Brandon Byrd

Alkan and Hamelin: Two Names You Should Know

 Posted by on 15 December 2008 at 12:55 am  Art
Dec 152008

Charles-Valentin Alkan.

Alkan’s name is probably be foreign to most readers, and this shows no deficiency on their part. By and large, Alkan has been forgotten. Much of the blame for this unfortunate fact lies squarely with Alkan himself, whose introversion and cynicism lead him to lead much of his mature life in self-imposed seclusion. He spent, for instance, a 25 year period of his adult life without giving a public performance, despite being one of history’s greatest pianists. He did little in his lifetime to popularize his own work, which lead him to be neglected by the concert-going public. When he died in 1888, an obituary in Le menestrel quipped: “Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence.”

Alkan’s career as a pianist and composer was most active during the middle half of the 19th century, making him contemporaneous with both Chopin and Liszt, to whom Alkan can aptly be compared. All three composers were pianists writing primarily for the piano, and all three generated an incredibly varied and imaginative body of work. In the corpora of Chopin, Liszt, and Alkan we find compositions of breathtaking and delicate sensitivity situated alongside thunderous epics which place extreme technical demands upon the pianist daring enough to attempt their performance. Relevantly, all three also published influential, highly original sets of etudes, pieces of music which emphasize particular technical skills on the part of the musician performing them. Of these, Chopin’s etudes (Op. 12 and 25) were published first (in the 1830′s), and they marked a radically new approach to piano playing and composition. Far from being mere practice exercises, Chopin’s etudes were worthy of aesthetic contemplation as ends in themselves, quite apart from the workout they gave the performer. Liszt also published a collection of fiendishly difficult etudes – his Transcendental Etudes – which, along with Chopin’s, remain a staple of the traditional repertoire of concert pianists.

In contrast, Alkan’s “Douze etudes dans tous les tons mineurs” (Twelve studies in the minor keys, Op. 39 [1857]) have failed to be regularly featured in live performances. Part of the explanation of this phenomenon is doubtless Alkan’s obscurity amongst the listening public; pianists will not often program music that the public does not want to come hear. But over and above this, the 12 etudes which constitute Alkan’s Op.39 are some of the most ferociously difficult pieces in the piano literature. Taken together, Op.39 includes – amongst other things – an overture, a symphony, a concerto, and a set of theme and variations – all written for the piano alone. Of these, the symphony and concerto offer perhaps the richest pianistic experiences for the listener.

At this point, I must pause my discussion of Alkan and discuss for a moment one of my personal heroes, Marc-Andre Hamelin. Hamelin is, in my opinion, the greatest living pianist. Certainly he is the greatest living technician; his preternatural virtuosity often draws comparisons with Liszt himself (whose technique was indeed transcendental). But over and above Hamelin’s sheer ability to play, he possesses an artistic intellect which matches the power and speed of his hands; for Hamelin, virtuosity is merely a means to breathe life into the composer’s score, not a showboating end in itself. As a result of these remarkable qualities, Hamelin is able to masterfully perform not only dazzling virtuoso crowd-pleasers, but also the more restrained and delicate music of composers like Haydn, Albeniz, and Debussy. This is apparent if one listens to any Hamelin CD release; his recorded body of work occupies that rarefied air where superlatives fail.

When it comes to Alkan recordings, Hamelin has few peers and arguably no equals. While it is ultimately a matter of taste and preference whether one prefers Hamelin’s Alkan releases to those of Jack Gibbons, John Ogdon, or Ronald Smith, I find the call easy to make. Where others sometimes struggle to clearly render Alkan’s denser, more complex passages, Hamelin glides through with seemingly effortless aplomb. His boundless pianistic abilities overcome all barriers between the composer’s score and the listener’s ear in ways that can call into question what one previously regarded as humanly possible. This last claim may strike some as hyperbolic, but it is nevertheless sincere.

The best evidence for this bold claim comes from the experience of listening to Hamelin’s CD releases themselves – an experience for which there is no real substitute (short of seeing him live). The short snippets of Alkan’s Symphony for Solo Piano and Concerto for Solo Piano available on the Hyperion Records website are far too brief to properly appreciate the genius of either Hamelin or Alkan. But to give you a glimpse of how awesome the Hamelin/Alkan combination is, below are the two most badass videos you’ll see on YouTube today.

The first is the fourth movement finale of Alkan’s Symphony from Op.39. This work is symphonic in that it is designed to evoke the sense of hearing a full orchestra, replete with cellos, violins, woodwinds and all the rest. The piece is especially demanding on the performer, not just because he must struggle to play the right notes at the right times, but because he must also strive to bring out the subtle textures and inner voices that correspond to the different orchestral parts. I’ll let you be the judge as to how well Hamelin succeeds:

The second video also features a selection from Op.39, the first movement of Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano. Like the Symphony, the Concerto was concieved of orchestrally, with all the parts of the symphony represented in the score. But the Concerto outdoes the Symphony (which is no mean feat!) by introducing a solo part in addition to the orchestral elements. That’s right, folks, it’s the orchestra and soloist together, written for a single instrument and a single performer. The result is nothing short of astonishing. (Be sure to fasten your seatbelts before the climax kicks in around 5:35) :

The first movement alone of this massive concerto lasts for nearly half an hour (of which the above video is simply the final third), and there are still two more movements to follow. Taken as a whole, Alkan’s concerto (to say nothing of Op.39, of which it is simply a part) is a stupendous triumph whose finale will have your heart in your throat and your jaw on the floor. I still find it difficult not to leap into applause at the end, even when listening in the privacy of my own home. I’d urge any self-described lover of piano music (or classical music in general) to pick up a copy of the concerto for themselves. If what you seek from music is a glorious and exalted reminder of what it is open for human beings to achieve, few things satisfy like Alkan in the hands of Hamelin. And for those of you whose musical tastes preclude the pianistic, buy a copy for your friend or loved one who does enjoy this type of music. They’re guaranteed to be delighted.

