To see Straight Outta Compton is to have an encounter the Zeitgeist. Or at least that’s how I felt after coming out of the theatre.
The film forces us to think about current events–the injustices of Black Lives Matter, the problems of inequality in America, and also the frustrations inherent in trying to change a system. The movie, like N.W.A.‘s album of the same name, shares a story with the broader world, an audience who might not have been expecting to hear it.
Ironically, the least traditionally “gangster-ish” people might be the members of N.W.A. themselves. Why do I say that? Their loyalty is first and foremost to their band — they use freedom of speech rather than criminal activity to achieve their success. Meanwhile, they are beset by real gangsterism on happening various levels. You see the Bloods and Crips assert their territory on the streets of south L.A.; you see the record companies (viz., Suge Knight) try to strong-arm Ice Cube and Eazy-E to join their labels; and you see the police stand as a brotherhood when confronting the rabble-rousing N.W.A. and threaten to shut down the concert if they play ‘Fuck the Police’ (both of which end up happening).
“The cops are the real gangsters,” to paraphrase Ice Cube.
Far from being portrayed as the power-brokers, they appear more as bards playing in Machiavellian court.
A few months ago, I was on a tech-boom fix. I was in the Bay Area visiting family and friends, some of whom work in the tech industry. At the same time, I was answering all my emails on my phone and I was reading about the “Google Bus” phenomenon on Facebook while reading the book The Circle in real life and Steve Jobs on my Kindle app. I had just seen Her in theaters in New York and had listened to Arcade Fire’s Reflektor on the airplane ride to San Francisco. Meanwhile, some N.S.A. scandals were happening in Washington. It all seemed to blend together, but I didn’t know exactly into what…
What themes emerge from this media mix?
I thought about satire. The Circle is a timely critique of the Bay Area and the social media craze. The Circle’s campus is like those of Apple or Google (doesn’t the street name “Infinite Loop” beg for comment?); there are strong personalities, nay, true geniuses, driving the world’s tech projects; the word “Ciclers” even sounds like “Googlers” in terms that can connote something undesirable: a closed-off world, a dauntingly large number, or, with a little imagination, a Russian poet’s epic tale.
I thought about how real life and fiction can blend. Had I grown too comfortable talking to Siri, which logically extends into Her? How many social media platforms did I need I express myself in at once? Should I withhold cleverness like it’s a valuable resource, or keep creating things till they stick? Does freedom through the Internet cease to be freedom at the point when we can’t seem to control when and how we use it, and in fact feel obligated to journey into the world of online life to truly find connection?
I thought of this realm of never-ending memory, where all time and all things are constantly awake due to the pulsing of electrons high above and around the earth. And in order to commune with those far-away friends we must visit the virtual ghosts who come out with much less demand than offers of sheep’s blood, which Odysseus once had to give. Now, to truly see a forgotten face, one must simply proffer a click.
I’m not sure what the overarching theme was here. Maybe the fact that I was caught up in trying to make sense of all of this at the same time, and here in a blog post on the Internet, says it all.
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I made this as practice: “The Stony Streets of Stockholm.” A painting of a street near the Södermalm district…
Stephen Colbert recently featured Ernest Hemingway on the Colbert Book Club. Mr. Colbert played at the usual tropes–the animal pelts, the wineskin, the rifle in hand–
–but he made an interesting point when he said that Hemingway had been, during the early years of his life, dressed up as a girl by his mother. As a consequence, Colbert joked, he’d been overcompensating ever since.
This reminded me of something I had been thinking about lately with regards to Hemingway’s public image: whether or not he is actually more sensitive and romantic of a guy than we usually give him credit for.
I think Hemingway’s popular portrayal is different from the Hemingway one can get to know through his books. In fact, while reading him, I often sense a narrator who is typically introverted and sensitive and a lot more like the Hemingway one sees, for instance, in a photograph such as this, with his leg bent bashfully, almost awkwardly:
After all, wouldn’t a sensitive guy be be inclined to be a writer?
But, on the other hand, machismo doesn’t preclude introversion.
This relates to the other, stylistic misconception: that Hemingway writes using simple sentences for prose. Or at least, that’s one impression that students might be taught in high school. Witness the following opening sentence of For Whom the Bell Tolls:
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.
A straightforward description, and a standard compound sentence structure. Yes, yes, that is all fine and good. But then witness the following passage from later in the novel, when the narrator is lying with his lover in the woods and lets words flow out like poetry as they share a moment of rapturous communion:
Then they were together so that as the hand on the watch moved, unseen now, they knew that nothing could ever happen to the one that did no happen to the other that no other thing could happen more than this; that this was all and always; this was what had been and now and whatever was to come. This, that they were not to have, they were having. They were having now and before and always and now and now and now. Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now. Come now, now, for there is no now but now. Yes, now. Now, please now, only now, not anything else only this now, and where are you and where am I and where is the other one, and not why, not ever why, only this now; and on and always please then always now, always now, for now always one now; one only one, there is no other one but one now, one, going now, rising now, sailing now, leaving now, wheeling now, soaring now, away now, all the way now, all of all the way now; one and one is one, is one, is one, is one, is still one, is still one, is one descendingly, is one softly, is one longingly, is one kindly, is one happily, is one in goodness, is one to cherish, is one now on earth with elbows against the cut and slept-on branches of the pine tree with the smell of the pine boughs and the night; to earth conclusively now, and with the morning of the day to come. Then he said, for the other was only in his head and he had said nothing, “Oh, Maria, I love thee and I thank thee for this.”
This passage is so much more modernist. It combines stream-of-consciousness and nostalgia, the characteristics of that age. It also betrays the image of the stoic, spartan Hemingway, and reminds the reader that Ernest can still surprise. Isn’t that nice?
I just finished the the last season of Breaking Bad and it’s gotten me thinking about anti-heroes.
Was Walter White a hero? It’s a tricky question because of the moral ambiguity of the show. One thing that I think enables the possibility of the idea, though, is the fact that he was dying which could displace the blame for his actions. That is, we, the audience, could find ways to forgive his actions when we were periodically reminded that he did it all “for his family,” in that relatable phrase, and also that he wanted to “feel alive.”
There is also the ambiguity of his health. In the final episode, did he die because of the shrapnel wound, or because his cancer caught up with him? He had been coughing more and more up until then. Or did he die because now his mission was complete and the balance of blood debt was restored, and so he could let his body go? Did he not, after all, want to die?
I think the unknown possibilities–those kernels of doubt–are part of what drives the show to its success.
And in the end, after all, doesn’t it turn out that Walt still has some selflessness left in him? His final act is to save Jesse, a final sacrifice. As a consequence, his the scores have been settled, the money may be found, and he takes on the blame (like a Batman taking on sins) in order to protect Jesse and others. So in the end, also, a son and father find each other, like Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus crossing paths.
To be simultaneously a hero and anti-hero is a powerful paradox, like black and White at once.
The United Nations used aerial drones in a peacekeeping mission recently. It was the first time they had done so–but was it about time?
The drones were needed to monitor the forested border regions near Rwanda and Uganda, where the (D. R.) Congolese rebels were hiding. When I read the story, though, I had been working on a global deforestation project, so forested regions–not the Age of the Drone–were fresh on my mind.
Although they were initially developed for military purposes, drones have been cleverly co-opted for civilian purposes. For instance, they’ve been used for oceans monitoring by NOAA and also have been used in, e.g., rhino conservation. However, their scientific and civilian uses are still generally new.
Furthermore, their proliferation has been so quick that in many places legal regulations have not yet been defined.Even Yale Law School held one of its first-ever discussions on drone warfare and the implications for international law just this year:
But, certainly, legal questions will still arise because the drone is clearly successful and is not likely to go away any time soon. I mean, it makes use of our technologies and, after all, it spares soldiers’ lives. So why won’t the technology proliferate and get used more and more in peace and war?
An extrapolation of the trend of robotics in warfare was envisioned by Hideo Kojima in his Metal Gear Solid video game series, which comes to mind as being vaguely connected:
…and now that that technology is coming to life…
…it’s not quite a game anymore (remember the ending of this movie?):
Also, on the note of extrapolation, I just recently read The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013), which has an unsettling scene in which drones are guided by a mob of young people working at a Google-like company (who think they are changing the world for the better.) [Incidentally, it was Google that just bought the “BigDog” by acquiring its parent company…]
On the Oresund bridge, between Sweden and Denmark. When you look across the water, you see wind turbines at work, like stoic giants under a grey sky.