Rightwing Film Geek

Not by Lars von Trier

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

IMPORTANT NEWS OF THE DAY!!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

British Muslim leaders also warn against the imminent pogrom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else happen in the news today?

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

Missing from WORLD TRADE CENTER

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

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

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

Silly stuff roundup, with bloggy links

● First of all, a couple of items about the infamous Zidane headbutt. Here is the headbutt as viewed from a bunch of national and other perspectives. (Thanks, Christian)

Also, have hours of fun with this Zidane game, though if my (formally nonexistent) Italian is to be trusted, it’s temporarily offline because it exceeded its bandwidth, but should be back by the first of the month. For now, bookmark it. (Thanks, Dan)

UPDATE: Here’s the link to another Zidane headbutt game (Thanks, George)

● In its efforts to keep the neighborhood peaceful from overexcited car racers, an Australian town crossed the line, entered into evil and seized The One Ring. They played Barry Manilow at a volume designed to chase the drivers away. I’m sorry, but if blasting “Weekend in New England” isn’t evil, then nothing is. Whether it’s Palestinian hanging or “The Old Songs” turned up to 11, good ends do not justify evil means, even when Michael Ledeen says they do and even when he pretends that he’s a serious moralist as he preaches it. Learn it. Love it. Live it.

● In the shameless self-promotion department, I’ve started a new blog called “Coalition for Fog” (long story, don’t ask). It’s about foreign policy, diplomacy and the War on Isl … er … Terrorism. I’ve invited some fellow Catholic Neocon Chickenhawks (plus a Papist Marine with HTML skills greater than mine) to make it a group blog. In this post here, I make a point of potential interest to film geeks, comparing Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric to the mise-en-scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s talking pictures. Really. (And I shamelessly steal a moniker.)

● In the comment field there, someone notes self-deprecatingly about how much more cultured I supposedly am than he, that I watch Eisenstein while he watches Napoleon Dynamite. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of Hess’s first film, but I can’t deny that it’s become a bit of a cult classic (all the “Pedro” references and some of John Heder’s easy-to-ape verbal tics are pop-culture lore). And the town of Preston, Idaho, is gonna cash in, dammit. While it can. The longevity of “Napoleon Dynamite” cult is in question. From the article: “About 400 people attended [the “Napoleon Dynamite” festival] this year, down from 6,000 last year, the Idaho Statesman newspaper reported.”

● For the Jihad-enablers who made the Marines quake in their boots on “Hadji Girl,” maybe they’d like this song better. After all, it’s in the Koran.

● This may seem like a ridiculous redundancy like proving the sun rises in the East. But some of us have spent time arguing with Marxists, Distributists, Thomists and others religiously attached to the false notion that things have intrinsic worth that is determinable by (some conception of) reason and to the related notion that a thing’s “worth” is anything other than its price (whether that “worth” be calculated according to labor, raw material or something else). For an exercise in an important philosopher completely trapped in his own presuppositions and so chasing his own tail, take a look at Thomas Aquinas asking himself whether it is lawful to sell a thing for more than its worth. (A question to which there is no answer because the question is nonsense.)

Anyhoo, here is the link to a news story — of a man who turned a paper clip into a house through acts of repeated barter and exchange. The broader point I wish to make being that “value” in a commodity sense does not exist in nature, but is something created, with trade being the most efficient way to create value. Every purchase is a trade of one good or service that the buyer wants more than what he is giving up in trade, which is another good or service that the seller wants more than what he is giving up in trade. So each comes away with more “value” after the trade. McDonald proved that, in principle, there is no natural limit upon the value — paper-clip to house — which trade can create. Obviously, this is extraordinary because in some cases, particularly after the stunt gained public momentum, the “good” that McDonald’s barter partners were purchasing was clearly not strictly economic. (Particularly Corbin Bernsen at the end … that was publicity-seeking.) Nevertheless, this is how value is created, apparently ex nihilo, to those who insist on looking for a natural basis.

July 17, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

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

Hollywoof Americana

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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

1492: Conquest of Islamic Paradise

Ridley Scott’s upcoming film on the Crusades will probably not get 1/10th the criticism as anti-Christian that Mel Gibson’s got as anti-Semitic, but some British historians are at least fighting the good fight in warning that the film, at the basic plot level, is “rubbish”, “ridiculous”, “complete fiction” and a pander to Muslim self-glorification. And some Christians are refusing for whatever reason to cooperate with Scott in his effort to “hope that the Muslim world sees the rectification of history.”

osamabinladen.jpgObviously “panders to Osama bin Laden” in the first Telegraph piece is a crude bit of oversimplification, but as crude bits of oversimplification go, it’s not inaccurate. Scott’s movie seems to accept the basic narrative of the jihadis (and much of Islam) about the Crusades — namely that they were an act of Christian aggression and a humiliation of Islam.

I wonder whether Scott will ever ask how the Muslims came to be in control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the first place (hint: Muhammad wasn’t born in Nazareth). Although the specific timing issues are more complex, in the broadest sweep of history, the Crusades were basically counterattacks against an Islam that had been expanding for 400 years, not Christian aggression — unless you subscribe to some al-Brezhnev Doctrine of permanent Muslim expansion and fated dhimmitude. And although the Christians were sometimes successful for a time, Islam emerged victorious in the end. It wasn’t for 300 or 400 years after the final Crusade (Lepanto 1571 and Vienna 1683) that Christendom no longer had to seriously fear conquest by Islam. The Holy Land itself was ruled by one or another Muslim group until the 20th century; the narrative of all-conquering Christian bullies and weak, peaceful Muslim victims only reaches the level of laughable in the past 200 years.

But as long as artists from the nations of Christendom present the Muslim view of history and show positive images of warriors for Islam, said artistes will be the happiest heathen Crusaders in the grave.

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