Friday Flotsam: Mostly Alice

1. This week, as a much-needed relaxation (and to help with a ‘Batman’ fan-fiction I was writing), I revisited the Alice books. I’d almost forgotten how delightful they are. Just a wonderful romp of satirical nonsense, done in that delightful Victorian way. They’re also one of the best examples of capturing the feel of a dream that I’ve encountered: everything is linked through a kind of illogical logic, the environment and the people change depending on what the protagonist is thinking about, seemingly simple tasks simply will not come off, there’s a lot of repetition, and so on.

And ultimately, they’re just wonderfully charming, light fare. Alice doesn’t have a grand plan or goal she’s working towards, there’s no plot to speak of, and the characters for the most part just come and go as the story wants them. The story is just a means to go to weird places and talk to strange people and hear ridiculous things. They’re a creative writing teacher’s worst nightmare.

2. Reading them, I remembered what I’d heard and seen of Tim Burton’s…ah, versions of them from a few years back (I don’t think I can call them ‘adaptations’). Full disclosure; I haven’t seen the films, but I have seen clips and ‘run-throughs’ of them, so I have a pretty good idea of at least the plot. Burton’s Alice re-imagines it as a Narnia-like epic fantasy, where the now-adult Alice gets cast as a hero of legend destined to slay the Jabberwock(y) and defeat the Red Queen to free Wonderland from tyranny, with lots of feminist talking points and ‘oh, weren’t the Victorians just horrible to women?’ stuff (it then ends with Alice becoming a ship captain or something).

So you have things like the Mad Hatter nobly advocating a cause, the Dormouse swinging a sword around, Tweedledee and Tweedledum going to war, the Chesire Cat getting a big heroic moment, and so on, all in world with politics and magic rules and armies and battles and stuff. Gag.

Honestly, that all just makes me rather sad. One of the crowning examples of pure imagination in the English canon and all these morons can think to do with it is ‘epic fantasy, prophecies, girl power’. What a pathetic bore! You call it Alice in Wonderland, but you’ve made it ‘generic fantasy plot no. 2’.

This is the same thing I noticed re-watching 101 Dalmations: movies today feel much more ‘samey’ than movies of the past did. There’s a lot more formula, a lot more of forcing things into familiar plot beats and an ever-decreasing cycle of themes (“Be yourself.” “Girl power”. “Prejudice is bad.” “Our ancestors sucked”, Etc.). I doubt whether any studio today – least of all Disney – would be capable of adapting a story like Alice in Wonderland in any recognizable way.

Trouble is, I think this trickles down even into independent writers, where we’re nervous about creating things that don’t fit the ‘rules’. At least, I know I catch myself feeling like that. Because, of course, we want people to read what we write and like it, and so we get nervous about ‘well, will they read it if it doesn’t do this, that, and the other?’

It’s important to keep the free-breeze of ages flowing through our minds by frequently reading old books and watching old movies, just to remind ourselves of what we can become and how many more ‘options’ there are than we’re usually told.

3. There’s a song by the band Cruxshadows (whom I highly recommend, by the way) called Eye of the Storm that touches on this in the lyrics:

               “The pages of our history
               Are written by the hand
               With eyes and ears and prejudice
               Too far removed to understand.”

               “And so the heroes of the ages
               Are stripped of honesty and love
               To make them seem less noble
               And hide what we can become.”

4. Uncle Walt didn’t need to force a cliché plot onto things to make a classic adaptation. That film was, like the book, just a whimsical journey, where the point was going from place to place meeting crazy and weird characters and enjoying the ride (though to be fair, he wanted to have more of a plot than they ended up with, e.g. including the knight from Looking Glass as a heroic companion to Alice, and he didn’t really like the movie very much. But he at least had the sense not to force the issue in that case).

5. I think my favorite thing about the Disney adaptation, by the way, is just Alice herself. She’s trying to be sensible and polite, but is surrounded by lunatics and sometimes reacts accordingly (I love the bit at the trial when the Hatter and the March Hare start singing again and she just buries her face in her hands in exasperation). See, when you have one character who is more sensible, intelligent, and mature than everyone else, the thing to do is to make sure no one takes her seriously or pays the least attention to her, because that’s funny. 

The only sane girl in her natural state

I also like how, well, uncomfortable Wonderland is; the backgrounds are mostly dead black, everything is kind of shadowy, even with the bright colors, and the characters are all a little threatening and unpredictable. It’s fun to watch, but not really the kind of place you’d want to visit, which keeps you invested in Alice’s adventures. She’s a very likable character, and just about anything might happen to her at any time.

“There goes Bill!”
“Poor Bill…”

Flotsam: Mostly More About Liberalism

1. Revolutionaries / Liberals are the most intolerant people in the world. They like to pretend to tolerance, and believe themselves to be tolerant, but this is an illusion based in the fact that they don’t value the same things as their opponents. Anything they actually value, they are utterly implacable on. They don’t care what religion you profess because they think all religions more or less equally false. But deny the value of public education or question the tenets of feminism and you’ll see just how ‘tolerant’ they are.

It’s not different with Modernists in the Church: adherence to certain doctrines or moral laws is ‘rigidity’ because they don’t care about these things. But don’t you dare question the ‘reforms’ of Vatican II (especially not the ones that don’t actually come from the documents).

This, really, is only what we should expect. Remember, Liberals think of themselves as setting free the oppressed. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with them on something they consider substantive is arguing for oppression and hence cannot be allowed any kind of influence since they ‘want to put y’all back in chains’, to quote the criminal in the White House.

2. This is also why Liberals of different stripes tend to be extremely hostile to one another. In the early US government the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were accusing one another of treason and monarchism over the least provocations. Because the central doctrine of all kinds of liberalism is that mankind has been held in unjust oppression up until now (or from a certain Edenic period in the past, e.g. the Roman Republic) and are now being set free. Thus, anything that deviates from the particular branch of liberalism being proposed is a compromise or holdover with the tyranny of the past that must be stamped out if we are ever to get to our free-and-equal society.

The upside is that this allows for the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy to be played indefinitely. If you point out that a given form of liberalism has failed or hasn’t produced what it promised, they can say “well, that’s not real socialism / freedom / democracy / republic”. It may even be true.

The trouble is that a system that only delivers on its promises when we’re constantly balancing an entire nation on a razor’s edge that requires constant vigilance and involvement by at least a majority of the population is, for that very reason, an unworkable system.

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” is an elegant way of saying “we have an inherently unstable system of government.”

3. The good news is that, as I’ve said before, the form of government generally matters less than most people think, provided the structure of society as a whole retains its integrity. That is, as long as individuals understand their particular place in society, as long as they believe in and adhere to the particular values and traditions of their culture, as long as the forms of family, religion, and community remain intact, and so on, pretty much any kind of governmental structure can bump along tolerably well.

The really dividing element of societal / governmental structures is how well they can maintain these things. So…yeah.

4. The fact is, most people don’t want to have to be constantly standing guard over their governmental structure. Most people don’t have the time, interest, or frankly the capacity for such vigilance. What people want is chiefly to feel that they can understand the rules of their community and their own place within it, that it isn’t going to change or fall apart tomorrow, and that it’ll still be there for their children.

In other words, what most people want is order and stability. Because freedom, in any meaningful sense, can only exist amidst relative order. If you go out to the frontier, you’ll have ‘freedom’ in the sense that you can settle wherever you like, but your scope for living is extremely limited; you can subsistence farm and hope not to be killed by Indians or rival farmers that’s about it. That’s why the great story of the west is the taming of the west; the bringing of order to it. The point of the frontier was that it would not remain a frontier forever, and that the pioneers would create a world in which their children would have a greater scope for living than they had.

To put it another way: if ‘freedom’ means anything, it means the capacity to direct your life to an end of your own choosing according to your own capacity and interests. But the demands of survival mean that this is only possible when you can more or less assume those demands will be met: a society composed entirely of subsistence farmers cannot build a cathedral. The more specifically human endeavors – art, philosophy, commerce, architecture, etc. – only become possible once some people are able to be spared from the business of making food or fighting off invaders, and for the most part it only becomes worthwhile when you feel fairly confident that whatever you create will still be there when it comes time for your children to inherit it.

Community and a degree of order are necessary prerequisites for human flourishing and thus for anything that could reasonably be called ‘freedom’. Continually having to stand guard lest someone swoop in and turn your society into an oppressive state that no longer considers you as worthy of having a place in it is detrimental to liberty.

5. This is really the thing that I find most painful about our own society and stands in greatest contrast to the experience of most past generations for about the last thousand years or so: the fact that I don’t necessarily feel confident it will still be there when it comes time for my own children to inherit it.

6. That was a gloomier one than I intended. I take some comfort in the fact that I know that I’m naturally pessimistic and so things may very well be less disastrous than they appear. I’m actually fairly hopeful that we might at least settle back into a semi-functional society in the near future, as the backlash against the actions of the boomer generation gains momentum.

7. I just discovered this fellow on YouTube and he’s quite good, I think he hits the nail on the head with this video regarding a). why many Traditional Catholics seem harsh and aggressive and b). why so many of us are reluctant to actually say what we think these days.

Another element of why many Trads are unpleasant people is probably simply frustration and anger at being repeatedly abused, insulted, and kicked around for sixty-plus years. I remember Charles Coloumbe compared Traditionalists of an older generation to abused children. I mean, seriously: what do you expect? “Oh, these Trads are such rigid, devisive, and intolerant fools who can’t accept the world has moved on. Now why are they so rude to me?”

(Again, I notice that Progressives are often so certain of their own views that they’re actually surprised and confused and even offended when someone gets upset that they just mocked and belittled something he holds sacred).

That, and the simple fact that, thanks to the hostile attitudes of so many in the Church, most of these people are on their own when it comes to discipline and doctrine. It’s supposed to be that the priest or bishops or what have you are out there defending the faith and laying down rules and an example of what to insist upon and how to behave. But now they’re mostly attacking and rebuking those who try to stand up for the faith, which means the individual Catholic (and I’m speaking not just of Trads but of anyone who genuinely believes and wants to live their faith) has to make these calls for himself.

Remember that when authority abdicates, the need for that authority doesn’t go away.

Thought of the Day

“Who, thinkest thou, is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath appointed over his family, to give them meat in season.

Blessed is that servant, whom when his lord shall come he shall find so doing. Amen I say to you, he shall place him over all his goods. But if that evil servant shall say in his heart: My lord is long a coming: And shall begin to strike his fellow servants, and shall eat and drink with drunkards: The lord of that servant shall come in a day that he hopeth not, and at an hour that he knoweth not:

And shall separate him, and appoint his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
-Matt. 24: 45-51

Of course, when it comes to the under-servants in that parable, the great thing was for them to remain in the house and dutifully at their posts for the Master’s sake, despite the beatings and mistreatment of the steward.

Flotsam: Miscellaneous

1. My cold of two weeks ago came back with a vengeance this week. Never quite bad enough to keep me away from work (certainly not while I’m still on probation time before my PTO becomes available), but more than bad enough to make the experience quite miserable. Hence why this is a non-specific Flotsam. So, for today I’m just going to toss off some miscellaneous thoughts that I’m too tired to flesh out much.

2. It is sometimes said that you shouldn’t trust primary sources in historical inquiry since they will be biased. Instead, you should trust the professional historian, who is trained to sift through these biases. Indeed, the primary sources are biased. So is the professional historian.

The difference is that the historical bias of the primary source is itself a part of that same history. The bias of the historian is not.

3. Do you notice that there is what you might call an ‘assumed culture’ at work in today’s world? Anything made for general public consumption that doesn’t originate from a source with an otherwise strongly marked character makes the same references and presumes the same values: you’ve seen Star Wars and Game of Thrones. You vote democrat. You’re non-religious. You’re into, or at least familiar with certain pop stars, and so on. It’s like there’s a giant mutual-aid society, in which a web of entertainers, politicians, businessmen, and so on give each other shout-outs and kudos.

I find this kind of boring, even when they reference things I like. It also begins to give that kind of ‘unman’ feel, like there’s no actual personality behind the references, but something trying to ape a personality.

(See, that’s an example: when was the last time you heard a Space Trilogy reference in anything made for the general public?)

4. There’s also the thing where people will cheer when someone mentions an officially protected demographic. Basically a way of signalling “I’m a good person!” or “I am offering the right obeisance!”

5. Oh, speaking of which, I remember during the (mercifully brief) ‘Diversity, Inclusion, Equity’ portion of the onboarding process, they talked about how ‘we’ve found that diversity isn’t just race, religion, sex, and so on, but things like what school you went to, what neighborhood you grew up it, what your experiences are.’

In other words, diversity is supposedly the startling insight that companies employ individuals. This amazing fact requires an entire department and continual training to understand, and we presume that you, the employees, will need to be constantly reminded of this.

I also love that ‘we’ve found’ (or it might have even been ‘experts have discovered’, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt): apparently, the idea that people can be distinguished by things apart from officially designated categories came as a blinding insight.

6. I notice that a lot of moderns have an idea about nature that goes something like this: that the ideal of nature is balance, of all things working together in harmony to allow all to thrive.

If you want to see how much nature values ‘balance’, try introducing a species into a new environment and see how nature deals with it. Nine times out of ten, what happens is either a). the new species gets quickly wiped out by the existing species or b). the new species utterly dominates the ecosystem and wipes out many of the existing species (rats are especially gifted at doing this).

See, nature isn’t about balance: nature is about every species and almost every individual trying to get as much as it possibly can. In other words, nature isn’t harmony: it’s warfare. The ‘balance’ is an illusion created by the fact that the species withing a given ecosystem have all reached a point of more or less stalemate. The moment any species has a real advantage, it rides it as far as it can, happily wiping out everything else around it even if this means dooming itself in the long term.

(Someone might say that introducing rats to isolated islands isn’t natural because humans do it. Well, one, that doesn’t change the fact that rats still act according to nature, and two, the result would be the same whether the rats got there on ships or floating on driftwood).

Nature doesn’t care about balance: nature cares about survival, and not even long-term survival.

7. “Your counterexamples don’t really prove your point so much as they prove you don’t understand mine.”

One of those things that passes through the mind a lot, but which takes a while to catch and articulate.

Some Old Gimp Pics

I spent part of today sorting through the bloated image folders on my computer, and in the process rediscovered some old photo manips I did. I now pass a selection on to you:

First we have some scenes from the highly-anticipated live action ‘Super Smash Brothers’ film:

Gannondorf (played by Sean Bean) cuts a deal with the sinister Master Hand
The loyal Yoshi is ready for action
Donkey Kong enjoys a relaxing morning before trouble starts
Samus Aran (Emily VanCamp) makes a new friend while infiltrating the Space Pirates’ ship
Meeting of the heroes

Or a Live Action Kim Possible movie (er, a good one, I mean):

Dr. Drakken (Jeffery Donovan) and Shego (Morena Baccarin) oversee their evil plot

And unrelated, but bonus points for whoever gets this one:

Flotsam: Mostly Batman

1. I’ve been re-watching some of Batman: The Animated Series lately, reminding myself of just how good it really was. Those gorgeous black-paper backgrounds, that wonderful Fleischer-style animation (the creators said they wanted it to look as though it had been made in the 1940s. I think they succeeded both in look and feel), those striking musical scores (I want to say they made a new one for each episode, certainly a new motif for each character), and of course the wonderful stories and stellar voice acting: Kevin Conroy at Batman. Mark Hamill as the Joker (I’ll admit, I almost associate him more with that role than with that sci-fi movie). Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred. Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon. Roddy McDowall as the Mad Hatter. Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman. Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze. Paul Williams as the Penguin. Ron Perlman as Clayface. David Warner as Ra’s Al Ghul. John Glover as the Riddler. Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. Not to mention one-shot roles from the likes of Tim Curry (who was originally slated to play the Joker, but was considered ‘too scary’, which…given Hamill’s performance makes one wonder), Thomas F. Wilson, Dick Miller, Bill Mumy, John Rhys-Davies, Harry Hamlin, and of course Adam West. As the saying goes, I’d watch a cast like that read a phone book (at one point, that’s pretty close to what happens).

2. Watching the episodes, though, I was struck by how different this is from what has become the usual Batman fare, and even from the subsequent direction the character took in future shows ostensibly set in the same universe (New Batman Adventures, Justice League, etc). The stories here tend to be much more subdued and down-to-earth: ordinary crime stories and dramas (e.g. one episode has a ruthless tycoon planning to stage a gas explosion to clear out a neighborhood he wants to develop). Batman doesn’t always deal with supervillains, and even when he does the villains are themselves a bit more low-key than in other versions. Like, you’ll see scenes at Arkham where Joker, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, and Scarecrow are just hanging out in the lounge playing chess or watching TV while a couple of guards stand watch, occasionally intervening to break up a petty squabble. In other words, they’re…actual mental patients! A more contemporary Batman story would have all four under Hannibal-Lecter-style maximum security restraints and still murdering guards left and right.

3. The show also emphasizes Batman’s status as a detective. He spends most of the episodes following up clues and interrogating suspects (one of my favorite scenes has him interrogating a germaphobic gangster in a hospital storeroom full of viral samples: “Hm, crimson fever. Nasty way to go…”), or else trying to escape a death trap. Nor is he an infallible fighter: he’s skilled and quick, but he has to work at it to take down even normal thugs, and the show emphasizes that he’s always in danger during the action scenes (this despite the fact that most of the bad guys have an aim that would make a Stormtrooper blush).

(He’s also a lot more…well, normal. He’s less relentlessly grim, in and out of costume, than he would become, expressing fear, shock, and even amusement at times, cracking jokes with Alfred, and so on. BTAS Bruce is much more well-adjusted than later DCAU Bruce. And that’s kind of saying a lot).

Frankly, I like this a lot better than the idea that Batman’s the greatest fighter in the world (along with being the greatest everything else). I much prefer him being an extremely skilled, but still limited human being whose abilities are all tailored to his mission in life (very much like Sherlock Holmes), but which inevitably come up short sometimes, forcing him to think outside the box. I really don’t like when Batman simply pulls some obscure new skill out of his utility belt whenever it comes up, or when he’s played as being so supremely cunning that he can defeat anyone with prep time.

The big example of this sort of thing for me came in an episode of Justice League (a show I really like, by the way), where they’re dealing with a plot in some small Eastern European / western Asian nation. Batman confronts a guard, who taunts him that he can’t understand a word he’s saying anyway. Batman answers in the same language, proving himself to be fluent in it. See, that’s the sort of thing that bugs me: he would have had no reason to learn that language, it never would have come up but for this one incident. But he’s Batman, so of course he has any skill he needs because it makes him ‘cool.’

(Ironically enough, this means I have the same problem with some versions of Batman that most other people have with Superman: that’s he’s too infallible and over-stocked with abilities).

Me, I much prefer the ‘Animated Series’ style to the character. It feels to me like BTAS exists in a kind of separate, parallel world to the rest of the DCAU: a world where there isn’t a Superman or Themyscira or Green Lanter Corps, just a city full of broken, twisted human beings, some of whom have, through mad science run amok, gained powers beyond the ordinary, and where there is a hint of the supernatural, but where for the most part it’s simply all-too human heroes and criminals fighting over the lives of the ordinary citizens.

Again, I like the DCAU as a whole, and of course I love Superman, but it has a different flavor, and overall I think I like Batman best when he exists apart from ‘all that’ (it also lets me imagine that there’s a version where things turned out happier for everyone involved than Batman Beyond indicates. Among other things, I want Dick and Barbara to end up together. And no version of Batgirl should have a romance with Batman: that’s just wrong on multiple levels. But now I’m getting on even more of a tangent…).

Short version is that, as I see it, there are two versions: ‘pure’ Batman and ‘Justice League’ Batman. For my money, as far as Batman’s concerned, I prefer the former (simple way to distinguish: in ‘Pure’ version, Dick ends up with Barbara. In ‘Justice League’ version, he ends up with Starfire. Easy!).

4. On another note, still going through training at my new job. It’s much more enjoyable now that it’s getting more relevant to my actual position (still a lot of training to go, though).

That said, the on boarding process at a large corporation these days feels a lot like this to me:

“There’s no escape, but then, who would wanna leave?”

RE-POST: Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

I missed this 4th of July’s ‘Independence Day’ rewatch due to being sicker than paint, but here’s my yearly post on why it’s among my personal favorites.  

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            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s pulp sci-fi done as an epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. It tackles big ideas of freedom, heroism, faith, family, and patriotism in a simple, but solid fashion. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.

The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father. It helps that most of them are played by veteran supporting players and character actors (including a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin as the commander of Area 51 and a very young, pre-Avatar: The Last Airbender Mae Whitman as the President’s daughter). Even the SETI boss who only shows up in the opening scene is invested with life and character, thanks in part to old-pro Eric Avari. This is really one of the most impressive ensemble casts I can remember seeing in a 90s blockbuster.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family, while his adult son sees him as an embarrassment. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, single, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t: the trademark American skill at integrating different cultures is not going to work here.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to be using the Earth’s satellites to coordinate their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to have faith even in the face of disaster) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

There are so many things that, looking back, the film does really well. The motives and backgrounds of the characters are established very quickly and concisely. For instance, we meet Levinson talking with his father over chess, who urges him to move on after his divorce. The scene establishes at once 1. their respective personalities and close relationship, 2. Levinson’s divorce, 3. his intelligence as he smoothly checkmates his father, 4. his environmentalist principles, 5. his reluctance to move on with his life, suggesting both his continuing attachment to his wife and his unambitious, lethargic personality. All that in one scene that lasts maybe two minutes (these key points are  reiterated and expanded on in equally efficient subsequent scenes). A quick moment of Hiller receiving a rejection letter from NASA establishes his dreams of flying in space, which he achieves at the end, as well as establishing the reasons for his inner conflict over marrying his girlfriend. Considering how many characters the film juggles, it’s remarkable that it manages to develop its leads as well as it does.

The film also does a good job of conveying the impact of the events; a minor, but established character dies in the destruction of each city, then more characters die in the subsequent counter attack. At least one character who survives the initial bombardments later dies of her injuries simply because she couldn’t get medical care soon enough. And we see things like the President agonizing over his failure to act more decisively, or Hiller making his way to Area 51 only to learn that he’s the only survivor of his entire Marine base. The film keeps moving, but it does allow the characters to react to the disaster.

I like the humor in the film a lot as well. Many of the jokes turn on the fact that, in the course of the disaster, normal social barriers have been eliminated, leading to unexpected situations, like when Hiller’s girlfriend sheepishly admits to the First Lady that, “I voted for the other guy.” Or when Levinson’s father unexpectedly finds himself about to meet the President…and discovers that his son once punched him in the face.

I’m also impressed at how well the effects have held up, probably because (like many of the best early CG-driven films) the movie actually uses a large amount of model work and practical effects and only supplemented with computers where necessary. The destruction of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington was mostly done with models and real fire effects filmed at low speed (so, the exact same techniques pioneered in the original Godzilla), the fiery clouds surrounding the ships as they enter the atmosphere were done with models in smoke-filled tanks, while the aliens themselves are glorious animatronic costumes. On that note, the sheer fact that the film manages to make flying saucers frightening and otherworldly again after so many decades of parody and over-exposure is impressive in itself. The featureless, almost motionless ships hovering ominously over the cities convey a distinctly alien atmosphere, especially contrasted with the more familiar planes and buildings of our own world.

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Flotsam: Snobbery, Revolutions, and the Fourth of July

1. Still in the ‘awkward transition’ phase regarding my new job, where I haven’t even begun to do the actual job I’ve been hired for (which itself is a trainee position), and I’m still getting used to the new schedule and what is and is not an option now. I’m at least keeping regular writing times, though, so that’s making me feel grounded, though I haven’t figured out how to fit blogging in.

2. At work the subject of arbitrary enforcement came up: the thing where people will create completely meaningless standards – e.g. “you take cream in your coffee? What kind of man are you?” – and enforce them for the group. I said (and the conversation moved on) that this is an authority thing: people assuming a position of authority in the social hierarchy. Status means that you are the one who sets the standard (giving nicknames is another way of assuming authority), so when you have an otherwise ‘equal’ group, those of an aggressive temperament will naturally try to seize the highest position they can.

Again, allowing for human wickedness and stupidity, this tends to only occur between ostensible equals as a means of setting the social hierarchy. It occurs between privates in a platoon, not between privates and officers. It occurs between priests in a parish, not between priests and bishops. It occurs among the gentry, not between the gentry and the artisans. Not to say you won’t find a stupid aristocrat who sneers at his tenants for not liking the right music or something, but generally vices directed at inferiors are of a different kind than snobbery: more of officiousness or arbitrary rule or selfishness.

3. Reading a piece at The Orthosphere I had one of those ‘oh, of course,’ moments, where you’re told something and realize that you should have known that all along from the nature of the case.

“highly egalitarian societies… have high homicide rates.”

Well, of course they do. When no one is any better or higher than anyone else, officially, then when there’s a dispute, the principles have to settle the matter themselves. But the only final, ‘authoritative’ way that two equal individuals have of settling matters is violence. The ‘talk it out’ solution advocated in schools only works when both sides are prepared to be reasonable and look at the matter objectively, which will be so in only a tiny minority of cases. How many times do kids on a playground actually ‘talk things out’ to the satisfaction of both? Not saying it never happens, but it would require exceptional kids on both sides.

What actually happens probably ninety-nine cases out of a hundred is that one kid, the one with the more extroverted and aggressive temperament, talks down the other and gets the rest of the group to gang up on him to force him to concede.

Because there’s another factor at play which the Orthosphere author doesn’t bring up: the fact that in the absence of an official hierarchy (or even in the presence of one, but wherever it doesn’t operate), people will create their own, even in something as petty as ‘what kind of shirt do you wear?’ or ‘what kind of car do you drive’? And people will be much more aggressive and quick to enforce these kinds of ‘unofficial’ hierarchies because they don’t rest on anything but the vigilance of the individual. A king doesn’t have to keep pushing arbitrary rules to remind people he is the king, but a ‘free and equal citizen’ does, because it’s the only way he can keep his place.

The more egalitarian you try to make a society, the more socially repressive, mistrustful, and violent it will become as people try to claw out and maintain their position.

Because the fact is that all human societies are hierarchical: that is just part of the form of society as such. If you don’t have a structure, a hierarchy, then you don’t actually have a society, just a collection of individuals, who will operate as individuals (like how if you get the parts of your computer ‘out of form’, you no longer have a computer as such, just a lot of metal and plastic operating as metal and plastic).

And one thing individuals naturally try to do is to form societies and establish social status. So that even if you could create a perfectly egalitarian state, the people living within it would quickly set up their own competing tribes and hierarchies. It would be like trying to keep the sea perfectly flat: that is just not how the thing works.

4. The evil of snobbery lies in the fact that it is someone laying claim to a status that he doesn’t actually deserve and that he misuses in any case. Mrs. Elton in Emma is a snob because she assumes a position she doesn’t actually merit, defends it aggressively by cutting down people who aren’t actually a threat to it, and uses her position bluntly and officiously once she’s in it. Emma herself is also a bit of a snob, but much less so because A). she has a right to her position, and B). she mostly uses it responsibly, except in trying to encourage Harriet to lay claim to a higher position than she’s actually entitled to (so, sort of a snobbery by proxy).

But I don’t think most people really mind class distinctions. The structure would hardly have persisted so long and so universally if they did. The people who object to hierarchies are those who want to move from one level to another and find it more difficult than they think it ought to be (trouble is that these are often the very same kind of ne’er-do-wells who like to write books). The common farmer generally doesn’t mind living under a duke: it is the nouveau-riche industrialist who chafes at aristocratic privilege.

5. And it’s the latter who leads revolutions. We like to think of rebellions as the poor, downtrodden masses rising up against their aristocratic overlords. Actually, from all I can tell, it’s the rich classes who are the revolutionaries: the ones who are powerful, but feel they aren’t as powerful as they deserve to be. That is, the ones who have more practical power than official power.

(There’s another element of the ones who feel ashamed for being rich, but don’t know what to do about it. Those who lack either the training or the stomach to be Saints become Revolutionaries as an easier alternative. And part of me wants to make a ‘Navy – Coast Guard’ joke here).

The impoverished masses tend to be conservative, at least until the propaganda gets to them. Because, of course, it really makes very little difference to the average tenant farmer or artisan or factory hand whether he lives under a republic or a monarchy, except that his sense of cultural identity (and thus tribal belonging) is bound up in whichever one he happens to have been born in. Thus the very same populations who were Loyalist in 1776 tended to be Union in 1861.

So, in summary, Revolutions tend to be rich men convincing poor men that they are being oppressed so that the poor men will go risk death to gain a higher status for the rich men.

6. On that note, happy Fourth of July everyone!

Perhaps it’ll help if I say that however the nation came to be, now that it’s established I would have it continue and improve. I would see it restored to the days of its glory, and I would be thankful even for the optimism of the early-mid twentieth century. Basically, I’d hold my tongue about this whole subject if it meant we could have a functional society again.

This, by the way, is why I’m still a Union proponent in the Late Unpleasantness, even though in many ways I sympathize more with the Confederacy. Revolution is a genie that is very hard to get back into the bottle once it gets out, and I think that if the Confederacy had been established, both it and the Union would only have experienced an endless string of bloody, petty uprisings as one state or another decided it was being oppressed and took up arms against another (heck, it nearly happened between Michigan and Ohio in 1835, and again between Arizona and California in 1934). The real necessity of the war was to firmly establish that we were done with in this country, and the result is that, after the ‘simmering down’ period, we had a more-or-less unified national identity all the way up to a couple decades ago.

7. Just so there’s no misunderstanding (yeah, right), I don’t think slavery would have outlived the 19th century, whatever happened. World opinion (i.e. the British Empire) was too set against it, and I don’t think the Confederacy, or whatever Balkanized collection of states resulted from it could have survived as the lone Western slave-holding nation. Probably would have been better overall if it slavery hadn’t been settled in the war and had simply been allowed to die a natural death, but that’s another issue entirely.

8. Let’s try to end on a high note here (wish the image quality was better, but it was the only one I could find). This is the kind of thing I’d like to see come back, my own disillusionment notwithstanding:

Thought of the Day: Another Suggestion

Once again, Mickey Mouse’s copyright is due to expire before too much longer (which would mean Uncle Walt’s spirit would finally be able to rest). I’m sure Disney will try to get copyright laws extended again, but they can’t keep that up for ever. I’d recommend they get ahead of things and select a new mascot, one that better fits their current philosophy.

I think I know the perfect one:

“The WORLD is my nemesis!”

‘Mythopoeia’

To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.
God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.
Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, tifi those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers bencath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
-J.R.R. Tolkien