Saturday, January 27, 2018

HOSTILES (2017): An Art-Film Western

(No SPOILERS if you see a lot of movies.)

I was strongly moved several times during Scott Cooper's HOSTILES's 134 minutes, but more often impressed with the artistry of the composition and cutting ("montage"), with Christian Bale's accent and tone-perfect delivery — and with his ability to pop a head-vein, so to speak, on cue; with the thematically-appropriate costuming and hair styling; and with the nuanced handling of classic narrative premises and tropes of The Largely-Lethal Journey ("Red-Shirts" + "Pvt. Deadmeat") and Family Destruction and Re-Construction.
On the other hand, it was the first time I'd seen the movie, and I was still spending a lot of my time thinking like the cinema critic for an arty little magazine use editor liked words like "filmic."
According to the 1960 or so textbook based on the official US Army history of the US Army, the "Indian Wars" leading up to the 1892 setting for HOSTILES were the "nadir" — that's where I learned the word — of US military history; and the full-bird/bull-goose Colonel who taught the course thought our text soft on George Armstrong Custer and the Army's war crimes (the term he used) generally. But I wouldn't have taken a course in US military history if not forced the first time — I took it again to avoid Map Reading (which I really, really, *really* should have taken) — and most Americans "ain't gonna study war" in an academic sense. So HOSTILES does useful political work in showing this side of the US cavalry's coming to the ethnic cleansing, and at the same time not sentimentalizing the First Peoples here, and taking a nasty swipe at those who do. 
As Peter Debruge points out in VARIETY, the Indians in the film remain abstract and in service to the story. But the same abstraction holds with most of the Whites when moved around for impressive shot-composition.
So: I'll recommend HOSTILES and hope it makes money. It's still politically useful — given the low level of White awareness of the gory details of "the Conquest of the West" — and it is beautifully made. Perhaps too beautiful over too many minutes.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Lyrics: Tom Lehrer's "MLF Lullaby" in the Time of Trump

Sleep, baby, sleep, in peace you may slumber;
No danger lurks your peace to encumber.
Our missiles will un-leash fury and fire
Gone with the whim of a com-pul-sive liar.

Donnie controls our nuclear forces;
He'll lose control, when he next divorces.
Melania walks, and calls him damn glutton —
So he freaks and shows the power of his button.

Once we most sweated some mad General Ripper,
But that couldn't happen today;
That's not how we'll be blown away.

So sleep tight my darlings, let your sweet dreams linger;
We know the Donald won't give us the finger.
Heil — Hail! — dear Leader; you'll make us great again;
Hail the Commander-in Chief;
Our orange goon,
Will kill Kim Jong-un:
"Death from above" in full-gold leaf!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Lies and Beliefs: Leslie Gelb on THE POST, The Pentagon Paper, Dominos, and the US in Vietnam

This is from Leslie Gelb on NPR on THE POST film and THE PENTAGON PAPERS (the writing of which he oversaw). Specifically, he believes the real story is not that The Powers That Were in the USA lied but what they believed true.
But the main reason we got involved in the Vietnam War was because of what we believed, namely that we were in a mortal struggle with communism - Soviet Union and China; that the domino theory applied, that we if we allow North Vietnam to conquer South Vietnam, the dominoes would fall throughout Asia and the rest of the world.
Add to this theory subsidiary theories: JFK on the Green-Beret approach to counter-insurgency, Robert McNamara on rational ways to run a war. And I'll add (again) that people could argue that the USA won the Cold War in Vietnam precisely by showing how much money we were willing to spend, how many S.E. Asians we were willing to kill, how many of our own troops we were willing to have killed, captured, wounded, and/or maimed to stop even so minor a "domino" as Vietnam to fall.
That is a non-figurative meaning of "bear any burden" and a possibility for "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" — including putting your body on the line to aid in a Great Game of power politics, and to keep your country from losing its first war.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Kim Jong Un & Donald J. Trump: Buttons, Tweets, Potency, and Apocalypse

"North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.' Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!" — Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, 2 January 2018

This is the way the world ends*
(For many humans, and other species);
This is how the world ends
(Worse goes to worst,
"Depending on the breaks"),
This is why the world ends:
From a tweet* and a brag,
And measuring 
Symbolic cocks.
                                    * With thanks to Jeffrey Weinstock (well, and T.S. Eliot and Gen. "Buck" Turgidson)

The Congress of the United States needs to write us a bit of law renouncing the current U.S. doctrine of First Use (nuclear) and restricting the power of the U.S. President to use nukes for anything but proportionate retaliation. I'd also add a provision that in case of nuclear "exchange," the duty station of the Commander-in-Chief is wherever s/he might be, and forbidding spending any money to move the President to safety. If a President gets us into a nuclear war, the very least s/he can do is to get killed in the first exchange.

And on this utterly depressing, apocalyptic subject, I'll pass along the suggestion from a couple or three decades back that the final part of the launch codes should not be in the "football" that accompanies the President but near the heart in the chests of the people carrying the football, and, of course, carrying also a knife. To launch the missiles [etc.], the President would have to cut open the chest of the attaché — the logic being that if the situation warrants a nuclear response, it justifies murdering a single person, and insisting that the murder be up-close, personal, and messy. The logic is that bombing and missile attacks are way too abstract all down the line and that a key part of initiating nuclear warfare should be a death with emotional power and deep-seated inhibitions. Perhaps, though, the code should be in the chest of the President, and s/he should have to order a high-ranking official to do the cutting. I am serious here, following Konrad Lorenz on the dangers of being able to kill at distances that reduce inhibitions.

THE POST (2017), the Press, and The Other Movie with Press-Freedom Issues

I'll start with, as we used to say, "Where I'm coming from."
  • On at least two and possibly up to four or more occasions I've sworn "to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States," which for me starts with defense of the Bill of Rights. The people administering the oath weren't very serious about it, but I take my word seriously. 
  • I'm a life-member of the ACLU and have depending upon the First Amendment to undergird (my) academic freedom. 
  • Some of my best friends and students have been journalists and/or teachers of journalism, and I worked with reporters off and on between my first semester in high school and my retirement. 
I haven't yet seen THE POST (nor seen it advertised as playing in my area), but I have seen The Other Movie with Press-Freedom Issues that's out there now: ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, on the kidnapping of John Paul Getty's grandson.

THE POST (2017) is something of a prequel to ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976) and another celebration of the importance of journalism media for popular government ("of/by/and for the people") that was President Lincoln's ideal. ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD gives us glimpses of popular media in another sense, most strikingly as paparazzi, in their purest form in 1970s Italy.
And I — the guy in that opening 'graph — caught myself at points in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD hoping that someone in those neat Italian sports cars, or a heavier vehicle, would run over a paparazzo or two.
I supported the ACLU when they defended the speech-rights of George Lincoln Rockwell and his American Nazi Party to speak, and the rights of other neo-Nazis to parade through Skokie, Illinois — not far from where I grew up — in full regalia. And I declined to precipitate a riot when other neo-Nazis paraded in downtown Chicago near a very large, largely Jewish, teen dance at which I briefly spoke. For a Jew who's studied the Hitlerian Holocaust, these were much tougher calls than respecting the rights of paparazzi not to be run over.

But there's something about paparazzi and more important media in their "nightcrawler" mode when they are in the figurative and literal faces of people in pain. There's something about that kind of pornography of suffering that, clearly, really pisses me off.

Obviously, there are audiences for wall-to-wall disaster coverage and asking some Mr. Macduff what it felt like to learn his entire extended family had been massacred, and other wallowing in the pain of others that would get an upload thrown off a respectable S&M website for violating community standards of decency. Still: not every audience desire should be fulfilled, not even if there's enough money in that variety of prostitution to save one's media outlet as a viable business. 
So let us defend freedom of the press — but ask, quietly, for some internal pressures in the media from members of the media to keep themselves defensible.