Monthly Archives: January 2017

Emmanuelle Riva: The Francesca da Rimini of French Cinema

Emmanuelle Riva dies on the same day as John Hurt. I’ve always thought he was gay. He wasn’t. Maybe God intended them to be a match in whatever afterlife exists for great actors.

Most people know Emmanuelle Riva from the film Amour as an elderly woman. Very few Americans have seen her in Léon Morin, Priest, by Jean-Pierre Melville, where she plays a young widow during the Nazi occupation of France. I don’t know why Melville was disappointed with Léon Morin, Priest, but it’s one of my favorite movies about unrequited love. It’s worth seeing if you can find a copy. I’d be interested in knowing what everybody thinks of Belmondo’s character. Was he an asshole leading her on? Or was he a sincere man trying to save her soul from her own lust?

Writers Without Money

1

Many American street preachers will tell you that they get most of their converts from hecklers. Unlike people who walk by your fire and brimstone sermon without comment, hecklers are passionate, engaged. Even if they only want to prove you wrong, they’re still interested in what you have to say. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s criminally neglected film Léon Morin, Priest (1961), Barny (no that’s not a typo and no I’ve never heard that name before either), a beautiful young widow in her twenties played by Emmanuelle Riva, is ripe for conversion. A teacher at a correspondence school which has been moved away from the German occupation in Paris to a small town in the Alps, she’s bored. Not to put too fine a point on it, she’s horny. Not only was her husband, a Jewish communist, killed in the Battle of France, most of the men in their twenties…

View original post 1,907 more words

A Republic, We Couldn’t Keep it

trump

At the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, as he was leaving Liberty Hall in Philadelphia, a woman approached the elderly Benjamin Franklin. “Well doctor, what have we got,” she said, “a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s answer, which was recorded in the diary of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention, was sobering and prophetic. “A republic,” he said, “if we can keep it.”

So what is a “republic?”

The western nation state has its origins in the French, British, and Spanish monarchies. Go far enough back in history, and the King of England, France, or Spain was just another feudal lord. Eventually, in each country, a great feudal dynasty, the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Bourbons, became so powerful that it was able to establish the absolute monarchy that would come to define “the nation.” In the Seventeenth and Eighteen Centuries, the transformation of the European economy from feudalism to capitalism demanded a new form of government.

Great Britain and France, the two great peoples of Western Europe, chose different paths. After a brief experiment with a Puritan Commonwealth immediately following the English Civil War, one that degenerated into a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, the British people first restored the Stuart Monarchy under James II. When he became unpopular – absolute monarchy simply doesn’t work in a capitalist economy — they invited William and Mary of the Protestant House of Orange to establish a liberal, constitutional monarchy, essentially an oligarchy of landowners and rich merchants with the king as first among equals.

The Bourbon Monarchy survived the Stuart Monarchy by almost exactly one hundred years, but in 1789, the French people, now a nation, rose up and destroyed feudalism. For almost four years, they conducted a debate among themselves. – “do we want to be a constitutional monarchy like Great Britain?” – a debate that resolved itself after Louis XVI attempted to collude with the invading royalist armies of Prussia and Austria against very the nation his family had been so instrumental in establishing. On August 10, 1792, the Paris mob stormed the old Bourbon Palace of the Tuileries and put the king under arrest. On January 21, 1793, he was guillotined in the Place de la Concorde and the French Republic, the first democracy in Western Europe since the Ancient Greeks, was proclaimed.

The early years of the American “republic” were essentially a debate about what “we” wanted to become, radical democrats like the French, or liberal capitalists like the British. Thomas Jefferson, for example, supported the French Revolution. Alexander Hamilton wanted to crown George Washington king. As anybody who’s ever gone down the rabbit hole on the Internet arguing with “libertarians” – who insist that the “United States is a republic not a democracy” – knows, the definition of a “republic” is a lot more complex than simply “a government without a king.” There are radical, democratic republicans, like Sinn Féin in Ireland, who want socialism. There are conservative republicans like Ron Paul, who want the unregulated rule of the big capitalists.

In 1787, when the woman outside Liberty Hall asked Benjamin Franklin if the United States were to become a republic or a monarchy, and Franklin answered that it would be a “republic if we can keep it,” Franklin indicated how well he understood that there was nothing inevitable about the republican form of government. To “keep” a republic, an Enlightenment ideal developed by intellectuals who had deeply studied the classics and ancient Greece and Rome, you need an educated, politically engaged people, and a dynamic, expanding economy that made it possible to eliminate hereditary class distinctions. As the leaders of the French and the American Revolution well understood, a republic, whether radical or conservative, requires “citizens” not “subjects,” people who want to put in the hard work you need to rule yourself, and not take the much easier route of being ruled by others. In 2016, the majority of Americans chose to be subjects not citizens, declining to vote for any Presidential candidate.

While the history of the United States is bound up with the histories of France and Great Britain, there is one important difference. France and Great Britain, as large and diverse as they are, can draw upon a history that goes back to the Roman Empire. The United States cannot. The British have their monarchy, their language, their Protestant religion, and a long tradition of peasant folk culture that connects them to their ancestors in the Middle Ages. The French have their institutions, their intellectuals, their well-established secular culture, their long, bloody history. In spite of the attempts of the far right in both countries to define the British or French nation as white western, and Christian, the typical Englishman or Frenchman knows it’s a lot more than that. How else would you distinguish a Frenchman from an Englishman? Both, after all, are traditionally white and Christian. In the United States, we have neither that luxury, nor that burden.

