Movie Reviews For The Blind

I’ve finally had time recently to watch movies again, like full films, from beginning to end. Luckily the films that I saw were all good and well worth the time.

1) Once Upon A Time In The West:

This is now my favorite Sergio Leone movie. Yes, it even beats out The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for me. This movie has everything: wide vista shots of the desert that must be seen on a large screen to be appreciated, masterful build up of tension, quick bursts of kinetic violence, a really hot chick, and lest I forget, Henry Fonda playing against type as a villain that blows away little kids and rapes women. And of course, there is Charles Bronson, always a badass motherfucker.

But more importantly, I think Leone took a more serious and sombre tone with this movie. Whereas the Man with No Name Trilogy felt like a celebration of frontier archetypes and mythical heroes, this movie is decided an eulogy for the same characters. Otherwise, there is not a whole lot of stylistic departure from other Sergio Leone movies: you still have the masterful ways in which he builds up tension and then releases it in quick bursts of violence, you still have your catchy Ennio Morricone score, and you always have the mythical characters.

2) The Killer of Sheep:

This is probably the best movie I’ve ever seen about poverty. It doesn’t preach, it doesn’t get sentimental, in fact, it doesn’t even have a traditional story arc. Instead, everything is conveyed in the details: from the way the camera captures kids playing in Watts, from the way the main character slow dance silently to a Dinah Washington song, from the conversation around dinner tables.

But in the end, this is a movie with hope because it is a tribute to the way children manage to find joy even in the most hopeless situations, although the movie never hammers you over the head with this simple message. It is one of the most subtle movies I have ever seen, and if you grew up with today’s Hollywood movies, you might find yourself asking what the point of the movie was, but then you’d be wrong, and have no taste in movies.

3) The Queen:

I rented this to see what the buzz was about with Helen Mirren’s performance. Yes, I realized that I’m about 10 months late to the party, but that doesn’t diminish Helen Mirren’s performance. She totally deserved an Oscar for this, and the guy playing Tony Blair was pretty spot-on as well.

Really the only reason to see this movie is for the acting, since Princess Diana’s death has been covered to death (lame pun), but what a fine acting job this is.

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Without Music, Life Would Be A Mistake

This weekend is the first weekend in a long while that I actually have some free time, since no major projects/papers/tests are coming up the Monday after.

So I did the only thing that can actually make me enjoy life: I listened to some live music.

First, Berkeley’s symphony orchestra did a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I always find it perplexing that people complain classical music is boring and slow. Obviously they have no listened to the final movement of this symphony, because it is dramatic, over-powering, and totally awesome! But seriously, the fourth movement always get me on the edge of my seat, waiting for the orchestra to reach its massive crescendo and let it fucking explode.

Second, on the way back, heard some blues coming out of Bobby G’s, so I went in and ordered a pint of Sierra Nevada. It was a nice little blues cover band; they played some Elmore James, Clapton, and T-Bone Walker. There is nothing better to wind down the week than kicking back a beer and listening to the blues.

So now, at home, I’m going to put on a Dizzie Gillespie record and finish the night off with some Jack.

Neocons are not Conservatives

The term “neo-conservative” is a very odd term: on its surface, you would think that the term means an updating of conservativism as a political/philosophical tradition. But then you’d be wrong.

For the current neo-conservative moment looks almost nothing like conservatism as it has been known in the history of ideas. Conservatism, as a philosophical tradition, dates back all the way to Aristotle, but “classical” conservatism can traces its origin to Edmund Burke, which lays it all out most famously in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

This kind of conservatism emphasizes continuity with tradition and history, conformity with natural laws, and pragmatism. The failure to adhere to these things, according to Burke, is the reason why the French Revolution produces chaos and terror. It is one of Burke’s main points that the French Revolution completely cut itself off from tradition and history: instead of adjusting tradition to modernity, the French revolutionaries completely abandoned it, thus removing an anchor that stabilizes society, thus producing chaos.

The same kind of criticism can be applied to Iraq: in trying to export democracy, American-style, the neo-con movement has failed to deal with the existing facts: namely, that Iraq, a country divided along religious lines, would lapse into chaos once a stabilizing force (in this case Saddam’s regime). Instead, the neo-cons had a fantasy of spreading democracy in the Middle-East while ignoring the region’s history, trying to instill something which does not take into account existing situations.

