First of the Month A website of the radical imagination. 2015-02-13T00:38:38-05:00 <![CDATA[Emergency Rooms and Cutting Rooms: What's Wrong with <em>The Fighter</em>]]> This piece from First's archives punctuates the set of movie-related posts above. Author Milo George grasps that even half-decent Hollywood movies based on actual events often amount to crimes against reality.

"Very few things happen at the right time and the rest don't happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects." -- Herodotus, by way of Mark Twain

Like most biopics, The Fighter is a lavish celluloid Valentine to its subject. Unfortunately, it's also a Valentine that's unfinished, riddled with typos and unwitting backhanded compliments to many of its recipients.

I'm tasked with addressing the film from a boxing standpoint, so please indulge me a thumbnail cinephile review: It's a garish, Oscar-batory acting showcase (dig those sledgehammer-subtle argument scenes, straight out of Scorsese's coke-eroded septum), a slightly less-dishonest-than-usual Hollywood sports movie (a large reason for why its ending is ultimately unsatisfying; when you're painting by numbers, straying outside the lines makes you look like a slob, not an artist) and a surprisingly anemic film from David O. Russell, a writer-director who normally brings a lot more originality and vigor than this (considering that the stories of Mark Wahlberg's struggles to get this film made have floated around for years and years, I'm guessing that Russell was not the first, second or even third directorial hired gun attached to the project).

"Irish" Micky Ward was never a true world champion; it's not in his composition and that was never his destiny. What made him so unique and valuable to the sport was that he's one of the few real throwback fighters of our times; in the ring, there was no quit in him, no matter how outgunned or outclassed he was. The Throwback is the rare class of fighter who taps directly into boxing's mythical Golden Age -- a time when men were men, Friday night was Fight Night and smoky fight clubs and small theaters in every city were packed with spectators out to enjoy round after round of broken-nosed pugs feverishly hammering their opponents in competitions that were as much a test of a human body's structural integrity and endurance as of a man's will and a boxer's skill. The success of the Rocky series comes in large part from how effectively the early films push all the key buttons related to the Throwback in our collective memory. A recurring compliment given to many of Ward's fights, win or lose, is "That fight was so amazing -- if it were in a movie, nobody would accept it as real!"

There was always drama in a Ward fight -- his left hook could and did dig him out of a lot of the holes he found himself in on judges' scorecards over the years -- but by and large, Ward came up short at the moment of truth far more often than most Hollywood or even independent-film heroes are allowed to do these days. Judging by the attendance records set and awards showered over his last handful of fights prior to retirement -- Ward made history as the first boxer with more than ten losses on his professional record to earn a million-dollar payday for a fight, and he essentially owned the Fight Of The Year award for the last three years of his career -- anyone with even a passing interest in boxing would sacrifice a dozen world champions for a true throwback. Ward was probably worth two dozen world champs. But he really doesn't have a life story that modern Americans would like -- we prefer our heroes to win all the time now and if they must lose, it should be someone else's fault -- so it's no surprise to see his story recontextualized and finessed to fit that taste. But, by trying to force Ward's square-peg life into a round (well, this being a faux indie film, perhaps we'll call it oblong) hole, this biopic film possibly takes the biggest dump on its real-life protagonist since director James Mangold and producer/star Winona Ryder reframed Susanna Kaysen writing her memoir Girl Interrupted as an act of character -- assassinating revenge against the real-life analogue to Angelina Jolie's scene-stealer.

Ward was a career junior welterweight, rarely rising much beyond 142 pounds for a fight; for whatever reason, the filmmakers present him as a full-blown welterweight. Perhaps to drive home their vision of Ward as a largely passive character or perhaps to inject some "Fuck Yeah!" moments into the film to keep the audience engaged, they significantly reframe most of the film's fights so that Wahlberg's Ward takes hellacious, Rocky-esque beatings before pulling out a come-from-behind victory.

Contrary to the common perception, boxers generally aren't aggressive people -- one trainer once referred to them as more like racehorses than tough guys -- so how shy or soft-spoken a fighter is outside the ring doesn't directly correlate to how aggressive he is in the ring, as guys like Mike Tyson and Marvin Hagler can attest. Ward was an infamously slow starter and a boxer whose focus on throwing almost nothing but power punches meant that he rarely threw more punches per round than his opponent. He had a curious habit of taking punches he didn't have to take in some fights but he wasn't just a punching bag with fight-ending power in his left hook, and he never seemed more codependent than any other professional fighter who had family for management. With that many sisters, even Wahlberg's Ward seems less codependent than simply outnumbered; it reminds me a bit of The Great White Hope's take on Jack Johnson: "He Could Beat Any White Man In The World. He Just Couldn't Beat All Of Them."

The filmmakers have an almost-forensic eye for detail -- from the accuracy of the costume design to the location shooting and even the post-fight celebration choreography and Dickie's weird bald spot -- which suggests that most of their history revisions were done for dramatic purposes. (Of course, they go to the trouble of de-aging Sugar Ray Leonard, but nearly every car has a nice big 2011 inspection sticker on the left side of its windshield.)

The Mike Mungin fight presented in the film is a near-execution between a welterweight Ward and a super-middleweight Mungin; in reality, a junior-welterweight Ward and a not-quite-full welterweight Mungin gave each other hell for 10 rounds in a close fight -- the scorecards were 94-95, 93-96 and 94-95 (two judges called it a draw, with Ward losing due to him being knocked down in the sixth round, and the other judge scored it six rounds to four for Mungin). Why did the filmmakers double the weight difference and exaggerate the fight itself to nearly cartoonish levels? Is that really more dramatic? Does Wahlberg's Ward need to have his ass thoroughly kicked to sell him quitting the sport shortly after this scene and to underline for the mouthbreathers in the theater that the movie's family really doesn't always have what's best for Ward in mind? Ward's actual first retirement occurred eight fights -- three wins and five losses, including the four-fight losing streak they mention in the film -- and three years AFTER Mungin. That's a lot of chronology shuffling just to show Ward getting his head beat in and that his family are kind of assholes.

Boxing is one of this rare sports businesses where, in the absence of any significant codified protection for the participants, the kind of manipulation and abuse shown in the film is commonplace; a boxer drops out of a fight for whatever reason, and the other guy has to fight whomever the promoter/manager/producer can find on short notice, or that fighter -- who made good on his contract in every way -- simply doesn't get paid. In that case, as the film makes clear, usually no one else in his camp gets paid either. (Of course, the promoters rarely give refunds to ticket buyers when such fights are altered or fall through entirely; somehow this is considered ethical and good business to boot.) Being a classic club fighter, Ward's professional resume is generously sprinkled with these replacement-opponent fights. Still, the film takes this practice a step further and contextualizes it as the movie family's exploitation of Wahlberg's Ward, counting on the general audience's ignorance of the fallibility of the triangle system ("A beat B; you knocked A out, so you'll beat B too") to put it into the mouths of two pro fighters with a straight face.

The filmmakers cite Ward's comeback as being a fight against someone named Hernandez at the Hampton Beach Casino in New Hampshire; that casino was the site for Ward's war with Emanuel Augustus (née Burton) a few years later -- the first fight in Ward's winning streak of collecting Fight of the Year honors until his retirement -- but Ward never fought anyone named Hernandez as a pro. Were the filmmakers afraid Luis Castillo (five wins and ten losses before the Ward fight; the same five wins plus 15 losses when he retired seven years later) or the Sheraton Inn of Lowell would sue them for libel/slander? I’d worry more the Hampton would call their lawyers over the charge that they don't even have dressing rooms for their fighters. Minutes later, they present Alfonso Sanchez and the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas with no problem -- well, except that the ring posts, round cards and canvas say Caesar's Palace -- and even get the context of the fight correct, so what gives? The filmmakers do love throwing in shout-outs to all sorts of Wardabilia, like playing Dropkick Murphys’ song about Ward for one of Wahlberg's ring marches, so perhaps citing the Hampton is supposed to be an Easter egg for Ward trivia buffs. Thanks, but no thanks.

Again, this is quite a Valentine for Dickie Ecklund, Ward and even Sgt. Mickey O'Keefe (who plays himself, no less), a pivotal but unsung figure in Ward's life. I guess it was very cool of them to give O'Keefe so much face-time in the film but, by having him as a constant in the film, the filmmakers muddy a clear sense of his importance in Ward's actual life and career. To the best of my knowledge, O'Keefe wasn't a corner-man for any of Ward's TV fights -- he didn't formally join Ward's camp until a bit after Ward's 1991 retirement, guiding him through his first few comeback bouts and away from a future as a street rat like his brother. At his retirement celebration, Ward cited O'Keefe as the man without whom he never would have made it to the heights he'd reached by then, much to the profound annoyance of his mother, brother and assorted management types. Obviously, dropping O'Keefe for Dickie would have made Wahlberg's Ward look callous -- although that's what Ward did, much to his later regret -- but inserting O'Keefe directly into Wahlberg-Ward's pre-retirement entourage is presumably the filmmakers thinking that they were doing O'Keefe a solid. Again, thanks, but no thanks.

Orson Welles used to say that every story has a happy ending, depending on when you choose to end it. By this point in The Fighter, the filmmakers obviously want to get to a happy boxing-movie ending. The only happy endings allowed in boxing movies are either winning/retaining a title belt or winning/regaining the girl. Ward already has the girl, so they fast-forward through the two fights for more significant championships that the actual Ward had and lost prior to the title fight with Shea Neary that ends the film: first Vince Phillips for the IBF light-welterweight title, which Ward lost on the cards after a cut stopped the fight, and later Zab Judah for the interim USBA light-welterweight belt, where Ward dropped a decision after being cockpunched in the first round and then outworked all night. The Neary fight is again reframed to be another come-from-behind beatdown of Ward, when in reality it was a back-and-forth, almost chess-like brawl from the opening bell.

To call the World Boxing Union a minor sanctioning body almost denigrates the word "minor" -- Ward never even defended the title after winning it. He might as well have brought a "World's #1 Dad" coffee mug into the ring to defend. The filmmakers do a good job of waving their hands around and yelling "LALALALALALALA" so most people won't notice, going so far as to cobble together the phrase "Neary is the current welterweight champion of the world" to insert into iconic HBO announcer Jim Lampley's mouth, easily the most dishonest moment in the entire film. For most of the TV fights recreated in the film, the filmmakers used snippets of the commentators' audio from the actual fights in more or less the correct context to the action onscreen. So, to chop up some audio (I sincerely hope Lampley didn't come in and loop the line in the film's post-production) and cash in on Lampley's reputation for honesty just to oversell this fight for a nickle-plated Hollywood ending is like using the footage of Walter Cronkite announcing President Kennedy's death but then manipulating Cronkite audio-video to make him describe JFK as “The greatest man who ever lived in the history of this universe or any other.”

The Fighter's ending is already staged to make just a tinny gonk largely because the problems laid down at the beginning of the film -- the challenges The Fighter (Dickie or Micky) has had to overcome -- have already been conquered before the final fight. Dickie has pierced the cycle of delusion and addiction he was trapped in, while Micky has risen above his life as a lonely stepping-stone lost in the shadow of his and his family's collective Dickie-worship.

The film's real triumph comes after Dickie returns to the gym straight from prison. Micky, without Charlene's or Mickey's prompting, follows him into in the locker room to half-heartedly tell him that he doesn't want him to be his trainer, falling back on "I promised them." Wahlberg's Ward then edges closer to being his own man by ordering his family's welcome-home party out of his gym so that he can continue training. Some Hollywood nonsense ensues -- do you have to be a boxing nerd to understand that Micky did not need Dickie to tell him to work Sanchez on the inside and wear him out if going toe-to-toe and trying to land overhand shots didn't work? -- until he finally steps up and spells out what he wants. (I don't know what to make of it being an extended harangue from Charlene, of all people, that finally breaks Micky's verbal logjam, nor why/how his mother is almost entirely silent for the entire scene; the latter is probably Alice still waiting for Micky to add her to the list of people he wants on his team after, um, forgetting her the first time.) The filmmakers don't do O'Keefe any favors by presenting him as an AA who's against forgiveness for a fellow recovering addict, with the inference that O'Keefe will lose this potentially lucrative training gig if Dickie returns. Really, it's amazing that they got the guy to play this version of himself; that much context can't be fabricated in the editing room.

Taken on its own terms, Wahlberg's Ward is right; if Dickie is sober, then he should be on Ward's team if he wants him there. Does this make Wahlberg's Ward come off as weak, even in his moment of self-actualizing triumph? America used to be a land of second chances, although it seems Real Americans hate that now too; 100% winners don't need second chances, after all. To guild the lily, the filmmakers send Dickie off on that ridiculous cake-delivering mission, again for the mouthbreathers to see that he's really real about this whole crack-is-whack, just-say-no thing, then he's off to Charlene's to make nice with her get the team back together. (Where the hell is Micky while Dickie walks to Crack Street, then walks over to Charlene's house for an extended argument/reconciliation? Micky drove over, and he still didn't get there first? It's like the movie forgets about him whenever Dickie, or I should say Christian Bale, has something to do. Even during his incarceration, when he's literally doing nothing, the movie keeps closer tabs on Dickie than it does anyone else.) It's difficult to tell if it's cleverness or confusion at the heart of these scenes; at Micky's most active moment as a character, it's Dickie who takes charge of the film again, moves events forward and has everyone together for the Neary fight.

Because we've all been so trained to view the late-second/early third acts in these films as prologue for the final competition -- in a Rocky film, everything from Dickie walking out of prison to the beginning of the Neary press conference would have been condensed to about two minutes of musical training montage -- I imagine most viewers probably dismiss these scenes as another challenge for our hero to overcome in order to ready himself to defeat The Champ and/or win (back) the heart of The Girl.

Taken as just a boxing movie, I actually quite enjoyed Wahlberg's turn as a sweet-natured, fundamentally good dude trapped in a world of perpetually on-the-cusp-of-rage shrews and their emasculated husbands -- just one unannounced visit to his ex's house to see his daughter before the Mamby fight provides an delightfully/succinctly unpleasant impression that he sought out a spouse who's just as miserable a piece of work as his mother. Wahlberg's Ward lives in an empty world; there is no art on his apartment walls, nothing in the place that's not boxing-related. He's so cut off from any sense of culture that he doesn't seem to get that seeing Belle Epoque in another town's art-house cinema is not a good idea for a first date you picked up in a bar, even if you can't bear the thought of anyone from your hometown seeing how badly you've been beaten. (As if Lowell didn't get ESPN2 back then.)

This should be the moment where I praise Melissa Leo's work as Alice Ward to the skies, but I don't see greatness; her Alice is a wonderful villainess and she acquits herself well in the goombah-kaiju shouting matches that Scorsese convinced the English-speaking world was superb drama around 1980, but her performance doesn't haunt me the way the brilliance that I've heard claimed for her should. I found Jack McGee's George Ward quite good despite having even less to work with -- his reactions to the post-prison gym scenes were subtle and affecting, I admired his involuntary twitch when he describes the cab-company owner as "very organized" and he comes off as the only family member outside of Micky and Dickie who exists outside of the scenes where he appears. (Two more Easter-egg moments I enjoyed are the action scenes at Charlene's apartment building where the dogwalkers appear to be the real-life George & Alice.)

But, how can anyone write about the film or Micky Ward's life and career without a few paragraphs about Dick Ecklund?

I was too young to catch any of Ecklund's fights, but I was the perfect age to see him several times a week for what seems like years in Maryann DeLeo, Richard Farrell (a distant cousin to the Ecklund-Ward family) and Jon Alpert's 1995 documentary, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, as part of HBO's "America Undercover" series. In a lot of ways, seeing the old, severely reduced but still alive and kicking Dickie and Boo Boo (the chubby, bald guy in the background) at The Fighter's end credits gave me more of a charge than seeing Micky again.

The crackumentary in The Fighter recasts Dickie as a primary character, so Bale steals two films in one. Crack Street's Dickie is at most a B-plot to the epic, heartbreaking clusterfuck of Boo Boo and Brenda's mad love with the pipe and occasionally each other. (It's disappointing The Fighter’s filmmakers chose the bland title Crack in America for their version of the documentary, instead of Nightmare on Crack Street, which I presume I'm not the only fan who misremembered it being named.) The Dickie presented in Crack Street is a reticent man-child in almost as much denial about his addiction as his mother is, but whose life revolves around drugs with boxing and his son tied for a distant second place. He isn't nearly as vocal, much less expositional and cocky, as Bale's motormouth is in just a few sentences, so it's a real punch in the gut to see him suddenly in Middlesex County jail on charges of carjacking, kidnapping and armed robbery with a sawed-off shotgun.

Bail for the movie Dickie is set at $25,000 but his actual bail was "just" $5,000, a figure so far outside the family's resources that his mother held a fundraiser at the VFW -- $10 a head to watch a tape of the Sugar Ray Leonard fight on a big-screen TV. That Night At The Fights ended early, with a fight breaking out in the crowd -- these eagle eyes insist that this is Micky's first appearance in the documentary, and it looks like he was one of the main participants in the brawl -- leaving his mom not much closer to having the five grand than she was before. After some more Boo Boo/Brenda drama, an inter-title informs us that Dickie has made bail and leads us into a segment showing preparation for one of Micky's club fights; even at this point, Dickie already seems fully aware of how thoroughly he has wasted his talent.

The crime that finally sends the film's Dickie to prison (or at least implies that it's why he's going up the river) plays out like something out of a slightly darker National Lampoon’s Animal House: Impersonating cops to shake down married johns in their cars. According to Crack Street, the docket that lands Dickie in prison reads like a low-ranking demon's summer reading: Breaking and entering in the nighttime with the intent to commit a felony; Masked armed robbery; Kidnapping; Possession of a firearm without a license. As he cracks up one last time with Boo Boo before heading off to his sentencing, Dickie has a moment of terse, Hemingway-esque clarity: "This stuff destroyed me. This stuff destroys everybody. This going-away present could (possibly "should") put me in the grave." This is nearly the largest sequence of consecutive words uttered by Dickie in the entire documentary, yet none of it appears in The Fighter; much like Ward's fights, the filmmakers chose to reframe the Dickie shown in the documentary for some inscrutable dramaturgical reason. Like the reality that he didn't really knock Sugar Ray down, the film's Dickie never directly addresses his addiction. Perhaps the film is too cool for such Afterschool Special-style frankness.

To bring the documentary into The Fighter at all is one of many odd choices the filmmakers made -- perhaps the oddest, as it makes some sense to avoid covering the Emanuel Augustus/Burton fight, a confusing-to-the-laymen brawl that Ward probably only won on the hometown scorecards, and to avoid struggling to shoehorn all of the drama, pathos and even irony of Ward's immortal "Thrillogy" of fights with the late Arturo "Thunder" Gatti in at the end. Also, Ward loses the second and third fights by pretty wide margins. The in- and out-of-the-ring drama of those fights would make a great standalone film, however boxing newbies would probably think the filmmakers were exaggerating the action.