Back in 2008, Sarah Palin, the white supremacist John the Baptist to Trump’s white supremacist Jesus, would often refer to “real America,” those rural and exurban parts of the United States that would eventually put Trump in the White House. “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit,” she said, “and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.” It sounds harmless enough. Occasionally, in the Spring and Summer, I’ll ride my bike from Elizabeth, New Jersey to New Hope Pennsylvania, from my urban hellhole to one of those “small towns we get to visit.” I enjoy my cycling trips to “real America” as much as I enjoy going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Donald Trump’s appointment of Julie Kirchner, the former executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) as chief of staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) demonstrates, however, Sarah Palin’s invocation of “real America” was most than just nostalgia for a mythical, small town Jeffersonian past. FAIR, which has been labeled as a white supremacist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has as one of it’s major objectives, to repeal what is known as “birthright citizenship.”

Another FAIR initiative to end birthright citizenship provisions of the 14th Amendment, a longtime goal of the group, was launched in January 2011. IRLI, FAIR’s legal arm, working in partnership with State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI), announced a plan to halt what they call “the misapplication of the 14th Amendment.” At the time of its adoption in 1868, the 14th Amendment ensured that the children of slaves could not be denied citizenship; it now ensures that almost all children born on U.S. soil are automatically granted U.S. citizenship.

https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/group/federation-american-immigration-reform

If there’s anything worth preserving about the United States of America, it’s birthright citizenship, the idea that anybody can become an American regardless of race, religion, or national origin, that if you’re born on American soil, you’re an American, period, even if your parents are in the country illegally. That conservative Americans who voted for Trump have begun to define American citizenship by skin color represents a failure to understand the meaning of the republican form of government. To be more specific, it represents a failure of the American republic to engage conservatives. So they have retreated back into an eighteenth century fantasy world where white Americans were exclusively Anglo Saxon and Protestant, black Americans were slaves, and Asian Americans didn’t exist. They have rejected the idea that the idea of American citizenship can evolve along with the changing demographics of its population.

When Benjamin Franklin remarked that we were “a republic if we can keep it,” he was conscious of the way the British, right up until the United States Civil War, would often refer to the United States as “the American experiment.” If the American republic fell, that probably meant that “we” – in quotes because I’m of German and Polish, not English descent – would go from being citizens of the United States back to being subjects of King George, that we’d end up becoming something like the Canadians. To be honest, that doesn’t sound so bad. But what does it mean now that the United States is a country of three hundred million people spanning five time zones, a vast multicultural, democratic empire made up of the indigenous, the original Anglo Saxon, Protestant settlers, and hundreds of later immigrant groups who come from almost every nation on the planet? We’re not going to invite Queen Elizabeth to annex the United States and welcome us back into the British Commonwealth. Unlike Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington, most of us were never part of the British Commonwealth in the first place. Without the American republic, we have no cultural identity. A Frenchman or an Englishman can be a subject as well as a citizen. An American cannot. When he stops being a citizen, he stops being an American. To lose the American republic is to lose the American nation. No longer citizens, we have become subjects, not of a king, but of the corporations that control our economy.

When did we lose the American Republic? Was it in 2000 when we failed to rise up and protest the stolen election? Was it in 2001, when we responded to 9/11, not with calm determination, but with so much panic and fear that we allowed George W. Bush to take what was left of our civil liberties? Was it in 2003, when we let Bush and Cheney march us off to war in Iraq on imaginary WMDs in Iraq? Was it in 2007, when we failed to demand that the Democrats, now in control of both houses of Congress, impeach the man who normalized torture? Was it in 2008 and 2009 when Barack Obama essentially surrendered the authority of the federal government to the banks? Or do we have to go back even further, to the McCarthy years, when we allowed the Truman Administration to institute a massive standing army and a permanent security/surveillance state, to 1917, when we let Woodrow Wilson smash the American left, strip Eugene Debs of his citizenship, and stampede us into a war in Europe to save, not democracy, but the interests of the British and French empires against the interests of the German empire, to 1876, when the Republican Party made their corrupt bargain with the Democrats, the White House in exchange for allowing the south to shut down radical reconstruction and re-institute white supremacy? Perhaps, like people on the radical, anti-racist left argue, the United States was never a legitimate nation, that it was corrupt from the very beginning, a nation founded on slavery and native American genocide, that in 1776 the British crown was getting ready to abolish the slave trade, and the American Revolution was, in effect, the American Counterrevolution.

The exact year we “lost the republic” doesn’t matter as much as how the “American Experiment” has collapsed under the weight of contradictions that have existed since the very beginning. In 1787, the Constitutional Convention established the American republic. We couldn’t keep it, but let’s look at that, not as something to be mourned, but as an opportunity. As Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “the workingman has no fatherland.” As Emma Goldman wrote, patriotism is the enemy of liberty. The only thing that more perfectly expresses the failure of the “American Experiment” than Donald Trump is how the only other alternative was Hillary Clinton.  In 2017, with conservatives determined to provoke a war with Mexico and liberals determined to provoke a war with Russia, I can very confidently say “a pox on both your houses.” I am no longer an American. I am a citizen of the human race. The American Experiment has failed, and thank God for that.

A Brief Note on Punching Nazis

Last Friday, shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States, a thirty-eight-year-old white supremacist, and Trump supporter, named Richard Spencer was giving an interview in downtown Washington. As Spencer, who has recently come to prominence for coining the term “alt-right,” tried to speak above an audience that seemed largely composed of hecklers, a man dressed in black rushed forward, landed a glancing blow on the side of Spencer’s face, and disappeared into the crowd. The next day, a video of the incident “went viral” on social media.

