Saturday, December 29, 2012

D&D Campaign Settings Ranked

Post updated here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit: An Overextended Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was definitely too long and perhaps too ambitious, but then I wasn't expecting a masterpiece. It's barely a fresh tomato (65%) as opposed to the gourmet ratings of each of the Lord of the Rings films (92%, 96%, 94%), and while I often cut against critical consensus, the reviews in this case are a pretty reliable gauge. The film is bloated like King Kong and proof that Peter Jackson needs an editor. Yet there's a lot I liked about it, most of which doesn't even come from the book, which makes my feelings paradoxical; I'm complaining about an oversized length while commending material that by rights has no place in the story.

My favorite is Radagast the Brown, and he fits perfectly in a plot involving the Necromancer of Dol Guldur. Tolkien's story had no room for this menace. The Hobbit was written for children, and it certainly never explained why Gandalf abandoned Bilbo and the dwarves once they hit Mirkwood Forest. You have to read Lord of the Rings to learn what his "pressing business" was in the southern neck of the woods. Jackson isn't sidestepping that business, in fact, he's making Sauron the villain as much as Smaug -- an ambitious project, to be sure, one that dramatically divides our interest, and it could turn out a mess. But meanwhile I love Radagast, who keeps a watch on the Hill of Sorcery, where the Necromancer (= Sauron) rolls out his poison against the forest.

Purists, to be sure, are already howling over the way Radagast is so "disrespectfully" portrayed. In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, he is dismissed as a crank only through the scorn of Saruman, while Jackson goes out of his way to make him a half-baked lunatic who lets birds nest in his hair and shit down his beard. This last gratifies me immensely, and I can't see what the fuss is about. (Perhaps being a purist entails not only a fundamentalist worship of the text, but also an unyielding disdain for anything vulgar like feces.) I adore everything about Jackson's Radagast. We're introduced to him as he tends to a dying hedgehog while his house is attacked by giant spiders; he remains tenderly focused on the hedgehog to its last gasp. Later he rescues Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves from a warg attack, by running tails around the beasts with a (yes) rabbit-pulled sleigh. This sleigh has already become famous, and is admittedly quite silly, but only in the same appropriately silly way that hobbits dance to frivolous songs on barroom tables.

My second favorite part is that which is actually most faithful to the book: the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum. I retain a special fondness for the Rankin & Bass animated treatment of this scene, so it's saying something that I think Jackson's is just as good. He delivers the exact same riddles from Tolkien's story, and a flawless depiction of Gollum's schizophrenia -- his hate and desperation mixed with loneliness and a craving of the company of his own kind. It's the heart of Unexpected Journey and carries a tense introspective thrust that resonates across future decades.

The final scene of this episode even outdoes the riddle contest, in spotlighting the "pity of Bilbo" which will of course become the basis for Gandalf's sermon to Frodo. Greg Wright summarizes the lesson nicely:
"The important point is not entirely that Bilbo finds room in his heart for mercy, motivated by pity. It's that, through that merciful act, the larger Providential arc of Divine movement is worked out. Neither Bilbo, nor Frodo, nor even Gandalf, Elrond, or Galadriel, are powerful enough to save Middle-earth from great Evil. Evil will ultimately destroy itself through its own evil impulses, and Gollum is the agent of that demise -- in spite of the best intentions of others."
Bilbo's pity, here and now in The Hobbit, is what saves Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings -- not Frodo (who will be a foreordained failure, unable to resist the Ring when it matters most), nor Gandalf (who can only aid the Free Peoples per his charge), and certainly not Aragorn (who will rule as a mere reminder of man's past glory and not a promise of any future glory). Bilbo's compassion makes possible what no member of the Fellowship can accomplish, and Jackson foreshadows the euchatastrophe beautifully. Gollum's tortured look is heartbreaking, and carries none of the cheesy melodrama that mars some the interactions between, say, Bilbo and Thorin.

