Category Archives: Movies

Lincoln: A Review Through the Lens of the Theory and Practice of Politics

I find it ironic that a friend of mine and I who went to Lincoln in high spirits came out of the movie fighting bitterly.  We didn’t see eye-to-eye at all about the quality or significance of what we had just seen on the screen.

I had been riveted by the account of an America divided and almost ruined by completely-incommensurate views on politics, whose Representatives were guided through a time of great uncertainty to vote for a far-reaching change to the United States Constitution; my friend had been bored by a staid representation of a perfect President Abraham Lincoln, a cliché-ridden one at that.

We both saw the same movie, and we were hoping to find different things in it.  Considering the story was one of people who were worlds apart coming together to give incomplete standing to a burning moral truth, our complete disagreement over what we had just seen was disappointing.  (Actually, it fouled-up the whole evening.)

Lincoln 1

President Lincoln in the opening scene, speaking with curiousity to 2 Negro soldiers. Lincoln seemed far less certain about the prospects for good race relations than he did about the need to abolish slavery. He is portrayed as finding his way on the issue.

But this is a review of the movie through my eyes.  Lincoln is not a probing biography of 1 of our most-beloved Presidents, but rather a political account of 2 momentous months of his life–December 1864 and January 1865 to be precise, just weeks before his death.  Lincoln is simply about the passage of the 13th Amendment, or about President Lincoln’s way of achieving it.

This is the story of the crowning political accomplishment of an Illinois lawyer, elected President during a time of profound political division, who would controversially assume a variety of powers to the Executive Branch, antagonizing both the opposition party in Congress (those thus often implacably opposed to his political goals) as well as those of his own party who found the President insufficiently-zealous in his advocacy against racism (and thus counted him either a consummate opportunist or worse, an academically-aloof appeaser).

Lincoln 2

In several scenes we have the benefit of watching President Lincoln deliberate with the many naysayers of his Cabinet. As per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Lincoln was good at identifying and contending with loyal opposition.
In a memorable early scene, it gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his intellectual fancy footwork, his lawyerspeak.

That’s right, when I watched Lincoln I saw a good parable for President Barack Obama’s political circumstances.  I’ve previously been told the likeness is a bit melodramatic, but I strongly-disagree (and I truly think the fact that I love President Obama is incidental).  It’s certainly true that our current political deadlock pales in comparison to the 600,000 Americans killed in a war to end slavery and preserve the Union, but political junkies who downplay the likeness between our time and theirs at the elite level are actually minimizing how abnormal the depth of current partisanship is.  Put differently, shouldn’t it bother us that we have to reach back to the Civil War in order to put today’s partisan political differences into perspective?

Lincoln may not give us the upstart young lawyer, the Congressman from Illinois or the eloquent but failed candidate for the US Senate, or even the evolution of the hapless pragmatist into the crusading Abolitionist, but what it does give us is 2 months of cat-herding within an energized Republican Party which culminates in the legal abolition of slavery in the United States.  At the time the Republican Party is split, primarily between an establishment wing we would now characterize as Conservative and the Radicals who might otherwise be viewed as Conservatives today but whom were adamant about enshrining full racial equality (and providing basic property for former slaves through subdivision of the old Southern plantations) in Federal law.  The Democratic Party is mostly Southern or rural in its power base, though it is also powerful in New York City, where many Irish immigrants were conscripted for the war but lacked much experience with Protestant Abolitionism; overall it is quite opposed to abolishing slavery.

By this time the Emancipation Proclamation has already abolished slavery in the Confederate States by wartime Executive order.  But in a marvelous monologue we see the lawyer Lincoln, as he runs through competing, often exclusive rationales for the Emancipation Proclamation that might not hold up under Constitutional scrutiny at the end of the war.  The Border States–Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Missouri and the Oklahoma Territory–still have legal slavery because “forced” emancipation could not be constitutionally justified as a wartime measure.  Not only could the Emancipation Proclamation be ended and slavery even restored in the Confederate States at the end of the war, but in a particularly cruel reversal plantation owners may even have the gall to demand the return of their “property.”

The Senate has already passed the 13th Amendment by a large 38-6 majority, but the House of Representatives retains a large-enough Democratic Caucus that they need crossover votes in that chamber to send the 13th Amendment along to the States.  While many House Democrats have lost their bids for re-election, it is uncertain how quickly the Confederate States will rejoin the United States, thus raising the prospect that the political window to abolish slavery could shut suddenly.  Thus, President Lincoln is unsure when the 13th Amendment will pass, if not in this lame-duck session of Congress.  The abolition of slavery must have the force of law before any delegation of the Confederate States of America is able to ask for preservation of slavery as a condition for rejoining the Union.

The President needs the votes of Democratic Representatives–fast.  Naturally, he turns to the offer of patronage jobs as the easiest way to obtain them.

1 of the things I liked best about Lincoln was its juxtaposition of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of an almost pure President Lincoln (and this portrayal is every bit as amazing as you must have heard) with the amorality (some would say corruption) of politics–a state of affairs which doesn’t trouble the President in the slightest.  He isn’t campaigning against corruption, he’s campaigning against a great evil.  He has bag-men collect lame-duck Democratic votes in the House for him, sometimes literally in the dead of night, he serenely lies in public about the state of peace negotiations with a Confederate delegation, he insinuates powers to the Executive Branch–and primarily troubles himself about the Constitutional ramifications when he suspects that the Supreme Court will soon do the same.  President Lincoln can be called a Conservative on policy and philosophy, but not in spirit.  To appearances he shares nothing of the Constitutionalism and innate fear of Federal Government expansion which binds contemporary Conservatives together.

Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA)

Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who distrusts President Lincoln as a self-aggrandizing politician. President Lincoln is able to appeal to his sense of what is achievable in their political environment to temper his zeal.

The tension between President Lincoln and Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA), a Radical Republican who militates against racism to the point of maintaining the full equality of Whites and “Negroes,” provides a simple but very timely lesson in good politics.  President Lincoln warns Congressman Stevens that his blunt public expression of belief in the full equality of faculty of Blacks with Whites strikes many as too radical, and thus a political burden in the fight to abolish slavery.  Stevens defends unvarying argument from principle, likening it to having a compass, saying that his aim is simply to move towards true north.  Lincoln in turn agrees that such basic orientation is valuable (and implies the possibility that Congressman Stevens has it), but then notes that the map of local terrain is at least as important for navigation as the compass.  “If, deprived of knowledge of the terrain, you should happen to wander into a swamp, what good is it that you know true north?” the President asks.

Congressman Stevens, normally almost contemptuous of President Lincoln as more of a politician than a moral champion, allows this point and even seems troubled by it.  During subsequent debate on the draft of the 13th Amendment in the House, 1 of the Democrats opposed to passage puts to Stevens the question of full equality of faculty between Negroes and Whites.  Though he has visible difficulty with the question, Stevens avers that he merely seeks to secure legal equality of Negroes with Whites.  Tellingly, this evasion angers both the pro-slavery Democrats and the Radical Republicans.  Representative James Mitchell Ashley (R-OH) has it out with Stevens right outside the House chamber.  “Is there nothing you won’t say?!” he asks, mortified by what he considers Congressman Stevens’ extreme abdication of his integrity.  Stevens, however, has internalized the President’s message of circumspection, and acknowledges that if it provides for the abolition of slavery in America then and there (as opposed to untold years hence), there is indeed nothing he would not say to achieve it.

Congressman Stevens dominates a scene laden with irony late in the movie, in which a re-elected Democratic Congressman from his home State of Pennsylvania informs him he wishes to vote for the 13th Amendment and subsequently switch parties.  Before accepting his offer, Stevens rebukes the Democrat, who is tongue-tied, transparently self-serving and seems almost frightened by the man he has come to see.  Stevens says he is a sorry inheritor of the party of Thomas Jefferson.  In an instant, the irony of the party of Lincoln becoming a fundamentally-Southern party struck me, and I was met again with this mythological resemblance of the story to our own partisan deadlock.  This was 1 of the aspects of the film my friend found the most distasteful: President Lincoln’s adversaries in the Democratic Party are portrayed as an assortment of deplorable human beings–some afraid, some complete yokels, some transparent bigots relying on the decorum of their legislative chamber for protection, some violent.  I was untroubled by the portrayal of the President’s Democratic opponents as morally-ugly or as fools–for a very specific reason: This is a story about how President Lincoln and his political allies were able to win some House Democrats’ votes.  The political story we need is 1 about an opposition party we might be inclined to see as morally-ugly or as fools, but whose votes are needed on far-reaching legislation whether we come to see merit in what they stand for or not.  If that sounds like too bleak of a message, ask yourself if it is not true that 1) Democrats and Republicans in the Federal Government disagree with few cross-cutting party cleavages on most of the policy issues that either party considers urgent, and 2) Democrats and Republicans will have to continue to work together for at least the next 4 years even to pass a budget.  This is the aspect of President Lincoln’s story that is most-illuminating to us at this moment.

