Desire and the perfect phone

This is a twittish, Vox-dot-commy article which accidentally hits on something profound.

There is a lot of talk, especially on those sorts of self-help feel-good nonsense programs that tend to air on PBS during Pledge Drive—Daniel Dennet referred to that genre as “deepity”—of the importance of fulfilment.

But on the contrary, fulfilment would be a kind of self-extinguishment.

When you were a child, or if you cannot remember think of children you have observed, do you recall how you would always ask for something? If you asked mother for milk, and she gave you milk you would ask for a cookie. When you got the cookie, you would ask for a banana, and when you got that a piece of cake and so on until she would not give you any more things.

Or perhaps, especially as you were older, The Toy. A TV ad told you that you wanted it and you obeyed. But if you got it, when you got it, it never satisfied.

What is going on here? How can it be that The Toy which seemed the-most-important-thing-in-the-world to get (this was before puberty, mind) could amount to so little? Played with a while and then abandoned.

In Girls, its often ponies.

When you get to be my age its often sexual, a specific act or a specific person. And then you get it, or him and somehow it’s just not like in the movies where the music swells and the camera swoons and the light changes and….

But the advantage to Ponies is that virtually nobody gets a pony. And so, the Desire for the pony may be held indefinitely, or at least until there begins the mania for boys (or girls). In this we begin to see how it works.

Desire is connected to lack. In Continental philosophy Lack (manque) is often spoken of in terms of “that which is beyond the demesne of language”, in other words the impossible unspeakable thing which cannot be put into words which cannot be imagined (for we only can imagine in language) and which cannot be properly experienced.

We never desire something. We desire to desire. In other words, we desire desire itself. The fantasy is more important than the thing fantasized for to obtain the thing (the fantasand?) extinguishes the lack and kills the fantasy.

We can see how this works in the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. In the movie, an unexplained event, possibly aliens, created a place called The Zone in which there is found a building with a Room. Those who enter the room receive their hearts innermost desire. They are, “fulfilled” in a way that is a Deeptyists wet dream. It would seem that here is the solution to all mankind’s problems, but to enter the Zone is illegal and attempted only by the desperate. The film focuses on two such desperates, lead through the Zone by a guide, the titular Stalker.

Yet… at the threshold of the room the characters hesitate.


There are lots of ways to analyze this. The film suggests one: they receive what they desire, not what they ask for. What they think that they desire may not be what they wish to think it to be. This is another dimension of Desire which could be a whole post to itself.

The unnamed Stalker mentions a cautionary tale of another Stalker named Porcupine whose brother died and so he broke the cardinal article of Stalker ethics and ventured into the room himself. When he got home his brother was still dead but he had won the lottery.

He hanged himself.

But another way, a subtler way is to understand what a total leap into oblivion it would be to fulfill desire, to no longer lack.

Necessity is the mother of invention, hunger was the father of agriculture and from pain was birthed medicine and on the most fundamental level it is from this Lack that springs all of civilization and identity and all that it means “To Be Human.” To relinquish Lack is to relinquish Humanity and enter the domain of That Which Cannot be Said.

It truly would be unimaginable terror.

The Entirety of Western Economics is based on this. We Lack, so we buy. We buy ostensibly to fill the lack, but in reality, to highlight the lack. We buy to use up, to discard, to move on in the never-ending cycle of masturbatory consumption.

In the eerily prophetic movie Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Howard Beal—mad prophet of the airwaves—is summoned before Mister Jensen, boss of bosses to receive a new message for the masses. Here is the relevant part of the famous “The World is a Business” speech, embedded in full below.

Jensen: The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.

Beale: But why me?

Jensen: Because you’re on television, dummy.

But what a catastrophe this would be! No wonder Mr. Jensen’s message goes over like a lead balloon and the ratings begin to fall off (leading to one of the most perversely funny endings of any movie ever.)

Therefore, there must not be a perfect smartphone, for if there were it would be a catastrophe.

Computer Dream

I have a theory. And it is just a theory, I’m spitballing not researching so let’s not get carried away here. But…

I hypothesize for the purpose of discussion that the real purpose of all these fake news stories is not exactly to deceive us, but rather to place us unto an epistemic fugue state in which truth and falsity commingle to such an extent that the question of ‘what is true’ and ‘what is false’ is lost.