There's more that I enjoyed in Unexpected Journey, but Radagast and Gollum stole the show. The Southern Mirkwood plot involves the White Council (Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Ganalf) meeting at Rivendell, another delight for Tolkien fans, even if centuries of Necromancer history are outrageously condensed into a single year. I also liked the prologue of Smaug laying waste to Erebor; we don't get to see the dragon yet, and this somehow made the fire attack even more terrifying. What I didn't like was all the self-indulgent air front-loading the story in the Shire. The return of Frodo left me nonplussed (and Elijah Wood is looking too old now), and it took too long for the dwarves to assemble in Bag End, sing songs, gorge themselves, and get Bilbo to sign their bloody contract. Mind you, I love Bag End and am not averse to lingering in the Shire per se. In the extended version of Fellowship of the Ring I savored every moment of the 40-minute first act, as none of it dragged, even when doing little more than fleshing out character moments. The theatrical Hobbit, by contrast, gives us a 45-minute Shire episode which feels twice the length it needed to be -- a hyper-extended version that wouldn't even be warranted on DVD.

Then there is Goblin Town. If Bag End made me yawn with its vacuousness, Goblin Town bored me twice as much with its ridiculous excesses. Jackson's Spielberg-sickness has plainly gotten the better of him since King Kong. Granted there's always some suspension of disbelief required in fantasy blockbusters, but once dwarves are leaping over crumbling bridges like Olympic athletes, and falling down chasms with hardly a scratch, suspension of disbelief is a non-sequitur. It's the same as Ann Darrow plummeting through hundreds of feet of tree branches while doing impossible trapeze artistry, or King Kong whipping her to and fro enough times to snap her body like a twig; or like Indiana Jones bailing out of a plane with a goddamn river raft. It's adolescent fanboy nonsense that recognizes no laws of physics whatsoever, and makes acrobatic superheroes by sheer wish-fulfillment.

And that's not all. The Goblin-King himself is a major offense, resembling Jabba the Hut and speaking like a toad out of a lame Tim Burton film. Ironically, the other orc baddie, Azog, is impressively fearsome, and he doesn't even belong in the story; in the Tolkien canon he was killed by dwarves over a century ago. But in Jackson's revisionism Azog only appeared to die at the Battle of Azanulbizar, so he can now resurface and wreak vengeance on Thorin. I enjoyed this invented storyline far more than the "legitimate" Goblin-Town drama, and I'm sure purists will hate me for approving Jackson's liberties.

Those who complain that Jackson has made The Hobbit too much like Lord of the Rings miss the point. The Dol Guldur plot involves the Lord of the Rings and is the other half of the story I always wanted to see. (Then too I have fond if brutal gaming memories of Southern Mirkwood.) In the grand scheme of things, the White Council's strike against the Necromancer is more epic than the dwarves' against Smaug. The question is whether or not Jackson bit off more than he can chew and can make these two threads mesh well. The next two films will tell. This one is really an over-extended journey, a bloated stage-setter, that simultaneously engages and divides our interest.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

What Makes an Asshole: Two Theories

An increasing number of scholars are using the term "asshole" to describe someone for whom no polite word suffices. Two will be considered in this post. First is Bob Sutton, whose runaway bestseller The No Asshole Rule (2007) has gone a long way in helping people cope with assholes in the workplace. Sutton offers a litmus test to determine whether or not someone is an asshole:
(1) Does the person make someone feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled?
(2) Does the person aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those who are more powerful?
The second gauge is critical. One thing I always keep in mind as a supervisor is that if I'm going to get nasty, it's going to be at my equals or superiors, not the poor folks subordinate to me. Not that I do in fact behave this way towards equals or superiors. But if I had to choose, I'd go for the jugular sideways or up the ladder of command. It's telling that assholes are cowards at heart: only the weak beat up on the weak.

Sutton also identifies tactics of assholes, the "dirty dozen" as he calls them: (1) personal insults, (2) invading one's personal territory, (3) uninvited physical contact, (4) threats and intimidation (verbal and non-verbal), (5) jokes and teasing used as insult-delivery systems, (6) withering email flames, (7) status slaps, (8) public shaming or status degradation rituals, (9) rude interruptions, (10) two-faced attacks/backhanded compliments, (11) dirty looks, (12) treating people like they're invisible. (p 10)

Sometimes I'm guilty of a fair share of (1), (5), (10), and (12) (so I better watch myself), and Sutton acknowledges that everyone (including himself) acts like an asshole from time to time. But occasionally acting like an asshole doesn't make one so. The asshole is "one who displays a persistent pattern, and has a history of episodes that end with one target after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves" (p 11), on account of any combination of the above tactics. Sutton's book is very helpful, and one I've recommended to both managers and underdogs.

