Dogman: Manhood and Belonging

Dogman is perfect. It’s a subtle and incisive portrait of a submissive man, who seeks to affirm himself and have the respect of others. Dogman is based on the true story of Pietro De Negri, also known as Er Canaro della Magliana. De Negri, a drug addict and low-level criminal, was considered kind and harmless. He loved his daughter and dogs. Bullied by former boxer Giancarlo Ricci, De Negri traps him in his shop and kills him. De Negri told them Police that he tortured Ricci before he killed him, though, from the autopsy, it seems that the torture was performed after the death of Ricci. Matteo Garrone’s Dogman steers away from torture and any indulgence in violence.

The protagonist of Dogman, Marcello, is meek and servile. He has a dog-grooming business, loves his daughter, and eats and plays football with his friends from the estate. He also deals cocaine and feeds the drug addiction of Simone, a violent bully. Fed up with Simone’s violence, Marcello’s friends decide to hire someone to kill him. They fail. Marcello helps Simone and he’s shunned by his friends. He is no longer one of them. Marcello goes to prison to protect the bully thinking that his submissive loyalty might pay off. It doesn’t.

Marcello is weak and demure, but also loving and trusting. The story and its characters emerge from the small details scattered throughout the film. Garrone’s direct style eschews any romanticisation of poverty, violence, or even love. It never indulges in dramatic shots to impress the audience. Far from the aestheticising mania of much contemporary film-making (Yorgos Lanthimos, Steve McQueen, Pawel Pawlikovsky to name the worst offenders), Dogman has no superfluous shots. Garrone’s film-making feels neo-expressionist. He captures what is underneath: the chagrin of the characters, the social desolation, and the violence. The most striking scene is when Marcello carries the dead body of Simone as the sacrificial lamb killed to be readmitted to his circle of friends. He looks up with devastating innocence. No one’s there.

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Green Book: A Fairy Tale of Class and Race

Set in 1962, Green Book is a quiet, serene, and composed journey into racial, class, and sexual identity. There is not a ripple in this still water, but the beautiful acting of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen makes it worth seeing. The film is inspired by the true story of Italian-American Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who worked as a driver and bodyguard for jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he toured the South.

Following the usual Hollywood formula, Green Book tells a story of friendship between two men who get close by overcoming their differences. Vallelonga, a racist bouncer at first doesn’t want to be the chauffeur of a black man, yet accepts the job and, after a few clashes, gets closer to Shirley as he sees the discrimination and ill-treatment Shirley experiences for being black. Notwithstanding the formulaic structure, the script manages to navigate the intertwined issues of race, homosexuality, and class gracefully.

The title of the film comes from Victor Hugo Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936-1966), a travel guide of hotels, motels, and restaurants in the US that would accept black people. The racism, in the film, is overt, while more subtle is the class identity and self-fashioning of both Shirley and Vallelonga. Tony Vallelonga is a working-class, Italian-American with dubious morality. He courts the favour of a mafia boss by taking away his hat from a club where he was working and then passing as the one who got it back. During the journey with Shirley, he shoplifts a souvenir and gets rebuked by Shirley and told to return it. Shirley’s integrity and refined manners go against the construction of black as deviant and poor.

Don Shirley is sophisticated, elegant, and softly-spoken. He trained as a classical pianist, but mostly plays jazz (not the hot stuff) to rich white people. He surprises Tony for his lack of interest in ‘black music.’ Don shows disdain for it and resents the expectation that he ought to like ‘black music.’ He has nothing but contempt for the stereotypical image of black pianists playing blues with a glass of whiskey on their piano. He has fashioned for himself an individual identity as a urbane and cosmopolitan. At his penthouse, he is surrounded by African artifacts and meets Vallelonga in African-inspired clothes. Yet, his individuality is frustrated by the homophobia, racism, and segregation of the era. He cannot be a classical pianist in a white man’s world.

Don Shirley rejects the black vernacular language, the heteronormative masculinity, and low socio-economic status associated with blackness (see Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness). He performs a different kind of blackness, one that is reminiscent of James Baldwin. Don’s elegant masculinity is articulated through language: how he speaks and how he writes. He dictates to Tony what to write in his letters to his wife. Son of Jamaican immigrants, Don has become wealthy and well-connected. When unfairly held in jail, he calls none other than Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. In performing a blackness that refuses to play to its political character as much as its deviant image, Don Shirley dismantles comforting categories of sex and race. His individuality is dignified and highly disruptive.