On this point my friend averred that this meant the film was not meant to be timeless; in response I said that a work of art–or of history–is permitted to bear the mark of the time it was made as much as it may the time it recalls–as long as it does so in a manner that reveals rather than obscures something about the reason it was made.

The final House vote tally is tense.  There is evidence, however circumstantial, that lack of access to information once facilitated the passage of legislation: The 13th Amendment has been justified to Congress as a measure that could bring the war to a swifter conclusion, as with the Constitutional abolition of slavery the Confederate States of America would have no bargaining motive to prolong a war its leaders already knew they could not win.  In reality, however, while the House debates the 13th Amendment there is already a Confederate delegation in Virginia negotiating terms for their surrender!  The Confederate delegation, in turn, must be misled into thinking that the 13th Amendment isn’t going to pass, and that their prompt surrender improves the chances that their States could be readmitted to the Union in time to block its passage during ratification.

These multiple deceptions seem not to trouble President Lincoln in the slightest–not even, particularly, in the exceptional level of risk they entail.  He cares about his goal, which is the abolition of slavery.  He was originally pragmatically-oriented towards this social question, but the circumstance of the way gave it such a central importance in his mind that he came to append a transcendent importance to ending it.  He didn’t care about assuming statutory powers not provided to his office in the Constitution, he didn’t care about doling-out government jobs for votes, he didn’t care about what legal or moral rationales would persuade people, he didn’t care about lying to fellow leaders of his own party he had known for years or for lying to everyone outside of a handful of confidants in order to marshal needed votes on the day the Amendment was passed in the House.

President Lincoln was a pragmatist who re-defined his later life as being about the achievement of a moral end, procedure, the appearance of scandal, and parsimony of philosophy be damned.  He was right, and his critics were wrong.  He is counted among the heroes of history, and he got there (as is so often the case) by refusing to concern himself with the cosmetic side of politics that is the fodder of so much daily political discussion.  While it is so often our lot to pedantically discuss what is right before us, he exercised his moral imagination.

LINCOLN

Prometheus

“Great things have small beginnings.” David (Michael Fassbender) has no idea what he has at the tip of his finger, but he does know how to find out. As he learned from his favorite movie, “The trick…is not minding it hurts.”  The only confusion is about who is supposed to suffer.

I’ve previously written that my favorite film directors often simply want to make the same movie over and over again.  To really love their work is to be game for this perfectionist endeavor, to appreciate the refinement and expansion of an old theme, and not to be overly-concerned with eclecticism and novelty in the movie-going experience.

Prometheus–I will try to downplay spoilers–is director Ridley Scott‘s most-developed homage to his own past work.  His filmography includes 2 films that re-defined the science fiction genre just 3 years apart (Alien, Blade Runner), a gripping but grueling war film (Black Hawk Down), interesting portrayals of corruption and dysfunction in American law enforcement and intelligence (American Gangster, Body of Lies), and alternately took liberties or speculated about history in order to create mythology relevant to the present (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven).  And though few directors have had as many visionary triumphs as he has, from time to time his movies have simply been awful (Hannibal).

And one of the things about Prometheus  that have intrigued me the most, as its opening weekend draws to a close, is the polarizing effect it has had upon audiences.  Though reviews have tended to be positive, and the film was very well-received by critics, there is a deep divergence of opinion between those who loved Prometheus and those who hated it.

Exploration begins…

I was among those who loved it.  I’ll say no more about the basic course of the plot than can be gleaned from the film’s many trailers: Archaeological evidence from many primitive yet comparatively-advanced cultures across the Earth consistently reveals a map of a star cluster in a distant part of the Galaxy–so distant, in fact, that were it not for the almost-impossible coincidence of its depiction in these early societies so temporally and geographically distant from one another, there is still no way they could have observed it with the unaided eye.  So, with an optimistic investment of $1 trillion by the Weyland Corporation (still a lot of money, I take it, in 2089), the leaders of that project and a crew of 15 others set-out for the only terrestrial body in that star cluster found to be capable of supporting life.  This turns out to be a large moon of a gas giant planet with disappointingly-toxic levels of carbon dioxide and dangerously-abrasive sandstorms on its surface.  But the expedition hasn’t traveled that far into space to look for traces of naturally-occurring alien life; they have gone, quite literally, to meet their makers.

The Prometheus in orbit around a gas giant planet. Its voyage ends on a large moon.

Another major plot point can be gathered directly from the trailers: The power to create life from scratch and the power to destroy it seem to be inherently-linked–or at least the Engineers, as they are called, didn’t distinguish between them.  “We were so wrong!” 1 of our protagonists laments in a trailer.  Indeed, our protagonist has an almost-foolish confidence about her in the providential nature of what she will find.  There is an explicit suggestion that her religious faith led her to reach-out trustingly towards what she hypothesized are her creators; in fairness, other characters prove to be prone to blasphemy or even sacrilege, and they exhibit the same self-assurance, bordering on sleepwalking.

Don’t worry, she’ll figure it out…

The characters of Prometheus (mostly) have an earnestness to them, but should feel familiar to those familiar with Ridley Scott’s filmography, or with the Alien series.  There’s a robot with a murky agenda, a corporate minder, a salty captain, a corporate executive with a deep-seated need to achieve grandiose ambitions, and a complete crew of the sort of gruff oddball specialists you could entice to voyage into deep space with a secret destination and purpose.  Then there’s the heroine, somehow less-mysterious than Warrant Officer Ripley in Alien but nonetheless resourceful and resilient–able to act when alone.  (This doesn’t change the fact that she is almost stupidly-naive when we meet her, but oh my will she learn.)  These characters aren’t just of a familiar type from the Alien series but in some cases from Blade Runner.  There are themes that are as familiar (or more-familiar) from some of Scott’s other films: The total immorality of corporate power (Blade Runner), the dangers of self-assurance and the presumption of the routine (Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, Body of Lies), and even stranger common threads such as the erstwhile-living begging for a fiery death (virtually obligatory in the Alien series), a misanthropic verbal reference to parricide (Blade Runner, Gladiator), and the sense of danger and inevitable disappointment in confronting one’s maker (Blade Runner).  The richness of self-allegory in Prometheus affords Scott–like other directors including Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky–to tell us his favorite story again, but with a different, more-unitary significance from the other times.

A Mystery Box opens. They don’t belong here. No one does.

Prometheus was written in part by Damon Lindelof, 1/2 of the team of writers that led the groundbreaking TV series LOST through 6 seasons of ambiguities both of context and character to what for many was a frustrating conclusion.  I was game for it then, and I’m game for it now.  Much like my beloved TV series LOST or the J.J. Abrams-Matt Reeves monster feature Cloverfield, some of Prometheus’ questions are settled by outside material–in this case, a viral video.  Peter Weyland, the corporate executive whose goals almost re-define hubris, appears in a 2023 TED talk to ruminate on the wildly-accelerating nature of technological change.  Reflection on telescoping technological change dates back at least to the 1600s.  But consider the manipulation of nature possible now, then consider what past generations of futurists described as “godlike” power.  What we can do now already renders the “past future” as far inferior.  It provokes a reaction like vertigo.

“We are just 3 months into year of our lord, 2023,” Weyland goes on, “At this moment in our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals–who, in just a few short years, will be completely indistinguishable from us.”  This means the robot David (portrayed by Michael Fassbender in a performance that may even exceed the iconic pitch he achieved as the emerging villain Magneto in X-Men First Class) hasn’t been created at this time.  We can further infer from this that David loves Lawrence of Arabia because he was made that way.

“It must have been horrible to lose Dr. Holloway like that after losing your father under such similar circumstances. What was it, then–ebola?”
“…How do you know that?”
“I watched your dreams.”

Weyland continues: “…Which leads to an obvious conclusion: We are the gods now…”  He says it with certainty but a measure a trepidation, and there is grumbling from the audience.  However, he goes on to finish his self-introduction to great applause.  Weyland masterfully escalates his presentation to this rousing conclusion–and it’s the wrong conclusion.  It’s woefully wrong.  The central tragedy in Prometheus is essentially the same as that of the corporate executive in Blade Runner: We amass godlike powers to reconstitute nature’s substance yet always remain entirely-human, bound by the limitations and vulnerabilities of that substance itself.  Our own rapidly-advancing technology has done nothing to change this fact, so we must face our mortality at the end of a life so much more-brilliant and empowering than what was possible in past centuries.  By the climax, we see how plainly this cruel irony of our enduring mortality has consumed Weyland.

He invokes Lawrence of Arabia–as the android crewman will many times–in particular, the early scene in which Lawrence, then wasting-away in Cairo, extinguishes a match flame between his fingers for the entertainment of his military fellows.  The movie opens with the same.  “You’ll do that 1 time too many.  You’re only flesh-and-blood!” 1 man exclaims.

Lawrence brushes this warning off with mirth.  But that warning is even more the story of Peter Weyland than it is of Colonel Lawrence.  It’s equally the story of the Engineers who our protagonist went to space to find.  They are able to manufacture life of astonishing complexity from its base components in mere hours of percolation.  The explorers of this windswept moon discover in short order that this race of creators finally created life so prolific, dynamic, and aggressive that they couldn’t make use of what they created.  Of course, by then the explorers do make contact–but not at all with what they expected.

Yes, the light is dazzling. But it will go out. And then there will only be what the Enginneers left in that place when they abandoned it or died, thousands of years ago.

I would be remiss as a Liberal Ironist if I passed up a good opportunity to remind people that cruelty is the worst thing we do.  There is a lot of cruelty on display in this film, some of it petty and surplus, some of it monstrous and purposive.  In a filmed correspondence to the crew of the Prometheus, Weyland calls David “the closest thing I will ever have to a son,” but says David, being an android, doesn’t have “a soul.”  (At that moment the look on David’s face says to me that he’s lost–a very-soulful state.)  David has to deal with quite a lot of disavowal of his humanity, merely because he is a synthetic person.  Most of this torment comes from 1 of the researchers, who almost experiences despair when his hopes of meeting an Engineer are dashed, but when asked by David why humans created him, says tauntingly “Because we could.”  Out of all of them, only David is unfazed by the possibility that the Engineers have no compassion for humanity, that they may have created us “because they could,” that they may see in us only lab rats expropriating prime real estate.  There is a suggestion here that the capacity to create and shape life is followed close by the temptation to see life–even sapient life–as a malleable object rather than having an inherent worth and dignity.  The Engineers’ talents–as far as we are allowed to see–emphasize conversion of previously-meek organisms into extremely-resilient predators.  (Director Scott personally offered the theory that this technology was intended for military purposes.)  In the end they produced something volatile beyond their own reckoning and means of control.  As Christopher Nolan put into the mouth of Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, “You are familiar with the saying, ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp?’  This is wrong.  Man’s grasp exceeds his knowledge.”  As our powers become more-godlike, so do the moral and practical hazards become more-fraught, of confusing ourselves with gods.  We see not the cruelty we do, and we cannot foresee the injury we bring to ourselves.  We remain very human.

“We are the gods now”? Peter Weyland: Hear him out, but don’t let him confuse you.

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter isn’t about Vietnam.  It isn’t really a war film.

Before my recent viewing I last saw The Deer Hunter over 9 years ago; at the time I would have said it’s obviously a war film.  In actuality it is about friendship and post-traumatic stress, in that order.  3 patriotic steelworkers from suburban Pittsburgh–grown men who have known each other their entire lives–march off, (more or less) unafraid, to the war in the jungles of Vietnam.  Mere minutes are spent in combat in Vietnam because it is what these men reveal about themselves before the war, and how these idiosyncrasies are warped and intensified in the wake of its violence, that is the story.

Robert De Niro plays Michael Vronsky.  As the introspective witness to the way war shatters his friends, he is present almost constantly.  He is the leader of sorts of a group of 6 men who work the steel mills.  Maybe he is the leader because he is the best hunter in their group; perhaps it’s because he is the one who makes the craziest gestures.  It could also be that he is the leader because he sees the World so differently from the rest of them, and though most of them never say so, they all sense it and it resonates with them.

In any case our introduction to Michael hints at the tension of his life in the provincial suburbs of an industrial city like Pittsburgh.  He steps out of the steel plant and looks skyward, noting an ellipse of light around the Sun.  He claims that “the Great Wolf has blessed our hunt,” solemnly calling it “an omen.”  There is a touch of levity in his voice, of course, and the hint of an educated man.  This leads 1 of his friends to say that “The problem with you, Michael, is that no one understands you sometimes.”

Michael (to a Green Beret, before going into combat himself): “…What do you mean, ‘F*** it’?…Set him up with another round, all the same. Hey, man–F*** it!”

In the coming minutes each of these 6 men reveal things about themselves that foreshadow how they will spend the war years.  Brooding but wise, Michael will come back shaken by what he has seen, but he comes back whole.  Sensitive and perhaps naive, Steve will come back both wounded and traumatized.  Quietly-nervous Nikonar won’t come back at all.  John the bartender, a talented musician, brings music to the group of friends at their happiest and their saddest moments.  Seeing the movie again, his character really stood out to me: We see him singing in his Orthodox church choir, we see him singing with obvious classical training while his friends simply goof-off during the drive out to the hunting grounds.  Then we hear his beautiful and wistful playing of the piano in the bar when they return from the hunt.  4 of his normally-clamorous friends go silent; they have distant looks on their faces.  When John finishes he looks sad, as if he has confessed to a thwarted ambition.  Of all the memorable moments in the film this is 1 of the most-important to me, as it dispels any doubts we have that some of these men have real but rough-hewn talents, and had they been encouraged more or educated differently they might not work at the bar or at the steel mill.  They love the safety of their home but they seem to quietly bristle at its blindness to their talents at the same time.

Michael has family and friends, tradition, work, and a pastime in a free country: Upon reflection, his quiet patriotism and awed gratitude is easy to understand.

In Vietnam we see mere moments of the brutality of combat.  We learn that Michael is no stranger to them at this point in the story, but also that he is not the master of its fast-moving brutality.  His vaguely-survivalist philosophy–for some unexplained reason he believes “A deer has to be killed with 1 shot”–serves him surprisingly well when he finds himself in captivity.

The 2 Russian roulette scenes may be the most-famous from this film.  Even for our jaded film audiences of today they retain their staggering brutality.  Even the lighthearted, almost adolescent early scenes have a kind of gravity to them, so the surreal cruelty of peasants-turned-Viet Cong officers forcing South Vietnamese and American prisoners to take turns pulling the trigger and waiting to find 1 of the bullets loaded into a revolver is at once absurd and totally believable.  Steve screams and wimpers; Michael comforts him.  Nikonar very quietly undergoes a total spiritual implosion.

The large protest movement never did touch President Nixon’s “silent majority” of Americans.  It plays-out far indeed from quiet Clairton where these 3 soldiers are from.  When Michael goes home, he finds a town grateful for his sacrifice and apparently none the wiser that there is an antiwar movement.  But they also know next to nothing about what he experienced on the other side of the Earth.  A local store owner tells him, “You really won over there,” a meaningless statement in the face of the bloody chaos he left behind, and knows to be spreading towards the South-capital Saigon.  1 of his friends even crudely asks, “How does it feel to be shot?”

“I feel a lot of distance…I feel far away.” Having served with distinction, Michael comes home to a hero’s welcome, but all he wants to do is come in to town quietly. He misses his friends, but he is unable to take seeing them all at once.

“Don’t–” Michael begins.  “Don’t hurt, if that’s what you wanna know…”  Michael is quieter upon coming home, which is striking because he was quiet to begin with.  He looks older, though upon consideration the viewer realizes this is mostly because of the relatively stiff, alert way he carries himself.  De Niro is such a subtly-declarative actor in these scenes that we can almost see the adrenaline coursing through his veins when, during a hospital visit, a nurse noisily overturns a supply cart and he instantly imagines gunfire.

It occurs to me now that the narrative pitch of The Deer Hunter is aided by its point-to-point depiction of the journey: We see the massacre of a village–by American Air Cavalry and their South Vietnamese allies, no less, the murder of a remote Viet Cong dungeon, the underground space where Russian roulette is outrageously played as a high-stakes betting game, and the chaos of the American embassy as Communist sympathizers close-in around it in the days before South Vietnam’s fall.  Then we see Clairton, Pennsylvania.  There are no in-between spaces, because in spite of its deliberate pace and considerable length, The Deer Hunter is the story of a gulf of space so much as of being lost in a different world.  Michael makes it his personal mission to find Nikonar; what he finds is disturbing-enough that the Liberal Ironist recommends you see it for yourself.

A death among this group of friends carries the full weight of a burial.  It is handled by a montage, which is just as well as one can hardly imagine any words were said among these friends at the time.  That they should at times so clearly have something to say yet so often want for a better means of expression is interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking.  But at this moment that the war in Vietnam has exacted its last toll on them, the musician John has invited all of them over for a large brunch.  For a moment he is overcome with emotion, then halting at first, next with resonance, he begins to sing “God Bless America.”  Once Linda, a longtime interest who has become involved with Michael by degrees, joins in, they all do.  There are no bitter recriminations about the war; director Michael Cimino is not Oliver Stone.  This is not a political film, though it does carefully portray people who embody a very simple politics.  The people of this Russian-American community feel blessed to live and work in a free country, and they bear a loss that is deeply but not bitterly felt.  This is the proletariat of mid-20th century America, and in this account at least it is not alienated.

Angela: “What a grey day…”

Where it can be found, this sort of world ought to be defended.  This is a serious contender for the saddest film I have ever seen.  Seeing it now, I feel The Deer Hunter has as much heart as any film I’ve seen.  Rather than war, it’s about knowing where home is, and being able to go back.

A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers and Incommensurability of the Religious with the Absurd

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  The Coen Brothers choose to open this movie, which is downbeat even by their standards, with words written by Elie Wiesel.  A friend once suggested that this was the moral thread running through the Coen Brothers’ long catalogue of Absurdist fables, and A Serious Man seems as idiomatic of their work as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men–even if it isn’t a caper.

The scene that immediately follows the opening words is like something out of a horror movie: A Jewish peasant living somewhere in the Russian Empire in the 1800s walks home in wintertime, marveling at…something.  Either the beauty of the night, or a random encounter on the road with a helpful old man his wife knows, has the man in a reflective trance.  The man returns home–long-after he was expected, and breathlessly gives his wife the news: Traitle Groshkover, an accomplished scholar of Jewish ethics, helped him out when his cart broke down in the snow.  His wife is in shock.  She tells her husband Traitle Groshkover has been dead 3 years, that a friend of hers has long-since sat shiva for him, concluding the mourning period.  What helped her husband on the road, she insists, was a dybbuk, a demon of possession.

Then, there’s a knock on the door.

Who have you invited over?

Having promptly laughed-off his wife’s insistence that Groshkover was 3 years dead, he now haltingly informs his wife that he invited the old man over for dinner as repayment for his mitzvah.  Then they both stare dully at the door.  Everything looks a little different when you must subject what you believe to an empirical test–and what a test!  As he haltingly opens the door, he sees a man; she sees a dybbuk.

The rest of the scene, whatever you may believe, is horrifying.  At this point my roommate (Oh, right: I saw A Serious Man for the 1st time with my roommate.) suggested that, much as I’d said that the opening scene of Black Swan contained within it the essence of the story that was to unfold, so this opening scene, disjointed as it is from the rest of the film in time and space, must serve the same purpose in this film.  In any case, it does pose exactly the same challenge.  A rational man and his superstitious wife confront a situation that is terrifying for both, and in neither case does it strike at the heart of what they believe.

Each development of this scene makes judgment of what you're looking at more-difficult, and more urgent.

As is typical of the Coen Brothers’ work, A Serious Man isn’t a film for the faint-of-heart: We see a sequence of events that seem to have little narrative order to them aside from their accomplishment of the psychological demolition of an imperfect but undeserving human being.  Larry Gopnik is a physics professor, but he is also a devout Jew: His son David is enrolled in Hebrew school and will read from the Torah at his Bar-Mitzvah.  When the World weighs on him too heavily, he seeks-out 3 rabbis in succession to see what they can tell him about God’s mysterious purposes.  Their interpretations take him (or don’t take him) through progressively-complex levels of anxiety about the rationality and basic beneficence of the World; none of this can prevent the moment at which he tires of bearing the burden of his integrity.  He has been looking for a satisfactory explanation from learned men, some whom he knows personally, who can explain why God would cause a succession of bleak, alienating and just plain creepy things to happen around him: His wife wants to leave him, his children are selfish, his tenure review case at the university looks shaky, he and an acquaintance meet with great misfortune at the very same moment.  His next-door neighbor disregards the zoning code–and he is afraid to press the matter because his neighbor is well-armed and uncomplicated.

Professor Gopnik calmly explains to Mr. Park that he doesn't interpret his son's failed attempt to bribe him for a better grade as a "culture clash."

If this account of a man who meets with a long succession of unfortunate events sounds familiar, you are right: The Coen Brothers have adapted the Book of Job, and for the purpose they’ve set out for themselves, they have done so brilliantly.  In the Book of Job, God permits Satan to subject “my servant Job” to a cruel test of the limits of his faith, in successive events killing most of his immediate family and destroying most of his property, leaving him poor.  Through this Job is able to maintain his reverence for God.  Finally, God permits Satan to make Job himself sick, and at this point, in the presence of 3 supportive friends, he curses God and declares the World an absurd place rather than the stage for moral drama, suggesting he has been betrayed by God for the lack of a simple explanation for any of this.  In response to all this, Job’s 3 friends offer progressive responses designed to assuage his anger at God and lead him to accept his fate.  Bildad reasons that Job’s children must have sinned for God to allow Satan to kill them, for God is just; Job must repent his own sins, and his life will be made right.  Zophar insists that Job must have sinned himself to have suffered so, and that even if Job were absolutely upright he still couldn’t hope to understand the beneficence of God’s design of the Universe.  Eliphaz scolds Job for thinking his own perspective wide-enough and his own wisdom exhaustive-enough that he can demand of God an explanation for his suffering; he also rather eloquently tells him that he can hear only sin talking in Job’s bitter recriminations, warning him that “All his days the wicked man suffers torment…” (Job 15:20)  (His wife’s suggestion, tellingly, is simply “Curse God and die!”)  His friends’ dogged combination of commiseration, reassurance, rebuke and confrontation fails to shake Job from his anger at God’s silence–until God appears before Job in the form of a tornado.  God is angry, and explains nothing more about himself than that his vastness, of which the vastness of his creations is but an expression, means simply that God will provide or not provide for his servants at his pleasure.  The only rational course is to abide.

This is the story the Coen Brothers wanted to remake in their own way.

"The Uncertainty Principle: It proves we can't ever really know what's going on." (bell rings) "...But even though you can't figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the midterm!"

I’ll not discuss Gopnik’s encounters with the Rabbis, which for his purposes are even more-obtuse.  When confronted with those moments of life that seem to undermine us, the proof is in the fable: If you are looking for a positive explanation wherein all of your misfortune has a genesis that is either rational or providential, you will get lost.  The tragedy surrounding Gopnik is very Greek, because his own words suggest he should understand this already.  Consider the exchange he holds with a Korean student he suspects of offering him a bribe for a raised grade:

GOPNIK: (holding an envelope in his hand) “This is not nothing.  This is something.”

CLIVE: “It is something.” (a blank stare)  “…What is it?”

GOPNIK: “You know what it is, I believe.  And you know I can’t keep it, Clive.”

CLIVE: “Yessir.”

GOPNIK: “I’ll have to pass it on to Professor Finkel, along with my suspicions about where it came from.  Actions have consequences.”

CLIVE: “Yessir, often.”

GOPNIK: “No, always!  Actions always have consequences!  In this office, actions have consequences.”

CLIVE: “Yessir.”

GOPNIK: “Not just physics–morally.”

CLIVE: “Yes.”

GOPNIK: “And we both know about your actions.”

CLIVE: “No, sir, I know about my actions.”

GOPNIK: “I can interpret, Clive.  I know what you meant me to understand!”

…And so it goes.  A few things are worth pointing out here.  1st, the test the student, Clive, has failed wasn’t just on any physics but included a mathematical proof of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  The Uncertainty Principle addresses a narrow but very-important range of subatomic phenomena where underlying processes can never be known for certain because the very act of observing such a small object irrevocably acts upon it, violently interrupting its old stasis.  2nd, in their previous meeting the student insisted–as the Liberal Ironist no-doubt would have in his situation (though without subsequent resort to bribery) that he understands the principle well-enough to understand the metaphors and stories told to demonstrate it, and thus he doesn’t need to have all that math down.  Professor Gopnik, our protagonist, insisted that the story is just like a “fable” that exists for illustrative purposes only, that the mathematical proof is the description of how it all really works.  Physics is the math behind it, Gopnik says.  3rd, as I’ve said already, Professor Gopnik is a devout Jew.  He has now said “In this office, actions have consequences” and “I can interpret…I know what you meant me to understand!”  If you are a believer, this may be the most-important exchange in the film.

"In this office, actions have consequences...Not just physics--morally."

What I gather from my roommate’s suggestion to interpret A Serious Man in light of its Janus-faced but invariably disturbing opening scene is that the Coen Brothers invite the viewer to interpret Gopnik’s misfortunes in either religious terms (as God’s way of testing one man’s faith) or in atheistic terms, as an Absurdist statement asking if we can live meaningful lives in a World that is dead to our ideals.  For the Coen Brothers to have made a film that could be seen through the prism of a believer or an atheist isn’t wishy-washy; rather, their admonition to “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you” is their 1 uncompromising demand.  In this sense the Coen Brothers’ morality is as severe as any the Liberal Ironist has encountered; this tension as to why its merits are reflected in Larry Gopnik’s story can only be resolved by the viewer.  It’s interesting to reflect on this in particular: As humiliating as the patronizing conversations are, as unutterably painful as the estrangement from his children must be, as psychologically demolishing as the surplus pressures of the pushy people in his life can be, there is meaning in Larry Gopnik’s story.  He can’t see it while it unfolds, but the viewer can just see a warning coming into view: A picture of your life will emerge on its own if you focus on what is within your control rather than on what you believe is at stake.  The atheist’s perspective on the picture highlights a message that anyone should consider: The only thing Larry Gopnik can truly control–and the only power that is his to relinquish–is that he is an honest man.  Does that make him sound too pathetic?  Not at all; actually he has something precious at stake in this drama.  The only thing we have to surrender is our integrity.

