Searle vs. Derrida, Round 1

Here’s something entertaining. A book on Derrida, reviewed by Searle in the NYRB? I find Searle’s philosophy, um, poor, and the bits I know of Derrida to be both obscurantisme terroriste and, well, poor. But I don’t want to be all omgtheorylol like people enjoy these days. So with all those qualifications, I still found that this review gave me something to think about.

But Derrida also emerges as much more superficial than he is. He emerges as the instigator of various gimmicks for dealing with texts, and Culler doesn’t seem to understand the really deep problems that led Derrida into this. Culler seems unaware that Derrida is responding to certain specific theses in Husserl and is using weapons derived in large part from Heidegger to do it (Culler’s bibliography contains no references to Husserl and only one to Heidegger). I believe that Derrida’s work, at least those portions I have read, is not just a series of muddles and gimmicks. There is in fact a large issue being addressed and a large mistake being made. The philosophical tradition that goes from Descartes to Husserl, and indeed a large part of the philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato, involves a search for foundations: metaphysically certain foundations of knowledge, foundations of language and meaning, foundations of mathematics, foundations of morality, etc. Husserl, for example, sought such foundations by examining the content of his conscious experiences while suspending or “bracketing” the assumption that they referred to an external world. By doing so he hoped to isolate and describe pure and indubitable structures of experience.

Now, in the twentieth century, mostly under the influence of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, we have come to believe that this general search for these sorts of foundations is misguided. There aren’t in the way classical metaphysicians supposed any foundations for ethics or knowledge. For example, we can’t in the traditional sense found language and knowledge on “sense data” because our sense data are already infused with our linguistic and social practices. Derrida correctly sees that there aren’t any such foundations, but he then makes the mistake that marks him as a classical metaphysician. The real mistake of the classical metaphysician was not the belief that there were metaphysical foundations, but rather the belief that somehow or other such foundations were necessary, the belief that unless there are foundations something is lost or threatened or undermined or put in question.

It is this belief that Derrida shares with the tradition he seeks to deconstruct. Derrida sees that the Husserlian project of a transcendental grounding for science, language, and common sense is a failure. But what he fails to see is that this doesn’t threaten science, language, or common sense in the least. As Wittgenstein says, it leaves everything exactly as it is. The only “foundation,” for example, that language has or needs is that people are biologically, psychologically, and socially constituted so that they succeed in using it to state truths, to give and obey orders, to express their feelings and attitudes, to thank, apologize, warn, congratulate, etc.

I need to try to read Derrida one of these days, though I’m really dreading it.

[photo from]

Mini-review: First Blood

How exactly does one review a movie like First Blood (aka Rambo)? A movie like this, a movie that is kind of a legend, how does one review it? I suppose I will have to take it for what it is, and judge it that way.

firstbloodrerelease1I am a little ashamed to admit that I have never seen any of the Rambo movies before, nor any of the Rockie movies. It should not come as a shock to those who have seen the movie, then, that what the movie actually was like surprised me.  Compared to contemporary action movies, the number of deaths in this film was staggeringly low. I think maybe one person died for sure, and a few more were possible. That is not to say that the film is not violent. Rambo goes around hamstringing people and jabbing pointy sticks into them.

But the movie as a whole was more surprising. I pictured Rambo going around Vietnam, blasting the crap out of people. Not so! This movie is set in the Pacific Northwest as Rambo rambles about, heading toward Portland. He is picked up by an asshole of a cop but has flashbacks of Vietnam while in prison, causing him to run off, chased by some angry policemen. The story is actually surprisingly touching, even if a bit cliched.

Overall, you have to take it for what it is. The acting may be bad and the story a bit hackneyed, but it is pretty entertaining. First Blood is the type of movie that would cause you to halt as you flip through the channels, forcing you to settle in and catch a half-hour of enjoyment on TNT.

Mini-review: A Tale of Two Sisters

Ah, A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon), how I love thee.  I watched it for the third time last night and have now seen it with six different people.  Everyone except for one has agreed that this movie lead_a_tale_of_two_sisters_0509091114_wideweb__375x500is absolutely terrifying; the day after Ben watched it, he tried looking up trivia on IMDB but got too scared and had to quickly close the browser window.

I love a good horror movie and A Tale of Two Sisters is definitely a good horror movie.  Here, I mean horror “oh crap oh crap” not horror “oh hey look some zombies”.  It is a Korean film about two young sisters staying at their family’s cabin and having to deal with their abusive and slightly deranged step-mom.  The movie follows the two along, leaving you unsure about what is happening in the house and why it is allowed to go on.

The movie has a lot going for it.  The cinematography is amazing – the colors are always perfect for the scene and the shot selection lets the audience know what is going on while heightening the tension.  The characters are creepy and none do anything dumb.  It gets tiring watching movies that keep the tension high by forcing the characters to run around like headless chickens and doing the dumbest things.  This movie is just plain scary and there is very little the characters could do to make their situations come out better.  Perhaps most importantly, the movie is subtle.  Not only do you catch a lot on the second and third viewings, you have to think a lot during the movie to figure out what is going on.  Intelligent horror movies are always much more satisfying.

The movie only has minor downsides.  Like any horror movie, it is never scary the second time.  Also, the acting is occasionally a little off.  But that is about it.  Perhaps the real downside is that there is an American remake entitled The Uninvited that will come out soon and it looks absolutely terrible.  It seems like everything that was great about it has been destroyed so that the studio can churn out another predictable thriller.  Boo on them.

Mini-review: Transsiberian

Finally, I watched a bad movie that I can review. And oh man, was it dissappointing! I had multiple people tell me how great Transsiberian was, how it was tense, and scary. I don’t know what they were thinking, though, because this movie is definitely neither of those.

transsiberian_lTranssiberian is a film about a nice, Christian couple who decide to take the Transsiberian Railway on their way home from China. Unfortunately, they get mixed up with a couple of randy backpackers who also happen to be smuggling drugs. Up until you discover the drugs, it is a pretty decent movie. The setting and characters are both fairly interesting, and we get to see some good cinematography of old Russia. Tense, however, it is not.

What is good about the movie? Um, the first half is okay. As I said, it is an interesting setting that is put to good use. Also, Woody Harrelson kind of steals the spotlight because he seems like such a great guy.  Oh, and the cinematography is decent.

Other than that, Transsiberian is really nothing special. I was left bored from one hackneyed device after another. From the beginning, you can glimpse where the movie is going to go wrong when you are introduced Woody Harrleson’s character. I don’t know if Hollywood scriptwriters actually think that hardcore Christians are really this dumb and naive, but he came across as the stereotypical ‘goody-two-shoes’ that a liberal audience would (supposedly) love to laugh at. This continues throughout the movie, with some stereotypical Russian cops, some stereotypical American agents (God Bless America!) and all that.

But more importantly, the movie isn’t suspenseful at all. That might be because it is fairly predictable. Maybe I have seen too many thrillers, but come on, do something original!  They never stray far from well-worn plot devices.  In the picture above, the main character is trying to throw away a bag full of drugs. But oh no! There’s someone near the garbage can!  Obviously can’t throw it away there.  Let’s throw it out the door of the fast moving train! Foiled at that!  Obviously we shouldn’t try, say, a window instead.  Let’s wander over here! Drat, not again! It felt like one of those farcical episodes of Friends where everything goes wrong because the  characters are acting dumb.

It also has the problem of a lot of thrillers/horror films where the character gets in trouble because they are just being an idiot. This happens a lot.  For instance, in The Grudge, we figured the ghost thing actually just had a grudge against thick people. At least that was scary; in Transsiberian, it just comes off as the scriptwriters being unable to think of an intelligent story.

Mini-review: The Wrestler

If you know me, you know I love me some Darren Aronofsky. So I was extremely excited to see that he had a new movie out, and that it looked like a return to Pi/Requiem form. Unlike the grandiose storybook of The Fountain, The Wrestler is an examination of the life of someone a little down on their luck.

darrenaronofskythewrestlerrr04The Wrestler in question, partially based on WWE champion Mick Foley, was once a star – he has action figures, is one of the characters in an old NES video game, and still has fans recognize him and ask for autographs. He hasn’t given up on dreams of getting back on top and spends weekends wrestling in the ‘independent’ circles. But here we also have the familiar tale of someone getting older and wondering what they had accomplished. What would they leave behind? And more importantly, who still cared about them? The wrestler, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, has estranged his daughter and the only real friend is the stripper who gives him lap dances.

It’s not all depressing. The kids in his neighborhood love to play around with him – when I was 8, that would have been a dream of mine, too – and the wrestlers he works with are still clearly in awe of him. But the desolation and emptiness in his life are evident. And it all rings true. Everything from the way he sloppily wraps his present, to the way he dresses, to his interactions with the minor characters just feels exactly right. And according to Mick Foley, it is.

What do I think was wrong about the movie? Not much, really. I quite like the cathartic endings of his previous movies, but anyone looking for the soul-killing finale of Requiem for a Dream won’t find it here. That’s a little dissappointing for a fanboy, but not at all detrimental to the movie. Some acting/scripting from a couple of the minor characters was a little awkward and their storylines a little rushed, but it didn’t really disrupt the flow of the movie.

In the end, the movie just felt so true it almost could have been a biography. An excellent, excellent film.  Also.

Milk: Mini-review

One thing that I have a problem with is remembering why I do or do not like particular things. When I am reading anything by Ian McEwan for instance, I could list fifty or sixty reasons why the book is terrible. A month later? I just remember that I don’t like it. Therefore, there will be mini-reviews of everything I see/hear/read/consume for my future reference.

milk2The first is of Milk. I watched it in Hillcrest last night, followed by a delicious dinner at Kitima Thai (one of my favorite restaurants in San Diego, along with Yakitori Yakyudori and The Linkery). The movie was very good.  I have seen a lot of good acting performances this year, and Sean Penn’s is definitely up there. The story is engrossing, and it got me angry all over again about the intolerance and bigotry behind Prop 8. It really is a shame that this movie did not come out earlier.

What didn’t I like? There were a few too many times when it was clear that this was a movie adaptation of someone’s life. It was pretty obvious when things that were days or months apart happened one after the other. That’s fine for a movie to do, but it shouldn’t be so obviously set up. My bigger complaint – and this is probably a personal preference rather than a valid aesthetic criticism – is that we didn’t see enough development of the characters in the movie. This is not really a movie about Harvey Milk & co., it is a movie about the gay rights campaign and movement in the 70’s. That’s fine, but it would have been nice to learn more about our characters. As it is, most characters are introduced with a short voiceover by Sean Penn and aren’t developed further. Even Milk is a little mysterious: his love affair in the second half of the movie is clearly destructive and unhappy, but we never see why they stay together. What we see is Milk as a political force first, as a person second.

But overall, I thought it was very good. Also, before the movie in the preview for Che , the ending quote is absolutely ridiculous:

Interviewer: How does it feel to be a symbol?

Che: A symbol of what?

Uh, good point. Very dramatic, Steven Soderbergh, very dramatic.