Monthly Archives: August 2009

The trick ending of Inglourious Basterds (Contains existential spoilers)

The first thing I didn’t expect about Inglourious Basterds is this: it was hilarious. Really just knock down drag out this is damn funny, kind of funny. Maybe not as much if you aren’t familiar with WWII, or with movies about WWII, or movies made during WWII. (though that last category gets over my head) The jokes are subtle a lot of the time. They are references. There’s a scene in Britain complete with a Churchill so drunk he functions as little more than furniture. Churchill isn’t, in fact, a speaking part. From my companion’s perspective, I appeared to be choking from laughter at that.

The second is that it is the most meta film I have ever seen, including Tristam Shandy. I couldn’t help at various points poking my friend and making references to JOI’s The Joke (one for my infsum buddies). Moments of other films didn’t just come up, they were practically pointed at by the actors. The discussions of film theory took up more time than QT’s famous violence. The plot hinged on the history, culture, chemistry and even mechanics of film. This movie played with reality vs fantasy in war movies while the characters talked about how real the character of the war movie in it was.

As people keep noting, it’s a movie that turns the Jews into the Nazis and the Nazis into the Jews and takes great fun doing it. But it doesn’t stop there- the Jews even become suicide bombers, striking a contemporary note. It’s a revenge movie in just about every possible vector. It was an obscene love affair with the warm and powerful hate that revenge can turn into a kind of orgiastic joy- with a price. Unlike Kill Bill, there’s no one Bride. Just about everyone is down to get theirs, and they do. The psychic price for revenge in IG seems to be life, which most characters give willingly and enthusiastically. But it’s not, that’s a red herring. Revenge turns out to be much more expensive.

It wasn’t really a period piece. The 1984 Apple ad made an appearance, along with Austin Powers further back in time, as a general. There were others as well. And something about Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) felt anachronistic from the start, and by the end, I believed that was on purpose. Raine, it is explained repeatedly, is part Apache. He’s called Chief several time, and cites that as his reason for favoring scalping. He was a reference to something older- the American genocide- and something younger- mixed race whites being proud of their blended heritage. Aldo Raine seems quite intentionally in, but not of, this movie.

Only two serious characters in it don’t seem to have any revenge motive- Landa and Raines. They are men that spend the entire movie with smiles on their faces, like they know something the other characters don’t, smiling like they know what’s really going to happen. It’s Raine that bodily reveals the true price of total revenge. It is this: Revenge will make you one flesh. More totally than sex or love or culture or media, it is revenge that will erase the differences. Your blue-eyed Indian children will stalk the Earth, and they may love you, but they won’t know how to tell you and your most hated enemy apart.

It left me shaky and wide eyed, wondering down the empty 2am streets of Boston, walking all the way back to Cambridge with my companion without really noticing the time go by. I don’t know if I believe QT. But, strangely enough, history seems like it might be on his side. Perhaps it’s an idea that is more palatable to me expressed as no cultural identity survives massive conflict- not even the winner’s. We touch each other, we change each other, we start again. QT is not where I expected to find something like this, and it makes me wonder if this is something new for him, or if I should go back and watch the others to see what I missed.

Looking for your questions…

On digital rights, to answer in an upcoming article in Maximum PC magazine. I’m especially looking forward to questions on mashups, if there’s anything you’ve wondered about, or suspect other people are wondering about. Please feel free to post them in the comments, or to make your life much easier you can mail them to my address (quinn @) or Twitter them to @quinnnorton.


So close and yet so far away

Ted Kennedy, who has fought so hard for healthcare reform, has died on the eve of the big battle. Aside from the damage to this cause which is closer to my heart than I can often handle, I am struck by the desperation of the timing. How awful to go at this moment.

I wonder tonight how many more lives that might cost in the coming years.

Rest in Peace, Senator Kennedy.

Tab dump

  • King Kaufman scathingly replies to the above: We must kill press freedom to save it. I guess the most fun part of watching a replaying of the RIAA, MPAA, and (to a lesser extent) TV wars it this time the writing is much better.
  • YADFWI. (Yet another DFW interview) This one while he was writing IJ, and expresses something I’ve never been able to express myself about why I think utilitarianism is quite possibly evil. He also gave me better ways to talk about Wittgenstein. And express that poetry is the opposite of logical positivism. God, just go read it

1000 Ledes n + 9: Applied Metaphor: Physical Properties of Narrative

Non-fiction is a disappearing polymorph, losing its distinct structure and properties in the proximity of fiction. This suggests that it is metastable perspective, stuck in a particular valley of kinetic persistence sometimes called the ‘facts on the ground’.

