Monday, February 26, 2007

President Roslin, Battlestar Galactica, 2005

I've been hearing about the new Battlestar Galactica as one of the best things on television for a few years, but I foolishly resisted the hype. I say foolishly because I responded to the show just as friends do when I try to tell them that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was brilliant: Whatever, dork.

Know thyself: Dork, geek, and now, Battlestar fan. The show won me over with its patience. The first half hour or so of the pilot episode is dedicated to slow, ordinary life, and yet it's filled with dread. Not suspense, exactly, but something thicker and deeper beneath the surface. The plot is this: Forty years ago, the humans defeated their creation, the Cylons; the Cylons left and haven't been seen since. Life is peaceful and good. The Galactica is about to be decommissioned. The moment, as more than one critic has pointed out, is Clintonian -- the Cold War is over, and things are ok but not grand, and something is missing, and we're worried that something bad may be coming. It's a period of exhuberance for most and White Noise anxiety for the few. The ranks of the latter include Edward James Olmos as the brooding old admiral of the Galactica, who, warns in his farewell speech that you can't escape your sins. The past isn't dead, it isn't even past. And so it is with the Cylons, who return to destroy the world.

But before that happens, the show features a series of moments as good as one of the best Buffy episodes ever, "The Body." We see a handsome middle aged woman waiting in an elegant but sterile room. Sun filters in through skylights; the atmosphere is wan. Who is she? What is she waiting for? When a doctor finally enters, it's so obvious that we barely need dialogue; and get almost none, as a space ship lumbers overhead, obscuring their words. Cut to a scene of the woman aboard a space ship, which looks -- deliberately -- just like an ordinary airplane; mundane. She is, we gather, a politican, but not a very important one. Just a functionary. Her aide, immediately recognizable as the kind of young earnest hack that trots around Capitol Hill, asks her a question. She cannot respond, flees to the bathroom. Unbuttons her jacket, grabs her chest, heaves with repressed grief and shock.

And that's about all we know of the death sentence, perphaps breast cancer, of the woman who is about to become president of the survivors of the Cylon attack (by virtue of her position as 43rd in succession, following the Cylon's nuclear attack). It's slow and painful and very real, perhaps all the more so for its contrast with the fantastical story. Indeed, it makes the fantastical story much sharpe -- the cancer dread, so understated, is real. So then might be our fear of the Cylons, who, after all, are a metaphor.

I'm not ready to say for what. I've only seen the pilot and one episode. The latter is a bit weaker. One of the strengths of the pilot was that the same quiet observation with which we attended the president's diagnosis marked the approach of the director to the inevitable space battles. Geeks know there's no noise in space, of course, so that wins the show some realism points. More importantly, it forces the viewer to provide the soundtrack; and the usual "action theme" won't suffice. In the silence we confront the fact that the good guys will rally like David fighting Goliath, but to no avail. They'll be destroyed like anyone who terribly underestimates their enemies.

Alas, the director evidently overestimated the average viewer. The first regular episode features laser guns a-blasting and Cylons droning in space battle, standard sci-fi theatrics. What's left -- what makes the program still so interesting -- are the actors, particularly the president (Mary McDonnell). She quietly suppresses the horror of their post-apocalyptic condition as she carries on with leading them to survival. It's the silent dread of the pilot episode's space battles, or of an ordinary, horrifying prognosis -- an emotion I haven't seen portrayed on television since Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Whatever, dork.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others, 2007

Imagine if The Lives of Others, Germany's contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was set not in Berlin, 1984, but Berlin, 1944. We have before us three moving pieces: an artist pure-of-heart, a government official who is pure ambition and evil, and a man trapped in between -- a bureaucrat with an artists's soul. The artist scorns the Nazi regime, but his art ruffles no feathers, and so he is allowed to prosper. The evil government official, though, is out to get him, due not to personal animus but to a contrived plotline that we can ignore. What matters is that the State hates Art. But our middleman -- our Nazi-with-a-soul -- is charged with actually bringing the artist down. This he is well-qualified to do, since he has done it so many times, and so well, that he moonlights as a professor of torture and interrogation.

This time, though, something's different. The Soulful Nazi, surveilling the artist -- who has powerful friends, and thus cannot be simply rounded up -- is gradually won over by the artist's art. In the critical scene, a single tear falls from the Good Nazi's eye. (Spoilers ahead.) So, he covers for the artist; the artist creates a heroic indictment of the regime; and, after the regime crashes down, presumably laid low by his art, creates his masterwork, dedicated to the Soulful Nazi who saved him. The artist calls it, "Sonata for A Good Man," and it is such that the very fact of its existence -- we never know for sure what it consists of -- is enough to move we, the film audience to tears.

There, in a nutshell, is the story of this smarmy exercise in self-exculpation. If the thought of a Nazi killer -- or a redeemed Stasi fiend, as is the Good Man of The Lives of Others -- moved to shed a single tear does not move you to tears, you are perhaps afflicted by what many Germans used to call, in the late 1940s, the "Spirit of Morgenthau." Morgenthau was Truman's Jewish Secretary of the Treasury, and the most vocal advocate of a complete dismantling of Germany's war machine and full reparations for Germany's victims. In both instances, his arguments lost. Germany, as subsequent generations of genuine artists and activists managed to reveal, preferred to forget the past, to re-set the clock at "stunde null," zero hour.

The Lives of Others manages to do so again for East Germany, even as it devotes a couple of heavy-handed hours to the brutalities of life in the GDR. Or, rather, to the brutalities of the regime personified -- and thus limited to -- two repugnant personalities, a stupid, vulgar Communist Party bigshot and a conniving Stasi agent whose sadism is expressed mainly by the fact that he has a very ugly moustache. The CP bigshot is as corrupt as the artist, a playwright, is dedicated to "Art" (which shall hereafter be capitalized in recognition to its overpowering importance). Whereas the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a beautiful man, the CP big is revolting, never more so than he drops trou to reveal his massive ass in tightey-whiteys, moving in like the backside of Jaws as he assaults Dreyman's actress-lover. CP Big's henchman is not as ugly, but his bulging middle and cautiously leering ways let us now that he will be just as soon as he gets enough power.

To say this is a caricature is to belabor the obvious, but it is also to risk being accused of sympathy for the devil. In this case, I have none; indeed, I'd much prefer a movie that dealt more painfully with East Germany's surveillance regime than this does simplistic tear jerker.

To be fair, my eyes watered. How could they not? There is a tragic death, and quiet heroism, and the sort of "moral ambiguity" designed to make liberals feel brave for acknowledging nuance. This last comes in the form of Dreyman's girlfriend, who, when threatened with being denied the chance to ever act again, informs on Dreyman. What's ambiguous about that? He protected her; she betrayed him rather than give up the spotlight; and both are screwed by the Stasi. Well, leave it at that, and it really might be morally ambiguous. But we're expected to take seriously the notion that her need to perform -- to practice her Art -- was of at least near-equal value with the life of her lover. For this, the film -- and its Good Men -- forgive her.

But heroism is reserved for the Good Stasi. Dreyman plays "Sonata for a Good Man" in remembrance of a theater comrade driven to suicide by the Stasi. The Good Stasi, Weisler, listens in on his surveillance equipment, sheds his tear, and then is stabbed in the heart with remorse when Dreyman quotes Lenin on the subject of Beethoven's "Appassionata": "If I keep listening to it, I won't finish the revolution." (Revolution=bad; Art=good. Let them eat sonatas.) In case viewers deficient in sentimentalism fail to grasp the point, the next scene shows Weisler confronted with a cute little boy who inadvertently reveals that his father doesn't like Stasi men. Weisler, in an amazing act of moral courage, does not gobble the child up, and that is how we know he is the sonata's Good Man.

Fast forward (as the film does over and over, "two years later," "four years later," etc.) to unified Germany. Dreyman discovers that Weisler saved him (the clue, worthy of the board game Clue, is a red fingerprint) and sets out to thank the man. In unified Germany, Dreyman is doing well, his plays finally performed properly (that is, with the actresses in glam evening gowns instead of factory drone dresses) for the right audiences -- rich ones, that is. Weisler, however, is even poorer than he was in the GDR, a sickly-looking mailman in the East Berlin slums. Dreyman decides that the best thing he can do for this wretched soul is not to thank him personally, but to transform his story into a bestselling novel -- under Dreyman's name, of course. But that, for Weisler, is enough -- the last words of the movie are Weisler buying the book and declaring "It's for me."

Let's sum up the heavy-handed morals of this "morally ambiguous" tale: If, like Dreyman's girlfriend, you rat out your lover for your Art, you're a tragic hero. If, like Weisler, after years of terrorizing innocents, you are moved to tears by Art, you're a tragic hero. And if, like Dreyman, you turn your story of suffering into a bestselling tale through which an entire nation, uncomfortable with its past, can blame it on a few ugly men and declare everyone else their victims, then you, too, are a tragic hero. The author, not authoritarianism, will reign supreme, if only we keep our faith in Art. Dana Stevens, reviewing The Lives of Others in Slate echoes the widespread critical love affair with this movie when he writes that it "ultimately becomes an ode to the transformative power of Art." (Capitalization mine.) It's an ode to something, alright, but it sure isn't art.

Hollywood makes this kind off movie, too, only instead of Art, we have Heart. Our Good Stasi and playwright rolled into one is a boxer named Rocky, a private named Ryan, a runt named Rudy, and even a German, Schindler and his list. If anything, Hollywood's sentimental escapism is better than that of The Lives of Other People; most of us are mature enough to recognize that Rocky is a fantasy. And not even Rocky was as heavy-handed as the director of Other People's Lives so unsure that we'll get the message of the music that he tells us the song is called "Sonata for a Good Man."

It's hard for me to grasp how this film played in Germany, where it's about what people among the audience did and didn't do not so many years ago. But in the U.S., where the film's surveillance state theme tickles the scaredy-bone of the kind of upper-middle viewer who goes to Art houses (I'm one of them), the raves are more disturbing. They reveal a mixture of moral self-pity and moral self-regard, a sense that we are all caught in a terrible system not of our making, subject to the whims of powerful Bad Men, whom we resist by going to the cinema, there to be transformed by Art.

Were such an aesthetic cliche trotted out to redeem Germany's upper middle-class 60 years ago, it would have been denounced as horrendous. That it is being used -- not in Germany, but here -- to assuage upper middle-class anxieties about political impotence, in a country and time where real resistance (and real art) is actually possible is, like the CP fatcat humping away at the morally vacant actress in The Lives of Others,, stupid, vulgar, and vain to the point of obscenity.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Scott Carlson, "On The Record, All the Time," The Chronicle of Higher Education 02/09/07

How is a magazine article like a message in a bottle? In that it's read differently by people you know, and particularly people with whom you've lost touch. Most of my magazine stories take me months to report and write, which means I publish infrequently enough that my name is hardly a ubiquitous presence within mainstream media. One of the upsides of that is that people I haven't heard from stumble across an article and read it in part as a letter -- a resumption of some conversation we had in the past. And then they write a letter back.

Such is the case with an old friend and colleague of mine at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson, who ran across some story and wrote me about a project he's contemplating. About memory, and, appropriately enough, "lifelogging," the practice of recording one's entire life. Some futurists see it coming sooner rather than later, and for a variety of reasons other than narcissism. Scott decided to get a head start. He bought a digital recorder and hung a sign around his neck that said "Warning: This conversation may be recorded."

The results -- along with a survey of the state of lifelogging -- are recorded, as it were, in Scott's latest article for The Chronicle, "On The Record, All The Time." It's fascinating stuff. As it happens, I've been thinking about some related subjects lately for a possible Rolling Stone piece on futurists and "The Singularity," a tech idea that finds its most sci-fi fulfillment in the prediction that we are rapidly approaching a point at which we'll be able to "upload" our brains -- our "selves" -- into computers. "Total Recall," the name of a Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick based on a Philip K. Dick story, won't be just an option; it'll be plain reality.

Well, maybe. Despite the predictions of some heavyweight scientists, I wasn't able to find much evidence that we're really close to this happening. The tech just isn't there, at least, not yet. But maybe I was thinking too sci-fi, after all -- maybe the tech is there, and Scott bought it for a hundred bucks at Radio Shack. The people around Scott seemed to think so:
I was a freak. At the farmers' market, the man who sells Communist Party newspapers picked me out right away. "So if I told you my name" — and he told me his name and some information about himself — "you would record all of that?"

"I just did," I said.

Out in public, no one asked me to turn off my recorder, but few people went out of their way to talk to me. In the office, colleagues asked me to turn off the recorder every other day, usually to relate a juicy bit of gossip or gripe about some office drama. Journalists are accustomed to the conventions of going off the record, even in private life.

My wife, who is also a journalist, banned recording at home for the first week because she said I acted like I was "on stage." I had noticed that, too. I never really forgot that the recorder was on, and now and then I sensed I was talking differently, as if to a crowd. I consciously avoided saying things that might be deemed politically incorrect or downright gross, although some of that slipped out and into my memex.

One weekend I got tired of wearing the recorder and put it in a drawer. I felt liberated in a way that is hard to describe. That Sunday I found myself pacing the house and whispering to no one — something I often do when I'm alone and trying to work out ideas for stories I'm writing. I realized I rarely did this when I had the recorder on. It was like I was afraid someone would catch me acting schizophrenic.

But I'm probably the only person who will ever listen to the recordings, so what was I worried about?

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University and an expert on privacy, explains my anxiety through a concept from Jewish law called hezzek re'iyyah, or "the injury caused by being seen." Jewish law says that the mere possibility of unwanted observation, even if no one is really watching, injures a person's sense of privacy.

Those are ethical and emotional issues. But as nonfiction writer, you'd think people like Scott and me would be thrilled about the possibilities. Well, I'm not. Another one of Scott's talking heads explains why the prospect of total recall is deadening to pleasures of this business:
Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard University, says some of the appeal of her profession is the intrinsic mystery of people and the stories she can pull together from scant evidence.

"There is no part of the sensibility of total recall of the minutiae of my life that appeals to me, and encountering another human being through that medium as a researcher feels a little unsavory," she says.

"If I could know what George Washington was thinking when he wrote his will, emancipating his slaves — sure, I would like to know that," she says. "Would I want him exposed to me in a way where I couldn't even have the curiosity of that question? ... It seems horrible."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana; Kirk Douglas and Henry Kissinger, friendship

I've been trapped in my box, as I call the industrial space by the Gowanus Canal in which I write, trying to finish the last pages of my book. My reading has been almost entirely work-related, but not tedious. Today, I bought a fresh copy of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which I read years ago. I was looking for an epigraph for a chapter, but I wound up buying another Greene novel as well. Our Man in Havana. Here are its first lines:
"That nigger going down the street," said Dr. Hasselbacher standing in the Wonder Bar, "he reminds me of you, Mr. Wormold." It was typical of Dr. Hasselbacher that after fifteen years of friendship he still uses the prefix Mr -- friendship proceeded with the slowness and assurances of a careful diagnosis. On Wormold's death-bed, when Dr. Hasselbacher came to feel his failing pulse, he would perhaps become Jim.

The Negro was blind in one eye and one leg was shorter than the other; he wore an ancient felt hat and his ribs showed through his torn shirt like a ship's under demolition.

That was as far as I read before I decided to buy it. What I love about the opening of Our Man is Greene's indirection. Greene was not a racist, and anyone familiar with his work would not suppose he uses "nigger" absent-mindedly. No, the word is meant to shock; not by itself, but by the casualness with which it is redressed by Wormold, who digresses on Dr. Hasselbacher before asserting "Negro" in the slur's place and proceeding with a description. First, we receive data about Hasselbacher; second, about the black Cuban. But every word is revealing the milquetoast spy Wormold, "our man" of the title, especially his distaste for Hassebacher's racism and his cautiousness in responding to it.

On the subject of indirection, skullduggery, and strange friendships -- yes, this will be a thin connection -- I want to record a few words from a memo I found on an exciting new (to me) research tool provided by the NYU library, a searchable database of declassified documents. This one is the transcript of a 1971 phone conversation between Henry Kissinger and Kirk Douglas, the actor. It's hot stuff -- it wasn't declassified until 2004. The exchange starts with the two men chortling about a "very pretty blond girl" Kissinger wound up with at a party. Neither remembers her name, but both laugh over how dumb blonds are. Then Douglas gets down to business:

Douglas: Where can I reach Billy Graham?

Kissnger: I don't know but I can find out for you.

D: If you find out where he is, tell him that I plan to call him.

K: Can you tell me what about?

Kirk Douglas, who is Jewish, wants to make a TV special about religion. He's going to have Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Muhammad Ali, and, if Kissinger will wrangle him, Billy Graham.

D: Would this be a problem for you?

K: No. I like him. He wrote me a nice letter and I want to acknowledge
it anyway.

D: I think this would be something very interesting for him to do because
he relates to young people.

K: Have you ever been to one of his meetings?

D: No, but I have watched him on television

K: I went to two of his revival meetings. At the end he spoke in
a very soft voice and it is really unbelievable how they all started to
come up. It is to me very moving. You ought to go to one of his revival meetings. When those people
step forward, it lasts as long as his speech was. His speech is very
strong and traditional but he talks in a much gentler way when he asks
them to come forward.

D: Were you ready to go forward?

K: No, but I was very impressed.

D: I don't know if you are aware of the tremendous religious movement
there is. The top selling record if religious songs that talk about Jesus
Christ, the Lord, God.

Such spiritual heavy lifting tuckers them out, so they return to their favorite subject, the ladies. Both agree that Marlo Thomas is "a bright girl." Douglas invites Kissinger out to LA for what he promises will be "an interesting dinner party." Then Kissinger giggles. "Why are you laughing?" Douglas asks. "We"--Henry Kissinger and Kirk Douglas--"are practically going steady," says Kissy.
D: Yes, but look, what you are doing on the religious, spiritual revolt in the
country. I don't know if you really are aware to the extent this is taking

K: I don't know if I am.

D: Are you behaving yourself in Washington?

K: I play on the West Coast, I behave myself in Washington.