Friday, October 30, 2009

Poetry Friday - Be still. The thing that I have made is silent ...

Be still. The thing that I have made is silent
and unmoving on the slab. Now cold
and unimpressive, it will by the violent
play of forces fearful to behold
shortly be animate, and beautiful.
They called me mad, and my experiments
obscene -- the fools! Is it so terrible
to seek perfection? With the instruments
of life, see now, I'll stimulate the heart
and soon, if all proceeds without a hitch,
my mother couldn't tell the two apart,
the thing and me. Now, throw the master switch:
only a moment more and you should see --
Oh, shit. It didn't work again. Why me?

Sometime around 1980.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Volver Volver Volver Volver

I've been distracted (bewitched? bothered? bewildered?) and disorganized recently, so I have nothing all that serious to post. Until I get my act together, here is some music.

First, a neat video of Chavela Vargas singing a song on Spanish TV about a decade ago. I love tough old ladies like her, and am moved both by her performance and by the love the audience and her fellow singers send her.

This is the version of "Volver" (different song, similar title) used in Almodรณvar's film Volver. Penelope Cruz lip-synched it, but it was sung by Estrella Morente. There's a music video of Cruz' performance (not exactly as it appears in the movie, but a promotional clip), but this video lets you concentrate on the song.

Here's Morente herself performing.

Finally, here's the original tango version of "Volver" by Carlos Gardel. And here Gardel sings it in a movie, with Spanish subtitles.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Poetry Friday - Great Oz

You are not, nor were meant to be, Great Oz.
On such a scale, of course, you count for nothing.
Still it must mean something that because
of you I've known such sorrow and self-loathing.
Years will pass, of course they will erase
the pain somewhat. Of course. No doubt
in time I'll lose the memory of your face.
It's not a thing I care to do without,
but time goes on. You'll dwindle till you're small,
then smaller, till you're lost to sight. I'm sure
I'll wonder why I wrote these lines at all --
how unimportant, actually, you were.
And when I write my memoirs, I will laugh,
and sum you all up in a paragraph.

Memoirs? Hah. Not bloody likely.
I think it was about this poem that a friend, on reading it, asked me in surprise, "Duncan -- do you want me to tell you how ambivalent that poem is?" Which let me know that I'd achieved what I was trying to do in it. I still wonder sometimes about his reaction, though: Are poems not allowed to be this ambivalent?
Anyway, it dates from 1979 or 1980.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Human Rights for Me

A strange little column/post by Eyal Press at the Nation site, "Obama, Human Rights, and the Chutzpah of Conservatives." Oh, I guess it's not really strange, it's just typical liberal apologetics for U.S. human rights policy. Press begins by quoting Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal op-ed writer, who criticizes the Obama administration for not pushing other countries hard enough on human rights. Stephens enumerates the countries -- China, Sudan, Iran, and Burma -- he thinks need more pressure as opposed to "engagement." Not a word about Honduras, though, nor Israel. Well, Stephens has a lot of matters on his plate. He concludes:

It also takes a remarkable degree of cynicism—or perhaps cowardice—to treat human rights as something that "interferes" with America's purposes in the world, rather than as the very thing that ought to define them. Yet that is exactly the record of Mr. Obama's time thus far in office.
I can't remember a President before Obama who concerned himself with human rights, beyond talk. Generally this sort of complaint turns up during every administration, from whatever side happens to be out of power at the time. I recall Jimmy Carter being jeered at by conservatives for his professed concern with human rights: self-styled realists and pragmatists from Carter's right complained that a dogmatic concern with human rights would interfere with America's purposes in the world. Ronald Reagan, on taking office, "pushed to overturn an arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by Carter because of its ghastly human rights record." A writer in the liberal Washington Monthly allows that "Reagan's indifference to human rights abuses committed by the United States' erstwhile allies in Central America is an especially ugly stain on his presidency. Yet, as time progressed, there was one place where he did apply the logic of bringing human rights into public policy: the Soviet Union." Reagan was less concerned about human rights in China, though. And after the Tienanmen Square massacres of 1989, George H. W. Bush moved with indecent haste to restore most-favored nation trade status to China, "asserting that the U.S. must maintain a dispassionate view of world events when considering its own economic interests ... Industry reaction was predictably mixed, with textile lobbyists debunking the decision, apparel groups staying neutral and importers hailing it." Ongoing human rights violations in China didn't stop George W. Bush from personally attending the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Carter himself had been equally selective in his concern for human rights, from Latin America to the Indonesian slaughter in East Timor, which Carter's administration funded and supplied. (As did all of his successors through Bill Clinton.)

The "chutzpah" about human rights, then, is a bipartisan affair, as Eyal Press shows. "In this as on other matters, [Obama] has made it clear that he is a cautious realist, not a crusading idealist." Besides,
As Stephen Walt usefully points out at the Politico, which invited various analysts to assess whether Obama is "punting" on human rights: "Of course he is. No U.S. President--not even Jimmy Carter--was ever willing to spend a lot of blood or treasure solely to advance human rights, and Obama isn't going to be the first. And given that the U.S. record on this issue has been tarnished by Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, forced rendition, "enhanced interrogation" (aka torture), extra-judicial killings (aka "targeted assassinations"), our reaction to the Goldstone Report, and the thousands dead as a result of the invasion of Iraq, I'd say a bit of humility on this front was probably in order."
I'd agree that humility at least is in order, but notice that bit about being "willing to spend a lot of blood or treasure solely to advance human rights." It's such a typical evasion, used especially by liberals to defend their side's human rights violations, as if they'd like to do something about the madness but we can't be everywhere at once, and besides, don't you leftist pacifists always criticize the US for trying to be the cop of the world? (I believe that Obama himself used this trope to excuse his foot-dragging after the coup in Honduras.) The thing is that U.S. Presidents, including Jimmy Carter, have been quite willing to spend a lot of treasure and blood (primarily the blood of dusky foreigners) to violate human rights and suppress democracy around the world. The trouble isn't that we're reluctant to intervene in other countries' affairs, but that we very happily and consistently do so.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Darling, Beneath This Butch Drag ...

