Lessons Learned from Swimming Blindly Through the Aural Seas

When I write I have some idea of where I’m going. As you can see from my experiment with trying to go free form, I need some structure when I write. Nonetheless, when I write I’m acting with intention and purpose – I see where I want to go and try to get there.

When I make music, it’s almost completely the opposite. Essentially, music comes about in one of two ways. First, I get a flash of inspiration when a riff or rhythm or something pops into my head (and, hopefully, onto the computer). Second, I take whatever winds up on “tape” and fiddle around with it, adding things, taking things away, and generally just figuring out what works. I very rarely come to a song idea with a clear conception of what the end product should be.

In other words, when I write, it’s like setting out to sea in a boat, with charts, a destination, and a plan on how to get there. When I make music, it’s more like diving in head first and seeing where the tide sees fit to deposit me. Swimming blindly, if you will.

That’s not to say that the drifting, searching musical creation doesn’t require making choices. Sometimes, those choices are relevant when it comes to thinking about writing, too.

I’ve been thinking about this lately after finishing a new song with the deviously serious title of “Dummy Tickle” (it’s embedded below). I have no idea where that title came from, because this song, all not-quite-four minutes of it, began five years ago.

Which brings me to lesson number one I’ve learned from making music – creativity takes time.

The DAW I use has a metadata field that lets you put just about anything you want in it. I always put (1) when I started the song; (2) when I finished “writing” it; and (3) when I got it in final form (mixed down, etc.). It’s a very rare thing when a song goes from idea to completion in a week or a month. Usually it takes a while, but not five years.

What was I doing with “Dummy Tickle” for five years? I’d like to say I tried out dozens of different things to try and bring the basic idea (that lazy, bouncy bass line and equally laid back melody) to bigger, better life. Nothing really clicked, nothing seemed right. I let it go for a while, but every time I went back and listened to unfinished tracks I thought “there’s something there” and marked it down as something to finish.

Finally, a few weeks ago, something clicked. I don’t know precisely what or why then – maybe a session of playing with the puppies trigger up some kind of endorphin rush or something. How couldn’t they?

Pups
Anyway, the damn burst and I started making progress. It just took some time to get there. Patience really is a virtue, especially when it comes to creative things.

Still, it wasn’t a matter of just banging out a few more notes and being done with things. I was in need of ideas for a transition, a middle section, and started playing around with a couple of chord progressions.

Then I hit on the second lesson I’ve learned from “Dummy Tickle” – sometimes, simpler is better.

I have a sign tacked to the wall in my studio:

Monphonist Pic

I put it up when I realized that a lot of the early electronic music I like – from ethereal Tangerine Dream to the synth-pop of The Human League and OMD – was done by people with access only to monophonic synthesizers (that is, ones that can make only one sound at a time). That is, they can only make one note at a time. By contrast, without even getting into the virtual synths in my arsenal, I can bring to bear 150 voices! At once! I only have 10 fingers, after all.

My point is I tend to think in chords, even thought single notes are often what’s called for. After struggling to find the right sequence for this song, I backed off and gave it a fresh look. And I looked at my sign. The heart of this song was that simple bass line, the simple melody. Don’t mess that up by building it up unnecessarily. Take the simple route. Thus, that middle section was composed entirely of monophonic lines weaving together – as was the rest of the song.

None of this is Earth shattering. Still, as creators sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the vision of more – more words, more notes, more colors – until you disappear up your own backside in search of your next complexity fix. Sometimes you have to step back and think about what works for the song, book, or whatever it is you’re making. Some of them are just simple little things that don’t have airs on being anything more.

“Dummy Tickle” is like that. A little goof of a tune, a good mood wrought by bouncy synths. Enjoy!

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People Are Dopes

As the song says, “you can’t get something for nothing”, but that doesn’t keep businesses from trying. Think about the free advertising your local car dealer gets from those plastic license plate brackets they put on before you drive off the lot. Or the self check out at the local grocery store. Or even the increasing trend of replacing actual human customer service with detailed FAQs and AI. In all of these situations businesses are asking (well, requiring) you to do something extra for them without any compensation.

Hotels may be the worst. You’ve no doubt seen the cards in most hotel rooms these days explaining how you can avoid the hassle of housekeeping – fresh towels, new sheets – by putting them in a specific place or whatever. Framed as paeans to the environment, make no mistake – the main motivation is the bottom line. If enough guests forego services, it costs the company less. Voila.

Now they’re being really brazen about it. A recent New York Times article explores how various hotels and resorts are beginning to ask up front if guest want to skip the housekeeping by offering incentives. Piddling small incentives, if you ask me – $5 credits for food and drinks or at the spa or fitness center, rewards points for their loyalty programs, those sorts of things. My favorite, however, is this one:

Starwood launched its initiative at the Sheraton Seattle in 2008. Guests who declined housekeeping service for up to three consecutive days received a choice of either 500 Starpoints (in its Starwood Preferred Guests program) or a $5 food and beverage gift card.

