Smaller and Smaller and Smaller: Indiana Jones 4 (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, June 6, 2008 08:54pm | Post a Comment

I don't know what to say about Indiana Jones and the Subtitle I Can't Remember Without Looking It Up. It's called something like "The Castle of Grey Skull," but I know that's He-Man.  A 20-something year old toy tie-in is more memorable than the new Spielberg-Lucas flick. You won't find any images like the above in the new reiteration. That shot reminds me of the crops-on-fire one from Days of Heaven, which was a celebration of cinematographic possibilities. And it evokes memories of Lawrence of Arabia. It's a beautiful image of Western power, with the silhouette of Indy's hat -- a metonym for imperialism -- lording over the working Egyptians as they dig for an old Christian talisman.  The older, wiser Indy now says "Ike is right," with the empire-building majesty of Douglas Slocombe's cinematography being unfortunately replaced by the middling containment-style imagery of shooting in front of green screens and on sets that look like Disneyland rides. "The adventure continues" indoors and on desktops:

You don't see any indoor scenes which aren't on real world sets, with real sunlight coming in, like this:

And maybe Harrison Ford's salary ate up all the money for extras, the availability of which previously gave you shots like this:

And monkeys regain their dignity by teaching Indy's son to swing on vines, I guess, but they look like lowgrade Pixar and you don't get any framed shots like this one:

In short, Indiana Jones 4 just shows how small the spectacle of epic cinema has become. Even Indy's trademark hat has been reduced from sign of Western subjugating knowhow to mere nostalgic tie-in (i.e., mere trademark). It's ironic that the two directors most responsible for manufacturing Boomer nostalgia for the children of the Boomers are now the most responsible for dismantling the related artifices. The hootin' and hollerin' at the sight of the Lucasfilm logo is only audible at the 12:01 am premiere showings nowadays, but that's because fanboys will take what their masters give them.  Such fanboys are constantly waiting for Godot, or are like the dogs in Martin Seligman's experiments with learned helplessness. This hardcore fan still believes E.T. really liked the taste of his product placements, that the perpetually next Star Trek movie will be the good one, and that Kevin Smith is an acute satirist. The only way to like the new Indiana Jones film is to believe it a sign of the Spielberg-Lucas Industrial Complex getting ready to flip on the switch for their next project (Beckett not being required fanboy literature), or just get used to the pain of disappointment.

What was my point?  Oh yeah: the impoverished spectacle.  Indy 4 will surely look a good sight better when it's been shrunk down to fit on the cell phone.  That way, the viewer won't notice how cheap everything looks, how diminished the iconography has become. Which reminds me of David Lynch's rant against watching movies on the iPhone:

Poor, old-fashioned Lynch doesn't consider the possibility that films might actually be made with reduction in mind. Kind of like they frame everything on widescreen tv shows to fit the standard ratio without losing any crucial information (thereby making widescreen perfunctory, an aesthetic trinket -- "oh look!  You can't see that empty chair on a normal tv set!"), summer movies are starting to feel like they're being shot with the cell phone and iPod viewership in mind. There's a bunch of blurry shit moving around, so it's not as if any info will be lost when watching it on a smaller format. And, in fact, verisimilitude might actually increase for the CGI effects as they get smaller.

Machismo may appear closer than it actually is.

With the smaller spectacle comes the smaller star.  Still working through his Oedipal fixation, Spielberg thought what this action adventure series needed was more family dynamics, so along with the return of Marion from Raiders comes the introduction of her and Indy's son, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf).  LaBeouf's specialty appears to be supplying the dramatic mask to action directors who fancy themselves making more than popcorn entertainment. Just as he did last summer in Transformers (another epic of miniaturized proportions), LaBeouf gums up the action with a dramatic role that turns what should be an 1 and 1/2 hour flick into 2 or more hours. He is the actor par excellence for the fast forward sequences during home viewing, the realworld dramatic analog to JarJar Binks.  When he appears in Indy 4 aping Brando from Wild One, the age of the inflated mini-star has arrived.  On an iPod, he'll look just as tough as Harrison Ford.

As for the story, Indy gets into trouble at the beginning, puts on his hat, makes some one-liners, is fucked over by an archeologist (Ray Winstone), is told about some mysterious stuff existing in exotic locations, which leads him to more mysterious stuff, meets up with Marion, exchanges insults with Marion, rediscovers that he loves Marion, and everything ends with a swirling mess of special effects.  If that sounds like the Raiders, consider screenwriter/scriptcobbler David Kroepp's approach:
You can’t write a fan script[.]  You have to pretend that this movie exists without the other one[.]  The worst thing to do would be to have [Indy] make reference to things he said in the first movie, like to pun on lines of dialogue[.]  That’s tempting, because you’ve seen the movie a hundred times and you know all the dialogue, but no human being remembers exactly what they said 25 years ago word for word, much less make reference to it. So you try to put aside the other movies and yet be in the spirit of them.
Pretending the previous movies didn't exist, Kroepp establishes that Indy really hates snakes, for example. And this time around, he goes up against communists (led by Cate Blanchett) and aliens, rather than Nazis and Christian magic. And, correcting what was evidently a perceived problem with the second and third films, we fans get what we've supposedly been clamoring for, a resolution to his relationship with Marion -- or at least that's what Harry Knowles has been clamoring for:
Then there’s Indy’s reaction to seeing Marion for the first time. I couldn’t describe it to save my life. It’s about 40 different emotions all at once. And only Harrison Ford’s face could deliver that… effortlessly. And at the same time – there’s Marion’s reaction – and ya know… It’s a combination of relief & joy. When you’ve been captured by evil agents of the Soviet Empire and are threatened at Gunpoint… You want your life in the hands of someone that loves you like Indiana Jones.

