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Apocalypse Now

[ 38 ] July 29, 2008 |

I’ve just read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Robert Farley reviewed on LGM back when it was published a couple of years ago. I hadn’t read anything by McCarthy before, and was very impressed with his stylistic talents, which reminded me of a sort of poor man’s Joyce, in the same sense that Bobby Bonds was a poor man’s Willie Mays, i.e., a great player in his own right, although one who could be harmed by too much being made of a loose parallel.

It’s a compelling book, and it made me want to touch on something Rob mentioned in his original review, which is the enduring popularity of apocalyptic literature in American culture — a genre that’s diverse enought to include, among many other things, Jonathan Edwards sermons, and Jonathan Schell New Yorker articles, and the frighteningly successful Left Behind series.

My sense is that this tradition is wrapped up with a deep if largely unconscious cultural faith that in some sense America represents the End of History, and that there’s nowhere to go from here than up (or down). It’s a kind of millenialism that gets expressed in both obviously religious contexts, but also in the world views of various secular ideologues, who use supposed American exceptionalism to justify all sorts of utopian views of their own, that end up producing a kind of apocalyptic imperialism. The City on a Hill Reagan rhetoric drew on this tradition, as does the “national greatness” conservatism of McCain, who sees foreign policy in terms of a single idea: that America is a unique country that has a special obligation to bring freedom and justice to the whole world (Bush II used to talk this way, but the disturbing thing about McCain is that he seems to take such ideas far more seriously).

A curious thing about the psychology of utopianism and anti-utopianism, or optimistic and pessimistic eschatologies, is how quickly they shift. In the first years of the 20th century, as Orwell notes somewhere in a passage I’m too lazy to look up at the moment, the knowledge classes had a largely unlimited faith in progress, technology, and a great gleaming future of concrete and steel. By the late 1940s it was a routine assumption that civilization would blow itself up definitively within a few decades at the most. (Richard Feynman wrote about how the day after the atom bomb he helped build was detonated over Hiroshima he walked down the streets of New York City with an unreal feeling, wondering why people were continuing to engage in such ridiculous activities as building skyscrapers and bridges and roads).

That feeling gradually ebbed away, until by the 1990s the End of History was being proclaimed by various neo-Hegelians. Then a couple of skyscrapers got knocked down and we were plunged into the current strange mixture of utopianism and dread, as represented by the absurd and childish idea that 9/11 “changed everything.”

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the movie.

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Stevens Indicted

[ 26 ] July 29, 2008 |

Drink the news like sweet, sweet wine.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate and one of the chamber’s most powerful members, was indicted Tuesday in Washington, a result of a year-long investigation into corruption in Alaska politics.

The indictment comes nearly one year after federal agents raided Stevens’ home in Girdwood, a resort town about 40 miles south of Anchorage.

Since my political predictions rarely pan out, I’ll note that I was half right in November: Stevens did wind up indicted, but the state Democratic party is actually running a candidate who can, and now should, defeat him.

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The Mobster Genre will Never Produce a Serious Film..

[ 77 ] July 29, 2008 |

A fair number of folks have been linking to this A.O. Scott piece on comic book genre films; it’s interesting enough, but I thought that the final paragraph undermines the point that Scott is trying to make. The core of Scott’s argument:

Still, I have a hunch, and perhaps a hope, that “Iron Man,” “Hancock” and “Dark Knight” together represent a peak, by which I mean not only a previously unattained level of quality and interest, but also the beginning of a decline. In their very different ways, these films discover the limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists.

He later develops the argument to say that the comic book genre has a certain set of rules, and that these rules serve to place something of an upper limit on the quality of the genre. For example, the genre requires a climactic battle sequence in which the superhero prevails, and in the three films (Hancock, Iron Man, and Dark Knight) that sequence is the weakest part of the film. Fair enough, but the “limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists” is a curious statement; is there any reason to believe that the next superhero film (Watchmen, for example) won’t transcend those limitations? I’m particularly curious because Scott ends with this:

The westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, obsessed with similar themes, were somehow able, at their best, as in John Ford’s “Searchers” and Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo,” to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms.

But the cowboys of old did not labor under the same burdens as their masked and caped descendants. Those poor, misunderstood crusaders must turn big profits on a global scale and satisfy an audience hungry for the thrill of novelty and the comforts of the familiar.

