January 28, 2007

Alexander Pope and the frogs


You've heard this one before, right? Toss a frog into a pot of boiling water and it'll jump right out. But start the pot off at room temperature and the frog will sit there until it stews in its own juices. Well, like too many too-good-to-be-true metaphorical illustrations of moral turpitude, this one turns out to be too good to be true.

For despite their teeny-tiny amphibian brains, frogs aren't that stupid after all.

The "critical thermal maxima" of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so.

And while we're at it, let's give Alexander Pope the credit he deserves in the human insight department. Our unfortunate frog is often boiled in place of--or in addition to--a teeny-tiny excerpt from Pope's Essay on Man, with these four lines alone being quoted:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

Yes, like the frog, the point being made here is certainly not without merit (not without "truthiness," I should say). "There but for the grace of God go I," we say in our eagerness to show sympathy for the Devil. Except that's only half of the argument Pope is trying to make.

Let's read what comes next in the same stanza, starting with a big "but":

But where th'extreme of Vice was ne'er agreed:
Ask where's the north?--at York 'tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland at the Orcades; and there
At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.
No creature owns it in the first degree,
But thinks his neighbour farther gone than he;

An equal human tendency is to see our own virtues in the context of another's vices. That royal "we" notwithstanding, it's always those other guys doing the pitying and the embracing, don't you know. Rather than waxing judgmental, Pope makes a commonsensical observation about the relative nature of vice.

Virtuous and vicious ev'ry man must be,
Few in th'extreme, but all in the degree:
The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise,
And ev'n the best by fits what they despise.

The solution Pope suggests is Madisonian in its logic. Arguing in Federalist No. 10 that the "latent causes of [competing political] faction[s] are thus sown in the nature of man," Madison's solution was to create a political system in which factions are not eliminated but checked according to their own self-serving propensities.

Agreed Pope almost a century earlier:

Each individual seeks a sev'ral goal;
But Heav'n's great view is one, that that the Whole.
That counterworks each folly and caprice;
That disappoints th'effect of every vice;

And skipping ahead to the end of stanza V, Pope concludes that there is indeed virtue to be found in vice, in that it directs attention to our own particular failings:

Shame to the virgin, to the matron pride,
Fear to the statesman, rashness to the chief,
To kings presumption, and to crowds belief:
That, virtue's ends from vanity can raise,
Which seeks no int'rest, no reward but praise;

Pope is likely echoing John Milton in the fourth verse. Wrote Milton of the Fall in Paradise Lost:

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness!

Theologically and philosophically, though, this is tricky stuff. It's not hard to tweak it into an "ends justify the means" mentality. So while giving the poor frog and its metaphorical progeny their due (and wishing them a long and un-poached retirement), I think an equally useful pair of Pope couplets can be found at the end of stanza IV:

If white and black blend, soften, and unite
A thousand ways, is there no black or white?
Ask your own heart, and nothing is so plain:
'Tis to mistake them costs the time and pain.

Nothing wrong with mixing shades of gray as long as we don't forget that there is still a big difference between right and wrong.

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January 24, 2007

JR 500


No, this is not a futuristic prototype. It's the JR 500 Nozomi ("Hope"), the fastest (cruising speed: 186 MPH) Shinkansen, in service now for a decade. (Photograph below by Fukusaburo Hamada.)

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January 18, 2007

My thoughts on fashion exactly


Queries Mark Cuban:

Why am I such a suit hater? I'm not a suit hater, I just could never think of any good reason for any sane person to wear a suit in the first place. Exactly what purpose does a suit serve? Why in the world are so many people required to wear a suit to work? Do the clothes make the man or woman in the western world today? Does wearing a tie make us work harder or smarter? Is this a conspiracy by the clothing, fabric or dry cleaning industry to take our money? Or are we all just lemmings following a standard we all know makes zero sense, but we follow because we are afraid not to?

