Monthly Archives: February 2017

La La Land Would Have Been A Great Movie If It Had Been About Zombies


Early in Damien Chazelle’s romantic musical La La Land, Mia Dolan, an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone, is working as a barista near the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, California. After a tall, elegant looking woman who we only see from behind walks up to the counter and orders a latte, the employees at the coffee shop are transfixed. “Oh I wouldn’t think of it. It’s on the house,” the manager says, and we quickly realize that the woman, who insists on paying anyway, is a famous movie star who has already “made it.” That we never learn her name is no accident. “Movie stars are disposable,” Chazelle is telling us early on in his film. “So why exactly is Mia Dolan aspiring to fame and fortune in Hollywood?”

While Mia’s acting career is going poorly – she’s regularly dismissed from auditions with little or no comment – her romantic life is more promising. She begins a relationship with Sebastian Wilder, an aspiring jazz musician played by Ryan Gosling. It would be hard to imagine Mia or Sebastian lacking for the company of the opposite sex. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are both good looking in that all important “conventional” sense. Nevertheless, Gosling is no Fred Astaire and Stone is no Ginger Rogers. Where Astaire and Rogers seemed to enjoy every moment they were on screen, an infectious mood that gave both of them a natural charisma, neither Gosling nor Stone seems to be having much fun. “What exactly does Mia Dolan hope to express with her acting?” we wonder. Sebastian Wilder turns down a well-paid “gig” as a jazz pianist in a band led by real life jazz musician John Legend because he insists on playing his music his way, but he never seems to be able to express, either in words or on his keyboard, what he really wants. In fact, Legend, who’s a pretty good actor, says more about the future of jazz in thirty seconds than Wilder says in the whole movie.

After Mia’s self-written, one woman play goes badly, she decides to quite acting, and go back home to her parents house in Nevada. It honestly seems like a good decision. Sebastian and Mia come off like a happily married middle-class couple waiting to happen. So why are they wasting time pursuing careers as artists when neither really seems to have very much to say. Perhaps Mia should go back to school. Perhaps Sebastian, who wants to open up his own Jazz club, should considering selling real estate, or stock options, something that would allow him to save up the capital he needs to start a business. Even though Gosling utterly redeems himself as a good boyfriend when he drives all the way out to Nevada to bring Mia the news of a casting director wanting her for an audition the lead in a new movie set in Paris, by this point in a fairly long, over two hours, movie, we’re beginning to get bored. La La Land, which is well crafted and beautifully shot, still needs something to make it more than simply an exercise in style and nostalgia for old Hollywood. After Sebastian drives Mia back to the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, and she nails the audition, all Mia can really do is sit back and wait for a call from the studio that will determine whether she decides to continue her acting career, or look for something else. Does she get to go to Paris and become a “real” actor or not? If waiting is boring, then watching someone passively wait for a call from a casting agent is even more boring.

It was during Mia’s wait for that call from the casting agent that I realized what La La Land had lacked all along: Zombies.

The first half of La La Land, as beautifully filmed as it is, radiates a sad truth about American music and film. It’s dead. Sebastian Wilder and Mia Dolan are a very nice young man and woman with little or nothing to say pursuing artistic dreams that were over before either of them was even born. They are essentially zombies, dead souls going through the motions of acting and playing the piano for ninety year olds. La La Land’s wonderfully shot landscape, full of images from classic American cinema and landmarks of old Hollywood might as well be a morgue. Nobody cares about Casablanca anymore. Nobody cares about James Dean. Charlie Parker was great for his time, but the goal of opening up a jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick” – Charlie Park was called “Bird” because he loved chicken – is more like cultural grave robbing than artistic innovation. The musical and dance numbers are competently done – Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling can both sing and dance – but where Astaire and Rogers not only seemed to float through the air, they also had an authority and an authenticity to their art. They were dancing for a reason. The classic musicals of the 1930s had a purpose. For the price of a movie ticket you could escape the Great Depression.

Stone’s and Gosling’s performances, by contrast, are not only heavy and workmanlike, you can never quite forget that they’re “acting.” It constantly reminds you that their characters are both unsuccessful performers, and more importantly, as of yet unfulfilled careerists. In the movie Swing Time, Fred Astaire hopped a freight train to New York with less than fifty cents in his pocket, but you still got the sense that even if he never made the big time it wouldn’t bother him. All he wanted to do was dance. With Stone and Gosling, the goal seems more important than getting there, success more important that having fun. They don’t really enjoy those musical numbers for themselves, but only as a means to that mansion in West LA and that spot on the Hollywood A List. How much more enjoyable Stone and Gosling would have been, therefore, if they had sung and danced as zombies, if Gosling had twirled Stone around the dance floor only to rip her nose off her face before losing an arm trying to pick her up, if Damien Chazelle made it explicit that if you pursue a dead art, your soul will eventually die, that if you go through dance moves that no longer matter you basically end up dancing like corpse. Ah, if only the moral dilemma in La La Land had been “should I behead my true love” rather than “should I break up with my true love so I can make it in the film business.” Just a few thousand dollars of zombie makeup could have turned a very good film into a great one.

Damien Chazelle should have given us zombies, but I can certainly understand why he didn’t. He was making a “serious” film that will eventually be re-released by Criterion, and zombie movies never win “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards. So instead of zombies, he gives us an alternative timeline, constructs two parallel narratives that represent “what was” and “what might have been.”

We never find out for certain whether or not Mia gets the part in the film set in Paris, but we do know that she becomes a successful actress. “Winter Five Years in the Future,” the title card tells us as we see an elegant looking woman, filmed from behind, walk into the coffee shop that used to employ Mia. After the manager offers her her latte for free, and she insists on paying anyway, we realize that the elegant looking woman is in fact Mia Dolan, that she’s finally made it in Hollywood. We also assume that she and Sebastian, who like Mia is shown to have found success are both happily married. He’s found a way to open up his jazz club after all. OK, we think, it’s a rather forced happy ending, but at least it’s a happy ending. But then we notice something strange. What the fuck!! Mia is married to another guy, and not someone whose character had been previously established earlier in the film, but literally just “some guy.” We never even find out his name. Husbands, like famous actress shot from behind in coffee shops, are disposable and interchangeable. Even though Sebastian and Mia very credibly swore to each other that they’d always love each other, their marriage and their finding success, were mutually exclusive. So Mia gave up Sebastian for her acting career and Sebastian gave up Mia for his jazz club. La La Land, we conclude, is a romantic movie with a very unromantic ending.

