The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 
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Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Network (1976) is a sardonic, dark-comic satire of America at the very moment that its trajectory of decline became apparent (to perceptive eyes, at least).

Network has an outstanding script and incandescent performances, which were duly recognized. Chayefsky won the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Peter Finch won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of TV anchorman Howard Beale. Faye Dunaway won Best Actress for playing the reptilian cynical career girl Diana Christensen. William Holden turns in a warm and credible performance of TV news executive Max Schumacher. Beatrice Straight plays Schumacher’s wife Louise. She won Best Supporting Actress for basically one scene, where she denounces her cheating husband, a measure of the talent this movie lavished on even minor roles. Robert Duvall is a convincingly loathsome corporate creep named Frank Hackett. Maureen Warfield is electrifying and utterly hilarious as my favorite character, Laureen Hobbs, who introduces herself as a “bad-ass commie nigger.”

Remarkably, Network has no film score, and it is not really missed. The script and performances stand on their own. We don’t need violins to tell us what to feel.

Network is a serious movie of ideas. What’s more, these ideas are objectively Right-wing, even though that may not have been the intention of Chayefsky and Lumet.

Network offers a scathing tableau of the cynicism, corruption, and propagandistic agenda of the mainstream media, one of the cultural citadels of the Left. Network offers a particularly dark portrait of a scheming, sociopathic career woman (Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christiansen) who sleeps with a married superior.

Network also portrays the sixties generation, then rising into positions of influence, as cynical and decadent—disdaining the morals and basic decency of their parents’ generation as mere sentiment. Indeed, Network portrays the Marxist-terrorist fringe of the Sixties Left as clownish hysterical thugs who instantly sell-out when offered a TV contract.

But Network’s Right-wing themes that resonate the most today center around the conflict between nationalism and populism on the one hand and globalism and elitism on the other.

The plot of Network is fairly simple. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is the evening news anchor at America’s fourth television network, UBS, which stands for Union Broadcasting System, but it sounds like “You BS,” which means something very different. Beale has been declining personally and professionally for some time, and finally his old friend Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of the News Division, was forced to fire him. The two got roaring drunk, and when Howard tells Max he plans to kill himself on the air, Max playfully suggests that it would get a hell of a rating. Then he reels off a whole list of equally lurid shows, which at the time seemed like an obscene parody, but seem like old hat to today’s generation, who have easy online access to terrorist and cartel murder videos.

Of course Max was not serious, and he did not dream that Howard would actually go through with it. But Howard really does go on the air the next day and announce that he will kill himself on live television. The network, of course, cuts the camera. But the stunt garners enormous attention.

Howard begs to go back on the air the next day to say a more dignified goodbye, but when he broadcast goes live, he launches into a tirade about having run out of “bullshit.” (This is “You BS,” after all.) The broadcast is a hit, but both Max and Howard are canned by the UBS brass, who think gutter language is beneath the dignity of their television network. (Those were the days.)

Enter Faye Dunaway’s character Diana Christensen, who is in charge of entertainment programming. She, along with fellow young cynic Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), persuade UBS to keep Beale on the air for much-needed ratings. (UBS is struggling in fourth rank.) As Diana puts it, “Howard Beale is processed instant God, and right now it looks like he may just go over bigger than Mary Tyler Moore.”

What sends Beale into ratings heaven is his famous “Mad as Hell” tirade, which seems even more poignant in the age of Trump and Brexit and at the brink of a global depression.

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job, the dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the streets, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.

We know the air’s unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit and watch our TVs while some local newscaster tells us today, we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We all know things are bad. Worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything’s going crazy.

So we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we live in gets smaller, and all we ask is please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my hair-dryer and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone.

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad—I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to write your congressmen. Because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the defense budget and the Russians and crime in the street.

All I know is first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore. I’m a human being, goddammit. My life has value.” So I want you to get up now. I want you to get out of your chairs and go to the window. Right now. I want you to go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell. I want you to yell: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”—Get up from your chairs. Go to the window. Open it. Stick your head out and yell and keep yelling . . .

There is a deep political truth here. Before we can have any political change at all, the people need to be angry. But for the people to get angry, they have to be assertive. And to be assertive, we require self-esteem. It is an amazingly dramatic sequence. If you don’t find it stirring, check your pulse, because you might be dead.

In her bid to take over Beale’s show, Diana begins an affair with Max Schumacher, who is old enough to be her father and married to boot. Max, however, is disgusted by the desire to exploit Howard Beale, who has obviously gone insane. (Howard shows clear signs of mania.) Eventually, however, Christensen and Hackett team up to fire Schumacher. Then Christensen turns the UBS news program into The Howard Beale Show, a grotesque variety program featuring Howard as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.”

Diana argues that Howard is popular because he is “articulating the popular rage.” She wants a whole new slate of angry, anti-establishment programming. Diana, mind you, doesn’t want to change society to make people less angry. She simply wants to exploit popular discontent and channel it into ratings and money. She wants to make it into a commodity. This is brought home brilliantly in Howard’s first speech on The Howard Beale Show.

 
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Gattaca (1997) is a dystopian science fiction movie set sometime in the mid-21st century. Mankind is doing a lot of manned space exploration. Genetic engineering and zygote selection have eliminated major and minor genetic problems, from mental illness to baldness. As a smiling black man who works as a eugenics counselor explains to a pair of prospective parents, the children produced by these techniques “are still you, just the best of you.”

In the world of Gattaca, everyone is attractive, clean-cut, and dressed in elegant business suits. They drive cool, retro-looking electric cars, listen to classical music, dine in fine restaurants, and live in multi-million-dollar lofts and beach houses in Marin Country. The space agency, called Gattaca, is headquartered in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center building, which will look futuristic even centuries from now.

It sounds pretty utopian to me. But writer-director Andrew Niccol wants to convince us that it is a totalitarian hell.

Gattaca is the story of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), whose name could only be more symbolic if they just called him Victor Freeman. Vincent is the guy who is going make free will triumph over determinism.

Vincent is a naturally conceived child in a world in which such births have become rare. As soon as Vincent is born, a blood sample is taken, and his parents are informed that he will likely suffer from various mood disorders and die of a heart attack by the age of thirty. It is a bit heavy to lay on a woman who has just gone through labor, but Niccol wants us to hate these people.

From the moment of birth, Vincent is treated as an invalid. In fact, the whole society is constructed around the distinction between the genetically Valid, namely the engineered, and In-Valid—get it? get it?—namely, those conceived naturally. The Valids are privileged, and the In-Valids are oppressed. Vincent’s mother coddles him and doesn’t want him to play outside. His father tells him not to dream about going into space with a bum ticker. Both parents also invest more emotionally in their younger son, Anton, who was genetically selected and tweaked before birth.

Okay, let’s pause here for a moment to let this sink in. For a society that values intelligence, there’s something rather stupid about this.

First, the idea of a caste system between Valids and In-Valids makes no sense. A society that values eugenics values science and objective merit. Such a society would know that among the so-called In-Valids, you would find people of superlative intelligence, health, beauty, creativity, and other excellences, at pretty much the rate that we find them among naturally conceived people today. Thus the idea that In-Valids would be subjected to crass discrimination and oppression is simply an attempt to brand eugenics as an arbitrary, evil form of discrimination, like “racism” against black people (which isn’t that unreasonable either, to be honest, but White Nationalists prefer racially homogeneous societies where such discrimination is made impossible.).

Second, there’s no doubt that genes determine our potentials. And, as the Director of the Gattaca space agency, played by Gore Vidal, says, “Nobody exceeds his potential. If he does, it simply means we did not gauge it accurately to begin with.” This is true. Our potential is what we can do. What exceeds our potential is what we can’t do. We can’t do what we can’t do.

But there are several factors being left out here.

Our potential is the outer limit of what we can do. But how many people get anywhere near those outer boundaries? Thus knowing potentials is not the same as knowing life outcomes.

Our genes aren’t the only things that determine our potential. You might have genes to make you a star athlete, but you don’t have the potential to do that if you are paralyzed in a car accident.

Why are these people so cocksure that they can gauge people’s potential accurately? In Gattaca, Vincent, the Director, and Vincent’s love interest Irene (Uma Thurman) all do things that they “can’t” do, which means that their potential has not been gauged accurately. But a society that values science and objective merit would not permit such smugness and the injustices and waste of resources it would inevitably cause.

In the society of Gattaca, genetic testing has basically eliminated the job interview, the curriculum vitae, and the letter of recommendation—as if your genes are your only qualification, regardless of the maturation, education, experience, and character that you have acquired over your lifetime.

Granted, one can weed out some applicants based on genetic grounds. The lame, the halt, and the blind can’t do certain jobs. Astronauts can’t have weak hearts. Surgeons can’t be blind. Conductors can’t be deaf.

But once you eliminate gross disabilities, other factors beyond genetic potential become relevant. For instance, some people who can do a job may not want to. A society that overlooks such factors is stupid, not smart—scientistic, not scientific.

Let’s look at the case of Vincent. Vincent is apparently highly intelligent, but he is told that he is fit only for manual labor because of—get this—his weak heart. Yes, it is that stupid. In the real world, of course, a highly intelligent young man with a weak heart might be shunted into the precise job that Vincent ended up in: a programmer at the space agency.

If Vincent really had a bad heart, no amount of training could fix it. In fact, such training could kill him. But one has to wonder: Wouldn’t the world of Gattaca also have the technology to fix heart defects or simply replace defective hearts with lab-grown transplants?

No matter how much Vincent dreams of going into space, he can’t be an astronaut if he has a bad heart. That is not an unreasonable or tyrannical requirement. Astronauts have to deal with enormous stress. An astronaut who dies of heart failure may cost the lives of his fellow crewmen. Astronauts are also very expensive to train.

Vincent, however, decides that he is going to cheat his way into space. We are supposed to think this is inspiring, but it is deeply unethical. Vincent buys the identity of Jerome Eugene (get it?) Morrow, played by Jude Law. (Two years later, Law’s identity is simply stolen in The Talented Mr. Ripley.) Eugene is genetically Valid. He has a stratospherically high IQ and is a phenomenal athlete. Or at least he was until a botched suicide attempt left him paraplegic. Eugene is now a self-pitying drunk.

Jerome had a much better genetic hand dealt him than Vincent, but he played it poorly. Vincent had a worse hand, but he plays it well. Of course, how well we can play our cards is also, arguably, a genetic card that is dealt us. But how well we actually play them is another thing. No matter how comprehensive and fine-grained genetic determinism may be, I see people exercising more or less agency, more or less wisdom, in making something out of what nature makes them into. And as for those who think they can predict those results with a blood test, well, something in my blood tells me we would be fools to believe them.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters, Science • Tags: Eugenics, Movies, Science Fiction 
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In 2010, Christopher Nolan released Inception, one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. It is stunningly artful and imaginative, as well as dramatically gripping and emotionally powerful. (See my review here). Then, four years later, Nolan released Interstellar, which is almost as good. It may seem silly not to want to “spoil” a film that has been out for six years, but if you haven’t seen it, I want you to see it. Thus I am going to talk about the basic story and themes while skirting large chunks of the plot.

Interstellar is set sometime late in the late 21st century. Global technological civilization has undergone a collapse. There has been war, famine, and technological regression. And it is only getting worse, because some sort of blight is destroying plant life all over the globe. Those who do not starve will suffocate as the blight destroys the oxygen supply.

But the ultimate end is a closely guarded secret. Official policy in what remains of the United States is that things will get better, but the current generation are caretakers. They need to hold on, produce food, and have children to repopulate the earth. School textbooks teach that the moon landing was a hoax, while NASA works in secret on a way to perpetuate the human species on other planets. Plan A is to save the people on Earth by finding them a new home. Plan B is to send human embryos to a new world.

Nearly fifty years before the events of the film, a wormhole appeared near Saturn giving mankind a path to a new galaxy. NASA managed to locate twelve potentially habitable worlds. Ten years before the film present, they dispatched scientists to those worlds. They called them the Lazarus missions. Most of the scientists were never heard from again. But some promising data came back. Now they need to send a follow-up mission, which will be headed by Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).

Three planets show the most promise, named for the scientists who were sent to them: Miller, Mann, and Edmunds.

Miller’s planet is near a black hole. It is covered with shallow water, but the gravitational forces create mile high waves that relentlessly sweep its surface. There is no life. Because of its proximity to the black hole, time passes at different rates on the planet in orbit above it. The landing team is gone only three hours, but for the rest of the universe, 23 years have passed. The scientist who remained on the ship has grown old and the families of the landing party have, of course, changed dramatically. The children they left behind have become adults and have had children of their own, while people in their parents’ generation have died. The whole sequence is enormously imaginative and deeply moving.

The next planet was explored by Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), who claimed that it was habitable. We never see the surface of the planet, because Dr. Mann has made his base on a cloud. The planet is surrounded by layers of frozen, solid clouds, which is again highly imaginative and surprising. Mann’s world is not, however, habitable. Dr. Mann has gone mad in his solitude. He sent back false data simply because he wanted people to rescue him. He was willing to risk the future of the whole human race out of sheer selfishness.

Only Edmunds’ planet is left. But the crew does not have the fuel to get there. Much of it had been burned up in the 23 years they orbited Miller’s world. So Cooper takes the ship back to the black hole, hoping to use its gravitational force to sling the ship to Edmunds’ planet. But Cooper has to stay behind. He detaches his small lander and falls into the black hole while the ship speeds its way to Edmunds’ planet. Their encounter with the black hole has taken only a few minutes, but 51 years have passed back on Earth.

After being sucked into the black hole, Cooper is deposited back our solar system, near Saturn. He discovers that in the last half century, humanity has built an armada of vast space ships that will eventually pass through the wormhole to Edmunds’ planet, which will be humanity’s new home.

In an incredibly moving final sequence, Cooper meets Murphy, the ten-year-old daughter he left behind, now an aged woman surrounded by her vast brood of children and grandchildren. As a child, Murphy begged her father to stay and resented him for years after his departure. But she is at peace, because he helped save her and the entire human race. She tells him that he should not stay around and watch his own child die. He needs to go back out there, to Edmunds’ planet, where Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) is waiting in hibernation; he needs to find her, awaken her, and help prepare humanity’s new home.

Interstellar, like all of Nolan’s movies, is a deeply serious work. There are four themes that are especially poignant.

The first is the tension between rootedness and exploration. The world of Interstellar has officially given up on space exploration. They are pledged to be caretakers on a planet that is becoming uninhabitable. Their political and educational system is dedicated to constricting people’s horizons. Caretakers live within their limits. Explorers go beyond and set new limits. Cooper used to be a NASA pilot, but now he is a farmer, and he hates it. He wants to be among the stars, not scraping a living from the dirt. As Interstellar shows, however, on a dying Earth, one can’t be a caretaker unless one is an explorer. To survive, one must aim at more than survival. But, then again, the ultimate goal is a new place to put down roots.

The second theme is the difficulty of saying goodbye, especially when Cooper leaves his children behind on a mission from which he may never return. A great deal of Interstellar’s emotional power derives from the pain of separation, exacerbated by the time differentials. (One of the best traits of James Gray’s Ad Astra was its meditation on what traits of character and beliefs would be necessary to sustain such explorers. See my review here.)

The third important theme is the role of lies in society. The school system teaches that the Moon landing was a hoax, but it funds NASA in secret. The ultimate fate of the Earth is top secret. Amelia Brand’s father, Professor Brand (played by Michael Caine), claims to be working on Plan A, but has concealed the fact that he has failed to solve the “gravity problem” that will allow mankind to leave the Earth en masse. He lied to give people hope. The robots have an honesty setting, because it is understood that perfect honesty dissolves society. This a theme in The Dark Knight Trilogy as well.

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Finally, Interstellar is about racial survival, which is a particularly poignant issue for whites, since we are on the path to extinction. When faced with extinction, the feminist idea that having a career grants higher status than motherhood is quietly forgotten. Plan B presupposes that women will bear enough children to make exponential growth possible. And although Cooper’s daughter Murphy plays a very important role in saving all of humanity, she also has a large family surrounding her at the end of her life. (The adult Murphy is played by Jessica Chastain. The aged Murphy is played by Ellen Burstyn.)

Interstellar is not flawless. For some reason, McConaughey insists on speaking with a twangy, mush-mouthed accent that none of his other family use, so it just seems fake. Time travel and an almost literal deus ex machina also play important roles, which I found annoying. I have no scientific quibbles because this is science fiction, so the jargon only has to sound good. And it does.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies, Science Fiction 
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John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979) is one of his lesser-known films, but it deserves a wider audience. Based on Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel of the same name, Wise Blood is the most faithful screen adaptation I have ever seen, largely because the screenwriter truly loved and understood the source material. The script was written by Benedict Fitzgerald, who knew Flannery O’Connor from childhood. In fact, she was his babysitter. Benedict Fitzgerald is the son of classicist Robert Fitzgerald and his wife Sally, who were close friends of O’Connor. Benedict Fitzgerald also shares O’Connor’s Catholic faith. Later he went on co-author the script of The Passion of the Christ with Mel Gibson.

Fitzgerald may have had an influence on the cast as well, since they pretty much perfectly accord with O’Connor’s descriptions. The cast includes two of my favorite movie weirdos, Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton, as well as Ned Beatty.

When I first saw Wise Blood, I found it baffling. People said things that just didn’t make sense: “Jesus is a trick on niggers,” “Nobody with a good car needs justification,” etc. People wreck cars and even blind themselves for no apparent reason. I found myself wondering “What is this shit?”

Beyond that, Wise Blood is an ugly movie to look at. Everything looks cheap, tacky, and run down. The colors are washed out. But the film’s grimy materiality conceals the lofty religious and metaphysical issues that animate this story.

Wise Blood is a dark comedy about serious matters, a Catholic satire on modern materialism and the Protestant South. (Wise Blood touches on many of the same themes as Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, which is my all-time favorite comedy. See my review here.)

The plot of Wise Blood is fairly simple, and since the movie has been out for decades, I trust nobody will complain about spoilers.

The hero is 22-year-old Hazel Motes, played by Brad Dourif. “Motes,” of course, are specks of dust, and Hazel is often shortened to “Haze,” which suggests imperfect vision, just as “Hazel” suggests vision because it is an eye color. Haze, however, believes that his eyes are wide open, and they see only the material world. Atoms, of course, are tiny motes as well. And a haze of motes suggests that atoms get in the way of true vision. Haze’s grandfather was some sort of Protestant preacher, but Haze rejects all religion. We learn nothing else about his family.

At the opening of the movie, Haze returns home from a war. In O’Connor’s novel, it would be the Second World War, but Huston sets the movie in the 1970s. Haze has been wounded, but he won’t say where, and apparently has some sort of pension. He finds the family home deserted and in ruins. His grandfather’s grave in the back states that he has “Gone to be an angle” (sic).

Haze was deeply marked by his grandfather’s preaching but is in full rebellion. He wants to free himself of Christianity and fully immerse himself in nature. He wants to be loyal to the Earth. O’Connor hints that Haze might be a kind of Nietzschean. When he asserts that “Jesus is a trick on niggers” and “Sin is a trick on niggers,” it sounds like Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity is a slave revolt in morals.

The comedy of Wise Blood is that, despite his best efforts, Haze can’t escape the pull of Christianity. To put the military behind him, Haze buys a suit and hat, then dumps his uniform in the trash. But as soon as people set eyes on Haze, everyone thinks he is a preacher. It is the hat, as well as his grim intensity.

Haze then takes a train to the city of Taulkinham to do some things he has never done before. As one of my students told me years ago, she could hardly wait to leave her small Southern town for Atlanta, so she could “sin.” Haze evidently has the same idea, since his first order of business is to seek out a fat whore named Leora Watts. It seems degrading to pay a fat woman for sex, but perhaps that’s the whole point.

In Taulkingham, Haze runs into a blind preacher, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his illegitimate daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright). Hawks interrupts a salesman demonstrating a potato peeling machine, the “Miracle Peeler,” by passing out tracts and begging for money. Haze and Sabbath Lily flirt as Haze tears up one of the preacher’s tracts.

In the crowd is 18-year-old Enoch Emery (Dan Shor), who works at the zoo. People don’t like Enoch, basically because he’s an idiot. Enoch complains that people aren’t friendly. Enoch pathetically latches on to Haze, who isn’t friendly to him either, even though Enoch in some ways represents what Haze wants to be: a wholly natural man. Enoch doesn’t think much about Christianity or anything at all. He follows his “wise blood”—instincts, intuitions, compulsions. O’Connor being a Catholic, she depicts the man who follows the wisdom of the blood as a fool.

Haze and Enoch follow Hawks and his daughter. Hawks can tell that “some preacher’s left his mark” on Haze, asking “Did you follow me for me to take it off or to give you another one?” When Hawks begins begging and passing out leaflets again, Haze is so incensed that he delivers his own sermon.

Don’t I know what exists and what don’t? Ain’t I got eyes in my head? Am I a blind man? Let me tell you somethin’. Maybe you think that you ain’t clean because you don’t believe. Every one of you are clean, and I’ll tell you why. If you think it’s because of Jesus Christ crucified, you’re wrong. I ain’t saying he wasn’t crucified, but I say it wasn’t for you. I’m gonna start a new church . . . the Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified. And it won’t cost you nothin’ to join my church.

