Thursday, April 24, 2008

Insufficiently Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

So, it would appear that Jimmy Fallon has Conan O'Brien's old (current?) job when Conan moves to be Jay Leno's replacement in 2009. I suppose there is a conservation of low-wattage comedians law in effect over at NBC's Late Night division.

I'm waiting for Dick Cavett to weigh in on this on his blog, which is excellent, by the way. The logic here doesn't really make much sense to me. My guess was that J-Fal (you know his asshole buddies call him that) got this based largely on his tenure on Weekend Update, as opposed to his film career or his famous poker face. To be fair, Jon Stewart had a pretty terrible film career and he's doing alright in his current job. Then again, Jon Stewart is, well, funny. And professional. For all his virtues, Stewart really isn't much of an actor--I recall watching a NewsRadio episode in which he was a guest star and his performance there contained so much discomfort that it might have been better suited to playing a teenager losing his virginity. I did like his self-portrayal on The Larry Sanders Show, and that's about it. But--and here's the difference--Stewart can talk to people. The Daily Show isn't really a chat show, but the chat segments are usually solid, if light. Now, if Fallon were being considered for Stewart's job, I'd say that makes sense, although I always thought his version of Weekend Update was a bit overrated--to think that someone's fake news could actually make me miss Craig Kilborn!--but he was alright.

Fallon, though, got Conan O'Brien's job. I've long believed that Conan was at his best during interviews and at his worst during the monologues, and his sketches have always been entertaining. I'm not exactly sure what Fallon would do for a whole hour--I'm guessing a lot of sub-Sandler singing and giggly, passable impersonations, perhaps with Horatio Sanz as a sidekick (as if!)--but I've never thought him interesting enough to look at for more than a few minutes, and this whole thing reeks of bean counters trying to tap the "youth" demographic. Hey, guys, newsflash: we young people don't really like Jimmy Fallon too much. If we did, we would have seen his movies. He was occasionally amusing on Saturday Night Live. That's it.

Who knows, maybe Fallon will prove quite adept at the host's chair, but the chatting part of the equation is unknown at this point, unless you count The Barry Gibb Talk Show, and I doubt Timberlake is going to want to co-host. And isn't that, like, the most important part of the show?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The New Atheism

This excerpt from John Haight's book (via Andrew Sullivan) made sense to me:
And yet, aside from several barbed references, there is no sign of any real contact between the new atheists and theology at all, let alone studious investigation. This circumvention is comparable to creationists rejecting evolution without ever having taken a course in biology. They just know there’s something wrong with those crazy Darwinian fantasies. So the new atheists just know there is something sick and delusional about theology. There is no need to look at it up close.
I find this mentality to be true on both sides of the faith divide. There were plenty of Christians I knew when I was growing up that might perfectly fit this description with the words altered: they felt no real need to learn about the Bible, or to ponder the great mysteries, or to really put any work into their faith at all: they just believed in Jesus's awesomeness, and that was enough for them. I also ran across a number of atheists just like the ones Haight described, and I always found it hilarious when the ignorant atheists got into arguments with the ignorant Christians: the ignorant atheists would make claims about Christianity that weren't true, and the ignorant Christians would be unable to rebut them. And vice versa.

To call this atheist mentality fundamentalist is an insult to the intelligence of actual fundamentalists. They do know what they believe, in general. Let's just call it what it is: unseriousness. And there are plenty of people of different faiths who are fundamentally (pardon the pun) unserious, to be sure. I have observed that many of what Haight calls the new atheists seem to disregard the big questions altogether, since they have no answer since there is no god. But while this mentality might very well be par for the course for the new atheists, it wasn't for the old atheists. Rarely will you find a mind as curious, as spiritual, as relentless in confronting the questions of mankind's existence as that of Albert Camus, my favorite philosopher, and he was a confirmed atheist. I have somewhat less affection for Sartre, but his work is well-known, to be sure. So many of the philosophers associated with the enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinking were quite secular, and putting aside the whole decline and fall of religion element it is a point worth making that these philosophers thought the big questions worth pondering, even if their belief system didn't include a deity.

