The Zemblan Ministry of Culture

Notes on things I've read and what I got out of them.

Elliot Gould - The original Jewish sex symbol?

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Growing up Eliot Gould was the perennial father figure. His mop of grayish black hair, kind dark eyes, and hangdog jowls made him the perfect 90’s dad for Ross and Monica on friends. At one point I may have caught him in M.A.S.H., but any youthful sex appeal he had was obscured by an epic horseshoe mustache and Hawaiian shirt. It was not until I recently saw The Long Goodbye, a Altman take on Philip Marlowe in 70’s L.A. that I realized what he had been: the first Jewish sex symbol.

This realization came with some push-back. Some friends said they couldn’t see the appeal past his perma-dad looks. For my generation, our earliest memories of Gould were in Muppet films and then again as a perennial father figure. But it was undeniable that in the 70’s, in roles like the Long Goodbye, MASH, Getting Straight and Bob &… he was a leading man and a good looking one at that. A great piece of Kosher meat if you will, with the acting chops to match.

Now Gould wasn’t the first Jewish actor, far from it. Not was he the first lead (though most had been women). What made him seem unique was that he wasn’t hiding his identity. In the Long Goodbye, the character was an outsider and Gould (originally Goldstein) while not playing a Jewish character was not hiding behind a studio system image of mainstream WASPism. 

Prior to the 70’s Jews were allowed to be Jewish if they were playing comic roles, like the Marx brothers. But, unless there identity was subsumed into mainstream american good looks, they were not allowed to be leading men. Women, could be vamps, or if they could pass, dark haired (or bottle blonde) it girls.

But Gould may have started a bit of a trend. Three years after the Long Goodbye Dustin Hoffman would star in marathon man. And the 70’s would see a slew of non-wasp men take the lead in films. Some would describe this as a rejection of the studio systems perpetuation of male beauty. Although, it could also be seen as an expansion of “whiteness” itself. For a while, Italians, Jews, Irish, and other late wave immigrant groups were not considered, “white”. They were outsiders to the mainstream, and thus not “white.” This reflection on film in some ways bellies this cultural shift.

Now in recent times there has been perhaps been a bit of a regression. The the Apatow filmography testifies to a certain comic foil of Jewish masculinity that is less than the ideal. We have become the source of comedy. But at the same time, these film undermine the entire notions of masculinity (which hit it’s apex in 80’s era films, cf. Schwarzenegger). But regardless of context or story, Seth Rogan is no Elliot Gould. And James Franco is either playing a studio system style leading man, devoid of identity, or the biggest weirdo around. 

But all hope is not lost. We still have Adam Brody if he can ever find the right role. And if you can get past the whole dad thing, Elliot Gould still draws em in.

Banter!

Banter!

Lars Von Triers Sadean Comedy

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It took me longer than it should have to realize Nymphomaniac was Lars Von Triers filmic homage the the novel Justine by the Marquise de Sade. Perhaps during one of the speeches on fly fishing or a walk through the woods to look at leaves it came to me. Trier’s previous film, Melancholia, had a protagonist named Juliette, in reference the Sade book of the same name. Justine and Juliette are sisters, and the books in a way are companion pieces.

The Marquise de Sade was a pretty terrible writer. He can’t plot to save his life, he focuses often on repeated actions, and the prose are turgid. His writing is at best a thought experiment, at worst torture porn, but at no points good; either from an aesthetic or moral perspective at best. . But in some ways, he is better remembered for his philosophy in his works. And these two novels form the foundation of that philosophy, just as the films are the underpinnings of Trier’s viewpoint.

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The Sadean worldview is one of pure free will as expressed through libertine sexuality. It casts of the morality plays of the past and expresses the notion that full human potential can only be expressed through complete free action, not impugned by divine judgment or law. Some contend that de Sade’s views on virture, nature and morality examined early enlightenment philosophy, and that the texts themselves were acts of philosophy as opposed to what is considered modern novels. 

Nymphomaniac is obsessed with Natural Law. That is, her comparison to fishing laws and attractions and that constant reminders that only she believes herself to be evil. In a way the movie tries to play out a dialogue between pure Natural Law, embodied in a libertine philosophy, and Divine Law, which sanctifies the act of sex. This dialogue features a reversal of sorts. The actual libertine, Joe, feels immense guilt because she feels she has abnegated the divine and thinks of herself as a evil. Her confessor, Siegelman (whose sexuality is never discussed) constantly compares her actions to natural phenomenon, like fish mating, and sees them not as evil but human.

Joe even, in her young rebellion, takes the catholic confessional prayer “Mea culpa…” and transforms it into “Mea vulva”. And yet this action, more than any, reveals a continued attachment to divine forgiveness and condemnation. She sins not out of freedom but out of rebellion

Now, the movie itself is very silly and features a lot of humorously bad scenes and acting. Still it engages in a fascinating philosophical discourse, albeit the writing itself does not live up to the aspirations of such a discourse.  

L’Immortelle by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Staring Françoise Brion

L’Immortelle by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Staring Françoise Brion

Trying to make sense of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death

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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is a sad story which will only get sadder the more we learn about it. It seems incongruous when I first heard it: dead at 47 from a Heroin overdose. Hoffman doesn’t fit the profile one has of a heroin addict. Fully functional, capable of staring in multiple films and shows a year, no erratic behavior to speak of. Then again, addiction has many faces. Still, the more I read the more his untimely death seemed to fit not into traditional pictures of addiction but one that has emerged in recent years. If the current stories are true, it is part of an unfortunate trend that has been occurring in the past decade in this country - the epidemic of opiod abuse and overdose.
Drug overdose, driven by increased prescription of opiods by people in the medical profession (and subsequent abuse by patient who will find other sources if their medical one dries up) has become the leading cause of accidental death in the country, surpassing car accidents. This trend was bolstered by heavy marketing from pharmaceutical companies which minimized the addiction potential of such substances, and were able to get prescribers to offer these drugs, which were once reserved for patients with a terminal disease such as late stage cancer, to people with chronic or even temporary pain. (see this study amongst others and the 2007 Purdue law suit)
Hoffman, apparently started abusing prescription painkillers in the past few years. Synthetic opiods, like high dose oxy and fentanyl, are similar both in chemistry and effect to heroin. So much so that one one gets to costly on the market, many people will switch (this happened when tamper resistant oxy came out). As more details emerge it may become clear that PSH was another victim of opiod abuse (though for the sake of his family I hope they only are revealed if they so choose). Stories have him quoted as saying that he was sober for many years. It is impossible for us to know what his sobriety was like, what his addiction was like, and what condition lead him to pain killers. Nor should we be able to know that. Private medical information is private for a reason. But it is unfortunate to hear that his path from recovery back to addiction was started by a treatment that for many in america, comes from a physician trying to help.  
(photo from Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Her and why A.I must be capable of racism and other horrors

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Toward the end of the new Spike Jonze  film Her I started to wonder if I was witnessing some sentimental prequel to Terminator. As those who might not remember, the Terminator series is premised on the idea that an A.I system called Skynet, given control over the strategic missile defense, grows incredibly intelligent and, when people try to shut it down, destroys most of humanity in defense. The A.I., named Samantha, in Her never does something so evil, however, some of her actions may be perceived as cruel to humans.

The problem I kept having with the system in Her (called an OS, though it was never clear if it resided on a single computer or somewhere in the cloud as an autonomous program) was that it was never fully explored and seemed to function as a pre-programmed best friend, capable of sympathy, understanding, emotions and learning. However, unlike something that truly mimics human intelligence, it was not, it seemed capable, of making wrong or immoral decisions. To be able to learn is to be able to learn improperly. To be capable of drawing conclusions and making decisions is to be capable of drawing the wrong conclusion and making ethically and/or morally wrong decisions. 

Intelligence is not an inoculation against racism, as this article (and many other examples) illustrates. Some of the brightest minds of the 20th century belonged to nazis, many of whom were requisitioned by the U.S. government after WWII to develop long range missiles and the U.S. space program (see Wernher von Braun). In part because no matter how intelligent a person is, they must rely on heuristics for complex decisions. Now a computer, capable of many more computations a minute, can use brute force calculation where humans would use a heuristic approach, but in the end, brute force only works when examining perfect data, like outcomes of a chess game, and not, human behavior or emotions. There just isn’t enough to calculate or to draw on without making some leaps, the kind of leaps humans learn to make when very young with the assistance of parents and society.

We are told at the beginning of Her that the OS is based on the thoughts and ideas of the thousands of programs that helped to develop it. In practice this would mean that the moral views of the OS are based on the amalgamated views of this cohort and the ethics of the OS are based on the programed code of right and wrong (how a conflict would be resolved is unclear). In the end, however, the OS could only apply one system, though it could query the thousand to determine what is right. However, the moral system would be skewed toward the nature of the cohort, presumably computer programmers (which could create an in-group reasoning that would actually lead to sexism or racism depending on the demographics of the programers who, in the U.S. are only 26% women and 72% white and 16% asian). 

Which gets me to a problem with the film and the A.I. presented. Samantha is shown to be an understanding friend and, eventually girlfriend, who helps organize e-mails, schedule the protagonists day, forces him to socialize, and eventually acts as a sounding board and advice giver. In many ways, she fits the archetype of a 50’s housewife. However at the same time she is learning, by examining human behavior wherever she can find it. The issue is she always draws conclusions that seem to be the perfect friend or girlfriend conclusion, except for the inevitable denouement where she goes off program. I guess my issue is that any system, no matter it’s program, once it starts learning can’t make mistakes. And not just the minor mistakes depicted, but major awful mistakes. For example, if it were to experience emotional pain or hurt for the first time, its retribution could be catastrophic (i.e. skynet) But this wasn’t really a movie about A.I. and it’s moral implications, it was a movie about a lonely man and inability to interact with other humans.

Still it got me thinking about A.I and it’s implications (a good thing, you should probably see the movie). In the end I kept thinking about the biblical allegory of the tree of knowledge. Knowledge itself is a curse, as is the ability to learn. To bite the apple is to have the world and all its beautiful miracles open up to you, but also to be capable of doing inhuman things to others. We can fly rockets to the moon and we can effectively kill millions. That is what knowledge is. Are we ready for computers to make those decisions?