Monthly Archives: June 2010

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Nicholas Carr - The Shallows

So now that the internet culture is a few years old, and the first waves of euphoria and panic have passed, the calmer, more interesting ideas begin to emerge.  The shape of this new world, hastily thrown together by IT geeks with little more forethought than “I wonder what happens if we connect this to this”, is becoming clearer.  We can see some sort of outline.

I’ve been awaiting Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows.  Not because I think he’s necessarily right to believe that the perpetual distraction machine that is the internet harms the brain’s ability to do deep reading and deep thinking, but because he’s asking the most important question of 2010: Is the internet literally rewiring our brains?  And is that a good thing?  His answer, (“yes”, and “not entirely”), will one day seem either quaint or prescient, but I think everyone will agree that, yes, this was the right question to ask at this point in time.

To react with derisive laughter is to be stuck in the mid-00’s social media hype.  It’s fair to laugh at the luddites, but more and more we’re all of the internet now, and there’s no “them” for “us” to protect our shiny new world from. We’re all us.

Agreeing fully with Carr, on the other hand, is premature. What can we reliably know about the long-term effects of something so new?

The correct answer to his question is: “I honestly don’t know. Let me observe myself for a while, and see.” So – let’s!

40’s movies marathon – part 111

The Red Shoes (1948, UK, Powell & Pressburger)

You never know what you’re going to get with Powell and Pressburger, only that it will be unforgettable.  I’m almost afraid to start viewing one of their movies. It’s like standing on the doorstep of a dream world that is going to suck you in from the first step you take, and then it’s all out of your control.  The images don’t go away, ever.  Watched it all.

Million Dollar Weekend (1948, USA, Raymond)

I don’t know why, but one of the surest signs that I’m about to watch a bad movie is that it opens with uninspired shots of tall city buildings.  Next scene is typically some guy behind a big office desk.  Watched: 5 minutes.

The Man from Colorado (1948, USA, Levin)

With the Civil War over, Glenn Ford hopes the killing is over too, but it has gone into his blood, turned him rotten, a murderer.  As the new judge of anytown, Colorado, his justice is a cold justice, without pity.  Watched it all.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948, USA, Foster)

Burt Lancaster kills a guy, then starts stalking some random woman.  Creepy!  But, these two being the stars of the movie, he’s not really a bad guy, and she kind of likes it.  Watched: 19 minutes.

40’s movies marathon – part 110

Macbeth (1948, USA, Welles)

Orson Welles is cursed twice, first to become the king of Scotland, a foggy scattering of rocks where even the nobles live in caves, and then to die for his troubles.  Fate is a bitch.  Watched it all.  Makes me wish that Welles made lots of cheesy B-movies.  Macbeth feels just like one, only .. better.  Much better.  The way you always wish a cheesy B-movie will be, but almost never is.

Up in Central Park (1948, USA, Seiter)

There’s no democracy in New York because that bastard Vincent Price controls everything.  Send in the singing immigrants and the idealistic reporters!  Watched: 9 minutes.

Raw Deal (1948, USA, Mann)

Claire Trevor busts her boyfriend out of prison, and they head out on the road in a stolen car, with the cops and the gangsters and the shootouts.  Watched it all.  Anthony Mann is the meanest of the noir directors.  No glamour, just dangerous people hurting each other.  He’s also a kind of feminist.  His women are interesting characters in their own right, unpredictable, real.  The movies hinge on their decisions.

Apartment for Peggy (1948, USA, Seaton)

The kind old man wants to kill himself, because it seems like the sensible thing to do, what with the housing crisis and everything.  Watched: 10 minutes.

Moonrise (1948) - Dane Clark

Moonrise (1948, USA, Borzage)

Dane Clark was picked on because his dad was a murderer, so he becomes one too.  He should have checked to see if his conscience (and the Hays Code) was okay with it first.  Watched it all.

40’s movies marathon – part 109

Secret Beyond the Door (1948, USA, Lang)

Joan Bennett finally finds a nice guy to marry, but realizes that Something Is Wrong.  Watched it all.  Further proof that psychoanalytical bullshit can be a good plot device.  Favorite scene: The tour of the husband’s collection of historical murder rooms, above, (which, yes, is one of the signs that Something Is Wrong).

Blood on the Moon (1948, USA, Wise)

The scene where Robert Mitchum and Barbare Bel Geddes flirt by playfully shooting each other’s hats off etc. is maybe the stupidest scene in all of western history.  I mean, these are not very accurate guns.  And they don’t seem to be aiming them very carefully either.  Watched: 12 minutes.

Hollow Triumph (1948) - Paul Henreid

Hollow Triumph (1948, USA, Sekely)

Tip: When you’re hiding from the gangsters you robbed for a fortune, don’t just kill your twin brother who has a scar and take his place.  That’s stupid.  Trick the gangsters into killing him, then take his place.  Just saying.  Watched it all.  On the other hand: Faking the scar of your murdered twin, and realizing that nobody notices that it’s on the wrong side of your face?  Pretty brilliant.

The Iron Curtain (1948, USA, Wellman)

Ooh, communist spies!  It’s about time.  Watched: 8 minutes.  I don’t want to downplay the anti-communist paranoia of this time, which reached ridiculous heights, but the Soviet spies really did arrive years before the fear of them.  While they were learning how to build nuclear bombs, Hollywood was portraying Stalin as the benevolent grandfather of Russia.

Die Anti-Wanderpanzer Truppen

Scott Westerfeld - Leviathan (2009)

Steampunk is based on the belief that if you take any story, and add futuristic Victorian machinery and yellow-brownish colors to it, it becomes twice as awesome. This belief is correct. Michael Moorcock, one of my favorite authors, is miffed at steampunk because he contributed to its invention, and he didn’t intend it to be awesome. He intended it to be used to satirize British imperialism. And now everybody’s embracing steampunk chic, just because it looks good.   Philistines.

I guess he has a point. But it’s a boring point, which I choose to ignore.  Otherwise, you couldn’t, say, retell World War I as a war between the bioengineering Allies, whose Darwinist teachings enable them to design living war beasts, and the Central powers, who rely on walking fortresses and other mechanical contraptions.

Which is what Scott Westerfeld does in Leviathan, and the result is absolutely delightful. Leviathan is a light adventure where the son of the murdered Archduke of Austria-Hungary escapes the clutches of the warmongering Kaiser in an AT-AT, and an enterprising Scottish girl pretends to be a boy so she can join the crew of a flying whale.

A flying whale!  With its own ecosystem!  And a tentacle monster called the Huxley!

This is about as good as that sort of thing gets.  Also, further proof of how much good writing is being done for the YA market.

Oh, and read Westerfeld’s post on how Walt Disney was a steampunk pioneer.  I swear, steampunk Mickey is my new desktop wallpaper, replacing this.

40’s movies marathon – part 108

Louisiana Story (1948, USA, Flaherty)

I love those jawdropping moments in this marathon when I realize that I’m watching something unlike anything I’ve seen that came before it.  This is one of those moments, an almost dialogueless movie about a boy who lives in the swamp.  Watched it all.  Louisiana Story apparently has a reputation just slightly better than Triumph of the Will, because it was financed by Standard Oil and shows oil exploration as being not entirely evil and actually kind of exciting.  Which makes you wonder what kind of alternative energy source some people think we should have been using for the last 60 years.

Ladies of the Chorus (1948, USA, Karlson)

Another nice thing about a chronological movie marathon is that it becomes more apparent what the new stars have, that the old stars didn’t.  I’m not sure how to describe what it is Marilyn Monroe has here, especially when the movie itself is so bad, but it’s certainly something.  Watched: 18 minutes.

Kampen om tungtvannet - Operation Swallow (1948)

Operation Swallow / Kampen om tungtvannet (1948, Norway, Dréville)

In this alternate history SF, a team of Norwegian saboteurs, who live on moss and reindeer blood, prevent the invention of a terrifying Nazi superweapon.  Wait .. this really happened?!  Huh.  Watched it all.  Apart from the sabotage scenes this is mostly a crappy movie, from the tell-not-show school of filmmaking, but see it as a reenactment, featuring many of the actual saboteurs.

