Tuesday, July 15, 2003
Chronic Murmuring is moving to Chattablogs
, thanks to the kindness of Josiah. Please make changes to your URLs, if my blog is listed among your list of links, as I will eventually delete this page. The new domain is: http://chattablogs.com/scott.
Monday, July 14, 2003
What Makes me Excited about Capitalism is...
(before I say, have you noticed my inconsistent capitalization in the titles? I don't ever remember the rules of grammar anymore. Which of the words in a title do you capitalize, and which do you not?)
space travel. Space travel makes me enthusiastic about capitalism. It makes so much sense - privatize space travel, and we'll start making the gains in space exploration that all of us dream about. Leave it to the government, and it'll stall, and the best we'll have is that giant turkey in the sky, the International Space Station
. Foreign Policy has a great article (I just linked to it there) on how rich, thrill-seekers hold the key to expanding space exploration. The last couple of years show the legitimacy of this. Hollywood directors, gameshow creators, and boybands everywhere are lining up to pop down $20 million to go into outer space. It's just a matter of unraveling the gordian knot of beaurecratic regulation and letting entrepeneurs provide services to get them there.
Marxism Infiltrates Film Theory
Arts and Letters pointed to an interesting article at the Los Angeles Times (registration is free
, but required to read the article) about how marxist critical theory has infiltrated film theory at leading film schools
. Reading this reminded me of my experience as an undergraduate majoring in English at the University of Tennessee. Towards the end, I was dying to get away from the theory, and ended up spending the last two years taking classes in creative writing and poetry, mainly because the least ideological professors taught those subjects. My knee-jerk allegiance to anarchy and libertarian political thought is honestly entirely due to that experience. I hated that crap so much. It was all just blather and indoctrination, from day one. Now it's going into film studies, apparently. Roger Ebert pointedly says that "film theory has nothing to do with film." The same goes for literary theory, honestly. Literary theory has nothing to do with literature. Literary theory is merely one of the current hosts for parasitic marxist theory which has, since the fall of the Soviet Union, gone into hiding and moves around in academia, looking for tenured faculty and departments to infect.
The article discusses briefly the similar effect that - for lack of a better term - New Left theories had on English departments. The frustration expressed in the article more or less mirrors the kind of frustration I had as an English major. I often feel like I got jipped by that education, and that's probably why I was so entranced by New St. Andrews College for a while there. While I was reading epistolary novels by Hispanic Lesbians, the kids at New St. Andrews were reading Dante, Flannery O'Connor, and T.S. Eliot. It just seemed like dreamy from my perspective.
I did finally try to write this Christian defense of authorial intent for one independant study on 20th century literary theory. E.D. Hirsch struck me as being the most Christian option available among all the people I'd read. Mainly, because he emphasized that "meaning" was bound up in what the author intended at the time. While new insights could be gathered from reading the text in light of changes in language and culture and history, one should always strive to study the text in light of the time in which the text was written, and specifically attempt to draw out what the author intended at the time of writing. This, I felt like, was nearly identical to the common sense approach to studying Scripture that I had. When I finished that independant study, I was so turned off by literary theory - and any class that used the books we read as merely one avenue of indoctrinating the students with a Marxist worldview - that I switched over to poetry.
Anyway, here's a couple of quotations from the article. Read the entire article, though, if you are interested in these kinds of things.
"Hershel Parker, respected author of a two-volume biography of writer Herman Melville, says the transformation of film studies mirrored that in many college English departments. "There's no room for anyone in English departments who wants to talk about author intention," says Parker, who goes into Old Testament rage at the mention of the subject. When the New Left theories invaded American English departments, Parker believes it all but wiped out serious scholarship. "I was a freak for wanting to go into the library manuscript collections."
Since authors no longer matter, Parker says, many researchers believe they no longer need to go back and read the author's correspondence and working manuscripts, or study the events that shaped his or her sensibility. "It's naïve New Criticism, where all you do is submit yourself to the text," says Parker. "These people have no clue about going to do research. They don't know you can find out about a person's life or work. They have not, and their teachers have not done real research."
