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Blogging ‘The Killing’ II – Episodes 3&4

November 27, 2011 1 comment

OK, I’m willing to call it – it’s not as good as season 1… but it’s still probably the best thing on TV. Spoilers (and some tough love) below the fold

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Categories: Culture, The Killing

Blogging ‘The Killing’ II – an introduction (spoiler-free), and episodes 1-2

November 19, 2011 32 comments

[All spoilers have been put below the fold]

The Killing (Forbrydelsen in the original Danish), my favourite current show on television, returned to the BBC for a second season of intrigue, complexity and the realistic pacing of criminal investigation that led it to be included as part of an entertainment movement of dubious acclaim – ‘The New Boring‘. Naturally, I completely disagree that The Killing is boring at all. On the contrary, it has a sweeping Dickensian quality to it that has quite rightly been compared to HBO’s The Wire (my favourite show ever) in terms of the rich depiction of its characters and the institutions in which they live and work. Of course, with a novel you can always turn to the next page, whereas with The Killing I have to wait a week for my next fix. I’m not sure how well I’m going to cope with this, as I got into Season 1 about three quarters of the way in to its broadcast on BBC4 and could therefore watch large numbers of episodes back-to-back on iPlayer…

Anyway, before I get into the spoilers and my thoughts on the beginnings of what I saw unfold, I want to talk a little bit about some aspects of the first season that made it stand out in its depiction of particular issues that are not often done nearly as well. For example, I am a huge Law & Order fan and especially of Special Victims Unit, which features an NYPD department tasked with solving and preventing crimes of a sexual nature. The show explores a number of themes on sexual violence, and I would say on this front it has been a net force for good in raising awareness of the issue. But it is constrained by its one-crime-per-episode format that doesn’t allow for much exploration of the victim’s background and relationships, as well as the effects of such crimes on them (if they survive) and their families and friends. The horror is often restricted to descriptions of the crime, which can limit the total impact of the violence by focusing our attention on just the act itself rather than what it may represent, or how its effects ripple through all those affected by it. Indeed, there is always the very real danger that you end up failing to straddle the fine line between the horrifying and the titillating; where the draw of the show becomes the very graphic depictions of the violence it seeks to condemn*.

The crime in season I of The Killing had a significant sexual element to it, and it was made all the more horrendous – and all the more real – by paying close attention to the anguish and turmoil it unleashed on the lives of those who knew and loved Nanna Birk Larsen. This is especially true given the lamentable real-life fact that the perpetrator of a crime like this is often a relative or friend, which ends up placing the grief-stricken under suspicion of the very monstrosity which has brought down their world. The Killing also filled out in detail the relationships and aspirations of Nanna, which takes her from being (for want of a much better term) an otherwise ‘generic’ young woman to a complete and compelling depiction of a person whose life project, in all its glorious complexity, was brutally and unforgivably interrupted.

Of course, I would be in serious remiss if I didn’t comment on the show’s centre of gravity: Detective Sarah Lund (played by the utterly mesmerizing Sofie Gråbøl). It says something of the sophistication of the show that while Lund is in many ways a ‘typical’ detective – devoted to the job, more competent than her peers and superiors, possessing an uncanny knack for detail, totally indifferent to how her line of inquiry may inconvenience those in authority, and someone who has difficulties balancing all the destructive elements of her personality which make her good at her job with her family and other commitments – the fact that she is a woman is simultaneously remarkable and unremarkable. Lund is remarkable for being in the mould of what is a much more traditionally ‘male’ character type, but the way the show is done makes her hypothetical existence totally unremarkable at the same time. It would have been all too easy for Lund to have come across as contrived (which SVU arguably stepped on the wrong side of by making Mariska Hargitay’s character a child from her mother’s rape). But luckily for us, what we instead have been offered is a realistic and powerful portrait by an exceptionally talented actress of a workaholic detective who just so happens to be a woman. I want to live in a world where Sarah Lund is remarkable for the right reasons, and I think The Killing is a positive depiction of a world where that is the case.

