Woody Allen’s Irrational Man

The familiar flatness and lack of conviction

By David Walsh
14 August 2015

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man, focuses on controversial philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who arrives at fictional, liberal arts Braylin College in Newport, Rhode Island to teach a summer course.

A depressed Lucas, who sips from a flask at every opportunity, has clearly run out of intellectual and emotional steam. For years he has been trying, without success, to finish a book on Martin Heidegger and Nazism. A close friend of his has been killed stepping on a landmine in Iraq. Political activism, by which Abe apparently means “human rights” work in Darfur and other global “disaster areas,” has failed him. Nothing energizes or excites him about life. He is also impotent.

Lucas becomes involved with two women, Rita Richards (Parker Posey), an unhappily married fellow professor, and Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), one of his brightest students. Lucas resists Jill’s advances for some time, but they become constant companions and her youth and enthusiasm rub off on him.

Irrational Man

Lucas expresses disdain for academic philosophy, asserting that there is a vast difference between “theoretical” reality and the “real, nasty world.” He suggests to a roomful of students, including Jill, that much of human theorizing is a form of “verbal masturbation.” He seems to favor an absurdist, existential view of things, referring in his classes and conversations to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Dostoyevsky and others. I have “no zest for life… I’ve given up,” he tells Jill. At a party he even indulges in a dangerous game of Russian roulette.

A conversation that Abe and Jill hear by chance, while sitting in a diner, changes things. (Anyone who doesn’t care to know the central narrative wrinkle in Irrational Man should stop reading now.) The woman in the next booth is tearfully explaining to her friends that a particular judge is unfairly going to find for her husband in a bitter custody dispute. Supposedly, the judge has some prejudice in favor of the husband, but will not recuse himself.

As Lucas tells us in a voiceover, he there and then determines to become a vigilante for the cause of good and bump off the judge, calculating that this will be a “perfect murder,” since he has no motive or connection to any of the judge’s cases.

Having accomplished the deed, Lucas quickly comes back to life. Now everything starts “flowing.” He has made his “existential choice… Life has the meaning you give it.” Thanks to his “meaningful act,” Abe can have sex with both Rita and eventually Jill. Unfortunately, this idyllic state of affairs is interrupted by a police investigation and the suspicions of several people close to him.

Allen’s Irrational Man has the same fatal flatness and lack of conviction that have plagued his filmmaking for the past two decades, since Husbands and Wives (1992). Reality, personal and social, has clearly knocked the stuffing out of the writer-director. He continues to turn out a film a year, calling on the services of some of the most intriguing talent, but the works are largely drained of and starved for life. (And it is an indication of the state of the contemporary film world that performers are reportedly thrilled to work with Allen, for far less money than they normally receive.)

Irrational Man

The idea content of the new film is very weak. Aside from the fact that Lucas’s relatively undiluted and gloomy existentialism would have been far more appropriate—where is postmodernism, for instance?—to the period when Allen might have gone to university (he dropped out, in fact, in the 1950s), the presentation is full of clichés.

Particularly irritating is the sight of the two female leads—who are far more interesting and dynamic as personalities than Phoenix or his character—circling around an individual who hardly possesses a single original thought. When Jill exclaims worshipfully to Lucas, in a restaurant, “I love that you order for me,” and Rita, equally adoringly, proclaims after their first successful sexual encounter, “What happened to the philosopher? Christ, you were like a caveman,” one feels that the filmmaker (for whom every leading male character is a stand-in) has simply made himself a little foolish.

The faint, faint echoes of Crime and Punishment are evident. To mention the two works in the same paragraph, however, is inappropriate. Dostoyevsky, for better or worse, approached his novel with the utmost urgency and sincerity, intending to take up what he perceived to be pernicious nihilistic and atheistic views and attitudes. The dialogue and actions in the novel, with the exception of its concluding, falsely self-abnegating section, are thoroughly convincing.

There is terribly little that is convincing in Irrational Man. That Lucas, as personally miserable as he may be, would embark on a plot to murder another human being in cold blood on the basis of one snippet of overheard conversation is preposterous. In any event, far from carrying out a “perfect murder,” Lucas allows himself to be seen at key moments by various eyewitnesses.

Flatness, lethargy, sluggishness, intellectual exhaustion: these are words or phrases that come to mind throughout.

It should not be necessary to begin from zero on the subject of Woody Allen’s sad, protracted decline. In 2005 (Melinda and Melinda), we commented: “The Allen persona wore thin a good many pictures ago, but it carried him through until the early 1990s. Various factors, including personal ones, may have caused him to lose his way so dramatically, but no doubt social changes played a decisive role. The milieu that he lovingly, if sardonically, chronicled has disintegrated.”

Irrational Man

Four years later (Whatever Works), we wrote that it was “impossible to detach Woody Allen’s decline, notwithstanding its individual twists and turns, from the general fate of considerable numbers of quasi-cultured, semi-bohemian, once-liberal, upper middle class New Yorkers in particular.

“Intellectually unprepared for complex social problems, culturally shallow, ego-driven and a bit (or more than a bit) lazy, exclusively oriented toward the Democratic Party and other institutions of order, distant from or hostile toward broad layers of the population, inheriting family wealth or enriching themselves in the stock market and real estate boom…for a good many, the accumulated consequences of the past several decades have not been attractive.”

