Monthly Archives: September 2009

I saw ‘Trouble the Water’ last night

and thought it was utterly amazing, and probably the best 'show don't tell' argument for why I turn off most movies after 20 minutes these days.

Officially, it's a documentary about Hurricane Katrina. But it's really a home movie by Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, who bought a video camera for $20 off the street the day before the storm and kept it on almost constantly for three days in their attic, camped out on a neighbor's top floor and, eventually, in a Red Cross shelter. The movie's tied together by some post-production and some title cards, but mostly its just the Roberts trying, first, not to drown and, second, to sort through the rubble that the storm makes of their lives.

Trouble the Water trailer

It looks like a liberal guilt-a-thon, right? I know. What the movie's really about, though, beyond the platitudes, is the insufficiency of fiction to address genuine tragedy. It's amazing how the Roberts survive the hurricane and its aftermath, but nothing about the movie could ever be pitched as a 'triumph of the human spirit.'

Trouble the Water – clip

Both Kim and her husband are former (and possibly current) drug dealers. They steal a truck to get out of New Orleans and keep it. Kim's brother is in prison. Kim's using the publicity from the film to launch a rap career. Her husband doesn't have a high school diploma, and you can hear real bitterness when he explains his return to New Orleans from Memphis with, 'they only hire graduates up there.' A fiction film would never give its protagonists so many empathy obstacles.

But that's the whole point. We're all adults, we shouldn't need our heroes and survivors to come complete with college diplomas and sparkling intentions. The Roberts aren't 'good people who took some wrong turns in their lives' or however our binary moral compasses want to preserve their hero-ness. They are simply compelling. That's all they, or the movie, owe us.

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My two favorite music videos

It's funny how bands choose which songs to release as singles. I'm still obsessed with the entire Dan Deacon album, 6 months after it came out, but I never would have expected 'Paddling Ghost' to be a single. Maybe it's because the lyrics lend themselves pretty well to a narrative video. (Or do they? I can't understand half of them.) Or maybe it's just because it's the only song on the album that has anything resembling a verse-chorus-verse structure, and a radio-friendly runtime.

Anyway, the video's great, and the song is 200-proof joy. Mostly in the form of marimbas.

Dan Deacon – Paddling Ghost


Videos like this always make me feel like I'm wasting my saturdays.

Meanwhile, the video for The Dead Weather's 'Treat Me Like Your Mother' is just pure swagger.

Dead Weather – Treat Me Like Your Mother

It's directed by Jonathan Glazer, one of the great '90s music video directors. That dude needs to make more movies.

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De-friend indeed

I love the craggy, unmapped moral landscape of social media:

Dear Answer Lady,

I need help. I grew up in Idaho, a pretty, if somewhat backwards, state. Recently, an acquaintance from high school posted this on Facebook: "Isnt this great? Americans have put a socialist into the White House – a socialist who wants to indoctrinate our youth with his socialist agenda. Hitler was able to spread his ideas by appealing to German youngsters. Dont let obama get a hold of our children. Socialism always fails."

This is why I can barely stand to look at Facebook.

But my real question is: Do I respond? And if so, how? My instinct is to stay out of it, because any response of mine will probably elicit a dozen angry responses from her right-wing cronies. I do think, though, that letting angry, uninformed attacks like this go unanswered is a problem. I cringe at my computer, and then do nothing. But is it possible to have a reasoned, thoughtful discussion about this? Without making her angry and without making me sound like the smug, condescending east coast liberal I have become?

I say: De-friend the shit out of him and don't look back.

The real issue here is that Facebook (which is objectively great, suck it contrarians) allows and encourages you to build and maintain friendships with people who, in 3D, you would have allowed to recede into the fog of acquaintanceship eons ago.

The greatest predictor of whether two people will be friends isn't whether they're from the same social class, or the same race, or the same age. It's simply, do they see each other every day? Proximity is friendship's petri dish. This is why you're fond of the people you work with, even though they don't have anything in common with you and steal your gouda out of the fridge.

The best — and worst — thing about social media like Facebook is that they simulate this proximity. You see your friends' pictures and updates every day. Oh, Susan has a new job! Mark's baby turned two this weekend! Ryan is out of toothpaste! This proximity, more than any of the technical features, is what makes social media so indispensable. All of us have Hometown Friends and Work Friends and Study Abroad Friends. It's objectively useful to store them all in one place, and to be able to communicate with them not just instantly, but constantly.

The downside of this, of course, is that sometimes you forget that your friend-list is lousy with people you only met once, or haven't seen in 10 years, or who you've been frenemies with for two years but can't lance because it would be too drama. Every once in awhile, by status update or general stalkery, you realize: I don't even fucking know these people.

One minor mitigator of this problem is the European approach to social media. You know someone at least reasonably well (last-name basis, say) before you add them anywhere. And, importantly, you delete often and indiscriminately. Americans seem to add everyone they pass by on the street, and hem and haw over leaving twatmonsters like the above on the cutting-room floor. Gays browse promiscuously and add each others' hot friends to their lists, operating on the premise that the blending of their work, social and dating lives is a labor-saving device rather than a recipe for herpes and exile.

Me, I'm sticking with the hard-in, easy-out model. If I'm gonna spend pixely time with these people, then as a starting point, it shouldn't be too much to ask that I like them.

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The accidental fetish tourist

You know how parents are always worried about their kids searching for something innocuous on the internet and then ending up being exposed to a bunch of unseemly shit? Like they Google 'juice box' and end up on piss-on-this-face.com?

Every once in awhile that happens in real life.

So we went to Berlin last weekend. The end of summer! Cultural capital! This'll be fun, right?

We didn't know that the first weekend of September is the Folsom Street Fair in Berlin. Apparently every homosexual in Europe is aware of this except for us.

Folsom is a gathering of the 'fetish community' from around Europe. Which pretty much means that it's about 10,000 middle-aged homosexuals in leather, drinking beer and lamenting the weekend's carb intake. Think of it like the European equivalent of a State Fair, except the petting zoo pets back.

Once we figured out that it was in Berlin at the same time we were, we thought we would go check it out. There was a nice Central European dude handing out fliers at the entrance, yelling 'Come and meet your fellow perverts!'

So we went, we chatted, we learned and we took pictures. I was going to preface these with some kind of disclaimer, like 'This is not representative of gay life in general. We'll stop doing this shit if you let us get married!' or something. But I'm not going to apologize for these people. They're just hanging out and having fun in a way that makes them feel comfortable, and they're not remotely bothering anyone else.

Besides, we actually had a really good time. Everyone we chatted to was way friendly, nobody minded us giggling at their bove-wear, and they were all happy to answer our I-grew-up-in-Repressostan questions. Plus, they all let me take their picture.

So if you really need to distance yourself from this, just remember: These people aren't weird because they're gay. They're weird because they're German.

 

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Wait, what?

An interesting blog post, followed by interesting comments? What is this, a BBS?

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‘I’m gonna fight you, Mrs. Wadsworth’

Lately I've decided the only movies worth watching are the ones that are either painstakingly realistic or aggressively stylized. Somehow I fear that this movie went for one and ended up the other:

1973: ‘The Baby’

The sound you hear at the end is a million gays at their laptops whispering 'fabulous'.

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Overheard at a gay bar in London last weekend

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Dude 1: [Waiting in line]

Dude 2: [Pushes past Dude 1 and darts into stall]

Dude 1: [Slams on door]. Hey what the fuck?!

Dude 2: [Flush. Comes out of stall.]

Dude 1: Fuck you, faggot!

 

I don't think that's what people mean when they talk about minorities 'reclaiming' former slurs.  

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‘We love you, Roger’

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Roger Ebert's essay on being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 30 years has a nice little The More You Know nugget:

I have attended meetings in church basements, school rooms, a court room, a hospital, a jail, banks, beaches, living rooms, the back rooms of restaurants, and on board the Queen Elizabeth II. There's usually coffee. Sometimes someone brings cookies. We sit around, we hear the speaker, and then those who want to comment do. Nobody has to speak. Rules are, you don't interrupt anyone, and you don't look for arguments. As we say, "don't take someone else's inventory."

I know from the comments on an earlier blog that there are some who have problems with Alcoholics Anonymous. They don't like the spiritual side, or they think it's a "cult," or they'll do fine on their own, thank you very much. The last thing I want to do is start an argument about A.A.. Don't go if you don't want to. It's there if you need it. In most cities, there's a meeting starting in an hour fairly close to you. It works for me. That's all I know. I don't want to argue with you about it.

This strikes me as pretty good advice for other-people relations generally.

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The Disinformation Age

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One constant and recurring problem I have these days is trying to formulate opinions on topics that require technical or scientific knowledge I don't have.

I was reading an op-ed the other day in the New York Times where this energy consultant says more or less that 'peak oil' is bullshit. He quotes a lot of sciencey-sounding numbers and technological processes to back this up, like:

because quicker extraction causes the fluid pressure in the field to drop rapidly, the wells become less and less productive over time. But this declining return on individual wells doesn’t necessarily mean that whole fields are being cleaned out. As the Saudis have proved in recent years at Ghawar, additional investment — to find new deposits and drill new wells — can keep a field’s overall production from falling.

[…]

In the end, perhaps the most misleading claim of the peak-oil advocates is that the earth was endowed with only 2 trillion barrels of “recoverable” oil. Actually, the consensus among geologists is that there are some 10 trillion barrels out there. A century ago, only 10 percent of it was considered recoverable, but improvements in technology should allow us to recover some 35 percent — another 2.5 trillion barrels — in an economically viable way.

Now, everything he says might be true. Or it might be unrepentant nonsense. How would I know? The only tools I have to judge the truth or bullshit of this column are his credentials ('energy consultant', let's face it, sounds pretty sketchy) and my pre-existing biases on this topic (like, that most people I know who subscribe to this 'peak oil' thing are hippietarded assholes).

So what should I do? I can't go to fucking peakoil.com or whatever, because they'll just dazzle me with a bunch of counterfactual scientific arguments that I can't understand any better than those of mister energy consultant here.

I find the same issue with a lot of political controversies these days. Global warming, health care, immigration reform, all of them require scientific or demographic knowledge that we humble laypersons don't have. So we fall back on anecdotes and partisanship.

A friend of mine recently come across the now-famous literature review that concluded that organic produce probably isn't all that much better for you than regular produce, and was amazed at the squint-eyed resistance he got from his organo-friends when he mentioned it. First they retreated to 'well that study was bullshit', as if they're in any position to say that, then further to 'well, organic produce was never about the nutritional value anyway.' This adherence in the face of counterfactual evidence, says my friend, 'isn't opinion, it's religion.'

A lot of the issues we read (and vote) about aren't moral issues like abortion, or dropping nukes, or adultery. They're technical issues: Is air pollution making our planet warmer? Is our planetary oil straw about to start making that the-milkshake-is-almost-gone sound? Was your great-great grandfather a backscratching ape?

But I keep thinking that I'm not really qualified to make judgments on these issues without fully understanding the processes behind them.

Maybe this isn't the Information Age, it's the Argument Age. We each pick a team, and then go looking for ammunition.   

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