Archives for category: criticism

Selfism & Woodford Tough

…as posted first on Goodreads….

Maid Unafraid (Godwin, 1937), is the second novel of Louella Woolfolk, which she wrote under the pen name Louella Woodford, at age 18.

Ms. Woolfolk was the only daughter of Josiah Pitts Woolfolk, who wrote risqué “sex novels,” so-called, under the pen name Jack Woodford. Though Woodford is best known, today, for his still invaluable if brusque and cynical writing advice books — most famously Trial and Error — it was as a writer of pulp romance targeted at men that he made his claim to fame, and which still captures the spirit of his age, perhaps more accurately than many literary novels of his time.

Maid Unafraid is a very Woodfordian title, and the novel itself bears evidence of her father’s influence. But Louella sports a more humanistic outlook on the relationship between the sexes than had her father, “Jack.” But then, she was young, and hadn’t been married to her mother. And there are not a few passages reminiscent of her father’s tough-minded “selfism,” especially of his view of most people’s romantic economizing. And yet the main character in this book, though Woodford Tough, doesn’t seem so granitic as Jack’s female characters. The motivations of her novel’s heroine are far more noble and sympathetic. Yet in many ways, this follows the Woodford method, setting two members of the opposite sexes together and letting them “gnaw at each other” until there is “nothing left to do but get married” (quoting from memory Jack’s explanation of his technique in The Autobiography of Jack Woodford). But Louella has a more feminine take on the whole business, since the mission of the woman changing the man is set closer to the center of the plot than in her father’s fiction.

Indeed, I think this could be read as a fairly decent romance. I’d be less hesitant had I read more in this genre outside of the literary classics.

It has been fascinating reading this book, comparing it to the work of the author’s father. In terms of style, the young author can boast of a simpler but less literary style. (On the whole, I much prefer her father’s prose.) And her philosophical interests are not as well developed. As I have argued elsewhere, at least some of Jack’s “sex novels” are actually novels of ideas. Maid Unafraid is definitely not.

While her father’s characterizations are better developed, her use of plot is clearer and makes for a more normal melodrama. There is a sense of contrivance, but remember, this is very much a popular novel, not an attempt ape Anna Karenina. I judge this to be a successful novel, and her father’s books more problematic. But they hold more literary interest, as well as sport greater historical and sociological — and, yes, philosophical — value.

The father and daughter were extremely close. He dedicated all his books to her — they undoubtedly constituted a major part of her education — and she dedicated this book to him.

A decade after this novel’s publication, Louella Woolfolk developed schizophrenia (or some madness, however diagnosed), and her father tormented himself until his death trying to help her, liquidating his fortune in her cause. He himself died after having been institutionalized in the same sanitarium she was confined to. I suspect that he had feigned his madness just to be near to her.

Alas, Jack Woodford does not discuss her malady in his otherwise terrific autobiography. And of course he could not relate the final, sad decade of his life.

Louella Woolfolk remains one of the more interesting female prodigy-authors on the margins of American respectability. Still, she probably offers little gristle for feminist tearing and mastication, so we can expect no future study about her from the dark academic mills. Which is a pity, since Ms Woolfolk had a few great quips, which her father later memorialized. “I prefer the cliterati to the literati,” she once admitted.

Her readership, were it ever to re-emerge, would most likely be found among members of her preferred class.


See also my review of Unmoral, by Jack Woodford.

A satirical article by the Genius Times begins in this manner:

POLL: Most people unimpressed with their 30-day free trial of Communism

A poll conducted by the Pew Pew Institute shows that a majority of Americans are unimpressed with their 30-day free trial of Communism.
“It kinda sucks,” 19-year-old San Diegan Britta Fowler said of the trial. “I was expecting all this free stuff, which I guess we’re getting, but I also didn’t expect empty store shelves and house arrest for everyone. It’s really lame!”
The trial was imposed involuntarily by governments across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Yesterday I called the current economic system of the United States “State Bailout Capitalism.” But I also called it “Pseudo-Stimulus Socialism.” That latter term is only half-right, since socialism, surely, would be a system in where capitalism’s profit-and-loss mechanism has been replaced by socializing both the gains and the losses of human coöperation. Under State Bailout Capitalism, the socialism part is the protection from loss. Profits still can be reaped, only now it is a protected class that reaps them — existing businesses targeted for bailout, and those with early access to loosened credit, have had some of the burdens of business risk removed from them by the federal government. So, we are not all gaining from protection of loss — unless you call the $1200 or $1400 personal subsidy for most taxpayers just such a protection — and we are not all sharing in profits, which is what socialists want.

So, how fair a joke is this “30-day Free Trial of Communism” mockery?

Isn’t it a bit unfair?

Sure. But there is enough of Trump’s beloved “fairness” to justify the jest.

First off, capitalism has mostly been shut down. (On my podcast I called the coronavirus quarantine the worst hit to capitalism since communism.) So, socialists and communists hate capitalism, and a communist state does indeed shut down most businesses. So, that’s fair.