Watching the now famous video of “the punch,” I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Richard Spencer should have taken a page from the career of Teddy Roosevelt, who managed to finish a stump speech, even after he got shot. Instead of using the attack as an opportunity to do a little grandstanding, Spencer quickly ended the interview, and walked off, rubbing his head, wondering what had just happened to him. His political opponents on social media, smelling blood in the air, piled on, editing, and reediting the video, setting it to music, doing everything they could to keep it in the public eye as long as possible. When conspiracy theories started to appear that the punch was fake, it was obvious that the anti-racist left had won the battle of public relations. Spencer, who had been been the subject of an oddly flattering profile in the liberal Mother Jones, now looked cowardly and weak.

Predictably, many conservatives, and some liberals, stepped up to defend Richard Spencer, trying to shift the discourse from a discussion about the sobering reality of an openly white supremacist President to an abstract debate about “free speech.” Invoking the legendary Skokie affair from the 1970s, where the ACLU defended the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the predominantly Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois, they argued that “free speech” means nothing unless it applies to racist propagandists like Spencer. The anti-racist left, in turn, argued that “free speech,” far from being an abstract right, is part of a social contract. Since a white supremacist like Richard Spencer would deny even basic human rights to blacks, Jews, and Hispanics, he must not be given a platform to spread his genocidal views in public.

I don’t look forward to a physical confrontation with the far right. Not only are they heavily armed, they almost always have the support of the police, and the military. The humiliation of Richard Spencer, an Ivy League Nazi better at conducting interviews with Mother Jones magazine than at winning street fights, was a lucky accident, not likely to be repeated. Another recent incident, this one at the University of Washington, where a supporter of Milo Yiannopoulos, another alt-right celebrity, shot an anti-racist protester, only to be released by the Seattle police without being charged with a crime, will almost certainly be more common in Donald Trump’s America.

Nevertheless, what I might be able to avoid by remaining apolitical is already the everyday reality for most black and brown Americans, who come face to face with a heavily armed representative of the white supremacist state every time they meet a police officer. It’s precisely because the anti-racist left is so desperately weak that we cannot afford to indulge ourselves in illusions about men like Richard Spencer and Donald Trump, whose political allies are determined to drive us out of the public square by any means necessary. “Free speech” is not only the abstract right to speak. It is the ability to make oneself heard. Right now, the far right controls all the branches of the federal government. The corporations control TV, the newspapers, and the Internet. The police control the streets. The anonymous black bloc member, who destroyed with one punch the reputation of a man the media had been grooming for weeks as a “respectable” spokesman for the white nationalist regime of Donald Trump, managed, if ever so briefly, to be a voice crying in the wilderness.

Terror Management Theory and US Fascism

Per Baudrillard etc: The items/clothing/appliances we acquire/use are signifiers constructing our internal and external personas, through public display and the construction of our personal environment (the space in which we internally perform our “private” self.) The purchase of or refusal to purchase commodities is the primary means by which human identity is constructed in late capitalism.

The president is a commodity. The US population has been purposely trained over several decades to see their political choices as being primarily lifestyle signifiers. “I voted for X because I am this sort of person.” vs. “I voted for X because X furthers x, y, z causes.”

Implied lifestyle associations is the primary way language by which data collected on everyone through the internet, grocery store etc is actually sorted and catalogued. The Amazon “If you liked Tucker Max you might like 12 Pack Men’s Shaving Razors” became the Facebook “If you like this page or check in at this location you likely have this income level and work in this industry.”

It can cross reference face recognition tagged photos that are posted. This is how FB and Google analyze your activities in order to target advertising. “Smart billboards” and “smart cities” shows a social organization that developed as much from the shopping mall as the stasi. This is a noisy gaudy fascism.  The aspirational fantasies that were pacifying the populace cease to do so. The customary reassurances of eventual reacceptance into society, the endless fictional romances and killing sprees that seasonally reiterate our self-actualization fantasies, serve as the delayed payoff for the unbearable neurotic loneliness that is the actual experience of our myths of “self-reliance”.
Of course, no one can ever feel “actualized” in the current environment. The cultural monomyth doesn’t hold. Few outside the self-proclaimed meritocracy cult (perhaps even few within it) actually believe what they’re doing benefits society in any way. “Ethical consumerism” is   largely a socially self-imposed sin tax.

The irrational behavior on display on all sides is not the behavior of a society fighting for its life but one with different factions bitterly set on which hole they want to crawl into and die. On some level, by going to the brink they think they will prove that they can’t die.

People around the world are turning to the new fascists because climate change, automation and other horrors bring about universal cultural mortality salience. Mortality salience makes individuals cling to  cultural norms aggressively because the seeming immutability of the society itself is largely a constructed blinder against the awareness of death. The culture shifts to the right and becomes isolationist. Increased mortality salience has been linked to increased religiosity and would go some way to explaining why the Christian right embraced Trump, a man who superficially embraces none of their values.

The racist mob embraces the charismatic leader because the charismatic leader is willing to lie to them. When Trump tweets obvious lies, this is taken by his followers as a sign of virility because it represents a convincing umbrella against the possibility of death. Death being the pervasive tenor of the era, the denial of death in this case becomes the denial of reality itself. Post-truth etc etc

I’ve run into many people while walking dogs who say “Well I hope that it succeeds.” Which is sort of like seeing your house burning down and saying “Well I hope it all burns down. Fuck it.”

Do we actually think we are immortal? Is that why man smokes cigarettes?

Trump is President

trump

A few weeks after Donald Trump was elected President I received a summons informing me that I was obligated “to serve as a petit juror duty for two days or one trial starting January 18.” I was annoyed — I wouldn’t be able to go to DC to protest the inauguration — and even paranoid. Were they targeting potential troublemakers? The reality was a lot more mundane.

