The Pursuit of Happyness

Thr Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Columbia Pictures

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Main Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith


The Pursuit of Crappyness?

The Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, based on a memoir by Chris Gardner, is meant to be a heartwarming tale of overcoming adversity, and all that.  Of course, another way to view it is as a polemic of dubious realism and accuracy extolling the worldview of the wealthy (the book on which the film was based was written by someone who was a multimillionaire).  This is one long conservative trope, on film.

Will Smith plays a Navy veteran living with his wife (Thandie Newton) and son in San Francisco, trying to sell off an inventory of bone density scanners they purchased with their life savings while he pursues an unpaid internship at a securities and investment brokerage firm.  He struggles to sell his wares and to get a job interview.  His wife leaves (she is portrayed unsympathetically).  He demands that their son stay with him.  He does get the internship, after showing up to the interview in tattered closes covered in paint after being held in jail for an unpaid parking ticket.  But, as he undertakes the internship, he has little or no money.  He ends up homeless after the IRS attaches his bank account for failure to pay taxes.  He and his son live in a church-run homeless shelter.

The storyline is highly selective, implausible in places, and is mostly invested in isolated scenes of intensely emotional acting.  In other words, it is emotionally manipulative and counterfactual.  Numerous key scenes are deus ex machina — information available online suggests that the film modifies/distorts key real-life events.  Certainly, some scenes are simply implausible wholly apart from any origins in a memoir.  There is never any explanation given as to why the protagonist does not seek welfare or other public social services, or why he persists in pursuing an unpaid internship rather than another line of remunerative work (and, at least by today’s standards, the unpaid internship is illegal — the employer derives benefit form the interns cold-calling prospective clients, and are judged by how many new clients they bring in).  Even the insistence that his son remain with him is not explained — could the mother provide for the son better?  But to the extent that some of this comes from a real memoir, it is worth bearing in mind here F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum from The Beautiful and Damned about how “the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and,…when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.”  In fact, Fitzgerald is a pretty good touchstone here, as few writers capture the banal depravity and moral shallowness of the strivers for material wealth so well.  The Beautiful and Damned, in particular, has only a slightly different story arc than The Pursuit of Happyness.  Yet they draw opposite conclusions.  In Fitzgerald’s tale the protagonists emerge scarred and damaged (“damned”).  In this film, the protagonist emerges triumphant.

Mostly, the film’s story is meant to emphasize the so-called “culture of poverty” theory — that success or failure is determined primarily or exclusively by the degree an individual is committed to hard work and perseverance.  The film does not address racism in any way (despite how much that would affect the protagonist in real life).  It scrupulously avoids addressing any structural or institutional causes for the protagonist’s situation.  There is a single-minded focus on the success of the protagonist, with no concern whatsoever for the other homeless people shown in the film.  Audiences are expected to root for the protagonist to succeed, and are not supposed to analyze or question the other poverty around him, or why he is so devoted to a “winner take all” system.  When the IRS seizes the main character’s last bit of money in his bank account for failure to pay taxes (the film portrays it as a surprise to Smith’s character, which is utterly preposterous and misleading), there is a steadfast assumption that the government is unfairly taking his money — even as most of the film suggests his poverty would probably exempt him from income taxes (or is he really not as poor as the film lets on?).  Practically the entire discipline of sociology probably cringes at this film and the discredited ideology it flacks — Loïc Wacquant called this sort of thing “an old theoretical carcass periodically exhumed from the graveyard of stillborn concepts[.]”

One of the most groan-inducing moments is from the epilogue titles, in which it is conveyed that the real-life person on which the film is based later became rich.  This reveals the true heart of the film.  Everything before that was supposedly about the main character’s relationship with his son and being happy, but the ending titles suggest that it was really just about money all along.  After all, Thomas Jefferson adapted John Locke‘s crude protection of “life, liberty and estate” (Two Treatises of Government, Book II) into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the Declaration of Independence, a slogan the main character mentions thinking about a lot.  So this film actually gets that part right, in a strange way.

A film like I, Daniel Blake from a decade later is kind of the polar opposite of The Pursuit of Happyness.  The Blake film is a critique of the system, which is to say social and government institutions, whereas Happyness is sub-Horatio Alger rags-to-riches claptrap pushing a myth of meritocracy.

Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good, as is that of his real-life son Jaden.  But it is ridiculous to focus on such performances when the film is as contrived as it is so as to provide disjointed individual scenes solely as vehicles for emoting by the lead actors.

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty (2013- )

Cartoon Network

Director: various

Main Cast: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Spencer Grammer, Sarah Chalke


Rick and Morty is a sci-fi comedy cartoon that revolves around the adventures of Rick Sanchez (Roiland) and his grandson Morty (Roiland), increasingly also joined by his granddaughter Summer (Grammer).  Rick is a kind of genius mad scientist who works out of the garage of his daughter Beth Smith (Chalke) and her husband Jerry (Parnell).  He is kind of an alcoholic, and regularly drools and belches.  He has invented the means to travel to other dimensions in which parallel versions of all the characters exist.  The characters encounter many aliens.  Most of the episodes are spoofs of popular films and TV shows.

Rick is an existentialist, convinced of his own superiority.  He travels around different universes for lulz, seemingly indifferent to consequences — other than ensuring his own safety — and enjoying whatever pleasures he can along the way.  His most abiding characteristic is a deep cynicism towards everyone and everything around him.  He fits perfectly the observation about “the secret seductive lure of cynicism: living in truth and goodness is boring; the only authentic challenge is that of Evil, that is, the only space for extraordinary achievements is to be found in transgressive idiosyncrasies.”  (Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates).  And yet the entire series is kind of about how Rick is really more than a cynic, that he has empathy and bigger plans.  But he recognizes how most people are basically just stupid or evil or both, even as they pretend or try to be otherwise.  In spite of Rick’s high intelligence, his grandson Morty — constantly ridiculed by Rick (that is, all of the Ricks of all the dimensions) as being stupid — has a higher sense of morality.  Most episodes revolve around the interplay between Rick’s intelligence run amok and Morty’s bumbling yet morally constant skepticism.  Morty regularly calls out Rick’s moral ambivalence and the pair almost rights all the wrongs they commit — as the seasons progress, there is much wreckage accumulated from their past adventures.

What sets the show apart from many others, cartoon or live action, is the psychological depth of the characters.  In spite of the zany sci-fi plots, usually absurdist takes on familiar pop culture films, TV shows, etc., Rick’s moral shortcomings are generally called out and he grudgingly redresses them.  In one episode from season two, “The Ricks Must be Crazy,” the show offers a (sideways) critique of capitalism and accumulation of power, told through a story about Rick creating a miniature universe (“microverse”) inside his vehicle’s battery, with the universe’s inhabitants decived into creating electricity for him.  The season three episode “The Rickshank Rickdemption” (based on The Shawshank Redemption), has Rick (supposedly) inventing all his gadgets to find a way to recreate a limited-time fast-food dipping sauce created to promote a movie.  So, this presents him not as a simple hedonist, but someone who enjoys simple pleasures that come along tangentially in his adventures seeking the mythic sauce.  It is about avoiding being imprisoned by illusions, as Beth and Jerry seem to be.

This is one of the best and smartest shows on TV, due to the great characters, the intriguing parody/satire plots, and (especially) the biting critique of cynicism.

Don Hazen & Jonathan Taplin – The Massive Monopolies of Google, Facebook and Amazon

Link to an interview of Jonathan Taplin, author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy (2017), conducted by Don Hazen:

“The Massive Monopolies of Google, Facebook and Amazon, and Their Role in Destroying Privacy, Producing Inequality and Undermining Democracy”

Bonus link: The People’s Platform

Bonus Quote – Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates:

“[Adapting a statement of Lenin regarding central banks,] can we also say that ‘without the World Wide Web socialism would be impossible . . . . Our task is here merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive?” (p. 293)

“However, does capitalism really provide the ‘natural’ frame of relations of production for the digital universe?  Is there not also, in the World Wide Web, and explosive potential for capitalism itself?  Is not the lesson of the Microsoft monopoly precisely the Leninist one: instead of fighting this monopoly through the state apparatus (remember the court-ordered splitting up of the Microsoft Corporation), would it not be more ‘logical’ simply to nationalize it, making it freely accessible?  So today, I am thus tempted to paraphrase Lenin’s well-known slogan ‘Socialism = electrification + the power of the soviets’: ‘Socialism = free access to the Internet + the power of the soviets.’  (The second element is crucial, since it specifies the only social organization within which the Internet can realize its liberating potential; without it, we would have a new version of crude technological determinism.”  (p. 294).