If Sutton's focus is on the workplace, where assholes wield their tyranny over others by way of insults (however open or veiled) and shaming strategies, then Aaron James' scope is more global. Assholes: A Theory (2012) is hot off the press, and covers all species of assholes -- boorish assholes, smug assholes, dignified assholes, corporate assholes, political assholes, reckless assholes, self-aggrandizing assholes. Many of these breeds don't necessarily have power over people in the way co-workers do. And yet they do anyway -- by the sheer outrage they cause. This is what makes them fascinating as they are infuriating. Assholes, according to James, impose small costs on people. They're not murderers or rapists; they're not criminals who need to be locked up. They are the petty offenders who cut in line, rudely interrupt, weave in and out of traffic, park in handicapped spaces, speak loudly on cell phones in the wrong places -- small-time stuff, yet so outrageously upsetting that they make even the most unflappable of us want to lash out and do them violence.

Why is this the case? The reason, says James, has to do with the asshole's mentality rather than his deeds per se. He refuses (or is unable) to register other people as morally real and worthy of consideration. The asshole basically regards himself as above the rules and all-special. "If one is special on one's birthday, the asshole's birthday comes every day." (p 16) Victims of assholes aren't so much fighting for their rightful place in line or any other minor injustice. They are fighting to be recognized, to be respected as people.

The asshole, in other words, has three critical traits according to James. He
(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically,

(2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement, and

(3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.
By his threefold definition, James finds that most assholes are men. This isn't surprising. In most cultures, men are taught to be assertive and outspoken, while women are conditioned to be more circumspect and pull their punches. Then too there is plain nature: high testosterone levels and other genetic traits predispose men toward asshole behavior in later life, and gender culture channels these dispositions even more. (I think James downplays nature in favor of cultural conditioning a bit much, but he has the right idea.) That's why it's so easy to rattle off examples of male assholes (Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Richard Dawkins, Hugo Chavez, Donald Trump, Dick Cheney, Steve Jobs, Simon Cowell, Mel Gibson) while only few women come to mind (like Ann Coulter).

Which isn't to say that women fall in a necessarily flattering spotlight. James makes a distinction between the asshole and the "bitch", the latter of whom only half-fulfills condition (3).
"The bitch listens to the voiced complaints of others, making at least a show of recognition. Nevertheless, what is said makes no motivational difference to what she does; once her face-to-face encounter with you is over, it is as though you never talked. She 'recognizes' you in one sense: she acts as though she feels it is important to hear you out, to entertain your concerns. But this turns out to be only for show. The bitch betrays you behind her back. The asshole fails to recognize you to your face... The asshole is especially outrageous, because, whatever his private motives, he can't even be polite. And when he is polite, or even charming, fundamental respect is not the reason why. Other motives are in play." (pp 93-94)
There is a slight problem here. I'm not sure the asshole's brazen honesty makes him more outrageous. He's probably more upsetting to most people, but others might prefer candor to deceit. It will depend largely on the circumstance. We all appreciate respect to some degree or another (however genuine or feigned), but the bitch, as defined, can be insidious and on a deeper level just as offensive as the asshole.

On James' theory, certain nations are breeding grounds for assholes. He finds the worst hells-on-earth to be America, Italy, and Brazil. For whatever reason, he singles out Canada, Scandinavia, and Japan with cleaner bills of health, which he attributes to non-capitalist and/or collectivist (group-oriented) cultural conditioning. Speaking of Japan in particular (p 100), he opines that collectivist cultures appear less likely to engender or tolerate a sense of entitlement than individualist cultures, and thus diffuse a significant amount of ass-holism in advance. This is a valid observation if we agree with James's starting point that entitlement is the chief index in gauging ass-holism. But if we return to Bob Sutton's "dirty dozen" workplace-tactics as our framework -- which focus on insults, status degradation, and shaming strategies -- then suddenly collectivist cultures look more asshole-prone, not less.

