Saturday, June 14, 2003

Blogger eats post! (Film at 11?)

Somehow, in Blogspot's attempt to move me to its new editor (doubtless an improved product but nonetheless riddled with bugs), the server dropped Thursday's post on anime and action movies. It may be lost for all time, but I'm not too miffed. I rewrote the post in about an hour, and much prefer the new version -- it is shorter and more to-the-point, both good things to my mind.

I love rewriting old essays; it's like going to a reunion and finding that, against all odds, your colleagues grew up and for the most part turned out rather well. When I rewrite, everything I liked from my early drafts comes back to me like an old friend, while the material I don't like matures into something I can at least live comfortably with. If youthful energy has dwindled, something better has taken its place.

Still, the rewrite will probably mean that my essay on Yojimbo (no longer playing at Vinegar Hill, alas) won't be posted until tomorrow. Forgive, gentle reader. It's coming soon.

Friday, June 13, 2003

Mistah Kurtz, he dumb (Part II)

Today's National Review Online features Stanley Kurtz in a full-on, frothing-at-the-mouth fit over an Ontario court ruling that effectively legalizes Gay marriage in Canada. Kurtz is dead set on opposing Gay marriage, and he gives several possible outcomes in which Canada could subvert its courts and keep marriage a "Straights-only" club. Among them, he includes the remote chance that the national government could invalidate these marriages, breaking up these family units as if they never existed -- surely not a thing that social conservatives would ever cheer if heterosexuals were involved.

Of course, Kurtz never explains why Gay marriage would be bad for society. That's all assumed. Instead, Kurtz claims that judicial rulings on Gay marriage are bad because they take the debate out of the people's hands. However, his rationale comes with one major problem, of which conservatives should be especially aware these days: In a constitutional democracy, there are things that the people do not get to decide on their own. For example, the people do not get to determine the basic civil and human rights accorded to individuals. Those rights are already fixed under the Constitution and the rule of law -- and the job of an independent judiciary is to interpret the laws, even invalidate them if necessary, to prevent the capricious "will of the people" from becoming the sole governmental force. As the Framers envisioned it, the judiciary, with its judicial activism, protects us all from the perils of mob rule.

Kurtz notes that the only way to put the kibosh on the whole idea of Gay marriage within the US would involve the swift passage of a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, thus guaranteeing that the will of the people (in 2003, at least) can endure indefinitely against those nefarious Canadian leftists. This would set a rather dangerous precedent. If the "people's will" constituted sufficient reason to amend the Constitution, then over time we could gradually amend the Constitution to fulfill the people's will in other matters -- perhaps to restrain certain forms of distasteful speech, to expand the powers of law enforcement against individuals suspected of crimes against the state, or even to prohibit the sale and possession of certain intoxicating or deleterious substances (though as I recall, we tried something like that once before). By doing this, we could establish the will of the people as supreme, and take the sticky business of individual rights out of the judiciary's hands altogether.

I think that if pressed, Kurtz himself would acknowledge these problems with his argument. His article feels like a desperate gambit from someone who knows he's on the wrong side of history, but can't quite bring himself to recant. Most likely, as Kurtz well knows, Canada's social fabric will not erode or fall apart because the government permits same-sex marriage. We won't see plural unions or legalized bestiality as a result of the Ontario court's ruling, and religious institutions that refuse to celebrate same-sex marriages won't be forced to peform them. However, those religious institutions that already celebrate same-sex marriages, such as the evangelical-Christian Metropolitan Community Church, will for the first time be allowed to do so with full civil sanction. (This also means that many religiously-married Gay couples in Canada will have to get married all over again -- this time in an official, legally binding civil ceremony. I doubt they'll object too much to that, though.)

Since Canada's families remain just as strong as ever if not more so, the burden of proof on same-sex marriage will now fall, for a change, on America's social conservatives. Americans currently have an example close to home of happy, healthy same-sex marriages (as well as the depressing, dysfunctional ones, just like some Straight people have). Over time I suspect we'll get to see that Gay marriage was far from the radical social experiment that many people thought. Indeed, inasmuch as the Ontario ruling will strengthen individual family units and make civil-union and other "marriage-lite" laws obsolete, marriage and family should become more attractive options than ever, for Gay and Straight couples alike.

Oh, dear. We've got to prevent that.

