Thoughts on Independence Movements

I wonder why independence is seen as a solution to all sorts of regional political problems. It’s a very square peg applied to lots of strangely shaped situations. But first, some context.

I lived in Indonesia during a very interesting time. In 1997 we had a financial crisis, and I experienced hyper inflation for the first time. In 1998, the dictator Suharto stepped down, among riots and so on. The next several years followed a very rocky democratisation process.

The circumstances of a military dictator stepping down provided an opportunity for secessionist movements to flare up again, most significantly in East Timor and Aceh.

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Thoughts: Disaster Art

The film adaptation of “The Disaster Artist” is releasing in December, and while I really enjoyed “The Room” and heard good things about the book, I had never gotten around to reading it. Reading that the audiobook version was read by Greg Sestero himself, I thought there couldn’t be any better format.

I haven’t read the print version. I don’t really know if I have to anymore, though I’d like to own it. The over 11 hour audiobook of the memoirs of Sestero working on the film, novelised by Tom Bissel, is wonderful, and the emotionality of the story being told by Greg, in his own words and from his own voice, is extremely compelling. Plus, his imitation of Wiseau’s peculiar voice is uncanny.

Maybe some context is necessary.

For those not in the know, “The Room” is perhaps the most celebrated bad movie ever. Written, directed, starring, and produced by Tommy Wiseau, it is a fascinating garbage fire. The film is a beautiful, beautiful mess from start to finish and attained cult classic status after its release in 2003.

There are a lot of fascinatingly bad movies, but the best of them are the passion projects made by talentless or crazy eccentric people, usually a combination of both. This is why Sharknado is uninteresting, since it’s intentionally made to be bad, but why “The Room” or “Troll 2” are so entertaining. They have pure and real passion behind them, just horribly misplaced. While it’s genuinely funny to laugh at their incompetence or their bizarre choices, the true enjoyment of the film is also to watch a dream come true, even for people as horribly incompetent or purely mediocre as these filmmakers.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a story that captures that as much as Greg Sestero’s story of his experience with Tommy Wiseau. Superficially, we can laugh at Tommy, as everything about him is bizarre and outlandish, and the sheer confidence with which he champions his terrible acting and writing is fascinatingly weird. But he, strange as he may be, is very very human. That’s what the book does: it humanises all these people involved in the film and makes them more than just a hilariously bad performance of terrible lines.

The book describes both Sestero’s and Wiseau’s paths toward each other, the history of their friendship, and the story of how “The Room” actually got made. What really struck me about the story was also Sestero’s earnestness and more importantly his sheer empathy. First encountering Wiseau during an acting class, while most of the class was entertained or frustrated by Wiseau’s performances, Sestero saw something genuine and likeable about Tommy’s seemingly impenetrable confidence in the talents he didn’t really have.

Over the course of both their attempts to enter Hollywood, their friendships had ups and downs, and the story of their struggles is heartfelt and real. Listening to his words, you can’t help but ask yourself what you would do if you came across someone like that. Certainly not approach him to be your acting partner, or help him every step of the way through making his own movie. But Sestero did, and I can’t help but find that empathy and dedication inspiring. We so often hear about the cutthroat nature of business, especially in Hollywood. “La La Land” might be a mostly romantic tale of pursuing your dreams in Hollywood, but is obviously romanticised. The story of “The Disaster Artist” is far more compelling because their struggles are real and they made a real dream come true.

And now that dream is regularly screened to sold out audiences, who all love the film both ironically and genuinely. Bad as it may be, it has brought true joy to the people who appreciate it and made Tommy a celebrity in strangely more endearing ways than most Hollywood stars.

And that’s damn inspiring.

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Thoughts on Southern Heritage

There seems to be a debate in America today about what it means to be American. Is it the past heritage that defined the country today, or is it what it is today and will become? A typical answer would be: both. They aren’t mutually exclusive, despite what people may think.

At the moment this debate is made manifest in the events in Charlottesville over the weekend. For those not in the know, the controversy is over whether or not statues commemorating either Confederate generals, heroes or just the Confederate soldier should be taken down. There are a lot of levels to the debate, which is what makes it interesting.

The arguments for dismantling them are that they commemorate people who fought, either directly or indirectly, for maintaining slavery as an institution, that they chose to be traitors to the United States, and that anyway, most of them were erected in the 50s and 60s during the Civil Rights movement in reaction to it, and many statues stand in states which weren’t part of the Confederacy.

The arguments against dismantling them are in a large part due to heritage, which is hard to quantify because it’s just how people feel. The South, for all its qualities, gets a bad reputation. For a lot of people it’s a joke, where rednecks, Bible Belters, obese people and racists hang out. This is unfortunate, because there’s a lot more to the South than that, but you can imagine how someone from the South, being laughed at by other parts of the country and the world in general, might grasp strongly onto whatever sources of pride they can have, and resent the people who look down on them. I was born in Texas, and while I’m probably one of the least Texan people out there, people still make faces or laugh when they hear it. I don’t take it personally, not really personally identifying as Texan, but I can understand why people would be tired of it.

The Civil War, itself, is a fascinating conflict, and it’s one where a culture has sprung up honouring the losers of the war. I have an image from the 1993 film “Gettysburg” featured on this article for that reason, and if I’m being honest, I’m pretty sure it had a big impact on the way the South sees itself today.

Indeed, Joss Whedon was inspired enough by that, that the whole theme of “Firefly” centered on its protagonist being a survivor of a losing war, looking to live free outside of central government authority. In the most romantic of terms, one could argue that was what the Confederacy stood for. Of course, “Firefly” is fiction and the protagonists quickly place themselves in opposition of slavery early in the show. Regardless, “Gettysburg” resonated in terms of its portrayal of noble Southern gentlemen in a tragic war.

Personally, I think there’s room for acknowledging that people who fought on the wrong side of history were still interesting people. I can acknowledge that people see a pattern of progressive society destroying what little they they feel have to be proud of. You can see why they feel like their sense of society and tradition is under attack in a cultural sense, how both popular and broad culture seems to be rejecting the things they took for granted as part of their identity. And maybe that seemed helpless before Trump made them feel like they could actually fight back against this.

But that’s human pattern recognition. I think there’s a real debate that can be had which doesn’t tap directly into people’s defensive emotions and backfire effects. The South will always be interesting for so many other things than just the Confederacy. The region actually has the highest economic growth in the US, last I read, so hopefully the depressing demographics will eventually improve and not make people feel desperate enough to cling to outdated symbols. I think, and I imagine most Southerners agree, that Southern culture and heritage is stronger than a few statues. I do think Confederate history is a big part of American history but more in terms of its national identity crisis being worked out. The decades after the war involved a lot of reconciliation projects to heal the wounds and unite the people, and that’s the same kind of spirit people should be embracing. You don’t need statues for that. Confederate generals and soldiers weren’t heroes in the traditional sense, but tragic actors in a story of how America became what it is.

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Thoughts on lack of Perspective

In the past few years or so, I’ve met a lot of people with, shall we say, underdeveloped attitudes to things. They don’t have a problem of lack of knowledge, but a lack of perspective, and possibly the open-mindedness necessary to correct their lack of knowledge. After all, if you’re already set in your views, no amount of new knowledge will change that. Indeed, the backfire effect might lead you to reinforce your views.

“I’m not sure that Trump is worse than Clinton because Clinton would have started a war” is something I’ve heard multiple times in Switzerland. There are many facets to this statement which are problematic, but the underlying one is that military action is thrust onto the American president regardless of who is sitting in the chair. Nevertheless, this view is usually championed by people whose perspective on American interventionism is limited to the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. They are the most current examples of American military involvement and thus get the most attention, but are only a small part of a much larger picture. One cannot assume that American military policy in Iraq is the same as it is in Korea, or South East Asia, or Europe. Generalising a specific case is, honestly, highly problematic, even within the MENA region. Libya is not the same as Iraq, or Syria, or Afghanistan. It’s just as problematic if you’re an American generalising about Muslims as if you’re a Muslim generalising about Muslims.

