Monthly Archives: September 2016

Has Humanity Jumped the Shark?



The Earth was once considered to be the center of the universe. We now know it isn’t the center of anything besides, perhaps, the activity of our species. And who knows how long that will last.

The world we live in is increasingly drifting from what was once considered “the real”; man’s powers over his/her surroundings, or at least their appearance, have never been stronger. I’m a fairly poor individual and yet I still have, with a little elbow grease, access to high fidelity copies of nearly any sound or video recording ever commercially released and millions of others besides. For anyone who isn’t in my immediate physical environment, by clicking a couple buttons, I can effectively erase their existence. I don’t work in an office but for those who do, while there’s the physical office, most aspects of their actual work space, the computer, can be customized to their whims. Part of what the employer is actually buying for the price of your wages is your option to ignore their communications on your mobile device.

The robot/android, which was so often a metaphor for the fear of a slave or servant uprising in fiction (David Harvey discusses this in his chapter on Blade Runner in The Condition of Postmodernity), while still a slave or servant, is rapidly losing its metaphorical distance. There will soon be sex dolls that can convincingly imitate both men and women. The reason your Uber and Lyft rides are currently so cheap is because both companies are betting their current labor forces are simply a necessary inconvenience until they can roll out fleets of self-driving cars that only require the wages of their upkeep and maintenance. Amazon is already utilizing almost front-to-back automation to offer free two day shipping with their Prime service and offering cheap voice recognition technology for the home that dwarfs what was possible in the most advanced and exclusive settings only ten years ago. From a Guardian article on the Amazon “smart” speaker Alexa:

One of the top Echo reviews on Amazon calls the machine “the perfect spouse” and features a picture of the reviewer, who identifies as E M. Foner, in bed with the device.

“If I knew relationships were this easy, I would have married thirty years ago, but now that I have Alexa, there’s no need,” Foner writes. “This morning, I asked my love to order me a replacement water filter for the faucet.”

There are already firms developing automated therapist simulations for Alexa. The mother and the whore. And the thermostat. And the coffee maker…who will fight with their partner over who gets to hold the remote control when the partner is the remote control?…

When there’s an even partially developed market for machine intelligence/companionship (I don’t think we’ve hit the tipping point yet), if the mechanisms of capitalism as we experience it now are still in place, there will be massive advertising campaigns touting the danger, disease, and disappointment ridden nature of human relationships. Feminist Marxists have analyzed history through the lens “The dominant ideology of the time period exists to regulate the means of (re)production”; the cultural archetype of the witch was a means to corral sexual energy away from older woman and toward the ones who could become pregnant with new agricultural workers, etc. etc.

When the most profitable future for capital is to create a platform based model for the release of sexual energies (imagine a platform style service like Uber but with self-driving sex-bots), who is the competing market? Humans in the broadest sense.

And when I say the broadest sense, I mean exactly that. The current fear is that artificial intelligence/virtual reality can convincingly replicate the current realities, economic and sexual. But for a populace raised on platformed sex-bots as a given, there’s little reason to believe traditional “human” experiences as an aesthetic style will take up much more market share in the long run than resurgent nostalgia items like vinyl records.

How would people be sold on giving up on people? The skeletal outline of this type of social feedback loop that would act as a commercial anti-humanism already exists in the dramatically dulling repetition of local news programs which, somewhere along the line, realized that if they told their viewers every night that everyone who lives near them is a secret murderer or rapist it would convince them to stay inside watching more local news.

If history remembers furry culture at all, which I think it will if not for the reasons we’d want, it will be as the moment when the dynamics of the para-social interaction managed to transcend their human delivery agents. When Robert Crumb found himself sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny in a dress he was glimpsing (living?) the future. What is the purpose of celebrity but to create the comforting one-directional familiarity with people we don’t know who represent abstract qualities? The Trump phenomena shows the extent to which branding and soft behaviorism work. When the population has been trained (disciplined?) to believe the reality of their entertainment over the peripheral discomfort felt in their own senses from the time they were born, the Trump phenomena is almost inevitable. And by that token, the idea that humanity could be talked out of privileging itself only seems ridiculous now because we haven’t reached that stage yet.

Maybe it’s already happened. I remember most vividly a Marie Callender microwave pie commercial that played before a movie I saw two or three years ago. It showed the typically steamy food porn-y images of the pie coming out of an oven and taunted us in the multiplex:

“Your grandmother never made sure each pie was perfectly warm throughout…”

“Your grandmother never made sure to crimp the crust exactly that way you liked it…”

On one level, they want me to buy a microwaveable meat pie. On another level, they recognize that their competition in the marketplace is whatever fond memories or buried resentments I might have regarding my grandmother. Marie Callender wanted to sell me a pie, but they also wanted to replace my grandmother.

Isn’t most American advertising centered around positioning the product as the key to the lost sense of belonging, family, community, or home?

And similarly, if the para-social relationship can be exploited to the extent it could take over the most powerful office in the world through a human avatar like Donald Trump, who’s to say that future public simulacra of leadership need a human avatar at all? In the Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment”, writer/show-runner Charlie Brooker shows an obnoxious animated bear named Waldo (based loosely on Boris Johnson) taking England by storm and eventually running a successful campaign for prime minister. Brooker has frequently joked that he hates writing new episodes of the show because they all come true and recently said that he thinks Trump will become president of the United States because Trump basically is Waldo.

