Welcome to It Was Mother. It's amazing what happens when light strikes the eye. More amazing is what it does to the heart. Keeping it perfectly arrested at 24 beats per second yet remarkably alive to witness a form of Mirror Mirror on The Wall. When the persistent image becomes more than just a story, she appears—welcomed or unwelcomed—not on the cinema screen but as a reflection inside a boy's heart.
If she sees a prince in the boy's heart, she will reflect the sun's light—reassuring, pleasant and warm—back into his nature. If she sees, a king however, she will by necessity reflect the glare of Venus. Light of the demon, vivid day and night and unrestrained to shine with great nerve—truth without warmth. Dimensionalizing the boy by filling ambiguous and oftentimes conflicting feelings back into his nature for him to resolve. Stirring the boy onward and forward as a king to explore the fevered depths of his fantastically unstable condition while the prince stays secure in his impregnable castle.
The boy doesn't reach his heart first, even though it's closer and nearer to him than the screen. Cinema, like the horizon, is never truly attainable but the journey towards it never makes fools out of those who try. A lesson all young boys are scheduled to learn if her sudden reflection is welcomed with a just touch of courage.
-February 15th 2016
It Was Radio
Radio Raheem would've respected Lloyd Dobler's single mindedness although Dobler had a little man's box—he certainly knew how to get his message across. Not to mention Lloyd was dropping Peter Gabriel, the musician behind protest anthem Biko (Stephen Bantu), activist and founder of The Black Consciousness Movement and mantra "Black is Beautiful," who in 1977 was murdered by Afrikaner police.
It was 1989 and Radio needed an anthem to mark his territory, and although Gabriel's call to action in "In Your Eyes" could be interpreted as a need for agape between man and his brothers, a more vigorous message suited to the streets of Brooklyn was needed.
L.L. Cool J's "Radio" had been out for four years, Run D.M.C's "Raising Hell" for three, Dana Dane's "With Fame" for two, EPMD's "Strictly Business" for one but—no bell-ringer could be found for a philosopher who preached LOVE and HATE as verbs on his knuckles, even with Boogie Down Productions, N.W.A and Ice-T on the airwaves. Yet somehow Pre Napster and MP3s, Radio managed to procure a song unavailable to anyone else on the planet.
"Fight The Power."
In this case, the power that encroaches or suppresses territory—Radio's territory—all 2+ square miles of Bedford-Stuyvesant inoculated from attack by Radio's peregrinations and thumping song.
A perfect recruit for Buggin' Out, neighbourhood thought leader whose failure to expand ideological territory on Sal's Pizzeria's Wall Of Fame enlists Radio's company to initiate a march to the eatery to contest its Italian-American dècor before threatening boycott.
The police are called and the dispute ends.
"The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." F. Scott Fitzgerald. Spike Lee may have had the aforementioned quote in mind when he ended DTRT with two incommensurable quotes on violence by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, moreover deliberately framing the film on the denotative August 5th.
Mookie (Spike Lee) wears a number 23 Chicago Bulls jersey in the opening to signify 23 years to the day—August 5th, 1989—August 5th, 1966, past since Martin Luther King was assaulted by a protester's jutting rock while marching through Chicago's Marquette Park (not Gage Park). King, the pacifist did not retaliate. When it came to self-defence, King and civil rights activist Malcolm X—gunned down a year earlier—took diverging positions.
First-hand accounts of the civil rights movement available to the relatively young inhabitants of the neighbourhood are limited; two residents old enough to have lived through the movement are the invariably fermented Mayor and an embittered woman known as Mother Sister. Both uniquely articulate although tongued to the pain of their past. Who's left—Smiley? Sure, but his stammer would test the most patient seeker.
Mother Sister chides Mayor for being "a drunk fool"—as an elder he's falling short of his archetypal duty of being a wisdom keeper and storyteller. Mayor's only mention of history comes when he recruits a young boy for a beer run by cryptically asking, "What Makes Sammy Run?" An irrelevant history reference to Hollywood, not to mention a fictional one, the question goes over the boy's head.
And then there's T'Challa, the first black superhero from Wakanda, the African country with a rich deposit of vibranium, the arcane element used to build Captain America's shield. The day King led the seminal Freedom Movement Rally in Chicago is the same day T'Challa made his debut in Fantastic Four comics—July 10, 1966.
T'Challa goes by another name—he will also go on to earn his own comic book, a comic a teen carries around the neighbourhood—The Black Panther. Did Buggin' Out sense a vacuum in the neighbourhood, an urgent need for material historical figures to be recognized, displayed and celebrated ... somewhere?
Amessage simultaneously subversive and protective in tone can be found on Sal's Wall of Fame. All the PR headshots are of entertainers not in character, except for one: Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. In many ways the headshot is emblematic of how the residents prefer to run their block. Neighbourhood disharmony caused by arguments, slights and misunderstandings succeeded by order without police intervention. In Mezzogiorno this is called Omertà.
Keep police out of it.
In action when Mayor mum's the word when asked for a statement by Officer Ponte and Long after witnessing the hydro-destruction of an antique roadster. Alternatively, at high noon, neighbourhood "delegates" spit racial animus to the camera, disquieted not by the police but rather local DJ Mister Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson).
"... Time out, ya'll take a chill, you need to chill ..." he arbitrates.
Police being called if and only if the "sequence" threatened to become physical, even homicidal is unlikely as Officer Long contributed to the racist montage. Not that he'd be held to account by his partner, The Blue Code, a form of Omertà for police, an unwritten vow of silence protects fellow officers who break the law.
With silent residents and silent police who's left to bring the noise?
Bill Lee's DTRT hymn—optimistic and romantic—is non-diegetic thus audible only to the audience, while Public Enemy's Fight The Power—prudent and confrontational—is diegetic furthermore almost by necessity deafening to the residents and audience by means of Radio's boom box. Sal (Danny Aiello) welcomes and feeds both residents and police on one condizione: his establishment must be entered quietly.
Daedalus built a labyrinth on the island of Crete with such dexterity he nearly trapped himself in his own creation. After 25 years, Sal feels proud, not cornered in his pizzeria; it's worth noting, however, that Daedalus built the labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur and although the creature—half bull, half man—was not Daedalus's son, Sal must contend with his son Pino, who behaves like a Minotaur.
Come daybreak Sal sits with Pino (John Turturro) and asks, "Why you got so much anger in you?" Unlike Sal—who's proud to do business in a black neighbourhood, to give Mayor a dollar for sweeping outside, to offer Smiley money for King and Malcolm photographs—Pino's lost face, ridiculed by friends for not working in an Italian neighbourhood, Pino requires an environment that complements his hubris. Daedalus did have a son. His name was Icarus.
There's nothing to suggest Pino couldn't go at it alone. Daedalus, after all, built a pair of wings for his son out of feathers and wax. Sal ostensibly did the same for both Pino and Vito—his other much more level-headed son—to fly but it's Pino's rage, not lack of resources, that keeps him imprisoned. Pino would, if he could, blame the sweltering hot New York day as reason why he's unable to test the resilience of his father's wax.
Buggin Out doesn't need feathered appendages for height. Look at his Air Jordans, the ubiquitous brand mark is of a (black) man in flight without the aid of wings: furthermore, is the dot really a basketball—or is the small disc in the man's hand the unattainable Sun. Naturally he'd ask Sal " ... how come you ain't got no brothers on the wall?"
Blackwhite is a mechanism of Doublethink whereupon characters not only believe black is white, they at no time in the past knew any different. This makes for a past that's vague, difficult to recall and easy for Big Brother to revise. George Orwell created Doublethink—two contradictory ideas held in mind without detecting a dissonance—for his novel 1984. Whereas Fitzgerald's quote "the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function," Orwell's characters with their inability to even detect two opposed ideas operating in their consciousness leave them incapable of operating with critical awareness. When the past isn't remembered correctly and clearly, "Big Brother" is free to do as he pleases.
Point in case when Mookie attempts to control his younger sister Jade (Joie Lee) who is well aware of Doublethink: it's no coincidence she tells Mookie "...to quite playing Big Brother to me [Her] ..." As far as Jade is concerned Sal's just being warm and cordial. Mookie contrarily smells a whiff of racial fetishism forming and tells Sal in a less than indirect way not to hold his breath.
Gaspers are folks who during intercourse deprive their brain of oxygen to trigger a state called hypoxia with their orgasm: the merger is described by sexual psychonautics as the ultimate rush. Induced by choking the prized state when practised alone can expose the participant to another not-so-prized state called death. If so, police have no choice other than to rule cause of death as accidental strangulation.
Big Brother, well aware that accidents don't merely just happen, brilliantly although rather sneakily, uses a non-diegetic insert to show a picture of a brother on Sal's Wall Of Fame—erroneously believed by some viewers to have been present all along, positioning Buggin Out in error—when violence in the pizzeria cascades out of control, to remind us of where it all began.
The picture is of a brother in a boxing ring with another brother—a white brother—and they're both fighting for their lives. Neither one with an advantage, their arms both perfectly squared, however, it's clear the black brother has just received a blow to the head from the white brother's right hand—Love—consequently, the black boxer's left hand—Hate—is up in defence.
Two hands at war, though it must be observed hands, like branches grow not from two but one tree. Radio's allegory of two forces, namely the hand of God and the hand of Devil, is one force—Man—battling for or against himself. Said another way, struggling for dominion over self or dominion over others. Love allies with only one of the told power grabs.
Mayor's message to Big Brother—Do The Right Thing—was transmitted as an unfinished antimetabole, its obligatory hook—and Do The Thing Right, left to be discovered and unscrambled. Like a homeless radio wave in search of a boombox, it finds volume in Big Brother's head only after Radio is dead. Big Brother, holding a can, believes he can and sends the signal back into the air.
It Was Ted
Teddy's upbringing isn't hard to imagine. His mother would have conceivably in days past been a mink who taught Teddy as a little boy that only "uncivilized animals" make noises while hurling about the estate mansion in their jammies. Teddy, of course, would take his mother's advice on civility to heart only to later catch her in a scenario that undermined it, maybe at the dinner table or a cocktail party consuming libations with guests. Something about her laugh shrieks contempt rather than mirth. Worst of all, it's prompted at the drop of a hat, crowed at any joke that's distasteful, shallow or insensitive. This will shock Teddy, making sense of the swirl in his belly that signals "mommy's the one who makes disgusting noises" is sharp and will take some getting used too. Brought on by witnessing hypocrisy, a word Teddy's little brain and lips can't quite get around, he'll defer to a more readily available description, more accurate to the occasion and much simpler to articulate—mommy's a jerk. One thing is clear—the aforementioned hypothetical scenario notwithstanding—Teddy's mother has never been humbled.
Teddy (Andrew McCarthy) was speaking when it happened. His mouth pregnant with chocolate peanut butter pie when his girlfriend, rather abruptly, announced she didn't belong in this conversation. There it was, up until then, this conversation—the family story of Teddy's wealth and privilege—was the conversation that not only distinguished young Teddy, but also most assuredly guaranteed a future partner. Her name is Rose (Rosalind Chao) and she's got a tone that leaves Teddy silent; unimpressed by his narrative she wonders whether Teddy falling back on a conversation about his blue blood is worthy of her. Or him. That's not to say Rose isn't seduced by Teddy's dainty short and long, but the eighties are coming to an end and Teddy must manicure his own story if he's to keep Rose beyond university.
To do so—keep Rose—Teddy will have to get one past his mother, or more accurately, pull one faster than her. Pulling fast ones is a science for Teddy's mother, one she's got down cold, as we will later see. Any comment, however tasteless, can be justified by saying "...it's just the way the world is..." Such a statement, tried and true, is indeed used by Teddy's mother when she meets Rose to contextualize and excuse a careless comment. Boorish sociopolitical worldviews aren't her own—they're well understood facts and to condone or condemn them as mere perceptions is futile. Besides she, more than anyone, just wants to share common ground with Rose and is proving so by reaching out to her. But Teddy's mother is the worldview, and for her, common ground is akin more to a fortified scale that is always tipped in her favour. This ensures she never has to kneel before a person, event or idea bigger than herself.
It's safe to assume and rightfully so—given Teddy's reaction to Rose's blunt comment—that neither has he (kneeled), he is after all, his mother's son. Or maybe kneeling is simply a habit for Teddy, down to the wrong idea, circumstance or person.
Being both humbled and humiliated, although not the same, both radically diminish the self. Either wonder, indescribable and absolute, will puncture the mind or sheer terror when it beholds—it, not the world is a tiny marble. The mind in reality isn't learning, it's simply being reminded, it's been here before, sanity momentarily unhinged. If wisdom is a prerequisite for sanity then one need not look further than Confucius's definition of wisdom to inure oneself from losing their marbles. "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name."
Let's take power. Identified directly by name—whether in nature or human nature—does not make one wise, identifying its correct use and to what end it's deployed is the way to call it by its proper name. Failure to do so corrupts and deteriorates the mind as does being on the receiving end of its abuse.
A practice in ancient China, however, known as a naming taboo did not observe Confucius's axiom. Eminent people's names were not uttered out loud, a custom reinforced by deliberately refraining from inking the last building block "stroke" of the honoured person's name. It seems an unpronounceable name, left out to dry, was a good thing.
Not so if all three—a person, event and idea—are not called by their proper name. Unrecognized, unacknowledged or left invalidated, reality becomes permissibly obscene. If a person is abandoned and forced to mind this distortion of reality alone, they themself can become irreparably distorted.
Rose's grandmother was on her knees when it happened. With a door slammed shut in her face she found herself unhinged from her parents' home and disowned—punishment for her story. She maintains it's true, but her parents choose not to be wise to their daughter's situation, taking instead a different read on it—she wasn't raped.
Ask a young boy what's required to become a Jedi and he'll readily answer—one has to confront Vader. Father, the celestial commander, is waiting in the cave. He does not give his position, capacity for mind tricks or his power to suspend the laws governing the universe to his younglings without a fight. Young boys seduced by father to the dark side have an altogether different battle to wage than those who were seduced by mother. Fighting gravity is a struggle so strenuous young boys are kept compliant to her force in their soles. Politely asking for autonomous power is like asking for her permission to grow up and only strengthens her resolve and purpose to pull.
Teddy can't do this alone. He needs Rose.
To pull a fast one, Teddy will have to engineer a "scene." Given the expression on his mother's face when she's introduced to Rose—a reaction to Rose not being Caucasian—Teddy succeeded with his provocation. Only Teddy must now catch his mother retaliating with her fast one.
No son is ignorant to his mother's bent on life no matter how straight and polished she presents herself to the world. Make no mistake, Teddy is wise to his mother's perception of Rose as a mere subject, and thus any chance to penetrate and indoctrinate her would inevitably be taken advantage of. Teddy's mother is doing what any imperialist Queen would do: she's safeguarding the family bloodline from any impurities.
Memories can be weapons, and The Queen, more pusher than arms dealer, peddles a political memory—just a taste—to hopefully get Rose hooked on a wound that does not belong to her. The Queen, wretchedly perceptive, knows Rose isn't Vietnamese, yet by referring to the War in Vietnam as unpopular, can surely get Rose to identify and take ownership of the embarrassment and shame the war brought upon the American people. Ergo Rose's mere presence at the party is a transgression of good manners. Rose, marginalized by having to defend her significance and pride by asserting, "I'm not Vietnamese I'm American," has unknowingly heeled to the Queen.
Teddy's mother, well aware that with no witnesses it's her word against Rose's. Blood is thicker than water and sons remain little boys forever.
The filmmakers block and frame the scene in a way that makes it impossible for Teddy to be within earshot of his mother's propaganda. Teddy, off camera, need only be on the other side of the courtyard watching punctiliously as the bait (Rose) gets swallowed by his mother's flapping lips. Teddy can now with total impunity drive a stake through his mother's heart.
"I always knew you were a jerk,' Teddy snips at his mother, "but sh-t, this is the first time in my life I am ashamed of you."
A dirty secret has just surfaced. The two lines conjoined—always knew and first time—hint at a family conspiracy. It had been permissible in the past for Teddy's mother to behave like a jerk as long as her shame wasn't hers to bear. A Teddy can be squeezed but not a Ted.
Rose can't see herself doing it but you can—at the beginning listening to Teddy eating the chocolate peanut butter pie while he regales about his Blue Blood—she's protectively rubbing her neck. Teddy's not a jiangshi but there's a visceral reaction to the situation that keeps Rose unconsciously guarded. Shen, the vitalizing agent in blood, animates humans and prevents their emotional and physical boundaries from deteriorating. Only excessive humiliation and disgrace can weaken shen. It's not necessary to be bitten to feel that life can suck.
When duty called, Rose's grandmother left a house occupied by jiangshis and returned to another house—the one she was barred from—and offered what little of her shen remained to her dying mother. On the surface she appears to be doing the right thing, the noble thing, a ritual offering of her blood but "the feeding" fails to quench the rest of her family who persist and insist on cursing her name.
Forced to live with the man who raped her, Rose's grandmother, for all intents and purposes is trapped inside a coffin. I should mention that jiangshis in the west are called vampires.
Rose, now married to Ted, presents herself as a countess at parties, beautiful and austere, unaware that she herself is "chasing the dragon." As she gazes into a mirror, smoke billowing off her cigarette: the metaphor screams to be recognized—smoke and mirrors—a trap of her own making, precisely why she can't escape let alone see it. Rose has bitten herself, and like a jiangshi in front of a mirror, she has no reflection.
The parochial interpretation of Rose's docility is she's lost her voice. She's lost herself in the marriage. She's forgotten who she is, so on and so forth. Unaware, as is Ted, of her grandmother's suicide—60 years ago—from opium, Rose is actually in detox. She has inherited a family "trip" that still needs to be kicked. It's humiliating when Ted is cornered in the den forced to watch his wife jones for a "fix." Ted cares but doesn't know what he's supposed to be carrying.
"We used to argue..." Ted reasons with Rose. Afforded all of life's creature comforts, a man like Ted, given his silver spoon upbringing, still needs a good snuggle, as does Rose. I am of course referring to the more spirited form of snuggling, done best in the living room amongst expensive furniture and fragile antiques, the ripping and menacing—wrestling match. Tickling, headlocks, pestering noises—the works—escalating and concluding with either wife or husband giving the other a right and proper spanking. But Rose has lost her tone leaving Ted with a voice that doesn't like to play on its own. It's a frightening time for Ted, that voice in his head would be softly whispering to him: I miss my mommy. Ted is in terrific danger of acting out.
When news of Ted's affair breaks, Rose is fixated on a round table and four chaotically displaced patio chairs in her backyard.
Order identified as heaven's first law is a misnomer. Change is heaven's first law. Understood this way one sees how change is heaven's way of moving towards progressively higher degrees of order, its pearl—harmony is not an automatic outcome. Heaven's law of and for change moves with or without the participation of the mind. It falls on Rose, not Ted, to get the family's affairs in order.
East may be "where things begin," as explained at the start of the film, but it's West that needs to be confronted and addressed as where things began. West Lake Temple is where Rose's grandmother was spotted by Wu Tsing—her rapist—triggering the events that ultimately terminated her shen.
East must completely and unconditionally surrender its directional power to the West. On this horizon, for the first time, the sun must rise to shed light on what happened. It's this kind of conundrum that arrests reason and lets the mind free fall into a trance.
Making four equidistant points—with the patio chairs—around the circular table, Rose in trance also removed the directions North and South "from the table." North and South, are now, up (Heaven) and down (Earth), consequently any chair Rose chooses to sit in she'll be facing only West. In addition, by setting four points around a circle Rose has squared the circle, a symbolic violation of mundane reality.
For Ted, when he arrives, this is equivalent to placing a "square peg in a round hole," something his intelligence, long ago "normalized," would keep him from even attempting. But his wife not only tried, she's succeeded in opening an arcane dimension of reality to summon her grandmother's shen—the dragon.
A dragon that can't be fooled, seduced or leveraged by glass pearls into relationships. A dragon that calls things by their correct name—Rose, not the flower, the most respected tone from a pearl.
Ted kneels with two words—I'm listening.
Two words Rose's grandmother couldn't summon from her parents after her assault. The breaker of spells those two words.
It Was Gossip
Gossip amongst teenage boys, sensationally graphic and acute, and rivalled only by the back-fence talk of teenage girls has a congenital censor that is aroused the instant co-ed gossip occurs. Most notably, if and when the subject of keys entering locks comes up, offside is dutifully observed and is not stretched, discarded or overruled in the name of describing entrances with grand exigent detail. Girls and boys, even the rascals, are sensible enough to recalibrate their speech—boys in particular—as the possibility of securing an invitation to an open house is on the line. This is, after all, an audition. Assumptions are being made, slight and small, recorded and judged—by girls in particular—on how, after the fact, the boy will recount to his friends the racy specifics of an RSVP. That's to say, a boy who is too casual when using remarkably explicit word-pictures in the presence of a girl can prematurely "out" himself as a pervert; a decency burglar; a mole who always breaks and registers his latest conquest story into the public domain without protecting his source. Creating headlines that in consummation blacklist his name and terminally list hers as a hot piece of property. Buyer beware, for both sexes, has its implications.
Another filament found in gossip, honey growled by the privileged teenage elite, places physical aberrations and deformities centre stage to obsesses over. Beauty is nature's way of keeping humans engaged with the world goes the proverb, and when she—mother nature—fails to keep her end of the bargain, by turning out unsightly critters for endowed teenagers to ostensibly mate with, a great murmur of protest begins to swell over her miscarriage of chemistry. Captivating teenagers forced to share a landscape with unmagnetic teenagers turns and churns the cream sour. Simply ignoring the genetic spoils is insufficient. The hard-featured must be punished by the centrefolds, on stage, with jeers and cabbage for what they really are: rotten eggs. But the gorgeous body politic can, however, still be, even the most sightly and shapely ones, afraid of one thing: an unexpected flip of a switch. Mother Nature seems to encode modesty into the DNA of even her most symmetrical and statuesque creations. A self-consciousness that can suddenly flower with awkward thorns when one is completely naked with the lights on. Co-ed gossiping—mentioned early—is also designed to test one's capacity for discretion if and when sober eyes behold what isn't readily visible when clothed; a patch of discoloured skin or perhaps "equipment" that may have a—let's say—blemish, bump, protrusion, strange angle, or quirky inoperable something or another that demands for vanity's sake to be kept on the hush-hush. Although, only twelve or thirteen years of age when I last read The Chrysalids, I can still recall the passage that scarred my mind with disfigured clarity: the moment the character David discovers Sophie has a sixth toe. Concurrent with my dis-ease for David's discovery was a longstanding twinge of disgust I felt towards cottage cheese that was cruelly amplified by the thought of Sophie's toes. This disgust eventually deepened to revulsion and I found myself consumed if not infatuated with wobbly, ailing incurable cows and how they were to blame for cottage cheese—the "sour lumps" in particular—whereas strident, virile and peppy cows were to be championed for breeding soft, undisturbed, hygienic-looking cream cheese. What I gleaned from the passage—my frivolous antipathy for cottage cheese aside—was the almost sacred task that fell upon David to keep Sophie's deformity a secret. I knew then, although I didn't articulate it as such—that uncovering what makes a person vulnerable can be used as leverage against them and creates quite the lump in their throat; doubly so if you withhold from them a certain muscle relaxant called trust.
One of Gossip's five children, Who, What, Where, When and Why, is averse to learning and accepting straight answers. Or perhaps I should say is forsaken from consensus reality and status quo thinking. This is not to romanticize the notion that children who don't synthesize information in a provincially linear and logical manner always spring into the inaccessible realm of genius only to say that they can endure solitude with greater ease, increasing the likelihood of perhaps being more socially awkward at times but much more relaxed when bartering with abstractions. But it's Why that gets hanged, drawn and quartered when its four friends—Who, What, Where and When—go out to royally yet carelessly prattle. Why contemplates far too seriously for gossip to weather, and let's face it, destroys the fun of its reign.
Did you hear? Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) stole the keys to Dorothy's (Isabella Rossellini's) apartment; while she was out performing at The Slow Club, entered her roost to sleuth around, and while micturating in her washroom groaned the name "Heineken" to himself. Was Jeffrey enthroning his favourite brand of beer out loud? Or is it a significant adumbration written by David Lynch that pays off the following night when Jeffrey's alone with Sandy? Detailing what happens next, I'm going to take the high road and simply say this: Young "Mr. Heineken" had to hide in Dorothy's closet after she unexpectedly returned home; Young "Mr. Heineken" watched how Dorothy, when distressed, chirps on the phone; Young "Mr. Heineken" observed a Buzzard crash into her nest; Young "Mr. Heineken" is well aware of the taxonomical differences between Bluebirds and Buzzards, Dorothy and Frank (Dennis Hooper), respectively, and Young "Mr. Heineken" marveled painfully over the Buzzard's insistence that birds of a feather flock together.
Primitive yet unquestionably sincere is gossip that the sleeping mind produces when it chases its own wagging tail. Rotating endlessly, not to mention glorifying Who, What, Where and When, is the histrionic art the dreamer mutes into existence upon awakening. And in the off chance the mind does recall the pantomime, Why again is excised from any field of inquiry. The dream was, after all, nothing but bombastic nonsense—precisely why (for your consideration) it stands as a legitimate candidate for discussion amongst bureaucratic power-hungry teenagers.
And, it's halfway through Blue Velvet when we catch Jeffrey and Sandy (Laura Dern) sitting inside a parked car, supposedly to gossip, that the film reveals its raison d'être. As a teenager, Jeffrey has a binding social contract with Sandy to transport with colossal, theatrical and compelling detail "the goods" (how Dorothy, in captivity, copulates with Frank). But he doesn't: instead, Jeffrey parcels the anecdote with cold and detached objectivity. Jeffrey most certainly feels the pressure to play up his masculine handle on things: it is, after all, a Saturday night and Sandy blew off Mike, her football player boyfriend, to be with Jeffrey, a situation that could conceivably cause a hand or two to fumble inside the car. But for Jeffrey recuperation is closer to the mark, not necking with Sandy and he cuts to the chase to curtain his otherwise tortured feelings of outrage when recounting what he surveyed from Dorothy's closet. Apparently his affection for Heineken, making him an automatic endorser of anything Dutch, including the red-light style district peep show he took in from the closet, is much too squiggly a line to draw. The beer's name is a nod to nineteenth-century German ornithologist Karl Heineken. A man that must have had, one can only assume, a tenacious sensitivity to his environment from studying strong boned, light-weighted aves. And when closing his summary of the scandal, Jeffrey's so-called male asset—stoic pragmatism—expires and a more artistic rather than scientific reproach to his audit looms. He tearfully turns to Sandy and goes on:
"Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?"
The clinging and insufferable pathos that accompanies a defeated boy is quite the treat for a teenage girl. But it's not in Sandy's constitution to take advantage of such a one-sided power imbalance. Could it be that Sandy's been here before? Perhaps she's forced to endure babble whenever Mike looses a game; a clockwork stammer that splits bananas over how his teammates always "cost" him the game whenever they drop the ball. But Sandy recognizes that Jeffrey's pule isn't snivelling nonsense, it's simply a boy's complexion that's gone—after seeing Frank—yellow. Yet she can't answer, nor can anyone for that matter, why some people observe and obey the golden rule while others like Frank don't. All Sandy can offer to Jeffrey in exchange for his vulnerable plea is encouragement. For a girlfriend of a football player, this would come naturally to Sandy, if not dutifully only she's in the mood for something more and she does something rather scandalous. Opening up and baring a dream is bonding of the highest order and an act of emotional promiscuity. Her dream in short—complete darkness, then robins and, at last, light. In its entirety, Sandy goes on:
"I had a dream. In fact it was the night I met you. In the dream, there was our world and the world was dark because there weren't any robins. And the robins represented love and for the longest time there was just this darkness and all of a sudden thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did!"
Dreams, like all dreams, are inseparable from their creator, making Sandy—an ornithologist in her dreams notwithstanding—full of childish drama. This hardly qualifies as an insight, most teenage girls are, but when it comes to Sandy this isn't a question of degree. It's a question of kind. Her strain is heroic; her homespun imagery of the ecumenical forces of good and evil is, with combustible flair, articulated like a football game. Complete with despair and sorrow, ecstasy and elation and finally concluded in the last few seconds with a cheer of inspired revelation on how to persevere forward—the next time the "game" appears hopelessly unwinnable.
Notice how, one, Sandy had her dream the night Jeffrey was naively questioning her father about "the severed ear case"; second, Sandy went ahead and sanctioned her dream before sharing it with Jeffrey by saying "In fact it was the night I met you." A towering charge; intimate, a slight come-on and a veiled confession that preciously asserts—you, not Mike, set something off in me. The mind engages the dreamer with gossip when one doesn't know what the mind already knows. What does Sandy not want to know that her mind already knows? Her bedroom, it must be remembered is above her father's home office; he discusses cases over the phone as she rather innocently "picks" up bits of information ad hoc. Nothing substantial to prompt a pointed finger-wagging in his face, but young Sandy would be diligently working away, quilting the threads together in the understructure of her dreams into a thought pattern regarding her father's condition. One that does not comfort; one that needles her into acknowledging that he's sick, or professionally speaking, he's a crooked cop. Indirectly involved with the abject mess of the "severed ear" Sandy's father is on a tortuously steep slope towards Frank's network. Although this connection is never made by Sandy, let alone brought to her immediate awareness, her father is destined, no matter how gradual, to fall mentally ill because of his corruption. Sandy can only in the meantime respond to her father's forgery of virtue unconsciously with a "fowl" dream. In fact, the dream serves as a prophylaxis in the interim for her amiable nature to ensure it doesn't perish and go sour, as is so often the case for a family member in the pink who voluntarily or involuntarily is bound to one perniciously aphotic member.
Jeffrey's father collapsed in the film's opening; although his fall was not one of character; it showed, with no dialogue, Jeffrey's pierced reaction to his father being weak; it showed, if you look closely, this isn't the first time Jeffrey's been pierced—he has a golden hoop pinching his left ear; it showed, the earring—a potential touch point for emasculation and ridicule—was never an issue for his father; and it showed that a genuinely pierced reaction of sadness can't be forged by a teenager visiting their father in the hospital. A palpable reaction of despair can be feigned to conceal joy when a teenager, girl or boy, is face to face with a defenseless and flimsy father who spent his capable years as a bully.
Back to the car, Sandy concludes her dream cautiously if not terminally cool, perhaps for no other reason than getting swept up with birds that fly down from the sky to deliver benediction has, even if it's just the rind, an effluvious aroma of cheese. She wraps up:
"So I guess it means. There is trouble until the robins come."
A restored Jeffrey beams, "You're a neat girl." Without blinking, Sandy counters with a smile, "So are you." How rare it is to find two "girls" like Jeffrey and Sandy, placed together in a car, falling for such a rare timbre of gossip. Lumberton does have a peculiar design detail at its entrance. A pair of megaphones perched on its welcome sign, seemingly there to brand via the local radio station the town's primary export. The dramatic sound effect—a chainsaw and falling tree—is audible, even if, let's say, Jeffrey, on his way to the hospital to see his father, took a shortcut through a field. To an unsevered ear and mind, take Jeffrey, for instance, he would no doubt have to wonder: when men cut down so many trees—where will the robins go to build their nest? You heard it from me, inside Sandy's head, where it's warm, neat and free of useless pulp.
It Was Heaven
Heaven in a wild flower—although never cited in Mississippi Burning—is a fragment from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence. The poem's body is shaped by observances of ensuing injustices and corruptions on Earth after what can only be described as a sanguinely pure opening. The stanza that collars the poem's hopeful "head" are four lines. They are: "To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in a hour." Trudging forward, eyes reach two piercing lines, slightly shy of the poem's halfway point, or as I like to call, its gut, where one is confronted with the arresting (if not chilling) lines 53 and 54:
"A truth that's told with bad intent/Beats all the lies you can invent"
The gut—the body's "second head"— is where all lawful decisions are truly made; or as I should correctly say, where the brain ("first head") goes to make laws true, that we discover this trenchantly symbolic knot left by the poet, much like a belly button, to push and remind us personally of what we take as our cause.
How one ties a lie or unties a fabrication largely depends on whether or not the judge—an undetectable companion residing in the flaps and folds of the gut's underworld—has retained its verdure. Of which, the retention in the affirmative, we call conscience. Yet, a tenaciously forceful conscience, can, and often does, still lose to "first head's" prowess for sophistry that can hatch invariably innocent self-righteous motives. Everyone has experienced the pain (I hope) of acting on a suspiciously cogent idea that later made them "sick". The gut's insularly narrow, childishly objective asexual notions—much like a flower—of right and wrong were no match for "first head's" soil, with its double-sided capacity to procreate any ethic, however wide and varied, for auction, which, once purchased, condoned any action. Only later, psychopathy notwithstanding, does one feel and hear the judge gurgling on stomach water gone turbid, that one is forced to reflect on how they have plowed.
Sleeping in the vast delta between subjectivity and objectivity, is misunderstanding, along with its most mellow companions: discomfort, hesitation, and fickleness, and its most excitable associates: chaos, unpredictability, and violence, which, if you look closely, are all potentially awakened in the poem's head: written in place of the world is a world; heaven is qualified as a heaven. Revelations, much like moonshine—its clear and potent proof mixed as man sees fit with lye, and bootlegged from his backyard—are highly susceptible to corruption. "Backyard" being the operative word as unregulated spirits that remain in vein invariably cause a racket for someone to distill, distribute and profit from. Watch how, when asked point blank by a reporter if he, Clayton Townley (Stephen Tobolowsky), is a spokesman for The White Knights of The Ku Klux Klan he rather shockingly responds in the affirmative:
"I told you. I'm a businessman. I'm also a Mississippian and an American, and I'm getting sick and tired of the way many of us Mississippians are having our views distorted by you newspaper people and on the TV. So let's get this straight ... we do not accept Jews because they reject Christ and their control of the International Banking Cartels are at the root of what we call Communism today. We do not accept Papists because they bow to a Roman Dictator. We do not accept Turks, Mongols, Tartars, Orientals, nor Negroes because we're here to protect Anglo-Saxon Democracy and the American Way."
I couldn't help but wince at what is clearly a boozy response from a "sober" man, only to snort a chuckle, after just recently revisiting the film, at a rather deftly placed line of dialogue—scribe, Chris Gerolmo—that immediately follows Clayton's response that I had previously missed some twenty years go. Although directed towards the dimwitted character Lester, the line does, in macro, suggest rather acutely that the often cited Genesis 9 verse 27 as the worn reason for the characters stunted judgment is caused less so by the bible's passage and more so by their bordered milieu. One that for generations has hemmed any gene that may fray, through hand-me-downs, the thread of their children's, children's, children's sturdy ivory denim. Line: "I swear to God Lester, you are living proof that cousins shouldn't f-ck."
As such, sown are the interests of these men, whose adoption of behaviour, when servicing what they believe to be the interest of "innocence", namely its preservation, are left to needle—along with the sheriff's department—unregulated with impunity. Clayton's aforementioned response also openly identifies his religious denomination: a condemnation of a Roman dictator marks him as Protestant, or, more vulgarly, a WASP.
Most adults, if pressed, can recall the sting evinced, however mild, by "the great teaching" they received as a child from an authority figure, in most cases a parent, grandparent or respected guardian, who, when saddled to a crisis, unfastened the stitch to their problem by uncovering a loop. Weaving such a shortcut, the poorly chosen "means" somehow never reached its "end" without the seamster's integrity coming into question. The embarrassed red-handed authority figure, unable to use "not knowing any better" as an alibi, excuses their fence jumping by neighing: that unlike a trapped horse cornered inside a barn, they did what they had to do to prevent their ass from being burned.
The event that "branded" Anderson (Gene Hackman) as a young boy—recounted as the story of Monroe—is recalled after his boss, Ward (Willem Dafoe), asked him, "Where does all this hate come from?" Money, although not instanced by Anderson, is the answer to the aforementioned question as the story incipiently suggests; one, "each according to his ability" is a system of compensation designed by those in positions of privilege who have never lived by "each according to his needs"; two, all healthy sentient beings desire the development of their "abilities" to actualize the innovational might of their free will; and three, the ruling class at the top become vertiginous when they recognize that the heights of their position can be lowered if they lose control over the speed and rate at which "evolution" inflates. Anderson's memory:
"You know, when I was a little boy there was an old Negro farmer that lived down the road from us, named Monroe and he was, uh... I guess he was just a little luckier than my daddy was. He bought himself a mule. That was a big deal around that town. My daddy hated that mule because his friends were always kidding him about seeing Monroe, out plowing with his mule, and Monroe was gonna rent another field now that he had a mule. One morning that mule just showed up dead. They poisoned the water. And after that, there was never any mention about that mule around my daddy. It just never came up."
Although it was cited as "luck", Monroe, without force or violence—or a "vote"—conspicuously emancipated himself from the white monopoly over means of production—Monroe himself being one of those means—by migrating the burden of labour onto another beast, one with an extra set of legs to spare. The mule as an income-generating security was ostensibly a "bull", a market maker for Monroe, that placed the control of capital, as far as Anderson's father was concerned, in the "wrong" farmer's hand; the quadruped precipitated Monroe's evolution, which gave him too much credit around town, placing him in the rare category of—if his expansion continued—lender, not borrower. This event would have also occurred roughly in tandem with another doomed, albeit, larger "bull" that chained, after its demise, not just Mississippi, but all of "Murica" to a decade-long bear. A grizzly crash that dyed the country to levels of poverty that enslaved, humiliated and dehumanized all classes and denominations irrespective of their pigment. A country and bottom line that was under the command of—for the first half of the depression—president Herbert Hoover, as such, when young Anderson is offered the supercilious excuse from his father for killing Monroe's mule: "If you ain't better than a n-gger son, than who are you better than? "The great teaching" would have seemed strangely irrelevant and never cuffed Anderson to racism. The filmmakers play with fate and irony as Anderson remains in adulthood—by working for the FBI—a "Hoover Boy."
