Rightwing Film Geek

Die Hölle über Berlin


tropapadilha.jpgSpeaking of political fatuousness — though in this case I’ll be talking about a film I haven’t seen.

There was an international outcry at the weekend over the Berlin Film Festival, which awarded its top prize, the Golden Bear, to TROPA DE ELITE. The film about a mission by a crack Rio de Janeiro commando team marks the feature film debut of Jose Padilha, who made BUS 174, a documentary that made my Top 10 back in 2003.

Padilha, helped by co-scriptwriter Braulio Montovani (who wrote CITY OF GOD, which also made my 2003 Top 10) topped a field that included PT Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Michel Gondry’s BE KIND REWIND, and highly-anticipated new films by masters Mike Leigh (HAPPY GO LUCKY), Hong Sang-soo (NIGHT AND DAY), Andrej Wajda (Oscar-nominated KATYN), Errol Morris (STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE) and others.

You’d think they’d awarded the prize to a fascist propaganda film …
Continue reading

February 18, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 3 Comments

Not the Goddess of wisdom


This is Manohla Dargis in the New York Times disparaging JUNO and it deserves reprinting in full before I tear it to pieces.

I doubt that most moviegoers would prefer the relentlessly honest “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” which involves a young woman seeking an illegal abortion, over “Juno,” an ingratiating comedy about a teenager who carries her pregnancy to term. But I wish they had the choice. “4 Months” is aesthetically bracing, but “Juno” has easy laughs, dodges abortion quicker than a presidential candidate and provides a supremely artful male fantasy. Like “Knocked Up,” it pivots on a fertile hottie who has sex without protection and, after a little emotional messiness (and no scary diseases), delivers one baby and adopts a second, namely the man-child who (also) misplaced the Trojans. Both comedies superficially recall the male wish-fulfillment fantasies of “Sideways,” but without the lacerating adult self-awareness.

Although I like JUNO a lot, I would never say not-liking it (or any other particular movie) is a character flaw or incorrigible taste. But sometimes when you read negative criticism, you just have to wonder — did this critic see the same movie I saw? Is this a case of severe cranio-rectal inversion? Where to begin? And for the record, I do prefer 4 MONTHS (9) to JUNO (8 ).

“Juno” … dodges abortion quicker than a presidential candidate …

Hardly. Aborting is the first thing Juno thinks to do and there are several scenes that last at least a minute or two about that part of her reaction to her pregnancy (the phone call to the girlfriend, outside the clinic, inside the clinic). Given that JUNO, unlike 4 MONTHS, is not a film about having an abortion, but about carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term, I wonder how much more Dargis wanted. Juno considers aborting, decides otherwise and the rest of the movie is about that choice. Why should Juno think about or discuss abortion after she’s decided to give birth? Which is realistic — next time you see a visibly pregnant woman, suggest aborting and see the reaction if you doubt me. (Scott … criticism like Dargis’s are why people think it’s reactionary to depict an unplanned pregnancy being brought to term.)

“Juno” … provides a supremely artful male fantasy.

Huh? Dargis provides more detail about what she means by this later but to name just one obvious fact about JUNO as a whole: if this were a male fantasy, the filmmakers stink because the basically left out the money scene — sex between Juno and boyfriend Paulie. JUNO only has the briefest of not-shot-to-be-erotic sex scenes and if there was any nudity, I’ve already forgotten it.

Further … as I argued in my previous post, JUNO is to a very great extent about Juno’s maturation and realizing that she has an obligation that’s more important than which of the two spouses she’d rather spend time with. And so if KNOCKED UP is a male fantasy based on pregnancy/parenthood’s transformation of a member of that sex, shouldn’t JUNO on those very terms be a “female fantasy.” Continue reading

January 6, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 9 Comments

Not by Lars von Trier


THE KINGDOM (Peter Berg, USA, 2007, 7)

I saw this film in the company of a group of counter-terrorism analysts, the majority of whom have at least some facility with Arabic and in whose company I was probably the least knowledgeable person about Arabian and Saudi politics and society. It was a bit of an intimidating experience, albeit one much preferable to seeing it with such deep geopolitical thinkers as Kenneth Turan of the LA Times (“across-the-board portrait of malevolent Arabs [with a] … thematic similarity to those jingoistic World War II-era ‘Yellow Peril’ films”) or Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly (“[the] theft of images forever associated with the hideous killing of journalist Daniel Pearl … a decent person might look away in disgust. The sight of a masked gunman on a balcony evokes the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, but for no good reason.”)

The film promises to be great in its first two scenes — a historical montage and a terrorist assault on the American section of Riyadh. The former is as swift, direct and accurate as is reasonable to expect of a historical background primer (in this case, the history of US-Saudi ties) with just a couple of minutes to cover about 80 years. The latter shows Berg knows how to milk an action scene for both the suspense of preparation, the chaos of its violence, the swiftness of a suicide bomber, and the ultimate brutality of the whole plan, once revealed.


Which is a pity, because the rest of the movie is really only OK, with occasional flashes of excellence. Or rather, when THE KINGDOM is about the machinations of doing business in the byzantine political and social worlds of Washington and Riyadh, it is very good. But once those labyrinths has been negotiated, it retreats into familiar police procedural/action film territory. Berg keeps the sequences clear and intelligible, but THE KINGDOM eventually just hunkers down into the kind of routine spolosionfest that Hollywood’s assembly line cranks out like Detroit’s used to. The FBI team is a Benneton ad’s worth of diversity — a black, a woman, a Jew and a redneck — and it’s hard to resist wondering about the smarts of an FBI guy (or a scriptwriter) who would handle such a politically-sensitive mission by assembling such a squad (or rather, two-fourths of it).

Still, there’s a lot to like. Everyone with whom I saw THE KINGDOM agreed is that it gets Saudi society right — an “otherworld” where Americans are always outsiders and never can be certain whom they can trust and whom they cannot trust. There is a scene of a video-game parlor, where the kids play first-person jihad simulators and, upon seeing Jamie Foxx, ask the grandfatherly cafe owner (in unsubtitled Arabic that I still understood and confirmed afterward) whether they should kill the American. Saudi institutions are not the legal-rational secular bureaucracy that America’s are, but those of an honor-based Muslim patriarchy based on loyalty and family — everything depends on who one knows, and all appearances must be upheld, including avoidance of appearing too complicit with the infidels. It looks to us very much like corruption. Before you can do anything, you must negotiate the right to do it, though this is rhymed with similar machinations from head righteous dude Foxx, of the Beltway-Journalism genre, to get the trip in the first place.


There is also one very strong performance (Chris Cooper is good, but he can play this sort of good-o-bwoy in his sleep) — and that is Ashraf Barhom as the Saudi police minder for the group, the one character who has real depth and an arc. As for the rest of the Saudi police and functionaries and princes: they’re not really evil — just disinterested except when it involves saving face. A State Department functionary played by Jeremy Piven is suitably and realistically unctuous. A couple of people also said at dinner afterwards that the Arabic was correct, although there were some subtitle quibbles and a general consensus that, in the subtleties, it usually more resembled the Arabic of Israel or Lebanon than that of Saudi Arabia. But the greatest proof of this film’s worth and authenticity — Saudi Arabia has forbidden its importation.¹

The KINGDOM’s ending seems to traffic in moral equivalence — it’s revealed that two “death whispers” on opposite sides of the jihad were the same line. But in this context, it’s hardly supportive of the Peace Narrative. At some level, it’s useless to deny, “blowback” [sic] and “cycle of violence” [sic] are true. Or that all actors consider themselves moral superiors to opponents. But understand that this “blowback” and “cycle” are not the product of an optional war, but of a law-enforcement operation that is (or should be) supported by the sort of liberal who says he opposes the Iraq war because it supposedly distracts from the war against Al Qaeda (i.e., this kind of action). There is no getting around the fact that any war, just or unjust, wise or unwise, kills people and will leave behind family members who, cultural prerequisites existing, become bent on vengeance.


¹ The country has no public movie theaters, but many wealthy Saudis have private screening rooms and films usually can be imported for this purpose. Also, DVD players and discs are as ubiquitous there as in other rich countries.

October 16, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Critical vulgarity


I enjoyed the Slavoj Zizek documentary THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA, and his other work has been sufficiently warmly recommended to me that I went ahead a bought one of his semi-film-related books, still sitting in my pile (“Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock)” … I mean — how can you even resist a title like that, or the mind that could come up with it/agree to it).

Still, I find Zizek brilliant and maddening in about equal proportions, and it’s good to have reminders of the latter once in a while. This essay on THE LIVES OF OTHERS in “In These Times” repeats two major intellectual crimes all-too-common in this interesting era. (HT: Peter Chattaway, who also notes the dubiousness of one of Zizek’s facts, as if his descriptors “all known … always” shouldn’t have done that already.)

zizek1.jpgFirst of all, Zizek repeats one of the commonest undemonstrated (and undemonstrable) tropes of contemporary sex studies, queer studies, feminism, etc., i.e., immediately noting a relationship between two person of the same sex that involves love, and immediately labeling it “homosexual.” Despite there not being even the slightest hint that the two persons want to get jiggy. In this particular case, Zizek imagines that there’s a homosexual relationship between the two central male characters — the Stasi agent Wiesler and the playwright Dreyman. Here’s his “reasoning.”

Finally, there is a weird twist to the story that blatantly contradicts historical fact. In all known cases of a married couple where a spouse betrayed a partner, it was always a man who became an informant—in Lives, it is the woman, Christa-Maria, who breaks down and betrays her husband.

Isn’t the reason for this weird distortion the film’s secret homosexual undercurrent? The film’s hero, Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi agent whose duty is to plant the microphones and listen to everything the couple does, becomes attracted to Dreyman. It is this affection that gradually leads him to help Dreyman. After die Wende—the “turning point” when the Wall came down—Dreyman discovers what went on by gaining access to his files. He returns Wiesler’s love interest, secretly following Wiesler who now works as a modest postman. The situation is thus effectively reversed: The observed victim is now the observer. In the film’s last scene, Wiesler goes to a bookstore (the legendary Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung on the Stalin Alee, of course), buys the writer’s new novel, The Sonata for an Honest Man, and discovers it is dedicated to him (designated by his secret Stasi code). Thus, to indulge in a somewhat cruel irony, the finale of Lives recalls the famous ending of Casablanca: With the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” between Dreyman and Wiesler, now that the intruding obstacle of a woman is conveniently out of the way—a true Christ-like gesture of sacrifice on her part. (No wonder her name is Christa-Maria!)

Now this is just vulgar. Not “vulgar” in the sense of “excessively ribald,” but “vulgar” in the sense of “coarse and reductively low.” When Camille Paglia says Lacan turns your brain into pudding, this is what she was talking about.

First of all, and most importantly, there’s not a shred of evidence in LIVES OF OTHERS that Wiesler “becomes attracted to” Dreyman in any sexual sense whatever. None. Oh, he clearly admires him, but only if admiration or empathy per se constitutes a sexual interest does this count. And it cannot. Otherwise, no distinction is left between love and friendship, between eros and philos, between the sexual and the fraternal. “Sublimation” and “Repression” and every other manner of head-shrinking psychological voodoo just reductively turn all friendship and familial ties into varyingly pale substitutes for orgasms. Further, the book dedication that comes at the end is hardly an expression of sexual interest, particularly given the events of the preceding 2 hours, which Dreyman had finally figured out. Again, only if gratitude (another form of love) is sublimated/repressed sex is there any “there” there. Some of us like to think it really is possible for a human being to feel admiration or gratitude (or other species of love) toward another human being without wanting to get nekkid in bed.


