Wannabe tyrants represent only about a quarter to a third of the population, but you wouldn't know it by the behavior of the Democratic Party. Cowering, dithering Dems accept the most ludicrous Fox News framing of every issue from inflation to policing to abortion, perpetually stumped by right-wing mud-slinging. In response to rabid authoritarianism, they hem and haw, shuffle policy papers, babble about "bipartisanship" and attempt to negotiate with GOP grifters who call them pedophiles. And then these same Democrats turn around and blame a handful of progressives, when it's conservatives from both parties who block and shred every scrap of legislation that might make all our lives a little less apocalyptic. And the administration wonders why Biden's approval numbers are tanking? ...
Finally, instead of nagging terrified people for more money, Democrats could tell us what their vision for the country is, and clearly lay out their agenda. They can start with the idea that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do not belong to Republicans alone, that we all should have the freedom to decide how we live, who we marry, how we build our families and how we worship. Democrats should talk about the legislation they've passed — the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the historic gun safety law — as well as the numerous bills the GOP has blocked. And then Democrats could talk about the specific measures they intend to take right now to protect us from this corrupt and illegitimate Supreme Court, as well as what they'll do after the November election if they hold the House and increase numbers in the Senate (i.e., "Give us two more seats and we will make Roe the law of the land." Or, "Give us 60 seats in the Senate and we'll expand the Supreme Court to 13.")
Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, 2015). I'm never quite sure what I think of the use of celebrity voices for animation. It's not that they do a bad job, it's just that they are taking work away from actual voice-over artists. The ingenious Inside Out takes place largely inside the mind of a young girl, Riley. The world-building is impressive ... while the gimmick is fun and at times evocative, room is also made for the events happening to Riley outside of her mind. In her mind, five characters connected to emotions help guide her actions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. Joy seems to be dominant, and to the extent we want a happy ending, we root for Joy. Sadness runs a close second in importance, though, and much of the plot hinges on Sadness mucking things up.
Anger is voiced by Lewis Black, and even I have to admit it's a good use of a celebrity voice. I have a feeling even the most accomplished voice-over actor would appreciate this casting, for who else would you cast for a character filled with anger than Lewis Black. It's inspired.
There is plenty going on for the adults in the audience, as is true in the best Pixar movies, which Inside Out is. I don't know how little kids would take it, but 11-year-olds would surely connect with Riley. Inside Out is #139 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and that seems a bit much, but it is almost universally acclaimed, and won't argue too much about that ranking. And I'm always in the mood for anti-broccoli sentiment.
Geezer Cinema: Cha Cha Real Smooth (Cooper Raiff, 2022). I knew next to nothing about this film prior to watching it. I'd never heard of Cooper Raiff, who wrote it, directed it, and starred in it. I read a positive review the morning I had to decide what Geezer Movie to watch, and decided on the spot to choose this one. I'm glad I did. It constantly threatens to turn bad ... the basic rom-com setup of a young man just out of college falling for Domino, a woman in her early-30s, doesn't work for me on the page (good thing I didn't know anything in advance). But Raiff gives us an entire movie of characters with some depth, and even the people who seem at first glance to be creeps turn out to be OK, which works better than you think. The film has a positive feel, even though it's not exactly filled with happiness. Raiff gets an excellent performance from Dakota Johnson as Domino, who manages to give an honest picture of someone who is depressed a lot but trying hard to change. The real find, though, is Vanessa Burghardt as Domino's autistic daughter, Lola. Burghardt, who is on the spectrum, makes her debut, and Raiff apparently encouraged her to make Lola as realistic as possible. As with most of the characters in the film, Lola is complex but believable. Toss in a couple of better-known actors like Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett, and you have a low-key indie film that hopefully will find its audience.