So, what has changed? My impression is that a lot of these atheists are attracted to this system of beliefs because it provides them with absolute, comfortable answers. So it's not unlike the draw of fundamentalism, deep down, and it's not unlike the draw of the shall we say unrigorous Christianity. Usually, the pull of this sort of atheism is based liberally on points of dorm room philosophy, along the lines of "how many wars have been started by religion?" A compelling point unless one lacks even a fundamental knowledge of history--sure, there were lots of bloody chapters in Christian history, but more often than not, talk about conquering lands "for Christ" was just a rationalization for colonization. It certainly was in the case of the "White man's burden" that the English made infamous. It takes a certain kind of willful ignorance to see a sincere Christian heart at the bottom of these escapades, but it seems to me that if you're going to allow manifestly dishonest exponents of Christianity to represent the whole then atheism itself would have to qualify as far more bloody as Christianity: just look at the 20th century atheist states of the Soviet Union, Cambodia, and China, all of which have been responsible for incomparable murder and chaos. I'm not saying that these states are representative of where atheism is these days, but neither are the Crusades. My opinion is that the seeds of violence, conquest, etc., are something intrinsic to humanity since they crop up in every culture everywhere, rather than just an emergent quality that crops up when religion rears its ugly head. The latter view, which I do believe is what belies the religion=wars argument, is just too pat, and it doesn't explain all the pertinent phenomena, like those three states I mentioned. Those of us in science know that a theory that doesn't explain all the outliers is really not a theory at all, and is just waiting to be supplanted by a better one. I don't really have one, but it is typically easier to disprove a theory than to prove one.

Of course, many of these atheists really aren't interested in what Christianity really is. They've decided what it is. But for the collective bristle that occurs among atheists when atheism is noted as being another religion--well, it seems merited in many cases. To be certain, not all atheists are "new atheists," but I suspect the attraction occurs on at least two levels. I suspect that nihilism is becoming a more attractive philosophy for many people in this country, and it's not incomprehensible--after all, if you can't easily figure out the answers, there must not be any--and the idea that there's no meaning to life does answer that question succinctly. We humans like certainty, of course, and atheism does offer that. So does fundamentalism. Those of us who reject those extremes and try to understand the world and the infinite as it really is are in for a perhaps less satisfying but, in my opinion, a far more rewarding spiritual journey. I suppose just don't understand the appeal of nihilism. I will say that arguments along the lines of "which world would you rather live in, one with a God who loves you or one that doesn't?" never held much water for me (what, is human existence multiple choice?) but to say to one's self, to honestly believe that one's life has no meaning seems bleak. One could, perhaps, be an atheist and believe that life still has meaning, even if we make it ourselves? Believing one's self to be a worthless tool cannot be very healthy, one thinks.

I wonder if another big factor here isn't just an antipathy for organized religion, to which I am not entirely unsympathetic. I hate the megachurches probably more than most atheists do. Between the 30-plus minutes of terrible music played with medium competence to the earnest solicitations of money for the building fund (and believe me, there's always a building fund) to the infomercials about how much good the church is doing to the usually fluff-packed message that tends to owe more to self-help books than to the Bible, it's usually the worst hour and a half of my week when I choose to go, and it's usually full of the same kind of duckspeaking Christians that couldn't talk about Christianity for any length of time without it eventually descending into a catalog of bromides. Perhaps they're not all like this, but my experience is that the experience does not vary between one megachurch and another. And Lord knows that contemporary Christianity is palsied by any number of bigotries masquerading as good old-fashioned moral values. I do not blame people from being put off by what they see coming from Christianity these days--I am as well. But that isn't the entire story. Jihad isn't the only form of Islam, for that matter. There is a psychological concept at play here called the availability heuristic which tells us that we tend to believe that the things we see a lot are the truth. It's the theory behind propaganda, and it's why so many parents spend so much time obsessed with keeping their children from being abducted, even to the point of developing "safe words" so that kids don't leave with strangers. After all, there's one of those kiddie abductions on the news all the time! Never mind that there's about 100 of them a year, and that most of them are abducted by people they know. We see stories in the news, we remember them. It seems like a terrible scenario, so we get freaked out about it. In reality, though, the phenomenon is less common than one thinks, and there is little to fear in the end.

