Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Fountainhead (1949)

The famous scene where Patricia Neal admires Gary Cooper’s, ahem, jackhammer.

While there have always been powerful, well-connected fans of Ayn Rand like Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan, something about her ideas appeals, not necessarily to the weak, but to outsiders, to failures, to losers and malcontents, among whom, of course, I number myself. If society rejects me, it feels a lot better to fool myself into thinking I’m a misunderstood genius than it does to face the harsh reality that I’m physically unattractive or lack social skills. There are, of course, physically unattractive, misunderstood geniuses who lack social skills, but they are far more likely to become poets or novelists than film directors or architects. Anybody who can somehow make it back to his apartment drunk off his ass and write a few lines of poetry can imagine that he might someday be the next Charles Bukowski. To be even a bad architect or a bad film director, however, takes other people. You need actors, construction workers, building inspectors, sound engineers, and most importantly of all, people with money to back your project, or you’ll never really make it past the stage of “impractical dreamer.”

King Vidor, who adapted Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, was not a bad filmmaker. On the contrary, he’s one of the greatest directors American cinema has ever produced. One look at the famous opening of his silent masterpiece The Crowd will make it obvious just how much later directors like Orson Welles owed to his pioneering genius. Vidor, however, was also a rebel and a malcontent, whose self-produced film Our Daily Bread, flopped at the box office. Even though Our Daily Bread was a solidly leftist, even socialist film, Vidor ended his career as a reactionary and an anti-communist, a member of Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The Hollywood studio bosses and the critical establishment which rejected Our Daily Bread lurched sharply to the left under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Vidor, in the aggrieved, contrarian manner every genuine loser and malcontent understands, did just the opposite. He turned to the right. What better director, therefore, to adapt Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead to the big screen?

Vidor’s adaptation of The Fountainhead has long divided critical opinion. While some people appreciate the acting of Gary Cooper and especially Patricia Neal in the roles of Howard Rourk and Dominique Francon, or the magnificent, and completely artificial – according to its IDMB entry there are no “on location” shoots in The Fountainhead – sets of New York City designed by its art director Edward Carrere, other people find the dialog ludicrous, Gary Cooper miscast and too old, and the movie’s politics a thinly veiled apology for fascism. Ayn Rand herself, even though she was heavily involved in its production, hated it so much that she refused to allow Hollywood to film an adaption of her later novel Atlas Shrugs. Her grievances seem to have been mainly centered on the way the adaptation edited down Howard Rourk’s final speech to under eight minutes. I come down firmly on the side of “it’s a great film.” It’s not because I agree with Rand’s or Vidor’s politics. On the contrary, I’m a Marxist and a collectivist who thinks the only thing that can save humanity from itself is communist revolution. It’s not because the film appeals to me as a contrarian and a malcontent. While I can certainly appreciate the twenty-two-year-old Patricia Neal lusting for Gary Cooper’s flaccid old dick in the famous granite quarry scene, I find Howard Rourk and Dominique Francon both such irritating characters that if they existed in real life — and I got to live out my fantasy of being Joseph Stalin — I’d send them both right to the Gulag. The short answer to why I think The Fountainhead is a great film is that it’s a magnificent triumph of form over content. Let me briefly summarize the plot then give you the long answer.

The Fountainhead opens with Howard Rourk, the forty-seven-year-old Gary Cooper, being expelled from a university that looks a bit like Princeton. The reason he’s being expelled is probably a first, at least for the Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Albert Einstein. He’s too individualistic. He won’t design buildings to please the public. He’s got too much integrity. After leaving the university, Rourk finds a mentor, and soulmate, in the form of Henry Cameron, another maverick architect played by Henry Hull. Cameron, who may be an individualist, but who certainly can’t be described as a “rugged” individualist, eventually breaks down in despair over his lack of clients, and warns Rourk to take the easy way out and conform. Forget about modern architecture, he cries in anguish. Give the people the trash that they want. Rourk, who’s rugged as well as an individualist, assures Cameron that far from giving in, he’ll carry on his legacy, but soon runs into the same problems. He can’t find any clients. We soon see why. While the local tabloid, “The Banner,” is owned by the honorable, but flawed, Gail Wynand – the sexually ambiguous first name is no accident – the newspapers domineering spirit is a man named Ellsworth M. Toohey. Rand was no Dickens but she could occasionally come up with an amusing name. Toohey, who smokes a cigarette in a holder – shades of Franklin Roosevelt? – is not only a dedicated collectivist, he’s basically Satan. He wants to control and then break Rourke, who he recognizes as a man of integrity, through his control of the stupid mob, the uneducated masses easily manipulated by tabloids like The Banner. Rourke, of course, is too strong to be intimidated by Toohey. When he runs out of clients, and money, he not only refuses to take a loan from his old classmate Peter Keating – a fashionable architect and caricature of the conformist who gets along by going along – he takes a job as a day laborer in a granite quarry.

While Ayn Rand and King Vidor may have been conservatives, and while Cooper may have been too old to play the twenty-five-year-old Howard Rourk, the sections of The Fountainhead that take place in the granite quarry works perfectly, almost in spite of itself. When Patricia Neal, a bourgeois “lady” in her fashionable clothes, comes to the quarry and observes the tall, muscular Cooper, who looks exactly like an idealized proletarian superman from Soviet mural, it’s a miniature Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Ayn Rand, like D.H. Lawrence, worshiped dick, as you can plainly see by the way Neal looks at Cooper as he applies a jackhammer to a wall of granite. Howard Rourke eventually gets a commission to build a skyscraper for an eccentric millionaire named Roger Enright, but doesn’t leave before he and Dominique Francon have a round of hot prole on bourgeoisie, and pretty explicitly rapey, sex in her father’s summer home. The Enright Building is, of course, a success. Rourk, who’s modeled on Rand’s hero Frank Lloyd Wright is a genius. After he and Francon meet for a second time at the Enright Building’s opening day party – for some odd reason she never asked him his name at the quarry – they get better acquainted. Rourk isn’t an uneducated day laborer at all, but a fellow bourgeoisie. Ellsworth M. Toohey, more determined than every before to destroy Howard Rourke, persuades Gail Wynand, who’s too busy pining after Dominique Francon to pay much attention to anything, to enlist The Banner in a smear campaign against modern architecture. The stupid masses, being stupid masses, are easily manipulated into rejecting the Enright Building’s pioneering design, and once again, Rourk finds himself without any clients. Dominique Francon, still pining for Howard Rourke’s Chrysler Building of a penis, resigns from The Banner in protest.

