such here — one that starts when Captain America tells Tony Stark to watch his language, another based on characters trading the line “What, you didn’t see that coming?” — but the best one is about Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer. At one point Whedon actually turns the superheroes themselves into fanboys speculating about just how the unliftability of Mjölnir works: “So if you put it in an elevator,” says Cap, only to have Tony cut in: “Elevator’s not worthy.” I just love this stuff, which nobody does better than Whedon.

Anyway, as I say, it’s good wholesome overstuffed bloated fun. Thumbs up.

the desolation of Peter Jackson

My son and I went to see The Dissolution of Smog The Desecration of Snog The Desolation of Smaug today. I am infuriated.

Let me begin my talking about what I liked. The barrels-down-the-river scene was fun and funny. Laketown was delightfully shabby. Smaug looked really cool.

That’s it. The rest was utter dreck. As my son commented, the only thing that could possibly rescue this movie would be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of it. (And just so you know, I really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies, and have frequently defended them against their detractors, especially Tolkien purists.) So let me just note a few of the many, many things I hated about this movie. Some semi-spoilers follow.

First of all, the video-game aesthetics that so afflicted the first Hobbit film are even worse here. When you combine the game-style action with the 48fps film rate, and then put 3D on top of that, watching this movie is like being slightly high on pot and playing a circa-2005 Xbox game while watching a 1970s sitcom marathon out of the corner of your eye. Its artifice shouts from the rooftops. The spiderwebs that looked so cool and gross when Frodo was wrapped in them in 2003 now look like cheap plastic doilies arranged on Martin Freeman’s head.

Second: speaking of Martin Freeman, who was the best thing in the first movie, he has nothing to do here. Almost no one in this movie does any real acting, but Freeman isn’t even given a chance. He has one briefly cute scene with Gandalf, and is given a few pleasant lines with Smaug, but that’s it. He’s completely wasted. Evangeline Lilly is given far more to do than Freeman — a choice that I cannot imagine any other director in the world making. The scene where Jackson has her pacing back and forth and woodenly declaiming her lines to an equally wooden Lee Pace as Thranduil would be painful in a high-school drama class.

Third: so, about Smaug. He’s awesome-looking and -sounding (Cumberbatched to the Nth degree) but seems to be highly inconsistent in his powers. For instance, whenever the dwarves and their hobbit mascot are conveniently hidden behind a wall he can blast massive shockwaves of fire in their general direction; but when they’re standing three feet away right in front of him he just chats with them. And it’s not like he alters in a discernible direction: his two moods alternate like cinematic clockwork. Chat, then blast; chat, then blast. He’s an absent-minded dragon, I guess, who can’t remember whom he wants to incinerate or why. I mean, even when people are standing right in front of him and taunting him he does nothing — but as soon as they scramble to safety he’s like the business end of a Saturn V.

Which leads me, fourth, to Gandalf. One of the problems with Jackson’s LOTR is the way Gandalf’s powers inexplicably wax and wane: in the first movie he can confront and defeat a Balrog — a Balrog, for heaven’s sake: have you seen those things? — but collapses in a heap before the leader of the Nazgul in the third one. And that was supposed to be the new and improved post-resurrection Gandalf. I guess you could argue that this movie’s pre-resurrection Gandalf is a less formidable figure, which doesn’t fit the Tolkien character, but that’s okay, let’s grant PJ and his co-authors the right to do with Gandalf what they will. But, then, why does this pantywaist Gandalf stroll right into the fortress of the Necromancer as though he’s taking his daily constitutional in Wizard’s Park? Apparently he just wants to find out who the Necromancer is, but is that really the ideal way to do it? Walk into a creepy fortress saturated with black magic and shout “Who are you people?” Just because you’re a wizard, there’s no need to be a moron also, is there?

(Parenthetically: Peter Jackson seems to think that a wizard’s power resides wholly in his staff, so that when his staff is taken away he’s helpless — which, I mean, okay, but then why is Gandalf never able, in any of the Tolkien films, to do much more with his staff than shine a bright light? In this one he does poke ineffectually at some orcs, and elsewhere he smites a couple of nasties with it, but, if you look at all the Jackson Tolkien films in toto, basically it’s just a flashlight. An inconveniently enormous flashlight. )

Fifth: it’s only for a couple of seconds, but we get Radagast’s %$#@! buggy-bunny again. And Gandalf sends Radagast away to give a message to Galadriel, even though Galadriel and he can communicate telepathically.

Sixth and lastly (as Dogberry once said), I have no idea what is going on in the last few minutes as the dwarves confront Smaug. Somehow eight or nine dwarves are able to get all the mighty furnaces of their ancestors running again in two or three minutes, and the furnaces are so powerful that it takes them only another 30 seconds or so to create rivers of molten metal, and then they make a giant golden statue of a dwarf to mesmerize Smaug — or maybe they don’t make it but just fill it with molten gold? — but whether they make it or pump it full of gold-syrup it doesn’t melt but rather shoots the gold-syrup out of its eyeballs — though Smaug has to conveniently stop and stare first at Thorin and then at the Great Idol long enough to make all the machinery work? I mean, the scene is completely nonsensical, in a way that no respectable video-game (the genre it’s trying to imitate) would ever allow to happen.

I could write a post three times as long as this one if I wanted to list all the absurdities and solecisms of this film. But I’ll spare you. It’s stupid and ugly, and you shouldn’t spend your money on it.


old man Jacobs

Following the lead of Old Man Stewart here, I’m going to take a moment shake my fist at Bill Simmons.I needed something nearly mindless to read at the end of a long, hard, illness-infested semester, so I thought I would try Simmons’s The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy. I got about a third of the way through it — it’s 736 pages in the hardcover edition, by the way — and then deleted it from my Kindle. Too much porn. Yes, porn — Simmons’s jokes have a pretty limited range: penises, breasts, porn flicks, a movie about porn flicks (Boogie Nights), penises, gambling, other movies, penises, and porn flicks. After a while this became . . . not offensive so much as numbingly repetitive and just plain sad.It’s sad that porn is so mainstream now that Simmons can assume that pretty much everyone who reads his book knows as much about it as he does. And perhaps he assumes rightly, since hardly any of the customer reviews on Amazon mention this prominent, um . . . feature of the book. Nor does Amazon’s own review, or Booklist’s. Apparently porn has moved from being taboo to disreputable to risqué to defensible to invisible. Just part of the scenery.Notice, by the way, that I did what we all do these days, which is to soften or even undercut moral disapproval with a self-deprecating joke. (See this post’s title?) Robert Ebert did something similar recently in the first paragraph of his review of Kick-Ass:

Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let’s say you’re a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.

Yeah. Do please tell me about it. I think the self-deprecation, the near-apology, comes in because we know that there is simply no point in arguing with someone who’s happy with a world in which porn is thoroughly mainstream and there’s some value in watching films that depict children being beaten and then killing (and, by the way, conscripting actual children to act out those fantasies). I cannot discern any point of commonality that would allow me to formulate an argument that such people would recognize as valid, or perhaps they would even be able to make sense of. I sympathize with Ebert’s simple statement — “You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in “— but I doubt its sufficiency. I may be “so very not interested” in a particular world, yet still have to live in it and experience its consequences.