Radio Without Money Episode 5: Brevity Is the Soul of Wit

brevity is the soul of wit

In this exceptionally brief (for us!) episode of Radio Without Money, the official podcast, Ross Snider and Aloysius VI try to put lipstick on a pig by discussing Daniel Levine’s disappearance, user analytics, the budget, Wikipedia, propaganda, Facebook’s new fact-check alerts and the conflation of “neutrality” with “objectivity,” journalism in general, the aborted Republican health care legislation, and the conflation of neoliberalism with traditional, progressive liberalism.

Podcast recorded Thursday, March 23rd through Friday, March 24th, 2017.

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The Immigrant (2013)


Between 1880 and 1924, approximately twenty-five million immigrants settled in the United States, mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe. If their story has figured prominently in American cinema, as I have argued previously, it is not well-understood. From the original Scarface to 1970s classics like The Godfather to 1990s TV miniseries like The Sopranos, the cinematic history of non-Anglo-Saxon white immigrants has followed what I will, for lack of a better term, call “The Italian Narrative.” Tony Soprano, in a session with his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi, sums it up best. The white ethnic gangster is nothing more than an American capitalist with a vowel at the end of his name.

Superficially, The Italian Narrative sounds radical, even socialist. To quote Balzac, “le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.” Behind every great fortune is a great crime. Nevertheless, The Italian Narrative has always obscured the history of the Italian immigrant working class to focus on the corrupt, even criminal Italian immigrant bourgeoisie. Tony Soprano’s great grandfather was almost certainly not a “worker bee,” but a small time enforcer who imported Southern Italian labor for those “other fucks,” the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, and broke strikes when those “worker bees” got uppity and demanded too much money.

Like Jerzy Skolimowski’s terrifically cynical black comedy Moonlighting, James Grey’s unjustly overlooked film The Immigrant focuses, not on the petty-bourgeois immigrant exploiter, but on the exploited immigrant proletarian. It is a story, not of upward, but of downward mobility. The American dream is not a moral dilemma where you, almost inevitably, trade your morals for a McMansion in North Caldwell or a Summer house on Lake Tahoe. It’s an illusion. In fact, you don’t even see many “real” Americans, if “real” Americans are defined as old stock, white Anglo Saxon Protestants. Your life in the United States is a lot like what your life would have been like in Poland or Southern Italy. It’s a brutal Darwinian struggle where those immigrants who, in Tony Soprano’s words, want a “piece of the action,” introduce their fellow immigrants to American capitalism the hard way.

The Immigrant opens on Ellis Island – where James Gray was allowed to film on location – with Ewa and Magda Cybulska, two Polish women who have escaped the war ravaged hellscape of Eastern Europe. Ewa, played by the French actress Marion Cotillard, and Magda, played by the Armenian American actress Angela Sarafyan, are not from the very bottom of Polish society. On the contrary, Ewa, who speaks fluent, if heavily French trying very hard to be Polish accented English, has worked as a nurse for an English diplomat. She and her sister are not proletarians, but downwardly mobile petty-bourgeois. Nevertheless, it’s 1921. The American ruling class no longer needs Eastern and Southern Europeans as worker bees. Three years later Congress would pass the Johnson–Reed Act of 1924, a law heavily influenced by the eugenicist and white supremacist pseudo-science then in vogue, and the authorities at Ellis Island are looking for any excuse to send immigrants back to their home countries. After the doctors examine Magda, who has a persistent cough, they send her to the infirmary to be examined for lung disease. Ewa, who’s perfectly healthy, but who was raped on board ship during the transatlantic crossing, is declared a “woman of low morals” and set to be deported.

Note: The plot of The Immigrant heavily depends on Ewa’s plans to get Magda out of the infirmary at Ellis Island and I think this is a major weak point. Not only do we never find out whether or not Magda really has tuberculosis, she pretty much disappears from the film after the doctors at Ellis Island pull her out of the line. I’m not an expert on the history of Ellis Island but I can’t imagine that Magda would be better off in a Lower-East Side slum than she would be at Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, racist though its administration may have been.

Ewa’s detention as “a woman of low morals,” as it turns out, is no accident. Throughout the film’s opening, the two sisters have been shadowed by a man named Bruno Weiss, a first generation German Jewish American – we’re never explicitly told his religion but he does speak Yiddish – played by longtime James Gray collaborator Joaquin Phoenix. Weiss, who’s one of those ethnic whites who “wanted a piece of the action,” is a pimp and a theater impresario who regularly observes the newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island looking for attractive women. Not only did Ewa fit the bill, he had become so obsessed with her appearance that he had bribed the immigration authorities to mark her off as a “possible public charge,” insuring that she would not be able to enter the country legally. Something about the collusion between Weiss and the authorities at Ellis Island rings true in our currently climate of nativism and white supremacism. The American ruling class wants new immigrants, but it doesn’t want them to have any political rights. Weiss takes advantage of the darkening mood of early 1920s America to make Ewa his virtual slave.

