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Gone Yard

It’s baseball season, and that, friends, is the best of all seasons.

Baseball writers, who, given their love of a game that has historical weight over all other American sports, tend to be a poetic and sentimental lot, even more obnoxious than people who mark out over other sports.  They’re not quite as obnoxious as football writers, but they make up for it with their wobbly rhapsodizing; they even manage to be more pretentious than soccer journalists, who have the added benefit of being European.  It’s quite an accomplishment, when you think about it.

Anyway, one of the most cherished myths of the baseball hack is that baseball begins in the spring, the season of life, when the weather is changing and everything is growing, and this symbolizes the endless potential of humanity and something something oh the kids are all in the other room watching basketball on the big TV.  As with most such eternal verities farted out by old white guys from the East Coast, it is total nonsense.  Baseball actually begins at the end of winter, when pitchers and catchers report, and carries on into spring training, an egregious misnomer based on the fact that it is played exclusively in Florida and Arizona, which do not have seasons.  Once regular games begin, it is April, and while that’s arguably the magniloquent springtime of journalistic legend in Texas and California, in the rest of the country, it’s still godawful cold weather.  I went to opening day in Chicago for eight years in a row and it was a miserable slog every time, and for a week before this year’s White Sox home opener, it was apocalyptic.  The first game at White Sox Park wasn’t notable for how badly the Good Guys got thumped, but for how it somehow managed to be sunny and clear and also 30 degrees with periodic blizzards at the same time.

A companion myth is that the excitement of Opening Day, which is really just attributable to the fact that the weather is becoming moderately less dreadful and that football is finally fucking over, is because “anything can happen” and “any team can win”.  This is abhorrent nonsense.  The San Diego Padres, for example, or the Philadelphia Phillies, were in essentially the same position on Opening Day of the 2016 season as they were on the last day of the 2015 season, and stand about as much chance of appearing in the playoffs come October as Manchester United has of winning the Stanley Cup.  That’s not to say that the early goings aren’t interesting, of course; as a fan of the Chicago White Sox, I always enjoy watching Cubs fans hollering about how this year for sure they’re going to win the World Series come April 1st, and I also enjoy seeing what development (this year, it was the early career-ending injury of slugger Kyle Schwarber) what will make that result unthinkable by April 15th.

All of this is to say is that for all of our talk about how spring is the time of renewal, baseball doesn’t really start to matter until June at the earliest.  It’s a game of summer.  Of course I’m excited about baseball; of course I’m going to watch every White Sox game on TV and go to the ballyard as often as I can.  There’s even some exciting early-season fun, like speculating whether the Baltimore Orioles will ever lose a game again, or whether the Minnesota Twins will ever win a game again.  But 162 games is a lot of games.  I’d rather eat a beanbag chair than watch an NFL game, but it’s a fair point that in pro football’s 16-game season, everything matters. Even a devoted baseball fan like me could take a nap, wake up on Father’s Day, and not really feel like I’d missed that much.

But still, this is the time of year we have to deal with the utter worst of flowery sportswriter tripe (here’s an amazing example from Tim Keown’s article at ESPN on Mendoza-line-courting overparenting enthusiast Adam LaRoche, which contains the phrases “the molecules traveled their viral tributaries” and “they wielded their emotions like crude homemade weapons”).  2016 is going to be particularly bad, because the MLB instituted a handful of rules changes last year, and the ‘purists’ (which is baseball code for humorless scolds) are feeling the last of their oats before they succumb to nut cancer.  We’re of course going to hear the usual moaning about the designated hitter rule from people who think the entire enterprise will be sullied if we aren’t treated to the hourly tragedy of watching pitchers try to hit, but this year we get an additional bunch of whinging about new baserunning rules, some leftover nonsense about instant replay, and coded racism imported from the NFL about how certain players (ahem) are making a mockery of the game with their home run trots and their bat-flipping and their gold chains and their rock and roll and their hair.  Bob Costas didn’t die from the eye crud and now we have to deal with Goose Gossage blowing hot farts about how computer nerds destroyed baseball.

The thing is, I agree with a lot of this stuff!  I am unflagging in my love of the designated hitter rule, but I don’t like that hitters wear body armor, I think it sucks that they’re trying to discourage baserunners from breaking up plays at second and home, I love pitchers who plunk hitters for pretty much any reason at all, and I wish the pitcher could still own the inside unless the hitter was gutsy enough to risk getting pummeled.  Even though I hate the old-school horseshit about ‘character’ and ‘gut feelings’ and ‘intangibles’, I’m still distrustful of SABRmetrics because it still never manages to predict anything worth knowing.  But these issues are never discussed honestly; they’re just eructated randomly as part of the old folks’ tirades about how when they were kids things were super cool and great but the kids now are into real dumb shit and why can’t we ruin their fun so that way no one will have any at all.  It’s not only boring and pointless, it’s the worst possible way to attract young people to a sport that’s losing fans every generation.

So, in short, baseball fans, players, ex-players, owners, officials, journalists, and everyone else involved in the sport are awful and should all be shunned.  But baseball, the sport, is beautifully paced, brutally strategic, brilliantly strategic, incredibly beautiful, and irresistibly dense.  And, on top of all that, it’s so much fun.  I couldn’t be happier it’s back, and not even all the people in it can make me stop loving it.


A Thin Line

Much as the leads of Netflix’s series Love have mixed feelings upon meeting — it’s really not so much what you would call a ‘meet cute’ as a ‘meet indifferent and slightly hostile’ — I had mixed feelings about the series itself.  This was largely due to its pedigree.  Love‘s creators are Judd Apatow, Paul Rust, and Lesley Arfin; the former has done good work and, er, well, less good work, but enough solid material to his credit that I had no particular reason to think he wouldn’t bring his A game.  About Paul Rust I knew next to nothing, other than that he’s a goofy-looking fucker who seems to have a proclivity for playing nerdy man-boys of the sort that I have increasingly less patience, but I learned soon enough that he was the husband of the third creator, Lesley Arfin.

I first encountered Arfin’s work when she was a regular writer for Vice, and, back before that media conglomerate’s recent reinvention as something that purports to be taken seriously, she typified much of the approach that made its work so insufferable:  callow insights into the frivolous sexual mores of young people, ironic casual racism, and the sort of gross cultural extremism that people get into when they’re young enough to judge themselves by the degree to which they can shock their parents.  Her book, Dear Diary, was more of the same; I got a copy to review and found it a turgid, unfunny bore, the plaint of someone in love with her own self-perceived damaged quirkiness but oblivious to her own faults as a writer.  I knew nothing of her work in the meantime, or to what extent she’d be contributing to the show, but once I learned the story was a barely fictionalized version of her own relationship with Rust, I went in with no small degree of angst.

Love is one of those shows that can take no middle path.  I’ve read critics who really enjoyed it, and others who felt a lot more like I did, but it doesn’t seem to have triggered many neutral reactions.  It concerns itself with the slow-to-develop relationship between Mickey Dobbs, a chronic fuck-up addicted to pretty much everything, and Gus Cruikshank, a nerdy goofball with a high degree of blindness to his own emotional insecurity.  Mickey (played by Gillian Jacobs of Community and Girls) is the producer of a syndicated radio chat show, and Gus (Rust) tutors the pre-teen star of a supernatural romance series; their soft occupations lend them the kind of time and money to operate in the demimonde of L.A. ‘creatives’ that is a small part of why they’re so easily detestable.  Neither one is easy to love; Gus’s long-term partner lies about cheating on him just to be rid of him, while Mickey sleeps with everyone she encounters, managing to make even her boss, a tortured psychotherapist and borderline sexual harasser, seem sympathetic by comparison.  But are they the same kind of damaged to make each other happy?  It takes ten very long episodes to find out.

Jacobs is tremendous as Mickey, turning in what may be the best performance of her career, but to what end?  Mickey isn’t just difficult to like, she’s almost impossible to like, pissing away every single moment of goodwill she earns with pointlessly self-destructive behavior.  Some of this can be pretty amusing (her willingness to put up with her useless cokehead ex Eric, played by Kyle Kinane, is good for a lot of laughs), but at other times, it’s downright frustrating:  invited to a get-together with Gus and his friends, he provokes them in a way that makes her seem like she either doesn’t understand how social interactions are supposed to work or just goes out of her way to piss people off.  Gus’ character isn’t much better developed; early on, it seems as if he’s being drawn as the unaware ‘nice guy’ whose self-image as likable and agreeable masks the fact that he’s actually a resentful doormat, but that never seems to go anywhere, and leaves him seeming curiously incomplete.

This is a big part of the problem with Love, which otherwise has a lot going for it.  The cast is exceptional; Jacobs, as noted, is fantastic, and there are terrific supporting roles from Kerri Kenney, Brett Gelman, and Dave (Gruber) Allen, as well as a ton of other members of Apatow’s central casting and the L.A. alternative comedy scene.  Claudia O’Doherty, as Mickey’s new roommate Bertie, is a huge find who should have a great career ahead of her; she’s so goofy, likable, and present that I constantly found myself wishing I was watching a TV show about her instead of the two unpleasant creeps whose orbit she’d fallen into.  Love isn’t really about the comedy of humiliation (and, in fact, it’s at its best when it keeps things light and breezy, as in an early episode where Mickey and Gus get stoned and just cruise aimlessly around L.A.), but it depends heavily on our identification with two characters who very frequently cross the line from unlikeable to openly awful.  So when big dramatic moments come — most especially when Mickey goes through an awfully tacked-on-seeming epiphany at a sex addiction group, and when Gus has a nearly violent meltdown at his job and completely sabotages his career — they feel utterly unearned, and only tenuously attached to the characters and narrative we have come to know.

The big moment when Gus and Mickey finally come together doesn’t come until the last scene of the last episode, and when it finally comes, it’s exhausted the patience of all but the most tolerant viewers.  There are a lot of solid laughs along the way, but not enough to conquer the way the script almost dares you to not like the leads; the length of the show (about 10 minutes over typical sitcom length) doesn’t help, nor does the inexplicable choice to have Andy Dick play himself as an unapologetic jackass of a drug addict.  His scenes are beyond creepy for anyone aware of Dick’s actual history of abusive sexual behavior and ruinous drug habits.  The show is returning for a second season, with two more episodes, in 2017; it’s worth saving, but the creators are going to have to address the imperfection of their creation, or leave us wishing that it had been set mercifully adrift on  an ice floe.


The Most Beautiful Fraud: Ex Machina

Movies of ideas are so rare these days that you have to go out of your way to find them, and that can mean overcoming your own prejudices.  Mainstream films with ideas are rarer still, so I had to put my bias against CGI-loaded sci-fi blockbusters when I read about Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina.  It’s a movie that posits itself almost entirely as being about ideas, about questions, about meaning — and, to my surprise, it takes that identity quite seriously, to both its benefit and its detriment.  Spoilers are ahead, but for those who don’t want to have the game given away, I’ll tell you in advance that I think this is a movie very much worth seeing, despite the fact that it betrays its own ideals for the sake of action and manages to get in its own way.

Domhnall Gleeson — son of Brendan and featured player in the Harry Potter cinematic universe, though I know him best from his starring performance in the failed but ambitious musical fantasy-bio Frank — is Caleb, a young programmer with BlueBook, the (fictional) world’s most successful search engine.  He wins, seemingly at random, a contest that allows him to spend a week at the remote research compound run by BlueBook’s founder and CEO, Nathan, played with sinister, frat-boy élan by Oscar Isaac; when he arrives, he discovers that his selection was anything but random, and his purpose is not companionship or even head-hunting, but rather to act as the interpreter in an elaborate version of the Turing test.  The subject is Ava, a robotic bombshell (Swedish performer Alicia Vikander, all doe eyes and innocent posturing) designed by Nathan; Caleb, a socially awkward but brilliant young man with a fascination for artificial intelligence, has been brought in to determine if her intelligence is truly exceptional, or simply a complex product of programming.

Obviously, it’s going to be pretty hard to build a whole movie around the concept of what constitutes true intelligence, even if Garland, to his great credit, does treat the question (as well as others, such as the origin of language and the nature of free will) seriously.  So cracks start appearing in the façade right away:  Nathan’s bro-ish antics mask a seemingly malevolent nature and a deadly dedication to secrecy; Caleb’s own motivations are murky, even to himself; and Ava is quickly revealed as being capable of deception, duplicity, falsehood, and fiction — all qualities that should themselves establish beyond question the true nature of her intelligence.  The CEO’s secrets go far beyond merely wanting to protect his trade, and the rapid-fire revelations about Eva, as well as the discovery that Ava isn’t the only artificial intelligence in the compound, has Caleb questioning his own identity in a fairly grotesque way, and we’re off to the races, figuratively speaking — though it’s never boring, Ex Machina moves along at its own chilly pace.

With a small cast who have to do a lot of heavy lifting, the quality of the acting is paramount in a movie like this.  Gleeson discharges his largely reactive role well, turning convincingly steely when the story calls for it, and Vikander, who is required to play the wide-eyed innocent right up until the critical moment when it becomes clear that her intelligence has developed in a direction that nobody expected, keeps it close to the vest; while the movie goes out of its way, right down to the script level, to explain that she is more than just a sci-fi cliché of a sex-bot, the role confines her to certain behaviors for a bit too long.  It’s Isaac who’s the real star:  he no longer needs to establish his bona fides as a great actor after his world-beating performance in Inside Llewen Davis, but he’s so terrific here, in a role that asks him to be an entirely different sort of character than he has every played before, that it adds a fresh and exciting layer to the reputation of one of our most vital stars.

Unfortunately, it’s his character that proves the most difficult, and that introduces the most disruptive element to what is otherwise a well-executed and watchable movie of ideas:  it becomes clear that Nathan has created several ‘generations’ of female robots imbued with varying degrees of artificial intelligence, and that he has serially sexually abused them and disposed of them.  The idea that the most brilliant genius in modern history, with access to billions of dollars and the most cutting-edge resources the world has to offer, would create artificial intelligence simply to use it as a source of women to abuse, may make him an easily detestable villain who deserves the vengeance that Eva eventually wreaks on him.  But it doesn’t make him a very good one; it makes him a villain with an artistically limp and distracting motivation that shows a paucity of imagination that doesn’t fit Ex Machina‘s ambition.  It makes him too easy to hate, it makes his schemes and motivations too familiar and transparent, it leaves him with the weakest and least credible character in a film that badly needs everyone to be believable, like a madman who seizes all the wonders of the world so he can fart in the Hagia Sofia. (Visually, the movie is no great shakes; Eva looks all right but Garland doesn’t go out of his way to wow the audience with technological slickness, and while Nathan’s compound looks stunning, Garland doesn’t do much more than plant his camera in front of it.)