But Damien Chazelle has a surprise up his sleeve. La La Land doesn’t have one ending. Similar to the way Tom Tykwer uses multiple timelines Run Lola Run, it has two. The final twenty minutes of La la Land, I have to admit, are terrific, and will probably get Chazelle a Best Picture Oscar. Mia and “that guy she’s married to” – did I mention he doesn’t have a name, that he’s just “some guy?” – get stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway. So they take the most convenient exit and duck into a nightclub for dinner. You can almost feel Mia’s heart leap when she notices that the club is called “Seb’s” for “Sebastian” and that it is indeed her ex lover playing the piano. She imagines the marriage with Sebastian that never happened. Let’s call it “A Wonderful Life that Never Happened.” It’s not only beautiful and heart rending, it also makes you realize what Mia and Sebastian had been lacking all along. If you can give up your true love for your career, even it’s a career in music or film, then you’re not an artist. You’re a yuppie. You’re a hard headed business man, or woman, who should be selling real estate or stock options, not starring in movies or playing the piano. That Damien Chazelle couldn’t dramatize how Mia and Sebastian went from miserable failures to the A List Hollywood elite, that he simply jumps five years into the future, and presents their triumph as a fait accompli probably says even more than he intended to say. In 2016, in the dying capitalist empire of America, art is all form, no substance. You can make nice looking films or music that people can dance too, but it has little or no relevance to how people actually live, and if it does, you probably won’t be able to sell it.

In other words, we live in a dead culture. That’s why La La Land, as a good a film as it is, would have been so much better had it been about zombies. Damien Chazelle should have used zombies.

Radio Without Money Episode 1: Are Chair Shots Still Allowed?

Welcome to Radio Without Money, the official podcast of Writers Without Money! Today on the show, Aloysius VI and I discuss Flynn’s dismissal, memories of proto-Alt-Right-neonazi-whatevertheyrecalledfuckthosedickwipes, the Super Bowl and how pro wrestling relates to labor politics! Stream it below.

Hopefully there will be new episodes of this once a week, possibly even more frequently once I get the mixer working. If you’d like to be on the show or would like to syndicate this to your local community radio station, leave one in the comments.

Check out the next episode!->

Prince of Foxes (1949)

After watching a series of grim, minimalist “art movies” by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, and having a sudden craving, not for the social realism of the “Pre-Code” Hollywood of the early 1930s, but for a classic Hollywood costume drama of the 1940s or 1950s, I stumbled upon a film called “Prince of Foxes.” It’s on YouTube in full. Based on a historical novel by a long-forgotten writer named Samuel Shellabarger, it was directed by the American director Henry King, filmed entirely on location in Italy, and stars Tyrone Power as a Renaissance mercenary, or “condottieri,” in the service of the infamous Caesar Borgia. Consuming Prince of Foxes after Tony Manero and Post Mortem was a bit like going to a Greek diner an ordering a “cheeseburger deluxe” after living on brown rice and vegetables for a month. As delicious as the romanticized view of Italian history, which reflects New Deal America at its height, and the straightforward plot were, like greasy french fries covered in ketchup, I’m beginning to find that my tastes are getting a little too good for classic “Code” Hollywood. Something was missing. I wanted a tragic view of history and a tough-minded education in power politics. I got a happy ending that felt a little too much like a cop out. Nevertheless, Prince of Foxes is one one of the most illuminating American costume dramas I’ve ever seen, partly because of the on location shots in the tiny Italian city state of San Marino, and the polished cinematography, but mainly because of one man, Orson Welles.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a perfect mixture of good filmmaking and bad filmmaking as Prince of Foxes. Welles, who plays Caesar Borgia – if you’ve read Machiavelli’s Prince you know him as a kind of Renaissance Otto von Bismarck, as one of the first practitioners of “realpolitik” – gives Henry King’s movie a depth it probably shouldn’t have. It’s more than just the fact that Welles was a charismatic actor, although he’s certainly that and more. Its that his tragic biography as one of the great artists of American civilization who was stymied, not only by powerful enemies like William Randolph Hearst, but by Hollywood’s shallow commercialism, gives him an aura that contrasts with the shallow commercial and insipid optimism of the film as a whole. The plot revolves around Borgia’s attempt to united Italy and the diplomatic mission of Andrea Orsini, Tyrone Power, a soldier of humble birth who dabbles in painting passing himself off as a member of an old aristocratic family, to the Castel del Monte in Abruzza. Citta del Monte, as it’s called in the film, is a paragon of republican, republican with a small r, virtue. While Borgia believes that might makes right, and the ends justify the means, the elderly Count Marc Antonio Verano, the ruler of Citta del Monte, believes in liberty, freedom, and self-governance, wants no part of Caesar Borgia’s united Italy. Borgia, therefore, has assigned Orsini, a clever and unscrupulous mercenary, to get into Citta del Monte on a mission of good will, assassinate Verano, and make it look like an accident.

Verano, who’s played by the sixty year old British actor Felix Aylmer, also has a much younger wife, Camilla Verano, who’s played by the twenty-one-year-old Wanda Hendrix. Would you believe that Andrea Orsini and Camilla Verano “meet cute” on the way to Citta del Monte? That Orsini initially has no idea that she’s anything more than a fan of his painting? That she’s deeply respectful of her elderly husband’s democratic ideals? That once inside Citta del Monte, Orsini falls so in love with “Madonna” Camilla that he can’t go through with the plot to assassinate her husband? That he becomes a turncoat, organizes the resistance to Borgia’s invasion and that Count Verano is conveniently killed outside the city walls to get him out of the way so that the young couple can get married? That Camilla is a feisty presence herself who wants to resist the Borgias? That Orsini leads a valiant resistance that inevitably fails because the brave citizens of Citta del Monte are outnumbered? That Orsini nobly surrenders himself to an almost certain death by slow torture in order to save “Madonna” Camilla and Citta del Monte? That things look really bad for awhile until Mario Belli, Orsini’s wily comic sidekick played by Everett Sloane, manages to bluff Caesar Borgia, who turns conveniently stupid, into letting him have custody of the prisoner, and it’s a clever ruse which lets Orsini escape? That Borgia, as wicked as he is, has an even more brutal henchman who locks Camilla up in a dungeon when she tries to follow her now lover out of the city and is rescued by a daring sneak attack by Orsini, Belli, and the now aroused citizens of Citta del Monte?

