Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ayn Rand: In Soviet Russia, Decisions Make You

Ayn Rand is best known for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, titanic volumes that respectively depict, in totalistic detail, her ideal man of action and her all-encompassing Objectivist philosophy. They were her last fictional works published, though to say this is somewhat misleading; Rand died in 1982, Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, and The Fountainhead was published 14 years earlier in 1943. To refer to them as ‘late’ works is to speak of their place in her literary output, not her broader life and career, which consisted after Atlas of mostly non-fiction articles and public speeches. They were written late enough, however, that her ideas, such as they were, had solidified (and in the case of Atlas, perhaps calcified).

We the Living, by contrast, was Rand’s first published book (1936), and as such serves as an overture of sorts for everything to come. Themes that she would later elaborate are here in embryonic form, as are the stylistic hallmarks and tics that would attract readers and repulse critics. Though Rand had been writing stories since she was a child, this was her first published novel and her first in English. She was still young, in thrall to writers she had grown up on, and haunted by the country she had left behind. Without the intellectual and artistic insularity that came with Rand’s later success, there is a freshness to the book that makes it, all told, a decent read, even as it anticipates some of its author’s later, darker developments.

By far the best aspect of the book is its story. Kira Argounova, an ambitious, middle-class Russian, returns to post-revolutionary Petrograd in 1922 with her family from the Crimea, where they had hoped to wait out the Bolsheviks. Kira’s father had owned a business before the Revolution, which the Soviets have confiscated, reducing family to destitution and, as class enemies, official suspicion and contempt. Kira is opposed to the Soviet regime, and enrolls in Petrograd's Technological Institute for an engineering degree she intends to use solely for her own gratification. She meets Leo Kovalensky, the son of a counter-revolutionary fighter, and they become lovers. At the same time she becomes friendly with Andrei Tagenov, an officer in the GPU, the Soviets’ secret police. When Leo falls ill with incipient tuberculosis Kira’s pleas for government aid are spurned, and so she begins an affair with Andrei, using his cash gifts to pay for Leo’s stay in a sanitarium to recover. Leo returns healthy, but with his will to live utterly sapped; he recklessly embarks on a food speculation business scheme that gets him arrested, leading Andre to discover Kira had loved Leo all along. Despondent and disillusioned with the Communist Party, Andrei commits suicide after freeing Leo, who becomes a gigolo for a middle-aged woman. With nothing left for her in Russia Kira attempts to flee, but is shot at the border and dies.

It’s a little melodramatic, sure, but considering Rand’s later works involve a world which has banished the word "I;" an architect blowing up a public housing project; and all the world's creative individuals going on strike because they're not appreciated, this is all told quite grounded. What works especially in the book’s favor is Andrei, Rand’s ideal of a Communist party member, who is a genuinely compelling character. Considering Rand’s antipathy towards anything that smelled of communism (and many things that didn’t), the sympathy with which she paints a portrait of an idealist soured on the system he serves is remarkable.

The writing is straightforward in describing the degrading life in Russia, though the twenty years alone that have passed since the Soviet system collapsed often makes for unintentionally funny reading, especially the propaganda posters. The best is early on, when "COMRADES! WE ARE THE BUILDERS OF A NEW LIFE!" is juxtaposed with "LICE SPREAD DISEASE! CITIZENS, UNITE ON THE ANTI-TYPHUS FRONT!"

The dialogue is generally wooden, while the prose is straightforward and unadorned, nonetheless containing some occasionally excellent passages. An episode describing one of Andre’s battles in the Crimea works as a neat short story, with a twist ending in which the wounded White Russian soldier he’s been carrying ends up being an infamous and wanted captain.

"If you have pity," said Captain Karsavin, "you'll shoot me."

"No," said Andrei, "I can't."

Then they were silent.

"Are you a man?" asked Captain Karsavin.

"What do you want?" asked Andrei.

The captain said: "Your gun."

Andrei looked straight into the dark, calm eyes and extended his hand. The captain shook it. When he took his hand out of the captain's Andrei left his gun in it.

Then he straightened his shoulders and walked toward the village. When he heard the shot, he did not turn. He walked steadily, his head high, his eyes on the red flag beating against the sunrise. Little red drops followed the steps in the soft, damp earth--on one side of the road only.
Another outstanding section is a long riff on Petrograd that opens the second part of the novel:

Petrograd was not born; it was created. The will of a man raised it where men did not choose to settle. An implacable emperor commanded into being the city and the ground under the city. Men brought earth to fill as swamp where no living thing existed but mosquitoes. And like mosquitoes, men died and fell into the grunting mire. No willing hands came to build the new capitol. It rose by the labor of soldiers, thousands of soldiers, regiments who took orders and could not refuse to face a deadly foe, a gun or a swamp. They fell, and they earth they brought and their bones made the ground for the city. “Petrograd,” it’s residents say, “stands on skeletons.”

This is impressive work for a writer still learning to grasp a new language (Rand did, it must be said, receive help from her husband Frank O'Connor and his brother Nick), and its readability goes along way toward explaining how her later works became such runaway popular successes.

Beyond the plotting, however, one must deal with Rand's philosophizing. It is easier to deal with here than in the later books, in part because it's working in opposition to an odious system that has the benefit of being real and keenly observed. The problem with Rand's worship of the individual is that it makes as its argument something most people take as a given, expending most of its energy tilting at collectivist windmills. Soviet Russia was a place where individual freedom was given no consideration, and so here, at least, Rand is in the right.

Yet even then her egoism is frequently galling. We the Living was written while Rand was still drunk on the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, so much that she removed certain Nietzschean passages in a subsequent 1959 edition of the book:

"I know what you're going to say. You're going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods."

"I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one's right, one shouldn't wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except that I don't know, however, whether I'd include blood in my methods."

"Why not? Anyone can sacrifice his own life for an idea. How many know the devotion that makes you capable of sacrificing other lives? Horrible, isn't it? Admirable. If you're right. But--are you right?"

"Why do you loathe our ideals?"

Elsewhere Kira describes the masses as "mud to be ground underfoot." Rand was wise to delete these passages, but incredibly disingenuous in saying that she "changed only the most awkward or confusing lapses...reworded the sentences and clarified the meaning, without changing their content."

Not that what remains is much better. Kira's individualism, ostensibly a manifestation of a sublime ideal, is anti-social at best:

When Galina Petrovna took her children to see a sad play depicting the sorrow of the serfs whom Czar Alexander II had magnanimously freed, Lydia sobbed over the plight of the humble, kindly peasants cringeing under a whip, while Kira sat tense, erect, eyes dark in ecstsay, watching the whip cracking expertly in the hand of a tall, young overseer.

"How beautiful!" said Lydia, looking at a stage setting. "It's almost real."

"How beautiful!" said Kira, looking at a landscape. "It's almost artificial."

Rand's off-putting fixation with strength and violence figures also into the book's treatment of love. Leo is regularly described as "arrogant" with a positive connotation. A sex scene in which Kira imagines Leo whipping her was excised, while the others were revised so that the man is always the initiator. For chrissakes, Kira and Leo first meet in Petrograd's red light district, where he thinks she is a prostitute!

This last fact is not incidental; Leo later denigrates Kira as a whore for making and faking love with Andrei for cash, a term she repeats when confronting Andrei, and Leo of course ends up the consort of a painted Communist wench. Love here is taken to be an act of rebellion against a state that does not value the individual, but I doubt if even Rand herself, the queen of capitalism, would insist on so literally putting a price on it.

The persistence with which Rand pursues her individualistic obsession all but overwhelms the novel in Kira's climactic confrontation with Andrei, in which she screams, literally screams, at him for four pages about how she never loved him and the Soviet system is dehumanizing . Money quote:

If you taught us that our life is nothing before that of the State--well then, are you really suffering? If I brought you to the last hell of despair--well then, why don't you say that one's own life doesn't really matter?" Her voice was rising, like a whip, lashing him ferociously on both cheeks. "You loved a woman and she threw your love in your face? But the proletarian mines in the Don Basin have produced a hundred tons of coal last month! You had two altars and you saw suddenly that a harlot stood on one of them, and Citizen Morozov on the other? But the Proletarian State has exported ten thousand bushels of wheat last month! You've had every beam knocked from under your life? But the Proletarian Republic is building a new electric plant on the Volga! Why don't you smile and sing hymns to the toil of the Collective? It's still there, your Collective. Go and join it. Did anything really happen to you? It's nothing but a personal problem of a private life, the kind that only the dead old world could worry about, isn't it? Don't you have something greater--greater is the word your comrades use--left to live for? Or do you, Comrade Tagenov?"