Again, the filmmakers reshuffled the chronology of events so that Crack Street made its debut during Wahlberg-Ward's retirement; Ward was already two or three fights into his comeback by then. It is quite dramatic to have Ward mount his comeback on the heels of so much of his family's dirty laundry being aired in public -- it makes some psychological sense that it would liberate him from the pretense that his brother/co-trainer was perfectly fine, and give him permission to pursue his goals and dreams on his own terms, with the woman he loves watching him rise the next morning and stride into his own better tomorrow. To their credit, the filmmakers don't pull any Rocky or Cameron Crowe bullshit by giving Charlene a short speech about how she believes in him or pound the soundtrack with some inspirational classic rock; instead, Wahlberg-Ward walks to the gym to the sound of a nearby church tolling seven o'clock in the morning, a subtle but powerful signifier that probably only works on the Catholic dog-whistle frequency. Still, does everything in this fucking film have to be about Dickie in some form or another? All pro boxers quit and come back a few years later; what made Ward unique is that he came back truly refreshed and better than he was. (Since I've already shat on the other Oscar winning performances, I should address Bale's acting before moving on from the movie: He's good, really nails the Lowell accent; he should use that voice instead of his Cookie Monster one in the next Batman movie.)

As for Ward, after the Neary "title" fight that climaxes The Fighter, he went on to wage 40 rounds of see-sawing total war with Augustus/Burton and then Gatti, with the last three rounds of his career seeing him get hit in the head so hard that it shifted his brain's positioning in his skull, giving him vertical double-, triple- and sometimes quadruple-vision for more than a year afterward. He fought on in that bout regardless, proving his mettle with the same quiet, slightly bemused steadiness he brought to every fight.

Gatti was a fellow member of the Throwback elite who, lacking Ward's one-liver-punch knockout power and workman's ethic, made up for it in superior natural talent, better management, tons of raw grit and a casual stoicism that saw him take the worst that larger men could dish out -- in his case, against far stiffer competition than Ward faced -- and keep coming forward to at least try to win every round he fought. Often plagued with hand injuries, Gatti broke his right hand on Ward's hip in Round Four of their third fight; during the round break, he informed his trainer of the injury and then said he was going to keep fighting anyway. The right hand gradually returned to his arsenal late in the fight, once it was damaged enough that it went numb. That's a Throwback.

Ward and Gatti complemented and, in many ways, completed each other, Gatti going so far as to say that fighting Ward was what he imagined fighting himself would be like. After each of their battles, they spent much time in the Emergency Room together, joking and chatting about how they really should be paid more to nearly kill themselves and each other. After Ward made good on his vow to retire after the Gatti rubber match, he joined Gatti's camp as a trainer/corner-man/advisor until Gatti's retirement in 2007.

Micky Ward is not an ex-world champion; he's a family man and a working stiff, one with the kind of fight resume a lot of world champs envy.

grindstone Milo George 2015-02-13T00:38:38-05:00
Mindless Pleasures No one sings in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie Inherent Vice, the first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. This is quite strange, considering that of all Pynchon’s quirks, his characters’ tendency to burst into song Hollywood musical-style would appear to be among the most welcoming to the general audience, the most “filmable.” And it’s especially strange coming from Anderson, who 16 years ago padded his film Magnolia, already overstuffed, with an unfortunate, outta-nowhere singalong sequence set to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” (memorable for all the wrong reasons). So it’s not that P.T. Anderson, probably Hollywood’s most celebrated writer-director under 50, has anything against diegetic singing per se. He just doesn’t think it has any place in his Pynchon movie. Yet Inherent Vice is praised as an uncommonly “close” literary adaptation.

As Kevin Lincoln of New York Magazine’s Vulture blog put it: “Pynchon’s subject, and therefore Anderson’s, in Inherent Vice is the sheer extent to which we are powerless and ignorant in a world that could destroy us at any second, and, if we’re being honest, probably is [sic]. It’s nihilism, countered by faith in a sort of benign pleasure: love, booze, and easy drugs—the promise of the ’60s, a promise unfulfilled, even crushed.”

Lincoln is likely recalling here that Gravity’s Rainbow’s reported working title was Mindless Pleasures. And if Lincoln is right, Pynchon was wrong to change it. It seems to me, though, that Mindless Pleasures was an ironic title, a cute irony (‘cause Pynchon’s actually very smart, see?) that would have drowned in the novel’s grave irony. Gravity’s Rainbow’s humor is deeper than black; it’s desolate. The book ends with a movie-theaterful of people following the bouncing ball as they’re about to be blown to smithereens…by a Nazi rocket, not an impersonal “world.” “Faith in a sort of benign pleasure”? More like giving the lie to the whole idea of benign pleasure as an ultimate aspiration, much less “the promise of the ‘60s.”

Anderson’s perspective in Inherent Vice is his own, not Pynchon’s, and totally consistent with the rest of his work. His status in Hollywood makes sense, as he is, in a way, the emblematic popular filmmaker of the post-cinema period. It’s worth noting that his father, Ernie Anderson, was a well-known TV comedian who, in later life, was under exclusive contract to ABC as a voice-over artist. Anderson Sr., during his ABC days, was credited with reinventing the network’s on-air promos. I think these facts help reveal where P.T. Anderson’s coming from: He’s a Gen-Xer whose native cultural element is TV (he’s done segments for Saturday Night Live and is married to a former SNL cast member, Maya Rudolph) and for whom movies are exotic, exciting, a little weird, not to mention an irresistible gateway to various kinds of cultural cachet. His filmmaking has verve but is bereft of any sense of the scale of human action. (The lesson he keeps failing to learn from his avowed primary inspiration Robert Altman, whose protagonists never acted like protagonists.) Everything arrives on screen already buffed to a high sheen of significance, because Anderson uses TV tactics to sell us cinema. His comedy has no earned reference to either sincerity or seriousness, which means his straight-faced films are always verging on comedy. The macho-awkward confrontations of Punch-Drunk Love are essentially similar to Daniel Day-Lewis’s psycho-tantrums in There Will Be Blood. And the rain of frogs that concludes Magnolia has as little spiritual feeling as Day-Lewis pegging bowling balls at Paul Dano and shouting “I am the Third Revelation!” at the end of TWBB. It is only Anderson’s command of the zeitgeist—his tele-facility—that prevents audiences from spotting his tells.

But Anderson’s lack of a sense of proportion makes him singularly ill-suited to do a Pynchon adaptation. Far from a reliable interpreter, he’s a pure example of what Pynchon warned about in book after book: His nihilism is inadvertent, born of an insufficiently recognized moral confusion–the bad part of postmodernism. In Inherent Vice, set in L.A. in 1970, Anderson models his style on European art films of the period, out of pure perversity, not because the thematic or plot content in his long talky two-shots bears any resemblance to The Mother and the Whore or Celine and Julie Go Boating. More than anything, it’s a chance for Anderson to see what he can get away with. The wall-to-wall pot-smoking in this film really is in the spirit of blogger Kevin Lincoln: It evokes today’s environment of semi-legal marijuana use rather than the desperate pleasures of the decayed hippie counterculture. Gone is the scene from the novel where hero Doc Sportello proffers pot to his parents, on one condition: “Not when you’re babysitting, okay?”

Not that Inherent Vice is a perfect book. It’s full of sensory and sociological details the reader can connect to form an idea of a particular time and place, but its characters stick out a bit too self-consciously in the scheme. I can’t help but think that by 1970, Pynchon must have been fully suspended in the life-intensive process of writing Gravity’s Rainbow, likely having little time or occasion to fraternize with the “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” types that populate the much-later novel. In writing Inherent Vice, he does the best he can with the memories and feelings nearest to hand. In the film, Anderson does even these modest (by Pynchon’s standards) achievements a disservice by assigning Sportello’s ruminations from the novel to a superfluous narratrix (played by Joanna Newsom). He lays waste to the book’s delicate material when he pries Pynchon apart from the protagonist who served as a vessel for his feelings. Similarly, Anderson is deaf to the impulse that makes Pynchon sing out through his characters over and over: The drive to communicate who one is is a bet against nihilism.

Contact Ben Kessler at His Twitter handle is @koolfresh

culturewatch Ben Kessler 2015-02-12T23:13:18-05:00
<![CDATA[The Resistance to <em>American Sniper</em>]]> As more than twenty-five million Americans now know, American Sniper dramatizes the life of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, who with 160 confirmed kills and 255 probables became the most lethal sniper in our history. An imperfectly-successful rodeo rider, Kyle enlisted at the age of thirty after hearing about Al Qaeda’s embassy bombings in 1998. Almost immediately after marrying he served four tours in Iraq, retired, contended with PTSD, and began helping other veterans by taking them shooting, one of whom murdered him. There is not even a whisper of a rumor that Kyle committed any war crimes in Iraq. This might have made American Sniper an unlikely film to have excited the savage moralizing that the newspapers began reporting within days of the its release (“How Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ stoked the American culture wars”, in the Washington Post shortly after the film’s release, another such in the New York Times, and since then a lot more). Eastwood’s Americans neither commit atrocities which Eastwood then excuses—the charge leveled against Zero Dark Thirty—nor do they suffer any, real or invented, which might plausibly stoke Islamophobia. The only atrocities committed by Eastwood’s Iraqis are committed upon one another, and the only Iraqi atrocity we see committed is the punishment of an informer, clearly intended to discourage others. While very ugly—the scene shows a Sunni insurgent threatening a child and then murdering an adult with an electric drill—atrocious reprisals against informers are proverbial in most insurgencies. Kyle calls the insurgents ‘savages’, and although the word has provoked a lot of indignation it surely ranks pretty low on the scale of offensive things soldiers have called one another, and may not be absolutely unforgiveable in a character contending with child suicide bombers and electric drill murders.

Much has been made of the movie’s alleged inaccuracies. How serious are they? On the considerable authority of Dexter Filkins, torture with electric drills was almost exclusively a Shi’a rather than a Sunni practice, but Kyle fought against both Shi’a and Sunni insurgents, and one Sunni insurgent torturer known as ‘the Butcher of Ramadi’ (Amir Khalaf Fanus) did favor electric drills, and did operate in a city in which Kyle fought (Kyle was known to the insurgents as ‘the devil of Ramadi’). Both men have been described as in effect inventions, Kyle because of pretty minor bits of directorial license plus omissions of a few likely fibs about details of his post-war life. Fanus’s equivalent has been dismissed more baldly, in one case because the character modeled on him wears some black leather. The refusal to believe that people like the Butcher of Ramadi existed—and exist in Iraq today, on both sides of the current fighting—is disheartening. The objection to the black leather seems merely trivial, also unprovable—complete data on Fanus’ wardrobe does not exist.

No-one has yet caught Kyle in any exaggerations about what he did and suffered in Iraq, which is interesting, because soldiers are generally thought to remember with advantages. The film adds some details and subtracts others—on Kyle’s account there was no sniper duel, and he never shot a child, so Eastwood has added these two incidents. But if these additions change our view of Chris Kyle from what it would have been after a more accurate biopic, after learning of them our opinion of him almost certainly improves: after all, we now know that he declined to frame his combat experience as a scene out of a Western, with one gunslinger triumphing over another, and he never killed a child.

As for Eastwood’s possible artistic reasons for making these two changes, Kyle’s chief antagonist is another sniper, who uses the same methods and techniques, and is at least comparably skilled at his trade, since the insurgent, allegedly a Syrian volunteer, is reputed to have been an Olympic marksman. In the world outside the film Kyle neither killed this man nor spent much time thinking about him, but his presence in the film makes both men into something very old in heroic epic—two antagonists identically armed and profoundly skilled. Kyle and Mustafa are serving as recognizable versions of Achilles and Hector transformed into killers at a distance, in some senses morally identical, and logically deserving equal admiration for their prowess. But while the people who like the film have not objected to an Iraqi version of Hector, most people who are enraged by the film have barely noticed him. This is odd, because it is possible to imagine part of what Homer does with Hector as describing him defending his Middle Eastern society against Western aggressors who will eventually very disproportionately avenge a comparatively trivial wrong with both mass murder and the sexual enslavement of thousands. One would have thought that depicting an Iraqi insurgent as a Hector-surrogate would gratify critics with an intensely romantic view of the Iraqi insurgencies, but some people want even more egg in their beer. Adding the scene where Kyle in significant distress shoots a child, a combination of a human shield and a human sword who is preparing to kill Americans, is among other things a plausible way of dramatizing the horror of war against insurgents who disguise themselves as non-combatants. I doubt that this addition makes the prospect of protracted counterinsurgency warfare more appealing to the film’s viewers. Very soon, however, the objections weren’t even a footnote to the real news about the film (although they may remain one to the intellectual history of the Anglophone Left), because within two weeks of its release American Sniper became the highest-grossing war film in American history. People bought $110 million dollars worth of tickets during a late-January holiday weekend—a record—and over the next two weeks bought a lot more, so that by the 4th of February U.S. box offices had taken in more than a quarter billion dollars, with foreign sales racking up close to another hundred million more.

It’s almost impossible to determine the political import of any box office triumph because we know little if anything about why strangers go to movies, and it is almost as difficult to be confident about filmmakers’ intentions, but this has never stopped opinion-mongers from claiming the contrary. The ineffable Chris Hedges, in his characteristically-titled “Killing Ragheads for Jesus”, is certain about both the film maker’s intentions— “American Sniper lionizes the most despicable aspects of U.S. society“—and the people who went to see it: “There is no shortage of simpletons whose minds are warped by this belief system…They populate the armed forces and the Christian right…They have little understanding or curiosity about the world outside their insular communities. They are proud of their ignorance and anti-intellectualism. They prefer drinking beer and watching football to reading a book.” Other people on Hedges’ side of the question were usually a bit less scornful of the people who went to see the movie, but equally contemptuous of what they thought they had seen.

One of Salon’s reviews confidently described the film as “the revisionist propaganda piece of myth-making and nationalistic war porn”, but another, by a celebrated journalist, was more charitable: “it's a simple, well-lit little fairy tale with the nutritional value of a fortune cookie…a saccharine, almost PG-rated two-hour cinematic diversion about a killing machine with a heart of gold…a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism.” British views from the Left were similar: the Independent quoted a celebrated British filmmaker—someone it clearly considered an expert witness—opining that “Adolf would have been proud to have made it”. Unfortunately, this gentleman also remarked that “the whole Obama thing” showed “how deep-rooted it [American fascism] is”, so the Indy may have been overly generous in awarding him expert status about, well, the whole fascism thing. The Guardian published other more (and less) thoughtful pieces, one of them claiming that “The film celebrates a man who has a talent for shooting people dead when they are not looking and who, apparently, likes his job”. There was an awful lot more of this sort of thing, e.g. Slate (“one of the most mendacious movies of 2014"), Jezebel (“essentially a porn parody of Black Hawk Down on a spiritual and intellectual level”), the New Republic, which assessed and dismissed the film on the basis of the trailer, and many more who were less scrupulous and charitable. So the cultural-critical Left loathing for American Sniper has been pretty striking. Some of the attacks are said to have been solicited by studio PR people who were paid to tarnish a rival for the Oscars, and had no dog in the fight—the same motives were said to be at work in the cases of Selma and at least two more contenders—but this cannot explain the breadth and venom of these responses. American Sniper makes some people in this profession crazy, and they’ve said some crazy things, but some of what they’ve said is illuminating about our current Left’s attitudes toward their countrymen who have recently been to war.

The first remark to make a large impression was Michael Moore’s, on Facebook, January 18th, and it was very widely reported. “My dad was in the First Marine Division in the South Pacific in World War II. His brother, my uncle, Lawrence Moore, was an Army paratrooper and was killed by a Japanese sniper 70 years ago next month. My dad always said, "Snipers are cowards. They don't believe in a fair fight. Like someone coming up from behind you and coldcocking you. Just isn't right. It's cowardly to shoot a person in the back. Only a coward will shoot someone who can't shoot back."

If Michael Moore’s father actually believed that Japanese snipers were cowards he was a strikingly original man. The list of vices associated with the Japanese Army’s behavior during the Second World War is long and various—startling sadism, perfidious surrender, horrific rotation rape, competitive beheading contests reaching triple digits, vivisection without anesthesia on prisoners of war, testing biological weapons on both military and civilian prisoners, including women and infants, grotesque medical experiments that come close to overshadowing Mengele’s work at Auschwitz, etc.—but to the best of my knowledge, no-one who either fought or even read about them ever accused the Imperial Japanese Army of cowardice. Complaints tended to run in the opposite direction, and I have known men who when brooding about the experience of contending with Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth SS Panzer Army during a blizzard suddenly cheer up after reflecting that they had never had to fight the Japanese.

When charging snipers in general with cowardice Moore is on slightly stronger ground, but this idea has been less and less common since the composition of the Iliad. The distaste for killing at a distance has generally had a strong class and as well as Continental component—Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard, celebrated by his social peers as le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, made a habit of killing any peasant infantryman he found with a gun, until, in 1525, one shot him, nowadays considered something of a pleasantly ironical outcome. Robin Hood, by contrast, killed at a distance, and has been celebrated for his skill ever since. An aristocratic preference for war as a contest between identically-armed high status social equals slicing one another up at close range is not a position associated with people claiming to speak for and from the Detroit working class, or with any Americans. We’ve instead admired marksmen, far too extravagantly in some eyes, and have rarely scorned them for shooting from cover. We’ve been very proud of Concord, Lexington and what British gentlemen scorned as our “skulking way of war”, as proud as the English have been of their archers at Agincourt (who also killed their social superiors at a distance) and have generally extended this regard to foreigner snipers. Ludmyla Mykhailivna Pavlychenko, who was believed to have had three hundred and nine kills (although she apparently didn’t count her first two Rumanians) toured the country with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942, was given a Colt .45 automatic and a Winchester, spoke at war bond rallies and attended CIO meetings. Woodie Guthrie recorded a song in her honor (“Miss Pavlichenko’s well known to fame/Russia’s your country. Fighting’s your game/The world will love you for a long time to come/For more than three hundred Nazis fell by your gun”). Mass cultural celebration of marksmen was not only a wartime tic—Sergeant York was filmed and released before Peal Harbor, and Jerome Kern, the first man approached for the job, didn’t start composing Annie Get Your Gun until November of 1945. Nor did our enthusiasm for snipers foreign and domestic end with the Second World War, only to be ghoulishly resurrected by jingo Republicans: Paramount released Enemy At the Gates in 2001, and that film celebrates the sniper Vasili Grigoryevich Zaitsev, who killed 225 Germans before suffering a mortar shell wound to his eyes.