In order to do this, these sites circumvent the gatekeepers who normally keep garbage out of circulation (the much and somewhat wrongly derided ‘mainstream media’) by exploiting the network effect.

After all, if one is to see a wild, wild lie mixed in with the truth, is it not possible that the presence of this lie would impeach the credibility of the truths rather than the truths’ presence falsely bolstering the credibility of the lie?

If I give you a list of five claims, one a clear lie and the others undetermined, wouldn’t you then presume that the accuracy of the 4 remaining claims is in doubt. If I lie once, might I not lie again?

And, If we do not know what is true and what is untrue might we then be more susceptible to non-rational forms of persuasion?

So, an obvious question is ‘who is behind these fake news sites?’ In some cases it is clear that it is Trump associates. Brietbart’s head honcho Stephen Bannon is a key Trump adviser. In some cases it appears to be bored teenagers, but in many cases (including many of the latter cases which seem at least slightly suspect to me) it is unclear, particularly with the small ones.

The most probable answer is that it is Trump. Either the Trump campaign or arms-length bodies or advocacy groups. Many of the site’s DNS registration information is hidden, the sites are registered on behalf of the real owners by proxy companies. (This is a perfectly legitimate and commonplace business.)

But… let’s go really far down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole for just a moment here.

Could it be Russia?

Why Russia? Well, because simply put something very similar is happening in Russia.

In the Soviet Union, everything was fake. Everyone knew it was fake but everyone pretended that it was not. To do otherwise was crimethink. In modern Russia, everything is still fake. Or more accurately, everything is postmodernist. Because now, everyone accepts that it is fake and just moves on.

The chief of fakery is Vladislav Surkov. He is Mr Putin’s gray eminence but also writes lyrics for rock bands and avant garde poetry. I’m not joking. He also is generally thought to have written a novel about himself and what he is doing under a pseudonym which is a masculinized version of his wife’s maiden name.

Surkov sponsors everyone and everything, even the political opposition at times. yet, everyone knows. According to the dissident writer Eduard Limonov, the strategy is based on keeping the opposition constantly confused. The political system relies on everyone being unsure of what is actually happening and what is not. Is even the opposition real? Who knows!

Surkov speaks of ‘nonlinear warfare.’ Once there were many groups in two sides (Axis vs Allies, NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact.) Now, everyone is against everyone.

One of the jobs of News is to expose fakes. But News can only expose things which are hidden. How is that supposed to work? Does Fact Checking work when hardly any effort is made to hide that it isn’t really so? How does one get any purchase against nothingness?

Maybe this is not true. Maybe ideas of Russian influence are a form if cranky nonsense cum wishful thinking.

(How would we know?)

But even if it is not, even if the usefulness to those of power and wealth of this postmodernist fog that has settled on our lives is a coincidence, it is still a huge problem.

The Traditional Critique is that Newspapers are dying because advertising has moved online. This is partially true. But, I think that it misses the fundamental point that the truth binary no longer is a major feature of a huge number of people’s daily lives. Since that is what newspapers sell, why buy them?

We feared, once, that we would create a computer world, upload ourselves into the dream and forget who we were. That, I think was optimistic, not dystopian.

The real dystopia is that we don’t have to do any such thing in order to find ourselves in a reality of illusion. We don’t have to upload ourselves to the computers to become lost in them.

One of the oldest traditions is the sacred knowledge. That there is some esoteric ‘truth’ that only the ‘chosen’ few can understand and so slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of god.

Even seemingly completely secular systems can have this silly feature. Marxists called it ‘dialectical materialism’ and Abraham Mazlow called it ‘self-actualization.’

I believe that exactly idea is what is found in optimistic science fiction such as The Matrix and World on a Wire. And that is why I call it ‘optimistic,’ because it asserts the existence of a true world into which the properly initiated can awaken. And so, I think impliedly it stimulates our secret desire to believe that not only is there is something beyond our own experience but that all of the things which we hate about our world are just nightmares, from which we can awaken without actually doing anything.

This is not so. Neo can’t wake up.

The imaginary seems real because it is real.

If this sounds totally hopeless and depressing, however, remember that a dream is like a train which goes on its course and which cannot be turned to one side or another. You cannot change a dream, not even in theory. But you can, theoretically, change the world.

We just have to discover how.

PS: there were traces, and just traces, of the miasma around Mr Obama, particularly during the first campaign. But isn’t it weird that the first truly hyperreal postmodernist candidate is a Republican?

