Kenneth Goldsmith and Cookie Clicker

The internet favors short content. No one reads novels on the internet and in fact the process of reading a long form book on a computer feels so unnatural that despite the computer specifically being a thing made to display text, special file formats have been created specifically to display them so they don’t look like the internet and therefore people might read them (.epub, .mobi, etc. etc.) The coveted item is time, not content; the content shortens itself accordingly to give the illusion it’s saving time, though taking in information in the extreme short form is probably far more redundant and repetitious. But it has that feeling of speed. It has a marching rhythm. Online games like Cookie Clicker and Click the Button revolve literally around just clicking a meaningless icon as fast as humanly possible, and have garnered considerable followings. Cookie Clicker has its own wiki.

The audience member, in whatever context, who may well have been bullshitting their responses to a performance or novel or film or historical event anyhow, now no longer has to compromise themselves in the old fashion of reading/watching/listening to the thing itself. They can now outsource this to a guerrilla flash mob of their friends, neighbors, randos, fictional characters, living or dead celebrities, and whatever else can make a Twitter account. These opinion producers in turn will produce opinions on these opinions. The internet is the decentralized panopticon of meta-surfaces. A desire to do the responsible thing becomes attached to the possibility of positive attention, or any attention. Sometimes this desire for attention looks like Buzzfeed. Sometimes it looks like Gamergate. Sometimes it looks like a mass shooting. Sometimes it looks like a lot of boring articles about Kenneth Goldsmith. Attention is parceled out. There’s only so much to go around. The old shame that used to be attached to paying for it isn’t there anymore.

Thoreau’s man of quiet desperation is no longer quiet and that much more desperate for the silence having been broken to little effect. The artist of the present seems less like the artist of even the recent past because the actual thing they’re selling is no longer the art but their audience. Now you get the audience first, then maybe the bit of money turns up.

Andy Warhol was probably an idiot, and as an idiot could touch the zeitgeist and not get burned-if we are living in Warhol’s future, the great disappointment and anxiety is that the 15 minutes of fame we were promised might be cut short or never come at all. Kenneth Goldsmith is probably an idiot and professes to be at least idiot aspirant; as he said in an essay for The Awl: “I am a dumb writer, perhaps one of the dumbest that’s ever lived. Whenever I have an idea, I question myself whether it is sufficiently dumb.”

The question to be asked in the Kenneth Goldsmith controversy, after the endless stream of short and long essays ranging from the dictatorial New Republic headline “How We Should Think About Kenneth Goldsmith’s Poetic Remixes” to the more subdued but equally mad-libsian “Thoughts On/About the/What’s the Deal With the Kenneth Goldsmith Kerfuffle”, is “Why do I give a shit?”

The shit is given because Goldsmith is an empty vessel who can proclaim himself as such; the emptiness nags but he can’t be attacked for being empty because he already attacked himself. There may well be nothing there. Kenneth Goldsmith is Cookie Clicker with a hipster beard. There’s nothing actually there but people keep clicking things.

Goldsmith rearranged Michael Brown’s autopsy report to end it with a dick joke. This was tasteless and offensive, yes, but within the context of the whitewashed academic poetry conference he read his “poem” at, hosted at Brown University, total cost of attendance $59,428 a year, he was the conference’s own convoluted and insincere claims to relevance reflected back at itself. He didn’t call out their bullshit because he was probably being paid good money to be their bullshit. Perhaps he just did too good a job at being their bullshit. And now everyone decided that’s what they were going to give a shit about this week. And as the old collegiate joke goes: Bull Shit->More Shit->Pile it Higher and Deeper.

Who the hell follows academic poetry? What actual cultural influence does Goldsmith have beyond offering a glimmer of hope to failed poets that they too might someday make a living regardless of talent or proficiency? Goldsmith is not a poet’s poet, Goldsmith is a PR man who’s very good at what he does. He provides clicks. The currency is clicks. The currency is rigged.

Kenneth Goldsmith is a self-professed charlatan, but in earnest. He’s what Zizek is talking about when he discusses the cynicism of the people who don’t actually believe capitalism works but continue to perpetuate it. And he owns it confidently. And yes, it’s off-putting. But we’re all reifying this system by talking about any of this. This article is, of course, hypocritical. I want a piece of the attention pie as much as anybody. Why do you think I keep writing these things?

See, I can call myself out too! Now where’s my big controversy so we can change the name of this site to Writers With Lots of Money?

You actually want to get back at Brown University and avenge Michael Brown’s memory? Take out a bunch of student loans from them then run off to Asia until they can’t legally collect them from you. Join a police force and fuck up as much shit internally as you can before they fire you. To borrow from Doug Stanhope, take jury duty and when it ends up being some black kid up on a bullshit charges, acquit or deadlock the jury.

Goodbye Chantal Akerman (1950-2015)

Chantal Akerman, one of the most aesthetically fascinating and innovative filmmakers who ever lived, was reported dead today. This is a huge loss for the world cinematic community. Other websites and newspapers have already published numerous articles on Akerman’s life, broad overviews of her work, appreciations. I presume they will continue to do so throughout the day. Given how little known I thought she was, the ubiquity and volume of the memorials has been heartening.

