The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information

 TeasersTrevor Lynch Blogview

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Thanks, LOL, or Troll with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
🔊 Listen RSS

American Pimp is a 1999 documentary directed by the Hughes Brothers, the half-black, half-Armenian twins who also directed Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. American Pimp fallen into obscurity and is now hard to find. But it deserves to be better-known, especially among race-realists. American Pimp is just under 90 minutes. It consists primarily of interviews with black pimps and their prostitutes.

The film opens with clips of white people sharing their views about pimps, which are universally negative: disgusting, immoral, exploiters of women, parasites, gaudy, tasteless, extravagant, etc. It is hard to know if we are supposed to think these are all negative “stereotypes” for which white people should be ashamed. As the movie unfolds, however, we see that these descriptions are all true—and then some.

American Pimp also intercuts clips from so-called Blaxploitation films such as The Mack and Willie Dynamite. Again, it is hard to tell if we are supposed to think that these films are sinister parodies and exaggerations of the truth about pimps. But the documentary goes on to demonstrate that the truth about pimps is far more clownish and sinister than the movie portrayals. Beyond that, the very term “Blaxploitation” strikes me as faux-victimhood whining, since these films generally glamorize and glorify ghetto black behavior for the entertainment of ghetto black consumers.

Judging from the film, the typical African-American pimp is ugly, dark-black, unspeakably foul-mouthed, utterly cynical and materialistic, and has hideous, gaudy tastes in clothes, cars, and jewelry. Gold teeth are optional.

Only a couple of the pimps interviewed speak anything close to standard English. The rest are mush-mouthed bix-nooders whose every third word is “bitch” or some version of “motherfucker.” Usually, they end their sentences with “Ya know whum sayin,’” to which my truthful answer is “no.” It seems odd that this spark of self-knowledge doesn’t seem to lead to self-improvement in their communication skills. Sadly, there are no subtitles for the ebonically challenged, although the French and Spanish subtitles might come in handy.

If, however, one looks beyond the ghetto patois and clown-costumes, the truth is that most of these pimps aren’t stupid in the low-IQ sense. It takes some brains to run any kind of business, and some of the things they say are actually witty. Thus they probably have IQs above the African-American average of 85. This is useful, because if low-IQ is taken out of the equation, it highlights other racial differences, particularly moral ones.

Pimps aren’t necessarily stupid, but all of them are “moral imbeciles.” They manifest the Dark Triad of narcissism, sociopathy, and Machiavellianism.

The gaudy and extravagant peacocking of pimps is obviously narcissistic. The constant parade of expensive clown costumes and tasteless pimpmobiles is one of the most entertaining aspects of American Pimp.

The exploitation of women is obviously sociopathic. One of the funniest sequences of the film is where pimps explain the cut that whores get from their work. They are unanimous: “zero percent.” One of them asks, “How can I give you 100% of my pimpin’ unless you give me 100% of yo’ money?”

Pimps also take pride in their use of manipulation to control whores. Primarily they use false promises and emotional manipulation. But they aren’t above beating them. One pimp, who is now a Christian minister, claims that if you don’t beat a whore, she’ll start thinking that you don’t care about her. Although I didn’t manage to catch it on my recent viewing, I recall one pimp says that he “didn’t steal nothin’ except bitches’ minds.” (Clearly my ear for ebonics has gotten rusty.)


American Pimp doesn’t offer much insight into the psychology of the sad hookers who allow themselves to be exploited. By the looks of them, they are mostly below-average in the looks and IQ departments, although the vacant faces could be products of drug use. A large percentage of these women are white. Most of them want to have—or think they have—relationships with their pimps, which bespeaks a huge capacity for self-deception. Many hookers end up dead due to drug overdoses. Others are murdered. Still others end up in mental hospitals. One white hooker ended up married to her pimp. Although most of these women lack much potential, a decent society would protect them from such predators.

The most articulate pimp in the movie styles himself Gorgeous Dre. His real name is Andrè Taylor. He is clearly smarter than the average pimp. He’s also better looking and better dressed. Dre has a great patter about character, manliness, and integrity. One can almost forget he is a ruthless bottom-feeding sociopath. Later in the film we revisit him in jail. He has been arrested for pimping and sleeping with a sixteen-year-old.

I was rather hoping Dre would be sentenced to life, and maybe shanked in the joint. But it turns out that he did less than a year. He has put his first-class bullshitting skills to good use. He is now a “life coach” and a “community organizer” in Seattle, working to make it easier for black people to commit crimes.

Near the end of the movie, we meet a white pimp, Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlight Bunny Ranch and other legal Nevada brothels. Hof is clearly a major pervert, but he seems free of the black pimps’ Dark Triad traits. He is a businessman, not a parasite. The women who work for him do so for salaries. They are not manipulated and bullied into giving all their money to him. It is far more humane than the black system, but should a decent society allow even this sort of prostitution?

It is tempting for white people to view black pimps as pathological. But I think black pimps are authentic expressions of blackness. As outlaws, pimps reject white norms entirely. They can do what comes natural to them. Polygamy, the exploitation of women, and peacocking are all quite common in pre- and post-colonial Africa. So it makes sense that they would emerge spontaneously in black diaspora societies among subcultures that reject white norms.

I highly recommend American Pimp as an entertaining tour of the heart of darkness in America today. It definitely deserves a Blu-ray edition with improved picture and sound, as well as English subtitles.

• Category: Arts/Letters, Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Blacks, Movies, Prostitution 
🔊 Listen RSS

Storytelling (2001) is the most politically incorrect movie I have ever seen. Indeed, it is so un-PC that it could never have been made today.

Director Todd Solondz is a really sick guy. His films Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Palindromes, and Life During Wartime can justly be accused of fixating on bullying, rape, pedophilia, abortion, suicide, and murder. I find them utterly distasteful, and I cannot recommend them to anyone. But of course, these films have been hailed as courageous by critics, who delight in breaking down barriers to everything sordid and terrible in man.

But even our transgressive cultural elites have lines that cannot be crossed, which explains their comparative silence about Storytelling. For example, while Solondz’s other films are extensively summarized on Wikipedia, as of this writing, this is the full summary of Storytelling:

The film consists of two stories that are unrelated and have different actors, titled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction.” College and high school serve as the backdrop for these two stories about dysfunction and personal turmoil.


“Fiction,” starring Selma Blair, “Vi,” is about a group of college students in a creative writing class taught by a black professor (Robert Wisdom).


“Non-Fiction,” starring Paul Giamatti and John Goodman, is about the filming of a dysfunctional suburban New Jersey family as their teenage son (Mark Webber) goes through the college application process, and faces the trials and tribulations of late teenage years.


The original version of the film featured a third story entitled “Autobiography,” concerning, among other things, a closeted football player (James van der Beek). The main character has an explicit sex scene with a male partner (Steven Rosen); the entire story was cut from the final version.

Note that the paragraph about the part of the film that was cut is actually longer than the descriptions of the stories that made it into the final cut. Why the reticence? You’ll see.

I will comment on the entire plot of “Fiction,” the shorter of the two stories, and let you explore “Non-Fiction” on your own.

“Fiction” begins with two college kids, Vi (Selma Blair) and Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) in flagrante. Vi climaxes as she rides Marcus, then sinks to the bed. Marcus then clumsily tries to interest Vi in hearing his short story for tomorrow’s class.

There’s really something off about this guy. It turns out that Marcus has cerebral palsy. Sensing that Vi is tiring of their relationship, he observes that she no longer sweats during sex. “The kinkiness is gone. You’ve become . . . kind,” he says ruefully. Vi is turned on by sexual degradation, like fucking a “cripple,” a “freak.” But when she starts to feel for Marcus, she is less turned on. One wonders if he has seen this before.

The next day, Marcus reads his story in class. This is the ending:

But when he saw her, it was as if he could walk like a normal person. His legs didn’t swing, his arms didn’t spaz away. He wasn’t a freak any more, for she made him forget his affliction. No more cerebral palsy! From now on “CP” stood for cerebral person. He was a cerebral person.

It is truly excruciating, but since Marcus is a cripple, the students are kind. My favorite comment is: “It kind of reminded me a little of Faulkner, but East Coast and disabled.” To which other students chime in: “Or Flannery O’Connor. She had multiple sclerosis [sic; actually she had lupus].” “And Borges. He was blind.” Then, with perfect comic timing one of them adds, hopefully: “Updike had psoriasis.”

At this point Catherine (Aleksa Palladino)—the brunette, bespectacled, hook-nosed teacher’s pet—takes over: “I found the whole thing to be a little trite. Its earnestness is, well . . . it’s a little embarrassing.” There’s a lot wrong with Marcus’ story, but calling it out for earnestness is simply a cliché of decadent postmodern ironism. The worst thing about Marcus’ story is not that he is earnest, but rather that he isn’t earnest at all. He isn’t trying hard, because he prefers to coast on the politically correct deference he receives as a cripple.

Finally, the teacher speaks. Mr. Scott is a tall, imposing black man. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books like A Sunday Lynching. He is known for being “aggressively confrontational,” and he does not disappoint:

Catherine is right. The story’s a piece of shit. You express nothing but banalities and, formally speaking, are unable to construct a single compelling sentence. You ride on a wave of clichés so worn, in fact, it actually approaches a level of grotesquerie. And your subtitle, “the rawness of truth” is that supposed to be a joke of some sort? Or are you just being pretentious?

On the one hand, Mr. Scott’s un-PC frankness is refreshing. But his speech is actually quite PC. He goes well beyond frankness into sadism. A white professor would bever behave in such a way. White people have to be sensitive, especially to cripples. But Mr. Scott is a black man in academia. Thus he enjoys a bubble of PC deference that allows him . . . certain liberties.

After class, Marcus attacks Vi for not coming to his defense. His parting words are “You just want to fuck him, like Catherine and every other white cunt on campus.” That evening, Marcus calls Vi to break up. After she hangs up, she refers to him as a “fucking cripple” and goes out to a bar, looking to get laid.

At the bar, Vi runs into Mr. Scott. She is hilariously awkward. He’s a total asshole. Naturally, she finds him irresistible. “You have beautiful skin,” he says, then grabs her hand. They go to his apartment.

Vi goes to the bathroom to freshen up. There she finds an envelope of photographs. The first ones she sees are of Catherine, nude and tied up. Other women follow, perhaps some of the other girls in her class. Vi is shaken. To recover her composure, she repeats “Don’t be a racist. Don’t be a racist.” Her gut is telling her to flee, but her PC programming overrides it.

This is how countless white women fall victim to black predators.

When Vi emerges from the bathroom, Mr. Scott tells her to strip, turn to the wall, and bend over. He’s not one for foreplay. He just wants to rut, monkey-style. As he enters Vi, he commands her: “Say ‘Nigger fuck me.’” Vi is flustered. “Oh, bu . . . uh . . . I can’t say that.” Technically she can; she’s just not supposed to. He insists, and she complies, repeating “Nigger, fuck me hard! Nigger, fuck me hard.” Clearly, they are both getting into it. Cut to Marcus’ dorm room. Vi knocks on the door. She has been weeping. They hug, and Marcus notes that she’s all sweaty.

At the next session of the class, Vi reads her latest story. This is how it ends:

So John flipped her around and slammed her against the wall. Jane braced herself: she thought about her mother. She thought about Peter. She thought about God . . . and rape. “Say, ‘Fuck me, nigger. Fuck me hard.’” John’s flesh abraded her soft skin. There would be marks. She acquiesced and said what he asked her to say, and did what he asked her to do. She had entered college with hope, with dignity, but she would graduate as a whore.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Movies 
🔊 Listen RSS

Like most Westerners, I got to know Akira Kurosawa through his classic samurai films: Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, and Ran. Thus I was surprised to discover that fully half of his thirty films are actually set in contemporary Japan over the stretch of Kurosawa’s long lifetime (1910–1998). High and Low (1963) is one of the best of these films, along with Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Ikiru.

Many of Kurosawa’s most important Japanese films are actually based on stories by Western writers: Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Gogol chief among them. In the case of High and Low, however, the source is a hard-boiled American crime novel: King’s Ransom by Ed McBain (born Salvatore Lombino), who under the name Evan Hunter was also the screenwriter for Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The Japanese title of High and Low is Tengoku to Jigoku, which literally means “Heaven and Hell.” But High and Low is a good title, because the movie is constructed around the contrasts between a modernist mansion of Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) which stands alone on a high bluff overlooking Yokohama, and the crowded, chaotic city below.

There is also a contrast between high and low class, understood here as rich and poor. From the point of view of the poor people of Yokohama, however, it is easy to think of Gondo’s lofty mansion—isolated, spacious, starkly modern, and cooled by breezes—as heaven compared to the cramped, noisy, sweltering hell they inhabit. (Kurosawa loves to portray people sweating, fanning themselves, and huddling by electric fans. He must have hated hot weather.)

But these contrasts are not setting you up for a Marxist narrative about the virtuous poor and their wicked capitalist exploiters. Quite the opposite. High and Low is a portrait of a virtuous industrialist who is targeted for destruction by a nihilistic criminal who hails from the professional rather than the working class and is motivated not by need but by envy and pure malice.

Kingo Gondo is not a steel baron or oil tycoon. He is an executive at National Shoes, which makes women’s footwear. But it turns out there is a heroic and manly way to make women’s shoes. Gondo has worked his way up from being an apprentice shoemaker to being a shareholder and executive. He is hosting some of his fellow executives, who wish to enlist him in a corporate coup against the “old man” who founded the company and is stuck in a rut of making unfashionable “army boots.” Gondo’s colleagues wish to manufacture flashy shoes that are cheaply made. Gondo wants to make more fashionable products, but he feels that selling shoddy merchandise is dishonorable and eventually dresses down his colleagues, then tosses them out.

Gondo then explains to his assistant that he has been planning his own takeover of National Shoes, mortgaging himself to the hilt buying up chunks of stock. All he needs is to complete one last purchase. But before he can dispatch his assistant with a check for fifty million yen, he receives a phone call informing him that his son Jun has been kidnapped and demanding thirty million yen in ransom. (This is thirty times higher than the highest recorded ransom.) But when Jun walks into the room, Gondo concludes that the the call was a sick prank. It turns out, however, that the kidnappers have snatched Jun’s playmate, Shinichi, the son of Aoki, who is Gondo’s driver.

This creates a great moral dilemma. Gondo’s first reaction is that he will not pay. It is not his child, after all. Instead, he will complete the deal that he has staked everything on. Surely the kidnapper will be reasonable and let the poor child go. But no, if Gondo does not pay, the child will die. It is an agonizing choice. If he does pay, the child may still die, the money may never be recovered, and Gondo will almost surely be ruined. Eventually, though, Gondo is persuaded by his wife, his driver, and the police to pay the ransom. It is the compassionate thing to do.

At this point, the movie was nearly half over, and it suddenly dawned on me that the film had not yet left Gondo’s house. Most of it has been shot in his vast and sparsely-furnished living room. Thus far, High and Low has been, in effect, a filmed stage play. But Kurosawa is so virtuosic at creating dramatic tension and coaxing out compelling performances that the result is not static at all. High and Low is not just a well-crafted crime drama that was wildly popular with Japanese moviegoers. It is also an a vant garde cinematic experiment—in fact a whole series of them—a fact that most viewers are too enthralled to even notice. It really sneaks up on you.

The ransom sequence takes us from the spacious and static setting of the Gondo mansion to a cramped passenger car on a high-speed express train. Yes, the Japanese had them even in the early-1960s. It is an amazingly tense and dynamic action sequence.

The film then switches gears again into a quasi-documentary about the police’s attempts to find the kidnapper and recover Gondo’s money. At this point, some people might feel the movie drags, but I found the meticulous rationality of the detective work fascinating. From the police’s first appearance at Gondo’s house—disguised as delivery drivers in case the house is under surveillance by the kidnapper—they are impressive in their intelligence, sensitivity, camaraderie, and teamwork. It is a wonderful portrait of what is possible in a homogeneous, high-IQ, high-solidarity society—everything whites have lost by embracing diversity. The kidnapper is the police team’s stark antipode: also highly intelligent, but a solitary, sadistic sociopath.

In the last scenes of High and Low, as the police close in on their quarry, the film shifts style yet again into pure German Expressionist horror then to post-war Existentialism. It is Camus meets Caligari. It is truly a descent from heaven to hell.

The ending is happy but haunting. In this case, justice has triumphed, but at great cost. Evil and chaos will always threaten order and goodness. They will always need to be quelled by brave and rational guardians of public order.

High and Low is clearly an anti-Marxist film. Gondo is a self-made man, who rose to his position due to hard work. He was not born to wealth and privilege. His wife does come from a privileged background, and her dowry certainly helped matters, but he had to win her through hard work and character as well. (Her dowry gives her some clout in the deliberations about whether to pay the ransom.) Gondo puts the integrity of his products above the simple pursuit of profit. He is also willing to court financial ruin when he is convinced that paying the ransom is the right thing to do.

The kidnapper is not driven by want, but merely by resentment. His goal is not simply to take Gondo’s money but to humiliate and destroy him. It is clear that his malice is so deep and irrational that no social reform will ever banish it. In fact, the leftist rhetoric he spouts is simply a tool by which these monsters gain the power to murder millions.

This being a Kurosawa film, vestiges of Japan’s feudal traditions crop up throughout the story. Gondo’s driver Aoki acts like a cringing, servile feudal retainer. This makes Gondo angry. After all, this is modern Japan. Both men come from humble backgrounds. They simply have a business relationship. Why shouldn’t they be on terms of social equality?

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Akira Kurosawa, Japan, Movies 
🔊 Listen RSS

When I saw Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, I was convinced that David Lynch is an essentially conservative and religious filmmaker, with a populist and mystical bent. Arguing that thesis was an uphill battle as his work got increasingly dark in the nineties. Many people interpreted Lynch’s portrayals of quirky, salt-of-the-Earth white Americans as parody, his mysticism as arbitrary weirdness, and his depictions of evil and violence as inconsistent with having a conservative and religious moral center. (They’d probably argue the same thing about Flannery O’Connor as well—and just as wrongly.)

Then came 1999’s The Straight Story, which reprises all the wholesome, life-affirming, and sentimental elements of Lynch’s earlier works without the darkness, terror, and demonic evil. The Straight Story is so wholesome, in fact, that it was rated G and released by Disney.

The Straight Story is the story of Alvin Straight (1920–1996), a small-town Iowan who at the age of 73 decided to visit his stroke-stricken brother 240 miles away in Wisconsin. What makes Straight’s journey interesting is how he did it. Alvin didn’t have a driver’s license because his eyes are bad. So he put a hitch on his riding lawnmower, hooked up a small trailer full of fuel, food, and camping equipment, and set out for Wisconsin, driving five miles an hour along the side of roads and camping in the fields at night. All told, the journey took six weeks, including breakdowns and repairs. (Then a nephew drove Alvin and his lawnmower back home.)

The basic characters and outline of The Straight Story are based on fact, but many of the details strike me as pure Lynch. Lynch did not, however, write the screenplay, although it was co-authored by his longtime collaborator (and third wife) Mary Sweeney. Perhaps Lynch was attracted to the project because it was already sufficiently “Lynchian.”

The entire cast of The Straight Story is white, and they are Lynch’s trademark quirky, good-hearted, small-town Americans.

Alvin Straight is beautifully portrayed by Richard Farnsworth, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Alvin is a soft-spoken, gentle man who stubbornly tries to cling to his independence and dignity as old-age and illness strip them from him. Farnsworth lived his role. He was suffering from metastatic prostate cancer while filming and took his life the next year at the age of 80. He brings Alvin to life with warmth and gentle humor. He is particularly powerful when relating sad memories, such as his daughter Rose’s loss of her four children, and his terrible guilt about accidentally killing a member of his own unit during World War II. But to me the most touching scene is simply watching Alvin’s face as he silently overhears the bad news that his brother Lyle has had a stroke.

Sissy Spacek is wonderful as Alvin’s slightly “special” (perhaps autistic) daughter Rose. Everett McGill, of Dune and Twin Peaks fame, plays Tom, a John Deere salesman. Harry Dean Stanton (Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Inland Empire, Twin Peaks: The Return), has an almost wordless role as Alvin’s brother Lyle. The rest of the cast are local Midwesterners, and they are uniformly excellent.

As Alvin makes his journey, he dispenses bits of wisdom to the people he meets.

In one scene, he camps with a surly teenage runaway girl who slowly warms to him. Alvin intuits that she is running away because she is pregnant and urges her to return home. She can only think of the enmity of her family, but Alvin suggests there is strength in family as well, using a very concrete and primal metaphor: the fasces. An individual twig can be broken, but tie them together in a bundle, and they become strong. The next morning, the girl is gone. But she communicated her decision by leaving a bundle of sticks.

In another scene, Alvin and a fellow WWII veteran share painful memories of friends they lost. But the Germans are not dehumanized. In fact, Alvin mentions that at the end of the war, “We were shooting moon-faced boys.” The war is simply presented as a senseless waste of life, which it was.

The Straight Story is a warm and sentimental portrait of the American Midwest and its people. Lynch filmed it on location, on the actual route Alvin took. He also filmed every scene in the order in which it appears. In short, Lynch took Alvin’s journey. The Straight Story contains Lynch’s most beautiful nature photography. It is set during harvest time, with rippling fields of ripe grain, vivid sunsets, and autumn leaves, all suffused with gold.

Yet, despite its seeming straightforwardness, Lynch characterized The Straight Story as his “most experimental movie” thus far. To my eyes, it is an experiment in being naïve and spontaneous. One scene plays gently with movie conventions. We see Alvin driving his tractor down the road away from us, then the camera slowly pans up into the beautiful blue sky—then slowly back down to Alvin, who, of course, has only gone a few more feet. Whenever I saw it in a theater, this always provoked gales of good-natured laughter, because if this were any other movie, and Alvin were riding anything other than a lawnmower, he would be just a dot in the distance.

There are many Lynchian touches beyond the affectionate portrayals of quirky and sometimes grotesque Midwesterners. Lynch’s trademark depiction of technology as an ominous and dehumanizing force—using loud mechanical thrumming and screeches—is used to good effect with a grain elevator at night and also huge semi trucks looming over Alvin and his vulnerable, hobbit-scale technology.

When Alvin’s brakes give out and he comes hurtling down a hill, the sequence is viscerally real. Like Alvin, we feel out of control and jarred to our bones. Yet the backdrop of a burning building gives the scene an apocalyptic and surreal quality.

When Alvin sees a deer killed by a hysterical female motorist, he of course uses it to replenish his supplies, cooking it over a fire—while surrounded by a lawn statues of deer out in the middle of nowhere.

Lynch is a director who believes in the reality of the supernatural. There is only one scene that suggests such powers in The Straight Story, and it is masterfully handled. The real Alvin Straight’s tractor conked out just short of his brother’s house, and he was towed the rest of the way by a local farmer. In Lynch’s film, when Alvin’s tractor conks out, a man on a much bigger tractor pulls up. We see the whole thing from a distance, too far to clearly hear the dialogue. Lynch has used the same technique in two earlier scenes of the movie. We also get no closeup of the farmer’s face. He seems to simply suggest that Alvin try starting his tractor again, and lo, it works. The big tractor then pulls in front and leads Alvin to the driveway of his brother, pointing to the turn, then continues on with a wave goodbye. The big tractor/little tractor contrast, the uncanniness of the distance, and the lack of any explanation for why Alvin’s tractor started again all suggest a bit of well-deserved divine intervention, after a wonderful demonstration of American ingenuity, independence, and self-help.

Another outstanding feature of The Straight Story is longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti’s beautiful score, which is the best thing he has composed since his iconic music for Twin Peaks.


• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: David Lynch, Hollywood, Movies 
🔊 Listen RSS

These are notes for a lecture on Fight Club given on October 25, 2000 in an adult education course called “Philosophy on Film.” For a fuller interpretation of Fight Club, see Jef Costello’s “Fight Club as Holy Writ.”

What’s philosophical about Fight Club? Fight Club belongs alongside Network and Pulp Fiction in an End of History film festival, because it beautifully illustrates ideas about human nature, history, and culture from Hegel and Nietzsche—especially as read through the lenses of Alexandre Kojève and Georges Bataille.

Prehistoric society is relatively egalitarian and focuses on the cycles of nature and the necessities of life. Hegel held that linear history begins with men risking death in duels over honor, which spring from the demand that one’s sense of self be recognized by others.

The struggle over honor has winners and losers. Its outcome reveals two kinds of men. The master values honor above life. The slave values life above honor. In terms of Plato’s division of the human soul into reason, spiritedness (thumos), and desire, the master is ruled by spiritedness (which is intrinsically connected with honor) whereas the slave is ruled by desire.

The struggle over honor gives rise to class structures and class struggles. The ruling class enjoys leisure, which gives rise to the whole realm of high culture, which is driven by the quest for self-knowledge.

The truth about man, though, is somewhat anticlimactic. Mankind has created art, religion, and philosophy, and endured untold suffering in uncounted wars and revolutions, only to discover that . . . we are all free and equal, which is basically how we lived before history.

When we learn the truth about ourselves, history and culture are no longer necessary. When we are all free to pursue our own aims, history and culture will be displaced by mere consumption, the satisfaction of desire, which in a sense is a return to prehistory. Thus the end of history in Hegel’s sense brings about the rise of Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” who believes that there is nothing higher than himself and his petty pleasures.

The protagonist of Fight Club, played by Edward Norton, is a man with no name. (He is called Jack in the script, but Jack is a name he adopts from a series of pamphlets about diseases.) He is Everyman. He is the Last Man. He works at a sociopathic corporation. He lives in a condo. He has no apparent religious convictions or cultural interests. He buys clothes and furniture, always with the question, “What does this say about me as a person?” He is single and appears to be celibate. He’s free, equal, and has plenty of money to buy stuff. But he feels empty inside. He can’t sleep at night, and you know how crazy that can make you.

Everyman seeks out meaning by attending support group meetings under fake names and false pretenses. He doesn’t seem to have much truck with the forms of spirituality these peddle, but he does find opportunities for genuine emotional catharsis, which help him sleep at night. Unfortunately, another faker has the same idea: Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). Her presence causes our hero to freeze up.

Marla’s intrusions drive Everyman to take refuge in an all-male support group. This is significant. History begins not just with isolated men battling for honor, but with bonded male groups, Männerbünde, fighting over honor.

Unfortunately, this particular group is called Remaining Men Together. It’s for testicular cancer survivors. Emasculated men hugging each other and crying will not restart history. In fact, the group is pretty much a microcosm for everything wrong with the modern world, which would prefer that all men be emasculated, weepy huggers. But it does point to the next step Everyman needs to take.

On one of his business trips, Everyman meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt in his most charismatic role). Everyman is a prisoner of the modern world, but he feels above it. He is like a cow shuffling down a chute in a slaughterhouse who feels he is the master of the situation because he keeps up a constant stream of ironic smart-assery. Tyler is genuinely free of the producer-consumer system: He buys his clothes from thrift stores (at best), squats in an abandoned building, and has his own business (he manufactures and sells soap).

Everyman, however, is a Consumer in the hands of an Angry Author. And the Author dictates that Everyman be stripped of all his worldly possessions, because “The things you own, they end up owning you.” Then he must be delivered to Tyler Durden, for a new beginning. First, Everyman learns that his luggage has been seized and destroyed because it vibrated. Then, he returns home to find that his condo has been incinerated. He needs a place to stay. Fortunately, he has Tyler’s number.

Cut to Lou’s Bar, where Everyman and Tyler are drinking and bonding. At the end of the evening, Tyler asks Everyman to hit him. It is a rather shocking suggestion. Neither man has ever been in a fight. Neither man has been tested. Neither man knows how far he would go to win. Would he risk life itself for victory? If so, he is what Hegel called a master. If he is willing to accept dishonor to avoid death, he is a slave. Of course at this point, neither man is willing to risk death. Until now, they haven’t even been willing to risk a bloody nose.

After they fight, Tyler and Everyman enjoy a kind of post-coital bliss, then retire to Tyler’s place: a crumbling mansion where he squats. It is as if fighting is an initiation into a new world where bourgeois values of comfort and security no longer matter.

Tyler and Everyman have their fights in front of other men, who naturally want to join in. That’s how Fight Club is formed. Fight Club is a Männerbund. It is structured as a secret, initiatic society. It produces a change of consciousness. “Who you were in Fight Club is not who you were in the rest of your world. You weren’t alive anywhere like you were alive at Fight Club. But Fight Club only exists in the hours between when Fight Club starts and when Fight Club ends.”

Fight Club also transforms values. “After a night in Fight Club, everything else in your life gets the volume turned down. You can deal with anything. All the people who used to have power over you have less and less.” Fight Club breaks the hold that bourgeois society has on us, which springs from a willingness to endure routine forms of dishonor and degradation in exchange for comfort and security.

Not every initiation in Fight Club involves combat, but all of them involve risking death. For instance, one rainy night, Tyler lets go of the wheel of a stolen car, crashing it. When he and the rest of his party crawl out of the wreckage, he whoops, “We just had a near-life experience.” One cannot really live until one puts aside the fear of death and the desire for comfort, security, and control that are at the foundation of bourgeois society.

As Tyler puts it, “Self-improvement is masturbation. Self-destruction is the answer.” The self that must be destroyed is the bourgeois self, the rational producer-consumer. That self must be destroyed so that a higher self may be born, which is, of course, self-improvement in a deeper sense.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies 
🔊 Listen RSS

Twelve Monkeys (1995) is Terry Gilliam’s last great movie. It is a masterful work of dystopian science fiction, with a highly imaginative plot, a tight and literate script, fantastic steampunkish sets and props, and compelling performances from Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeline Stowe. Gilliam is usually far too ironic and self-conscious to deliver emotionally satisfying work. But in Twelve Monkeys, we see stylistic elements and themes from earlier Gilliam films—Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King—applied to much darker material with such virtuosity that it no longer seems labored and calculated. Nor does it smother real feeling.

I’d like you to watch this film, so no major spoilers. Most of what I will say can be inferred from the trailer. In the back story of Twelve Monkeys, practically the whole human race was wiped out by a virus in 1997. The survivors live underground, in totalitarian lockdown, under a Permanent Emergency Code, ruled by a politburo of scientists, a whole committee of Dr. Strangeloves.


In 2035, the scientists somehow invent a way to travel back in time. They wish to send someone to the past, just before the outbreak of the plague, in order to . . . No, they don’t want to prevent it. If the plague never happened, none of them would be ruling over the pitiful remnants of the human race. Instead, they simply want a pure sample of the virus, before it mutated. Their motives are never made clear. Is it for pure research? Would an earlier strain of the virus allow them to create a cure?

Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner, who has been pressured into “volunteering” to be sent back in time. But the equipment is a little tricky, so he first ends up in Philadelphia in 1990—six years too early—where he is arrested and confined to a mental institution, because that’s what one does with people who claim to have come from the future to prevent the human race from dying in a pandemic.

Cole meets a sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), and a mental patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who is a radical environmentalist and animal rights advocate. Cole tries to escape to complete his mission, but he is captured and locked in a cell, from which he mysteriously disappears. Apparently, the scientists have put implants in his molars that allow them to pull him back into the future, where he is debriefed and then returned to the past, first ending up in the trenches of WWI, where he is shot in the leg, then finally ending up in 1996.

Six years after her encounter with Cole, Dr. Railly has published a book on the “Cassandra complex”: people like Cole who warn society of impending disasters but are not heeded. After Railly gives a lecture on her book and signs copies, Cole kidnaps her. He needs her help. He now believes that the virus will be released by Jeffrey Goines and a radical environmentalist group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. Cole is afraid that during their time in the mental hospital, he actually gave Goines the idea of wiping out the human race with a plague. (If you are going to construct stories around time travel, you might as well milk it for every paradox.)

Railly, of course, is terrified. But she does not go to pieces. She’s a doctor. She tries to understand Cole and convince him to let her go as he drags her through his quest for the origin of the virus. Philadelphia in 1996 turns out to be almost as dystopian as Philadelphia in 2035. After some harrowing misadventures, with Railly, Cole is pulled back into the future.

When the two are apart, a delightful role reversal takes place. Railly comes to believe Cole is not a madman. He really is from the future. Cole, however, comes to think that he’s actually mad. He does hear a mysterious voice that is never explained. The scientists also, frankly, act a bit crazy. And really, doesn’t the whole story sound a bit insane?

When Cole is returned to the past, he seeks out Railly because he wants her to cure him, only to discover that she has taken up his mission with the manic intensity of a true believer. You laugh when you see it, but the real delight comes in retrospect, when you see that it was completely inevitable.

After Cole and Railly get back on the same page, they go after the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, only to find . . . Well, I’m not going to say any more about the plot, save that there are many more twists and turns for you to enjoy.

Twelve Monkeys isn’t a “deep” film. It doesn’t invite us to ponder philosophical or theological issues. It doesn’t seem to be an allegory for anything else. It doesn’t need to be. The world it creates and the story it tells are highly satisfying in themselves: by turns surreal, terrifying, funny, and moving.

The lead performances are remarkable. Bruce Willis is compelling as a man who is heroic despite all his doubts, fears, and failings. Brad Pitt is charismatic and hilarious as Jeffrey Goines. But Madeline Stowe steals the film. She is not only beautiful, but she is highly intelligent, so she is completely convincing as a psychiatrist.

Twelve Monkeys is not just intellectually stimulating and emotionally compelling, it is also visually striking from start to finish, with imaginative sets, beautifully constructed shots, and a gauzy glamor that bring to mind Hitchcock. (One of the settings is a Hitchcock film festival.)

Twelve Monkeys is set within a materialistic, scifi universe, but what you see is almost never what you get, because madness and false memories can systematically estrange us from reality. Gilliam methodically mirrors events in the “real world” with movies, television shows, and commercials, placing us all in the world experienced by madmen, who see portents, intelligible patterns, and hidden intentions where sane people see only chaos and coincidence.

Twelve Monkeys is also mercifully free of political correctness. (Particularly when Cole calls a wrong number in 1990.)

In fact, I can’t think of a single false note in the entire film, not even the music. Given this film’s cinematic forebearers and touchstones, I was not expecting Paul Buckmaster’s score, which riffs off Astor Piazzolia’s Argentine tango music. But it works.

Even though Twelve Monkeys was released in 1995, it seems quite topical in the age of Corona Chan. So if you are looking for some more lockdown viewing, I highly recommend it. It is a depressing vision of the future, but it will make you feel lucky. James Cole had a lot more to complain about than we do, and he bore it far more admirably.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Coronavirus, Hollywood, Movies, Science Fiction 
🔊 Listen RSS

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.

🔊 Listen RSS

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 
🔊 Listen RSS

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.


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 
🔊 Listen RSS

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 
The unspoken statistical reality of urban crime over the last quarter century.
Our Reigning Political Puppets, Dancing to Invisible Strings