Nation of Beancounters

*The Interview* is a better movie than it looks

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on December 30, 2014

Major Spoilers – heck, I’m assuming you’ve seen the movies, because everyone and their dog has.

Sue me, I’m a sucker for movies that subvert mook tropes.

Also called “baddies”, “goons,” “scrubs,” “drones,” “small fry,” “flunkies,” “pawns,” “toadies,” “grunts,” “minions,” “lackeys,” “underlings,” “henchpersons,” and “cannon fodder”.

… mooks serve as Filler and a backdrop to the truly climactic moments of an action franchise while also ensuring that in-between things are kept lively.

… In addition to accentuating the real villains, mooks also help establish the heroes, especially their combat skills, as their lack of Nominal Importance allows them to be beaten, mauled, shot or otherwise disposed of in creative ways without guilt.

(Not to be confused with the racial slur against Italians.)

My favorite mook is the guy who bites off Rapoport’s hand. He realizes that there’s something wrong with the interview, overrides orders from his superiors, resists two armed opponents, gets up when he’s knocked down, nearly defeats two armed opponents, and dies in the the line of duty. And he’s a technician.

Another great mook: the guy who, as soon as the great leader pulls a gun on Skylark, stubs out his cigarette, grabs his weapon, and starts gunning down fellow soldiers to save Skylar and Rapoport. As far as he knows, he’s going to face down the entire North Korean army to defend two foreigners and a puppy. Baller.

And finally, there’s the guy who has to push the button that launches the nuclear bombs. You can read the conflict off his face – push the button and start a nuclear war; don’t push the button and get shipped off to a labour camp with his family. For a moment I imagined myself in his place – could I pretend that I pushed the button but something went wrong? Should I pry open the back of panel and break something to back my story?

What was the last movie to put you in the head of an unnamed goon with 30 seconds of screentime?

The Interview assigns agency to a lot of people who typically don’t have it. Top of the list: Sook. In pretty much every action/spy movie ever made, the villain’s Sexy Female Minion No.1 exists solely to be seduced by our hero and turned away from the dark side. Five minutes after the climax, Rapoport realizes that he’s the one who’s been seduced by Sook, and turned away from the original CIA plot to one of her choosing. The revelation also subverts stories about white men swooping in and saving the natives who, obviously, can’t solve their own problems.

(Whenever I wonder why Seth Rogen wants to alienate the Academy, I remind myself that this is the organisation that gave an Oscar to Avatar. Who cares what they think?)

Speaking of the natives, did you notice how the North Koreans are all insanely competent? Ko homes in on the poison, eats it, and is rightly suspicious of questions regarding his health. The palace guards catch Rogen as he wanders the grounds and strip him naked, just failing to find the payload. When the titular interview goes starts going sideways for Kim Jong-Un – who has presumably never answered a question in his life – he skillfully turns it against Skylark: “Maybe what you should be asking is – how have I been able to my country so well-nourished despite the harsh and unjust economic sanctions imposed by the United States? Don’t you know that the US has more incarcerated people per capita than North Korea?”

These subversions are all the more impressive when you compare the way North Koreans are portrayed in the film to the way they’re viewed by much of the world. Kim Jong-Un isn’t a batshit crazy man-child with delusions of grandeur. He’s an adroit media manipulator with a talent for making people love him. The North Korean people aren’t mindless conformists who blindly worship Kim Jong-Un – they’re human beings capable of duty, ambivalence, defiance, and cunning. Most satires operate by turning real, complex people into caricatures. The Interview turns caricatures into real, complex people.

And makes a lot of jokes about assholes.

From Eminem revealing that he’s gay and that “Hector and his rectum are real”, to Skylark wondering if Kim Jong-Un has a butthole (being a God and all), to Rapoport shoving a missile up his ass, to my favorite mook being skewered by a joy stick, to Kim Jong-Un shooting a mouthy soldier a new one – this movie is obsessed with assholes.

This mixture of profundity and vulgarity is common is movies by Rogen et al. Neighbors looked at the transition from youth to adulthood, and captured the frustration of those who have made it as well as the fears of those who are about to. It also made a lot of dick jokes. This Is The End was a fable about sin and atonement – with rape jokes.

There’s something attractive about their defiant crudeness, which feels like some sort of filter. To ask them “was it necessary to use the word cunt?” is to elicit a “yes, to scare away people like you.” They’ll keep making their kind of movies and if you can’t see the how clever, unusual, and funny they are because you were distracted by the cussing, too bad.

Alas, while The Interview is sometimes clever and unusual, it is hardly ever funny. There are some good moments (“Some pictures just came out where it looks like McConaughey is fucking a goat!” “Get the goat! I got some questions for that goat.”) but most jokes fall flat. People don’t look down on fart jokes because they’re vulgar, but because they’re easy. In real life, especially if you’re young, any reference to sex or body fluids will get a chuckle. We expect slightly more from slowly written works of fiction. When you’ve got months to write and re-write a script, there’s nothing impressive about using orifices as a punch line. Surprise is the essence of humor, and no-one is surprised when this particular team cracks a joke about being “fucked by RoboCop.”

Ultimately, The Interview isn’t a good movie. But it deserves more credit than it’s getting for resisting a great many bad Hollywood habits. Perhaps it’s a package deal – you have to be the kind of person who defies good Hollywood aesthetics to be capable of defying bad Hollywood narratives.

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Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on November 13, 2014

Major Spoilers

I enjoyed the time dilation, which fits comfortably in both hardcore SFF (e.g. Speaker for the Dead) and Nolan’s own oeuvre e.g. Inception. The robots, spacescapes and alien landscapes are highly original and  constitute the best parts of the film. On the other hand, the pacing is unusually bad, too slow at some points and too fast at others. Cutting out the in-universe injunction against space travel and the faff about love connecting people across dimensions would greatly improve the film.

It’s an uneven film, but it will age well. It reminds me of Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey, both of which are significantly more difficult than Interstellar but are now part of science fiction canon. It had one of the most interesting paradoxes I’ve seen in recent science fiction – you need data from within a black hole to understand how to manipulate gravity but you need to manipulate gravity to get data from within a black hole. The resolution of this paradox by beings who cannot directly communicate with humanity is at the core of the plot.

The story is not difficult to follow. However, the core paradox is revealed late and its significance is never highlighted, so it’s not immediately obvious how disparate things tie-in with each other. This makes the plot difficult to follow, and makes Interstellar uncharacteristically disconcerting for a Nolan film. I see a lot of people reacting to this by looking for non-existent plot holes.

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Megan McArdle on calling people stupid

Posted in On Discourse by Navin Kumar on August 13, 2014

I’m just going to excerpt the whole thing:

Most people get mad when you say they’re stupid, and when they’re mad, they’re not listening. Neither is anyone else who likes the person you just said was stupid. So congratulations: In one fell swoop, you have guaranteed that no one who disagrees with you will hear a word that you are saying.

Ultimately, calling people stupid is simply a performance for the fellow travelers in your audience. It’s a way that we can all come together and agree that we don’t have to engage with some argument, because the person making it is a bovine lackwit without the basic intellectual equipment to come in out of the rain. So the first message it sends — “don’t listen to opposing arguments” — is a stupid message that is hardly going to make anyone smarter.

The second message it sends is even worse: “If he’s stupid, then we, who disagree with him, are the opposite of stupid, and can rest steady in the assurance of our cognitive superiority.” Feeding your own arrogance is an expansive, satisfying feeling. It is also the feeling of you getting stupider.

I’m always fascinated by the number of people who proudly build columns, tweets, blog posts or Facebook posts around the same core statement: “I don’t understand how anyone could (oppose legal abortion/support a carbon tax/sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israelis/want to privatize Social Security/insert your pet issue here).” It’s such an interesting statement, because it has three layers of meaning.

The first layer is the literal meaning of the words: I lack the knowledge and understanding to figure this out. But the second, intended meaning is the opposite: I am such a superior moral being that I cannot even imagine the cognitive errors or moral turpitude that could lead someone to such obviously wrong conclusions. And yet, the third, true meaning is actually more like the first: I lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills to attempt even a basic understanding of the people who disagree with me.

In short, “I’m stupid.” Something that few people would ever post so starkly on their Facebook feeds.


Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on August 3, 2014

It’s true – the new rape law removes the presumption of innocence

Posted in Gender by Navin Kumar on July 29, 2014

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 inserted Section 114A into the Evidence Act of 1872. It states

In a prosecution for rape … where sexual intercourse by the accused is proved and the question is whether it was without the consent of the woman alleged to have been raped and such woman states in her evidence before the court, that she did not consent, the court shall presume that she did not consent.

In other words, in a he-said-she-said scenario, courts are required to presume the man* guilty, unless he can prove otherwise.

*Only men can be accused under the new law, because enlightened activists decided that female-on-male and female-on-female rape don’t exist.

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Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on July 14, 2014

*Slate Star Codex*

Posted in Vapor Mill by Navin Kumar on July 9, 2014

Slate Star Codex is an excellent blog that I just finished binge reading. Here are some of my favorite posts:

1. Right is the new left.

2. Weak men are superweapons.

3. “When you’re being out-tolerated by the frickin’ Catholics, you need to reconsider some of your life choices.” Scott Alexander’s OKCupid protest account.

4. Friendship is counter-signaling.

5. “I am triggered by social justice.

6. The political spectrum quiz. I scored 6.

7. Social psychology is a flame-thrower.

8. 3% of men will be falsely accused of rape.

9. Biological explanations for historical trends in crime.

10. A review of creepy sleep disorders.

11. Polyamory is boring.

12. On rape culture.

13. An explanation of Reaction, and the rebuttal.

14. Highlights from a forensic psychiatry conference.

15. Alexander is against bravery debates. He later realizes that all debates are bravery debates.

16. Social justice and words, words, words.

17. Arguments about male violence prove too much.

18. Proving too much.

19. Why polls fail, or noisy poll results and reptilian Muslim climatologists from Mars.

20. My objections to “objectification.” I’ve written something similar.

21. Not just a political issue. A thorny question.

22. “I propose that the best way for leftists to get themselves in a rightist frame of mind is to imagine there is a zombie apocalypse tomorrow.” Link.


Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on July 7, 2014

1. Megan McArdle speculate brilliantly on what factors are responsible for shitty personal finance. Universal, and a must read.

2. “Love is not enough.

3. In what ways are firms inefficient?

4. Eugene Volokh wins the cultural appropriation debate. Extended analysis here.

5. Why poor people buy status symbols. Speculative but interesting.

Politics isn’t about policy, it’s about respect

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on July 1, 2014

Megan McArdle explains it brilliantly:

When very different groups are trying to live together in one big country (or one big city), you inevitably end up with sharply clashing desires, harshly discordant visions of what constitutes the good life and the public weal. Compromise should be sought where compromise is possible, but sometimes it isn’t; sometimes, the law has to choose one side or another. For the side that loses, this is not just perceived as a loss, but also as a demotion, a relegation to outsider status: The government cares about them, and not me.

More here. It’s US centric, but still one of the most insightful posts I read this year. Needless to say, this facet of democracy is not a happy one.

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Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on June 29, 2014