Friday, July 29, 2011

Womanly virtues Friday ...

Summer coasting edition
Here is a nice light topic. Jessica Wakeman who writes over at The Frisky has analyzed sluthood for us. She tells us that there are five kinds of slut, or, perhaps more accurately, five different kinds of reasons to be promiscuous, and gives us a bit of analysis for each one. Let's coast on through these and see if there is any fun or knowledge to be harvested here.

Reason #1: Because she genuinely loves sex
Now the interesting thing here is that Wakeman thinks that "genuinely loves sex" necessarily means "promiscuity". As I have discussed before, I have known women who have taken possession of the word "slut" because they want to assert their right to really, really like sex. But does really, really liking sex necessarily mean promiscuity?

Here are a couple of statements:
  1. I really love chess and the proof of it is that I have played ten thousand matches against more than nine thousand opponents in my lifetime.
  2. Friendship means a lot to me and the proof of it is that I have had  the same best friend for the last twenty years.
Wakeman is telling us that for her sex is an activity much more like chess than like friendship. That's telling all by itself.

I could go on and point out that there is solid research showing that happily married women get more sex and more satisfactory sex than promiscuous single women but that would be just the icing on the cake. The important issue is already established. If you treat sex the way Wakeman does you're really in it not for the sex but for what you think the sex proves about yourself which brings me to:

Reason #2: To find self esteem
Or is it the other way around? Meaning these women already have constructed a self-defining scenario in which they are desirable and sleeping around is just a way of proving it? In other words, are they really narcissists?

Obviously those are rhetorical questions. Here is why I think so. These women aren't stupid and you don't have to be a particularly deep observer of human life to have noticed that a lot of promiscuous women are unhappy. Note that I didn't say they all are. But a lot are and it would take a very stupid person to fail to see that promiscuity is not a sure ticket to happiness.

So why would someone do this?

Because she has already decided that she is different and special and she is looking to that special validating event to prove it. She is like the challenger who goes into the ring against the undefeated champion of the world. The challenger already knows that the fifty-two boxers before him have been knocked out but, as he sees it, that only proves something about them.

Evidence of other people's failure is only evidence of other people's failure. She is different and better than all those unhappy women.

Reason #3: To rebel against a repressed childhood and adolescence
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this one. Wakeman is uncertain as to whether this is a good thing but commends these women for "thinking for yourselves". Because spending our adulthood deliberately running with scissors to teach authority figures from our childhood years a lesson is the sort of thing that people who think for themselves do.

Reason #4: Because she has just figured out how to enjoy sex
This one actually sounds credible to me. A woman spends her life feeling insecure and unsure of herself because sex just isn't working out, or perhaps isn't happening at all, and suddenly she figures out how to make things work so she turns around and has an affair with her old high school boyfriend, a guy who just happened to be passing through, a guy she has always been curious about, an old friend who has always been interested but she always turned down before, or some combination of the above. I've seen this happen fairly often.

I guess the only thing is that I wouldn't consider any of that as being promiscuous. It strikes me as well with within the norms of typical good-girl behaviour or to put it more bluntly: there is nothing slutty about this.

Reason #5: To get ahead
For a long time I thought only people in books and celebrities did this. Then a woman I knew surprised me by doing it. She was a journalist whose employers gave her a posting in a new area she had never reported about before. She had an affair with a journalist from another publication who was already well established in the field and he told her everything she needed to know to hit the ground running. I never confronted her about it because I was just too shocked to say a word about it. I just stopped being friends with her without ever explaining.

I still can't think of anything to say except that I'd probably respond exactly the same way if it happened again. Although I am being deliberately vague about this because it would be pretty easy for some people to figure out who I mean if I let certain details slip and I guess that means I'd end the friendship but still protect her privacy if it happened again.

So there we have it. I think we can safely conclude that reasons #1 and #2 are just the same reason described once to make it sound good and once to make it sound bad. Reason #3 isn't really slutty so much as immaturity. Reason #4 isn't slutty at all. Reason #5 is really about informal prostitution more than being sluttish.

Most importantly I'd note that, except for #4, none of the reasons/types really have much to do with the profound enjoyment of sex.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Manly Thor's Day Special

LA Confidential: The Aesthetics of Manliness

This stuff is so deliciously subversive.

Yeah, I don't really want to smoke a cigar or drive a car with a lethal steel dashboard like that ... except that I do want to as a way of blowing off all the nannies. (That picture could be a banner for The Bleat you know.)

Here are a few more great shots from the movie just 'cause they're fantastic. (You can click on the images if you want to see them larger.)

I think Roger Sterling and Don Draper got drunk at that table in Season 1 of Mad Men.

Sigh. Oh yeah, catch this detail from the room just above:

Here no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Watch the movie and you'll see just how appropriate that is.

Anyway, let us begin our serious consideration of the aesthetics of manliness in LA Confidential with this shot which is either an homage or a cliché depending on how we are feeling.

You recognize it of course. Just in case not, let me give you a couple of citations. Here is Raymond Chandler from The Big Sleep published in 1939:
It was a narrow dirt road, not much more than a track, like the entrance to some foothill ranch. A wide five-barred gate was folded back against a stump and looked as if it hadn't been shut in years. The road was fringed with tall eucalyptus trees and deeply rutted. Trucks had used it. It was empty and sunny now, but not yet dusty. The rain had been too hard and too recent. We followed the ruts along and the noise of habitat traffic grew curiously and quickly faint, as if this were not in the habitat at all, but far away in a daydream land. Then the oil-stained beam of an anti-matter containment vessel handling crane stuck up over a branch. I could see the old steel cable in the block. The crane probably hadn't moved in a year. Containers were no longer being delivered here, the egress airlock was closed and unpowered. Half a dozen empty vessels lay in a ragged pile. There was the stagnant, old-scummed water of the old cooling sump iridescent in the sunlight. 
California, so wealthy but its wealth comes from something hidden and ugly and what better image for that than these old oil fields. It was such a good image that Ross Macdonald was still using it ten year's later in The Drowning Pool, only he puts a neat reversal on it:
"Are there many ways to make a living here?"

"Why, there are stores, and real estate, all sorts of things. No industry, of course,  the Council won't permit it. After all, look what happened to Nopal Valley when they let the oil wells in."

"What happened to Nopal Valley?"

It was ruined, absolutely ruined. Great hordes of low-class people, Mexicans and dirty oil crews, came in from gosh knows where, and simply blighted the town. We can't let it happen here.'"

"Absolutely not," I said with a phoniness she had no ear to catch. "Quinto must remain a natural beauty spot."
The ugliness is still there, of course, it's just been carefully excluded from the lives of people who don't have to work in industry.

Anyway, here it is in LA Confidential. And what is over near this old oil field? Why a motel and I want to go there.

Yup, I want to drive up in one of those cars and reach up with a cigar in my hand and turn off the radio and then me and my fair companion want to register as "Mr. and Mrs. Smith".

The motel has a name and it has a sign and art department have pulled a really neat trick with the sign. Can you spot the trick?

This movie is set in either 1951 or 1952 (there is a bit of a problem here that I'll get to at the bottom). That is the Victory Motel with the crucial "V" for victory so it was built after 1945. But that sign isn't just six years old.

This is the way that sign looked when you were a boy decades later and you were in the back seat of your family's car and you drove by the motel and the sign that both still had glory and you said to yourself that someday when you were an adult you were going to pull into a place just like that. It lets the movie slip between real time and nostalgia time just like a good neo noir should. Nicely done.

Here's a problem.

That is Jack and Sid setting up the "movie premiere pot bust" in front of a marquee for When Worlds Collide released in August of 1951.

Okay, here is a perfect shot with a  classic noir Gothic camera angle. You just want to step into the screen and be this guy.

The problem, though, is the movie. Vincente Minelli's anti-Hollywood masterpiece The Bad and The Beautiuful  was released on Christmas Day of 1952. Oh well. Real time and nostalgia time I guess.

I had better stop somewhere because there are so many great shots in the movie I could just keep going and going pulling out one after another.