Second, the communist “experiments” of modern times have all produced poverty, and could not provide consumer goods like capitalism has. So, by the rules of comedy, taking an effect identical to communism’s is as fair as comedy gets.

Third, it was indeed “involuntary,” which is the whole point of making socialist and communist ideas political, rather than a voluntary community idea. Basically, utopian socialist experiments tend to work out pretty badly. But most people want them to work out better. So, why don’t they work? Well, socialists think it is the fact that everyone isn’t forced to go along. So focusing on the involuntary nature of communism and identifying that as a feature of the coronavirus quarantine is also fair.

Interestingly, the common identification of a lack of universality as the source of the failure of utopian socialism was not a universal conclusion of 19th century utopians. One utopian experimenter, Josiah Warren, fingered a different culprit, and invented the American form of anarchism in the process.

So, if you ask me, anyone who yearns for a radical alternative to our world of woe and seeks to force socialism down others’ throats is double suspect: not only has that ideologue jumped to a conclusion, he has jumped to a conclusion that proved dangerous after at least one person thought his way out of the utopian experiments’ trap.

“Yeah, they’re giving us money but what good is that if you can’t spend it on anything you want?” Fowler asked.

Here we get to the profundity of this satirical piece. With this one question we get to the heart of the beginning of economic theory, especially per David Hume:

Hume realized that money is not wealth. You can have all the money in the world, but, if there are no goods to purchase for it, money doesn’t do any good.

And if you think this is a trivial matter, you are wrong. But you would be in good company:

“Poverty is not a character failing or a lack of motivation. Poverty is a shortage of money.” 

—Barbara Ehrenreich

Ms. Ehrenreich no doubt thought she was being at once clever and expounding upon a principle of common sense. She was neither. Poverty is what humans have when they do not have enough resources to survive and thrive. But resources aren’t money. And resources without labor aren’t wealth. We produce wealth by transforming resources. And this is done, chiefly, in coöperation with others, through a division of labor. In a capitalist society this is done by trade. That’s where I offer something of mine — say, my labor, a resource of my time and attention and effort — in exchange for something I want more than that time and attention and effort. People rise out of poverty by creating wealth by offering something within themselves — often, just a potential activity — that they have more than a potential trading partner has. It is not money that is key here, it is mutual advantage. But there is no mutual advantage if you have nothing to offer. Why is there poverty? Because too many people have nothing much to offer, or are unwilling to make the trouble to develop something to offer.

Money just makes the trading easier, getting around the barter stricture of the coincidence of wants.

That Ehrenreich, a mostly witless leftist, does not see that is no surprise. Which is why we make fun of leftism’s most extreme isms: socialism and communism. And that one line makes this particular bit of satire so good.

The rest of the satire goes in different directions. I enjoyed those directions. But it is this first segment that needs explaining to some people.

Though this later paragraph is pretty funny:

“Everything went well but only a few Karens across the country are really enjoying it.” Lennon added. “They really revel in telling people to ‘stay the f**k home!’” 

Shut the fuck up, Karens. No reasonable person likes snitches and bullies.

I picked up a paperback in town yesterday, Weird Tales #3, edited by Lin Carter. As is my habit, when obtaining a new anthology, I immediately try one story. This time it’s the title story by Robert E. Howard & Gerald W. Page. Howard is known for his Conan tales, primarily, and this is not one of them. The narrator explains up front what is going on:

The conceit of a first-person account of a buried-in-deep-antiquity tale established, the story proceeds. It is simply and effectively written. And it goes on to advance a familiar idea, of a race of giants — ferocious quasi-human demigods or some such:

The extent to which this is familiar to today’s readers not through Sword & Sorcery fantasy tales, but from the speculations of “alternative archaeology,” is . . . interesting.

We are not far from Burroughsian territory, I guess, in terms of premise and conceit, but the prose is much more elegantly rugged and effectively paced.

As I have confessed before, this is a genre I have not read much. This is indeed my first reading of a Howard story. And, because the writing credit is shared with another, one could argue I still cannot mark the kill on my readerly coup stick.

I will give Howard another chance.

By Gorm.

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I was reminded of my Facebook post, above, while watching Late Night, tonight, the drama about broadcast television’s least funny time slot, late night.

Though Seth Meyer, the no-longer-funny-at-all comedian of post-primetime network TV, actually makes an appearance (as himself) in this sorry contrivance, do not let that fool you: the melodrama is not without a few laughs.

But it is not a comedy, and I do not think it was trying to be.

It is the adult SJW equivalent of an “After School Special” — an earnest attempt to provide a smart secular morality play. I watched it because it got rather high marks on Rotten Tomatoes, and because I suspected these numbers were inflated by ideologues and “low-IQ individuals” (thanks, Trump).

The show stars Emma Thompson as a typically unfunny but otherwise untypical (for the networks) NPR-lite/midcult “entertainer.” You know, the kind of snob who thinks California Senator Diane Feinstein is a smart bet for a chat in front of a live New York (and national TV) audience. In other words, in a world where unintentional comedy is the kiss of death, this film specializes in unintentional realism. And the realism is about how unfunny late night comedy now is.

Just read the official synopsis — does this sound like a comedy to you?

So, why, when watching the flick, did I think of my Facebook post regarding the two stories of ideological Gray Lady nonsense?

Not because of the word “crone” — Emma Thompson is not there yet. Not quite.

The reason is the story arc: an allegedly misogynistic woman professional is redeemed by becoming yet another woke-scold pseudo-comedian, telling jokes about how male Republican Congressmen want to legislate women’s bodies because they cannot get laid, or some such nonsense.* This joke, of which much is made in service to the main plot — rescuing the career of “Katherine Newbury” — is astoundingly stale. That the authors of this lame commonplace think it (a) funny and (b) daring shows how out of touch they are.

The 80 percent Tomatometer rating is inexplicable, except as an indicator of how ideological and stupid critics have become.

But what stuck out, to me, was how conservative it all is. The whole saccharine moralism that imbues the show with its “heart” is essentially conservative. Oh, sure, because of the core bit of intersectionalism featuring writer and co-star actress Mindy Kaling — a young, earnest Indian-American — one might mistake it all as “progressive.” But progressivism is, as I have argued before, nowadays almost wholly a conservative movement, moralistically shoring up the power of a paternalistic elite. And in this movie the allegedly “progressive” #metoo hashtaggery is cautiously merged with an anti-adultery message, and we are really not very far from 1950s cultural conservatism.

Emma Thompson is a fine actress, and does her best with the limited material. She manages to almost convince the forgiving viewer that her character is a comic of the first water. When she takes to the stage in the third act, and proceeds to bomb, it is her acting alone that convinces us that her “spontaneous” routine is worth a laugh.

Mindy Kaling, who wrote as well co-stars, is thus the one to blame.

But really, for once we should spread the responsibility around: society is to blame for this inanity. For just as late-night TV has been ruined by social justice and political partisanship, so that nothing is funny any more, Late Night shows us a fantasy world where young, talentless women of color can save a show (and, by synechdoche, an industry) just by earnest moralism and blunt confidence and shepherding more talented people to being more social justice-y — a sort of doubling down of a failed strategy. Late-night and comedy in general has been ruined by the moralism of the Millennials. This movie, which asserts that this moralism and these Millennials can save late-night comedy, is not the more laughable, alas, for being preposterous.

====

* The link is with the first Times story I mention, about the young leftist who is “brainwashed” by the “alt right” to wind up exactly where Late Night winds up: in the arms of the SJWs.

I asked a question about Menippean satire and the works of Jack Vance, in a Facebook discussion group, and in the conversation that followed I encountered this:

What is remarkable about this passage from a fellow Vancian is how easy it would be to satirize, in Menippean fashion.

But instead of doing so, I will just explain: the truth of the matter is almost precisely the opposite of the notions for which my interlocutor expresses certainty.

“We” do not destroy the environment to enrich the “1 percent.” This “1 percent” works mightily to fulfil our desires, and in the course of the process some damage is done to the “environment.” Trendy progressives — by which I mean “trendy anti-progress doomsayers” — never seem to understand how the world works. They seem to think that if the 1 percent goes about enriching themselves, we allow them to do that because we are suckers. Not quite. We allow them to invest, and to build businesses, so that those businesses can increase the quality of our lives. The dreaded Greenhouse gases do not come, primarily, from the recreational activities of the very rich. They come from all of our driving in automobiles, heating our domiciles, and eating meat. Sure, many people get rich providing us with cars and fuel, electricity and natural gas, and raising beef animals that fart up methane. It is because we engage in consumption that production is developed, and some people — serving vast hordes of consumers — get very rich.

Capitalism is mass production for the masses.

It is a defect of leftist thought that what leftists object to is the great successes of the most productive, not the real drivers of the market system, consumers.

I find it hysterical coming from folks who readily parrot Keynesian doctrine, since Keynesians fixate almost wholly on consumer spending as the driver of market activity. I think the actual implementation of capital is way more complicated than Keynesians think, but nevertheless I more than acknowledge the consumer sovereignty idea embedded (perhaps precariously) within Keynesian dogma.

But leftists and environmentalists and other responsibility-evaders must always shift blame for unfortunate social patterns away from themselves and onto the dreaded Rich.

I guess this allows them to justify their lust to tear away at other people. And because they do not see the integral role of entrepreneurs in markets, or recognize the symbiotic relationship of all market participants, including between “classes,” they eagerly attack one sector, in vulgar fashion, while inflicting harm more generally.

Then, of course, they blame the rich for not being more productive.

This general attitude is what I think of as a satirizable — and is satirized in some of the character types to be found in many of Vance’s best work, such as Wyst and Emphyrio.

It is not just the attitude that is bothersome, however. Also latent in my interlocutor’s sort of complaint is lack of recognition of a fairly basic truth: it is only the comparatively rich societies that find ways to make industry cleaner. America and Europe developed strategies for cleaning up industrial excess only after a level of wealth was reached, far in advance of what big polluters in India and China now possess.

This may be a sad truth, but it is a truth regardless.

Environmentalists so rarely recognize it.

And yet they often do so tacitly, by focusing their ire on First World polluters more than in China and Africa, for instance.

Pure comedy gold.

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Lin-Carter-Down-to-a-Sunless-Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea by Lin Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lin Carter was important to my early literary education, such as it was. Were it not for his books Tolkien: A Look Behind ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy I may have never found some of my favorite writers, such as Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Peter S. Beagle, and the great James Branch Cabell.

But Carter’s own fiction did not beckon my attention. The books of his I saw looked like hackwork, rehashes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. And, what with their garish covers, I avoided them as if they were the Gor books by John Norman.

Well, as if to break a long habit, I bought two Gor novels, not long age. I took a dip its pages. Not exactly my cup of tea, and I did not get very far. Which does not mean I found anything objectionable. They seemed somewhat like throwback fiction, good Burroughsian fun. But of course their reputation is harshly negative, especially along “political correctness” lines. That is, as Jack Woodford might have said, there is no Communism in them, and (I hear tell) Norman does not believe today’s accepted feminist fictions, er, norms. I do not either, so I may return to Gor some day.

Not long after I put down Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor a few months ago, I bought a few Lin Carter fantasy/science fiction paperback on a whim. And I then read the one that seemed to have the most promising beginning, Down to a Sunless Sea, one of his last books, written, I gather, while he was dying of cancer.

The romantic-sexual interest in the book is not too far from what I have heard to be John Norman’s. The hero is masculine, and the two women are distinct and familiar feminine types, though both Martian. There is no political correctness in it, just as there is no Communism. But there is frank sexual talk, and acceptance of the Sapphic practice. Not very far from Woodford territory, after all, though the focus is on the hero, not the heroine — which is where it almost always was with Woodford (who claimed to have written the same book over and over).

This retro-sexuality does not bother me. It seems pitiful and weak to even bring it up. Masculine and feminine are archetypes, and reflect a lot of biological and historical reality. To object to it now is merely to accept current ideological fashion as Eternal Truth, which is of course bilge water.

Carter combines, as he states in his afterword, Brackettian fantasy with a Merrittesque descent into a Lost World. The first half or more of the short novel is adventure; the second half introduces our ragtag band of outlaws to a fantastic underworld civilization that is mainly shown to us in a slightly dramatized utopian format. The point being: the utopia is too good for these depraved, uncivilized Terran and Martian adventurers.

I cannot say that this seems in any way exceptionable — or very exceptional. Except — yes, there is an “except”: the writing, on the sentence level, is superior to popular No Style style writing of current popular fiction.

So, there is more than one way that Down to a Sunless Sea is throwback fiction. And more than one way that this is not at all a bad thing.

View all my reviews

The Loud Literary Lamas of New YorkThe Loud Literary Lamas of New York by Jack Woodford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bitter fun, Woodford at peak invective. The target? The book publishing industry at mid-century.

His main advice? Ignore publishers; self-publish.

Whether this advice be good or ill, the contempt and wit and contrarianism sparkle on every page.

If you are interested in writing, in literary culture, or, more generally, in American character, this book by an authentic American character is almost required reading.

Besides, the book is short.

View all my reviews

spoiler alert!

In the movie Black Panther, we are introduced to a superheroic country hidden in the snowy mountains of Africa — this is very much an H. Rider Haggard/Edgar Rice Burroughs sort of utopia. The country, called Wakanda, is technologically advanced and has been for eons, but has kept out of world affairs on the grounds that its treasure, a philosopher’s lode of a supermetal, if transported out of the region, would destabilize the world and ruin the country. So it is isolationist. Yet technocratic.

Now, much has been made of the movie’s racial politics, and it has been lauded — and prodded into the limelight — for its social justice-y elements. But what struck me about the movie was that the baseline mythos could best be described as “Wakandan exceptionalism” of an almost Trumpian sort. The antagonist of the film is a bitter, resentful African-American criminal bent on world revolution (with a special attention paid on killing “oppressors”). In fact, he talks like a “Black Panther” of days of yore (racial solidarity, revolution) and it is he who must be destroyed so the country can grow into its new role as world benefactor. So the moral arc of the story is from isolationist exceptionalism to globalist benefactor — essentially moving from Trumpism back to standard-brand 20th century American globalism, where foreign aid is parlayed as the prime diplomatic value, above revolution, militarism and trade — the latter not even getting any mention. The real-world “Black Panther” type must be put down so the mythic “Black Panther” may triumph.

There is nothing radical here. It is essentially a JFK “liberal” movie.

It also contains a quite a bit of tribalistic mysticism, and rituals of a primitive, ooga-booga type. Rather embarrassing. We are really not far from Hollywood Tarzan tropes here.

As a Marvel movie, it is of course expertly made, a technical marvel; and if, like me, you enjoy watching scantily clad bald black women kicking ass, you will find some thrills. Andy Serkis has a fun role as a mad Russian criminal mastermind.

I saw it in Astoria, Oregon, in a theater half-filled with white Americans … and no one else. (Astoria has a sizable Mexican population, but is otherwise lily-white.) I did not feel a whole lot of excitement coming from the audience — not like in the Iron Man and Captain America flicks — but no hatred, either. I have no idea how it fares elsewhere, but in this neck of the woods it does not appear to be a hit.

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N.B. The popular meme of Wakandan exceptionalism being “alt-right” is accurate, for the most part, insofar as the country is portrayed at the beginning of the movie. It is 4C6A88CB-B755-4E6B-815C-786D49F5BA10also not inaccurate to describe the country at the end of the movie, though the kingdom’s new “black man’s burden” policy would surely undermine the stalwart atavisms of its traditionalist nationalism. As with most comic-book world-building scenarios, it does not bear close examination — just as the amazon-warrior theme does not. And alt-right dreamers might note that American exceptionalism came from open borders and trade — not anything like Wakandan autarky. There is a disturbing cargo cult element to much current political fantasizing. The wealth redistributed by any real or fantasied State entity has to come from somewhere. In Black Panther, it came from outer space and lies in the ground in the form of a metal that the Wakandans mine.

I forget the name of the metal, but it is really just a McGuffin, as in the goofy, embarrassing “unobtainium” of the horrible science fiction film Atavism, I mean Avatar. I could look up the name of this fantasy material, but memory tells me that it starts with a “v,” so I just think of it as “virkkalanium.”

Philip K. Dick’s 1952 short story “Human Is” is clever. Not great. Just clever. (You can find it in the collection We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.) It is not unlike, say, a Fredric Brown story, but not as well written.* It does not present an elegiac mood, or aim for anything like the sublime. It is a rather cynical sf tale about marital discord and unhappiness. And betrayal.

But it was taken as the inspiration for Amazon Prime’s new series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, appearing as the third episode. And was it changed! Only the ending of the short story remained untampered with, quoting (adopting) about two lines verbatim.

Yes, friends, there are spoiler ahead. . . .

The short story’s basic premise — of a mean, cold bastard of a husband (Lester) going off to an alien planet, Rexor IV, and coming back changed, turned into a nice, easy-to-live with loving man — that is the same. But instead of a literalist, a scientific researcher, the show features a callous warrior (renamed Silas, played by Bryan Cranston), bent on exploiting and killing an alien race for the good of “Terra.”

The short story’s subplot about the wife’s brother and nephew, that is gone. And all the dreck of everyday life? Gone too. The change of scenery and alteration of tone from the original make the show different. Very. Instead of reading about an unloved wife whose uncharitable husband will not help an inlaw out, we see an unfulfilled and tyrannized wife — emotionally abused and domestically oppressed despite her elevation to a major official role in the futuristic sealed-off society.

Yes, in the TV show she has been turned into a professional — a government official, even. And instead of suffering neglect from the man who won’t serve as foster father, we see our heroine suffer from coldness, indifference, and even envy from her husband. Actually, he is much worse, because minatory. Yes, he threatens violence.

The show’s penultimate scene takes place in a court room, in a trial that spells the issues out very clearly, cleverly. The written story is nowhere nearly so thematically tight.

But the big change? The whole story has become politicized. The husband in the show is portrayed almost exactly as leftists see “right wingers” — eager to kill and exploit foreigners (aliens), and as being emotionally withdrawn and cruel. And since the woman is now a career woman, a leader, this makes her a feminist heroine rather than the pathetic character that Dick imagined. With the child gone, it is just the microsocial antagonism of a childless couple, not a family drama — and the show carefully evades any issue of parental feeling from her husband to his brother-in-law’s son. This excision allows our feminist heroine to be portrayed as romantically and sexually unfulfilled. The very model of a modern Ms. obsession.

Indeed, in the show, because of her husband’s lack of interest in intimacy, early on she seeks out some sad satisfaction in a far-flung-future orgy in the sterile city’s underground (yes, the teleplay writers made sure to hit every possible mythic beat). When her husband comes back transformed, changed into a cheerful, sympathetic, and very sensual sexual partner (we “get” to see Cranston’s full-rear view nude form in a lovemaking session), she defends him — chooses him — even though it has been proved that he is not her husband.

Who is he? Well, her husband’s body, possessed by an alien metamorph. Invasion of the body snatcher!

