Sunday, July 25, 2010

In Which I Probably Read Too Much Into Dirty Harry

I recently watched Dirty Harry for the first time, which had since then been something of a hole in my pop-culture education. I enjoyed the movie, but found its politics to be somewhat objectionable.

To briefly sum up the film, Harry Callahan pursues and catches the Scorpio killer, a serial murderer who uses a sniper rifle, through San Francisco. Scorpio is let loose after his release, though, because the district attorney say that Harry didn't inform the suspect of his rights, that he violated multiple sections of the Constitution, and that all of the evidence that Harry obtained was done so illegally.

The scene in which Harry is informed by the district attorney that there is no way that the authorities can bring a case is preposterous. If anything, a district attorney passing up the chance to put away a serial killer seems highly improbable. The chance to lock away a high-profile sicko is the career-making move that most DAs probably dream of.

However, the prospect of realistically portraying the civilian authorities (along with the DA, the police chief and the mayor are portrayed as similarly toothless) is not Dirty Harry's project. The film goes out of its way to portray such authorities as weak so that Harry, by comparison, may appear strong.

Dirty Harry posits that the warrior caste of a society may second-guess the civilian authorities. Not just may, but should. Harry's decisions are portrayed as wiser, braver, and more socially responsible than those of his police chief, the district attorney, or the mayor.

A democratic, civilized society means that the state retains a monopoly on force. Force is controlled, regulated, and not used lightly. Private citizens may not initiate force- they may only use it in self-defense. Indeed, the state may not display aggression, either- it may only use it in a situation where the larger ends of society are served by the judicious application of violence.

Those who apply violence for desirable social ends do so at the pleasure of civilization at large. The police and soldiers who may engage in violence do so in a context where they are ruled by civilization. It is most decidedly not the reverse. The warriors do not rule in a democratic society. (Hence the hooplah some years ago about W. wearing an Air Force jumpsuit. Presidents, even if they have served in the military, traditionally always wear civilian clothes.)

Dirty Harry posits that the mechanisms of democracy are fundamentally broken, that the safeguards of law and order, the rights embedded in the Constitution, are deterrents to justice. In Dirty Harry, the implication is that if San Francisco really wanted to catch the Scorpio killer, if they were serious, then they would not go to the mayor, the police chief, or the DA. If they were serious, they would go to Harry Callahan and allow the warrior caste to call the shots over the civilians, not the other way around.

The stance implied by the film is a deplorable and socially irresponsible position, basically stating that borderline-sociopathic individuals such as Harry Callahan are necessary for civilization's survival. The whole thesis of the movie reminded me of another famous speech, wherein Jack Nicholson's Co. Jessup rationalizes his existence in A Few Good Men.

The scene above, though, is more nuanced because Jessup is explaining himself to other members of the military. A Few Good Men is essentially about members of the armed forces who conduct themselves as normal participants in a democracy rooting out and investigating those (such as Jessup) who behave as if they belong to an exceptional warrior caste a la Harry Callahan.

The polar opposite of Nicholson's speech (and ideological sibling to Dirty Harry) is Team America: World Police. I've always found the final (NSFW) speech to be something like the opposite of A Few Good Men, and in it Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to articulating something akin Dirty Harry's thesis- that society needs a certain population of nasty, violent people in order to survive.

Though they admit that pussies are necessary, too. How big of them.

Make no mistake, I am not a pacifist. Not by any means. I don't believe that we should dismantle the Pentagon or anything like that, and I find people who are reflexively anti-police to be kind of strange. Every contact I've had with people who've been members of the armed forces or law enforcement has led me to believe that those who are responsible for public safety are more or less normal people. I worked for the Department of Public Safety at the University of Oregon for two years, and none of the police officers I met (a few of which were former military) seemed nearly weirdly barbarous as Harry Callahan. My grandfather was in the U.S. Army, and while he had seen and participated in WWII's horrors, he certainly wasn't a monster.

Granted, the Dirty Harry is a bit self-conscious about how monstrous the protagonist is- the word "dirty" is right there in the title, after all- and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't delight in seeing Clint Eastwood blow dudes away while glaring that steely glare of his. But, Dirty Harry tries to turn the pathologies of the main character into virtues; virtues that civilization supposedly needs in order to endure. We do need warriors, certainly. We need cops and soldiers and marines and fighter pilots. That is true. But we do not need monsters. We do not need Col. Jessup or Team America, and we certainly don't need Harry Callahan to survive.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Awesome Thing: Tea

Tea is beautiful. It is, without a doubt, my single favorite beverage. Other than water, it is the only thing that I drink every single day. It is more flavorful and stimulating than any sort of juice, not as blunt or intense as coffee, and far more peaceable than anything alcoholic. As much as I love coffee and beer, Portlander that I am, tea is foremost in my affections. The first thing I do in the kitchen is put on the kettle and I inevitably begin my day with at least one cup of the stuff. If I don't have to go to work I'll generally down a few cups throughout the day.

It's the ideal beverage for writing or reading. At the keyboard, I'm usually typing between sips, and while reading a book on my porch I often have a mug close by. I associate tea with literary endeavors, with the inspired creation of words or the calm, solitary appreciation of them.

The words "tea party" have now become utterly synonymous with bombast and nonsense. I find this not only disconcerting, as a tea lover, but also deeply weird. Tea, the most peaceful of beverages, the most contemplative and calm, the kindest and most thoughtful of stimulants, is now a signifier of yowling, yelling yahoos.

Tea does not deserve this. More to the point, tea does not fit this. The contemplative nature of the beverage clashes horribly with right-wing ideologues, with upraised fists and brandished signs. Tea is a learned beverage, the least barbaric and most civilized of all drinkables.

I believe it's reputation will persevere. Tea, after all, has been with us for millennia, and the maniacs now screaming in its name have existed for less than thousandth of the age of the beverage. Tea will, once again, be known as something calm, rational, civilized, and logical. Until then, my favorite drinkable will take its lumps, not of sugar, but of irrational defamation.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Live, Real Star Trek: "A Group of People Dating Back to the 1990s..."

This is mostly about Star Trek, yes (as you can surmise from the accompanying illustration). But, bear with me as I digress for a moment about Star Wars.

Long ago, in the before time, I remember an era when Star Wars was still cool. In that time (the late 1990s) the movies were re-released in theaters, albeit with modernized special effects and additional footage. I remember sitting in a theater as an exuberant teenage, excited to see it all on the big screen. The audience whooped and applauded, laughed and hollered with raucous energy as the movie went on. Darth Vader was greeted with hoots and people shouting "yeah!" and a wave of applause went up when the Death Star exploded.

One of the biggest reactions from the audience, though, was towards the beginning. I remember it very clearly. Luke, kvetching to his uncle, says that he wants to go to Toshi Station with his friends and "pick up some power converters."

The audience roared with laughter, applause, and general appreciation. It's probably one of the cheesiest lines in Star Wars, and brings to mind all manner of B-movie derision. Luke's line sounds precisely what some hack writer would think up to tell the audience "Hey, guys! We're in a futuristic universe here!" and given what we know about George Lucas, that's probably exactly what it was.

Nevertheless, the audience cheered with very real affection. The transparent artifice of the line did not stop them from loving it. If anything, it was the reason that they roared with approval.

I was reminded of that moment last weekend when I saw Trek in the Park, an event wherein a Portland theater troupe performs an episode of the original Star Trek live. I went to it last year and enjoyed myself, so there was no way I was going to miss it this time around.

Like last year, it was loads of fun. The particular episode they performed was Space Seed, better known as "the one with Khan in it." The thing about the performance that reminded me of Luke's legendarily groan-worthy line, was that Khan is from the 1990s. When Star Trek was aired in the sixties, I suppose that the nineties were still distant and future-y enough to write science fiction stories about. According to the original Star Trek timeline, Earth apparently got into an enormous eugenics war in the late twentieth century, bred a bunch of supermen, developed interstellar travel (but without FTL) and generally devolved into chaos. Space Seed contains several references to this, and to "the twentieth century" in general.

A few choice lines:

"Much older. DY-100 class, to be exact. Captain, the last such vessel was built centuries ago, back in the 1990s."

"Seventy two alive. A group of people dating back to the 1990s. A discovery of some importance, Mister Spock. There are a great many unanswered questions about those years."

"With simple nuclear-powered engines, star travel was considered impractical at that time."

"Earth was on the verge of a dark ages. Whole populations were being bombed out of existence."

"[Khan's] age would be correct. In 1993, a group of these young supermen did seize power simultaneously in over forty nations."

"From 1992 through 1996, [Khan was] absolute ruler of more than a quarter of your world. From Asia through the Middle East."

...and so on.

The performers, though, made absolutely no attempt to cover up how unashamedly retro this all was. If anything they reveled in it. Much like that crowd at the screening of Star Wars who had such a great reaction to Luke's ultra-cheesy line, the crowd lapped up with verve and amusement any reference to the nineties, and anything else hokey or otherwise dated. On top of that, a full complement of electronic music and woo-woo sound effects accompanied the performance. All through the production music that would have been massively futuristic fifty years ago hummed away.

What was weird is that the hokey stuff really made it all better. The concession to genre, anachronism, and borderline kitsch seemed to alchemically combine into something that was, actually, very awesome. Had they attempted to modernize the production or play it straight, it wouldn't have been nearly as enjoyable. Nor do I think (and this is what I find sort of weird) I wouldn't have been nearly as emotionally invested in what was going on.

I am fascinated by an audience's ability to laugh at something for being silly, hokey, and sort of dumb; but at the same time be utterly charmed and on board with it. Nearly every single person there was utterly into how, well, Star Trek-y it all was, how a piece of sixties SF was walking and talking right in front of us. We were rooting for it because it was anachronistic, full of genre conventions, and of its. Not despite those things. We can laugh at the absurdity of another time without mocking it, regard artifacts as absurd and all the while wholeheartedly embrace them.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Awesome Thing: The Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse Sculpture Garden

If you live in Portland, you've probably seen the looming ultramodern tower that is the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse (MOHUSC). Since it was built in 1997 it's a building that I've consistently admired, a fact that I find continually surprising for two reasons. For one, many of the things that I thought were cool in the '90s (black turtlenecks, Mortal Kombat, putting "2000" on anything) are, in retrospect, sort of silly. Architecture in particular seems to wear its age badly, though. The things that probably looked futuristic and cutting-edge throughout the twentieth century usually look hopelessly anachronistic now. Postmodern buildings such as the Portland Building were edgy once, but they now they're the structural equivalent of a George Michael album; dead-end fashions that everyone involved wants covered up.

Paradoxically, the recently contemporary often seems even more aged than the truly old. The boxy Oregon State Capitol exudes the 1930s, but the much older Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. seems timeless and therefore more contemporary. (Total aside, but this reminds me of the probably apocryphal story of an English professor who, in the 1950s, decided to translate Hamlet into beatnik so that young people could relate to it better. The resulting text ended up being utterly impenetrable ten years later, but the original Shakespeare could still be grokked without much difficulty.)

The point is, that if you're going to make something and have it look edgy and contemporary and neato, you run the very high risk of being passe in a few years. When making big, permanent things like buildings, this is something you want to avoid. People are going to be staring at these buildings for quite some time, and you really want these buildings to seem contemporary in some form or fashion long after their styles were "cool."

So far, the MOHUSC is holding up. When I walked through its lobby the other day, it impressed me as much as it did thirteen years ago. It seems utterly futuristic in a classy, subdued kind of way. The interior is filled with stark, quiet lines and blocky structures that are somehow also elegant. It's big and stark and empty, but also impressive, precisely the kind of thing that made the young me want to be a lawyer.

And it has a sculpture garden on the ninth floor.

Since the MOHUSC is a public building, anyone who wants to can walk right in, go up the elevator, and hang out in the sculpture garden. Granted, the sculptures themselves are sort of silly- a collection of animals and anthropomorphic computers that are collectively titled "Law of Nature" -but the space is highly neat. It is secluded, affords a great view of the city, and is open to the public.

It's a nice space in what could otherwise have been an utterly utilitarian government building. I was alone for the entire time I was up there, which I didn't expect, but was refreshing. Again, the statues aren't great art- they're silly little animals dressed up as lawyers, but I like it that tucked away in a large, ultramodern building is a little bit of flourish, and anyone who likes may admire the skyline, the surrounding buildings, and the greenery below.