Rightwing Film Geek

The more, the better

Let me see if I’ve got this straight:

  • A daily dose of from 0.05 to 0.15 mg of levonorgestrel requires a prescription.
  • Requiring that a 1.5 mg dose of levonorgestrel must have a prescription is patriarchal tyranny over women’s bodies, sexphobic anti-scientism and the precursor to a HANDMAID’S TALE-like theocracy.

That’s the unavoidable conclusion of this atrocious and politicized decision (courtesy of blackmail from “the mom in sneakers and the devil in Prada“) to make available Plan-B “emergency contraception” over the counter. From Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America:

Since birth control pills require a prescription and a doctor’s supervision during use, how can the FDA or the drug manufacturer condone providing Plan B (a mega-dose of the same drugs) over-the-counter? Widespread access to Plan B would expose women to the health risks that here-to-fore were acknowledged by doctors who screened women before prescribing birth control pills and then monitored them for the wide variety of contra-indicators for their use.

To be sure, in the first of the above-mentioned dosages, many forms of the Pill also have estrogen or something that mimics its effects. But it’s not as though progestins like Plan-B don’t pose real health risks quite on their own or that progestin-only oral contraceptives don’t also require prescriptions.

Today’s greatest winner — trial lawyers, who will soon receive a bountiful new field of cases, of people without medical training calibrating their use of drugs several times more powerful than what they need a prescription for when the stated purpose is something else (a fact that is chemically and biologically irrelevant). Mark my words — within the decade, Barr Laboratories will either be hiding behind immunity granted by a Democrat Congress, bankrupt/in receivership, or will have sold Plan-B to the government or some group like Planned Parenthood.

Let’s face it. If you’re not far-sighted enough to avoid an unwanted pregnancy (there are two known methods — one infallible; the other immoral but still mostly effective) … are you fit to be self-medicating? Prescriptions, and the health warnings that accompany them, are required for a reason. I mean, if you get aspirin or cough syrup and take three times the required dose because your headache is THIS BIG or whatever … nothing very terrible will happen. But is saying that messing with body chemistry like some female version of Barry Bonds should not be as easy as buying a pack of Marlboros really so awful?

But then, abortion poisons everything it touches. This is an old story, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusions that feminists want every abortion that could occur to occur. For example, whether it’s the killing of an unborn child or not, abortion is still unquestionably a major surgical procedure, especially later in pregnancy.¹ Yet it’s usually treated like an outpatient or on-demand service, done outside a hospital, with little recovery time, and exempt from a score of other state and local regulations. And most scandalously of all, on a minor without a parent’s consent or foreknowledge.²
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¹ As feminists will argue when it suits them — as when they want all OB/GYNs be certified to perform abortions as a licensing requirement. But not when not — as noted next.
² In case I’m not clear, this is not an argument per se against the morality of contraception or abortion. I’m simply noting that if they are mere medical procedures like any other, then the same regulatory regimes should surely be being applied. And this is not so. Which indicates bad faith.

August 24, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oh yeah, there’s films I’ve seen, Part 2

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TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY (Adam McKay, USA, 2006, 6)

TALLADEGA NIGHTS has one of the greatest movie-stealing comic performances in recent movie history — Sacha Baron Cohen’s turn as Girard, a French Formula One driver coming to NASCAR to show oo eez bohss — the movie’s worth seeing to hear Cohen say “Formula One.” It’s worthy of comparison to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. And no, it’s not “Victor just likes seeing the frogs made fools of” — I am an ALI G SHOW fanboy without any particular opinion of Austrians, Kazakhs or the West Side of Staines. Cohen, a brilliant parodic actor, plays Girard as a slightly, but only slightly, more masculine version of Viennese Fashionista Bruno. He’s somewhere between a collection of tics and a fully-formed character — we see him winning a race while reading L’ETRANGER (not THE STRANGER or THE OUTSIDER, btw) to a French-language cover of “Paint It, Black.” Which isn’t strictly speaking plausible, but so outlandish that it’s funny anyway. Cohen’s first scene — where he invades a bar to announce his intentions — so jump-starts the movie (and made me impatient during the subsequent scenes he’s not involved in) that it should be a front-runner for scene of the year in a certain movie-nerd poll. That is a shameless plug, BTW.

I agree with Mikeski (scroll down to the 5s) that Cohen’s performance is so brilliant because it’s in such a different register from the rest of TALLADEGA NIGHTS. Cohen’s characters are turned-up-to-13 outsized caricatures, but Cohen plays them perfectly straight-in-their own minds. Michael goes on to say that it “subverts” the film; I’d say, with a slightly different agenda, that Cohen’s performance throws you out of the movie, but that’s not a bad thing for a parody, particularly one that sometimes forgets that it’s that.

“The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” title, the initial obviously-fake quote from Eleanor Roosevelt and the pre-existence of DAYS OF THUNDER promise something as outlandish as AIRPLANE! or THE NAKED GUN. But TALLADEGA NIGHTS is a bit too laid-back in pacing, acting, and image style. Other than the NASCAR-style of product-placement on the cars, there’s no Boschian qualities of a frame from the Zucker/Abrahams team or THE SIMPSONS. Not frenetic enough for a movie that has jokes about “The Official Tampon of NASCAR”™ Again, the product placement aside, there’s little parody of NASCAR or the surrounding culture (the movie never takes us to the infield, say).

There’s some other turns to like too, mostly in the category of actors doing their usual schtick turned up one notch too far or having some Southern-fried gravy poured over it — Gary Cole’s smarminess, John C. Reilly’s ingratiating best buddy. I see I’ve written most everything I wanted to say about this movie without mentioning Will Ferrell. I guess that’s because I think he works best as counterpoint, as straight man. He does it well, but actually being funny in and by himself (like running around the track in his tighty-whiteys and a crash helmet) — I don’t think Ferrell is that.

August 15, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Oh yeah, there’s films I’ve seen, Part 1

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SCOOP (Woody Allen, Britain, 2006, 5)

It’s morally refreshing that Woody casts himself opposite a comely blonde 50 years his junior … and does not write himself into bed with her. And by the standards of recent Woody, “5” is actually a good movie, though obviously not the brilliant MATCH POINT. Some of the lines fall flat — the one in the trailer about “hitting our two heads together” clangs even worse in context. Neither the solution to the Tarot Card killer mystery nor why Woody becomes a part of Scarlett’s sleuthing scheme makes sense (in MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY, which this films resembles in many respects, Woody’s character was married to Diane Keaton’s ball of energy).

But there is quite a bit to like. It’s as if Allen is trying to make a Hitchcock movie, only succeeding much more than he did with Bergman in INTERIORS, Murnau-Lang in SHADOWS AND FOG and Fellini in STARDUST MEMORIES. It’s a bit lighter than most of Hitchcock, but Scarlett Johansson does (yawn) a very good job in a role that’s three parts the classic heedless screwball-comedy heroine (Keaton in MMM), to one part Hitchcockian blonde. She’s turned “Up” a little here from her usual placidity, but that seems appropriate for an American college student pursuing the story of her life. Hugh Jackman drips charm off his fingertips (more Hitch). There’s a lengthy scene involving getting into a cellar to hunt for clues (that’s NOTORIOUS).

If you can get past its basic unbelievability, the script holds your attention — the clues drop in at all the right moments. Even Woody himself — an atrocious actor by any standard — profits from playing someone intentionally buffoonish and ridiculous, so even his 50-year-old jokes kinda “work” when they don’t. Not much more here than a great episode of McMILLAN AND WIFE (plus for me the chance to meet G-Money in person, who has a really strong review of it here), but that’s still way better than ANYTHING ELSE or CELEBRITY.

August 14, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

IMPORTANT NEWS OF THE DAY!!!!!

Two “All-American” college students were victims of racial profiling in Ohio — it’s just unfortunate that their names were Fritz, Luigi and Akira Osama and Ali.

Nor is this all. Also the US president uses the term “Islamic fascists.” The German-American Bund Council on American-Islamic Relations is on the case, as cited in the Al-Reuters report:

We believe this is an ill-advised term and we believe that it is counter-productive to associate Islam or Muslims with fascism … We ought to take advantage of these incidents to make sure that we do not start a religious war against Islam and Muslims.

