My ten-month-old daughter’s first word is “cracker”; she likes to eat various sorts of biscuits, cookies, crackers, teething biscuits, etc., and this is her term for all of them. Sometimes she speaks the word, as if asking for a cracker. But she always repeats the word a number of times, whenever we give her one. What’s striking is the happiness with which she repeats the word; her pleasure at being able to say “cracker,” her delight at having expressed a meaning, far exceeds the pleasure she gets from eating the cracker itself. A pretty good exemplification, I think, of what it means to be human.
Archive for June, 2003
Laurent Cantet’s Time Out is an effectively creepy film about work, business, and emptiness. The protagonist is a management/consultant/financial type, who can’t bear to tell his wife and family (or even emotionally admit to himself) that he has lost his job; so he drives around all day, fantasizing details of his busy work schedule in calls home to his wife on his mobile phone, then finally shows up late in the evening, exhausted, to play his role as husband and father & fall into bed. As this film goes on, all this escalates, as he fabulates about new jobs for which he even seems to be writing business reports and proposals, pitches fake investments to his friends, and digs himself further and further into a hole of debts and fabrications. The film is almost terrifying in its evocation of an uncanny emotional blankness that could just as well be the actuality of work in the business world, as it is the protagonist’s self-deceiving simulation of such work. Cantet convincingly imagines the affect of privileged bourgeois life in late capitalism, and it isn’t a pretty sight.
28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland, is a vivid horror film in the mode of George Romero (the Living Dead trilogy, of course, but also his excellent, although lesser-known The Crazies), but updated for the new century, in terms of its cinematography (lots of shock cuts in the violent sequences) and overall attidutes (a bit more sentimental than Romero, but also more, how do I say this, pragmatic). A plague turns nearly all of England into zombie-like enraged maniacs, bent on spreading their disease by biting others. A small group of uninfected people try, against all odds, to stay alive. Horror is both the most visceral and the most intellectual of film genres, and 28 Days Later succeeds on both counts. The film works largely because of its pacing: Boyle understands the rhythms of dread, anticipation, and surprise, and he captures those scary moments when nothing is happening, but for that very reason it is impossible to feel safe, because something horrible might happen at any moment, and especially at those moments when you finally do relax, and don’t expect trouble. There’s also the visual poetry of London, and the British countryside, strangely devoid of people, though filled with their garbage and other detritus; it’s more disturbing in its way than scenes of outright ruin (destroyed buildings, etc) would have been. Though the film does have one eerie, almost apocalyptic moment, when our fleeing protagonists see Manchester burning in the distance. In terms of intellectual content, the film rethinks our post-AIDS ideas/dreads/paranoia about contagion, and also uses the aftermath of catastrophe scenario to reflect on our contemporary remakings of gender. (It’s hard to be more specific without giving things away, but let’s just say the film both gives a positive account of a new sensitive heterosexual masculinity, and reflects quite gruesomely on the laddie backlash that has been strong in both the UK and the US in recent years). All in all, I cannot say that this is a ground-breaking horror film, but it is a memorable and affecting one.
Well, the other shoe has dropped. The Recording Industry Association of America has announced that it will sue individuals who are engaging in unauthorized file sharing. We can expect hundreds of lawsuits by the end of the summer. Of course, everyone is commenting on this, usually either with outrage or grudging, fatalistic acceptance. I might as well put in my two cents too. Especially since there are certain aspects of this case that have not been sufficiently discussed…
Scientists have recently discovered a mechanism for genetic repair used by the Y chromosome in human males. The Y chromosome does not have a partner chromosome to pair with, and recombine with during meiosis. Recombination is one of the ways that chromosomes compensate for mutations, transcription errors, and other potentially lethal alterations; so, without the opportunity to recombine, the Y chromosome would seem extremely vulnerable, and indeed this has often been used to explain why it is so much smaller than the X chromosome, or any of the other paired chromosomes in human cells. But it turns out the Y chromosome has a way of compensating for this difficulty. Large areas of the chromosome are palindromic, that is to say, they read the same in either direction. This means that the chromosome is able to, and in fact does, fold over and recombine with itself. This explains why, although the Y chromosome has far less genes than the X or any of the other, it does in fact have something like 78 active genes, which is more than anyone expected. This discovery is interesting, although scarcely earth-shattering. But the scientists who made it cannot resist the temptation to blow it up into something far more significant than it really is: “Men and women differ by 1 to 2 percent of their genomes, Dr. Page said, which is the same as the difference between a man and a male chimpanzee or between a woman and a female chimpanzee…We all recite the mantra that we are 99 percent identical and take political comfort in it, Dr. Page said. But the reality is that the genetic difference between males and females absolutely dwarfs all other differences in the human genome.” Can Dr. Page be serious? Even if his calculations of the numbers of genes involved is correct (which I doubt), all this shows is that not all genes are equally important, or equally active. While interspecies gene comparisons can give us a sense of how closely related two species are, they do not give us any indication of how “similar” or “dissimilar” those two species are, in any meaningful sense of those words. To say that human males are as similar to chimpanzee males as they are to human females is nonsense, if only because human beings and chimpanzees cannot interbreed and produce fertile (or any) offspring. The second half of Dr. Page’s comment–with its cliched invocation of opposing “political correctness”–suggests that he is overinterpreting his results in accordance with an agenda that has nothing to do with science. All in all, I’m reminded of a witticism my brother once uttered: “Isn’t it strange that I have 98.5% of my genes in common with a chimpanzee, but only 50% of my genes in common with my own son?”
Alain Joxe’s Empire of Disorder is a deeply problematic book. The author often comes off as a pompous ass, he is overly Franco- and Eurocentric (and I mean that in the worst possible way), and his theorizations are often annoyingly opaque. But this is still a worthwhile book, because of one thing: Joxe is very clear on the vile nature of the current, US-sponsored world system, with its toxic combination of “free-market” economics and predatory military adventurism. He shows how the US insists on having its way everywhere in the world, whether through economic coercion or overwhelming military force, but without even offering the protection that past empires (Rome, Austria-Hungary, etc) at least provided to their subjugated peoples. The result is a new world disorder: the vicious ethnic conflicts (Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechenya) and Mafia- or druglord-sponsored civil wars (Columbia) that have sprung up in the poorer (and not only the poorer) parts of the world since the fall of the Soviet Union are direct results of American imperial ambitions. By imposing the “free market” under conditions that devastate whole peoples, and by using our military might so capriciously, we have undermined any possiblity for democracy, civil society, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts over large parts of the globe. Joxe is not wrong in describing the American Empire (the gentler version under Clinton, no less than the meaner version under Bush) as fascistic and genocidal in terms of its effects (and perhaps even in terms of its overt intentions).
Tricky‘s new album Vulnerable is the best thing he’s done in quite some time, I think. Dark, twisted lyrics, vocals by Costanza (whoever she is, she’s the best female vocalist Tricky has worked with since Martina–Tricky is once more in touch with his feminine side, as he was not in his last few post-Martina releases, as Charles Mudede has twice noted), and a variety of musical styles from almost-r&b to almost-metal (but the metal sound works here as it did not on Tricky’s previous album Blowback). Under it all, a more driving rhythm than in any of Tricky’s previous albums, though these songs are mostly too depressing to dance to. In a way, Vulnereable could almost be seen as an attempted mainstream move on Tricky’s part, in the way he seems to have abandoned for good the avant-garde fragmentation of his earlier work like Pre-Millennium Tension (still my absolute favorite among his albums) in favor of a more commercial sound. But what’s great about Vulnerable is how he manipulates, twists, and perverts that sound, so that even the (originally fairly downbeat) songs he covers on this album, by XTC (!!) and The Cure (!!!) seem negatively, malevolently transfigured by the treatment Tricky gives them, Vulnerable shows Tricky at his almost-best, and it’s about time.
Chantal Akerman’s La Captive is a film so beautiful, so intense, and so claustrophobic that it is well-nigh unbearable. I mean this as unambiguous praise. La Captive is an adaptation of Proust–it is based on La Prisonniere, the section of A la recherche du temps perdu that narrates the narrator’s obsessive love for Albertine. And Akerman’s film is fully worthy of its source. Everything in La Captive is understated and underplayed: the lover’s jealousy, his efforts at surveillance, his relentless interrogation of the beloved, and her blankness and pliability. But this understatement is precisely right for the somber, nocturnal mood that is being depicted–love as a delirious possessiveness, doomed to impossibility, the attempt to possess a shadow, not merely another empirical person, but that person’s very otherness and mystery. It’s like trying to grasp the wind, or the darkness, in your two hands. Akerman conveys this, above all, through the rhythm, the temporality, of her film. This is a time that stops running, that turns back on itself, that keeps you waiting: not emptiness exactly, but the time of an anticipation that can never be fulfilled by presence.
Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan, has been widely acclaimed–rightly–as one of the best science fiction debuts of the last several years. Morgan transports the hardboiled detective style of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, or (more recently) Elmore Leonard, into a future world that he describes in convincing detail. Good prose style, good plotting, exciting read. But what interested me most about the novel was its take on the mind/body dilemma, the idea of downloading your consciousness into another body…