Thursday, November 30, 2006

Secondary Characters

The topics of secondary characters in fiction arose a couple times today, so here are some thoughts about them. The topic was first brought up by a conversation about secondary characters in fiction that develop admirers of their own.

"Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" seems to be especially rich in fan favorite secondary characters such as Lieutenant Jek Porkins, Greedo, and a personal hero of mine who happens to be the other survivor of the Death Star, Chief Bast:
When the rebels at Yavin only sent two squadrons of single-pilot starfighters to assault the Death Star, Bast must have immediately suspected that the enemy might indeed have discovered a peculiar vulnerability, as Gernal Tagge had feared. Bast and his staff monitored the battle very closely, so that he was able to identify the critical design fault of the thermal exhaust port immediately after the rebels made their first attack run. Grimly confident of his analysis and fearful of the reaction which it would provoke, Bast carefully attempted to inform Tarkin of the news. Bast asked whether the Grand Moff's ship should be prepared in case an emergency evacuation proved necessary, but Tarkin would hear none of it. Bast retreated.

Within the following minutes, General Bast evidently made what must have been the hardest decision of his life. By Tarkin's direct order, the Grand Moff's ship would not be readied, but neither had Bast been explicitly forbidden from making his own escape. Bast would probably have faced a firing squad for desertion if the danger proved false, but his professional confidence in the analysis was decisive. Bast somehow made a courageous and hasty escape, giving him the distinction of being one of the few Imperials to have survived the Battle of Yavin. Bast was probably the only survivor who understood the precise nature of the design flaw exploited by the rebels.
Of course, promoting bit characters to starring roles is nothing new in fiction. One famous example is Enoch from the Book of Genesis. The attention that different religions have given to this barely described figure illustrates that some of the appeal from secondary characters comes not from who they are, but from the interpretive possibilities that they produce.

Monday, November 27, 2006

James Bond versus the Elders of Zion

I went to go see the new Bond-movie "Casino Royale" over the weekend. I thought it was pretty well done. But then, late last night, I finally realized how the producers managed to slip something really strange and offensive into the movie.

The villain of the movie is an international investment banker named Le Chiffre who engineers terrorist attacks in order to profit from the adverse reactions that are produced in the world's stock markets. About half-way through the movie, we are told by Bond's superior M that Le Chiffre notoriously bet against airline stocks on September 10, 2001. We also find out that Le Chiffre is working for a shadowy international conspiracy that British Intelligence knows nothing about.

Think about it for a second. Le Chiffre is an international investment banker working for a shadowy international conspiracy who shorted airline stocks on 9/10. These are Left-wing code phrases meaning "Le Chiffre is Jewish".

A quick check on Wikipedia about Le Chiffre mentions the following passage from the book "Casino Royale":
Height 5 ft 8 ins. Weight 18 stones. Complexion very pale. Clean shaven. Hair red-brown, 'en brosse'. Eyes very dark brown with whites showing all round iris. Small, rather feminine mouth. False teeth of expensive quality. Ears small, with large lobes, indicating some Jewish blood. Hands small, well-tended, hirsute. Feet small. Racially, subject is probably a mixture of Prussian or Polish strains. Dresses well and meticulously, generally in dark double-breasted suits.
The movie Le Chiffre's "corrupted tear duct" that occasionally weeps a drop of blood seems like an obvious reference to this profile from the book.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Thought's about Steven Spielberg's "Munich"

I watched Steven Spielberg's film "Munich" last night. Thoughts about the movie will accumulate here for the next few hours. Spoilers to the movie will almost certainly follow so be warned.
  • A striking thing about the film is the awkward way in which the Munich massacre is incorporated into the film. The events are portrayed on camera in a series of episodes throughout the film but are also accompanied in the opening minutes of the film by a series of shots that establish the massacre as a media event. Some of these shots are of people -- the main characters, representative "men on the street", or the wives of the athletes who were killed -- watching the television coverage of the event on television. Other shots deal heavily with the media presence surrounding the event in a vaguely negative way: the standard media feeding frenzy that carelessly telegraphs important information to the enemy is well depicted.

    The impression that this gives me is of a director invoking what we today might call the "Cindy Sheehan effect". That is, the director underscores how you, the typical viewer of the film, have no right to criticize the actions of those principally suffering from the events of the film due to their absolutely superior moral authority. Which is to say that these scenes, and whatever critique of the broadcast news media we might construe from them, are basically a waste of screentime.

  • Another aspect of this depiction of the Munich massacre is that episodes from the enactment of the massacre are sometimes intercut with actions by the Israeli agent Avner who is trying to track down and assassinate those who planned the massacre. For example, near the end of the film, the film interlaces scenes of Avner having sex with his wife with scenes from the climax of the massacre. The effect seems to imply that Avner is principally traumatized by the massacre itself than his actions taken in response to it. Given all of the time, effort, expense, emotion, and casulties that Avner had invested in his hunt for the terror-planners, this juxtaposition makes practically no sense!

    The best explanation I have for this is that it implies that Avner realizes that the Munich massacre has not been fully avenged and that it is his principal duty to avenge it, but that he knows that he is running away from carrying out that duty.

  • Perhaps the best line of dialogue in the film is given to Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, who says "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." Remember that this is in the context of her ordering an assassination squad be formed to kill the 11 principle planners of the massacre. What makes that such a great line is that it leaves so much unsaid about exactly which values Golda Meir feels she is compromising. Is she trying to rationalize the murder of Palestinian terror plotters that should really be captured and put on trial? Or has that decision been made and she instead trying to rationalize sending a team of otherwise good men to execute a mission that she knows is something of a suicide mission? Or has even that decision been made and she is instead trying to rationalize the collateral damage that might arise, for example, from her assassination squad becoming a freelance "murder for hire" team?

