Take That, Baby Hitler!: On the Re-Election of Donald Trump

glacial lakes state parkDriving west from Minneapolis out toward the open prairie, I couldn’t help but notice that the farther I went, the more the Trump/Pence signs proliferated.  And if the property was large, say the perimeter of an expansive farm, signs would be spaced out about every ten feet or so like a pile-up of exclamations points on a particularly emphatic sentence.  One gets the sense that these aren’t merely campaign signs, they’re declarations.  And my guess is they’re less encomiums to a great president than they are repudiations of a system they feel has screwed them over time and again, Trump being the most deliriously satisfying “fuck you” yet to liberals.  He makes George W. Bush look like the Yalie he actually was.  As a friend of mine wrote in an especially incisive Facebook post, most who support Trump aren’t stupid, they’re angry.

Many of my liberal and leftist friends, even some who are conservative, are concerned about the election.  They understand that while Trump’s ascendance to the White House is a symptom of much larger societal and economic problems, he is wreaking possibly irreparable damage to the government and, with his inflammatory rhetoric founded upon bald-faced lies, our country’s social fabric, destroying faith in institutions devoted to uncovering truth, however stumblingly, and exacerbating social divisions that will be slow to heal, if they heal at all.

norpothWorse, even though the currently tattered state of our nation—much of which can be traced back to Trump’s lack of real leadership—and of the presidency itself suggests there is no way in hell anybody could re-elect Trump, the outcome of the election seems bewilderingly hard to predict—except to Stony Brook University political science professor Helmut Norpoth, creator of the “Primary Model,” which has accurately determined the outcomes of twenty-five of twenty-seven presidential elections going back to 1912, with the beginning of primary elections in the United States.  The only two elections his model did not predict were the notoriously close Nixon/Kennedy race of 1960 and the statistically tied Gore/Bush race of 2000, about which one could say the model hadn’t exactly been wrong since Bush wasn’t elected president; the largely conservative Supreme Court handed him the office.  For 2020, Norpoth’s model shows that Trump has a 91% chance of being re-elected.

The Primary Model looks at two main factors: how long a party has been in power (and if that power is starting to wane) and how the candidates fared in the early primary elections.  The one who did better in the primaries has a greater chance of winning the general election.  The model is maddeningly simple.  I know people who have dismissed it out-of-hand because it doesn’t take into account so many other factors that simply must have some impact on an election’s outcome.  In this race, Norpoth admits that the coronavirus could impact Trump’s chances for reelection, but only, in his opinion, if the president’s approval ratings drop far lower than they have.

Still, I would caution people not to conflate the model’s lack of representational verisimilitude with its usefulness (or, rather, uselessness) as a predictive model.  The model doesn’t show us the details of the political process as much as it draws on a correlation—certain activity in the primaries tends to correlate with certain outcomes in the general election.

To be honest, I don’t want to defend Norpoth’s model nor even spend more time discussing it—not because I don’t think such conversations can be interesting or productive, but because in my view such discussions are often substituted for more direct political action.  That is, people poke holes in the model to show that Trump can’t possibly get re-elected, erecting insurmountable arguments about why their conclusions are true, as if doing so will somehow keep Trump from getting re-elected.

la jetee 2Rather, I think we should act as if Trump has been re-elected.  After all, Norpoth’s model has a roughly 93% success rate in predicting the outcomes of elections, and it strongly favors Trump’s winning.  I say that we should act from this assumption not because Norpoth’s model is infallible, so we might as well resign ourselves to our dismal fate, but because, as Norpoth hints in his comments about the impact the coronavirus might have on the election, things don’t have to go as the model predicts.

Yet if we leave things to the mists of the future, secure in our belief tat they will turn out as we would like even if we fear they won’t, we often end up doing nothing.  So let’s assume Trump has been re-elected in November, and we are back in the past, where we have the opportunity to undo what is coming.  We are like the subjects in the ethical thought experiment that asks if we traveled back in time and found ourselves alone with baby Hitler, knowing all the horror that Hitler will unleash upon the world, would we kill him?  Right now, we’re in a position to kill the baby Hitler that is Trump’s re-election campaign.

What should make this less thorny than the ethical problem the baby Hitler experiment poses is that there is no baby and no killing.  You just have to work hard to help elect Joe Biden.  Currently, there is no alternative.  It’s either Trump or Biden.  And remember: Trump has already been re-elected.  Can you do what you need to in order to change the future or are you going to sit around arguing that the future can’t happen?

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What the Dickens?: The Other “Great Expectations,” by KISS

destroyerThe epic KISS song “Great Expectations,” from their 1976 album Destroyer, is either a work of near sublime humor or of staggering egotism.  Given the nature of the song, it’s not likely to be both.  No less distinguished a songwriter than Randy Newman described the song as “hilarious,” and he tried to convince his friends Don Henley and Glenn Frey that the Eagles should record it.  “They looked at me like I was nuts,” Newman reported to Rolling Stone, “like when you tell someone you like Andy Gibb’s stuff,” which Newman did, “(Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away” to be specific, casting at least a bit of doubt on his judgement.

Still, Newman himself almost recorded “Great Expectations” for his album Born Again.  In the end, Newman opted instead to perform his original song “Pants,” an oddity that finds the narrator of the song repeatedly threatening, “Gonna take off my pants!”  It was Newman’s take on the phony sexuality of arena rock.  But while the joke kind of gets lost in Newman’s weird performance, he was onto something by zeroing in on the tired exploitation of sex that was the state of affairs in the big 1970s hard rock acts.  Sex had always been at the heart of rock ’n’ roll, but in its early years, especially in the Eisenhower Era, the sex couldn’t be spoken of directly.  Instead, it charged the music, or, even, the music itself was a manifestation of sexual energy.

By the 70s, though, it had degenerated into the bare-chested swagger of cock rock, which is at the heart of “Great Expectations,” either as a subject of satire or as one of its most ham-fisted examples.  Listening to the song again recently, I don’t know how it couldn’t be meant in jest.  With that in mind, I want to look more closely at the song not to dissect it, but to revel in its laughter.

beethovenThe song opens surprisingly—the slow strum of an acoustic guitar accompanied by bass, piano, xylophone, and do I detect strings in the mix?, a heavily produced electric guitar over it all, playing a melody by Beethoven.  On a KISS song!  Today, almost fifty years since Destroyer’s release, it hardly seems noteworthy.  But imagine a stalwart KISS fan listening to the album when it was new.  “Great Expectations,” was the fourth track on the album, following the fist-pumping anthem “Detroit Rock City,” one of the great arena rock paeans to the liberating power of rock ’n’ roll, the heavier “King of the Night Time World,” and the even heavier “God of Thunder.”  Suddenly, there’s a xylophone, strings?, and Beethoven.  At first, in a song about the promised sexual transcendence of coupling with a rock star, it seems a missed opportunity that songwriters Bob Ezrin and Gene Simmons quoted from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique instead of his “Ode to Joy.”  But when one considers that the song is really about the withheld promise of said sexual transcendence, the quote is the more apt.  The poor young woman is pathetic in her overreach, miserable in her thwarted desire to bed this rock ‘n’ roll Adonis.

After establishing the song’s theme of sexual arousal and denial with an allusion to Beethoven, Gene Simmons begins singing a delicate—what he has described as Beatlesque—melody with soft yearning, even whispering a high note as he sings “drives you wild.”  Gene Simmons, the demon, whose makeup traces the outlines of a stylized bat over his eyes, and who in concert spits blood and fire, singing, whispering, a delicate melody of female desire.  It’s a far cry from only a year before, when on KISS Alive! he growled, “You drive us wild, we’ll drive you crazy”—at least relatively speaking.  We’re still in wild and crazy territory here, regardless of how loudly Simmons says it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because the opening lyric is priceless: “You’re sitting in your seat, and then you stand and clutch your breast.”  Just what is that?  It sounds so Victorian.  Like a matron suddenly overcome by a case of the vapors.  Or a scene from a silent movie in which the young heroine, overcome with pure love for her beau, bolts from her chair, clutching her breast as if in the throes of a heart attack.  I’ll admit, when I first heard this song at the age of thirteen or fourteen, it mystified me.  I knew little of melodrama.  I thought the young woman was up to something sexual.  The song had the word “breast” in it after all—ooh la la.  But the idea of a woman standing up in a concert and molesting her own breasts in front of God and everyone, I guess I would have to say that it didn’t seem very realistic to me.  But I was intrigued.