Of course you would. Prince of Foxes is the one hundredth remake of the kind of romance Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland perfected a decade earlier in Michael Curtiz’s great film Robin Hood, but which by 1949 had become stale and formulaic. You can guess every plot twist twenty minutes before it happens, and yet it doesn’t detract from the entertainment, mainly, once again, because of the presence of Orson Welles. In the climatic scene where Caesar Borgia tries to turn Camilla Verano against Andrea Orsini by revealing his humble background, Welles, who was all of thirty four years old in 1949,  talks to Power — who was a year older at thirty five — and Wanda Hendrix like a sadistic, but amused father toying his naughty children. The fact that the naughty children get the upper-hand and that you know they will is what makes the film so illuminating. Hendrix, who’s by far the worst, and yet best, thing about Prince of Foxes is ludicrously miscast as a Renaissance Italian. It’s not just the American accent, but her whole presence. It all comes off a bit like Gidget Gets all Serious and Goes to the Renaissance, and yet her vapid performance is what gives scene so much weight. Somehow Welles, a guy from the Midwest, really seems to believe that an all American girl like Hendrix will reject a “cute boy” – and one who’s already a war hero – just because his parents were working class. It’s even funnier when you realize that Wanda Hendrix was briefly married to the real life American war hero Audie Murphy, and yet somehow Welles pulls it off, establishes himself as “Old Europe” to Power’s and Hendrix’s Southern California, as Mussolini or Francisco Franco to their New Deal America, and relishes every minute of it. All it takes to conquer fascism, the film seems to be telling us, is an American boy and an American girl willing to defend truth, justice, and the American way.

Yet the irony is that in real life it was Welles who was the idealist, the great artist put in chains by a cynical American commercialism, and Powers who was a conventional movie star. Prince of Fox’s happy ending, the kind of formulaic resolution forced on American cinema by the Production Code and adopted by Hollywood studio bosses as an easy moneymaker, embodied the true cynicism at the heart of the American empire. Welles, on the other hand, as we know from watching Citizen Kane or the Magnificent Ambersons, had a tragic, not an facile and optimistic view of American history. This is the way power works, his portrayal of Caesar Borgia seems to say, and we can’t just ignore it. It’s too bad we still do.

Post Mortem (2010)


Most people who have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art have probably seen “Ugolino and his Sons,” the gigantic statue by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux that stands near the entrance of the Petrie Court Café. While there are few thing more pleasant than hanging around the Carol and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Garden on a Spring day, and looking through the towering plate glass windows out over Central Park, there are few stories in western literature more horrifying than the history of Ugolino della Gherardesca and his executioner the Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini. In 1284, Ugolino, the “podesta” (dictator) of the city of Pisa, lost a decisive naval engagement with the rival city of Genoa at the Battle of Meloria. Although he was captured, the Genoese sent Ugolino back to Pisa, where he would secretly act as their puppet ruler. Four years later in 1288, during a severe famine, Ruggieri, who hated the podesta for killing his nephew, led an uprising that trapped Ugolino and his allies in the town hall, where they eventually surrendered, and were imprisoned in “The Muda,” now known as “the tower of hunger.”

What happened next is best described by Dante Alighieri in The Inferno.

Thou hast to know I was Count Ugolino,

And this one was Ruggieri the Archbishop;

Now I will tell thee why I am such a neighbor.

That, by effect of his malicious thoughts,

Trusting in him I was made prisoner,

And after put to death, I need not say;

But ne’ertheless what thou canst not have heard,

That is to say, how cruel was my death,

Hear shalt thou, and shalt know if he has wronged me.

A narrow perforation in the mew,

Which bears because of me the title of Famine,

And in which others still must be locked up,

Had shown me through its opening many moons

Already, when I dreamed the evil dream

Which of the future rent for me the veil.

This one appeared to me as lord and master,

Hunting the wolf and whelps upon the mountain

For which the Pisans cannot Lucca see.

With sleuth-hounds gaunt, and eager, and well trained,

Gualandi with Sismondi and Lanfianchi

He had sent out before him to the front.

After brief course seemed unto me forespent

The father and the sons, and with sharp tushes

It seemed to me I saw their flanks ripped open.

When I before the morrow was awake,

Moaning amid their sleep I heard my sons

Who with me were, and asking after bread.

Cruel indeed art thou, if yet thou grieve not,

Thinking of what my heart foreboded me,

And weep’st thou not, what art thou wont to weep at?

They were awake now, and the hour drew nigh

At which our food used to be brought to us,

And through his dream was each one apprehensive;

And I heard locking up the under door

Of the horrible tower; whereat without a word

I gazed into the faces of my sons.

I wept not, I within so turned to stone;

They wept; and darling little Anselm mine

Said: ‘Thou dost gaze so, father, what doth ail thee?’

Still not a tear I shed, nor answer made

All of that day, nor yet the night thereafter,

Until another sun rose on the world.

As now a little glimmer made its way

Into the dolorous prison, and I saw

Upon four faces my own very aspect,

Both of my hands in agony I bit;

And, thinking that I did it from desire

Of eating, on a sudden they uprose,

And said they: ‘Father, much less pain ’twill give us

If thou do eat of us; thyself didst clothe us

With this poor flesh, and do thou strip it off.’

I calmed me then, not to make them more sad.

That day we all were silent, and the next.

Ah! obdurate earth, wherefore didst thou not open?

When we had come unto the fourth day, Gaddo

Threw himself down outstretched before my feet,

Saying, ‘My father, why dost thou not help me?’

