Thursday, January 23, 2003

The Bond Project: For Your Eyes Only. This is the perfect example of a film which takes itself seriously, yet hasn't lost its sense of humor. It takes itself seriously in the sense that it has strong characters, a compelling story, and a solid script. Clearly, plenty of effort went into to making this film into a quality product, which can't be said for too many entries in the franchise. That having been said, this movie still finds time to have a quick lagh at its own expense, such as the priceless chase sequence in Melina's car.

This is a very rare Bond movie in the sense that the audience doesn't know who the villain is until fairly late in the game. Even better, the audience meets the villain before it knows he's the villain. Of course, given the number of villainous roles Julian Glover has played, it wouldn't have been much of a surprise to anyone familiar with his work. Nevertheless, this simple plot-twist is devastatingly effective in a franchise which isn't known for misdirections of this sort. Think about it... even excepting the movie's that are named after the villain, think about how often the story telegraphs the identity of the heavy early in the first act. The previous film in the series is a perfect example. It's very rare that there's even more than one suspect.

Despie being such a simple plot-twist, the script milks it for all its worth, and it turns out to have a pretty good pay-off. The guy who is set up as the villain, Columbo, becomes a crucial ally for Bond, and gets a terrific scene where he gains Bond's confidence. Columbo's dialogue, not to mention a strong portrayal by Topol, makes him easily one of the most effective supporting characters in the history of the series. Sadly, the same can't be said for Melina Havelock, Bond's leading lady. She's stunningly beautiful, and the script gives her a marvellous motivation and a memorable modus operandi, but the performance is flat, which undermines the character tremendously. Far more memorable is Bibi, the young and not-so-innocent figure skater who throws herself at Bond, only to be rejected. That's a nice touch, actually. It's nice to see that Bond will draw the line somewhere. But Bibi is a thoroughly annoying character who doesn't really serve any necessary plot function. Her presence also undermines the story a bit, as it seems unlikely that a character like Kristatos would be so concerned about sponsoring an Olympic figure-skater. In that sense, it's reminiscent of Blofeld's bizarre interest in heraldry from On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

This film also uses the character of Gogol very nicely. The brief but memorable exchange between Gogol and Bond at the end, outside Kristatos's hide-out, is a marvellous moment, and a good reminder that the Soviets still are the bad guys, even if the Bond series rarely uses them as such. The fact that we've already seen Gogol as a sympathetic character in previous films makes his minor involvement in this entry that much more interesting. You know, I actually miss the Commie bastard.

Of course, what is a Bond movie without spectacular stunts and action sequences? There's plenty of those. The "dragging over coral in shark-infested waters" sequence is pretty cool, I must admit, although it doesn't seem to fit the style and tenor of this particular movie. I know it was taken from the novel Live and Let Die, but that's not what I mean. This movie presents a much more realistic Bond. Sure, he's damn near superhuman in his talents, but everything happening here is basically grounded in reality. The shark sequence, on the other hand, seems a little overcomplicated. To be fair, this is a quibble, and it's still a fun scene. [Though, one wonders why the sharks are immediately drawn to the nameless henchmen rather than the bleeding heroes.]

The bottom line: Easily the best Moore-film yet, and the perfect palate-cleanser after the sci-fi camp of Moonraker. The Bond Project will continue with Octopussy.

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

The Abortion Debate: Thirty Years After Roe v. Wade. Before I hit on some of the deeper issues involved in the abortion debate, I want to vent about a couple of pet-peeves. Number one: abortion is not murder. Anyone who tells you otherwise is mistaken. It is not a matter of opinion. "Murder" is a legal term, with a legal definition. Under the laws of this country, abortion is no more murder than speeding. Of course, what people mean when they say "Abortion is murder" is that abortion is, morally speaking, functionally equivalent to murder. As rhetoric, it has a bit less punch, doesn't it? That interpretation of the "Abortion is murder" assertion is amenable to debate and discussion. There are arguments for and against the position which can be legitimately and honestly argued. But that doesn't change the simple fact that, as a matter of law, abortion is not murder.

