Loved Books: The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen J Gould

Stephen Jay Gould is a voice that is missed in today’s world. Smart, compassionate and analytical but also with a deft capacity to write about complex ideas in an engaging way. In The Mismeasure of Man Gould stepped out of his main field of paleontology and looked at the history of attempts to measure intelligence and the racist assumptions that have run through those attempts. This is the 1981 edition which doesn’t have the chapters on The Bell Curve but still a worthy read.

Is it perfect? No but then a popular account of broad area of research necessarily simplifies and skips over some details. As gateway into understanding the issues there is no better book that I’m aware of.

Is John Wick 3 Fantasy?

No, don’t worry. I am not about to launch a campaign for John Wick 3 to be a Hugo Finalist but watching the third instalment the other day it clearly felt like a genre-fantasy film.

Of course even the first film was, in a broad sense, fantastical. Wick’s absurdly proficient capacity to shoot everybody and his legendary status among nearly everybody can’t be described as realism. However, ostensibly this first film was about a hitman who had tried to quit and ends up going on revenge-fuelled killing spree. The sense that Wick is part of another world in a fantastical sense is limited and really only touched on by the assistance he gets from the Continental Hotel, which we learn is a hotel for elite assassins.

Organisations of assassins aren’t necessarily fantastical, as there are real world examples. The reality of groups like Murder Inc is a long way from the mystique of assassin’s guild in fantasy genres, though. The organisation of assassins in the first John Wick film already feels more akin to the kind criminal guilds that occupy the cities of fantasy novels. However, the fantastical elements are nothing like as overt as in comparable films such as the 2008 movie Wanted with James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie.

The second John Wick movie expanded on the setting and introduced a broader world of inter-related criminal families. The sequel embraced the absurdity, physical comedy and Keanu Reeves unalterable dead-pan delivery. It also introduced further fantastical tropes such as Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, who runs a secret network of apparently homeless people akin to the kind of beggar’s guilds that again tend to crop up in fantasy cities.

By the third movie, all of the plot has shifted to this secondary world-within-a-world. Ostensibly New York (plus brief foray to Casablanca and the Sahara) but effectively this is a fantasy city. Nearly everybody and everything is part of this secondary world from a Russian Romani ballet school to a street sushi diner. While the previous films provide backstory explanations of various elements (the High Table, the Bowery King etc) the third film expects the audience to understand that this is just another world with its own factions and motivations and rules.

So urban fantasy then? There are parallels with the kind of ‘masquerade‘ trope of urban fantasy. However, Wick feels less like the kind of protagonist of an urban fantasy and a lot more like Conan the Barbarian. He’s a man with unsophisticated morals and prodigious skill at killing who is drawn into the complex machinations of competing groups. Of course that description also matches non-fantasy characters like Clint Eastwood’s Man-With-No-Name or Toshiro Mifune’s ronin in Yojimbo.

Fantastical then in the sense of detached from reality and fantastical in the use of various tropes associated with fantasy genres but not fantastical in the use of magic or the supernatural.

On reviews and not reviewing

I watched El Camino at the weekend, the Breaking Bad movie that follows the aftermath of the final episode by focussing on Jesse Pinkman after he escapes from the neo-Nazis. I enjoyed it but this isn’t a review of it.

If I review something I do one of two things:

  • Read other reviews first
  • Avoid reading other reviews first

Generally, I’ll read other reviews if I feel I don’t have a good grasp on the thing. I avoid reading other reviews when I think I’ve got a good sense of the thing and my reaction to it. Then sometimes I just read other reviews before hand because I feel like and I’m not the boss of me.

I didn’t feel like I had good sense of what to say about El Camino, so I did read other reviews. On review I thought was particularly pertinent was this one by Abigail Nussbaum

Unfortunately, it was a bit too good i.e. I felt I had nothing to say afterwards. This is one reason why I’m always impressed by how people like Charles Payseur or Greg Hullender manage to review so many things, even if the reviews are short.