I was a bad ... whatever last night, sitting up drinking with a couple of friends until 3 a.m. Fortunately I didn't have to be at work until 11:30 this morning, and I'm not much of a drinker anyway, so I wasn't hungover. But I am worn out, so I don't have much to say except to commend these two videos to your attention.

First up, George Takei from a couple of years ago, though I only saw it for the first time this past weekend. I was never a devotee of Sulu on Star Trek, Takei just isn't my type despite my general fondness for men of Asian descent; and while I was pleased when Takei finally came out publicly, I thought he'd be just another tiresome respectable Homo-American celeb trying to assure nervous heterosexuals that we're modest and quiet and would never want to make anyone uncomfortable. So this clip, in which he responded to a noisome bigot in a very funny way, delighted me. George can't quite bring it off -- comedy just isn't his forte -- but he gets an A for effort.

I found the Takei clip by browsing from this post on Stephen Rader's blog, which also gets credit for this clip today. I'm not much into bears, and these lads need to put on at least 50 pounds apiece before they fully qualify anyway, but they get points for campiness and exploding the stereotype that butch gay men never have any interest in doing girl group impressions. They could teach George a thing or two about doing comedy, too.

I haven't seen Glee yet (I don't watch TV, remember? my set doesn't have the digital converter, and I only use it to watch movies), but it looks like it's already corrupting the youth of our nation -- and about time. Let every boy in America get together with friends and mime "I Say a Little Prayer"!

By the way, I just noticed that I passed the 500 mark for posts on this blog a few days back. Not bad; I wasn't sure when I started it that I'd last this long.

P.S. It spreads, like a radioactive virus causing erogenous sores. (As an index of the degradation of our culture, Youtube videos now come with their own outtakes and bloopers reels.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Autumn of Love

I thought I'd be able to embed this Fox News video from Facebook, but evidently not, so you'll just have to use the link. At least one of my Facebook Friends, someone I went to high school with, thinks it's just the bee's knees, but that's just evidence of how damn dumb you have to be to believe what you see on Fox News.

First off, Fox's pundits think that a satirical sketch about a sitting President on Saturday Night Live is a sign that the liberal media's "love fest" with Obama is over. All it really means is that Saturday Night Live routinely does satirical sketches about sitting Presidents, regardless of their party affiliation. Fox's misreading is not surprising, though: the Right has always missed the jabs that liberal humorists direct at Democratic Presidents. Consider the Onion, which has been sniping at Obama as well as Republicans all along. Take Doonesbury: Garry Trudeau always has made fun of Democratic politicians, including Presidents, and liberals and leftists generally, ever since the early days of his comic strip. Following the American tendency to mistake politics for a sporting event where you cheer only for your team, conservatives have a great deal of trouble recognizing this. Then compare the Right's contender for an anti-Doonesbury, snoozefest Mallard Fillmore. How often I read it depends on how many discarded copies of the local newspaper I encounter, but I have never seen Bruce Tinsley make fun of Republicans or conservatives; that's one reason Mallard Fillmore is no threat to Doonesbury's hegemony.

Second, what liberal media love fest? The New York Times and the Washington Post have been fussing about Obama ever since he became a contender for the nomination, and they always gave George W. Bush an easy ride (though not as easy as Dubya's fans wanted, it's true -- that would be impossible). FAIR has been covering this: see their articles on alleged pro-Obama bias in the corporate media, for example.

Third, Fox's commentators are a bit confused about the political spectrum. The "left" has been skeptical, and harshly critical, of Obama all along. It's the center-right that loves him, though I know that "center-right" looks like "radical left" to Fox News and its audience. If the leftward wing of the center-right, roughly liberal Democrats, are starting to fall out of love with Obama, it's because they've begun to realize just how right-wing he is -- not, as the Fox pundits and their fans have it, because they've realized he's really a Socialist. Hence the GLBT Equality March from last weekend, a grassroots event very different from Obama's astroturfing, and therefore dismissed by Obama's partisans along with the Right. Roy Edroso had a good post pointing out Teabag Nation's general hostility to the gay movement -- not exactly surprising, but a useful reminder.

If the government has been interfering with big business and the banking/finance sector as the Fox pundits complain, that was 1) a bipartisan move initiated by Bush and embraced by both Obama and McCain, 2) at the insistence of big business and the banking sector. Those big players just wanted billions upon billions of taxpayers' dollars, of course, not any restrictions on their irresponsible behavior, and that was pretty much what they got. Like government involvement in Americans' health care, government interference with outrageous executive salaries and reckless financial practices was just what most Americans wanted.