Manly Thor's Day Special

LA Confidential: The Manliness Lesson
Well, there isn't one, really, this being a woman's movie in disguise. But it sort of touches on something.

This image is a good way to introduce it:

Through a stupid and clumsy plot device, Russell Crowe's character Officer Bud White has just been made aware of the existence of photos of the woman he loves having sex with another man. So he rushes out in the rain and flips through them. This is a tribute, of course, to a famous scene in Chinatown. There are other homages to the scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Blood Simple.

It works because we all know the feeling. The minute you discover that a woman you are in love with has had sex with another man, you start picturing it. You know it's a crazy thing to do but you can't help it. I've been there myself.

The thing, of course, is that the sex you picture has to perform a key psychological function and that is maintaining the vaguely narcissistic fantasy that this woman's love for you proves something about you. So the sex you imagine has to be animalistic and, oddly enough, erotically perfect in a way that the sex you have had with the same woman is not. It's torture of an exquisitely awful sort but, as the Last Psychiatrist notes, it's better than jumping off a bridge.
That loss of self is what you're trying to recapture with the masochistic fantasies:  she's hot enough to have any guy she wants (and she picked you); she is in total control of her sex, wielding it for pleasure or for profit however she wants; so when she had sex with you, and liked it-- it signifies your own value.  When some faceless stud undoes her bikini top in front of everyone, and she confidently flaunts her body-- that's your self-confidence she's flaunting.
The post that comes from is worth reading all the way through by the way. If any of this is sounding familiar, if you have ever entertained masochistic fantasies after being cheated on, read the whole thing.

I'd like to note something interesting though. In real life, the woman who cheated on you when you were twenty-five and having what you thought of as the greatest romance in the history of romance didn't actually have the greatest sex of her life with a  super-well-endowed hunk when she cheated. She actually had a seedy little affair drenched in all the self-deception and vanity that affairs always are. But in Hollywood—where it is fantasy all the way down—the woman does have the fantasy sex when she cheats. (And the guy she picks is the perfect threat; in the case she cheats on Bud white, who worries that he is stupid, with the super intelligent Edmund Exley.) Hollywood gives us all the things that would usually be in our imagination played out in high quality Technicolor®.

Here is some more from The Last Psychiatrist
 Look closely at these fantasies, at your own cuckold fantasies.  Inevitably in these fantasies there is a fetish object, something that existed in your relationship.  It's seems incidental to the fantasy but it is highly energized, eroticized: a piece of jewelry, clothing/bathing suit, or a location (car, bar, beach, etc).  The sex is the visual focus, but the eroticized negligee that they bought when they were together is the true main character of the fantasy.

Men make the sex the focus, while women make the fetishized object more explicit: they obsess over the ex taking his new woman to the same places; or buying her "the same kind of scarf he got me"; or saying the same phrases ("that's what he used to call me.")

It seems masochistic, driving yourself crazy thinking about what you've lost, making the loss even worse by finding the specific ways that it hurts you.
In the movie the fetish object is the white dress that Kim Basinger is wearing. In real life, Bud White would imagine these things but here we actually get it.

A bit of trivia
Not really related to the above, but interesting nevertheless, one of the subplots involves a character named Tammy Jordan as played by Shawnee Free Jones. Poor Tammy is a poor girl trying to break into Hollywood but ends up getting exploited for the titillation of others.

Well, guess how poor Shawnee Free Jones is used by the makers of LA Confidential?

Yup, she is in the movie so we can all see a brief shot of her breasts, her bouncing breasts, and then she is done for. And her Hollywood career is not much more than that. She was in a number of other moves, almost always for her breasts, and then dispensed with. Her career was over by 2002.

But spell it out for yourself: The movie makes a moral point about how young hopeful actresses were exploited back in the 1950s by exploiting a a young hopeful actress today. And we all participate because we really want to see her breasts.

Voyeurism is a deeply interesting psychological phenomena.

In closing, Shawnee Free Jones is weird name no? That's because her father was a spirituality huckster.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Neo noir: LA Confidential
This is quite possibly the most and the least pure neo noir at the same time.

Most pure because it has almost all the elements (including an outdated political view that made sense in the 1940s but does not anymore and I'll revisit that on Monday because it is politics). It opens with narration, it has the fedora (Danny DeVito wears it) it has the muddy ethics, it has the femme fatale, it has the settings, it has the sense of history, it has some great shots of naked and nearly naked women, it has all the classic noir shots. It also, and this is very significant, has the budget to do these elements up with style

It doesn't have the wonderfully male nostalgia for technology, however, and that is a hint at where the impurity arises.

It's also the biggest grossing neo noir of all time unless you count Sin City as neo noir, and I don't.

So what is so impure about it? Answer: It has a chick flick hiding at its core.

Sex and the City 
There was a recent piece about the top ten cities for bachelors. The cities featured are all nice enough in various ways but the quality that supposedly makes them all so good for bachelors is that women outnumber men by a significant margin in these cities.

Well, if you are a complete loser who can't get laid unless the odds are stacked heavily in your favour maybe but, really, anyone who knows anything about markets will rapidly see that these are less desirable places for single men to live. If they really were great places for guys, more of us would live there.

If I list the cities you'll quickly see the issue. In ascending order they are Baltimore, D.C, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Antonio, Chicago, Houston. Almost every one of those cities has Chick Lit or a chick-oriented cop show such as CSI or some other female fantasy all over them. Guys may move to these places for work, or family reasons or because they are gay but these are not the places of modern heterosexual male fantasy. (I suspect the places most men prefer to live in aren't big cities but that is a topic for another day.)

But they do go with a female fantasy that runs something like this: Single girl moves to the big city, finds sexual adventure, drinks cocktails, runs up huge credit card bills on cool fashion and glamour and gets her heart broken in a romantic way but then, before she loses her looks, meets a guy who really needs her but is also like something off the cover of a bodice ripper and marries him. And the makers of LA Confidential have hidden that plot line inside what might otherwise have been a truly great neo noir. It's not awful but the parts that play to that fantasy are the slow points in this film.

Spot the hunk
The first hint of what we are in for is the poster. Who do you think the star here is?

In fact, Kim Basinger plays a supporting role. But if you are a young woman who embraces the Sex and the City Fantasy watching this movie she is your alter ego; she is not actually you but a sort of blown up you who has more failings but, at the same time, is glamorous enough to allow you to escape from your drab, debt-laden life in the city where there are many more single women than single men for a couple of hours. (A ratio that, by the way, is reversed in the film.) To add to the glamour, it also has the threat of violence and sexual violence because, as scary as that stuff is in real life, it gets processed as eroticism when a girl watches it on screen. And best of all, the whole thing is wrapped up in a guyish movie that it will be a lot easier to convince some guy to take you to than it would be to get him into As Good As it Gets or My Best Friend's Wedding.

Okay, now we got the chicks in the theatre, who is going to be the candy man to get them all hot and bothered? Well, here are three names, see if you can guess:
  1. Kevin Spacey
  2. Guy Pearce
  3. Russell Crowe
Well, yeah, it's Russell Crowe. His character isn't a real man, however, but merely a shell a woman can project her fantasies onto. This guy is so one dimensional he makes the Tasmanian Devil look like a complex personality. His father beat his mother so now he spends his whole life avenging women. Well, sorta. In a weird fantasy way. His response to seeing senseless acts of violence against women? It is to commit senseless acts of violence himself. And he beats poor Basinger at one point and she, are you sitting down for this, blames herself! Anywhere outside of a Hollywood film or female fantasy about falling in love with a damaged man who needs a woman's love to make him whole, this guy would end going to jail for violence against women. But this is a Hollywood movie of a female fantasy so everything works out right.

It's a shame really because there were great possibilities here. Pearce is magnificent as is DeVito and James Cromwell is magnificent as ... well, I can't tell you what he is magnificent as without ruining the movie. But the standout, the man who steals the movie, is Kevin Spacey as Sgt Jack Vincennes or Hollywood Jack. The movie sparkles every second he is on the screen and fades when he isn't. When things go really bad for him, the movie loses everything.