However, this assessment seems not literal enough. If someone can only half-jokingly romance an Amazon smart speaker, who’s to say a cartoon character undergirded by a machine learning algorithm couldn’t eventually lead the country? Perhaps it could be named Giant Meteor or Deez Nuts

Perhaps more linear than the progressive accumulation and concentration of capital in this society has been the transformation from science fiction as metaphor into science fiction as the actual heir apparent to social realism.

The machines still have the advantage of novelty. When a hitch-hiking robot was beheaded it made far more waves and received far more sympathy and Facebook shares than many police executions of black men or probable murders of Canadian female hitchhikers.

As a species, our polling numbers are way down in polls where we’re the only ones allowed to vote. That’s not a good sign.


Hedging my bets…

The Lobster (2015): The Collective Exhaustion of the Present


The high concept of The Lobster, explained briefly:

In an alternate universe, every single person past a certain age is sent to a resort/prison in the country where they’re given a certain number of days to find a mate or else they’re surgically turned into an animal of their choosing. Every night the resort prisoners are forced to attend mixers and/or watch the older couple who run the resort give presentations resembling medieval morality plays demonstrating the sad pointlessness of single existence pushed too far. The single people can earn extra time to find a mate by hunting down single people who escaped the resort without being turned into animals. They shoot the escapees with tranquilizer dart guns in the woods near the resort. There’s a resistance movement in the woods that doesn’t allow any kind of romantic or sexual contact between its members.

That was a mouthful… anyway, onto the fun stuff:

The Lobster plays out a framework that’s been the basis for movies as wide-ranging as the original Star Wars to Woody Allen’s Bananas to Logan’s Run-man in oppressive/ineffectual society escapes said society to join a resistance movement where he meets a girl. Except usually the future/foreign country/other galaxy etc. has to look dangerous; it ultimately exists as the backdrop for the growth of trust and romance between the leads. Usually, the future/foreign country/other galaxy exists as a contrast by which the hero can define themselves in the starkest possible terms as the competent and effective individual (or, in the case of Bananas, a parody of such.) The individual comes out of the trauma of existing in society having taken revenge on, in the case of Star Wars, the literal authoritative father figure, in the rest some sort of surrogate paternal authority. Having killed the father, they can then have sex. This mixture of blatant Freudianism and frontier individualism is perhaps America’s defining mythical archetype; we return to it obsessively and take great interest in even its smallest variants.

We take such an interest because of the enormity of what this myth represents to us as a culture-it’s one of the first things that children are exposed to and they’re exposed to it over and over and over again in different guises. It probably forms much of the subconscious language and cues that make Donald Trump seem so comfortable and familiar, even inspiring to so much of the country. Even the left that’s ostensibly horrified by Trump don’t seem especially energized against him except in small bursts to try to legitimize Hillary Clinton. He’s a fascist demagogue, but he’s our fascist demagogue. We’ve been collectively preparing to like someone like Donald Trump for most of our lives. We’ve already been prepped for one end of the world scenario for a while; it’s hard for a populace to focus on two potential ends to everything at once.

After a century of increasingly intense media saturation attempting to enforce the social norms more aggressively and entirely than at any other point in human history, everything from heterosexual coupling to even the rebel myth seem like words that have been repeated to the point of losing any meaning. Surrounded by sounds and images that have spread themselves too thin to romance the senses; they’re experienced as a disciplinary beating rather than a seduction. The hand has been overplayed. Hillary Clinton, because she’s more attached to the continuance of these aesthetics, can’t seem to increase a polling lead over a guy who’s publicly attacked not just Latinos and Muslims but police officers and military personnel, a person who has been repeatedly and very publicly compared to Adolf Hitler (but who, it should be noted, did not vote in favor of the Iraq war and hasn’t been endorsed by Henry Kissinger who has indirectly killed as many or more people than Hitler did.)

The Lobster is a document of this collective exhaustion.

It skews the hero’s journey framework just enough to remove the elements that allow direct viewer identification or even the impetus to identify-who would want to be any of the characters in this film? Colin Farrell plays the protagonist, an overweight man who seems to be pushed into situations and who doesn’t take an independent action until the very last shot of the film. The leaders of both the resort and the resistance have no charisma; they rule by dull but forceful paternalism. Their authority exists in the extent to which their opposing ideologies frame the other as being unlivable. This strategy works because neither the puritanical resistance nor the boringly oppressive resort is actually livable.

In the woods, after escaping the resort, Colin Farrell’s character meets and falls in love with Rachel Weisz’s character. They can’t continue to exist in the resistance but similarly can’t rejoin society. When the resistance leader discovers that Weisz broke the rules, she’s taken to a surgeon and blinded, a parallel to the mainstream of the society’s ritual of surgically transforming single people into animals and similarly blunt in its symbolism. The resistance stage a raid on the hotel and in a clever sequence puncture the supposed basis of the resort-domestic love-by showing the couple in charge don’t actually love each other. I won’t ruin how they do that for those who haven’t seen the film, suffice it to say that they combat artifice with artifice.

At the same time, while puncturing the basis of the society, the resistance doesn’t have anything actually feasible to replace it with. The couple at the center of the film have no place to go and the film ends with Farrell, in his first self-determined action in the film’s running time, blinding himself in a bathroom.

With the society and its opposition equally distasteful, the true revolutionary act is to focus on one’s own problems and be blind. Neither character has anything even close to the sort of leverage where they could change the society. All they can do is seize the rest of their lives from the bleakness of the situation.

Do we have any better options in the United States in the present moment?