The alien is from Rexor IV — as in the original PKD story. But where in the original the husband had been a careless innocent, his soul stolen by surprise while on a solo vacation, in the show there is war, and he was the aggressor and he became a casualty. At the beginning of the show, our heroine had politically opposed her husband’s plan to kill Rexorians and steal their atmosphere (or something like that). At the end of the show, she lets the enemy, the Rexorian, not only into her society but also into her bed, ostensibly because her human husband had not been nice enough to her. Not appreciative enough.

And was a bad guy anyway.

All this is standard left-right archetypes and stock figures and bigotries. Let me spell it out:

  • The husband? The very cliché of a left winger’s idea of a conservative.
  • The wife? The leftist self-image of a feminist heroine, ill-treated by her conservative partner.
  • The Rexorian? An exploited alien (foreigner) just “fighting for its life” and perhaps justifiably attacking our military and Silas, the Cranston character.

It would be hard to imagine a clearer allegory to today’s conflict with the Muslim world. The feminist women betray conservative men because those evil conservatives are bent on defending their nation by exploiting and killing foreigners (Muslims/Rexorians); further, those feminists replace the murderous conservatives with the foreigners, going so far to bedding them . . . because the frustrated, unfulfilled feminist women will be more sexually fulfilled by the foreigners/aliens than by their fellow nationalists/Terrans.

Also present is the “right wing” fear that the enemy will infiltrate and pretend to be “one of us” but then betray us completely, taking our place — this “paranoid” fear is exactly mirrored in the television story. And, going another step even further, the right wing suspicion that the leftists will betray us, preferring the other to their own, and making cuckolds of the West’s men . . . that is very close, too — for the woman does betray Terra, and just because the alien treats her better as wife and lover.

So, the fantasies and fears of both rightists and leftists are played to. Both sides could view the story with a kind of . . . indecent? . . . pleasure. And, because the Amazon version is so artfully done, it turns out to be a beautiful, sublime story, too. Much more powerful than the original.

It is now a philosophical horror story, not just a clever little domestic drama with a cynical sci-fi surprise ending.

The wonder of it is how brazen it is, how timely. The perpetrators — I mean, writers and actors and producers — of the new drama surely know what they are up to. But why? Why do it this way? I assume that these are all left-leaning Hollywood types. The story, though with all the biases of your standard-brand Hollywood Left Coast cosmopolitan written deep into the story’s premise, and played out as the drama unfolds, in the end gives away much of the game to the right wingers. What could be worse than the Left shown as the betrayer and the enemy shown as capable of using elaborate deception? And all because the leftist woman demands love she is not getting at home.

First world problems leading to the conquest of that world by the Third.

She even goes as far as cuckolding the Right in the end. In a sort of Gertrude-and-Claudius way.

A cautionary tale — an apocalypse! — indeed.

Ah, the culture wars. All-too-human, is.

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* Dick’s science fiction short stories, at least the early ones, are not very artful on the sentence level — his realistic novels were far more carefully crafted. The short stories are also rather tawdry, as are many of the science fiction novels, filled with the dreck of everyday domestic conflict.

N.B. I wrote the above before reading anyone else’s criticism. And now, as I clean this up, I flit around the net and find appraisals that do not go very far. And not a few just show the insipid shallowness of modern feminism.

Dominique Swain as Lolita

Two decades ago, Jesse Walker launched into his auctorial career by beginning to write his first book, Rebels on the Air. In previous years, he had lived in the town I also resided in — Port Townsend, Washington — and we had seen many movies together. In 1997* he moved to Seattle, so we didn’t see each other all that often and didn’t have much chance to argue about the movies we saw. I remember his surprise at my favorite movie of that year, Gatacca, which now only marks the lucky 13th slot on his favorite movies list of that year:

    1. Oz
      Written by Tom Fontana
      Directed by Darnell Martin, Nick Gomez, Jean De Segonzac, Leslie Libman, Larry Williams, and Alan Taylor

      Power shifts constantly in a penitentiary’s ever-evolving social web. In a perfect climax, the whole network explodes, inverting, distorting, and dashing the prison’s hierarchies.

    2. The Apostle
      Written and directed by Robert Duvall

      A double rarity: a thoughtful movie about religion and a textured portrait of the South.

    3. The Sweet Hereafter
      Directed by Atom Egoyan
      Written by Egoyan, from a novel by Russell Banks

      Death rips a hole in a town. The viewer drifts both through the community and through time, as helpless as the grieving parents of the story.

    4. fast, cheap & out of control
      Directed by Errol Morris

      Studies in spontaneous order.

    5. Deconstructing Harry
      Written and directed by Woody Allen

      The last great Woody Allen movie is a sardonic, self-lacerating remake of Wild Strawberries.

    6. Jackie Brown
      Directed by Quentin Tarantino
      Written by Tarantino, from a novel by Elmore Leonard

      All the Tarantino trademarks are on display here: the idiosyncratic structure, the brilliantly selected soundtrack, the rich and funny dialogue. But there’s something deeper going on as well, a pulp fable about integration that refuses to preach or to give the audience a reassuring conclusion.

    7. The Ice Storm
      Directed by Ang Lee
      Written by James Schamus, from a novel by Rick Moody

      Before this movie, Christina Ricci had starred in a series of fluffy kid flicks, with only a quirky supporting role in the Addams Family films betraying more than a hint that she had something more in her. With this—released the same year as That Darn Cat!—she suddenly established herself as the indie queen of the late ’90s.

    8. Henry Fool
      Written and directed by Hal Hartley

      ‘OK, you got me outnumbered here four to one and you’re gonna kill me here tonight and not a soul in this dimly lit world is gonna notice I’m gone. But one of you, one of you, one of you is gonna have his eye torn out. Period. . . . One of you poor, underpaid jerks is gonna have an eye ripped out of its socket. I promise. It’s a small thing perhaps, all things considered, but I will succeed, because it’s the only thing I have left to do in this world. So why don’t you just take a good look at one another one last time, and think it over a few minutes more.’

    9. Sunday
      Directed by Jonathan Nossiter
      Written by Nossiter and James Lasdun, from a story by Lasdun

      ‘I guess I’m too old to play a human being.’

    10. Face/Off
      Directed by John Woo
      Written by Mike Werb and Michael Colleary

      This crazed sci-fi doppelgängerung is John Woo’s best American movie, and frankly I like it better than most of his Hong Kong output too.

    11. Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage)
    12. Ulee’s Gold (Victor Nuñez)
    13. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol)
    14. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
    15. Public Housing (Frederick Wiseman)
    16. The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 (Sam Green)
    17. The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet)
    18. The Eel (Shohei Imamura)
    19. Gummo (Harmony Korine)
    20. Absolute Power (Clint Eastwood)

    Now, remember, that is Jesse Walker’s list, not mine. Mine is a bit different.

    Long-form narrative fiction, either as broadcast on TV or as streamed online, in series and “mini-series” format, is different enough from one-night screened film that I usually do not include it in these “best-of” lists. Besides, I have never bothered to even give Oz a try. So my own ranking — and let us remember, these ranks are more for sport than expressions of a science — would obviously exclude Jesse’s first pick, and probably look something like this:

    1. Gattaca
      Written & directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law.

      Contrary to ‘the Pajama Guy,’ I do not regard this movie as exhibiting a ‘good idea poorly executed,’ but as a great idea brilliantly executed. Besides, it includes Gore Vidal in one of his best supporting performances. It is also science fiction as I like it best: about ideas and their impact on our lives, not on explosions somehow heard in space.

    2. fast, cheap & out of control
      Directed by Errol Morris

      This is a brilliantly conceived, edited, and scored documentary that explores four men with their peculiar (if entertainingly related) obsessions: animal topiary, wild animal-taming, the mole rat, and robotics. It is the latter subject that provides the title, for the roboticist imagined creating robots based on insect behavior and intelligence, not on human intelligence, and putting many robots onto the surface of an alien planet (such as Mars) and counting on redundancy. Sort of like treating information as life, and robots as sperm and not eggs. (The idea of this sort of robotic approach appears also, earlier, in Darrin Morgan’s great second contribution to The X-Files, The War of the Coprophages.) The Errol Morris film remains one of my favorite from this documentarian/visual essayist, and is probably the one that proceeds at the crispest pace: fast, very fast indeed. But not cheap. And not out of control.

    3. As Good as It Gets
      Directed by James L. Brooks, starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt Greg Kinnear, and Cuba Gooding Jr.

      Look, I know this is a very popular film. But unlike the biggest film of the year, the execrable Titanic, this film is a portrait not only of interesting people trying to adapt to each other and learn how to improve, to become better people, it is a romance we have not quite seen before. Nicholson plays a deeply neurotic romance writer with a decided lack of ‘people skills.’ It is obvious that this character has used being nasty to others as a way to provide emotional security for himself. But we see him change in this film, and that makes the film worthwhile — and better than most films these days. Also, the film is quite funny. If occasionally a little hard for me to take (the comedy of embarrassment not being something I tend to enjoy much — I get embarrassed for others so easily).

    4. The Sweet Hereafter
      Written & directed by Atom Egoyan (from a novel by Russell Banks)

      An extremely sad tale of people trying to deal with a great community tragedy. Lovely, well worth watching.

    5. The Ice Storm
      Written by James Schamus, from a novel by Rick Moody; directed by Ang Lee. Starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Henry Czerny, Christina Ricci.,

      This is not entirely dissimilar from Atom Egoyan’s movie, above. At least, in memory it seems a sad film about tragedy, guilt, and empty lives. Since I remember more scenes from it than from The Sweet Hereafter, perhaps it should be placed above it in order. But remember: these rankings are not scientific, or even expressions of urgent personal opinion. They are indicators of admiration and love. And yes, I was deeply affected by this film.

    6. Jackie Brown
      Written & directed by Quentin Tarantino (from a novel by Elmore Leonard)

      I liked this film better the second viewing than the first, and better the third time than the second. If I see it once more, it may move closer to the top of this list.

    7. Henry Fool
      Written & directed by Hal Hartley, starring Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey.

      My friend Eric Dixon loves this indy auteur, Hal Hartley. I am a tad iffy on the filmmaker, being a bit uncomfortable with a certain clumsiness in too many of his films. They are not quite polished. And yet, he has something going for him in this film — as in several other works — that bowled me over the first time I saw it. I have enjoyed Henry Fool’s sequels as well.

    8. Chasing Amy
      Written & directed by Kevin Smith, starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Ethan Suplee, Scott Mosier.

      This is such a step above the Clerks films that it bears marking. I know it is often denigrated as somehow . . . not respectable, and it does have Ben Affleck in a leading role, and the actor has delivered some dubious performances in his career. But the female lead is magnificent, and Jason Lee does a great job in a supporting role. The characters are quirky and original, and the milieu is refreshing. Further, the key scene to which the plot leads us is a corker. I remember my first time watching this film. As that scene approached, I saw the direction that it could go and I may have mumbled ‘surely Smith is not going there.’ But he did. He went there. All the way. And the scene is hilarious. The film seems a very realistic take on the rom-com, to me, even if that seemingly preposterous, comic, climactic Proposition is ‘unbelievable.’ I know: I go out on a limb here. I am unrepentant.

    9. The Spanish Prisoner
      Written & directed by David Mamet, starring Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon.

      A very clever take on con artistry, even better than House of Games from a decade previous.

    Now, I do not have a tenth on my list. Why? Because two of the most memorable movies of the year are messes. They are so egregious, each in its special way, that one could, with some plausibility, put them on a Worst Of the Year list.

    But any movie so expertly made as these two deserve special mention. I do not know how to place them. So I will let them stand as runners-up for the tenth-best of that year. Each is a cautionary tale, both in theme and in execution. So, let them sit here on the bottom of my list, to spark some thought:

    • Lolita
      Written by Stephen Schiff based on the great novel by Vladimir Nabokov, directed by Adrian Lyne, and starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella.

      Upon reading it, I judged the novel impossible to make into a movie. And yet it has been done twice. The first time was in the early 1960s by Stanley Kubrick, and the pedophilia theme was updated: the title inamorata was played as a teenage girl by a teenager, not the girl on the cusp at all . . . and an attractive one at that. It’s a good movie, maybe the best role for James Mason. Further, it gets at a crucial element of the book: it is a dark comedy. And yet the Kubrick effort is far enough away from the book that it seems almost further from the classic novel than that novel is from its precursors, the posthumously published The Enchanter (1986) and the identically titled short story from the early 20th century written by another author entirely. The 1997 movie premiered in Europe and then debuted in America in late 1998 — and the lag is understandable. It goes a different direction. In some ways it is much closer to the novel. The actress who plays Lolita, for example, seems less the teenybopper and more the “nymphet” — though Dominique Swain was about the same age as Miss Sue Lyon when the 1962 work was shot. The whole affair is much more . . . well, it was rated R in part for “aberrant sexual behavior.” The main sex scene between Humbert Humbert (played brilliantly by Jeremy Irons) and Lolita is unforgettable — so see it at your own risk. It is especially disturbing because most of the dark comedy is gone. It is merely dark. Indeed, it seems to play as a twisted romance of sorts. A tragedy, maybe. Which I understand the novel was, in a sense, but . . . the movie seems somehow very wrong, and less moral than the book. Oh, and we “get” to see Frank Langella in full-frontal nudity. Alrighty then. I have never read the unused Nabokov screenplay for the work, but I know how I would write the screenplay, and how to cinematically frame the first half as separate from the second half, which was a crucial structural element in the novel that is missing in both movies. But this 1997 work is brilliantly shot, acted, and . . . yes, unforgettable.

    • Boogie Nights
      Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds.

      This movie stars Marky Mark in his first screen role as Dirk Diggler, a well-endowed lad who makes it big in the porn biz as it turned from a film industry into a video industry. It is funny in the first half and then goes dark in the second. It thus has a structure that the Lolita films should have had. But it becomes unduly chaotic as it grinds home the apparent message, and more than a bit hard to watch. Indeed, my “review” of Boogie Nights, delivered to my friends at the time, was short and sweet: like Dirk Diggler’s dick, it is way too long.

    twv

    * Or maybe in late 1996, I cannot remember. He had worked with me under the presiding mad genius of R.W. Bradford, at Liberty magazine. But my copies of the first few issues of 1997 seem to be missing, so I cannot check the even the season of his exit from Liberty’s masthead.