Jocko Benoit's Writing and Pop Culture Spot

Perspectives on the arts and popular culture from Jocko (Jacques) Benoit. Scattered thoughts on poetry, books, film, television, and other cultural intersections.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Vogon Poetry Society

According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, the Vogons are responsible for the third worst poetry in the universe. A bureaucratic species, Vogons enjoy reading their poetry to other creatures who promptly try to kill or at least deafen themselves so the torture will end. But today I was involved in an event that was nothing like that. It was a media thing for an upcoming poetry festival in Edmonton. A sunny day, a casual outdoor crowd and some good poetry.

I wanted to make the most of my allotted two minutes, so I chose to read a poem I had written on Valentine’s Day. The poem was inspired by a Hallmark card that had outsol
d all other Hallmark Valentine’s Day cards by a ratio of five to one. (The story was a news item. How slow was that news day? Or, more accurately, it’s just another example of corporate publicity increasingly substituting for news.) When I looked up the card on the internet, I was in awe of its banality: “Each time I see you, hold you, think of you, here's what I do/I fall deeply, madly, happily in love with you. Happy Valentine’s Day” (card V330-5, Hallmark). The card has been the leader in sales over the last two Valentine’s Days. And it’s awful, vacant poetry.

But right away I want to apologize to whoever wrote that card and to all the people who bought it. The card serves its purpose and serves it clearly and succinctly. Many people will look at the greeting itself maybe once or twice. The front of the card is what they often remember most. And even more importantly, we remember the person who gave the card. How can what I consider legitimate poetry compete with something that intimate?

It can’t. The poetry I like to read consistently questions the words and borders we use to define our lives. The greeting card above helps reinforce ossified beliefs and assumptions about love and romance. So for me it’s bad poetry. But what I think of as bad poetry is what people most often prefer.

Just this weekend I ran into two examples of bad poetry. (They were the reason I chose the greeting card poem to read today.) The first example is in the miniseries made of Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. Now, I’m a big fan of any story that has a poet as the hero, and this miniseries has some good moments and a nice slow build, but the most blood curdling part of the horror for me is when Jimmy Smits has to read one of our hero’s ‘great’ poems. It is in some ways a knockoff of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” with the poet, Gard, saying again and again he has “one last mile to go”. You don’t get to hear ‘the poem’ in its entirety. You get a bunch of crossfades from one sequence of the poem to another as if the poem might have lasted a few hours. And yet the audience looks on, moved and both tearing up and smiling. The tearing up I can understand. The smiling must have been a misperceived group death grimace.

The second instance of bad poetry came from an American model now living in Italy. She’s very lucky I’ve forgotten her name. Hysterical amnesia can be a godsend. She read a few poems from her tome of a few hundred pages that a legitimate publisher had approved, possibly after reading the Necronomicon and eating a few people. Again, the publisher’s absent name is a victim of my inwardly turned, mind-blotting rage. I would recite the poems for you, but they are fairly typical: lots of adverbs, abstract nouns like ‘love’ and ‘courage,’ along with heapings of passive verbs that are hardly verbing at all. This is what makes it on TV. This and occasional celebrities peddling that book of poetry they’ve always wanted to write. (I can take all of the excesses of celebrity except their excursions into poetry. I’ll make an exception, though, for Viggo Mortensen.) Then, of course, there are some of the less artful rap lyrics, the twangiest of cowboy poets, the smarmy and ham-handed imitations of Beat poetry in the early “I Am Canadian” ads.

I don’t want to say that it’s all Vogon poetry and there is no place for it. In fact, years ago we had a Vogon poetry night where people read the worst poems they could find. Some of them were poems that other readers were fond of. Even now, there is no real consensus about what ‘good’ poetry is. How can we criticize that which is terrible if we don’t agree on its opposite? And how can we call greeting card poetry worthless when one successful greeting card will pull in more money than all of one poet’s poetry combined will earn in a lifetime?

And how objective can those of us who consider themselves ‘serious’ poets be when we are judging these so-called Vogons? We challenge audiences and hope that they can clear the imaginative hurdles we put in front of them, but most readers prefer to listen to poets clear iambic rhyming hurdles – up and down up and down. The ideal would be to have poets and readers stretching a bit to hand off the baton that is the poem. But that’s unlikely to happen in the current environment which is increasingly hospitable to the ‘Vogons among us.

Oh, and the worst poetry in the universe came from, according to Douglas Adams, a human.

Monday, May 29, 2006

If Life Is A Movie, Then Where the Hell Is My Agent?

Over the years of working with film genres, I’ve often run into the comment that “the best movies transcend the concept of genre.” In other words, the best films are better than all that formulaic nonsense. The comments usually come from people in the arts who place great importance or originality and therefore dress like nobody else. Mind you, in dressing like nobody else, they distinguish themselves from people in uniforms and office attire. You could argue that their love of originality helps them identify with each other and bond – that is, until they have to work together on a local production of Les Miserables and can’t agree on anything. That tempestuousness is another of their common traits.

One of my favorite films that plays with its genre is Scream. The film milks the audience’s knowledge of horror conventions and openly refers to those conventions even while it both breaks and reinforces them in the story. But the film also has one of my all time favorite lines. It’s the main character’s boyfriend’s response when she says that sometimes her life feels like a horror movie. He says, “Life is like a movie. You just can't pick your genre." First of all, dump any guy whose best attempt at reassurance is a perverse kind of fatalism. Second of all, the idea that life is a movie should offend many people, and that your life in particular is only one genre is preposterous.

But look closely at your life. Do we truly transcend the expectations that people have of us? Do we see ourselves as fully individual and unique? We certainly don’t see others that way. Despite movies like The Breakfast Club, don’t we all still tend to put the people around us into categories? Life goes on after high school for each of us and yet we can sum up people around us with one line (“Doesn’t anybody teach you people how to drive?”) or even one word (“Asshole!).

The truth is that most of us are proficient at putting people into categories, including ourselves. It’s the kind of thing Walter Truett Anderson discusses in his book, The Future of the Self: “We love anything that reduces the burden of complexity. We love labels of race, gender, and nationality; movies of good guys bashing bad guys; songs of undying love; stories in which people are propelled through life by a single motive.” (p.164) I mean, since he’s mentioned people propelled through life by a single motive, let’s consider someone like George W. Bush, and possibly even Alberta Premier, Ralph Klein. These are politicians whose success rests on their persona as ‘gold ol’ boys.’ We know the type right away. They emanate common sense (remember Klein’s Common Sense Revolution?) and do-it-yourself stick-to-itiveness. The Democrats keep losing because they’ve been cast as dull elitist eggheads. It’s not a policy problem – take it up with central casting.

We can be stereotyped based on gender or even subgenres within our gender (the jock, the dumb blonde, the geek, the corporate slut). Or it could be our professions (what’s the first animal that comes to mind when you think of lawyers?), our lifestyles, our class, what part of the country we’re from, whether we’re married or single, etc.

And it’s not easy crossing genres. It’s not easy, for example, working in the fields of education and media simultaneously. The priorities, expectations and values of university professors and television producers and executives are very different. By working in television, I’ve lost some academic credibility and by working in academia I am a separate animal from my media colleagues.

But there are certainly examples where people have ‘crossed genres’ successfully – people who marry outside of their faith or cultural milieu, people who move to other countries, people who have multiple careers over their lifetimes, and even people who root for teams that aren’t from their city. It’s all about becoming more fully human – not rejecting the things about us that are ‘generic.’ We have very little control over what genre we belong to because the next person we meet will just put us in a category after a few minutes (or less) of conversation. But we can keep stretching ourselves – or maybe it’s more accurate to say that we can continue being more honest about the many selves inside us, “to look at wider vision of our humanity,” as Anderson argues later on.

At least I hope that kind of adaptive behaviour is possible because I’m getting tired being this serial dystopic dramedy with an increasingly smaller cast and so-so ratings. I’d like to be more of a philosophical action hero blowing up people’s expectations. I hope I get the part.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Other More Scrutable Code

There’s been a lot of furor about the historical accuracy of The DaVinci Code, but people are missing the real point – in this case, as with so much in popular culture, history is not the final aim.

The notion of history even intruded on the court case where the authors of a 1982 book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, sued author Dan Brown over using their take on the living descendants of Jesus. The court ruled that when it comes to historical information, copyright does not apply. The law itself is a good one and allows writers and other artists to use and adapt history to create new perspectives and ask fresh questions. Never mind that some people make a mockery of history in their subsequent works – the benefits of this freedom far outweigh the potential for idiocy and ignorance. But the funny part of the ruling is that it grants the ideas of Dan Brown and the Holy Blood authors the credibility of history and historians. I’m sure this would trouble most historians right away.