Ayn Rand Bookstore Clearance Sale

 Posted by on 20 November 2008 at 5:56 pm  Objectivism
Nov 202008

An exciting surprise at this year’s OCON was the opportunity to purchase audiocassette versions of Ayn Rand Bookstore products at the low low price of $4.95 a tape. Needless to say, I stocked up. Now you can too! From the ARB website:

The Ayn Rand Bookstore is pleased to announce a clearance sale on all audiocassette products published by the Ayn Rand Bookstore, while supplies last.

In order to clear out our existing audiocassette supplies, we are now discounting prices to $4.95 per cassette. A single-cassette item will be $4.95; a two-cassette product will sell for $9.90; and so on. In some cases, prices are now as much as 75% below list price.

Sale prices will remain effective until all of our audiocassette products are sold out. Audiocassette products will later be reintroduced in other formats.

Listen and learn!

Getting Rand Wrong

 Posted by on 19 October 2008 at 11:01 pm  Academia, Economics, Ethics, Finance, Objectivism, Politics
Oct 192008

As someone who takes ideas seriously, I’ve always found it frustrating when philosophers take it upon themselves to offer judgments on subjects they haven’t bothered to devote serious time and attention to studying. The charge that philosophers (academic or otherwise) sometimes judge where the epistemically virtuous would fear to comment isn’t new. (For instance, it isn’t rare to hear someone claim that speculation from the philosophical armchair is a poor method of settling some contentious issue.) What makes this phenomenon — the venturing of unwarranted opinions — especially pernicious in the case of philosophers is that philosophers are supposed to be the guardians of rationality, revering the mind by sacrificing hasty conclusions at the altar of the well-formed argument. Philosophers are supposed to love wisdom and shun mere belief; when they make assertions that betray culpable ignorance, they sin against their profession as well as the truth.

I don’t know what it is about Ayn Rand that makes many philosophers think they can get away with saying whatever they damn well please about her without having studied her work carefully and honestly. I suspect that the real explanation has less to do with Rand and more to do with personal biases on the part of her critics. But whatever the cause, the phenomenon is nevertheless real. It isn’t just that many philosophers dislike Rand. We philosophers are an opinionated bunch; we dislike all sorts of things. Rather it’s that many philosophers will attribute all sorts of nonsense to Rand without actually considering what she has to say.

To offer an example, below is a passage from Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics. This work, published relatively recently by Oxford University Press, is intended to be used as a textbook on, unsurprisingly, virtue ethics.

“We can interpret Thrasymachus, and more obviously Nietzsche and Rand, as saying that, rather like hive bees, human beings fall, by nature, into two distinct groups, the weak and the strong (or the especially clever or talented or ‘chosen by destiny’), whose members must be evaluated differently, as worker bees and the drones or queens are.”

Um… what? Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with Rand’s ideas will realize that she believes no such thing. Rand’s philosophical anthropology — her theory of human nature — does not recognize a distinction between types of human beings. Her ethical theory evaluates individuals on the basis of their choices, not their unchosen attributes, and she appeals to a univocal standard of moral evaluation — not to distinct standards for distinct types.

Hursthouse does not provide any sources that might justify her ‘obvious’ interpretation of Rand’s philosophy. But this totally wrongheaded interpretation of Rand was good enough for her editors and peer reviewers at OUP (as well as the numerous philosophers who gave her editorial comments on the final manuscript). Apparently that group of distinguished professors found nothing objectionable in Hursthouse’s characterization of Rand. Of course, realizing Hursthouse’s error would have required reading Rand.

(On a grimly ironic note, the above passage comes from chapter 11 of On Virtue Ethics. The chapter title? “Objectivity.”)

Hursthouse isn’t the only person who presents Rand’s views incorrectly in a way that betrays ignorance. Chandran Kukathas’s entry on Rand in the otherwise excellent Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy is another example. No, Kukathas… Rand didn’t think that integrity was “at the root of the idea of freedom,” her “real concerns” were not “the defence of the value of integrity (to the point of self-sacrifice) in the face of evil and moral despair,” and The Virtue of Selfishness was not a novel.

So far, we’ve seen a philosopher attribute views to Rand that she ‘obviously’ didn’t hold, and we’ve seen another philosopher misunderstand the fundamentals of Rand’s politics and misconstrue her central concerns. But Gerald Dworkin, a professor of philosophy at UC Davis, has recently exemplified yet another way of getting Rand wrong: saying that her ideas lead to catastrophe.