And there he died; and, as thou seest me,

I saw the three fall, one by one, between

The fifth day and the sixth; whence I betook me,

Already blind, to groping over each,

And three days called them after they were dead;

Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.”

I sometimes dream about being a Medieval Italian, of going back to Frederick II’s court at Palermo, of climbing Mount Ventoux with Petrarch, or joining a Ghibelline mob and fighting it out in the streets of Florence against the Guelphs in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor. Italy in the Thirteenth Century was a violent, treacherous place, but people were larger than life, romantic, fully developed individuals in a way no American in 2017 can possibly imagine. Whenever that dangerous mood strikes me, I always go back to The Inferno, and realize that it’s largely an invention of the Nineteenth Century, of Jacob Burkhardt, Nietzsche and the German Romantics. For a Thirteenth Century Italian, life on earth was a veil of sorrows, a brief test to determine where God would send us for the rest of eternity. The sinners in Dante’s cantos are not grand heroic individuals. They’re shades, dim reflections of what they were before they died without grace, flickering light bulbs in a dimly lit basement smelling of mold and cobwebs, half-alive bodies thrown on top of a pile of cadavers longing for the cold embrace of death. Even the sinners of the upper circles of hell, Francesca di Rimini or Farinata degli Uberti,a man who “seemed to hold all hell in contempt,” once noble souls being punished because of too most lust or too much love of country are fractured personalities who see dimly into the future and dimly into the past, who see the present, not at all, and who wait for the inevitable day when their minds are snuffed out forever.

“We see, like those who have imperfect sight,

The things,” he said, “that distant are from us;

So much still shines on us the Sovereign Ruler.

When they draw near, or are, is wholly vain

Our intellect, and if none brings it to us,

Not anything know we of your human state.

Hence thou canst understand, that wholly dead

Will be our knowledge from the moment when

The portal of the future shall be closed.”

In the 2010 Chilean film Post Mortem, Nancy Puelma, who’s played by Antonia Zegers, the wife of director Pablo Larraín, is a shade, not in Dante’s Inferno, but in the hell on earth created by Margaret Thatcher’s pet fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet. A woman somewhere in her thirties or forties, she has lost her job as an exotic dancer at the Bim Bam Bum cabaret, not because she’s too old, but because she’s too thin. Puelma, like Ugolino della Gherardesca, is a hunger artist, a soul wasting away into oblivion even as her flesh is consumed by her own inability to eat. On the eve of Pinochet’s coup on September 11, 1973, Nancy Puelma no longer wants to inhabit her own body, but to disappear into the ether of her emotions, which, by the time the film opens, have long since degenerated into irritable, nervous tics. She hates cats. They stink. She hates fat people. They have no self-control. She can’t eat rice. It’s “too rich.” An indifferent supporter of Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende, she has a communist father and Victor, her militant leftist boyfriend played by Marcelo Alonso, a tall, dark-haired hippie from central casting, but she has no more stomach for revolution. Nancy, like Chile, is waiting for the inevitable ax to fall, the long awaited pro-American coup that everybody knows is coming, but nobody can quite figure out how to stop. Nancy Puelma is such a beaten down soul that what she fears isn’t hell, but purgatory. Purgatory, after all, means struggle. Hell is a kind of surrender.

When the ax falls for Nancy Puelma it’s not Pinochet or Henry Kissinger or the Chilean Army. It’s Mario Cornejo, her gaunt, gray haired, creepy little neighbor played by Tony Manero’s Alfredo Castro. Cornejo, a clerk typist at the city morgue, where he writes up reports on autopsies conduced by his boss Dr. Castillo, a militant leftist who immediately collaborates with the new regime after the coup, and his assistant Sandra, who wields the knife, is almost as gaunt and wasted as Nancy Puelma. Somewhere in his forties or fifties, and almost certainly a virgin, Mario Cornejo goes to work every morning in his boxy little Fiat, types up his reports – or tries since he can’t really type – and comes home every evening eat a grim little repast of one fried egg and a cup of white rice. If Nancy is an indifferent leftist, then Mario has no politics at all. He’s the kind of incomplete little soul who decided not to rebel against his parents when they told him “never to talk about politics or religion,” or against anything else for that matter. Mario is more automaton than human, more shade than body, more of a collection of habits than a fully formed human being. He’s also hopelessly in love with Nancy Puelma.

Post Mortem, like Dante, is not for the broad masses of the American public. Pablo Larraín, who’s stylistically indebted to the Dardenne Brothers at their most irritating, ha made a film that will bore the hell out of ninety nine percent of the filming going audience. That’s probably why it only has eight reviews on IMDB. Larraín makes no concessions to the audience. If you’re not familiar with the history of Pinochet’s coup, it will probably just confuse you, and will probably still confuse you if you are. Superficially a linear narrative, Post Mortem often jumps forward or back in time, then back into the present without much notice, or even reason to notice. Filmed in an unusually wide format, Larraín will occasionally cut off heads or feet, or drop you into a sex scene filmed from behind without letting us know who’s fucking who. There are long, boring passages of characters performing perfectly mundane tasks with no explanations about why they’re even there. If you don’t know the story from The Inferno – or if you haven’t read the Americanized version, Poe’s Cask of Amontillado – the ending will leave you completely lost at sea, and if you weren’t paying close attention earlier in the film during a seemingly routine autopsy you won’t even be able to guess what happened to her. Post Mortem is an uncompromising “art film,” and if Dark Knight or Rogue One are your thing, it’s probably not for you.

It’s also a masterpiece. Pablo Larraín, like the Dardenne Brothers, will bore the hell out of you for long stretches of the film’s running time, but when the critical moments come, oh boy do they come. Larraín, like the Dardenne Brothers, is the master of the “oh what the fuck, where did that come from, why the hell did you do that?” moments. The heroine of the Dardennes Brother’s great film Rosetta, snitches on a coworker and gets him fired, even contemplates letting him die, for seemingly no other reason than that he wants to be her friend. Tony Manero bashes in a theater owner’s brains just to steal a copy of Saturday Night Fever that he could have just as easily picked up and walked out of the theater with without anybody even noticing. Larraín is the master of the double tap narrative twist. Tony Manero watches an old woman being mugged, then walks her home, only to murder her and steal her TV, but not before feeding her cat.