After all, what these writers have done is create a ludicrous or compelling (depending on who you are) narrative out of mostly circumstantial and tangential evidence. You could even argue that rather than adding to historical knowledge, these books are adding to our mythological base. Of course, devout Catholics, among others, object to this rearranging not just of history but of mythology. Seeing Mary Magdalene as more important than traditionally allowed changes the symbolic structure of the church and perhaps of belief itself. Meanwhile, others see the story as confirming what they have suspected all along – that the church has always been ready to subjugate or at least disregard women.

But I would just chime in here and say that it really doesn’t matter if these stories have any basis in truth. The fact that they are found compelling by contemporary readers and moviegoers tells me that the stories are important here and now. These stories have emerged and become popular because of a current struggle within the church as many women both working for the church and believing in the church are expressing doubts about the nature of its hierarchy and their position in it. The DaVinci Code is a gangbuster story because people are ready for it. It has done much to break the code of silence so many women have been bound to as members of the Catholic church.

And, of course, the affirmation of the feminine is of a kind with everything going on today in Western culture. It doesn’t matter if Mary was hustled out of the Holy Land to start an invisible family line in France. What these modern stories tap into is current desires and wishes. I’d even argue that these stories are only becoming hot topics now because 1982 (when Holy Blood first came out) was too early. The timing is better now. As with many ideas in popular culture, they are almost never ahead of their times – they are running side by side with them. The DaVinci Code implies that there is hope for change in the near future, but the change it hopes for has in many ways already happened, with women increasingly refusing to be dictated to by ancient and deliberately inscrutable authorities.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Stalking the Audience

One of the main knocks against pop culture from the point of view of intellectuals is that it doesn’t respect the audience – giving them sentimental and/or predictable fare at every turn. And by ‘the audience’ intellectuals mean themselves. On another tack, intellectuals accuse pop culture of brainwashing the audience (and this time they mean everyone but themselves) – of being a dangerous force of oppression. It’s hard to square those two criticisms most times – that pop culture is both inept and deviously skillful.

Many intellectuals don’t have a good handle on what will be popular and why. Just witness this past weekend’s resounding box office for The DaVinci Code - a film many critics had panned, along with the highly successful book. Fans don’t care. There is something appealing about the book, or, more accurately, the book has numerous appeals to a vast cross-section of different audiences. I saw it, for example, because I love a good conspiracy theory. The fact that I first heard this theory in the very early 90’s doesn’t change that appeal. Sometimes these theories take some time to filter down to a broader audience. In this case, Dan Brown and his book were the last stage of the process.

Critics in many cases just simply missed the possible appeal of the film. But this doesn’t mean the film industry is filled with cultural geniuses. Just look at the number of bombs and disappointments from earlier this year and all of last year. They really can’t predict for sure what will work. That is exactly why, as we all know, they resort to sequels to successful films and to film versions of semi-successful TV shows. And it’s why studios hedge their bets and occasionally make an oddball film with an independent feel because they know that sometimes one of these can take off.

The unpredictability of the audience has to make you wonder. After all these decades of research by sociologists and psychologists, entertainers of all types are still unsure just how to attract a good-sized audience. Of course, you’re guaranteed to do it if you have a winning hockey team currently battling in the Stanley Cup semi-finals. The screaming and the car horns outside my window every now and again these last couple of weeks is very loud proof that you can get people out if you can make them feel 1.) Like they’re included and 2.) That they’re winners.

An audience like this is often a reminder to me of why I write poetry. Hardly anyone gets stabbed in a riot at my poetry readings. I nonetheless envy the purity of the response that a sports event or a concert can get from people… and of course the incredible numbers involved. I suspect that the closer an event comes to being pure ritual, the broader the interest in it. People call it the lowest common denominator, but I think it’s more accurate to call it the widest possible net.

