Finding Nemo

Dirs: Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
Yes, well, now I see it.
Although I don’t have any kids tugging at my arm, I do have my wife, who, though not too interested in Disney, feels the need to keep up with movies discussed around the water cooler at her job. And the office women seem to like “Finding Nemo”. Plus her sister keeps going on about it (she kept saying “You made me ink!” over and over on holiday, and ruined that joke for me). So here we are.
I will go and see Pixar films; they are a separate entity from Disney (especially now), and I did really like “A Bug’s Life” for it wealth of background jokes and well done supporting characters (the pillbugs especially). I saw “Monsters Inc.” last year and that was okay.
“Finding Nemo” had some good moments, but I feel this is the most “Disney” of the lot–too much saccharine, too many ‘life lessons’, too much “I love you dad!” moments. Characters come, do their shtick, then go, such as the surfer turtles, the vegetarian sharks, and the rest, all feeling quite programmed after a while. Undoubtedly, many children’s books also go with this structure when there’s a journey narrative–just think of Wizard of Oz–but it becomes very obvious here.
Just as there’s too many supporting characters (Nemo’s fishtank friends are reduced to one or two gags each), the film is almost too beautiful. The realism and the minute craftsmanship that goes into every single backdrop means even the scary parts are comforting. The light upon the water, the transparency of the ocean, the fluorescence of the coral reefs, the textures of sand and rock–it’s all very amazing.
But having watched this in the same week as “Laputa,” I can remember much more of that film’s characters than here. I also became very aware that the two main characters are Ellen Degeneres and Albert Brooks. I couldn’t separate them from their animated characters. I could just see Albert and Ellen in the studio, improv’ing it up. On the other hand, I had no idea that was Willem Dafoe as the battle-scarred tropical fish, Gill.
In the end it was the small things I liked: the arguing Boston lobsters near the steam vent, the gulls (a design nod to Aardman?) who just say “mine. mine.” when food is about, and the French shrimp (“I shall resist!” he says when told not to clean the tank, a line that no doubt goes over all the kids’ heads and most of the adults’).
Yes, it’s funny, but the humor comes from the concessions it makes for the adult audience. Kids get thrown pretty colors and an ADD-inspired adventure tale; sappy adults get thrown a father-son tale about “letting go as a parent,” while the adult jokes and sitcom delivery please the television watchers.
This is still “separate-but-equal” entertainment. Many children’s filmmakers have decided that their product will be unwatchable to adults unless a second level is added. Do we have the ability to make a film that succeeds with all ages without dumbing down or snarking up?
By the way, when we were in the video store, we watched a young father trying to find movies to rent for his two kids, who I guess were 5 and 7, maybe younger. He was trying to rent “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” presumably because he loved the film as a kid and wanted to initiate them. “But is has guns and explosions in it,” he explained to the little boy, “You’ll like that!” The boy wasn’t having any of it. Parents: will they ever learn?

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Dir: Hayuo Miyazaki
Recently released domestically with a disposable dubbed soundtrack
(James Vanderbeek, eek!), Laputa is another classic from Miyazaki. I haven’t seen all his films yet, but each time I do, I’m astounded by the breadth of his vision. He puts other animated film directors to shame. For this story of a young girl and her mysterious amulet and the rough and tumble lad, Pazu, who tries to help her escape the clutches of bad governmentals who are after her, we are treated to two hours of exquisite landscapes, stuff that dreams are made on. Pazu’s mountain village is an impossible architecture of village England crossed with Alpine cliff dwellers; the Army base is a round and geometric prison; the pirate ship they escape on is steam-punk before there was such a word (nods to Captain Nemo abound); and the Castle in the Sky contains four to five distinct environments. I’ve had dreams like this–Miyazaki brings them to life.
On top of that, the story is a rip-roaring boys’ and girls’ own adventure, plus an ecological fable that doesn’t hit you over the head. Miyazaki also treats his working people with respect, like he does in Princess Mononoke. The villagers mine the earth, but they respect it. The air pirates are scary, but they’re more romantic outlaws and mostly buffoons. The true villains are the army (blockheads with big weapons) and government officials (who quickly corrupt themselves absolutely).
Plus, such is my fear of heights that I found a lot of the suspence near unbearable, as Pazu’s often winds up hanging by the skin of his teeth from the bottom of the sky city.
Most excellent!
Just one example of Miyazaki’s subtle touch: When Pazu agrees to join the sky pirates and go in search of the girl, he is in essence growing up and agreeing to leave home for the greater world. We see him leave the dovecot open and wish his doves well. A few scenes later when he and pirates pass back over the valley, we get a wide shot of the village and we can just make out his house. And in fact, there’s a small flock of doves flying nearby. Miyazaki succinctly sums up Pazu’s feelings right there–that his former life is nearby but very far away, not really a part of him now. (One can imagine the Hollywood version: “Wow, I can see my house from here! And there go my doves! Fly and be free, doves!” probably with a shot of the airpirates’ craft from Pazu’s old house.)

The Weather Underground

Dirs: Sam Green and Bill Siegel
This was up for an Oscar for best doc (didn’t win).
A well done history of the Weather Underground, the “Days of Rage” that sprung out of the frustrated anti-war movement, and what happens with middle-age and reality catches up with student radicals. The Weather Underground is one of those historical docs that reframes history so that not only does its subject become the center of attention, but alters how you look at its surrounding people and places. Green and Siegel succeed in making the actions of the radicals, though in the end futile, seem initially creditable. They did manage to explode bombs without killing anybody (except when it was themselves), they did do it for a reason (all bombings were in protest to some grave injustice by the police or the governemtn), they did successfully elude capture and become some sort of political force.
One of the interesting points it brings up about the Weathermen is even in the radical/neo-terrorist movement, their white skin offered them privileges. Whereas they were surveilled and tracked, members of the Black Panthers were assassinated outright.
Green and Siegel use a nice blend of footage, and don’t blink from showing us the atrocities that Americans were subject to through the TV of our foray into Vietnam. In fact, this is the first time that I’d seen the full footage of the assassination in Hanoi (TV, if it shows it at all, cuts right after the gun goes off–actually the cameraman continues filming as the blood spurts out of his head in a drinking-fountain arc). They use amateur animation and a soundtrack full of Aphex Twin and Sonic Youth.
The film ends suggesting that the ’80s curdled the dreams of the ’60s radicals, and that the remaining Weathermen live with a palpable ambivalence over what they did. The filmmakers also end with two ironic clips–“Hanoi Jane” Fonda turned in a workout video guru, and the fact that one of the Weathermen went on Jeopardy and won $32,000. Not too shabby.

Phil Gyford on Houston’s Mass Transit

From the ridiculous to the sublime. My friend Phil notes his experiences as an Englishman w/out car in Houston. Phil probably doesn’t intend this list to be funny, but I thought it so, because it is so absurd.

Houston’s Mass Transit
*The sidewalks between home and the Park & Ride were intermittent; apparently it was up to the property owner to put them in.
* When cycling sweatily along the sidewalks, the only other cyclists I saw were Latinos wearing uniforms belonging to McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, etc.
* It was rare that I saw anyone walking far. I felt like people were staring if I ever did.
* There was a little minibus service that started running around the Clear Lake area, with friendly drivers picking up and dropping off at a handful of locations, running every couple of hours. I was often the only person on board. I think the service probably stopped.

Q: What’s the word? A: Thunderbird

A daring taste test of the top 5 best selling “wines” among the homeless. There for the name of science go…who are these people? I never knew that both Thunderbird and Night Train are bottled by E. & J. Gallo. Who woulda thunk it? What I want to know is what is actually in these drinks. And I don’t want to find out by drinking them.

Bum Wines
18% alc. by vol.
Cisco is bottled by the nation’s second largest wine company, Canandaigua Wine Co., in Canandaigua, NY and Naples, NY – the same company as Wild Irish Rose.
Known as “liquid crack,” for its reputation for wreaking more mental havoc than the cheapest tequila. Something in this syrupy hooch seems to have a synapse-blasting effect not unlike low-grade cocaine. The label insists that the ingredients are merely “citrus wine & grape wine with artificial flavor & artificial color,” but anyone who has tried it knows better. Tales of Cisco-induced semi-psychotic fits are common. Often, people on a Cisco binge end up curled into a fetal ball, shuddering and muttering paranoid rants. Nudity and violence may well be involved too. Everyone who drinks this feels great at first, and claims, “It’s not bad at all, I like it.” But, you really do not want to mess around with this one, because they all sing a different tune a few minutes later. And by tune, I mean the psychotic ramblings of a raging naked bum.