But it made a lot of money and there is a lesson there. OTOH, it took a huge budget to make all that money and I doubt anyone will put that kind of money into a neo noir ever again.

Watch it twice. You have no choice but the follow the horrible Kim Basinger-Russell Crowe chick flic and the dumb politics the first time but once you know that stuff, you can watch it a  second time with an eye for the surrounding stuff which is much better.

I may put some visuals up this afternoon and there will definitely be a post on the politics of neo noir come Monday.

A question about Anders Behring Breivik

Note: This is a comment I put on a political site called BigCityLib Strikes Back and decided to repeat here.

 It's interesting, don't you think, how much of Anders Behring Breivik's persona has turned out to be pure vapour?

He's a Christian only he doesn't actually believe what Christians do.

He's a right winger only he doesn't seem to have any right wing connections.

He's driven by ideology only his ideology turns out to be a huge jumble that he cut and paste from dozens of different sources.

At what point do we begin to explore the possibility that his real motive here was fame and that all this religious/political/ideological stuff is maybe just some mythology no more real than the Maltese Falcon that he carefully elaborated to fascinate the press?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Worth your time

On legalization of various things 2

All this talk about legalization leads to marijuana legalization. I don't have such strong views but one observation to make here.

It's one of the oddities of the legalization arguments that they are never about what the people pushing them really want.* In arguments for the legalization of marijuana we hear all sorts of arguments about the needs of cancer patients, about the great products that can be made from hemp. about the cost of law enforcement and about how alcohol is supposedly worse. What you never hear people say is, "I want this stuff legalized so I can sit around and get blasted". And that is odd because that is why they actually want it legalized.

And anytime you see an activity where people feel the need to lie to themselves and others about what they are really doing that means there is something wrong about it. What exactly is something we can debate but if we're going to be honest about this we need to discuss it more honestly than is currently being done.

* People who want to legalize prostitution never admit that what they really want is the ability to pick a woman, and pay money so that she will have sex with them without ever having to consider her as an independent human being with needs and interests. "I'd like a bag of chips, two cokes and the sullen little brunette with the hollow look in her eyes please?"

On legalization of various things 1

Looking at yesterday's post about buying and selling sex I see there is a point I added at the end that is not very well argued. I wrote:
I should come out of the closet on this and admit that I think it is very good thing that there are laws against prostitution. I think it would be a very bad thing for women if there weren't such laws. I appreciate that things are often very bad for some women under the current approach but I think it would get worse for a lot more women if prostitution was legalized.

A big part of the reason for this is because there is so much non-prostitutional sex trade. Not everyone does but an awful lot of people do and it is a very useful thing to have a line in the sand law that everyone can see.
What I mean by that  is that it is a very natural thing for women to trade on sex and for men to respond to this trade. And by "natural", I just mean that if you observe just about any culture where women have significant freedoms you'll see a lot of low level trading on sex that does not rise to the level of prostitution. (Or is that sink?)

Consequently, the move to prostitution is a very easy one to make. It would be very easy to slide into and we need to remind ourselves that prostitution is a very bad thing for women. And this is where I am in complete agreement with Prostitution Research & Education. Legalize the trade and you are just going to make it possible for a lot of people to put a lot of pressure on women to start selling their bodies.

That is something legalization advocates miss. There are already quite enough pimps in the world thank you. Most pimps don't look like Jay Z. Most pimps are nasty little pieces of work who turn to their girlfriend and tell her to start earning some money. Legalize prostitution and you are going to have a lot more of them.

These are not equal requests:
  1. Hey honey, we need more money so I think you should consider getting a job.
  2. Hey honey, we need more money so I think you should allow men to have sex with you for money.
To pretend they are the same is to debase women.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

More on buying and selling sex

Another quote from that Newsweek article:
“Ninety-nine percent of the research in this field has been done on prostitutes, and 1 percent has been done on johns,” says Melissa Farley, director of Prostitution Research and Education, a nonprofit organization that is a project of San Francisco Women’s Centers.
I suspect there is some hyperbole there but the underlying factual claim—that we have more data on prostitutes than we have on their customers—is probably true.

But is it an equal comparison?

There is probably also much more data available on drug dealers than their customers and more on people who receive and sell stolen goods than those who buy them. Rightly or wrongly, we usually treat the person who traffics in goods or services as a we regard as immoral as a more serious offender than the person who buys them. (There are exceptions. I would bet there is more research on people who buy both legal and illegal porn than there is on the people who sell it.)

But that got me thinking that it would be both more interesting and more useful to compare the men here with a different group. What about women who, without actually crossing whatever line makes someone an actual prostitute, sell sex in some form or another?

The Serpentine One and I were walking past a restaurant in the Byward Market the other day and saw a waitress with a decolletage that was breathtaking. That display of hers no doubt translates into a significant number of tips. Farley and her team found that a surprising number of men buy sex in various forms and, once again allowing for hyperbole, I'm sure there is some truth to that. But how many women are selling it in various forms? That is how many if we take "selling it" in as broad a sense as Farley has taken for "buying it"?

I should come out of the closet on this and admit that I think it is very good thing that there are laws against prostitution. I think it would be a very bad thing for women if there weren't such laws. I appreciate that things are often very bad for some women under the current approach but I think it would get worse for a lot more women if prostitution was legalized.

A big part of the reason for this is because there is so much non-prostitutional sex trade. Not everyone does but an awful lot of people do and it is a very useful thing to have a line in the sand law that everyone can see.

Science as propaganda

There have been lots of utterly worthless studies but I think this one takes the cake. It's purportedly a study of men who buy sex. Why it says so right in the second paragraph.
This research study compared 101 men who buy sex with 100 men who did not buy sex, matched by age, ethnicity, and education level.
Okay, you have a picture in your head of who is being studied here? I read that and I think, ah, we're comparing men who pay for sex with prostitutes versus those who don't. Well, that's not at all what the researchers mean.
And yet buying sex is so pervasive that Farley’s team had a shockingly difficult time locating men who really don’t do it. The use of pornography, phone sex, lap dances, and other services has become so widespread that the researchers were forced to loosen their definition in order to assemble a 100-person control group.
Ah. So who did they study.
“We had big, big trouble finding nonusers,” Farley says. “We finally had to settle on a definition of non-sex-buyers as men who have not been to a strip club more than two times in the past year, have not purchased a lap dance, have not used pornography more than one time in the last month, and have not purchased phone sex or the services of a sex worker, escort, erotic masseuse, or prostitute.”
 That's a pretty broad definition of buying sex. It's also a comparison that is pretty much guaranteed to set up a stark contrast. Imagine you wanted to do a study of non-Christian versus Christian people and you defined non-Christian as anyone who didn't go to church at least 40 times a year or who had broken the hardest of of the Ten Commandments (e.g "false witness") in the last month and or who had broken certain others at any time of their life? That would make your Christian control group a pretty rarefied selection bound to have significantly different beliefs and attitudes from the rest. That is trick the researchers have used here.

It also raises a question: Maybe the problem here is that the researchers are in denial about what normal male sexuality looks like?

By the way, these quotes come from a Newsweek article and that article gives away that this is junk science in one telling line:
In a new study released exclusively to Newsweek, “Comparing Sex Buyers With Men Who Don’t Buy Sex,” Farley provides some startling answers.
Real scientists present their research to their peers for serious assessment. Political activists release directly to the press.

And the confirmation that this is really just political activism is right on the website of the organization that did the research:
Prostitution Research & Education (PRE) is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization that conducts research on prostitution, pornography and trafficking, and offers education and consultation to researchers, survivors, the public and policymakers. PRE's goal is to abolish the institution of prostitution while at the same time advocating for alternatives to trafficking and prostitution - including emotional and physical healthcare for women in prostitution. The roots of prostitution are in men's assumptions that they are entitled to buy women for sex, and in racism, and women's poverty. 
Here's the question though, how much of the "science" that makes it into the papers is like this?