Second of all, both Dreyman and Wiesler are shown having sex with women (admittedly, Wiesler is a quick unsatisfactory encounter with a prostitute). And does it mean anything at all that Wiesler also is shown as “attracted to” the actress Christa-Maria — trying to thwart the minister liaisons on one occasion, approaching her like a fan at a bar, and even trying to save her at the end? I’m aware that bisexuality exists, but the sex and bedroom scenes are at least real facts about the text; imputations of same-sex sex are just Zizek’s imaginative free-association and imperialistic discourse-impositions. If you define everything in reality as centered on sex, then of course everything will look that way to you, including a male-male relationship in THE LIVES OF OTHERS. But that’s Zizek’s problem, and I’ll leave it to him to try to figure why he isn’t boinking his father. (I presume.) They say that to the corrupt, everything is corrupt; and similarly to the vulgar, everything is vulgar, and to the sex-obsessed, everything is about sex — especially that which isn’t about sex, because, by pretending it isn’t, it’s clear-cut denial (no more perfect case of circle-jerk circularity could ever exist than than the lie-concept “denial”).

Third, Zizek’s comparison with CASABLANCA is just bonkers and actually cuts the other way, even apart from the merits of reading the Bogart classic as a homosexual love story. Rick and Renault walk into the mist together at the end and plan a trip to Brazzaville. On the other hand, Dreyman and Wiesler quite pointedly never even meet at the end of the movie, and the “walk into sunset together” scene is the money shot if a film is in any way about a romantic relationship (indeed, that’s always the evidence that CASABLANCA is really a love story about Rick and Renault). Yes, “the woman is out of the way,” but Dreyman never learns so much as Wiesler’s name, instead dedicating his latest book to an unknown Stasi number. Further, the content codes of Hollywood in 1942 created homosexuality as subtext, because some subject matter was simply unmentionable. Whether this justifies rummaging through the past for coded homosexuality is one thing; but surely the supposed necessity for this hermeneutic for past films actually argues against its permissibility for current films. To put it bluntly, the makers of a 2006 German film have no need, just or unjust, to hide a gay love affair. Which makes my rule — no sex, no homosexuality — by far the more rational one for current films.

lenin.jpgThe other major and majorly-annoying trope Zizek commits is here:

To put it quite brutally, while Ostalgie is widely practiced in today’s Germany without causing ethical problems, one (for the time being, at least) cannot imagine publicly practicing a Nazi nostalgia: “Good Bye Hitler” instead of “Good Bye Lenin.” Doesn’t this bear witness to the fact that we are still aware of the emancipatory potential in Communism, which, distorted and thwarted as it was, was thoroughly missing in Fascism?

To put it quite brutally, this is Pferdscheisse. The reason one cannot imagine “Good Bye Hitler” or that Ostalgie is common in contemporary Germany might have rather more to do with German law since 1945, which has criminalized Nazism, Nazi advocacy, Nazi symbols, Holocaust denial, et al, and even proscribed certain verses of the national anthem. Leave aside the wisdom of these laws — they exist for the Third Reich while not existing for the communist GDR. Thus the Nazi equivalent of “Ostalgie” is essentially illegal. (Further, I don’t really think … and here I agree with Zizek … that GOOD BYE LENIN is an immoral whitewash of communism.)

But more importantly, Zizek is simply displaying in spades the double standards of the contemporary intellectual class in saying that “Communism had an emancipatory potential that was thoroughly missing in fascism.” Where to begin?

  1. This sits uneasily alongside his complaint against THE LIVES OF OTHERS that its narrative begins with sexual interest in Christa-Maria on the part of the culture minister. Is “horror … inscribed into the very structure of the East German system,” thus making “relegat[ing it] to a mere personal whim” a bad thing? Or did communism have potential that just wasn’t realized? Can’t be both.
  2. Communism has “emancipatory potential” against what, exactly? And why would fascism not have “emancipatory potential” against the demons in its demonology? Whether capitalist exploiters or communist expropriators, aristocrats and priests or cosmopolitans and atheists, fascism and communism (and most modern ideologies for that matter) have an understanding of how the world works, what is wrong with that, and a promise of “emancipation” from those wrongs. Zizek (or anyone else) may prefer the demonology of communism and/or prefer emancipation from the demons communism promises to vanquish than emancipation from those fascism does — but that says nothing about the two ideologies, in the kind of formal, idealistic terms he wants.
  3. Is it relevant … at all … that every actually existing communist regime has been tyrannical (some more than others, sure, but all of them to a large or larger degree)? Not strictly speaking, if we’re talking about ideals … I understand that. But is there any point at which we actually learn from experience and decide that … “gee, every time this ‘good idea’ is tried, it screws things up worse,” and so try to rethink whether its unimplementable ideals either really are so good or really matter even if good? And so quit trying to “rescue” communism on these sorts of grounds Zizek is doing. Who would listen to “fascism again, we’ll make it work better this time”?

Like so many Western intellectuals, Zizek betrays that he cannot or will not treat fascism and communism according to a single moral standard (those who do are greater anti-communists than anti-fascists), but rather has a patella reflex that tells him to make excuses or relativizations or contextualizations on behalf of communism.

May 29, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

More searching


Jim Emerson at the Chicago Sun Times blog rips Stephen Metcalf a new one for his Slate essay on THE SEARCHERS, which I used a jumping-off point for a post of my own the other day. I link in the interests of fairness, of course. Some observations and reactions of my own, as someone who generally would take Metcalf’s side in the dispute over the merits of THE SEARCHERS.

Emerson does make some good points. Metcalf is a bit too reliant on citing Pauline Kael, and a bit unspecific in his complaints. It IS anti-intellectual for Metcalf to point to Ford’s personal inarticulateness or to imply that the formal academic study of film is a joke.

But I don’t really think Emerson quite grapples with what is most offputting in the playing of THE SEARCHERS. Metcalf made that point (though he didn’t go into much specifics), and every example that Emerson cites in specific rebuttal (the paragraph that begins “Like his model Pauline Kael…” ) comes in the film’s main threads and/or the principal characters. But that’s not where the truly thumpingly awful stuff is. I named about a half-dozen shockingly bad or ham-fisted performances — overripe clowns, offensive stereotypes or empty suits. I don’t think Emerson even alludes to one of them (in fairness, he’s not answering me specifically, but I don’t claim any great originality. I’ve never met a SEARCHERS skeptic who didn’t quickly alight on Hank Worden’s Mose or Beulah Archuletta’s Look).

It’s not persuasive to say of the acting in THE SEARCHERS that “it’s impressionistic or balletic.” But these are descriptive terms not evaluative ones. As Leonard Pith-Garnell would say … it’s jolly bad ballet. Nor does pointing to the influence of silent films mean much — THE SEARCHERS is, after all, a sound film, and in the late-20s and early-30s sound film very quickly developed a different, much-lower-keyed acting style than the silent film for some very good and inherent reasons.

Not that it has anything to do with THE SEARCHERS, as Emerson would say, but he simply gets politics all wrong. Shockingly wrong. And he rattles on about Ford, Wayne and politics for long enough to make me think it does matter. It is not true that “a staunch Roosevelt Democrat” as Emerson (correctly) identifies John Ford is, “what Republicans today would call a radical Hollywood liberal” — unless Emerson is simply using “Roosevelt Democrat” as a synonym for “good” or “on the right side of history” (which is not too far from what some ahistoric born-yesterday types do in fact do). If “Roosevelt” refers to the historical person and not an amorphous ideal that shifts with the passing wind, the claim of Emerson’s is indefensible. No debate possible.

  1. In a review of CINDERELLA MAN last year, I touched on a big part of what distinguished Roosevelt from today’s liberals — his attitude toward the welfare state, which Hollywood liberals since the 1960s have believed to be a mean-spirited, blame-the-victim stance.
  2. Roosevelt expanded executive powers during wartime in ways that would make current Hollywood liberals blanche. He authorized military tribunals, and a half-dozen executions took place pursuant to them. He approved and defended a mass ethnic roundup (Michelle Malkin’s calls for racial profiling are nothing compared to what FDR did). Before the US involvement in the war, he subverted and contravened the Neutrality Acts in every way he could and at least one of his orders (a shoot-on-sight order against all German ships) constitutes an act of war under international law. If the Hollywood liberals of today had to deal with Roosevelt, they’d be on their knees in thanksgiving for Dubya.
  3. Roosevelt also didn’t lift a finger over segregation, and not from ignorance, as he wintered in Warm Springs, Ga., and took political support from the Herman Talmadges and Theodore Bilbos of the world. He was the candidate of the guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks, as Howard Dean tried to say he wanted to be before being shouted down by the racialism of today’s Democrats. FDR did not believe that morality on segregation was worth the destruction of the New Deal coalition, as have the Hollywood liberals of the 60s and since, to their subsequent chagrin.
  4. Roosevelt signed and acted on the 1940 Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the US government. The statute survived almost 20 years and provided the legal basis for much of the anti-Communist witch-hunts [sic] that Emerson so righteously decries.

I could go on — mentioning Roosevelt threat to pack the Supreme Court or his refusal to increase Jewish immigration quotas and turn away the SS St. Louis — but this is more than sufficient for my point, which is that Emerson, like many film critics when they talk politics, is talking out the top of his hat (or the other end, as it were). There is no way that a Roosevelt Democrat is what Republicans today would call a radical Hollywood liberal. None. And what makes Emerson’s political analysis sadder is that Ford is apparently very much the sort of man who serves as an explanatory example of why FDR would be despised by today’s liberals — namely the reaction to the New Left and the student movements of the 60s. Ironically, Emerson himself realizes this, when he (approvingly) cites Joseph McBride’s of Ford as “a longtime progressive, he had turned to the right because of the war and his general unhappiness with the way America had not lived up to his vision of its potential.” Or as Ronald Reagan put it: “I didn’t leave the Democrats; the Democrats left me.” But instead, we get the (absolutely unsupported) assertion that “today, anyone claiming that America has not lived up to its potential is most likely to be accused of being a radical left-winger” — a claim one is not inclined to believe given how superficial Emerson’s knowledge of actual political spectrums seems to be. And it’s a claim which turns Ford into a man fundamentally insane. Because if the right and “reactionaries” are as Emerson describes, why would the war and the 60s generation have caused a man “unhapp[y] with the way America had not lived up to his vision of its potential” turn right, meaning toward those who “defend[] the status quo as evidence of America’s innate greatness, and proof that we do not have to change or become ‘better’.” It’s like deciding your body has not lived up to your vision of its physical potential, and then turning toward the cupcake and potato-chip lobby. (Sorry … a really good analogy escapes me, but hopefully that’ll at least demonstrate how wack Emerson’s theory of Ford’s politics is).

July 19, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

The female lord

A couple of nights ago at about 230 am, I was driving back from church and listening to JACK-FM on the car radio, when I heard one of the station’s witty promo bumps. The station’s slogan is “playing what we want” and the point of these bumps is to display the station’s (within the universe of hit popular music) democratic and catholic playlist. These were the songs that the piece played a few bars, in every case surrounding the song’s title:

  • “Amy” by Pure Prairie League
  • “Rosanna” by Toto
  • “Janie’s Got a Gun” by Aerosmith
  • “Oh, Sherrie” by Steve Perry
  • “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister

Then came the punch line “Chicks dig JACK” — a reference to a famous Nike ad campaign. And with most of these songs, the point is obvious … there is a female name in the title. Except one. Can you guess which one it is? If you’ve ever been in a liturgical church — or even most non-liturgical ones — you know what “Kyrie” means. And it’s not a mispronunciation of Kylie Minogue (who IS a chick who could, in principle, dig JACK or the long ball).

No … “Kyrie” is the Greek word for the rather non-feminine term “Lord.” It is part of the Catholic Mass (and quite a few others), in the prayer “Kyrie Eleison/Christe Eleison/Kyrie Eleison.” Or in English “Lord have mercy/Christ have mercy/Lord have mercy.” Further the Mr. Mister song itself rather obviously deals in religious imagery. “Kyrie” is NOT a woman’s name, like Rosanna, Sherrie, Amy and Janie.