I’m not so different from those critics and corporate types I mention above. I’d like to write things that attract large numbers of enthusiasts. But I’m not the type of poet that can do that because I’m usually trying to criticize or undermine my culture’s rituals in my work. In this, I’m not so different from many other poets who have too many questions and doubts about normal everyday cultural assumptions. That doesn’t mean I’m not in awe of any work that can move so many people at one time. What we have to recognize is that the work that can do that might be anything from a conspiracy-laden cotemporary thriller to DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. We can’t predict what will strike a chord any more than we can determine just what was making Mona Lisa smile.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Two-Faces of Conspiracy

Despite some protests from my Illuminati Local #757, I’ve decided to share a few thoughts with you paranoid freakheads in regard to whether or not there is a world conspiracy to keep you down. The short answer is: no. We don’t even know who you are or care where you live. The longer answer is: yes. We only serve those who we know and who we care about and so when things get done they probably get done to you because we’re not looking where we’re going.

What fascinates me is the inordinate amount of time people spend thinking about who is out to get them. Must make bottom feeders like yourselves feel more important. Either that or Robert Anton Wilson was right when he argued that the conspiratorial mind is simply one in which creativity has taken a bad detour.

A great example is the film The DaVinci Code. What a fuss over this by people who say the whole thing is a fiction. We love that. It’s even better when some of it is true and some of it ain’t. More importantly, it’s about time you guys did something about those Opus Dei prigs. They’re really hard to take at parties. They’re just like insurance salesmen – always recruiting when all the rest of us just want to relax and have a nice evening plotting the overthrow of a few strategically selected governments. Go get ‘em, is what I say. It might make up for how you all made the Masons look like great American heroes in National Treasure. Puh-leez. I’m willing to bet there was some Skull and Bones money in that screenplay.

The thing I love most about conspiracy films is those fine lines between truth and fiction. Sure you get movies like The Matrix, Minority Report, Fahrenheit 411, The Truman Show – hell, any dystopic science fiction film is about a conspiracy. But then there are the other ones like Capricorn One about a faked Mars landing (a movie that gave birth to those charming black helicopters), JFK and all those films about the Holocaust (6 million deaths no one wanted to know about). These films tease us with what we think we already suspect about the powers that be. And then there are films like All the President’s Men about a real life conspiracy that led to the end of a presidency, and Good Night and Good Luck about a newsman who takes on a government conspiracy to undermine American freedom while under the guise of fighting a communist conspiracy. (The conspiracy based on combating a conspiracy is my favorite ploy, personally. It’s the Hail Mary of the Conspiracy Superbowl.)

And of course there are the more domestic conspiracies, usually of silence, whereby family members are victimized for years, either physically or psychologically. These have to often compete with the larger conspiracies but are often more real and more immediately damaging. But films and countless TV movies have brought these stories into the unforgiving light.

What I’m saying is that the beauty of conspiracy theories is that, despite the academics who poo poo them and then turn around and claim the media are out to brainwash all of us, there are times when people work together for a common goal that they would prefer no one discovered. Maybe Marilyn Monroe wasn’t killed by the Kennedys or the mob, but there definitely was collusion in baseball. The people who keep digging for the scoop are both lunatics and serious journalists. Personally, I’m rooting for the lunatics. The stuff they turn up is so much fun.

For instance, the whole George Bush knowing about 9/11 and even planning it. I love that one. It helps hide in plain sight the much more obvious deliberate lies about Saddam Hussein and WMD’s. I have to hand it to the Bush team. The old “hide the real conspiracy behind one that people will find flaws in and won’t believe.” Bravo.

Sadly, I have far too much experience with this and know the history of conspiracies all too well. No group can keep a secret forever and no group is smart enough to pull off the complete invisibility a good conspiracy requires. Not long after The DaVinci Code hits theatres, people will be looking for a new target for their anxieties and fears. I assume Dan Brown is already hard at work on that. And Mr. Brown, no more Illuminati books. Once was funny, and twice made us sit up and notice, but a third time and we might think you’re out to get us.

Monday, May 15, 2006

In the Crosshairs

If you were going to kill someone, who would you rather have giving you your orders?

I found myself thinking this recently when I was trying to choose between a couple of my favorite video games. What I like, for example, about the Splinter Cell series is that it’s a nice break from the endless shooting and carnage in your typical video game. You have to pace yourself… and the killing. It involves subtlety and patience and intelligence. So do the games in the Hitman series. Yet, even though the Splinter Cell series is a bit more popular than the Hitman series, I often prefer the latter’s Agent 47 to the former’s Sam Fisher.

What, you may ask, is the difference? Well, Fisher does have those cool goggles with multi-purpose visual modes, but he is a patriot working for the government. Meanwhile, Agent 47 (with the bar code tattooed on the back of his bald head) seems like a man forced into circumstances and given orders by a nebulous international organization of some sort. In the upcoming Hitman: Blood Money, the organization Agent 47 works for is knocked out of the picture and our man is on his own. Even better.

Video game reviewers will talk about graphics and sound and gameplay, but in the end we like characters we can identify with. I can enjoy playing Agent 47 more than Sam Fisher. It’s not a matter of game elements, but of story elements. And it’s a matter of ideology. Being a government operative is not an option in my imagination. Being a hitman of mysterious origins is.

There are ideological reasons why I prefer TV private detectives over TV cops – I’m not a team player in some respects and the idea of the police ‘brotherhood’ disturbs me. I like detectives who are well meaning and will occasionally break minor laws and pull cons to get to the truth. That’s why this past decade of TV has been a disappointment for me – all those cop shows. The 70’s and 80’s had The Rockford Files, Magnum P.I., Remington Steele, Moonlighting and Simon and Simon – any one of which I’d prefer to all the NYPD Blue’s, C.S.I.’s and Law and Order’s. The C.S.I. rabble are particularly repulsive to me with their unimaginative vision of crime and evil. It’s a deeply conservative world view filled with clearly identified bad guys and it shows the forces of law as ultimately infallible and self-righteous. Many of the main characters are nothing more than bullies. Yuck.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of ideology guiding my choices, but simply subject matter. Reviewers will often talk about how directors or actors or writers determine their picks, but I think many of us choose because we’re interested in what the story is about. You could have the best movie ever about drugs, for example, and I would not be interested. I’ve seen Traffic and I’ve seen Requiem For A Dream. They are both hard-hitting, insightful, thoughtful and compelling – and I couldn’t give a damn. On the other hand, I will watch the most painfully perpetrated film about baseball just because it’s about baseball.

And of course there are fans who will pick films by genre – the gross-out teenage comedy, the slasher picture, the war movie, the character-driven relationship drama. These have both subject matter and ideology working together. The horror film, for example, is often about guilt and punishment. Very Catholic, ironically. The gross-out comedy can be a way for filmgoers to vicariously rebel. But ideology is a tricky thing. Gross-out pictures can also be very regressive in that we are laughing at characters in an aggressive and superior way. To be a politically incorrect comedy is to be both radical and bigoted, often at the same time.

All this is just to say that how we watch or play things is more complex than we might ordinarily think. We are often dealing with Neo in The Matrix as a Christ figure and as the very un-Christian Nietszchian Superman. This doubling of ideologies attracts a wider audience – even if that audience is not fully conscious of the ideas underneath the surface. Inside our heads there is the little hitman taking notice of the seemingly innocuous ideas passing before us on the screen and he always has something in his crosshairs – those moments when what we see on the screen is just… dead on.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Philosophical Tennis With Woody Allen

It’s hard to forget some writers because of how I was introduced to them. I was initiated into the world of Woody Allen by a girl I met in undergrad. We started going out a few weeks before graduation even though she had a boyfriend back home. She loaned me her copies of Woody Allen’s three books of essays and stories and it was love at first read for me. (Funnily enough, someone took a picture of me that year where my hair is flying out and I am bug-eyed behind my glasses, looking a little bit like Woody.) Then, of course, she left me when her boyfriend came to watch her graduate. But we had been keeping very late hours and so the night the boyfriend arrived to consummate their four months apart, she fell asleep. Then she told him about me and sent him packing, finally showing up at my door. Just like in the movies.

Except that when I went a year later to visit her in Connecticut, things had changed. As luck would have it, there was a Woody Allen festival playing that week and we took in a couple of his films. But let’s just sum things up by saying that those films were all I got to see. And pretty soon she sent me packing. Just like in a movie. A Woody Allen movie.

Even decades later, watching Match Point (recently out on DVD), I can see that Woody keeps on getting the vicissitudes of love just right. The story centres on a former tennis star who meets a girl and moves up in the world with the help of her family even as he is falling for the girl his future brother-in-law is engaged to. Sounds like another Woody Allen comedy - just like my life - right? Except it’s not a comedy. No, no – not at all.

It reflects an ongoing concern in his work with the nature of the universe: that is, that it has no meaning. This comes up in films as diverse as Sleeper, Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and, well, just about all his films. And even in a one act play called “God” in the book Without Feathers. His characters, especially the ones played by him, keep bringing up the meaninglessness in life. In Crimes and Misdemeanors a rabbi renowned for his positive attitude ends up killing himself. As Mark T. Conrad points out in his essay, “God, Suicide and the Meaning of Life” (in the book Woody Allen and Philosophy), Allen is consistently atheistic and fatalistic in his point of view, believing that since there is no God there can never be any meaning to life.

Because of Allen’s obsession with meaninglessness, there may be no better writer to illustrate the fine line between drama and comedy (other than Shakespeare). After all, luck and fate play major roles in both tragedies and comedies. If things had gone just a little differently in Romeo and Juliet, for example, that whacky couple just might have made it and Shakespeare might have thought about calling his play My Big Fat Italian Wedding. Then think about the description for Match Point – man falls for future brother-in-law’s fiancé; he marries the sister, then brother-in-law breaks off engagement, etc. That could easily be a comedy as both couples trade back and forth with hilarious results. In fact, Woody’s done that type of story as a comedy before.

But Match Point is never close to being a comedy in tone. While we laugh at the nature of the absurd in his comedies, we are in this movie horrified by the direction that fate seems to drive our main character. A tennis player he once competed against asks him if he ever wonders how his life might have gone if one or more tennis balls that hit the net had gone over rather than falling back on his side. The movie proposes that it doesn’t matter – that looking for meaning, or patterns, or justice in the world is pointless. The ideas that make us laugh when they are in Allen’s comedies shake us to the core in a film like this.

Now, while I’m a big believer in fate (I think we do things because we can’t help but be who we are), I think we can learn to see the patterns that we create in our own lives. For example, it might be a bad idea to go on a long trip to visit a long distance girlfriend who broke up with the last guy she had a long distance relationship with and who made a long trip to see her. That’s not fate – that’s just common sense. And it is a pattern – not a pleasant pattern to be on the receiving end of, but a pattern nonetheless. Unlike the modern optimists, I don’t waste time trying to change other people’s patterns. I hardly waste much time trying to change my own. But I recognize them. I learn from them in some small ways. I don’t rely on the existence of God to give me meaning. I rely often on the same thing Woody himself does - writing patterns into existence, even if his patterns are about the lack of meaning in life.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Watch What’s Good For You

Now and then I’ll read a book that both wins me over and loses me every few paragraphs. It’s an odd experience and it doesn’t happen often. The Rebel Sell, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, was one such experience. And a book I’m currently reading is the same sort of thing. The book is Two Aspirins and A Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society, by Metta Spencer. The great thing about the book, from my perspective, is that Spencer argues that television, among other popular entertainments, is not pure escapism and that it can even have healing benefits. What she means by this is that when we watch TV shows and films we learn from the characters. Stories have lessons. You only think you’re watching ‘mindless’ entertainment.

Her ideas nicely balance those of Steven Johnson in his book, Everything Bad Is Good For You. Spencer notes that Johnson focuses by choice on the structural elements of the popular media and their increasing complexity and correlative effects on our intelligence as viewers and gamers. While she doesn’t dispute Johnson’s claims (she even lists his book as one of her favorites on her blog), she notes that he completely ignores the possible beneficial effects of the content of popular media. What do popular stories have to say to us? And how do they affect how we feel?

But then she makes an interesting decision – and by interesting I mean a decision that upsets me. She decides that the best, most beneficial stories are those that aren’t overly complex or intellectual but instead the ones that put a premium on empathy. So she looks in depth at a show like Northern Exposure. On the surface, this is a great choice. It’s a well written show that was one of my must-sees during its original run. And the series’ emphasis on spiritual growth is important – something that I don’t think has truly been replicated since (at least not with the show’s utterly non-denominational approach).

The problem is that I myself couldn’t watch only that type of show. I also get spiritual enlightenment of a … different kind. For example, I think that one of the best films about redemption is Pulp Fiction. Looked at from the spiritual perspective, it’s the story of how three badasses (a weak man, a righteous man, and a shepherd) find different degrees of redemption. Then there are the other types of stories about people who go the other way. Take Memento, for example. It’s about a memory-impaired ethically challenged character who is banished to his own personal hell. And he is damned for good reason. I like the occasional story that gives us a perfect model of what not to do.

Spencer, though, finds these types of stories considerably less healthy. She admits that she empathizes with Tony Soprano, but that she feels somewhat unwell after watching an episode of The Sopranos. These shows, she contends, make us feel unhealthy because of the questionable nature of the main characters and their environments.

This is, she readily admits, subjective. And that leads to what I see as the main problem with her thesis: it rests on a narrow ledge of what is healthy and what is morally rejuvenating. She believes that the best stories draw us into an empathetic relationship with the heroes – but not just any heroes. There is little room in her schema for the true antihero. Nor is there room, as it turns out, for gratuitous or vicious violence. By these standards she eliminates films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pulp Fiction. But I would argue that the violence in Pulp Fiction is neither gratuitous or vicious. After all, it’s a black comedy and when a kid is asked what he thinks about miracles and he says he has no opinion, that is simply not the right answer. The universe of the black comedy demands his head be blown off.

I suspect something else is going on here with Spencer’s specifications. The shows she consistently champions are predominantly feminine in nature. The not so secret ingredient is the empathy. And she earlier in the book admits to her disinterest in entertainment that demands a lot of mathematical and spatial intelligence and with complicated structures. It turns out that the secret to spiritual enlightenment is to be less masculine and more feminine.

Me, I’d argue for a more balanced approach between the masculine and the feminine. And if that proposition doesn’t work, then I would point out that, traditionally, many of the great religions have recognized that there are at least three ways to achieve a more spiritually enlightened position: the path of love, the path of good works and the path of knowledge. Spencer is clearly on the path of love. And I, meanwhile, have consistently chosen the path of knowledge. In fact, reading her book so far has given me a good deal to think about and that has made me feel more enlightened already. And I feel energized reading her work, precisely because she is telling me something I do want to hear and something I don’t want to hear. That’s the way I am.

Spencer makes the understandable mistake that modern medicine makes – she assumes that the same medicine will make everyone feel better. But some of us are allergic to heartfelt dramas, as many a girlfriend and wife has come to understand.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Mindless Viewer and Philosophy

One thing that can tick me off is when someone mentions in passing that they killed an evening by watching or playing some mindless entertainment. ‘Entertainment,’ in fact, is usually perceived as the opposite of educational by many parents and educational experts when they decide what shows children should watch on TV (usually educational shows as opposed to the kinds that the parents themselves watched when they were growing up). What I would contend is that the only reason any entertainment can be mindless is when the person engaging in it has left their mind at the door.

One consolation for me these days is a series of books from Open Court dealing with pop culture and its philosophical roots. The series began in 1999 with Seinfeld and Philosophy and has gone on to deal with TV series such as The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos, films such as The Matrix and Star Wars, the pastimes of baseball and Harleys, and influential figures such as Woody Allen, Monty Python and Bob Dylan. With twenty titles released and five more on the way (see complete list here), the series seems ready to tackle just about any aspect of popular culture.

From a personal perspective, I can tell you that when I picked up the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy book, Buffy was simply a show I kept meaning to look at but hadn’t gotten around to. A few essays into the book and I had to go out and rent a season of the series. Within a week I was a full-fledged convert to the Buffyverse. Who’d ‘a thunk a philosophy book could turn me on to a TV series?

The purpose of the …And Philosophy series is two-fold: to ground philosophy in imagery and stories that most people are familiar with, and to show that the everyday culture we take for granted can tell us some truly profound things. And while I’m sure there are many people out there who would see this enterprise as a waste of time (academics who think pop culture is a wasteland, and pop culture fans who are sick of people reading too much into things), I think the series is one of the best things going right now.

For one thing, philosophy has been on the ropes for a while. I can remember when I was an undergrad and the university I attended was small enough that they could have every department represented by a desk in the main gym. This was pre-computer registration (by a year or two – larger universities had already switched to the now standard method) and so each student had to sign up for courses by visiting each department desk they wanted courses from. It was a fairly intuitive and for the most part friendly process, giving students a chance to chat up a professor or two while signing up. The funny and sad bit was when I saw the two philosophy profs walking around the desk they manned, calling out that philosophy courses were still available, almost like fish mongers hawking the fresh intellectual catch of the day (even though you knew their wares were millennia old). St. Francis Xavier University was still a very Catholic place, but theology and philosophy were increasingly marginal disciplines even there. The …And Philosophy series, then, can be seen as a survival strategy.

Meanwhile, many of us would sit in the TV lounge on our floor in residence and watch a steaming hot pot of Monty Python’s Flying Circus come to a boil, never contemplating that when we watched a skit with two people having a debate about whether they were arguing or merely engaging in a series of contradictions we were learning just a tetch of philosophy and logic. Other times we were catching our Saturday afternoon dose of Star Trek where characters debated the nature of being truly human in every single episode.

Would knowing that we were learning have spoiled the fun? Maybe. But there’s no reason why we can’t be entertained and then, on second viewing, be educated. The …And Philosophy series gives us an opportunity to clarify what we’ve seen through the lens of philosophy. If we resist looking closely at our entertainment, it could be because we want so much to escape from all meaning. And that in itself says something about our lives. If we had to examine our favorite movies and TV shows, then we would have to ask why we’ve chosen them and not other movies and shows. Then we would have to examine ourselves. And that is harder than any philosophy course and there is no book coming out called [insert your name here] and Philosophy to help you understand yourself.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

United 93’s Unfinished Flight

Despite media-fanned trepidation about United 93, the film is getting a smooth ride from critics. They generally like that the film has stayed as true as possible to the events of that day and the overall documentary feel of the piece. And with documentaries being so popular among critics in a weak couple of years for Hollywood, United 93 is the right film in the right style for right now. And I’m not even talking about the obvious political parallels of a group of ordinary Americans trying to take back control of a plane that’s been hijacked by a small band of religious fanatics that have been holding the passengers at bay with a fake threat and relying on fear to govern long enough to drive the whole country plane into the side of a building.

One thing people often talk about when they analyze books and TV shows and movies is identifying with the characters. So United 93 has us right from the start because we know the story and for everyone who watched the news for three straight days in September of 2001 like I did, we already identify with the people involved. So the film doesn’t have to do anything and we’re already on board.

The good thing for non-American viewers is that the film never becomes a patriotic screed. Neither the terrorists nor the passengers ever make a big deal about America. The story is about life and death and loss – period. That sort of jingoism that you might find in something like Air Force One is what can sometimes take non-Americans out of a film. I can still hear the pilot of one of the scrambled jets as he veers in front of the President’s plane to intercept an incoming missile and he says something like, “I’ve got this one, Mr. President,” and then his fighter is hit and explodes. I’m gagging at that even after all these years. But there's nothing like that in United 93.

At the same time, if we weren’t already emotionally primed for this story, we would have very little to identify with in the characters. The truly amazing thing about this film is what it does with almost no character back story. We hear the phone conversations to loved ones, but all we really know about the characters is that they have someone they care about. We don’t get full glimpses into their lives. We see slightly nuanced reactions to the events – no two characters appear to have exactly the same reaction at any time – but we don’t really ever know these people. And yet we identify with them.

In fact, the direction and the performances and the story are so even-handed, that there are moments when you have to actually sympathize with the terrorists. Before everything begins unfolding, we catch a glimpse of one of the terrorists repeating “I love you” three times to someone on the phone. We watch one terrorist trying to stand up to the crowd of charging passengers and being overwhelmed and just for a flicker of an instant we might feel his bravery and his terror, mixed with the satisfaction of seeing him taken down. And even while the passengers pray, so do the terrorists.

Now, there are practical and political reasons for this strategy of identification. By making the real people as thinly sketched as possible, you don’t risk alienating surviving family members by mischaracterizing someone. And the sprinkling of humanizing characteristics among the terrorists shows Arab Americans that at least you’re not resorting to easy stereotypes.

But that still leaves the question of just why this lack of detailed character backgrounds and stories works for the audience and for critics who so often demand character-driven plots.

There are three possibilities. The first is that when we are given nearly blank characters (especially those who don’t in some way offend us) we simply tend to identify or empathize. It’s a reflex. When all we have are a character’s fears we can relate to those. The second reason we can relate so easily is that the back story extends outside the film. It’s still relatively recent history to us and so we supply much of the emotion we felt on the day all of this happened. We’re both feeling what’s happening on the screen and recalling what we felt back then. The final reason this film works despite giving us so little background is that we don’t always need background and detailed character development. Sometimes we just want to know what happens – or, in this case, get a better understanding of how something happened.

We won’t know for some time if this film will still works long after the initial impact of 9/11 has faded. Maybe by then someone will have done a film more in line with Titanic, with a more conventionally themed story superimposed on a real-life disaster. There would be nothing wrong with that either. That’s how real events are eventually translated to cultural memory. First we try to understand and then we mythologize on the long unfinished flight into history.