Monday, August 13, 2018

The Gleaming Towers of L.A.

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 26
John Badham (director), Nick of Time

Soft-spoken accountant Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) steps off an Amtrak in Los Angeles with his daughter, on just another day. Newly widowed, Watson is still adjusting to single fatherhood, running his business while raising a daughter. But when he trips an aggressively rude skateboarder, we realize Watson has massive amounts of compressed rage beneath his veneer. The same thought hits Mr. Smith (Christopher Walken), who approaches Watson with a badge.

Back before tax levies and an acrimonious divorce turned Johnny Depp into the ego that ate Hollywood, he famously sought only roles that provided some intellectual or artistic challenge. This meant he worked classics like Edward Scissorhands and Donnie Brasco, but also losers like Private Resort and L.A. Without a Map. This was probably his biggest bomb, returning under a quarter its production budget. Yet in the years since, it has also become a half-acknowledged classic.

Once segregated from the crowds, Smith and his associate reveal their true intentions: this has become a hostage situation. We now have your daughter, Smith tells Watson, while handing him a revolver and a box of ammunition. We demand that you assassinate the governor of California, who’s only a short cab ride away. If, in one hour, the governor isn’t dead, your daughter will be.

This movie’s signal tone is claustrophobia. After the initial scene in the Amtrak station, the entire movie takes place inside Los Angeles’ iconic Westin Bonaventure hotel, a landmark of gleaming glass-and-steel architecture. This means the movie has almost no outdoor shots, and therefore no long-angle shots. Everything happens very close to the camera; even crowds are circumscribed by space, their echoing cacophony emphasizing how we’re stuck indoors.

Nor does space make the only claustrophobic limit. This movie is also pinioned by time: the ninety minutes we spend watching this movie is how long the events require to actually take place. Other than a few brief moments,we follow Gene moment-for-moment through the worst afternoon of his life. The camera becomes a mirror of Gene’s private hostage drama; if he’s trapped, so are we.

Johnny Depp (left) and Christopher Walken in Nick of Time

Trapped inside the Bonaventure, Watson discovers a gold-plated world where people display their wealth, but nobody talks to one another. The governor, played by four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason, is surrounded by fans, donors, and hangers-on. Everybody wants something from her, so when Watson tries to warn her about the assassination attempt, his becomes just another voice in a crowd. Violence gets drowned out by the tedium of political life.

Worse, Smith is bird-dogging Watson’s every step. Whenever Watson tries to speak up, Smith shushes him, with an implicit threat to Watson’s daughter. If Watson deviates from Smith’s script, he finds himself in for a pummeling (gut punches are the order of the day). One starts to wonder, if Smith has a script so perfectly prepared, why doesn’t he do the shooting himself? Turns out there’s a reason, and that reason is appropriately dark.

But Watson finds one reassuring ally. Huey, a disabled veteran working as the hotel’s shoe shiner (Charles S. Dutton), has a sense of honor exceeding his lowly employment status. (Try to ignore the inherent Magic Negro stereotypes.) Huey plays dumb to get bigger tips from his customers; but he proves well-connected within the Bonaventure’s staff. If you ever needed proof why organized labor is beneficial, Huey’s ability to make things happen quickly provides it.

Johnny Depp quietly underplays Gene Watson, a downright timid man whose clean-pressed demeanor conceals grief and savagery boiling within him. Watson resents Smith’s attempts at control, which simply exaggerate the ways 1990s California, with its gleaming architecture and stark inequality, controls workers. Watson’s clean, white-collar demeanor apparently goes only clothing-deep. His increasingly disheveled appearance mirrors the passions he can no longer contain.

Themes of confinement drive this film. Stuck inside the building, events unfolding in real time, Watson can’t escape, not even through the cinematic mercy of camera cuts. He can only resist by turning the system’s confines against those who threaten his family. But he quickly identifies the system’s limitations and exploits them to save himself. Watson doesn’t break the system, he simply finds the system’s weaknesses and uses them.

British-American director John Badham has done diverse work, from entertainments like Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit, to punchy topical dramas like WarGames and Criminal Minds episodes. This movie draws together several themes from throughout Badham’s career. Though the film failed upon initial release, fan reception has given it second life. It definitely bears repeat watching.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Alex Jones and the New Techno-Government

Alex Jones
Facebook and Google have given me massive ethical twitches recently. As Earth’s two among biggest websites, they draw massive amounts of business into their webs every day. It’s virtually impossible to communicate with a mass English-speaking audience without going through these two companies. But as privately held companies, they have the ability to enforce personal, often arbitrary “community standards” on content produced by ordinary citizens. They have become the ultimate privitization of the public sphere.

This most readily manifests in “adult” content. YouTube (a Google subsidiary) and Facebook both assiduously screen images of boobs, sexual content, vulgar or violent memes, and anything else that might curl Aunt Mabel’s hair. I have no problem with that, theoretically. Except I do, because both Google and Facebook are so vast, and functionally screen so much undifferentiated content ordinary people receive, that making these concepts disappear from their sites makes them basically disappear forever.

So I’m conflicted about Facebook and YouTube’s decision Monday to scrub notorious troll Alex Jones. This moon-faced whack-a-mole, notorious for preaching everything from “Pizzagate” to Sandy Hook “crisis actors” to saying Democrats plan to launch a “Second Civil War,” finally pushed even Facebook and Google’s studiously neutral content critics too far. They’ve decided to starve him of oxygen. Part of me wants to shout: “Thank God! Maybe we can get serious, grown-up discussion going again!”


Between them, Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook (which owns Instagram) control over half of planet Earth’s Internet advertising revenue. They aren’t just content gatekeepers; they profit handsomely from deciding what you and I see. Though neither company has official state standing, both have power and reach autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping must drool over. Making somebody disappear from these sites has consequences so far-reaching, the word “censorship” isn’t out of line.

How do we process entities like this, which have greater reach than William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch ever dreamed of? Google and Facebook have state-like power, but no state-like democratic oversight. Most shareholders have no idea what contributes to “community standards” on these sites. Even many people enforcing standards make snap decisions. Try this experiment: report a friend’s perfectly innocuous statement for violations. Betcha it’ll disappear, because monitors can’t actually read every reported violation.

Mark Zuckerberg
This isn’t even an issue of whether certain speech is acceptable. Like most First Amendment absolutists, I draw the line at incitements to violence. Saying something like “Person X is stupid and shouldn’t breed” is offensive, and deserves scolding. Saying “Get your rifles, Person X is gonna die” crosses a line between speech and action. And when somebody with a platform reaching millions of listeners, simply saying anything requires a diligent conscience and constant scrutiny.

Yet as we saw in 2016, during the first great “fake news” wave, propagandists can produce meaningless, fact-free gibberish that nevertheless motivates a base already primed for anger. We’ve seen what angry people do: they carry guns into pizza joints to verify conspiracy theories. They shoot a roomful of journalists. They hector parents of a murdered child so badly they have to go into hiding. This isn’t free speech fallout, it’s the consequences of actions.

Google, Facebook, and their subsidiaries thus find themselves in a precarious situation: they are private companies with the reach and influence once exclusive to governments. In order to survive, in order to do business and remain viable, they must exercise the discretion of the state. Their so-called community standards, like “no boobies where children can see them,” now have semi-governmental weight behind them. Companies no longer just live by community standards, they now set them.

This is simultaneously comforting and horrifying. It means companies now step up and take responsibility for ways people use their products, even when they use their products recklessly. Corporations have too often sworn off culpability for their products: think gun and cigarette manufacturers. If Facebook and Google can own their products’ behavior, and enforce some bottom minimum for accountability, then maybe so can Philip Morris or Smith & Wesson. I mean, probably not, but maybe. Someday.

Yet when governments silence unacceptable speech, we understand who they answer to. When states say flag burning and incitement aren’t protected speech acts, we (hopefully) realize the government answers to its people. (Pipe down, North Korea.) Corporations don’t. Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg are accountable to, I assume, somebody, but who? And what ensures they use their unelected, state-like authority reasonably? These questions should scare even we who are happy to see Alex Jones silenced.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Great Plastic Straw Distraction

Wow, talk about a straw man argument!

I’ve seen little move faster than the Great Plastic Straw Meltdown of 2018, except perhaps the backlash against it. Plastic straws are toxic, non-biodegradable, and contribute to clogging our oceans with continent-sized islands of trash; but the disabled, stroke survivors, and the elderly need straws to swallow liquids. Whose goals are served by each side? Why are they so strident? And are they both missing the biggest question?

The outrage around plastic straws assumes you, personally, eschewing your disposable sissy stick with fast food, can halt the planet’s mounting collapse. Really? Seven billion people, many of them creating trash every day, and you expect me to believe one simple habit change can fix the problem? Of course not. Because the problem isn’t one throwaway product, it’s a massive throwaway culture. My straw habits barely make a dent.

To even reach the restaurant where my disposable straw becomes an issue, I must drive my carbon-burning car across roads paved in carbon-emitting concrete. I must travel from one air-conditioned environment to another, often idling at red lights and other traffic controls. God knows how far my beverage was shipped before my straw came anywhere near it; colas require ingredients imported from Africa in diesel-burning container ships.

Our economy is premised on an assumption of limitless inexpensive goods, services, and energy. We expect food to be fast and cheap, cars to be as attractive as they are speedy, and houses to have autumn-like comfort even in bitter winters and scalding summers. We burn lights all night, heat water we never use, and live unbelievable distances from our jobs. And we discard unbelievable quantities of domestic refuse.

click to enlarge
As a construction worker, I have firsthand insights into the ways our economy generates waste. Depending on the job size, we throw away more garbage daily than my house generates in a year. Off-size scrap, slightly damaged product, trimmings from site installation, and workers’ personal trash, all go straight into the dumpster. Though some materials, particularly unmixed metals, get recycled, they’re the definite minority.

Some of this waste is manifestly harmful. The United States Gypsum Corporation, America’s largest drywall manufacturer, warns builders to return unused scraps of product to them for recycling, because if that stuff gets landfilled, it can acidify groundwater. Yet I’ve witnessed how this almost never happens. Drywall leftovers go straight into the dumpster, because saving and returning it is costly and time-consuming, and cost efficiency triumphs over all.

I prevent some of this waste by grabbing packing pallets that would otherwise get landfilled, and rebuilding them into rustic furniture as a hobby. I’m proud of how my skills at furniture-building have progressed in recent months. But as an individual, I can only redirect limited amounts of product from the dumpster. I’ve watched perfectly good structural wood get landfilled because I couldn’t possibly take, store, and use any more.

hus my problem with the “individual responsibility” model inherent in the plastic straw debate. My individual decision to not take a swizzle stick cannot possibly make enough difference, amid all the waste generated by our system, in the trash going into our landfills, waterways, and oceans. No matter how solemn my intentions, I can’t do enough to really change the trajectory of an economic structure that demands cheap, disposable stuff.

Whether you use or refuse plastic straws is a distraction, plain and simple. Though I haven’t tracked the controversy to its source, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover industry front groups have pushed this low-grade moral panic on America’s buying public to make them feel personally responsible, deflecting attention from the system that profits whenever we throw stuff away. Rampton and Stauber write extensively about how this distraction motivation works.

I don’t want to disparage the impulse to do right in our consumption habits. But the “ethical consumption” model pushed in the anti-straw argument essentially standardizes the idea that the market environment simply exists, and isn’t created by laws, practices, and traditions. It exonerates manufacturers who create massive waste in generating our cheap stuff. And it offloads responsibility for ethical choices onto individuals who, by definition, cannot do enough.

By all means, if it’s within your power, refuse the plastic straw. Something is better than nothing. But don’t think, because you’ve skipped the straw, you’ve done your part. Use that as a launching point to transform, not just yourself, but your relationship with a system dependent on massive human indifference. And don’t get distracted by those who want you to think you’ve done enough.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Über and the Flaws of Economic Purity

So it’s true I avoided using Über for as long as humanly possible. But it was also true that my truck was seven miles away, across an unfamiliar town, up and down fairly hilly terrain, in ninety-degree heat. Funny how solidarity with the working class and all that other undergraduate Marxism goes out the window when faced with odds like that. So I downloaded the Über app and hailed a ride, because the alternative felt too horrible.

I’ve mustered dozens of reasons why I avoid Über: I already have a vehicle, or I distrust drivers who aren’t licensed and bonded for liability, or their presence in my medium-sized community is too small, or I’ve read horror stories of Über drivers abusing their power over defenseless passengers, especially women. Blah blah blah. Truth is, I researched their business model, and I dislike it. It centralizes control, diffuses overhead onto drivers, and structurally prevents organized labor action.

Reading into Über’s business structure, I’ve seen how they control driver access to customers, and vice versa, through a digital algorithm located God-knows-where, controlled by God-knows-whom, and drivers can accept or reject the terms. Unlike locally owned cab services, who know their dispatcher and the other drivers, Über workers are anonymous, even to each other. Workers who never meet one another can never organize for better wages: according to one report, Über pays poverty wages.

This epitomizes the problem underlying American, and increasingly international, capitalism: we’ve found ways to work around market forces and drive wages down for people who actually create value. The person who drives people from place to place, who returns me to my truck so I don’t have to walk ninety minutes, and can use that time for something productive, gets paid less than the person cooking my burger. I don’t value his labor.

Libertarian economics considers this perfectly normal. A product or service is worth exactly as much as people willingly pay for it. If we’re unwilling to pay more for this driver’s service, that sets the market floor; and if that floor stays too small to pay the drivers’ bills, well, they voluntarily affiliated with Über, they can voluntarily disaffiliate themselves. That’s how markets work.

I object to this reasoning because it treats markets like a universal constant, much like how Isaac Newton treated gravity. That just isn’t true. As economist Hernando de Soto writes, market forces derive from a system of laws, regulations, and traditions so intricate, we often cannot see them. This invisibility works to the advantage of those who profit from that system, because they can pretend they’re beneficiaries of the Invisible Hand, and not winners picked by the state and by fellow plutocrats.

Thus the system always keeps costs low and prices high. Labor, materials, and time have values which can be controlled. The lower we can push these values, while keeping floating prices high, the more uncontrolled profits we can muster. If the Martin Shkreli catastrophe taught us anything, it’s that capitalists citing “the market” demand profit margins that would make Colombian drug barons blush. Fiddling expenses like labor throw impediments in the path of such runaway disparity.

Okay, we know all that. We know it. And yet I still called an Über.

Because I know economics devalues work. I know market forces reward the already well-rewarded, while those who actually create value get punished. Yet it was still hotter than hell, and my truck was a ninety-minute walk away. And if I stood on principle and accepted my personal disadvantage so the rich couldn’t profit of some poor fella’s labor, it wouldn’t make that guy’s need for money go away. Somebody else would still disadvantage him.

So yeah, in a moment of physical discomfort and economic malaise, I paid somebody poorly to do difficult work for me. I joined a system of exploitation I’d eagerly rail against in a bar somewhere (while a waitress making minimum wage replenished my drinks). Because while market forces are artificial, one natural fact remains: one person’s momentary need is another person’s opportunity.

Sitting in another person’s car, listening to his Spotify feed and watching an unfamiliar city roll by, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on my choices. I know what I believe, but you can’t eat beliefs. Moral purity is a fleeting illusion in this world. And, dammit, very hot days make sticking to your guns impractical. Deep down, economics is a human enterprise. And like humans everywhere, I am a flawed and beautiful beast.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Rebecca Roanhorse's Bloody Homeland Blues

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning: the Sixth World

Maggie Hoskie lives in a trailer on the margins of the  Diné (Navajo) homeland, nursing her hurts while awaiting… something. A former apprentice of her people’s most respected monster hunter, she lives at the dawning of the Sixth World, when gods and monsters of Diné myth return in force, so yeah, there’s plenty of monsters to hunt. She just doesn't feel ready. But duty calls, she steps forth, and she faces something all her training never prepared her for.

Native American myths occur frequently in urban fantasy, but usually as a side plot, driving themes of anti-modernism. Indians live in a supernatural time warp, unaffected by technology or, y’know, changing social mores. New Mexico author Rebecca Roanhorse takes a different tack: rather than the past, her characters occupy the near future, a dystopian hellscape familiar from recent novels and movies. Yet it also feels unfamiliar, because mose white readers don’t know Diné tradition.

Jolted from her maundering, Maggie confronts a monster that doesn’t resemble the past. It looks human. So she consults her people’s greatest medicine man. He saddles her with his grandson and apprentice, Kai, a handsome, urbane gentleman as alienated from Diné mainstream as herself. She doesn't want the partnership. But the monsters come from somewhere, and are clearly man-made, so she needs the help. So he holds her nose and proceeds.

Though this is her first novel, Rebecca Roanhorse is already an award-winning writer for her short works. That experience shows. She creates a fully realized alternate reality, which she describes to readers without that shopworn trope, the Respected Sage Explaining Reality To Everyone. Roanhorse eases us into the Sixth World, providing as much information as readers need, when we need it. it feels like we step into a story already happening, rather than getting the introductory data dump.

Rebecca Roanhorse
Dinétah, the Navajo homeland, didn’t rise against its subjugation so much as survive while the United States fell. When the Big Water happened, washing away North America’s major population centers, white government was unprepared, and billions drowned. Dinétah stepped into the vacuum, defended its people, and became a nation. Except then, the monsters came. The Diné found themselves thrust into a world of mythology, magic, and divine chess. Maggie is just another pawn.

Maggie doesn’t want to fight monsters anymore. But something has to pay the bills. So she commences a quest that takes her from Dinétah’s biggest city (which uncannily resembles Mos Eisley), to the fringes of her homeland, including regions she’s never seen before. Her journey has a Philip K. Dick-like quality of passage through dreamland, where ordinary rules of physics and society are suspended. Anything can happen, and often does. And Maggie bears awestruck witness.

Roanhorse does something I really appreciate. Before page thirty, she backs her heroine into a corner, where Maggie must do something desperate: she kills a child. Sounds bad when I say it, right? It’s even worse when it happens. Too many writers follow the advice to establish their characters’ heroism by doing something selfless, like saving a puppy, in early chapters. Roanhorse demonstrates her protagonist’s lack of heroic qualifications. Maggie doesn’t have virtues, only guilt.

This guilt motivates Maggie’s continuing journey, though. She clearly hopes to expiate her guilt through accomplishment, and possibly regain the attention of her former mentor, the immortal Neizghání. Maggie remains vague what that attention means. She isn’t the little girl who once waited patiently on her mentor’s teachings anymore, after all. Yet somehow, she remains fearful about the commitments that adulthood would entail. Like her people, she occupies a liminal space between freedom and colonialism.

Maggie attempts to discard Westernized standards of Good vs. Evil, and live her people’s traditional morality, but she can’t. She admits her language remains inflected with the vestiges of Treaties and other compromises with power. That makes Kai’s intrusion into her world especially confounding. He’s a medicine man, versed in his people’s tradition, but he’s also Westernized in his values. He represents admixture that Maggie, and the Diné generally, try to purge. They just can’t.

This combination of ancestry and modernism, of oral tradition and technological progress, characterizes the immersive reality Roanhorse has created. Her characters live the conflicts, and they invite us to join them. By the end, little is resolved; even the monsters prove less important than the human influences that let them into our world. Yet even without some pat resolution, we feel like we’ve undertaken a hard journey. Roanhorse’s characters brought us somewhere. But where, exactly?