Glamorama (Bret Easton Ellis, 1998)

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Glamorama, by Bret Easton Ellis (1998).

Score: Insightful and inspired.

TvTropes might want to convince you that Glamorama isn’t really Zoolander played straight, but it is. With a lot of class, just like Easton Ellis has us used to (apparently the issue with the similarities between both was settled out of court so it’s impossible to find out the details now).

The premise is very similar to American Psycho but with models instead of yuppies. Victor Ward is a model wannabe, who dates supermodel Chloe Byrnes, takes advantage of her fortune since he’s nearly broke and cheats on her with Alison Poole. Then he gets offered $300,000 for going to find an ex-girlfriend from Camden in Europe. The first two-thirds are very similar to American Psycho, in the sense that the same plotless scenes come one after the other, so it feels kind of repetitive if you’ve already read the magnum opus. The last third has more of a plot, getting closer to what Lunar Park would be. At first I felt this was just an iteration of American Psycho changing consumerism into a cult to beauty and eternal youth, but it actually gets very compelling as a whole, through the use of very powerful symbols: the confetti everywhere, Victor always being cold, the disembodied lungs that whistle The sunny side of the street, the shit stink. The people that impersonate one another and we never get an explanation for.

The surreal details were easily explained in American Psycho with the fact that Patrick Bateman is an unreliable narrator, but Victor is much more introspective and it doesn’t feel like he wants to impress us. Some people explain the fact that Victor speaks with the crew that is filming the events that he’s living by saying either that he’s schizophrenic or that they’re actually filming a movie of the events but they’re not telling us. I’m not happy with those explanations. The same way you wouldn’t interpret The lord of the rings as Frodo being schizophrenic because neither hobbits, elves or dragons exist, I feel this book is most compelling if you take it “at face value”, or symbolically. Just accept that Victor was speaking to the crew. That there’s confetti everywhere he goes, symbolising the depression and self-consciousness after the sex and drugs binges. That he’s always cold because he’s so thin and weak, and far from home and whatever his true self is. In fact, I’m not going to try and explain the symbols because to do so is to break them. They’re much more powerful when felt by the reader, when the reader fills in the gaps in the space the symbol creates by what the symbol implies to them.

***SPOILERS*** The terrorist organisation run by models makes a very interesting effect, putting together something gruesome and cruel with something that’s usually considered to be naïve, beautiful and essentially brainless. But I find the concept of the faking and disappearing of people and personas even more interesting. Victor is made disappear altogether and substituted with a well-behaved doppelgänger, and at the same time he can’t be sure he’s ever actually met some people. He’s told he was at too many places where he wasn’t to be a case of absent-mindedness. In the same vein as American Psycho, people who stand up to beauty standards all look the same, but this time it goes deeper: the worship of beauty and notoriety annihilates identity, to the point one is diluted and unrecognisable. ***END SPOILERS***

To wrap it up, at first it feels too similar to American Psycho but as a whole it really stands up on its own and is worth reading.

BONUS: A lot of people mention the long lists of celebrities as a feature or something. I’m more surprised by their predictive power: was really XXX already famous in 1998??

Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)

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Primer, directed by Shane Carruth (2004).

Score: So geeky it’s awesome.

You probably know by know that I love time travel stories, and I don’t care that they can’t really make sense intrinsically. In Primer I found virtually everything I love about time travel stories: the characters are at least a bit genre savvy, there is at least an effort to make it scientifically believable, things get out of hand spectacularly.

Directed, produced, edited and photographed by Shane Carruth, who also played Aaron and wrote the music, Primer tells the story of two engineer friends who work in a garage in their free time and accidentally invent a time machine. From the beginning you’re immersed in technobabble: from scene one you see scientists talking to each other like they would if there wasn’t a camera rolling. I’m not sure if what they say makes sense at all, but at least Carruth tried. I think the portrayal of their following the scientific method works very well, with them trying, failing, correcting, until they get to the final result, and how they go about testing it. I thought their learning what the machine does via the fungus growths was a very good way of showing it, and a very realistic one. How else would they know? It’s not like the first thing they would think of doing was stick a watch in the box, since they were trying to build a room-temperature superconductor. Compared to the most similar thing I read recently, The accidental time machine, it was much better developed and at least the characters didn’t behave like idiots from minute one.

At only 77 minutes, the whole movie is wonderfully economical. Most important things are shown or implied, not spelled out over the course of full minutes. Montages and voiceover do the job of explaining two things at the same time. The movie goes in a frantic rollercoaster, especially from half to the end, and doesn’t wait for you, you need to keep up with it. It’s also one of those movies that require multiple diagrams to fully grasp, you can have two spoilerrific ones here and here. It gets more and more complicated, and with the reduced runtime and anachronic (sort of) narration you’ll be left wondering why some things happened (I have to admit that I’m still at a loss with some things).