Another pet peeve of mine is pro-life supporters who insist on calling pro-choicers by any name other than "pro-choice". "Pro-death" is my personal favorite, which was used by a fellow student in my Torts class last semester. I'd be willing to bet big money that this particular student supports both the death penalty and war in Iraq, while your humble blogger, who fits this student's definition of "pro-death", supports neither. Another common one is "pro-abortion". These little word games are petty and small. Grow the fuck up. If I wanted, I could refer to pro-lifers as anti-choice, or anti-privacy, or anti-woman, or pro-female-slavery. All of those labels are at least as applicable as pro-death or pro-abortion. Let's just all agree that these stupid word games serve no honest purpose, and mutually agree that my position will be called "pro-choice" and the opposing position will be called "pro-life". Everybody happy? Good.

To me, the abortion issue is so simple that it boggles my mind that we're still stuck in this hideously tedious debate. Oh, I know that the issue is complcated on a personal level, on a moral level, and on a religious level. But on a legal/political level, it's so simple. Who chooses, government or pregnant woman? That's the only issue. Most pro-choicers agree with pro-lifers that abortion is an awful, awful thing which should be limited, ideally, to cases of rape, incest, and medical emergency. Pro-choicers, however, understand that it is a complicated moral issue with no easy answers, and that a woman should be allowed to choose for herself, on the advice of her physician, how to handle her own body.

Let me diverge fr a moment. When I was in high school, I was swayed, for a time, by the facile philosophizing of Ayn Rand. Not my proudest moment, I don't mind telling you. I later studied hilosophy in college, and realized how primitive and naive her philosphy was. But, one of her observations has stuck with me ever since. She once wrote that rights, by definition, cannot be in conflict with one another. She used this point to support her view that no one has a right to medical care. You see, if someone has a right to medical care, that means that someone else (i.e., a doctor) has an obligation to provide it for her. Obligations, in the legal sense, are the exact opposite of rights. Ayn Rand argued that the doctor, as a human being, obviously has a right to life and liberty and yadda yadda yadda. A legal obligation to provide all and sundry with health-care, irrespective of whether they can pay for it, is a flagrant limitation of his rights. Therefore, there is no right to medical care, as it would entail the curtailment of another previously recognized right.

The same argument works for abortion. Pro-lifers talk about how fetuses have the same right to life as everyone else. But, by the above argument, they can't have. Granting a fetus the right to its own life necessarily deprives the mother of her right to hers. This is the inherent conflict at the heart of the legal debate. It is impossible to grant fetuses rights without stripping those rights from women. It is unconstitutional to strip women of these rights. Therefore, fetuses do not, and cannot, have the kinds of rights pro-lifers want to grant them.

So, we now have two perfectly simple planks from which to argue that the government should stay out of abortions entirely. One, it's too personal a decision to leave to the government. Two, it's impossible to grant rights to fetuses without taking them from women. But pro-lifers are not swayed by these arguments. Well, that's not really surprising. The biggest problem pro-choicers have to face up to is that the opposition is buoyed by religious fervor, and when in the history of mankind has calm, intelligent, logical reasoning done a damn bit of good in the face of religious fervor? [Hint: never.] I'd love to read an argument for the pro-life position from a non-religious person (and such an argument is possible), but I'm not betting on any takers, especially with my low traffic.

The thing that pro-choicers always have to keep in mind is that, regardless of all of these legal/political/religious debates, an abortion comes down to something very simple and very powerful: killing a defenseless creature which otherwise would one day be a beautiful child. This is precisely why I have no debate with those people who believe that abortion is, morally speaking, functionally equivalent to murder, as long as they agree to keep their personal value judgements out of the public sphere. This is the argument I've often had with my good friend Rob, whose intellectual brilliance is only matched by his utter inability to formulate or refute a logical argument. [It goes to show that studying English literature for long enough will turn even the sharpest mind into pudding.] Rob grew up Catholic, although his attitudes and lifestyle don't suggest to me that he is particularly religious (like most American Catholics I've known). Rob is stringently and vociferously pro-life. I find it hard to disagree with most of what he says, except when he tries to apply his moral code to everyone else in the country.

Just to prove that I have the courage of my convictions, I want to say this. When my mother was pregnant with me, there were complications. I had a twin, who died in the womb. The doctors were very concerned that carrying me to term might have endangered my mother, and that I would probably have been born developmentally disabled, if I survived at all. The doctors urged her to have an abortion, to protect her own health. She refused. I was in pretty bad shape when I was born. I had to stay at the hosptial for a while, I was jaundiced, and I needed surgery when I was still an infant. But otherwise, I turned out fine. My mother turned out fine. Se has never regretted for one moment the decision she made, and of course, I owe my life to her bravery and determination. That having been said, if I had been there when she was pregnant, out of concern for her safety, I would have strenuously advised an abortion. I don't what that adds to the discussion, exactly, but I wanted to share that story.

And one other story... a while ago now a dear friend of mine became pregnant. When I heard about this, I was thrown for a loop. I thought long and hard about what I would say to her if she asked my advice, and how I might feel about it if I had been the father. [There was... um... no chance of that.... trust me.] She decided on her own to carry the baby to term, but sadly miscarried. But, before she told me of her decision, I resolved that if she asked, I would advise abortion. Her boyfriend was a lunatic. They had very little money. Neither of them were in an emotional or financial position to care for a baby. In a situation like that, I don't see how bringing the fetus to term can be considered a good thing for the child. I know a lot of people argue that to believe alive, whatever the circumstances, is in all cases preferable to not being a live. I don't agree. I am in the strict minority of people who believe that, in particular cases, a decision to have an abortion can be made on the basis of the interests of the fetus.

So, that's where I'm coming from. I certainly hope that Roe v. Wade will never be overturned, but I expect that it will. The decision has survived thirty years of a concentrated Republican onslaught. Democrats have been in the White House for only twelve of those thirty years. The Republicans have stacked the Supreme Court with anti-abortion zealots, and Bush will probably have the opportunity to appoint at least one Justice before he has to face a re-election challenge. Can Roe v. Wade survive another Scalia or Thomas? I doubt it very much. Will Bush appoint anyone who isn't another Scalia or Thomas? No chance in hell.

UPDATE: Be sure to take a look at this article, by Columbia Law Professor Michael Dorf, on the current legal standing of Roe v. Wade. Dorf examines several crappy Constitutional arguments pro-lifers employ against the ruling, and also a couple of pretty good ones. It's interesting reading, and a good example of a fair and balanced approach to a tendentious issue put forth by someone with an avowed opinion.
New to Terminus. Check out the new headlines from The main purpose of these headlines is two-fold. One, to annoy the crap out of Tucker. I mean, if he thinks the New York Times is socialist, I don't know what he'll make of BuzzFlash. Second, to ensure that there is always at least some new content to look at every time you show up. Third (three purposes!), it makes it that much easier for me to keep up to date with what's going on in te world, by putting these headlines right on my own home page. Oh joy!

Anyway, thanks to BuzzFlash for this wonderful service. I'll be back soon with more original content. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and I definitely want to say a few things about that. See you soon.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

The Bond Project: Moonraker. After a very shaky start, the Moore-era was finally beginning to hit its stride. After the satisfyingly entertaining The Spy Who Loved Me, one could forgive an optimistic Bond fan for thinking that perhaps Roger Moore would finally be able to rescue the franchise from the depths of idiocy to which Sean Connery allowed it to fall. Unfortunately, 1977's Moonraker put this optimism to bed, at least for a time.

This film is the first Moore entry which is less good than its immediate predecessor. This wouldn't be so bad (any franchise as venerable as Bond is bound to have its up and downs). What really hurts, though, is the extent to which Moonraker drops off. It's truly horrible. If not for the better pacing, it would be easily as bad as Moore's first outing, the unforgettably feeble Live and Let Die. [By the way, I still think the production team should be forced to give an address before the full United Nations apologizing for that terrible, terrible film.]

The story of this film was stolen from The Spy Who Loved Me, even as that film had been stolen from You Only Live Twice. This means that director Lewis Gilbert was able to squeeze three films out of two ideas. The first idea: that someone is stealing spaceships/submarines from the Americans and the Russians in an attempt to provoke a war. This idea is at the core of the first two films in the trilogy. The second idea: that someone wishes to destory human civilization and start again underwater/in space. This idea is forms the ultimate motivation of the villains in the last two films. Everything else is wither padding or gloss. While "Spy" was glossy indeed (what it lacked in depth it made up for in sheer entertainment), this film just looks tired and dull. A big part of the problem is the villain, Hugo Drax. Like Stromberg, Drax is played by an accomplished European actor as an eccentric, wealthy man who seeks to impose his strange ideology on the Earth, by force. Despite some lovely bits of dialogue, however, Michael Lonsdale manages to portray Drax with an utter lack of charisma. This is a fatal error in a Bond film.

But its clear that no one involved in the making of the film was overly concerned by minor details like character. Bond's leading lady in this outing is Dr. Holly Goodhead, a CIA agent/astronaut with all of the modern, pro-feminist sensibilities of a Honey Rider. Again, the fact that the people behind the camera thought that Goodhead represented a new post-women's-lib Bond girl merely demonstrates just how backward, sexist, and mysogynistic the franchise was. Again, it doesn't help that the character is played not only without wit, intelligence, or competence, but also without charm, grace, or humor.

The cheesiness of the franchise is also back in full force. Jaws is back, and his function in the plot serves mainly two purposes. One, he can be relied upon to show up every ten to twenty minutes to provide an "exciting" action set-piece. Two, he provides some much needed comic relief when he falls suddenly in love with a plain-looking, bespectacled young woman who is never named. It would have been comic relief, anyway, had it been remotely funny. As it stands, it's simply awful. Jaws does play a vital and memorable part in the final act, as he suddenly turns on Drax at a key moment, right before the U.S. Marine Corps Space Battalion arrives to laser-beam the living fuck out of Drax and his henchmen.

I realize that the general public were less savvy about outer space in 1977, but today it would take only an observant and precocious nine-year-old to spot the many scientific inaccuracies of the story. The actors seem to be laboring under the misconception that, in zero gravity, all movements must be performed very slowly. While I concede that walking on the moon is a very slow and tedious process, I see no reason why the effort to flip a switch on a console should be in anyway impacted by the lack of gravity if you are fastened securely to your chair in front of it. What little comedy to be found in this mess is confined to the production team's hilarious ignorance of the practical mechanics of space.

The one bright spot in an othrwise totally dire film is the literally "smashing" fight scene at the glass works. Give the figh choreographers a chance to indiscrimiately break fragile objects, and they will take to their task with exuberance. Other than this one scene, the entire movie is a complete waste of time, effort, money, and film stock. It was also the most financially successful Bond movie ever, until 1995's GoldenEye, so what the hell do I know.

The Bottom Line: it never should have been made. It was, but at least we don't have to watch it. The Bond Project will continue with For Your Eyes Only.
A Few Thoughts on Affirmative Action. Trust me, I know all the arguments. Opponents of affirmative action (and by that I mean race-based preferencing in a host of areas, most notably, college and graduate school admissions) claim that it is impossible to have a color-blind society if racial preferences are written into the law. They have a pretty good point. They say that if the goal is a society which judges people by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin (to paraphrase Dr. King), affirmative action is a problem, not a solution. Again, they have a point. But I remain unpersuaded. I'd like to lay out a few of the reasons why. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm restricting myself to racial preferences in college and graduate school admissions.

First, let's start with some facts. Ward Connerly, who pushed successfully for the passage of Proposition 209 in California, which eliminated racial preferences in admissions, admitted on some talking head program or another last week that the short term effect of that law was a precipitous drop in the enrollment of minority students all over the state. It's not much of a stretch to suppose that the end of affirmative action nation-wide would produce a similar drop all across the country. Opponents of affirmative action don't claim that this is a positive result, but they do claim it's fair. If minority students, for whatever reason, can't get into college, we need to find out why and do something to help.

Well, it's not hard to find a few reasons why. One reason is quality of public education. Minorities live disproportionately in low income, urban areas. Public schools in those areas are severely underfunded. These schools are also overcrowded. If you did the research to find out how much money is spent per student, you would see anything but racial equality. This has no direct link to racism. It's not as though evil Senators are meting in dark basements all over Washington saying "Let's stick it to the black kids!" But, as it happens, inner-city school have less money per student than suburban school, and which races are more likely to be found in which schools. The fact is, on average, a white student has more public money invested in his education than a black student. As a result, black students tend to receive, through no fault of their own, an inferior public education than white students. Where is the fairness in that?

Why are black students more likely to attend underfunded, overcrowded urban schools? It's all about economics. Or, more to the point, poverty. You can't just live anywhere you want. You must be able to afford housing in that area. And, in my former hometown of Stratford, you have to deal with thinly concealed racism. [Our neighbors across the street were terrified when a black family came to see our house.] And it's not just a question of how much money gets spent on pulic education in a given area. Look at the environment that many inner-city youth have to deal with. It's really easy for some white kid from Stratford to crow and beat his chest for getting a good SAT score, but he didn't have to deal with gangs, pushers, prostitutes, and all of the other things that make urban schools so problematic. Maybe he had to get a job to buy video games or hang out the mall, but he probably didn't have to get a job to help his single mother pay rent, or to pay for his uninsured little brother's emergency medical expenses.

Speaking of the SATs, they're not eactly fair either. Studies have shown that the SATs have a small but detectable bias toward white, middle-class, male students. It's not entirely clear why this is the case, but it is. From that fact alone, basing college entrance on standarized test scores alone is inherently prejudicial. Besides, most colleges shudder at the thought of admitting only the best scores. I used to work for the Rutgers College General Honors Program in New Brunswick. I was working there through a period of intense transition in our admissions policies. We began by having an essay-based admissions policy (which is how I got into the program, as my SATs weren't stellar). As the program grew in size, along with the size of the college, this mechanism became administratively unworkable. Gradually, SATs became more and more important, until the essay was eliminated altogether. From an administrative point of view, it was the only good option, but none of us were happy with it. We saw a difference in the incoming class, also. The "old" Honors Program was focused on finding students who were not only intelligent, but who were active academically, were engaged in learning, and who were enthusiastic about ideas. The "new" Honors Program began admitting more and more people who were demons at math, but couldn't think their way out of a paper bag. The point of all of this is that it isn't easy to identify which are "good" students, and SATs are only one (and a very limited) indicator.

The ultimate reason why I support affirmative action is because a university has a vital interest in ensuring a diverse student body. My undergraduate experience was so much more valuable than it could have been because I was surrounded by thousands of people with diverse backgrounds, diverse ideas, and diverse perspectives. Law School, by comparison, is a disappointment. I learned more outside of class than I did inside class at undergrad, because my friends were so different from me. I can't think of a single Jewish classmate from high school, but in college, I had the opportunity to learn about the different sects of Judaism, about how they approach the world through their faith. My roommates freshmen year were a black Baptist from New Brunswick, and a white Jewish rich kid from Staten Island. I was a white suburban atheist from South Jersey. It was a great mix, and we all learned a lot from each other and benefitted from the experience. The major diversity at Law School concerns which is your favorite football team.

The last point I want to make about affirmative action is about how its opponents approach the issue. Watch the news. Everytime a conservative, from Bush down to Bob Novak, talks about the issue, he talks about quotas. Keith, in his comment to my last post, attacks a form of affirmative action which has been unconstitutional since before he was born. Whenever you hear a conservative on television talking about quotas, he is lying. Everyone who knows anything about this issue knows that quotas are not being practiced anywhere. The Unviersity of Michigan, which is in the middle of the current Supreme Court battle (which will probably be decided, one way or the other, by a 5-4 decision), does not have a quota system. They are not trying to recruit a particular number of minority students. Rather, their admissions policy gives some weight to race, as well as to grade point average, class rank, SATs, and other elements which they consider important. This is precisely the form of affirmative action that the Supreme Court upheld in 1977, in the very same case in which it declared quotas unconstitutional.

Affirmative action is a remedy for a current problem. It isn't merely a problem of racism, but it's a broader structural problem that cuts to the core of our society. Whites have advantages that most minorities do not have. The result of those advantages can be seen everywhere you look. African Americans make up 12% of the US population, but there are none in the US Senate. How many black players are in the NBA? Black coaches? Black owners? How many black CEOs are there? [I had the privilege of working for one before I came to law school.] These problems cannot and will not be fixed overnight. But the first step, and a necessary step, is ensuring that all people have the opportunity to get a quality education. Tearing down affirmative action will make this problem worse, not better. On the other hand, continuing affirmative action isn't enough. We need to find a way to address the deeper issues involved. The issues of poverty, crime, family, and health care, to name a few. Affirmative action was meant to be a temporary measure to get minority students into college in the short term, while the broader society went about addressing the root causes that would otherwise keep minority enrollment so low. We haven't addressed those causes, and until we do, affirmative action is necessary to further our goal of creating a society of equal opportunity for all people.