I have, of course, met many atheists who do not conform to these stereotypes. I have met many more who do. I do not think less of people who disagree with me, but I do think less of people who do not take life seriously. I do not profess to be a biblical scholar or a wise man, but it is my belief that we are not meant to get complacent about these issues, and too many people of so many persuasions are.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


"Time to go home."
"Lucky man."
These are the final two lines of the film Spartan, a little-seen film from 2004 that happens to be one of the most underrated films of the past decade. Val Kilmer plays the film's protagonist, a government agent who prides himself on following orders, protecting his country, and fighting the bad guys. He trusts the chain of command, and they trust him. The events of the film, though, propel him to give it all up, and that final line has a double meaning that becomes more apparent if one watches the film. Not only does Kilmer's character (any name he goes by in the movie appears to be suspect) wind up exiled, but he comes to realize the country he served simply doesn't exist anymore. He ends the movie in an unnamed European city, bearded, walking down a street. Why did he give it all up? The film doesn't really give any pat answers, though Kilmer's initially amoral-seeming character turns out to have a few more scruples than one might have suspected of a cold-blooded G-man. Spartan is replete with surprises and pleasures for people who invest themselves in the movie, and it has several things going for it. For one, the lead performance by Kilmer is amazing: he is a force of nature, he commands attention the whole time he's on the screen and one senses in the performance (and the script) a desire to create a truly new character. I certainly can't think of another portrayal of a government agent that is remotely similar to what Kilmer does here. And Mamet's directorial hand is sure: much of the movie has more visual and atmospheric flair than many of Mamet's other films, and instead of trying to engage us on multiple levels of mindfuckery Mamet chooses to tell a simple, easy-to-follow story where the characters seem real, the dialogue is impressive without being too showy, and the central con of the film (there's always a con in Mamet films) just barely stays on this side of plausible. Rarely have Mamet films come together in so many ways, and rarely have "war on terror" movies been this engaging, gritty, and exciting. Spartan is an imperfect film, to be certain, and it has a number of third act problems. It is, however, a masterpiece because of what it gets right. I place it second among Mamet's films, right behind the amazing House of Games, not counting Glengarry Glen Ross which he did not direct. It is a movie with which it is worthwhile to acquaint one's self.

There's little denying that David Mamet's stock has been on the decline in the past decade: the post-Spanish Prisoner period has been replete with lesser films like State and Main, Heist, as well as his television show The Unit that might as well have been entitled JAG II. He did have a genuine (if flawed) masterpiece in Wag The Dog, whose central thesis about modern-day politics is pretty much right on the money and whose humor was generally pretty great, although it also had third-act problems. Perhaps Mamet ought to stick with two-acts, like Glengarry. It is probably not coincidental that Mamet's decline has coincided with his embrace of conservative politics, though not for the obvious reasons--Mamet is simply not a political director, and his films are more interested in empirical observation of the human soul than in making political points. He's much better at the former than the latter, and just catch an episode of The Unit if you doubt me. I liked Mamet much better as an unthinking liberal than as a dogmatic conservative who preaches his opinions with a convert's zeal. (Full disclosure: I'm a liberal myself, though I consider myself a thoughtful one. I'm not wild about being preached at by liberals or conservatives.)

Nevertheless, Spartan is not a right-leaning movie. Well, sorta. It's suspicious and cynical about the government and power structure, which has (until recently) been a conservative trait, but the central thesis of the movie is that the war on terror inevitably erodes the character of the people fighting it. The movie concerns an abduction of the president's daughter, played by Kristen Bell. Kilmer has to try to get her back. That covers most of the movie. There's a bit more to it than that, especially in the denouement, when we learn that the abduction might not have just been an accidental kidnapping by White slavers. The end impression that one gets of the government types in the film are people who have become so focused on fighting "the enemy" that their respect for the law, for the lives of Americans and even their own basic humanity has long since atrophied, leaving behind only a monomaniacal focus on "protecting the man" and getting the job done. This is mainly shown by William H. Macy's character, who becomes the personification of the Newest World Order. Machiavellian does not do this philosophy justice. In sum, it's a film whose implications civil libertarian-type liberals could wholeheartedly endorse, and that unlike other "war on terror"-type films actually has something important to say about the conflict and, critically, actually does a good job of saying it, vividly. It is a shame that the movie wasn't a hit, because it might have kickstarted the sort of conversation we need to be having right now. Then again, it might just have been dismissed as anti-American.

