May 042015

Because I got to watch it for free on an airplane, I recently saw The Battle of Five Armies, without having seen the previous two entries in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. I was so struck by it that I decided to go through the whole trio of films on my own. Having done so I feel I can say with certainty that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films are the most startlingly inept adaptation of book to film that I have ever seen. They are bad movies in themselves, and they are even worse in the context of the book from which they were drawn. They were so bad I went back to watch The Lord of the Rings just to convince myself I hadn’t imagined my positive reaction to them.

I hadn’t; I still like The Lord of the Rings movies. They have their problems, but in them Jackson showed appropriate restraint both in removing bits of Tolkien’s books that weren’t really necessary and in adding as little of his own invention as possible. This is important because Jackson’s additions to the plot were generally not very good. Most were entertaining nonsense, like the appearance of the Elves at Helm’s Deep. At worst, they were insultingly stupid, like his changes to Faramir’s arc or the incident he added on the stair to Cirith Ungol. Yet at his very best Jackson managed to add masterful scenes like Denethor eating the chicken in The Return of the King.

His additions reach no such heights in The Hobbit. Few of them even ascend to the level of entertaining nonsense. Radagast is a Jar-Jar-level disaster of a character, and the entire subplot involving the Necromancer’s castle is only marginally comprehensible even if you’ve already watched The Lord of the Rings beforehand (I can only imagine what a mess it is for people going in cold). This is to say nothing of the dozens of actiony sequences added for no reason other than to make it seem like something was happening in a given chapter of this bloated mess of an adaptation.

Worse, Jackson seems to have lost whatever knack he had for creative deletion. The “break the plates” song is actually in here, despite its complete disagreement with the tone Jackson casts over everything that follows. I’m somewhat amazed we managed to get through this trilogy without any elves singing “fa-la-la-lally down deep in the valley”. A wise adaptation might have discarded this nonsense as too time-consuming, but seeing as Jackson managed to commit himself to showing every minute of the Battle of Five Armies and also pissing away some 15 minutes on the tale of Alfrid Lickspittle without bothering to resolve it, time was no object.

Of course I have yet to mention Jackson’s worst, and most controversial addition, Tauriel the elf, who exists so that an actual woman will be in the film somewhere. I am sympathetic to the complaint that Tolkien’s works are sausage-fests and that women deserve representation. However, adding an elf-woman whose main task in the plot is to lust after one of the dwarves and be lusted after by Legolas (a less-bad addition) doesn’t accomplish much. Besides, if you wanted to shoehorn a female character into this story over the objections of fanboys the only correct course is to gender-swap Bilbo. His character arc of going from a state of uncertainty and incompetence to a state of capability and moral strength through intelligence and empathy rather than physical force is one that’s typically given to girls anyway, and the gender swap would add interesting dimensions to the dwarves’ reluctance to accept Bilbo as a useful member of the team.

Of course, Jackson couldn’t have done this even if he had the onions, because he seems not to understand what the story is about at all. Everything about the staging of the films and the incidents he adds speaks to an unrestrained desire to make this into a massive, epic story, which The Hobbit is not. In the first movie Jackson actually adds a moment where Bilbo bravely leaps forward to defend a defenseless Thorin from an orc, essentially negating the point of Bilbo as a character. The whole idea is that Bilbo isn’t a classic warrior hero and he needn’t be. Peter Jackson doesn’t get this; thus the Battle of Five Armies, which occupies less than half a chapter of the book, gets its own film.

In this story, the heroic role ought to be filled by the dwarves, but they’re not available because Jackson thinks dwarves are funny and therefore reduces them to comic relief even as he tries to elevate this narrative from bedtime story to solemn epic. Hence, despite the grinding, torturous length of this trilogy they receive essentially no character development and must make due with ridiculous hairpieces and a superfluous romantic sideplot. Occasionally they get to put on a good show in one of Jackson’s dioramic action sequences but in all honesty the paint seems to have come off the plastic in these. The Hobbit never got me caught up in an action moment enough to miss the fakery.

Jackson doesn’t succeed in making The Hobbit the epic he clearly wants it to be. The core of the story can’t sustain that weight, because epic heroics are not only at odds with the book’s themes, they are entirely opposite. Jackson seemed to have at least understood what he was working with when he made The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings, however, and in trying to make them the same Jackson failed utterly.

Oct 172011

Dear Dr. Pepper, ABC, Miller Lite, and others,

I am a man. I enjoy many of the things that men stereotypically like, such as movies with big explosions, automobile racing, and sports where large men hit other large men very hard. I mention this because many of you seem to think that I am constantly questioning my manhood, and that I crave your reassurances that your various products will enhance my manliness.