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BlacKkKlansman: Performing Race and Purity

Once a great director, with BlacKkKlansman Spike Lee makes a pedagogical fudge wrapped in cheap humour. BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. He does so by establishing contact with Klan’s leaders on the phone and through a Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver). Spike Lee oscillates between teaching his audience about American history and identity politics and portraying the KKK as fools, between tragic and comic mishandling both. Ironically, Tarantino’s Django Unchained made fun of the KKK effortlessly, a film Lee vowed never to watch Tarantino’s film because he felt it was disrespectful.

In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee has played it safe giving us a crowd-pleaser, but one that is muddled and weakened by the tension between comedy and melodrama. Gone are Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing with their uncompromising look into a messy reality told with ironic anger. The only poignant scenes are the real footage of Charlottesville’s ‘Unite the Right Rally,’ where a white supremacist drove his car deliberately into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters and killed Heather Heyer, to whom the film is dedicated. As we face with repugnant political rhetoric and mistrust of democratic institutions and politics, we need more than a comforting lesson in history. We need a window on the everyday racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and prejudice against all those who don’t conform. We need someone who can tell that the experience of being Other with no frills, no romanticism, and no easy good and bad dichotomy.  We need the old Spike.

Buried underneath the self-satisfied humour and self-righteous preachingBlacKkKlansman offers a few glimpses of the making of racial identity that are worth considering; in particular, it touches on the embodied and cultural aspects of race and Jewish racial identity. Race is embodied difference but also performative. Ron Stallworth does a ‘white voice’ to fool the Klan, but can only infiltrate it because of the ‘white body’ of his colleague Flip Zimmerman. To persuade his boss to let him go under cover with the Klan, Ron tells him there are those who speak ‘King’s English’ and those who speak ‘Jive’. He’s perfectly fluent in both. Ron needs Flip Zimmerman to play him as a white man with the Klan. In a moment of camaraderie, under instruction from Ron, Flip tries to perform a speech by a black power leader, only to be outperformed by another colleague (on blackness, performance, and politics see Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness).

The construction of identity is highly symbolical and cultural. In the film, the KKK repertoire of language, symbols, and rituals is contrasted with that of the Black Power Movement. The storytelling of White Supremacists watching DW Griffiths’ A Birth of a Nation, is counterposed with Harry Belafonte’s telling of the lynching of black people. In the very few moments when Spike Lee puts the pedagogical impulse aside, a more subtle dimension of identity emerges, as in the case of Zimmerman facing up to his Jewishness.

Confronted with the purity boundaries of the Klan, he finds himself thinking about rituals and heritage. Flip’s Jewishness is called out by a colleague mentioning his ‘Jewish necklace.’ Flip replies that ‘it’s not a Jewish necklace, but the Star of David.’ Asked whether he’s Jewish, he says: ‘I don’t know. Am I?’ Flip tells Ron that he was not raised to be Jewish, it was never part of his life, he had never gone to bar mitzvahs, and never had a bar mitzvah. He never had Jewish friends, he was just another ‘white kid’ until the Klan shattered that self-understanding. Identity is social, not just personal. Today’s celebration of self-identity misses the fact that our identity doesn’t stop at how we see ourselves but includes how others see us. 

Identity politics rightly problematised the collective identity of a country by showing how power had delegitimised the Other and legitimised hierarchies based on race, religion, gender etc. Liberal universalism is not enough because it is not a neutral worldview. The emphasis on difference has been necessary in advancing the legitimacy of different perspectives and experiences. That has meant establishing identity markers, formulating the essence of an identity, and establishing boundaries. This process of identity-making can be dogmatic, reifying, and essentialistic. I believe it needs to be balanced out with a degree of universalistic ethics.

Boundaries are an inescapable reality; they are never clear cut and never done once and for all. In my own theoretical framework, I distinguish between purity and compassion, where purity is a concern for norms and compassion is a concern for the person. Boundaries emerge from the interplay between the two. Either extreme can be destructive. Extreme compassion can lead to a preference for accepting a person no matter what and a denial of justice, while extreme purity (be that cultural, normative, biological or other) will lead to exclusionary practices, and judgmentalism. This is not a division between Liberal and Conservative, only one between those who are more concerned about defining an identity and affirming boundaries, and those who are more concerned about being inclusive and questioning boundaries. Neither is superior to the other. At a time of clashes across political positions on identity issues (including gender), it might be better to appreciate our overlapping identities that are always in becoming.

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The Post: Nixon-Trump, Bullshit, and the Forgotten Woman

The flawed comparison of Nixon with Trump is pursued through a trite investigative structure, which leaves a much more interesting story unexplored: the story of a woman who takes ownership of her own self.