The lyrics explain why she clutched her breast: “The music drives you wild along with the rest.”  Another mystery to teenage me.  OK, I got that KISS’s music was so overwhelming that it drove her wild.  I was a KISS fan, after all.  But I didn’t get the “along with the rest” part.  I still don’t.  It sounds part Beat poetry, part first season of Gilligan’s Island theme song.  By “the rest,” is the narrator referring to all the other people leaping from their seats and clutching their breasts? Or does he mean all the other crazy shit that KISS did to drive its audience wild?  You know, the spitting blood and fire, the pillars of flame that occasionally exploded to create a certain mood, the outfits that today I think of as a cross between S & M and furries with Barnum & Bailey and Z-budget science fiction movies thrown into the mix.

al lewisTo be honest, it’s not a very suggestive ambiguity.  I’ve already spent too much time on it because it’s what comes next in the lyrics, in the musical bridge, with its harder, grittier musical style, the bass drum kicking in, an intense heartbeat—no more flittering butterflies of delicacy here—where the narrator gets into the nitty gritty of the sexual mesmerism at the heart of rock ’n’ roll: “You watch me singing this song, you see what my mouth can do, and you wish you were the one I was doing it to.”  I will admit, how exactly one would be turned on by what he is doing with his mouth while singing is a bit unclear.  Are we to imagine that like The Munsters’ Al Lewis, the singer moves his mouth in such an exaggerated fashion than an imaginative young woman could read in it something cunnilingual?  Is Simmons referring to his infamously long tongue that he flicked out of his mouth throughout concerts like a hirsute lizard?  And if so, why didn’t he just mention his tongue?  It would have made more sense.

But the song doesn’t let us sit here too long, it keeps forging ahead, repeating the bridge with a more comprehensible lyric:  “And you watch me playing guitar / And you feel what my fingers can do / And you wish you were the one I was doing it to.”

This propels the song to the absurd sublimity of its chorus: “Well, listen—You’ve got great expectations,” the music practically magisterial, its melody arpeggiating up an octave before slightly falling, Simmons’ voice backed by a boys’ choir. Nothing prepares you for it, not even Beethoven: all the pompous weight of classical music crashing down on that poor woman’s dreams.  Easily the funniest moment in the song, there’s practically nowhere left for the song to go, so you can’t blame Simmons that the remainder is a bit of a letdown, even if he has one more card up his sleeve.

We have to bide our time before he gets to it, though.  With the reiteration of the opening melody, the narrator lets his delirious fan know just how little she means to him: “You’re dying to be seen / And you wave and call my name / But in the day, it seems that I’m a million miles away.”  Ho hum.  Still, this is followed by what has always seemed to me a sinister variation of the bridge: “You watch me beating my drum / And you know what my hands can do / And you wish you were the one I was doing it to.”  To each her own, I suppose.  But given that this is immediately followed by the chorus—you know: “Well, listen!” and the boys’ choir and all that—it seems like this poor, this pathetic, young woman can’t even pull the singer out of his torpor enough for him to mistreat her.  She’s just not worth the effort, apparently.

And after such a blasé display from the singer, I can’t help but wonder: just who in this song is pathetic, the woman or the rock star?  And just as that thought crossed my mind, the Pathétique theme resurfaced.  Surprisingly, this time Beethoven doesn’t lead to a restatement of the opening melody.  Rather, as if the song were as listless as its singer, it just skips to the bridge, where Simmons changes things up enough to suggest that perhaps it is the singer, after all, whom he and Ezrin are targeting:

Then you feel these eyes from the stage
And you see me staring at you
And you hear between the lines
My voice is calling to you

What this tells us is that the priapic Rock God is leering from the stage, so the woman feels his eyes, or actually she feels his gaze since I assume, admittedly without warrant, that his eyes remain in his head, before she actually sees him staring—unlike his fingers, which she sees first and then feels, in what I imagine is an act of synesthetic imagination.  With him staring so, it’s not unreasonable for her to assume he’s interested in a liaison, is it?

rasputinIn what sounds like a succinct description of hypnotism, the staring that is so intense it leads the woman to feel the rock star’s eyes and evokes a subliminal act of hearing, in which she doesn’t hear what there is explicitly to hear but rather hears “between the lines” where he is pointedly calling to her.  So here is the narrator, the singer, the Big Rock Star, and he hypnotizes this young woman, calling out to her, just to her, and what does he say?

Well, listen!

You’ve got great expectations

You’ve got great expectations

What an ass!  And that phrase just keeps going on and on, fading into oblivion, the chiming boys’ choir amplifying its torment, a tiresome psych-out, the epitome of the cynical, dead sexuality of cock rock that was to find half-hearted resuscitation in the campy self-parody of ‘80s hair metal with all those lead singers expressing endlessly moronic variations of “Gonna take off my pants!”  You’ve got to give Simmons credit: at least he tried to drive a stake through its heart in 1976, by one way or another, laughing all the way to the vault.

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The Magnetism of an Obsession: Reading J.G. Ballard in the Time of Coronavirus

PlagueWhat books are you reading during the pandemic?  I’ve heard that there has been a resurgence in the   popularity of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and a friend of mine told me that back in March, after the governor of Minnesota had issued a “stay at home” order for all but those in “essential” jobs, he’d started reading Camus’ The Plague.  Judging by a headline on the cover of a recent issue of Harper’s, “Reading The Plague in Quarantine,” he’s not the only one.

My husband decided to read The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry, which has apparently become a bestseller again, a book he’d owned for a number of years though hadn’t gotten around to reading.  He stopped when the body count kept growing.  He figured maybe now wasn’t the best time to read it.  Instead, he thought he would read an old, pre-twentieth-century, work of English literature.  I reminded him that Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe had written a book titled A Journal of the Plague Year, detailing the year 1655, when the bubonic plague had decimated London.  Or then again, there’s The Diary of Samuel Pepys, celebrated for its detailed depiction of daily life in seventeenth-century London, including the Great Plague of London, the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England, about ten years after the events described in Defoe’s book.   He thought not.  Perhaps some other time.

Kingdom comeI decided to ignore the pandemic altogether and keep pursuing the trajectory I was on immediately before the U.S. had its rude awakening.  By the middle of March, I’d just finished J.G. Ballard’s final novel, Kingdom Come.  A tale of soft fascism in the outer suburbs of London, the novel centers on former adman Richard Pearson, whose father had been killed in a mass shooting at the Metro-Centre, a shopping mall that in its scope calls to my mind the Mall of America, which is only a few miles from my house.  Pearson, dissatisfied with the official story of who killed his father— even sensing that a number of prominent citizens in the area are in engaged in a coverup— makes his own inquiries, over the course of which he discovers among the suburbanites living near the mall a thirst for violence and consumerist authoritarianism with unambiguously fascist overtones.  It’s a funny, perceptive novel.  And given that Ballard wrote it in 2008, years before Brexit, the return of a brutish nationalism across Europe, and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., it’s quite prescient.

I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I decided to go on a Ballard binge.  I hadn’t binged on the works of a single author since before graduate school.  It was generally how I read when I was an undergraduate and the decade after—start an author and read as much as I could until I’d read them all or lost steam.  And I owned several books by and about Ballard that I’d yet to read.  I’d purchased them with the best of intentions—although my book reading had dropped off precipitously since graduate school, I’d kept buying books in hopes that I would start again soon.  I never seemed to.  However, last November, when auto repair professionals deemed my car too dangerous to drive and not worth the cost of the repairs, I started taking a bus to work, and my book reading returned to what it had been over twenty years before, just in time to make up for what seemed to be my ever-dwindling social life.

ballardBallard is almost unknown in the States.  A visionary science fiction writer whose obsessional, sometimes bruising novels and stories have more in common with Surrealist painters and Pop Art than with Bradbury or Asimov, and for whom William S. Burroughs was one of the most important writers of the mid-twentieth century, Ballard is probably best known in the U. S. as the author of Empire of the Sun, his semi-autobiographical novel about a 12-year-old British boy, Jamie, who is interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp outside Shanghai, the city where he was born, separated from his parents upon capture.  In fact, most in the States probably think of Empire of the Sun as a Steven Spielberg movie, perhaps unaware it was even based on a book.

Some may even be aware of Ballard’s more notorious novel Crash, published in 1974, about which I’ll say more in a bit, that in 1996 was made into a vivid movie also titled Crash, but not the one that most are aware of.  From Ballard’s interviews, it seems the reason for his relative obscurity in the States is that most of his books had not stayed in print in the U.S. for most of Ballard’s career.  I was lucky to have lived in Minneapolis, where Greg Ketter, proprietor of DreamHaven Books, among the best science fiction books stores I’ve had the pleasure to shop at, knowing my taste in books, put British editions of the novels Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise in my hands, and I’ve been in Ballard’s grip since.

extreme metaphors jpegI followed Kingdom Come with Extreme Metaphors, a sizeable collection of interviews with Ballard that was published after his death in 2009.  According to the book’s introduction, in sheer number of words, the entire body of Ballard’s interviews exceeds his collected short stories twofold and is about two-thirds that of his novels—and Ballard wrote a considerable number of short stories and novels.  The interviews are quite lively.  Ballard is forthcoming when talking about his writing, not coy about what he’s trying to explore in specific books and stories and with his fiction overall, and makes keen observations about the world in which he lives, insights which he would have usually splayed as through a prism with the hallucinatory spectrum of his prose.  Most remarkable is how far-seeing Ballard was.  In the 1960s, he predicted the rise of the personal computer and suggested that one of humanity’s greatest threats in the future would be identity theft.

complete storiesBecause Ballard frequently discussed his short stories in the interviews, I decided it was time to dip once again into The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard.  I’d purchased the book when it was first published in 2009 and have dipped into its dreamy immensity—it is quite a hefty tome; Ballard was prolific—five or six times in the ensuing years.  Because I have read almost all of the stories in the book but can’t remember which ones I haven’t, I decided to use Extreme Metaphors as my guide through The Complete Stories, much as I’d done a few years ago when I’d used China Miéville’s perceptive 2010 review in The Nation, reading every story mentioned in Extreme Metaphors, as well as a few of my favorites, including the haunting “The Dead Time,” Ballard’s first story about life in Shanghai during the war, the seed for Empire of the Sun, and a few titles mentioned by Martin Amis in his introduction to the collection.  It’s interesting to see how even in the early stories, before Ballard had fully developed his voice, one sees his obsessions with time and space telescoping or collapsing and of the almost schizophrenic synesthesia induced by technologically mediated reality—humanity dreaming the world around it which in turn shapes its dreams, sometimes wrenchingly so.

Which brought me back to Crash, the book that had started it all for me.  A few years ago, a special edition of the novel was printed in England that includes the entire novel along with supplementary readings—a few uncollected stories that Ballard had been writing contemporaneously with the novel, like “Tolerances of the Human Face”; a screenplay he wrote for a short film that explored some of Ballard’s growing fascination with eroticism, death, and cars; and other sundry texts, including facsimiles from the first draft of Crash that is housed in the British Library.

crash 2Crash tells the story of a group of upper middle-class Brits whose erotic and imaginary lives are vastly opened up after near-death car crashes, almost as if the crashes were a form of hallucinogenic drug, automobiles revealed as the site of startling erotic encounters, wounds generating new genitalia, the thrill of vehicular annihilation, intoxicating, possessing, in which egos are transcended in neoteric geometries of speed and death.  The charismatic shaman guiding and inspiring them is Vaughan, “nightmare angel of the expressway,” a former TV scientist whose career is ended by a serious car crash.  Unsurprisingly, Crash is hardly light reading.  I’d lent it to a friend of mine many years ago and was afraid he hadn’t liked it because after months in his possession, he had not so much as mentioned it to me.  When I finally asked him what he thought, he told me he was enthralled but found that he could only read so much at a time before needing to take a break from it.  When he returned it to me, he thanked me for the experience and went on to borrow and enjoy other Ballard novels.  He was especially taken with Empire of the Sun and The Unlimited Dream Company (“This,” he wrote to me in a letter after just having finished reading The Unlimited Dream Company, “is art!”).

As you might imagine, then, Crash is not for everyone.  I purchased a copy of it for another friend as a gift (what a gift!), and he found it risible.  Whatever one makes of it, though, this time around, for me, I discovered not the cautionary tale warning us of the psychic and physical dangers of the automobile (and bourgeois perversions) that I had thought the novel was when I’d been a young man, but, as Ballard describes it to Will Self in an interview excerpted near the end of the Collector’s Edition, a psychopathic hymn.  It is indeed—a psychopathic hymn to the pathologies of the twentieth century.

miracles of lifeI only had a few other unread Ballard books in my collection, so I decided to finish my Ballard binge with them rather than reread some favorites.  After the perversions of Crash, I turned to Ballard’s most conventional book, his last, Miracles of Life, his memoir.  Even though they only make up the first sixteen years of his seventy-nine-year life, almost half the book is devoted to his life in Shanghai, a formative experience that deeply shaped his peculiar imagination.  As Ballard says when writing about why it took him forty years before first writing a novel about his experiences in Lunghua Camp—just outside of Shanghai, a feverish swamp fetid with human waste, which had once been a small collection of proud, gated communities, walls previously used to keep out the poor Chinese who were starving and dying in and around Shanghai now imprisoning Europeans, where Ballard and his family were held for over two years—he needed twenty years to forget it and another twenty to remember it again.

Admittedly, much of what Ballard recounts about his war experiences in Miracles of Life had already been more memorably portrayed in Empire of the Sun and its loose sequel The Kindness of Women.  Still, the memoir has a chatty, intimate quality to it that is engaging in a low-key way and so is a bit of a surprise for those used to the more prophetic rhythms of Ballard’s celebrated writing (or damned, depending on the reader, publisher Nelson Doubleday, Jr. notoriously having destroyed the entire run of The Atrocity Exhibition after leafing through a newly printed copy, his eyes alighting upon the chapter titled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”).

millennium peopleI finished my binge with Millennium People, Ballard’s penultimate novel, originally published in 2003 but not released in an American edition until 2011 to cash in on the “explosive” Ballard renaissance triggered by the publication of The Collected Stories if the book jacket copy is to be believed.  As with Kingdom Come, the novel that was the fuse for my personal explosive Ballard renaissance, Millennium People is a satire of middle-class unrest in contemporary England.  In it, psychologist David Markham finds himself caught up in “a small revolution … so modest and well behaved that almost no one had noticed” after personally investigating who may have been responsible for the terrorist attack at Heathrow Airport that led to the death of his first wife.  That investigation leads him to Chelsea Marina, a gated community in a posh area of London, where charismatic, and very possibly psychotic, film lecturer Kay Churchill is leading the middle-class residents there, decidedly lower-upper-middle-class (!), the “new proletariat”, to fight back against the society that is exploiting them by demanding they enjoy the best products and services available without their actually being able to afford it.

As Markham keeps digging, though, he learns that the real leader of the revolt is pediatrician Richard Gould, who theorizes that for terrorism to sear itself indelibly into the minds of the public, its targets must be meaningless—”He was trying to find meaning in the most meaningless times, the first of new kind of desperate man who refuses to bow before the arrogance of existence and the tyranny of space-time”—and that Markham himself might be Gould’s ultimate target.  It’s a bracing, funny book.

So, while many in these trying times are poring through books about plagues and epidemics, trying to figure out how to live and make meaning of life in quarantine, I’m not convinced, after reading so much Ballard, that living in quarantine is such a bad thing.  In our isolation, we can twist and writhe to each obsession that takes hold of us, flabby de Sades, our cruelty articulated not in the formidable grace of classical French syntax, but in the truncated anti-poetry of tweets and Facebook posts, of Tik Tok videos and Snapchats, the damage we might have inflicted on others curling dead on the vine of mass indifference while we imagine we are Titans striding the Earth with awesome and devastating self-assurance.

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Frightfully Funny: The Screwball Horror of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

indy ore cartAbout a month ago, my husband and I decided to watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the first time since its release in 1984.  Last fall, we had seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, which we both enjoyed, admittedly not as much as we might have liked, though not as little as we had feared.  The conventional wisdom is that of the first three Indiana Jones films, Temple of Doom is the worst.  For decades, my own feeling was that each one was less entertaining than the one preceding it, with Indian Jones and the Last Crusade scraping the bottom of the barrel, until Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that is.  Phew!

Granted, by 1989, when The Last Crusade had been released, I was getting pretty tired of the whole action film genre, which every summer in the 1980s was as inescapable a genre as superhero movies are today.  And when I first saw Temple of Doom, I was just twenty years old.  My taste in films was, shall we say, idiosyncratic.  To this day, I would like to apologize to the traumatized friend to whom I’d recommended A Clockwork Orange as one of the funniest films I’d ever seen.  What was I thinking?

