Thursday, March 28, 2013

Middle-Earth for Middlebrows

So Game of Thrones is enough of a household name now that I can't ignore it. But before powering through my friend's DVD collection - 'cause I ain't about to spend money on this fucking thing - I picked up the source material from the library. Most of it anyway... enough to get a good feel for George R. R. Martin's spanktastic fantasy opus.

I felt like Wander...

And it ain't half bad.

If you've been here before, you know I have a fondness for science fiction but that's pretty much where my interest in genre drek ends. With the notable exceptions of Tolkein and Michael J. Sullivan, I just can't get into fantasy. So much of it is horribly padded and so wedded to the formula that when the author introduces someone with pointed ears you know they're going to be some hippie archer who still looks like a pubescent after three thousand years.

Martin, to his credit, thumbs his nose at the formula. In fact, if A Song of Ice and Fire has a central theme, it's that fantasy tropes can go eat a dick. The conflicts are all political, the heroes aren't the least bit heroic, and magic is largely absent - and when it does show up, it's kept vague enough to hold some mystery. That's enough to recommend the series right off the bat, so much other fantasy reading like it was cribbed from a D&D manual.

But Martin too often falls into the two biggest annoyances of genre fiction - confusing intricacy with intrigue and verbosity with something to say. There are a dozen plots being spun by each of the courtiers in the Westoros capitol, but they're not really that interesting. Especially not with Frost Zombies and a Mongol horde threatening to come sweeping over all the petty politicking at any moment.

Which could still be forgiven, if it didn't go on for fucking ever. Geeks are a frighteningly provincial lot, mistaking page count for good reading, and Martin has catered to them with this work. Shame he won't cater to any of us normal folks, who have things to do in a day other than dick around in World of Warcraft.

The length is understandable though - not excused, just understandable - as there are tons of characters and Martin goes to great lengths to develop some of them, assigning basic archetypes to carry others through the epic goings on. Sean Bean's character, the hideously named Eddard, is defined solely by his honorable honor and plays that one note for seven hundred pages until his honorable head is cut off. Similarly, his daughter Sansa is given the single defining trait of being a fucking idiot.

A few characters get some real depth but they're still products of the High Seriousness that clouds the entire book, so let's talk about the dwarf. Peter Dinklage's character in the show, Tyrion, is a refreshingly 20th-century personality in this dour retelling of the War of the Roses. He's funny, amiable, and gets to be creative in getting himself out of trouble rather than relying on brute strength or getting honorably decapitated. That he's technically on the side of the bad guys doesn't even get in the way.

Speaking of - I know Martin has been praised for having oh so many shades of gray in his characters but it's dead obvious who's who. The golden haired, incestuous Lannisters are the Harkonnens, the honorable Starks of honor are the Atreides, and Dany the Dragon Lady is gonna be the goddamn Final Boss of this whole mess. And then there's Tyrion, who's just fun.

"Forsooth, bitches!"

He's really the only character with a sense of agency, the rest seeming to be just playing their assigned role in the epic. The Greeks and Trojans in The Iliad were a hell of a lot more morally ambiguous than this crowd, and a damned sight darker.

The grim darkness of the setting is undermined by both its high seriousness and how, well, it just ain't that dark. Not if we're talking real feudalism here. That was a terrible point in history, with everyone not lucky enough to be born in a castle living in slavery. A Song of Ice and Fire conveys that reality and I guess if you've been sucking down heroic sword and sorcery swill it can be a little shocking. And you'll never be ready for real darkness, like Michel Houellebecq.

"All in all, these backpacking routards were bellyaching bastards whose goal was to spoil every little pleasure on offer to tourists, whom they despised....The most excruciating thing was probably their stern, dogmatic, peremptory tone, quivering with repressed indignation...they laid into 'potbellied Westerners' who strolled around with little Thai girls; it made them 'literally puke.' Humanitarian Protestant cunts, that's what they were, they and the 'cool bunch of mates who helped to make this book possible,' their nasty little faces smugly plastered all over the back cover."

That's the narrator of Platform laying into people opposed to sex tourism. That's how you do dark, kids. A Song of Ice and Fire is only dark if you are a kid and think wearing black will freak out your parents.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The VectorPress Easter Special

Since Hollywood has gone back to sucking, I'm gonna review a movie I knew I was gonna like. Because I've seen it before. Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ has been out since forever and you've no doubt heard about it. Probably that it's really offensive.

And I just want to say, if "offensive" is any kind of film criteria for you, go kill yourself. Now. Yes, even you gobshites who intentionally seek out whatever your parents have deemed offensive because you're just as shallow as a Justin Beiber song.

...All dead then? Good.

"And don't come back!"

Last Temptation is by far the only Jesus flick worth seeing. All the others treat the poor old Jew as either too perfect to ever be interesting or as the center of elaborate S&M fantasies. He's a flat character is my point, only existing in the first place to serve some other idiot's evangelism.

Scorsese's Jesus isn't like any of that because he's simply a man. The film takes the common doctrine of Jesus being God in human form and applies it not just to his body but also his mind. God may be omniscient enough to be certain that sacrificing himself to himself will be just what the universe needs, but a man - flawed and limited - will have doubts. It's the doubts of this Jesus, played masterfully by Willem Dafoe, that make him a compelling character and ultimately make U the audience really care about his sacrifice.

I'm going to spoil things now by telling you exactly what the last temptation of Last Temptation is... a normal life. That's it, Jesus can have a boring life full of wives and children and sitting around doing carpentry if he will just come down off the cross. All those other temptations, world domination and more gold than Donald Trump's toilet, that's all so unreal that declining is easy. But a peaceful life, especially one that doesn't end so soon in torment, that's something any man would agree to. He's probably not really the messiah anyway...

"Sure, this beats a slow and painful death..."

Sacrifice is the theme here, kids. And sacrifice doesn't make for very compelling drama if your hero knows he's God. Those doubts of Dafoe-Jesus, they're what make it matter because he ultimately doesn't know if it'll count for anything but does it anyway. Hell, it makes a better evangelical case than the actual evangelicals!

The film is admittedly a little uneven. It drags in the middle and Dafoe-Jesus is a little schizophrenic to say the least. First he's bringing love, then he's bringing the axe - it gets so bad that even Judas calls him on his bipolar bullshit. But that's what you get for following the gospels and it ultimately adds to the image of Jesus as a relatable human character. Because if there's one things humans always do it's fuck up, so what better way for God to really assume human form?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Happy Anniversary!

Ten years ago, George W. Bush set America on course for one of the biggest imperial disasters since Valerian tried to conquer Persia with nothing but his purple toga. Today, we take a look at Iraq and see what all that blood and bombs accomplished.

First, though, let's dispense with all the myths. It wasn't about helping the Iraqis in anyway - that's gotta be the dumbest myth of all. Not a single American, then or now, gives a damn about the people of Iraq. Just like they didn't give a damn about weapons of mass destruction - the search for which ended as soon as Bush secured a second term. And it wasn't even about oil or imperialism or any of that. Not in the way we usually think of it anyway...

The Iraq war was two things - a business venture and a grand sociological experiment. The neocons who'd been pushing for this war since the Clinton era held to the sort of romantic theories that can only be dreamed up by third-rate academics, namely that invading a foreign country by force of arms wouldn't piss off the locals. "We bring you democracy! And blackouts! No more AC in the dessert but here's the Federalist Papers!"

"And delicious combs!"

It takes the dumbest sort of true believer to think anyone would welcome that and neocons were nothing if not dumb. So dumb they didn't even have a counter-insurgency plan when they kicked it off! When these nimrods finally accepted the reality of Iraq - in 2007! - the clown they put in charge with grand ceremony could only lose thousands of assault rifles and cook the books on casualties to make things look a little less horrible.


But that was the sideshow, like anything having to do with ethics or morality in this rotten country. What really drove the invasion of Iraq, what really mattered at the end of the day, was good ol' business. The crooked sort - contractors charging grunts a hundred dollars for a load of laundry, huge no-bid contracts that were paid for but never completed, lost pallets of money, and "sailboat fuel." That last one is the sort of terrible that's almost funny - contractors made American soldiers drive empty trucks up and down IED-laden highways so they could write off the extra miles. How many of you pro-business, red state fucktards care to defend that!?

"Gots ta git paid, bitchez!"

And it failed. That's what no one really wants to admit and I don't just mean how Iraqis are still bombing each other rather than voting for dull Protestants like good Ohio Republicans or whatever lame-ass fantasy neocons believe. The cold, imperial goal of the war was American hegemony in the Middle East - through bullshit business and happy civic lies, but hegemony nonetheless. Since then the US has been losing in standing around the world, suffered so many economic woes it's turned in on itself in an orgy of minarchist malarkey, and the Arab Spring has elevated one Islamic hardline faction after another. Funny how, when people get a hold of democracy, they don't always vote the "right" way...

So take a bow, Iraq War! Not many ten-year-olds can take credit for hobbling the greatest empire in human history.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Assassination: Old News

Let's get something straight once and for all - Obama's assassination policies are normal.

They are not unprecedented - they are in fact very, terribly precedented going all the way back to Ford. That we know of. It very likely goes back to the founding of these United States. Obama's crew were just dumb enough to try and write up some legalese justification.

Which is particularly silly, since Reagan's crew already did that! Clueless folks like to claim Cowboy Ronnie did the exact opposite with Executive Order 12333, which Scott Horton of the venerable Harpers summarized thus - "No one shall be assassinated—unless the president authorizes it, in which case we will refrain from calling it an assassination."

Ya got that? Whacking people has been standard American policy for decades. Obama is breaking no new ground.

"But he's sending drones after American citizens! He's coming for me and all my shiny gold because it has intrinsic value! I'm a fucking moron!"

Yeah, about that whole "Obama First to Whack Other Americans" thing. Kamal Derwish says that's bullshit - or would, if a Predator hadn't zapped him in Yemen back in 2002.

Because this hardware has existed since the 1980s!

The ugly truth of the drone non-debate in this country is that Obama is just following the path of those to come before him. He did the same thing on Gitmo and renditions and all the other little evils of the Bush years, probably not because he's a moustache twirling villain but simply because American bureaucracy breeds inertia. It's a holy bitch to get anything started in this system but once it is, it'll run on autopilot even after everyone's forgotten about what brought it about in the first place. Obama inherited these extrajudicial practices and, like any Centrist Democrat, who won't change a goddamn thing!

So stop saying Obama is some executive overreach virtuoso with the whole drone thing. He's not and you sound like an ignorant jackass.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Perfect Piss

Aspiring novelists and screenwriters listen up - do not put every good idea you have into your first work. Not only because they aren't all "good" ideas, despite what your mom told you, but because even if they're all great ideas you'll just get a convoluted mess.

Case in point, The Perfect Host. Another entry in the torture porn genre that wisely forgoes outright gore for a creeping sort of tension that leaves your stomach tied in knots. For the first hour anyway, then every heist and copper movie idea the creators ever had gets hastily jammed in, murdering all the aforementioned tension and ending on a point so nonsensical it makes Inland Empire look reasonable and bland.

Which is really a shame because that first half of a movie ain't too shabby. David Hyde Pierce, the mincing brother you never cared about on Frazier, minces about a modern LA home as Warwick (the middle "W" is silent) preparing a dinner party for guests that only exist in his head - while occasionally tormenting a hapless bank robber who wandered in, thinking he could take Mincey Crazy-Pants hostage. The movie takes its time with that setup and shows all the other sorry excuses for horror movies how to really scare the audience. Bank Robber John pretends to be a friend of a friend who's in Australia, at least according to Warwick's mail, and the ensuing game of lies as the two feel each other out is really great stuff.

Pain. Fear. Blood. Good times...

Soon the radio announces that John is on the lamb and Warwick's true colors show. Things get a little uneven here, dipping too far into wacky territory as Warwick's fantasy guests multiply until there's a conga line and a dance off or something, but it all retains a genuine sense of menace. In the middle of all his prancing around, Warwick shows John some pictures of previous dinner guests - Polaroids of his victims getting progressively bloodied as the night goes on until they end up with their throats slit in the bathtub. And he shows a homemade self-mutilation movie to John, excitedly telling him "I did the hair and makeup myself!"

This is all interspersed with John's desperate attempts to escape. He gets close a few times, only to have it snatched away - not in any contrived way either. And that's all great! But it doesn't stop there, like it should with John's throat cut in an alley. Or even with just his fake death and the revelation that Warwick stages his "murders" with his great makeup skills.

Yes, I'm spoiling this for you. Because after sitting through this ending, I want to spoil it! Warwick is a police lieutenant and John's girlfriend, who helped him knock off the bank, has sold him out and is escaping in a rental car and John gets to her first and takes the money - but Warwick is there! And lets him go! So to thank him, John mails one of the Polaroids Warwick took at the party -How did he get it? Who fucking knows? - to a police detective who confronts Warwick. So Warwick invites the detective to dinner.

"Ain't I a stinker?"

The Perfect Host was good enough to end fifteen minutes before it did. Instead, it overstayed its welcome in a pointless and insultingly nonsensical conclusion. And Spin gave this mess four stars because they suck a whole mess of dick.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Bright and Shiney Lie

Everything you hear about economics in America is a lie. It has to be - the truth having nothing to do with the entrenched cultural narratives we use to distract ourselves from our own inevitable deaths. One of the most insidious lies is that lazy minorities caused the housing crash. Really, you can't fix stupid...

But it's an adaptive stupid, as Darwin would say. Blaming "lazy people" defaulting on their mortgages fits in with the dominant brainwave that hard work is worth a damn in this country. And it's much easier to get into than the reality of securitized debt. You need to understand that to really understand the crash of 2008.

Here's how it worked - banks made loans to whoever, however, and whenever they could and then chopped up their side of those bargains and sold 'em off in much the same wild way they did the loans. They were making money coming and going from commissions on the loans to bidding on the debt obligations so they had no incentive to do the loans properly. It's not like they were gonna get stuck with the default - but the rest of the country was.

And that could still fit the lazy black people meme being forced by all the morons. Folks did indeed default on their loans, maybe because they were irresponsible, but the degree to which it happened indicates a national standard - or lack thereof - of loan procedures that discouraged wise business practices.

"Hold on!" the idiots say. "The Community Reinvestment Act forced the banks to make those bad loans!" Yeah, the Big Bad Gub'mint commanded them to make buckets of cash...

Except that's not how it worked at all. Not in any way, shape, or form. There's as much truth to that as the claim that 9-11 was an inside job and for proof of that you don't need to go any further than my own bank. Cardinal Bank got sued a couple years ago for refusing to loan to low-income families in DC. The suit explicitly cites the act all the Reagan-sucking dweebs insist is the real culprit behind the crash. Cardinal argued they couldn't in good faith have made these loans because the recipients would never have made the payments.

And the bank won.

So there's a court case in which a bank refused to make loans and not even the hated Give Black People Money Act could bring them to heel. And when you dig into it, you find this is pretty damn common. So that Act counts for exactly fuck all in our continued financial crises.

Rather, we've got systemic corruption of the financial sector. You can't even play the revolutionary and blame the basics of capitalism as the process you've just seen laid out is fundamentally criminal - making loans in bad faith and then foisting the ownership of said loans onto others, so they get to suck on the inevitable default. That's the definition of fraud but it's clearly not enough fraud for the banking industry as they've since been trying to foreclose on properties they don't own anymore.

It's a grotesque, criminal enterprise... but it gets a pass because we want to believe the lie. We want to believe hard work will make our dreams come true. We want to believe the unfortunate are responsible for their own failures, because then it could clearly never happen to us. We want to believe we matter too much to ever be a statistic.

We don't. Deal with it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rand Paul Hates Your Liberty

So Rand "Aqua Buddha" Paul made a big symbolic gesture in the Senate yesterday, filibustering against a new CIA chief for his entire lunch break. Even nominal liberals cheered him on, having long ago confused making noise about the vulgarities of war to be the same as actually doing something. Yay for Liberty and Rule of Law and duh dur doi...

Haven't you screwheads picked up on anything by now? You think anyone in the Senate gives a damn about the "horrors" of drone warfare? You think anyone in all of DC gives a shit about your personal liberty?

"Duh, Rand Paul does! Duh, dur, read Atlas Shrugged!"

No he doesn't.

"No drones and no coloreds!"

That's Lil' Randy in his own words and don't tell me there's anything principled about defending the "right" of a business to actively hate on people. 'Cause that's exactly what southern segregation was, hate of black people enforced by law and custom. The only way to change a custom is to change the law or kill everyone. And like every other libertarian, Paul couches his hideous views in shallow platitudes about the First Amendment.

And it's not just the racism that's hideous. Listen again to what Paul is saying and you'll hear the ugly truth of libertariansim - turning workers into slaves. That's what giving a free pass to business would accomplish, that's what the free pass to business did accomplish until the US recognized basic labor rights, and it's what libertarians are always trying to do under a smokescreen of tricorn hat shmaltz. I would ask how you morons can stand to see a rat like Paul drag the Constitution through the dirt like that but clearly you can't be reasoned with. And you hate America.