Monday, January 21, 2008

We All Strike On

A couple of years ago, I probably would have make a comment on how surprisingly good television is lately. We were looking at a universe where, every night, there was a virtual certainty of running into CSI, a CSI spinoff, or a CSI clone. And how do you say no to that? (I suppose pretty easily, if you're not into CSI.) The pre-strike universe lent itself well to my tastes in television: quasi-intellectual suspenses that put the focus squarely on the action, or the mystery, or the intrigue rather than petty inter-character relationships. That doesn't mean they're stagnant two-dimensional characters, and that doesn't mean there's no development. It just means that the writers are clever enough to put those personalities to use in the midst of something worth following.

That "something worth following", just a few years beforehand, was drivel: the reality television boom of the early 2000's. Remember that? Those paleolithic days of dating shows, or dating shows in the city, or dating shows on the beach, or dating shows in Europe? (The similarities of those permutations to those of my supposed television halcyon are of course irrelevant.) That's not even to mention a veritable waste land of sometimes goofy, sometimes sappy "dromedies" of which Friends is the most recognizable and watchable example. That's saying something. (Recently, I decided to give it a chance and watch some of the show, around half of the first season. It wasn't all that bad, but there is much better out there.)

Now maybe that's not everybody's cup of tea. Perhaps you are into complex, character-y dramas. Maybe they're set on the stages of television sketch comedy production. Maybe they're about attractive suburbanite moms. Maybe it's some crap about people screwing each other in a hospital. Maybe it's a bunch of people stranded from a plane crash on some weird deserted (or not-so-deserted) island. (...okay, so Lost actually is really good.) Point is, if you're into that sort of thing, it was out there, at least until a few months ago. Honestly, I think there was something out there for anyone, at least anyone who was looking. Nearly every would-be critic agreed that things were better than they were at the beginning of the decade, whatever they preferred. Even reality TV holdouts couldn't complain, as electronic Darwinism had taken its toll on the worst and kept the last bad (eg, The Amazing Race).

I turn to three examples to exhibit how dreadfully dependent Hollywood has been on the writers. I first feel like I need to admit that I have watched all of these shows, and I'm not too proud to watch them again, at some point. Deal or No Deal was around even when Jay Leno was allowed by contract to make notes on cards (he's not, as of January 2008), and it's the least objectionable of what currently passes for watchable television. In case you haven't heard of this one, it centers around someone picking a number at random, computing probability so simple a high school statistics student could figure it out, and essentially seeing how greedy (or merely bad at mathematics) the contestant is. Despite Howie Mandel and twenty-something provocatively-clad models clutching numbers, the show realizes it faces a big problem here. There is no variation. On nearly every other show that gives out free money, there's some device to vary the scheme. Perhaps it's trivia questions, or contestant interaction, or a contrived physical competition.

Deal or No Deal, though, is faced with the same expected-value problem every time the show airs. And until people decide to start writing again, it's minor tweaks in concept, or additions of extra cash, or reliance on the short attention span of the general populace, to keep the same old thing afloat.

For sheer absurdity value, it's tough to beat American Gladiators. That one's become a weekly favorite in the dorm, not because it's actually a good show, but to make fun of how absolutely ridiculous it is. Six-foot, five-inch dudes who call themselves "Wolf" and toss hundred-pound swinging weights at muscled guys in Spandex? Swimming under real live flames? Hundred mile an hour Nerf cannons? How can you possibly go wrong? The real puzzle is trying to figure out who greenlit bringing this show back, fifteen years later. Truly, our desperation from having no writing can't get any lower than this, right?

Or so you might think, unless you're lucky enough to catch a glimpse of MTV's The X Effect. Premise: take a couple that used to be together, but is now broken up. Both the guy and girl have long since moved on and found themselves new significant others. Now, take the two exes, put them in the same hotel room for a weekend, and surprise! Turns out they still have feelings for each other! Why not let their current partners watch and get jealous? Seriously, MTV? Breaking up otherwise happy couples by throwing in some potent "ex" catalyst?

A girl I know wrote an article in Georgia Tech's local fishwrapper The Technique about the writer's strike opening up all sorts of lovely political discussion, prompting people to watch C-Span and discuss issues. Maybe so. I've personally heard more discussion of how that one dude totally knocked Titan off the platform in Joust yesterday.

I live in fear of seeing what's going to happen to American mainstream culture once the writer's strike hits movie theaters.

Currently listening: "Empty", Metric

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Stoning Adulterers and Killing Magicians

Review and Discussion: The Year of Living Biblically

So I've gotten to do this strange thing lately, which I haven't had the time for in several months, and that's "read a book". Among what I got for Christmas was The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (author of another book about reading the entire encyclopedia, cover-to-cover, which I'll certainly be picking up as soon as I can). In a double attempt to 1) pay homage to his crazy Uncle Gil, who in his second spurt of ultra-Orthodox Judaism has decided to tie tassels to all his clothing, and 2) give an agnostic New York moderate-liberal "ha! gotcha!" to fundamentalist Jew or Christian who would claim to follow every mandate of their holy text to the letter.

Two main themes arise in Jacobs' book: first, that it's actually impossible to follow every word literally, and second, that even for a non-believer, the Bible contains moral teachings that can be worthwhile to follow.

For anyone in modern times trying to interpret every word of every sentence as true and literal, several conflicts show up. These might be conflicts between different parts of the Bible itself, or situational circumstances that essentially mandate a conflict. (How many times has "keeping holy the Sabbath" conflicted with, say, "honor thy father and mother"?)

Then there are the clearly old-fashioned laws, like the ones about sacrificing, who it's okay to stone, and what you're allowed to do to and with your slave under various circumstances. Most of these rules don't have any place anymore... but where's the religious justification of that? If the Bible is the literal word of God, why should the workings of man abolish your duty to abide by those laws?

Literalist Jews and literalist Christians have different answers to that. Jews say that most of the laws they no longer follow (for instance, those nasty bits about animal sacrifice) are because they were only designed to be observed at the Temple in Jerusalem. With that temple no longer around, the Jews aren't bound by those rules anymore. As for Christians, with Jesus' death and resurrection came discarding the so-called "ritual laws" (which encompass sacrifice, not eating shellfish, not wearing mixed linen/cotten clothing, etc.). The tricky thing is, Christians are still supposed to abide by the "moral laws" (such as respecting your elders, etc.). What counts as "moral" versus "ritual" law? Well, there's yet more interpretation, because it's not like Jesus ever made a list.

But whether moral or ritual, whether abolished by the temple's destruction or not, Jacobs follows them all. At least, all of the ones that aren't downright illegal by modern standards. And through them, he actually starts to live Biblically, as opposed to merely according to the rules of the Bible. He's not sure whether to attribute this to cognitive dissonance theory, which in part says that if you act as if something is true, you begin to believe it's true. Maybe it's that, and maybe it's a genuine effect, through studying the teachings of God, to become closer to God.

In the end, Jacobs isn't quite sure what he learned, and I think that's sort of the point of the book. The lengths that Jacobs goes to understand the exact message behind everything described in the Bible are astounding, and if you're a religious person anyway, you probably believe that this isn't the sort of thing that can merely be reduced to a set of words. He settles on the Jeffersonian belief that the Bible contains a worthwhile set of moral guidelines, but can't pull himself toward belief in a personal, interactive God.

Most Jews and Christians would retort that this is the very crux of living Biblically.

Despite this apparent fatal flaw, Jacobs' book is fascinating, and highly recommended. His discussion of almost all of the prominent Biblical issues is balanced and thorough. Furthermore, he tries very hard to understand cultural, historical, and societal contexts of all the Biblical laws, and explain to the reader exactly why that rule existed. The thing Jacobs does best is avoid bias, acknowledging the possibility of truth and "rightness" in every possibility he encounters.

Interestingly, that lack of bias that Jacobs is able to pull off so effortlessly shows that it really does take an agnostic to write a book this Biblical. A fundamentalist evangelical would take a different perspective as a Hasid, and both points of view would be vastly different from a mainline Protestant, or Catholic, or Reform Jew. Jacobs is able to take his lack of perspective--something that any of those religious groups would criticize--and turn it into something utterly spiritual anyway.

Currently listening: Drastic Fantastic, KT Tunstall

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Holiday Spirit, part II: Cinema

To wrap up the holiday season, it seems appropriate to discuss the movies. After all, that's where Isoceleria got its start, and that's when you have a much better chance than the rest of the year to see me in a movie theater.

Before I forget, when in the hell did cheesy little Carmike 12 in Snellville start thinking it was a good choice to charge $10 to see a movie? That's as much as or more than much nicer theaters, like the ones at Atlantic Station ($10, but $9 for a student) or Stonecrest Mall ($9.50).

Holiday-season movies tend to fall into one of three camps: 1) Holiday movies, 2) Oscar-y movies, and 3) Movies that really wish they could be Oscar-y. Holiday movies I'm generally sort of skeptical of, as there's no way they can really compete with what's become the holy trinity of Christmas movies: Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, and of course It's a Wonderful Life. Those movies are wonderful enough to merit their own discussion, which I sort of missed the boat on this year. (December 2008, here I come.)

Oscar-y movies, on the other hand, are ones specifically designed to rake in awards. For whatever reason, there's a perception that these movies are only allowed to be released in the month of December. Think of the movies that advertise themselves with phrases like "Nominated for n Golden Globes!" and the higher n is, the higher propensity it has for association with this category. These movies aren't necessarily bad, but they seems to have a sort of "popular opinion be damned, we're going to pander to what the critics have expressed they're looking for this awards season."

And the "movies that really wish they could be Oscar-y" category turns out to be the one that I often find myself exposed to come late December. I've said it before, that I'm not so much a movie person as a movie-neutral person with movie-person friends. And when I'm hanging out with those people, as I have time to do every late December, it usually turns out that that means going to see one of these movies.

Review: I Am Legend

I respect Will Smith a lot as an actor. Maybe not so much as a rapper--I think the world wouldn't necessarily be worse off for having missed out on getting jiggy with anything. But the man can act. Recently, The Pursuit of Happyness was entertaining if not brilliant, and a welcomed sink of two hours out of an eight hour trans-Atlantic flight. Interestingly, he's really created a name for himself as a science fiction actor: Men in Black, I, Robot, and now I Am Legend.

The general consensus concerning this movie is "it was really good until the zombies showed up." Sure, I'll go along with that. But making that observation would be like saying that Star Wars was really good until the Jedi showed up. First, it doesn't take long at all for them to enter the movie, and secondly (and more seriously), they're such an integral part of the story that getting rid of them is essentially stripping the setting of its originality. Jedi define Star Wars the same way that zombies define I Am Legend. And that's sort of unfortunate.

On the surface, this movie is science fiction. Problem is, there's hardly any science mixed in with the fiction. The prologue to the movie explained the proximate cause of humanity's downfall with a tantalizing bit of genetics and immunology. As someone with more than a passing interest (three quarters of the way to a degree, in fact) in the life sciences, to me, this was one of the most intriguing parts of the movie. I was really hoping for the plausible-sounding science to be a continuing motif throughout the movie, and instead we get a single minute of Will Smith synopsis about two thirds of the way in. I understand that the thread of science is one of the least important parts of "science fiction" to a lot of people out there, but is it too much to ask to pay lipservice to it for more than a sliver of the film?

Devoid of its scientific content, I Am Legend is, at its core, still a zombie movie. Will Smith hides from the zombies. Then he kicks some zombie ass. Then things start to go downhill. Then he discovers a magical cure for zombie-ism! Then zombies invade, and he dies. Something we've seen how many dozen times already? I Am Legend had a golden opportunity to distinguish itself that it never really took. Bottom line: if you're really into zombie action movies, this isn't an awful movie. I just can't promise that you'll get anything out of it.

Caveat to everything I just said: this applies strictly to the movie. I haven't read the book. I gather that, like virtually every book-come-movie, the book is measurably better. I can't verify that's true. I think it probably makes sense that it is. One supposedly significant change is that in the book, the evil monster creatures are closer to vampires than zombies. To me, that's no big deal. But hey, maybe there might even be science in the book, and that probably isn't a big deal to some people either.

Review: Alien Versus Predator: Requiem

Or: "Because the first one was so good that they really needed a sequel, right?"

Recently, my friend Nick asked me if I'd seen the first AvP movie. Yes, I have. He told me he'd watched it on TV, and that there was probably some content editing going on to make the film less comprehensible than it should have been. I assured him that it was almost certainly exactly as comprehensible as it would have been, should he have seen it in the theater.

The answer to "did we really need a sequel?" is absolutely no, we did not. This is one of those movies that just begs for the Mystery Science Theater treatment. Character development is nil. Scientific intrigue, where it at least showed potential in I Am Legend is more of the same ridiculousness. Even the title doesn't make any sense: who is it who's getting laid to rest, anyway?

Not that you were necessarily expecting character development, or science, or... sense from this movie. You were probably expecting lots of stuff blowing up, and heads getting blown off, and a movie that you don't at all have to take seriously. And that's exactly what you're going to get.

Currently listening: "Here It Goes Again," OK Go (via our friends at Rock Band)