Wow – three whole days without a service built into the room rate and you get five entire bucks for it!

I don’t object to the basic practice here – I’ve cancelled housekeeping services before when I’ve been on the road. But that’s a variance from the norm that I’m requesting as a customer. I’ve got no reason to expect compensation. But if the offer flows the other way, there should be some real compensation involved. Want to offer me a lower level of service? Drop the price of the room.

But people, generally, are dopes when it comes to such things. So programs like this will likely spread through the industry and companies will exploit this new way to help pad the bottom line.

To put it another way, when one of my financial management companies sends me a mailing telling me I could opt for electronic delivery, because “we’re fond of paper . . . in its original form,” I don’t think they’re really talking about the environment. Although, I guess green is the color of healthy trees. See how sneaky they are?

Don’t be a dope!

Kermit Fuck

Legal Realism In the Wild

Ken over at Popehat poses an interesting philosophical question:

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make sound? If a right goes unrecognized and defied by the people charged with enforcing it, is it a right at all?

The answer may seem obvious, but it falls into what’s traditionally been a blind spot in legal philosophy.

A major enterprise of the philosophy of law is not only defining what a “law” is, but also identifying when, if ever, said laws shouldn’t be followed. To that end, there are two large camps among legal philosophers (along with numerous fringe theories that I’m just going to assume don’t exist for the length of this post).

Natural law theorists are that laws (or at least just laws) exist outside of human efforts at generating them. Therefore, human laws that conflict with natural law are invalid can be ignored. By contrast, legal positivists argue that what makes a law valid and just is the way its produced, thus making it completely a creature of human endeavor.

Both positions have serious issues. Natural law theory all but invites people to ignore laws they don’t like on the ground that it conflicts “natural law” (probably God’s law, but not necessarily). That’s fine and dandy if it’s not abiding by the Fugitive Slave Act, much less so if a modern Abraham decides he needs to engage in child sacrifice. But the legal positivist argument loses sight of broader notions of justice in favor of procedure. After all, lots of laws in Nazi Germany were properly proposed and enacted, but they were still vulgar and (at a gut level) invalid. Neither theory completely survives interaction with the real world.

So what happens in real life when, as Ken asks, a right is defied by the people responsible for protecting it? Something like this.

A woman in Georgia complained on Facebook that her ex-husband wouldn’t help out by making a drug store run when she and kid (the ex’s kid, too) had the flu. In other words, she called him a jerk (a friend chimed in that he was a “POS”). However, the ex just happens to be an officer in the local sheriff’s department. Thus, in a lawsuit she:

contends that her husband, a friend in the Sheriff’s Department, and a county “magistrate” put her in jail for her Facebook comment. According to her, Captain King filed a police report with his friend, Washington County Sheriff’s Investigator Trey Burgamy. Washington County magistrate Ralph O. Todd — who is not a lawyer, and who ran unopposed last year — issued a warrant requiring Anne King and Susan Hines (who had responded on Facebook by suggesting Captain King is a “POS”) to appear at a hearing. After a hearing at which Captain King was the only witness, Magistrate Todd caused a warrant to issue charging Anne King with criminal defamation: “SUBJECT DID, WITHOUT A PRIVILEGE TO DO SO AND WITH INTENT TO DEFAME ANOTHER, COMMUNICATE FALSE MATTER WHICH TENDS TO EXPOSE ONE WHO IS ALIVE TO HATRED, CONTEMPT, OR RIDICULE, AND WHICH TENDS TO PROVOKE A BREACH OF THE PEACE, SPECIFICALLY, SUBJECT DID MAKE DEROGATORY AND DEGRADING COMMENTS DIRECTLY AT AND ABOUT COREY KING, FOR THE PURPOSE OF PROVIDING A BREACH OF THE PEACE. Anne King also contends that Magistrate Todd threatened to “ban her from Facebook.”

The magistrate also falsely informed her that although she could call the ex a piece of shit to his face, she couldn’t post it on Facebook. Just to make it perfectly clear, the statute she was accused of violating was always a violation of the First Amendment, was recognized as such by the Georgia Supreme Court in 1982 and removed from the books by the legislature in 2015. In other words, neither the cop nor the magistrate had any legal authority to do what they did and the woman had a clear First Amendment right to say what she wanted (a few days later a “real judge,” as Ken puts it, dismissed the charge).

How does either natural law theory or legal positivism deal with this woman’s experience? Not well, which is why there’s a third way, one which I’ve subscribed to for a long time – legal realism.