It's really hard to make any sense out of this clip, because the pundits are grasping desperately to see Obama brought down. It doesn't really matter why someone -- anyone! -- is criticizing Obama, as long as it's someone outside their own narrow ambit. Are gays criticizing Obama? Good! Do many Americans distrust Obama's commitment to public health care? Well, they should, because he's not really committed to it, and that's a good thing, so what the public is wrong in wanting it, but let's not go there, because this is the American People we're talking about. The Fox pundits, and Teabag Nation generally, are just as incoherent as their allegedly more liberal counterparts on CNN, or elsewhere in the corporate media; but also as incoherent as the more genuinely liberal commentators who want to believe that Obama is a closet progressive, and have to do a lot of fancy footwork to make a case for that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Poetry Friday - A sonnet is a diving bell

A sonnet is a diving bell in which
my ego safely may descend into
my id: a dark and silent region rich
with life, a home to things I never knew
existed -- creatures with voracious jaws
but little else, shy darting wisps too nervous
to observe, and all subject to laws
ignored by us who live above the surface.
Hermetically sealed in against immense
and crushing pressure, I must temper my
ascent in order to avoid the bends,
or like my sunken cousins I might die.
And yet repeatedly I brave that pressure,
hoping to return with sunken treasure.

From 1979 or so, with a nod to Adrienne Rich, whose "Diving into the Wreck" gave me the idea.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Half of America Marches on Washington

I didn't pay a lot of attention to last weekend's Equality March on Washington, though I did notice that almost none of the online commentary I saw ventured to give numbers. "Thousands" was the word I usually saw; not even "tens of thousands." That suggested to me that the turnout was pretty small. Finally I found an article on the New York Times site which informed me that, according to the march organizers, "at least 150,000 people had attended, though the authorities gave no official estimate of the crowd size." That's a respectable figure. Even if you allow for the overcounting that organizers are often accused of, and cut the figure in half, you've got about as many people as turned up for the Teabaggers' in Washington rally a month ago: 1.4 million in Michelle Malkin numbers, 70,000 or so in real world people. (Note the difference between the lead and the picture caption in this article.)

But the key issues that the march was about -- marriage and the military -- are not issues I care about, and in fact I'm dubious about them. The main thing that caught my attention before the march took place was the contemptuous attitudes expressed to the march by what might be called the gay establishment, if we had such a thing. Barney Frank confirmed my low opinion of him with his snide remark, "The only thing they’re going to put pressure on is the grass." If you want hilarity, though, here's what he said on Michelangelo Signorile's show: "Barack Obama does not need pressure." I'd say that pressure is exactly what Obama needs. Lots of it, on a variety of issues.

Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign chided marchers to give President Obama a little time: "'It’s not January 19, 2017,' he wrote, referring to what would be the last day of Mr. Obama’s presidency if he were to win a second term." Right, and exactly how does Solmonese suggest that we pressure Obama after he's left office? (Oh, I haven't mentioned Obama's speech to the HRC on the eve of the march. Haven't watched the video, haven't read the transcript. Excerpts, and Jon Stewart, indicate it is more of the same hot air the man can deliver in his sleep. Maybe I'll look at it more closely some other day.)

One response that drew some attention (I can't now find where I first read it, but here's a source) was an anonymous Obama "adviser" quoted by CNBC's John Harwood jeering at the marchers as the "internet left fringe" who need to "take off the pajamas, get dressed and realize that governing a closely-divided country is complicated and difficult." The marchers were in their pajamas? Harwood later explained:
"My comments quoting an Obama adviser about liberal bloggers/pajamas weren't about the LGBT community or the marchers," he wrote. "They referred more broadly to those grumbling on the left about an array of issues in addition to gay rights, including the war in Afghanistan and health care and Guantanamo -- and whether all that added up to trouble with Obama's liberal base..."
Oh well, that's all right, then: I already knew that Obama despises the left. And why not? How many votes can we deliver, after all? Not many. So I guess he won't want my vote in 2012. That part at least will be easy.

A White House flack tried to do damage control:
In a comment to Greg Sargent of The Plum Line, White House senior communications director Dan Pfeiffer basically refuted the report.

"That sentiment does not reflect White House thinking at all, we've held easily a dozen calls with the progressive online community because we believe the online communities can often keep the focus on how policy will affect the American people rather than just the political back-and-forth," Pfeiffer emailed.

I liked Jon Stewart's take on the march and the coverage it received, though (via).

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Queer and Loathing in D.C.
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

Dan Choi is very cute, and inspires all manner of unclean thoughts in my mind, but he really should keep that gag on. Dan, you did not "defend" or "protect" America in Iraq. You were part of an aggressive invasion (and now occupation) force that had and has no business being there. Waving your patriotism around just makes me more sure that the Equality March was not for me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Rule 2 - Shadows in the Palace

As I mentioned in my previous post on the Liz Warren Rule for motion pictures, a surprising number of films that pass the Rule's criteria come from such conservative places as South Korea. (For a recap of the Rule and its requirements, see the first few paragraphs of that posting.) Here's a report on another Korean film I saw recently, that passes the Rule's criteria with flying colors, 2007's Shadows in the Palace. That it does so isn't all that surprising when you consider that not only the director, Kim Mi-jeong, the producer, executive producer, and much of the crew, but most of the characters are women. I picked up the DVD in Korea on the strength of Darcy Paquet's review at his website, but only watched it a week or two ago.
Two women talk to each other in Shadows in the Palace, set in late 18th-century Korea. On the left is Chunryung, physician to the Women's House in King Jeongjo's court; on the right is Ok-jin, a court maid whose roommate was found hanged in their room. Was it suicide as everyone else prefers to believe, or murder as Chunryung suspects? They are talking mostly about another woman in this scene. (image credit)

But almost all the interaction in the film takes place between women, so much of the dialogue occurs between women talking about something other than a man. And it's a strong film, though at times it has trouble deciding whether it's a murder mystery or a ghost story. The cast are good, and though it was shot on a low budget, it looks great. (A lot of money was saved by using the sets for another costume drama, the immensely popular The King and the Clown.)

