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Posts from 2004

A Moment for Geekery, and Beauty

J.R.R. Tolkien had a lingering suspicion that The Lord of the Rings was fundamentally an un-filmable story; he expressed the opinion that it was peculiarly unsuitable to dramatization and found himself disappointed (and a bit bewildered) at several attempts that were made at radio and film versions of his work. A couple of days ago, L. and I received Peter Jackson’s extended edition DVD of The Return of the King in a package on our doorstep. Tolkien was certainly right to worry–just look at the god-awful mess Ralph Bakshi made in The Lord of the Rings Part One (or better yet, don’t). But Jackson’s recut film (which we watched, of course, the first night that we had it) is just the last of a series of reminders that what is long hoped for can be fulfilled against all odds, that magnificient things really are possible in film, and that there is real beauty in this world, that there are things worth caring and raving about not because of anything that they are good for, but just because of what they are.

(Minor spoiler alert: don’t read the next four paragraphs if you don’t want to know what was added to the Extended Edition yet.)

The Extended Edition of ROTK is, much like the other two extended editions, a notably better version of a film that was already fantastic; whatever Jackson’s (misguided, I think) worries about the constraints on film being shown in a cinema, the DVD format gives him the leisure that he needs to draw out the tale and the characters as they deserve to be.

One of the chief beneficiaries is Denethor, whose increased screen time leaves him still noticeably more brutal and less fiercely-noble-but-despairing than you find him in the books, but who still has the time now to fully work out his pride, his heartrending grief, his despair, and his fall into madness. There is a moment, in both the cinematic release and in the Extended Edition, in which Faramir suggests that his father wishes that he had gone to Rivendell instead, and died in Boromir’s place–and Denethor clenches his jaw as he sips his wine, and quietly says that yes, he does wish that. I thought at the time that the scene was masterfully acted by John Noble, who showed both how brutal Denethor’s honesty was, but also how it cost him to say it at last; but when I saw Return of the King at the cinema, a lot of the audience just couldn’t seem to believe it. But the more chance we have to see Denethor, his despair in the war, and his mourning for Boromir, the more (I think) that moment resonates–to the point of being almost drawing tears. (As for Faramir’s suicidal charge on Osgiliath and Denethor’s descent into madness, there was no “almost” about it.)

The pacing of the Battle of Pelennor Fields is also less harshly abbreviated; the arrival of the Black Ships is still lamely anticlimactic, but Jackson does take the chance to draw out the siege of Minas Tirith in all its intolerable tension, to finally make some real reference to the day without dawn, and to place Gandalf in his confrontation with the Witch-King moments before the arrival of the Rohirrim at an unexpected sunrise. That moment, which had been little more than a transition to the next scene (albeit a fantastic next scene) in the cinematic version is now feels heighted to a genuine eucatastrophe in the depth of the darkest hour (just as Tolkien had intended it). Roger Ebert pointed out (in a review that I fear mostly missed the point) how Jackson has the will to show marvellous things on film and to use the entire screen doing it that has not really been seen since the great silent directors (Fritz Lang, in particular). What the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings have also shown is that he has the will–unlike almost any other filmmaker today–to take what he is doing absolutely seriously, and to slowly build (over the course of a good twelve hours or so of film!) to moments of real intensity, of terrible sadness and exuberant joy, without either smirking at the camera or indulging in Spielbergian sentimentality. Very few people working in film today, and almost certainly no-one who has worked on big-budget Hollywood productions in many a year, come anywhere near to making anything that is either so gloriously cinematic or so earnestly dramatic.

There are flaws of course–I might mention Jackson’s obsession with people falling unnecessarily from very high places, or the scriptwriters apparently complete misunderstanding of Valinor (all the evidence points to their having confused it with Heaven)–but these are rarely anything new and they don’t come anywhere near disrupting four hours of brilliant, emotionally exhausting, and simply beautiful film work. I don’t care what anyone says; the multiple endings and their real sense for the joy, beauty, and sadness of Tolkien’s denouement are one of the best things about this film, and although I think that the extended Fellowship remains clearly Jackson’s best work, Return is as nearly perfect a climax and farewell to the journey as you could hope for.

