Log in

No account? Create an account

The Party of What People?

This will be my last entry of 2016.  Next year will begin, barring some unexpected act of fate, with the ascension to the presidency of Donald Trump, as dim-witted, incurious, crass, and crooked human being that has ever held public office in America.  Trump has spent the hours since the election staffing his White House with the greatest collection of grifters and cranks this side of Tammany Hall, and trolling the country he is meant to be leading on Twitter.  The primary occupation of politically-minded Americans these days has been predicting whether Trump will be world-historically bad — Adolf Hitler with nuclear weapons, essentially — or merely a repeat of some of our worst former presidents, an aggressive huckster on the scale of George W. Bush. Whatever flavor of bad he will be, he will certainly be bad, which brings us to a crucial question:  what are the Democrats, America’s current party of opposition, going to do about it?

Thomas Frank, one of our most insightful and fearless political critics for the last three decades, thinks he has an answer, and that answer is, not a fucking lot.  Years ago, Frank identified the Democrats — then led by Bill Clinton, whose approach has come to define the party in its current incarnation — as “an opposition that has ceased to oppose”.  He wrote his current book, Listen, Liberal, or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, when it still seemed pretty obvious that Clinton’s wife Hillary was the heir apparent to his throne, and that she would be taking her place as President despite her egregious flaws as a candidate.  Although history has made fools of those of us who thought she had the race in the bag (a failure increasingly attributable, despite postmortem conspiracy theories about Russian cyber-war, to the fact that she ran a campaign far more incompetent than anyone suspected), there is no reason to doubt his overall conclusion:  that the Democratic Party, as currently constituted, long ago ceased to be an opposition party to the Republicans on many significant issues and has instead become merely the more socially acceptable face of neoliberalism, the ideology that teaches all issues have a market solution, all problems can be solved with the proper application of imperialist force, and all politics should flow from the minds of an elite professional class who truly know, by virtue of their education and expertise, what is best for everyone.

Frank lays out his argument with ruthless efficiency.  His prose can be cutting, but he doesn’t need fancy language to present his case:  he simply marshals quote after quote, document after document, statistic after statistic to illustrate the essential truth that the American people have not had a political party that fairly represents its interests for a good 40 years, and that the Democrats have not only failed to oppose the Republicans on many critical issues that have led directly to the impoverishment and immiseration of huge numbers of the citizens they are charged to govern, but have aided and abetted them and even led the charge towards neoliberalism themselves.  It’s an argument familiar to anyone who’s been playing close attention since the 1990s, or even who listened to stump speeches by Bernie Sanders in the early days of the campaign:  the Democrats have surrounded themselves with elite Ivy League professionals who govern by means of the spreadsheet and the push poll, ignoring the actual needs of their constituencies; they have become just as beholden or more so as the Republicans to a wealthy class of ultra-rich donors, to whose advantage they remake the law; they have become addicted to free trade and foreign oil, leading them down a disastrous path of hostile foreign policy; they have abandoned their traditional supporters among unions, rural voters, and the urban poor in favor of decorating the elite inner circles of power with ‘representative’ minorities; and they have turned ever further to the center right, hoping foolishly to capture the votes of Republican professionals in the suburbs while abandoning the working class to either turn to the G.O.P.’s cynical manipulations or stop voting altogether.

What is fascinating about Frank’s discussion of all this is its depth and thoroughness of historical detail. Abandoning the common but insufficient narrative that this all began with Reagan, he takes us back to the early 1970s, when cultural and economic upheavals led to a near civil war among the Democrats. He calls attention to such turning points as the McGovern Commission, Frederick Dutton’s Changing Sources of Power, and the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council, who produced leaders like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton whose primary goal was to rid the liberal party of any connection to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal — the greatest president America ever had and the greatest legacy he left it.  Having won the culture wars, this breed of liberal discovered that it actually liked the comforts of vast wealth, and set about marrying its politics to a freewheeling big-tent social agenda that appeared to promote opportunity for gays, women, and minorities, while sponsoring legislation that choked the life out of those very groups unless they happened to be rich.  The rise of the carceral state, the vast explosion of militarism into the civilian sphere, and the abandonment of the welfare state in favor of an austerity program drawn directly from management theory was the inevitable result of this transformation.

