Monthly Archives: April 2015

Eyes Wide Shut (1999): The Ghost of Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubricks’s costume drama Barry Lyndon, which dramatizes the rise and fall of a callow Irish social-climber, is a bit like a three hour tour through the Frick Collection. A meticulous recreation of the English ruling class during the Seven Years war, it is one of the most beautiful films ever made. However shallow and narcissistic Redmond Barry or Lady Lyndon can be, they move through a world where wealth and power manifest themselves as grace and style.

If Eyes Wide Shut is drearier and more unpleasant than Barry Lyndon, that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad film. Quite the contrary, what it means is that in both films Stanley Kubrick has accurately dramatized history. The American ruling-class in 1999 was a drearier, more unpleasant ruling-class than the English ruling-class of the 1760s. This is not to say that King George III’s England was any less repressive or immoral than Bill Clinton’s United States. But after the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Bolsheviks, and Mao Tse-tung, the rich have learned discretion, to hide their pleasures behind closed doors, and their faces underneath masks.

Eyes Wide Shut, which is based on the novel Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, is set almost entirely in New York City, and filmed almost entirely in England. Kubricks obsessive, meticulous recreation of Manhattan inside a studio gives the film a dreamlike air of unreal reality. Everything seems right. But something also seems just a little off. It becomes an effective way of dramatizing a sense of paranoid uncertainty, the kind of paranoid uncertainty a man would feel, for example, if he’s investigating a murder after just having had a severe quarrel with his wife. It’s also a way of dramatizing a sense of possibility, the idea that you’re on the verge of some important, perhaps horrifying discovery about the society where you live.

As the film begins, Bill Harford, Tom Cruise, and his wife Alice, Nicole Kidman, are getting ready to go to a party given by Victor Ziegler, Bill’s wealthy patient played by Sydney Pollock. If Bill, a successful physician who owns a fabulous apartment on Central Park West, represents the upper reaches of the upper-middle-class, then Ziegler is the 1%. We’re never told exactly what he does, but Kubrick makes it clear that he’s a man of great power and influence, not simply another guy with money. Bill and Alice are thrilled to be asked to go to his parties. It’s a glimpse of a world they know exists, but haven’t had as much contact with as they’d both like.

Ziegler’s party is also a projection of their debauched imagination. The American upper-middle-class is obsessed with and is controlled by sex, or, to be more accurate, obsessed with and controlled by prurient fantasies about sex. Ziegler’s mansion is dreamlike, drenched in a coarse fantasy of lust and easy sexual gratification. As with Kubrick’s vision of New York as a whole, everything about Ziegler’s party seems right. But everything also seems just a little bit off.

A Hungarian man named Sandor Szavost all but drags Alice upstairs for a quick fuck. She turns him down. Bill flirts with two high-fashion models. They talk to him as if he’s the most desirable man they ever met, but he resists giving into the temptation. Ziegler himself, rather than playing the gracious host, is upstairs fucking a junkie prostitute in his bedroom. When she overdoses, a panicked Ziegler calls Bill, who talks her back to consciousness, an act that probably saves his life later in the film. Bill runs into an old friend from medical school, a professional musician who was hired to play the piano.

Later, when Bill and Alice return home, they’re still thinking about sex. Do either of them ever think about anything else? Alice baits Bill into a quarrel. Bill loses his cool. Alice taunts him with a fantasy of an extramarital affair with a naval officer. He gets a call from the daughter of a dying patience and uses it as an excuse to spend the rest of the night away from home. The dead patience daughter confesses her love for Bill, who she barely knows. Later, after he gets harassed by some thuggish frat boys from Jersey, Bill runs into a prostitute, who coaxes him upstairs to her apartment. High class street walkers in the Village in the late 1990s? Yet again, everything seems right but something is also just a little off. Bill, who’s not interested in sex, decides to look up Nick Nightingale, the musician he met at Victor Ziegler’s party. They have a brief conversation before Nick announces that he has another gig.

When Nick Nightingale tells Bill that he plays the piano blindfolded for a secret society, Bill is intrigued, mainly because of the description of all the beautiful, available women. We wonder why? Didn’t Bill turn down two beautiful models at Ziegler’s party, his wife, the daughter of his patient, and a beautiful hooker? One would think the last thing Bill wants to see is more available women, but, in spite of Nick’s protestations, Bill is now as determined to infiltrate the secret society as Barry Lyndon was to live among the aristocracy. Even after Nick tells him he needs a costume and a mask, Bill manages to find a store run by a very strange Eastern European — who’s pimping out his 14 year old daughter to two Japanese men — to accept a bribe to get him the outfit he wants. Now dressed in a mask and a cape, Bill flags down a a cab, and heads out to the great estate on Long Island and headquarters of the Illuminati.

When Stanley Kubrick centered Eyes Wide Shut around a secret society, an orgy, and a murder at a palatial estate out on Long Island, there’s no question that it was good marketing. Not only does Eye Wide Shut still get reviewed by right-wing conspiracy theorists — the secret society is very obviously and intentionally modeled on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the “Illuminati.” — it also played well in the sex drenched climate of the years after Bill Clinton was impeached for getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky. While the film might not have been a huge hit — and never entered the popular consciousness the way Fight Club or The Matrix did — people who did pay to see it in its original theatrical run went mainly for the satanic, Illuminati sex orgy at the masked ball. That it’s the most boring satanic sex orgy ever filmed is no accident. Kubrick was no amateur. Every detail in Eyes Wide Shut rings true, right down to the way he cast hard looking 30-year-olds as hookers and more traditionally beautiful 20-year-olds as high fashion models.

The point is not that Kubrick’s Illuminati are secretive or that they’re perverse sexual sadists. They are, of course, but pointing it out still begs the question. Why? Why does Kubrick’s secret society threaten to kill Bill Harford and do in fact kill a woman who offers herself up as a “sacrifice” in his place? After all, what exactly does Harford catch the Illuminati doing? Plotting a coup? Planning 9/11? Covering up an attempted assassination on the President? Running drugs? Stealing vast amounts of money? Fixing the interest rate at the Federal Reserve? No. All Bill Harford catches the Illuminati doing is throwing a debauched — and incredibly boring — orgy. My initial reaction would be “big deal?” Isn’t it something that goes on in frat houses at every major university every weekend? But that’s entirely the point. The ruling class may be secretive and perverse, debauched and sadistic, but there’s really nothing there. Bill Harford manages to infiltrate the highest levels of the Clinton era 1% and finds nothing but empty, mechanical perversity masquerading as sex.

Tom Cruise is not very convincing as a doctor. He has none of the nerdy obsessiveness, for example, of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House, a man who would have kept investigating Victor Ziegler until the truth popped, or until it killed him. But Cruise doesn’t have to be convincing. In fact, it’s better that he, and Nichol Kidman, aren’t convincing, that they’re both empty, wooden actors who read their stilted lines without a trace of real emotion. Harford’s being a doctor is merely a way for Stanley Kubrick to signal that he’s upper-middle-class, that he has deep pockets, and a credit card with a seemingly bottomless limit, but also that, like Barry Lyndon, he wants something more. He’s a social climber. He wants more, more access, more status, and, above all, more sex. He still wants into the ruling class, even though he’s already seen that Victor Ziegler’s world is joyless, without a trace of genuine eroticism.

Redman Barry Lyndon may have ended up back in Ireland with a missing leg and a stingy pension, but at least he got to live in a gloriously beautiful baroque castle where he go to fuck Marisa Berenson every night. The orgy that Bill Harford discovers is more like a red masque of death, the final stage of a society that’s about to collapse under its own hollowness. There must be something more, he thinks. There has to be. But there’s not. That’s all there is.

If the Secret Society’s leader, Ziegler, seems to go through an extraordinary amount of effort to scare Bill Harford away from the black hole of nothingness at the center of the American ruling class, he’s protecting, not a secret, but a culture of secrecy, sex, power, and intimidation, the way the 1% keeps the upper-middle-class in line. The American 1% keeps the American middle-class under control through sexual repression, puritan shaming, sex drenched advertising, fake scandals — like Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky —and the promise of more and better orgasms. But by brainwashing the middle-class into an obsession with sex, the 1% guarantees that the one and only thing the middle-class cares about, will get outraged about, is sex. Had Ziegler’s secret society actually been plotting a coup, planning 9/11, covering up the Kennedy assassination, running drugs, or stealing vast amounts of money, nobody would have cared. Remember, Gary Webb brought out his book Dark Alliance — which documented how the CIA profited off of crack dealing in South Central LA — and, after an initial sensation, people forgot about it. They yawned.  That’s what government does. But after Bill Clinton lied about sex, the country went into a spasm of moral outrage that lasted for two years.

Victor Ziegler had little choice but to terrorize Bill Harford into staying away from his estate on Long Island. That he took such extreme measures, killing Nick Nightingale to shut him up and forcing a prostitute to OD, to cover up so little, testifies to the precarious position of his class. His authority, built on nothing, offering nothing to the middle-class or the working class, still has to be defended at all costs. Power exists only for the sake of power. Stanley Kubrick has pulled a fast one, not only on the sex-obsessed, but also on anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. The promise of sex got the vapid upper-middle-class into the theaters. The promise of uncovering a great mystery keeps the conspiracy theorists writing about and analyzing the movie again and again. Surely somewhere in the film is some, any hint as to why WTC 7 came down. But no, there really isn’t. There is no real mystery in Eyes Wide Shut any more than there is any real eroticism.

Eyes Wide Shut, in spite of the murders and in spite of the way Harford discovered the rot at the core of American society, ends on a happy note. Harford, like most middle-class people, decides that he can do without political power, live without the truth, as long as gets to live a normal life. Zielger goes back to his place in the ruling class. Harford goes back to his wife and child, retreats into apolitical domesticity.

“So what should we do?” he asks his wife.

She gives him just the answer that he’s wanted all along.

“Fuck,” she says.

Animal House (1978)

While Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct and Linsday Anderson’s If… are both highly regarded by cinophiles and students of radical politics, neither film is well-known in the United States. If…’s American remake, on the other hand, is one of the most iconic films of the 1970s. It was also one of the most influential, laying the groundwork, not only for the coming of age film of the 1980s, but also for the revived dominance of the fraternity system in the American university.

I’m talking, of course, about Animal House.

Animal House, produced by the National Lampoon, and written by recent Ivy League graduates Chris Miller and Douglas Kenney, is a brilliant, but highly misunderstood film. It is also something of an enigma. How did a film that seems like a rousing call to arms against a snobbish, elitist WASP fraternity and a tyrannical, Richard-Nixon-like college dean become such a massive hit in 1978, only two years before the election of Ronald Reagan? Just like Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, Animal House ends with a student insurrection. Outside the movie theaters, however, the country was only a few years away from the war on drugs, “just say no,” and a massive increase in the prison industrial complex.

The plot of Animal House is so well-known that it’s not really worth going into a detailed summary, but it is worth pointing out how closely it parallels If…

If…’s “Whips,” the seventh form boys who dominate Lyndsay Anderson’s loosely fictionalized Eton College, become the Omega Theta Pi fraternity. Rowntree becomes Greg Marmaland, a young Karl Rove who gets tapped by the tyrannical Dean Wormer of “Faber College” — a loosely fictionalized Dartmouth — as his student informer and right hand man. Anderson’s “Crusaders,” the rebellious sixth form boys lead by Malcolm McDowell’s Travis become the Delta Tau Chi fraternity. Travis himself becomes “Otter,” a smarmy, womanizing preppy played by Tim Matheson. On the surface, Animal House is about a conflict between the right and the left. The Omegas put their pledges through a Skull and Bones like initiation ritual. The Deltas take just about anybody. The Deltas smoke pot with a hip English professor played by Donald Sutherland. An Omega, Douglas Niedermeyer, not only runs the Faber College ROTC program, he takes it far too seriously, savagely bullying his recruits, and riding around on a white horse like some 20-year-old preppy boy General George S. Patton.

A closer examination, however, reveals that Animal House is anything but a leftist film, that it’s actually a very clever attack on the counter culture of the 1960s, a blueprint for the reactionary student culture of the Reagan years. Animal House is, in fact, such cleverly framed right-wing propaganda that its difficult to point out its motives without looking like a politically correct killjoy. Chris Miller and Douglas Kenney, whether consciously or not, have hammered the 1960s stereotype of conservatives as prigs into a potent far-right attack on the left that survives today. Dean Wormer yells “no more fun of any kind” at the Deltas. Today’s social justice warriors demand that young men play “Depression Quest” instead of Grand Theft Auto.

Animal House is, in effect, one long dare to be a “good sport.” The funniest jokes are also the most offensive. Do we laugh? Or do we do the right thing and say “that’s really not funny.” Like pledges at a fraternity house, we are put through increasingly unpleasant, and yet increasingly hilarious hazing rituals. It’s easy, for example, to laugh at John Blutarsky when he smashes a “sensitive” guy’s folk guitar. Who doesn’t hate bad folk music? It gets a little more difficult when Blutarsky and Steven Furst’s Kent Dorfman sneak Doug Niedermeyer’s white horse into the Dean’s office and “accidentally” scare him to death with a gun full of blanks. Do we say “you know killing an animal crosses the line?” Or do we laugh and join all the rest of the fun loving bros?

Animal House gets more challenging to our sense of right and wrong, and even funnier, when it makes jokes about rape. There are, in fact, three rape jokes, each more hilarious than the last. We can probably be forgiven for laughing when we’re told that the Karl Rove like Greg Marmaland got involved in Watergate and later got raped in prison. Who wouldn’t like to see his favorite right-wing asshole Nixonian dirty trickster go to federal prison and get taken to the showers? Similarly, when John Blutarsky, dressed up as a pirate, kidnaps the insufferable WASP cheerleader and sorority girl Mandy Pepperidge, you’d have to be a real killjoy to point it out and say “you know that’s actually rape.” After all, Mandy was the girl who laughed at you in high school. The scene is also so ridiculous, so obviously not real, so over the top that it’s almost a cartoon. She enjoyed it anyway.

The film’s statutory rape is another story.

Like Tom Hulce’s Larry Kroger, Douglas Kenney, who went insane and died in 1980 at the age of 33, was given the nickname “Pinto.” Kroger is clearly meant to be autobiographical. So what are we to make of it when he debates about whether not he should fuck an unconscious drunken girl, then fucks her anyway after she tells him she’s only 13? Sarah Holcomb, the actress who played Clorette DePasto, is actually 18 and looks it. Tom Hulce is 24 and looks much younger. Left to our own devices we would assume they were more or less the same age. So why does Kenney go out of his way to dare us to laugh, not only at the rape of a drunken girl, but at the rape of a drunken, under age girl? Is it an oblique confession about his own behavior? Or has he just rubbed our nose in a pile of shit and dared us to laugh? Have we, in effect, put our sense of right and wrong in a blind trust, and given its control to Kenney and Miller? My guess would be the latter.

Zero for Conduct, If…, and Animal House all end with a student insurrection against corrupt and tyrannical school administrators. But if we look more closely at the “rebellion” at the end of Animal House we realize it’s anything but, that we’ve been duped. It’s not a rebellion at all.

The cause of the violent rebellion at the end of If… is easy enough to figure out. Travis and the sixth form boys are leading the resistance to western imperialism by attacking a mouldy, fascist old British public school. The non-violent rebellion of the boarding school students in Zero for Conduct is initially provoked by the refusal of an androgynous boy to accept a favor from a lecherous, obviously pedophile science teacher. But it’s also about the joy of rebellion for the sake of rebellion. There’s a reason Jean Vigo cast child actors in the role. We can see the joy of resistance in their faces, the anarchic pleasure of slipping the control of the adult world.

But why exactly do the Deltas trash the Faber homecoming parade? Like the boys in Zero for Conduct, it’s partly rebellion for the sake of rebellion. As Donald Sutherland’s English professor says in his class on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is the poem’s hero. It’s more fun to be bad then to be good. But it’s more than that. The Deltas are having fun, but it’s not necessarily about destroying power. Rather, it’s about seizing power.

Wormer, in fact, for all of his Nixonian aura, isn’t a very effective tyrant. Otter has already fucked his wife, Marion Wormer, not incidentally played by Medium Cool’s Verna Bloom. If the authority figures in Zero for Conduct are equally ineffectual, there’s still an important difference. The boys at Jean Vigo’s boarding school rise up, spontaneously, as one. The people of Faber are manipulated like puppets by their intellectual superiors. Rarely have rioters looked this worn out, this apathetic. They look nothing like angry, militant protesters. They look more like stupid sheep.

Who are we laughing at if not ourselves? We have laughed at jokes about rape, racist jokes, jokes about cruelty to animals, anything, in fact, the writers have dared us to laugh at. We have put our ability to think on hold for fear of being “political,” or being killjoys, or of being too stupid to get the joke. But the joke is on us. Indeed, when “Stork,” played by Douglas Kenney himself, steals a baton from a drum major and marches an unthinking marching band right into a brick wall, we like to think we’re Stork. In reality, we’re part of the band.

Zero for Conduct (1933) If…(1968)

While Lindsay Anderson’s film “If….”, the story of a violent rebellion at a fictional English boarding school, is usually considered a classic of the 1960s counterculture, it’s always left me feeling cold. As I wrote last year, I’m not English. I’ve never been to a “public” (that is private) school, and I’ve always hated Malcolm McDowell. I also found the use of professional actors in their 20s to play teenage boys confusing.

“Another difficulty is the decision the director made to cast actors in their mid-20s as public school “boys.’” The lead, Malcolm McDowell, was born in 1943. That made him 25 when they filmed “If!.” Christine Noonan, “the girl,” was born in 1945. That made her 23. Since the premise of the film is a rebellion by the juniors against the “whips,” upper sixth form boys who are given the power to discipline the younger students in lieu of the school’s faculty members, that adds yet another level of complexity. Robert Swan, who plays “Rowntree,” McDowell’s nemesis, was only 23 at the time of the film, but he’s got thinning hair and looks positively middle-aged. It’s easy to go through the whole film just assuming “the whips” are teachers.”

If…. is an homage and a loose remake of Zero for Conduct, a film by the great French director Jean Vigo.

Vigo,who died at the age of 29 after directing the classic film L’Atalante, was the son of the French anarchist Miguel Almereyda. Almereyda, a well-known opponent of French militarism, was imprisoned twice, once in 1908, for writing in favor of the mutiny at Narbonne, and the second time in 1917. Accused of treason – of taking payments from the German government – he was later found dead in his cell, strangled with his own bootlaces. The official cause of death was suicide.

Since Jean Vigo and his parents had to spend most of the First World War on the run, the stress of his childhood probably contributed to his early death. Nevertheless, while Zero for Conduct, which was banned in France for 13 years, was inspired by Vigo’s early years of being shuttled from boarding school to boarding school, living under assumed name, always one step ahead of his father’s reputation, it is not an angry, or a hopeless film. Quite the contrary, Zero for Conduct, like If…., is a celebration of youthful rebellion against tyranny. The difference between the two films, however, is that while If… is violent and heavy-handed, Zero for Conduct is light and playful. If…. is a political attack on the authoritarianism of the English ruling class. Zero for Conduct, on the other hand, while also a political film, goes deeper. It’s an assertion of spontaneity against the rigid mentality of bourgeois civilization, of play against work, a gesture of rebellion against the very idea of becoming an adult.

After having watched Zero for Conduct, I believe that Lindsay Anderson intentionally cast adult actors in his remake. The world is a much darker place than even Jean Vigo realized, Anderson is saying. Vigo’s playful teenage rebels become, in Anderson’s film, violent young adults. The British Empire has colonized, not only India, but childhood itself. If….’s Rowntree, a sneering middle-aged adult in the body of a 23-year-old teenager, is an example of how imperialism not only changes borders, but human nature. There can be no playful assertion of childhood against maturity because the class-bound English system of education has preempted it. The teachers in Zero for Conduct are either benign or ineffectual. The headmaster in If… is a distant old man, but he’s anything but ineffectual since he’s successfully delegated his authority to the older boys, who have become, by consequence, swaggering bullies, leering pedophiles, or effete snobs. The “deatheaters” (to use a term currently popular on social media) have reached their grubby fingers into the dreams of boyhood and strangled the poetic imagination in its cradle.

Malcolm McDowell’s Travis, therefore, and Christine Noonan’s The Girl, therefore, are not only violent rebels against the authoritarian class-system, they are a warning of what kind of monsters even the diminished British Empire can produce. Where Jean Vigo’s prep school rebels throw fruit, Anderson’s young adults fire machine guns and throw grenades. Indeed, while If… was filmed in 1968, Lindsey Anderson effectively predicted the Columbine and Sandy Hook Massacres. If the childlike instinct of play is not allowed to grow and flourish, it can, in extreme cases, come back in its demonic form, as the young adult urge to commit mass murder. Anderson, who probably saw McDowell’s Travis as a hero and a rebel, did not quite realize how far ahead of his time he was. That would take Stanley Kubrick, who would cast Malcolm McDowell, only two years later, as the young fascist Alex in his nightmarish A Clockwork Orange.

High Fidelity (2000)

Back in the 1980s, when I was a senior in college, I had a classmate. Let’s call him Ray. Ray was popular with women, mainly for two reasons. He looked so much like the young Paul McCartney that girls would occasionally slip up and call him “Paul” instead of “Ray.” Ray also had the best record collection at Rutgers University. His dorm room looked like a record store. If there was an obscure English punk band, he had a poster up on his wall. If a local band put out a demo tape, somehow he got hold of it. Ray was a one-man counter-culture. While every frat boy or pseudo-frat-boy was listening to Springsteen or U2 , Ray was listening to Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunneymen, Joy Division, or Robin Hitchcock and the Egyptians. Ray was an Irish American, but he had a Anglophile’s taste in alternative music.

Ray was the first person I thought about as I watched John Cusack’s performance in Steven Frears’ 2000 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. Not only does John Cusack’s Rob Gordon look a bit like a the 30-something Paul McCartney. He reminds me a little bit of a grown up version of Ray from college, although “grown up” might not be the best word to describe him. Rob, who owns an independent record store in Chicago, like Ray, is popular with women. But since he’s no longer a 20-year-old college undergraduate, being able to talk a girl into a date on short notice doesn’t mean quite as much as it used to. High Fidelity opens with Rob getting dumped by Laura, his live in girlfriend. Laura, a tall, elegant blond lawyer played by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle has outgrown him. Rob was fine when she dyed her hair pink, but now she’s ready to move on. Laura also has her eye on “Ian,” a yuppie played by Tim Robbins who, at first glance, seems a lot more promising as husband material than an underachieving Paul McCartney lookalike who owns a record store. Rob, who’s better at attracting women than in holding onto them, and, more importantly, who’s feeling his age, starts to examine his past. What went wrong?

What went wrong is probably not what Rob, Laura, or even Steve Fears and Nick Hornby think went wrong, but first things first.

High Fidelity has a happy ending. Rob, even before the age of Facebook, manages to track down and make contact with just about every girl or woman he’s dated since junior high-school. None of them live up to his nostalgic memory. Whether or not Rob lives up to theirs is left unexplored. Laura, in turn, realizes that Ian is no Rob. Tim Robins is no John Cusack, and they start to drift back together. Rob has been a shitty boyfriend. He’s borrowed money he’s never paid back. He’s cheated on her. He’s occasionally clueless about the state of her emotions. But emotional ties once made and cultivated over the course of two years aren’t so easily severed. Laura’s father dies. He’s always liked Rob, and the shock of losing a parent convinces Laura that she doesn’t want to suffer the loss of yet another connection to the past. It’s not exactly the perfect reason to get married but Laura, and, in turn Rob, who’s ready to put his womanizing ways behind him, finally realize that the perfect is the enemy of the good. They look into each other’s eyes and see, in each other, the last chance for happiness. It’s now or never. It’s time to shit or get off the pot.

So what went wrong, and why won’t Rob and Laura live happily ever after?

When Laura thought she was dumping Rob because she had outgrown him, she was only half right. When she convinced herself to take him back, she was only half wrong. After Rob “discovers” an obscure local punk band, and starts his own label to distribute their music, Laura is convinced that he’s changed. You’re no longer just a critic, she remarks. You’re a creator, a man who’s bringing something new into the world. Rob and Laura may, in fact, live to celebrate their 50th anniversary, but it won’t be that easy.

Rob, who owns a record store, seems to have very little interest in music. The running joke is that his two employees, the nebbishy Dick, and the obnoxious, overbearing Barry care about music too much. They’re little boys. Rob is the grownup because he defines himself, not by what music he listens to, but by what woman he’s dating. Rob’s very identity depends on being attractive to women. High Fidelity, a movie released in 2000 and based on a novel written in 1995, testifies to how astonishingly fast the world moves in the digital age. It’s 2015, and Rob’s record store went out of business a long time ago. Rob and Laura’s kids, if they have them, all have iPods. None of them listen to alternative rock. It’s either Beyonce or Taylor Swift. Vinyl, CDs, independent record labels, and punk rock might are ancient history.

But the real change didn’t come in 2003 with the iPod or in 1992 with the Internet. It came in the 1970s and 1980s, with the transformation of the industrial economy into the consumer economy. Like my old college house-mate Ray, young Rob (and we can assume Rob had more interest in music when he opened his record store than he does at the beginning of the movie) made himself cool by becoming a good consumer, having a sense of style. He knew where to see the new bands. He knew how to dress. He know what was popular, and what would be popular. He could date women — like Charlie Nicholson played by Catherine Zeta Jones – who were far above his station in life, not because he landed a good job at 23 and built up a big stock portfolio, but because he had amassed what, for lack of a better word, we’ll call “cultural capital.” But cultural capital in the age of Facebook and Twitter isn’t what it was back in the 1980s. It takes more than just knowing who the newest trendy bands from the UK are. Anybody in 2015 who knows how to use Google has infinitely more information, and cultural capital, then Ray did in 1988 or Rob Gordon did in 1995. And it doesn’t make you cool.

Laura, who thinks Rob’s outgrown his identity as a consumer and a womanizer might be right. But it might also be wishful thinking. Only time will tell. I wonder sometimes what ever happened to Ray. I’ve never Googled his name or stalked him on Facebook. His name is so common it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth. But if I can find him, I can probably make an educated guess about how Rob and Laura ended up. Are you out there Ray? Are you reading this? Have you cyberstalked me? If so, leave a comment. I’d love to get back in touch.

Reality Bites (1994)

There are times when I am convinced that Ethan Hawke has sold his soul to the devil.

A mediocre actor with an unimpressive physical appearance and a limited emotional range, he has had a long, and successful career in Hollywood. He’s played the romantic lead to some of the most beautiful, and talented actresses of his generation. He’s made three films with Julie Delpy. He married, then cheated on Uma Thurman. His luck shows no signs of letting up. His last film, Boyhood, was even nominated for a best picture.

Let’s take Reality Bites, his eleventh film. Directed by the young Ben Stiller, Reality Bites was based on a screenplay written by Helen Childress, who promptly dropped off the face of the earth shortly after its release. Did Ethan Hawke help The Prince of Darkness perform a human sacrifice? Did they offer up the blood of Ms. Childress to the forces of evil before dissolving her body in a vat of hydrochloric acid? It sounds far-fetched, but consider this. Helen Childress doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Then again, perhaps she just realized she didn’t have any talent.

Reality Bites is not necessarily a bad film. The photography, pacing, and direction are all competent. Except for Ethan Hawke, the actors, who include a Janeane Garofalo, Say Anything’s John Mahoney, and a ridiculously beautiful young Winona Ryder are all terrific. Even the young Ben Stiller manages to bring some comic appeal to an incoherent and ludicrously written character. But if Reality Bites isn’t a bad film, it’s a badly written film, a confused, dishonest mess that raises important sociological issues only to drop them in mid-script without a proper resolution. It pretends to speak for the downwardly mobile generation that would shortly face a job market gutted by NAFTA and the global sweatshop in China. In “reality” it just uses them as a marketing hook.

Say Anything ended with high-school valedictorian Diane Court living happily ever after with the young slacker Lloyd Dobler. Reality Bites opens with Lelaina Pierce, the valedictorian at an unnamed university in Texas making a graduation speech very similar to the one Diane Court gave in Say Anything. She even hesitates before improvising one of her lines, showing a vulnerability that wins over her audience, both on screen and off. The advantage here goes to Reality Bites. Unlike the beautiful, but vapid Ione Skye, Winona Ryder is an appealing actress with a genuine intelligence, but Helen Childress lets her down.

Diane Court is a genuinely sweet young woman. Lelaina Pierce is an entitled moron. Her upper-middle-class parents give her a BMW and a years worth of fee gas. She complains about the BMW. It’s a car for yuppies. But she’s not above using her father’s credit card to scam 900 dollars to pay for a phone bill she ran up calling a psychic on a 900 number. Remember those? She gets a paid internship for a TV talk show host, John Mahoney, who also played Diane Court’s father on Say Anything, but can’t even accomplish simple tasks like remembering to put a coffee cup on the set. She wants to work in television, but thinks herself above the basic work of putting on a TV show. After she gets herself fired, her roommate offers to get her a job at the GAP, which she indignantly rejects as beneath her.

If Lelaina is above learning the basic mechanics of putting on a TV show, she’s not much better at film making. What did she major in at her university anyway? She wants to make an unedited, improvised documentary about her college friends, but she never talks about John Cassevetes or Mike Leigh. She has no interest in the technical side of making movies or videos.  Dear White People, a far better film, has a credible portrait of a young filmmaker. Samantha White loves movies. She’s interested in politics. She has a brain.

Lelaina Pierce, on the other hand, owns a video camera. She points it at her friends. She films them talking. That’s about it. Even so, she basically wins the lottery. Michael Grates, the young Ben Stiller, a producer at a show called “In Your Face TV,” falls in love with her. He has his professional editors clean up her video and give it a soundtrack, then offers to pay for it. She not only turns him down. She insults him. In fact, she does more than insult him. She flat out accuses him of betraying her and her whole generation. In the “real world,” Michael Grates would have laughed in her face.

Nevertheless, the story of Lelaina Pierce’s documentary is fascinating, almost in spite of itself. In Your Face TV is clearly meant to be MTV. In 1992, MTV debuted the very first “reality show,” called, appropriately enough, “The Real World.” Reality Bites, which was released in 1994, was filmed in 1993. Helen Childress, in spite of her incompetence as a screenwriter, has addressed an important moment in popular culture. Reality Bites is film about a young woman making a reality show. She pitches the idea to MTV. They accept it. But then, inexplicably, she turns them down at the exact moment that MTV was starting to remake itself from Music TV to Reality Show TV. The future wasn’t Kurt Cobain. It was Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Insufferable little twit though she was, Lelaina Pierce rebelled at the right time against a toxic cultural phenomenon just starting to ooze its way out of the primeval American slime.

If Michael Grates represents MTV’s reality show future, then Troy Dyer, the above mentioned Ethan Hawke, represents MTV’s past. He’s also an abusive jerk.  If Lelaina Pierce is an insufferable little twit, compared to Troy she’s almost a saint. Troy is a free loader who thinks he’s above working 9-5. We’re told that he’s a genius, but he’s not. He’s a moron. He thinks he’s a real musician but he’s even worse with a guitar than Lelaina is with a video camera. He can barely play three chords and he can’t hold a tune. The only songs we ever hear him play are a hard rock tune that, barely, qualifies him as the lead singer in a fifth rate Nickelback cover band, and an interpretation of a Violent Femmes song he plays only to insult Lelaina as punishment for taking him out of the friend zone and fucking him. Yes. You head that right. He insults her because she sleeps with him. Lloyd Dobler may have been an underachiever with no career plans, but it was at least believable that Diane Court could have fallen for him. He’s a likable guy who’s sincerely in love with her. But Troy? Couldn’t even an insufferably entitled and obnoxious young Winona Ryder do better than him?

The only explanation, in other words, is that Ethan Hawke sold his soul to the devil.

Or maybe there’s a better explanation. Reality Bites is setting up Lelaina and Troy as a pair of obnoxious young romantic rebels, not to attack the transition of MTV from music videos to reality shows, but to sell MTV’s transition from music videos to reality shows. The key is the inexplicably bad, incoherently written character of Michael Grates. Troy Dyer, it must be admitted, is an obnoxious jerk, but he’s still a mixed up 22-year-old kid whose father is dying of cancer. One suspects that the real Lelaina Pierce is none other than Helen Childress. Ben Stiller, the son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, was to the manner born, part of the show business aristocracy. He’s no fool. Childress is an incompetent. But Ben Stiller surely knew what he was doing when he green lighted a script that set up an obnoxious young working class failure like Troy Dyer as a “genius” and portrayed an MTV producer, not as a slick, oily, pompous, out of touch or full of himself, but as a flat out moron barely capable of articulate speech.

Michael Grates simply beggars credibility. Whatever you think about reality shows (and surely I’m no fan) an MTV producer would at least have a certain kind of superficial cleverness. He wouldn’t struggle to remember who wrote Hamlet. What’s more, an MTV producer, infatuated with a would be videographer or not, wouldn’t be a passive doormat. Again and again, Troy Dyer humiliates Michael Grates and treats him like a fool. In real life, a Michael Grates might be out of his element in a crowd of young malcontents, but he’d be as big an asshole as they were. That actually might be a funny script, but it’s not the one Stiller chose to film. On the contrary, Stiller plays Michael Grates as if he were almost a saint.

In other words, Ben Stiller stacks the deck. The reality show producer is the rejected “nice guy.” The aspiring grunge musician is the asshole who gets the girls. Rock n Roll, in 1994, was already dead. In a few years it would be replaced by hip hop, boy bands, and the teenage Britney Spears. Reality shows would eventually become the unstoppable juggernaut they are today. By framing the conflict between an angry young working-class musician and a privileged TV producer over a girl as the victory of an angry young asshole over a saintly buffoon, Ben Stiller manipulates us into rooting for the TV producer. The joke was on us, a joke only the devil himself could have been evil enough to imagine.

We had been manipulated into rooting for Keeping Up With The Kardashians over Nickelback.

Say Anything (1989)

Say anything is a beloved romantic comedy starring Ione Skye and the young John Cusack. I’m almost exactly the same age as John Cusack, so I was part of its targeted demographic back in the 1980s, but I missed it the first time around. Looking at it from the perspective of a middle-aged man writing in 2015, what fascinates me about Say Anything is not the romance. It’s the superficially leftist, but ultimately tricky, and perhaps even reactionary political agenda.

Say Anything was released in 1989. That means it was written and filmed in 1987 and 1988, exactly at the same time the now largely forgotten Savings and Loan scandal was playing itself out in the media. Unlike the Obama administration, which blocked prosecutions and sold the country on a massive bailout for Wall Street, the Reagan administration actually did send a token number of the S&L crooks to jail. This has very little to do with any philosophical or personal differences between Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. Obama, like Reagan, is a charming corporate shill, little more, little less. But the United States was a different, more liberal country back in 1986. The American people simply wouldn’t have tolerated the same kind of corporate coup that it embraced in 2008 and 2009.

Jim Court, the father of the heroine Diane Court, isn’t a savings and loan banker, but he is a crook. The proprietor of an independent nursing home, he comes under investigation by the IRS just as his gifted daughter graduates from high-school and falls in love with Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler. Jim Court doesn’t consider himself a bad person. Why does he steal? Like Michael Corleone and Walter White, he does it for the children. He wants to set Diane up with a trust fund that will let her live through her 20s without worrying about money. John Court truly loves his daughter. He’s a likeable crook. But if he loves his daughter, he also sees her as a possession. The more he steals, the more perfect she has to be to justify his crime.

“It’s like a pyramid. It starts out with everybody, and it narrows through your life and through everything, and all the hoopla and the competition narrows it down to one brilliant person who is so special that they celebrate you on two continents. And it’s you. So tell me something, where’s the flaw in that? There is no flaw.”

If that doesn’t sum up the ideology of the American upper-middle-class in a few sentences, I don’t know what does.

John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler by contrast, is a slacker and an anti-corporate rebel. He has no real career plans, not because he’s lazy, but because unlike Diane, the ambitious high-school valedictorian he falls in love with, he can see the kind of societal rot people like her father embody. The son of an army officer stationed in Germany, Dobler sees the upper-middle-class world as phony and exploitive.

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”

On the surface, Say Anything could be the official movie of Occupy Wall Street. The young rebel — who’s also a genuinely decent human being who respects women — liberates the sheltered young overachiever from the smothering, almost incestuous control of her father. Diane Court, who we’re told is brilliant, but also comes off as passive and conformist, learns how to think for herself, ultimately pushing herself to face the horrible reality, her father steals from senior citizens in order to bulk up her trust fund. Diane Court, the pampered young “show pony” — as one of Dobler’s friends puts it so eloquently — rejects a life of privilege based on lies in favor of true love.

What’s not to like? Probably nothing. I’m a bitter old fart who hates the sight of true love when he sees it on screen because he never found it when he was young. But I can’t help but notice how Cameron Crowe, the film’s writer and director, soft-pedals Jim Court’s crimes. The nursing home he runs is a really nice place. He may be stealing from 90-year-olds, but, unlike in a real life shady nursing home, they’re not living in their own filth or going hungry. They even have the young John Cusack to host “movie night.” What’s more, Jim Court doesn’t face any real consequences for his crimes. He gets 9 months in a country club federal prison and a fine. That may in fact be realistic. How many bankers or corporate criminals serve even 9 months in prison? But the film doesn’t seem to see anything amiss. In fact, Cameron Crowe sees Jim Court’s arrest as more of a convenient way to get him out of the way of his daughter’s burgeoning love affair with Lloyd Dobler than as any kind of genuine reckoning.

Then there’s Diane Court. We’re told that she’s a genius. But she gives no evidence of being the kind of person who’s going to win a Nobel Prize. She’s a nice girl with a good heart. But that’s part of the problem. She’s almost too good to be true, and her goodness, far from being a challenge to her father’s criminality, actually justifies it. Diane is not virginal — she’s the sexual aggressor not Lloyd — but she’s pure. She lives in the upper-class bubble that was created by her tax-cheat father by ripping off senior citizens, but it never touches her. She’s nice to the old ladies at her father’s nursing home. Somehow that makes it all OK.

That leads to the inevitable question. Say Anything ends on a happy note. But is Lloyd Dobler doomed to become just another Jim Court? Is he more like the second chance at a good father than a lover? Tellingly the last scene in the film has Lloyd coaxing the nervous Diane through a transatlantic flight — she’s won a fellowship to study in England but she’s afraid of flying — in a way her father never could. While Lloyd is almost an ideal sensitive, considerate man, he’s not as different from Jim Court as he might imagine himself. For Jim Court, Diane is the prize that justifies his theft. For Lloyd Dobler, Diane is the prize that justifies his inability to choose a career. Lloyd can coast through the rest of his life because, at 18, he’s already scored a perfect woman far above his own social status. Diane, not hard work, is Lloyd’s gateway to the upper-middle-class. Lloyd may be a rebel, but he’s no revolutionary, merely a young man who’s retreated from the economy into the bubble of domesticity.

Lloyd Dobler in other words, is an ideal for a generation that had to lower its economic expectations, to clean up the mess that corporate criminals like Jim Court left them, but not, necessarily, to have it as good as their parents did.

Dear White People (2014)

Dear White People, Justin Simien’s provocative film about race relations at a fictional Ivy League University, is at its best when it follows its own advice. When Colandrea “Coco” Conners, an aspiring TV actress asks a reality show producer about why he’s not interested in casting her, he tells her that she needs to be more confrontational. A girl from the south side of Chicago, she goes home and takes his advice, recording a Youtube video where she calls out white people for their subtle, and not so subtle racism. Dear White People, which has a slow, sometimes confused first half, picks up speed when Coco’s white classmates take off their passive aggressive liberal masks, put on their sheets, and let it all hang out. The final scenes, which take place at a “black face” party in white residence house, are heavy handed, yet surprisingly powerful.

If Dear White People has a weakness it’s the framing. Simien wrote the script partly as an homage to Spike Lee’s School Daze, a film about class conflict between black people at a traditionally black university in the south. The concept doesn’t scale. Even though Dear White People was filmed on the campus of the University of Minnesota, Winchester University feels too small, too patriarchal, too intimate, too evenly divided between black and white students to be credible as one of the Ivys. That mutes the impact of the racism and social isolation we are told Winchester’s students feel. That both the Dean of Students and the University President have sons at Winchester can, at times, make the conflict between its black and white students feel more like a long running family quarrel than any real attempt to dramatize the problem of racism at a major American university.

That being said, Dear White People’s excellent cast let’s Justin Simien the director flesh out characters that Justin Simiem the writer put in a straightjacket. Samantha White, Tessa Thompson, hosts a radio show called “Dear White People,” a confrontational program where she mocks white liberals for their pretensions to being above and beyond the issue of race. “Dear white people,” she says. “The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.” Samantha, however, is also sleeping with a white graduate student named Gabe, for whom she dumped big man on campus Troy Fairbanks, the son of the black Dean of Students. Sam’s opposite and sometime foil is the above mentioned Colandrea “Coco” Conners. Coco is no black militant. On the contrary, she straightens, then later dyes her hair blond. Unlike Samantha, she doesn’t want to live in the all black Armstrong Parker. She didn’t work her way into an Ivy League University to limit her interactions to black people. That Coco is presented as a sympathetic three-dimensional character and not just a dupe testifies to the sophistication of Simien’s writing.There are times when we actually agree with Coco Conners and Troy Fairbanks. There are times when Samantha comes off like a naive teenager who’s bitten off more than she can chew, and the 31 year old Tessa Thompson, who we last saw as Diane Nash in the film Selma, is perfectly credible as a 21-year-old undergraduate, revealing a layer of vulnerability underneath the mask of the aggressive black militant.

Rounding out the cast is Tyler James Williams, who plays Lionel Higgins, a nerdy would-be writer with a huge afro, the kind that clueless white people like to stick their fingers into. Lionel Higgins is a gay student who’s as critical of black homophobia as he is of white racism, even though the only time he gets gay baited it’s by the closest thing Dear White People has to a villain. That villain, Kurt, the son of the University President, is a bit of a cartoon character. Oddly enough, you leave the film wishing he would be even more of a cartoon characters. Gabe, Samatha’s boyfriend and Sofia, Troy’s clueless if basically sympathetic white girlfriend, remind me a bit of Vito, Sal’s good son in Spike Lee’s  Do the Right Thing. Nobody remembers him. Everybody remembers Pino, the sneering racist played by John Turturro.  If you’re going to make an provocative, in your face movie about racism, there’s no need to hold back when it comes to writing your villains. Just cast a good actor in the role and let him have fun being the bad guy. Kyle Gallner, who plays Kurt, is no John Turturro, but he does manage to express a certain arrogance and a barely suppressed hostility towards black people. He’s not the kind of actor I’ll go out of my way to see, but he works.

Winchester’s white students, interestingly enough, are decidedly more Italian and Jewish in appearance than WASP, almost certainly the influence of Spike Lee, who almost always cast great Italian American actors like Danny Aiello as his representative white antagonists. What’s more, one of Do the Right Things best scenes, where Mookie Lee confronts the racist Pino on why he hates black people but worships Prince and Michael Jordan — “they’re niggers but they ain’t niggers” Pino responds — echos throughout Dear White People. Samantha, for example, is a fan of Taylor Swift, something she tries to hide. The more racist white people are, Simiens suggest, the more they want to be black. It is in fact Coco Conners, not Samantha, who best understands what motivates racists. “They get suntans. They get lip implants,” she says. “They may hate us but they want to be us.” If you watch Dear White People make sure to watch it right through the credits. As a white person, and I hope as a white person, “Dear White People” is addressing me.  As I watched the film’s strongest scenes, the “black face” party staged by Kurt, as I observed the fun, games, and drunken buffoonery transformed into a red masque of racist spiritual death,  I found myself wondering how common it was. Do sophisticated Ivy League students really stage black face parties? I was skeptical. Perhaps Simien was taking one or two incidents and blowing them up out of proportion. Then the credits rolled, and I had my answer. Simiens had taken almost every frame of his own black face party directly from newspaper photographs of real black face parties.

“Dear white people,” Samantha had told Sophia, “this just in: Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”

The joke was on me. My own skepticism about the black face party in the movie proved I’m not as far above people like Kurt as I like to think I am. After all, I had already seen most of the photos of the black face parties he ran in the credits on social media. Why hadn’t I recognized them in the film? Why had my own snobbery prevented me from realizing that far from being less racist than the American people as a whole, white students at Ivy League universities are quite possibly more racist? I realized that, like Sophia, I’m probably just another clueless white liberal.

Singles (1992)

Sometimes the lightest possible fluff can yield interesting thoughts.

Singles, Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy set in grunge era Seattle, is the lightest possible fluff. Anybody who’s taken a first year acting class knows the plot. It’s Lovers and Other Strangers for the 1990s, a loosely connected series of vignettes about young men and women trying to hook up. Centered around a Capitol Hill apartment building, it features two couples. There’s clean-cut Steve Dunne and his fiancee Linda Powell. They both have white collar jobs at non-profits dedicated to protecting the environment. Then there’s Janet Livermore, a recent college dropout who works at a coffee shop. She’s in love with Cliff Poncier, an aspiring rock musician. He can take her or leave her. By the end of the film, Crowe has flipped the script. Cliff is now in love with Janet, and she can take him or leave him.

In other words, Singles has “scene study” written all over it. It’s a low budget romantic comedy, long on dialog, short on plot, broken down into 10 or 15 minute chunks, all staged in a series of kitchens, living rooms, diners, and automobiles. Just plunk a table and a couple of chairs on stage, and you’re ready to show off your ability as an actor.

Except for the young Bridget Fonda — who’s so charismatic I wanted to strangle Matt Dillon for ignoring her — the acting is competent. Dillon plays the kind of dumbass young hunk he used to play in his sleep. Campbell Scott is an earnest young idealist. Kyra Sedgwick gives every indication that she will become the successful TV actress she eventually became. Victor Garber, Bill Pullman, Tom Skerritt, and Bridget Fonda’s boyfriend Eric Stoltz all have small, supporting roles.

Nevertheless, as forgettable as Singles is, the way it was marketed is fascinating, and revealing. Singles was Cameron Crowe’s “Generation X” movie. Naturally, therefore, it’s set on Capitol Hill in Seattle. I suppose Crowe’s Millennial film will be set in hipster Brooklyn. There’s a cameo by Eddie Vedder. Even though he was already a big star at the time, he looks ridiculously young, young as in “gets carded then has his driver’s license cut in half by a bouncer who thinks it’s a fake ID” young. He doesn’t speak. I was embarrassed for him. Crowe knows nothing about early 1990s alternative rock. He has no interest in Eddie Vedder or Pearl Jam. Matt Dillon is perfectly believable as a drummer in a grunge band called “Citizen Dick,” but his role is woefully underwritten. He’s “in a band” because the script calls for his character to be popular with women. He’s a stud, but he’s basically a loser, something even more obvious now that hard rock has given way to hip hop, Pearl Jam to Nickelback. Crowe has little feel for Seattle. Except for one hilarious scene where a woman gets a flat tire riding a bike up a steep hill near Belltown, the whole film is basically stock footage. Oh look, there’s Pioneer Square. Oh look, there’s Gasworks Park. Oh look. There’s Mount Rainier. Seattle’s alternative rock scene, in other words, is simply a marketing hook, a place where Crowe can to hang the kind of very conventional romantic comedy hack writers have been churning out since the 1950s.

As a sociological document, however, Singles is fascinating.

“My generation,” late Boomers and Early Gen-Xers have always been the Rodney Dangerfield of demographics. We get no respect. Why should we? There aren’t very many of us. Unlike the Boomers or the Millenials, we had no significant events or political movements to mark our coming of age, no Vietnam War, no draft, no Occupy Wall Street, no Silicon Valley tech bubble. Not only were we constantly looking for an identity. We were hungry for validation, any validation in the corporate media. The bar was pretty low. All we had to do was recognize ourselves on TV or in the movies, and we were sold. The media had declared grunge — really just heavy metal with flannel shirts and a bit of political correctness — to be the “music of our generation” and we fell for it hook line and sinker. So all Cameron Crowe had to do was arrange for a few cameos from a few Seattle grunge bands, let Matt Dillon grow out his hair, buy the rights to a Soundgarden song or two, and suddenly he had a film that was socially relevant.

That Singles was so obviously not socially relevant in 1992 is what makes it so fascinating today. The 1980s had plenty of romantic comedies. Most of them, like the loathsome and racist Sixteen Candles, were deeply reactionary under the cover of not taking themselves too seriously. But the early 90s, that brief interregnum between the end of the Reagan years and the right-wing takeover of Congress in 1994, were the years of a very brief political thaw. Bill Clinton, just elected President, hadn’t yet revealed himself to be the evil, neoliberal genius he would eventually become. The Cold War was over. NAFTA and deindustralization hadn’t quite begun. The politically correct male feminist Kurt Cobain was the biggest rock star of his day. The problem for a talented hack like Cameron Crowe, therefore, was to appeal to the social liberalism of newly hatched young adultings without going too far and losing his viability in the commercial mainstream.

Crowe finessed the problem quite well. Steve Dunne and Linda Powell both work for environmental non-profits. Both are completely apolitical. Linda goes on a one month trip to Alaska to investigate “the Alaska spill.” I suppose legal considerations prevented Crowe from naming Exxon or The Exxon Valdez. But Linda is no fiery left wing activist. She seems mainly concerned with getting a husband. When she finds Steve, who’s perfect for her in every way, Crowe has to find a way of drawing out their courtship so the movie doesn’t end in the first 20 minutes. Linda’s trip to Alaska is a convenient plot device that allows Steve to have a brief flirtation with Janet before they both decide they’re not right for each other. Steve, in turn, young idealist though he may be, is also a careerist. His pet project, a “super train” that will lighten Seattle’s traffic at rush hour, is certainly a worthy goal. But does he organize a protest movement? Does he lobby the state legislature? No. He arranges an interview with the mayor of Seattle, Tom Skerritt, then gives up on his dream after he gets turned down. It’s political activism as a job interview.

Cameron Crowe’s young adults, in other words, have no politics. They have an affected liberal style they briefly indulge themselves in while they’re waiting to get married and start their lives in the middle-class. They have no idea that a traditional middle-class class life will soon be out of reach for all but the most privileged, that the rules have changed. Grunge rock, in turn, is the perfect way for apolitical young adults to feel like radicals. A successful, corporate move to co-opt the “alternative” culture of the 1980s, it had a brief flash of glory, it blew its brains out in 1994, gave way to hip hop, then became a laughing stock. Linda and Steve, I suppose, made it into the upper-middle-class and got a house out in Bellevue or Kirkland. I guess Janet managed to become an architect, but Cliff? Cliff continued fucking over women until he got fat and lost his hair. Then he shaved his head, grew a goatee, and found some sort of low level IT job. Citizen Dick is probably a regular at suburban music festivals, fat middle-aged grunge rockers playing to the nostalgia of middle-aged married couples with kids who, because of the political apathy of their parents back in the 1990s, don’t stand a chance.

Tracks (2013) and Wild (2014): Two almost identical films that have almost nothing in common

Tracks and Wild have such similar plots, and were released so close to each other, that it makes me wonder if the United States and Australian film industries had some kind of a wager. “Who can make a better film about a young woman who attains literary success after a confrontation with the wilderness?” A closer examination, however, reveals that while they may have a similar outlook on gender and personal identity, they have a profoundly different approach to storytelling.

I first decided to check out Wild after the online tabloid Gawker (the NY Post for the millennial generation) published a hit job on Reese Witherspoon.

I have no idea why Leah Finnegan at Gawker has a grudge against Reese Witherspoon, but her review of Wild is so gratuitously vicious that it only served to pique my curiosity. Could if really be that bad? It’s not. Leah Finnegan is so in love with the “edgy” sound of her own voice, she tells you little, if anything about Reese Witherspoon’s performance or Jean-Marc Vallée’s film. Her review isn’t film criticism. It’s masturbation.

I haven’t read the memoir by Cheryl Strayed that Wild is based on, so I can’t tell you how faithful the movie is to the book. But the film works on its own terms. Wild establishes its feminist tone right from the beginning. The recently divorced Cheryl Strayed is checking into a motel. It’s 17 dollars a night for a single guest, more for two people. The clerk can’t quite believe that Strayed is travelling alone. Does she have a boyfriend coming later? She doesn’t.

What Strayed does have is an enormous backpack. A substance abuser, sex-addict, and alcoholic with a mother who’s recently died from cancer, Strayed has decided to get her act together by hiking the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail. The backpack, which is almost as tall as the 5’2” Witherspoon and which Strayed has stuffed to capacity, clearly represents the burdens of civilization. She can barely get it over her shoulders. When she does, she can barely stand.

Reese Witherspoon’s struggle with her enormous backpack is probably the strongest image in Wild. Rarely do we see a film about going into the wilderness that so vividly expresses the idea that leaving civilization is a dirty, physically painful, exhausting experience. You don’t just pick up one day and leave your comfortable suburban home and become Leatherstocking from Last of the Mohicans. You break toenails because your shoes are too small. You get sunburned. You don’t have access to a bath or a shower. You miss little things like the taste of Snapple, or of being able to walk into a store and browse the makeup counter without the clerk telling you that you stink.

Strayed’s discomfort with nature is also Wild’s biggest weakness.

Cheryl Strayed is no Edward Abbey. The wilderness was a path to her becoming a successful writer more than something she genuinely loves. Strayed strikes me as a typical suburban American too fond of suburban American comforts ever to be genuinely at home on the Pacific Coast Trail. Wild works as a narrative of personal discovery. A major theme in Wild is how the female gaze perceives men, and Reese Witherspoon is very skillful at expressing the state of mind of a woman alone on a potentially dangerous quest. An early encounter with a middle-aged man Strayed perceives as a rape threat reveals him to be nothing of the sort. A later encounter with a genuine would-be rapist becomes all the more chilling because we are aware of how being alone in the wilderness strips you of your normal defense mechanisms.

The problem is that Strayed is so concerned with her personal quest that nature gets swallowed up by her character. There are no striking images of the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild. The camera never stops to linger on a snow-capped mountain or a patch of wild flowers. Wild’s supporting characters aren’t particularly memorable. Would be rapists become nice guys. Nice guys become would be rapists. An ex husband shows up just to get a tattoo with his ex-wife. There are no fascinating eccentrics. Just about the only animal we notice is a rattlesnake, and we only notice him because he blocks he heroine’s path. Wild, in other words, is a film about a trek into nature that doesn’t have much to do with nature. When it ends, we get the sense that Cheryl Strayed enjoyed having hiked the Pacific Crest Trail more than she enjoyed hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

If Wild works best as a narrative of personal transformation, Tracks works best as pure cinema. If Wild is a writer’s film, Tracks is a photographer’s film. Strayed, a Gen Xer writing in the 1990s, is comfortable with the idea of putting herself at the center of the film. Robyn Davidson, on the other hand, seems reluctant to tell her own story. Mia Wasikowska, an actress who bears a striking resemblance to Davidson herself, like Reese Witherspoon, is a small, blond woman alone in the wilderness, but the resemblance ends there. Davidson, an Australian not an American, a woman from a culture much closer to its own frontier, settler roots is determined to speak of herself, not as a woman, but as an individual. Davidson may be a feminist in real life, but the movie doesn’t dwell on the problems of being a woman. The the biggest rape threat in Tracks comes in the form of three charging feral bull camels Davidson takes out with three clean head shots from a bolt action sniper rifle.

Mia Wasikowka’s Robyn Davidson is a less fully realized character than Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed, but that, paradoxically, is part of the film’s strength. Tracks, unlike Wild, liberates us from the individual’s personality and allows us to see nature itself. Where Strayed goes out into the desert so she can write. Robyn Davidson writes so she can go out in the desert. Davidson is an intelligent, but not a particularly likeable young woman. She pitches a story to the National Geographic so successfully that the magazine sends her thousands of dollars and Rick Smolan, her own personal photographer. But she’s so rude to Smolan that it takes every once of Adam Driver’s goofy persistence to make it believable that he wouldn’t just throw his hands up and leave.

It doesn’t matter. Wasikowka’s Robyn Davidson is one more eccentric in a cast of eccentrics. She’s unpleasant, but she’s also believable. This is exactly the kind of woman who would try to lose herself in the Australian outback. There’s Kurt Posel, a surly German camel wrangler who takes Davidson on as an intern, then tries to cheat her out of her salary, three wild camels. There’s a fascinating old couple Davidson meets at the end of her journey, two ancient people who look as if they had been living in the Australian outback before there even was a British colony in Australia. There’s the aboriginal elder who accompanies her through a sacred patch of land. Davidson doesn’t need a guide. But women aren’t permitted to travel on sacred aboriginal grounds without male accompaniment. There’s Diggity, Davidson’s dog and best friend. Above all there are the camels, Dookie, Bub, Zeleika , and Goliath. Most of us have seen photographs of camels, but Tracks actually makes us look at them, see them, huge animals that, at times, seem like a holdovers from an earlier geologic era, closer to small dinosaurs than to horses or dogs.

In the end, however, what both films have in common is how they dramatize, whether consciously or not, just how alien white European settler colonials appear in North America or Australia. Mia Wasikowska’s Robyn Davidson bonds with aboriginals. She even physically attacks a tourist who insults her guide. But Davidson, for all of her ferocious identification with the aboriginals against settler colonial society, doesn’t stay in the outback. She goes back to civilization, and literary celebrity. There no native Americans at all in Wild. The genocide in North America is complete. Strayed hikes the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail. Except for one obnoxious black journalist from a newspaper called The Hobo News, she sees nobody but white European Americans.  Strayed can’t go back to nature because nature because there is no nature. There’s a trail. There are trees. There are mountains, but there’s no genuine wilderness.

We don’t learn what happens to Davidson’s camels at the end of Tracks. I suppose they ended up on a camel farm back in Alice Springs. I’ll have to read the memoir. But we do know what happened to Cheryl Strayed’s backpack. What it represented, civilization’s baggage, went right back up on her shoulders as soon as she had to worry about getting a job and an apartment.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013)

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by the Iranian American Reza Aslan, is not only a brief, well-written introduction to the scholarly debate on the historical Jesus. It’s a polemic. Aslan, who converted to evangelical Christianity in his teens, but returned to Islam as an undergraduate, argues that far from being an otherworldly mystic who promised us a reward in heaven in exchange for our obedience here on earth, Jesus was a working-class revolutionary.

The violent uprising that erupted in 66 AD, and which led to the complete destruction of Jerusalem 5 years later, was not only a nationalist uprising against the Roman Empire. On the contrary, it was the final stage of an ongoing rebellion of the landless Jewish poor against the Romans and their aristocrat Jewish puppets. The Second Temple was the spiritual center of Roman occupied Palestine. Keeping true to the Jewish faith involved an elaborate ritual of pilgrimages and sacrifices that served to drive the poor deeper and deeper into debt and enrich the wealthy priests. Independent family farmers became landless sharecroppers.The priestly class of the Second Temple, in turn, became fabulously wealthy landlords.

Like so many client states of a great empire, ancient Judea was also a gangster state. The Caiaphas who arranged to deliver Jesus to Pontius Pilate, for example, was the son-in-law of Ananus, arguably the most important Jew of the First Century AD. If Ananus makes you think of Don Corleone, you wouldn’t be alone. In addition to Caiaphas, five sons of his sons would also serve as high-priest before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 71 AD. To preach, as Jesus did, “as though he had authority, and not as the scribes,” was more about more than religion. It was a threat to the deeply corrupt social order of ancient Palestine.

Even if he stuck closely to the Jewish law as handed down by Moses, Jesus was one of a long line of messianic rabble rousers that had been stirring up the Jewish poor for as long as the Romans ruled the country through Herod the Great and his descendents. Judas of Galilee, Menahem ben Judah, The Egyptian, John of Giscala, Simon bar Kokhba, there were so many “failed messiahs” in the first and second century AD that the best way to approach the historical Jesus, Aslan maintains, is through what for lack of a better term might be called “speculative history.” We know very little about the historical Jesus as an individual. But we know a lot about what kind of a religious leader he probably was. Locate Jesus in a well-established tradition of peasant “zealotry,” and we can understand what he was like as a man.

When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, for example, he meant it literally. The kingdom of heaven was not a state of bliss the faithful would experience after they died, but a revolutionary society the “messiah” would establish after God helped him defeat the Romans. In other words, God would side with Jesus against the Romans exactly the way he helped David beat Goliath, exactly the way he parted the Red Sea and drowned the Egyptians. Jesus was a revolutionary leader, but certainly not a secular one. When the Romans put Jesus to death after he led the march on the Second Temple and overturned the tables of the money changers, therefore, it looked as if he was just another failed messiah. Goliath, after all,  didn’t kill David. Moses didn’t drown in the Sea of Reeds or die of starvation in the Sinai.

As Paul, one of the founders of Christianity, wrote, “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”

James, the younger brother of Jesus, not Paul or Peter, was the undisputed leader of the early Christians, who would not, in fact, have even referred to themselves as Christians. Like Jesus, James was not the founder of a new religion, but a revolutionary leader of the Jewish poor against the Romans and their puppets. Like Jesus, he was also martyred by the wealthy priests of the Second Temple. During a brief interruption of Roman power in 62 AD, Ananus ben Ananus, the son of the Ananus who was also the father-in-law of Caiaphas, moved quickly. After James led the opposition to his attempt to seize tithes from poor Jewish priests for the rich temple priests, he had James charged with blasphemy and stoned to death. James, in fact, was so well-regarded by the Jewish poor, that many of them blamed Ananus ben Ananus for the destruction of Jerusalem eight years later.

Aslan considers James, who remained a very strict, very orthodox Jew, a key, if not the key figure in the history of Christianity. While many scholars believe that Christianity stayed a revolutionary faith well into the fourth century, when it finally became the state religion of the Roman Empire, Aslan thinks the end came much earlier, with the destruction of the Second Temple. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, wrote about Jesus, not as a radical leader of the poor against the wealthy, but as “the Christ,” as an otherworldly spirit who would rule over the Kingdom of God, not in this world, but in the next. When Jesus himself said “my Kingdom is not of this world,” he meant the Herodian puppet kingdom of the Roman Empire. For Paul, “my Kingdom is not of this world” meant that nobody would see it until after the resurrection of the dead.

But as long as James remained alive, Paul was an unpopular heretic. The followers of Jesus continued to hope for a messianic revolution against the Roman Empire. After James was martyred, however, the idea of Paul (and Luke) gained the upper hand. Faith became more important than “works.” To follow Jesus meant to obey the state as it existed, whether it was run by the Romans, by aristocratic Jewish priests, by British imperialism or American capitalism. The Roman genocide, begun in 70 AD, and completed in 132 AD after the failure of the bar Kokhba uprising, put the final nail in the coffin. Even as late as the Protestant Reformation, the hatred James felt for the rich and the emphasis he placed on good works would be a spectre that haunted the Christian religion. Luther, for example, tried to have the Epistle of James removed from the Bible. But without the Temple in Jerusalem, that spectre would never become a flesh and blood revolution.

It would take a rebellion against the Christian religion, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Karl Marx, and the Russian Revolution, to liberate the ideas of Jesus the Galilean peasant from Jesus the Christ.