Rourk, the ruggedest of rugged individualists, works his way back, taking any small commission in any out of the way place from anybody who will let him design buildings, not for the public, but for himself. Eventually Gail Wynand, who in the intervening years has successfully bullied Dominique Francon into marrying him, commissions Rourk to build a dream house for his wife, who’s never loved him. Wynand, who’s long forgotten about the smear campaign that destroyed Rourk’s career, has enough taste to know he’s the man for the job. What he doesn’t realize is that Rourke’s already slept with his wife, and that the house, once built, might be, for lack of a better term, called The Cuck Palace. Wynand, who’s played in an almost catatonic manner by Raymond Massey, is not only a rich man trying to buy his way into his trophy bride’s heart. He’s probably a closeted homosexual who wants the Howard Rourk dick as badly as his wife does, but can’t admit it to himself. Eventually he and Rourk become good friends, recognizing each other as fellow men of integrity, and the not so subtle shift in the balance of power excites Dominique Francon like she’s never been excited before. Who will she choose? Raymond Massey or Gary Cooper? Of course she chooses Rourke. When Peter Keating, Rourk’s light-weight old “friend” from the university, once a fashionable architect but now down on his luck, manages to convince the all powerful Ellsworth M. Toohey, who by this point is as much Robert Moses as he is Franklin Roosevelt, into letting him design a gigantic new public housing project, and finding himself in over his head, he manages to convince Rourke to do it for him. Rourk, uncharacteristically agrees, but only on one condition, that his design be accepted as is with no changes.

Note: Ayn Rand seems to have anticipated the way blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters would use “fronts” during the McCarthyite 1950s, only here the victim isn’t a communist screenwriter but a libertarian superman persecuted by the stupid masses.

Rourke’s design for the housing project is, of course, a triumph. There’s really nothing Howard Rourk can’t do. Unfortunately, however, he decides to go on a long, slow cruise with his friend – gay lover? – Gail Wynand and is unavailable to advise Peter Keating when Ellsworth Toohey hires assistant architects to make a mess of Rourk’s original design. When Rourke returns to the city, he’s aghast, but unlike with Toohey’s previous attempts to reduce him to submission, he can’t just quit and walk out. Keating has already agreed to the modifications, and the housing project is already going up. The only solution left is to become, if not a terrorist, then at least a vandal on an epic scale, so he rigs the construction site with dynamite and blows the housing project to kingdom come. Rourke doesn’t mind if poor people get to live in his magnificent creation, but he does mind if mediocrities make changes to his “art.” It’s really not difficult to see the connection here between the architect and the screenwriter, more specifically, to Ayn Rand herself, who hated the idea, even of minor editing to bring one of her turgid speeches down to manageable proportions.

The trial itself, which seems besides the point since the police have found Rourk on the site of the construction site after the explosions, serves mainly to give Gail Wynand the opportunity to redeem, then disgrace himself in his wife’s eyes, initially throwing The Banner behind Rourk’s defense, then backing down after the paper’s shareholders threaten to pull out. Rourk’s long speech on the differences between the creator and the parasite so moves the jury that they nullify the charges, and Rourk, although he actually confesses during the trial to having blown up the housing project, walks free. Gail Wynand, who now admits that Rourk deserves possession of Dominique Francon, has only two more things to do. First he commissions Rourke to build the “Wynand Building,” the tallest skyscraper in New York, then he blows his brains out. The last scene in the film, with Francon riding a service operator to the top of Rourk’s creation, is the fulfillment of the scene in the quarry when she first sees Rourk with the jackhammer, an ode to the biggest dick in the world, not the Wynand Building, but the thing hanging between Howard Rourk’s legs.

The opening scene of King Vidor’s film The Crowd. Note how the Equitable Building eventually becomes a model.

The scene from The Fountainhead, where Gary Cooper takes his broken mentor to the hospital. Note the Equitable Building in the window of the ambulance, Vidor’s subtle allusion to the earlier film. The Fountainhead’s Henry Cameron, like the crowd’s John Sims, is overwhelmed by the scale and power of the city, only in the Fountainhead, unlike in The Crowd, Vidor celebrates the great machine that breaks the insignificant little man.

So why does so obviously stupid a film work?

I would argue that it’s not in spite of but because of Rand’s insipid script. The Fountainhead’s characters are so badly written and so difficult to connect with that we eventually ignore them, and they fade into the wonderfully designed sets. King Vidor, who decades earlier had directed The Crowd, easily one of the greatest movies of the 1920s, has brought some of the magic of the late silent film back into the theater. Indeed, it’s possible to look at The Fountainhead as the true sequel to The Crowd that Our Daily Bread tried, and failed to become. Where Our Daily Bread focused on the redemption through collectivism of The Crowd’s hero, an anonymous little man crushed by the weight of the modern city, The Fountainhead celebrates the great city that crushed him. Vidor probably didn’t intend it to turn out that way any more than George Lucas wanted so many people to find his evil empire, those magnificent star destroyers and death stars, to be the coolest thing about the Star Wars franchise, but that’s what’s on the screen. Nothing in The Crowd quite lived up to the great opening scene where Vidor’s camera pans up the side of the Equitable Building in lower Manhattan until it’s transformed into something so much larger than anything on the human scale that it becomes a model, but that scene is completely fulfilled in The Fountainhead. Everything about the film, the lighting, the shadow, the “deep focus” borrowed from Citizen Kane, the out sized offices and apartments, serves to diminish the people that inhabit it. Indeed, even Howard Rourke is subordinated in the famous ending – you should never shoot a middle-aged man from below lest you reveal his saggy chin – in favor of his creation. In the end The Fountainhead is pure cinema, a film, not about Howard Rourk, but about the beauty of the Manhattan skyline, perhaps the greatest film ever made about the impersonally vast, aesthetically overwhelming machine that is New York City.

The Walk (2015)

On the night of August 6, 1974, a 24-year-old Frenchman named Philippe Petit and a group of friends rigged a series of steel cables between two towers of the World Trade Center. When the sun came up the next morning on August 7, Petit climbed out onto the cable and did a death-defying, forty-five minute hire-wire act 1350 feet above the streets of lower-Manhattan before the rain finally forced him to come inside. Petit’s walk, which is sometimes credited with redeeming the World Trade Center in the eyes of most New Yorkers, has already been the subject of one film, the acclaimed Man on a Wire. Since most of the images of the real Philippe in the act of walking between the World Trade Center are still photos, however, the story was ripe for a semi-fictional dramatization.