There are times when the story-teller gets the story wrong. This is one of those times. Spielberg wanted badly to make a movie to criticise Trump and appeal to Americans’ respect for the rule of law. To do so, he used as parallel Richard Nixon and his attempt at silencing the publication of the Pentagon Papers recording US involvement in Vietnam. In doing so, the story of the woman who published the Papers plays second fiddle.

Katharine Graham lived in the shadow of her father, Eugene Meyer, publisher-owner of the Washington Post, and of her husband, Phil Graham. Meyer made Graham publisher after becoming President of the World Bank. Graham ‘inherited’ the Post through his marriage to Katharine. Yet it is Katharine who finds herself in the middle of a national crisis in 1971. Bossed about by male editors and advisers, Katharine is portrayed as unsure when preparing the Post to go ‘public’ on the stock market. Daniel Ellsberg, military analyst at the State Department, leaks the Pentagon Papers first to the New York Times, which gets a court injunction, and then to the Washington Post. As such, the Post faces not only criminal charges but contempt of court. Graham publishes the Papers.

In publishing the Vietnam Papers, Katharine Graham becomes her own self. She comes out of the shadows and takes a stand, a stand that might ruin her newspaper, the legacy of her father and husband. She goes ahead anyway. Yet, as far as the film is concerned, she’s just a daughter and wife. The only thing ‘topical’ of this film is today’s obsessive retro nostalgia, which comes with 1970s sexism. We are not given any clues to her identity. Was she a woman frustrated by her inferior position or was she satisfied with it and uncomfortable at being thrown to the frontline? What was her relationship with her father and with her husband? Spielberg falls for the romantic crusade of fearless journalism, instead of giving a portrait of woman coming out of the shadows.

In pursuing a critique of Trump by a flawed association with Nixon, Spielberg’s The Post misses the story and the point. If Spielberg really wanted to draw a parallel between Nixon and Trump, he should have focused on the lies not the lack of respect for the rule of law. The lies about the Vietnam War are the seeds of today’s disenchantment. The Government lied about a war, a war that has torn the United States apart and caused over 3 million deaths. Nixon didn’t start the war or the lies, but, once President, he tried to suppress the truth. The Vietnam War was a pivotal moment in the history of the United States. Vietnam becomes the political and cultural event that shapes the new consciousness of the 1960s. It divided America between liberal and conservative. The rebellious sixties were the time of civil rights, the women’s liberation, the gay liberation, but also of citizens wanting to play a role in the public sphere and demanding reforms. They were was also the time of riots, of police violence (think Kent State University shooting), of the boom of the consumer economy, and of narcissistic self-expression.

The machine of the state didn’t reform enough, the national state economy went bust with the oil crisis in 1974 and and subsequent libertarian politics (to put it crudely), the dismantling of regulations that made the market a little fairer allowed the growth of corporations that buy political candidates. The betrayal of that new consciousness has left a deep suspicion of authority, cynicism, and, among conservatives, an under siege mentality. The lies have become bullshit. Those who talk bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt defines it, are not just lying, saying something that is not true; rather bullshitters are not interested in the veracity of the facts they’re talking about. They disregard the truth completely.

The bullshitter … does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. (see Frankfurt)

In the post-truth era, we are at risk of ceasing to believe in the possibility of truth. That’s how we end up with the questioning or outright rejection of expert knowledge. A little scepticism is healthy. After all, we get lied a lot. The US government lied on Vietnam, on their support of the Contras, the UK and US governments lied about Iraq, local government lied about the safety of water in Flint, corporates lie everyday,  often to cheat (think car emissions and more). No wonder we think it’s all bullshit. Trump thrives on bullshit and emotional arousal, not just of his followers but also of his ‘enemies.’ After all, he’s an entertainer, a TV celebrity who has mastered what TV has been doing for decades: emotional manipulation and bullshit (see my analysis of Vice).

The means of communications are instant and global, making fact-checking and reflection more difficult. Submerged in bullshit from entertainers, infotainers, and conspiracy-tainers, it is easy to become the victim of cynicism and give up on ever being able to ascertain the truth (not just facts, but also values), can ‘suspicion’ help us discover the truth? The ‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’ as Ricoeur phrased it, is the sceptical attitude that seeks to unmask the lies and illusions of consciousness. We are not just lied to, we are also imbued with an understanding of reality (e.g. gender), values, and norms that reflect power relations, social structures, and that often oppress specific sections of the population (women, ethnic minorities, LGBT, disabled people etc.). Suspicion that can let us go beyond superficial understandings of reality, but it also carries the risk of relativism (as the excesses of post-structuralism and postmodernism showed us). Bullshit thrives today because too many are suspicious for suspicion’s sake. Disenchanted, frustrated, and insecure, we despair that truth is at all possible because it is not available once and for all and in clear and certain terms. Understanding truth was never meant to be easy. 