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Early in Chariots of Fire, the 1981 winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Harold Abrahams, one half of the film’s dual-headed hero, gives an almost perfect description of what would now be called “microaggression.”

“It’s an ache, a helplessness, an anger. One feels humiliated. Sometimes I say to myself ‘hey, steady on, you’re imagining all this.’ And then I catch that look again. Catch it on the edge of a remark, feel a cold reluctance in a handshake.”

Abrahams, a member of the 1924 British Olympic Team and the son of a wealthy Jewish immigrant, is probably the victim of more than just “microaggression.” The masters of Trinity and Caius Colleges at Cambridge, who serve as a kind of antisemitic Greek Chorus throughout the film, call Abrahams into their office and accuse him of defiling the traditions of the university. “There goes a Semite,” the master of Caius played by John Gielgud – himself the descendant of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants – remarks after Abrahams defiantly refuses to fire the professional track coach he has hired to help him improve his time in the 100-yard dash, “a different God, a different mountaintop.” While not exactly Kristallnacht, to have been accused of embarrassing both his country and his university by the master of “Trinity” College must have been a humiliating experience for Abrahams. It must have been the confirmation of all of his suspicions that as a Jew he wasn’t accepted at Cambridge, that “cold reluctant handshake” finally put into words.

Abrahams’ response is what makes him the perfect conservative – or to be more accurate “neoliberal” – hero. He won’t wallow in “an ache, a helplessness, an anger,” but he won’t attempt to organize other Jewish students at Cambridge against two obviously antisemitic high officials. We never really find out if there are other Jewish students at Cambridge in the early 1920s anyway. I’m sure there were but they’re never mentioned, and except for a banner put up by the “Fabian Socialists” at Abrahams’ freshman orientation, Chariots of Fire purges any reference to contemporary politics. Abrahams wants to assert his identity as an Englishman, not a Jew. More importantly, he wants to “beat them at their own game.” Describing his father, an immigrant but a fervent English patriot, he declares that he will overcome entrenched British antisemitism by his own individual achievement.

“This England of his is Christian and Anglo-Saxon and so are her corridors of power. And those who stalk them guard them with jealousy and venom. I’m going to take them on, all of them, one by one, and run them off their feet.”

This is also Hillary Clinton’s method of fighting sexism. By becoming the first woman President, she will win a victory for all women similar to the way Harold Abrahams won a victory for Jews by winning the gold medal in the 100-yard dash at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Harold Abrahams did not, of course, end antisemitism in the United Kingdom any more than Barack Obama ended racism or Hillary Clinton will end sexism. He did go onto a distinguished career as a barrister and elder statesman in British athletics, dying in 1978, shortly before Chariots of Fire was made, and the year before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. The film opens with his funeral. Indeed, it was also re-released in London during the 2012 Olympics and adapted as a stage play. While Chariots of Fire seemed dated, almost quaint, back in 1981 during it’s first theatrical run – I’m old enough to have seen it in the theater the year it won Best Picture – it’s a rare movie that’s gotten more relevant with age, a perfect expression of the neoliberal world view wrapped in middlebrow nostalgia for the British Empire.

If Chariots of Fire has any flaws, it’s probably Ben Cross, the actor who plays Abrahams. He’s not exactly a bad actor, but he’s not a very good one either. Broad, well-built, of average height, he’s more believable as a middle-weight boxer than as a sprinter. His performance is a good solid effort that would be more than adequate in a masterpiece theater mini-series, but he never quite gets at the heart of Abrahams’ drive to overcome his feelings of inferiority through athletic achievement. The same cannot be said of Ian Charleson, who plays Chariots of Fire’s other hero. Charleson’s performance as the Evangelical Christian Eric Liddell dominates Chariots of Fire. If Abrahams is the film’s conservative heart, then Liddell is its transcendental soul. In maybe the film’s most representative scene, Liddell is knocked to the ground by a French runner at the beginning of a 400 yard race. He gets up, makes up the 20-yard loss, and wins. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s one of the best dramatizations of an athletic competition ever put to film. Charleson so incarnates a man driven to honor God by his running that his spirit seems to overcome his body. After he collapses over the finish line in exhaustion, and is helped to his feet by his coach, he becomes the image of Jesus from Michelangelo’s Pieta, a man crucified by his drive to succeed who becomes one with God after an almost superhuman effort to overcome the weakness of the flesh.

Abrahams, who’s in the stands watching the performance, is unnerved.  He knows he’ll never be able to beat Liddell, and, in fact, he never does. Liddell easily beats him the only time they race, and there’s no rematch. The ambitious Jew and the soulful Evangelical both go to Paris for the 1924 Olympics and they both win their gold medals but through a neat little narrative trick – Liddell won’t run on Sunday so he’s switched from the 100-yard to the 400-yard race – they don’t have to compete against each other. It doesn’t matter. Margaret Thatcher’s Britain has plenty of room for both, for superior men willing to succeed, not as members of their communities, but as individuals.

Kolberg (1945) vs. 300 (2006): Contemplating Fascist Propaganda


A screenshot from the Nazi propaganda film Kolberg, which is largely free from crude appeals to antisemitism or any demonized racial “other.” But who in the world is the black actor who plays one of the French soldiers? Was he a French North African POW forced to play a role as an “extra?”

Napoleon did not lose his throne at the Battle of Waterloo. He lost it two years before at the Battle of Leipzig, by far the largest and bloodiest battle fought on European soil before the First World War. “Napoleon met his Leipzig” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “Napoleon met his Waterloo.” It certainly should. It was the growth of German nationalism, not the British Army or the Duke of Wellington that finally brought down the mighty French Empire, but Germans simply don’t have the same skill as the British at propaganda.

It’s not that they don’t try.

Six years before the titanic Battle of Leipzig, where an alliance of 380,000 Germans and Russians defeated 225,000 Frenchmen and their Polish and Italian allies, there was another battle along the shores of the Baltic. From March to July of 1807, the Grande Armée besieged the small Pomeranian City of Kolberg, repeatedly trying, and failing to dislodge the “Freikorps” of Lieutenant Ferdinand von Schill and a small garrison led by the legendary German commander August Neidhardt von Gneisenau. While militarily insignificant, the Siege of Kolberg was also was the first time the revived Prussian Army, or any army, managed to inflict a defeat on the Napoleonic juggernaut, predating the Peninsular War in Spain by a year, and the disastrous invasion of Russia by five.

That by 1943 the Siege of Kolberg had become a potent a symbol of the German resistance, patriotism, and self-sacrifice was not lost on Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. A year after the Battle of Stalingrad, he commissioned the legendary director Veit Harlan to make a film based on the autobiography Joachim Nettelbeck, Kolberg’s Mayor, and a hero of the German “Wars of Liberation.” While little known or viewed today, Kolberg still ranks as one of the most expensive and elaborate films ever made. From October of 1943 to August of 1944, and with a cast of 185,000 extras, many of whom were soldiers pulled off the Russian front, Harlan recreated a full scale Napoleonic battle, shooting on location in the city of Kolberg, now the Polish resort town of Kołobrzeg, and in the ancient Prussian capital of Königsberg, which is now a grim Russian naval base called Kaliningrad. Whatever else it is, Harlan’s film is a visual and historic record of two German cities that are no more.

So what else is Kolberg?

Kolberg is fascist propaganda to be sure, but unlike the grotesque, antisemitic newspaper Der Sturmer or Harlan’s earlier film Jud Süss, Kolberg is also what for lack of a better term might be called “high-class fascist propaganda.” There’s no demonized racial “other.” The enemy are just the French, none of whom are portrayed as particularly horrible, but simply as soldiers fighting for their country. The film’s Napoleon seems to understand German history better than its Germans. “If he were alive,” the French emperor says over the grave of Frederick the Great, “we never would have conquered Prussia.” There’s no appeal to antisemitism. Astonishingly, the only Jew to be seen in the whole film is Horst Caspar, the actor who plays Harlan’s idealized German hero Gneisenau. Caspar, who was one quarter Jewish, and a “Mischling,” or “mixed race person” under the Nuremberg Laws, received an exemption from Joseph Goebbels, and was allowed to continue acting. Why he agreed to appear in a Nazi propaganda film is anybody’s guess, but some hint might be provided by a 1992 interview with Kurt Meisel, the actor who plays Claus Werner, the pacifistic brother of the patriotic heroine Maria.

Meisel, who detested the Nazis, admitted he was grateful that making the film kept him off the Russian front. That Werner’s character is also in favor of surrendering to the French – his father disowns him when he agrees to drink a toast to Napoleon — probably also reflected the opinion of many Germans in 1944, who surely, by that late date, knew they would lose the war and must have preferred the idea of being occupied by the western powers to being occupied by the Soviets. But it perhaps the manner of Werner’s death that best explains why talented actors like Meisel and Caspar decided to continue working under the Nazis. After the Mayor of Kolberg has parts of the town flooded in an attempt to make it inaccessible to the French, Werner drowns trying to save his violin from the rising waters. Meisel, who went on to a long and successful career after the war, and Caspar, who became famous on the German stage acting in plays by Shakespeare and Friedrich Schiller, probably agreed to appear in the movie out of some misguided idea that they were helping to preserve a remnant of German culture, not only from the Nazis, but from the destruction brought on by the allied bombing.

If Kolberg is “high class” fascist propaganda, however, that only makes it all the more insidious. It’s one thing when fascists identify themselves as fascists. Pick up a copy of Der Sturmer and you have no illusion about being in the presence of genocidal antisemites. It’s quite another thing when fascists hide themselves behind a facade of a respectable patriotism and love of country. It takes a trained eye to see exactly what Kolberg is doing, but once you notice it, you realize exactly what an evil film you’ve just watched.

Kolberg opens with a parade of German civilians in 1813, marching on the Prussian King’s palace at Potsdam. They want permission to form themselves into militias and be sent to the front against Napoleon at Leipzig. The King, who initially believes that war should be fought only by professional soldiers, eventually gives way to Gneisenau, who argues that it was only by a general mobilization of the entire civilian population that Kolberg had been saved from the French in 1807. Indeed, the closest thing Kolberg has to a villain is the cowardly General Loucadou, who stands firm against the idea that civilians resist the enemy, and who tries to have the heroic patriot Mayor Joachim Nettelbeck hanged for mutiny. Indeed, while Gneisenau and Ferdinand von Schill figure prominently in the movie, the real heroes are old men like Nettelbeck and young women like his niece Maria, who saves the day by sneaking past enemy lines to deliver a message to Queen Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – who Napoleon once called “the only real man in all of Prussia – begging her to send them a new commander. Kolberg may look like a tribute to the patriotism of the common people, who win a victory against a foreign occupier that the regular Prussian Army could not. In 1944 and 1945, it was a rationalization to send old men and Hitler youth to the front to die in a useless and suicidal last push against the mighty Soviet and Anglo American armies.