Listen, Liberal makes the airtight case that the Democratic leadership has pursued this center-right, pro-market position not because they have been forced to by the strength of the G.O.P., but because they want to — because these are the things they truly believe.  He illustrates this principle again and again, most forcefully when he talks about how beloved outgoing President Barack Obama — raised now to sainthood by virtue of having been replaced by the Devil — wasted one opportunity after another: handed enormous political clout, a public mandate from justly outraged voters, and a widely hated Republican Party, he turned to the center again and again instead of handing out the kind of bold reform that was so desperately needed.  The result was eight years of failures and compromises, the false sense of security that this was what everyone wanted, and, ultimately, loss after loss that crammed the House and Senate with right-wing ideologues and set the stage for a Trump victory.  Frank didn’t get a chance to update the book to show what Obama and the rest of the party has done since their historic disintegration, but it’s hard to imagine he’d be very surprised.

Why is all this important?  What does Frank hope to gain by illuminating the pathways of the past?  As usual, it’s because what’s past is prologue.  We are at a moment of importance on the American left whose importance cannot be overstated:  the incoming Republican administration will at best be a disaster and at worst an apocalypse. The Democratic Party is in disarray, while record numbers of young people are attracted to socialism and a senator from Vermont who isn’t even really a Democrat has become the party’s standard-bearer of resistance to the G.O.P.  Without question, what is needed now is unity and solidarity, and a determination to abandon the circular firing squad that usually characterizes progressive politics.  But the question is, around what kind of program will this solidarity coalesce?  Will it be around a truly left liberalism, a progressivism that represents the vast majority of Americans against the billionaire class that has robbed them blind for the last two decades unhindered? Or will it be around the liberalism of the past, against the billionaires’ co-conspirators, the party that lost an un-losable election, the party that Thomas Frank builds a case against as the one that killed the working class once and for all?  Stay tuned  We’ll find out.


Anno Terribilis

2016, the little year that absolutely could not, is almost over, and with the exception of people for whom it was a raging success — morticians and neo-Nazis, in the main — most of us are eager to see the end of it.  Starting out, as all years do, with the unlimited promise of the new and the possibility of growth, transformation and, yes, perhaps, true happiness, 2016 has soured into that one guest at your cocktail party who is still there at 4:42 AM and promises to let you get to bed after he tells you one last amusing story from each of the last seventeen times he saw the Grateful Dead.  I normally don’t cotton to end-of-year reviews that appear before we’re even ordering Thai food to avoid having to eat the last of the leftover turkey hash, but given that this is a year in which we are calibrating our hopes to an even point between hoping that President Donald Trump will merely be massively corrupt and negligent on a scale not seen since Nero and hoping that President Donald Trump will actually destroy all human life in a nuclear firestorm because a talk show host insulted his tie, I’m willing to make an exception.  Let’s get this over with.

1.  SEX.  Normally, this would be both the beginning and the zenith of my whining, but I’m gonna be honest with you folks:  things are going great on the sex front.  No one of my advanced years should be having good sex; they should be complaining to a wizened, bespectacled physician and/or groundskeeper about their lumbago and/or plumbago.  However, facts are facts, and the facts are, this socialist is getting some.  Sadly, this doesn’t mean all is well in the world of sex:  our new head of state is a likely sexual predator, as are our most beloved comedians, musicians, football coaches, radio personalities, ministers of the Gospel, television stars, film directors, and actuaries, probably.  It’s almost as if unaccountable power, wealth, and fame is a recipe for abusive behavior!  Things have gotten so bad that a well-known dating app has informed us that we have to learn 37 new genders, and we are so relieved that we’re pretending this will fix everything.

