Sunday, June 29, 2008

Wall-E / Consumerism

  • Post-apocalyptic wasteland

  • Consumerism run amok in a world ran by a corporation

  • dull color palette and virtually no dialog for the first half hour

Sounds like the spawn of Children of Men and Mad Max. But certainly not the stuff of a Pixar film for children.

Surprisingly, it works. Like Pixar has done over the last few years, they've proven that they can combine the most incredible animation around with real stories and real messages and both adults and children will get something out of it.

Wall-E follows a small robot, named Wall-E, on an abandoned earth overrun with consumer waste. His job is to clean up, compact, and make some kind of order out of it. His only companion, a cockroach. Everywhere are the signs of the government/corporation B-n-L (Buy and Large, which, amusingly, has its own website) which runs Earth. Similarities to Wal-Mart are coincidental. Wink. Wink. Nudge. Nudge.

All humans are now located on a cruise ship in space and have been for 700 years. They are awaiting the opportunity to re-colonize earth after it becomes habitable again. Their lives are spent consuming, watching advertising and not lifting their fingers to do anything.

Fred Willard, in a turn as CEO/President of BnL/Earth at the time that the humans leave Earth, is amusing in his role as the captain of a sinking ship, even exclaiming "Stay the course". Similarities to George Bush are coincidental. Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge.

I won't ruin the movie by giving the plot, but suffice to say there is a love interest for Wall-E and their is a mission for him to save both himself and, hopefully the human race. Grade: A

As often happens in my life, subject matter always seems to come in bunches. A couple days earlier, I had just watched the great documentary, The Corporation.

It explains the early beginnings of the corporation, an entity largely created for the common good. And the subsequent perversion of it and granting of "person" status by our courts. A person entitled to many protections but without the obligations that normal people have. A FBI expert on psychopaths analyzes the various things that describe a psychopath and how they eerily mirror what a corporation does:

  • callous unconcern for the feelings of others

  • incapacity to maintain enduring relationships

  • reckless disregard for the safety of others

  • deceitfulness (repeated lying to and deceiving of others for profit)

  • incapacity to experience guilt

  • failure to conform to the social norms with respect to lawful behaviors

There are a bunch of great interviews with people like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Howard Zinn but, by far, the most damning evidence of what is wrong with corporations are by the very people that try to protect their existence, Milton Friedman and the heads of several conservative think tanks. They freely admit that the corporation should have no responsibility beyond making a profit.

Lastly, I want to mention a couple of great articles on the glorification of consumerism that I recently read:

Dedicated to the Pursuit of ‘Stuff’ by Michael T. Dolan

... We’ve been duped and deceived by the culture of capitalism. Through sheer greed and an arrogant sense of entitlement, we think we should have as much stuff as we want. Not only do we feel entitled to it, but even sadder, we feel it is essential to our happiness ...

... That stimulus check from the Treasury is like the dime glued into the mailer from a charity organization trying to guilt us into sending them some money right back. Here’s a grand or two; do your patriotic duty and install that home theater system ...

The Gospel of Consumption by Jeffrey Kaplan

... concern that led Charles Kettering, director of General Motors Research, to write a 1929 magazine article called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.” He wasn’t suggesting that manufacturers produce shoddy products. Along with many of his corporate cohorts, he was defining a strategic shift for American industry-from fulfilling basic human needs to creating new ones.

“... By advertising and other promotional devices . . . a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up.” They celebrated the conceptual breakthrough: “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”

... If we want to save the Earth, we must also save ourselves from ourselves. We can start by sharing the work and the wealth. We may just find that there is plenty of both to go around.

"The two big mistakes were the belief in a sky god -- that there's a man in the sky with 10 things he doesn't want you to do and you'll burn for a long time if you do them -- and private property, which I think is at the core of our failure as a species." -- George Carlin in NPR interview

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Writing Class

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." -- E.L. Doctorow

I started an online fiction writing class (short stories) through Arizona State University's Virgian Piper Center for Creative Writing a couple of weeks ago. It's my first venture back to the classroom (virtual or otherwise) in 17 years. It's a non-credit class, but I wasn't taking it to get a credit anyway. I just thought it might be useful (and amusing) to develop my creative writing. My first step towards writing the "great American novel" (just like a few million other people who want to be writers - [sigh])

This week we had our first short story due. Very painful and agonizing for me. But you gotta start somewhere. Has anyone else taken any kind of writing classes? Has anyone written any short stories or novels? I'd be curious to get all or your takes.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

10 Questions for an Atheist

Though Jewish Atheist didn't tag me, I thought the meme he posted recently was well done and worth a shot:

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

By its literal meaning - a lack of belief. I don't know there is no God, but everything I know and feel tells me there is not one. It's truly one of those pointless definitions. We don't need to define a belief system for those people that don't believe in Santa Claus.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Apathetic to nonexistent. Nominally baptised Methodist and occasionally dragged to church in grade school to appease grandfather.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Alternative energy, space exploration, evolutionary biology

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

Image. It would be nice to be taken more seriously. More like a group of people with an interesting and relevant philosophical take instead of the crazy bag lady in the corner.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

First of all, I wouldn't be greatly surprised. My child is already being raised as Lutheran/cafeteria Catholic and at the age of 7 is fairly enthusiastic about it. But he's also very intelligent, interested in science and a voracious reader. And he also knows Pop's take on the whole God thing. So, who know where his thinking will be when he's of age. Regardless, I will support him.

Q7. What’s your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Cosmological arguments - that God is the originating cause of the universe. Even atheists have to admit that it is logically possible.

There are complicated ways of refuting this but the simplest would be that if God created the universe, then who created God? Christians would say that God has no beginning and therefore doesn't need a cause. But you can't have it both ways.

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I don't think I really have any controversial atheistic views. I don't believe religious people (most, anyway) are evil.

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

Haven't read Dennett yet but have read the other 3. I do like Dawkins but I'm partial to Harris because I think he's a bit more accessible. Hitchens, while obviously intelligent, is completely off his rocker.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

The Pope, perhaps? How one person can have so much influence over so many people, I can never understand. I'm not sure that it would do much good, however. They'd just find somebody to replace him.

I guess that I'm not really striving to "convince" any one. I'd be thrilled if everybody came to the conclusion on their own when presented with the evidence. Conversions done with arm-twisting aren't really conversions. And that is basically one of my main complaints about religion ... the concept of proselytizing and the need to convert.

Atheists to tag:

I'd tag CK, but I see that he's already been tagged. Anybody that considers themselves atheists can take up the mantle if they wish.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Trent Franks

Our local Bush-loving, "war on terror" waste of a congressman, Trent Franks, had a scare this week:

Police and firefighters were called Wednesday to the Glendale office of U.S. Rep. Trent Franks after a man showed up with a box inside a bag that officials deemed suspicious.

Workers did the right thing in making the call, but no dangerous materials were found inside the box, said Sgt. Jim Toomey, a spokesman for the Glendale Police Department.

The package was delivered to Franks' office, 7121 W. Bell Road, by a Glendale man who said he had asked to be taken off the mailing list of the GOP congressman, Toomey said.

Inside were a number of political mailers that the man, who did not make any threats, was trying to return, he said.

The office was evacuated as the package was checked and the Second Distict congressman was not on hand as the situation unfolded, Toomey said.

Franks is afraid of the impending "terror" threat but seems more frightened of people actually voicing their opinion. It was ironic because just a couple of days earlier, I had pondered calling his office and griping about the taxpayer funded pieces of crap that I get in my mail under the ruse of asking constituents "where do you stand on the issues?" What he really means is that he's going to use your money to print out and mail you ego-driven advertisements. These are some of the highlights from his latest flyer:

"Memorial Day was a reminder of all that as made America the noblest and freest nation on the face of the earth, and an opportunity for each of us to honor the lives and courage of those valiant men and women in uniform who made and continue to make unspeakable sacrifices so that you and I might live in the sunlight of freedom."

I think I vomited in my mouth on that one a little bit. Or how about this one:

"Our noble men and women fighting in harm's way deserve the unequivocal support of Congress by passing a clean, earmark-free troop funding bill that does not micromanage our commanders on the ground or telegraph a withdrawal plan to the enemy."

Gee, I wonder how he really feels. Sounds like his little "survey" isn't really about finding out what the voters think.

He goes on to advocate drilling in ANWR and promotes oil shale, tar sands, and coal-to-liquid technologies. Not once does he mention alternative fuels or conservation. No big surprise but Mr. Franks also used to be President of Liberty (of course) Petroleum Corporation. As if that wasn't enough, "Franks served four and a half years as the Executive Director of the Arizona Family Research Institute, a nonprofit organization associated with James Dobson's Focus on the Family ...". This man is basically a puppet.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Right Wing Vibe

If you look at me, if you read what I write, or hear what I say, you would definitely not get the impression that I am a conservative or libertarian. So it's by mere coincidence that I seem to attract as clients those who are somewhere near Genghis Khan on the sliding political scale. I've spoken before of having provided service to the progeny of a Watergate-era Attorney General. This week, it's a former Majority Leader of the State Senate and chairman of the Goldwater Institute think tank. While he was in the Senate, he was author of the legislation that created Arizona's charter school system. Charter schools are well down that slippery slope that leads to school vouchers, which I disagree with. But in the interest of full disclosure, my son goes to a charter school. And we like his school quite a bit. I guess the dividing line for me is what public money is going to fund. Alternative schools - fine. Innovative teaching methods outside of the mainstream - fine. Religious education - no way, Jose. And that is ultimately where school voucher proponents are leading.

Not satisfied to just espouse the standard conservative touchpoints through the institute, my client is also an editorial columnist for the East Valley Tribune. On a weekly basis you can read him promoting ANWR drilling, denying global warming, promoting deregulation, and basically disagreeing with everything that Democratic governor Janet Napolitano tries to do. I've read every single one of his editorials and there is not a single, original thought that is not echoed on a daily basis by the right-wing standard bearers. Somehow, I don't think this is what Barry Goldwater envisioned for the head of the institute that had his blessing.

What is it with me? Am I putting out some kind of "right wing vibe" to get these types? I'm sorry that I'm such an insufferable name dropper, but "technically" I'm not dropping anyone's name. I know, that's picking nits. Kinda like "sorta pregnant".

"I will offer a choice, not an echo." -- Barry Goldwater

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Kmart Promotes Abstinence Pants

This is almost too funny for words (from ThinkProgress):

Jessica Valenti points out that retail chain Kmart has begun selling abstinence-gear for juniors ...

The description for the products reads, “Whether she is lounging around the house, going to practice, or doing her chores. These soft athletic style crop pants will keep her comfy.” One Feministing commenter adds, “Because nothing says ‘I plan not to have sex until marriage’ like plastering text across your ass.”

True love waits ... for what? True love waits inside these pants? Even discounting the obvious fact that preaching abstinence does not work and has more to do with pushing religion than preventing pregnancy, these pants are probably not the best tool for pushing that agenda. Kinda like putting a Sierra Club sticker on a Hummer.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Movie Reviews

You guys may think I review movies because I'm a movie buff and love watching movies. You'd be partially correct. I actually get more of a kick in finding topical, social and political relevance out of movies, mainstream or not. I just use the excuse of writing a review as a reason for me to highlight something specific. For that reason, I'll give short shrift to the review of the first movie I saw Saturday, at the theater, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but will give a more in-depth review of the movie watched last night on DVD, Charlie Wilson's War.

I'm not purposely disparaging Indiana Jones ... it's just that it's not meant to be saying anything momentous. It's a modern retelling of serial B-movies of the 30's and is meant as pure entertainment. It works a lot of the time. Where it fails is when you can tell George Lucas has had too much influence. By his choice, the entire movie would have been shot in front of a green screen. Director Spielberg would eschew any special effects if it was his choice. In the first 3 movies, he mostly won those arguments. Here, it looks like Lucas may have won his share.

At first, starting to watch the movie, I thought the premise was utterly ridiculous. I won't say what the premise is, as that will give it away. But then I thought about it: Lost Ark was about there being an Ark of the Covenant and it having supernatural powers; Temple of Doom was about drinking blood and becoming a zombie: Last Crusade was about there being a Holy Grail and it giving you eternal life. So ... never mind about this movie having a ridiculous premise. It's no further out there than any of them.

I thought Harrison Ford was good and it was good to see Karen Allen back from the first movie. Cate Blanchett as a dominatrix ... errr, I mean Russian scientist, was humorous, perhaps unintentionally so. Shia Lebouf was adequate.

All in all, it was entertaining. Nothing terrible, nothing great but a fun enough Saturday afternoon flick. Grade: C

For some not so delicate reviews (but a lot funnier than mine), see:

Dear George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg from Laura at Sarchasm

Why I Hate George Lucas More than Ever from Donna

Where Did You Dig Up that Old Fossil? from Wunelle

Charlie Wilson's War is in the spirit of movies (and series) like M*A*S*H that were ostensibly about one thing but really about another. In M*A*S*H's case, it was set during the Korean War but really was an allegory about the Vietnam War and war in general. In the case of Charlie Wilson's War, it is set during the Afghanistan-Soviet war of the 80's, but it is really making statements on our current excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan. As the title says, it's mostly about Charlie Wilson (from IMDb):

Charles Nesbitt Wilson, a.k.a. Charlie Wilson,(born June 1, 1933) is a former United States naval officer and former Democratic United States Representative from the 2nd congressional district in Texas.

He is best known for leading Congress into supporting the largest-ever CIA covert operation, which supplied the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan ... after the Communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan took over during the Afghan Civil War and asked the Soviet Union to help suppress resistance from the Islamist Mujahideen.

It can be argued that this support and the resulting victory by the Mujahideen over the Soviets were major contributors to the end of the Cold War. It can also be argued (and Charlie Wilson himself has said this) that the resulting power vacuum in Afghanistan after the war and our unwillingness to help with the rebuilding ultimately led to the rise of people like Osama Bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attacks.

When the following points are brought up during the movie, there's no doubting that they are aimed at our current Iraq war:

- The error of putting people in country who don't speak the language and who don't understand the different factions involved
- No follow-up or post-war plan

People like Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, the Heritage Foundation and Project for the New American Century think war is like a game of Risk. These are not play countries. These are not pieces on a board. There is a real human cost in deaths and refugess that most people have no clue about. They talking about "creating a democracy" in the Middle East, but at what cost?

With all these heady topics, you would think this movie would be depressing or boring. Thanks to all involved, it is neither. It's illuminating without being preachy.

The casting in the movie is great. Tom Hanks captures the good-natured and fun-loving intelligence of the real Charlie Wilson perfectly. Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos is, as usual, fantastic. I finally saw Capote a month or so ago. The man is a chameleon and is absolutely one of this generation's best actors.

I liked Julia Roberts in the role of conservative Texas socialite Joanne Herring. The direction by legendary director Mike Nichols and writing by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, West Wing) make this movie entertaining and, surprisingly, funny. Who knew covert wars could be funny? Grade: A