There’s more here to chew over, I think, than mishearing a simple pop song (like the classic mishearing of the gay Jimi Hendrix: “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”). The Get Religion team has had great fun in the past with the way that media ignorance of religion — the basic facts, the ABCs — has resulted in some embarrassing mistakes that Christians can’t help think results from insularity. Once upon a time, people could assume a certain religious literacy, by default, even among people who are not religious. Even the atheists Camille Paglia and Christopher Hitchens have lamented the decline in Biblical literacy in culturalist terms, pointing out (correctly) that you cannot understand Western literature without at least *some* understanding of its dominant religion. Hitchens even has said he teaches the Bible to his children.

This radio ad is, I think, another example of what happens when education and the social environment becomes totally secular. Was there nobody in the offices of JACK-FM or its ad producer who had ever been a member of the Catholic Church, or any other “high church” religious body?

July 13, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 2 Comments

America … fuck yeah

Another blow to my lifelong ambition to become a US Marine badass. Apparently too much fandom for TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (it made my Top 10 in 2004) will get you in hot water with the leatherneck brassnecks.

Last month, Cpl. Joshua Belile has been hounded by the Jihad enablers and assorted liars for “Hadji Girl,” a song which proves again (years after Salman Rushdie, and shortly after the Danish cartoons: available here) that Muslims have no sense of humor.

The song’s hook “Dirka, Dirka, Muhammad Jihad” is taken from the Trey Parker and Matt Stone film (which all by itself should indicate that this is comical), an unapologetically jingoistic film, with one of the greatest monologs (the first quote here) in movie history, not only a masterpiece of creative obscenity and extended metaphor, but a political philosophy akin to Chapter 17 of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” It’s no surprise that it’s a hit with US troops and bunches the panties of the CAIRs of the world (I wrote it about the song/film here and here). Best excerpt:

It’s also clear to anyone who knows anything about the history of war songs and war stories that soldiers have always engaged in gallows humor and sick jokes, partly from “brutalization” (not a bad thing within limits, BTW; we want warriors to be “harder” than civilians) but also partly as a way of dealing with the constantly-made-imminent fact of the men’s own mortality. At the very start of Western civilization, Homer tells dry jokes about how some soldiers “have the black fog descend upon them,” including one sequence in THE ILIAD where he compares a Trojan being speared through the jaw to a fish trapped on a hook. Nor is this confined to soldiering; all professions have humor, within the stakes of that profession. I have never worked in a newsroom where you couldn’t get at least a knowing smirk with a reference to lines from Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” (“The boys in the newsroom got a running bet: / ‘Get the widow on the set / We need dirty laundry’.”) In a boxing movie called THE SETUP, all the “red corner” fighters share a single dressing room, and one guy who’s just won his fight is telling everyone else in graphic detail about how he worked over his opponent, mercilessly punishing his “soft” stomach and ribs. A green young lad getting ready for his first fight has to flee the room to throw up, causing the victorious fighter to ask in a puzzled manner: “what’s the matter with him.” Sick humor in a life-and-death situation is simply letting off steam; there have never been soldiers in any war who haven’t done exactly the same thing, only outside the glare of scrutiny by the Cambridge-Hollywood Axis.

But I was thinking that maybe Cpl. Belile should sing the song in the presence of Algerian badboy Zidane; I doubt THAT confrontation would end with a headbutt. And if Zidane can’t take trash talk on the pitch without (potentially, at least) costing his national team the frickin World Cup — well, maybe he should take McCloud’s advice and take his penchant for headbutts into the pro wrestling ring (we haven’t had a good French villain since the latter-day Andre the Giant).

July 11, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thumbs up, Rog

ebert.jpgApparently, the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Roger Ebert is expected to recover from complications from his latest round of cancer surgery. Still, no man is immortal, and he will be eligible for Social Security next year. (But then … gulp … my father will be the year after that, and my mother another year later.)

But Ebert was the man who first taught me that movies could be taken seriously. I doubt there are many US-resident cinephiles of my generation of whom that was not true. His books from the late-80s were the first film criticism I ever read, and the fire was lit under me. But his books also introduced me to the Sight & Sound poll, giving me the start of a canon to work with, and always included think-essays and reviews of theatrical rereleases of classics (his recent video guides, consisting entirely of reviews from the last several years, don’t have this value; I bought four from 1987 to 1993; none since). He could even get into the ring with Richard Corliss in FILM COMMENT when he went after their show, and said the problem with American movies is that they’re star-driven and exercises in marketing. Good call, Rog. Thumbs up.

I can’t say I read Ebert as much as I once did. It’s not as crass as “I’ve outgrown him,” more that he’s made his mark (plus Richard Roeper is simply a twit). The purpose Ebert served for me as a budding cinephile, he no longer can. I have a good sense of film history of my own; with my own areas of special interest (silent films, Bollywood, e.g.); I’m confident enough in my tastes that I don’t need to be assured that it’s OK to hate a film everyone else loves; I go to festivals myself, so I don’t need him as a gatekeeper, etc.

It’s tempting to forget now, with Mister Roper on the other side of the aisle, just how good Siskel & Ebert TV show was in the 80s. For us, Siskel & Ebert were doing something other than hyping the latest blockbusters and running Top 10 grossing lists, like Entertainment Tonight. It was the only word you could get at the time that there were the important Indie and foreign films to look out for if they eventually came to your town. And the two actually had something to say about film history and the classics. Again the comparisons with the clone shows — involving Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved, or Rex Reed, Bill Harris and Dixie Whatley — make the point about how much more substantial Siskel and Ebert’s show was. The other mentioned critics are all justly forgotten (except for Medved, who’s carved out a career as a political commentator).

But Siskel & Ebert was a great show and I still have about seven or eight VHS tapes of memorable shows. The clips and the verbal rassling was fun, but the specials were what was really memorable. Not just the annual and decade Top 10s, but shows like “the movies that made us critics,” where Gene and Roger described what films moved them at various stages of life — A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, the Judy Garland A STAR IS BORN, LA DOLCE VITA, BONNIE & CLYDE (I just astonished myself by remembering these titles of Roger’s without having to look them up); a show called “you blew it!”; special shows on black-and-white films and silent films; theme shows devoted to directors and stars like Spike Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They also got to be big enough celebrities to be invited onto other programs, and not just Carson, Letterman, and Arsenio. I cheered when during NBC’s Olympics coverage, the two did a segment about the greatest sports films of all time, and mentioned Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece on the 1936 Berlin games, OLYMPIA. The made the point that the very spectacle we were watching in Seoul (both in Korea and the coverage of it) would have been unthinkable without Riefenstahl.

Yes, Ebert is a liberal who can sometimes be annoying. But this post isn’t just an exercise in “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” (and not just in the sense that Ebert’s obviously not dead). He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for not marching in lockstep with the lefty twits who dominate the world of film criticism, the snootier you get, the thicker the smog is. Off the top of my head, I can think of his review of CLOSET LAND (he dismissed it as “a politically correct allegorical dirge” on the S&E show); the comments he gave to the LA Times in July 2003 (no longer online, but it was called “Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology: Film school isn’t what it used to be, one father discovers.”) about a Marxist-infested film-studies program at UC-Santa Barbara. Ebert said (working from memory, probably a wee bit off): “film theory has nothing to do with film; these programs are worthless and nobody with any taste or intelligence would take them.” Thumbs up, Rog. And then there was his famous diss on PRIEST (Ebert, a Catholic, already had complained once on the show, I forget where, about the cheap use of the sanctity of the Confessional), but he ended his review with this walk-off:

For this movie to be described as a moral statement about anything other than the filmmaker’s prejudices is beyond belief.

Wow. It was … “the most famous critic in America is actually slamming a movie on the grounds of religious bigotry and stupidity.” I don’t know if I can communicate how inspiring that was to me, in 1995, when I was just starting to write my first film criticism, on Usenet.

Get well, Rog. You’re still needed. And always be loved.

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

Billy Wilder, Centenarian


Conservative columnist Mark Steyn has a beautiful essay (preserved here) on Billy Wilder, who would have turned 100 last month. (One of my pieces of film criticism of which I’m most proud is an obituary I wrote of Wilder shortly after his 2002 death for a film buff Webzine.) Some of what I like about Steyn’s essay:

  • His analysis of the tone of THE APARTMENT, a film that I’ve been resistant to for a very long time, but which really came together for me when I watched it again a couple of months ago. Steyn notes how the film stays with the “bittersweet” without ever collapsing into “bitter.” And I’m convinced the last line in THE APARTMENT — “shut up and deal” — as good a walk-off line as Wilder ever wrote (and we’re talking the man who wrote, “all right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” and “well, nobody’s perfect”). It’s weepy high-romance for the stoic and unromantic.
  • His citation of the Jack Lemmon interview at the end, which, as Steyn notes, captures what is missing in today’s comedies without turning either Lemmon or Steyn into the equivalent of some old fart muttering in the corner about the damn-fool younger generation. But Wilder had that craftsmanship. You couldn’t scramble the reels of SOME LIKE IT HOT and have much of it work from the inherent “sketch” funniness. The film is clockwork farce as good as the 20th century produced, and, like other sorts of clocks, can’t be disassembled and still have its “parts” work.

Turner Classic Movies had a mini-retro of Wilder on his birth’s centenary, and I confess I didn’t watch any of the films, as I’d seen them all more than once before, preferring instead to mark the day on TCM by watching BILLY WILDER SPEAKS, the first US presentation of an edited-down interview documentary that German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff made for German TV almost two decades ago. (Schlondorff also wrote a personal memoir on Wilder’s passing for the LA Times last month, which had this priceless gem that explains part of what makes Wilder so congenial to myself and so many other Gen-X cinephiles: “Deflecting every serious moment with a joke, Wilder gained a reputation as a cynic. But for him it was only a question of dignity: The really serious things we should keep to ourselves.”) Wilder comes across as so, no other word for it, lovable in these interviews, like a wise old uncle that you could listen to for hours.

But the specific moment I’ll remember best from BILLY WILDER SPEAKS is a political observation, which I’ll try to quote from memory (for now; will check my DVD-R later)

Here in America, you don’t really worry too much about politics. If the Democrats win, great. But if the Republicans win, that’s not too bad either.

This was a man who lost most of his family in the Holocaust — he knew political extremism from political extremism. He understood, although he might not have been able to put it in the precise terms that this former political-philosophy professor-wannabe will, that America has a political consensus, in which there are two parties that garner 95+ percent of the populace and basically both support the liberal democratic order. Politics operates within the 40-yard lines and isn’t really life-defining. This isn’t to say there are no differences between the two parties or that those differences don’t matter (and Wilder’s sympathies within that order are clear from the quote). But it is to say that revolution or the disruption of the social contract simply is not on the agenda, despite how the Kossacks and Atrioses of the world babble about “Bushitler” and the imminent theocracy. Those idiots have no perspective and deserve no respect (nor do the Birchers et al who claim the Democrats are just closet communists; but they’re not at the center of the “people power” movement that the MSM is telling us is reshaping one of the two major parties). It was good to be reminded of that again.

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

Hollywoof Americana


SYRIANA (Stephen Gaghan, USA, 2005, 4)

This is a movie about a country that assassinates Arab leaders with car bombs. Because this movie was called SYRIANA, I assumed it’d be about the similar-sounding country Syria, which has a habit of doing this. But alas, this is Hollywood movie and so having Arabs as the main villains would be unthinkable. Remember when the book of SUM OF ALL FEARS had Muslim terrorists trying to nuke a US city. Hollywood decided that was stupid and so rewrote the movie script with the much more believable, hard-hitting, risk-taking and relevant story line of *neo-Nazis* trying to nuke a city. (Doesn’t everybody go to bed at night worrying about neo-Nazi weapons of mass destruction? I know I sure do.) That rewrite was so awesome that, since the notion of Arab states or Arab terrorists car-bombing each other’s leaders and leaving craters in each other’s highways is obviously equally stupid, the film-makers decide to make a movie in which the *CIA* does such things. And by push-button from an office in Washington, like in a long-distance video game.

If. Only.

The real CIA doesn’t even want to give the rubber-hose treatment to captured terrorists in secret prisons and is far more adept at overthrowing White House policies it doesn’t like (for any number of a-ideological, institutional reasons) than at assassinating foreign princes. But then, SYRIANA also takes place in that weird alternate universe where Arab princes need to be advised by a mid-level 30-ish American bourgeois oil-industry analyst (one who sees Mossadeq as an inspiration, BTW) that they should invest their wealth to create a real economy for when the oil runs out. (Hand slaps forehead.)

And by gum, if Hollywood is gonna show Muslim suicide bombers, then it’s ferdamnsure gonna contextualize and/or minimize them — by (1) making them exploited Pakistanis (not the typical suicide terrorist profile); by (2) making their target an oil industry installation (rather than, say, US jetliners, or European trains, or Iraqi mosques or Israeli pizza parlors or German discotheques or wheelchair-bound American Jews); and by (3) portraying the explosion by turning the screen to white light as the bomber closes his eyes and gets ready for his 72 virgins (rather than say, showing fire, mangled corpses, blown-up pipes, loss of wealth for Matt Damon’s idea of investments).

Actually, ideological beefs aside, SYRIANA has a far far FAR more basic problem — you can’t make nor tail of it while following it. Roger Ebert put SYRIANA #2 on his Ten-Best list (I will not, obviously). But his capsule on that list is actually revealing in ways I don’t think he intended:

Stephen Gaghan’s film doesn’t reveal the plot, but surrounds us with it … no one in this movie understands the big picture.

That about sums it up, I think, and in my book that’s a pretty good definition of bad storytelling. Ebert’s regular review is more of the same, and frankly it’s inconceivable to me that someone could write this way about a movie he liked:

Even then, the studio e-mailed critics a helpful guide to the characters. I didn’t look at it. Didn’t want to. I liked the way I experienced the film: I couldn’t explain the story, but I never felt lost in it … Already I regret listing all of these names. You now have little tic-tac-toe designs on your eyeballs. … The more you describe it, the more you miss the point. It is not a linear progression from problem to solution. It is all problem. The audience enjoys the process, not the progress. We’re like athletes who get so wrapped up in the game we forget about the score.

But the analogy in Ebert’s last sentence, about getting buried in stats and progress presupposes something not the case in SYRIANA — the intelligibility of the game itself. No sport is interesting if you don’t understand how it is played. To remember the score, we, the audience, at least have to know what the game is, what the rules are, how you score, whether high score or low score wins, etc. This movie is such a total mess, its action just tossed in media res in from nowhere — “surrounds us with the plot” — that it’s like PRIMER on a $50 million budget.

One of the all-time great Hollywood movies, and also one of the most popular and beloved, has an unintelligible plot about a man thrown into political and spy intrigue about which he doesn’t have a clue. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST — a film that stands in rebuke of SYRIANA as an example of how to make unintelligible intrigue into a coherent, watchable and exciting plot (but try reciting what happens in NORTH BY NORTHWEST off the top of your head).

First — concentrate on a single character with whom the audience identifies and give him a single role and aim (finding George Kaplan). SYRIANA juggles plot threads and has no central character.
Second, make him as clueless as we. SYRIANA is filled with characters who know stuff and withhold it from other characters and thus us.
Third, and this is the most important, don’t get bogged down in the MacGuffin. In Hitchcock’s terms, SYRIANA is a film that is not about the human beings, but only about the MacGuffin(s) they encounter, written by a man who thinks unraveling the MacGuffin matters. Coincidentally (or not), this was a tick Hitchcock, in his book-length interview by Francois Truffaut, said he always had to warn screenwriters off.

In the same interview, Hitchcock said NORTH BY NORTHWEST was his best MacGuffin because it was “nothing at all.” But imagine NORTH BY NORTHWEST if it followed James Mason and Martin Landau from the beginning, had a separate Eva Marie Saint plot thread, and was concerned with the business of every character at the meeting headed by Leo G. Carroll, where it’s decided that there’s nothing that can be done for Cary Grant without blowing Kaplan’s cover. And we could hear Carroll’s explanation of everything to Grant that Hitchcock wisely obscured with a roaring plane engine. That’s SYRIANA, in a nutshell.

I can’t make any reference to Ebert’s Top 10 listing of SYRIANA without noting this … remarkable … quote:

The movie has been called “liberal,” but it is apolitical, suggesting that all of the players in the oil game are corrupt and compromised, and in some bleak sense must be, in order to defend their interests — and ours.

If this act of “suggesting” is Ebert’s idea of “apolitical” … words fail me. As if “Oil = Evil/Oil Causes Evil/We’re Evil Because of Oil” isn’t the quintessential liberal stance on a host of issues (particularly for the Lifestyle Left, as distinct from the union hardhats who once formed the Democrat Party’s base). From climate change to automotive regulations to urban sprawl to Alaskan or offshore drilling to Bush’s personality to war and peace itself (as in “No Blood for —–“) … whatever side “oil” is on, liberals will be on the other as if it were a law of nature.

December 26, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Apologia pro Ang Lee



On Dave Kehr’s blog last week, a commentator named Joe Baltake noted that Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a film that “will be both liked and disliked for the wrong reasons.”

The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in the romantic tragedy of a couple of gay cowboys who eat beans rather than pudding. It’s already received seven Golden Globe nominations, won several critic circles’ “year’s best” nods, and nabbed the top prize at probably the world second-most-prestigious juried film festival (Venice). In the coming weeks, it will be garlanded with multiple Oscar nominations and will probably get some wins. But a mere perusal of Rotten Tomatoes (87 percent “Fresh”) and the right Google search terms tells you that at least part of the stated reason for some of this is seeing the film as a commercial for gay “marriage,” “tolerance” and all the rest of it. Quick examples from Newsweek

Brokeback feels like a landmark film. No American film before has portrayed love between two men as something this pure and sacred. As such, it has the potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people’s ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships.

… and from Entertainment Weekly:

In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?

YEAH!! That’s the kind of praise I want to hear about a movie — “this is the blood of the lamb, which washes away the sins of the homophobes. Have mercy on them.”

And I like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. A lot. But I don’t say that because I’m a priori impressed with gay subject matter, though I admit to not being absolutely turned-off by it either. I really don’t want to hear that sort of praise for it, since it turns the movie into a Cause. With some predictable (and equally wrong-headed) response from the other side of The Cause (the side to which I very emphatically belong).

There was a kerfuffle last week over the review by Harry Forbes, head of the Office of Film and Broadcasting at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Such conservative Catholics as apologist Jimmy Akin, journalist and expectant father (and friend, at least for now) Dom Bettinelli and the LifeSiteNews (here and here) went to town on the review, calling it in various ways an amoral whitewash that downplayed the Church teaching on homosexuality. As the editor’s note explains, the film was initially rated “L” — for “limited adult audiences, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling” and is short of the “O” rating for “morally offensive.” That L-rating was quickly changed to “O,” but the review remained the same, to the chagrin of Dom, Mr. Akin and others, who began (or reiterated) calls for Mr. Forbes’s head.

Thing is, neither man nor the writers at LifeSite (ditto most of the people in their comment fields) have seen the film and so they are taking Mr. Forbes’s descriptions at face value. I agree that the review is lacking severely and that may account for the negative reaction (I’ll get back to that and some related issues after making my own case for the film as at least not O-offensive), but I have actually seen the movie.

akin.jpgLike THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST last year, I’d like a first-rate film to be seen as something other than a Kulturkampf football and a measurement of one’s bona fides therein, much less as their Judgment Day Sheepness or Goatness. And I’ll say the following: reducing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN to “homosexual propaganda,” as Lifesite does, and saying that “It is BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS that this one is morally offensive,” as Mr. Akin does, is meaningless and ridiculously overstated coming from people who have not seen the movie.

Now … I’m not, not, NOT saying that one cannot say anything about a movie without having seen it, including (1) reasonable expectations about what it might be like, (2) judgments of the public discourse surrounding it, and (3) one’s decision whether to see it himself (which is, always and by definition, a decision made sight-unseen). But there are limits. And labeling something “propaganda” and insisting in ALL CAPS that something is “blindingly obvious” and calling others’ points “mere spin” are … to use Mr. Akin’s phrase … not borderline cases. Those are opinions to which the writers are not entitled, though in fairness Dom doesn’t “fisk” the review sight-unseen as Mr. Akin does (not to his credit) and is a bit more careful to say only what he can.

brokeback3.jpgI had dinner at David Morrison’s house earlier this fall. His roommate “Dan” had read the Annie Proulx short story, but not seen the film. I had done the reverse. So Dan and I have this odd conversation, trying to figure out between ourselves what the adaptation was like, while trying to be spoiler-vague in front of David, who had neither seen nor read it. Dan was fairly emphatic that the story didn’t make the affair attractive, but rather was portrayed as a destructive force of nature. David was listening to us and (metaphorically) threw up his hands in frustration, saying something like “you guys are kidding yourselves. You both know perfectly well how this film will be spun. ‘How awful is it that the homophobic society and the constraints of the nuclear family got in the way of the happiness of these two nice well-meaning gay men by repressing their natural desires to marry each other.’ It’ll be taken as a commercial for gay marriage and that’s what all the Oscar night speeches will be about.”

I had to admit that the film doesn’t exclude that “read,” though I insisted (and insist) that this reduces and flattens the film and rides roughshod over some of its psychology. But I think David’s reaction is typical of the general Catholic suspicion of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The above-noted hosannahs (or as I put it elsewhere above, “the public discourse surrounding it”) — “I’m here. I’m queer, it was fabulous” — deserves suspicion. And they are indistinguishable from the outside from what would be said if BROKEBACK were in fact homosexual propaganda. But the film deserves better than to be reacted to, positively OR negatively, as an exercise in gay-lifestyle validation. It isn’t.

anglee.jpgOn the basis of his past work, I think Ang Lee is entitled to at least some consideration that he’s not making libertine propaganda. You’ll read very often, and sometimes from the horse’s mouth, that Lee’s movies are about “repression.” This is obviously true, but *how* are they about repression? As often as not, they’re about the destructive effects on the individual and society of willful characters and their destructive effects on the social and themselves — CROUCHING TIGER, where Zhang Ziyi’s adolescent pique and social-climbing bring ruin; the contrast between the two sisters in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (remember Kate Winslet sobbing on the bed); and THE ICE STORM, where the sex is about as unrepressed as it gets — and ugly and destructive and (frankly) joyless.


The most important thing I have not seen noted elsewhere is what happens on the night of Jack and Ennis’s first sexual encounter. They were supposed to be keeping watch over a flock of sheep, protecting them from the wolves. When they wake up the morning after, they find out one of the sheep has been killed during the night. Their passion killed. You don’t have to be Harold Bloom to see the archetypes here — homosexuality as death force, as a passive destroyer of the soul, of innocence. In addition, the film certainly doesn’t portray the affair as viable as an alternative lifestyle, though each man thinks it might may be, for a time, after a fashion (Jack is the only one with the Massachusetts “marriage” dream). The relationship only “works” when it’s set apart from the social world — and this is the classic “homophobic” construction of homosexuality as outlawry.

Jack and Ennis’s not getting together has as much to do with the particulars of who they are as for social disapproval. Jack has a penchant for dangerous risk-taking; Ennis is a-romantic, period (if the second love had been a woman, the story would not have played out differently). As the movie went on, Jack and Ennis’s relationship became less sexual and more of an increasingly elusive “if only,” often tinged with jealousy and anger at each other. There’s even one scene where Ennis explicitly turns away Jack with the same “I gotta work” line that some woman hears from some overworked and unavailable man every second of every day of the year.


Nor does the film, contrary to Mr. Akin’s sight-unseen assertions and dismissal of noting this as “mere spin,” skimp on the affair’s destructive effects on others, with neither cowboy being a good husband or father, at least in part because the other is always a possibility. Jack marries for money and lives unhappily castrated. Before his divorce, Ennis even turns his wife into a man in bed one night. He becomes estranged from his children and even turns down a chance for custody of his daughter. And, most obviously — the film ends tragically and unhappily.

Now … I’m not going to oversell BROKEBACK on these grounds. It’s definitely not a Christian work, and one should approach it with caution. But if this story were about an illegitimate lisison between a married man and a married woman, maybe it would be far easier to see how comfortably BROKEBACK fits into the traditions and templates of romantic tragedy, and so (and this is what I care about here) not leap to conclusions about what the film is supposedly “endorsing.” It’d be easier, in some quarters, to see that its low-key elegiac tone and its bittersweet ambivalence about an impossible love come straight out of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. But the essence of tragedy is that every option be costly. Nobody seriously maintains that David Lean or Martin Scorsese have constructed screeds against marriage or the breeder lifestyle — merely acknowledging that marriage involves some dying to self. (The most underappreciated film of this topic, though it’s not a tragedy, was 2003’s THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS.) But all three of the tragic movies I’ve named are about people who choose family over eros, and from a mix of motives, not excluding shame and social disapproval. To acknowledge that such choices, even the right ones, have costs, and that some might not prefer those costs at certain moments or with a certain part of their soul, is simple truth-telling.

It’s also thoroughly Catholic apropos of homosexuality. Catechism 2358 says as follows:

(M)en and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies … are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Now what “difficulties” might the Church be talking about? And what could be united to the Cross other than suffering? And a suffering that, because it is based on something “deep-seated,” may not end or be “cured” on this side of paradise. Sure, the right path is clear (and 2359 does offer hope for homosexual persons, albeit of a kind they tend to hold in contempt), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or painless, or, to steal a line I’ve heard, that it’s the broadest path.

Thus, potentially and in principle at least, the pain of homosexual repression (whether from without or within) can be the stuff of romantic tragedy without implying that homosexual acting-out is a preferable option. Only an Americanist pragmatism, an insistence on moral happy endings, or a willful desire to draw unsubstantiated pro-gay conclusions could say otherwise. And the USCCB guide goes astray in stating that the film includes “tacit approval of same-sex relationships.” Or rather, that’s true only if every stance other than explicit condemnation constitutes “tacit approval.” Under that understanding, yes, since BROKEBACK isn’t interested in approval or disapproval, it does indeed give tacit approval to homosexual sex. But that’s a crabbed, unidimensional and ultimately boring understanding of art, thought and discourse in the first place, one that owes more to Puritanism and other forms of religious purism than Catholicism. Surely reason and secular plurality offer some space to representation other than the 60s totalitarian-radical stance: “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”


Now this “take” may very well not be Ang Lee’s or Annie Proulx’s. But there’s plenty in the film to support it and, more importantly, nothing in the film that excludes it. One of the things that needs to be made clearer about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is its open-endedness and disinterestedness. Part of the reason the film’s widely-praised last image (a closet, a uniform, a window, a child walking away, and Heath Ledger’s face and body language all create a spine-tingling memento mori) is so brilliant is that it isn’t an overdetermined “moral” — it keeps open both BROKEBACK’s sources of loss. The film does nothing to “force” its audience into a conclusion about homosexuality, other than simply presupposing “homos is people too,” which is hardly heresy. The fact that secular film critics are cheerleading this film on (some of) the grounds they are is not surprising, but what is surprising is Christians taking their word for it. The film-critic community is one where theological illiteracy reigns (see 90 percent of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST criticism) and where opposition to gay marriage is understood only or primarily as “hate,” like when Scott Tobias at The Onion AV Club blog refers to “the recent glut of anti-gay marriage voter initiatives” as evidence of “homophobic sentiment.” (And believe me, Scott is a friend who wouldn’t even enter my mind if I were asked to name the Top 40 Leftist Wack-Jobs in the Field of Film Criticism.)

But Scott makes a much more important point at the end of the conversation:

The 9/11 echoes in War Of The Worlds are subtext. The commentary on race in Do The Right Thing is text. The “plea for tolerance” in Brokeback Mountain comes as a side effect of telling this story, not it’s raison d’être.

Even though I think (as Scott does not) that homosexual behavior is sinful and identifying oneself as “a homosexual” is dubious — in more than one sense of “dubious” — this is still a basic fact about how a work of art “works.” Scott distinguishes films that are propaganda, both implicitly and explicitly, from works that are not, but which may have effects that lead it to be understood in a certain way. But it is purely and simply not the case that people reacting to a text (by, say, calling it a great boon for gay marriage, yadda-yadda, etc.) has anything to do with the text. Though my meter is probably not St. Blogs’ most sensitive on such matters, I see a handful of “gay propaganda” movies every year and I can say definitely that BROKEBACK ain’t one, though it is certainly consumable (and is being consumed) as validation by gay-lifestyle propagandists, just as last year’s even better VERA DRAKE was equally bluntly and oversimplifiedly pushed into service as pro-abortion propaganda.

It is true that, like all movies, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN does require of the viewer at least some provisional acceptance of its terms of reference. No thing can be about everything. Homosexuality as a public issue doesn’t appear in the movie at all, and homosexuality as a moral issue hardly does, though adultery and infidelity as moral issues very definitely do. What you simply have to accept provisionally is that some people have an erotic desire for the same sex, and (and this is the hard part) that this might not be the most important thing to say about their sexual behavior or their moral character. This shouldn’t be too hard for Catholics, since Catechism 2359 above says homosexual persons are called, like all, to sainthood.

That these two men have, at least somewhat, released the homosexual genie to destructive ends does not (a priori, at least) answer the question of whether the genie should have been let out the bottle in the first place or whether we should encourage everyone to rub as many bottles as they find, and call it good. Indeed I think, in a strange way, the liberal lovers and the conservative haters of the film are arguing from the same template — that a movie that treats homosexual persons as persons first (with the particulars of their sinful weaknesses being a secondary detail) is somehow implying something about either about the morality of homosexuality or about the public issues surrounding it. It doesn’t. The Entertainment Weekly reviewer (Owen Glieberman) immediately before the passage cited above, writes explicitly:

It’s far from being a message movie, yet if you tear up in the magnificent final scene, with its haunting slow waltz of comfort and regret, it’s worth noting what, exactly, you’re reacting to: a love that has been made to knuckle under to society’s design.

Leaving aside the direction of the terms of approval and disapproval, this is essentially the same as Dom:

Is that all that the official reviewer for the US bishops can say about a movie that attempts to normalize homosexuality as just another lifestyle? From the beginning you detect an enthusiasm for the movie that seems a bit untoward.

As I’ve said, I think the Catholic reaction to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has more to do with the Forbes review, which is freely available and appearing in the context of secular hosannahs, than to the film, which has not been widely released yet. And that review was, in fact, fairly pitiful and deserving of scorn.

As Mr. Akin points out, there are just a few sentences of “slight caveats thrown in as sops to those who would find the film objectionable.” Those sentences aside, the review was pretty indistinguishable from what one might read from a daily newspaper. Also, and take this from an editor, those sentences read like “afterthought” — that is, if an editor were of a mind to, they would have been cuttable instantly without making yourself as a result do any further rearranging or major editing. You wouldn’t get any sense from reading almost all of this review that the writer was writing for the US bishops office or for Catholic publications. When you look at what the USCCB did (eventually, and apparently after some kicking and screaming) and what Christianity Today’s movies page did, they look similar. That is, discuss and rate the film as a work of art, with a disclaimer about the subject matter.

But … CT’s review was much better and meatier, and had its moral concerns better integrated throughout. I don’t think Forbes did nearly enough of that, didn’t approach the film from a specifically and identifiably Catholic view from beginning to end, and the result was an oil-and-water effect.

When I wrote my reviews of IRREVERSIBLE and THE ARISTOCRATS, I knew I was writing about two movies I loved, but which had subject matter guaranteed to turn off most religious viewers.¹ I made damn sure that I communicated my knowledge of that fact from the start, leading with a volley of vulgarities in one case and some graphic descriptions in the other. I would do the same if I were to write about EYES WIDE SHUT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS — the questionable moral status of the film’s images and surface content would suffuse and be central to my claims about the films (i.e., that they’re masterpieces, and highly moral to boot). This is, in my opinion, the only legitimate way to do real film criticism — according to a sensibility from a specific POV.

But then, this blog is the product of one man and wholly about what interests him. Nobody would (I hope) take anything I say as “The Church” in an official or even semi-official capacity. One reason I did not include “Catholic” in my site name was never even to hint at such, and so leave me freer to write according to my sensibility, which you either share (at least somewhat) or don’t. But surely, the only reason the US bishops, as opposed to one layman in Washington, should be writing about film is because they speak from *their* specific perspective (for those of you in Rio Linda, that would be “being successors to the Apostles,” not “adding a sentence of reservation to the NY Times’ stance”). Despite the Vatican list of “Some (45) Significant Films” (which is as good a “canon list” as any of its length), film criticism is simply not in the episcopal charism.

Which also speaks somewhat, if via a very different route, to part of what Dom and Mr. Akin wonder aloud about the value of this USCCB office. In Dom’s words: “Methinks that there is a corruption in the film office of the USCCBureaucracy and in the USCCBureaucracy itself.” Mr. Akin says “the quality of the reviews and ratings has declined — to the point that I no longer consult them as they are of little use.” I agree with them wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have rarely consulted the bishops’ reviews (and never for critical input per se), as I’m confident enough in my own judgment on this matter. I did and do occasionally look up reviews from curiosity over the ratings. When I read in a diocesan paper that they rated PULP FICTION “O” and KIDS “A-IV” (the predecessor to “L”), I wrote a letter that I couldn’t bring myself to send. But my esteem could not be won back.²
¹ To be fair, compared to those two movies, BROKEBACK is much tamer in style and actual content. It has one fairly graphic sex scene; but only its being between two men makes it particularly noteworthy in this day and age. And a couple of other nude or half-nude bits and pieces. Granted, my subject-matter Sensit-O-Meter is perhaps St. Blogs’ least acute, but considering the subject matter and contemporary standards, BROKEBACK is a pretty restrained film (one cause for complaint by the “insufficiently radical” crowd, BTW). And thanks, Ryan and Scott, for noting that David Ehrenstein is … well, follow the link and to the comment field.
² Can it be any more obvious that Larry Clark is a nihilist perv getting off on drooling through the camera at half-naked teens, while Quentin Tarantino is telling a tale of a providential religious conversion, albeit one heavily salted with surroundings of rough language, violence, and pomo irony?

December 19, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mao, more than ever

maoposter.jpgMy friend Adam alerted me to this awesome film criticism site for people with a really ironic and ghoulish sense of humor. So naturally, I can’t take my eyes off the Maoist International Movement film site, and I have had hours of time-wasting fun.

I actually think we should keep a few Commies around, and put them in a theme park for display. This Maoist site, at which the critics are identified at most by code names, like MC-17 and PG-13, is a good step in that direction. It makes David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site look sane. These Maoists are definitely worth a bookmark if you want the Chairman’s Revolutionary Nonrevisionist perspective on:

PATCH ADAMS: the plot points “agree [some] with the proletarian perspective of medicine. The bourgeoisie puts great emphasis on technical training and puts this above common sense and contact with the masses.”

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS: I think they liked this one, because they acknowledge that it “deserves not to be banned under the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (I repeat: I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.) Apparently, it shows the wizard school in a “crisis” situation where learning has to take place outside the context of the status quo system. Which Mao saw. And saw that it was Good.

TANK GIRL: On the down side, she “smokes, which is not MIM’s idea of good in a role model. Tank Girl does not have the advantage of Marxist science.” And “as an individualist Tank Girl’s class awareness appears limited and reactive.” But it gets better and is “overall objectively progressive. It is progressive because it is the story of wimmin and brown skinned persyns (“kangaroos”) fighting against monopoly capitalists.” It is all in all, “about the best culture were going to see under imperialism.” Maybe that means would prevent it from being banned under a dictatorship of the proletariat.

charliesdiaz.jpgCHARLIE’S ANGELS 2 and LARA CROFT, TOMB RAIDER 2: They “perpetuate gender oppression and inequality” by “pornographic portrayals of wimmin.” But not, not NOT from “some Christian purism or moral code.” No, no, no. But CHARLIE’S ANGELS 2 does have one redeeming facet. “In the end the evil Angel wasn’t put in therapy: they killed her, so at least Charlie’s Angels got that right.” Some Christian purism might be a good idea.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: Close, but no cigar … um … uh … close but no communal proletarian rice bowl. It has empowered wimmin, but “aesthetics cannot be separated from political content.” Durn it. And since, the film “fails to deliver any good reason for the wimmin — or the men — to use their [athletic] skill,” I guess it’s onto the Little Red Bonfire.