There are two things I find very difficult to review: things I had complex reactions to and things I didn’t have much reaction to at all. In both cases it is the issue of how to go about writing something that stops me. I know that I’m most comfortable writing things that in essence arguments i.e. have the structure of:

  1. I think this
  2. Here is a chain of facts and reasons
  3. See, I was right

But what I’m actually writing is more like:

  1. I felt this about a thing
  2. Here is what happened in the thing
  3. My feeling are now validated

And I’m not so sure about that and it makes me want to write reviews differently but I’m not sure how. And that is enough introspection for today!

Currently playing: Untitled Goose Game

This weird little game is currently getting a lot of attention and rightly so. It is a sweet, charming, sociopathic game in which you terrorise an English village. But you are a goose. Also you are appalling.

You can do surprisingly little and also everything. You can waddle around (occasional swim), flap your wings (but not fly), pull stuff with your beak and you also have a ‘dedicated honk button’ with which to alarm people. With these tools you create mayhem.

Your missions include “have a picnic” (steal a pile of food), “trap a boy in a phone booth” or “appear on TV” but most involve petty theft, harassing people and minor vandalism. The goose is a monster from your id but it is all OK because it is only a goose and nothing deeply horrible happens to anybody (except maybe that kid in the glasses develops a life long fear of aquatic birds).

The truly clever part of the design of this game is the way they have built comic timing into the game play. Making a gardener hit his own thumb with a hammer requires appreciating when the funniest and most ironic moment would be. When you don’t know how to solve a problem and you are just wandering about stealing stuff for no good reason, you look just like a malignant goose wandering around stealing stuff for no good reason. It’s funny even when you haven’t a clue.

Video games are not famed for making you play as a deeply ethical protagonist. As a goose, your body count is non-existent (I was worried when the gardener collapsed but he’s OK) but for sheer malicious harassment of innocent people for no good reason, Untitled Goose Game has cut to the very heart of being awful on a computer but in a charming and bucolic fashion.

I’m sure the catharsis or something must be good for you. There is a delight in mischief and horribleness that by making the stakes so low you can enjoy without guilt…if you are a goose.

Review: Ad Astra

Let me coin a term: aesthetically hard science fiction. Like any genre distinction “hard science fiction” can be hard to pin down or delineate but it is usually defined in terms of a focus on speculative ideas about and grounded in science and specifically the supposed “hard” sciences (physics, chemistry) or engineering. Ad Astra isn’t “hard science fiction” in that sense but it aims for a visual aesthetic that borrows from that idea and from science fiction films about rocket-based Earth orbit or solar system space exploration. The most obvious visual debt it owes is to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 but there are elements there of less speculative space drama’s such as Hidden Figures, First Man, or Apollo 13.

I don’t want this to sound dismissive of the film but rather to help clarify what the film is. The focus on rockets and surroundings of technology that echoes the Apollo program or films about very near future space travel implies that this is a film concerned with realism in its science fiction. However, it isn’t. Rather the emphasis on rockets and classic space helmets is a visual dictionary about a model of masculinity that is associated with our stereotypes of the classic astronaut of the 1960s.

Brad Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, a man so committed to a kind of stoical indifference to emotional impact that when he falls of a giant structure at the start of the film, his heart rate never exceeds 80 beat per minute. McBride is the son of an even more famous astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) an absent father who eventually was lost on a mission to Neptune.

Meanwhile, Earth is being bombarded by mysterious electromagnetic impacts which are having a devastating impact on people and precipitating a range of technological disasters (including Brad Pitt’s fall off the giant antennae at the start of the film). Thus the film introduces it’s other cinematic parent: Apocalypse Now. In a top secret briefing, Pitt learns that his father may be alive and the experimental spaceship he commanded may be the source of the “surges” that are damaging humanity. Pitt is sent off to find his father and intervene.

From here the film is a series of vignettes as Pitt travels first to the moon, then to a military rocket base on the moon (fending of lunar marauders on the way), then off to Mars stopping off part way to answer a distress call, then to Mars and then out.

The plot logic tying each of these steps together is tissue paper thin and does not survive any examination. Ostensibly he is sent to Mars to send a message to his father although manifestly there are easier ways to get a message from Pitt to Mars to be rebroadcast than physically moving Pitt around (particularly as this has to be done “realistically” i.e. a journey of many days and at significant physical risk and which stacks up its own body count just to get Pitt to the rocket on the moon).