Jury duty in Union County, New Jersey is a cattle call. Since they always send out four or five notices for every juror they need, the chances of your actually up sitting for a trial are pretty small. That doesn’t mean you can get out of it. Ignoring the summons means a contempt of court charge and a $500 dollar fine. The process goes something like this. You show up at 8 AM at the county courthouse in downtown Elizabeth, check in at the front desk, and wait in line for a court clerk to make up your ID card, and validate your parking tag. Then you wait some more. Eventually another clerk shows up, and leads you into a crowded jury lounge where you watch two orientation videos before being assigned to a judge, and sent upstairs to a courtroom. It’s about 9 AM. Relax. You have another eight hours to go. It’s going to be a long day.

Once inside the courtroom, you and about a hundred and fifty other people are given a long questionnaire – the judge only needs sixteen people, fourteen jurors and two alternatives – asking about prior jury service, whether or not you’ve ever been charged with a crime or have been the victim of a crime, if you believe in concepts like “innocent until proven guilty,” if you trust the police, and, most importantly of all, if sitting for a trial would cause you personal or financial hardship. Almost everybody pleads financial hardship. It’s excruciatingly, painfully dull. After two days listening to people talk about their upcoming job interviews, sick parents, sick children, doctors appointments, sick husbands, sick wives, and sales conferences that just couldn’t be missed, I was not only convinced that the judge deserved every penny he gets, but that he needed a raise.

I did not plead financial hardship. I wanted to sit for the trial. I thought I could learn something – it was a complex gangland murder case that would have lasted weeks – but since the questionnaire is designed to weed out anybody with strong ideological biases, I was quickly dismissed after I reported that I had been previously arrested at a political demonstration. Another man, someone from the opposite side of the political spectrum – he responded to the question about the credibility of police officers saying that he thought “anybody who doesn’t believe the police should just leave my country” – was excused just as quickly. To serve on a jury in Union County, New Jersey you have to be two things, a good, solid, bourgeois citizen and an ideological blank slate, basically the kind of person who “never talks about politics or religion.” The judge even asked about bumper stickers. “Run for the Cure” was acceptable. “No Blood for Oil” and “Gun Control Means Good Aim” were not.

The next morning, I got up early, grabbed my laptop, and ducked into a local coffee shop to follow the inauguration of the most ideologically right-wing president of my lifetime. Somehow the same country that values the dull, competent, and the apolitical had elected the racist, celebrity billionaire I had despised since the Central Park Jogger circus of the 1980s. I’m too ideologically extreme to serve on a jury, but the same man who once took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the execution of five innocent black teenagers falsely accused of raping a white woman will appoint the Attorney General. He will set the direction of the Supreme Court for the rest of my lifetime, and serve as the Commander in Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen.

I kept thinking about all those people at the Union County Courthouse who had pleaded financial hardship. If America looks like anything, it looks like those people. Not only did Donald Trump lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, the vast majority of the American people simply didn’t bother to vote. There’s a reason why the Union County judiciary has to threaten people with “contempt of court” charges and $500 dollars fines to get them to show up in downtown Elizabeth once every three years. Contrary to what the orientation videos tell you, serving on a jury doesn’t feel like the cornerstone of American democracy. It feels dull, oppressive, and intellectually unengaging. It’s a lot like voting. If the vast majority of criminal cases never come to trial, real political power lies, not in our elected representatives, but on Wall Street, in the military industrial complex, and with that small group of very wealthy men who control the economy. As Chris Hedges once remarked, it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs. It’s impossible to vote for universal, single payer healthcare. As a result, most of us have become alienated from the political process. We brag about how we don’t talk about politics or religion. We worry about our resumes, our mortgages, and about sending our children to the right schools, not about trying to abolish poverty or creating a truly just society. We don’t study history. We don’t read the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution. When asked to participate in the democratic process, most of us plead financial hardship. We have better things to do. We are a faceless, apolitical, amorphous mass.

For most of us, the election of a reality show demagogue to the Presidency will not significantly or immediately affect our lives. The United States is a complex, well-developed country with a disciplined workforce and a high level of education. A year from now things won’t feel much different. The economy won’t collapse. There won’t be a nuclear war. Donald Trump’s America will look a lot like Barack Obama’s America, but make no mistake. The clock is ticking. The foundation of what’s left of our civil society is beginning to erode.

As a New Jerseyan, I feel uniquely qualified to predict what’s going to happen. Back in 2009, we elected out own Donald Trump, a vulgar, loud-mouthed bully named Chris Christie. He managed to appeal, not only to wealthy, white suburbanites who wanted him to dismantle the state’s powerful teacher’s unions, but to the media, who fell for his colorful, Tony Soprano tough guy act. For a while, it didn’t matter. The New Jersey of 2010 did not look significantly different from the New Jersey of 2009. The New Jersey of 2011 did not feel significantly different from the New Jersey of 2010. We got so complacent that the Democratic Party never even got around to supporting their own candidate in 2013, and effectively conceded him the election. Hey, he put his arm around Barack Obama. So maybe he wasn’t so bad. But the clock was ticking. The foundation of our civil society was beginning to erode. Eight years later, the New Jersey of 2017 feels very different from the New Jersey of 2009. New Jersey Transit, once the nation’s best commuter line, is now one of the worst. Christie not only canceled the new tunnel under the Hudson River, and put the money into the general transportation fund, effectively cashing in the 401K for short term expenses, it didn’t even work. He had to raise the gas tax to the same level as it is in New York and Pennsylvania anyway. Unemployment levels are far above the national average. Thirty seven percent of the state is now considered “working poor.” New Jersey could have probably weathered one term of Chris Christie. It couldn’t weather two.

The silver lining in the dark cloud that is the election of Donald Trump is how the President is now so clearly our enemy we can’t fool ourselves anymore. Barack Obama tricked us into thinking he was our friend. Trump scowled his way through his own inauguration. A frog, if put into a pot of cold water that is slowly heated will eventually boil. A frog thrown right into a pot of already boiling water will jump out and survive. We’ve just been thrown into that pot of boiling water, and we know it. Let’s jump.