Update 6/14: Andrew Sullivan notes that Canadians favor Gay marriage by a substantial majority in most of the provinces. So in this case, the Ontario court isn't even acting against popular opinion (a major point of Kurtz's argument). Small wonder, then, that the Canadian Parliament has decided not to contest the ruling.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (or, Anime and Action)

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie isn't nearly as good as Miyazaki's Spirited Away, but the film is getting the same disappointing treatment from Hollywood distributors. It's been nearly two years since the film was released in Japan, and almost two months since it entered a very limited, unpublicized release in US theaters. Most of America hasn't even heard of the movie, let alone had the chance to see it.

Although Cowboy Bebop: The Movie only occasionally lives up to the excellent "Cowboy Bebop" television series, it's a very nice action flick. It's certainly no worse -- and frequently a good deal better -- than the many live-action adventures clogging American multiplexes during the summer. This led me to think about the current state of American cinema, in which live-action blockbusters require ever-expanding budgets (from $120 million for X2: X-Men United to a quarter of a billion dollars for the upcoming Terminator 3).

Cowboy Bebop is the sort of film where you don't try to make too much sense of what happens. It's a retro-futuristic action rush, blending elements of Buck Rogers and Lucas's first Star Wars trilogy with the urban decay of Bakshi's Heavy Traffic. The film's visuals are fairly lavish, especially for Japanese anime, but I'd guess that the production budget remained under $15 million. Perhaps that's because this film tells the kind of story that is best told with animation, with vast futuristic cityscapes, lots of flying gadgetry, and big explosions that are much easier to draw than stage.

At the moment, American live-action blockbusters show the influence of Japanese anime to an almost embarrassing degree. Action scenes in the upcoming Hulk movie are basically elaborate chop-socky CGI cartoons, photorealistic (or "hyperrealistic") versions of the frantic fights that anime has depicted for decades. This is also true for major sequences in the current Matrix: Reloaded -- though since the Wachowski brothers have admitted that the Matrix series was an attempt to transfer the aesthetic of anime to the big screen, it's more a fulfillment than a betrayal when the action goes entirely digital. Still, when even Steven Spielberg claims he turns to Miyazaki's Castle of Cagliostro for inspiration, I can't help but think that our admiration of Japanimation has gone a bit far.

Anime tells the kind of story that is easiest and cheapest for animation to tell, and most difficult (and expensive) for live-action to attempt. It departs from American animation's fluid movement, expressive characters and imitations of live-action Classic Hollywood style -- the naturalistic effects that animation can achieve only with great expense and difficulty. Instead, anime offers jerky movement, very limited character animation, lots of special effects (which are easier to pull off than character animation), and an unchained, freely moving "camera." But when anime is well directed, as Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is, it produces the same "shock and awe" effect as a good Hollywood blockbuster -- for a fraction of the cost.

This doesn't mean the advantage always goes to animation. When we need more human stories, with fewer technological marvels and more subtle nuances of acting and lighting, live-action filmmaking is definitely the way to go. It's impossible to imagine last year's surprise hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding rendered convincingly in animation, yet the highly profitable comedy cost a mere $5 million to make (a middling budget for indie film, and peanuts by Hollywood standards). Again, when live action films tell the stories best suited to live action, they achieve their best results -- and box office -- at relatively low cost.

Just because we can do the same things in live-action that the Japanese can do with animation doesn't mean we ought to. In fact, I think American audiences are starting to revolt against the "CGI-animated" live-action cinema. To recoup or at least justify the enormous technical resources required to simulate anime in live action, studio marketing departments are practically compelled to blitz the market with endless promos and gimmicks, just so the studio can get that all-important $100 million opening weekend. They get it, but audiences walk away disappointed: Not even The Godfather could have survived all this hype, so what chance does a glorified cartoon have?

Result: After an offer we can't refuse, the typical blockbuster's box-office gross promptly sleeps with the fishes. Studios have learned how to create a monstrous "Bang!" of an opening weekend with no aftereffect; it's a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Still, there's a place for blockbuster action filmmaking; I'll admit that I enjoy fights, explosions and thrilling action as much as the next red-blooded young male. But I suspect that the resources of American cinema would be deployed more efficiently, and perhaps even to better effect, if filmmakers told live-action stories with live action and left the cartoons to animation.

For my part, I'd rather see a $15 million anime spectacle that still retains a sense of character and an idiosyncratic personality, than a CGI-enhanced live-action cartoon made for ten or fifteen times that amount which has been tweaked, chopped, and audience-tested to death. And I suspect that if American audiences were given a chance to see good anime in a theater, they might agree.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie hits DVD on June 24. Give it a rental and see what animation does best. (Or better yet, catch this film in a real theater -- if you still can.)