American History X
I saw one of my favorite movies last night for the first time in a long time. American History X
, starring Ed Norton and Eddie Furlong, and co-starring Beverly D'Angelo and Elliot Gould, is a powerful exploration of the psycho-social dynamics surrounding ideological membership. In this case, Ed Norton plays a brilliant, articulate, neo-nazi skinhead. This movie is painful to watch at times, and contains one sexually explicit scene, as well as several extremely violent scenes - including one rape scene. So I recommend it with some caveats that "viewing discretion is advised." Still, I think it is one of the more powerful films I've seen, and from the Christian perspective, it illustrates the impotency of argumentation in the face of a committed ideologue. In the end, what succeeds in bringing Norton's character out of the neo-nazi paradigm is experiencing the love and friendship of two black characters - one a longtime mentor and former teacher, the other a savior-of-sorts who befriends him when he needs it while serving time for manslaughter in Chino - as well as experiencing the contradictions of the ideology itself when several of his colleagues betray him, and the ideology they claim to serve so faithfully.
The script is a very brave one, and Norton does not shirk away from some of the more difficult scenes in which he must give a convincing intellectual and emotional defense of fascism. This is actually one of the more powerful elements of the movie - it does not present a straw man of fascism, but rather, attempts to muster as much of a defense for the ideology with the beautiful Norton as its spokesman. I urge discerning Christians to watch it.
Walter Block's Libertarian Autobiographies
Walter Block, an anarco-capitalist/Austrian economist at Loyola college in New Orleans, has been requesting and collecting essays by various prominent libertarians on the influence of Austrian economics, Murray Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises, in their intellectual development. The entire list can be seen here
. His most recent addition is University of Chicago legal scholar, Richard Epstein.
"Amputee Wannabes" are people who seek to have healthy limbs amputated for reasons inexplicable. A new documentary entitled Whole
is about this strange group of body modifiers. An article on this phenomenon appeared in Slate this morning
Friday, July 11, 2003
I finally received my copy of Milgron and Roberts' Economics, Organization and Management
from inter-library loan. Jim Rogers recommended this one, and my library had unfortunately lost its only copy. But thankfully, Dalton State College
was kind of enough to lend me their copy. Thanks DSC!
I also am reading Adrian Slywotzky's new book, How to Grow When Markets Don't
. I wouldn't say I'm a "big fan" of Slywotzky, as that might give the impression that I read all sorts of different business books, which I don't. I've only read two, and one of them was by Slywotzky. But I really liked it. It was titled Value Migration: How to think Several Moves ahead of the Competition
. (The other one was similar and titled Managing Customer Value
by Bradley Gale). I liked the book enough a lot at the time, but it was all academic for me, as I'll never be a manager of a company. That's not the direction that I'm interesting in going. Still, it's got a lot of intuitive appeal for the neophyte economist.
HOPE and cars
It's something of a joke in Athens that parents bribed their kids with new SUVs and BMWs if they would not go to college out-of-state, but rather, go in-state for free as a HOPE merit scholar. Georgia has a merit based scholarship that awards each student with a 3.0 high school GPA free tuition if they'll go to a school in-state. This is limited to all state schools, but includes schools like Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia. As a result, many students who would've gone out-of-state remain in-state, and the intuition of some economists here (based in no large part on the ample anecdotes told by freshmen) is that one would expect to see a rise in many amenities, like automobiles, as parents attempt to essentially bribe their children to take advantage of the HOPE scholarship with a shiny new Ford Explorer or BMW.
Two of my professors have been on an extended research agenda into the effects of merit-based scholarships - Prof. Chris Cornwell and Prof. David Mustard. Today, I kind of got a nice little piece of luck by being offered some money to collect some data on automobile registration over the past ten years in order to provide some better empirical data for this paper, entitled "Merit-Based College Scholarships and Car Sales"
. It's a funny story - the intuition is, once again, kind of simple. Parents had been planning to pay for college educations up until the point of HOPE's existence. Once HOPE is invented, it is obviously in everyone's best interests - except for possibly the child - for the child to go in-state for free, rather than out-of-state and pay a hefty, annual tuition. If the child stays in-state, that frees up considerable resources for the parents, who can buy their child a new car as an incentive to go in-state, and still save money on college education. This paper
attempts to quantify that effect.
So, I'm going to spend the next few weeks trying to get car registration data and ad valorum
tax information on automobiles going back to the early 1990s. This will be the first time I've ever actually collected data, and while I'm told it's nothing too sexy, I am nonetheless a bit thrilled to see how this is done. This brings me one step closer to learning how do original empirical research myself, which is something I am eagerly anticipating.