CAIR, carefully noting that there are only “alleged” terror plots, takes the role of leadership in this time of national and world crisis to warn against the great evil of our day — ethnic stereotyping:

“The American Muslim community supports efforts to ensure the safety and security of the traveling public,” said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. “We once again urge law enforcement authorities and elected officials to caution against stereotyping entire religious or ethnic groups based on the alleged actions of individuals.”

British Muslim leaders also warn against the imminent pogrom:

We need to find out what was the connection between 7/7 and subsequent attacks. It is imperative to find that link to stop continuing Islamophobic attacks
(As Allahpundit asked: “Isn’t it more imperative to ‘find’ that link to stop terrorist attacks?”)

And the worst is yet to come as Abdurahman Jafar, vice-chairman of British Muslim Council’s legal affairs committee, warns.

Whether the result is successful or not does not matter. Muslims will be stigmatised and kids will come back from school with more vitriol thrown at them
(wondering … does vitriol produce this effect?)

Mr. Jafar puts the matter most eloquently. It. Does. Not. Matter. … what links to “alleged” terror may be among British Muslims. What. Does. Matter. … is that Muslims not be stigmatized. The London Times names the 19 latest victims of racial profiling:

Umir Hussain, Muhammed Usman Saddique, Waheed Zaman, Assan Abdullah Khan, Waseem Kayani, Waheed Arafat Khan, Cossor Ali, Tayib Rauf, Ibrahim Savant, Osman Adam Khatib, Shamin Mohammed Uddin, Amin Asmin Tariq, Shazad Khuram Ali, Tanvir Hussain, Umar Islam (born Brian Young), Assad Sarwar, Abdullah Ali, Abdul Muneem Patel, Nabeel Hussain

What … no Mary Margaret O’Malley, no Luigi Benvenuti, no Bobby Jack “Tater” Hatfield, no Sven Olsson, no Jacob Feldman, no Shamika Robinson, no Kumiko Yamamoto, no Lee Chin, no Rudolf Guttmacher, no Leszek Kowalski, no Juan Gomez Castro, no Rajiv Singh? wtf is going on here? This is prima facie racial profiling on a grand scale. And not smart, since it only pisses off Muslims who SO want to be America’s friends.

Anything else happen in the news today?

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

The P.R. lie

David Mamet, one of my favorite writer-directors, had a column in the Chicago Tribune where he bluntly states some ugly truths about the Middle East, including the irrationality of the focus on Mel Gibson, ugly though what he said was.

Many Jews are upset with Mel Gibson because they believe in something called “the public relations war.”

But Mamet says there is no such thing, because Israel and the Arabs pursue self-evidently morally different causes (“Israel wants peace, the Arabs want Israel gone”) without it making a dent on “world public opinion.” So, he concludes, we are dealing with an irrational animus toward Israel fostering such chimeric notions as “cycle of violence” and “disparity of force.”¹

He also says that attempts to “address root causes” are inherently anti-Semitic when dealing with what is simply an irrational hatred (and anyone who maintains that the Arabs are not irrational anti-Semitic haters, marinated to the bone, is deluded).

That the Western press consistently characterizes the Israeli actions as immoral is anti-Semitism. … The Jews are not the victims of bad PR. They are the victims of anti-Semitism. Europe has always been devoted to the destruction of the Jews. At times it is acute; it is always chronic. …
To ask “must there not be a cause for this anti-Semitism?” is an outrage, similar to asking the rape victim “how short a skirt were you wearing?” The question cannot be posited without, at least, the implication of the victim “having, somehow, at least in part, ‘brought it on yourself’.”

The column piqued my interest in what is easily the most significant gap in my “Mamet-seen” list — the film of HOMICIDE, where Jewish identity is obviously more central than in any of Mamet’s other work. In fact, I’m tempted to say, HOMICIDE is the only film where it’s a centrally and explicitly textual matter — certainly I don’t recall it anywhere else and I’m enough of a Mamet fanboy to have liked the films of OLEANNA and AMERICAN BUFFALO.
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¹ Hezbollah and other Islamists know what they are doing in playing The Victim Card to Western media. The contemporary West has so thoroughly turned away from the (distorted, BTW) notion that “might makes right” that we’ve de facto embraced the ludicrous proposition that therefore “might makes wrong” or “weakness makes right” (the “oppressed” are somehow more authentic and honest, doncha know). So Israel must be being a bully because it has overwhelming military superiority.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | anti-Semitism, David Mamet, Middle East | , , | Leave a comment

Missing from WORLD TRADE CENTER

cartoons.jpgReaction shots from the Palestinian dear-hearts, taking time out from their marches and their studies. But don’t look for that kind of stuff in the MSM — it might “inflame” people. Not these people, you understand — the Western media and peace activists can aid their feasting on images like these all day — no problemo.

Of course, since the world media has to keep Israel’s “atrocities” front and center, they resort to recycling images, every time claiming them the result of the latest Israeli bombing (read the captions). Not to speak of manufacturing atrocities where none happened, staging photo-ops, or running misleading images or information — all curiously making the Jews (“that’s J-E-W-S“) look in a worse light. This is not a new practice and the result of past Arab treatment of photographers who snap embarrassing pictures.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Japan, be a state

Speaking of the delegitimization of force (in the name of passive-aggressive guiltmongering, the “force” of our time) China and South Korea are protesting visits to a shrine to Japan’s war dead by its prime minister and likely-designate. If I were Japanese, I’d give them the raspberry. This is no more that Bush (or Clinton) visiting Arlington National Cemetery. And this is not made different by matters of the justice of WW2 per se … love of country may be carried to excess, but hatred/shame/guilt of country leaves you with no country worth loving at all.

What the Chinese and Koreans want is for Japan to cultivate its national self-image and attitude toward history, in as “hatriotic” a fashion as possible, thank you very much. That’s unnatural — and not coincidentally, it also happens to be the narrative that China and Korea propagate for the purpose of their national “muthoi.” In other words, it’s imperialism by other means, remolding Japanese into thinking like good Chinese or Koreans.

My favorite quote in the Reuters story is from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. Keep in mind this is a regime that still considers Mao Tse-tung its founder, so see if you can avoid detecting the whiffs of the Little Red Book, both in rhetorical style and concepts:

Dealing with the history problem based on a correct view of history will be to the benefit of both the Japanese and Chinese peoples.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

The end of sports programming

I thought rock bottom on sports-programming had been reached a few months ago when I saw, when looking at one of the TVs at a sports bar, a football video game contest/tournament being shown as programming on ESPN (making a spectacle of a simulacrum — Baudrillard, where are you).

But my colleague Tim Lemke topped that with a Sign of the Apocalypse on Wednesday’s front page. Madden 07 has become a sports event in its own right. Complete with … get this … a pay-per-view special. $19.95 to watch basically an infomercial on how to play a video game? Yes. I am not making this up.

Tim once came over to my apartment to watch pay-per-view, but of a legitimate athletic contest — the John Ruiz-Roy Jones Jr. fight, if memory serves. I’d be the first to admit that video games left me behind (or maybe I just left them behind) in the late-80s — Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man. But I always thought the point of athletics as a spectacle, as a spectator activity, was to be wowed. To see people do stuff that popped your eyes out, that you couldn’t do, that involved an element of physicality.

But in the era of reality TV, that believes in the name of pig-headed egalitarianism that *anyone* can be a star/athlete — apparently not. Now, more and more of the programming on sports channels (the proliferation of them also undoubtedly accounts for some of this — they need to fill the hours somehow) is taken up by what can at best be called leisure activities. There always had been the fishing and hunting shows that were staples of Saturday mornings on the UHF channels, of course.

