Monday, October 14, 2019

Living in the (alternate) future

I have dwelt in coastal Northern California for going on half a century, in Oakland since 1977, and worked in San Francisco for forty years prior to my retirement. The region (in terms, specifically, of my place within it) is in certain respects an enclave. Had I been born in Appalachia to parents less determined to secure an upward cultural mobility for their children, had I skipped college and mined coal, I might in retirement—assuming I’d been able to retire at this point in my life; assuming the mine hadn’t closed or that I hadn’t succumbed to a respiratory ailment by now—have a different and considerably more bitter take on the hand I’d been dealt.

But I’m a “coastal elite,” as my West Virginia doppelgänger might regard me, and well pleased with the station in life to which circumstances have summoned me. Nevertheless, it behooves us to recognize the hopelessness that informs the lives of many among Trump’s “base.” I have long been irritated by the pious trope, uttered by presidents of both parties, that “America’s best days are yet to come.” Broadly speaking (I exclude from consideration sundry demographics who then existed with the boot of cultural hegemony hard upon their necks; hence “broadly”), America’s best days were the decades during which it held global economic primacy, its industrial competitors having been bombed flat during the unpleasantness of 1939-45. The jobs aren’t coming back. The plant won’t reopen. Late-stage capitalism will follow the money, and that includes lands where the cheapest labor is to be had. Part of the genius of late-stage capitalism (nobody said it would be pretty) lies in its ability to point the proles’ resentments downward, and not toward their betters.

What will we do with them, these feral voters who yearn for a Herrenvolk democracy that will acknowledge them as “real” Americans—sodomites, foreigners, dusky folk, coastal elites need not apply—even as it squeezes the last dime from their desiccated carcasses? Fuck if I know, but this demographic will be with us for a long time, and frankly, their plight should be addressed, somehow. Leaving them to stew in desperate poverty, ignorance, resentment and opioids is not good for anyone, not for the disenfranchised proles, not for the plutocrats, not for the coastal enclaves. Because if these people are left to continue as the seed crystal of a fascist movement, this will not end well for them or for us.

I don’t pretend to have a solution. In bleaker moments I am put in mind of Mark Ames’ pessimistic take on things from eight years ago:
If the left wants to understand American voters, it needs to once and for all stop sentimentalizing them as inherently decent, well-meaning people being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs—because the awful truth is that they’re mean, spiteful jerks being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

More light verse

Do not throw Rudy under that big bus,
Old fools should dodge and weave and softly say:
“Evade, evade all this impeachment fuss.”

Though bagmen, caught, are scarcely beauteous
Who go on CNN unwisely, they
Should not go gentle under that big bus.

Such men, enablers all, surround us, thus,
Why sacrifice one pitiful roué?
Evade, evade all this impeachment fuss.

A clown who sought to suborn Kievan Rus’
To make of “Sleepy Joe” Trump’s lawful prey
Should not go gentle under that big bus.

Lawyers, high-paid, will warn their client, “Just
Stonewall, or plead the Fifth, and then you may
Evade, evade all this impeachment fuss.

“And on the news, Mayor G., do not discuss,
But merely hint at pardon, and you’ll stay
Far from the path of that advancing bus
And thus elude all this impeachment fuss.”


Regular readers of this blog—that would be me—know that I’m of a sunny and optimistic disposition, but even with some auspicious signs and portents lately, I’m having a tough time believing that we get out of this fix without some grave and irreparable harm, beyond what’s already been inflicted, to the polity. Well, “oceans rise, empires fall.” Houses burn and are rebuilt, even as heirlooms are forever lost.

Let’s proceed as though we exit this administration in some plausible best-case scenario, that Trump is removed or resigns, and that Pence runs and is defeated, or that Trump hangs on for another thirteen months, is soundly defeated, and actually leaves office without fomenting insurrection. It’s 20 January 2021 and Chief Justice Roberts, audibly gritting his teeth, swears in President-elect Warren, who took the election along with House and Senate Democratic majorities. We’re not talking filibuster-proof in the Senate—I said “plausible”—but timid institutionalist Senators who might hesitate to abolish the practice would do well to reflect that the GOP will, in a heartbeat, should Mitch McConnell or some future Majority Leader conclude that it’s to their significant advantage.

So: two branches of out tripartite system—in this vision, that may not be quite the lollipops-and-unicorns model that the BernieBros or the Steiniacs would want—which nevertheless constitutes (heh, heh) a marked advance over the chaotic and malignant misrule we presently endure.

But are we talking actual reform here, or merely a reprieve? Because Donald Trump did not spring full-formed from Murdoch’s brow. By the time he leaves the stage, pelted with produce and dragged off with a hook, influential voices will be raised insisting that the man was an aberration, and not the culmination, of poisonous currents in the Republican party going back for decades. Unless the next administration and the 117th Congress understand what has been burned down and what structural changes must be made in the rebuilding, a Democratic victory next year will grant us only a stay of execution. McConnell, or another “grim reaper” as he has proudly called himself, will presently be back, and pissed off. We ought to have learned this with the Obama presidency, and he ought to have learned it from Iran-Contra: “Let’s look forward, not back,” is bullshit when you’re dealing with these people, because they’ll bank the proceeds from their theft and set about stealing more. And we-the-people bear a share of that blame, because Democratic voters routinely exhale after prevailing in the general election, sigh “Well, thank heaven we’ve finally fixed that mess,” and let lapse their attention from the distracting and dirty business of politics. Pro tip: that doesn’t work, and the Republicans figured this out half a century ago.

We as a nation have been sleepwalking into this swamp of Caesarism for decades, and some people are only just waking up to discover our collective selves sternum-deep in fetid waters, with alligators eyeing us meaningfully. Successive slothful Congresses have yielded their powers incrementally to the Executive Branch, and now that branch, in the person of a jumped-up criminal developer from Queens, has quite clearly declared that it intends to take and to keep all such powers as remain, in which case, if he succeeds, self-government endures only as a brittle shell enclosing a near-vacuum, its former essence, such as this ever was, having been first poisoned and then leached away. And while the knuckle-dragging Dominionist Trump-enablers in the House of Representatives may for the moment be ignored, the Washington Post reports that thirty-nine Republican Senators are, as of today, solidly behind him.

But my scenario is supposed to be a ’appy occasion! Somehow the forces of righteousness prevail next year against gerrymandering, against Russian and domestic ratfucking on social media, against hacking of e-votes. The witch is dead! Do I hear a ding? Do I hear a dong? (We’ve been hearing the dung for years.)

Yes, and speaking of witches, Paul Campos made this point over at the “Lawyers, Guns and Money” blog earlier today as I write this:
I suspect, by the way…that it’s going to be OK to treat Trump differently, because it may well prove very convenient to everyone to rehabilitate the Republican party by burning this particular witch. 
If Trump is driven out of office before next November — which at the moment still seems very unlikely but suddenly no longer impossible — it will be precisely for this reason. Suppose next summer rolls around and it becomes blindingly obvious that Trump is going to get routed, and that he’s likely to take the Republican majority in the Senate with him. Under those circumstances, the fantastically powerful lust among the great and the good to get back to “normal’ — to pretending that Trump is some sort of inexplicable aberration, and that we can all get back to enjoying our nachos in Jerry Jones’s box if we just rid ourselves of this turbulent parvenu — is going to be truly overwhelming. Can you imagine the day Trump is ejected from the sacred precincts of the White House, and civility returns to America? David Brooks will have to write his column with one hand.
That’s going to be a problem, the reflexive impulse to declare that the Trump presidency was a “black swan” event—who could ever have predicted such a thing, really?—and that nothing in the soil from which he sprang could possibly account for the toxic blossom that unfurled its garish and deadly petals in 2016. Error! Error!

We have to acknowledge the structural weaknesses in our ancient Constitutional system that have permitted a mad king to assume and abuse the office referred to by the Founders as “Chief Magistrate,” because while Trump is erratic and barely sane, there are surely other, colder, more rational, more calculating authoritarians-in-embryo watching his regime, mapping the rot running through the norms, institutions, barriers, recording what works and what does not. What remains of the Constitutional order is ripe for overthrow, and such a coup will have the enthusiastic support of something like forty percent of those who turn out at the polls—“feral voters.” Absent significant reform—which, it should be noted, the Federalist Society-stacked courts at every level will do their best to thwart—any Democratic presidency will be at best an interregnum, a Weimar administration, before the virus of fascism lays waste at last to the society.

Geez, I appear to have talked myself down from optimism.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Rich and strange

I have not compiled an impressive record, political prognostication-wise. In 1976, after Ronald Reagan failed to wrest his party’s nomination from Gerald Ford, I remarked to friends, “Thank god we’ve seen the last of that clown.” Four years later I still could not believe that this genial fraud could ever make it to the White House, and the late John Anderson’s well-intentioned vanity candidacy received my vote, a self-indulgent fecklessness I would cheerfully take back. I have kept in mind ever since that it is never a good idea to underestimate the potential folly and depravity of the American electorate. Also: to spurn the perceived “lesser of two evils” serves only, under our system, to engorge the greater. And you know, one of the appeals of the lesser evil is that it’s less evil. I’ve seen enough greater evil since the beginning of 2017 to find that notion rather seductive.

Although three years ago I could not quite bring myself to believe that the GOP would actually open its thighs to Trump and yield up the nomination, I did at least contemplate the possibility of this happening, and even of the candidate prevailing in the general (see “Fidgeting in the Cheap Seats”). On the way to dining out on election night in November, I checked a news feed on my phone, and saw that the Senate was not tending our way. During dinner, to my wife’s irritation, I looked in on the coverage with mounting horror. And here we are.

In the aftermath I gloomily predicted that the Trump regime would prove worse than we could imagine. I will amend that: it has been worse than I imagined we couldn’t imagine.

Keeping in mind my mediocre win-loss record in these matters, just now, a week into October 2019, I sense a great disturbance in the Farce, as if dozens of complacent officeholders suddenly became uneasy and were suddenly disposed to support impeachment, if only tacitly. Trump’s latest erratic international behavior, tossing the Kurds to the sharks (what is it with the Kurds? Everyone fucks them over), has alarmed even some of his hitherto complacent allies in Congress and the tame media, and even the execrable god-botherer Pat Robertson warns that the short-fingered vulgarian risks forfeiting the “mandate of heaven” over this (has someone told the Rev that the mandate of heaven is of Chinese origin, and subject to a punitive tariff these days?).

Certainly there will remain among the public a hard core (apparently about 27% of voters) of Trump supporters who would not merely excuse but cheer his shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Hell, Trump could rape and strangle an entire daycare center on Fox & Friends while setting alight a basket of kittens and knocking the crutch out from under a disabled war veteran without worrying about what this lot would think. But somehow I think, hope, that a sea change might be in prospect, that the Republic’s immune system, after much prodding, may actually be kicking in. Events are moving fast, and this entry is a mere photograph, and my political intuition may prove faulty for the nth time. But I do think, today, that the quicksand is shifting beneath 45’s feet, and that when the end comes—will the rats conclude that it’s better to toss the captain off the ship?—it may be sudden.

For the rest, though, the damage that has been done to the polity, to the country’s international relations, to the entire postwar order—we will none of us live to see all this redeemed. The USA is never coming back from this, even in any plausible best-case scenario.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Tweetstorm of Donald J. Trumprook

Scusate i perdenti e gli odiatori, ma il mio I.Q. è uno dei più alti e lo sapete tutti! Per favore, non sentirti così stupido o insicuro, non è colpa tua.

      Let us go then, me and you,
As the scandals crowd out all the other news
Like a porn star paid and splayed upon a mattress;
Let us read, within these rumpled crumb-strewn sheets,

The incoherent tweets
Of sleepless nights upon the throne of ease
While pinching out my message by degrees:
Tweets with which I push and pull the government

With criminal intent
But I’m not capable of much reflection...

I don’t regret, or still less rue it—
When you’re a star, they let you do it.

In the House the members congregate
Thinking back on Watergate.

      The Democrats will try to stop construction of my wall,
So beautiful, so perfect, so unclimbable, my wall,
That keeps the rapists, gangs and dealers out of here,
The border camps where wetback babies crawl...

Babies. Yeah, that Epstein guy—a loser, that’s for sure
Nabbed at the airport, made his last farewell,
And once the prison guards had fallen fast asleep,

Was left (who knew?) to hang around his cell.

      And indeed they will serve time,
The yellow cowards who still ignore my tweets,

Copping their pleas like Cohen in open court;
They will serve time, they will serve time
Or if they play it safe and decide to be discreet;

There will be time to perjure and negate,
And time for all the works and days of hands

That go into a first-class license plate;
Time for thee but not for me,
And time yet for a hundred indiscretions,
And to evade another hundred questions,
Like in the days of Sarah Huckabee.

In the House the staff attorneys huddle
Plotting further trouble.

      And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do U care?’
Time to descend the escalator,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “What’s that thing upon his head?
Some animal, some possum, must have crawled there: is it dead?”)

My necktie, made in China, polyester, red and shiny—
(They will say: “How is it that his fingers are so tiny?”)
Is it fair
My press is so adverse?
It’s called executive time.
For decisions and rescissions which a court will soon reverse.

But I have blown them off already, blown them all—
The courts, the Congress...enablers and buffoons!
I have measured out my life with cofveve spoons;
I’ve heard the voices leaking, leaking with an eye
Upon the main chance there in the green room.

            So how dare they presume?

      And I’ve denounced the spies and traitors, slammed them all—
The whistleblowers trilling with their same old songs,

And when I’m called upon it, called on CNN,
When Fake News flacks will not excuse my gall,
Then how—heaven forfend—
To spin all of the revelations of my wrongs?

            And can we just assume

      That I have sold the Russians secrets, let them pick?—
As I am perfectly entitled to
(It says so right there in Article Two!)
Is it semen on a dress

That makes me such a mess?
No, that was what’s-her-face, that Monica Lewinski chick.

      And should I cop a plea?
            And what’s in it for me?

      Shall I say, I have golfed all day on well-mown greens
The only thing that makes my putter rise
And dropped the ball routinely some two feet from the hole?...

I should have stayed a star on pay TV
Hustling my brand to easy dimwit marks.

      And the rubes who watch the news, they take it placidly! Soothed by Fox TV,
Tucker Carlson...or Hannity
Always dependable, always for me.

Should I, having satisfied my vices,
Rouse myself to instigate another crisis?
But though I have gorged and bloated, binged and purged,
Though I have seen my pate (grotesquely bald) the object of some laughter

I am no statesman—not now nor hereafter;
I have seen the needle of my ratings wiggle,
And I have seen the Secret Service roll their eyes, and giggle,

            And in short, I was betrayed.

      And would it have been worth it, do you think,
After Moscow, the prostitutes, the pee,
The commentariat, who’ve been routinely mean to me,

Would I have gone too far
Once I’d given DOJ to William Barr
And made it just another arm of Trump, Inc.,

To kick the Constitution into flinders,
To say: “I’m the Donald, you’re the Apprentice,
I’m here to tell you that you’re fired, you’re fired”—

Yet, Stormy paused before she gave me head,
      And said: “That is not what I want at all.
            That’s not it, Sir, at all.”

      And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the hearings and the subpoenas and the sprinkled sheets,
After the scandals, after the phone calls, after the House decides to vote me out—

What the hell is that about?—
It is impossible to know just what I knew!
But as if a TV camera spewed some hacks to blather on the tube:
Would it have been worth while
If one, waking up at three and tossing off a tweet,
And turning toward the TV, should say:
“Lock up Crooked Hillary,

      Lock her up for good and all!”

      Yes! I’m a stable genius, clear for all to see;
Am a compliant dunce, one that will do
To pack the courts, pass a tax bill or two
And serve the rich; no doubt, I’m always down,

Presidential, glad to be on board,
Impulsive, reckless, occasionally profane;
Abused, insulted, frequently ignored;
At times, indeed, almost insane—
Almost, at times, the Clown.

I’m senile…infantile…
I shall serve my sentence stably in denial.

Shall I leave my hair behind? Do I dare to join a gang?
I shall wear a bright orange jumpsuit, and walk along the yard.

I have heard the inmates singing to the guards.
I do not think that Pence will pardon me.

I have seen the prosecutors on the case
Looking for backups on the White House LAN:

It won’t be good when all this hits the fan.

We have frolicked on a mattress soaked with pee
In opulent hotel rooms trimmed in gold—
Until we face indictment, and we fold. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

When in Rome

(Another in a series of repurposed film reviews from 2016. tl;dr version: On a state visit to Rome a bored and exhausted European princess escapes from her handlers and stumbles into the keeping of an opportunistic American reporter, who sees in her the newspaper story that will make his career, provided he is prepared to be caddish about it. Aw, hell, who are we kidding? It’s Gregory freaking Peck, and you know that he’ll do the right thing in the end because, after all, he falls in love with Audrey Hepburn. So, beginning with this picture, have a couple of generations of moviegoers. Photographed in creamy black & white on location in the Eternal City, Roman Holiday might have been a mere piece of fluff in lesser hands, but a magical confluence of director, screenplay and cast makes it, on the contrary, a piece of fluff for the ages.)

Even the casual fiilmgoer will have noticed from time to time a convention in movie title sequences that goes something like this:

[Really Big-Name Star]
(and sometimes)
[Equally or Almost as Big-Name Star]
[Movie Title]
[Actor Name]
Actor Name]
[Actor Name]
(and sometimes)
[And Another Big-Name Star]
[Character Name]

The Hollywood film industry is one of the more rank-conscious fields of human endeavor, and for many, many decades the placement of an actor’s name before the film title was a signifier of very high status indeed. Gregory Peck was nominated for an Academy Award in his second film, in 1944, and by his nineteenth, Roman Holiday, he was an A-list star routinely granted the coveted top-o’-the-title slot in the credit sequence. Audrey Hepburn, by contrast, was just starting out in 1953—she’d had what amounted to a couple of walk-on parts before she was cast, largely on the strength of her stage performance as the title character in Gigi on Broadway the previous year, as the female lead opposite Peck. Because she was virtually unknown to the moviegoing public, the most she might ordinarily have expected would have been an “and Introducing Audrey Hepburn,” which was the sort of token recognition studios were in the practice of giving first-time actresses whom they hoped might become better-known over time. Peck, however, before the film’s release, went to the studio chiefs and said in effect, “Look, you know and I know that Audrey’s going to bring home the Best Actress Oscar for this, and the rest of us are going to look like complete clowns if her name isn’t above the title.” And so, rare for a fledgling starlet, her name appeared up front. The studio never regretted it.

Some have said that the movie’s Princess Anne was the role that the actress was born to play. What they meant was that Audrey Hepburn was the role Audrey Hepburn was born to play, and she incontestably did so to perfection, although this also limited from early on the range of roles she’d be offered, and perhaps she never did reach her full potential with so many gamine roles stacked up waiting for her to perform them: lazy directors just wanted her to be herself, or at least her image.

This mid-century fairy tale begins, as so many fairy tales will, with a princess: “Princess Anne” is touring the capitals of Europe on behalf of her unnamed country (presumably not the United Kingdom, since London is one of the capitals she is depicted visiting in newsreel footage), and her entourage has tightly scheduled every waking hour for her. She’s getting bored, tired and cranky. Sure, first-world problems and all that, but after all, being a princess in European royalty has been known, even in living memory, to be a bit of a drag, with the princesses in question being treated variously as trade goods and as brood mares in the service of dynastic succession. It’s not all musical numbers and singing animals, let me tell you. Anyway, after she pitches a mild tantrum, Anne’s handlers stuff her full of tranquilizers to calm her down. These appear instead to have the unanticipated effect of parting the princess from a normal person’s fear of falling from a great height, and she nimbly escapes from an upper floor on the embassy grounds and onto the streets of Rome (smuggling herself to freedom disguised as a load of soiled laundry inside a delivery van, if I recall aright) before she passes out. If she tried such a stunt today, of course, Audrey/Anne would likely find herself in a Tunisian brothel when she came to, but this is a fairy tale, remember, so instead she doesn’t completely lose consciousness until she has first run into stand-up guy Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a lazy reporter for an American wire service who, initially unaware of Anne’s royal identity, reluctantly takes her to his small apartment, where nothing untoward happens. He draws the line at giving up his narrow bed, and makes the girl sleep on the divan—there are limits to knight-errantry!—but before she revives in the morning he has checked in briefly at work, where he realizes to whom he has extended his hospitality. He rushes back to his flat and moves the sleeping princess onto the bed so that she won’t know that she only rated the divan. A favorite scene, early on: Anne, still a bit groggy from the drug, wakes up in Joe’s apartment, in Joe’s bed and in…”Are these your pyjamas?” “Umm-hmmm.” A look of panic crosses her features, and her hands dart under the covers. Joe, drily: “Lose something?” Anne (with visible relief): “No.” That was pretty racy stuff for 1953.

There follows an enchanted interlude of cross-purposes as Joe, his photographer pal Irving, and the princess tool around Rome, visions of Pulitzer prizes dancing in the men’s heads, with Irving surreptitiously snapping photographs of the royal, who is innocently unaware that her incognito has been compromised, or that she is being squired around the city by a couple of jackals of the press. Meanwhile, of course, everyone’s in a panic back at the embassy, and badass-looking truant officers are flown in from home to track down the country’s delinquent princess. Anne has only a few hours out from under her professional responsibilities (“I’m in public relations,” she tells Joe at one point), but Joe and Irving help her make the most of them and ultimately cannot bring themselves to betray her trust.

Certain films appear to have been made under a supremely favorable alignment of the stars: there’s a reason that Casablanca (the cast and crew of which didn’t realize they were working for the ages) is beloved today. Carol Reed’s The Third Man is, albeit on a higher level of artistry, another one that clicks on all cylinders, and I submit that it’s tough to conceive how Roman Holiday could have been any better than it was. Gregory Peck used to joke that for years it was certain that any role he was considered for had first been offered to Cary Grant. So it was with Roman Holiday, and you know what? It wouldn’t have worked as well. True, Peck had to stretch a bit to portray his character’s raffishness, which Grant could have communicated in his sleep, but by the same token it’s hard to imagine Grant matching Peck’s bedrock solidity and decency: there would inevitably have been a knowing smirk to spoil the illusion. The producers wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play the princess: I do not think that the film would be remembered today had they got their way.

Fortunately, posterity has been delivered a perfect movie, shot on location(!) in Rome(!!), a romantic comedy overlaid with a poignant fable of of duty, escape, responsibility, renunciation and decency, in which a princess sacrifices freedom and perhaps love for the obligations laid upon her, conjoined with vast privilege, by rank and birth, and an ambitious reporter foregoes professional success and a nice bundle of cash as chivalry summons him to the better angels of his nature. And to return for a moment to the subject of movie credits, the screenplay was written by one Dalton Trumbo, a gifted victim of the Hollywood “blacklist” whom no one in 1953 would hire because of his supposed communist affiliations. Upon the original release the script was credited to another writer, a common practice at the time, and won an Oscar for best screenplay, which Trumbo of course could not acknowledge or accept. His name was finally restored to the credits in the 1990s, and the Academy at last gave him that Oscar, a gesture he would doubtless have appreciated had he not been, like, dead for a couple of decades by then.

Friday, September 13, 2019

“Are you looking at me?” – One-Eyed Jacks

I’m going to go out on a limb here and call One-Eyed Jacks incontestably the finest western ever shot in Big Sur. This troubled production, helmed by star Marlon Brando after original director Stanley Kubrick quit or was fired (accounts differ), had gone way over schedule and over budget by the time the would-be auteur grew bored with the project and left it in mid-edit for the studio to assemble (the Paramount executives opting, not surprisingly, for the most conventional of the several endings Brando shot, some under duress).

The final product, though scarcely without flaw, nevertheless remains after half a century a compelling if undisciplined piece of work. Karl Malden (”Dad” Longworth) and Brando (”Kid” Rio) portray bank robbers working the lucrative Mexican market who are parted by mischance and meet up again in California after half a decade, having in the meantime followed dramatically different career paths, with Dad pursuing a career in law enforcement while the Kid busies himself for most of this period crafting artisanal license plates. Their reunion is, to put it mildly, fraught.

Beautifully photographed (the Death Valley and Big Sur sequences particularly), with several memorable set pieces. The marvelous supporting cast includes a lot of John Ford regulars, including Ben Johnson and Slim Pickins, and the love interest is the luminous and tragic Pina Pellicer, whose reputed on-set romance with the charismatic leading man turns out to have been a publicist’s cynical fantasy: Pellicer played on Team Sappho. Long neglected, the film fell into the public domain, and has hitherto been available for home viewing only in atrocious no-name “budget” editions which, as an industry informant told me once, “look like they’ve been mastered by someone’s dog.” It has now been meticulously restored for the 2016 Criterion release. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A tale of two adaptations

In considering Andrew Davies’ brilliant 2005 adaptation of Bleak House, it seemed appropriate to revisit both the earlier 1985 television version with Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliot, and also to reread the novel itself as the baseline from which to take the measure of the two productions.

On the evidence so far, long-form television is the best medium yet devised for translating the novel—or at least any novel of significant depth and complexity—into dramatic form. We may perhaps take the recent tendency in motion pictures to draw upon comic books for their source materials as a tacit acknowledgment of this truth. To bring a perfectly faithful rendering of Charles Dickens’ sprawling novel to the screen would likely require an undertaking approaching the brute duration of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, and since on both occasions, 1985 and 2005, the BBC elected to tell the story in eight hours, a certain amount of judicious pruning of the author’s mad proliferation of subplots, a culling of the minor characters who scamper through his pages, was perforce required. Both versions preserved and ably presented the meat of the tale, although each naturally differed from the other in points of emphasis and of omission.

It seems to me that any dramatization of Bleak House will absolutely require the four principal parts to be competently written and performed, and this requirement has been met for both. The roles to which I refer are Lady Dedlock, the haughty aristocrat with the tragic past (Diana Rigg, 1985; Gillian Anderson, 2005), John Jarndyce, the nicest man who ever lived (Denholm Elliot/Denis Lawson), Tulkinghorn, the baleful, censorious lawyer who has it in for Lady D (Peter Vaughan/Charles Dance), and Esther Summerson, the waif grown to young womanhood, and the beating heart of the story (Suzanne Burden/Anna Maxwell Martin). The lovers Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, “the wards in Jardyce,” are capably portrayed in each series, but not, I think anything like as essential to dramatic success as the first four named roles.

Among the secondary characters the actors portraying Smallweed, the moneylender, Krook, the gin-soaked hoarder, Snagsby the stationer, Bucket the detective, Guppy the unctuous striver and Skimpole, the odious freeloader, all acquit themselves honorably (well, obviously dishonorably in Skimpole’s case). The “Jellaby” and “Turveydrop” subplots are scanted in the Davies screenplay and omitted altogether in Arthur Hopcroft’s 1985 treatment, to no great detriment of either dramatization. Dickens purists might object to Davies’ creation of a new character, Clamb, out of, as it were, whole cloth, but this minor figure deftly and economically discharges a few narrative functions that might otherwise have required some cumbersome exertions on the part of the screenplay.

I find no fault in the 1985 Bleak House, and yet in almost every particular it seems to me that the 2005 model wins on points. Taking performances to begin with: Diana Rigg inhabits her role with properly aristocratic icy hauteur, and so conveys her character’s air of condescension in some matters and indifference to the rest that it is a little difficult to see in this fortyish jaded patrician the passionate young woman who gave herself half a lifetime before to a dashing young officer. As thespian craft, and in fidelity to Dickens’ conception, without fault, but as Lady Dedlock’s doom inexorably descends upon her, that remoteness infects us with some of her own detachment, and the resonance of her fate is diminished in like degree. Anderson, equally proud, equally languid, equally brittle, permits us glimpses of the buried grief and remorse she carries within her, and the scene in which she opens her heart briefly to her lost daughter is borne upon the viewer with considerably greater emotional force. I might mention that Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, seems a little too decrepit in the newer production as against the older.

As to John Jarndyce, the preternaturally beneficent master of the eponymous Bleak House, there is little to choose between the performances of Denholm Elliot and Denis Lawson, although the character is better developed in the latter production. Either man could have been swapped into the other script, and would have performed with distinction.

The two portrayals of the malefic Tulkinghorn, legal advisor of long standing to the venerable Dedlock clan, present a fascinating contrast: the writing of the parts, drawing as it does upon the authorial dialogue, is not so very different, but the performances could scarcely stand in greater contrast. I think Dickens might have preferred Peter Vaughan’s portrayal: his Tulkinghorn is dried-out, all dust and stale paper, an embalmed, desiccated presence in the story, whose menace is of the creeping, inexorable kind, like a wasting disease. Charles Dance, by contrast, carries himself with a coiled tension, an icy malevolence, a deadly readiness to strike in a moment—he’s Dracula to Vaughan’s Mummy. I assign Vaughan’s turn, with its musty reek of mildew clinging to buried secrets, points for a greater resemblance to and a very effective depiction of the character as originally conceived, but Dance’s interpretation, carrying with it that whiff of cordite suggesting those same secrets’ imminent detonations, makes for better television, I think.

The character of Esther Summerson is, as I have described her above, the heart of the story in the novel as in both television adaptations, and here each of the dramatizations stand head and shoulders above the source material, because as written Dickens’ Esther, IMHO, is a narrative miscalculation. My wife once remarked how seldom it was that male writers seemed to be able to inhabit female characters. She made this observation in the course of being pleasantly surprised to find an exception to this trend in one of Ward Just’s novels. Bleak House would not have surprised her: those portions of the novel (mercifully not all of them) consisting of Esther’s first-person narration are almost howlingly unpersuasive, and her self-portrayal is timid, mousy, irritatingly self-effacing—one wants to drown her in treacle. When we first meet her, Esther is approximately twenty. The two television Esthers, Suzanne Burden and Anna Maxwell Martin, were twenty-seven and twenty-eight respectively when the 1985 and 2005 dramatizations aired. Both women give more spirited performances than one might have expected, rescuing Esther from the almost sanctimonious self-effacement her original author assigned to her. This said, Burden’s performance is studied and workmanlike. She is the more conventionally pretty of the two actresses (on the page, Esther makes much of her supposed plainness), and also looks somewhat older. Martin, at that point in her career, could have been mistaken for a girl ten years younger, and her unconventional features—in interviews she has lamented a lack of prominent cheekbones—persuade the viewer that Esther might imagine without affected self-deprecation that “my face will never be my fortune.” At the same time, it is equally easy to see how her visage might captivate the lovelorn Guppy, whose initially comic wooing of her gradually shades toward outright stalking.

One consequence of Martin’s more girlish countenance (against which the gravitas of her performance is set off to considerable effect) is that when her guardian Jarndyce at length proposes marriage, there is decidedly something of a squick factor that enters into the scene, largely absent in the 1985 version.

The two Guppies make for an interesting study in similarities and contrasts, having to do principally with the physical differences between the performers. Actor Jonathan Moore, in 1985, is one of those men whose features seem too small for his face. He’s soft, doughy, a veal calf taken human form, where Burn Gorman, twenty years later, is more ferret-like in appearance. The two are equally smarmy and oleaginous in their attentions, and their respective Esthers correspondingly appalled at the unwelcome courtships to which they are subjected. The two performances are on a par, but Gorman’s, as written, is the better developed.

As this brief essay is less a review than a comparison, I’ll conclude merely by saying that both productions are worthy and watchable, but if life’s too short for sixteen hours of Bleak House, then choose the 2005 version.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Monday, May 13, 2019

Paradise Glossed

I have lately revisited Paradise Lost, which I last read with reluctant attention and imperfect comprehension as an inmate in a freshman English Lit survey course nearly half a century ago. Although the work remains tough sledding, not the sort of thing you’d want to take in at a bustling airport in the course of a layover, I found myself at this sere point in my life, with considerably more cultural context under my belt (would that cultural context were all I had accumulated there!), better appreciating it. Milton’s gender politics will not strike the modern reader as particularly or even remotely “woke,” but I’m not a big fan of holding authors long dead to modern standards of belief, if only in the vain hope of soliciting like slack from posterity regarding my own shortcomings. He was a puritan and a republican (as this latter term was understood in the mid-seventeenth century England), having little use for the papacy and monarchy, respectively, as is evident in the poem. His descriptions of the starry firmament, reflecting as they do a cosmology then in flux, are fascinating.

I have taken the liberty of condensing and paraphrasing the “Battle in Heaven” sequence from Book VI, recasting it from blank verse to closet drama:

God: I’m calling this meeting to announce that I’m naming my son—you all know God Junior—CEO. He’s going to be in charge of day-to-day operations going forward. I’ll remain as Chairman, but all you seraphim and cherubim will be reporting to him from now on, which is to say unto eternity. And you know, at this time it might be a good idea for the entire Heavenly Host to do some serious genuflecting, and to sing a few hosannas to Junior, if you want to stay on My good side. Not, you understand, that I have an actual side, being omnipresent and all. It’s, you know, a—what do they call it?—a metaphor. Anyway, just, like, do what he says, and everything will be copacetic. Any questions?

Satan: This is bullshit! You’re jumping your kid up to the executive suite over senior management? What the hell for?

God: Speaking of hell…

Satan: Fuck if I’m going to bow and scrape to this squirt! Who’s with me?

(A full third of the shareholders walk out with him.)

Satan: The Old Man’s losing his grip. We need to mount a hostile takeover, and by that I mean hostile.

(Next day: the dissident faction assaults heaven. They’re outnumbered, and, after a certain amount of cut-and-thrust swordplay, soundly beaten. Plenty of ichor is shed on both sides, but these immaterial spirits have impressive powers of regeneration.)

Team God: Hurrah!

(Overnight: Satan devises cannons.)

(Next day: Team Hell’s artillery routs Team God at first, until TG drops a mountain range on TH. Series now 2-1 Team God.)

Team God: Hallelujah!

(Next day: Team Hell rallies.)

Team God: Jesus, you guys! What’s it going to take?

God’s Son: You rang? [to God] Now, Pop? Now?

God: Sure. Sic ’em, Junior.

(God Junior puts paid to Team Hell, and sends the lot into th’ lake o’ fire.)

God: Good work. Remind me to punish humanity once I get around to creating it next week.

God’s Son: Will do, Pop. Listen, about the whole, you know, “redemption” business…?

(fade to black: “To Be Continued”)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Class in America: a Superficial Meditation

The late Soviet Union used to pride itself on being a “classless society.” This notion, not unlike the USSR’s implementation of socialism, was imperfectly realized*, but it was sufficiently seductive that for many decades, including those of my formative years, it was considered poor form in the United States to dwell too much on class stratification. That “the poor” existed (with the subtext that it was in most cases their own damned fault) was aknowledged, but alongside this there was the vision of great fluidity—essentially an upwelling current—between the strata. Why shouldn’t the shop foreman, having risen that far on grit and initiative, finish up as a Captain of Industry? Although no shop foreman actually ever rose to be the Chairman of General Motors, there was at one time enough social mobility to permit the foreman plausibly to imagine that his son (his son, of course, in that era) would work in the office rather than on the shop floor, and that his grandson might even rise to the professional class: lawyer, doctor, architect. Good times. Today, of course, the USA ranks fairly low in social mobility measured against the other remaining industrialized democracies (and who knows how much longer we will qualify for that cohort?).

But class in America and elsewhere is surely informed by metrics other than tax brackets, isn’t it? We are advised, these latter decades, that a category—class?—of people known as “coastal elites” looks down upon the honest yeomanry, the “real Americans” who live in “flyover country” (I used to think of them as “those funny little rectangular states”). And yet, there are folks in, say, Oklahoma or Indiana who, with three or four times my household income, would regard me as “elite,” so surely that makes us upper class here at The Crumbling Manse™, aren’t we?

Well of course, by Bay Area standards, we’re only getting by, although we have the incomparable advantage, accounts payable-wise, of no children, no carried-over consumer debt, no student loans (at last!) and a mortgage that should be retired within another thirty months, leaving us with a property that has appreciated considerably since its purchase late in the last century. And I am startled to see that our household income puts us slightly north of the ninety-fifth percentile, national median-wise. But again, let’s leave money aside.

In my twenties I was a guest at a suburban manse owned by a friend’s father, a self-made millionaire. “Millionaire” counted for a great deal more in the mid-seventies than it does today. The place was tricked out with ghastly vulgarity: not unlike (although in fairness to my friend, nothing like as over-the-top) Donald Trump’s decorating schemes. During the preceding years I had been received in the homes of other college friends who, by no means as prosperous in terms of fungible assets, rested comfortably on nest eggs of cultural and intellectual attainments. They were, what, upper-middle class, if that? The millionaire was probably worth a dozen or more of these households, but culturally, had they been his neighbors, he would have been the Tony Soprano (I do not mean to impute an organized crime connection, although in the case of the paterfamilias’ line of work the possibility cannot be excluded) on the block.

So about that: the, let us say, solid-waste management guy brings in $x each year, and has rebuilt and remodeled his home in McMansion style on steroids. Across the street the retired Stanford associate professor (household income closer to $.05x of Tony Soprano’s), who purchased his considerably more modest bungalow back when Bay Area houses were affordable, holds state in his comfortable premises, perhaps a tad shabby, perhaps a tad deficient when it comes to gilded faux-Louis XIV furniture. Professor Poor can comfortably discourse about a range of topics that would leave Tony Soprano tongue-tied, although in fairness Tony Soprano knows much about disposing of corpses in municipal landfills, a discipline that would leave Professor Poor utterly bewildered. Tony dismisses Poor because he is, by Soprano standards, well, poor, while the academic regards the solid-waste mogul, his vast, gaudy house, his dreadful decorating scheme (in particular his “library,” consisting of buckram-bound volumes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, purchased by the yard), his indifference to scholarship, with boundless contempt. Each man regards himself as dwelling in the superior “class.”

So how do we evaluate them? Does it matter?

I have connections—I will not say more than that I am obliged not to sunder these—with a couple of individuals, both of them probably in percentile 99.5 (and ardent Trump supporters, natch), who share in addition to considerable personal wealth, an indifference—nay, an outright contempt—toward the “cultural elite,” whom they likely believe personified by “Hollywood celebrities” (so Barbra Streisand claims to care for the poor, but she lives in a Malibu mansion! Hyuck, hyuck, checkmate, libtards!), and also toward erudition and intellectual attainment generally, particularly those that come under the rubric of “liberal arts.” I might have asserted that they would indignantly deny “elite” status until the God-Emperor Trump said this a year ago:
“They always call the other side ‘the elite’. Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do,” the US president said. “I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president and they didn’t. And I’m representing the greatest, smartest, most loyal best people [sic] on Earth — the deplorables, remember that?”
So perhaps they’ll embrace the label after all.

But class: I did not come myself from an educated family—neither of my parents continued their studies past high school—but they were cultural strivers after the fashion of their cohort in the Fifties. Both of them regretted skipping college; both were, I think, keenly conscious of their deficits, and endeavored to better themselves: they subscribed, for example, to a service that mailed the household LPs of “classical” music, not because they actually liked this—their tastes ran more toward Broadway musicals and the “Great American Songbook,”—but because they admired, and aspired to, the stratum of society that did. I owe to them, in part, my own enjoyment of all of these genres. Now might be a good time, incidentally, for the occasional reader to refer to my long-ago entry on “Mid-Century Middlebrow.” Go ahead. I’ll wait. And they aspired for better things for their children in terms of standard of living and culture.

Obviously I come down on the side of class-as-culture rather than class-as-income-bracket, but of course, when it comes time to draw a charmed circle, most of us will devise one with ourselves at the center, as the short-fingered vulgarian so tellingly contrived to do in his 2018 remarks. There is no need, to be sure, for the two categories not to overlap: indeed, at one time they were very nearly congruent, and as the striving, presumptuous middle class that emerged following the New Deal and the postwar reforms is gradually squeezed out of existence—hanging on by its fingertips to the hem of privilege, or cast down to the upper proletariat to be milked by the rentier class—it may be that the “elites” will reunite, with perhaps a significantly larger percentage of semiliterate vulgarian thugs in their ranks. I can hardly wait.

*The existence of the USSR as a countervailing economic and political system, its horrific moral deficits notwithstanding, served as a brake on some of capitalism’s direst impulses, and we are living through some of the consequences of its absence—but this is properly the topic of another entry.

Friday, April 26, 2019

An anniversary

A court order dissolved my marriage, which had been barely on life support for rather over twenty-four months at that point, on this day in 1988. I should not imagine that the co-respondent has retained the date in memory.

Drainward the Course of Empire

Ben Franklin’s remarks delivered near the close of the Constitutional Convention. For a wonder, the words are not modern fabrications devised as ventriloquism:
“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
As impatient children are wont to ask from the back seat: “Are we there yet?” I fear we are.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Legacy Not

Visiting the former workplace last week, I was struck at how what I once regarded as my potential “legacy” has been utterly erased: both the design sense I attempted to inculcate for the last three decades of my alleged career, and the consciousness of institutional history I labored to leave behind.

I might as well never have walked into the place forty years ago. I thought at one time that I was building something, but it turns out that all the while I was piling sand.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

“I never knew the old Vienna…”

(Another in a series of repurposed film reviews)

The process of transmuting a novel from the page to the screen unavoidably involves some measure of diminution, often drastic, of the source material. The Third Man is one of the rare exceptions to that rule, taking as its point of departure one of novelist Graham Greene’s lesser tales and turning it into one of the supreme achievements of postwar film noir. A certain amount of credit is due to Greene himself, who wrote the screenplay, but the author has acknowledged that director Carol Reed’s handling of the material (including some creative differences in points of plot development on which Reed prevailed) was decisive. Also, Orson Welles, whose character dominates the picture all out of proportion to his actual screen time, contributed some of his own dialogue, including the memorable, oft-quoted “cuckoo clock” speech.

A little historical background might be in order here: At the beginning of the nineteenth century, “Germany” consisted of, oh, three or four hundred pissant little kingdoms and principalities (I exaggerate for effect here), plus half a dozen bigger ones, the most powerful of which was the Kingdom of Prussia. In the 1870s, Prussia’s gifted and overbearing statesman Otto von Bismarck oversaw the unification of these disparate components into the German Empire, with the Prussian king as emperor (or “Kaiser”) and Bismarck as the Empire’s first Chancellor. Left outside of this amalgamation was German-speaking Austria, which was already the center of its own empire, then known as Austria-Hungary, and which included in its subject territory large swatches of president-day Hungary, Poland, Romania, the former Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia, and little bits of Italy. Fast forward fifty years, and after being on the losing side in World War I, Austria is shorn of its empire, thereby freeing a lot of its former subjects to go back to their former pastimes of burning one another’s homes, violating one another’s womenfolk and cutting one another’s throats, a social dynamic toward which it sometimes seems as though our own unhappy fractious imperium is latterly tending. Austria, once a big, honking (albeit ramshackle) polyglot multi-ethnic empire, is now reduced to a smallish, mainly German-speaking country (I trust you’re taking notes: there’ll be a quiz afterward). Fast forward another decade or so, and neighboring Germany, under the dynamic leadership of, by golly, a transplanted Austrian, seems to be going great guns compared to its still-demoralized southern neighbor:

Springtime for Hitler and Germany, 
Deutschland is happy and gay!
We’re marching to a faster pace:
Look out, here comes the master race!

The way the Austrians prefer to remember it, Hitler rolled into Vienna in 1938 and forcibly incorporated it into Germany (or the “German Reich,” as they were styling themselves by then) in what became known as the Anschluss. To much of the rest of the world, it didn’t even meet the “date rape” test, and when the Third Reich went to war with the other major powers of the world the following year, the Austrians were not found wanting by their cousins in martial zeal. Hitler’s project ended badly from the Nazi standpoint in 1945, and although Austria had its national identity restored, it was subject like its senior partner to occupation by the victorious belligerents, France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, with each power governing a section of the country.  Vienna, the capital, was likewise subdivided, and it is against this backdrop that the story of The Third Man is laid. Here endeth the historical digression.

Holly Martins is a writer working the lower end of the literary food chain: he pens cowboy novels of the mass-market paperback variety, and although he appears to have a devoted following among the lower socioeconomic strata, he’s not doing so well that he can afford to turn down an invitation to join his old pal Harry Lime, who has set himself up as a successful businessman in occupied Vienna. Precisely what kind of business Lime has been engaged in is not initially made clear, and in any event, the clueless Martins comes to the rather knocked-about city with his head planted securely up his arse, where it remains for much of the movie, and is shocked to discover that Harry has been tragically killed in a traffic accident. Arriving just in time to attend the funeral, Martins attracts the notice of a world-weary British military policeman (a starchy Trevor Howard, with an affect of acerbic disdain he does not trouble to conceal from the American), who advises him to go home. Instead, the writer undertakes his own investigation into the circumstances of Lime’s death, in the course of which he forms an attraction toward his friend’s mistress (she regards him with the sort of affection and esteem in which you and I might hold something we were obliged to scrape from the soles of our shoes), and discovers some very uncomfortable truths about the nature of Lime’s enterprises. Fun factoid: Penicillin had been produced in limited quantities during the war, and for military use only. It did not become available for civilian use in the United States until almost the end of the conflict and was direly needed, and extremely hard to come by, in war-ravaged Central Europe throughout the latter 1940s.

Stylishly photographed (an industry colleague jokingly sent director Reed a spirit level afterward, so that he could set up his cameras straight) and highly atmospheric, and not without its moments of levity, as when the hapless Holly Martins is mistaken for a “serious” novelist and hauled before a literary audience to give a lecture, The Third Man is among the greatest English-language films produced since the last world war, and it’s a little surprising that it isn’t better known. The usual qualifier applies that the pace of editing, although brisk for its time, may be a little downtempo by the reckoning of anyone born since 1980. Some people have found the movie’s once-famous zither music an intolerable annoyance. Final fun factoid: the director’s stepdaughter, Tracy Reed, was the only woman in the cast of Dr. Strangelove (as General Turgidson’s “secretary,” and as “Miss Foreign Affairs” in the Playboy centerfold seen in the B-52 in that film).

Friday, March 15, 2019

Silence, Security, Logic, Prudence

(A few years ago I compiled about fifty film reviews for a cherished younger relative who probably did not follow up any of the garrulous recommendations of her senescent kinsman, so I think I will post selections now and again for the delectation of my one or two followers here. Also, it’s less effort than devising new content.)

Audiences in the pre-Star Wars era (or more properly the pre-2001: A Space Odyssey era, although Kubrick’s extraordinary vision, unlike the space operas of George Lucas, remains sui generis almost half a century later) used to put up with some pretty cheesy sets, costumes and effects in their science fiction—the original “Star Trek” television series was considered cutting-edge in 1966, but even then we could see that the instrumentation on the Enterprise bridge consisted of plywood and Christmas tree lights. So prolific French director Jean Luc Godard (not to be confused with Jean-Luc Picard) decides to do a science fiction flick, and he spends nothing on sets and effects when he makes Alphaville (full title: Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), and that “nothing” is money well (un)spent. The result might be off-putting to an American audience today—hell, they weren’t exactly lining up around the block fifty years ago, and poor old Bosley Crowther, not surprisingly, didn’t know what to make of this shit—but after all, like the most intelligent sci-fi, Alphaville was not about how human beings will live in the future, but about how we’re living now.  That’s the “now” of then, of course, but the sterile, alienating future that Godard saw from 1965, and conveyed by means of shooting some of the most anti-human modernistic architecture of the “new” Paris (trends which have, mercifully, been held in check in Paris proper, which remains one of the fabled beauties among the world’s cities), will not look entirely unfamiliar to contemporary audiences.

We needn’t pay much attention to the story, which is the sheerest twaddle: I don’t think that Godard did. In brief, tough-guy detective Lemmy Caution, a character who had already been played by expat American actor Eddie Constantine in a dozen cheapoid French movies with titles like Dames Get Along, is plucked out of his accustomed genre and into this tongue-in-cheek, highly philosophical production, wherein his character is assigned to go undercover in Alphaville, a city on a planet in a distant galaxy (he arrives there by car).  No one’s striving for verisimilitude here, of course (if they were, you wouldn’t hear “light year” being employed as a measure of time), but particularly to French audiences accustomed to Lemmy Caution’s usual vehicles, this must have seemed like…oh, not just William Shatner cast as Hamlet, but William Shatner playing Captain Kirk as Hamlet and directed by Quentin Tarrantino. Gumshoes don’t get much more hard-boiled than Eddie Constantine, who has what you call a “lived-in” face. He looks like an iguana in a trenchcoat, suffering from a bad hangover. He’s up against the faceless masters of Alphaville, including evil Professor von Braun (a tip o’ the hat to then-NASA chief scientist and ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun) and his most fearsome creation, the supercomputer Alpha 60—depicted, oddly, as a backlit window fan mounted behind what appears to be a set of bedsprings—which is much given to croaking weighty Gallic aphorisms on the order of: “Once we know the number one, we believe that we know the number two, because one plus one equals two. We forget that first we must know the meaning of plus.” “Everything has been said, provided words do not change their meanings, and meanings their words.” “Sometimes reality is too complex for oral communication. But legend embodies it in a form which enables it to spread all over the world.” “Is it not obvious that someone who customarily lives in a state of suffering requires a different sort of religion from a person habitually in a state of well-being?” And so forth. These are not lines of dialogue that would have made it past an American studio script conference fifty-four years ago—or today. It’s all very French and, to my mind, more fun than a barrel of ferrets, but perhaps too weird for casual viewing.

At the time the film was made, it was an article of cultural faith that the mighty Computer (state of the art in 1965 deploying rather less processing power than my watch can draw upon today) could be laid low by the power of paradox (“So who shaves the barber, huh? Answer me that, ya big hunka vacuum tubes!”) or, as here, by human love. Since then, of course, automated systems have grown far more cunning, and if they’re still short of sentience, the average intelligence of the people who directly interact with these has gone way down since the pocket-protector and slide rule set commanded those heights, and the elements of human love, or its counterfeits, are likelier wielded against rather than on behalf of the human consumer.

You probably need to see Alphaville.