Madonna – Ray of Light

Ray of Light

MadonnaRay of Light Maverick/Warner Bros. 9 46847-2 (1998)


Madonna has had an interesting career.  Her self-titled debut album is a classic of early 1980s dance floor electro-pop.  After that, though, she focused on the sensational aspects of her public persona.  This often meant a hyper-sexualized one.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it often seemed to pander, or at least resort to pandering and filler at album length — she could still knock out great singles.  But by the mid-1990s it seemed almost like she was stuck churning out slightly eroticized pop ballads, and she had taken that about as far as she could.  So Ray of Light was a somewhat daring turn toward electronica, pairing her with producer William Orbit.  The album draws a bit from the down-tempo trip hop scene, but retains a kind of mainstreamed rave dance floor appeal.  This turns out to be one of her best album-length statements.  Nearly twenty years after release, it still sounds good.  Madonna comes to terms with middle age here, in a way.  Maybe it avoids some of the exuberance and daring of her early hits, with more brooding and introspective qualities in their place. But at a certain point Neil Hamburger had a point with his joke: “What do you call senior citizens who rub feces on their genitals?  Madonna!”  Countless musicians have tried to make a mid-career update, to seem more “with it” and adept with current fads.  The thing is, Madonna pulls off that feat better than just about anybody here.  Nothing about Ray of Light seems like faddish pandering.  And she sings as good as ever here — her vocals are much stronger and extend to a much wider array of techniques than back on her debut.  Too bad all pop albums aren’t this good!

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence

Ultraviolence

Lana Del ReyUltraviolence Interscope B0020950-02 (2014)


Del Rey’s second full-length album made strides over her debut Born to Die (and the Paradise EP) in terms of being a bit more consistent, especially from a production standpoint.  This is more rock-oriented than her debut.  However, the songwriting sometimes falters, or just comes up short, which still makes this seem like a good EP padded out to album length.  The best songs are “West Coast” and “Brooklyn Baby.”  Lou Reed was supposed to provide guest vocals on the latter, but he passed away before he could record them.  A year earlier, she released the song “Young and Beautiful” on the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby, which is more in line with the style of most of her best songs.

Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

Simple Songs

Jim O’RourkeSimple Songs Drag City dc620cd (2015)


Jim O’Rourke has defied expectations his entire career.  His pop albums (Eureka, Halfway to a Threeway, Insignificance, and The Visitor), efforts as a producer, and stint in Sonic Youth garnered him the most attention.  But he stepped away from the limelight and moved to Japan — get the entire back story in the excellent article “Eureka” in Uncut (July 2015)Simple Songs is another pop album, steeped in 1970s prog rock but done up the O’Rourke way.  The music is incredibly intricate.  Hardly a second goes by without some sort of shift in meter, instrumentation, lyrical focus…something.  Yet O’Rourke never makes the music self-consciously weird.  He always keeps the music immediate and catchy.  In a way, this album is a kind of tribute to the music of his formative years.  Though rather than fawning reenactments, he treat the project with unwavering determination, as if he has to earn the right to indulge his favorite pop-rock idioms by putting extra effort into the production.  Lyrically, he is back again with  veiled and not-so-veiled misanthropic rants.  But these are not really mean spirited so much as they are a device to draw in the audience and build a rapport.  Much like trading insults to forge a friendship, O’Rourke alludes to the baseness of humanity, throwing himself in with that ignoble lot too.  While I never formally met O’Rourke, many years ago I was at a concert festival where he played bass in a band and then he stood next to me during Borbetomagus‘ set.  Unlike one of his band members, who played the role of arrogant star, O’Rourke seemed like a perfectly normal guy.  That same normal but talented guy comes through on this record.

Maybe Simple Songs won’t be for everyone.  It is pop/rock music, but of a kind of introverted kind.  But chances are anyone inclined to like this at all will love it.

On Criticism (3)

There is an old saying the newspaper business.  Although it has been formulated different ways through the years, the most concise may be, “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

When it comes to criticism, there is a real question as to whether it is mere advertising and boosterism, or something else.  In that category of “something else” falls a few things.  One is the insertion of the personality of the critic.  In other words, the critic inserts or attaches himself or herself into the work.  The critique becomes, in part, about the critic.  Another aspect is the reproduction of social relations.  This arises most often through editorial decisions, as published criticism is as much about what is excluded and included within the attentions (or “gaze”) of the critic.  But it also arises through a frame of reference, enforcing certain points of view (or “habitus”).

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue one: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Gareth Edwards

Main Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Alan Tudyk


This movie is complete garbage.  The main characters are, for the most part, completely unsympathetic and the film hardly ever bothers to explain their motivations.  This (long) film mostly fills in the back story for some minor plot points in the original Star Wars films, with maximum emphasis on melodrama.  Just some examples of the absurdities that abound.  The characters need to get some saved electronic data.  In an era of hyperspace transport, this data is saved on magnetic cassette tapes.  Desperately escaping a villain, the protagonists flee to the roof of the storage facility.  Luckily for them there is a cassette player there that is hooked up to a satellite broadcasting antenna.  (It is funnier/campier when in National Treasure Nicholas Cage‘s character needs lemon juice to read “invisible ink” writings, and he opens a refrigerator to find only a large bowl of lemons).  And there is no meaningful explanation of why Forrest Whitaker‘s character is in the film, or does anything that he does.  Is he just around to draw comparisons to Battlefield Earth?  I have read reviews of this film praising the story and such.  Were those critics watching the same film?  Of course, the special effects are expertly crafted.  Big deal.

Aside from how terrible this film is, it might be worth reexamining it from the standpoint of “socialist realism”.  Obviously, this sci-fi epic is not socialist realism.  As science fiction it does not aim for “realism” as such.  And for that matter, the film engages in the well-known Hollywood trope of showing acts of labor only in conjunction with evil (the evil Galactic Empire that is building a space weapon, using some slave labor no less).  So it isn’t socialist either.  But the genre of socialist realism was at bottom about the critique of bureaucracy.  Isn’t that what the larger story arc here is about (if the melodrama is peeled away)?  It is simply really, really bad socialist realism.  Anthropologist David Graeber wrote The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy and said there are no critiques of bureaucracy anymore.  He’s wrong in that respect, as this film shows.  But like actual 20th Century socialist realism, Rogue One approaches the question from the standpoint of the political center-right (and Stalinism), trying to put a happy human face on a bureaucracy that remains exploitative.  After all, looking at the entire Star Wars franchise, isn’t the vaunted Galactic Senate that ruled the Old Republic just a bourgeois center-right representative parliamentary system based on aristocratic privilege?  What good is that?  In other words, wouldn’t the entire Star Wars franchise be more interesting if there was some third group fighting alongside (and against) both the Rebels and the Empire, but fighting to make the fictional universe different/better than anything the Rebels or Empire put forward — like a secular state (not ruled by the Force and the attendant pagan religious cults) stripped of aristocracy, crime syndicates and such, and instead based on egalitarian principles.  Just take the high technology but advance the social structures through Enlightenment principles.  (Even the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation did this, in its own way, by introducing the authoritarian Q Continuum and the hive-mind villains the Borg on opposite political flanks of the liberal Starfleet Federation).  So, the problem with this film is ultimately that it takes itself far too seriously.  Its pretensions spoil what would have been a lot more fun as camp.  Popular fare usually works best when it is campy — the essence of which is naive unpretentiousness.  By bracketing the political background of the story as a struggle between the far-right Empire and the center-right Rebels (plus a few tangential warlords and crime bosses who are just small scale versions of either the Rebels or Empire), it fails to have a serious political grounding — lying by omission, in a way, by ignoring a substantial facet of the political field.  But if the film naively presented the political struggle that way, then it could work, with the naivety suggesting/implying the possibility of the missing political coordinates.