But in recent years, and in bigger venues, this has expanded to include card games, spelling bees, Scrabble/crossword and similar intellectual pursuits. So, everyone can be an athlete. Now the ultimate (as far as I can think of) — a computer representation of the game that can be seen at other times on the same channel, as itself.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Ingmar Bergman criticizes

Girish Shambu¹ posts a very funny excerpt from John Simon’s “Ingmar Bergman Directs” of Simon and Bergman kvetching over some of the great directors of the late-60s and early-70s. I remember reading it years ago and cheering that Bergman (whom I love) so loathed Jean-Luc Godard (whom I loathe) and had no use for Pier Paolo Pasolini (whom I generally don’t *get*). It was a nice bit of critical bookkeeping and synchronicity, although somewhat sullied by Bergman’s elsewhere-stated dislike for Alfred Hitchcock.

update: Actually Bergman’s opinion of Hitchcock wasn’t nearly as negative as my memory had it being. Here is the exchange:

Simon: How about Hitchcock? Is her someone you learned from?
Bergman: Yes, of course.
S: Technically, I suppose. But isn’t there a great intellectual emptiness in his work?
B: Completely, but I think he’s a very good technician. And he has something in Psycho, he had some moments. Psycho is one of his most interesting pictures because he had to make the picture very fast, with very primitive means. He had little money, and the picture tells very much about him. Not very good things. He is completely infantile, and I would like to know more — no, I don’t want to know — about his behavior with, or rather against, women. But the picture is very interesting. I learned a lot from all those Americans who knew their profession.
S: I find it’s a terrible notion in modern film criticism that these people were artists, when they were really technicians. We must distinguish between an artist and a technician.
B: Yes, that’s important.
S: Modern film criticism tends not to distinguish. People like Raoul Walsh or Howard Hawks don’t know what art is. They merely have marvelous techniques, some of them.
B: They have told their stories and they have made their films in a good, effective way. That is a duty: effectiveness in telling a story.
S: Yes, that’s a very good minimum, but it’s only a minimum.
B: But it’s difficult.

Bergman, in other words, admired Hitchcock and the Hollywood studio film-makers more than Simon did, because they had a skill he admired — telling a story well, efficiently and effectively. And while Bergman’s narratives were rarely difficult or incomprehensible, nobody would call him a yarn-spinner. Now this exchange with Hitchcock from the book “Schickel on Film” makes a lot more sense than it ever did:

[S]omething like original sin was in [Hitchcock’s] view always operating in the world, and his films universally reflected that fact, though I’m not sure he ever acknowledged this, to me, self-evident fact. One day, over lunch, he said he had read somewhere that Ingmar Bergman had expressed admiration for his work, and it puzzled him. He could not see anything they held in common. “Well,” I ventured, “you are both post-Christian artists.” He looked at me quite blankly and quickly returned the conversation to its original track, which was, as I recall, some true crimes he had been studying.²

Still, though the subtextual similarities with Hitchcock are clear, the commenters at Girish’s site are correct that one simply wouldn’t expect Bergman to care for Godard. Their sensibilities are just too different. It’s not that Godard’s films are “emotional” and Bergman’s “intellectual” — no film is more nakedly-emotional than CRIES AND WHISPERS. But that Bergman treats everything, including the emotions, seriously, and he expects the same from his viewers and in his own viewing. Godard’s game-playing, self-referentiality and wild tone shifts would almost certainly drive Bergman (as it does me) up the wall.

To highlight an article noted in Girish’s comment fields, Bergman also stays up-to-date with film-makers, is just as prickly as ever (Orson Welles is a total bore who fills his films with worthless performances), and apparently is a Stephen Soderbergh groupie (though I’ll bet that’s just Scandinavian stick-togetherness). But he still hates Godard … ♥♥♥
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¹ I’ve met Girish at Toronto in the past, via J. Robert IIRC, and know enough to know his tastes are a bit different from mine … at least within that tiny slice of the universe called art-house snobs, to which we both belong.
² I absolutely think Schickel was on the money with this comparison. Their styles and genres obviously have nothing in common, but Hitchcock and Bergman were clearly both Christians who had enormous difficulty being believers.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Top 100 Catholic Movies (sic)

A couple of years ago, the National Catholic Register (that’s the good NCR) asked readers to nominate (and later vote on) “films that best celebrate Catholic life … movies with specific Catholic references, not simply with Catholic themes.” The results of the more than 1,000 votes are here. I wasn’t impressed. Like all popular polls, this is basically a list of “Catholic” movies people remember having seen recently (or in some cases treasure from their youth).

But, as much as I like it (as I said at the time), I don’t believe there is any way that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (#1) is that much a better film than THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (#48). Or even better at all. But that I can chalk up to taste — and Dreyer is an acquired one — and to the obscurity and difficulty that an 80-year-old silent film poses for most. And since Gibson did in fact make a great film, I can’t call honoring PASSION OF THE CHRIST unworthy. But what either film has to do with “Catholic life” (particularly as distinguished from “Catholic themes”) is unclear at best.

There are also a lot of downright bad films on the list, starting all the way up at #2 — though I can chalk that particular one up to taste also (or more precisely, my distaste for easy uplift). But the #11(!!!!) showing for the 2004 THERESE is just a crime — the worst example of both presentism and judging a work of art by its surface content. There is no way, no how that the 2004 THERESE belongs on any list of honor or high regard. Particularly so much higher than the French THERESE from 1986 — Alain Cavalier’s film is down at #79. That is merely a reflection of how many have seen the film, and how recently. If this gets repeated in 2025, the 2004 THERESE will be forgotten.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Separating the artist from the art

Oliver Stone’s WORLD TRADE CENTER opened today. And I’ll be honest, when I saw the trailer, I was ready to stick my finger down my throat. The “start of the day” shots felt like the sarcastic BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY overture; slow-motion and heavy scoring is a standard trailer-baiting effect, but it brought to mind that same film’s beginning. It looked like a manipulative soap opera, done by someone I have no reason to think wouldn’t be hiding Conspiracy Theories behind the trailer.

But from conservatives who have seen WORLD TRADE CENTER — the prebuzz was been unanimously favorable — Cliff May, John Miller, and Kathryn Lopez at National Review Online; Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center; Cal Thomas, the former No.2 at the Moral Majority; Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard; Ivy Sellers at Human Events; and Michael Medved. And the reaction at places such as Free Republic was more positive than negative. But in reviews published today, Peter Suderman at National Review and Christian Toto at the Washington Times were mixed or slightly-negative on WORLD TRADE CENTER.

As of my writing this (I will certainly see WORLD TRADE CENTER, but probably not until the weekend), I think JFK is easily Stone’s best film, because it’s his most paranoid and nonsensical. It’s so bizarre that the text cannot be taken seriously, except as the occasion for Stone’s virtuoso style — which is dazzling (Christian complained in TWT that there wasn’t enough of that in WTC). It’s the film equivalent of coloratura opera, or listening to one of the drug-addled conversations in A SCANNER DARKLY. But I couldn’t persuade conservative friends back in 1991/92 to see it.

But this is the latest example of how political/religious conservatives are so much better at separating our reaction to a work of art from the artist. We have to be. With a handful of notable exceptions — Jane Fonda, Michael Moore and (until now) Stone but no others that immediately come to mind — we generally patronize the films of artists that we despise politically or make fun of. Oh sure, we’ll ridicule Susan Sarandon, Barbra Streisand, Sean Penn and the rest of the Film Actors Guild. But the much common attitude seems to be the line that I started this review of THERESE and CELSIUS 41.11:

In THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS … the French colonel in charge of the anti-terrorism unit is read a Jean-Paul Sartre quote denouncing French rule in Algeria. In response, he asks aloud: “why are all the Sartres on the other side?”

No conservative of my acquaintance seriously doubts that many bone-headed liberals are in fact great actors, singers, etc. In fact, it’s even common for conservatives to see brilliance in works that are unquestionably propaganda for despicable ideas. I could cite my own Top 10 lists, which has THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST below VERA DRAKE¹ and HERO² for 2004, and has annual #1 slots occupied by THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS³ and EARTH⁴.

It’s not just me. At the Washington Times newsroom, I AM CUBA has been a bit of a hit. A few weeks ago, I was speaking to a senior manager at work — a Cuban-born woman — and I said “Soy Cuba” in some context that made the title of Mikhail Kalatozov’s famed 1964 Cuban-Soviet propaganda film a funny punchline. She responded in a way that indicated she knew what I was referring to. I told her that I AM CUBA had recently run on the Sundance Channel and I had burned a Tivo’d DVD of it onto two discs. She said she had never seen it and jumped at the chance to borrow the film. When she returned the discs, she was rapturous about how visually stunning was the style and gorgeous were the images. Her favorite moments included the student on the steps, walking through billows of smoke up to an assassination attempt; images of the farmer burning his cane fields; the famous early swimming-pool shot; long shots of people in the distance marching through streets, and it turns out to be a funeral, which the camera hovers over like an angel.