Shadows in the Palace is the kind of film which should get a US DVD release at least -- palace intrigue, a fair amount of violence and creepiness, and a couple of torture scenes would recommend it to distributors of "extreme" Asian cinema for American geekboys -- but apparently that's not in the works. Too bad; there should be an audience here for such a stylish, intelligent movie; the difficulty is getting it to them.

(image credit)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Really Impressive People

Sorry (or maybe, you're welcome) for my inactivity the past couple of days. Bad weather, weariness, disorganization, distraction; and then today I worked overtime, which ate into the time. But I found this, among some other interesting things, while browsing around tonight; and I agree completely with what Chomsky says here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Poetry Friday - Don't ask dumb questions ...

Don't ask dumb questions, kid: get into bed!
I'll help you with your clothes. The sheets are fresh
as virgin foolscap laid, their blankness spread
to take impressions of the word made flesh.
Hold up! the point we're driving at we'll come
to soon. I know these postures are absurd,
but sometimes artists have to pose, and some
of ours may give rise to the flesh made word.
When words collide, when poets rub together,
they generate between them heat and light:
the clash of symbols, straining self-tied tethers,
the pseudo-war of wills where Might makes Write.
The pen (hee, hee!) is mightier than the sword:
the heart is pierced, but never ever bored.

Though I've never been to a poetry slam, nor much wanted to, I've been to my share of poetry readings. One night in the early 1980s (I think) I went to an open mic reading in the dorm where I work, and listened to a cute boy trying to be raunchy and tough to a girl in his poem. I recognized the manner all too well, but it gave me an idea. That sort of aggressive come-on has never been my style, but I thought it would be fun to turn it around, and put a male on the receiving end, so to speak, of the aggression. I'm not sure I succeeded, because it quickly turned into something else, as you can see; but I think it is fun, and a welcome change from the laments of unrequited love that I and other poets have ground out in excessive numbers.

Anyway, at the next reading, the same cute boy was in the group, and I had this poem with me, ready to share with the world or that small part of it. I didn't say that he'd inspired it, nor did I single him out by eye contact as I read it, but it seemed to me that he squirmed uncomfortably during the reading. (The same way boys reacted when I read this one.) I'd like to think he recognized the manner I was parodying, but it was probably just homophobia. And no, nothing came of it. This poem was prophetic in that regard.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Right to Hate

Stumbling around on the Web this morning, I happened on some YouTube clips of Tom Lehrer performing in 1967 for an apparently Norwegian audience, probably for television. I'm a longtime fan of Lehrer, have had his albums for decades and play several of his songs myself, on my six-string piano (to turn around a joke he made in the introduction to "Folk Song Army"). "National Brotherhood Week" was one of the first I learned, and like so many of his political songs from the sixties, it's still pertinent. You can see him playing it for the Norwegians here. I was going to embed it for this post and leave it at that, but then this afternoon I found a link to this post (via) at a blog called First Draft. From there I navigated to this post, "The Right to Hate."

The post was not a declaration of the blogger's right to hate, which might have been interesting. It dealt with a harangue by a Republican Congressman from Texas, Louis Gohmert, against the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes bill. I haven't watched the YouTube clip, but there's a partial transcript in the First Draft post, which closed by saying that people like Gohmert are "never sorry for these kind of statements, or the resulting (understandable) outrage and media coverage. It's how they do business, and the stakes here are high: their right to hate as they see fit."

I see a problem here. Just as many people have trouble distinguishing between rape and consensual copulation, many people have trouble distinguishing between hate and violence. Of course Gohmert has the right to hate as he sees fit, just as liberals do. I daresay the commenter whose loving reaction to Gohmert was "Methinks it's time for retro-active abortion" considers herself a liberal, for example.

Another commenter argued, in response to my own comment, that "a US Congressman speaking in Congress about pending legislation doesn't have the luxury of being 'an individual.' Public servants using public forums and laws to enforce or spread their own bias isn't legit. (yeah, obv. it happens anyway) Louie Gohmert the private citizen can jaw all he wants to his friends down at the hardware store about hating queers. As you say, he has that right. But Congressman Gohmert shouldn't have the right to legislate based on his private feelings/religion/etc."

