Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Son Is Not Normal

So I found this crumpled up on the dining room table. Let's analyze. This picture means: In his spare time, my son likes to draw maps. I'm fairly confident that this map was done from his head, and it's almost disturbingly accurate. Despite this, my son found this map so riddled with mistakes... so imperfect... so horrible... that he crumpled it up in frustration.

Conclusion: My son is not normal, and we continue to be in for a world of hurt.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire's "Hollindie Syndrome"

So I finally saw this year's "Best Picture" Oscar-winner, Slumdog Millionaire. Seeing such a celebrated film so late presents a lot of problems. On one hand, your expectations are sky high. On the other hand, there's already been plenty of time for the inevitable backlash. Was Slumdog Millionaire a brilliant "feel-good" film, or was it an egregious exercise in how to depress audiences and exploit poverty at the same time?

It's hard to be objective in such circumstances, but I'll try.

The first thing that must be said about Slumdog is that it's a brilliantly structured film. As someone who has written five screenplays (including one that didn't suck), I appreciate structure. Structure is sorely lacking in many films, including, as I recently discovered, "Bee Movie" (I have a five-year old).

Organizing a film to show the distant past by playing a tape of answers to a set of questions asked in the recent past... to find out what's going to happen in the future... I'm sorry, but that's good stuff. There's a rule of screenwriting that you should avoid flashbacks. Slumdog exposes the absurdity of such blanket assertions. At least 85 percent of the movie is told in flashback, and couldn't work any better. You learn more about the characters with each question. You come to understand them and care about them. You not only want to find out if the main character wins the money, but if he gets the girl.

No doubt about it, the movie gets your attention and keeps it. And for that, any movie should earn at least a 6 out of 10. Slumdog is also well cast and well acted, so I'd raise that to a 7. It has a clear cinematographic vision that also works well, so that raises it to an 8. But unfortunately, just as the movie reached its climax, it broke my heart. In a bad way.

I would bet one-millionth of a million dollars that the original script for Slumdog had a different ending, but that the director, the studio, an executive producer or a focus group demanded that it be changed. And in the process, lowered their collective creation from the heights of brilliance down into the tepid soup of Hollindie Syndrome.

Hollindie Syndrome is when a movie is created and intended as an "indie flick," but then changes in the massive artistic and financial collaborative process into a Hollywood flick. The result is an interim solution whose identity crisis is infuriating. You may complain that dividing movies into "indie" or "Hollywood" is polarizing and unfair. Plenty of people have tried to define those increasingly murky terms. It used to be a simple matter of whether a film was financed by a big Hollywood studio or not. Now, with studios having spun off (and then shut down) indie divisions (like Big Beer getting into the "craft" brew business), the financial line is blurred.

The best definition comes from famed screenwriter William Goldman, who said this: Hollywood films reinforce the bullshit; indie films don't.

In other words, it's about happy endings. Great movies can have happy endings and horrible movies can have unhappy endings. The point is whether the film's ultimate intent is or is not to give us hope. (In other words, this is a rebranding of comedy and tragedy.)

Slumdog actually had a glorious chance to find a solid middle ground, and I'll be incredibly specific about how it could have done so. For his final question, Jamal is asked, "Who was the third musketeer?" after being given the names of first two. He doesn't know. He phones his brother, Salim (who has undergone a quick and convenient transformation to the side of the good), but through another set of convenient circumstances, Latika, the woman of Jamal's dreams, answers Salim's phone.

There were so many ways to go at this point. (SPOILER ALERT)

1. The script could have called for Jamal not to phone a friend at all, but simply smile and answer the question, "Latika" (whom he has always seen as his third muskateer). "Latika" isn't even an option, and Jamal knows he's wrong, but that's his answer and he doesn't care. He loses the money, but Latika hears him say it, is touched, and they end up together. I'm glad they didn't do this. Cheesy.

2. Jamal calls Latika and she knows the answer. That would be weird and random.

3. Jamal knows the answer. Letdown.

4. Jamal calls Latika. She doesn't know the answer either. But Jamal guesses the right answer anyway. This is what actually happens in the movie. So Jamal gets the money and the girl. It was too much. In effect, love and money get equal weight. I guess that's fair if you live in the slum that Jamal comes from, but that pushed an indie-minded film firmly into Terra Hollywoodia.

5. Jamal calls Latika. She doesn't know the answer either, and Jamal guesses wrong. Jamal doesn't get the money, but he gets the girl.

This is what I would have preferred. Yes, it still reinforces "the bullshit" that love conquers all, but it doesn't toss millions of rupees on top of it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Curse of One-Lens-ism

I suffer from ism-itis.