A funny link, easily overlooked, by way of Boing Boing

The Story of Philosophy — Will Durant [and!] Heroes & Heretics — Barrows Dunham

Durant: Time Reading Program, 1933 (this ed. 1963)
Dunham: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964

Blimey. Four months it’s taken me to get through these two tomes, both histories of the Western world with a focus on philosophy.
I never took Philosophy in college, and up to now my knowledge was primarily focused on post-modernism and existentialism, with my history supplied by Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song.
I first started on Will Durant’s text after having it recommended by Jon, and then finding a cracking good paperback version (Time Reading Program, with a thick, card-like cover and a nice chronology inside–great paper too) in a used bookstore in Ventura. I jumped right in–Plato, I believe it was–and when my other friend Mr. C______ heard I was reading Durant, I soon received his well-read copy of Barrows Dunham’s “Heroes and Heretics,” because “If you’re going to read a history of philosophy, you should at least choose one that’s good.” So sayeth Mr. C.
Durant’s book is still in print. You can find new copies in Borders, as well as used ones everywhere, from yellowing, 1970’s Pocket Book editions, to well-underlined student copies. He, along with his wife Ariel, also put out a Story of Civilization in 11 volumes that is gathering dust over at Thrasher Books. What an undertaking that would be.
Dunham, on the other hand, is unknown to us these days. He a socialist/communist, was persecuted by the McCarthy hearings in the late ’50s, and subsequently lost his professorial position at Temple due to it. (Twenty-six years after a federal court dismissed the charges Temple restored his pension, which they had blocked all that time). All his major works are out of print–including “A Giant in Chains” and “Thinkers and Treasurers”–but during his day he was a big friend of the left, and wrote poetry in his early days, as well as corresponding with Dashiell Hammett among others).
I read these books parallel to each other, with a chapter in Durant on Voltaire being followed by Dunham’s take on the man. There wasn’t an exact one-to-one correspondence, and often I was with Dunham for a long period before Durant was even in the same century.
Let’s have a closer comparison, and break down these books:
Will Durant focuses on philosophy, and just the philosophy, ma’am. He doesn’t have any time for Christianity, which he sees as a sort of Orientalist philosophy of resignation brought in around the downward spiral of the Roman Empire. Christianity, to Durant, is all about giving up making a change in this world and pinning all your hopes on the next. Not any way to live, he thinks.
Here’s Durant’s TOC:
Plato. Aristotle. Bacon. Spinoza. Voltaire. Kant. Schopenhauer. Spencer. Nietzsche. Henri Bergson. Benedetto Croce. Bertrand Russell. George Santayana. William James. John Dewey.
Notice that little jump of, say, 2,000 years between chapters 2 and 3. Hegel gets a look in at the end of the chapter on Kant (mostly to point out that if you think Kant is unreadable, wait until you get a load of this guy.) The last 6 are Durant’s choice of modern European and American philosophers, of which probably Russell and Bergson continue to pull some weight. Durant wrote this book in the aftermath of World War One, and doesn’t hint at the war to come.
Interestingly, he ends with a oblique critique of American consumerism:

No doubt we have grown faster than nations usually have grown; and the disorder of our souls is due to the rapidity of our development. We are like youths disturbed and unbalanced, for a time, by the sudden growth and experiences of puberty. But soon our maturity will come; our minds will catch up with our bodies, our culture with our possessions. Perhaps there are greater souls than Shakespeare’s, and greater minds than Plato’s, waiting to be born. When we have learned to reverence liberty as well as wealth, we too shall have our Renaissance.