In a parting shot to Hawks, Haze spits, “What do I need Jesus for? I’ve got Leora Watts.”

The next day, Haze buys a car. In the novel is it described as a “high, rat-colored car,” but in the movie it is red and white. (“High rat” suggest heirat, the Greek word for priest, and Haze later uses the car as a pulpit.)

Haze doesn’t just want to use the car to leave Taulkinham, he also wants to live in it. But the car is a piece of junk and stalls out on the first hill outside of town. Haze looks over, sees graffiti on the side of the road about Jesus, and has a flashback to his childhood, peeing his pants as his grandfather preaches fire and brimstone, pointing to him: “Jesus will never leave him, ever. Jesus will have you in the end.”

Haze then turns back toward Taulkinham. Interestingly, the car works again when he turns back. Taulkinham is associated with Jesus. Haze’s car is his means of escape. But, as we shall see, he never manages to escape. Jesus has him in the end.

Haze wants to find Asa Hawks. Enoch said he knew where Hawks lived, so Haze heads for the zoo where he finds Enoch making faces and hurling insults at the monkeys. Enoch promises to show Haze where Hawks lives, but tries Haze’s patience by insisting that he first show him something at the MVSEVM: a dried up, shrunken man. Enoch has a strong fascination with the subhuman.

Haze locates the boarding house where Hawks and his daughter live. He goes to the door and knocks. The door is opened by the landlady, Mrs. Flood, played by Mary Nell Santacroce. Haze asks to rent a room. The dialogue is quite droll.

Mrs. Flood: What do you do?

Haze: I’m a preacher.

Mrs. Flood: What church?

Haze: Church of Truth without Christ

Mrs. Flood: Protestant . . . or, or somethin’ foreign?

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Christianity, Hollywood, Movies 
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Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) has been one of my favorite films since I saw it on the big screen while living in darkest Atlanta. A few years later, post-red pill, I bought the DVD and was struck anew at the brilliance of the script, performances, and direction. But I was also struck by the sheer whiteness of this film, which is set in 1958 and 1959 in New York City and Italy (Rome, Venice, the Bay of Naples). There’s nothing new about the idea of “escapist” entertainment. But when I first watched this film, I was not aware that one of the things I was escaping from was diversity.

Minghella’s movie is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel of the same name. Most film adaptations of novels are inferior to the original, but not Minghella’s. Spoilers ahead: To talk about the novel and its adaptations, I am going to have to summarize the story. But the film has not been in the theaters in 20 years. And don’t worry: You’ll still want to see it.

Highsmith’s Thomas Ripley is not a likeable character. He’s simply a sociopath who makes money through forgery and other scams. In his early 20s, Ripley meets shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf at a party. Ripley was passingly acquainted with his son, Dickie, at Princeton. The elder Greenleaf pays Ripley to go to Italy and persuade his wastrel son to come back and work for the family business.

In Italy, Ripley ingratiates himself with Dickie and becomes increasingly attracted to his lifestyle. Dickie’s girlfriend Marge Sherwood is skeptical of Ripley, accusing him of being homosexual, and eventually Dickie tires of Ripley as well, especially after he catches Ripley wearing his clothes and imitating his mannerisms.

On a trip to San Remo, Ripley murders Dickie, assumes his identity, breaks off his relationship with Marge, and moves to Rome. Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles locates the Rome apartment where Ripley is living as Dickie. Ripley kills Miles and dumps his body.

Since Dickie is now a murder suspect, Ripley can no longer lead his life. Thus Ripley leads Dickie’s family to think he has committed suicide and begins to live in Venice under his own name. Mr. Greenleaf transfers Dickie’s trust fund to Ripley, in accordance with a will that Ripley has forged. Ripley ends up wealthy and free, but fears that he may eventually pay for his crimes.

It is a cleverly written book, and even though Ripley is not a sympathetic character, Highsmith manages to slowly seduce the readers into becoming accomplices in his crimes.

Minghella’s adaptation is far more three-dimensional and ultimately tragic. But Minghella understands that to make Tom Ripley tragic, he must also evoke some sympathy and admiration. Thus Minghella’s Ripley (one of Matt Damon’s finest roles) is not introduced as a calculating sociopath. Instead, he is an American middle-class everyman, an insecure, upwardly-mobile phony, an impoverished aesthete whose good looks and good taste offer him an entrée into high society. (Ripley slides into a slow-burning murderous rage when a Princeton silver-spoon describes his apartment as “bourgeois.”)

Ripley plays classical piano. (Bach’s Italian Concerto is one of his favorites.) One day, Ripley substitutes for a pianist at a classical recital, borrowing the fellow’s Princeton jacket. When Herbert Greenleaf spies the jacket and asks Ripley if he knew his son Dickie at Princeton, one gets the feeling that Ripley lies with no specific aim, just a general desire to ingratiate and keep the conversation going.

Mr. Greenleaf’s offer allows Ripley to enter a world of beauty and high culture he cannot otherwise afford, transported from his noisy basement apartment in the meatpacking district in a chauffeured limousine—the driver telling him that the Greenleaf name opens a lot of doors, foreshadowing what Ripley will do with that name—to a Cunard luxury liner for a first class voyage to Italy.

When Ripley arrives in Mongibello, the fictional town on the Bay of Naples where Dickie and his girlfriend Marge Sherwood are living, the chemistry is far more complex than in Highsmith’s novel. Marge, beautifully played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is charmed rather than repelled by Ripley. And Ripley’s relationship with Dickie—brilliantly played by Jude Law—is far more intense.

According to Highsmith, the character of Ripley is not homosexual. That was just Marge’s jealousy speaking. (A lesbian herself, Highsmith certainly had no hang-ups about homosexuality. She just didn’t see Ripley that way.) In Minghella’s film, however, Dickie Greenleaf is fearsomely handsome and charismatic, and Tom Ripley doesn’t just fall in love with his money and lifestyle, he falls in love with the man himself, and he is tormented by Dickie’s own seeming ambiguity on the subject. These changes to the story send the dramatic tension and conflict off the charts and make Ripley’s eventual murder of Dickie a tragic crime of passion, not merely a sociopath’s cold-blooded kill.

Minghella’s treatment of the murder of Freddie Miles (loathsomely played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the aftermath is very close to the book. When Ripley reverts to his own character, leaving behind the beautiful wardrobe and apartment he has purchased with Dickie’s money, he makes a fateful choice, taking Dickie’s rings, which were gifts from Marge. As he closes the lid of his piano, a single blurred reflection divides like an amoeba into two separate faces. Ripley is Ripley again.

Later in Venice, Ripley meets with Mr. Greenleaf and Marge. When Marge finds Dickie’s rings in Ripley’s flat, there is a tense scene, in which Ripley panics and contemplates killing Marge to silence her. The whole thing is absurd. Marge is certain that Dickie never took off his rings. All Tom had to do was say that Dickie took off his rings whenever he contemplated being unfaithful to Marge, which is plausible and probably even true. In short, Minghella’s movie has the audience making up better lies than Ripley. Thus the film is far more adept at making the audience Ripley’s accomplices than Highsmith’s novel.

Mr. Greenleaf has hired a private investigator, Alvin MacCarron, to investigate Freddie’s death and Dickie’s disappearance. It turns out that Dickie once violently assaulted a Princeton classmate. They have concluded that Dickie probably murdered Freddie in a similar rage and then committed suicide. To thank Ripley for his loyalty—and to buy his silence—Greenleaf has decided to give Ripley a portion of his son’s trust, making him a wealthy man. As in the novel, it looks like Ripley is going to get off Scott free.

But no. Minghella’s movie also introduces new characters, who add dramatic tension and tragic pathos. When Ripley arrives in Italy, he meets Meredith Logue, bewitchingly played by Cate Blanchett. Again on an apparent whim, he lies and introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf, a lie that will have consequences when he runs into her again in Rome after having killed Dickie and assumed his identity. Meredith has excellent taste, so she and “Dickie” become friends, shopping and attending the opera—Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, in which the title character kills a friend in a duel. Then they seem to slip into a romance, although one has to wonder if she is really Ripley’s type, being a girl and all.

Peter Smith-Kingsley, played by Jack Davenport, is a musician and musicologist living in Venice. He is dangerous to Ripley’s ruse because he is friends with Meredith, who knows Ripley as Dickie, and with Marge, who knows him as Ripley. This makes for some tense cat-and-mouse drama. Smith-Kingsley is also homosexual, and given their mutual interest in music, he is a good match for Ripley, so when Ripley leaves Rome for Venice, he and Peter become lovers.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies 
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Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen is his best movie since his first two feature films, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), largely because it is a gentrified return to their crime caper format.

Ritchie at his best is a kind of British Quentin Tarantino, with his underworld settings, non-linear storytelling, colorful and witty dialogue, and gleeful political incorrectness (because criminals don’t think and talk like SJWs would like them to)—but without Tarantino’s sprawling, self-indulgent running times.

Ritchie at his worst? Well, imagine what Tarantino would turn out if he were in indentured servitude to Disney.

The Gentlemen has a great deal of star power. Matthew McConaughey plays the protagonist, Mickey Pearson, an American who ends up at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship but drops out to become a drug kingpin. Some twenty years later, he has leveraged his Oxford connections into a pot-growing empire, tucked away on the country estates of aristos who are hard up for cash to maintain their stately homes.

Mickey, however, wants to retire and offers to sell his operation for $400 million to a bland, prissy American Jewish crime lord Matthew Berger, played by Jeremy Strong. But, as he finds out, the underworld is a jungle, and it is dangerous for the king of the jungle to retire, for it signals weakness, and the jackals come running.

Mickey, however, is fortunate in his friends. Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy, The Lost City of Z) plays Raymond, Mickey’s loyal right-hand man. Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) play’s Mickey’s steely wife Rosalind. Colin Farrell is hilarious as an MMA coach with some obvious small-time gangster connections.

He also lucks out with his enemies. Hugh Grant is brilliant as Fletcher, a sleazy private eye and would-be blackmailer who narrates the whole tale. Then there are Berger and the Chinese narcotics mafia, led by Lord George (Tom Wu).

I won’t say much about the plot, because I actually want you to see The Gentlemen, but I do need to reveal some elements to comment on the controversy it has generated.

Like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, The Gentlemen has been accused of being “racist” and “anti-Semitic,” both for its language and also for the plot conflicts. For instance, throughout The Gentlemen Jews are characterized as Jews, and this being a crime drama, none of them are good Jews. The Colin Farrell character also explains to a black fighter that he should not take offense at being called a “black bastard” because it happens to be true. The gangster Dry Eye is described as a “Chinese James Bond,” complete with “Ricense to kill.” One of Dry Eye’s henchmen is named “Phuc,” suffers from asthma, and dies hilariously. I saw this film in a packed theater, and the audience laughed heartily in all the “wrong” places.

Beyond that, the main conflicts in the movie break down along racial and ethnic lines—whites vs. Chinese and whites vs. Jews (Berger and his Mossad bodyguards, which he calls “crabs”)—and, boy, do the whites ever win. The whites, moreover, are in the pot business, and pot doesn’t kill anyone, while the reptilian Chinese sell heroin and coke, which are “destroyers of worlds”—something made graphically clear as the film unwinds.

When the Jew, Berger, double-crosses Mickey Pearson—and don’t whine about a spoiler here, because as soon as you see Berger’s face, you know he will be a double-crosser—Mickey tells him that he can go free only after he makes financial restitution then cuts a pound of flesh from his own body. And, unlike Shylock, Mickey Pearson is not going to let himself be stopped by a technicality.

Moreover, there are a number of black bit players, most of them rapping, tumbling buffoons. All of them more or less take orders from whites.

But Ritchie has some plausible deniability on the racism charges. First of all, all the people who say bad things are criminals, so Ritchie can say that he’s just being realistic when he has bad people say bad things. Second, there are also some minor white antagonists, in the form of a Russian oligarch (who is also ex-KGB) and his hired guns.

Beyond that, Guy Ritchie can probably say that some of his best friends are Jews, given that he and ex-wife Madonna were deep into Kabbalah. Furthermore, Ritchie allegedly speaks some Hebrew, and he actually named his three children with Jacqui Ainsley (who does not appear to be Jewish) Rafael, Rivka, and Levi. (Ritchie also adopted an African child, David, while married to Madonna, as well as fathering her son Rocco.) Given these kinds of dues, I think Guy Ritchie is entitled to talk about Jews like they talk about themselves.

I highly recommend The Gentlemen if you are looking for a grown-up, politically incorrect comedy about colorful rogues. There’s a bit of violence but nothing too distasteful. The script is witty, the plot has some surprising twists and turns, the performances are excellent, and the pacing never fails. Although there really aren’t any good guys in this story, at least the white guys win in the end.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies, Political Correctness 
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2019 was the year of the “frustrated-white-loser-living-at- home-with-his-mom” movie. First there was Todd Phillips’ Joker, an origin story of Batman’s most memorable nemesis, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the clown himself. Then came Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, the true story of a Georgia security guard who discovered the Centennial Olympic Park bomb in 1996.

Jewell alerted the police, insisted they follow protocol when they were initially dismissive, and evacuated people from the area before the explosion, which killed two and injured more than 100. Jewell’s vigilance and conscientiousness saved many lives. He was hailed as a hero. Then he was framed as a suspect by the FBI and the media and hounded mercilessly. Why? Because he fit “the profile” of a mad bomber: a “frustrated white male” who lived at home with his mother.

Both Leftists and the Alt Right tried to meme Phoenix’s Joker into a symbol of white male rage and alienation. They did this long before the movie came out, based largely on hearsay, and many on the Right kept flogging this meme even after the movie belied it. For Phoenix’s Joker is not a charismatic criminal mastermind. He’s just a pathetic, vacant, mentally ill loser. Nobody would want to identify with him, not even pathetic, vacant, mentally ill losers.

Beyond that, there’s nothing especially insightful about Joker’s diagnosis of the modern malaise. Heartless rich people are cutting government programs, and Patrick Batemans are terrorizing people on the subway. It is true that during the Reagan years, thousands of mental patients ended up homeless, but most of Joker’s vision of dystopia is just unimaginative Bolshevik boilerplate. Nor does Joker offer any positive lessons for white men to overcome their alienation and rage. Joker isn’t the worst movie I saw in 2019—that prize goes to Star Wars—but it is certainly the most disappointing.

Richard Jewell is one of the best movies of 2019, with a brilliant script, excellent performances, and an important message. It is infinitely superior to Joker because it shows the true cause of white male rage and alienation. Richard Jewell is not a nutcase dumped into the gutter by Reaganism. He’s simply an ordinary white man who fit “the profile.” No, not the FBI profile, the hostile elite profile. Richard Jewell is the kind of white man that the American system increasingly blames for everything that is wrong with our society—while depending upon these men to keep the society going. It’s a profile authored by people who regard white Americans as contemptible aliens. It is propagated through a thousand movies, TV shows, books, songs, and bits of journalism.

Richard Jewell is a fat, white, Christian, heterosexual, Georgia redneck with a heavy Southern accent. He likes guns and hunting, drives a pickup truck, believes in the American system, looks up to authority—especially men in uniforms—and wants a career in law enforcement, because he wants to protect people. He’s kind-hearted, observant, attentive to the needs of others, and obviously desires to be liked. These are pro-social virtues, but he’s also somewhat pathetic. Assholes and bullies regard him as an easy target. Yet he doesn’t seem to be especially bitter, although he has good cause to be.

I vividly remember the Richard Jewell case. When he was being hailed as a hero in the media, they were obviously pained by the fact that he looked like a redneck from central casting. And when they turned on him, it was with an obvious relief and relish, because he looked like the kind of guy they spend all their time sniggering at and vilifying anyway.

You know very well that if even one or two of Jewell’s traits had been altered—if he were thin, or female, or black, or gay, or a Yankee—the whole thing would have played out very differently. But Richard Jewell was everything the hostile elite loved to hate. And they almost lynched him for it.

In the opening scenes of the movie, Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser in his breakout role) is an office supply clerk in law firm who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young lawyer named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Bryant is presented as a cocky Chad. Jewell is presented as observant to the point of nosiness and obsequious to the point of cringe.

Viewers with modern Leftist prejudices immediately dislike both men. Bryant is “toxically masculine,” and Jewell has “low self-esteem.” But the film then brilliantly shows that Jewell’s sharp eyes and punctilious desire to please others are what allows him to save lives, and Bryant’s cockiness is what allows him to save Jewell.

Richard Jewell offers a scathing portrait of two of the hostile elite’s enforcement arms: the mainstream media and the FBI, personified by Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde) and FBI agent Tom Shaw (a fictional character played by Jon Hamm). Both are arrogant, ambitious, manipulative, and dishonest—and the system rewards them for this behavior. They team up to frame Richard Jewell as a terrorist and ruin his life, because they are utterly indifferent to truth and see him as a perfect patsy, for he “fits the profile” of the system’s number one enemy. He personifies the America they want to destroy. They really are “enemies of the people,” and it really is them or us.

It was perfectly reasonable for the FBI to look into Jewell. The bomber, Eric Rudolph, really was a frustrated white male. People really do plant bombs for attention. They also fake hate crimes for attention and even make their own children sick. And Jewell’s record could be taken to show signs of this sort of malignant narcissism. He was fired as a sheriff’s deputy and a campus security officer for overstepping his authority, which could be taken for self-importance although it is probably just the same over-zealousness that made him a hero in the Olympic Park bombing, and once Jewell was in the media spotlight, he was humble and gracious, not self-aggrandizing.

But the FBI did not just look into Jewell. They tried to frame him. What’s more, they tried to use his patriotism, respect for authority, and desire to do good to destroy him. Eastwood is brilliant to hone in on this point again and again. It is a lesson that all white people need to learn.

This is not our country anymore. It is not our government. It is not our FBI. It is not our media. All of these are in the hands of our enemies. All the authoritative institutions of our society have been hollowed out, taken over, and repurposed to our dispossession and destruction. And one of the chief tools this system uses to destroy us is our own patriotism and naïve trust in the people who despise us. Richard Jewell repeatedly hammers home this moral obscenity.

This is one of the most important lessons we can teach, for when people cease to trust the media and the government—when they see them as a hostile elite, as enemies of the people—that is the beginning of populism. We have come a long way since 1996.

Many decent white people cringe when they look at Richard Jewell. Part of that reaction is healthy, because fat people are gross and unhealthy. Poor Richard Jewell died at the age of 44 from diabetes and heart disease. The stress of being framed as Public Enemy Number One surely did not help. I wish that Jewell had a longer, healthier life, and I hope that Paul Walter Hauser pulls a Chris Pratt body transformation.

 
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Ad Astra (2019), starring Brad Pitt and directed by James Gray, is the best science fiction movie since Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Like Interstellar, Ad Astra is visually striking and emotionally powerful, stimulating to both thought and imagination, and unfolds at a leisurely pace—all traits inviting comparisons to Kubrick and Tarkovsky, although I hasten to add that I found both Ad Astra and Interstellar so absorbing that my attention never wavered.

Ad Astra is set sometime later in this century. The US has permanent bases on the Moon and Mars, but the farthest any manned missions have gone is Neptune, where the Lima Project was sent to scan the universe for signs of intelligent life outside the interference of the sun’s magnetic field. However, when the Lima Project went silent, sixteen years into its mission and thirteen years before the time of the film, the US ended deep space missions.

Brad Pitt plays astronaut Roy McBride, a Major in the US Space Command. Roy is the son of astronaut Clifford McBride, the Commander of the Lima Project (brilliantly played by Tommy Lee Jones). The film begins with Roy McBride working on a communication tower that extends from Earth into space. It is a modern tower of Babel. The tower is struck by a mysterious power surge, and Roy literally falls to Earth. Luckily, he is equipped with a parachute which allows him to land more-or-less safely. The whole sequence is as thrilling as it is bizarre.

It turns out that the power surge has affected the whole planet, leading to thousands of deaths. After recuperating in the hospital for a few days, Roy is called in to be debriefed and meets some top brass in Space Command (a white, a Latino, and a black woman—from intelligence, no less—for in diversity casting this film is as depressingly predictable as NASA).

It turns out that the surge was caused by an anti-matter discharge near Neptune. The Lima Project was powered by anti-matter. Space Command believes that Clifford McBride is alive and may be responsible for the surge, which if unstopped might destroy the Earth. They ask Roy to broadcast a message to his father from Space Command’s last secure communication hub on Mars. They hope he will respond, which will give Space Command a fix on his location, at which point they can dispatch someone to stop the surge by any means necessary.

The rest of the movie follows Roy from Earth to the Moon, from the Moon to Mars, and from Mars to Neptune—where he finds his father—then back home. This much is not a spoiler, since it can be gathered from the trailer—which is actually quite different than the final film. For one thing, Liv Tyler as Roy’s wife Eve was almost eliminated from the final cut. I don’t wish to give away any more of the plot, because I want you to see this film. But I do want to discuss some of the themes, which will require mentioning some details.

Ad Astra is interesting because it meditates on the personality traits necessary to explore and settle the cosmos. Clifford McBride left his ailing wife and thirteen-year-old son on a one-way mission to find intelligent life in the cosmos. What kind of people are capable of leaving their homes and saying goodbye to their family, friends, and neighbors—forever? Obviously, such people need to have weak ties to the people and places of their birth, or they would never be able to leave them.

Beyond that, they need to have some sort of mission to sustain them, a counter-weight to the things they left behind. In Ad Astra, Clifford McBride is portrayed as an intensely religious man. His faith is twofold: in God, the creator of the cosmos, and in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, which is for many people a kind of religion as well. The four astronauts who take Roy McBride from the Moon to Mars are also intensely religious Christians. There is no sign that Roy McBride shares any of their beliefs. He seems like more of a secular Stoic.

Of course, weak roots and powerful senses of mission are the same traits possessed by past generations of explorers and settlers. Not even a century ago, when people departed on ships for new lands, they could be reasonably certain they would never be coming back. They knew how to say goodbye forever.

Ad Astra also confronts us with just how hard space exploration is on people. Clifford McBride chose to widow his wife and orphan his son to explore the cosmos. Roy chose to follow his father’s career, but he chose not to have children of his own, and his sense of mission destroyed his own marriage. (In a newsflash, Eve informs him that she is “her own person.”)

Many people, however, can’t really leave the Earth behind, so they replicate the best and worst of it wherever they go. Or they simply go a bit mad out in the void, sometimes to the point of mutiny. In one suspenseful and shocking sequence, we see that even the animals we bring into space can go mad and mutiny.

Ad Astra can be taken as an anti-religious film in two ways. First, Roy’s absent father out in space is very much analogous to the Biblical God. Roy can’t help loving the man who abandoned him, but in the end, he finds the strength to let him go. Second, Roy’s father is sustained by his faith in the existence of extra-terrestrial life, a faith to which he sacrificed first his family then his crew. But the Lima Project found no evidence of extraterrestrial life. Clifford begs his son to help him continue his quest. “You can’t let me fail.” But Roy responds, “But dad, you haven’t failed. Now we know, we’re all we’ve got.” It is an extremely touching scene, because as the movie shows, men like Roy McBride can do great things without faith in higher powers.

Since the same causes give rise to the same effects, it seems inevitable that the causes that gave rise of intelligent life on Earth will give rise to intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. Furthermore, given how big the universe is, it is likely that other intelligent life exists right now. Frankly, though, I find that a chilling thought, since if intelligent extraterrestrials arrived on Earth, the human race will be in the same position as primitive peoples around the globe when white explorers first arrived. We wouldn’t have a chance. I would much prefer to know that “We’re all we’ve got,” that—free of gods and aliens—our kind are free to expand unopposed into the universe.

Both Clifford and Roy McBride are magnificent portraits of Faustian European man. As Clifford tells his son, “Sometimes, the human will must overcome the impossible.” Roy does just that. He is study in what I consider the real meaning of “cool.” He is the intelligent man of action, the taciturn, unflappable Nordic explorer. He has nerves of steel. He is “focused on the essential, to the exclusion of all else.” He has a slow pulse, which helps him stay cool in tight spots. (When a spaceship is in trouble and the captain is paralyzed, Roy coolly steps in and saves the day. Roy’s pulse only gets elevated when he hears that his father is really alive.)

If Roy is a Faustian hero, Clifford is a Faustian anti-hero, like Captain Ahab, whose indomitable will is twisted by an obsession, ultimately destroying him and everyone around him.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies, Science Fiction 
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Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey is an extremely popular British period drama, set in the years 1912 to 1926, which ran six seasons (the Brits call them series) on television and is now a feature film set in 1927.

I very much enjoyed the first two seasons of Downton Abbey. Like many Downton Abbey fans, I felt an intense nostalgia for a country I had never known: George V’s England, an overwhelmingly white, unapologetically Eurocentric society ruled by a glamorous aristocracy and monarchy that had not strayed too far from its founding warrior ethos. I was particularly taken with the series’ treatment of the First World War, which I have always found far more moving than the Second. I especially loved Maggie Smith as the scheming, sharp-tongued dowager Countess of Grantham.

Although the series did try to inject as many modern, politically correct tropes as the story could bear, the creators of the series had the good sense not to push it too far, for they knew that absolutely nobody watched Downton Abbey to see black faces, just as nobody chooses to visit London today because they want to see Jamaicans or Arabs or South Asians—and many people now skip London precisely to avoid them.

Like many series, Downton Abbey went on a bit too long. There was a natural story arc which ended with the marriage of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) sometime in season three. It should have ended there. But they managed to drag it out for six full seasons by doling out romances and tragedies to every major and bit player, to the point of farce. I was disgusted by the end of season three. I was curious to see if the show would recover in season four, but it didn’t, so I stopped watching.

I had absolutely no desire to watch the Downton Abbey feature film, but spending the holidays with family tends to change one’s mind. And in this case, I am glad. The Downton Abbey film is a triumphant return to form, with all the period charm and vivid, likable characters of the best parts of the series, without the soap operatic padding and empty calories. Beyond that, the politics of the film, such as they are, are decidedly wholesome and conservative, even when it tries to be progressive.

The story is set in motion when King George and Queen Mary are on a tour and decide to stay at Downton Abbey. There will be a lunch, a parade, and a banquet, plus a ball at the nearby house of their daughter Princess Mary and her very difficult husband, Lord Harewood. Naturally, the whole estate and village are aflutter, even the most cynical hearts drawing meaning and pride from the event.

Conflicts break out between the Downton staff and the royal servants. Conspiracies are hatched. Eggs and carpets are beaten. Dresses are hemmed, suggestions are hawed. Feelings are ruffled and assuaged. Cheeks blush, eyelashes flutter, men and women whirl around dance floors. Old ladies trade barbs. The dowager Countess schemes to bring home an inheritance. A republican assassin is foiled. Unjust pretensions are deflated by just pretensions, and somehow the grand structure of pretensions is upheld.

The most touching scenes of the movie involve Lady Mary, whose son will inherit Downton. When Mary raises the possibility of selling Downton and downsizing, her maid Anna begs her not to because Downton is the center of the whole community. Later, when Mary’s grandmother, the dowager Countess, tells her that she is nearing the end of her life, they have a very moving conversation about how, despite the inevitability of change, the dead live on in their posterity. It is a life-affirming and deeply conservative message.

Even the republican characters, Tom Branson and the silly scullery maid Daisy, end up being conservatives of a sort. Tom is an Irish revolutionary, but he is also the son-in-law of the Earl of Grantham. In the end, he is more loyal to is adopted homeland and family, foiling an IRA assassination plot against King George. As for Daisy, she has no truck with kings and queens, but she takes care not to deflate the pride of the local grocer who is honored to provide provisions for the royal visit. Daisy does not tell him that the royals are bringing their own supplies.

Even the one PC subplot is somewhat conservative in the end. The Earl’s butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is a homosexual. He is somewhat put out when, for the duration of the royal visit, his retired predecessor Carson (Jim Carter), is called back into service.

So, the night of the ball, Barrow goes into town with one of the royal servants, Ellis, who is also homosexual. The two get separated, and Barrow ends up at an underground gay nightclub dancing with other fellows—all this intercut with the ball at the Harewoods—until the police arrive and arrest the lot.

Ellis uses his position on the royal staff to get Barrow out of jail. As they walk off into the night, Ellis tells Barrow that he just needs to be a bit more discreet. Barrow remarks on how good it is just to be able to talk, one man to another. It is clearly the beginning of a relationship.

The whole sequence has the best of liberal intentions, but it is nevertheless a rejection of radical gay liberation ideology, which holds that homosexuals can never find places in existing societies, thus they must burn it all down in a disco inferno.

Since it is based upon six seasons of television, Downton Abbey is not exactly a stand-alone film. I am sure those who have never seen the series would be quite lost, although I had not seen the latter half of the series and had no difficulty picking up the thread.

I highly recommend Downton Abbey to Anglophiles, lovers of costume dramas, and people who just want a vacation from multiculturalism. It is not great drama, but it is well-crafted escapist entertainment: romantic, nostalgic, visually sumptuous, with a witty and literate script and a wholesomely conservative message.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Britain, Movies 
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In memory of Raven.

Even I didn’t expect Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to be this bad. It is simply a terrible movie: derivative, incoherent, arbitrary, superficial, and deeply boring and uninvolving—despite, or maybe because of, the frenetic action sequences, dazzling duels, and effects so special they’ll leave carbon scoring on your eyeballs.

The Rise of Skywalker is 2 hours, 22 minutes long, which is long enough, but it feels even longer. I saw it in a half-empty theatre, and when Harrison Ford showed up on the screen, a whole row of people began streaming toward the exits. It would have been the last straw for me too, but I had my duty to you, dear reader, to sustain me.

There’s no way to “spoil” a movie this bad, thus I am going to give a running summary of the plot. So if you don’t want to hear it, now is the time to angle your deflector screens and warp on out of here, or whatever.

The Rise of Skywalker is the third installment of Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy. The die was cast in the first installment, The Force Awakens, directed by Jar Jar Abrams. Instead of coming up with original stories and a new cast of characters, Abrams and Disney decided to do something calculated, cynical, and easy: milk nostalgia for the original trilogy by bringing back the main cast (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, the droids, the walking carpet) and shooting a derivative remake of the original Star Wars and parts of The Empire Strikes Back (see my review here), but this time as an inept farce. Somehow the rebellion has been defeated and a new empire has risen, turning the victory of the first trilogy into defeat and all their striving into naught. And instead of a male hero, this time we have a Mary Sue, Daisey Ridley’s Rey, who takes to the lead like a fish to a bicycle.

Since Star Wars fans are not exactly the most mature and discerning cinephiles, they squealed, grunted, and buried their noses in this slop while Disney rubbed their hands together in glee and raked in untold millions of shekels.

The second installment, The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, continued in the same vein, with point by point, sometimes shot-by-shot retreads of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. (See my review here). But this time the director’s cynicism and contempt for the story and the fans were so transparent that he provoked a rebellion.

There were many objections: Luke throws away his lightsaber, Luke dies, Leia can suddenly do Force magic, Supreme Leader Snoke is killed off, Rey’s parents are nobodies, etc. Some of these objections may be silly. (Imagine actually caring about non-entities like Snoke and Rey.) But Star Wars fans were awakening to the fact that Disney was exploiting them and holding them in contempt while taking their money.

This gave the impetus—and Gamergate provided the template—for the great Star Wars boycott of 2018 that tanked the movie Solo. (See my review here). As we shall see, The Rise of Skywalker does attempt to placate at least some of the more superficial critics of The Last Jedi.

Since Abrams and Johnson managed to remake and mock the whole original trilogy in only two films, Abrams was in an uncomfortable position in The Rise of Skywalker: he might have to actually come up with something original. Of course he tries to minimize the shock of doing something really new by bringing back the original cast some more. Luke and Han Solo are both dead, but Luke comes back as a ghost and Han as a figment of his son’s imagination. Carrie Fisher really is dead, but Abrams cleverly incorporates unused footage from the first movie. He also finds Billy Dee Williams in carbonite to reprise the role of Lando Calrissian. But the greatest surprise is that he resurrects Emperor Palpatine.

Yes, I know, the last time we saw Emperor Palpatine, he was thrown down a shaft in the second Death Star, followed by a big explosion that we interpreted as the release of malign energies when he went splat at the bottom, followed by the destruction of the whole damn Death Star, to add an even greater air of finality.

But, as in the Roadrunner cartoons, when Wile E. Coyote falls to his death through a portable hole, or blows himself up with a bomb, or gets an anvil dropped on his head, only to be magically resurrected moments later for further adventures with the bird, Palpatine is back to spare Jar Jar Abrams the necessity of coming up with a new villain after Rian Johnson casually dispensed with Snoke.

The trouble is that, for all his Gungans and Ewoks and juvenile dialogue, George Lucas’ Star Wars still had a bit more realism and existential heft and credibility than Roadrunner cartoons.

The Rise of Skywalker begins in medias res as Kylo Ren, the new Supreme Leader, battles to find a Sith McGuffin that allows him to fly to a hidden planet, where he finds Palpatine alive. (Yes, he appears to be on life support. But more than 40 years have passed.)

Still, we have questions. If Palpatine was merely injured, how exactly did his empire fall? Why didn’t he just dust off his skirts and continue the war? Why in the galaxy did he retreat to this remote, hidden planet (Mordor, or something)? Why did he set up Snoke as his cat’s paw rather than rule directly? Why did he not step forward when Snoke was killed? Why did he allow Ren to take over? How, given his exile, did he build a vast fleet of new star destroyers armed with planet killing lasers? Why was Ren searching for him? Etc. Of course none of it makes sense, which means that resurrecting Palpatine is arbitrary, dumb, and unintelligible.

Oh, and you’ll love this: the First Order was just the beginning. When Palpatine launches his new fleet, then we will have the Final Order.

Palpatine orders Ren to kill Rey because he fears her. But why is Ren now taking orders from Palpatine?

Meanwhile, Poe Dameron, Findu, and Chewbacca meet a contact who tells them of a mole in the First Order. They escape by performing as many as six impossible stunts before breakfast, jumping wildly in and out of hyperspace while the enemy fighters manage to still follow them. (So they can do that now?) Then we see Rey doing dangerous and impossible feats, training under her new Jedi master, Leia.

This too has the credibility of a Roadrunner cartoon, and it seems very silly in the universe of Star Wars, where even though there are all sorts of magic and advanced technology, there is still a sense of rules and limits, which helps the viewer suspend disbelief. Jar Jar Abrams explicitly mocks his suspension of Lucas’ rules (and our disbelief) when stormtroopers start flying. “They fly now?” asks Findu incredulously. Throughout this film, lot of us were thinking “They x now?” incredulously. But incredulity is a barrier to actually getting into the story. Which is one reason this film is so goddamn boring.

When Poe, Findu, and Chewie return to base, they bicker like children with Rey. Rey and company are as surprised as we are by Palpatine’s return, so they go to the exotic planet of Pasadena to search for a McGuffin that Rey just happens to find in one of Luke’s books. This second McGuffin will lead to the first McGuffin, which will lead to Mordor or something.

 
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