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Entries in martin mulkeen (2)

Wednesday
Dec142011

In Which We Advance Technology Far Beyond Our Own Capacities

What We Know

by MARTIN MULKEEN

Sneakers
dir. Phil Alden Robinson
126 minutes

To provide the formula of this ‘real virtual,’ let me refer to a recent paradoxical statement by none other than Donald Rumsfeld. I think that this statement was an important contribution to contemporary American philosophical debate. This happened in March 2003 just before the war on Iraq, where Rumsfeld elaborated the relationship between known and unknown. First he said there are ‘known knowns.’ There are things we know that we know. Like, we knew at that point that Saddam was the president of Iraq. Ok, everything clear. Then he went on: there are ‘known unknowns.’ There are things that we know that we don’t know. The idea was, for example, we know that we don’t know how many weapons of mass destruction Saddam has. Okay, now we know he had none, doesn’t matter, at that point it appeared like this. Then there is the ‘unknown unknown.’ Things we don’t know that we don’t know. Things which are so foreign, so unimaginable that we even don’t know that we don’t know. For example Maybe Saddam had some unimaginable, totally unexpected weapon. And here unfortunately, Rumsfeld stopped. Because I think he should have gone on, making the next step to the fourth category. The fourth valuation which is missing which is not the ‘known unknowns’ but the ‘unknown knowns.’ Things we don’t know we know them. We know them. They are part of our identity. They determine our activity. But we don’t know that we know them.

- Slavoj Žižek, The Reality of the Virtual

If you love him, if you really love him, then just keep on loving him. And never let him know that you know what he thinks you don’t know you know, you know?

- Robert Redford as Martin Bishop in Sneakers

Sneakers opens with the exterior of an academic building of a presumably prestigious east coast university in 1969. Snow flurries fall as short, puzzling non sequiturs rearrange themselves to spell out the names of the film’s cast. Inside the building, two students, Marty and Cosmo, are hacking into bank accounts and wantonly redistributing wealth on an early model personal computer. They take from the Republican Party and give to the Black Panthers. They transfer the entirety of Richard Nixon’s personal checking account to the “National Association of Legalized Marijuana.”

“Power to the people, Marty,” says Cosmo, raising a fist — ostensibly in solidarity, but privately in personal triumph. He has just conned his partner into going out for pizza in the snow.

Before I go any further I should note: Sneakers is about a man named Martin from San Francisco. I am a man named Martin from San Francisco.

I usually omit this bit of information when discussing Sneakers with someone who hasn’t seen it. It makes it something of a tough sell, like a scout hawking his own son to the big leagues — an unsavory cocktail of narcissism and nepotism. But hear me out! The cast of Sneakers is a murderer’s row of dramatic and comedic talent. Robert Redford. Ben Kingsley. Sidney Poitier. Dan Aykroyd. David Strathaim. River Phoenix. Mary McDonnell. James Earl Jones. The guy who played Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day! The list goes on and on.

I remember liking Sneakers the first time I saw it in theaters, when I was young enough that being “from” somewhere was something like Žižek’s “unknown known.” At that point I hadn’t really met anyone who wasn’t from San Francisco.

Hearing my name in the film hastened the process by which the script became a shared language among friends: “Give me the box, Marty,” was William’s way of calling dibs on whatever remained of my sandwich at the end of lunch. “I leave message here on service but you do not call” (in a falsetto female Russian accent) if Gabe wasn’t answering his landline. “I don’t expect other people to understand this but I do expect you to understand this!” when debating related rates problems in calculus. “Pain? Try prison.”

Sneakers is one of the only movies from the 90s about computers that isn’t as obsolete as the hardware on the screen. Unlike other tech movies from that era, it hasn’t been relegated to pure cult or camp. Yes, all the ancient computers in Sneakers have glowing green letters on them, but the script presciently side-stepped the bawdy operating system visuals to which many of its contemporaries succumbed. It didn’t make the mistake of supplanting technology for plot. Sneakers is a caper narrative in which a mathematician’s code-breaking tool — “the black box” — falls into the wrong hands. Meanwhile, more topical films like The Net exploited the trendiness of the avatars and chat rooms.

Sure, if Sneakers were remade today, the black box would probably just be “in the cloud,” encrypted by a code that only the black box could break. But the beauty of the film’s black box being a piece of hardware is that it operates under the physical logic of a matryoshka doll. It begins as an answering machine on the mathematician’s desk. Later, Martin plucks the valuable contents from it, leaving Cosmo with just the shell of an answering machine. This makes Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) so mad that all he can do is yell “Maaaaaaartyyyyyy!” from his Silicon Valley rooftop as he and his ponytail are enveloped in a swirling Michael Bay-style 360-degree shot. His friend has screwed him again!

Even when Marty hands over the box to the FBI, he saves the essential core chip, the piece that can crack any code and redirect airplanes, or take money from someone’s bank account. And because he holds on to the smallest little Russian doll in the set of nesting black box dolls, the United Negro College fund posts record gains thanks to some large anonymous donations. We have come full circle.

At this point you’re wondering: is it on Netflix instant? Well, no. But I’m sure it could be soon! That’s a “known unknown,” the question of when or if Sneakers will be on Netflix instant. Just like bank account numbers in the film. We know they exist. We just don’t know them. The unknown unknowns are the bank security weaknesses — banks don’t know if they have them or what they are.

Sneakers is chock full of unknown knowns. Namely, anagrams. A turnip cures Elvis: Universal Pictures. Fort Red Border: Robert Redford. Setec Astronomy: TOO MANY SECRETS. The black box is the descrambler of the wildly complex anagrams that make up the internet. It is the ultimate descrambler of unknown knowns. I’ve always thought Scrabble should release a special Sneakers edition featuring Braille letters that would be housed in a small hollow black answering machine, instead of that slate gray plastic sleeve. Which brings me to another very important point: Sneakers foretold the marriage of scrabble and the internet long before Words With Friends.

But my favorite scene doesn’t feature any memorable lines or anagram rearrangement suspense. It’s when Martin gets dumped by his kidnappers from a car on Russian Hill at dawn. He collects himself and begins walking, hands in his trench coat pockets. He has just endured a brutal evening of cheap shots, blindfolds, and car trunks, but for the first time in the past 12 hours, he actually knows where he is. And so does the viewer, because Redford has been conveniently deposited onto the pavement at an intersection where we can recognize Alcatraz to the north and Coit Tower to the east. He has placed himself, but what is his name? Is it Martin Brice or Martin Bishop? Is anywhere safe anymore?

I know what you’re thinking. And I would love to lend you the DVD. I will lend you the DVD, as soon as I find it or get a new one. See, a couple weeks ago I lost it. This DVD was one of the first things I ever bought on Amazon. In the past decade I’ve taken it everywhere with me, played it in a hundred DVD players and at least four laptops in half a dozen countries. It passed through so many hands that it slowly shed its housing, like the Black Box itself. The original DVD plastic snap case? Gone. Its replacement, a repurposed plastic sleeve plucked from an old Case Logic CD binder? Gone. When it went missing it was just a loose disc wading between receipts and gum wrappers in my shoulder bag, so scratched up it was barely useful as a reflective surface. And now my computer doesn’t even have a CD drive anymore. But I’m sure it’ll show up. At this point the location of the DVD is something like an unknown known, you know?

Martin Mulkeen is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He twitters here.

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Monday
May022011

In Which Communism Was Just A Red Herring

What You Need To Do

by ALMIE ROSE

Have you ever thrown a party and then realized that you didn't know what to do? Let the cast of Clue be your guide.

What you need to do is to make your guests comfortable. You want to introduce them to each other and make them feel at ease. Point out things they have in common. For example, "Mrs. White, this is Wadsworth; Wadsworth, meet Mrs. White. You both are from New England and are victims of blackmail." Things like that.

What you need to do is decorate your party appropriately. Remove all clutter, trash, dead bodies, and so forth, so that your guests feel they are at a hospitable place and not your messy house. Pick a theme. If your theme is the 1960s, maybe put up a Kennedy poster and leave out your records. If your theme is dead animals in the woods, then perhaps animal heads on your wall are a good idea after all. But make sure that your guests know the theme. Clearly someone thought this was a "maids and butlers" party. How embarrassing!

What you need to do is accessorize, girlfriend! Jewelry, manicures, weapons; they all add that little touch that helps people remember you. "Oh, I remember Sally from Abernathy's party. She was the girl with the black hair and the noose!" And so forth.

What you need to do is not shoot the messenger.

Photobucket

What you need to do is have a list of prepared party-appropriate conversation starters. Politics, sex, and religion are not good things to discuss at a dinner party. Stick to topics like the weather, fashion, monkeys' brains, music, and other such pleasant topics.

What you need to do is control your temper. A guest may aggravate you. Perhaps they root against your favorite sports team or have fucked your wife. This does not give you permission to resort to violence. Kindly excuse yourself and take a minute to compose yourself. Have some brandy. It isn't poisoned. That we know of. If you must go home, thank your host, and leave quietly.

What you need to do is be discreet with about your indiscretions. Perhaps you've been in this situation: you're at a party, you and a lovely gentleman/woman catch eyes, you flirt, you talk, you fuck in the bathroom, you share stories about your childhoods - hold on there, professor! Before you fuck in the bathroom stop to yourself and try not fucking in the bathroom. Put yourself in the hosts' place. What if you were the host and someone had fucked in your bathroom?

Here's what you need to do: you need to keep frisky party activies to ABOVE CLOTHES ONLY. You may excuse yourselves to fool around in one of your respective cars. If your partner does not have a car, and you live in Los Angeles, that shit is most unacceptable you should dump his ass forthwith.

What you need to do is work on your "The police are here" face. The police might come if you're playing music too loudly, or if there are reports of dead people in your house. When they show up to answer the door, you need to make sure you have an innocent face on. Then again, why should the police come? Nobody's called them.

Almie Rose is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the creator of Apocalypstick, and she twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about her favorite novels.

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her new album Black Velvet comes out in June