The forum in which Dworkin makes this charge is Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog — a blog featuring “news and views about philosophy, the academic profession, academic freedom, intellectual culture… and a bit of poetry.” The blog is run by Brian Leiter, currently John Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, and Director of Chicago’s Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values. Leiter is also the editor of The Philosophical Gourmet, which ranks the top philosophy departments in the English-speaking world. I read Leiter Reports semi-regularly, as it is a good source of professional news related to academic philosophy (faculty hires, moves, deaths, retirements and whatnot). In addition to this valuable material, the blog also features occasional leftist cultural commentary of more dubious value. Of extremely dubious value is Dworkin’s post “Blame it on Ayn Rand” in which he claims Rand is a cause of our economic troubles. Dworkin doesn’t really provide much of an argument for this claim, so I’ll attempt to provide him with a charitable reconstruction (a courtesy I’m not so sure he deserves… but for the sake of argument…).

Dworkin quotes a recent New York Times article on Greenspan’s involvement in the current financial crisis. (That article seems to get Rand wrong too; Rand didn’t have “a resolute faith that those participating in financial markets would act responsibly” but that’s beside the point.) The article implies that Greenspan’s positions on regulation — specifically the regulation of derivatives markets — were causally relevant factors in producing the recent financial crisis. Why did Greenspan hold his positions on regulation? Here, Dworkin invokes Keynes:

“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

(I can’t resist noting that Rand held a similar view to Keynes about the importance of philosophy in history, though her insight was deeper than Keynes. Rather than viewing history as being primarily driven by political philosophy, Rand viewed metaphysics and epistemology as being much more influential. For more on Rand’s insights here, consult the title essay of For the New Intellectual, as well as the title essay of Philosophy: Who Needs It. Peikoff develops Rand’s insights on the philosophical motor of history in Ominous Parallels, the epilogue to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, and in his forthcoming book on how epistemology shapes society.)

Greenspan was a student of Rand, and Rand argued for the principled separation of the state and economics, and thus for an absence of government interference in voluntary economic exchanges. She was a categorical opponent of governmental regulation in financial markets. Greenspan opposed regulation of derivatives markets. The current financial crisis was supposedly brought on by an absence of regulation in these markets. Thus Dworkin claims that Rand is “an important cause of the catastrophe we are in.”

Let us examine this argument.

This argument gets its force from the claim that Greenspan was practicing what Rand preached. In an update to Dworkin’s post, Leiter snarkily remarks that “Greenspan was not only a friend of Rand’s, but a lifelong devotee of her ideas and her ‘philosophy,’ such as it is.” While it is true that Rand and Greenspan were friendly toward one another, it is demonstrably false that Greenspan was “a lifelong devotee of her ideas.” It doesn’t take a hell of a lot of legwork to discover this; thanks to Google, I didn’t even have to leave my armchair.

In The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan’s recent autobiography, Greenspan discusses the important formative influence Rand had on his intellectual development. In his discussion, he talks about how Rand encouraged him to look beyond mere economic data and more deeply into the values and ideas that move history and influence human action (including economic action). She was credited with broadening his perspective on the world and helping him reject logical positivism. He even describes himself as “writing spirited commentary for [Rand's] newsletter with the fervor of a young acolyte…”. But this enthusiasm was not to last; Greenspan’s autobiography claims that Rand’s philosophy has inherent contradictions, and that his “fervor receded.”

So Greenspan isn’t an Objectivist. His policies, as we shall see, reflect this fact.

We’re in the midst of a recession, teetering (some might say) on the precipice of a depression. What were Rand’s views about recessions and depressions? Well, Dworkin doesn’t say. His blog post doesn’t even bother to discuss which of Rand’s ideas were supposed to get us into this mess. He doesn’t explicitly discuss her ideas at all. If one consults Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal to discover her views on the causes of recessions and depressions, one is directed to the works of Ludwig von Mises. It is important (for getting Rand right) to recognize that while Rand found Mises’s economic analyses convincing, she had substantial philosophical and methodological disagreements with him. Mises was a Kantian who viewed economics as a primarily deductive enterprise (and thus was inclined toward epistemological rationalism). He also attempted to do economics in an ethical vacuum, divorcing economic analysis from any underlying normative framework. Rand, of course, rejected Kantianism, rationalism, and a strict division between morality and economics. But despite his errors, Rand thought that Mises’s economic theories represented a significant achievement.

At this point, I don’t want to provide a lengthy, detailed summary of Mises’s views on the business cycle. I may write something in the near future about the causes of our current economic woes, but I’ll hold off for now. The following short summary should provide a general indication of the economic views Rand found most convincing.

The most salient aspect of the Austrian theory of the business cycle is that implicates central banks as the fundamental cause of depressions and recessions. Ah! The plot thickens! Wasn’t Greenspan the head of our central bank? He was indeed. How do central banks cause recessions?

In a free market, the interest rate (the price of money) is determined by the law of supply and demand. Roughly, the supply of loanable funds that banks have (our savings) determines the interest rate, when taken in conjunction with the overall demand for money and the riskiness of potential debtors. Central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, distort this market mechanism by setting artificially low interest rates (interest rates below the market rate). What happens next? I defer to Wikipedia:

Low interest rates tend to stimulate borrowing from the banking system. This expansion of credit causes an expansion of the supply of money, through the money creation process in a fractional reserve banking system. This in turn leads to an unsustainable “monetary boom” during which the “artificially stimulated” borrowing seeks out diminishing investment opportunities. This boom results in widespread malinvestments, causing capital resources to be misallocated into areas which would not attract investment if the money supply remained stable. A correction or “credit crunch” — commonly called a “recession” or “bust” — occurs when credit creation cannot be sustained.

Loose monetary policy by central banks leads to people taking on more debt than they otherwise would. Artificially low interest rates allow more credit to be extended to risky borrowers. In our current case this lead to skyrocketing real estate values, since there was an increased demand for houses (made possible by banks extending credit to more and riskier debtors). This effect is obvious enough in the case of commercial banks, which more than doubled the amount of real estate loans they made (thus allocating large amounts of resources into the real estate market — allocations that wouldn’t have occurred in a free market for money and credit.

And then there’s the welfare state. Don’t let’s forget about Fannie and Freddy. The former is a holdover from the New Deal; the latter is a “government sponsored enterprise” created by the Emergency Home Finance Act of 1976, and designed to increase home ownership. Both of which did their part to screw us all by spurring on the housing bubble… and they were able to borrow money at a (de facto, if not de jure) subsidized rate in the marketplace because the public viewed them as being low risk (since the state would presumably bail them out, should the need arise).

All of a sudden, everyone’s in debt and no one wants to lend. Small wonder. Small wonder that risky investors are defaulting on their mortgage payments. Small wonder that the derivatives markets are screwing up (I’d argue that we can only make sense of the kerfuffle in the derivatives market in light of monetary policy). Small wonders that major financial institutions are losing their credit rating because they took on too many risky debtors.

We frequently hear that that the market got drunk. What was it drunk on? Cheap credit. Who was the man behind the bar? You can probably guess.

In May of 2000, the Fed Funds rate was 6.5%. By June of 2003, Greenspan had slashed it to 1%, and it stayed there for more than a year (and remained ridiculously low for much longer). Would Rand have found this type of monetary policy commendable (or even tolerable)? Of course not. She’d read her Mises. Moreover, she regarded central banking as morally repugnant and politically unnecessary.

There’s much more to be said about our current credit crunch and how to evaluate it in light of Rand’s moral and political philosophy. But it should now be evident that Dworkin (and Leiter) are wrong on all counts. They were wrong about Greenspan; they were wrong about Rand. Their errors on these subjects betray a culpable ignorance. One needn’t do much research to figure out Greenspan’s real views on Rand, or Rand’s views on economics. Twenty minutes with Google and Wikipedia would probably have gotten the job done. If a philosopher is going to assert, in a public forum, that another philosopher’s ideas lead to disaster, then they have an obligation to carefully consider that thinker’s ideas, to understand them, and to show how (in practice) they would result in catastrophe. When a philosopher fails to do that, they do a disservice not only to the thinker they criticize, but also to the truth, to their profession, and to themselves.

Academic philosophers often get Rand wrong. They often have only themselves to blame.

Who Wants a Bailout?

 Posted by on 24 September 2008 at 12:32 am  Finance, Politics
Sep 242008

As you have no doubt heard, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently presented a plan to Congress that seeks to buy as much as $700,000,000,000 in “troubled assets” from prominent financial institutions. But why should these firms be the only ones to get massive amounts of milk from the taxpayer teat? I don’t know about you, but I’ve purchased plenty of assets of dubious future value in my day… why shouldn’t the government help me out too?! If you’re like me, I’m sure you’re wondering why the government isn’t doing more to help alienate you from the negative consequences of your poor decisions. After all, isn’t that what the government’s there for? Granted, they do a lot for us in that regard… but if they’re bailing out Wall Street, why not bail out Main Street — or MY Street?

I recently ran across a website (hat tip to BoingBoing) asking just this question: From their site’s description:

With our economy in crisis, the US Government is scrambling to rescue our banks by purchasing their “distressed assets”, i.e., assets that no one else wants to buy from them. We figured that instead of protesting this plan, we’d give regular Americans the same opportunity to sell their bad assets to the government. We need your help and you need the Government’s help! Use the form below to submit bad assets you’d like the government to take off your hands. And remember, when estimating the value of your 1997 limited edition Hanson single CD “MMMbop”, it’s not what you can sell these items for that matters, it’s what you think they are worth. The fact that you think they are worth more than anyone will buy them for is what makes them bad assets.

So head on over and list whatever crap you’d like for whatever amount you think it’s worth. If enough of us band together, maybe we can reap the rewards of the welfare state too!

Aug 132008

Like many of you, I had been anxiously and ambivalently awaiting the beginning of the Olympic summer games in Beijing. On the one hand, I love the exhibition of raw human potential at some of its most actualized. The games offer a rare chance to glimpse the efficacy of human choice and loyalty to values, as the world beholds athletes who have been training their entire lives to achieve almost unimaginable feats of strength, speed, and agility. That I find the Olympics inspirational is an understatement. I celebrate the Olympics for showing me the height of what’s possible and giving me the knowledge that it can be made actual. Despite my enthusiasm for the genuine value I find in the Olympic games, I had some considerable difficulty making sense of the extravagant opening ceremonies in Beijing this past weekend.

While watching the opening ceremonies, I found myself totally confused as to what I thought or felt about the spectacle that was unfolding before me. It was undoubtedly sensational, a grand event that dazzled the senses and left one’s head reeling in wonder as to how it was all being accomplished. I heard that China spent something equivalent to roughly $300,000,000 (doesn’t seeing all those zeros concretize the magnitude of the expense?) to produce the ceremony, and one can see that they got their money’s worth. In the run up to the games, it was not infrequent for commentators to argue that the 2008 Olympics is “China’s coming out party” and that the games would set the stage for China to gain recognition as a serious political and economic player. And indeed, this seemed to be largely the theme of the ceremony’s presentation. Much of the pomp and circumstance was directed at the end of both celebrating Chinese culture and emphasizing the idea that China wants to cooperate with the rest of the world.