In 2014 (Magic in the Moonlight), we noted that “Woody Allen’s new film seems very distant from life, including his own life.” Over the course of the previous year, Allen had been subjected to a scurrilous campaign, spearheaded by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the champion of imperialist “humanitarian interventionism,” over unproven 20-year-old allegations of child molestation. We added that “Allen seems too self-absorbed and too limited at present to be able to bring into his filmmaking the central dilemmas of our time, even when they involve him directly. So, as a consequence, his work resembles life less and less.”

Nonetheless, Allen remains a cultural presence, largely and residually based on his earlier comedy and film work and also in recognition of the fact that he has never entirely thrown in his lot with the Hollywood system.

His pessimism is not attractive, and it has consequences, whether he recognizes that or not. At the drop of a hat, Allen tells interviewers how miserable he is and how he finds life pointless and absurd. For example: “I’m a great believer in the utter meaningless randomness of existence… All of existence is just a thing with no rhyme or reason to it. We all live subject to the utter fragile contingency of life.” (He seems to have gotten over his view in 2009 that “now we’re entering into at least a period of some hope, of some human possibilities for the country … we’ve made progress, and elected our first African-American president.”) To preach such things to young people in particular is highly irresponsible.

Allen also declares, whether sincerely or not, that most of his films are “failures,” a judgment, unhappily, that one is obliged to agree with.

The writer-director has dealt before with the protagonist-criminal, most notably in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007). The first of those films is perhaps the most important and deepgoing in Allen’s career: a wealthy ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) faces a crisis due to the increasingly strident demands and threats of his mistress (Anjelica Huston). He turns to his shady brother (Jerry Orbach), who hires a hit man to take care of the woman.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen no doubt, consciously or otherwise, took a look at the filthy, money-grubbing ethos of the “Reagan years,” but more generally, he alluded to the moral and social shift of an entire social grouping, the erstwhile liberal, Jewish, New York middle class, which was suddenly finding itself wealthy and obliged to support the most ruthless measures in defense of its riches.

Unfortunately, Irrational Man is almost entirely bereft of that historical and social concreteness. It floats like an inconsequential straw in the breeze.

While the film may be relatively negligible, it raises some issues that are far from negligible.

Allen’s title deliberately refers to the well-known 1958 study (and promotion) of existentialism of the same name by William Barrett. The latter, an American academic, who, after “flirting” with Trotskyism in the 1930s, like many of his generation, converted to anticommunism and irrationalism under the intellectual influence of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. Barrett ended up a sour neoconservative.

Barrett’s Irrational Man, which was almost mandatory reading in American high schools and universities in the 1960s, was one of the milestones marking the move of significant sections of the intelligentsia toward anti-Marxism. “Marxism,” Barrett pontificated ignorantly, “has no philosophical categories for the unique facts of human personality, and in the natural course of things manages to collectivize this human personality out of existence.” (Have we ever heard this kind of thing before?)

Marxism, he goes on, is one of the “relics of the nineteenth-century Enlightenment that have not yet come to terms with the shadow side of human life as grasped even by some of the nineteenth-century thinkers themselves.” (Again, is this the slightest bit familiar?)

The Marxist “picture of man,” according to Barrett, “is thin and oversimplified. Existential philosophy, as a revolt against such oversimplification, attempts to grasp the image of the whole man, even where this involves bringing to consciousness all that is dark and questionable in his existence. And in just this respect it is a much more authentic expression of our own contemporary existence.”

To what degree Allen takes this reactionary viewpoint at face value is unclear. But to the extent that this type of ideology has remained in the background of his thinking, it gives a clue as to some of the difficulties at work.

One of the peculiarities of Irrational Man, the film, is that Allen on the face of it subscribes to Lucas’s outlook. Presumably, as long as one sits around and discourses pseudo-profoundly about the meaninglessness of life and doesn’t poison or push one’s fellow creatures down elevator shafts, existentialist nihilism retains its allure.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/14/irra-a14.html

Amy, a documentary film about the British singer Amy Winehouse

By Joanne Laurier
12 August 2015

Directed by Asif Kapadia

British-born director Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy, about the pop singer Amy Winehouse (1983-2011), is a straightforward and compelling account of the performer’s life starting at the age of fourteen. Through video footage from a variety of devices and the voiceover comments of friends, family members and music industry figures (Kapadia conducted 100 interviews), the documentary paints a picture of an immensely talented and tortured musical prodigy.

During her eight-year recording career, beginning when she was still a teenager, Winehouse garnered numerous awards, including six Grammys. Her second album, Back to Black, released in October 2006, made her an international singing star. By the time of her death, she had sold more than six million albums in the UK and US alone. Kapadia’s film features a number of her biggest hits, “Rehab” (2006), “You Know I’m No Good” (2007), “Back to Black” (2007), “Love is a Losing Game” (2007), and her soulful duet with Tony Bennett, “Body and Soul” (2011).