The Immigrant is a classic melodrama but it’s a very good one. It’s main strength is Marion Cotillard, who manages to project the right combination of damsel in distress and determined, independent woman. Joaquin Phoenix is also very good, as is the set design and cinematography. There are one or two missteps. Gray’s budget did not allow him to recreate the Manhattan skyline of the 1920s and there are several very clearly modern buildings visible upon Ewa’s arrival in lower-Manhattan, but whether or not the period décor is authentic, it works. It’s rich, almost overly ornate quality manages to reflect Gray’s restrained approach to Bruno Weiss, who’s about as genuinely evil a movie villain as I’ve seen in a long time, but who’s outwardly normal, if not exactly “charming.” Somewhere underneath the richly designed sets is the rotten heart of American capitalism. Weiss doesn’t so much seduce Ewa into a life of prostitution but bully her into it. The “American Dream” for Ewa is clearly a Darwinian nightmare, a gaudy, outwardly wealthy spectacle she sees through without much trouble, but which has captured her and won’t let her escape. All she really wants to do is hold onto to her family and her religion. Events beyond her control has made that impossible.

The main weakness of The Immigrant is Jeremy Renner, as Bruno’s cousin “Emil”, or “Orlando the Magician.” We’re never quite sure what we’re supposed to think about Emil, and that’s a problem. Is a genuinely good side of the American dream, or is he the seductive illusion of the American Dream. Renner sadly can’t quite project either. Ewa seems to like him, and he tries to encourage her with the admonition that “she deserves to be happy.” Maybe if Gray had cast a younger actor in the role – an actor in his twenties might have been able to convey a sense of the innocence and idealism of “American Dream” – but Renner, with his pencil thin mustache actually looks more like a villain than a potential rescuer, and in the end we don’t really care much when he comes to his violent, tragic end.

Whether or not Gray intended it, the effect is to strengthen The Immigrant as a feminist movie. Not only does Ewa have to stand on her own, the only thing she really cares about is getting her sister out of the infirmary. In spite of the overall lack of solidarity between the women exploited by Bruno Weiss, and a rather vicious female character played by Dagmara Domińczyk, sisterhood in The Immigrant is indeed powerful. James Gray has made a film that steals the immigrant narrative away from the Tony Sopranos of the world and gives it back to the women who scrub the floor at your local hospital, or wait for the bus ever morning on the corner to go to their jobs as domestic servants. That his exploited heroine is played by a fair skinned European actress only calls our attention to the universality of the story that he tells. Those Syrian refugees and Mexican migrant laborers currently in the cross hairs of racists like Donald Trump were once Irish, Polish, or Italian immigrant being persecuted by a previous generation of nativist bigots and exploited by a previous generation of soulless, petty bourgeois hustlers. Some things sadly never change. That Mexican woman Donald Trump and Steve King are trying to persuade me to hate could have been my great grandmother.

Notes from a Millennial: In Defense of Decency

Note: This article refers to “millennials” repeatedly. While the name for any generation is always going to be broad terminology, there are many differing opinions on who exactly is a “millennial.” The following article presumes them to be Americans born between 1982 and 2004, as per the more common definition of “millennial,” but again, this terminology is loose and should not be considered definitive, even within the context of this article.

Second Note: I’m not going to even bother addressing the hypocrisy of many of the criticisms against millennials in this article. There are matters re: millennials that I desired to address, and I think the aforementioned hypocrisy is self-evident (and if it isn’t, give some consideration to the fragile emotional constitution of the Tyler Durden-idolizing man-children who first spread “snowflake” as an insult).

“Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”

 – Roger Williams (1603-83 C.E.), Founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1636-776 C.E.)

A state religion is nothing out of the ordinary in human history, and even if a nation does not have a state religion de jure, they will almost certainly have one in practice. This applies even to supposedly secular societies, even the society administered to by the “world’s first secular government.” In America, however, a different worship took root: in a land made secular in order to accommodate all the religious beliefs of its populace, many of them religious pilgrims, a unified religion came to be understood by Americans, one defined by indulgences specifically proscribed against by their “true” faiths. Golden calves were erected; divinity was invoked to justify imperialist expansion into the western parts of Northern America; Americans worked on Sundays, seeking to satiate the capitalist god they held before their true gods; we coveted our neighbors’ goods. The ’80s came and the Reagan gang took power, and a predisposition in American culture toward crude materialism became a crass classism, and pretensions that the ideology that “anyone can make in America!” was meant to be uplifting were increasingly dropped in favor of a reading of social Darwinism into that same ideology, and beyond that, even mainstream apologism for eugenics.

For a country that prides itself on being so exhaustingly Christian, America’s culture is markedly shaped by a sternly resolute contempt for the poor. And so we face the timeless panic about The Kids These Days, who, to establishment culture’s dismay, are not ones to regularly associate themselves with organized religion, systemically racist institutions, or patriarchal politics, and who by overwhelming margins are rejecting capitalism and professing an admiration for anything ranging from a European-style mix of capitalism and socialism (more common) to full-blown communism (less common, though substantially more common than in prior generations). America watches in horror as the young turn to the writings of Karl Marx, even though America never even understood what Marxism is. The nation shields its eyes, shuddering to watch the carnage of a generation of Americans who believe god is dead or never existed, and simultaneously wagging a finger at them for wanting to help those who cannot help themselves, the central tenant of the belief system laid down by their own god; the very same whose rejection they bemoan. Millennials have rejected not just the mainstream religions from which the god-fearing populace picks and chooses their beliefs, they have, more problematically to the American establishment, also rejected the false gods of consumerism and the accompanying notion of “ethical consumption.”