What I don't get is the tie. Or perhaps wearing the symbolic representation of a hangman's noose to work is supposed to stand for something? Though I can't really complain. The last time I wore a suit on a daily basis was fifteen years ago when I taught English in Japan. But I don't need to be a zillionaire like Cuban to swear to never wear one again.

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January 14, 2007

Yaoi 101


It might be helpful to start out describing what yaoi is not: it's not "gay" literature per se; that is, stories written by or for the gay community. It is not about gay culture, nor does it focus on the real-life concerns of recognizably "realistic" gay men in any meaningful manner.

Yaoi is a fantasy genre written largely by women for women--enough of them, in fact, to comprise a significant market presence in Japan. An acronym, it means Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, or "No climax (lit., "no mountain"), no point, no meaning."

But here, in the translation from Japan to the west, a confusion of terms enters the picture that needs to be clarified.

In Japan yaoi refers more specifically the genre created in the doujinshi, or amateur, manga market. In this respect, it is the closer analog to slash. Slash is a fan fiction genre that pairs up same-sex leads, mostly from television series, and places them in sexual relationships. The granddaddy of all slash pairings is, of course, Kirk/Spock. Others include Mulder/Krycek and Xena/Gabrielle. Hence, "slash."

Like yaoi, slash is a PWP (Plot, what plot?) literary style, which, along with the obvious copyright issues, confines it to the realm of fan fiction. Copyright law in Japan allows explicitly derivative doujinshi ("parody") a much freer rein. As long as parody doujinshi maintain their "amateur" status (like NCAA athletes), the copyright holders treat it as free publicity, and publishers regularly scout out doujinshi for emerging talent worth taking pro (again, like the NCAA).

(For breezy, funny, and informative forays into the nuts and bolts of the doujinshi and otaku subcultures I recommend the anime series Comic Party, which focuses on the travails of a doujinshi manga artist; Animation Runner Kuromi, which documents the workings of a small animation studio; and the very funny Genshiken, which depicts the lives of those hapless but lovable geeks who voraciously consume manga and anime.)

However, even in Japan, there is no way to commercialize derivative yaoi/slash without compromising the lucrative cross-media licensing business that drives the billion-dollar manga/anime industry. In fact, manga periodicals are often published at a loss, in the same way that Hollywood television series, especially sit-coms, are sold to the networks at a loss, with the expectation of recouping the investment in syndication.

So the emergence of a commercial "yaoi" market in the U.S. isn't really about yaoi at all, but what in Japan is called shounen-ai ("boy's love") or "BL," featuring bishounen (beautiful boy, or B-Boy) characters. Because no matter what the context, in English, "boy's love" sounds like kiddie porn, So yaoi became the default hypernym for the entire genre. In this context, though, I use it only to refer to BL, which usually features adult (or at least teenage) protagonists.

On this side of the Pacific, porn (hentai) is often analyzed as a counterpart to female romance literature of the Harlequin variety, and visa-versa. The comparison is useful here as well. Yaoi is the yin to hentai's yang. If hentai asks, along with Henry Higgins, why a woman can't be more like a man (sexually), yaoi makes the obviously contrary proposition: Why can't guys be really into relationships like girls? (But still into sex like guys?)

Sex is certainly not absent from Harlequin romances, and western observers who overplay the explicitness of (heterosexual) "Ladies Comics" (explicit manga aimed at women 18+) miss the point that if you illustrated the typical Harlequin Blaze title, that's exactly what you would get. But the cliche is correct: sex in romance novels primarily serves as the confirmation of the relationship, not as a goal of the relationship.

The formulation can be summarized that simply: take one of the aforementioned Harlequin titles, swap out the female protagonist, and there you go: yaoi. (Adjust sex accordingly: from "idealistically chaste" to "horny like rabbits.") Or rather, take a yaoi title, swap in a female protagonist (and adjust personalities accordingly, subtracting the requisite S&M elements), and you'd end up with a fairly ordinary romance novel.

In his review of Brokeback Mountain, Steve Sailer describes the plot as a "gay fantasy," that "somewhere out there is an ultra-masculine cowboy who will fall head over heels in love with [you] and pine away for [you] his whole life." One of Sailer's gay readers later added, "It's a gay man's fantasy that he can turn a masculine man gay and have him pine at him forever (and be monogamous of course!)."

Romance literature creates protagonists with the same magical powers, women whose feminine wiles will domesticate the rake, the pirate, the millionaire playboy, the rugged, lone Marlboro Man. Glenn Reynolds' fourteen-year-old niece perhaps summed it up the best: "[Brokeback Mountain] is a chick-flick with nothing but hot guys." Rebecca Copeland, professor of Japanese studies at Washington University, agrees, theorizing that

Japanese women are attracted to stories of male homosexuality because it's the only place in their society where they can see images of men in a loving, caring relationship where both partners are considered to be equals. It's the kind of relationship that Japanese women crave for themselves but rarely find within the confines of traditional Japanese society.

This still does not answer the question posed by Mark McLelland: "Why Are Japanese Girls' Comics full of Boys Bonking?" And rarely as true "equals," protagonists typically described as seme (aggressor) and uke (receiver). McLelland begins by arguing that the same thing works in reverse, pointing to the popularity of so-called "lesbian" sex in male porn, where, "women combine ultra-feminine bodies with implausibly guy-like appetites for casual sex" (even more true of hentai).

It all gets back to Henrietta Higgins wondering why a man can't be more like a woman. Well, the famous all-female Takarazuka theater troupe does it literally: all the male leads are (of course) played by women with cropped hair and (fairly forced) alto voices.

Watching a Takarazuka production, I'm reminded of a slick, professionally-produced junior high school drama club production, with the pubescent boys trying their best to look and sound like grown men--or rather, what they think grown men look and sound like. The unabashed, straight-faced sincerity of the effort constitutes much of the fun.

Aside from its sheer novelty, there is also a distinctively (hetero)sexually-unthreatening aura about a Takarazuka musical, knowing that the leading lady is in fact falling into the arms of . . . another woman. With a simple reversal of polarities, this is the same effect achieved by yaoi. Thus, no surprise that the willowy, porcelain-skinned Takarazuka "leading man" looks exactly like the typical manga or anime yaoi protagonist.

Compare this head-shot of Takarazuka actress Sumire Haruno to the completely unrelated yaoi cover art at the top of the page. (View the complete cast here.)

Just as hetero hentai features female characters with male sex drives, yaoi, too, is similarly founded upon extrapolations of idealized sexual (on one hand) or platonic (on the other) male relationships. Although slash is a "parody" genre, it points to a real truth about the "buddy picture" dynamic. From Star Trek to the Lethal Weapon movies, these are stories about strong, confident, unsentimental male relationships.

These borderline yaoi relationships show up in (often slashed) mainstream manga and anime aimed at pubescent boys such as Gundam Wing, Berserk, and Descendants of Darkness. The guys in these action series carry about big phallic weapons, and/or big Oedipal Complexes, and/or exhibit obvious alpha/beta (senpai/kouhai) pairings, and spend precious little time with, or exhibit much interest toward, members of the opposite sex

This may be also because much of the (male) target audience still thinks that girls have cooties, or is just plain scared to death of them. But there is no questioning the social safe harbor that boys seek and find with the neighborhood gang or best friend/buddy (as in Stand by Me).

As Norah Vincent observes in Self-Made Man, these are comfortable, nonjudgmental, inclusive relationships devoid of pretense, where "They took [you] at face value . . . [and] if you did your job or held up your end, and treated them with the passing respect they accorded you, you were all right." In contrast to the "amount of rejection and hauteur that heterosexual men put up with" dating women.

Norah Vincent came to these conclusions after spending a year disguising her sexual identity and inserting herself into various facets of male society. She literally fulfilled Henry Higgins' wish. Yaoi does in fiction what Norah Vincent did in real life. It inserts the reader into heart of a feminized gloss of the male "buddy" relationship, sans the social burdens and elaborate rituals and Victorian restraints that accompany heterosexual matchmaking.

UPDATES: here, here, and here.

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January 10, 2007

Doctors with tragic pasts


I hadn't noticed M. Night Shyamalan's doctor-with-a-tragic-past obsession until I realized that Paul Giamatti's backstory in Lady in the Water is the same as William Hurt's in The Village. But it doesn't stop there. Bruce Willis is a doctor-with-a-tragic-past in The Sixth Sense, as is Shyamalan (directing himself) in Signs. Only Unbreakable lacks one (yet another reason it's his best movie). I don't know if there's something autobiographical going on here, but it's getting kinda creepy.

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January 09, 2007

Lady in the Water


His uneven track record notwithstanding, I'm predisposed to like films by M. Night Shyamalan. I generally admire artists who, to paraphrase Stephen King, stay in touch with their own popular culture and aren't above crowd-pleasing when it's called for. And even more daringly, create entertainment without a pretentious intent to shock or offend, and with a modicum of good taste.

Shyamalan, you might say, has perfected the "family horror film," and all the power to him.

Back in the day, all horror films could be said to be "family friendly," at least in the PG sense. (And anybody younger just got bored.) The 1942 version of Cat People, for example. But then Hollywood discovered the R rating, latex makeup, and body casting, and the race to the gross-out bottom began. The 1981 American Werewolf in London and the 1982 Cat People, for example.

I liked both movies, by the way.

At least during the 1980s, it seemed that the horror schlockmeisters figured that as long as they were in the exploitation business, they might as well exploit everything (often with tongue wedged in cheek), and so even the early installments of slasher flick crapola like Friday the 13th were sure to feature plenty of gratuitously naked nymphets, which did make the gory parts measurably more palatable.

Hollywood has since become curiously puritanical about nudity, with the perverse result that there are far fewer gratuitously naked nymphets in horror flicks, but a lot more (now digitally enhanced!) beheadings and disembowelings and flayed flesh and gushing fountains of blood and the like. Funny, because I've always considered psycho-killing more morally reprehensible than an attractive woman taking her clothes off on camera.

But maybe that's just me.

Worse, this new and improved genre of "horror" is rarely entertaining and never scary. Startling perhaps, but popping a balloon behind your ear is startling too, and costs a few pennies a shot. This vivisectionist wasteland created the breach into which the more restrained and visually interesting J-Horror stepped, but then too much J-Horror can be a lot like spending an eternal winter in Seattle. All that damp grayness gets to be depressing after a while.

Nobody gets naked in an M. Night Shyamalan movie either, even a movie about a lady who apparently spends most of her life underwater. But that's okay because he spares us the gore as well. Thus forced to use his brain instead of special effects and cinematic cheap shots, Shyamalan creates scenes that are genuinely frightening. Far more so than can be found in any splatter flick.

Unfortunately, he shares a key failing with another auteur who did his best work early in his career. Shyamalan is a better storyteller than George Lucas, but his latest efforts have been similarly hamstrung by an overestimation of his own talent. Yes, impressive that he can write, produce, and direct. But the feat by itself is not a substitute for real artistry in any one category.

In Star Wars, with a little help from Akira Kurosawa, Lucas latched onto the narrative motif of the heroic journey, and then being informed of the fact after the fact, stirred condensed Joseph Campbell soup into whatever he was making, regardless of whether the recipe called for it or not. The result has been the same as throwing Thanksgiving dinner into a blender. Sure, all the necessary ingredients are there, but blah.

Even at his worst, Shyamalan is more clever than that. But relying on his own wits, he has increasingly become too clever for his own good, or rather, more clever than smart. This shows up as the sheer dumbness of hydrophobic aliens invading Pennsylvania in the middle of the summer (average humidity: 75%), or as in the case of The Village, sheer cluelessness about what his own script is saying.

As for the latter, I really don't think Shyamalan purposely intended to make a movie about using terror and xenophobia to terrorize a population into conformity with a warped utopian ideology based on economically-bankrupt notions of socialist self-sufficiency. It makes for a nice rationalization of the maniacal rule of Kim Il Sung, though.

Maybe he did, and like Lucas his conceptualization of evil never graduated beyond Sesame Street Manicheanism. But I'd rather think it just didn't occur to him. That's why, when it comes to plotting 101, it's a good idea to stick to the classics: because our ancestors have been there and done that and ironed out the kinks already.

A proven narrative structure also disciplines the storyteller. Shyamalan's most popular film, The Sixth Sense, and his best film, Unbreakable, both benefitted greatly from the traditional scaffolding holding everything in place during construction. Especially in the latter case, adherence to the comic book archetypes he took as his premise kept the storyline from wandering off into the tall weeds.

Which unfortunately is what happens in Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's most untenable and belabored film to date. The story is one familiar to horror and fantasy: the fairy tale or "bedtime story" that comes to life. It's a good idea. Shyamalan always starts with good ideas. It's the execution where he gets increasingly bogged down.

You see, it's not a real bedtime story or fairy tale. He's just making it up as he goes along. As Lucas did with the archetypal heroic journey, after a noteworthy start, he then rambles along as if taking a multiple choice test after studying the wrong cheat-sheet. He's got most of the right answers, just not in the right order or right context.

What's most disappointing about Lady in the Water is that there was no need to make anything up. World folklore is hardly starved for stories about mermaids and water sprites and the like. And the idea of having one show up in the swimming pool of a suburban apartment complex is delightful. Yet without a proven canon to refer to, Shyamalan is left to spend most of the movie trying to torture some smatterings of logic out of his own invention.

It therefore becomes necessary for his characters to be as clueless as himself. The one "expert" on this "bedtime story" turns out a Korean lady with no command of English. This makes for a few (low brow) comic moments, but also makes no sense, as none of the details of Shyamalan's fairy tale she provides have even the barest resemblance to anything even vaguely Oriental, or are linguistically consistent with the Korean language.

(To see a modern take on an authentic Korean fairy tale, check out Chunhyang.)

Nobody in the movie apparently knows how to use a library or access the Internet either. One of the many great things about Whedon's Buffy is that the "Scoobies" actually have to read and study and look stuff up to figure things out. But everbody in Lady in the Water is winging it because, well, Shyamalan is winging it. It shows.

The one bright moment in the movie comes when the grumpy theater critic who just moved in next door breaks fourth wall and muses about the odds of getting bumped off based on the structure of the plot and the MPAA rating. The scene is both funny and scary. But Shyamalan only uses it to show us how wrong, wrong, wrong those nasty movie critics are. Hardly a worthy use of his directorial talents.

That the scene is wasted as Shyamalan tries to do the exact opposite (but ending up doing exactly the same thing), while melodramatically snatching obvious plot elements from previous movies (enough of doctors with tragic pasts!), says to me that's it's time for him to humbly face his limits, hire a couple of good script writers, and get back to cementing his reputation as the Frank Capra of the family-friendly thriller.

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January 01, 2007

Unfortunate acronyms


Today's entry: "BS News."

When it comes to the MSM ("mainstream media"), not a few may consider that too rich an oxymoron to be true. I mean, ironists are required to be more suble than that. So it must be true, which it is. BS News is a satellite news service provied by NHK.

"BS" stands for "broadcast satellite," a fairly common acronym in the crazy world of romanized English in Japan. In fact, NHK provides three satellite television feeds of domestic BS (hey, that's what it's called) service: BS1, BS2, and BShi (hi def, not BShi*).

It is a cool logo, to be sure. But, obviously, if NHK ever wishes to reach a wider English-speaking audience--at least with its international news services--it's definitely going to have to come up with something else to surmount the giggle factor.


Because, as this logo helpfully informs us, tomorrow's brand new televised BS is here today! Okay, okay, I'll stop now. As Stan would say on South Park: "Dude, that stopped being funny about five minutes ago."

(And yes, to be technically correct, BS is an initialism, not an acronym, but who ever says "initialism"?)

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