Amy

From an early age, as the documentary reveals, Winehouse aspired above all to be a jazz singer. Among her most important influences were Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Bennett and others. But she also channeled many of the pop artists and trends of the 1960s and 1970s, including Motown, R&B, reggae, Carole King, James Taylor and “girl groups” like the Shirelles and the Ronettes. In her music and extraordinary voice one encounters a multitude of influences, each one distinct and yet blended together to create a personal and unique sound. A record industry figure notes that she was a “very old soul in a very young body.”

After Winehouse’s death, Bennett commented: “It was such a sad thing because … she was the only singer that really sang what I call the ‘right way,’ because she was a great jazz-pop singer.…A true jazz singer.”

The movie opens with footage of a close friend’s 14th birthday party in 1998, at which Winehouse offers an alluring, mischievous version of “Happy Birthday” à la Marilyn Monroe, and ends with the aftermath of her tragic death from alcohol poisoning in July 2011 at the age of 27.

A friend observes at one point that she was “a North London Jewish girl with a lot of attitude.” Her father Mitchell owned a cab and her mother Janis was a pharmacist. Her paternal grandmother Cynthia was a singer and at one time dated Ronnie Scott, the tenor saxophonist and owner of the best-known jazz club in London.

Kapadia’s Amy follows Winehouse from her teenage years to the beginnings of her professional music career in 2002 and beyond. We see a host of appearances and performances, both private and public, some of them intensely intimate and very affecting to the viewer. In some of these scenes, the young singer is disarmingly genuine, childlike and really adorable.

Three of Winehouse’s friends, including two from childhood, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, and her first manager (when he was 19 and Winehouse was 16), Nick Shymansky, provide the most in-depth and believable portrait. Her father, her ex-husband Blake Fielder and her promoter-manager Raye Cosbert also feature prominently in the film, in a less favorable light.

At a certain point, of course, Amy gets down to business, which every viewer knows is coming—the singer’s [meteoric] Rise and [tragic] Fall, as it were. Much of the documentary details her successes and the severe complications or contradictions accompanying those successes.

Amy

Winehouse insists—and one feels, sincerely—on several occasions that celebrity and what comes with it is not her goal. As she told CNN in a 2007 interview, “I don’t write songs because I want my voice to be heard or I want to be famous or any of that stuff. I write songs about things I have problems with and I have to get past them and I have to make something good out of something bad.” Early on in the film, in fact, she asserts, “I’d probably go mad [if I were famous].” Later on: “If I really thought I was famous, I’d f—g go top [kill] myself.”

Tragically, Winehouse, already a bulimic since her adolescence and a heavy drinker early on in life, falls into heavy drug use. Kapadia’s documentary focuses perhaps too much on this aspect, as though this by itself could explain her fate.

The film effectively captures some of the ghastliness of the modern celebrity racket. Countless scenes record paparazzi camped outside her door and snapping photos of her every move, including the most crazed and desperate. Her ex-manager Shymansky told an interviewer, “the paparazzi were allowed to get brutally close…it’s this infatuation with getting up people’s skirts, or seeing someone vomit, or punching a paparazzi.”

As Winehouse goes to pieces in public, the media engages in what Shymansky calls, in the film, “a feeding frenzy.” Kapadia himself told the media, “This is a girl who had a mental illness, yet every comedian, every TV host, they all did it [bullied or laughed at her] with such ease, without even thinking. We all got carried away with it.”

The production notes for Amy suggest: “The combination of her raw honesty and supreme talent resulted in some of the most original and adored songs of the modern era.

“Her huge success, however, resulted in relentless and invasive media attention which coupled with Amy’s troubled relationships and precarious lifestyle saw her life tragically begin to unravel.”

The inquest into Winehouse’s death, according to the Daily Mail, found that she “drank herself to death … Three empty vodka bottles were found near her body in her bedroom. A pathologist who examined her said she had 416mg [milligrams] of alcohol per decilitre [3.38 fluid ounces] of blood—five times the legal drink-drive limit of 80mg. The inquest heard that 350mg was usually considered a fatal amount.”

Kapadia’s documentary is both valuable and intriguing. Because the director lets Winehouse speak (and sing) for herself, the viewer receives a relatively clear-eyed and balanced picture of both her artistry and her qualities as a human being. Amy rightfully points a finger at a predatory industry. Kapadia told NME (New Musical Express, the British music journalism magazine and website), “I was angry, and I wanted the audience to be angry. … This started off as a film about Amy, but it became a film about how our generation lives.” NME continues, “Kapadia hopes his film will force the music industry to re-examine its handling of young, troubled talents.”

In the interview, unfortunately, the director places too much of the blame on the public itself, as though people were in control of the information they received and were responsible for the operations of the entertainment industry.Amy, at more then two hours, is perhaps overly long because the filmmaker seems intent on driving home to the viewer his or her supposed “complicity.”

In opposition to this, the 2011 WSWS obituary of Winehouse argued that the ultimate responsibility for her death lay with “the intense … pressures generated by the publicity-mad, profit-hungry music business, which chews up its human material almost as consistently as it spits out new ‘product.’”

Comic Russell Brand, in a comment on the death of Winehouse, a close friend, characterized the celebrity culture as “a vampiric, cannibalizing system that wants its heroes and heroines dead so it can devour their corpses in public for entertainment.”