    Every post-massacre event in the movie ultimately touches on this single line of dialogue. How many of the post-massacre events of the movie did Golda Meir forsee as resulting from her decision? And which of these events forseen -- and perhaps casulties forseen -- was she willing to consider acceptable risks?

  • Another thing to admire about the film is the ease with which the assassination squad's French contacts (who are some kind of anarchists) manipulate them. After Avner assembles his assassination team, the first thing he does is hook up with various European underground types to try and get information about where the terror-planners are located. Eventually Avner stumbles onto some kind of French anarchist group, represented by a man named "Louis", that is "ideologically promiscuous" and willing to locate anyone for a price.

    The other members of the assassination squad at first seem at first to distrust Avner's French connection. The head of the Anarchist group, Louis' father (who insists that he be called "Papa"), apparently picks up on this discontent and with a very shrewd move apparently wins Avner's trust by inviting him to a family dinner at his expansive country chateau (ala "The Godfather"). After the dinner, all doubts about the French anarchists disappear for the rest of the film even though it's pretty obvious that the French anarchists are trying to get Avner and his men killed (that Avner doesn't break contact with or kill Louis after Louis sticks Avner's Jewish assassins in the same "safe house" as a group of Palestinian gang-bangers is a total mystery). In the end, Papa's dinner has worked almost embarressingly well in buying Avner's loyalty: Louis has to flat out say "Yes, we have been selling you out to your enemies." to try and get Avner to believe it.

  • "Munich" also has plenty of gore, graphic violence, full frontal male and female nudity, and combinations of all three at once. Hollywood rule of thumb: a movie that shows a naked woman having sex with a man is rated NC-17, but a movie that shows a naked woman getting shot in the breasts with a machine gun is rated R.

  • By the way, in case you didn't know this already, whenever every spy in Europe is out to get you, the first place they'll look is where you live. Every moviegoer in America knows this, but two member's of Avner's team didn't.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Kramer Incident

A previously respected paragon of the Comedic-American community, Michael Richards, went hysterical in front of crowd and made certain racially insensitive remarks. These remarks, of course, have been instantly translated into 44 languages and beamed around the world.

There is really only one thing that Richards can do to put this ugly incident behind him and that is to step down as Senate Majority Leader.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The chameleon changes his colors.

Senator John McCain, hitherto the leading champion of "big government conservatism", now blames big government for the Republican's election losses:
He said last week's election, when Republicans were swept out of power in both chambers of Congress, was punishment for the party's seduction by big spending and big government.

"We increased the size of government in the false hope that we could bribe the public into keeping us in office," McCain said, adding Americans "still prefer common sense conservatism to the alternative."
Now we see that McCain was really a "conservative of doubt" all along:
"Common sense conservatives believe that the government that governs least governs best, that government should do only those things individuals cannot do for themselves and do them efficiently," he said.
Yes, you read that right. Senator Campaign-Finance Reform is now a "small l" libertarian.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Here's a first step for Republican victory in 2008.

The first step for a Republican victory begins with an issue that, by its very nature and by the claims of its supporters, should have played a key roll in the pre-election debates but was conspicuously absent from them. That proverbial "dog that didn't bark" in election 2006 was campaign finance reform.

The just-completed elections, if they prove anything, prove that campaign finance reform is a total failure at preventing corruption. Do you remember hearing any left-of-center pundits complaining that what was really needed to prevent another Abramoff scandal was a new round of tightened campaign finance regulations? Or do you remember hearing the left-of-center pundits calling for Republicans to be thrown out of power to clean up Washington? And if campaign finance reform was such a potent anti-corruption issue, why didn't the Republicans get any credit for enacting it. Shouldn't that have been the centerpiece of Republican efforts to refute the Democratic Party's "culture of corruption" charge?

The key point that the anti-Republican opposition hammed into the Republican Party's skull in the last year is the exact same point that conservatives have been trying to make all along. This is the observation that the best way to eliminate the tie between campaign finance and political corruption is to reform Congress and its methods of distributing funds, not the political donations that are supposedly buying political favors from Congressmen. Republican critics picked up on this by targeting earmark reform and eliminating pork as issues to push this year and won big; the Republicans comfortably sat on their campaign-finance reformed butts and ended up as the biggest losers.

The notion of campaign-finance reform as an "incumbent protection racket" has just been blown out of the water by recent events as well. But as you might have guessed, the anti-Republican opposition was more concerned about gerrymandered congressional districts to complain much about that incumbant re-election guarentee supposedly buried within the campaign-financing system.

Another big liability hidden within campaign-finance reform is that the leading Democratic contender for winning the 2008 presidential election, namely Senator Hillary Clinton, is also a leading practicioner of campaign-financing violations. Any Republican presidential contender who makes his or her stand on the campaign-finance system while the Clintons cheat like crazy is a guarenteed loser. Are you listening Senator McCain?

A first step for Republican victory in 2008 is therefore to make a stand on the First Amendment's right of free speech, dump the campaign-finance reform crusade, and enthusiastically support real reform of how Congress distributes money. The benefits of doing so include:
  • re-energizing conservative and libertarian support for the Republican Party by liberating political speech from campaign-finance restrictions.

  • making real reforms of Congressional spending that can be used for tax cuts or deficit reduction

  • sticking Democrats with defending the campaign-finance restrictions. Campaign-finance reform is, in the final analysis, a historically Democratic Big-Government issue in the post-Watergate era. If the Republicans put the First Amendment ahead of Big-Government, the Democrats won't be able to follow them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Republicans lost Congress yesterday.

As disappointing as losing Congress is, there's only one to be done about it and that is winning again in 2008.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The end of an era

Saddham Hussein sentenced to death by hanging for a massacre of Shiites in the city of Dujail in 1982.