Since the other bases are being covered more extensively and faster than I could possibly cover them, I’m going to limit this essay to exploring a single shot.

Dennis Grunes, the spiritual forefather of this website, claimed Akerman’s 1993 documentary D’Est was the 8th greatest film ever made. A nearly wordless series of shots of people waiting for things in places that are never specified, the faces or shadowy outlines of figures give what needs to be given in terms of context.

The shot I’d like to discuss, for those following along at home, takes place, at least in the copy of the film I have, between  31:05 and 35:45, right after this portrait:

This portrait goes on for a solid minute. The old woman’s head tilts slightly to the right. The television plays unclear hyperactive gray scale images as her head continues to very slowly tilt. The specters of the past and future are present but resist solidifying into anything like a point; the woman in the shot in some sense simply is-the sense of a haunting is brought out as just another thing in the room.

This shot is a master class in film portraiture, up there with the portrait shots in Tarkovsky’s Mirror, but it’s the shot after it I’d like to discuss-a long tracking shot taken, I presume, from a bus or a train.

The shot goes on for a while. There’s nothing clever in it; she wasn’t a filmmaker given over to cleverness. She didn’t need it. But for 4 1/2 minutes, with a remarkable smoothness that gives a paradoxical sense of stillness to a shot that technically never stops moving, she follows the surfaces of a town. Snow is falling and the camera, as it moves past it, makes it look almost three dimensional, haze and patient enchantment all at once.

When I first saw this I was mesmerized; I never walked through a snow storm or took public transit quite the same way ever again. I can’t say I learned any special intellectual point from it; I simply learned to see differently. Perhaps this is what film teaches us at its most sublime-to see. The world seems more dynamic for having been cast in genuine straightforward mystery. Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers’ feet, the effortless complexity of Akerman’s eye patiently dazzles as my own eye learns the steps and by the end dances in unison, changed. She teaches by example, her own eye dancing the intimate simplicity of a tango with the buildings and objects and people she passes.

The silhouette of a man behind the bare trees that line the sidewalk walks somewhere. People go about business we will never know. Signs blink and sometimes mirror each other. Grunes claimed the film was about the Jewish diaspora; others have claimed it’s about the uncertain future after the collapse of the two-state power structure after the Cold War and the uncertain future thereafter. I’m not sure the best way to approach this film is with the presumption it’s about any specific thing. There’s a context, but context takes one out of the simple jouissance, a jouissance that is not simple joy, horror, or anything. It doesn’t play hard to get; I hesitate to call it mysterious as that would imply it actually is headed toward a resolution. This is not the case, despite the tracking shot running right to left.

The shot ends then cuts to a crowd of people waiting.

What are they waiting for? On one level, yes, the bus. But on the level the image is engaging us…we don’t know. They don’t know. And if Akerman knew she had the good sense not to tell us.

The world looks different than it did. That’s enough.

Rest in peace, Chantal Akerman.

Twitter: The Id of the Worrrrrld of Tomorrooooow!

“I got summer hating on me ’cause I’m hotter than the sun/got spring hating on me ’cause I ain’t never sprung/winter hating on me ’cause I’m colder than y’all/and I would never, I would never, I would never fall/I’m being hated by the seasons/so fuck y’all , hating for no reason.”

 – “Mr. Carter” by Lil Wayne (featuring Jay-Z) off of Tha Carter III (2008)

I don’t Tweet. I’ve tried a couple of times, but even for an aspiring obsessive-compulsive self-trained as a child to hunt for every worthless item within the fantasy worlds of obtuse Japanese RPGs, trying to catch up on the witticisms of those I followed after a lapse of checking my account for even a couple of days repeatedly dissuaded me. What I truly enjoy is reading about Twitter. It’s the sort of thing that makes the would-be intellectual confident they’ve earned their professorial beard and pessimistic ennui. It is the distillation of first-world humanity’s collective id, our frustrated inner child, the hole we leave in the wall right after we stub our toe, the reason we want that pack of dogs Michael Vick abused to be retrained so, if just for a day, they can eat Adrian Peterson, and then be retrained back. It’s also why we know that won’t happen, or, at least if it does, one of the dogs will maul another one of the dogs or something before they get retrained back to being nice dogs. Can you Manchurian Candidate dogs like that? I’m not sure. I’ve always been a cat person.

I’ve recently gone through a long piece about Vanessa Place, a person (a “conceptual poet”) doing a thing (okay, I’ve had my fun), specifically, tweeting the entirety of Gone with the Wind piece-by-piece, and the controversy this has garnered. Posted alongside racist caricatures and depictions of blacks from throughout history, the project is an apparent effort to draw litigation from the estate of Margaret Mitchell, calling attention to Gone with the Wind‘s racism in the process. On the other side are the sorts who mistake ever recalling any racism in history, even for the purposes of seeing that said racism is known of and acknowledged, as itself a horribly racist thing to do, because who the hell ever learned from history?

I find Gone with the Wind tepid. It’s boring, it’s racist in the special kind of way that only a 1930s love note to the institution of slavery that still wanted to sell tickets to well-to-do bourgeois in the North could have been, and it centers around film history’s coldest, most-inaccessible, most-put-out-about-not-being-an-ingenue villain, Scarlett O’Hara. While this reading may not be common, what is less common is the identification of the book and movie as being short only one Shirley Temple and one Bill Robinson of being “period pieces” of the “super-duper racist” period. Place’s Twitter account is plainly a series of excerpts deliberately paired with provocative and racist imagery to communicate that Gone with the Wind is racist. But unlike Birth of a Nation, the cinematic and technological achievements of its film adaptation were never ultimately looked at in the pall of the racist shadow cast by the film’s content. This in no small part due to Hollywood resting their heads comfortably up their own asses for the better part of a century, satisfied to coast by as “progressive” for having once given an Oscar to a black chick who played–if you’ve never seen Gone with the Wind, I shit you not–a slave called “Mammy.” And then they took 24 years to give an acting award to another black person. And after that, they took 19 more fucking years to do it again!

“Did you hear it? He talked about how people in Hollywood are ahead of the curve on social matters. He even took credit for the civil rights movement!”

As the internet finishes its assimilation of the first world and increasingly spreads through to the second and third worlds, Twitter may become not only the first world’s id, but humanity’s id. If Twitter as a social medium did serve some function during the Arab Spring, then the resultant political environments should only reinforce this notion of the role of Twitter as humanity’s id: your id can win a war for you, but it can not rule your country for you.

This brings us back around to Vanessa Place: Is she just a distraction? She’s not a distraction, mind you, but her role as a marginal artist doing an ongoing art project that’s marginally clever makes the controversy surrounding it ripe for amplification.

Did anything, for example, really change when Google began indexing blogs along with the “news?” Rather than being directed to specific articles at the sites of newspapers and cable news outlets, you are directed through an endless stream of backdoors to approved thoughts and information disseminated by those same major news outlets. I feel like I never fucking leave the Washington Post’s stupid blog section, and I don’t even go there without being linked first. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, every mass media outlet that was initially poised to look like so much discarded lettuce on the meat patty of the Internet has morphed into much of the patty’s bone meal substance and the nutrition-less bun containing it.

The layman who hoped to one day elevate to the sort that could gripe for money about their pet peeves by first elevating themselves into “bloggers” have become the minor leagues from which the mass media calls up its newest recruits to be drafted into the ranks of bloggers the mainstream outlets have begun to employ, working from home with no editors, no oversight except toward the avoidance of ruffled feathers, and no apparent spell-check software. Whereas the “blogosphere” was supposed to be the dream of an independent and democratic platform for expression and thought, it has become the night club from which the major label poaches the rock band willing to sell out in order to help marginalize the ones not willing to sell out, and they do so now at an ever-increasing clip so as to drown out any chorus of opposition otherwise.

Where the mainstream media spins the stories of government, these bloggers in their employ spin for them the stories of society, telling you how you should be thinking about how someone else acted, or how someone else thought, but most importantly, never telling you how you could act, never telling you what you might be able to do to take the power into your own hands. Where they talk about or live-tweet protests, even ones they cover in person, they throw up the old walls of casting those concerned as the societal “other” within whatever context the “other” is represented, to ensure you do not feel solidarity with anyone working toward having a potential effect on their surrounding environment. By seizing control of the blogosphere (gesundheit!), not through brute force but through establishment of the idea of legitimate blogs as opposed to independent blogs, they can direct the social conversation in addition to the civic conversation, choosing writers who they find inoffensive or whose views tow some narrative they benefit from popularizing to whatever degree they intend to.

It is in this way that Twitter is the id of the internet, but cannot, at least in the present world in which information and social attitudes filter from the mainstream media-down, aspire to be an outlet for the superego. On Twitter, the desires of the super-ego are argued endlessly via the id, necessitated by the false scarcity of space in which to deliver a thought that will largely be seen isolated from like ones and without context. Ultimately, this is what the whole Vanessa Place argument is about: suppression of the ego, her artistic criticism of Gone with the Wind and its lauded role in our society, by the superego, demanding that challenges to the offensive not offend by showing you what the offensive is, via the medium of the id, the knee-jerk reactions and intellectual shock and awe. The id is struggling to take control of the ego and superego, and as in life, it is failing.

It is a false debate at hand. It is a conversation doomed to go nowhere, purveyed by bloggers trawling Twitter for non-information to distract from foreign bombings of hospitals and domestic police murders of blacks, of the inherent criminality of the current structure of the financial system and the mass spying into all of our personal lives. They profit as entities from information control, not from information dissemination. The conversation over Vanessa Place’s Twitter account is but one of thousands cherry-picked by bloggers themselves cherry-picked for their easy offense, an army of writers meant to shape the modern discourse, not serve it. And it is exactly what Time Warner, and News Corporation, and Comcast, and Jeff Bezos, and Tribune Publishing, and all the other mass media companies with everything to lose from truly democratic dissemination of information, want.

The Meat Peddlers

We hadn’t slept. Something unspoken sat at a third place setting, chewing loudly. I walked back to the table. Kat grabbed the coffee from my hand.

“I’m a writer…and you…you might be a hipster. We’ll never make it in this place. We must elope-perhaps some Eastern Bloc country. We must resign ourselves to humble lives peddling meat on the sidewalks.”

I wasn’t sure whether “elope” was a slip or not. Kat treated it as such and the subject was never raised again.