The technical aspects are not what one would call exuberant, but bearing in mind that the movie was made with a meagre $7000, it’s surprising how much they could get made.

All in all, it’s one of those overly complicated and geeky movies I love. Probably not for everyone, but if you’re into that sort of mind-screwy, we-can-still-make-it-more-complicated sort of storytelling, this is a movie you want to watch.

***SPOILERS***

I really like how Abe and Aaron go from being extremely cautious to getting inebriated with the power they have and forgetting their caution little by little until shit hits the fan. I feel that time travel stories sometimes miss the point that certain types of time travel give the user a near godlike power, and it’s not always exploited that way, but here it is. They get tangled in the small things, the only thing they get to do is to buy some stocks and try to prevent the shooting at the birthday party, and that’s enough to ruin everything. I think this concept is what makes the movie a gem.

The chrysanthemum and the sword (Ruth Benedict, 1946)

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The chrysanthemum and the sword, by Ruth Benedict (1946).

“Ruth Benedict’s obituary for Japanese culture”, by C. Douglas Lummis (1980-2007).

Something virtually everyone can agree on is that The chrysanthemum and the sword is one of the most influential anthropological works in Japanese culture. Not the most accurate, not the most insightful, but definitely a very influential one, to the point Plath, David W., and Robert J. Smith once said “all of us have been writing footnotes to [Chrysanthemum] since it appeared in 1946”.

So, what does it say, exactly, to be such a controversial book?

First off, we should look at the conditions of its genesis. The chrysanthemum and the sword was born as part of an effort from the USA to better understand Japanese culture in order to know what to expect from them at war, namely under what conditions they would capitulate. This doesn’t necessarily mean Benedict was hostile towards Japanese culture, all the opposite, she sounds really interested in actually understanding such a different civilization. But since both countries were at war, she didn’t have the opportunity to visit the country, but based her work in bibliography and interviews with Japanese citizens residing in the USA.

Benedict starts off as describing Japanese culture as a very hierarchised one. She describes it as a society where everyone stands in their place, and does what is expected of them. People that occupy subservient places owe obedience and respect to their superiors and the leaders owe care and guidance to their guarded, and are responsible for them. This happens in the spheres of the family, the town, the workplace, the school and ultimately the state. This is how Benedict explains their loyalty to the Emperor during and after the war. In a very Socratic way, the Japanese feel they owe to the state, incarnated in the Emperor, for their nurturing, education and bringing up.

Benedict proceeds to characterise Japanese culture in terms of on, or debt. On is a passive debt and there are two kinds of it: gimu and giri.Gimu can never be paid back fully and there is no time limit for it. Gimuis owed to the Emperor (that is, the state, society, your country), the family (parents and children) and your own work. Giri has to be paid back with an equal favour and have a time limit. Giri is owed either to people we have relationships with that are not close (far relatives, teachers, bosses, coworkers), and to oneself. This can be understood as dignity or pride: doing what is expected of you, doing what is appropriate, not admitting defeat, avenging ofense to your name or persona.

If someone does something for you, you owe them, and the longer you take to pay it back, the more interests you have to pay. This is why Japanese people are reluctant to do favours to strangers, to avoid burdening them with on. Within the family, on is paid to parents by taking care of your own children, and only close family members are bound by the reins of debt. Respect to parents goes to extremes unthinkable for Westerners due to on. The Japanese will take almost anything from them for the debt they feel they have for having been brought up.

As for giri, it explains for Benedict why the Japanese avoid doing and receiving favours, and if they absolutely have to, they repay as late as possible, with a big interest. It’s seen as normal and honourable to do a big favour to your primary school teacher, since you owe them for having given you an education, and since many years have passed, you have to pay a lot of interests. Debt to far-removed relatives is understood as debt to common ancestors, not to them.

Giri to oneself explains why the Japanese are so cripplingly afraid of failure and humiliated by it. It still happens today that Japanese people commit suicide over professional or academic failure, or being unable to pay a financial debt in time. It also explains why they might seem vengeful, since taking revenge on someone who hurts our honour or good name is seen as retribution of the same kind as repaying a favour, not a vicious behaviour.

The explanation for this social order is the very late Meiji revolution, which brought Japan from a feudal society to a contemporary one in the late 19th century, without having a Modern age in-between. This is explained by pointing out that bourgeoisie never developed, since rich merchants married into nobility, or bought it, which means there was greater class mobility than in Europe, causing the system to stay stable for a few more centuries.

In this context of debt and burdening duty, sensible pleasures are below duties and debt but are very appreciated when they are free to pursue them, such as food and drink, sleeping, hot baths and sexual activity. As long as it doesn’t interfere with on, earthly delights are completely acceptable. But at the same time, since they are deemed unnecessary, proving to oneself that one can go without any of them is seen as composure.

Furthermore, the Japanese adaptation of buddhism into Zen buddhism uses self-discipline and sacrifice as a means not to Nirvana, or the annihilation of the senses, but a mastery of the senses, in the form of martial arts, art or even menial works. Austerity is not a punishment or a currency to buy bliss, but life is understood as needing training to fully enjoy. Following the debt model, effort now buys mastery later, and is repaid more than fully. Ultimately, mastery leads to peace of mind and the realisation that there is no real conflict between duties and duties and pleasures. The ecstasy of mastery is described as absence of effort.

The book closes with a description of the education of children that one can’t help but find very dated, the same as a lot of customs described in this 1946 book.

A very prominent critic of Benedict’s work has been C. Douglas Lummis in his “Ruth Benedict’s Obituary for Japanese Culture”. The summary can very well be: “Benedict took the ideology of a class for the culture of a people, a state of acute social dislocation for a normal condition, and an extraordinary moment in a nation’s history as an unvarying norm of social behavior”. So even if she had the best of intentions to understand Japanese culture, she mistook a very specific situation for the norm.

Benedict is also criticised for falling in the trap of orientalism, presenting Japan as an absolutely alien culture that can only be understood through the magic of ethnography. Also, even if Benedict is not hostile towards Japan, she is definitely condescending and justifies the American occupation in the last chapter of the book, oversimplifying the reasons Japan got into the war at all: “Japan did not follow the well-known logic of colonial and imperialist powers, seeking markets, resources, investment outlets and cheap labor. Nor did Japan follow the well-beaten path of tyranny, seeking power, glory, a central place in history. Nor had Japan (in contrast to Germany and Italy) passed over into an extraordinary state of political pathology: nowhere does she use the concepts of fascism, totalitarianism, or any similar notion. To admit the relevance of any of these explanations would be to admit that Japan’s behavior was understandable according to ordinary “Western” reason”.

The main point Lummis makes is that the book says a lot more about the person who wrote it and the country that commissioned it than what it was supposed to describe, and is very obviously a product of its time. Lummis argues that The chrysanthemum and the sword is more closely related to works of political fiction such as Gulliver’s travels, The Republic or Utopia than to actual works of ethnography, and underlines Benedict’s literary background as a poet and her willingness to educate near the end of her work Patterns of culture. Which he points out, is not always bad, until the studied culture is deformed so the desired conclusion can be extracted from it. He compares Margaret Mead’s fiasco, where her informers would tell her what they knew she wanted to hear, with Benedict’s excessive reliance on his informant Robert Hashima.

Benedict was criticised for writing about Japan without visiting it or learning its language, but in this context of literary aspirations turned to discovering an ideal country and writing it down, it was just the natural thing, what she had always done. The poet part of herself felt that cultural patterns were prisons for society, which, as before, is fine for a poet but not so fine for an anthropologist: “Culture patterns then carry a double meaning. When the culture is dead, its pattern has the same beauty Benedict found in the faces of dead people – the aesthetic closure of something reconciled and finished. But for the living, the patterns are a kind of death-in-life, an oppressive, imprisoning force. If the living do not struggle to liberate themselves from them they will never be fully alive. These “other-directed” ones, as David Reisman was to call them just a few years later, who live only by pattern and custom, have neither the beauty of death nor the joy of life: they are in a state of life resembling death, a state of atrophy”, writes Lummis.

Nevertheless, her classification of cultures as “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures” has been discussed and developed over and over as a genuinely anthropological insight. The prominent place of duty in Benedict’s analysis is not something that she received as a given from her bibliographical sources, but something she selected from a varied collection of virtues and values. Lummis theorises that this bias came from Robert Hashima, who fed her not raw information but his interpretations of what she was asking him. And his experience of Japan was not the one of a person who grew up there and moved naturally in the conventions, but of someone who was raised in the USA and had to learn the protocols formally, in order to obtain a position as an educator. Hashima was fed pre-WWII propaganda and ideology and took it in not naturally but as an object of study, which he transmitted to Benedict. Because he couldn’t tell the propaganda for the real country, neither could Benedict. “Hashima’s combination of rich insider information and radical alienation made him the ideal informant for Benedict’s assignment, which required her both to analyze and to maintain distance from America’s “most alien enemy”. And one can easily see how the deep fear that must have been instilled into him by his bitter boyhood experiences would harmonize well with Ann Singleton’s [Benedict’s poet pen name] “horror of pattern”. And lead him to a cataclysmic conclusion: nothing but total transformation, down to the root of the language, would do”, sentences Lummis.

The last pages of The chrysanthemum and the sword make a parallel between Japanese culture and its gardening contests, where flowers are held into place in their pots by invisible wires inserted in the living plant. It’s very clear that Robert Hashima probably felt like that when he emigrated to Japan and this aspect of the matter horrified Benedict, who forgot her impartiality and stated that such a society was so unnatural that the Japanese must have been grieving for democracy and Western ways to set them free. “But there is no basis in anthropology – certainly not in Benedict’s anthropology – for describing a particular social behavior as natural. The behaviors of all peoples are patterned, only the patterns are different. To imply, as Benedict did, that the behavior of the people of one’s own country is “natural” was both to fly in the face of her own teaching and to fall into blatant ethnocentrism, all the more so when the point of reference is the enemy at the end of a bitter war. Is this the damage war inflicts on the scientific spirit?”

El ministerio del tiempo, Season 1 (2015)

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El ministerio del tiempo [The Ministry of Time] Season 1 (TVE, 2015)

Score: Science-fiction on public TV doesn’t compensate for so much mediocrity.

In a mainstream TV dominated by junk reality shows and period soap operas it is indeed refreshing to get some publicly-funded science-fiction. Though it is as mediocre as the aforementioned reality shows and period pieces.

Apparently the Spanish government has access to a tunnel with a bunch of doors that lead to multiple times and places in Spanish history. They recruit people from different periods for missions that seek to preserve the integrity of Spain’s history as well as its best interests. The last batch consists of Alonso de Entrerríos, a soldier from the 17th century, Amelia Folch, a university student from the 19th century, and Julián Martínez, a nurse and a widower from the 21st century. They go in such silly missions as retrieving the recept for Gernika (the painting by Picasso), getting Lope de Vega on the right ship so he won’t die in a shipwreck or thwarting Franco’s meeting with Hitler.

The production is not really bad, then again, this channel makes so many period pieces they probably threw this together only using some spare costumes they had lying around. The acting just makes baby Jesus cry. In the line of the “best tradition” of Spanish acting, they never let you forget what you’re watching is not real. They don’t speak like my boss would speak to me or I would speak to my coworkers, they might as well be reading out of the script, with very unnatural intonation and expressions.

The comedy comes from the cultural clash between people from different time periods, and sometimes it is funny but it grows stale quickly, mainly because the context is seriously underdeveloped. The exchanges usually go something like this:

Julián: “We need an X”
Amelia: “What is an X?”
Julían: “It’s like a Y, only more modern”, where a Y existed in the 19th century but not in the 17th.
Alonso: “And what is a Y?”
*They look at each other and proceed to ignore him*

I’ve seen a lot of people around here who find the characters lovable and charismatic, but they just feel vapid and whimsical to me. Alonso de Entrerríos is especially obnoxious, maybe what an underdeveloped character from the 17th century feels like if thrown in the 21st and not allowed to evolve. He’s just like the Bud Spencer of the gang, who wants to fix everything by slapping the baddies with his flat hand. Facepalm for that caricature of Velázquez, whining to go and meet Picasso.

The rules for time travel are not clearly specified, which added to an underdeveloped context makes the whole thing quite insipid. When it’s not downright ridiculous: ***SPOILERS***

Supposedly you can’t go forward in time. Except that Amelia and Alonso do it every day to go to work. I get it: 2015 is the absolute marker for the present moment, obviously. They can take Romans to World War II and Medieval knights to the Stone Age, but they can’t go to 2016 to see who won the election.

Apparently the doors only work within Spanish borders, for some sort of diplomatic reasons. But they can go to Lisbon because it was a part of Spain in that time. They cannot go later to Berlin because it was not part of Spain in the 20th century, but they can’t even call there with their time-traversing smartphones. Apparently the issue is not only with sovereignty, also with roaming fees. And once they manage to get there, the call them using fucking landline phones from 1940.

In one episode it’s mentioned that there is a single door that is stuck in time and always opens to the same day and time and resets every 24 hours (”like Groundhog day”, says Julián, very full of himself). All these rules are totally ad hoc and presented each episode for the sake of that episode’s drama. So, does that mean that the doors are moving in time just like we are? That in times of Elizabeth the Catholic there was a door that opened to the Roman Empire and now opens to the early Middle Ages? Was the Middle Ages the absolute present back then or could they go to the Napoleonic wars if they liked? They never explain!

Well, at least in the first five episodes. I wanted to watch all of them but I couldn’t bring myself to stand so much boredom. After saving Lope de Vega, and the rabbi, and Alonso’s son, why the fuck can’t they save Julián’s wife? At least it doesn’t fail to capture the government’s contradictions and disdain for rules. At least that’s realistic. ***END SPOILERS***

All in all, a lot of people found it really entertaining and I’ll be happy for you if you do, but I found it mediocre, overacted and wasting a not too bad idea to underwriting.