A couple of days after she returned the disc, the managing editor came to my desk, told me he had heard the Cuban lady rave about I AM CUBA and asked if he could borrow my discs. On returning them, he was just as impressed, calling it “a great propaganda film” (he also noted the involvement of Yevtushenko, who later became a bit of a dissident in the Soviet Union). He noted not just the cinematography but also the faces in the film, and how “great to look at” the film was. “And very timely,” he joked, given Castro’s stepping down just days before. We agreed that the images in the film are so sensual — the high-contrast black-and-white, the lengthy takes, the dramatic compositions, the aura of smoke, the feel of heat — that you just want to caress them.

Perhaps the difference from their own homeland inspired Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky to capture so completely the “feel” of the sun-soaked tropical country where they were working, making the film a giddy romp on summer holiday.

Though not blind to the Batista regime’s faults, none of the three of us are Fidelistas by any definition (and Castro himself doesn’t appear in the movie, like Lenin used to in the Soviet classics of the 20s). Still, none of the three of us were seriously put off by the Fidelism of I AM CUBA. When a film is this gorgeous, the style makes everything else irrelevant (this is, approximately, how I’d defend the awesomeness of HERO). I’d say the style even makes the film’s points — though I AM CUBA is nobody’s idea of intellectually-subtle or well-acted. But Kalatozov and Urusevsky’s great style, the overwhelming style, stamps itself so firmly onto the sometimes clumsy performances that it turns these “bad” actors into icons or types — persons who stand less for than themselves than for the image of Revolutionary Hero. Like a Communist “Lives of the Saints” picture book.
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¹ about a saintly abortionist, though I think the film ultimately is more complicated than that.
² a full-throated Chinese nationalist apologia for tyranny.
³ I saw ALGIERS just a block from Pennsylvania Avenue and within walking distance of the White House and Congress just as the Iraq insurgency was getting seriously under way.
⁴The Ukrainian Embassy had a ceremonial person introduce EARTH at the National Gallery of Art’s Dovzhenko retro. Another Ukrainian official, a cultural attache (though I wouldn’t swear to that), participated in a post-film roundtable that never, to my recollection, touched on the issue of making a film in Ukraine in 1930 about the peasants’ glorious struggle against the Kulaks.

August 8, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Hollywood rallies behind Gibson … mostly

The LA Times has a good piece on celebrity friends coming to Mel Gibson’s defense, including Jodie Foster and several producers who have worked with Gibson. Other outlets reported support for Patrick Swayze, and I especially liked this remark from Dean Devlin:

I consider Mel one of my best friends in Hollywood. The day this happened, my wife had gotten this long letter from Mel full of congratulations [for the birth of the Devlins’ first child] and talking about the joys of being a parent. She’s Jewish. I’m Jewish. If Mel is an anti-Semite, then he spends a lot of time with us, which makes no sense. But he is an alcoholic, and while that makes no excuse for what he said, because there is no excuse, I believe it was the disease speaking, not the man.”

And the LA Times notes a good sign for his career:

“There have always been stars, like Sean Penn or Russell Crowe and before that Kirk Douglas or Frank Sinatra, whose tough-guy personas on screen allowed them to survive bad behavior off screen,” says one longtime publicist. “It’s not like he’s ever been Mr. Nice Guy.”

Apart from one producer, the most prominent named “I’ll never work with Gibson”-declaration came from comedian Rob Schneider. And I’m not sure it’s 100 percent serious. Not simply because Schneider is a comedian, but because the specific language contained in the ad sounds like there’s a subtext of sarcasm running through it. Also, there’s the pomposity of the very concept of *Schneider* taking out a Variety ad to say he’s never work with *Gibson.* I mean, without at the time knowing any of the specifics, my immediate reaction when I heard that Schneider was saying he’d never work with Gibson, was “durn it … that ruins my hopes for seeing THE PASSION OF DEUCE BIGALOW.” Check out the language of Schneider’s at the right.

southpark1.jpgIs it not at least as plausible that Schneider is making fun of the repetitively-named Bernie Brillstein? And can any reference¹ to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST 2 or hypotheticals involving a time machine or speaking ancient Mayan be taken completely seriously?

UPDATE: Looks like my bud Bilge Ebiri had the same wtf-is-this-a-joke? reaction to the Rob Schneider ad.

But as always, SOUTH PARK gets the best line, though Comedy Central insists it was a coincidence. At the Daily Texan when I was in college, a fellow conservative columnist named Corey Birenbaum proudly took the “of course we run the world”-attitude.

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¹ Ali G once mused aloud to Pat Buchanan’s endorsement of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST that they’d just bring that character back to life for a sequel.

August 7, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Nun-Sense

Several at St. Blogs are noting the obvious irony double standard in a cartoon by Pat Oliphant in which, in the specific context of Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic drunken rant, he engages in what can only be called a really crude anti-Catholic rant. Without the “excuse” of drunkenness.

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As should be obvious, I don’t have a thin skin for “offensive” subject matter. Or even jokes about the Church. I took the title for this post from a musical-revue play that I once saw performed by a college or community theater. It was no Mel Brooks,¹ but I mostly enjoyed myself IIRC. I think it beehoves all groups, even religious ones, to have a sense of humor; it’s a sign of a balanced disposition.²

Nevertheless, this is just offensive calumny. Even if you don’t take the words literally and ask yourself “what is the overall point of the cartoon” (which, as a SOUTH PARK fan, I obviously believe is what one should do in engaging an artistic text) — “the point” could not more obviously be that “nuns beat anti-Semitism into Gibson and/or Catholic children generally.” Which is an absurd and tasteless lie.

But what I find particularly curious is that Oliphant once drew a virtually identical cartoon about Mel Gibson and a nun, back during the MSM’s hatefest over THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

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The current cartoon would be plagiarism if Oliphant weren’t “plagiarizing” from himself (which is obviously OK). The compositions of the images are virtually identical. The order of nuns has the same title (“Little Sisters of the Holy Agony”). The scrawny child in both cases is one-tenth the size of the bullying nun,³ who in both cases is cocking a ruler in the right hand and is near-identically drawn, even down to the pupil-less glasses-hidden eyes and the crucifix leaning toward the right. The only difference I tell is that in the earlier cartoon the POV doesn’t “look up” quite as much (a very small difference, obviously).

What was the reaction to the earlier cartoon? Well, it prompted the ombudsman of the Boston Globe, not exactly the newspaper with the deepest readership base of [or sympathy for] orthodox Catholics, to issue an apology (adequate or otherwise). Now, I understand that Oliphant is syndicated, not on the Globe staff, but, the ombudsman said, there was similar reaction at several other papers that ran the cartoon. Nevertheless, it’s Management 101 that if you rebuke someone for doing X (even if it’s a contractor whom you cannot formally sanction per se, as one could an employee), and then he does X again, the earthly reaction has to be harsher. The person has been granted fair notice that “this is not good,” thus making his second X a demonstration of his contempt for you. That’s why the virtual identicalness of the two cartoons matters. If ever “X equaled X” in the world of artistic representation, those two cartoons are it.⁴ And as the Boston blogger Politica Obscura noted, in re the earlier of these virtually identical cartoons, Oliphant is engaging in the equivalent of “In his early years little Steven Spielberg gets Jewed-down by Rabbi Bankem Goldman of the Zion Temple of the Sacred Money Grubbers.”

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¹ … speaking of religious humor. Maybe Gibson should have said that Jews control the world of comedy, and so are responsible for all the lousy sitcoms.
² I treasured reading reports on Cardinal Bertone, the new Vatican Secretary of State, about how once, in the context of denouncing human cloning, he said that “an exception might be made in the case of Sophia Loren.”
³ … which is just stupid. The remarkable thing about “old-school” ethnic nuns, as Camille Paglia has pointed out, is that a little old five-foot lady could control a class full of big jocks by her sheer force of personality and conviction.
⁴ Not that there aren’t plenty of other precedents of Oliphant engaging in ugly anti-Catholic caricature (the boy plainly, as they say, has issues. Or in less therapeutic talk, he’s an anti-Catholic bigot).

August 5, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Songs of innocence; songs of experience

A couple of people at St. Blogs have posted in the last day about pop culture sexualizing and/or desensitizing children. Rich Leonardi recounts girls who looked about 10 singing “Stacy’s Mom” on the karaoke. Barbara Nicolosi, in the course of a vigorous attack on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, protests particularly a scene involving a 7-year-old in a burlesque (skip to the graf starting “a seven year old” … the rest of her piece is certainly worth reading, but it’s not relevant to my point here).