The only thing that worries me about Paul Thomas Anderson - and this is just a function of my ignorance - is that his movies don't appear to turn a profit. Magnolia
cost $45 million to make, but only made $22 million. I'm guessing Punch Drunk Love
did not fare much better, since it too only made $17 million at the box office (I cannot find its production and marketing budget). I hope that does not mean he will have difficulty making movies in the future. Scorsese also does not always turn a profit, yet he consistently makes excellent movies. But I did read that getting the green light for his movies is not always easy. He had been trying to get The Gangs of New York
made for many years before Miramax took it on. And incidentally, it too did not make a profit. It cost $100 million to make and $35 million to market, but only turned $75 million (as of June 1st). That's a fairly big failure, in business terms, and I can't imagine that Miramax is too happy about it. I would be interested in hearing filmmakers like these who make important movies but who do not always make profitable movies talk about these unique kinds of challenges. It must be frustrating to know that Spielberg and James Cameron can turn tin into gold, profit-wise, and yet their work is not always nearly as powerful or as important. But, I suppose this is the problem all artists face in all eras and in all mediums.
Another review of Magnolia
Gideon dropped by and told me to read another review of Magnolia
. I urge everyone to read it. Here is one quote from the review, which is itself a quote from somewhere else:
"Unlike most filmmakers of his generation, Anderson is not only technically astute (“I’m still young and I have to show off”), but he seems to have a larger, moral imperative in his films. They are not preachy, but it’s clear that Anderson was raised Catholic, that he believes in atonement and redemption. “When did you last go to confession?” I asked him. Anderson paused. “It’s about three hours long,” he said. “Haven’t you seen it?”
A Christian Interpretation of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films
One day, I would like to sit down with Paul Thomas Anderson and ask him why he is so interested in the theme of redemption and judgment. In the first three of his feature films, all of his characters either are seeking absolution for a sin in their past (such as in Hard Eight), are on a downward spiral into destruction only to be saved by random events (such as in Boogie Nights), or are the object of rescue by large-scale act of judgement (as in Magnolia). These themes are quite stark and apparent to any thoughtful viewer, and originally, I assumed that he must be consciously channeling some kind of Christian view of salvation in his movies. But, I believe that he is not channeling any kind of view of salvation, let alone a Christian one. Rather, these themes of redemption are the natural outflow of a filmmaker who tends to treat his characters with respect and fill them with dignity, and in the end, who falls in love with them.
In Hard Eight, Anderson’s first feature film, the movie follows a similar arc as to his later creations, Boogie Nights and Magnolia – though both Boogie Nights and Magnolia address these themes on much grander, more epic scales. Sydney, played by Philip Baker Hall, has murdered John’s (played by John C. Reilly) father many years before. When he finds John down on his luck, Sydney decides to make up for this sin by adopting him - so to speak - and teaching him the ways of conning casinos and gambling. It all works well until Jimmy (played by Samuel Jackson) discovers his dark secret and blackmails him by threatening to tell Reilly. Rather than let that happen, Sydney murders Jackson, and the movie ends with a stunning scene of Sydney in a diner with blood on the cuff of his starched, white shirt. Seeing the stain, Sydney pulls the sleeve of his suit over the blood, in a symbolic effort to cover what he has done. To cover, in a sense, all of his life’s sins. In this debut, the themes that will later become more imaginative and more haunting in later attempts is laid out in its kernel form as Anderson explores the actions taken by people who find themselves imprisoned to sin and to the past.
Boogie Nights is a stunning achievement for such a young filmmaker. It is nearly three hours long, and gives a detailed, psychosocial insider’s perspective into the world of film pornography, between the years of 1977 and 1984. It is worth noting that this span of time marks the advent of video technology, and thus a significant altering of the way that pornography is produced and distributed as well as consumed. When made on film, pornography still enjoyed a certain amount of legitimacy. Sets were expensive to maintain. Interview with 1970s pornstars reveal that many believed the popularity of Deep Throat would mark a new age in pornography where porn stars would rival film celebrities in their popularity. The advent of the new video technology meant lower barriers to entry for competing pornography entrepreneurs. Cast and crew costs decreased significantly, as did the costs of editing and filming. Likewise, new distribution channels emerged, and pornographic films could be shipped directly to consumer’s homes, rather than to public film houses. The introduction of the VCR and video marked a significant change in how pornography was produced, distributed and conceived of by insiders. This is the historical backdrop for what takes place in the film.
In the director’s commentary for Boogie Nights, Anderson talks extensively about a “need” he had when writing the film to punish each of his characters. He wanted to drive them all to the absolute rock bottom of their lives. He does not give any explanation for this, and seems himself somewhat confused about that motivation. Dirk ends up prostituting himself to strangers again and trapped in a nightmarish drug-deal gone badly. Jack Horner's dreams of making "real film" are dashed when the Colonel is arrested for raping and sexually assaulting children, as well as the advent of video technology. Roller girl is "disrespected" by a former schoolmate of hers in a strange, sexual encounter in a limousine. Little Bill kills his wife and her lover before turning the gun on himself at New Year's Eve party. Amber Waves loses all of her parental and custodial rights in one final encounter with her ex-husband and a judge. There are other such tragic stories in this film.
Yet, in the end, Anderson cannot leave it at this and decides to write the ending in such a way so as to literally "save" each of his creations. Dirk and Jack are reunited in a scene strangely reminiscent of the prodigal son parable - with the boy who had squandered his inheritance back at his father's house, begging for mercy, and being embraced immediately by the father as though all was forgiven. He is, in turn, reunited with his surrogate mother, pornstar Amber Waves, and is shown crying with his head in her lap while she brushes his hair with her hand. It is all extremely sad and haunting. Buck's inability to get a loan from the bank for his "hi-fi stereo world" business concept, because of his involvement with pornography, is solved by a fortuitous, frightening event involving a failed robbery at a donut store. When the robber, a customer and the clerk are all shot by one another, Buck - covered in the clerk's blood - sees the bag of money laying by the robber's feet, and seeing his opportunity, takes the money and leaves. We later see him in his own commercial for the stereo store. Amber Waves is behind the camera for this commercial, showing that she, too, has a future beyond merely becoming an aging, decrepit, porn star. Her future is in film, like Jack Horner.
Both movies show Anderson’s belief that his characters do not possess the ability to truly escape their pasts or to save themselves in any meaningful way, but it is Magnolia that hits this idea with greater power. Magnolia, in comparison to his previous ventures, reads almost like a Christian morality play. All of the characters are either hiding from sins they themselves have committed, or from the effects of sins of which they were the object in their past. Each of the characters are imprisoned, psychologically speaking, to their pasts. They cannot be free, despite their yearnings otherwise. And to show that this is not merely another attempt to read redemption into art, Anderson makes this fact all the more explicit by continually showing us the numbers "8:2" and references to "Exodus 8:2" throughout the film. For instance, one man holds up a placard during the filming of the game show on which is written "Exodus 8:2." Elsewhere, the numbers 8:2 appear - quite often, in fact. Exodus 8:2 reads: "If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs." This is a strange kind of apocalypse, yet the prophecy comes truth towards the end of the movie.
The movie ends literally with a hailstorm of frogs - millions of them - falling to earth, crashing through car windows and pummeling pedestrians who happen to be walking by at the time. Leading up to this point the movie, the characters had all followed a similar arc as the characters in Boogie Nights. Anderson traces out the downward flow of their lives leading up to their hitting rock bottom and absolute despair. Aimee Mann sings a song in the background with the refrain, "Give up." Give up. There is nothing any of us can do about the prisons we find ourselves in. The psychological prison from being sexually abused by one's father; the prison of being in unreciprocated love; the prison of realizing what a horrible father one had been to one's child; the prison of knowing that one had married a rich, dying man only for the money, and had been unfaithful the entire marriage. There is nothing any of his characters can do to save themselves. But then something happens - frogs fall from heaven with the warning from God hanging in our minds - "if you refuse to let my people go, I will plague your whole country with frogs." The movie ends with each character's life being set on a new path and experiencing some form of liberation, appropriate to the prison each had found themselves in.
What is going on with Anderson? Is he a believer doing as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both did, smuggling theology into his art? Listening to the commentary for Boogie Nights it's quite apparent the man is not a believer, nor even remotely religious. He's a foul-mouthed, brilliant filmmaker who grew up in the Valley and, I think, spent a lot of time dating porn stars as a teenager. The key to understanding why these themes are continually appearing his films has to do with how Anderson relates to his creation. He speaks repeatedly about falling in love with the actors in his movies and the characters they play. In fact, one gets the impression that he loves the characters more than the movie itself, as he repeatedly speaks about the difficulty he has in taking out scenes which he knows do not further the movie, because of his fidelity to the characters in the scenes. He seems to genuinely appreciate and love each of his creations as though they were real – even in spite of their very many moral failings.