The townspeople had taken to tarring and feathering suspected hipsters in the public square. This supplemented their usual regular Friday night mass burning of items elected officials deemed as having the hipster taint. A light jazz ensemble from a nearby college played in the gazebo. Local scout troupes had their meetings. It was very popular. The board was happy with the event turnout.

My coffee got cold. I had forgotten to drink it. I took one big gulp. “But what will I do with my three children?” Kat asked.

“The children can sell meat too. We can all be a happy meat selling family.

“It’s just too dangerous for us here. And there is, of course…the other issue.”

“Yes. My children are half-hipster.”

“Yes. They’ll come for them soon too.”

It had been 20 years since the event. A large parade enveloped the town. Paper mache floats crawled down the main drag, past the McDonald’s and the elementary school, past the DMV and the gas station. Large men waved mechanically from the sides of fire trucks. Police detailed the perimeter. This was the time to escape. But first there were things I needed to take care of. I needed to give over my half of the record store to my business partner.

I went in, unnoticed. I’d ironed my clothes. It was enough to throw the pursuers off my trail. I looked at the employees, filing vinyl in their flannels, wiping their big glasses. How much did they know of what was coming? They seemed blissfully unaware. So long as they had jobs, they were safe. For now. But the political climate was worsening.

I could’ve saved them. I could’ve saved more of them. I looked at the items in the store. The first pressing Canterbury prog LPs could’ve paid for several overseas passages. I could’ve saved them. Weeks ago. But there wasn’t time now. In the new world there would be time for such regrets. But there was no more time. Not now.

I composed the note to my business partner Peter, giving him my half of the store, a terse goodbye placed in the post script. We’d been close, but no one could know where I was going.

On the boat trip over we lost one of the children, little Morrissey, to scurvy. Kat was heartbroken.

And so we settled in a small country in what was the Eastern Bloc. It’s pretty obscure. You’ve probably never heard of it. We peddled our steamed meats in the public square, until a meat shortage forced us to peddle miniature meat pies with little actual meat.

The death of little Morrissey soured Kat’s disposition. I often would wake up in the middle of the night to hear her mumbling his name through nightmares, her hands tousling his absent pompadour. The other two children did what they could to cheer her. They tried, they really did. But their efforts were met with absent looks and pats on the back.

After a couple years, she gave up sleeping, or if she did sleep I wasn’t around to see it. She just cooked the little meat pies angrily throughout the night. When supplies ran out she’d put pots of water on the stove to watch it boil and hear it bubble. The other children came to accept this as normal. I took to wearing ear plugs to bed.

My advances were met similarly. We’d never clarified the state of our relationship to each other before our sudden voyage. It was my own fault. I assumed the decisive moment, the flurry of excitement and danger in our oceanic crossing would provide a spark. But it didn’t. Circumstances had brought us here, but no farther. I found myself friend-zoned by the enigmatic machinations of history, much like the dream of Soviet communism.

I hadn’t known little Morrissey well, though the other kids, Mogwai and lil Souxsie, came to accept my care taking with less reluctance over time. Someone had to watch over them and their mother.

The time came when meat prices rose beyond where even the pies were feasible. Kat’s furious baking had ceased. She still never slept, but now mostly just sat staring out the window of our little apartment saying little. The children enrolled in the local school, a one room hovel, while I sold black market cigarettes on the street corners. It continued like this for some time.

Years after, after the children had grown and gone away, news from the old country finally made it to ours. The feared hipster purge had never happened. Relations had eased considerably. The population had just elected their first hipster president. She was the same age little Morrissey would’ve been.

Kat grabbed my throat in the middle of the night, halfheartedly trying to kill me. I removed her hands my throat gently. She started crying.

“Why won’t you just let me kill you?


“I mean…it was all for nothing wasn’t it, wasn’t it? All of this. For nothing.”

“But all in all, we were happy, right? It was a hard life. Much meat went rotten. We stretched out meager ends. But it was worth it. We were humble. But happy.”

“I’ve lived your vulgarized dream of meat peddling too long. I was never happy, not for a second. I didn’t choose to be born a hipster. Did you ever know what I really wanted?”


“I wanted a mid-range sports utility vehicle. I wanted a 401K. I wanted central air. I wanted to die in Florida. I wanted to have stupid arguments about where to eat. I wanted to ease out of active living into a canasta league. I wanted…we made a stupid bet on nothing. We abandoned our home. I lost my child. All so you could slum it peddling stupid meat products living out your Cold War fantasies.”

“But, all the public burnings…”

“You were just a coward. A real man would’ve stayed and fought. And apparently a lot of men did. I just…I look at you and feel visceral disgust. I see small stupid ambitions. And I have my own small stupid ambitions. And I could’ve gotten mine. But I’ve lived yours, and now we’re old, and there’s no time left. And it was all a waste. You could’ve sold meat out of a wagon back there. I never needed to be involved. You’re like one of those raccoons happy to steal others’ garbage, the little scraps of the spent bits of their lives under the protective cover of night. And all this time I’ve had no clue what to do. I should’ve killed you years ago. I should’ve gone back.”

“But how was I supposed to know?”

“I should’ve…”

She collapsed. I lifted her onto the bed. Her pulse was steady. I let her sleep for a while.