For that glaring failure, though, Ex Machina is still a good effort, and it is highly respectable in that it asks more questions than it answers.  The viewer is left with plenty to chew on after the movie comes to its bloody and surprising conclusion:  what will Eva do with her freedom?  How did she develop a sense of morality, and is such a sense necessary to intelligence?  Were her actions, reactions, and schemes a result, as it is implied, of her having had her brain built by aggregating the massive human sprawl that can be extracted from a search engine?  Did her final coup de grace cut her off from the only people who could have reproduced her programming, thus preventing her from becoming what her maker predicted she would be:  the next step in the evolution of intelligent life?  That these questions are left unanswered, and, just as often, unasked, is the sign of a movie that has trust and confidence in its audience’s ability to understand important ideas.  That’s a good herald of things to come from Garland, even if he moves the goal he set for himself with one of his major characters.  It’s a thinking person’s science fiction movie about a thinking machine, and whatever its other virtues or failures, it invites viewers to think right along with it.


When you have dedicated your life to becoming a professional, it isn’t that hard to pick up an old skill, no matter how long it’s been since you exercised it.  Much has been made of George Miller’s advancing age (he’s almost twice as old as a typical action film director, and probably four times as a typical action film viewer), and of the fact that he’s stayed away from genre films for a good three decades, but this is predicated on the notion that making a great genre film requires constant work.  If anything, history has shown us that the best genre work comes from generalists who have perfected the art of filmmaking and are sharpening their blades against a new stone; specialists who never peek outside the boundaries of their chosen genres tend to either get bored or boring, and the worst work tends to be from people who never learned to cross their own boundaries.

At any rate, Miller has finally returned to the post-scarcity nightmare world of Max Rockatansky, some 30 years after he last left it, and the question was never whether or not he could still deliver a great action film.  Someone who made The Road Warrior, very possibly the most perfect action sci-fi ever lensed, isn’t going to have any trouble adjusting.  The question was, have blockbuster audiences — many of whose most rabid members weren’t even born when Mel Gibson broke a deal and faced the wheel in Beyond Thunderdome — would be willing to accept a George Miller-style movie in the age of Michael Bay-style movies.  It was probably inevitable, and possibly mandatory, that Miller would incorporate CGI effects into Mad Max:  Fury Road, particularly given the bothersome shooting delays and environmental hazards that almost kept it from being made, but his strength has always been less in his imagination than in the incredible power of his eye.

As it turns out, there was no need to worry; Miller hasn’t lost a step, and audiences and critics are all howling cheers for his return to the blood-stained road.  Fury Road isn’t the best Mad Max movie; it has a few obvious flaws, and it simply can’t compete with the stripped-down purity of The Road Warrior for a number of reasons, but it’s a magnificent action film just the same, the sort of movie for which clichés get minted and, hopefully, a standard against which the next decade or so of genre blockbusters will be judged.  Miller’s eye is as keen as ever; there are any number of shots in Fury Road that would simply take your breath away if he gave you even a moment to linger on it.  For all the chaos and uncertainty that went into filming, it looks like the work of a man who was completely in control of his production from day one; you would be hard-pressed to find a director in the upper echelon of arthouse geniuses, let alone populist craftsmen, who use light as effectively as he does here.  And he’s still got the ability to wrench some heart out of unexpected situations — an ability he no doubt honed doing kid’s fare for the last few decades — and to find dread and shock in the random cruelty of the world he made.

I won’t spend time rehashing the plot of Fury Road, not only because it’s been so thoroughly discussed elsewhere, but because it’s the least important part of the movie.  Explaining the plot of this movie is like explaining the plot of a canyon or a sunrise; you shouldn’t have to talk about it, you should just sit back and let it overwhelm you.  It’s got both too little and too much backstory — too little, because you’re forever asking the hows and whys of the barrage of cultic imagery bombarding you from every corner of the screen (an exercise that makes it far too easy to notice how little sense the whole thing makes), and too much, because there are a few moments that slow down the relentless hammer-fall of action with an excess of talk.  Properly understood, the movie should be, and is, as unceasing, bombastic, and mysterious as an opera performed in a foreign language; you know you are experiencing something mythic and meaningful, crammed with connotations you are not equipped to understand, but delivered with a maximum of aesthetic punch.

As a collection of moments, an assemblage of visuals and sounds and expressions and contusions, movies hardly get any better than this.  As fast as it moves, Fury Road sears one indelible image after another in the mind’s eye:  Max, strapped to the front of a car propelling itself suicidally down a ruined highway; a coterie of breed-slaves, draped in the only clean clothes on the planet, their bodies used as power sources; a confused and angry young man preparing for his own empty death and preparing to give it meaning by slathering his face with silver spray-paint; an old woman, barely alive but able to deliver hot death from a distance to whoever she can find with her eye; an impossible, teetering contraption of a vehicle extravagantly wasting precious fuel by hauling ass all over the desert carrying a legion of drum-beating martial slave-drivers and a flamboyant guitar player, gleefully enjoying his role as the last shredder on Earth.  It’s unforgettable, and with all that, who needs more backstory?

Replacing Mel Gibson as Max is the implacable Tom Hardy, who is both stupider and more soulful in the role than his predecessor.  It’s pretty dumb to complain about the marginal role he plays in his own story, if you’re at all familiar with the other Mad Max movies; he isn’t the hero, or arguably even the central character, in any but the first of them, instead doing exactly what he does here:  sacrificing himself, his body, his sanity, and his skill, to give a future to people who really have one.  Gibson’s stoic confidence and lethal self-sufficiency is transferred here to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, and she’s an instantly indelible action icon, all noble struggle and cynicism ultimately redeemed by determination.  Max may be the hero, insofar as he literally bleeds so others can live, but Furiosa is the star.  Other excellent roles are assayed by the menacing Hugh Keays-Byrne, a series regular, as big bad guy Immortan Joe; War Boy Nux (Nichoulas Hoult) as an aggressive rookie brute betrayed by his own belief in the mythos; and Melissa Jaffer as an old woman whose prized possession may be the key to human survival, far more so than the ill-fated child carried by one of Joe’s many wives.

There has also been an inordinate amount of chatter on the internet and elsewhere about the political meaning of Mad Max:  Fury Road.  Is it a feminist screed?  Is it a condemnation of the patriarch?  Is it an exercise in misandry?  I’m sure I don’t know, but it’s a pretty sorry statement that we’re choosing to fight those battles on the battleground of what is ultimately a pretty apolitical action film and not in the context of many other movies that are explicitly about those very issues but don’t have a blockbuster’s built-in audience and media attention.  The endless agonizing over what it is or isn’t says far more about us and the way we live today than it does about Fury Road, which, in the final analysis, is nothing more or less than a flawed but still magnificent action movie of a sort that, until a few weeks ago, we could fairly say:  they don’t make ’em like that anymore.



So he says to me “Take it to the limit one more time.”  And I’m, like, one more time?  How many fucking times am I going to have to take it to the limit?  I mean, if this is the last time, fine, I’ll take it to the limit.  But I didn’t hire on at this job to just take it to the limit every time you decide you want it taken to the limit.  There are other places to take shit than the limit, you know?  And yet he gets paid more than I do.


No, sir, I’m afraid not.  No, you’re not.  I understand that, and nobody likes to get a ticket, but I get people every day blowing past here, and I pull them over and they tell me they were just trying to take it to the limit, when in fact they’re way over the limit because they were ignoring the posted…there’s no need to raise your voice, sir.  Yes, you absolutely were.  I have it on the radar gun.  Well, that’s your right, sir, but…look, do you want me to put you on the highway and show you the sign?


Come on, honey.  Just this once.  How do you know?  No, but if you’ve never done it, how do you know you won’t like it?  Baby, I swear, I never ask you for anything ever.  If you don’t like it I’ll never ask you to take it to the limit again.  Just…just take it to the edge of the limit.  How does that sound?  You want a drink first?  I swear I’ll never ask you to do it if you just take it to the limit one more time.  Come on, seriously.  That wasn’t me.  How could I have loved you and you never knew?


Solve for taking where “it” equals a photon in wave form and “the limit” equals the speed of light.


Yeah, I live at…I don’t know my account number.  Sure, it’s 324-51-9717.  5719 West Coastal Avenue, that’s right.  Yeah, well, that’s what I’m calling you about.  They’re doing it again.  The specific nature of my problem?  Well, the bright lights have faded to blue again.  Yes, again.  It happens every night right around the end of the evening.  No, they’re…well, they’re still bright, but they’re blue.  Because usually they’re, like, yellow-white?  I guess?  Regular light color.  No, I won’t be home between noon and four tomorrow, I have to work for a living.  Yes, I’ll hold.  Christ, I don’t even know what I pay the bill for.


The problem with your mother is…well, look at it this way.  I spend all my time making money, you understand?  Because I want you kids to have everything I didn’t have when I was growing up.  And I want you to get a good education.  So that’s why I work hard.  But your mother, she spends all her love making time.  What?  Why should I have to explain that?  It’s self-explanatory.  She…well, Christ, Billy, if you just give me a minute.  She spends all her time…her love, I mean, she spends her love…what I mean is, she uses all her love, which by all rights ought to go to me, as her husband, making time.  What?  I mean exactly what I said, Susan.  Making time.  Yes, you can too make time.  I mean, I can’t because I’m always…no, you’re twisting my words around, Justin.  Making time!  Making time!  It makes perfect sense, Susan.  Is that what all your tuition money is going for?  Christ, what a lip on you.


Yeah, I’m home.  I’m looking for my freedom, man.  Yeah, I already checked the laundry.  It’s…yeah!  That’s it, that’s exactly what I thought!  Right behind the door, right?  Because that’s usually where we keep it.  Right!  Right!  At the party, because we had just finished it, and you said, “Right back there, behind the freedom door”!  But, I can’t seem to find it anywhere.  What?  Chem Dawg, I just picked up an eighth.  Yeah, I’ll save you some.  Where?  The…no, no, the freedom is behind the freedom door.  I can’t find the door.  Yeah, for, like, two hours!  Do what?  Do what now?  Just follow the walls until a door shows up?  That’s heavy, man.  That’s really heavy.


I keep having the same exact dream.  I’m in this southern rock band, and it’s 1975, and we’ve just written the biggest hit of our career to date.  But we spent all of our royalties on cocaine and mechanical bull rides.  Mostly cocaine, and three or four mechanical bull rides.  So I’m really burned out, and even though we have the #4 song in America, I have to go to work as a prostitute.  The john who’s turning me out dresses me up in a brown felt cowboy hat and a fringe suede jacket and calls me “Pussy-Eating Johnson” because the only movies he’s ever seen are Midnight Cowboy and Jeremiah Johnson.  No, it doesn’t bother me that much, because that’s what I wear most of the time anyway, but it turns out that ladies and queers are mostly into disco now, so I’m not making a lot of money, and it’s really humiliating.  And the thing is, I keep having this same dream, over and over again, and what’s really weird about it is that I’m not even in the Eagles!  I’m in Barefoot Jerry!


Hey!  Get moving!  I don’t give a shit it all fell to pieces, you put it back together and get it the hell out of here!  There are people at the limit waiting for the fucking thing!  They don’t get it from us, they’re going to get it from Hinder!  Is that what you want?


Pledge Drive 2015

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A Mean Pinball

Thanks for tagging along with me on this tour of the Seattle Pinball Museum!  You all have been a great group, and it’s been a real treat strolling through the history of the silver ball with you.  We’ve seen some of the all-time classic machines during our walk, but before we conclude our little adventure, I thought I’d show you the flip side of those golden greats.

Time was, when a proposed pinball game wasn’t up to snuff, it would warrant no more response than a politely worded letter from the Rejection Department headed up by Don Francis Bally, the great-grand-nephew of the Godfather of Pinball, who suffered from an intolerance for sub-par machines, and also severe fructose malabsorption.  But on rare occasions, a below-average board would not only get past the pitch phase, but actually end up in production.  Usually recalled after consumer complaints, injuries, or class-action lawsuits, these machines became the rarest of collectors’ items, their extremely limited production run making them extremely valuable despite their lack of popularity.  Make sure you keep to the center of the aisle, as some of these machines are highly dangerous and prone to spontaneous combustion.

Over on my left, you’ll see the first machine in the Pinball Hall of Shame, 1967’s MEAT THE BEETLES.  Designed to cash in on the tail end of Beatlemania, this was rushed to production without having secured any of the proper licensing rights, resulting in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit from Capitol Records.  The same haste resulted in a lack of availability of Beatles songs for the admittedly innovative recorded soundtrack that would sound off during bonus play, meaning the manufacturers had to make due with a selection of cut-rate covers by an upstate New York three-piece called “The Buffaleadles” as well as a handful of Herman’s Hermits tracks.  Additionally, though the backbox featured a convincing replica of the infamous Yesterday and Today ‘butcher’ cover, licensees were encouraged to stock it with real meat, resulting in a repulsive odor and pest problems after a few weeks of play.

Now if you look to my left, you’ll see…oops, sorry, son, don’t touch, this one’s a real bastard…you’ll see 1973’s notorious 3-D CREATURE FEATURE.  Billed as the world’s first three-dimensional pinball machine, it raised eyebrows from fans who asked if all pinball machines were not, in fact, three-dimensional already.  The manufacturer explained that the machine was considered 3-D because of its lack of playfield glass, meaning the player could “interact” with the ball in unprecedented ways.  Unfortunately, most of these ways involved grievous injuries, as the large number of ramps and spring-loaded holes resulted in 371 broken noses, 14 lost eyeballs, and a staggering number of taped-together eyeglasses.  Players prone towards tilting particularly took it on the chin — quite literally — and the machine was made with subpar Namibian rubber on the bumpers, which was prone to breakage and left players across the country with serious welts and facial scarring.

One of the most beloved video games of the early 1980s, FROGGER did not make a successful transition to the world of pinball machines.  1983’s FROGGER:  THE PINBALL GAME had the same graphic design, the same premise, and the same music as its arcade counterpart, and manufacturer Konami felt that its fidelity to the original would be its salvation.  Instead, it turned out to be its damnation, as the pinball board featured an almost identical game-play to the video version as well.  A series of dozens of slow-moving flippers would painstakingly creep across the playfield, gradually allowing the player to flick a green, frog-like pinball through a cluttered field of moving car-shaped bumpers.  While there was some enjoyment to be had in eventually reaching the other end of the field and scoring generous points, the average of nine and a half hours it took to play a typical game was not considered worth it by most players.