The Nice Guys

(Grade: Ineligible for grade)

Well… I have never actually walked out of a cinema before. The dialogue thinks itself clever: it’s flat. The acting thinks itself arch, it’s insipid. The shooting thinks itself knowing, it’s literal. The scenario thinks itself adult, it’s “adult” instead. Is this a comedy? Then why isn’t it funny? Damn it. If it is a drama, why is nothing happening?

It’s like Quentin Tarantino without the vulgarity of affect. (And Q.T. without vulgarity is, what exactly?)

There are bits and pieces that sort-of work (the towel gag is stupid, but legitimately funny) but they’re like sequins floating on a drum of oil. It’s not that the parts that don’t work are actively bad it’s just that when you have enough zeroes the average trends to so nearly zero as to not matter. The whole has no more purchase than air itself.

One would not truly watch this movie; at best, one might ‘note’ it. The breaking point was the interminably over-long scene at the burnt out house that ended with a non-sequitur 12 year old offering to show a bunch of middle aged men his member for $20. (It is, he claims, sizable.) This is not funny. It is brazen. Brazen is not the same thing as daring; and everything that is brazen is not necessarily funny.

It’s the sort of thing one is forced to laugh at but this is because the alternative is to feel very icky. I suppose that the “joke” could just possibly have been gotten away with if it was one-and-done; but the writers dragged it out and out and out and then had the characters continue to discuss it in the next scene! (The #1 Cinema Sin: characters talking about things that have just happened*.)

As it stands, you can just see the writer at his typewriter, having pounded out those lines, rubbing his hands and cackling “haha, aren’t I clever?” — No, Shane. You’re not.

By my calculations, this scene cannot be more than 45 minutes into the film, but it felt like two hours. A couple of scenes followed that were just padding and then randomly the characters are off to a party to look for a MacGuffin. Then yet another car ride-and-talk** and, suddenly, a little voice in my head barged in—as operators once did on pay phones to tell you to deposit another quarter. Only this little voice said: ‘Why are you still watching this?’ So Nice Guys became only the fifth movie (and the second starring Ryan Gosling!) that I intentionally stopped watching and, most importantly, the first (and I hope, only) that I left a cinema showing of.

Here’s the updated, chronological list: 1. Being John Malkovich 2. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit 3. Only God Forgives (Hi, Ryan! Sorry you keep turning up in shitty movies ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.) 4. Interstellar and now, 5. The Nice Guys.

I’ve always made every effort to finish movies, even if I hate them. I respect the art and craft, even when its artisans and crafters can’t hack it. I struggled to the disspiriting ends of Antichrist (the most favorable thing I can find to say is that the possibility cannot be completely excluded that the film is a hoax perpetrated by the filmmaker on the independent cinema establishment to expose them all as picayune, artless frauds) and The Revenant (154 minutes too much for Oscar Bait.) But then, I was with someone each time and leaving would’ve violated certain social norms.

I did also finish Inglorious Basterds, which is nearly as bad and can’t even spell, on my own.

There seem to be some issues with contemporary filmmaking. The last movie which I saw, which I would rate A+ was made in 1994. The last individual episode of TV that I would rate A+ was made in 2014. I grade on a curve, A+ is twice, even thrice as good as A. I guess that it’s not totally horrible that 22 years have passed since a movie deserving the highest possible grade was last made but where are the A and even the B movies? There should be at least one or two a year.

Hell, even a B- isn’t awful, it is OK to make B- movies! There should be dozens of those yearly! (The last B- was Skyfall way back in 2012. Another B- was Argo, earlier the same year.)

Again, comparing to television: there have been many shows of the last half-dozen years which I would give a composite rating of at least B- and two that I would grade individual seasons of as B+.

To be sure, I can’t see everything and some days I feel as if I will never get enough time to see anything at all! But nothing crosses my radar. And when, as here, against my better judgement I see a film based on positive notices… I’m proved right.

(I’m talking about fiction, documentaries are excluded from this discussion. Excellent cinema and TV documentaries continue to be made.)

* Unless the talking leads to new information for the audience.

** Car talk never works. Ever. Not even in True Detective. Especially in True Detective. At least Nice Guy’s car talk is flaccid, not comically pretentious.

World on a Wire (Welt Am Draht)

Ok, so this movie has a sort of cult status because it was made for television, shown once, then ‘lost’ for many decades. But once you get that out of the way… it’s a pretty, comma, bad movie. Oh yes, the low-budget photography has its impressive moments and the sets are tinged with the midcentury weird aesthetic also found in the cult T.V. Show ‘The Prisoner’ but the story drags on and on.

The outline is that Stiller, a computer scientist, is promoted to the head of the SIMULACRON project to create a virtual computer world after the mysterious death of the project’s manager. Soon, he discovers alarming information about what the SIMULACRON project is really about and bizarre events occur which suggest the conspiracy may be unimaginably big.

Possible Influences: Kubrick, Phllip K. Dick, The Prisoner, The book Solaris by Stanislaw Lem and the film by Tarkovsky, Walter Benjamin

Possibly Influenced: Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Lathe of Heaven, Inception

The biggest problem is that the film is nearly *FOUR* hours long but the treatment is probably worth about 55-90 minutes tops. There are long, unmotivated digressions that don’t work because they neither motivate the plot nor improve the characterization. I rarely complain that movies are too long.

The film also takes ages to establish fairly ‘one-and-done’ plot points. For example, early in the movie the character of Lauser vanishes into thin air and nobody except the protagonist, Stiller, remembers he ever existed. Stiller spends a considerable amount of time in multiple scenes which drive home the fact that nobody remembers Lauser well after the point that the audience ‘gets it.’

This is also a major plot hole. Once the reason for Lauser’s evaporation is revealed the fact that Stiller can remember his existence makes no sense at all. It’s a bit hard to discuss this movie because there is a major plot twist just before the end of the first half. Unfortunately, most people will probably have tuned out by now.

This plot point is revealed in the worst possible way—dialogue, delivered by the worst actor in the lot—in the worst possible setting—the cafeteria—with the worst-possible dramatic timing—it’s completely arbitrary and feels forced. To make matters worse, it is totally impossible for this character to know the information revealed. Not “hard” not “surprising” but, in the films ontology, completely non-possible. It’s a major plot hole and it’s not one that occurs to you after a while it’s one that is immediately obvious and offensive to the audience’s intelligence.

More plot logic and pacing problems pile up very quickly. To avoid spoilers let’s just say that the ‘bad guys’ are established as being in possession of a plot apparatus that would enable them to instantaneously annihilate Stiller and remove all evidence of his existence in the same way as Louser. It’s also established that they have twice done this to others for reasons of them learning the information in the ‘plot twist.’ They don’t, however, do this for no discernible reason despite events which clearly establish that they do know that he knows the secret because they do stage several attempts on his life with fake accidents and have one of the other characters warn him ‘forget everything you saw.’

A recurring point through the plot is that Lauser’s vanishment was reported in the press and investigated by the police but that the police and reporter also forgot Lauser ever existed and the newspaper story has been ‘vanished’ as well, replaced by an unrelated piece. The final crowning ‘proof’ that the plot-twist ‘secret’ is correct is revealed when a ‘correct’ copy of the paper is discovered by one of the paper’s foreign bureaux. As with Stiller’s unexplained but plot-convenient ability to remember the disappearance, the existence of this unexpurgated newspaper is completely illogical.

The second half is worse than the first half, it spends most of its time meandering pointlessly except…. it starts to get a lot better about halfway through. The visualization is impressive, but empty due to the vapidity of the script. However, the script, acting and directing dramatically improve late in the game and by the time the final twist-within-a-twist is revealed and the credits roll it truly becomes memorable and worthwhile, even thrilling! It’s a pity the rest of the film could not be as vigorous.

Rating: D-

Alternative recommendations: Solaris, Tarkovsky A+; Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, B-; The Lathe of Heaven, David Loxton and Fred Barzyk, C+


Ok, fine. Interstellar becomes the fifth movie in history (and the second this year) that I turned off without finishing.

An hour into the film (of a middling 2 and a half hour running time) we still haven’t actually gotten to act 2. The illusion of being in act 2 is created by relocating to outer space but all of the actual activity is act 1 activity.

I have the patience of Job when it comes to cinema, after all I have put my shingle in for the oeuvre of Andrei Tarkovski. But there is a difference between ‘slow pacing’ and ‘wasting the audience’s attention span.’

(I ‘cheated’ and, after stopping the movie read ahead on the plot and the plot is pedestrian, to be polite about it. With the fact that I didn’t finish the movie properly in mind, this is not a full review just some observations.)

The characters (actually, the writer) commit the unpardonable sin of talking at length about things the audience already knows and Nolan, who never met a camera he didn’t have to move pointlessly, takes a page from the True Detective playbook in having Matthew McConaughey bloodlessly deliver vapid pseudo-philosophical pronouncements while gazing into nowhere.

Act 1 is nothing but dialogue scenes. In fairness to McConaughey, nobody could save those lines and he’s not the only character saddled with unplayable dialogue.

The robots who are clearly modeled poorly on HAL in particular have very “studenty” lines.

I know we are supposed to feel sorry for Murph. The movie demands this of us so unsubtly that it might as well put in an intertitle in all uppercase: “YOU SHOULD BE FEELING SORRY FOR MURPH NOW!!!!” it would be quite as effective and allow the cutting of several “hot air” scenes.

By the time Cooper leaves we hope that she gets run over by a bus so we will be rid of her. This, sadly, does not occur.

It’s possible that, if the movie was much shorter, around 90 minutes I would be more favorably inclined. You have to earn every minute of screen time. Interstellar doesn’t.

Grade: Ineligible for a grade


Spectre instant review:

  1.  The theme song is crap I have no goddamn clue what they are trying to do. The title sequence is also godawful. I have never been a fan of Danny Klinemann’s C.G. heavy MTV aesthetic but this is not good even by his standards. May I suggest Garson Yu or Richard Morrison? Also, I think some of that imagery might play a bit differently in Japan. Even in the U.S. it’s heavily and I think unintentionally fetishistic.
  2.  The photography is super nice, but there are a few scenes where the anamorphic format is distracting or even results in objective flaws. There are two dodgy composite shots at different climactic moments.
  3. Duh, of course it’s Blofield! Nobody was fooled! The new concept for Blofield is excessively reminiscent of the last outing in that his motivation is personal animus against Bond for outcompet ing him for the affections of another. Retconning the previous 3 films into this does not work at all.
  4. The writing is also otherwise very mixed. There’s less of a “third act syndrome” than with Skyfall but it feels like we’re just retreading too much ground already covered. Additionally, while 007 films have never been about plot logic it is strained to the breaking point perhaps one time too many here.
  5. There are a few shots of Craig where he in visage and mien looks so much like Steve McQueen that I think they’re doing it on purpose.
  6. Why the F**** can’t anyone pilot a helicopter in this story? In the final-last-one-for-real climax one wonders why the pilot doesn’t respond to being shot at from a boat by steering AWAY from the river.
  7. Andrew Scott is now 100% typecast. I hope he’s O.K. with that. His character is the parallel-universe alternate of his Moriarty.
  8. Getting Q and Moneypenny out of the office was a good idea. Q in particular is a major strength of the film because he is the only character to have recognizably human motivations. We instantly and uncynically sympathize with him in the health-bar scene.
  9. Retconning Mr White sympathetically is such a baldly audacious idea that I actually admire them for trying. It still doesn’t work.
  10. I don’t really have a 10th point so here is a list of some of the more obvious recyclings.
    • The Thames boat sequence: Die Another Day.
    • The base in the crater: You Only Live Twice.
    • The title-sequence Octopussy. (Or actually probably given how everyone is nekkid in it for no reason, we maybe should say Octop***y.)
    • Goldfinger is the obvious inspiration for the Aston Martin, the Rome chase scene and the Rolls Royce Blofield sends.

All this self-referential nostalgia is potentially lethal. This may seem like a bizarre tangent but recall the attack of bad writing in the 80s during the Colin Baker era of Doctor Who. That was the same problem just with way lower production values and it lead to the show being cancelled twice*.

Final thoughts: this movie is exactly what I feared would happen to Skyfall when I heard Sam Mendes (who never saw a simple idea he couldn’t wreck with layers upon layers of trite psuedophilosophy) was directing. If Skyfall is an A-, which I think is generous probably more B+, Spectre is a wobbly C-.

*It’s complicated…

On the death of Mike Nichols

Everyone talks about the “Mrs Robinson you’re trying to seduce me” scene, but last shot of “The Graduate” is to my mind the best; Benjamin and Elaine’s slowly dissolving smiles, the perfectly acted, perfectly shot dawning horror of domesticity and assimilation into the very roles that seemed so alienating, so constricting at the beginning of the movie. Brilliantly subversive.