Don’t Molest Jake

We all decided, before there was any clear threat as such, that we’d rather Jake didn’t get molested. A petition was circulated under the title “We’d Rather Jake Wasn’t Molested” and it garnered several dozen signatures before it was taken to City Hall. The City Council included a statement regarding it attached to a bond issue. “After much thought and consideration, we have come to the unanimous decision that we’d rather not see Jake get molested” and it, along with the provisions for funds for bridge repairs, passed with a clear majority in the later county-wide vote. This was unusual because it was the first time the City Council had voted against Joe Bruno, who made a controversial public statement he had no position on the issue of Jake being molested.

We organized around the issue. When we weren’t working or at school we made signs with sharpie markers with rousing slogans like “Don’t Molest Jake” and “Dear Molesters, Jake is Gross, You Can Do Better” and held them in front of the Post Office. The weather was good that month and even after the unseen threat seemed to have passed we all still met there to hold signs and compare what we’d packed in our bag lunches.

Counter-protests emerged from the culture studies department of the nearby liberal arts college, who passed out small leaflets saying the main protest was being “molestation-normative” and that more effort should have been taken to reach out to Jake and see how he felt about being molested.

R. Kelly, when he was approached on the subject, said, suspiciously not in immediate agreement with the larger public sentiment that Jake ought not be molested, “Who the fuck is Jake??”

The local paper finally was able to do an exclusive interview with Jake. The article ran with a dramatic black and white cropped portrait of his face and the pull-quote “Yeah…I mean…yeah…I guess…I’d…it doesn’t sound fun. I don’t want to get molested.” The photograph was later circulated with the quote written over it on Facebook.

Some folks still remember fondly their days campaigning. “It gave us a cohesion. We haven’t felt that sense of community ever since. Who knows, maybe it would’ve been for the better good if Jake had gotten molested.”

Joe Bruno, to this day, has not commented on whether or not he approves in the abstract Jake’s speculative molestation. Although his later corruption scandals may have given him a false sense of security that he’d never have to confront the issue, there is still a public demand. We’re all confident someday the truth will come out.

Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)

Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine takes place during what Canadians often call the Grande Noirceur, the popular term for the government of Quebec’s far-right-wing Premier Maurice Duplessis. From 1944 to his death in 1959, Duplessis broke strikes, supported the control of the Catholic Church over education, persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses, and introduced Bill 19, a Canadian version of the Taft Hartly Act, a repressive law that would have made it almost impossible to organize labor unions. His goal, to sell out French-speaking Canadians as a cheap labor force to American multi-national corporations, eventually produced the opposite, the “Quiet Revolution,” a left-wing backlash that led to secularism, Quebec separatism, and the rise of the liberal politician Pierre Trudeau.

The catalyst for the “Quiet Revolution” was the Asbestos Strike of 1949, which took place in and around Black Lake and Thetford Mines, the setting for Mon Oncle Antoine, often considered the best Canadian film ever made. Mon Oncle Antoine, like the Asbestos strike, also takes place in 1949, “a time not very long ago,” but, unlike John Sayles’ Matewan, Jutra’s film does not show gun fights between company goons and union organizers. It doesn’t even dramatize the Asbestos Strike itself. Mon Oncle Antoine is a portrait of the “calm before the storm,” a “coming of age story” about a 15 year-old-boy growing up in a repressive, Catholic, right-wing society he doesn’t entirely understand. Mon Oncle Antoine is such a quiet, low-key movie that, except for a sneering Anglo Canadian mine-owner we never hear speak, it doesn’t have any villains. Rather, it focuses on the victims of the Grande Noirceur, the petty bourgeoisie who lead lives of quiet desperation, the proletarians who want to rebel, but who have no idea how to rebel.

Just a note: Mon Oncle Antoine is on YouTube in full (with English subtitles). Since it seems to be in the public domain in Canada, it probably won’t be taken down. But you never know.

Mon Oncle Antoine opens with Jos Pouline, a middle-aged asbestos worker, driving a pickup truck along one of the company roads owned by his employer. After the truck breaks down, he gets out, crawls underneath, and attempts to make repairs. A few minutes later, another car pulls up alongside Pouline. A man gets out, a company foreman, but instead of helping Pouline get the truck back in working order, he starts yelling, in English, a language Pouline doesn’t even understand. In one deft stroke, Jutra has dramatized the dirty little secret of Maurice Duplessis’ Quebec. Large multi-national corporations conduct their business in English, hire only English speaking managers, and keep the native Québécois confined to menial, low-status jobs they hate. French speaking Canadians are second-class citizens in their own country. Pouline, a married man with four children, two teenagers and two little boys, decides he can’t take it anymore. He quits the mines, picks up his axe, and heads out to the woods to earn money as a day laborer in the lumber business. Pouline is a man we see all too little of in American cinema, and all too much of in real life, the worker who has the brains to know he’s being screwed, wants to rebel, but just doesn’t know how to rebel, so he goes for the easy fix. He quits his job in anger.