The affair and betrayal actually are an excellent demonstration of the point being made, but--perhaps because of Rand's Nietzschean contempt for the common man--Rand doesn't trust the reader to figure this out for himself and resorts to hammering (and sickleing?) him with pages of shrill exegesis. This four-page climactic harangue is nothing compared to the sixty--sixty!--page John Galt speech that awaits me in Atlas Shrugged, but it's bad enough. Worse, Andrei regurgitates chunks of Kira's logarrhea in the very next scene in a speech to the Party, just to make sure we get the point.

More than any other scene in the book, the speech presages the didacticism Rand would come to be known for. Rather thankfully, though, it is largely the exception. The rest of the book, in spite of its troubling power-worship, remains a solid read more than seventy years on, and a notable document of the early Soviet era, supposedly the first of its kind written by someone who escaped the system.

This wasn't enough to save We the Living in its first iteration. Though it was endorsed by H.L. Mencken and garnered some impressive press coverage, reviews were often mixed or negative due to prevailing leftist opinion that Rand did not properly understand the noble experiment of the Soviet workers paradise. The book was also ill-served by its publisher, Macmillan, who printed only a few thousand copies before destroying the type, and so most readers would not encounter it until after publication of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. It did find an audience overseas, however, large enough that it was adapted without Rand's knowledge into two impeccably shot films in Italy, whose fascist authorities eventually banned it, proof that she had been on to something, for once and once alone.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

War Horse's publicity presents it as an immaculately crafted piece of horse-love entertainment calculated to make you weep with Pavlovian efficiency, and that's basically what it is. I went in expecting it to jerk my tears, and I got it. But expecting to cry at something, the anticipation of it, threatens the effectiveness, which is largely based on surprise. (Seeing the musical Billy Elliot this past week, for instance, the song "The Letter" caught me completely off guard and left me a blubbering mess.) War Horse's success in bringing forth the bawling depends on Steven Spielberg's ability to outmaneuver the viewer's expectations for his vaunted emotional manipulation.

The film opens with DP Janusz Kaminski's panoramic shots of some of the most gorgeously green English countryside you'll ever see, on which a horse is being born. The horse is sold to a Devon farming family, the Narracotts, whose teenaged son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) names it Joey and trains it in riding and farming in spite of everyone's expectations (except the audience's, that is). Falling on hard times, however, Joey's father (Peter Mullan) sells the horse to Britain's armed forces, just as World War I is beginning. The film then alternates between Joey and Albert’s trials throughout the war.

In that synopsis is hiding a neat experimental film, one that follows Joey exclusively and treats its human beings as background props the way most movies treat animals. Spielberg's not that kind of filmmaker, though, and neither is the source material, so what we get instead is a film that puts its horse on an equal (equine?) footing with its people, who all have stories of their own.

The type of story changes with circumstance. The first half hour or so is a mini-movie in itself, an "inspirational" family drama complete with fowl comic relief (not a typo), a hissable landlord villain, and a ticking-clock challenge of harvesting enough produce to pay off the rent. There's a lot of set up for important stuff later on, but it's a little too cloying, as is Irvine's golden-boy portrayal of Albert, but things get comfortably darker once the war gets going. Although the movie's PG-13 rating precludes explicit gore, the battle sequences are still harrowing and, occasionally, profoundly upsetting, in a way that makes them some of the most effective parts of the movie.

The movie is constantly hindered, however, by its episodic structure and focus on characters whose backstory and fate are either inconsequential or should be. Of the various folk into whose care Joey comes, only a handful (the British soldier who rides Joey and a German soldier who later cares for him) cultivate a natural sympathy. The others demand far too much attention without commanding it in a story that's supposed to be about horses.

Those horses, the several of them that play Joey and co-star Topthorn, are fantastic, by the way. Not just their eyes but their body language convey clear emotion that makes it easy to identify with them; they are characters as much (in fact more) than any of the human beings, in a way that recalls Andy Serkis' Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, another movie this year in which a non-human drove the story. So suggestive are their movements and faces that one could easily imagine the lines they would have if a lesser director had made them talking animals. Just as necessary for the success in making them full-fledged characters is Spielberg's direction, the way they are framed, with low angles imparting to them a certain majesty. As befitting their species, the horses must carry the movie, and they do so marvelously.

Given that the movie is about a horse and his boy, the ending is never much in question. Knowing this actually works to its benefit, though. Knowing essentially how things will turn out allows Spielberg not just to surprise, but also occasionally shock, with what he'll put his characters through and how they will reach their destination. It can be somewhat contrived, but compared to the endings of War of the Worlds and A.I., the plot machinations here are positively restrained.

In spite of its manipulation, the corniness of the early scenes, and a John Williams score that all but subliminally instructs you to break out your hanky, War Horse earns its tears in spite of both itself and my cynicism. The work done by and with the horses elevate the material considerably. Yet the insistent focus on the non-equine performers distracts almost as considerably. The movie's most exhilarating moments, outside of the battle scenes, involve horses running free and unencumbered; one wishes the entire film were made in that selfsame spirit.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Nightest Time of the Year

I've never been a fan of Christmas, mostly due to the hideously tacky commercialism that comes with it, but also because of its manic and mandatory cheer. Like Valentine's Day, it's always struck me as a time to flatter the vanity of the well-to-do and to rub the noses of the less fortunate in their own bad circumstances. The lovey-dovey couple really doesn't need any more congratulation than, say, the isolated widow needs a reminding of her loneliness. This was always to me obviously true, but not based on any actual experience. Christmas has always been for me more annoying than depressing.

I theorized of unhappy people on Christmas without much being one myself, but that's a little different this year, as this holiday season has been a rough one. My mother put our dog of 15 years to sleep only a couple weeks ago. My maternal grandmother, who has had health issues the past couple years, is in the hospital due to a stroke. As I was talking about this with my mother on the phone last night I learned that the faculty adviser for my fraternity had died. He was by all accounts a wonderful person and helped establish my school's chapter and keep it going through dicey times. I initiated late in my schooling and never got to know him, which I am now dearly regretting.

Christmas' roots lay in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year before the days begin getting longer again. For some it is all too fitting that this, the ironically most stressful and sorrowful of holidays, should coincide with the year's longest night. And though things could obviously be worse for me, this year's confluence of loss and missed opportunities will make mine a somewhat blighted Christmas, and it's affected me more than I thought it would.

In spite of all that, I am still glad for all that I have, and for the many, many people who have enriched my life in Idaho, in DC, and anywhere else. The fourth Thursday of November may be our designated day of thanks, but I would like to think of it as the inauguration of a month-long rumination on gratitude for what we have, and also what we have lost. Thanks can only be meaningful in light of heaviness and hardship, after all. Thus does a month of heightened awareness of our fickle fortunes culminate in that darkest night, which must come before the day, the month, the year, can be renewed.

So I'm going to be uncharacteristically gooey and say that all of you, whoever you are, you're all stars. You're glorious, bright, and beautiful and for somebodies in your orbit you are the day itself. And for those who can only see you shine from way afar, you make the sky that would otherwise be especially right now dark and empty, a little more magnificent.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Come Not Between the Dragon and Her Tat

That an American adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy was going to happen was probably a foregone conclusion by, oh, January 2009. Mere days before I left on my school trip to London, one of my of my neighbors gave me some money and asked me to buy him a copy of The Girl Who Played With Fire, which had been published in the U.K. but would not be out stateside for several more months. That's enthusiasm, and Hollywood was sure it could translate into big box office. As a money-making project, then, there was no question that the American version would happen; this was not the case when it came to whether it would be worth the time and effort of adapting a series that already was brought to the screen in its original nation not even three years ago. Happily they tapped David Fincher, who with two modern crime thriller classics (Se7en and Zodiac) to his name was probably the best person imaginable for the project. The resulting film is, like the girl of its title, easy to admire, but hard to love.

The plot is labyrinthine, but its premise is simple and engaging enough: publicly disgraced investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired under the pretense of writing a biography by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) the aging patriarch and former CEO of one of Sweden's richest family corporations. Operating under the pretense of writing a biography of Vanger, Blomkvist in reality is investigating the disappearance 36 years ago of his great-niece Harriet. The circumstances are such that it could have only been one of the many creepy members of the Vanger clan that live on the family's private island that could have murdered her, making for a very complicated case to untangle. This leads Blomkvist to enlist the services of brilliant and anti-social hacker Lisbeth Salender (Rooney Mara), who prepared a lengthy dosier on him for the Vangers before he was approached.