Now, this is the part where you go and watch season I if you haven’t seen it, watch season II episodes 1&2 on iPlayer if you have seen season I, and if you have done both those things – read on.

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*I think this is a serious issue in Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millenium Trilogy’, but that’s a topic for a whole other discussion

[SERIOUS SPOILERS FOR EPISODES 1 & 2 BELOW]

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Categories: Culture, The Killing

What do we owe a psychopath? A slightly philosophical review of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

October 29, 2011 7 comments
The most fundamental idea in this conception of justice is the idea of society as a fair system of social cooperation over time…John Rawls
The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals… –  Jeremy Bentham
Just as there are rational requirements on thought, there are rational requirements on action, and altruism is one of them. . . . If the requirements of ethics are rational requirements, it follows that the motive for submitting to them must be one which it would be contrary to reason to ignore. – Thomas Nagel

[Contains very slight spoilers]

If you’re into films which simultaneously enthral and perturb (guilty), then I strongly suggest you go and see ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. In another superb outing for Tilda Swinton, she portrays Eva, the tortured mother of burgeoning psychopath* Kevin (Ezra Miller) in her attempts to understand, control and love her son as he goes on to commit a horrifying crime. More so than his ultimate victims, it is really Eva who is the canvas upon which Kevin paints a sickening picture of desolation, destruction and utter emotional torment. Except for the sporadic moments where he needs her, one gets the impression that Kevin is completely and thoroughly calculating in his behaviour so as to maximise the anguish and agony he inflicts on his mother.

The film makes an incredibly arresting and invasive use of sound and colour, provoking a sense of unwanted intrusion into the audience’s mind in a way I don’t think I have ever experienced before in film. To give you the sense of what I’m talking about, there was actually a fire alarm in the cinema beeping every few minutes or so – and until they briefly paused the film in order to stop it, I genuinely believed that it was just another jarring element to a kind of intermittent cacophony of sound which characterises most of the film. The pause was actually somewhat of a welcome respite after 45 minutes of uncomfortable audio-visual obtrusion and some truly epic foreshadowing of an abominable conclusion.

It was not an easy film to watch, but I nonetheless found it extremely rewarding and thought provoking. Psychopaths are inherently fascinating, and have made a timeless subject for both ‘popular’ and highbrow entertainment. But I have a special and particular interest in psychopaths, which is namely how well various moral theories can cope with them. The three quotes I put up at the beginning are three examples that immediately spring to mind of positions in moral philosophy that do not sit well with the existence of psychopaths. In the case of Rawls and other ‘liberal’ political theorists, the vision of society as a fair system of co-operation does not at first glance have much of a place for those who couldn’t care less about co-operation and fairness (or indeed have any recognition of another human being as having moral worth or deserving of respect). If rights arise within the context of this idea of society, what do we owe a psychopath? Do we owe anything to those seemingly incapable of a moral existence? If an individual is considering the rules of society from behind a veil of ignorance, should she account for the possibility that she could be a psychopath? If psychopathy is genetic or in some way socially conditioned (i.e. it is not the psychopath’s ‘fault’), how should we apportion blame? These are, to my mind, extremely difficult questions for liberal theories, which seems to begin with an idea of the individual as essentially moral if actually imperfect.

Or what about utilitarianism? Is it good if a psychopath gets pleasure from killing, or from the delusion of grandeur that seems to accompany it (at least in the popular portrayals)? I think the psychopath provides an excellent example of pleasure that is not good. When Kevin finally commits his crime, it is just a plain misreading of the moral landscape to say ‘shame about all the killing. But hey, at least he got a kick out of it…’! If anything, the fact that he may have enjoyed it makes it even worse. Whilst the world is not generally lacking in devastating arguments against Benthamite utilitarianism, I do think the psychopath can be found amongst them.

And finally, what about the tradition of Moral Rationalism (most associated with Kant), which identifies immorality and amorality as a defect of reason? This isn’t a conclusive argument, but the fact that psychopaths are no less intelligent than non-psychopaths and the extremely interesting result that higher IQ is correlated with “the destructive potential” of a psychopath strikes me as pretty good prima facie evidence that there is nothing irrational about being immoral.

There is a not unreasonable feminist critique of philosophical ethics that it tends to focus on only a select few domains of ethical life, specifically those that tend to concern men or emphasise typically ‘male’ traits over typically ‘female’ ones (e.g. the surprising absence of explicit references to compassion in modern moral theorizing). But there is another not unreasonable critique of philosophical ethics that, whilst recognising some glorious exceptions, there is a general lack of thoughtful treatment of those who appear constitutionally incapable of moral experience. Psychopaths are hard cases. But we shouldn’t shy away from thinking about how they test the coherence of our moral edifices. I’m not at all sure how the moral universe can accommodate the existence of Kevin, and how we should treat him. But I’ll keep on thinking about it.
*I spent a reasonable amount of time toying with whether Kevin is most accurately described as a sociopath or a psychopath. I plumped for psychopath, on the basis it makes the blog title sound more interesting and that I am not above making editorial decisions on the basis of shameless self-promotion


Categories: Culture, Philosophy

Why Goldfinger’s plan wouldn’t have worked

September 10, 2011 3 comments

In Goldfinger, arguably my favourite Bond film and one of the few which is recognised as being a better film than book, the titular villain Auric Goldfinger has a plan to enrich himself by irradiating the gold held in Fort Knox, making it worthless an hence increasing the value of his own stock. So far, so plausible (at least, within the context a Bond film).

The logic seems pretty straightforward, reduce the supply of the commodity and it’s price will go up. However, Goldfinger would have found himself sorely disappointed at what actually would have happened. First, the gold held in Fort Knox and other large vaults such as the New York Federal Reserve and the Bank of England is likely not marginal gold being supplied in the market. As David Hume once observed (in a slightly different context but the point remains the same)

If the coin be locked up in chests, it is the same thing with regard to prices, as if it were annihilated

Now, you can make a case that since this was 1964 and the Bretton Woods currency system prevailed, which mandated dollar convertibility of gold (essentially, the US Federal Reserve would give you an ounce of gold for $35 if you so wished). So one could make the case that this would reduce the credibility of the government’s commitment to gold/dollar convertibility, and that this credibility was important to the value of the dollar, you would therefore increase the value of gold relative to the dollar (i.e. the price of gold increases). Even granting this assumption, when gold ‘changes hands’ that doesn’t mean that the gold actually has to go anywhere. Gold is by-and-large a fairly useless commodity, and the market for physical gold is very small. Much of the gold in Fort Knox, the NY Fed and the BoE isn’t owned by the US and UK governments, but by central banks all over the world. Since they aren’t going to be turning it into jewellery or anything, they are pretty indifferent to where it is kept. Just because gold gets sold overseas doesn’t mean that it actually has to go anywhere, it just nominally changes hands. If I was buying gold as an investment, I’d probably want it kept in one of those three vaults. So even if the US ended up being forced to sell gold after it was irradiated, it really wouldn’t be a problem if no living thing could go near it for 56 years. I mean, you can’t get safer than that!

To get the intuition about this, imagine that each share of Microsoft was a physical piece of paper stored in a filing cabinet in Fort Knox. Goldfinger irradiates the shares. Are they now worthless? Of course not, because your legal claim to ownership as a shareholder is irrelevant to your ability to physically hold the piece of paper. Microsoft would keep paying dividends as normal, the shares can be traded as normal, and everything would be as it was before. It’s exactly the same with gold – the value of gold doesn’t depend on your ability to actually access the physical bar itself*.

At this point, one might be inclined to ask… so, what exactly is the value of gold? We go to great efforts to get it out the ground, and then put back into the ground and guard it at great expense. It does give you any yield like a share or a bond. It doesn’t do anything but sit there and gather dust**. My own view is that the value of gold is minimal, and that what we are seeing is a six thousand year old bubble.

That doesn’t mean I’d be willing to short it, though. The market has remained irrational far longer than I’ll remain alive, let alone solvent.