This is why neo-cons are not true conservatives. Their foreign policy is completely ideological and overly moralized; it is impractical, unrealistic, and uncompromising. It is not moderate, nor deliberate, but full of macho and high rhetoric. All of these things are anti-thetical to true conservatism in the Burkean and Aristotlean vein.

The Iraqi Solution

This post is very simple: in it I will propose a solution to the Iraqi problem that makes the most strategic sense. My answer comes straight from a realist perspective.

The answer is this: unleash the boiling civil war in Iraq in a controlled environment and deal with the consequences afterwards. I will now spell this out.

What happens in an uncontrolled civil war

1) That Iraq is in a civil war with the participants divided along religious lines can no longer be questioned.
2) That as soon as American military presence is withdrawn, as American public opinion demands, the civil war will escalate to a full-scale conflict.
3) That the Shiites will win is a very plausible assumption, since they are the majority population, and they have the support of Iran and Syria.
4) That the Kurds will suffer the most, since the Shiite-Sunni conflict will inevitably spread over to Kurdish territories, and because Kurdish rebels are provoking Turkish military excursion into Kurdish territories.
5) That the resulting civil war will have multiple participants–Shiite, Sunni, Kurds, Iran, Syria, and Turkey–all with competing interests.
6) That the most likely outcome of such a full-scale civil war would be a Shiite-dominated majority government that represses Sunni and Kurdish minorities, backed up by Iranian and Syrian influences, resulting in greater influence of two countries who are known sponsors of terrorists and who have explicitly anti-Israeli agendas.
7) That such an outcome represent a serious blow to American strategic interests in the region.

What happens in an controlled civil war?

1) Evacuate all Iraqi civilians who do not wish to participate in the conflict into friendly neighboring countries.
2) Cut off all potential hostile influences by setting up border security. This requires military presence along the Iraq-Iran, Iraq-Syria, Iraq-Turkey, and Iraq-Kurdish borders. In other words, minimize all external influences, and also preventing the civil war from spreading outside.
3) Let the civil war commence and run its course. Provide humanitarian relief when needed. Ensure that no sides obtain weapons of mass destruction.
4) If the initial prediction is correct, then the Shiites will emerge as the victors. At this point, it’s wise to protect the Sunni and Kurdish minorities from extermination and/or repression from the Shiite victors.
5) This will most likely require the tri-partitioning of Iraq into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish governments.
6) The new Shiite government will most likely seek alliance with Iran and Syria.
7) The US must then maintain some kind of military presence in the region, building bases in Sunni and Kurdish territories in exchange for protecting them against future military excursions by the Shiites or its allies. Furthermore, the US must maintain some kind of naval presence in the Gulf.
8) If this sounds like containment, it’s because it is. The last thing the US would want is Iran and Syria exerting influence in the region through Iraq. The US must exert its own influence to counter.
9) Hope for the best: maybe after the war the two sides will tentatively reach out for reconciliation. Or maybe the next generation of Iranian political leadership will be willing to negotiate.

What this plan requires America to give up?

1) The assumption that democracy is easily transferrable to the rest of the world.
2) US-Arab relationship will deteriorate in the short to medium-term because of a US military presence in the region. But this is something that must be done if we want to have any kind of strategic interest in the region at all.

Why this solution makes the most sense?

1) Shiite-Sunni reconciliation is very unlikely in the foreseeable future, so it is just a matter of time when the US pulls out, which it most likely will given the direction of public opinion. It’s better to pro-active engineer what will eventually happen, since America can still exert some kind of control.
2) A fragmented Iraq is better than an unified Iraq that represses its minorities and act as a proxy for Iran.
3) A smaller military presence in the region will let the US army do what it does best: small, precise, surgical strikes. The US, under my scenario, will no longer be tasked with managing a civil war, regime-building, or urban warfare. All it does is to act as a deterrence against future aggression. In a case of aggression, the US army can quickly project and stop the aggression.

A Lesson in Class Lines

So I attended Alex Ross’ lecture/Q&A session at Wheeler tonight in which he talked about his new book, The Rest is Noise, an accessible history of 20th century classical music. One of Ross’ main points in his book is that classical music has been ossified and been banished to the cultural dust-bin of elites in the 20th century.

And he wants to make classical music relevant again, by arguing that classical music is not hermetically sealed from the rest of culture, high or low-brow.

Therefore it struck me as especially ironic, as I looked around the audiences gathered in Wheeler hall, eagerly awaiting Ross: 90 percent of them are old, white, and presumably well-off.

Exactly the kind of audiences that make classical music seem impenetrable to the general public.

So even in trying to arguing for the relevance of 20th century classical music, Ross finds himself speaking to an audience which presumably pay attention to classical music to begin with.

I saw maybe 10 other people in the audience my age; not a single member of the audience is African-American or Hispanic. In fact I think I was the only Asian person in the audience.

If that’s not a demonstration of clear class lines in the politics of art, then I don’t know what else is.

The Impossibility of Living A Moral Life?

Is living a moral life impossible? I’m inclined to say yes, because in many instances, rational deliberation about morality will lead to conclusions that subvert common sense and demands one to do things that one would not usually do.

The first example that comes to mind is Peter Singer’s argument about the moral obligation to donate to charities that help people far away geographically. People have this intuition that they ought to do something if it saves lives at no significant cost to themselves. Yet a lot of people do not donate to charities like OXFAM or UNICEF, which pose no significant cost to them, but can save people far away.

This is only one easy example; there are many other demands of morality which require people to do things that they do not want to do.

Traditionally philosophers have dealt with the demands of morality in roughly two ways. First, they either try to modify the premises such that a different, less demanding conclusion is raised; or, more rarely, they bite the bullet like Peter Singer does.

I personally find too much use of the first method to be disingenuous. Ethical philosophy should not be entirely about reconciling common sense intuition with systematic thinking; ethical philosophy should be the enterprise to find out what the right thing is. There is no logical necessity that states that these conclusions must not demand of us what we would not want to do.

That we do not want to follow the conclusions of moral deliberation does not mean that the conclusions are wrong; it may merely mean that we are incapable of living a moral life.

I am inclined to go with the latter, because through experience, I’ve observed that people rarely do the right thing, even if they really know what the right thing is. That we experience real moral dilemmas does not mean that there are two difficult choices; it could just mean that we are hesitant to choose the path that is difficult, but ultimately correct.

This, however, is not a reason to not try to act morally. The impossibility of living a moral life does not justify one’s not even trying to act morally. In the end, the ethical thing, in fact, the only ethical thing, that we can possibly do is to try.

But we will fail, almost inevitably.

The Western and Law


The western, as a film genre, typically depicts a frontier setting characterized by lawlessness in which different factions vied for power and rule, and often times a lone ranger (think the Clint Eastwood character The Man With No Name) comes on the scene and changes the balance of power.

That the western is characterized generically as taking place in the vacuum of law is all the more ironic since the western, at its heart, is about the purest exercise of individual autonomy in the Kantian sense.

The absence of law is only the absence of de facto law–that is, laws established by those who are in power in fact. The lone ranger archetype represents law in the Kantian sense, i.e., law that is derived from obeying noumenal moral truths that exist independently of any human institutions.

Kant defines autonomy as the individual’s capacity to obey the rules that he has given himself: in other words, self-legislation. Ideally, the individual’s practical reasoning can grasp the moral facts in themselves and obey them. In the context of the Western, this is exemplified by the lone ranger’s living to his own code of conduct, instead of conforming to some pre-established order of things.

Therefore, the only person who is truly autonomous in the Western is the lone ranger, because he is the only one that exercises his practical reasoning. It is not surprising that in most Westerns, this lone ranger character usually ends up being right, although his reasons for acting are unorthodox or incomprehensible to most other characters. All that demonstrates is that the lone ranger is the only one who grasps these noumenal truths.

So the Western is very deceptive in its seeming a-morality, since its core is undoubtedly morality itself. What the Western essentially is is a kind of morality play, at least in its classical conception. I’m not including the more modern ones because they are revisionist and deliberately play against genre conventions.

The fact that the lone ranger often has to fight against the supposed “law,” embodied by corrupt sheriffs and so forth, is all the more evidence indicating that the Western is concerned about a priori morality before any kind of institutionalization.