Some of the reviews were almost coy, though. I was actually surprised it took the Undercover Revolutionary Reviewer as long as it did, the second-last sentence of a 1,000-word review, to get to the (obvious) point that BLACK HAWK DOWN‘s “perspective is reactionary.”

My favorite quote is probably this one, about THE FARM. “Angola was transformed from an old-style slave plantation into a modern day slave plantation (prison) after the Civil War.” I’d never before realized that “police are key weapons in Amerika’s imperialist war against its internal Black, Latino and Indigenous colonies” in the “Amerikkkan Lockdown.” At the end of the same review, it laments the number of people who came to a screening but didn’t sign up to overthrow the state, because they were too racist to associate with the African Diaspora figures being oppressed in Amerikkka.

hammersickle.jpgYou can’t make this stuff up. You wouldn’t think it would be possible to attack Noam Chomsky from the left, but these people manage. Did you know that in POWER AND TERROR: NOAM CHOMSKY IN OUR TIMES, Chomsky is a “cop out” on capitalism and “misleads his audience about the reality of historical activism” because he doesn’t tell people to fight for communism — “an alternative … that has been tested historically and proven superior to capitalism”? I did not know that. Or that even Jean-Luc Godard committed historical errors. His TOUT VA BIEN (starring Hanoi Jane Fonda) “was too much in the direction of economic demands by imperialist country workers — this despite the fact that Godard separated from social-democracy and revisionism while showing how the imperialists exploit the Third World for the benefit of themselves and their lackeys.”

I’m too unsurprised to really be disgusted by the fact that Maoists would not care for such revisionist running-dog films from “Capitalist China” as Zhang Yimou’s TO LIVE, Chen Kaige’s FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE, and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s THE BLUE KITE. The Zhang “downplays the tremendous gains the Chinese people made under Maoist leadership.” The Chen film “Includes typical revisionist history depicting the Cultural Revolution as anarchic and destructive.” And the Tian doesn’t do enough to emphasize “the important advances made in the Cultural Revolution.” But it does show unintentionally how good the Cultural Revolution was in fighting bourgeois reactionary liberal ideas — yes, you read that right.

Stop laughing, people. This site is real. I think. Oh … and did you know that MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING “may have had some progressive value in feudal times… [but] it’s hard to see this film continuing to have value today.” Or that SCHINDLER’S LIST is a “fitting Amerikan eulogy to one benevolent capitalist who saved people by putting them to work in his factory.” I gotta stop right now. I could be writing in this mode forever.

Just a word to my 5.5 readers (half of David Morrison’s) … if I *ever* start sounding like a right-wing version of that site, just go ahead and shoot me. And cite this post in defense; I’m sure you’ll get off.

February 19, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

The Kazan haters

It’s unfortunately not on the Web site, but the December issue of The Atlantic has a postmortem on Elia Kazan from conservative writer Mark Steyn, in a bit of a reined-in writing persona compared to what he did at, e.g. the American Spectator. Steyn has an interesting take on a film (GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT) that I found pretty weak but Steyn makes me want to see it again. But most importantly, he states bluntly the principle behind supporting Kazan.

kazan.jpgBut the arts have little time for anti-Communists, especially premature anti-Communists, especially as premature as Kazan: he quit the party in 1936, after he’d refused to help it turn the Group Theatre into an actors’ collective …

But if we were to frame Kazan’s testimony to HUAC in terms of personal loyalty, what about his responsibility to, say, Vsevolod Meyerhold? When Kazan joined the Group, straight out of Yale, the company looked to the Russians for inspiration — not just to Stanislavsky, but also to his wayward disciple Meyerhold. The latter was a great mentor to the young Kazan and other Group members. This was a period, remember, when the Group frequently visited Russia; [Waiting For] Lefty, for example, was staged in Moscow. Meyerhold loved the older stylized forms — commedia dell’arte, pantomime — and refused to confine himself to Socialist Realism. So Stalin had him arrested and executed.

Think about that: murdered over a difference of opinion about a directing style. As ‘persecution’ goes, that’s a lot more thorough than forcing some screenwriter to work on a schlock network variety show under a false name.

And that really says it all about why I scorn the professional anti-McCarthyites, and why Kazan’s memory was honored by these rodents’ hate. Any comparison or parallel between McCarthyism, HUAC, loyalty oaths and the rest of it and the *ordinary way of doing business* in the Soviet Union is obscene. Anyone who’d make it has no sense of proportion or a sense of what a monstrous evil Communism was, and therefore thus how derivatively evil supporting it was.

November 24, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 4 Comments

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a theater …


Well, that’s not exactly what the New York Post did in its forum Monday on THE PASSION OF CHRIST (now only available here; scroll down to the post by “respaul” at 00:15, 22-11-03). There’s an academic professor of theology, standing in for the Protestant minister, though she has an Italian-sounding name. There’s also a Post reader and one of its film critics. Follow the links at the end of the main page for their reactions from each of the individuals. (Aside: one of the reasons I don’t like to read newspapers outside work is that I find myself looking at them with a professional’s eye — I can’t look at the second page of the spread on the hard copy of the paper without realizing that the dominant art, a still from THE PASSION OF CHRIST, has been flip-flopped.)


The intro material repeats the meme that Gibson has violated the Second Vatican Council’s denunciation of the deicide libel in Nostra Aetate, but it at least actually quotes what the Council said, which is revealing: “what happened in [Christ’s] Passion cannot be charged against all the Jews without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” But in Rabbi Robert Levine’s hands, that statement becomes the claim that the movie “undermines the 1965 Vatican II declaration that Jews are not responsible for the death of Christ.” When you realize and have pondered on the difference between those two statements, you’ll have a sense of why I have so much scorn for the ADL and its ilk on this topic. In fact Nostra Aetate specifically does *not* say with the Rabbi says it does. Right before the part the Post quotes, it reads: “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ …” The mere fact that one portrays some Jews demanding Christ’s blood does not make a film contrary to Church teaching. As usual, what Vatican 2 actually *says* is the opposite of what some theologians discern its “spirit” to mean.

Rabbi Levine is fibbing, unless Gibson does something specific to endorse intergenerational, collective guilt (the fact it is generally considered an absurd idea today means that the presumed default from silence is that the film doesn’t endorse it) or to tie the Jews of 1st century Jerusalem to the Jews of today. And e.g., the fact that Christians who have seen the film said Gibson excluded Matthew 27:25: “His blood be upon us and our children,” suggests he doesn’t do that. The Rabbi doesn’t say to the contrary (in fact, I was generally dissatisfied with the Rabbi’s review in that it served up the same ADL talking points and he *could* have written it without having seen it). The problem, I suspect, is that Rabbi Levine seems to be looking at the film qua Jew, i.e. his primary interest in THE PASSION OF CHRIST is its representation of Jews. Maybe that how a Jew would view it, and so he’ll be offended by *any* reasonably faithful depiction of the Gospels. Nothing I can say to that.

castelli.jpgBut if we are gonna be making *predictions* about hate crimes, or ripping the scabs off, or inspiring violence against Jews, like the theologian Elizabeth Castelli does, then you just as clearly, for that purpose, have to privilege how actual Christians (or atheists/agnostics too I guess, but that’s really not what people have been talking about) see the film, what their reaction will be to THE PASSION OF CHRIST. Cuz *they’re* the ones that supposedly are gonna be motivated to go out and Jew-bash. For one thing, Jews have no more to say on the matter of Christian consumption than I do to their offense-taking. And for another Castelli can complain all she wants about ahistoricity, the latest scholarship and Mel’s ignoring “years of important work … between Jews and Christians on understanding the effect of the Passion narrative on their relationship.” (Can you hear the “don’t crap in my garden” tone there?) She can be as right as rain theologically, but unless Christians react in her predicted way, the whole dispute is academic, in the worst sense.

And the reaction of the one panel member, Joan Wilson, who was not a professional theologian or minister was instructive about what I think will be both the dominant reaction of the Christians who see the film (assuming, as I must, that it doesn’t anachronistically pander to contemporary Jewish stereotypes). I also think she represents the dominant view among Christians today — that portraying 1st century Jews as out for Jesus’ blood in no way implies guilt on the Jews of today, whatever might have been true in other times. As Wilson puts it: Caiaphas “was doing what he believed he had to do to protect his faith … a Catholic or a Protestant would have defended his religion too.” And again, unless the film plays down the Jewishness of Jesus of Nazareth and all His early followers (which is nowhere to my knowledge charged and is contradicted by every Christian to my knowledge who has seen the film and spoken to that matter specifically), it is simply nuts to come away from an internecine dispute among two groups of Jews and blame “the Jews.” Or to put it bluntly, the rabbi and the theologian are going into the film, looking to take offense. And such people can always find what they’re looking for. Or to put it even more bluntly, the ADL and the rest have effectively poisoned the well against Gibson’s film.

lumenick.jpgI also predict that Lou Lumenick’s reaction on this matter, two handwringing paragraphs (“deeply troubling”) that make a concession before soberly siding with the ADL et al, will be the commonest one among daily newspaper critics. The alt-weeklies and the committed-left journals will … um … crucify the film and Gibson.

Since I slagged on the Rabbi, let me spend at least as much time on the priest, Father Mark Hallinan. If you can get past the phrase: “It doesn’t touch on the values that [Christ] represented and that continue to be a positive force in the world today,” without wanting to say “oh, come off it,” you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din. “Values”? “Positive force”? This is the language of a Jesuit? (Don’t answer.)

fatherhallinan.jpgThe priest at least provided some specifics about the film, so I have to defer to him on those. But he got my blood boiling with this little crack: “Unsophisticated people viewing the film will see Jews as cold, heartless people.” How does a man with advanced theology degrees know how “unsophisticated” (what a Spongian term!!) people will react? Particularly since the least-sophisticated person on the panel did *not* come away from the film denouncing the Jews, citing the blood oath, subscribing to Al-Jazeera on her satellite or anysuch.

Then we get this complaint: “Hallinan also questioned the depiction, during the crucifixion, of Gestas, the bad thief, having his eyes plucked out by a crow after he questions Christ’s divinity. ‘It’s contrary to the Gospels,’ said Hallinan, adding ‘Jesus taught us not to persecute our enemies’.” Is there any oxygen in the House? One of the Gospels (Luke) starts with the story of the coming of John the Baptist and has a very similar story about his father Zachary and how he was struck dumb for doubting a divine messenger. The Gospels repeatedly have parables in the general character of “God is not mocked,” which is what happens here. Sure, the specific detail of the eye-gouging is not in the Bible, but there’s a rich and thoroughly orthodox Catholic tradition of embroidering around the Passion narrative and fleshing out details in works of art. Surely Father Hallinan has often led the Stations of the Cross, though several of *them* have no Biblical antecedent or only the vaguest … there’s no mention of Veronica (much less of the Lord’s face on the hankie) or of any specific number of falls. And who’s “persecuting our enemies”? As Father Hallinan tells the story, the one doing the persecuting is … a crow.

November 19, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Once more, with passion …

In his book “Natural Right and History,” Leo Strauss, who taught many of the men who taught me political philosophy, coined the phrase “reductio ad Hitlerum” meaning that a view is not “refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler.” One of my pet peeves about American political discourse is the popularity of this fallacy, one result of which is the cheap and disproportionate (in several ways) use of the Third Reich and the Holocaust in the making of simple points about the much-lower stakes of American and Western politics (see also Godwin’s Law on the Internet). I’m more liable to take the invocation of the Third Reich or the Holocaust as proof that the invoker has lost his mind or has no point to make.

It has now officially happened with THE PASSION — Mel Gibson is the Hitler Youth. At the end of the article is this truly deranged quote: “This is how it began in Germany,” she said, “with the Hitler youth venom.” At the rally in question, the instigator was hardly more serious, saying that THE PASSION “really takes us back to the Dark Ages, plain and simple … Mel Gibson is turning the clock back to the Dark Ages.”

How does one respond to tripe like that? Can 1,000 years of history really be undone “plain and simple” by one movie. Does Ms. Moskowits really believe that the Americans she lives among are just itching for the right excuse to kill all the Jews? There are such people in the world, but they are generally virulently anti-American too, and they will likely not see THE PASSION (since it contradicts the Koran on the fate of Jesus).

passion4.jpgAs I’ve noted here before, based on what one can know outside the movie, I’m not persuaded by arguments made thus far that the film is anti-Semitic. But I recognize the possibility that I could be wrong, or even that I am not, but the film will be misinterpreted. It is possible, I suppose, that some yobbo will misunderstand the film and go beat up a yeshiva student as they leave the theater. But ask yourself, “what would happen after that?” Is there any doubt that said hypothetical incident will be widely reported, and the ADL et al will even take the lead in publicizing it and commenting upon it? That Mel Gibson and his distributors will denounce the perpetrator unequivocally? That police will spare no effort to track down the attacker in this high-profile case? That, in many if not most jurisdictions, the attacker would risk *extra* jail time for attacking a Jew-qua-Jew, rather than the wrist-slap or less that Jim Crow-era Southern juries gave lynchers?

Now, this course of events would be unfortunate, but hardly a Holocaust (or even a Kristallnacht, a Nuremberg law, or the routine of an American country club, circa 1920). The Holocaust didn’t just happen in a fit of absent-mindedness and desensitization from too many readings of the MERCHANT OF VENICE. It happened because Germany put into power a totalitarian government with genocidal plans which it then carried out. Get some sense of proportion, people. The United States in 2003 is not Weimar or Nazi Germany, no matter what one woman’s memories might be or how many times “Hitler” is invoked. Nor is the Dark Ages one anti-Semitic filmmaker away. Some anti-Semitism exists, of course, but it has no political or cultural cachet. And a few dementos will always exist.

August 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Friendly faces everywhere …

I just watched a TV show in which a sympathetic character looks to the screen and says (paraphrasing from memory only a little) “Schools are handing out condoms to kids at a younger age every year. But sex is also emotional and spiritual. Parents should be the ones who teach children about sex. If you leave it up to the schools, you never know who’s gonna be teaching them.”

choksondik.jpgAs an example of the kinds of people who teach school sex ed, the camera cuts to a closeup of a woman whose breasts have sunk to her knees. And is named Miss Choksondik.

I hope you know what show I’m referring to. If you don’t, you really need to check out SOUTH PARK. Caveat: if you are appalled at the last sentence in that graf and can’t imagine ever laughing at jokes that crude (in both senses of that word), you probably don’t. But both forms of crudity are part of what make the show great. For those of you in Pago Pago, the R-rated humor in this very adult cartoon mostly follows 8-year-old kids with mouths like sailors (call it KIDS SAY THE DAMNDEST SHIT). It is *really* over the top and in such calculated ways, that to complain about it as such is to miss the point.

When 8-year-old boys decide they want to be lesbians just like their new teacher Miss Ellen and one of them starts chewing on a rug sample — the joke isn’t just the shock of hearing a locker-room term for lesbian sex, but on the literal-minded innocence of the boys in the midst of it all. It’s as if the show is about G-rated kids souls in R-rated bodies or the different forms that innocence must take in an R-rated world.

Also the show is most merciless on liberal cant. Other episodes have had Big Gay Al (yes, that’s his name … thanks for asking) explain why he *shouldn’t* be allowed to join the Boy Scouts or have the boys learn that patriotism involves love of country even when it’s wrong (and reprises World War II by turning Cartman and Osama bin Laden into versions of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd).

And Saturday’s episode made the obvious point never made in humorless, wonkish discussions of sex ed — would you have wanted to learn about sex from any teacher you ever had? It also follows the theory of sex ed with impeccable logic, to demonstrating fellatio methods to kindergartners (and it doesn’t shrink from, well … ahem). Flannery O’Connor once made the point that to the hard of hearing, you shout. She also said the time had passed for what she also called “the pious voice.” Social-conservative satire is working its way into the culture through this raunchfest, and while the show will definitely “frighten the horses,” in a world that, so to speak, worships horses, that’s not a bad thing.

August 25, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Knives already out for Mel

Some film critics in a major metropolitan area have the leads already written on Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION, even though they haven’t seen it. They just *know* it’s anti-Semitic tripe from someone whose not *our* type of people, dearie. A member of a private film-discussion group posted about a critics’ screening which he attended and at which THE PASSION was a topic of conversation.

I cite that post here, with his permission and on the condition of anonymity. I cleaned up some spelling and took out one potentially-revealing detail. Remember this post next spring for what it says about the critical establishment’s prior attitudes toward Gibson’s film.
Dude, your post was ringing loud in my ears this afternoon as I sat in a [city] Screening Room surrounded by so-called “Professionals” who were getting their rocks off ranting and raving about how Anti-Semitic THE PASSION is.

Never mind the fact that none of these folks had even seen so much as the fucking Trailer for MAD MAX’S JESUS CHRIST, YOU’RE BLEEDING! After all, somebody somewhere said that Riggs hates Jews so much he staked $25 million of his own cash to ruin his career by exposing his kike-loathing ways to the entire universe — and that was good enough for my (ahem) colleagues to run with for at least half-an-hour.

After all, why bother to actually WAIT TO SEE THE FUCKING MOVIE AND DECIDE FOR YOURSELF when it’s so much easier to just parrot something you read somewhere and score points with your peers. Especially when the gossip regards a filthy homophobic, sexist, meat-eating, conservative Catholic like Mel. (Oh yeah — and he smokes, too.)

August 25, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

This week, I prefer Roeper

It has long been obvious to all who cared that Roger Ebert was a liberal Democrat with radical and counterculture sympathies (yet somehow in the pay of Vast Right-Wing Conspirator Conrad Black and the evil Disney Cultural Megamonster). His reviews of the films of Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore came laced with asides and whole paragraphs that made it clear to anyone with the eyes to see. Fine, whatever.

But the subject of President Bush in the past couple of years has pushed him out of the closet, and his own doors have come a bit unhinged in the process. His review of LUMUMBA, a biopic of the 1960s Congolese radical, began with a rant about Bush’s missile-defense plan. And in his post-September 11 review of ZOOLANDER, he more-or-less said the film could cause Malaysians to kill Americans by the thousands. Or something like that.

Now, that kind of stuff is just funny. And Ebert, the most influential film critic of his era, the man who first lit the fire under practically every film geek of my generation, isn’t even the lefty critic most worth laughing at for that sort of thing. (There’s a whole gaggle at the Village Voice). But he crossed the line in an interview in the latest issue of the Progressive.

Much of it was fine and par for the course, until he began exhibiting a generational and intellectual arrogance that I find utterly breathtaking, but entirely typical for Ebert’s kind of culture snob. I suppose there isn’t really any point in my saying anything since I’m a generation younger than Ebert and therefore never took a civics class. And this is all obviously the same “Limbaugh rhetoric” from “parrots” who “don’t have any ideas of their own.” But reading tripe like that makes me think I was in the first generation that ever took a logic class.

The double standards are appalling and legion. Sean Penn is “probably not dumb” because he’s the greatest actor of his generation. Um, OK. About anyone who would make that argument — who thinks there’s a greater correlation between intellect and acting ability than between intellect and thinking you’d learn the truth about Iraq from Saddam Hussein and Baghdad Bob — that person probably *is* dumb. But let that go. How does this “probability” sit alongside Ebert’s repeated and open contempt for Dubya as stupid? The man has degrees from Harvard and Yale. Yes, he had all sorts of connections and advantages that middle- and lower-class people didn’t, but Harvard and Yale don’t just hand out degrees, even to their legacies, and they don’t graduate dummies. Yes, Bush is not philosophically sophisticated or reflective (very, very few people are), but that’s not the same thing as being dumb, as in the caricature Ebert and the his SDS pals draw. And Ivy League degrees have a far greater “probably” relationship to intellect than acting ability (which is essentially the ability to convincingly pretend, a skill that the uncharitable might note is much closer to self-delusion than to knowledge).

And what’s this born-yesterday piffle about religion and politics? “Religion in the White House has crossed the line between church and state … we finally get a religion in the White House” in the form of Bush? Was Ebert taking so many civics classes that he skipped history classes? In fact, if anything Ebert’s generation, far from being the last to have a civics class, was the first to decide on a new, secular sense of “civitas.” Prior to approximately the time of Kennedy, religion had proudly never left the White House or American politics — the only questions had been what religion and to what ends. Does Ebert think the Puritans were people with funny hats and turkeys who came to America to set up the “shining city on a hill” as a secular republic? Has he read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, in which he explicitly interprets the Civil War in providential and salvific terms? Or anything by the civil rights movement from *Reverend* King or Fanny Lou Hamer? Or does he know about the Calvinist Woodrow Wilson, who justified U.S. imperialism as God’s civilizing hand (and was far from alone in so doing)? Or Teddy Roosevelt, who justified same as a form of muscular Christianity (James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was of that school of religion)? Or the Abolitionist movement, which was a product of the Second Great Awakening? Where was he when Jimmy-fricking-Carter was in the White House? Or when Bill Clinton publically set up a counsel of religious elders to look after his soul during the Year of Monica? Or … I could go on and on, but why bother? It’s obvious Ebert is just parroting a set of ACLU talking points because he’s never had an original thought of his own. Doesn’t he even remember from 1959-1960 that the wider-shared objection to Kennedy wasn’t that he’d bring *religion* into the White House, but that he’d bring in the *wrong religion* — Catholicism, the foreign tyranny of the Pope of Rome and all that. Again, prior to Kennedy, it always had been assumed that the president and Congress would come from one or another strain of mainline Protestantism and govern accordingly. Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class. Or maybe he was busy praying for the election of Harry Truman (no church-state separation issues or cause for thoughts about the stupidity of a man who thinks God takes sides in politics there of course).

The “civics class” comment is self-righteous demogoguery. And wholly unjustified as an opinion for Ebert to have about his own intellect as demonstrated here. To avoid being one of those who “don’t understand the First Amendment,” one must first have read it, and what it says is “Congress shall make no law …” (This prohibition was later extended to state and local government through the 14th Amendment.) What it says absolutely nothing about, what no court has ever construed it to say, is private action, private criticism, private open-mindedness or anything else private. It’s a restriction on government. The only offenses cited are Fox being a meanie to the brilliant Sean Penn, the refusal of some stations to play the Dixie Chicks and right-wingers’ dismissal of his own political columns as worthless (an entirely justified one; the Florida recount columns are comedies of forensic errors, not excluding lies). Oh … and some people on the Internet keep a list of who they see as U.S. enemies. Big fat hairy deal. What does any of this have to do with government action, the only thing the First Amendment speaks about? Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class too.