The Walk, which was directed by Forrest Gump’s Robert Zemeckis, somehow manages to be both a great film and a terrible film. The critical consensus, that The Walk has a great second half marred by a dull first half and a terrible performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, misses the point. Yes, Levitt hams it up with a fake French accent, which some dialect coaches argue is perfectly authentic, but fake French accents, as we’ve learned from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, are fun. If you’re an American pretending to be a Frenchman, you’d might as well give it the whole Pepe Le Pew. Levitt, while clearly a man in his thirties and not a twenty-four-year-old, manages to project the kind of athleticism you wold expect from a man who could walk for forty-five minutes on a steel cable suspended 1350 feet in the air. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not a problem. He’s an asset. The first half of The Walk isn’t inspired cinema, but it serves its purpose. Petit learned how to wire walk when he was sixteen. He walked the between World Trade Center Number One and World Trade Center Number Two when he was twenty-four. That’s not a lot of time, as the opening of the film makes clear.

The problem with The Walk isn’t Joseph Gordon-Levitt or the uninspired opening in Paris. It’s that the film is more libertarian than anarchist. As you might expect from the right-wing Robert Zemeckis – Forrest Gump was a dreadful piece of reactionary propaganda – the spirit that presides over The Walk is not Peter Kropotkin but Ayn Rand. Part of the fun of a good heist film is watching how a team of conspirators cases the target, cracks their security code, then comes together and pulls off the job. When Jean-Pierre Melville, who actually called himself a right-wing anarchist, made Le Cercle Rouge and Bob le flambeur, he knew what teamwork looked like. The Walk — which purports to be a heist movie about a fun loving group of anarchists who come together to pull off “the coup” of infiltrating the security of the World Trade Center — is mainly about the need to respect the superman and get out of his way. Indeed, in Zemeckis’ imagination, Petit’s team, which includes a stereotypical, dumb American stoner and Jeff, a French math nerd who’s terrified of heights, is almost worse than useless.

Jeff in fact becomes the The Walk’s surrogate for its audience. Don’t get me wrong, the second half of The Walk is filmed with so much skill I literally had to turn it off several times to recover my composure. There are reports of people getting vertigo and throwing up  during its original theatrical run in New York. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t see The Walk, even at home. The problem is that a good film would have put us in the shoes of Philippe Petit, not his useless assistant. Instead of letting us share the hero’s triumph, The Walk reduces us to terrified spectators. Zemeckis doesn’t liberate us. He manipulates us.

That’s too bad because, in spite of everything, I still think The Walk is the best film ever made about the World Trade Center, and, in some ways, the best film ever made about 9/11. As we watch Petit walk from tower to tower, turn around, then walk back again, it’s impossible not to think about people who chose to fall to their deaths rather than be burned alive. Indeed, the most terrifying thing about The Wire is how vividly it drives home the idea of being stuck 1350 feet above ground with no chance of being rescued. The police are not only useless. They almost get Petit killed. An NYPD helicopter buzzes him overhead. Police officers reach out their hands to “rescue” him in such an absurd manner we half suspect that the reason he stayed on the wire for so long was because he was afraid that some fool of New York City cop would get in his way. He solves that problem by tossing them his balancing pole, which knocks them to the ground long enough for him to jump back onto the roof to safety, and to his arrest. The second half of The Walk is brilliantly done, but it’s really not much fun. We share none of Petit’s exhilaration. The longer The Walk goes on, the more we want it to end, for Petit to get the hell off the roof before he has an attack of nerves, falls and ends up a smashed pile of flesh and bones on the sidewalk below. While Petit is dancing in the sky like an aerial John Galt, we become, in effect, the cops, ordinary people without the courage or the imagination to do anything so inspired.

At the end of The Walk, Petit tells us that the director of the World Trade Center gave him lifetime pass to the observation deck. We can’t help but reflect on how Petit is still very much alive, but that the World Trade Center is gone. We remember the people who died with it.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

chain

Before there was Sansho the Bailiff, Wages of Fear, Army of Shadows, A Man Escaped, Sullivan’s Travels or Twelve Years a Slave, there was I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Based on the autobiography of Robert Elliott Burns, a New Jersey man who escaped from a Georgia penal institution, not once, but twice, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of the first, and still one of the best, films to explore the prison industrial complex, the essentially fascist nature of capitalism, and the meaning of “freedom.” It also had a direct influence on the politics of the early 1930. Its success not only made it possible for the Governor of New Jersey to refuse to extradite Burns to Georgia, it provoked a retaliatory lawsuit by the Georgia chain gang warden J. Harold Hardy against Warner Brothers for “vicious, brutal and false attacks.”

And thus begins a second drama that rivals the one recounted in his book. Warden J. Harold Hardy of the Troup County chain gang – a prominent character in this book – and Troup County police Chief R. B. Carter went to New Jersey to take Burns back to Georgia after extradition. However, New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore received hundreds of telegrams and letters, including one representing the 800 members of the Fourteenth Engineers Veterans’ Association, Burns’ old outfit, opposing extradition. All this outpouring of support was a result of the media coverage Burns received at the time and the overwhelming popularity of his story, both the book and the film.

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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang begins with Sergeant James Allen, played by the seminal American actor Paul Muni, returning to his hometown from the western front of the First World War. His older brother, a Protestant minister, advises him to go back to his old job as a clerk in the local shoe factory, but Allen has other plans. Having learned civil engineering in the army, he wants to start over again in the construction industry. So he hits the road, running squarely into the deep, and pretty much forgotten recession that hit the United States following the First World War. Allen’s brother was right. Jobs aren’t easy to come by when you’re competing against over a million demobilized soldiers. He should have taken his old job back, and sat tight until the recession was over. Soon he’s one of many unemployed hobos wandering through America looking for work.

Allen refused his old job at the shoe factory because his experience in the army had taught him to dislike regimentation. He has no idea what’s coming. When a fellow hobo invites the hungry Allen out for a hamburger, he enthusiastically tags along, only to realize, to his horror, that he’s been tricked into participating in an armed robbery. Of course the police, who arrive quickly on scene, don’t believe his story of having only come along for the hamburger, especially when he panics and tries to run. Sentenced to ten years hard labor on a George chain gang, where the food is barely edible, and where torture is regularly to motivate prisoners who can’t take the brutal sixteen-hour work days, he begins to long for his former life as an unemployed bum. Allen quickly realizes that if he doesn’t escape soon, the regimentation and the bad food will begin to feel normal, that his life will essentially be over. Against all odds, and with the help of his fellow prisoners, one African American, he manages to bend the cuffs of his chain far enough to slip out and “take it on the lamb.” One of the most radical things about I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is the way Allen’s fellow prisoners are not only racially diverse, but capable of solidarity. They’re not depraved criminals so much as proletarians trapped inside an essentially fascist capitalism.

Note: Yes, they could have, and probably should, have made the black prisoner who helps Allen break his chains the real star of the film, but that would have been another movie, 12 Years a Slave to be precise.

James Allen’s escape from the Georgia chain gang to Chicago not only holds up as a nail biting thriller,  it’s probably better than most films being released today. It’s certainly better than the overrated The Fugitive from the 1990s. Just about the only film that puts us so squarely in the shoes of a man trying against all odds to get away from his captors is Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Watch both films consecutively to compare the revolutionary potential of Pre-Code Hollywood and the French New Wave. Bresson would never cast an actor as expressive as Paul Muni, but they’re not as different as you might think. Allen’s success in Chicago under an assumed name – he finally gets that job in construction he wanted so badly and eventually rises to become superintendent of a construction site – is overshadowed by Marie, a jealous, resentful woman who finds out about his real identity and uses it to blackmail him into marrying her. The misogynistic portrayal of Marie is perhaps the film’s biggest weak point – it’s just the “woman scorned” cliche – but there is a point behind it. Under capitalism, even a comfortable member of the bourgeoisie, which Allen has now become, isn’t genuinely free. Alienated from ourselves, and from our fellow suffering humans, every man still back on the chain gang in Georgia, we are still regimented. It’s a kinder, gentler, far more comfortable variety of slavery, but it’s slavery none the less. So when Allen meets Helen, the woman of his dreams – actually she’s as much of a card board cutout as his wife – he attempts to convince Marie to give him a divorce, and she rats him out to the police, who are still on his trail after all those years.

James Allen is once again a prisoner of the state. Released from the necessity to live under an assumed name, however, and as a prominent bourgeoisie with access to the media, he can now agitate for his fellow prisoners back in Georgia, and against the prison industrial complex in general. Without a revolutionary movement behind him, however, James Allen is doomed. The governor of Georgia, which promises him a full pardon if he goes back and serves another ninety days, goes back on his word. Of course he does. We all know he will, and it’s almost unbearable to watch Allen reject the advice of his lawyer and take the deal. Did Allen really believe he was ever going to get out of that prison system once they tricked him back inside? His second round of incarceration is, if anything, even worse than the first, not only because his fellow prisoners no longer respect him – they rightfully think he’s an idiot – but because he places his “hope,” not in outright rebellion, but in the idea that “the system” might be fair. So he waits, and waits, and waits while his “pardon” is pushed back further and further, first ninety days, then a year, then indefinitely. It’s only when he loses all hope that the state of Georgia will ever release him that he regains his ability to act, and by that time it’s too late. He’s crossed the line from rebel over to hardened criminal.

It’s interesting to speculate on the potential of “Pro-Code” Hollywood, that short era between the advent of “talkies” and the introduction of the “Production Code” in 1934, those three or four years when Hollywood was not only putting out sophisticated romantic comedies like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Flying Down to Rio, but “social justice” films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. American cinema might have become as revolutionary as the Soviet Cinema of the 1920s, or the French New Wave. Alas though, the puritan scolds of the Republican Party and the Catholic Church saw what they were up against and put a stop to it. Indeed, few Americans realize that between 1934 and 1968, American cinema was subject to a regime of censorship that was as strict as anything in the “free world.” When the Production Code finally started to break down in the 1960s, the result was more “Bonnie and Clyde” than I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, coarse violent exploitation rather than a profound meditation on the nature of freedom, capitalism and the prison industrial complex.

Elegy for the Giant Meteor

The aggressive, repetitive chanting that has come to dominate modern pop music, the way I encounter it in almost identical conditions every day, has elevated its own banality to the realm of the sinister. If there’s a collective unconscious this is its Tell-Tale Heart Moment.

I hear repeated over loudspeakers at least 10 times in a given day:

“WE AIN’T EVER GETTING OLDER

WE AIN’T EVER GETTING OLDER”

Before this it was another chant about partying like there’s no tomorrow, with a heavy emphasis on the no tomorrow part. Is the end of the world an aphrodisiac? I suppose it must be.

Before the election happened and the actual lines of the laughable revealed themselves, there were polls where Trump and Clinton both were trailing “A Giant Meteor Hitting the Earth.” We could’ve had that, but the two-party establishment kept the meteor out of the debates.

It was presumed that Trump was finished at numerous times; in the beginning of his campaign he was treated as a joke. In the debates he came across as incoherent and possibly coked up to the gills. Trump was the ultimate post-modern candidate, the one who existed outside the binary of “true/false” and won despite it? Because of it?

I wondered as I walked my dogs this week about another world where in fact the Giant Meteor had made it to the debates. Where people laughed off the Giant Meteor but the Meteor had more get up and go. Where members of the press warned “This is literally what killed the dinosaurs” instead of “This is literally Adolph Hitler.” Where the Giant Meteor chose an appropriate running mate, say an outbreak of cholera. I could see the signs on peoples’ lawns.

“METEOR/CHOLERA 2016:

GETTING THE JOB DONE!”

“GETTING THE JOB DONE!” because, of course, “BETTER TOGETHER” was already taken.

As directly as Trump managed to connect with voters in the apocalyptic rust belt, I feel like a Giant Meteor could’ve connected even more directly. The Giant Meteor has had at least as much exposure in TV and the movies over the last 30 years as either of the other candidates and unlike Trump, who only did cameos for the most part, the Giant Meteor has been the de facto star of every vehicle it’s appeared in.

armageddon-poster06

We thought the threat of an American Hitler was enough to warn off most of the US public from voting for one and we were wrong. It’s not like we as a culture didn’t spend enough time obsessing over Hitler. At least one US cable channel could be accurately renamed The Hitler and Aliens Network. They broadcast 24/7.

What odds would Nate Silver have given the Meteor? Who would have been the Meteor’s secret constituency? Who would the Meteor have appointed as its advisers on how best to collide with the Earth?

The Meteor is the bigger outsider. The Meteor could’ve effected substantial change and overcome congressional deadlock. The Meteor has never held public office. The Meteor has never sent any e-mails.

You laugh at this. We all laughed at Trump months ago.

“The Meteor promises all this stuff but it’ll disintegrate in the atmosphere before it gets to congress. It’ll just be business as usual soon enough,” NPR would have said..

Dear god let’s hope so…

Trump and the Culpability of White People, Specifically and Generally

(Note: This article started out as a series of notes I typed in response to a friend who asked me to comment on this article. They’ve been cleaned up but the rambling flow has been retained. Seeing how uncertain the future is in most respects, informal musings seem like as good a form as any for a further response to the election.)

Who’s responsible?

-One specific white person was too busy striking Sam the Eagle poses in the mirror (or during the debates whenever Trump was talking, to all of us watching) imagining how presidential she was going to look when she was presidenting instead of how to effectively canvass large swathes of the country. She was a creature entirely made out of money and girded by money. Only such a creature would think the approval of Lena Dunham is a major campaign asset to be sent around. Much of the scooped out middle of America sees Dunham (and probably most of the other bajillions of celeb endorsements Clinton rolled out) as something emphasizing how out of touch and patrician Clinton was/is. Judith Butler’s discussion of how the appearance of transgression paradoxically legitimizes the things it’s attached to from Excitable Speech needs to be looked over again by the left/center-left. If they ever looked at in the first place.

-The super-rich that actually bankroll these elections were, as the super rich have been historically for the last 100 years or so that fascism has existed as a discrete political ideology, perfectly willing to play out a hostage situation instead of a campaign. “Buy the magazine or we shoot this puppy!” “Elect the person we want or devolve into fascism!” Large portions of America went for the “shoot the puppy” vote, the only time in history that calling anything the “shoot the puppy” something could be considered a positive glossing over. But here we are.

When Brian and I were shooting Plain Songs, we asked strangers the question “Where do you see the US headed in 10-15 years?” A solid 70-80% of the total answers were variations on:

“Ha, like it’ll still be here” or…

“Do you think we’ll last that long?” or…

“To hell”.

When I walked through the “downtown”s of these places and saw one open Hardee’s and a Dollar General that doubled as the only grocery store, I could see their point-there’s an extremely apocalyptic tenor to our present culture. Our landscape is unevenly divided into urban spaces meant to resemble amusement parks/boardwalks and an everywhere else that looks well…like this:

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That’s an original photo I took on the road. I’m provisionally calling it “Freedom Isn’t Free”.

-People interviewed in a Guardian article in the midst of primary season re: “My first choice is Bernie, my second choice is Trump”, all the respondents were airing what I’d call “accelerationist” beliefs-stated more succinctly: “give me full communism or just  fucking end this shit already”. In a poll conducted a couple years ago, 13% of respondents thought Obama was the antichrist and there was a 5% overlap (i.e. 5% of the total people polled) who both thought Obama was the antichrist AND voted for him. I’d be interested to see what percentage of Trump’s voters also thought he was the anti-Christ. If anyone knows whether there were surveys asking this, please contact me.

“…not the Anti-Christ we want, but the Anti-Christ we deserve…”

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-Given the climate change angle, which unfortunately wasn’t focused on much by the candidates or the polling, I’m inclined to take the 5% of antichrist voters at face value. What percentage of the electorate actively want the world to end? What percentage were actively waiting for a “shoot the puppy” candidate? To what extent is this “not exclusively a race thing” because the electorate was set on dooming everybody?

-Why is no one drawing a line between the effects of Clinton’s “deplorables” comment and Romney’s “47%” remarks? They’re as close as we’re ever gonna get to part of history literally repeating itself.

More to come…

Revisiting The Oeuvre of Bazaar-e-Husn

There aren’t many works of cinematic art that become cinematic in their own right. The legacy of these works transcends what is projected on the screen and venture into the arenas of popularity that was quite unintended by the creator itself.

Pakeezah, a Hindi Cinema classic that took almost 15 years to complete, is one such movie whose legacy is unparalleled and finesse unmatched. The fervour around the film was as much due to the stories that revolved around each and every person associated with it as the climactic plot of the film itself.

The journey of making Pakeezah is no less of an odyssey for its director Kamal Amrohi and the lead actress Meena Kumari. They both were in the romantic company of each other both during the commencement and the conclusion of the film, however, going through a judicial separation and an alleged extra-marital affair in between. As much as I would love to delve more into the depths of this theme, the main focus of this work is rather centred upon one of the most intelligently designed sets from the movie – Bazaar-e-Husn.

Translated as a ‘fair of beauty’, Bazaar-e-Husn reflects the budgetary prowess of Pakeezah’s production. Often termed as a perfectionist, Kamal Amrohi had to shed almost a million rupees to build a perfect settlement for a desired reality of erstwhile Muslim royality.

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The set for Bazaar-e-Husn took six months to complete with over 600 men working on it. A publicity material for the film described it as:

“There is nothing make believe in this set. Dozens of genuine shops from the various parts of the country were bodily shifted to the set to lend it the authenticity it demanded. These shops remained on the sets for more than a year involving a payment of huge compensation to their owners. Nothing so fantastic was ever attempted or achieved in a single film.”

Despite involving investment of such magnitude, the set has only been used for just one dance sequence in the entire movie. Since the plot of the movie shifts from Delhi to Lucknow, the only display of Bazaar-e-Husn that we get to see is during the opening mujra of Sahibjaan in Inhi Logon Nai. Despite having such a brief presence, the choreography of Inhi Logon imbued with the charm of Meena Kumari, makes the scenic experience of the establishment quite unforgettable.

In the only dance sequence where the glimpse of Bazaar-e-Husn is shown, we can see the flavour of the tawaif (courtesan) culture of Delhi in its maturity. As Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) is performing her teasing dance number, we can see a lot of motion behind her that manifests itself as daily routine at such establishments. We can see parallel mujras being performed at other courts and commodities such as betel nuts, ornaments and fruits being sold. Despite the commotion in the streets, one finds it really difficult to take his eyes off from the leading lady and take a moment to ponder upon the life at Bazaar-e-Husn. However, as a myriad of vivacity and vividness, Bazaar-e-Husn not just beautifully merges with the choreography of the mujra but goes on to enhance the aesthetics of it. It provides it with a context that paints a picture in the viewer’s conscience which is like a medieval portrait of a desired escape.

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Apart from the monetary shelling, a lot of artistic capital also went on to contribute to the making of this enchanting establishment. Hundreds of dancers were specifically trained for months just for the picturization of that brief mujra sequence of Inhi Login Ne. This not only gives us a glimpse of Kamal Amrohi’s traits of perfection but also goes on to expose his tremendous respect for the art that he intended to pursue.

If Pakeezah was Amrohi’s dearest creation, Bazaar-e-Husn would undoubtedly be his most vivid fantasy. As the making of the movie saw no signs of completion, and while being intertwined in a personal turmoil, Amrohi never shed a single shade of doubt on his brainchild. In an interview which he gave to Time Magazine for the project that he had penned, directed and also intended to act in, he said –

‘Jab tak Pakeezah khatm nahi ho jaati, tab tak mujhe maut bhi nahi aayegi’

(Even death is waiting for me to finish Pakeezah)

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Pictures: National Film Archives of India

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

It was fitting Cohen’s song Everybody Knows anchored the sound track for Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, one of the best films of the 1990s.

When we grieve for a celebrity’s death, we do not grieve for the celebrity.

Leonard Cohen was eight-two-years-old when he died, not twenty-seven like Heath Ledger, the victim of a freak accident involving prescription drugs,  or forty like John Lennon, gunned down in the street by a madman. Cohen died an old man with his work finished. He had successfully completed his life cycle.

I first discovered Cohen’s work in my late twenties. I had just ended an unhappy relationship. My hair was beginning to fall out. I had not accomplished what I had wanted to do in life. Something about Cohen’s gravely baritone and despairing lyrics captured exactly what I felt. I was no longer a child or a young adult. I was a man. Cohen’s music was music for disillusioned adults, not hopeful teenagers.

There will be much performative grieving for Cohen on leftist Twitter and leftist Facebook, followed by the inevitable reminders from people like Ali Abunimah that Cohen was a Zionist who refused to honor the BDS Movement’s call for a boycott of Israel. Well, “that’s just how it goes.” That people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen can be heroes to people on the left even as they support apartheid in Israel is just a contradiction we have to deal with. Great artists contain multitudes, some of it bad. Richard Wagner, after all, was a racist and an antisemite. Roman Polanski is a child molester. Bruce Springsteen endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

Celebrities who reach old age have been around since our childhoods. We grow up with them. We grow old with them. As we age, and face the inevitable disappointments that life brings, they always seem to be lurking around in the background, always there for us to remind us of what we aspire to be. As a “failed writer” I’ve always dreamed of being someone like Leonard Cohen, someone who could write a book called “Beautiful Losers” and get paid for it. Cohen’s words, and his music, are deceptively simple. They give off the illusion that you really don’t have to be a genius to do something similar, that you just have to be sad.

There is a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins called Spring and Fall. Something about it explains why we grieve for celebrities we’ve never met. A little girl is crying over some fallen leaves. Autumn is approaching and she’s sad. The narrator, Hopkins, chides her. You’re not grieving for the trees, he tells her. You’re grieving for yourself. The narrator, in turn, it not chiding the little girl. He’s chiding himself. Unlike the little girl, he does not feel a subconscious premonition that some day he will die. He knows that some day he will die.

When we grieve for a celebrity’s death, we do not grieve for the celebrity.

We grieve for our own mortality.

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

What Happened Tuesday and What We Do Next

(Above: a collection of photographs I took in the southern and northwestern parts of the United States.)

So many pieces of writing about this election have used the word “inevitable”. The scariest part of Trump’s ascent as the slow horror has grown into the situation we are now currently living in was this sense of inevitability. When he started to gain momentum in the primaries, he eventually reduced the Republican field to three and then eventually two rivals who were staying in the race by the end with no chance to win in the vain hope it would deny Trump the nomination. Within the Republican party even some of the most loathsome figures of modern politics in some tiny way redeemed themselves by at least putting up some token resistance to his rise.

This “inevitability” was very much a known commodity in the contest; part of what eventually felled Clinton was her own sense that her presidency was inevitable; that nothing could stop it. I wondered aloud while watching the first presidential debate that when Trump was talking she would seem to position her face at a Sam the Eagle 3/4ths tilt, chin up, as though she was play-acting fantasies she was already the president.

This “inevitability” has been in the air for some time. I remember having conversations 5 years ago that in the aftermath of 2008 and the tepid response, the country was going to swing socialist or fascist.

How long has Chomsky been comparing the US to Weimar?

We now know that the DNC was attempting to foist an oligarchic technocracy on voters; that the party’s strategy (as it had been in the Gore and Kerry runs) had been simply to try to scare everyone about the Republican nominee enough to where they would vote for the most tepid possible candidate far to the right of the desires of their largest constituencies. We know this because of the Wikileaks “Pied Piper” e-mail which directly instructed the media to take Trump, Carson, and Cruz seriously so there would be a weak enough candidate for Clinton to win in the general. The fact that the DNC had this sort of direct power over supposed “journalists” is offensive enough but then that they were willing to gamble millions of peoples’ lives legitimizing a man everyone was rightly comparing to Adolph Hitler from the first days he was campaigning ends the party. They played chicken and we’ve all fallen off the cliff. And to think I thought Assange might have been bluffing about having a bombshell publication.

The Clinton campaign apparently has been consulting on every campaign decision with a highly sophisticated simulation algorithm which has proven itself beyond worthless. It turns out that Hillary was in fact part robot.

Our practice of politics in the past couple decades has been dreamy and impressionistic. We’ve been wrapped in spectacle in all directions; many in our society have denied our society even had a politics. The incredibly vehement response by white people to Colin Kaepernick protesting during the national anthem, an as much as 20% drop in the ratings for games, in retrospect looks like the frightening awakening of a slumbering beast.

I remember being one of maybe 7 people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Saratoga Springs, NY. I remember the anger of the white people who shouted out of their cars “ALL LIVES MATTER YOU LAZY SHITS!”

30 minutes away from Saratoga, in Wellsville, NY, graffitied Nazi symbols with Trump signs were found spray-painted on a building today.

There were memes that foretold this all over Reddit. For years.

There is now a very real possibility of a second civil war.

Why this isn’t crazy talk:

1) Donald Trump’s base is devoted specifically to Donald Trump. He can make direct appeals to them and be given the benefit of the doubt by them when things go wrong-they will blame the weakness of “establishment” Republicans (if Trump wants to get rid of someone) or double down on hatred of immigrants/the left.

2) There are 300 million+ privately owned firearms in the US. It’s logical to presume that the people constituting a solid to overwhelming majority ownership of these firearms are mild to obsessive Trump supporters.

3) A portion of these gun owners probably have been indulging in “survivalist” fantasies as a pretense to fantasize about killing people as some sort of great release of personal tension. Remember that a large portion of the country sympathized with George Zimmerman to the point of granting him minor celebrity. Things from the increase in right wing/police shooting incidents/domestic terrorism to the massive proliferation of end of the world narratives in popular entertainment in the past 5-8 years is symptomatic of the larger beast.

4) The combination of Trump’s ability to blame failings on scapegoats because of the psychological profile of his base combined with his ability to increase hardship on target populations through his being the president gives him a nuclear domestic option over the next two years to whip these people into a violent frenzy if he wants to.

5) As per #3, a large number of these gun owners want to be whipped into a violent frenzy.

It seems very likely that given the sorry, sorry state in which the world has been left to us, much of the rest of our lives may be spent fighting this. If we want to preserve whatever chance still exists that climate change  won’t wipe out the human race, we have to start now. We have to organize and fight to win. We can’t be invested in stupid lefty ego-trip infighting bullshit or else we lose and the species likely ends, if it isn’t already a lost cause.

It seems like the best plan of attack now would be to focus primarily on obstructing Trump in whatever way possible. We need to win heavily in the mid-term elections with progressive candidates willing to play political hardball to retake the House and Senate. I don’t see any other way currently. The actual left as it stands doesn’t have large enough infrastructure to be able to do this without doing it through the existing Democratic infrastructure, much as I would love to see the emergence of a genuine viable third  party.

Congratulations President Fuckface Von Clownstick

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Dear President Von Clownstick:

First things first. I didn’t vote for you. I’ve loathed you ever since my twenties, when you took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the execution of five innocent black teenagers for the rape and attempted murder of the Central Park jogger, a crime that they didn’t commit. You’re a racist and a bully. Your presidency is almost certainly going as bad for the United States as your supporter Chris Christie’s governorship has been for the great state of New Jersey, which wisely rejected you.

Nevertheless, my mood tonight isn’t one of fear and horror or even disgust, but one of schadenfreude. If nothing else, you accomplished what neither Barack Obama nor Bernie Sanders was able to do. You’ve flushed the Clinton crime family out of politics for good. My schadenfreude is not against Clinton’s rank and file Democratic supporters, mostly good people who were stampeded into backing probably the worst nominee the Democrats have put up since Michael Dukakis. It’s certainly not against Muslims, LGBT people, black people, immigrants, or women, people who are genuinely frightened at the prospect of your moving into the White House. My schadenfreude is against the neoliberal, Wall Street elites who thought they could ram another Clinton down our throats.

Unlike Barack Obama, neither your opponent Hillary Clinton, nor her closer advisors were even remotely competent. Obama was a good enough salesman to hawk an unpopular Wall Street bailout and a health care plan that benefited the insurance companies more than the American people. Hillary Clinton was not. Even worse, when Bernie Sanders ran as the progressive Barack Obama promised to be in 2008 , the Clinton crime family, the Washington establishment, and their enablers in the corrupt corporate media sabotaged his campaign. Where Hillary Clinton ran a racist campaign against Barack Obama in 2008, digging up an old tape of his pastor Jeremiah Wright, arguing that he didn’t appeal to “hard working white people,” and helping to promote the “birther” smear, she ran a race-baiting campaign against Bernie Sanders. First the Clinton people invented the “Bernie Bro” smear, implying that Sanders’s supporters were exclusively young, white, sexist men. They weren’t. Then they treated his female supporters, his black supporters, and his Latino supporters as if they didn’t exist. It was clear what the Clinton crime family was trying to do, to divide the working-class against itself, Generation X against Millennials, black against white, straight against gay, men against women. And it was rotten.

After Sanders conceded the race and endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, the Clinton people continued to punch to their left, ignoring the black and Latino working class and outright demonizing the white working class in order to cultivate “moderate,” country club Republicans in a few swing states, and members of the military industrial complex. Sadly but not surprisingly that including Bush-era war criminals like John Negroponte and Colin Powell. It was a strategy that failed almost as completely as their attempt to reach the White house by front-loading the primary process with victories in mostly southern states with tiny Democratic Parties, none of which she had had the slightest chance of wining in the general election. Bernie Sanders probably would have lost Alabama and Mississippi. He probably would have won New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, none of which Clinton could carry on election day.

When her attempt to “pivot” from campaigning for the black vote in the south in the primaries to the “moderate” Republican vote in the Northeast and the Midwest in the general election failed, Hillary Clinton started to play the victim card. A vote against  Clinton was a vote for sexism and racism, not a vote against a corrupt oligarch from a right-wing neoliberal family that the Democrats should have flushed out of the party in 2008. At the end of their campaign in late October, Clinton and her advisors just seemed to lose their minds, becoming almost as detached from reality as Richard Nixon was during Watergate, running on a bizarre Russophobic conspiracy theory that might have seemed extreme during the Cold War instead of against you, Mr. Clownstick, and your obvious racism, corruption, and unfitness to be President. Instead of pointing out that the Clownstick campaign had antagonized Mexico, a country of 125 million people, with accusations that Mexican immigrants were rapists, they decided to antagonize Russia, a country of 150 million people, with their own xenophobic nonsense, charging that the entire Von Clownstick organization itself was controlled from Moscow by none other than Vladimir Putin. What were they thinking?

I don’t know exactly what Obama was thinking when he appointed Hillary Clinton Secretary of State. Perhaps he had just read Dorris Kearns Godwin’s book A Team of Rivals one too many times. In any event,  John Kerry, for all his faults, should have had the job from the very beginning. All of Obama’s real foreign policy accomplishments, like the treaty with Iran, were Kerry’s doing. All of his failures, like the disastrous invention in Libya, were Clinton’s. President Fuckface, if your presidency turns out to be a complete disaster — and it will — you’ve at least accomplished one thing. You’ve made it highly unlikely that a Clinton will get anywhere near the White House, at least in my lifetime. I also think that President Obama’s nomination of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State was more a symptom of his aggregated shortcomings as a leader than a lone, isolated failure. Barack Obama, for all his skill as a speaker and above all as a salesman, was not the man we needed in 2008. At any other time he might have gone down in history as a great President, but in 2008 we needed a genuine progressive, a left-wing populist like Franklin Roosevelt who would have nationalized the banks, jailed the criminals on Wall Street, and restored Glass-Steagall. Instead we got a smooth-talking lawyer who never took a decisive position on anything, who let his rich friends dominate his administration, who let Goldman Sachs pick his cabinet. A President Trump, a President Fuckface Von Clownstick, was probably inevitable from the moment President Obama decided to bail out Wall Street and not Main Street.

So where, Señor Clownstick, do we go from here? Well let me just tell you I think you’re an ugly old racist with small hands and probably a smaller dick, a sleazy old billionaire who’s been to the tanning salon so many times you’ve turned orange, and that you’re likely to become the worst President in American history. I’m sure you don’t care what I think. You’ve just pulled off one of the greatest political upsets in American history. I’m an unemployed loser sitting in my mother’s basement. Maybe you do care. I don’t know. Maybe some of your right-wing extremist followers, the racist, antisemitic, homophobic “alt-right” you’ve been cultivating since you declared Mexican immigrants “rapists” at the beginning of your campaign, care.

Personally, I don’t feel particularly threatened by any of these people, but just keep in mind, if you have any decency at all, that there are people who do. Indeed, for many black people, LGBT people, Muslims, women and immigrants, my schadenfreude against the Clinton crime family is a good example of “white privilege.” I’m unlikely to get deported, gay bashed, or harassed online. I’m unlikely to be put in an immigrant detention camp, stopped and frisked, or shot by a police officer just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s more, even if you don’t follow through on your promises to build a wall along the border with Mexico or ban Muslims from entering the United States, just the fact that you’ve been elected at all has made them feel unwelcome. Perhaps you can reach out to the people who feel threatened and hurt by your victory and reassure them that you consider them every bit the “real Americans” that you consider people who look like me.

Oh who am I kidding? Of course you won’t.

It’s time for everybody on the left, your enemies, to heal the animosities caused not only by your openly racist pandering to the dark side of white America, but also by the more passive aggressive attempts of the Clinton crime family to “divide and rule” the working class in order to steal the nomination from Bernie Sanders. We need to build a broad-based, socialist, anti-fascist movement on the left, and we need to do it fast. We need to hit you, even before you take office. We need to protest your every move, destabilize and delegitimize your administration. We need to make sure you are thrown out of office in 2020. We need to make sure that the F.F. Von Clownstick Era goes down in American history as a freak accident, a stroke of bad luck, punishment from the political gods for not having learned the lessons of our own, dark, genocidal racist history. We need to build a movement that will in effect be an apology to the rest of the world for having elected you to the highest office in the land.

Just like George W. Bush, you are not not now, and you will never be my President.

Sincerely,

Stanley W. Rogouski

The Kid with a Bike (2011)

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The Kid with a Bike is the eighth feature directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the Belgian filmmakers whose breakthrough film Rosetta won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1999. If you’re an American, like me, you probably haven’t heard of the Dardenne brothers. That’s too bad. Rosetta was one of the best films of the 1990s. The Kid with a Bike is almost as good.

The Kid with a Bike opens with Cyril, an angelic looking eleven-year-old boy, repeatedly making a phone call to an out-of-service number. After an adult takes the phone away from Cyril, and he runs out of the room in anguish out into a courtyard and tries to climb over a tall fence, we realize three things. Cyril’s father has abandoned him. He lives in a state-run orphanage. The Dardenne brothers are making an homage to François Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows, a film you’ve probably seen, even if you’re an American.

Cyril’s father, we later learn, is a callow young man who has simply run away from his responsibilities. Right now, all Cyril wants is his bike. It’s only a cheap, department store mountain bike that’s probably worth all of a hundred bucks, but it’s his last connection to his dad. He’s so intent on getting it back that he somehow manages to slip out of the orphanage, and navigate Seraing’s bus system back to their old apartment. We never learn what happened to his mother. Perhaps she ran off with Rosetta’s father (whose fate in the earlier film is similarly left unexplained). The bike isn’t in their old room, which Cyril, a determined and relentless a little boy, has managed to bluff his way inside, but he finds something even better, a new mother.

Samantha, a working-class woman in her thirties – she runs a hair salon — represents an argument filmmakers don’t often make these days. Good is not only more interesting than evil. It’s a lot more enigmatic. The Kid with a Bike never explains why Samantha is so determined to save Cyril – perhaps she’s a grown up Rosetta who had a bad childhood herself – but after he quite literally runs into her arms in public, she becomes his guardian angel. First she buys the bike back from the neighbor who bought it from his father. Then she agrees to become his legal guardian. Cécile de France, who plays Samantha, is a terrific actress, and the Dardennes brothers know how to use her talent. Watching The Kid with a Bike I was almost hypnotized into seeing the world, not from the point of view as an adult, but through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. I never saw Samantha as a sex object, only as a mother. What’s more, I saw her not as an idealized mother, but as a realistic mother. Somehow Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have managed to visualize a perfectly good woman in a completely unromantic way.

The Kid with a Bike dramatizes evil in a similarly down to earth manner. Guy, Cyril’s father, rips his son’s heart out, but he’s not really a bad guy, just a callow young asshole who doesn’t want the responsibility. Wesker the drug dealer, an older teenager who attempts to groom Cyril and seduce him into a life of crime, gives off a pedophile vibe so thick you can cut it with a knife, but he still has a sick old grandmother he helps back up into her bed when she falls out. That evil has a human face leads us to the inevitable question. Will Cyril choose good? Samantha gives him every opportunity but being abandoned by your father is a wound that doesn’t heal easily. Thomas Doret, the 15-year-old Belgian actor who plays Cyril gives a performance well beyond his years, embodying the tormented soul of an abandoned child almost as well as Émilie Dequenne played a bewildered, angry young woman in Rosetta. I dare you to watch the scene where Cyril climbs a fence to get just one look at his (worthless loser of a) father without remembering exactly what it felt like to be a little boy and to lose something you love. If that’s not the purpose of great art, I don’t know what is.