I could certainly imagine the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE scene being offensive if there were nudity or the girl’s movements were continually sexualized (Barbara says they were; she has seen the film, I have not). But I’m not sure how much damage it actually does to the girl. I think it’s much more a matter of adult repugnance at being made to see a child in a sexual light,¹ because adults know the meaning of certain things that kids don’t. I went to an NBA game in Atlanta when the Macarena was all the rage, and during one of the time-outs or quarter- or half-breaks, the Hawks had some girls who looked to be about 6 or 7 on the court to do the dance. Their costumes were all color-coded, like the women in the video, and when they got to the last move, which involves rolling your hips, it was all I could do to think “I wonder if they know what that gesture symbolizes.” But it’s very easy for an experienced adult to overestimate what an innocent child will understand.

But for the girl in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE herself, assuming there was no unsimulated nudity, it could very well be meaningless. Kids play “dress-up” and “let’s pretend” all the time. She was probably directed like the kid stars in BUGSY MALONE … although one of them grew up to be Scott Baio, so maybe this is horrendous, after all.

As for Rich’s anecdote … I’m not sure how much of lyrics like that kids absorb, depending on age. I can only speak personally and maybe I was just unusually innocent as a boy or grew up in a more-generally-innocent time. But I’m certain that nonchalant defusing is the best way to keep children innocent. Children are curious and pick up pretty infallibly on adult awkwardness.

I certainly remember loving LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” — it was a hit when I was 9 years old. No adult can look at the lyrics and not know what is happening in the song, even if he doesn’t know what is English for “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir” (though the lyrics to this All Saints remix just turn my stomach). I loved Sweet, David Bowie and British glam-rock of the early-70s without ever catching onto anything “queer” going on, or figuring out what “Little Willy” or “Rebel, Rebel” were all about or what a groupie was (from “Fox on the Run”). After emigration, I could also recall being mystified at the coy ads on US daytime TV for feminine products like tampons and douches, which you couldn’t advertise on British TV at the time. And asking in 6th-grade health class, when we were on the nutrition unit, why women need more iron than men (something mentioned in some vitamin ads at the time — “and being women, we lose some of that” was the vague reference to what I later learned was menstruation).

When I was about 12 or 13, my mother took me to see THE SENTINEL. There was a scene in which the frame cuts off the heroine from the waist and forearm down. But from the direction of the arm and the sounds she is making, it is clear to an adult that she’s masturbating. At this scene, I turned to my mother and innocently asked “what is she doing?” She casually said “oh, she’s just got a tummyache.” A man sitting behind us overheard this and burst out laughing. My mother was so nonchalant in defusing my question that, I remember the movie but had no memory of this exchange or the man’s laughter when she recounted it to me years later. In principle, she could have been making it all up.

Looking back, the British humour I was raised on as a boy was pretty raunchy. There was huge amounts of the transvestite and sex-identity humor on Benny Hill, Monty Python and Music-Hall-type shows. There was the lowbrow “Blackpool postcard” type of humor and the higher-toned satire of the English public-school classes. In “Virtually Normal,” Andrew Sullivan provided the following anecdote:

I also remember making a joke in a debate competition at the age of 12, at the time of a homosexual scandal involving the leader of the British Liberal Party. I joked that life was better under the Conservatives — or behind the Liberals for that matter. It achieved a raucous response, but I had no idea what the analogy meant. Perhaps my schoolboy audience hadn’t, either.

I remember very precisely the scandal he’s referring to as Sullivan and I are only 3 years apart — Jeremy Thorpe. And during the Year of Monica, it often occurred to me that I could listen to the BBC’s and ITV’s coverage of Thorpe’s downfall, which centered on homosexual blackmail, without asking “dad, what’s fellatio?” (Now, Radio 4 on the other hand …) Whether this is because the word wasn’t used or it was but I had no way of even being mystified about it I cannot say (and for the purposes of my present point, it doesn’t matter). The American press somehow made the impact of the Year of Monica worse by compounding the graphic coverage with hand-wringing think pieces about “how to talk to the kids about it.” Answer: don’t and/or deflect. Frankness can be worse than silence.

As always, everything comes back to SOUTH PARK, in particular episodes called “Proper Condom Use” (about sex ed), or “Tom’s Rhinoplasty” (about the boys having a crush on Miss Ellen … I’ll always treasure Cartman’s mind-numbingly literal understanding of a locker-room term for lesbian sex), or “Stupid Spoiled Whore” (aka “Paris Hilton is not a good role model”). These shows are, in significant part, about G-rated kids (they’re really much more innocent than you might guess) in an R-rated world — a “Kids Say the Darndest Things” turned up to 11. The primary point of these and several other episodes is how adults damage children by putting in their heads thoughts and situations and language that they don’t understand. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but there also is such a thing as too much and not enough knowledge at the same time. Kids’ll do some things on their own, of course. The sex ed episode begins with Stan and Kyle, playing like Sam Peckinpah’s WILD BUNCH kids, destroying a Jennifer Lopez doll for making albums and movies. And it ends with the restoration of the status quo antebellum:

Stan: Well, I guess we got a while to wait before we have to worry about sex and diseases, huh, Wendy?
Wendy: Yeah. Thank God.
Cartman: Well, I guess now that that’s out of the way, we can get on with our lives.
(Then some more dirty jokes)

I thinks that’s a healthier attitude toward bawdy material and children — try to protect them from it, but don’t make a big deal out of the failures — it just magnifies them. In other words, “minimize it” in every sense of that word — as my mother did at THE SENTINEL. I don’t think I’m just engaged in nostalgia, but when I was a boy, the culture had a “sorta ask, kinda tell” attitude toward bawdy entertainment. It strikes me now as a decent compromise in popular culture between prudery and perversity about sex. It was there to be seen by those with eyes and disposition to see it; but not there (or at least not obviously or undeniably) for those who wanted or could not “get” it.
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¹ Which is certainly reason enough to call it offensive, I hasten to add — using the child to corrupt others with ill thoughts.

August 5, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

The world’s greatest pure director comes to DC

michael_haneke-1.jpg

The American Film Institute’s Silver Spring theater will have a complete retrospective starting Saturday of the films of that man, Michael Haneke (yeah, yeah, he’s only made eight theatrical films — but they ARE all here, so it IS complete). But yes, that’s the Michael Haneke to whom my blog header refers. The Michael Haneke who is simply the best pure director in the world — the moniker I’ve consistently used about him for several years.

I’ve seen all eight of the films in this retro, and every one I’d rank 8 or 9 (curiously, no 10s, though). I’ve already written quite a bit about Haneke. I reviewed TIME OF THE WOLF for The Washington Times here in a piece that was also a expanded, edited and slightly reworked from the 4th capsule that I wrote at the 2003 Toronto fest. I also reviewed CACHE for the Times early this year. I wrote a short capsule on LA PIANISTE for a private board after seeing it at Toronto in 2001. (See the heavily-cached material here and here and here) On that same private board, referring to Haneke as the world’s best “pure director,” I was challenged on what I meant by that by Adam Villani. Here’s what I wrote in response, which collects all my thoughts on why this man is such a master, with a formal control of the medium that is nothing short of staggering. It is slightly edited, and with a few clauses added in italics.

There has been no doubt in my mind for a couple of years now that Haneke was the answer I’d give to “best director in the world,” even though Von Trier has the 10-grades on Haneke by 4-0. But now that you ask … I honestly had to think about this for a while and then look at a few Haneke clips to answer your question, Adam.It’s that Haneke seems to have the most precise, ever-present and complete formal control over his movies of any director I can think of. He both frames and defines his images perfectly (i.e. what he shows) and makes great creative use of offscreen space and sound (i.e. what he doesn’t “show”). And yes I do realize that, by these lights, a great mannerist like Haneke (or Dreyer or Hitchcock or Kubrick) is by definition a greater director than a perhaps equally great artist with a more naturalistic style (say, De Sica or Renoir or Hawks).

For example, at the start of THE SEVENTH CONTINENT, you don’t see a human face for about 10 minutes, but you DO see continual (and often jarringly cut) images of things and stuff, while family conversation goes on like a rite. He’s baiting a trap about the framing (Heidegger’s “gestell” and don’t think that’s not part of Haneke’s point) of the world, that he pounces on in the second half in a near-identical set of shots of stuff, only having other kinds of behaviors performed upon them.

There’s no greater tribute to how masterfully Haneke builds dread and fear in FUNNY GAMES than the realization that there’s almost no blood in this movie and almost all the violence occurs offscreen (though often with offscreen sounds). Haneke also uses offscreen sounds, both short, piercing sounds and long, low sounds — think also the glass-in-pocket from LA PIANISTE, Binoche ironing clothes in CODE UNKNOWN, the various radio shows in SEVENTH CONTINENT and BENNY’S VIDEO. Everything in FUNNY GAMES is in how the two thugs are framed, increasingly obtrusively throughout.

There is a 10-minute unbroken shot in FUNNY GAMES, one of the greatest in film history, in which nothing really happens, but the placing of the four or five key elements in it, the very slight movements of a couple of them, the utter stillness of the frame, the silence on the soundtrack gives you nothing to do but reflect on what has just happened, how you now feel, the catharsis achieved and the loss therein. The subway scene in CODE UNKOWN and the cabin confrontation at the start of TIME OF THE WOLF have a similar tightly-wound tension to them. Meanwhile, the similar appearance of fire on the horizon in TIME OF THE WOLF, incredibly, seems to have almost the opposite effect, yet it doesn’t really because of all the associations Haneke brings to that style.

Then there’s the way the central crime in BENNY’S VIDEO is shown — the shot selection and the setting has the inevitability of a mathematical proof and conveys a whole universe of Oliver Stoneisms in 2 minutes (I’m being vague here I realize … I really don’t want to spoil the utter surprise of the crime for anyone; it’s almost identical in come-out-of-nowhere effect to CACHE’s best-scene winner in last year’s Skandies). Haneke portrays commodity exchange, several types of them, in that movie, and somewhat in THE SEVENTH CONTINENT as well, in a rhymed, consistent manner — from above, in one-second shots, still frame, cuts on movement within the frame. It gives a busy-busy, clinical, antiseptic quality to the alienation of labor.

In CODE UNKNOWN, he cuts off nearly every single-take scene in mid-line, a jarring, uncomfortable gesture that, like nearly everything in Haneke, calls attention to itself. He uses slo-mo and reverse to vicious effect in BENNY’S VIDEO and FUNNY GAMES. He also plays with cinematic convention and mixes in other styles for meta-purposes (the heavily edited material Binoche is performing in CODE UNKNOWN, the documentary pig footage and the TV shows in BENNY’S VIDEO) and to call attention to his own style as a deliberate provocation, as a choice, and a psychological tool. He’s playing the audience like a piano.

Basically, the reason I would say Haneke is the world’s best pure director is that nothing enters his frame except as he wills it and every thing you see you know you were meant to see, to see that and no more and no less. Even if you don’t *like* the results, I just don’t see how there can be any denying Haneke’s formal mastery, his pure director-ness.

At the time of writing that, CACHE had not been made and I had not seen 71 FRAGMENTS OF A CHRONOLOGY OF CHANCE. But nothing I have written about Haneke was altered by them. He’s been fully formed in his aesthetic and themes from the very beginning of THE SEVENTH CONTINENT.

Haneke’s the heady, brilliant misanthropic director of your worst nightmares, the director who gets under your skin (I deliberately chose that picture of him for that reason). He’s a combination of Hitchcock, Bunuel and a pedantic German philosophy professor. We get the extreme formal control (airless and stifling, say those who don’t like the two men) of Alfred, combined with the bourgeois-baiting and sadism of Luis. Haneke has the same interest (obsession, say those who don’t like the two men) in the dark thoughts and sins of men. I think LA PIANISTE is more than this, but it certainly has at least the surface appearance of a denunciatory catalog of perversion — a Kino Krafft-Ebing. I also mentioned Heidegger above in re THE SEVENTH CONTINENT. There’s undoubtedly a cold, chilly, forbidding tone to Haneke that seems so utterly Germanic.

His two great themes are “communication” and “intervention” in all their senses — social, foreign policy and familial — and the way souls are constructed by the media age. So, unlike Hitch and Bunuel, Haneke often attacks his audience and assumes their complicity. FUNNY GAMES, for example, is a film to which the only moral response is to walk out because it offers absolutely no catharsis and absolutely no point (or rather, it starts to do both and then … well, let’s just say I’m looking forward [sic] to seeing it with as full an audience as possible). Now the fact that FUNNY GAMES has no point IS the point, but it’s only discernible or meaningful in a meta-way. I described CODE UNKNOWN this way in private correspondence with a skeptic:

In one paragraph — CODE UNKNOWN is about the first dramatic scene (the street altercation) and all the reverberations of that one event in the lives of the principal parties. It’s like watching a hand grenade explode and then following all the shrapnel. Thematically, it’s united by the theme of intervention, broadly construed, i.e., to what extent are we (or are we not) our brother’s keeper, not just military intervention (though the latter is there too). It’s also about how is this duty constrained by communication, or more properly the refusal and/or inability to communicate. It’s not a perfect film (some of the material in Romania is a bit pro forma), but it’s also formally dazzling. Wasn’t it awesome when we finally go to a conventional editing pattern and it turns out it’s a movie-within-the movie? I guess you think not.

At his best, Haneke disturbs you more than he “entertains” you; he’s not anybody’s idea of “good time” and communicating with him presupposes a certain amount of emotional masochism. So … see as much as you can stomach, because Haneke’s style makes its greatest effect when seen in a theater. Incidentally, I really DO intend this post to be a recommendation for a favorite director, but I don’t want to create false illusions. A co-worker saw CACHE on her own based on my Times review and some conversations I’d had with her since Toronto. When she left the theater, she actually called me on her phone demanding to talk about CACHE. It’s not that Shibani was driven insane or anything; she said it was just not the kind of movie that you could leave behind without discussing and making sense of your emotional reactions.

Unfortunately for me, the only film I can definitely go to that I haven’t already seen in a theater is FUNNY GAMES (so I will move hell and high water for that one). But one interesting thing about this retro is the order of the films. It’s not chronological and does “front-load” Haneke’s (relatively) better-known films and give them more weekend slots. This is a business move no doubt, but I think it also happens to be the best way for people coming fresh to Haneke to get acclimated to him. There’s some overlap but, measured by premieres, the order is CACHE, 71 FRAGMENTS, CODE UNKNOWN, LA PIANISTE, FUNNY GAMES, BENNY’S VIDEO, TIME OF THE WOLF and THE SEVENTH CONTINENT. Move WOLF up to before 71 FRAGMENTS, and this would also be IMHO, the approximate order of the films, starting at the top, in terms of emotional accessability.

August 4, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Thank you for mailing

My bud Adam Villani wrote to me, demanding to know why I love THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, which he called

[A]n unfunny, obvious satire that might have been timely about 15-20 years ago but just seems like kicking a man (or an industry) when he’s already beaten now. The only defense of this movie I can think of is that it is “not about smoking.” I mean, yeah, OK, but that is kinda ruined by the fact that it is about smoking and it would be pretty obvious even if it weren’t about smoking…

Well, as Adam hypothesizes, the film fundamentally is not about smoking per se. It’s about politics, about sophists and bullshit artists. About their charm and our regard for them. At the end of the movie, Naylor has a completely different shill job, and it doesn’t feel like anything has changed. Yet, like the greatest intellectual jujitsu artists (I think I am one), not only has he turned on a dime cause-wise, but he’s even turned on a dime argument-wise, by granting that smoking is dangerous and then getting what he wants (on labeling) based on arguments he was denying five minutes ago (that smoking is harmful).

I used the word “bullshit” deliberately — THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is the equivalent of Harry Frankfurt’s short philosophical book “On Bullshit,” which also verges on the edge of self-parody and self-referentiality, but thus is made more effective becuase of the audience’s desire for bullshit and ability to see through it and yet not really care (the difference Frankfurt draws between “bullshit” and “lies”). This is why Aaron Eckhart’s performance is perfect … a word I use rarely .. it’s not simply that he had Nick Naylor’s greasy charm down pat, but that the charm and style and existing persona so utterly defines the performance, an analog to why Naylor only exists because of our love for that charm and our need to be bullshitted. There’s elements of Henry’s interview with “Hillary” near the start of PRIMARY COLORS (and yes, he uses the same b-s word, which is why I was reminded of it):

I was always curious how it would be to work with someone who actually cared about … I mean, it couldn’t have always been the way it is now. It must have been very different when my grandfather was alive. Hey, you were there. You had Kennedy. I didn’t. I’ve never heard a president use words like destiny and sacrifice without thinking, “bullshit.” And, O.K., maybe it was bullshit with Kennedy too, but people believed it. And, I guess, that is what I want. I want to believe it too.

