Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Movie Tears

FiveThirtyEight (H.T.: Ace) takes a survey to find out what movies make grown men cry:



Don’t misunderstand me.  It’s not that these movies aren’t good.  Many of them are great.  (And a few are nigh unwatchable.  Titanic?  Srsly?)  But with the exception of The Lion King, I don’t remember actually shedding tears during any of them.

And would it not be more accurate to speak of crying during movie scenes rather than whole movies?  Even mediocrities can sometimes pull off an emotion-provoking scene.

I thought about it for a while and came up with a list of movies that have successfully jerked Φ’s tears.  I have organized them by what about the scene made it compelling.  These are not endorsements, mind you; some of the movies are pretty silly.  Nor do all these scenes succeed as well on repeated viewings.  And the scenes are seldom actually sad in the way we think of sad things that ought to bring tears.

Art for its own sake.

Sometimes, I can get emotional over sheer creativity.  Disney seems especially good at this.  “The Presentation of Simba”, did things I hadn’t seen in an animation before, like adjust focus from ants to Zebras and track ZaZu’s’ flight over his shoulder.  (These elements contribute to the scene’s majesty, which is itself emotional.)  “I want much more than this provincial life” was brilliant in its virtuosity; didn’t that song win an Oscar nomination? (as we will see, music factors heavily into the emotional power of all these scenes.) Ralph’s first entry into Power Strip Central in Wreck-it Ralph was similarly striking, not for the animation, which by 2013 was pretty standard, but for the concept itself:  a power strip as a terminal for video game avatars!

For a non-animated example of the emotional power of creativity, I mention the “Carousel Presentation” from the final episode of the Mad Men, Season 1 (sorry in advance for the crappy video; it seems to be all YouTube had):

I don’t actually know the story of the marketing strategy behind Kodak’s Carousel, but I’m old enough to be overwhelmed by the flash of recognition:  I remember those!

Now I just want to cry over how far the series has fallen.

Triumph Over Adversity

A movie most of you have no doubt forgotten is Renaissance Man, in which Danny DeVito undertakes to teach literature to a group of underperforming Army basic trainees.  One of them had a father killed in action many years prior; DeVito looks into the case and convinces the army that the man’s heroism hadn’t been properly recognized.  At graduation, the trainee accepts on his father’s behalf the Silver Star.  Now, as this list demonstrates, my eyes moisten a lot during movies, but this scene was the closest I ever came to actually breaking down.

An honorable mention goes to St. Crispin's Day:

“The Speech” from The Kings Speech was the moment to which the entire movie built and invested with both personal and historic significance.

Wreck-it Ralph again, for “Shut Up and Drive”:

Forest Gump, for “Run Forest Run” (as a boy, when he breaks free from his leg braces.  Yeah, I know it didn’t make any sense, but who cares?)

Independence Day, for President Bill Pullman’s Independence Day speech.

Temple Grandin, for Claire Danes’ standing up at the National Autism Society and riveting the audience with her personal story.

That moment when she says, “I am autistic.”  And every head in the room turns in her direction.


Two scenes from Apollo 13 come to mind:

When Marilyn Lovell tells her son that “something went wrong on your daddy’s spaceship”, he replies, “Was it the door?” – A reference to the 1967 fire that killed the entire crew of Apollo 1;

When Jim Lovell’s elderly mother greeting the news by calmly replying, “If NASA could send a washing machine to the moon, my Jimmy could fly it.”

And . . .


I’m not sure how to categorize the scenes below.  You be the judge.

Forrest Gump’s concern about this son:

“Is he smart?”  The fear and longing that went into that question.  (and one of the few scenes that didn’t require music for its impact.)

Touched by an Angel, “For Such a Time as This”:

That moment at 6:52 when the congresswoman trades her gold locket for the freedom of one more Sudanese Christian slave.  The backstory is that the locket contained a picture of her son Sam, whose death at an early age was the source of considerable bitterness.

Return of the King, “Arwen’s Vision”:

The backstory (for those of you living in a cave on Mars) is that Arwen is departing Middle Earth with her fellow elves when she has the vision of what she is abandoning:  a family with Aragon.

Moneyball:  “It’s a Metaphor”

Backstory:  the Jeremy Brown metaphor is to Billy Beane himself, whose disappointment that the Oakland A’s lost the postseason made him miss that his use of statistics had revolutionized baseball.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Quality vs. Quantity

Scott Alexander:

– I had a patient, let’s call him ‘Henry’ for reasons that are to become clear, who came to hospital after being picked up for police for beating up his fifth wife.