There are a lot of Tumblr bloggers who are mostly young Americans discovering their opinions about race in America. There is, indeed, a systemic problem of racism there and it’s an important fight. The problem is that “race” as a term implies global, human characteristics and people are therefore inclined to generalise that of course, the rest of the world also suffers from the heavy thumb of the white man. I lived in Malaysia for 6 months and racism there is a completely different picture, just as problematic but totally different and very little to do with white people. You cannot transcribe American race problems on other countries. Doing so creates a gross injustice by oversimplifying the problems of other peoples.

What people need is an open perspective, and a desire to learn. We’re so often wrong, even about ourselves, and growing up is an endless process of learning for ourselves what we can bend our principles on, and what we stand firm about. Experience teaches you what that is, and those experiences should be challenges to your worldview which help you to mould yourself.

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All this is a result of the human talent for pattern recognition, which likes to build patterns. It’s generally a good thing and was an early human survival skill, but sometimes it makes us see things which aren’t there. Just because you’re black in America and you have problems, it doesn’t mean they’re the same problems for black people in the Caribbean, or sub-Saharan Africa. Just because US military intervention is problematic at best in the MENA region, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a net benefit in others, and just because it was a relative success story in Japan doesn’t mean there weren’t many problems.

Pattern recognition is handy, but it needs testing, just like the worldviews of people need challenges. Wanting to believe in something is childlike behaviour regardless of your age, and part of the process of becoming and being an adult is understanding that everything is a lot more complicated and doesn’t necessarily care what you think. If you’re too easily convinced by something, there’s probably something wrong with it. You can take a side on an issue, but you have to recognise the realities of it.

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My Thoughts on the Concept of a Trump Presidency

Many of my American friends, and even some who aren’t, are venting their emotions on social media. Honestly, I was initially more emotionally affected by the results than I thought I would be, but my sober analytical side won out.

This isn’t my first election nor is it my first disappointment. Every election I’ve personally experienced is hyped up as the most important election ever and the message does start to wear thin. There’s often a sense of reassurance that it’s never as bad or as good as people think it will be.

And that’s probably going to be true. Obama wasn’t as good as people hoped. Trump won’t be as bad as people think. It is not the end of the world. I’m not going to be hyperbolic here. The system isn’t broken, but it has a lot of problems.

The fact that Trump is a fairly terrible person doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to offend most people. What bothers me is that he was made the voice of so many suffering people. All those uneducated white voters who supported him have real troubles and real concerns. And honestly, no one’s going to fix them, least of all him. He doesn’t represent the traditional Republican, he’s not a revolutionary; he’s a demagogue who changes his policy ideas to whatever gets the most attention and not even in the normal way of a politician. Normal politicians chase votes. He chases crowds. The comparison to Hitler is entirely unfitting because Hitler did what he believed in. He wrote a book in the 1920s and did exactly what he said he would do 10-20 years later.

So my problem with his success is that all those suffering people, insecure in their jobs and lives, terrified of where they see the country going, just got conned. And not even by a very good con-man.

American liberals have been doing mostly great work in being inclusive to minorities of all kinds, whether they be racial or religious, but tend to forget that American conservatives are also, well, American. You can’t just disregard people as “white trash” and think they’ll just die off. They have agency too, and they wanted to show that they still matter. It’s foolish to write them off.

So let’s start with the very real concerns. Republican majorities in basically all of Congress, with a Republican president who likely will have to cave in to a Republican cabinet, with a Supreme Court which will likely continue to be conservative… means that the Affordable Care Act, aka. Obamacare, will be repealed. This is something they’ve been trying to shoot down since before it began and it seems likely that, given the first opportunity, they’re going to cut off millions of people from the medication they need. This is a tragedy and it pains me to think of it.

Americans also tend to have heroic expectations of their presidents. It’s like they’re voting a damn Superhero. They want them to be family men, eloquent but also relatable, and seem to always want them to save the country. The irony is that the Executive branch, namely the President and their cabinet, doesn’t have that much influence on domestic issues. Congress does that. The president’s job is much more to do with foreign policy, and that is a tremendous worry.

There’s a backlash in America right now, from both extreme Right and extreme Left, against globalisation. It’s become popular to trash free trade deals. I find it ironic that people do their bitching from smartphones made relatively cheap and accessible by the global supply chain, but I digress. There have been winners and losers from globalisation, and the whole Western would could do a much better job spreading the benefits… but that doesn’t make it worth closing borders and trade. The costs are much higher than people seem to realise.

No, it would be a terrible thing to shut down NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership. It’s horribly selfish to just think of American jobs. The negotiations for the TPP have been taking place for years, and in the words of the South Korean president, you can’t just abandon it now because it’s unpopular at home. All those countries in Asia also had to sell these trade deals domestically. But, you know, Americans and international awareness don’t entirely coincide.

What most people seem to worry about though, is the idea of a victory of hate over love. I dislike this notion because it’s a gross oversimplification and, again, denigrates all those suffering rural voters to haters, racists and misogynists. That said, it still is a symbolic victory.

Now, I’m pretty damn sure they aren’t going to repeal gay marriage. Issues like this are a shitstorm nobody wants. What it does do, however, is legitimse the problematic people and their problematic views. Lots of people who supported Trump weren’t racists… but racists did support him. Just like after the Brexit vote, racists have had their views legitimised by victory. This means their voices and actions will be more open. It won’t just be YouTube comment sections anymore.

This doesn’t make discrimination legal though. It just makes it more likely to happen.

I’ve always felt that, in a rather “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” sense, the main job of the President, as far as the world is concerned, is actually just being the face of America. Whatever hard work they do behind the scenes, they are held responsible for everything during their term in office. Thanks Obama.

So in a way, Trump is representing America in a somewhat suitably perverse distortion of the American dream and, in that way, all the problems with that dream. He’s rich by none of his own efforts, has a supermodel trophy wife, and apparently gets away with everything. In that sense you can feel that the trappings have finally come away from how false the dream is.

All in all, I’d say that most things people are worried about, they shouldn’t. What they should do, if they’re American, is write their congressman and implore them not to repeal Obamacare. Millions of sick people are the first, and real, casualties. Everything else depends on how things go.

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Dan Reviews: So I watched “The Nice Guys”

TL,DR: It’s pretty great. Possibly not as great as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” but the closest to it.

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I’ve been looking forward to this movie since it was announced, because I really like Shane Black’s work. He wrote the original “Lethal Weapon,” which defined the buddy cop genre. He directed “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” one of the most original and creative films of the last 15 years. He also wrote and directed “Iron Man 3” which people seem to either love or hate, and I find it actually my favourite Iron Man movie and among my favourite Marvel movies. Fun fact, he also shows up in “Predator.”

So you know how I said “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was original and creative? It also featured the highlights of a buddy cop movie, then featuring the talents of Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in a way that works wonderfully. However, it’s more of a cult classic. It didn’t make that much money, but it’s well loved by those who know it.

So 10 years later, cult classic under his belt, Shane Black makes another movie about a pseudo-buddy-cop duo solving a mystery with hilarious chemistry. How well does it do?

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So I should probably talk about the movie a bit to try and convince you to see it. Projects like this deserve support.

Set in 1977-78 the film centers on the characters played by Ryan Gosling, a private detective with alcohol problems and a penchant for lucky accidents, and Russell Crowe, a tough fist-for-hire who takes on somewhat charitable cases such as beating up the older man trying to seduce your underage daughter. They meet, clash, then partner up in attempting to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of pornstar Misty Mountains. Along the way they meet colourful characters of pornstars, sleazy teenagers, hippy protesters, and more. Of particular note is the daughter of Gosling’s character, playsed by Angourie Rice. The girl did a great job and her character is a lot of fun.

Since it’s a mystery plot, and similar to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” a lot of the charm of the film is in its lucky accidents and character interaction, there’s no point in spoiling anything beyond that. It’s a wonderful exploration of the seedy and corrupt underculture of Los Angeles in the late 70s through the thriving pornography business and more. Gosling gives a surprisingly welcome comedic performance, and Crowe is a great straightman in contrast.

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I rewatched “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” the other night with some friends and, overall, I’d say I like it a little more than this. It’s a film which is more playful with its unreliable narrator and the visual language of film, and I’d say the pacing of humour works better. It’s also just really hard to beat Robert Downey Jr. playing a well-meaning screwup. If you haven’t seen it, go do it now.

Even so, “The Nice Guys” is one of the most welcome movies to come out all year. In a box office dominated by various CGI-loaded action-adventure movies, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. It’s gritty, fun, and violent in ways that invite you to have fun with the world and characters. What more can you ask for?

It should be obvious, but fair warning that since there’s pornography and murder, you can expect boobs and blood. It’s all done in a way that adds to the atmosphere and humour of the film, and you frankly can’t do a movie like this without it.

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So I Rewatched “Saving Private Ryan”

Basically: Wow Spielberg is a great filmmaker. Also, Nathan Fillion shows up.

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However, it’s well established that Spielberg is one of those people born to make movies, so discussing the filmmaking isn’t exactly treading new ground. I have some extended thoughts, though, about the theme of the movie (which people seem to miss), and about the larger cultural impact of the film.

This movie kicked off the trend of mostly-realistic war movies, especially Second World War movies. Suddenly everyone was making these, along with WW2 games, all that. This is kind of odd, because I don’t entirely consider it a war movie. At least, its focus is not the war itself. The war is a backdrop to the story of an ensemble of soldiers who are ordered to do something altruistic: save the life of the last surviving son of four.

The war as a backdrop serves as a contrast. Something heroic and altruistic like this stands out against this setting in which ordinary men are used to being asked to do terrible things. With a war in which millions died, why and whether one life still matters is the philosophical question at the heart of the movie.

One weird criticism I’ve heard is that it’s unrealistic to have overweight or physically unfit soldiers, especially in the elite units (Airborne and Rangers) featured in the movie. That’s fair as far as accuracy goes, but it runs against the theme of the movie. While the Germans are mostly a distant and faceless enemy, the distance that American soldiers feel towards them feeds the sense of inhumanity about war in general. The display of a variety of American soldiers depicts the citizen soldier nature of what’s being displayed here.

Rather than professional soldiers, citizen soldiers are recruited from civilian jobs and trained to fight. Tom Hanks’ character, John Miller, is a schoolteacher in normal life. That he happens to be a good soldier is something he learned, and it visibly troubles him as, over the course of the story, he hopes to have done something decent and worthwhile despite all the death and destruction. By taking a lot of different actors (Tom Sizemore and Paul Giamatti, to name a few) as soldiers who don’t really look like soldiers, Spielberg gets to depict even further how dehumanising war is by showing that even decent American civilians-become-soldiers are capable of callous disregard for human life.

Vin Diesel, young and early in his career, plays a soldier with his sense of empathy intact. He’s disbelieving when told that American machine gunners also ensure that enemy message runners are dead, and he hopes to do something decent by taking care of a French child and he dies for it. This reinforces the theme of how altruism has little place during war.

What’s awesome about the overall arc is that all the Ranger characters eventually give in and succumb to the human desire to do something human and heroic in helping Ryan defend a bridge in order to save him and take him home… and they all die for it. The interpreter, a non-combat soldier, is easily the most human of them. The entire time he hopes to connect with the others or maintain his sense of humanity by recognising their German prisoner as a human being… until the end, when he realises it costs the lives of others in the squad.

The ironic thing about war movies is that the best ones capture both the horror and the fascination of warfare. We are repulsed by its horrors but attracted to it all the same. And so there are many people who see this movie as a collection of battle scenes which awaken that oddly human passion for violence of this sort. That’s why so many video games were made about this, and I would be hypocritical if I said I didn’t also enjoy them for similar reasons. Band of Brothers was a WW2 series shortly afterwards produced by Spielberg and Hanks, following up on the success of this film and it mostly focused on its characters and the heroism that’s a theme of the book it was based upon. It’s part of a larger American myth of the special heroic properties of that generation that went to war.

But it’s still sad to me that the overall general audience impact of war films is actually the opposite of what the filmmakers intend. Most war films don’t approve of war and they make a point of showing its debilitating effect on humanity. And yet, they excite the imaginations of people who are morbidly fascinated in it.

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