Honestly at that moment – that second of connection between the two of them. I honestly haven’t had the emotional impact anything like it in years. That look shared between them… suddenly it wasn’t just the entirety of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – but suddenly it was a flood of what probably happened between that film and LAST CRUSADE. And you could tell that they fought… my god, it’s Indy and Marion. It’d be a sad world in which they didn’t fight. They’re Lions in Human form – courageous, passionate and tough as hell.
But, seriously, there are two basic rules for action films: no wives/girlfriends and no children.  Every single action film with those two elements has been awful. Domestic equality ruined Schwarzenegger's career (he never recovered from True Lies). Don't get me wrong, it's okay to have them as victims, waiting to be rescued, or when their deaths serve as the basis for vengeance, but never as agents of action. This isn't masculinist, however; there's nothing better than a female-fronted actioner with the heroine wielding blades and/or guns, but her family either has to be annihilated at the start of the film, or suffering from torture for the better part of its running time.

Well, I'm rambling. In summary, Indiana Jones 4 made me want to watch the new Rambo dvd, so I did.

The reduction is complete: Indiana Jones and His Boring Domestic Problems

Paranoia, They Destroy Ya: Death Sentence vs. The Brave One, or Jodie Foster's Continuing Relevance to the Presidency

Posted by Charles Reece, February 8, 2008 12:50pm | Post a Comment
Given Hillary Clinton’s history of backing neo-liberal economic policies and war-making by the United States and its allies, her advocacy of women’s rights overseas within what is widely seen outside this country as an imperialist context could actually set back indigenous feminist movements in the same a way that the Bush administration’s “democracy-promotion” agenda has been a serious setback to popular struggles for freedom and democracy.  -- Stephen Zunes, Sexism, the Women’s Vote and Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy
These promises of morality, protection, and recognition of harm are false promises. The criminal justice apparatus is about order and its reproduction, and about maintaining the existing hierarchy of status and privilege, and only incidentally about crime or morality or the safety of individual citizens and their communities. It operates most effectively at
the level of the symbolic, by naming individual offenders as morally defective, and using them as scapegoats, and only incidentally as a useful tool for community security, although at times it is the only and the most appropriate social institution available. -- Diane L. Martin, Retributivism Revisited: A Reconsideration of Feminist Criminal Law Reform Strategies

At a time when Spider-Man still had some aesthetic worth, being drawn by the great Steve Ditko, New York was on its way to becoming a dangerous city, giving the super-powered vigilante something to do, presumedly on a daily basis.  However, looking at the crime stats for NYC in 1965, one finds that only 3% of its inhabitants experienced any sort of crime for that year.  With a population of 18 million, it's no wonder that there was rarely a cop around as the Vulture was flying off with his ill-gotten loot.  Now, if you're one lone webslinger, even with the aid of your trusty spider-sense, it ain't very likely that you'll be fortunate enough to come across a crime as it's occurring even on a monthly basis, much less a daily one.  Thus, we have one of the central absurd conceits of the vigilante sub-genre (with radiated powers or merely a stock of ammo): always being in the right place at the right time.

It's just that sort of absurdity Daniel Clowes satirizes in his parodic take on Spidey, The Death-Ray.  Upon discovering his superpowers after smoking his first cigarette, Andy is coaxed into fighting crime by his pal Louie.  The only problem is that there's no superpowered villains with whom to have one of those Kirby-inspired splash pages.  With the aid of his evaporating deathray gun, Andy does the only thing left to him, erasing the schoolyard bully, the older sister's obnoxious boyfriend, and the everyday litterer.  With great power comes the blasé acceptance of its use.

Using the same basic plot as Lee and Ditko's origin for Spidey, director Michael Winner and writer Wendell Mayes's DEATH WISH replaces spider powers with the hand gun and the death of Uncle Ben with the murder of the hero's wife and the rape of his daughter for a more versimilitudinous milieu.  As his daughter lies in a vegetative state, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) asks his pansy aka typically liberal son-in-law if all there is to do when faced with violent crime is hide in fear.  Sure, the son-in-law replies, it's called being civilized.  Well, just like Peter Parker, Kersey will have none of that.  With his newly acquired gun (which inexplicably uses bullets that can't be traced), he patrols all the most obvious places where crime takes place: convenience stores, subways and Central Park.  And, being the sine qua non of the vengeance morality play, there are ne'er do wells at every corner.  "Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets," as Travis Bickle will say a couple years later.  Of course, it wasn't until the appearance of Frank Castle, the Punisher, in a 1974 issue of SPIDER-MAN (same year as DEATH WISH), that the superhero vigilante was made to face his grittier, more "realistic," counterpart.  Spidey wouldn't kill, but following the likes of Paul Kersey, the Punisher certainly would.  The conflict appears to be a way of setting up a contrast between good vigilantism and the bad kind, thereby keeping the morality of superheroes acceptable to a readership growing up, say, some time after the Renaissance.