Being a sprawling murder mystery, the story is most busy, and Fincher wastes no time in getting things going: a quick prologue scene, less than a minute, and then comes an opening credits music video set to the driving rhythms of Trent Reznor and Karen O's cover of "The Immigrant Song," and then we're off. The movie's pacing takes some getting used to, as scenes begin and end only as much as absolutely necessary to get down to the business of conveying new information. Even then it can be very seat-of-the-pants, with characters grasping details quicker than anybody who hasn't read the book could hope to. The film is over two-and-a-half hours long, but it could in all honesty stand to have been a little longer, in order to allow the viewer the chance to catch his breath once in awhile.

A procedural of such length could be perfunctory and grueling, but the two leads do a capable job keeping things interesting. Craig's role is deceptively functional in the way he acts as an audience surrogate when story matters get particularly twisted. At one point he actually interrupts Vanger's parade of family members and their (often severed) ties to one another, with a complaint that he can't keep track of them all. Likewise his fatigue and disgust at a long and detailed list of brutal rapes and murders of women. He's a good anchor, though a late scene of his that has the villain unspooling his evil deeds brings to mind unfortunate James Bond comparisons.

The harder sell is Rooney Mara's Lisbeth. The character is generally understated and dry in her approach to everything, even as her spiky hair and piercings and nonexistent eyebrows scream for attention. Watching her is easy, while seeing inside her is a trickier task, at least initially. The script calls for her to be at times withdrawn, frighteningly vulnerable, deathly stern, sexy, and furiously vengeful, almost always without ever losing her icy coolness. It's a similar type as Ryan Gosling's nameless protagonist in Drive or Hailee Steinfeld's turn as the hyper-intelligent fourteen year-old Mattie Ross in last year's True Grit, but ultimately not quite as aloof and more rounded, and it is to Mara's credit that she can give such a chilly character some qualities to grab onto, particularly at the very end.

A good deal of this development of Lisbeth comes thanks to the film's lurid contents, which include a graphic rape scene and subsequent revenge. This material could easily court controversy, but it's hard to see how the movie could do without it, being an adaptation of a book whose original title was Men Who Hate Women. The rape scene isn't tasteful (what does a tasteful rape scene look like?), but it is deeply unpleasant, as it should be. The film is, I suppose, even-handed as an indictment of misogyny. It's much more successful than, say, Black Swan, in which literally every male was a hateful sexual predator. And with a consensual sex scene later on, and several scenes in which Lisbeth walks around an apartment or hotel room in her underwear, it manages to show a healthy, sexual side of Lisbeth's personality without feeling at all exploitative.

Still and all, Lisbeth can be awfully off-putting, and so it is with the film that houses her. Its blizzarding Swedish snowscapes and the dingy whitewashed guesthouse Blomkvist stays in are only occasionally relieved by rich-colored summertime flashback scenes. The score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, has more of the drones and jangly piano chords that they used in The Social Network, but without the bouncy electronica to offset it. Finally the rapid-fire pacing makes some of the film's later tender moments a harder sell and mostly botches a denouement--two of them, really--that is bursting with incident and yet feels like an afterthought to the concluded main action. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is handsomely put together and never boring, but I stress again that even at its already extensive length it needs more room to breathe. It is if being in those aforementioned winter vistas, David Fincher seems to have felt he has to keep things moving to stay alive.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What Jew Take Me For?

I go to the bar with a friend, J. We meet up with his roommate, A, who’s with his brother and his brother’s friends. They’re all decked out in Capitols gear and give off a distinct douchebag vibe. By the time we leave they’ve had plenty to drink and are stamping and cussing and shouting down the road, at 12:30 AM on a wee Wednesday morning.

One of them, hereafter referred to as Dickweed, is walking alongside J, calling him a pussy and seemingly trying to goad him into a fight. He’s joking, of course, in the back-handed, alpha male undercurrent of dominance manner of joking endemic to jocks and fratboys, which, because I was part of a fraternity that kept its asshole quotient under control, irritates me endlessly. J keeps his cool, but I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to hit the bastard.

We go back to the apartment (I’m sleeping on the couch since the trains are done running for the night) and all crowd into the kitchen. And somewhere amid the idle chatter the Dickweed looks to me and asks apropos of nothing, with an audible near-sneer:

“Are you a Jew?”

“Why?” I ask.


“Why are you asking me if I’m a Jew?”

“I want to know.”

“What does it matter?”

And so on and back and forth. He really wants to know if I’m a Jew, and to my delight is convinced by my refusal to answer that I am a Jew. I’m of the mind that to insult one group is to insult to all of humanity, but arguing these matters is exhausting and usually fruitless, especially with a drunk. As it is I’m content to let him get behind the driver’s seat and steer the conversation off a cliff all by himself.

At one point he tries to test me with “Shabbot Shalom” or something of that nature, to which I merely smile knowingly. After several more “Shalom Shabbot”s I give him the curt, Jewcy reply of “Shalom, motherfucker.”

Ordinarily such impertinence might have provoked further aggression, but Dickweed is now convinced that I am one of the people of the book and really wants to be on superficially good terms with me and repeatedly asks me to dap (fist bump) him, shake hands, be cool. I refuse and he persists, even after his friends astutely observe, “Dude, he doesn’t like you. Just let it go.”

We step outside so some of the others can smoke, and he continues his attempts to win me over, with a defense as old as bigotry itself:

“Man, I don’t hate Jews. I’ve got lots of Jewish friends.”

“But we’re not talking about your Jewish friends. We’re talking about what you’re saying here and now.”

He doesn’t have any good response to this, and his friends are starting to take off. A’s brother wants a dap, and even though I don’t much care for any of the lot I oblige him; he hasn’t personally offended me, and I know it will further vex Dickweed, who continues to seek validation right up until I turn my back to him and walk back inside.

It’s a curious satisfaction one gets in watching such a bag of dogshit set itself aflame. Outside of the restraint necessary to keep from being too outwardly snarky, it’s almost too easy. When someone like that is so inebriated, he’s bound to trip not only on his feet, but his words too. But for the better part of two hours Dickweed had brayed and run riot, and he ended the night half-coherently asking to be cool with a near-stranger he didn’t even know he hadn’t actually insulted. Would that all such troglodytes were so easily dispatched.

Friday, December 16, 2011

God is Dead, and Now Christopher Hitchens is Too

God, Christopher Hitchens. A more erudite and cantankerous SOB the world will probably never again see. I was extraordinarily saddened to hear of his death today, though hardly surprised. His final missive on his cancer treatment, which put to lie the idea that "what doesn't kill me only makes me stronger," in painful detail. Deathly musings from those who knew him best suggested too that the end was near.

I came to Hitch during his late-career reblooming as one of the "Four Horsemen" of the "New Atheism," circa 2007. It was a critical time in my own, ahem, spiritual development, as I was taking my first college biology classes and coming to understand the true mendacity of the creationist movement. The matter of God was not yet settled in my mind. To that point I had been raised a believer, rebelled in middle school, and flirted with a vaguely Christian agnosticism in high school. That mushy sentiment remained up until Hitchens and company made clear that theism was unnecessary for a working model of the universe and should be, like any superfluity, consigned to the flames.

This was at the same time the worst flames were burning in the occupation of Iraq, which coincidentally (and nothing more) expired the same day as Hitch himself, and which Hitchens continued, as he would the rest of his life, to defend. It was a constant bafflement to see someone with such a steadfast commitment to reason letting his own worst instincts get the better of him, that he should share certain ideological affinities with such a demagogue as Pamella Gellar. It was 9/11 that did it, of course, traumatizing him as it did the nation itself. America's own confused impulses can be read in his own contradictory support for Bush's re-election, which validated the torture and executive overreach Hitchens decried in print. Hitchens' flaw was in some sense a tragic one, in that his greatest trait--his unqualified defense of western civilization and free inquiry--should also be the source of his most vicious vice.

And when I speak of vice, I don't mean his propensity for alcohol consumption, which was legendary. That he could drink enough "to stun a mule," while maintaining a prodigious output of writing with an outstanding pearls to piss ratio, was his greatest virtue. Even when he was dead wrong, he was spectacularly, and entertainingly so.

Indeed, even though he is now neither damn right nor dead wrong but simply dead (and damned, to those who take comfort in believing in such things), it is spectacularly and entertainingly so, for he lives on in his writing and speeches and debates. While I felt a sadness that I don't often feel for public figures when I heard of his death, I've found that every time I think of him, I smile. The man's death was untimely, but everything about him--his reading, drinking, personality, his journalism most especially--was excessively lively and ever of the moment. His ebulliance lives after him.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dog Days

This is my family's older dog. Her name was Mocha, because back when we got her my brother and I liked mocha cake, but not coffee. She was a black lab/huskie mutt filled with an endless nervous energy she applied to chasing tennis balls and whining for attention.