So I asked the obvious question: “What happened to your first four wives?”

“Oh,” said the patient, “Domestic violence issues. Two of them left me. One of them I got put in jail, and she’d moved on once I got out. One I just grew tired of.”

“You’ve beaten up all five of your wives?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yeah,” he said, without sounding very apologetic.

“And why, exactly, were you beating your wife this time?” I asked.

“She was yelling at me, because I was cheating on her with one of my exes.”

“With your ex-wife? One of the ones you beat up?”


“So you beat up your wife, she left you, you married someone else, and then she came back and had an affair on the side with you?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” said Henry.

. . . .

When I was younger – and I mean from teeanger hood all the way until about three years ago – I was a nice guy. In fact, I’m still a nice guy at heart, I just happen to mysteriously have picked up girlfriends. And I said the same thing as every other nice guy, which is “I am a nice guy, how come girls don’t like me?”

There seems to be some confusion about this, so let me explain what it means, to everyone, for all time.

It does not mean “I am nice in some important cosmic sense, therefore I am entitled to sex with whomever I want.”

It means: “I am a nicer guy than Henry.”

After hearing the above excerpt, Mrs. Phi speculated that the women "Henry" was getting were of "low quality", by which she primarily meant low social class. This would be consistent with Scott's psychiatric practice, which appears to be in Detroit. Mrs. Phi pointed out that that, in contrast, I, and likely Scott as well, had restricted my search for a wife to venues where I was likely to meet mostly girls from middle and upper-middle class backgrounds. And mostly, that's what I did meet.

Mrs. Phi was making two points: (1) that I would not actually envy Henry his particular conquests; and (2) that the women to whom I was marketing myself were not actually making quite the colossally bad decisions as Henry's were. (1) might be true, but perhaps only in hindsight. (2) is true as far as I know: among my own contemporaries, I only know of a couple of failed marriage, and those didn't involve domestic violence. Rather than dating Henrys, many of the girls I knew from church spent their twenties sitting around grousing about how we nerds weren't actually good enough for them.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Only Thing Worse than No Game is Bad Game

Scott Alexander's 10k-word commentary on Scott Aaronson's Cri de Coeur, linked by Steve and others, is well worth the investment. Granted, Alexander avows that he is "97% on board with feminism", whereas my own on-board-with-feminism meter zeroed out in 1922 and has been running negative since the 70s. But Alexander has done his research and gives us a chapter-and-verse account of the feminists ongoing and relentless social persecution of nerds.

Among the piece's many quotables, I wanted to bring attention to this one:

Any space with a four-to-one male:female ratio is going to end up with some pretty desperate people and a whole lot of unwanted attention. Add into this mix the fact that nerds usually have poor social skills (explaining exactly why would take a literature review to put that last one to shame, but hopefully everyone can agree this is true), and you get people who are pretty sure they are supposed to do something but have no idea what. Err to one side and you get the overly-chivalrous people saying m’lady because it pattern matches to the most courtly and least sexual way of presenting themselves they can think of. Err to the other, and you get people hollowly imitating the behavior they see in famous seducers and playboys, which when done without the very finely-tuned social graces and body-language-reading-ability of famous seducers and playboys is pretty much just “being extremely creepy”.

This is a point I've made myself a couple of times: alpha behavior is really hard for us nerds to immitate in practice. Anyone who trots out a James Bond line with being, you know, James Bond is going to embarrass himself colossally. We have to find versions of ourselves that work for us, not versions that would work for who we wish we were, but aren't.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The REAL Enemy

From Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age:

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, I was at the Episcopalians’ National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to participate on a panel to discuss violence and religion.  The evening began with a prayer from Jane Dixon, the cathedral’s acting bishop, and her invocation was as revealing as any short speech could be of the concerns of the contemporary Episcopal Church.

While asking the divine gifts of wisdom for the speakers and understanding for the listeners, Bishop Dixon was vague – not merely failing to name the name of Jesus but straining to phrase all her requests in the passive voice to avoid even naming God:  “May we be given . . . , may it be granted to us . . .”  When her prayer unexpectedly swerved toward abortion, however, her language suddenly snapped into hard specificity as she reminded God that “America at its best stands for the spread of right around the world, especially the right of women to choose.”  The discussion that evening, she prayed, would not turn vindictive, for we could not condemn the destruction of the World Trade Center until we remembered that “even in the United States, people have bombed abortion clinics.”

Bottum goes on to explain how representative this attitude is among the class of people from which Episcopalians are usually drawn.  But I want to foot-stomp the perversity:  just shy 3000 Americans had just been killed by Muslim terrorists, and Bishop Dixon wants to remind everyone not to lose sight of the real enemy:  pro-lifers!

Liberals have no loyalty to America and her people.  They only have tribal loyalties to People Like Themselves, and designated minorities, be they blacks or Muslims, are mere weapons in their unyielding war against the hated conservatives.

I remember reading how there was a surge in church attendance after 9-11 that quickly died off.  If this was the message being preached, then who can blame people for losing interest?

Monday, January 05, 2015

Establishment Treason, 1924

From Joseph Bottum, An Anxious Age, among other things a history of the decline of mainline American Protestantism:

Early in the twentieth century a trend toward consolidation [among mainline Protestant denominations] began to take hold.  Several things facilitated the trend . . . there was the fight between the fundamentalists and the modernists.  Thoughtful observers had seen that fight developing for some time, but it would come to a head when the powerful liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered his famous 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win” at New York’s First Presbyterian Church, and Princeton’s conservative John Gresham Machen published his defining book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923).

Part of the result was new fissures:  Machen, probably the best American theological mind of his generation, would flee Princeton, moving to Philadelphia to found the more conservative Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929.  but another part of the result was increased agreement about what was and what wasn’t the American Mainline.  The liberal churches all felt they were under assault from a fundamentalist offensive that detested both their social gospel theology and their ecumenically minded church organization.

. . . .

“Shall the Fundamentalists Win”” was not universally applauded at the time, even by the congregants at First Presbyterian.  The local presbytery investigated Fosdick for heresy in 1924 (his defense counsel was the future secretary of state John Foster Dulles, father of the Catholic convert Avery Cardinal Dulles), and he resigned his pulpit – only to have John D. Rockefeller, Jr., build New York’s Riverside Church for him, an avowedly interdenominational church, the flagship of Mainline Protestantism in America.

A couple of terms need some clarification.  First, the term “fundamentalist” in the 1920s referred, ironically enough, to Machen himself; ironically, because the self-described fundamentalists of today would be loathe to embrace Machen for reasons having little to do with modernism.

Second, “social gospel” isn’t just (or isn’t even) “good works”; nor is it merely “social reform”.  As Bottum explains, it is a complete repudiation of the core doctrines of Christianity, a substitution of faith in the saving work of Christ with an adversarial attitude towards the existing structures of civilization.

So I found striking the extraordinary level of support for heterodoxy that the 1920s establishment was so eager to provide.  We have grown accustomed to the elites of today acting out on their ethnic prejudices to wage war on America (though the Presbyterian mainline is far too irrelevant today to attract the notice of people with names like Zuckerberg).  But Rockefeller?  Dulles?  They, too, were hard at work, using their wealth and status to destroy the moral foundation upon which their own success was built.

The elites have been our enemies for a long time.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cops: the Best Friends Blacks Ever Had

Charles Barkley (via Legal Insurrection):

We have to be really careful with the cops, man, because if it wasn’t for the cops, we’d be living in the wild-wild west in our neighborhoods.  I think we can’t pick out certain incidents that don’t go our way and act like the cops are all bad.  I hate when we do that. Think about it, you know how bad some of these neighborhoods would be if it wasn’t for the cops? [Emphasis added.]

One of the underrated movies of the 1990s was John Milius’ Geronimo, starring among others Gene Hackman as Gen. George Crook.  Gen. Crook, by all accounts a skilled Indian fighter, was also a vocal critic of government duplicity in dealing with the Indians after their defeat and surrender, even going so far as contriving a court case that led to the recognition of their habeas corpus rights.

The movie shows Crook in a conversation with Geronimo, explaining to him, in essence:  “The regular army is the best friend the Indian ever had.  The most egregious atrocities against the Indians, like the Sand Creek Massacre, were committed, not by the Army, but by settlers organized into volunteer militias.  What do you think they would do to you if we weren’t here to protect you?”

I recalled this exchange while watching the recent rioting in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere, noting with some irony that while the protestors were demonstrating their “fear” of the police by taunting them to their faces while breaking all manner of laws, the police themselves were not only conspicuously failing to protect the lives and property of Ferguson residents but busy preventing whites from defending themselves.

A case in point:  a group of former soldiers with the Oath Keepers organization volunteered to provide security to Ferguson businesses last week, stationing themselves on rooftops overlooking the street.  But the police ordered them to disperse while allowing a group of armed blacks to provide a similar service to one business.

A second case in point:  a driver attempted to drive through an intersection being illegally blocked by protestors.  He didn’t injure anyone, but the protestors surrounded his car and through a brick through his rear window.  That strikes me as a circumstance justifying the lawful use of deadly force in self defense, but the driver was arrested merely for displaying his weapon in response.

When I combine these with the George Zimmerman and Theodore Wafer cases, I  have reached the point where I am less afraid of having to deal with black criminality (I’m well-armed and a pretty good shot) than I am of what happens when prosecutors show up second guessing every self-defense decision I had to make.  It’s pretty clear that the police are neither in theory nor in fact capable of protect me, only capable of arresting me once I protect myself.

Thought experiment:  what would happen if the police disappeared?

In my own case, probably nothing.  Phi’s lily-white little burg is a disproportionate home to, um, a powerful demographic who by non-transparent means are able to issue the necessary threats and bribes and make problems go away.  Hence, our police force is able to do its job and keep our community free from aggravation by both the criminal underclass and Eric Holder.  So, if the police disappeared, more of us would carry guns, but life would likely go on as before once the word got out.

But other communities are not so fortunate.  Barkley’s “wild west” analogy is more true than he realizes.  It’s not just that blacks would start shooting each other even more than they currently do (if that is even possible).  It’s that at some threshold of aggravation, citizens would organize and arm themselves and take care of the problem.  And no, it wouldn’t be pretty, or just, or especially scrupulous about non-combatants anymore than John Chivington was.  But it would be effective in a way that our present social and law-enforcement policies are not.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Time Travelers

I have never watched the TV show Modern Family; thus, I had no idea who Ty Burrell is; thus, I did not detect any gay adoption metaphor in the Dreamworks movie Mr. Peabody & Sherman.  Neither had I ever seen, unless in passing, the characters from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show; thus I evaluated the movie on its own terms rather than in comparison to the old serial.

Result:  I really, really liked this movie.  The characters are funny and likeable, the story is heartwarming with a minimum of preachiness, and the action scenes and animation are solid.

Ironically, it was my mother who suggested the gay angle; I had rather interpreted Mr. Peabody’s struggles with the menacing and intrusive social worker as those of a father.  If a metaphor for gay parenting was intended, it would be somewhat ironic in that I would be surprised to see any bureaucratic hostility to gay anything in 2014.

A legion of critics reacted negatively to the character of Penny Peterson, Sherman’s classmate who initially bullies and provokes him.  They claim this makes the movie “anti-woman”; I believe it was courageous of the filmmakers to show that, yes, girls in elementary school can bully too, and won’t hesitate to avail themselves of white knights if it doesn’t work out for them.  But Penny character arc is perhaps too complex for a children’s animation.  She eventually comes to admire and defend Sherman, but while the audience can see this developing, we aren’t really given to understand Penny’s internal motivation.

Take for instance the sequence where the children steal a ride in Leonardo da Vinci’s glider.  [SPOILER ALERT:  Mr. Peabody has a time machine.  Oh wait, you already knew that from the series?  Never mind, then.]  Penny is the instigator, launching the glider and initially flying it.  But then, in a steep dive, she insists that Sherman take the controls and “save us”.  Which he does, much to his own and the audience’s satisfaction.

Penny’s action, encouraging Sherman to overcome his fears and creating a space where he can then assume a masculine, heroic role is a very mature and in some sense deeply socially conservative thing for her to do.  But . . . why would she care about Sherman’s character development one way or the other?  The realistic answer – because she has grown to love him and wants him to be the best he can be – isn’t especially supported by what we’ve seen up to then.  And indeed, it may be too deep a theme for a children’s cartoon.

The bulk of the movie focuses on the  relationship between Mr. Peabody and his adopted son.  But in contrast to many cartoons, this is a two-way street.  Peabody is required to reconcile himself to the prospect that Sherman will eventually grow up; Sherman, for his part, learns to appreciate that behind Peabody’s fussiness is deep fatherly concern for his wellbeing.

The critics whine on about how all this is formulaic.  Fair enough.  But it’s a good formula, generally achieving commercial success (though apparently not in this case) for valid artistic reasons.