I’m sure that Hawks and Ford would be surprised to learn that Rio Bravo and the Searchers didn’t need to turn a profit; I’d expect that the studio heads would be even more surprised. I’m glad that John Ford didn’t need to “satisfy and audience hungry for the thrill of novelty and the comforts of the familiar” and therefore didn’t need to hire John Wayne to play what amounted to different facets of the same character in several dozen movies. The problem is that Scott can’t engage in a general bashing of genre film, because he recognizes that probably a third to half of the best American films ever made belong to either the Mobster or the Western genre, but he doesn’t give a convincing explanation for why it was possible for the great Westerns and mafia movies to transcend the limitations of their genres, but won’t similarly be possible for the superhero movie.

For my own part, I think that Spiderman 2 is considerably better than any of the films Scott discusses, and as such that this year’s crop doesn’t really represent a peak. At the same time, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that the superhero genre has seen, beginning with Tim Burton’s Batman, a rather radical leap forward in quality, mostly as the result of the presence of real talent in writing, screenwriting (in adaptation), and direction. Scott doesn’t provide me a compelling reason to think that this trend has been arrested.

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The Death of the Action Scene

[ 46 ] July 29, 2008 |

Again, I can’t say whether this is applicable to The Dark Knight, but I strongly applaud the arguments about how Bay and Tony Scott seemed to have killed the competent, intelligible action sequence. The idea that commercial-style quick cutting represents a technically competent way of shooting and editing action scenes (even if it makes it impossible to tell where the characters are, or who’s doing what for who, not for any artistic reason but because it draws attention to the director) needs to die as quickly as possible.

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Scandal fatigue

[ 11 ] July 29, 2008 |

In more ordinary times this would be a very big scandal indeed, but the Bush administration has made flagrant lawbreaking at the highest levels of government very much a dog bites man story.

One brilliant feature of the winger noise machine is that those operating it realize that an extra added bonus to making up a never-ending series of either wildly exaggerated or completely imaginary “scandals” is that the public gets desensitized to the term. So you didn’t pay your nanny’s social security taxes, and I ordered some people to be tortured to death — I guess we’re all sinners before God!

At least Alberto Gonzales still can’t get a job. (And shame on any law school who pays the man’s well-earned legal bills by handing him a 30K speaking engagement).

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That Doesn’t Sound Like a Very Good Idea…

[ 0 ] July 29, 2008 |

Huh.

Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne are looking to the future — literally.

The New Line founders-turned-producers have signed on to produce their first project since they received their post-New Line deal at Warners, boarding an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s futuristic sci-fi epic “Foundation” that they’ll produce through their Unique Features banner.

… Shaye and Lynne’s goal is to adapt the first book for now, and, if it’s successful, potentially follow the New Line “Lord of the Rings” template by developing adaptations down the road of the second and third books.

The Foundation Trilogy strikes me as about as unfilmable as any one story can be; I could imagine putting together a film based on “The Mule” and “Second Foundation: The Search by the Mule”, but the rest doesn’t exactly lend itself to the cinematic form. Not only do the episodes only rarely share characters, but much of the “action” doesn’t actually consist of action. If you insist upon a screen adaptation, a tv mini-series would make a lot more sense.

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Linky Linky…

[ 0 ] July 29, 2008 |

Some stuff to link to before it slips through the cracks:

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Priorities

[ 24 ] July 28, 2008 |

Shorter Bush administration: “Indirectly punishing partisan opponents is more important than effectively opposing terrorism.” (Via Atrios.)

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Scumbaggery

[ 20 ] July 28, 2008 |

Press release this morning from the McCain campaign:

For Immediate Release
Contact: Press Office
Monday, July 28, 2008
703-650-5550
ARLINGTON, VA — Today, Chief Warrant Officer (4th class) Michael J. Durant (Ret.) issued the following statement on Barack Obama’s canceled visit to Ramstein and Landstuhl:
“Over the last week, Barack Obama made time in his busy schedule to hold a rally with 200,000 Germans in Berlin, hold a press conference with French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Paris, and hold a solo press conference in front of 10 Downing Street in London. The Obama campaign had also scheduled a visit with wounded U.S. troops at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, but this stop was canceled after it became clear that campaign staff, and the traveling press corps, would not be allowed to accompany Senator Obama.
“I’ve spent time at Ramstein recovering from wounds received in the service of my country, and I’m sure that Senator Obama could have made no better use of his time than to meet with our men and women in uniform there. That Barack Obama believes otherwise casts serious doubt on his judgment and calls into question his priorities.”
Michael Durant, CW4 (Retired), US Army; born July 23, 1961 in Berlin, NH. He entered the United States Army in August 1979. Following basic training he attended the Defense Language Institute, and was then assigned to the 470th Military Intelligence Group, Fort Clayton, Panama as a Spanish voice intercept operator. He then completed helicopter flight training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Upon appointment to Warrant Officer 1 in November 1983, he completed the UH60 Black Hawk Qualification Course and was assigned to the 377th Medical Evacuation Company, Seoul Korea. His next assignment was with the 101st Aviation Battalion, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he performed duties as an instructor pilot.
Michael joined the 160th Special Operations Group on August 1, 1988. Assigned to D company, he performed duties as Flight Lead and Standardization Instructor Pilot. He participated in combat operations Prime Chance (Persian Gulf in 1989), Just Cause (Panama invasion in 1989), Desert Storm (Liberation of Kuwait in 1991), and Gothic Serpent (Somalia in 1993).
On October 3, 1993, while piloting an MH60 Black Hawk in Mogadishu, Somalia, he was shot down and held captive by hostile forces. He was released eleven days later.

***

Of course like everybody over 12 and an IQ above 89 I realize politics is a dirty business, but even by the low standards of the profession this kind of thing is pretty egregious. I doubt McCain would dare try it if the media weren’t so historically in the tank for him.

Now we’ll get a cycle of stories about the “controversy,” with the controversy being whether Barack Obama really cares about the troops.

Edit: James in the comments points to this MSNBC story (via TPM) indicating even McCain’s strictly factual claims about the cancelled visit are false.

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Is It News?

[ 28 ] July 28, 2008 |

Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosin discuss the news value of the National Enquirer story about John Edwards’s alleged affair. Both score some points. I guess that in a world where Maureen Dowd can win a Pulitzer Prize it’s hard to dispute that under existing standards “it “is news, absolutely clearly and by any definition I can think of.” From Edwards’s standpoint, if he did it he had to know the risks he was taking and can’t be shocked that he was exposed. Modern politics, for better or worse, means that you can’t expect discretion about your private affairs. After all, in this campaign we’ve seen the Paper of Record engage in innuendos about John McCain with less basis than this.

Having said that, on a normative level — if we ask whether this should be considered news by the serious press — Rosin is right. It is unlikely that Edwards will be a candidate for vice presidency, and as for the possibility that he could be Attorney General, please. I don’t recall extensive discussions about Michael Mukasey’s sex life during his confirmation hearings, almost as if they were completely irrelevant to his performance in office. The analogies with Craig and Vitter are null, and not only because there’s no contradiction with any policy being advocated by Edwards. Edwards wasn’t testifying in open court. The mainstream media didn’t discuss Craig’s sexual proclivities until he was arrested and his colleagues demanded he resign, both of which are actual news (although the coverage was, I think, greatly overblown and calls on him to resign ridiculous.) In the midst of this gruesome thigh-rubbing, Roger L. Simon cries crocodile tears about how “playing this game while his wife had cancer makes it contemptible beyond words.” Leaving aside that if I were his wife I would (as Rosin says) prefer to be left alone, what would Simon say about an actual current candidate for President who cheated on and then unceremoniously dumped his wife after she was in a horrible accident? Why, he would support him, of course. Because when you get down to cases almost nobody really thinks that this kind of thing matters in evaluating candidates for higher office; it’s a way of trashing people you already dislike for independent political reasons. And this is entirely appropriate.

So, basically, the current confinement of the story to the National Enquirer seems exactly right, and I hope it both continues and (while we’re dreaming) is applied more consistently.

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Supply and Demand Is Over…If You Want It!

[ 0 ] July 28, 2008 |

Shorter John McCain: “Economists don’t understand that a gas tax holiday will work to significantly reduce gas prices because I’m going to have oil companies sit down and tell them to cut the bullshit.”

One one have thought that the Republican candidate’s intellectual capacity and command of policy detail could only go up, but apparently not.

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Far Beyond Roe

[ 10 ] July 28, 2008 |

For those who think that the threat John McCain poses to American women is the anti-Roe median vote he would try to put on the Supreme Court, Kate Sheppard and Kathy G. make clear that the problems a McCain presidency would pose would go far beyond this. One of the many valuable things about Kate’s piece is her point that Democrats need John McCain to be forced to clarify his very reactionary position on abortion as much as possible. I would also suggest that an anti-McCain ad on the subject should start with his support for the too-draconian-for-South-Dakota abortion ban and go from there.

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