Every day, I'm warned about a different Ism from one source or another. I should be terrified of Islamic extremism. If that won't kill me, other forms of religious extremism will. Or maybe secular humanism is a bigger threat, I've lost track. Cultural relativism is surely a threat. As are atheism, agnosticism... or, depending on how you look at it, Catholicism and Zionism.

Mind you, this disease extends far beyond religion, and not every Ism actually has an "-ism." But the suffix is more and more implied as it pertains to any specialized though domain.

Some fellow Notre Dame alumni and alumnae are lobbying to have President Obama disinvited from this year's commencement largely due to his views on the legality of abortion and stem cell research. Others thought the same when George W. Bush was invited years ago, mostly due to his views on capital punishment and his doctrine of preemptive war. (We throw around the term "special interests," but we really mean "any interest." There are people in Washington who lobby on behalf sugar beets, for crying out loud...)

This is the problem. If you're looking for a real Ism to blame for everything wrong in the world, it isn't any of these. The real enemy of thoughtful discourse and good decision-making--the real thing we should be protesting on every street corner--is One-Lens-Ism.

Yet this intellectual disease is only growing in popularity. Why?

Because it's easy, that's why.

There are economists who see their discipline only through the lens of, say, currency valuations. Others focus on inflation. Others, employment. Others, deficits. Unsurprisingly, they rarely agree on economic policy. Some see energy policy only through the lens of fossil fuels. Others, wind and solar. Others, nuclear. Still others, biofuels. Unsurprisingly, each thinks their silver bullet will solve all of our problems (partly because they don't even agree on the problems). I'm sure veganism is a healthier lifestyle, but if I looked at absolutely everything through only that lens, it would be a disaster. And of course, we have the people who look at politics only through the lens of taxes, and they sound like children.

Think for a second about how easy this all is. We give people credit for passion and consistency when they see the world through only one lens, fighting every day for their micro cause. But we shouldn't. In fact, we should shame them. These are the most dangerous people on earth. Imagine waking up tomorrow and deciding, "From this day forward, I will see the world only through the lens of x." (Let's say it's "sugar maple trees.") We need more sugar maple trees! Sugar maples provide habitats and shade. They're beautiful, and they sequester carbon. They're way better than those stupid oak trees... they grow faster and bigger. We need more sugar maples! We need to prevent evil people from chopping them down! In fact, if someone wants to build a high-speed rail through a field that includes even ONE sugar maple tree, damn the rail line! (Even if it will keep more cars off the roads, lead to fewer traffic deaths and lower the carbon footprint more effectively than the trees...). I'm passionate about sugar maple trees, dammit, and I won't back down!

Now that's an easy way to live. You know what's hard? Looking through multiple lenses. Seeing how things are interrelated, how one thing affects another. Looking at legal issues as conflicts of rights. Looking at environmental and economic factors together, rather than assuming they're always in conflict. Looking at how high fructose corn syrup increases weight affects kids' health increases diabetes spurs greater use of the health care system increases health care costs raises insurance premiums eats away at family budgets makes parents buy cheaper food leads to their kids eating more high fructose corn syrup.

That's reality. Someone who only wants to look at one part of that chain: lazy. Someone willing to look at everything in a complex, multi-dimensional way and still try to solve problems: a leader.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Questions for The Economy

Dear Mr. Economy,

I have a confession to make. There are many things I don't understand about you, especially now that you're in such poor health. I was thinking that maybe if you helped me a little, we could both get better.

First, businesses like airlines, big banks, car makers and insurance companies. If these companies are all the first domino to fall in taking down a national or global economy (which is impossible by definition), and they truly do need government intervention to prop them up when they get into trouble, then why aren't they nationalized to begin with?

A follow-up question: If I'm the CEO, president or CFO at--or on the board of--one of these organizations, and I always know in the back of my head that if things get really bad in the future I'll probably get government help, then doesn't that affect my decision-making today, even in good times? In risk terms, doesn't it give me an incentive to take more risk than I should?

Next, AIG. If a single company like this is too big to fail (or more accurately, for us to let it fail), then doesn't it have a natural monopoly by definition? Isn't the competitive-rich capitalist system supposed to prevent monopoly power, and thus eliminate the "too big to fail" issue in the first place? I'm confused.

And finally, on a more philosophical note, let's be honest: Economics isn't a science; it's psychology. And value isn't real; it's a fiction. I don't care if we go back to the gold standard. Even gold has no intrinsic value. We assign it. We say "this looks beautiful and it's relatively rare and you can do things with it, therefore it has value." So if our entire economic system is based on psychological fiction, how can we go from producing and buying a ton of stuff one day to producing and buying nothing the next?

It's all just a story we've made up over time. Let's rewrite it!

Thank you for your time. I hope you get better. (Not just look better, but actually GET better.)


Mr. Liberal Arts Major