Taking it exceedingly personally rather than just as an impartial and indiscriminate condition of nature, the wasp is unable, in an unwinnable position, to generate a buzz of protest other than the kind that sounds violently hateful. Caught by the carnivorous Sarracenia, renowned for its beauty and pungent smell, the wild flower has, without making a peep, placed the wasp in a sticky situation. Swallowing it whole before killing it, the Sarracenia begins to extract the decomposing wasp's hemolymph—its constituents: nitrogen and ammonia, to name a few—and deposits the organic essentials back into the prevailingly nutrient poor, black soil. The Sarracenia was not defending itself from attack, nor did it kill the wasp for energy. The yellow abiotic sunshine tends to that. The flower was merely recycling nutrients. Or, if you look at it more deeply, in embryo, an exchange between the flower and sun occurred; an exchange engineered by mother nature for man to study and correctly mirror; an exchange that when mirrored incorrectly often motivates one side to beg, borrow or steal; an exchange called: labour for capital. In most cases, the Sarracenia grows in an area of the soil that has a demand or need of some sort, usually carbon or nitrogen, and the flower labours to keep the biotic nutrient cycle of the ecosystem in equilibrium by digesting wasps and is compensated in return for services rendered by the sun's capital—energy.
Factors contributing to nutrient barren soil are various, none of which I will explore or mention except for the one resulting from punitive destruction or an ensuing attack strategy called scorched earth. Although in this film, "the enemy" hasn't withdrawn from town, they have left, via church burnings, the "coloureds" bereft of their most inestimable resource—a gathering area to ignite, consolidate and spread their moral energy. And it's here, after one such burning, where the filmmakers give the wild flower her introduction. (It must be noted, the mellifluous and pacifying Magnolia, Mississippi's state flower, is not visible once throughout the film) The Sarracenia is plucked from the ground, where just a few yards away, the ashed church has left Earth ligated and sterile; and where Anderson asks a spiritually immolated father and son standing amongst the parched ruins:
"I don't suppose you can tell me what kind of flowers these are, could you?"
Note how Anderson asks what kind of flower it is, not its name, a ridiculously foolish question for what is ostensibly a crime scene unless he already knew its name—which, being raised as a Mississippian, I suspect he did—but more importantly, knew that the flower was carnivorous; a peculiarity shared in its own way, by the largely discredited phenomenon scopaesthesia, that, excuse me, everyone has experienced and knows is quite real, except for Ward, who, when entering a diner in the beginning of the film doesn't take into consideration that the "coloureds" without the aid of eyes on the back of their head can feel when they're being eaten alive by other people's glares; constant surveillance which forces the coloureds into mute submission.
"They're called trumpet pitchers," the father instructs.
Attributed to the wild flower, as described by Anderson, are the lines "they're beautiful, they really are ... they don't smell so good" a bewitching virtue for a fleur and another way of saying—eerily analogous to Blake's line—"A truth that's told with bad intent." Later, when Anderson meets Mrs. Pell (Frances McDormand) we get a haunting insight into the judge residing in the flowers' solar plexus. She too, inquires about the flower by asking Anderson what kind it is. Clear as dishwater, the first time I saw this scene was its intent; second time around, the scene is decidedly filtered through one's prescience of a later scene where Anderson scolds Ward with the lines:
"You know what your problem is? You don't know when to speak and when to shut up and that makes you fool."
These lines reconsidered along with Pell's inquiry cascade a stunning insight. Operating in town are two incommensurable "codes", one written implicitly and one written explicitly for the "coloureds" to obey and follow; a salient reality for Anderson and Ward to take note of, even more so as they themselves by profession are paid to emblematize the supremacy clause and have just been told, in a previous scene, that they are not the law. Anderson keeps quiet after Pell tacitly acknowledges she already knew the flowers were called trumpet pitchers and goes on to say:
"My daddy used to call them Ladies from Hell because they're carnivorous ... you see the pretty colors, the bait, insects just home on in there and wham, they're dead even before they got their shoes off."
Pell's father—years prior—was left after a poker game bereft of the deed to his own home. Most certainly a proletariat, like Anderson's father, the loss would have been devastating for Pell's father to stomach; denied the pile of free capital on the table, his cracked palms spurned of economic moisturizer are left as relics to grievously remind him that arduous labour is required to earn one's bread. One can make the assumption it was here, at this fateful game, where Pell's father coined his anthropomorphic pet name for what causes sudden and dramatic turns of events—Ladies from Hell.
However, it's in Pell's hallway, when she's holding a trumpet pitcher clipped from the Earth and looking at Anderson, that one begins to wonder, if they, in secret, both knew from whom her father got the name from.
The Royal Regiment of Scotland—known also as the Ladies from Hell—marched, in both World Wars, to the slogan "nemo me impune lacessit" (no one attacks me with impunity).
Difficult to not take personally are fingernails left long and uncut, by those who scratch at progress, increase and general equality, and manage somehow to look clean. Insufferable even more so, however, are dirty nails that have been left unapologetically un-manicured by those who blatantly announce, that the bad luck that thwarts the flowering of life is being engineered by design. An innocent, visceral, and slightly foolish surge of vindictive adolescent passion can always be had by going to the movies to see these people get "clipped." Anderson had asked Ward in the film's opening "what's got four I's [eyes] and can't see?" An intended jab at the young, bespectacled Ward is really aimed at "Mississippi," the swapping of Mississippi for "virilities" is just as accurate a word to describe male blindness, perhaps more exactly, shortsightedness, when men go about "divinizing"—that other word that claims to have four eyes. All because Heaven knew, that there were no I's in Heaven when it created wild flowers on Earth.
It Was Mediums
Mediums tend to coarsen perceptions when transmitting news that originates, unverified, from the other side. To doubt both the medium and the message's veracity is only human. Of the uncounted mediums throughout US history, only one managed to remain so singularly legitimate in the court of public opinion. His name was Edgar Cayce. Born in 1877 in a bucolic Kentucky town of tobacco farmers, Cayce possessed, while in trance, one, an uncanny ability to report news before it happened and two, an undeniable and demonstrable talent for healing people. For a healer, his method was suspiciously ordinary—no farcical hand gestures; no creating holy ash out of thin air; no spasmodic convulsions; and no speaking in hysteric tongues—Cayce would simply lie down in a stupor, quietly identify a pathology, and prescribe an unconventional non-pharmacological remedy to a burdened patient. As you can imagine, this left Cayce vulnerable from time to time to furtive patients who could and did slip in a question when Cayce was in the midst of an altered state of consciousness, one that could ingress and access—you guessed it—how a racehorse at the track or a stock in the market was going to perform. Cayce would complain of headaches to his wife after such sessions; a signal he soon realized was his body's way of telling him that his prescience was being unscrupulously leveraged for profit. From then on, whenever Cayce went under, his wife would remain in the room by his side to monitor what was being asked of her husband.
Coincidentally, yet unrelated, is the period when Cayce's talent began to sprout; right after he was struck with laryngitis—mother nature's version of a gag order—which rendered him speechless for almost an entire year at the turn of the century; precisely when, on the other side of the Atlantic, a work of research was completed by an Austrian tobacco fiend called The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The author, a long-faced psychoanalyst, studied how the mind tends to smoke out that which has been forcefully repressed and called this inability to keep the forbidden private—parapraxis. Or, if you prefer: a Freudian slip.
The private sector's symbiotic reliance on the fourth estate can be traced back to the late 1700s when only one medium was available. A small circulated daily New York newspaper that Lorillard used to advertise its fragrant snuff. This was a few years prior to chemists isolating nicotine from the cured tobacco leaf, many years prior to the brand becoming one of the three "Big Tobacco" juggernauts, and almost two hundred years prior to A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers. Sponsored in the late fifties by Lorillard and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation (to name a few), the dubious ad ran in hundreds of circulated newspapers across the US. It went on to say:
"For more than 300 years tobacco has given solace, relaxation and enjoyment to mankind. At one time or another during those years critics have held it responsible for practically every disease of the human body. One by one these charges have been abandoned for lack of evidence."
Public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, the engineers of the ad, enforced the message's credibility by assuring the reader a Tobacco Industry Research Committee would be formed to continue research into the future. The statement concluded:
"In charge of the research activities of the Committee will be a scientist of unimpeachable integrity and national repute."
This Eisenhower-era "scientist," whoever he was, most certainly went to sleep every night counting plush sheep without compunction. Some forty years later, in Kentucky, another scientist, Jeffrey Wigand, hired by Brown & Williamson at $300,000 per annum (equivalent to half a million dollars today) didn't see the wool being draped over his eyes until it was too late. When interviewed (scene not in film) by Mike Wallace on February 4th, 1996 for 60 Minutes, Jeffrey had this to say:
"You know I was very inquisitive when I came on: "Have you ever done any nicotine studies, have you done any pharmacology studies, have you done any biological studies, have you looked at the effect of nicotine on the central nervous system,' and always general and categorically [the answer was]—no we don't do that kind of work."
Although absent from The Insider, anyone who has been in a similar situation would know the ensuing "scene." The boss would say—cryptically of course—to just "play along"; this usually arouses resentment in an employer, who believes it should be, above all else, common sense to an employee who suddenly notices what should have been apparent and obvious. One can't know for sure what contributed to Jeffrey and his wife Lucretia (her name changed to Liane for the film) to split and eventually divorce but one scene in the film exquisitely dramatizes how quickly guilt culminates when husband and wife's incommensurable ambitions have diverged. Jeffrey's profession was never a source of remorse for his wife; now watch the subtle bow to Lady Macbeth's "My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white"; when, a few scenes after Jeffrey (Russell Crowe) has taped the interview for 60 Minutes exposing B&W, which jeopardized the Wigand's financial security; Jeffrey is reprimanded for cleaning his hands in the kitchen:
Liane: "Please don't wash your hands in the sink."
Jeffrey: "Where should I wash them?"
Liane: "Use the bathroom."
Jeffrey: "What's the difference?"
Liane: "That's for food."
"Viral" showed up as a neologism in print media around the same time The Insider hit theatres in 1999. Whether or not Mike Wallace in reality—due to his fiduciary responsibility to the network—sided with CBS Corporate instead of Jeffrey after B&W threatened litigation, one thing can be said for certain since the film's release: information has evolved into a staggering "organism." Colonizing with unreasonable speed and inspired sophistication, it can now advance and spread without a host. Today, one face or one network, as sole arbiter of global connectivity is a gelastic and aggrandizing concept; sadly, if for no other reason than our accelerated agility in consuming information and likewise, our expedient habit of forgetfulness—so is Wallace's speech:
"I'm not talking celebrity, vanity, CBS. I'm talking about when you're nearer the end of your life than the beginning. What do you think you think about then? The future? "In the future I'm going to do this? Become that?" What future? No. What you think is: how will I be regarded in the end? After I'm gone. Oh along the way I suppose I made some minor impact. I did Iran-Gate and the Ayatollah, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Saddam, Sadat etcetera, etcetera. I showed them thieves in suits. I spent a lifetime building all that! But history remembers most what you did last. And should that be fronting a segment that allowed a tobacco giant to crash this [CBS] network? Does it give someone at my time of life pause? Yeah."
Scribed and performed by Eric Roth and Christopher Plummer respectively, the scene came shortly after Jeffrey, the mad scientist, stretched and adjudicated his own "pause"—through a mural in his room at the Seelbach Hotel—for a crucially symbolic, 60 seconds.
All mediums (print, radio, and TV) were available in the sixties for tobacco to advertise on, as seen in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Matthew Weiner's pilot episode for Mad Men. Fictional characters; Bertram Cooper, a Japanese architecture and art enthusiast, along with his partner Roger Sterling, is tasked with devising an ad campaign for Lee Garner Sr., owner of Lucky Strike cigarettes. In the boardroom, Lee Garner Sr. and Roger:
Mr. Garner: "You know this morning I got a call from our competitors at Brown & Williamson and they're getting sued by the federal government because of the health claims they made."
Roger: "Yeah, we're aware of that, Mr. Garner. But you have to realize that through the manipulation of mass media, the public is under the impression that your cigarettes are linked to ... certain fatal diseases."
Mr. Garner: "Manipulation of the media? Hell, that's what I pay you for."
Weiner, most assuredly aware of Lucky Strike's history when he wrote that last line, would be familiar with PR phenom, Edward Bernays (Freud's nephew), who was hired by Lucky Strike in the late twenties to do just that: manipulate the media. At the time, a cigarette in a woman's mouth was associated with sexual serfdom but Bernays knew, through his uncle's work, that critical thinking is greatly reduced when people are in groups and crowds; arrested even further if the products' message (any message for that matter) spoke directly to—as Freud put it—the masses: infantile, emotional, and most importantly, irrational perceptions and beliefs. If cigarettes could be perceived as a "movement" they could be given any name, "Torches of Freedom" for example, and identified as a phallic symbol indicative of a woman finally "possessing her own." In turn, elevating the opinion that women, through puffing, could possess the qualities of her masculine counterpart, namely: agency, reflexivity, and autonomy. Completely nonsensical and misogynistic, the PR campaign was tremendously effective in capturing an undermined market segment and swaying public opinion.
Big box corporations continued to enlist Bernays' expertise and he eventually went on to sculpt a permanent zeitgeist—the American, no longer as a citizen but a consumer. When consumers project their identity onto goods and services they shift from needing products to wanting them, even products that have little or no utility. This sounds counterintuitive, as life's necessities should outweigh life's desires (as Maslow, years later, would go on to theorize) yet Bernays distinguished a subtle difference between the two and knew that at the deepest levels of the psyche, humans are biased towards desires. Keeping up with the Joneses is not a social addiction rooted in the necessity to preserve one's survival. It is an addiction to enhance one's relevancy within the zoo.
Notice how tobacco, from both spheres, becomes a monkey. Classified as a fast moving consumer good (FMCG), although not highly perishable, it does have a short shelf life and high turnover rate owed to its link with social mobility (desire). Moreover, through the gravity of chemistry, it makes a person physically dependent (need). Immune to both planned and built-in obsolescence the cigarette is, for its purveyor, a perfect product. Not for Wigand. Cited in both the real 60 Minutes interview and its reenactment in The Insider; Wigand identified coumarin (not nicotine "boosting") as the deleterious compound in B&W's cigarettes that led, on grounds of conscience, to his departure from the company after an unsuccessful confrontation with his boss Thomas Sandefur.
A contrarian voice to Bernays' mechanistic view of man as mere consumer came years later from social critic Herbert Marcuse. In his 1955 book Eros & Civilization, an emphatic Marcuse swerved clear from Bernays' uncle. Whereas Freud believed man is capricious, irrational, and a menace if left to his own devices who can only achieve a life of order through suppression of his base impulses; Marcuse viewed man's primary libidinal impulses as productive and essential to his overall growth, well-being and sanity. Suppressing Eros, Marcuse argued, is what causes belligerence, mayhem, and destruction. Expanding his ideas even further, Marcuse synthesized their impact on government, economics, and even general human happiness in a sweeping book called One Dimensional Man.
Much fuss has been made over the supposedly untouchable greatness of the one scene in Heat that pits cop (Pacino) and criminal (De Niro) in an American diner to decode what their dreams mean. Nonsense. Not to mention irrational one-dimensional nonsense. It's Michael Mann and Dante Spinotti's choreography that pits journalist (Pacino) and whistleblower (Crowe), Lowell Bergan and Jeffrey Wigand respectively, across from each other inside a Japanese restaurant that deserves a high mantel. Jeffrey, who has never heard of Herbert Marcuse—indicated by the mispronunciation of his last name—is struggling with whether or not to tape the interview with Wallace:
Jeffrey: "The internet said you did graduate work at Wisconsin then went to UC La Jolla with Professor Herbert Marcus?"
Lowell: (corrects pronunciation) "Marcuse. Yeah. He was my mentor. He had a major influence on the new left in the late sixties and on me, personally."
Swiftly, the scene escalates:
Lowell: "You go public and thirty million people hear what you got to say, nothing, I mean nothing will ever be the same again. You believe that?"
Lowell: "You should. Because when you're done a judgment is gonna go down in the court of public opinion my friend and that's the power you have."
Jeffrey: "You believe that?"
Lowell: "I believe that. Yes, I believe that."
Consider how suspension of disbelief—the audience's consensual alacrity to hold true anything presented to them in the name of enjoyment—is shattered by a disruptive "cut" the precise moment Jeffrey is about to challenge Lowell:
Jeffrey: "You believe that because you get information out to people something happens?"
The filmmakers break the fourth wall by jumping the scene's directional axis with a cut that causes Jeffrey for three brief seconds to suddenly shift positions with Lowell. Aside from jarring the audience by calling their attention to both the scene's "message" and "medium," in this case 35mm; the move momentarily suspends Jeffrey and Lowell's position by "reversing" them; the two shoeless men, squatting at the table, ostensibly are two sumo wrestlers locked in a "Mushòbu"; a term for a non-outcome, a draw, a deadlock if you will. Merging both yes and no to produce a maybe; to the question "you believe that because you get information out to people something happens."
In his essay, Shock and Awe, The Manipulation of The Human Psyche, social and political commentator, Alan Watt (commonly cited incorrectly as Alan Watts, the highly regarded British philosopher) instanced why people use information the way they do. Note in this brief passage—if you agree with his premise—how easy it is for someone to become a consumer and how strenuously difficult it would be for that someone to become, one, their own person and two, capable of forging a legacy:
"Most people want to belong to their peer group, they want to be the same as everyone else when it comes to opinions. In fact, they judge their own personal sanity by bouncing ideas off their neighbors and friends, who will answer back and agree on these same topics in kind. It doesn't matter if the topics are facts or utter nonsense. As long as everyone agrees at the same time, you'll say: "I'm sane" and your friends will all agree because they've had the same information given to them."
One can't comment with certainty on the "real" Jeffrey or his inward journey other than the one presented in the film. But notice how the filmmakers, just seconds prior to Jeffrey's enervated hallucination in his hotel room, preface the scene with his daughter uttering, as if her father is trapped: "Mom, there's Dad, on TV." One cannot escape communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan's bracing kòan "the medium is the message" nor is it possible to believe the filmmakers were not deliberately running with this idea to heighten the film's drama; so often absent when filmmakers recreate a work of non-fiction. Dramatized is the PR slogan: "perception is reality" for the audience to denounce and revoke in favor of a more attenuated truth: perception is merely a notion of reality. For the beholder, this is a realization that can make one, contrary to the film's title, an outsider. As such, when Jeffrey's daughters "appear" as a mirage on the mural inside his room (without the aid of an industrial medium), it is immediately obvious by how quickly they turn their backs on him, what his posterity, by not allowing him to indulge in his stupor, gets across: the journey of discovering your message, however painful—do not permit unbalanced madness to invalidate your legacy.
It Was Breaking
Breaking character occurs when it is "better," if not wiser, to be sorry rather than safe. This happens off stage more often than on, evidenced in the summer of 1945, when a raving thunderhead of concentrated spotlight lavished New Mexico's Alamogordo skyline with nuclear bravura. One character so shaken by the herculean performance went "off book" and responded less like a scientist and more as a humanist when he ad-libbed lines from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Seen by some as a blunder, along with the grammar of the line ("I am become") Julius Robert Oppenheimer, witnessing the blast, did indeed—transitioning from Sanskrit to English—correctly deliver the line for "I have become Death." A breviloquent utterance for what America continues to take a recurrent curtain call for: detonating the world's first nuclear blast.
Character, as it were, in Revolutionary Road's opening (two years after little boy and fat man rewrote Hiroshima & Nagasaki), is first broached with stealth by April (Kate Winslet) when she calls out Frank (Leo DiCaprio), for his quotidian answer to what he does in the world: "I don't mean how you make money, what are you interested in?" April prods Frank after he dropped a dud. She is asking, and rightly so, is this man, fresh from the war, armed with the power of imagination? Possibly at the burgeoning Actors Studio, which did open its doors in 1947, or some other New York atelier to hone her craft; which would either be—if not directly—under the Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg's syllabus; April reveals her interests to Frank: acting.
Although never explored in the film, Adler and Strasberg, in spite of purportedly reaching the same destination, are two completely different "roads" for an acting student (April) to travel down. Adler's nuclear thesis for releasing untapped potential was imagination whereas Strasberg championed memory. Adler, at one point early in her career, was even under the tutelage of Strasberg. In the PBS documentary Awake and Dream, Adler echoes the quarrel she had with her teacher who was intransigent about Adler developing her roles through exploring memories from her intimate past. When she insisted that: "the theatre exists ninety-nine percent through the facility of the imagination" Strasberg would simply asseverate "imagination was auxiliary."
It wasn't until the mid 30's, when Adler went to Paris and crossed paths with Konstantin Stanislavski—from whom both Adler and Strasberg had architected their burgeoning theories—that she learned Stanislavski had long ago abandoned emotional memory from his model and concretized imagination's primacy for an actor's art and trade. Nonetheless, Strasberg pressed forward with his theories for "method acting," and when alumni are asked to distill what the method is, as Martin Landau did in the 1997 documentary The Method Man, he responds laconically:
"Find it, express it, suppress it. Find the emotion, and then find a way to allow it out, and then hold it back the way the character would and if stuff leaks out that's what's supposed to happen."
The film's inciting action regresses April, coming across an all too familiar photo of Frank as a GI stationed in Paris, to a memory of her seeing it for the first time:
April: (re: photo) Is this you?
Frank: Ya. You been to Paris?
April: I've never really been anywhere.
Frank: Well, maybe I'll take you with me then, huh? I'm going back the first chance I get. I tell ya. People are alive there. Not like here. All I know, April, is I want to feel things. Really feel them. You know? How's that for an ambition?
April: Frank Wheeler, I think you are the most interesting person I ever met.
A few scenes later, April, no longer operating from her memory, attempts, with her pullulating imagination, to ignite Frank:
April: You always said it was the only place you'd ever been that you wanted to go back to. The only place that was worth living. So why don't we go there?
Obviously, unaware of Hindu lore contained in the hymns of the Bhagavad Gita, both April and Frank have, with their commitment to travel to Paris, just conscripted a Karma Yoga. Inaccurately described as simply "going through the motions" it is one, the absence of fear or desire when initiating an action, and two, having no attachment to the outcome. Easier said than done, but this, in and of itself, leads to liberation. (The other two Karmas: Bhakti and Jnana, devotion and knowledge, respectively, are more mental and less action oriented.) But Karma Yoga must be correctly understood as antithetical to acting blindly on "mere impulse" or making "uniformed decisions." A call for April and Frank to go to Paris that, according to Lord Krishna's precepts, would have been their "duty." One that, indeed, perhaps to the "western mind," would appear selfish, self-serving and unrealistic but is nonetheless a necessary role for them to play if they aspire to keep their corner of the universe intact. Notice how Frank's "luck"—believing he's Paris bound—begins to change when he's offered a promotion at work. A consequence of an imperceptible shift in his actions, anteceded by a perceptible loosening of his psychology: one of self-concept. Frank never says this of course but his acting style has changed: "I am a Knox man" became "I work at Knox." Such a shift always seems to change the dimensions of one's stage.
The destructive and creative forces in nature, separated by a mere hair-line, analogous to April and Frank's moment in the kitchen, has a beautiful, and once again eerie evocation of the Gita's war torn battlefield when Frank regales his wife:
"You know what this is like, April? Honestly. Just talking like this? The whole idea of going off to Europe this way? This is the way I felt going up to the line the first time, in the war. I mean I was probably just as scared as everyone else, but inside I never felt better. I felt alive. I felt full of blood. I felt...everything just seemed more real. The guys in their uniforms. The snow on the fields, the trees. And all of us just...walking. I mean I was scared of course. But I kept thinking: this is it. You know? This is the truth."
April validates Frank's sentiment when she tells him she's felt it too: "The first time you made love to me." One sees from Frank's aforementioned monologue and April's response—scribe Justin Haythe—that life's destructive and creative forces can conjugate with one another. Take care, however, in noting culpability. Men and women both carry an interchangeable charge; masculine is not entirely destructive nor is feminine exclusively invigorating. Watch when April and Frank bind on the kitchen counter, April blenches for a fraction of a second, a wince of contrition. Naturally, she knows. They have just sown the seed of their own destruction. With April's pregnancy, their own personal version of Krishna has been created; who will, in nine months, bear forth to arrant, chapter 11 verse 32: "I have become Death. The destroyer of worlds." In various other translations of that verse, Death is a proxy for "time."
In your mind, wind back to the beginning when April questioned Frank: "I don't mean how you make money, what are you interested in? Frank answered: "Honey, if I had the answer to that one, I bet I'd bore us both to death in half an hour." One sees that disappointment and heartbreak was inevitable. Reserved not for the finale but rather halfway into the film when husband managed to ventriloquize his wife into aborting their plan to go to Paris. Prudently, so they may raise their expected third child with relative ease in America, given Frank's new salary.
Richard Yates's novel Revolutionary Road, while set in 1955 but released in 1961, was not the first to explore cognitive dissonance in Connecticut; novelist Sloan Wilson wrote of the Raths (Tom and Betsy) in his 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the couple's quiet struggle to find contentment in their well-to-do life in Westport Connecticut. Wilson writes:
"I don't know what's the matter with us," Betsy said one night. Your job is plenty good enough. We've got three nice kids, and lots of people would be glad to have a house like this. We shouldn't be so discontented all the time."
But April is more in water with Margaret Sanger than Betsy. Sanger, nurse and sex educator, whose mother had eighteen pregnancies—seven of which miscarried—attributed this over-taxation of the body as the cause of her mother's death (at the relatively young age of forty nine). She became a birth control activist and opened the first clinic in the US in 1916. Years later, when interviewed by—none other—Mike Wallace in 1957, Wallace got the interview going by citing the Catholics' view on contraception from one of the Church's publications, "The Question Box":
Wallace: It says the immediate purpose and primary end of marriage is the begetting of children, when the marital relation is so used as to render the fulfillment of its purposes impossible—that is by birth control—it is used unethically and unnaturally. Now what's wrong with that position?
Sanger: Well, it's very wrong; it's not normal it's—it has the wrong attitude towards marriage, toward love, toward the relationships between men and women.
Wallace: Well the natural law they say is that first of all the primary function of sex in marriage is to beget children. Do you disagree with that?
Sanger: I disagree with that a hundred percent.
Wallace: Your feeling is what then?
Sanger: My feeling is that love and attraction between men and women, in many cases the very finest relationship, has nothing to do with bearing a child. It's secondary.
Frank, forgoing Paris, must now also forgo his own interests (though he never had any to begin with), making him weak and susceptible to the interests and influence of others. That's right, his boss—Pollock. "One thing interests me Frank and one thing only. Selling the electronic computer to the American businessman," he tells Frank over lunch. But really, was disappointment and heartbreak foreseeable? John Givings (Michael Shannon), the unsound and shivery lunatic, does come off as a slight and obvious contrivance to give a cudgeled voice against Levittown style living. And assuming it is true that only those who are "crazy" have the nerve to recognize the perils of conformity, Givings is more valuable to the viewer when he's seen solely as an earnest mathematician. One capable of acknowledging the sheer audacity required to self-determine one's life, as moving towards destiny is absurd. Even she can't guarantee outcomes.
Prior to the war breaking out, computer pioneer and mathematician Alan Turing had grappled for years with his "Halting Problem"—what logicians and mathematicians lesson as the original (as far as computer science is concerned) decision problem. Given a set of inputs for a computer to run, is it possible to determine, in advance, whether the computer will or will not pattern the inputs indefinitely? Filmmaker David Malone, in his documentary Dangerous Knowledge, summarizes this particularly provocative dilemma:
"At least with [mathematician] Gödel there was a hope that you could distinguish between the provable and the unprovable and simply leave the unprovable to one side. What Turing does is prove that in fact there is no way of telling which will be the unprovable problems. So how do you know when to stop? You will never know whether the problem you are working on is simply extraordinarily difficult or if it is fundamentally unprovable."
I couldn't help but whistle with agreement when I heard that one. A resounding metaphor to the great mystery of why some relationships are instantly "solvable" and, without effort, go on to become terrifically successful; while others "crack" only after great effort, determination and commitment; while others still, in spite of crying effort remain totally insurmountable and "unsolvable."
Psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, recounts the day in 1949 when he decided he was not going to conform to the expectations of his parents. Phillips Exeter Academy was, and remains, one of America's most burnished boys' preparatory schools to which thirteen- year-old Peck was expected to rise and excel after enrolling. Along with transferring increased self-esteem to his family (his older brother has graduated from PEA) this was a school of culture, privilege, and license that would unquestionably secure Peck's place in one of America's eight Ivy Leagues, further immunizing him from a future of economic uncertainty. Stabbed with feelings of unhappiness that this was simply not the right "path" for him to take, he resisted his parents, who feeling they had no other alternative, paid to have their young son recline on a sofa. The psychiatrist advised that Peck be admitted to a mental hospital. On the night that Peck had to choose how the following day would unfold for him, entering a mental hospital or Exeter, he confides to the reader that he contemplated suicide. He writes:
"If I returned to Exeter I would be returning to all that was safe, secure, right, proper, constructive, proven and known. Yet it was not me. In the depths of my being I knew it was not my path. But what was my path? If I did not return [Exeter], all that lay ahead was unknown, undetermined, unsafe, insecure, unsanctified, unpredictable."
By all means, his decision comes as no surprise to the reader, considering the chapter's title, The Risk of Independence. Still, one can't help but snigger with relief (as I did) that he elected the mental hospital.
At the end of the book, Peck examines entropy (the arrow of time invariably moves in the direction of disorder), and shares his fascination with how the life force always moves in direct opposition to entropy's inclination for materializing confusion and disarray. Although entropy's victory—over the course of a lifetime—eventually wins (death), it is a victory that is hard won. At any given moment, the life force can overcome entropy, and confer what he calls grace. Its corollary, Peck notes, can be found in the peculiar condition called "accident-proneness." He goes on to explore the idea that humans are not "accident-prone," they are born with and have "accident-resistance." One who constantly and continually finds her- or himself "prone" is merely experiencing a lack of grace that normally would strengthen their "resistance" to accidents. Reading this chapter one automatically has their definition of accidents broadened. Spilling a can of paint or falling down a flight of stairs is equal with decision making, meeting people, and arriving at certain destinations as unalterable accidents. (This is not the same as a mistake, which can be learned from.) And although he doesn't explicitly make a connection between his Exeter story and his idea of accident-resistance, I'm going to go ahead and make it. It was Peck's so called accident-resistance that protected him from choosing Exeter. A resistance that was, for April and Frank, too weak and penurious to shield them from their accident. Suspending Paris.
What Revolutionary Road, similar to the film adaptation of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, surreptitiously warn us against are the ideas on TV we're conditioned to conform to. The conditioning process itself produces myopia. Dramatized in both (RR) and (TMITGFS) is a scene where a father is rendered a non-entity to his own children, who are too busy watching TV to greet his "hello" when he enters the room. But that's excusable. Because myopia is the secret to happiness. Remember Annie Hall? Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), traumatized in the seventies by the mere thought that love can fade, interrupts a couple joined at the hip (roughly in their mid to late twenties)—ripe from the baby boom of the fifties—stops and asks them:
Alvy: You look like a very happy couple. Are you?
Alvy: Ya? So how do you account for it?
Woman: Uhhh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
Man: And I'm exactly the same way.
It was no accident that Adler took the chiseled inscription at Delphi one-step further, when she taught the actionable insight: "Don't try to know who thou art. It is much better to know what you can do, and do it like Hercules."
It Was Absolute
Absolute certainty, for those extraordinary few who can, at length and regularity, recognize it merely as an idea that has just rather tediously held the mind hostage, will invariably have its demands met by the feeble person who finds the experience altogether exhilarating. When asking "How come I'm never wrong?" The extraordinary are disposed to dread while weaklings race for ecstasy when, right out of the gates, they feel: "I'm right again!" The clement and lenient, for whom fairness and honesty are second nature, will as a reflex be put off, and not invent a reason but instead endure the struggle of: "This can't be right." Those easily weakened by doubt, the so-called headstrong, will invent a question (that has no answer) with an expedient shrug: "Why fix what isn't broken?" Because the latter can't utter, let alone arrive at a second question that the former routinely can (and ask without pouting): "How come this keeps happening to me?" They never navigate the extraordinary. Which draws out from their liberated faculty the cultured answer. And here it is: it keeps happening to them because they continue to ignore the shameless—and somewhat ugly—addiction they have to being aroused, while being held captive, to the two-step. Sound familiar? Grandeur leads, conviction follows, and one stomps to the dizzying progression of timing and clapping that, when broken down, despite being country, presents itself as the only move in town.
America's negotiated two-step in the eighties was the exchange of "high-concept" ideas for cash. When reduced to a phrase, or, preferably a few punchy words, a not-so-straightforward premise could become—despite the rather large probability of poor execution—a sure thing in the minds of those fronting the cash. Take a big complex idea, now, relatively simple, called Star Wars. A Soviet attack on America could be deterred if orbiting U.S. satellites could shoot laser beams from space. A defense strategy, on the near side of ridiculous, that could purchase, with its fatuous one-trillion-dollar price tag, credulity and support. But not all negotiations involve money. Those who, in 1985, watched Commando may have found themselves asking "Where's that?" when ransom for Schwarzenegger's kidnapped daughter in lieu of cash was the political assassination of a dictator in Val Verde. A dummy country created by 20th Century Fox to infer the current hot spots in South America. Used again, to avoid PR backlash when Schwarzenegger's character was set to have, two years later in Predator, another violent hissy fit, the studio soon realized he couldn't very well have it in Nicaragua so they enlarged the borders of the aforesaid colloquialism to include Central America.
Uprooting his family from Massachusetts, so he could, off the bordering Honduran and Nicaraguan coastline, execute his conviction that "ice is civilization," you'll see a similar wringing of the mind (of what variety, I won't spoil, for those who haven't yet seen the film) when fictitious inventor Allie Fox (Harrison Ford) gets credulity and support from his wife (Helen Mirren) and children in The Mosquito Coast. (An idea somewhat similar to the one shared—and successfully executed—by the 19th century Massachusetts' visionary Frederic Tudor. In Nova's documentary The Conquest of Cold, the "Ice King" as he was called, harvested ice from a frozen New England pond and introduced it as a commodity in the tropics, the narrator elaborates:
"Tudor's dream to make ice available to all was not confined to New England. He wanted to ship ice to hot parts of the world. New England became the refrigerator for the world, with ice shipments to the Caribbean and the coast of South America.")
"He [my father] dropped out of Harvard to get an education ..." I'm quoting Charlie now, (River Phoenix), who continues to set up TMC in voice over: "All winter father had been saying there is going to be a war in America ... the signs were everywhere, in the high prices, the bad tempers, the gut worry, and the stupidity and greed of people." A line that punctuates Allie's visit to a junkyard as he salvages the necessary parts to complete his invention; parts Allie refused to purchase from a hardware store that sells inventory made in Japan. Indeed they were everywhere. The "signs." And they found, in 1986, their way into our homes. Debuting on television, viewers favoured the unreal affairs of Alf, (a bipedal Alien that resembles an ant eater, who, after crash landing on Californian soil, bunks with a suburban family) over the current reality of Gung Ho. (A lax American working for a thriving Japanese auto manufacturing company.) And then there was the "educated" advice that, while some welcomed, others were left scratching their head asking "Who let this guy in?" A creamy TV promo that ran like this:
"There is a plague in the land and it's called abortion. There is a plague in the land and it's called pornography. There is a plague in the land and it's called homosexuality. The plague in the land is threatening us all. "If the Christian does not redeem the culture, this nation is in trouble.'"
Unmistakable is it not—the rash, I mean, not just the message, that prompts a man to sojourn with a prostitute—when two years later, impresario Jimmy Swaggart was unable to execute the solution to the plague he spoke of. Though, Swaggart wasn't alone. That is, his reputation fell into likeminded company, another prosperity theologian enmeshed in a sex scandal: Jim Baker.
Or how about this for educated advice? Allie, stirred by his idea to make ice in the undergrowth of Central America, enters uninvited into a migrants group home, to show his two sons how foreign labourers in the U.S. still live in squalor. Jerry, Allie's youngest, doesn't feel so entitled, "I don't think we should be here," he says. Allie nurtures his simple-natured son with the poetically laudable: "They welcome visitors son. Be kind to strangers they say, you never know when you might be one yourself." His teaching trips (at least for critical thinkers) when Allie oversteps himself with his fustian conclusion: "That's the law of the jungle." Knowing full well that that law had been inscribed quite differently in seven stanzas by the "court" transcriptionist of The White Man's Burden. You'll see that the two men, Allie and Reverend Spell good (the Christian minister) Allie meets on the boat voyaging to "La Mosquitia" are both erring, in their own determinate way, on Eurocentric racism with their mission to uplift the indigenous people of their destination.