As a single man with a decent amount of disposable income, I’m the kind of person you want to sell to in these difficult economic times. So, I understand your desire to market to me, and I’d like to help you out, but you see, I’m not that worried about how manly I am. Moreover, I don’t believe that being a man requires me to be a misogynist, homophobe, or jerk, much less that my manhood depends on drinking a particular brand of light beer or driving a particular vehicle.

The curious thing about manhood is that once you actually are a man, you don’t worry about how manly you appear. Manliness is confidence, you see, and if you’re obsessing over whether you’re manly enough, you are a boy.

You might want to think carefully about that, because real men dislike being talked down to.



Larry the bilker

 boo, politics  Comments Off on Larry the bilker
Apr 022010

Matt Taibbi has an article about the destruction of Jefferson County up at Rolling Stone. I strongly recommend you read it, but take your blood pressure medicine first. I would like to be able to say that this story, in which crooked banks and corrupt politicians conspire to inflate the price of a public works project more than 1000 percent, saddling a county with billions of dollars of debt it will take a generation to pay off, is an elaborate April Fool’s joke. Unfortunately, as the residents of Birmingham know, it’s all too real. Like countless city councilmen, county commissioners, and mayors before him, Larry Langford played the city like a long con, adding the ruinous sewer project to his other notable failures, such as VisionLand. One wonders how much of his talent for failing upward was due to the assistance of men who knew he could be bought.

In a small way, I’m sorry that it came to this. Larry Langford had vision. It was a stupid vision, and he pursued it stupidly, but his allure came from the fact that he had it. After decades of politicians who seemed to be content to let the city be a place that only existed in history books, Langford articulated the view that Birmingham could be a place worth visiting on its own, present merits. He gave people the feeling that he believed Birmingham really could be a great city, a social and economic rival to Atlanta. Even if it was an empty dream, built on hokum like an unaffordable domed stadium, at least it was some kind of dream. Langford was a buffoon and a flim-flam artist, but despite all the damage he did, I’m going to miss the show.

As for the banking institutions whose complicated scams sent the county into punishing debt, their incredibly corrupt behavior in this case puts the lie to their oft-repeated claim that the mortgage crisis is the result of foolish borrowers living beyond their means. The economy collapsed because the banks’ con game unraveled, end of story. The Bernie Madoffs of the world weren’t isolated bad actors in a fundamentally honest profession. They were, rather, the paragons of an industry which prides itself on maximizing revenue no matter what the cost to the borrower, the lender, or their own integrity. But the investigations have barely touched these institutions, and the fines they have been made to pay are trivial in comparison to the magnitude of the damage they inflicted. In every way that matters to shameless creatures such as these, the banks will walk away unpunished, and we will be left with the bill, paying down the debt for decades to come.

The politicians, instead, will rot in jail. They deserve it, to be sure, but the blame doesn’t all rest with them. In this sense, the banks out-conned the cons. J.P. Morgan got away with the loot, and Larry Langford got caught holding the bag.

Jan 132010
I can barely imagine a worse place for a devastating earthquake to hit than Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Even worse, the main shock originated very close to its largest city, Port-au-Prince, and nearby aftershocks are continuing. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, died in the earthquake itself, and given the lack of infrastructure even more may perish in the near future from disease and starvation. Many of the nation’s most significant structures (including the National Palace) have been destroyed, its slums have been flattened, and many of the buildings still standing have suffered irreparable damage and will have to be demolished.

You can help the survivors by donating to the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Partners in Health. Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti is also taking donations for earthquake relief. I know as well as anyone how hard things are right now. I know a lot of my readers are unemployed, or living on a limited budget. Small donations add up, though, and much of what will be desperately needed in Haiti in the coming weeks and months comes very cheap. If you can spare $50, that’s great, but if you can only spare $5, give that. No matter how bad your lot is right now, I can guarantee you it’s better than living in a shattered country without power, food, medicine, or clean water.

Disgusting immoral monsters like Pat Robertson have already begun to attribute this disaster to the imagined sins of the Haitians. People of genuine moral character living in the actual world can show you that, far from being the work of some spirit, the quake is the result of geological processes that are relatively well understood. Chris Rowan’s explanation of the earthquake is particularly clear and accessible. Anyone who claims that the Haitians had it coming for any reason, much less the vengeance of an imaginary sky-man, deserves your permanent contempt.
Jul 262008
The gaming internets were buzzing the last few days about a widely-publicized report from Toward Freedom that civil war and ongoing militia activity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have in part been fueled by the demand for coltan, a source of the tantalum powder that is necessary for capacitors in consumer electronics. Of course, this isn’t a new issue, just a new press release, in which the Playstation 2 in particular is singled out as a cause of conflict. This would be an excellent reason to dislike gaming consoles were it not inflammatory nonsense.

It would be foolish to deny the destructive effects of coltan demand, of course. Although the civil wars in the DRC had political origins, the conflict was sustained in part by demand for this mineral resource. Neighboring countries used militias in the DRC as proxies to ensure access to coltan, which they then sold to a number of foreign companies, which then resold it to various manufacturers, including many American makers of capacitors. Prices for tantalum spiked significantly in the years 1999-2000, providing an even stronger incentive for the DRC’s neighbors to seize its rich reserves of coltan. Conflict and deficiencies in infrastructure have at times limited industrial mining of coltan, meaning that it is often mined using less safe artisanal techniques, and often by children. While many responsible companies have taken steps to ensure that they do not use any coltan illegally seized from the DRC, monitoring any supply chain of this kind is very difficult and there are strong incentives for bad actors to lie. Moreover, the greatest damage was done by the ’99-’00 price spike; adopting supply controls now can’t undo what happened. The Toward Freedom article attributes the spike (and ongoing demand) to the Playstation 2. This is at best a highly selective interpretation of history.

Consider that as of 2007, the total number of cellular phone subscriptions worldwide was estimated at 3.3 billion, while the total number of PS2s sold to date is something like 150 million. According to statistics found at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association website, the number of cellular phone subscriptions in the United States in 2000 was more than 100 million. By 2003 the number of cell phone subscriptions in the United States alone exceeded the number of Playstation 2 units sold worldwide in the entire production run to date. Keep in mind that those cell phone users are changing their phones regularly: the number of used and discarded phones in the United States (which has a low cellular penetration rate) substantially exceeds its human population. As such, we should expect that the actual number of cellular phones used by human beings since their introduction is significantly higher than the number of subscriptions, perhaps by a factor of two or more. Why blame game consoles for the coltan demand, then, rather than the far more prevalent cellular technology?

Of course, the demand for coltan doesn’t end with game consoles or cellular phones. Tantalum is used in virtually every modern piece of electronics equipment, including pagers, laptop computers, digital cameras, and inkjet printers, as well as artificial joints, film, and various tools. Why blame game consoles for the ongoing conflict when their sales and usage are completely dwarfed by these other applications? The turn of the century saw a massive expansion in the use of all manner of electronics, all over the world. All of these factors contributed to the tantalum price spike. Yes, the 2000 shortfall of PS2s played a role, but the 6-fold change in price that year could not have happened without an existing huge demand for phones and laptops, and serious structural problems in the tantalum market.

How, then, did this conflict come to be known as the “Playstation War”? Reporter John Lasker doesn’t provide any answers. He certainly doesn’t quote anyone on the subject and it’s not clear to me that the words “Playstation War” were used in reference to this conflict at any point before he did so in this article. In a fit of fairness late in the piece, Lasker acknowledges that the spike in tantalum prices that provided incentive for neighboring countries to interfere in DRC affairs was the result of multiple concurrent technology booms, but any good journalist knows that readers remember the lede. I don’t know why Lasker made the choice to put the console reference so high up in the story, but doing so was inflammatory, irresponsible, and counterproductive.

The world does not have vast and plentiful reserves of tantalum, and existing electronics that contain tantalum are, in general, not properly recycled. Continued strong demand for consumer electronics and the still-increasing penetration of cellular phones in the global market are combining to bring the price of tantalum back up. Thus, a rejuvenation of resource warfare in central Africa is becoming increasingly likely. The best defense against this scenario is for consumers to keep strong pressure on manufacturers and regulators to prevent “blood coltan” from making its way into consumer goods. The typical purchaser of a cell phone doesn’t know anything about tantalum or its uses, and in fact the typical American probably couldn’t tell you what continent the DRC is on. Awareness, then, is a precious commodity, especially for an advocate-journalist. However, awareness is diminished when you make game consoles into a scapegoat.

Even if you manage to heighten awareness of mineral wars in Africa with a piece like this, no good is done if the reader doesn’t make the proper connection with his own life. Can you imagine a person reading the lede paragraph on his laptop or cell phone and cursing those darn gamers for carelessly supporting resource wars? I can imagine nothing else. Calling the conflict a “Playstation War” allows the non-gaming reader to shift the blame onto those darn gamers and ignore his own contributions to resource scarcity and conflict.

Are gamers to blame for the sustained conflict in the DRC? Sure they are — to precisely the same degree as anyone who owns a cell phone, laptop, digital camera, artificial joint, anti-lock braking system, etc. All of us should try to be conscious of the origins (and destinations, you non-cell-phone-recycling jerks) of the materials in our electronics, and pressing the companies that make them to ensure that our sale price doesn’t subsidize war in Africa. Inordinately emphasizing the importance of game consoles in the financial origins of war in the DRC, however, lets non-gamers think they are off the hook, and amounts to little more than blaming the “other” for the sins of all. A putatively progressive organization like Toward Freedom should be capable of recognizing that, and ought to feel ashamed at having done so.