Posted in America, consciousness, democracy, disenchantment, emotions, entertainment, epistemology of suspicion, gender, journalism, knowledge/epistemology, Paul Ricoeur, personhood, politics, postmodernism, reality, Sixties Counterculture, The Big Short, The Post, Truth, Uncategorized, Vice, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roma: Emotionless Aestheticisation for a Disenchanted Era

Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma, based on his childhood memories, is a cold look at how women cope in a man’s world. It is is aesthetic escapism. It has been wrongly associated with Italian neo-realism. Roma lacks the pathos of neo-realistic films. It has no characters either. It is a very distant and aestheticised look at a reality in which we don’t participate in. The characters are not simply left unexplored, they are barely in the picture. There are no close-ups. The actors are not the focus of the film. When the protagonist, Cleo, tells her estranged boyfriend that she’s pregnant, he shrugs his responsibility and calls her a whore. She has her back to us. At a moment of civil strife and violence, no close ups, no tension, no fear. When Cleo gives birth, we see her turned back looking at the doctors in the background trying in vain to reanimate the baby. It’s not like the actors forgot where the camera was, the director does not want us to see the pain of the mother. He wants us detached.

Many argue that the cinematography, done by Cuaròn himself, is beautiful. It isn’t. It is a series of detached shots interspersed with artistic stills, where the scene is aestheticised. It needs to strike the mind, not the heart. It falls in line with much of contemporary cinematography that seems to aim for art galleries rather than cinemas. This aesthetic style is reminiscent of Sebastião Salgado’s photography, but without the drama and vitality of Salgado’s photos. It is closer to the photography of National Geographic: striking and manipulative. It is a far cry from Lenczewski’s and Zal’s cinematography of Ida, a bad but beautifully shot film (see my analysis). A film cinematography is not still photography. The aestheticised look is detached and impersonal.

Nothing wrong with detachment per se, if you have something to say. In the 1960s and 1970s, Luis Buñuel made a cinema that was often detached, but that detachment was ironic and satirical. Irony implies that we have a truth standpoint. We know the truth and want to show the hypocrisy of society, in particular of the powerful, and shame them. Buñuel’s cinema gave voice to moral outrage. It was often very poetic and, as in the case of Viridiana, it was of striking purity. Detached was perhaps also Antonio Pietrangeli, who captured perfectly the disorientation of individuals in a changing society in a quasi-journalistic style. There is nothing remotely similar today. Vice’s clumsy attempt at satire are not grounded in a clear truth/moral standpoint and thus fall flat (see my analysis).

Cuaròn lacks the social critique and artistic talent of Buñuel. He cannot even be compared with other ‘cold’ film directors, like Terrence Malick,  Michael Haneke, and Pawel Pawlikowski, who are just as pretentious and directionless, but have a wider horizon.

This wave of cold cinema seems to be a sign of disquiet with today’s emotional upheaval and – what may seem as – irrationality. The lack of pathos and of characters, combined with photographic self-indulgence, make this cinema an aesthetic escape from a reality where emotions run wild. Film directors (but also contemporary photographers, artists, and writers) want nothing to do with it. They run away from the anger and resentment of Trump followers, Brexiters, Gilets Jaunes (no, I’m not suggesting they have the same politics, only the same anger!).

This detachment without irony is disenchantment. It is Weber’s Entzauberung, demystification, the loss of belief in the mystery and value of existence. Nothing has value. All of our reality, for Weber, becomes objectified in an era of positivistic science, where only the scientific materialistic understanding of it is legitimate. Other forms of knowing (artistic, religious) are delegitimised. Knowledge is impersonal, detached, and a means to an end. There is no deeper universal truth. 

Absent from Cuaròn’s Roma are not only human emotions and people, but also reflection, let alone a social critique. The result is bland. It has enough pretty stills to flatter the egos of viewers, who mistake artifice for value, detachment for depth.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? Authenticity and Faking It

The film is based on the true story of the biographer Lee Israel, whose career went downhill after her second ill-fated biography of Estée Lauder. She tried to make a living as a copy-editor and then through forging letters of famous dead writers, such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. That’s her claim to fame and, in her own opinion, her best work.

The film touches on authenticity in writing, in life, and the ‘fakeness’ required to have commercial fame, or simply stay afloat. Melissa McCarthy, as Lee, is subtle and nuanced, but the script is not sophisticated enough to really convey the tragic figure of Lee battling the tension between developing an authentic voice and negotiating the fake-machine of the publishing industry.

The film starts with Lee drinking whisky while correcting a proof. She tells off a couple of women who were making negative comments about her. After being reminded that there’s no drinking or eating in the office, she tells people to fuck off and gets sacked. The intention is supposedly to portray her as ‘authentic’ for not complying with the social expectations and norms of the office, but the drinking and scurrilous language is the trite trope of anti-comformist writers that now feels like parody.

Lee’s authenticity lies in impersonating famous writers

Lee was a ‘difficult’ person, who struggled with personal relationships and was an alcoholic. The film falls prey of the stereotypical view of alcohol and loneliness as marks of authenticity in opposition to conventional ‘marriage & kids in suburbia.’ This old-fashioned stereotype weakens the attempt at making Lee as the authentic heroine battling against a fake world.

Lee is not Dorothy Parker and her ‘vicious circle,’ nor is she a Fitzgerald ‘flapper.’ Her longing for those times testifies alienation from the present, but this doesn’t get more than a passing nod. Lee needed money and began forging letters by writing in the style of famous writers. Paradoxically, she gains her own self, as a writer, by impersonating others.

Success is a game of public relations, of faking it

Lee rails against her editor because Tom Clancy gets millions to write right-wing propaganda while she gets nothing. She doesn’t play the game. She can’t ‘make it’ within an industry that wants shameless self-promotion, submission to the tastes of the public and critics, and the endless courting of people in literary circles. She’s the dour introvert who is socially isolated. Pity the filmmakers didn’t realise that her authenticity doesn’t simply lie in being unable to comply with social demands, but in her ability to impersonate others.

Lee’s forged letters are bought as authentic and acknowledged as authentic in books. The film seeks to uncover this (material) authenticity as constructed, the result of the game of buyers and sellers. This disenchanted outlook, which seems to have taken postmodern relativism to the letter, fails to recognise that there are some criteria of authenticity, which is why Lee gets caught and sentenced to house arrests and five years probation. Determining documentary authenticity is complex and of course is the result of multiple agents, who construct it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all just made up. It’s just how reality ‘works’ (see Latour!).

Is authenticity being distinctive of being self-aware?

In court, Lee states that she is not sorry for what she has done and that she’s proud of her work (the forged letters). Alas, the writing makes for a very stereotypical scene, although Melissa McCarthy plays it with nuance and succeeds in conveying Lee’s becoming aware of her own self and affirming herself. This is authenticity, awareness of social conditioning and self-transcendence (see my Forthcoming book). She says she’s not ‘a writer,’ in the sense that she hasn’t got her ‘own voice.’ The filmmakers seem to think that authenticity requires having a distinctive style, but what if your distinctiveness is being good at impersonating others? This is what actors do all the time. Melissa McCarthy is a splendid example of the performance of authenticity.

At the end of the film, Lee writes a letter to a merchant, impersonating Dorothy Parker, to question the authenticity of the letter he has on the shop window by the author. The merchant first takes the letter out of the shelf, then puts it back. The market wins and Lee loses. This disenchanted take on authenticity (notwithstanding the numerous contradictions throughout the film), makes the film primarily concerned with questioning authenticity and revealing it for being but the result of what buyers and sellers think. At the same time, the film also seeks to hang on to the its heroine whose social isolation is supposedly proof of her authenticity, thus missing Lee’s authenticity: her uncanny ability of imaging another and making them alive.

Posted in authenticity, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, capitalism, fake, postmodernism, social conventions, society, success, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vice. Trumpesque Hollywood for a Disenchanted Era

Vice is a missed opportunity. A more coherent, subtle, and ironical effort could have presented Dick Cheney as a key actor in ushering in the descent into the current paranoia, conspiracy theories, and anti-establishment populism. Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense to George Bush and Vice President to George W. Bush. He played a key role in the ‘radicalization’ of the Republican Party and in taking advantage of the 9/11 attacks to invade Iraq. Iraq broke new ground in the amount and quality of lies governments are prepared to tell their citizens. Reality didn’t matter anymore. The emotions aroused through a bogeyman (Saddam Hussein) and terror were all that was needed to justify callous action at home (Patriot Act) and abroad.

In the clumsy hands of Adam McKay, the film Vice becomes an example of our loss of a moral and political compass. The film is Trumpesque in its portrayal of Dick Cheney as the puppet-master holding the strings of President George W Bush. Thanks to Christian Bale’s interpretation, Cheney is not cartoonish, but an evil shadowy figure that controls everything and everybody. At times it feels like it’s evil for evil’s sake, which might explain why Christian Bale stated that he found the inspiration for his interpretation of Cheney in the devil. The problem is that Cheney is a real human being not the incarnation of the devil. It has been noted that Cheney shares very much the conservative ideology of the Republican Party. He’s not a cynical operator, but deeply ideological. The film does nothing to help us understand who Cheney really is.

There is no sense of history in the film Vice, no sense that the ideas and beliefs that have shaped decades have anything to do with Dick Cheney and the brutalization of the American democracy during the Presidency of George W. Bush. In Vice, beliefs are laughed out of the picture in an exchange between Donald Rumsfeld and a young Cheney. This suggests that Cheney & co. had no beliefs only naked self-interest, except the two are not mutually exclusive. McKay doesn’t get belief (see my analysis of The Big Short); he thus fails to understand its legitimizing power. Beliefs play an important role in legitimizing how people understand reality and consequently what is justified. That includes politicians of all stripes, whose beliefs about reality and what is right and wrong legitimize the actions they take.

Some might come to question their beliefs, as Alan Greenspan did, to some extent, following the 2008 economic crisis, while others cling to them to preserve how they understand themselves and the world around them. If you start questioning what you think you know, you lose your (epistemological) compass, you don’t know what you know about reality and how to understand it. To cite none other than Donald Rumsfeld, one’s ‘known knows’ risk becoming ‘unknown unknowns’. Once the certainties have gone, on what do you base yourself to judge a situation?

We’ve become suspicious of authority because our governments have lied to us, egregiously so about the Vietnam War (do watch Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War). The 1960s were a turning point for the re-making of Western society (and beyond). The sixties brought about the overdue critique of cultural, economic, and social hegemonies. Society in the image of white middle class Christian men became fractured. Identity politics emerged to rectify a too often monolithic view that excluded the perspective and experience of the Other (women, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT, disabled people etc.). Identity politics began to question Western society’s self-image and self-understanding and try to expand it to include the Other (see Roman J. Israel, esq.). Identity politics has often become too wedded to the critique of society, given too readily epistemological privilege to the Other, and sometimes denied any universality. In the face of continuous injustice, there is no common ground, only oppression to be denounced. The frustrating tardiness of progress makes difficult to hope for effective change. Today’s assaults on hard-won freedoms and rights are enough to make anyone a nihilist.

That’s the problem. On one hand, the social upheaval of the sixties, with its ‘liberation’ for women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT, and working class claims, has been felt (wrongly) like a threat by the white middle class male hegemony. This has made some feel under siege, which is reflected in current populism. On the other hand, the relentless critique of society, especially in the 1970s, has also engendered cynicism (see my analysis of The Post). The brief hope of the sixties was killed by the bullets who killed John and Bob Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. As the economic boom gave way to recession, the white male rich became priority in the name of individual freedom and while paying lip service to the middle classes, who got shafted with everybody else.

Vice falls flat on its pretensions to be a critique of a corrupt system. This is primarily because it does not shine a light on the murky side of business and politics as the current deluge of investigative documentaries do, from a moral standpoint. McKay’s crass humour (albeit toned down from what it was in The Big Short) winks at Cheney. Vice does not uphold any morality or truth on which basis to denounce Cheney. It embraces contemporary disenchantment and nihilism turning everything, including torture and war, into entertainment. It doesn’t even leave a bad taste in your mouth; it leaves no taste.

Vice is Trumpesque. It’s an instance of postmodern hyperreality. As Baudrillard argued, in a world dominated by media, people prefer the hyperreal, the fake reality of Disney theme-parks, reality TV, and celebrities. It’s all a game. It’s entertainment. The boundaries between entertainment and the paranoia of conspiracy theorists become blurred, as in the case of Pizzagate and Alex Jones‘ infowars. The fragmentation and diversification of media has created a vacuum of authoritativeness and trustworthiness leading to a deep mistrust for the establishment. Reality fades away. There’s nothing in which we can believe. In embracing such disenchantment and nihilism, Vice is an expression of the current paranoia that authorities lie to us, use us, and poison us.

The film’s bad humour prevents any sense of horror for the torture and killing, wanted by the second Bush administration. The film does not punch, it bores. It’s a bad TV show. Everything melts into meaningless entertainment. In the final scene, Cheney speaks to camera saying that he did ‘what you asked.’ He doesn’t sound like the devil, but a TV celebrity blaming the excesses of his show on the tastes of the audience.  Time to switch off the TV.

Posted in America, belief, democracy, disenchantment, Hyperreality, identity politics, knowledge/epistemology, morality, politics, postmodernism, power, Sixties Counterculture, society, Truth, Vice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roman J. Israel Esq.: Denzel Washington and Identity Politics

The film Roman J. Israel Esq. is incredibly frustrating. It has a strong moral question at the core, but it is totally unable to communicate it in a credible way. It is the story of a socially awkward and idealistic criminal defence lawyer, played by Denzel Washington. Roman has been an activist in the 1970s race liberation movement. He has never defended a case in court and lacks the skills to do so. He’s at odds with a society where the law is administered through a profit-making industry, which is blind to principle. He’s ultimately defeated because he cannot adapt enough to be part of the world, and, at the same time, falls for the seduction of money. The plot is contrived with things happening just to make a point.