Meanwhile, outside of cinemas, an unlikely answer for those who were undecided on the Nature vs. Nurture debate could be found on the far side of ridiculous. One that continued to gain support, when prolific Gary Larson had his second comic compendium The Far Side Gallery 2 published in 1986. The brilliantly imbecilic sketches often granted enterprising animals dominion over all things on Earth, including, let us not forget, humans—mostly society's intelligentsia: scientists, mathematicians and inventors, at the height of thick. (Perhaps a reason to believe why Larson's first pitch for the comic strip was called Nature's Way). From the series of sketches, three remain peerless. First, a scientist cautiously constructs a missile warhead while an ill-timed prank, set by a careless colleague, is about go off. Second, a prodigy struggles to push open the front door to "Midvale School for the Gifted" that is clearly marked pull. And, third, with the caption: Childhood Innocence, an inculpable baby ant, shouts from the bottom of an anthill: "Mom! Dad! He followed me home! Can we keep him?" He, being a lurching anteater. A world view of "irreverence and cynicism" Larson jokingly said, in an interview on 20/20, he developed as a kid in response to growing up during the cold war.
And so, the "Harvard drop-out" is decidedly on point with his children about the real law of the jungle when they arrive. One year prior to the film's release, Peter W. Cookson, Jr. and Caroline Persell's book: Preparing For Power had been published. In it, the curriculums of America's top elite boarding schools: Putney, Exeter and Grotto, to name a few, were examined with a rather counter intuitive finding about giving "entitlements" to students. From the chapter Cultural Capital: Curricula and Teachers:
"Generally speaking, the schools that take the position that manual labor and firsthand experience are good for the soul as well as the mind and body, are more progressive in orientation than other schools. At the Putney School every student has to take a tour of duty at the cow barn, starting at 5:30am. In their own words, "Putney's work program is ambitious. We grow much of our own food, mill our own lumber, pick up our own trash, and have a large part in building our buildings. Stoves won't heat until wood is cut and split.'"
"No need to worry about these kids' education Mother," Allie yells, in his novel unstudied way, after waking his younglings at the crack of dawn to toil on his jungle construction site. He continues with Paul Schrader's words:
"This is the education they need. This is the kind of education every American should have gotten. When America is devastated and laid to waste by nuclear holocaust these are the skills that will save them. Not finger painting or home economics or what is the capital of Texas. But survival. Rebuilding a civilization from a smoking ruin."
Yet, it's Mother's one seemingly trivial shot at edifying her children in the ways of entomology that, while slightly inconclusive, remains most redolent. When a trio of bandits (political fighters gone rogue? Remember we're in Central America in 1986, and, curiously, for which side?) show up, evidently holding Allie hostage by demanding permanent lodging, he stymies their interest by tearing down his home on the false pretense he has waged "War on the ants! Total war." Mother can be heard off in the background correcting her children "Termites, darling, termites" (As an enemy, the former are a mere nuisance; the latter, capable of legitimate damage.) Whether the bandits symbolize the Sandinista's position or the Contras remains a mystery, as does to whom Mother correlates the termites.
Let us also remember that 2016 is the thirtieth anniversary of the Reykjavík Summit. (Back when the "great communicator" was in the thick of—although it wouldn't break publicly for another month—Iran-Contra. Reagan, well acquainted, due to his Hollywood grooming, with the "high-concept" premise, was distancing himself from the one he may, or may not, have heard. As the premise went: Iran had American hostages, America would trade arms for hostages, and the profits from the sale would go—oops—to the Contras in Nicaragua. Oliver North did hear the premise, he was involved in the premise, and thus, was given another premise, a more character driven "low-concept" one: success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.) Reagan and Gorbachev played it cool in Iceland, scratching each other's back for both U.S. and Soviet ballistic missile disarmament. And it worked. A done deal. That is, until Reagan suddenly became frigid when Gorbachev wanted a bit more neck with the deal. Reagan, however, was unwilling to give it up: Star Wars. I know the feeling, and I believe others my age do as well. So it was that SDI, Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars' other name), caused Reagan and Gorbachev's deal to go into "turn around." A term in the movie business for a green-lit film that has just unexpectedly had its plug pulled. What rips the cord from the socket, if not lack of funds? You said it: the exchange of too many, direct and indirect, current and uncurrent, grounded and ungrounded, visions and revisions, between executives and artists, on how the material should be conducted to generate a dynamo. (In the early eighties Director Peter Weir had to take on another project when lack of funds for The Mosquito Coast put the picture in turnaround—a project starring Harrison Ford called Witness.) It generated so much heat in 1985, that there was money to burn for TMC.
Of the hundreds of curated talks given over the course of his career, I'll cite a few lines from my favorite: Stop Competing With Yourself. Although the talk itself dealt primarily with LSD, philosopher, gifted writer and orator Alan Watts always made his mordant points generously broad as to leave ample room so they may be disciplined in other areas of one's life. The following insight is relevant to Allie's obdurate preference for the jungle over America:
"Anybody can have ecstasy. Anybody, as a matter of fact, can become aware that he is one with the eternal grounds of the universe. But, since that's what you are anyway, I'm going to ask: so what? When a hero goes on an adventure and he leaves his people and is going to a strange land he can go away and just hide himself around a corner in an obscure house and then appear a year later and say "I've been on a heroic journey' and tell all sorts of tales, but they'll say "prove it.' Because they expect him to bring back something, something nobody has seen before. So in the same way exactly anybody who goes on a spiritual journey must bring something back. Because if you just say "Oh wow it was a gas' anybody can say that."
If one cares to take a closer look at 1986's top earners: Aliens, Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, Stand By Me, Labyrinth and Platoon, one will see they are all predicated, to some degree or other, on the idea of a hero desiring "a return." Except for Allie. Even Blue Velvet and Howard the Duck's narrative prompts the "I" to its proper home as to avert eternal isolation. (The puff from the latter was so epic and protracted that it coated an equally disastrous movie the following year with its demolished reputation, when for Hollywood insiders it was common knowledge that, indeed, Ishtar was Arabic for Howard the Duck.) Allie's so-called ecstasy, the one scene most everyone remembers and the manner in which he ecstatically squeals: "That's why I'm here. That's why I came!" to the indigenous people when his invention makes ice, without electricity, in the heart of the tropics, is foolishly absolute. Even writing, with its "rules," has its exceptions. The use of the personal pronoun, normally deemed as an indulgence, can, when used judiciously, provide good company to the reader. When not used judiciously; I refer to the weighty words of Oscar Wilde: "a bore is someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company." Like space, where no one can hear you scream, the jungle is no place to be trapped with a bore. Far worse is to be the very bore in question. Still, it is a film that itself is not a bore for no other reason than, as a single installment, it managed to kill off hope for that other perennial eighties patrimony: the franchise.
It Was World
World Teachers' Day, sentenced on the 5th twelve years ago this October, paroles our gratitude for those teachers who continue to school juveniles on the art of prison breaks. Molding good behaviour, as it were, with critical thinking skills that legitimatize, above all else, their escape. Slightly dirty myself, after digging a tunnel to reduce my own long sentence, I'm inclined (however reluctantly) to overlook that greatly admired "teacher," Atticus Finch, and center my tunnel vision on that arguably brighter star from 1963—the one who demanded justice on the silver screen by first disciplining the Keller's pity and sorrow for their near terminally imprisoned feral child, and second, regulating their daughter's indulgent reliance on a world that obeys a self-centred order. Teaching Helen, one finger gesture at a time, that the spirit of the law itself is not order unless it is subordinated to the letter. Praxis, however, as any respectable teacher would agree, requires the merging of both theory and practice to spark insight. "I wanted to teach her what language is...I know without it to do nothing but obey is—no gift, obedience without understanding is a blindness—too," Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) laments to Mr. Keller prior to the great water displacement scene that rises Anne herself to authenticate eureka by shrieking "She [Helen] knows!"
One must concede that prison visitors (much like teachers) have the freedom to be two-faced. To wear, if they so choose, a face they know a prisoner does not deserve to be greeted with, or the one they do. Sentenced to death without trial on charges of seditious intent to dethrone Theoderic the Great, Roman consul Boethius, for those who may recall, received a visitor "who knew." For those who may not recall, will most likely assume is nothing more than a head trip, when Boethius recounts to the reader the visitor who inexplicably paid him a visit in the final year of his life. One reads with great suspicion when this sweet, rational man describes in vivid detail the vision that hovered over him which, let's face it, could only be one thing—a head trip. Or for those Jungians out there, a projection of his animus: the mouthpiece to a man's psyche that minutes to him in soft whispers the unexcavated contents slumbering in his soul, that managed as a mere audible pattern of feminine intelligence to somehow exteriorize itself into a three-dimensional vitality. Awakened, and in a position to write down presumably what no one other than himself could hear or see, Boethius went on to describe the anodyne lady. And, for those who haven't by now guessed, or can't recall the name of Boethius's teacher, look no further than the title of his posthumously published manuscript: The Consolation of Philosophy:
"Her dress was a miracle of fine cloth and meticulous workmanship, and, as I later learned, she had woven it herself. But it had darkened like a smoke-blackened family statue in the atrium as if through neglect and was dingy and worn. I could see worked into the bottom border the Greek letters π (pi—for practice) and slightly higher Θ(theta—for theory) with steps that were marked between them to form a ladder by which one might climb from the lower to the upper. Some ruffians had done violence to her elegant dress, and clearly bits of the fabric had been torn away."
A hissing wind or a tongue-tied breeze, that is, was it free or earned knowledge, that shakes and leaves Boethius, under house arrest in Pavia Italy in 523 A.D., to branch out of himself? For your consideration, just one of the many extravagant claims his "teacher" makes: "I am accustomed to being attacked and was a veteran of such battles even before the time of my servant Plato. I have been doing battle forever against proud stupidity." (Aforesaid by Boethius's description: "Some ruffians had done violence to her elegant dress.") I invite you to recall the past and present vicissitudes of your own fortunes when navigating this one:
"When nature brought you out of your mother's womb, you were naked and poor, and helpless. And I accepted you and was kind to you. I pampered you and gave you more than you needed. Indeed one could say that I spoiled you and that is why you are so angry with me. I gave you all kinds of affluence and luxury, whatever was in my power, and you took it as if it were your right. Now that I have taken back, you ought to thank me for the use of what was mine anyway rather than complain of the loss of what was never yours."
If it is to be believed, seriously, that this woman is more than just a formidable process of introspection, then there is no miracle. What is more likely? A lettered specter that renders superfluous the human being's most precious endowment: contemplation. Or, that a lettered man aided by his innate feminine capacity for erudition worked out the mechanics of justice. (This was, a thousand plus years before Thèodicèe, where Leibniz tackled why evil exists in a good world, or its more pedestrian declaration, how come bad things happen to good people.) Read how, with her diction, she furnishes Boethius with the correct words for him to make useful sense of his darkness, like lines of latitude creating right and proper space in his head for true sight and sound to emerge. And notice the power that decorous language has to unflatten even the most abject conditions with an added degree or two of height. And for the reader, one is simply forced to forgo the trite takeaway "when the student is ready the teacher appears" as is, in reality, never really the case, but rather when the student is not ready, good fortune seems to sometimes merit a teacher to emerge.
"My disappointment was bitter at the time; but little by little I came to realize that it was not kind or wise to force this poor dumb creature out of his element, and after a while I felt happy in the thought that perhaps he had returned to the sea." That was Helen Keller remembering, in passing, the horseshoe crab she took for a prisoner that left her embittered when it managed to escape. In fact, her book, The Story of My Life, more or less begins where The Miracle Worker ends. The moment when the "poor dumb creature," (who at 19 months young, lost her sight and hearing and was indeed forced out of her element at the age of six by her implacable visitor Anne Sullivan), spontaneously makes the almost quixotic connection that her teacher's hand gestures are more than a mere "finger game." Surely by now it is well understood that information and light never vanish permanently after crossing an event horizon—a black hole's lip—if one also acknowledges that the space in our mind is expansive enough for black holes. Light can, with uncompromising assiduity and patience, be emancipated from the enclaves of our cortical horizon, as Helen strenuously demands from herself the strength to will across her lips the irrecoverable memory necessary to recreate the sound "wawa" at the water pump. Sullivan merely makes the event "relative." Snapping her claws with Helen's, giving mass to the word "water' as the genesis of that which both creates and describes the experiences, in this case wet and slippery, inside Helen's interior. Stunning, is it not? For no other reason than Helen's awakening required no religious intervention. Films and books, you'll notice, rarely share the same depths. My favorite passage, which takes place long after the climax of the film, is when Helen is introduced to the deep end:
"A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, "Think.'
In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea."
Yet this passage sinks strangely to the shallow end, summarizing love as an abstraction akin to fleeting clouds that can't be touched, and flowers yearning for rain water, with Sullivan concluding: "Without love you would not be happy or want to play." Just a few pages prior, she had the good sense to instruct Helen that love is not like the warm sensation of the sun: "But Miss Sullivan shook her head," a confused Helen recounts in the passage, "and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love." But she already had. With good sense, too (in the film) that excuses such a shallow verse. You remember it right? That remarkable scene (left out of the book) when Sullivan, with her protracted Saturnian glare, observes Helen orbiting the dining room table like an entitled star, shovelling with her bare hands globules of convertible energy into her trap, demands that Helen use a spoon. The scene is long. Relentless. And draining, even for the viewer, when the spiraling demand is met with stellar resistance. Now that's a classroom.
It takes inspiration and pressure, we're reminded, to draw out potential, and oh how we whine about the latter, yet it's this very reminding that on grounds of conscience motions us, as a species, to prop up Helen's story so it may be heard and seen as a work of art. Or restored, like Boethius. The teacher as artist ensures that a grooved depression furrowed in one's heart need not remain a contemptible rut that damns us. For they seem to always find a way to make a narrow channel dilate into a strait releasing us into a far superior body of water that desires nothing but flow. With a sailing philosophy that descends not as a conspicuous and warm sensation like the sun, but a barely visible yet attainable wonder like Saturn, that from her long enduring orbit one can recover with wringing gratitude, the theory from her inflexible ellipse that is one's great fortune to practice.
It Was Real
Real life always seems to bend and spread when it can no longer resist the advances made by those who believe in sure things. Only when one is left alone to obsess over the shaky details of an affair (When did protection fail? In what position did entry occur? How many rounds went off?) can one ably conclude that people, not life, get off when turning tricks. As one can certainly see, this is a November issue. A presidential one that precedes, if not trumps, anything Clinton's husband did in the oval office. Few ever ask the question why it happened. It's been tuned out. It's this tuning out then, (either manually or automatically), of November 22nd 1963, that qualifies as the real "conspiracy.' A bandwidth of information was indeed corrected to sound polished, less offensive and simple, by a cabal of engineers who didn't want the reasons behind "white noise" to alarm you. High fidelity is a public guarantee, evidently, (for those who didn't touch the knob) that when a swan song reaches ones eardrum—zero distortion, suppression, alteration, or loss of source material occurred when the tracks were, in private, laid down.
Engineers do not conspire, so to speak, to compromise on this guarantee even when they record and deliver a cover. Yet they manage, somehow, to go unrecognized as the intelligence that balances the notes that spin history. Keep others entranced, they may think, in the mystery of how a one-hit wonder is made, and they will never ask why it is made. So, since we're on the subject, how about all those records scheduled for release next year? One must still face the challenging scope of how to—assuming there will be more than just bullet points—handle and riffle through them with care. That is:
- 5 million pages of records in the JFK Act collection
- 300,000+ documents in the JFK Act database
when they are declassified in their entirety on October 26th, 2017. From the above figures, according to Martha Murphy, Chief of Special Access and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 1.1% continue to have partial redactions, and 3,000+ are currently unattainable. Does one care? Let's say, just for a moment, one does. Now consider reading all the above documents and then referencing them against the 888 page prosecutorial document, The Warren Commission, in its entirety. All 10 volumes of "evidence" that, by design, would purportedly align with the 15 volumes of testimony from 552 witnesses, which you would then have to tabulate to see if and how a magic wand was used. Not to mention a quick browse through a few books from both camps:
|Lone Gunman Theory Disputed||Lone Gunman Theory|
|Deep Politics||Reclaiming History|
|By Peter Dale Scott||By Vincent Bugliosi|
|JFK and the Unspeakable||Case Closed|
|By James W. Douglass||By Gerald Posner|
|The Devil's Chessboard|
|By David Talbot|
And then in the interim, reconstruct fragments of forgotten conversations one may have overheard, at one time or another about some guy: Anthony Larry Paul, a ballistics expert, and that laughable laser bullet trajectory analysis he did that "proved" (because lasers were used) that the magic bullet came from the 6th floor. Or Dr. Vincent Guinn's neutron activation analysis, that besieged "the bullet" with neutrons that made something or another radioactive which then made it possible for him to uh, isolate them on uh, I think it was called uh, a gamma ray spectrometer, which then...listen, it wasn't magic; it was science. Conclusive proof for those on the right side. On the above reading list, that is.
And why is this "evidence," in its entirety, important to consider? It's important to consider because one can be seduced into taking shortcuts to prevent being Snowden' by an avalanche of facts n' figures. You know, to the point where, like black ice, it's everywhere and nowhere, the unseen obstacle to traction. It's enough to make one melt. Down where most people live, on the outside looking in—the best position to remain objective—is, as it were, the least suitable position if one's objective is to be objective about information released from the inside. One is certainly grabbing at salt, not straws, when they (whoever that may be) lead you to believe something is not happening on the inside. That's the thing about higher intelligence, if you're not careful it can MOLD—Misrepresent, Omit, Lie and Distort—one's conclusions through positivist thinking, (you thought I said positive, didn't you?) leaving one with nothing to examine and assess other than information that is directly front and center. Look outside the box and you make other people right when they nod cynically and say "you need help."
"You had a correspondence and working relationship with Mr. Garrison, could you tell us a little about that?" asked Jeff Steinberg of the man he was interviewing on The LaRouche Connection in November 1992, a year after JFK was released. The man jumped right in:
"Well, I know you know that Garrison wrote a book On the Trail of the Assassins and because we had corresponded for years he sent me a manuscript of his book and I thought the book was wonderful but it was the story of Miami, New Orleans, Dallas and it didn't think about Washington, New York, Frankfurt Germany—the money centers. To me you got to follow the money line. So I would write to Jim and I'd say look the book is good but you got to put this in, or this, and he respected that."
The man was Leroy Fletcher Prouty. And you begin thinking to yourself, having missed the opening of the interview when introductions were made, this is the guy—the help—who in JFK went by the name Mr. X. The man Donald Sutherland played who knew about National Security Action Memorandum NO.55, a document Kennedy published in the summer of 1961, after the Bay of Pigs blunder, that, depending on who was reading it, had several fatal bullet points. Chief among them was the one that declared that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) would be culpable for all hostility protocols (extreme and conventional) he advised Kennedy on; protocols that would then go on under the purview of the National Security Council—not the CIA. This would make it decidedly difficult for certain operations to remain unscrutinized, one in particular that paired the CIA and the FBI with the Mafia and the S-Force (Anti-Castro Cubans in Florida) to a single nexus called Operation Mongoose, a clandestine operation that was trying desperately to book an appointment with the Beard in Cuba to give him a good clipping. The head barber was a general, who in the film has his desk plaque obscured by a paperweight so the audience can only see M/GEN. E.G. followed by a barely visible NS and the last letter of his last name E. He is referred to as General "Y" in the film, and the blanks of his name, should you care to check, can be filled in to make: Edward Geary Lansdale, who at the time was a real United States Air Force General working for the CIA. The one who, at least in the film, gets the phone call that informs him it's a go [to murder Jack], and that they need him: "to come up with a plan."
Does it make a difference where one chooses to separate X and Y? Of course it does. For the same reason that if one can no longer fit into their jeans, it's because one is pretending to be someone they're not. So how about this? Born after 1963 one is Generation X; born after 1977 one is Generation Y. Here's how it lays out if you were a Y, barely starting high school when JFK was released in 1991; the ethical implications of eugenics, that history is written by the victors, and in turn can be subject to historical revisionism, were all proteins that teachers did not want to shake for consumption. (Christopher Columbo, he was the black pimp in Vacation who refused to give Chevy Chase directions to the freeway, right? I thought so.) On the other hand, if one were an X, routinely high as a bird or wormed into books, making it relatively easier to see subjects (perhaps not with clarity) but at least at a greater distance, Mr. X (who incidentally is from the G.I. Generation) wouldn't have come off as such a trip. But I can't speak for all X's. Many conservative ones out there would have taken Mr. X's food for thought as an insult to swallow; junk that would have made it hard for them to zip up if they took on any extra weight.
So how then did the film tip the scales? It's rather simple. Keeping in line with the Kennedy Administration, Mr. X is really just Merlin birthing another Arthur inside our—and Garrison's (Kevin Costner's)—imagination so that the Camelot mythos survives. A narrative that blurs the line between verifiable history and urban legend is the fastest way to turn a man's crank. It will keep him up all night. Marilyn Monroe knew how to do this. It's called intrigue.
Watch how on D.C.'s "hill," Stone ingeniously shows—ingenious because the real Garrison never met Prouty before the trial—to the audience what reality looks like when it has become a commodity. That's what Garrison and Mr. X's meeting is really all about. Dètente. Between whom? Those who manufacture reality and those who consume it. It could just as easily then, as it is now, be manufactured. Reality, that is. And if necessary, carefully traded in, or even returned for a version that doesn't squeak when it is sold. Could it be that Stone is asking the viewer to examine silence? Something that is beyond the capacity of a sheep but something a shepherd on a hill is obligated to be suspicious of. That's right, where you stand is a function of where you sit. On that hill and bench, Mr. X is not asking (with his story) for the viewer to take another seat; he can't. He is merely reflecting back to the viewer where they stand. In layman's terms:
- How do you perceive and react in general to authority?
- What do you do with information given to you by an authority?
- And most critically, can you discern where the authority (who is giving you the information) sits on "the spectrum," or, worse, leads you to believe they sit.
Talcott Parsons divided it five ways but it can also, for simplicity's sake, be divided three ways. I like the version by Daniel Sheehan, author of The People's Advocate, who divides the spectrum seven ways. It leaves more wiggle room, reducing the tendency to compartmentalize and hold hostage a political issue any time it begins to irritate one's borders. When graphed:
- Left Systematists (Utopianists)
- Left Marginalists (Progressives)
- Left Middle Marginalists (Liberals)
- Middle Marginalists (Moderates)
- Right Middle Marginalists (Conservatives)
- Right Marginalists (Reactionaries)
- Right Systematists (Authoritarians)
You get the point. It makes no difference how you divide the spectrum—three ways or seven ways—if you're watching a "classic" like The American President. Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin's sweeping take on how Spartacus Jr. manages the country's public and foreign policies while softening a journalist's stink eye. A walkover, that is to say, a marginal spectrum: left, middle, and right works well on any narrative that clearly distinguish between, red, white and blue. Impose this model on positions or scenarios with multiple colours, for instance the ones taken by that other American president who indeed engages in three ways, administers people's last goodbye in cold blood but also shows genuine concern for the welfare of the man who makes him those killer baby back ribs, and you'll find yourself placing that midnight call to your mother: "Ma, I'm supposed to hate Kevin Spacey, right?" "Um, hello," she'll quip. To get your answer requires that you, this time around, think inside the box. Along with Situations, Values, Principles and Loyalties, the most common names ascribed to the four quadrants that construct "the box," there are at least half a dozen other names.
Daniel Sheehan was a student who didn't want another name. He spent two years at Harvard badgering Ralph B. Potter, professor of comparative social ethics and creator of the Potter Box, for the insoluble subject from which each of the box's quadrants are based. Potter finally caved in and gave Sheehan the answer to how a person constructs, pursuant to their worldview, their politics.
Said another way, these are the criteria one uses, consciously or unconsciously, to mark one's own X on the spectrum above. When Mr. X shows up to hand over his "secrets" to Garrison, the audience will synthesize his verbiage with these four hitherto mentioned subjects: (1) Cosmological: how as a species did we come into existence? (2) Teleological: the function of the universe (now that it's here) is what? (3) Ontological: what (not who) is a human being? (4) Epistemological: What faculties do we as a species have at our disposal to discern for certain what is true and false? Now, if one vehemently denies that this process occurs, and says in protest, "I don't think, I merely adopted the politics of my parents, which came from their parents, so on and so forth," don't kid yourself, one of your foremothers considered this exercise as a precursor to Mr. Forefather placing another bun in the oven. The need, or desire at least, to break bread occurs when one also realizes that their operational definition of violence comes from where their X is positioned on the spectrum. One will stay put or shuffle a few seats sideways (in either direction), the moment Mr. X releases this secret:
"The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is for war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers."
That's right. To the utopianists, this statement would sound absurd, even downright cynical. They already know, somehow, that a plutocracy generates irrational wealth through the organizing principle of benevolence.
"The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information,"
Henry A. Wallace (FDR's vice president), once said. The troubling and slightly more sobering point, (the one he did not conclude with), is that poisoning the channels of public information is, itself, a form violence. If taking the role of shepherd makes one a tad nauseous, there's always the soothing and gentle, Peter Landesman's 2013 film Parkland based on Vincent Bugliosi's 2007 book Reclaiming History. It's difficult, however, to get away with a prank if you're upfront, is it not? Take note how JFK cites the two books the film is based on: On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison and Crossfire by Jim Marrs, and furthermore forgoes the title card "based on true events," while Parkland scrolls in the opening "based on true events" yet waits a few minutes into the end credits before it cites the film's one source.
"You can't distort history and he's [Stone] done that. It's okay to fictionalize history as long as you call it fiction. But Oliver hasn't done that. He wants his people to believe that his movie is the truth." Bugliosi said, in an interview back in 2007 on FORA.tv to promote his book. (This is the same man, one must remember, who poisoned the channels in 1986 when he starred as himself in a 300+ minute "what if' courtroom scenario in Showtime's On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald, where real witnesses testified and a jury found Oswald guilty.) That's the thing about fake vomit, you may not be able smell how nasty it is but you can sure put your finger on it.
But it's the TFX Contract, (a mere twinge of a mention in JFK) that Prouty, in his interview with Steinberg, strangely, almost strategically, chose to end on. Which also, rather unspectacularly, left out the various tranches of players one would expect to hear about from an insider talking about the money line, not to mention the various groups involved that are spoken of so freely by conspiracy theorists in general. Prouty sets up how Kennedy ordered McNamara to strategically reallocate the TFX Contract (a fighter plane contract, worth six billion dollars), across the U.S. counties he [Kennedy] would need the greatest political support from to secure a future second term. Prouty recalls: "It was a beautiful plan. It took walls of the Pentagon covered with these maps and then McNamara, on the 23rd of November 1962, allocated that contract. Well in the halls of the Pentagon you couldn't hear a civil word. I mean, "Kennedy that' and "Goddamn Kennedy' this, because everyone knew that the contract was supposed to go to the contractor that the Eisenhower administration had set up. Things like that create pressures. Saying he's not going to put Americans in Vietnam, that war ran to a minimum cost of 220 billion dollars probably all up to 500 billion dollars. People will kill for money like that. They'll kill for contracts within that. Ten million men were flown to Saigon by commercial airlines, that was worth a billion dollars they wouldn't have gotten. So when you create that kind of pressure, you create what it takes to murder a president. And the decision then is very clean. Handled by a few people. The gunmen come from outside the United States. Nobody knows about it. There's no Cubans involved. There's no Mafia involved, there's no this involved, all of these things people talk about. That's a cover story. A cover story is the most difficult thing to run. That's been running thirty years now. And think of the pressures that cover story has been creating over the last thirty years. To keep it up front. To have really famous intelligent newspaper men say "there's no substantive history anything except that Oswald killed Kennedy' and so on and so on. It's a cover story. It's ridiculous. A cover story is a terrible thing to create. Murder is simple. Just a little scalpel and you do it."
Paranoia is a great windowpane, a point of view that does not cover a single thing and frames fight and flight together to fracture and prove that various shades of colour come together to make up one seemingly transparent beam of light. Even the moon conspires against us with its politics, covering and showing us only one side of itself indefinitely. Jack knew this. Why do you suppose he wanted to conquer it? It's in the business of timing the appearance of sure things: wealth, health and happiness. It's on the record.
"You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun."
That's David Gilmour warning about the politics of time on
The Dark Side of the Moon.
It Was Ego
Ego trips too easily, you'll notice, by virtue of being small, learning a big nothing while flying about who controls its inevitable fall. If you're fortunate enough, mind you, to stub your toe on the Monty Python cannon you will find one of two Idles you can learn from. The first Idle is off to a racing start (or so he thinks) after making an appointment with John Cleese at the "Argument Clinic:"
"An argument," a young Eric Idle insists, "is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition."
"No it isn't," Cleese protests.
"Yes it is," Idle interrupts. "Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes."
"No," Cleese protests, "it isn't."
"It is," Idle argues back.
And on and on they go, unable to move past etiolated banter into profundity. The second Idle (a few years earlier) wasn't looking for an argument. He was looking for understanding, empathy, perhaps even pity. Why? Idle didn't know about "the facts of life" which, I don't know, would have been a tad humiliating for a man his age, to broach as a subject through "a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition" let alone calling it an "intellectual process." So Idle, upon spotting a proper looking Terry Jones inside a bar, did the only intellectual thing he knew how to do. He initiated a game:
"Your wife," a brash Idle inquires, "is she a sport?"
Jones, mildly annoyed, answers "She likes sports, yes."
"I bet she does," Idle winds up, "I bet she does."
"She's very fond of cricket," Jones comments.
Idle leans in, "She likes games. I knew she would. I knew she would. She's been around, eh?"
Jones, as if to say who hasn't, simply responds "Yes, she's traveled."
And on and on they go, Idle trying to get, by being as oblique as he possibly can, Jones to explain to him what the experience of sex is like.
And what about "the pull out method" discussed earlier this year by Martin Durkin in his film Brexit the Movie? Argument or game? The filmmaker seemed to be winging it when he stopped Londoners on the street by asking them to identify the Eurocrates he held in his hands. None could. To the pedestrian Brits, the faces on Durkin's laminated photos were unrecognizable. Scenes later, Nigel Farage, founding member of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) explained:
"This is the only parliament the world has ever invented where you cannot initiate legislation, propose legislation or even the repeal of legislation [sic]. All of that comes from the unelected European commission."
"So, you can't," Durkin asked, "propose a law and try and get it passed?" "No," Farage answered, "Absolutely not." The word "unelected," is clearly what Durkin wants the audience, even those in the Remain camp, to wrap their heads around, as he builds his muscular argument for Britain's abjuration from the EU. Deemed crude by some, even downright irresponsible and negligent by others; pulling out was, as a move, voted by various literate and educated classes as the best form of protection when the time comes. I guess it's a matter of taste.
"When we are in our job it is not our decision what good taste is or what isn't. We can only give our opinion to our employer when we are asked and then we are taught to say less is more." A line lifted, one would assume, from Downton Abby's head butler Mr. Carson, is in fact The International Butler Academy's ethos, spoken by an enrolled student on the school's promotional video entitled, What is Good Taste? Executive Head Butler, Curtis Akerlind, then goes on quite seriously to say:
"We've had clients who on a whim could potentially fire a butler if they forget something as simple as having an extra pack of cigarettes that they would want at three in the morning and if the butler has forgotten to make sure that that is available, well these clients, they have the right [sic]. They are paying someone to look after them so that could be the end of a job for a butler. Employers, that, whether it is for security reasons or whether it is just because they want to, they have cameras everywhere, every movement, every facial expression, how you handle their things, is being recorded. The reason a client will pay a higher salary for this position of a butler or household manager is because they realize that the employee is giving up quite a bit of their freedom."
Comes the next thought: what is most imperishably dreadful about that "deal?" The ceaseless invigilation? Being fired on a whim? Or, perhaps that giving up one's freedom, in essence, also means giving up the freedom to argue. Did you notice how, in Kazuo Ishiguro's, Remains of The Day (as a film, released four days after the creation of the EU), Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is unable to argue despite ironing the newspaper every morning? Stevens can't even get a stroke (cricket terminology for hitting the ball), when his employer, Lord Darlington, (who earlier asked Stevens to educate his nephew on the facts of life), invites him up to bat to discuss the country's score, which is on the brink of war. Stevens' mental anemia leaves Darlington slightly embarrassed, perhaps wondering how his head butler could be so fastidious with his upkeep, yet completely deficient with his iron.
The filmmakers lyrically dramatize how a certain kind of arrested development ensues when men—Stevens, and later Darlington—are unable to reason dialectically out of games and into arguments. And what about dementia? The gold-standard of derangement, the symbolic result of—it's hinted—a person no longer having a list of strong alloys on his side to help him repay the debt his conscience incurred from positioning an idol that defaulted on a promised yield of compound interest:
"When His Lordship [Darlington] went to court, he sincerely expected he would get justice and instead the newspaper increased its circulation, and His Lordship's good name was destroyed forever. And afterwards, in his last years, well, quite honestly, Mrs. Benn [Miss Kenton], his heart was broken. I'd take him tea in the library, and he's be sitting there and sometimes he wouldn't even see me, because he was so deep in his own thoughts. And he'd be talking to himself. His lips moving as though he was arguing with someone. And there was no one, of course, because no one came to see him anymore, you see."
As Mr. Stevens recounts to Mrs. Benn (Emma Thompson) about the protracted mental state of their employer, who at one time indeed held the allied yet bureaucratic European planets in his hands, yet found himself on the wrong side of Britain's appeasement to Nazi Germany.
Prior to John Gray's silly little book Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, Eric Berne, a cheeky little Canadian head doctor, had already solved the mystery behind strokes. "My condolences Stevens. It was a stroke," a physician briefs Stevens, "a severe stroke. He wouldn't have suffered much pain." I'm not referring, as I'm sure you've guessed, to that sort of stroke, the kind that midway through the film killed Stevens' father. I'm referring to the other kind. The kind that gives a rush of blood to the head when a person feels valued, and appreciated. Much pain is suffered, if strokes are missing from a person's life, and they will, because humans cannot survive long without strokes, get their strokes through a slightly more futile mechanism called a game. Incidentally, if people are running a surplus of unearned strokes they too will engage in a game. (Not a bad idea, wouldn't you say, for a clinic.)
"Games," Berne explained, "are a compromise between intimacy and keeping intimacy away. Berne, by the way, is also the man who came up with the concept of "psychological sweatshirts." The ones that, you know, people wear when they gravitate towards each other. On the front, written in block letters is a clear message, and on the back is an even clearer one:
Front: "Please tell me what to do," Back: "so I can tell you why that can't work."
Front: "Keep your distance!" Back: "A little closer please."
Front: "Someone, please love me." Back: "Not you, stupid!"
How does Berne's penetratingly hilarious insight ground those of us at home? Once one sees, with great precision, the rather terrestrial way in which people interact with one another, one can, through the humble telescope conclude quite outlandishly that: Men are from Earth, and Women are from Earth Too. Psychiatrist and social worker, Bob and Mary Goulding respectively, expanded further on Berne's theories with a terse summary on what "causes" a game to begin:
- Person A gives an ostensible message while simultaneously embedding a hidden message.
- Person B responds to the hidden message.
- Person A suddenly feels irritated because Person B responded to the hidden message.
Take a moment. That's right, Person B, not A, started the game. Person B could have, by simply ignoring the provocation of the hidden message, been the adult and recognized that Person A was merely seeking a stroke. So, how come ... now we get it: Person B wanted a stroke, too, in return for giving one. So, who's the tiebreaker? It's not a competition yet games necessitate a scorekeeper. Ever dated or been married to one? Of course you have. No ego can resist not knowing the difference between a good and a bad inning.
Recognize the scene below? It's a slight play on the above example, a hybrid of sorts, as an irritated Person A, after "labouring" so long with such an unresponsive Person B, must resort to embedding an ultimatum, in the last response for him to follow. I call this one "Cupid's Pitchfork."
- Person A: Did you know that you have been a very important figure for Mr. Benn and me?
- Person B: Oh. In what way?
- Person A: I tell him all sorts of things about you. I tell him stories about you...about your habits. About your mannerisms. He finds it very funny. Especially when I show him how you pinch your nose when you put pepper on your food. That always has us in stitches.
I daresay that telling someone to go to hell is the clearest and most arresting way to tell them that you love them, as Person A, who is really housekeeper Miss Kenton instructs in no uncertain terms, Person B, head butler Mr. Stevens, where to go. It seems to be an argument worth having. Whether or not one year ago on December 25th, a ghost of a holy point was nailed under the Union Jack, when Downton Abby could no longer create scenes for its followers ending the greatest story ever told. All types of jobs are respected equally and no occupation is considered superior, the treasured philosophy goes, which when pirated by Stevens made him so smart. But he could never coin the right words to remove the ego from the game, which in return, gives Dignity of Labour its heart.
It Was Majestic
MAJESTIC IS THE WORD that you're looking for to abridge the answer to: "What do we know? We now know that we live in an ever expanding universe, we know that there are billions of stars and planets literally out there and the universe is getting bigger. We know from our fancy telescopes that just in the last two years more than twenty planets have been identified outside our solar system that seem to be far enough away from their suns and dense enough that they might be able to support some form of life." Answered by a guest in 2014 on a talk show in response to whether or not he would have initiated disclosure if he had known that there were aliens. What he didn't know was that, two years later, his wife would answer the exact same question in the exact same seat: "I would like us to go into those files and hopefully make as much of that public as possible. If there is nothing there, let's tell people there is nothing there."
"What if," Jimmy Kimmel asked, "there is something there?"
"Well if there is something there," Senator Clinton remarked, "unless, it's a threat, you know, to national security I think we ought to share it with the public."