If you’ve been to Wal-Mart recently, or up to Rodeo Drive, we haven’t matured yet. In fact, we’re probably regressing.
Of all the philosophers in the book, I believe it’s Voltaire that’s closest to his heart. Building on Francis Bacon’s thrill of coming out into the Renaissance light and wanting to write about everything, Voltaire not only does that, but carouses with the low- and the high-lifes of his time, is in and out of prison, falls in love with a beautiful, intelligent woman, and ends his days returning to Paris as a celebrity of sorts. What’s not to love? After that philosophy becomes a game for miserable academics like Schopenhauer, who thought women were out to get him, and loonies like Nietzsche. Only Russell and Dewey come off as sensible in the last couple of chapters. He certainly isn’t too fond of Kant, and tries not to quote him at all, using the excuse, “Kant is the last person in the world that we should read on Kant.” (Though he’s probably right).
Closest to Dunham’s heart is the pre-Christian Jesus–“the leader of an armed movement for national liberation” as he refers to him–and Joan of Arc, who saved the ass of the King of France and the country itself, led the people to battle, and then ran rings around the Inquisition before being burned at the stake sometime around her 19th birthday. Quite tough competition for any high schooler.
Dunham, who faced the Inquisition of McCarthy, obviously sees a kindred spirit in her, and his writing does her justice. His chapter on her is as good as his chapter on Jesus, at that is one of the best, as an atheist, I’ve ever read.
But let’s step back and look at Dunham’s list of “Heroes and Heretics,” for as you see, Joan was no philosopher, but she changed the world.
Akhnaton. Socrates. Amos. Jesus. Paul. Marcion. Arius. Athanasius. Pelagius. Zosimus. Vincent. Abelard. Arnold of Brescia. The Cathari. The Waldo. Duns Scotus. John Wyclif. William Tyndale. Joan of Arc. Erasmus. Luther. Calvin. Marc Antonio de Dominis. Copernicus. Bruno. Descartes. Spinoza. Hobbes. Locke. Voltaire. Diderot. De Prades. Kant. Cardinal Newman. John William Colenso. Darwin. Marx. Lincoln. Eugene Debs.
Some of these names will be familiar, some are terrifically obscure. Compiling this list (because it is not determined by chapter headings) I came across some I had completely forgotten. Some heretics disappear in time. Other heretics change the world.
I can’t say I was too interested in the section after Paul up to the Enlightenment, for men arguing over the minutiae of a text that was never meant to undergo any sort of logical scrutiny has little worth in my eyes. It is surprising that Dunham dwells on this part of history (the part Durant ignores) after proclaiming himself an agnostic. But he is studying a system and needs the evidence.
This is a book that is not just a history of heresy, but a book that examines the process of heresy and orthodoxy. Philosophy is usually heresy because it is responding to an unjust orthodoxy.
Dunham’s writing soars and plunges where Durant’s just coasts. He’s also quotable. Take this section from his chapter on Luther:

But there are two ways of judging ideology to be important, and they differ as excuse differs from justification. You can invent a doctrine as a public cover for policy, the policy and its motives being of main concern; or, having accepted doctrine as true, you can deduce policy from it. In the first case, doctrine is something specious and ad hoc: the normal relation of theory and practice is reversed, and instead of theory’s giving rise to practice, practice gives rise to theory in the form of apologetics. In the second case, doctrine behaves honestly: it is theory enlightening practice by supplying the means to know and the wisdom to choose.

He is writing about Luther here (an example of the second case), but he is also talking about the two types of government. It’s something Chomsky would write; it certainly describes the Neo-cons and their policies.
Sections like this as scattered throughout, as are fabulous epigram-like sentences. “Government is legalized violence, and science is peaceful understanding,” is one of them.
Of America (the focus of his last chapter) he paints the country as a land created entirely by heretics, but also one that oscillates between the Bill of Rights and the Witch Hunt. The pragmatism in the middle is our strength and our weakness. “…whether [Americans] are dispossessing a slave owner or putting a socialist in jail, it is all on behalf of liberty.” Indeed.
Dunham published this in 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis. Staring death in the face along with the rest of the world, as well as having stared down the House Un-American Activities Committee, Dunham passes into an optimism that many “survivors” have. In a way, “Heroes and Heretics” is Dunham’s “survivor’s tale.”
He ends with this:

…I do not share the existentialist pessimism which advocates surrender before attempt. We know our future to be uncertain, but more than this we do not know. Where nothing is certain, nothing is doomed, and accordingly we may explore with some confidence certain very attractive possibilities: an abundant life, a peaceful world, all blessings shared with all men. If such tasks seem above our powers, why, so seemed the tasks of every age to the people of it. They grew, however, equal to their tasks–and so can we. While friends are warm and grandsons are glorious, I cannot think the growth will fail. For we are to become (it will be remembered) ‘lords and possessors of nature’–lords also and possessors of ourselves.

This is a terrific book. It should be back in print, even if he is a heretic.
(Thanks to Mr. C for the long loaner! I hope I’ve done the book justice.)