The action then shifts to the film’s main protagonist. It’s Christmas Eve, a big event in a Catholic town like Black Lake. Benoit, a 15-year-old orphan who lives with his uncle, the Antoine of the title, and his aunt Cecile. Unlike Jos Pouine, Cecile are Antoine are solidly petty-bourgeois. They own the town’s “General Store,” profitable enough for them to employ, not only to Benoit, but Carmen, a pretty young assistant, and Fernand, a store clerk played by Claude Jutra himself. In addition to owning the General Store, Antoine also serves as the local undertaker, a lucrative business in a mining town where so many people die of lung diseases. In spite of his being an orphan, Benoit’s childhood is not immediately revealed to be an unhappy one. He assists at a funeral, quietly observing his his uncle and Fernand comment about the poverty of the deceased’s family. They could only afford to pay for two masses, and had to use a rented set of rosary beads, which Fernand clumsily tears out of the dead man’s hands before he and Antoine close the lid of the coffin. We realize later in the film that when Benoit sneaks a drink of the sacramental wine, then observes the priest doing the same thing, Jutra has subtly introduced the problem of alcoholism, a disease that affects the town in general, and Uncle Antoine in particular. At the moment it happens, however, all we really notice is a charming picture of a boy having his first drink.

If Mon Oncle Antoine is a damning indictment of conservatism, then it’s partly because it’s so low-key. It doesn’t club us over the head. It does tell us that we must be secular. We must be liberal. We must support Quebec nationalism. Rather, it draws us in, subtly, makes us feel nostalgic for the small-town, rural, Canadian past, then pulls the rug out from under us, and shows us the spiritual sickness that was at the heart of the Grande Noirceur. Benoit and Fernand, for example, flirt with Carmen, the pretty young shop assistant. Fernand swats her on the ass and calls her a “servant who thinks she’s a princess.” Benoit playfully chases her around the General Store’s small attic, warehouse, putting his hand on her breast when they both trip and fall. It all seems harmless, until we notice the unused coffins, also in the warehouse. Death and sex are inextricably intertwined. Getting married, and raising a family, also means bringing up more children who, in lieu of any real social mobility, will go down into the asbestos mines. Carmen doesn’t dislike Benoit. In fact, she seems attracted to him, nodding in approval after he and a friend throw snowballs at the English speaking mine owner, a hilarious scene which shows why every young man who’s ever joined a protest joins a protest. When Carmen’s father comes into the store to take her paycheck for himself, however, which he’s legally within his rights to do since she’s under-age and he’s her legal guardian, we see the repressive patriarchy that will eventually doom the poor young girl to the same kind of life faced by Madame Pouline, Jos Pouline’s wife.

The climax of Mon Oncle Antoine comes when Madame Pouline’s eldest child, a boy about the same age age as Benoit, dies of an unspecified illness. 15-year-olds rarely die of natural causes, and the young man’s death seems so abstract, and so unlikely, that it effectively stands in for all the early deaths caused by the poor working conditions in the asbestos mines. The call that Madame Pouline makes to Fernand is heartbreaking. Her husband has abandoned her and her four children. Her son has died on Christmas Eve, but she tries to remain stoic. Will he send Antoine to come out to her house with a coffin to pick up the body? It’s a long journey, several hours by sled through the brutal cold of the Canadian Winter and a developing blizzard. But what else can Antoine do? Benoit offers, even begs, his uncle to let him come along in place of Fernand. For Benoit, who has little or no consciousness of death, it’s more of an adventure than a job, a chance to act the role of a grown up. Cecile talks her husband into letting the boy go. Her motive will be revealed later in the film. Antoine grabs a large bottle of whiskey. He puts it into his coat, and the two “men” had out into the driving snow. Several hours later, they make it to the Pouline home, both sightly buzzed from the alcohol, everybody, Antoine, Benoit, Madame Pouline, and the three surviving children trying to maintain a brave face.

Antoine has brought candy for the children. Madame Pouline serves them dinner. But Benoit can’t eat. The horror of seeing his uncle stuff his face with pork, then drink shot after shot of whiskey, while Madame Pouline, unsuccessfully, tries to maintain her stoic demeanor, is too much for an innocent 15-year-old boy. It’s also too much for the viewer. I found it about as emotionally wrenching a 10 minutes I’ve ever seen in any film. How exactly do you act in front of a woman who has just lost her 15-year old son on Christmas Eve? Jutra then tilts the camera, which, up until this point had been placed at a fairly convention angle. Suddenly we see Antoine, the older, conservative generation that consistently voted for Maurice Duplessis year after year, from the point of view of Benoit, the young, liberal generation that would eventually usher in the “Quiet Revolution.” Antoine isn’t a bad guy. Earlier in the film, he actually stood up for Carmen against her exploitative father. But he is a gross, simple-minded, unimaginative, middle-aged alcoholic living a life of quiet desperation. The shift in perspective is startling. Up until then, we had never thought to question Antoine’s patriarchal authority, or his urge to take a little drink now and then. Now we see how completely Jutra had brought us into the mindset of the Grande Noirceur, just how much conservatism, and the church hierarchy, had blinded French Canadians to their own oppressed condition. The veil has been lifted from Benoit’s eyes, and from our own, so much so that when they set out for home through the blizzard, and Antoine keeps drinking, cradling the bottle of whiskey in his arms like a baby as he keeps falling asleep at the reins, we know that disaster waits for them on the road ahead.

The disaster, when it finally comes, is so low-key and seemingly insignificant, yet so devastating, that we realize just how much Mon Oncle Antoine deserves its reputation as the greatest Canadian film ever made.

Sátántangó (1994)

Sátántangó is the kind of film that if you see with a date from OKCupid she either starts a hashtag calling for your cancellation, or both of you get married the next day. Running for over 7 hours, featuring cat torture and child suicide, full of “takes” that last over 10 minutes, it’s not the kind of movie that’s coming to your local suburban multiplex any time soon. It’s also widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.

If Susan Sontag described Sátántangó as “devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours,” a film that “she would be “glad to see it every year for the rest of her life,” it’s no accident that Sontag also published a famous book about photography. Sátántangó is the mirror image of Chris Marker’s short “photographic novel” La Jetée. In La Jetée, still photographs become cinema. In Sátántangó, Hungarian director Bela Tarr uses a series of “takes” that run up to 11 minutes, which would have been even longer if Tarr had been working in the digital age. You can only load 11 minutes worth of film in a 35mm movie camera. The pace of Sátántangó is so slow, Tarr holds the focus for so long on each minimalist set up, that 24 frames per second effectively become 1 frame every 11 minutes. Cinema has not only become still photography. It has become the equivalent of getting dragged into the International Center of Photography at gunpoint, and made to stare at each photograph longer that you would have ever thought possible.

The plot of Sátántangó, as simple as it is, can also be misleading. Is Tarr’s 1994 film, which is a faithful adaptation of László Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel, a meditation on the human condition under communism? Or is it a satirical take on what happens to people, raised in a totalitarian society, who unsuccessfully try to make the transition to democracy? How do the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism in Hungary, both in 1989, reflect on the basic outlines of Sátántangó plot, which, as far as I know, don’t change from the novel to the movie.

Sátántangó takes place on a dilapidated, mostly abandoned, no longer working collective farm in the wasteland of an unspecified place in Hungary. I’m not familiar with the history of collective farming in Hungary, but I would guess that Krasznahorkai’s and Tarr’s collective had originally been founded by the Hungarian Communist Party as a way to give jobs to otherwise unemployable people reclaiming land that could not otherwise be farmed. When the film opens, the only people still living there are the dregs of the dregs of society. Futaki, Mrs. Schmidt, her husband, Kráner and Mrs. Kráner, a feeble-minded little girl named Estike, her prostitute mother, and her brother Sanyi are all waiting for a payout due to them out of the liquidation of the collective. There are three things preventing them all from leaving. The money for the payout, which some of them are plotting to steal so they can have it all for themselves, simply isn’t enough for any of them to start a new life. The autumn rains have started, making travel almost impossible on the poorly maintained roads. Most of all, however, they are trapped by their own passivity. An alcoholic doctor, a sick, morbidly obese man who only leaves his house when he runs out of fruit brandy, an educated, cultured man who nevertheless chooses to spend his time watching his neighbors from his window through a pair of binoculars, reflects the impotent, dying surveillance state of Communist Hungary.

The surveillance state of Communist Hungary, however, doesn’t intend to go down as passively as the residents of Tarr’s collective farm. While Futaki, Schmidt, and the residents of the collective plot against one another, Irimiás and Petrina, two scam artists and petty criminals, are meeting with their parole officer, a secret police captain with a menacing Prussian-style dueling scar on his chin and an intellectual’s penchant for quoting Greek philosophy. He offers them a deal. If the two men agree to spy on the collective farm, where both of them used to live, he won’t throw them back in prison. They agree, but Irimiás, played by the handsome, charismatic Mihály Víg, who also wrote the film’s musical score, has his own agenda. He plans to scam the members of the collective farm out of their severance pay, trick them to move together onto a new collective farm, then blow them all to kingdom come with a bomb.

After the feeble-minded little Estike commits suicide, kills herself with the same rat-poison she used to murder her pet cat, a striking image of the seed corn of a dying civilization consuming itself, Irimiás sees his opportunity. Having bribed Estike’s brother Sanyi years before to spread the rumor that he was dead, instead of in prison, he appears to the villagers at Estike’s funeral like a vision from the past, an avenging angel sent by God to punish them for the neglect of their children. Estike had been driven to despair, not only by Sanyi’s having cheated her out of her small allowance, but by her mother’s indifference to her existence, having spent the night drinking and dancing at the local bar along with Futaki, the Schmidts, the Kráners, and the rest of the miserable little village. The dance, a hilarious, 10-minute long “tango,” but which looks more like “the gargoyle hop,” and which the little girl observes through the window of the bar on a rainy night, is the Sátántangó of the film’s title, the gleefully comic expression of their passivity, and moral depravity. Irimiás, who’s both a communist tyrant and a capitalist false prophet,the bridge between 1985 and 1994, guilt-trips the villagers over Estike’s death, and talks them out of their money. He leads them on a wild-goose-chase in search of a better world he knows doesn’t exist, scatters them across the country, the writes a scathing report back to the secret police mocking the people he just defrauded.

That Irimiás works as both a communist and a capitalist oppressor, as a Eastern European secret police snitch, and as a slick, smooth-talking spokesman for a Ponzi scheme, points to something larger than politics. Sátántangó’s glacial pace, its slow, detailed examination of a small community of Hungarian peasants, makes it clear that no political system can reach people whose character has been formed by centuries of oppression. As the obese doctor, the only man who did not chose to leave with Irimiás painfully walks about the village, we hear bells. But how? The voice over narration has already told us that the only bell tower anywhere near the collective farm was not only 8 kilometers away. It had been destroyed during the Second World War. The mystery is resolved when the doctor meets a mysterious, ghostly figure, standing in the ruins of church, ringing a hand-held bell, and saying over and over again “the Turks are coming. The Turks are coming. “ The bell wringer is a ghost. All through the movie, the bells we’ve been hearing have been an echo, coming down through centuries from the Middle-Ages. We are back in the 15th Century, when there was no communism, and there was no capitalism, but there were still gullible, ignorant peasants like the Schmidts and the Kráners, and scam artists, tricksters, tyrants and frauds like Irimiás.

Sátántangó is certainly not for everybody, but if you have an extra 7 hours you’re not using, it’s worth checking out.

The Worst of the Worst of the Stuff From the Bad Thing

We know that what had happened to her was too horrible to be explained in words. She had gone through the worst of the worst of the stuff from the bad thing. We could never know just what it was like to go through the worst of the worst of the stuff from the bad thing because we personally had never gone through the worst of the worst of the stuff from the bad thing. Some of us had been through the worst. Some of us had experienced the bad thing. Some of us experienced only certain stuff from the bad thing. But it was hard to talk to her. Because she had been through the worst of the worst of the stuff from the bad thing.

We read a lot of news reports about the bad thing, and we knew some of the stuff that happened in the bad thing, but because we didn’t know the bad thing, we couldn’t say whether we’d been through the worst of the worst of the stuff. The worst of the worst stuff from the bad thing.

When someone said “It wasn’t really that bad” you could sure they had been through at least some of the stuff from the bad thing and possibly the worst, if not necessarily the worst of the worst. They were allowed entrance into the exclusive club. The club for the people who’d went through the bad thing.

Hierarchy in the club was based on how much stuff from the bad thing the member had or had gone through, and whether their experience could be considered the worst of the worst depending on the given stuff they went through from the bad thing.

Some members had gone through the best of the worst or intermediate shades of the worst and they had not gone through the worst of the worst though some had gone through the stuff and some of the stuff was the best of the worst while some of the stuff was intermediate shades of the worst, but only a select few things in the stuff could be the worst of the worst. Some went through the stuff and while they would say the stuff was from the bad thing, they wouldn’t say that it was the worst or the worst of the worst of the stuff from the bad thing.

The worst of the worst was sometimes considered better than the the best of the worst depending on the presence and concentration of the stuff but just as often it was considered to be in fact worse and this was designated when it was called the worst of the worst of the the stuff from the bad thing by the people who’d been through some combination of the stuff and the worst and the bad thing.

They said when the bad thing happened, you’d just know. You’d know because of how it was the worst and had the stuff, and because it had the worst and the stuff it had to be the bad thing, or else it wouldn’t be the worst and have the stuff.If it didn’t have the stuff or wasn’t the worst or had stuff that was from some other source than the bad thing, you would know you hadn’t experienced the worst of the worst of the stuff from the bad thing, the bad thing, stuff from the bad thing, or anything that might be considered the worst from either the bad thing or the stuff from the bad thing.

It was eminently sensible.

The bad thing was the worst but stuff from the bad thing was divided into categories of bad stuff and worse stuff and worst stuff to distinguish what stuff was the bad stuff and what stuff was worse and what stuff was the worst stuff and what stuff wasn’t stuff from the worst of the worst of the bad thing.

The bad thing was known for the stuff that came from it-bad stuff-and how the some of the stuff was from the bad thing and some of the stuff was the worst of the worst of the stuff from the bad thing. People came to study the bad thing but left because they thought it was the worst, but they hadn’t experienced the stuff. The people who experienced the stuff knew the worst from the worst of the bad thing’s stuff; the stuff that constituted what was worse than other stuff in order to distinguish what was truly the worst of the worst of the bad stuff that was from the bad thing; the bad thing’s stuff to put it succinctly.

My stuff was far from being the worst of the worst stuff but that’s because I had not grown up in the bad thing and my stuff couldn’t capture the worst of the worst that was in the stuff from the bad thing. Some people who’d been through worse stuff from the bad thing, some who’d been through the worst stuff, those who were from the bad thing and got the attendant stuff.

Tourists visited the bad thing and tour guides talked about the worst of the worst stuff that had come from it, the bad thing. Baseball caps were sold saying “Stuff From the Bad Thing” and in the gift shop the extra small toddler sizes were especially popular stuff people bought on their vacations to the bad thing. They would take the stuff from the bad place. It was stuff from the bad place. It said “Stuff from the Bad Thing” but it was far from the worst of the worst of the stuff from the bad thing.

The woman who’d actually touched the worst of the worst of the stuff from the bad thing was displayed in a tent that had a large sign outside advertising it that said “Come see the woman who went through the worst of the worst of the bad thing!” People came to see this woman, this woman who had been through the worst of the worst of the bad thing. They would file out after the show and say “Wow, I’ve seen some bad stuff from the bad thing but that was the worst of the worst.”