Majestic was, as lore goes, a matter of national security before its existence became public in the mid-eighties. A dozen scientists and GO's—which ufologists call Majestic 12 (Majority Intelligence Community) or simply MJ 12—were assembled allegedly by President Harry Truman to keep any "legitimate" discoveries of the 1947 Roswell incident under wraps. The first non-GO who began looking into Roswell fastidiously was a nuclear physicist named Stanton Friedman, who found himself in the dismissive company of engineers, professors and journalists, one in particular named Philip Klass on the June 24th 1987 airing of Nightline. Klass asserted that Majestic and Roswell, as far as an investigation was concerned, would be best left to the national media and that it could be resolved in a handful of weeks: "And within a month," Klass stressed, "come back and report either that these documents are authentic, we have captured a craft, a flying saucer, the government has maintained a cover-up for forty years—or come back and report it's nonsense and there has never been so great a con job done against the news media and the public." An unswayed Friedman simply responded, "I think that the people who want to keep secrets have done a very good job of taking advantage of the egos of the Washington Press Corps who think that no secrets can be kept from them."
Friedman, by the way, had a classmate named Carl Sagan while he was studying at the University of Chicago. Sagan, a skeptic himself, went on to become an astronomer and wrote on the subject of UFOs rather tersely: "The reliable cases are uninteresting and the interesting cases are unreliable. Unfortunately, there are no cases that are both reliable and interesting," from his 1974 book Other Worlds. A year later, Sagan co-founded Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
Let's just say, then, that even an incredulous and pragmatic Sagan is susceptible to the close encounter bug. That explains why the subject matter of his book, Contact, horses around in 432 pages of fiction and not in a published scientific article or theoretical essay. After all, signals that seemingly arise out of nowhere could expose and barn one to quite serious ridicule. Not so, for religious outlaws who breed easy bucks by monetizing the firmament. Take Peter Popoff for instance, the German-born yahoo, who after emigrating to America seemed to have an encounter with something extraordinary. Popoff ran a lucrative business in the eighties by receiving "the signal" of the Holy Ghost and occasionally the ethnically light Nazarene, (who can readily appear anywhere, for Pete's sake, on any number of bumper stickers along with the caption: are you following him this close?) Cashing in on stadiums that were packed to capacity with the sick, tired and poor, Popoff would amble around the aisles and theatrically call out a 'stranger' by name, along with their illness, before casting the devil out from their wretched body.
Arresting awe, as it were, was a not a protocol reserved just for GO's and scientist of Majestic as Johnny Carson—another talk show personality who hosted presidents—was determined to do by politely bending a certain Uri Gellar in 1973. Carson had placed a call to James Randi, a paranormal and ESP debunker, who advised Carson not to allow Geller—the self proclaimed medium who could, with his homespun brand of telekinesis bend spoons—to bring any of his own props onto Carson's show. When the segment was taped live, Geller found himself in front of metallic objects he had not been permitted to examine or touch in advance and began to stall, "I don't feel strong," he claimed before promptly yet indirectly blaming Carson's incredulity as the cause.
James Randi was everywhere, and an unequivocal believer also—in buying tickets to all different kinds of shows so that he could follow supernatural powers closely. So much so that he, one evening, entered 'the stadium' with a radio receiver so that he could, brace yourself, pick up the signal that was going into Popoff's hidden earpiece. Indeed, a vivid voice from the back, (sounding much more like a dutiful wife than God), broadcasted information that had been written on collected prayer cards with—give it a minute—you guessed it: audience name, their medical affliction, along with their seat and row number.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute, Hitler and his politics have nothing to do with this," atheist astronomer Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) argues to the White House intelligentsia, whose brows are raised over the codified Hitlerite TV signal that was retransmitted back to earth from Vega that carries blueprints for a technologically advanced spacecraft. The signal of the Führer, as explained in Sagan's Contact (in the film's 1997 adaptation, Clinton, through the aid of CGI, made several cameos) was the first TV signal that breached the earth's ionosphere. The unassuming alien civilization was merely saying 'yes, we got it'. Sagan, however, is certainly slipping in a slight double entendre, when you think about it, of what it means for America to "get it."
Wernher von Braun was just one of the many rocket scientists the OSS sequestered and "got" from Nazi Germany through Operation Paperclip, (which exempted him and many others from the Nuremberg trials) so their talents could be deployed in America. He reflected earnestly in the final declining years of his life, (according to Dr. Carol Rosin, the Corporate Manger of Fairchild Industries) on the potentially unethical use of the advanced technology the American government occulted from Germany after World War II. The sharp tusk from the elephant in the room, it can be argued, was poking Braun.
Whether they be about an illicit affair, or a last-minute change to a will, deathbed confessions have a new subject that didn't exist 100 years ago: UFOs. Dished by scientists, pilots and engineers who have worked deep inside the American military industrial complex. "After the first couple of days of the war when we kept coming back, and all of us kept coming back, there wasn't a scratch on the airplane, for the first time in aerial combat a crew member was able to concentrate solely on one thing in enemy territory and that's the destruction of his target," one pilot said with great reverence on 60 Minutes to Ed Bradley back in 1994. He was talking about the otherworldly performance of the F-117 Stealth Fighter in Desert Storm.
The F-117 was the masterwork of aeronautical engineer Ben Rich, who served as the Director of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, who when diagnosed with cancer became one of the aforementioned loose tongues (although he wasn't from Operation Paperclip), to flap about arcane technology. "Ben shared three major things," said, Jan Harzan, a UCLA graduate with a B.S. in nuclear engineering who once attended a Ben Rich briefing, "that I think are worthy of research by researchers worldwide at this point in time. First was we've somehow figured out how to do interstellar travel already, it's known. The second point he [Ben] made was that there was an error in the equations, my suspicion is probably Maxwell's equations for electromagnetic theory. The third thing he said was 'how does ESP work?' And I was really kind of startled because I didn't know what to say but I blurted out, 'I don't know all points in time and space are connected.' And he looked me back in the eye and said, 'That's how it works.'"
As for Sagan, there was the Exposé of the National Security State held at the First Congressional United Church of Christ in Washington D.C. on November 21st, 2015. The three hour lecture by Dr. Steven Greer, (who himself was a cancer survivor), pivoted from "government conspiracy" and explained matter-of-factly how the private sector can slowly but surely distance itself from government, and to a degree, even surreptitiously remove the government from the equation altogether, making government culpability for disclosure non-existent. An MD from North Carolina, who left Caldwell Memorial Hospital to found The Disclosure Project in 1993, Greer's lecture covered why technology for zero-point energy (free energy) is concealed: it would completely eviscerate the multi-trillion dollar infrastructure of the coal, gas, and petrol industries. He also spent a uniquely disproportionate amount of time addressing the most salient objection detractors have, namely that the suppression of information is next to impossible as people are simply unable to keep secrets. At least in one instance, this can be explained by a kind of inverted Faustian bargain that is made between an unlucky someone and the powers that be. Dr. Greer states:
"Now in some cases it's done not for payments so much as to protect your own reputation. For example there was a guy named Carl Sagan, does everybody know who he is? He actually was on the payroll of the intelligence community and what happened is that Carl Sagan, [sic] there were some improprieties in his PhD thesis, which led to the intelligence community reaching out to him and they basically said 'you're going to tell the public what we're going to tell you to tell the public or you're going to be washing the floors at Cornell you're not going to be a professor.' And, two of his friends, George Fennell, who co-founded [uncredited] the Planetary Society and founded the Allegheny Observatory outside Pittsburgh and James Mullaney, who is a very eminent astronomer who was the editor of Sky & Telescope magazine and Astronomy magazine confirmed to me that this happened to Carl Sagan. And one of them told me that he basically aged thirty years in a month because he had to sell his soul to the devil. And so he went from someone looking into UFO's and actually said some positive things about their reality to being a chief debunker of them. And that was a real tragedy, because they [intelligence community] had what's called 'oppo research' opposition research, it's like a political party, they had 'dirt' on him and they used it to turn him. But to the public you know he was this renowned respected scientific figure. So just magnify that all through society. That's how it operates. And I know it's not a very pretty picture, it's a little cynical (pause) it's not cynical, it's just the reality."
Whether or not the Sagan story is true, and assuming it is, the intelligence behind Contact remains potently unjaded; Sagan's optimism seems inimitable and must have, at some point in his career while he was gazing into the cosmos, been permanently launched—a peak experience described by James Joyce as aesthetic arrest. An experience that so lavishly stuns the five senses that awe is capable, for a fraction of a second, to slip into a human who, in essence, registers and absorbs the moment as eternity itself. Knowing, in turn, absolutely nothing about the nature of eternity other than that the scientist, the politician and the theologian can't measure it, militarize it or politicize it. Which is how, once experienced, one comes to know everything about its majesty.
It Was Busy
BUSY AS YOU MAY BE, you may care to perform a thought experiment, which involves taking a closer look at the control you impose—which remains absolute and final, on a certain someone. As with all thought experiments, carefully examine the desirable and the undesirable consequences of each future action towards a chosen end and notice, besides the cringing responsibility of being in charge, the compassion you feel for this certain someone, who never has control. You create the events, not to mention the obstacles, which either for their benefit or detriment, enhance or diminish their will as they inch towards their goal. Are the obstacles, dear inventor, in proportion to what they can endure; if so, how quickly do they recover from the oppressive hand they cannot bite?
This person, let's not forget, is self-made. Notice your treatment of their narrative. None of it was of their own making: where they were born, who their parents were, where they went to school, their sexual proclivities, their political orientation, and who they married were all under the lines of your palm, yet you simply couldn't bring yourself to give them an easy path. Sure, to be fair, a happy ending may have slipped through the margins of your thought experiment but notice all the sticks and stones—grueling car accident, wretched poverty, losing a child, herculean alcoholism, back-breaking incest, mistaken identity, onerous phobias—before casting their denouement with: "Ah, so that's why I had to go through all that!" which heals their broken bones.
A fit subject for Hogarth Press, if it were still around, which, incidentally, published the English thoughts—translation I mean—of Freud, who had a peculiar obsession and a patent word or two to say about reality, in particular pleasure, or lack of, and the three holes that are partly to blame for making us so rigidly square. Indeed, a fourth hole, that can't be located on our body but hovers over us all—widening exponentially with such circular force that it insists obdurately on staying existentially open—also exists. It caused the co-owner of Hogarth Press to leave behind, after her head got stuck in it, more than just a few detailed words about how it viscerally extincts.
In her essay "On Being Ill," this certain someone looked very thoroughly under every rock, and to her concern she could not find words that accurately rendered the experience of the ailing person. When, with great stones, she entered into the rapids of the Ouse River in 1941 to take time out of her day, Virginia Woolf, most notably, had a stream that carried her consciousness to the bank well before her body. In her essay "The Death of a Moth" Woolf, also observed how life, with all its carrying about, seemed quite indifferent to the annihilation of a bug that was trapped in between her window and screen. Such a spectacle, an insignificant bug standing up to a formidable bully like death, at first induced pity in the poet and she made an attempt to rescue it from its unfair circumstance, before stopping short to marvel over just how unremarkable its struggle against extinction was—compared to the remarkable poise it gained upon expiring. (Try it at home and see for yourself; set up a cockfight, under a wine glass between a moth and a mothball).
In lesser hands, when such observations are attempted, consider, for instance, Garden State, which can be easily listed as one of the worst films ever produced. Death was treated glibly, as was mental illness, when l'homme fatigue trudged around his hometown bemoaning that he couldn't seem to "feel anything." Comes the seed—in the backyard—of his blossoming arc when the impuissant 'Sam,' a young teenage girl who feels too deeply and to easily, symbolically awakens 'Andrew' when she snivels over the miniature coffin encasing her dead pet hamster. Profound? Yes. Profoundly juvenile. We learn—or are supposed to, at least—the role which "the gentler sex" are supposed to play when excavating and attenuating men's feelings towards death.
How about, instead, the inquisitorial tone in the following; one that can't be attributed solely to the unsentimental British manner of asking searching questions, which for females—who are bequeathed in equal measure with males for the capacity for stoicism in times of bereavement—seems much more veridical. Comes the scene in The Hours, by scribe David Hare, when Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is asked by her budding niece, "What happens when we die?"
"What happens?" Woolf restates, as she stares down at the dead bird in her backyard. "We return to the place that we came from."
"I don't remember," her niece interjects, "where I came from."
Woolf validates simply, "Nor do I."
Woolf can, on another note, deconstruct and spell out parts of the world so clearly that the overly sensitive reader (who easily fawns over any semi-sweet observation) may fall into a grey spell if they can't immediately see such potent and descriptive symmetry in their own life sentence. Reading too quickly and too deeply into things, period after period, in order to compensate, can become a habit without realizing that the disciplines required to create value and to perceive value are as contrastive as black and white and must first be separated. Otherwise rearrangement becomes derangement. Chocolate suicide cake, erected four inches short, will disappoint if it is unable to convey and transmit a standard of beauty and gentleness and harmony to the mind the way the Parthenon does. Marbled emotions can, if insulin jumps before it gets a chance to question its maker, leave one in ugly ruins. What would, if given the chance, the clear-thinking maker have said? "Time not beauty labours for meaning! The Parthenon took nine years to build, chocolate cake takes ninety minutes." The old ball and chain will turn, evidently, into a crane and wreck its own self if it confuses the two.
Much like housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) who—if one recalls Kidman's thesis for Mrs. Dalloway in the opening of The Hours: "A woman's whole life in a single day, just one day, and in that day her whole life,"—appears footslogged when her whole life is captured in the single hour that it takes to trudge through a simple recipe to bake "happiness" in the fifties. (If one is familiar with Ernest Dichter, "the father" of motivational research, one will naturally associate the 'Betty Crocker story' with Laura's labouring for cake scene. Betty Crocker believed that they had a no-brainer, in the early fifties, when they removed the dirty apron from the equation by introducing an instant cake mix to the market, but they soon discovered that housewives weren't going crazy over it. Hired to solve the problem of poor sales, Dichter cracked what happens when things are too convenient. A sense of guilt can arise, if in the kitchen, "Donna Reed" knows she is willfully taking asylum in shortcuts. Dichter advised that "Just add an egg" be added to the BC package—despite it being completely superfluous to the recipe—to shell housewives from any encroaching self-judgment for not spending enough time when making a contribution.)
Constructing, without the aid of a cake mix but rather the help of her son "Bug," a chocolate cake for her husband, who, later that night when he is served a slice naively says to Laura, "You must have been working all day." Indeed, she had. On a thought experiment, alone, inside a hotel room with a life-changing amount of bedside analgesics, buttressed by the overlapping words of a passage from Mrs. Dalloway, [read by the creator herself, Woolf (Kidman)]:
"Did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?" ["It is possible to die! It is possible to die!"]
The dramatists are not correlating the triviality of baking a cake (which can often lead to a zero sum game between those who make it and those who eat it) as a cause for someone to contemplate suicide, but rather all things considered: no debilitating car accident, relative financial security, healthy children, sober affiliations and so forth, one can still enter into a dysfunctional contract with time. Time too, is alive, and just like everything else: wine, food, relationships and conversation—it peaks. And it must be consumed in its optimum state. Which is? Best enjoyed when it moves through one quickly, yet (the paradox is worth noting), no one wishes to experience life quickly. It is this rather unconscious desire, then, as a means of self-preservation, to slow down time that can cause the most harm and create the greatest anxiety as life can appear somewhat absurd, and at worst meaningless, when time begins to stale, expire, and perish.
There's a strange, nonsensical phenomenon that occurs, at least subjectively, perhaps by evolutionary design, to prevent hubris lingering in the minds of those who believe that with inaction, they can slow down time: the faster you experience time the slower you age, the slower you experience time the faster you age. Is there any possible way, even just for a moment, to just take a break and displace time? Laura, after her self-involved Archimedean experiment in her hotel room, that displaces herself, and not the water, chooses life after concluding death.
Beauty in death, certainly a clothesline many inkers have been hung on, is not what dear Woolf was infatuated with. A slight departure when the poet herself seemed to flip inside out in The London Scene (a series of essays), where she writes about all the various ways that the industrial city collars life, is where we discover the object of her unshrinking obsession: contrast. There's an insight to be detected here and it's a rather washing one. A warm attitude towards anything is somewhat foolish and unwise, as it requires that one heats up to the things that normally would leave one feeling cold and/or to cool down to the things that would normally make one hot, leaving a person entirely defenseless and oblivious and uninformed as to what extent they shrink when tumbling inside the machine. The knocking row between Eros and Thanatos, zig-zagging inside Woolf's head, is what sets her terminally straight in The Hours when she and her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) have it out at the countryside train station. Insisting on returning to the city that coaled her death instinct, which caused her to split, is now, Woolf realizes, what pleasures her steaming whole. Alchemy of this sort is truly what gives Woolf her startling nose for hang-ups that create thought experiments on standards, tolerance and growth that Freud himself, along with the "the other" literati influencers of modernism, could not scratch.
It Was Popular
POPULAR SAYINGS SUCH AS "Iceberg right ahead," "Life is like a box of chocolates," and "I see dead people" all have, you may say, something in common. They all originate from the nineties, and—if you recall—people who had issues. Two of the three issues, we were to learn, could be handled (and to a degree treated) while one remained hopelessly terminal.
In Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas, the salient issue appears in one of the great scenes, when we find the musty Nicolas Cage about to check in to his motel, well aware (while we're not) of what he plans to do at 'The Whole Year Inn.' With a stare, the terminally hopeless Cage wills the motel's signage to change, so as to read, en rapport with his condition: 'The Hole You're In.' This of course does not speak directly to his alcoholism, as those gravediggers who patron Vegas in an attempt to get from the city more than they put in (or less) are being addressed also. Had the sign instead asserted 'The Year In Whole'—an offer to grant one the opportunity to relive the experience of a year, over the course of a standard three day stay, that would be reason enough to check out before checking in.
Take another saying, one that makes an employee feel popular, to the degree that the company thermometer reads in the correct tense: "We really like having you around." Add a conjunction to it, and it too becomes a terminal issue.
Like when Mr. Simpson, in LLV, utters that very line to Ben (Cage) immediately after firing the mercurial alcoholic. The studio head isn't talking out of his derrière. He sincerely did like having, you can tell, him around. "But," he concludes, "You know how it is." How it is? How is it? One was left to decode this line without the benefit, at the time, of having seen Jerry Maguire or having read Charles Fleming's Caligula-laced High Concept and would merely assume, initially, that Ben was being fired for being a drunk.
Be prepared for those 'Gen Zs'—who are up the wall obsessed with other people's business but also with painting the town red with their own accomplishments—they may one day ask you that loaded question: What's the surefire way to ensure one never gets fired? The cynical answer, addressed however indirectly, is in the first peeling minutes of LLV, which no Z has ever heard of, as no Z was yet in their mama's belly when it was released in 1995. The Hangover they have. Heard of. Both begin in Los Angeles (that's a start), and move their way to the strip where consequences of a bender offer opportunities to model altruism after a tall drink of water has been misplaced. They've also heard of Jerry Maguire, it was released one year after LLV (the same year Zs were put into motion). Perhaps you recall the rather self-sacrificing cold opening when Jerry, no longer happy with coasting on 'rank' at work resists the cynical—and directly addressed—answer to the above question with a murmur: "Who have I become?" (You have to remind Zs of that opening.) What they remember is...that's right:
"Show me the money!"
Votaries of "the invisible hand" clique (Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand disciples included, who themselves seem at times unclear about what their master meant by self-interest) were being shaken in JM by a new brand of microeconomics (which earned a return for filmmaker Cameron Crowe's titular character who himself turned into a marginal prophet): being indebted to a mirror is what purifies self-interest. (In the mirror, with great effort, a more sapient version of the self can be discovered, to boil it down.) He or she will know, quite visibly, that a sleight of hand for placing people before things is the only force a market needs to reach equilibrium. This process will educate and inspire others to do the same, itself the real object of self-edification.
Legatees of Adam Smith (those clever girls and boys) will rebut and say—having known, for well over two hundred years—what? "The great secret of education is to direct vanity to proper objects." By placing a mirror in between vanity and objects (seeing oneself as an object is the streaking problem to begin with) Admiral Jerry (oh I suppose admirable too) has, however, just obfuscated rather than clarified Smith's educated secret. If vanity is left to supply its own demand it will begin to wipe even the proper objects away. The year Maguire was released, a quick and forceful and prolific film executive-turned-producer died on the very thing we sit on every morning (the very thing his first name rhymes with; last name Simpson). He was obsessed with surprise—image and excess (not necessarily in that order) and would be, two years later, the object, I mean subject, of the book I mentioned earlier, High Concept.
By the time you're six pages deep into High Concept's eleven-page introduction, you don't need to be a cynic to forecast (without reading the table of contents) the book's final three chapter headings: "Doctor's Orders," "Rehab," and "Death." You've just read:
"The entertainment industry does not require anything of its inside people other than the ability to produce hit movies. It doesn't ask its employees to be intelligent, educated, decent, honorable, fair, good-looking or ethical or ethnical: It only asks that they produce income-generating product."
And, two pages later, legal dope for his naughty behaviour:
"He [the producer] was on a regimen that included multiple daily injections of Toradol, for pain; Librium, to control his mood swings; Ativan, every six hours for agitation; Valium every six hours, for anxiety; Depakote, every six hours to counter 'acute mania'; Thorazine, every fours hours, for anxiety; Cogentin, for agitation; Vistaril, every six hours, for anxiety; and Lorazepam, every six hours, also for anxiety."
Given that Ben (Cage in LLV) is a film executive—in other words a pop culture stick up-artist, who holsters a starter pistol that fires blanks at the consumer to get their attention so that silver can be collected from the screen—the answer to the question 'How is it?' is that: Ben was slow on the draw. Reflexes, which tend to be slightly more intuitive involuntarily; more discerning involuntarily; more clear-sighted involuntarily; when one is loaded would have neither benefited or damaged Ben, as reflexes can also be spent and wasted and dulled by something other than heavy spirits. The question, rather than the insular and parochial 'What's the surefire way to ensure one never gets fired?' then becomes 'What is the surefire way to never sell one's spirit at work?'
Prior to his firing in the opening of LLV, one finds Ben at the bank where the shaky, dehydrated lad is unable to sign the back of his cheque. He has turned, to be symbolic about the point, into a conscientious cog who, in spite of being broken, is unable to endorse (even while on the wagon) how he wheels and deals for a living. Move past the obvious, that Ben suffers from DTs, which indeed he does, and the allegorical reason he can't endorse his cheque at the teller steers you to a message. Chocolate you know you're going to get. The kind that tires your Facebook and LinkedIn inbox: surfers and shorelines, hang gliders and eagles, icebergs and rock climbers, emboldened with such fuel efficient captions as: 'Do what you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life.' 'Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.' 'Doing what you like is freedom; liking what you do is happiness.' Stuff, which enthrones attitude and teamwork, leniency and mildness, temperament and sentiment, as the foundations for workplace fulfillment, longevity and solidarity. Stuff, which caused Jerry to take on the monopoly he worked for, proposing that it buckle, and test a more nurturing soft-skills culture focused less on the safety and security of a concrete bottom line, that turned him—not them—into the crash test dummy.
'Stuff', which one may say really works and helps one to come out on top. However, coming out 'on top' is itself a self-incriminating assertion. Not true, one may say, I always 'play the game' with kindness and consideration and fairness towards others. These are the same people who, you too have noticed, are always the 'racecar' and are quick to assume, quite glibly, that Free Parking is more than just a corner spot with thoughtful signage. Landing on that spot entitles them, according to Monopoly 'house rules,' to the unearned pile of money in the middle. These goody-two-shoes have never examined the holes in their sole; you can help them by calling them out. Grab their card the next time they say: Community Chest says I won second prize in a beauty contest. It will say, Go Directly to Jail, you can bet on it.
John O'Brien, (who himself took his life shortly after learning that his novel was going to be adapted into Leaving Las Vegas) is not making, along with the filmmakers, an indictment on the film industry, on how we measure socioeconomic status, on what inspires 'naughty' behavior, or even fairy tales. Can an indictment really be made on knights and princesses who—for loving so unconditionally, so transparently, and so selflessly—hope for a heart protected from usury? From never being towed again?
How then, do sayings such as, 'when one door closes another one opens,' remain popular at the bank? Where beginnings and endings are, when one is unable to make ends meet, the same "out." That bloody revolving door at the entrance. It's too ironic for its own good. And, like popular culture, is worth patronizing. Just assume then that the door operates exactly like opportunity when, for example, through the winding, one follows someone who is, as one enters, crying on their way out; or, someone who is, as one exits, smiling on their way in. Faces will soon appear: sad to be happy or happy to be sad, as one turns, like a knob, into a dizzy one too, convinced that the ins and outs of getting out while the getting's good is a trapdoor issue one can handle.
It Was Education
EDUCATION IS GENERALLY ASSUMED to be that which makes the climb possible. Wool over the eyes, for example is what keeps, at least in theory, the have nots from pulling at the haves on a pyramid. At the bottom, the working poor pull on the working class, the lower middle class on the upper middle class and yes, even the bad spies on the good spies, who, at the very top, shear. Notice how, ‘the all-seeing eye,' a.k.a. the good spy, (regardless of which ‘side' they work for) feels vulnerable at the apex, upon realizing, in spite of seeing it all: they don't know what they don't know. This is something altogether different from the bad spy, who knows what they don't know, an acknowledgement of ignorance which can still cause a bad spy to be careless in their potential certainty; while the former, a slight contrivance (as being unaware of being unaware of what needs to be known to be competent is a near impossibility), is nevertheless what makes a good spy, before planting their flag, much more certain about their potential carelessness. It reminds them of their mortality. That's what spy movies have to teach us: always be comfortable with your vulnerability. It makes you smarter. Something good spies get tested for regularly, before jumping into bed with their mark.
Halfway through The Good Shepherd, Matt Damon's character is given such a test by a German spy who asks him if he has ever read Ovid's Metamorphoses in its original Latin. The scene is subtle, almost too subtle, so its waving message can go unnoticed. The testee chooses, out of fifteen books—a languishing length by any standard—all written in hexameter verse, a mere two lines that impresses the wind out of the tester. In English he flaps:
"I grabbed a pile of dust and, holding it up, foolishly asked for as many birthdays as the grains of dust. I forgot to ask that they be years of youth."
What's tragic—perpetual endurance is itself a universally relatable and innocent craving—about that request? He's unconsciously protecting himself from something he's consciously aware of, by being ‘forgetful.' The skeleton hiding in his request is what's tragic; it pines for a specific kind of existential Groundhog Day. Different in kind from the bone most of us have to pick by making the more humane request to take another whack at something we failed to get ‘right' the first time around—reexamining the details of an incident which memory alone failed to flesh out—or the chance to successfully apply our education: if only I could go back knowing what I know now. His skeleton is making the rather subhuman request for ignorance, which when granted in perpetuity, creates the ‘wrong' life: one of regressive incipience without any challenges.
In youth, one never has to unlearn what one has learned. Ever. A proper education would have removed, from ‘Ovid's' requestee, the desire to cheat death by having his greener years replenished and instead installed the insight to ask for more wisdom to help him get over his hill.
You may wonder why Damon's character, with such a wide and deep Yale education, fell for the über narrow and incomprehensible passage of lying down naked inside a coffin while disclosing personal secrets about himself to his ‘brothers?' Is that part of the climb too?
Consider: Skull and Bones initiates only fifteen members a year. So by 1966—in other words the year John Kerry graduated from Yale—S&B had initiated approximately only 2,245 members into ‘The Order.' Separated by only one ceremony—in still other words, the year George W. Bush was inducted—this gives you the staggering odds that, out of a population of 200 million people (the population of the USA at the time), two ‘Bonesmen' would emerge out of a pool of 45 men to ‘synthetically oppose' one another as Democratic and Republican primaries in the early 2000s. (The idea of ‘synthetic opposition' which has its roots in The Hegelian Dialectic, is described repeatedly by Antony Sutton in his book America's Secret Establishment. He, of course, couldn't cite the above example (his book was released in 1983) but he certainly was prescient on how the dialectic is used by Skull and Bones to guarantee a victory, regardless of which ‘side' wins.)
The Hegelian Dialectic sounds pretentiously academic, and Sutton does give some intricate examples, but it is terribly simple to understand. A person or group waits for a reaction to a problem they themselves created before implementing its solution. Thesis and antithesis are, therefore, engineered in advance so a prearranged and predetermined synthesis can occur. You yourself have already, I guarantee, seen this transpire at…let's say your work. Company managers, sensing their authority and influence are in decline, engineer a small crisis that naturally creates conflicts between their subordinates. Employees, lacking the executive power to resolve the conflict, revert to being dependent on their managers for clarity and security—and they just happen to have the right solution.
So, yes, joining Skull and Bones is, if you consider America to be one giant company, part of the climb.
Because they are, above all else, loyal only to their small elect group—the reason Angelina Jolie's character (Damon's wife) under her breath mutters, on more than one occasion, "Bonesman first, God second."
Inside the 1977 September issue of Esquire, if you happen to come across it (you can't miss it: a clothed trust-fund baby is stretched inside a coffin on the front cover, ventriloquizing with a smile ‘I've been made' as he holds a cigarette in one hand and a human skull in the other) is where you'll find Richard Rosenbaum's article The Last Secrets of Skull & Bones. The journo, while a student at Yale in the sixties, made an attempt to penetrate the fraternity after hearing on "tap night," (the night fifteen students are chosen by the cabal to become ‘Bonesmen'), the disorderly moans and shrieks echoing from The Order's campus citadel during membership initiation. The citadel is referred colloquially as ‘the tomb,' and what is perhaps even more bizarre is a detail that Rosenbaum never followed up on: the likelihood that the squawks and squeals came from the senior Bonesman officiating the ritual, rather than the students being hazed. (Screams and moans, by the way, was standard stuff during the sixties at Yale; the Milgram experiment also took place there, which tested subject's obedience to authority.)
Rosenbaum managed to get two provincial lines from one Bonesman (who wished to remain anonymous) after agreeing, reluctantly, to violate his sacrosanct collegiate oath, but not before voicing his real concern:
"What bank," the Bonesman asked Rosenbaum, "do you have your checking account at?" Rosenbaum tells him.
"There are three Bonesman on the board. You'll never have a line of credit again." He concludes, "They'll tap your phone."
In neighboring lines, we read, "Each member of Bones goes through an intense two-part confessional in the Bones Crypt."
"One night he tells his life story, giving what is meant to be a painfully forthright autobiography that exposes his traumas, shames and dreams."
"The following session is devoted exclusively to sexual histories."
That's it? The article was called The Last Secrets of Skull & Bones. The front cover said "Exposing Skull and Bones." Certainly not a recent discovery, let alone a secret, that human solidarity is formed when traumas, dreams, shames, and sexual histories are being shared. (That highly successful HBO show in the late nineties was fashioned on that very premise, and they too, at parties—like Bonesman on Deer Island, minus the cosmos—wore skirts and make-up.)
Rosenbaum is left, after getting those two dull lines mentioned earlier, with four thousand words to probe the mystery behind the mystery of Skull & Bone's ‘mystery,' which goes absolutely nowhere; the founder, William Huntington Russell, is correctly cited to the complete exclusion of the group's other American, and arguably more politically influential founder Alphonso Taft. And while the "Totenkopf" (the Skull and Bones insignia) is of German origin, nothing more than conjecture follows about why they dress up, why they make inscrutable noises, or why S&B hazing should, other than it's a club that is next to impossible to join, be so deserving of our attention. It's as if holding up a mirror to Pandora's Box without ever opening it qualifies as true reflection.
For instance, the Pentagram—the supposed centerpiece of S&B's initiation ritual—is always assumed to be an offshoot of the illuminati, out of the swathes of other less charismatic (and less conspiratorial) alternatives: Eleusinian or Mithraic. (Ask any respectable astronomer about Venus's elliptical orbit and she'll tell you, with apodictic certainty, that it trails a pentagram.) In other words, if you go out looking for it, the contours of Pythagoras's construction—whether you bow down to Satan or not—can be seen and confirmed just about anywhere.
Rosenbaum makes a point that a percentage of Skull & Bones graduates hold prominent positions of authority in the US government—yes, and?—says nothing more than that. (Rosenbaum, unaware of the Bush & Kerry example, doesn't know, unfortunately, what he doesn't know to make his point.) One could also just as easily conclude that positions in high office are also held by, to name just a few, graduates of Dartmouth's Sphinx Club and Harvard's The Porcellian. The Rosenbaum piece reads more like a Hardy Boys mystery: ‘Spooky noises at Yale…' without the payoff. Although he is painfully unaware of it, he succeeds, however, at being an accidental Marxist revisionist (Groucho not Karl) causing the reader to think: "I would never want to be a part of club that wouldn't have me as a member."
But Yale did have, around the time Rosenbaum was a student, spooky noises other than those emanating from the tomb to consider. Yet he never included this detail in his article, not even as a parenthetical digression or marginal afterthought. Either because he was not aware of it at the time, or he thought it irrelevant. The first most likely being the case, as he had already inferred that an abuse of power went with the noises and it is much too obvious to not include The Milgram experiment mentioned earlier, wherein psychologist Stanley Milgram thought it wise, after one day asking himself, "Were the Nazis inherently evil, or where they just obeying orders?" to put his thought experiment to the test. He placed subjects (we will call them torturers), who were thereupon ordered by the social scientists running the tests to give defenseless "victims"—partitioned from view—electrical shocks. The victims hired to suffer the shocks were, to begin with, never hooked up to the electric cathode, (something the torturers were unaware of), but were instructed, anytime the torturer flicked ‘the switch' to scream on cue: "please don't,"…"I've had enough,"…"I can't take it anymore."
What did Milgram discover? Indeed, some of the torturers minutes into the experiment, stormed out in protest, while a great majority (upon the scientist's exigent insistence) stayed to conclude the experiment. You already know, don't you, the next detail? Some torturers, albeit a minute fraction, while not being overt about it, found that the shrieking sounds from those being immolated was so sick and strained that they themselves, being the progenitors of that pain, couldn't help but cough a few laughs before flicking the switch. No candles, no pentagrams, no expensive bathrobes, and no secret handshakes; this experiment, when you think about it, is truly more evil and worthy of investigative commentary. Perhaps why, on grounds of conscience, the man responsible for Genesis—a man from Surrey, England (I'm being totally serious)—couldn't wait around for The Whiffenpoofs to groan and wrote a song himself about Milgram on his 1986 album So called "We Do What We're Told."
Which brings us from the premise, whether we believe in it or not—that giving and taking orders is, and always has been, the purpose of education—to the British American economist, Antony Sutton. Who when, one morning in the late seventies, he received the entire Skull & Bones membership list from an anonymous source, and after completing his research into the Order, claimed the aforementioned premise (in the affirmative), culminating in his 1983 book (the one I mentioned earlier) America's Secret Establishment.
Bonesmen Daniel Coit Gilman (first president of John Hopkins University), Andrew Dickson White (Co–Founder of Cornell University), and Timothy Dwight V (President of Yale), had all brought back, after travelling to Leipzig and other areas in Germany, Wilhelm Wundt's research on behavior and volition (the precursor to B.F. Skinner's operative conditioning on rats and pigeons). They applied their findings to education, known today as The Leipzig Connection. Around the same time, although indirectly related, American educational ‘reformer' Horace Mann was also researching the Prussian model of education for America. (Neither of them had anything to do with the "The Frankfurt School" penetrating America with cultural Marxism, although due to its association with Germany, it can be confused as the same movement.) Yet both models are, in essence, designed to indoctrinate the mind into subordination to the state; to be more ‘uniformed' before entering a work force, rather than the more Socratic or Neoplatonic model of using the disciplines of the Trivium and Quadrivium, to draw out potentials from an individual, if for no other reason than to properly equip their mind with the capacity to respond, when the time comes—which it will—intelligently to change.
Sutton acknowledges segments of American society other than education that Skull & Bones operate in, but the main six, when graphed:
Law, banking, business & commerce, churches, politics— education, is for obvious reasons, the jewel in the crown. Psycholinguistics can teach deaf children how to read, using what is known in its most base form as the ‘look-say method.' Memorization and the mimicry of sounds is a form of cued speech used in favour of learning each individual letter of a word. Pioneered by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Yale graduate, Sutton makes a rather clumsy association between Gallaudet and Skull & Bones, when The Mother's Primer (a book written by Gallaudet on how to teach deaf children to read) began to be taught for a brief time in public schools to non-deaf children—on the basis that his son, Edson Fessenden Gallaudet was S&B.
Regardless of how prominent the S&B connection was, such a tool used on non-deaf children would have, by comprising their ability to correctly master literacy, significantly dumbed them down. A detail scribe Eric Roth no doubt would have gathered during his research for The Good Shepherd when he imagined the character of Laura (Tammy Blanchard), the deaf woman Damon's character gets involved with after meeting her in a library.
As for the diagram, each profession is represented: law, banking, education etc… and has members stationed in various positions of authority. In theory, Edward Wilson, (Damon's character) would operate in the second layer (2.) known as The Select Circle, while other S&B members, such as athletes, engineers, or business owners would remain in the Regular Circle (3.). The Inner Circle (1.) of The Order is, however, a level that would remain inaccessible even to Edward. A layer reserved for the insiders of the insiders. A concept Sutton refers to as "the rings within the rings within the rings." Who manage rather than solve conflict by causing it to move in the controlled direction of their choice. These are the ones who, when something needs to occur, give the order to make it happen. A layer of The Order which the Alex Joneses of this world would have you believe commands even the president of the United States.
