Person of Interest [Seasons 1 to 3]

Over the past year or so I’ve been slowly working my way through Person of Interest [2011]. I can’t remember who first recommended it to me, but it may have been Eggwhite. As I approach the end of what’s been made, I increasingly think that the ideas being presented in the show and the subtext in its world construction may be the most relevant television currently on air. Packaged as simple escapist fun is an excoriating critique of our modern surveillance culture, and the morally questionable people we know to be in charge of such systems. Person of Interest is doing what good cultural production should do, in holding a mirror to the world and invitingly, enticingly, insightfully, revealing and considering key issues and concerns. I don’t want to go so far, as I might for The Wire, to say that it’s Important Television ™, but it is far far more interesting than average, and far more relevant than it appears at first glance.

At first I was downright sceptical, because the first few episodes really presented themselves as another beige procedural with a bit of a gimmick, something of an updated A-Team [1983], Quantum Leap [1989], a less spiritual Touched by an Angel [1994], or a less esoteric version of The Pretender [1996]. To an extent, it has followed the same pattern as those shows, developing from a purely episodic endeavour into something with a background plot, a meta-plot that informs the structure of the individual episodes. I really wouldn’t have anticipated that story formula having expressed itself more than once, let alone five different versions, and there is very likely something between 1996 and 2011 that matches the pattern that I just missed in my non-TV-watching years. There is obviously something appealing about the idea of a guardian angel turning up and intervening in the problems of some beleaguered innocent, and the variations in the formula should tell us a fair amount about the different cultural anxieties that have existed in the different time of each show. Unavoidably, there are spoilers from here for all those shows, but especially Quantum Leap.

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Read Means Run [2012]

I held a little party recently and in attendance was a Raymond Chandler fan other than me – an automatic win, I’d say. We got talking about The Simple Art of Murder, and W.H. Auden’s Guilty Vicarage, with a little detour through GK Chesterton’s A Defence of Detective Stories. It’d been a little while since I’d read any of them, but SOAM is pretty well engraved in my memory and the gist of the other two is pretty straightforward when you get beyond the prose stylings. It’s Chesterton in particular who was in my mind while reading Red Means Run:

The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.

It’s been persuasively argued subsequently that in fact detective novels offer a much better perspective on the lives of ordinary people than any other literary form because of their obsession with the mundane details by which murders are committed and obfuscated and subsequently uncovered. Chesterton had in mind something a little grander and more spectacular, focusing as he did on the glittering city of London. Yet, Red Means Run responds exactly to this critical idea, it is a kind of paean, or perhaps elegy, to a vanishing semi-rural way of life in upstate New York. At least in the eyes of a complete outsider like myself, it fully romanticises the kind of life where people buy horses, bail hay, and so on. In doing so, it also connects closely with Chesterton’s idea that “in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elf land”, in other words, the journeying of the detective mirrors the questing of a knight. Reading the passages of Red Means Run where the protagonist traverses the landscape literally brought to mind the travelling Hobbits in Fellowship of the Ring.

We must however turn back to Chandler when thinking about Virgil Cain, the story’s protagonist. Cain is a direct descendant of the hard-boiled pulp heroes of old: competent, stoic, ruggedly individual, imperturbable, and with a rough exterior that masks basically good intentions. I’m no Joseph Campbell fan, but archetypal characters like Cain really do seem to be cut from the same mould. Cain is so embedded within this platonic ideal of masculinity that he becomes a cipher rather than a character, so that we really see the other characters in the story through the prism of his values and actions. In the light of his old fashioned nature, all of the other male characters are found to be inferior and inconsequential. Unusually then, this means that all of the women in the novel appear more fully realised and more dynamic than any of the men. With one slight exception, they are all attractive as characters and have both strengths and weaknesses. Smith’s hyper-masculine hero has suppressed explorations of masculinity and left space for explorations, albeit circumscribed by genre requirements, of femininity. Chandler was never able to do this with his own writing, but it’s an interesting and logical end-point for the kind of character he advocated.

As a mystery, Red Means Run is fairly rudimentary. The point of this novel is to showcase the main character’s virility rather than to create an intricate web of clues and misdirections. Taken altogether, this is something of a compromised genre piece. It’s not got the toughness to compete with a Lee Child outing, it’s not got the sophistication to compete with anything from the Golden Age, it’s not literary enough to read it without regard to its genre elements, and its not quite enamoured enough of its horsey theme to draw in the James Herriot or Dick Francis crowds. I read it quickly and easily, but that just means it wasn’t bad – and that’s probably the fairest summary.

 

Auden, W.H. “The Guilty Vicarage | Harper’s Magazine.” Accessed March 21, 2013. http://harpers.org/archive/1948/05/the-guilty-vicarage/3/.
Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” In The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
Chesterton, G. K. “A Defence Of Detective Stories.” In The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft. New York: Biblio and Tannen, 1976.
Smith, B. J. Red Means Run: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2012.
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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them [2016]

The trick to getting value from reviews is to find a reviewer whose tastes match your own and then look for the thumbs-up/down signal in their review. Star ratings are awesome for this, except for that 3-star recommendation where the reviewer is basically shrugging. So in the interests of unambiguity and simplicity, so there’s no confusion about my views, this is a 3-star film. As always, spoilers from here – in fact, I’m assuming you’ve already seen it at the point where you click “more”.

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Hell or High Water [2016]

In some senses, the purer the genre format, the cleaner the basic construction of an artistic work, the more revealing it really is of the culture that it’s exploring. This is a very pure genre outing indeed, about a bank robbing spree in West Texas. You could perhaps draw a direct line to this film from Bonnie and Clyde [1967] to this film to chart how robbers are perceived and how their fates play out. Bonnie and Clyde is essentially counter-cultural, celebrating or critiquing characters who have a restless and motiveless malevolence about them. Their death in a hail of gunfire is a nihilistic commitment to fighting The Man right up until the end. In a sense they are killed by their naivety, their inability to understand the full extent of the law’s powers arrayed against them. Bonnie and Clyde may not be exactly a primal scream, but it’s powered by an impotent rage that can find no useful avenue or constructive solution to the problems that it sees in society. Yet, in some senses, those problems are imaginary, merely projections of problems that existed in the 1930s when the film is set, and by concluding as it does – as Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid does – the basic correctness of society is ultimately asserted.  Continue reading

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Doctor Strange [2016]

When people talk about a “popcorn” film, Doctor Strange is the kind of thing they have in mind. It’s a really delicious surface confection with basically no substance and lots and lots of unintended problematic aspects. In my mind, the biggest in is that in effect, it’s a re-skinning of the basic heroic origin story you’ve seen a million times, and for all that the fractal effects are beautiful, they don’t really offer a view of reality deeper than your classic Marvel world. This is the ultimate end result of the Marvel Machine, and the most tragic thing about it is that lots of other genre operators can’t even manage something this well put together. This feels like a giant wasted opportunity to me.

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#ShouldnabeenBernie

My favourite living philosopher is Slavoj Zizek, who I first encountered at NZIFF a few years ago in the film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Since then I’ve read a half-dozen of his books, all of which are challenging and controversial in their own way. My favourite is probably In Defence of Lost Causes, which is a fascinating retro-defence of Totalitarianism. It’s thought-provoking stuff, if a little densely written, but you don’t need to agree with something to find it fascinating. Zizek, like me, like you, like everyone except the 46M eligible voters who didn’t vote, expressed an opinion about the US election:

He probably has a theory on why Hilary Clinton didn’t win too, but I haven’t seen it or read it yet. His latest book, Disparities was only released a few months ago so it may be a while before I can read his substantive argument on the cluster-fuck that was, still is, 2016. But plenty of other opinions are available, and I think they’re coalescing around an argument that had a lot of currency during the Primary Season – that Clinton was unelectable due to unpopularity. Some versions of this view point to her neoliberal economics, some to her secrecy, some to misogyny, some to her personal wealth – and the kicker “entitlement”, or Zizek’s version, that she’s an avatar of the current broken system. There’s a hashtag summing up the whole thing: #ShouldabeenBernie. But let’s not go crazy with this – Bernie is your basic New Deal Democrat whose political position would have been completely orthodox for a Democrat 50 years ago. He’s primarily an earlier incarnation of the same damned scenario we have now.

The trick with trying to elect someone like Trump is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater – though as Zizek says in Defence of Lost Causes, let’s not lose sight of how the bathwater got dirty in the first place! I personally don’t think any of these arguments against Clinton as a candidate really bear substantial scrutiny. To me they all seem a bit like an intellectual game being played after the fact, and I think that while each individual point can be supported and substantiated and is not on the face of it without merit, any kind of attack on Clinton as a candidate is myopic. For one thing, it’s essentially the statement being made by virtually every left-wing party in the English speaking world for about the last 8 years. The UK couldn’t love Gordon Brown, and then picked the wrong Miliband, and we’re now rehearsing Jeremy Corbyn’s inevitable defeat by pre-failing him. In NZ we had Phil Goff deemed inadequate, then David Cunliffe, and I think we’re similarly priming ourselves for Andrew Little to be less of a populist than John Key. What I’m saying is that they all should have been Justin Trudeau.

It’s not helped by the tendency we’ve been seeing since Clinton & Blair were in charge for the Left to spend as much political capital fighting within itself as fighting the opposition. The UK Labour Party is the poster-child for this, with two unsuccessful attempts to oust their current leader, because he’s “unelectable” in the minds of the MPs. The recalcitrance of the rank and file MP becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you don’t tend to see that kind of disobedience on the Right. Look at the way the Tea Party policies became mainstream as soon as their candidates started winning elections. Lots of commentators have jumped on late-comers to the party as political opportunists, but another way of thinking about this is elected officials responding to the obvious sentiments of their constituents and castigating any kind of responsiveness from elected officials seems counter-productive at best. Don’t like Tea Party policies – do take that up with the Tea Party voters. Once they believe something else, they’ll vote for something else. Ignoring them would seem to lead to the Trumps of the world.

The less braindead commentators I’m reading have a few better ideas, but for me the biggest and most important one is that the Left has stopped articulating a positive statement for the future – we’ve become the mirror image of the Right. Nothing exemplifies this more than the Labour campaign in NZ two years ago, which was “we won’t enact National’s major policy”. That was the message on all billboards, ads, interviews. They demonised the economic plank of the ruling party, but didn’t offer an alternative – the billboards should have said just the opposite, that they were going to build or buy new state assets to ensure the continuing provision of core services and to force true price competition in some areas where the private sector in NZ is still frankly taking the mickey with their unofficially collaborative pricing. We all knew tonnes about Trump’s crazy wall – unbuildable, unaffordable, impractical for its stated purpose – but what policy of Bernie Sanders’ can you name?

I think there is an even more fundamental driver in play than that – the balance between individuals and society. The US in particular has long been predicated on a hyper-individualist ideology and that’s been the traditional area of strength for republicans. What I think we’re seeing now is a large-scale reversal of that ideological position, where certain blocks of voters are consciously constructing new identities for themselves. If you’re a rust belt worker, you don’t want to belong to a Union per se, you want the whole society you’re operating in to be looking out for the interests of your whole class. Some sectors are still protected in that way – think about the massive subsidies for corn farmers. You don’t need to belong to a corn farmer’s union as such because your class of people are powerful – and the rust belt has just similarly staked out the perimeter of such an identity. Democratic party policies targeting the working poor and the middle class are still fundamentally geared around the idea of those people as individuals, whereas “make America Great Again” acknowledges them in aggregate. If you wonder why Wall Street is so hated, isn’t this a plausible reason – the banks were explicitly treated collectively. “Too Big To Fail” is a statement about a category and the members of that category are protected via their membership.

I don’t think there are easy answers, but we need to ask bigger questions than we’re doing right now. Arguing that the US Democratic Party should have put up Bernie Sanders instead of Hilary Clinton in order to win the election ignores large-scale driving forces motivating millions and millions of voters. The Left everywhere in the English-speaking world has become trapped in the primacy of the individual even at the moment when I think the Right is recognising the importance of treating the masses as exactly that. We have prioritised individual freedom of identity, movement, belief, etc, ahead of the needs of society as a whole without acknowledging that and without understanding what it means. We need to return to a critical evaluation of society-as-such, perhaps by re-engaging with the fundamental prescriptions of Marx viz-a-viz “workers of the world unite“. I don’t propose for a minute that we abandon our cultural progress, or revert to state-controlled central production – these are equally disastrous to anything capitalism produces, albeit in different ways. But we need to understand how the primacy of the individual propagates through the structures of society as a whole.

Think of it this way – we always decry the ancient greek “democracy” as being not truly inclusive, inasmuch as only propertied white men had the vote (see those natural-feeling scare quotes?). That betrays our emphasis on individuals. If we replace the individual as the primary unit of society with the oikos, the family unit, then the property-owning male loses his status as purely privileged and becomes the representative of 5-20 other people, the world’s smallest constituency. In our modern parliamentary democracies, a few hundred people directly participate in the mechanisms of day-to-day power in the way the direct democrats of Athens did and represent thousands or tends of thousands and in the US congressional districts Congressmen are changed about as often as the heads of households in Athens – tell me which is really the most representative democracy?

Clinton, Sanders – I doubt it made a difference. Would I have followed Zizek’s prescription for revolutionary change prompted by electing Trump? Hell no – I’m not that brave. But since it went down the way it did, we need to stop scapegoating whichever specific piñata we put up against the rolling trend of economic history and look properly at what we think society should be and how we get there. Only once we understand what we want, and what its real costs are, can we formulate a compelling articulation of that vision to start winning again. So ditch your hashtag, ditch your obsession with individual leaders altogether. Not #ShouldabeenBernie: #ShouldnabeenBernie, #Shouldabeenadifferentparadigm. Not pithy, I know – but at least I think it’s the right idea.

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The Life, Death and Afterlife of Buildings

There is a conscious effort being made in Wellington, and I’m sure other Colonial Cities ™, to build a sense of historical continuity by designating certain areas and certain buildings as “heritage”. I think civil authorities like the Wellington City Council look at cities of the old world, positively littered with amazing buildings, and aspire to the same sense of the modern world as just the latest caretakers of unbroken occupation going back to the mists of time. I have usually encountered this in a professional context, where various planning officers with an eye to preserving a particular aesthetic have categorically blocked visually obtrusive strengthening measures that at the time seemed imperative. In heated moments I’ve presented this as a stark choice between some visible steelwork and a pile of rubble. In a sense we’re both fighting to save the building – but the more I travel the less sympathy I have for those “historic” buildings; they should simply be torn down and something new constructed that’s better suited to the site, the evolving community, and the real hazards posed by seismicity. There are certainly buildings worth preserving in Wellington, that truly have an iconic status, such as the Odlins Building strengthened a few years ago by Dunning Thornton, or the old Wellington Children’s Dental Clinic, or the Embassy and Roxy Theatres, or my favourite the old Government buildings that have become Victoria University’s Law School buildings in Pipitea.

In my mind, what makes all of these buildings worth saving is that they’ve retained a utility, even if that utilisation is quite different from how they began their lives. The Oldins Hardware Company building is now tres chic apartments, as is the Wellington Children’s Dental Clinic, while the Embassy and Roxy have simply evolved from theatres into cinemas, and the Pipitea Campus is essentially just a different kind of office environment. These buildings have survived and will continue to survive on the basis of being useful, but in global terms they are still basically new. The old Government Buildings are also a marvellous architectural statement, a genuinely attractive building, and as a consequence are beginning the arc that a month of touring around Europe is becoming quite familiar to me – they are beginning to become Attractions ™. You can do guided tours around what is still a functional building, where they explain the history, the restoration concept, the necessary seismic upgrades – you can go and touch a base isolator. It’s not that hard to imagine the same kind of thing happening to the Embassy in another few years, given its age, location, and recent significance in what is becoming a major NZ industry: film.

As I’ve been travelling around Europe the largest class of buildings undergoing this metamorphosis from a real building into a mere tourist attraction is churches. I went to visit the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos on a Sunday morning, arriving about half an hour before the end of the Mass. The church was perhaps a quarter full, with a small flock of gawping tourists like myself hovering behind the pews trying to be respectful. As Mass ended, it was like floodgates had opened and the place was almost filled with the white noise of hard shoes on stone floors, the artificial clicks of digital cameras, and the muted roar of conversations on every conceivable topic even including some discussion of the building itself I’m sure. In any practical sense, we the unwashed masses, are the true users of the building, occupying it the vast bulk of the time, enjoying it on an aesthetic level rather than the spiritual level for which it was intended. The actual monastery has long since been abandoned by any higher authority, weirdly and ironically becoming almost a shrine to a secular hero of the Portuguese people Alexandre Herculano. Walking the cloisters I got the morbid sense that I was visiting a corpse of a building whose only meaning now is that it once had meaning. Continue reading

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