The Coens can deliver that message as many times as they want.

I am what I am.

The Trouble With Harry: What IS Harry’s Problem, Anyway?

The Liberal Ironist recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s off-beat black comedy The Trouble With Harry during the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center’s Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.  It’s been years since I saw this unrecognized gem by the Master of Suspense.  The vibrant depictions of quaint Americana, the dark opening, the various characters’ touching simplicity and often disturbing level of self-absorption, the fixation on obscurity and failure, that meditative dry humor…I hadn’t recognized it as such in my original viewing, but I think The Trouble With Harry is the template for every Coen Brothers film.  I’d like to illustrate this, and its significance in depicting Hitchcock’s “ideology,” by recounting its 1st and 3rd scenes.  There isn’t much here that counts for spoilers; this is a beautiful but off-beat movie that just has to be experienced.

The action (though that is really the wrong thing to call it) opens in a small, remote New England village on a beautiful autumn morning.  (It must be early in that morning, because an awful lot happens on this day…)  A rosy-cheeked former ship’s captain is out hunting, and happens to see his first mark: A “Posted: No Hunting” sign.  He then stumbles upon a can he has rather expertly (though of course inadvertently) shot.  (As he picks the can up and looks it over with a witticism, he overlooks the drop of blood on it–pure Hitchcock.)  Shortly thereafter, Captain Wiles (that’s right, Captain Wiles) notices a corpse–heretofore represented almost entirely by its feet, which are always pointed straight up.  The Captain immediately reaches the conclusion that he clumsily shot the man while hunting; he appears more-exasperated than frightened by this development.  His reaction actually prompted me to the Coen Brothers comparison: “What are you doing there?!” he asks the dead man in a state of perplexity.  (George Clooney’s character in Burn After Reading, after a startling development in which he shoots a man, immediately afterwards asks the same question, albeit in a more-vulgar fashion.)  He quickly resolves to bury the body, only to run off behind a tree after hearing someone coming.  It turns out to be a mother and her young son; she promptly identifies the dead man as Harry–and celebrates his demise!  With the young boy asking the usual series of precocious questions, they walk off.  The Captain proceeds out from his hiding place, still intending to finish his work as he is convinced that the woman who has seen the body has no intention of reporting it.

At this point Captain Wiles begins pulling the body towards the tree line; he stops however, when an older woman asks with what can only be called excessive politeness whether anything is wrong.  This is Mrs. Graves–and no, the dead man is not Mr. Boddy.  The irony of the whole scene that follows is once again vintage Hitchcock.  Mrs. Graves expresses surprise but a decided lack of shock at the sight of a neighbor with a rifle dragging a dead man towards the tree line, and in a short conversation invites the suspected manslaughterer over her house for tea.  This invitation Captain Wiles eagerly accepts, and Mrs. Graves steps over Harry’s body and goes cheerfully on her way.  Wiles promptly resumes his work of hiding his apparent victim’s remains.

Once again, however, he is forced to hide as the local physician, who is reading a book while walking, walks over the hilltop and actually trips over the body, simply getting to his feet, then walking off again.  Next a tramp hikes up the hill, sees the body, tries to wake the man up.  Then, upon realizing he is dead the tramp contentedly takes the man’s shoes.

This isn’t the last or even quite the most-poignant such scene.  Shortly afterward a local avant-garde painter happens upon the corpse, and after an anxious glance about his surroundings, he begins intently painting the dead man’s face.  (In fact, this is by far the most-precise painting by Sam Rockwell’s character that we see.)  The depth of absorption these characters have in their own problems, pursuits and desires feels bizarre–but it does not feel inhuman.  Hitchcock, as the Liberal Ironist mentioned in a review of Vertigo, is fascinated by the asocial and often violent unconscious drives in human beings; here the asocial side of human beings is on display even as they share simple and intimate moments with each other.

This strange yet somehow-acceptable combination of quaint Americana with intensely private, vaguely-criminal “ordinary people” forms that unique combination of elements of setting, characterization, theme and tone that has me convinced that The Trouble With Harry somehow inspired the Coen Brothers’ brand of film making.  If you take a Barton Fink, a Fargo, a Big Lebowski, an O Brother Where Art Thou? a No Country for Old Men, or a Burn After Reading, a set of distinct but mutually-resonant elements return to the foreground: A deep affection for America with populist undertones or overtones, but also a sobering picture of the idiosyncrasy and darkness in people’s motives and concerns, and a seemingly un-American pessimism about what individuals are capable of and a fatalism about whether we can stand the storm to come.  (Captain Wiles repeatedly, almost eagerly tells the painter that he doesn’t have a conscience, and he casually volunteers his atheism.  The home country of the Transcendentalists has undergone an interesting evolution.)  Many of those elements may seem most-obvious in their beautiful but bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, but it seems omnipresent in their work.  A friend of mine who loves movies once said that he suspects the moral of the story in the Coen Brothers’ movies is that only folkish simplicity can save you.  (From some of the grim developments in, say, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading among others, I don’t know if I’d say anything can protect us from a bad end, but the point remains that those with simple dreams may seem absurd, but they never look as ridiculous as those with elaborate plans–and if both should fall in the end, the simple man or woman doesn’t have so far to go and tends to meet that end with greater dignity.)

That reminds me: Harry had some pretty complicated ideas about his duty to his family.  Of course, The Trouble With Harry takes place in a different World–though I remember the irony of saying “times have changed” that are elemental to Hitchcock movies like Rear Window or Vertigo–but Harry married his brother’s widow out of his belief in his duty–and declined to consummate the marriage on his honeymoon night because he read his horoscope–He was a Taurus, we are informed–and was warned against starting any new projects that night because they couldn’t be finished.  This may be a comment about his lack of passion or simply a crack at his impotence, but either way you know he will not be a force in a Hitchcock movie.  It’s no wonder, really, that he is introduced dead.

Though there are a few steps along the road to his untimely demise, Harry ultimately died because he didn’t know how to want something.  That may sound somewhat vague and postmodern, but I suspect it’s true.  The plots of Hitchcock movies frequently turn around the revelation of a desire, whether of protagonist or antagonist, or to the audience or to the protagonist him- or herself.  Harry is a perverse human being even in the twisted World according to Alfred Hitchcock.  He tries to conform to an ideal when what he most needs is to be moved by a sentiment (or even an unadorned desire), and whether by stumbling about where he doesn’t belong or doomed by a weak constitution, he dies.

Rope: The Poverty of “Superior Human Beings”

“Brandon’s spoken of you.”

“Did he do me justice?”

“Do you deserve justice?”

This coarse response is one of the 1st things Rupert Cadell says when he introduces himself.  The morose but strangely-friendly prep school philosophy teacher and book publisher is the last character to introduce himself in Rope, but in many ways this movie is the story of his transformation–of how he discovers that he believes everyone deserves justice.

Hitchcock would cast Jimmy Stewart as the protagonist in 4 of his movies--Rope (1948), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1953), Rear Window (1957), and Vertigo (1959). In sharp and refreshing contrast to Frank Capra, Hitchcock would always cast America's everyman as off-beat, even disturbed individuals. In The Man Who Knew Too Much he plays a man driven by the race to save his son from kidnappers. In Rear Window he portrays a recuperating photojournalist who spies on his neighbors in his boredom until circumstantial evidence of a serious crime consumes his attention. In Vertigo he stars as a long-single man driven to the edge of madness by the desire for a woman he can't fully understand. In Rope he appears well into the action as Rupert Cardell, a boarding school teacher who has become very close to some of his students, sharing genuinely subversive ideas with them in the process.

Rope is a remarkable movie.  Dating to 1948, it is chronologically the earliest Alfred Hitchcock film the Liberal Ironist can recall expressing a satirical message.  I have previously reviewed Vertigo on this site, and Rope starts that tradition of simple plots about men driven by dark impulses.  Rope was Hitchcock’s 1st movie starring legendary Hollywood everyman Jimmy StewartVertigo was the last.  Besides that surface connection, both movies are focused on a conflict between a man’s desire for more power and the conventions and scruples necessary for us to live together as human beings.  Interestingly (at least to yours truly), this conflict is only put into words in Rope, but only in the later and murkier Vertigo are we invited to sympathize with the man (Stewart’s “Scotty” in that case) who seeks to impose his will on others; in Rope sympathy with the 2 young criminals is impossible.

The strange thing about Rope from a filmmaking perspective is that, in a sense, the premise, plot and all spoilers are right there in the 1st scene.  (Incidentally, “scene” is a bit of a misnomer since I have only ever noticed 3 cuts–and thus 4 unbroken segments of film–across the entire film.)  The entire movie follows the all-important incident, and all the tension to follow is character-driven.  What is at stake now is the sentiments of a man whose appearance is merely anticipated.

Brandon assures Phillip that they have a perfectly-good reason for serving dinner for their guests off of a chest in the living room. What they didn't have a good reason for was murdering David Kentley and stuffing his body inside that chest so they could serve dinner to his friends and family from it. Brandon would even refer to this chest as a "sacrificial altar" to his housekeeper. All this irony struck Brandon (at right) as master strokes in his demonstration of his superiority.

So, here it is: Brandon and Phillip, college graduates who have been close friends since boarding school, murder David Kentley, their classmate at Harvard University, for no other reason than to see if they could do it.  Brandon chose as his victim a young man whose father and aunt would attend a party he and Phillip would throw a short while later, where they would serve dinner buffet-style from the server in which they had dumped David’s body.  Brandon also serves his guests expensive champaign–which he didn’t tell the others was served to celebrate his and Phillip’s successful murder of someone they knew.  With much pretense of doing so he pushed an acquaintance he respected more than David towards Janet, David’s girlfriend, who was entertaining the marriage proposal he had made earlier that day.  During the party Brandon frankly discusses his belief that “intellectually- and culturally-superior human beings are above conventional morality,” and that there is no reason they should not have the power to kill their inferior if they happen to be in the way.  He admits to believing that he and Phillip are such superior human beings.  At the end of the party, he gives David’s father some nice 1st-edition books he’d been hoping to unload–bound together with the rope Phillip used to strangle David.

Brandon services his petty vanity with such double-entendres and allegory the entire evening, constantly demonstrating his capacity for idle chatter while indirectly reminding Phillip and himself of their supposedly-authenticating crime.  In the 1st scene Brandon describes his decision to serve food off of the server in which he stashed the body of a man who believed him to be a friend as the single stroke that would turn his and Phillip’s “work of art” into a “masterpiece.”  Nothing seems to give him greater satisfaction–following the murder–than keeping his own secret.  Well, there is 1 thing which would have meant more to him.

In my review of Vertigo, I mentioned Hitchcock's fascination with the potential for mundane objects to yield up the outrageous. So it is with the chest in the foreground.

Brandon’s long, excited talks with his favorite philosophy teacher, Rupert, inspired him with the belief that he was an “intellectually- and culturally-superior human being,” and some dark animus in him interacted with this sense to bring him to the thought that he could by right take another life.  Even before the party starts Brandon suggests that Rupert is the only other person he knows who could appreciate the combination of resolve and finesse that went into their murder of a classmate.  It is Janet who obliviously avers that “Freud says there is a reason for everything we do,” and for all his insistences otherwise Brandon seems utterly unable to stop himself from dangling evidence bereft of significance in front of “those idiots” at the party–or from subliminally broadcasting his guilt to Rupert.

For all his volunteered contempt for ordinary human beings, Brandon is unable to stop himself from sharing his awful deed with another person even while his life is at stake.  When he assures Phillip that “Murder can be every bit as exhilarating as creation,” his inability to share the simple fact of what he has done with anyone aside from his accomplice proves to be first his unhinging, and then his undoing.

It’s worth discussing the sources for this story.  Before Alfred Hitchcock adapted it into one of his best films, Rope was a play by Patrick Hamilton, but it also dramatized a true crime, and did so in the words of another fictional criminal.  The true crime was the Leopold & Loeb murder, and the fictional criminal is Rodion Raskolnikov, the murderer from Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s outstanding novel Crime and Punishment.  The Leopold and Loeb murder occurred in 1924, in which a 19-year-old meticulous birdwatcher and crude reader of Nietzsche named Nathan Leopold and an easily-bored 18-year-old with no morals named Richard Loeb murdered an acquaintance simply to see if they could successfully blackmail his father.  Leopold’s reading of Thus Spake Zarathustra apparently led him to the belief that Nietzsche’s ubermensch–a person of loftier perspective and profound self-mastery–could demonstrate his autonomy from conventional moral understandings such as the evil of murder.  (Nietzsche didn’t argue that an ubermensch would seek to authenticate his or her status through the commission of a crime, merely that he would clearly-behold that all morality is a human creation and thus not allow it to proscribe his purpose–though this potentially invites the same problem.)  Leopold thought of Loeb–with whom he had a homosexual relationship and who he claimed to love for the rest of his life–as an ubermensch–and apparently served as Loeb’s accomplice because of intense feelings of dependence on Loeb.  (Interestingly, there is a very brief, interrupted exchange between Brandon and Phillip which suggests their similar involvement.)

Every time I’ve seen Rope I’ve come back to the same simple thought: How visibly a product of adolescence it is when a few or individuals set themselves up as “superior human beings.”  Of course, talents or intelligence and even a circumstantially-justified sense of good taste are not evenly-distributed assets, but there is something about that broadest category of “superior human beings” where no one who seems worthy of that distinction ever seems to turn up.  Those who would set themselves up as such are always so visibly-resentful, or so lacking in truly creative notions, that they seem almost to have come around to the idea of their superiority to the masses as a way of making sense of their own failure to recognize merit in others.

This review probably read somewhat as a list of plot-items, but that isn’t the point of it.  With all the action coming either before it starts or at the very end, Rope isn’t simply about what happens.  It’s character-driven to the point that there’s often little to engage one’s care besides subtle gradients in the way the various people Brandon dismisses as “those idiots” are feeling.  Strangely, the only characters who seem truly uninteresting to me are the 2 killers.  They are insipid people, Brandon sure-enough of his own superiority to appear ridiculous, and Phillip hopelessly-dependent upon Brandon.

The Liberal Ironist won’t tell you what happens.  I’ll just say Rope is the story of how Rupert Cardell goes from being an ironist to a liberal ironist himself.  He will never ask another person if they deserve justice again.

I won't tell you exactly what happens in Rope, but note what side of the room Brandon's much-admired Rupert (Stewart, in the foreground) is sitting on.

Star Trek: FUBAR

(Level 3 spoiler hazard: I will proceed to give away the events of the re-imagining of Star Trek by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman as it serves my purpose throughout this review.  I do this not out of malice—though I positively hate that movie—but because science fiction that makes no sense at all annoys me, and today I will have my revenge.  So without further ado, I’m posting something very different today.)

Star Trek is a science fiction mythology about humanistic values and progressive hopes.

The Liberal Ironist is not going to talk about humanism or progressivism today.

No, today’s post is stand-alone self-indulgence: The Liberal Ironist is going to carry on angrily about Star Trek, the J.J. Abrams-produced, Damon Lindelof-directed reboot of the Star Trek film franchise.  This will be an angry review for no reason more-complicated than that this movie doesn’t make any sense.  Star Trek, heretofore and eternally known as Star Trek: FUBAR, is a nonsensical mess that insults our intelligence.

“FUBAR” is an informal military shorthand for “f***ed up beyond all recognition.”  This is nothing like what I normally write on this blog, but I wanted to clarify a few problems with a mostly critically-acclaimed (and very financially successful) sci-fi action/adventure movie.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a Trekkie.  I have seen all of the Star Trek movies.  But I’ve only seen several episodes apiece of the classic TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  I haven’t really seen the often-panned Voyager or the apparently-authentic but short-lived Enterprise at all.  I’m not very engaged in the lore of the show, and I am often quite comfortable with the shifts in tone that occur when a franchise is “re-imagined.”  I am a loyal observer of several other pop culture crazes, prominent among them the TV series LOST, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, each of which similarly straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy in ways that put them in a similar general category with Star Trek.  In declaring myself a LOST fan (and I am a big one), my disappointment with Star Trek: FUBAR should nonetheless be clear.  I expected a whole world of brilliance from J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, 2 of the principal lines behind the groundbreaking TV series that sold me on the value of allegory as a means of mapping out the web of one’s themes and cultural influences.  What I got from Star Trek: FUBAR was nonsensical manic bunk even in comparison to the mediocre big-budget action or disaster movies we see today, and it was so distracting that there was really no chance of me enjoying all the pretty special effects and warp-speed dialogue.

Without further ado, I will now do my best to spoil the movie.  For a standard post on politics or philosophy, please just wait a day or 2.  You’ve been warned…

Star Trek: FUBAR opens aboard the Federation starship on which George Kirk, the father of James T. Kirk, serves as 1st officer.  But his 1st officering is violently-interrupted as a huge, spiky and evil-looking ship suddenly emerges through a wormhole.  I don’t know why a ship piloted by an evil person has to be huge, spiky and evil-looking…particularly considering that it eventually turns out to be an unremarkable Romulan mining vessel from 175 years in the future.  So, consider that stupid thing #1 about this movie.

Oh, wait—that’s actually stupid thing #3.  Stupid thing #1 is the fact, also unknown at this time but causally prior to the 1st scene, that this mining ship fell through this wormhole from 175 years in the future completely by accident.  Isn’t it a little convenient to fall into a black hole as a result of a careless maneuver and to simply ride it back into the past?  Stupid thing #2: Isn’t it way too convenient to fall into a black hole completely by accident and to be transported 175 years into the past to the time and place in space of James Tiberius Kirk’s birth?  I mean, what are the odds?  Why not fall through time to…well, a location close to the system Romulus is in, or somehow accounting for galactic drift and rotation, to a location still in Romulan space?

Don’t give me that “many worlds theory” bunk.  Just don’t.

Wow.  I’m just through the 1st scene of the movie and already I have so many problems with it that I’m getting lost.  That’s funny, because when I would watch LOST I would see so many things I liked in it that I’d get lost.  Am I over-thinking this?  No, this is really reall dumb, and I am just getting started.

Stupid thing #4: Romulan mining vessels 175 years in the future are obviously pretty advanced, as they are able to utterly destroy capital class Federation starships in a matter of minutes.  An Alaskan fishing ship today is definitely more technologically-advanced than an Imperial frigate of the late 1700s, but I still wouldn’t put my money down on the fishing ship if the 2 did battle.  I mean, the frigate does have cannons…

So long story short, George Kirk’s captain is killed, his ship comes under heavy attack from a…futuristic evil mining vessel, and in order to save most of the crew George Kirk has to ram his ship into the enemy vessel, sacrificing himself.  This is a deviation from Star Trek canon, as Captain Kirk’s father “historically” went on to become a captain and died an old man having lived to see his adult son become captain of the Enterprise.  James Tiberius Kirk, who was miraculously being born at that very moment, grows up fatherless.  25 years later, he is a complete jerk.

This sounds to me like a plot a grade schooler would come up with—a smart grade schooler, sure, but still…

So Kirk grows up as a trickster with a death wish (although it is only the petty criminality involved that makes this Kirk different from the original, as he too had a devious side and sometimes exhibited a death wish).  He gets into a fight in a bar, right after buying a drink.  He pays for this drink…with money.  Again, I’m not a Trekkie, but I do know that in the humanistic future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned, money has been abolished within the United Federation of Planets because all people labor for the rational betterment of society as a whole.  (Granted, one may say this is not only ridiculous but in a sense unnecessary, as money is a perfectly valid means of measuring the exchange of a given number of hours of labor of 1 type for another, and the efficiency with which money tracks that exchange would remain regardless of the prevailing economic order.  The point is that this is a central feature of the world J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have to work with, and there is no explanation of this glaring departure from canon by these 2 avowed Trekkies, making this stupid thing #5.)

During this bar fight, Kirk has the audacity to assault a Federation officer who tries to stop him.  That’s not just a death wish, that’s a stupid thing to do.  But young James Kirk isn’t the only person whom has taken leave of his senses, as he is visited in the brig by Captain Christopher Pike, who challenges young Kirk to be a real man, joining Starfleet like his valorous but deceased father.  It’s true Captain Pike knew Kirk’s father and understandable that he is troubled to see his friend’s son wrecking himself, but it’s showing extraordinary faith indeed to encourage a young delinquent to distinguish himself at Starfleet.  That’s not stupid thing #6, but it’s a little hard to fathom.

Stupid things #6, #7 and #8 are all biggies, spectacular failures of imagination, even common sense.  First, after the (still completely mysterious) Romulan mining vessel from the future destroyed a Starfleet ship, no Federation fleet has been sent out to counter this menace; apparently no Federation ship has even attempted a reconnaissance of that part of space.  This splendid desolation allowed Nero, the villain of this movie, to wait 25 years for his as-yet-unidentified quarry to pass through the wormhole himself—something the villain couldn’t have known for certain would happen at all—so that he could take him prisoner and set his plan for revenge in motion.  That absurd single-mindedness is stupid thing #7.  The fact that his crew made no noteworthy attempt at mutiny or defection for 25 years is stupid thing #8.  Apparently his entire crew is absolutely bent on revenge.  When you hear their reason why, that will sound pretty stupid, too.

Stupid thing #9 is the fact that Spock apparently devised the Kobayashi Maru test taken by Kirk.  (The Kobayashi Maru is a fictional freighter ship that issues a distress call to a Federation starship, only to face simultaneous sneak attack from 5 Klingon birds-of-prey.  As capital class offensive ships, there is no way for a single unprepared Starfleet vessel to defend itself; it is disabled and then either boarded or destroyed—a no-win scenario conceived to test the character of the pilot under evaluation.)  Now we learn that the test was conceived by Spock in a pointless and excessively aggrandizing bit of history.  Kirk takes the test and hacks it, contriving an utterly implausible way out for himself in a famous but never-before-seen moment in Star Trek canon.  Kirk and Spock confront each other in an inconclusive competition over who has the most-formidable ego.

This battle of egos is inconclusive because, after 25 years of silence, our villain has now decided to attack the planet Vulcan.  Because Starfleet’s main force is unavailable for some reason, a ship full of recruits is mobilized to combat this mysterious and powerful menace.  That ship is the Enterprise, commanded by Captain Christopher Pike.  Is there any canon significance to the timing of this?  No, nothing—it is a complete coincidence that out of all Starfleet, the Enterprise would be the only capital class ship available for deployment to Vulcan, and that James Kirk would be a cadet of sufficient standing to get roped onto the crew by the captain at the last second.  Talk about a cosmic coincidence; this is stupid thing #10, along with the fact that Starfleet apparently isn’t able to provide an adequate standing defense for 1 of the Federation’s core planets.

When the Enterprise reaches Vulcan we find that our villain, Nero, has launched a giant drill into the center of the planet.  This will also turn out to be stupid.  Anyway, Captain Pike is taken prisoner by the renegade Romulans following a failed diplomatic mission, but not before appointing Mr. Spock, his 1st officer, as acting captain, and James Kirk, a cadet in the middle of disciplinary proceedings, as acting 1st officer.  Is Captain Pike insane?!  That would be stupid thing #11.  An aerial insertion onto the giant drill by three trainees follows.  These are cadet–I’m sorry, acting 1st officer Kirk, ensign Sulu and an unknown man in a red suit; who do you suppose is killed in action?  While the drill is damaged by the strike team, it comes too late to prevent the launching of “red matter” into the planet’s core.  A pseudoscientific scan by a young Chekhov reveals that this “red matter” has produced a black hole in the core of Vulcan.

This brings us to stupid thing #12.  A black hole can have an event horizon of about 1 light-month; for perspective the distance from the Earth to the Moon is only about 1.2 light-seconds.  Yet apparently for this “red matter” to effectively produce a black hole that can consume the planet Vulcan entirely requires insertion directly into the core of the planet, an operation that requires…entire minutes!  Nero has jeopardized his harebrained revenge plan just to center a planet-destroying superweapon.

So, Vulcan is destroyed in a major history-altering event (as nothing like this ever happens in Star Trek canon).  Spock’s quick thinking saves the Vulcan High Council (or at least most of it), and his father whom out of the entire planet is conveniently located at the same place; his mother, however, is lost.  (Maybe they couldn’t afford to keep Winona Ryder on in the part?)  Most of Vulcan’s 6 billion inhabitants are killed.  As Captain Pike has been taken hostage, Spock remains acting captain.  He is deep in shock, of course, but still able to calmly follow orders to meet with the rest of the fleet.  Kirk angrily protests Spock’s refusal to pursue Nero (even though he is obviously an incredibly-dangerous, little-understood quantity, and they have a ship full of trainees), and proceeds to make a fool of himself on the bridge of the Enterprise.  Spock orders him loaded into an escape pod and dropped off on the next terrestrial planet, which amazingly has an atmosphere!  It’s also so close to Vulcan that the planet can be observed in the sky.  So, these planetary conveniences are stupid things #13 and #14.

Kirk receives an automated warning that the planet is a near-hostile environment and that he should stay with the escape pod; this he promptly ignores as he sets out on foot for the nearest Federation military facility.  Along the way he gets caught up in a pretty intense game of big fish, bigger fish as a few native predators chase him down.  He runs into a cave where 1 man with a burning branch—Where “on Earth” did that even come from?—scares off a predator the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and far more-agile.  This turns out to be Mr. Spock—as in Leonard Nimoy, old Mr. Spock!  This is definitely stupid thing #15.  Yeah, I know time travel is involved and I’m just supposed to run with that—but this really doesn’t make sense: When’s the last time you were marooned on an ice planet and after being chased by a succession of predators just happened to run into a cave where you incidentally met a much-older, gentler version of the man who marooned you just minutes before?  That’s not a cosmic coincidence, it’s a colossal plot convenience.

I should make an aside here.  I’m a huge fan of LOST, a show that practically runs on cosmic coincidences.  The difference (and a crucial narrative element in that show) is the fact that these coincidences aren’t supposed to be coincidences.  There is a manipulating force behind a series of long-shot encounters, it is purposive, and this purpose is central to the perspective one will have on the show.  Star Wars, of course, is centrally about the Force, the various shifts in which (depending on your perspective) either determine the nature and scope of our actions, or else provides a resource for the fulfillment of our wills.

Star Trek: FUBAR has no such prior metaphysical entity to address the point of why such an extraordinary chance encounter as Nero’s retreat through the past to the moment of James Kirk’s birth, or the James Kirk’s stumble upon old Spock, should ever happen.  This is simple plot convenience.  I mean, they only have about 2 hours with which to reboot the franchise!

Now it’s time for exposition and back-story…really stupid back-story.  175 years in the future, a supernova explosion “would threaten the entire Galaxy.”  (This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as our own Milky Way Galaxy contains well over 100 billion stars, a number of which are massive-enough to go supernova and which have gone supernova in the past.  These most-certainly haven’t destroyed life on Earth, which is located in a reasonably-busy suburb of the Milky Way where life has been evolving for about 3.5 billion years; meanwhile, supernova-prone stars are so unstable that they can only exist for a few million years at most.  So, that’s stupid thing #16.)  Anyway, the Vulcans invented or discovered something called “red matter,” which if freed from its containment will generate an instant black hole.  So, the Vulcans equipped their fastest ship with the red matter so as to deploy the red matter, form a black hole, and swallow up the shock wave from the supernova.  This doesn’t make much sense either, since a constantly-expanding supernova emanates in all directions and wouldn’t require long to exceed the event horizon of this “instant black hole.”  So this plan to save the Galaxy by deploying red matter to absorb the shockwave of the supernova shouldn’t be very effective; you would have to envelop it with black holes, a task of far greater difficulty, even giving Star Trek technology, than I think the writers appreciate…So that’s stupid thing #17.

Stupid thing #18 is the fact that this supernova explosion destroyed Romulus before the Romulans had a chance to evacuate.  Supernovas definitely don’t travel faster than light; and how far is this supernova from Romulus, anyway?  The next-nearest star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri, about 4.3 light-years away.  That means nothing could travel from there to here without taking at least 4.3 years to do so.  It would, however, be possible with already-known (though little-understood) physical principles such as quantum teleportation to develop a system that could detect a supernova and relay a warning when it occurred, so it makes no sense that a star close-enough to Romulus to threaten it in the event of a supernova wouldn’t be closely-monitored.

Anyway, “the unthinkable happened,” and Romulus was destroyed by this supernova.  Apparently the Romulans were just sitting around on their home planet, waiting for Mr. Spock to save the day with…a black hole…Nero was the leader of a mining team that returned to Romulus to find it destroyed.  He decided to take revenge on Mr. Spock for not getting to Romulus fast-enough to help; both Nero’s and Spock’s ships were pulled into the black hole Spock created to absorb the force of the supernova.  Nero passed through the black hole first; instead of being crushed along with his ship and his entire crew, down to a singularity, this black hole which they just happened to fall through delivered them, unscathed, to the time and place of James Kirk’s birth.  That’s unbelievably stupid, but we’ve already addressed that.

Nero then waited 25 years in the hope that Spock would pass through the wormhole, which he eventually did.  Stupid thing #19 is the fact that Nero never bothered to warn the Romulans that their planet would be destroyed by a supernova in less than 2 centuries.  When Mr. Spock emerged through the wormhole, Nero took him prisoner, commandeering his ship and the remaining red matter, dropping him off on the ice planet they both are on now so that he could watch Nero destroy Vulcan with the red matter.  Stupid thing  #20 is the fact that Vulcan loomed as large as the moon in the sky of this planet; such a close orbital situation would either destroy both of these planets or at least wreck their orbits and send them hurtling into space or into their own star in reality.

It’s about to get real stupid here.  Kirk and old Spock meet the young Mr. Scott on this ice planet.  That’s right, he just happens to be stationed here, so they can meet for the 1st time.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Scottish engineer in a science fiction story, but finding him in this barren waste, especially after Kirk’s utterly implausible encounter of old Mr. Spock, is just too much.  That’s stupid thing #21.  It also turns out that Mr. Scott is the inventor of a teleportation system that allows safe beaming onto a moving object; he just doesn’t know it yet!  So, old Mr. Spock literally says “Here is the equation for warp-speed beaming,” and Mr. Scott has the requisite knowledge to beam Kirk and himself onto the Enterprise.  No need for a retrofit of any equipment, no need for a test-run to ensure that they won’t get left in space due to a rounding error or explode at the speed of light upon beaming onto the Enterprise…No: “Here is an equation,” and now teleportation onto an object moving at warp speed is possible.  You could do it on your own teleportation device at home, just so long as you understand the math involved!  I’m pretty sure applied physics isn’t that convenient.  That’s stupid thing #22.

Onboard the Enterprise, Kirk taunts the young Mr. Spock into hitting him and attempting to strangle him (which is at least an understandable impulse considering how ridiculous this movie has been).  The purpose of this is to invoke a Starfleet regulation that requires an emotionally-unfit captain to relinquish his command to the ranking officer.  Once Acting Captain Spock realizes the extent of his impairment, he relinquishes command…and James Tiberius Kirk, who was a cadet facing disciplinary proceedings that very day, who isn’t yet a regular part of the Enterprise crew, who was just expelled from the ship by the previous acting captain and who just came aboard the ship unlawfully to pick a fight with that same acting captain, takes charge of a capital class Federation vessel.  If you’ll pardon the resort to cliche: “God help us all.”  That’s stupid thing #23.

Now it’s up to the Enterprise to protect Earth from Nero’s insane plan to destroy all Federation home planets, on the theory that “Only then will we (Romulans) truly be safe!”  (Actually, since Romulus was only destroyed because the Vulcans couldn’t come to their aid fast-enough, it seems like the greatest danger to the Romulans is not enough Federation, not too much Federation; did I mention Nero is a genocidal lunatic?)  Anyway, it’s all up to the Enterprise because the Federation fleet again is out of range.  The capital of the United Federation of Planets is on Earth, mind you; Starfleet doesn’t maintain a force in the Solar System strong-enough to defend the Federation Capital or Starfleet Academy from a Romulan mining ship from the future.  That’s stupid thing #24, and yes, by now I do regret deciding to enumerate the things about this movie that annoy me.

Kirk and young Spock finally teleport onto Nero’s vessel for a final confrontation; having been caught in the bowels of the ship surrounded by armed, fanatical Romulans, Kirk and Spock are able to phaser their way to safety.  A series of dramatic fights in a floorless room ensue…There is a room without floors or guardrails on a mining ship.  That’s stupid thing #25; why would anyone design such a ship?

Anyway, in a big climactic battle, red matter spills inside Nero’s vessel, opening a black hole inside it but somehow leaving enough time for communication from the Enterprise for an offer to take Nero and his crew prisoner.  The Liberal Ironist won’t debate the ethics of offering the worst genocidal abomination imprisonment as opposed to a quick, crushing death; he  will debate how there can possibly be any time to talk surrender terms while a black hole is forming in the hangar bay of Nero’s spaceship.  That doesn’t make the cut as a stupid thing, though; it isn’t as dumb and ridiculous as the preceding 25.

Maybe you can see what was coming: While Captain Pike was rescued from Nero, he is promoted to admiral and the movie ends with James Kirk’s promotion to captain of the Enterprise.  James Kirk, who enters Starfleet as a completely-unreliable jerk, essentially goes from cadet to captain after 1 day of active duty.  True, he just saved the capital of the Federation…but is Starfleet sure about this?  What about Mr. Spock?  He clearly acted above and beyond the call of duty, and he did so by the book; indeed, he is a true exemplar of Starfleet discipline and competence.  He also just lost 6 billion of his fellow-specimens, and still managed to act both heroically and gracefully.  What does he get?  He remains 1st officer of the Enterprise.  Ouch.

During a climactic ceremony, now-Captain Kirk approaches a wheelchair-bound Admiral Pike, formally relieving him as presiding officer on the Enterprise.  “I am relieved,” Pike says gracefully, with a warm smile.  So am I, because this absurd, extremely-taxing movie is finally over.

Is there anything worthwhile about this exceptionally ridiculous movie?  Well, Carl Urban makes a truly amazing Dr. “Bones” McCoy.  That’s…about it.  The Liberal Ironist eagerly-awaits a sequel in which the surviving Vulcans under old Mr. Spock’s guidance violate either the reproductive rights of their women or any biomedical ethics we humans could embrace in order to restore their species; an interesting depiction of such a challenging issue could at least allow some good to emerge from this complete absurdity of a movie.

Wait a minute…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture: lousy.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: good.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: lousy.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: good.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: lousy.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: awesome.

Star Trek Generations: lousy.

Star Trek: First Contact: good.

Star Trek: Insurrection: lousy.

Star Trek: Nemesis: very good.

Star Trek: FUBAR: lousy.

Remarkable: After 32 years and 11 movies, the Curse of the odd-numbered Trek remains…