America, We Hardly Knew Ye

I’ve had this article in the pipeline for the last couple of weeks now. I’m not sure what it is about it, exactly, that I remain unhappy with; perhaps I’m just unhappy to have been reduced to this sort of tone. At any rate, I have many more thoughts on the election and what’s come of it, particularly on Hillary Clinton, that hopefully I’ll be able to articulate to you at some later date. For now, though, Inauguration Day is tomorrow, and it’s time for this article to go up, ready or not.

“Truly, they were as gods who built this place!”
– Bender, examining the ruins of a 20th Century New York Pizzeria, “Futurama”

Negative 17 days into the Trump presidency, the brain drain had already begun. American students are applying to Canadian universities in record numbers, which, while predictable, demonstrates that American students are poorly educated on the topics of nuclear strike targets and of westerlies and trade winds. In the now-inevitable event of a nuclear exchange, pretty much anywhere in the northern hemisphere is the last place you’d want to be. Regardless of who were to launch first (assuming the hostile actor is America or Russia, but let’s be honest: we all know who we’re worried about here), all nuclear-capable nations will likely have fired off most of their arsenals before a single bomb landed. The targets of American bombs would be cities in Russia and, in all probability, China, while the targets of Russian (and possibly Chinese) bombs would be cities in America and in nuclear-capable countries allied with America, mainly those in Western Europe. From America, winds would carry the radioactive nuclear fallout into Canada, and the surfeit of fallout in North America and Eurasia would result in nuclear winter across the northern hemisphere, subjecting the survivors there to widespread crop failure. In unrelated news, Australia has greatly expanded their Working Holiday Visa program.

It took but mere moments for the post-election narrative of exactly what the hell had just happened to emerge. The right wing, tired of years of contempt and ostracization from the left–which they were definitely, never, ever, EVER, even maybe just once, guilty of themselves–came out in force to elect the most contemptible supervillain reality saw fit to cast upon us. Of course, there’s an obvious reason that this is immediately bullshit: Trump, taking advantage of a system which was designed to give states that permitted slavery extra representation beyond that of their voting citizens, managed to win an election despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million ballots. And how fitting is it, really, that the would-be American Mussolini should rise to power on the shoulders of a bizarre, antebellum voting mechanism with a uniquely racist history?

Those opposed to Trump are now routinely chastised in the media–often by others also opposed to Trump–for having a “smug superiority” to rural voters. The rise of Trump, we’re told, is because rural voters resent the left calling them racist when they do racist things, or sexist when they do sexist things. More laughably, it’s because of the attention cities receive, as if putting a majority of your attention on the places where a majority of your citizens and infrastructure are is just bananas (never mind that this isn’t actually where the U.S. budget is going). But of course, to get them to understand what bigoted things are when they say or do them is apparently folly. On the topic of People Who Hate Trump giving shit to Other People Who Hate Trump, this month’s most unbearable episode brings us the usually-astute Anthony Bourdain waxing idiotic about why the election was lost.

“The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we’re seeing now.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in gun-country, God-fearing America. There are a hell of a lot of nice people out there, who are doing what everyone else in this world is trying to do: the best they can to get by, and take care of themselves and the people they love. When we deny them their basic humanity and legitimacy of their views, however different they may be than ours, when we mock them at every turn, and treat them with contempt, we do no one any good.”

Ah, so now we understand. We were the dicks this whole time for rejecting the notions of prejudice and hatred. The people who lament safe spaces in colleges and political correctness in society had their feelings hurt because people told them their racist jokes were racist. We have denied them their basic humanity! They’re nice people out there, in “gun-country,” in “God-fearing America.” Nice people advocate for sexual assault and xenophobia. It’s what all the nice people are doing! And to hell with you if you think you’re better than them because of it. A disposition which, again, they would never have. Right?

In short, the society rejected their bigoted bullying and intimidation, and so they elected a literal bully. The closest we came to racial understanding this year was Glenn Beck ranting about pie. Now, enough about the people who reject U. S. intelligence on the election but got tricked by Colin Powell and a vial of baking soda. Now I am going to talk shit about Hillary Clinton, and the real reason why the Democrats lost the election.

Hillary Clinton is nothing. Do you understand that? Hillary Clinton did not understand this. Hillary Clinton thought that having the most milquetoast, status quo policy positions would place her as a safe alternative against lunacy. Hillary Clinton was wrong, and–and this part is key, now–Bernie Sanders supporters were right. An election is not something that is won by popular opinion, as mandatory voting is not something that exists in America. An election is won with mobilization. And yes, Donald Trump mobilized many supporters on racism. But he gained even more when he hit Hillary on the banks, and her having been in the Obama Administration–yes, Democrats, you’re the establishment when you’re in charge–and her being investigated by the FBI, and her husband meeting with the U. S. Attorney General while she was being investigated, and all of this stupid, typical, smarmy politician bullshit that raises all kinds of red flags for corruption and inauthenticity. And to combat this barrage of credibility-damaging evidence, Hillary Clinton offered nothing. No particular plan, like Build A Wall, or Universal College Tuition, or Medicaid For All, that she was pushing, no grand vision that people could rally around. And, to put a fine point upon her carefully-cultivated image of Generic Politician Robot, she used electioneering software that told her not to even visit Wisconsin or Michigan, the latter of which she lost to Sanders in the primaries despite the same software telling her she had a comfortable lead then, as well. Instead of canvassing anywhere and everywhere there could be a potential Hillary voter, she went to high-stakes fundraising dinner after high-stakes fundraising dinner, determined to instill in the voters the knowledge that she would be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the gremlins pumping money into her coffers.

Unlike Bernie Sanders, however, a comfortable lead over Donald Trump is not something Hillary Clinton ever possessed, and for that Hillary Clinton is my biggest loser of 2016. Hillary Clinton gambled this country away trying to calculate her way toward being a more efficient politician. If elections were poker hands, Hillary Clinton put America on the table while holding a hand full of those cards that explain the rules for other card games. I started this article with a description of what happens when people fire lots of nuclear weapons at one another. You probably already understand this already as Mutually Assured Destruction. You understand this. I understand this. Vladimir Putin understands this. I voted for Hillary Clinton because she understands this. Donald Trump does not understand this. Donald Trump has the temperament of a small child. This is a problem. And Hillary Clinton’s incompetence gave you this problem.

Responsibility for this problem does not lie solely with Hillary Clinton, however, but also with the Democratic National Committee. They just couldn’t stand it, could they? With the barbarians at the gates, a true, progressive nominee for President, one who was mobilizing the democratically-advantageous younger generations to campaign and rally for him. They couldn’t handle it. Every fiber in their being yearns to be the establishment. Barney Frank was questioned during the primaries on Bernie Sanders’s small-donor fundraising and whether or not the Democratic Party should do that. He cautioned against “unilateral disarmament” and countered with a question of his own: “Do you think it would really be better for liberals, regulators, if all the money from the banks went to Republicans, as opposed to just 80 percent?”

Well, Barney, if I was told I was going to fight a guy, and that he’d be paid four times what I’d be paid, I’d have a pretty good idea that I was being paid to lose. Barney Frank, plainly, does not understand this. Hillary Clinton did not understand this. Debbie Wasserman Schultz wouldn’t understand this if it fell out of the sky, hit her on her head, and told her it was from Cuba and wanted asylum. The Democrats as a whole do not understand this.

That is why they fail.

Sicario (2015)

sic

If Zero Dark Thirty were a good film, it would look something like Sicario. Unlike Kathryn Bigelow’s bloated CIA propaganda, Sicario not only has intelligent, subversive politics. It has a tightly written script that keeps you guessing until the very end. It won well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography (the takes in Sicario are so well constructed they make the photography in other action films look like remedial cinematography), Best Original Score, and Best Sound Editing. It’s one of the best films of 2015.

On the surface, Sicario follows the conventions of pro-security-state propaganda pioneered by films like Silence of the Lambs. The film opens with Special Agent Kate Mercer, Emily Blunt cast in the Jodie Foster role, leading a SWAT team against a Sonora Cartel safe house somewhere in Phoenix. It’s fascist propaganda. If you were ever tempted to wonder why big city police departments need tanks, body armor, and automatic rifles, you won’t after the eminently fuckable Ms. Blunt — it’s hard to look away from her — kicks down a door and takes out a shotgun wielding narco thug with one burst from her AR15. That’s only the beginning. “What the fuck?” her partner Reggie Wayne, a young African American lawyer and FBI trainee played by Daniel Kaluuya, says as he rips open part of the wall. What he reveals not only makes you thankful the Phoenix Police Department has a heavily militarized police force. It makes you wonder if if an FBI SWAT team is really enough to fight the Sonora Cartel. I wouldn’t want to into a house like that unless I had a platoon of Navy Seals.

Soon, Kate Mercer gets just that. Dave Jennings, her superior at the bureau played by Victor Garber, calls her into his office to offer her a position on a joint Department of Defense-CIA task put together to hunt down and hopefully arrest Manuel Diaz, the Sonora Cartel lieutenant responsible for the house of horrors in Phoenix. With Jennings are two mysterious, but obviously important men, Matt Graver, a CIA agent played by Josh Brolin, and an ex-Colombian prosecutor named Alejandro Gillick, Benicio Del Toro playing the scariest badass this side of Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name.” While the opening of Sicario was pure Silence of the Lambs/Zero Dark Thirty style government propaganda, director Denis Villeneuve throws us a curve ball Graver and Gillick want Kate Mercer. They don’t want Reggie Wayne. “We don’t need any lawyers on this detail,” Graver says, alerting anybody who’s ever read Richard III – “first we kill all the lawyers” – that the “opportunity” Dave Jennings is offering his young subordinate is more than a little shady. Dave Jennings, in fact, is a terrible supervisor. Like Jack Crawford, Jodie Foster’s superior in Silence of the Lambs played by Scott Glenn, Jennings is withholding information from his young agent. Unlike Jack Crawford, he doesn’t have her best interests in mind. He’s not only a cog in the government machine. He won’t even defend FBI turf against the CIA. Welcome to post-Patriot Act America.

Sicario’s opening is such a virtuoso piece of film making it’s difficult to imagine the rest of the film not being a letdown, but no. Sicario’s second act is almost as good. Since Kate Mercer has no idea what’s going on, she becomes, in effect, the audience’s surrogate, a witness to transformation of the American security state into a gang of amoral gangsters. Her physical beauty expresses a human vulnerability amidst the appalling carnage going on all around her, and what the camera is doing is not really objectification but identification. Since it’s so hard to look away from her, it’s even more difficult to look away from her point of view. To understand the second act of Sicario, it helps to know that Villeneuve developed the plot during the very height of the drug war in Juarez, Mexico, which at the time was one of the most violent cities in the world, a virtual war zone. The joint DOD-CIA operation headed by Graver and Gillick has been assigned to extradite Manuel Diaz’s brother from Mexico to the United States. In any other city, that would mean sending a couple of US Marshals to the Mexican authorities to bring him back in handcuffs, but since the Sonora Cartel isn’t going to allow one of their top lieutenants to be carried across the border without a fight, it takes three SUVs full of Navy Seals, and a convey of Mexican Federales in pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Sicario’s Juarez is such a violent place it makes the favela in City of God look like a nice American suburb. Not only will the mutilated bodies hanging underneath a bridge recall the Iraq War in 2004, the remarkable sense of paranoia Villeneuve manages to build will remind you of Vietnam. Mercer may be riding with a platoon of Navy Seals, but until they cross the border back into the United States at El Paso, death could come from any direction.