Director James Gray apparently set out to film “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie” but this is true only in a visual sense. The story and process doesn’t make sense in terms of realism and indeed, as a standard it only hurts the film. It would be easy to nit-pick the film to death from the absurdity that the only way from a main US lunar base to a US military lunar base is by lunar rovers across a section of the moon prone to lunar pirates who attack other lunar rovers in a bid to steal parts for lunar rovers most of which get damaged in the fight between lunar rovers. It is a brilliantly filmed and genuinely impressive sequence but it isn’t “realism” except in a very local sense. The rovers look like an extrapolation of Apollo lunar rovers and great attention has been placed on the lighting and the way gravity works but the sequence makes no other kind of sense. To add on absurdities, once Pitt is on Mars, the surface vehicles are much more solid (closed cabins etc) because visual depictions of possible real-life Mars exploration tends to imagine more advanced technology.

This technology gradient continues on to Neptune. The moon has Apollo style rovers, Mars has even better tech and when Pitt reaches Neptune he finds the long-lost spaceship of his father that has some argle-bargle antimatter device that hand-wavey does something for finding alien life etc.

Put realism aside. It is a silly standard for the film. It is part of the visual dictionary of the film and it is a stunning film to look at (definitely one for a big screen) rather than a standard to be met.

Instead, Ad Astra explore a key character type and pulls that character type apart and exposes it as a lie. Pitt plays the platonic ideal of the astronaut-man (with an emphasis on the maleness). Stoical, unflappable, mental focused on being ready to complete the mission and to make decisions under extreme stress.

We learn from the start that his career and emotional distance has alienated him from his wife (an almost invisible Liv Tyler) and his frequent mandatory automated psychological reviews are delivered in such a brilliantly understated way that they made me feel tense through out. It is with some relief that late in the film Pitt lets the character show some emotional frustration. The impact of his absent and stern father on Pitt’s character is slowly (very slowly because it is a long way to Neptune) revealed.

So, yes, this is a man-pain movie. There are women characters but there is little exploration of them as people (Ruth Neega as a key figure on the Mars base gets the most lines) but that is also true of nearly everybody but Pitt’s character. Pitt’s McBride lives in an emotional bubble, reacting only to events and to people only in so far as they are tied to those events. The film underlines that Pitt’s kind of stoicism is disastrous, unhealthy and destructive. Even the physical threat that humanity is facing stems from Pitt’s missing father, as if toxic masculinity and toxic fatherhood has found a way to beam physical blasts at the whole planet.

Do we need more films exploring male angst? Probably not and if you’ve had enough of them then you would be wise to skip Ad Astra. However, as films exploring how even apparently positive stereotypes of masculinity contain destructive elements, there is much merit here. Pitt’s flaws aren’t physical or sexual but tied to emotional distance and dependency on self-reliance. Mind you, by the end of the film he doesn’t appear to have faced any consequences for some of his bad choices (including at least one that leads to multiple deaths of innocent people).

I did enjoy the film and it is absolutely stunning to look at. It has the visual ambition of 2001 but with better technology. Yet, this is an introspective film, almost solipsistic film, where Pitt’s character has to travel all the way to Neptune to realise that Earth is where other people are.

Discovery Season 3 Trailer

Star Trek Discovery has never been terrible but it often hasn’t been that good and even when it is good has found ways to be a bit disappointing. What it has been good at doing is re-inventing itself and shifting its premise. Some of that has been the writers trying to fix the show as it goes along but not all of it. If you think back to the first four episodes of Season 1, there were quite radical shifts in setting and focus and tone that were clearly intentional.

At the end of Season 2, the USS Discovery embraced its inner Marty McFly and headed back to the future. A new trailer has dropped showing what they might find there: (this is the only place I’ve found with a trailer that plays in Australia).