In order to keep Kersey a hero and this right-wing fantasy more palatable to a liberal -- or, really, any morally modern audience, his actions are always reactions, brought on, like in a Western, by the villain drawing first.  Kersey starts off as a conscientious objector in the Korean War, but keeping with the old adage that a liberal is a conservative who hasn't been mugged, he begins to see the value in Deuteronomy's "an eye for an eye."  Thus we have the narrative template for the vigilante sub-genre established, with its complementary theory of justice, retributivism (an equivalent amount of punishment for the crime), firmly in place.  There are many problems with retributivism, chief among them being it's a moral code without a real concern for any practical benefits to society.  It's simply a matter of doing what's right in abstracto, regardless of whether the punishment itself might have more long-lasting deleterious effects than the individual crimes themselves.  Little wonder, then, why the vigilante film or the superhero comic is rooted in machismo; societal concern sounds too much like feminine caring.

Trying to further liberalize antediluvian morality by feminizing it, we get Neil Jordan's THE BRAVE ONE, which proves to be little more than DEATH WISH with Jodie Foster's Erica Bain replacing Bronson's Paul Kersey.   Certainly Foster's face maps a wider emotive geography that Bronson's, who  looks like some sculpted artifact from a simpler, more decisive time.  Getting art (power) house Jordan to direct the film was an attempt to bestow gravitas to what would have otherwise been dismissed by most critics as little more than a generic reiteration of a well-worn cliché.  And one doesn't have to guess at the motives of the producers, Susan Downey says as much in the documentary that comes with the film on dvd.  Both director and star are there to help deepen the emotional understanding of vengeance.  As Downey tells us, the original script by father-son writing duo, Roderick and Bruce Taylor, was too much a straightforward genre piece, only with a woman protagonist.  Brought on, in part, by Foster's insistence, Cynthia Mort revised the script, making the hero an NPR talkshow host, often speaking in a voiceover (for those who couldn't quite appreciate the message behind .Bronson's granite gaze).  The intended difference in vigilantes here supposedly being that Foster’s is one who takes on the full emotional and moral weight of her decisions (as NPR reporters sound like they're doing when reporting a story), where Bronson’s was just a force to be reckoned with.  Just look at the posters: Bronson is a man of determination and action, Foster a woman of regret and doubt.  I don't remember Bronson touching his hair once in any of the five DEATH WISHes.  Nor does he cry, which Foster does in abundance.

But these are superficial differences, taken as meritorious by a reductio ad absurdist identity politics.  By merely replacing the speaker of an argument with another speaker belonging to a neglected group, the argument is assumed to take on a different meaning, as if there's something intrinsic to that group which will just naturally affect the argument's outcome.  Having a woman willing to strap on a bomb doesn't say much about women's rights, only how little the ideology cares about gender equality.  One has but to think of Ira Hayes in this regard.  He was "equal" only so long as he served the purpose of perpetuating the American ideal within the context of WWII.  Once he returned home, and his "Indian-ness" began to re-surface, the ideology had little use for him.  Otherness is of value to an ideology only if it can be used to perpetuate that ideology.  With better cinematography and acting, THE BRAVE ONE uses the feminine body to make exactly the same points as DEATH WISH.  Like Kersey, Bain has a perfect life in Manhattan, is a devout liberal, loses a loved one in a violent act, acquires a gun,  proceeds to haunt the same locales waiting for Them to draw first, and then gets help from a cop in order to get away with it.  The substitution of Foster and the effeminate connotation of an arthouse take on the vengeance sub-genre are nothing more than rhetorical affectations to help reassert the continuing appeal of retributivism.  If THE BRAVE ONE suggests anything not already in its predecessor, it's only that technology qua gun is the great equalizer.

The feminist intent of THE BRAVE ONE wasn't lost on some critics.  Writing in Film Comment (Vol. 43, No. 5), Amy Taubin contrasts it to the "male fantasy" of MS. 45 and DEATH WISH, along with the latter's "righteous vigilantism."  Contrary to the film's being a near point for point remake of DEATH WISH, she chooses to compare it more favorably with the more critically respectable TAXI DRIVER.  Odd, since Travis Bickle is pretty much off from the beginning of his story, whereas Paul Kersey is, despite Bronson's lack of nuance, shown to go through the same transformation brought on by the power of the gun Foster evinces: from passive liberal to angel of vengeance.  If the superficially feminist tricks -- artiness and emotional NPR-employed woman protagonist -- can get a feminist critic to buy into the morality of DEATH WISH's plot (Taubin even challenges critics of THELMA & LOUISE to not be more outraged by THE BRAVE ONE), it's doubtful that she'd find James Wan's testosterone-fueled sequel, DEATH SENTENCE, any more feminist than the Bronson flick.  But, in its focus on the familial and social effects of vengeance, violence begetting violence, it is less masculinist than THE BRAVE ONE, despite its hyper-stylized violence and muscular tit for tat.

As Brian Garfield says, he wrote DEATH SENTENCE "as a sort of penance for the movie version of DEATH WISH."  The film (which was written by Garfield and Ian Jeffers) stays fairly true to his intent, even though it plays to the stylistic demands of the contemporary action spectacle, with tribally tattooed bald bad guys who look more like villains from THE CROW than any street gang in the real world.  Kevin Bacon plays Nick Hume, a happy insurance salesman with a great family until son number 1 is macheted down as part of a gang ritual.  Unlike with the two previous films, the killer is caught, but due to the nature of legal bureaucracy, he clearly isn't going to get his just deserts.  Thus, Nick refuses to testify against him, deciding instead to follow him home to exact what he feels is a more justified retribution.  Unlike Paul and Erica, he's made to pay for his revenge.  The gang discovers his identity and -- in what's surely the worst use of a pop song in cinema's history -- takes out his entire family including Nick himself -- concluding with a spiraling overhead shot of their lifeless bodies to the tune of some 90s WB-warbler about lost love.  Nick survives, says a few words of regret to his other son, now in a vegetative state (along with skulls, tomatoes prove a good excuse for monologues), shaves his head (hardly a nuanced sign of parity between him and the villain), acquires an arsenal from the gang leader's dad (eccentrically played by John Goodman and alluding to the violent upbringing at the base of the villain's worldview), and goes on to exact more retribution.

The most intriguing contrast between the three films is the moral conscience supplied by the cop role.  Each film has a cop who takes a special interest in the case of the vigilante hero:  DEATH WISH has Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia), a detective who is told by the Commissioner to let Paul go free due to the political ramifications of trying a guy who's had the effect of reducing crime in New York.  THE BRAVE ONE has Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) who lets Erica go after killing the final bad guy involved in her rape and the murder of her fiancé, not because of bureaucracy, but because he sympathizes with her position.  He even goes so far as to let her shoot him in the arm and arrange the murder to look like it was a defense killing in the line of duty!  And, finally, DEATH SENTENCE has Detective Wallis (Aisha Tyler), who knows why the gang is after Nick and tries to get him to stop the violent cycle by opening up to her.  Tyler has a thankless role, functioning more as a "don't do that"/"see I told you so" version of the chorus in a Greek tragedy.  Yet, hers is the only role that really focuses this type of story on the familial and social damage that results from a retributivist world view -- hardly surprising that a woman was cast for it.  The character points to the realworld problem of implementing retributivism, rather than merely arguing its abstracted points in a fantasy setting.  Her outlook is confirmed as Nick sits mano a mano with the gang leader at the end of the film, both bleeding to death; whether or not the villain deserved to die becomes irrelevant, when the cost to Nick was so high in making his point. 

Substituting a woman who displays stereotypically feminine cues (e.g., crying and general emoting) into what's a particularly masculine subgenre of Action is insufficient by that fact alone for a feminist critique.  Despite Jodie Foster's claim (in the aforementioned making-of documentary) that her character is in the wrong, the BRAVE ONE demonstrates such a substitution might actually serve as an insidious attempt to broaden the appeal of a socially destructive moral philosophy, selling Old World moralism to today's wouldbe feminists.  Only Erica Bain gets away with her killing because the cop comes to feel her actions are justified.  At least, Paul Kersey's guardian detective is forced by bureaucracy to let him go, in spite of the detective's protestations.  Stylistically, both of these films are more realistic than Spider-Man, but ironically neither is as concerned with the real world as the near superheroic DEATH SENTENCE (with its implausible action sequences and Wolverine-healing abilities of its protagonist).  It manages to be both more honest about the fantastic nature of the subgenre and what vigilantism means in a realworld context.  Even more ironic that such a critique -- which I suggest is connotative of, or at least more consistent with feminism -- should come from a director most notable as the successful popularizer of what many call "torture porn."  The delicate physiognomy of Jodie Foster proves less feminist than beefy men duking it out.

Regarding the potential attractiveness of retributivism to women when it comes to the personalized violence directed at family members, it’s worth quoting at length feminist legal theorist, Diane Martin, on how that philosophy can actually demean the battered wife even further: 

The essential destructiveness of retribution-based acknowledgement of harm is particularly clear when one considers the situation of the battered wife who wants the violence to stop but who does not wish, or cannot afford (or both), to end the relationship. The criminalization approach that has become the official norm of responses to battering pits her against her spouse in a contest that individualizes and depoliticizes spousal violence, and threatens her family in fundamental ways. An immediate threat is posed by her partner’s inevitable loss of employment if the substantial prison terms called for are imposed.  A feminist response should not be to say to this woman, “You are mistaken in your opinion of the harms that may be done to you by the criminal process. You are mistaken in choosing family integrity over the integrity of the justice system. You are mistaken in relying upon your own opinion about how to deal with your situation and not that of the police or the prosecutor or the counsellor or the expert.”  These are patronizing and presumptuous attitudes that also alienate women who might benefit from discussing them further and that drive women away from the resources and help they might need. -- p. 184-5
Following Foster's lachrymose attempt at rebranding the vigilante film by a few months, we got Hillary Clinton's attempt to repackage her Thatcherite masculinity to bourgeois women voters in the New Hampshire primary.  And judging by the exit polls, the ploy worked, Clinton took back the support of women she'd lost to Obama in the Iowa primary.  The detrimental effects on Iraqi women entailed by her support for the imperialist doctrine behind the current war seems to hold considerably less cachet for middle-class women voters than her looking like them and showing that she can act just like they feel they would under the grueling demands of a presidential campaign.  Were her tears genuine?  Who cares?  Her use of BET's Ben Johnson and her husband in playing crass identity politics against Obama makes their spontaneity dubious.  Even if they were real, they function as little more than a mask for what she actually represents.  Feminist support for the one true feminist in the race, Dennis Kucinich, unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears, and he dropped out.   Should Hillary Clinton’s lead hold and she goes on to make the final bid for the presidency, we’ll be left with a choice between two candidates who supported a foreign policy agenda of vengeance that now makes Kissinger’s realpolitik look as feminist as DEATH SENTENCE.

A Great American Next-Door Neighbor: Mr. Conservative, Goldwater on Goldwater (2006)

Posted by Charles Reece, January 16, 2008 02:57pm | Post a Comment
Now, I'm liberal, but to a degree
I want ev'rybody to be free
But if you think that I'll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I'm crazy!
I wouldn't let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.
-- Bob Dylan, I Shall Be Free, No. 10
Back when I was living in Detroit, I had a philosopher friend who was as smart as they come, but as bugfuck crazy a right-winger as they come (well, the right-wing can get pretty goddamn insane, so maybe I exaggerate a bit for rhetorical effect, but he was a good deal nutty, regardless).  He was an atheist with a militant libertarian streak whose silver tongue could convince you of the rational basis for just about any right-wing position if you didn't have every 't' crossed and 'i' dotted in your own arguments.  Over drinks, we'd see who could one-up each other in our beliefs of how many freedoms a person should be permited.  I'll save our conclusions for the faint/pc of heart, but suffice it to say that his ideas for what should be socially permissible (at least, by law) might make the most ardent ACLU attorney blush.  On social issues, having his view in ascendancy in the political world would only make for what I would consider a much better society.  But, then again, he'd also proclaim his admiration for dipshits like Jesse Helms. 

To this day, I find it odd that such libertarians tend to side with right-wing extremists while holding civil views much more in line with my own.  I suppose it comes down to some radical belief in states' rights -- as if a state is any less bureaucratically unfair to its citizens than the federal government -- and seeing businesses as individuals possessing the same rights as, well, actual individuals.  That last belief tends to ignore the long history of businesses being prime real estate where those in power freely piss on the rights of those not in power.  The former tends to tie the more radicalized libertarians, at least, with certain egregious unreconstructed Southern apolegetics regarding the Civil War (as the recent brouhaha over Republican candidate, Ron Paul, demonstrates [1]).

My friend would always get a chuckle at my suggestion that I was, in fact, more libertarian than he, since I believe in using government for maximizing the freedom of individuals when the states or businesses don't see fit to grant individuals their inalienable rights.  Why, I wonder, isn't there a libertarian branch of the Democrats?  If libertarians can swallow all the anti-personal freedoms of the influential Christian Right in the Republican Party, why can't some swallow the anti-laissez faire tendencies of what is by now only a minority in the Democratic Party?  It's a telling sign of just what's ultimately the most important to the majority of socalled libertarians who, instead of "throwing their vote away" on the Libertarian candidates or having no such candidate to vote for, choose, like the rest of us, the lesser of two evils.  Only they tend to choose the more evil.  Unless, that is, we're talking about Barry "Mr. Conservative" Goldwater.

In her celebratory and loving, without being hagiographic, documentary of her grandpa, Barry, Julie Anderson provides multiple reasons why I wouldn't mind living next to the man or having him for a son-in-law:
  • If the Rockefeller-favoring press were expecting some mealy-mouthed acceptance speech from Goldwater at the '64 Republican convention, he didn't oblige.  Instead, he delivered his famous lines: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"  Granted, the devil is in the details, but them's words to live by, providing a worthy complement to Kris Kristofferson's "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
  • In '86, Robert MacNeil went to interview the retiring Senator for one of those nostalgic puff pieces the media tend to do with politicians.  After concluding the interview and shutting down the camera, Goldwater asks MacNeil if he's going to ask him about the recent reports of the Reagan administration selling weapons to Iran.  MacNeil asks him what he has to say.  He replies, "it's the goddamnedest stupid foreign policy blunder this country has ever made."  With the camera turned back on, Goldwater is a bit more diplomatic, saying for the record, "it was a dreadful mistake; perhaps one of the major mistakes the United States has ever made in foreign policy."  This then turned into a question for a very surprised Reagan at a subsequent press conference by MacNeil's partner, Jim Lehrer, making him one of the first reporters to put the president on the spot for what turned out to be the Iran-Contra Affair.
  • With that thin tie, well-fitting dark suit and industrial iron jaw line underneath his slicked back hair and thick-framed glasses, Goldwater presented a visage which deserved to be on those beautiful Soviet propaganda posters.  Who wouldn't want to leave for work in an Oldsmobile with a face like Barry's watering his perfectly geometrical lawn and waving at you?  Just look at that dvd cover above; that's a suburb worth dying for, alright.

  • Being deeply troubled by Watergate, legal counsel John Dean arranged a meeting with Goldwater over just what he should do in his testimony before the Senate, feeling some loyalty to President Nixon, while morally not wanting to lie for his boss.  Goldwater advised, "that SOB was always a liar, so go nail him."  The rest is history.
  • Although the supposedly Goldwater conservative, Ronald Reagan, was willing to applaud a theocrat like Rev. James Robison at a 1980 Evangelical conference as he went on about the perverts, liberals, leftists and communists "coming out of the closet" and how it's time for "God's people" to "come out the closet and change America," Goldwater himself wouldn't have any of it. He knew that it was nothing more than another attempt by some group using moralism as a facade for bureaucratic administration of our freedoms.  In reference to Jerry Falwell and his moral majority play for power, Goldwater said, "all good Christians should kick him in the ass."  With the examples of Ted Haggard and Cardinal Roger Mahony "coming out of the closet" by mixing religion with political power, any good Christian shouldn't have to look very far in his or her heart to know Barry was right.
  • After retiring from the Senate, Goldwater came to regret his past belief that homosexuals shouldn't be allowed in the military, realizing that such a position was a hypocritical contradiction of his conservative beliefs.  He wrote an op-ed piece entitled The Gay Ban: Just Plain Un-American, wherein he used quite familiar conservative rhetoric: "Government governs best when it governs least - and stays out of the impossible task of legislating morality. But legislating someone's version of morality is exactly what we do by perpetuating discrimination against gays."  Can you imagine our current Democratic frontrunners being that consistent in their philosophy, much less the Republicans?
  • Finally, he supported his daughter getting an abortion back in the 50s and continued supporting a woman's right to choose all the way up till his death.  This became most notable in his stalwart defense of Sandra Day O'Connor's nomination for the Supreme Court against all the conservative Christian backlash in the early 80s.  His view was that their horseshit should have no role in politics.
Besides his honesty, what's so admirable about him was the way he made a distinction between open ideological discourse and ideological politics.  He wanted to fly around the country with JFK in 1964 debating issues for the people to make up their mind on whom to vote for.  On the other hand, he recognized the rise of the socalled moral majority as an attempt to seize control over public discourse where one contingent wants to set into law how others have to act.  It's never enough for the right-wing Christians and like-minded ideologues to behave according to their own beliefs, you have to, as well.  That's not discourse, but a power grab.  It's what Goldwater opposed in communism and it's what he opposed here at home.  Our cultural property value went up when he moved in.

[1] James Kirchick, "Angry White Man" in The New Republic.  Since they don't seem to allow hyperlinks, here's the link for you to copy and paste:

It's a good article.

Art! What Is It Good For? More on The Lives of Others Vis a Vis Clockwork Orange

Posted by Charles Reece, January 10, 2008 09:44pm | Post a Comment
Regarding what I wrote about the the transformative power of music in THE LIVES OF OTHERS being a lie, a pal of mine, K, suggested the possible counter-example of the Nazi being moved by piano music in Polanski's THE PIANIST.  I still haven't seen that film due to its starring Adrian Brody, but I suppose if a digitized giant ape can get me to put aside my aversion for 2 and half hours, the name 'Polanski' ought to, as well, even if it's later Polanski.   So maybe I'll get around to that film at some later date. 

A film that does approach what I was talking about from a truer perspective than Donnersmarck's is Kubrick's CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  The film was based on Burgess's novel, which was a rejection of the panglossian futurism of B. F. Skinner's behaviorism, most notably his sci-fi novel, WALDEN TWO, where the happiness of individuals is derived from the outside-in, every aspect of culture being a stimulus which, if functioning properly, keeps the whole community flowing along in prosperity, promoting the desired actions/"responses" -- the providence of which is defined by the organizers.  Things like art have value insofar as they help shape the "proper" behavior, value being defined top-down.  If that strikes you as totalitarian, that's because it is.  And Kubrick's film is an all-out satirical attack against the reifying tendency of the bureaucratically minded whereby value obtains as a place within the system, never for the thing itself.

Contrary to the story Donnersmarck tells of the incommensurability of violence and art, the love of both happily co-exist in CLOCKWORK ORANGE's protagonist Alex.  As it was with Lenin, he loves smashing heads, but unlike with Lenin, he does so to the accompaniment of Beethoven.  It's not until Alex undergoes reconditioning at the Ludovico lab that Beethoven becomes associated with nonviolence.  Getting a dose of some noxious serum while being forced to watch acts of violence and hearing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony results in just the sort of transformative effect Donnersmarck associates with art.  Donnersmarck might argue that his Stasi Captain gives up his ideology in favor of the intrinsic qualities of the piano piece he hears while spying through headphones, whereas the effects of the Ninth on Alex are due to its extrinsic associations with negative stimuli (via Pavlovian, not Skinnerian, conditioning, but the point remains the same).  This potential distinction, however, rests on the shaky notion that such music has ideological content internal to its nature as art-object, rather than associated with it as a social object.

I'm reminded here of a story Ligeti tells of composing his Musica Ricercata No. 2 where every stroke of the piano was intended as a stab into the heart of the communist regime in Hungary.  Stabbing is a good visceral description of the sound, but is there really anything intrinsic to the music about who's doing the stabbing and who's getting stabbed?  If it weren't for the aesthetically conservative Hungarian apparatchiks defining the piece as decadent, it could've (a la Reagan's attempted appropriation of Born in the USA)  inspired quashing anti-communist resistance.  Furthermore, the violence Ligeti associates with his piece suggests that art can most definitely be linked to ideology with violent intent -- albeit, in his case, a morally defensible position -- and even serve to justify it.  The social effects have more to do with the ideological lens through which the music is refracted than any inherent ideology of the music itself.

Thus, it's as a conditioned stimulus that music comes to support or oppose one ideology over another.  By having a committed Stasi captain give up his ideology after hearing a committed communist playwright play a piano piece that has no anti-communist ideological stance associated with it, Donnersmarck does little more than create a narratively convenient lie.  The danger of this lie is that it shares with the prominent management regimes the view that art is inherently ideological, another object whose value is determined by the function it assigns to humans operating within the social order.  As the bureaucrats in CLOCKWORK ORANGE suggest, who cares what happens to the Ninth so long as Alex is no longer committing acts of violence?  What's forgotten here is the aesthetic value of art where any human interacts with art on its own terms, rather than those mandated from the top down.  Thus, the problem with the LIVES OF OTHERS isn't that a communist or Nazi or any other totalitarian functionary might have exquisite taste in art (many do), but its unwitting perpetuation of the value of art as utility, even when its instrumentalist function is what most of us would call socially beneficial.  It's the horror of losing the aesthetic value of art -- which can only come about through a free interaction with art that hasn't been precategorized -- that is central to the terror Alex feels when he makes the leap out the window, no longer able to stand having his love of the Ninth so violated as a byproduct of ideological reconditioning.  The celebratory ending to Kubrick's film isn't the result of some thuggish desensitization to violence, but is one of an individualist aestheticism managing to slip through the cracks of an overdetermined utopia, even if it's under the sign of brutality.

Empathy for the Devil: The Lives of Others (2006), Black Book (2006), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Posted by Charles Reece, December 28, 2007 06:12pm | Post a Comment
Doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on "normalization." This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as "the way things are done." There is usually a division of labor in doing and rationalizing the unthinkable, with the direct brutalizing and killing done by one set of individuals; others keeping the machinery of death (sanitation, food supply) in order; still others producing the implements of killing, or working on improving technology (a better crematory gas, a longer burning and more adhesive napalm, bomb fragments that penetrate flesh in hard-to-trace patterns). It is the function of defense intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public. -- Edward S. Herman

Sympathy is much easier to come by than empathy.  Funny that, since it would seem easier to disinterestedly understand the conditions leading to another's feelings and reasons behind his or her actions than to actually share those feelings and agree with those reasons, particularly when the other is so different from oneself.  I suspect the dominance of the word 'sympathy' is largely due to not enough people appreciating the need for 'empathy,' or even understanding what the word means, as if the two terms were synonyms.  Thus, when the more ethnographically inclined among us suggest America needs to understand the environs or rational structures of a foreign entity perpetrating some act that we deem immoral, they get called traitors, or sympathizers.  HUAC in the 50s springs readily to mind, as well as the right-wing media's reaction to the intellectual Left's take on 9-11.  Classical liberalism, which serves as the bellwether for America's moralizing, defines the human as a self-regulating rational individual, and thus any action taken by an entity (our state, another state, or some hodge-podge collection of disagreeing radicals) that violates the rights of the human so defined is, ipso facto, inhumane.  Thus, any attempt at humanizing, eliciting empathy for, the ad hoc devil will be received about as judiciously as Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" in 60s Israel -- which is to say, not very to downright hostilely.  This negative reaction is always despite any potential moral agreement that the devil should still be hanged.

It's a characteristic of the Leftist and what's now called the Liberal, particularly artists and intellectuals of these persuasions, to try and understand how another human can be led to committing inhumane acts, whether due to their focus on structural influences on behavior or because they're all just godless commies who don't have enough commonsense to tell right from wrong.  Regardless, one can smell leftism or modern day liberalism on art any time a story about some morally reprehensible subject is eliciting an act of understanding from the audience (be that subject an Islamic terrorist, Nazi, covert CIA operative, or mythical monster like Grendel).  Sometimes, you get a critical understanding of the subject, as in CROSSING THE LINE, a doc about an army private defecting to North Korea in '62, but other times such artists slip into sympathy when they should've been going for empathy, ironically creating a right-wing work, like DIRTY HARRY.  Three dvds I've recently caught all have that familiar odor:

Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film takes place on the wrong side of the Berlin wall in its waning last decade and tells the story of Stasi Captain, Gerd Wiesler, who is sent to spy on the popular, ostensibly pro-Soviet playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his apolitical girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland, all because the Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf, has a hard-on for the actress.  Wiesler is shown being a devoted agent for the communists, teaching students the techniques of his craft, defending its morality and having very little life outside of work.  It's not until he discovers the true reason for his current assignment -- while being told by his commanding officer, Anton Grubitz, to find something on Dreyman when his eavesdropping has produced nothing -- that he begins to question his ideological service,  It's not so much that he questions the ideology, only whether anyone around him is serving communism or the more bourgeois interest of personal gain.  It's his vicariously experiencing the aesthetically romantic lives of Dreyman and Sieland that he begins to turn against the ideology, the crux of his transition being when he hears the playwright playing a piano piece composed by Gabriel Yared.

This tale of the transformative powers of art was inspired by an anecdote of Lenin's reaction to Beethoven's Appassionata, where he could no longer listen to it as it made him want to stroke heads, not smash them.  In a century where one of the greatest poets, Ezra Pound, was making radio broadcasts in support of Fascist Italy, the anecdote comes across as not much more than a romantic lie artists would like to believe in to inflate the political importance of their vocation.  Contrary to Donnersmarck's assessment that it's a testament to the power of art, what seems more crucial is that Lenin chose smashing heads over listening to a phonograph.  Thus, what the film ultimately leaves us with is a sympathetic tale of how we'd like to believe we'd react if we (meaning us non-communists and members of a non-totalitarian, liberal state)  found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being a Stasi Captain.  What it doesn't give us is any reason why we might find ourselves in that position had we been brought up in East Berlin.  Thus, we're to admire Wiesler for his bravery in trying to save the artists from state persecution and despise his superiors for their misuse of bureaucratic power -- humane on this side, the inhumane on that side.  Right back where we started.

Paul Verhoeven is the master of transparent cinema, taking classical Hollywood narrative techniques and turning them into a reflective experience of viewing.  His masterpiece of mainstream film is undoubtedly STARSHIP TROOPERS, where he delivers the goods one expects from a sci-fi action spectacle, but, upon reflection, makes the viewer feel dirty for being complicitous in enjoying a fascist fantasy.  He seems to be going for a similar effect in BLACK BOOK (which seems to be loosely inspired by Anthony Mann's movie of the same name)  where he gets you to root for Ludwig Müntze, an SS-hauptsturmführer, which is the Nazi equivalent of a Captain.  (Interesting that Sebastian Koch, who played the persecuted artist in the previous film, is now playing the Captain in a totalitarian regime.)   However, Verhoeven leaves out just about all personal actions and  traits that might have led to Müntze's having achieved his rank in the first place.  It seems unlikely that a man would achieve a rank similar to that of Josef Mengele's without being a fairly committed Nazi.  One might object in the film's defense that actions don't always convey beliefs, but as Slavoj Žižek says of communism, acting as if one believes is good enough for the totalitarian bureaucracy to be real. 

Thus, Verhoeven and his co-writer, Gerard Soeteman, gain sympathy for a Nazi only though a cheat, namely omission.  But that's not their only trick.  They also tend to focus on the character's more positive qualities and the Dutch resistance's more negative ones: his falling in love with a Jew, Rachel, the main character -- who, with her hair dyed Aryan, was sent  to spy on his activities; his willingness to negotiate with the Dutch resistance, members of which it turns out were the reason for the majority of Jewish deaths depicted in the film; and contrast him with a classic evil Nazi whom he gets to butt heads with over the mistreatment of prisoners.  As with the prior film, the only kind of "understanding" here comes from a manufactured form of sympathy, making what most call a monster into what's not much more than a version of who we believe we'd be if thrown into evil circumstances.  The questions of how such circumstances structure one's decisions or how seemingly benign actions (e.g., those of efficiency) in one context take on monstrous implications in another are largely ignored.

Finally, I saw the last of the Bourne trilogy, which turns out to be the most critical here of the tendency toward viewer identification, or sympathy, even if it makes little attempt for empathic understanding.  The interesting aspect of Jason Bourne, which keeps him being just another fantastic superspy in the mold of James Bond is that while his super-abilities come from his secretive training, his morality  comes from no longer being able to recall the ends for which he was trained.  Thus, the narrative thrust of the trilogy: while trying to find out who and what he is and why a top secret offshoot of the CIA wants him dead, he tries to make amends for various assassinations he performed, but can only remember as abstractions without their ideological content.

So as not to condemn the entire CIA, there's good guys (Nicky Parsons and Pamela Landy) -- who recognize the wrongs perpetrated on Bourne by the ultra-clandestine offshoot Operation BlackBriar -- and real bad guys (Deputy Director Noah Vosen and Dr. Albert Hirsch) -- who do everything they can, including killing innocent civilians, to keep the Operation under wraps.  In terms of an action spectacle, the film delivers (although there is an extended sequence involving cellular technology that reminded me of that tedious Ben Affleck actioner where he spends an hour and a half with a phone to his ear).  As with 007, the object of the audience's wish-fulfilling identification is clearly delineated, only with a face that suggests more B.M.O.C. at your average Mid-Western fraternity than international espionage.   But the film is tuned to STARSHIP TROOPERS in that its final reveal has the viewer questioning his or her fantasized identity rather than giving into the dictates of diversionary entertainment.   -- SPOILER ALERT -- Upon going face-to-face with Dr. Hirsch, Bourne achieves total recall, remembering that he willingly gave himself over to the Operation, proving his allegiance by willingly killing an unknown captive for no other reason than he's told to.  -- END SPOILER ALERT -- Therefore, director Paul Greengrass and writer Tony Gilroy reinforce what a responsible viewer should already know, that there's a bit of fascistic yearning underlying these wish fulfilling fantasies of agents "doing what has to be done" outside of liberal law, what Dirty Harry viewed as flaccid bureaucratic moral proscriptions.
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