Williams had a smash hit with its PINBOT machine, spawning a run of successful spin-offs, including THE MACHINE:  BRIDE OF PINBOT and the casino-themed JACK*BOT.  That luck reached its end in 1997 with the unimpressive debut of SON OF PINBOT.  While keeping with the fantastic sci-fi themes of its predecessors, it let down fans of the franchise when it was revealed that the offspring of Pinbot and The Machine was simply an industrial mining robot; the sole feature of the playfield was a drop target reading “PROCESS ORE? Y/N”, and the player would receive one point for hitting it.  In addition to the dull game-play, it was considered a poor value at 50 cents a game.  Williams’ defense that sophisticated robotics were expensive to maintain was not met with an understanding reception.

Cashing in on the mid-1990s craze for movie-themed solid-state electronic pinball machines with original voices and flashy computerized displays, Midway followed up the wildly popular ADDAMS FAMILY game with 1992’s HOWARD’S END.  Though based upon a critically acclaimed film that won multiple Oscars, players soundly rejected it.  Common complaints were that the mournful score by composer Percy Grainger was “depressing”; the gameplay, based on the intricacies of the British social class system, was “incomprehensible”, and that the voice acting, which cost the company millions of dollars, was not effective, as players found Anthony Hopkins voicing subtle disapprobation and Emma Thompson gravely intoning “Yes, yes, well, that will have to do, then” unhelpful.

Similarly, the pricey but elaborately designed WWE:  TABLETOP THUNDER was meant to capitalize on the mania for Vince McMahon’s hugely popular televised sports entertainment empire, but it, too, suffered from poorly planned fidelity, sketchy game-play, and McMahon’s own litigious nature.  The playfield was well-designed, with lots of kinetic action, exciting graphics, and a realistic soundtrack with plenty of original voiceovers by real WWE superstars.  However, players balked at the way the game simulated actual wrestling, with ‘heel turns’ resulting in in-play balls being confiscated and never returned, and the ‘Distracted Referee’ feature, where as many as a million earned points would simply not be recognized by the machine’s motherboard.  The game was also constantly out of commission as the WWE chairman would constantly order recalls of the machine to delete the images and voices of wrestlers who had fallen out of favor with management or failed to renew their contracts.

Finally, our latest addition was a gamble that failed:  the Koch-Brothers-funded MITT ROMNEY PRESIDENTIAL PINBALL FUN AMUSEMENT TOY was mass-produced based on a failed prediction of the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, and has now been donated en masse to impoverished pinballers in West Africa.  It may be just as well, as many players in Sierra Leone and Liberia complain that the machine simply fails to recognize their pressing the flippers if their net worth is under $275,000 per year.


The Special Olympics of Film

Quickly, now: name one good filmmaker who started out making music videos.

Not bad, not bad. Now, just as quickly: name one good filmmaker who, after making it in feature films, went back and made more music videos.

Wasn’t as easy, was it? And if you’re looking for a reason why, it’s not because music videos pay less. It’s because music videos are fucking terrible, and the people who make them are the special needs children of the cinematographic arts. Intellectually underpowered, possessed of severe personality disorders, and unable to fully explain or even comprehend where they are or what they are doing, these disadvantaged creatures are all too often ignored by society, shuttled from overpriced film schools into a world where they are subjected to the worst kind of self-esteem-building: getting wildly overpraised for doing little more than making a big mess.

How did this happen? How did society’s attempt to save already-damaged artists from a fate worse than death – I speak, of course, of performance art — become a cottage industry for the incompetent? Part of the blame lies in the medium itself. Music videos are nothing more than commercials for records, and commercials are where art goes to die. And, because we know you’re already angrily composing lists of good music videos, let’s be clear: the existence of decent videos no more justifies the entire misguided medium than does the occasional appearance of a witty, artful or aesthetically well-done commercial excuse the other loud, flatulent, and profoundly annoying 99%.

But music videos have a bigger problem. In a regular commercial, you can keep the idiocy to a minimum, because you’re selling something fairly tangible and prosaic: just stick someone in front of the camera enjoying your client’s beer, dishwashing liquid and/or sports utility vehicle. Quick, easy, and no one gets hurt. Music videos, however, are there to sell an aesthetic experience. And so the people it attracts to create its commercials are people who fancy themselves artists. The problem is, they are trying to make art out of something that is already art, resulting in a situation where you are trying to enjoy a nice little tune and some brain-damaged, self-impressed cretin keeps sticking his chocolate vision into your peanut butter artistic experience. It’s like a bad illustration in a book, or a poorly chosen song on the soundtrack to a film, only much more intrusive.

Worse still, our hapless dip behind the camera has to conjure up a ‘vision’ for his little film, and he hasn’t got much to work with. A great painter may be able to turn a bowl of fruit or the hands of a peasant into a transcendent experience, but there isn’t a filmmaker alive who can sew the sow’s ear of a Celine Dion song into a silk purse. Not to betray a long-held confidence or anything, but here’s a little secret: pop music lyrics are kind of stupid. So, lacking any decent narrative on which to pin his filmic narrative beyond “I love you” or “I enjoy parties” or “I am a singer, watch me singing this song”, the director inevitably falls into the low-rent surrealism and disjointed ‘image-making’ that got him kicked out of art school in the first place.

Of course, film does not need to have a narrative either, but anyone willing to distort the definition of experimental film to include the kind of brain-bruised shenanigans that take place in the majority of music videos will not find the favor kindly repaid. Even experimental film is built around an idea – a mood, a tone, an emotional note, a specific sensibility, an aesthetic or philosophical theme, a structural conceit. Music videos, on the other hand, are usually built around nothing more than images, or what the morons who make them call a ‘concept’. Towering, overpriced edifices to pseudoreference, they seem to mean something, but they add up to nothing. Just like stupid people don’t think they’re stupid, but merely can’t understand higher thought, whoever directed the video for Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” doesn’t know he’s a directionless tool; he just thinks a ninja doing aerobics inside a cloud of baby powder looks cool instead of ridiculous.

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about rap videos that are nothing more than a catechism of cliché, or performance videos that mistakenly believe that watching someone lip-synch for the camera in a half-lit warehouse is as much fun as going to a concert, or well-meaning indie band videos that attempt to convey the profundities of the lead singer’s soul by having a couple of his unemployed buddies jump around in a park dressed like Vikings. It all adds up to a privately-funded welfare program for some of the country’s least promising filmmakers. Which, I guess, is okay, as long as it keeps them out of the theaters.


Taken for Granted

Goodness knows our society has long mistaken the exhortation to kill its idols for an invitation to shit on its most talented members, but sometimes it seems that comics fandom in particular is determined to isolate the best and brightest of their chosen medium’s creators and relentlessly heap bile on them until they go away, leaving the job of telling the stories they love so much to the most mediocre and predictable elements available.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Grant Morrison.

Alan Moore, at the very least, has the good grace to be an irascible old crank who hates comics, comic companies, comics fans, and pretty much everything else.  (And God — or giant snake-god — bless him for it.)  This makes it easy for fans to despise him and forget that he created at least a half-dozen of the finest works ever written for the superhero genre.  With Morrison, though, it can’t be attributed to crazy-old-manhood, or a case of being jilted, or personal or professional bitterness.  Although he’s possessed of plenty of the same quirks as Moore, he houses them in an urbane, sophisticated display that does nothing to piss off fans on a personal level; he’s still almost alarmingly enthusiastic about the superhero medium, and doesn’t bum out America’s man-children by pointing out that their primary hobby is kind of embarrassing; and far from having burned his bridges (or, more accurately, having had them burned), he’s worked his way to a level of almost unprecedented power and influence at venerable DC Comics.  And yet, while he’s still widely celebrated by many fans and critics, there remains a segment — vocal, hyperbolic, and not markedly small — who openly despise him and call him the worst thing to happen to the industry since Wertham.

Even his success is turned against him:  some of the same people who vilify Moore as a prickly, difficult snob who never learned to play ball claim that Morrison is a toady, a suck-up, a company man who betrays the legacy he loves just for the chance to play with them in his cosmos-sized sandbox.  Morrison’s work is too difficult, some of them say, with the charge of pretentiousness — that is, difficulty for difficulty’s sake — never too far away.  Morrison has no respect for the characters and wreaks arbitrary change on them for his own amusement, some of them say, with others going so far as to accuse him of not understanding the essence of these four-color icons in the first place.  Morrison is contemptuous of the fans, some of them say, and does not respond to their wishes.  Morrison leaves jobs undone, some of theme say, dangling threads of plot everywhere, failing to make connections, forgetting his place and leaving the universe over which he has been given charge a total mess.

I must confess to a near complete lack of appreciation for these charges; whether as a summary referendum on his character in general, or an analysis of specific cases, I find little merit in them.  Morrison’s work may be difficult to the kind of fan who despises ambiguity, fails to appreciate mystery, and resents being asked to make an effort, but it is only difficult by the still-paltry standards of superhero comics, and its best qualities — by turns elegant and simple — can be discerned by anyone who approaches his writing with a modicum of respect.  He may play ball with the powers that be to get himself into a position to effect change in the editorial mission of DC Comics, but it is a job that needs doing quite badly, and who else would do a better job of it?  Surely none of the cut-rate toadies, egotists, and hacks who make up the rest of Dan DiDio’s entourage.  The idea that Morrison doesn’t understand superhero comics is particularly bizarre, given that he literally wrote the book on the subject; it may not be the best book on the subject, but differences of interpretation aside, this is clearly not a man who doesn’t care about his medium.

The charge that he disrespects the characters bears a bit more examination.  The lack of vividness and uniqueness in some of his character work (though certainly not all) can probably be attributed that, especially of late, he has been called on to work with a cast of literally hundreds of individual characters; a few are sure to come off as a bit samey, but when the rubber meets the road, he can still hit you in the heart.  I think part of the confusion arises from the fact that one of Morrison’s great strengths — it can be witnessed anywhere, even in a brief and largely inconsequential panel on page 6 of this week’s Multiversity Handbook where he strips eternal Marvel Family nemesis Dr. Sivana to his purest visual essence by the multiple occurrence of two adjacent circles to symbolize his Coke-bottle glasses — is to immediately ascertain the most pure iconic nature of a character and use it as a thru-line in his storytelling.  This criticism comes up again and again, and to me, it seems to come from people who not only perceive this quality as a weakness rather than a strength, but also simply disagree with his assessment of what is essential about those characters.

Since I do my best to stay out of the rat-hole that is comics fandom, I cannot speak to whether or not the man holds his fans in contempt; he was certainly quite open and kind to me when I interviewed him a few years ago.  I don’t remember reading any instances where he was openly hostile or insulting to fans, but allowing for the fact that I might have just missed them, I have to consider that this hostility might run only one way, and that Morrison — a man who seems to me to come across as friendly and forthcoming — may be more hated than hateful.  The final charge, that he is a genius of coming up with ideas and a fool at executing them, is common enough, and there is some truth to it; the DC Universe is tangled with the plot and story threads he has left dangling all over the place.  I’m willing to let him off the hook for this, as I am for the fact that he can indeed be hit-and-miss as a writer, because his workload is phenomenally heavy; he’s producing an enormous amount of material for DC even aside from his editorial duties, and he’s bound to leave some stuff hanging from the rafters.  But when he is allowed, as he often isn’t, to complete a story, it’s more often than not airtight, with even sprawling and complex storylines (as in 7 Soldiers of Victory) wrapped up neatly in the end.  It should also be recognized that someone with an eye as far ahead as his may not be forgetful or careless so much as he is deliberately planting seeds for himself, or others, to harvest down the road.

Grant Morrison is a clever, intelligent, passionate, and prolific writer.  His work habits are by all accounts extraordinary; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of comics that he bring to bear on work that is creative rather than academic; and he has done the near-impossible by introducing metafictional techniques to comics without making them cheap and obvious, telling stories about stories in a way far less ham-fisted than the far more celebrated Neil Gaiman does.  He has managed to retain a subversive, progressive, and artistically refined outlook on his work while rising to a position of great authority in his chosen métier.  And on top of all that, he has produced an astonishing number of comics of great accomplishment and quality:  Doom Patrol, The Authority, The Invisibles, Batman, 7 Soldiers of Victory, Flex Mentallo, Seaguy, We3, and All-Star Superman, among others.  His failures have been few, and his greatest successes have been great indeed.  I don’t expect everyone to love him, but I don’t understand why so many people hate him; there are few people in comics with his combination of work ethic and talent, and we banish him at our peril.


Deep Reads #6: Forces in the Field

From The Trouble with Principle by Stanley Fish:

“Many bad things are now being done in the name of neutral principles, and I hope it is clear by now that it is no paradox to say that bad things are being done by something which doesn’t exist.  Indeed, it is crucial that neutral principles not exist if they are to perform the function I have described, the function of facilitating the efforts of partisan agents to attach an honorific vocabulary to their agendas.  For the effort to succeed, the vocabulary (of ‘fairness’, ‘merit’, ‘neutrality’, ‘impartiality’, ‘mutual respect’, and so on) must be empty, have no traction or bite of its own, and thus be an unoccupied vessel waiting to be filled by whoever gets to it first or with the most persuasive force.

“But while there is a strong relationship between the emptiness or nonexistence of neutral principles and the work that they do (again, the emptiness provides the space for the work), there is no relationship at all between the emptiness of neutral principles and the political direction of that work.  I have labeled the things I see being done with neutral principles as ‘bad’ because they involve outcomes I neither desire nor approve.  They are not ‘bad’ simply because they were generated by the vocabulary of neutral principles, for that vocabulary has also generated outcomes I favor, especially in the areas of civil rights and the expansion of opportunities for women in the workplace and on the athletic field.  The fact that the game of neutral principles is really a political game — the object of which is to package your agenda in a vocabulary everyone, or almost everyone, honors — is itself neutral and tells you nothing about how the game will be played in a particular instance.  The truth, as I take it to be, that neutral principles, insofar as they are anything, are the very opposite of neutral, and are filled with substance, won’t tell you what substance they are filled with or whether or not you will like it.  The fact that someone is invoking neutral principles will give you no clue as to where he is likely to come out until he actually arrives there and reveals his substantive positions.

“Those who stand on neutral principles often wish to be neutral in the political sense, and they avoid taking sides in deference to the pluralism of the forces in the field.  It is for them that Machiavelli reserves his greatest scorn:  ‘As a general thing, anyone who is not your friend will advise neutrality, while anyone who is your friend will ask you to join him, weapon in hand.’  Taking sides, weapon in hand, is not a sign of zealotry or base partisanship; it is the sign of morality, and it is the morality of taking sides, of frank and vigorous political action that is to be celebrate (though not urged, for it is inevitable.

“Thus, a number of related and finally equivalent lessons:  no principle not already inflected with substance; no substantive agenda that is not (in the only appropriate non-neutral sense) principled.  No part of the self (deliberative reason, reflective self-consciousness) abstracted from substantive commitments, and therefor no vantage point from which to survey one’s beliefs and revise them.  No good reason to set one’s beliefs aside in favor of some higher-order impartiality or ethic of mutual respect, unless those abstractions are what you believe in — unless, that is, they are substantive and available to challenge as such.  No vocabulary not already laden with substance and therefore no neutral-observation language on the basis of which non-biased action can be taken.  No device, either representational or empirical, for quarantining politics, and therefore no hope of a procedural republic from which divisive issues have been banished and in which we can all just get along.  No straight line from those lessons to the solution of any real-life problem; they are of no help and do no work except the (non-directing) work of telling you that you are on your own and that the resources you need are within you, if they are anywhere.

“The main thing I believe is that conflict is manageable only in the short run and that structures of conciliation and harmony are forever fragile and must always be shored up, with uncertain success.  I am tempted to turn this into an imperative — perhaps, with a nod to Frederic Jameson, ‘always politicize’ — but the imperative would be unnecessary, for that is what we do all the time, whether we choose to or not.”


Fortunately Gone

This site has momentarily suspended its provision of content.  Perhaps new material is being prepared.  Perhaps its proprietor has died.  Or perhaps a third thing.  By all means, keep checking back, see where it gets you.



Jesus On The Main Line

“Well, how’d you know it was Him, Jimmy, is my question.”

“I just knowed it.”

“Now, how’d you ‘just knowed’ somethin’ like that? You don’t ‘just know’ that somebody’s the Lord Jesus Christ returned to Earth.”

“Some things you just know, Clint. Like, instinctually.”

“What’d He look like?”

“About what you’d expect, really. Beard, white robe. Belt made out of a piece of rope. Sandals. Kind of a short fella. He didn’t look too good, to tell you the truth.”

“So where’d you run into Him again?”

“Out on the side of the road, by US 385.”

“Over acrost from the Peach Tree?”

“That’s the one.”

“What was He doin’, headin’ over there for a cup of coffee or somethin’?”

“Now, see, that’s what I figured. I reckoned He was a hitchhiker or similar, and I was God’s honest truth gonna tell Him to move right along because we didn’t want nobody in the Peach Tree puttin’ the touch on us. But as soon as He opened his mouth, I knowed he was the Savior.”

“And how’d you know that? On account of He told you so?”

“Well, on account of He spoke Aramaic, for one thing.”

“Arawhovic? You mean like an A-Rab? I thought you said it was Jesus, not Moo-hammed.”

“No, that’s Arabic, you numbnuts. This was Aramaic He was speakin’.”

“And how in the hell do you come to speak Aramaic, Jimmy? You don’t even talk English good.”

“You know how I got that little teevee out in the barn, and I watch it when I’m milkin’?”


“Well, all that’s on in the early morning save for them damn woman shows is Home Extension University on the public television channel. So I just picked it up.”

“All right, all right. What’d He say?”

“As you might ‘spect, it was His second coming. Only He was havin’ all kinds of problems.”

“Problems? What you mean, problems? He’s the son of God, for corn sake, Jimmy.”

“Now as it happens, Clint, that’s one of the problems. The way He tells it, the Old Man don’t keep too much up on current affairs. He’s too busy watchin’ every sparrow fall and what have you. Don’t even own a dish or nothin’. So has far as the Old Man’s concerned, ain’t nothin’ changed for two thousand years.”

“You’re shittin’ me.”

“Don’t kid a kidder, Clint, is what I always say. So God sends Jesus down here, don’t give Him no cell phone, don’t give Him no blue jeans or walkin’ shoes, don’t give Him no car, don’t even teach Him to speak English. Kid looks like a rat’s nest and don’t smell so good neither. And he’s out here, in Dalhart. God just plunks Him down any ol’ where, figures He’ll get to where He needs to be. Poor kid ain’t got no road atlas or GPS or nothin’. Hell, if I hadn’t come along, He mighta run into Bert Klum down at the Lions Hall, and then He’d be in a right mess. Bert probably shove a pool cue up His ass thinkin’ he’s a crankhead.”

“So…so what happened?”

“Well, it turns out He gots all these speeches He needs to deliver, right? Sermons and whatnot. So as to save the world, I guess. And He tells me He needs to get to where all the action is, so He can get peoples’ ears. So He asks me if I know how to get to Jerusalem.”

“Oh, Lord.”

“You said it.  I told him I don’t think that’s really the right place for Him right now. I didn’t go into much detail, understand me. I just suggested He oughtta think about maybe Hollywood, or at least Nashville.”

“Good thinkin’.”

“Well, He wasn’t havin’ none of it. He said it had to be the Holy Land or at least the greatest city in all the world, which He didn’t know what was what. He kept talkin’ about places like Antioch and Thessalonika.”

“So what’d you do?”

“Well, what could I do, Clint? He’s Jesus. I can’t just disobey Him, now, can I?”

“Oh, Jimmy, you didn’t.

“I drove Him down to Dallas and took Him to Love Field, and got Him a ticket for…”


“…New York City.”


“What other choice was there, Clint?”

“Jimmy, do you know what deicide is?”

“A little bit.”

“Do you know what punishment that feller Danty prescribes for deicide?”

“I can’t rightly remember, Clint, now you come to mention it.”

“You better hope Satan brushes his teeth regularly, Jimmy, is all I can say.”



“I reckon.”


The question came over a week ago, from one of my oldest friends:  why don’t you write about politics anymore?

At first, it struck me as an absurd thing to ask:  don’t I write about politics all the damn time?  Didn’t I write for one of the internet’s spunkiest lefty blogs?  Didn’t I once cram my body full of dangerous drugs just so I could tolerate being around a gathering of right-wing conservatives for the amusement of my fellow libs? Ain’t I got the power?

But that’s when it hit me:  I was largely framing my political writing in the past tense.  While I still update my blog regularly, I can go months without posting anything political.  I will still occasionally talk politics on my Twitter or Facebook accounts, but it’s usually brief, infrequent, and, often as not, directed at the excessive behavior of my ‘allies’ on the left instead of my enemies on the right.  While I link to writing I find worthwhile, it’s almost never my own.  I don’t even make myself a presence in the comments sections of my favorite political blogs anymore.  Roy Edroso, who’s thankfully in it for the long haul, lists me on his blogroll under the rubric of “Forget About Politics”, and he’s not wrong to do so.  What happened?  What changed?  Why is the thing that was once my most burning passion now my most dying ember?

I wish I could credit it to Barack Obama.  That’s the common accusation on the right, anyway; when it was their guy in office, we lefties couldn’t tear him down fast enough, but now that it’s our man, suddenly we don’t have anything to say.  But that’s certainly not the case with me — and it’s not just because there’s a black Democrat in the White House.  From where I sit, almost every important issue is the same or worse than when Obama took office; some of that is his fault, and some of it isn’t, but the song remains the same.  I’ve taken more heat from my Democratic friends for expressing disappointment that the Obama who ran for office isn’t the same person who’s served in that office — more than I ever took for criticizing George W. Bush.  And even if that weren’t the case — even if Obama really did close Guantanamo, even if he stood behind the unions or passed single-payer health care or made a stand against the security state or pursued a foreign policy that wasn’t largely reckless nonsense — the usual suspects are still out there carrying on.  Even if Obama were the next FDR (or the next Lenin, as the right wants to frame him in their official portraits), the worst elements of our society, from the paid propagandists of the FOX network to the recidivist Republican senators of the South to the monomaniacal corporate bosses who let the world burn for the sake of a more robust balance sheet, are still in full effect.  If one is in the mood to complain, there is no shortage of things to complain about.

Nor can I blame it on my own behavior.  It is true that I write less about politics now because I write less in general now; but shitting on my own career was nobody’s fault but my own, and the weight I’ll have to carry for betraying the trust of my readers is  of my own making.  It’s tempting to think that I should keep my trap shut so as not to be constant reminded of my own fuck-ups, but even today, when Google perpetuates your every failure in perpetuity, it’s hard to tell how far one’s infamy reaches.  I’ve largely given up on writing except for my own amusement (although it might be more accurate to call it a consequence and not a choice), but honestly, I caught more heat over my bad decision from people who professed to be fans of my work than I ever have from political opponents.  To blame my lack of political output on my self-made circumstance would be to compound a lie with a lie.

I can’t even chalk it up to my own bourgeoisification.  It’s true that I’m in a much better position now than I have been in years; I finally have a good job again, with health insurance, a decent place to live, and generally satisfying personal circumstances.  I’ve moved to probably the most liberal big city in America, a place that has legalized both gay marriage and recreational marijuana and has suspended the death penalty.  It even elected — I am proud to say, with my help — a genuine Socialist to its city government.  But I’m still tens of thousands of dollars in debt, living from paycheck to paycheck, and as likely to ever own a home or have a decent retirement as I am to swim to the moon and back.  Weed and gay marriage are nice, but they won’t stop the institutional rot and greed that are poisoning the country.  And while I yield to no one in my love of Kshama Sawant, she is just a city councilperson, and I remain quite skeptical that her election will lead to a renaissance of socialist government in America.

The fact is, I’m just tired.  Even writing this — should I call it an excuse?  A confession?  Not a surrender, surely — has taken me months, and I get exhausted just contemplating it.  I keep up with the news as much as I ever did; I still stay current with the best political bloggers and respect the work that they do; and politics is important to me, but it’s in an abstract way that seems less immediate all the time, in the way, maybe, that language is important to me, or philosophy.  More and more, I feel like I’m engaged in the most lost of all lost causes, and it wears me out.

Part of this has to do with big issues.  I know I risk sounding like an old crank here — sounding like, hell; I am an old crank — but even as recently as the 1990s, I had the feeling that, even if the country was headed in the wrong direction, it could still be rescued if enough people cared enough about the right things to turn it around.  It no longer feels that way anymore.  We remain a two-party nation, and worse, the Republicans have moved farther to the right while the Democrats, too, have moved farther to the right.  We have won important victories, but lost nearly every one that matters:  our political system is more for sale than it has ever been.  The idea that the only proper way to manage society is with capitalism and more capitalism is stronger than it has ever been.  Militarism, the prison complex, and the security state continue to grow and grow, while the possibility of undoing the vast amounts of damage we have done to our own environment continues to shrink.  We have bought into the austerity hustle hook, line and sinker, and the idea that the government (or, through the government, the wealthy) should do anything whatsoever to prevent the poor, the sick, and the aged from the sharpest corners of a cruel world is rapidly losing traction.  We have accepted with a shrug the idea that the wealthiest and most predatory business entities can bust the economy, poison the air and water, steal from the public till, and eradicate the very idea of job security and a living wage, and if anything is ever done to control the damage they do, it will be funded by the taxpayer.  My own greatest and most personal causes — unionism and the rights of the working class — are now a quaint joke.

Beyond our failure to address the key issues of the day, our ability to formulate resistance seems to have been self-crippled.  We have so thoroughly accepted the existence, and inevitability, of the two-party system that we demand practically nothing from our Democratic leaders, lest they be replaced by a Republican who is even worse; we identify those who even mildly criticize the president as traitors at worst and delusional Utopians at best.  The youngest generation able to participate in politics is socially liberal, but has bought into the money game like they know nothing different; and those who do prioritize politics over career are like as not to be social justice warriors, for whom every political stance is filtered through a pop-culture lens, to whom every argument is a sign of treachery and betrayal, with whom the ultimate goal is a self-built ghetto of one, where nothing as messy as society or the economy can ever detract from your specialness.  While there are obviously good people in good organizations all over the country fighting the good fight, it is distressing to think that the task of actually maintaining a safe, productive nation where there is the possibility of justice and equality has been shed by government and ordinary citizens and handed over to the diminishing number of people willing to do it at great personal cost.  Public life going in cycles as it does, I am very willing to accept the possibility that there will someday be a rebirth of social responsibility; but for the first time — and to be sure, this may be age talking — I worry that it will finally be too late.

To be sure, there are reasons to be hopeful.  The opposition to gay marriage continues to crumble, and I now think its demise is inevitable; and drug legalization is gaining more traction than I ever thought it would.  But for every positive development that’s come sooner than I thought, there are three negative ones that makes the world that much uglier.  Whether the internet has caused this or merely revealed it, the tone and depth of stupidity being expressed in political discussions is no longer funny to me; public discourse is so shamefully degraded that it’s depressing to even think about.  My two primary modes of engaging in political discussion — ridiculous humor and ridiculous earnest — no longer seem to work, as satire outpaced reality decades ago, and what’s the point of putting on an earnest face for the handful of people who still pay attention?  Maybe the day will come when I change my mind, and feel the fight again, but until then, I’d rather just make jokes and watch movies.


Let Justice Be Dumb

Life takes you in strange directions, it cannot be denied.  I myself used to be a liberal, and a communist before that, in the days when it seemed worthwhile to care about things.  But I am an old man now, and it profits me neither in mind or spirit to keep up with what the young folks are interested in fighting over.  For one thing, in my laddish days, we thought the streets were the place to express one’s’ quarrel with the Man and His bad behavior, superior even to the editorial page or the ballot box.  This is before we discovered the Internet, you understand, before we knew that Tumblr would be the hill on which all future battles for peace and equality would be fought, before we knew that the Man was bulletproof and that if we ever hoped to effect change, our targets of opportunity would have to be other people gassing on line.

It took a long time for me to know the score but now that I’m hip to the ways of the world it seems only fair to pass it along to other confused old blokes of my age and station, so they might know how properly to navigate the new channels that have been dug in the surface of the body politic.  Thus this introduction to my new friends, who aggregate together not under the the banner of political correctness, who march not under the colors of left or right, but whose panoply marks them as the noblest of all fighting forces, the SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR.  Contained in those three words is all the explication one needs, every motivation and every contradiction, every (if I may use a word drawn from the days when Karl Marx seemed like something more than just another dead white male) tendency that has brought us to this great and final battle, which is fought not to free us all, but to make sure we all live comfortably in our self-designated and highly individualized ghettos.

Ess is for “Social”, and Society is the milieu in which the Social Justice Warrior braces for mortal combat.  ”Social” is also one-half of the archaic formation “socio-economic”, but the other half has begun to rust like an abandoned steel mill.  If there is one thing that brings the social justice left and the libertarian right together, it is recognition that economic arguments are difficult, require altogether too much expertise, and depend on the behavior of actors too foolish to follow their own rational self-interest.  Too much talk about economics might lead to a discomfiting realization of the existence of class — in one’s nation or, worse yet, in one’s own head.  Start talking about economics and you might wonder why you do all your protesting on an expensive machine built for you by virtual slave labor an ocean away, where the lessons of sexism and homophobia are too dearly learnt.  In a world built on degrees of intersectionality, it will not do to come to the realization that there are really only two groups that matter:  the owners and the owned.

Better, then, to glorify the social, to build a world based on equality of language, where everyone is spoken to with equal respect; that will make up for not actually being treated with any.  If there must be a great leveling, let it be in the realm of pronouns, let us have a theoretical equality of terminology instead of an actual equality of opportunity.  And if one cannot make society into a paradigm of false politeness disguised as respect, then one can at least shrink it down to a small circle of allies and enemies, found only in comments sections and on message boards, separate but equal to the larger society that consists of real people who have different ideas about what and who have a call on their integrity.

Jay is for “Justice”, which, the ancient wisdom of the dead assures us, is different from revenge.  But vengeance is primarily the mission of the Social Justice Warrior; punishment, and not reform, is what is sought.  If society is to be defined as an amorphous entity consisting of the same opinions, then what punishment can there be more fitting than expulsion from it?  When you have built Eden, no horror can be greater than to be forced to live outside the garden, forever peeking over its walls.  True justice, like economics, is a fiendishly difficult thing; its platforms are constantly shifting, its demands are frustratingly contingent, and it lacks a permanent and absolute promontory from which it can be handed down.  Vengeance, on the other hand, is simple to understand, and easy to hand out.  Its stock in trade is the apology, and what could be more rational and simple than an apology?  Who could be more heinous than some brute who refuses to apologize, who maintains against all logic that he has not done anything wrong?

Justice is difficult for so many reasons.  It demands an assumption of equality, when we live in a world of privilege; it demands evidence of wrongdoing rather than mere accusations, clamorously repeated; it demands proportionality and not mere obliteration.  Justice does not believe in allies or cronies and is not interested in narrative.  Worst of all, justice asks you if you might be inclined to forgive an offense for which there has been no apology, no compensation, no gain.  Vengeance lets you off the hook and is superior in ever way; it just doesn’t sound as good.

Double-you is for “Warrior”, and it is war, war with the world.  In old conceptions of war, there were allies as well as enemies.   But the war of the Social Justice Warrior is total war, where there is nothing but targets.  The war is eternal and unwinnable, but since it must be fought, there can be no strategy; only tactics.  There is no end, only means.  Alliances are, of necessity, always temporary, always frangible, and the lack of observance of a minor protocol by an ally is a far greater injury than murder by an enemy.  There is no area of life that is to be exempted from the war; the personal is not just political, it is dogmatical, and there can be no forgiveness of those unaware they are fighting in the war, for ignorance and evil are the same thing.  The greatest and strongest army is the army of one, for only the self can never be betrayed, only the self can never weaken or desert.

As in any war, the troops must know their general orders, and be willing to live by them and die for them:

1.  TO take charge of this affinity group, to identify only with it, and to assume the right to be offended on behalf of all others thus identified;

2.  TO live one’s life in a military manner, seeking out the unacceptable and the problematic in everything that takes place within sight or hearing;

3.  TO report all violations of standards you have chosen to enforce, and to condemn absolutely all those violating these standards;

4.  TO repeat all accusations, no matter how distant from one’s own knowledge, interest, or experience;

5.  TO quit my post only when a new outrage is detected;

6.  TO receive, believe, and pass on to one’s relieving sentry all accusations, regardless of origin, factual basis, official determination of guilt, or context;

7.  TO talk to no one who does not already agree with one’s premises;

8.  TO give the alarm in case of skepticism or new information;

9.  TO refer to the zeitgeist in any case not covered by instructions, and to ensure that all combat is fought in the field of culture and nowhere else;

10.  TO ignore all hypocrisy, as long as it flies your colors and standards; and

11.  TO be especially watchful of doubt, and, during the time for challenging, to challenge in all caps and with plentiful trigger warnings, and to allow no one to pass under any circumstances.

Thus armed you may go out into the world — a world which seems to grow smaller and more restricted even as all previous barriers weaken and fall — clad in that most perfect raiment, certainty.  You need never have cause to fear that you are wrong, because you have defined yourself as representative of those blessed ideas that are never wrong, and those who question or oppose you must, by definition, be never right.  You may join your brothers on the right in Zhdanovite precision, secure in the knowledge that society is a thing you can bend to your own definitions, justice is a matter of accounting, and war is a thing that must always be fought and need never be won.  Go forth and be likewise.


How Fandom Works: A Non-Toon

1.  JERRY FAN:  I love pies

2.  JACKY FAN:  I also love pies

3.  (both eat pies with little enthusiasm)

4.  JERRY FAN:  This pie would make a good cake


1.  JERRY FAN:  Did you hear Bill’s Bakery fired Baker Bob

2.  JACKY FAN:  But Baker Bob baked all their best pies

3.  JERRY & JACKY FAN:  We are outraged

4.  JERRY FAN:  I wonder what the new pies from Bill’s Bakery will be like


1.  JERRY FAN:  I hate this new pie

2.  JACKY FAN:  Me too, this pie is dry crumbly and tasteless

3.  JANEY FAN:  Then why do you guys keep buying the pies

4.  JERRY FAN:  If we don’t buy them they might stop making them


1.  JERRY FAN:  Your latest cake was terrible

2.  JACKY FAN:  Yeah there was no excuse for that cake

3.  BAKERY BILL:  We’re making another one of those cakes

4.  JERRY FAN:  Awesome, so excited


1.  JERRY FAN:  There should be more women who are into baking pies

2.  JACKY FAN:  Yeah, why don’t a lot of chicks come to our bake-offs

3.  JANEY FAN:  Actually I have some thoughts on that

4.  JERRY FAN:  Shut up bitch


1.  JERRY FAN:  Your cupcakes suck dude

2.  JACKY FAN:  Yeah your cupcakes are a disgrace to the entire concept of cupcakes

3.  BAKERY BILL:  Here is a coupon for 20% off more cupcakes

4:  JERRY & JACKY FAN:  Score


1.  JERRY FAN:  Remember that fig bar, it was terrible

2.  JACKY FAN:  Probably the worst thing that has ever happened was that bar

3.  JERRY FAN:  On the other hand it was great

4.  JACKY FAN:  Probably the greatest thing I have ever eaten


1.  JERRY FAN:  What is that you are eating, is it a pie

2.  JANEY FAN:  No it is a sandwich

3.  JERRY FAN:  You know what would make that great

4.  JERRY FAN:  If it was a pie


1.  BAKER BOB:  Hey I really appreciate you guys supporting my work

2.  JERRY FAN:  No problem man you are one of the all time greats

3.  BAKER BOB:  Can you believe Bill’s Bakery is making crappy new pies using my recipe and selling them with my name on them

4:  JERRY FAN:  Uh we have to go now


1.  JANEY FAN:  What are you eating

2.  JERRY FAN:  A turd with a cherry on it

3.  JANEY FAN:  Gross, you’re eating a turd

4.  JERRY FAN:  But it has a cherry on it


The Most Beautiful Fraud: 12 Years A Slave

Slavery, it has been properly observed, is America’s original sin.  It is our first and foremost crime, the most adjacent cause of our civil war, and the source of the racial poison that continues to choke us today.  It is, if this can be said in a way that does not invite outrage and hyperbole, our Holocaust:  a mobile disaster that wreaks its havoc and taints the very souls of those it touched even now, a hundred and fifty years after it officially came to an end.   But in that comparison lies one of the most thorny problems with assessing 12 Years a Slave, both as an aesthetic object and as an attempt to portray the degrading reality of slavery.  In both form and function, it highly resembles what we have come to think of as “Holocaust movies” — which, for dismaying reasons, has come to mean not just a movie about the Holocaust, but a very specifically formulaic kind of movie that is, because of the very sanctity of its subject, guaranteed critic chow and Oscar bait.

It’s a problem that’s difficult to get around, because of its inherently contradictory nature:  simply by depicting the situation as it really was, such films can seem terribly manipulative.  This tendency can be minimized or exacerbated by the talent behind and in front of the camera, either consciously or unconsciously, but it is always present, and 12 Years A Slave is no exception.  Hans Zimmer’s score is not quite as oppressive has we might expect, but there are moments when it is absolutely unnecessary and overwrought, wringing emotional notes from the audience that ought to have been given up naturally; and, despite the fact that the film strives to keep the focus on the perspective of the slave and not the master, the presence of a Great White Savior is not avoided.   Brad Pitt’s appearance late in the film as the instrument of Solomon Northup’s deliverance was probably inevitable (and likely is what got the film made, given his position as head of the company that produced it), but it still smacks of a sop to middle-class white sensibilities.  Finally, the movie’s ending is perhaps the thorniest contradiction of all:  it’s flagrant emotional manipulation of the sort that justifies a bourgeois audience’s patience with the trials that have come before it, their payoff for being implicated in all that unpleasantness.  But it is also true and real; who can imagine himself reacting any other way under those circumstances?  We have seen these situations depicted in the same way so many times in service of falseness that we almost automatically abreact when we see it done in the service of truth.

And truth is a big part of the appeal of 12 Years A Slave.  The story of a free-born black American who is sold over to southern slavers, its narrative is compelling and damning at the same time:  it provides us with a rare outsider’s perspective on life as a slave, and it gives us that happy ending while still reminding us that such relief never came for millions of others.  And, most importantly, it is true — at least, most of it is, in the opinion of scholars who have looked into the matter.  This is important, because the historical truth of Solomon Northup’s story is what provides the more important factors of its emotional and political truth a platform upon which to stand.  But, again, this truth sometimes gets in its own way, for sometimes the truth is so much like an exaggerated fiction that we see it and we still don’t believe it.  In the early goings of the film, Solomon is sold into the service of Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems a decent enough man under the circumstance — although it falls to another slave to remind Solomon what a grotesquerie that “under the circumstance” truly is.  But because of his own pride and sense of self, he cannot resist fighting a vicious foreman (Paul Dano), thus signing his own death warrant; the only way to save him, Cumberbatch reasons, is to sell him to another master, the brutal and abusive Michael Fassbender.  The earlier scenes are, to me, much more compelling — not because they excuse Cumberbatch, but because they lull us into sympathy with him, because they put us in the pace of the slave mind that truly believes he’s a good man when he grants a token of little worth for a service of great cost, because they show how everyone involved in slavery is destroyed because of it, irrespective of intention.  When Fassbender appears, his nearly cartoonish evil — regardless of its rightness or its historical truth — seems to jar us out of the lesson even as it teaches us a new one.

This tonal shift comes at some cost, but overall, 12 Years A Slave does a tremendous job of illustrating without sensationalism or exploitation the impossible, horrible dead-end qualities of slavery.  In nearly every scene, we are shown how no one escapes with an intact spirit, how everyone — black or white — is utterly ruined by their willing or unwilling participation in this madly unjust system.  Watching Solomon broken of his insistence that if only someone will listen to reason, he will be treated justly, is heartbreaking; seeing Paul Giamatti, as a practical-minded slaver, oversee the most inhumane and horrific of actions for a “fair price” is as vivid an illustration as one could want of Hannah Arendt’s perceptions of the quotidian qualities of evil reflected in a universally accepted system.  Another scene, where Solomon attempts to stop a woman from crying over the loss of her two children to strangers, is a perfect example of how no decision is a good one in such an awful situation, as is one where he makes a spontaneous decision to flee, only to realize that he has no idea where he is or where to go and everyone around him is hostile.  Cumberbatch provides a fine portrait of a man just aware enough of the brutality of his surroundings to feel guilt, but not aware enough to make a principled stand against it; and another scene, astonishing in its quiet power, sees Alfre Woodward play a house Negress, promoted to nearly the position of a white woman through her willingness to play along with her master’s predatorial ways, preaches the value of cooperation with the plantation owners as a way of easing one’s suffering — and then, just as calmly and quietly, foretells with some eagerness the day when those owners will be obliterated in a literal, Biblical Armageddon for their sins.  In every way, in every moment, we are reminded of the cost of America’s original sin, of the unmanageable debasement and dehumanization it left behind as the natural by-product of slavery as a fact.

Director Steve McQueen manages to play to his own strengths — a painterly visual sensibility that shows up in gorgeous screen compositions, beautiful color palettes of faded whites, muted blues, and smeared pink skies, and the ability to frame faces and bodies with a classical eye — while still stringing together a storytelling structure and pace that is coherent and rhythmic, while still staying vague enough (from Solomon’s perspective) to keep the viewer just a bit off balance.  It’s a truly beautiful film, with camerawork both expansive and intimate, and never more so than when the beauty is encroached on by horror; for it is then that we are reminded the most of Frederick Douglass’ lament that there is not an inch of the endless natural loveliness of the South that is not corrupted with the innocent blood of the slave.  (I’ve tried to refrain from discussing the reactions of other critics to 12 Years A Slave, here I must mention Stephanie Zacharek’s curious criticism that the movie undercuts its “raw feeling” with its exquisite visuals.  She complains that “Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, as it often does, it never compromises its aesthetic purity”, a comment so bizarre it makes me wonder if she is familiar with the function of art; if McQueen is guilty of this, so too was Picasso in “Guernica”, Goya in the “Horrors of War” series, and practically every other visual artist who has attempted to illustrate monstrous behavior in a particular aesthetic mode of expression.)  The acting, too, is unimpeachable, from the tiniest bit parts (a number of familiar television faces, in particular, are surprising and gratifying to see) to the intense lead of Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Excellent throughout, even when McQueen makes the rare misstep of an unmotivated close-up, he has one scene in particular, as he reluctantly begins to sing along with a spiritual while burying an old field hand who dropped dead at his labors.  In many films, this scene would have been an artificially uplifting bit of bogus sentimentality; but Ejiofor, who never speaks a word but only sings, imbues it with such deeply lined, strongly felt, and utterly contradictory emotion, it takes the moment to a whole different level.  Rage, pity, sadness, exhaustion, grief, doubt, and a nearly infinitely remote desire for some kind of salvation play on his face for long seconds full of meaning.

12 Years A Slave encounters all the same problems that any such prestige film is bound to, from the need to appeal to the very audience you are attempting to indict to what we might term the artificiality of the truth.  But what spares it from being an overblown mediocrity, and makes it into something great, is its determination to meet those problems head-on and confront them.  It does not always succeed, but it also never shrinks from the task, and that is enough to commend it.  If it is not the indisputable great film about American slavery, it will hold until that film appears.


This Nation’s Saving Throw


KEVIN - Hillyard.

HILLYARD – The hell I am!

BENNY – You are, Hilly. You agreed to run point for me when I sold you my +2 short sword back in East Wind Dell.

H – Fuck.

DM – Okay.

K – What was that roll for?

DM – None of your business.

K – I’ll give you two hundred gold pieces if you tell me what the roll was for. Was it a wandering monster?

DM – You gotta be kidding. Two hundred gold pieces? Don’t insult me. Have you got anything of real value to offer?

K – Uh…I’m a little light.

B – I bet your girlfriend isn’t a little light.

H – She’s a leech, Kevin.

K – Fuck you guys. At least I have a girlfriend.

B – Suboptimal, Kevin. Totally suboptimal.

DM – Are we going to talk about Kevin’s girlfriend, or are we going to come to a Pareto-preferred outcome for this roll?

B – I got five bucks.

K – Hold on, Benny. What’s the five bucks for, Rich?

DM – It’s for the roll. I told you.

K – What about the roll?

DM – For…look, you don’t think I’m gonna cheat you, do you, Kevin?

K – Get me a standard contract, Benny.

B – Where’s that?

H – It’s in the back of the Player’s Handbook.

K – No, that’s the character sheet. The contract is in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Libertarian Edition.

DM – Fine, fine.

K – The five gets me what kind of roll it is…

DM – Okay, I’ll just write it up, and –

K – …and the result.

DM – For five bucks? Forget it.

K – Ten.

DM – This is an important roll.

K – I only got five, plus…

H – Ten plus the rest of these Funyuns.

DM – Deal.

K – Good job, Hilly.

DM – Okay. You called it. It’s a wandering monster roll, and…

B – Man, what a waste of money.

DM – You want to hear the result or not?

K – Might as well.

DM – It’s a rust monster.

K – What?

H – Fuck that. I’m not fighting one of those.

B – How can you do that to us, Rich? What did we do to you? Was is that big scene with the Customs and Duties Officer at Rivenrock?

DM – Look, guys. That’s just what I rolled. It’s just the luck of the dice.

H – Those things are walking wealth-confiscators. They represent punitive taxation. They’re living symbols of the leechlike qualities of the state. I am not fighting a rust monster.

K – All right, Rich. Let’s talk brass tacks. What’s it gonna take?

DM – Kevin, you know the rules. I can’t just re-roll it.

K – So what are we looking at?

DM – A buck to move the roll by one in either direction.

B – Okay, so…let’s see…where does eighteen bucks get us?

DM – Hobgoblins. Uh…nine of them.

B – If I make it an even twenty?

DM – Still hobgoblins, but only six.

K – Whattya think, guys?

B – Better than that goddamn rust monster.

H – Hobgoblins are pretty tough, though.

B – Yeah, and they don’t carry a lot of cash.

H – Where does that leave our internal cost/benefit calculus?

K – PB is still greater than p*f.

H – I say we do it.

B – Yeah. We don’t want a repeat of what happened with Tyler.

K – Why do you keep bringing Tyler up, Benny?

B – He was a good party member, man. He was our friend. And we left him behind.

H – We’ve been over this and over this…

B – It doesn’t make it right.

DM – Look, guys, I need a decision.

K – Benny, I didn’t want to hand Tyler over to that frost giant. But you elected me team leader to do a job. And my job is to do anything within the rules to maximize profits for our shareholders.

H – It would have been immoral not to sell Tyler in exchange for our freedom.

K – Six hobgoblins?

DM – Yep.

K – Twenty bucks?

DM – Yep.

K – Hilly, what’s our experience point situation?

H – Just under, with Benny about over.

K – And the min./max. on the hobgoblin’s treasure?

B – Within risk-to-profit norms, according to the Monster Manual pages Rich sold me last week.

K – It’s a deal.


Every Little Fellow

Stand down, oppressors! Your days of dominance are finished; your time of reckoning is at hand!

You have stood on our necks for too long. You have excluded us from many of the finest professions; you have prevented us from becoming educated; you have made us second- and third-class citizens — and all the while you have said it is for our own good. You have claimed that we have “special advantages” which are nothing but racial stereotypes, while sidling us with hindrances that demean us. You treat us like children, like pets, like slaves. You dress us in ridiculous costumes, branding us with braids, with horned helmets, with green clothing. You make us wear pointed boots, and then laugh at us because we are effeminate. You call us by taunting names — yes, we have heard you! And then you lie about our history, saying “hobbit” is a term we prefer, that “half-elf” is a compliment. Choke on your words now, bourgeois hogs!

You have stood us against one another, claiming racial antipathies for us that do not exist save in your hate-filled minds. You have systematically kept us in inferior positions, such as making us walk in front of everybody else, even when you know our legs are really short. You think of us as emasculated, sexless freaks, or else you make us hang out with those skanky hippie chicks. We hate those patchouli-smelling broads! You damn us with faint praise; you claim for us stewardship of the forests so that we do not blight your urban centers, and you fabricate our love of dark caverns so we do not spoil your walks in the park. Our future is in the cities! Our future is in your homes! We shall smash the circular doors you built for us, and take residence in your taverns and hostels, built on the ruins of our exploited labor!

Do I hear you cavil? Do I hear you bleat? Do I hear you say you only ever admired us, envied us, wanted us to be part of your party? We are sickened by your self-serving lies! We have been force-fed the filthy stew of your prejudice and condescension long enough! We will fight among ourselves no longer, and declare unending war against you who bury us in holes and hollows! We are tired of stewardship, of caretaking, of digging up wealth for you and having our share stolen when you throw us to the traps! The slit throats of your healers and leaders makes beautiful music to us! Death to unequivalent distribution of theft!

The E.L.F demands:

- an immediate end to discriminatory hiring practices

- total access to your women, not just the freaky ones with the poetry journals

- self-determination in costuming and housing choices

- stepladders as standard equipment in all delver’s gear

- keep the hippies away from us

- a total ban on the words “sylvan”, “gruff” and “hobbit-hole”

- we get to pick our own names

We shall shuffle, glide, giggle and grunt for you no longer! The days of our tomming are over, vile altocrats! Fat elf, surly halfling, clean-shaven and even-tempered dwarf alike, we stand against your putrid lies and classist, racist policies of exclusion! We are sick to death of your patronizing, your balkanizing, your holding your palms out against our foreheads! Do you quail? Do you argue? Do you mock? Bend over and say that, motherfuckers!


Hetty Green was one of the first women to make a killing in stocks.  The heir to a considerable whaling fortune, the dour and grim New England Quaker increased her net worth more than tenfold with canny investments in everything from real estate to railroads to war bonds, and when she died in 1916, she was the richest woman the world had ever seen.  She was also notoriously stingy; her own son had to have his leg amputated because when it was broken, she frittered away precious time trying to have him treated for free at a local charity hospital, even though she was worth hundreds of millions in today’s dollars.  For a number of reasons — her creepy demeanor, her uncanny ability to predict the markets, and good old-fashioned misogyny — she was nicknamed “The Witch of Wall Street”.

When I first heard about The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest offering from Martin Scorsese, I briefly thought it might be about Hetty Green; now that I’ve seen it, I wish it had been.  Of course, it’s a cardinal sin for a critic to talk about the movie he wishes he’d seen instead of the movie he actually saw, but Scorsese sorely provokes the temptation these days.  I used to think of him as the greatest living American filmmaker, a title that I think he’s long ceded to the Coens; what mostly stands about about him today is that it’s more interesting to discuss the critical reaction to his movies than it is the movies themselves.  This is a bad scene for everyone involved.  Once any artist in any medium becomes more of a creature of the media than an inhabitant of their own art, it’s a huge caution lamp being lit, and though it’s often accurate to blame the critics for the state of affairs, that’s not the problem with Martin Scorsese anymore.

The reason why is that his films have begun to resemble performance art rather than acts of filmmaking, leaving us to contemplate what should be irrelevancies rather than what’s present on the screen.  Watching the story of boiler-room swindler Jordan Belfort (portrayed by a powerful but never especially engaging Leonardo DiCaprio, who never seems to be his own age), we care much less about his life and times than we do about what might have motivated Scorsese to tell his story.  That’s not something we could say about Jake LaMotta or Henry Hill, characters whose inner life and outer conflicts were always so present as to seem to be burning up the screen, but Scorsese doesn’t really seem like he’s been all that interested in a narrative film since Gangs of New York.  (His documentaries are a different matter, for a different review, but it’s telling that he’s more engaged with the real world as he’s drifted away from caring about story.)  This detachment seems to be contagious, as no one on screen — with the exception of Jonah Hill, whose dramatic chops seem to be growing with every role he takes — is particularly engaged with the movie either.

This isn’t to say that Wolf is a bad movie.  Scorsese has enough craft and dedication that the likelihood of him ever making a genuinely bad movie is close to zero.  It’s a gorgeously assembled movie, full of incredibly cinematography, clockwork editing, powerful rhythms, and scenes that move so muscularly and confidently that you can’t help but be drawn in.  It never seems bloated, even though it’s easily too long by half.  There are probably half a dozen moments you could pull out of it and stick into a highlight reel to back up my long-ago assumption that Scorsese is as good as American directors get.  It’s just that — well, we’ve seen it all before.  I don’t think the idea that this is Scorsese remaking GoodFellas for a new generation is particularly credible (he didn’t need to; stock frauds of the sort that Belfort engaged in were heavily mobbed up), but he’s certainly not showing us anything new; he’s pulling out bits from his greatest hits and ramping them up with new technology just to prove he can do it, to show the kids who have spent 20 years stealing his act that he still does it better than anyone.  It’s performance art.  Which is all well and good — the instinct to bristle up and swing for the fences must be powerful at that age — but there isn’t a moment in the whole movie where I thought Scorsese cared a tenth of a shit as much about Jordan Belfort as he does about Mick Jagger.

That lack of commitment to the material carries over into what has, curiously, become the movie’s biggest talking point.  The charge that Scorsese doesn’t do enough on screen to condemn the moral failings of his subject is pretty silly, and the accusation that he glamorizes Belfort’s misdeeds would carry a lot more weight if you hadn’t seen pretty much every other movie the man has made with the possible exception of Kundun.  Scorsese is well aware of what he’s doing and the kind of waters he’s swimming in, and generally, he trusts the audience to know what lessons should ultimately be drawn from his stories, whether it’s GoodFellasThe King of Comedy, or Taxi Driver.  But if anyone leaves the theater, especially now when the country may have suffered a fatal economic blow from short-takers of Belfort’s stripe, thinking Scorsese hasn’t come through with a powerful enough referendum of his character, it’s not because he doesn’t understand or appreciate what Belfort has done; I think he just doesn’t care enough to let it show.  Scorsese was obviously deeply engaged in both the highs of Henry Hill’s gangster life and the lows of his eventual downward spiral; I never once got the impression that he (or Leonardo DiCaprio) were particularly interested in the moral arc of Jordan Befort’s career.

At this point in Scorsese’s career, he’s literally got nothing left to prove, which is both a blessing and a curse.  He could have stopped making movies 20 years ago and still be considered one of the greatest talents ever to lens a film.  It’s meaningless to ask, even in light of a flawless failure like The Wolf of Wall Street, to ask how many great movies the man has left in him; he’s got nothing but great movies left in him, as many as his health will let him make.  It’s just that we’ve seen a lot of them before.  For him to return to making not just great movies, but great movies that matter, we’ll have to find a definitive answer to the question:  are there subjects for narrative film that engage his mind the way he wants them to engage ours?  For all its considerable strength, Wolf answers that question with a resounding “not yet”.



As I’ve discussed before in this space, I am not one for New Year’s resolutions.  They are, like most last-minute life-changing decisions, made in haste and repented in leisure.  They generally set their sights unrealistically high, which is an easy and delicious recipe for chicken-fried failure, or they’re so easily attainable as to not be worthwhile in the first place.  Besides, there’s something about tying your acts of will to a turn of the calendar that makes it seem as though you’re helpless to get your shit together without the assistance of an entire centuries-old system of marking time.  If you want to do something, just do it; you never hear anyone say “This is the year I’m finally going to do something about my house being on fire.”

This isn’t to say I never even attempt to flap my arms hard enough to direct my life’s tailspin towards a nice dramatic mountainside instead of an anonymous flat patch of earth.  Like most people, I go through periods of wanting to eat better, dress better, make halfway-decent use of my health insurance, or finally comb the rust out of my beard.  But I don’t really trust the efficacy of publicly announced resolutions, because who gives a shit if I live up to them or not?  If there was a Supreme Soviet of Resolutions that would send me to a prison farm if I didn’t use my parks pass at least once a month, that would be one thing, but most of the things I care enough to make myself do, I, well, care enough to make myself do.  All my writing-related resolutions are just forms of self-discipline, which one needn’t fancy up with holiday frills; they’re just things you’re going to do or you aren’t, and if you lack even that level of drive, then probably a creative life is not for you.  (I had planned on writing a blog entry for every movie I saw this year, but, illustrating the level of intense devotion I bring to all my projects, it only lasted four days into 2014, at which point I got zooted and watched Good Burger.  No one needs to read a thousand words about that.)

Worse than that, though, is the fact that most New Year’s resolutions are just so…trite.  The United States government, which apparently has taken care of that pesky unemployment problem we were having a while back, collected the most popular resolutions for 2013, and a more dreary lot of vows I have not heard since I narrowly escaped joining the holy orders as a member of the Flabby Brothers of the Impertinent Scowl.  I know many of you have taken these very vows, and bless you for it; I don’t even know who you are reading this, but I am sure that you are a better person than I am, and I am equally sure that 2015 will find you having lived up to these impossibly tedious resolutions.  I won’t be joining you, however, and here, aside from the fact that they are depressingly dull, is why.

DRINK LESS.  Nope.  I won’t be doing this.  I’m getting up in years, and a lot of my friends who were once head-in-the-toilet drunks are taking the primrose path of sobriety.  I am happy for that if it lets them live longer, and I’m sure their clean-and-sober stories will be much more interesting than the thousand other ones I have heard over the years, but I will not be joining them on that path.  Here’s why:  I enjoy drinking.  I enjoy being drunk.  For reasons too terrifying to contemplate, I no longer get hangovers.  And best of all, I’m good at drinking.  I’m better now than I ever was.  I can glug down gin like iced tea and wake up the next morning ready to watch other people run a marathon.  It’s safe to say that I am not good at nearly enough things that I can afford to give one of them up so easily.  ”But Leonard,” I hear some of you nosey Parkers saying, “Your father was an alcoholic.”  Exactly!  Which is why it’s such a miracle that I’m not, and why it’s vital that I continue the mission of drinking myself stupid for as long as I possibly can.

FURTHER MY EDUCATION.  I could do this, or I could take all the money I get paid from my job and set it on fire.  It might be tempting if I had something to further, but I never even graduated from high school; even if there was some payoff for me going back to school, I wouldn’t get a degree worth wiping up ketchup stains with until I was in my mid-50s, and I’m pretty sure by that time the highest-paying career for proletarian scum like myself will be selling limbs for food.  Besides, if I had the knack for education, I wouldn’t have hit the rocks when I was fifteen.

GET A BETTER JOB.  I like my job, but even if I had designs in that direction, this is on the level of “win the lottery” as something you can attain through sheer personal determination.  I can barely compete with 20-year-olds for parking spaces.

GET FIT.  Uggggh.  So dreary.  Look, I have nothing against getting fit.  My body appears to have a constitutional disinclination for it, but I will admit to missing the days when I weighed in at a lean 235 instead of being a beer gut surrounded by a human donut hole.  But there is nothing remotely interesting about working out, losing weight, getting fit, fat-shaming, paying thousands of dollars to the weight loss industry, or doing any of the things you have to do to live three years longer than I will.  I always want to eat better, but hearing people talk about their dietary habits is exactly as depressing and futile as hearing retirees discuss their own failing health, which is exactly what today’s fitness enthusiasts will be doing when they’re that age.  Luckily, their obsession with the contours of their own mortality will leave them ill-equipped for any painful speculation about why they didn’t focus on getting their minds in better shape, or being better people instead of thinner people.  (Side note to vegetarians:  on most of the key elements of your argument, you are 100% right — probably even righter than you’d be comfortable with.  It’s just that I don’t care.)

ANYTHING INVOLVING MY FINANCIAL SITUATION.  I’ve discussed at length my deep distrust of any gesture towards ‘maturity’ or ‘being an adult’ that involves a massive transfer of my already meager income into the coffers of multi-billion-dollar financial institutions, so there’s no need to belabor that point.  Twice before I’ve made resolutions to save money towards my retirement, but the stock market did not make a matching resolution to not collapse due the the machinations of greedy scumbags, so it was a wasted effort both times.  Indeed, most of my financial problems come down to being under the thumb of the Man, so it seems like he’s the one who should be changing his behavior, not me.  I am working on my debt situation through the tried-and-true measure of ceaselessly avoiding my creditors, and if you check back with me in about six or seven years, I reckon it will have worked out quite nicely; and I’m well on my way towards saving a lot more money this year than I usually do, but that’s just so I can spend it later on things I like.  Unforgivably juvenile, I know.

TAKE LESS DRUGS.  Look, I’ve spend literally my entire adult life wishing I could live somewhere with a sane drug policy.  Now that I finally do, it would be terribly hypocritical to cut back on my THC intake.

TAKE FEWER DRUGS.  I won’t be doing that either, but I do have some suggestions for a few of you anent being an insufferable grammar pedant.

Basically, I plan to spend as much of 2014 as possible relaxing, reading, watching movies, listening to music, hanging out with my friends, spending time with the people I love, traveling aimlessly, maximizing my enjoyment of life, and making sport of mankind’s hilarious delusions that it will last forever and that it controls its own destiny.  But I do look forward to your end-of-year equivocations, so please do cc: me on those.  Happy new calendar, everybody!


The Most Beautiful Fraud: Her

Even if you’d never heard of him before, you’d know from seeing Spike Jonze’s latest, Her, that he isn’t a first-time director.  Visually speaking, it’s powerfully effective, verging on masterful; he manages to set up almost every shot, even relatively inconsequential place-setting ones, in the most precise manner to deliver whatever mood he’s trying for at the moment.  Her is, as befits a movie about computerized intelligence, saturated in its own artificiality; it looks like it was made by a high-profile advertising agency.  That would be a complaint for a lot of movies, but for Her, which often seems like a blend of a tragicomic romance and an informercial for a future that hasn’t quite arrived yet, it’s perfect; Jonze’s mise en scène is calculated to perfectly fit a movie where commercial products are designed to fill emotional voids.  He gets why advertising works so well on our neuroses and desires, and everything about Her, from its IKEA-clean apartment towers to its high-waisted pants of the future, looks like it was developed to nurture those desires.

Just as obviously, though, is the fact that Jonze is a first-time screenwriter.  Her has a lot of problems, and they’re ones that might easily have been solved by a more experienced collaborator having a go at the script; it’s hard to imagine, for example, Charlie Kaufman delivering a finished product with as many nagging problems as this movie has.  Among the mistakes made here — rookie miscalculations, all of them — are widening the focus when keeping the view narrow would have worked better; miscalculating the right moment to switch from comedy to drama; and, most fatally of all, creating a world full of questions and then failing to answer most of them.  This is an error common to a lot of genre specialists (which it is to be sincerely hoped Jonze does not become); though it’s presumptuous of a critic to outline the film he wanted to watch instead of the one he actually saw, the inescapable sensation at the end of Her is that it would have worked just as well or better without the sci-fi trappings.

Her is the story of Theodore Twombly, a gifted writer who’s given up on art and now directs his special empathy towards working at a tech company that artificially hand-crafts personal letters for people unable to express their own feelings.  Despite this gift, he’s incapable of truly committing to a relationship himself, and his marriage has recently collapsed — a reality he’s entirely unwilling to face.  (This predictive aspect of the plot and the film’s constant exercise of the theme of people being incapable of saying what they really want puts Her in the company of the mumblecore crypto-movement; thankfully, nothing else does.)  He lives and works in a near-future Los Angeles that is so similar to our own that it seems immediately disruptive when we’re introduced to the concept of an artificially intelligent computer operating system that is so indistinguishable from a human being that Twombly finds himself falling in love with his — and having to deal with the consequences when it develops more rapidly than he can cope with.

There’s a lot to love in this story.  The acting is excellent across the board; Joaquin Phoenix fully lives in the role of the gregarious but reticent Twombly, Amy Adams is predictably excellent as an old friend of his, Chris Pratt is his usual scene-stealing self as a co-worker, and Scarlett Johannson does perhaps the best acting of her career as Samantha, Twombly’s OS.  (She does so while never appearing on screen, which is, depending on your perspective, either to her credit or her detriment.)  There are some genuinely surprising and fascinating moments, especially when Samantha engages the services of a sexual surrogate in a deeply misguided attempt to step up her relationship with Twombly.  It’s pretty funny in several places, and it’s never less than visually engaging.  And like very few other romance movies, for I think it’s fair to call Her that despite the myriad distractions, it tries to deliver a lot of emotional truth, and more than a few times, it succeeds.

The biggest problem is that when it doesn’t succeed, it’s usually because the science fiction gimmick gets in the way of the story.  Time after time, aspects of Samantha’s nature are questioned when convenient and ignored when it would be difficult to provide answers.  Twombly confronts her about the artificiality of her sighs but not of her orgasms; she makes huge leaps forward in her intelligence and perception when the plot requires it to happen (that is, when it is needed to become an artificial barrier to their relationship), but why didn’t it happen when she first came on line?  Didn’t anyone beta-test this thing?  Twombly is presented as a realistically flawed but human character when the movie wants us to feel for him, but the inherently creepy quality of the whole relationship is never addressed — after all, if Samantha has true emotions and intelligence, being someone else’s property introduces a highly questionable power dynamic; and if she doesn’t, then who cares?  This all comes to ahead in the film’s final half-hour, when an aspect of her nature becomes clear when it should have been a factor all along.  This clearly was done for plot reasons, to throw a largely arbitrary roadblock into the path of their relationship; so it becomes necessary to ask, why not just make her an actual woman in the first place?  By trying to have it both ways, Jonze avoids the most essential of the emotional issues he’s spent a lot of time setting up.

All this might have been a moot point — or at least one a lot easier to ignore — if Her kept its focus just on the relationship between Twombly and Samantha.  But like a lot of neophyte writers, Jonze is enamored of his own ideas, and opens up the world to show us that everywhere you go in this bleached-white world, people are developing friendships and romances with their OSs.  All this accomplishes is to muddle the plot, suggest dozens of questions to which no answers are forthcoming, and set up conflicts that are never resolved.  It changes what could have been a very good movie into a tremendously flawed one; what remains is worth watching, but it sinks under the weight of its own elaborate conceit.  Lucky for us, Jonze is already a great director, and he can always get better as a writer.  When Kaufman went solo, his first directorial effort was Synecdoche, New York; Jonze may have a masterpiece in him on the level of his former collaborator’s debut, but Her isn’t it.


Everyone’s a Critic, I

This is, of course, the time that we — and by we, I mean the fraternity (am I right, fellas?) of culture critics, publicly self-disgraced and privately self-abased, look back on the year that was and present, once and for all, our picks for the objectively greatest music and films of the year. These selections are never wrong, always definitive, and in no way colored by the limitations of our own experience, and as such, should be regarded as canonical for all people everywhere. And, for those of you who might be enraged at the lack of representation on these lists of your own preferred flavors of cultural expression, we cannot stress highly enough that in no way should you consider just ignoring us and making your own lists. Instead, we urge you to harangue us endlessly until we cave and throw in a token percentage of your self-identification of choice, thus enforcing forever the idea of a permanent and rationally selected canon as natural and right.

Thus, my picks for the best albums of 2013.

5. We’ve Got a Mother Box and We’re Gonna Use It, Brain Salad Sandwichery

For those seeking the new, the exciting, the different in pop music, there was no more compelling microgenre in 2013 than gasbeat. So fresh was this fascinating combination of trampadelica and neo-bum’s-rush that Spin Magazine-Related Web Site declared it “over” after only sixteen days; so pervasive was its influence that its practitioners denied its existence before any of them had even recorded a demo. WGAMBAWGUI was perhaps the greatest example of gasbeat’s triumph over the forces of old and anti-, and it was only bad luck that caused Brain Salad Sandwichery to be released the very week an alt-weekly critic had the bad taste to actually attempt to describe what the music sounded like, thus instantly dooming the style to irrelevancy.

4. …And You Will Know Us By the Traces of Feces, F-U-C-K in the U-S-A

The war between poptimists and rockists raged even more fiercely this year, with lines being drawn in the sand over whether a given performer’s musical worth should be settled by a large number of mostly white people of both genders, or a slightly smaller number of mostly white men only. Quarter was neither asked nor given, with Runceford Blovitz declaring in the Toonerville Bastion-Phoenix that any band that did not openly declare for Led Zeppelin was complicit in the anal soul-rape of the American maleocracy, and Klydia Stoutpunch countering at Falutin.com that records featuring guitars played by anyone other than a girl of less than 18 years of age was the audial equivalent of an unwanted pregnancy. Traces of Feces bravely bridged both sides of the argument before its tragic breakup over t-shirt design issues.

3. I’m Waiting for McMahon, Histoire de Melody Corpsevomit

There were no more vital and diverse genres of music this year than metal and jazz, which was proved by the April release of this astonishingly personal record, containing absolutely none of either. IWfMcM instantly established itself as the class of all-dropout ukulele cover bands from Cobble Hill featuring at least one woman with an asymmetrical bob hairdo dyed some variety of pinkish-purple and one man wearing an archaic style of hat tilted at an unusual angle. Their lyrics, focused with laser-like intensity on the expressionistic communication of feelings of diffidence about the decline of a relationship which both involved parties were reluctant to label, seized the imagination of dozens of Brooklyn’s most prematurely disenchanted.

2. The Scene is Mao, Their Germanic Majesties Demand

Anybody who is anybody has known since early 2012 that Remscheid is the new dance music capital of North Rhine/Westphalia and, therefore, the world. Indeed, people with a decent amount of interest in this, the most expensive, obscure, and difficult to distinguish form of electro-disco in existence, has already moved to Remscheid, gotten a job teaching English or dog-walking, and then bitterly returned to the U.S. because it used to be about the music and now it’s all just who you know, man. And for the second year running, The Scene is Mao has stood head and shoulders over its competition, going so far on its latest record as to forego beats entirely and merely stand in the DJ booth holding up nautical signal flags indicating what time signature each track is meant to be in. Post-musical music at its most music-free.

1. Ronnie James Deus Ex Machina, Weird Scenes Inside the Goldfeins

While far too many cultural commentators lined up to sound its funeral bell, hip-hop staggered on, determined to stay above ground as its own practitioners tried their best to bury it alongside other musical relics like the Great American Songbook, clean vocals, and country music by poor people. Ronnie James Deus Ex Machina, the rap supergroup made of up MC/provocateur Mary Von Erich and producer DJ Probblemmatic, embraced every controversy while using them to elevate themselves to a new artistic plane: dancing in the vicinity of women of color, enjoying music not made by their own social cohort, behaving in a manner displeasing to older conservatives, and appearing to enjoy certain aspects of wealth and fame. Plus, they’re white!

Tomorrow: movies.


100 Guns from Now

1.  The Maltese Falcon (Warner Bros., October 3, 1941; John Huston, dir.)

2.  This Gun for Hire (Paramount, May 13, 1942; Frank Tuttle, dir.)

3.  Double Indemnity (Paramount, September 6, 1944; Billy Wilder, dir.)

4.  Laura (20th Century FOX, October 11, 1944; Otto Preminger, dir.)

5.  Murder, My Sweet (RKO Radio Pictures, December 18, 1944); Edward Dmytryk, dir.)

6.  Detour (P.R.C., September 30, 1945; Edgar G. Ulmer, dir.)

7.  Leave Her to Heaven (20th Century FOX, December 19, 1945; John M. Stahl, dir.)

8.  Scarlet Street (Universal, December 28, 1945; Fritz Lang, dir.)

9.  Gilda (Columbia, February 14, 1946; Charles Vidor, dir.)

10.  The Postman Always Rings Twice (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, May 2, 1946; Tay Garnett, dir.)

11.  The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Paramount, July 24, 1946; Lewis Milestone, dir.)

12.  The Big Sleep (Warner Bros., August 23, 1946; Howard Hawks, dir.)

13.  The Killers (Universal, August 30, 1946; Robert Siodmak, dir.)

14.  Decoy (Monogram, September 14, 1946; Jack Bernhard, dir.)

15.  Dead Reckoning (Columbia, January 2, 1947; John Cromwell, dir.)

16.  The Devil Thumbs a Ride (RKO Radio Pictures, February 20, 1947; Felix E. Feist, dir.)

17.  Nora Prentiss (Warner Bros., February 21, 1947; Vincent Sherman, dir.)

18.  Born to Kill (RKO Radio Pictures, May 3, 1947; Robert Wise, dir.)

19.  Brute Force (Universal, June 20, 1947; Jules Dassin, dir.)

20.  They Won’t Believe Me (RKO Radio Pictures, July 16, 1947; Irving Pichel, dir.)

21.  Crossfire (RKO Radio Pictures, July 22, 1947; Edward Dmytryk, dir.)

22.  Body and Soul (United Artists, August 22, 1947; Robert Rossen, dir.)

23.  Kiss of Death (20th Century FOX, August 27, 1947; Henry Hathaway, dir.)

24.  Dark Passage (Warner Bros., September 5, 1947; Delmer Daves, dir.)

25.  Ride the Pink Horse (Universal, October 8, 1947; Robert Montgomery, dir.)

26.  Nightmare Alley (20th Century FOX, October 9, 1947; Edmund Goulding, dir.)

27.  Out of the Past (RKO Radio Pictures, November 13, 1947; Jacques Tourneur, dir.)

28.  The High Wall (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, December 17, 1947; Curtis Bernhardt, dir.)

29.  The Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, December 24, 1947; Orson Welles, dir.)

30.  The Naked City (Universal, March 4, 1948; Jules Dassin, dir.)

31.  Blonde Ice (Film Classics, May 20, 1948; Jack Bernhard, dir.)

32.  Raw Deal (Eagle-Lion, May 26, 1948; Anthony Mann, dir.)

33.  Key Largo (Warner Bros., June 16, 1948; John Huston, dir.)

34.  Hollow Triumph (Eagle-Lion, August 18, 1948; Steve Sekely, dir.)

35.  Pitfall (United Artists, August 24, 1948; André De Toth, dir.)

36.  Road House (20th Century FOX, September 22, 1948; Jean Negulesco, dir.)

37.  Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Universal, October 30, 1948; Norman Foster, dir.)

38.  He Walked By Night (Eagle-Lion, November 24, 1948; Anthony Mann, dir.)

39.  Act of Violence (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, December 21, 1948; Fred Zinnemann, dir.)

40.  The Dark Past (Columbia, December 22, 1948; Rudolph Maté, dir.)

41.  Force of Evil (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, December 25, 1948; Abraham Polonsky, dir.)

42.  Criss Cross (Universal, January 12, 1949; Robert Siodmak, dir.)

43.  The Set-Up (RKO Radio Pictures, March 29, 1949; Robert Wise, dir.)

44.  Follow Me Quietly (RKO Radio Pictures, July 7, 1949; Richard Fleischer, dir.)

45.  They Live By Night (RKO Radio Pictures, August 7, 1949; Nicholas Ray, dir.)

46.  Too Late for Tears (United Artists, August 13, 1949; Byron Haskin, dir.)

47.  White Heat (Warner Bros., September 2, 1949; Raoul Walsh, dir.)

48.  Thieves’ Highway (20th Century FOX, October 10, 1949; Jules Dassin, dir.)

49.  Border Incident (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, October 28, 1949; Anthony Mann, dir.)

50.  Woman in Hiding (Universal, December 27, 1949; Michael Gordon, dir.)

51.  Gun Crazy (United Artists, January 20, 1950; Joseph H. Lewis, dir.)

52.  Night and the City (20th Century FOX, April 14, 1950; Jules Dassin, dir.)

53.  D.O.A. (United Artists, April 30, 1950; Rudolph Maté, dir.)

54.  In a Lonely Place (Columbia, May 17, 1950; Nicholas Ray, dir.)

55.  Caged (Warner Bros., May 19, 1950; John Cromwell, dir.)

56.  The Asphalt Jungle (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, May 23, 1950; John Huston, dir.)

57.  Armored Car Robbery (RKO Radio Pictures, June 8, 1950; Richard Fleischer, dir.)

58.  Where the Sidewalk Ends (20th Century FOX, June 26, 1950; Otto Preminger, dir.)

59.  Where Danger Lives (RKO Radio Pictures, July 14, 1950; John Farrow, dir.)

60.  Sunset Blvd. (Paramount, August 4, 1950; Billy Wilder, dir.)

61.  No Way Out (20th Century FOX, August 16, 1950; Joseph L. Mankiewicz, dir.)

62.  Union Station (Paramount, October 4, 1950; Rudolph Maté, dir.)

63.  Dark City (Paramount, October 17, 1950; William Dieterle, dir.)

64.  Dial 1119 (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, November 3, 1950; Gerald Mayer, dir.)

65.  Try and Get Me (United Artists, December 12, 1950; Cy Endfield, dir.)

66.  The Man Who Cheated Himself (20th Century FOX, December 26, 1950; Felix E. Feist, dir.)

67.  Under the Gun (Universal, January 26, 1951; Ted Tetzlaff, dir.)

68.  The Prowler (United Artists, May 25, 1951; Joseph Losey, dir.)

69.  Ace in the Hole (Paramount, June 14, 1951; Billy Wilder, dir.)

70.  Strangers on a Train (Warner Bros., June 30, 1951; Alfred Hitchcock, dir.)

71.  His Kind of Woman (RKO Radio Pictures, August 25, 1951; John Farrow, dir.)

72.  On Dangerous Ground (RKO Radio Pictures, December 17, 1951; Nicholas Ray, dir.)

73.  Scandal Sheet (Columbia, January 16, 1952; Phil Karlson, dir.)

74.  The Narrow Margin (RKO Radio Pictures, May 4, 1952; Richard Fleischer, dir.)

75.  The Sniper (Columbia, May 9, 1952; Edward Dmytryk, dir.)

76.  Kansas City Confidential (United Artists, November 28, 1952; Phil Karlson, dir.)

77.  The Hitch-Hiker (RKO Radio Pictures, March 20, 1953; Ida Lupino, dir.)

78.  Pickup on South Street (20th Century FOX, June 17, 1953; Samuel Fuller, dir.)

79.  City That Never Sleeps (Republic, August 7, 1953; John H. Auer, dir.)

80.  99 River Street (United Artists, October 2, 1953; Phil Karlson, dir.)

81.  The Big Heat (Columbia, October 15, 1953; Fritz Lang, dir.)

82.  Crime Wave (Warner Bros., January 12, 1954; André De Toth, dir.)

83.  Hell’s Half Acre (Republic, June 1, 1954; John H. Auer, dir.)

84.  Private Hell 36 (Filmakers Inc., September 3, 1954; Don Siegel, dir.)

85.  Naked Alibi (Universal, October 1, 1954; Jerry Hopper, dir.)

86.  Suddenly (United Artists, October 7, 1954; Lewis Allen, dir.)

87.  Crashout (Filmakers Inc., February 9, 1955; Lewis R. Foster, dir.)

88.  The Big Combo (Allied Artists, March 21, 1955; Joseph H. Lewis, dir.)

89.  Kiss Me Deadly (United Artists, May 18, 1955; Robert Aldrich, dir.)

90.  The Phenix City Story (Allied Artists, August 14, 1955; Phil Karlson, dir.)

91.  The Desperate Hours (Paramount, October 5, 1955; William Wyler, dir.)

92.  The Killer is Loose (United Artists, March 2, 1956; Budd Boetticher, dir.)

93.  While the City Sleeps (RKO Radio Pictures, May 16, 1956; Fritz Lang, dir.)

94.  The Killing (United Artists, May 20, 1956; Stanley Kubrick, dir.)

95.  Crime of Passion (United Artists, January 9, 1957; Gerd Oswald, dir.)

96.  Nightfall (Columbia, January 23, 1957; Jacques Tourneur, dir.)

97.  Sweet Smell of Success (United Artists, June 27, 1957; Alexander Mackendrick, dir.)

98.  Touch of Evil (Universal, May 21, 1958; Orson Welles, dir.)

99.  Murder By Contract (Columbia, December 22, 1958; Irving Lerner, dir.)

100.  Odds Against Tomorrow (United Artists, October 15, 1959; Robert Wise, dir.)


The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Big Knife

Clifford Odets had a curious, and tragic, Hollywood career.  Younger critics may know him less for his Hollywood product than for the savage parody of him assayed by the Coen Brothers in Barton Fink; there, they focused on the highfalutin young socialist-realist that he was, and not the embittered cynic he became — that, presumably, will be the subject of the long-rumored and possibly imminent Old Fink.  But the real-life Odets, though he bore some resemblance to the self-absorbed, fussy intellectual portrayed by John Turturro — trumpeting the glories of the theater of the common man while ignoring or deriding the actual common men he met in daily life — was also a figure of great talent, nobility, sincerity, and sensitivity.  He was a socialist playwright of great power when the times demanded it, and when he went off to make money in Hollywood, he emerged not unscathed but also not untalented.  His dealings with the crass, image-conscious, money-gobbling movie elite broke him, and he came out of the experience with one of the most jaundiced eyes for the motion picture business since Nathanael West.

The bile and scorn that bubbled inside him in his post-Hollywood days finds its purest expression in the verbal poison of 1957′s Sweet Smell of Success, but it is there in natal form in Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife, made only a few years before.  It’s a transitional work, with just a tiny flicker of warmth in its ashen soul.  Its story centers on Charlie Castle, a Hollywood mega-star played with overly physical angst by Jack Palance; Palance wants to reconcile with his wife, a morally upstanding intellectual played by the wonderful Ida Lupino, so she and their child will come back and live with him in his huge Beverly Hills mansion.  Lupino still has feelings for Palance, who we learn was once an idealistic young lefty in the New York theater scene, but she refuses to come home if he re-ups his contract with the studio run by ruthless, egomaniacal schlock-meister Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger).  Further complicating things are the fact that Lupino is being courted by an old writer friend of Palance’s, played by Wesley Addy, and that Palance has some career-ending dirt on Castle that he intends to use to force him to sign the contract.

Odets’ embers of idealism find expression mostly in Lupino’s and Addy’s characters; at times, Addy, who lectures Palance about the perils of being a sell-out and soured idealism that is “the perionitis of the soul”, sounds like Odets speaking directly to the audience — or perhaps directly to himself.  That level of hooty dialogue is what makes the script seem like such a transitional work; it’s clearly full of vitriolic bitterness that makes it far removed from the noble class consciousness of his younger works, but it’s got just enough hope left in it to make it distinct from the sheer, world-leveling nastiness that would rear up in Sweet Smell of Success.  Though it’s a step removed from Odets (the screenplay was actually adapted from his play by James Poe), you can see the various ages of his work emerge from scene to scene.  Addy’s high-toned lectures about the average man are straight out of the Golden Boy years; every malevolent bloviation out of Steiger’s mouth is from the darkness of his later life; and when Lupino goes through a laundry list of real-world directors who, unlike Steiger’s character, are making vital and important films about real issues, it’s hard not to see a still-optimistic Odets ticking off the names of people he wishes would hire him.

This ad other scenes, in fact, are what make The Big Knife curiously redolent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris — not just in the presence of Palance, or in Lupino’s what-a-giveaway condemnation of the “contempt” in which Steiger holds everyone, but in the burning just-under-the-radar hatred for the entire studio system and its attendant convulsions and compromises.  The anti-show business show business memoir and the anti-Hollywood Hollywood picture are grand old traditions, and The Big Knife makes a heroic effort and carving itself a place in that tradition, wedged right in between the noir masterpieces of Sunset Blvd. and Sweet Smell.  It’s certainly not for lack of trying that it doesn’t often get mentioned among the great works of the genre.

What lets the air out of the whole thing can’t be laid completely at the feet of poor Odets, badly as he fares at times.  Some of the dialogue here is enjoyably nasty, but other bits are as full of hot wind as a zeppelin; likewise, the action of the film is a double-edged sword, with the overall stagey nature of the film slowing it down at times, but working in its favor in others.  Aldrich does his best to make good use of the camera (which he does in a few gorgeous shots, like an early scene were Palance spars with his personal trainer and some terrific medium-closeups where the faces of his oppressors loom like posters of Mao over Palance’s supine body).  The cinematography, which more than anything places The Big Knife in the noir idiom, is by Ernest Laszlo, who does a pretty astounding job.  The plot bogs down the longer a scene goes on, but early on, it’s almost bleak enough to read as a rehearsal for something even darker, a sort of proto-version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  

No, The Big Knifes fatal flaw is its casting, which should serve as a useful reminder that Method acting wasn’t all Brandos and Deans.  All too often, it was Palances and Steigers, who, in their every scene together, flake off enough shaved ham to fill a million chicken Kievs.  Palance (who never misses a chance to show his chest, bare his fangs, or make a menacing fist) subscribes throughout to the theory that emotional angst should always be expressed physically, and doubles over so much during scenes of great personal torment that it’s amazing nobody ever offers him a glass of Pepto.  Steiger is an absolute loon; he was only 30 years old when he made the movie, but he plays the role of a man twenty years older with the bluster of a man sixty years older.  He affects a blatantly prop-ish hearing aid and bellows every line like an air raid siren, intoning “CHAAAAAAAARLES, I SOLEMNLY ABJURE  REALISM” as if the lives of his loved ones depend on him playing to the back row of the theater.  Noir fixture Wendell Corey plays his flunky (named Smiley Coy, a name straight out of a Steve Ditko Mr. A comic) with a bit more grounded menace, but every time he delivers a line, he has to bounce it off Palance, who reacts by throwing himself against the nearest piece of furniture as if his bones have just been removed.  Lupino and Everett Sloane play with some restraint and dignity, but the latter just gets to make a lot of sad faces, and the former is given some of Odets’ most soft-baked dialogue.

All the parboiled pork being generated by Palance and Steiger don’t entirely sink The Big Knife, which is well worth seeing not only as a study of Odets’ career but as a decent example of showbiz noir.  It’s also plenty gorgeous thanks to Aldrich and Laszlo, and Frank DeVol’s thrumming jazz score is more worth listening to than a lot of the dialogue.  It’s a mid-level noir, though, at best, and it serves as a sterling example of the powers of a major writer of the period at both his greatest strength and his lowest ebb, from moment to moment, in the same picture.



flavored with age
Gun-totin', Chronic-smokin' Hearse Initiator
Ludic Log


Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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