June 29, 2013



I rediscovered my university blogs after a four year absence, and I noticed that I liked the format. So, I want to come back for a while, to try to update these. In the intervening years, I have cancelled cable, subscribed to Netflix, and produced a lot of cable-level television. I still believe in movies and television, and I have some new examples to discuss.

To start out, I want to mention just how grateful I am to have run across the American Masters Joan Baez documentary on Netflix. It challenges me to live courageously and honestly, and to keep growing up. The images of the older Joan Baez commenting on her youth and on what she has learned say something about what becoming a grown up can mean, for someone who keeps working at it.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:08 PM

July 15, 2009

Coupling -- the British Original

The British series Coupling is smart and competent and sophisticated and all about sex. Its cleverness just oozes out: every complex film-making, scene-arranging trick you can imagine is exploited for fun: multiple perspectives, an edited timeline, counting down to a moment from hours before and hours after, the presentation of an episode, bit by bit, as the characters discover more about what happened. This is demanding television; I can think of no U.S. counterpart.

Also, the writers love actors. They give the actors magnificent, funny, sad, twisty monologues - chances to show what they can do.

And, they stay with sex. Other matters come up, but within five minutes, we're back to sex. And sex is really funny and charming and exciting and worth talking about: that's the message. But sex isn't the horizon of the show, just its topic. The horizon is made visible in the theme song, and one gets glimpses of it from time to time in the episodes: "if you can't make your mind up, we'll never get started." Jolly sex may be at the center of the show, but commitment, getting on with things, having relationships and maybe babies is still always coming up, maybe more powerfully because the characters struggle so hard to keep that from coming up, to keep things silly.

It is rare to have a show make plausible the message: "Here is something really important that isn't the only thing or the most important thing." It takes artistic maturity.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:13 PM

December 29, 2008

Love Sick: Secrets of a Sex Addict

There are a lot of shows almost exactly like this one, movies and series, except for the title. Sex in the City is this over and over again, except for the title. The tumultuous falling in love is the same. The allure and adventure is the same. But this adaptation of Sue William Silverman’s book gives the condition a name and a prognosis – pathologizes it. This behavior is part of a pattern that wrecks lives. And that is a move of real interest, comparable to Dante’s move of putting familiar people in hell.

It doesn’t necessarily take a good movie to raise an interesting question. Where does attraction leave off and addiction begin?

Posted by shea0017 at 10:35 PM

December 27, 2008

Life changing video 2008

I am voting for these, for 2008, all from Youtube:

1. Warren Buffett did a talk to an MBA class a while back. The whole thing is up on Youtube in 10 minute segments. Segment 1, about his general approach to happiness and success, is comforting and inspiring.

2. This talk by a Nobel economics laureate, Daniel Kahneman, says very surprising things about happiness, making me realize that I think I know many things about happiness that just aren’t so.

3. Two Palestinian girls talk with great enthusiasm about being martyrs. It shows how kids are vulnerable to adults.

4. As an antidote to 3, here’s Tom Jackson, a philosophy for children teacher, talking about how he works.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:47 AM

December 23, 2008

Wife Swap

Wives switch families for two weeks. Usually the families are very different, distinguished by different senses of responsibility, different needs for control, different levels of acceptance of the conventional American obsessions. Occasionally, somebody seems to be mentally ill.

This is great ethics television. It teaches very simple but A-list lessons. There are usually points on which the couples disagree without any compromise possible: fundamentalists do not become liberals, patriots do not become anti-American. But, over the two weeks, the families find something to learn from each other, something they like better in the other family’s “set.? This in one way says something helpful about dogmatic relativism: it just ain’t so. Given a chance to look at alternatives, people come to some new realizations; they converge on some points – especially about the importance of time with young children.

Also, the show develops a kind of slow-burning compassion for kids. They are the helpless subjects in all of these little feudal fiefs. (As the song says, “No one knows what goes on behind closed doors.?) If mom makes them drill and march, they drill and march – and think it's normal. If the height of ambition is really smeary fingerpaintings, they smear. And then, when they emerge from this all into public light, people blame them for what they have become, without seeing how they were made that way.

This isn’t deeply profound stuff. But Americans are not a deeply profound people. This show gets the level pretty right.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:31 AM

December 21, 2008

"First Class All the Way"

“First Class All the Way,? a Bravo reality show about a high-end ‘concierge’ travel service for the most affluent and demanding clients, does very good work. It shows what unlimited money buys: something like perfect service, the (nearly) perfect adaptation of some stretch of life to the client’s needs, wishes, preferences, moods, and whims. Presumably, the richer one is, the more that happens.

Why is it important to see this? The engine that drives ambition is partly the quest for luxury, for that thing the rich get to have. Yet we (the outsiders) seldom see what that means in actual lives. We see glamorous moments and we see expensive stuff, but we don’t see the stance toward the world that makes it all hang together: the pursuit of perfection. Yet the only way to evaluate luxury is to understand how it works as a way of life, as a kind of life.