Previews of Coming Attractions

I've been a bit slow on the draw for the past week -- a matter of quality over quantity, I hope. Still, over the next few days, look for a short post on the anime feature Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, a somewhat longer post on Kurosawa's Yojimbo (playing this evening at Charlottesville's Vinegar Hill Theatre), and another installment in my "Sight-and-Sound" series, this one on Jacques Tati's Playtime.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Mohandas and Me

The other night, I was talking with a guy (nice, but not my type) in a bar (nice, but not my type), and he asked me what I thought about "Gandy." Since we'd been talking about cartoons five minutes earlier, I assumed he meant Gandy Goose, a negligible Terrytoons character from the 1940s, and wondered, How in the world did this guy know about Gandy? Cheap-and-plentiful Terrytoons were the meat and potatoes of crummy children's shows when I was a kid, so I'm pretty sure I saw a Gandy cartoon at some point. Still, I don't remember anything about it ...

"No, Gandy. The Indian guy who got the British out." Ummm, we're not talking about cartoons anymore, are we?

Gandhi and I -- or rather, the idea of Gandhi and I -- have something of a history. About four years ago, I joined a Gandhian movement for Gay rights, and our focus was mostly on protesting anti-Gay bigotry within religious institutions. To this end, I was told to study Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence. However, because I undertook this study on my own and explored outside the required reading (generally bad things to do if one intends to join a movement), my assessment of his life and work differed considerably from that of my comrades.

Most Americans subscribe to the standard hagiography of Gandhi: Filled with an overpowering call to virtue, his attempts to get the British out of India transformed the world for peace. What's more, the man looked like Ben Kingsley, only a lot less pasty, so he must have been one of the twentieth century's really good guys.

Well, not quite.

Gandhi's thought never quite developed to the point where one could call it a philosophy, but even so it had several noticeable problems. For example, Gandhi didn't understand that "nonviolent resistance" -- an idea he swiped from America's own Henry David Thoreau and turned into the sort of mass movement Thoreau himself would have deplored -- only works in certain situations, under certain social and political conditions.

The central tactic of nonviolent resistance -- which Gandhi called satyagraha, or "soul force" -- can only be used against governments with an active classical-liberal tradition. That's why it worked so well on the British, who had long found the methods of colonialism at radical variance with their own national self-image as lovers and defenders of freedom (1215, Runnymede and all that). You can find this cognitive dissonance in all the great (and more than a few not-so-great) Victorian novels, manifested in such forms as the Creole madwoman in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the "un-English" murders in Dickens's Mystery of Edwin Drood, or the curse of the great jewel in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. Even the most loyal British apologists for empire had a tough time defending the nuts and bolts of imperialism: Rudyard Kipling's writing, for instance, may glorify empire, but it doesn't shy away from the nasty "business side" of power. In Kim, the harsh realities of imperialism clash dramatically with the rationale behind it, so that closure and heroism are ultimately achieved not in the context of Western militarism, but within Eastern mysticism (albeit in an ironic, heavily subjective form). Kipling may assert that the British have a duty to bring civilization, "the white man's burden," to the natives -- but then again, Kipling also asks, what if the locals don't want it?

Gandhi certainly didn't care much for Western civilization, at least if one of his most notorious quips on the subject ("I think it would be a good idea") is any indication. He organized massive protests in India to expose the incompatibility of imperialism and classical liberalism, and he gambled correctly, if not quite consciously, that in Britain, classical liberalism would prevail. Even so, the development was far from historically inevitable. When Gandhi's protests inspired equally massive crackdowns from British colonial authorities, a free press disseminated the information throughout the world, including Britain. Without a free press, the crackdowns would have been as anonymous and effective as the Armenian genocide. But of course, had British colonial authorities not cracked down on Gandhi's protests -- which is to say, had these protesters gone utterly unmolested -- there would have been nothing for the free press to report.

And this, as it turned out, was the great lesson American government learned during the American civil rights movement: Gandhian protests are only effective to the extent that they encounter official, government harassment. Nowadays, peace marches in the spirit of Gandhi are fairly common (cf. the Million Man March, the Million Mom March, the Millennium March for Gay Equality, the marches and rallies against the recent war in Iraq). But since no one bothers to turn fire hoses and billy clubs on them, they don't have much of an impact on America as a whole.

Nonviolent protesters in colonial India had hit the trifecta, so to speak: a free press, a receptive liberal audience, and a group of blundering adversaries willing to meet peaceful protests with excessive force. The people of Britain already knew what a messy business an empire could be, and the various military crackdowns against Gandhi's activity outraged them so much that they pressured their government to find the nearest exit. But this pressure could only materialize because the British believed in fundamental human rights, and had a say in the affairs of the nation -- both important components of a functioning democratic tradition. Though World War Two delayed Britain's exit, India received its independence after the war had ended.

World War Two exposed one major flaw in Gandhi's strategy: Gandhi never opposed Britain's defense of India during the war, but he never really supported it either. He seemed to think that because Nazis and Brits both had guns and fought wars, they were pretty much the same. Still, it's not hard to imagine what would have happened had Gandhi organized massive nonviolent protests under Nazi rule. The Nazis kept tight governmental controls on the press, so their atrocities remained largely unknown until the regime fell. And unlike the British, the Nazis had absolutely no compunction about killing thousands or millions of people. The Third Reich would have wiped out Gandhi and his protest movement before it even started, and for many years the world would not have known that anything had happened.

Even though Gandhi was a communist at heart, famously stating that there was "enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed," it's difficult to see how satyagraha would have fared any better under the likes of Stalin or Mao. Like the Nazis, Soviet and Chinese communists killed millions of people (including but not limited to political protesters), and used the press to hide their atrocities. It's impossible to imagine effective nonviolent resistance against either of these oppressive states, and indeed, neither one fell because of nonvolent "soul force." The Nazis fell, of course, because they were defeated in World War Two, while the Soviet Union collapsed because the United States kept its own military on high alert and managed to contain the spread of Soviet Communism. As the counter-demonstrators of San Francisco's Protest Warrior group remind us, "Except for ending slavery, fascism, Nazism and Communism, war has never solved anything."

Ultimately, Gandhi was a victim of his own success. Once Britain liberated India, the subcontinent promptly degenerated into a war of Hindus against Muslims. Gandhi was horrified at the widespread violence, and believed that his spiritual insufficiencies were to blame: India was bleeding, he thought, because he had failed to master his base desires. He responded by sleeping naked among dozens of young women, also naked, to demonstrate that he could control his desires and the violence could now cease. (This is what psychologists call "magical thinking.") Gandhi also felt that he had not properly instilled the idea of nonviolence in the Indian people who followed him. In one of history's many bitter ironies, one of his loyal disciples -- a Hindu extremist -- brought Gandhi's life to a sad end.

As Salman Rushdie wrote in The Satanic Verses, there are two important questions to ask of anyone with a new idea: "What kind of idea are you?" and "What happens when you win?" Gandhi failed to answer either one. He never understood what satyagraha truly entailed; and because he dismissed Western individualism and the liberal political tradition, he never understood why his actions worked to the extent that they did. He had no plan for what would happen once India attained its sovereignty, and no sense of how India would make the transition to a free state. The problems of mass rioting and religious violence subsided somewhat once India established a democratic republic founded on human rights and individual liberty -- a government nearly identical to that of their former oppressors. But the holy war of Hindu against Muslim is still a fixture of Indian life, and other than sleeping with naked women Gandhi never found a way to address the issue.

After I studied Gandhi, read his writings and learned about his life, I withdrew from our neo-Gandhian protest movement. It seemed to me that, in the spirit of Gandhi, we were getting just about everything wrong -- and screwing up even more thoroughly (if on a much smaller scale) than the great man himself. We targeted religious institutions and ignored our government, thus basing our argument for Gay equality on collective virtue instead of individual liberty. We attempted to influence private institutions to which we did not belong, and which were therefore under no obligation to listen to anything we had to say. We also didn't understand our near-total dependence on Western ideology, and thus adopted a left-wing multiculturalist stance that worked against our own position. And our relations with the mainstream media were sometimes -- how shall I put this tenderly? -- noticeably strained, which prevented us from making full use of our most valuable ally.

Most importantly, we didn't have adversaries willing to meet nonviolence with brute force. Law enforcement officials, perhaps wiser to our tactics than we, went out of their way to appear humane while upholding the law. Meanwhile, our own desperate need to "cry havoc" led us to make absurd statements about our alleged suffering at their hands. In one instance, protesters complained that the police abused them awfully by taking them for a few hours to a local detention center -- comfortable, air-conditioned, and certainly not as unpleasant as a real jail cell would have been -- and offering to feed them bologna sandwiches for a light lunch. Apparently these well-meaning policemen failed to realize that some of the protesters might be vegetarians. Oh, the oppression! Oh, the humanity!

Such, alas, is Gandhi's legacy.

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