I don't think that Gohmert was speaking as 'an individual' -- he was speaking as a Christian (apparently he also indulged in a reading from the first chapter of Romans), and he was surely pandering as a politician to his constituency back in Texas. For that matter, in the material quoted in the posting, Gohmert did not say that he 'hated queers'; he spoke against "the ultimate hate monger" Hitler, whom Gohmert apparently didn't know was anti-gay and sent homosexuals to the death camps. I am sure, in fact, that if you asked him, Louie Gohmert would protest that he loves homosexuals and wants us to be freed from our supposed sin. Just as Rick Warren loves us, and every other Christian antigay bigot does. Talking about "hate" in this context is a distraction, as usual. A little honest hate would be refreshing, instead of all this posturing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Depressing Thing Is, This Would Probably Work

New Anti-Smoking Ads Warn Teens 'It's Gay To Smoke'

CLOSE-CAPTIONED FOR THE IRONY-IMPAIRED: The above video is satire. It is not meant to be taken literally. If it were, you would have been directed to Fox News, CNN, or the Op-Ed Page of the New York Times.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Rule

I've been meaning for a long time to write about "The Rule", a 1985 episode of Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. About a year ago it was featured on National Public Radio, which is some kind of sign of cultural arrival, but it had long been discussed online and elsewhere. As with anything that catches on, there's a certain amount of confusion about it -- what it means, or even what to call it. The name of the episode is "The Rule," but you'll find it referred to as "Mo's Rule" (though this was before the character Mo was introduced), as "The Bechdel Rule" and (as on NPR) "The Bechdel Test." So read it for yourself (click on the image to enlarge it for better readability).

Bechdel has mentioned in interviews that she stole the idea from her friend Liz Wallace, whom she credits in the strip's opening panel, but only hardcore Dykes to Watch Out For fans would recognize a reference to "Liz Wallace's Rule." So I'll try not to be too pedantic, especially since there are other, serious issues involved.

First of all, you might wonder if too much isn't being read into The Rule. As it appears in this strip, it's as much a dating strategy as anything. The woman who describes it is as much interested in getting her date alone for some romance as in watching a movie. (Better to eat popcorn at home than in a crowded theater.) But that's part of what makes Alison Bechdel fun to read, and reread: at her best, she mixes interesting ideas with entertaining human stories, and one of her primary aims in Dykes to Watch Out For was to make a comic strip about lesbians and their loves at a time when media images of women-loving women were scarce, even in alternative media. That's what keeps DTWOF and this strip in particular from being a mere exercise in didacticism.

The fact that The Rule has stuck in many people's minds over the past quarter-century, though, while they often forget the story in which it's embedded, shows that the idea has been important for them. Sometimes I think that the idea becomes just an excuse for sloppy list-making, like the quizzes you find on social and tabloid news sites. ("Ten Things You Should Never Say To Your Date." "Which Character in Twilight Are You?") The NPR story is a painful example of this sort of thing, with its clumsy attempts to come up with "rules" for other minorities. It's also arguably mistaken that one reason for the paucity of good female characters is the scarcity of female writers in film and TV. As blogger Jennifer Kesler tells it, the industry is aware of what it's doing, and aspiring female writers will be told not to write scripts that conform to The Rule.
I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see. ...

... there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I’d found the “audience won’t watch women!” argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).
At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”
“Not even if it advances the story?” I asked. That’s rule number one in screenwriting, though you’d never know it from watching most movies: every moment in a script should reveal another chunk of the story and keep it moving.
He just looked embarrassed and said, “I mean, that’s not how I see it, that’s how they see it.”
Right. A bunch of self-back-slapping professed liberals wouldn’t want you to think they routinely dismiss women in between writing checks to Greenpeace. Gosh, no – it was they. The audience. ...
Kesler also mentions in a comment that "the passing or failing of the Bechdel test is not the sole measure of a film’s feminist value", and another commenter adds:
Also, I wouldn’t want anyone to fall into the trap of assuming that just because a movie does pass the test means it’s either a feminist movie or a great movie. Beaches passes the test. I’m not going to stand up and say it’s either great cinema for the ages or a great feminist story (again with the breakdown of women’s friendships over men *sigh*), but I still own it and watch it.
If you look again at Bechdel's original comic strip, you'll see that the Rule is a minimum criterion for acceptability in a movie, not artistic quality or exemplary feminist consciousness. It means that if I am going to give my money to the movie industry, it must pander to me at least this much. I've gotten into some weird online debates with people who got upset if I dissed this or that mediocre gay Hollywood film, like Philadelphia, because if we don't support it, Hollywood won't make any more gay movies. (Promises, promises!)

Which brings me to one of the reasons I finally got off my butt to write about The Rule. I recently read the new edition of gay African-American science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany's book of critical essays, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. It includes a blistering "Letter to the Symposium on 'Women in Science Fiction' under the Control, for Some Deeply Suspect Reason, of One Jeff Smith", written in 1975. Among much else, Delany talks about his efforts to improve his own depiction of female characters, influenced strongly by his then-wife, the poet Marilyn Hacker. Among the "parameters" he developed was this one (page 102):
Women characters must have central-to-the plot, strong, developing positive relations with other women characters. The commercial/art novel would be impossible without such relationships between men: from Ishmael and Queequeg, to Fafhrd and Mouser, to Huck and Jim, to Holmes and Watson, to Nick and Gatsby, such friendships are the form, content, propellant and subject of the novel. I would pause here to state, from thirteen years' distance, that any novel that does not, in this day and age, have a strong, central, positive relation between women can be dismissed as sexist (no matter the sex of the author) from the start.
In short, we have a formulation of The Rule, ten years before it appeared in Bechdel's comic strip. (Or even longer, considering that Delany worked it out in the 1960s.) After more discussion, Delany concluded (page 103):
I still think these parameters are primary. And they still don't go anywhere near far enough!
I don't bring this up to imply something like "See, girls, a man got there first!"; rather something more like Great Minds Think Alike. Delany had been influenced by Hacker.  His account made me wonder how many other writers of either sex had come to the same or similar conclusions about the depiction of female characters. There is, for example, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own from 1929, where Woolf describes an imaginary novel, Life's Adventure by Mary Carmichael, featuring characters Chloe, Roger, Olivia, Tony and Mr Bigham:
And, determined to do my duty by her as reader if she would do her duty by me as writer, I turned the page and read . . . I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present? Do you promise me that behind that red curtain over there the figure of Sir Charles Biron is not concealed? We are all women you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these—’Chloe liked Olivia . . .’ Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.

‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA would have been altered had she done so I As it is, I thought, letting my mind, I am afraid, wander a little from LIFE’S ADVENTURE, the whole thing is simplified, conventionalized, if one dared say it, absurdly. Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more. But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in DIANA OF THE CROSSWAYS. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose.
This isn't quite The Rule; but the principle that underlies it is present. (If anyone knows of any other, especially earlier, examples, I'd love to hear about them. The e-mail button is up there...)

Another thing that made me want to write about The Rule was noticing films that conformed to it, though they came from what most people would consider unlikely places. The "conservative" East, for example. When I first saw the South Korean film Blue Swallow (2005), among my many reactions to it was that it passed The Rule with flying colors. A biopic about Park Kyeong-won (1901-1933), one of the first Korean women to become a pilot, it showed Park going to Japan to learn to fly. At the training school she bonded with other young women and discussed the joys of flight and their hopes for their careers. The film was controversial because it dealt with a painful period in Korean history, when Japan colonized and controlled Korea; any ambitious young Korean had to become a collaborator. Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) who later became dictator of South Korea, also trained in Japan.

Park Kyeong-won died when her plane crashed in Manchuria on a propaganda flight. (Jang Jin-young, the actress who played her also died young, of gastric cancer, in 2009.) While Blue Swallow shows Park falling in love with a Korean man (hence the poster image above), as I recall it spends at least as much time on her friendships with other women. It's a very good film in its own right, worth seeing; I like to imagine the two women in "The Rule" stopping off at a video store, picking up Blue Swallow on DVD, and watching it over popcorn. (Image credit)

I've seen a surprising number of other films that conform to The Rule, and I'll probably write about them here in the future.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Back to the Future, Part LXIX

From Wil Wheaton's blog (he calls it "the coolest picture you'll see all day," and he may be right, but you never know) via Homo Superior (in my interior, but from the skin out I am Homo Sapien too).

Also with a curtsey to Homo Superior, this amusing little screed from the San Francisco Chronicle:

To the educated mind, it seems inconceivable that millions of people will choose rabid ignorance and childish fantasy over, say, a polar bear. Permafrost. Rocks. Nag Hammadi. But they will, and they do. Faced with this mountain of factual obviousness, the bewildered fundamentalist will merely leap back as if you just jabbed him with a flaming homosexual cattle prod, and then fall into a swoon about how neat it is that angels can fly.
But it's not just the fundamentalists. This Rule of Idiocy also explains why, when you show certain jumpy, conservative Americans the irrefutable facts about, say, skyrocketing health care costs that are draining their bank accounts, and then show how Obama's rather modest overhaul is meant to save members of all ages and genders and party affiliations a significant amount of money while providing basic insurance for their family, they, too, will scream and kick like a child made to eat a single bite of broccoli.
Remember, facts do not matter. The actual Obama plan itself does not matter.
Indeed, it's not just the fundamentalists! So how do I talk to a complete idiot like this one (again, merci a HS)?

We have a pretty good idea of the Republican plan for the next three years: Don't let Obama do anything. What kills me is that that's the Democrats' plan, too.
It's useless to confront idiots like this with mere facts, like Obama's coziness with the corporate elites, his eagerness to make sure that Change You Can Believe In doesn't inconvenience them in any way, his readiness to pander to and appease the Republicans (however futilely -- what do you call it when someone keeps trying to please someone whose whole existence is dedicated to rejecting him? anyone? anyone?), his continuation of Bush II policies and personnel. They just know that the Little Father is trying to do the right thing, but the Evil Boyar won't let him.

Or a complete idiot like this (do we detect a pattern here?):

[Sarah Palin's] emergence revealed that America is in a period of decadence and unseriousness, even as its decline as an economic and world power accelerated and its moral authority crumbled.
Okay, I know that Sully is like too young to remember someone like Spiro Agnew, but he's old enough to remember Dan Quayle. And leave aside the minor point that the US has never really had any moral authority (slavery, the genocide of the pre-Columbian Americans, and all the succeeding imperial adventures from the Philippines to Iraq and Afghanistan), and the even minor-er point that Sullivan's own career (and that of other empty-headed young rightwingers in the supposedly liberal media) is testimony to the decline of American journalism and intelligence if you want to believe in such a thing. The thing to remember is that Palin's emergence showed that Americans aren't all that dumb: they rejected her and her doddering running mate decisively, along with the party that nominated them. And even now, with Fox News and HarperCollins and other interests that hope to make a buck from her even if she never holds political office again, and despite the wishful thinking of the faithful, she's not doing as well as you'd expect (via) if she really epitomized the present state of American culture. I wouldn't want to misunderestimate her, but I think Sully was inflating her significance for his own alarmist reasons. And in doing so, he extended her life in the media. As Oscar Wilde said, The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Keep it coming, idiots!

Finally, this public service announcement, thanks to Wil Wheaton.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Bully of the Big Ten

There's a home game in Bloomington today -- oh yeah, did I mention it's football? I pay so little attention to these things. But then most of my American readers, at least, will know that it's football season. Or is it duck season? Wabbit season?

Anyway, on Saturday afternoons on our community radio station there's a regular program of country and vintage rhythm & blues, featuring fake cracker-barrel commentary on the issues of the day, especially sports. The DJs declared Ohio State University "the bully of the Big Ten" (I guess this explains it, but only for football -- other Big Ten sports have their own bullies), and one said he hoped "we" would beat the bully. "Will they be using our blimp?" he then asked, mixing his pronouns. Whose blimp, and who's "they"? Will OSU, the big bullies, use Our Blimp to fly over the stadium and give wedgies to all the IU fans? If "we" use the blimp, maybe to go neener neener neener at the OSU fans, will that help or hurt "our" chances of beating the bully?

Friends who work in restaurants tell me that business was booming last night, and I guess the influx of sports fans is good for jobs and such. Much like last weekend's Lotus World Music and Arts Festival. But the hordes of happy drunks I saw downtown last night outnumbered the crowds I saw last weekend for Lotus. The game started tonight at 7, and it's 9 p.m. as I write this; we'll see how little IU does against the big bad bully. But meanwhile, and more importantly, the State Legislature continues to slash funding for higher education, including IU, and it doesn't matter how many football or basketball games IU wins.

By happenstance there was other hot sports news this weekend on a global scale. The Huffington Post has an item about conservatives reveling in Obama's "Olympic failure," i.e., his failure to convince the Olympic Committee to hold the 2016 games in Chicago. Sam Stein sniffed that Republicans' reaction was "potentially, a risky one, not just because polling data showed that a vast majority of the country wanted America to host the games." It isn't only conservatives who are reveling, bitchez! Dave Zirin had a piece at The Nation, partially recycled at the HuffPost, celebrating Obama's and Daley's failure to push the Olympics on Chicago, and Zirin is not a conservative. (I've relied on his analysis before, here and here.) He argues that "This is a victory for the people of Chicago. Pushing back against immense pressure from the Daley political machine, organizations like No Games Chicago went grass roots, corner to corner, and spoke out against the Olympic storm of gentrification, tax hikes, and police misconduct." But also:
Now is the time to stand with the people of Rio. It's no secret why the IOC licked their lips at the thought of Brazil. Like China, Brazil is an emerging market yet to be fully "branded" by global multinationals. They also have a police force that shoots first and asks questions never. Their President Lula, who comes from a radical union background, has clearly shown the decrepit, corrupt, IOC Mafiosi that he is willing to play ball. If history is any kind of a guide, the pain for Brazil's working people is now on the immediate horizon. It's our duty to do whatever we can to express solidarity with the favelas, the landless peasants, and the workers about to stare down the barrel of "Olympism." Our work has just begun.
Here's an interesting coincidence for you: Stein at HuffPost cites a Zogby International poll which "showed that 84 percent of Americans support having the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Chicago." Zirin cites a Chicago Tribune poll which found that "a staggering 84 percent of Chicagoans are opposed to spending any public money on the Olympics." I'd say the Chicagoans know better what's best for them, whether or not the IOC had good reasons for turning down Daley's and Obama's bid.

Finally, after properly trouncing the Democratic Party for failing to get a public option (whatever that is) through the Senate Finance Committee while funding an abstinence-only sex ed program, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show showed New York Senator Chuck Schumer, with a weak grimace of a smile on his face, explaining why the Democrats were "feeling good" and making "progress." "Oh, wait a minute, I get it!" Stewart jeered, "you're the lame dad at the Little League game: 'Just because you lost doesn't mean you lost.'"

Let me see if I can put this clearly. Sport is not politics; politics is not sport. Setting up proper health care for ordinary citizens matters a great deal -- it is, in fact, a life-and-death matter, unlike who wins the Superbowl or today's IU-OSU football game, which doesn't matter at all. Not in the slightest. And the worst thing about organized sport, even worse than the amounts of money wasted on Albert Speer stadiums and the like, is that it is intended to teach people from childhood that winning a game is as important as feeding the poor or preventing war. And it works -- that's why Americans spend their free time following sports instead of attending to what their government is doing.

But these episodes show just how corrupting is the American tendency (is it usual elsewhere? I don't know; I'm concerned with America because it's my country, drunk or sober) to turn even political conflict into a sporting contest, where supporting your home team is all-important. The whole adversary approach to political matters is a very bad thing for people, though not for career politicians and their corporate base. I've written about that before too, pointing out that it turns questions like a stimulus package or health care reform into personal triumphs or failures for the President. If George W. Bush had failed while in office to get the 2016 Olympics for, say, Houston or Dallas, the same conservatives would be foaming at the mouth right now, ranting about the corruption of the Old Europe and so on. One could reverse my focus to address the corrupting infuence of politics and nationalism and corporatism on the Olympics, but the whole point is that is that sports do not matter. People do.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Poetry Friday - resonance


you shake me, man, you make me lie awake,
you make me walk the streets at night until
i stagger sideways and my eyeballs ache.
it's useless staying home. i can't sit still.
i turn the pages but my eyes won't read.
i put on records but my ears won't hear.
my head is hollowed out but not by speed.
my brain's wide open and my need is clear.
the light is on and though it burns my eyes
i wouldn't turn it off if i knew how.
without the glare i couldn't recognize
the need that ties me tighter than a vow.
there's joy in the extremity you bring.
i vibrate to you like a singing string.

May 25, 1980

Thursday, October 1, 2009


One reason I don't see science and religion (or atheism and religion, for that matter) as mutually exclusive alternatives is that much of what I find in religion turns up in its supposed opponents. (This usually bothers religious believers as much as unbelievers when I point it out -- they tend to be invested in seeing themselves as separated from, and incomprehensible to, the worldly herd.) As I noticed when I read A. C. Grayling, there's considerable overlap between the camps; and why not? Religion (a domain notoriously hard to define and delimit), science (ditto), and atheism (megaditto) are all human inventions, part of whose function is to make sense of the universe in human terms. It seems that we have relatively few themes that concern us, and relatively few ways of discussing them, so it's hardly surprising that people keep inventing and re-inventing the same themes no matter how they identify themselves.

In Mary Midgley's Evolution as a Religion (Methuen, 1985), which I'm currently rereading, she shows this clearly. Take this example, from pages 32-34.
It is a standard charge against religion that it panders to wish-fulfilment, consoling people for their present miseries by promising wonders in the future, thus dishonestly gaining support by dogmatic and unwarranted predictions. With this charge in mind, let us look at the concluding passage of an otherwise sober, serious and reputable book on the chemical origins of life on earth. The writer, a molecular biologist, having discussed evolution and described it, tendentiously but unemotionally, as a steady increase in intelligence, turns his attention to the future. Mankind, he says, is likely to throw up a new, distinct and more intelligent type, which will then become ‘reproductively isolated’. He then goes on (and I have not cheated by removing any words like ‘possibly’ or ‘perhaps’):
He [man] will splinter into types of humans with differing mental faculties that will lead to diversification and separate species. From among these types, a new species, Omega man, will emerge either alone, in union with others, or with mechanical amplification to transcend to new dimensions of time and space beyond our comprehension – as much beyond our imagination as our world was to the emerging eukaryotes … If evolution is to proceed through the line of man to a next higher form, there must exist within man’s nature the making of Omega man. … Omega man’s comprehension and participation in the dimensions of the supernatural is what man yearns for himself, but cannot have. It is reasonable to assume that man’s intellect is not the ultimate, but merely represents a state intermediate between the primates and Omega man. What comprehension and powers over Nature Omega man will command can only be suggested by man’s image of the supernatural.
Do any doubts arise? Just one. There may be a problem about timing. Major steps in evolution have been occurring at steadily decreasing intervals, and the next one may be due shortly. It must be the one the writer is waiting for. He adds: ‘On such a shortened curve, conceivably Omega man could succeed man in shorter than 10,000 years.’ Ordinary evolution, however, is too slow to allow of this startling development. So what is to be done? The reply comes briskly.

How then can Omega man arise in so short a time?

The answer is unavoidable.

Man will make him.

This is apparently a reference to genetic engineering, something specially important to those whose faith leans heavily on the dramatic idea of infallible, escalator-type evolution. They demand from that idea, not just an inspiring account of the past, but also hope for continued progress in the future. But the human race cannot be confidently expected to evolve further in a literal, biological sense. Human social arrangements, even in simple cultures, block normal natural selection. And the more elaborate they get, the more they do so. Nineteenth-century Social Darwinists attacked this problem with an axe, calling for deliberate eugenic selection and harsh commercial competition, so that the race could go back to being properly weeded and could continue to progress. As we now know, however, these schemes were not just odious but futile. The scale was wrong. Commercial competition has no tendency to affect reproduction. And as for ‘positive eugenics’, it is not possible to identify desirable genes nor to force people to breed for them. Even if it were, their spread would still be absurdly slow.

The natural conclusion is that such schemes must be dropped, that the human race must take itself as it is, with its well-known vast powers of cultural adaptation, and make the best of its existing capacities. But this thought is unbearable to those who faith in life is pinned to the steady, continuing, upward escalator of biological evolution. ‘If evolution is to proceed through the line of man to a next higher form’, as Day puts it, there simply has to be another way. That wish, rather than the amazingly thin argument he produces about recurrent evolutionary steps, is evidently the ground of his confidence.
Midgley was quoting from William Day,
Genesis on Planet Earth: The Search for Life’s Beginning (East Lansing MI: House of Talos, 1979), pages 390-92. The name of the publisher made me wary, so I did some digging and found that Genesis on Planet Earth was reissued in a second edition in 1984 by Yale University Press. Day himself went on to publish some suspiciously New Age-sounding titles, as recently as 2000. Midgley says that the second edition didn't include the material she quoted above, but had a new chapter of "much vaguer but every bit as fervent, intense and evangelical [material], about the new levels to which mankind is just about to ascend" (63).

I've noticed that a lot of people who vigorously support Darwin against Creation in the United States share this fantasy of evolution as an upward "escalator", to use Midgley's word. Despite the efforts of Steven Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, and others to explain to the educated public that Darwin's theory does not entail a linear progression from simple to complex, from lesser to greater intelligence, the fantasy is deeply rooted in many people's consciousness; it's a lot harder to dislodge, apparently, than belief in the creation myths of Genesis.