On and off over the years, I have wanted to watch Temple of Doom again to see if it held up to my original assessment of it.  That desire was whet recently by a list of underrated movies from the 1980s that I’d encountered in an online film magazine, in which the critic said that Temple of Doom was far better than its reputation would lead one to believe.  I’ll admit, had I not already thought that might be the case, I wouldn’t have trusted the critic.

the criticBeware of revisionist critics!  Too often have I watched a movie I had once either disliked or had entirely avoided because it looked so bad just because a critic made a new case for its worthiness.  Almost without fail, I discover that I had been right all along.  Just as reviewers are trying to stake their reputations on discovering and trumpeting the best new thing, they also sift through the remains in the charnel grounds of old pop culture to show how keen their eyes are by finding jewels amid the carrion.  Their success rate is about as good as a dowser’s in finding water.  It happens from time to time, so people keep believing.  In fact, though, the only way to find great overlooked or underrated movies is upon the recommendation of someone you trust—friend or critic or none of the above, it doesn’t matter—who has, to your mind, some really good reasons why you should (re)look at it.

Was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom worth watching again?  No.  No it wasn’t.  At times, it’s very well made.  During one of the most famous sequences in the movie, when Indy, Willie, and (sigh) Short Round are fleeing for their lives from Thuggee thugs (sorry), careering in an ore cart mounted on tracks up and down hills in a mine (that’s right: hills in a mine), I remarked aloud at the brilliant craftsmanship on display, all in the service of utter rubbish.  The scene, which should have been thrilling, still felt like it did when I first saw the movie—an idea for a video game or amusement park ride being advertised in a major motion picture.  What excitement it could have evoked was undercut by how little one cared about the story’s outcome.  At least the scene wasn’t twenty minutes long, as my husband had remembered.  Clocking in at seven minutes, it only felt twenty minutes long.  Well, maybe eighteen, to be fair.

Considering the role that Raiders of the Lost Ark played in establishing the action film genre, what is surprising about Temple of Doom is how inert it feels, the actions scenes relegated to the beginning and end of the movie.  And one of those action scenes, the elaborate opening sequence, about twenty minutes long, beginning in a night club in 1935 Shanghai and ending in a poor village in northern India, in its overwrought, almost desperate mix of comedy and action, reveals the same hand that steered the laborious hijinks in 1941.

After arriving in that village in northern India via the inflatable raft with which Indy, Willie, and (sigh) Short Round sledded down a snowy mountainside after having used the raft to parachute from an unmanned airplane that was set to crash into the mountain—I told you the opening scene was elaborate, and that’s not the half of it—the movie settles down as Indy learns of a sacred stone that has been stolen from the village, children from the village also mysteriously disappearing, and vows to look into matters.

As the movie progressed, it became clear to me that it was more of a comedy than an action film, and more surprisingly, given the fiery repartee between Indy and pampered nightclub singer Willie, fueled by their obvious attraction to one another, a romantic comedy—more particularly, a screwball comedy, given the outlandish circumstances the couple find themselves in, the almost caricatured gendering of the conflict between Indy and Willie, and the scene in which Indy and Willie are in separate rooms across a hall from one another, each racing through a litany of outrages perpetrated by the other, only to end with them charging across the hall at the same time to confront the other, ending in their falling into one another’s arms, which in its direction recalls Howard Hawks.

indy beating heartAs if it was not enough to make an Indiana Jones film into a screwball comedy, the filmmakers, freed by the postmodernism at the heart of the Indiana Jones series, decided to also make Temple of Doom a horror film.  If not that, how can one account for scenes centering on the evil Thuggee cult, in which humans are sacrificed to the goddess Kali, their hearts removed beating from their chest before being lowered in a cage into a lava pit, where their heartless bodies are incinerated.  And this isn’t described to us, it’s shown to us in ceremonies that look like they borrowed their production design from GWAR concerts.

As I write this, it almost sounds interesting.  But writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, later guilty of writing the screenplay for Howard the Duck (for more about that, you might want to read my blog post Guardians of the Galaxy and Howard the Duck), have no knack for knowing how to make such a mongrel work.  And around this time, it looked like Spielberg didn’t care so much about the quality of the material he was directing as he was by how he could possibly film some of it.  Leave this movie to your memories, or if you haven’t yet seen it, crowd your mind with something a little more worthwhile.

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Police Problem

riot-policeBased on the very real possibility that the Minneapolis police department will be “defunded,” something more supple arising from its ashes, more able to meet diverse community needs than what a law enforcer has been trained to deal with, including domestic abuse, drug addiction, and mental illness, and based on the ubiquity of articles I have seen and conversations I have heard reconsidering the role of police in our communities or debating the standards by which the effectiveness of police departments will be evaluated, something that surprisingly has never really been done before, it appears the United States is finally coming to grips with its police problem.

By “police problem,” I don’t simply mean police misconduct.  I also mean the unfair responsibilities our society has heaped on police, putting them into situations they would be willing to admit they are ill-equipped to deal with.  And I also mean the attitude the police have that they belong to a brotherhood, separate from civilians who don’t understand just how hard their jobs are—and just there, in that lack of understanding, I have no doubt they’re right, yet I have always had problems with how reflexively the police close ranks in the face of criticism, refusing to hear legitimate complaints, especially if articulated through rhetoric inflamed by outrage and despair.

And by “police problem,” I also mean how we misunderstand what police are, what their function actually is, in turn, confusing serious social fissures that are the conditions in which policing is performed with the police themselves.  That blame can get pretty vicious, too, the most recent example being the acronym ACAB—“all cops are bastards”—which may have origins dating back to the 1920s but seems to have gained traction among activists in the past decade, particularly in the protests and uprisings immediately following the killing of George Floyd.  While the phrase is meant to condemn the institution of police, not individual police officers, tell that to the average rank and file cop who is being screamed at directly in the face as if he or she actually is the bastard, and who, in that situation, is embodying the institution so vehemently reviled.

LennyBruceOver the years, whenever I would see people shouting “Pig!” or “Fascist!” or something equivalent at police, I would recall a line from a Lenny Bruce routine that appeared in his Berkeley concert, the last full concert that Bruce recorded.  In the routine, Bruce imagines the invention of law, followed by the realization of the need for creating consequences should somebody violate that law, which leads to the further realization that somebody will need to enforce compliance with those consequences should the law be broken.  Bruce sees the culmination of all this in 1965, when Civil Rights protests and those against the Viet Nam War were beginning to heat up:

Now comes the riot, or the marches, and everybody’s wailing and … you got a cop there who’s standing with a short-sleeve shirt on and a stick in his hand, and the people are yelling, “Gestapo!” At him! “Gestapo? You asshole, I’m the mailman! Gestapo!?”

I’ve always thought that “mailman” was perfect.  Mail carriers are so innocuous, almost the opposite of what protestors were seeing in that Gestapo cop.  Still, there is a resemblance between them.  Like police, mail carriers are public employees who wear uniforms when carrying out their duties.  And, as Bruce’s police officer tries to make clear, like a mail carrier, he is simply a messenger, he’s not the message itself.  Nobody makes that mistake with the mailman!  Why do it with a cop?  A law has been established, and the police officer is simply there to enforce it.  If you don’t like what’s happening, blame it on the law.  That’s what you’re really having problems with. Change it.

It makes sense.  There are laws, and they need to be enforced to have any weight.  But what Bruce’s routine doesn’t get at, among a slew of other things, is why police too frequently deliver their message with such … gusto.  It’s because by sticking with the law, where in 1965 Bruce himself was seriously stuck, Bruce’s routine doesn’t quite go deep enough.  It’s not just that the police are delivering the message of the law.  They are a distillation of American attitudes and values.  And when it comes to racism, of American attitudes toward black bodies.

mirror sceneAs Jamiles Lartey, staff writer at The Marshall Project and 2016 Emerging Journalist of the Year as chosen by The National Association of Black Journalists, told Terry Gross in a recent interview on WHYY’s Fresh Air:

The police are racism representatives. They are the folks who we hire to actuate something that’s far more distant than a person’s individual biases. …. We outsource the keeping of the racial order to police every day. … And this is so important: Officers themselves do not have to be ideologically white supremacist to be performing that function. …. The way police treat black people in America is symptomatic of how America feels about black people, which is this state of conditional citizenship steeped in mistrust and in fear.

And that’s where the police problem is most difficult for a majority of Americans.  The problem isn’t the police.  It’s that, in reflecting our values, the police are blamed for being the problem, and that’s a problem.  When we talk about changing the police, we need to begin and end with discussions about “how America feels about black people.”  For many of us, that means we’re going to need to look at ourselves.  And this isn’t about not being a member of the Klan or even simply harboring ill-will toward black people.  It’s about asking yourself how you talk to, think about, and respond (or react) to black people.  Are they “conditional citizens,” are they in some other community than the one in which you live?  We need to start the transformation there, or we’ll always have a police problem.

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The Rest is Silence: On Letting Be in Days of Rage

george floydAt first, I was going to write about the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 26 and the conflagration of protests and riots that continue to sweep the world in its wake.  How could I not?  This event has the potential to be epoch-changing, and it happened just a few miles from my house.  The helicopters were distant, but I could hear them.  And the day after the first serious night of burning, chunks of charred material littered the streets and lawns of Richfield, the suburb where I live.

More significantly, the last that I heard, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council has promised to defund the police, replacing them with something a bit more attuned to actually serving and protecting.  There is precedent for what the city council is proposing.  In 2013, the Camden, NJ police department, once notorious for its brutality, was disbanded.  But my understanding is that it was mainly a union-busting move to pay police less money rather than a move toward more just policing, the unemployed police officers required to reapply with the county force for a job at reduced salary, all this to help the state, under the watch of Governor Chris Christie, balance its unruly budget.  Still, the police took the opportunity provided by the change to modify their approach to policing.  The reconstituted county force made concerted efforts to reach out to members of the community rather than try to subdue and dominate them.  In the end, though, the police force was left relatively intact, and Camden still struggles with police violence, though at admittedly reduced levels.

From what I’ve read and heard, Minneapolis is proposing something else—a smaller police force with more limited and specific interactions with the public, as well as better police training to deal with racism, among other issues, that need constant attention, not the one-day or one-week workshop that has been standard practice.  It is thrilling to see such innovation arising from such a hateful seed. The eyes of the world are on us.

At first, maybe I was going to say some or even all of that.  But then, as my inbox overflowed with messages about the killing of George Floyd from every organization who has my email address—some with my permission, some not— reiterating basically the same things, making sure to include their understanding that racism is “systemic” or “institutionalized,” my mind began to dull.  And that’s to say nothing of the endless stream of Facebook posts with people going on about “systemic” and “institutionalized” racism, some from people who only a few months ago would have argued you around the world and back again that no such thing existed in America, God bless it.

I don’t have problems with characterizing racism as “systemic” and “institutionalized,” it is for sure (in the States at least, though I would hazard to guess elsewhere as well), but I’m concerned that those terms, already abstract, will lose meaning the more they circulate and will be substituted for more honest self-reflection, thought, and action.

And it’s not just those words.  It’s the sentiments they express, often worded similarly in each email and Facebook post, that begin to feel pro forma rather than heartfelt.  Are the organizations from whom I’ve received emails really going to change their own structures and constituencies to include more African Americans and other people of color if they want to belong to them?  Are the white people posting on Facebook finally going to do something, even if only to bring self-awareness to their white privilege (and how many of them would even agree that they benefit from such a thing)? It’s not enough to “take a knee.”  Look at the cynicism of police forces that in the face of protestors “took a knee,” many of whom probably had rather “un-PC” things to say about Colin Kaepernick when he did so, only to get up and clobber the shit out of the next protestor in reach.

black lives matterAnd that’s to say nothing of those who still, after all of this, when they hear “Black Lives Matter,” respond that “All Lives Matter” as if “Black Lives Matter” isn’t already saying so, while also pointing out that while “All Lives Matter,” it sure doesn’t seem like black ones do.  Or those who say “Blue Lives Matter,” as if in all cases lethal force is the only thing keeping police officers alive or that calling attention to the fact that black people, especially men, are unjustly treated by the police, even to the point of being killed with no recourse, is to call all-out war on police.

But here I am doing exactly what I had finally decided not to do.  I had not wanted to write all of this, all of which you’ve undoubtedly read in one place or another, me unconsciously regurgitating news and slogans and criticisms that are unavoidably circulating right now.  In fact, between the first draft of this blog post and now, I watched John Oliver’s piece about policing on Last Week Tonight, and he said a lot of what I’ve just written.  While this may be a case of great minds thinking alike (ahem), it’s more likely that whoever wrote Oliver’s piece read and listened to some of the same things that I have.  On top of that, if you look in the right places, a lot of other people are saying what we’re saying right now.

So before committing to write this post, I reflected long and hard about whether or not I should even write it, and if I did, just what I would write.  I asked myself what on earth I could say about any of this that would be worth hearing yet hasn’t already been said, that wouldn’t be merely more noise ricocheting in the vast echo chamber that is our mass media, which most certainly includes social networking sites, where things frequently lose intelligibility.

pekar rantBecause too often in this age of instant mediation—when, pace Baudrillard, anything one does isn’t real unless it has been captured by a picture, a video, or a social media post—as soon as an event catches the media’s eye, opinions zero in on it, like flies drawn to rotten meat, until there is a halo of flies surrounding it, the meat no longer visible beneath the pulsing, jittery mass of insects.  What is being talked about is too frequently lost beneath the talking, as well-intentioned as some of it may be.

I have nothing against people discussing the issues of the day; they should.  But I caution that we need to think twice about posting to social media.  That doesn’t mean don’t post.  It does mean to be more responsible about it.  A lot, if not most, of what is expressed on social media is just repeating what has already been better said elsewhere, sometimes new ideas are added, sometimes not, sometimes points are sharpened, sometimes dulled.  The net effect is that the thing itself becomes what you say about it, how you say it, the hard fact itself no longer seen.  What is seen, instead, is discourse, rhetorical strategies designed to make a particular point, often self-serving, often political, and almost as often crudely so, easily dismissed because, “They’re only saying that because they hate Trump” or “the police” or “Obama” or because they’re racist, PC, communist, libertarian, elite, and the list goes on.

Again, I don’t mean one shouldn’t say anything.  Rather, I’m asking that you pay attention before you do, asking yourself if it really needs to be said.  Remember, whatever you say matters, but maybe not in the way you would like it to.  It might matter because it was absolutely unnecessary; had you not said it, the thing you’re talking about, or the point you’re repeating, might have been less obscured or worn out, retaining at least a scintilla of its heft had you just kept your mouth shut.

So before writing this post, I asked myself: what on earth can I add to the conversation about George Floyd and racism in America?  Truth be told, not much.  About all I can contribute is to share my experiences with racism, which is a tale of complicity.  And to be honest, who needs to hear that?  I live in a racist, sexist, homophobic culture, and I occupy ground zero on two of those metrics.  For me to state that I have, or worse haven’t, acted or thought in a racist manner isn’t helpful to anybody.  Of course I have.  True, we need to be honest with ourselves, which in matters of race too many white people aren’t, but as the backlash against the “I Take Responsibility” PSA demonstrates, we don’t need to publicly perform our realization of what should be a given. You finally figured it out.  Good for you.  Here’s a cookie. And that’s my response even though I agree with the sentiment driving the ad.  Unless everyone sees that what is happening right now is our responsibility, regardless of how removed from us it might seem, then we’ve got more pain ahead of us.  And that’s true not just of race but everything, and I mean everything.  That should make all the clearer that while you’re responsible, this isn’t about you.

I’ll admit, as far as redressing racism in America, I’m not sure what to do.  I do know that regardless of what I do, I’ll be doing something, even if that something is nothing, and we see where that has gotten us.  Right now, doing something can mean simply listening.  For a change.  Listening to those whose lives have been disadvantaged by U.S. society, whose families have been shattered by mass incarceration, police violence, intergenerational trauma, and the violence endemic to economically disadvantaged communities.  They’ve got something to say about this situation that’s far more meaningful than anything that I can come up with.

iagoAs it is, I have gone on far longer than I’d intended.  So now, until my next ill-considered utterance, at the risk of sounding like Iago, one with whom I too often bear resemblance, in his final lines from Othello, when he says, “Demand me nothing.  What you know, you know.  From this time forth, I never will speak word,” I am done.

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Virtually a Film Festival

About ten years ago, after decades of attending, at best, one or two movies at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (for many years called the Rivertown Film Festival), because my anxiety-fueled antisocial tendencies led me to shun crowds, I got over myself and started seeing between twelve to twenty movies at the festival each IMG_0715year.  I’ll admit, since the kinds of movies I gravitate toward are hardly crowd-pleasers—like the five-hour with no intermission, though they snuck one in anyway, Happy Hour or the death metal musical set in fifteenth-century France, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc or Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, for which the title character, film great Sergei Eisenstein, was in bed naked for almost the entire movie—I usually don’t have to face mobs of people when I go.  But then again, as my friend Jon points out, when you and only five other people are watching a movie together, it hardly feels like you’re attending a film festival either.  Rather, it’s like going to a late showing of any worthwhile non-English movie at a Landmark Theater.

At any rate, at 11:59 p.m. this past Saturday, May 23, 2020, a month later than it normally would have, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, MSPIFF39 Redefined as they called it, ended.  As you might imagine, it was all online, fewer filmmakers “visited” than in previous years, the selection of films was between a third and a quarter of what it usually is, and some of the more cinematically challenging (and often brilliant) films that might have been programmed were noticeably missing.  Nonetheless, there were still good films to see; I’m glad the organizers figured out how to keep the film festival going.