She was 15 years old, which is well over half my own life thus far. We got her at some McCall animal shelter, in a time before McPaws; she was slated to be put down if nobody took her in at the end of that day. At the time my parents were in the midst of divorcing, and middle school was another year or so off. I'd never been in a play and 'gay' was still a dirty word. Newt Gingrich was still Speaker of the House.

Mocha had slowed down a lot in recent years, and McCall's sub-zero winters were particularly hard on her. She had taken to scratching and gnawing incessantly until she had worn away fur and flesh, and she had trouble waiting until someone got home to let her out to do her business. Regardless, though, she never acted her age, particularly when there was a tennis ball in front of her. Then she could be as energetic and bitchy and crazy as ever.

I'm glad I got to see her when I was home in September. According to my mother she hadn't been doing well, but when I arrived she showed renewed vitality. I knew when I returned to DC that that was the last I would see of her, and so I've already gotten a lot of the sadness out of my system. Mostly right now I'm just thinking about her and the many hard times she helped our family through.

I've known for a couple months now that the end was coming, and thought of posting something I had seen elsewhere, a lovely passage from The Odyssey about the death of Odysseus' dog Argus. But in the end it just seemed inappropriate. Mocha was too weird for such noble tribute. Her ears were too small for her head and she was terribly anti-social; she made enemies with most of the other dogs that lived along our walking route, and rather than play with our second dog Emma, she first despised her and then developed a weird aloof protectiveness. Decidedly not the stuff of myths. But she was herself, and that was good enough.

I'll miss her something fierce.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dostoyevsky's Underground Digs Deep

Concurrent with my ongoing Ayn Rand fixation is an interest in exploring works that bear some relation to her, whether directly (I'm tempted to dig into Les Miserables, her favorite novel and a conscious influence on We the Living, which actually isn't too shabby) or more obliquely, which is the case with Notes from Underground. Rand, having grown up in Russia, was familiar with Dostoyevsky and appreciated his virtually unmatched fusion of psychology and philosophy, but almost certainly was repulsed by his embrace of suffering and redemption. Notes doesn't track to her thought particularly well, in fact it is wildly divergent, but it contains some surprising connecting threads; it is, too, a quick read, and I wanted to revisit it a year-and-a-half after my first draught of its peculiar poison.

For one thing, Notes is much funnier the second time through. The first exposure leaves the reader appalled at the Underground Man's (defense of the) most inscrutable and destructive behavior. Now that one is in on the sick joke, one can better appreciate his sour wit, how much fun he's having at everyone's expense. His crack that the upcoming dinner with his old and mutually loathing schoolmates is "like a piece of bad literature," is good one. Or the several times he, in typical self-defeating fashion, goes on a tear only to limply let the air out at the end of it:

"Ah, why bother! I ought to get up right away, take my hat, and leave without saying a word. And tomorrow, I would challenge any of them to a duel. The miserable pigs! I don't have to stick it out to get my seven rubles' worth of food. They might think, though--damn it all! To hell with the seven rubles; I'm leaving right now!"

It goes without saying that I didn't leave.

Why bother, indeed. And a little further on:

"Let him hit me in the face, and all the rest of them with him. I'll shout for all to hear: 'Look at that pig who's going to seduce Circassian girls with my spit shining on his face!'

"After that, of course, everything will be over. My office will have disappeared from the face of the earth; I'll be arrested, tried, dismissed from my government job, and deported to Siberia. But never mind! In fifteen years, after I've served my time, I'll trace Zverkov to some provincial town. He'll be happily married by then, with a big daughter. I'll tell him: 'Look, you monster--look at these sunken cheeks and tattered clothes! I've lost everything--career, happiness, art, science, the woman I loved--and all through your fault. Here are the pistols. I've come to unload my pistol and... and I forgive you.' Then I'll fire into the air and no one will hear of me again."

This almost brought tears to my eyes, although I realized that I'd taken it all from Pushkin's Pistol Shot or Lermontov's Masquerade.

Even when he knows he's stolen it all, he can't even say where exactly from.

The prostitute Eliza becomes an easy mark for this treatment as well:

"You'll die all right, some day, and it'll be exactly like that woman I was telling you about. She was young too, just like you....She died of consumption."

"A dame like that would've died in a hospital."

She knows all about these things, I thought when she used the word "dame."

"She owed money to the madam," I said, enjoying the argument more and more. "And she kept working to the very end, consumption or no consumption. The cabbies around there had spoken to some soldiers, and I heard it from them. They made fun of her. They even intended to have a party in her memory in a tavern."

I had invented much of this.

All of this, the curdled humor, the disregard for sincerity and action, derives from the Underground Man's "tangled logic" of his belief that man, even--especially--when given the deepest knowledge of his world and himself, will inevitably opt for the most irrational and destructive behavior, in order to prove that he has a will of his own, free of rationality and its rigid formulae.

Such a view is not exactly practical; as the book's second half makes explicit, putting a philosophy of inaction, in action, is itself a formula for the most gruesome impotence. It is an extraordinarily pessimistic perspective, but it is not altogether wrong. Indeed it speaks to our own times, almost 150 years on:

Now, let me ask you something: what can one expect from man, considering he's such a strange creature? You can shower upon him all earthly blessings, drown him in happiness so that there'll be nothing to be seen but the bubbles rising to the surface of his bliss, give him such economic security that he won't have anything to do but sleep, nibble at cakes, and worry about keeping world history flowing--and even then, out of sheer spite and ingratitude, man will play a dirty trick on you. He'll even risk his cake for the sake of the most glaring stupidity, for the most economically unsound nonsense, just to inject into all the soundness and sense surrounding him some of his own disastrous, lethal fancies. What he wants to preserve is precisely his noxious fancies and vulgar trivialities, if only to assure himself that men are still men (as if that were so important) and not piano keys simply responding to the laws of nature. Man is somehow averse to the idea of being unable to desire unless this desire happens to figure on his timetable at that moment.

The mid to late 1990s, recall, were for the United States a time of unprecedented material prosperity. The Communism of Dostoyevsky's motherland had breathed its last, liberal democracy and capitalism were sprouting from its ashes, and scholars were openly wondering if history would indeed continue to flow. Then over the course of ten years America threw away a budgetary surplus on an ever-increasing number of disastrous and lethal fancies (tax cuts for the people who needed them least, two wars and a senior citizen drug entitlement plan, all unpaid for), and its financial sector devoured itself in the pursuit of ever higher profits generated from some most unsound economic nonsense. After a few years in victory laps the country didn't know what to with itself. Market headiness and 9/11 worked in tandem to spur the nation's slow process of ripping its skin off its body and laughing about it.

The effect is more pronounced now, in the response to Barack Obama's largely technocratic approach to addressing the nation's ills. There are valid criticisms to be made of his methods, but the Republican party's reaction--"Drill, Baby, Drill," "Death Panels," unwavering support for Israel and unflagging contempt of Muslims--is not among them. It is less a cogent critique than a spiteful retreat to its own worst impulses and a wholesale withdrawal from the "reality-based community." This is of course best manifested in the candidates they have put forward to challenge Obama for the nation's leadership; by turns vacuous, wild-eyed, vicious, vain, and inept, the party's favorites for the presidency are a reified bestiality, a regression in the face of complex problems and the need for complex solutions into imbecility for spite's sake, in the name of individual freedom, no less!

Of course, it is Ayn Rand and her ideas that are the prime movers of so much of the current moment in the Republican party. Her antipathy for any but the most basically functional of government activity was such that she considered President John F. Kennedy and his call for service tantamount to Adolf Hitler's fascism. Such comparisons were beyond the pale in polite society in the 1960s and 70s, but these days an accusation of socialism if not outright totalitarianism against the corporatist-lite Democrats is an easy shortcut to a "non-fiction" bestseller.

The contradiction in Rand's putative objectivism and her extremely distorted subjective view is not the greatest irony at work here, however. That lies in the fact that hers was an understandable overreaction to her traumatizing experience living during the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik revolt was spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin, who was moved to action years before by a book, Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done?, which presented London's Crystal Palace as a vision of human progress. It was exactly this ideal that Dostoyevsky's Underground Man rails against:

Actually, I'm not advocating suffering any more than well-being. What I'm for is whim, and I want the right to use it whenever I want to.

I know, for instance, that suffering is inadmissible in light stage plays. In the utopian crystal palace, it'd be inconceivable, for suffering means doubt and denial, and what kind of crystal palace would that be, if people had doubts about it? Nevertheless, I'm certain that man will never give up true suffering, that is, chaos and destruction. Why, suffering is the only cause of consciousness. And, although I declared at the beginning that consciousness is man's greatest plague, I know that he likes it and won't exchange it for any advantage. Consciousness, for instance, is of a much higher order than twice two [makes four]. After twice two, we'll of course have nothing left either to do or to find out. All that'll be left for us will be to bock off our five senses and plunge into contemplation. With consciousness we have nothing much to do either, but we can at least lacerate ourselves from time to time, which does liven us up a bit. It may go against progress, but it's better than nothing.