Stepping back, Amy Winehouse was definitely a cultural phenomenon. As opposed to many acts and performers, who ride on the crest of massive marketing campaigns, like bars of soap or automobiles, she came by her fame honestly, almost in spite of her efforts. She truly struck a chord with audiences and listeners.

This was not an accident. Her songs, in part because they brought to bear (and made new) so much popular musical history, registered with audiences as more substantial, truthful and urgent than the majority of current fare. Winehouse’s popularity reflected a dissatisfaction with the lazy, self-absorbed pablum that dominates the charts.

In terms of the combination of factors that led to Winehouse’s death, of course there were the individual circumstances of her background and life. The entertainment industry juggernaut inflicts itself on everyone, but only the most vulnerable collapse under what is to them an unbearable burden.

As always in such cases, the media self-servingly treated the singer’s death as a purely personal episode. The Daily Mirror, for example, fatuously suggested that Winehouse was “a talent dogged by self destruction.”

Surely, something more than this, or what Amy offers as an explanation (drugs, difficult family history, a bad marriage, a cold-blooded industry), for that matter, is called for. Why would someone at the height of her global fame and popularity bring about the end of her life so abruptly and “needlessly”? What made her so wretched and conflicted?

To begin to get at an answer, one must look at the more general circumstances of her life, including the character of the period in which she lived…and died.

She came of age and later gained public attention between the years 2001 and 2011, in other words, a decade dominated by “the war on terror” and the politicians’ “big lie” and hostility to democratic rights (the Blair government in particular prided itself on flouting the public will), as well as by global economic turbulence and sharp social polarization. The generation she belonged to increasingly looked to the future with skepticism and even alarm. A serious darkness descended into more than one soul.

One study of American college-age students in the first decade of the 21st century, and this could certainly be applied to British young people as well, sums them up as a “generation on a tightrope,” facing an “abyss that threatens to dissolve and swallow them,” “seeking security but [living] in an age of profound and unceasing change.”

Amy Winehouse, as far as this reviewer is aware (or the film would indicate), never addressed a single broader social issue, including the Blair government’s involvement in the Iraq War, which provoked one of the largest protest demonstrations in British history in February 2003. Nonetheless, the drama, anxiety and sensitivity of her music speaks to something about both the turbulent character of the decade and the dilemma of a generation whose dreams and idealism came up against the brutal realities of the existing social set-up.

The manner in which Winehouse approached the latter “dilemma” was refracted through the objectively shaped confusion and difficulties of that same generation, which finds itself hostile toward dominant institutions and yet not entirely clear why. In that light, Winehouse’s famous refrain in “Rehab,” “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, ‘No, no, no,’” which from one point of view might simply seem self-indulgent, comes across as a firm (if misguided in this case) rejection of intrusive orders from above.

In part due to an unfavorable and unsympathetic social atmosphere, a conscious or unconscious alienation from official public life, Winehouse turned inward and reduced these significant feelings into purely personal passions and self-directed anger, and ultimately, with her lowered psychic immune system, found herself a victim of that rage and disorientation.

Kapadia’s Amy does not go anywhere near some of these critical issues, but it is a worthwhile introduction to the work of a remarkably gifted artist.

 

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/12/amyw-a12.html

Mr. Holmes: Old age, the perils of science, a minor mystery solved …

By David Walsh
6 August 2015

Directed by Bill Condon; written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Mitch Cullin

Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes places the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), now 93, in postwar Britain. Holmes lives in seclusion in Sussex, in South East England, with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Mr. Holmes

Thirty years after his last case and the departure of his chronicler, Dr. John Watson, Holmes faces inevitable physical and mental decline. In fact, he has traveled to Japan in search of prickly ash (“Japanese pepper”), a plant supposed to increase one’s mental powers. During the course of that trip, Holmes witnesses the horrible devastation of Hiroshima, targeted by a US nuclear weapon in August 1945 (in fact, 70 years ago today).

Holmes is attempting to write the story of his last case, or correct Watson’s fictionalized version of the episode (also made into a film, which we see bits of), but he cannot adequately remember its details, or at least its denouement. Holmes senses, however, that the conclusion of the case must have something to do with his decision to isolate himself from other people.

Meanwhile the aging former detective strikes up a friendship with Roger, a very bright child, who helps him with his bee-keeping and other matters. That friendship threatens, perhaps makes jealous, his working class mother, who lost her husband in the war. She plans to take a job in another part of the country, in part to remove Roger from the older man’s company.

In fragments, we see the 1917 case still troubling Holmes. Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) comes to see Holmes with concerns about his wife Ann (Hattie Morahan). After two miscarriages, Ann has sunk into depression and apparently fallen under the spell of an exotic music instructor, Madame Schirmer (Frances de la Tour), for some unknown reason.

Mr. Holmes

Holmes takes on Kelmot’s case and finds himself following the latter’s wife through the streets of London. Things, of course, are not as they seem. The sad fate of Mrs. Kelmot, once Holmes recalls it, has an influence on the way he responds to and treats human beings in the present.

