Monday, April 28, 2008

Lions and tigers and bears

A book I was reading a while back referred offhandedly to Frank Baum's conception of Oz as a dream. The writer must not have read Baum's book, where Dorothy's journey to Oz is never suggested to be a dream. That idea came from the 1939 film. It's striking that so many people remember The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one of the most beloved stories of the twentieth century, through the famously interpretive screen adaptation.

Ironically, Baum disliked the "it was all a dream" convention in literature. (He must have turned in his grave in 1939.) I agree with him. It's a much overused device that has the smell of copout. I can understand its use in Alice in Wonderland, which deals with absurdity. But Oz, beyond being magical and impossible, is hardly absurd. Dorothy's adventures seem far too coherent to plausibly represent a dream. Therefore, why did the 1939 film work so well?

My theory is that it worked by largely ignoring the dream motif. Sure, it linked several characters in Oz to people Dorothy knew back in Kansas, none of them from the book. But once the movie reached Oz, it portrayed the book's events more or less faithfully.

Had the movie been made today, I don't think they'd have gotten it right. Modern movies--from the 1970s onward--are much more naturalistic than old ones. It's a prime reason for the decline of musicals. In recent musicals like Dreamgirls, there's a certain awkward, pretentious quality that didn't exist back in the 1930s, when audiences found nothing strange about seeing characters burst into song. That kind of casual surrealism doesn't jibe with the style of modern movies, which aim to evoke a feeling of reality. Acting is more understated, scenes more slow-paced. In this climate, movies about dreams try to approximate what dreams actually feel like, which is to say, fleeting and bizarre. This approach limits the possibilities in some ways while broadening them in others.

Many sitcoms have featured at least one episode in which a character is dreaming. The classic example is the "Twilo" episode of Dick Van Dyke, where Rob dreams of going to work and discovering that all his friends have turned into pod people, in a hilarious sendup of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

But what works in a twenty-minute sitcom doesn't necessarily work in a feature-length film. The conceit of having a story take place almost entirely in a character's head has inspired some dreadful films. Two that come to mind are Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984) and Delirious (1991). The first is more or less an extended music video by Paul McCartney. The second is a spoof in which John Candy plays a soap writer who dreams he finds himself trapped inside a real-life version of his own show. In both films, the story becomes increasingly jumbled as it progresses, and the protagonist wakes up before he completes his mission. That's just what dreams are like, but what fun is there in watching a movie with those qualities?

The problem with using dreams as a basis for comedy is that comedy requires rules, and dreams have no rules. You can get a quick laugh out of the absurdity of a dream, but dwell too long on the conceit and it starts to become more strange than funny.

Nowadays, the more ambitious films about dreams tend to embrace the weird factor. Three that come to mind are the Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes (remade in the U.S. as Vanilla Sky), the David Lynch drama Mulholland Drive, and Richard Linklater's Waking Life. In all these films, we're led to suspect that a significant amount of what we see is a character's dream, but the extent of it is left tantalizingly ambiguous. These films greatly exploit the old philosophical conundrum that it's impossible to know for sure at any moment in our lives whether we're dreaming or not.

Exploring that kind of dilemma would have tanked The Wizard of Oz. Unlike modern movies on dreams, it retained a straightforward approach to the storytelling. Because it wasn't bound by the belief that a movie about dreaming must display dreamlike qualities, it didn't try to alter the story to fit a preconceived idea of what dreams are like. This kept the essence of the story intact even as the dream motif gave the story an added psychological dimension, a balancing act that today's movies have forgotten how to achieve.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Language and its needless but inevitable watchdogs

Love of language, like love of country, is most often expressed by bashing those perceived not to have enough of it. You practically can't go anywhere without meeting someone who thinks the language is "going to the dogs" because people no longer write or speak it correctly. The fact that critics have been voicing this complaint for hundreds of years, yet the language hasn't withered away into dust, does nothing to quell their belief that something is seriously wrong today.

There's no way to reason with these critics, who will probably always be with us. So I just leave well enough alone. But I take satisfaction in being among the few who know the truth. Here is my favorite quote from Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English, a book by linguist John McWhorter:

"What we must that during these changes, because renewal always complements erosion, all languages are eternally self-sustaining, just as while our present mountains are slowly eroding, new ones are gradually being thrown up by the movement of geological plates. Thus at any given time, a language is coherent and complex, suitable for the expression of all human needs, thoughts, and emotions. Just as linguists have encountered no languages that do not change, they have also not encountered any languages whose changes compromised their basic coherency and complexity. We have encountered no society hampered by a dialect that was slowly simply wearing out like an old car. Anthropologists report no society in which communication is impossible in the dark because the local dialect has become so mush-mouthed and senseless that it can only be spoken with help from hand gestures. In other words, there is no such thing as a language 'going to the dogs'--never in the history of the world has there existed a language that has reached, or even gotten anywhere near, said dogs." (pp. 17-18)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Color is in the eye of the beholder

Last year, The New York Times ran an article on the debate over Columbus's ethnic origins. It featured a chart (which doesn't appear in the Internet version of the article) listing pros and cons to each hypothesis. When it reached the hypothesis that Columbus was Jewish, it mentioned the following as a con: "Most Jews in Southern Europe at the time were Sephardic Jews of North African descent, but preliminary analysis of Columbus's DNA suggests he was Caucasian."

This ill-informed remark stopped me short. I don't know what's more ridiculous, the assumption that Sephardic Jews in medieval Spain were of "North African descent," or the implication that this made them non-Caucasian.

I'm not trying to pick on the article, which was just trying to be balanced. And I have no stake in the question of Columbus's origins. I mention this quote only because it raises some interesting points about how the public perceives Jewish ethnicity.

First, there's the confusion over the meaning of Sephardic, a term that comes from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sefarad. In the strictest sense it refers to medieval Spanish Jews and their descendants. Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, they went everywhere--as far west as Holland, as far east as India, even to the New World. But the bulk of them settled in the Middle East, and consequently, Sephardic has become a general term for Middle Eastern Jews.

Actually, the common convention is to apply the term to all non-Ashkenazic Jews, whatever their origin. That includes Dutch Jews, Italian Jews, Greek Jews, Turkish and Moroccan and Yemenite Jews. I grew up knowing only this binary way of classifying Jews, which still permeates the media. But careful writers use the term Mizrahi or "Oriental" to describe Middle Eastern Jews who don't have a family history in Spain.

How does race factor into the discussion? Mizrahi Jews even more than Sephardim tend to look relatively dark compared to the common Western image of the Jew. The convention of calling them Sephardi, coupled with the association of dark skin with Africa, is probably what led the article to think that medieval Spanish Jews were of "North African descent."

The fact is that many Jews physically resemble their non-Jewish countrymen. Russian Jews often look like ethnic Russians, and Iranian Jews often look like ethnic Iranians. This fact may seem surprising when you consider the religious and political barriers to mixing with the native population. Not only does Judaism discourage conversion and prohibit intermarriage, the countries themselves often enacted laws against those things, and in many places Jews lived separately from Gentiles for centuries.

But conversion and intermarriage did occur, occasionally on a large scale. Some scholars have maintained that modern-day Jews are more closely related to their non-Jewish neighbors than to Jews in other parts of the world. This hypothesis, which has been used to support as well as refute anti-Semitic beliefs, looks increasingly doubtful in light of genetic research over the past few decades. The research suggests a close kinship among Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim, despite their diversity in appearance. Only a few groups that don't fit any standard classification--the black Jews of Ethiopia, the Bene Israel of India, the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng--do seem racially distinct from the rest of world Jewry, and their origins remain a source of debate.

If Jews of different colors are fundamentally related, can they be called Caucasian? Well, it depends how you define the term. Its meaning has shifted over time, as has "white." Originally it encompassed not only Europeans but also the darker skinned inhabitants of Mediterranean lands. But in early twentieth century America, Jews, Arabs, and many European ethnicities were classed as non-white or non-Caucasian. Nowadays, Ashkenazic Jews are usually considered white or Caucasian, as are most indigenous Europeans, but the perception remains that Arabs and other Middle Eastern groups are people of color. This dichotomy has contributed to the curious notion that Ashkenazim belong to a different race than Sephardim.

But that just goes to show that the boundaries of whiteness are more political than biological. I saw a telling example in Nelson Mandela's criticism of U.S. intervention in Iraq: "Israel has weapons of mass destruction.... Why should there be one standard for [Iraq], especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white?"

The idea that Israel is a "white" country while Iraq is a "black" country is laughable. If you define Iraqi Arabs as black, then how can you call Israel, whose Jewish population is about half Sephardi/Mizrahi, a white country? Anyone who's lived in Israel can tell you that it is sometimes impossible to tell the Jewish and Arab residents apart. That's because Jews and Arabs are ethnically closely related. But for political reasons, one group is seen as white and the other as non-white.

And when it comes to political classification, it seems Jews can never win. They came to be regarded as part of the white majority around the same time that being a minority started being fashionable. (The term minority itself is far more likely to be applied to blacks and Asians than to Jews, even though in a worldwide sense Jews fit the definition far better, and even within the United States are far fewer in number than blacks.) It is in situations like this that Jews remind me of the kid who isn't accepted by either the in-crowd or the nerds.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Lucasbert, evil SW director*

There are Star Wars fans who hate the prequel trilogy far more than I do, but few seem to question why it was made in the first place. Years before The Phantom Menace, I wondered why Lucas wanted to make prequels instead of sequels. I would have preferred to see the continued adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han.

Would that have resulted in better films? It's hard to say. The series was already showing signs of wear and tear by Return of the Jedi. But at least we would have been in the company of characters we had come to know and love. The prequel trilogy failed to create any new, engaging characters, and even familiar characters like Yoda and Obi-Wan seemed curiously flat.

There's no obvious reason why Lucas needed to make movies about the events before A New Hope. Put differently, there's a good reason why he began the series at the point he did: that's when all the interesting stuff starts to happen. If the prequels fail to come alive, it's because he conceived them more as history than narrative.

That's why you can practically hear the crankings of the plot. Padme and Anakin must fall in love, whether or not they have chemistry. Anakin must turn bad, whether or not his transition will be believable. The story cannot progress on its own terms; it is weighted down by inevitability.

I don't mean to imply the films could never have worked. There simply needed to be more effort to give the events and characters the spark of life. This challenge, however, goes a long way in explaining why prequels are so rare. Lucas himself helped popularize the term as well as the concept. Temple of Doom takes place a year before Raiders, but its prequel status is a technicality. There's no story arc, not even a single reference in one film to events from the other.

The Star Wars prequels are better described by an older term, coming from comic books: the origin story. They don't merely depict events from before the first trilogy. They aim to explain how the situation from the first trilogy came to be.

That required skills that I don't believe Lucas ever possessed. Vader was a convincing character as long as Lucas kept him mysterious. Many of the Star Wars novels, written by authors with more depth than Lucas, portray Vader as morally ambiguous. But on the evidence of the films, he seems almost purely evil, an unrepentant mass murderer. Despite Luke's repeated claim that "there is good in him," what turns Vader against the emperor is simply love for his son--hardly a sign of true goodness.

The first trilogy gives no information on how Vader turned evil. It doesn't need to. The Star Wars films have always worked best when they've stayed at a basic, archetypal level. Explaining complex moral transformations is not their strong suit.

Film critic Stephen Hunter disagrees. In his review of Revenge of the Sith, he writes that Lucas successfully "answers The Question," which was previously addressed by "Melville and Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare," who "could never agree on the answer." That question is, "What makes man evil?" According to Hunter, the depiction of Anakin's fall from grace "explains how you could fly a plane full of mothers and babies into a skyscraper and think you were going on a date with 72 virgins, or how you could goose-step your way toward conquest and genocide while singing schmaltzy oompah music."

I agree with Hunter that the film attempts to answer this age-old question, but I cannot imagine what makes him think it succeeds. Beyond its solid understanding of the seductive qualities of fascism, the film provides little insight into the nature of evil.

In a previous post, I pointed out that real-life killers usually perceive themselves as the good guys, whereas fictional villains tend to know they're evil. (This tendency was satirized in the Star Wars parody Spaceballs when Dark Helmet says, "Now you see that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.") The Sith don't so much think of themselves as evil as think that darkness is good--sort of like Satanists.

That's about the extent of Lucas's insight into the subject. So it's no wonder that Anakin's turn to the Dark Side proceeds as if a light switch gets flicked off. One moment he's a conflicted individual unsure where his loyalties lie; the next he's slaughtering children without breaking a sweat. Not exactly the most profound explanation for Al Qaeda or the Nazis.

We shouldn't be too surprised. Back in the early '70s when Lucas began work on his Buck Rogers-inspired screenplay, I doubt he had any idea he'd one day have to deal with these issues. He was seduced by the power of his unforeseen success.

*Dilbert reference. See "Catbert, evil HR director."

Thursday, April 03, 2008

In defense of celebrating black identity

Cross-posted at DovBear's blog

In 1994, National Review editor David Klinghoffer wrote a refreshingly candid piece about Orthodox Jewish racism. Klinghoffer is a baal teshuva1 who was shocked by the casual racism he encountered in the frum2 world. I mention his article now because it hits upon some of the themes that Obama covered in his race speech. While not condoning bigotry in any form, Klinghoffer argued that some of the bigotry coming from Jews should be understood in the context of their experiences, a consideration he did not extend to American Jews who denigrate blacks.

I began to wonder what Klinghoffer, as a conservative, is saying about Obama now. It turns out that he has defended Obama, sort of, but from a perspective I find highly problematic. In a recent article, he argues, "The Bible makes it clear...that God has chosen some races to teach important lessons to the rest of the world.... [W]hatever unique contribution Africans have to give to the world, it is not racist to suggest that a black church, even a black theology, could be a vehicle for making that contribution."

I think Klinghoffer isn't exercising anywhere near as much caution as he should in using the term "race." The Torah talks about different peoples. The ancient concept of a people is not equivalent to the modern concept of a race. What we call race arose largely as a means of establishing differences where there needn't be.

Klinghoffer was addressing the charge that a "black church" should be considered racist in the same sense that most of us would consider a "white church" to be. But his answer was inadequate. The main purpose of black pride is to raise up a group that has been pushed down.

Whatever the white power movement may insist, whites do not fall into that category. Individual white groups might; there's nothing wrong with ethnically Irish or Italian or Polish people having their own organizations to express pride in their heritage. But an organization for white people is a different matter. Whiteness is an elusive concept that tends to be defined as whatever is left over after you've excluded "other" groups. In practice, it usually ends up excluding many Caucasians.

Some people try to apply the same argument to blacks. Why should we recognize black or African identity at all? Why not talk instead about ethnic Nigerians and Kenyans and Ugandans? In a perfect world, this argument might hold water. But blacks were brought to this country by force and stripped of their previous ethnic identity. No matter where they came from in Africa, they ended up as one group, today known as African American.

You might ask why Obama, who is not descended from slaves, should be considered a part of this group. It's a good question. I will answer it with an anecdote from several years ago. Tiger Woods insisted he was not black but "Cablinasian," an acronym he coined to highlight the many races in his ancestry. Gregory Kane, a black conservative who writes for The Baltimore Sun, retorted that Woods should be given "the cab test": "Stand him on a street corner in any large American city and have him hail a cab. If he gets one, he's Cablinasian. If he doesn't, he's definitely black" (Apr. 27, 1997, pg. 1B).

For the vast majority of people, even those of mixed ancestry, racial identity is not a matter of choice. It is something thrust upon them. Let's get real: when most Americans look at Obama, they see a black man. The notion that he chose to call himself black to advance his career is preposterous.

Whatever you may think of hip hop music or contemporary inner-city culture, African Americans as a group have made significant positive contributions to America. They are as much a legitimate cultural group as Jews, Italians, Irish, and all the rest that make up this great country. Group identity of any kind has a danger of turning into chauvinism, and often does. But that's the price we pay for having a heterogeneous society. The solution is that people should learn to respect differences, not that they should stop having differences.

1returner to the faith

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Hitchens is not great

I have never understood the adulation accorded to British pundit Christopher Hitchens. An ex-leftist who turned somewhat neo-con in his later years, he has acquired begrudging respect from people across the political spectrum, who see him as a sharp-thinking curmudgeon. He has always struck me as an obnoxious creep a bit too preoccupied with tearing others down and trying to prove his smug superiority to the masses.

But there are jerks, and then there are dishonest jerks. Until last week, I would not have placed him in the latter category. (But then, I'm far from a regular reader of his writings.) That was when he reached for one of the oldest and crudest tricks in the hatchet-man grab-bag, where you select a portion of a quote to make a person appear to be saying the opposite of what they're really saying.

In this essay ("Blind Faith"), he comments on Obama's recent "race speech." The essay is not a partisan attack on Obama. It is a rambling hate-fest against organized religion, in which he takes shots at both parties. But one paragraph caught my attention:
Look at [Obama's] accepted choice of words for the ravings of Jeremiah Wright: controversial, incendiary, inflammatory. These are adjectives that might have been--and were--applied to many eloquent speakers of the early civil rights movement.... But is it "inflammatory" to say that AIDS and drugs are wrecking the black community because the white power structure wishes it? No. Nor is it "controversial." It is wicked and stupid and false to say such a thing. And it not unimportantly negates everything that Obama says he stands for by way of advocating dignity and responsibility over the sick cults of paranoia and victimhood.
Ouch. To think that all this time we took Obama's speech to be condemning the views of his former pastor. How gullible we were to think so, until Hitchens came along and showed how Obama's word choice suggested nothing of the kind. All Obama did was use adjectives that could just as well apply to Martin Luther King! My God! How stupid could we have been to have fallen for this?!

But then I decided to check Hitchens' quotes against a transcript of Obama's speech. I did not find any mention of the word inflammatory. All I found was one incendiary and two controversials, the second of which appears in the following statement:

"But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial.... Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country...." (emphasis added).

The speech goes on to condemn Wright's most notorious remarks in quite clear, unequivocal language.

Did Hitchens actually hear or read the speech, as opposed to merely skimming it over? Or is he just a plain old liar? The most charitable judgment I can muster is that he was quoting from a highly selective memory.

My only remaining question is how he could get away with such a flagrant and obvious distortion of the most talked about speech in the campaign so far. Even hatchet-men usually don't commit their nefarious acts in broad daylight. I guess there are just a lot of things you can get away with when you're an already esteemed commentator whose current piece goes unexamined under a mountain of punditry.

Update (4/8/2007): Someone suggested to me that Hitchens was directing his criticism not at Obama himself but at the "phalanx of reporters" and "men of the cloth" who fawned over the speech. Therefore, he was not distorting Obama's words, but commenting on a general trend.

Nice try, but no cigar. His criticism would make no sense if applied to reporters, who would never be expected to call anyone "wicked" or "stupid" in a news report. As a reporter himself, I'm sure Hitchens understands that. And if he wasn't directing his criticism at reporters, there's no way you can possibly read his paragraph as limiting the criticism to "men of the cloth."

The only way his paragraph can make the slightest sense is if it's criticizing Obama for using ambiguous language, and criticizing reporters and clergymen for overlooking this flaw.