I used to post a lot about current affairs on this blog. I spent several years working on a journal with the subheading "Political Education For Everyday Life", and I wrote 2 or 3 articles for them every year. In more recent years, I've cut back on my political blog posts. I have a feeling that someone else out there has made my argument more persuasively (although I never think that I shouldn't write about movies or music just because other people do it better), so at best, I'll link to others.
At times like today, I feel the absence of those posts. Also, more than ever I write entries and then post-date them, so when something momentous happens, I've got a pre-written blog post about Miranda Lambert.
Today calls for a post. More than a post, of course ... it's heartening to see people taking actions on the streets, even as I anticipate Sunday, which I'll spend sitting on the toilet prepping for Monday's colonoscopy. But I don't know that I have a post worth offering. People are reminding us that despair gets us nowhere, and they are right, but Despair is my middle name. (I recall an old underground comic from R. Crumb, "Plunge into the Depths of Despair", with a cover that showed a husband with arms crossed saying "See if there's anything good on..." and his wife gripping the arms of her chair as she replied, "Why bother?")
Here's a piece by Samuel Moyn (it has a tremendous drawing by Mathias Ball) in the Washington Post: "Counting on the Supreme Court to uphold key rights was always a mistake".
The situation reflects a flaw in our political system: The Supreme Court has been allowed to usurp the place of national majorities in envisioning and enacting the highest values of American citizenship — the rights we hold. Contrary to a popular misconception, when the court has assigned and defined rights, more often than not it has reinforced the rule of powerful and privileged minorities rather than protecting ordinary (let alone marginalized) citizens....
Arbitrary and unreviewable power of the sort the Supreme Court now possesses is the worst threat to democracy and rights alike. Abortion rights are at stake in the Dobbs case and its political aftermath but, equally fatefully, so is whether democracies can legislate rights of almost any kind. Only when rights are legislated, progressives need to learn, are they made reliable.
Heavens to Betsy, "Baby's Gone":
I grew up in your house
I grew up with your rules and I know sex is what I shouldn't do
I know what i can't tell you
Baby's gone away
Baby won't be back
Baby grew today and she won't ever be back
Maybe he loved me;
Maybe he didn't I don't know
It doesn't matter now because when I needed help I was all alone
Now baby's gone away
Sometimes condoms break
Your baby grew today, and she won't ever be back
I'd be a little girl forever
I won't make you ashamed
Little girl's gone away because I died on a knitting needle yesterday
Baby's gone away
Baby won't be back
Baby grew today
I did what you told me to do- now I'm dead
I was listening to Miranda Lambert's new album, Palomino. She is now tied with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Jeff Beck, as my 167th most-listened to artists. It's hard to imagine a concert with those three acts, although in the 60s, Bill Graham could have pulled it off. Robinson is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ... Beck is in twice (with the Yardbirds and as a solo act ... I admit I don't get the concept of multiple inductions). Nonetheless, if this concert happened today, Lambert would be the clear choice as headliner. She has more Academy of Country Music Awards than anyone in history. She has won six American Country Awards (these get a lot of crossover), eight CMT Music Awards, fourteen Country Music Association Awards, and three Grammies. She was named to the Time Magazine list of the top 100 most influential people of 2022.
Like many, I came to Lambert via her first crossover single, "Kerosene":
Without Smokey Robinson, there is no Motown:
Of course, the Beatles were everyone's favorite band back in the day ... I'm not trying to dispute that. But my other favorite band was The Yardbirds. I owned all four of their American albums back when I could barely afford to buy one album a year. Jeff Beck is one of the reasons I loved them. Here he is/they are, performing for Antonioni:
About Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I wrote, "Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel as a painter and her reluctant subject are perfectly matched, and both deliver perfect performances." I also noted cinematographer Claire Mathon's excellent contribution to that movie. Sciamma and Mathon are working together again, and the result is a charming, gently magical film that once again shows Sciamma's talent with actors. The added factor here is that the main characters are eight-year-old friends, played by real-life twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. I can find very little about these sisters, but it appears this is their first film, which is a credit both to Sciamma's ability to bring out their best and their own natural ways of getting into an audience.
A spoiler-free recap of Petite Maman is not easy, although there is a vague quality to the plot that might seem to be spoiler-free. But I think the film benefits from the gradual revealing of the story ... I am sure I would get a lot out of a second viewing, knowing what I do now (and at just 72 minutes, you could easily watch it twice in succession if you were so inclined). While the film is indeed magical in all meanings of that term, it isn't a film with a trick, like, say, The Sixth Sense, which grabs you the first time, and allows you to see how it was done on a second viewing, but after that leaves no reason to keep watching. No, Petite Maman is a lovely movie about grief and friendship and family and, most of all, childhood, beautiful to behold even if you don't connect with the magic. But you will.
There is a viral program making the rounds, Craiyon (formerly DALL-E mini), that features an "AI model drawing images from any prompt". I gave the prompt "portrait of petite maman on fire" and got this:
The Watermelon Woman is a fascinating feature debut for Cheryl Dunye, who followed it with several features and, in the last several years, work on many television series, including Lovecraft Country. It is a selection in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Which is true ... it was the first feature directed by a black lesbian. But the pleasures of The Watermelon Woman go beyond its historical status.
The film is about a budding director, Cheryl, played by Cheryl Dunye herself, who discovers a little-known actress in an old film who is listed only as "Watermelon Woman". Cheryl sets out to learn more about this woman, whose name turns out to be Fae Richards. Fae was a lesbian, and was said to have had a relationship with a white female director, Martha Page. Cheryl begins working on a film about Richards, and Dunye moves between Cheryl's work and her personal life. Gradually, we come to know Richards through old photographs, brief film clips, and interviews Cheryl does with people who knew Richards. (She even interviews Camille Paglia as herself, who says things like "If the watermelon symbolizes African-American culture, rightly so, because look what white middle class feminism stands for: anorexia and bulimia.")
The transitions between the quest for knowledge about Richards, the attempt to make a movie, and the presentation of Cheryl's personal life are not always smooth, but Dunye never loses our attention throughout The Watermelon Woman's short running time (90 minutes).
Dunye has one last trick up her sleeve, or rather, the trick has been there all along but we in the audience are never quite certain we've got the trick. During the closing credits, we see pieces of Cheryl's documentary about Fae Richards, taking us back to the still photos and movie clips Cheryl has collected. Except the credits end with the following statement: "Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction. Cheryl Dunye, 1996"
The concept of the film is audacious, but perhaps even more impressive is the technical skills used to pull it off. The stills and footage were all shot by Dunye and her crew. They aren't just old items gathered for other purposes ... the clips from Fae Richards' old movies and all of the photos we see from Fae's past are faked. And they are pretty flawless. Maybe it's not super-Marvel CGI, but it's a different accomplishment that is equally noteworthy. That it is used in a work that has historic significance is the icing on the cake.
The life of the titular Oharu may remind you of Job. Actually, I made that observation about another Mizoguchi film: "The family at the center of Sansho the Bailiff is filled with good people .... They suffer, oh do they suffer, like Job, or like Björk in Dancer in the Dark." Oharu (spoiler alert) loses her first love (played by Toshirô Mifune) to an execution. She is sent to be the mistress to a lord, meant to bring him an heir. When she succeeds, the lord sends her back home. Her father puts her out to be a courtesan ... she fails and returns home again. She goes to serve a family ... the wife tosses her out. She marries ... her husband is murdered. She tries to become a nun ... she is raped and thrown out of the convent. She becomes a prostitute, but she is aged and in rejected by potential customers.
It's all too much, and in some ways the comparison to a heroine from an early von Trier movie is apt. But Kinuyo Tanaka does remarkable things with Oharu. She feels the low points, at times she is overwhelmed, yet there is something about the actress that suggests inner strength. That strength might be almost comedic if Mizoguchi took a different approach. The film is on Oharu's side, and it paints a dismal portrait of life for a woman in 17th-century Japan. But I'm never sure about Mizoguchi's sympathies. #260 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Geezer Cinema: Kimi (Steven Soderbergh, 2022). I found the choices at the local theater to be uninspiring, so I opted for an in-home Geezer movie this week. Kimi has the feel of a pandemic movie, for good reason ... it was made during the pandemic, and it takes place during the pandemic. The character played by Zoë Kravitz suffers from agoraphobia, and you get the feeling the quarantine, while making it easier for her to just stay at home, nonetheless didn't exactly help her condition. Kravitz is great in the role, emotionally stunted in some ways and yet she believable rises to the occasion in the climax. There are a lot of That Guys (Jaime Camil and Jacob Vargas, Rita Wilson, and Robin Givens, who even though I knew she was in it I forgot to notice her). As he often does, Soderbergh does his own cinematography and editing using pseudonyms. Soderbergh is the King of Geezer Cinema for some reason. We watched Contagion back when we first started staying at home during the pandemic, and since then we've seen Logan Lucky, Haywire, and No Sudden Move, so Kimi makes #5. I usually like his movies (he is #51 on my most recent list of top directors), and my wife seems to share my enjoyment ... she has picked three of the five Geezer movies we've watched.
Revisiting the 9s: Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005). [This is the ninth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]
When Murderball came out, I wrote:
The film makers don't always seem to trust their material (wheelchair rugby played by macho quadriplegics) ... the movie gives off a feeling of manufactured drama at times. But the stories of the athletes, and the (infrequent for a sports film) action-packed scenes of what is best described as bumper cars played by Mad Max refugees, tip the scales towards excellence. It's also interesting that real-life events conspire to prevent some of the more predictable drama ... I'm trying to avoid spoilers here ... perhaps that's why the film makers try to hype up other dramatic aspects of the narrative. But it works ... when things don't always turn out "right," the film feels far more "real" than when the hype takes over.
I don't have much to add after a second viewing 15 or so years after the fact. The main characters in the film capture our attention, and the film is engrossing to the extent that we care what happens to these people. But one thing about my reluctance to give the highest rating to more recent films is that this doesn't seem to hold for documentaries. If I am taken with a documentary, I'll go all the way with a rating (to cite a recent example, Summer of Soul). I think I may have rated Murderball a bit too highly at the time, and even then, I only handed out a 9/10. Now? I'm feeling an 8/10 coming up.
"Write another song for the money, something they can sing, not so funny, money in the bank to keep us warm."
It's been a while since I posted an old Bad Subjects essay, so here's one I wrote in 1994. I am reprinting it here, unedited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years.
Bad Subjects, Issue # 15, September 1994
Know that I fear Thee not. Know that I too ... prized the freedom with which Thou hast blessed men, and I too was striving to stand among Thy elect, among the strong and powerful ... But I awakened and would not serve madness. I turned back and joined the ranks of those who have corrected Thy work. I left the proud and went back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble.... If anyone has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. Tomorrow I shall burn Thee.
Thinking about the apocalypse, I construct four categories that describe some various positions we might occupy in relation to this possible Big End. (Already my obsessive-compulsive need to categorize is working to counteract one result of the apocalypse: the destruction of all categories.) One, which we might refer to as 'religious fanaticism' (without condemning either religion or fanaticism), encompasses those who believe in an impending apocalypse, and who believe they will be on the 'right' side; after the scum has been washed away, these people will populate the post-apocalypse world. Another, 'apocalyptic nihilism,' includes those who believe in the impending apocalypse, believe the scum will be washed away, and considers themselves to be on the side of the scum; they likely don't believe in a post- apocalyptic world, because if you wash away the scum, there isn't anything left. A third vision, 'uncomfortable liberalism,' would be constituted of those who believe in the impending apocalypse, and believe the scum will be washed away, and even believe this is a good thing, but are uncertain which side they are on; self-observation does not lead to any clear feeling that they will be around or not, post-apocalypse. Finally, a last group consists of people who don't believe in an impending apocalypse. These people would seem to be uninteresting, at least for the duration of this essay; they are the unbelievers, as such having little apparent value to offer the student of apocalyptic culture.
Common to the three 'believer' groups is the notion that a time will come when huge change will occur. The stereotypical 'religious fanatic' looks forward to this apocalypse, because it heralds a new and better world, free of all which makes our current situation nearly unbearable. The opinion that the world is currently in sad shape is shared, of course, by many; apocalyptic religious fanatics are not the only people who think the world is in dire straits. Confident, though, in their belief that a great change will come, after which the world will no longer be evil, these believers await the apocalypse with something approaching greed: death and destruction can't come too soon in this scenario, for those who die will be Others. The need to make changes now, in the real world, is of little import here. What matters is that when the apocalypse comes (and come it will), God is on our side.
Sharing a sense that the world is evil, even reveling in that evilness, and also welcoming the apocalypse, the 'apocalyptic nihilist' is not as different from the above fanatics as might appear at first glance. My desk dictionary offers two definitions of nihilism: the first, 'a negative doctrine, the total rejection of current beliefs,' the second, 'a form of skepticism that denies all existence.' The apocalyptic nihilist is closer to the first of these definitions, for existence as such is not denied; rather it is posited that all existence is negative, which is not the same thing at all. In fact, it would be hard to imagine anything further from the philosophy of the apocalyptic nihilist than 'skepticism,' for the apocalyptic side of these people is 'proof' in itself of a belief system. One 'believes' in the apocalypse. We can argue over minor issues, such as whether the apocalypse is forthcoming or is in fact already upon us, but beneath all arguments is a simple belief in the apocalypse as real. Ultimately, this belief makes our apocalyptic nihilist all apocalypse and no nihilism, at least according to the first definition above: to welcome the apocalypse with open arms does not represent 'the total rejection of current beliefs' but merely chooses a particularly destructive and enticing belief system that pretends to non-belief even as it anticipates its own emergence.
Somewhere between the religious fanatic and the apocalyptic nihilist we find the uncomfortable liberal, honest (if confused) in their belief in some ultimate apocalypse, but not nearly as certain as our other groups as to the imminence of the apocalypse or their place in the great changes to come. Aware of the problems in the modern world without believing all is lost, believing in their souls that there is 'more to life' and that a final judgment is due without knowing how their report card will read when God performs the final tallies, our uneasy liberal vacillates between attempts to make the world a better place today and to bring their own affairs into proper order on the one hand, and bouts of vague despair and occasional 'sinning' on the other hand. This describes most of us, perhaps, on our best days and on our worst, unwilling to give up the notion that the modern world can be fixed, driven by unspoken beliefs, neither fearing the apocalypse or welcoming it, but rather putting it off as long as possible. The real world awaits us, and we will do our best in the time given us, hopeful that we're passing whatever tests we are being given.
Popular representations of these varying responses to a possible apocalypse are generally either simple-minded or disingenuous. As fundamentalist groups are fond of pointing out, much of our popular culture ignores the existence of religion as a major factor in our lives; it is the rare sitcom family that attends church or thinks about religious matters specifically as religious matters. Instead, religion is treated as just another topic of the week: last week D.J. sneaks off to church, this week D.J. masturbates, next week Roseanne loses her job. This is not a confrontation with the religious, but instead a disingenuous 'solution' which substitutes benign neglect for any real attempt to deal with religion. We applaud a Roseanne for its insistence on the importance of the real world of the here and now, but we can't look to such programs for assistance as we await the apocalypse, because they condescend to the apocalypse, deprioritize it, as if there are more important things to worry about than the possible end of the world.
Not that the culture of our religious fanatics and apocalyptic nihilists is any better, although they certainly have different priorities than Roseanne. But a firm belief in both the apocalypse and our assigned role in that apocalypse effectively shuts off most responses beyond carrying a sign reading 'The End Is Near.' This world is too simple, the options are too clear. Whether we place ourselves on the side of God or the side of the scum, we know who we are, we know what is coming, we know what we want when it gets here. Most liberal culture sidesteps the issue by sweeping apocalyptic thoughts into the closet; the fanatics and the nihilists sidestep the issue by assuming ahead of time that everything has already been decided. There are no choices, only waiting.
Which makes Michael Tolkin's movie The Rapture all the more interesting, because here is one movie that refuses the easy solution. Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a bored and jaded directory-assistance worker who prowls airport hotels with her friends, looking for new sex partners. Sharon gradually becomes disillusioned with her life, and discovers a religious cult that believes in the upcoming 'rapture' whereby the true believers will be whisked up to heaven forever. The liberal fantasy would be to reject the rapture as too literal; the nihilist would go back to having sex; the religious fanatic might focus on the rightness of Sharon and her mates as they await the oncoming apocalypse. But Tolkin tries something more complicated, more disturbing. He accepts the apocalypse; the rapture in his movie is real, not imagined, and he does not condescend. The believers are correct, the rapture does happen. But by the conclusion of The Rapture Tolkin has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the demands of the God of the apocalypse are too great, too inhumane, too ghastly to accept. When Sharon refuses salvation, she does so not because she thinks she is at one with the scum, as would the apocalyptic nihilist; not because 'the rapture' isn't real, which would be the liberal version (the apocalypse always hiding in the closet, never making itself seen). She refuses salvation because God is wrong; God exists, but God is wrong. She turns her back on God, and the audience is fully aware of what she is giving up: eternal life in heaven. She goes back to the humble.
After The Rapture, most other attempts to confront the apocalypse seem a little shallow. Confronted with salvation, real and tangible, yet also with full knowledge of what is demanded of the believer, The Rapture simultaneously believes and rejects. To do one or the other is simple; to do both is impossibly heartbreaking and startlingly brave.
And yet, for myself, even The Rapture is too romantic. Many of us who have fallen away from earlier faiths can appreciate the middle-fingered response of the humble in the face of the terrible demanding God of the apocalypse, but it is ultimately a dishonest appreciation, a nostalgic return to a time when a rebellion against the Father felt like a revolution against all oppression. When The Rapture presents a real God, it ups the ante considerably for those who would rebel, makes fearfully real the consequences of such a rebellion. Yet The Rapture also makes its heroine more heroic. One cannot magnify the importance of the oppressor without simultaneously enlarging the role of the heroine. And heroism is not the only thing that matters.
The Rapture, like our groups of believers, treats the apocalypse as truth. It feeds on that supposed truth, as do our other believers; the apocalypse, and our response to it, defines our actions. At some basic level, all believers desire an apocalypse, a utopia, a definable, different, perhaps distant future where our beliefs will be proven true. Often this desire for a definable future either apocalyptic, utopian, or dystopian, inspires us to great achievements; the attempt to fulfill these desires can make heroes or heroines of the least of us. However, this desire for definition, these heroic acts and individuals, do not make the desired apocalypse or utopia 'true.' For the unbelievers among us, the apocalypse is not pending, the apocalypse does not exist. Once we have had our rebellions, we are left, with the humble, in a decidedly non-heroic state. And there will still be work that needs to be done, and we will need the help of all the disillusioned who staked their claims on the existence of the apocalypse. Long after the apocalypse, long after the revolution, long after utopias have come and gone, there you will still find the humble, igniting fires at the feet of our heroes and heroines to light our way into the darkness.
I, and a few others, know what must be done, if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don't help us, who else in the world can help us do this?
-- Albert Camus
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