* Once might argue that the ability to have access to the gold is important in the case of hyperinflation. However, in such a circumstance the government is probably pretty likely to nationalise all the gold. If you’re buying gold for the store of value in case of hyperinflation and financial crisis… congratulations, you’re a sucker.

**Probably not, actually. There’s probably some horrendously and needlessly expensive system for preventing the dust from accumulating. Sigh.

Categories: Culture, Economics

An ode to The West Wing and female characters in modern television

September 10, 2011 1 comment

(Warning, this contains serious spoilers through season 6 of The West Wing)

For longer than I would care to admit, I really wanted to be Josh Lyman, Bradley Whitford’s character in The West Wing (TWW). As a teenage boy who was into politics, Josh seemed to have everything – he was clever, very funny, and was constantly involved in romantic entanglements with smart, strong and gorgeous women*. Man, did I want to be him.

Cue the beginning of season 6. I would have been about 16 at the time, hence pretty much at the height of my Josh-worship. With Leo’s departure for health reasons, I finally thought that Josh would get his chance to shine by being promoted to Chief of Staff. And honestly, I was seriously pissed off when President Bartlett asks Leo for a list of names, and Leo gives him only one – CJ. But Josh was the Deputy Chief of Staff! He totally deserved it! He was my hero, and so I protested. In my head.

But looking back on it now, it makes complete sense. CJ Cregg is one of the best female character in the history of television, and Alison Janney was the only cast member to earn a well-deserved Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor/Actress. Josh was intellectually and strategically astute but also a hothead, whose quick and snarky wit which combined with a massively oversized ego often got him into trouble. CJ was, in my view, the most consummate professional amongst the senior staff and I absolutely loved how she would get in the face of people who technically outrank her. But where Janney really shines over her peers is in the emotional depth of her character, which rarely ventured into the melodrama that TWW too often lapsed into. That the circumstances of Simon Donovan’s murder made no sense whatsoever and the aftermath being set to the tune of ‘Hallelujah’ a.k.a. the most emotionally manipulative song in history (seriously, can we have a moratorium on its use in television?) didn’t bother me compared to what I had seen played out between him and CJ in the previous four episodes in such an utterly believable way.

But what prompted my re-assessment of the CJ narrative in TWW from my originally adolescent attitude? As well as simply growing up, I think it has a lot to do with the brilliance – nay, magnificence – of some of the female characters on television in recent years. For me, it began with The Sopranos and the superb performances of Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco and Jamie Lynn-Siegler. In particular, Falco has to be singled out for portraying not only the best female lead but as arguably the most complex and interesting character on a show whose cup positively overfloweth with them.

I could go on (January Jones, Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men, Felicia Pearson and Sonja Sohn in The Wire, Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife, Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica, Sofie Gråbøl in The Killing etc.), but the show that really opened up my eyes and made me pay attention is Game of Thrones.

I read the first books when I was about 14-15, and I thought they were incredibly cool. My teenage brain treated it as something like Lord of The Rings, but with less magic and more cussing and fucking. I think I got through about book three before this bored me, but I was still excited to hear HBO were doing an adaptation. What I hadn’t remembered was how the women of Westeros went toe-to-toe with the men on almost every conceivable personal and moral dimension, from bravery and chivalry to downright bloody monstrosity. The women are fascinating, and that fascination has very little to with the fact that they have an extra x-chromosome. Needless to say, this is a big step up for me compared to my teenage appreciation of television and literature.

One question that lingers in my mind is whether female characters written for TV have genuinely become increasingly multi-dimensional, or whether I’ve just grown up and can see what was already there. An inordinate amount of conversation about television that takes place amongst men of a certain age (i.e. about 12 and upwards) is about the attractiveness/sexiness/hotness of the women on the show. Frankly, it would be untruthful for me to claim this doesn’t still command a disproportionate amount of my viewing attention. But the women on these shows give you so much more to think about, and are responsible for some of the most gripping television I have ever seen.

I couldn’t really think of a way to finish this, so… here’s CJ doing ‘The Jackal‘. So long.

*Except Mandy, who was so irritating that she was axed at the end of season one without explanation

Categories: Culture