There are modestly appealing elements in Mr. Holmes. McKellen and Linney are of course accomplished performers, and generally interesting to watch. Milo Parker is charming as Roger. Some careful attention is paid to the details of daily life and everyday relationships. Holmes’ deterioration is presented with sensitivity, although at times that deterioration and McKellen’s aggressive presentation of it threaten to dominate the film, pushing other matters aside. One wants to say on a couple of occasions: we know people get old, what of it?

The “mystery” surrounding Mrs. Kelmot turns out to be rather mundane, though sad enough. The case, wrapped up in the course of a single afternoon, hardly ranks with one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s remarkable stories.

Mr. Holmes

It would be mistaken to suggest that Mr. Holmes beats the viewer over the head with any particular theme. Director Bill Condon proceeds more “moderately” and discreetly than that, but in so far as his film has a central concern, it seems to be with Holmes’ supposed super-rationality. In an interview, Condon suggested that “Holmes has all these steps along the way towards figuring out the limitations of rationality.”

In the annihilation of Hiroshima we are meant to recognize the dangers represented by modern science. (Condon: “You watch science taken to that degree where it becomes irrational, and pure destruction.”) The viewer is also intended to draw critical conclusions about Holmes’ response to Mrs. Kelmot, who needs comforting (and even being lied to) rather than common sense advice. Holmes himself certainly draws that conclusion in the film. He has hid himself away from others, he realizes, because of the damage he thinks he has done.

Neither of these points is especially convincing. “Modern science” as such was not responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—modern capitalist society, and specifically, American imperialism, was to blame.

As for Mrs. Kelmot’s situation, it is not entirely clear what Holmes could have done. His chilly, conventional reaction was probably not helpful, but it seems absurd to fault him for her fateful decision. He did not, as they say, find her wandering around in the woods. Her situation was formed by circumstances that had nothing to do with Holmes.

Condon, who first made his name with Gods and Monsters (1998), has an eclectic body of work. His most interesting work remains Kinsey (2004), with Liam Neeson as the famed sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey, whose efforts in the 1950s came under attack from right-wing forces. That film, made during the Bush administration and in defense of sexual “variation,” was done with a certain amount of warmth and humanity.

But Condon has also written or directed some trivial works, or worse, includingChicago (2002, which he wrote), Dreamgirls (2006), The Twilight Saga (two parts, 2011 and 2012!) and, most disgracefully, The Fifth Estate. The latter work, a hatchet job on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), left a particularly foul taste in the mouth.

As we noted on the WSWS: “Despite claims by the director and others involved that the film was not conceived as an attack on Assange and WikiLeaks, [The Fifth Estate] is a tendentious work promoting a definite agenda.” An article in Vogue confirms Condon’s hostile attitude toward Assange: “Cumberbatch realized that some of Assange’s fears were justified. ‘On a lot of the stage direction, we collided paths because Bill [Condon] did seem to be setting him up as this antisocial megalomaniac.’”

An interviewer suggested to Condon that “you’re personally in support of this way of exposing truth, and the importance of it.” The director replied, wretchedly, “Yeah, but I would never say I agree with total transparency for powerful institutions, because governments cannot function with total transparency. I think that’s a naive idea, you know?”

Condon’s Mr. Holmes does not involve dramatizing contemporary political issues and personalities. In a period piece, the director can avoid revealing in so direct a fashion his accommodation to the status quo and the accomplished fact. However, something of his essential conformism on important matters, colors Mr. Holmes. It is not an impressive work.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/06/holm-a06.html

Trainwreck: The latest from Judd Apatow

By David Walsh
1 August 2015

Directed by Judd Apatow; written by Amy Schumer

Trainwreck is the latest effort from Judd Apatow, who as either producer, director or writer (or sometimes as two or more of these) is responsible, or partially responsible, for two dozen or so comedy films since the early 2000s, including Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Talladega Nights, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Bridesmaids, Wanderlust, This is 40 and others. Apatow is something of a “brand name” at this point.

In Trainwreck, Amy Schumer, the stand-up comic and writer, is the psychological mess of the title. Devoted to a father (Colin Quinn), a cantankerous, hard-drinking womanizer, who put it into the heads of his two daughters at an early age that “monogamy isn’t realistic,” Amy, in her early 30s, is a hard-drinking and promiscuous journalist.

Trainwreck

Assigned by her horrid British-born editor, Dianna (a relatively unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), to do a story on a sports doctor, Aaron Conners (Bill Haider), Amy finds herself in the uncomfortable and unexpected position of caring for someone and having someone care for her.

Amy’s sister Kim (Brie Larson) leads a more conventional suburban, middle class life, with a husband (Mike Birbiglia) and a stepson (Evan Brinkman). The sisters often quarrel, either about their father, of whom Kim strongly disapproves, or Amy’s life-style.

Aaron is something of an innocent. His life is given over to medicine, including doing volunteer work for Doctors Without Borders. Because of his profession, he is friends with various athletes, including basketball star LeBron James.

Amy responds with genuine terror to Aaron’s uncomplicated notion that since the two of them care for one another, they should go on seeing each other. She fears, as they say, “commitment” and “intimacy.” Her father’s influence is apparently to blame.

In any event, to no one’s possible surprise, Amy and Aaron come together inTrainwreck and try their hand at a relationship, get into difficulty (due to her irresponsibility and his emotional rigidity) and fall apart, and, by movie’s end, decide to give it another go.

This is not a good film. It is difficult to tell how talented Schumer (a relative of US Senator Charles Schumer, one of Wall Street’s leading mouthpieces!) may be. There are perhaps half a dozen genuinely amusing moments in the film. Schumer actually seems best at physical comedy. Her bit on a treadmill and as a cheerleader is entertaining. And there are times when her face expresses a mobility and a mischievousness that are not reflected in the script or the action.

The situations in Trainwreck are not especially interesting or comic, or moving. Strained gags, overdone bits, dull patches and clichés take the place of plot or character development for the most part. One looks at one’s watch. The conclusion could hardly be more conventional and “family values” oriented.

The film veers between a nastiness that seems unaccountable, and an occasional genuine sweetness. The latter is provided, for the most part, by Haider, who is appealing here, and LeBron James, unexpectedly. James is quite charming as a friend looking out for Aaron’s best interests, who sternly quizzes Amy, for example, about her “intentions.”

The downright meanness is not amusing, and, for the most part, makes no sense, aside from a few legitimate (but rather easy) shots at the tabloid magazine industry. Trainwreck goes out of its way to poke demeaning fun at Steven (John Cena), Amy’s muscle-bound boyfriend toward the beginning of the film, but one can never figure out why, or where the mockery is going. The sex scene between Amy and Steven is simply an embarrassment, or should be, for everyone involved.

The “Apatow Touch,” on display here, unfortunately involves painting nearly everyone on screen at certain moments as an awkward, unpleasant moron. That purpose fulfilled, the character the next time he or she appears may be portrayed in an entirely different, perhaps quite sentimental light. All too often there is no rhyme or reason other than the immediate search for cheap laughs.

The casual misanthropy and bitterness in the films churned out by the “Apatow school” are peculiar and unattractive. They seem to express the general frustrations, disappointments and self-doubt of this particular portion of the American upper middle class, which both promotes itself aggressively and fights for its place in the sun and, at the same time, has the nagging sensation that its artistic products are tawdry and trivial, and a waste of time. Nothing is worked through, nothing is entirely convincing or heartfelt, and then a program is made out of the lack of completeness and sincerity.

The critics like to refer to the “refreshing” and “truthful” character of Apatow’s films. To each his own, but only under a very narrow definition could revelations about this or that bodily function or body part be construed as ground-breakingly “truthful.” Almost everything important lies outside this film, and films like it.

There is some talent on display in Trainwreck, but until something dramatic is done about the entire approach to comedy and life, nothing much should be expected from this quarter.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/01/trai-a01.html

Post Capitalism

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Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.

https://medium.com/@jonathantaplin/post-capitalism-f8d687d19c3

R.W. Fassbinder at 70: the German filmmaker’s life on display in Berlin

By Hiram Lee
23 July 2015

German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was born seventy years ago this May. To honor the anniversary, a number of events have been held in Berlin.

An exhibition on display at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum until the end of August, entitled Fassbinder Now, features several artifacts from the director’s personal archives. Annekatrin Hendel’s new documentary, simply calledFassbinder, has been shown in cinemas and on German television.

Throughout July and August, Berlin’s Arsenal cinema is screening some of Fassbinder’s classic films, including three of his best works—Effie Briest(1974), Fox and His Friends (1975) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).Fassbinder’s plays, or plays based on his films, have recently been staged at the Deutsches and Gorki Theaters.

A serious appraisal of Fassbinder’s work on the occasion of his seventieth birthday would have been most welcome. Unfortunately, the exhibition in Berlin and Hendel’s documentary do not by and large rise to that level.

©Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, Berlin

While it has certain worthwhile features, the Fassbinder Now [Fassbinder—JETZT] exhibition is a mostly superficial affair. Curators have culled a number of items from Fassbinder’s personal archives, though some of the materials chosen for inclusion are puzzling.

It is difficult to imagine why anyone should be especially interested in seeing a pinball machine once owned by the director, or his bicycle for that matter. This is not an appraisal of Fassbinder the artist, but a presentation of Fassbinder as icon or celebrity. One is even invited to take a seat on the director’s sofa.

More interesting is the collection of home video cassettes that once belonged to the filmmaker. These include the works of Douglas Sirk, of course, whose influence on Fassbinder is often noted. But his library also contained a large number of major and minor films from Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks and several other of cinema’s greatest storytellers. Fassbinder was well versed in the works of classic Hollywood and European cinema, as his own efforts demonstrate.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970 ©Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Foto: Peter Gauhe

Most significant is the large selection of Fassbinder’s shooting scripts, handwritten notes and other working materials on view. For all the attention paid to his private life, Fassbinder appears to have spent most of his time working. He was a tremendously prolific artist, creating 41 feature films as well as numerous works for the stage during his short life.

Included in the collection are materials from his epic-length adaptation for television of Alfred Döblin’s classic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), a work that held a lifelong fascination for Fassbinder, and his notes toward a film about Rosa Luxemburg, which he was preparing near the end of his life. A version of her life story would ultimately be filmed by Margarethe von Trotta, one of Fassbinder’s early collaborators, in 1986.

While such materials are worth seeing, the museum provides little context for them and offers generally poor introductions to the different pieces shown.

Tom Geens, You’re the Stranger Here, 2009 ©BFI & FILM4

Regrettably, several of the exhibition’s rooms are given over to works by contemporary artists said to follow in Fassbinder’s footsteps. You’re the Stranger Here (2009), a short film by Belgian filmmaker Tom Geens, is a nasty piece of work, in which a middle class family is victimized by an unstoppable military dictator who rapes and murders at will. There is no escape, not even an attempt is made. The film has far more in common with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s severely demoralized 1975 film Salo than it does with any of Fassbinder’s work.

A 2005 video installation by Maryam Jafri entitled Costume Party depicts a room of partygoers who adopt the dress of various social types and perform the roles associated with them. The implication is that we are all complicit in the social order and conform to this or that role, taking part in our own oppression or that of another. Apparently there are no innocent parties.

To the extent that these artists were influenced by Fassbinder at all, they have gravitated toward whatever was weakest or most pessimistic and cynical in his work. What was a limitation for Fassbinder has become a priority for them.

There is, more generally, an attempt on the part of certain middle class critics and admirers of Fassbinder to over-emphasize the director’s sexuality and play up the treatment of sexual orientation and “personal identity” in his films. The social content of his best work and his hostility to capitalism and opportunism are obscured in the process.

Hendel’s documentary Fassbinder is the summer’s other major tribute to the director. While it is a more sympathetic film than the tabloid documentaryFassbinder: To Love Without Demands (Christian Braad Thomsen), which debuted at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, both works tend to gossip about Fassbinder’s sex life and do what they can to confirm his reputation as cinema’s enfant terrible in a leather jacket (the jacket too is on display at Martin-Gropius-Bau). There is something unseemly about watching Fassbinder’s former friends and collaborators badmouth him in these documentaries, giving voice to petty jealousies and other personal grievances.

If Fassbinder only paved the way for second-rate artists and abused many of his collaborators in the process, why should anyone pay attention to him today?

Character assassination aside, Fassbinder made one of the more remarkable contributions to film in the second half of the twentieth century. One can see powerfully dramatized in his work the consequences of sacrificing one’s principles to careerism, status and the pursuit of wealth or friends in high places. With often painful accuracy, he describes the debasement of human relationships under conditions in which success is defined by those very pursuits.

Among the film clips on view in the Fassbinder Now exhibition is the devastating scene from The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) in which the status-obsessed middle class family of a fruit peddler, now that he appears to be taking a step up the social ladder, finally permit themselves to speak openly to this black sheep of the family. One by one, the family members freely—and with relief—admit how they had hated and been embarrassed by his manner of making a living. The fruit peddler suffers in silence. It is a deeply affecting sequence. There are many more such examples to be found throughout Fassbinder’s work, especially in the films made between 1969 and 1976.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus on the set of Beware of a Holy Whore, 1970-71 ©Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Foto: Peter Gauhe

During his career, Fassbinder tackled virtually every period in German history from the late nineteenth century onward. There was the minor aristocracy of the late 1800s in Effie Briest, the Weimar Republic in Berlin Alexanderplatz(1980), fascism and the Second World War in Lili Marleen (1981), the postwar period and the “economic miracle” of The Marriage of Maria Braun and radical terrorism of the 1970s in The Third Generation (1979).

Two films about anti-immigrant chauvinism—Katzelmacher (1969) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)—appear even more relevant today than at the time of their release.

Fassbinder saw a thread of continuity running through German history. In film historian Thomas Elsaesser’s Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject(1996), one finds the following comment in which the director spoke about his film Lili Marleen: “[It] is my first attempt to make a film about the Third Reich. And I will certainly be making other films about the Third Reich. But that’s another subject, just as the Weimar Republic is another subject. This cycle will also be continued. Maybe at the end, a total picture will emerge of the German bourgeoisie since 1848 … I think, there is a logic in all this. Just as I think that the Third Reich wasn’t just an accident, a regrettable lapse of history, as it is so often portrayed. The Third Reich does have a sort of logic, as well as what carried over from the Third Reich to the Federal Republic and the GDR.”

However, an interest in history is not the same thing as understanding it. Of course, the Third Reich was not an accident, but neither was it the inevitable and “organic” outcome of German history. The horrors of Hitlerism were only made possible by the historic betrayal of the working class by Social Democracy and Stalinism in the years 1914 to 1933, in the course of which numerous opportunities to overthrow German capitalism and prevent the barbarism of Nazism presented themselves.

The concrete problem of the crisis of working class leadership in the 20th century—above all, the life-and-death conflict between Stalinism and Trotskyism—was largely a closed book to Fassbinder and other radicalized intellectuals and artists in Germany in the 1980s. Many settled for a relatively lazy, semi-anarchist bohemianism and consoled themselves with the thought that the critical political questions of the previous half-century were “old hat” or solely the concern of “Old Leftists.” And they paid a high price as a consequence.

Another remark featured in Elsaesser’s Fassbinder’s Germany is telling. “Freud sometimes seems more important than Marx,” says Fassbinder. “The changing of productive relations in society and the exploration of interpersonal communication must be achieved in parallel fashion … I find that psychoanalysis from childhood on should be the right of every citizen.”

This sort of Freudianized Marxism, associated with the Frankfurt School, held sway over the student protest movement of the late 1960s, which played a prominent political role in Fassbinder’s formative years.

Through this body of thought, many of his generation were directed away from the most vital questions of class society and directed instead toward individual psychology, sexuality and consumerism. According to the co-founders of the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer and Adorno, capitalist society had developed powerful mechanisms to integrate the broad masses of the population into their own oppression. One of the products of this political-intellectual process in Germany today is the pro-imperialist Green Party.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972 ©Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, Berlin

It is interesting to note that Fassbinder’s film The Bitters Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) was subtitled “A medical history” and not, for example, “A social history.” Effie Briest carried the cumbersome subtitle: “Many people who are aware of their own capabilities and needs just acquiesce to the prevailing system in their thoughts and deeds, thereby confirm and reinforce it.”

This was a demoralized perspective, an outlook that emerged following the trauma of fascism and the Second World War and the brutal crimes of Stalinism, taking root under conditions in which German capitalism was able temporarily to restore its equilibrium after the war.

Fassbinder’s best films evinced a real sympathy for ordinary people, but only rarely did he demonstrate any great confidence in them. Toward the end of his career, in the last years of the 1970s and in the early 1980s, he churned out one story after another in which individuals compromise themselves, conspire with reactionary elements and are destroyed in the process. Something in him had been fatally worn down. He died, tragically, in 1982 from a drug overdose. He was only 37 years old.

A critical appreciation of Fassbinder’s work on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of his birth, taking up the significant strengths and weaknesses in his work and placing them in the appropriate context, would be of great value. This is not to be found in the Fassbinder Now exhibition or in the recent documentaries of his life.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/23/fass-j23.html

 

How “Big Data” can help save the environment

Journalists, scientists & techies must work to translate data into the knowledge needed to address climate change 

How "Big Data" can help save the environment
A rider attached to the appropriation bill that funds the EPA would end the moratorium on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon which could contaminate the Colorado River
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American

A recent study using NASA’s CALIPSO satellite described how wind and weather carry millions of tons of dust from the Sahara desert to the Amazon basin each year – bringing much-needed fertilizers like phosphorus to the Amazon’s depleted soils.

To bring this story to life, NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization team produced a video showing the path of the Saharan dust, which has been viewed half a million times. This story is notable because it relies on satellite technology and data to show how one ecosystem’s health is deeply interconnected with another ecosystem on the other side of the world.

Stunning data visualization like this one can go a long way to helping communicate scientific wonders to the wider world. But even more important than the technology driving the collection and analysis of this data is how the team presented its findings to the public – as a story. NASA’s CALIPSO data offers a model of how scientists, technologists and journalists can come together and make use of data to help us respond to this a slow-motion crisis like air pollution.

Being able to see the dust blowing in the wind has broad implications. Today, one in eight people in the world dies from exposure to air pollution, which includes dust. This stunning fact, issued by the World Health Organization last March, adds up to 7 million premature deaths per year. Air pollution is now the single largest environmental risk in the world, and it occurs both indoors and outdoors.

The WHO report, which more than doubles previous estimates, is based on improved exposure measurements including data collected from satellites, sensors and weather and air flow information. The information has been cross-tabulated with demographic information to reveal, for example, that if you are a low- to middle-income person living in China, your chances of dying an air pollution-related death skyrockets.

These shocking statistics are hardly news for people living in highly polluted areas, though in many of the most severely affected regions, governments are not eager to confirm the obvious. The availability of global scale particulate matter (dust) monitoring could change this dynamic in a way that we all can see.

In addition to the volume of satellite data generated by NASA, sensor technology that helps create personal pollution monitors is increasingly affordable and accessible. Projects like the Air Quality EggSpeck and the DustDuino (with which I collaborate) are working to put tools to collect data from the ground in as many hands as possible. These low-cost devices are creating opportunities for citizen science to fill coverage gaps and testing this potential is a key part of our upcoming installation of DustDuino units in Sao Paulo, Brazil later this summer. Satellite data tend to paint in broad global strokes, but it’s often local details that inform and motivate decisions.

Satellites give us a global perspective. The official monitoring infrastructure, overseen by large institutions and governments, can measure ambient air at a very high resolution and modeling exposure over a large area. But they don’t see everything. The nascent field of sensor journalism helps citizen scientists and journalists fill in the gaps in monitoring networks, identifying human exposures and hot spots that are invisible to official infrastructure.

As program officer of the Earth Journalism Network, I help give training and support to teams of data scientists, developers and environmental journalists around the world to incorporate this flood of new information and boost local environmental coverage. We have taken this approach because the skills that we need to communicate about slow-motion crises like air pollution and climate change require a combination of experts who can make sense of data and journalists who can prioritize and contextualize it for their readers.

Leveraging technologies, skills and expertise from satellites, sensors and communities alike, journalists, scientists and technologists need to work together to translate data into the knowledge needed to address environmental crises.

 

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/07/18/how_big_data_can_help_save_the_environment_partner/?source=newsletter