The main weakness is the characterisation of Roman. Had it not been for the really great sensitivity and garb of Denzel Washington, Roman would have been little more than the stereotypical Hollywood genius: scruffy, obsessive, and with a great memory. He speaks in – what Hollywood writers think as – academic political language, but it’s just bad writing. Roman doesn’t speak the language of the 1970s liberation movements. He’s supposed to be passionate but he mostly blabbers meaningless sentences with no conviction.

The most cringing point comes when Roman gives a speech arguing for the significance of protest and gets into a row with a feminist who feels patronised when Roman tells a guy to give up his seat for the woman. The incident is supposedly trying to tell us that Roman is old-fashioned and is not familiar with contemporary equality issues, but it only shows how clueless the writer is. There have been significant debates since the 1970s internal to feminism, ‘liberation movements’, and identity politics that could have been used. For instance, instead of a petty discussion on manners, there could have been a row on radical action. That would have shown different ways of thinking and different ‘positionalities’. That would require a writer with a smidge of familiarity with these debates, Dan Gilroy ain’t that.

It would have been nice to get a sense of the significance of identity politics, given that it is often attacked as divisive ‘grievance politics’. At its core identity politics sought to write in those who had been written out, excluded, or objectified. It was the vindication of the dignity of the Other, those seen from the perspective of ‘the man’ = white men. It was an identity crisis, a way to put into question an understanding of the ‘default human’ as man, white (and middle/upper class, Protestant etc.), and show that the class that had power had shaped the way we all understand reality. It was also an identity crisis in the sense that women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people needed their own stories, their own culture so not to be an ‘add-on’ to the hegemonic story of ‘the man’.

Identity politics was not universalistic because that would have made impossible the questioning of the hegemonic story as well as the recovery of the stories and perspectives of the Other. There are many pitfalls in this process. There will always be those who want to impose their experience and perspective as the authentic ones or consider some features of it as essential. Identity work is messy, but it does not preclude a universalist stand point. Simone de Beauvoir was the philosopher who drew the attention to the process of Othering and named it, but also went beyond it by making the Other part of the self. In Pyrrhus and Cyneas, we are truly free only when others are also free.

Posted in 'othering', America, authenticity, consciousness, films, gender, identity politics, justice, politics, power, race, race/diversity, Roman J. Israel Esq. | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Testing Goodness and the American Family

The Netflix series comes from the 1990s programme Sabrina The Teenage Witch. It is slightly tainted by Hollywood obsessive market segmentation which dictates specific styles and motifs to appeal to specific demographics; yet this Sabrina is really not for young impressionable girls. It is a dark tale of family and Satanism.

No Witchcraft, but Satanism

There’s nothing in the series that is remotely relevant to witchcraft, except for some black magic (necromancy). There’s also no feminist witchcraft, which had a strong presence in America in the 1970s (with the most famous witch being Starhawk, author of The Spiral Dance). Sabrina’s friends set up a feminist club named WICCA, but no connection is made between feminism and witchcraft or Wicca (something that was done much better by The Coven, American Horror Story, Season 3). Sabrina’s friends are not witches but all teenagers would have at least some awareness of witchcraft as fantasy. It is extraordinary how people in films/TV are often devoid of any knowledge of popular culture, including that coming from films.

There’s also no reference to any witchcraft narrative or practice, in terms of nature and in terms of magic/consciousness (see Magliocco, Witching Culture). In this series, nature is completely absent, which is odd given the urgency of Climate Change. The focus on nature is also what grounds much witchcraft and Paganism and distinguishes them from Christianity, which focuses on the salvation of human beings in the other-world. Witchcraft is about the here and now, the spiritual in human beings and nature, human consciousness and personal moral development. Sabrina and her family are not witches but Satanists, understood according to the classical Christian mythology in opposition to Christianity and very much unlike the ‘self-religion’ of Satanists today (see Petersen, Contemporary Religious Satanism).

The Boundaries of Goodness

Sabrina is ‘half-witch and half-human:’ her mother was human and her father a warlock, Sabrina was brought up by her witch aunts, after the death of her parents. This ‘biological’ element turns being a witch into some sort of race, according to a biological and deterministic notion of race. This is something that is unfortunately all too common in the portrayal of witchcraft in popular culture (think Harry Potter). It is racist and severs any connection with witchcraft as a spiritual path. It tends to be all about one’s powers and being chosen. It speaks of the individualistic elitism of American society where the individual needs to be in some way special (and excel in sport or business if a man, or in beauty if a woman. Yuk!)