There are regular articles which trot out polls detailing how millennials are incredibly socialist and really hate capitalism, but also millennials don’t understand what socialism is and also like aspects of capitalism. We get it, man. You want us to think millennials are dopey. They don’t even know what Betamax was; how ignorant! Except your polls don’t offer the option of a mixed system, and typically, when you look at the other generations polled, they know even less about what any of the political systems actually are. So the narrative is that millennials are vapid, ignorant, self-obsessed children in adult bodies, except apparently everybody else is even more vapid and ignorant. If millennials are self-obsessed, our adoption of the baffling insult “social justice warrior” as a golem for our political beliefs is, at the least, a strange way of expressing self-obsession. Millennial-bashers, blind to the juvenoia that they suffer like every generation before them, will look for the opening here and say that the millennial desire to support those who are disregarded is out of a selfish need for self-affirmation, the product of a culture where losers get trophies. Of course, it was these same critics giving those trophies who created that culture (if participation ribbons even had a significant impact on culture at all, which seems dubious), but this paradoxical critique of millennials’ competitiveness has already been hashed out millions if not billions of times on the internet, and at any rate, even if self-affirmation is the objective, if the means to that end are the establishment of a compassionate society, who even gives a fuck?

zizek would prefer not to
Pictured: Millennial expressing feelings on participation in capitalism.

The last of the so-called “millennials” will cast their first ballots in elections in 2022, and you older generations (and self-hating millennials; don’t worry, we won’t forget you when the guillotine blades are being waxed) are probably praying for a reprieve, but you’re not going to get it. Generation Z, our little brothers and sisters and our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, are even further left, and they will cut you if you don’t respect which gendered pronouns someone wants to be referred to with. As someone who idled away many a teenage afternoon listening to the likes of George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, etc., I know I’m supposed be all bent out of shape about this for some reason or another, but none of those reasons really resonate with me. I get that people like to be edgy, but there’s two types of edge: the edge that makes you uneasy because the government might try to censor you, or corporations might try to use their leverage against you, and the edge that makes you uneasy because you know what’s being said is harmful to someone. One is punching up, one is punching down. When Lenny Bruce used racial slurs, he was demonstrating the ghastly language that could be used in the presence of police offers in attendance at his comedy shows, ostensibly to put a stop to “profane speech” that might come out of Bruce’s mouth. Bruce could say “nigger” and “kike” all he liked, but the second he used a Yiddish word for cock, the handcuffs came out and flexed the power of what truly was then a “nanny state.” That, state-enforced regulation of speech, is “political correctness run amok.” Society responding as it will to ignorance is not. Millennial culture’s greatest crime is desiring that those with their hands upon the levers of power be punched at as opposed to those crushed by the gears those levers operate. That doesn’t make it wrong to laugh at a joke that punches down; laughter is mainly involuntary, and can be triggered by surprise or the release of tension just as easily as by genuine humor. But is there impetus upon the speaker not to offend?

Jerry Seinfeld moaned that he won’t play colleges anymore because they’re too politically correct. Really? What jokes is Jerry Fucking Seinfeld doing that are going to cause him to be driven off of a college campus like a philistine, and if his act does actually reveal him to be a philistine, why should I object when a bunch of arts and humanities majors, whose money paid for the privilege of him speaking before them, tell him to shut the fuck up? In short, no, there is no impetus upon the speaker not to offend. But there’s also no impetus upon the audience to listen, or not to yell at him or not walk out, or even give him a platform to speak from in the future. Just as there’s no impetus for comedy club owners in multicultural population centers to book a comedian who screams racial slurs and death threats at black patrons. Free market, amirite motherfuckers?

big lebowski assholes
“Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. ‘Asian-American,’ please.”

The final primary line of attack against the culture of millennials seems to be that their concerns are petty, and that while this makes them obnoxious, and possibly dangerously inert to the whims of society as a whole, their political capital is wasted on things like the aforementioned gendered pronouns, and they are essentially helpless to impart real change upon the world. This is a highly flawed reading of the situation. To my specific example, having society respect your desire to be referred to as a man or a woman specifically might not seem like a big deal, but if you were transgender, you would probably think that it’s a pretty big fucking deal. The fact that you perceive the group concerned as ancillary suggests that majority rule justifies bigotry against minorities, and forgets that all of the groups that you consider “ancillary” combine to form an incredibly large segment of society. Unconsciously, you reveal an “us or them” division in your social ethos that ultimately only distinguishes in a coherent way the difference between the majority and everyone else. As to the view of millennials being doomed to ineffectuality, the irony is that those holding this opinion are doomed to political and social obsolescence by it. No one can deny that American culture is undergoing an upheaval, and anyone who denies that the so-called “P. C. Culture” of the millennials is one of the two major adversaries is fooling themselves. None of this is to say that millennials are without opposition; there is, of course, the other side, the people who went to Trump rallies (but perhaps not the economically-disenfranchised who didn’t but voted for him). But the fact of the matter is, American culture is seeing a wholesale rejection of its ingrained norms, customs, and mythology, and the “social justice warriors” are one of the two main groups fighting that battle. To consider millennials ineffectual is laughably obtuse, and, perhaps worse, deliberately ignorant. If anything, millennials are the ones who should be cocky, as thirty years from now you will be dead, and they will hold most of the seats in Congress. Burying your head in the sand has never been considered a wise tactic, and certainly, to discount the scope of a major social force dooms those who do so to irrelevancy.

I couldn’t be any happier with that.

In Praise of The Gong Show

Chuck Barris, the creator of The Gong Show, has died at the age of 87.

As an early Gen Xer, I remember watching The Gong Show on television when I come home for lunch from school. But, as readers of Writers Without Money know from Daniel Levine’s great appreciation of The Gong Show last year, Chuck Barris also touched the millennial generation.

RIP Chuck. I won’t use that silly “Rest in Power” sendoff the left uses whenever a beloved celebrity dies, but I will say “rest with a paper bag over your head.” We all know you were really the Unknown Comic.

A Man Called Ove: Celebrating the Use of Space in Swedish Cinema

What are we beyond our memories? It was just after having a petty argument with the florist, an ignorant teen as she was that Ove first exposes the dimensions of his existence. Grieved by the death of the only love of his life, Sonja, we see him dissipating his space by magnifying his trivialities. A man that knew no work than the one that involved car engines, we see a reflection of unfaithful involvement with life in his disturbed yet deliberate movement. Who is this man; one may ask. There are blatant contradictions in his existence. Who is this being who dejects life and then lives only to uphold every law of it? We get our answers, unwoven thread by thread, in Hannes Holme’s A Man Called Ove.

The most fascinating element of this film is the use of space. We not only see the characters associating meanings to a particular space but also get metaphorically represented by it. For instance, the movie hardly shows us panoramic view of the entire space. Mostly, we are kept in the ‘guarded’ and ‘restricted’ space of Ove’s residential colony, his home and during the latter part of the film, his car. The only instances of open space with elements of movement and divergence come in the flashback scenes from Ove’s childhood and adulthood when there were present, reasons for him to escape linearity. This contradiction in the use of space in the representation of past and present tells us about the importance of life in the eyes of this weary old man called Ove. After the death of his wife Sonja, his life has lost any motivation to move beyond the linearity and hence the only space he restricts himself to is the restricted and regimented space of his residence. Moreover, it is only during his budding friendship with Parvaneh that we see the open space of a restaurant or the city road being brought back to his life (Interestingly he relates such openness with the time he used to have with his wife).

Image result for The Man called Ove

It is hard to deny the metaphorical use of space in the narrative of the film. The one that strikes the most is the train station. It is this space where we see intertwining of Ove’s past, present and a probable future. It is this space that stands for the very nature life; which is nothing but a mosaic of losses and love, of things being built and destroyed. So much so that the moving train almost felt like the ruthless movement of life itself. We are introduced to this space time and again to emphasise on the philosophy that life cannot be contextualised unitarily. It is the semiotic nature of everything that life offers us that makes it beyond every degree human comprehension. One baring example of this can be the scene from Ove’s mother’s funeral.

Lastly, I’ll take this discussion on memories to the use of strong representational symbols. And the one that struck me the most was the cat. Like every morning of life, this cat kept on showing up on Ove’s door, every time more undesirable than before, even after his constant shooing off. As the movie progresses, we can see the changing relationship of the cat with the protagonist that ran parallel to the change in perspective on life that he had. It is when Parvaneh tells him that it is you that have to take care of this cat that I see a bell being rang in Ove’s head telling him that his life shall be engineered by his own volition.

Even though there existed a beautiful sub-narrative that talked about inclusivity and diversity (the fact that Ove became friends with an Iranian refugee and a gay man) it is the natural display of empathy that inspired the screenplay. The very idea that we can delve into each others’ hearts while not being patronising at all speaks volumes about the most important common denominator that we share – humanity.

Image result for The Man called Ove

Radio Without Money Episode 4: Disappearances and Technical Difficulties


Behold! The fourth and possibly mightiest of the Radio Without Money episodes.

In this week’s episode of Radio Without Money, Daniel Levine, Ross Snider, and Aloysius VI discuss the Anthropocene, climate change, the mid-episode purge of Daniel Levine from Radio Without Money, North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear triad, the nature of protectionism, and lots more! Stay tuned all the way until the end to learn the shocking finale!

Podcast recorded Monday, March 6th, 2017.

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Check out the next episode!->

Hell or High Water (2016)


As most historians know, from 1934 to 1968 American cinema was more heavily censored than any other film industry in the western world. The Motion Picture Production Code, the fruit of a partnership between the major Hollywood studios and the Catholic Church, had strict rules about what we could, and could not see in movie theaters. There was to be no miscegenation, “licentious nudity” or profanity. You couldn’t “ridicule the clergy.” You couldn’t depict “scenes of actual childbirth” or “the illegal traffic in drugs.” Above all you couldn’t portray criminals in a sympathetic light or make a movie where “crime pays.”

(I don’t give away the ending, but there are spoilers.)

Hell or High Water is a great “pre-code” movie, maybe the first one I’ve seen in the modern era. Between 1930 and 1934, American cinema reflected the angry, almost revolutionary mood of the American people during Great Depression. Hell or High Water does the same thing for the “white working class” in 2016, for people still angry about the financial crisis of 2008 and the Bush/Obama bailout of Wall Street. Don’t get me wrong, Moonlight is a fine movie, but there’s a reason that Hell or High Water never stood a chance to win Best Picture. The pampered liberal elite that runs Hollywood was not about to put its stamp of approval on a movie that all but calls for guillotines, pitchforks and torches.

Hell or High Water begins at a Texas Midlands Bank in one of those desolate little towns made famous by Peter Bogdanovich in The Last Picture Show. A teller arriving early in the morning to open up the doors, Dale Dickey from Winter’s Bone and Breaking Bad, is shoved inside by two men in ski masks. To her surprise, they don’t want the money in the vault, but only the loose bills collected from depositors the day before, a few thousand dollars, a fairly modest sum that hardly seems worth the risk of a long prison sentence. When the bank robbers, Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, take off their masks in their getaway car, we immediately begin to identify with the two men. They seem likable. They knock over another bank, then head home to their ranch out in the wastelands, where they bury the cars underneath a pile of dirt, and talk about their recently deceased mother. We learn that Tanner Howard, the elder of the two and the family black sheep, has spent time in jail for shooting their abusive father.

Hollywood being Hollywood, I suppose you can’t make a movie about a pair of sympathetic bank robbers without also including a pair of sympathetic police officers. Hell or High Water gives us two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton, an old Anglo nearing retirement played by Jeff Bridges as a combination of Deputy Dog and The Dude from the Big Lebowski, and Alberto Parker, who’s a half Mexican, half Comanche evangelical Christian who likes to watch TV preachers in between interrogating witnesses. Hamilton’s a half-hearted bigot but no fool. Parker’s convinced that the two men who knocked over the pair of Texas Midland Banks are simply methheads looking for their next fix. Hamilton’s not so sure. There’s a method in their madness, he insists, a reason they’ve declined to take the more easily traceable rolls of money from the vaults, and only targeted banks in small, out of the way towns with low foot traffic and poor security. In between genial ethnic slurs, Hamilton suggests that they stay the night in the local area, and stake out a few more Texas Midland Banks in small, decaying out of the way little towns. Parker, reluctantly, agrees.

After Toby and Tanner Howard stop off at a local Indian casino, exchange their stolen money for a stack of chips, play a few token hands of cards, then cash in the chips for two checks made out to the Texas Midlands Bank, we realize that Ranger Marcus Hamilton is onto something. There is a method to their amateurish methods, which we learn about in detail after they stop off at their lawyers. Years ago their mother had taken out a reverse mortgage on the family ranch. Later, her bank, not coincidentally Texas Midlands, started foreclosure proceedings on the land they had once believed next to worthless, but have subsequently realized contains enough oil to make Toby’s ex-wife, who he still owes child support, and two sons rich. They’ve just about stolen and laundered enough money to pay off their mother’s debt, and set their kids up for life. That they’re stealing money from the same bank that’s threatening to take property that’s been in the family for generations is not only class war. It’s poetic justice. One more robbery should put them over the top.

We all know what’s coming, a final showdown between the Howard brothers and Rangers Hamilton and Parker, but it’s the way the film executes the familiar plot that makes Hell or High Water one of the best films of 2016. Neither Hamilton nor Parker is exactly what you would call a “pig” or an enthusiastic enforcer for the American ruling class. They’re just doing their jobs. Similarly, neither Toby nor Tanner Howard has personal grievances against the police. They’re just doing what they have to do to keep the banks from getting hold of their family’s property. It’s the character of Tanner Howard, however, that makes Hell or High Water such a dangerous, explosive film. Tanner, who we’ve already learned has killed his abusive father, is the troubled, violent family black sheep. Toby Howard, in turn, is a cool headed, cerebral criminal mastermind. For the past few years, we’ve all been reading about violent, disgruntled white men who go on shooting sprees, and many of us, at least me, have always lamented how the typical mass shooter targets innocent people. If only we could direct that violent rage, not against people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but against the banks, the courts, the ruling class, their lawyers, and the police officers who defend their “privileges.”

That not only happens in Hell and High Water, Taylor Sheridan, the same writer who wrote the screenplay for Dennis Villeneuve’s film Sicario, grounds his conception of class war in the history of the white man’s genocide against native Americans. Tanner Howard, to be sure, is an Anglo, not an Indian or a Mexican, and perhaps Sheridan is engaging in a certain kind of “cultural appropriation,” but the underlying theme of Hell or High Water is that the European genocide against the Plains Indians has now taken on a new form, the corporate elite’s economic genocide of the white working class. “This town has lost its reason for existence,” the half Indian, half Mexican Parker tells Hamilton as they look out on a desolate, half populated row of abandoned factories and foreclosed houses. “One hundred and fifty years we owned all of this land,” he continues. “The white man came and took it away from us, and now the banks are taking it away from them.” Suddenly, an earlier scene, where Tanner had almost come to blows with a native American man in the Indian casino makes sense. “I’m a Comanche,” the man had said, glowering at Tanner. “That means I’m the enemy.” Tanner takes it all in stride. “Of what?” he asks. “Of everything,” the man responds. “That makes me a Comanche too,” Tanner nods, recognizing a brother in arms.

I began this review by labeling Hell or High Water “a great pre-code movie,” but I think the final shootout and the film’s ultimate resolution go beyond anything Hollywood tried in the early 1930s. It’s straight up class war, the suicidal rebel against the banks, the police, and a gang of enthusiastic Texas gun nuts who finally see an opportunity to “shoot a bad guy,” and wind up getting much more than they bargained for. Chris Pine’s final scene with Jeff Bridges spoke to me in a way few mainstream films do. “We’ve always been poor,” he said, revealing the true history of the “white working class” in American. “We’ve never had anything. That’s going to change for my boys.” Bridges, who hates Howard for what his brother did to his partner, but knows he’s been upstaged, can only seem to agree. He’s spent his life doing a job that no longer has any real meaning.

Final Note: If you’re a good looking bank robber and a chunky waitress flirts with you in the diner, always, always leave her a big tip. The life you save may be your own.

O.J.: Made in America (2016)


In Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, Mookie, a delivery man played by Lee himself, has a brief argument with Pino, the racist older son of his employer, the owner of Sal’s Pizza. Unlike his father, Pino has no hesitation about voicing his contempt for black people, but Mookie has already noticed a contradiction in the way he thinks. “Who’s your favorite basketball player?” he asks. “Magic Johnson,” Pino quickly responds. “Who’s your favorite movie star?” Mookie says. “Eddie Murphy,” Pino answers without hesitation. “And who’s your favorite rock star?” Mookie adds. By this time Pino is beginning to catch on. “Bruce,” he says. ”It’s Bruce,” but Mookie knows he’s lying. “It’s Prince,” he sighs impatiently. “It’s Prince. Pino all you ever talk about is nigger this and nigger that, but all your favorite people are so-called niggers.” Few things are more revealing about the culture of the 1980s than Pino’s clumsy attempt to explain away Mookie’s argument. “It’s different,” he says. “Magic, Eddie, Prince, they’re not niggers. I mean they’re not black. “Let me explain myself,” he continues. “They’re not really black. I mean they’re black but they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different.”

Orenthal James, O.J. Simpson, who was born in public housing projects in pre-gentrified San Francisco in 1947, is one of the greatest running backs ever to play football. The 1968 winner of the Heisman Trophy, he led the University of Southern California to the National Championship. After a rocky start in the NFL under Buffalo Bills head coach John Rauch, who tried to fit him into a system that wasted his talents, he thrived under Rauch’s replacement Lou Saban, rushing for 2003 thousand yards in 1973, and breaking the all time record set by Jim Brown the decade before. Watching old highlight films of Simpon playing for USC or the Buffalo Bills is a bit like opening the pages of an ancient Greek epic and reading about a demi-god. Simpson is 6’2” and 210 pounds, which is already big for a running back, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, but when he finds a hole in the opposing teams defense he becomes almost superhuman, impossible to catch, let alone tackle. Many great athletes struggle after they retire from professional sports. Simpson seemed to be an exception, getting out of the NFL only a little after his prime, and begining his career as a successful actor, corporate pitchman and man about town in star studded Hollywood. You can still see traces of his charisma in the commericals he did for Hertz Rent a Car in the 1970s. He’s anthing about a dumb jock. On the contrary, he comes off like any other graduate of the elite University of Southern California, smooth talking, quick thinking, urbane, intellectual.

If you had met O.J. Simpson in the early 1980s, you probably would have decided he would become more like Bill Bradley, the basketball star who became a United States Senator, then Lawrence Taylor, the New York Giants Linebacker who fell into alcholism, drug addiction and despair. If you had been Mookie from Do the Right Thing, however, you might have noticed something different, that O.J. Simpson had spent his life trying to win the approval of people like Sal’s racist son Pino. Back in the late 1960s, when African American athletes were beginning to assert themselves politically, Simpson refused to make even a token gesture of support. Unlike Muhammad Ali, who joined the Nation of Islam and resisted the draft, or John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who gave their iconic black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics, Orenthal James Simpson did not consider himself part of the new generation of race conscious African Americans, but rather, to quote Pino, “more than black.” In a sense, he was the Michael Jordan or the 1960s and 1970s, the superstar athlete who cares more about his TV commercials and his stock portfolio than about the people back home in the projects. Jordan, however, who was born in the 1960s, did not carry around the same emotional baggage as Simpson, who was born in the 1940s. Michael Jordan had the luxury of remaining apolitical because of the radical black athletes who came before him. Simpson did not have that privilege.

O.J.: Made in America is more than just a biography of a great athlete who fell from grace. It’s a broad, wide ranging history of race relations in the city of Los Angeles. When as USC’s star running back, O.J. Simpson declared that “I’m not black. I’m O.J.,” he probably couldn’t have done it anywhere else in the United States. Los Angeles was more than just a northern city, a Chicago or a New York, where black people from the south moved n the 1940s and 1950s to escape the Jim Crow South. It was the epicenter of the American Dream, the great metropolis where you could not only escape Jim Crow but escape from American history altogether. Simpson was hardly the first man in Hollywood to dream about becoming more than the sum of his parts. The film industry, after all, was founded by Eastern European Jews. They not only dreamed of being real Americans, but reinvented what it means to be a “real American.” Simpson was squarely in their tradition, and by 1985 he seemed to have achieved his goal. He had discarded his first wife for Nicole Brown, a tall blond Aryan out of central casting. He had turned his Brentwood Estate “Rockingham” into a social center for the Hollywood elite. He was friends with the Kardashians before the Kardashians were the Kardashians. He imagined himself as the President of a major film studio.

From the very beginning, however, something was clearly wrong. In the Fall of 1985, only a few months after he formally married Nicole Brown – they had been dating years before that – the LAPD responded to a domestic violence call at his Rockingham estate. He was already beating her. In some ways, O.J.: Made in America is about seven hours too long. Orenthal James Simpson is really just another wife beater, an egotistical control freak who makes himself the king of his castle and the lord and master over his wife. “O.J. thought he owned Nicole,” one of his friends says in a revealing and provocative moment. “It was kind of like a reverse slavery.” White domestic abusers act pretty much the way O.J. Simpson did. They get away with what they can, which, if the husband is rich or well-connected, is usually quite a bit. The violence escalates until the wife either leaves for good, or she ends up either a broken shell of a woman, or dead. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the racial undercurrent in the marriage of O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown. For O.J., possessing Nicole had finally let him convince himself that he was “more than black,” that white America had not only accepted him as a man, but as a white man. As Simpson declined into middle-age, however, and as relations between the LAPD and black Los Angeles reached their breaking point during the Rodney King affair, it became more and more difficult to maintain the illusion that he was “not black but O.J.” Mark Fuhrman, the police officer who responded to the domestic violence call in 1985, a racist who had fantasies of killing black men, would soon play an out-sized role in O.J. Simpson’s life.

O.J.: Made in America pulls no punches when it comes to the photos taken of the murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, a friend who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. We see them again and again. We examine the gruesome images more and more closely each time until we finally linger on the large, gaping holes in Goldman’s and Brown’s neck. It’s impossible not to try to imagine what the murder itself looked like. Ron Goldman was a young man, twenty five years old, over six feet tall. He was fit and went to the gym, but O.J. Simpson had reverted back to a demonic version of the superman he had been when he played for the Buffalo Bills and the University of Southern California. No longer able to deny that he was black, and middle-aged, forty six years of repressed, murderous anger burst through the carefully constructed walls of repression and denial like the water breaching the New Orleans dykes after Hurricane Katrina. If Simpson had spent his life trying to be “more than black” in order to win the approval of white America, he had at long last become white America’s deepest fear, the black brute who kills a white woman. After a lifetime pretending he was Jackie Robinson or Sydney Poitier, he had become Bigger Thomas.

Or did he?

Did O.J. Simpson really kill his wife on the night of June 17, 1994? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know, and if I had been on the jury for the O.J. Simpson murder trial, I would have certainly voted “not guilty.” I don’t even think he should be in jail today. The civil trial was a kind of “double jeopardy” and the thirty-three-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping in 2007 that’s effectively sent him to jail for the rest of the his life was absurd. Anybody else would have gotten a year or two, if that. I never really followed the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s, but it’s breathtaking to watch O.J.: Made in America and to see the prosecution’s case fall apart. The documentary contends that the evidence was overwhelming, that Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, and Judge Lance Ito simply mishandled the case, but there’s no question that F. Lee Bailey and Johnny Cochran succeeded in raising “reasonable doubt” about Simpson’s guilt. The black people who cheered his acquittal weren’t cheering on a man who got away with murder so much as they were cheering on a black man who had finally gotten a fair trial. The white people crying over Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman weren’t crying for two people they had never met, but over the way the criminal justice system had finally begun to work the way it was supposed to work. To quote that tedious social media cliché, “when you’re used to privilege, equality begins to feel like oppression.” O.J. Simpson may or may not be a murderer, but there’s no question that he was “not guilty.”

Perhaps the most fascinating moment in O.J.: Made in America comes halfway through the third segment. The incompetent judge Lance Ito has allowed the mostly black jury – O.J. Simpson got a jury of his peers, but Nicole Brown Simpson didn’t – to tour Simpson’s Rockingham estate. Simpson’s lawyers – who had based their defense partly on the idea that Simpson was now a hero to the black community in Los Angeles – had redecorated the house with whatever photos they could find showing him with other black people. One of the pictures they remove is a portrait of Simpson with Donald Trump. Trump and Simpson were never friends. The photo had been taken at a press conference at the opening of the Harley Davidson Cafe in New York City, but there’s a deep cultural affinity between the two men. Along with Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996, the O.J. Simpson murder trial represents the decisive break with the media landscape of the 1970s and 1980s, the moment when the cable news networks dropped all pretense of acting like journalists and started acting like entertainers. If O.J. Simpson was, in a sense, the beginning of “Reality TV,” then the election of Donald Trump is President is its logical outcome. O.J.: Made in America, which got a well-deserved academy award for Best Documentary, shows us how it all happened.

Arrival (2016)


(Spoilers ahead: It would be impossible to write about this film without spoilers so I won’t even try.)

Arrival, the French Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve’s followup to the excellent Sicario, is based on a compelling premise. If we ever make contact with aliens what language would they speak? The problem for me was no so much in its execution as in the way it tries to be two movies in one. On one hand, it’s a fascinating intellectual exercise on the difficulties of communicating with beings we’ve never even imagined existed. On the other hand, it’s a personal story about a woman who loses her child. The mystery that Villenueve so skillfully evokes in the first half of Arrival does not so much get solved as it gets progressively replaced by another narrative altogether. Needless to say, you don’t come out of Arrival knowing whether or not humans will ever be able to talk to aliens. Whether you come out caring about Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and their teenage daughter, I will leave for you to decide for yourself.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics, and the mother of a teenage daughter who we see in what we believe to be flashbacks dying of cancer. They’re not flashbacks but first things first. One day she goes to class, and finds that only a tiny fraction of her students bothered to show up. As she begins a lecture about why Portuguese is so different from French, Spanish, or Italian – I don’t know if it’s true or not but the idea seemed interesting – she realizes that nobody’s paying attention. She stops. What’s going on? I suppose Professor Banks doesn’t look at her iPhone before she gets in her car. In any event, she stops the lecture, and switches her laptop to a news channel. Twelve gigantic alien spaceships have touched down in various place all over the world. Nobody knows who they are or why they’ve come, but the effect has been similar to a hurricane, or perhaps more accurate, a blackout. Society is breaking down. People are panicking, rioting, looting.

The mystery of why a college professor like Louise Banks has such a fine house on the lake is immediately cleared up when she goes home to find G T Weber, a United States Army Colonel played by Forrest Whitaker. Banks is not only a college teacher. She’s a world-renowned expert on the short list of consultants the military turns to for advice in the event of an alien invasion. After the army takes her by helicopter to the site of one of the alien ships in Montana, she meets Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner who’s also on the army’s short list of go to consultants, and a man with whom she establishes an immediate emotional bond. Have they met before? We think about Louise Banks’ flashbacks to the death of her daughter, first a little girl, then a teenager who with a shaved head dying of cancer. We wonder what her husband was like. We never see him in the flashbacks. We wonder if she’ll ever get married again. We weigh in our minds about whether or not she’d be compatible with Ian Donnelly and decide that yes, she probably will.

Imagining what aliens look like is the most difficult job for a filmmaker. The easiest way to get around the problem is simply to imagine either that the aliens take on some sort of “human form” or that they’re simply humanoids from another planet. In the classic 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, to which arrival owes some of its pacifist subtext, the alien Klatu is simply a man in a what looks to be a silver tracksuit. In the 1980s gothic, science fiction horror film Alien the alien is a terrifying, bug-like monster. In the 1984 movie Starman, he’s Jeff Bridges. Dennis Villeneuve chooses to imagine his aliens not as humanoid, but instead as gigantic, technically advanced jelly fishes. Even though they don’t make any aggressive moves, they look terrifying, and when Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly put on Hazmat suits and enter the alien ships, we fear for their lives, even though we know they’re not in any real danger. Donnelly and Banks, however, and especially Banks, have none of the usual fear of the “other.” Banks even removes her helmet and walks up to the clear barrier the aliens have erected between themselves and their human hosts. Back at her house on the lake, Colonel Weber had played her a tape of what the aliens sounded like, but she’s got a better idea. When one of the aliens sprays the clear barrier with what appears to be a type of ink, we understand what she meant. Language isn’t aural. Language is visual.

While Louise Banks or Ian Donnelly may not have a visceral fear of the “other,” they are highly educated, elite intellectuals. The rest of the world, especially the military, and most especially General Shang of the Peoples Liberation Army of China, are beginning to get paranoid. When the Chinese army mistranslated the word “gift” or “tool” as “weapon,” Arrival becomes a race against time. As Banks and Donnelly are working to decipher the series of images the aliens spray onto the barrier, China, then Russia, then Pakistan, then every landing site on earth cuts itself off from the United States, and prepare to follow the lead of Shang, who has delivered an ultimatum to the ship near Shanghai. Leave Chinese territory or be destroyed. Even rogue troops in Colonel Weber’s garrison in Montana plant a bomb, and try to kill Banks and Donelly in order to sabotage their growing rapport with the aliens. Eventually, however, Banks’ tenacity and courage and Donnelly’s scientific training and ability to think in mathematical abstractions pay off, and Banks cracks the alien code. By this time, we know that mankind is on the verge, not of annihilation, but of a series of discoveries about space, and about ourselves, and we root for the two scientists to prevent the coming attack. Destroying the twelve alien ships would be akin to smashing the Rosetta Stone or burning down the ancient library at Alexandria.

Oddly enough, it’s at this moment that the movie begins to fall apart. If you’re familiar with the history of cinema and science fiction, you’ve already figured out by this time that Arrival is a plea for world peace and international cooperation, The Day the Earth Stood Still with aliens that look like squids and not humans. The problem isn’t the message so much as it’s the lack of historical context. That the original short story was written a by Chinese writer doesn’t change the way General Shang is cast as the paranoid war monger and Louise Banks as the enlightened white savior. Indeed, the clumsy attempt by Colonel Weber’s rogue soldiers to bomb the alien space is confusing, slows down the narrative, and was obviously Villeneuve’s way of hedging himself against accusations of Sinophobia and Orientalism. That there’s a more complex narrative twist underneath the plea for internationalism should theoretically deepen the film’s mystery. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film. Banks’ mastery of the alien language also means an understanding of their non-linear conception of time. She can now look into the future. Not only does her newfound understanding of time allow Louise Brooks to make a satellite phone call to General Chang and talk him out of starting a war with the aliens, we realize that the father of her dying teenage daughter is none other than Ian Donnelly, that what we thought were flashbacks were actually flash-forwards.

If all this sounds great to you, then by all means go see Arrival. You may like it more than I did. Theoretically it’s a clever resolution, a neat little narrative trick that lets Dennis Villeneuve wrap up the story with a neat little bow. It certainly does “make you think,” but to me it not only felt unfinished – exactly how Louise Banks managed to talk General Shang out of starting the war is never made entirely clear – it felt a bit like a bait and switch. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are both likable actors I’ve enjoyed in previous movies, but their relationship never feels strong enough to carry such a radical shift in the plot. The idea of a teenage girl dying of cancer is as sad a story as you can imagine, but we never really get to know “Hannah”–the name is supposed to have some significance to the movie’s non-linear conception of time because it’s spelled the same backwards as it is forwards–well enough to care about her as an individual. The utterly fascinating exploration of “the other,” and the baffling mystery of learning not only a foreign language, but an extraterrestrial language, has given way to a domestic tragedy. Louise decides to give birth even though she knows her child will die young. Ian blames her for making the wrong decision and leaves her. Villeneuve has succeeded, not so much in resolving or in further exploring the film’s great premise so much as in sidestepping the admittedly impossible mystery and finessing us into another film altogether. It’s not that we don’t admire his cleverness. We just wish he had explored Arrival’s more abstract and intellectual premise in more detail, and saved the familiar romantic drama for another movie.