If I’m indulging in a bit of stridor for Strider and the rest of the gang, forgive me. I don’t, really, know how to write criticism without either making snarky remarks about lame moments in a film or else coming off as a raving fanboy (which I do, sometimes, and which I certainly am, in some cases). But what I want to say is this: the films that Jackson has given us really are some of the great works of film in our time, and if we take film seriously as art–and if we take art, and beauty, seriously as part of the good life–then it should be a delight to see something so sincere and so genuinely good available to us. We live in a media rich age, and all too much of what that means is that a lot of crap is now easily available 24/7. But it does also mean that Peter Jackson was able to make something that is genuinely and unabashedly great and beautiful, and to do so with a remarkable amount of thought and sensitivity to the text that Tolkien wrote and the intent behind it. That’s something remarkable, and if we are going to talk about human life in civilization, the usual bullshit that we dish about and get bunched up over is really only the dark and empty shadow cast over what is really meaningful. If Tolkien has only one thing to say to us about our times and his, it’s this: it is the builders, not the destroyers, who are worth remembering in history, and the reason that it’s sometimes worth the fight and struggle is the hope that it can free us–that we can live our lives together free to make things fit for everlasting memory, to seek, with wisdom and humility, the truth, and to behold, with love, the beauty that is in and the beauty that is beyond this world. Or, as Tolkien put it (in a scene that Jackson has delightfully restored to the Extended Edition):

Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he lookd up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep and untroubled sleep. (199)


It’s not a birth defect, dummy

(I owe the link to Alina Stefanescu’s commentary at Totalitarianism Today 2004/12/05.)

For the past couple decades or so, the mainstream of the gay rights movement has been insisting, as emphatically as they can and in every forum that they can find, that sexuality is determined by a more-or-less fixed sexual orientation and that sexual orientations are something innate–that is, either determined by genetics or by developmental factors during pregnancy. I understand how the tendency came about, in the face of bigoted bluster about the Evil Gay Agenda’s plans to recruit children, the deceptiveness and brutality of ex-gay aversion therapy programs, and more. But it’s an understandabe error, on any number of fronts. The cluster of ideas involved has any number of problems; one of the most fundamental is that it just bypasses the real argument. Let’s suppose, for example, that it turns out to be true that chemical effects on brain development in early pregnancy do have a major effect on adult sexuality, and that diet pills and thyroid medications really do make children much more likely to be gay if mothers take them during the first three months of pregnancy. What should we say about the discovery?

If you haven’t already got good grounds for saying that there’s nothing wrong with being gay or lesbian, then this discovery might make you less inclined to say that gay people can choose to be straight, or that the cultural environment you encounter in childhood can decide whether you’ll be gay or straight. But it won’t keep you from saying idiot things such as this (emphasis added):

These analyses support the conclusion that female offspring are more vulnerable to alterations in sexual orientation via exposure to a variety of prescription drugs, and suggest that this vulnerability is greatest during the first trimester.

Or this:

The finding adds to mounting concern over the use of slimming pills by women trying to lose weight. Prof Dornan said: All drugs can cross the placental barrier and, looking back, we weren’t so aware of what was going on inside the womb. Nowadays, the Royal College’s view is that women should not take drugs unless there is a clinical need.

Look, there are good medical reasons to be concerned about how medications taken during pregnancy affect children’s health at birth or later in life. But making your baby vulnerable to catching gay is not one of them. It’s not a birth defect, dummy. If there’s nothing wrong with being gay, then the increased likelihood of having a gay child ought to have no effect whatever on whether or not you decide to take pills in early pregnancy. (If it were discovered that diet pills made your child more vulnerable to having green eyes, would any researcher make comments like these?)

But it’s vital to notice that, even if the inntatist line on sexuality turns out to be true in every single respect, it does nothing to rule out either subtly (and perhaps unwittingly) homophobic comments like these, or stridently bigoted appeals from explicit homophobes. (Imagine Pat Robertson on television urging Christian mothers that taking thyroid medication during pregnancy makes the baby Jesus cry.) The fact is that there is nothing wrong with being gay–if it’s a choice, it’s not a wicked choice; if it’s a culturally cultivated taste, it’s not a pervse taste; and if it’s innate it’s not a congenital disease. But you can only say that if you have independent reasons for saying that there’s nothing wrong with gay romance or gay sexuality, aside from We can’t help it!

Gay liberation is a demand for the justice and respect that are due to rational human beings, whatever might happen to be under our loved ones’ underwear. Quibbling over whether our sexuality is ultimately up to us or not is an interesting scientific question, but it’s a political diversion. We shouldn’t waste our time on peripheral arguments to get homophobes to think of us as tragic accidents instead of depraved sinners; if we want to win, we need to head straight for the real argument, and we have to go all the way.

Dr. Anarchy answers your mail

A new advice column–sure to be syndicated in a newspaper near you soon. Because everything is simpler when you reject the State as such.

Dear Dr. Anarchy: How could a dangerous provision be signed into law without anyone in Congress actually having read it?

Worried in Washington

Worried: To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.

Politicians are never going to stop being irresponsible. That is their job. I suggest that you dump them.

Dr. Anarchy

Dear Dr. Anarchy: My pharmacist is refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception because he’s a sexist prick. What can I do?

Bristling in Britain

Bristling: Your pharmacist only has the power to be a slimy control freak because a bunch of politicians–most of them men–have given him exclusive control over whether or not you and your neighbors can get needed medicine–by banning you from buying it over the counter. I suggest that you dump them immediately.

Dr. Anarchy

Dear Dr. Anarchy: We have reached the point where serious lawyers are being paid serious fees by a big company to shut down the PB&J operation of a grocery store. How can we fix a broken patent system?

Flummoxed in Florida

Flummoxed: Abolish it.

Dr. Anarchy

Dear Dr. Anarchy: Can this marriage be saved?

Hopeful at the Home Journal

Hopeful: No. Marriage can’t be saved. Abolish it.

Dr. Anarchy

Next week: Dr. Anarchy answers your tax questions!

Lazy linking (around my newsfeeds in 60 seconds)

I’ve been putting most things on the back burner for the past few days while I get together graduate school applications and polish off a few other tasks that have been on the to-do list for a bit too long. In the meantime, for your reading pleasure…

  • Get Thunderbird Now that you’ve already liberated your Office software (thanks, OpenOffice.org!) and your web browser (thanks, Mozilla Firefox!), you can also reclaim your inbox with the public release of Mozilla Thunderbird, a top-notch open source, standalone e-mail client. It features (inter alia) adaptive spam filters, nice RSS / Atom newsfeed support, and extra-useful Saved Search folders. Migrating from AOL? Outlook? Outlook Express? Eudora? No problem! That’s the thing about open source software: they keep making software that works. Score another one for the free world.

  • Patent protectionists show once again how they make our lives better and reward innovation. Another threat to technological civilization will no doubt soon be averted by further intellectual enclosure. (Thanks, Copyfight.)

  • Fred Vincy has a thorough take-down of editorial hand-wringing over boys’ supposedly declining educational prospects. In fact, the whole thing is a huge sham (for some tangentially related points, see GT 2002-02-06: The Weird, Wild World of Anti-feminism), and as Fred points out, several steps of the argument apparently require you to presume that the money men make is more important than the money women make. It also includes, among other chicanery, this marvelous explanation of the problem: The small group of experts who research the problem only now is beginning to trace its outlines. It isn’t so much that schools have changed in ways that hurt boys. It’s that society has changed in ways that help girls. Helping girls? O tempora! O mores! (Perhaps someone at USA Today does need help with their verbal skills, after all…)

  • George Bush really did tell Tony Blair The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur. You can test your knowledge of our Prince President’s gnomic wisdom at the BBC.

  • Now that Fallujah had to be destroyed in order to save it, military commissars now have a free hand to build their model city in the heart of the Sunni Triangle. Bright ideas for liberated Fallujah include apartheid-style passbooks for all Fallujans and possibly industrial conscription in which all work for Fallujan men is organized under military-style batallions and directed by Army commanders. (For those keeping score, that’s one of Leon Trotsky’s theses about the possible uses of the Red Army after the Civil War drew to a close. It managed to horrify even his fellow Bolsheviks–no small feat, that. Freedom is, indeed, on the march.)

So it goes in this possible world. There should be some more in the way of non-lazy posting coming soon.

The Montreal Massacre

On 6 December 1989, fifteen years ago today, Marc Lepine murdered 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique. He killed them because they were women; Lepine told men to leave and shot at women as he screamed I hate feminists.

6 December is a day of remembrance for the women who were killed. They were:

  • Geneviève Bergeron, aged 21
  • Hélène Colgan, 23
  • Nathalie Croteau, 23
  • Barbara Daigneault, 22
  • Anne-Marie Edward, 21
  • Maud Haviernick, 29
  • Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31
  • Maryse Leclair, 23
  • Annie St.-Arneault, 23
  • Michèle Richard, 21
  • Maryse Laganière, 25
  • Anne-Marie Lemay, 22
  • Sonia Pelletier, 28; and
  • Annie Turcotte, aged 21

The Montreal Massacre was horrifying and shocking. But we also have to remember that it’s less unusual than we all think. Yes, it’s a terrible freak event that some madman massacred women he had never even met because of his sociopathic hatred. But every day women are raped, beaten, and killed by men–and it’s usually not by strangers, but by men they know and thought they could trust. They are attacked just because they are women–because the men who assault them believe that they have the right to control women’s lives and their sexual choices, and to hurt them or force them if they don’t agree. By conservative estimates, one out of every four women is raped or beaten by an intimate partner sometime in her life. Take a moment to think about that. How much it is. What it means for the women who are attacked. What it means for all women who live in the shadow of that threat.

To be serious about creating a free and just society, we have to be serious about ending violence against women. As Andrea Dworkin puts it (speaking about sexual assault), I want to see this men’s movement make a commitment to ending rape because that is the only meaningful commitment to equality. It is astonishing that in all our worlds of feminism and antisexism we never talk seriously about ending rape. Ending it. Stopping it. No more. No more rape. In the back of our minds, are we holding on to its inevitability as the last preserve of the biological? Do we think that it is always going to exist no matter what we do? All of our political actions are lies if we don’t make a commitment to ending the practice of rape. This commitment has to be political. It has to be serious. It has to be systematic. It has to be public. It can’t be self-indulgent. And the same is true of every form of everyday gender terrorism–stalking, battery, rape, murder. How could we face Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Barbara Maria Klucznik, Maryse Leclair, Annie St.-Arneault, Michèle Richard, Maryse Laganière, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, and Annie Turcotte, and tell them we did anything less?

Take some time to keep the 14 women who were killed in the Montreal massacre in your thoughts. If you have the money to give, make a contribution to your local battered women’s shelter. And, as Jennifer Barrigar writes:

Every year I make a point of explaining that I’m pointing the finger at a sexist patriarchal misogynist society rather than individual men. This year I choose not to do that. The time for assigning blame is so far in the past (if indeed there ever was such a time), and that conversation takes us nowhere. This is the time for action, for change. Remember Parliament’s 1991 enactment of the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women — the glorious moment when every single womyn in the House stood together and claimed this Day of Remembrance. Remember what we can and do accomplish — all of us — when we work together. It is time to demand change, and to act on that demand. Let’s break the cycle of violence, and let’s do it now.

Remember. Mourn. Act.

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