2.  DRUGS.  Many states — though, cursedly, not the one I live in — have decided that, what with the planet basically disintegrating before our eyes and all, maybe it’s not that important that we put people in jail by the hundreds of thousands for smoking marijuana.  The trend towards recreational marijuana legalization is fortuitously timed, as President Trump has named to the post of Attorney General a man who thinks casual drug use is only slightly less of an abomination before the law than being a Negro who does not know his proper station.  Elsewhere, heroin is making a comeback, robbing us of entertainment figures who future generations will pretend are more talented than they actually were, and the plague of meth is devastating communities of people who are too poor for us to care about.

3.  ROCK AND ROLL.  Frankly, I have no idea what is going on in music anymore.  I am an old man who gets winded walking down a flight of stairs to steal my neighbor’s newspaper, so I just assume all music today is crafted by an AutoTuned recorder played by an enigmatic Norwegian.  The question has arisen, however, as to what kind of ‘art in opposition’ will emerge in the era of Donald Trump; if early indications from trend-setting rap person Kanye West are any indication, the answer will be “pretty embarrassing, I bet”.

4.  THE ENVIRONMENT.  2016 was the hottest year on record, which we all complained about during the summer but secretly were thankful for most of January and February.  A bunch of animals that you can’t eat or safely play frisbee golf with went extinct, and Mount Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef, and other distant tourist attractions were permanently shuttered, but all in all, America responded to the imminent total destruction of its own livable habitat with the gusto of a man spending his last unemployment check playing keno because he’s positive he’ll get another job before the rent is due in four days.  Recurring doomsday-scenario lead actor Donald Trump believes that climate change was invented by the heathen Chinee to drive up maintenance costs at his tacky hotels, so it’s pretty unlikely anything will be done about this until we’re drinking our own blood for hydration purposes, but surely future generations will understand that we needed them to die by the millions so that we could get ingredients for our dinner delivered instead of walking three blocks to the bodega.

5.  CELEBRITY DEATH.  People — especially people of the non-famous variety, who inexplicably still outnumber celebrities even in the age of reality television — die all the time, so there’s something somewhat disingenuous about engaging in performative shock when an 85-year-old who spent much of the prime of his life inhaling whatever narcotics came within ten feet of his head keels over.   This is only going to become more pronounced since, as noted, there are now more famous people than there have ever been, and if by the grace of God we live long enough, we’re going to be required to have an opinion about the demise of Star Wars Kid, the “Chocolate Rain” guy, and Chicken George from season 1 of Big Brother.  That said, 2016 has been especially brutal in terms of beloved figures dying young, and the news that Sharon Jones probably died of a stroke induced by watching good ol’ Donald Trump win the election just seems like the Grim Reaper is making fun of us.

6.  INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS.  I’m going to skip the obvious about how America has elected a rancid bucket of puréed carrots with a persecution complex to the Presidency.  However, it is worth pointing out that right-wing nationalist governments are now in control of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Japan, Russia, and India, leaving Germany as the world’s great beacon of freedom, democracy, pluralism, and hope.  It has been remarked that God has a sick sense of humor, but this is a little on the nose, don’t you think?  Essentially, in terms of whether or not mankind has a future, we are being asked to bet on whether famine, environmental destruction, and a lack of clean water will wipe us all out before there’s another global war.

7.  TELEVISION.  On the upside, though, TV has gotten really good, right?


Shalom and the Jewish Jesus

Shalom Auslander got the best possible start on having a sickly fatalistic sense of humor:  he was a miserable Jew from the day he was born.

As detailed in his highly entertaining 2007 memoir Foreskin’s Lament, Auslander was raised a deeply unhappy Orthodox Jew in and around New York in the ’70s and ’80s.  Like many of that ancient faith’s most pitch-black humorists, he found himself both longing to escape the strangulating strictures of Judaism and helplessly entwined in its teachings of utter helplessness in the face of an unknowable God.  This curdled into a cynicism that most of us don’t experience until much later; at a young age, he was writing deeply funny and hopelessly jaundiced pieces on current events for GQ and Esquire that bore the exasperated wisdom of a man twice his age.  His first fiction came in the form of Beware of God:  Stories, a masterfully funny collection of short pieces that found new and exciting ways to to portray the relationship of man to his maker, light-years beyond the kind of angsty adolescent moaning that usually hits Gentile teens when they’re 19 and haven’t gotten laid yet.  The stories in that collection, still one of my favorites of the century so far, often portray Jews who are both bound by the nature of their religion and consumingly aware of its absurdity.

Flash forward to 2012:  Auslander is now a man in his 40s, no longer a promising young writer pushing the boundaries of his craft, but a grown adult.  He begins working on his first novel, faced with the expectation that he will finally come to terms with his Jewishness and produce a mature work about what it’s like to be a man.  Instead, what he writes is Hope:  A Tragedy, one of the most audacious works of black comedy in recent memory, a book that both draws on the patterns and obsessions of his earlier work and ups the ante considerably.  The subject of Hope is no less than Judaism’s most sacred cow, the figure he will refer to in the novel as “the Jewish Jesus” — not Yeshua himself, but rather the universally beloved Holocaust victim and diarist (or, as Hope will have it, Holocaust survivor and failed novelist) Anne Frank.

The novel concerns itself with Solomon Kugel, who is wracked with some deeply ingrained characteristics of the classic Jewish protagonist:  a profound sense of guilt at the idea of perpetuating misery, as shown in his uncertainty over having a child; a persistent sense that he is being haunted by the ghosts of his forebears, as shown by the presence of his aging mother, who pretends to have been a victim of the Shoah despite having been born in Manhattan after the war was over and who instills in him a terrible fear that everyday objects might be the remains of his relatives; and a curious balancing act between a deep-seated instinct for survival and a desire for utter self-abnegation.  It is for the latter reason that he buys an old farmhouse in upstate New York, deliberately seeking out the most uninteresting town he can find — but of course, he cannot escape history, and it is in this town with no past that he finds, typing away in his own attic, the still-living Anne Frank, who refuses to die until she can finish a work of fiction that will outsell her legendary memoir.

All of this is played with a complete lack of delicacy, black as pitch and bold as fire:  Frank turns out to be an unbearable old crank, worn out by the purity of her own reputation which prevents her from ever being human.  His mother’s sick fascination for a misery she never experienced is played for both tragedy and laughs.  (One of my favorite moments in Hope involves her recollection of a family photo taken at Auschwitz, where the young Solomon had the poor taste to smile for the camera:  “You ruined the whole concentration camp for me, you know that?”, she scolds.)  Trying to come to terms with bringing his son into a world so full of evil, Solomon dreads having to eventually give the boy “the talk” — only he means the Holocaust talk, not the sex talk.

Yet, as deftly as Auslander handles all of this (and like many of his best short stories, the funniest and blackest scenes are played out in razor-sharp dialogue), Hope needs more substance to carry out its promise.  For the most part, Auslander delivers.  The whole device of bringing in an apparently living Anne Frank — found, like the Hitler diaries, in a barn, and of equally suspect provenance — is so gutsy that there’s almost no way it can work; but it does, and it doesn’t trip over itself by becoming a metafictional conceit, though certainly Auslander uses it to say a few things about being a prisoner of your own literary reputation.  Plot-wise, Hope is a bit meandering; everything happens in the hearts and minds of the handful of characters who count, and several of them don’t.  A subplot about a chaotic arsonist on the loose in town doesn’t really add much and probably could have been dropped, though that would have put the whole novel at risk of being scaled back to one of Auslander’s short stories.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, however.  Auslander’s short fiction, as I’ve said, is terrific, and while Hope:  A Tragedy doesn’t gain all that much from exceeding his other stories in length, it doesn’t lose much either, and most importantly, it retains everything great about them.  It’s often crushingly funny; it cagily balances the narrow divide between cynical fatalism and nihilistic despair, and sometimes manages to seem downright breezy in the process; and most importantly, it portrays its Jewish protagonists, though they might be eternal prisoners of their religious identity, as capable of being embarrassingly and hopelessly human — but touchingly human as well.  Auslander never lets his characters off the hook, but he does more than just let them squirm and dangle; he allows that there might just be a pretty clear view from there.


Thou Shalt Catch Them All

Six months ago, if you had a grown adult wearing a t-shirt with a children’s character crash into you in a public place because they had their face buried in a cell phone screen and weren’t’ paying attention to their surroundings, odds were pretty good they were just using Duolingo to practice a language of no practical value, like Esperanto or Klingon.  But now, they’re almost certainly playing Pokémon GO, the exciting new augmented-reality dogfighting normalizer from Nintendo of America.

What is Pokémon GO?  

It is a mobile game based on the venerable “Pokémon” franchise, in which young persons capture monsters and train them to fight one another for their profit and amusement.  The word “Pokémon” is a sort of portmanteau of “pocket monster”, a term borrowed by creator Satoshi Tajiri from his neighbor, the bass guitarist for a hair metal band, who used it to describe his generative organ.

How is it different from other fighting games?

In Pokémon GO, players collect the various monsters, who have names like Pikachu, Scyther, and Rodney Allen Rippy, by wandering out into the real world and locating them.  This distinguishes it from most video games, which can be played merely by waking up and moving as far as the location of your cell phone.  Its requirement that you display the most basic amount of motility has led some people to praise it for encouraging physical exercise amongst the increasingly sedentary American population, while others have criticized it for being inaccessible for the physically disabled.  The general consensus as of this writing is that people will complain about pretty much anything.

So, wait, you have to go places to get the Pokey monsters?  Like, leave your apartment?

You don’t have an apartment.  You live with your mother.

No, my mother lives with me.  It’s because my credit rating…look, that’s not important. Answer the question.

Yes.  Finding Pokémon requires you to leave the place where your Spaghetti-Os cache is and go out to sunlit areas.  This has caused all sorts of problems:  some locations, such as the Holocaust Museum, Auschwitz, and the September 11th Memorial, have objected to playing the game in such somber surroundings, apparently oblivious to the millions of teen boys who have had boners during field trips to their sacred grounds prior to the development of Pokémon GO.  Others have pointed out the safety risks involved in people driving, hanging around railroad tracks, which does seem important until you consider the fact that being hit by a train while trying to catch a Swampert is about the funniest way you can die.  Other complaints have involved gangs of criminals luring players into secluded areas with the promise of rare Pokémon, only to rob them; all I can say to that is, if you support the police, you owe them the big laugh they’re going to get out of hearing that story.

I am too timid to install Pokémon GO.  Walk me through the process.

Well, first you download it from the Apple store and are unable to install it for several hours because the servers have crashed again.  Then a scientist whose name is probably Dr. Lipcreep or something shows up out of nowhere and presses you into service as his unpaid intern.  Your job is to go around collecting these Pokémon for Dr. Lipcreep, who is studying them, and, in a surprising departure from the scientific method, when he’s off doing something else, you get to take them to arenas and make them fight each other.

By the way, you are not you.  You are represented in the game by one of two icons — a ridiculous-looking man in Japanese biker drag, or a ridiculous-looking woman in Japanese biker drag.  Even though they are clearly within a binary male/female dichotomy, Wikipedia informs me that this development was praised by ‘genderfluid groups’ because you are choosing a ‘style’ and not a ‘gender’. This is the sort of thing Wikipedia does now, I guess.  Anyway, you get to pick stuff like what color wetsuit your icon is wearing and what name you would like to give it were that name not already taken by the 612 million other people already playing Pokémon GO.

Finally, you’re ready to play the game!  You do this by, let’s say, meeting your girlfriend at the coffeeshop, to be entirely hypothetical because we all know you don’t have a girlfriend and you only drink Mountain Dew Baja Blast and chocolate milk in plastic containers shaped like superheroes. Anyway, you walk — yes, I know, but for the sake of the argument let’s just say you walk — to the coffeeshop, and along the way, you look at shit through your cell phone, and it shows you that across the street, at that scary store that sells wigs for children, there is a Darumaka hanging out in an old couch infested with bedbugs.  It is your job to ‘catch’ the Darumaka by throwing an imaginary ball at it.

Wait, that’s it?  How do you make the creatures fight each other?  Is there training?  What can you win?

Beats me.  I got bored at this point and deleted the app from my phone.  I assume you go on to the coffeeshop and your girlfriend leaves you for dicking around with space alligators on your phone all the time.

So what you’re saying is that our entire world, everywhere we go, is infested with violent, combat-happy monsters who can only be controlled through enslavement, and who have been here all the time, waiting for us to develop sufficient technology to notice them.

Yeah, that’s the size of it.  It’s pretty horrifying if you think about it, so probably best not to.

But they’re not really there.  This augmented-reality stuff, it’s just pictures on a screen added by a program.  Right?

Sadly, yes.  This allows you to ‘experience’ a world that doesn’t really exist, leading you to go outside among the wonders of nature and the vast majesty of human creation while never actually looking at it at all, ignoring the boundless wonders of the world around you in favor of trying to spot a Japanese cartoon mushroom-thing underneath a dumpster.  It’s an amazing way to look at something very intensely while never quite seeing it, like the Most Photographed Barn in America in Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

That’s a pretty pretentious reference for a joke review of Pokémon GO, isn’t it?

Go hurl a Pokéball, fanboy.


America the Impossible

Today is the Fourth of July, America’s national holiday.  Longtime readers of this site will know that every day on this year, I post a little sermon about the state of the country, always trying to follow the advice of the late, great Paul Fussell, who wrote, in BAD, or, the Dumbing of America:  “There is one day of the year when America should receive nothing but praise.  That’s July Fourth.  On all other occasions, those who wish the United States well will vigorously distinguish the good from the bad.”

This year, it seems like distinguishing the good from the bad is harder work than ever, both more difficult and more vital.  It’s not only an election year, but also the dreariest election year in recent memory; every day seems to bring a dismayingly stupid new headline, no matter which party you identify with.  In a very real sense, the bad decisions made by both the Democrats and the Republicans are coming back to haunt them like never before; everywhere you look, chickens are coming home to roost.

For the Republicans, decades of pandering to the lowest common denominator, courting the votes of white supremacists and religious fanatics, heightening the cultural grievances of angry white men while doing nothing to address the economic factors that actually keep them down, and pushing plutocracy as the only solution to the problems that America faces has resulted in the ascendency of none other than American protein disaster Donald Trump as their candidate for president.  Trump, the sort of candidate of whom the best it can be said is that his flirtations with racist and anti-Semites is probably accidental and incoherent rather than the markers of genuine belief, is not only likely to lose by an unprecedented margin, but also set back his party in ways it will take them decades to recover from.  This catastrophe of their own making has its hilarious aspects for fans of political schadenfreude, but lest we become too gleeful, we should remember how dizzying low the bar has been set, and think about the kind of dregs that will follow in Trump’s footsteps before one of them actually manages to win.

The Democratic side, meanwhile, is only marginally better.  25 years of pursuing a neoliberal politics of money over all, where the market is the final arbiter of what can and will be done to help the people of America, has been an utter disaster for most of us, with wealth concentrated almost entirely at the top and the number of people who struggle to survive from one payday to the next growing astronomically. The Democrats, once the party of unions, farmers, and ordinary people, have completely embraced the neoliberal approach, and are now a party of technocrats, professionals, investors, and elites; nowhere is this more clear than in their choice of candidates.  Hillary Clinton has followed in the footsteps of her husband, the first Democrat to abandon the old principles of the liberal consensus to pursue a ‘Third Way” that fattened the wallets of the rich while leaving the poor to fend for themselves, and her positions on labor, trade, investment, and social policy make it clear that she intends to walk the same path.

America’s problems go far beyond the domestic, however.  Our trade policy favors oppressive private power, and so-called ‘free trade’, despite the positive spin placed on it by centrist pundits, weakens rather than empowers working people in foreign countries, breaking the unions at home and making them a fantasy overseas.  Our foreign policy, especially in terms of the Middle East, continues to be reckless and dangerous; our commitment to the ever-more-reactionary government of Israel — and despite the high-flown rhetoric, it is still largely a matter of economics and politics, and not of principle — leads us to deny the essential humanity of one of the most oppressed peoples on Earth.  Worst of all, we face unthinkable repercussions from the damage wrought on the environment by big business interests, to the extent that we are making critical parts of the world incompatible with life.  The Republican position is to deny this; the Democratic position is to fret about it, but to do nothing about it if it costs them big-money donations.

But what is most disheartening in all of this isn’t how hopeless things are:  it’s how hopeless things are painted to be, by the very same people upon whom we should be relying to fix them.  Both parties play the game of re-election, spending all their time, money, and political capital on trying to win the next election rather than on solving the problems they were elected to solve; both have bought in to the dismal games of triangulation, of polling, of targeted marketing, of nibbling around the edges to gain the slightest advantage in a numbers game that means everything and solves nothing.  They are so obsessed with winning that they no longer care what the point of winning is, so they tell us that everything is impossible.  We cannot do this, because it would offend this or that bloc of voters; we cannot do that, because it conflicts with this or that money interest; we cannot do the other, because we can’t afford it.  Governing the greatest and richest country on Earth is no longer an exercise in maximizing human potential, but of tempering expectations.

Here’s the thing, though:  America specializes in the impossible.  It is our particular genius.  The American experiment began by throwing off the rule of the most powerful empire in existence, and self-creating a country founded on the idea that a nation ought to be run according to the wishes of the people who live there.  America went to war against itself to end the unconscionable practice of black slavery, and won.  America separated church and state in the most religious country in the West; America embraced unionism and worker’s rights in the most capitalist country in the world.  Americans were the deciding factor in the war against fascism.  Americans set human beings to walk on another world.  Americans built an interstate highway system and a rural electrification system and a wireless Internet network across a vast country; all of these were accomplished in a single presidential administration.  Americans legalized abortion, passed civil rights legislation, broke up the trusts, instituted gay marriage, and preserved freedom of speech for 200 years amongst the most contentious people on the planet.  America absorbed endless ethnic, racial, and religious groups and turned them into Americans.  America created a national parks system that is the envy of the world, innovated industry and culture and technology that was exported to every country on the globe, and constructed a retirement plan for the aged in which anyone can participate.

These are not activities accomplished by a country afraid of its own shadow, terrified of offending its voters and corporate masters, obsessed with opinion polls and numbers-gaming.  A country that can do all of these things cannot tell me it is impossible to devise a workable universal health care system, or that it is a pipe dream to demand environmental stewardship from the companies that make billions off its largesse, or that there can be no election reform, or that affordable college education is a goal that is simply beyond its reach.  A country that can end slavery can make the rich pay their fair share of its operating costs.  It will not be easy; none of America’s many miraculous achievements have been easy. It will require us to take a close interest in affairs that we find boring or frustrating.  It will demand that we hold our politicians, our journalists, and ourselves much more accountable.  But it can be done, it should be done, and it must be done.  America is good at doing the impossible, and the impossible is what we need right now.


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

Hi there!  If you’re reading this site, that means you enjoy the writing you find here on a regular basis. Or you got here by accident.  Or you’re a hate-reader.  Whatever the case, it’s wonderful to have you, and I’d like to take a moment to ask you to support this site via Patreon.

What’s Patreon, and how does it help support independent writing on the web?  Watch this video to find out:

The content on LeonardPierce.com is free, has always been free, and always will be free.  But if you kick in just a few dollars a month, it will go a long way towards helping me keep producing the content that brought you here to begin with.  There are many reward levels and tiered goals, so you’ll be getting plenty of bang for you buck; please consider visiting my Patreon site and making it happen.  As always, your support is appreciated beyond words.  Thanks!


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”.



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.

Latest Month

December 2016


RSS Atom
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow