Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Andrew Sullivan Crosses the Line

“How we loved you then,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of Albert Camus during their acrimonious split in 1952. This simple but deeply sad phrase sprang to mind the other day when I was informed of Andrew Sullivan’s latest descent into unreason. The occasion was, of course, Sarah Palin’s new book; and Sullivan’s missive went, in part, like this:

This is only the second time in its nearly ten-year history that the Dish has gone silent. The reason now is the same as the reason then. When dealing with a delusional fantasist like Sarah Palin, it takes time to absorb and make sense of the various competing narratives that she tells about her life…. She is a deeply disturbed person which makes this work of fiction and fact all the more challenging to read. And the fact that she is now the leader of the Republican party and a potential presidential candidate, makes this process of deconstruction an important civil responsibility.

As many, including myself, expected, this “deconstruction” was in fact driven by what Sullivan called Palin’s “fantastic story of her fifth pregnancy”; that is, Sullivan’s conspiracy theory that Sarah Palin faked her pregnancy and the child known as Trig is actually someone else’s, most likely one of her daughters.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Some Nonsense Verse

(Pace Award Elder, Sir Cellar Owl, and Dowager Dyer.)

The Highly Disturbing Event

Mr. Cerberus Petulance was walking home one afternoon
When he noticed a highly disturbing event
He wasn't sure just what it was
But nonetheless, it was extremely unpleasant
And led him to contemplate certain other, unpleasant scenarios
Which, while perhaps unlikely, were nevertheless plausible enough
To cause him a certain indiscreet trepidation

Through no fault whatsoever of his own

This proved even more disturbing than the original, highly disturbing, event
Which, of course, somewhat defeated the purpose of the entire exercise
Leading to certain unforeseen consequences
None of them pleasant
And some of them highly disturbing in their own right

Which only goes to show why no one in their right mind
Goes walking in the afternoons
When, as everybody knows
Highly disturbing events occur


Someone or Other

Someone or other was usually very late in the mornings
Which was different from everybody else
Who tended to get up early
Because nobody likes to oversleep
Especially when they're somebody
Not just anybody
Which tends to complicate things
Because anybody could be somebody
And nobody wants to stay nobody
Which is precisely why everybody gets up early
And tries to be somebody
Except for someone or other
And nobody likes that


The Illustrious Feast

Before the dingly dangly dawn
They dined upon green figs and prawn
They did enjoy those salty fish
Especially in a Chinese dish
Which reminded them of times gone by
And in a squiggling, wriggling, sniggering cry:

"Oh the bestial benefits of brass!
That laid us low in cupid's grasp!
Oh iron, fire, shame, and steel!
Thy desperate tyranny repeal!"

So the long and lingering languid night
Did spare them all the motley sight
Of the churning, burning, yearning crew
Who marched the road from Xanadu
In the gurgling, spurgling, churgling rain
In wracking, cracking, distracting pain
Their wounds in festering odious state
Dying slow, by steady gait
They came upon the feasting few
And devoured them all, as such will do


The Biggledy Boggledy Boom

The scraggly, raggeldy, taggledy, haggardly hardly biggledy boggledy boom
Was confined to the corner of his room
Where all day long and to and fro
He sang his higgledy piggledy, wiggledy, woggeldy worldly woe
Alone for a time, he did his best
To take his snoringly, boringly, dreamily doggedly rest
Where else, you may say, could you see such a thing
As a boggledy boom dance, pray, and sing?
But no one was there to embrace the sad beast
Who in his lachrymose heart, hoped that at least
A pleasantly lovingly tuggingly hopefully mopefully heavenly song
Would pass by his door and take him along

The Age of Catastrophic Thinking

"Probably,” Norman Mailer wrote in 1957, “we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years.” Today, however, we have something like an answer: We are living in an age of catastrophic thinking. Our social and cultural discourse on any number of subjects—the environment, the economy, public health, technology—is defined by a vocabulary and a worldview that can only be described as apocalyptic. The world, we are constantly told, is in a state of mortal crisis, and unless we act fast enough to stop it, we are all facing disaster and oblivion. Everything, it seems, is swiftly accelerating toward a terrible end.

Read the whole thing at Azure.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why Michael Bay Is So Incredibly Awesome

Everyone who writes about movies is now apparently required to hate Michael Bay. The ex-director of commercials and music videos, who has made some of the most successful films of the last decade—Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, Transformers, etc.—has become, without a doubt, the bĂȘte noir of modern cinema; or at least of modern movie critics. The critical establishment has never really liked Michael Bay, but the recent release of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which despite having been demolished by every respectable critic on both sides of the Atlantic, is hurtling swiftly toward the box-office stratosphere, was unquestionably the nail in the coffin....

It must be admitted that almost everything the critics have said about Revenge of the Fallen is true to a certain extent. It is not a particularly good film, even by Hollywood blockbuster standards, and Bay is most certainly unsubtle, lowbrow, and unapologetically mercenary. Ironically, however, the critics’ belief that Bay is also a threat to all things decent and civilized in the world, the unabashed critical contempt and hatred that has been directed his way from the beginning of his career, says very little about Bay himself. Instead, it says almost everything about the pathetic state of American film criticism.

It was probably dissident film critic Armond White who sounded the first alarm in 2000, when he went to the barricades for controversial director Brian De Palma and his much-maligned Mission to Mars.

Brian De Palma’s critical drubbing over Mission to Mars—reminiscent of the scene in Airplane! where passengers line up to smack an old lady—is the clearest evidence of the catastrophe that has befallen contemporary film criticism. Mission to Mars is a litmus test. It can be said with certainty that any reviewer who pans it does not understand movies, let alone like them. They’d be better off reviewing static, juvenile media like television or comic books.

White, while unquestionably correct, was somewhat premature. As has now been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, the real litmus test is Michael Bay.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.

Michael Mann’s Dillinger Debacle

Every great director has at least one truly bad film in him, and Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s. It is not just a failure, but one of those movies in which the gap between its quality and its maker’s talent is so immense as to be nearly inexplicable. To be fair, it is possible that my expectations for Public Enemies, which chronicles the 1933 FBI manhunt for legendary Midwest bank robber John Dillinger, were unfairly high. But from the man who made Manhunter, Thief, Last of the Mohicans, Collateral, and the masterpiece Heat, a film this empty, dull, lifeless, and—most shocking of all—crudely made cannot be anything other than a major disappointment. This may not be fair, but it is a fact. We expect bad films from the likes of Brett Ratner. We expect great ones from Michael Mann. Such is the price of genius, and in Public Enemies, Mann pays it.

In all fairness, however, it must be admitted that Public Enemies is not just Mann’s failure. It is also another in a long line of equally inexplicable failures to successfully translate the myth of John Dillinger and his eventual demise to the screen. I use the term inexplicable because if the Dillinger legend is anything, it is unquestionably a great story. It has love, violence, friendship, irony, and death. It has a charismatic antihero and, in the person of straitlaced FBI agent Melvin Purvis, who led the manhunt, the stoic nemesis who eventually takes him down. It is a quintessentially American story featuring two classic American archetypes—the free-spirited outlaw and the upstanding sheriff—locked in a duel to the death in a world not unlike that of the Western but much more recognizably ours. In other words, it is a story that seems tailor-made for the movies. And yet, Hollywood has proven consistently incapable of doing it justice.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.

Star Trek For the Masses: To Boldly Go?

No one who did not grow up with a Trekkie can possibly understand the hold the series has on its true believers. While my father is, at best, a middling fan (he never, for instance, took the time to learn the Klingon language), I was nevertheless compelled to spend a great deal of my childhood in the presence of Star Trek and its seemingly endless parade of spinoffs, each more second-rate than the last. There was Star Trek: The Next Generation, then Deep Space Nine, then something else, and I’m fairly certain there was something else after that, and Wikipedia claims there was also an animated series (before my time) and, of course, the feature films (eleven at last count).

Despite, or perhaps because, of my long and reluctant relationship with the franchise, I must admit that the willingness of fans to sit through these endless hours of Trek upon Trek upon Trek still mystifies me. There seems to be an almost limitless appetite, on the part of some people, for such things as large, talking, malevolent clouds of gas, unbearably sanctimonious political bromides, often wretched special effects, endless variations on the complications of time travel, and actors in rubber suits pretending to be suspiciously humanoid aliens. The willingness of the rest of us to do so, however, seems to have been understandably declining over time, which is probably why J.J. Abrams was hired to perform the now ubiquitous Hollywood “reboot” that every moribund franchise must undergo in order to reenter the cultural mainstream.

Abrams’s efforts have been met, as everyone now knows, with immense success, mainly because he has dispensed with almost everything that made the series unbearable to semi-normal human beings—the endless complications of time travel remain, taken to their logical extreme. Star Trek in Abrams’s and his writers’ hands is the biggest Buck Rogers movie ever made; a rollicking thrill-ride through the space opera genre, with more starships exploding and lasers blasting per second than George Lucas ever dreamed of in his unfortunate CGI fantasies. It’s all highly enjoyable, and gives one the same giddy, childlike high that Lucas and his oft-accomplice Steven Spielberg specialize in. And yet, one cannot help feeling that something is missing from Star Trek in its new, MTV incarnation. The truth is that, for all its fun and games, Star Trek is not really a particularly good film.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.

In Memoriam: J.G. Ballard

Jonathan has always been completely frank,” James Graham Ballard wrote of his doctor in the 2008 autobiography Miracles of Life, “leaving me with no illusions about the eventual end.” That end came on April 19, 2009, when he died of prostate cancer, but Ballard, to his great credit, never had many illusions about anything. This fervent insistence that we ought not to lie to ourselves, however distressing the truth may be, is likely was made him the Anglophone world’s greatest if most consistently underrated novelist.

To most readers, Ballard is best known for his bestselling Empire of the Sun, a fictionalized retelling of his own childhood in a Japanese prison camp near Shanghai, later adapted into a fairly mediocre film by Steven Spielberg. To others, not all of them charitably inclined, he was creator of the notoriously transgressive novel Crash, which was made into a great but highly controversial film by David Cronenberg. Neither of these momentary eruptions into the mainstream, however, can really convey the depth of one of the most consistently fascinating literary legacies of the late 20th century. Love it or hate it, it cannot be denied that Ballard’s oeuvre retains a place in contemporary fiction that is genuinely unique. In describing it, one is almost forced to fall into quintessentially Ballardian formulations: he was a forensic scientist performing an autopsy on the psychoneuroses of post-war civilization, a psychogeographic culture jammer posing as an unassuming suburban gentleman, a compulsive cartographer of the psychotic topography of the near future, an impish prophet of the erotic catastrophes to come…. One can go on forever with such formulations, but it is perhaps best to recount what he considered the most complimentary review of his life: the reader’s note to the manuscript for Crash, which simply read, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.”

To some, this might suggest the kind of hell-bent, psychopathic literary showman typified by Hunter S. Thompson and resurrected as farce by the likes of James Frey. In fact, Ballard was, in life at least, almost preternaturally sane. He lived a quiet life in Shepperton, a suburb of London famous for its movie studios, and raised several children largely on his own. In speech and dress he was almost aggressively conventional, and at times seemed to delight in the incongruence between the hallucinogenic, apocalyptic world of his novels and the stolid, suburban lifestyle he maintained. This incongruence was illusion, however, because Ballard’s greatest talent was to diagnose the psychoses inherent in what is generally regarded as everyday life, and to explore the extraordinary new possibilities they offered for pleasure, beauty, and even love.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.

The Awful Anti-Semitism of The Washington Post’s Pat Oliphant

I’ve been living in Israel and writing about it for so long that very little people say or think about it shocks me anymore. Since the second intifada began in 2000, I’ve been both witness to and target of a veritable rainbow of invective from across the political and ideological spectrum. As a result, I’d become convinced that my jaded sensibilities were unlikely to be shaken anytime soon, something that, I must admit, made me vaguely uncomfortable. So, I must thank Pat Oliphant and the Washington Post for reminding me that I am, thankfully, not nearly as desensitized as I imagined.


When I sat down to write about the cartoon reproduced above, I felt the necessity of restraining my first instincts. As Pierre Vidal-Naquet said about writing his response to Noam Chomsky’s defense of Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, “epithets came to my pen.” So I will simply explain, and hope the reader finds for himself the anger aroused by the imagery and its origins.

There is, unfortunately, nothing particularly original about the cartoon above. It is, in fact, one with a long tradition of antisemitic iconography, stretching back at least to the 1930s. The sword-wielding crusader; the shark-toothed Star of David; the hapless victim of Jewish cannibalism; none of this is new. It is, in fact, a series of reproductions, a collage of tropes drawn from various archetypes first employed by Nazi propaganda. This, in and of itself, is not shocking. The visual language of antisemitism has existed for a long time, and it will continue to do so for a long time to come. What is shocking about this cartoon is the fact that it was drawn by an acclaimed American political cartoonist—perhaps America’s most acclaimed political cartoonist—and published in one of the largest and most influential newspapers in the United States. While one should not labor under illusions about the prevalence of antisemitism in such circles, it is usually expressed esoterically enough to indicate a certain amount of doubt and discomfort on the part of those who engage in it. This cartoon, however, is without doubt or discomfort. Its violence is explicit, its hatred manifest, and its origins beyond doubt.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.

The Lost World of the Watchmen

Watching Zack Snyder’s new adaptation of the happily uncredited Alan Moore and the very-much credited Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is somewhat like watching the CliffsNotes to Moby Dick. Regarding any other product of the comics medium, such a statement would be ludicrously pretentious. In the case of Watchmen, however, we are dealing with something very much like a great work, and films of great works are rarely successful. Made under conditions of extreme aesthetic intimidation, they are always caught between the desire to capture the success of the original by osmosis, i.e. imitation, and the knowledge that cinematic adaptations are almost always at their best when they are least faithful. Snyder’s Watchmen, unfortunately, tends to have the worst of both worlds. Its faithfulness undermines its power, and the moments when it is unfaithful are rarely an improvement.

Snyder has what many other filmmakers in his position have lacked, however, namely a good excuse. Watchmen has long been acknowledged—by director Terry Gilliam and Moore himself, amongst others—to be essentially unfilmable. Its plot can be described fairly simply: a group of retired superheroes, most of whom have no super powers, try to solve the murder of a former colleague in an alternative 1985, in which the world is poised on the brink of nuclear annihilation. This brief if accurate description fails to convey, however, anything of the intensity with which Watchmen assaults the reader. Dense, non-linear, and kaleidoscopic in structure, Watchmen is a book which defies and defines its genre while simultaneously deconstructing it. The comparison to Moby Dick is apt in that Watchmen’s power derives from the fact that it remains a genre piece even while it is subjected to an overwhelming concentration of forces which lead, ultimately, to the sublime destruction of itself and its own medium. Much as Melville set out to write a simple, above-average tale of adventure on the high seas, and ended up anticipating literary modernism by over half a century, Moore and Gibbons set out to create an interesting twist on the superhero genre, and ended up producing a tour de force of post-modernism. Watchmen is a book that got away from its authors and inadvertently became more than the sum of its many, many parts.

Snyder’s film, unfortunately, is nothing but parts. One senses while watching it that the filmmakers cherry-picked the book for its most impressive setpieces, which they then quite faithfully, and quite spectacularly, committed to film, sometimes almost frame-for-frame. Certainly, this leads to some extraordinary moments, but they remain only moments. In Moore’s book, by contrast, they lead inexorably, but completely without the reader’s awareness, to a stunning final reveal in which all the loose threads, all the bizarre twists and turns of his seemingly inscrutable narrative come together in a single, apocalyptic moment involving a vagina dentata straight out of a Freudian nightmare. This horror has, notoriously, been erased from Snyder’s film, along with most of the other small details which could not have been contained in a movie of any manageable length, but which are essential to Moore’s steady escalation toward something like the end of the world. Without its great magician’s reveal, and everything that leads up to it, Watchmen on film feels somehow partial, unfinished, and lost in its own web of homages to the formidable original.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.

Anti-Semitism and Israel’s Critics

The claim that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic has become something of a shibboleth. Indeed, the efficacy of the argument would seem to be borne out by the degree to which it is now essentially a cliché. At the same time, however, almost everyone tacitly acknowledges that there is at least some question about the matter, or the principle would not have to be so constantly invoked in the first place.

The argument over criticism of Israel, such as it is, seems to boil down to two irreconcilable propositions. The first claims that Israel is a country like any other which enacts certain policies. These policies are therefore open to criticism just like those of any other country. There is nothing, in fact, can be nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing specific policies, and the accusation of anti-Semitism is therefore little more than an attempt to muzzle those who point out unpleasant truths about Israel’s conduct.

This claim is fairly straightforward, but it has several serious problems. The first is that it is, self-evidently, untrue. Israel, like it or not, is a Jewish state, in fact the only Jewish state. It is therefore, by definition, not a state like any other. The idea that Israel’s identity as a Jewish state can be somehow – I hesitate to use the word “magically” – separated from how it is perceived and judged is a reassuring but nonetheless dubious fantasy.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.

The Israeli Elections: A Primer

To outsiders, especially Americans, the results of yesterday’s elections must appear to be a rather bizarre phenomenon. Barring any last minute surprises, it appears that Tzipi Livni and the Kadima party have received more votes than Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, but the right-wing parties in general have received more votes than the left-wing parties. As a result, Netanyahu, even from second place, may be called upon to form the next Israeli government. This is not necessarily unusual in Israel, where elections rarely mean what they’re supposed to mean, and the winner is never quite a winner. The reason for this is that Israeli democracy is of a decidedly unique variety, and almost the polar opposite of America’s stentorian, carefully constructed republic.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.

Tintin, Herge, and the Shadow of Innocence

The news that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson will soon be producing a series of films based on the Belgian comics character Tintin has given more than a few of us — and in the Anglophone world, we are indeed few – some pause. We are those who, from our childhoods, have enjoyed considering ourselves the members of a rarified group lucky enough to enjoy the exploits of this enigmatic piece of European pop culture. Tintin has never taken off in America, and probably never will, despite the best efforts of Mr. Spielberg, who is, if he is nothing else, a master popularizer.

The truth is that Tintin has always been the Gallic hero par excellence. There is nothing remotely American about him. And what those of us who love the character and revere his creator — the melancholic and childlike Herge — have always responded to has been precisely that. For us, Tintin was our earliest window into another world. A world far older, more compromised, more frightening, and more pessimistic than the wide-open dreamscape of American pop culture. A world infused with the ever-presence of the political and that particularly European sense of crisis. Tintin’s world is a fantastic landscape that is always in danger of collapse before real-world forces and real-world violence. There could be nothing that is further from the phantasmagoria of the American superhero comics, with their ubermenschen laying waste to the forces of evil, always rendered, even in the supposedly “grim and gritty” genre, as incredulous grosteques, their evil made manifest by their physical deformity and the derangement of their actions.

This was Herge’s genius. His world of adventure is an inversion of the original. The traditional children’s tale brings the adult world into that of the child, so that it is forced to play by a child’s rules: the manic bursts of energy, the corrosive violence of an unfettered and unapologetic Id, authority and evil as mere caricatures of themselves. Herge brought the child’s world into that of the adult. In the person of Tintin, he creates a character who is neither child nor adult, but an interloper, an androgynous, sexless blank, a neutral center around which the mad, frightening spectacle of the adult world revolves.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.