If you want to argue a policy, you first have to understand and talk specifically about what is happening. And on the most basic of economic concepts, Ebert is just plain all thumbs. Now it could be, in principle, a perfectly reasonable complaint that the tax system is insufficiently progressive or the welfare state insufficiently generous. Or that certain politicians have made it thus and that’s bad. But what is this Ebertish babble about “their money is being stolen” and “a concerted policy of taking money away from the poor and giving it to the rich”? The poor have little or nothing *to* take away or call “theirs” to be stolen … that is why they are called “poor.” What is this “concerted policy” that Ebert is talking about? Tax cuts? All they can do, by definition, is let people keep more of what they have earned in the first place. To the contrary, the Earned Income Tax Credit actually “gives” money (there is no “Negative Income Tax”) to people … but only the working poor. Further, the share of people near the bottom who pay no federal income tax at all has grown in recent years, and will continue to expand under Dubya’s tax cuts. Government spending programs? Leave aside the empirical (and therefore far too complex for Ebert’s posturing) question of whether they have in fact been cut (they have not … nondefense government spending under Dubya is as high as it has ever been). Just think conceptually about what Ebert is saying. Government spending programs give some people money or benefits they didn’t have before. A government might cut such programs, but that could only give the beneficiaries less, and that’s just not the same thing. This might sound like a Jesuitical distinction, but Ebert was too specific and too repetitive in his usage to think he was speaking loosely. Besides, he took all those civics classes that gave him a corner on reason against those who parrot Limbaugh rhetoric and have never had a thought of their own. He genuinely seems to live in a world where the government robs from the poor to give to the rich. And that is just plain nuts, except under some Brezhnev Doctrine of permanent entitlement growth or some absolute objection to any and all private property.

Speaking of Marxism, I also loved the way this millionaire presumes to speak for the poor. Remember how the Progressive’s writer mentioned Ebert’s car license plate, but didn’t say what kind of car it was? That was awesome. He complains that so many “ordinary people” are “voting conservative and thinking that the conservatives represent them” and then haughtily says “they don’t.” Has it ever dawned on this guy that other people might be at least as decent (maybe better) judges of their own interests and who represents them as he is? Or that people’s interests might be broader than economics (e.g., the culture war or foreign policy)? Or that, heaven forfend, he might be wrong about economics. No, Ebert is just so sure, so sure. His certainty doesn’t come from political or economic realities; it comes from apparently on high.

These are acute distinctions, I realize, but I have no patience with them or tolerance for them when they come from someone who so pointedly looks down on other people’s intellects, say they parroting Limbaugh’s talking points because they never took a civics class and have no thoughts of their own and all that rubbish. The reason I suspect that Ebert only gets rude dismissals from conservatives is simply that when he talks politics, he isn’t worth engaging. In fact, as a general rule, the more profound somebody’s distaste for a political view, the less likely he is to address it.

Ebert plays like he wants a civil discussion, why can’t we celebrate people with different opinions and argue with them, etc., but how can one have a civil discussion with someone who wrote a snob-act-masquerading-as-a-column on the presidential daughter’s wardrobe choices, calling her “uncouth” and a “yob,” but exactly what you’d expect from such dumb family stock? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who compared Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris to Bill the Butcher from GANGS OF NEW YORK? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who says Bush getting caught in the London rain proves that missile-defense is a bad idea [I am not making that up]? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who defends the Florida Supreme Court’s conduct with “I trust that if any of those justices believed in their hearts that their decision was wrong, they would have said so” and yet has no problem with calling the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision a “federal coup” [the double standard stinks to high heaven]?

And why would one want to?


Ebert icon from Rentertainment.

August 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Liberalism as product placement

(Putting on my best Anne Robinson voice…)

Reese Witherspoon’s ensemble isn’t the only thing “pink” about LEGALLY BLONDE 2.

Actually, that’s a gross exaggeration. LEGALLY BLONDE 2 is a not politically radical at all (or even politically very deep, more anon), but that’s what makes it annoying. It’s just a not-very-successful retread of a concept that was a delightful comic gem when it was fresh a couple of years ago — innocently cartoonish kewpie doll shows how smart and effectual she really is when Harvard/Washington look down their noses at her. The half-life of this formula is pretty short — and BLONDE 2 lost two-year’s worth of energy and originality. Everything (with one exception) is a rehash. A genuinely great scene of Witherspoon’s innocently-truthful video application to Harvard Law gets put through the motions here as a Power Point presentation on the life of her pet chihuahua Bruiser that had material obviously calculated (in the character’s mind, I mean) to make a point.

The film wouldn’t be worth chewing over if it weren’t for that one new element — the switch in venue from Boston/Harvard to Washington/Congress. Now, I’m not one of those conspiracymongers who believe “Hollywood” is a singular noun that wakes up in the morning and asks itself over its first latte “what can we put into movies to help the left.” LEGALLY BLONDE 2, for all its surface political subject matter, is primarily a money-spinning frothy comedy — so featherweight that you can’t hold seriously against it the details it gets wrong. It concludes with a staff member giving a speech to a joint session of Congress; it occurs in that alternate political universe where Big Tobacco/Big Oil/Big Lipstick/Big Whatever, can defeat an incumbent congressman on demand merely by giving money to his opponent. That kinda stuff.

But this very fact about it (it’s neither a prestige, “adult” political film like THE CONTENDER nor an indie polemic like BOB ROBERTS) is precisely what makes LEGALLY BLONDE 2 revelatory. Just as “virtue is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking” or “a lord’s character is determined by how he deals with his slaves rather than his king,” the very fact that the film isn’t a seriously political film means that the unstated assumptions, the “of courses” of the world of entertainment show up in sharper relief. LEGALLY BLONDE 2’s understanding of political psychology says a great deal about the climate of political orthodoxy in the entertainment industry and the precise way that its liberal consensus finds its way into films. The film’s basic plot device is that Elle finds out about Bruiser’s mother being used for testing cosmetics. So, just like she went to Harvard Law just to be near her boyfriend, she goes to Washington to pass a law outlawing animal testing and free Bruiser’s mom. Once there, she undergoes the same “airhead fish out of water” humiliations she did at Harvard, but gradually wins everyone over to her team through her pluck and self-assurance and graduates/gets her bill passed.

OK, no problem in principle. But comically speaking, there is absolutely no reason why animal rights has to be the cause (a few easily rewriteable detail jokes aside) — all that’s necessary for the film is that Elle have one. It’s the comic version of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin — she could have gone to Washington to pass a bill to save her family from having to sell their homestead because of the estate tax (first example to pop into my head). Yet when the writers of this film needed a political MacGuffin, they (and, the key point, as in *every other recent commercial, apolitical Hollywood film*) came up with a liberal or left example. The last time I recall a conservative cause at the moral center of a Hollywood entertainment was the risible LISTEN TO ME, where Debate Stud Kirk Cameron persuades the Supreme Court to outlaw abortion. In 1989. But after all, as the head writer on MURPHY BROWN once said, “you write what you know.” And as has been copiously documented (and collected by Michael Medved), the entertainment industry is too well-marinated in liberal orthodoxy to “know” conservatives except as demon Other.

This shouldn’t be taken as too harsh a judgment on any individual film, except that since this sort of political product placement entirely goes one way, you can’t not notice it after a while. Apolitical films in Hollywood today will show only liberals or the left in this sort of neutral or indifferently-positive manner, as a way to fill out the movie. There’s no more reason, for a comedy like LB2, that the cause has to be animal rights rather than abortion, any more than a character has to drink Coke rather than Pepsi. At least with real product placement, the filmmakers are paid to make a choice that is dramatically indifferent. Liberalism gets it for free. And once you start to see it, it begins to work against the movie in question in precisely the same way product placement does — by calling attention to itself and highlighting its selectedness. You see Danny Glover’s daughter at the dinner table in a routine sequence in one of the LETHAL WEAPON sequels wearing a “Save the Whales” T-shirt and your mind wanders to think whose idea it was to pick *that* cause. And why it’s always Coke, Coke, Coke. It becomes the elephant … er, donkey, I guess … in the room.

Not that LEGALLY BLONDE 2 is very much better when politics, primarily animal testing, is explicitly on its mind. Very early on, Elle finds out about Bruiser’s mom and so goes to her law firm and says they should crusade against animal testing because “it’s wrong to harm any living thing merely for profit,” and when the other members of the firm protest, she says “doing the right thing profits everybody in the long run.” As a former grader of undergraduate political philosophy essays filled with unwarranted leaps of reasoning, I just wanted to wince at the former … “and that is the moral standard because …?” and at the latter … “is that really so …?” It’s not that an animal-rights backer could not potentially answer these questions, it’s rather that the film doesn’t see that an animal-rights opponent potentially could deny them. But Elle states the insight as if it were self-evident and it’s never challenged in the movie, except on role-playing terms (“they’re our clients”), legislative flim-flam (Sally Field’s character), personal venality (the chief of staff). Never does the film think to ask why cosmetic firms test the safety of their products — is it really because executives get pleasure or profit *from* torturing bunnies? There’s a throwaway line where Elle says that banning animal testing would provide jobs for “thousands of scientists” to develop alternative methods of determining cosmetic safety. Does one laugh or cry? Do the letters o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y c-o-s-t-s spell anything meaningful? Yet LEGALLY BLONDE 2 continues to move blithely on ahead as if showing gory pictures of animals were some miraculous persuader, before which all opposition crumbles (why hasn’t PETA succeeded yet, if the matter were that simple). As the Washington City Paper complained, the film looks down on characters for treating Elle as a stereotype, but does so by turning everyone else into other sorts of cartoons. This betrays the film’s real conception — essentially it’s a form of wish-fulfillment for its makers and their animal-rights-backing soulmates in the audience. Which is everybody, right? After all, they write what they know.

What made LEGALLY BLONDE 2 especially sad is that the glorious Reese Witherspoon, one of the era’s best actresses, has made an infinitely better political movie. In fact ELECTION is just plain one of the best movies of recent years. After coming home from LB2, I popped in my DVD and watched some of its best scenes — the campaign speeches, Tracy Flick’s self-introduction, Mr. McAllister explaining democracy to Paul — just to reassure myself that smart, serious political satire with noncartoon characters really can be made in this day and age. There is hardly a topical reference in the film, but it explains, just to name one aside, the force behind Clinton’s driven personality in the look on Tracy’s face and her voiceover as she looks out the school bus window. And Paul’s foreshadowing of Dubya in some ways is so funny precisely because it couldn’t have been intentional — the film was released in spring 1999.

August 20, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Passion politics

If I’m gonna slag Michael Medved in my initial post, I’d better link to him when he says some wise things, as in this interview with the Washington Post Web site, mostly about Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION. To elaborate on a couple of points myself.

First, Medved says in one place that “Hollywood” is more anti-religion than specifically anti-Christian or anti-Catholic. I do agree that secularism and an associated set of anti-religion prejudices (“poor, uneducated and easy to command” and all that) seems to be the default ideology in the culture industries, rather than a specific and explicit animus against Catholicism or Christianity (and as an Orthodox Jew, Medved would know that).

But the fact that secularism is the greater force doesn’t mean that specific anti-Catholicism doesn’t exist. A film as insultingly ignorant about Judaism as PRIEST and THE MAGDELENE SISTERS (I have seen neither and will not do so merely for the debater’s right to make a point obvious from the makers’ own descriptions of their films) simply could never be made or distributed. The taboo against anti-Semitism is just too strong. The excellent documentary TREMBLING BEFORE G-D, about Orthodox Jews dealing with their homosexuality, at least presents the Jewish teaching against homosexual acts in a halfway-serious manner and by halfway-loving rabbis shown without authorial contempt. I don’t expect any movie to take the virtually identical Catholic doctrine on that subject for the foreseeable future as anything other than repressed-tight-ass caricature.

Second, I think Medved is right that the debate over THE PASSION is essentially deadlocked because Gibson now trusts neither the objectivity of the ADL/Jewish groups nor the religion scholars, and vice versa. I would go further: the battle lines already are set for a major public spat over charges of anti-Semitism, Christ-killers and all that next spring. Paula Fredriksen, who wrote the disgraceful, self-righteous attack on THE PASSION in the New Republic (now available at http://www.tnr.com, but a paid subscription is required) said on “Good Morning America” last week that she will not see the film, even when it’s released. Good for her (“play nice” ecumenism is overrated).

And if I were Gibson, I’d see no point to cooperating with her 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?) Did the makers of PRIEST or THE MAGDALENE SISTERS submit to Church censors in order to get its imprimatur on their movies? Or did they play up Church opposition as a box-office hype tool? To ask the question is to answer it.

August 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment