Thursday, January 29, 2004

The Past Presidents Game

What I'm denoting as the "past presidents game" is the comparison of our current president to past presidents in order to learn something about the course of events. Of course, people compare President Bush to all sorts of bizarre historical figures, but lets restrict the field to past presidents for a little respectability.

My entry into the game: Bush is Polk.
  • Democrat James K. Polk won the election of 1840 by a tiny margin when a strong showing by the Liberty party siphoned off just enough votes to cost Whig challenger Henry Clay both New York state and the election. Republican George W. Bush won his election by a razor thin margin over Democratic challenger Al Gore in a key battleground state.

  • Polk, despite a tiny plurality of the popular vote, launched an expansionist foreign policy that almost got America into another war with Great Britain and did entangle America in a controversial war with Mexico. Bush and his war on terror has produced friction with Europe and entangled America in a deeply controversial war with and occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

  • The Whig party presidential nomination for the election of 1844 was initially split between long-serving ultra-Whig Senator Henry Clay and the newly popular party outsider General Zachary Taylor. The Democratic nomination for 2004 is similarly split in part between long-serving liberal Senator John Kerry and the energetic and unorthodox Governor Howard Dean.

  • The new media of 1844, the penny press, probably seemed just as relentlessly hostile to the Whigs as the new media "dittoheads" of 2004 seem to the Democrats.

  • Conservatives view Bush as the ideological successor to President Ronald Reagan just as Democrats viewed Polk as an ideological successor to President Andrew Jackson. Jackson and Reagan where also the last two presidents who didn't die in office to be succeeded by their vice presidents, but only after an interlude by the opposing party.
Whether this comparison between the old Whig party and the modern Democratic party has any predictive power is open to question. The Whig party did win the election of 1844 after all, but it was all but defunct within 10 years. The two major 20th century political parties, on the other hand, have taken titanic beatings over and over again only to keep coming back for more. If the Republican party could survive taking the blame for the Great Depression, Watergate, and terrible defeats at the hands of FDR, Truman and LBJ, a 21st century Democratic party can probably survive anything. On the other hand, once the consensus view of the members of a political party becomes "electability at all costs", it can't be long before different party stalwarts start to disagree upon exactly how high the costs are going to become. It also wasn't just the Whig party's principles, or lack therof, that doomed them to perpetual failure. The public's perception of the Whigs as the party of stuffed-shirt old fuddy-duddy's also contributed to those failures.

Monday, January 26, 2004

The Order (2003)

Vacuum Energy rating: no stars
Background information about "The Order" is available at The Internet Movie Database.

"The Order" is the story of a young priest named Alex Bernier who is a member of a now obscure (and presumably fictional) Catholic order known as the Carolingians. The Carolingians, we are told, have been trained to specialize in dealing with the various ghosts and goblins that plaugue humanity. The effectiveness of the Carolingian ethic is of course demonstrated by the absolute surrender of anything supernatural yet superficial to the plot when confronted by a Carolingian shoving a crucifix in its face. On the other hand, the suicide under suspicious circumstances of the Carolingian head based in Rome, thus making it necessary for Alex and the one other extant Carolingian, Thomas, to investigate is perhaps a better indication of what the Carolingian Order is capable. Coming along for the ride is Alex's friend Mara, with whom he seems to have a long past as well as an "if we don't get married to other people by the time we're 50, we'll do it" style relationship.

The exceptional feature of the world that Alex, Thomas, and Mara inhabit is the omnipresence of the supernatural. Demons in the guise of children, mysterious books of ancient lore, and underground mystical cults are about as commonplace as stray cats on the Roman streets. When Alex discovers mysterious markings on the body of the deceased priest, he immediately hits the 15th century occult shelf of the local library, instead of, say, a medical doctor, and hits upon the concept of a sin-eater. Need more information on sin-eating? Just walk into a random night club, talk to the first woman you lay eyes on, get her to take you to the secret underworld Dark Pope and you've got your answer: ask the dying, since they can do anything. Of course, there are plenty of potential dying hanging around the Dark Pope's lair, each ready to mysteriously answer your questions once they begin actively dying, since the police forces of the world seem to have succumbed to a debilitating case of the stupids.

The downgrading of the Catholic faith to a sort of pseudoreligious conspiracy is the goal, which makes "The Order" similar to the movie "Stigmata" in this regard. If mysticism and salvation are merely facts, as the movie seems to want us to accept, and a sin-eater can give you salvation just as well as Catholicism can, then there really is no need for a Church after all. It would be as if we all had invented a series of rituals about gravitation because of our undying love for Sir Isaac Newton. The corollary to this principle is that if the particular set of magic powers you end up with aren't to your liking, there's no reason why you can't just trade them in for a new batch that works better. When Alex meets the sin-eater for the first time, who apparently has lived for 500 years on the excellent nutritional values of sin, it's barely ten minutes of movie time before Alex has gone from stalking the sin-eater to taking naps on the sin-eater's couch. Alex starts thinking about a career change to a new set of magic powers, we see that sin-eating is really, really real to make it all sink in, and it becomes painfully obvious where the movie is going to end up.

Of course, in the end we see exactly how a sin-eater can be completely despicable, but by then Alex is too far gone to care.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

The art of the movie review

Since I decided that I was going to review some movies for this blog, I've been asking myself about what to look for in a movie that makes it worth the review in the first place. Of course, the choice of movie is going to be left up to my own personal and hopefully not too idiosyncratic whims. The big question is, basically, what does a director have to do to get the Vacuum Energy seal of approval?

Of course, it's fairly easy to decide what to avoid when it comes to criticism. One thing you're definately not going to see from me is a glowing, freshly minted, 4-star badge of honor being awarded to a flick such as "Kill Bill: Volume 1". Don't get me wrong. I think Roger Ebert is ordinarily excellent at differentiating between crap and talent, but a certain mixture of utter ridiculousness coated with enough Hollywood cool or political correctness seems to score high on the Ebert scale. Or maybe it was the cheap shot at Trent Lott in Ebert's review of "Gods and Generals" that got under my skin.

Anyway, my real critical influence, known to the coworkers at Vacuum Energy headquarters as "my" reviewer, is James Bowman, currently writing reviews for "The American Spectator" alongside his other pursuits. The Bowman scale of 0 to 2 stars ranging from awful to amazing definately has its advantages in encapsulating the favorability of ones criticism. A movie really has to work hard to earn a two-star rating, but you can at least trust a 1-star movie to be worth your money at the theaters. The vast proliferation of no star movies in the Bowman movie archives testifies to the worth of the average film being pumped out of Hollywood nowadays. I don't always agree with his decisions, but the amateur will be looking at the master's style for inspiration.

So, here's the deal. If you see a movie review posted on this site, it will be my honest opinion with at least some kind of critical reflection applied to it before it got digitalized. I'm going to look for what works, what doesn't, what gets me thinking days later, and what makes me run out of the theater screaming, all with a hopefully Bowman-esque ability to cut through the PC envelope that movies sometimes get packaged within.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Hi! Hello! How are you?

Welcome to Vacuum Energy. Look for some non-trivial posts in the near future.