The climax of Sicario’s second act is a shootout just over the bridge from Juarez and into El Paso. Gillick and Graver’s team clear immigration only to get hung up in a traffic jam just over the United States border. As the caravan inches its way forward, Grave and Gillick notice one car, then two, filled with Sonora Cartel soldiers setting up an ambush. That the outcome of the firefight is a foregone conclusion — don’t fuck with a platoon of Navy Seals — makes it no less suspenseful. Villeneuve puts us in the boots of American soldiers fighting a guerrilla war. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, El Paso, Graver intimates to Kate Mercer when she protests the operation’s dubious legality, the conflict between the global south and the global north has come home to the American Southwest. It sounds like Trumpite propaganda, and to be honest, that’s the way a Tea Partier will take it – “we’re being invaded” – but in Villeneuve’s imagination things are a lot more complex. After Graver and Gillick torture Manuel Diaz’s brother – the large plastic container Gillick carries into the interrogation session strongly hints that it’s actually an “enhanced” interrogation session that probably involves waterboarding – and extract the methods Diaz uses to launder money as well as a secrete tunnel running across the United States, Mexican border used by narcotrafficker, Kate Mercer wants to start making arrests. That’s not what Graver and Gillick, nor, for that matter, Dave Jennings, want. When men like this talk about a “war” on drugs, they mean a literal war.

After a brief interlude, where Kate Mercer is almost murdered by a prospective one-night-stand, who’s actually a dirty cop working for the cartel, the third act beings.  We find out not only what Graver and Gillick really want, but why it’s called “Sicario,” Spanish for “hitman” in the first place. Gillick, we begin to notice, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, begins to see himself as a kind of dark father figure to the film’s young, female protagonist. Who is this man? Mercer, wonders. What does he want? The “sicario” of the film’s title is in fact Alejandro Gillick. A former state prosecutor in Columbia, he had to watch Manuel Diaz’s boss Fausto Alarcón kill his wife and lower his daughter into a vat of acid right in front of his eyes. The first two acts of Sicario were a masterful piece of misdirection. Unlike Silence of the Lambs and Zero Dark Thirty, Sicario is not pro-security-state propaganda. It’s a revenge film. Gillick has decided to work with the CIA, not because he wants to enforce the law, but because he wants to track down Fausto Alarcón, get past his security, and laugh as he watches him die. The CIA and the American government, in turn, will give Gillick what he wants, not because the want to enforce the law, but because they want to get hold of the drug trade in the southwest, to concentrate all narcotics trafficking in the hands of one man they can control and kill off all his competition. They want Fausto Alarcón, whom they can’t control, dead. They don’t care how many rules they have to break to do it. The CIA and the FBI are nothing but more heavily armed gangsters.

If the third act of Sicario is weaker than the first two, it’s not because it’s any less tense or exciting, but because it’s so much less plausible. Alejandro Gillick is more than just a man. Indeed, the third of Sicario, is a superman story. Gillick’s rage has turned him into a cross between Dirty Harry and The Terminator. Graver, Kate Mercer, the platoon of Navy Seals, the whole joint DOD-CIA operation has been a ruse, a misdirection, to get Gillick back into Mexico and put him face to face with Fausto Alarcón. The more implausible Gillick’s descent into the heart of the Sonoran darkness becomes – he leaves a body count that surpasses some war films – the more demoralizing and disempowering Sicario becomes. Instead of driving a stake into the heart of pro-government Hollywood propaganda, Villeneuve, who’s limited by the action, revenge, thriller genre, goes down the path Richard Slotkin describes in his classic work Regeneration through Violence. Mexico, in effect, becomes “Indian territory,” and Gillick “the man who knew Indians,” the professional gunfighter and mercenary who goes to places neither we, nor Kate Mercer, who becomes almost irrelevant in the third act of the movie, can follow. He also commits an unspeakable act of evil that lifts Sicario above the typical Dirty Harry film – Harry never killed innocents – and hints at the kind of political critique of the American security state that Sicario might have been had it not pulled back at the last minute. Indeed, it’s hard to know what to make of Sicario’s very last scene, where Gillick meets Kate Mercer and, like Hannibal Lecter towards Clarice Starling, decides that the world is a more interesting place with in it. Even though the film studio has planned a sequel – with Brolin and Del Toro but without Denis Villeneuve and Emily Blunt — there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for his character to go. He’s already reached the ninth circle of hell.

From Renee Smith to Sita Devi: Retrieving the Forgotten Enchantress of Silent Era

sd4

Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.

The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.

sd1

Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.

The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.

sd2.jpg

The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.

With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.

sd3.jpg

Picture Credits: British Film Institute

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

blake

In 1969, a thirty-three-year-old English director named Ken Loach released Kes, a fiery protest against the British class system, and the film that would define his career. Set in the northern mining town of Newcastle, Kes dramatized the life of a teenage misfit named Billy Casper, a young man from the lower working class who had few, if any options in life. One day he finds a kestrel, the bird that inspired Gerald Manley Hopkins’ great poem The Windhover, and, in a sense, his own soul. For a brief period of time, he is set free from the dreary high school that seems determined, not only to deny his aspirations, but to crush his spirit. That all ends when his brutish older brother kills the bird, an act of pure spite that reflects how well the English working classes have internalized the the contempt of the ruling classes for their inferiors, themselves. As I wrote in my review of Kes, “In another film about alienated youth, like the French movie La Haine, we need cops. We need the oppressor with a gun and a set of riot gear. In Kes, people at the bottom of English society repress one another so well all we need are schoolteachers and football coaches.” It’s forty-seven years later, and little has changed. Not only has the English class system gotten even worse, Ken Loach has lost none of his passionate hatred for the grubby little bureaucrats who destroy the lives of decent working-class people, and who have nothing to say for themselves but “I’m just doing my job.”