Legal realism says, in essence, that law is whatever those with the power to make it and (more importantly) enforce it say it is. Higher notions of what law should be or what makes a “just” law don’t make any difference. If The Man says you’re going to jail, you’re going to jail.

My go to hypothetical for this used to be if the president signed a “Legal Philosopher Protection Act” that made a particular philosopher (John Rawls, Ron Dworkin – insert your favorite here!) off limits from academic criticism. Professor says, “that clearly violates the First Amendment” and duly proceeds to slag off on Rawls or whoever. Student reports Professor, who is hauled out of the classroom by a pair of US Marshalls. At some point things get sorted out, but not before an arrest, some period of custody/incarceration, and an awfully lot of bruised feelings.

Yet, that’s essentially what happened to the woman in Georgia – arrested for violating a law struck down during the Reagan administration for conduct that anyone with a working knowledge of the First Amendment knows cannot be a crime. And yet, there was an arrest. There was custody. And there are certainly hurt feelings.

There’s a meme that floats around about science:

science

Law kind of works the same way. We can argue esoterically about the nature of law, what it really is, and whether any particular law is just. But at the end of the day, when the cops arrive at your door to slap the cuffs on, they’re not interested in any of that. What they say goes, at least for long enough to make things miserable. Any theory that doesn’t recognize that has serious issues.

My Watery Bridge Too Far

I’ve talked before about the flying snowman point, the point at which a reader or viewer is no longer willing to suspend disbelief to enjoy a story. There’s a similar thing that happens when certain things are depicted in the narrative, things that are so off putting that they ruin things, or at least leave a sour aftertaste.

I’ve read some people for whom that thing is rape, either survivors who don’t want to relive their trauma or people who just think it’s something that is too casually thrown around in fiction. For my wife it’s animal abuse or neglect. She can rarely push past that, once it comes up. I’ve always thought of myself as tougher than that, able to shrug off anything in the service of a narrative. A reader’s version of a cast iron stomach. Apparently, I was wrong.

Last year my wife and I took our belated honeymoon in Cambodia. It’s a beautiful, historic place, filled with friendly people. But it’s also the scene of one of the worst authoritarian regimes of the 20th Century. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s up to 2 million Cambodians died, either worked to death in a program of rural fixation or outright murdered as enemies of the state.

While we were in Phnom Penh we went to the Killing Fields outside the city, as well as the Tuol Sleng prison, from which many of those doomed people came.

TS1

Tuol Sleng is a former school and it’s been left largely in the same condition in which the Vietnamese found it when they rolled into the city in 1979. In fact, rooms in which prisoners were murdered just ahead of the Vietnamese advance still have blood on the walls and ceilings. Of the 17,000 of people sent to Tuol Sleng only a dozen survived (we met one of them). It’s easy enough to be horrified at the place just be using your imagination.

Not that you’re limited to that. Several rooms are given over to exhibits about what went on there. In one room there are implements of torture, as well as paintings done by a survivor of the various torture techniques. Take a look at this picture:

TS2

See the painting in the right, behind the rack upon which victims would lay while their fingernails were pulled out? It depicts waterboarding, simulated drowning, which was a crime against humanity when the Khmer Rouge did it, a war crime when the Japanese did it in World War II, but mere an “enhanced interrogation technique” during our glorious War on Terror. Whatever it’s called, it’s torture and the thought that it’s been done in my name turns my stomach.

Which brings me to Channel Blue, a comic sci-fi novel by Jay Martel. In the book a down and out Los Angeles screenwriter, Perry, accidentally learns that the Earth is actually a huge reality TV show run for the benefit of an alien race. Even worse, ratings are down and the show’s been cancelled – in other words, the Earth is to be destroyed. Perry does his best to save it, but each attempts tends to fail miserably and leads to Perry suffering in all kinds of ways.

The other night, while going through another of these episodes (it gets kind of tedious), Perry is identified as a potential terrorist, taken to a secret location, and waterboarded. Not for any good reason (he’s back on his way quickly enough), but, there it is – a depiction of waterboarding in what’s otherwise been a funny, light bit of entertainment. It stopped me cold.

It’s not that I object to any depiction of torture in literature or film. But it’s one thing to depict it as part of a serious work, perhaps shedding light on the brutality of the whole process. It’s quite different to put it in a comedic work even if the act itself wasn’t played for laughs.

But if that’s true, what about one of my favorite books (and others) of all time? Very early on in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the entire planet Earth is destroyed. It’s played completely as a joke – the Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Billions of people are killed. That’s never bothered me – why not?

I think it comes down to realism, oddly enough. Realistically, the Earth is not going to be destroyed, certainly not to make way for a hyperspace bypass by an alien race spouting awful poetry. The idea is so absurd that it’s not worth taking seriously. By contrast, waterboarding of alleged terrorist suspects is something we’ve done, and not in the recent past.

I’ll admit this is probably not a rational response. Most things like this are more visceral than intellectual (although not all). There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as people recognize it. I guess I do now.

Weekly Read: Darkness at Noon

An awful lot has been written about Darkness At Noon, Arthur Koestler’s searing portrayal of a Communist revolutionary brought down by the inevitable logic of his own ideology. Hell, this review in the New York Times when it initially came out in 1941 sums things up pretty well. It’s fascinating, thoughtful, and ultimately tragic. On that most people agree, so I’m not going to waste time going on about its strengths here.

I’m more interested on a couple of things that popped into my head while reading it about Rubashov, the doomed protagonist. The TLDR version of the plot is that Rubashov was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution (the country isn’t specifically named, but it’s identity is hardly concealed) who, during the pre-World War II purges by Stalin was caught up in the machine he helped create. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it costs Rubashov his life, as it did Nikolai Bukharin and the other Old Bolsheviks upon whom the character is based.

Rubashov spends the entire book in prison, although we learn about his earlier life through flashbacks. What we see is someone who is an experienced, if not practiced, prisoner. He knows to calmly pace around his cell as a means of exercise and as a way to keep his mind clear. He has no problem using code to talk with the prisoners on either side of him through the walls of their cells. More than anything else, he doesn’t freak out.

In fact, that’s what is most interesting about Rubashov as a character. The typical person thrown in prison by a tyrannical state, mentally tortured, and force to confess to ridiculous crimes is a fighter, a person in constant resistance. We see how he spits in the face of authority, struggles to retain any control over his life that he can. In other words, he goes down fighting. Rubashov doesn’t do any of that. It would be wrong to say he accepts his fate. He does spend most of the book trying to talk his way out of execution, after all. But he does it with the knowledge that it will most likely be futile.

The futility is due to the system itself, in which he played a major role. Not only was he an early loyal fighter for the Revolution, he was a philosopher of sorts, particularly good at spreading the message to others. But when you’re fighting for the Revolution, everything gets viewed through the prism of whether it’s revolutionary or anti-revolutionary. Not only is there no middle ground, there are no topics that are immune from its grip. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, ideology poisons everything.

That’s best exemplified by a fellow prisoner, Bogrov, who was convinced that the nation should build fewer, bigger submarines (with a better range), as opposed to building more, but smaller, submarines. As Rubashov’s interrogator explains, both positions were valid from an engineering and economic point of view, but they had radically different impacts on Revolutionary theory. Larger submarines with more offensive capability meant prioritizing a global Revolution, while the smaller and more numerous submarines signaled self defense and strengthening the Revolution at home. Number 1 (Stalin) favored the later course, so poor Bogrov was branded counter revolutionary and dealt with in the only way such things can be dealt with – “liquidation.”

What’s amazing is how much this part of Darkness At Noon still resonates today. In modern American politics there are very few issues where there is a reasonable middle ground, at least when it comes to pundits and shouting on social media platforms. The other side isn’t just loyal opposition, it’s the enemy. Their policies aren’t just wrong, their evil, immoral, and (in the terms of the novel) anti-revolutionary. Regardless if you’re on the left or right, you think you’re the revolutionary one, of course. Not only does such simple minded mudslinging make it difficult for anything of importance to be done, it leads to reductive thinking about the other side. If they’re evil, if they’re immoral, if they’re leading the nation to ruin, then liquidation really isn’t that farfetched as a solution is it?

That’s why I’m a little disappointed to see some readers (in Goodreads commentary and whatnot) dismiss Darkness At Noon as a product of its time, an interesting historical curiosity, but not much more. While it’s true that the specific ideology on offer in the book is largely a thing of the past, the risk of what unchecked loyalty to an abstract ideology can become is very much a lesson that transcends the specifics of the Russian Revolution. Ideologues become obsessed with purity, an obsession that will inevitably turn on fellow ideologues once the people who everybody agrees are impure are purged at the beginning. Nobody is ever pure enough.

The snake will always eat its tail, unless its tempered by some contrary vision and some humanity. That’s a lesson worth learning, regardless of the specifics of how it’s taught.

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Weekly Watch: American Sniper

I’ve said, for a long time, that all art is subjective. Beyond the fact that art impacts different people in different ways, that’s because different people bring different perspectives and experiences to art in the first place. Two people looking at the same artistic work (or reading it or listening to it) can come to very different opinions about it based on the individual lens through which they’re doing the viewing. In that sense, art can become a Rorschach test, saying more about the person reacting to it than the art itself. A good recent example of that was American Sniper.