Or … read Michael Gerardi, who did a lot of the heavy lifting a few weeks ago, though I liked the movie more than he did.
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Also, read Adam’s take on why the Democrats have all the secular advantages for the mid-terms including the ability to run against an incumbent president mired in an unpopular war, but still might blow it. They can only talk in “motherhood and apple pie” terms:

[I]f they can’t come up with any more compelling reasons for people to vote for them than this, they aren’t gonna win control of squat … Thanks for taking that bold step to show America that there’s a good reason to vote for the Democrats besides “we’re not George Bush.” Man, that’s sad. Can’t the Democrats find somebody with a modicum of charisma or strong ideas?

What also further resonated with me was Adam’s commenters and the way they called the platform the equivalent of “XXX Against Cancer” or “Children Must Eat” monikers. There was a famous and possibly apocryphal (but nevertheless very revealing) exchange that supposedly occurred between the two greatest silent clowns at the home of one of them, when discoursing on politics (quoting from memory):

Charlie Chaplin: What I want is that every child should have clothes on their backs, enough to eat and a roof over their heads.
Buster Keaton: But Charlie, do you know anybody who doesn’t want that?

Ever since, it’s never mystified me why I preferred Keaton to Chaplin. In college, I saw a flyer for a rally for a group called “Students Against War” and I decided I would never back any group that had a name that you couldn’t imagine a sane person taking the semantically opposing opinion. (I also decided in grad-school that I could never buy Thomism because the first precept of the natural law struck me similarly.)

August 3, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Making sense of sensibility

It’s a bit late to review THE NEW WORLD, but Rich Leonardi yesterday sent me a solicit for his short post recommending Terrence Malick’s snoozefest from late last year. And Lee Walker recently expressed surprise in some private correspondence that I was not a fan of the film (to give just one stat on how out-of-step I was with my film-geek pals, I was the only one of 43 to vote “con” on THE NEW WORLD for our weekly “pro-mixed-con” Crix Pix poll). Lee said, quoting from memory, “this was just about the most overwhelming religious experience I’ve ever had in a theater,” and so he thought I would like it too. Until he went through my “Best of” lists and realized that DAYS OF HEAVEN and THE THIN RED LINE were nowhere to be found (I would have voted “con” on each of them too), while the “relatively conventional” BADLANDS was.

Now I don’t hate THE NEW WORLD as much as I did LINE, because it redeems itself a bit at the end, with the switch from the New World to London, and the shift of identification from John Smith to Pocahantas, who’s now in a World as strange and strangely beguiling to her as Virginia was to the British. But Malick pisses that away at the very end — that closing crescendo, the sudden halt and cut, and that precious gaze up a tree like a worshipful slave looking up at his dominatrix … I’m sorry, but that just IS campy.

No … I recognize what Malick is doing and the sensibility he’s reproducing; but I don’t like his style and his sensibility is virtually the opposite of mine. I find his slow pacing just aggravating and self-indulgent.¹ Religiously-speaking, Malick clearly shares much with the American Transcendentalists — he’s like a Thoreau for the 21st Century, and I generally think Thoreau a Romantic twit. Malick tries to find universes in ambient animal sounds and patterns of dripping rain, but fundamentally, nature just bores me² in a way that human beings (specific human beings, not the archetypes Malick uses — fine as Q’Orianka Kilcher was at playing Innocence), do not. Nature is just random acts of necessity, while man is made in God’s image (nature is not). So man is inherently interesting because varied, and he can be the subject of drama and surprise in a way that necessitarian nature cannot. Not a lot happens in THE CHILD or the Dardennes’ other films, but their films are so tight and intimate and so successfully get you inside their protagonists’ heads that you’re right up there on the screen.

Malick’s is also a style that produces praise for the film in language and terms that I cannot begin to comprehend. It’s mushy and vague and reminds me of nothing so much as 60s hippies describing their LSD trips. It also has dawned on me that I am dissing a somewhat Heideggerian movie and filmmaker in ways that betray my fundamental attitude as what Heidegger would describe as the essence of technology.

So … slow-paced nature, in the service of a religious vision I do not share and find superficial … THE NEW WORLD basically had no chance with me. I thought it as exciting as watching grass grow, and I really think half of Malick’s (obviously gorgeous) shots were primarily about watching the grass grow. To be perfectly honest I really only saw THE NEW WORLD from a sense of obligation, not on the expectation I’d like it.
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¹ Yeah, yeah … this from the fanboy of Dreyer, Dardennes, Bergman, Ozu, Tsai and Kubrick. There’s a series of clinical case studies to be done on which “slow, obscure” directors catch the fancy of a particular cinephile and why.
² True facts about me and nature: I’ve never camped overnight (I tried to camp with a friend in his back yard once and couldn’t stand it and went inside around 2 am); I’ve never hunted or fished; I have never been on a horse or other equine (not even a donkey on the beach IIRC) as my desire for encounters with animals stops at pets and food; my idea of roughing it is a hotel without room service; and my idea of natural beauty is green concrete. I’m temperamentally about as uncrunchy as it gets.

August 2, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Mel, Mel, Mel …

I spent a few trillion 0’s and 1’s a couple of years ago defending Mel Gibson against the anti-Semitism charges over THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. I love the taste of egg on the face. Gibson was officially charged Wednesday on three counts — including an open-container charge.

Obviously, as a religious and purely-moral matter, Gibson has apologized for his anti-Semitic remarks — “Fucking Jews … The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world … Are you a Jew?” Gibson knows how to apologize properly (i.e., without any “if I offended” conditionality) and with due deference given to the need to make amends — best comment-field post is at Beliefnet: “Mel ranted like a maniac but is repenting like a mensch.”

And many Jews have responded well. The ADL accepted the apology (Gibson’s second). Gibson has been asked to speak at a synagogue on Yom Kippur — a good idea if it’s consistent with Jewish liturgical rules; and I have to assume the Rabbi in question knows them.

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My bud Rod Dreher already has noted that the Jew Michael Medved, while speaking from within Judaism, has a sounder grasp of Christian teaching on grace and forgiveness than the Catholic Andrew Sullivan, who has acted like an opportunistic little git. (The Photoshop above is the work of Allahpundit). Sullivan says: “I’m not interested in hounding human beings for their personal demons. We all have them. We have all behaved in ways we regret at times. I sure have.” More on that below, but Sullivan has an odd way of showing it. Eleven of his 12 post-noon posts on Tuesday were about Gibson, (Ace of Spades said his “true feelings for Andrew Sullivan would be better expressed by Elton John’s The Bitch Is Back.”) And the left more generally has taken to the story like catnip — check out the commenter runninute noting that the story is taking up half of the Huffington Post). Some of the parodies produced have been funny, some lame and others downright wicked (I won’t link to the one called “Mel Gibson resigns from the Nazi party”; that’s enough info for the curious to Google.

But some earthly consequences will happen — ABC has put the kabosh on a Holocaust miniseries it had been planning with Gibson’s company, although the stated reason wasn’t the arrest. Nevertheless …

ABC spokeswoman Hope C. Hartman … wouldn’t comment further or say whether the decision was related to Gibson’s remarks.

A “no comment” is often a comment.

There’s also talk in the industry about Gibson’s future career (though there’s obviously double standards galore here). The word is still that APOCALYPTO will be released on schedule in December, and Hollywood always forgives you if you make enough money. But if the film flops, Gibson might not get another chance. There’s no point in pussyfooting around here. There is no Vast Jewish Conspiracy, but Jews (note: not “the Jews”) do have a “disproportionate”¹ amount of influence in the film industry. The way I would put it is that in the film industry, the kulturkampf bias finds its currency in the reaction to flops. If you’re one of the good guys, your failures will be forgiven; if not, you’d better bat 1.000.