The film I have been considering is really just one scene. In disagreement with the briefing he receives from his boss, Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro), Damon's character can't see how the ostensible restructuring of the OSS to include civilian oversight once it becomes the CIA will be successful. De Niro's character states simply:
"I'm concerned that too much power will wind up in the hands of too few. It's always in somebody's best interest to promote enemies, real or imagined."
Only one's own read of a situation can make one deft to the ghastly noises from the slaughter, when an authority figure, upon realizing no wolves can be seen, immediately begins to educate one on the logical and normal and accepted reasons why the shepherd—in spite of having to eat too—can't be seen either.
It Was Open
OPEN TO DISCUSSING the addicts in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy? They are gifted with unreasonably favorable grooming and hygiene, are spared the shame and agony of a withdrawal scene, are readers of cloying bestsellers like Erich Segal's Love Story, and are receptive to the apotropaic signs that jar their willpower voluntarily—upon realizing that the habit of crumbling is not a victimless crime—into the methadone program to face their taste for cooked goods.
That agreeable drug, the one hinted at (at the end of the first act) is also the most addictive, and makes for the most memorable—and, to suspend disbelief, the most necessary—scene in the film, if we are to take seriously Bob's (Matt Dillon) repentant decision to willingly go clean after examining his ‘karma.' His unconscious reaction, "hot dog," to a stereo commercial on TV reruns a memory that he'd rather forget, which galvanizes Nadine (Heather Graham), a member of his crew, to break a taboo.
"Speaking of dogs," says Nadine, "can we get one?"
We smirk, well aware that TV programming is scheduled weeks, sometimes even months, in advance when Bob arrives at a metaphysical false positive. He holds Nadine, because she brought up the topic of dogs, and now a succession of dog commercials appears on TV, culpable for placing, on his crew of robbers, a thirty–day hex.
What's more, cops apprehending robbers is unheard of so Bob's ensuing narrative—he once had a dog that was put down after it led the cops back to his hideout—must be true. Unless Bob has been slouched in front of the boob for so long that his mind can no longer milk a plausible alternative other than the melodrama of: Old Yeller meets The Rockford Files.
Rick, another one of Bob's crew members inquires, "Anything else that can affect our future?"
An insurmountable amount of bad luck is mentioned. To place a hat on a bed, invites it, as does incorrectly engaging with a mirror—which is my favorite, for no reason other than it's pure nonsense. Almost making it up as he speaks, Bob attempts to simultaneously counsel while making sense of his drivel and it is, nonetheless, rather endearing:
"Mirrors. Never look at the backside of a mirror. Because when you do it'll affect your future because you're looking at yourself backwards. [Pause] No. You're looking at your inner self and you don't recognize it because you've never seen it before. [Pause] Anyway, you can freeze into motion your future and that can be either good or bad in any case we don't want to take any chances."
Intrigued more by the second commandment, Nadine asks "Why a hat?"
"Because," Bob explains, "that's just the way it is."
We see, with that last line, how Hume's ‘is–ought problem' is, for serious drug addicts, a serious workout. Of all the faux pas a serious rational philosopher can make, the most toxic is the one that the addicts continuously make: extrapolating one's values and modes of conduct based on observations of how things are, to justify how things should continue to be. Of course they can't sweat it out—there would be no movie if they could. Besides, the drug addict/philosopher is a trope, put in place to prevent a preachy towel down scene that must follow when a movie turns too gritty or realistic. But because it is so seriously absurd (even more so than Jules reexamining his habits after he survives a spray of bullets in Pulp Fiction), it is one of the more realistic scenes about the fervent attempt made by those who live on the fringe to justify how the ‘indescribable' forces that keep them from the center continue to affect their future.
Willpower is a force. Apparently a describable one that can affect one's future, according to the countless studies over the last half-century that tested young kids against a plate of sweetly cooked product. Some do and some don't. Actually, it's some can and some can't delay gratification. Face to face with a cookie it's hard to interrupt that loop: trigger—routine—reward, once it's formed.
It wasn't until 2012 that in his useful little yellow/red book The Power of Habit, that Charles Duhigg set aside a few pages for Mark Muraven's idea of willpower. A PhD candidate from Case Western, Muravan, thought it strange that if willpower were a skill, (as previously thought) how come it lacked the attributes of a skill (solid, engrained, easy to retrieve), rather than the crutch, required for an action, that always seems to break.
High time, Muraven thought, to revisit and reinvent the cookie experiment.
Revisit the experiment, (initially done with marshmallows at Stanford in the late sixties), in which researchers behind a two–way mirror (to prevent anyone from looking at its backside!?!) observed kids who were confronted with a difficult choice: "You can have just one marshmallow now or wait fifteen minutes and have two." The researchers tabulated their results, and some fifteen years later followed up with their subjects (the kids, not the marshmallows). The young adults who, as kids, chose to delay their gratification and wait, on average had higher grades in school; had healthier relationships; and had, over their marshmallow–me–‘now' counterparts, a generally more ‘positive' expectation for their future.
To reinvent the experiment, Muravan used undergraduates at Case Western, not kids. Using both a bowl of cookies and a bowl of radishes, while not letting on to the undergraduates that he was testing their willpower but instead said he was going to "study," as he put it, "taste perceptions." (I'm not sure myself, upon reading this experiment, whether or not the subjects themselves knew what that meant.)
Only half the subjects, it was decided, would have their willpower tested (the ones instructed to eat the radishes and ignore the cookies), while the other half were given the opposite directive. When both groups were given, after ignoring their respective bowls for five minutes, a complex puzzle to complete, the group that had depleted their willpower from having to ignore the cookies quickly gave up; while the group who did not have to ignore the cookies stuck with it and persevered. From behind the two-way mirror, the burnished valuable conclusion was—in short—willpower, while being a learned skill, acts similar to a muscle that can be strained and fatigued.
For a seeker, the conclusion certainly is worth its weight in gold a few lines later, once one sifts through the lines:
"Researchers have built on this finding to explain all sorts of phenomena. Some have suggested it helps clarify why otherwise successful people succumb to extramarital affairs (which are most likely to start late at night after a long day of using willpower at work.)"
It's clearly pyrite. Did he really imply, in the above passage, that an extramarital affair is a kind of phenomena? I'm not buying the rhyme and reason he uses to conclude soundly that: The wandering spear always pokes the tired dear.
Of course, Duhigg wouldn't dare call habits, that which can ‘freeze into motion your future,' anything other than habits, although an alternate, less scientific book title comes to mind: The Power of Karma, which summarizes just as definitively the book (and Drugstore Cowboy's) significantly beautiful, yet rather horrific conclusion, that how you happen is what you choose.
"I predict," says the priest, played by beat writer William F. Burroughs, to Bob, "in the near future right–wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus." Burroughs paranoia, however lauded and esteemed, or, if you insist, his foresight in describing our current cloudy state of affairs, is slightly off the mark in the grand scheme of scenes. Instead, how's this scene for a ray of sunshine?
Rick: So like Dave, do you think you could get me a TV?
David: Yeah, I could get you a TV.
That even after a score, hydromorph "blue," (known colloquially as hospital heroin), runs through the crew's veins, yet Rick tries to fence some valium in exchange for the mother of all opiates.
It Was So
SO, LAST MONTH I CAUGHT myself saying this is torture when going through a tunnel, I heard someone say: “Victory smells like napalm in the morning.” As the subway emerged from out of the dark, I could see that this someone was a high-ranking film buff. Though he did cite correctly Apocalypse Now, I didn’t have the decency to bring him into the light. He was as smart as he looked. A real winner. And for that, deserved a court marshal. I hedged and parsed his lousy misquote before saying anything, and to my surprise found that there was a twinge of logic to it. He’s an aspiring Chomskyite, I thought, and his use of wordplay is merely a liberal experiment. The victory business, perhaps he’s trying to imply, is invariably feculent. Ah, nice one! The clever cinephile began to take on a lovable and relatable hue and my pain vanished.
But standing behind me was his crony. He, too, looked terribly gifted, and nodded in agreement when his savvy ally “informed” him that Apocalypse was Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut. My pain returned. Which device, I began to think, could I best use—the Judas Chair or the Iron Maiden—to turn these terrifically misinformed SJWs systematically right. I settled instead on stink eye. He didn’t scream ‘uncle,’ but he sure pursed his lips. Sleep deprivation, itself the most barbaric form of torture, awaits me tonight, I thought, if I don’t immediately take action. Pay it forward and correct him, I reasoned, so he can intelligently quote the line for future generations. He did, after all, inadvertently make me think of the film’s best scene.
Playing an image-maker on a decimated Vietnamese shoreline, Francis Ford Coppola (in a cameo) frames a ‘win’ for American newsreel when the Martin Sheen character, in-passing, looks directly into the camera:
“It’s for television,” Coppola’s character yells, “Don’t look at the camera. Just keep going. Don’t look at the camera. Just go by like you’re fighting. Like you’re fighting. Don’t look at the camera. It’s for television.”
While American superiority was being staged, Sheen was clearly getting in the way. A few scenes later, after another ‘win,’ Robert Duvall’s character carols how he favors the smell of napalm in the morning because it smells like victory. A line itself, however great, that teeters on bathos as no one, however macho, can truly claim to desire or wallow in the stomach turning smell of petrol; thus victory here, for those impressionable young minds who love the line, is indeed really nothing more than a euphemism for any situation that is corrupt, bothersome and indefensible. (Cover-up—the 1969 title of Seymour Hersh’s story, who himself received a Pulitzer for getting in the way—remains a slight understatement.)
The Killing of Osama bin Laden
Obama’s announcement—“It’s important to note that our counter–terrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to Osama bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding”—on May 01, 2011, according to one of the book’s sources, (who Hersh cites as a retired senior intelligence officer), was supposedly initially planned to be issued a week after UBL was killed, and framed as a lucky break—the unintended consequence of a drone attack on the Afghan side of the Hindu Kush. A cover story set in place so as to keep the involvement of two of ISI’s (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) top generals, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, a secret. Politically, however, methodical and deliberate intelligence gathering sounded much better than a lucky break and a change at the eleventh hour produced the version broadcasted.
One year after UBL’s execution, the world was granted access into the Sit Room when the President sat down with NBC’s Brian Williams to talk. ISI ‘cooperation’ was not to be mentioned, as according to Hersh’s source, Obama’s comment, made just a year earlier, had hopefully been long forgotten from the American memory. There was “the photo” of Hillary covering her mouth—not because of UBL’s execution but rather the Black Hawk crashing, itself, the major focus of the interview, including the drama of getting the Seals safely out of Pakistan—the wonder of it all, a solo American affair—after ‘Geronimo had been KIA.’ (The gunfight had to occur; it explains why the Seals abandoned their ‘capture’ protocol, their supposed objective.)
To whom is the neologism assigned? Kathryn Bigelow’s film, which itself took a creative liberty or two, or Hersh’s 144 paged book—released last April—which runs au contraire, mon sœur for the majority of her 157 minute political thriller? Alice herself—instructed on the nature of logic by Tweedledee and Tweedledum—was in the dark when being told that, essentially, all the thoughts in her own head are subject to contrariwise. How helpful is that, if one’s head is the very tool one uses to examine the truth claims made in “fake news?” (And yes, technically you’re right. It’s not new. But it was, for what it’s worth, coined around the same time Carroll published his Alice books.)
Having consigned both authoritative and sentimental respect to Tweedledum for Against All Enemies, and Tweedledee for Point Break—I don’t make a distinction on each point made as the tenuous line between fact and fiction is blurred, just a quick partition on some of the general points helmed; leaving “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t,” to the experts from Wonderland.
Tweedledee: tracking “the courier” is how the CIA analysts found the compound in Abbottabad. The CIA, unable to confirm unequivocally UBL’s identity, went ahead with the mission anyway; keeping ISI out of the loop. They crossed undetected into Pakistan using two “Area 51” helicopters equipped with radar defeat, hitting a guarded UBL, who remained, given the files and disks in his hideout, strategically and tactically “active”—(digital terrorist tchotchkes for the Seals to loot).
Tweedledum: UBL was not hiding in the compound in Abbottabad, rather, he was being held prisoner by the ISI after they suborned the tribal locals and captured him in the Hindu Kush back in 2006. The walk-in, from whom the CIA got their intel from, was a disgruntled ex-ISI officer who approached them in 2010 for the reward money. He passed a polygraph. UBL’s health, the walk-in concluded, was deteriorating, and his DNA was confirmed. ISI’s involvement, Generals Kayani and Pasha (mentioned earlier) ensured that the two Black Hawks crossed into Pakistan without triggering any alarms. An ISI intermediary led the Seals through the darkened compound—without a gun battle, thus making the operation a straightforward execution in his room on the third floor, four days after UBL’s murder White House legal bound the Seals to an NDA. And two months later, when the Carl Vinson returned to California, the crew, under strict orders, were silent about UBL’s—supposed?—“sea burial.”
The reader’s credulity is being tested, naturally, and quite early on too, as any thoughtful reader will not surrender their stink eye if, on Hersh’s first point mentioned above—most notably a pressing one, if not the most chilling one—logic fails to explain the zip up. He anticipated this, obviously, and he carefully unzips every bare point (and then some) that leads up to, according to Hersh’s source, Pasha’s reason given to U.S. intelligence for keeping first, UBL’s capture a secret, and second, why he was ostensibly being held as a hostage:
“We needed a hostage to keep tabs on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The ISI was using bin Laden as leverage against Taliban and al-Qaeda activities inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. They let the Taliban and al–Qaeda leadership know that if they ran operations that clashed with the interests of the ISI, they would turn bin Laden over to us [USA]. So if it became known that the Pakistanis had worked with us to get bin Laden at Abbottabad, there would be hell to pay.”
By the by, ZDT was often vocally charged with being a “pro-torture-film” by the same people (let’s say a friend or two of mine) who were later mum to Prisoners, released nine months after ZDT. So why the silence if, by ‘thinking’ one is fact and the other is fiction, they’ve made the obvious distinction? Desperate for the intel that could rescue his daughter, after American jurisprudence had failed him, a frantic Hugh Jackman thought to himself, “the hell with human civil rights,” and boarded up her kidnapper in a highly uncomfortable position for weeks on end. Her kidnapper, remember, was American, which makes the violence much more politically correct? We can, I suppose, invoke one of Escher’s strange loops, like Drawing Hands, and argue how torture is, in this case, merely a metaphor, and those fanatics who practice it, like Jackman in the film, are in effect just torturing themselves. Eh, smells like film school. Or is it, indeed, because fiction is lenient and provides, for those who adhere to a strict deontological code of ethics, a guaranteed discharge after vicariously condoning consequentialism? The private certainly does become political (Hanisch’s phrase, now synonymous with persuasions other than just feminism), and I heard more than one person, after a showing of Prisoners mutter variants of “If it were my daughter I’d have done the same” under their breath.
The film buff drew his hand on the subway and began to—before I could correct him on how to quote “victory” equitably and judiciously—engage his friend in a game of rock-paper-scissors; both opting for the dark yet humane strategy of remaining closed fisted. The deciding difference between a winner and a loser would—the logic was apocalyptic and indefensibly darker—come down to the one who could, given sufficient will on the next move to change, wound the one who is open.
It Was It
IT WAS OFTEN SAID that my high school biology teacher had major altitude, surpassing even his students in elevation, and could not lower himself even when pushed, down to the bottom so as to pay attention to the shallow speech that tickled the ordinary species of teachers in the faculty lunch room—merry, daft, and gay. Decidedly incontrovertible, and inexorably headstrong, his mental faculties had been painstakingly optimized through a stringent postdoctoral education, and were not burdened by substance abuse, or the stress and strain of a taxing marriage. Staying clear even from caffeine (in spite of his constant brewing) such disciplined psychological consilience, sharpened the stoic, however unforgiving, measured and meticulous reasoning that he was so tirelessly celebrated for in his classroom.
Good enough reason for an ex-student to return—after enduring Adaptation (released just months before the Human Genome Project was completed)—to their high school for a quick visit in 2002. I myself, having long ago slept through my teacher’s class, was now keen to give him his awakening: encouraging feedback to address the nature of his teaching, and the astonishing double act it pulled of being, much like Adaptation, full of depth and insight while being an absolute bore. The details of how the whole ‘show’ had been—in its totality—assembled, were never described as hectic, a hassle, or a giant mess that’s chock full of insurmountable odds and danger. He found a way, somehow, to cut out the best parts: from the birds and the bees to the flowers and the trees, and how they were all created by a force that yawned out its own dawning on how to best get off—by banging itself—to a rough indentured start before learning how to intercourse with itself selflessly and intelligently so that all things could, at the same time, come together. Bedroom etiquette aside, you have that idea to thank, even for those without a dangling appendage, for making you erect. Instead, he assembled the whole show into a 150-hour trailer that brought the whole house considerably down with a snore.
Even the hokey horticulturist/part time peddler of digital pornography John Laroche (Chris Cooper) was in the know of nature’s Bacchanalian ways. He instructs:
“…every one of these flowers [at an Orchid show] has a specific relationship with the insect that pollinates it. There’s a certain orchid that looks exactly like a certain insect so the insect is drawn to this flower, its double, its soul mate, and wants nothing more than to make love to it. After the insect flies off, it spots another soul mate flower and makes love to it, thus pollinating it. Neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives? But does. By simply doing what they’re designed to do something large and magnificent happens. In this sense they show us how to live—how the only barometer you have is your heart. How when you spot your flower you can’t let anything get in your way.”
Why then, I thought, as I entered my old school, did the immovable teacher appear to have never in his life used a pair of jumper cables. His battery was never charged, or, dare I say, pruriently aroused by evolution—a concept that so passionately focuses the minds of those who can’t resist being teased by an idea that plays so hard to get.
It was 4:00 p.m. and I would need, on my way through the empty corridor towards his classroom, to think of a sophisticated segue if I hoped to open up the old clam with a line. “I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something,” I’m now quoting the voice-over of Meryl Streep’s character, author Susan Orlean, “is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.” Orlean’s rather navigating insight, if we are to believe that fascination is indeed itself an attribute of evolution that grants us the ability, when the notion of the unattainable becomes too disheartening, to draw a line anywhere we please and call it, however briefly, “the horizon,” seemed a tad too sweeping to use on my teacher as an opener. I was in danger, real danger, of being perceived as an ex-student turned skipper who was out cruising. “Call me Ishmael,” forget that. I was there to challenge his so-called expertise on life, prompted by the comatose character played by Cage, who—with his fear of being devoured by bliss—seemed to know, or at least pretended to know, like my teacher, something about the advantages of never casting off that I didn’t. Comes the opening, as a reminder, five minutes in:
“I don’t want to cram in sex,” I’m now quoting Cage’s defunct character, screenwriter Charlie Kauffman talking about Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession to a producer who’s hired Kauffman to write the adaptation, “or guns, or car chases, you know, or characters learning profound life lessons, or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that; it just isn’t.”
Think now, just for a second: the world deconstructed and defined, or, rather undefined by the chain-smoking, turtle-neck wearing existentialists (who still exist) in their fitted French raincoats, and how they didn’t even bother to put the world back together again the way they found it. What about them? Even they knew that if one is going to be insufferable with friends, family, students, or colleagues, one is expected to sneer, however incomprehensibly, in a slightly come-hither tone, the advantages of seeing life as meaningless and absurd.
So then, at the foot of his classroom, before entering, I opted instead for a more Socratic approach. Rather than quote a line, I would, like a gadfly, simply ask a question. The answer to which would speak volumes about his character. Much like Cage to Streep in that imperishable scene inside her office at The New Yorker:
Kauffman: If you could have dinner with one historical person living or dead, who would it be?
Orlean: Uh, well, I’d have to say [rolling her eyes] Einstein or Jesus
“She’s lying,” Kauffman immediately concludes to himself, or, I should rather say to his twin brother, “people who answer questions too right are liars, and everybody says Jesus and Einstein, it’s a pre-packaged answer.”
My old teacher wouldn’t dare answer Jesus or Einstein, this much I knew. He’d say Darwin or Rachel Carson. Both are pre-packaged answers for a biology teacher, for the identity of the persons he truly yearned to have a candlelit dinner with—Mata Hari? Tina Turner? Richard Simmons?—would need to be protected for the sake of his pristine academic credibility. Amongst the educated class, however, it’s a known fact that the secret to exponential growth is to go outside one’s area of expertise. He would know that by now, no?
Upon my discovery that he was nowhere to be found, I learned that my old school, which had venerated the cold fish for possessing a quotient of Darwin’s genius (still more than most) had forced the great professor into taking a leave of absence.
You may care to remember that fish are the last to discover water.
The story, told by my old high school guidance counselor (who shouldn’t have been telling me this) was that: “he simply couldn’t take it anymore.” The teacher had spent his career thinking too deeply “into” nature (note the use of the word “into” rather than “about,” a detail I did not register at the time which now makes, after recognizing that such a difference exists, the story much more intense) which is what caused him to split upon taking in more than his fair share. This one-sided transaction then, of taking in more than one’s fair share is, as she never elaborated any further, presumably the rapacious extraction of nature’s pearls.
One night, in his living room, the late hours had pushed the inmost professor even further, culminating in a pitiless nosedive right into the very heart of his contemplations; the exploration of which, presumably, sunk so deep and distant, and the probing so fathomless and exacting, that once he emerged he got ‘the bends.’ A psychological version of decompression, or ‘adaptation sickness,’ if you will—the kind a diver gets from ascending too quickly and failing to acclimate themselves from the pressure they were under while scrutinizing the terrain of the abyss. Abruptly, and supposedly unaware of his own actions, Mr. _____ found himself distraught and denuded, without a stitch of clothing on other than a shower cap, frantically leaping about like a ballerina while shrieking, and here’s the part that causes me to groan both incredulously yet piously, in torturous elation: “I’m a whale; I’m a whale.”
A truly terrifying story, one that isn’t funny, not even slightly, if he in truth was having a psychotic breakdown. However, the old downer may not have been going insane. Indeed, perhaps he really was a baby beluga. A man in the throes of a provisional breakdown, akin to a breakthrough—a surge of Élan Vital that temporarily suspended his scientific biases; a surge he was merely struggling to adapt to. It would certainly, and quite significantly, nudge the dullard up the likeability scale as reveling in unmotivated jubilation makes for a most winsome idiot. (Raffi, the dinner date he was protecting?) Preferable no doubt to the humiliation of being, like Moby Dick, shadowed by a psychotic persistence, and the accompanying stress of losing one’s tail.
Consider American geneticist Francis Collins, who I would later read had a rather profound—profound because it’s a noticeably outrageous non sequitur—‘born again’ experience hiking in the mountains of the northwest. The discerningly acute agnostic-turned-atheist was also the brilliant American lead for the Human Genome Project and had mapped out the complete human genetic code (we’re not significantly more complex than pigs and bananas, it turns out) before dropping to his knees one afternoon in reverent awe at the sight of a frozen waterfall, in the backwoods of the Cascades, that he was certain was the work of the Christian holy trinity, with its intensely pronounced coruscating, crystalline symmetry. Mmmhh.
One of two things occurred (to my old teacher) as I think back on it, both of which I suspect involved nature pimping him out. First, using only the mind to penetrate nature is—as an approach, so one-sidedly “masculine”—the reason my teacher was finally discovering what its like to feel like a John—easily thrown, misled, and, for the purpose of one’s own evolution, tricked out by feminine velocity. A second reason, admittedly my favorite, would be that the dear unyielding professor was being taught, finally, having never taught his students himself—nor could he, unless he had experiential knowledge—about nature’s most historically persuasive gift, however idiosyncratic: her impulse for drama.
It Was If
IF TODAY YOU WERE to read Michael Korda’s Power! How to Get it, How to Use it, your conclusion would surely be that not much has changed since 1975. For example, the office party remains in critical focus. Depicted in that magnified chapter, “the Power Spot,” its details, graphic and explicit (even by today’s standards) remain uncensored. Chairs, ones with arms and ones without, the former being the more regnant; the deliberately weak handshake, a potent marker of privilege and ascendency; and last but not least, the mini-bar, the area to congregate if you’re a shrimp. Stationed, meanwhile, in the right-southernmost corner of the room is where you’d find the boss, who commands the room by circulating through it counterclockwise, thus their right arm (the arm a knight uses to draw their sword), is free to move against, without consequence, their culture.
You too, may recently have found yourself—whether the party was held at the office or at a colleague’s home—at the mini-bar, and momentarily cornered by ability and competence that far exceeded your own. Your direct report, loosened by libations, pinches your cheek, a cotton gesture to make you feel sufficient and adequate to witness the momentary dropping of their right arm as they murmur a wistful counterculture verse or two:
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
In this case, “The Sound of Silence”—covered recently by the metal band Disturbed—something you yourself may experience after your boss falls quiet upon asking the terrifically weighted: “What do you think?” The question, unqualified and deliberately obscure, is framed as such in the hopes that, when tackling the lyrics, you will surrender your artistic side and accidentally expose your political biases.
Equivocating by not first offering their opinion should give you the sinking feeling that your boss may think that Simon & Garfunkel’s folk lyrics: “People writing songs that voices never share, And no one dared, Disturb the sound of silence,” are not tragic. It’s mere common sense and practice; the downtrodden, when oppressed, your boss maintains, are supposed to remain meek, gentle and hushed if they know what’s good for them. On the other hand, your boss, you are loath to believe, may have chosen “The Sound of Silence” because it’s fungible with political correctness, that trendy virtue that you’re being tested for. Careful, you may think to yourself: race, class, and gender are “the holy trinity,” and your boss indeed may be a sanctimonious white blood cell, whose supposed protection of rights involves the termination of any free radical who uses free speech in vain.
We might assume that your boss certainly does “side,” whereby your failure to correctly identify “with whom” can quite quickly spell your doom. Think of just a few of the countless exchanges covered in the news that have occurred over the last year. For example, Jerelyn Luther, “the shrieking girl” from Yale who, with great hostility, publicly shamed one of her professors for his inability to model sensitivity and concern to those students on campus who were distressed or offended by certain Halloween costumes. She insisted that he concede to her premise; a laughable and imbecilic premise: universities are fundamentally supposed to be congenial homes, not places for intellectual discourse.
Or, perhaps Professor Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto, or, let’s say, former senior editor of Breitbart News, Milo Yiannopoulos, who unlike Peterson, uses humor (vulgar humor, similar to the kind used by the imperishable Lenny Bruce) to query the ethics and ramifications of standardizing and monitoring compelled speech. They have both taken strong positions on—or simply flat out ignored—certain segments of culture who assert their Big Brother status, under whose chivalrous care push to institutionalize political correctness via thoughtcrime management. Micro aggression detection and unconscious bias testing of students, colleagues and co-workers—the supposed efficacy of which increases empathy, reduces the need for safe spaces, and minimizes thorny and awkward or hasty and graceless speech which can unintentionally promote violence.
Strong positions: Peterson, by refusing to conform to bill C16, the Ontario bill that currently makes it illegal to not address transgender individuals by their preferred pronouns. (Failure to use preferred pronouns, claims Nicholas Matt, historian and lecturer at U of T, is itself hate speech—the heuristics of that particular statement can have you stumped.) And Milo, by his campaign to undermine, quite fondly, the gender-pay gap or any other stat cited by any other movement (Black Lives Matter to name one), with counter stats, citing often non-partisan polls such as PEW.
How’s this for a long shot? Your boss only cares about that one thing Vespasian says has no smell. (Recall in The People vs. Larry Flynt, the occasion of Flynt (Woody Harrelson), lured rather effortlessly into evangelicalism after a meeting with Ruth Carter Stapleton, who did not once question the thing his board presumes immediately; that he can’t possibly be serious about his campaign. For one thing, Marjoe, the film that won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1972, had been in wide release for quite some time. In it, tent-revivalist and public figure, Marjoe Gortner, demonstrates unapologetically how to feign a savior and redeemer performance so as to amass large sums of money from charitable devotees. Aware most assuredly of Marjoe’s con, Flynt’s staff both confused and conflicted; both wince and grin when Flynt vehemently professes the sincerity of his motives while suggesting, in that notable and revealing scene, that they hire Marjoe Gortner to photograph Hustler’s theocratic-themed layouts.) Each honest-to-God position.
Continuing with our assumptions—about our boss—we might stop at Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine. In her 1997 “Hollywood Cleans Up Hustler” op-ed for the New York Times, Steinem’s quibbling that Larry Flynt is not to be thanked for advocating or protecting free speech amended a perception for those who were perhaps too quick to believe that the film’s message was ‘all is fair in love and war.’ “Mr. Flynt’s victory only confirmed,” she writes, “the right to parody public figures (if the result can’t be taken as fact) and prevented plaintiffs from doing an end run around the First Amendment by claiming they suffered ‘emotional distress.’ ”
Finally, your boss, by having to repeat: “What do you think?” suspects that you’re merely stalling, and are terrifically afraid of others seeing your opinions as offensive. Itself a sign of poor judgment. That said, fear dramatized in that great scene, however grim, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “You knew something was wrong,” Stellan Skarsgård says to Daniel Craig, “but you came back into the house.” Did I force you? Did I drag you in? No. All I had to do was offer you a drink.” A bloody Craig, rather than insult Skarsgård, is now worse off, trapped in a basement, and forced to endure a lecture. “It’s hard to believe,” Skarsgård continues, “the fear of offending can be stronger than the fear of pain but, you know what? It is…”
Thus, the two urgent dimensions of real-world concern: remaining sincere while not offending, are on the line yet you falter with a disorganized and indecisive:
Your boss, however, hears:
To mutter AUM is to summon speech in its freest state, and unlike other movements—of the lip—it contains a rather novel teleology. In four steps, it systematically resounds both its gain and decline. But more critical, and perhaps more ironical, the yogic force is called out, and upon, to assuage emotional distress. Much as the letter A, stresses creation (a shimmy to unhobble inertia), and much as the letter U stresses preservation of that which thus far has been created, and much as the letter M stresses destruction, (loose lips now finished with sinking ships), nothing compares to the unstressed fourth step—silence, arrived at willingly by a speaker who’s free to control the wrecking of their own sound.
Your boss’s eyes widen as they comment on how politically savvy you are: wise and cultured, careful and farsighted, but remarks that you’re in deep; in what—like Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate—you’re not quite sure.
It Was Even
EVEN THE MOST RESOLVED critic of last month’s “Google Memo” is likely to be unresolved over the near tragic: We Do Not Have Wi-Fi: Talk To Each Other sign when considering how such a terrible inconvenience can be coupled with such an agreeable injunction. Written in chalk, often at burgeoning curated coffee shop entrances, its bidding, which began trending a few years ago, simply wants you to be happy. Or miserable, if one regards it as a political experiment, really—a “things over people” science kind—testing to see how the space, in general, peoples. Given that, no longer able to plug in and engage with their mechanical things, data-driven men would be absent leaving inside only women to leave each other out in the cold. But the female-male distribution, as it appears rather equal inside, would prove the hypothesis inaccurate. So everyone in the end makes out okay. Nevertheless, the injunction is disagreeable as it assumes that people are less divisive without their devices.
A thought, once realized, that delivers a grinding headache. (Was that not what one hoped to remedy in the first place by purchasing a coffee?) The well-intentioned sign does, though, foolishly advocate a nostalgic jog of sorts: Pretend it’s 1995. (Ah, the year Kim Basinger declared bankruptcy after paying out damages to Main Line Studio, which in 1993 sued her for pulling out of Boxing Helena. Her character was required to be trapped in a box after an obsessive male amputates sections of her body. Basinger began to feel that this was a slightly less than agreeable role for her. The film, in essence, didn’t need her; she was being sued on principle, as any women could play the part. Likewise, and brace yourself for this arresting bit of masochism, it was a woman who wrote and directed the film.)
But here’s what happened to two men in a box after the market put them there for not updating their skill-sets: Google opened it up and took them in. The only scene worth mentioning in The Internship lasts only a minute. A selection committee scrutinizes Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s application against the final preeminent barrier to entry—Google’s diversity ethos. The exchange is eerily and prophetically relevant to what happened to 28-year-old, Harvard educated, Google engineer James Damore several weeks ago.
“Can I say something?” asks team manager Lyle (Josh Brener) of the Indian American head of Google’s internship program, Mr. Chetty (Aasif Mandvi) who responds:
“You can. You will. We will resent you for wasting our time but please don’t let that stop you.”
Lyle is somewhat fond of the two affable wedding crashers who have zero education but whose experience in sales is deemed, in Lyle’s eyes, a marketable skill. So Lyle goes to bat for them:
“Diversity is in our DNA,” he tells Chetty. “I thought our goal here is to find a different way of thinking.”
Think Different, Get Hired; Think Different, Get Fired. Anti-Google guerilla style street art placed the above captions below the respective faces of Steve Jobs and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The art has been popping up in pockets around California after Damore got fired for writing “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” a ten-page memo that outlined how Google’s gender diversity imbalance—which favors men—is rooted, partly, in the agitating and abiding Nature vs Nurture exchange. The former, he makes the case, being the cause of what grants men certain curiosities, preoccupations, and sympathies—and women others.
The memo was written after Damore had attended an internal diversity program in which they [Google] “were explicitly asking for feedback” he revealed to journalist Maria Bartiromo days after his firing. Making it clear to the general public, who mostly were outraged after the memo was leaked, that it was not written without cause or in bad faith. (I believe, had Damore simply asked those leading the diversity program if they were cops, he could have avoided this whole mess. Entrapment is a valid spin.) The memo, once completed, circulated inside Google for nearly a month, relatively unnoticed, if not ignored. There are, I think, two obvious reasons for this.
One in particular that Damore perhaps himself knew was inevitable. In the table of contents, on the first page, the inclusion of a distressingly perceptive meta tag to symbolically represent how inertia sets in: TL;DR, which is internet slang to describe documents that are “Too Long” and thus people “Didn’t Read.” (Remember back in 1995 when reading comprehension was itself the only issue?) Echo chambers to a certain degree, then, persist in light of new perspectives because of the aforementioned meme.
Two, the original memo (circling internally at Google) was annotated correctly and had 30+ hyperlinks to Damore’s research material. This alone suggests that it was perceived, by and large, as just another inconsequential paper. Entry-level talking points, immaterial and insignificant, in spite of Damore being a software engineer at the senior level.
It may have also damaged his credibility, I believe, that five of the 30+hyperlinks directed to Wikipedia, a site that regularly has neutrality issues and thus constantly has to flag its pages for biased content. But the condemned memo’s five links, it turns out, were not redirects making research citations. They were merely employed to clarify terminology. For example, in case someone wanted to know the definition of a “Classical Liberal.” Any rational reader, I can only assume, would regard Damore as self-aware and precise in just two of the eleven footnotes respectively:
“Of course, I may be biased and only see evidence that supports my viewpoint. In terms of political biases, I consider myself a classical liberal and strongly value individualism and reason. I'd be very happy to discuss any of the document further and provide more citations.”
And page 3:
“Throughout the document, by “tech”, I mostly mean software engineering.”
However, Gizmodo, the site that posted the leaked memo, removed the 30+ hyperlinks, one chart, and one graph, which Gizmodo did mention, and reformatted the eleven annotations. Annotations that were no longer—such as the two above—in an “as you read” format for the reader to quickly reference at the bottom of each page. This is normally done for the author’s benefit, so their intent is not mischaracterized during their hearing. And also for the reader, who, to be fair, may find it choppy, but may lumber over ‘motive’ without them, and thus misread the clearing made by the author who had an axe to grind. As it were, Gizmodo aggregated them all and put them in their place. Death row. The very end of the memo, where the reader will most likely not go to begin their due diligence after they’ve just read the last sentence. The proof was in the putting.
Not to mention Gizmodo assumed a certain attitude regarding Damore’s intent, and regressed readers with it—who may have genuinely gone in with a grown-up’s mind—in their rather babyish headline: “The Anti-Diversity Screed.” An arraignment before the curtains were even drawn. Screed, the placing of one’s attention on an obvious point, a lengthy angry rant. A clear misrepresentation of Damore’s tone. Also his focus, software engineering, is just one role—tech is a multifaceted industry. A distinction unpicked by most readers, yet one that Damore was picky enough to make clear.
Even the most amateurish due diligence would reveal, quite quickly, how meta-analytic reviews are not predicated exclusively on PhDs, nor is the latter required to understand the former. (Or further. Despite having an MS in Systems Biology, Damore has been criticized for not completing a PhD.) Furthermore, various peer-reviewed meta-analyses on the subject Damore set out to argue do exist. The one consistently enthroned as epistemological bedrock to disprove his theory is the one by Janet Shibley Hyde, published more than 10 years ago.
Other reviews, not all, but a comfortable amount, concur with Damore, yet are meticulous, if not stringently careful on this point: implicit interest and inherent capacity are not the same thing. Workplace politics do play a role in shaping the economic landscape but, again, Damore never said this salient factor was to be ignored. (Grace Hoper, Katherine Johnson, and Margaret Hamilton are sufficient, although they have nothing to do with Google or Damore’s reflection, to undermine his memo with their staggering accomplishments, if the interest/ability difference made above is not kept in the back of one’s mind.)
Convicting Damore’s composition, then, as inimically hostile is nothing short of a psychological projection manufactured by both laziness, which lowers intuition into a state of emotional indulgence; and incompetence, which drives logic even lower, into a state of irrational hysteria. Laziness and incompetence, I now recognize, are one and the same thing.