It’s a fictionalized account of the life of Chris Kyle, credited as the most prolific sniper in American military history. He racked up that total during the Iraq war. Ironically, given that he made his reputation with a gun, Kyle’s life was ended by another veteran at a shooting range in 2013. I have no doubt that the perceptions and values I brought to the movie colored the way I saw it.

It’s an interesting, if muddled, film. After a quick flashback intro, it alternates between harrowing battle scenes based in Iraq (the last one, which involves an all engulfing sandstorm, is really impressive) and home front scenes in Texas that shows how much impact the experiences are having on Kyle. The problem is that it never commits to either venue. It’s neither an all out war movie, nor is it a deep examination of the problems faced when vets come home.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the way it glosses over Kyle’s life once he left Iraq behind. I don’t mean his death – that’s not shown on screen. I mean his transformation from brooding, seriously messed up soldier to a loving father and husband who was putting his experiences to use helping other veterans. All that’s covered with such brevity that it might as well have been a musical montage.

As I said, American Sniper turned into a kind of Rorschach test, with reviews saying more about the person talking about it than the film itself. That was true whether it was a professional pundit or some random person popping up on the Internet.

On the pundit side, check out Matt Taibbi’s review. I like Taibbi and agree with him on a lot of things, but I have to wonder if he actually watched the moving before writing that. It’s much more about what it isn’t – a catalog of the sins of the Bush administration and the Iraq War – than what it is. Instead, it’s very personal story about one man in the middle of something bigger. In fact, the plot makes it a mano y mano battle between Kyle and his Iraqi counterpart suggesting (as the recent Sicario did for the drug war) that everything, even war, in the end, is personal.

If liberal pundits were quick to slam the film for its perceived politics, conservatives were quick to praise it for the same reasons – because they found their politics positively reflected in it. Personally, if I thought American Sniper was validation of my politics, I would be very frightened. But I come to it with my own baggage, right?

See what I mean about a Rorschach test?

And it goes beyond politics. Take, for instance, this discussion in IMDB about how Eastwood ruined a perfectly good “war movie” by having scenes with a “whining wife” in them. Ignoring the fact that Eastwood wasn’t interested in making a “war movie” or that movies with scenes of warfare in them can be about more than killing bad guys.

American Sniper isn’t unique in this, although the effect is amplified because it deals with recent history, politics, and overseas adventures that are still causing us all kinds of problems. It might have cut across that divide with a little more commitment to being one thing or the other.

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What Is Criminal Law, Chopped Liver?

Thanks to Orin Kerr over at Volokh, I saw this piece for a recent issue of Time magazine in which numerous scholars were asked to name the best and worst Supreme Court decisions since 1960. As with most such lists it’s only interesting in prompting discussion, not as a real normative exercise. It’s also interesting for what is completely absent from the discussion.

The cases mentioned, either good or bad, all tend to be cases involving interpretation of the Constitution, rather than statutory or regulatory cases. That makes sense – statutory or regulatory decisions that get it “wrong” can be effectively overruled by Congress or the executive branch. Constitutional rulings, for good or ill, hang around longer.

Nor am I as surprised as Kerr that the folks sampled focused more on the long-term impact of a particular case than the legal reasoning of it. While lawyers and academics may get caught up in the details of legal reasoning, in the real world a case’s impact is the only thing that really matters. A well-reasoned case that reaches a wrong or otherwise bad conclusion still strikes me as a “bad” decision.

But putting all that to one side, while the cases cited by the panel cover a wide range of topics – free speech, racial and LGBT equality, federalism, etc. – there’s one area that’s overlooked completely. Much to my surprise, nobody thought a decision involving criminal law was among the Court’s best or worst in the last seven and a half decades.

A caveat – I realize that some cases that deal with other issues are criminal cases. I’m thinking of Texas v. Johnson, which involved flag burning. It only got to the Court because someone got prosecuted, but it’s really a First Amendment case, not a criminal law case. On garden variety bread and butter criminal cases, the surveyed experts are oddly silent.

Consider some of the landmark criminal law decisions issued by the Supreme Court since 1960:

  • Miranda v. Arizona (1966): Of “You have the right to remain silent . . .” fame.
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963): Of “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you at no charge” fame.
  • Terry v. Ohio (1968): The birth of “reasonable suspicion” as a part of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and, arguably, the beginning of the end of the Fourth Amendment.
  • Whren v. United States (1996): Enshrining the “objective” analysis for Fourth Amendment issues, effectively allowing cops to make stops on pretextural grounds.
  • Ohio v. Roberts (1980) & Crawford v. Washington (2004): Two for the price of one – in Roberts, the Court largely eviscerated the Sixth Amendment’s right to confrontation, so long as the evidence in question was otherwise “reliable,” while in Crawford the Court reversed, and held that confrontation itself is the Constitutional engine of reliability.
  • Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000): Holding that the Sixth Amendment required any fact that enhances a sentence to be alleged in an indictment and proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The basis, eventually (in United States v. Booker [2005]), for the declaration that the United States Sentencing Guidelines were, as enacted, unconstitutional.

And that overlooks every death penalty case for the past several decades. Given that all these cases involve interpretation of the Constitution and have had far reaching impacts (for good or ill – pick you side), it seems strange that not one of the 15 people interviewed for the Time piece picked one. The question is why?

Maybe it’s just a matter of limited room. In any “best/worst” list there’s going to be worthy items that just miss making the cut. Maybe some (or all) of those cases were considered and rejected. A lot of second choices, perhaps.

But I can’t help shake the idea that, just maybe, not a lot of people give a shit about criminal law, unless they’re directly involved in it. It’s easy to see yourself involved with a First Amendment issue or concerned about equality under the law. Less so when it comes to criminal procedure. Most people don’t care about things like confrontation of witnesses or appointed lawyers until they need it themselves. That’s partly why only now, after decades of unprecedented incarceration, does the public at large seem concerned about it.

Perhaps I undersell the academics in the Time piece. I hope so. One of the things that legal scholars and those of us in the legal community need to do a better job of doing is impressing upon people how issues that don’t necessarily impact them directly still need their attention when it comes to politics and policy. One way to do that would be to acknowledge how important the Supreme Court’s criminal docket is.

Weekly Watch: Sicario

The War on (Other People’s) Drugs has always been great fodder for Hollywood. There are good guys, there are bad guys, and the violent nature of the drug trade means there’s lots of opportunities for shootouts and car chases and all the other action movie stuff that Americans love. Rarely do these movies ask if there might be something pointless about the whole exercise.

Sicario has a lot of those trappings, but they’re seen through a smudged lens. There are bad guys, all right. There are good guys, but from early on the question of just how good they are is in play. And there are plenty of well played action sequences, including the most tense road trip ever that didn’t involve your in-laws.

But there’s something else going on in Sicario, largely because the main character, played by Emily Blunt, has so little to do with the bigger picture into which she’s swept. She’s a tactical specialist brought into an operation that doesn’t have anything to do with her specialty (hostage rescue). That leaves her with lots of time to question the legality and morality of the entire operation. She never really comes around, but gets beaten down by what she sees.

It’s an interesting narrative choice. A more traditional approach would have made Benicio del Toro’s character the protagonist, which would fit comfortably into the ever popular revenge fantasy niche (del Toro, by the way is fantastic – Oscar, here he comes). But that would make us root for him in a way that making Blunt the main character doesn’t allow. We look at what she does with the same kind of (hopefully) disgusted detachment.

That being said, what does Sicario say about the War on (Other People’s) Drugs itself? Two things, both of which aren’t likely to come through in your typical action flick.

For one, the film implies that the high minded ideals of the war are actually just cover for much more personal motives. The head of all this covert fun, Josh Brolin’s character, first tries to convince Blunt that his strategy is about luring a big cartel’s main man in the US to go to Mexico, to the big boss, since they don’t know where he is. Blunt’s objection that they don’t have jurisdiction in Mexico is waved away. Next, he tries to justify the op with a kind of drug-fueled real politik – that the actual problem is the expanding number of cartels shipping drugs to the US and that the solution is to make sure there are fewer of them that can, at least, be more easily controlled.

All this is, to put it politely (oh, spoiler alert!), bullshit. At its heart, the story Sicario tells is a revenge story. Del Toro’s character, who’s position in the governmental hierarchy is never nailed down, is in it to avenge the death of his wife and child. Thus, all the issues about violating another nation’s sovereignty and the scope of a particular agency’s authority are pushed aside for the most personal of motives.

The other thing that comes through comes as a result of some scenes in Juarez, Mexico, that follow a Mexican state police officer (an important distinction from the Mexican federal officers). His son plays soccer, which is just a detail about his home life until the very end. His mother takes him to a game, played on a bare dirt lot in Juarez, around which the sounds of gunfire rattle off every few moments. At first it’s unsettling, but everyone goes on with their lives.

The point, it seems to me, is that even after a great blow has been struck against the bad guys, the problem continues to exist. My theory has long been that the reason the War on (Other People’s) Drugs is destined to fail is because it’s actually a war on human desire, a desire to escape the shitty world around us. Sicario seems to agree that it’s ultimately fruitless, but on other grounds.

Either way, it’s refreshing to see a movie that, on the one hand, is set up to be the conventional good guy v. bad guy story, then turns out to ask deeper questions. Throw in lots of great performances and some really tense set pieces and Sicario is an excellent, if unsettling, piece of work.

Sicario

Why The Muppets Doesn’t Work For Me

Last week, I had a chance to watch the pilot of the newest version of the Muppets, this time a prime-time sitcom called (creatively) The Muppets. In many ways it’s a setup taken from the beloved Muppet Show of the 1970s – our gang gets together and puts on a show every week, with backstage wackiness providing grist for the comedy mill. But something didn’t sit quite right about it with me:

There were a few good jokes, and it’s always good to see Dr. Teeth and crew back on TV, but the whole thing just didn’t work for me. I thought about it for a bit and finally figured out why. There’s one important difference between the classic Muppet Show and the new one, one that kind of ruins the whole thing for me.

If you look closely at the old Muppet Show, you’ll notice that it doesn’t take place in our world. Obviously, that’s true of any TV show with talking puppets, but what I mean is that it’s a Muppet world there – we’re just invited in every week. Look at the audience – it’s all puppets! It’s truly a fantastic thing, something that exists outside of reality and the humdrum of the real world. Human guest stars were clearly playing along for the fun of it.

By contrast, The Muppets is set in our world, modified slightly by the presence of a late-night talk show hosted and run by felt creatures (sort of like the kiddy morning show in that puppetastic episode of Angel). We’re not visiting their madcap, zany, confusing world – they’re visiting ours. And ours, well, kind of sucks in comparison.

I agree with David Sims, writing in The Atlantic:

But entirely gone is the manic energy of The Muppet Show, the classic behind-the-scenes formula that gave Jim Henson’s creations their big break. In its place is sardonic drudgery that makes for very unenjoyable viewing.

Dan Caffrey at the AV Club kind of hits on the same thing, from a different direction, when discussing a scene from that first episode:

Sometime later, there’s a flashback to the demise of Kermit and Piggy’s relationship . . .. The breakup itself isn’t anything surprising—Kermit has, quite fairly, grown tired of dealing with the constant bouts of vanity, jealousy, and anger from his famous partner—but then something unexpected happens. After he delivers the bad news, the handheld camera hangs on Piggy, shaking ever so slightly. Her breathing gets labored, her snout scrunches up, the camera continues to wobble. It looks like she’s going to cry—not the dramatic sob she’s done plenty of times in the past to get what she wants, but a stoic, painful, honest-to-goodness cry. Suddenly, we’re viewing Miss Piggy in a sympathetic light, thanks to the use of a convention we’ve seen in so many mockumentary breakup scenes before. Her character expands into something much more complex and—I’ll just come out and say it—human.

I don’t disagree with the technical aspects of the scene – they’re well done, even moving. But I don’t care because I don’t want Muppets who have real world problems. That’s the whole fucking point of the Muppets in the first place, isn’t it? If you’re telling stories that could just as easily be told with live people in their place, it seems kind of useless.

Let me say, at this point, that I’m talking strictly on a subjective level of “quality” here. The calls in some quarters for ABC to cancel the show because it’s “indecent” or whatever are just silly. Muppets dealing with some real world situations does not equal smut. You want smut with puppets? I’ll give you smut with puppets:

I’m clearly in the minority on this, but that’s OK. Over the years I’ve concluded I’m very hard on reboots for jettisoning what I see as the essential elements of the property being revived. Don’t care for Daniel Craig’s Bond flicks because, to me, they seem like generic action flicks, without the charm of the Bond flicks I grew up with. Don’t care for JJ Abrams’s reboot of Star Trek, which takes a thoughtful sci-fi property and turns into yet another excuse to blow shit up while being cool (I have more hope for his take on Star Wars, however). Just chock this up as another example.

Stick Your High Art Where the Sun Don’t Shine!

Another blast from the past . . .

OK, not really. I’ve got nothing against what most people think of as “high” art – I enjoy quite a bit of it – I just object to the classification. Regardless of how well-meaning or merely taxonomic it strives to be, it carries an implied judgment of “low” art as being, somehow, not worth as much. By further implication, it suggests that those who enjoy or make “low” art are somehow lesser than those who deal with “high” art.

I bring this up because of a recent essay over at the New York Times philosophy blog by Gary Gutting (with an assist from Virginia Woolf) about the divergence. Along the way, he appears to argue that musical worth, at least (it’s unclear if his metrics would apply to literature, film, or visual arts) can actually be quantified and judged objectively.

Along the way, he lays down this assertion:

Centuries of unresolved philosophical debate show that there is, in fact, little hope of refuting someone who insists on a thoroughly relativist view of art. We should not expect, for example, to provide a definition of beauty (or some other criterion of artistic excellence) that we can use to prove to all doubters that, say, Mozart’s 40th Symphony is objectively superior as art to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ But in practice there is no need for such a proof, since hardly anyone really holds the relativist view.

* raises hand *

I’m not sure how many of us there are, but I for one will proudly admit to being a relativist on the quality of art. Someone’s interaction with art is so personal, so bound up in the quirks of our own experiences, that it’s impossible to convert that interaction to some kind of objective measurement. For the record, I’m not ignoring the objective fact of consensus – that I like something a majority of the world can’t stand doesn’t make them right and me wrong, but it does mean I’m swimming against the current.

Anyway, back to the philosopher, who continues:

We may say, ‘You can’t argue about taste,’ but when it comes to art we care about, we almost always do.

Well, yeah, people will argue about things that matter to them, be it art, politics, or sports. Just because we do doesn’t mean the arguments can be won on some kind of objective scale. Humans will argue about anything!

He goes on:

You may, for example, maintain that the Stones were superior to the Beatles (or vice versa) because their music is more complex, less derivative, and has greater emotional range and deeper intellectual content. Here you are putting forward objective standards from which you argue for a band’s superiority. Arguing from such criteria implicitly rejects the view that artistic evaluations are simply matters of personal taste. You are giving reasons for your view that you think others ought to accept

Several things strike me as wrong about this.

The most important one, I think, is that Gutting is conflating the manner in which someone defends a preference with the actual basis upon which that preference rests. I’ve listened to an awful lot of music in my four decades on the planet, from the most popular radio hits to the most obscure wind band compositions. A lot of those I’ve listened to because of “hey, if you liked X, you’ll like Y, too” recommendations. I’m not sure they’re worth any more than a coin flip when it comes to predicting whether I’ll like it or not. Some things move me, some things don’t. The same is true for everybody, isn’t it?

More likely, these “objective” standards upon which Gutting relies are not the considerations we have when we decides something moves us, but post-hoc rationalizations to try and explain why that thing moved us. At the end of the day, I can’t really say why I prefer Marillion to Magma.* I suppose I could dig into the construction of the various songs and come up with some reasons for it, but they’d be meaningless. Most of the time, I’d rather listen to Brave than Udu Wudu. But sometimes not, you know? I can’t really tell you why.

Gutting’s reference to “objective” standards make me think of people who argue about whether one athlete is better than another when they’re separated by decades. Yes, statistics will be trotted out to support argue that Pele is better than Lionel Messi (or vice versa), but they don’t prove anything. Too many years have passed, the game has changed, etc. Ultimately, we have our favorite in mind before the argument begins and scramble to find some justification for it. If it was as simple as “consult these objective measurements” there’d be nothing to argue about.

Another flaw in Gutter’s presentation is assuming that those things he lists are “objective” to begin with. I’ll give him a pass on complexity for now (although more of that later), but the others have not just some, but large amounts of, subjectivity inherent in them. Whether something is “derivative” is a value judgment, in the end. Any musician is influenced by other music she’s heard and is, to some point, derivative of what’s come before. What’s the dividing line for being too derivative? What if it’s a parody, pastiche, or homage, anyway? Even more untethered from objective measurement are a piece’s “emotional range” and “intellectual content.”

As for complexity, how to measure it and what it means isn’t readily apparent. “Complex” generally implies some amount of difficulty, but any musician will tell you that sometimes playing something “simple” precisely and with musicality is more difficult than playing something that’s a tangled flurry of notes. Furthermore, that something is more complex doesn’t make it inherently more likely to connect with the listener. Quite the opposite, in fact. Returning to the Marillion/Magma example, few would argue if you called Magma’s more complex, but that wouldn’t lead inexorably to a conclusion that it was superior. For some folks it would be, for some folks it wouldn’t. For some people, there is a point where there are simply too many notes.

For another thing, using complexity as some sort of taxonomic tool fails to conflate like with like. Of course a three-minute song recorded in the early days of multitrack recording by four guys is less “complex” than a half-hour long symphony written to be performed by a full orchestra made up of dozens of people. So what? How does that help us judge either piece? It’s like saying desert is less nutritious than the main course – it utterly misses the point.

Someone in the comments to Gutter’s piece trotted out Duke Ellington’s aphorism:

There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind

But even that’s not quite right – there’s what you like and what you don’t; what moves you and what doesn’t; what you want to hear and what you don’t. That a lot of people agree with you, or a consensus develops down through history that a particular work is a masterpiece doesn’t change that.

At the end of the day, as I said, art is personal. To label some of it “high” and some of it “low” throws up class barriers where none really exist. People like what they like. Sometimes, they like the same stuff you do. Sometimes they don’t. Deal with it.

* Before I get any angry letters in Kobaïan, I dig Vander’s bunch when I’m in the mood. Don’t take it personally.

This post originally appeared at my old blog on July 18, 2013