I would like to think that Billy Casper, who was fifteen-years-old in 1969, and who would be about sixty now, grew up to be Daniel Blake, a fifty-nine-year-old carpenter, and widower, who also lives in Newcastle, and who has recently suffered a heart-attack. For Daniel Blake’s cardiologist, it’s an open and shut case. He’s not ready to look for work, clearly eligible for the Employment and Support Allowance benefits program, but Daniel Blake, an honest, forthright man who’s labored for over forty years in the skilled trade that he learned, perhaps, when he accepted the kind of apprenticeship that Billy Casper turned down, does not fully understand the forces that are conspiring for his destruction. The film opens with a phone call. Blake learns, to his chagrin, that it’s not his doctor who will make the decision to approve or deny benefits, but a “health care professional,” an insurance company bureaucrat who asks him a series of questions that have nothing to do with his heart. I would guess that for most people watching I, Daniel Blake, it’s pretty obvious. The “health care professional” is looking for an excuse to turn him down. He should calmly bullshit her “assessment.” Blake is no fool, but he is uneducated, and more importantly, innocent. In fact, if I had to describe Daniel Blake in one word it would be just that, “innocent.” Intellectually he understands what the assessment is all about. “Don’t you work for an American company?” he says to the woman interrogating him. “Don’t ask me about my ass. Ask me about my heart.” Deep down inside, however, Blake thinks the world is fair, that if he plays fair with the bureaucrats at the Employment and Support Allowance program, they’ll play fair with him. Needless to say, they don’t.

Blake, who has no computer skills, is poorly prepared to navigate the bureaucracy at the Employment and Support Allowance program to appeal the decision to deny him benefits. He has to file the appeal online, but he doesn’t know how to use a computer. While in the waiting room at the “job center,” Daniel sees Katie Morgan, a single mother in her twenties who’s told her appointment’s been canceled because she’s late. Katie, a recent transplant to Newcastle who’s been gentrified out of London, protests that she had trouble navigating the bus system in her new city. She’s only a few minutes late, she pleads, clearly in distress. She has no money, and her children are hungry, but the little Eichmanns at the “job center” are as callous to the pretty young woman as they are towards the aging widower. If Billy Casper in Kes finds a pet falcon, Daniel Blake finds a surrogate daughter. Blake, who fights with his neighbors, and is often cranky and uncooperative, even with people trying to help him, immediately comes to Katie’s defense. They become friends. He meets her two children. Suddenly, like Billy Casper, Daniel Blake has a reason to live, two surrogate grandchildren and their mother who have just moved into a run down apartment badly in need of repair, and who can use his skills as a carpenter. As their relationship develops, we begin to think that the film just might have a happy ending, that by helping Katie and her children, Daniel is building an emotional home for himself, that solidarity between members of the working-class might help overcome the indifference of the callous English government. Sadly, it’s not that easy.

There is a moment at Katie Morgan’s apartment that brings home all of the pain the she feels all the more powerfully because of how she tries to hide it. After she cooks a meal for her two children, and for Blake, who has helped her insulate her windows against the coming Winter, Katie’s daughter asks her why she’s prepared three plates instead of four. I’ve already eaten, the young mother protests, but both her children knows lying. Kids aren’t stupid, especially where their parents are concerned. Blake pushes his plate back in Katie’s direction but she refuses the food she so badly needs. She wants the relationship between her family and Daniel Blake to be one of solidarity not charity, and for that she’s willing to go hungry. Later, Blake, Katie, and her two children go to a food bank together. There’s a long line, and an even longer wait, but when they finally get inside the pantry the staff are all kind and sympathetic, nothing like the callous bureaucrats at the Employment and Support Allowance job center. One woman takes Katie’s two children aside and gives them breakfast. Another guides her through shelves filled with fresh vegetables and tins of meat, which, as modest as they are, also look like a rich bounty for the hungry single mother. Suddenly, Katie leans over into a corner, opens one of the cans, and starts eating the tinned meat with her fingers. She’s just so hungry, she sobs, as she’s led to a chair to finish her meal, then breaks down and cries. Katie, who can maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of indifference, can’t control herself in the face of even the most basic kindness, something, we suddenly realize, has been in short supply in her young life.

If I, Daniel Blake hasn’t pissed you off by this point, you’re probably not human, but this film is so powerful that even cold blooded, alien space lizards will be reaching for their pitchforks and torches by the time it’s all over. How could this be happening to good, hard working people in a rich first world country? Is this kind of government austerity really necessary? Did the bankers really need their bailout that badly? I am ambivalent about the ending of I, Daniel Blake, which is as bleak, and gut wrenching as the ending of Kes. I might have chosen differently. I don’t think a happy ending that came out of a friendship built on a spontaneous act of solidarity would have been taking the easy way out. But as with all great leftist agitprop, Ken Loach wants to come out of the theater full of rage. He wants to motivate us to take direct political action, not uplift us morally. I, Daniel Blake is not art for art’s sake. On the contrary, it has a very specific, very concrete objective, to dismantle a system that in Loach’s own words will inevitably drive people to “frustration, despair, hunger and possible suicide.”