Although he is still lurching back and forth on the question, Michael Moore almost immediately began to qualify his views of snipers, or at least his definition of them: “I wanted to clarify what I meant by "sniper." A sniper, to me, is the person in the invading force…the Arab sniper in American Sniper—what was he doing? He was trying to stop the invading force.” But on Moore’s theory the Arab sniper wasn’t a sniper, despite Moore calling him one. The sentence is unwittingly comical, but the thought is anything but, because Moore is refusing to acknowledge the moral equality of combatants, a particularly urgent principle of the laws of war. The moral equality of combatants is why we are obliged to punish soldiers who have committed atrocities but forbidden to punish soldiers who have served in what victors almost invariably describe as unjust wars. The moral equality of combatants recognizes the humanity and even the virtue of enemies; aggression is a crime restricted to states, atrocities can only committed only by individuals, and whole peoples cannot be guilty. If everyone is guilty—a claim rehearsed by one of the more distinguished critics who has written about American Sniper—then no one is guilty to the degree that we must punish them, which means no one is really guilty of anything that matters. Agreement on what constitutes ius in bello—just methods of fighting—can be difficult but has often seemed possible, even while a war is under way. Agreement on ius ad bellum—the right to employ force at all—has been much harder and often impossible. Refusing to acknowledge the moral equality of combatants would destroy the laws of war, because losing one would mean risking a death sentence, in which case moderation would always be imbecility. The moral equality of combatants is why the American Army convicted one of the two American soldiers who had tortured an Iraqi general--Abed Hamed Mowhoush—of negligent homicide. It is a precious principle, always in danger and always deserving our defense. The refusal to concede the moral equality of combatants seems to be one of the reasons American Sniper made some of the critics crazy.

Three weeks on, some of the critics are still reading the movie with amazing carelessness. Here’s Gail Collins, on the 5th of February, in the New York Times: “The film is certainly powerful, and it celebrates our Iraq veterans. But it also eulogizes the killing of Iraq insurgents, including children, and critics feel it ought to be put in the context of an invasion that didn’t need to happen in the first place.” “Eulogize” means to praise with great enthusiasm, which I do not think American Sniper ever does—some of its characters do, but that is a very different thing. “Celebrate” is less obviously wrong, but it misses Eastwood’s obvious sorrow over and pity for his veterans, and the objections to his failure to put those veterans in a context that reassures the viewer that the war “didn’t need to happen” is the equivalent of faulting Casablanca for not dwelling on the alleged injustices of the Treaty of Versailles.

What too few (if any) of the critics remark on is what I find most striking about American Sniper: its protagonist’s unprecedented prowess in war has no effect on the outcome of the war he is fighting. The film severs the link between epic skill at arms and both personal and collective outcomes as thoroughly as any of the First World War literature does: its hero is invincible on the battlefield but its war is by implication unwinnable, and the losses it recounts cannot be offset by any appeals to political forms of thinking. This is not an uninteresting vision for a movie that has so far grossed a quarter billion plus, and while it may not be true either in whole or even in part, my guess is that most of the ticket-buyers noticed this vision and thought about it. There is no reason to assume that the people who flocked to the movie were as inattentive as the critics and bloggers who exulted in so noisily dismissing and despising it.

culturewatch Fredric Smoler 2015-02-12T21:52:37-05:00
<![CDATA[<em>Mr. Turner</em> & Mr. Leigh]]> Mike Leigh’s latest work, a highly episodic “scenes from the life of the artist” film about J. M.W. Turner, begs a question that has dogged me throughout life. I have gazed dutifully upon Turner’s paintings and repeatedly wondered, “Why am I doing this?” In college, in a class called “Introduction to Modern Art” we were required to buy an anthology with a Turner seascape on its cover. I knew enough to identify the image as a Turner, but also noticed that few of the readings mentioned Turner at all. And his name came up not once—I repeat, not once—in 12 weeks of class discussions of French and Spanish and American artists. Why, I continue to ask, J. M. W. Turner?

Mr. Turner makes a pretty good stab at answering that question, if not conclusively. If we know anything about Turner at all (and most Americans don’t, or so it has seemed to me in conversations I’ve had with friends since this film came out) we associate him with the prescient abstraction of his late work even though it may confound us. His work is hard for non-experts to locate on any timeline of Western art that tries to map a progression from realistic representation to abstraction. It is disorienting to be in the presence of a Turner painting if you think in terms of conventional art historical periods, and Leigh recreates that uncertainty by refusing to place events of Turner’s life directly on a calendar. This temporal displacement causes some people to say, “Wait, I thought Turner was later than this,” while others say the opposite, “Wait, wasn’t he earlier than this?”

I think Leigh wants to surprise us by contrasting the radical late Turner with what came out of the cultural cauldron that produced Victorian normalcy. Turner died in 1851 and so his last decades coincided with the first productive decades of Victorians such as Dickens, Thackeray, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and John Ruskin, a figure very much present and rather brutally treated within the film (by brilliant young actor Josh McGuire).

But Turner was a Victorian only in the most literal sense. In fact, he was one of those brilliant oddballs England produced just before it became synonymous with “Empire.” Jane Austen, born in 1775, the same year as Turner, is another, and then there is William Blake, born not that long before either of them. All three have attained reputations beyond their national borders and yet each, in his or her own way, beyond possessing that famously British trait of eccentricity, has come to stand for a certain way of being English. Blake, a revolutionary visionary constitutionally opposed to anything that could be labeled “orthodox,” enjoyed little repute in his own time and would have been astounded, I suspect, to see his poem “Jerusalem” come to be regarded as England’s “unofficial national anthem.” Austen, meanwhile, was an unaccountably shrewd observer of social hypocrisy and, for all her good humor and Johnsonian reason, was arguably the first novelist to observe the endemic spread of neuroses in modern life—and yet she now stands for whatever Bridget Jones is about, and while the film Austenland poked some fun at the commodification of Jane, it would be naïve to rule out the possibility that somebody will someday build an actual theme park in her honor.

Why though, again, Turner, and what does he mean to the English? Hard to say. It’s not terribly easy and probably impossible to connect him to a particular ideology or agenda. Decades ago, John Berger shocked people by pointing out that 18th century landscapes by the likes of Gainsborough were little more that elaborately illustrated property deeds, paintings whose message could be reduced to: “Mr. and Mrs. Andrew own this land. You don’t. You think the landscape is beautiful (and it is) because you don’t own it. We do.”

But nobody owns the sea, not really, even though perhaps no one tried harder to do so than English people during Turner’s lifetime and, indeed, he may at times have been playing to English patriotism. Isn’t there something John-Bullish in his paintings of warships? Is that why the British have voted and chosen Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” as the greatest painting in England? If so, its nationalism is hard for a non-Brit to see. It’s not an image of the role that ship played in Nelson’s famous victory at Trafalgar; instead, it shows the boat being dragged across the harbor to a salvage dock to be disassembled. Not a celebration of empire building so much as an allegory about the way of all flesh, “The Fighting Temeraire” is an aquatic Ozymandias. For the film Leigh invents a scene in which Turner eyeballs the dragging of the Temeraire and plays it for a laugh about the painting’s iconic status, but beyond that Leigh is not really interested in exploring Turner’s contribution to the English semiotic landscape in way that answers the question of why Turner looms so large in English visual history. The film’s mood, at times elegiacal and always autumnal, might suggest that what the English like about Turner has less to do with naval victory and more to do with a feeling for the Natural Sublime and a deep fear of death-by-drowning expressed in English literature as old as Beowulf. But what does “Turner” signify to the English? Mike Leigh makes us wonder but doesn’t tell us.

Of greater apparent concern is the disciplined dedication of an iconoclastic artist to a life of work. One of my suppositions here is that Mr. Turner is probably as close to an autobiography as Leigh will create. It’s not quite Leigh’s 8 ½ and, in fact, Leigh seems critically distant from his subject character at times so as to depict aspects of Mr. Turner’s behavior and attitudes that are, surely, remote from those of Mr. Leigh. I don’t think we are encouraged to draw any particular inferences about Leigh’s own thoughts on how to deal with the business-of-life issues that run through the story: aging while managing lifelong parasites and rivals, aging and dying, aging and sexuality.

In relation to the latter theme, it’s hard not to mention rumors about Leigh’s becoming personally intertwined with Marion Bailey, the actress who plays Turner’s own love interest in the film and is featured in some of the movie’s most startling episodes. But surely we are not to make autobiographical connections between Leigh and Turner’s behavior toward women in general. Leigh show us acts and implied feelings that place Turner in his time but shed little light on how we are to measure his misogyny in relation to his art. It is more than a little annoying to have to note Leigh’s unwillingness to interrogate Turner’s cold treatment of his estranged wife and daughters. Far worse is the painter’s hideous objectification of his housemaid, an especially long-suffering but ostensibly willing sex partner subject to being taken from behind by the master while she’s preoccupied with dusting the knickknacks upon his mantel.

In his own art and (I imagine) life, Mike Leigh treats women with more respect, and many of his stories set in more recent times can easily be seen as overtly feminist—the pro-choice Vera Drake being the most conspicuous example. He gives great freedom to his female actors, notably Lesley Manville and Sally Hawkins in recent years, and he has clearly followed their lead throughout production. Acting is a more conspicuous art than directing in many of best films. Topsy Turvy, Leigh’s first history film about 19th century popular art, generates its greatest dramatic tension by tracking ironic continuities between the performers’ backstage reality and onstage performance. We learn more about the physical hardships and economic vicissitudes of the Victorian theater than we do about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves; this is a masterpiece of dramatized social history.

Leigh values collaboration and community, sometimes at the expense of biographical particulars. While Mike Leigh gets more out of characterological surfaces than just about any storyteller in any genre I can think of, he provides little more interiority than a good painter, and much less than the great ones. I’m not sure I want to fault him too much for that, though, and there are major exceptions to this rule. There is nothing but interiority in the magnificent chamber piece of 2010, Another Year. And Timothy Spall is yet again perfect here as Turner, hermetically sealed but eloquent when he wants to be, and generally allowing actions to speak more than words.

Mr. Turner is not about acting, though Spall captures all the physicality, much of it fairly gross and uncomfortable, that Turner put into his art. But Mr. Turner feels like a director’s film, albeit one spectacularly supported by its cinematographer, Dick Pope. Telling stories of popular artists of the past in Topsy Turvy and Mr. Turner, Leigh has found a way to explore issues relating to culture, representation, and politics (the meaning of labor in particular), that arose more peripherally in his customary milieu, working-class life in modern English cities. Mr. Turner doesn’t explain Turner’s importance quite as clearly or movingly as Leigh accounts for Gilbert and Sullivan. However, as in Topsy Turvy, Mr. Turner reveals the blood, sweat (and again, weirdly) skin disease that seem to follow in the wake of making great art, popular and otherwise.

Making films about Gilbert, Sullivan, and Turner is also Mike Leigh’s choice, conscious or not, to become more publicly self-reflective. Biographers tell us that he spent time at art school, and while there liked to take his sketchbooks outside for inspiration “from the source.” Linking this practice to Leigh’s working technique of encouraging his actors to bring the findings of their own research into the development of plots and dialogues, Leigh scholars provide a clue about why Leigh might have been drawn to Turner, known for his heavy reliance, way ahead of his time, on the en plein air technique. A bigger clue, and one that finally does shed some light both on why we must care about Turner and Leigh’s appreciation for him, comes through its provocations, not about what art means, but about what making art, art as a process and a life’s work, means for artists themselves. In Turner’s late period, as much as our own, assumptions about culture, nature, society and technology were changing as rapidly and quickly as the English weather. Social change has always been in the foreground of Leigh’s films; it has been interesting, however, to watch him holding on to that commitment in own late career even as he has turned to historical, rather than contemporary, stories that awaken strongly individuated, non-collaborative intimations of mortality.

At its own most abstract level, though, Mr. Turner does tend to associate the urge to make art as a metaphor for the will to live, and it is ultimately less about communicating meanings through pictures than it is about the search for reasons to justify the impulse to make art, movies as well as paintings, in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This is the first of Leigh’s film to be shot digitally. Of course, to refer to a movie shot digitally as a “film” is to employ a dead metonym. One can even argue that the kind of color layering and shading possible with digital editing is closer to painting than anything ever possible in film technology. What’s lost in sharpness and clarity—the possibility of film—turns out not to be all that bad a thing within the genre of the artist biopic. Dick Pope’s cinematography and post-production work emphasize the painterly quality of which digital imagery can be capable.

I would argue, though, that it’s editing that spares the audience from forgetting that images—painted, filmed, or pixilated—are manufactured illusions. At numerous moments in Mr. Turner we are forced to ponder whether we’re seeing a photograph of a landscape or a photograph of a painted landscape. Our feelings and our thoughts co-exist at such moments. This is a fine answer on Leigh’s part to the critics who faulted his early films of “social realism” for relying too heavily on bourgeois narrative conventions developed to conceal ideological messages. Thus, just as our attention is gracefully pulled between so “real life” to “performed life” in Topsy Turvy, so also Mr. Turner deliberately and productively estranges us from the illusionary nature of film and leads us to contemplate the labor normally hidden behind it.

The long, virtually wordless opening scene of the film makes it clear that the difference between a photograph and a painting, and then again the difference between a still image and a moving one, is inevitably an issue in any appraisal of Mr. Turner. Like a symphonic overture, the film’s opening shots establish the film’s recurring themes and questions. We see a postcard image of a place (Holland?), a picture perfectly composed. A windmill (the old-fashioned kind) set in front of a sinking sun. Everything is ochre save a bit of azure and white cloud higher in the sky. It’s not clear at first, but we soon discern movement within the frame; there’s a wind; the image is moving.

Soon we become conscious of sounds as well—mostly the muffled voices emanating from two distant figures approaching at a slight angle from the right. They are women, perhaps best friends, two women walking home at the end of the workday—we guess they are agricultural laborers from their costumes (also the old-fashioned kind—this must be the 18th/19th century). They are animated, moving their arms and laughing. As they come into the foreground, we realize they are speaking something non-English (Dutch?) and completely ignoring the small figure on the hill to the left. That figure seems to be completely still, but as the camera give it more attention we realize it (now a “he”) is moving a pencil or pen across a notebook in his hand, drawing the scene we have been watching, but seeing it from a slightly different angle. Somehow this artist, perhaps solely because he seems so steadfast in his solitude, occupies a place of privilege—not necessarily one of ownership but one that controls our own visual interpretation of the scene we have just watched. This guy got there before we did. This guy goes to work, he doesn’t leave it, at end of day, at what moviemakers call “golden hour” or “magic hour”—the time of day when light and atmosphere conspire to radiate the earth in a way that resembles . . . a painting by Turner.

“The sky [or sea] looks like a Turner”—how easily those words can come to mind at the end of a certain kind of day. What did people say about such days before Turner came along? Turner didn’t invent the beauty of windmills and peasant women on their way to a gambol after work. Such things pre-existed him in the work of painters he admired, especially Claude Lorraine and Poussin. We have been told by historians that no one in Europe appreciated the beauty of mountains before the Florentines discovered it in the Renaissance, and we have also been told that many people in the 18th century feared the sea. Turner’s sea paintings partake at times of the Sublime—beauty and fear—but just as often the beauty of Turner’s sea and landscapes is neither menacing nor awe-inspiring, it is simply sort of out of reach, as ephemeral as a breeze, as unique as a single wave. Nature is neither a place to own nor a place to fear. It is where we live, where we work, what we are.

Mike Leigh, in a recent interview, is quite laconic when he explains why he gave up on years of “being a Luddite” and accepted that digital filmmaking was here to stay. All the labs are closing. You have to accept history and historical change and be honest about it. (It is hard, by the way, to think of anything more Marxist than that). What else can you do?

One thing you can do is what the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) did, and that is why, in my opinion, Leigh gives Turner a moment to gaze upon the first Pre-Raphaelite paintings and chortle with disbelief. Repulsed by modernity and machinery, the PRB tried to turn back to the clock—but that in itself did not make them counter-revolutionary. Ruskin, an ardent supporter of both Turner and slightly less ardent supporter of the PRB, saw the former as a Painter of Nature and Truth, but understood that the members of the PRB were seekers of a different kind of Truth, an immaterial one. It is very easy today to associate the PRB with the worst kind of Victorian kitsch melodrama and evocations of what Peter Brooks called the “moral occult,” but seen properly in their time
they actually have more in common with Ruskin’s understanding of Turner than Leigh would probably grant. It is easy in retrospect to overlook how revolutionary they were because they made the very mistake Marx warns against in the opening of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: the French Revolutionaries defeated themselves, in part, by costuming themselves in the style of the ancient Romans. They ended up reinventing tyranny, just as surely as the PRB, with its ostensible rejection of the prettifications and city slicker ways of Raphael, ended up reinventing aestheticization.

The body of Turner’s work—and to a certain extent the body of Turner himself—could never be gussied up in yesterday’s modes. Whether his late work strayed from mimesis or achieved perfect mimesis, ultimately the message of his work is the work itself. Leigh includes a scene in which Turner refuses to sell his personal collection of his own work at a great price so that he might give it to England—and this collection still exists, in tact, at the Tate Britain. Seeing all of it at once is much more impressive than seeing a single Turner on its own; the power of the collected work pulls us toward an aesthetic that is more alert to the fact of labor than the search for hidden moral truth in the single image.

The long-term importance of Turner to modern art may lie less in the “Truth of Nature” (Ruskin’s phrase) than in what Turner may not have intended at all, an incredibly prescient embrace of abstraction (“He is trying to bring order to a chaotic universe,” one observer in Mr. Leigh exclaims, rather anachronistically to my ear). He employed the en plein air technique before the French Impressionists, and he maintained a sheer, simple willingness to just plain keep on keepin’ on in the face of the new visual technologies. And he acknowledged the body’s presence in artmaking from beginning to end. An important scene is that in which, before the eyes of his fellow Academy members, Turner attacks one of his own paintings with spit and sweat and pure muscle to bring it closer to his own idea of what it means to “finish” a painting. The result isn’t just abstraction, it’s approaching abstract expressionism.

The incorporation of the physical body as an element in his art is also displayed, with even bigger philosophical reverberation, in the film’s inclusion of an apocryphal event in Turner’s life, an incident in which he insisted upon having himself tied to the top of a ship’s mast during an ice storm. Why Leigh inserted this scene in the film was not at first apparent to me, but in retrospect it feels crucial. Behind the character he’s playing we see the human Spall looking physically battered by the snow and rain hitting his face in this scene. Let’s hope for Spall’s sake that this is more CGI than documentary footage. In an atmosphere of that much possible human pain, all in the name of exploring the purpose and practices of human art, this viewer can’t avoid thinking of Adorno and Horkheimer’s use of Homeric imagery to capture the essence of the Dialectic of Enlightenment: the figure of Ulysses chained to the mast, able to hear the sirens, the beauty of nature. This is the most terrible kind of alienation, but the only one we’ve got. Both enabled and disempowered by technology, the enlightened artist has no choice but to accept, and perhaps to come to know and exploit, the chains that bind him. They are the chains wherein he has chosen, because he has had no choice, to make his home.

There’s no place like home—no magical alternative within the present one, however strongly the PRB tried to invoke one--so you have to use it. Leigh’s earliest films may have tried to garb anti-capitalist messages within middle-class realist narrative form (as some of his critics used to complain, back in the ‘70’s and 80’s), but his later films, most obviously Happy Go Lucky and now Mr. Turner, show an acute awareness that eschewing popular forms for the sake of utopian content is itself a pretty dismal way to live.

grindstone Karen Hornick 2015-02-12T21:00:33-05:00
<![CDATA[<em>Selma</em> vs. LBJ]]> In 1991, Oliver Stone slandered Lyndon Johnson in his film JFK, accusing Johnson of complicity in the assassination of President Kennedy. A number of historians and political figures (including Johnson Aide and Carter Administration Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr.) have argued that Ava DuVernay’s new movie Selma defames LBJ as reluctant to send Congress a voting rights bill and as opposed to the Selma voting rights campaign.

Selma is, indeed, unfair to Lyndon Johnson, but criticizing Selma is more complicated than criticizing JFK, both because DuVernay’s misrepresentation has more of a basis in fact than does Stone’s conspiracy theory nonsense and because of the way in which Hollywood has represented (or not represented) the Civil Rights movement in the past. On the other hand, it is arguably more problematic to misrepresent Johnson than it is to misrepresent a historical figure who has gotten his or her due or who has been inaccurately lionized.

Lyndon Johnson is one of the most maligned presidents in the history of the United States. Yes, he did great harm in escalating the U.S. war in Vietnam, but he did great good in engineering the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in introducing and shepherding to passage the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, immigration reform, and many other laws that have brought justice and a measure of economic security to the American people. Yet his catastrophic Vietnam policy and the unjustified hagiography surrounding John F. Kennedy, along with Johnson’s justified reputation as a wheeler-dealer and his sometimes crass personality have made him a loathed figure to many.

Johnson has been undergoing a rehabilitation for more than a decade – possibly for decades, plural. In 1981, Robert Caro published the first volume of his five-part biography of LBJ: The Path to Power, which painted a complex portrait of Johnson. However, his second volume The Means of Ascent, published in 1990, depicted Johnson as self-serving and crooked. It was in the third volume, Master of the Senate, published in 2002, that the good of this multifaceted man started to outweigh the bad for Caro.

Also in 2002, John Frankenheimer made The Path to War about Johnson’s escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The HBO movie portrays Johnson not as a warmonger, but as a man overwhelmed by circumstance. The Path to War touches on the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act and is more accurate than DuVernay’s movie.

In 2013, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, the first part of his two-part LBJ stage cycle, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; it then picked up a star – Bryan Cranston – in the role of Johnson and moved to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge; finally it opened on Broadway, where both the play and Cranston won Tony Awards. I have seen all three incarnations. In Oregon, it was ambiguous as to whether LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 out of moral conviction or in order to help him win the 1964 presidential election, and the play seemed to lean in the direction of opportunism. By the time of the Broadway production, thanks to script changes and Cranston’s interpretation, Johnson came across as unambiguously acting from conviction. Interestingly, the play indulges in at least one, if not two, unfair historical inaccuracies. It depicts Johnson as giving in to blackmail by J. Edgar Hoover and authorizing FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King – it was JFK who did this. The play also has Johnson removing a voting rights plank from the 1964 civil rights bill. This is not supported by evidence in any book I have read; however, Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, also made this claim in his article on Selma in Politico Magazine; however, when I raised this issue with him in recent correspondence, Updegrove could not recall any source to back up his assertion.

Lee Daniels’ 2013 movie The Butler depicts Johnson positively – the two presidential keepsakes that the lead character, a White House butler, wears to his meeting with President Obama are John Kennedy’s tie and an LBJ tie clip (he takes no mementos from any other three presidents depicted in the movie).

I have made my own modest contribution to the LBJ rehabilitation with my play The Great Society, which premiered off-off Broadway in 2013. (It was overshadowed by Schenkkan’s work and I’ll allow I’m not the most objective reader of his play.)

The rehabilitation campaign (or the passage of time, or the fact that there has not been a president since Johnson who has combined legislative skill with New Deal Democratic values) has worked. As President Obama began to flounder during his first term, progressive voices expressed a longing for LBJ and his ability to get things done (which, in turn, provoked other liberals who responded that Johnson did not have to deal with the Congresses confronting Obama).

It is frustrating that Selma came out as the LBJ rehabilitation seemed to be gathering steam. One can assume more people will see a well-received major Hollywood movie like Selma than will read Caro’s books or see a Broadway play. LBJ looms very large (and very darkly) in Selma. And that portrait seems certain to reach a deeply impressionable audience since corporations and prominent individuals have established a fund to enable 7th, 8th, and 9th graders to see the movie for free.

As I said above, Hollywood’s past representations (or lack thereof) of the Civil Rights Movement make a criticism of Selma problematic. To my knowledge, only one major Hollywood movie, prior to The Butler, focuses on non-violent civil rights activists in the South: Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988). The fact that there was only one such movie between the apex of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965 and the release of The Butler in 2013 speaks to Hollywood’s marginalization of black life and history. (It should be noted that television has done somewhat better in dramatizing African American history: the 1970s saw a proliferation of TV movies and miniseries such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, King, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and the historic Roots.) Like most studio movies, Mississippi Burning was, unlike The Butler and Selma, directed by a white man. Though one civil rights movie does not a trend make, Mississippi Burning is part of a long tradition of movies about racism told from the perspective of noble, white saviors. The classic of this genre is Robert Mulligan’s undeniably great To Kill a Mockingbird. The heroes Mississippi Burning are two white FBI agents (which is particularly galling in light of Hoover’s persecution of King).

So, I am somewhat uncomfortable in saying that Ava DuVernay is not giving credit to the great white savior Lyndon Johnson, and she was right when she said on the radio program Fresh Air, “This film is not about LBJ. This is a film that's about the people of Selma and the black leadership of Selma and the allies who came to the aid of black people who were being terrorized in Selma.”

However, Selma’s treatment of Johnson goes beyond a withholding of credit: it portrays him as hostile to the voting rights movement. In Johnson’s first scene, he says of King’s insistence on the introduction of voting rights legislation, in essence, “What more does he want?...I already gave them the Civil Rights Act.”

In his criticism of Selma, Califano cited a recording of a January 15th, 1965 phone call between Johnson and King. In that phone call (nearly two months before Bloody Sunday – March 7th), Johnson says of voting rights legislation, “I talked to the Attorney General, and I’ve got them working on it.” In his correspondence with me, Califano wrote, “LBJ told [Attorney General] Katzenbach in December 1964 (I believe the date was Dec. 14) to start drafting voting rights legislation.” This does not mean that Johnson was ready to submit it to Congress. In At Canaan’s Edge, the third volume of his history of the Civil Rights Movement, Taylor Branch writes that, in a February, 1965 meeting with King, Johnson “insisted on his prerogative to choose the content and moment for any voting rights bill.”

Still, there is significant difference between, on the one hand, having a voting rights bill drafted but reserving the right to choose the moment to send it to Congress, and, on the other hand, a stony unresponsiveness to King’s priorities (“What more does he want?”).

The most pernicious distortion in the film was described by the New York Times as follows: “the president, angered by Dr. King’s plans in Selma, asks to get Hoover on the phone. Soon after, Coretta Scott King is shown listening to a tape of anonymous threats, followed by the sounds of Dr. King moaning with a lover.” The Times goes on to summarize historian David A. Garrow’s assertion that “the tape, which Mrs. King listened to in January 1965, had been recorded and sent to the headquarters of Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in late 1964 by the bureau’s intelligence division, and had no direct connection to Selma or to Johnson.”

Not only was Johnson not involved in sending King the blackmail tape, he ignored Hoover’s evidence of King’s infidelity when he was presented with it. In Pillar of Fire, the second volume of his civil rights history, Taylor Brach writes that just after a Hoover aide delivered a transcript of the sex tape to the President, Johnson shocked the bureau by announcing to reporters that he had invited King and other civil rights leaders to the White House.

DuVernay’s changing the date of the incident is the kind of minor alteration of historical fact that filmmakers, playwrights, and historical novelists indulge in all the time. I have no objection to the fact that DuVernay makes it seem as if the September, 1963 killing of four little girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church occurred after Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December, 1964. I took much license in writing The Great Society. I invented a confrontation over Vietnam between Johnson and King, which never occurred. I made Bayard Rustin King’s omnipresent advisor, which he was not, so he could voice his own ambivalent views about Vietnam in that fictitious scene. I altered the timeline of events surrounding Selma. I had Johnson send Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Johnson aide Jack Valenti to see King in Selma, when, in reality, it was Assistant Attorney General John Doar and former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins. (Katzenbach and Valenti were in other scenes of my play and Doar and Collins would have been introduced for this scene only.)

Dramatic license, though, doesn’t excuse DuVernay’s fabrication of Johnson authorizing Hoover’s blackmail. That’s beyond the pale because it falsely attributes a morally reprehensible act to a real human being. DuVernay’s implication that Johnson may well have had no intention of introducing voting rights legislation amounts to another defamation.

While dramatic license is defensible in many instances, smearing people is unethical. No one deserves to be slandered or libeled, but it’s particularly galling when the slander is aimed at a man who has already been falsely accused of murder in a major motion picture.

nation Alec Harrington 2015-02-12T16:59:37-05:00
<![CDATA[<em>Selma</em> to <em>Timbuktu</em>]]> I

Selma traduces LBJ (see above), but what’s worse is its take on Martin Luther King’s deliberations in the days after the police riot on Pettus Bridge terminated the first major Civil Rights march in Selma.

That time after “Bloody Sunday” was one of many sequences during the 60s when King would end up “fire-fighting.” The late historian Lawrence Goodwyn coined that term to evoke what happens when leaders must cool out their own followers who are burning up with participatory democratic zeal. Goodwyn noticed the momentum of serious social movements often rests on the capacity of such leaders to encourage collective acts of strategic restraint without trashing principle or quashing insurgents’ spirits. When King was assassinated, the Movement lost not just an inspirational leader, but its indispensable fire-fighter. Selma, though, fails to help viewers grasp this dimension of King’s contribution to the Movement. Its muddle through the conjuncture after Bloody Sunday amounts to mystification.

King’s first response to the outrage on Pettus Bridge was to call for a second march through Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. Folks from all over the country stepped up and longtime activists were hot to take it back to the place where John Lewis and others had been beat down only a few days before. But Judge Frank Johnson ordered the march be postponed, pending a hearing on Governor George Wallace’s petition to ban the protest. While there was no constitutional justification for denying marchers’ right to assemble, Judge Johnson took it slow when the Governor forced the issue. Johnson was no segregationist hack. His record on the bench had established him as the most important pro-Civil Rights jurist in the South. What’s more, he was a federal judge and the Movement aimed to cultivate a working alliance with feds in opposition to the segregated South’s local white supremacist law enforcement agencies.

King was in a bind. He didn’t want to cross the judge but he was alive to his people’s felt need to demonstrate their humanity in the wake of Bloody Sunday and he was (usually) in the business of heightening contradictions.[1] After hearing out his longtime advisers (who couldn’t come to a consensus) as well as emissaries from LBJ (who pressed him to obey the judge’s order noting it was likely to be lifted after the imminent hearing), King decided he couldn’t call off the march. Minutes before it started, though, Leroy Collins (ex-governor of Florida and one of two representatives sent by LBJ)—gave King an out. Collins had gone directly to those in charge of the State troopers and Selma cops as they were mustering to block the march and (with King’s blessing) proposed “a face-saving solution for both sides.” King and company would march to the bridge but instead of challenging cops (and the judge) by heading out for the state capital, they’d turn around and go back to the church where they’d started from. The Alabama officers, including the infamous Sheriff Jim Clark, agreed to the deal (after consulting on the phone with someone whom Collins presumed was Governor Wallace). Though they insisted marchers follow a particular route to and from the bridge, which Clark mapped out on a scrap of paper. Collins rushed back to King with that map and made his plea. King worried the police might charge marchers even if he made it clear he meant to avoid a confrontation. But he promised he’d try to get his people to turn around after they reached the bridge. When the critical moment came later in the day, things got extra dicey as the cops suddenly backed off, opening up the way forward and seeming to tease King into starting for Montgomery. But he kept to the agreement he’d made with Collins and the cops did too. (In Collins’ words: “both sides kept their word to the letter.” Though that doesn’t quite explain the cops’ backing off—which may have been George Wallace’s attempt to coax King and/or other marchers into further flouting Judge Johnson’s injunction.)

Not much of this history made the cut in Selma. And that won’t do since King’s behavior on the bridge during the second march is one of the movie’s focal points. The script’s refusal to clarify why King turned around leaves the film with a hole in its heart/head. King is treated here not as a canny strategist with his eyes on the prize, but as a more mercurial figure.[2] Selma’s audience is left without a clue. Was King’s choice on the bridge a sort of Christian whim? Or perhaps even a failure of nerve due to personal travails that had sapped his faith in himself? In the movie, his choice becomes a subject of an inconclusive, post-march dialogue between the soon-to-be-martyred minister James Reeb and another pious existentialist. But Selma ends up letting the mystery be. That’s not entirely false to the experience of most marchers who were confused by King’s move even as they followed him back to the church. Nor did King clear everything up in the aftermath of “Turnaround Tuesday” in part because he was going to have to testify before Judge Johnson and wanted to avoid going on record about exactly how the deal went down. That left him open to criticism from an ain’t-gonna-let-nobody-turn-us-around caucus, which included movement stalwarts such as SNCC’s James Forman.[3] Selma touches on the pre- and post-march tensions between Forman and King (and ex-SNCC King allies like John Lewis) but it reduces political conflicts (with heavy back stories and future consequences) to personal quirks.

Selma’s director, Ava Duvernay, didn’t have to make the drama surrounding the second march to Pettus bridge a centerpiece of her movie, but having done so, the truth can’t be dissed as too much information.


Alec Harrington’s play, The Great Society, does better on this score. One of its most compelling scenes dramatizes King’s to-and-fros with LBJ’s reps and his own counselors during the run-up to the march. Harrington’s Q&A strays from the historical record too (as he allows here). Still, his staging of King et al.’s passionate intellection underscores the movement was a...movement of mind.

Harrington’s LBJ nods to King’s “political sense.” His/LBJ’s clarity about the need for fire-fighting beats Selma’s misfire. But Harrington seems unaware the following imagined exchange between LBJ aide Jack Valenti and the president invokes a test case that exposed LBJ’s worst political instincts.

VALENTI: [King] took everybody by surprise. The SNCC people were pissed.

JOHNSON: Good. Now he knows how we felt during the shitstorm over the Mississippi Fuckin’ Democrats.

Harrington’s hero is referring here to what went down at the 1964 Democratic convention when the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party (MFPD)—a delegation organized by African Americans (with help from SNCC and other Civil Rights groups)—challenged the legitimacy of the regular whites-only Mississippi Democratic party. MFDP spokespeople—including the undeniable Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer—galvanized the convention as they made their case against the segregated Mississippi delegation. But LBJ didn’t want to offend the regulars since he was worried about losing white votes in the South. He came up with a plan that would’ve enabled the regulars to retain their 68 votes. The MFDP, meanwhile, was told to accept a “compromise” that would’ve left their members represented by 2 delegates-at-large. It wasn’t only the uneven terms that made LBJ’s attempt at fire-fighting a dud. LBJ and his agents treated the MFDP with contempt. They even insisted on vetting/picking the two black delegates they’d deigned to seat. Intense pressure was put on any liberal who continued to support the MFDP’s challenge to the regulars. And the democratic process at the Convention was corrupted. The compromise was rammed through the Credentials Committee as leaders of the MFDP were deflected by phony negotiations with LBJ’s reps in another room. “You cheated!” cried Bob Moses—legendary leader of MFPD/SNCC (who’s just turned 80)—when he realized he’d been faked out.

King was one of many liberal luminaries called in by the Democratic Party to get the MFDP to take their medicine. (Contrary to Harrington’s implication in his play, King knew better than LBJ what the sell-out felt like.) It was an ugly job but King didn’t dishonor himself. When he met the delegation he wouldn’t advise them to accept or reject the compromise: “Speaking as a black leader I want you to take this, but if I were a Mississippi Negro I’d vote against it.” Looking back, King’s candor looks pretty good. His honesty (and subtlety) then suggest why he became the Movement’s main man. Bob Moses, though, wasn’t moved by King’s negative capability. He followed King to the podium and (according to one witness quoted in Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire) “tore King up.” Moses insisted the MFDP wasn’t about bringing “politics to our morality”: “We’re here to bring morality to our politics.”

Moses didn’t re-up on his criticism of King when he was interviewed about the MFDP for the fine documentary Freedom on My Mind (1994). (Maybe King’s refusal to choose seemed less bad to Moses in retrospect? And/or Moses must’ve been aware his old plaint about the martyred King’s imperfect politics might seem righteous-to-a-fault.) But Moses still dammed LBJ’s—and the Democratic Party’s—betrayal of the MFDP. His rap is a sort of landmine for anyone locked on LBJ’s rehab:

You lost a group of young black people who were looking to…enter into real power-sharing. Then you also began to disillusion a generation of white people. [Moses is referring here to Freedom Summer vets who participated in organizing the MFDP.] The Democratic Party missed the chance to capture the energy and enthusiasm of the generation that set the tone for the 60s…What happened in 64 symbolized the situation we’re in now. The Party and the political leadership said: “Ok, there’s room for these kind of people.” And it was the professional people in our group who were asked to become—and did in fact become—part of the Democratic Party. But, on the other hand: “There is no room for these people—the grassroots people, the sharecroppers, the day workers.” There’s room for them as recipients of largesse—poverty programs and the like. But there’s no room for them as participants in power-sharing. A different scenario that could’ve worked its way out would have empowered the MFDP. There would have been struggle—vicious struggle. But not armed struggle. Once it got into armed struggle and riots. Then it got into polarization which we’re not out of yet.

Demotic voices in Freedom on My Mind back up Moses’ message from (and to) the grassroots. One of them recalls how he was finished with the Democratic Party after Atlantic City. Moses’s 1994 critique of the Party, though, seems slightly out of time in the Obama era.[4] “Grassroots people” have surely figured as more than “recipients of largesse” during Obama’s two presidential campaigns even if true power-sharing still seems a bridge too far. Obama’s rise has brought folks into the political process who had never before felt like citizens per all those reactionary Youtube videos mocking black voters as deviant takers. I'm reminded too just now of a respectful story from back in 2008 about an Obama devotee—and newly registered voter—who was a single mom supporting herself and her child by dancing in a strip club somewhere in the Dirty South. She would’ve identified with one of Freedom on My Mind’s most winning witnesses—the late Endesha Ida Mae Holland. Ms. Holland was one of her hometown’s bad girls back in the early 60s. When SNCC folks first arrived in Greenwood, Mississippi, she checked them out, hoping she might be able to turn a trick. But her meeting with Moses et al. was life-changing. She livingly evokes the example of the older women in SNCC’s orbit:

It was so beautiful to see people like Ms. Lulabelle Johnson or Mrs. McGhee. They’d be walking with pride. Their titties would be sticking out in front of them a whole long way. Mama would say “you could see they titties a block ‘fore you see them”…They’d be marching and I remember trying to walk with that heavy step that they used—looked like the earth would catch their feet and hold them.


Mrs. McGhee and her family deserve a movie of their own. (And so much more!) Her three sons became known for their defiance of the caste system in the wake of 1964 Civil Rights Act. They fought back against beatings, cuttings and shootings. One was shot in the head at close range—the 38 slug broke his jaw and went down his throat. His mother kept the bullet a black doctor took out of him (after white medical personnel had left him lying on a gurney). At a certain point, Mrs. McGhee was done with turning the other cheek. Civil rights worker/volunteer lawyer Bob Zellner has recalled how in 1964 Mrs. McGhee once knocked out a Southern cop who’d tried to keep her from joining a parley between a lawyer for one of her sons (who’d been jailed) and her town’s chief of police.[5] She was arrested but not charged after Zellner convinced the chief it would be embarrassing for the cops if the story got out:

It was, Zellner thought, a valuable lesson in race relations. “A new day is coming when a Black woman can just whip the yard dog shit out of a white cop and not have to account for it.”

But giddiness about the shape of things to come shouldn’t tempt anyone to forget Mrs. McGhee and her sons were outliers, even as their courage energized a generation of blacks coming of age in mid-60s Mississippi. What’s hardest to convey now about the strange career of Jim Crow is the pervasive sense of fear and shame that gripped black communities. Selma’s loud-as-bombs take on Southern terrorism can’t disguise a certain blankness about the dailiness of life down home. Holland and the other black elders who tell it like it was in Freedom on My Mind don’t double-shuffle around past humiliations.[6] The most penetrating white commentator in Freedom, Marshall Ganz, adds on to their blue notes. He recalls how his run-ins with Southern cops made him crazy. And then he goes deeper, allowing he wasn’t stuck in a state of “powerlessness and rage.” He was a volunteer who’d come down for Freedom Summer and could go home anytime; he had no way of knowing from within what it was like for his black comrades to live out life sentences in the segregated South.

Casey Hayden’s testimony here about her road trip to Mississippi in 1963 takes the measure of that distance too. She wasn’t in terror on her trip. She didn’t witness a lynching or beating. Nothing physically fearsome happened, yet her memory still speaks to an overriding sense of dread. She hides on the floor of the car to avoid being seen sitting next to black guys. But she can’t help being a vector of danger to black males. When she slips out to pee in the nasty colored-only toilet at a gas station—“I didn’t use white only facilities”—her gesture of solidarity results in her scaring the bejesus out of an elderly black man who reacts reflexively to the sight of a strange white woman coming toward him out of a bathroom.

Freedom’s and Hayden’s gritty, tiny details about Great Fear are truer than Selma’s “beautifully shot” re-enactments of brutality.[7] Oprah Winfrey’s presence early on signaled to this viewer the movie would get irreal. Though one reviewer for Vanity Fair (predictably?) celebrated her role as the “smartest bit of cameo-casting of the year”:

I like to think I suspend disbelief when I go to the movies, but as Annie Lee Cooper's head smacked against the ground my reaction was strong and fierce: “Oh My GOD they did NOT just do that to Oprah!! To fucking OPRAH?!?!?”

I came to Selma knowing the story of the march. In 10th grade we watched Eyes on the Prize and spent months writing essays on Civil Rights leaders. The image of Oprah in harm's way shook me out of my complacency. I was engaged with the movie before this scene; after it I was riveted. For viewers less educated about the actual events, I imagine the effect may be even greater.

It’s wack (and vain) to imply Selma’s celeb-mongering beats the conscientious approach to the past taken in films like Eyes on the Prize or Freedom on My Mind. It’s also spits on the spirit of the movement. Ms. Lulabelle Johnson and Mrs. McGhee weren’t in it for fifteen minutes. Their minds were stayed on freedom.

If Oprah’s opening cameo hints the movie owes more to celebrity than history, “Glory”—the original song by John Legend and Common featured at the end—seals it with an inauthentic kiss-off that's presentist and hoary. (Legend and Common’s lip-synched performance of “Glory” at the Grammys amounted to an auto-critique of their song’s shallow soul.)[8] “Glory’s” shout-outs to protestors in Ferguson call to mind a ghettoside response to another “black” movie aimed to go where streets were watching. Ice Cube once described how Spike Lee’s disappointing X killed Cube’s crew’s interest in the movie’s subject—and their faith in conscious rap—though it was the hip hop generation that had brought Malcolm X back into the cultural conversation in the late 80s: “People felt like we already knew struggle and the Malcolm X movie just peaked it. After that movie went the whole power movement in hip hop. Fucking went and fell off a cliff and people just went back to the gangsta shit.”

Brothers and sisters with their hands up now won’t fall into apathy if they see Selma. But the movie might well leave them with an unhelpful take-away. When Selma takes a pass on the complex relationship between local civil rights organizers and the federal government in the King years, it implicitly makes common cause with contemporary moralizers locked on a dim antimony between “protest” and “politics.”[9] Let’s hope those wannabe purists don’t keep community mobilizers from brainstorming about how to use feds. While local people’s priorities will only rarely match up perfectly with any president’s, fruitful alliances (or respectful disagreements) are possible. In the Obama era, organizers have a shot at playing an inside-outside game (especially when the president has told them “to shoot for the moon”). They shouldn’t blow off this opportunity or assume roots and feds are always at odds.


Selma wastes a useable past moment of concordance when it underplays King’s reaction to LBJ’s speech announcing the submission of 1965 Voting Rights Act to Congress. King never cried in public (according to John Lewis). (King may have aimed to save his emotion for his own public performances.) But when LBJ echoed the Movement’s catchphrase—“We shall overcome”—King broke down. White 60’s vets have been known to mock LBJ’s “ventriloquism.” (Bob Dylan, for example, is snooty about LBJ’s line in Chronicles.) But the testimony of James Bevel—one of the most creative Southern freedom-fighters—talks back to LBJ haters:

[I]f I was to rate the Civil Rights speeches of the '60s…I would give that speech the number one place…I think it's classical, in terms of rising above being a Southerner, being white, being anything…and just in that moment possessed by the spirit of being a man looking at America, looking at the Constitution, looking at the struggling people. And I think there was a genuine sense of love and respect that went from Johnson to all people. And I think it's very clear in that speech that it is not a political speech. It's more or less a sermon. And it was the same effect that I get when I hear good preaching. It's, you know, it's like this guy is really saying it and he's not playing, and because he is saying it and because he is not playing something is going to be done. And it was like that's the law. That the President is speaking...and people hear him and they know that he is right and they're going to address the problem. And it was like, yeah, well, that is solved…

Bevel’s own patriarchal biases—he’d go on to organize the Million Man March in the 90s—may partly explain his deep responsiveness to the TCB vibe in LBJ’s speech. But if anyone needs confirmation the Movement wasn’t a Man’s Man’s Man’s world, they might check Freedom On My Mind’s archival footage of a matriarch at the funeral of James Chaney—one of the three American civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Chaney's mother stands at a church pew, wearing a black veil. She was a beautiful woman. An obvious comparison to Jackie Kennedy in mourning comes to mine. But there’s something different about Fannie Chaney—she seems a woman beautiful not by the standards of human beings or history but by those of rivers, rain, nature. She’s cradling her younger son’s head against her hip as she stares ahead at the nothingness they had to look forward to. Her boy is crying but still trying to sing “We Shall Overcome” along with other mourners.[10]

It’s probably not fair to note there’s more emotion compacted in that thirty second flashback to the Chaney funeral than in all of Selma. But it seems just to note there’s a scene in another movie out now that makes grief sing. In Timbuktu—Abderrahmane Sissako’s film about everyday life under the recent Islamist occupation of that city—a woman is whipped for making music (which is haram along with playing soccer, going without socks or gloves, etc.) She begins to wail as the lashes keep coming. And her scream turns into a keen. It’s a desert spiritual. She shall overcome.

There are those on the left (and right) who resist the imperative to connect American civil rights struggles—including the latest post-Ferguson insurgency—with fights against Islamist fascists overseas. All politics is local and there are risks in rolling with a superficial globalized liberalism. But I don’t want any part of a left that ain’t trying to hear what contemporary Afro-American protestors have in common with that Malian sister-singer.


1 Selma addresses this aspect of King’s approach to raising “white consciousness.” There are teachable moments here, though scenes often slide from depicting history in the making into “timeless wisdom—and timeless wisdom is just platitudes.” To borrow a phrase from Adolph Reed’s prescient critique of Spike Lee’s X.

2 Hollywood product rarely cultivates a taste for democratic politicking. (That’s not entertainment.) Selma’s unresponsiveness to King’s fire-fighting calls to mind Marshall Ganz’s critique of last year’s biopic Chavez:

Cesar could be a brilliant strategist, a skill observable in agile and imaginative interaction with determined opponents, turning apparent weaknesses into sources of strength. But the film treats him largely as a creature of impulse, committed to be sure, but not the brainy strategist who took special joy, as he put it, in “killing two birds with one stone…and keeping the stone.”

3 Per David Garrow’s biography of King: “King was caught in a strange crossfire between movement workers seeking his assurance he hadn’t made a secret deal, and newsmen asking if he had not agreed to a turnaround so as not to breach the court order. It was extremely awkward.”

4 The president’s 2008 campaign was informed in part by the organizing tradition embodied by Moses and MFDP. Training sessions for campaign workers run by Marshall Ganz—a Freedom Summer Volunteer who went to Atlantic City with the MFDP (before moving on to work for years with Cesar Chavez)—helped shape the Obama “movement’s” attempt to bring morality to electoral politics. Ganz has since criticized Obama for acting more like a top-down executive than an organizer-in-chief. His criticism is serious. (I invite him to elaborate on it here in First!)

5 Zellner’s version of the fight as recounted in Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995) takes on an almost comic valence.

When Mrs. McGhee tried to go in a cop slammed the door and stood in front of it, telling her she couldn’t go in there…She says, ‘The hell I can’t. I come down to get my son, Jake.’ He says, ‘you can’t go in there.’ And she says, ‘Bopp!’ – hit him right in the eye as hard as I ever saw anyone hit…I remember it just like a movie…I remember his eye swelling up and I remember thinking to myself, ‘God I didn’t know you could see something swell up…’ And he was losing consciousness and, sliding down on the door. Meanwhile, Mrs. McGhee is following on the way down. She’s not missing a lick…boom boom boom.—and every time she hits him, his head hits the door. Meanwhile he’s reflexively reaching for his gun, but the man is practically knocked out. By the second or third time she hit him, they’re trying to get out from inside the office…Everytime the chief would try to open the door it would hit the man – whomp – in the head again.”

Charles Payne jumped (in I've Got the Light of Freedom) from the many tales of the McGhee family’s resistance to contest standard ways of measuring the Movement’s historical progress.

Legislation serves our need to render history understandable by giving us convenient benchmarks, and we may therefore be tempted to exaggerate its significance. The bill [The Civil Rights Act of 1964] itself though may be less important than the willingness of people like the McGhees to insist that it be enforced. That insistence, I would argue, is the crucial break with the past not the legislation itself. There is nothing about the record of the post-war Federal government, the Kennedy administration not excepted, to suggest that Washington was going to enforce any more Black rights than it had to enforce.

Payne’s reference to Kennedy, though, might be a tell. It wasn’t the Kennedy administration that got the Civil Rights Act passed. That was Johnson’s achievement. And pace Payne and Selma (and Moses?) it mattered LBJ’s administration was more committed to enforcing black rights than any previous one. (OTOH, ask anyone who grew up dodging punches in newly integrated Southern public schools during the 70s and they’ll teach you the civil war between blacks and whites didn’t end during the LBJ administration.)

6 By contrast, the only actor in Selma who seems up to bearing the burden of the past is the one who plays the father of (the murdered) Jimmie Lee Jackson.

7 The phrase is from Darryl Pinckney’s NYRB review of Selma.

8 Beyonce’s lip-synched “Lead Me On”—which she linked with Selma where it’s covered by another pop gospel singer pretending to be Mahalia Jackson—was another turn-off.

9 Darryl Pinckney was steered by Cornel West (No doubt!) to one Reverend Osagyefo Sekou—a pastor from Boston who’s spent a lot of time in Ferguson lately trying to “incarnate a theology of resistance of the historically othered.” Pinckney talked up Sekou’s notions of resistance in a NYRB report on his own recent trip to Ferguson:

To Sekou, it matters how we define political participation. “If it’s only the ballot box, then we’re finished.” He sees voting as “an insider strategy,” one without much relevance to a town like Ferguson where two thirds of the adult population have arrest warrants out against them. Things don’t come down to the vote, they come down to the level of harassment as people get ready to vote, he added. Sekou ventured that given the little black people have got for it, voting fits the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and each time expecting a different result.

There’s more to politics than the franchise, but it’s B.S. for this Westy fantast to disparage voting by black populations. (And NYRB should be shamed for providing a platform for his “liberatory” pieties.) There are plenty of towns in the St. Louis area (like Ferguson) where black majorities are at the mercy of local law enforcement regimes presided over by white elected officials. It would be…insane if organizers didn’t try to increase black turnout in local elections.

10 Ben Chaney would grow up to join the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army where he pursued armed struggle. He was convicted of killing a white Southerner in the early 70s. He ended up doing 13 years in prison. His life story takes you back to Bob Moses’ truth attack on LBJ and the Democratic Party, yet Ben Chaney’s pain probably shouldn’t be processed into anyone’s crisp narrative.

nation Benj DeMott 2015-02-12T15:28:22-05:00
The Eternal Engine The greatest virtue of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian action film, may be its oddity. At first the movie seems a straightforward sci-fi tale of rebellion against oppressive elites—in this incarnation: aboard a megatrain racing perpetually across the frozen world in the wake of a global warming mitigation experiment gone wrong. The passengers, rigidly divided by class, are the only humans left alive. It is, from one angle, a futurist action flick with the bad dialogue you’d expect. But per David Ehrlich’s review:

The worst of it is crammed into the deceptively dreadful opening act, during which [hero] Chris Evans says things like “control the engine, control the world” ... and “I’m not a leader,” even though he’s obviously a leader because they don’t give cheekbones like that to lackeys. And yet, there’s a bold and risky gambit at play here – while the film never explicitly calls attention to this idea, there’s good reason to believe that the first few chapters of the story are deliberately generic.

The film reveals itself as self-aware—and more than a genre exercise—with the arrival of the remarkably weird Tilda Swinton (Minister Mason, the train conductor’s spokeswoman). In her first appearance, Swinton orates in a thick Yorkshire accent over the cries of a man whose arm is being frozen solid for heaving a shoe at one of the conductor’s henchmen. Brandishing the weapon, she delivers the lines George W. Bush never did: “Passengers! This is not a shoe. This is disorder. This is size 10 chaos. This—see this? This is death.”

The engrossing images and dark humor—both at their apex when a chipper, propagandizing school teacher (Alison Pill) seamlessly becomes a machine-gun-wielding maniac—pull you forward with the revolutionaries to the front of the train, where, per Landon Palmer’s analysis:

Bucking the straightforward rise-of-the-proletariat classical Marxian critique that would place Snowpiercer comfortably among other dystopian sci-fi class narratives like Elysium or any antecedent of 1984, the film’s third-act reveal allows the train’s creator, Wilford (Ed Harris) to uncover that violent proletariat revolution is, in fact, a regular and essential part of the train’s carefully maintained ecosystem. Thus, underclass dissent is a device of the powerful, and resistance is something already inscribed to benefit existing hierarchies of power. The outcome of Curtis’ (Chris Evans) revolution was already written before it ever began.

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, follows a similar pattern as it takes in climate change, catastrophe, and resistance—albeit in a less formally impressive way than Snowpiercer.

Klein’s intro and opening chapters do what one might expect: e.g., She summarizes stunning projections of the catastrophic climate impact of business-as-usual; reveals the successful efforts of right-wing think tanks to sow climate change denial; indicts Obama’s “all-of-the-above energy” approach; decries the unfettered free market as a planet-and-people destroyer. As I sat listening to the audiobook on a bus from New York to DC, Klein’s earnest calls for change had to compete for my attention with the flashy luxury and sex scenes of The Wolf of Wall Street, which was in plain view on the laptop of the guy sitting across the aisle from me. For audio, instead of Jordan Belfort’s (DiCaprio’s) cunning pitches to investors, I heard the melodramatic reader (given to cringe-worthy accent imitations) deliver prescriptions like:

As hundreds of millions gain access to modern energy for the first time, those who are consuming far more energy than they need would have to consume less. How much less? Climate change deniers like to claim that environmentalists want to return us to the Stone Age. The truth is that if we want to live within ecological limits, we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980s.

Juxtaposed against yesteryear Wall Street’s irresistibly squalid splendor, the calls to behave well seemed about as feckless as a substitute teacher’s vain attempts to tame a raucous class that just wants to have fun.

Klein does better when she turns her eye to the Big Greens next door. After she exposes The Nature Conservancy as an oil driller (on its endangered bird refuge on Galveston Bay, Texas), she describes the evolution of U.S. environmental groups of the 70s (legislatively victorious many times over between 1963 and 1980) from “a rabble of hippies” to “a movement of lawyers, lobbyists, and U.N. summit hoppers.” “Many of these newly professional environmentalists,” she notes, “came to pride themselves on being the ultimate insiders, able to wheel and deal across the political spectrum.” Then came Reagan, who “filled his inner circle with pro-industry scientists who denied the reality of every environmental ill from acid rain to climate change.” And, despite the concurrent rise of the environmental justice movement, Klein points out:

In the 1980s, extreme free market ideology became the discourse of power, the language that elites were speaking to one another…. That meant that for the mainstream green movement, confronting the antigovernment logic of market triumphalism head-on would have meant exiling themselves to the margins. And many of the big-budget green groups—having grown comfortable with their access to power and generous support from large, elite foundations—were unwilling to do that.

The Environmental Defense Fund, in particular, underwent a remarkable transformation. Their motto had been “sue the bastards.” But this “once combative organization that had spent its early years translating Rachel Carson’s ideas into action” morphed into a partner of Walmart (a collaboration accompanied by the Waltons’ $65 million in donations to the Fund between 2009 and 2013) and proponent of a “pro-corporate … low-friction model of social change in which everything had to be a ‘win-win.’”

Klein’s earnest muckraking notwithstanding, one wonders whether her call to action can mobilize the people against the power of the titanic fossil fuel industry and the governments that seem to be at their mercy. At a panel discussion the night before the People’s Climate March (a misnomer: the march was more of a Sunday stroll than a threat to the status quo; organizers helped ensure that the line of marchers halted periodically on 6th Avenue to let traffic through), Klein’s remarks on free trade’s obstruction of climate action came off as bland next to Chris Hedges’ excoriation of the Democratic Party in general and the President[1] in particular:

By the time [Bill] Clinton was finished, the rhetoric of self-professed liberals in the political establishment was nothing more than a public relations game. And that is why there has been complete continuity from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. …

Obama, in return for financial support from the Kingpins of Carbon, has, in fact, cynically undermined international climate treaties (we know this because of the leaks by Snowden and Wikileaks). It’s used the intelligence agencies to spy on those carrying out climate negotiations, to thwart caps on carbon emissions and push through useless, non-binding agreements.

Panelist Kshama Sawant wasn't going to take that sitting down. She explained to the crowd (in a display of charismatic humility): “If you don’t mind, I’m going to stand. Whenever I’m thinking about politics I get really passionate and it’s hard for me to sit down.” And suddenly she was stealing the show with a conviction that made her venerable co-panelists (including Bill McKibben and Bernie Sanders, sitting on either side of her) seem like simple bystanders:

Take Exxon Mobil, … which spends millions promoting its green credentials. Yet in a recent letter, they assured their shareholders they will sell all of the oil and gas they have found, and all that they will find in the foreseeable future. This is the reality of international capitalism. This is the product of the gigantic casino of speculation created by those highway robbers on Wall Street and the rapacious oil vultures. In this system, the market is God, and everything is sacrificed on the altar of profit.

In This Changes Everything, Klein’s praise for myriad legal and extra-legal efforts to counter the fossil fuel industry—from the “re-municipalization” of Hamburg’s energy grid to the Ogoni people’s banishment of Shell from their territory in the Niger Delta—makes it clear that she’s in the camp of Hedges, Sawant, and others advocating strong action. Her litany of examples of environmental devastation and subjugation of the poor (the account of the wholesale destruction of Nauru—formerly “Pleasant Island”—is especially moving), frames climate change as one (major) result of unfettered global capitalism. Which means that for her, “any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews,” and “winning will certainly take the convergence of diverse constituencies on a scale previously unknown.” One imagines a coalition of everyone but the “one percent” encircling the U.S. Capitol until legislators decide to pass sweeping campaign finance reform.

In her final call to arms—which, she makes clear, is not an actual call to arms—Klein writes: “It is slowly dawning on a great many of us that no one is going to step in and fix this crisis; that if change is to take place it will only be because leadership bubbled up from below.” She refers to the Arab Spring, Europe’s “squares movement,” Occupy Wall Street, and the student movements in Chile and Quebec as “upwellings” that came as a surprise, especially to those most active in these movements. “No one knows when the next such effervescent moment will open, or whether it will be precipitated by an economic crisis, another natural disaster, or some kind of political scandal.”

Such a moment will inevitably arrive, but to reach the level of mass mobilization required to change the economic status quo—the point at which activism “becomes an entirely normal activity throughout society”—it seems a great many of us will first need to confront… Wilford.

At the end of Snowpiercer, after he has fought his way to the front of the train, Curtis is shocked to hear from overlord Wilford that his own mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) was in on the grand-planned scam-revolution, and that he himself has been groomed to be the next conductor-king. The train must go on, Wilford explains. Life depends on it. However harsh the disparity aboard may seem, “everyone has their preordained position.”

Curtis is reeling. After 18 years of dreaming of unseating Wilford, he suddenly finds himself entranced by the beauty of the (inexplicably) “eternal engine.” For a moment, it seems that Curtis will accept the invitation to take Wilford’s place.

His quandary evokes the reality of hegemony that Klein never quite captures. The enchantments of the ruthless insiders rely not just on “might makes right” but also on the alluring idea that those at the top were always supposed to be there.

For Curtis, breaking this spell requires a second perspective on the system, not from the meta level but a cog’s-eye view. Just after Wilford seems to have won him over, Curtis’s comrade Yona (Ah-sung Ko) discovers that Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis), a boy who was disappeared near the beginning of the film, has been placed in the gears of the train as a substitute for a missing component. Wilford explains: “The engine lasts forever, but not so all of its parts. That piece of equipment went extinct recently. We needed a replacement. Thank goodness the tail section manufactures a steady supply of kids.”

Curtis snaps out of his hegemania. He knocks out Wilford, pulls Timmy out of the engine, and hands a match to Yona so she can light a bomb to blow a hole in the side of the train as a means of escape. The blast causes an avalanche outside, which spectacularly derails the train, killing perhaps everyone but Yona and Timmy. They emerge from the wreckage to discover a polar bear in the distance, meaning that life outside the train is possible.

The beauty of Bong’s final sequence—and again, the oddity for an action movie—is that Curtis’s choice to stop the train and hand over the match seems at once undeniable and debatable. Once Curtis witnesses Timmy, enslaved in the engine, his only option is to rescue him, come what may. On the other hand, stopping the train—not to mention blowing a hole in the side of it—puts the lives of everyone aboard at risk, given that the world outside has been frozen for so long, and for so long the passengers have believed that the train is their only protection. While it’s dangerous to take this dichotomy as representative of our real-world options—massive destruction and freedom from an oppressive system or business as usual—Curtis’s calculus is instructive for those who would mobilize: if you ever start to wonder whether the system is all that bad after all, consider the fate of the cog.

Snowpiercer seems to be saying it’s a myth that “there is no alternative.” You can survive without the machine. Shut it down; take it from there. And Bong’s honest glimpse at the dark allure of a dog-eat-dog system makes the ultimate act of rebellion seem even bolder and wiser.


1 Obama’s November climate deal with China was largely hailed as a breakthrough. But as Paul Krugman apologized in his praise of the deal: “I know, I know. The language is a little vague, and the target levels of emissions are much higher than environmental experts want. Indeed, even if the deal were to work exactly as stated, the planet would experience a highly damaging rise in temperatures.”

culturewatch P.J. Podesta 2015-01-29T11:51:09-05:00
A Woman of No Rank Thanks for the inquiry about the movie Selma. I used to avoid all media about the movement. The stuff never rang true. Then I realized these treatments were just takes on an imagined past; they're not about my reality.

I saw the movie yesterday. My favorite part was the old black and white film, in which the funk and poverty appeared, a burst of truth inside the Hollywood gloss. I loved the experience of the movie, wept copiously. I have lots of gossipy comments: casting, script, accuracy. Too mundane.

Perhaps Daniel Berrigan will do:

These many beautiful days cannot be lived again

but they are compounded in my own flesh and spirit.

and I take them in full measure toward whatever lies ahead.


For me, however, the grace found in the past was sometimes more gritty:

white girl

people ask me about the Selma movie
because i was in the south around that time,
was it really like that?

i’m trying to remember

i remember riding hidden on the floor of a car from Atlanta
over to the first annual greenwood mississippi freedom folk festival
summer of 63

a filthy single bathroom in the back of a gas station
way out in the boonies of Alabama:
i didn’t use white only facilities

as I came out an old black man was coming in
as soon as he saw me he turned and ran
he couldn’t run very fast because he was so old

i remember a fragment of
ronnie dugger’s poem in college day austin:
.....and we will weaken
.....and regret
.....and pray the sound arrest the form
.....and we will not be pure

I was undone, so sorry to have caused that man’s fear. I understood as never before or after what a danger I was to all blacks in the movement, especially the men, and what largesse and courage it took to include me in their movement.

I had lunch a few weeks ago with Sue Moon. Freedom Summer volunteer. She wrote the book Tofu Roshi. She's in Everyday Zen Sangha out in CA, and used to edit Turning Wheel, the journal of engaged buddhism. I used to send her poems for it. She has a new book out, The Hidden Lamp. It's 100 stories of women's enlightenment with comments by American women buddhist teachers, mostly zen, with turning questions by the editors of the book at the end of each, as in turning the wheel of dharma. I opened at random to a story called “Yu Uses Her Full Strength,” referring to Yu’s answer to the master’s asking “Which of you is the person of no rank?" The questions after the commentary on the story read: "What happens when we deeply see something and are thereby taken beyond the cultural norms and expectations of others? Where do we stand then?"


nation Casey Hayden 2015-01-29T11:01:40-05:00
Fattening Frogs for Snakes When last we spoke...

One squireen was eulogizing yet another one [[]. The still living one, Perry Anderson, found hope in the existence of a newish magazine, Jacobin. It’s been said before: hope that is seen is not hope.

So: to the moment. Jacobin wasted no time posting a comment on this week’s killings in Paris, on the first round, anyway. ‘On Charlie Hebdo’ was written by a Richard Seymour, a regular Jacobin contributor, here reprinted from his blog, which is nothing less than Lenin’s Tomb. Mr. Seymour is further identified as the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder; and according to, he is also the author of a book-long posthumous excoriation of Christopher Hitchens.

Here’s the opening sentence:

Many journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been murdered by bampots brandishing what appear to be machine guns at close range.

And yet, Mr. Seymour seems to make a living with his pen. That ‘at close range’ is intriguing. The point, you’d guess, is that these people were shot at close range, an evocative detail. If only he’d said that. Instead the operative verb is—what? Murdered? Too distant, and murdered at ‘close range’ is hardly idiomatic English.

Brandishing? If someone holds a gun a couple of inches—‘at close range’—from someone else, it’s a significant detail—until the trigger is pulled, at which point the ‘brandishing’ loses its significance. Do we even know that these weapons were brandished at ‘close range.’ The trouble in Paris was not that somebody displayed a weapon. Somebody used it. Appear? They are machine guns, and Richard Seymour, for one, has not seen them ‘at close range.’

Two further points to be noted in this sentence. First, people have been ‘murdered.’ Murdered is a word to be avoided in serious political writing. The killing you don’t like is murder. If a given killing is particularly odious, you must show it to be so. The thesaurus is not your argument, and not your friend. Mr. Seymour, of course, is not alone in this slovenliness. But then, a Richard Seymour is never alone.

Second, ‘bampots,’ or as we might say here, headcases.

It might be comforting to view the Kouachi brothers as nuts—the lone nut tag is unavailable—but they are entirely rational actors. ‘We have avenged the Prophet’ (a reference to the legendary Arabian military commander, Muhammad). If, as many believe, and as many others, innocent of even the slightest Muhammadan beliefs, publicly profess, the ‘Prophet’ must not be insulted—in fact, even a flattering picture may be deemed a mortal offense—consequences can be expected. That they will be deadly should also be expected. Charlie Hebdo is being described as ‘satirical.’ Let’s consider the career of Nadr bin al-Harith. He, in his day, was a satirical poet, who singled out Muhammad as a comic target. Muhammad predicted an eternity of hellfire, whenever Nadr should die. Muhammad’s power grew. Nadr’s head was cut off. Satire closes on Saturday night, only if it makes it past Friday prayers. Anjem Choudary, a Muhammadan cleric in London, published a comment on the Paris events in USA Today. He said that, of course, those who insult ‘the prophets’ must be punished. He would, as you’d expect, be much less solicitous of say, Mousa/Moses or Isa/Jesus. But then, nothing prevents a true believer from being a liar. If he’s right, if, I repeat, Charlie Hebdo’s staff are in hell right now, as, in the blink of an eye, I will be, and Richard Seymour, too. We’re talking about different things. That’s all.

Howard Dean provides a useful contrast. ‘They [the Kouachi btothers]’re about as Muslim as I am.’ The no-true-Scotsman formulation is best avoided, even more so if you are not yourself a Scotsman. He also called the Islamic State a ‘cult’—one that rules an area larger than Vermont. Not a Muslim cult, he said, just a 'cult.’ it’s worse than we thought: an army of true believers, and they don’t beleve in anything! He added that none of this is to be found in the Qur’ān. A reminder: in 2004, Howard Dean told the press that his favorite book in the New Testament was Job. Is this (or Richard Seymour) who you’d send to teach the path of reason to those on the jihadi path.

True, Mr. Seymour’s article was written in great haste. True, too, that it were better never written.

Here’s the rest of the first paragraph:

It is too soon to have a complete, coherent political narrative of these killings. All one can have at this point are the correct but platitudinous points about there being no justification for this, that all attacks on journalists are abhorrent, that freedom of speech must be defended to the last drop of blood, and so on. If you really need that sermon, you’re in the wrong place.

After 9/11, Noam Chomsky published a comment. He opened with a throat-clearing acknowledgement of the event, perfunctory to the point of comedy, before making clear that at Chomsky Inc, it’s business as usual. Some people claimed that Chomsky was—go figure!—wanting in sympathy, in fact, a little cold. Compared to Richard Seymour, though, Chomsky is Johnnie Ray.

A few points about the paragraph:

‘All attacks on journalists are abhorrent.’ A piety. For his journalism, Julius Streicher was hanged at Nuremberg. If the radio stations in Rwanda that co-ordinated the genocide there, had been attacked—and announcers killed—where would the moral quandary be?

‘and so on’: too good!

‘you’re in the wrong place’: y’know...

But above all, ‘freedom of speech must be defended to the last drop of blood.’ For sure, that last drop won’t be his. But the question of freedom of speech shouldn’t be hurried. It can be viewed as an ideal, something to be aspired to, regardless of actual conditions at any time, in any place. It can also be regarded as a constituent element of an existing regimen, something that armed power has produced and maintains.

Freedom of speech is a value. But is it a Western value or a universal value? The Western/universal debate is hot these days, and implicates more issues than free speech. The veiling of Muhammadan women has inspired a lot of talk. Should a woman be forced to wear a burqa? Well, some ensconced here in the West will point out that women here are ‘expected’ to wear makeup in public, so same difference. Well: the religious police in Manhattan will not beat a woman for not wearing blush. What’s really wrong with the sort of dummy critique that defends the imposition of the burqa is that it is made by the sort of people who are not themselves subject to that imposition. Let others suffer, so long as I can preen. Or consider the ‘issue’ of clitoridectomy. There are some, safe here at home, who defend the practice, as authentic, and a bulwark against ‘cultural imperialism.’ But over there, those who are cut don’t have much say; over here, those who understand so virtuosically are at zero risk of suffering the procedure themselves.[1]

The debate—Western or universal?—is a little pointless. Any putatively universal value will be, by definition, also a Western value. Is it therefore only a Western value? Even the blandest ‘Western’ value can not be expected to command universal assent even from the least heterogeneous Western population. No universal value, then is possible.

Universal-enough values, though, are possible. Slavery and piracy are certainly not universally reprehended. Something loves the whip. But universally enough they are. And so, it became possible for armies and navies to scour the earth, exterminating every slaver and pirate they could lay hands on.

Freedom of speech, as an ideal, is pretty amorphous. Americans commenting on Charlie Hebdo have thoughtlessly referred to the First Amendment. American law is not binding on the Kouachis nor on French officials. What may be said in ‘the West’ varies from country to country. Libel judgments can be had in English courts that would be nowhere available in America. Promulgation of Holocaust denial is a felony in Austria, as David Irving learned. Freedom of speech acquires clear definition only as it is enforced. You are free to say what you will insist on saying. A state can be expected to use force to protect its citizens from those who seek to impose a narrower free-speech regimen. Popular resistance can claim greater free-speech rights from a state. Free speech is better understood, not as something separate and immune from power, but as a function of power. The question is not what you may say, but what you can. Adorno noted how much aggression is inherent in freedom. Free speech is not innocent. It had better not be.

Mr. Seymour goes on:

The assumption is that the killers are members of some sort of Islamist group, possibly linked to Islamic State, and are exacting political retribution for the publication’s regular satirical attacks on Islam by executing its journalists. And about that, I do have something beyond the obvious to say, just as a starting point.

What ‘that’ is—Mr. Seymour, remember, is a writer of books for a living—is hopelessly opaque (and we’re better off not bothering to ask). Now, there has been general agreement on both the identity and the motivations of the killers in Paris. About that—something or other in there—he’s got something ‘beyond the obvious’ to tell us. And about ‘that,’ he tells nothing, going on to talk about anything else.

He goes on to attack M. Hollande for using the word ‘terrorist.’ The word, he sniffs, is not ‘scientific’—a fetishized word choice; and as if anybody had called it scientific—but ‘normative’—whatever that might mean. It is true that the word terrorist should be avoided. It’s often been observed, though too often to weasely ends, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Better to offer this definition: a terrorist is an armed man you don’t like. The word gets tossed around promiscuously, applied even where no violence at all is involved. So, point 2 of the definition: anyone you don’t like. Mr. Seymour has one simple objection: it makes Muhammadans look bad.

And now, at long last, ‘On Charlie Hebdo’ turns to Charlie Hebdo. Mr. Seymour summarizes it as ‘what is frankly a racist publication.’ (Whether the frankness is Mr. Seymour’s or Charlie Hebdo’s our author leaves us free to guess):

I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that—irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes—the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.

Richard Seymour, the very model of an anti-racist, has here said what he came to say: Those dead guys? Racists! ‘I will not waste time arguing.’ True to his word, he offers zero argument. (The waste of time is a separate issue.) He ‘simply take[s] it as read’—pompous prick. The representation of Islam is racist, he says. It is wearying to have to go over this again. Muhammadanism is a religion. It is a body of doctrines. One may have negative opinions, even vilely negative ones, about it—or about any religion—without ethnicity coming into issue. Clearly, one could be anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. The distinction is possible. It is noteworthy that in this impassioned declaration of ‘anti-racist’ purity the words Muslim and Islam ring over and over. Such words as Arab, African, black, non-white, non-European do not appear even once. Think of a few real -world examples. Mockery of the ‘prophet’ Joseph Smith is not a racist assault on blondes. In Sudan, Muhammadan Arabs have waged genocidal war against non-Muhammadans, and they have done so in the name of Islam. They have also waged genocidal war against Muhammadans who were not Arabs. In the Levant, minorities have been largely eliminated. The Islamic State has attempted, mostly successfully, to cleanse the world of Yazidis. That they are a distinct ethnic group is incidental. Their offense is a theological one. Christians in the Levant (as in Egypt) are for the most part the remnants of the indigenous population from before the Arab conquest. They, too, have been targeted for their religion, not their ethnicity.[2]

To buttress his non-argument, Mr. Seymour offers a non-bibliography: ‘you do your research.’ He cites Edward Said’s Orientalism, notorious junk, and ‘some [unspecified] basic introductory texts [They would be ‘texts,’ wouldn’t they?] on Islamophobia.’

Ah, Islamophobia. An ailurophobe sees a cat and has a panic attack. A quick trip to the ER, the administration of an anti-anxiety med and we’re good to go. If there is somewhere in the world someone who reacts similarly to, say, the sight of a crescent: same prescription. A negative opinion, however justified, of a religion is not a phobia. The ailurophobe is sick, pathological, incapacitated. None of these words would apply to Charlie Hebdo. If a phobia is an irrational fear, Charlie Hebdo was not in the least irrational, and ‘fear’ is hardly a word one would associate with them (just as ‘courage’ is not a word one would associate with Richard Seymour). The term Islamophobia is the medicalization of an ideological disagreement. It has all the intellectual integrity of Soviet psychiatry.

And then, he allows,

come back to the conversation.

What conversation? With him?

He next offers ‘a detour.’ And why not? He wasn’t going anywhere anyway. Here, he harks back to 1988, when three members of the Provisional IRA were shot dead on Gibraltar.

The three Provos were unarmed when they were killed, just as he says. But they had gone to Gibraltar to bomb the military facility there. The pre-Gerry Adams Provos talked in a way that has grown unfamiliar. They shot at the English military; the English military shot at them. They laid ambushes for the enemy; the enemy laid ambushes for them. What they complained of was the official stance that there were no belligerents involved. There were only civil disturbances, with the forces of order on one side, and common criminals—murderers, in fact—on the other. If the army had a shoot-to-kill policy (see the Stalker affair), if it conducted military operations as military operations, this was a war. The prison protests and the hunger strikes turned entirely on the question of belligerent status. Amnesty International, he says, was mightily displeased. But so what? Amnesty's original remit was the defense of prisoners of conscience. Those who took up arms against a state would have to find other champions. By turning into an all-purpose shop, it lost a great deal of credibility. And so what? The point of resorting to arms is to overcome the opposing military force, not to look like the poor put-upon bastard in the piece. Seymour invokes the Tories. But Labour was in power in 1969, and through much of the '70's. The IRA was at war with the English state, irrespective of temporary party majority, or of Richard Seymour's preferences. Thatcher threw the word murder at the IRA. She did that often. The word was indispensable to Baroness Thatcher—and to Mr. Seymour, her rhetorical Mini-Me.

Is the detour over? Sure, but let’s take a moment to remember that for many years to use the word ‘terrorist’ in the UK almost invariably referred to the Republican guerrilla. So much for Mr. Seymour’s terrorist-is-code-for-Muslim claim.

Next, he invokes ‘You’re with us or against us’ and the War on Terror. When George W. Bush talked with us or against us—fourteen years ago—it was a piece of—uncharacteristic—bluster. Look at the reality. It was never part of American foreign policy—how would it be?—to deny other nations a right to neutrality or to remain uninvolved. Even The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic, which spent years actively co-operating with forces killing Americans, suffered no adverse consequences.[3] The War on Terror was a clumsy usage, designed precisely as a sop to Muhammadan sensibilities. It was, in other words, the very opposite of Mr. Seymour’s portrayal. And the phrase hasn’t been used for six years. He has not gone rummaging through the storehouse of remaindered political slogans for anything real. Mr. Seymour knows his red meat, and he knows his dogs.

The penultimate paragraph: He says sternly that there will be no ‘decent interval’ [scare-quotes in the original]. Right: his article was contemporaneous with the autopsies. He then warns of the anti-Muslim backlash, or rather, the scale of the backlash. It’s coming, coming for sure, but when, but it's coming. And when it does... Richard Seymour will be there, tall on the wall, prepared to...and the paragraph is rounded out thus:

it is essential to get this right.

Not ‘important,’ not ‘think this through,’ not ‘not be over-hasty.’ It is essential to get this right. From Mr. Seymour’s pr page at Wikipedia:

Seymour was born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland to a Protestant family.

Why am I not surprised?

And his grand ending:

we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.

That backlash has been upgraded to inevitable. The Muhammadan population of France is large, and growing, with immigration from Muhammadan-majority countries continuing steadily. France’s Jewish population is declining, and the pace of that decline seems likely to pick up. But take it from Mr. Seymour: Muslims are under siege. The tally so far: four dead Jews in Paris, 2,000 dead in Baga, Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram, and in Iraq, and in Syria...’Fetishized’: lay Freud and academic Marxism, all smooshed up; ‘racialized’: that thing that needs no proof; “‘secularism’”: look at Charlie Hebdo, if you can find it, and judge for yourself how justified the scare-quotes are; ‘blackmail’: it’s very brave, how Mr. Seymour stands up to it. No solidarity with a racist institution. Of course not. But can’t he go further? Les damnés have struck a blow against their tormentors. Twelve racists, by Mr. Seymour’s lights—and they are very bright—have been struck from the list. Even better, a racist institution has been, for now, forcibly closed. Just rejoice.

Richard Seymour is anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-Zionist, very productive. He is a thoroughly illusioned bourgeois. A ‘leninologist,’ he dwells in Lenin’s Tomb (only virtually, alas). In this world, an Ulyanov without the Abwehr, without the Left Mensheviks, without the Cheka, is—nothing, is—Richard Seymour.


When Robespierre was led up the scaffold, his jaw had to be held in place with a length of cloth. After, none wept for him.

Jan. 11, 2015


1 A video from Iran has turned up on YouTube showing people dancing to a song by Pharrrell Williams. I find it appealing, but the government there took a dimmer view, and there were arrests. There are quite a few people over here who would be happy to justify that government, or at least insist that it mustn’t be criticized too strenuously. Foucault’s commentary on the ‘Monotheist Revolution,’ an older malignancy at rut with a newer one, provides one template.

2 Gabriel gave the uncreated word of God to an illiterate Seal of the Prophets, and—There’s a lot to be believed. You will believe it or you will not. Mr. Seymour, whose Christian name memorializes Richard I, England’s great Crusader king, fabled slayer of Saracens, singled out for abuse, incidentally, by Edward Said, believes none of it. Saying so would be insufficiently opportunistic.

3 The illustration for the Jacobin article is a photo of a Front National rally. The FN, which defeated every other party in France in the latest elections to the European Parliament, was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Charlie Hebdo and was barred from taking part in today’s march. The inclusion of the photo is, very simply, a lie. Whether the author or the editors came up with it, and which acquiesced are not very consequential questions. A better question: do the editors of Jacobin seriously believe that they are preferable, at all, to Marine LePen?

"war on terror" Charles O'Brien 2015-01-12T14:03:22-05:00
Who Is Charlie? I’m going to begin with an olive branch: not all of Sunday’s “Unity March” in Paris was a proto-fascist omen (Marine Le Pen and her National Front goons were, after all, cheerleading and hurling scatological slogans from the sidelines, which is a lot like when coaches of certain national soccer teams keep their divas or sexual predators off the field in spite of their universally acknowledged talent). Nor was all of it an insidious spectacle of war criminals and their lackeys attending to a rite of imperial violence, though it certainly was that (were Hitchens alive he at least would have spared an atavistic guffaw for the particularly unpleasant specimens of repressive state apparatuses: today’s liberal “laptop bombardiers” don’t even bother anymore with the old routine of “I can say bomb the shit out of the Middle East because I once said Kissinger shouldn’t have bombed the shit out of Southeast Asia,” as if the denunciation of one genocide comes with a “support another genocide free” card). A lot of it was just a risible recapitulation of the banality, the pathetic prostration, and the toxic consensus politics of the Stewart-Colbert “Rally for Sanity,” at which, with the country on the verge of a right-wing coup, the majority of the liberal class stood up jingoistically for the right to smoke pot, say that gays aren’t so bad, adulate the agitprop of shitty American culture, and beg for the restoration of reasonable white dude power, which, last year, sunk to a new low when its latest plenipotentiaries became the irrepressible hack James Franco and his flabby sidekick, Seth Rogen. Then as now we heard about the lurking dangers of yellow peril or Islamist intolerance, an innate disposition on the part of our enemies (the non-Charlies, or the inexplicably humorless North Koreans) not only to lapse into savage pique at so-called satire—that Voltairean product of the Enlightenment—but to spread epidemiologically, while a demoralized or feckless western populace submits to its own racial and cultural destruction. In France, this obsession with “humor” as a talisman for a quasi-biological western capacity for free society is tinged with a rank sexual nuance, exemplified in the overwhelming popularity of the novels of Michel Houellebecq. Thus all the outrage over those well-circulated photographs of terrorist femme fatale Hayat Boumeddiene in a bikini, posing sweetly with her black husband, and later in a burka, the inevitable racial metamorphosis proof of the specter of Islamic duality: a habitual oriental sexual license/tendency towards miscegenation that inevitably leads us into sharia totalitarianism. This may seem contradictory for certain liberal empiricists who demand “consistency” in all things, but it’s the classic schizophrenic discourse of all fascism, racism, and xenophobia: we are obedient to the law (while secretly not wanting to obey the law), while they have access to an unfettered jouissance, therefore we have to defend our law in an orgiastic release of violence in order to fight off their law, the bad law which prevents us from enjoying ourselves like they do. This dynamic can be found particularly in the neoliberal racism of the old or reformed European left, particularly the French left: it is the insubordinate swarthy masses of the banlieues who took away the republican golden age, they tell us. In this sense, the installation of Manuel Valls as Prime Minister last year was prophetic. He was brought in to entrench the ongoing austerity program of Hollande’s government (and bury the unregenerate left-wing of the Socialist Party), a program he justifies with a kind of Blarist ideology of expansionist military projects abroad and anti-immigrant “realism” at home. Valls has been the most hawkish politician in recent days, claiming, as Bush never did, perhaps out of a lingering decency if not in the man then in the times, that France is at war with radical Islam.

Speaking of Le Pen, it wouldn’t be too much to say that she acts as the repressed id of the new consensus in the same way that Hitler acted as the repressed id of the panicky Prussian Junker class in the 1920s until the eve of Hitler’s chancellorship. In fact, like many good fascists who sense they have the upper hand, it is Le Pen who today is sounding more reasonable (if you only listen to the tone and to the buzzing of her words), speaking of “solidarity” and “indecent polemic.” Meanwhile the left, both in the United States and in Europe, calls for blood.

Anyway, Le Pen’s absence on Sunday was more than made up for by a gallery of infamy that includes Mahmoud Abbas (with Gaza still in ruins), Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu (henchman of a government seemingly intent on annihilating a free press along with every other trace of civil society), and of course the literally shameless Netanyahu, whose presence should make all these newfangled leftist Charlies blush, but of course won’t, because—I hate to say it—white journalist lives matter (what, after all, provided the casus belli for Obama’s new adventure in Iraq and Syria but the murder of James Foley and Steven Sotloff?).

The bad faith of these leftists is astounding, sickening. They want to know how much they should be expected to “tolerate.” Is their paper solidarity (a word that has been covered in shit this past week) making them look bad in front of their more apolitical friends? Wasn’t it enough that they stood up for the Mexicans, the good disenfranchised, clamoring to become citizens, while these banlieues kids supposedly reject everything to do with French citizenship, which, it should be said, might not be worth saving, like all citizenship (I’m writing this from the battlefields of southern Chile, where everyday Mapuche Indians are fighting for their physical and cultural survival against what is essentially the same republicanizing project). Must they really be forced to look at a woman in a burka, that noxious vestige of difference that stands between them and their empty, homogenizing “solidarity?” If the genocidal legacy of the Bush wars that they once supported (and I’m not trying to be recriminatory here about the past, I’m talking about the present) turned out to saddle them with guilt and ignominy, can’t they at least have this bellicose outburst of moral clarity as a consolation prize?

But for better or worse these leftists have made their choice. They want to be Charlie, they want to be republicans, they want to be citizens. Perhaps it’s too much to expect them to come around to the utopian (or simply non-dystopian) demand of the Zapatistas for un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos (one world in which many worlds fit). That is the only world worth fighting for, obviously, or at least it’s obvious to me. But for that world to come into being, certain other worlds (single worlds, totalitarian worlds) need to disappear. Or rather, the world that exists needs to disappear, because despite the best efforts of Empire’s ideologues, there never has been and never will be a clash of civilizations. Salafi nihilism is not even the flipside of imperialism, it’s just further along the Mobius Strip of imperialism. The atrocious loss of life in Paris last week was the product of the very same processes, the very same corrupt order, that produces atrocious loss of life everywhere. That’s the trauma that needs to be addressed, not the superficial trauma of a wounded West. But to address that trauma, like all traumas, we need to give up our hypnotizing neuroses, our worthless narcissism, our infantile rage. I’m not optimistic, but I should be. The quoted-into-triteness dictum of Gramsci was wrong. In the face of an ongoing intellectual suicide, we need to cultivate not only optimism of the will, but optimism of the intellect, too.

"war on terror" David Golding 2015-01-11T21:31:10-05:00
The Four Lions, or: The Party Puffins of Allah The following piece appeared here first after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. We're re-posting it since the author's thoughts on satire and terror are on point now.

The Four Lions is a 2010 film comedy about a matey bunch of Islamist suicide bombers, all but one first or second generation South Asians from some place like Bradford or Leeds. They are convincingly played by actors who look as if they’re having great fun making each one of their characters ever more worthy of the excoriating ridicule coming their way from British director Chris Morris’ brilliant script. Fortunately for the actors, the ridicule on offer, although at times towering, is not of the sort that obliterates the humanity of its targets. Far from being interchangeable Hollywood terrorists, these Yorkshire jihadists are each highly individualized and not infrequently likable. They’re goofy, they’re ludicrous, they solemnly swallow the sim cards on their cell phones, they pretend to be musicians (one of them is, sort of) they posture for blooper filled martyrdom videos and have long convoluted arguments about how to do the most damage possible to “this bullshit, consumerist, Godless, Paki-bashing, Gordon Ramsay ‘taste the difference’ specialty cheddar, torture endorsing, massacre sponsoring, look at me dancing, pissing me about, who-gives-a-fuck-about-dead-Afghanis Disneyland!”

Of course in the in the end they show themselves to be, like so many enlistees in violent jihad, pathetic, deluded, and lethal losers. Their inept antics are comic, up to and including the ghastly way each hoists himself on his own petard, disappearing in clouds of ash and shreds of clothing during the London Marathon, taking with them their quota of innocent bystanders, including the stunned patrons of a kebab shop.

Because, yes, the London Marathon becomes their final objective, so that since Boston there has been an uptick of interest, or at least some web chatter, although whether the queasy fascination of life imitating art will edge over into an appreciation of its satire remains to be seen.

They are all youngish men, these Lions, at once alienated from and enthusiastic sharers in the “Disneyland”; one of them, the stupidest and most childlike, has a deep fondness for an amusement park ride called “rubber dinghy rapids.” With the exception of their leader, who has both, they have neither jobs nor women. They live in rows of red brick semi-detached houses on quiet, hilly little streets, once inhabited by the working class of the burgeoning industrial centers. Not one of the world’s fleshpots, perhaps, but for a susceptible Lion, there are damnable temptations: the pharmacy chain Boots is one. “Let’s bomb Boots,” declares one in a meeting to discuss possible targets, “they sell condoms. They make you want to bang white girls.” Oh, reason not the cause!

They’re also, for the purpose of clandestine communications, Party Puffins, or rather they take on the avatars of party puffins in an interactive online game. But it’s time to strike through the mask and meet them face-to-face. The best way I can think to convey their qualities (and perhaps some of the film’s) is by introducing the reader to the Lions one by one.

So then, meet Omar, faute de mieux leader, a security guard at just the sort of installation—a shopping mall vast glittering and soulless—that he’d like to eradicate. Omar, played with delicacy and pluck by Riz Ahmed, is a slight man with gentle eyes, a worried face and a tendency to curse fluently and eloquently in Urdu. Omar has a pretty wife who works as a nurse, an appealing little boy, and a pious brother who keeps trying to get Omar to study and suspects that Omar may be “planning something.”

Next is Wodge, Omar’s Little John, best mate, and easily manipulated tool, played by the American actor Kayvan Novack, diving happily into a thick Northern accent. Wodge is as dumb or “thick” as his nickname, and barely an adult: he’s the rubber dinghy rapids man, and when he accompanies Omar on a trip to a training camp in Pakistan, Wodge takes along a stuffed toy, a “prayer camel” that gives the Call to Prayer at the pull of a cord. Wodge’s truly depthless stupidity proves to be a liability when he makes a cell phone video of himself firing a machine gun, attracting a drone, and setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the accidental death of Sheik Osama bin Laden himself. “Am I God’s accident?’ he asks Omar.

Another dim bulb is Faisal, played by Adeel Akhtar as benighted, superstitious, obscurely cringing, who insists on wearing a cardboard box over his head for his martyrdom videos because images are haram, and who has been training a crow—the one depicted, on a stone wall in the English rain, looks, before being turned into a swirl of black feathers and white smoke, every bit as melancholy as its master. Faisal is an early casualty of Jihad, Lion-style; running through a field of sheep while carrying volatile bomb components he accidentally blows himself up, disappearing into the white smoke of what, since Boston, one has learned is produced by this particular type of bomb.

Two more Lions: the convert Barry, played by Nigel Lindsay with superb, unhinged aggressiveness. The character of Barry was based on a BNP militant who took to reading the Koran to confute Pakistani opponents and ended up converting to Islam. Or say to Islamofascism, most conveniently. Thickly set, truculent, the kurta wearing, Allah invoking, stringed instrument denouncing Barry has such flights of fancies as an idea of himself as the Scarlett Pimpernel of international jihad. In a scene fully the equal of the “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?” episode in Monty Python's Life of Brian Barry argues strenuously for “bombing the mosque.” “Radicalize the moderates, the Ummah rises up, it all kicks off!” Barry shouts. Not even the reasonable suggestion from Omar that this would be like a man in a fight who decides to punch his own face can dissuade Barry from his conviction—or from punching himself, painfully, on his nose. Vexed, he head butts Faisal, who hadn’t been in the room.

Last to join but hardly least is the university attending Hassan Alli, son of a most conveniently prosperous manufacturer of party costumes. Hassan is into rap and hip-hop, a taste that spreads among the Lions; Barry recruits him after witnessing his disruption of a panel discussion at a local college under the ineffably anodyne rubric ISLAM—MODERATION AND PROGRESS. Ali accomplishes this with shouted rap lyrics, “I’m the Mujahedeen/and I’m making the scene/Now you’re gonna feel/What the Boom-Boom means/It’s like Tupac said/When I die I’m not dead/We are the Martyrs/You’re just smashed tomatoes” and a fake suicide vest containing the kind of thing the English give as party favors on Boxing Day, poppers that go pop and produce parti-colored paper streamers. Played with subtlety by Arsher Ali, Hassam’s upper-middle class imitation of imagined lower depths makes him an outsider among outsiders, although that doesn’t stop him from associating with his new comrades, who distinctly favor the “weapons” portion of the good old Marxist formulation about exchanging the weapons of criticism for the criticism of weapons.

I think Chris Morris achieves his goals in The Four Lions, which include more than just managing to pull off a comedy about suicide bombers, and that it be really funny, really. In the special features, among glimpses of ordinary South Asians driving around aimlessly, flirting with girls, bored, horny, making up solid sounding futures involving wives and good jobs and babies to the where do you see yourself in 10 years question, Morris can be seen musing that “you start to realize that there is a potential for a comic character in the sort of people that hitherto you just literally felt were one dimensional.” Yes you do.

Satire and ridicule have rarely been deployed to such devastating effect as in this collective portrait of obscurantists and fanatics who are never less than, and always all-too, human. The Lions are a menace to themselves, assorted fauna and livestock, Osama Bin Laden himself and a variety of innocent bystanders (although as Barry reminds us that last category “doesn’t exist” telling us this as he grimly and lovingly arranges the steel bolts to be packed into a bomb designed for the flesh of “Sodomites” “Gynecologists” and—I think I heard this right—“Leonard Cohen”). They are triumphant comic creations, as beastly and absurd as anyone or anything in Swift or Fielding, and if we’re ever going to prevail against their real life counterparts and imitators, the very English laughter that Chris Morris inherits from the great satirists should be deployed as often as the war-like procedures that sometimes seem to constitute the only response to Islamist terror.

An unlikely outcome, I’m afraid and a little sad to have to say. Coupled with the extreme unlikelihood of a film like The Four Lions being made in the US—the reasons why would require a separate and perhaps lengthier assessment—the Morris mix of dry mock, moral alertness, allowing the enemy to condemn itself abundantly out of its own mouth, and shrewd understanding of the resentments, rivalries, fantasies and sheer bloody minded childishness beneath the heroic images of jihad is not likely to gain much ground, even in the aftermath of the attack on the Boston marathon, carried out by two young men who by all accounts appear to be as absurd and as deadly as their fictional British brethren.

"war on terror" Oliver Conant 2015-01-10T00:45:53-05:00
Before the War A few months before her death, Ellen Willis emailed to say pieces by Charles O’Brien and Fredric Smoler on the Danish Cartoon Controversy posted on this site were “good.” (That was high praise from Ellen whose mode of approbation was the opposite of American idolaters.) Struck by how much those pieces “echoed themes” in what she’d written at the time of the Rushdie affair, she wondered if we “might be interested in reprinting the editorial I wrote in the Voice [in 1989] as a historical affirmation of the bad road we are going down.” What follows is the piece of the past that Ellen thought belonged in First. (It was originally titled “The West Betrays Its Principles.”) B.D.

Make no mistake: Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Salman Rushdie’s execution is not simply a piece of lunatic demagogy directed at an individual, but a serious act of political intimidation with far-reaching consequences. The Iranian head of state has declared war – quite literally – on Western secular, democratic institutions. He has rallied his international troops in his most daring bid yet to extend the power of Islamic theocracy beyond his own country, even beyond the Moslem world, by force. Do the people and the governments supposedly committed to democratic values have the will to fight back?

Already Khomeini has won a few battles. Rushdie can hardly be blamed for going into hiding, and perhaps it’s too much to expect of his publishers that they go on with his book tour as a protest, with a video or audio tape of Rushdie taking his place. But Vikings’ craven statement that they never intended to offend anyone by publishing Rushdie’s book and “very much regret the distress the book has caused” is inexcusable. So is the action of the Waldenbooks, the country’s largest books chain in taking Satanic Verses off the shelves. (As the company’s executive vice-president, Bonnie Predd, sententiously put it: “We’ve fought long and hard against censorship. But when it comes to the safety of our employees, one sometimes has to compromise.” (How about simply offering any nervous employee a few days off.?) In France, Presses de la Cite, Rushdie’s publisher, has ‘postponed’ publication of the French edition (you remember France, home of Voltaire, but more recently the drug company that tried to scuttle the abortifacient RU 486 under pressure from anti-abortion activists). Nor will the West German house Keipenheuer and Witsch publish Rushdie’s book as scheduled.

There is no indication that the world’s governments are taking Khomeini’s move as seriously as it deserves. Britain has made the strongest statement, which nonetheless falls short of declaring that officially putting a price on the head of a British author exercising the right to free speech in his own country is an act of war against Britain and will be viewed as such. The United States has confined itself to a routine condemnation of terrorism. Canada gets the prize for moral oafishness. Revenue Canada, a government customs and taxation agency, has temporarily banned further imports of the Rushdie book, pending an investigation of the possibility that it contains “hate literature” (the ban was announced the first day of Canada’s National Freedom To Read Week). Will Britain, the U.S., or anyone else move to bring this issue before the United Nations? If they do, is there any chance the UN will vote for meaningful sanctions against Iran? And if not, will those Western nations that call themselves democracies get together to impose sanctions on their own, The last two questions are, I’m afraid, rhetorical.

The attack on Rushdie and the anemic response to it are not occurring in a vacuum. Democratic secularism is increasingly vulnerable to a religious fundamentalism that in all its forms – Christian, and Jewish as well as Islamic – is increasingly feeling its power. And Western governments, far from resisting anti-democratic absolutism, have been abetting it. The Thatcher government has enthusiastically pursued its own censorship of books and other media. The U.S. has, of course, been in bed with fundamentalist Christianity since the election of Jimmy Carter. The Reagan administration never got too exercised about violent attacks on abortion clinics, refusing to include them in its antiterrorist rhetoric, the political climate surrounding abortion has become so intimidating that no American drug company has been willing to test RU 486, must less market it. Our government also supports, on the grounds of the right to freedom and self-determination, the fundamentalist guerrillas in Afghanistan, who – if, as now seems likely, they end up in power – may make Khomeini look mellow. Is there anything left of the West’s loudly proclaimed commitment to freedom that goes beyond such ironies? More and more that question, too, begins to seem rhetorical.

"war on terror" Ellen Willis 2015-01-10T00:12:30-05:00
Endangered Species It’s Christmas Eve and it has been raining all day in a kind of incessant Blade Runner post-apocalyptic way: a muddy Christmas! Gasoline is suddenly well under three bucks a gallon so it’s hello greenhouse and goodbye ozone. Hunting season upstate and my dog has found a bag of guts a neighbor has left outside after butchering his doe. Yet the main thing about today, beyond the appalling weather, my rancid mutt, my worries for the environment, and the anniversary of the birth of the Infant Jesus is that I finished reading a great novel and I am surging with energy and feeling the aesthetic thrill of having experienced something original and important.

The name of the novel is Preparation for the Next Life and the author is Atticus Lish, and though the NYTimes has been attentive to its publication, very few of the very few outlets for book reviews and literary criticism seem to have noticed it and unless some kind of cultural cavalry comes to the rescue I fear this brave, searing work will never get the attention necessary for any novel that hopes to gain an audience in today’s cultural climate.

The novel itself is a relentless immersion into parts of New York City that many people–particularly those in the book-buying class–do not have even a glancing acquaintance with. In Tom Wolfe’s Vanity of the Bonfires, the story is ignited by a rich (white) man getting lost and finding himself in what is to him Hell, where his wealth and position cannot protect him from the humans with dark skins who dwell in The Bronx, a place where he may as well be naked with a rose in his teeth. In Atticus Lish’s story there is no bourgeois character to act as a liaison between the reader and the world of no money.

Most of the novel takes place in a part of Queens where a handful of Irish dead-enders do what they can to hold onto their old small privileges while the borough absorbs more and more Asian and Latin American workers, most of whom are frightened, exploited, and tireless. In a landscape of slapped together fast food restaurants, immigrant housing worse than some squats, soul-crushing bars, auto repair shops, construction sites, water towers, and trim little houses, Lish’s characters do not shrink back in neo-Kurtzian horror, nor do they nurture illusory aspirations of somehow getting out. Most of them have climbed as far up the economic ladder as they are ever going to get, and are far more concerned with not being swept into the oblivion of illness, arrest, or deportation than they are with making it to Manhattan or the suburbs. Though some of them, it must be said, are also concerned with getting drunk, and with hookers, and theft, and violence (there is a scene of a beating in this novel that is so graphic and convincing that I fear I will never forget it).

The large compassionate heart of this remarkable book is the relationship between a Chinese/Muslim undocumented worker, a woman named Zou Lei, and a recently discharged physically and psychically injured Iraq war vet called Skinner. It’s a love story full of yearning and need and dependence and misunderstanding and grief and daring, rendered over the course of 400 plus pages without one sentimental assertion or turn of phrase. Here, in a characteristic paragraph, Zoe Lei has brought Skinner food from the (dreadful) Chinese fast food restaurant where she works (for uncertain wages):

She took meat from the steam table and made him a care package. She filled a Styrofoam shell with rice, beef, dumplings, and put it in a plastic bag and hid it on the shelf by the cornstarch and took it to him after work. She had only one plastic fork and he said, no, you keep that, and he ate it cold with his fingers, having done this all the time in the infantry. When it was her turn, she leaned down and ate in her own way, like any Asian working person using the fork as a shovel. The two of them had to take turns at the trough or their heads would bump. She prodded him with an elbow and he looked at her.


Is that good?

Yes. Tongkuai is warm. We are very warm here. She gestured at the
purple-walled basement surrounded by the cold black night outside
the window. (p. 133)

The consistently convincing manner with which Lish portrays these two unprotected souls and their search for love and for each other (poverty here is a kind of shipwreck, and the city is a turbulent ocean) makes his novel almost unbearably suspenseful, and a kind of exquisite agony to read. But the real story of Preparation for the Next Life is the secret underpinnings of a city that is in many respects a stranger to itself.

Here is Zoe Lei in East New York, with only shower flip-flops to protect her feet from the city’s devouring concrete:

The police van’s white, red, and orange flashers disappeared behind her as the road bent and she passed silos for sand and gravel, a diagonal conveyor belt against the sky, cement trucks nose to tail like elephants behind a fence. (p. 387)

And here is Skinner, who is living in the basement of a house in Queens, surveying his new world:

The house looked the same as always, the three layers of roofs rolled out like dirty tongues separating each floor. From here, he saw the shed in back, the attic window stuffed with yellow-gray insulation. He went around the yard’s faded Jesus and let himself in. (p. 365)

Much of the publicity around Atticus Lish has been contingent on the fact that he is the son of the renowned (or, depending on your point of view, the notorious) editor and writing teacher Gordon Lish (who was known in Manhattan and MFA circles as Captain Fiction). Lish pere will most likely be given his spot in literary history for his forceful (or, depending on your point of view, heavy-handed) editing of Raymond Carver’s work when it appeared in Esquire. It could be argued that between Carver and Lish a distinct school of short story writing was born. The socially marginal characters, the kitchen sink realism, the drinking and the despair and the general sense of malaise was Carver’s own, but the sentences–short, understated, avoiding lyricism like a matador dodges the horns of a bull–were clearly shaped by Lish’s confident red pencil. (In fact, toward the end of his short life, when Carver had had enough success to get publishers to bend to his will, many of the Lish-ized stories were restored to their original forms and re-published.)

The curious thing about the concentration on Lish’s connection to Captain Fiction and the worlds of corporate publishing and graduate writing programs (after Lish senior left Esquire, he worked as an editor at Alfred Knopf, and taught fiction writing in Columbia’s MFA program) is that Atticus Lish’s work gives no evidence that he has any particular interest in either of those worlds. Preparation for the Next Life is published by Tyrant Books, a very small independent house, whose owner, Giancarlo diTrapano, runs the entire operation out of his small apartment, where, according to a reporter from The Los Angeles Review of Books, he offers visiting journalists wine, Xanax, and cocaine.

Though Lish was admitted to Harvard (after prepping at Andover), he dropped out after a couple of years to join the Marines. This year’s National Book Award winner, Phil Klay, whose fine book of linked short stories offered a multi-dimensional portrait of our all-volunteer fighting force, also went to an Ivy League college–Dartmouth–but Klay made it all the way through and went on to New York City to receive his MFA, giving his life a certain similarity to the many other young writers who are processed through the scores and scores of writing programs east to west, north to south. (It’s become something of a rarity to find a published younger fiction writer who does not have an MFA and is not posted at some college somewhere, helping the next wave of aspiring writers get their MFAs. After Lish left Harvard he worked at a number of hard laboring jobs, compiling a resume reminiscent of the author bios of fifty years ago. He did not (for reasons he seems to be keeping to himself) make it through his four-year hitch as a Marine–“not even enough to be eligible for veteran’s benefits,” he said to a reporter for The New York Times–but early on, Lish began learning Mandarin, taking himself to lessons in Chinatown when he was just 12 years old, unbeknownst to his family. His knowledge of Chinese led him to a job as close to white collar employment as he has yet to come: translating technical articles from Mandarin to English.

He has not resigned that position. At forty-three his first novel (as of this writing) is in the mid-3000’s on Amazon’s e-book site, and in print (it has come out in paperback) it is now just under 2000. The disparity may suggest that those who have purchased it might be older, or more analog in their inclination, or have purchased copies to give as Christmas presents–but either way, these are not the kind of sales figures that will allow a writer to live on royalties. Preparation has been enthusiastically (if not widely) reviewed, and Atticus himself has received more than a smattering of publicity–he is a perfect profile subject, with his semi-famous father, shaved head, athleticism (martial arts, rock climbing) and his out-sized talent. Yet with all that, Lish is going to have to continue working his day job while he prepares for the next novel.

Maybe Hollywood will come courting, but selling out ain’t what it used to be–more novels are optioned for $1000 than sold for a million. Maybe the MacArthur Foundation will step in, or the Pulitzer, or maybe the Booker–nomination for that prize plucked Joshua Ferris’s brilliant recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, from the obscurity into which distracted and tone deaf book review editors had cast it. But the economic reality of being a serious novelist in a culture which shows less and less interest in doing the work of reading literature is that finding a safe place in one MFA program or another might be one of the few viable alternatives left. (The other is trying to write for the movies or television, a short term fix, one that creates as many problems as it solves–you can take that from me.) As far as I know, Atticus Lish has eschewed both of these paths, yet with a publisher running his business from a kitchen table and the readers who ought to be devouring his work somehow unaware of it, how is he meant to carry on? Preparation for the Next Life is a novel about immigration, war, endurance, and what it means to try to hold onto a shred of your integrity and individuality in a world which could not care less if you were dead or alive. In it Lish has imagined himself into the psyches of two characters who society can find no way to comfort or protect, two compassionately portrayed individuals who the reader comes to know and love. Unlike so many first novels, it seems to be almost ruthless in its exclusion of any material that might be construed as autobiographical. Yet upon closing Lish’s novel I began to wonder if there might be a third endangered creature in this story, indeed an endangered species–the serious novelist who wanders through our culture without the protection of a university or a foundation or any other of capitalism’s gentler manifestations. Preparation for the Next Life is a high-wire act without a net and when I closed the book I was filled with admiration for its author and a great uneasiness over what happens when, like his characters, he is forced to look down.

culturewatch Scott Spencer 2015-01-09T20:06:29-05:00
Ol' Blue Eyes To get the preliminaries out of the way, at Bob Dylan’s third of three concerts at the Oakland Paramount, first, the band – Bob (piano and harmonica), Tony Garnier (bass), Donnie Herron (banjo, viola, violin, mandolin, pedal and lap steel), Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar), and especially, given the way the sound mix reached these ears, George Reville (drums) and Charley Sexton (lead guitar) – was terrific; but if you understood more than one-third of the lyrics, you beat the over-under. Second, they did nineteen songs, of which one was from the sixties and five from Tempest, Bob’s latest release of new material. (Last year, at Mountain View, they did fifteen songs, of which four were from the sixties and two from Tempest. The year before, in Berkeley, eight of fifteen songs from the sixties and none from Tempest, even though it had just been released and could have used the promotion.) Third, as for ingratiating stage presence, Bob no longer even introduces the musicians. (If he said anything, it was "Thank you. We’ll be right back." At least, immediately after something undistinguishable uttered from his microphone, everyone walked off stage and returned, fifteen minutes later, to resume playing, without any buzzings or dimming lights to alert those in line in the rest rooms, of whom, given the number of graying pony tails in the audience, male as well as female, there were likely to be plenty. (Of further demographic note, it being the night after the World Series, the audience sported about as many t-shirts saluting the Giants as it did saluting Bob.) And finally, when he’d played Mountain View, Bob was still varying his shows by a couple songs, night to night; but on most of this tour, he has been sticking with the same songs, in the same order, every night, regardless of whether he is moving on or sticking around.

With one exception. For four months, in forty-one concerts, in fourteen countries, on three continents, his encore had been "All Along the Watchtower," followed by "Blowing in the Wind." But in Hollywood, three nights before, he had switched. Now he sent us home with "Stay With Me."

That song, written by Jerome Moross and sung by Frank Sinatra, had been the theme for the 1963 film The Cardinal, directed by Otto Preminger, and based, not on the life of Enos Slaughter or Bob Gibson or Dizzy Dean of St. Louis, as one with Game Sevens on his mind when news of this switch reached him might have imagined, but on his eminence Francis Joseph Spellman of New York, who hadn’t played in any.

"Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see," a beseecher begins, "Should my feet sometimes stumble..., stay with me." Though he has wandered afield and become lost, he asks not be given up on. While he has blundered, even sinned, and, while weary, groping, stumbling through cold and darkness, sought shelter from the wind, he prays, "...stay with me. Stay with me." Wind, darkness, eyes that do not see, legs that cannot stand, the search for shelter in storms, there is much plucked from a Hollywood a half-century ago, familiar as yesterday to listeners to Bob Dylan. These are colors basic to his palette. These ordered-letters are talismanic objects to be re-arranged, re-shuffled and re-shelved in his touring cabinet of wonders.

They had been present in his previous encore too. Along that watchtower, a howling wind had promised listeners "no relief." And the blowin’ wind, which had once seemed to promise that men might someday "see," had been worn by ensuing decades into a tattered, poignant bleat of unrealized expectations.

Now here they came, reformed, again.

The obvious association is that Bob had once more tapped that portion within which had poured out Slow Train Coming. The reflexive choice is to pop him back in bed with Jesus. But I have what, for this non-believer, seems a more generous thought. I don’t think Bob is talking to God. (I bet he doubts there is a God.) I think he is talking to me. I think he stands on that stage, apart though in a group, and all he knows for certain exists above him in the dark is his audience, to whom he is speaking, in this song, in a way that's more profound and more affecting than if he was reaching to Heaven, as well as communicating more deeply and more personally than would a pandering "It’s great to be back in the Bay Area" or "This one’s for Pablo Sandoval."

Dylan is seventy-three, the survivor of a disabling cardio-vascular assault, a grandfather many times over, (maybe, secretive as he is, a great-grandfather), and winner of every honor short of a Nobel Prize. (Hey, what is it with you Swedes? Give it up!!) Yet the only way he can be is on the road half of each year, playing one-nighters from Romania, to Slovakia, to Austria.

It can’t just be the music. He could gig at home in Malibu. But to be Bob Dylan requires us. Everyone of us aging, mortal, sometimes, cold, sometimes weary, sometimes lost. I think Dylan knows his stumbles, his wandering, and blunders have irritated and disappointed us. He knows we want to hear "Like a Rolling Stone" sound like it did in 1965. (He knows we sometimes wish it was 1965.) He knows we wish he would sing out against global holocausts or over-sugared soft drinks. (Hell, he knows some of us – and I could name a half-dozen at the Wrench Café – are still mad he went electric.) But I also think he knows that, by now, whatever our preferences, most of us we respect his doing what he does in the fashion that he does it. I think he appreciates our sticking by him, and he is asking, for what remains us, one and all, to stand by him still.

We are on this journey together. We share the same boat, rocking atop the same flood. We frustrate each other. We try each other’s patience. We sing one song when another would be preferred. There is, as yet, no magic wand or baton to wave to change this. So acceptance and tolerance, patience, and trust for everyone on board may be the bearable solution.

The word is that Dylan’s next album will feature covers of multiple Frank Sinatra numbers. The only appropriate response for this man, with his continued capacity to enrich us with wonder and dismay, is "Why the Hell not?"

music Bob Levin 2014-12-17T23:37:08-05:00
Mirror Mirror

I am white, I can feed silence.
My children can breathe, though
the air’s fetid with fear
extinguished Black men
shared. Who will keen for
them? Outrage must be
boots on blood-stained streets. Can you hear
each victim’s last words echo?

Each victim’s last words echo.
Boots on blood-stained streets – can you hear
them? Outrage must be
shared. Who will keen for
extinguished Black men?
The air’s fetid with fear
my children breathe. Though
I am white, can I feed silence?

Alison Stone 2014-12-17T23:22:24-05:00