Archives for category: Video —A/V
Being Hercule, so to speak; publicity photo from The Hollywood Reporter, June 21, 2018.

John Malkovich stars as Hercule Poirot in a 2018 BBC rendition of Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, now streaming on Amazon Prime. And his performance bookends a clever thriller just out on Netflix in a film called Velvet Buzzsaw.

I saw the latter, which stars Jake Gyllenhall and Rene Russo (see below) and a few other familiar faces. Think of the movie Final Destination crossed with the old TV show Friday the 13th, but with a satirical twist. Jake G’s performance is . . . odd. He plays a bisexual art critic but with gay mannerisms. Probably perfect for a satire . . . not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Very well done. I greatly enjoyed it.

Haven’t watched the Poirot miniseries yet, since Tony Randall’s performance in the same story lingers in memory. From the first few scenes it looks like they have taken the story in a very different direction than was taken in the film starring Randall.

Velvet Buzzsaw; see this weekend’s review in the Chicago Tribune.

Explaining religion is not necessarily a simple matter.

I grew up taught to believe that the stories of my religion were true. But as I grew older, certain inconsistencies and antinomies weighed upon my mind, and I found myself incredulous about the whole matter, so I gave up on the beliefs and the rites.

But, if not literally true, is religion — or all religions, or some — figuratively true? Supremely useful? Something else?

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Ch. II

I was taught to regard the religion I was born into as true, literally so, and all others as false, with a faint chance that shadow meaning sometimes figuratively refracting the truth — but more likely “of the Devil.” Converting out of the religion, it was easy to treat my youthful theological stance as Atheism With One Exception, making actual atheism merely a final step.

But I did understand a discordant note to this secular triumphalism: henotheism. It was clear that Judaism began with a polytheism-in-fact but monotheism-in-practice: “thou shalt have no other gods before Me” more than implied a multiplicity of deities. Yahweh was good, all others were bad — or, even less strong a position: Yahweh was ours and all others were theirs. The Chosen People idea seemed to imply one of many gods choosing and nurturing a bloodline of people to serve His agenda. But this idea, while clear in my head, I somehow never took all that seriously.

What did I take seriously? The “ghost theory” and exaptation. These ideas can be found in the sociology of Herbert Spencer, and the latter has been greatly expanded by contemporary evolutionary psychology. Beliefs in the gods arose from memories of dead leaders echoing in human brains and showing up in dreams. And hallucinations. That is the irritant that starts the pearl that is religion. But then something else happens: religious belief and practice is discovered to be useful.

To all sorts of people. For good and ill.

But one use we fell into. It turns out that when we less-than-well-tempered hominids — Hominoids — even contemplate a putatively divine being or concept, or even any “transcendent object” or priniple, we think and behave less like selfish, short-sighted apes. We begin to behave morally.

And thus the transcendent notion, whatever it is, can serve as a social signal that can encourage others to see our intent to coöperate, not engage in harm. Whatever religious idea we hold can gain a lot of traction when folks come to rely on such signalling.

Thus, the gods.

A simple story, this secular account, and it can be filed under the heading Exaptation — a thing that originated for one reason surviving for other reasons. It was as if adapted for a new purpose, but as naturally selected, sort of adapting itself.

A meme — a replicable habit — spread for reasons independent of its explicit rationale.

Great story.

It may even be true.

Almost certainly it is true.

But it is not the whole story: we still have that initial irritant. The “ghosts.” Which though inconvenient after the religion becomes a memetic hit, still persist.

And there is an outside possibility that some of those irritants in the oyster of our imaginations are, themselves, Not What They Seem.

They may be neither dreams nor hallucinations nor memories.

They might be aliens.

In a fascinating dcumentary about a man who paints his alleged encounters with aliens, some of whom with which he engages in sexual acts, Love and Saucers, we learn about an odd variety of religious experience, the sexual extraterrestrial encounter. Philosopher Jeffrey Kripal, quoted in the movie, tells us that religious experiences with a sexual component are common in the literature. He also sees alien encounter and abduction stories as not dissimilar from past religious tales. What they interpreted as angels we, in a more scientific age, interpret as extraterrestrials.