Here’s the list of the ten movies I saw (yep, only ten this year), ranked from favorite to least favorite:

fireFire Will Come—A beautifully shot movie set in the Galician countryside that’s about family, community, nature, twenty-first century economics, and belonging.  It tells the story of Amador, who is returning to his elderly mother on their impoverished family farm after he has served two years in prison for having set a fire that is said to have set a whole mountain on fire.  The storytelling is minimal, fitting for a movie whose main conflicts are rooted in what is left unsaid.

Song without a Name—Another beautifully shot movie, this with rich black and white cinematography that at times deepens the Kafkaesque qualities of the story (yes, that is a picture of Kafka on the cover of a book on the table of a used bookseller).  It is Peru 1988, and the Shining Path is engaging in acts of terrorism across the country.  Georgina, a poor indigenous woman has her baby stolen from her when she gives birth at what she believes to be a free health clinic.  Along with Pedro, an intrepid newspaper reporter who vows to help Georgina find her baby when he realizes no one in the legal system or government will, they discover a tangled web of corrupt officials and baby traffickers.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream—In 2016, Frank Beauvais found himself alone in Alsace with nothing but time and a whole lot of movies.  He and his lover had broken up, and his long-estranged father had died watching a movie that Beauvais thought would bridge the distance between them.  So for four months, before moving back to Paris, he immersed himself in movies, watching several a day, about four hundred in the end.  The film is a memoir of sorts, Beauvais narrates events from the year, his reactions to them, and his thoughts about life, told solely in clips from the films he had watched.  It’s a somber movie, but reflective in a way that I appreciated, the clips providing interesting touchstones and counterpoints to Beauvais’ narration.

ends of earthTo the Ends of the Earth—Yoko is a twenty-something woman from Tokyo who hosts what seems to be a travel show aimed at a young audience.  Her latest assignment brings her to Uzbekistan.  What she encounters there is sometimes boring, sometimes magical, and sometimes frightening.  Feeling a bit adrift in her life, her adventures in Uzbekistan bring her closer to at least some degree of clarity, even if they don’t really resolve anything for her.  The movie is quirky without being twee, and there are no great epiphanic moments—it’s not entirely clear just what Yoko gleans from all she experiences, but we can tell that something is starting to sink in.

Kuessipan—High school senior Mikuan Vollant has grown up in the Uashat Indian Reserve No. 27 near the city of Sept-Iles on the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec.  Once, she tells us in the film, the reserve had seemed large to her.  Now it seems small.  She wants to go to college in Quebec City and develop her considerable writing talent.  But she needs to learn how to do so and not turn her back on her Innut community.  Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine is quite good as Mikuan, and the Innut culture we see is, as with so many First Nation communities, rich yet disrupted by the effects of years of intergenerational trauma. 

The Seer and the Unseen—A documentary that is a portrait of Icelandic environmental activism told through the portrait of Ragga Jónsdóttir, a seer, who can see and communicate with the elves and trolls that make up the invisible world of Iceland whose existence is threatened by rampant land development.  The movie focuses particularly on a highway project that will devastate a starkly beautiful landscape of volcanic rock that Ragga says is home to a vast community of elves who have asked her to intercede on their behalf.  It’s an unusual movie that in its offbeat way reminds us of the unseen worlds that exist within the circumscribed world that, hobbled together from our circumscribed experiences, is what we take to be all there is.

Patrick—After his father dies, Patrick finds himself an ambivalent heir to the nudist camp where he has lived a rather unambitious life with his parents.  Worse, someone has stolen a hammer from his hammer set, one that is no longer being produced.  Meanwhile, there is a coup for control of the camp brewing among the regulars.  Patrick himself is so opaque, emotionally and intellectually inert, that the film can’t quite rise above its oddball premise.

Bridge—This documentary tells the stories of a handful of people whose lives were changed by the collapse of the 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on 2007.  The stories are moving, though the telling of them is probably best suited for a program broadcast on local public television.

Okavango: River of Dreams (Director's Cut) - Still 5Okavango: River of Dreams—A documentary shot along the mighty Okavango River in southern Africa, directors Dereck and Beverly Joubert do everything one might expect from a nature documentary, for better and worse.

The Spy—The opening night movie, based on the true story of Norwegian-Swedish film star Sonja Wigert, whom many had thought was a Nazi collaborator, but whom, it turned out, was actually a spy for Swedish intelligence. As a thriller, it’s too familiar.  As history, it’s too much a movie.

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Favorite Movies of 2019

2019 was another great year for film, as long as you weren’t going to the cineplex, where things remain bound by superheroes, the way the mainstream comics field was artistically hobbled throughout much of the 1960s-1990s.  Let us hope Hollywood movies won’t be super-enthralled for as long.  But if you went to other kinds of movies houses, checked out a film festival or two, and subscribed to one or two of the streaming services that have begun producing films, there was a lot to celebrate.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)I saw 110 movies this past year, 46 of which were new.  I usually don’t spend much time talking about movies from the past that I watched this year, but I don’t see why not.  Probably the most eye-opening film for me was Charles Burnet’s poetic, funny, beautiful, and aching portrait of Watts, 1977’s Killer of Sheep.  The acting is mostly amateur, but what Burnet is portraying, and the visual art he creates with low-grade black and white film, is nothing short of astonishing. For my money, that makes 1977 a great year for American movies.  Just off the top of my head, it gave us Annie Hall, Eraserhead, Killer of Sheep, and the movie that changed it all, for better but mainly worse, Star Wars.  For what it’s worth, I did not see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker until New Year’s Day, so it didn’t have a chance to make my list.  Of course, the way those films have been going, it really didn’t have a chance to make it on my list long before I actually saw it.

I was happy to catch three Lina Wertmüller films in our local microcinema: Seven Beauties, Love & Anarchy, and Swept Away.  I had always meant to see her films—these and The Seduction of Mimi (which the microcinema also screened, though I couldn’t attend) were staples in the old repertory theaters in town like the Uptown and the Varsity—but for one reason or another, I never did.  I found them lacerating and funny.  With the uncompromising nature of its protagonists’ comeuppance, one that basically takes the entire movie, it is hard for me to fathom Seven Beauties having been nominated for an Oscar, but it had been, for best original screenplay and best director, which made Wertmüller the first and, until 1993, only woman to have been nominated in the category (and beyond those two, only three other women directors have been nominated—shame on you AMPAS).

Rewatching Zama, Lucretia Martel’s excellent, dream-like dissection of colonialism that was released last year, I was reminded that I never saw Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, another regular in the repertory theater schedules that I somehow missed.  Its influence on Zama is unmistakeable. And the final shot of Zama reminded me of the end of Jim Jarmusch’s masterpiece Dead Man, so I saw that again.  It had been a few years—it was almost better than I remembered.

Regarding films new to 2019 that didn’t make my ten favorites but came close, Jarmusch released a funny movie about how fucked up the world is right now and disguised it as a zombie movie with The Dead Don’t Die.  It stars Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny, with Murray and Driver seemingly trying to out deadpan one another, and features a fantastic supporting cast, including Steve Buscemi, Carol Kane, Tilda Swinton, RZA, Iggy Pop, and the inimitable Tom Waits.

amazing_grace_stillSpeaking of legendary musicians, a couple were prominently featured in two excellent musical non-fiction films released this past year.  First, Amazing Grace, the long-lost film documenting the recording of Aretha Franklin’s return to gospel music.  It’s amazing.  Franklin sings as if she has something to lose, and at this point in her career, perhaps at the peak of her singing skills, she had nothing to worry about.  The other film also features footage that has been sitting in a vault for decades: The Rolling Thunder Revue, ostensibly a documentary about the then infamous tour on which Bob Dylan embarked that was as much carnival as concert tour.  When I learned that a lot of the interviews in the movie were b.s., it not only cleared up some really odd moments, but it made me wonder what the hell director Martin Scorcese was up to.  Reflecting upon it, I don’t think there was a better way to capture the enigmatic creation that is Bob Dylan, especially at that point in Dylan’s career.  But it’s the concert footage that’s the star.  I’m not sure Dylan was ever more sure-footed as a singer and musician than he is on this tour.  His duets with Joan Baez are simply remarkable.

Finally, here is a list of the remaining movies that didn’t make my list but easily could have.  Seek them out.  Watch them.  Enjoy them: Ash Is Purest White, 3 Faces, Us, Ad Astra, and The Souvenir.

