Category Archives: Culture

Message Movies and Movies with a Message

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the changing nature of film criticism. The crux of the article was that once upon a time films that presented a clearly denoted social or political message were ‘lesser’ films and often savaged as such by the professional critics while now films devoid of such intent are the ones savaged as empty, pointless fare.

The message movie has been with us for more than one hundred years with the massive in scope and its repulsive message mother of these being ‘Birth of a Nation.‘ (quickly followed by the message-movie as apology ‘Tolerance.’)

I would stipulate that there is a profound difference between a ‘message movie’ and a movie with a message. A message movie is one where the lecture overpowers the story and swamps any entertainment value it may offer. The platonic ideal of this sort of filmmaking is the ‘after-school special.’ Message movies are inherently moralistic, take themselves overly seriously, and stand upon soapboxes to waggle their metaphorical fingers in the audiences’ faces. Is it any wonder that they are often money losers and have gotten a bad critical rep?

A Movie with A Message is a different animal. It is a film where the story comes first and the message comes second. 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira) is a wonderful example of this. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, one that was so wildly entertaining its budget and technological limitations became such strengths that it spawned a new genre of movie. But under that excitement of a giant monster wading ashore in post-war Japan there is a powerful message about the threat and dangers of nuclear power. A short time later America would release Them! with a similar message buried under a mystery of giant ants that stretched from the Arizona deserts to the maze of sewers under Los Angeles.

One of the best rejections I have received came from a short story that was a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The editor commented that in addition to the action and the horror the story was about something. This pleased because I think that all stories are strengthened by themes, as long as the theme does not transform into an ‘After School Special.’

Science-Fiction when it is done well it a fertile field for this sort of subversive story telling. It’s much easier to hide you commentary among the purple skinned aliens than among contemporary characters.

That said there is also a place for the blatantly pointed story with a message. The recent, an terribly terrific, horror film ‘Get Out,‘ is not subtle in its message, but never does it sacrifice story and experience for a lecture. As an artists of any kind, never be afraid to putting down what you believe. You should embrace such impulses, for your voice, your viewpoint is the only thing that truly sets you apart for the other practitioners of your craft. For story tellers, remember story comes first, but meaning is not an accessory it is a feature.

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Of Girls, Bulls, and Artistic Intent

March of last year the sculpture “Fearless Girl” was installed on the streets of New York City standing defiantly before the now famous sculpture ‘Charging Bull.’ Greg Fallis at his blog has done a pretty goof job going over the histories of the two statues and how those histories interplay with the meaning intended for the pieces so that’s not going to be focus of my post.

Though when you get to the slipper subject of ‘meaning’ it is important to remember that the artist may intend one thing but the people who experience the art take away something utterly different or even diametrically opposed to the original intent. A case in point on that is the singer/songwriter Sting, his piece ‘Every Breath You Take’ and the scores upon scores of couple who have used it as their wedding songs.

Charging Bull‘s creator Arturo Di Modica has recently complained about the installation of Fearless Girl and expressed his desire that the statue be removed from it place before his own. Many of the fans of ‘Fearless Girl‘ have rejected his position and a common defense I have heard is that Art is often in conversation with previous pieces. This is true and since my background, and I suspect yours, is Science-Fiction let me use a well know example from that field as an example.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote the novel ‘Starship Troopers‘ and with that works explored the relationship between the common solider and his society. The book provoked a fiery conversation that continues to rage until this day. Sometime later author Joe Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War,‘ a novel also exploring the relationship between the common solider and his society. ‘The Forever War‘ makes radically different arguments and comes of very different conclusions. Both books are considered classics and both are terribly good reads. It is considered an accepted fact that Haldeman wrote ‘The Forever War‘ in direct response to ‘Starship Troopers‘ a perfect example of art in communication with art. I would strongly urge people to read both books.

But you do not need to read both to see the value in either novel. Either can be read alone without the other and the experience is full and complete. This is not true of ‘Fearless Girl.’

Fearless Girl”s artistic expression is reliant on ‘Charging Bull‘, without the Bull she is not fearless for there is nothing to inspire fear. Further more The two are seen together changing the impression once is likely to form upon seeing ‘Charging Bull.‘ Returning to the example of ‘Starship Troopers‘ and ‘The Forever War,‘ it is as if instead of writing a new novel that could be read alone Haldeman has written six new end chapters to Heinlein’s novel and sent them out attached to the previous book. There’s nothing wrong and in fact much to respect in Haldeman’s response to Heinlein’s book but meaning is not the point. The point is there is a difference between answering an artwork with your own and changing another artist’s work. Placing Fearless Girl directly before the Charging Bull sculpture, and being utterly dependent on that earlier sculpture for context also changes the context of Charging Bull.

Di Modica has called for the removal of ‘Fearless Girl‘ feeling that in damages the artistic intent of his ‘Charging Bull.’ He is not without a point. In my opinion it is not relevant that ‘Fearless Girl‘ started life as advertising for a corporate product, intent and interpretation are different things and the powerful interpretation many hold for ‘Fearless Girl‘ is one that strikes many people to their very identity.

This is a problem with no easy solution. Leaving ‘Fearless Girl‘ clearly changes in common interpretation of ‘Charging Bull,’ but removing it creates its own host of negative impressions.

Personally I am torn without resolution, as an artist I am sympathetic to Di Modica’s point of view but the two statues together have an emotional punch that neither could achieve on their own.

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How to make Hillary President

Oh, the bonfire that is the Trump Presidency burns hotter, fiercer, and larger than I had ever imagined during the election. There is ample cause to suspect that corruption, incompetence, and out right collusion with a hostile foreign power go all the way into the Oval Office.

(Suspect! I hear some of you cry, and Renault remains Shocked to find gambling going on at Rick’s. Nothing has yet been proven so I leave it to you to follow your own noses in tracking the stench that is the Trump operation.)

One thing I think is clear is that the modern GOP is quite unlike that one of the 70’s and they will never remove Trump from office no matter the stink, the mud, and the crime, but there is an election next year and that could change everything.

Now what follows is fanciful but within the realm of possibility and law; as a speculative fiction writer it fun for me to dream up implausible for possible futures.

One: The Democratic Party wins the election taking back the House and the Senate next year. The hill remains steep in the House but Trump is proving disastrously bad as a president and he might sink the GOP’s majority.

Two: The House names Hillary Clinton as their New Speaker of the House. (Nothing in the constitution or the House rules require that the Speak be a sitting representative.

Three: Trump has proven himself corrupt enough that the Democrats impeach and remove him from office.

Four: They follow that up with impeachment of President Pence, provided that they can make those charges stick and given the grime that appears to be swirling around this administration it might be possible.

Five: Hillary Clinton as Speaker of the House become the 47th President of the United States.

Wait, I hear you Bernie supporters screaming about Step two, because after all if anyone can be named Speaker of the House and third in line for the Presidency why not your guy, Sanders?

Quite simply, he’s not the popular vote winner of the last contest and to me that carries weight. However if you want someone other than Hillary I would suggest that you go with someone who meets the requirements for the officer but who would be Constitutionally ineligible to seek a term via the 2020 election, (The 22nd Amendment prevents presidents from being elected to more than two terms.), so they just give the job back to Barak Obama.

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Is This A Dagger …

Well if they stick to their schedule the U.S. House of Representative will vote tonight to repeal the ACA ‘ObamaCare.’ Note that this is a budgetary bill and as such should it survive in the Senate will be immune to filibuster.

As I write this it is uncertain if Paul Ryan has mustered the votes to pass the bill out of the House. To satisfy the more conservative members of the GOP he has recently added even more draconian amendments to a bill that has already been scored by the CBO as pushing up to 14 million people off their health insurance by next year’s off-cycle election.

Now in addition to allowing insurers to charge older patients up to five times the rate of younger patients while slashing subsidies so that their prices sky rocket, this bill now seeks to strip out the essential coverage requirements of the ACA. This is a list f ten essential aspects that all health insurance now must cover, such as drugs.

This amendment stripping the coverage requirements may not survive the senate because it can easily be ruled as beyond the budget and that would open it up to a filibuster. Even if the parliamentarian rules the amendment allowed there are wavering GOP Senators unhappy with the such extreme measures, and the GOP’s vote margin is one vote. (Normally it would be two, but one member is out ill.)

Why add this is it almost certainly cannot pass the Senate?

Because they are facing a pressure that they cannot resist, the Tea Party Base.

For six years the number one target on the Tea Party’s hit list has been the ACA and the GOP has gone along, promising repeal on day one of they reign. There are people who hate the ACA because it is not single payer, there are people who hate the ACA because of limited networks and high costs, there are people who hate the ACA because it forces you to buy insurance, and there are people who hate the ACA because it makes some people pay more in taxes.

Some of these group can be made happy by reforming and adjusting the ACA, but those last two can only be happy with killing it. Amid the GOP no faction has the number to impose their will and many have the number to kill anything they hate. Ryan has been trying to square that circle and to my eyes he’s given up.

He’s going to win over enough of the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus to get the thing off his desk and onto McConnell’s where it will likely die.

If it dies in the Senate McConnell should look out for knives in the back – a grand Senatorial tradition even if this time they will be metaphorical. The conservative GOP Senators, Cruz and the like, will be blaming him and Ryan will be pushing that train with everything he’s got. His only hope is selling the lie that Repeal would have worked if the Senate have gone all wobbly.

This is a trap of their own construction and if millions of lives didn’t hang in the outcome I’d be getting the popcorn.

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Taxation is NOT theft

A popular concept usually pushed by those on the right side of the political spectrum is that taxation is theft and if they do not go that far they often go far enough to assert that you have no right to the product of another person’s labor. This is usually presented as their case for why any form of socially provided health insurance is not only something that disagree with but something as morally wrong.

I do not buy those arguments.

Theft is the illegal taking, without consent, of property that does not belong to you. Taxation, outside of despotic governments, is a legal process simply on that factor alone it cannot be considered theft however there is more to my counter argument. Without Consent, you consent to taxes by maintaining your citizenship. In a free nation you can leave, in unfree states you cannot. (It would be wise to remember that walls can keep you IN as well as keeping others OUT.) There numerous celebrities who have surrendered their US citizenship. You hate our taxes and what they are being spent on? Leave. Stay and fight for what you want, but if you stay you consent and the taxes are again not theft.

The no right to another person’s labor is usually employed to argue against those who would claim that healthcare is a right. I am not going to get into if healthcare is a right or not, rights are a social construct and invention not found in objective reality so which ones exist and for whom is a very sticky argument.

However those who use the ‘no right to the labor of others’ argument are at best short sighted. ALL rights require enforcement from the state to be protected, for the state to maintain those functions it must tax and that is to acquire the labor of others for the protection if your rights.

You have a right to trail by a jury of your peers? Well that court systems is pricey, and you only have that right because it is being supported by the labor of others.

As I said this is not staking out the position that healthcare is or is not a right, but these arguments against it as nothing more than clever and flippant sound bites devoid of thought or substance.

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Awards – Not Really Caring

Mind you I am happy when my friends win award, and should I ever be so lucky to be even nominated for an award I will be thrilled, but aside from those cases, awards don’t matter that much to me.

There will always be awards given to films, stories, songs, and other projects that didn’t work for me. There will always be projects that I think are heads and shoulders better than their competition that lose. (Yes I am looking at Titanic and L.A. Confidential.)

However even when projects I love lose that doesn’t mean a lot. After all the book, story, song, and movie remain unchanged. The reason I loved or admired them remains unchanged and I do not need the validation of others to make me feel good about my tastes.

So congratulations to everyone who has won an award, to those nominated, but also to those who create, fight, and keep on going without the acclaim. We are all artists and we are all in the arena.

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You Were Never on the Team

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the current social/political wars is likely aware of one Milo Yiannopoulos. To many, including myself, he comes off as nothing more than a cyber-bully. An immature brat wallowing in the false glow is celebrity because he treats his fellow human beings terribly. He was a major star in the right because he so gloriously offended the left. Never mind that the offense was justified. Never mind that he his outrageous attacks and bullying hurt people, he was their star, their attack dog.

What he never was was a member of their team, he was never part of their circle. He was a tool, he was weaponized abuse. This was very profitable for Yiannopoulos, he got speaking gigs, and massive book deals. People followed him and mistook him for someone of substance, but that was all illusion. Perhaps Yiannopoulos knew his position as tool, perhaps he thought he had been accepted. I don’t know what goes on in his mind and frankly I don’t care.

In my opinion he is a loathsome human being and his downfall was utterly predictable. The powerful interests enjoyed his act, it infuriated all the right people and it allowed them, through hi, to put out the most hateful ideas and attacks while standing behind the skirts of ‘it’s all free speech and if you can’t take it you must be some sort of special snowflake.’

Of course a shock jock has to go for bigger and bigger shocks, yesterday’s are as stale as last week’s bread, and the quest for bigger badder shocks means eventually you cross a line and Yiannopoulos did just that. Suddenly the right found that he was offending people that they didn’t want to offend. Suddenly it was no longer a game and as though he were a broken sword they tossed him aside.

I shed no tears for his lost money, his lost fame, his lost meaning, it was all illusion. Outrage is not debate.

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S.M.E.s and Cultural Conservative Hysteria

At my day job we have people whom we refer to as S.M.E.s for Subject Matter Experts. When you have a tricky question about an arcane rule or regulation these people are generally the ones with the answer you need. (Never would I have I thought that playing StarFleet Battles would be good job training, but it make this particular day job so much easier to learn.)

Writers often consult SMEs for their works. Need to know how a morgue handles dead bodies for your zombie story, go ask them? Need some legal double speak to dazzle the characters, consult with a lawyer. The same for sciences, the military, and uncountable other areas. No one can be an expert in all things that’s why writers dedicate their books to those who helped illuminate the way while taking the blame for the errors.

All this should sound pretty dull, but the whole thing explodes the moment you venture in cultural issues.

Recently conservative columnist Rod Dreher posted an article on-line decrying the use of sensitivity readers. In reality sensitivity readers are simply SME for under-represented groups. If I am writing a story about an physicist not only should I consult with a physicist about the science but a person of the Islamic faith to make sure I get both parts rght. This goes for all sorts of people because in reality we humans come in a blinding and beautiful array of styles, colors, and cultures.

Mr. Dreher seems to think that this is surrendering creative control. That this is ‘pc’ run amok. That is utter bull.

I know a number of writers. They cover a vast swath of political and cultural attitudes and I can’t think of a single one that would surrender control of their manuscript. Yes we seek input and opinion, particularly when we are writing outside of our direct experience, but we also hold the final cut. No beta reader, SME, or sensitivity reader controls the words on the page.

In my opinion Mr. Dreher has always been one of the more hysterical voices when it comes to religious and sexual issues. It seems he holds an idealized and utterly realistic vision of what American and humanity has been in the past and longs for a return to that comfortable, for him and his people, fantasy

Well, I am not here to make people comfortable …

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The Boy Who Cried Wolf’s Two Lessons.

Just about everyone is familiar with the fable of the boy who cried wolf. How as he guarded the villages sheep the boy twice raised the alarm of a wolf when none threatened, laughing as everyone rushed to defend the flock, and when a wolf actually threatened the flock and he raised the alarm for a third time no one answered. In the versions I heard the wolf ate the boy, but that it self is patently silly. The wolf is there for the sheep but we have the boy eaten so he suffers for his foolishness.

Of course the lesson everyone takes away from this fable is that you should not raise an alarm without cause lest you be ignored when danger truly raises its head.

However, I think there is a second lesson hidden in the simple story, a lesson that is missed by most listeners.

Consider the ramifications after the boy alarm is ignored that third time. The wolf, unimpeded, ravishes the flock and the village suffers a devastating loss. It is true that the boy’s false alarms created a situation where his word is doubted, but that doesn’t bring back the killed and stolen sheep.

To me the second lesson is that even though the boy has lied and is untrustworthy that does not mean there is no wolf. You must verify for yourself if the alarm is real and fake, to act otherwise is foolish and endangers your own concerns.

I think this second lesson is equally important as the first and has plenty of applicability today.

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It Must be Denounced

It is very hard to summon any sympathy for a NAZI punched in the face. I will confess that the task is beyond my empathic skills; I have no sympathy for him.

That said political violence must never be condoned, celebrated, or tolerated. That is a beast that cannot be controlled.

Last night I was discussing politics with a fellow writer. A smart and well educated man who admitted that he thought the USA right now has a real Weimar Republic feel to it. I disagreed.

I have spoke before on this blog that the depth of our instructions, established for hundreds of years are incomparable to a Republic that existed for less than twenty, but there is another very important distinction between where we are now and where Germany was in the interwar period; violence.

The Weimar Republic in it’s brief run was host to more than three hundred political assassinations, and that’s not tallying the street brawls and violent intimidation that was common, that is just the political murders.

Violence in the name of politics must never be unleashed and those who do it must be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Even a NAZI must be protected from the rage of the mob or we are all subject their their fickle favors.

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