And such experiences are not uncommon.

So, do we have these experiences because of some quirk of our psychologies, as evolved from the distant past?

Or is it something more direct?

I do not know.

I have never had an encounter as described by the painter in Love and Saucers. It would be easy to mock him. That is something I am sure my “skeptic” friends online would be inclined to do.

But I no longer do such things. If David Huggins, the subject of the documentary, is conjuring these “memories” by confabulation, that is almost as astounding as the events he describes.

And then there is the wider context. Do we have certainty that encounters with “aliens” do not happen? I do not have that certainty of conviction, of dismissive incredulity. I do not have enough faith to dismiss out of hand the UFO context.

Now, I understand, that wider context and the evidence for it may be peculiar in the extreme, sure — but it is vast. The number of documents leaked from governments, and the hundreds — the thousands — of seemingly earnest testimonies from military personnel and government contractors, airline passengers, and workers about encounters with bizarre flying and submersible crafts is huge. And these crafts — in government documents and reports as well as in reams of testimony, apparently run according to principles nothing like the technology we know, which is based on aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, and on the many types of internal combustion engines . . . well, the number and weight of the testimony is almost disturbing.

Further, there appears to be an ongoing government disclosure of information about these encounters, around the world, and even — belatedly, with a great lag — from the biggest, most UFOey government of them all, the United States of Military Industrial Complex.

I do not know what to make of all this. Not with anything approaching certainty. And were it not for the Cato Institute, I might not be thinking about it at all.

A number of years ago the libertaran think tank fired one of its consulting scholars, economist Dom Armentano — removed him from their honor roll, so to speak. Why? Because he had come out for UFO disclosure.

Think about this. The retired professor merely expressed a support for transparency in government on an issue of public interest. But the “heroic” Cato management could not even be associated with something as tame as that.

When I heard this, I experienced something like shock. I had thought I understood the cultism of the cultural center, its proneness to shaming and shunning and marginalization . . . perpetrated to keep the hierarchy of the in-group secure against all comers. But Cato is libertarian. Do Cato-ites think their propinquity to power, geographically, makes them in the in-group? If any tribe on the planet has reason to understand the corrosive nature of in-group intellectual regimentation, it would be libertarians. And if any group should be prone to resist such nonsense, then it must be libertarians, right?

Apparently not. Cato was so eager for respectability, and so unimaginative that an illustrious economist had to be purged.

This is when I realized the astounding extent of ideological cultism in America, and its corrupting powers. And, once you realize how powerful that propensity is, then you can see how it could be manipulated.

By a conspiracy. At a power center.

For, alas, it seems likely that some conspiracy is involved. Either a cabal within the Deep State is conspiring to keep some dread secret from the world and from the citizens that the government putatively serves, or a big if ragtag group of military personel, domestic pilots, seamen, and a great number of civilians are perpetrating and perhaps coördinating a huge fraud.

About two years ago, I began to think the latter the less likely.

Further, I surmise, if I were in the Deep State and saw all these rumors swirl around me, I would regard them as a destabilizing force, as undermining governance by decreasing trust in basic institutions. I would earnestly support public research into and educational efforts about the phenomena, the better to thoroughly explain and debunk paranormal accounts and tall tales about UFOs and “aliens.” But, on the other hand, had I a secret to keep, a big one, letting the testimonies and photographs and rumors and urban legends spread while giving lukewarm and even preposterous counter-explanations might just work — to keep the secret. After all, I could count on all the little Catos out there, doing my work for me, keeping “the nuts” marginalized.

This does not mean that painter David Huggins is not some kind of a nut. There is room for psychological confabulation along the margins. But it sure looks like something strange is going on. The planet and its history may be stranger than we thought.

Indeed, “the gods” at the start of religions may not have been mere mirages and dreams and “visions.” Perhaps the Anunnaki and Quinametzin and Viracocha and that crowd really did help start our civilization, and that they seemed “gods” to us barely higher apes. And maybe they had some connection to the phenomena that we call “religious” — and maybe they have something to do with “aliens.”

In any case, Love and Saucers is a fascinating documentary.

And religion remains something of a mystery.

twv

Dr. Jordan Peterson came into fame and infamy for refusing to comply with a Canadian law forcing him to use the “preferred pronouns” of self-designated “gender non-binaries.”

Recently, he was challenged by linguist John McWhorter on this issue, mainly on the tangential matter of psychological insight. McWhorter’s point was that while he admitted that some students who desired a peculiar manner of address might indeed be trying to push a power play upon him, he could not be sure, and it was just easier to comply with their requests, no matter how bizarre.

Well, prudence was not Peterson’s issue with the law, and, were I in such a position, it would not be mine, either. Besides, there is an issue even more basic than politics. Easier? How is changing the basic, most in-grained features of one’s language “easier”?

But there is one sense in which McWhorter is right, it is easy to comply. Because the whole thing is in most cases a non-issue. And I am surprised that a linguist of McWhorter’s brilliance would not make a point of it. One does not address another by a “gendered” pronoun, in today’s Engish. One uses “you.”

sure-ill-address-you-by-your-preferred-pronoun-shall-it-be-you-or-thou

What all this talk about preferred pronouns is really about, as near as I can make out, is how we address others “behind their backs,” so to speak.

“I’m asked, often,” says Professor McWhorter, “to call people, singularly, ‘they.’”

In the third person.

So, what these gender-obsessed youngsters are really fretting about is not how they are addressed, but how they are referred to — in conversation in groups where they are being referenced to other people with personal and possessive pronouns.

Peterson is surely in the right that this sort of thing should be negotiated. People who cannot handle social negotiations of this sort may understandably yearn to cry to Big Brother to enforce the exact terms, but if they are bucking a long tradition, they need to stop being such . . . juveniles. And conjure up from deep within themselves a little tolerance.

And maybe even respect for the past. And biology. And . . .

After all, is it not the people who wish to change others’ behavior, and tradition of long standing, who must prove the most? The burden of persuasion usually falls upon the radicals. It is they who must be expected to be the more tolerant and forgiving. (Amusingly, in the collective, their non-gendered pronoun falls trippingly off the tongue as well as the typing fingertips — for there is no gendering of “they/them/their/theirs.”)

That they are not tolerant, in this issue, but demanding, instead, is a sign that they are pampered, “privileged” whiners with little to recommend them as civilized beings.

And, as for me . . .

mygender-meme

twv

 

 

 

N. B. The first graphic “meme,” above, is from my second memegenerator.net account: Wirkman. (Not my first, Lucian.) The second graphic meme refers to a philosophy central in the early science fiction novels of F. Paul Wilson, which featured prominently in his LaNague Federation books such as Healer (1976) and An Enemy of the State (1980). “KYFHO” stands for “Keep Your Fucking Hands Off.”

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.

twv

* 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.

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    * 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.

“Grooming gangs” is the term that is now used to designate the pattern of organized capture and forced prostitution of girls. White girls. In Britain, anyway.

In the news, the perpetrators are identified as “Asians” — but race does not seem quite right. Which is what Tommy Robinson is most exercised about in his recent video for Rebel Media:

The sex enslavement biz itself used to be called “white slavery,” and led to the 1910 passage of the Mann Act in America, much fueled by anti-Chinese sentiment. Not “Asian,” not “Muslim” (which wasn’t even on the political radar a century ago). The effect of the Mann Act, however, was largely to prosecute American black men, often high profile, especially those with white girlfriends. The evidence for Chinese-American “white slavery” is slim.

Most historians judge it a “moral panic.”

The term “white slavery” itself interests me, and not just because Tommy Robinson, in this video, doesn’t use it. It was a way of addressing sex crimes without using terms that might offend Mrs. Grundy. It was also a way of playing off the night mind of Americans, who had, the generation before, abolished slavery, which was linked to anti-black racism. “White slavery” is thus the tables turned.

It does not take a Freud, a Jung, or an Adler to see why the panic might have set in.

Now, though, today, the “white slavery” issue has come full circle, so to speak. And not in America. For there is a wider historical context. There was indeed a widespread pattern of “white slavery.” Real. Extensive. “Systemic.”