Can you really have one without the other? Cops who lose their direction, it’s infamously known, due to their inability to police their own projections about robbers is a vivid example of how they wind up wearing their own cuffs. Diversity managers and HR departments are required to be the psychological pathfinders here, yet they accept no blame for their month of inaction after opening Damore’s spout, (they did ask for feedback) which they only gave a damn about after they discovered there was a leak.
The US Department of Labor, coincidentally, were and are investigating Google for wage discrimination. Make of that what you will.
Biology, the condemned discussion, because of the crimes it may or may not have masterminded in utero, should be in formidable hands. Considered one of the greatest intellectual capitals of the world, Silicon Valley rightly earns the lavish notice it receives for every one of its innovations. (By “innovation” I mean any product or service that increases value, while simultaneously decreasing complexity, for both the company and the end user.) There’s no reason why discussion can’t be a category along with products and services. One would expect.
A searching child asked the near ubiquitous and supposedly heartbreaking question, “Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?” The child, (no age was given), was YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s. The quote was headlined in a post of hers where she recounted an exchange with her daughter after the memo went viral.
Moral virtue, while certainly a value, does not prevent tragedies, nor is it increased by merely saying there’s a problem. It sounds terrifically glib when Wojcicki laments “…how tragic it was that this was now being exposed to a new generation…” If anything, it expresses an underlying irritation—possibly about identity politics failing to settle the Nature vs Nurture debate in the first place—and having to answer a question that is beneath her, in the second. Irritation usually surfaces when one is called upon to reduce complexity. But that’s what children do, and it’s a curtain-raising event, anytime they ask for it. (Assuming, of course, the question was even asked of her.) Either way it makes for a crackling puff piece.
But one is still slightly bound to take Wojcicki less seriously here as had she taken a moment to consider what her quote implied she would see how unforgivingly quick whimsy succeeds pity. A “child,” as set forth by the United Nations, is “a human being below the age of 18 years.” A spread taken advantage of—dare I say—to intentionally keep the age of her child ambiguous, heightening the likelihood that everyone will shriek in wretched terror and assume that the child is indeed an impressionable, five-, six-, or seven-year- old. Which makes the entire “incident” prodigious, not poignant. Such a child, at that age, Wojcicki’s claim would naturally imply, is gifted with a weakness for politics, if truly she was so clever as to be preoccupied with issues regarding leadership. (Mom, is it true?) On the extreme other hand, and to be less amiable yet merciful, if the child (or any child) was indeed 18 years old and ran to a parent after reading (or worse, just hearing about) the memo, then the leadership they’ve received up until then is of the sort that does not advocate self-education, let alone self-reliance.
As for the compelling argument of gender roles being socially engineered, people constantly maneuver their “voice” to suit the predictions and assumptions of others. How high or low should my octave rise or fall to best serve the expectations of the choir is incalculably stressful. Anyone who believes baton waving is not considered cultural stereotyping, are one, either tone deaf or two, hopelessly dim to the presence of a nagging and taxing societal maestro. I do, however, also believe that Biology itself can achieve escape velocity from culture.
As a kid, anytime I crossed the line, it was mother who rather abruptly turned muscular and disciplined me with force. While on one occasion, actually more than one, I saw my father—who himself never drank soy milk but was a stern critic of demure rubbish—wipe a tear from his eye after he was made weak by piffle. An episode of Coronation Street, Britain’s ghastly and interminable soap opera had him pining for god knows what. Critics and skeptics of biology, (this includes hormones) to determine and/or compel certain masculine or feminine “traits” are simply building a case against their own argument anytime they say: I’m not feeling like myself today.
Research and evidence do not always cohere so concretely; it’s one of the fundamental hallmarks of science that keeps us on grovel road. Only one-way mendacious dogmatism seems to pave so smoothly while paradoxically blocking discourse that goes the other way. To travel this way is to ensure a future destination where people who ‘don’t feel like themselves’ are summoned and mandated by pathetic and desperate street signs to Talk To Each Other.
One is not a drip, if inside a coffee shop, one swaps gender perspectives for reciprocal value: men who feel deeply offended by the memo and women who can rationalize why it was written. I would see this as a great place to make a pit stop. Even if I myself didn’t much anguish over weeping male fragility or trickling female stoicism when it can no longer clot. The wavering private and public opinion about the memo, one day this, the next day that, which differs greatly depending on the crowd one keeps, could use a good closing.
And if Damore’s conclusions on software engineering—drawn from his personal observations and measurements (and those of others)—are not, it may be argued, shared by the average classical liberal, there’s still a voice to notice on this occasion. One that perhaps in truth was searching, with great folly, for who on the spectrum remains slightly wobbly as a classical liberal, and is thus weak and misaligned, one engineer who authored an exercise, or a sore mob of indignant readers who couldn’t handle a stretch.
It Was Not
NOT LONG AGO, Jeff Bezos was asked at a conference at D.C.’s Smithsonian Air and Space Museum why the U.S. government’s interest in exploring space has been curtailed and more or less succeeded by entrepreneurs. He gave a peculiar answer. Bezos’ response, delivered in a tone that both extols and applauds NASA for their technical sagacity, whether intentional or not, leaves a near imperceptible contradiction to be unpacked. Breakthroughs can impede future technological breakthroughs, huh?:
“…Well, I think if you think back to the kind of hay-day of the 1960’s and the Apollo program and all of that excitement… my gut instinct on this is that we as a civilization, we as humanity, pulled that moon landing way-forward out of sequence from where it actually should have been.
It was a gigantic effort with what is, uh, in many ways… it should have been impossible and they pulled it off with you know barely any computational power.
They were still using slide rules they couldn’t numerically model.
And computers, a lot of these important processes like combustions inside a rocket engine which is still hard today but we can do it a little bit, uhm, they didn’t have computational fluid dynamics, everything had to be done in a wind tunnel that thing can be done on a computer.
So I think that the reason we’ve sort of taken a hiatus, maybe, and part at least, is because we pulled that forward to a time when it should have been impossible and then once it was done [we] kind of had to wait and let technology catch up…”
Moon hoaxers, such as the late Bill Kaysing, arguably the ‘father’ of the unbowed movement, began—long before Bezos’ comment and the release of Amazon Women on the Moon—to go the yard by magnifying similar millimetric contradictions. Such as the failure of scientific praxis that culminated in the careless electrical fire, hastened by the oxygen dense cabin, which tragically killed cosmonauts Edgar White, Roger Chaffee, and Virgil Grissom during the dire test launch of 1967. Which jeopardized Kennedy’s promise to Congress in 1961 of “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
Others, like James H. Fetzer, professor emeritus at UMD, and filmmaker Bart Sibrel, (my personal favorite because he’s as defensible as a dancing bear), focus solely on the so-called successful Apollo missions. Sibrel was convinced the American ‘experience’ had been poorly consecrated and took it upon himself to make it rich in 2003 (forcing one to bark in mock disbelief as to which antic was most childish). Sibrel’s insistence that each of the Apollo astronauts swear on the Bible in front of a camera regarding their spoken accomplishments. Or the fit septuagenarian himself, Buzz Aldrin, who declined outside a hotel in Beverly Hills, a nasally Sibrel retorted, “You’re a coward and a liar” whereupon Buzz socked the chubby filmmaker in the face.
Buzz appeared with his reputation intact on C-Span a few years later. Conspirators obsessed with the putative faces and pyramids on Mars got a validating lift, while down-to-earth secularists may have felt slightly betrayed by the pseudo-science of Buzz’s silly claim of “the universe” placing a monolith on Phobos, the larger of Mars’s two moons.
This was around the same time, mind you, that the “moon rock,” given decades ago to Dutch Prime Minister William Dress by Buzz, Collins, and Armstrong during their goodwill tour, was finally analyzed and discovered—despite the Apollo missions recovering more than 800 pounds of rock—to be nothing more than petrified wood.
Woody Woodpecker, if you’ve never seen the film, was used in an interlude to explain rocket propulsion in Destination Moon (similar to the way Jurassic Park’s cartoon segment explains how dinosaur DNA is sequenced) to make it more accessible for an audience. Despite his brief appearance, the film remains the first to dramatize a trip to the moon in an adult, long-faced mood. Released in 1950, three years into the Cold War, the reason for going to the moon, as explained by the character General Thayer “…is quite simple. We’re not the only ones who know that the moon can be reached. We are not the only ones who are planning to go there. The race is on and we’d better win it...”
As an aside, our most recent total eclipse on August 21st was much more than just the moon momentarily stealing all the sun’s karats; it was the 60th anniversary of the Soviet’s launching of R-7 Semyorka, the world’s first ballistic missile. A precursor to what would be, just a few months later, another first for the Soviets when they launched Sputnik, the world’s cardinal satellite. Stealing, yet again, a glowing gold spotlight from the U.S. It’s not really a stretch to imagine scores of demoralized American government officials reaching for the bottle yet refusing to participate in that celebrated drinking game Never Have I Ever.
Hmmm, I wonder if Tricky Dicky’s televised congratulatory phone call to Armstrong and Aldrin was really a staged carriage to bulwark America against the above intruding sentence. Old Milhous making a near-midnight call to the moon can have you turning, if one thinks on it too long, into a moon hoaxer. One who’s obsessed with real pumpkins.
Meanwhile, they snap a few photographs, (more on this point later), they detect uranium in nearby mountains, which they do not harvest, they realize once they’re on the moon that leaving Earth and reentering its atmosphere requires the rocket to be lighter, so they litter two tons of steel-twined rubbish from the rocket’s bowels onto the moon’s surface before returning home. In other words, Destination Moon’s cosmonauts simply bugger around.
The film was, to make a crude point, released long after Sir George Darwin made his own moonwalk—back and forth in his room—when the pacing astronomer laid the footprints for fission theory. The moon’s highly malleable origin story, which later became the glass slipper in the heads of astrophysicists who made it fit with today’s giant-impact theory. But released well before James Van Allen had discovered in 1958 what was, and currently is, fastened around Earth. “The double belts,” also known simply as the inner and outer Van Allen belts, a band of radiation 1,000 km above the earth which extends to the limits of the outer belt at 50,000 km.
A certain obstacle, back in the sixties—one that moon hoaxers believe makes all the Apollo missions impossible. TDRS satellites, for example, can coast through the belts but organic payloads, such as Apollo, would require a rocket fitted and burdened with so much lead that lift-off itself would be near impossible due to the weight. Incidentally, every other manned mission: Projects Mercury and Gemini, along with the SkyLab and International Space Station, remained well below the belts.
Moon hoaxers are also hung up on the photographs. The jargon can get tedious, but the respective split between believers and hoaxers, simply put, is: Kodak employed unique gels and emulsions that were coalesced to create a one-of-a-kind film stock that could withstand non-terrestrial conditions (the moon’s zero atmosphere and exaggerated surface temperatures). Tolerant film sensitivity? You’re kidding! The other side maintains that the film was just ordinary Ektachrome 64 and thus would have been damaged.
As would the parochial D2 batteries inside the problematic Hasselblad. Problematic because its focus and aperture rings are controlled manually by levers outside the camera which had, that’s right, its viewfinder removed.
And then there’s port and starboard inconsistencies, (a boat’s left and right side respectively when one is standing on its bow) and how this orientation is analogous to the Eagle’s hatch door and the purported “side” from which the lunar rover was being loaded and unloaded. And how the Apollo pictures supposedly don’t square with transcripts from NASA.
And if the landing was indeed staged, the most budding astronomer could instantly spot anomalies in the constellations, so by necessity a starless sky had to be photographed on a set. While the other side maintains the photographs were taken on the moon with a camera exposed for broad daylight.
Speaking of boats, there’s a story of Neil deGrasse Tyson taking a confiding jab at James Cameron for the climax of Titanic. We the audience were supposed to be focused on weepy Rose and Jack, not the constellations in the background that never once lined up consistently from shot to shot. I side, without contradiction, with both Cameron and Tyson’s logic because they place their focus and attention on what they love. As do the moon hoaxers. “For being in love,” Sting once recounted in his autobiography Broken Music: A Memoir, “is to be relieved of gravity.” A feat he felt returning home from his girlfriend’s house one night—the inspiration, he cited, for making “Walking on the Moon.” A story so unbelievably catchy we can’t help but sing along.
It Was On
ON THIS RED-LETTERED month the Movember-man ought to remember that long ago the word ‘bad’ was associated with people who were timid and feeble whereas those who were effective and imperious were studied as ‘good.’ He indeed ought to remember this when he’s examining his head (even if he’s in the clear) for that one word that best describes how he feels when he’s staring down at his testicles. One or two will come to mind, Dankbarkeit, a guttural German word for gratitude, humanity’s most prized emotion, or two, ressentiment, the euphonious French word for a person who is unable to express to others that he owns a pair of brass balls.
The second word fascinated a brilliantly sour kraut who earned a Chair in the Philology department at the University of Basel when he was in his early twenties (a feat unheard of in 1869). Friedrich Nietzsche himself had a most impressive moustache when he later explored the previously mentioned (but historically forgotten) rubric: the fragile and failing were ‘bad’ and the robust and enduring were ‘good.’
Hence, the weak/bad invariably felt, Nietzsche noted, ressentiment towards the strong/good, who never had to take orders; exercise humility; observe temperance; or endure the discomfort of self-sacrifice. It was here, in those three essays, On The Genealogy of Morality, that Nietzsche argued why, long ago in a galaxy not so far way, it was the weak who imported the conception of the dark side. The weak, in other words, swapped nomenclature with the strong, branded themselves ‘the good,’ and went one step further by substituting the word ‘bad’ with a much more malevolent word: ‘evil,’ to describe the strong.
By enthroning notions of deference, submission, and meekness as superior, the weaker but newly self-appointed ‘good’ were able to cloak their desire for revenge against the physically superior ‘evil’ by deeming worldly pleasures and possessions inferior. For all that, undesire became the parturition for ‘slave morality,’ and the very pretext that allowed a slow uncloaking of a rising priest class. On the grounds of their unalloyed soul (a product of their compulsory subjugation and forced austerity), the priest, claiming to know how reality organizes itself and what conditions compromise the human personality, could now negotiate with ‘the evil.’ In some isolated cases, they could even influence and control ‘the evil,’ who because of their ‘master morality’ (which made them ostensibly undefeatable) never were required to think of anything other than the superficial three-dimensional reality they so effortlessly took charge of.
The priests, however, were also victims of their own self-constructed disadvantage—depth.
Made unshallow by their pensive daydreaming, and relentless preoccupation with the inestimable degrees of eternal reward and punishment, the circumference of the priest’s psyche expanded. Like a near bottomless bucket, their ability to receive and carry greater volumes of love eventually surpassed the average person—but so did their storage capacity for dread and disgust. So who, at the end of the day, ran the risk of spilling the most profound quantities of contempt towards mankind? The priest.
Envy, a natural emotion one generally feels upon seeing others who have been able to maximize their skills, abilities, and talents, and is really nothing more than the recognition that one can do the same with the correct amount of effort and discipline, was regarded by the herd (the weak), as unhealthy. Under the priest’s tutelage, the herd were commanded to simply love their neighbor. Feeling envious over a neighbor’s accomplishment or recent acquisition was something to be ashamed of, a sign of sickness within the self. Shame and guilt were thus correlated with coveting ‘strength’ which kept the herd in a state of bondage to perpetual, self-replenishing mediocrity. A pernicious stance, to say the least, that’s somewhat hostile to the general spirit of progress and increase.
One idea you can play with in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is that the priest, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), knew (before the story started) that the numinous alone was insufficient to ensure his family’s survival. Naturally, he was ‘weak/good’ to begin with but the aforementioned insight made him ‘strong/evil’—a side of himself he was loath to envy. Eli, no longer able to repress both his envy and the insight that oil prospecting is a vital part of the equation, ‘creates’ Paul. Eli’s ultra-religious family would also do their part in helping him to distance himself from his envy by calling his pathology ‘the twin.’ In other words, Eli is indeed Paul. This relieves Eli, who is only concerned with evangelical pursuits, of any guilt for having to lure Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) another ‘strong/evil’ person, back to the Sunday farm to broker a deal. Eli’s hands remain clean for prayer, as Paul, the family ‘Judas,’ was the one who performed the reprehensible deed of letting a fox near the henhouse.
(Notice anything unusual in the scene at the real estate office, immediately after Plainview closed his deal with the Sundays? Plainview flinches upon discovering that six dollars an acre, the price Eli seemed to ‘guess,’ was spot on with the market price for the Sunday ranch. Eli most definitely did his due diligence before Plainview had arrived in town.)
If confronting one’s envy is genuinely regarded as a prerequisite for self-mastery, then watching Plainview, the town’s ‘evil’ presence, own up to his suggests that the process itself is both daunting and haunting.
“Do you get envious?” Plainview asks the man who is posing as his brother. “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed…” Plainview continues before turning misanthropic “…I hate most people,” he escalates, “…there’s times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” Be that as it may, his admission ironically puts Plainview on the same level as the priest, and thus begs the unpleasant but necessary question: of the two, who provides more value to the hens, the weak/good person or the strong/evil person?
Take, Plainview, ‘in the henhouse’ addressing the folks of Little Boston about inanition and that cherished biblical staple called “…bread, let’s talk about bread. Now to my mind, it’s an abomination to consider that any man, women, or child in this magnificent country of ours should have to look upon a loaf of bread as a luxury.”
Upgrading Little Boston will take a miracle, one Plainview can demonstrate rationally and perform methodically when he promises to “…dig water wells here, and water wells means irrigation and irrigation means cultivation and we’re going to raise crops here where before it was simply not possible. You’re going to have,” Plainview assures, “more grain than you’re going to know what to do with. Bread will be coming right out of your ears. New roads, agriculture, employment, education…” the very things that inoculate a community from the vagaries of life that ordinarily exploit and eradicate the hopeless and defenseless. Making the difference between mere survival and predictable flourishing a solvable mystery.
Inoculation from paucity that Plainview offers is a tacit shot: detached, impartial, and analytical Hero-worship, geared preferably towards the unsentimental power of cause-and-effect, is itself a reliable and genuine savior in times of great difficulty. Thus, without having to scream the ever awkward “I Have The Power!” He-Man, or, the Übermensch, if you insist, is revealed to the people of Little Boston. Leaving Eli adequately emasculated, at least momentarily, when he timidly holds up his hand while asking the rather gangsterish “…will the new road lead to the church?”
In the film’s ending, there’s a patently obvious analogue to spot between that infamous allegation in The Gay Science (about a certain someone’s expiration) and Plainview’s intelligible if not inevitable response to Eli’s pitiless attempt at a shakedown. Consistent with the film’s timeline (late eighteen to early nineteen hundreds) Nietzsche’s ideas were being introduced into the ether and are echoed in Plainview’s commandment to Eli, “I’d like you to tell me that you are, and have been, a false prophet and that God is a superstition” in return for one hundred thousand dollars. Altering the chemistry, when you think on it, of that molecular but atomic question I mentioned earlier regarding who provides more value. So it becomes, as one can’t overlook the nihilistic explosion at the ending of this magnificent film: of the two, which bully is undoubtedly the most threatening, the strong/evil person or the weak/good person?
It Was Ten
TEN YEARS AGO Bloomberg Businessweek published Emanuel Derman and Paul Wilmott's charitable post-crisis contribution. It was published twice. Once before Christmas and once after. Perhaps to measure whether or not the market’s attitude shifted upon witnessing a specter. An example of just two of the pledges, out of a possible five, from The Financial Modeler’s Manifesto, which they scribed and sub-headed as “The Modeler’s Hippocratic Oath” for engineers, and the industry in general, to consider and recite: “I will never sacrifice reality for elegance without explaining why I have done so” and “I understand that my work may have enormous effects on society and the economy, many of them beyond my comprehension.”
One may not comprehend nineties-Clinton, who incidentally had the time during his impeachment, to repeal Glass-Steagall, the great bastion of sensibility that was put in place in 1933 to prevent unwelcomed and opaque advances like proprietary banking. Which, among other things, clearly allows commercial and investment banks to knock each other up. Deregulation could be delivered into the bathwater and adopted by banks to keep them more than just afloat, while their fiduciary responsibility to the corporations they trade with could be abandoned in the name of their own ledger. This was no longer, on paper, called fooling around. Finance, a conduit deployed to grow the economy, could also leave without anyone having to look the other way if and when it intentionally went nowhere real, or grew anything useful, other than the bank with its prodigal return.
Knocking up banks became a free choice. A choice that required models; financial models, which enjoined acute and energetic agility. “It’s all just numbers really, just changing what you are adding up,” Zachary Quinto admits in Margin Call “and to speak freely,” he concludes, “the money here is considerably more attractive.” Such was the reason engineers and mathematicians chose Wall Street over Main Street in the late nineties. (Right around the same time that the credit card juggernaut, Providian, was in the midst of a subprime scandal for intentionally holding back the monthly minimum payments made by their barely credit-qualified clients in order to penalize them with increased interest rates.) Nevertheless, banks, in no time, trading with corporations, soon matriculated consumers into their trade mix. Mutating the Mortgage-Backed Security (MBS), which had been, since the late seventies when Lewis Ranieri first conjured them up, relatively benign; relatively exclusive to the mortgage broker; and kept relatively in check by Glass-Steagall for nearly a quarter of a century.
But not to question the consequence of risk is to summon the oldest saying in business: if you walk into the boardroom and can’t spot who the sucker is, it’s you. However, all the bankers knew that risk ties up capital. So no suckers, only lollipops. To the ones who discovered that risk could be separated from a loan; making risk itself an entity; one that could be offloaded or swapped to prevent anyone from ever having to take a real licking. As long as risk continually moves around the market, the sweet-sounding flavours expertly coated the confections’ sour center.
Enter Credit Default Swaps (CDS). Which, when swapped, both rewarded one, the insurance seller, for selling so many positive positions on an MBS, (the belief in its ability to endure escalating interest rates) and two, the insurance buyer, for taking a negative position on the MBS, believing that the mounting interest rates would eventually break the new homeowner. (Pop-Budump-bump-bump.)
Thus, the secret to perpetual motion—regardless of which side of the transaction one was on—had finally been discovered. Also, risk, on the CDS itself, if packaged correctly, could be securitized, graded, and marketed as a synthetic Collateral Debt Obligation (CDO), an idea for a derivative that just got brainier and brainier: Just one CDO, in addition to being an explicit measurement of the current risk swelling inside a near infinite amount of CDSs, could also be wagered a near infinite amount of times against just one CDS.
This so-called explicitness, the market’s credit rating agencies accurately rating toxic CDOs as ‘Speculative Grade,’ C class or lower, rather than the ‘Investment Grade,’ triple B or higher, (which indeed the toxic CDOs were receiving) marginally inhibits systemic risk. (Trust in this rating process is what blinded Steve Carell, in The Big Short, for so long before finally seeing that that the rating agencies were not straight.) As we were to learn from The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s nineteen-day hearing held in 2010, heads of the good rating agencies defended their knotty rating process by declaring that they were merely “opinions.”
In contrast, asset or retirement portfolios are generally made up of ‘regular’ securities when the banker forgoes “opinions,” because long ago, it was learned that ripples (when a single commodity index shifts; whereupon a bond index shifts; whereupon a currency index shifts, so on and concurrently so on) could be smoothed out via negative correlation. A lighthouse, in other words, that guides volatility safely to shore in an investor’s portfolio by ensuring that their pool of securities are not on the same wavelength.
The bankers’ general sentiment, again, at the FCIC, was that they were simply unable to see just how positively correlated the MBSs were to the CDSs and CDOs flooding the market. Or they did see, as the commissioners believed—they just didn’t care. (Arrr, at sea, the eye patch makes it difficult for us to see.) Positive correlation mushrooming across the investment spectrum produces, as mentioned before, systemic risk—the very thing bankers fear most. A barefaced contradiction then, to the aforementioned accusation of the bankers not caring, unless the bankers hallucinated that they would be, without question, bailed out of their bad trip.
Finally, to take a slight jab at the disappointing Wall Street 2, which, unlike Margin Call, failed to convincingly reconnoiter how intimately connected indolence is to financial ruin, one must acknowledge Margin Call’s acute employment of the “MacGuffin” (a conceit in a film’s narrative that propels the drama forward yet, ironically, keeps the audience’s attention on the character’s reaction to the drama rather than what caused it)—as the crisis that the executives, and analysts in Margin Call fell into was caused by a single “model” they incorrectly calibrated. The model, as a MacGuffin, frees this exceptional film of laborious and indulgent conversations about CDSs, CDOs, and MBSs so that it may scrutinize the management culture of superabundance, as the firm’s players opine amongst themselves, over the course of twenty-four hours, how the great majority of them (in spite of the model’s complexity) knew in advance that the model would be unsustainable. Apparently common sense itself is sufficient to adjudicate complexity. Of the seven deadly sins, then, the one that they were all guilty of was the one that succeeds greed.
Something that the moneylender in Dickens’ glorified yuletide novel was never guilty of. Whose first name, as a side note, if divided, spells out the location in Bronze Age Palestine where two sanctimonious tribes turned acrimonious. Eben-Ezer himself, however, never succumbed to subprime lending even when his cupidity was being spelled out to him, loud and clear, during his encounter with the indigent children “Ignorance” and “Want.”
It Was Midway
M IDWAY THROUGH his memoir—right before he explains the ins-and-outs of writing—Stephen King admitted to us how he escaped in-and-out of the eighties with the help of cocaine, alcohol, and diazepam. Another candid breath of fresh air was the passage where he admitted to mouthwash. Initially, he denied the charges when his wife confronted him about his Listerine ‘problem,’ as Scope was the brand he imbibed. King became, as it were, the subject of a swift intervention whilst his standard of living was on the rise. The entire episode is actually quite lyrical if one recalls an earlier entry about his mother addressing him in his youth about the time she once heard someone die. King thinks back:
"I asked how you could hear a person die and she told me that it was a girl who had drowned off Prout’s Neck in the 1920s. She said the girl swam out past the rip, couldn’t get back in, and began screaming for help. Several men tried to reach her, but that day’s rip had developed a vicious undertow, and they were all forced back. In the end they could only stand around, tourists and townies, the teenager who became my mother among them, waiting for a rescue boat that never came and listening to that girl scream until her strength gave out and she went under."
Was King himself playing the role of that little drowning girl as an adult? A scintillating and admittedly Freudian metaphor for her son’s future. King, swimming in drink and drugs; out past the rip; caught in its vicious undertow; crying out for help; not being able to return; and thus casting his family and friends in the role of helpless spectators as they watch him die. Such a connection, his mother’s story, for example, foreshadowing his near fatal predicament and intervention is what makes King, regardless if his memoir was intentionally structured as so, the golden plaque writer.
Other fillings in King’s memoir include a peculiar incident that prompted one novel in particular by applying what he called “…two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis…” The later merged with the former, he recalled, while working as a janitor in a high school one summer in the late sixties. A forgotten Life magazine article he had once read reopened his mind upon discovering that a certain metal rectangular box mounted on the girls changing room wall was not for paper towels but tampons. (The article postulated that girls, more than boys, are most prone to telekinetic powers. Especially as they near their menarche.) King envisioned a group of teenage girls behaving rather uncharitably towards one of their effete classmates and knew that this classmate could get tit for tat against her persecutors by channeling her incubating telekinetic powers. King later did, however, have several problems with his outline for Carrie:
“First and least important was the fact that the story didn’t move me emotionally. Second and slightly more important was the fact that I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready-made victim. The other girls were chucking tampons and sanitary napkins at her, chanting “Plug it up! Plug it up!” and I just didn’t care. Third and more important still was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. I had landed on Planet Female…”
A planet that need not be problematic, King’s wife insisted, after she discovered her husband’s discarded manuscript in the trash, which he then finished—launching his career. But the most astonishing passage in his memoir is the one that appears most vacuous. One has to go back and reread it before noticing just how amputating it really is. It hobbles with insight, and it involves King’s muse:
“He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”
This idea of being ignored, as King puts it, is significant for two reasons. One, it’s a form of abuse; one that “basement guy” uses to intimidate King. And two, King is being ignored by an accomplished male muse, yet King does not resort, as a crutch, to objectifying the tried-and-true image of female perfection for stimulation and creative fertility when he’s forced into labor for his own trophies.
One can’t overstress, however, King’s near and total disregard for symbolism and theme —objects of worship he kicks dirt at:
“Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that King’s second method for generating ideas remains safe, common, and regional. “The most interesting situations,” he says, “can usually be expressed as a What-if question.” Citing examples for Desperation and Salem’s Lot, and finally
“What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)?”
His best novel (and film), grown, I believe, by mixing his topsoil “What-if” method with the subsoil of “basement guy.” The merging of two unrelated ideas, which King himself does not cite as the cause of Dolores Claiborne, but was, I’m convinced, because ‘basement guy’ is indeed Dolores’ husband: Joe (David Strathairn). Furthermore, Joe is a ‘basement guy’ bereft of accomplishments. For a wife, or daughter, Kathy Bates and Ellen Muth/Jennifer Jason Leigh, respectively, no relationship could be more shameful or terrifying.
Here, then, we regard another King film about wrongful accusation and confinement and escape; one that will move you emotionally; one that has a likeable lead character (who isn’t thick or passive); and a film that is less romantic than the one that was released a year before Claiborne about imprisoned criminals who were legitimately sensitive whilst their prison guard and warden remained legitimately insensitive. Such poetic role reversals are not redemptive and sound slightly banal and whimsical if one legitimately does not reflect on the nature of a scream, its horror matched only by the uncertainty of its cause—a hopeless predicament or the realization that no rescue boat will ever make its way.
It Was How
H OW PROVACATIVE it is that Keanu Reeve’s seminal role was a character that was named after a specific part of the brain that one needs if one ever hopes to be woke. In Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, we get a hint as to why this is so. Dating to the late fifteenth century, the mural is a depiction of an explicit paradox. Instantiated inside a pink cloth we find the shapely form of a muscular, white bearded god, extending his finger to touch Adam’s, who without having to pass through a certain birth canal, already has a navel. Adam’s belly button, a rather obvious observation, was superseded by a much more acute one made by Frank Meshberger in the early 1990s. A physician from Indiana, he noticed that protruding from the lower contours of the pink cloth was a dangling leg belonging to a member of god’s entourage. When regarded dispassionately and in context of Michelangelo’s meticulous study of human anatomy, it soon became clear that the pink cloth was intentionally draped to resemble the outline of the cross-section of the human cerebrum. The dangling leg represented the medulla, the part of the brain stem responsible for specific involuntary processes in the human being. Michelangelo himself, of course, unaware of its specific function, consciously included it in his masterpiece to make the organ itself the center of the cosmos for generating concepts—which later was discovered, can only be engineered by something called the cortex, first name neo.
Up for debate, then, is control. Only a few hundred thousand years old in age, the neo cortex, that which constructs both half and fully baked concepts, (such as a personal deity that creates and commands all that ever is, was, or will be), is dwarfed in age by the Cambrian explosion, the impersonal process, which issued the construction of life nearly half a billion years ago. Age, you see, comes before beauty. Thus the wise have to lead the vain. Any process, in other words, that has the least number of candles on its birthday cake will be the one that has problems with authority—Neo’s issue, if you recall, along with his wish for absolute freedom. There’s a story here, one Michelangelo seems to be painting about our brain’s compulsion to play chess whilst we hide from our own awareness our very role in manufacturing ‘the matrix.’
The Matrix—now a pet name for anything that eludes or enslaves the mind—was, at the dawn of the millennium, instrumental for promoting two things: Baudrillard’s Simulacrum & Simulation, and the use of “bullet time” photography to get us to a place, by the time we left the theatre, to ask such irritating questions like how do we know what is real. But wait, it already was cool to ask such questions, and was teased out, a year earlier, in Germany:
“Man, probably the most mysterious species on our planet. A mystery of unanswered questions. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? How do we know what we think we know? Why do we believe anything at all? Countless questions in search of an answer, an answer that will give rise to a new question, and the next answer will give rise to the next question and so on. But in the end isn’t it always the same question? And always the same answer?”
In Run Lola Run’s opening. The titular character, played by Franka Potente, would go on, for elevated reasons such as saving her boyfriend from extinction at the hands of a drug dealer, to have her soul separated from her body three times to explore the outcomes of “Dasein.” That vexing and elusive term, often translated to mean “potential” or “existence” coined by Martin Heidegger, the German phenomenologist (who himself, upon being woke, had to disentangle his reputation from its brief association with the Nationalist Socialist Party lest it undermine his conscience, his destiny, and his canonical work Being and Time).
It’s quite the treat to rediscover that the aforementioned phenomenon are both the subject and the obstacle of Run Lola Run respectively, and when combined creates the matrix (not oppressive machines). A matrix that exists inside not outside so as to checker the lead character in this seminal film. Akin to “Lila,” the Sanskrit word for game, and the reason Brahman created the universe, Lola is a willing pawn and travels, in her multiple frantic peregrinations, without an intermediary such as a time machine or a special suitcase to reframe the scenarios contrived by space and time. She used her ‘neo,’ along with that inestimable something that Bobby Fisher—a sterling example of a paradox—favored on his deathbed when he resolved with his last dying breath that, “nothing is so healing as the human touch.”
It Was Here
H ERE IS A SENTENCE that gives people a fifty-fifty chance of making heads or tails of it when it lands. It’s from Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and goes like this, “I could always live in my art but never in my life.” The sentence itself has been the subject of many other great films such as 8½, Le Mépris, and Mulholland Drive, and is, as it were, a sentence that advocates sensitivity training for you know who—the unable. Actually, there is a legitimate problem here to be worked out. On one side, the average citizen unable to empathize with the artist who is unable to adjust to the common hours of day-to-day living, and on the other side, the artist who is unable to empathize with the average citizen’s idea that sensitivity is just another term for common sense.
Perhaps Dogme Ninety-Five rings a bell along with that spurious reflex to repress one’s contrarian attitude about the movement’s “Vows of Chastity.” The movement’s supposed genius was that it was sensitive towards the perennial values of story, theme, and acting, and thus forbade filmmakers to use special effects, ancillary lighting, dollies or cranes, and non-diegetic music. Distractions, in other words, that prevented the filmmaker from focusing on his or her primary duty of expelling banality and superficiality from the art of filmmaking. Other than The Celebration, anyone who had common sense could not deny that indeed each piece the movement expelled into the theatre was fresh but not solid as it would have dawned on them that they had just allowed a sensitive person to trick them into buying a seat inside an outhouse. Lars Von Trier (the movement’s founder) would have benefited from watching My Dinner with Andre to see that a film with unusual form may be hard to push out but it can still make a splash without falling into the Bristol Stool Scale.
The film, (which takes place in one location) is about a sensitive theatre director, Andre (Andre Gregory) who is reduced to tears upon recalling Bergman’s “I could always live in my art but never in my life.” His estranged and equally sensitive playwright friend Wally (Wallace Shawn) agrees to meet him for dinner whereat the film captures, in one sitting, their competing views on the meaning of life in 1981. They examine, among many things, our compulsion to be absorbed by the artifacts we create, which makes us less authentic (something a majority of the current TED talks assume is a new subject as they bemoan how the digital revolution has created ‘social utensils’ that can cause us to feel isolated and fragmented if they are not used correctly).
I could always live at my dinner table but never in my life, sums this film up just fine. As it is here where we are first taught to mind our manners. “Manners,” Emily Post once wrote, “are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
It Was Off-key
O FF-KEY DESCRIBES A COMMENT made by author Caroline Myss more than a decade ago, that today forces us to revisit our assumptions about information. On an Australian podcast to promote her book Invisible Acts of Power she made a rather abrupt and anecdotal digression about monarchs in the dark ages, and the manner in which they deployed the states’ highest and most meaningful secrets. Information of this sort was always entrusted to, and safeguarded by, the fool. Of course, the comment jars itself as absurd until logic ferments. The fool himself, as a single personality, has no political aspirations and has dedicated himself to a life of compulsory nonsense. So consider: if the grapevine was compromised, no clear right thinking person could rely, let alone believe, in the veracity of the fool’s emboldened rubbish.
Today on American late night television, which has now given us multiple personalities since Letterman faded permanently into the background, we find fixtures on the network foreground like Noah and Meyers, Bee and Colbert, building their legacy on raillery whilst simultaneously assuming that it grants them the regnant title of being the bastions of serious public discourse. Without the aid of an audience, teleprompter, or laugh track, it’s hard to imagine any one of these court jesters being sober in a closed room unbottling “Russia” or “Flynn,” “Comey” or “Mueller,” right in front of the president as they serve him the whine.
Frost, itself an archaic term for rouse and irritate, is precisely what CBS’s Robert Pierpoint tried to do a year before the president withdrew from political life. At an October press conference in 1973 he asked President Nixon, “What is it about the television coverage of you in these past weeks and months that has so aroused your anger?”
Nixon shook his head. “Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger.”
“I’m afraid, sir, that I have that impression,” Pierpoint shot back.
Nixon, before turning his back on Pierpoint, replied with a dismissive smirk, “You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.”
If one assumes that Nixon himself was an earnest intellectual then Frost/Nixon, based on Peter Morgan’s 2006 stage play, is an underdog story. Because real life talk show host David Frost had the respect of nearly no one in the journalistic community when he self-financed an interview against the learned yet disgraced Nixon in the hopes of teasing out a confession and apology for his involvement in Watergate. The play and film, scribed largely from transcripts of the real-life interview, does not include, obviously, excerpts of the additional 300+ hours of ‘tapes’ the National Archives and Records Administration released in 2013.