The show says it all, and I don’t want to steal its thunder. Just go watch. Hint 1: the best that the best experts can pull off in a contingent world is “nearly perfect? service, and the distance between “nearly perfect? and “perfect? seems very great to people who have come to expect perfection. Hint 2: once perfection has been made a goal, it becomes also the object of a substantial amount of attention, and that attention is borrowed from immediate experience. I may appreciate my partner’s lovely skin, but I will also be rating the lighting effects and the surgical work, once the idea of perfection gets established in my repertoire.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:55 AM

December 19, 2008

Oh the Fussy Horror of It!

Yesterday, I saw an old, probably rightly forgotten movie called Nothing But the Night, which is similar in plot to the better (original) Wicker Man, a horror movie that, for me, defines horror. Some of the writing about Nothing But the Night characterizes it as “slow,? and that is the feel of the thing: a lot of fussy British ordinariness that slowly goes peculiar on you. That’s the feel also of another horror classic, Village of the Damned (again, the original). What I admire about all these, at varying levels of admiration, with Wicker Man getting the gold medal, is that there is something helpfully and edifyingly right about horror emerging out of ordinariness, being a kind of modulation of the ordinary, a change in the light. That is an intuition, an expectation, a heuristic (principle of search or investigation) worth teaching. And so horror movies do some important work: they help people recognize real patterns by portraying those patterns in exaggerated and so unmistakable ways. That is one function of movies, the role they fill in the moral ecology.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:19 PM

August 4, 2007

The human emotional predicament as Star Trek thinks it

Star Trek over its long history has done some fine work to help people think about being human by providing plausible contrast cases: characters who are half-human or not quite human. One persistent topic: the question about how central having emotion is to being human. They started with Spock, the Vulcan who aspires to be only reasonable. His mode is echoed later in Data, an android who claims to lack emotion; one also hears some kind of an echo in Seven of Nine, from Voyager, who is new to the whole idea of individual consciousness and personal feelings.

A helpful and surprising variant on this theme is “The Loss,? episode 84 from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Counselor Troi loses her empathic powers, and comes up against a strange fact about humanity: our emotions are not obvious and not public, though they are also not hidden or inaccessible. We know each other by observation and induction, to some extent, and we are frequently not quite sure what other people are feeling. This, like emotion itself, is sometimes a handicap, sometimes an advantage. There is a fine scene in the episode in which Commander Riker comes to comfort Troi; she does not know what he is up to, and so there is an awkward dance between them, familiar from every teenage date movie: he loves her, does not want to force his affection on her. She suspects, but doesn’t want to misjudge him. Eventually, they figure things out. He tells her that previously she has been superior, aristocratic, and that there is something of value in her new vulnerability. (One hears echoes of the Laches: would someone with perfect military competence and perfect knowledge of the state of a battle be braver than the ordinary soldier, or would he or she be shut out of the possibility of bravery, as perhaps the all-powerful are shut out of generosity?)

There are a couple of points to make here, in a preliminary way. The human predicament is an interesting predicament, and it is worth paying close attention to it before seeking to transcend or abolish or improve it. Also, people have spent a lot of mental energy doing just the sort of thought experiment that Star Trek tries: developing a coherent picture of beings who are almost human, and then trying to understand what those beings would gain and lose by their difference. The Greek gods are profitably seen as one such experiment. One final point: it is quite interesting that the warp drive that keeps the Enterprise flying is in so many episodes a philosophical investigation. Humans aren’t programmed to respond only to car chases and bits of skin, even in the Twenty First Century.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:34 AM

February 26, 2007


A cowboy show in space. It has been tried before. This one lasted one season. It has become our family bonding experience, thanks to a Borders Valentines Day sale on the boxed set.

A thrown-together "family" of outlaws with principles, operating at the edge of the law, at the edge of civilization. It's Maverick again, with recurring women. It's Giligan's Island on a starship.

Why does it work? I invite my readers to help solve the mystery. My guess is that Josh Whedon got his archetypes right; the cast of lovable and exasperating characters are a good inventory of the Lovable and Exasperating Characters that, in other contexts, would have been made into gods. One wants to see what happens when these folks come together. Also, and this is the mysterious part, the show creates a strong feeling of home, of familiarity, of comfort. The spaceship looks like a place one could come home to. The port cities are strange and scary, but not -- as in Star Wars -- in a way that suggests that all hell has broken loose. One other thing: ethics keeps coming up. People wonder about the right thing to do, fight about it even.

Firefly creates an alternative world with helpful connections to the real worlds of its viewers, reminding them of some things. Have a look at it, sometime.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:45 AM

January 24, 2007


Socrates begins his defense of his life in Athens with a survey of the prejudices against him, which, he says, dispose the jurors to believe the prosecutors’ charges. We all know that he is talking about something real: beliefs prepare the way for other, similar beliefs.

Law and medicine are aware of this phenomenon: juries can be poisoned by media coverage, and patients can be suggested into symptoms or into temporary relief from real symptoms – warning signs of real illness.

As the cable offerings get more and more repetitive, clustering as cop and forensic shows, medical shows, dating and relationship reality shows, central work for anyone concerned with the public mind is to track the specific and general prejudices being broadcast – as well as the information being disseminated.

One might safely presume that every jury is poisoned, that no patient is innocent of assumptions about a lump or a twitch, that every date knows how things should go.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:25 AM