Friday, July 31, 2009

The Tragic Immortal Life of Captain Jack Harkness

The best new sci-fi I’ve seen in a while was the last Torchwood series, Children of Earth, and even though I ordered the dvd, I’m not sure how often I’ll watch it. The five-hour miniseries was brilliantly made, but terribly bleak. We weren’t quite in Requiem for a Dream territory, but it’s certainly far from a happy ending. Basically, everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and just when things are looking hopeful, it gets a whole lot worse.

I mean, the secret sci-fi superbase underneath Cardiff is blown to bits at the end of the first episode, as a means of setting the stage. By the time Jack, Gwen, and Ianto regroup at the beginning of episode four, the aliens known only as The 456 are set up like kings in the MI5 building, and the government is preparing to completely acquiesce to their demands for a cull of about 35 million children from Earth. The children will then be inserted alive into the aliens’ bodies, where they will live fully conscious inside the alien, causing chemical reactions that get the aliens high as kites.

The loudest fan reaction about the series is the death of Ianto Jones, a very popular character and Jack’s lover. There’s a letter writing campaign organizing to bring him back to life, but here’s why I’m against such a move. The quality of this series came from the development of its central character, Captain Jack Harkness.

When we first met Jack in the 2005 series of Doctor Who, he was a singular version of the caddish rogue. He was a decent person, but with a past that has remained utterly mysterious. Jack had been a Time Agent in the 51st century, but left the Agency when he woke up one morning and discovered that two years of his memory had been wiped, and in that time, he could have done anything in the employ of a somewhat shady space-time intelligence service. He told Rose, “Your friend over there doesn’t trust me. For all I know, he’s right not to.”

Jack’s friendship with the Doctor inspired him to become a better person, and not let himself be haunted and defined by his missing two years. Or at least, I’m understanding it that way as I think about the character. We discover throughout Jack’s time on our televisions that he has tortured people while working as a Time Agent, and during Children of Earth, we discover that he initially gave up twelve orphans to The 456 under government orders on their initial visit to Earth in 1965. Jack knows he is capable of terrible acts, and justifying those acts. His work travelling with The Doctor and running Torchwood is an attempt to prove to himself that he is a good person.

At the end of Children of Earth, Jack understands that he is not a good person, and he cannot leave his ability to justify his terrible acts. Jack, on his own, is simply not as good at fighting hostile invading aliens as The Doctor. When Jack is in charge of a situation, he frequently has to make moral compromises to defeat the hostile forces. He also makes tactical mistakes, some of which lead to the death of the people he’s trying to protect. Ianto dies because he and Jack confront The 456 at their headquarters on Earth, and he makes a big speech of ultimatums to the aliens and lines drawn in the sand.

And The 456 nonchalantly release a virus into the building that kills almost everyone inside, including Ianto, who dies in Jack’s arms pleading with his immortal lover not to forget him over the next few billion years of his life. The death of Ianto, and the hundred or so people in that building, is Jack’s fault because he was trying to be like the Doctor. But the Doctor never confronts an alien without knowing enough about them to protect himself and the people around him. Jack barged in knowing almost nothing about the abilities of The 456, and got a lot of people killed.

Jack is utterly shattered by what he had to do because his own arrogance and ignorance backed him into a corner where the only course of action to save the Earth was a terrible, cruel act that only a monster could have made. He ends the story facing up to his inadequacy as both a hero and as a moral man. He flees Earth because he has given up hope in himself. He cannot escape his cruelty, or his propensity for violence. And he leaves Earth because he cannot live in the place he discovered that fact for the next five billion years of his life.

Torchwood has been renewed for a fourth season. But I don’t think any of the old cast should return, except Gwen and her husband Rhys. Ianto is dead, and should stay dead, because if he’s brought back to life somehow, that will give Jack hope again. And Jack should never have hope again. It would cheapen the power of Children of Earth, Russell T Davies’ masterpiece, the grandest tragedy in all of Doctor Who.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Loudest Band in the Universe

I’m a bit of a latecomer to Sunn 0))), but I’m glad I’ve finally arrived. I’ve rarely heard music as intricate and quite simply massive as theirs before in my life. What I find really impressive is their patience in constructing their music, letting a theme repeat and reverberate for well over ten minutes, and letting that repetition actually be the song. There are so many instrumental subtleties in the music that I find myself discovering some new aspect every time I listen.

The slow pace allows a song to morph almost unnoticeably from one dominant set of instruments to another. “Alice” begins as a guitar-heavy drone and ends with a horn-dominated clarion. The transition between the two sets of instruments moves at such a slow pace that they literally melt together through much of the song, most of which consists of guitars and horns congealing together. I wish I lived in a larger house so I could play it at the fully recommended volume of as loud as possible.

If you know The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you might remember a band called Disaster Area, apparently the loudest band in the universe. I imagine a Sunn 0))) show would be about as much like one of their concerts as you could possibly get without actually causing severe structural damage to the city in which the show was played.

In Search of Lost Time has reached a somewhat frustrating point. I’m almost two-thirds of the way through volume five, The Captive, which I launched into reading after completing the 700 page Sodom and Gommorrah. Volume four I thought was the best book of the entire series, so good and so affecting that I immediately began the next volume. Lately, I’ve read another book in between volumes so as not to overdose on Marcel Proust.

The Captive has the narrator and his on/off girlfriend Albertine now living together at his house in Paris. And even though he was completely and stupidly in love with her at the end of volume four, by the thirtieth page, he announces to the reader that he doesn’t care about her anymore, and is motivated to stay with her almost entirely out of jealousy. So the first half of this book describes his obsessive plots and manipulations to keep her in his sight and under his control at all times.

Oh, I see! She’s a captive in his house, and he’s a captive of his own jealous impulses. How witty, my little Marcel!

Hell, now I’m even blogging like Proust. This cannot continue. I’ve borrowed The Unbearable Lightness of Being from my friend Johnny’s empty apartment, and will be reading it after I finish volume five, before I start volume six. It’s called The Fugitive, or as I’ve taken to calling it now, Albertine Finally Smartens Up and Dumps His Sorry Ass.

Not quite as poetic or French, I don’t think.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Perhaps a New Concept Has Been Made

I was listening to the BBC’s Start the Week podcast this morning, and their central guest was Amartya Sen, who was promoting his new book, The Idea of Justice. He talks in the show about how he departs from the traditional ways of discussing justice as a guiding ideal. Instead, justice is an understanding of the world as one lives in it. One sees justice and injustice in the order of the world around you, if only you pay attention. You could call it a concept of justice as imminent to the world, instead of a transcendent ideality.

This is especially intriguing to me, as the transcendent character of most approaches to justice is exactly what alienates me from them. Transcendent justice has that flavour of the absolutely perfect to which we mere mortals can never attain. Implicit within it is the devaluation of the world in which we live and the valorization of that which is not human, even though they are our ideas. It separates thought from action, dismissing action as mere empirical imperfection. Transcendent frameworks of ethical ideals I think contradicts the very point of ethics, which is worldly action.

But Sen’s concept of justice as he articulated it on Start the Week was especially intriguing, and could very well revolutionize the way the philosophy of justice and ethics is done, if he achieves in it all that he claims to achieve. Of course, there will be some who don’t understand his concept of imminent justice, because they have become so used to thinking of justice as a transcendent ideal that their minds are closed to any approach that denies a premise so fundamental to them. Of course, that would seem, at this cursory stage, to be the very point of Sen’s concept of justice. You will only understand justice if you pay attention to the world and what the world can offer. If you persist in what you have learned and do not take seriously the novel or the strange which is present around you, then you will know nothing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

After Five Years, The Same Film Can Be Completely Different

So Sunday night, I watched Sideways again for the first time since I saw it in theatres back in 2004. When I first saw the movie, I laughed almost all the way through. The reason for that is because the relationship between Miles and Jack in the movie was very much like what I thought the relationship between me and one of my old friends would be like by the time we hit our mid-thirties. I’m not going to say my friend’s name because I’m Miles, and I wouldn’t want to make him have to make any unnecessary explanations to his partner(s).

As if anyone actually reads this blog. But I’ve made that mistake before.

Anyway, when I watched it again after five years of being alive, I had a very different reaction. First, I was able to notice a lot more of the little details in the film, the hidden aspects of Miles’ life that I didn’t remember from the first time. I didn’t remember the trip to his mother’s house at the start of the film, or his taking a pile of her money. And I certainly hadn’t noticed in 2004 the extra moment Miles spends looking at the picture of his father on the desk. And that made me pay more attention to what I could call Miles’ hidden story.

It’s a term I stole from Roberto Bolaño. He used to say that all his novels were not about what the main points of their narrative were, but that they were driven by a hidden story, some event or set of events that drove all the action of the obvious narrative while rarely if ever being explicitly mentioned. For Sideways, that hidden story is Miles looking after his father after the older man is badly debilitated by a stroke, and the mysterious circumstances of his death. Being able to spot that hidden story and understand it gave me a very different appreciation of the film than I had before.

Now here is where it gets a little emo. While I was smiling all the way through, I found it so much more depressing, and Miles was even more like me. In 2004, I saw similarities between us in the way he related with Jack. I saw his drinking his best wine at the fast food joint as embracing the joyful advice Maya had given him, that a wine this good is a special occasion. But this time, his depression and loneliness was much more evident and affecting to me. He was pathetic the way he slept with Maya even though he knew he was lying, and I don’t even think he felt bad about Jack’s deception by the time he went home with her.

Since I first saw that movie, I had gone through an even longer amount of time than Miles without a woman, and had become similarly torn up and spit out over someone just as Miles was over a woman. I had become a much more bitter and less forgiving person. The selfish aspects of Miles were even more evident in the way I thought about myself and about other people.

Not only that, but we had also both written bittersweet novels with considerable autobiographical input, and I’m becoming equally pessimistic as he was of ever getting it published. And even though I’ve been successful so far in my career, I’m growing increasingly pessimistic about actually being able to get a professor’s job once I’m on the market in a few years, and about whether anyone but me will see any value in my philosophical work. As I learn more about the professional academic scene, the less I think I’ll fit in. And rebels are not tolerated in academia.

Yet even while Miles and I have converged so much in all the most depressing and pessimistic ways, I love this film even more. It’s because I can see so much more of the hidden story now than I could, and because Miles is so much more flawed, mean, and beaten-down than when I first saw him. I think that happens to all of us eventually.

When I first saw Sideways, I was young and hopeful, thinking that my goals would come to me fairly easily. Now I’m still young (but spotting my first grey hairs on the sides of my head and chin), but quite a lot more jaded, and accepting of the fact that chances are I won’t succeed to the degree I want, and that I’ll have to fight much harder than I thought I would.

Sideways is now going on my list with Five Easy Pieces and À Nos Amours as the movies that I love because they’re brilliantly made and speak to how I think of my life. Alexander Payne needs to make another film.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's Terrifying, But Sarah Palin Has Helped Me Make a Deep Philosophical Point

I read what I think is the most insightful and deeply understanding assessment of Sarah Palin in the entire Western media firestorm ever since she emerged from the wilds of Alaska: “Lost in Translation” by Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick. Her point is brilliant in its simplicity that encompasses so much complicated madness. Palin believes that everything she says makes perfect sense. But it is impossible for anyone around her to make sense of what she says.

Lithwick’s illustrative example is of an American tourist who visits Paris and believes that all he has to do to speak French is to speak louder. It’s an old stereotype about the insular American, but it shows exactly what Sarah Palin is a political failure: that very insularity. As a teacher, one of the most difficult lessons for a student is how to communicate an idea clearly and carefully. The papers of writers who have not practiced are often disjointed, lacking cohesion, a reader is unable to tell what their point is.

But communication is not simply a matter of clarity, and Palin’s reaction to her treatment by the media can teach us this. A student will eventually improve in their skill at articulating their ideas, and this improvement in articulation will feed back into their own thinking processes. This will revitalize, clarify, and improve the depth and focus of their own thought. In order for that feedback process to begin, the student herself has to be open to what I’m trying to say. Now, I can be a little weird sometimes, and while my teaching evaluations this term were glowing in their awesome brilliance, I was concerned that my explorations of philosophical concepts might go in too many weird directions.

My own fears were unfounded, however, and my students happily appreciated my philosophical theatre. (I feel quite lonely sometimes in my department as being the only graduate student who believes first-year undergraduates are capable of complex thought.) But the point of my theatrical approach to teaching is that it encourages students to pay attention to me and the concepts I’m talking about. This attentive listening is just as important, if not moreso, to improving one’s thinking and communication as one’s own practice in articulating one’s own ideas. To listen is to ask for help in your own articulations, and in order to ask for help, you must admit to yourself that help is needed. Listening is a fruitful exercise in humility.

Sarah Palin’s problem was that she was incapable of listening. An articulate question from a journalist, an aide, or a colleague was answered with a brute repetition of the same old rambling. She strongly believed that she made sense, and that it was our fault for refusing to understand was she was saying. Because she never thought of herself as trying to say anything. She considered herself as clearly saying what needed to be said. And without that humility necessary for listening, she was never able to improve her ideas beyond the brute articulations she made. While she understood herself, she was too insular to believe that she was difficult to understand.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Fictional Inspiration Can Come from Anywhere, Even a Dog

I spent last weekend in Toronto housesitting and dogsitting for a professor of mine, in exchange for money. Overall, it was a pleasant experience, as I got to hang out with an old friend who did her MA at Memorial and is at York now, and I experienced what it’s like to be a dog owner for four days. The dogs were pretty charismatic, and were well-trained enough to follow my orders after I was introduced. I’m rather glad it’s over, as this means I’m able to sleep past eight in the morning again. I think dogs are a bit too high maintenance for me.

One thing I did pick up was some interesting material I can use to structure the story of Undesirables, my suburban story. I’ve decide to give Michael, the male protagonist, a dog, and have him interact daily at the neighbourhood park with other morning dog walkers that are his main network of friends in the community. The park can be a place where some actual conversations can happen, even though most of the story won’t actually happen in the text, because my central character, Michael’s girlfriend Jen, won’t directly see any of the events that are driving the plot, just the effects of those events. But the park would be a great place for the events to reverberate around the community.

A chance comment by one of the regular dog walkers, a middle aged mother Wendy from British Columbia originally, also gave me another facet of Jennifer, the antagonist. She mentioned that she never lets her dog near the playground in a corner of the park shaded by a large copse of trees, and prefers to stay around the rarely used soccer field. The reason is not because she’s afraid her dog might hurt an overeager child; but she’s afraid of paranoid mothers who themselves are afraid of dogs near their children. After getting to know the rambunctious and placid dogs of this neighbourhood, the idea of someone being afraid of them was laughable. But that paranoia is a key part of her character, and her distrust of the dogs can be the major sign that Jen sees of the general hostility that consumes her over the course of the story.
For a book as mannered as In Search of Lost Time, every now and then I find some passage that is utterly out of place in its weirdness. The last hundred or so pages of this chapter of Volume Four, Sodom and Gomorrah, took place at this snooty dinner party hosted by an older woman who had shown up in Swann’s Way as the host of snooty dinner parties that weren’t quite so well-connected to the nobility as this current one.

On the way back to his hotel room after coming home from the party late at night, the following chapter opens with the page operating the lift ranting to him about his sister. The page’s sister is married to a rich man, and she continually demonstrates her newly elevated position in society by taking a dump in every carriage and hotel room she visits for the driver or the maid to clean up. And she blatantly gloats to her brother about her habit of leaving a “surprise” in dresser drawers of hotels and underneath carriage seats. Then the narrator leaves the elevator, and there’s a passage about the way sleep plays with memory.