Friday, July 30, 2010

Movie Review - Inception (The authenticity of reality)

I was going to write a review of Inception, but some of you (Wunelle) beat me to the punch and did a good job with it. I'll have a few words about my take on Inception later but I thought I'd first post a nice article by progressive writer David Sirota about the parallels between Inception and modern propaganda:

The Deception of Real-Life 'Inception'
by David Sirota

For all of its "Matrix"-like convolutions and "Alice in Wonderland" allusions, the new film "Inception" adds something significant to the ancient ruminations about reality's authenticity-something profoundly relevant to this epoch of confusion. In the movie's tale of corporate espionage, we are asked to ponder this moment's most disturbing epistemological questions: Namely, how are ideas deposited in people's minds, and how incurable are those ideas when they are wrong?

Many old sci-fi stories, like politics and advertising of the past, subscribed to the "Clockwork Orange" theory that says blatantly propagandistic repetition is the best way to pound concepts into the human brain. But as "Inception's" main character, Cobb, posits, the "most resilient parasite" of all is an idea that individuals are subtly led to think they discovered on their own.

This argument's real-world application was previously outlined by Cal State Fullerton's Nancy Snow, who wrote in 2004 that today's most pervasive and effective propaganda is the kind that is "least noticeable" and consequently "convinces people they are not being manipulated." The flip side is also true: When an idea is obviously propaganda, it loses credibility. Indeed, in the same way the subconscious of "Inception's" characters eviscerate known invaders, we are reflexively hostile to ideas when we know they come from agenda-wielding intruders.

These laws of cognition, of course, are brilliantly exploited by a 24/7 information culture that has succeeded in making "your mind the scene of the crime," as "Inception's" trailer warns. Because we are now so completely immersed in various multimedia dreamscapes, many of the prefabricated-and often inaccurate-ideas in those phantasmagorias can seem wholly self-realized and, hence, totally logical.

The conservative media dreamland, for instance, ensconces its audience in an impregnable bubble-you eat breakfast with the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, you drive to the office with right-wing radio, you flit between Breitbart and Drudge at work, you come home to Fox News. The ideas bouncing around in this world-say, ideas about the Obama administration allegedly favoring blacks-don't seem like propaganda to those inside the bubble. With heavily edited videos of screaming pastors and prejudice-sounding Department of Agriculture officials, these ideas are cloaked in the veneer of unchallenged fact, leaving the audience to assume its bigoted conclusions are completely self-directed and incontrovertible.

Same thing for those living in the closed-loop of the "traditional" media. Replace conservative news outlets with The New York Times, National Public Radio, and network newscasts, and it's just another dreamscape promulgating certain synthetic ideas (for instance, militarism and market fundamentalism), excluding other ideas (say, antiwar opinions and critiques of the free market) and bringing audiences to seemingly self-conceived and rational judgments-judgments that are tragically misguided.

Taken together, our society has achieved the goal of "Inception's" idea-implanting protagonists-only without all the technological subterfuge. And just as they arose with Cobb's wife, problems are emerging in our democracy as the dreams sow demonstrable fallacies.

As writer Joe Keohane noted in a recent Boston Globe report about new scientific findings, contravening facts no longer "have the power to change our minds" when we are wrong.

"When misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds," he wrote. "In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs."

What is the circuit breaker in this delusive cycle? It's hard to know if one exists, just as it is difficult to know whether Cobb's totem ever stops spinning. For so many, meticulously constructed fantasies seem like indisputable reality. And because those fantasies' artificial inception is now so deftly obscured, we can no longer wake up, even if facts tell us we're in a dream-and even when the dream becomes a nightmare.

I liked the movie. The visuals are stunning and not fakey like most F/X-laden blockbusters. Most of the illusions look to have been done with camera tricks rather than computers. Inception has a nice cast, partularly Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine, Ellen Page, and Marion Cotillard.

Like most Christopher Nolan directed movies, Inception tweaks your noggin' a bit. I still like Memento more, but maybe that was because it was a bit more modest in scope and Nolan was not the big Hollywood director he is now with franchises like Batman in his back-pocket.

The concept of recursive dreams is cool to think about. I'm pretty sure that I wasn't the only one whose dreams were a bit odd the week after watching Inception. I found myself trying to control them a bit ... to no avail. Grade: B

"Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves." - Eric Hoffer

Pete Seeger - Song about BP oil spill

The great national treasure Pete Seeger singing on the BP oil spill. As he always has, Pete combines biting social criticism with a positive message:

Some of my favorite lyrics:

... It's time to turn things around, trickle up not trickle down

... And when drill, baby, drill turns to spill, baby, spill

.. There's big problems to be solved, let's get everyone involved

... When we sing with younger folks, we can never give up hope
God's counting on me, God's counting on you
Hopin' we'll all pull through, Hoping we'll all pull through,
Hopin' we'll all pull through
Me and you.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Flat Earth

From the UK's Daily Mash and retweeted by Professor Brian Cox:


A CARDIFF councillor has been suspended after claiming the Earth is round and orbits the sun.

More than 200 Flat Earthologists complained after Cllr John Dixon posted a Twitter message referring to the Earth as a 'globe'.

A council spokesman said: "Staff have a responsibility to respect the beliefs of others, no matter how scrotum-tighteningly idiotic they may appear to anyone with the cognitive ability to actually get to the end of this sentence. Well done."

He added: "We have a very clear policy on tolerance and inclusivity, which we've had translated into dozens of languages as well as having it carved into enormous stone monoliths for the local druids. That cost an absolute fortune, by the way."

Employee numbers have dwindled at the authority since January, when it agreed to allow registered Vikings to kidnap female employees out of respect for Norse mythology.

Meanwhile followers of the Persian deity Mithras have won a tribunal giving them the right to slaughter a bull in the canteen every Monday lunchtime.

Wayne Hayes, a Level 19 Flat Earthologist from East Grinstead, said: "Dixon's remarks are just typical of the prejudice we face on a daily basis just because we refuse to bow down to the dogma of scientific proof.

"He should be fed to the Great Salamander of Xenu or at the very least taken to the edge of the world and pushed off.

"We'll see who's stupid then."

He-he. Just a taste of what it feels like to be a skeptic and atheist in a world that bends over backwards to make sure that the religious are not offended.

"A man who is convinced of the truth of his religion is indeed never tolerant. At the least, he is to feel pity for the adherent of another religion but usually it does not stop there. The faithful adherent of a religion will try first of all to convince those that believe in another religion and usually he goes on to hatred if he is not successful. However, hatred then leads to persecution when the might of the majority is behind it." -- Albert Einstein

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Movie Review - Equilibrium

I had several friends recommend Equilibrium to me over the last few years. Let's see ... Christian Bale, Sean Bean (LOTR), Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves), sci-fi, cool gun fights. I'm not sure why it took me so long to rent it. It came out quite a bit ago, 2002.

Equilibrium is a stylish movie, obviously borrowing from the Matrix in look and 1984 in concept. One of its cooler elements is the fictional Gun Kata martial arts fighting style that the director invented, borrowing from classic Kung Fu movie gun fighting.

The setup: near future. War has been abolished by making emotion and feeling illegal. Citing the extremes of emotion as being the cause of all war, people are required to take shots several times a day of a drug called Prozium to make them docile. People are not allowed to own or view art, listen to music, read literature. It's peace in name only. Classic war has been replaced with the state as judge, jury and executioner.

Christian Bale plays Grammaton Cleric First Class John Preston. Basically, they are instruments of the state that go out and destroy art and kill people for viewing it. He's the best at what he does and has a high standing in the government. Seemingly by accident, he forgets to take his meds and starts to feel natural human emotions. The main thrust of the plot follows Preston coming to terms with his humanity, with what society is, and his guilt.

Now, I like Christian Bale as an actor, but it seems like a lot of his roles are one note, and this is certainly no exception. Here, it reminds me of Keanu Reeves in the Matrix movies. Partly, that's due to the story ... you are not supposed to have emotion. But even once he has stopped taking the drug, he doesn't sell me completely that he feels. The rest of the cast is pretty good. I especially liked Angus MacFadyen (Braveheart) as the main bad guy, Dupont.

I've read reviews of this movie before and they're pretty universally negative. The movie bombed in the box office. Equilibrium came out during the height of the Matrix trilogy and I think it may have been unfairly compared to it. But it deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Equilibrium hits upon quite a few weighty subjects including oblique references to the MPAA film rating system and Prozac. The influence of art and propaganda are explored. Overall, I liked Equilibrium. It's certainly not classic, but like most sci-fi, it brings something intellectually to the table that makes it worth while. There's a yin and yang to life, light and dark. You might think you are solving a problem by eliminating the extremes, but you are instead destroying what makes us human. It's that raw emotion that creates true beauty, innovation, and love.  Grade:  B-

"One of the things which danger does to you after a time is -, well, to kill emotion. I don't think I shall ever feel anything again except fear. None of us can hate anymore - or love." -- Graham Greene

Sunday, July 04, 2010


I saw this posted by one of my Facebook friends this past week:

I have to share how God comes through...unexpected ac repair, $210...unexpected refund check from mortgage company, $197. Thank you Lord for always providing.

Comment: HE is AMAZING!

Posts like these are by no means rare or unusual. I see something similar by a friend or family member just about every single day. They bother me quite a bit. I think I understand faith. I may not agree with it, but I think I understand it. But I have a hard time abiding hypocrisy and lack of consistency.

I once heard one of the Pythons defend Life of Brian by saying it was blasphemous but not profane. Meaning - they were not attacking faith but rather dogma. I'm not sure which I might be treading on here. I'm not trying to do either. I'm just trying to understand. Help me out.

Why would one presume that God would care if you could pay for a/c repair? And if you did assume that he intervenes in things so mundane and pedestrian, then why not in everything else? Why couldn't you assume that it was God that caused that little girl down the street to get hit by a car?

You can't have it both ways. If God is active in every little thing on the one hand, you can't say that he's non-participatory in the cases of war and famine and disaster, etc. on the other hand.

I can see the response right now - "God works in mysterious ways". How convenient.

"Blasphemy is an epithet bestowed by superstition upon common sense." -- Robert Green Ingersoll, American Statesman and Orator

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Movie Review: In the Loop

In the Loop is fucking brilliant. Sorry for my vernacular, but if that offends you, then this movie probably will too. It's foul-mouthed. It's insulting. And it's spot on.

Malcolm Tucker: Linton! Linton!
Linton Barwick: Mr Tucker, isn't it? Nice to see you again.
Malcolm Tucker: Are you fucking me about?
Linton Barwick: Is there a problem, Mr Tucker?
Malcolm Tucker: I've just come from a briefing with a nine-year-old child.
Linton Barwick: You're talking about AJ. AJ is one of our top guys. He's a Stanton College Prep, Harvard. One of the brightest and best.
Malcolm Tucker: Well, his briefing notes were written in alphabetti spaghetti. When I left, I nearly tripped up over his fucking umbilical cord.
Linton Barwick: I'm sorry it troubles you that our people achieve excellence at such an early age. But could we just move on to what's important here? Now, I understand that your Prime Minister has asked you to supply us with some, say, fresh British intelligence, is that true?
Malcolm Tucker: Yeah, apparently, your fucking master race of highly-gifted toddlers can't quite get the job done...
Linton Barwickk: All right.
Malcolm Tucker: ...between breast feeds and playing with their Power Rangers. So, an actual grown-up has been asked to fucking bail you out.

It's a modern day Dr. Strangelove with its satirical take on the machinations of politicians and the military in a so-called time of war. In this case, it's the Iraq war and the countries in question are the U.S. and Great Britain.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not trying to put it on the same level as Dr. Strangelove, which is one of the best movies ever made.  But in terms of humor and the ability to hit its satirical target, it's in the ballpark.

In the Loop basically calls it like it was: The push for the Iraq War was made by a bunch of twats who were over their skis and who fudged intel to get what they wanted. This is a British film but America and the UK are skewered equally. Don't be turned off by the fact that it is political. It's more about human nature than the intricacies of diplomacy. Mostly, it's just plain fun to watch. I may have to re-watch it just to write down some new insults that I want to try out. The British seem able to cut someone off at the knees verbally with a lot more style than us Yanks.

The cast is mostly UK TV regulars. I recognized one of the main characters from Torchwood. There's a cameo by Steve Coogan. The most obvious American actors are James Gandolfini as a general and David Rasche (of Sledge Hammer! TV fame).  The Gandolofini character seems to be a bit of proxy for a Colin Powell-type ... someone who knows the intel is not there, but plays the good soldier so as not to rock an administration.

I highly recommend In the Loop. It came out in 2009 and I was able to rent it through Netflix. Grade: A