Way back in September 2017 I said this about the first two episodes of the new Star Trek show:

“Why not just set the story AFTER the period of The Next Generation/DS9/Voyager shows? Create a sense of civilisation moved on? Perhaps here the baggage of all those shows felt too much – too many big bads (the Borg, the Dominion etc) too many alien antagonists (the Ferengi, the now unfortunately named Cardassians). The galactic quadrants had become too busy and too packed with rubber headed aliens. By setting the series back just before the original series the show could make the Klingons the bad guys again.

It’s not fair to compare this decision with the Doctor Who reboot because despite their similar age the shows don’t treat continuity in the same way. However, Russell T Davies made a smart move from which Discovery could have learnt. Set a new series in a time that follows a catastrophe that creates both a bridge to the previous series, and allows the viewers to re-encounter familiar protagonists in a new way. That doesn’t imply a new Star Trek would need to have a post-apocalyptic vibe, rather some sort of event that disrupted galactic civilisations sufficiently that the Federation is needing to rebuild (a gamma-ray burst, a contagion that spreads via transporter beams, a big-bad alien did more damage than usual).”

It looks like that we are getting a show that resembles that. The trailer implies that the Federation is no more but not entirely forgotten. There is also a hint that the story arc might be another “let’s fix the timeline” arc and I really hope that isn’t the case as we just had one of those.

Aside from that there is no much more to glean. It looks like Saru is the Captain. It looks like Michael gets some new hairstyles. It looks like we get a new on-going character.

Looking forward to it. Discovery may have great capacity to disappoint but it always finds ways to draw me in and surprise me.

Review: [insert forgettable movie name here]

I failed to see [insert forgettable movie name here] at the cinema. Despite the promotional hype the lacklustre review persuaded me to prioritise other new releases. However, with [insert forgettable movie name here] now available on [delete as appropriate: streaming/DVD/Netflix/child-friendly-novelisation/street theatre] I decided to take an opportunity to fill up [insert movie length] minutes of my time.

So what can we say about [insert forgettable movie name here]? The special effects were what we have now come to expect and added to an overall engaging visual experiences. The protracted action scenes proved hard to follow but as the action was rarely of any lasting consequence to the plot, it was possible to just sit back and enjoy the cinematic chaos. The design of the [robot/monster/alien/ghost/car/spaceship/train/mansion/alligator/squirrel] was [nicely done/better than the posters implied/not as awful as social media claimed] and I’m glad that the producers of the film at least attempted to do something here.

The performance by [noted action star] is what we have come to expect from them but they were hampered by weak dialogue and derivative quips and slightly out of date pop culture references. A more nuanced performance from [notable serious actor in need of a pay check] as the villain was more enjoyable, particularly some of the scenery chewing near the end. I was impressed by [relatively new actor who has mainly been on TV or some independent movie] who embraced the spirit of the film and put on a brave performance as [main character’s estranged son/daughter/ex-wife/uncle/gym teacher/yoga instructor]/[rookie cop/research scientist/executive assistant/hot shot pilot]/[fellow commuter/florist/realtor/dog-walker] who becomes embroiled in the events.

Structurally the whole film is a mess. Actions scenes move characters from one place to another but the motivations of all concerned make no sense. A theme around [corporate greed/environmentalism/cake-decorating] is implied at the start but drifts into cliches about [brotherhood/family/believing in oneself].

There were interesting efforts to include a more diverse cast of supporting characters and it was nice to see [quasi-comedic actor from that TV show] using their own accent. However, many of those efforts were undermined by some unfortunate stereotyping of [too many to list] and some poorly thought out jokes about [way too many to list].

Is [insert forgettable movie name here] an appalling waste of time? No. It does provide a degree of diversion for [insert movie length in minutes converted to hour (s)+ fraction] of your life. Note though that I watched this while [on a plane/on a train/drunk/queuing at a food truck/more than one of those] and I wasn’t always paying full attention.

I know some people will be concerned about the danger that the [cat/dog/rabbit/cute alien/cute robot] is put into but be aware that the [final act/post-credit scene/DVD extra/trailer for the sequel] shows that the [cat/dog/rabbit/cute alien/cute robot] survived the [car crash/plane crash/meat grinder/nuclear explosion/volcanic eruption/acid pit/lava pit/piranha pool].