Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Longest Ride

Namuth - Pollock.jpg


My recent movie-going experiences include The Longest Ride, an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

I'm not going to talk about the plot, especially, so there's no need for a "spoiler alert." This post concerns a secondary theme of the movie by which I was struck.

A little information about structure and cast will get us there. There are two stories, one framing the other, The frame involves a pair of young lovers, rodeo star Luke Collins (played by Scott Eastwood, Clint's boy) and aspiring art curator Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson). Their story is not especially interesting except that it provides a frame for a better love story.

Luke and Sophia become involved in the life of an old man, Ira Levinson. Ira as the old guy is played by Alan Alda, though Ira as a young man (in flashbacks triggered by readings of old letters) is played by Jack Huston.  Young Ira's beloved, starting in 1940, is a refugee from Austria, Ruth Pfeffer (Oona Chaplin). As I've indicated above,  the Ruth/Ira relationship holds one's interest more successfully than that of Sophia and Luke, though here too, I won't go into the particulars. Suffice it to say that they too represent a good Hollywood mismatched match: a country bumpkin who has lived his life in small town North Carolina and a young enthusiast of modern art from that world center: interwar Vienna.

This gets us to the secondary theme of the movie that stayed with me. In both romances, the woman is engaged with modern art, and in both situations, that baffles the man.

In the greatest-generation romance, their courtship and their years together after the war (oops, a bit of a spoiler there -- yes, he survives the war and returns to Ruth -- he's the old man still alive in the 21st century, after all, so that's pretty much a given anyway) this time coincides with High Modernism. Jackson Pollock and his New York crowd were in these years of the Ira/Ruth Honeymoon inspiring both philistine gibes about how "a child could do that" AND critical raptures by such figures as Clement Greenberg. [That's a famous photo of Pollock at work, above. I'll say something about Pollock and/or Greenberg in a post next weekend.]

But Ira himself, not-especially appreciative bumpkin though he is, and incapable though he is of Greenbergian rapture, doesn't engage in the above referenced sort of gibe, either. He is portrayed both as a gentleman and as deeply in love, and for both of those reasons disinclined to say anything contrary about the non-representational art Ruth loves.

In the present-day romance, the artworks that enthrall Sophia also seem, well, broadly modernist and non-representational.  Yet this is the 21st century, and Luke the bull rider isn't quite so polite about his non-appreciation as was Ira. In an art gallery, speaking to a woman who may soon be Sophia's boss at an internship, he says, "There's more bullshit here than where I work." He complains that he doesn't want to pretend that "squiggles of paint are something more than squiggles of paint."

I would like to think that Luke learns a lesson from Ira, and that at least part of the lesson is to be more open to those 'squiggles' and to what they may mean to those who are fascinated by them, or at least to be more closed-mouth about his own prejudice. Alas, the ending of the movie seems to leave that lesson as one more for us than for him.




Saturday, April 25, 2015

Penn Station



Was Penn Station really worth saving?

I mean of course the old Penn Station in downtown Manhattan, created in 1910 and destroyed in 1963. Its destruction caused an outcry (and if I remember correctly was referenced in a couple of MAD MEN episodes) and eventually inspired the Landmarks Preservation Act of 1970.

Was it worth saving? Here's an iconoclastic discussion of the point.

Click here.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Eurozone as a Roach Motel

Image result for greece wallpaper

Greece is dominating financial news just now.  I'll keep my thought for today quite brief, though the subject is complicated.

The problem seems to be that there is no 'clean' way for Greece to leave the Eurozone. Bringing back the drachma would require at the least an extremely complicated period of transition, one with which the rest of Europe would have no incentive to co-operate.

So the Eurozone is like the roach motel of yore. Roaches check in, but they can't check out.

Yet there is no a priori reason to believe that the single monetary policy maintained by the Europen Central Bank and related authorities is best for all the countries involved. So one might naturally hope that thought will be given to an orderly exit mechanism.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Platonism in Six Points

Just to practice concision.

1) In anthropology, Plato was the first of the great dualists. He emphasized the sharp distinction between a physical man and the real eternal man.

2) In metaphysics, Plato is remembered for his clear statement of the realist position on universals. A concept such as "justice" or "beauty" is not merely a notion inside someone's mind, nor is it merely a resemblance between the different acts we call just, the different objects we consider beautiful;, etc. It is more than that. The Idea or Form of Justice is a reality, one of the supreme realities, and specific examples are real by virtue of their participation in their universals, not vice versa.

3. In epistemology, Plato believed in critical rationalism. The way to approach truth is to begin with someone's naïve notions and cross-examine them ruthlessly. A philosopher thus becomes a midwife to a truth that will come out of others. (Those unlucky enough to run into him in the agora).

4. In ethics, Plato believed that virtue is a form of knowledge and, accordingly, can be taught. Sometimes he also believed the opposite of this.

5. In politics, Plato believed that a good society will come about only when philosophers become kings, or kings become philosophers.

6. In aesthetics, Plato believed that poets are a lot of trouble, and philosopher-kings would chase them out of a well-designed city

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Coming to Understanding

Marc Sanders in Zermatt

SLATE recently republished an article that first appeared in LINGUA FRANCA 14 years ago, the story about a wealthy man who wanted to shake up the world of academic philosophy, and in particular to argue about Being on the intellectual/historical plane of Spinoza or Hegel.

The 'millionaire metaphysician' was Marc Sanders, and the L.F. piece makes THAT the big story. Sanders, whose photo you see here, had originally created a fog of anonymity around himself while appealing under his pen name to well credentialed philosophers, like Jan Cover of Purdue,  to review his manuscript. 

Cover wrote: "One would be hard-pressed to locate a richer, deeper contemporary approach to the most fundamental questions of metaphysics." So Sanders certainly succeeded in drawing attention. 

Reporter Ryerson wrote the story largely around the question "Who is this person?" The question, "What is his proposal as to the nature of Being" incident was secondary, a clue to the real mystery, the whodunnit.

The gist of it is that Being is a unity aimed at understanding itself. "Coming to Understanding," the title of the essay, is coming to be. Further, in Sanders' view this premise has the advantage that it allows us to explain the distinction between contingency and necessity without collapsing the contingent into the necessary. 

You can read more at ComingtoUnderstanding.com You can also buy there either the original essay (2000) or a later version that Sanders drew up in 2010 to take account of objections from some of his reviewers (2010). 

Sanders passed away in 2011. 

It's a fascinating incident. I'm certain that it did philosophy no harm, and given the other things millionaires choose to do with their money, this was certainly a benign pasttime. From the point of view of an impoverished Jamesian, though, it all simply means that Sanders was a purveyer of a Block Universe, an upper dogmatism, that would by explaining everything undermine creativity and freedom. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Witness for the Prosecution




SPOILER ALERT. I'm about to reference the ending of a venerable short story and a movie adaptation from the Golden Age of Hollywood. If you wish to read or view either of these in innocence, don't proceed further.

Old Hollywood had a rule that the bad guys never win. The evildoers always get their comeuppance. After all, if people wanted to see evil prosper, they didn't have to go to the cinema for that, they could just stick with the morning newspaper.

Anyway, the rule resulted in innovative re-writes to certain adapted literary works. This may never have been more jarring than in the case of Witness for the Prosecution, a 1925 Agatha Christie short story that had a complicated publication history over the next three decades and that became a movie only in 1957.

ONE FINAL WARNING. TURN BACK OR LEARN THAT ...

The basic plot of the short story is that of a criminal trial portrayed through the eyes of a sympathetic defense attorney, played in the movie by Charles Laughton. Laughton's character agrees to defend a man charged with the murder of a wealthy elderly woman.

The defendant is played by Tyrone Power in the movie. His wife, Christine, by Marlene Dietrich.  [Those three names make up about as glittering a cast list as the era could offer.] At any rate, the defendant persuades his barrister (and the innocent audience) of his innocence, but whether the lawyer will be able to persuade a jury seems to turn on whether Christine will give alibi evidence.

Alas, Christine switches sides. She prepares to give contrary evidence as a "Witness for the Prosecution," hence the title.

In another twist, the barrister uncovers evidence that will allow for a devastating cross-examination of Christine.

The in-court show-down then plays out. Prosecution presents its surprise witness; Laughton devastates her credibility; jury brings in a verdict of not guilty. THEN comes the twist ending.

Dietrich confides in the barrister that she herself planted the evidence that he found and used to impeach her credibility, and she had gone to the prosecution planning to be discredited.

She couldn't take the chance of an honest unrigged trial, she says.

"Why, because you knew your husband was innocent."

"No, because I knew he was guilty."

THOSE words are the end of the story, and they work wonderfully, because Christie had been successful in luring us into the contrary conviction.

But as I've noted, Hollywood in the 1950s could not have a story end with a man getting away with murder. So there is a coda in which the barrister expresses his outrage, then the newly-acquitted defendant enters the discussion and tells Christine that he is leaving her for a younger woman. Christine stabs him with a letter opener (which had been an exhibit in the trial) and kills him.

The barrister immediately decides that he will defend Christine against the inevitable charge of murder, and the credits finally roll.

I really wish the creative people involved had found a way to evade the Code and make this movie without the Coda.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Google's Victory, and Tie-In Law

Google is coming under increased antitrust scrutiny. Photo / Getty


On April 3, plaintiffs withdrew a lawsuit against Google in a federal court in northern California, a lawsuit in which they had contended that Google was illegally tying its licensing of the Android operating system to the favorable treatment of Google apps.

 They didn't withdraw their complaint because they had a change of heart. They did so because an earlier ruling by this court had pulled their ladder out from under them. It was jump to the ground or take a nasty fall.

Here's a link to a news story on the subject.

What is striking about this lawsuit is how much it resembles similar lawsuits brought against Microsoft back when it was the great digital boogeyman. Then, too, the central argument was a tying theory. [Sometimes that is written "tie-in." Fortunately, the two phrases sound the same, so when people speak to one another about these matters, there's no real chance for confusion. One creates a tie-in by tying one product or service to another, and the type of action one brought against a company dominant in one market, seeking to extend its dominance to another in such a name, can take either term as label.]

Judge Beth Labson Freeman seems to have been less tolerant of this general line of argument than Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson had been 20 years before. Freeman ruled in February that the plaintiffs had failed to allege with proper specificity what they must, that consumers have paid higher prices as a consequence of the restrictive contracts complained of. The consumers were third parties to the contracts at issue, in which Google entered into deals with handset manufacturers requiring them to construct the handsets in such a way as to favor Google's famous search engine [over, for example, Microsoft's Bing] in order to be licensed to use the operating system Android.

Anyway: freeman ordered them to amend their claims in order to state clearly a connection between the manufacturing restrictions and harm to consumers. They presumably decided they couldn't do that, and withdrew the action altogether in early April.

This is a good thing. There is a good deal of competition in the smart phone world. The big two are clearly Android and Apple, but Microsoft is in the field as well, and Blackberry still has a presence. It isn't clear that Google has the dominance in this world that it would need in order to use exclusivity to give itself dominance somewhere else.