Is the movie unAmerican? I do not think so. In fact, I believe it comes from a place of true patriotism. The "grunts" in the film are generally not contaminated by the bug that the government elites are, and Kilmer's performance sort of splits the balance between the two. He starts off as cold and efficient as Macy's character, nonchalantly instructing subordinates to cut out a suspect's eye in one scene. But the contagion proves reversible in Kilmer's case--despite initially heavy resistance, Kilmer does the right thing in the end: he goes after the girl in Dubai, thanks largely to the intervention of a greenhorn Army Ranger (Derek Luke) who is relentless in getting Kilmer on board. What is most interesting about the scene where Luke persuades Kilmer is that Kilmer only half-heartedly tries to convince Luke that his evidence is wrong. His arguments against trying to find the girl (and she is always referred to as "the girl" in the movie) generally fall along the lines that he's a soldier, he does what he's told but nothing more. Kilmer's character, like so many other actors in the War on Terror, is more than willing to subordinate his moral judgment to a higher power. He doesn't have to take responsibility, he is just a tool, so to speak, in the hands of the elites, and he's confident that his superiors are doing what is necessary to protect America. It is when he starts to believe that those elites might not be doing that--that there might be a cover-up--that he acts. And his character arc is really not all that expansive--he does change, but not much. At the end of the movie, he's still a cold-blooded killing machine. It's just that we learn more about him, and he learns more about the nature of things, and it all leads to a series of events that can't help but shatter Kilmer's worldview and sense of purpose. He can't go home again in the obvious way: he'll be killed. But the home doesn't exist anymore because its values have been eroded by power-hungry elites. So what does he do?

So much for the positive aspects. Most of the movie's criticism comes from the finale, which has some problematic elements to it, but is generally not that bad. Many reviews complain that the idea of the president's daughter becoming a semi-willing sex slave is ridiculous. Such reviews are based on a fundamentally inaccurate reading of the film. Just listen to Macy's final speech, and it becomes clear that Bell's kidnapping took place in order to spare her father from political embarrassment. She was not a sex slave of any sort, this was only a cover. This only goes toward the film's central thesis, which has already been discussed in detail. Now, one can debate whether such a turn of events is plausible, but it is what it is. The shootout in the hangar is also a bit anticlimactic as a finale, and one wonders whether the movie could have been tied up more artfully. It's certainly expected, and it's how a typical genre film would wrap things up, but Spartan tries to be a bit more than that and so the expectations are higher. Ultimately, though, one's appreciation for the film depends on one's willingness to just go with it, to just follow the twists and turns to see where it goes. As it turns out, it's one hell of a trip.

All in all, I think it's safe to say that Spartan is a movie that warrants a reappraisal.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

It's good to know I'm far from alone in my unadulterated hatred of the Epic Movie ilk. The Hater over at The A.V. Club has this idea for those dudes' next film (which looks to parody Superbad):
Fake McLovin and his date (maybe Fake Jessica Simpson) would be looking for a room in the house to have sex in, and the entirety of the movie (all 70 terrible minutes of it) would be the pair opening door after door to reveal pop culture reference coupling, after pop culture reference coupling. And, of course, for the big finale, Fake McLovin and Fake Jessica Simpson would open the attic door to reveal Fake Juno giving birth on the back of Fake Christian Siriano (while he shouts, "So not fierce!") to Fake Flava Flav, who would then be promptly adopted by Fake Angelina Jolie. The End.
So, it's like a highly abstract version of their earlier oeuvre? It's sorta like my idea for fast food psychotherapy: the shrink just gives you a list of things to say with the assumption that just being able to say some specific phrase will suddenly make a person "fixed." The laziness that one finds in such things is enormous: more than anything else, these movies resemble conversations between longtime friends that are filled with inside jokes, only the jokes are "outside" jokes, and they're not even jokes. I suppose I'm a snob for mocking what the Great And Good American PeopleTM enjoy watching (as though there were any doubt of my snobbishness anyway) but this is what I think of when those right-wing politicians talk about how hordes of Mexican immigrants are destroying our culture, or whatever they say. I think of Epic Movie. And I shudder. This is the mainstream culture, folks. Now, theres still great stuff going on around the margins, but that's all they are: margins. I don't mind being marginal. How about you?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Worst movie ever

I know that this is kind of an old post, but I just came across this little bit on Dan Drezner's blog about the criteria for being the worst movie of all time. It's not much of a question for me to ponder, as I have seen the monstrosity known as Glitter. I have little to say about the experience, other than that I'm surprised it wasn't much more popular: don't people want longer lives? This movie will make your life seem quite longer. And it's a lot cheaper than a face lift that doesn't fool anyone. Just kidding, the movie's awfulness defies description, and I don't recommend watching it without the aid of RiffTrax, a sample of which is below. It's actually pretty entertaining with the RiffTrax. But with regard to the movie: once you get past the cliches, the terrible acting (by Mariah front and center, but everyone here gets a turn), the plodding, boring plot, there's, well, nothing there. This Mariah Carey vanity project wants us to know what Mariah Carey is like, deep down, and in a funny way it succeeds: we learn that there is, literally, no there there. The film is a testament to the shallowness of Mariah Carey, and it's more or less the definitive word on the subject.

I have seen movies that have been objectively worse than Glitter, and I suppose I'm a bit of a connoisseur at this. The objectively worst movie I have ever seen was a little-seen Hulk Hogan "heartwarmer" (you should be seriously afraid at this point) called Santa With Muscles. The plot, as I remember it, involved Hogan's ultra-rich WT character losing his memory and coming to believe he is really Santa. With Muscles. And a coat that makes The Village People look straight. He winds up living in an orphanage and "cheering up" the orphans by combating the evil Ed Begley (yes, that Ed Begley) who is cast as a cutthroat land developer in one of the most egregious instances of miscasting in history whose character's last name is, I kid you not, Frost. No, his first name isn't John, because that would be just a bit too much like wit. Begley's presence here is bizarre in a way not unlike professional partier Tara Reid's turn as a college professor in Alone in the Dark. I haven't seen that movie, but the absurdity of that sentence is enough to make Albert Camus cry uncle.

Anyway, Begley wants to close down the orphanage, or something, but he knows who Hogan really is and tries to steal his money. There is a lengthy subplot in which one of Jack Frost's underlings tries to nab Hogan's fingerprint so that he can get access to all of Hogan's money. This is eventually done, but it doesn't work because the dude gets Hogan's wrong thumbprint. Like he needed the right thumbprint, but he got the left, or something. It's all in accordance with how corporate business is done in the seventeenth dimension!

Oh, but there's more. So much more. But I'll spare you the discussions of swordfights with volatile crystals. It's the denouement that's so compelling, because, as it turns out, the orphanage is located atop some sort of subterranean lair filled with demons that kill Jack "Ed Begley" Frost. Then Hulk remembers who he is, and adopts all the kids, or something. I know, it's practically right out of the screenwriting books. I know it might seem like I'm joking--who writes a supernatural twist into a movie like that, right?--and yet that's exactly what happens. It is the worst movie that can be imagined. And I've seen Batman & Robin.

Here's the film's imdb page. It's so much worse than I described it. And a propos of the mention of Jack Frost, I recall the two films named Jack Frost that were released within a year of one another. One was a slasher film, and one was a "heartwarming" family flick. Look at the pictures of the two movies, and try to tell me, honestly, which one of these two abominable abominations is scarier:

Okay, so it's the one one on the left, obviously, but the contest is too close.