Saturday, August 30, 2014

The flip side of your Second Amendment rights

A so-called militia member got himself shot at by a Border Patrol agent yesterday.
Border Patrol spokesman Omar Zamora said agents had been chasing a group of immigrants east of Brownsville Friday afternoon when an agent saw a man holding a gun near the Rio Grande.

The agent fired four shots, but did not hit the man. The man then dropped his gun and identified himself as a member of a militia. Zamora said no other details were immediately available.

Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio said, "We really don't need the militia here." He mentioned the several law enforcement agencies already in the area and added, "[The militia's presence] just creates a problem from my point of view, because we don't know who they are."

This was a foreseeable outcome of the Second Amendment obsession afflicting a segment of our population.

I've repeatedly grumbled about armed civilians creating fear, uncertainty and doubt among the rest of us. In "A cop's take on the Aurora tragedy" I imagined a police officer's confusion on arriving at a scene like the Aurora, CO, movie theater shooting if there are multiple armed persons in the crowd:

Which of the gun toters was the aggressor and which were merely defending themselves? Do the gun toters themselves know? What if, in the heat of the moment, the true aggressor diverts law enforcement's attention to a self-defender: "That guy in the tan jacket just started shooting!"
My concern primarily has been the possibility of a free-for-all erupting in an otherwise peaceful, ordinary environment. I hadn't considered the possibility that Second Amendment absolutists could intervene in already tense situations like the border crisis. (I suppose some if not all of Cliven Bundy's idiotic supporters are Second Amendment absolutists, but he is enough of a cancer on the body politic that it hardly matters whether he and his cohorts are gun nuts too.)

The so-called militia member in Texas had the good sense to recognize that he was the one creating fear, uncertainty and doubt in the situation. Maybe that's how Second Amendment absolutists intend things should always play out. I'm not that sanguine. I could just as easily imagine a less cautious or more belligerent self-anointed militia member taking a more aggressive stand. In this case, for instance, the so-called militia member was on private property. Someone with a greater sense of grievance against the government, a not uncommon state of mind among Second Amendment absolutists, might have decided that the Border Patrol agent was trespassing, or at the very least threatening a private citizen's safety on private property — actions that would justify shooting back, or even shooting preemptively.

Anyway, I'm sure somebody among the Second Amendment absolutists will turn this incident into a rallying cry — against putatively overzealous government agents, for instance. But for those of us living in the real world, this incident is just another reason to shake our heads sadly and lament whatever delusions have led some of our neighbors to adopt such an extreme interpretation of the right to bear arms.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An art review sans context

I mentioned my boredom with the then-upcoming Chuck Jones exhibition about six weeks ago. Today the New York Times published a review of that exhibition by Ken Johnson. The review appears under the rubric of the "Art & Design" section of the paper, a point that raises expectations that the review doesn't meet.

Context is important in any discussion about art. Nobody produces art in a vacuum: every artist is at the center of a web of influences. While every artist deserves to be taken on his or her own merits, it's inevitable that a critic is going to judge that artist in part on how he or she measures up against contemporaries and the influences that loom large in the artist's work.

It's context that is lacking in Johnson's review. He knows about 20th century art movements: he references Pop art, Cubism, and Surrealism in the course of explaining Jones' cartoons' visual style. However, he doesn't seem to know much about the history of the animated cartoon in the United States. Beyond a parenthetical mention of Tex Avery, the acknowledged father of Warner Bros. cartoons' unDisneyesque house style (visual and attitudinal), Johnson's review acknowledges no one else who made animated shorts. There's not even the seemingly obligatory mention of Walt Disney. The conclusion to which the casual reader is inevitably drawn is, Jones was a creative genius who came up with his innovations on his own.

That was, of course, not so.

Jones was certainly conscious of high art and probably welcomed its influence on animation more avidly than some of his colleagues. However, Jones, in spite of his flirtation with modernist art in some of his early- to mid-1940s cartoons (such as The Dover Boys of Pimento University from 1942), didn't lead the charge. In fact, what happened was that a new studio, United Productions of America (UPA), experienced great success with its cartoons in the early 1950s. UPA's house visual style was significantly different from the highly labor-intensive, lush imagery produced by existing Hollywood animation studios. Dimensionality was not as important; "realistic" depth of field was not a priority; smooth movements were not always required; and the "classical" character and background design principles that most studios had inherited directly or indirectly from the Disney studio were eschewed in favor of principles that drew on those 20th-century modernist movements Johnson cited.

UPA's success forced existing studios to reckon with its work, almost certainly in part because UPA's budgets were smaller than those at other studios. (You could plausibly claim that the change wasn't an artistic one, but a financial one.) To varying degrees the veteran studios and their creative staffs incorporated some of UPA's design principles into their own work. At Warner Bros., all three unit directors (Jones, Friz Freleng, and Bob McKimson) switched over to flatter backgrounds, not-quite-as-full animation, and modified designs for the studio's flagship characters. Jones unquestionably adapted more effectively than his colleagues: cartoons like One Froggy Evening and What's Opera Doc? would never have occurred to his fellow directors in their wildest dreams. But Jones didn't bring about the change in graphical style. (His handful of 1940s cartoons that flirted with modern art almost certainly inspired the UPA animators and directors, so he did play an important part in the industry's evolution. Johnson, however, omits these details entirely and so leaves an entirely wrong impression that Jones was singlehandedly responsible for the sea change in visual style that swept through Warner Bros. Johnson also, of course, fails entirely to mention that the change affected every other studio as well.)

On the comparatively nit-picky side of things, this statement irritated me a lot:

Like the artists at other animation studios, Chuck Jones and his teams put a lot of effort into ensuring that his characters would remain consistent and stable.
The trouble is the casual mention of "his teams". By the 1950s, cartoon production at Warner Bros. was consolidated into three teams, each centered on its director. Each team included a writer and senior animators. Most of the time there was no cross-pollination between the teams. (There was a practice of presenting each cartoon's story to the whole studio before animation began, however: this allowed for creative input from everyone.) Johnson's vague reference to "his teams" makes it sound as if Jones ran the whole animation staff, which he emphatically did not.

This statement also bugged the bejesus out of me:

Another recurring theme in Jones’s cartoons has one character in unending pursuit of another, endlessly elusive, one.
It's true, but wrongly implies that Jones' cartoons were uniquely fixated on the chase. You hardly need to be a cartoon scholar to know that many hundreds of Hollywood cartoons were highly stylized and adorned chases.

As I pointed out earlier, Jones was one of many at Warner Bros. who were responsible for the tremendous legacy of the animation studio's collective output. His achievements were of course unique, but they weren't more important than anyone else's at the studio, which is the impression Johnson's adulatory but uncontextualized review leaves. Jones' peers at Warner Bros. and in the industry deserve better than they've received at the hands of uninformed reviewers like Johnson.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Curse you, Banzai!

Thirty years ago today, a weird and wonderful movie went into general release in the U.S.

I still get a kick out of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Just watching the end credits — which you may only do if you've already seen the whole movie — is enough to make me smile. It may be a so-called cult classic, but it puts to shame every bigger-budget blockbuster I can think of.

Kevin Smith is a big fan, too. But I admit, it's not to everyone's taste.

My prediction: somebody, one day, will write a book about that watermelon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A quick take on Ferguson, MO

I've paid little attention to the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where protests are ongoing over the police shooting of an unarmed African-American teen. However, having seen some of the coverage today, I am longing to ask the town's authorities a question.

Do you guys have any idea what's happening to you?

I don't mean, "Do you know why people are protesting?" You're clearly aware of that. No, the question is, "Do you know how you're coming across to the rest of the country?"

It's dicey to reach conclusions based on national media coverage of local stories. Reporters parachuted in from heaven knows where, who have little or no knowledge of local conditions, often do embarrassingly bad jobs of delivering accurate information. But when the events involve the reporters, as they do in the case of a Huffington Post reporter arrested by police, I feel confident the reporter got it right.

Here's what this non-local, more or less disinterested passing stranger thinks of the situation.

You, the authorities (police and civil) in Ferguson, look like you're straight out of Andy Griffith's Mayberry, only without the laugh track, gentleness or common sense.

Most police forces aren't ready to handle a story that catches the national eye, it's true. But even the most insular one should know that moving in on, and roughing up, the national media is a dumb idea, a spectacularly dumb idea.

And any elected official has to know how dumb it is to antagonize the media.

So why are you, the authorities in Ferguson, MO, acting like you live in the nineteenth century, when nobody more than ten miles outside town would ever hear about the heavyhanded "justice" the sheriff was administering? Why don't you understand that everything you do is being scrutinized under a microscope, and what the rest of the country sees is not pretty?

And now you're using tear gas. Ho boy.

Here's the message you're sending: "We don't give a shit about answering your questions about the death of an unarmed teenager."

You're in over your heads — way over. You've lost the public relations war and you're at risk of losing all control over your town.

Do something different. Your current strategy isn't working.

Monday, August 11, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams

I don't care about meeting a lot of famous people. But Robin Williams was an exception. I wanted to meet him, to probe that unbelievably agile mind — and yeah, maybe to share a laugh, just the two of us. That would have been a heck of a memory to have.

That's not gonna happen. Williams died today at age 63. The cause of death is suspected to be "suicide due to asphyxia", which sounds like "he hanged himself".

Having escaped the fate of his friend John Belushi, it seems unjust for Williams to have taken his own life. Yet of course, none of us knows what was going on in his head. I can't help wondering if he thought his best days were behind him, something that occurred to me when I saw the ads for his 2006 film RV.

Is the price of a lightning-fast, incredibly facile, improvisationally gifted mind a corresponding abyss of personal darkness? Maybe.

Is that darkness too high a price? Maybe. Williams' family and friends probably think so right now.

As a final thought, my favorite Robin Williams performance wasn't in a movie or on a comedy club stage. It was his appearance on Inside the Actor's Studio. I think James Lipton asked fewer than a dozen questions in the broadcast episode, yet Williams made close to two hours of often hysterically funny performance art out of them (and if memory serves, those two hours were edited from five or six hours of actual time on stage).

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Hannity must be on Colbert's payroll

After Stephen Colbert suggested Sean Hannity could be replaced by a five-year-old child, Hannity went off on the satirist.
First of all, he’s not as funny as Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert will have the lowest-rated late night show. There are issues that just aren’t funny. Terrorism isn’t funny. I didn’t see the bit. I won’t see it. I don’t care.
He rose to the bait. Unbelievable. And he came off like ... well, like a five-year-old in the process, fulfilling the gag. Could Colbert have scripted a better response?

Hannity is secretly being paid by Comedy Central. That's the only explanation.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

When a moron is in charge

Tim Torkildson is a lot more sanguine about his firing than I would be in his place. Heck, he's a lot more sanguine about it than I am.
This week I was fired for writing a blog about homophones for an educational website.

“I’m letting you go because I can’t trust you” said Clarke Woodger, my boss and the owner of Nomen Global Language Center. “This blog about homophones was the last straw. Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality.”

As Torkildson noted in his blog, homophones have nothing to do with homosexuality. Nothing. Really. Look it up.

But maybe the greatest (?) part of the story is that the boss didn't act precipitately. Oh, no.

“I had to look up the word” [Woodger] continued, “because I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about. We don’t teach this kind of advanced stuff to our students, and it’s extremely inappropriate. Can you have your desk cleaned out by eleven this morning? I’ll have your check ready.”
Yup: he investigated the matter, then unjustly fired Torkildson.

Woodger owns a school that bills itself as "America's English Language School", yet he doesn't know what a homophone is. Worse, even after he supposedly finds out, he still thinks it has something to do with homosexuality.

If you know a student at that school, you might want to advise him or her to reconsider his or her enrollment. After all, the guy running it doesn't sound terribly conversant with English.

In fact, he sounds like a moron. Which is not the same as sounding like another word but having a different meaning, which is what homophone means. No, Woodger sounds like a moron because, well, he might be one.