Both Rand and Dostoyevsky recoiled viscerally from Chernyshevsky and Lenin's utopian fervor. In some respects their responses are remarkably similar. Both stress the primacy of individual will and its indomitability in the face of external forces of societal organization. Yet they are in fact diametrically opposed. Rand's was a unified system that took rationality as its foundation and sought to repudiate altruism, from which Communism sprung, on grounds of irrationality and mysticism. Yet Dostoyevsky's critique digs far deeper than Rand and in fact damns both her and her Soviet opposites, for Objectivism and Communism both are logical systems of thought (though Rand was never so charitable as to grant her enemies that distinction). Neither could accommodate man's drive for the the irrational, the illogical, the absurd. The repressive nature of both the Soviet state and Rand's cult of personality, and their subsequent collapses, bear this out.

A century and a half later, short of trying not to dwell on the implications too long, there still doesn't seem to be an adequate response to the Underground Man's manic scribblings. The best that can be said is that the idea they describe is so self-defeating and -destructive (in the Underground Man's present-day speech he mentions having, at 40, withdrawn from the world into his mouse hole) that one could hope our current spate of spite will soon burn itself out. Cold comfort, perhaps, but what else could rancid humor provide?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Subject and Object

"The life of Ayn Rand was the material of fiction. But if one attempted to write it as a novel, the result would be preposterously unbelievable." Truer words, the first that appear in The Passion of Ayn Rand, were never spoken. Rand's story--filled with adventure, philosophy, tragedy, lurid sexuality, politics--is absolutely compelling: a ridiculously intelligent social misfit escapes Soviet Russia, works for Cecil B. DeMille while working a first novel and a play (Night of January 16th) that goes to Broadway, giving her enough money to live on, intermittently, to write The Fountainhead; she assembles a cult of personality in the name of rationality and individualism, embarks on a decade-and-a-half affair with a twenty-five years younger protege while writing a book that helps birth the Libertarian movement, and eventually drives nearly all of her friends away and dies alone. I'm at a loss to explain my ongoing fascination with Ayn Rand, but if pressed I would venture her literally incredible life's story.

Barbara Branden, Passion's author, was in a unique place to tell it. She and her husband Nathaniel Branden were for 18 years Rand's closest friends, associates, and Objectivist acolytes, and so knew Rand better than anyone besides her husband Frank. She and Rand shared hopes, fears, and fury (Rand was quite one-sided in this respect), and before their break--precipitated by Nathaniel's excommunication for disclosing that he could not continue his affair with Rand because he had fallen in love with a younger woman--she had conducted hours of biographical interviews with Rand in preparation for an earlier, and much more fawning, autobiographical sketch, Who is Ayn Rand?

The uniqueness of the author's relationship to Rand is itself enough to make the book interesting. What made it vital in its time (1986, only four years after Rand's death) was that it was virtually the only biography of Rand that existed to that point, and was also the first publicizing of Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden. Until Anne C. Heller and Jennifer Burns' volumes, it was essentially the only complete biography of the egoist firebrand.

Reading it in quick succession after the other two is like looking at someone's baby photos; the defining characteristics are easily recognizable, but not nearly so developed. Many of the quotations and subjects in the other two books--such as Heller's detailing of Rand's childhood crush, the hero of a French adventure story--were used here first, though without as thorough an investigation of the given subjects. Rand's relationship with Isabel Paterson, an early libertarian writer who tutored Rand in American history and politics, features much more prominently in Burns' account for the considerable impact it had on Rand as a thinker, but here it is given limited treatment. Some figures are scarcely mentioned at all. Murray Rothbard, an anarcho-capitalist and disgruntled Randian who wrote damningly (and quite humorously) of the Rand cult, is only mentioned in an afterward as one of the people Rand influenced.

What most distinguishes Branden's account is its style, a sometimes breathless romanticism that details the state of the person it describes. For instance, "[Frank] spent many hours each day in his studio, but seemed to be producing less and less; he was not painting, he was drinking, drowning his grief and his failed life in liquor." Repitition is a repeated (heh) rhetorical device used throughout to emphasize certain moments. They are scattershot in their effectiveness. A less successful example:

And I had loved Ayn for too long, she had meant too much to me and had done too much for me--ever to be able, even had I wished to do so, to tear that love out of me. I had seen too often her unique, heart-wrenching charm, and the enchanting young girl who still dwelt somehwhere within her, I had witnessed too often, with a sense of wonder, the power and the passion of her intelligence. I had seen....

And so forth. This tool is most ill-used in the final chapter, which endlessly describes figures influenced by Rand, with each entry ending in "The fountainhead is Ayn Rand." In some of the more climactic moments, however, it can be quite appropriate, if still overdone:

"You dared to reject me?" She was no longer screaming, her voice was guttural, choked, and all at once her accent was startlingly heavy--and it seemed for a moment, that she no longer knew it was Nathaniel she was denouncing, she was in Russia, she was a girl again, she was damning those who had inflicted upon her a lifetime of rejection--damning her mother who had required as the price of love that she be glamorous and social and pretty, damning her father who had never touched her hand in affection, damning her schoolmates who had profited by her intelligence and excluded her from their lives and activities, damning all the men through all the years who had feared the power of her brain and so had been blind to the woman's body it inhabited--and damning Leo most of all, damning the man to whom she had offered her heart and her should and who had been indifferent to them. Leo had been born again, more than forty years later, when she had become everything she had wanted to become and achieved everything she had wanted to achieve--and once more he had done to her the unthinkable, the unendurable, once more he had tried to destroy her life, once more she had offered him her heart and her soul and he had thrown them in her face.

On the whole, however, the book reads incredibly well and provides a narrative sweep befitting its epic subject matter. Such an, ahem, impassioned and occasionally judgmental (Frank's "failed life") approach, given the nature of Branden's history with Rand, raises the question of, erm, objectivity. Strangely enough, her treatment is if anything too fair. Burns notes that Branden is too credulous of Rand's account of her early history, and may well have overplayed Frank's use of alcohol. When it comes to analyzing the Rand herself, Branden is remarkably sympathetic in describing a woman whose demand of an unceasing rationality led her to repress every feeling of weakness or inadequacy she ever felt. Her lingering affection for the person who she says gave her life direction and made her feel for the first time that ideas mattered, is palpable.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Ayn Rand's American historical counterpart, contra Johann Hari, is not L. Ron Hubbard, but Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Both figures were of dubious character who led movements that have been wildly more influential than anyone could have imagined. More pertinently, they were charismatic figures whose personal magnetism was such that even after the original group splintered (in both cases due to gross sexual impropriety on the cult-leaders' part), the apostates did not repent their earlier opinions. The "witnesses" of the Book of Mormon's infamous plates, as any good Latter-Day Saint will tell you, never recanted their testimony. Likewise Branden's grace, including the astonishing restraint she and her ex-husband showed, following their break with Rand, in not revealing the affair that would have humiliated and publicly destroyed her, until after her death.

Branden, in a footnote, disputes that their experience ever qualified as a cult, on the grounds that their belief was grounded in rationalism and individuality and not religious worship. One is reminded of the Cult of Reason of the revolutionary French, or the cults of personality that developed around 20th century authoritarians, which did not abolish religion so much as replace it. There is no better illustration of this similarity than the response of Leonard Peikoff, Rand's intellectual standard-bearer and executor of her estate, who insisted without ever reading it that any follower of Rand's who spoke well of the book be cut off and shunned. Peikoff, it must needs be noted, is Barbara Branden's cousin.

Peikoff recently midwifed The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, a much belated (2005!) response to both The Passion of Ayn Rand as well as Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand, an account of the affair written by Nathaniel Branden. I will in good time take it in, along with Judgment Day. But for now I'm going to break from the biography beat and actually start digging into Rand's actual writing, beginning her first novel, We the Living. Critics were and have been quite vicious in their estimation of Rand's fiction, and often unfairly; perhaps the best possible jumping-off point into it, then, is Barbara Branden's telling of Rand's tale: respectful without outright fawning, and with a touch of the romantic.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Ours is a time of nostalgia, of man-children, of, well, arrested development. Technology has made it ever easier to revisit the formative media of our youth, leading to a decade defined less by the new boundaries charted in popular culture as it is the repackaging of the old: the mash-up, the homage, the reboot, all of it done with a knowing self-awareness. Few pop culture sensations were ever so self-aware as the Muppets, and so they seem especially ripe for the treatment, especially considering more time has elapsed since their last movie, Muppets from Space, than the entire existence of the Spider-Man movie franchise, which is getting rebooted next summer.