The re-enactment of biblical themes of judgment and redemption in Anderson’s films are, in my opinion, a function of his authentic, passionate love for the characters in his films. He is quite harsh on Dirk Digler's character at the end of the movie, saying nasty things about him, but if you listen to the entire commentary, it's apparent he is deeply fond of him as a character. That kind of sympathetic viewpoint is what marks all of his movies, in fact. He does not merely show his characters as archetypes of idealized good and evil. Rather, they are real people, and he wants us to see that. He wants us to see that Dirk is worth loving, even though he is such a shallow, naive, narcisstic porn star. His characters may be pathetic, but they are his characters, and he loves them. It is in his deeply personal love for his characters that Anderson finds himself compelled to write in explicit themes of redemption and judgment. He is not intending to write Christian allegory; rather, Christian allegory flows naturally because of how he sets himself in relation to his work. One must wonder if this does not mirror the thoughts of the Creator himself, who also loved the world so much that he sent someone to rescue us.
PBS documentary on Luther
This is the year of Luther. Along with a fall-scheduled feature film starring Joseph Fiennes, PBS also has a documentary on the great German Reformer.
(thanks to Poppa Chuck
for the link). There are several excerpts from the documentary that are very interesting. One of them includes an interview with Alistar McGrath.
Given that PBS is doing this, it should be no surprise that the documentary also fleshes out some of the secular ideals that flowed from Luther - such as liberation from the tyranny of the Catholic Church, the sovereignity of the individual, "belief in oneself" kind of thinking, the free exchange of ideas, etc. Likewise, many of the scholars interviewed take note that the seed of anti-semitism that would grow into fruition in Hitler and the Third Reich was nascent in the mind and writings of Luther. Though they are careful to note that he is not a racial
anti-semite, but rather a Christian
anti-semite, nonetheless they believe that given Luther's historical importance, he enabled the transmission of a strain of anti-semitism into subsequent generations. This is not a new accusation, obviously, and perhaps has some truth to it (I haven't studied it). But, on the whole, the documentary looks fascinating.
Thursday, July 10, 2003
Sweden's 1979 Ban on Spanking
In 1979, Sweden passed an act banning corporal punishment on children. Two articles on the history of this ban can be seen here
. Somewhere - I cannot remember where - I had read that while the actual incidents of corporal punishment had declined in Sweden since the 1979 ban, the rise in "yelling and screaming" at children had risen. In the first article linked, it states that some data shows the 1979 ban having no effect on "unusual forms of corporal punishment," such as threats of using knives or firearms on the child.
A lot of the data surrounding child abuse, in general, is unreliable, due to problems with under-reporting. For instance, there has been statistically an increase in the number of child abuse cases reported in Sweden over the last several decades, but this does not mean the ban has led to an increase in child abuse. Child abuse, like sexual assault, suffers from under-reporting, but in recent years, due to lobbying and educational campaigns, reporting has increased. So, an increase in the number of child abuse cases reported does not mean that there has been a real increase in child abuse in Sweden; only that more cases are being reported.
The actual language of the ban is as follows: The Foraldrabalken (Parental Code, Section 6.1) is as follows: "Children have a right to care, safety and a good upbringing. Children shall be treated with respect for their person and character and shall not be subjected to physical punishment or any other form of humiliating treatment.
This is the time when I hate having only one language that I can speak. It's difficult find documentation in English on this ban, and I can only imagine how much difficult it is to find reliable data, let alone reliable data in English.
Wednesday, July 09, 2003
2003 SSSR Meeting in Norfolk, Virginia
The Social Scientific Study of Religion's annual meeting
will be held in Norfolk, Virginia this year. The dates are October 23 - 26. The topic this year is "Religion in Motion." Any of the readers of this blog, by chance, planning on going? If so, please write me and tell me, as I will (hopefully) be in attendance as well.
I've got the ill communication
What a night. I think I probably went to bed around 6:00pm and woke up some time this morning at 7:30am. I feel horrible - the aches, the stuffy head, the runny nose, the headache, the tiredness. I say this every time I get sick, but I wish I didn't take my health for granted all the time. I can't believe how nice life is when everything's going along nicely, physically. A friend of mine at church has chronic migraines. She always has a migraine - the only variation is in its severity. I cannot imagine the difficulty of that.