God and the Gun: The Orlando Massacre


Praise the Lord, Pass The Ammo

The Orlando Massacre

The loathsomely self-satisfied grin on the face of Omar Mateen will haunt me not because it is the face of a demon: it will haunt me because it is the face of an arrogant frat-boy, at once contemptuous and insecure. A lonely little man taking selfies in a room by himself, justifying his hatred by associating it with religion, and carrying it out with the psychotic’s perfect tool: the AR-15.

I first learned about the AR-15 in a brilliant and chilling Harper’s article by Dan Baum in June of 2013 (http://harpers.org/archive/2013/06/how-to-make-your-own-ar-15/). You don’t have to register any part of this kind of gun except the trigger mechanism. The rest of the weapon can be customized by adding any number of accessories. Such accessories might include an extra-large ammunition magazine, ideally suited for situations where a “high-kill rate” is the desired outcome. And such accessories can be added like accessories on a child’s toy, easily acquired without the need of permits or any other such inconvenience.

In the fight over the legality of the AR-15, its defender was of course the gun-lobby, and its front organization the NRA. Every shred of evidence on the public record (multiple mass shootings) is that this weapon is exactly the kind of tool of murder that should NOT be freely distributed, and yet the gunaholics on the American Right have only one right stuck on their brain.

Meanwhile, the gay community in Orlando is the subject of this grotesque and horrifying attack, enabled by a false interpretation of the Second Amendment, and abetted by a radical version of Islam. Having allowed the “radical” caveat, it’s worth restating that the text of Islam, like that every major religion in the West, abominates homosexuality. It’s time for all of us to recognize and condemn the awful hypocritical contradiction at the heart of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic faiths: you cannot speak of your religion as being about love, tolerance, and charity without acknowledging that is also about hate, intolerance, and closed-mindedness. It’s time for our culture to grow up.

I was in Orlando for the Fringe Festival short days ago. My host there was an incredibly generous gay man who opened his house and his resources to a gang of Canadian guys (all of us straight, by the way). That he has lost friends and colleagues in the shooting is inevitable, and I mourn for him. Bless that man. Bless his sane Liberal views, his frank declaration of his freedom to define his sexuality as it was. Bless his rejection of the hidebound conservative version of the religious faith he was born into.

Let us be like that man. Let us grow up. Time to condemn the hypocrisy of the gun lobby, which allows a known abuser of women, a man the FBI talked to twice, to walk into one of the ubiquitous gun shops in Florida (it’s easier to find a gun shop in Orlando than an ice-cream stand), and purchase a weapon more suited for the battlefield than any form of “protection.”

As a Western Canadian of a certain era, I grew up with a pretty wide array of rifles and shotguns in the house. They were tools of survival for my father’s and grandfather’s generations.  None of those weapons has been fired in decades, and none of us is an iota the worse for it.   The two weapons used by the Orlando murderer (he carried a handgun as well as an automatic AR-15) have only one function: to kill human beings. Grow up, NRA, you’re enabling no one but the psychos.

Film Essay: Francofonia


by Aleksandr Sukarov

Francofonia Poster (1)

Aleksandr Sukarov uses cameras like a very smart kid playing with high-level toys. From the early scenes of the film, one of which features a great drone-shot of Paris, lifting us from street level to high above the city, the filmmaker is at play with our perceptions.

The film is about the preservation of culture: who are the heroes, who the villains, how it is accomplished, what the value of big-C culture is to a nation, or a civilization. Sukarov asks the questions in a variety of filmic techniques, and from as many angles as he can think of, tastefully restraining himself from stating the obvious, teasing us with conundrums that remain unanswerable. The film is partly a love-poem to the Louvre, which we see though several eras of its history, from many surprising angles. Our guide through the great museum is often Napoleon himself, a kind of grand guinole of a character, pointing at himself posed in a number of paintings and bragging, “that’s me!” (A claim that he even makes, in one of the film’s best jokes, about a famous picture that is distinctly NOT him.)

Napoleon also brags that many of the great monuments in the museum are there because of him, which gets at the heart of the film’s great themes: Is the piracy committed in an act of conquest a valid way to acquire works of art, even with the best curatorial motives? What is the relationship between Art and Power?

The film’s primary narrative focuses on the German occupation of Paris in 1940, when the Count Franz Wolff-Metternich became the Nazis’ chief curator and administrator of French art objects. The Occupation period is brought to life by brilliantly-chosen archival cinema footage melded with dramatic footage in which Sukarov dares to speculate on the relationship between the Duke and Jacques Jaujard, the wartime Director of the Louvre. The uneasy entente between these men is presented in two beautifully subtle performances by Benjamin Utzerath and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing.  Indeed, by the last reel, the German occupier becomes a quite sympathetic character, and his relationship with his French counterpart a small ray of sunlight in a very grey landscape.

By contrast, Sukarov invites us to consider the barbarity of Operation Barbarossa, showing us documentary images of embattled Stalingrad and Petersburg. People slog through the snow, dragging corpses past destroyed buildings whose architecture was no less beautiful than the Parisian edifices that the Nazis restrained themselves from destroying. If they were careful NOT to wreck the Louvre, they made a point of lobbing shells into the Hermitage. As a Russian, Sukarov cannot restrain himself from commenting on the distinction, but the point is not overstated. Indeed, Soviet suffering during the winters of 1942-43 could hardly be overstated.

Perhaps the most wonderful images of the monumental Paris museum come from a surprising source: paintings from the museum collection which depict the museum itself. These paintings come from a variety of periods of the Louvre’s long history, and give us a very vivid image of lives lived there: people visiting, conversing, flirting, admiring works of art, and perhaps most delightfully, painting. As the director points out in voiceover, there are a lot of paintings of women painting that are part of the collection, and Sukarov brings us close enough to these ghostly people, framing and lighting them so perfectly that we can feel their loving concentration.

At one point in this film, a gloved man stands next to one of the glass-encased mummies in the collection, and taps the glass with a finger. In the shots of the mummified figure that follow, you are very much expecting the mummy to come to life. If it does, what will it say? What message from the grave will it bring?

This is a question that rings through this film: what do we learn from the artifacts of culture lovingly preserved in such places as the Louvre? The answer seems clear: we learn what it is to be human. And Sukarov’s playful, passionate film tells us that this is exactly why the existence of such thing as an Empire can only be justified by its respect for such inquiry.

The Kennedy Space Center(re)

Florida, May 24.

The Atlantis

The 24th of May

Is the Queen’s Birthday

If you don’t give us a holiday

We’ll all run away


I grew up with my grandmother reciting that once a year. It’s the Queen’s Birthday, up in my homeland. Not that anyone for a thousand miles around here would know or care. (Nor should they.)   So I feel not only foreign, but somewhat old, knowing that rhyme.


Yesterday’s travels took me to the East Coast of the state, about an hour’s drive from Orlando. I was itching for a swim in the ocean. I was diverted, however, by the sign that read “Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center… 10 miles.” I had no idea I was so close, so I thought, “well, I ain’t gonna be coming this way again soon,” and made the turn.


There are several unexpected things I want to report about the KSC. The first is that the imagery is indeed iconic. For about a mile before you arrive, driving along the causeway approaching the site, you can see the two-rockets-tied-to-a-massive-fuel-tank configuration onto which they strapped the Space Shuttle. There’s a kind of mental “holy crap, that’s THAT THING” which is symbolic of so much technical achievement, so much aspiration. You turn into the Center (I’m using the American spelling on purpose), and get the shock of ten dollar parking and a fifty-dollar admission fee, suppress the desire to run away, and, passing a food truck that seems oddly out of place, enter the somewhat Disney-style gates. Which is the second surprise: how commercial the place is.  Clearly this is part of the money-collecting wing of NASA.


I stroll into the Rocket Park. The next surprise is the small scale of the early rockets that are represented here. One has the idea that the launch vehicles for lower earth orbit are larger than these, some of which are on quite a human scale. The mock-up of John Glenn’s capsule, into which you are welcome to squeeze yourself, reminds you how primitive were the first manned space flights: having the Right Stuff was partly about fitting into a very tight space.


I boarded the bus that takes you out to the launch site. You pass the Crawler, the monstrous flat vehicle that transports rockets to the launch at a speed 2/10ths of an MPH, and is capable of loads of several million pounds. En route (pronounced “uhn raoute” here), the driver points out that, of the 22 square miles that make up the NASA site, most is kept as a wildlife sanctuary. We are encouraged to look for alligators in the wetlands, and the largest bald eagle nest is pointed out.


The circle drive around the launch site (getting out of the bus is quite out of the question) is fascinating partly because of the familiarity of the image, and partly haunting because it has the something of the feel of an abandoned heavy-industry yard. I had kind of expected to be wowed by very shiny, high-tech stuff. The buildings, the general state of industrial rust, remind me more of the familiar heavy-industry yards of my home town of Edmonton, that servant of the Northern oil industry.


Some shiny high-tech stuff is to follow, in the first Visitor Center, a celebration of the Apollo Program. I am very susceptible to the nostalgia associated with the first moon landings. I was fifteen, sitting beside my 19th Century-vintage grandfather as we watched  Neil Armstrong set foot on Tranquility Base in 1969, and being able to stand under the massive Saturn rocket brilliantly displayed in all its proud strength is truly mind-bending. Equally mind-bending are the displays of everyday artifacts of space travel. The flight log from (I believe) Apollo 11 sits open. It might be a pilot’s log from a commercial airline flight. Various spacesuits are displayed, and you can only shake your head at what looks like technology very little removed from what my uncle would have worn as a Lancaster pilot in 1943 (as indeed, historically speaking, it was). Which is not to say that the scale of human inventiveness on display is not impressive. The very made-for-the-purpose feeling of it is part of what’s most impressive. Yankee ingenuity, indeed. And if you can look at a rock brought back from the moon, that mysterious chunk of ex-earth a quarter of a million miles away, without being gob-smacked, well, you simply have no imagination at all.


When you re-board a bus from the Apollo display center, you are taken back to the main area where you can tour the various displays around the space shuttle Atlantis. I loved seeing the actual space shuttle and the artifacts that were associated with it, but I have to say I was surprised by the absence of hard science. Rather than celebrating the acquisition of knowledge, the Visitor’s Center is celebrating the romanticism of NASA’s accomplishment. Heroic space music, the kind you might associate with superhero movies, is played everywhere. There is a Disneyesque “experience” (the word “ride” is frowned upon, evidently) you can have, in which some forty people are seating in a “pod”, strapped in, and given a shakeup designed to give an idea of what taking off in Atlantis might have been like. I can assure you, even with my very elementary aviation experience, that the experience of taking off in Atlantis must have been a thousand times more exhilarating, especially with the loss of Challenger and its crew in 1986.


Most delightful was the chance to stand within a few feet of the Atlantis herself. The heat-shielding ceramic tiles which cover her give her a somewhat rough-edged feel. And looking into her open cargo-hold at the two cranes clearly marked with the familiar flag and government-sanctioned “Canada” logo gave me a surprising jolt of national pride. I have always thought that celebrating having contributed a couple of “Canadarms” to the space program was too modest an accomplishment to make a big deal of. But there I stood, feeling quite nationalistically smug that, amongst all this American pride, the maple leaf was on prominent display.


NASA’s accomplishments are justly celebrated on Cape Canaveral. I’m glad I saw the place. NASA is one of those massively government-funded projects which, along with the Hoover Dam, the Berlin Airlift, or the New Deal, make Americans most understandably proud. Ironically, it is the kind of government-led, centrally-planned activity that the right wing of U.S. politics seems to decry. And yet, amongst things to wave a flag about, this fifty-year accomplishment is truly one of them.

Ken at NASA2

What I came South for

Orlando,  Saturday, May 21.


When I called my pal Sean when I got across the border, I told him I couldn’t wait to simply sit and talk to Americans. One of the great pleasures in being here is to get a chance to feel the pulse of these (in the real sense) republicans.


Yesterday was a good day. Jon and I were determined to have a clean second run at the show (after some rocky patches, particularly on the tech level, on our opening). We wanted to give the Orlando audience a real version of The Paladin, and we arrived in plenty of time at the theatre, feeling ready and confident. Playing for a small but attentive crowd, Jon gave a fine performance.


After the show, I went into the park where the Orlando Fringe is centred.  It’s a beautiful public space, fronting the Orlando Science Centre, two major galleries, and adjacent to the Orlando Shakespeare Center that hosts multiple Fringe venues. There is a festival tent set up in the middle of the park as a music venue: last night I listened to two of the local hip-hop heroes who were backed up by a competent rhythm section and a very nimble jazz flautist. This afternoon, the venue was given over to female singer-songwriters doing a song-circle, playing for donations to a local charity that distributes food to children (when one parses this, it sounds pretty disturbing—Orlando is not the barefoot South).


I drove (one drives everywhere in this town) to the music store where I had purchased a lot of expensive cable for the show, in case of need. I was relieved that the store gave me no grief about returning the 150 bucks (US) worth of guitar and speaker cable.   I also bought a very sweet little parlour guitar for a hundred bucks from their “scratch and dent” rack. I’m looking forward to a long relationship. On the way back to the freeway which connects all Orlando communities, I noticed the Bodacious Barbecue hut, which turned out to be a real little cultural gem. The little stop is a modest little take-out/eat in with ten picnic tables in the (mandatorily) air-conditioned interior, and a few on the deck. The nice girls took my order for a pulled pork sandwich (excellent), and as I waited, sipping my complimentary Pepsi, the large group who had ordered just before me said grace as their orders rolled out. As far as I could make out, they were some kind of expedition from a church group. You know you’re in the USA when a mixed group of extended families have a prayer session before eating fast food. I was glad to note, as I am to report, that this group was a mixed-race gang, and the kids ate, hugged, wrestled, and (a lovely moment) shucked the corn-cob, which was offered them by the proprietors, together. I haven’t seen a lot of racial mixing here in Florida, and it was a pleasure to watch the five year-old black kid roughhousing with one of the white adults. Hope comes in small quantities, and is worth celebrating.


Later that evening I repaired to the local quasi-English pub, where they have Newcastle ale on tap, and I can reliably convince the barmaids to tune one of the TVs to the NHL playoffs so I can get my fix of ice-sport. (St. Louis was crushing the Sharks.) A guy beside me was ordering Jack Daniels with the remark that “I hear this is one of the places to be in Orlando.” I ventured that I was glad to have found it in that case, as I was a visiting Canadian. He explained that he was from New York, and as the Montreal soccer team was taking on the local Orlando team (cheered on by the supposedly Anglophilic Orlando soccer fans), I explained that I was very fond of Montreal, as an example of another world-class city.


This got us to talking about his job as a traveling baseball scout for the New York Mets, and before long, he had revealed to me that in his youth he had been a major-league pitcher (“not a very good one,” he said modestly) with the Brewers and the Mariners. I expressed my admiration and he introduced himself as John Updike. I couldn’t help but comment on the fact that his namesake was a much-celebrated fiction writer. He grinned and said, “my mother liked books.”


John was a pleasant interlocutor. I loved what he said about his job scouting for the Mets. He expressed his longing for the kids that he interviewed to be able accept that they COULD succeed as long as they committed themselves to the discipline of their craft. I told him it was the same in theatre, another discipline that attracts young people who want to be stars. In his case, he described the frequent encounters with parents who expect a contract for their precious young star athletes before those gifted young people have proven their necessary sacrifice to discipline. He endeared himself to me very deeply by praising young Canadian prospects, many of whom he has dealt with, and who, if they have a background in the tough sport of hockey (so he claimed), already have the strength of character that professional baseball requires.


It was a fascinating chat, because as John pointed out, he deals with a talent pool whose elite stand to make scores of millions of dollars. This doesn’t stop many young men wasting their talent because no one has convinced them of the old adage: success is ten per cent inspiration… and ninety per cent perspiration. I saw this truism proven out so many times in Theatre Arts, MacEwan, that it has for me the strength of Natural Law.


I’m happy to have made this acquaintance; it tickles me to now have an open invitation to a Mets game. Maybe I’ll get a chance to cash that in some day.


Now, to pour a little perspiration onto my lovely little new guitar…

From Florida

Orlando impressions: Good Folks


First, everyone drives everywhere. Rather like suburbs anywhere on earth, the only way people can realistically get around and do their daily tasks is to drive. From my billet to the Orlando Fringe is a fifteen-minute haul down the I-4 freeway, which like every freeway in the States that I’ve been on so far, is under never-ending construction. Reminds me of Edmonton, that way…


Floridians are, from this Canuck’s perspective, almost obsessively polite and engaging. It’s literally hard to buy a coffee without someone asking, “Well, haow arh yoo, honey?” or “Cain Ah help yoo, darlin?” When you’re handed a sandwich at the deli counter, the lady might fix you in an affectionate gaze and say, “yoo have yoursailf an absolutely wunnderful daiy!” And she makes a point of meaning it.


I think this habit of social engagement is drilled into Southerners, not only by the business principle that the customer who feels good will return, but by some cultural imperative learned in churches and schools. This morning, out for a walk to get a coffee and sit somewhere where I might write these words, I passed a gentleman, roughly my own age, grey-white like me. I said “good morning.” He responded, “Good Morning, Sir.” Perhaps in a society as militarized as this one (and it is unmistakably military), people get accustomed to chains of command.


Americans are more social animals than Canadians. They have less space around themselves, and they create less distance around themselves, than we do. Most Canucks expect to be left alone until there is a need to communicate, whereas most Americans will open a conversation, assume that you want to hear their story, or take it upon themselves to begin an encounter. I’ve heard strangers say surprising things to one another, explaining to strangers why they were late, or how they feel about their dogs or their life, in a way that only very eccentric Canadians do. A Vancouverite would look at you rather blankly if you encountered them on a walk and began to explain why you were limping, or how you felt about your job or your niece or your pet.


American grammar is an adventure. I went to buy thread at the Target store the other day. When I gave up searching and asked a cashier, she actually didn’t understand the word “thread” at first. (No doubt her mother would have, but who sews in a world where you throw everything away?) She referred the question to another woman, who advised me to “go down at the end, you see where the housewares is? Down the end from there.” The thread was indeed in the general locale of where the housewares was, but nowhere near the end of anything, not even an aisle. I heard a radio DJ confess, “I’m “confused in that.” Of course, everything is always “at” somewhere, as in “I don’t know where it’s at.”


I’m not being a grammar nazi making these remarks, I’m just taking note that there was clearly never a Miss Corcoran (that frightening face of my fifth grade), drumming the blackboard or a desktop with her pointer on behalf of the sacred laws of English grammar, in the average American’s life.

Americans work hard. They don’t distain lower-wage jobs the way, for example, Albertans did during the oil boom, but engage with them fully, and work hard at them. It’s an endearing quality. Broom-leaning isn’t a common American pastime. Perhaps the last fifteen years of relative economic hardship are responsible for this ethos, but I think it’s also cultural. I walked by the local Roman Catholic church today, located, along with the service agency it runs, in a large park. The gardener, who keeps the place looking beautifully manicured, raced by in his golf cart, a small stars-and-stripes flying from the rear, on his way to make something neater.


I tried to sift though the AM radio dials on my drive South. The bandwidth is largely taken up by the Christian Right, who preach against sin, not shy to preach against sinners as well, and the subtext and surtext of talk radio in the South is certainly how liberals are leading the USA adrift from its natural place in the order of things. I’ve seen one Trump bumper sticker reading “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” which was not at all surprising, except that the bumper was shared by a University of Florida sticker. I saw a t-shirt yesterday that read “HERE IS MY GUN PERMIT: The Third Amendment states….” The conflation embodies everything that distresses me about such people. Point out to this guy that “the right to bear arms” is not in the least incompatible with acquiring a permit to do so, and he would no doubt start yelling at you or, more to the point, might exercise his right to bear arms.


All in all, however, my trip to the USA is a pleasure. I feel like a foreigner here, and I am. The fact that Americans look a lot like me, and speak (more or less) the same language makes travel here more convenient than many places I have been in the past two years. I have a fellow-feeling for these bluff and engaging people. They are not shy, they engage each other, they believe in their society and they want to make it function. That impulse to cynicism (or at very least to irony) which is a Canadian’s birthright seems not to be shared by our cousins to the South. I would never consider changing the maple leaf, nor yet the fleur-de-lis or even the Red Ensign, for their battle-scarred flag (and yes, the Rebel flag is seen in places in the South as well), but they are by and large, very nice people. Their only weakness is their capacity to believe, like the muscle-bound guy forever pumping iron in his basement, that they’re not strong enough.


I am not a praying man, but if I were, I would pray that Donald Trump doesn’t win next November, because the world will be subject to Four More Years of American belligerence and exceptionalism. The people I’ve been pleasantly chatting with over the last while don’t need that any more than do the Mexican workers who do the lower-paying jobs in much of the nation, or the Persians who just want into the States so as not to be shot at. They’re good folks, too.

ECONOMIES: a poem after visiting the Royal BC Museum

ECONOMIES (after a day at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria)


We made five shillings a month

Ordinary seaman, bosun did better

And when we seen them natives and their canoes

We thought, how’d they get the time to carve all that cedar

That takes time you know and naught to eat but dried fish

And some kind o’ berries the squaws went out to get.

They was dancing on the bows of them canoes

Wearing great masks of grizzly, raven

Dancing on the bows like birds and bears

That had drunk a lot of grog.  We thought the world of their

Balance, although their seamanship warnt no better than ourn.


I gave a man a needle I had spare

He poked it right through his nose

And grunted, satisfied.  His squaw

Gestured give it here, and pointed at the hole in the needle

I took some thread and poked it through,

She laughed like it was magic

And then they disappeared.  Next day

The man came back, handed me

A sea otter pelt, so I gave him a tuppence

He bit into it, broke a tooth, and left, satisfied.