Monday, July 25, 2011

A hard end

"In nature, everyone comes to an unfortunate end."

A good friend of ours said that years ago when the he, Serpentine One and I were out trout fishing in the highlands and we found some poor mammal—it was no longer possible to identify him or her.

Anyway, I saw something really neat today. Last night, probably in hot pursuit of a juicy moth, this poor guy made a fatal slip.

He'll be easier to recognize here. (Click on the image to see him larger.)

Poor guy must have struggled quite a while before succumbing. It wouldn't have done him any good. Once his wings were caught on that big thistle, it was all over no matter.

Except, as my friend reminded us that day in the highlands, this sort of thing happens all the time.

When I was a kid I read a lot of nature writing that described bats as having an almost supernatural power not to run into things. But every bat makes a fatal mistake some day.

Sort of political Monday

I'm having a hard time figuring out why anyone sees any significance that Amy Winehouse is dead
This death was so predictable.

Everything about Winehouse stunk of moral failure. Here is what I wrote about her last October:
Symbols are more than buttons we can take off or put on. No one can do like some Lewis Carrol character and declare that their symbols gestures and clothing mean only what they want them to mean. It matters how we wear the symbols but the symbols mean something. The clothes, make up and tattooes on Amy Winehouse in the video for "I don't want to go to rehab" tell us pretty clearly that she should go to rehab. 
It would be wrong to suggest that Winehouse had poor impulse control because that would be to suggest that she had any impulse control at all.

The big question here is why did anyone take her seriously in the first place. Because she had talent? Lots of people have talent equal to hers. And her music was not original but was rather derivative.

Let me suggest a couple of reasons why Winehouse succeeded in becoming a star while many other equally talented singers did not.
  1. First and foremost, she succeeded because she had a  desperate craving for attention. Her "success" was odd in that it wasn't any desire for happiness that got her where she was. She proclaimed her deep unhappiness loudly to anyone and everyone, most notably through her music.
  2. Related to the above, she was so desperate for success she was willing to be a shameless exhibitionist to get it. She was willing to sublimate any needs or desires of her own to be the kind of woman that other people like to look at. Not because she was sexy—although she was—but because a lot of people get an especially ugly sort of erotic thrill watching a sexually eligible woman degrade herself.
But here is another thing about her. Did you notice what a superior, moralistic twerp she was? No really. Look at the video below (I apologize for the title she gave it.). It's a little painful to watch now because so much of it obviously applies to Winehouse herself but she really was making some sort of statement here and the people who bought this music bought it because they crave this sort of moralizing:

And it's not just her. We the public just gobble up moralistic preening from celebrities whose personal lives do not even come close to justifying there presuming to have anything to say to anyone about morality.

That people such as Winehouse become big stars says something disturbing about our culture.The question is not, 'What was wrong with her?' The answer to that is obvious and commonplace. There are people slowly dying the same way within a mile or so of where I am now. No, the question is, 'What is wrong with us that such a sad, sick person was a significant voice in our culture?'

Friday, July 22, 2011

The feast of Saint Mary Magdalene ...

... is today.

Not surprisingly, the Gospel reading for the day is her meeting Jesus outside the tomb. Interestingly, the first reading is the ten commandments.

The Bible tells us only two things about Mary Magdalene. The first is that she was a sinner and the second is that she was the very first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. And that's it. Everything else that has been said of her is either well-meaning popular piety or wacky superstition.

There is a certain strain of gnostic thought that takes offense at efforts to identify Mary Magdalene with adultery and/or prostitution and this school of thought dresses their objections up in feminist garb. They claim that these things are meant to diminish her as compared to the male apostles.

It's hard to see as Mary Magdalene was at the tomb because the male apostles were all in hiding having run away in fear at the crucifixion.

But is there anything about being a sinner that would diminish her? Isn't it the height of misogyny to assume that she (or any other woman) would be diminished or tainted forever by sexual sin?

And isn't it telling that Jesus would choose a sinner—as opposed to a virgin or a martyr—for the singular honour he chose for Mary Magdalen?

Do make some Madeleines in her honour today. There are a lot of good recipes out there so I won't provide one but whatever recipe you use, do do two things to it. First add a tablespoon or so of flour to some butter and then melt and brown the butter and use this mixture, applied with a pastry brush, to line your Madeleine tin. Second of all, add a little Orange flower water to the mixture to add some depth and fragrance to the cookies.

Proust, by the way, chose the Madeleine because it was an ordinary thing. He almost used toast instead. Nowadays we treat Madeleines as something exotic and unusual but they were as ordinary in Proust's era as toaster waffles are today and as ordinary as being a sinner in any era.

Womanly virtues Friday ...

Laura Ingraham's dating tips
It's summer and I'm coasting a bit. It hit 108 degrees on our back porch here yesterday.

So low-hanging fruit all around. Yesterday the game guys and today Laura Ingraham. They have more in common than you'd guess.

While deploring sexting, Ingraham let this bit of dating advice slip:
This whole sexting thing has become a type of courting ritual. The fellows want to eye up the merchandise to see if you’re worth the effort. As an old chef once said, “A sure way to kill the appetite is to give away too many hors d’oeuvres.”
Because it's all a game.  Well, that is what that sort of approach says. It says meeting and connecting is a matter of strategy. "Hook a guy with Laura's amazing new guy bait; he won't see the hook until it's too late."

I'll be honest, I've never had much of a technique myself. I've tended to hang out with women I like (which is most of the women I've met) and sometimes something special developed. That was all it took. Eventually something really special developed and I got married I never thought about technique or seduction. It just happened. (And I don't want to intimidate anyone, but that is the way most people do it.)

I did think a whole lot about becoming a certain kind of person. Clean, polite, respectful,  having enough cultural background to have something to talk about, wearing nice clothes ... that sort of thing. But when it came actually interacting with women, I just did it.

Perhaps having three sisters gave me an advantage.

But, you know, when I meet people who have a hard time connecting to others it's generally pretty easy to figure out why they are having trouble. Sometimes it's hard to think of a diplomatic way to explain the problem but it isn't usually very hard to see it. The problem is always the type of person they are rather than some technique they are or are not using. That's why it's hard to put it diplomatically.

Anyway, back to the advice above. As an old timer once put it to me when I was younger, "Do you know when a guy gets the feeling he has seen enough ______?" And when I shook my head, he said, "Never!"

And he is right. It will never happen. No amount of provocative presentation will ever be too much.

Yes, some guys will move on but that isn't because they are glutted but because they are not keen on you, doesn't want a relationship right now or thinks he can do better. But if he really likes you, the chances of your giving him too much of anything sexual are very slim*.

There is a very good reason to go slowly, however. Because that way he will fall in love with you. You can love me or hate me for saying this but a courtship ritual will make him love you. Quick sex will not.

It isn't really much more complicated than that.

I should mention  that when I was in college, there were girls who moved slowly and romantically with guys they were really interested in but went to bed rather quickly with other guys they didn't think so much of to amuse themselves while waiting to meet the really nice guy. It's a great strategy in theory but it causes huge problems when the guy you really care about finds out about the 17 guys you did the walk of shame for. And he will find out. And it will bother him and no amount of assuring him that none of these guys mattered will make him feel better about it.

Sorry, but that is the way it is. We can have a long argument about it someday if you want but it stil won't change anything.

There is a related post here.

* It can happen. Some women have very strong sex drives and some men have very weak sex drives.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Body Heat Part 3

The convention that wasn't used
Every neo noir film tends to use the conventions of classic noir: the fedora, venetian blinds, Gothic camera angles, the femme fatale and so forth. It's telling then when a movie skips over one of the obvious choices.

Body Heat does not feature a narrator. That is quite telling because Phillip-Marlowe-style narration is used by the vast majority of neo noir films. And it is used for a very simple reason, it's the first thing you hear and therefore plays an important first impression role. That voice instantly tells you "This is noir". And there lies the problem for if the movie has to tell you what it is then maybe it isn't really.

Instead of a narrator, Kasdan uses a realist convention some times called the flâneur. A flâneur is sort of loiterer. The story teller—in this case, the camera—seems to simply record what is in front of them as they float through life and we try and assemble some sort of narrative in our heads as we follow them. I say seems to float along because the details they and therefore we see are all carefully selected by the writer to create a sense of character, place and time. Kasdan is particularly interesting in that he uses this stylistic convention of realism to deceive rather than to be realistic.

The "time" in that trio is particularly interesting because the time he seeks to create is a nostalgic time. Thus the first things we hear Ned Racine say is this
It's the Seawater Inn. My family used to eat dinner there twenty-five years ago. Now somebody's torched it to clear the lot.
And there we are. And it helps that the scene is set in a room that gives us a very indistinct notion of time. (As I've said before, it's a brilliant touch that the sense of the nostalgia is not for the specific period of the classic noir but for a past for which there was still lots of evidence at the time the film is set in.)

A moment later, Ned ruefully adds that it was probably one of his clients who torched the Seawater Inn. Character, place and time in four sentences. And in four sentences that do nothing to call attention to themselves. That's writing.

But consider how much more authoritative this would have sounded if delivered by voice over narration. We'd still have time place and character but it would be a different character with more distance on the story and therefore more authority. Even when that narrator was later revealed to be Ned it would still be stuck in our heads as something that had been narrated.

By simply giving us Ned (and what a perfect name, it sounds like the name of a guy who always wanted to be Nancy Drew's boyfriend) and loitering along with him the camera forces us to either like the guy or stop watching. You have to want to be Ned for the movie to work and you do want to be him.

His "family" is also an interesting choice. Most heroes don't have families. They don't have fathers or mothers. This one mention changes everything about this guy. He isn't going to be Mike Hammer.

The camera flaneur goes on for a full eight minutes before we start to get anything like a story when he tries to pick up Matty Walker. Everything we have seen up until that moment is stuff that happens to Ned. This is the first thing he tries to do. We know he'll fail of course because of what we have already seen. What is different is that we have effortlessly slid into a story—a very deliberately constructed story—with no sense of having done so.

By the way, in a brilliant musical choice, the orchestra plays "That Old Feeling" as he first sees Matty. Nostalgia and the woman blend into one. And away we go for a wild ride.

I've written before of the unrealistic moment. The touch where the writer goes too far as if by accident and forces us to take their side. In this movie it is a scene in the Pinehaven Tavern when Ned and Matty shake hands and he comments that her hand is hot and she says her temperature runs a couple of degrees above normal. This too is a noir convention; think of Phillip Marlowe describing a woman as a blonde to make a Bishop put his foot through a stained glass window.

But, again, it isn't narrated but acted out and our reaction is to think, "O come on". It's just too too much. But, like Charlotte Haze getting run over, if we choose to accept it and go along we embroil ourselves just a little too far to back out of we decide to let it go. If we go beyond this point, we have to go all the way.

The first Body Heat post is here. This is the last as I will move on to another neo noir (I haven't decided which yet) next week.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Taking down some low-lying fruit
I probably shouldn't stoop so far but a post at Roissy about "the gamest song ever" was recently pointed out to me. The poster goes by the tag name Heartiste.

Anyway, the gamest song ever is supposedly Hey Mister by Custom. It's on YouTube if you must.

Here is a sample lyric:

Hey Mister I really like your daughter,
I’d like to eat her like ice cream
maybe dip her in chocolate

Hey Mister on your way over
in your Volvo, suit, and tie
We’ll be crawling in your bed soon
messing around, maybe getting high...
I think it says one awful lot about the game guys that they get excited about this tune. I mean, if you are threatened by the girl's father—and that is what this song is really about—you're not a serious man.

As the guy who pointed it out to me said, this is a fantasy projection song. A guy singing about what he wants and can't have. And to have any power at all, he has to imagine someone who is even less able to have her than him: the father. Imagining her boyfriend would be too painful for the sorts of losers who like this song. To do that would erase the fantasy in a brutal way.

It got me thinking though, trying to remember if I had met any fathers who were threatened by their daughter's boyfriends. Because this is a recurring theme in fiction and song. Heck even Loggins and Messina had a hit on this theme.

But I can't think of a single father who was threatened by his daughter's boyfriend. Even in the couple of cases I know of where the girl got pregnant*, the fathers dealt with the boyfriend in a calm and confident fashion. This is probably because fathers know their daughters too well to blame some guy for what are clearly her stupid choices.

If you'll pardon the expression, the whole "cock-blocking father" phenomenon is a male fantasy. To steal one of The Last Psychiatrist's lines: it's what these guys have to believe if they don't want to commit suicide.

* In both cases, the fathers' primary concern was to discourage their daughters from compounding their problems by marrying the guy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When deploring behaviour ...

... it's always a good idea to ask what part of it is normal
This is further to this earlier post about sexting.

Thinking about it, got me thinking about a woman in the neighbourhood. Sometimes, when I'm out, perhaps walking the dog, she will come over and we'll chat about something. And sometimes, she'll notice a weed and she'll bend over and pull it out. And sometimes, because she is only just outside her door and not going shopping or going to work or something, she will not be wearing a bra when she bends over to pull up that weed.

All of this could be unplanned on her part but things like that have happened often enough now that I know it isn't. She has noticed that I'm the kind who will steal a glance when the opportunity presents itself and I know that she is the kind who will give a glance when the opportunity presents itself. And I've noticed that she is very careful to only do this when there is no third party anywhere to notice what she is doing. It's not a prelude to any sort of sex. It is an end in itself.

I like to think that I have a finely attuned sense of what is an acceptable glance and she no doubt thinks she has a finely attuned sense of giving a glance without being too exhibitionistic about it. For all I know, others might conclude that we both are ridiculous.

What you cannot conclude is that either of us are doing anything that isn't normal.

Our culture is just full of traditions and acceptable behaviours that allow women to flash it about a bit. Not all women nor all men want this but the majority do and the culture accommodates that. And it is not surprising, nor should it be alarming, that girls, especially young girls, are willing to push the boundaries a bit. Sexting nude or semi-nude pictures is not some bizarre behaviour never seen before but only the latest twist on something men and women have been doing for centuries.

What is novel is the risk this carries. The young woman who pulls her shirt down and takes a shot of her breasts and sends them to a guy probably feels no different than when she bends over to pick something out of her purse on the floor at the restaurant (and perhaps she is not entirely unaware that the guy next tables over is getting the same view her dinner companion is). The difference is that it isn't as temporary an exposure as it feels and it will take women a little while to figure this out. The ones that want to figure it out that is.

Laura Ingraham deplores sexting

Laura Ingraham has recently written a book about cultural decline and, in an effort to get us to buy it, has made some excerpts available on line.

I was surprised at how awful her writing is. I've never read anything of hers before, so I had no basis for comparison. I just expected better.

Anyway, in this excerpt she is writing about the practice of sending nude or semi-nude photos to other people. This is a reasonable target as it is not a smart thing to do and yet Ingraham does not seem to be able to put together a coherent criticism. The gist of her piece seems to be that it is better to hold something back if you really want to hook a guy. (A point of view I will revisit on Friday.)

Anyway, let's start at the top and work our way through:
A study by CosmoGirl and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies found that “20 percent of teens and 33 percent of young adults ages 20 to 26 have shared nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves either by text or posting online.” According to studies, teen girls are more likely to indulge in the practice.
Ah yes, always go to CosmoGirl  for your social science data. And teens would never exaggerate in a situation like this.

Okay, but even beyond that what ought to jump right out at us here is the claim that teen girls are more likely to send nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves. That needs explaining and Laura Ingraham has an explanation of sorts:
This whole sexting thing has become a type of courting ritual. The fellows want to eye up the merchandise to see if you’re worth the effort.
Based on what evidence does she reach this conclusion? The study itself (note this link will download a PDF) suggests otherwise:
71% of teen girls and 67% of teen guys who have sent or posted sexually suggestive content say they have sent/posted this content to a boyfriend/girlfriend. 
So, no it does not appear to be a courtship ritual for most as most people do it within the context of an already-existing relationship. It is one of the many many ways that young people find to be sexual without having sex (This is an aspect of the behaviour that ought to interest an organization that calls itself the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancies more than it apparently does.)