The celebration of Chinese culture went something like this: once upon a time there were Chinese who invented gunpowder and fireworks, had huge drum circles, fashioned incredibly ornate dresses, made some incredible paper and printed on it, and who philosophized at roughly the Pre-Socratic level of scope and sophistication. (The pre-Socratics [Western philosophers before Socrates] were the first group of Western philosophers and their interests primarily revolved around how to explain the metaphysical phenomenon of change (and how things persist through change without changing their essence). They typically did so through claims about how opposites [light and dark; night and day; hot and cold; atoms and void] interact. All this is also distinctive of much Chinese philosophy, as I understand it.)

Were these not the basic features of Chinese cultural greatness that were presented to us in the ceremonies? Perhaps the Chinese also demonstrated that they could get really large groups to do things precisely by drilling them for months on end. But what these massive demonstrations of precise collective action were used to demonstrate were the cultural products of Chinese civilization. Truly, these are not small change in the grand scale of human achievements, and I appreciate these things in the same way that I appreciate their Western analogues. To the extent that these things were done well, they represented significant advances in the human condition.

Upon reflection, however, I viewed the ceremonies as essentially a ploy to use some of Chinese culture’s greatest offerings (in terms of its art, innovation, and philosophy) as a symbol for the greatness of the current Chinese regime. My reasons for believing that this is so largely because of a recent admission by certain Chinese officials about a memorable event during its supposedly glorious opening ceremonies.

Today the New York Times reports that there has been a bit of a recent scandal related to the opening ceremonies. The article reports that one of the most touching and memorable elements of the performance actually involved a bit of deception.

At one of the key moments in the ceremony, an adorable 9 year old Lin Miaoke stood center stage, replete with red dress and ‘cute-little-girl hair,’ and sang a song called “Ode to the Motherland.” (A video can be found on YouTube here. [Link Fixed]) Some time into her performance, the national flag of China enters in grand, Party-Approved fashion (the song is basically an ode to the flag, making it the perfect choice for a 9 year old girl to understand and communicate) and the whole world goes “Awww! Let’s all be friends with China.”

However, this event was not everything it seemed. The NYT reported that the voice we heard was not Miaoke’s, but instead that of another girl, Yang Peiyi. It was Yang Peiyi who had the vocal range and skill to sing the Ode to the estimated billion viewers of the opening ceremony. She had the voice of the girl who should sing the song,

But not her face. Photos posted online showed a happy girl with imperfect teeth, hardly an uncommon problem in China. “Everyone should understand this in this way,” Mr. Chen [general music designer of the opening ceremony] said. “This is in the national interest. It is the image of our national music, national culture, especially during the entrance of our national flag. This is an extremely important, extremely serious matter.”

As the Joker might ask, “Why so serious?” The article explains:

Miaoke’s song was considered critical because it coincided with the arrival of the national flag inside the massive National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest. In his radio interview, Mr. Chen said that a member of the ruling Communist Party’s powerful Politburo, whom he did not identify, attended one of the last rehearsals, along with numerous other officials, and demanded that Miaoke’s voice “must change.”

By Tuesday, the Chinese media had already pounced on the story, instigating a national conversation that government censors were trying to mute by stripping away many, but not all, of the public comments posted online. The outrage was especially heated over the cold calculation used to appraise the girls.

Let me summarize: China’s ruling party is censoring Internet traffic because it demanded that the general music designer of the opening ceremony fake a performance designed to glorify the Chinese nation. It was dissatisfied with this element of the ceremony, since at the end of the day they had to decide between a cute girl with insufficient vocal chops, and a less cute girl who had the voice to sing the song. Why choose? Why compromise Chinese national self-image (and thus cast doubt upon the Communist Party’s ability to govern an international event? THIS IS SERIOUS! Though they could not choose between Miaoke and Peiyi, they could rebuild them; they had the technology (thanks to Western innovations in audio and video processing software).

Why China faked the ceremony and why they oppressively censor online comments is essentially the same reason: the Chinese regime is nationalist. At root, the opening ceremonies were meant to be a nationalistic demonstration of a nation’s power on the world stage, showing how Chinese competence could produce a magnificent ceremony. That is, it was viewed by Party members (who had the power to shape the final form of the ceremony) as an expression of political prowess. It was China’s coming out party, and nothing could blemish its reputation – not even an orthodontic travesty or a flat note here or there. Any expression of weakness or failure is an indication of national failure, of China’s inability to succeed. The state, the people, the NATION must look good at any cost, even if it means engaging in deceptive behavior that manipulates children (who may or may not have known about the lip-synching at the time of the performance); even if it means selecting potential Olympic gymnasts at the age of three… even if it means placing stringent government controls on what can and cannot be said through electronic media.

Whenever I speak of Chinese collectivism, given their communist legacy in the 20th century, I often am met with a response like “Oh, China… sure they’re ruled by a communist party, but they’re not really communists. Look at all of their economic reform and liberalization!” This response seems to miss the mark altogether. The distinctive feature of communism was the view that individual interests could be curtailed for the sake of promoting class interest. Under Mao and his communist successors, collective interests took priority over individual rights and the liberties they secure. This view is precisely the same view held by the current Chinese regime, though they’re replaced “class interest” with “national interest.” The principle that one can see manifested everywhere throughout contemporary Chinese politics and public policy is the same collectivist principle invoked by the communists: that individuals exist to serve the state, that the interests of the state take priority over the interests of the individual.