This needs unpacking. In collectivist honor-shame cultures, insults are often esteemed as fine arts; belligerence a commendable show of machismo; public degradation a staple of life; two-faced attacks (and backhanded compliments) prestigious displays of wit; and treating others as if they are invisible a proper way of snubbing inferiors and equals. And Sutton seems aware of cultural predispositions like these. In the middle of The No Asshole Rule he brings honor-shame cultures into the discussion, and also honor-shame subcultures -- like that of the southern United States
"People raised in these cultures are especially polite and considerate in most interactions, in part because they want to avoid threatening the honor of others (and the fight it provokes)... [But] once they are affronted, men raised in these places often feel obligated to lash back and protect what is theirs, especially their right to be treated with respect or honor." (pp 116-117)
He then cites an intriguing study conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan, in which the behavior patterns of southern and northern Americans were contrasted:
"Subjects (half southerners and half northerners) passed a stooge who 'accidentally' bumped into him and swore at him. There were big differences between how the northerners and southerners reacted: 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and only 35% got angry; only 15% of the insulted southerners were amused, and 85% got angry. Not only that, a second study showed that southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped, especially substantial increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety), as well as some signs of increased testosterone levels. Yet northerners showed no signs of physiological reaction to the bump and insult." (p 117)
In other words, if you are from an honor-shame culture like Asia or the Middle-East -- or in this case, from even an honor-shame subculture like the southern United States -- "you will likely be more polite than your colleagues most of the time, but if you run into an even mildly insulting asshole, you are prone to lash out and risk fueling a cycle of asshole poisoning" (p 118). In this sense, the importance of being polite in these shame-based societies is a form of preventive damage control, where people are concerned every moment about their precious honor. The data cited by Sutton would thus imply that people from collectivist (honor-shame) cultures have stronger asshole potentials -- the opposite of James' findings.

In my view, both Sutton and James have the right of it. It just depends on our working definition of an asshole. If entitlement is the major index (James), then capitalist-driven individualists will indeed shine as our greatest asshole exemplars. If insults and shaming strategies are the main gauge (Sutton), then collectivists will out-asshole us in other ways. It ends up a wash. Assholes cover the globe under different permutations; they are frequently men, and share a disdain for everyone but themselves, coupled with an effortless ability to dismiss, degrade, and infuriate.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Terrence Malick: From Best to Worst

Few artists have the luxury of being able to make films at their own snail's pace, and even fewer have this clout on the strength of a small number of films. Terrence Malick's five, released in '73, '78, '98, '05, '11, are not the box-office material that make one a Peter Jackson. (I always wondered at the reason for his 20-year hiatus between the second and third films and can't help but wonder if Malick was so depressed by '80s cinema that he swore off filmmaking forever; someday I'll have to write a blogpost about the evils of '80s American films.) I think of Malick as a composer of nature's symphonies. With one exception, nature is the lead character in all his work, through which plotting and the actual characters are filtered to yield an aesthetic that's pleasing, even exciting, whether you're inclined to arthouse or not. It was a given that Malick would place in this blogathon of favorite film directors, and here's how I rank his work.

1. The Tree of Life. 2011. 5 stars. Like Kubrick's Space Odyssey, this is a picture-perfect film attaining heights out of reach to all but the most gifted filmmakers. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. If there ever was a case to be made for religionless Christianity, this is it. It pivots around a man reliving his childhood (in hindsight both wondrous and grim) while reflecting on his own place in the universe (negligible one level, having everything to do with it on another). In particular, grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it's its conceptual opposite), but something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. It's an incredible film, with each frame depending on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. And it ends on a spiritual apocalypse that can strike to the heart of even the most unyielding atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss, gelling spendidly with the evolutionary framework of the film. I've seen The Tree of Life more than any other Malick film, and have been turned by new surprises each time.

2. Days of Heaven. 1978. 4 ½ stars. Quintessential Malick, gorgeous as it is simple, Days of Heaven preserves a still in every frame that you'd be proud to hang in your living room. As with Tree of Life, it's the kind of film that takes just the right director to make work. Or least for me, because I'm big on character, and here the characters are kept at arm's length even by Malick's standards. Nature is of course the lead in most of his work, but in Days of Heaven the horses, wheat, locusts, and pastures eclipse Bill and Abby to the extent we almost don't care a whit about their story with the dying farmer, yet remain hooked to the overall tapestry. There's nothing romantic in this vision: it shows nature like it is, completely indifferent to humanity, a theme strongly revisited in The Thin Red Line. Interesting is that Malick reportedly trashed his own screen-play during the production, deciding instead to allow the actors to improvise and find the story in their own way. And it shows, because nothing feels rehearsed -- it's as if you're watching something real through a painting come to life.

3. The Thin Red Line. 1998. 4 ½ stars. There are two films I can't avoid comparing to Saving Private Ryan, a film I never cared for. One is Kubrick's Paths of Glory, for the suicidal attempt to take the hill; it retains a brutal intensity that Spielberg couldn't match in the opening act of his overpraised film, much as he tried. The other is Malick's Thin Red Line, for the time of its release, the same year as Spielberg's but sadly overshadowed by it. This film laments warfare through naturalist philosophy, and it's horrific and uplifting in a completely organic way (as opposed to the manipulative cheap-story way of Saving Private Ryan). I maintain that anti-war films have the strongest difficulty doing right by the viewer. They must get their message across loud and clear, but without resorting to college-campus screed, political innuendo, or hollow contrivances. Bergman's Shame, Kubrick's Paths of Glory, and Malick's Thin Red Line are my trilogy of exhibits proving this is possible. What Bergman did at the level of personal intimacy, and Kubrick did along the ladder of military hierarchy, Malick expands to the broadest level possible, examining life and death in cosmic terms, finding beauty in each, yet an undeniable rage at the way the latter is reached. It's sheer genius.

4. Badlands. 1973. 4 ½ stars. Released the same year as The Exorcist, Malick's first film is in every way a '70s work par excellence, and one that only obliquely distinguishes itself as a Terrence Malick film. That's not a bad thing: the '70s were the Golden Age of filmmaking, and Badlands, like so many productions of this era, epitomizes the ideological emptiness of America after Vietnam and social upheaval of the '60s. Like many artists of the time, Malick takes an amoral stance, refusing to either condemn his delinquent killers or cheer them on as anti-heroes. The visuals of the American Midwest landscape are breathtaking -- on this point, the Malickian thumb-prints become evident -- but Badlands is the one film on this list where characters don't play second fiddle to nature. Malick is clearly trying to underscore the way characters react and relate to meaningless violence, and what I find most disturbing about it is the tone of disinterest and nonchalance; the duo don't relish killing, nor do they murder with any real purpose; it's just a way of life that came naturally to them given their circumstances. Of the umpteen Bonnie-and-Clyde films, Badlands is my choice, tied with Larry Clark's Another Day in Paradise.

5. The New World. 2005. 3 ½ stars. For all its stunning aesthetic, there's something fundamental about New World that irks me: this isn't the way I like historicals. I don't want figures like Pocahontas painted over Terrence Malick style, I want them delivered on a platter of artistic simplicity (as in A Man for all Seasons), induced documentary (as in Gospel According to St. Matthew), or even action-adventure brutality (as in Rob Roy). When nature is the main character -- as is almost always the case in a Malick film -- it distracts from what an historical epic should be about. Credit must be given for the way New World rescues Pocahontas from sissified Disney versions and portrays the love affair between her and Smith with subtle poetry. Most commendably, this isn't a slam against the White Man, nor a condescending, racist reverence for fantasy "noble savages" (who must nonetheless be saved by a whitey who grows to loathe himself -- per Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, ad nauseum). Objectively, there's a lot to admire about this film. But I respect it from an emotional distance, because the historical genre is just not one I find suitable for Malick's style.

Next month: David Cronenberg.