We realize pretty early in Post Mortem that Nancy Puelma somehow dies of hunger. “Female,” the autopsy report says, “weight, 41 Kilograms” about 90 pounds. But the film telegraphs its inevitable outcome in such a confusing, haphazard, murky way that we forget it about it almost as soon as it passes. Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps we imagined it. Perhaps it was another Nancy. We quickly return to Mario’s “courting,” if “courting” is the right word, of his next store neighbor, a once glamorous exotic dancer who only a few years ago wouldn’t have given him the time of day, but now, depressed, anorexic, unemployed, waiting for the inevitable coup, goes on a date with the creepy little man if only because she’s too bored to do anything else. Their date, and Tony’s marriage proposal, are cringe worthy, mostly because they’re so realistic, at least for me. I’m in my 50s, about the same age as Mario is in Post Mortem, and I’ve finally learned to tell the difference between a woman who likes me and a woman who barely notices me. Mario Cornejo, on the other hand, reminds me of myself when I was twenty five, when I was the kind of man many women avoid even saying hello to because the understand that one “hello” can lead to an obsession. If Post Mortem has a Utopian movement it’s the way a fifty year old man can get a teenage crush on an unattainable woman. If Nancy Puelma ends up, not in purgatory, but in hell, it’s because she got careless, and accidentally ignites a passionate fixation that will eventually lead to her getting buried alive and, like Ugolino, dying of the hunger she thought she wanted.

Port Mortem has such a minimalist style that when Pinochet launches his coup, we barely notice it. Mario is in the shower. Some helicopters buzz overhead. He hears a truck full of soldiers in the street below. Did something happen? After he tries himself off, he walks across the street to the apartment where Nancy, her brother and her father live. It’s deserted. The place is also a smoking wreck. Pinochet’s death squads, it seems, have carted off the whole family in the time it took for Mario Cornejo to wash his hair and wrap himself in a towel. The only thing left is Nancy’s badly wounded little dog, who Mario scoops up, puts in a bag, and takes with him to his job at the morgue to treat his wounds. Needless to say, a morgue on September 12, 1973 in Santiago Chile was a busy place, and Mario, who’s vaguely aware that the coup has taken place – he has every reason to believe the death squads carted off his girlfriend – is still shocked, not only by the way it’s been occupied by the Chilean Army, but how its full of full of piles upon piles of corpses, so many dead bodies that even his coworker Sandra, who’s been slicing and dicing cadavers for decades, can barely keep herself from throwing up. Mario is too zombified to notice, but we notice that his boss Dr. Castillo, who was a belligerent, loud mouthed leftist before the coup – he’d lead his subordinates in chants of “Ho. Ho. Ho Chi Minh the NLF is going to win – is all too eager to cooperate with the authorities to save his own skin. These are my trusted people, he tells Captain Montez, the Chilean army goon now in charge of the morgue, before he sends Sandra back to her job dissecting bodies, and gives Mario – who was never a very good clerk typist – extra work carting bodies from the never ending stream of trucks unloading them out front, to be bagged, tagged, and given a fictional natural cause of death inside. Mario’s role in the coup becomes, in effect, is to become nothing more than a bored warehouse worker, unloading pallets of goods from the deliver trucks and stacking them on the floor to be sorted into their proper places. Post Mortem is in fact such a pitch black comedy that when we, and Mario, realize that some of the bodies he’s carting into the morgue are still alive, we can’t help but think of that iconic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where a man drags a wagon through a filthy medieval city during a plague shouting “bring out your dead.”

Post Mortem’s centerpiece, the “post mortem” of the title, the infamous autopsy on Salvador where the Chilean army coerced the medical examiner, Dr. Castro, and his two assistants, Sandra and Mario, into falsifying a report that it was a suicide, not a murder, is as harrowing for us as it is for Sandra and Dr. Castro. For Mario, on the other hand, it’s merely a distraction. Why does he have to go and participate in a historical event when he really wants to look for the woman he refers to as first his “girlfriend” and then his “wife,” the same woman who barely knows he’s alive and who we think probably ended up trapped in that makeshift detention camp the Chilean Army build in Santiago’s soccer stadium along with every other leftist in Chile? Nevertheless, after the autopsy is over, he finally gets to go home, and he goes back to Nancy’s apartment, for a few brief minutes we’re deliriously happy when he finds her in hiding, hole up in a basement closet, in mourning for her brother and father, but still very much alive. Perhaps, we think, Post Mortem will have a happy ending after all, that Mario will hide Nancy – who as an unemployed sex worker probably doesn’t have a very extensive paper trail – until the coup blows over. Maybe in 2010, we think, they’re a happy couple looking back at the catastrophe of 1973, thankful to have survived. We quickly notice, however, that something is very wrong. Mario might “love” Nancy but he doesn’t seem very good at hiding her, or even willing to help her at all. She asks for a radio. He brings her one that runs only on AC power. No longer anorexic, she asked him to bring her food. He fries up an egg and brings the whole frying pan out to her hiding place. When she notices his carelessness, she suggests that he put a piece of furniture in front of the door just in case the army stops by to have a second look. He complies with her request, but that suggestion, we eventually realize, is her doom. Mario might not have an original idea in his brain, but his subconscious is infinitely malleable.

The next time Mario returns he’s shocked to find not only Nancy but her lover Victor. The look in his eyes remind us of a fourteen year old after he caught his high school sweetheart necking with the star quarterback, but they don’t see it. They trust him. They ask him for food. We notice, to our disappointment, that he still has not brought her the battery powered radio, but still hope that the couple survive the coup. Mario goes across the street, fries another egg, and brings it out to their basement closet, soon to be tomb, a sparse meal for a grown man and woman, but still better than nothing. Then Nancy seals her fate. She asks for cigarettes. Mario looks at Victor, then Nancy, then Victor, perhaps in the same way Archbishop Ruggieri looked at Ugolino all those centuries ago in Pisa. They’ve betrayed him. Nancy, the woman he thinks he loves is, like Salvador Allende in the eyes of a Chilean fascist, a traitor. He agrees to get the cigarettes. They thank him. He closes the door and puts the cabinet back in front. Then he puts a chair on top of the cabinet. Better safe then sorry, we think. But then he adds a table, and another chair, another table, another chair, two more cabinets, a dresser, and finally a bike. To our horror, we see Nancy and Victor pushing on the door from the inside, trying, in vain, to move the ever expanding pile of junk out of the way before it’s too late, but we realize it’s hopeless. The banging stops. Mario doesn’t. Somehow he manages to find more cabinets, more dressers, more tables and more chairs. Eventually, like in a Dardenne Brothers film, the tape just breaks, and the movie ends. Mario keeps going. He’s still piling furniture in front of that door when the credits role and we can almost imagine it he’s still doing it today. We realize how Nancy died of hunger. Female, weight 41 kilograms, death, protein deprivation and extreme dehydration. We think about what it must have been like for Nancy and Victor during that seven or eight it took for them to die. At least Pinochet’s goons just shot people in the back of the head. The coup, we realize, was only the tip of the iceberg.

Tony Manero (2008)


“Tony Manero” is the kind of name that will instantly ring a bell. It will also leave most people scratching their heads. “Where have I heard that name before?” they’ll wonder for a few seconds before finally realizing that Tony Manero was the 19-year-old Italian American disco king played by John Travolta in the 1978 classic Saturday Night Fever.

Saturday Night Fever, as I have previously argued, was not only an international blockbuster that brought the disco culture to the masses, it was genuinely great film that dramatized the crackup of the sexual revolution at the end of the 1970s. What people remember about Saturday Night Fever, however, is not the highly intelligent screenplay that deftly analyzed the toxic masculinity and rape culture of working-class, Italian American Brooklyn, but Travolta himself, who had so much star power and so much sexual charisma that we sometimes forget his character, a frustrated nobody who worked in a paint store, even existed.

Tony Manero, Pablo Larraín’s 2008 film about life in Santiago, Chile under the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, revolves around just this kind of conflation of John Travolta’s character with Travolta himself. It’s 1978, only five years after the coup in 1973, and Pinochet’s secret police are still mopping up the last remnants of Chile’s once mighty social democratic left. There’s an air of fear and squalor, and hopelessness. Alfredo Castro, who bears a striking resemblance to Al Pacino, plays Raúl Peralta, a 52-year-old unemployed loser who’s so obsessed with Saturday Night Fever that his only dream in life is to win a Tony Manero lookalike contest at a local TV station. If Travolta’s Tony Manero was a frustrated nobody who worked in a paint store, then at least he was a young, good-looking, frustrated nobody, and more importantly, at least he was good at something. Raúl Peralta on the other hand is a nasty little middle-aged man who has no style, no grace, no charisma, and who almost breaks his kneecaps every time he tries to imitate Travolta’s iconic moves on the dance floor. If Tony Manero is a one-joke movie, it’s also one very funny joke. As we watch this evil little troll lie, steal, loot dead bodies, even kill, do anything and everything just to win a contest on what’s basically Pinochet’s answer to the Gong Show, we are forced to come to only one conclusion. Raul Peralta is no Tony Manero.

When he directed Tony Manero back in 2008, Pablo Larraín was a thirty-two-year old TV director making his first feature length movie. A member of Chile’s wealthy, ultra-conservative ruling class – his father is Hernán Larraín, the former President of the Chilean Senate – Larraín, like so many radicals from wealthy families, wanted to Épater la bourgeoisie, to shock the kind of “respectable” people like his parents who had colluded with the United States to entomb their country in a decades long, fascist dictatorship. Do you see this fucked up society? he seems to be saying to his parents. Do you see this joyless pile of shit? You did this.

Pablo Larraín has made a better movie than he intended. Raul Peralta aspires to the status of an American icon, and fails grotesquely, hideously, obscenely. Yet, a deeper reading of Saturday Night Fever, one that gets underneath its marketing hook as “the disco movie” and ignores Travolta’s charisma, reveals that Peralta isn’t quite so different from Tony Manero as Larraín’s film would have us believe. Raul Peralta is a thief and a murderer. Tony Manero is a rapist. Peralta stands by and watches Pinochet’s secret police murder political dissidents, then loots their bodies. Tony Manero  stands by and does nothing as a the awkward, overweight, insecure young woman who loves him was brutally gang raped in the back seat of his car. Neither Tony Manero nor Raul Perolta has trouble finding women who will sleep with him, but in both cases it doesn’t really matter. Manero hates himself so much that he can’t be attracted to any woman who’s attracted to him. So he falls hopelessly in love with a snobbish, abusive, uneducated shrew who probably somewhere deep down inside reminds him of his mother, a joyless, pious Catholic who hates her son for the very reasons almost every other woman in Brooklyn seems to worship him. Raul Perolta’s problem is a lot simpler. He’s impotent. That shriveled little, certainly little, fifty-two year old penis can no longer get an erection.

If Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero is both the embodiment and yet also the victim of the crackup of the American sexual revolution, Tony Manero’s Raul Peralta is the embodiment, and perhaps the villain of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, the kind of insignificant little man whose joyless, unimaginative life makes fascism possible. Both fascism and neoliberalism require the death of eros and the triumph of thanatos. The counterculture in the United States ended with one massacre at Kent State by the Ohio National and another by in Southern California by Charles Manson. Chile’s great experiment with social democracy ended with an even bigger massacre in Santiago’s National Soccer Stadium on September 18, 1973, the week after the murder of Salvador Allende. By the late 1970s the dream was over, not only in Chile, where it was brutally obvious, but also in the United States, where it was cloaked by a thousand layers of advertising and propaganda. In 1978 the typical American and the typical Chilean was living in a pile of spiritual and cultural shit. He had just witnessed the orchestrated destruction of the democratic promise of the 1960s. This was the world of my childhood. Pablo Larraín has reminded me of just how much I still hate it.

A Quick Note on The Deep State

Yesterday General Michael Flynn was forced to resign from his post due to leaked information showing that he lied about the nature of his contacts with the Russian government before the election. This evidence of treason seems to point back to Trump being compromised by the Russians and most speculation on the subject so far has centered around the presumption Trump or someone higher up in Trump’s inner circle was instructing Flynn to make the call. While this is still speculation, it’s not that far fetched.

We don’t know who actually leaked the Flynn phone call or what specific agency they’re attached to, if any. In his final days in office, Barack Obama put rules in place allowing raw data intercepted by the NSA, presumably including the Flynn phone calls and any number of other juicy tidbits, to be shared across the 16 federal intelligence agencies before classification safeguards were put on it. This means that the source of the leak could have been involved in any of these agencies. Leaking signals intelligence is extremely uncommon and technically a felony. The reasons for that are pretty obvious.

I’m going to state the rest of my argument in bullet points.

1) The Trump administration has thus far been a giant dumpster fire and he’s pissed off a lot of the intelligence community.

2) The NSA, per the leaked Snowden documents, has the capacity to and likely does log/record all electronic communications inside the US and between individuals in the US and foreign individuals/agencies.

3) Trump is about as “old man” as it gets with tech and is reportedly still using his unsecured android phone. If Flynn was the go-between for Trump and Russia and the intelligence agencies were able to record his entire phone call, we can presume the security for whatever illegal/treasonous activities weren’t well hidden either. Trump is so unconcerned with security that people at Mar-A-Lago were posting Twitter selfies with the guy holding the nuclear football.

4) The intelligence agencies have more than enough to sink the entire Trump inner circle and are allowing them to stick around only for as long as they’re useful to the intelligence agencies.

5) The intelligence agencies now hold the actual power. This doesn’t really go away with elections. This is a potentially shittier status quo than “President” Trump.

Thoughts on this?

Winter’s Bone (2010)

I saw Winter’s Bone when it first came out in 2010 and I’ve been meaning to review it for a while. For some reason I’ve never gotten around to it.

Winter’s Bone (still Jennifer Lawrence’s best film) is a much better introduction to the white underclass than J. D. Vance’s overly hyped Hillbilly Elegy, and a much better movie than any of the films in the blockbuster Hunger Games series. There isn’t a bad performance in the whole film. John Hawkes is especially good as a violent meth cooker who nevertheless manages to find his conscience.

I’m personally not as pessimistic about Ree Dolly’s eventual fate as this review. By shaming her extended family into leading her to her father’s body (and saving her family’s house), Ree (in spite of her youth) takes her fate into her own hands. I see her eventually either escaping the Ozarks or becoming a leader in her community.

I’d also love to see Dale Dickey — who plays an older woman who first attempts to terrorize Ree out of searching for her father, but ends up helping her — get more roles.

She had a brief but vivid part in Breaking Bad (where she kills her husband by pushing an ATM machine on his head) and is one of the best things about Winter’s Bone. She could be the Jane Darwell of this era. Sadly she’ll probably get stuck doing an occasional bit part here and there.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet



No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

The Night O. J. Simpson Ruined the NBA Finals

As I watched Charles Oakley scuffle with Madison Square Garden’s security guards, my first thought wasn’t anger, but a painful consciousness of my own age. I was born in 1965. Oakley was born in 1963. We’re both part of the “not quite Boomer but not quite Generation X” demographic. There the resemblance ends. I’m a 5’11” intellectual misfit who trips over his own feet in the shower. Charles Oakley is a 6’8” superman, one of the most intimidating power forwards in the history of the NBA. Seeing him as a middle-aged man with gray hair being dragged out of his seat and put in handcuffs by James Dolan’s rent a cops, however, allowed me if ever so briefly to put myself in his shoes. Suddenly the great Charles Oakley was just another worker being mistreated by his former employer, a man who had given the best years of his life to a corporation that no longer needed, or wanted him. I suddenly felt like an old man.

Has it really been twenty-three years since game five of the 1994 NBA finals?

I was not a Knicks fan in the 1990s. I preferred the New Jersey Nets and their great Croatian shooting guard Dražen Petrović. Nevertheless, for anyone living in New York City in the 1990s, Pat Riley’s New York Knicks were impossible to avoid. Something about the New York Knicks in the 1990s summed up my frustration with my own life. Year after year, Patrick Ewing, who was drafted out of Georgetown in the mid-1980s, kept them in contention for the NBA title. Every year they came up short. The Pat Riley Knicks were like that guy in his twenties who just can’t get laid. A great center, two first-rate power forwards, a coach who already had four NBA Championship rings, a dynamic shooting guard in John Starks, they seemed to have everything going for them. Every year the New York City media speculated about whether or not the Knicks would win it all, would have that moment of pure, orgasmic bliss when they finally made it over the top after all those years of frustration. Every year they failed to close the deal. By the late 1990s the it was impossible to avoid the inevitable conclusion. Their best just wasn’t good enough.

The closest Patrick Ewing ever came to getting his well-deserved championship ring was Game 5 of the 1994 NBA finals. Michael Jordan, who had cock-blocked the Knicks for so many years, had, like Alexander, decided that, in basketball at least, there were no more new worlds for him to conquer. So he took two years off to play minor league baseball. That left Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. Make no mistake, Olajuwon is one of the greatest players ever to palm a basketball, perhaps even better than Jordan, but, unlike Jordan, he did not have that same air of invincibility. The referees would occasionally call a foul on Hakeem Olajuwon, or penalize him for traveling, something they never did against Jordan. On June 17, Game 5 of the seven game series, the Knicks and Rockets were tied. The Knicks had stolen a game in Houston, and the Rockets had stolen one in New York. I was living in my crappy little apartment on Hudson Street near the White Horse Tavern above one of those nondescript bars – I forget the name – that have all long since been gentrified out of the West Village. It was a Friday night, but as usual I was broke and had no social life, so I was at home. I didn’t own a TV. I knew the game was going on but I wasn’t listening to it on the radio. Suddenly from below I heard an extended booing. I tried to ignore it, but it just wouldn’t stop. What was going on? It seemed to swell as it went on, gathering itself below and in a pool of rage below and wafting up through the building until it drowned out Mazzy Star or Tori Amos or Nirvana or whatever I was listening to as I drunk myself into oblivion.


