Based On a True Story: Mike Daisey

I agree 99% with the popular consensus regarding Mike Daisey: he lied. But the tiny 1% nobody seems to be talking about is bothering the hell out of me: if his now infamous monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a work of fiction, why can’t we talk about it as a work of fiction?

Until recently, Daisey was forging a reputation as a popular monologist in the tradition of the late Spalding Gray: fusing the mechanics of autobiography, journalism, and theater to tell stories with the power to move individuals and sway popular opinion. That is, he was, before his enormously popular show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was dramatically revealed to be largely comprised of half-truths and fabrications. Daisey initially required theaters to advertise it as “a work of non-fiction”. When he began to feel the heat, he initially claimed he had merely taken dramatic license, but finally issued an actual apology.

The imbroglio has been Tweeted, blogged, podcasted, and analyzed to death over the past two weeks, but here are the key incidents: Daisey’s original stage monologue (with a free transcript on his website), an episode of the venerable radio program This American Life featuring a version of it, followed by their astonishingly gripping retraction. My favorite analyses of the ensuing fallout came from Daring Fireball (Separating the Baby From the Bath Water) and Derek Powazek (How to Spot a Liar).

The general consensus among the cognoscenti, digerati and NPR set alike, is that Daisey made a fatal error in presenting his piece as journalistic report. I agree. But most of these analysts go on to express horror and outrage that Daisey’s show goes on. The monologue inspired a popular petition on Change.org (now there’s a petition against the petition). Theaters are not canceling Daisey’s future shows and are refusing refunds for past showings. Gruber, in an episode of his podcast The Talk Show, attributes this to the theater business running on a tight margin, as if it were simply a matter of economics. Interestingly, The Understatement reports that many theaters are also daring to defend the “essential truth” of Daisey’s work.

Mike DaiseyMike Daisey went to great lengths to preserve the fiction that “The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs” was nonfiction (photo credit: mikedaisey.blogspot.com)

Which brings me to the tiny sliver of this whole story that I believe needs to be addressed: there is a massive disconnect between journalists and, for lack of a single term, artists/writers/performers/monologists/etc. So Mike Daisey largely lied about what he saw in China; so what? Should his admittedly powerful monologue be wiped from the record? Can we not talk about it as a work of literature? Here is the point where, perhaps, the English majors of the world ought to take over from the journalists.

Ira Glass states in the This American Life retraction that Daisey’s use of the literary device of speaking in the first person triggered his brain to register it as truth. Other outraged journalists seem to not want to even entertain the idea that Daisey’s work might be an effective work of fiction on its own terms. Daisey was free to present his first-person account as truth (or as Stephen Colbert might term it, “truthy”) within the context of his play itself, but he erred by also doing so on This American Life, Real Time With Bill Maher, CBS News, and other news venues. He deceived accredited journalists with hard-earned reputations in order to preserve the fiction that his piece was nonfiction.

But what if he hadn’t? What if he had, from the beginning, pitched The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as what it actually is: a fictionalized dramatic account, told in the first person but, to use a familiar phrase, based on a true story. Most of what Daisey claims he personally witnessed are actual ongoing events at Foxconn and other factories in China. Workers’ conditions are harsh and unjust, not only to western sensibilities, but also in violation of Chinese regulations. Many commenters have mused on how Apple Inc. may have been harmed by Daisey, both financially and in terms of reputation. It most likely has to some measurable degree, but no matter how much I may personally use and like many of their products, I don’t believe Apple is any more possessed of sensitive feelings than any other multinational corporation. Apple is no more deserving of protection from a work of fiction than — to fabricate a hypothetical example — Exxon might be if a writer were to publish a novel telling the story of an environmental activist visiting the 1989 Valdez spill.

The current refusal to consider that Daisey’s discredited work might still have merit as a piece of literature smacks to me of two things:

  1. Excessive apologia to Apple. Apple is justly beloved for designing great products and seems to be making a great effort to improve its environmental impact and supplier responsibility. But no one needs to worry about their feelings being hurt.
  2. A general distrust and fear of fiction and literature. On a grand scale, you often see this when video games are blamed for school violence, rock lyrics for drug use, or comic books for juvenile delinquency. When a problem is too big to deal with, often the easiest thing to do is ban or burn a book. Now, of course those are extreme cases, and all that’s happening here is a few journalists discrediting one man’s dramatic monologue. Perhaps journalists spend too much of their careers dealing with verifiable facts, and are ill-equipped to deal with the sometimes messy business of analyzing literature.

Daisey is not a journalist, and his situation right now is not the same as that of Jayson Blair, who was rightly run out of town for his numerous fabrications published by the New York Times up until being discovered as a fraud in 2003. He’s more akin to James Frey, whose supposed memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed in 2006 to have been better classified as a novel. Had it not been marketed as his true life’s story, it probably would have been lost in the fray of bookstores’ crowded fiction aisles. Daisey’s medium is the theater, worlds away from the media journalists work in. No theatergoer or novel reader expects absolute verifiable truth from literature. The tools of literature have the power to entertain, instill a sense of catharsis in the audience, to illuminate, and perhaps even to move people to action. All of these goals seem to have motivated Daisey to do what he did.

It’s now near-impossible to appraise the merit of Daisey’s work on its own terms. Interviewed by Ira Glass in the This American Life episode Retraction, he stated that The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the “best thing I’ve done.” Clearly, he knew he had really hit on something that touched a nerve in his audiences, and it brought him a great deal of acclaim that later curdled into notoriety. He wrongly felt that the notion his work was factually true was essential to its continuing popularity, which provided him many benefits: larger audiences, fame, and likely a greater income than the vast majority of struggling theater artists are ever likely to glean from their work. I think it’s clear now that had he presented his work as fiction, it would have reached far fewer people, but still have had its undeniable impact on those that did experience it. The shame is that now we’ll never know.

The silver lining is he contributed to an ever increasing spotlight on the complex issue of China’s labor practices, and a growing awareness that the consumer electronics industry could not exist as we know it today without it.

Mummy’s Boy: The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy 3 Tomb of the Dragon Emperor movie poster

 

Perhaps it was the mood I happened to be in the day I saw it in 1999, but I will freely admit I loved The Mummy, the first film in the latter day incarnation of the 1930s MGM horror franchise. In concert with Simon West and Jan De Bont’s pair of Tomb Raider films, The Mummy picked up the period-piece action/adventure mantle left dormant since the last Indiana Jones in 1989, and perhaps contributed to the fedora-clad adventurer’s return for The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull almost 20 years later. It struck me as exactly what all big-budget action blockbusters should aspire to be: good fun, with genuinely impressive special effects, thrills, a little romance, and a few laughs. Not a little of its charm came from the self-deprecating Brendan Fraser, a decidedly different kind of character compared to the arrogance and near superhuman capability of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones.

The franchise proved unusually fertile, spawning an inevitable sequel (not really terrible, but still nowhere near as fun as the original) and even two prequels starring The Rock: The Scorpion King and The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior. The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) came as something of a surprise when the series had seemed to have petered out. Original director Stephen Sommers had since moved on to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), leaving it up to Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, Stealth), to see if there was any freshness to be found.

Maria Bello and Brendan Fraser in The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor“Sorry pal, there’s a mummy on the loose.”

Some time has passed, and Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Maria Bello) have retired to a staid English manse. Evelyn earns a living from transforming her past adventures into the form of a popular series of swashbuckling adventure novels, while Rick does, well, nothing. Both find their lives unfulfilling and yearn to return to adventuring. The youthful Fraser hasn’t even grayed his hair, but if Evelyn looks like an entirely new woman, it’s because she is; Bello replaces “thinking man’s sex symbol” Rachel Weisz, who likely had higher aspirations. Their son Alex (Luke Ford), now a rogue archeologist in his own right, forms a contentious relationship with Lin (Isabella Leong), a girl with a considerable secret — she and her mother Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) are immortal (but she doesn’t seem to have matured her emotionally or intellectually over her long life). The slightly fey John Hannah is back in the role of gentle comic relief.

The enemy this time is China itself; the government conspires to awaken the cursed Emperor Han (Jet Li), possessed of supernatural powers but encased in stone for all eternity. With its modern military at the service of a superhuman immortal emperor, China plots nothing less than world domination. The Emperor’s powers also seem to be pretty vaguely defined, and he rarely uses them to best effect. Jet Li rarely appears onscreen in the flesh, leading me to guess he probably did a lot of motion-capture work a la Andy Serkis in the Lord of the Rings and King Kong. He spends much of his time made of indestructible molten rock, but can transform into a fierce dragon at will. Nonetheless, he spends more than a few scenes standing back as his minions fall before his foes, when he could simply sweep in and kill everybody whenever he wanted.

Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong in The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor“Here we go again!”

The movie produces obstacles as it goes along, and you have no choice but to shrug as one MacGuffin piles up atop another. To wit: a special diamond needed to awaken a mummified Chinese Emperor, the blood of someone pure of heart, a drink from Shangri-La, and the sudden appearance of the sole dagger capable of killing the revived Emperor. Capping it off is a trio of benevolent yeti, but the Emperor is eventually defeated with the aid of a literal ghost in the machine: General Ming (Russell Wong), vanquished earlier by the Emperor. The moral of this story seems to be: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Like a lot of contemporary effects-oriented features (including Watchmen, Sin City, The Spirit), the best thing about it are its excellent closing credits.


Official movie site: www.themummy.com

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Se, jie (Lust, Caution)

Lust Caution movie poster

 

As a public service, The Dork Report would like to issue a warning to anyone that under the impression that Se, jie (Lust, Caution) is an NC-17 erotic thriller. Judging from the marketing campaign alone, one might understandably imagine that the latest film from the director of Sense & Sensibility and Eat Drink Man Woman would be a sexy drama suitable for viewing with a significant other, but be warned that most of it is quite far from titillating. In fact, the first of three sex scenes can only be classified as a rape (albeit one complicated by the characters’ complex relationship).

Se, jie is set in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai, with flashbacks to the few years preceding. A naive but sincerely dedicated bunch of Chinese student activists form a terrorist cell, with the aim to assassinate collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Theater student Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) discovers she is a natural actress and gifted improviser, which unfortunately also makes her a superbly qualified as a undercover spy.

Lust CautionA scene from what might be called Ang Lee’s “Deceive Rape Man Woman”

To fully inhabit her cover story as a married woman, she must first lose her virginity. This happens almost simultaneously with her cell losing their metaphorical virginity as they messily execute their first righteous assassination. As Paul Newman discovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, murder is hard work, and takes time.

Se, jie was released in the same year as Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and concerns many of the same themes: wartime occupation, violent resistance, and the use of sex as undercover ingratiation. But while Verhoeven couldn’t resist front-loading his film with plenty of cheesecake, Ang Lee and James Schamus take the high road and don’t pretend that the morally empty Mr. Yee isn’t violently twisted, and that Wong Chia Chi doesn’t absolutely suffer for her cause.

Lust CautionThis blog is rated NC-17 for publishing naughty film stills

Official movie site: www.filminfocus.com/lustcaution

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