But there’s also the matter of those of us, like myself, who defended Gibson back in 2003 and 2004 against the anti-Semitism charges, saying among other things, that it was unfair to quote Hutton Gibson’s (nutburger) opinions against his son, that no way exists to make a film of the Gospels that doesn’t engage in what liberal theologians and liberal Jews construct as “anti-Semitism.” Or as some asshat put it:

In any faithful adaptation of the Gospels, almost all the characters, on both sides of the crucifixion, would be Jews. Only the deranged, looking to stroke a pre-existing prejudice (and they can’t set the standard), could see a Jew being killed, to the grief of His Jewish mother and His Jewish followers, by Romans at the behest of a different group of Jews — and come away blaming the Jews.

and

[I]f I were Gibson, I’d see no point to cooperating with [Paula Fredriksen] or the ADL, since they’re coming from a theological perspective that’s not mine and one I want no part of. But that perspective also has the gall and presumption to claim to be the arbiter of reason and to claim at least a moral right to be my editor and script doctor. (Is it necessary to do anything more than laugh at an essay in A.D. 2003 that claims to know, in some dispositive sense, about Pontius Pilate’s thought process, while slagging the Gospels as unreliable historical documents because their [disputed] date of authorship [supposedly] lags several decades behind the depicted events?)

In other words, we said there was no or flimsy evidence Gibson was an anti-Semite. That kind of statement can no longer be operative, though obviously, this has nothing to do with THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST as an artistic text and thus all considerations of quality (I have thought it a marvelous film through five viewings).

Now while “anti-Semite” is obviously not an ontological status, it now becomes reasonable to infer that anti-Semitism is part of the ragout of Mel Gibson’s personality, in a way that was not reasonable merely because he had made a film that the ADL and modern biblical scholars didn’t like. Someone on a Catholic site (I forget which one) said “Gibson is an anti-Semite who knows that anti-Semitism is wrong.” Which now, paradoxical as it seems, strikes me as about right. In fact one of my closest Church friends is, to use the same formulation, “a homosexual who knows that homosexuality is wrong.”² As I said above, this doesn’t mean that Gibson (or David) should be hounded to the ends of the Earth for the sin of anti-Semitic words/actions (or homosexual acts). And Gibson has done everything that can be publicly required of him, according to the Church’s teaching and correctly.

But what cannot be inferred is that Gibson’s anti-Semitic words say nothing at all about him. That they are as accidental as eye color. That reasonable suspicion will not rightly attach to anything he says having to do with Jews for quite some time. Or that drunkenness is an excuse, or a mitigating factor. Indeed, some Gibson critics (like the ADL’s first response) have gone so far as to suggest the opposite of this latter — that the fact that Gibson made his anti-Semitic comments while drunk prove what he “really” thinks (“in vino veritas” and all that).

Ironically, two Catholic bloggers with whom I drank frosted malt beverages in the past week have both posted on this latter point in reference to past sins (Rich Leonardi in somewhat vague terms,³ Dale Price much more specifically). Indeed, a commenter on Rich’s site denounced the “static and simplistic view of human nature” that “anti-semitism — among other demons — is something that one is, rather than a malign influence that one can yield to or not, or struggle with.” Contra Sullivan, denouncing someone vigorously for words of drunkenness very much could be “hounding human beings for their personal demons.” Particularly if, as is obviously the case, Mel Gibson was raised by a raving anti-Semitic loon. Who knows what thoughts about The Perfidious Jews were pounded into Mel’s head as a boy?

I would certainly also agree largely with Dale, that “in vino veritas” as an unqualified statement, leaves much to be desired. The American Spectator essay by Clinton Taylor that he links to is very good, and places the whole fight in the context of political philosophy and the implicit anthropology that underlie any such set of ideas deserving of the term “political philosophy”:

There’s a larger question underneath this controversy: let’s assume there does exist an “inhibited” version of us, and also a chemically uninhibited version. Which one is the “real” person, and which is the artifice? … As both a Christian and a conservative, I believe all men are fallen and flawed. The institutions of civilization — Church, family, the law, civil society — help us steer away from our hearts’ jagged shoals. Each of us struggle with our own foibles, and our much more sinister demons — the impulses or attitudes we know to be wrong but cannot exorcise. But out of self-interested careerism, out of love for our families, out of religious obligation, or simply out of a fear of looking at ourselves in the mirror if we fail, we learn, most of the time, to work around the baser angels of our nature.

Then there is the alternative view of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps the ultimate progenitor of modern leftism. … Rousseau believed that man’s true character manifests itself in a state of nature — a pre-civilizational state. He wanted to get back to that authentic, primitive expression of our true selves and rejected the constraints and conventions of civilization as impediments to this goal. Hence the modern left’s emphasis on the virtue of “authenticity,” and on the need to escape from the cruel expectations of society in order to liberate our true being.

While some inhibitions are damaging or irrational, most of them are there for a reason. Our inhibitions are part of us and we ignore them — and suppress them, chemically or otherwise — at great peril. Me, I like my inhibitions. They’re part of me, and they usually keep the rest of me out of trouble.

There’s also two different things to consider specifically about drunken behavior, and they tend to pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, if one were sufficiently drunk, and ill-tempered or nasty in general, one might see that an arresting officer has a Jewish name or otherwise infer that he is Jewish, and, sensing a target, proceed to call him a kike or an effing heeb or say “you lot are the problem with the world today.” And to do so without harboring any general animus toward Jews. It’s not a matter of sobriety exactly, it’s just that you’re handed at that moment a convenient club to wield at that moment against someone whom you have relatively good reason not to like at that moment, i.e., an arresting cop. Such a person could be denounced as a contemptible asshole, but not as an anti-Semite.

But there’s a more-telling detail for me, and it pulls in the other direction: Gibson’s blood-alcohol count was .12. Now I know a thing or two about the effects of alcohol. (See Father Martin Fox for the All The Scandalous Details. And I’ve been told that I can drink my weight in Heineken without losing articulateness.) At .12 BAC, you’re legally intoxicated (which is retarded, but that’s another matter), but you’re not fit-shaced. I know, I know … alcohol affects people differently and sometimes unpredictably, as Taylor notes. But .12, which is the approximate equivalent of three beers, is not a close call. Not for an experienced drinker. It won’t turn him into a frothing incoherent maniac who doesn’t know what he’s doing or saying. And Dale stipulates that on the night he’s describing, he was “blind, stinking drunk.” A .12 BAC will lower one’s inhibitions, tact and “social self.” Relevant to driving, it’ll slow reflexes. But he’s just “buzzed.” He’s still himself — a lower and uglier self, to be sure. But not out of control or blind, stinking drunk.

Point being that only if somewhere in the darkest recesses of his mind, Gibson harbors anti-Semitic thoughts, which he struggles against when sober, would his drunkenness express itself in THIS particular way rather than invitations to fight or a torrent of obscenity. In fact, what has not been noted since the earliest news reports is that Gibson was tossing around the F-bomb as liberally as … well … some drunken Aussie. And yet Gibson can give TV interviews and red-carpet appearances without … um … “fucking” it up. Which makes the same point, by analogy, as I think needs to be made about Gibson and anti-Semitism. It’s part of the specific shape that the “uninhibited personality” and “baser angels of his nature” take in his case. But Gibson seems to recognizes that and so deserves both the prayers of all, the forgiveness of the Jews, while recognizing that sins have temporal consequences, including loss of trust, that cannot be apologized away.
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¹ I hate that word, BTW, but no very good alternative comes to me. The reason I oppose any and all racialist “diversity” efforts, including affirmative action, is that I reject the notion that a just society will have every potentially identifiable group represented “proportionately” in every institution in society. I don’t care whether Jews (or Hottentots) have “disproportionate” influence in the film (or any other industry) because I reject the notion in the first place that there is such a thing, morally speaking, as “proportionate” influence.
² David would object to my use of that noun, for reasons I well understand and sympathize with. But please indulge me for the sake of the parallellism. In fact, David’s objections that the use of “homosexual” as a noun is reductive (well-grounded in Church teaching) even reinforce the similarity between calling someone “an anti-Semite” as simply and reductively as referring to someone as “a homosexual.” Neither is an ontological category.
³ Which is certainly Rich’s reasonable privilege, lest I come across as saying otherwise. Speaking personally, my worst alcohol moment was being given a field sobriety test after having been pulled over for speeding, when I was unquestionably legally intoxicated. I kept my poise and passed it easily — I would have spent at least the night in jail (for starters) if I had not.

August 1, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment