Saturday, October 25, 2008

Moving Beyond Old Offenses

Adam Riggio writes an open letter to Natalie Portman.

Natalie, I can finally forgive you for Star Wars: Episode Two. And Star Wars: Episode Three. Although the Saturday Night Live rap about how badass you were certainly helped. But really, that was more the basis for my forgiveness for Star Wars: Episode One. And in all fairness, your performances in V for Vendetta (which I thought was faithful in tone and ethics if not in the letter of its source material), Goya's Ghosts, The Darjeeling Limited, and My Blueberry Nights certainly went a long way to our reconciliation as actress and fan. This video sealed the deal, however, beyond all doubt.

Now I can safely go back to considering you one of the best actresses working in my generation. Even if you were a bit wooden in The Other Boleyn Girl. And to be honest, I'd rather forget that Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium ever existed. After all, I need to respect Dustin Hoffman too. Whenever a car cuts me off crossing the street, I still say, "I'm walkin' here!" in my best New York accent.

And I really hope next year's Brothers doesn't end up too sappy. It looks like the treacle level of the script might kill your performance. Please do another movie with Wong Kar Wai.

Fraternally yours, your fan;

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Muslim, America's New Black

When Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for US President Sunday morning, he mentioned how disturbed he was that one of the mudslinging insults the Republican Party had thrown at Obama was the rumours that he was a Muslim. They had used the fact that his name was not that of a typical American to throw up doubts about him, by linking him with the faith of the terrorist groups who specifically targeted the US, Islam.

Yet Powell was exactly right about the nature of this very political act. He said in his interview with Tom Brokaw that the correct answer to the question, "Is Obama a Muslim?" is that no, he is, in fact, a Christian, and a firmly believing Christian. And Powell distinguished what he called the correct answer from the right answer, the answer that accords with American ethics and values. The right answer to the question, "Is Obama a Muslim?" is that this question should not matter. There is nothing about Islam that necessarily makes you unpatriotic or anti-American. We know in Canada that one's faith doesn't affect your patriotism for the country, and the growing number of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus competing and winning elected offices here attests to this.

But Colin Powell was precisely right that whether one is a Muslim should not matter to questions of patriotism, even though throughout America, it clearly does. The many clearly ignorant members of the American population who believe chain e-mails spreading blatant lies about Obama, faith notwithstanding, are affected by this. Consider the woman who, speaking at a McCain meeting as he took questions from the audience, distrusted Obama because "he's an Arab." McCain quickly rebuked her, but the question that there is something to be feared from Arabs or Muslims inherently is just as virulent racism as that which confronted American blacks in the early years of this century.

Powell raised two important examples as he discussed this point. He asked us to imagine a seven year old Muslim boy in America wondering if he could ever become president one day. And he described a photo from an essay on American soliders that was in the New Yorker. The photo showed a mother leaning on the headstone of her twenty year old son. He was born in 1987, and died in 2007. Listed on his headstone were his awards, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, and his mission, Operation Iraqi Freedom. His name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and at the top of his headstone is the star and crescent of Islam. As Powell described it, no American, no person, can see this image as it is before them, and still believe the vicious racism against Muslims. Or at least they shouldn't. His full interview is here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Prime Minster Who Will Put Food on Your Families, Me

So there was an election this week in Canada, and nothing really changed. The Conservatives got a few more seats, but not enough to take away unilaterally all the abortion and free speech rights of Canadians. As I thought a few posts ago, Stephane Dion's performance was a disaster, and I'd say that after a few months of party infighting, his political career will be over.

Dion spent the entire campaign trying to sell his own Green Shift tax policy (which hardly anyone liked anyway) instead of attacking the Conservatives. And he was unable to counter the Conservative attacks against him, which have already solidified for most Canadians the image of Dion as a nebbishy whining twit. Of course, Dion is actually a very intelligent, assertive, visionary leader. This is the truth, but no one will ever believe it. I thought Dion had a lot of potential and could do a lot of good for Canada. I still think this, but I also know that he has been utterly defeated.

As for the other leaders, Stephen Harper can be called a failure too, even though he won with more seats in his minority. He was running a united party against a left that was split in three directions (four directions in Quebec), with a main opposition that was disorganized and rapidly losing the respect of Canadians. Under these conditions with the political spectrum reversed, Jean Chretien won by a landslide in 1993. I think this is the best the Harper Conservatives will probably do.

Jack Layton's presumptuousness earned him a whole seven seats, and made his prime ministerial posturing look foolish in retrospect. His talk of becoming PM looked even sillier when I discovered a friend of mine going to grad school in Montreal ran for the NDP in the Abitibi district, but never actually campaigned because she didn't have time during her school schedule. How can you talk about taking over the government and winning seats (note the plural) in Quebec for the first time when you don't bother to fund candidates there, even just so they can be present on the campaign trail.

Elizabeth May might have led an increase in the vote count for them, but the Green party is still a joke who can earn a place at the debate table with the big folks, but who still can't win an actual seat. It was pretty presumptuous of her to think she could unseat Peter MacKay as well. She would do better running in a safe left seat like urban Halifax and taking votes from the NDP.

Meanwhile, Gilles Duceppe is still a sexy, sexy man.

I've been disappointed once so far this fall. Pray you do not disappoint me, Senator Obama. On the bright side, I have decided, thanks to the groundswell of support on my facebook page (seven status comments!), I've decided to begin a master plan to become Prime Minister of Canada myself. I'd certainly do a better job than any of the folks who were up for the job this month.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Profound End to a Pedestrian Day

Today was an oddly productive day, even though I had planned it that way last night when I wrote down my list of the things I had to do. The most important thing was to sleep in by a couple of hours, since I had no class commitments today, and could make up for the six hour nights I had gotten earlier this week. After checking my e-mail, reading my webcomics, and looking through some music and movie reviews, I made myself presentable for the masses and made a lunch that would last until around 8.00pm.

After that, I got the bus into campus to drop off some forms for a professor who was writing a couple of recommendation letters for me to go with my research grant applications. Since that was the only business that I had to do on campus, I left immediately after this, and got the bus back downtown to buy a new book/laptop bag, as my old one was fraying at the edges, handles, zippers, pockets, and pretty much everything else that could fray.

So I went back home, marked a pile of first year papers, did my laundry, read some The Red and The Black in French (which I've been working on for just over a month now), watched My Name Is Earl, read a New Yorker article about the life of Arianna Huffington, then worked on some thesis research. This is where the first piece of profundity comes in.

I'm almost to the end of a book about the central philosopher of my doctoral thesis project, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The book's author, Gary Madison, is a former McMaster professor, and I was told that this book is regarded as the stage-setter for Merleau scholarship, which first made me think it would make me very angry. But Madison and I seem to have very similar perspectives on Merleau. I'm glad because having precedent makes it a lot easier to get people to accept my ideas as valid, something I had some pretty serious problems with during my MA. But I'm a bit disappointed too, because it means my work might not be as iconoclastic as I hoped.

Anyway, my work focusses on Merleau's ideas close to the end of his life, and his unfinished second magnum opus, The Visible and The Invisible. There are a lot of ideas similar to Martin Heidegger's late-period work in Merleau's writing in this era, and as I was finishing a section in Madison's book on the concepts of Being and Logos, I wrote a paragraph so good that it might end up in my thesis almost word for word. In one half-page handwritten paragraph, I connected Heidegger's analysis of the Greek concepts logos and physis, Merleau's appropriation of them into his non-reductive realism, which fed my own Gilles Deleuze-inspired analyses of differentiation (physis) and understanding (logos), in the context of my concept of existence as a process that continually constitutes multiplicity.

With that taken care of, I started writing the novel again. My friend Vikki published a facebook photo album last week that included herself and her posse climbing around some of the hills on the edge of St John's, and I thought of a great way to rewrite an early scene I needed to revisit. I originally included a short scene around page 10 where the protagonist, his university girlfriend, and some of their friends, spent Saturday night drinking in a condominium under construction. The changes in the condo building was originally going to show the shifts in time as the narrative jumped around various points in the protagonist's life. But eventually I dropped the condo angle as it never really fit well into the story.

So instead, the same characters are having the same conversation while hiking up Signal Hill in the middle of a Saturday night drinking. And I added a long paragraph that introduces some of the central themes of the book as the protagonist and his girlfriend look out over the city at night. It revolves around the vibrant, self-contradictory, anachronistic, idiosyncratic nature of the city, the conflicts and resentments between urban and rural Newfoundlanders, and the limitations of life in the city, even while it remains so incredibly alive.

Then, reading out this paragraph to myself, I opened my mouth and swallowed a fly.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Years of Work Ruined in One Name

In St John's, I saw a book called Return of the Native, and the story sounded like an interesting idea: examining Newfoundland's culture and national identity through a quirky picaresque novel about the return of a native son to his old stomping grounds. The boy from the provinces makes reasonably good and returns to the province to see what has changed and stayed the same. His purpose was to write a new history of his home island, with all the nationalist overtones one could expect with a book whose cover photograph is inlaid in pink, white, and green. It was a novella, a slim volume, the author Jonathan Butler's first, its title perhaps an homage to Thomas Hardy. Its back cover included the standard blurb and selected quotations of critical praise.

But the main character was a Newfoundlander named Udo Nomi. And then I realized the book must be terrible. No one in Newfoundland is named Udo. It's obviously a pretentious authorial contrivance, which is a major warning light for a book sucking. It's a first novel too, which is an even bigger warning light. I'm writing a first novel myself, but one thing I make sure isn't happening is that it sounds like all the first novels I don't like.

I feel kind of sorry for Butler, just as sorry as I feel for all first novels that are filled with overwrought imagery, symbolism that smacks you in the head with a cricket bat, an ego so huge that it crowds you out of your city, and cloying aggravating sentimentality. Actually, I don't feel sorry for them. They don't need my pity. They just have to read more authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Roberto Bolaño, Virginia Woolf, and Stephen Fry so that they can figure out how to write deftly, wittily, powerfully, and touchingly, while maintaining an attitude of friendliness and accessibility to its readers. There are few books I hate more than the ones that disappear up their authors' assholes and expect its readers to follow along.

Giving their protagonists stupid, unrealistic names is just one glaringly obvious way to spot a book that doesn't deserve your time as a reader to read it. Lots of English people have names like Hugo Cartwright, like in Fry's The Liar. Juan Garcia Madero is a perfectly ordinary sounding Mexican name for Bolaño's The Savage Detectives – it's Juan, for goodness' sake! But how many people outside Germany are named Udo? Not many if you don't count Germans living abroad.

There's one name that, even though it's a sensible name, can't be used in a novel because it can't avoid symbolic meanings. I've met people named Hope – two of them in fact, Jamieson and Bennett. But I don't think anyone could ever use the name Hope as a character in a story, because as soon as you say her name, she's turned into a symbol, whether you want her to be one or not. And people are terrible symbols. They work much better as characters instead.
Life is beautiful.