A Reasonable Approximation

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Short essays on various things I've watched

Sometimes I write things in places that aren't here. Sometimes I think those things are worth preserving. Some of those things follow, with minor editing, mostly on the subject of various movies that I've watched. Also two stage musicals, one TV show, one short story, and one music video. They were written over the past four years, so I can't necessarily talk intelligently about these things any more. When I name a thing, spoilers generally follow.

I don't really get The Hurt Locker

It seemed like it was going to be a film about a cowboy with a death wish, who should be removed from duty but isn't because of institutional dysfunction in the US army. Or something along those lines.

Instead it turned out to be… a film about a cowboy with a death wish?

Like there's that bit where he's just been a fucking idiot who could have gotten everybody killed

(not very specific so far)

And someone who I got the impression outranks him comes up to him like «oh you seem like hot shit. Just how hot shit are you? Yeah that's pretty hot shit» in a tone that I swear is subtextually «I'm about to rip you a new one»

and then the scene just ends. No one gets ripped a new anything.


His team mates realise how dangerous he is to be around. But they don't do anything about it, just get pissed at him. And also he's supposedly defused almost a thousand bombs. There's tension there, a question of how he hasn't died yet (did he used to be good at his job and recently something happened to make him so reckless?) but the film doesn't acknowledge it, it doesn't seem to think "being a fucking dangerous idiot cowboy" and "successfully defusing almost a thousand bombs" are at all incompatible?

This was a really well regarded movie. It won six Oscars, including best picture, best screenplay and best director. Part of me would be inclined to chalk that up to politics, but the movie isn't even especially political from what I could tell; I'm pretty sure it could have been made both more political and a better movie. So I don't think that's a complete explanation.

I suspect all the praise came for reasons that I missed either because I was distracted by this stuff or because I'm just not into the kind of movie it was trying to be or something. But that's really not very specific.

The Jungle Book (2016) is surprisingly pro-human?

I don't think it was intended, and I might be putting too much of myself into it. But like-

Right up until the climax, tool use is shown as almost unambiguously good. Mowgli bangs rocks together to get a sharp stone to cut vines to make rope so he can climb down a cliff face and knock honeycombs with a stick, armored in clothes he makes. He collects honey on an unprecedented scale. Then he saves an elephant from a pit.

(The music to that scene is "The Bare Necessities", a song about how you should just take life easy and all your needs will be met. Everything you need is right within your reach. The implication seems to be that "using tools to extend your reach" is just the obvious, natural, path-of-least-resistance thing to do?)

And the counterpoint isn't really there, though there's plenty of opportunity. Shere Khan says man isn't allowed in the jungle, but doesn't talk about why. Akela and Bagheera tell Mowgli to act more like a wolf and less like a man, his "tricks" are not the wolf way, but don't say what the problems are with manhood. Kaa shows fire being dangerous, but then with more realism shows fire being used to fight off Shere Khan and save Mowgli's life. Mowgli refuses to give fire to King Louie but doesn't explain his refusal. The elephant could have fallen into a human trap, but instead it was apparently just a pit. And the bees?

From the bees' perspective, I imagine Mowgli is probably terrifying. He knocks down honeycomb after honeycomb and he just keeps going. He's an existential threat to their society and there's nothing they can do about it, though they throw their lives away trying to stop him. I imagine.

But the movie doesn't show that or invite us to think about it. In a world where the animals all talk to each other, the bees are silent. When they sting, it's to teach us about Baloo's trickery and Mowgli's cleverness. They might as well be thistles.

The film has so many opportunities to show or at least tell us that man is destructive, man will kill everyone in the jungle. But it mostly doesn't seem to take them.

So when Mowgli goes to steal fire - well, we know what's going to happen, but only because we already know fire. The movie hasn't given us any particular reason to be scared of it. Also, the mythical associations of stealing fire are fairly pro-fire.

And yes, the fire spreads and Mowgli throws his torch away. But then he fights using some other things humans excel at: coalition-building, getting other people to fight for you, and making a wolf think you're part of its family.

(Here I do think I'm putting in too much of myself. I think the climax is meant to be about winning by combing animal things and man things. The coalition-building is introduced with the law of the jungle, "the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack". Then Bagheera says "fight him like a man". Then Mowgli says "dead tree" calling back to what Bagheera taught him in the beginning. And in the end Mowgli stays in the jungle. I think that's what is going for, but it's not what I got from it.)

And the fire is put out without too much trouble (when the elephants decide "actually, it would be better if this river went in this direction" and do some engineering works, not done by humans but very human of them), and we haven't actually seen it kill anyone.

So the film roughly seems to be about how the things that separate man from the animals are actually really great. And that's… not what I was expecting.

Review: The Book of Mormon

From memory, Team America was funny and it had decent music. But what made it so great was that while parodying action films, it still managed to be just legitimately good as an action film.

The Book of Mormon was funny and it had decent music.

How many levels of irony is Goodbye Mr A on?

The lyrics are overtly critical of Mr A, but subtextually feel critical of the singers, who dislike him for exposing their flaws to themselves. ("You claim science ain't magic and expect me to buy it"; "you promised you would love us but you knew too much" "so busy showing me where I'm wrong, you forgot to switch your feelings on". And like, "if love is subtraction, your number is up / your love is a fraction, it's not adding up" - I could believe that was written seriously, but I hope not.) And the first part of the video clearly makes out the Hoosiers to be the villains, partly the whole "kidnapping a superhero" thing and partly idk, they just look subtly villainous. Possibly related to camera angles.

But then they go on to take his place, and as far as I can see they do it fine? We only see two of their deeds, but they rescue a cat and stop a burglary. Wikipedia says they fight crime as incompetent antiheros, but I'm not seeing the incompetence. And they become immensely popular.

If we're meant to see them as incompetent, then it reads to me like a criticism of society-at-large; a claim that the singers' narcissism is widespread. But if we're not, then…?

Also relevant: if it's critical of society, or even just the singers, then by extension it's defensive of Mr A. And if Mr A is meant to be identified with the comic book character, it becomes a defense of objectivism, which feels implausible on priors to me. (But maybe it was more likely in 1997? Wizard's First Rule only came out a few years before, I think that was objectivist? By reputation that wikipedia doesn't immediately confirm.)

I've been idly wondering this for over ten years. Today I got around to actually rewatching/relistening to it. It didn't help much.

Superhero origin stories: Matilda and Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman has the overt message that ordinary people can't do very much (though not literally nothing). You need someone with super powers to beat up the villain and then everything will be fine. The love interest keeps trying to tell the hero that things are just not that simple, and he keeps getting proved wrong. This message is undercut by the historical realities of WWI.

Matilda has the overt message that ordinary people, even young children, can save the day if they stand up to villainy. Before she gets powers, Matilda tells us that even young kids can do something to make things right, and she turns her dad's hair green and glues his hat on his head. In the climax, the kids revolt against Miss Trunchbull, saying "she can't put us all in chokey". This message is undercut by the fact that all of this is completely ineffectual. Matilda's dad doesn't become any less abusive or criminal. Trunchbull can and does put them all in chokey. What saves the day is someone using super powers to scare Miss Truchbull into running away, and then someone using the Russian mafia to scare the dad into running away.

Face/Off as a retelling of the Gospel narrative

Admittedly I haven't really read the gospels, so maybe I'm completely off base here. But consider:

God (signified by Sean Archer) takes on the form of a sinner (signified by Castor Troy), in order to redeem the sinners. He's pretty successful. Most notably, when Sasha dies, it comes from acting as a force for good, sacrificing herself to save an innocent. She tells Archer not to let her son grow up like him. And so her son (named Adam, signifying Man) grows up in the house of God.

Meanwhile, the Devil (also signified by Castor Troy) attempts to seduce God's followers (Archer's family and colleagues) off of the righteous path, but he's ultimately unsuccessful. People learn to see past outward appearances to what really matters: we know him by his works (the story of his date with Eve). Evil contains the seeds of its own downfall, and Jamie stabs him with the butterfly knife he gave her.

Assorted other thoughts:

"Sean" is derived from John, meaning "God is gracious". Arrows are of course both straight and narrow, signifying the path of God; "Archer" doesn't just follow the path of God, he directs it.

Meanwhile, "Castor" is cognate to (or at least sounds a bit like) "caster", as in a witch; and "Troy" refers to the Trojan war, signifying violence and trickery. Castor's brother is named "Pollux", a decidedly ugly name that sounds a lot like "pox", the plague. According to Wikipedia, Castor and Pollux (brothers of Helen of Troy) spent some time being venerated with Christian saints; and one of them may even have been the basis of John (Sean) the Apostle.

"Adam", as I said before, signifies Man; Archer's daughter is named "Jamie", a gender-neutral name, to ensure we know that God loves his sons and daughters and nonbinary children equally.

Archer's blood type is O-, the "purest" blood type (i.e. fewest antigens in the cells), which gives to all. Troy's is AB (unspecified, so probably AB+), the most "contaminated" type, which takes from all and never gives back. (House has used this same metaphor.)

Canonically, I think Jesus is supposed to get crucified and stabbed with the holy lance. The film has both of these elements, but gets it a bit confused; while Troy is in the classic raised-arms position, Archer shoots him with a harpoon gun.

The final confrontation, in which Good defeats Evil once and for all, is kicked off in a church; symbolically, in The Church, the hearts of God's followers. The battle startles the doves in the church, but we never see a dove die: the peace in our hearts may be disturbed, but will always return.

It's hard to miss the symbolism of Archer breaking out of a hellish prison.1 (The part of Thomas is briefly played by Jamie, when she shoots him.) The prison being named Erewhon ("nowhere" spelled almost backwards) probably intends to take a position on some Christian point of contention that I'm not familiar with.

You never see the butterfly knife being opened or closed. The cuts are kind of jarring, as if to draw attention to this fact. I think it's trying to tell us something about temptation: we may think we can stray a little, and turn back before we go too far down the wrong path. But by the time we know we're going too far, we've already gone too far. (cf)

This is perhaps the most overtly anti-makeup film I remember seeing ever.

Don't think too hard about the fact that Archer's wife, Adam's adoptive mother, is named Eve.

Hot take: the Saw franchise as exploration of meritocracy

Members of the underclass are given tests. If they pass, they get a new life. Thus, the meritorious are elevated to the elite. Meritocracy!

(Once you've survived a Saw trap, food tastes nicer, your addiction vanishes, you quit the job you hate and get the one you've always dreamed of, puppies and rainbows and so on. I'm not sure how much this is actually shown in the series, but it's what Jigsaw is going for, and the series is much more interesting if it works.)

This would be pretty dumb, but not obviously dumber than some of the other stuff out there.2

Review: A Yellow Rose

(Someone on reddit was wondering whether books are worth it. Someone recommended Borges to them, and in particular this story. The version I initially read was a slightly different translation to the one linked. I didn't like the story, but it has the virtue of being considerably shorter than this review.)

I gotta admit, this does not sell Borges to me.

Fair warning, this is gonna come across as fairly dismissive/derisive/antagonistic. I could try to describe my reaction without coming across like that, but it would be hard to do, and especially hard to do honestly.

To me it feels like a short piece of philosophy ("it lay within… the world's contents"), wrapped in some prose.

I don't feel like the prose adds anything to the philosophy. Like for example I don't see it as an illustration of the thing the philosophy is meant to teach us. (If anything, the philosophy is trying to teach us that the prose can't illustrate it.) So if that's all it is, then I'd rather the philosophy be presented by itself, so that I could read it more easily, and comment on it without feeling like someone's going to tell me I'm missing the point.

Commenting on the prose by itself… stylistically, it uses too many words in too few sentences, and feels like a chore to read.

One thing that strikes me is that for Borges to write this story, he must have had the same epiphany as Marino and (maybe) Homer and Dante. Since those are the only people mentioned in relation to the epiphany, it seems that Borges is comparing himself to the three of them. Is that deliberate?

Another thing that strikes me is that if "the motionless and silent act that took place that afternoon" is meant to be "Marino having an epiphany", then we're told that: it happened "on the eve of his death"; that it was "the last thing that happened in his life"; but also that "it was neither that afternoon nor the next that Giambattista Marino died". This seems inconsistent, and given the focus on it, I assume it was intentional. But I have no idea why.

I don't know what the poetry means, or whether the meaning is important.3

I could well be missing something here, and whether I am or not I suspect it's partly just a question of taste.

Captain Fantastic is such a good movie

It's an exploration of culture. Ben and Leslie created their own culture and raised their kids in it. The kids have almost no exposure to American culture. Culture Fantastic isn't perfect, and Ben isn't a flawless exemplar of it. There are some things it does better than American culture, and other things it does worse. But it's fine.

But when Culture Fantastic meets American culture, they clash. American kids seem weak, uneducated, not formidable. Fantastic kids seem - weird, socially unskilled, vaguely autistic.

And this should be fine, but none of the adults really respect the other culture. Ben's not especially rude, he knows he's on foreign ground and tries to be respectful to people's faces except when it matters, he just sometimes fails because he's human and hurting. It probably helps that he was probably raised in American culture, too. But he clearly does not approve of the culture. Meanwhile, Leslie's parents give her a Christian funeral, despite her own wishes. Two couples threaten to have the Fantastic kids taken away, because in their eyes, not being raised in American culture means they'll never survive in the real world - by which they mean American culture.

(And no one particularly respects the kids' wishes. That's not a part of either culture. They mostly like Culture Fantastic and want to stay in it, but if they didn't… I think Ben would come around and let them leave, but not easily.)

And it's particularly resonant for me because damn it, I like Culture Fantastic. He's raising those kids to be much like I want to be, even if it causes friction with the world around me.

Sometimes I read things that feel like the author thinks my culture is bad and should be destroyed. My culture is not bad. You do not get to take it away from me.

Captain Fantastic comes down firmly on the side of "not bad", and vaguely-noncomitally on the side of "do not take away".

Hacksaw Ridge is three different films

Act 1: Stick to your principles.
Act 2: War is hell.
Act 3: The War Prayer, but unironically.

Once Upon a Time has terrible ethics

(Spoilers only up to season 2.)

Snow is way too forgiving of Regina. Fine, characters are allowed to be silly in boring ways. Snow finally makes the right decision and kills Cora, go her! I don't even mind that she feels guilty about it, though I'd much prefer if that was combined with "but I know it was the right thing to do anyway".

But the world of the show is like, nope! That was objectively wrong of you! Your heart is black now! Fuck you for wanting to protect your family, fuck consequentialism.

And because of her black heart, supposedly she's now inevitably going to go bad and tear apart her family. (That came from Regina, who may have been making it up, but… I'd give at least 3:1 that it pays off.4)

Other people are allowed to kill, either without their hearts getting black spots or at least without becoming the sort of people that destroy the people they love. But Snow gets held to a higher standard than everyone else, apparently because she's So Good?

So like, if you're the type of person who kills people, you're allowed to kill people. If you're not the type of person who kills people, but you decide that killing someone is the right thing to do anyway, you're not allowed, and if you do it you become Objectively Bad, unlike people for whom killing is just a thing they do.

And! I don't remember if we've ever definitely seen Snow kill someone yet (at the very least she shot someone with an arrow, it's possible he survived), but she led an army to overthrow two kingdoms! At least one of those kingdoms was her suggestion! People die in war! Even if she hasn't directly killed anyone, she has been responsible for lots of deaths! But those don't count because ???

(And it's not because it was indirect, because Cora was indirect too.)

(It could be because she did it with the candle, but that's not how the narrative is pushing.)

It's like only named characters matter. Not just in the sense that the narrative focuses on them, not just in the sense that the named characters only care about other named characters, those both feel like common mistakes that fiction makes. But as a fundamental moral truth of the universe of the show, which feels less common and more annoying.

There's a related thing where… we met Regina and she's evil, and then we see her backstory and she becomes sympathetic even when she's still evil. (And the same with Rumple, and to some extent with Cora.)

But when she's the Evil Queen she tells her people to kill an entire village and they just do it. Regina has sympathetic motives, but her enforcers are anonymous. We don't see whether they're doing it out of fear, sadism, loyalty, a twisted sense of the greater good, whatever. We've been given a glimpse into the lives of the subjects who hate her, but not the ones who serve her.

(Stanley Glass is an admitted exception, and there was her father, and a brief conversation with a henchman of "I hired you even though you were drunk" or something, but there's really not much.)

Her followers don't get backstories or redemption narratives or people refusing to kill them because There Must Be Another Way. They just get killed, and the narrative doesn't care.

(Compete aside, Regina blames Snow for turning her evil, while Snow credits Regina for turning her good. Neat twist on "I made you? You made me first.")

  1. Confession: I totally missed that when I first wrote this. 

  2. I haven't actually seen 3%. From memory, this was inspired by a reddit discussion where someone said good things about the show as an exploration of meritocracy. Based on wikipedia, I disagree. 

  3. In the version I initially read, the poetry was (I assume) untranslated from the original Spanish. But even translated, I still don't know what it means. 

  4. I stopped watching part-way through season 3, so I don't know if it did. 

Posted on 12 June 2020

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