The Muppets begins with an introduction to brothers Gary (Jason Segal) and Walter (voiced by Peter Linz). While Gary is a flesh and blood human, Walter is three feet high and made of felt and naturally becomes the Muppets’ biggest fan growing up. In the present day Walter still shares a bedroom with Gary, who has been in a relationship going on ten years with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams). Gary and Mary (wocka wocka wocka!) take a romantic trip to Hollywood, with Gary bringing Walter along so he can make a pilgrimage to the Muppet studio. Walter is horrified to find it all but abandoned and about to be turned over to scheming oil baron Tex Richman (an appropriately oily Chris Cooper). The only way to save the property is to get Kermit and the rest of the Muppets back together to put on a telethon and raise $10 million.

Obviously self-awareness and nostalgia are baked into The Muppets from the get-go. The entire premise resting on wistfulness for the good old days of Muppet domination, and many of the movie’s biggest beats—a melancholy look at a wall of photographs the gang with Jim Henson and a variety of celebrities, a spirited rendition of “Rainbow Connection” at the telethon—draws from its built-in audience’s fond memories.

Yet this is no lazy fan-service. The film hits the floor humming with an infectiously peppy musical number, “Life’s a Happy Song,” (written, as with all the other original songs for the movie by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie), and proceeds over the next two hours to fire off a barrage of jokes, largely cheeky, fourth-wall-busting bits, such as saving time by use of a montage or ‘traveling by map,’ but also celebrity cameos, awful puns, character bits, and more besides. (My favorite is a scene that involves a thesaurus.) The rapid clip brings to mind The Simpsons Movie, another (successful) effort to bring a wayward property back to what made it work in the first place.

The Muppets strikes a fair balance in appealing to the older audience members and those less familiar with the Muppet brand. Speaking for myself, I grew up on the Muppet Babies cartoon and have fond but distant memories of the Muppet Christmas Carol. I’m not exactly unbiased, but I still have enough objectivity not to give it a pass on nostalgia alone, and I had a shit-eating grin on my face the entire time. I don’t doubt that the film appeals to everyone in all the right ways, but whether it will get a chance to is another matter, going up as it is against the insipid Twilight juggernaut. A movie that does so much so well deserves to do well, but the half-filled theater I saw it in, containing mostly adults, isn’t promising.

The movie’s not completely perfect. Most of the principal muppets get at least a cameo bit, but surprisingly Rizzo the Rat doesn’t get to do anything but appear in the background, and Kermit’s nephew Robin doesn’t appear at all. The pacing flags in the middle, perhaps due to simple laughter fatigue, but likely because of a long stretch in which there are no songs to perk things up. At two hours it is quite long for a whimsical musical comedy, and with the shuffling around of a certain Gonzo gag the mostly unnecessary epilogue could have been easily cut.

But that's picking at nits. Mostly, The Muppets is a joy, and, coming at this particular moment, it is a most refreshing joy.

(Spoilers follow)

For the ending, undone by the aforementioned epilogue, is actually something of a downer. Tex Richman actually manages to stop the telethon at the last minute, gets the land rights, and kicks the muppets out of their old theater. But Kermit convinces them that they have nothing to be ashamed of, that they gave it their all, and then they go outside to find they’re famous anyway and everybody loves them again.

It’s a bit much, but it’s nice to see a movie that tries to surmount disappointment and failure, amid an ongoing economic malaise that have brought so much disappointment and failure to so many people. That this should be delivered by talking puppets that are aware they’re in a movie but not that they’re puppets is sort of ridiculous, and sort of sublime, but it’s always been so. The awareness that is equal parts sad-clown struggle and silly, anarchic boundary breaking, the adult wisdom and child-like optimism; these were Jim Henson's trademarks. They're what make Big Bird singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Henson's funeral, something that sounds ludicrous in concept, as incredibly moving as it was. It's what the world needs, more now than ever before.

The progress of our culture--currently consuming and reworking the past--is as uncertain as the economy on which it rests. With that in mind, one could scarce hope for a better examplar than a group of muppet chickens doing a buck-and-cluck cover of Cee Lo's obscenity-laden Motown throwback "Fuck You." To be able to get away from news on the impending collapse of the European Union, and settle briefly into The Muppets' company, is something for which we ought be thankful.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Abyss Gazes Also Into You

It feels like years have passed, but Troy Davis was only executed two months ago. His was one of the highest-profile death row cases in years and touched off considerable media discussion over the wrongfulness of the death penalty. Though the debate has tapered off in the time since, questions of law enforcement continue to be asked, largely prompted by brutal police responses to the various branches of Occupy Wall Street. The climate seemed ideal, then, for Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss, a documentary that deals with the fate of a convicted murderer. The film, though, seems more interested in the environment that created its troubled subject than in the subject itself. This it presents successfully and quite devastatingly in its own right, but in doing so it nearly loses the main thread. This isn't quite a bad thing.

The springboard for Herzog's meditation on death and its penalties is a triple homicide case committed in Conroe, Texas in 2001. Teenagers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett murdered 50 year-old Sandra Stotler, along with her son--their "friend"--Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson, in order to take Stotler's expensive car for a joy ride. They were arrested after a protracted shootout and tried for the murders. While not containing a smoking gun, the evidence, as presented in the movie, is fairly credible: Perry confessed the murder of Stotler and directed authorities to the other two bodies, underneath one of which was a cigarette butt with his DNA.

Perry and Burkett are both evasive on the subject of the actual murders in their interviews; Burkett maintains his innocence but says little else, while Perry elides the subject altogether, merely saying he should have never gotten involved with Burkett (Perry's breezy sidestepping is seemingly, alarmingly, clinical; at his execution he forgave Stotler's family, for what they were doing to him). Both were found guilty, though only Perry was sentenced to die; Burkett is eligible for parole in 2041.

Herzog spends little time dealing with and resolving the murk, instead taking Perry and Burkett's guilt for granted and expanding the scope of the film's inquiry to include Conroe itself. Its third and best chapter, The Dark Side of Conroe, lays out a panorama of human wreckage so grim that it's little wonder something like this should have happened there.

Nearly everyone connected with the two murderers interviewed has been warped by violence, degradation, and death. Richardson's brother reveals that his father is incarcerated, and he himself violated the terms of his parole when he left Georgia to come to his brother's funeral, where he was arrested and sent back to prison. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, the daughter and sister of Sandra and Adam Stotler, details just how many family members she's lost in how many brief years. Jason Burkett's father, who will serve out the rest of his life serving a prison sentence and was able to convince two jurors not to have his son executed, recounts the most shameful, barrel-bottom-scraping moment of his life, in which he and his two sons had Thanksgiving dinner together in prison, all in shackles.

The film's bleakness is thankfully, not completely unremitting. There are bits of humor spread throughout, mostly deriving from Herzog's curious line of inquiry. The neighboring town is called Cut and Shoot. One Conroe resident, who was illiterate until he went to prison and learned to read and write letters to and from his family and friends, spends his interview chewing and spitting tobacco and has a priceless answer when asked what he would do with his tattoo of his girlfriend's name if he ever broke up with her. A Death Row chaplain tells a story about golf course squirrels that he poignantly ties into his work.

The most complete marriage of mirth and the monstrous is Burkett's wife. She is his appeal attorney; they fell in love while she filed his paperwork in the court system. She proclaims his innocence and takes a full rainbow she saw over the his prison gates as a sign from God that the two of them were meant to be together. She's carrying his child. Death casts a pall over even the most joyous of institutions and occasions.

The picture of Conroe thus portrayed is one of vicious poverty and omniscient violence, and is painted so vividly that Perry's impending death (he was interviewed only eight days before being administered a lethal injection) almost feels like an afterthought. Like Perry's guilt, the wrongness of his fate is taken to be similarly inarguable. A former prison chaplain, who quit following his ministry of Karla Faye Tucker, inveighs against the state-sanctioned killing of prisoners, and Burkett's father argues nothing is gained in Perry's death; even Stotler-Balloun, who felt more at ease after seeing Perry put to death, says that she would be fine knowing a murderer would simply be kept in jail the rest of his life.

After everything we have seen up to now, it's hard to argue. The murders of Jeremy Richardson and Sandra and Adam Stotler were not the first to afflict Conroe. Nor will they be the last. The problems besetting the community that help give rise to such atrocities are so enormous and deep-seeded as to render the now harmless Michael Perry beside the point. His killing by the state, seen in this light, is less a display of strength than impotence.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Little More on the Life of Rand

I suppose it would have behooved me to have read and commented on Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and The World She Made before Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Burns' book states right in its subtitle it's focus on Rand's influence in the conservative movement and its libertarian offshoots. Heller keeps her eye on Rand's life and so paints a more detailed portrait of the ego queen. The details on Rand's early years in Russia--like how the hero of a French adventure story developed over her life from the subject of a girlhood crush to the prototype for the larger-than-life protagonists in her fiction, or the trivia bit that she was childhood friends with the sister of Vladamir Nabokov(!)--are particularly welcome, as are the details of some of her unpublished or unproduced works.

Perhaps the most interesting difference between the two books is the portrait of Rand's husband Frank O'Connor that emerges. He is still ultimately, acquiescent in her monomania, but he does not always remain silent. Mention is made of times when Frank would lose his temper with Rand, after which she would apologize profusely, so afraid was she of losing him. So troubled in fact was there marriage, that Rand had considered divorcing him during the long stretch of Atlas Shrugged's composition but did not want to upset her life while she was working on the novel (the virtue of selfishness made manifest). She was not the only one who considered it:

Once, during a vicious quarrel between the O'Connors in the presence of the Brandens, Frank walked out of the living room, into the bedroom. Barbara followed. She found him half sitting, half lying on the bed in an attitude of sorrow and defeat. "I want to leave her," he told Barbara, clutching her arm. "But where would I go?" Rand was the center of his life.

I'll have more to say about Rand's politics later.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Watching the Watchman

Funny things, critics. In the theater world they're widely loathed for their ability to kill a show with bad publicity, while in the cinema they are by turns ignored by the populace at large and used by the discerning to figure out what (not) to throw down $12 for. A 90+% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes is usually a good indicator of quality, and I have no doubt that the 3% afforded Adam Sandler's latest filmic atrocity is well-deserved. But J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's most recent offering and the subject under present consideration, has been absolutely mauled, with a 41% appraisal that's at least better than the most recent Transformers, but is worse than the Hugh Jackman Rock'em Sock'em Robots movie. I'm calling it a distortion of the all-or-nothing "Fresh" or "Rotten" grading system, for while J. Edgar has enormous problems, it is still worth checking out.

So: the movie, with a script by gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, tells the storied tenure of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), from his early days working in Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation in 1919 all the way through his death during the Nixon administration. In that time we see him bust up anarchists and gangsters, attempt to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby, and listen in on the "intimate" moments of American giants Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Kennedy, and develop a closeted gay relationship with his Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). It does so by using a framing device, Hoover's dictation of a memoir manuscript, that lets the narrative jump back and forth in time.

Occasionally this is effective; by allowing Hoover's mother (Judi Dench) to remain in the picture far longer than she would have in a straightforward chronology, the shadow she casts over Hoover's life is more effectively conveyed. Likewise with Hoover's stunted homosexuality. More often than not, though, the device works to the movie's detriment (this is true also of the nested flashbacks used in Eastwoods Flags of Our Fathers). At 137 minutes it is long and feels long, largely because early on there is little narrative shape and drive. The jumping around feels arbitrary, with earlier threads (the Lindbergh baby in particular) started, dropped, and then picked up after another interlude has taken our attention. Some scenes as a result are dropped in for no other reason that they must go somewhere to set up some later payoff. A confrontation with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy over his brother's dalliances comes and goes and then isn't mentioned until JFK's assassination.

The movie's approach to its subject is weirdly schizoid. Certain themes and ideas are handled with sledgehammer subtlety, while others are understated or overcooked with such oddness that it goes back to being good again. Much of the depiction of Hoover and Tolson's relationship is sort of sweet, what with Tolson picking out his ties, and the two of them being surrounded by lad-and-lady couples at the horseraces, but the scene in which they bring their feelings out into the open has painfully on-the-nose dialogue ("You're a scared, heartless, horrible little man!") and plays like certain scenes from Brokeback Mountain without ever feeling as emotionally raw.

The other driving motif of the story, the frightening knowledge-as-power Hoover comes to accumulate in the name of the law, fares much more consistently better. A speech about morals eroding and evil flourishing is spoken over Richard Nixon's inauguration with the heaviest of hands; but this is spoken by Hoover, whose soul we've been watching disintegrate for two hours. It's wickedly ironic and plays well with Nixon's bullshit eulogy that follows soon after. This weird double-sense occurs in other fleeting moments: Hoover learning of the JFK assassination while listening to a hidden recording of Martin Luther King, Jr. having sex; Hoover channeling his paranoia and hatred into his "portrayal" of an angry black nationalist as he dictates a forged letter he will use to blackmail King into turning down the Nobel Peace Prize. The film's heavy focus on the Lindbergh baby case, and the media hype ("Trail of the century!" "Bigger than the Resurrection!") and hysterical demonstrations it inspires, slyly acts as an indictment of overheated law enforcement reactions to horrific but freak crimes like the Casey Anthony fiasco. I wouldn't expect these kinds of left-field approaches from an earnest filmmaker like Eastwood, and it's a shame they don't appear in the film more often.

The script's roteness and messy structure are fortunately surmountable by an able cast. DiCaprio sports an accent and cadence that grates early on, but eventually starts to feel natural. He spends much of his time channeling his legendary sternness, but is deft in his portrayal of Hoover's confused attraction to Tolson. Hammer's got a natural charm to him that is perfectly suited for the character, but is more often than not written as the movie's conscience, saddling him with a great deal of Very Important Dialogue that he isn't quite able to overcome. Judi Dench's turn as Hoover's (s)mother isn't bad--it's Judi Dench!--but not especially remarkable. Until late in the story she doesn't come off as especially overbearing, making Hoover's dependence on her all the stranger (did he really live with her until she died?). Rounding off the core cast is Naomi Watts as Hoover's loyal secretary Helen Gandy. After a spirited introduction with a date in the Library of Congress the character never becomes more than that, but Watts manages to give some dimension to a role that's largely functional. The aging effects and makeup used to take the actors through five decades is largely effective, with a couple exceptions. DiCaprio in his twilight years looks fantastic, but his face strangely suggests less J. Edgar than Herbert Hoover. And Hammer's, while not looking bad, makes him look too old, almost ghoulish. Looking at the two of them, it's a wonder that Hoover died first. When he does, it is actually quite affecting, thanks to Armie Hammer beneath a lot of latex.

So there you have it: a film that never becomes more the sum of its parts, but with some occasionally very good parts indeed. In a way it has a lot in common with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both ambitiously tell a life story and utilize both cutting edge effects and clunky narrative devices and run into considerable problems doing so, and both faced a hostile response when released in the Oscar season (though Benjamin Button actually fared well with critics, which fueled its backlash). J. Edgar has an interesting story to tell, and manages to do enough interesting things amid its safe respectability to be a good investment of time and money, certainly more than one would have expected. Prestige pictures may perhaps be most vulnerable to a critical shellacking, given that they likely have a heavy overlap with people who actually read and take film criticism seriously, and it's a shame to see this film so disserviced.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Disconnect the Dots

Within evolutionary biological circles there was some controversy, decades ago, on the speed at which evolution and variation can occur. The late Stephen Jay Gould proposed his hypothesis of Punctuated Equilibrium, which said that in the Cambrian explosion (in a typical example), the sudden-seeming appearance in the fossil record of lifeforms considerably more complex than what came before, was the product of a sudden burst of evolutionary activity, as distinguished from the orthodoxy of evolutionary thinking that said evolution was ongoing and gradual. Rather than existing in a constant state of flux and branching off into new variants, Gould said, different species will remain stable for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, only to suddenly (geologically speaking) develop in new directions.

I bring this up in the context of Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed due to the similarity in its thinking, as applied to developments in science, the arts, and politics more broadly in the last 50 years. As indicated by the subtitle, Kaplan believes 1959 was the pivotal year, the cultural crunch, that begot such innovations and changes as wide-ranging and varied as flash mobs, the Civil Rights movement, and New Journalism. He makes an engaging case, though not necessarily for this particular thesis.

It's not that Kaplan presents faulty evidence. The book is loaded with the goings-on of events more consequential than their obscurity would suggest. The early singles released by Berry Gordy's Tamla record label that would eventually become Motown Records shaped the early work of a Liverpool band originally called the Silver Beetles; John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me predicted a violent response by black Americans to their perennial underclass status anticipated the riots that followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. And so on.

The problem is that, for all the specificity suggested in pinning the year of change to 1959, the methodology employed is vague and loose. A chapter is given to the legal battle over publication of Lady Chatterly's Lover, which had been seized by the Post Office on grounds of obscenity. Kaplan presents the result, in favor of lifting the ban on the book, as "the beginning of the end" of bans on literature on the grounds of obscenity. Yet Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" had won a similar court victory just two years previous. Kaplan mentions it as background information, but doesn't elaborate on how the Lady Chatterly case is different, except perhaps in the latter book's more intentionally prurient nature.

Likewise, the chapter on "Howl" and the Beat Generation identifies Ginsberg's February 5 reading at Columbia University as a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the generational revolt of the 60s. The reading was sympathetically reviewed by for the Partisan Review by Diana Trilling, whose husband Lionel was emblematic of the stuffy, academic old guard about to be swept away by the insurgent beatniks. That her observation of the "unfathamable gap" between her experience at the reading and at home among her own social circle looks forward to the coming decade's generation gap is true. But does it outweigh in significance the publication and wild popularity of "Howl" or On the Road or any of the other moments that led to the Columbia reading?

To return to the talk on fossils and evolution--Kaplan is playing a half-hearted Gould, arguing basically:

Boring 1950s ------> 1959! ------> To the 60s, and beyond!!!

But his assessment doesn't quite live up to this. He can't just ignore precedents that would paint a more gradualist picture, only downplay them. But there they are, the dimmer stars in a night sky constellation, blotted by the light of 1959. It's isn't too damaging, as indeed the material is far too interesting to be neatly contained within the span of 365 days. The great use of the book is in illustrating the messy truth of history. Dividing it into various eras makes for a useful shorthand, but that is all. Human events rarely operate with fidelity to the rolling over a decade--indeed, this is the whole point of Kaplan's reaching further past the 60s into the supposedly drab 1950s to find the antecedents of many features of today's world. It is not surprising, then, that cultural change should not confine itself to a single year. That it goes further back than Kaplan wants to admit doesn't make him wrong, rather more right than he knows.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Out of Joint

My alarm clock squawks at me at 6:38 AM, a particular minute selected to leave me just enough time to get dressed, eat, and brush my teeth and be out the door to catch the three-minutes'-walk-away Metro to work at 7:05.

I dress and I eat and I brush and I'm gone. And I get to the Metro, and the escalators aren't working. And the metal gating is shut across the entrance at the bottom. It's unusual, I reason, but perhaps they don't open until just before the first train arrives. (At 7 AM on a Sunday, this kind of thinking makes sense.)

Looking past the escalators, I spy a guy waiting by the elevator. There's a little red light visible below the call button, indicating he's trying to get in touch with WMATA folk because there's a problem. Before long he gives up and walks off. Just after he leaves I hear some noise emanating from the call wall. I go over in the hopes of carrying the departed man's torch and finding out what's going on, but communication ceases just as I arrive.

I drift back to the escalator, wondering when they're going to open and if I'm going to need to catch the bus, and then the same crackle of static and unintelligible sound bursts from the call wall. Again I saunter over, and again I'm too late.

Now I'm getting concerned. I'm going to miss the train, it's almost (and I pull out my phone to see what time it is)--


And there's a moment of confusion, of displacement. whatwhatwhaaaaaat? And then, realization:


The idea that time could be changed by fiat has always seemed a little weird to me, but in reality it is both sensible--the 24 hour day is an invention of man, not a fact of nature, and as such is open to revision--and regular, as is collective ambivalence toward it. The New Republic thought President Bush and Congress's lame attempt to lower the nation's energy use by adjusting the duration of Daylight Savings Time and "changing time itself" was "unsettling and creepily disproportionate," and DST itself has come under close scrutiny since its inception.

Time and history itself have been subject to edicts of rulers and religions since, well, forever. Setting aside the multiplicity of calendars that exist across cultures (including the Mayans' whose ostensible end next year will doom us all), the passage and record of time has changed frequently within Western society. Pope Gregory VIII instituted a new calendar in 1582, but because England had by then become Protestant and contrary to papal edict, it continued using the Julian calendar until 1752, and lost 11 days in the process, going from September 2 to 14 in a moment, and moved the beginning of the year from March to January. The revolutionary government of France established a new chronology entirely, starting over with Year Zero, and instituting a new calendar of its own. Compared to these measures, Daylight Savings is mere technocratic tinkering.

Yet it's enough to offset; my feeling of displacement never quite leaves. I arrive at work earlier than usual, 7:30ish, but nobody else is there, and the kitchen is locked. It's not until just after 8 that I can get in and get started, and so everything gets off now to a late start. The morning flies, and after a brief lunch spasm of food traffic business trickles. I'm lucky to find some corn beef that needs slicing to keep me occupied for 45 minutes, after which I'm told to leave, around 3:30.

After picking up a book at the library I head across town and settle in to a cafe with the book and a $3.30 mocha to pass the time before the shift at my other job. As five o' clock nears, I start feeling increasingly anxious.

Don't I have somewhere to be? I check the time, and it's only five, I still have another hour before my shift starts. But if the regular flow of time had been maintained, if Daylight Savings hadn't set us all back, I would be starting the shift now. It's incredibly disorienting, like time travel with a dash of deja vu.

The sense of existing outside of time isn't novel--it's the reason for jet lag (travel by jet, of course, being a sign of man's mastery of nature that by crossing vast distances so quick he has managed to shrink time). But air travel is disruptive to one's routine, unless, of course, one is a pilot or stewardess. Daylight Savings upsets the hours of the day but leaves one's patterns of activity untouched. The surprise in being caught unawares after the changeover is what makes it different from voluntarily getting up earlier. The disconnect in the expectation and the actual result--of having, by realization, an extra hour that just before did not exist in one's mind--makes one acutely aware one's chronological position, as if flowing down the river of time one had gotten stuck against some branches or rocks and suddenly could stop and take stock of one's surroundings.

Not that in such a state one's sensitivity necessarily translates into accuracy. Before my shift started I was chatting with a co-worker. I checked the time, 5:45, and then continued talking. Eventually she asked what time it was, we would have to get going soon.

"5:51, I'll bet you," I said. If I've checked recently I'm usually pretty spot-on in my guestimation of how many minutes have elapsed. And yet, it was in reality only 5:47.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Born Back Ceaselessly Into the Past

I'm ashamed to say that before Wednesday I had never actually seen a Woody Allen film, no, not even Anne Hall. Given that Midnight in Paris is one of Allen's best received movies in a good while, this puts me in an odd position, unable as I am to comment on the film in the broader context of Allen's body of work as a whole. This certainly doesn't mean it can't be taken on its own, however. It stands on its own quite nicely, as an entertaining look at high culture that often only seems high due to the distancing and romanticizing afforded by the passage of time.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood script hack vacationing in Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and, high on the city's creative atmosphere, considers leaving showbiz behind to become a serious novelist, starting with his novel about a nostalgia shop owner that he hasn't let anyone read. One night he opts not to go dancing with Inez and her old pedantic douchebag friend Paul and his wife, and instead gets lost, only to be picked up at midnight by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and dropped into the literary social scene of the 1920s. Gil begins meeting with his favorite artists and authors every night, which fuels a surge of creativity, and starts to fall for Picasso's "art groupie" Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

Wilson's made a career out of being a goofball, which can make it hard to buy him as artsy writer, but his "gee wiz!" expressions when he actually meets his literary idols work to his advantage. Cotillard makes a good love interest, intelligent and eye-catching. They do most of the heavy lifting, having to compete against the outsized personas of the early 20th century's greatest artists, many of them caricatures based on their reputations and style; Corey Stoll's Ernest Hemingway is heroic, clipped, masculine ("If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more."). Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) punctuates his dialogue with "old sport," and Adrian Brody's take on Salvador Dali is, well, eccentric.

It's fun stuff, which is the point of a concept that is to an extent playing in a literary sandbox. The film wisely doesn't bother explaining how or why a time warp appears at midnight; it just does, and it's wonderful. But the tone is not exclusively fanboy gushing. As the story goes on the film smartly turns its greatest draw on itself: 'wouldn't it be awesome to go back in the past, which was so much better?' becomes 'was the past really so much better?' It's a good examination of nostalgia and the notion of a Golden Age of anything, which has particular salience after a decade whose pop culture has more and more been defined by cannibalizing the past, whether that be in adaptations of 80s cartoons into movies, Guitar Hero, or Lady Gaga.

This stance does put the film in a strange position, tut-tutting those who would indulge nostalgia even as it depends on nostalgia for its appeal and humor. There's a good laugh had in know-it-all Paul smarmily defining nostalgia as an "erroneous," "rose-tinted" notion, but in the end the movie comes around to saying he was basically right. It's not a fatal problem, more an interesting tension, but a tension all the same.

Aside from a few minor issues (the present-day side plot dealing with Gil and Inez's relationship is subordinate enough that the incredible nature of their woeful mismatching is indeed a minor issue), the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do: provide a breezy literary fantasy for the college-educated, with a little thematic heft. It's middle-brow, maybe, but very accomplished and funny middle-brow all the same.