Sabrina is perhaps destined to be a witch, but she is manipulated into following that path by a powerful witch. At every step, Sabrina gets closer to the ‘dark path’ of devil worship. There are two significant ‘tests’ in balancing goodness and crossing the boundary between human and Satanist.

In the first test, Sabrina performs necromancy to bring back to life her boyfriend’s brother. She slashes the throat of another witch (thinking that she’ll be able to bring her back), in exchange for the life of her boyfriend’s brother. Against the warning of her cousin, a warlock, and the hesitancy of another witch-in-training, Sabrina goes ahead anyway, like the entitled teenager she is. Her cousin tells her that by doing necromancy, she’s crossed a line. She has, the line between human and Satanist, but she has also taken another step in growing up. Sabrina had put her love for a human ahead of all other considerations, including whether the means justify the ends. Now, she has to face the repercussions of her gruesome act and learn about consequences.

The second test comes from the barbaric ritual of witches celebrating by eating a selected witch, the Queen of the Feast. This echoes the perennial fear of whoever is seen as the Other eating children (witches, Jews, heretics etc.). Sabrina takes a stance against the practice by revealing that the selection for the victim was rigged. This is a clear moral boundary that separates Sabrina, but also her aunts, from the coven. She, her aunts, and a ‘conscientious objector,’ refuse to take part in the ritual.

Faith in the Family

The family seems to be the sacred element in most, if not all, American TV series. It doesn’t matter if one lies and murders (Once Upon A Time), makes and traffics drugs (Breaking Bad), or launders money (Ozark Continue reading

Posted in Christianity, family, fantasy/supernatural, gender, good & evil, Halloween, horror, magic, morality, myth, religion, ritual, Sabrina, Satanism, TV, witchcraft | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Founder – a dark capitalist fairy-tale

The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, who turned a modest fast-food restaurant into McDonald’s by betraying the integrity, hard work, and perseverance. It espouses the American virtues of visionary entrepreneurship and self-made success while showing how success is really won: by stealth and greed.

In the first part of the film, Kroc is a struggling salesman selling milkshake mixers in 1954. One day he stumbles across a restaurant run by two brothers, Maurice “Mac” and Richard “Dick” McDonald, where the food is ready straight away and is served in a bag. No cutlery, no plate, no waiting. The fast-food idea is the brain-child of the brothers and clearly inspired by the Fordist model of production. Kroc persuades the brothers to allow him to set up franchises. The brothers want to maintain quality standards so they demand to approve any changes.

Kroc is at first portrayed as an entrepreneur who is genuinely inspired by the brothers’ initiative and resourcefulness. He wants to help them and succeed with them. The film celebrates the McDonald brothers’ vision, industry, and constancy. They tried, failed, tried again, and again. They are the heroes who do not want to compromise their restaurant’s standards, but they also lack flexibility and want to rein in Kroc’s ambitious plans. Kroc is the champion of the self-made man who shuns business aristocracies. Kroc thinks big, loves people who are enterprising, who take risks, who want to better themselves. He employs a Jewish Bible salesman because of his work ethic to ensure standards are kept across restaurants. Then the Protestant-capitalist fairy-tale turns dark.

It begins with swapping milkshakes with powdered ones to cut the costs of refrigeration. The McDonald brothers would not have it, but Kroc follows the advice of a financial consultant, Harry Sonneborn, who tells him that he can provide land to the franchises and thus go around the brothers’ authority. The enterprising Kroc quickly becomes the greedy businessman who steals the business, the name, and the girl. Kroc separates from the McDonald brothers taking all the franchises and their surname while reneging on the promise of giving them 1% annual royalty, divorces his wife and marries the wife of a restaurant owner/investor.

Kroc wanted the name ‘McDonald’ because it spoke of America. His Polish sounding name could not be the American institution Kroc wanted McDonald’s to become. The land of opportunity requires many sacrifices. On the altar of success, the flame burns integrity and hard-work. The film sheds a light on the inherent contradictions of capitalist culture. Weber claimed, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that there was an affinity between Protestant methodical work and personal self-control, and the systematic accumulation of the capitalist. The film reaffirms the virtues of industry, self-reliance, and perseverance, whilst showing that it is capitalism that betrays them. It is a subtle but scathing critique of the moral narratives used to legitimise capitalism and the reality behind the mask.

Posted in America, American dream, authenticity, capitalism, finance/economics, food, Max Weber, morality, nation, Protestantism, The Founder | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment