November 21, 2014

Friday Review: Gravity

I'm certain about one thing went it comes to Gravity - director Alfonso Cuarón and his technical team earned every one of those Oscars they won last year.  The film is a technical marvel, seamless and incredibly real, particularly given that all but the last few minutes take place in space.

But beyond that - well, I'm conflicted.

Because, here's the thing - aside from the visuals, there isn't a whole lot else going on.  This is either a bold rejection of most storytelling conventions, in which case props to Cuarón, even if it doesn't quite work, or it's yet another example of a movie that's all about on-screen dazzle at the expense of things
like characters, plot, and the like.  Just because the visuals are used to bring to life something realistic and dramatic, instead of (for an example) giant robots that transform into easily sold commodities, doesn't give it a pass.

A regular flick, I suspect, would have given us some scenes on the shuttle before the big accident, or even on the ground during the run up to the mission, to get to know the characters.  As it is, only through some clumsy dialogue while they drift in space do we learn anything about them.  As a result, we can't really engage with them on an emotional level.  Yes, it would be tragic if they died while in space (as with the rest of the redshirts), but aside from that, why care?

But on the other hand, I respect that choice.  I have a short story where the main character escapes from many years of captivity.  One of the notes I got on it from my crit group wondered if he needed something more specific to "get back to" as motivation.  I didn't see it that way - he was a prisoner, for fuck's sake - but I can see the point.

I've often heard that short stories are better for adapting to movies than novels.  They have less material to start with, of course, so a director doesn't have to worry about cutting great swaths of material to tell the whole of the story.  Gravity feels like a short story, reminding me of something like "The Cold Equations," where it's less about the characters and more about the situation they struggle against.

Ultimately, it's hard to fault Gravity for not being the kind of movie I would make.  It's a visual showpiece, a true movie - something that would be nearly impossible to pull off in another medium.  In that way, it's a bit like 2001, which doesn't have the world's greatest script, either.  So that's good company to be in.

Gravity isn't much more than a trip, but it is one hell of  a ride.

The Details
Released 2013
Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

November 18, 2014

Reading Shouldn’t Be Work

We’ve all been there.

Deep in the bowels of a book – fiction or non, it doesn’t matter – getting through that vast middle between the beginning where you get hooked and the end where everything (hopefully) pays off, and it happens.  Something in the back of your mind, or maybe the front, says, “what the hell are we doing wasting our time with this shit?”

OK, so that’s what my mind says.  Your mileage may vary, as they say.  But everybody who reads is eventually faced with the question of whether a book is worth finishing.  Whether it’s the slimmest of novellas or a door stopper like the later volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, you start to wonder if your time might be better spent elsewhere.  Like, say, reading a better book.

Writing at The Atlantic, Juliet Lapidos argues that you should stick it out to the bitter end, regardless of how much of a slog things become.  This isn’t just a matter of trying to ensure you don’t miss out on something that comes good at the end, it’s a question of morality:
This behavior, common though it may be, seems lazy to me. Wrong, even. Once you start a book, you should finish it.
That being said, she begins her case for always finishing a book with the most obvious utilitarian one – it might get better.  She gives examples (classics, naturally) of books that aggravated her to no end, but finally got around to a “transcendentally good scene” that made it all worthwhile.  This is true of anything, of course, and doesn’t really support the charge that bailing at some earlier stage is “wrong.”  Short sighted, maybe, but not wrong.

Her other reasons don’t fare any better.  The first is “fortitude,” which is essentially the intellectual version of being made to eat your vegetables.  Slogging through a boring book (to be fair, she names names – hello Ian McEwan fans!) steels ones resolve to deal with real life.  Which, conveniently enough in Lapidos’s case, involves . . . slogging through lots of poorly written verbiage.  I suppose there’s something to admire in that, but I don’t think anyone would begrudge her some editorial control over the reading she does on her own time.  I sometimes read court cases for fun (pathetic, I know), but only so long as they’re actually interesting.  I save the slogs for the office.

The last reason, is, I have to say, one that gets a little closer to why it’s “wrong” to step away from a book early – respect:
it is one thing to start writing a novel and another thing entirely to finish one. Many would-be authors simply cannot bring a work of fiction to completion, which is part of why publishing houses, as a rule, won’t enter into contract until they see an ending. The difference between being able to write 50 pages and being able to write a whole novel is the difference—at least, one major difference—between a professional and a dilettante.
To drop a novel after a few chapters is, then, to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer. Today, books and authors need all the help they can get; if you care about literature as an artistic endeavor and the people who create it, then you should do so fully.
As someone who has gone the full nine yards and finished a couple of manuscripts, I appreciate the sentiment.  But, ultimately, it pains me to think somebody would someday buy one of my books, start it, think “this really sucks,” but decide to finish it out just so they can support the cause.  OK, maybe I expect my wife to do that, but not strangers!  It’s less a sign of respect than a symbol of your own better nature as a human being – “hey, this novel really sucked, but at least I’m such a good person that I read all of this shit!”

Where any argument that a book, once begun, requires the reader to finish it fails is in what economists call opportunity costs.  Opportunity costs are, basically,, the things you could otherwise do with your time while you were doing something else.  Some people read entire novels in a day.  For others it takes weeks.  If you’re in the latter camp, aren’t you going to lose large chunks of your life reading stuff you don’t like just to say you could?  Reading other books in the time you would have spent slogging through (insert favorite horrific tome here) just makes sense.  We’re all gonna die at some point – life’s too short to read stuff you don’t like.

Which is why books are different than other forms of entertainments.  I’ve never walked out on a movie, although I’ve bailed on a couple while watching at home.  Regardless of how bad a movie is, it’s over in a few hours.  And, for the first reason Lapidos lays out, I tend to want to see if it gets better.  But a few hours is quite different than a few days or a few weeks.  Like I said, life’s just too short.

I am, perhaps, the ultimate subjectivist when it comes to art.  There is no bad or good, only what people like or don't like.  A slog that is redeemed for Lapidos by a single transcendent scene will be, for others, merely a slog.  Nobody should be guilted into consuming art because it's "good" for them.  They should be encouraged to develop their own tastes and interests.  If those don't include seeing every book through to the end, regardless of how much enjoyment the reader gets from it, so be it.

November 13, 2014

Our Values In Action

Last spring, while writing about how we treat people who are released from prison, I wrote that "society owes a duty to anyone it locks in a cage."  That's equally true, perhaps doubly so, while that person is still locked in a cage.  It's a test we fail all too regularly.

Take this latest atrocity highlighted by Radley Balko.  An inmate in North Carolina named Michael Kerr, a veteran, died after several weeks in solitary confinement, due to behavioral issues brought on by untreated mental illness.  After guards found him unresponsive in his cell, they drove him for 2.5 hours to a prison hospital - bypassing eight ERs along the way.  He died en route.  The details of Kerr's life and crime are in the article and are heartbreaking.

But that's not really the point.  What I wanted to really highlight is how Balko concludes his article.  He mentions how treating inmates humanely is, paradoxically, most difficult for the people who have to do so on a daily basis - prison staff.  But we can hardly blame them alone:
look at our values. Americans not only accept violence and sexual assault in our prisons, but also a large part of the population considers it a given — it’s just another part of a convict’s punishment. We’re not just comfortable with prison rape, we often find it humorous (even SpongeBob once made a prison rape joke), or we revel in the thought of inflicting it on people we abhor, members of groups we consider the enemy, or stand-ins for groups of people we find distasteful. (It’s a common sentiment to wish prison rape upon political opponents, particularly those who have been accused or convicted of crimes.)
If those of us far removed from prisons don’t take the humanity of the incarcerated seriously, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the officials we ask to actually run the prisons engage in the sort of sadism and brutality we see in these stories.

UPDATE: As if on cue, someone in the comments to this article about today's indictment handed down against coal baron Don Blankenship posted this:

Blankenship may deserve a lot of things, but if he winds up in prison, being raped isn't one of them.

November 12, 2014

Down the Memory Hole

In 1998, real estate belonging to Mario Costeja Lopez, in Spain, was seized by local authorities and auctioned off to pay debts he owed.  Notice of the auction went out in the local newspaper, and later on its web site.

Skip to this past summer, when a lawsuit filed by Lopez came to an end at the European Court of Justice (sort of a Supreme Court for Europe).  Staggeringly, the court partly agreed with Lopez's requests that the newspaper remove the notice from its archive and Google remove links to it from its search results.  The court didn't make the paper take the notice down, but did order Google to kill the links.  This is what's know as the "right to be forgotten."

As you might expect, Lopez's triumph has led to fairly disparate opinions on either side of the Atlantic:
Q: But this ruling goes completely against freedom of information - that anything that's public should be recorded and kept.
A: That's certainly how lots of American commentators have seen it. There's a definite cultural split in peoples' attitudes to this ruling. Journalism professor and commentator Jeff Jarvis (of City University, New York) called it 'a blow against free speech' - but was then chided by Gerd Leonhard, from Basel in Switzerland: ''Everything that happens must be known' - is that what you are proposing? I think EU decision on Google is a suitable first step.'
It's worth noting here that the European conception of what "privacy" means is fundamentally different than it is in the United States.  We tend to think of privacy as dealing with limits on the government and generally enforcing what Louis Brandeis called the "right to be let alone."  Europeans, on the other hand, put much more importance on being able to conceal parts of your own past from others - to emphasize being able to control your own personal narrative (so to speak).

The problem with that, of course, is that you're most likely to want to keep from view the very kind of information you want others not to know.  At the extreme, you probably don't want people to know about a prior conviction for a crime or maybe even a prior marriage.  More mundane worries may include things like poor job performance, embarrassing Facebook status/pictures, or, in cases like Lopez, financial insolvency.  All of that, of course, may be relevant information to others.

Regardless of the merits of either approach, the right to be forgotten is leading to some absurd requests.  Like the one recently received by The Washington Post (via) from a pianist named Dejan Lazic.

Lazic, from Croatia, gave a concert in Washington in 2010 at which the Post's music critic was not particularly impressed.  It referred to a prior work of Lazic's as "attention-getting, large scale and a little empty" and concluded that his recital "was unfortunately more of the same."  It wasn't a pan - Lazic was described as "sensitive" and "profoundly gifted" - but it was, at times, pretty barbed (in Lazic's hands a "scherzo became cartoon-like").

So, it's a less than glowing review.  But that's the price you pay for being an artist, right?  People get to say whether they like your stuff or not, or, more broadly, whether you're "good" and you don't get a lot of say on the matter.  Writers, I know, are encouraged to never engage with critics - it's a battle you just can't win.  Unless the review gets something factually wrong, you shrug it off and move on.

Not Lazic.  Armed with the "right to be forgotten," he has asked the Post to take the review down.  As he explains:
'To wish for such an article to be removed from the internet has absolutely nothing to do with censorship or with closing down our access to information,' Lazic explained in a follow-up e-mail to The Post. Instead, he argued, it has to do with control of one’s personal image — control of, as he puts it, 'the truth.'
The Post is not backing down, partly because even the right recognized in Europe doesn't extend to the actual newspaper stories, only the links.  But it also recognizes that there are broader issues, more meta ones, at stake.  Like which version of the "truth" gets to be in the permanent record:
Whose truth is right: the composer’s or the critic’s? And more critically, who gets to decide?
It’s a question that goes far beyond law or ethics, frankly — it’s also baldly metaphysical, a struggle with the very concept of reality and its determinants. Lazic (and to some extent, the European court) seem to believe that the individual has the power to determine what is true about himself, as mediated by the search engines that process his complaints.
Growing up with the First Amendment, I would say that the decision about where the truth lies belongs to neither the performer or the critic, but to everyone else.  I do think I have a right to know that Lazic is, in the opinion of some, a bombastic player who overperforms.  Heck, I may like such things!  Why should I only have the word of the performer to go on before I lay out cash for a ticket or a CD?  That would reduce us to a world of very special people who are brilliant at what they do.  Even as a writer, I wouldn't want that.

There is a considerable irony in all this.  Were it not for his successful court case, I would have never heard of Mario Costeja Lopez or his financial problems.  The same is true for Dejan Lazic and his penchant for pianistic bombast.  More perfect examples of the Streisand Effect would be hard to find.  Which gives me some hope that the right to be forgotten will, someday, make its own way down the memory hole.

November 4, 2014

How to Get Away With Anything

The breakout hit of the new TV season, to the extent there is such a thing anymore, is How To Get Away With Murder, the latest product of the Shonda Rhimes ratings factory.  It's about a law prof who's also a practicing defense attorney (not completely unheard of), who uses four students every semester as part of her defense team (very much unheard of).  We've already learned that, in addition to helping win murder cases, they're deeply involved in one.  It's fun, in a silly, don't-think-too-much-about-it kind of way.

However, as a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook the night of the premiere, it is deeply deeply unrealistic.  As he noted, there's a handful of glaring ethical failures in just the first episode, so anybody who thought the show's title held the promise of accurate advice, think again.  Come to think of it, if your legal knowledge is gleaned solely from primetime TV, remember the old MST3K mantra: it's only just a show, you should really just relax.

Having said all that, last week's episode entered my playground - the appellate court - and completely shit all over it.  Trust me, neither the Pennsylvania Supreme Court nor any other appeals court is ever going have parties calling witnesses, much less engaging in hyperbolic cross examinations in their courtroom.  Oh, and the guy whose fate their arguing over, the defendant?  Nowhere near the place.  Prisoners don't get transported for oral arguments.  It would have been easy enough to get all this right (move the hearing to a trial court), so one wonders why they don't.

Now . . . where was I . . .

Primary among the ethical slips we've seen so far is how some of the students lie about who they are in schemes to get information to help win their client's freedom.  This might seem bold, or even clever, but it's something you simply cannot do as a defense lawyer.  That's a good thing, but it results in a odd imbalance in the criminal justice systems.

You see, cops can and will lie to you.  This recent Christian Science Monitor article sums up the situation well:
Bluffing is a common – and legal – tool in police interrogation rooms, and the art of artifice in obtaining confessions is a standard part of police training. The parameters for what police can lie about are broad, and lies can range from claiming to have evidence that does not exist to fibbing that a witness was at the scene.

Still, per US Supreme Court rulings, confessions must also be 'voluntary,' introducing a possible point of contention between an officer’s right to lie to a suspect and his or her obligation to serve justice.

'The question is, at what point does the amount of lying make the confession involuntary?' Professor Shanks says. 'There’s just no bright line on it.'
Defense attorneys, and those employed by them (like, say, young eager law students) don't have that luxury.  Rule 4 of the WV Rules of Professional Conduct (which are similar enough to others in the country to serve as an example), is labelled "Transactions With Persons Other Than Clients."  It says:
Rule 4.1.  Truthfulness in statements to others.
In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly:
(a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or
(b) fail to disclose a material fact to a third person when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting a criminal or fraudulent act by a client, unless disclosure is prohibited by Rule 1.6.
So, where cops can lie about who they are and what information they have, defense attorneys and their investigators can't.  It's a simple as that.

Which leads to cops being involved with all kinds of shenanigans that would get a defense lawyer disbarred, if not locked up.  Like this latest outrage (via) in the War on (Some People's) Drugs:
The Justice Department is claiming, in a little-noticed court filing, that a federal agent had the right to impersonate a young woman online by creating a Facebook page in her name without her knowledge. Government lawyers also are defending the agent’s right to scour the woman’s seized cell phone and to post photographs — including racy pictures of her and even one of her young son and niece — to the phony social media account, which the agent was using to communicate with suspected criminals.
The woman had been arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty to a minor drug charge, for which she received probation.  Her phone was seized as part of her arrest.  She was never told about the fake profile using her information (she learned about it from a friend).

Why would the DEA think they could do such a thing?
The experts also agreed that the case raises novel legal and ethical questions. There is a long tradition of deceptive practices by police that are legal, they noted. For example, officers assume a false identity to go undercover. 'What’s different here,' said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, is that the agent assumed the identity of a real person without her explicit consent.

'The technologies we have now are enabling all sorts of new uses,' said Neil Richards, a professor at the Washington University School of Law. 'There are a whole bunch of new things that are possible, and we don’t have rules for them yet.'
I'd beg to differ only in that the rules are already there and the cops (which includes the DEA) knows they don't need to follow them.  The slow destruction of the Fourth Amendment, combined with the desire to let cops do absolutely anything in the name of the War on (Some People's) Drugs leads precisely to this kind of behavior.

So, while ABC may want to show us how to get away with murder, the way to get away with most anything else is pretty clear - be a cop going after drugs.

November 2, 2014

How Not to Win Friends and Influence Voters

Let me start this screed by saying I'm a registered Democrat.  In a two-party world, the Dems come closer than the Republicans to being "right" on issues that matter most to me.  Needless to say, neither party does swimmingly well, however.

Which is why I'm particularly miffed by this piece of misguided get-out-the-vote strategy that's shown up in West Virginia (in this particular example, Cabell County, but it's happening around the country:

Here's the text:
The West Virginia Democratic Party monitors the level of voting in your neighborhood.  The Cabell County Clerk's Office official voting records are public information, and show whether you cast a ballot, but not who you voted for.  We will be reviewing these records after the election to determine whether you joined other citizens who voted in 2014.

[Info about voting times, registering, and phone number to call for help omitted]

Attached is our official "I Voted" sticker.  We encourage you to wear this after you go to the polls.  We only send these to the individuals we believe are most likely to vote.  Please don't disappoint us.


Larry Puccio
Chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party

This strikes me as spectacularly wrongheaded, for a couple of reasons.

First, is the a more Orwellian image than someone pouring through records to see whether you voted or not?  Why not just include a page that looks like this:

It would get the point across just as well. 

Besides, hasn't anybody in the DNC been paying attention to the public backlash about the NSA, TSA, and various national data gathering schemes?  Obama may not have launched them, but he's defended them vigorously.  In an election where Democrats are doing anything they can to distance themselves from Obama, sending out a "he knows when you are voting, he knows when you are not" letter is beyond tone deaf.

Second, the tone of this letter is very much, "you're a Democrat, you know who to vote for," which, I suppose, is a basic get-out-the-vote thing.  But it assumes that any Democratic candidate is owed my vote, which is not the case.  I'm not one of those "if you don't vote, you forfeit your right to complain" people.  I try to only vote for people I actually like.  The current slate of WV Dems are, quite frankly, not very appealing.  No amount of threatened shaming is going to change that.

Give us better candidates, Democrats.  Then you wouldn't have such a hard time getting any of enthused to go vote for them.

October 24, 2014

Friday Review: The Monuments Men

The story of the Monuments Men - a group of about 350 Allied soldiers who were tasked with safeguarding and liberating looted art during World War II - is fascinating and a part of the war that's frequently been overlooked.  That, thankfully, changed last year with the George Clooney flick, even though it didn't turn out to be the awards season champ it seemed designed to be.  The movie a fictionalized account of the story laid in the book by Robert Edsel.  For such an interesting story, it's a shame it doesn't get a better telling.

Edsel makes an admission right at the beginning of the book that doesn't bode well:
I have taken the liberty of creating dialogue for continuity, but in no instance does it concern matters of substance and in all cases it is based on extensive documentation.
I admire them for being up front about this, but it immediately calls into question what comes after.  More problematic, however, is that if the dialogue doesn't concern "matters of substance" then why include it at all?  In the end, the dialog doesn't add much drama or tension to the book, which is otherwise sorely lacking.  It's both an odd choice and a missed opportunity.

Perhaps one reason I'm particularly down on the dialogue is that in the Audible version, the reader tries to do most of them in accents and fails miserably.  I've rarely cringed while listening to an audiobook, but did so time after time with this one.  It was particularly jarring because early on when all the speakers were Americans, there didn't seem to be any accents at all (this changed, unfortunately).  The cliched French and German that came later, therefore, really grated on the ears.

Beyond that, part of the problem with the book is that the Monuments Men tend to blend together until it's hard to remember who's who.  They have very similar backgrounds and face the same kind of obstacles so that none of them really stand out.  In fact, the biggest help I had in keeping them separate in my head was to picture their counterparts in the movie (fictional characters based on actual people).

In fact, the two most memorable people in the book (aside from Hitler, Eisenhower, etc.) are ones that don't quite fit the "Monuments Men" label.  One was Rose Valland, a French woman who spent the war in the midst of Nazi Paris keeping track of plundered art, then became the key figure in tracking it down and recapturing it.  She, obviously, was not a man (nor American, which is the primary focus of the book and film).

The other is Harry Ettlinger, who was a man, but unlike the more sophisticated, educated, and high class art types who became Monuments Men, was just a private who wound up doing his part.  It's his back story that makes that part compelling.  Ettlinger was a Jew, born in Karlshrue and forced to flee before the war.  He was, we are told, the last person to have a bat mitzvah in that city's synagogue before it was destroyed.  That he returned to Germany an American GI, helping right the cultural wrong perpetrated by the Nazis (including a fulfilling personal mission) is the best part of the book.

The other problem is that, once things get going, the activities of the Monuments Men are pretty redundant.  During the initial periods after Allied landings in Italy and France, they are tasked with keeping valuable buildings and works from being carelessly destroyed.  Important, no doubt, but not that thrilling once we're past the initial instance.  Things pick up a bit once they're on the trial of looted art, but those trails mostly lead to a series of mines in Germany and Austria where the Germans stashed the loot.  The mere fact that untold treasures are stuffed down mines, much less the challenges of getting them out, are interesting but, again, become a bit redundant.

In the middle of this section comes an interesting, if not altogether relevant, diversion.  The most impressive of the salt-mine stashes was found in the Austrian town of Altaussee.  The Nazi governor of the area planned to blow the whole mine up, destroying all the looted artwork rather than let it fall into Allied hands (all based on an order from Hitler that may, or may not, have been rescinded and/or modified).  A group of locals managed to trick him into delaying the plan long enough for the Allies to arrive.  It's a neat story and, from Edsel's telling, one that's been untold in its true depth, for years.  However, it doesn't really have much to do with the Monuments Men, as they arrived after the drama was done.

But most of that is nitpicking.  What Edsel has done is to celebrate not just a group of people who did important (and often overlooked) work.  He notes just how unusual this focus on preserving and repatriating art was and what a worthy endeavor it was.  Armies just didn't do such things.

Nor do they much anymore.  Edsel wonders why we haven't had similar operations (at least in terms of scope) in future wars.  Sadly, I think it's pretty easy to figure out.  Edsel frequently refers to the Monuments Men's goal as no less than the salvation, not just of particular cultural artifacts, but of "our" culture in general.  He even goes so far as to call the Altaussee plot one of the great turning points of civilization.  So why, then, were there no Monuments Men units in Iraq or Vietnam or Korea?

Simple - those places aren't part of "our" culture.  The Nazis, after all, were still Europeans and thus part of a long heritage that extended to the United States.  Not so much some others. It's not for nothing that the Monuments Men effort was confined to Europe, with no mention of the Pacific theater.  Nor should it be lost that the genesis of the group that became the Monuments Men was concerns about protecting American art in case of invasion.  We care most about ourselves and those who remind us of ourselves (Bender was onto something), whether that is how it should be or not.

Edsel himself has an interesting story (according to Wikipedia).  He grew up in Texas and made his money in (what else) oil and gas drilling.  He sold out to Union Pacific in the 1990s and moved to Europe.  It was there he first became interested in the subject of the Nazis and art during the war.  He's done yeoman work to bring this issue to national attention and clearly cares deeply about it.  None of the criticisms of his writing should minimize that.

The Details
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
by Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter
Published 2009