Specter of Reason

Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Last Jedi: Character Arcs, Part 1

This post contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

It's great that The Last Jedi continues to make the franchise more inclusive, but I am not ready to sing its praises. The fact is, Episode VIII is primarily about two white men: Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker. Yes, there are a handful of strong women and people of color, but their development in the film leaves a lot to be desired.

At the beginning of the film, Poe Dameron is a headstrong, independent and overly optimistic pilot who doesn't like to follow orders. He wants to lead the Resistance in its fight against the First Order, but his dramatic conflict in the film is not with anyone in the First Order. It is with Leia, who censures and demotes him when his insubordination results in an extreme loss of life, and who even shoots him when he attempts a mutiny that almost kills the entire Resistance. He needs to learn restraint and humility, though there is little evidence that he overcomes his limitations. Yet, at the end of the film, he commands the remaining members of the Resistance to follow him. They hesitate and turn to Leia for guidance. Leia quips, "What are you looking at me for?", as if Poe has earned their unquestioning loyalty.  In this light-hearted moment, Leia hands the baton of leadership over to Poe, signaling the completion of his character arc.

There is some evidence that Poe has changed, though not necessarily for the better: He may be less willing to sacrifice soldiers, and less confident in his ability to succeed against enormous odds. He suggests this when he calls off the mission to charge the First Order at the last minute, seeing his comrades being too easily picked off. However, this decision doesn't make Poe out to be a more competent or trustworthy leader, since he doesn't have a better plan for the Resistance's survival. What did he think was going to happen when he started the mission? Did he think they would be able to charge the First Order without significant casualties? It was a last ditch effort--of course there were going to be significant casualties--so why give up at the last minute? His actions make little sense and don't suggest an improved approach to leadership, so why does Leia now expect everyone to follow him? Is it just because she likes him?  For whatever reason, Leia is satisfied with Poe, so we are supposed to be, too.

Leia's role in the film is particularly disappointing, as she has no arc to speak of at all. Her desire is to keep as many members of the Resistance alive as possible, but her actions are only in relation to Poe. She has nothing else to do but be an obstacle for him, until she decides he doesn't need her anymore. Admiral Holdo serves a similar role: She is a stand-in for Leia, and she sacrifices herself when Leia returns. Consider how much more powerful it would have been if Leia stayed behind to "pilot" the ship at the end. Why did Holdo do it? There's no sense of character here. They're both just props, there for Poe to resist and then to tell us that Poe is entirely likable and worthy despite his devastating choices.

On a more positive--if tragic--note, Luke has a lot going for him in this installment. Luke was never an impressive Jedi. While he did manage to learn many tricks without much training, he was never as powerful as Darth Vader, let alone the Emperor. He was always tempted by the Dark Side, too. So it is perhaps believable that his devastating failure with Ben Solo would turn him away from the Force completely. Still, it is hard to imagine how Luke's backstory could have played out. Luke Skywalker once walked into the belly of the beast to confront his father and turn him away from the Emperor. How did he become so overcome by fear that he would consider killing Ben Solo in cold blood, just because Ben was gradually turning towards the Dark Side? What had Ben done? What had Snoke done? While I like the Rashomon-style of storytelling--giving us three different versions of the past, and leaving the audience with uncertainty--none of the stories tell us what led Luke to that pivotal moment in the first place. It's a significant gap that would probably take a whole separate film to fill.

Still, there is a clear redemption narrative here. Luke's goal is to find a way to live with his guilt and anger, but he cannot let go of the Jedi in him. For most of the film, he just wants to be left alone, thinking that he cannot be helped. He tries to destroy Rey's hope, though it's not clear if he has any compassion for her, or if he is just bitter. But he is not willing to destroy the ancient Jedi texts. Perhaps he hates the Jedi for still wielding power over him. He hates himself and the entire Jedi Order for all of their failures. He has shut himself off from the Force, even though he knows it is the greatest power in the universe. He's basically in hell. Then, Yoda frees him from bondage by tricking him into thinking he has destroyed the ancient texts. Yoda knows the texts aren't in the tree: Rey has taken them already. Yoda wants Luke to find his way back to the Force on his own. Freed from the burden of the past, Luke reconnects with the Force and finds hope again. It is perhaps ironic that Luke becomes a Jedi legend through an act of trickery. While Luke may be a fool, he is redeemed with his triumph over Kylo Ren--an act which sends waves of hope throughout the galaxy.

Luke's character arc in The Last Jedi is more or less compelling . . . until he dies. It's not so much how poorly motivated it is: It's a little frustrating that we don't see much reason for him to die at that moment at all--he did not seem weak at all--but the biggest disappointment is how quickly his death is passed over, as if it is not the most devastating moment in the entire Star Wars saga. It doesn't seem to have a profound effect on any of the other characters, even though many lives had been lost in the effort to find him and bring him back to the Resistance. We don't even get a reaction to his death from R2D2? The shallow treatment of this crucial moment takes away some of the power of Luke's arc, and the film as a whole.

While Luke's development has its good and bad points, Finn's is overall just bad. He changes from a person who is only out to protect himself and the people he loves (that would be Rey, at least at the beginning of the film) to a person who believes in compassion and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. This comes about due to his connection to the compassionate and inspirational Rose, though his transformation (and their relationship) is rushed and mostly buried under a cartoonish escape and rescue sequence. Finn suddenly shifts from potential runaway to hero when he realizes he and Rose can help the Resistance escape. Within moments of meeting Rose, he eagerly goes on a "mission impossible" without the slightest hesitation. There could have been a compelling, even endearing, narrative here about compassion and self-sacrifice: Rose could have forced Finn to go along with the plan, threatening to expose his attempt to run away; he could have abandoned her at the casino, only to decide at the last minute to help Rose save the animals and return to help the Resistance. But no, we just get a magical shift in attitude early in the film.*

Kylo Ren's arc is a bit muddier, and his conflicts are not entirely resolved. For one thing, Kylo's interests and desires are always in question. Does he want Snoke's approval, or is he just using Snoke so he can become stronger? Is his goal to start a new world order? He asks Rey to join him: Is this a tactical decision or does he want her companionship, or both? Does he just want to be loved? Does he want revenge on Luke Skywalker for not believing in him? What about his mother? He didn't want to kill her, but he seems fine when he thinks she is dead. Does he ever discover that she is still alive? With so much in doubt, we cannot say for sure if he changes at all over the course of the film.

Early in the film, Snoke ridicules him for wearing a mask, knowing--as we all did--that the mask was keeping Kylo from reaching his true potential. Humiliated, Kylo immediately destroys the mask, but it doesn't have the effect Snoke had expected. The newly confident Kylo won't kill Leia, and when given the chance, he seems to explore his compassionate side with Rey. But was he really opening up to compassion? If so, wouldn't Snoke have noticed? Didn't he sense Kylo's inability to kill his own mother? How could Snoke let Kylo trick him like that? It's hard to make sense of it. In any case, when faced with the choice between killing Rey and killing Snoke, Kylo chooses to kill his master. He is free from Snoke's influence, free from the past, and ready to create a future of his own making--but has he only done it so he can be with Rey? He is still an incompetent leader prone to temper tantrums. He has not gained compassion or self-control. And while he may be leading the fight against the Resistance, he's going to have to sleep with one eye open, since nobody in the First Order wants to follow him.

That leaves Rey, whose arc I will analyze in Part 2.

* Is Rose supposed to teach Finn something at the end about saving those you love? Because that's what Finn was trying to do at the beginning of the movie: Save himself and Rey. And at the end, wasn't Finn also trying to save people? That was the purpose of his attempted self-sacrifice. Is Rose saying self-sacrifice is never a good idea? Or was this just a moment of weakness for Rose: Was she being selfish, trying to keep Finn alive at the expense of the Resistance? As I noted above, Poe was wrong to call off that mission. Finn was right to keep going. Rose risked her life and Finn's by colliding right in front of the First Order. She had no reasonable hope for saving anyone's life, and good reason to think that she was destroying any hope for the Resistance. Rose was even wronger than Poe. And as with Leia and Holdo, Rose has no dramatic arc of her own. She is only there to aid Finn's development.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Coco, The Book of Life: What's the Difference?

If you've seen Coco and The Book of Life, you've surely noticed some of the similarities. At the very least, they are both animated musicals set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos). And you surely noticed that they both feature a guitar-wielding male protagonist who enters and returns from the Land of the Dead. But how many other similarities did you notice?


In both films:
  • Authenticity is a defining characteristic of the protagonist (Miguel in Coco; Manolo in The Book of Life).
  • The protagonist learns the guitar in secret, and against the wishes of his family. This sets up a conflict between the desire to be true to yourself and devotion to your family.
  • The conflict is resolved in a touching moment when the protagonist picks up his guitar and sings a plaintive song in front of his family. Authenticity and family both prevail in the end.
  • Main characters (Juaquin and Xibalba in The Book of Life and Ernesto in Coco) achieve fame and/or power through deception.
  • The deceptions are eventually exposed.
  • The protagonist meets an ancestor in the Land of the Dead who is also musical (Jorge Sanchez in The Book of Life and Hector in Coco).
  • The protagonist meets several other relatives in the Land of the Dead, who fight for him.
  • Among those relatives are twins who fight as a team.
There are significant differences, of course.
  • The Book of Life is a love story, whereas the plot of Coco focuses on the protagonist's desire to connect to his roots and uncover a family secret.
  • In The Book of Life, the human characters are manipulated by a god (Xibalba) whom Manolo must defeat.
  • In The Book of Life, the main story is presented as a myth, a story-within-a-story. In contrast, Coco is presented as a straightforward story taking place in the real world.
  • The Book of Life has a subplot about redemption: Juaquin proves to be compassionate and ultimately redeems himself through an act of selflessness.
  • The Book of Life is also about compassion, including compassion for animals. Manolo is defined by his compassion as much as his authenticity.
  • The Book of Life deals heavily with the tradition of bullfighting, which is not mentioned at all in Coco.
  • The Book of Life has deeper Mexican roots. It is produced by a Mexican filmmaker (Guillermo del Toro), and directed and co-written by another (Jorge R. Gutiérrez). (They discuss their personal feelings about the film here.) In contrast, Coco is produced, directed and written entirely by Americans. (Adrian Molina, one of Coco's co-writers and co-directers, is Mexican-American. He discusses his background and personal feelings about the film here.)
  • Coco features an all-Latino cast, though the vast majority of voice actors in The Book of Life are also Latino.
  • Spirit animals play a significant role in Coco.
Maybe all the similarities are a coincidence, though it's hard to believe it. The Book of Life was not only released first--its whole production process started first. It seems likely that Coco was heavily influenced by The Book of Life. Hopefully Coco's enormous success will draw more attention to the earlier, and in my mind superior, film.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Cory Booker And That Big Pharma/Canadian Drug Issue

Cory Booker has been getting a lot of heat for being one of thirteen Democrats to vote against a budget amendment supporting the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. (Overall, 72 percent of Senate Democrats and 23 percent of Senate Republicans supported the amendment.) Since Bernie Sanders cosponsored the amendment, it carries an aura of progressive, anti-establishment virtue, despite the fact that it was also supported by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and numerous other Republican Senators. It is just obvious to many people that the only possible explanation for Booker's 'nay' vote is that he is in Big Pharma's pocket. They say this for two reasons: first, because of the financial support he has received from the pharmaceutical industry (though it is only two percent of the total financial support he has received, and almost half of that two percent comes from individual supporters who live in his state and work in the pharmaceutical and health care industries); and second, because they don't see any truth in his own explanation, which is that we need to respect the role of the FDA in regulating our drugs.

You may believe that Cory Booker is corrupt because two percent of his financial support comes from people in the pharmaceutical industry. I think that's unfair, especially since many of his constituents work in that industry, but I'm not going to argue the point. Instead of defending the person, I'm going to defend Booker's argument and position.

The main line of attack against Booker's argument is this: What's wrong with Canada's drug regulations? Why can't we trust them? The presumption is that if there was some great danger associated with Canada's drug policies, we would know about it.

There are a number of curious assumptions lurking here. For one thing, since when do Americans get to assume they are so well-informed about what goes on in other countries?  How many of Booker's critics follow the Canadian press? Furthermore, does the American populace hold such a high opinion of Canada that they cannot entertain the possibility that it has drug issues which have failed to gain widespread attention? Would it be absurd to think that Canada might have an under-reported health crisis?

I spent only a few minutes with Google and found some important facts.

Eight years ago, Canada's Parliament failed to adopt an amendment to their thirty-year-old Food and Drugs Act, which is enforced by Health Canada. Among many other crucial measures, the amendment would have made it illegal to sell or import products that have knowingly been adulterated, or to sell counterfeit products. (As we will see, counterfeiting is one of the FDA's greatest concerns.)

Five year ago, Canada's Auditor General concluded that Health Canada "has not adequately fulfilled most . . . key responsibilities [involving timeliness, consistency, transparency, conflict of interest, and risk-based post-market activities] related to clinical trials, submission reviews, and post-market activities for pharmaceutical drugs."

Four years ago, there were reports of serious health concerns related to the lack of transparency in Health Canada's regulatory procedures. According to one of Canada's own specialists (quoted in the linked article), "“No one has any idea what’s happening behind the walls (at Health Canada), . . There are elements of the U.S. and European (drug regulatory) processes that are unclear but no one holds a candle to Health Canada when it comes to the lack of transparency and how byzantine the whole process is.”

Still think Americans should put their health in Canada's hands?

I've only just scratched the surface of relevant facts. Here are several more, based on a recent study of drug reimportation (the process of buying drugs from Canada which were originally exported to Canada):

  • "While international price comparisons of medications show the comparatively higher prices in US, economists argue that international comparisons must be viewed with skepticism" 
  • "Canadians oppose legalization of reimportation in the US as it could exacerbate the problem of medication shortage in Canada." 
  • "Many concerns restrict drug reimportation from being a legal practice in the US. These include safety, efficacy, and therapeutic equivalency of reimported drugs. While these drugs are manufactured in the US, the storage and packaging conditions in countries where drugs were exported cannot be monitored by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition, inappropriate storage conditions while reimporting medications back to the US may degrade the quality of drugs." 
  • "The most important issue is distinguishing between drugs that are manufactured in the US from those which were manufactured elsewhere. Although technically ‘reimportation’ involves importing back drugs manufactured in the US, there are no means to check the originality of drugs. Similarly, it is difficult to determine whether the drugs purchased from other countries have the same dosage form, potency, and amount of active ingredient as the prescribed medication. The FDA contends that legalizing reimportation would increase the entry of counterfeit medications in the US drug supply chain." 
  • "The FDA and the Customs and Border Protection carried out a series of “blitz” examinations of 1982 drug packages mailed or shipped to individual recipients from abroad. Approximately 90% of these products were found to be unapproved and to present potentially severe health risks. The examined imports included drugs that had been withdrawn from the US market as unsafe; drugs with restricted distribution programs; drugs requiring initial screening and periodic monitoring of patients to ensure safe use; controlled substances such as codeine; animal drugs sold for human use; and drugs that might cause dangerous drug–drug interactions. . . . The majority of the drugs had unknown quality and originated from Third World countries." 
  • "In another case, FDA officials examined drugs ordered from a supposed Canadian pharmacy. These drugs, (including insulin) arrived in the regular mail and at room temperature (Insulin loses effectiveness at higher temperatures and is supposed to be shipped overnight to ensure it remains chilled)" 
  • "The World Health Organization anticipated that in 2000 about 8% of bulk drugs imported to the US were counterfeit, unapproved, or substandard." 
  • "The FDA claims that the number of counterfeit drugs investigated per year have increased to 20 since 2000 after averaging 5 per year in late 90s."
In short, Canada is already struggling to regulate and supply pharmaceuticals to Canadians. If the door were opened for legal importation from Canadian pharmacies, the demand would skyrocket. On the one hand, we don't know how expensive the drugs would actually be for Americans. On the other, Canada is not prepared to handle the task. Either an enormous investment would have to be made to ensure that all of the drugs were safe and effective, or Americans would be at a much greater risk of harm. The only conscionable option would be to put a greater investment in Canada's regulatory process. And who would pay for that? Canadian tax payers?

I am sure there are even more facets of this issue that I have not considered. However, what seems clear enough is that progressives have been extremely unfair in their out-of-hand dismissal of Cory Booker's argument and position, not to mention their attacks on his character. This is a complicated issue. Bernie Sanders may present it in simple terms, but we would be wise not to follow that lead.

Update: Here's a defense of Booker (and others) at PolitiFact. It highlights the selective reporting that has allowed so many on the Left to smear Democrats who have voted against Bernie Sanders.  It turns out that on the same day Booker and a dozen other Dems voted against that bill that Bernie cosponsored, they also voted in favor of a bill demanding cheaper pharmaceuticals. There's no basis for claiming that Booker is doing Big Pharma's bidding, or that he has been bought by any Big Money interests.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Neon Gatsby

This post contains spoilers for the film, The Neon Demon.

Hollywood excels at masking the shallow as profound. It is fitting, then, that a film offering a profound critique of Hollywood is widely seen as shallow. The film is Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and its surface is so stunning that some critics assume that’s all there is. Yet,
 there is a familiar alienation and darkness beneath its skin, just as the grotesque lurks beneath the seductive glitz and glamour of one of Jay Gatsby's decadent parties. In fact, The Neon Demon's stylized portrait of Hollywood is nothing less than a contemporary version of The Great Gatsby's New York. F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel and Refn's film each use metaphor, imagery and symbolism, as well as an unreliable narrative point of view, to explore the romanticization of a corrupt narcissist while exposing the depraved society that consumes him--or her, as the case may be.

Though many view The Great Gatsby as a tragic love story between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan,  Fitzgerald’s novel is primarily about Nick Carraway, the narrator and purveyor of Gatsby's image. We see Gatsby through Nick’s desperate, judgmental eyes. Nick values Gatsby's reckless naivete above the irresponsible manipulations of the haves (Tom and Daisy Buchanan, in particular), and seduces us into making a moral distinction between them. It is as if Nick's American Dream depends on the moral worth of Jay Gatsby. Nick dreams of success and redemption—running away from the war and his Midwestern past, reinventing himself as a New York City bondsman, but unable to commit to any level of intimacy and too easily tempted by the mire of prohibition-era crime and decadence. Nick is a hypocrite, shamelessly participating in everything that he condemns. He helps Gatsby and Daisy pursue adultery in secret. He risks moral condemnation and criminal prosecution by joining illegal parties and indulging in homosexual behavior. The novel is framed around Nick's struggles to maintain his dignity. Gatsby only makes sense as a fetish or scar in Nick’s imagination: a tragic image of purity and beauty destined for failure in modern America. The real Gatsby, if there is one, is something of a phantom, a phony and a crook who will stop at nothing to fulfill his own dark yet naïve fantasies. 

At the beginning of Fitzgerald's novel, Nick says of Gatsby: 

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"--it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No--Gatsby turned out alright at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (Chapter 1) 
The same lines (with minor alterations) could be about The Neon Demon's ostensible heroine, Jesse (Elle Fanning), and they would be spoken by Jesse's friend and aspiring photographer, Dean (Karl Glusman). If the film had a narrator, it would have to be Dean. Though he is discarded before the final act of the film, Dean's point of view is central to how we understand the story. Dean frames the film at the outset with his foreboding photographic vision of Jesse, defining her as an innocent face and nubile body to be consumed, a dreamer destined to perish under the gazing moon.

Dean (Karl Glusman) creates a tragically romantic portrait of Jesse.

Introducing Jesse (Elle Fanning). Are these the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg?
Just as Nick (temporarily?) gives up his dream of becoming a bondsman, Dean (temporarily?) walks away from the world of fashion when his dignity is challenged. And just as Nick stands up for Gatsby and condemns the New York haves, Dean alone stands up for Jesse's inner value and condemns the Hollywood elites for their superficiality. Yet, like Nick, Dean is a hypocrite. Dean balks at Jesse for wanting to be like the elites, but their friendship grew out of a mutual desire to succeed in that world. His photography facilitated Jesse's career, and he hoped it would open doors for him, as well. On top of that, he knowingly risks moral condemnation and criminal prosecution by dating an underage girl. His indignation at the fashionistas is most likely a temporary upheaval. Dean might leave Hollywood, but he has not found a better path.

The parallels between Jesse and Jay Gatsby are also striking. James Gatz, the youth who would become Jay Gatsby, took his good looks and charm for granted. At the age of 17, Gatz used his innate gifts to redefine himself: He devoted himself to “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty,” inventing “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (Chapter 6). In The Neon DemonJesse falls in love with her own image at the age of 16, and is faithful to it until the end. Jesse's raw materials are the same as Gatsby’s: good looks and an innocence that captivate everyone in the fashion world. They are all taken in by Jesse, and it is not long before she is confidently using her image to her advantage--or so she thinks. Yet, like Gatsby, her persona is a fabrication. We cannot be sure where she came from or how she got to Hollywood. She could be a runaway, though she is happy to let others assume that her parents are dead. What matters is that her parents are dead to her, and she will forge their signature to get what she wants. And it's not just money and fame. Jesse wants glamour, to be the brightest star in every room she enters, and she is willing to cheat and turn her back on humanity to get there.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) falls in love with her reflection.
Gatsby's dream takes its final shape--"the incarnation is complete" (Chapter 6)--when he kisses Daisy for the first time. Daisy is the outward projection of his narcissistic desire, and his blind devotion to her is what ultimately destroys him. Jesse, in contrast, is her own outward projection. Her dream is wholly centered around her own image. It is therefore when she kisses her reflection that her incarnation is complete. And it is her devotion to the image of her own purity that eventuates her demise.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) feeling a bit self-absorbed.
Neither Gatsby nor Jesse earns our scorn. We see their lack of compassion, their moral bankruptcy, and we feel sorry for them. They are victims of their singular dreams. They each seem to understand this right before they die. Nick describes Gatsby enjoying his swimming pool for the first time at the peak of a fevered summer, but rather than suppose Gatsby hoped for or expected Daisy’s call, Nick says:
I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about (Chapter 8). 
These words could be used to describe Jesse as she, like Gatsby, hovers above a swimming pool moments before her death. In Jesse's case, the pool in which she is murdered is empty. The blue of her dress replaces the reflective blue of the water. She has become no more than her own image.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) hovers above the emptiness.
Jesse and Gatsby accept nothing but their demon, an impossible dream at odds with the material world. Gatsby lives in his own image for a number of excruciatingly lonely years before finally realizing that his dream is false and his life is a lie. In contrast, Jesse’s misery is not prolonged. We could imagine Jesse growing old, never coming to terms with the lie her life has become, always reaching for another star, always trying to shine brighter than before, but always feeling lost and alone. We can imagine her aging in Gatsby’s mansion, throwing parties she cannot bear to attend, full of people who know her but do not care about her. And she would not care about them, either. She would watch them desperately, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, hoping their presence heralded a new dawn, a final validation of her quest for greatness. Everyone wanted a piece of Gatsby and Jesse when they were alive, but few will miss them once they're dead. Very few show up for Gatsby's funeral. Who besides Dean will care that Jesse is gone?

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), ready for her close-up.
In Gatsby, Nick fetishizes Gatsby's beauty. He worships Gatsby at the same time he sees through the facade, and it leaves him lost and alone in the end. We are tempted to elevate Gatsby, as well--and many do see him as a Romantic hero. In much the same way, The Neon Demon also lets us see through the facade, but invites us to worship Jesse's so-called "natural beauty" all the same. It even tempts us into valuing her beauty above all others, by opposing her beauty to the supposedly inferior, "artificial" beauty of Gigi (Belle Heathcote). Yet, this distinction is a myth. Who is to say Gigi is not more beautiful than Jesse? To the fashionistas, Jesse is an oasis in the desert. She pulls at their thirst, just as she is meant to pull at ours. Gigi, in contrast, looks like a model trying on somebody else's style. Gigi does not look like the product of cosmetic surgery so much as the product of a weak and uptight imagination. Jesse succeeds because she is able to sell the image of authenticity. Once she realizes its value, she manufactures and sells her own innocence. It is her demon.

The opposition between natural and artificial beauty is a red herring. We are never shown that Gigi has had any work done, and, despite what the fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) says, there is nothing in the way she looks that suggests cosmetic surgery or treatments of any kind. We can only take Gigi at her word that she is the “Bionic Woman.” Similarly, we can only take Jesse at her word that she has not had any work done. The conflict between Jesse and Gigi is not who has had work done, but who has the better image. The conflict between Jesse and Gigi is a conflict between two images of beauty. When Jesse challenges Gigi's status, she is challenging Gigi's dream. She is questioning the real behind Gigi's ideal. 

Gigi (Bella Heathcote) does not like to be challenged.

Jesse presents herself as the image of natural beauty. an ideal which nobody questions. Yet, beauty is always both natural and artificial—artifice is part of human nature, after all. The image of Natural Beauty is no more authentic than the image of Artificial Beauty, and Jesse and Gigi each die when they recognize this fact. Jesse dies after she sees the artifice behind her image of natural beauty, and Gigi dies after she sees the humanity beneath her image of cold-hearted artifice.

Jesse's love of artifice is manifest in her relationship to Ruby (Jena Malone). Ruby is the master of artifice, the maker of outward beauty, who longs for purity but lives only through reflections. She craves Jesse, either for sex or food, or both.  Ruby thrives in emptiness, makes love to make-up, be it on living flesh or a corpse. As the scene revealing Ruby's necrophiliac depravity is interlaced with images of Jesse's self-love, we are invited to question the relationship between them. When Jesse touches herself, is she, like Ruby, making love to a corpse? Is Jesse dead beneath her skin? Is Ruby Jesse's alter-ego?  Are they reflections of each other? 

When Ruby and Jesse meet for the first time, they are looking in opposing mirrors with their backs to each other. Ruby apologizes to Jesse for staring at her, but it seems as if they were only staring at themselves. It is as if they each exist inside of the other. Of course, we can take their relationship at face value, as one between a model and a predatory make-up artist; however, we can take it as a metaphor for something deeper. We can see Ruby as the demon taking possession of Jesse; conversely, we can see Jesse as the haunting image of purity within a depraved Ruby.

Ruby (Jena Malone) through the looking glass.
Right after the masturbation scene, Jesse changes into the blue dress and stands above the empty pool. Just as a "ghost" named George Wilson comes to haunt and murder Jay Gatsby in his swimming pool, a ghost-like Ruby appears to Jesse in the emptiness of the pool beneath her. When Jesse sees Ruby, she sees the truth about herself: Ruby has already consumed her, because Jesse has consumed herself. It is possible to read the murder sequence as a metaphor for Jesse’s suicide: She was not pushed into the empty pool; she let herself fall in after she saw the falsity of the image with which she had fallen in love. On the other hand, we can take it as a scene of literal murder. It does not matter. Ruby killed her either way, and either way, Jesse was already dead inside.

Like Jesse, Gigi also dies after she sees the falsity of her own image. She (literally or metaphorically?) cannot stomach what happened. Her body violently rejects her actions. She claims to be the Bionic Woman, but she cannot exorcise her conscience. In the end, it is her humanity that kills her.

The true conflict in The Neon Demon is not between natural and artificial beauty. Those are false idols which we only followed, if we ever did, because we were told to. No, the conflict at the heart of the film is between ways of relating to beauty--between compassion and consumption. It is telling that we are never told whether or not Sarah (Abbey Lee), the only model that survives in the end, has ever had any cosmetic surgery. Jesse, Gigi and Sarah are more alike than they may realize. They all relate to beauty in terms on consumption. They long to be shot and consumed. Yet, only Sarah survives, because only Sarah accepts the grotesque for what it is. Jesse and Gigi’s deaths don’t faze Sarah. She consumes Jesse and watches Gigi’s suicide with detached curiosity and understanding. She swallows the eye of conscience whole.  It doesn't matter if Sarah has had cosmetic surgery or not. Sarah survives because she is unhindered by compassion and she knows it. She exemplifies what Hollywood rewards: sociopathic consumption. Yet, in the end, she is wandering alone in a barren desert.

Sarah (Abbey Lee) triumphant.
Gatsby’s and Jesse's stories can be seen as two versions of the same cautionary tale: This is what happens when American individualism runs amok. It is hard to shake the American Dream, the capitalistic conviction that all you need are the raw materials and the drive, and you can become whoever you want to be. Refn and Fitzgerald warn that, if you devote yourself entirely to that dream and follow it to its logical conclusion, you end up living and dying alone, and all for an illusion. Jesse and Gatsby are themselves more illusion than reality, and their deaths are less tragic than their lives. We can balk at their deaths as affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, we can see them as trite, as inevitabilities: standard set pieces in the story of American depravity. The most compelling interpretation might be this: The deaths of Gatsby and Jesse are theatricalities, performances meant to draw the curtain on a depraved illusion. They are not tragic heroes in the Romantic mold. They are the constructions of morally compromised yet tragically romantic imaginations. We are invited to partake in this imagination by witnessing their downfalls through Nick Carraway's and Dean's hypocritical eyes. Dean is a stand-in for the audience and frames our vision of Jesse and the broader conflicts between the Hollywood haves and have-nots, much the way Nick curates the reader's experience of Gatsby and class conflict in the Roaring Twenties. And like Dean and Nick, audiences are likely to balk at what they see without learning from it.

For The Neon Demon, as for The Great Gatsby, there is no path to happiness. There is only hypocrisy, cruelty and isolation. The irony at the heart of the film is that the fashion designer may be right when he says, "Beauty is not everything. It's the only thing.” All creation is the same, he says, be it a line of clothing or a dramatic character. Art is a unity and beauty is an indivisible, all-encompassing whole, the monistic God of Spinoza, the one, supreme substance of which all else is made. Thus, what we see in the film depends on how we define ourselves in relation to beauty. We can laugh at the film, embrace narcissism and celebrate ourselves as beautiful products to be consumed. Yet, can humanity--the lived compassion for other people--survive in the process? What the designer does not understand is that compassion is also beautiful. The fashion designer's Hollywood is a reflection of our world, where consumption is rewarded over compassion and children grow up embracing narcissism, longing to be mass-consumed. This is the profound dilemma at the heart of The Neon Demon. If it is shallow, it is no shallower than the pool in which we see our own reflection.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

We Know Who Won The Democratic Primary

In a new video, filmmaker Matthew Cooke taps into all the anger, frustration and disappointment that Sanders' supporters are feeling in the wake of the Democratic Party's primary voting process. His main contention is, "We don't know who won the Democratic primary." In other words, Bernie may deserve the nomination, despite the fact that he has lost by every discernible measure. He says, as many of Bernie's supporters say, that the results are invalid because the process is undemocratic. As much as I understand why some of Bernie's supporters might feel cheated, and why they feel he still can (or at least should) win the nomination in July, I think it is deeply wrong. There actually is a clear winner of the Democratic Primary, and it is Hillary Clinton.

Cooke's argument begins with a reference to a recent study which, he says, ranks U.S. electoral integrity as "the lowest in all developed nations in this world."  That is factually incorrect. The report he is talking about is the Electoral Integrity Project's 2015 Year in Elections report. It ranks the United States as the lowest among long-standing democracies, not lowest among developed nations.  There are dozens of developed nations which ranked lower than the United States for electoral integrity.

Still, you're probably thinking, being ranked the lowest among long-standing democracies is bad enough, right?  Maybe, but consider the bigger picture.

Imagine a child is enrolled in an extremely competitive and challenging school, and has managed to make it to the last year. They are about to graduate, and their final grades come in. Alas, the parents find out that they are ranked the lowest in their class. The following dialogue ensues:

Parent: I don't understand this! How can you be the worst in your class? It's a disgrace. You're a failure! You are wasting your life away! 
Child: But I'm graduating! 
Parent: What a joke! This diploma is meaningless. It's not valid. You haven't learned enough. You haven't really made it! 
Child: But I have good grades! 
Parent: What? 
Child: My GPA is a 3.2.  It's a B.  Actually, last year I got an A. You know it's a really competitive program, right? And I've faced a lot of disadvantages that other students haven't had to deal with. 
I hope we can all agree that the parent was wrong.  The lowest score is not necessarily a bad, or even mediocre, score.  Despite being the lowest among established democracies, U.S. electoral integrity received a high mark, the equivalent of a B, despite the fact that the United States faces challenges that most of the higher-ranking nations do not face: an enormous, widely heterogeneous population divided into many states, each with different voting processes. (The biggest concerns about U.S. electoral integrity were about campaign finance regulation and gerrymandering--both of which are particularly difficult problems to manage because of the enormity and diversity of the population.)

It is also important to realize that the report in question is based on subjective perceptions of 40 experts worldwide. It is not a comprehensive or objective analysis.  Furthermore, it is only based on the elections from 2012 and 2014. The United States scored higher in previous reports, and--like the student in my fictional scenario--recently earned an A.

So, yeah, based on expert opinion with respect to the 2012 and 2014 elections, America's electoral integrity is . . . good.  It's not great. It has problems. But it's good.


Cooke's second point is that, as bad as it was in the past (or as good as it was in the past, if you want to be more accurate), the current election was worse.  To make this case, he presents a list of complaints supported by a series of visual images of Websites reporting on election issues. The alleged problems can be divided into two main categories.

Problem 1: The media announced the nominee the night before "six key states" had a chance to vote.

Were the six states voting on June 7 all key states?  Surely Cooke was exaggerating by saying "six key states."  Nobody would claim that North and South Dakota were key states. Montana and New Mexico? Likely not.  New Jersey?  Maybe. California? Arguably yes, though the role of California in this election is debatable, as I will discuss shortly.

The point is, key states or not, why did the Associated Press announce a presumptive nominee the night before so many people voted?

The explanation is straightforward. Over the weekend (on June 4th and 5th), Clinton won over 40 pledged delegates in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Then, on Monday, June 6th, the Associated Press got confirmation from additional superdelegates that they were, without reservation or qualification, going to vote for Hillary at the convention in July.  With the new pledged and unpledged delegates behind her, Clinton's numbers were enough to make her the presumptive nominee.  That is newsworthy, and it happened on June 6th, a day before California's vote.  (Lots of people voted early in California, but let's say that doesn't matter.)

Now, maybe it's not always a good idea to report whatever is newsworthy. The AP certainly could have waited a day, but it wouldn't have helped Bernie.

Bernie needed a ridiculously large win on June 7th to get the majority of pledged delegates. Without that, he had virtually no hope of winning over a significant number of Clinton's superdelegates. So, the AP was technically correct.  Clinton had clinched the nomination. She was the presumptive nominee on June 6th. Furthermore, as Jeff Weaver even admitted, the AP's Monday announcement was just as likely to lower the turnout for Clinton as it was to lower the turnout for Bernie. I imagine it did more to lower the turnout for Hillary, because a lot of Bernie's supporters seem to be motivated by a desire to be heard despite the official outcome.

Of course, the general concern here is that the media has worked in Hillary's favor throughout the election.  According to the Electoral Integrity Project's 2015 report, the role of the media is one of the biggest problems in elections throughout the world. But did Bernie really get it worse?  It is easy to conclude that your favored candidate has gotten it worse, because you are more likely to notice and remember all the bias against them. Yet, every candidate has been the victim of negative media bias. We can't trust our subjective impressions to conclude which candidate has had it the worst. Fortunately, we don't have to.  There have been two studies of media bias in the current primary (one and two), and both conclude that Hillary has suffered the most. The media's effect on Bernie's campaign has been net positive. Not so for Hillary.

Problem 2: The voting process is severely compromised

There is more legitimate room for concern here.  We can and should be critical of flaws in the system. We can and should push to improve the voting process. I appreciate all of the attention that this is getting, and I don't see the Democratic Party trying to ignore it.  In fact, the DNC filed a lawsuit in Arizona, and Clinton's campaign was critical of the massive purging in Brooklyn (especially considering that those voters were very likely to have voted for her)..

Cooke says that millions of California voters have been "denied voting rights" because "their ballots haven't even been counted yet."  Yet, the reason they haven't been counted yet is because California is an extremely large state and the process is extremely thorough.  This is not a denial of voting rights. It is a painstaking attempt to guarantee them.

Cooke says that longstanding Democrats have been bumped off voter rolls, but the evidence here is almost entirely anecdotal.  Somebody knows somebody whose brother's wife says she was bumped.  That's pretty much worth ignoring.  In fact, according to one of the articles Cooke flashes on screen, a woman appeared before a court and complained that she was bumped from the Democratic Party, only to have the court reveal that she actually bumped herself when she registered with the DMV.

There have also been complaints about unaffiliated voters having trouble voting for a Democrat in the semi-open California primary. The complaint here is just that some people didn't bother to find out how to vote properly.  There's no evidence that the information was withheld, or that people were misled. Some people just didn't bother to figure out how to vote.

Then there are the complaints about long waiting periods.  People had to wait in long lines, sometimes because the number of polling stations were reduced, or because they were understaffed. Some people had to wait an hour, maybe more, because the polling stations didn't have enough ballots.

Polling stations have to manage their resources. They calculate what they need based on expected turnout.  If the turnout is more than they expected, there will be delays. This is unfortunate, and it can even mean that fewer people will end up voting.  That is terrible, and should be avoided.  I think we all agree on that, but it is not evidence of fraud.

However, if your complaint is that people shouldn't have to spend an hour or two just in order to cast a vote, then how can you fail to mention caucuses?  Caucuses routinely take hours. Why doesn't Cooke mention that?  (Hint: It's because Bernie won most of the caucuses. Clinton won the majority of open primaries and the majority of closed primaries.)

Cooke also complains about voting machines.  There's an unreliable video of a touchscreen machine that seems to refuse to register a vote for Sanders. And Cooke presents a screenshot from True Democratic Party, which looks like one of the least reputable (but perhaps most amusing) sources out there.  The article makes highly suspicious claims and vague arguments without any factual support. If you look at other articles on the Website, you will learn that the moon has a magic portal and that the pyramids in Egypt were built by giants.  So, yeah.  Okay.

But What About The Exit Polls?

The final claim Cooke makes is one that has been used by a lot of Bernie's supporters to suggest that all the accusations of tampering are legit.  It's the claim that exit polls, which are a "benchmark" for electoral integrity, have been way off.  And yet, this report was based on a comparison of election results with unadjusted exit polls.  Of course unadjusted exit polls are going to be off. The adjustment process is necessary to make exit polls meaningful in the first place.  (Here's a rundown of how exit polls work, if you want more info.)

Imagine this scenario: Two voting districts have vastly different population sizes. One district has 100,000 voters. The other district has 10,000 voters. Let's say exit polls are taken in both districts, and the same sample size (100 voters) is used for each poll. To simplify, let's say that the large district overwhelmingly votes for Clinton, and the smaller district overwhelmingly votes for Sanders. The exit polls reflect this: 100 polled say they voted for Clinton, and 100 voted say they voted for Sanders. If you look at unadjusted results--that is, if you look at the exit polls without looking at the populations they represent--then it looks like Clinton and Sanders each got 50 percent of the vote. They each got 100 out of 200 polled. But if you adjust to the number of actual votes cast, you realize that Clinton got about 100,000 and Sanders only got about 10,000.

Clinton tended to do better in urban areas. Bernie did better in rural areas. This explains why the unadjusted exit polls underestimated Clinton's performance.

The Bigger Picture

This was not a very close primary. Clinton is the presumptive nominee by a large margin.  She has millions more in the popular vote and almost 400 more pledged delegates.  Even if Bernie got the support of the vast majority of superdelegates (which, good luck), he still wouldn't have more delegates than Hillary.

Yes, Bernie had unique challenges and disadvantages, though Hillary arguably had it worse in crucial ways.  And yes, the system is not perfect.  Thousands of people were prevented from voting.  Maybe even hundreds of thousands.  That is unacceptable. However, it is not grounds for denying the fact that Clinton has won.

If you are only willing to respect the outcome of an election when it is flawless, then you are setting the bar too high. You could not claim that Obama is the legitimate President of the United States of America.  You could not claim that any President in US history was legitimate.  In fact, I doubt any nation could pass that test.

Cooke's video is dangerously irresponsible.  He is not presenting a dispassionate assessment of what is wrong with the system.  He is presenting extremely biased, misleading and factually incorrect propaganda in an attempt to undermine Clinton's victory.  His goal is presumably to support Bernie's continued attempt to win the nomination even after he has lost, and to provoke even more anger and frustration among Bernie's supporters.  As far as inflaming anger and frustration, I am sure Cooke's video is successful.  However, it will not win Bernie the nomination. It will only hurt Clinton and the Democratic Party.  

We can work together to improve the system without divisive, negative propaganda which seeks to undermine the legitimate winner of the Democratic nomination. That should be our goal, unless you want to see the Democrats lose in November.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Clinton Has Won According To Bernie's Own Rules

Clinton won New Jersey by over 60 percent of the vote. This is the fourteenth contest she has won with 60 or more percent of the vote. Why is that a significant number? Because Bernie says anyone who has won that much of the vote should get the superdelegates, as well. If you add up the superdelegates in all of the contests which Clinton won with 60 percent or more, you get 183 delegates. That's a lot of delegates. In fact, it's enough.

Clinton looks to have won about 400 pledged delegates yesterday. The exact number hasn't been reported yet, but it is probably very close to 400. To be very conservative, let's say it is 390. That means she has won 2,202 pledged delegates. Let's make it an even 2,200--just to be more conservative.

So how many delegates has Clinton already won, according to Bernie's rule? Add the 2,200 pledged delegates she has won and the 183 unpledged delegates Bernie says she has also won, and you get a magnificent number. It's 2,383.

In case you have forgotten, 2,383 is the number of delegates needed to win the nomination.

Remember, I was being conservative.  She most likely won more than 390 pledged delegates yesterday.

If Bernie wants to continue campaigning, he needs to contradict himself. That's a hard fact.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Will Bernie Follow His Own Rule?

Bernie has argued that superdelegates should follow the will of the voters in states and territories which have been won by very large margins. In other words, if a candidate has won "60 or 70 percent" of the vote, he says, then the superdelegates from that state or territory should support that candidate at the national convention.

If we follow Bernie's rule, then Clinton is closer to winning than Bernie may want us to believe. If Clinton wins 405 pledged delegates tomorrow, Bernie will have to either contradict his principle or drop out of the race.

Clinton has won 13 contests with 60 percent or more of the vote. According to Bernie's rule, that means she has won the superdelegates from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Maryland, Virginia and the North Mariana Islands.

That's 167 superdelegates.

Clinton has already won 1,811 pledged delegates through the voting process.

According to Bernie's rule, that means Clinton already has won 1,978 delegates.

She is therefore 405 delegates short of the needed 2,383 delegates to win the nomination.

There are 714 pledged delegates left, and most of them will be awarded in tomorrow's contests.

Clinton needs 58 percent of the 694 pledged delegates from tomorrow's contests to win the nomination, according to Bernie's rule.

(Of course, if she wins any of those contests with 60 percent of the vote, then she will need even fewer pledged delegates. but that is unlikely.)