It was indeed China’s coming out party, and the opening ceremony was supposed to communicate a message of friendship, cooperation, and human unity. It was supposed to show how China was willingness to engage in civilized participation with the rest of the world. It included a performance by 810 figures in Han-dynasty era clothing, who joined together to communicate the question “Isn’t it great to have friends coming from afar?” and sent “All men are brothers within the four seas.”

Despite the inclusion of elements like this, I couldn’t find myself convinced that the opening ceremonies should be viewed positively. Regardless of all the razzle-dazzle, what we witnessed was a calculated attempt by an oppressive government to justify itself through a mesmerizing performance on the world stage. It’s a variation on the old Roman “bread and circuses” theme, except, of course for the bread (think how many capital goods $300,000,000 could buy to increase worker productivity and thus help to alleviate the wide-spread poverty in China). The ceremonies were a debut ball for China as a nation, with all this implies for a country ruled by a nationalistic authoritarian regime; they were a thinly-veiled celebration of the state. In this respect, I found the 2008 opening ceremonies eerily similar in tone to the 1936 games in Berlin.

All this is to say, I found China’s ceremonial pleas for friendship and and cooperation to be disingenuous. To the extent that a person, culture or political system preaches collectivism, its hostility to individual human life makes it necessarily “unfriendly” (to say the least). A friend is someone who shares our values, and one cannot genuinely befriend anyone who advocates the destruction of individual liberty for the sake of the state. A friendly nation is one that does not oppress and censor its citizens. No amount of fireworks or electronic displays could change that.

To drive home this last point, (that spectacle is no substitute for achievement), I’d like to contrast China’s grand debut ball with another debut ball, the one given for Dagny Taggart in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It, like the Chinese opening ceremonies, was an extravagant event of considerable cost, designed to celebrate Dagny’s entrance into adult society. The following passage sets the scene:

The ballroom of the Wayne-Falkland Hotel had been decorated under Mrs. Taggart’s [Dagny's mother's] direction; she had an artist’s taste, and the setting of that evening was her masterpiece.

“Dagny, there are things I would like you to learn to notice,” she said, “lights, colors, flowers, music. They are not as negligible as you might think.”

“I’ve never thought they’re negligible,” Dagny answered happily. For once, Mrs. Taggart felt a bond between them; Dagny was looking at her with a child’s grateful trust. “They’re the things that make life beautiful,” said Mrs. Taggart. “I want this evening to be very beautiful for you, Dagny. The first ball is the most romantic event of one’s life.”

Dagny’s enthusiasm for her debut ball wanes as the event drags on. By the end of the event, her initial excitement has turned into a dull complacency, the spark of the celebration now gone. She asks:

“Mother, do they think it’s exactly in reverse?” she asked.
“What?” asked Mrs. Taggart, bewildered.
“The things you were talking about. The lights and the flowers. Do they expect those things to make them romantic, not the other way around?”
“Darling, what do you mean?”
“There wasn’t a person there who enjoyed it,” she said, her voice lifeless, “or who thought or felt anything at all. They moved about, and they said the same dull things they say anywhere. I suppose they thought the lights would make it brilliant.

Dagny’s analysis seems totally applicable to the Chinese opening ceremonies. The ruling Communist Party seemed to believe that if it surrounded itself with a remarkable, perfect display, it could claim perfection for itself and thus enhance its legitimacy. That is, the Party believed that the lights would make them seem brilliant. But as the world knows, the Chinese government has little to celebrate.

I’ll spare you the familiar complaints about the government’s shortcomings and summarize my view as follows: It is only after the Chinese government abandons its authoritarian, collectivist ideology and adopts ideals of individualism, individual rights, and capitalism that we can recognize the People’s Republic of China as a true friend.

It is only then that they will have reason to celebrate in as grand a fashion as they did on 8.8.08.

[Edited 2:46 EST on 8.13.08 with new YouTube link]

Does Wall-E Deliver on the Pixar Promise?

 Posted by on 21 July 2008 at 12:52 am  Film
Jul 212008

Okay… I’ll admit it. I anxiously anticipate each new Pixar film. Not only that, I get tingly just thinking about the pre-feature short animations that inevitably precede each Pixar release. And when the lamp in their logo hops across the screen, I can’t help but grin.

Things haven’t always been this way. When Pixar started working their magic back with Toy Story, I was less smitten with animated feature-length movies than I was with the sundry amusements of adolescent boyhood. But by the time Finding Nemo hit the theaters in 2003, I was ready to give ‘cartoons’ another shot. I’m glad I did. When The Incredibles followed a year later, I was a bit skeptical at first… did the world really need another superhero movie? Prior to seeing it, I couldn’t have even begun to suspect that Pixar’s superheroes were not just struggling against an evil villain, but also against an egalitarian culture marked by disdain for achievement (and a legal system in serious need of tort reform). To me, The Incredibles was another delightful Pixar surprise. And while I found Cars, their next movie, to be a vacuous disappointment, Ratatouille renewed my enthusiasm for the Pixar brand. In light of all their recent successes, Pixar’s future seemed promising.

Wall-E, Pixar’s latest film, was released on June 27th. For those of you keeping track, that was just about the time that OCON 2008 got underway, so I didn’t get a chance to check it out on opening weekend. This past Sunday my girlfriend and I found the time to head off to the multiplex and give Wall-E a proper viewing. In what follows, I’ll provide an indication of why I regard Wall-E as an enjoyable but deeply flawed movie. And just so you know, my comments are basically spoiler-free.

As you may have been able to gather from the media buzz, Wall-E is a movie about a robot. A robot trash-compactor. More precisely, it is a movie about a “Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-class,” or “WALL-E,” for your anthropomorphic convenience. (I’ll henceforth use the all-caps “WALL-E” to refer to the robot character, and “Wall-E” to designate the movie itself). According to Wall-E writer-director Andrew Stanton, the original spark that ultimately gave rise to the film was a scenario in which the last robot on Earth toiled away in lonely isolation, longing for companionship and social fulfillment. Indeed, this is how Wall-E begins. After briefly surveying a horrific, almost post-apocalyptic landscape, the viewer is introduced to WALL-E who is busy performing his characteristic task: compacting and organizing trash. After another extreme wide shot or two, the magnitude of WALL-E’s project becomes clear, as his stacks of trash reach towering heights alongside abandoned skyscrapers and other similarly massive pillars of industry.

The bleakness of this world is expertly rendered by Pixar’s typically stunning animation and audio work. The stylistic excellence and technical proficiency that made Ratatouille burst with lush colors, textures, and sound effects, are also evident in Wall-E, though they are for the most part utilized to portray a world of trash. As unappealing and valueless as a world of trash sounds, WALL-E takes it upon himself to collect (rather than compact) those items that he finds to be of interest. After all, one human’s trash is another robot’s treasure. It’s comical to see what WALL-E chooses to collect and what to discard, though perhaps his most cherished possession is nothing to laugh at. What is it? A copy of Hello Dolly on VHS that he found amidst the refuse of civilization. Of particular value to WALL-E are the numbers “It Only Takes a Moment” and “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” both ostensibly about companionship and love. Hearing these songs played by the last, lonely robot on Earth serves to heartbreakingly accent the tragedy of such radical isolation.

I’m getting misty just thinking about it.

But WALL-E’s isolation doesn’t last too long, as another robot (EVE) is soon on the scene. After EVE arrives, WALL-E finds a new purpose for himself in the quest for companionship. And this is really what the rest of the movie is about, about WALL-E attempting to gain and keep the attention of EVE. In other words, it’s a robot love story. And it’s a pretty entertaining one, at that. But given that the principals are robots, there is a sizable barrier in telling a convincing story about their relationship: robots don’t have language. Prior to this movie’s release, I remember there being some serious concern about how audiences would respond to a movie whose main characters engage in basically no dialog. Fortunately one of Pixar’s major virtues (at least in the Pixar movies I’ve seen) is that they go to great lengths to actually show the viewer what’s going on, to demonstrate the plot without having to unnecessarily explain events as they’re unfolding. At least in this respect, Wall-E is an excellent movie. Though little is said, little need be said; the data are there for the viewer to infer the movie’s meaning without superfluous exposition or hand-holding.

Although the Pixar team is able to dispense with dialog without sacrificing intelligibility, they unfortunately sacrifice something else: depth. Since language is not a big part of how Wall-E is told, characterization is primarily achieved through action. That is, we know WALL-E not by his words (not by his stated convictions) but rather by his deeds. The same goes for the other main characters. We don’t see them engage in deliberation. We don’t listen to them make choices. We don’t explicitly know what motivates them. And, perhaps most importantly, neither do the other characters of Wall-E know such things. WALL-E cannot verbally communicate his desire for companionship to EVA, just as she cannot verbally communicate her intentions and purposes to him. What this ultimately means for WALL-E’s romance with EVA is that while these robots are capable of showing one another THAT they are attracted, they cannot communicate WHY. Although viewers can probably create a story as to why EVA means so much to WALL-E, it’s doubtful that EVA could herself construct such an account. Because of this, the romance in Wall-E is superficial. Of course, that shouldn’t suggest that the story isn’t touching. It just isn’t reflective of the values (and the expression of values) that I take to be indicative of a truly great cinematic or literary romance.

To summarize thus far, Wall-E is an enjoyable but limited success insofar as one considers it as a love story. But when one looks beyond the romantic element of the movie, there are much larger issues looming in the background that threaten to swallow the love-narrative wholly. In my judgment, these issues represent serious aesthetic deficiencies that diminish the artistic value of the movie as whole. Let’s now take a look at them.

I first heard about the premise of Wall-E in an interview between writer-director Andrew Stanton and Terri Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” (The interview is available here.) Terry Gross lead into the interview by noting that Wall-E is set after a consumer-driven environmental apocalypse has made Earth uninhabitable. Upon hearing this, I was half-way down the road to disgust, but Stanton quickly responded by saying:

I [chose this setting] very reluctantly. I sort of reverse engineered my decision. It was all based on character and emotion. The conceit that got me interested in this movie was: the last robot on earth doing its job forever, not knowing that it was a waste of time. And I thought that was the ultimate definition of futility – I completely was seduced by that. And so, in my mind, that’s what was so charming – the last robot on earth – so I had to just come up with SOME conceit that would make that situation. Just to get this kind of character, I was forced to come up with a scenario…

At the time, Stanton’s response calmed me down a bit because the gist of it was something like: “Look, environmental destruction isn’t an integral part of the movie; it’s extra-thematic, and is only there as a pretext to allow the characters I wanted to represent to come out into the open; I had to set the context SOMEHOW, and this was just the most convenient device to allow the movie to come together.”

If this represented how the movie finally turned out, I would have been okay (though not delighted) with abstracting away from the setting and focusing in on the somewhat shallow love narrative. But in the final analysis, the setting for Wall-E is not unessential to the themes the film ultimately expresses. I haven’t mentioned any human characters yet in this review, because they’re basically irrelevant to Wall-E‘s plot. But let me digress for a moment to give you a brief indication of the type of human being you’ll encounter in this film. In doing so, I hope you’ll gain a sense of why Wall-E is the mixed bag that it is.

All the humans we see (in non-flashback form) in Wall-E are obese, weak-willed, ignorant adult-children who have been carted around their entire life by robots. Every human in the movie is a passenger on a 700+ year space-cruise that was necessitated by the environmental apocalypse. The planet was dying, so the humans went on a cruise while all the robots cleaned up. These people spend their entire lives sprawled out on moving robot hoverchairs watching computer screens, drinking meals from cups, altogether unconcerned with the need to think, work, or make decisions. Did I mention that they’re so unconcerned with physical activity that they’ve experienced severe bone loss? Moreover, the people aboard the cruise ship are altogether anti-social in that they rarely (if ever) stop to talk to those around them, but instead interact through virtual social networks on their robochair-mounted screens.

If you were to ask a contemporary neo-Marxist to draw a caricature of contemporary American “consumerism” (whatever that is), it is doubtful that the result would be much different from what is presented in Wall-E. Perhaps the best thing one might say about Pixar’s handling of the people in Wall-E is that they’re presented as relatively sympathetic creatures. That is to say, they’re not presented as drinking crude oil from their Big Gulp cups (though their ancestors apparently drank up all the oil long ago) and they aren’t shown clubbing baby seals. But they are docile, complacent, fat. Watching screens. Living a lifestyle that destroyed the world.

While viewing the film within the confines of my northwest Ohio theater, I dimly wondered if the film was intended to insult its audience.

To say that Wall-E’s presentation of humans was distracting is to say the least. To the extent that humans are involved in the narrative at all, they have been crammed into characters and roles determined by the “lonely-robot context” requirement. Simply put, Wall-E’s humans have been dehumanized so its robot could gain the shallow appearance of humanity.

Artistic license does not carry a “by any means necessary” clause; it does not entitle one to ignore or degrade genuine values (like the life-giving power of commerce) for the sake of portraying one’s pet character. If one wants, at root, to convey a story of love borne out of tragic isolation, this does not require one to invent an alternative future in which particular societal arrangements have been destructive of life as we know it. The inclusion of any such claim is not to be taken lightly; it is an indictment that certain practices are massively disastrous and deserving of moral condemnation.

To build such a claim into the setting of a children’s movie, and to do so simply for the sake of gaining plausibility for an empathetic character, is more than distracting. It’s obnoxious.

I’m not the only viewer who took notice of Wall-E’s apparently didactic, anti-industry sub-theme. In the interview mentioned above, Terry Gross read Stanton excerpts from two prominent reviews, one liberal and one conservative. The liberal review amounted to the endorsement that Wall-E was more in tune with current political issues than candidates on either side of the debate platform; the conservative-leaning reviewer felt that the movie assaulted him with environmentalist propaganda. Responding to these reviews, Stanton said:

Sadly, I’m not surprised. But I tried very hard not to have any kind of a [didactic message about environmentalism or consumerism]. I just went with [the] logic of how you could be in this scenario so that I could tell the story of a lonely little robot.

Leave the supposed logic of the situation aside. As an artist, one’s primary concern is the presentation of a theme, one’s central idea and vision. If a film’s theme concerns a “lonely little robot,” viewers shouldn’t exit the theater wondering how they can do their part to stem the coming post-industrial holocaust. And sadly, I think that’s what many people (especially children) will do.

I believe Stanton was sincere when he said that he didn’t intend for his movie to have a didactic message. I don’t think he intended to brainwash children into joining radical environmentalist movements. (In this respect, Wall-E is obviously superior to Fox’s FernGully: The Last Rainforest.) For all Stanton’s intelligence, he seems to have simply made a mistake in constructing his story. The fact that multiple reviewers paused to note that his film has strong political/policy undertones is indicative that he let his theme get away from him. This is the main reason I regard Wall-E as a major disappointment.

As it stands, the movie is too thematically disjointed to qualify as great art. The doom and gloom of the sub-theme end up distracting the viewer from what’s really supposed to be important. Regardless of how one evaluates Wall-E‘s anti-industrial elements, they unnecessarily divert attention away from the screenwriter’s primary concern. At some points it seems as though a polemic against consumerism is of central importance, with the romantic element being a mere interesting side-issue. In light of Stanton’s stated purpose of creating a love story, the movie fails to effectively communicate what is supposed to be essential to its theme. And unfortunately, Wall-E is overly successful in emphasizing elements that are inessential to Stanton’s central message. While watching, it’s too easy to forget that even robots can fall in love.

What a shame.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha