Zabriskie Point (1970)

In the late 1960s, the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni came to the United States to make a film about the American counterculture. He was already in his late 50s. The film, Zabriskie Point, was a spectacular failure, from the beginning of production to its release. Antonioni was almost prosecuted under the Mann Act for staging a mass sex scene in the California desert. He was assaulted by the musician John Fahey after he went on an anti-American rant. Zabriskie Point wound up going well over budget with its total costs coming in at over $7 million. It got less than $1 million back at the box office.

Set in the mountains east of Death Valley, and in Los Angeles, Zabriskie Point is about emptiness. Unable to connect with one another, Americans get swallowed up in the immensity of the desert. Yet Zabriskie Point is not about the return of nature. If Americans cannot build a lasting civilization in Southern California, they can still destroy Southern California. If Los Angeles is a big pile of nothingness, then it is also a big pile of nothingness that has done lasting damage to the North American continent. I don’t know if you can call Antonioni prophetic. Building a megalopolis in the middle of a desert was an insane proposition to begin with, but nothing about the current state of drought ridden Southern California has proven him wrong.

Zabriskie Point begins, as it ends, with a failure to connect. We are in a meeting of radical students. They are planning some kind of action against their university, but can’t get together long enough, even to be civil to one another. Black students accuse white students of being insufficiently committed to the revolution. White students accuse black students of misunderstanding them. A lot of rhetoric is exchanged. Very little is communicated. Finally Mark, the film’s hero, introduces himself. “I’m willing to die for the revolution,” he says, “but I’m not willing to die of boredom.”

Daria, Zabriskie Point’s heroine, is a privileged white hippie who “works only when she needs bread,” and has an on again off again relationship with her boss, a real estate developer played by Rod Taylor. As she’s driving out to the desert to meet “a man, who works with emotionally disturbed children from Los Angeles,” Mark is trying to bail his roommate out of jail. He ends up causing a disturbance at the police station, and getting locked up himself. When he and the roommate get out of jail that same day, they visit a gun shop, where they manage to get around the gun control laws by explaining to the owner that they “need guns to protect out women.” The owner is immediately sympathetic. “If you kill someone in your backyard,” he says, “drag the body inside so you don’t go to jail.”

Mark isn’t planning to use the gun to protect white women from black rioters. On the contrary, he wants to protect student radicals from the police. After shooting a cop at a demonstration in retaliation for the shooting of a black student by the police — “Just like old John Brown,” he explains later. — he steals a small private plane from a local airport and flies it out into the desert near Zabriskie Point. Antonioni doesn’t explain where a random 20-year-old student radical learned how to fly, but Mark turns out to such a skilled pilot that he and Daria “meet cute” when he repeatedly buzzes her car, then lands on the road in front of her. He used to be a student, he tells her, until he got kicked out of college for hacking into the Dean’s computer and putting all of the engineering students into liberal arts courses. Daria explains even less about herself. She doesn’t tell him about her affair with her boss, or why she’s even in the desert in the first place. Back stories don’t really matter in Zabriskie Point.

Today, the group sex shot that almost got Antonioni prosecuted under the Mann Act looks pretty tame. In fact, now that we can see past what, at the time, became sensationalist story in the tabloids, we can understand it a lot better than they did back in the swinging 60s. Daria and Mark start to make love in the desert. As they do, they find themselves surrounded by other men and women doing the same thing. An orgy has materialized out of nowhere in the middle of the California desert. That’s the point. If Daria and Mark have no back stories, they don’t have much individuality in the present. The orgy, in effect, becomes part of the landscape. The landscape, in turn, becomes part of the orgy. While Los Angeles may be a city, Antonioni hints, it’s not a city like Paris, Rome, Florence or even New York and Boston. There is no civilization, or community. Humans have sunk into the California desert, even as they have transformed it.

The best scene in Zabriskie Point comes after the orgy in the desert. On the way back to the stolen plane, Mark and Daria come upon two portable toilets along the side of the road. Apparently it’s easier to find a public toilet in the middle of the California desert than it is in Midtown Manhattan. The sheer absurdity of the whole thing is brought home when Mark ducks into the little red booth marked “Men” and Daria waits outside. A police car stops next to the two porta-potties, and the policeman gets out. He questions Daria. “Does she need help?” he asks. Does she need a ride? What exactly is this young woman doing alone, on foot, in the middle of nowhere? The entire message of Zabriskie Point is summed up in one image. Human beings have come to Southern California, but have left nothing to show for it but their own waste.

Somehow Daria convinces the police officer to leave before Mark can shoot him. He still has the gun, which he explains is unloaded. He also explains to Daria that he wasn’t the man who shot the police officer in Los Angeles. We don’t know if he’s telling the truth, and the issue is never resolved, but, once again, it doesn’t matter. The police still think he’s a cop killer. The return to the plane, which Mark paints in pink and yellow, almost as if it were a hippie bus on tour with the Grateful Dead. It is, basically, a hippie bus, but the fact that it’s a plane, and not a bus, is significant. A small plane like the one Mark stole not only covers greater distances than a bus. It has only has room for two.

Antonioni, who’s from “old Europe,” is mesmerized by the immensity of the American west. He’s also deeply saddened by the disconnect between people, an issue he’s dealt with before in films like Blowup and L’Avventura, but not on such a gigantic scale. Southern California has, in effect, blown the old Italian’s narrative. The vast distances and vulgar consumer culture have made him feel irrelevant. Everything he’s expressed about loneliness and alienation now seems almost quaint. It has made him a nihilist, like his hero Mark, who goes back to the same airport in Los Angeles where he had earlier stolen the airplane, and gets shot down by the police. Why? We don’t know. Neither does Daria, who’s left alone in the desert. If Mark represented a nihilism of action, Daria represents a nihilism of the imagination. She comes upon a large, expensive mansion in the middle of the desert, designed in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School to be one with the landscape, and not opposed to it. In a scene that probably cost most of the film’s $7 million dollars, Daria stares at the lavish house. In her mind’s eye, she destroys it, blowing it to kingdom come, littering the desert with the waste of American civilization. This is what the counterculture has come down to, random acts of senseless violence, and a fantasy of general destruction.

Note: Mark Frechette, who played Mark, would later go onto become a bank robber. “Robbing banks,” he commented, “was the best way of stealing from Nixon.” He ended up dying in a Massachusetts jail, where he was serving a 15-year-term, in a bizarre “weightlifting accident. I suppose he dropped a barbell on his head while he was doing bench presses. Daria Halprin, who played Daria, is still alive. She and her mother eventually “founded the Tamalpa Institute and developed the Halprin Process, an expressive arts approach for transformative healing that integrates movement/dance, visual arts, performance techniques and therapeutic practices.” Failed outlaw and New Age profiteer, two fitting ends for two forgotten stars of the 1960s counterculture.

The Purple Heart (1944)

In April of 1942, the United States aircraft carrier Hornet, three cruisers, and seven destroyers sailed to within 750 miles of the Japanese mainland. On the deck of the Hornet were 16 long-range, B-25 bombers, stripped down, and loaded with a much fuel and as many bombs as they could carry. Although the “Doolittle Raid” caused only minor damage to a few industrial and military installations on the outskirts of Tokyo, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka, the psychological effect was considerable. Only 4 months after Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy had hit the Japanese mainland. Of the 80 men who began the raid, 69 made it safely to nationalist held areas of China, or to the Soviet Union. Three were killed over Japan. Eight were taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Purple Heart is a fictionalized drama about the 8 crew members of the Doolittle Raid who went missing in action. Made in 1944, before anybody knew that 3 were executed and 1 died in a prisoner of war camp, Lewis Milestone’s film is a bloodthirsty, racist, genocidal exercise in propaganda designed to justify the murder of Japanese civilians. It is also, along with Robert Aldrich’s brutally cynical film Attack, the best American movie about World War II. While the Japanese characters in The Purple Heart are depicted in such a demeaning, bigoted manner that you can barely understand what they’re saying half the time, Milestone’s film embodies the contradictions of the American war against Imperial Japan in a way that’s true to history. In 1944, the United States was a democracy. Imperial Japan was a fascist abomination bent on conquering all of East Asia. Yet by 1945, after the American government murdered hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in the Tokyo fire bombings, and in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, very little moral difference remained between the two belligerent countries.

The Purple Heart takes place entirely in a Japanese courtroom. Eight American airmen commanded by Captain Harvey Ross, played by Dana Andrews, are on trial, not as POWs, but as common criminals, accused of machine gunning Japanese civilians at schools and hospitals. The trial is a mockery of justice. Newspaper reporters from friendly nations like Germany are admitted. Journalists from neutral countries like Portugal and the Soviet Union suddenly find that their press credentials are no longer valid. The 8 men are assigned a “defense attorney” who never consults with his “clients,” or cross examines witnesses. The prosecuting attorney is a sadistic Japanese army officer named General Mitsub. The “judge” isn’t a judge at all, but a Japanese warlord. Captain Ross is not allowed to meet with either the Red Cross or the ambassador from the Swiss embassy. The verdict is a foregone conclusion. Captain Ross and his seven crewmen will be found guilty.

“So why have the trial at all?” the viewer wonders. “Why not just line Captain Ross and his men up against the nearest wall, and call the firing squad”

While Lewis Milestone’s depiction of the Japanese is not only racist, but genocidal, his depiction of their politics is surprisingly realistic. The only reason Captain Ross and his 7 crewman are on trial at all is a bureaucratic squabble between the Japanese Army and the Japanese Navy. General Mitsub, an army officer, wants the Americans to swear under oath that the 16 bombers came from an aircraft carrier. For him, it would be a loss of honor if they came from occupied China. The Japanese Navy, on the other hand, denies that an American carrier got within 1000 miles of the Japanese mainland, even though the United States cruiser Nashville had sunk a Japanese picket boat that got too close to the Hornet’s task force.

In other words, if General Mitsub cannot prove that the Doolittle Raid came from an aircraft carrier, he’ll have to commit seppuku. If he succeeds in extracting a confession from Captain Ross, and his men, then the Emperor will put the blame on the navy. One by one he calls up the members of Captain Ross’ crew out of their cell, and tries to torture them into admitting the 16 bombers came from the Hornet. There’s Sergeant Jan Skvoznik, a big Polish American football player. He loses his mind. There’s Lieutenant Angelo Canelli, and Italian American painter. They break his hands. There’s Sergeant Howard Clinton, a teenager from the south. After he refuses to talk, they cut out his vocal chords. Finally, there’s Captain Ross himself. As the senior officer, he’s tortured psychologically, not physically. “I worked on a fishing boat out of Sante Barbara,” Mitsub says. “I mapped every inch of your coastline from San Diego to Seattle.”

The climax of the Purple Heart comes when the judge offers the Americans a deal. As soldiers “just following orders,” they don’t even have to admit they came from an aircraft carrier. All they have to do is name their commanding officers. When Captain Ross asks for a recess, General Mitsub is confident that he’s won. But the American commander has something up his sleeve the Japanese of Lewis Milestone’s film will never understand, radical democracy. Mitsub, like all authoritarians, had hoped to beat the enemy by divide and conquer, by isolating the weakest link in the chain. Captain Ross decides that he can not only win, but he can win playing by Mitsub’s rules. The military chain of command is suspended, he announces during the recess. He won’t order any of the men to stay silent against their will. They will take a vote. What’s more, the vote will be decided, not by majority rule, but by consensus. He holds out a vase and passes it around the room. Each man will drop his wings inside, broken if he votes to talk, unbroken is he votes to say silent and die. Mitsub comes into the room to announce that the recess is over. Captain Ross hands the vase to the judge. If there’s even one pair of broken wings inside the vase, all eight men will tell the court what they want to hear.

Needless to say, in a pro-war propaganda film like The Purple Heart, there won’t be any broken wings. There aren’t. One by one, the judge counts them out. One by one, they’re unbroken. When he reaches the eighth unbroken wing, he looks both enraged and dismayed. “Is this your answer?” he says in disbelief. Captain Ross stands up and gives a defiant speech that’s both ridiculous and inspiring. “This war won’t be finished until your dirty little empire is wiped off the face of the earth,” he says. We hear a gunshot. General Mitsub has committed suicide. Democracy has beaten fascism. As odd as it may seem in a pro-war, racist, genocidal work of propaganda, that’s the message. Democracy is good. Torture is bad. Real men stand up for democracy against torture, kangaroo courts, and fascist intimidation.

Whether or not Lewis Milestone – a Russian Jew making a racist film, even as Hitler was gassing Jews in Eastern Europe – genuinely believed his genocidal depiction of the Japanese is beside the point. Nobody believes it today. There’s anti-Japanese, and anti-Chinese bigotry in the United States of 2015, but even the most hard core racist would find the depiction of the Japanese in The Purple Heart almost comically dated. On the other hand, Lewis Milestone raises issues, kangaroo courts behind a wall of censorship, torture, the electronic surveillance of prisoners and the denial of counsel to the accused, that are sadly relevant to the United States of The Patriot Act.

Everything Lewis Milestone accused the Japanese of in 1944, anybody could accuse the United States of in 2015. Everything that General Mitsub did to Captain Ross and his crew, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have done to Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown, and Jeremy Hammond. No American can honestly watch The Purple Heart in 2015 and say he’s like Captain Ross or Lieutenant Wayne Greenbaum, Ross’s second in command, an educated Jewish American from New York, a CUNY graduate who can quote the Geneva Convention from memory. On the contrary, if General Mitsub presides over a mockery of justice based on divide and conquer, surveillance, torture, and arbitrary executions, we all remember how George W. Bush said “the Constitution is only a piece of paper,” or how Alberto Gonzalez called the Geneva Convention “quaint,” or how Barack Obama declared Wall Street to be above the law, and then went on to prosecute journalists and whistle blowers.

What’s more, even in 1944, Milestone’s propaganda was full of holes. While the Doolittle Raid bombed only military targets, by 1945, the United States Air Force under Curtis LeMay was committing crimes against Japanese civilians far and away worse than machine gunning a schools and hospitals. LeMay’s air force burned Tokyo to the ground, killing over 100,000 people and displacing over a million. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of the greatest war crimes in history. Indeed, the American mass murder of Japanese civilians along with the internment of Japanese Americans based on nothing but the color of their skin gives the lie to the idea that “we” were fighting for democracy against the Japanese. On the contrary, we were fighting for empire. Whatever his intentions, Lewis Millstone gets it all up on screen, the democratic, multicultural ideal of Roosevelt’s New Deal America, and the genocidal racism that made it impossible.

Battle in Seattle (2007)

Mainstream films about American political activists are so rare that it’s one of the few genres where it might be possible to see them all in one long weekend. I can only think of a few. There’s The Strawberry Statement, a loose dramatization of the 1968 strike at Columbia University. There’s Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni’s very strange English language film set in Southern California. There’s Panther by Mario Van Peebles, Selma by Ava DuVernay, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X by Spike Lee. That’s about it. So if Battle in Seattle, Stuart Townsend’s depiction of the protests against the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 is not a great movie, it’s probably still worth seeing, if only because it’s at the very least a competent movie.

As Battle in Seattle opens, Jay, played by Martin Henderson, and Lou, Michelle Rodriguez, are hundreds of feet above downtown Seattle, setting up the famous banner drop. Democracy, an arrow points in one direct, WTO, another points in the opposite. The film shifts to the headquarters of the Seattle Police, where we learn that Lou “burned down her father’s animal research lab, although she wasn’t formally charged,” and that Jay is an environmentalist whose “brother was killed in the Sequoia Forest demonstration.” We are also introduced to Django, André 3000 from Outkast, and Samantha Clayton, Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter.

We also learn why Battle in Seattle could not have been made after Occupy Wall Street. Stuart Townsend is a competent filmmaker and he’s very sympathetic to the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle, but his politics might best be described as “Chris Hedges 2011.” After the police chief tells us that Lou “has participated in black bloc demonstrations that have turned violent,” the film shifts to Jay conducting a teach in. “We are going to shut these areas down,” he says, referring to all the major intersections in downtown Seattle. He asks a question. “How are we going to do it?” He answers the question himself, “non-violently, and by consensus.” Then Townsend shifts back to police headquarters. “Jay and Lou, are not anarchists, as we first thought,” the police chief says.

I can just hear the collective groan from the anarchist community. That Townsend is making a statement about the ignorance of the police is put to rest by the rest of the film. Pretty much everybody in Battle in Seattle, the liberal, Bill de Blasio like mayor played by Ray Liotta, a World Trade Organization delegate with a thick Slavic accent played by Ivana Miličević, and even a Seattle police officer played by Woody Harrelson, are sympathetic. Harrelson’s cop only beats protesters because he’s stressed out working a double shift as a riot cop, and worried about his pregnant wife, Mad Max Fury Road’s Charlize Theron. A TV reporter played by Connie Nielson, who I kept getting mixed up with Charlize Theron — Do all white women look alike? — has a change of heart and actually joins the protests after getting tear gassed. Townsend depicts almost everybody in Seattle in 1999 as at least a sympathetic liberal caught up in events beyond his or her control. There’s only one exception, the black bloc.

While Lou is described early in Battle in Seattle as being a former member of the black bloc, Townsend seems to consider it as a youthful indiscretion. In 1999, he tells us, there was no crossover between the organizers of the WTO protests and the black block itself. Like Chris Hedges in 2011, he presents the black bloc as a fixed group of protesters, not as a tactic used by many protesters of all ideologies. What’s more, all of the “black bloc anarchists” are depicted as sexist assholes and attention whores. One breaks into a department store and terrorizes the pregnant Charlize Theron. Another gets into a shouting match, then a shoving match, with Jay and Lou. “This isn’t anarchy,” Lou shouts. “We’re the ones getting the press,” he shouts back. It’s all right out of the NY Post or Fox News, and almost comically dated. Everything was going fine, Townsend seems to think, until those damned anarchists came along and ruined it.

Nevertheless, Battle in Seattle is enlightening, not in spite of how it’s so dated, but because of how it’s so dated. Sympathetic police officers, corporate TV “news” reporters who quit their jobs on the spur of the moment and join protests, anarchists who terrorize pregnant women, as ridiculous as it all seems today, it’s what many liberals believed in 2007. Battle in Seattle would be a much different film if someone made it in 2015. During the run up to the election of Barack Obama, it was the nostalgic fantasy of the college educated leftist for the “anti-globalization” movement that got derailed by 9/11. In the wake of the Arab Springs, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter, we all know better. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that some of the things we believe in 2015 won’t seem just as silly in 2022.

Final Note: The best thing about Battle in Seattle might be Outkast’s André 3000 as “Django.” It would have been a much better film had he, not Martin Hendrickson, played the lead. He was not only perfectly credible as an environmental activist, he was smarter than his character, and he knew it. Just watching Django handle a TV “news” reporter’s leading questions is almost a tutorial in how to handle the media. He also gets the best line in the whole movie. “Battle in Seattle?” he says. “That sounds like a monster truck show.”

A Second Look at Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Earlier this year, I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, mainly because everybody else was. I wanted to see what all the hype was about. I came away distinctly underwhelmed. I also wrote a review that, in retrospect, is also quite underwhelming. I clearly didn’t get it.

At the same time, writers I admire were singing its praises. Freddie deBoer, for example, called it “a character-driven, intelligent, action-packed, well-developed, romantic, genuinely epic blockbuster film that doesn’t insult its audience or play down to low expectations, a story with high dramatic stakes that are fully earned and an ending that is deeply satisfying and ultimately positive, achieved with real sacrifice.” Chauncey DeVega almost broke his leg getting to the movie theater. He still came away thinking that it was “more amazing and wonderful than even the commercials hinted at.”

So I decided to give Mad Max: Fury Road a second look. The opening, where Max is kidnapped and turned into a living “blood bag” by Immortan Joe’s greatly impressed me. When I saw Imperator Furiosa I began to feel stupid. Charlize Theron is an excellent actress who projects the right combination of strength and vulnerability to make her an almost perfect female action hero. When the film got to the point where Max decides to form an alliance with Furiosa and Immortan Joe’s “breeders,” I was ready to admit I had been wrong, that Mad Max: Fury Road is a legitimately great movie.

But then I looked at the time. There was over an hour left to go. As I watched car chase after car chase, my opinion of the film went down. I also began to zone out. I just couldn’t stay with it. My fingers began to wander along with my mind. I checked out the traffic on my blog, got into a debate on Twitter about the Civilian Conservation Corps, and looked up some of the characters on Wikipedia. I thought the tall blond, “breeder” looked familiar. It was Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the Victoria’s Secret model. In my first review, I had called the breeders “a multi-racial harem of underwear models.” I was right. One of them actually was an underwear model. More importantly, they were all wearing underwear. By the end of Mad Max: Fury Road, I had lost the plot entirely. I know that Furiosa kills Immortan Joe. Then she, Max, and the breeders bring back his corpse to the citadel at skull mountain, where they let his slaves know they’re all free. Max and Furiosa exchange soulful glances before he disappears into the crowd, but I still felt confused and unsatisfied. Intellectually, I understood Mad Max: Fury Road. Emotionally, it left me cold.

In the end, I came to the same conclusion I did in my first review. Mad Max: Fury Road was a good idea ruined by lousy execution. So why did Chauncey DeVega and Freddie deBoer like it so much? Both of them are smart, independent thinkers unlikely to write glowing reviews about a bad movie simply to go along with the crowd. It’s not often that I’m so bored by a movie everybody else rates as one of the ten best films of the year. A gap in perception this wide is a gift that shouldn’t be passed over lightly. Thinking about it lets you ask questions like “what is the purpose of mass culture? Who watches big-budget action movies and why? Can a fundamentally reactionary art form like the Hollywood blockbuster be enlisted in the service of a progressive cause like feminism?”

Mad Max: Fury Road was made with a budget of $150 million. That kind of money allows a director like George Miller to spend a lot of money on set design, stunt people, car chases that don’t depend on cgi, and to hire a good cast of A-list actors like Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. But it also comes with a price. Anybody who can secure $150 million in funding for a film has to come up with a marketing strategy. My guess is that George Miller came to his investors with a plan that looked something like this. Even though Mad Max: Fury Road will be completely different from the The Mad Max franchise that enjoyed great success in the 1980s — The original Mad Max cost about $350,000 and made over $100 million — it’s worth keeping the name “Mad Max.” That will bring in both middle-aged men, who remember the film from their childhood, and their kids, who grew up listening to their parents talk about it. Mel Gibson is far too old to play Max Rockatansky, but Tom Hardy, who is a geek superstar by virtue of his performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises is, at 35, just about the right age.

Mad Max: Fury Road has car chases, explosions, women in lingerie, and a character that looked a bit like he belonged on the cover of an Iron Maiden album. It has a strong female heroine, and a feminist message. In other words, the script has something for everybody. It could also be fine tuned to let it be marketed on the Internet. It worked better than George Miller, or anybody, could have expected. First of all, some of the very men the car chases and underwear models were supposed to appeal to rebelled. MRAs (Mens Rights Activists) hated Mad Max: Fury Road so much they mounted a campaign against it on social media. None of that, of course, would stop men from seeing a big-budget, widely distributed film that was in every multiplex and discussed on every Facebook page. What’s more, Charlize Theron’s strong performance as an action heroine resonated with women, especially with with younger women in their 20s who grew up with a geek culture that often excluded them. For left-wing men in their 30s like Freddie deBoer and Chauncey DeVega Mad Max:Fury Road was a dream come true. DeBoer, a frequent critic of identity politics, and often labeled a “brocialist” by his political opponents, had found a feminist movie he could love with all his heart. DeVega, in turn, is a black Democrat who despises the white supremacist politics at the heart of the Men’s Rights Movement. He’s also a long time aficionado of geek culture, of professional wrestling and action movies. Mad Max:Fury Road was a very successful, lavishly funded production within a genre he had been following for years that pissed off racist assholes he hated.

None of this, however, explains why I didn’t like it. What are the reasons? Is it because I’m a sexist? That’s possible, but my being a sexist didn’t stop me from enjoying a low-budget feminist classic like Born in Flames or a newer feminist movies Australian desert, like Tracks, which was also, interestingly enough, set in the Australian desert. Is it that I’ve simply never been a fan of geek culture, of comic books, graphic novels, and action movies, all of which Mad Max: Fury Road draws from. That probably hits closer to home. Mad Max hit home with DeVega and deBoer partly, I think, because it was a radical departure from the post-1980s action film. They could appreciate a film that broke the rules of the genre because they knew the rules of the genre. By contrast, I compared Mad Max: Fury Road to classic action films like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear or Howard Hawk’s Only Angels Have Wings. For me, Mad Max: Fury Road broke rules I consider essential for a good movie. There was, for example, no sense of physical vulnerability. People fall off trucks traveling at 100-mph and don’t break their necks. Pale skinned women like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley wander around in the middle of the Australian desert and don’t get sunburned. Max Rockatansky gets strapped to the front fender of a hot road as a living “blood bag” and yet still seems as strong as an Olympic athlete after he escapes. There’s a shortage of food and water. Yet Immortan Joe’s “war boys” seem almost as invulnerable as human cockroaches. Compared to the scenes in Wages of Fear where Charles Vanel gets trapped in a puddle of oil beneath a moving truck it all seemed vaguely cartoonish. But that was also the point. Mad Max: Fury Road was marketed to fans of graphic novels, not Henri-Georges Clouzot movies.

I also think there’s one other reason why I couldn’t enjoy Mad Max: Fury Road. In his pod cast, Chauncey DeVega talks about going to see a film as a “communal experience.” The fact that he almost broke his leg on the way to the theater probably made the bump and grind of a cinematic car chase that much more realistic. By contrast, I usually watch movies at home on my Dell 24” monitor. Streaming a movie off of Amazon can’t quite compete with seeing it at the multiplex. The small screen privileges narrative over action, quiet moments over car crashes and explosions. Part of the fun of seeing Mad Max: Fury Road on the big screen in the middle of a crowd of drunken frat boys was probably seeing so much loud, aggressive male energy subverted by a feminist screenplay. Film makers rarely spend $150 million to put their movie on a computer screen. If I didn’t understand what all the fuss about Mad Max: Fury Road was, then it may simply be that I was looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope. Next time, I’ll just have to turn it around.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 5: The Living Room

(Check out Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, and Pt. 4.)

Hip hop is bullshit, talentless crap and if its the face of modern black music that our musicians are aspiring to then we need to just give up. Rap requires no skill and only a slight grasp of language. Studies show most rappers have IQs average or below and people who listen to hip hop do too. What is this telling you?

-Candace Laytrene, Topix messageboard thread “Hip hop is shit-you’re dumb if you listen to it”

She (Tipper Gore) also wrote a book in 1987, “Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society,” plugged as “a practical guide for parents and consumers concerned with increasingly explicit material in today’s entertainment for children.” She wrote: “Something has happened since the days of ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Love Lucy.’ “

-Melody Simmons, Baltimore Sun, 1992


And I did it my way
See, hip hop is what you make of it
And I’m makin’ a lot of it
See that’s a quadruple entendre, Jay Z eat your heart out

-Yelawolf, The Shady Cxvpher

The stylistics of the later James Joyce, Perfect Lives, and the vast majority of hip hop records share one major technique-the use of entendres and puns in a manner resembling a fugue. As the fugue is structured by the layering of a musical phrase over itself in different permutations to create a total effect and display slight variation as a unified totality, so that the cliche, and/or the disposable language, and/or the cultural context and colorings surrounding a word or phrase are compressed towards their opening up. The omnipresent language, the “sound we take so much for granted”, the “sound of God” Ashley discusses in Pt.4, is pivoted against its own history into becoming a fugue unto itself through the overlaying of its various connotations. This overlay is achieved through the inconsistency of punctuation, the breaking apart and recombining of cliches, and the very inconsistencies of language which your English teachers taught you repeatedly to avoid.

In other words, Robert Ashley has received numerous tributes of late in the form of his work being performed by indie rock bands, but the people who most successfully followed in the footsteps of Perfect Lives and its loose anarchistic relation to language are numerous rappers who never heard it. There’s something very beautiful in that.

The ways that race is codified in grammar and how grammars codify what constitutes racial identity in turn, how these relations to language influence a persons’ grasp on their surroundings and their shape are touched upon briefly in both “The Bar” and “The Living Room”. In “The Bar”, Ashley, while giving his sermon as the itinerant preacher in the titular bar, makes a couple mentions that the character within the loose narrative of the opera is black, though Ashley doesn’t do a verbal blackface (blackvoice?) or an Al Jolson routine; he sees the racial identity as one of a relation to language much as John Cassavetes sees race as a performative identity in Shadows.

“The Living Room” is framed as a conversation between Will, the sheriff of the town where Gwyn, Duane etc. stole the money from the bank, and his wife Ida. Ida asks Will questions, and Will gives answers that don’t satisfy the desired effect of what “answers” or, as the episode’s subtitle would put it, “solutions” are. The visual elements work at counterpoint to the images and the words keep trying to rein themselves in but run around wanton, destroying solidified meaning wherever they go. Quite a problem for a sheriff.

No puns, Will. That way leads to anarchy.
No puns, Will. That way leads to anarchy.

Another iteration of the problem of nothing/everything as a binary comes up very early on in the dialogue. Ida asks Will, “at the risk of everything, what’s the answer?”, and Will gives as good an answer as we may ever have for that particular question. It still, of course, doubles as an evasion. Will says “I’ve been practicing how to say it right the first time.” She volleys a restatement of the initial question, “could you give me a f’r instance?”,  and Will is back in the land of metaphors and stories that Ashley the narrator begins each episode with over the credits, giving the vaguely Aristotelian circular logic of two men talking about birds.

“one says, when I see those birds in cages,

I know they’re sad. two says, that’s a mistake. birds don’t get sad. that’s just how they look when they can’t…fly. one says…

wisely…well, that’s what sadness is.”

Emotion is performance or its inability in this example, something similar to Freud’s theories of energies of the self that transfer into different quadrants depending on their being repressed in other quadrants of the self. This may seem like sloppy writing on my part, a mixed metaphor, but as Ashley is an ecumenical ponderer of possibilities of everythings, this seems like the way by which I can engage with the spirit of Perfect Lives. The specific use of birds as an example could also be an allusion to Maya Angelou, though even if it isn’t my intuition says Ashley would find the connection interesting. It also fits in well with the playful discussions of race in the dialogue, like this one:

“she says: would you call this an alienation?

he says: this is…truly a nation of aliens, not the

only one, but probably the biggest. so I guess I would call it

an alienation. a friend of mine says it’s not a nation at all,

that they’re all aliens”

Similarly, when Will is trying to imagine who took the money from the bank, he can only describe the imagined culprits as being of foreign extraction in escalating absurd phrasings like “there’s no doubt the mexican is in it. the doubt is if he’s mexican.” The more frequent focus on race in this episode makes sense as it’s also a meditation on names. That all of language could be considered the naming of things

Will's not making the puns. The puns're making Will!
Will’s not making the puns. The puns’re making Will! And unmaking him at the same time.

The credits play on this concept and, being an episode concerning names, run a full 5 minutes and play on two separate occasions while also negating themselves.

Numbers, faces, the people who helped make the opera, all there and not simultaneously, running in parallel but not like a roulette wheel.
Numbers, faces, the people and institutions who helped make the opera, all there and not simultaneously, running in parallel but not, like a roulette wheel.

Even Will and Ida’s names, their claim or at least shield around which they construct their self, are in fact multi-layered puns (Ida-ea) which the opera evoke with similar inconclusiveness at other points. To go back to the first episode, the overture: “The will is almost nothing, he thinks to himself.” and “There is something like the feeling of the idea of silk scarves in the air.” Their names as puns don’t bring the reader/viewer/listener to any definitive reading any more than the line in the Saussure diagram makes the word tree correspond to the actual tree and vice versa.

Saussure diagram showing a proposed split relationship between the thing-in-itself and its linguistic representation in the word or picture. Derrida famously erases the line between the two seemingly distinct components in
Saussure diagram showing a proposed split relationship between the thing-in-itself and its linguistic representation in the word or picture. Derrida famously erases the line between the two seemingly distinct components in “Of Grammatology.”
“Names”, already an abstract concept, split and also repeated in a screenshot from “The Living Room”.

Will and Ida’s conversation is a Platonic and Hegelian dialectic. Will discusses Tourette’s syndrome as Ashley himself does in the interview I transcribed an excerpt from in the first installment of these reviews. For Ashley, Tourette’s syndrome, the spontaneous coming to language and sound, is the postmodern anamnesis, the possibility of God after meaning. Derrida’s narrative of being lost in a sea of images that can never reach the comfort of monolithic actuality, to the student of theology that thinks God is reality manifest (a belief that exists in various forms from philosophies of science to deism to the Zohar), is a fall narrative with its possibility of redemption removed.

Put otherwise: if God is everything around, beside, inside and outside of us, all images are graven images. All language is left with after meaning is being.

Behold a Pale Horse (1964): Fascist Spain and American Cinema

Although Ben Urwand’s recent book on the relationship between Adolf Hitler and Hollywood studio head Louis B. Mayer has largely been discredited, the collaboration of the American film industry with fascism has always been very real. Urwand was simply looking at the wrong country. Between the early 1950s and the late 1960s, so many big-budget films were made in fascist Spain that it’s no exaggeration to call Generalissimo Francisco Franco the father of the American independent film studio. The relationship was mutually beneficial. Franco got jobs and American tourist money. He deftly used American “soft power” to help normalize Spain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. American film studios like United Artists, in turn, got cheap, union-free labor, thousands of extras, and even the use of the Spanish Army. For his epic film El Cid, producer Samuel Bronston got access to the walled medieval town of Avila, the grand castle of Manzanares, the ancient Valencian town of Pensicola, and the Cathedral at Burgos. Those are not sets you can build, even on a budget of 7.5 million dollars. That Bronston, who was also Leon Trotsky’s nephew, was willing to ignore, or even actively promote Spanish fascism goes without saying.

The honeymoon between Francisco Franco and the American film industry came to an end in 1964, with Fred Zinnemann’s film Behold a Pale Horse. Behold a Pale Horse, a fictionalized dramatization of the last days of Spanish anarchist Francesc Sabaté Llopart, is neither stridently left-wing, nor a particularly damning indictment of Spanish fascism. Captain Viñolas, the Francoist police captain played by Anthony Quinn, is a complex, even sympathetic character. It’s not anti-Catholic. The moral center of Behold a Pale Horse is probably the conflicted young priest played by Omar Sharif. Manuel Artiguez, the aging Catalan guerrilla leader played Gregory Peck, is stiff, dour, and by no means heroic. Nevertheless, Zinnemann’s portrayal of Viñolas as a venal, insecure womanizer so angered Spanish Minister of Tourism and Information Dr. Manuel Fraga Iribarne that he retaliated against Zinnemann’s distributer, Columbia Pictures, blocking their entire catalog in Spain for over 5 years. He even bullied the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo into butchering his great film Queimada. Pontecorvo rewrote the script to make the villains Portuguese not Spanish. He also cut over 20 minutes of offending material.

Behold a Pale Horse is an underrated film that deserves to be better remembered, but it’s not exactly Weekend or The Battle of Algiers. So what exactly made Fraga come down so hard on Columbia pictures, which, to its credit, refused to knuckle under to the Spanish government and lost millions of dollars? Franco, unlike Hitler or Mussolini, was a subtle, clever man, and Fraga a sophisticated cosmopolitan, but fascists have very particular tastes in film. They do not want to see themselves portrayed as flawed, three-dimensional, middle-aged men like Anthony Quinn’s Captain Viñolas. Rather, they like to see themselves as grand, larger than life, heroic figures like Charlton Heston’s Rodrigo de Bivar. Anthony Mann’s El Cid is an utterly thrilling movie, and I won’t apologize for liking it, even though it’s basically Francoist state propaganda. But there’s a reason why Robert Bresson made Lancelot du Lac, his deconstruction of the chivalric epic. Whatever El Cid’s politics, and you can read it as a liberal call for the reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, great romantic spectacles that require the use of half the Spanish Army as extras, and two of the grandest castles in Spain as locations, are based on a fundamentally reactionary aesthetic.

Behold a Pale Horse opens at the end of the Spanish Civil War. A column of anarchist soldiers, now a column of refugees, makes its way into France. One by one they turn in their arms to the French police. But Manuel Artiguez, Peck, won’t turn in his rifle, or give up the struggle. He turns around, and goes back to Spain to organize a guerrilla war against the fascists. The next scene takes place 20 years later. Paco, a boy whose father died under torture to protect Artiguez, is being led into exile in a French town called Pau to live with his uncle. There he hopes to meet the great Manual Artiguez, who he hopes to convince to go back to Spain to assassinate Captain Viñolas, the same policeman who killed his father. When Paco does meet Artiguez, however, he finds, not the great guerrilla leader and Spanish Robin Hood he’s heard so much about, but a dour, stiff, disillusioned 50-year-old man. American anarchists who grow up dreaming about going back in time and enlisting in the Durruti column won’t like Artiguez any more than Fraga liked Captain Viñolas.

The Basque country scenery, on the other hand, is breathtaking. We can see exactly why Artiguez has lost all his taste for revolution. The neat, well-kept little towns on both sides of the Spanish French border are far too beautiful for another war. When we meet Captain Viñolas, in turn, he’s no more heroic than Artiguez. He’s an ordinary man who likes women, fine horses, nice clothes, and the good things in life. He doesn’t strike you as the type who would torture a man to death to capture an old political rival. We see that his obsession with capturing Artiguez is more professional ambition than it is a continuation of the Spanish Civil War. If all he wanted was to neutralize Artiguez, he could easily send a spy to assassinate him, but what he wants is to capture the old guerrilla leader and put him into prison as a common bandit. He wants to deny that it’s a political conflict altogether. He not only wants to kill his political opponent. He wants to erase him from history altogether.

When Viñolas learns that Artiguez’s mother is dying, he gets his chance. Pilar Artiguez, a fiery old anarchist wants to die at home, but Viñolas, seeing his opportunity to capture his old enemy, and probably get a promotion, kidnaps her and brings her under guard to a hospital, which he then orders locked down and quarantined. She is the bait he will use to lure Artiguez back across the border into Spain. While Pilar is dying in the hospital, we meet the film’s third important character, Francisco, a young, secretly liberal priest played by Omar Sharif. As much as she hates priests, Pilar trusts Francisco. Even though she had previously told one of Francisco’s colleagues to “go bless the rifles of the firing squad priest,” and even though she refuses to take the last rights, she does beg Francisco to grant her a deathbed request. She wants him to take a letter back to her son in Pau and warn him not to fall into the trap. Francisco, who has seen anarchists kill priests, and even has a friend who was wounded in one of Artiguez’s bank robberies, nevertheless, takes pity on the old woman. He not only agrees to deliver the letter, he refuses to divulge to Captain Viñolas what she said on her deathbed. He will not violate the privacy of the confessional, even for the Francoist state.

Captain Viñolas is astonished. Aren’t the Catholic Church and the Francoist state allies against communism? Why wouldn’t Francisco tell him everything he knows? But we begin to see what so angered Manual Fraga about Behold a Pale Horse. Released in 1964, a year after Vatican II,  the film is setting up the idea of a separation of church and state in Francoist Spain. Captain Viñolas knows he can’t harm a priest, but he did not expect a priest to show so much independence. He’s undismayed. Whether or not Pilar is dead, he will still try to lure Artiguez into his trap. He sends Carlos, a slimy agent provocateur and informer played by the French actor Raymond Pellegrin. Francisco gets to Pau ahead of Carlos and attempts to deliver the letter to Paco, who has since become friends with Artiguez, but Paco flushes the letter down the toilet. He thinks the priest is lying. He refuses to believe that Pilar is dead, and sends Francisco on his way. But when he sees Carlos, he realizes he’s been mistaken. Carlos is the informer who helped Viñolas capture his father. Francisco was telling the truth. Pilar is dead. Artiguez will be walking into a trap, and almost almost certain death.

The process by which Paco manages to convince Artiguez to believe a priest, his supposed enemy, makes Behold a Pale Horse worth watching, whatever its flaws. Just as Francisco had to wrestle with his conscience, Artiguez has to wrestle with his intellect. How do you uncover an agent provocateur? Is the priest lying, “snitch jacketing” a loyal anarchist, or is Paco correct? Francisco wins Artiguez’s trust when he informs him he’s from the town of Lorco, a place Artiguez knows well, and an anarchist, not a fascist town. Francisco radiates the kind of personal integrity that will convince an enemy to believe him. He won’t lie, or have his fellow priests lie to save his own skin. If he winds up in a fascist prison for honoring the deathbed wishes of an old woman, so be it. In any event, Carlos removes all doubt about who he is when he reaches for Artiguez’s gun, and escapes after a desperate struggle.

Artiguez finally knows Pilar is dead and he knows he’ll be walking into a trap, but he decides to cross back into Spain anyway, partly to honor his dead mother, partly to kill Viñolas to avenge Paco’s father. Behold a Pale Horse ends on a note of sadness, but also one of enigma. Artiguez successfully infiltrates the town of San Martin, where Viñolas has set his trap, kills a fascist sniper, and gets Viñolas in his sights. Viñolas is his. He could kill him any time he wants. Instead he spares the Viñolas and kills Carlos. Why? Does Artiguez spare Viñolas to break the cycle of revenge and violence, to free Paco from the civil war that claimed so many lives? Or does he simply recognize Viñolas as a worthy opponent he can’t bear to kill. Zinnemann never really gives us an answer. But what he does seem to be saying is that Francisco, not Artiguez is the future of resistance in Spain. Artiguez ends up shot down by Viñolas’ troops. Francisco ends up in jail, but Viñolas admits he will have to let him out when the church hierarchy demands it. We can’t help but think that Artiguez died in vain. By contrast, we see Francisco as a Spanish cousin to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It’s 1964, the year after the March on Washington.

Zinnemann’s politics may sound wishy washy and liberal, but how many directors can brag about how they provoked a fascist government into trying to destroy a whole film studio?

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 4: The Bar

Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold;
But the Alehouse is healthy, and pleasant, and warm.
Besides, I can tell where I am used well;
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But, if at the Church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach, and drink, and sing,
And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.

-William Blake, “The Little Vagabond”


Episode 4 is both the center of the opera , sandwiched between the three chapters preceding it and the three that come after it. It works as Ashley testament, his personal aria and the point where all the chapters come together into an idiosyncratic theory of language as theory of everything. In parts 2 and 3 the camera shot of the road kept getting closer and closer; it could be said that the old man in the hotel room in the opening chapter is a further aged and widowed iteration of the man from the older couple in chapter 2, and that the old couple are in fact the star crossed lovers of chapter 3, Ed and Gwyn. Narrative timelines have been coexisting and moving backwards. Ed and Gwyn are presumed to be different characters co-existing with the old couple but are played by the same actors in only slightly modified outfits.

This accordion notion of time has been leading toward the unification/collapse of time and language that occurs in “The Bar”, a sermon on the mount delivered from the ground and what could reasonably be presumed to be Ashley’s own spoke-sung manifesto. It is the skeleton key through which to unlock the rest of the work. It has the most lively backing music, a sort of R&B that leans heavily on the gospel roots of the genre. The words of the chorus in this episode are unified with Ashley the narrator’s speech in a call and response that suggests a lively Pentecostal service. Ashley the narrator collapses into the characters of the piece and we hear him speaking as a character but in the video version see him still firmly placed in the physical space of the narrator as he delivers his stirring oration.

Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.
Ashley speaking as Buddy, the preacher in the bar, and the narrator simultaneously. Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.
The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.
The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.

As I pointed out in the earlier chapters, Ashley tends to play the dual role of narrator and arbiter of strictly codified language and relationships between characters. In this chapter, Ashley is the bartender, who is silent and fairly irrelevant to the goings on, and the narrator, suggesting a dialectical relationship between the possibility of exuberance; of unrestrained language and the juridical constraints/containers that keep language contained in hopes of resolution, both in the larger society and in Ashley himself. He is split along similar lines, lines that keep shifting.

Unlike the previous chapters we see only one still image of a landscape here, a shot of the outside of a JC Penney department store with a very artificially inserted lightning bolt. The quantification and restrictive relationship of capitalism to language and the people living in it.

The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (
The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (“bruises”) on the landscape, an ominously lit department store.

The imagery of the prior episodes swirls inside and around shots of Ashley speaking and an overlay of the tree of life. In an especially clever shot, Ed and Gwyn, in their only appearance within the immediate “now” of the episode’s progression of the plot are zoomed out from their seats at the bar into what at first appears to be the bar’s window but reveals itself to be the context of the opera itself, the opera itself being a simultaneous metaphor and actualization of Ashley’s accordion metaphysics.

The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode.
The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode. The prison is the narrative.

The libretto goes into the four stages of “the self” which seems not coincidental in its being placed in the 4th chapter; it’s possible that the previous three episodes were mediations on the stages of the self proposed in “The Bar”. The opera’s fidgety visual, narrative, and syntactical circling, shifting and morphing is explained far more concisely than I can do here in the sermon itself:

And we said the Self is ageless being

What I don’t know

The word eternal is a mystery to me.

I don’t understand that word.

I can’t say the Self is ageless

Being eternal,

So, I have to find another way of seeing, another way of

Understanding that the Self is ageless

The line breaks and punctuation of the paperback edition of the libretto I’m working from, presumably at least overseen by Ashley, break open even further contexts and connotations while pointing toward a holistic reading of the text more conveniently (perhaps more deceptively) than the TV form. There are distinct differences in suggested cadence. For example, in the recorded version, Ashley delivers the first two lines quoted above in a manner suggesting the punctuation “And we said the self is ageless, being what? I don’t know.”  The different break up of the lines into “And we said the Self is ageless being/ What I don’t know”, suggests that “What I don’t know” is supposed to correspond as a reiteration of “ageless being” and correspond more directly to the distorted neo-Platonic theological system pointed toward in the sermon and the associated imagery used in the TV production.

The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany's hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode.
The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany’s hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode. The reflection of his playing and the keys in the body of the piano is not pointing anywhere for the first time.

Perfect Lives, having its genesis, like much of Ashley’s work, in the initial epiphany of feeling connected to the (seemingly?) inchoate ramblings of the mentally ill, might be described as a dramatized attempt to overcome the initial trauma of losing faith in the possibility of mental illness. It might also be described as an extension of the postmodern project, a project that first expanded the bounds of what constituted language theoretically and has been managing and exploring the aftermath of that discovery; a batch of book-crumbs trailing through Derrida’s destruction of the line in Saussure’s diagram through to Deleuze/Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and that has touched pretty much every culture product to come after it, or at least was bit by the same invisible bug more noticeably before this anxiety/breakthrough crept into Western culture at large.

But Perfect Lives distinguishes itself in its framing of this dilemma as not a problem of literary criticism or secular philosophy primarily (though those were the initial delivery vessels) but as being a distinctly theological question. If language can’t “mean”, if the occasionally God-less gods of progress and teleological historicism can’t hold up, if the individual can’t come to any grander schema of “knowing”, this paradoxically, by killing anything resembling a god, positions every forward motion or action as being a leap of faith. But by doing this, it clears the playing field for a sort of gerrymandering of dogmas far more dynamic than the ones embraced prior; the flowing fluctuating liveliness of Perfect Lives can only exist in its relation to this iteration of the larger problem, falls apart so that it can come together and vice versa, and returns to one of the initial questions of western philosophy-“How ought one live?”, perhaps more productively restated as “How ought one live in the face of a circular closed thisness/haecceity that seems to open everything up?”

Perfect Lives offers not an answer but an ecumenical system of answers, a theory of theories of everything that comes to its own pluralism standing over, mucking around in and lying beneath the everythingness of everything(s). And “The Bar” stands as Ashley’s most direct, diffuse, troubling and edifying statement on the matter in a larger piece made of answers that doubt themselves and squabble as though they were people.


If there’s an answer to tower over the rest, the one that Ashley himself secretly endorses, it might be found in the following lines:

Around us in the bar

We hear the sounds of life


She goes down to The River when she can…

The Holy River where the notes came up from New Orleans.

Because It’s There, The Doctor says.

She is enchanted.

She has learned that short ideas repeated

Massage the brain.

But even this presents problems in its closeness to the regimentation of the dread “industry”. “Boogie woogie is the vessel of the eternal present”, but then the clarity of constant “present” is in itself another artificial stricture as Henry James explored in The Ambassadors. But for a brief moment, it all seems to line up. Maybe a brief moment is all we can stand. As is stated in “The Bank”: “It changes, right? ‘n so cosmic is the scale that just a glimpse is all it takes to break my heart”.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 3: The Bank

She is in the blue distance
She’s a visiting wonder
He’s in the blue distance
He’s a dream come true
Am I sleeping and weeping
Or just turning over?

-Blue Gene Tyranny, “Leading a Double Life”

Love: unfinished portraiture, the joyous transgressive unknown, Bonnie and Clyde, a car full of holes.
Love: unfinished portraiture, the transgressive unknown, Bonnie and Clyde, a car full of holes.

(Check out Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 here and here.)

The small repeating cast of Perfect Lives, partly a limit imposed by the necessary training required to learn how to read Ashley’s unusual notation, partly a limit of the budget, partly a limit of the cramped confines of the performance space in which it was originally done before its finished incarnation as a TV program, is, like any artistic limitation, not a thing to be written off as entirely a function of its economic circumstances without extensive considerations. Ashley sees limitations in everything up to the medium of the word so that he can assess them to suit his purposes.

That Ashley himself plays numerous characters and the narrator in the TV production is a carefully employed device. As the narrator, ostensibly a third person omniscient one for lack of a more comprehensive term to describe it, he is, like any other narrator, within the world of the narrative, God. He holds his creations loosely, but at the same time, in order to come to the creation of “art”, must structure their existence through the employment of language-verbal, written, visual, musical, or otherwise. When he steps out the position of omniscience, he’s always the character within the storyline of a given episode constricting the thrust of the story into codification. In episode two, he’s the supermarket owner who sets up and recreates the space of the supermarket; in this episode he’s the clergyman who marries Ed and Gwyn after their voyage into the night in a “car filled with holes.”

Ashley as narrator/God. Note that as with most of Episode 3's visuals, he's positioned in a two-shot with himself. Also note that the neon lines behind him this time are cleanly intersecting.
Ashley as narrator/God. Note that as with most of Episode 3’s visuals, he’s positioned in a two-shot with himself. Also note that the neon lines behind him this time are cleanly intersecting.
Ashley as the person marrying Ed and Gwyn.
Ashley as the person marrying Ed and Gwyn. Note that his hand is moving up and down to “conduct” the ceremony.

Similarly, Jill Krosen and David Van Tieghem, Ed and Gwyn, play both the old couple in episode 2 and Ed and Gwyn in this episode, drawing possible parallels; which situation is which ones past and/or future or could it all be a coincidence?

Ed and Gwyn engage both in the crime/art of the bank heist in this episode, and in perhaps an altogether more dangerous activity that could likely get them locked up far longer than taking the money, if not literally-they plan to get married. The shots of the road have gotten so tight by this point in the opera they’re almost unrecognizable as being much other than an abstraction of texture, and when we see lines on them, they’re sealant. Patchworks. Where they aren’t, they’re the playful but fleeting amendment of chalk.

The faint line of the law, the more present line of the patchwork.
The faint line of the law, the more present line of the patchwork.
Chalk line on concrete
Chalk line on concrete.

The libretto echoes the visuals and vice versa as usual.

…So, today, they leave in the dark, car

full of holes. No destination or flowers or ring. Ed and Gwyn in the front seat, and

Dwayne and me in the back. If they are engaged,

it’s someplace in the middle of the night that only they can know, and they

bury their tracks.

That’s love. I’m sure it’s night, the engagement.

Starry skies is where Ed takes ’em. (He’s no fool.) Now, one hand on the wheel,

and the

other in Gwyn’s lap, he drives (us) toward an understanding

An “understanding” in Perfect Lives is an enclosure, another point where language seems to solidify that mysterious “ball of hot stuff” only to get away. The universe of Perfect Lives is an accordion that keeps expanding and contracting in seemingly but not actual identical geometric divisions that collapse into a compressed unity only so they can expand again to make strange music. Love here is the barreling forward blind in the night against the anxieties of entrapment. The video shows repeated imagery of prison bar formations over both Ed and Gwyn; their visit to the church is visually echoed in the architecture of the bank.

Gwyn is
Gwyn is “wrapped in danger.”
Ed is locked in the future.
Ed is locked in the future, alone, a “perfect” (closed) “one”.

This imagery of bars is echoed in the bank vault where the heist takes place. The camera circles the heist from 5 directions (that I counted anyhow), and visually separates Duane and Buddy from Ed and Gwyn in the chronology of events the same way the partition of the seats separates them in the car. The heist in itself would seem to constitute its own prison break from the banality of the bank. (“Gwyn works at the bank. That’s her job. She mostly helps people count their money. She likes it.”)

Free this time.
Behind bars the next.
Behind bars the next.

The escape from something into the open freedom of not-quite something to return again to something. The money is there, then it isn’t, then it is. Cages of language are escaped briefly into the thrill and anxiety of uncertainty until they can be reformed into hopefully more amenable cages. “Underneath what it means is what it means,” as the opera eloquently puts it. The old couple at the supermarket can’t escape into anxious thrills and the unknowing (or is it not-knowing?), but Ed and Gwyn can. He “throw(s) (him)self at the feet of (her) recklessness.”

The interjections of the chorus in this episode are mostly in the form of a hilariously loopy love song, a pastiche of early 20th century American pop music; Ashley is celebrating its silly pointlessness as being exactly the point. It sounds a bit off, but then-so does love.

The Clean and the Disposable

Do you actually eat at the events? I never eat at the events.

Why? I don’t do buffets.

Why? I don’t like people touching the food and then, like, putting it back. Breathing over it, like if they’re sick. I skeeve that. That’s something I just never do. We always have a cocktail and then we go out to dinner after, but never, ever, eat at an event. And breath, I can’t stand the breath. If somebody eats a crab cake and then starts talking to me, I want to throw up. I’m like, Oh God, breath is disgusting.

It’s bad enough normal breath for people, but when you start eating and you have things in your teeth, it’s so annoying. It’s so rude.

In the mornings, my husband feeds 28 dogs upstairs. I used to do it but he took it away from me because he doesn’t really spend a lot of time with them like I do. So he likes to interact with them. He feels that’s the time in the morning before he goes into work when he can relax.

In addition to so-called nudist or sauna clubs, where the male customers wear a towel while the women are naked, large brothels have also become established. They advertise their services at all-inclusive rates. When the Pussy Club opened near Stuttgart in 2009, the management advertised the club as follows: “Sex with all women as long as you want, as often as you want and the way you want. Sex. Anal sex. Oral sex without a condom. Three-ways. Group sex. Gang bangs.” The price: €70 during the day and €100 in the evening.

According to the police, about 1,700 customers took advantage of the offer on the opening weekend. Buses arrived from far away and local newspapers reported that up to 700 men stood in line outside the brothel. Afterwards, customers wrote in Internet chat rooms about the supposedly unsatisfactory service, complaining that the women were no longer as fit for use after a few hours.

-Der Spiegel, How Legalizing Prostitution Has Failed

At about $.065 per plate, they aren’t cheap but you get what you pay for. You could easily, depending on what you place on it, reuse these by wiping them off or shaking off crumbs.

These have become our new “go-to” disposables and it’ll be hard to revert to the traditional cheap and flimsy white paper ones.

-Amazon User Review, Dixie Ultra Disposable Plates 8 1/2 Inch 384 Count

…they must come armed with paper trails to defend the wrongfully accused and incriminate members of competing groups. Or they adopt a strategy of choosing sacrificial lambs to protect more essential players. “You learn how to diplomatically throw people under the bus,” said a marketer who spent six years in the retail division. “It’s a horrible feeling.”

…things go wrong, you need to rectify, and then explain, and heaven help if you got an email from Jeff,” he said. “It’s as if you’ve got the C.E.O. of the company in bed with you at 3 a.m. breathing down your neck.”

-NY Times,  “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”

Notions of disposability, cleanliness, and freshness are inextricably linked in this culture. Disposability is the ultimate display of power over something. It implies a comfortable position of plenty; we praise “throwaway” gags in the sitcom as the sign of seemingly endless inventiveness, the ultimate display of power over money is its frivolous waste, a wealth ghetto’s lawns are defined by a lack of leaves or weeds and the ability to buy the day labor on the cheap and dispose of it at a moments’ notice. Among the socialites private trainers are hired as personal gurus and consulted in private that the women might shrivel like shrink wrap and never sag nor loosen like the spines of old books. The market prefers the used commodity mint-in-box so that the buyer can not open it and admire it.

The extent to which an object or person might communicate any of the conditions of its existence is tantamount to talking back; and talking back suggests the presence of an other. We don’t mind the blacks, we just wish they didn’t have to be so…black about it, you know? When someone comes to this country so we can hire them for less than minimum wage, the least they could do is learn the language. We lose a couple dollars a year having to explain things to them over and over…

We’d prefer our vinyl virginal and our toilets obsessively sanitized so that we can imagine that when it comes our turn its us and only us that have defiled them. We’d prefer our cultural canons sanctified; we just finished cleaning them. Several people have asked me, entirely in earnest, “Like…is there one book I can read where I can just pick up all that stuff you just told me?”

Labor implies the body; it is in some manner a bodily function; we retain our purity in our disingenuous displays of the seemingly effortless and the presence of sweat is sanctified only when it represents the earnest sacrifice of the powerful to their audience; when Elvis throws the handkerchief in the crowd or Bruce Springsteen vindicates the struggle of the working man in catering to them in the brief ellipses of power they hold as the consumer; as the audience; they wink at the voyeurs to signify they’re not dirty for looking. We exhibit privilege in the ability to which we can hide the physical labor that goes into recreating the particulars of our existence; when Donald Trump or George Bush show up in a mesh baseball cap this is as far as they’re willing to go; political photo-ops in soup kitchens never show scraps of food on the candidate’s clothing.

Agricultural workers in the high budget cinema can only wear the nicest clean and pressed versions of whatever the proles might wear (maybe? We never really checked.) Brokeback Mountain attempted to shock audiences with scenes of homosexual lovemaking but shrunk at the possibility two men who work on farms might ever wear anything short of perfectly fitting clothes without a spot on them to match what must be at least $75 haircuts.

Maybe some people were waiting for the end of the Levi’s commercial where the handsome young models just fuck already; I’m happy they found their movie. But similarly the faces of fictional prostitutes, like all depictions on the sympathetic side of the physiognomy in the US cinema, have been wiped down like so many tables at a restaurant. And worse, their experience and behavior has as well. The radical vision that an ugly guy could possibly get a date with a woman was enough to net Marty the best picture in 1955. Pretty Woman and Milk Money suggest that perhaps a woman can be bought and not rented with a bit of financial coaxing and the promise of a more “respectable” life as a trophy; that the only psychological marker of years of economic and sexual exploitation is the delightfully “quirky” deployment of vulgarisms and whatever Hollywood screenwriters thought street slang in the 1990s. And this can be scrubbed clean to make them palatable. The rich man learns that his Cinderella is not in fact Michelle Riggi’s caterer but one of her dogs. It’s alright to take her home; she’s dependent and won’t bite. She’s not actually one of the masses-she’s not unwashed. Her neck is not red.

Anarchist friends in Seattle once told me of the rich “taking on eccentric people like pets”. They never mentioned if any of them looked like Julia Roberts.

The psychological cleanliness is similarly prized; signs of damage are avoided or steep recompense is sought in the form of obedience or external praise for its handling. The act of charity must be done in public; the old cliche where the attractive person brings their two uglier friends to the dance to seem that much more desirable seems rather quaint when a person of wealth can surround themselves in pictures with starving children from the rarely specified “third world” in quantities that could fill several high school gymnasiums. They must simply be failed westerners after all; Facebook not bombs.

Where its convenient anyway.

In the dedicated Amazon employee, the glorified temp worker, the Amabot we see the concept of the high end tech product being rolled out at cheaper and cheaper prices within a couple years of its initial offering price. But this time it’s the tech workers themselves. And like a Playstation, they’re built to be replace every 2-5 years. They must prove themselves pure and worthy proletarian Pygmalions for that 3am neckbreathing from Mr. Bezos.

On Being a Failed Writer

At the age of 50, I am a failed writer. Except for a few articles on CounterPunch, everything I’ve published has been self-published. I’ve worked tens of thousands of hours, written hundreds of thousands of words, and have never made a dime. Had I spent the same amount of time at a minimum wage retail job, I’d be rich, or at least a shift-supervisor at Starbucks. I haven’t been able to find an audience. You probably won’t even read this.

So why don’t I quit?

I tried. From the age of 25 to the age of 50, I had one goal In life, to cure myself of the urge to write. But I failed. Let me explain.

The urge to write should never be confused with the ability to make a living by writing, or even the ability to express yourself by putting words down on paper. T. S. Eliot is rumored to have answered the suggestion that “most editors are failed writers” with the quip that “yes, but so are most writers.” For many working journalists, writing is both a day job, and an impossible dream. Most people at Buzzfeed don’t want to be writing listicles. I doubt even the most cynical daily newspaper reporter grew up dreaming that someday he would be writing hit pieces on a mentally ill homeless man for the New York Post, or smearing a teenager the local police for the Indianapolis Star to protect the local police. It’s simply a way to pay the bills until the big story that will make you another Woodward or Bernstein comes along, or until a Hollywood studio buys your film script. I am not being a moral scold. If I had the social connections to get hired by Vice, Buzzfeed, or the NY Post, I’d probably jump at the opportunity. What’s more, some of the best writers in American history have written for money, and only for money. Ulysses Grant, for example, started writing his memoirs in 1884 after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Sick, destitute after losing most of his assets in a Ponzi scheme, the 18th President of the United States wrote mainly to to pay old debts, and to leave enough money left over to provide for his wife and family. Yet the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant remains the greatest autobiography ever written by an American President. It’s so good that, to this day, there are conspiracy theories that it had actually been ghostwritten by his good friend Mark Twain.

In my mid-20s, I decided to become a novelist, mainly because I realized I was unfit to do anything else. For a middle-aged man, 25 seems young, but let’s face it. If you’re not already on a solid career track, or have some kind of specialized, highly sought after skill, you’re going to end up struggling for the rest of your life. I’m 50 years old, but 25 doesn’t even seem that long ago. It feels like yesterday. Not only had I run out of career options, I had never had very many in the first place. I had been slotted. I had found my place, and I didn’t like it. I was already picking up the pieces of my broken life, wondering what happened.

For most of my childhood, I had planned to join the United States Marine Corps, just like my father. I gave up on the idea when I became socialist in college. How could I make a career out of defending the American empire?

Note: I was also soft, and weak. A summer at McGuire Air Force base at a Civil Air Patrol encampment had already convinced me that I wasn’t cut out for the military life. But “I declined to serve the interests of American imperialism” sounds much better than “I was scared that when I got to basic training the other guys would call me a fag and beat me up.” So that’s the version of the story I usually tell.

Later on, I toyed with the idea of becoming a high school English teacher or a college professor, but I had been miserable in high-school. Why would I have wanted to spend the rest of my life in a place I already knew I hated? Tenure at Harvard would have been great. But I couldn’t even understand Foucault or Derrida, let alone teach them. I did not have the academic ability to become a lawyer, or the temperament to become a political activist. So at the age of 23, I dropped out of graduate school, and got an entry-level job as a “Production Editor” for a small, scientific publishing in New York City. I made a little under $15,000/yr preparing scientific manuscripts to be published in books that almost nobody would ever read.

It didn’t take me very long to decide that since I was unlikely to get a better job, I could at least have a better identity. “Writer” sounded good, but there was only one problem: I couldn’t write. Not a novel, not an essay, not a review, not a short story. I could barely even write a note on a birthday card. Indeed, I spent most of my 20s thinking of myself as a writer, but unable to come up with anything much more than a diary, which I’m glad I lost. The only thing I remember about it is that it wasn’t worth keeping. I had a massive case of writer’s block, which correlated to my inability to relate to other people, or get my life together. Nevertheless, not being able to write was a good also excuse to stay put. My entry-level publishing job didn’t pay much, and it didn’t have much room for advancement, but it also didn’t involve much work. The hours were steady, and I never had to worry about getting cheated out of my wages. These days it almost seems like a good job. In any event, I decided that since I didn’t know how to write, I would use the time after work to teach myself how to write. Progress was slow, but I did make it. I read just about everything I could, and did manage to fill in the gaps in my education that I had noticed during my abortive two years of graduate school. Eventually I found my subject, failure. I identified with the narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and with the hero of George Orwell’s early novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Unlike Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, however, I couldn’t find a way back into the lower-middle-class, and unlike Dostoevsky’s underground man, I couldn’t make failure sound interesting.

So I concluded that if I was going to write about failure, I had to fail a lot more.

After I got fired from my job as a Production Editor – It was a combination of incompetence and just a very obvious lack of interest in my work. – I failed at just about everything I tried. I couldn’t make friends, establish a relationship with a woman, break away from, or maintain friendly relations with my parents, complete psychoanalysis, or hold a job. Over the next few years, I worked as a telemarketer, fish gutter, a sheet metal worker, a data entry specialist at the last unionized textile company in Seattle, an administrative assistant, a sales associate at an office supply store, a sheet metal worker, a day laborer at a recycling plant, a low-level systems administrator for a small ISP, and a customer-service support technician for three failed e-commerce companies, and a barista at Starbucks.

The last job turned out be a lucky accident, since it provided me with the material for the first thing I ever wrote worth reading, a mildly successful knockoff of Notes from the Underground, a long short story called “How To Under Ring.” I am a bitter Starbucks barista, the “underground man” serving coffee and pulling espresso while I wait for the chance to be put on a cash register. Then I can follow his true calling of small-time embezzler and petty thief. How much is fiction, and how much is autobiography I leave to any readers, and potential employers, to decide. These days it seems dated, and almost cliché, and I can just see the typical social justice warrior’s reaction. “Angry young white male from a middle-class family hates his job and can’t get laid, so he acts like an asshole. Cry me a river.” But, at the time, actually finishing a short story felt like vindication.

I also concluded that since I had actually proven I could finish a piece of writing, but knew deep down inside that I didn’t really have much talent, I’d try in earnest to quit trying to write. But I failed. The biggest thing I failed at in my 30s and 40s was my renewed effort to quit writing. I studied programming and information technology, got certifications from Microsoft, Comptia, and Cisco. It worked for awhile. Jumping from one e-commerce job to another left me little time to think about writing, but then the bottom fell out of the tech industry in March of 2000. By the time the tech economy got going again, I was too old, and too poorly trained to get back in. I tried to replace writing fiction with a more harmless creative pursuit, photography, but I was even worse at photography than I was at writing fiction. Smart phones made professional photojournalists obsolete anyway. When George W. Bush was President, I threw myself into the anti-war movement and the pro-impeachment movements. But the Democrats took back control of Congress. Nancy Pelosi declared impeachment to be “off the table,” and when Barack Obama was elected President, the anti-war movement exited the political scene, stage right.

By the time I hit 45, I realized I would never quit writing, since to quit writing meant that I would have to succeed at something other than writing, and that would never happen. For 20 years, the more I had tried to quit writing, the more I had kept coming back to it. It was the only thing in my life that I ever stuck with, impossible to fail at, since it was identical with failure. When failure is writing and writing failure, how can you fail at writing? What’s more, while I didn’t actually like to write, I needed it, needed to write the way a heroin addict needs his fix. The reasons are the same. The heroin addict and the failed writer both want one thing, to be alone, to forget reality, and live inside his imagination. I would give up literature for heroin, if I could, but heroin is too expensive.

In 2011, my father died and I lost my last full-time job, both within a few weeks of each other. I also lost the writer’s block I had for most of my life. Suddenly, I could speak. I wrote a full length novel. I wrote over 500,000 words of film reviews, autobiographical essays, and opinion pieces about politics and history. At the age of 25, I could barely write my own name. At the age of 50, I can write just about anything I want. If there’s a thought somewhere in my head, I will eventually find a way to put it into words. If there’s a film or a book I want to review, a political event I want to analyze, childhood demons I want to banish from my memory by speaking their names, or a story I want to tell, nothing will stop me from doing it. The only problem is that good, steady low-paying jobs, with predictable schedules, and paychecks that show up on time every two weeks are a thing of the past. I always laugh at Charles Bukowski whenever I read Post Office. These days, working at the post office is the kind of “good job” left-wing Democrats like Bernie Sanders are always promising to bring back. The post office? Henry Chinaski, check your privilege.

In 2015, you can no longer become a failed writer because you’ve failed at everything else. Writing takes time. It takes leisure. It takes the ability to hack together a life where you’ve got a few hours every day to sit down at your desk, or at some table at some coffee shop somewhere, and not be disturbed. My employment options at age 50 are far more limited than they were at age 23, not only because the job market is so much worse now, but because I’ve already demonstrated to the world that I’m not a good employee. My credit is bad. My resume is spotty. The Internet is full of my self-published rantings. They will never go away. My next job, if I’m even lucky enough to get one, will have to be one of those “we’ll hire anybody who can pass the drug test” kind of jobs. I’ll be a temp worker at an Amazon warehouse, or a low-level retail worker “on call” who works for 15 hours a week, and worries his head off waiting to work for another 50. Maybe I’ll go back up to Alaska and gut fish. I’ll be that strange dude in his 50s with no hair and a grizzled beard, the guy all the college kids laugh at one moment, then speculate how many years he did before his parole the next. I don’t know what my next job will be, but I’m fairly sure it will leave me little time to read, and to write. In my 20s, I became a failed writer because I couldn’t do anything else. In my 50s, if I want to stay a failed writer, I’ll have to fight for it.

But it really doesn’t matter because I finally understand. I’m not a writer at all. I’ve never been. I never will be. I am exactly what I wrote my first real short story about, a small-time embezzler and a petty thief, only this time I don’t want to steal a few hundred dollars from a cash-register at Starbucks. I want to steal something far more valuable, time, the time to write, the time to read, the time to watch interesting art house movies with subtitles, and ride my bike through the mountains of Northwest New Jersey, to debate politics on the Internet. I am small time embezzler and a petty thief, stealing ticks of the clock back from capitalism. I will lie, freeload, cheat, steal, mooch off the government. I will do anything to fight back against being pressed into a routine that snuffs out my voice for good. I will continue to speak, even if I’m the only one listening. Henry David Thoreau once said that you cannot kill time without injuring eternity. I will do my best to spend the next 25 years of my life without injuring eternity.

But I will probably fail.