Morgan still manages to capture the uncomely tones of the Nixon administration even without the aid of the aforementioned tapes, which captured unlettered history lessons such as “I do not mind ‘the’ homosexuality,” a benighted Nixon explains to his White House Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, “I understand it, nevertheless…you know what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure. Aristotle was a homo; we all know that, so was Socrates. You know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags.” Note the talking points in Frost/Nixon regarding Frost’s laceless shoes; shoes that Nixon’s post-resignation Chief of Staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) dislikes and describes to Nixon as being too effeminate.
One conversation in particular, from the 2013 tapes, appears almost to be a scuzzy script that was just begging for some other future president to pantomime. Nixon is aware, mind you, of the White House’s recording system, yet he sees no need to restrain himself when speaking to his domestic affairs counsel John Ehrlichman, who rather casually comments that “The Mexican American is not as good as the Mexican.”
“Ohh?” Nixon responds.
“If you go down into real Mexico, Ehrlichman continues, “they’re clean and they’re honest, they’re moral.”
“They’ve got a heritage,” Nixon interrupts. “At the present time they steal, they’re dishonest, they do a lot of other things, but they do have, they do have some concept of family life at least. They don’t live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like. We’re going to put more of these little Negro bastards on the welfare rolls at twenty four hundred dollars a family. But I don’t believe in this to begin with, if you know what I mean. It’s work. Work. Throw’ em off the rolls. That’s the whole key. I have the greatest affection for them. But I know they ain’t gonna make it for 500 years. They aren’t.”
Nixon’s intolerant attitude has been scrubbed from the film, emerging only slightly in one scene when a dusky Nixon, (Frank Langella), is debriefed by a young Diane Sawyer (Kate Jennings Grant) after inquiring about his dotty opponent, David Frost (Michael Sheen). Sawyer informs Nixon that Frost nearly married Diahann Carroll, to which Nixon murmurs suspiciously “…isn’t she black?”
Nixon, however, is not a subject that can be turned into a thriller, unlike Bernstein and Woodward, Hoffman and Redford respectively, squaring off with the inscrutable informer known simply as Deep Throat in All The President’s Men. And it goes without saying that one character in every film, after enduring a grueling experience, is granted insight to lead them out of their dark age. But by the film’s conclusion neither Frost or Nixon have one. Instead, it’s the one character—arguably the smartest of the lot—James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) who reflects, “You know, the first and greatest sin or deception of television is that it simplifies. It diminishes great complex ideas, tranches of time, whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot.”
Even Reston Jr., who himself had the most compelling information and the greatest contempt for Nixon, was fooled by television’s most obvious trick: It does not work unless it has a knob.
It Was In
I N MOST CASES it is justified to prescribe John Lennon’s “Imagine” to a temporarily despondent and discouraged mind. A life with no personal possessions and no religion is just an idea, a painkiller with zero side effects. But kept from the dear listener are the near-permanent side effects of this nostrum which, when taken orally, create mass hunger and mob genocide. Khieu Samphan, for instance, was one such pill-maker. A PhD graduate from the Sorbonne in Paris, he encapsulated his idea for agrarian socialism and imported his nightmare into Cambodia as a dream in the late 1950s, and was only just recently convicted for his involvement in setting up the ideological preconditions for Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge.
These ideological preconditions, are shown in Roland Joffe’s exceptional 1984 film The Killing Fields like this: Our attention is called to the truckloads of militia transiting through the streets of Phnom Penh, signaling an end to the country’s nearly ten-year civil war, in 1975. Relieved that the militia are waving white flags, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), is unaware, as is his American correspondent Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) that the militia are indeed forcing the city’s residents to the bucolic outskirts of Cambodia for Year Zero.
Those who failed to circumvent Year Zero, such as Pran, were intellectually neutered and cattled into slave labour in the fields, where “they tell us that God is dead,” Pran recounts in voiceover, “…and now the party they call Angka will provide everything for us.” Learning to toe the line, as it were, reaches its darkest apogee in one chilling scene when a soulless yet fervent child (children understandably are the most valuable to the party) marches to a chalkboard and crosses out a stick drawing of a family. “We must be like the Ox,” Pran continues, “and have no thought except for the party. No love but for the Angka. People starve but we must not grow food. We must honour the comrade children whose minds are not corrupted by the past.”
The Killing Fields signaling—however likely unintentional—release year: 1984, is itself an admonition against the bliss and comfort that is promised in utopia. Orwell himself understood the all too familiar ideas that create the pretext for atrocities “Collectivism,” he once stated, “leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war.”
It’s debatable whether director Roland Joffe was playing the role of provocateur or amateur when he chose Lennon’s “Imagine” to play over the end credits of The Killing Fields. If the latter were true then the director is ending his own film by announcing to his audience that he is drowsy and tone deaf. Pran escaping the fields and being reunited with Schanberg, his American ally, is not only a true story but a saccharin one that suffers at the hands of its own bathos if we are seriously being asked to associate such a reunion between two estranged friends with Lennon’s idealistic vision for a future without class and borders.
If, on the other hand, the former were true, and Joffe indeed was playing the role of provocateur then Lennon pays off brilliantly as a homophone, as there is an unmistakable and ironical concordance between the lyrics of “Imagine” and the turmoil created by the anthemic ideas penned by the other civic-minded Lenin.
It Was As
A S A SUBJECT, or as an object, more accurately phrased, A.I. is universally regarded as being a solvable mystery. Recall how clueless Microsoft was about the Frame Problem and value-alignment when it released Tay into the Twitterverse in 2016. Ostensibly programmed as a virtuous blank slate, how puzzled they were when Tay, within hours, became a practitioner of conversant hate. Ethics and intelligence, of course, do not go hand in hand. Paradoxically, the former can even be scrutinized if one looks too deeply into the latter. Recall The Bell Curve, that controversial book about I.Q., amongst other things it examined the positive and negative deviations from the mean, to see which cultures were more favorably predisposed to ‘G.’ Asians appeared to have a slight edge in mathematics but the academic mainstream were having none of that. To publish such a study was regarded as an indefensible act of mercenary white privilege and the book’s author, Charles Murray, was crucified.
Intersectionality and critical theory, the stepbrother and stepsister of white privilege and identity politics, may soon find a more oppressive force in university classrooms called ‘robot privilege’ given the great strides in artificial intelligence and the current rate and speed at which they are being made superior. Virtually and universally agreed upon, although the idea has a few critics, artificial intelligence will far surpass the intelligence of the organic creators who gave it life.
How to define ‘life,’ however, is the problem to begin with. And where one is torn between Spielberg’s unrealistic handling of A.I. and the fantasies one harbors had Kubrick lived to handle A.I. realistically, one can find comfort in the intelligence of Spielberg’s interpretation. (After all, many sophisticated theories have, over the years, been made about the etymology of HAL, the name of the cold and indifferent super intelligence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and many disquieting murmurs of disappointment soon followed once it was discovered that HAL is simply the preceding three letters of IBM.)
It’s awfully Maslovian, perhaps even naïve, to suggest that a robot embodied with a theory of mind would seek out a personal drama, a drama that can only come from climbing a hierarchy of human needs. Note that in this film only one human is killed at the hands of another human with the expressed intent of framing a robot. Spielberg is tacitly commenting on what prevents humans from reaching the top of Maslow’s canonical hierarchy of needs, namely the inability to observe and adopt as their own, Asimov’s enduring three laws:
“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
Perhaps the towering Russian writer’s laws are too reaching, but A.I. remains a worthy alternative to the eminent and exceptional Ex Machina, for the sole reason that David, A.I.’s protagonist, is able to grasp his own mystery. A subject that Dostoevsky— another Russian giant— once solved too when he grabbed the object of existence and examined the pain of a human not getting it, “What is hell?” he once asked himself. “I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
It Was Who
W HO WAS IT THAT SAID “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born it”? Hint: he’s a playwright and a socialist. If you said George Bernard Shaw, note the year he died. It’s the same year that the last emperor of China, Aisin-Gioro Puyi, also left this plane for another—a prison, where he was tutored and refined, in 1950. Take it one step further. Shaw’s most enduring play, Pygmalion, itself a kind of trial, deals with reform, remolding and ideological re-education too. How bracing it was to watch a presumptuous Professor Henry Higgins flag the unpolished thinking and elocution of Eliza Doolittle so it could be properly raised in society and proudly waved. And how lowering it was to watch the reverse occur in The Last Emperor, Puyi flapping at half-mast in 1967, no longer introducing himself as the once-ruler of China, but instead a meek and humble gardener to a group of flag-waving Red Guards.
One can’t overlook the imperishable Peter O’Toole playing the tutor Reginald Johnston and the orthogonal relationship it has to Higgins. When asked by a Doolittleish Puyi, years before he is imprisoned, “Why are words important?” Johnston instructs, “If you cannot say what you mean, your majesty, you will never mean what you say and a gentleman should always mean what he says.”
“I’m not a gentleman,” Puyi (played by Wu Tao & John Lone) responds. “I’m not allowed to say what I mean. They are always telling me what to say.” They being Puyi’s council in The Forbidden City, who keep his mind and body imprisoned; safe from the outside world, for his own good.
Protected from the outside world for his own good, Gautama Siddhartha—naïve, spoiled, and sheltered—was in a similar position, his reality partitioned from suffering until his accidental exposure to it galvanized his contemplation of it, eventually transforming him into the Buddha.
Analogous is Puyi’s transformation when in prison he is exposed to bloodcurdling newsreels, a “vision” of China’s lavish destruction. Consistent with Buddha’s conversion, Puyi too must contemplate suffering and ask himself how complicit he was in nurturing its potency by remaining ignorant (however innocently) of its existence. (The specifics of this “vision,” Manchuria becoming Manchukuo—Japan’s puppet state—was supposedly cut from The Last Emperor’s theatrical release in Japan. Distributors thought it would disgrace audience members and be bad for business to remind them of their country’s participation in the horrors of Unit 731 and The Nanjing Massacre.)
Puyi gets his conviction in prison (the apposition of those two words is a deliberate conundrum, as Puyi’s release from prison hinges largely on whether or not he confesses to the crime of being consciously ignorant as a ruler.)
It’s a masterstroke of filmmaking to reincarnate an identifiable quisling, who never left his country, and show how he was repatriated to his country as an unidentified patriot. In 1989, less than two years after The Last Emperor’s release, another unidentified patriot was born on film. Whilst facing a cavalcade of ungentle tanks, he remained monarchical outside the gates of The Forbidden City—where he was captured.
It Was There
T HERE IS PERHAPS no greater subject in fiction than class. In the opening pages of most stories you’ll find the obstacle exerting itself on the working subconscious of at least one dear leader. For example, the prejudices of Elizabeth or Mr. Darcy, the heights of Cathy or Heathcliff, each with their own shapely form of Pride which resists Wuthering away. Normally a grueling experience opens up a character’s inner life, causing a whole crop of ideas about their views on unions (which they’ve personally farmed over a lifetime) to spill onto the pages for the reader to collect. Grown and harvested is the idea that unions are not made strong and vital when the ephemeral binds with the interminable, or the attainable with the insurmountable. This private loyalty to class warfare keeps the lovers separated from one another, as a public treaty requires too much labor.
In Russia, the dismal, dispiriting devastation of the Povolzhye and Holodomor, were yet to occur when John Reed (Warren Beatty) spills his ideas about the revolution to his wife Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) in the film Reds. “If they have a real workers revolution in Russia,” he tells her, “they’ll have one in Germany. And if they have one in Germany it could happen all over the world. Louise, that’ll be the end of the war.”
Reed and Bryant, themselves both leftist, spent the first half of the film fighting over how to deal with pride of ownership, negotiating the details of their own union and coming to terms with how to center themselves without being emotionally disfigured. Something akin to: I’ll take care of myself for you, if you promise to take care of yourself for me. A contrarian apothegm for its time, given that marriages were sealed by: take care of me, and I’ll take care of you, leaving one partner exposed and vulnerable if and when the other fell ill or died. A remarkable amount of time is spent in this film developing this all-too-important point so that the couple is sufficiently fit and strong once they begin to cover the triumvirate’s—Kerensky, Trotsky and Lenin—rise to power in Russia upon Tsar Nicholas II’s exile (and later execution), which ended a nearly four hundred-year reign of the House of Romanov. Reed and Bryant’s experiential account of the Bolsheviks overthrowing the duma’s interim rulership is covered in Reed’s book Ten Days That Shook The World.
Absent from their coverage was that other system-structure, other than the factory, which later gave rise to collectivization. Farmers were separated and ranked, and life, the propaganda went, was made unfair by the high ranking kulaks—landowners whose farms were tilled more efficiently by their multiple beasts of burden, unlike the bednyaks and the serednyaks, (the low status farmers who either owned one muscular animal or none at all). The bednyaks and the serednyaks (whose chords of minor envy and heartburn were just waiting to be struck and exploited into major discord) were being oppressed by the kulaks, claimed the Bolsheviks, who used this pitchfork to re-tune everyone’s hearing. In concert, this aroused hostility and distrust of the kulaks making it easy for the Bolsheviks to recruit the bednyaks and the serednyaks into their band to even the score.
Russia’s economic conditions did not improve by the worker’s revolution nor, as Reed hoped, did they end the war. Upon returning home, Reed became a huckster and fanatic, and founder of the defunct Communist Labor Party of America. This is Reed, being lectured at the height of his pride by Bryant (Keaton) for his inability to question his position of certainty in the fog. Reed (Beatty) asserts that he’s committed. “To what?” she fires back:
“To the fine distinction between which half of the left of the left is recognized by Moscow as the real communist party in America? To petty political squabbling between humorless hack politicians just wasting their time on left-wing dogma? To getting the endorsement of a committee in Russia you call ‘the International’ for your group of fourteen intellectual friends in the basement who are supposed to tell the workers of this country what they want whether they want it or not?”
Reed did regain his unclouded personality before typhus brought him to an end in October 1920. One may gasp at being reminded that Stalin, that deranged megalomaniac lettered in a seminary in Georgia had a cult of personality that hadn’t yet begun. Regarding certain terrible stories about the dictator’s torrential reign, a Canadian journalist, Rhea Clyman, was sent to the USSR to clear the air in 1928 only to later be expelled permanently after separating fact from fiction about the country’s rainmaker.
It Was That
T HAT SQUABBLE, long ago, between Mohammad and Khomeini was unlike most civil squabbles. To point out that the Shah, in a relatively sympathetic manner, contested for; improved literacy amongst the country’s peasantry; land titles to his country’s farmers; and with-it women’s rights, was also the same secular-minded Shah whose SAVAK made the White Revolution hardly sympathetic. However, one is forced to consider who was displaced from Iran in the early sixties—a first-rate alternative? The theocratic-minded Ayatollah, who was kept abreast of every expostulated passing of the clock—minute the Jaleh massacre—by the mullahs who themselves, distressed by the non-Islamic tenor of the White Revolution, celebrated Khomeini’s eventual enforcement of the Velayat-e Faqih.
With zero interest in communism, thus having the U.S.’s sympathy to be Mosaddegh’s replacement once the CIA deposed him in 1953, the Shah later found himself without CIA comforts when Khomeini, who had zero interest in communism too, had the U.S.’s empathy to unmake the Shah, which included an austere Islamic rule of law, once Khomeini’s forces (a nascent pretext for the Pasdaran), supplanted the Shah in 1979.
It’s much more nuanced than that, sure, but one can be certain that neither despot, in their final days, sought aid or comfort in the reading of the Dissoi Logoi. The sophist-era text gives a run-through on dialectics, and foments that the intellect is properly forged through knowing how to articulate both sides of an argument. So here it is, that word—progressive, which, if ever the Shah or Khomeini was confronted with genuine retrospection and reconsideration, neither man was or became.
Phrasing it this way, one deliberates on Robert McKee and his magnificent book Story, where he explained how junctures in life are made dramatic. Traditionally, both described and ascribed as metonyms of the other—sympathy and empathy generally stood for one’s ability to identify and follow the motives of a character, which is, in essence, a rather unidimensional ability. Thank goodness for McKee, who cured such a definition of its own obscurantism when he put it something like this:
- A sympathetic character is someone who has our sympathy because we understand why they’re making a certain choice whilst concurrently agreeing with the choice that they’re making.
- An empathic character is someone who has our empathy because we understand why they’re making a certain choice whilst concurrently disagreeing with the choice that they’re making.
Give it a moment’s thought.
These two definitions, aside from being arresting, are no longer, in point, united in outcome. To understand and to agree, commonly assumed to be the same word-conglomerate, are separated from one another in McKee’s definition. In other words, separated, in the same way that church is from state. Thus, both still must co-exist whilst no longer being, by definition, able to make the other’s point or interfere with the other’s dictated terms, regardless of which word is employed to give holy order to meaning.
Also, apparent—although unexpressed—is, in McKee’s unique definition of empathy, a faint and subtle preservation of the memory of the aforementioned supremacy of being able to argue both sides of an argument—the Dissoi Logoi.
In the superb and brilliant film House of Sand and Fog one is expected to do just that: Side One, upon failing to reconcile a business tax claim, an impecunious white, single American female loses her home to the state-county, whereupon, Side Two, the home is legally purchased by an equally impecunious Iranian immigrant family man, fleeing Khomeini’s church-state.
But now, especially in the wake of the JCPOA, the culture slope is steep. Black-and-white thinking on Islam; either-or analysis on police brutality; and take-it-or-leave-it reasoning on the patriarch and American exceptionalism reveal that unless the film were to infantilize, House of Sand and Fog could not be made for mass consumption today.
Consider: which character has the audience’s sympathy, and which their empathy, if the combatants—Kathy Nicolo, the American, played by Jennifer Connelly, and, Massoud Behrani, the Iranian immigrant played by Ben Kingsley—lack, by design, situational fluency? Indeed, a meddlesome subtlety. Imposing and invasive, to any viewer who instinctively relies on a well-defined sympathetic character which always has, unlike an empathetic character, the moral high ground to be progressive in a conflict when righting a wrong.
It Was One
O NE THING NETWORK TV used to do is program black-and-white issues with color. For example, even Oprah and Donahue would invite baskets of deplorables onto their shows. Now and again, KKKs, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists could, as it were, speak their accursed nonsense and Oprah and Donahue could, in turn, forgo the obligatory evangelical denouncement without accusations made against them for promoting, legitimizing, or encouraging ‘hate speech.’ The shows, also, to be sure, did not manage the audience’s intelligence for them by making the rather self-evident conclusion for them—that the show’s guests were hateful simpletons.
Sometimes, and without a hint of sickening sentimentality the rare (repeat: rare) on-the-fence guest would undergo a conversion, if and when they came to see how their ancestored ideology multiplied. Their lived history would be renounced, leaving the said guest regretful and remorseful about how they, too, were ancestoring their noxious ideology to their children, little fanatics obsessed with division.
Missing from all this—as the guests who chose not to convert or recant on air, whilst for the hour, they were being broadcasted into millions of homes—was a specific American reaction: moral outrage. Viewers were transfixed, because they knew (or at least assumed they knew) a pernicious aspect about ‘the individual’ that yet again, Oprah or Donahue never had to explicitly broadcast to their viewers: the individual frequently succumbs to satanic-like tribalism when it is incapable of self-reflection.
Here, then, comes that essential, but oftentimes pretentious and self-righteous process that Oprah and Donahue had a knack for doing non-judgmentally on air—holding up a mirror.
One of the major junctures among several in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is Edward Norton’s seemingly tolerant character submitting to his own reflection in a bathroom mirror. His expunged hostility, via an innervated reflection, becomes a transference directed towards all races in America in a rabid four-minute monologue. A searing Lee is considering and auditing the idea that tribalism is not grounded in economics or politics but rather elementary psychology. This bracing insight is revealed in its totality when Norton’s character’s tribalism is supplanted by the misanthropy which partially informs it, proof, by the inclusion in his verbal tirade of whites and members of his personal network, thus, the measure of his own self-contempt revealed.
Bravo, to the filmmakers of 25th Hour, for such a timeless and incisive and significant scene. But what a blunder, and discouraging act of timidity at this eleventh hour from Kevin Willmott, screenwriter of Lee’s most recent film, BlacKkKlansman, who said, in a recent interview in Salon, that he would decline, if asked, to screen it at the White House.
It Was The
T HE SUBTLE MANNER in which one can be held captive by a piece of music that moves in mysterious ways is a rather obvious set-up. Melody and harmony release the good, the beautiful and the true, a pay-off that’s been prearranged to bestow a hearing to anyone in times of need. This subtlety is also said to be a characteristic of God, along with a specific repercussion—its notes become unlistenable if the visceral is subordinated to the literal. As for the melodist, the more unbelievable their verse sounds, the greater the likelihood that they’ll be pious, insisting that the verse simply composed itself. Illogical, yes, but you can see this in celebrated verses all the time.
Take for example how illogical this one sounds: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Inscrutable as the Gospel of John is—it logically opens this way—for several reasons, not least of which is to remind the pious of the ensuing and potential nihilism that occurs if indeed they are unable to keep their word when going through a sentence of confusion.
Being recreant of God, however, is a painfully weak film plot. Only two films have ever really pulled it off. One is The Last Temptation of Christ. It was made several decades ago, and it had the Catholic-Right protesting Martin Scorsese’s daring adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel about the Son of Man declining his historically foundational agony and torment on that notable April day.
The inalienably fallible Jesus—fallible because he’s both God and man—breaks his word in the middle of his most spiritually regnant hour. Erected in that awkward, painful, and humiliating position, Jesus gives into his temptation for the ordinary as he excuses himself from the resurrection by stepping off and down from the cross in the name of marriage, children, and a more peaceful and dignified death from old age. In the film, the unseemly Jesus performs a denuded transaction with Mary, only to later repent by supplicating God for foreordination. In other words, his being was dying to try multiple things, before it could die trying for one thing. The former, of course, outraged the moral majority.
Two, the theatrical, (not the director’s cut) of Amadeus, Miloš Forman’s adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s highly fictitious yarn about Italian court composer Antonio Salieri grappling with the hermeneutics of God’s tendency to play favorites. That he presumed with perfect clarity to know the mind of God muddles the musically obstruent Salieri, once he discovers that God’s sound, rhythm, melody, harmony, and form only correspond and come together through Mozart, the prodigal son, blessed with the power to resonate. The rather unjust and arbitrary manner in which God does this introduces Salieri to masochism, that combination of unchecked envy and unbalanced adoration that blends grotesque, sending the mild and sweet composer straight to hell—a nineteenth century infirmary. It would be correct to suggest that the film is about music; it would be more accurate to suggest that the film is about apostasy, before finally, and definitively, suggesting that the film is about unrequited love—that irreducible pang from being stilled by the power of the beautiful which will not in return itself be moved.
It Was Yet
Y ET AGAIN the inescapable definition of “preventative war” has been softened and reshaped. It’s unlikely that it will be remembered as having changed in 2018, but looking back now it’s rather obvious to see how solidly it did. On NBC last year, explaining to Chuck Todd the nature of conclusory allegations, Rudy Giuliani made it clear how one version of the truth can no longer be nurtured once it falls into a perjury trap—“truth isn’t truth,” he said. Immediately, and without due process, the statement itself went on trial via social media. And for uttering it, the portly attorney was indicted in the court of public opinion for being sociopathically narrow, and in this manner, unable to grasp values and the far-reaching disciplines necessary to practice law righteously.
They characterized Giuliani’s comment mercilessly as “newspeak” and “doublespeak,” which is only half correct as “truth isn’t truth” is a negation of terms, not a euphemism. As they continued (they being left-leaning news anchors, commentators, and political pundits) to go on and on and on about the charge of Giuliani being, in effect, inwardly ruined, they overlooked—or perhaps even worse, ignored—how their unidimensional reaction to Giuliani’s comment was the thing that was “Orwellian,” and not the comment itself.
THE MINISTRY OF TRUTH
Consider: destruction of a potentially hostile country’s armament to end a latent threat is the current definition of “preventative war.” (Ditto in 1940.) Now imagine that a news correspondent for the BBC named Eric Blair has a time machine. It’s the early 1940s and he wants to investigate whether or not a lockstep between terminology and definition remains consistent over time. Eric travels a hundred years into the past, to the early 1840s, where he rubs elbows with a stranger and asks them to define “preventative war.” The stranger’s knee-jerk response: It’s when a country’s leader speaks openly with a potentially hostile country’s leader about how their respective borders, currency, and natural resources are defended.
Eric returns to the 1940s. Currently, either citizens or “preventative war,” have lost their meaning, he thinks. The second of the forgone must have been first punctured by the ever-forward arrow of time. Deflated political wordsmiths were able to rise if they ballooned themselves out of sight whilst inflating “preventative war’s” definition out of mind, using nothing believable other than hot air.
Next, whilst Eric accrues interest and banks on the future exchange of coinages, a hundred years into the future he then travels. Consorting this time with a stranger who instantly recognizes Eric by his nom de guerre—George Orwell, who, the stranger insists, is oracular. The stranger laments that Orwell was right on the money. Citizens have been debased by their own words, he tells him, and less able to see the counterfeit logic that drives their exchange rate. Certain phrases, he continues, like “preventative war” have been taken out of circulation, and then reintroduced into society as regular currency. It now means: When a country attacks its citizens’ potential to think freely so that they never turn hostile against their country’s ability to disguise its authoritarianism.
Orwell returns to the 1940s in check. Deposited in his mind are the momentous riches for a politically bankrupt 1984, which other authors and filmmakers in time withdraw from to finance their own dystopian narratives. Of Brazil: arbitrary interrogation by authority figures and the near-compulsory expectation that laborers for the state ignore their existence as dreary and drudging. Of THX 1138: a camera-laden police state that invigilates its citizens around the clock to ensure that their lives are lived, one, on time and, two, on budget (similar to China’s hellish ‘social credit system’) which is designed to keep the peace whilst preventing—heaven forbid—war from ever breaking out.
It Was By
B Y NOW EVERYONE has heard the doctor riddle. A successful man and his adolescent son are ill-made by a violent car crash. Both are rushed to the emergency room, where the doctor at the hospital blusters nervously, “I can’t operate on this boy; he’s my son.” Who, you’re then asked, is the doctor? It’s bloody obvious now. But over a quarter of a century ago, when the riddle first did rounds—boys have mothers, thus, the doctor is a woman—it was not.
Here’s another one that English teachers ask after you’ve taken all you can from Lord of the Flies. Not so much a riddle really, but a test: “Who is the Beast?” That’s bloody obvious too: the pilot from the plane crash whose dead body prefigures everything that is evil in the woods. But teachers want more: “Okay, okay, the pilot…but who indeed is the real Beast?”
The answer is manhood. About to body forth from young boys who, stranded together on that Pacific island without adult supervision to shape it, project it, naturally, into the woods as monstrous energy.
There is, as there should be, an almost universal stipulation to remain intellectually sober when subjecting Lord of the Flies to analysis. Absent, at least when I undertook its requisite reading in high school, was that risible term toxic masculinity to explain the boys’ uniform move towards barbarousness. As such, no takeaway from the novel could possibly be less ineligible as this: the highest good a male can do for society and posterity is to keep adolescence’s supposed addiction for rough-housing in check.
Gillette’s most recent TV ad, “We Believe,” which aired during the Super Bowl, took one such reading. Every boy is someone’s son, and must be operated on this second. Males have a shadow much darker than the one that emerges on their faces at 5 o’clock. And it must be removed. With or without a blade, males glide against stoic females smoothly, enjoining such females—as “hun” or “sweetie”—to smile. Males turn electric when viewing misogynistic sitcoms like Married With Children, the likes of which no major TV network has made for over a quarter of a century. Males unfailingly nick female colleagues in the boardroom with their mansplaining. (That last point, so poorly made in the ad inadvertently mocks its subject, the woman, who looks so fragile that had she instead been antagonized by an onerous female boss, the former would have been marginalized just the same by womansplaining.)
One way of paying the ad a compliment is to acknowledge that it reintroduces the idea of the father as indispensable; executed, however, in the worst possible way: two young boys roll about on the grass at a block party. “Boys will be boys” is the mantra a klatch of fathers are clutched by as they watch hypnotized. At last, one father, after much jockeying divides and conquers the two boys with the ostensibly laudable “It’s not how we treat each other, okay!”
Viewers at home are expected to say okay, too—as if the entire ad had been but a thoughtful build-up to this one father intervening thoughtlessly. In other words, were the two boys engaged in spirited horseplay or a formidable fight? If horseplay is not the case, then all the hypnotized fathers, failing to intervene swiftly, are themselves gelded and useless; if horseplay is indeed the case, then that one intervening father is doing nothing other than gelding the boys with his useless virtue signaling. The ad’s message: “Fathers, be more motherly.” It’s the “new” strong—is a contradiction at this juncture because no mother at the block party to begin with seemed to give a damn. They were being “strong.” That is to say, they were undistracted by the trivial.
Here is, from the backwoods of Benton, Arkansas, what non-trivial sounds like: “I just wanted to get your mom out of the house for a few minutes so we could talk,” says Doyle, played by the indelible Dwight Yoakam in the magnificent film Sling Blade. Doyle is the Beast—a squandering alcoholic father figure coming down on twelve-year-old Frank, who, upright and sensitive, resents that he’s being apprised by the Beast that “since you do exist, and I want to be the head of the household, then you’re gonna learn to live by my rules. And the first rule is, you don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. You got me?” Off to the side, listening to Frank being abused, is Frank’s houseguest, Karl (played by Billy Bob Thornton), a confessed murderer with an intellectual disability who hails from a “nervous hospital.”
The entire film has been but a thoughtful build-up to this one scene about genuine “fatherly” misconduct. “Now, you stay the hell out of my way,” the Beast yells, “and do what a regular kid does. You’re a weird little shit, Frank, and I don’t get you. So wake up and face what they call reality. We’re going to be a family,” the Beast concludes. “My family. I’ll be paying all the bills. So that means you’re stuck with my ass, but I ain’t your daddy. You just act like I am.”
Karl is motivated by the politics of grievance to intervene, sure, but takes a stab at the Beast not “Man,” who unlike Gillette, is not replaceable or dispensable but must endure accusations of being like Gillette—ill-made.
It Was Those
T HOSE WHO TOOK the time last year to examine the word “everything” most likely found that it stood for health and family, or wealth and friends. And were perhaps bothered slightly by Nike’s frivolous incantation to “sacrifice” “everything” if you yourself “believe” strongly in a rather nonspecific “something.” Yes, “something” is indeed vague. Which means it can include: flat Earth theory. That’s something. So is The Church of Satan. Denying the Holocaust is something, too, as is ethno-nationalism. Now, with that reprehensible “something” in mind, go forth, the Nike ad would suggest, and sacrifice everything.
Nike doesn’t believe that America has a chronic and intractable problem with police brutality and racism—the “something,” believed by one Colin Kaepernick, whose black and white photo dignified: Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything, and who potentially risked his career—the supposed “everything,” when he kneeled in protest during the national anthem on September 1st, 2016. But Nike may very well believe that career is the source of everything. Where else do life’s values come from?
The ad used imprecise and precise—“something” and “racist cops” deliberately as synonyms. Imprecision and precision defining the same thing, as the two terms are mutually exclusive, made cognitive dissonance and mental alertness mutually inclusive. Impressionable minds, unable to pinpoint what was technically off with the ad were induced to applaud it, even though it says nothing. The accommodating slogan was loose and contagious, with Kaepernick’s visage, venereal, as Nike put out what in turn gave Kaepernick the clap.
Believe cops are racist, even if it means sacrificing your career.
Taking a different view than Black Lives Matter, a movement that has a measurable amount of influence on the cultural conversation, is attorney and author Heather Mac Donald, whose book The War On Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe—released months before the Kaepernick sensation—takes the concern about racist police departments seriously but carefully. “We are not living through an epidemic of racially biased police shootings of black men. The core flaw of any left-wing anti-cop rhetoric,” she goes on to say, “is the failure to find the proper benchmark for evaluating police behavior.” Never once denying that blacks do die at the hands of police officers, she contextualizes the happenings of pedestrian stops this way:
“In New York City about fifty percent of all pedestrian stops are of blacks. Blacks are about twenty-three percent of the population. A Black Lives Activist or academic often would say that shows the police are racist. Wrong benchmark. The benchmark is crime. Policing is crime driven. Blacks in New York City commit seventy-one percent of all shootings.”
This discouraging conclusion, despite how representative the stat may or may not be, would certainly cripple Kaepernick’s raison d'être, and is just as lowering to one’s spirit as John Singleton’s affecting Los Angeles drama Boyz n the Hood, released mere months after the Rodney King beating in 1991, with its opening stat:
“One out of every twenty-one Black American males will be murdered in their lifetime. Most will die at the hands of another Black male.”
None of this seems to weigh on the charismatic football player who lives in a country where taking a knee against the flag is a privilege, so the feeling sinks in that his act of dissent was nothing but a glib and calculated act of self-promotion. Kaepernick deserves a great deal of sycophantic adulation. The shrewd impresario chose a well-defined villain, the essence of stomach turning conflict—a much more lucrative enterprise, too—as facts lack the sort of production value found in staged drama. Raising awareness about ruinous minority communities behindhand because of drugs, high illiteracy rates, predatory mortgage lending, unconstrained access to guns, so on and so forth, is a reality that merits a knee been taken against the flag. Raise an eyebrow or two, however, if one were to survey the cause of these worries and arrive at white cops.
That other word for “everything” is, little by little, forcing its way to the surface of the Nike ad: Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing [the truth]. And that too runs the risk of being a sacrificial commodity. The ad’s ordinance will then become an even greater absurdity, the kind that motivates the sorts of characters we have reasonably come to call heartless and hostile. Such as the one found in the outstanding film Monster’s Ball; the bitter protagonist, a concussed racist cop, suffers from bouts of unmotivated nausea—unmotivated, it is presumed, until his ivory tower ideology is recognized finally as the cause of his blackout.
It Was Of
OF COURSE, IF WE ASK “why are Catholics and Protestants not one and the same?” There is a divisive rule game: when behind the eight ball the former try to make things happen by sinking themselves into prayer, whilst the latter see hard work as their only shot. Perhaps best known inside the dark corner pockets of sixteenth century Germania is Martin Luther, who, altogether suspicious of indulgences, first took notice of monk Johann Tetzel’s poor sportsmanship. Thinking of sinning in the next few days? Buy an indulgence and be forgiven for your as-of-yet uncommitted transgression. Tetzel’s message got the masses hooked on German efficiency, good behavior withdrawals without the shakes.
But imagine Johannes Gutenberg, a blacksmith who had labored tirelessly on Europe’s secular version of the second coming—the printing press. Luther, waiting in the wings, knew the invention could be used to pullulate Tetzel’s confirmation of indulgences as heretical. In the years therebefore, the Bible was inked in a rather unhurried way in Latin, making it somewhat undecipherable for the uneducated (let alone illiterate). Understanding the text would itself be a birthright, but would require obstructions such as out-of-order evangelical priests, the sole oral translators and broadcasters of the times, to be put in their place.
That the Bible ought to be available in German (say later) English (or) French, for example, and printed with escape velocity from the gravitas of German-Catholic theocrats, became the key means to an end which eventually exerted itself as Protestant, whereby the release of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses launched his splinter group in 1517. (Incidentally, William Tyndale, a spirited scholar whose death was ensured from hanging and fire because his English translation of the New Testament, Tyndale’s Bible, caused a spark—over his work and under his body—in 1536, leaving his crisp corpus behind and a corpse well done.)
Of course, none of this is in the marvelous Elizabeth. That is to say Luther, the printing press, Tyndale or countless other players. Such as Old Coppernose—who upon growing tired of his wife Catherine of Aragon, bedded Anne Boleyn, producing baby Elizabeth, eventually prompting the English Reformation of 1534, when Rome refused to grant philandering Henry a divorce. By the time the curtain is raised on Elizabeth in England, 1554, milady is already taking it on the chin for all the doings (and undoings) of her chinless papa.
“She was born a bastard. She will never rule England!” I am now quoting Aragon’s daughter, Mary Tudor, making a reference to her half-sister Elizabeth, whose mother was beheaded long ago by their father. Mary has since reversed her bygone father’s position and restored England’s ties with Rome. “You will promise me something,” a sickly Mary, requires of her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth. “When I am gone, you will do everything in your power to uphold the Catholic faith. Do not take away from the people the consolations of the Blessed Virgin, their Holy Mother.”
“When I am Queen,” Elizabeth responds, “I promise to act as my conscience dictates.”
The filmmakers stay clear of overstating the said conscience as but a Protestant one. Just a few scenes later, we hear a most grave observation from spymaster Francis Walsingham, whose cunning Elizabeth leverages to help steer her clear from her court advisors, securing ultimately her throne, upon ignoring their crankery. “There’s so little beauty in this world. And so much suffering,” Walsingham says to a young apprentice. “Do you suppose that is what God had in mind? That is to say, if there is a God at all. Perhaps there is nothing in this universe but ourselves and our thoughts.”
Indeed, the film is itself, on the surface, a dialectic between Catholicism and Protestantism, its gradual synthesis being Anglicanism embodied within the Church of England. However, a much more exciting dialectic emerges once Elizabeth is behind the eight ball, between innocence and corruption when she’s playing the game, its synthesis being psychological maturation embodied within nerve and discretion, convictions that when pooled together can’t be said to be one and the same.
It Was Of
OF ALL THE FILMS that have scenes of recreational sadism, if one had to be singled out as unwatchable, the ending in Sophie’s Choice might just be the one. She’s forced to choose which of her two children are to be interned to a death camp by an officer of the Schutzstaffel. The S.S. officer’s shock and awe tactic—how a sadist thinks in the first place, and how this thinking is administered as torture in the second—is a war crime of the sort prosecuted in Nuremberg in 1945.
Never tried, of course, was the sadist from Braunau am Inn. A failure of a painter who, during the Night of Long Knives in the summer of 1934, systematically cleaned out his cabinet, installing a new one. Under his directorship it would not be open to work when Jews were being cowed during the Night of Broken Glass—but a slight demonstration of his handiwork to come in the fall of 1942. Both of these “Nights” were in embryo as far back as 1925, with entries in Mein Kampf—hatching The Greater German Reich, and writing as he did to equal the formulations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Der Stürmer. This was Hitler’s preamble to the Wannsee Conference of 1942—wherein the ideas of how to not make light of the Jewish question was bookended by The Final Solution.
As for the film, it is no less true that “undesirables” of all kinds were sent to Auschwitz and similar concentration camps. William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, used this fact to justify Sophie being a Polish untermensch. But it is through picking a subject that is binary—malevolence and suffering (to tragedize as universal in the human condition), but also choosing a concentration camp, a not-so-universal setting, why Styron can’t quite in execution make his subject cohere as universal. The malevolence inflicted upon Sophie by the S.S. officer comes from a malevolence conceived to affect the Final Solution. The horror is not, by making Sophie a gentile rather than a Jew, more comprehensive because of this. Even though she suffers inordinately because of it, it is nonetheless a tragic effect—collateral damage, in other words—of the Shoah. The difference in affect/effect, as it relates to malevolence, and how Styron probes the latter, perhaps incautiously, negates the universality of human suffering in his tragedy on the grounds of how it is predicated.
I am convinced that this is what deified film critic, Pauline Kael, in the December 1982 issue of The New Yorker, was trying to say, in her rather clumsy extirpation of Sophie’s Choice. Most decidedly about its climax: “the incident is garish rather than illuminating,” she errs completely when she says, “and too particular to demonstrate anything in general.” Ms. Kael, prioritizing the general over the specific, implies that films are, in essence, high art if and only when they reveal something general, rather than specific, about the human condition—an absurd proposition. Yet understandably the precondition for—because illumination can never be had from the general—her registered disappointment.
As for “superior orders,” the retrospective justification defendants at Nuremberg stuck to, take a look at the scene halfway through Schindler’s List where Steven Spielberg and Steven Zaillian disprove rationalizations suchlike, and how brilliantly the scene is set up. S.S. Officer, Amon Goeth, is slobberingly inebriated the night Schindler advises him on the humane ways in which people in power mind their p’s and q’s. Certainly, a hangover should have rendered this bit of folk wisdom irretrievable from mind, yet the said Nazi recalls it the following morning to great affect. He’s merciful and lenient to the internees of Płaszów, if only for a few scenes before leniency and mercy are repudiated (for repudiation’s sake). Which is to say that only when a scene is specific can it reveal—a human owning or otherwise disowning basic goodness suddenly—what is universal.
It Was At
AT DIFFERENT times in Scarface—most immediately the opening crawl—Oliver Stone walks us right up to the motives of the film’s gangsterish excess and thuggery. We see the complete absence of a Cuban economic crest and trough; teeming boats of marginalized Marielitos on America’s shoreline; and the plugging of American lighthouses as broken—unlike Cuba’s, which merely flicker (due to communist theory being fused with practice)—by Castro, darkening any hope for a promised land.
Much later, Tony Montana, having long thought that vertical social mobility in America makes people white and especially useful has been arrested for trying to keep his powder dry. A problem that the chief snorter, so to speak, rails to the good lord himself (Alejandro Sosa, a Bolivian aristocrat who is being outed for curating America’s dependence on Bolivia’s “national product, which is cocaine,” says a journalist on TV). Sosa and his coterie, whose empire “stretches across the Andes,’’ are losing political altitude because they can’t control the substance of the journalist’s crack. Montana is assured that he’ll only have to pay through the nose for his problem if he assures Sosa that the journalist will, without hesitation, get smoked.
Stone has but one scene to show—by placing Montana in a restaurant amongst the oligarchs of Miami (the night before he is to fly to New York to exterminate the journalist)—that Montana is indeed capable of calling himself out without being high-minded. “You need people like me so you can point your fingers, and say ‘that’s the bad guy!’” Montana blusters. “So, what does that make you, good? You’re not good,” he says, “you just know how to hide. How to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem.” Montana concludes, “Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say goodnight to the bad guy!”
In other words, the socioeconomic conditions that he was born into aside, Montana is granting—a right of passage for every character in drama—that the axis of evil begins and ends within. A most hard-won achievement in fiction.
Especially compelling is Stone, twenty-five years later, revisiting (with Stanley Weiser) the criminal excess and thuggery involved in statecraft, in his superb film W. Most notably, inside the situation room where America is described as being “five percent of the world’s population,” but using “twenty-five percent of its energy. You think Russia and China,” Cheney construes, “are going to help us out when they need those resources themselves?” Riveted by a map of the Levant, Cheney continues, “We drain this swamp, like Don [Rumsfeld] says. We rebuild it. We develop its resources to the maximum. A nexus of power that won’t be broken in our lifetime.”
Debriefed on America’s dependence on foreign oil (which may never be satiated), the cerebral forty-third president of the United States, George W. Bush, has but this to say:
“You know when I was coming up it was a dangerous world. But we knew exactly who the “they” were. We knew it was us versus them, and it was clear who “them” was. But today we’re not so sure who the “they” are, but we know they’re there.”
Bush’s last sentence is abysmal. Saddam Hussein, who, along with the Ba’ath Party, succeeded in exterminating hundreds of thousands of Kurds—the Anfal genocide and Halabja Massacre—in the late eighties, along with his takeover attempt of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. Ostensibly, these are who and what Bush is referring in his incurious response above, with its fatuous conclusion that evil becomes more difficult to detect the more one becomes aware of its presence.
Difficult as it is to think and say, real-world passages, such as the one below by the great Mahatma—to the people of Briton in 1940—appear highly credulous and unworldly too:
“Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered…”
Gandhi’s nostrum to cure the spread of National Socialism. Thinking of this sort, practiced inappropriately, makes inaction—or worse, pacifism—inappropriately estimable in theory.
When it came to foreign affairs Dubya was, in his political preface, an anti-interventionist. He changed upon being elected CEO of the U.S.A., accounting for much of the fashionable Bush-bashing in the books. In barefaced contrast, Bush is not a pacifist, nor did he believe that evil is merely a prolongation of unexamined malevolence ruminating in the self. Evil, he is most certainly aware despite his career-defining babble, absolutely can be detected as a tangible out-there. “I don’t wanna sound like I haven’t made no mistakes. You know I’m confident I have,” Bush says to a reporter upon being asked, “Mr. President, after 9/11, what would you say your biggest mistakes would be and what lessons have you learned from them?”
That Bush is purportedly coercible on all matters of foreign affairs except for being able to call himself out as the “bad guy” is the decisive climax of Stone’s film. Yes, imperishable sloganeering such as The World is Yours was created by an American and resonates unquestionably with the despotic impulses of crime figures as various as Slobodan Milošević, Omar al-Bashir, Robert Mugabe and Zarqawi, but to say that these gangsters were made by the American conscience ought not be considered outside of fiction as a motivating good.
It Was Past
P AST A CERTAIN AGE, I was no longer allowed to ask my parents what a word meant. Instead, I was directed to look up its definition in the dictionary. I can’t recall the precise age that this occurred—I was old enough no longer to find value in children’s programs, but too young to find value in current affairs. It was around this age that I first saw a black and white film about likening the human being to property, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. At the time, not knowing what I didn’t know, it was, perhaps for the better, the first story to introduce me to the evils of the master/slave dynamic without any mention of race as cause.
In the film, Proteus syndrome sufferer, Joseph Merrick, has but one economic value to his slave owner in nineteenth century England, that of side show freak. Merrick is manumitted from this demoralizing arrangement by one Dr. Frederick Treves and purposed for study by the sciences. In an especially vivid scene, Merrick, no longer owned by a puppet-master, sobs, “I’m not an animal, I’m a human being!” His making contact with dignity, a birthright, was especially moving.
After this age, came another, in which, to me, certain adult TV shows came across as slightly callow. For example, undeterred by God watching his every move, the bathetic Jimmy Swaggart entered a prostitute. The evangelist knew never again would he be able to exit without being “seen.” So, on TV he immediately went, sobbing on cue, to exchange shame for forgiveness, pulling each naïve string on adult shows as children often do.
However, guileless, in contrast, were children’s shows about political animals: for instance, Ms. Piggy, who, unaware of nature’s bias for segregated crossbreeding, remained—with her choice of mate—unapologetically racy. Kermit, I was particularly unsettled by him, who, acceded to the mating ritual of being upstaged by the very female who was getting him off. Much later, when I turned teen I examined why the frog was never able to look his bully in the eye and make the leap. The reason was in season, which made it that more hot and cold. It was called sexual tension.
Around this time, in current affairs, out broke a “he said, she said” between two black folks: Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, who I gleaned was his employee. It was about sex, and there was tension. She claimed that the former considered her an object. I myself inaccurately used two words interchangeably, confusing harasser with pervert, when describing the accused. Indeed, the same thing the two words are not, nor was Thomas convicted of being either. Years later, Mr. Bill Clinton was exposed for being both. Here, however, was the most contemptible thing: he screwed his Rubenesque intern—Ms. Lewinsky—by claiming it was she who did the importuning. His hope was that the public would grill her, not him, for being the well-heeled pig.
Also, the most powerful man in the world was separated by twenty-seven years in age from his intern. To say nothing about Aphrodisia and the especially twisted mindset that it braids between—“Daddy” and ingénue. I was made aware of this complex years earlier, when, of age in 1993 I saw a brilliant film on VHS about the unscrupulous and poorly mannered, Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Absent was the said age gap but it was based on a true story and did include a scene about sexual misconduct followed by a scene about the pornography of street justice. Its beauty is straight but a kink makes it difficult to get out of one’s hair.
The scene: Karen, a doll from Long Island, is mistaken for a blow-up and mishandled in her friend’s car. Instead of going to the police, punctured and humiliated, she breaks news of her assault to her boyfriend, who seeks retribution with a gun. In effect, playing the role of courtroom judge on her harasser—foregoing gavel pounding for repeated face pounding. Karen is triggered by her boyfriend’s brutal ruling and for the audience she opens her mouth, “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth—it turned me on.”
Another film by Scorsese is The Age of Innocence, which I later saw. About a lady and a gentleman who know, that in nineteenth century New York, sex itself is something that has to be worked out. Not necessarily because of this film, but soon after exorcising it, I looked up “dictionary” in the dictionary. A not so obvious study: one’s own definition can be nothing other than self-made, an obvious study: the things between people that should and shouldn’t take shape.
It Was Make
MAKE THE MOST of this declaration: the good life relies solely on positive thinking. Released right before the 2007 financial crisis was a documentary film called The Secret, wherein the public was introduced to the Law of Attraction. It takes a certain amount of temerity to monetize positive thinking. Happiness was equated with financial wealth, and laid out were the principles and mechanics of how to acquire it. Picture thought alone attracting from out of the universe decided objects for one’s own welfare. Giving people, in effect, “the freedom from want,” one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s high aims and hopes for mankind. The film, however, taught that abundance and happiness are positive rights, a cunning premise in contrast to the one in the American Declaration of Independence, which is much more forthright.
An unstable market or one’s inability to leverage luck or capitalize on chance (all of which are nearly irresolvable trials in timing) are never mentioned in The Secret as reasons why people are sometimes unable to affect their environment, or at minimum, their acumen and potential other than to say one’s negative thinking is to blame. Furthermore, should the Law of Attraction be likened to gravity, clearly an impersonal force, why suggest that its mechanics are personal to the point of being likened to a genie? Nothing specious about that, likening frivolous folklore to verifiable fundamentals of nature, along with the film’s theme, which hints bleakly that humans, rather than inhabiting Earth to give, exist only to receive.
Moreover, genies, if we indeed take The Secret’s premise seriously, appeal to the human personality at its most mercenary. Rhonda Byrne, the film’s auteur, is well aware of this, as are the human potential experts she empaneled to give testimony to her theory. Someone you know ever ask a genie to end ruinous oil spills; or the sex trafficking of minors; or the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria? A superior job and house, or stunning car are priorities much more urgent than you think. The aforementioned are not contingent, lest we forget, on the asker being worthy of such acquisitions or improvements, they need only be positive.
Also given to people who believe in the Law of Attraction is moral high ground because without it, being light-hearted or positive about disastrous situations would be unjustifiable. Here, then, is the masochistic appeal of the Law of Attraction: it’s unfalsifiable. In one’s life, should one ever notice a negative circumstance, the circumstance can be said to have been caused by one’s own negative thinking. Creating a closed loop scenario like the emperor’s new clothes, a mind in denial sees the current conditions of reality only positively: neither appropriately nor accurately, out of fear.
It really does present itself as theology, wherein one must avoid ever being in the vicious (if not vindictive) crosshairs of the Law of Attraction. One believes rape victims attract abuse because they’re negative; minorities attract bigotry because they lack gratitude; and that the Tutsis in Rwanda attracted genocide because they were “vibrating” on the same frequency as Hutu fundamentalists. The Law of Attraction, we might notice, seems to take on the less desirable traits of a primitive Abrahamic God when it reacts. Being shamed into perceiving reality in a ceaselessly glorified light—despite sporadic evidence of darkness—is the only way humans can atone for original sin. Attitudes must be enjoined by tickled cheeriness, and most notably, wide-eyed ignorance. A mind that is too sober or too critical is a form of insurrection, and reprisal from The Law of Attraction is justified.
Imagine hell on earth. Humans would first be vetted for negativity then qualified by the Law of Attraction as ne’er-do-wells, suitable for mass beggary, epidemics, and genocide. Point out this fatuity to the Law of Attraction acolyte and the response is generally meek and unlettered: no one deserves such retributions but the universe works in a mysterious way. Irony is lost on the person who says such a thing. Forgotten is their said standard of reasoning whenever they try to acquire wealth without work. Their being thwarted in their attempt to acquire abundance by using only positive thinking is itself just another example of the universe working in a mysterious way.
Still, the 2003 series on the subject of intention by Wayne Dyer—who was perhaps the world’s greatest public speaker at the time—declared to his audience that he would never get a serious illness because he doesn’t put negative energy out into the universe. I’d be remiss if I did not remind the reader of the great man’s passing from leukemia only a few short years later. Anyone who believes that this tragedy was the result of the universe responding to some latent or perhaps unconscious negative energy emanating from a clearly misguided Dr. Dyer has at best an infantile mind.
Foregoing theories of “one’s bad energy,” “one’s debt carried forward from a previous life,” or the even more reasonable “one’s poor life choices,” is The Pursuit of Happyness, which does not concern itself with the hermeneutics of why this inexplicable, sometimes intractable, yet enough-times irreversible thing called hardship falls. Chris Gardner, the film’s protagonist, is one such well-intentioned and properly motivated upon whom life falls down on mercilessly; with a deference for life as it is, he manages to stay up. Against that lesson, The Secret is a master class in propaganda.
Happiness, as a positive right, would be guaranteed as a government provision should an individual fail to attain it. And is why the founding fathers took great care in the American Declaration of Independence with this word—“right.” First and last, to pursue happiness citizens require negative rights, the absence of government interference. It can’t be second any more positively than that.
It Was When
WHEN I WAS ABOUT to be graded on my first French test I couldn’t lean in for the longest time because I was held back by something that kicked in. Psilocybin. Which, an hour earlier I took. And began to think about Paleolithic humans, who, whilst hunting and gathering, used their mouths (through pain of death), to take bad taste seriously. Not only does fungi and berries, for example, have murderous lookalikes but great taste also fools—Paleolithic humans, knew nothing about allergies and why such toothsome things as honey could kill.
Also, there was the girl’s house. I became slightly distracted by its haughty address, which began to speak of its place and position by using specific accents. This told me that some mothers who get pissy if furniture is set in the wrong place also take leather armchairs and drop-leaf tables seriously. If they’re not treated a certain way, they lose their éclat and begin to mumble. It’s hard to make out in one’s own home, but mothers who are easily aroused to reform delinquent drapes and carpets generally have, I could hear, daughters who are equally mortified by furniture that could potentially slur the homeowner. And is why some girls test boys for misogyny before they’ll carry a torch for them, especially when they’re asked to put out—by a boy aflame.
One thing led to another and before I knew it I was off. Fixating on 2001: A Space Odyssey, by far the most exquisite opening of any film: a hominid hits upon a monolith and learns to hold a bone—a precursor to tool and fire making—in its prehensile paw. But never do we see, centuries forward, any of the explicit stone-age trials and errors. For example, primitive humans who outwore their own DNA by tapping their family tree, manufacturing defects and rejects with torn and faded genes, wherein tailoring of strictures on incest succeeded biology’s acid view on it.
Humans were equally ignorant before they accidentally ingested certain flora and bonded abstractly to life and fauna. That prismatic states could be induced organically made mysticism inevitable. Able now to recognize cycles and patterns, symmetry and metaphors: day is birth; night is death, etc., humans, in exaggerated states, acted out their inundated observations in groups, actuating ritual and ceremony. Discipline, tutored breathing and mediation, reverential chanting—song, prayer and dance, a measure of decorum, in other words, deliberately formalized to ensure that the sacred was properly digested, its invocation earned.
Conversely, to cogitate vigorously without psychotropics requires a prolonged recess from the exigent need to hunt and gather for the present moment—which men and women received, when they, much later, discovered agriculture and husbandry. Whereby a critical derivative—surplus—widened the means for them to narrow in, if they so wished, on a field other than their own. Explore, as it were, alchemy; boost production on deception; the occult and hypnosis. Which is to say, lessons in miniature on the ways in which perception betrays reality. (Point in fact: Earth and the Sun, our species perceives the former being orbited by the latter, until downstream, Copernicus, a Polish thinker, said otherwise.)
And then, there is “the coincidence of wants.” A fisherman, for example, eventually figures out he no longer wants to exchange his catch of the day for goods hand-woven by his neighbor. Bartering, no longer tenable as a long-term trade solution, necessitated a medium to equilibrate any disconnect in value—a medium which two people could agree has a store of value. Often debased and counterfeited as an object, and often difficult to breakdown as a subject, money required no coincidence for two people to want it, as it could accrue—and compound—interest indeed by itself.
Or how about the suggestive discovery about procreation: the insight that it need not be employed exclusively for creation. Men and woman in heat can, unlike other animals, plough in any season without producing a crop. Hence, in varied form, the coincidence of wants resurfaces. Although fermented grapes and grains can strike a pithy match when there is none between two people to speak of, what are the odds that two people will be synched so precisely as to want recreational sex at the same time? Thus, aphrodisiacs—to pacify any mood of reticence (at any given time)—would have been touted as way of channeling “Eros” along with legitimizing the study of spells and seduction as an art and science of which it consists. Devotion and attachment, relaxation and relief minted themselves as currencies of exchange recognized later as legal and tender reasons for lovemaking other than to just produce heirs.
But recommendations made enthusiastically by hysterical and bloodthirsty medicine men—and centuries later, non-hallucinogenic taking-clergies (both identically benighted), sought to it that female virgins were snuffed out to appease solar eclipses in the first case and that witch-hunts and unwinnable heresy trials persisted in the second, even after phenomena in nature no longer “demanded it.” All whilst queens and kings (or any family with hereditary power) who, because of generational inbreeding amongst cousins as close as first, continued to disobey laws of consanguinity so as to keep the reputation of their bloodline royal and pure.
After all this, I leaned in, finally: if the tongue makes it past her puckered lips, it’s all swell, but in the shallow end it must stay because like a stubby shroom stem, it has a rather stomach-turning texture if, by being unseasoned, it goes too deep. When I was younger, whenever two people in a film were abnormally good at chemistry, through my hands I always peeked. I didn’t know why people led with their lips when they kissed. Leading with the ears, chin, or forehead, could be, when rubbed together just as effective in the connection making process? You might say by my eyes being opened my mouth could not stay shut; with my jawbone on the floor there was something to pick up.
It Was It
IT IS QUITE THE SCENE—and it by no means diminishes the memorable quarrels in Network—when Holly Hunter, at the end of Broadcast News, reproves William Hurt for being a phony. Breaking the news is hierarchic. In the public’s interest, the most urgent presented first, the more arguably tabloid last. In 1987, Barry Goldwater retired from the senate; Prince’s Sign O Times was released, he had retired The Revolution; and Reagan retired a doctrine on reporting fairly—depending on who’s asked. Anchors, in theory, keep a story from drifting. Shelled from the undertow of shallow sentiment, up the chain all the way, a code of ethics keeps them in bedrock sediment.
Thus, we rely on the Fourth Estate (from whom courage and integrity is expected), for objectivity. Encouraging thought, an impartial outer-world that concords with our biased inner-world, sanely. Certainly, some anchors are foul. Snagged, in the literal sense, on ethics. Their motionlessness is used, in effect, as an excuse to justify spin.
Imagine if the US Office of War Information, and their double broadcasts, still subsisted. Informed during the Second World War were domestic audiences, whereas audiences abroad were disinformed. Concerned (with the advent of TV) and rightfully so—that the US could begin to use propaganda domestically (guised as education), Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act in 1948 blocking such telecasts from entering US homes (though “modernization,” an amendment term entered and changed the act in 2012.)
Now, one Amendment, the First, but last one people should want to give up, allows US citizens to investigate power and—as with those who’ve ever had a memory of abuse disinterred by a shrink will tell you—speak about it freely.
Growing up, I would taxi beside my parents quietly whilst pretending to keep up to speed with the news. 1987 was the year of Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, both, I was allowed to hear about but not see. Especially an unfastened Glenn Close playing a borderline who retires a bunny.
As it were, currencies could not, after the market went black one Monday in October, finance the toll of a crash. The Queen on the Canadian one-dollar bill, the only one I recognized as fare. As were her features and profiles: her joyless son had gone to the press, boasting about his tendency to coo at shrubs and plants. So, face to face with the specie she helped to produce, Her Majesty saw that she herself had also turned into an irreversible Loonie. A real human-interest story. Another:
Cocooned by the press, the Queen’s maudlin daughter-in-law took a rather iron and inflexible stance on acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (believed to have the same R0 as the flu), yet the hand of an infected man she shook. Perhaps it’s not a stretch to say that in my skull taking shape was a less graphic but more novel version of how wonder incites woman.
Important, too, tensions around real estate. Somewhere east or west of the line between the Israeli and Palestinian bank is where the latter demanded the former to make a withdrawal, the First Intifada. To say nothing of another violent collision: Gaddafi defeated by the Toyota War, losing the driver’s seat in Chad, his Libyan-line clearly overdrawn.
Serial coverage, meanwhile, on Jim Baker, whose former employee, Jessica Han, was accusing the televangelist of rape; Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart, who was caught womanizing Donna Rice; and the FCC going snap when George Michael’s wry crackle on wanting sex went pop.
And scatology and eschatology, one mustn’t forget, consorted rather poorly when news broke of Piss Christ. Catholics, upset with photographer Andres Serrano who bottled a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine, did not see it as art. Nonetheless, mental states of those spoken of in current affairs, were they to be diagnosed by the psychiatric community, were left out of the news because of one Goldwater rule.
Republican Barry Goldwater, by the press deliberately misquoted as having said “extremism is no vice” when he ran against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, was diagnosed (from afar) by the psychiatric community. Fusing punitive psychiatry with journalism is circulating a publication on how mentally unfit a person is to govern, a Stalinist tactic.
Here, then, the Goldwater rule later benefited cynosures such as Jimmy Carter, whose abstract mental state during the failed Iran hostage crisis was never publicly appraised by psychiatrists, painting and then framing the president as an overvalued drip.
Against that, although not because of that, Reagan repealed the FCC fairness doctrine in 1987. This doctrine from 1949 obligated broadcasters to weigh the other side of any ostensibly divisive news story so that the public could better know what was under the topics on which they stood. News, of course, unlike films, is not tested on audiences. Abysmal numbers forced the producers of Fatal Attraction, for example, to rethink its ending: Glenn Close turning the knife on herself. Her character’s suicide, too somber and cerebral for viewers to take, was meant to emulate the beauty and pathos of Madama Butterfly. Reshot, instead, was a less arty, more commercial ending.
For Reagan, wanting another take—without government interference—on news stories was possible without the FCC fairness doctrine of which free-market principles it constrains and constricts. He believed ABC, CBS, and NBC were sufficient networks, noticeably diverse at the time, to deliver opposing views.
The opposing view in Broadcast News is that William Hurt’s character should not have feigned empathy for a news-story cutaway. Disgusted by his crocodile tears his producer, Holly Hunter, immediately scythes their relationship. Now, that marvelous ending was never test-screened. We don’t have eyes on the back of our heads. That’s not news. But take being betrayed by those who we have always come to see as being upfront with news. That’s commercial, enough.
It Was I
IWAS A TEENAGER when I bought Kill at Will and By Any Means Necessary. It was a purchase spurred by a false belief that the two photographs on the album covers were equal. On the latter, you could see rapper KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions holding an assault rifle whilst through the blinds of his city apartment he peers, in similitude to that imperishable photo of Malcolm X, on guard. On the former, rapper, Ice Cube, offers up to the camera his handgun—to the person who’d be purchasing his album, in other words. You could easily let it slip past you: capriciously anti-social at best, Kill at Will, campaigns for meaningless violence, whilst, decisive self-defense is absolutely endorsed by the other.
In 1909, the British, grouping various colonies together, finalized the South Africa Act. Nearly three-quarters of a century earlier, they had abolished slavery. Having divested themselves of the Dutch, they were now finalizing the border of what would become Africa’s southernmost country, in 1910. Political bodies, the National Party and the African National Congress (ANC), soon form. Blacks, being the portable property of Afrikaners, formed the second party to resist being moved around by the first.
Had one been in America some 70 years earlier, in 1838, one might have seen a young lawyer from Kentucky orating the Lyceum Address. To a crowd in Chicago, Lincoln argued he foresaw but profitless residuals from slavery. Against that, the confederates in Savannah, Georgia, would hear crank Alexander Stephens deliver the Cornerstone Speech in 1861: his racist encomium about the divine right of whites to preside over Blacks, right before the Civil War.
Pass laws in South Africa, put in place as early as the 1700s when the Dutch & East India Companies had trade routes around the Cape, dictated which areas Blacks were permitted to circulate. By the 1950s, a stricter National Party brought in the Group Areas Act, Bantu Education Act, and Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, which fully exteriorized apartheid. Protesting this, the NAC took, one might say, the Ghandian approach of non-violence.
Despite Reconstruction, the southern US states did not entirely conform to the era. Freedmen’s citizenship and suffrage, which Amendments 14 and 15 granted, were burked by Black laws. Invoked after the Civil War, these—similar to South Africa’s Pass laws—restricted the ostensible freedman’s mobility. Black laws also made voting needlessly tortuous by first subjecting Blacks to literacy tests. There was also the matter of hate groups. There were civil rights acts, one in 1871, to professedly protect Blacks from the KKK, followed by one in 1875, which gave Blacks equal access to public facilities.
The Year of Africa, said to be 1960, saw the greatest number of states decolonized, save for South Africa. The country instead continued to ratify laws that insulated itself from political reprieve and incrimination: the Unlawful Organizations Act outlawed the ANC whilst the Indemnity Act ensured government impunity for the Sharpeville Massacre. Had one been in Rovina, Johannesburg, in 1964, one might have seen a middle-aged Nelson Mandela, the once-practicing lawyer, situated at his own trial, orating the “I Am Prepared to Die” speech.
The Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C. was being unveiled—where Frederick Douglass spoke somewhat critically, albeit briefly, of Lincoln’s willingness to be initially on both sides of the slavery issue—and a year later the Compromise of 1877 took place. Between Tilden and Hayes, both running for president, a compromise was made when uncontestable electoral votes kept the result of the election in limbo. Democrat Tilden would give a concession speech in exchange for Republican Hayes pulling his would-be Union troops out of the South, a denouement, in effect, for the Reconstruction Era, most oversoon.
Communism (its definition broadened by the South African government), included any writing or action that frustrated apartheid. Thus, Mandela was being sentenced to life under the Suppression of Communism Act for endowing (after the Sharpeville Massacre), the uMkhonto we Sizwe—an ANC splinter group—whose protests against the National Party had turned, shall one say, militaristic.
In America, suspected fellow travelers were put on notice, hole-and-corner by COINTELPRO. After his Letter from a Birmingham Jail began to spread, the Baptist Minister from Georgia, himself having read COINTELPRO’s thuggish letter that suggested he best off himself, resolved to forge on, and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As courageous an act a mortal could perform, one that would be followed in 1965. King also believed, as it happens, that “the group consisting of mother, father and child is the main educational agency of mankind.” (Contra to the “Black Village” concept by Black Lives Matter which consists of “our” children—the word “your” noticeably eliminated, being raised collectively in so far as “mothers, parents and children are comfortable,” to shake “the Western-prescribed” notion of family cohesion.)
By 1973, Steve Biko was no longer permitted to gather in a room with more than one person at a time. Freedom of movement and association, assembly and—for that matter, speech—all of which the National Party restricted via banning orders, immured men and women whose ideas fomented change. Biko had founded the Black consciousness movement whilst writing under the pseudonym Frank Talk; in We Blacks, a piece partly about Blacks not involving themselves in ‘“white-hatred,” as it is “negative, though understandable,” and possibly “disastrous for Black and white alike.” And, how “Black people read the Bible with a gullibility that is shocking,” before advocating that Blacks interpret “Jesus as a fighting God,” whose reaction to seeing moneylenders indeed “merited a violent reaction from Him.”
Around the time Jim Crow was undone by the Civil Rights Act, a graduate from the University of Mississippi named James Meredith led a decent-sized march between two contiguous southern states. He suffered, in the process of exciting more Blacks to vote, a sniper’s bullet. (Later coming close himself to being politically undone for his brief association with one Jesse Helms.) The Great Migration, meanwhile, was nearing its end, too. Just as millions of freedmen had decamped from the South to circumvent strident Black laws, Caucasians egressed from areas that were becoming less segregated. This “White flight,” caused, in part, policies for bussing and demands for charter schools decades later. And so emerged an urgent debate about intentions and their results: were Blacks, at large, without having school choice being better educated?
Biko, whilst being purposely ambulanced to the furthest possible hospital—some 700 miles from the prison where he had been tortured and mutilated by state police, died in 1977. By the mid-1980s, Winnie Mandela, under whose wolfish go-ahead native South Africans carried out Necklacing on their own people, was disavowed by the ANC. Hula-hooped around the neck of a Black man or woman, a petrol-soaked tire packed with kindling is ignited. Molten rubber sears the skin of the supposed ‘police informant,’ but not before they first cry then die of slow asphyxiation.
US Secretary of Labor’s Moynihan Report, arguing that unemployment numbers against those registering for welfare did not correlate in 1965, meant that the Black nuclear family was disbanding, an unintended consequence of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Additionally, two sociologists from Stanford, Richard Cloward and Frances Piven, had a bright idea. Writing about ending poverty, they deduced that if an economic catastrophe could be induced by overextending the welfare system, the government would be forced to abolish welfare, swapping universal basic income in its place: the Cloward-Piven Strategy of 1966.
In contrast to the lucidity and profundity of MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail was Soul on Ice, a roiled missive from Folsom State Prison by Eldridge Cleaver, who later founded the Black Liberation Army (BLA) after his release. By chance, Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh were both launched from their mothers on the same date. Three irrepressible white women, possessed by said coincidence, chose the date to name their ugly decadent baby: the May 19th Communist Organization, a US terrorist group which later BLA members matriculated into. United, they became rabid demagogues, killing cops and setting off bombs. Ultra-textbook tantrums.
US Congress, in negotiating the release of Mandela, pushed embargoes: the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, thinking it would prompt the National Party to agree. At the beginning of the decade, Reagan disagreed, thinking South Africa would not end apartheid simply because of economic sanctions. He believed—as did Margaret Thatcher—that any sanctions would only distress the oppressed Blacks. Thus, he sought instead a policy structure that would become the setup for the later failed Constructive Engagement.
Photographs. One from South Vietnam: captured in the summer of 1972, of nine-year-old Phan Phúc, escaping from an air strike—naked, crying, her back seared with napalm. Equally upsetting: one Hector Pieterson, a dead thirteen-year-old boy in the arms of a protestor after being shot by Afrikaner police during the Soweto uprising, summer 1976: an image, advancing outrage. Both, entirely black and white.
It Was A
ALONG TIME AGO, I saw a program on TV about a devotional fromager. Captured were the details and nuance of how a lovely but secluded soft-spoken guy made Parmigiano-Reggiano in the remote backwoods of Italy. His craft had fitted him for stoicism and detachment. A block of his own making, he removed by the end of the show. When he drew a sibilant mouth-whiff, nudging a thin pale sheet atop his tongue, it woke up nice and smelly. Short of breath—and pinching his nasal bone whilst his underlip went into seizure—he wept excitedly.
Here, then, the touching subject of good old-fashioned aging and how to properly pair it with lifestyle was being drilled. Against the agreeable backdrop of the Italian frontier, the show was a caricature about worker engagement, intimating its effect on GDP. It was enjoyable, of course, romanticized. One could not imagine that same level of puffery applied to a piece on (say) refined petroleum or defined cars: easily above and beyond any list of enriched exports, Italy’s most slick.
After the program ended, two options on other channels. First, a Nightline-type piece on Venezuela’s president, who, ousted temporarily by his opposition just a year earlier, was again being bullied. This time the PDVSA’s oversight of the country’s oil reserves (the richest in the world), whose workers were on strike, protesting the reelection of a low tide influencing, high tide promising president: a moonstruck Marxist whose media name was Hugo Chavez.
Second, two minors, en route to their suicide, killed a dozen High School students in Columbine, Colorado, in 1999. Bowled over, Michael Moore, blaming the tragedy largely on his country’s second amendment, made a documentary and for his efforts received an Oscar in 2003. He was in a mood. Barking from the podium, he excoriated George W. Bush’s saleable yet sticky pretext for the Iraq War, 9/11 and WMDs. The audience, not yet woke, mostly jeered at Moore. Later:
Argued with a heart-warming fixation on Bush that the president had cooked up a cash-generating scheme (a dish which today would carry the lowly title of conspiracy theory), Moore claimed that Bush’s domestic and foreign cronies could not construct a new pipeline through the Middle East if Saddam Hussein remained in power, and sought to prove this theory as the reason Bush gave up his thumb to the war.
You, too, may recall the self-hating intellectual Matt Damon played in Good Will Hunting, enshrining self-importantly Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States (the very book that a very naïve A.J. falls for in The Sopranos). How subtle are Zinn’s contours, noticeably used by Moore in his unsubtle cartoon history of America, in Bowling for Columbine: Congenitally craven pilgrims—escalating violence whilst mastering America—stuck to their guns?
America’s first amendment is hard, like a Praetorian guard, to get a read on, if you just see its protection as stationery. Notice—in action, both common and contentious speech is protected—the framers’ acuity. Moore’s afforded protection meant Fahrenheit 9/11 could attack Bush (still president at the time of the film’s release), as a hollow fraudster: the short, headsoft son of a hardening crime family, going along.
Years later the senator from Chicago’s decorum and probity were impugned, not by Moore, but by Citizens United, in Hillary: The Movie. The highly regarded hoyden was now being disregarded for her single-minded double-dealings. Imagine a certain political party’s outrage. Taken to the Supreme Court, Citizens United defended their right to reconnoiter Senator Clinton’s weaknesses, and won. Irony?
The whole hustle of really, really going after an opponent’s weaknesses is the brainchild of Saul Alinsky, godfather. Which Hillary did, after all, adopt. Her thesis at Wellesley was about the oily faultfinder who concocted today’s version of community organizing, and she became but one of his legatees. (In his Rules for Radicals, of all the radicals who’ve ever existed, he rather tellingly refers to Lucifer as the first.)
Cherished for several reasons, not least of all his prescribed tactics on how to fight one’s opponents, Alinsky’s less sapient ideas are sanctimonious—because community organizing is good; for organizing it, you’re good; anyone opposing your good is an irredeemable enemy—and thus should be judged as such. If necessary, fabricating an enemy, a tactic Alinsky himself goaded, can help focus a community’s disorganized, perhaps even slightly maundering, aspirations or grievances.
Above, is (a), an unintended contradiction, or, at the very least (b), a profane inference: (a) analogizing radicals with Lucifer consequently means that people who oppose radicals are in effect good; or (b) the cosmos itself, unaware of being created by such a willfully coercive god, justifies a mutinous Lucifer: his unlit presence secured as a serviceable good.
In any case, nationalism, a term generally wrung a few ways: one, ethno-nationalism, that which the bigoted brute Dr. Guido Landra hyped in his Manifesto of Race, a fascistic writ which stripped non-ethnic Italians of their citizenship in the 1930s; and, two, economic-nationalism, that which vehicle producing General Motors did not support, opening a plant in Mexico which killed thirty thousand American jobs in the late 1980s. In Roger & Me, Moore indeed went on the attack.
The film merits a second look. Moore is neither overly pious nor paranoid in his activism against the real-world enemy of a community ruined by its jobs going abroad, and with it, the ungodly willing destruction of the American worker’s dignity.
Not a word said by the weepy fromager, conceivably because his job, he knew, was going absolutely nowhere.