Here are my ten favorites in order that I saw them:

Transit opens with Georg desperately trying to escape a fascist state that seems to be Nazi Germany except for the contemporary trappings that make it seem as if it were taking place now—an apt befuddlement for a world besieged by right wing nationalism that callously victimizes refugees.  The problem for Georg is he doesn’t have papers allowing him safe transit; that is, until the writer he is trying to help out of the country dies.  Georg takes on the dead man’s identity, working his way to Marseilles where he again has difficulties finding transit out of the country.  While he’s in bureaucratic limbo, he falls in love with Maria, who too is trapped in Marseilles awaiting her husband, a writer who turns out to be the one Georg had been trying to help.  The plot complications arising from Georg’s fluid identity as he moves back and forth between pretending to be Maria’s husband and trying to disguise his identity as her husband deepen the film’s emotional tenor.  As he did in his previous film, Phoenix, writer and director Christian Petzold crafts richly melodramatic material that is haunted by the fragility of identity, finding in it aching questions about love and its often-devastating intersection with politics.

Hotel-by-the-RiverHotel by the River
In prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s latest film, lovingly shot in gray-saturated black and white, the aging, celebrated poet Ko Young-hwan senses he is going to die, so he invites his two long-estranged sons to visit him at a hotel where he is staying.  At first it seems that Ko wants to reconcile with his understandably skeptical sons, who haven’t seen him in decades after Ko abandoned them and their mother for a younger woman.  But we soon get the sense that, like many of the middle-aged men in earlier Hong films, Ko doesn’t seem interested in much beyond his own opinions and desires.  It leads to some wry humor in his awkward interactions with his sons and when he flirts with a couple of young women who are staying on the same floor of the hotel that he is, whose story also makes up a significant portion of the film.  Hong’s films spin fragile moods that for some might seem inconsequential—I saw it at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, and the woman sitting next to me, who’d told me how eager she was to see the film because of the buzz surrounding it at the festival, turned to me as soon as the movie ended and asked incredulously, “Did you like that?” before storming out—but there’s always more going on than meets the eye, and no less than Claire Denis declared that she takes inspiration from Hong’s work ethic and the consistent quality of his work.

an-elephant-sittingAn Elephant Sitting Still
Following events unfolding in a single day among a small group of lower-class residents in a modern city in northeastern China that seems to be in decline, An Elephant Sitting Still is an angry and sad film.  It opens with a young man leaping from a balcony to his death and ripples outward to the stories of four different but ultimately interconnected people in the same neighborhood—a teenage boy who has to face the repercussions of resisting the threats of a school bully; his classmate, a girl who starts an affair with one of her teachers; a retired gentlemen whose children want to force him from living with them; and a local thug whom we glimpse at the beginning of the film, and whose significance to the lives of the other characters becomes clear as the film develops. I love the way the film’s story unfolds, and the metaphor of the film, the thing that all the main characters of the film ultimately desire, to see the elephant in Manzhouli in northern Mongolia, along the Russian border, that can sit still even when people prick it with a fork, is both absurd and suggestive of the Buddhist welcoming of all the slings and arrows that life seems to hurl at us because they really are life and not the vicious missiles from outside that we take them to be.

Manta-RayManta Ray
Manta Ray is a Thai movie whose drama, while very personal on one level, has something much bigger in mind, addressing in its story of a fisherman who rescues and nurses back to health a mute man he finds curled up on the floor of a nearby forest the plight of Rohingya refugees in Thailand.  The Rohingya are the stateless people who are mainly Muslim and reside in Myanmar, where they have been brutally persecuted.  Some have fled to Thailand, but they are not officially recognized as refugees there, putting their lives in peril, as their non-status makes them ineligible for necessary identification cards, further making them ineligible for employment and protected housing.  The fisherman, who is unnamed, befriends the Rohingya refugee, until the fisherman suddenly disappears.  Then the refugee basically takes over the fisherman’s life.  It is a moving film, at times almost surreal in imagery, and one could imagine its story as something that might have interested Hitchcock at the height of his career, though he would have made a very different kind of movie.   Sadly, Manta Ray tells a story too resonant for America, as we perpetuate a refugee crisis on our southern border that some experts have said rivals the most dangerous refugee crises around the globe.

High-LifeHigh Life
Claire Denis’ latest film is, for those familiar with her work, surprisingly set in space.  Kind of.  (So I guess it’s not all that surprising after all.)  One could say just as accurately that it is set on death row.  Taking place in an undetermined future, the film concerns a group of death row inmates who, to be released from their sentences, have agreed to go on a space mission in a ship that looks as if a prison block had been jettisoned into space to a nearby black hole to determine if its energy could be harnessed for use on Earth.  Such a description doesn’t do justice to Denis’ occasionally beautiful, often disturbing, portrait of the human condition.  Truth be told, that condition is always carried out under a death sentence, and while it might seem purposeful as we first embark upon it, after the exhilarating and exhausting vicissitudes of life, many begin to suspect there isn’t any purpose to it at all.  In High Life, as the mission’s purpose unravels, the idiosyncratic, at times dark, urges that drive us as humans come to the surface.  If we can survive those, the film asks, what lies on the other side?  Juliet Binoche, playing against type, and Robert Pattinson are excellent, as is the supporting cast.

LongDaysJourneyIntoTheNightLong Day’s Journey into Night
Long Day’s Journey into Night is not about drug addiction or shameful family secrets.  In fact, it has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s theatrical masterpiece.  Rather, it deliriously explores the entanglement of desire, memory, and dream, most thrillingly in its final hour, a single unbroken shot in 3D, in which Luo Hongwu, the protagonist, exits the movie theater in which he’d fallen asleep, descending farther and farther to try to get to the heart of the matter regarding a woman with whom he’d been in love years before and who has proven ever more difficult to recapture.  Director Bi Gan exploits the dream-like qualities of cinema, fluidly alluding to the works of Wong Kar-wai and Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as arty Hollywood films like Vertigo and Blade Runner to create a rapturous paean to bedazzlement.

Sitting in their garden-level apartment, wondering how to get rid of their stink bug infestation, learning how to fold pizza boxes quickly to make extra money, watching a local drunk once again urinating right outside their window, and stealing wi-fi when they can, something good finally happens to the Kim family: a fumigator truck comes down their alley, spraying insecticide.  Leave the windows open, Ki-taek, the family partriach, tells everyone.  That way the apartment can get fumigated for free.  It is a funny, telling opening to celebrated Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy Parasite, which explores class conflict and the ever-widening abyss between the wealthy and poor with a wild plot that takes several unexpected turns before reaching its rather emphatic climax.  At one point, as the Kims descend a narrow stairwell into a secret subterranean lair, I felt we were entering Haruki Murakami territory.  Parasite is well-crafted and entertaining with the penetrating bite of a hornet’s sting.

lighthouse-3The Lighthouse
Put two very different kind of men—one taciturn, sullen even, who recently turned toward the sea after years of working as a lumberjack; the other garrulous (gaseous, too) and bellicose, a salty old cur who may nor may not have lived a life of the sea—together in the restricting confines of a lighthouse on a rocky island off the coast of New England in the late nineteenth century for four weeks, then add to that a nasty storm that strands them for the Devil knows how much longer, but long enough to put their food reserves at risk, and you basically have the dramatic set-up for The Lighthouse, the most recent film from Robert Eggers, the mastermind behind 2015’s The Witch.  That the cur is played with relish by Willem Dafoe and the other by a brooding Robert Pattinson, who has proven himself in a number of films by highly regarded directors beginning with David Cronenberg’s vastly underrated Cosmopolis in 2012, only helps the proceedings.  If the first part of the film establishes the characters, the nature of their relationship, and the suffocating limits of their environs, the second part melts it all away in a sweaty fever dream.  It’s a mad rush of a movie, funny and intense, one part Jack London, another part Edgar Allan Poe as filmed by Ingmar Bergman in an expressionist black and white, with dialogue by Herman Melville complete with overripe allusions to fables and classical mythology.  Just what exactly do they see in that damned light?

the-irishmanThe Irishman
The Irishman is Martin Scorcese’s epic gangster film, elegiacally-paced but gripping from beginning to end.  It tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who was a Teamster leader throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa’s, and a hit man for the Mafia.  The film depicts Sheeran’s life as a gangster, from his first heists stealing the meat that he was supposed to deliver to his first association with Pennsylvania mob boss Russ Buffalino to his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa through Hoffa’s assassination and ending with Sheeran’s dotage in a nursing home.  Told through the reminiscences of an 80-year-old Sheeran that center on a road trip he took with Buffalino to Chicago, leading to what must have been the most difficult hit of Sheeran’s career, The Irishman is filled with loss and regret.  Whereas in Goodfellas Scorcese showed the drug-like exhilaration and lethality of life in the Mafia, The Irishman focuses on the Mafia’s distortion of the institutions of family and work.  Because if the Mafia pays lip service to family, it insists that the Mafia be the only family to which one should be loyal. The Irishman coldly reveals the emptiness and cruelty of the Mafia’s family, reducing everything, really, to work.  Hard bloody work.  And that ethic of family and work, with an emphasis on work, puts the Mafia right at the heart of American culture, nowhere clearer than when Frank’s daughter Peggy, disillusioned, even frightened, of her father gives a class presentation about her hero Jimmy Hoffa, a man who, unbeknownst to Peggy, is fatally embroiled with organized crime while representing the industry responsible for distributing the nation’s consumer goods. The cast is topnotch, DeNiro hasn’t been this good in years, filled with veterans who have had long careers.  The leads’ advanced age weighs heavily on the film as does its rueful tone, giving one the sense that with The Irishman, Scorcese is putting the gangster film to rest.  He could hardly end on a more cinematically graceful note.

uncut gems

Uncut Gems
Inveterate gambler, jeweler Howard Ratner, in hopefully a career-changing performance by Adam Sandler, seems incapable of being happy—whenever it appears that his problems are finally solved, he stakes his whole life on another seemingly impossible bet.  Clearly Howard is addicted to the adrenaline.  The risk thrills him.  A win brings joy, but it clearly isn’t satisfying.  The bet on which the film centers and that provides some of the movies most imaginative imagery is a rock that Howard has smuggled into the States in which are embedded a number of gorgeous black opals.  Former Timberwolves forward and all-around NBA great Kevin Garnett becomes transfixed with the rock, but he isn’t offering what Howard is sure it’s worth, so Howard refuses to sell it to Garnett directly, insisting Garnett attend the auction where it will be up for sale.  In the meantime, Howard’s marriage is on the rocks; worse, his life in danger due to unpaid debts with a loan shark, his brother-in-law Arno played with just the right amount of compassion and malice by Eric Bogosian; and colon cancer is lurking just over the horizon (hello, middle age!).  Uncut Gems is an adrenaline-charged, entertaining film, among my favorite two or three films of the year.

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Look Hard: Martin Scorcese’s The Departed

Until a few nights ago, I hadn’t seen Martin Scorcese’s The Departed since 2006, the year it was released.  At the time, I’d found it disappointing, Scorcese-lite, and wasn’t surprised that it was the movie that finally won Scorcese his long-overdue Oscar for best direction.  It’s so Hollywood to honor the wrong film, the lesser film, after years of indifference.  So watching it the other night, I was surprised to discover what a well-crafted, entertaining film The Departed actually is.

departed oneCentering on Frank Costello, a Whitey Bolger-inspired figure played with usual brio by Jack Nicholson, the movie tells the story of two Boston born and bred young men: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), from a posh family, whose parents’ divorce led him to live, literally and figuratively, on both sides of the tracks, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), who led what we presume to be a hardscrabble childhood in South Boston.  Both eventually join the police force but with very different intentions—Costigan is so intent to do good that he is willing to disappear from the force, go to prison, and come out as an undercover cop so he can infiltrate Costello’s crime syndicate and Sullivan a “rat,” to use a term beloved by Bolger and Costello, in the police department whose allegiance is actually with Costello.  The rest of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game between Costigan and Sullivan, each aware of the other without knowing who the other is, each charged with figuring that identity out.

The engine that drives the film, then, is the troubling and troubled nature of appearances.  Desperately looking for the truth—as Costigan tries to figure out who the rat in the police department is and Sullivan tries to figure out who’s the rat in Costello’s gang, or when the police put a massive amount of surveillance equipment in a warehouse only to realize the gang is doing their business toward the rear of the building, where agents had neglected to do so—the object of scrutiny is elusive, even when it’s directly in front of us.

departed twoCostello suspects that Costigan is the rat but can’t be certain no matter how hard he looks at him or how explicitly he threatens him. At least he can actually see Costigan. In one of the most thrilling sequences in the film, Costigan finally gets Sullivan in his sights at a clandestine meeting that Sullivan arranged with Costello.  That the meeting is in a porn theater (with remarkably new, clean seats, I might add) hints at an eroticism in the relationship between the two men, a notion amplified, if somewhat obliquely, by the fact that they’re dating the same woman.  True, they don’t know they are, but in a celebrated argument, literary critic René Girard maintained that the real relationship in a love triangle wasn’t between the lovers and the beloved but in the relationship between the rivals themselves.  Regardless, in that scene in the porn theater, Costigan can never quite see Sullivan and so follows him outside into an alley.  He almost loses him, but, in one of the most elaborately conceived shots in the movie, is aided by the mirror-like surface of a wind chime hanging in front of a shop, Costigan’s eyes reflected in some of the chimes, Sullivan’s retreating back in others.  In the end, he fails to identify his quarry.

The problems of appearances corrode Costigan and Sullivan to the core of their very identity, suggesting that those identities were never really much to begin with.  For Costigan, once the jig is up and it is revealed that he was the undercover agent in Costello’s gang, he keeps nagging Sullivan that he wants his identity back.  He realizes in his heart what the narrator of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night knows only too well: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.”  Sullivan, however, is predicated on who he pretends to be—if appearances can be deceiving, well, that’s the whole point of his existence.  Once one can see the distortions rippling his seemingly tranquil appearance, Sullivan’s house of cards threatens to crash around him.

What finally won me over is that, when all is said and done, in The Departed, the eyes have it, and they don’t.

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Nothing to Look At: Marvel Superheroes and Art-House Movie Theaters

Brute survival is not pretty.  It’s not designed to be.  It’s not undertaken to be celebrated; it’s undertaken to survive.  So I was taken aback when reading this year’s City Pages “Best of …” choice for movie theater: the Landmark’s Lagoon Theater.  It’s not that the lagoon lightsLagoon is a bad theater.  Sure, the building is fairly non-descript and the décor is baffling—I never really appreciated or even understood those “tree” light fixtures that more than anything look to me like light sabers—but they get some good movies.  I saw Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills there in 2013 and Graduation in 2017.  And films of the Romanian New Wave are not sure bets in any Twin Cities theater except during the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF).  Even then, I wouldn’t count on it.

What was confounding about their pick, though, was their reason:

“No stadium-stacked seats, just the gentle, comforting slope of yesteryear leading down to a screen showing actual great movies—not only the Oscar winners but the movies that should win all the Oscars (#SorryToBotherYou). The Lagoon is also a sneaky great place to catch blockbusters on opening weekend without throwing elbows at the comic-con set; the Lagoon often reserves one screen for the biggest Marvel or Star Wars installment, which nobody expects at this arthouse hub. But let’s keep that our secret.”

I guess it’s not their reason, it’s the emphasis in their reason—that they screen “the biggest Marvel or Star Wars installment.”  I don’t decry the Lagoon for showing these movies, but it’s hardly something to celebrate.  Screen space for “actual great movies” in the Twin Cities is at a premium.  Some excellent movies never makes it to any of the Landmark theaters, including works by Hong Sang-soo, Cristi Puiu (to my knowledge), or, when he was still releasing movies, Bela Tarr.  On the other hand, I can see the latest Marvel or Star Wars franchise practically anywhere I want to, even at the theater that houses the MSPIFF.

I understand that the Lagoon books blockbusters so they can afford to show less popular, artier fare.  I attend enough foreign language films to know they don’t always draw large lovelesscrowds.  For example, the night I saw it, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless looked like it was going to be essentially a private screening, my husband and I the only ones in the theater.  On one hand, that’s depressing.  Loveless may not be a heartwarming film, but it’s an exceptional one.  On the other hand, who doesn’t secretly thrill at the idea of a private screening in a room with hundreds of seats?  Take heart, though.  Just before the movie started, another person entered the theater.  (As we were leaving, we walked past him, and I saw he was sleeping.  I took some pleasure in the fact that while three people had attended the movie, only two saw it.)

Still, was there any reason for the Lagoon to have done what they did this weekend?  They canceled the run of every movie showing at the theater in order to show two new movies: Amazing Grace, showing on one screen, and Avenger’s: Endgame, showing on the remaining five.  If they keep that up, what nobody’s going to expect from the Lagoon is that they will show anything worth seeing.  Survival might not be pretty, but it requires some finesse.  Too many survival tactics, and the Lagoon might go the way of all those generic multiplexes that have preceded it, vanishing into dust or transformed into an antiques mall, indistinguishable from other, bigger chains that offer the same dreary fare but can survive the occasional droughts they inevitably face when people tire of it.

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