The Kissing Bandit (1948, USA, Benedek)

Frank Sinatra returns to Spanish California to become an innkeeper, or maybe even a bandit, why not?  Watched: 11 minutes.

A way to navigate the strange waters of life

Sheena Iyengar - The Art of Choosing

The freedom to choose makes us happy, except when it doesn’t.  Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing traces the border between the choices we like, and the choices we don’t like.  What determines how happy a choice makes us feel?

Culture is a factor. Culture doesn’t just affect, for instance, how much power a parent expects to have over their children’s marriage, it affects how the children feel about it too.  Choice you’re not culturally primed for can make you uncomfortable.  The idea that everyone should be the ultimate authority over their own lives is morally better, but it’s not inborn: it’s learned.

Even in cultures that value choice highly, there are some choices we might not want to make, such as life and death decisions. And sometimes the amount of choice becomes overwhelming.  Choosing between hundreds of different variants of a product, such as a computer, is only fun when you feel qualified to tell the difference.

But this too is learned behavior: Anyone can learn to deal with difficult choices.  We can choose smart ways to choose.  But any amount of choice doesn’t automatically make anyone happier.

My favorite text on choice is the discourses of Epictetus, from around 100 AD.  He argued that choice made people unhappy when they attached too much importance to the uncontrollable consequences of their choices.  Basically, if something is not up to you, don’t worry about it.  Iyengar deals with many of the same questions, but takes a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach.

40’s movies marathon – part 107

The Boy With Green Hair (1948, USA, Losey) – When Dean Stockwell’s parents die in the war, his hair turns green over night.  In a vision he learns that he has been marked, set apart from other people.  He must go out in the world and spread the word of pacifism, to prevent the world from ending in a nuclear apocalypse.  Watched it all.  Yes this is actually what happens in this movie.  Amazing.

Without Pity (1948, Italy, Lattuada) – A young woman finds herself alone in Levorno with a bunch of shady characters and really badly played American soldiers.  Another movie I might possibly enjoy if I didn’t know English. Watched: 23 minutes.

Daughter of Darkness (1948) - Siobhan McKenna

Daughter of Darkness (1948, UK, Comfort) – If we can accept Buffy the Vampire Slayer as historical fact, (and why not?), then Drusilla clearly made a visit to Britain in 1948 under the name “Siobhan McKenna”, to play the servant girl who is hated by other women because her strange, otherwordly beauty brings out the beast in every man she meets.  Watched it all.

Fighting Father Dunne (1948, USA, Tetzlaff) – With all these movies to get through, I have to make quick decisions based on first impressions.  For instance, any movie where the main character is a priest, and which opens with uplifting music?  Next!  Watched: 3 minutes.

The fall of the (yup, evil) Soviet Empire (in 256 words)

Victor Sebestyen - Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire

European communism was already bankrupt when the 1980’s began.  It was morally bankrupt, because everyone knew that something was horribly wrong, that even in “actually existing socialism” there wasn’t supposed to be all this corruption and poverty and lying.  And it was financially bankrupt, because the Soviet satellite states were dependent on subsidies from Moscow and loans from Western banks.

Their leaders were fools, and Gorbachev was the greatest fool of them all: He thought he could make communism work. That, if given a choice, the people would choose a more honest, idealistic form of communism.  He gave them that choice, and they made the wrong choice.

There was nothing new about the unrest that led to the final collapse.  Eastern Europeans had tried to get rid of the communists from the very beginning.  1953. 1956. 1968. What was new was that Gorbachev made a conscious decision not to interfere. Without outside force, the communists were too weak to survive.

I don’t believe the fall of European communism was inevitable.  Communism didn’t work and it couldn’t work, in either the totalitarian or the “human face” variant, but it doesn’t work in North Korea either, and Kim Jong-Il is still in power.  The Party had all the guns.  They could have easily massacred the first protesters, as China did.

Perhaps they didn’t want to abandon the last remains of the illusion that they were the people’s vanguard, given power and legitimacy through people’s revolutions. But the only people’s revolutions in Eastern Europe were the ones that finally kicked them out.