Absent fiction, it is often the decay of history that finally robs the story of its excitation, and it comes to rest in a gentle valley we call its time and place.

Newspapers vs Journalism: legislation and special pleading

The Brothers Marburger want to rewrite copyright law to save newspapers, and thereby, journalism. They want “aggregators” to pay “newspapers” for linking to/summarizing their pieces, and they want to bar “aggregators” from “profiting” from the articles “belonging” to a “newspaper” for 24 hours after posting. Quotes here are mine, to convey that none of these words mean anything particularly precise. There’s so much to take apart here, I’m stymied as to where to begin.

One thing I should admit upfront is that I have never in my life subscribed to a newspaper. My mother did for a while. I was in one, the Evening Outlook in Santa Monica as a kid, and I liked that. But not only did I rarely read them, when I did it was mostly the comics and the stock prices1. There’s a simple physical reason- I hate the way the paper and ink feel on my skin. Cheap newsprint on my fingers acts on my nervous system like finger nails on a chalk board. I hate hate hate slightly slightly greasy, slightly crumbly texture, and the way it comes off on my hands, making them feel dirty, dried out, and oily all at once. Just talking about it makes me want to wash my hands.

But boy did I always love the idea of journalism. I knew I wanted to be a writer and journalist when I grew up pretty much from the 3rd grade. Knew. (Why I didn’t start until I was in my 30s is another long and at times troublesome story) For both dermatological and career/personal reasons, the coming of the web opened the door to my first desire. I left what was shaping up to be a lucrative career in interface design to become a freelance writer.

Some friends expressed their confusion; I was jumping off the Queen Mary onto a barge that was not only skanky, but as far as anyone could tell, already actually on fire. 2005/6 was a hell of a time to declare oneself for journalism. I’ve never worked in a newsroom, though I interviewed once at the Chron. I was told ‘morale is very low’ during the interview, for which I had no pithy reply. A few moments later I admitted that I read my news off Google News. I didn’t get the job. When I was asked later by a Reuters guy why the hell I’d gone for that interview, I told him I kind of wanted to work in a newspaper’s newsroom before they all went away, and I figured that was one of my last chances. He laughed the hard laugh of the bitter and damned, and asked if he could quote me.

People have wondered why I’m not more scared, and the short answer is this: I’m not an employee. I’m a well, a mine. Whatever else gets lost or shuffled, I’m necessary. I can interview, investigate, learn, and then explain. I can write and take pictures. I can give you whatever form you want for those final productions, I don’t care that much. Like the musician and the auteur, I am the natural resource that becomes the product in the hands of an industry. Wherever you put me, however much you pay me, whatever my outlet, I’m still a journalist.

Just like the RIAA isn’t actually trying to save the art form of music, and the MPAA isn’t trying to save the filmic expression, Newspaper people aren’t trying to save journalism. Sometimes the people aligned with these organizations know this, and argue instead for the value their particular infrastructures add to those fields. Those more respectable arguments I can appreciate even when I don’t completely agree.

In an interview I did years ago with Monique Wadsted of the Swedish bit of the MPA (The MPAA’s wee international bit) she argued that in the long run uncontrolled piracy could threaten the huge budget productions that we enjoy. She has a point- a flattened marketplace may not have the investment capital to pour into a yearly summer blockbuster season that costs as much as a small nation’s GDP. I am not actually being flippant here. I love summer blockbuster season. I love the enormous spectacle of the things, their ridiculous scale, comic book motifs and the jewel tone richness. I’m glad we make them, the same way I’m glad people thousands of years ago made the pyramids. But I don’t confuse the pyramids with all building, or Hollywood productions with all cinematic expression.

It seems like every time someone argues for tightening copyright to protect their industry, they conflate their industry with their field of endeavor. But it’s newspapers that are the absolute worst offenders here. Newspapers, newspaper people contend, are the only authoritative source of journalism, the only trustworthy arbiters, the only stalwart defenders democracy can trust. For the sake of our soul as a nation the laws must be changed to ensure the survival of their business model. This argument has the kind of conflict of interest and special pleading that gets journalist salivating, when it’s not about the people that sign their checks.

Some are salivating anyway, like my friend just this guy I happen to know, no friendship stuff or anything, King Kaufman at Salon. He co-writes the Future of Journalism blog, which can be ungentle, at times, with the blithering idiots.

There’s a form of the argument against amending the laws that doesn’t apply to the RIAA or MPAA, which is that newspapers were shitty at their sacred duty. Bill Wyman lays this out very nicely- that the business incentives all pointed towards not upsetting or offending anyone, which kind of runs counter to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Newspapers did come to play it safe, and safe became more important in many cases than right. As Lore pointed out, “No one ever got fired for installing an evil Microsoft product.” Part of the problem was also biological structural: primates don’t like getting yelled at and avoid it. There are a few that by some accident aren’t too put off by this, and they do often become journalists. They don’t often become managers, even the ones that work at papers.

There’s an argument newspapers were compromised by media consolidation and therefore don’t deserve the protections they seek. These are interesting arguments, and should probably get lots and lots of blah blah blah Inside Journo Baseball. But I don’t actually care about them. Even if they did everything right I don’t want to see newspaper’s special pleading succeed. There’s no reason it has to be them doing it in the future, that journalism has to look like it did in the past.

That there is something good in an existing institution isn’t enough. It has to be better than what we gain when we lose it. For instance, there are a lot of things we might gain from perfect DRM, but creating perfect DRM would require outlawing and destroying the general purpose computer. No contest- we’ll live without.

What the brothers Marburger would ask the world to give up is the fast linking and commentary of the internet, and the diversity of talents outside of corporate newspapers becoming the watchdogs of society. They would also ask the world to give up a lot of reporting, and some of the power media has to afflict the comfortable.

Scandals would be far easier to get out in front of if news spreading is slowed by copyright restrictions. I can get my side of the story out to as many aggregators and blogs as possible, your side has to wait 24 hours. Is an aggregator still an aggregator if it does original reporting or commentary? There aren’t many that don’t. Is WaPo still a paper when it blogs, quotes, and links? Do I get to sue them if they link to and reproduce this post before a day has passed? More news stories then ever are bubbling up from on-site amateurs, will this law protect them? From what? If several people are all working on the same story, does only the first one get to publish? Does it depend on how much one’s employer looks like an aggregator vs newspaper? If so, what incentive does anyone have to take a little extra time to get it right? If I want to make sure a story never really can be written about, can I “register” somewhere as a paper and write about it every 24 hours? What about international sources, are they to be protected/embargoed? If I put my aggregator in Latvia, but live in NYC and take adverts from Google, what are you going to do? What about when the whole situation is reversed, as in the case of Global Voices2?

And all of this might not even save newspapers, even while the damage to journalism would be intolerable. And I like journalism more.

1 Mom’s requirement. I have the distinction of being the only person I know that knew how to read the financial papers, operate several kinds of firearms, hide illegal drugs on my person, relate and analyze good portions of Greek mythology, and identify and sabotage a distributor cap by around age 10. My parents were never, ever boring.

2 GV is pure and simple, simpler than most, a blog aggregator. When it studied its readership, it found that a very high number of people reading were journalists, and most of them admitted they’d gotten stories from GV and written about them in ‘legitimate’ news outlets. One of those journalists was me. Thanks, Global Voices! Please don’t sue me for the thing you kind of wanted me to do! Oh this has gotten so confusing.

1000 Ledes n + 8: Citizen of Two Countries

In the contest of human despair, 15 year old “Amjad” of Beach Camp in the Gaza strip could certainly hold his own. Most of his family is lost in violent conflict, or ill and barely able to care for themselves. He is scared everyday that he will die. He has little prospects of education, and even if he did, there little chance he could get a job afterwards.

But one thing can make him forget all of it, can give him a purpose and a focus that transcends the world of terror and squalor he have lived all his life in: the need to score his next hit of heroin.

1000 Ledes n + 6: Lurid Biology

Apotosis it a violent death, a cell tearing itself apart from within. It is the original eukaryotic harakiri, a particularly appallingĀ  suicide in which a cell dies by pulling apart its cytoskeleton from within. The cell then “blebs” out misshapen bits which fall off until the thing has all but dissolved.

It is interesting to note that, whatever human values and morals may prevail at any given moment, post-Cambrian Nature is a big believer is the individual’s willing and self-inflicted death for the greater good.