Three months later, we dropped anchor in Shanghai.

I took that hide ashore and a merchant in bright silk gowns

Took one feel of it and gave me twenty pound and some silk

Ribbon for my hat.


Next time we dropped anchor in Nootka Sound,

(two years it was, and a lot of salt water under the keel)

A sea otter pelt was only to be had

For a firearm or a good metal blade

But there was hardly a sea otter to be found.

Hunger in The Games

The Hunger that Arises from Watching The Games

I am somewhat shy to report that I could not resist the last installment of The Hunger Games, a series of films that showed real promise in the second chapter. That film’s premise, like the first, included a really good idea at its core. It is an idea whose literary original has been mined from sources as varied as Ben Hur, Gladiator, and the Japanese film Battle Royale, but that doesn’t make it less worthy.

Like the other adolescent fantasy films that flood the cinaplex marketplace (all of the films, for example, of Michael Bay), the world in which the Hunger Games are played is not the real world, so the films can have a high-stakes look of things taking place in reality while trampling on anything resembling real politics, sociology, gender issues, race issues, or (let us not forget) physics. People who don’t “do” history can look at the trumped-up cinematic fascism of The Hunger Games films and feel like they’re paying their dues to their inconveniently nerdy Social Studies 20 teacher (herself uninterested in the real study of history).

I nevertheless really enjoyed the trip that the second film (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) took me on. I grinned, delighted, at the visual conception of the decadence of The Capitol, with its gaudy Fox-News-On-Steroids-Meets-American-Idol sensibility. Stanley Tucci’s big bright teeth were by themselves a reason to love this movie. And Jennifer Lawrence sells Katniss Everdeen’s moral burn as well as anyone could possibly do. All of the movies have a gratifyingly proactive girl-power message about a girl who is more powerful than Sly Stallone, but without the mean male psychotic killer thing. When Katniss draws her bow, we feel her pain. Sure, things go kerpow and splat, but she didn’t really mean it. But I digress.

I liked the second film for its quite amazing mis-en-scene; the scene where Katniss is interviewed in her bleak District 12 landscape, for example, and shows up on the glittering screens of The Capitol looking like she’s on the set of America’s Got Talent.   It is a striking and important statement about the propaganda power of media; it’s not a new thought, but I’ll bet it was new to many of the young people in the audience.

The narrative confinement of the forced-duel-to-the-death plotline is important in the first two films; it gives them shape, and keeps us from asking the difficult questions, like where do contestants in the Games, or the people of Panem, for that matter, go to the bathroom? Or, what economic model does Panem run on? If the country is a Dictatorship, how does Donald Sutherland make his money? Rome was, after all, not built in a day, it was built on military conquest and permanent tribute (that’s why they needed the legions in Gaul). Panem seems to run on pure unfairness.

But why bring up Political Economy when you’re chewing popcorn, right? Oh, I know why! Because the films seem to have a kind of realpolitik hardness to them. Which brings me to the third and (sadly) fourth films, in which a revolution is staged. Well, it’s not so much a revolution as a media event, and if does strike you that the revolutionaries are a surprisingly well-coiffed group of young white people with cool tattoos, well, be satisfied that there are a couple of token black people in the film, even if their roles are comfortingly functional and definitely one-dimensional. BUT I DEGRESS! The problem with the last film is that, without the confined space of The Games, which forced the protagonist into the moral problem of staying alive while trying not to become a murderer, the character of Katniss finally, in the last episode, becomes a mere G.I. Jill.   Her struggle to be a decent person continues, but When Shit Gets Bad out there in the war zone, her hanging on the fence about the war becomes absurd. That’s why, I think, the big action scene in the film is between humans and these weird, toothy underground gollums that (literally) come out of nowhere to provide an excuse to exercise the sub-bass woofers in the theatre’s sound system. It’s one of the few moments in the film where Katniss actually gets to DO anything with her famous bow-and-arrow, but it’s as arbitrary to the story as if the young gang of tattooed heroes were attacked by a herd of wildebeests.

There is a bunch of portentious stuff at the end of the film in which the new regime for which our heroine has fought turns out to be as nasty as the last (and all hail to the costume mistress, who subtly suggested a kind of post-Trotskyist look in a nice little scene towards the end). But the screenplay neatly tiptoes through little problems like post-revolutionary politics in order to reunite Katniss with her True Love, and there are babies, flowers, and Jennifer Lawrence looking maternal at the end. Joan of Arc unburnt, order restored, and the full color palate allowed to bathe the filmstock.

A very casual reading of history would tell all these busy screenwriters, and all of us distracted popcorn-munchers that major wars ALWAYS end in horror, that the winners ALWAYS lie about the horrors they perpetrated in order to win, and that the victims are ALWAYS the women and children. I suppose it’s too much to ask that we expose our children to the real facts of history. We live in a world of paper heroes in digital landscapes. All hail the new rulers of Panem.

Response to an Act of Religious Warfare

In the aftermath of the Paris killings, the Facebook world has been, as is only appropriate, afire with opinion, speculation, ire and sympathy. I do not have the kinds of Facebook friends (I’m happy to report) who leap to make bigoted statements about Muslims, or to publicly indulge in revenge fantasy.  I am, however, surprised that more people are not making a direct correlation between religiosity in general and the murders. If this ghastly day taught us anything, it is that there is indeed a war going on, and it is a continuation of a very old war. In 1099, a Christian army gathered before the gates of Jerusalem, an army of adventurers, pirates, hired killers, and religious zealots. After besieging the city, they eventually broke in and put to sword and fire not only the Muslim defenders, but almost everyone else in the city, regardless of their faith.

The killers who attacked Paris operated on a smaller scale, but on precisely the same religious principles, and with as little discrimination as to the victims. Like the Crusaders, it mattered  little what beliefs their victims actually held  (there must surely have been some Muslims who died in the attacks), only that they were in the wrong city, a city that had (like the Sodom of the Jewish origin myth) sinned.

Absent downright revenge fantasy, I found it particularly bizarre when my Facebook feed was sprinkled with inducements to pray.    In a paroxysm of anti-clerical thought, I wrote the following somewhat flowery passage:

Pray? I shall not pray. Let those who abandon thought, personal responsibility, and reason pray! Let those who wish to turn themselves over to the care of God, or Allah, or Buhudda, or even Lenin… pray. The psychopaths who yell “Allah Akbar!” as they reload their machine guns to cut another murderous swath cannot be responded to by saying “MY god is greater than yours.” No. I shall not pray.

Not surprisingly, I was scolded by some of my more ethereally-oriented friends who found comfort in prayer, who reminded me that prayer brings comfort to those most immediately affected, or who denied that they were actually appealing to a Deity of any kind when they prayed. Another stream of religious apologists loudly proclaimed that the killers weren’t really Muslims. This is outright nonsense.  Of course they were not “good” Muslims, as measured by a very selective reading of the Koran, but they were obeying the Koran as literally as those Christians who castigate and condemn homosexuals, or who can read the Apocalypse in an orgy of self-congratulating hatred towards anyone who does not share their reverence for the fantastical story of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection (capitals theirs, not mine). Let us remember that these attacks were not an isolated event, but rather a continuation of the attacks against free expression that occurred last January. Never make fun of our god, or we’ll kill you.

If there is anything to learn from the horror of bloodshed in Paris, it is that the real battle that is being fought is against rationalism and intellectual liberty. It is being fought specifically by religious extremists.   A statement by Isis after the bombings celebrated this highly-organized attack as being against the “prostitute-ridden” city. This is different in degree from the murder by Christian extremists of doctors who perform abortions, but it is based on the same principle: that doctrines held by the murderer trump the rights of the victim, and it is very interesting indeed that in both cases, it is rage against reproductive freedom that fuels the anger of the religionists.

The geopolitical ends of this attack have no more rational base than the gratification of bloodlust that satisfies the psychosis of the killers. These killings will do less to advance the strategic, much less the theological, aims of those responsible than Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Princip, a Serb extremist, brought more horror on his countrymen than that suffered by any almost any other national entity. The Eastern Front rolled back and forth over Serbia for the entire period of World War I, killing, dispossessing, and torturing millions. I doubt that the co-religionists of the killers will suffer in quite the same proportion (precisely because the French people ARE governed by human law and not by dictates of the Old Testament), but suffer they will, as will their fellow nationals.

The French do not have a fleet of aircraft carriers to launch.  They have neither to capacity nor the political naivety to  commit a massive strategic blunder like that committed by the Bush administration after the New York outrage.   Fuelled as much by the greed of his ministers as by the Christian fundamentalism of that president, it was precisely the “Crusade” (as Bush so foolishly called his military campaign) that could, as Al -Qaeda intended, galvanize the Muslim world against the West. The galvanization of Western sentiment against the Muslim world is, however, all too easy; it is tragically facile to extend the anger against the extremists to anger against all Muslims. Critics of the new Liberal government in Canada have traction by which they can argue against the humanitarian gesture to accept Syrian refugees.

Ironically, this forces a certain faction of the Left into the position of, if not defense of Islam, at least of defense of those who practice Islamic faith and hold its tenets to be true. This is a forced marriage that makes me cringe: the tenets of that faith are fundamentally hostile to the beliefs of progressives in the West. Bigotry towards Muslims is unquestionably as bad as any other bigotry. That does not give my progressive friends license to condemn my raging against those very tenets by which those who committed mass murder justify their actions, or to perpetrate the strange casuistry that the perps were not in fact Muslims at all.

Another strange sentiment that I see propounded by the moralists on the Net is that it is somehow a moral failure that it takes an attack on a Western city before our empathy is aroused for the victims. These people love to point out that we don’t cry out against the bombing of Baghdad (for the record, I have, in fact). We are even scolded for our sympathy towards Parisians. Whence comes this sentiment? My own cultural associations, my sympathies are with the country whose Revolution declared the Rights of Man. My travels have taken me to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and without any question I would more happily live –and die, for that matter– in France than in any of those countries, in all of which I experienced a deep hostility towards my person as a Celt and towards my philosophy, which tells me that men and women are and should be equals, that one scientifically proven thesis trumps every revealed truth in the Koran, and that I have the innate right as a human being to challenge the assumptions of any priest or imam who pronounces what I ought to believe. I will never trade life AFTER the Reformation for life BEFORE it, and, let me make this perfectly clear, I WILL FIGHT for my right to remain free of all those who claim their particular Book of Stories for the Credulous should govern my life.

Finally, in a strange mathematics of horror, I have read posts on the Net comparing single murders committed by crazy Christians to the Paris murders. It is disingenuous to compare a single person’s killing spree, grotesque and immoral as it may be, to a concentrated military attack on a civilian population. To point out that Christians are as capable of evil as members any other religious group is to say nothing at all. No one with the most meager understanding of Western Civ would claim otherwise. To point out that the killing was committed in the name –quite literally– of Allah is not to condemn all Muslims, any more than to point out that illegal bombings by (say) the US Air Force is immoral is to condemn Christians, or Liberal Democracy.   God, Allah, Jehovah, or The National Interest: all can be evoked when one is inclined to spill blood. None of it justifies what happened on November 13, 2015 in Paris, and no prevaricating can unmake it as an act of religious warfare, or prevent me from feeling sympathy for the victims and rage against the criminals and their profoundly anti-human beliefs.

November 15, 2015

Rebel Without A Cock: Trainwreck

Rebel Without A Cock:

Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, written by and starring Amy Schumer

Watching the bourgeois heart that is revealed beating at the core of this mediocre film is like watching that tiresome James Dean “classic” for the first time. You have the same bewildered sense of trying to find the rebellious streak in a scene about driving cars off cliffs. This isn’t a film about empowerment of the feminine (which it very loudly proclaims itself to be). This is a film about self-indulgence. It’s worse: it’s a self-indulgent film about self-indulgence.

I am again swimming upstream against a tide of positive critiques of this movie, holding the banner that says “bullshit!” Even Christopher Orr in the Atlantic, one of the few magazines left in the USA for literate people, can’t bring himself to proclaim that Amy Schumer has no clothes, because, for much of the film, she, actually… has no clothes on, and YOU’D BETTER NOT MENTION that she’s not that attractive a sight. It would be cultural suicide to suggest, when talking about a film that throws stereotypes in your face like pies at a country fair booth, that the one break from stereotype it actually accomplishes is the one in which women who don’t look like models cavort with men who look like Hercules.

Yes, there are a few good jokes: I like LeBron James gently parodying his own stardom, as the 100-million dollar athlete who never picks up the cheque. There’s a great visual gag in the opening, where Schumer’s character, returning from a one-night stand on (oh, shame!) Staten Island leans against the railing of the famous ferry like Kate Winslet in Titanic, and the camera pulls back to reveal that she’s actually at the stern of the boat, going backwards. (That helicopter shot must be one of the more expensive visual gags in recent Hollywood history.) And the slapstick gag at the end where Schumer does a face-plant makes me laugh for the same reason Inuit laugh at people when they slip on the ice (i.e., it’s the funniest joke available). But the sex joke told six times is overkill by six times… Please, ladies, the “I’m staring at the ceiling bored while the guy orgasms” trope is now the equivalent of the “dad gets the water-toy in the crotch” bit in all of those not-funny family comedies.

The whole venture has the stink of a dishonest vanity project: Look at the hunks I can go to bed with! Look, I got sports stars to be in the film with me! Look, I put on the gear of the Knicks’ cheerleading squad and actually did some of their moves! Look, we talked the Harry Potter guy into shooting some scenes for a film-within-a-film that parodies pretentious cinema! (Without, unfortunately, actually parodying any pretentious cinema.)

This movie has more to do with Schumer’s utterly middle of the road fantasies than any edgy material that’s going anywhere risky. Her love interest (Bill Hader) is a sports surgeon (thus an excuse to get as many pro athletes to do a vanity turn on the screen as possible) who evidently is virtue personified because he volunteers for Doctors Without Borders (that would be “medecins sans frontieres” for those of you who like to acknowledge history). Well, we’re not going to spend any of the budget going to any of those places where doctors actually DO that brave and difficult work; presumably there aren’t enough Starbucks franchises in those places to make a decent macchiato for the cast and crew. So let’s just concentrate on Dr. Hader’s celeb patients, and take his seven-figure income as given for our modern Cinderella. (Cinderella’s name, in the original German, is closer to Cinder-slut. Not a bad reference for this character.)

The film can’t get through two minutes without doing that LOUDLY MOUTHING AT YOU FROM BEHIND THE BACK OF ITS HAND “LOOK, I’M BEING POLITICALLY INCORRECT NOW! AREN’T I BOLD???”  Sadly, the film is (I shudder to say it) actually POLITICALLY INCORRECT, like, in a bad way. The black guy in the theatre tells the muscle-head boyfriend to keep his bitch in line; the ultima bitch editor of the pretentious magazine that the heroine works for is, of course, English (Tilda Swinton, the only really brilliant performance in the film); the street person who is Amy’s pal is charming and apparently really likes his life of homelessness. He is never invited into her apartment, (obviously!!), but in her redeeming moment of discovering that she is actually a bourgeois mediocrity, she gives him all her leftover booze and drugs. Way to help the homeless, girl. Kinda like Doctors Without Borders, NYC-style.

The writing in this film attempts satire; the trouble is that satire can’t be done with an instrument no sharper than a cricket bat. If this is what serves modern America for satire, let’s go back into our libraries and read Swift, or for that matter, Lenny Bruce. Dig up the old Python videos and watch their grainy scenes on an old VCR. Palin and company created more intelligent comedy slapping each other with a dead fish than this film has in its two-hour (yawn) duration.

Amy Schumer is now a very famous person who is bound to become more famous. She has achieved fame partly by declaring her right to proclaim her womanhood by her own definition. Well and good. If she has so little consciousness that she can confuse this highly conventional rom-com with edgy social commentary, she needs to consult some text books. As for Judd Apatow, he’s made some of the best film comedies in this generation by taking a fresh look at American cultural assumptions. This ain’t one of them.

Tomorrowland and Fury Road… Virtue is SO yesterday

Two Kinds of Tomorrow

On Mad Max: Fury Road, the critics have spoken: it’s okay to like diesel-powered gas guzzling trucks spewing smoke across the desert while bands of apes (some of them female!) shoot, stab, club, gouge, crush, disembowel, and otherwise murder one another in the name of Saving the Girls (as long as, beneath a thin layer of grime, they look like fashion models wearing not very much). I’m so glad that the message of this film, which is that it’s bad to hoard water while oddly white-painted people go thirsty, and that even if you’re half nuts, you can redeem yourself by allying yourself with the feminine, has not been lost on the arbiters of public taste. Otherwise, I’d have to draw the conclusion that Tonka Toys Writ Big, which certainly thrilled the adolescent boy inside of me, is not enough to qualify as high art.

On the other side of the ledger we have Tomorrowland, a film that many critics have excoriated, and which is aimed at an even younger demographic. Brad Bird’s new film, which was released more or less simultaneously with Fury Road, has drawn a mild yawn at best, and at worst a sneer, from those who write about movies.

Let me declare that I had a good ride at each of these films; I like Charleze Theron every time she burns up in the direction of a camera, and Tom Hardy is Hollywood’s best import from the immense pool of British acting talent since, well, since everybody else. I’d watch these two actors do almost anything, as long as I don’t have to see Hardy wear another f-ing mouth-mask ever again. As for the best thing about Fury Road, I add my aging baritone to the choir singing the virtue of an action film that’s actually full of action. After two decades in which the director should be calling “Lights, Camera, Graphic Department!” it’s SO yesterday (in a good way) to be watching real people do amazing stuff on the movie screen. Some of the stunts in FR might have been conceived by the Cirque Du Soleil on unclean meth, and the film looks mesmerizingly like it was shot on Mars, if that planet were closer to the sun than ours. Eat your heart out, John Carter. In fact, for a one-trick pony, this horse just won’t quit, it wins the race through the desert like Vigo Mortensen’s mount Hidalgo.

So, how come I like the other kid’s fantasy film better? Well, first, because Brad Bird has a sense of humour: he can never resist making quite sophisticated jokes at the crucial moments of his movies, like when Wallace Sean, embodied as the Supervisor of the Insurance Corporation in The Incredibles, neurotically arranges his pencils on his desk, or when the kid in the Iron Giant needs a mentor, and he finds a composite of Jack Kerouak and James Dean. There is a certain nostalgia about all of Bird’s movies, and Tomorrowland is no exception. In this film, he is asking, “what happened to the optimism we used to have about the future?” It’s a worthwhile question. Okay, he doesn’t come up with some of the really hard answers, like America Has Been Fighting A War Of Imperialist Expansion Since 1905, And It’s Losing the Economic Part, or American Greed Has Trumped American Democracy. What he has come up with is, in fact, a very American answer to the question: Americans have stopped listening to their visionaries.   The tragedy isn’t unfolding because of Cupidity, but rather because of “the vision thing.”  But in fact, to the extent that this is precisely true, and that progressive thinkers have increasingly traded bold vision for mild acquiescence to the politically correct, this film is saying something worth saying.

The action he concocts around this concept is superb, and funny. The always-surprising George Clooney is here discovered as a new incarnation of Dr. Emmet Brown, and the plot takes us back to the future, where the nominal present serves as a launching pad for a chase movie that goes through more worm holes than Buster Keaton in (is it The Engagement?).   We are treated to two of the best performances by young actors that we’ve ever seen at the movies, and there’s a romantic underpinning of the plot that just edges close enough to forbidden territory that it’s dangerous without crossing the line.

This film is, unlike Fury Road, full of computer generated trickery, but I find the unreality of it kind of delightful, as though the director/writer had conceived the film as an animation, like all his best work, and tried to express it as a live-action film. You might ask, “what’s the big deal about that? Isn’t that what Batman, or Sin City is doing?” The answer is, not quite. Those films bring the comics to life; Tomorrowland brings the comic aesthetic to life, or functions as though real life became a comic which was then filmed as live action.

To read some of the criticism, one would think that the plot of Tomorrowland is impossibly complex; I didn’t have this complaint. I did have to shake my head a couple of times, as when Bird sets up a rule whereby the possessor of a certain magical pin is transported to Tomorrowland but is confined by the physical limitations of their daily reality, and then abandons the rule. But I don’t expect or demand too much attention to physics from the guy who brought us a Superhero costume designer who is more intelligently funny in two minutes onscreen than the entire career of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller combined.

At the core of many complains about the film is the idea that its positive thinking message is too preachy, too blunt, too YESTERDAY. (One critic even ascribed to it a debt to Ayn Rand!) I presume they would rather live in Mr. Miller’s sunburned apocalypse of Fury Road for a couple of hours, and talk about the deep ideas being swatted around in that film. That deep ideas aren’t the first thing on the mind of that director is amply proven by one scene in particular, in which a bevy of young women (one played by an authentic Victoria’s Secret model), show off their talents (okay, their tits and asses) as they wastefully douse themselves with the only drinkable liquid for a hundred kilometers. And these are the damsels in distress that the film’s protagonists set out to save. I say abandon ‘em to the weirdos: their self-preservation instinct isn’t developed enough to bother with.

The virtue of Fury Road is in sheer filmmaker skill and chutzpah: the locations, the boy toys, the fight choreography, and the dance of motorized mayhem are all superbly crafted and executed. The living hood ornament of the car of the baddie leader (a scream rocker playing a Gibson Flying V) is almost worth the price of admission. But for the sake of all that’s unholy, don’t watch this film or, heaven and hell forbid, WRITE about it as though there are any ideas in it that you couldn’t jot down on a bubblegum card.

For a real idea or two, grab a ten year-old and put your ticket money down on Brad Bird’s flawed but very clever film. Then leave him with his Tonka toys and take a fourteen year-old (along with your own inner 14 year-old) and go sand-truckin’ for a couple of hours.