Out of curiosity, I went downstairs. The noise was coming from the bar, where a large crowd of people had gathered to watch the basketball game. Suddenly it all made sense. Something something bad had happened, a horrendous penalty call that had decided the outcome of the game, or worse, a career ending injuring to Patrick Ewing. I pushed my way inside, getting a sharp elbow to the ribs and a “get off my fucking foot” as I made my way through the crowd. The anger was palpable. Finally, when I got close enough to the TV set, I realized what had really happened. There were no New York Knicks. There were no Houston Rockets. The networks had all cut away from Game 5 of the NBA Finals to Los Angeles in order to show us OJ in his white, Ford Bronco. It was a reality show that nobody in the bar wanted. Whatever stories the media has invented over the past 20 years to justify their obsessive coverage of the brutal murder of a white woman by her black, ex-football player husband, nobody in that little corner of the West Village that night cared about O. J. and Nicole Simpson. They cared about the New York Knicks. They wanted to see Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and Charles Oakley take the lead against the Houston Rockets, not two boring hours of a car chase. Perhaps they knew what was coming – the Knicks would win Game 5 and take the lead only to lose two games in a row and drop the series – and just wanted to savor the moment before Hakeem Olajuwon and his unstoppable reverse jump shot ruined their dreams for good.

I don’t remember how long I stayed in the bar. Perhaps ten minutes. Perhaps an hour. I didn’t order a drink – I couldn’t have gotten close to the bar had I wanted to – and didn’t engage in any conversation beyond “fuck this shit.” But I would never forget that night. The media landscape had changed for good.

Why (and How) Protests Work

From the anti-war protests of the Bush years through to Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the other groups too numerous to list, the left has been gaining momentum and sorely needed independence from the death sentence of center-corporate Democratic party policy. With the influx last week of several hundred thousand people at the Women’s March, many of whom  have never protested or marched before, we’re shaping up to be a more formidable force than we’ve been in decades. 

If you’re one of those people who marched for the first time last week, or if you’ve been at it for decades, welcome. We’re gonna need all the people we can get.

Because of this influx, numerous know-it-alls have been trying to seem helpful by questioning the effectiveness of protesting and the sincerity of the protesters. I won’t go into their possible motivations here beyond to say: don’t worry about the haters. Again: we’re gonna need all the people we can get. And some fresh eyes on these issues is always a welcome development.

I’m going to structure this article based around paraphrases of common criticisms I’ve seen. These will be in bold, while responses will be formatted normally.

#1: I understand things are politically FUBAR but why don’t we actually do something instead of just marching or sitting near things all the time?

The march/rally and the sit-in have both been repeated central elements of all the major protest and resistance movements of the last hundred years and beyond for the simple reason that they work.

How are they effective? In no specific order:

-They block the flow of commerce. Being that the major problem here is the extreme concentration of wealth in our society (Trump is an awful symptom), anything that can shut down or even substantially slow the flow of money going in and out of things like banks, shopping malls, etc. gets the attention of the wealthy and forces their hand. If forces their hand because they hate losing money more than literally anything else in the world. The Women’s March shut down the main metro area of nearly every major city in the United States. The economic impacts were likely enormous.

-A march shows that there is in fact broad based support for the cause. This makes the fascists nervous-they know that it’s very likely many of their friends and colleagues disapprove of what they’re doing. This reinforces the social taboos that keep them from acting out. A lot of young men are drifting to the fascists but fascism becomes a much less appealing option for teenage boys once they realize it’s going to severely limit their dating options.

-They work as excellent educational tools for the people that attend them. When people go to a march and they see journalists getting arrested just for being journalists, or their first instance of unwarranted police brutality, they realize pretty quickly that they could’ve been the person getting beaten over the head with a stick. It also gets activists talking to each other and a largely invisible infrastructure develops. Despite a lack of formal infrastructure at Occupy Wall Street, because of it I now have a nation-wide network of other activists with a wide variety of skills I can talk to about what actions to take or any other political questions I might have. The vast bulk of my political education came from long discussions with fellow Occupiers. 

-They boost morale and get everybody outside and moving. It gets pretty lonely and depressing on the internet. A march reaffirms both to the people there and to the people on the fence who weren’t there but were considering it that they’re not alone. They think “oh! So someone else is concerned with this too!”

-It gives the marchers a sense of ownership over the movement. Instead of thinking “I gave money to (blank)”, they now think “I was a part of this!”

#2: Where were you when Obama (expanded the surveillance state, drones, etc)?

This response comes from a place of frustration and I’ll admit the left has, at times, been a slow and frustrating thing to be a part of. The long time lefties have been undercut by the “center-left” corporate wing of the Democratic Party too many times to count, and have seen their efforts co-opted like so many football being pulled away from Charlie Brown. 

However, while it would have been nice to have seen the 3.6 million Women’s Marchers out in 2001 for the initial Iraq war protests, it didn’t happen. This time it happened. The numbers are here and real positive change is in sight. 

On a related note, the level of political literacy in the general population and popular news sources has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 5 years. Even Robert Reich is toying with the idea of abandoning the Democrats.

This is a crisis that effects 99%+ of the population, a population that now knows the banks and the major parties do not represent their interests. No one wants a war with China except a couple people in the White House. The number of extremely broad based issues gaining traction for dissent has grown more in the last 3 months than it did even in the turbulent 9 years since the 2008 crash.

We want you out protesting. The most important moment is now. If someone is hassling you about doing something, ignore them and go about doing something.

#3 You mean well but by protesting you’re doing exactly what the fascists want!

This criticism falsely presumes a) there’s a monolithic fascism that can make decisions as a single coherent actor (there isn’t, much as the fascists would like to imagine themselves as such), b) there’s a monolithic left that can make decisions to protest as a single coherent actor (there isn’t.) 

It’s also a presumption based on a politics that stopped being relevant on November 9th. Yes, the Trump administration is looking for any excuse to ramp up martial law or consolidate power among institutions. It may use the protests against Milo Yiannopolous to do this. However, we also know that this administration will lie about the obvious and apparent. They will find excuses to do what they want regardless of facts or reality. They will only relent on something if they feel like they can’t get away with it. 

The power we have, in our numbers and our principles, is to show them exactly how and why they won’t be able to get away with it.

And with that power comes enormous responsibility.