A screenshot from 300. Not only is the Persian black. Zach Snyder progressively darkens his skin as he progressively sounds more and more evil.

There’s nothing “high class” about 300, Zack Snyder’s grotesque, racist and sexually prurient realization of Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae. 300 is a remarkably ugly, stupid, and perverse film. Superficially, like Kolberg, the plot concerns the heroic stand of a small city against an arrogant emperor, but unlike Kolberg, where the French speak French and actually look French, the “Persians” in 300 resemble no Persian I’ve ever seen, nor, for that matter, anybody in Central Asia. They are black, like the messenger King Leonidas murders at the opening of the film or the Persian official who bribes the Spartan Ephors not to mobilize the Spartan Army, or simply a generalized demonic “other.” The Persian Empire is repeatedly described by the narrator as “many nations” and indeed, the hordes of deformed half-men, half-beasts, and actual beasts Xerxes throws at Leonidas and his 300 muscle bound Aryan superman resemble nothing so much as a fever dream of a multicultural civilization in the mind of a Trump supporter. 300 was propaganda aimed at the “alt-right” before the “alt-right” had a name.

My guess is that, had he not let any pretension towards high culture get in the way, Hitler would have loved 300. In many ways it’s an almost perfect cinematic reflection of the ideals in Mein Kampf.  300 opens with a justification for killing the handicapped. Spartan babies, we are told, are examined shortly after birth and killed if they’re found to be puny or deformed. That Miller approves of Spartan infanticide is more than attested to by the way it’s one of these deformed babies – whose parents saved him from being euthanized – who later betrays Leonidas and the 300 to their deaths. Hitler’s enemy in Mein Kampf is not only the Jews, but multiculturalism. Much is made of Hitler being Austrian and not German, but we forget exactly why he jumped the border in 1914 from the Habsburg to the Hohenzollern empires. At the start of the First World War, Hitler’s great fear was the idea that he would be drafted into the multicultural, part Slavic, Austrian Army. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, like the Persian Empire of Xerxes, was made up of “many nations.” Hitler did not, however, consider the Hohenzollern German Reich free from impurity. He considered the “Aryan race,” not the “German nation,” to be the “master race.” For Hitler, Germany was a superior nation but only because it was traditionally dominated by an elite minority of superior men. The mass of Germans were weak, lazy, easily duped. The fall of the monarchy had been a disaster, and the Weimar Republic, German democracy, was an abomination.Germans, like all other Europeans, needed a strong man to save them from themselves.

Similarly, in Zack Snyder’s film, it’s not Sparta embodies the ideal of the Spartan warrior culture, but the elite 300-man squad of “red shirts” (they all wear the same color cape) that Leonidas calls his “personal guard.” Sparta as a whole seems to be made up largely of women, children, old men, dupes of the deformed, sub human “Ephors” (who like the Jews of Nazi propaganda lust after young Aryan women), or oily and corrupt civilian politicians in the pay of Xerxes. When King Leonidas murders the Persian messenger and marches his personal guard to the “hot gates” to resist the Persian Army it is in effect a fascist coup against Spartan law and the legitimate Spartan authorities similar to Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch or Mussolini’s march on Rome. It’s a fait accompli designed to effect a military takeover of the civilian government. 300 is, in effect, the mirror image of Kolberg. Where in Kolberg, it’s Nettelbeck, the civilian mayor, who’s the patriot, and General Loucadou, the professional soldier, who’s the traitor. In 300, it’s just the opposite. It’s the civilian politician Theron – played by The Wire’s Dominic West – who conspires to open the gates of the city and Leonidas the warrior King, a man born and bred to be a soldier, determined to resist the foreign occupier. That Frank Miller is even more militaristic than Adolf Hitler – Hitler was an outsider in Prussian military culture and largely jaded about professional soldiers – does not mean that 300 and Kolberg have different ideals, only that they’ve identified different “vanguards.” What’s important is not precisely who carries the “spirit of the volk” but that whoever does – be it Kolberg’s civilians or Sparta’s professional warrior caste – take over the machinery of the state. 300’s King Leonidas and Kolberg’s August Neidhardt von Gneisenau would have instantly recognized each other as superior men with not only the the right, but the obligation to rule.

As he made clear in his attack on Occupy Wall Street in 2011, Frank Miller believes that the United States is a country ruled by Therons, and endangered by weaklings who don’t understand the existential threat posed by “radical Islam.”

Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy. In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas’ basements and play with your Lords Of Warcraft. Or better yet, enlist for the real thing. Maybe our military could whip some of you into shape.

Perhaps that’s why, in the end, the American comic book movie is more Nazi than the actual Nazi propaganda film. Frank Miller needs his demonized racial other to wake us all up to a threat that doesn’t really exist. Everybody in Germany in 1945 knew their country was about to be occupied by the Russians, British, French and Americans. There was no need to blow Napoleon or his generals up into grotesque villains. The RAF’s bombs were already falling on German cities. Had Kolberg been more widely viewed in 1945 when it was released — the British and Americans had already bombed most of the movie theaters — the French artillery barrage that destroys Kolberg would have elicited gasps. An ambitious Napoleonic Marshall who trains his artillery on Kolberg’s civilians in the hope that his emperor will make him “Duke of Kolberg” was all the monster Harlan really needed. Frank Miller, on the other hand, who lives safely in a country under no threat of being invaded, is afraid nothing so much as his own shadow. So he imagines in that shadow a 9-foot-tall,  fabulous and gay Persian emperor at the head of an army of subhuman monsters and wild CGI beasts, Xerxes the living God, determined, if not to conquer the world, then at least to give the buff King of the Spartans a neck rub.

Snowden (2016)

Oliver Stone has always been a uneven filmmaker. He’s made one radical masterpiece, Salvador, one dull, conservative flop, World Trade Center, and one overly long, but potent Molotov cocktail the mainstream media tried, but ultimately failed to discredit, JFK. When I found out that he was directing the new film about Edward Snowden, I took notice, but made no immediate plans to get to the theater. When I tried, and failed, to get through a long, tedious hit piece on the website, however, Snowden was elevated to the “must see” list. Someone didn’t want me to watch it. Was it the new JFK?

Snowden, I’m sorry to say, isn’t the new JFK. It probably won’t change the national conversation about the NSA, CIA, and online privacy. It is, however, an excellent film, which, in spite of its flaws, succeeds in humanizing Edward Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsey Mills. In fact, it probably does more. Oliver Stone’s film managed to convince me, at least, that Edward Snowden neither a traitor nor a right wing, libertarian crank, but a hero, a highly principled young man who was tempted by money and power, but ultimately decided not to get along by going along. If Snowden isn’t quite Salvador or JFK, it’s probably better than Platoon, the film it most closely resembles, and the one that got Oliver Stone his Best Picture Oscar.

First of all, let’s get Snowden’s major weakness out of the way. In his excellent 2015 film The Big Short, director Adam McKay demonstrated how you could boil a bafflingly complex, yet dull issue like mortgage fraud down into a crisp, entertaining cinematic experience. Oliver Stone doesn’t quite have McKay’s knack as an ideological tour guide. There’s nothing in Snowden quite as effective as the scene in The Big Short where Ryan Gosling manages to explain the 2008 financial crisis in under ninety seconds with nothing more than a pile of blocks. I came out of the film with the impression that the NSA can collect and distribute – almost always to unprincipled, and unelected government bureaucrats — anything and everything ever put into digital form, and that the whole process is destructive to my freedom, and even to my sanity, but I don’t think I could explain exactly what Snowden revealed that we didn’t already know.

The good news is that it doesn’t really matter. Oliver Stone goal isn’t to present us with an NSA for Dummies book, but to dramatize the ideological journey of Edward Snowden from highly conflicted young patriot to exiled dissident. The best thing about the film is the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Like Platoon’s Chris Taylor, Edward Snowden initially wants to serve his country, to fight terrorism the way his 1960s counterpart wanted to fight communism, but Levitt has a much tougher job than Charlie Sheen. Platoon’s fictional dramatization of the My Lai Massacre let Private Taylor know in no uncertain terms that something was very wrong with his country. There’s not a lot of debate after you’ve seen American soldiers slaughter a whole village of innocent civilians. You either rebel, or you become a war criminal. For Edward Snodwen, the issue is a lot more complex. Snowden never questions the need for the United States government to collect intelligence on potential terrorists. The problem is that until you collect that intelligence you have no idea who’s a potential terrorist and who isn’t. So where do you draw the line? Snowden’s superiors at the NSA never even ask the question. They’ve already decided. You spy on everyone.

As Snowden, a computer genius, realizes he’s become an unwitting architect of the NSA’s gigantic surveillance state, his patriotism gives way to guilt and paranoia. A program he writes to backup data, for example, is reversed engineered and used to target people in the Middle East, including civilians, for drone attacks. An ambitious and unscrupulous CIA operative uses him set up a Pakistani banker, and seems unconcerned with all the collateral damage. The banker’s daughter attempts suicide when the CIA arranges her undocumented boyfriend to be deported back to Turkey. The private lives of people only peripherally connected with people only suspected, not convicted, of supporting terrorism come under surveillance. Eventually the secrecy and guilt associated with the intelligence community begins to drive a wedge between Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsey Mills. When the film opens, Mills, an excellent if underused Shailene Woodley, is the liberal to Snowden’s conservative. She believes that questioning the government is part of being an American. He doesn’t like people who bash their country. Midway through the film their positions are reversed, with him begging her to delete nude selfies on her computer, and her protesting that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.”

I personally wished Lindsy Mills’ character had been better written. She starts out promising. She’s fully his intellectual equal, and easily figures out he’s working for the CIA, not the State Department. She ends up as the stereotypical “girlfriend.” Nevertheless, the script does succeed in making it clear that had it not been for his relationship with Mills, Snowden would not have rebelled. It’s not just that he’s a geek who feels lucky to be dating an attractive woman, but that the two have a genuine human connection. Snowden’s workplace, a dystopian hell where everyone spies on everyone and the employees are terrified of the boss, alienates him from himself, so much so that it sends him into a series of epileptic fits. Perhaps the best scene in the movie, in fact, is a teleconference between Snowden and his boss Corbin O’Brian.  I’m not actually sure if Corbin O’Brian is a real person or a fictional character, but the name obviously evokes George Orwell’s 1984. As he rationalizes the NSA’s totalitarian overreach, O’Brian’s image, projected onto a gigantic screen, gets bigger and bigger, dwarfing the tiny Snowden, becoming a potent symbol of the surveillance state’s power against the individual. Snowden’s relationship with Mills, on the other hand, convinces him that he something to lose, “something to hide,” something to protect from the government, and more importantly, that he has the ability to resist. When he gets jealous – he’s a geek dating an attractive woman after all – and abuses his access to the NSA’s database to spy on her browsing online dating sites, he intuitively senses that he’s made a Faustian bargain. His computer skills have given him an opportunity to rise within the American intelligence community, given him access to power and privilege, but it’s clear that it will be at the cost of his soul. Snowden ends with Snowden himself, a man without a country, but also one who’s clearly regained his sanity and sense of self-respect, taking over for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, speaking into the camera as fiction almost imperceptibly gives way to current events.

Final Note: Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald appear in the film but they’re used mainly as a framing device and don’t figure prominently as characters.

My New Bike


I’m an old man (51 years old to be precise) with one foot in the grave, more interested in the location of the bathroom than in the attentions of the fairer sex, but I wear out bikes like a 27-year-old Tour de France winner.

This is my latest, a Giant Contend 1. It’s a rather modest entry-level aluminum road bike with a Sora group set, but the 11 x 32 cassette (which will give me lower gears almost as good for steep hills as a mountain bike) should serve me well for my coming trek through Vermont and upstate New York.

I have no idea who Samuel W. Burrows was, but he only made it to 39. I suppose he was important since he’s got the biggest tombstone in the whole cemetery. He should have ridden a bike more and drank less of that good Nineteenth Century ale.

Reading the Landscape: 9

Writers Without Money


Wychwood is a turn of the (last) century gated community in the West Fields of Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Originally built for rich New York commuters who wanted to live inside a Thomas Kinkade painting, it featured a Tudor Revival gatehouse that stood at its entrance for many years before it burned down in 2013. I doubt the gate ever locked. Instead, it was an ostentatious display of wealth, a signal to the rest of the world that “the people who live here are filthy fucking rich and would rather the common people stayed the fuck out.”

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Stoner (1965)


John Edward Williams led a life that many people would envy. Born in 1922 to a working-class family in northeast Texas, he earned a PhD in English literature from the University of Missouri, and went on to direct the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver. His historical novel Augustus won the National Book Award in 1973. He died in 1994, presumably feeling some sense of accomplishment in life. Over the past decade, Williams has become famous in the literary world, not for his successful novel about a Roman emperor, but for a long neglected novel about a loser.

Stoner, which was published in 1965 and sold only 2000 copies before going out of print, is not about a Grateful Dead fan who smokes too much pot. It is rather an attempt by John Williams to imagine what his life would have been like had he been born a generation earlier, and had he achieved nothing but a modest teaching position at a Midwestern state university. Like John Williams, William Stoner is born into a working-class family. His parents run a small, hard-scrabble family farm in rural Missouri. Stoner goes onto publish a book and to become a tenured professor at the University of Missouri, but unlike Williams never rises to become chairman of his department, or even a marginally popular teacher, let alone the director of a nationally famous creative writing department and a National Book Award winner. The book, a pedestrian study of the influence of Latin rhetoric on Medieval drama, is largely ignored. His wife hates him. With one or two exceptions, his colleagues in the university English Department either ignore him, or actively conspire to ruin his career. He has a brief love affair with one of his students. He’s much too passive and unimaginative to leave his wife, so it all comes to nothing. His only child, his daughter, gets pregnant, marries young and is widowed young. When we last see her, she’s a miserable 25-year-old alcoholic who has given up the care of her child to his grandparents. She already looks middle-aged. Finally after a lifetime as an obscure state university English teacher, William Stoner discovers he has inoperable cancer, and dies a painful, lonely death at the age of 65. Not even one of his former students pays him a visit, or writes him a letter.

It’s easy to see why Stoner failed so miserably in the 1960s. It is a reactionary, and deeply misogynistic book from the point of view of an entitled white male. William Stoner may consider himself a failure, but in the age of the neoliberal university, where the typical academic lives in poverty and hustles short term adjunct positions, he’s living the American dream. He gets a tenured position at the age of 27. He teaches at the same university for over 40 years. He buys a house in his early 30s. The Great Depression barely touches him. Stoner’s father in law, a corrupt banker, does commit suicide, but he’s such an unimportant character that in the closing chapters of the book Williams forgets he killed him off, and continues to refer to Stoner’s wife’s “parents” in the plural. William Stoner doesn’t so much seek out his modest career as a university professor as it drops into his lap as a gift. His parents send him to the university to study agriculture, but a senior professor pushes him into continuing onto a PhD in English. Stoner’s parents, who realize that the era of the small, Midwestern, family farmer is over, make no objections. William Stoner is in fact living in a golden age, a brief period in American history when a university degree opened the door to a stable, and secure life in the upper-middle-class.

There are two snakes in William Stoner’s academic Garden of Eden. The first is Hollis Lomax, the chairman of the university English department, a crippled hunchback barely five feet tall, who tries to bully Stoner into granting a PhD to a graduate student so incompetent he doesn’t even know that Lord Byron wrote English Bards and Scots Reviewers. Trust me on this one non-English-majors. For a PhD candidate with a focus on the English Romantics, it’s a big deal. The student, Charles Walker, is lazy and unfocused, but he’s a master at playing faculty politics. A deformed cripple like his mentor — yes, Stoner has not only one shriveled, hunchback villain, but two — he manipulates Hollis Lomax’s resentment of the tall, able-bodied Stoner not only into granting him an advanced degree in a subject of he knows nothing about, but into plotting the destruction of the teacher who, rightfully, gave him an “F.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why Walker’s book never caught on in the 1960s. Williams writes from the point of view of the “Greatest Generation.” He deeply resents any attempt to politicize the already politicized university — the University of Missouri even today isn’t a particularly friendly place for black students — and looks at a critical,self-assertive student as a burden a tenured professor has to carry. Walker is a fool, but he’s also a straw man. If you read between the lines, you can see the shadow of the Beat Generation and the radical counterculture behind his badly articulated argument for individual genius and inspiration against the dry, classical tradition William Stoner holds so dear. In John Williams’ fictional University of Missouri, Stoner is a hero. He flunks Charles Walker even though he knows it will bring him the enmity of the university administration and ruin his career. His real life counterpart, however, the crabbed old man who hates the younger generation and expects them to keep their place, wasn’t an outsider. He was the establishment.

If pointing out that dramatizing an ideological opponent in the form of not one, but two twisted, crippled straw men is a heavy-handed rhetorical maneuver, however, it’s also necessary to admit that Williams pulls it off. Charles Walker is such a vivid depiction of a bad student that he reminded me exactly why I never managed to get through graduate school. I was exactly the kind of bad student he was. I would bluff my way through classes where I hadn’t done the reading. When I lost focus, I could often derail the whole class. When a professor called me on my bullshit, I imagined that the professor had a personal agenda against my genius. Thankfully I had no talent for playing university politics, or I could have done some real damage. Walker’s character was painful for me to experience. Given the right political influence, a bad student can be a genuinely destructive force for evil. Teaching is a delicate art that requires the instructor to slowly, and over time build up the trust and interest of his students. It’s easier to destroy a class, a course, and a college instructor, than it is to cultivate one. John Williams may be a reactionary, but he’s a reactionary with a deep love of learning and a bitter resentment against the social climbers and political hucksters who would cheapen it.

Indeed, while I find much of Stoner’s rhetorical agenda suspect, I think the novel transcends the writer’s intention. Stoner does in fact live up to the hype that followed in the wake of the 2003 and 2006 re-issues and the 2011 French translation. Like all great works of literature, it’s more than an argument. It’s a massive fact of life that the reader must confront even if, no, especially if he agrees with the author’s politics. To quote William Blake on John Milton, John Williams is a true poet and of the devil’s party without knowing it. The devil of the novel is William Stoner’s wife Edith on whom most of the hero’s misery can probably be blamed. It’s not that Edith is an especially original character. She’s the vindictive, mentally ill 1950s housewife we’ve seen in the work of Betty Friedan, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. But watching her depicted by a writer who’s using every once of his literary genius to silence her, and watching that writer largely succeed is fascinating. William Stoner the poor farm boy meets Edith Elaine Bostwick the banker’s daughter, when he’s a 27-year-old virgin and she’s a 20-year-old virgin. On the surface, pretty, educated, refined, she’s the “prize” that an upwardly mobile young man aspiring to the academic elite wants to win. He wins her almost overnight. They get married a few weeks after they meet. But within a year after their wedding, Stoner realizes that his prize is no prize at all. She’s a deeply unhappy woman without a career or a purpose. Her education was designed to put her in a bubble of “privilege.” That she marries a poor academic with no inherited money is initially a form of rebellion. She doesn’t want a fancy church wedding or a big reception, just a quick civil ceremony and a honeymoon in nearby St. Louis. As soon as she tires of that initial act of rebellion, she looks around for something new.

First she tries to play the part of the good faculty wife. She fails. She tries too hard, so hard she almost has a nervous breakdown. Just about the only thing she really succeeds is earning the initial resentment of Hollis Lomax for her husband. If you’re paying close attention you become more and more creeped out by the “chaste” kiss the shriveled hunchback plants on the lips of the pretty Edith Stoner as the novel goes on. William Stoner may not have sex until the age of 27, and he may wind up sleeping with only two women in his entire life – even less than me, for what that’s worth – but Hollis Lomax either dies a virgin or pays for it. After she fails as a hostess, she tries sex, announcing that she wants a child, and pushing her husband into sleeping with her as compulsively as she once avoided him. After she notices that her husband is starting to enjoy the house she pushed him into buying, and, even worse, is starting to bond with Grace, their daughter, she decides that what she really wants to do is be a sculptor. That gives her the excuse to kick him out of the study he’s carefully and lovingly built up over the years, the “room of his own” where he’s beginning to flourish as a writer and as a father, and convert it into her studio. That accomplished, her husband banished to a miserable sun porch, she tries the piano. Then the theater. Finally she realizes that the only thing she has any real gift for is to make her husband miserable, and applies herself to destroying his soul with the same relentless discipline that John Williams applies to writing his novel.

If William Stoner is classical form, the disciplined pursuit of language and scholarship, then Edith Stoner is the demonic, the malevolent engine that gives the novel its purpose in life. Stoner’s idealized love affair with Katherine Driscoll, a graduate student with a love of Latin poetry who seems just a little too much like a female version of Stoner himself, is as cringe worthy as any middle-aged man’s mid-life crisis. That Katherine is mainly used as a rhetorical device against Charles Walker – who attacks her in class – and Edith Stoner – Williams tries hard and fails to suggest that Stoner would have had a great life if only he hadn’t gotten married so soon – is more than evident not only by how easily Stoner gives her up, but how quickly we forget about her once she’s written out of the plot. Edith Stoner, however, remains in our imagination, so vividly in fact that after her husband dies of cancer we wonder exactly what she’s going to do with the rest of her life.