Of course that still leaves 29% of teen girls who are sending sexually suggestive content to non-boyfriends (and perhaps to other girls). The study says that 21%of them sent sexually suggestive content to someone they wanted to date. That is interesting but we don't know that all of this was photos and we don't know if they were telling the truth to pollsters or themselves.

And what does "want to date" mean in this context? It could mean really want to meet and date or it could mean that a teen is simply looking fflex her sexual power a bit so she put the lure out there to see if she'll get a rise.

There is a much simpler explanation possible here and that is that girls send suggestive messages including racy pictures of themselves because it turns them on to do so. In addition to being simple, this explanation has the advantage of lining up with lots of other behaviour that anyone who has spent any time observing teen girls will have noticed. It makes them feel good to flash it around so they do it.

It probably also makes them feel good about themselves.

Sending photos is still a really stupid thing to do but I doubt teens need that explained to them. There are lots of stupid things that teens do in the full knowledge that they are stupid things to do. Why might a girl send a nude photo of herself despite the risk? Well, perhaps more precisely because of the risk.

Ingraham's instincts are good on this last point even if she doesn't connect the dots. She notes that lots of celebrities have had nude photos of themselves hacked off their phones.
And more than 50 Hollywood A-listers were stunned when hackers stole their nude photos off cellphones and computers. Some of those hit included Jessica Alba, Miley Cyrus, Scarlett Johansson, and Christina Aguilera. All of this could have been avoided had they not taken the shots in the first place. By their example, stars have encouraged this cultural narcissism masquerading as courtship.
You'll pardon me for thinking that these A-listers were perhaps not quite really surprised when these photos leaked out. No doubt girls with low cut tops are also shocked to discover that when they bend over they show even more and that guys look. Because it is simply inconceivable that girls' dress and behaviour might be designed to make "accidents" happen? No casual observer of human behaviour has ever seen any evidence of anything like that. Right?

And the celebrity connection suggests something about those girls who send photos to guys they don't really know. They are doing the modern equivalent of sitting at the counter of Schwab's drugstore in a tight sweater hoping to get discovered. This minority of teens don't fail to see that the photos could end up in front of the "wrong" eyes. That is what they are counting on. And they are fully aware that such photos could produce mockery just as anyone who enters a race knows there are many more losers than winners. Poor risk assessment skills don't come from a failure to see the chance of failure; they come from thinking that the possibility of winning is so wonderful that the risks are worth it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Kant can't

Enlightenment ethics always fail and yet they never seem to lose their appeal for some people. There is an entire generation out there right now that is heavily invested in the idea of enlightenment. And thus this fascinating claim:
In the climactic speech delivered by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Pacino does an excellent job of articulating why Kant rejected the pursuit of self interest as an ethical position. In the speech Pacino clearly disavows the pursuit of self interest as being properly ethical.
That is Eric Lutzuk over at Partial Objects. The strategy here is interesting. The point of the argument is not to state Kant's position and then try and justify it. The strategy rather is to say that Kant lines up with our ordinary moral ideas as in this homespun emotional speech by Al Pacino.

And that is always the challenge with Kant. There is an inner coherence to Kant, so much so that it frightens people. The problem is convincing people that this very rigorous and cold-sounding ethics has anything to do with the life we live. (Exactly the same strategy drives Derek Parfitt's new book On What Matters by the way.)

The Al Pacino speech has something of the opposite problem.You can listen to all eight minutes of it at the link above. Pacino doesn't do an excellent job of articulating anything at all. The power of his speech rests on the well-established Hollywood principle that whoever sounds the most self-righteous is right. The moral principle he argues is crass and dubious: that it is always wrong to snitch. Imagine that Charlie had seen not a prank against the dean but four or five of his classmates raping a girl and the stupidity of the no snitching position jumps out at you. But, whatever weaknesses it may have in principle and logic, it speaks to the gut.

Lutzuk's attempt to make Kant seem human comes apart in this telling shift:
Pacino refers to Charlie’s “soul” as intact, and the school risks executing Charlie’s “soul” if they punish him for his silence. What are we to make of this reference to Charlie’s soul? Pacino is here referring to what Kant would have called autonomy. 
 "Soul" is a word that means something even to people who don't believe in souls. As Wittgenstein pointed out, the same is true of "ghost". The Enlightenment move is to try and replace these words with other, more sanitary concepts such as spirit. That is to try and replace a kind of being with a quality of being. You don't have a soul but you could have soul the way a Ray Charles song has soul. So Charlie isn't really losing a thing—his soul—but a quality of life—his autonomy.

But if Pacino's character in the movie  had really meant that, he could have said that. He chose the word "soul" for a reason. He chose it because it means something that no other word means. He could not have said—as some namby pamby modern preacher would—that Charlie could have lost his spirit because "spirit" means something too close to a state of being, something that can be regained with a rah rah speech.

No, the whole thing hangs on—that word "soul" means soul.

And from there we can see where the rest of the argument goes wrong.
Charlie, by rejecting the bribes of admission to an Ivy League school, can be said to have his soul intact, to have retained his autonomy, as we know that his action was freely chosen, and was not the result of self interest as it directly violates what would be in his self interest i.e. getting into an ivy league school. 
Well no. Because his soul is his and keeping it intact is in his self interest. If one choice is better than the other it is not because one choice is in his self interest and the other not but rather because some kinds of self interest are better for us than others.

And here we can see a very deep problem for someone like Kant. For if we pose the choice as being between maintaining an abstract concept such as autonomy and getting what we really want, what we really want is going to win out every time. That is why so many of the people who lecture us about climate change live in giant mansions.

(By the way, it's interesting that Hollywood keeps cranking out stories like this that essentially retell the story of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. For Hollywood's own conduct in those years was endlessly shameful and yet they keep making stories about people who bravely refuse to snitch. It's sort of like the guy who refused to serve in the war making a series of movies in which he plays a war hero.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sort of political Monday

Barbecue-people at the gate!
There are some people that John Ibbitson does not want to have a say in the way the Liberal Party of Canada party runs. Who are these people? Liberals! The kind of people who go to community barbecues are threatening to take over and he is ready to man the barricades to stop them.
Mr. Rae is touring the country and consulting what political types like to call the grassroots, though Alykhan Velshi, a former aide to Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, astutely calls them the grasstops. The grasstops are the riding executives, policy wonks, activists and other need-to-get-a-life types who make up the infrastructure of a political party. They’re not the grassroots. You’re the grassroots, and you wouldn’t be caught dead at a Liberal (or Conservative or NDP) barbecue.
Now you might think, "Hey, the party did very badly last election, maybe they should try something new." The particular something new favoured by Ibbitson being a primary system in which any Canadian who registers can vote.

But to conclude that you would need to honestly believe that these party members—the ones Ibbitson calls "grasstops"—were the ones picking leaders in the past. And that is where Ibbitson's thesis falls to pieces. Because he kinda, sorta forgets that letting card-carrying party members choose their leader is something the Liberals have never done. Never!

If there is one thing that Liberals have always done it has been to carefully exclude the people who go to party barbecues from having any say in how things run. Insiders fear these people and have always worked to exclude them from the inner workings of the party. As a former Liberal, I can tell you that there is no party anywhere where riding executives, policy wonks, activists and ordinary card-carrying members have less voice. In the past, the party has always formed its policy positions and has selected its leaders at big conventions. These conventions are easily controlled by insiders. That is with the exception of last time when they skipped even the convention and arranged for a new leader through a backroom deal.

Once in power, Liberals have tended to govern in consultation with various stakeholders from interest groups and industry. Even elected MPs have very little voice or power in the Liberal Party of Canada.

Mr. Ibbitson presents himself as a guy pushing for the radical reforms but if he really is that, it's rather bizarre that his proposed reforms just happen to be exactly what the party's insider elite is proposing. No really.  The very "radical", "bypass the insiders" approach that Ibbitson is proposing is exactly what president of the Liberal party put forward when speaking to the Empire Club of Canada.

Just that name tells you something. "The Empire Club of Canada" sounds like the sort of place where ordinary Jills and Joes can get together and chat about the country doesn't it? Nothing so elitist as a party barbecue here! Why a cynic might think that what is really going on here is an attempt by the elite to maintain their hold on the Liberal Party no matter what.

In that regard, we might go back and reread this paragraph of Ibbitson's again:
People are eventually going to tire of voting Conservative, if not in 2015 then surely in 2019, and the NDP appears to be relentlessly determined not to grow up.  
What he is really describing here is a strategy by which an elite group of people will maintain control of the Liberal Party.

I've written about these people before:
When I think about Canadian politics there is one thought that troubles me and has troubled me for a few decades now (and it is not an issue unique to Canada). And it is the fear of a disproportionate amount of power and influence held by a relatively small group of people who live in Ottawa and Toronto and who have senior positions in the public service, the media and a small set of universities. These people aren’t a conspiracy. They don’t have meetings where they plan their strategy. No, all they have in common is a shared set of values. These values aren’t nefarious or evil and they aren’t a secret. Most anybody could make up a list.

  1. They believe that government should be a large and dominant presence in the lives of Canadians.
  2. They believe in multiculturalism and in having large numbers of immigrants come into Canada.
  3. They believe the arts, universities and scientific research should be heavily funded by government.
  4. They hate the idea of a media that is mostly driven by profit and so they support government regulation and subsidization of the media and government support for the CBC.
  5. Related to the above, they want government to use its regulatory power to keep existing media from having to face any serious competition particularly from American sources.
  6. They believe the government should tax people not just to get revenue but also to decrease what they see as unfair income distribution.
What really disturbs me about this group is not that they believe what they do. I live in a neighbourhood dominated by these people. I live among and like these people and I believe they have every right to believe the things they do and every right to push and promote these ideas.

But one thing that does disturbs me is that they don’t respect anyone’s right to disagree with them. They demonize everyone who does.

The other thing that really disturbs me about this group is that for the last few elections it has tended to feel like it didn’t much matter what Canadians actually voted for, these people got what they wanted anyway. It felt to me like they were using their power to effectively neutralize any opposing voices.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ahhh, that feels good

At midnight on Friday, while we slept, the bank made its regular automatic mortgage deduction from our bank account. The think that made this Friday different was it was the last one.

That was our last substantial financial debt. I can no longer do an assets to debt ratio for the simple reason that you cannot divide by zero. It took a long time but we're here.

Summertime ...

... and the living is easy
First time we make this mark this year (in the shade):

By the way, this thermometer reading tells us something about micro-climates. We live in a part of the city that is one USDA zone warmer than the rest. It's a full four degrees hotter by my thermometer than the reading at the airport. Even allowing for them having a more accurate instrument at the airport and mine being perhaps off a degree or so, that is quite a gap.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Womanly virtues Friday ...

Body Heat Pt2: Some thoughts about women in noir and neo noir films
Most criminals are brutally stupid people who do stupidly brutal things. They don't make for good subjects for fiction. That is why there is so little really realistic crime fiction. Realism is always a series of stylistic conventions rather than actually realistic.

Dashiell Hammett's brilliant innovation was to realize that the only way you could make a story about the irrational people who actually commit crimes interesting was to write a story in which normal people end up interacting with them. In Hammett the normal person is usually the detective. Sam Spade was sleeping with his partner's wife and now his partner has been murdered. That is an interesting moral story. The three nuts pursuing the black bird would not be interesting  all by themselves. If you took characters such as Spade and the genuinely human moral tension out of them, most noir fiction would lose all its appeal.

Thus it is Ned Racine and his moral weaknesses that makes Body Heat interesting. But what about Matty Walker, the femme fatale. What is there for women in a character like this? And to ask that question honestly, we need to take seriously the possibility that the answer might be nothing at all. Obviously I am going to make the case that there is something.

An unreal person living a real life?
It seems to me that the first thing to note about Matty Walker is that the rough outline of her life is actually quite plausible. This is not a life that most people live but a depressing number of people do live lives not unlike it. Here it is in outline:
  • She is the most beautiful girl in her high school and dreams of "being rich and living in an exotic land".
  • Her unrealistic dreams lead her into bad choices including drugs.
  • A guy bails her out, no doubt for less than idealistic reasons.
  • Cleaned up and attractive again, she finds a better deal and trades up.
  • Initially happy to be married to this wealthy guy, she starts to chafe at the restrictions and to tire of having sex with this "small, mean and weak" man.
  • She finds another lover and soon begins plotting how to extract herself from this marriage taking the maximum amount of money with her.
  • This new guy soon finds that he too is being used.
All of that is believable enough. What is hard to believe is that the woman who would do all these things could be anywhere near as intelligent, interesting and alive as Matty Walker as played by Kathleen Turner. I don't mean just that she looks better the way even bellboys in movies tend to look a lot better than they do in real life. I mean that she is far too human a person to have that biography. People who slide in and out of drugs and then commit murder are hollow vessels.

If you crave realism, this will disappoint you.

de-Baroquing the story
The key to making any sort of morale for real women out of a story like this is to smooth out the Baroque details and see the real life pattern that has been blown up into something fantastic. Make her,
  •  A girl who had exotic dreams whose real life didn't match those dreams and is now in a relationship that she entered into for reasons that may have once felt like love but now feel purely pragmatic. She has lost all attraction for the man she is with and now is repulsed by him during sex. 
  • She begins an affair with another man, swearing him to absolute secrecy, but slowly begins to wonder if there isn't some way to escape.
  • All the time this is going on, it isn't clear whether she is really in love with this new man or just using him.
If you haven't known someone who did just that, then you haven't been paying attention. Most of us, if we are honest, will admit that, even if we haven't done quite that, we would be capable of falling into such a pattern if we just let things slide.

One of the really great things about a movie such as Body Heat is that it rewards repeated watchings. The first time, you can watch his story. The second time, you can watch hers. The merit is not the realism. This is fiction and never pretends to be anything but fiction. But it is fiction in which we can exercise our moral imagination. We can put ourselves inside her just feel like what it would be like.

For example, the sex. Why does she do it? Does she enjoy it? I think yes, but does she enjoy it because it feels good or does she enjoy it for the feeling of erotic power it gives her? Because you can imagine that. You could—if the idea appeals to you—fantasize about it. But what conditions would it take for you to actually enjoy doing something like that?

The answer to these questions are nobody's business but yours of course.

By the way, one of the fascinating things about fiction that doesn't pretend to be anything but fiction is the craft involved. Fans of Jane Austen will appreciate the way the story arc here is structured. The murder takes place in exactly the middle of the movie. There is a perfect story arc just like in an Austen novel. If we started drawing up a list of similarities with an Austen novel, we would find quite a few.

Part 3 is here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Burying the lead ...

This is from a Toronto Star story about the Sun Media newspapers withdrawing from the Ontario Press Council, a media supported ethics watchdog. Read the first paragraphs and see what sort of feel they give you for the story.
TORONTO—Sun Media has pulled its newspapers out of the Ontario Press Council, complaining about the “politically correct mentality” of the province’s print-media watchdog.

Glenn Garnett, Sun Media’s vice-president of editorial, sent a letter to the council earlier this week saying that the company’s newspapers were withdrawing their membership, effective immediately.

“The editorial direction of our newspapers, especially our urban tabloids, is incompatible with a politically correct mentality that informs OPC thinking, in the selection of cases it hears, and the rulings it renders,” Garnett wrote.

The Ontario Press Council investigates complaints about some of the largest newspapers in Canada, including the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.
Got a feeling? Now read the fifth paragraph:
The press council has for years overseen 37 dailies, including 27 Sun Media newspapers such as the Toronto Sun, the Kingston Whig-Standard and the London Free Press.
Doesn't that kinda raise a pretty obvious question that any good journalist would raise immediately? It takes the Star all the way to the twelfth paragraph even to acknowledge the issue:

It’s too early to tell what impact the pullout will have on the press council’s finances, he added.

“We’ve been through a pretty vigorous cost control and cost reduction process for the past year and we’ll have to evaluate what the situation is once we get everything, all the numbers put together,” he said.
Do you what, I don't believe him. When 72 percent of your paying customers stop buying from you, the results will be devastating.  That may not be 72 percent of revenue because we don't know how the Council charges it members. And we don't know that because the Toronto Star is a crappy newspaper that let its bias distract it from the story. But it is very hard to see how the council can face this without major cutbacks ans serious layoffs.

And, come on guys, any time you are reporting on your business rival you need to be five times as careful as you normally would be about this sort of thing. The headline here should have been, Future of Press Council in question after Sun Media pull out.

The question is not what effect will it have but can the Press Council even survive.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Neo noir: Body Heat Pt1
For my money, this is the first real neo noir film. Yes, there were films such as Chinatown but they were too busy being homages to something. This is the first neo noir where the people making it were willing to get a little Gothic about it. They got right inside the conventions and had fun with them. I'll say more about why I think it works so well tomorrow.

(General note: This movie also comes with a heavy does dose* of eroticism. If you really don't like that sort of thing, you really won't like this movie. Your loss.)

* I hate auto-correct.

The manliness lesson
Ned Racine is a familiar type. Here he is:

And here is his car:

This is a guy we all dream of being and all feel some shame at the thought that we might become him. He was an undistinguished student who became an undistinguished lawyer. He just floats through life vaguely hoping that some big break will just land in his lap.

Ned's friend Lowenstein sums him up nicely when Ned asks why a judge he and Lowenstein have just argued a case before dislikes him.
He's an unhappy man, Thinks he should be Circuit Court by now. Here he is in a state with really top-notch corruption and he's stuck with the county toilets.

I'm surprised you weren't in on that toilet caper. Could have been that quick score you've always been searching for.
Except he doesn't really want the big score because he doesn't do anything to get it; he simple feels he deserves it. And this attitude prevails in his approach to women. When he first meets with Matty he has this conversation.
Ned: Me? I need tending. I need someone to take care of me. Rub my tired muscles. Smooth out my sheets.

Matty: Get married.

Ned: I just need it for tonight.
And here is where Body Heat does something that is really profound and perverse at the same time. Matty is the woman who inspires Ned to marry. And she inspires him to give up on feeling entitled and to work to really earn that big break he has always wanted. She also inspires him to be discreet about his love life and to really respect a woman for the first time in his life. And, in doing so, she lures him straight into an unholy travesty of everything that love and life are supposed to be.

In this movie it is Ned's willingness to overcome what he sees as weakness in himself that brings disaster on him.

I don't want to say more because I don't want to spoil what is a a perfect little movie. And I do mean perfect in the same way that The Third Man is perfect. Someone, I can't remember who, once said that that The Third Man is perfect because it doesn't aim too high. That is true here too. But such perfection.

One teaser for those who haven't seen it, there is a magnificent scene where the murder victim inadvertently inspires his murderer into killing him.

The aesthetics of manliness
The movie comes with the same heavy dose of nostalgia for the recent technological past I noted in Palmetto. Note the car above. That is the Corvette Sting Ray from the mid 1960s and not the 1970s model (simply called the "Corvette" because "Sting Ray" was no longer cool) that was apparently designed to resemble a penis. That earlier (non penis-like) Sting Ray used in the film is something only a man, and probably only a certain kind of man, would get but those of us who do get it instantly. The Sting Rays weren't painted but had a gel coat on the fiberglass body that faded in the sun just the way this one has. That is a dream car not a museum piece.

(Lawrence Kasdan brings this motif back in The Big Chill where William Hurt's character shows up in a bondo-grey coloured Porsche. As Ned might say, "It was just, perfect".)

The thing about all this technology is that it was all still around when this movie was made in 1981. None of it was collectable yet but there was a nostalgie de la boue that attached to this stuff for men.

Some of it was quite simple. If you went to a rundown movie theatre in 1981, you would have quite likely seen this popcorn machine.

That is perhaps confusing for some now because if you go to the very newest movie theatres, you will quite likely see a machine that is modeled on that one. In 1981, however, this machine was a sign of a world fast disappearing.

And if you go to a hip lunch place where all the trendy types go to today, it just might look like this.

But in 1981, this sort of place was rapidly disappearing. To find one, you had to go the parts of town trendy people wouldn't get caught dead in.

Again, some hip young executive would probably spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to recreate this office today. In 1981, you'd find an office like this upstairs from a hardware store downtown where no one wanted to have their business located.

People forget how utterly horrible the 1970s were. Here is a simple background shot from the movie and nothing in it was meant to have special significance.

But note that car. That ugly red piece of crap was what the Ford Mustang had become by 1980. And ugly is as ugly does, no matter how appalling it may look, that is nothing compared to driving one of them. No wonder men rebelled. And movies like this embodied that feeling of rebellion.

Part 2.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Flower children

From a New York Times obituary for lead singer Rob Grill (H/T Ann Althouse) we learn that a couple of songwriters wrote a song and then recorded a demo and they gave a the dummy name "The Grassroots" to the band. When the song became a hit, they needed to find a band to be "The Grassroots". So the Grassroots were astroturf.

Or, to put it another way, they were the Monkees. Lots of bands were. There were so many Monkee-like bands in the late 1960s there is a point where you begin to suspect bands like the Grassroots were more significant culturally than anyone wants to admit. And they were.

You want social significance, there is a whole lot of it in this video. Start with Jimmy Durante introducing it. He's wearing a suit and fedora! The contrast with the band is amazing.

Why do I suspect these guys are so much more important than any serious critic would be willing to allow? Well, lots of reasons but starting with this line from their Wikipedia write up:
Between 1967 and 1972, The Grass Roots set a record for being on the Billboard charts for 307 straight weeks. They have sold over twenty million records worldwide.
The thing you need to know here is that Billboard charts are based on radio airplay not record sales. And that is important because most girls didn't buy records they liked between 1960 and 1980, they just listened to the radio.  And that was all you needed to do in the 1960s and 1970s because the really popular songs got played often enough that you didn't need to own them.

Where all this is going is that The Grassroots were one of those groups that girls liked and girls are the ones who drive popular music. Both girls and the music they like get short shrift from the mostly men who write about pop music in a serious fashion. But, consider this: 1967 to 1972 was the period when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were producing the music that gets written about but the group that set the Billboard record for being on the chart for 307 straight weeks was The Grassroots. 307 weeks is almost six years, that's to say they were on the charts constantly from 1967 to 1972. If you want to know what young girls of the time were really influenced by—who had the most profound cultural impact on the young adults of the 1980s that these girls grew up to be—you'd study The Grassroots a lot more and the Beatles and Rolling Stones a lot less.

Again, note the contrast between Jimmy Durante and lead singer Rob Grill above. You can see a real shift in ideals of masculinity. Jimmy Durante didn't tweeze and he drank whiskey.

Rob Grill on the other hand could be Rob Girll. His voice is sweet and supple. Even with sideburns he looks feminine.

He didn't write this song but catch this lyric:
Baby, I need to feel you inside of me
I got to feel you deep inside of me
Baby please come close to me
I got to have you now, please, please, please
That is not a man talking. It might be a man imagining what he wants to hear a woman say to him and that is probably how it started out in the lyricist's mind but as a pop song listened to by millions of virgin girls it became something else.

These were the flower children. They were too young to be part of the 1960s and 1970s. They heard pop music on the radio and imagined what they would become. They heard lyrics they only dimly understood and they'd project all sorts of fantasies onto them. The fantasies were dark and mysterious but they fit into ordinary lives, like most fantasies do

Oh yeah, before letting this go, Rob Grill with the sweet supple voice spent most of his life in pain because of a degenerative bone disease.