Remember “the corsairs of the Barbary Coast”?

Muslim states, or gangs (in olden times the distinction’s a little iffy) in North Africa — in cahoots with the Ottoman Empire — enslaved Europeans for centuries up until the administration of Thomas Jefferson, who would have none of it. Taking to the seas as pirates, they captured Europeans and then Americans traveling on the high seas, holding them for ransom, when possible, selling into slavery, when necessary. But they also raided European shores to kill resisters and capture women and children and the wealthy, hauling their captives off to Africa as slaves.

This started before slavery was established by the English in America, by the way. And it might best be seen as part of the long war between Islam and the non-Muslim Everywhere Else, which began soon after Islam’s original expansion.

The raiding parties scoured the shores of France and Spain, and even England and Ireland and the Netherlands and (get this) Iceland. Yes, Iceland.

This was so devastating that for a long time the French abandoned their towns along the Mediterranean shores.

IMG_2863The piracy on the open seas was, oddly, the reason for the Barbary Pirates’ undoing. Congress under President John Adams had paid ransoms to the pirates, but President Jefferson was not on board. He authorized (quite unconstitutionally, I think) the attack upon the “shores of Tripoli.” (The pirates’ nests were primarily in Salé, Rabat, Algiers, and Tunis.) The attack was astoundingly successful.

Tommy Robinson, in the linked video (above), links the rise in sex slavery gangs not to race — brown people against white people — but to religion . . . Islam teaching that the infidels may be killed or enslaved with impunity. Only by conversion to Islam could an infidel escape subservience of some sort, even slavery — and worse. And here is where it gets interesting. During the Barbary Pirates’ heyday, many captive Europeans converted. Many of the leaders in North Africa had remarkably light skin.

So it really isn’t about racism. Or, race is tangential to what was really going on. Muslims enthusiastically practiced slavery. Under Islam, black Africans to the south and white Europeans to the north were attacked and enslaved and traded and extorted — and funneled east. The Ottoman Empire was the hub of this market. Christian slaves were much prized.

American slavery was birthed, in part, by the Muslim slave trade. Where did all those slaves come from? It wasn’t Europeans raiding Africa. It was Europeans buying black Africans off of Muslim slave traders, in no small part. Muslims began large-scale buying and selling of African slaves six centuries before Europeans entered the odious business. And it was Muslims who continued to do so 100 years after.

Now it is “grooming gangs” that we have to worry about. Well, Brits do.

But the issue is not without controversy. For many obvious reasons.

And it might be worth Mr. Robinson’s time and attention to address the national culture issue. As far as I can tell, it is Pakistsnis who have been the main perps in the sex slavery biz. Also, it is worth addressing the thorny issue of consent: how many of these girls are enticed into prostitution? What is the interplay between threat and enticement?

Inquiring minds want to know.

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In “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen,” Christopher Orr has it about right, though perhaps lacking the degree of admiration his thesis should inspire. For what Woody Allen, New York filmmaker, has done is carry on a career for three decades (after his early rise and 70s-era apogee) on Epicurean grounds. A lesson to us all.

Though Allen, now 81, has maintained his frenetic pace of one feature film a year since 1982, his more recent output has been generally, yet gently, judged a disappointment. His best films of the past 20 years—Match Point, Blue Jasmine—are solid but overrated, perhaps because so many of us dream of a return to his early form.

Orr’s thesis is neatly summarized in the tag line: “Putting next to no effort into his films is the secret to sustaining his reputation.”

The upshot has been that Allen’s stature as an important filmmaker (unlike his personal reputation) has proved surprisingly sturdy—despite the withering self-assessments he offers every so often. In an interview during the filming of Match Point, he described himself as “functioning within the parameters of my mediocrity,” and went on to note that if he were ever to make another great film, it would be “by accident.” False modesty? Some, no doubt. But we would do best to take his words at face value.

For years the evidence has accumulated: Allen is an astonishingly lazy director. Often this fact gets a positive spin, as when he is described as “an actor’s director”—code for the reality that he offers his performers little or no guidance and tries to complete every scene in as few takes as possible. Here, again, Allen is bluntly honest. “I’m lazy and an imperfectionist,” he explained in a 2015 NPR interview. “Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese will work on the details until midnight and sweat it out, whereas for me, come 6 o’clock, I want to go home, I want to have dinner, I want to watch the ballgame. Filmmaking is not [the] end-all be-all of my existence.”

Droll, it is, that the hook upon which this article is hung is a fawning book by a man named “Lax”!

Orr’s major contribution, here, I will not spoil. Read the essay in The Atlantic. How does Woody Allen’s coasting career work? How has Woody gone so far on his hoary masterwork movies — his “early, funny ones”? Orr explains.

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I have long admired Woody Allen’s modus operandi, as witnessed in the past two or three decades; I see it as “inertial mastery” — coasting as an art form. He makes pleasant entertainments for distracted smart people, without the bother of great effort on anyone’s part. Genius forbidden. Or at least well-sublimated to practical constraints.

For the record, I couldn’t get past the eleventh minute of Irrational Man, but I thought Blue Jasmine was almost great; Whatever Works was not bad (tho completely blown out of the water by its star’s Netflix comedy, Clear History); and the award-winning Midnight in Paris was somehow annoying, irksome because so winsome, as if a scrap from a Wes Anderson film had taken on a life of its own and commandeered a movie studio, complete with a zombie stars and zombie director.

Hollywood Ending, on the other hand, is far worse  a vexation until its one good joke, the very conclusion, which almost makes up for the whole affair. One wonders whether we Woody fans are now desperate that Woody’s career will somehow mirror that specific travesty, redeemed by one near-death, ectoplasmic spit take — one final, good guffaw. To end it all.

Or put it another way, the bulk of Woody’s film career can be compared to the uxoriousness of a very old couple: everything is now memories and photo albums and winks to the past. The romance is dead; love live the romance! (Oh, and pass me the Gefilte.)

Match Point, I believe, is the most instructive Woody effort . . . in how it failed. It was simply not tight enough or acted well enough to deliver on its thesis; the technique didn’t match the point, so to speak. For yes, it had promise: its premise. But boy, was the acting bad, the pacing sloppy. That is why, despite its magnificent idea — a high concept perhaps better than the similar animating notion to the first of Woody’s “over-praised phase” masterworks, Crimes and Misdemeanors — it was a mis-serve.

And yet . . . I still watch Woody Allen’s movies. Most of them, anyway.

Why? For the same reason one still eats meals: it is better than dying.

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N.B. I like to think that the Larry David detail from the Whatever Works poster is a fitting mirror to the Woody Problem.

How (and How Not) To Think About The Stats, the Policies, and Moral Panic, Especially as It Relates to the Strange Case of Chris Cantwell

Postmoderns have trouble understanding the facts and apparent paradoxes of the social patterns regarding intelligence, sociality, race, etc., and then applying some evaluative, normative rubric. Which makes them freak out when they encounter someone who handles these things differently . . . in error or not.

I discuss such issues fairly often, but I do not study them as carefully as others. Here are two very different people who do think about such issues in more detail than I. One of them calls himself a libertarian; the other does not. My way of looking at the world is far more similar to the one who does not call herself a libertarian.

Karen Straughan Asks Questions, Speaks Sense

Karen Straughan dared interview the notorious Chris Cantwell. An amazing conversation, one that should help you understand Cantwell:

If this disturbs you, you should consider what Ms. Straughan thinks about it all:

The amusing thing about having a fabulist as President is that it gives us all something to talk about while he pushes through as much of his promised agenda as he can.

Fake out!

imageYeah, I’ve been tricked by Trump’s Twitter feed, too. But, to repeat something I said last month, there is a method to his madness. He is spinning the media. I do believe this is according to a plan. He is a magician. Or, maybe, Iago + troll.

I was just watching the Egregious Hack, George Stephanopoulis, go into high moral dudgeon about the utter implausibility that the White House was spouting in defense of the Trump Tower Wiretap Tweet. The Hack seemed to think he was on to something. It was as if he thought that by exposing this one lie, the whole Trump movement would crumble.

Fool!

Yes, he should know better. It was he, after all, who was present at the creation of the Post-Truth society. His beloved Clintons mastered stonewalling and sheer cussed persistence long after after a lie had been found out.

The Clintons had learned that being caught in a lie is very much like Death — for everybody else. The lied-to go through stages: denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance. As long as the caught liar refuses to deal with the truth and the meaning of is and whatnot, those he has lied to deal with the awful fact as best they can. If the liar is resolute, in the end the lied-to merely accepts that something happened not to their liking, and carry on as if truth were not a thing.

And, in politics, it needn’t be. And has not been for a long time.

Trump is merely playing the game by his standards, now, not the media’s.

We could be witnessing the End Times ushered in the side door, or the greatest political rescue mission negotiated out the back. I don’t know.

But it is hysterically funny.

It is great fun, anyway, watching the Egregious Hack and his cohorts twist in the wind, as Trump plays them.

Just remember to laugh. (Sometimes one forgets to breathe.) We are witnessing the complete erosion of the establishment’s patina, a wiping away of all surface luster. We shall soon be witnessing nothing other than naked power.

Yes. You can then call it the Apocalypse. For much will then be revealed.

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The news comedy shows are, for the most part, denunciation shows. This description fits Jon Stewart’s old topical comedy show and Trevor Noah’s lamer version; Bill Maher’s HBO warhorse, and John Oliver’s hipper variant on the same network; and, especially, the best one in the business, RT’s Redacted Tonight

The worst of the lot is surely Samantha Bee’s, but perhaps I err. I have not really been able to watch her after she left The Daily Show. Larry Wilmore’s is a little better, but, last I checked it was relentlessly race-obsessed. I feel icky after watching it — like other people feel after they’ve experienced Milo, who has a touring show, not a TV show.

Red Eye with Tom Shillue on Fox is a little less denunciatory (perhaps by being more defensive?), and Greg Gutfeld’s new weekend show is . . . well, you explain it to me. These latter two are the only non-left-leaning of such shows that I am aware of. That is, the hosts are not leftists.

Many people miss Stephen Colbert’s parody show of Bill O’Reilly. Not me. I tired of it after about the second episode. It is worth noting that YouTube’s The Young Turks works as a self-parody show — an unintentional self-parody show.

Topical comedy is hard, I am sure. Being fresh and always witty? Maddeningly difficult. That is one reason these topical comedy shows resort to relentless denunciation. When you are not being truly funny, you can rely on your audience’s out-group hatred and loathing — and self-righteous sense of in-group superiority — to maintain passion and high-pitch enthusiasm. Thus delighted laughter is replaced with derisive howls

The problem with all this is that they become uncomfortably close to the show depicted in A Face in the Crowd, the great Elia Kazan film starring Andy Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes: grand examples of demagoguery. This is especially the case for the shows with live audiences. They want red meat (or the leftist soy-and-quinoa equivalent), and there is usually one guest who serves as the lion pride’s delectable Christian treat.

Most of these shows sport panel “debate” segments. These, of course, are played for comedy, but also for argumentative purposes, too. The better to serve the denunciation game. And yet sometimes one actually witnesses productive, honest debate. Not often. Sometimes.

Last week, mere days before the aforementioned Milo Yiannopoulis was publicly hit with a disgrace campaign based on some pedophilia-related comments he had made, the gay conservative free-speech provocateur appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Last week I wrote about his one-on-one interview with Maher at the top of the show. I could not bear to watch the panel segment with Milo . . . until yesterday, at which point I hastily put together a video about what went wrong. The problem was more than mere denunciation, though denunciations there were, all around:

I briefly comment on Vee’s explanatory video, too, so I should put up his link:

The key concepts that I tried to add to the debate are the two main problems we see in modern discourse all the time, especially on television topical comedy shows:

1. Data impasses, and

2. Contractual impasses.

Either kind of stalemate-inducing situation scuttles profitable dialogue. And, frankly, neither serves as humor, either. Sure, the second kind usually takes the form of mutual denunciation, but such cases do not seem funny to me. Not at all. They are usually excruciating.

The denunciation shows might consider growing up.

Or die. That would be good, too.

To be replaced by real interviews and real debates.

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