Category ►►► Movie Madness and Fractured Flickers
March 29, 2012
Must... Control... Der Krapp... Flashback...!
So when I see the headline on Drudge...
saved by bear...
...The first thought that leapt into my mind was, "Girl attacked by giant dinosaur, saved by King Kong!"
Have I overdosed on reading Brad Linaweaver's brilliant Der Krapp movie reviews, or what?
February 28, 2012
Yes, Act of Valor Is Propaganda - But What Glorious Propaganda!
Let's mull and contemplate a movie about a new kind of warfare, and the new, informal, ad-hoc, improvisational kind of men who fight that new kind of war.
Let's make a movie with no real plot in the classic sense, no growth in the characters, no mental or emotional breakdowns. A movie where nobody ever questions his own morality in defending his country. A movie where, when a compadre is killed in battle, the others just carry on the fight, instead of crouching over the body and erupting into hysterical melodrama.
One where, in a supreme coup of "patriotism," the director hires actors who are actually current or former military personnel, from the very same kind of unit portrayed in the film. How little, patriotic hearts must go pitter-pat at such indulgence!
By all means, let's show the unenlightened booboisie, the American people, a movie comprising one victorious battle after another, even though we all know the overarching campaign is a lost cause. Never mind the inarguable facts; show the popcorn munchers a movie where the men are always willing to make "sacrifices," and where the United States is always the good guy who will ultimately triumph, no matter how bad things may look.
Even when there's a setback, by all means, show us only soldiers who suck it up and do it better next time -- and without the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth that constitutes drama in the minds of sophisticated New York film crickets. No doubts, no introspection, no existential angst; how is that realistic? How does that show the inevitable bestialization of the warmongers?
A movie with no "boy meets girl" or even "boy meets boy" love story, and where alternative lifestyles simply don't exist! A movie where men are men (as if gender can ever truly be deterministic), and men don't discover their feminine side or the inherent inequality of traditional marriage. Heck, a movie where wives refuse to cry until after their husbands or boyfriends have left, because they don't want to "burden their men" with worry when they're about to go on a deadly mission.
Yeah, a movie like that. How nice. Just lousy, damned propaganda; rah-rah, flag-waving Americanism. How disgusting. It's nothing but anti-art; what kind of a brainwashed, mind-melded moron would want to see that garbage? What's the real point... to bump up military-recruitment stats? Make it seem that war can ever be noble? To "lift morale," for cripes' sake? What a low and vulgar consciousness that bespeaks. Who could possibly imagine the brilliant lights of cinema paying even the slightest attention to such "all-American" bubblegum like that.
What film critic could possibly praise trash like -- trash like -- I forget, what's the name of that filthy piece of propaganda we're talking about?
Oh yeah: Films like They Were Expendable (1945), about those crazy, new, fast, maneuverable, and barely armored PT boats, which took on Japanese cruisers and destroyers in the Philippines during World War II. The movie starred, and was partially directed by, Lt. Commander Robert Montgomery (who actually commanded a PT boat during the war) and John Wayne -- two conservative Republicans -- along with liberal Democrat Donna Reed. It's considered a classic film today.
The war against radical Islamism has never been "Barack H. Obama's war," despite the fact that he is the current Commander in Chief -- and despite the fact that, as he brags at the drop of a hijab, he is the man who "got" Osama bin Laden. (Oh, sure, the CIA and the SEALs were the ones who actually tracked bin Laden for years, infiltrated into the wilds of Pakistan, hunted him down, entered his compound, took out his bodyguards, and pulled the trigger to send him to the boiling pitch of Jahannam... acting on orders under a program initiated by George W. Bush. But Obama signed the order! Clearly, he deserves the lion's share of the credit.) But that war was never Obama's war.
No, the war against radical Islamism has always been seen as Bush's war... hence good liberals see it as unalloyed evil, folly, and madness. Any movie extolling the virtues of its warriors is, by definition, propaganda.
Inexplicably, liberals have never affixed that libelous label to the heroes of Roosevelt's war. After all, that's totally different.
Cross-posted on Hot Air's rogues' gallery...
April 25, 2011
Atlas Shrugged: Not Great, But Damned Good
Atlas Shrugged is not a great movie, but I agree with the critic who wrote over the weekend that it is interesting enough that it might generate interest in making a movie of Ayn Rand’s novel that could be great.
After all, how many remakes have we seen of Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, and, for God’s sake, the Three Musketeers? How many Gulliver’s Travels? Or when you get down to it, how many Hamlets, Romeo and Juliets, and Julius Caesars? Lots! And only some of them are really, really good. Some of them are downright rank! There were even a couple of tries, albeit via animation, before Hollywood got down to making a really good version of Lord of the Rings.
I’m not saying that only movies that have gargantuan budgets are worth seeing, but with a movie about what may be one of the most important books of the 20th century needs something a little more ambitious than a made-for-TV budget. It needs someone of the stature of John Williams or Danny Elfman to compose a truly stirring, memorable score. Rand deserves a rising heroic lyrical score that will remind listeners of Rachmaninoff, the only composer she ever mentioned as having admired.
Recently the wonderful Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books by Stig Larson were brought to the screen in Swedish versions. They generated enough interest that now they are being made in English versions with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the leading roles. That’s not to say that the Swedish versions were no good, but I am anxious to see what Hollywood does with these obsessively interesting and page turning stories.
The fact that Rand’s magnificent novel has finally been brought to the screen does not mean that we have to settle for this being the only time. If fans of the book generate enough buzz about the movie, and movie people in general show enough interest in what is, at its core, a philosophical masterpiece with a ripping good story that could be very exciting on screen -- we will get the movie that this book deserves. According to early reports, the number of theaters showing Part I has increased due to the buzz from people who saw it earlier this week.
Don’t think that I’m ragging on this movie. Not for a moment. It is amazing to see Atlas Shrugged brought to the screen in any form, and to see it in a coherent form that presents the story in a straight-forward manner is, to put it mildly, exhilarating. However it is a movie that, I fear, will only appeal to people who are already in a place philosophically where they can relate to it. Yes Rand Paul is probably going to fall over in a swoon the first time somebody says, portentously, “Who is John Galt?” And I’m afraid that they overdo it a little with the portentious and pretentious way that everyone says that. Reminds me of the early days of CNN when you would hear James Earl Jones intone “This is CNN!”
But for Joe Slobotnik, or even Joe the Plumber, who might be ready to hear a little objectivism, a lot of this will fly straight over their heads. I know because I deliberately saw the movie with someone who is not a liberal, and who leans rightwing for the most part, but who found the movie kind of tedious. I’m not going to be like all the “fans” of the movie who will refuse to hear anything bad about it because, damn it, it’s just so important that it even exists!
The movie I saw suffers from having far too many scenes that take place in boardrooms and, strangely enough, not enough talk about the actual philosophy of the book. The cast is very good, especially Taylor Schilling, playing a leggy, sexy, yet supremely competent Dagny Taggart, and Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden, inventor of the super metal which, being a Randian hero, he names after himself. Some of the bit parts, especially of the villainous and aptly named Wesley Mouch, played by Michael Lerner as a dead ringer for Barney Frank, are very well cast.
Probably the most impressive scene in the movie is when after moving heaven and earth Dagny and Hank take a ride on the Galt line railroad and across a beautifully realized bridge made with Rearden metal. That the scene owes a lot to CGI is one of the reasons I would like to see this movie done with a bigger budget.
However, for the moment this is the only Atlas Shrugged we have, so let’s enjoy it. If director Paul Johansson, who stars as a mysterious John Galt -- who has a habit of accosting creative, productive people in the middle of the night and persuading them to disappear -- raises enough money from this first movie he says he will make the two sequels. I’m hoping he raises the money. And in the current political atmosphere, where the government just ordered Boeing not to build a plant in a state other than Washington in order to escape striking unions, Atlas Shrugged may find its audience.
March 10, 2011
A Conspiracy of Dunces, Dolts, and Dullards
It all started with the programmers at TV Land, and no one had less excuse than they. For God's sake, they show nothing but reruns -- all right, a couple of original series now and then, and recently a few cheesy movies -- but near the entire product on that cable channel comprises half-hour sitcoms and hour-long TV dramas. How on Earth can they so continually run overtime? It's inexplicable and inexcusable.Dullard
But the half-hour show that is supposed to start at 8:00 pm starts at 8:13 instead, and it ends 34 minutes later. The hour-long retread, which fit fine in its alotted 60-minute time slot fifteen years ago, manages to straggle across the finish line five or six minutes later than the proverbial hour; and that's even taking into account the fact that they long since began snipping off the end credits in favor of debasing the final minute of show with a squozen picture above, and below a rolling credit stream that crawls upward faster than the speed of light.
Then every so often, they play "catch-up": They block out an hour-long time slot but insert only a half-hour long program... which of course, even with the late start, ends eighteen or twenty minutes early. With the next show starting directly after it, at least a quarter hour before its scheduled commencement. I don't now which is more infuriating.
I got so sick of missing a program's dénouement and sometimes even the climax that I've taken to tacking on an extra five minutes at the beginning and ten at the end, in the pious hope that they won't be more egregiously off the rails than I've allowed for; mostly it works, sometimes it doesn't.
I got used to the errant ways of TVLand, thought it a rogue station, the nail that stands up. But now the same lackadaisical, devil may care attitude towards punctuality has started to spread, like mildew or dry rot, from one channel to the rest. And just today, I was shafted out of the final minutes of the excellent Helen Hayes movie What Every Woman Knows (1934), which ran on Turner Classic Movies. (I should say which overran on TCM). TCM!
Here I am, sitting forward in my seat, as the movie passes to its grand emotional resolution... and as abruptly as some joker slamming your book three pages from "The End," I'm staring at a frozen image and a menu demanding if I want to start anew from the beginning, erase, or record to videotape. I quickly flipped the guide back to that movie's listing; yes indeed, it was housed in an hour and a half time slot, from noon to 1:30 pm.
I grabbed my Maltin: What Every Woman Knows -- 1934 -- ***½ -- 92 minutes.
That's ninety... plus two. 120 seconds longer than an hour and a half. A lot can happen in 120 seconds: A woman can get pregnant in 120 seconds; a stock can rise or fall 15% in 120 seconds; a fast-attack submarine can launch a missile in 120 seconds; a man can die of cell-phone absorption in 120 seconds.
I reckon it's an alien concept to programmers that a viewer might actually want to see the entire movie, even the last 120 seconds; evidently, that's the time when decadent movie programmers customarily display their sophistication and superiority by waddling off to pop yet another bowl of popcorn and make snide, MST3K-like asides, to which their slouching cronies howl like spotted hyenas and bray like beaten donkeys.
(Me, I'm the kind of guy who sits through the entire end credits, even in a movie theater. And I don't talk even during the coming attractions, not even sotto voce. Heck, I've been known to walk halfway up the aisle and push my way across thirty assorted feet, just to grab some movie talker by his smelly, vomit-flecked shirt and tell him if he doesn't shut his yap I'll be pleased to rip his head off and shove my Jujubes down his neck. I take movies. Very. Seriously.)
If I can no longer rely even upon TCM, my Gibralter, my Rushmore, my Jerry's Deli, then the world has been turned head over teakettle.
I despise this sort of slipshoddery, this complete lack of concern for doing a job well. These shows are every one of them known quantities; they are old; they have kicked around since before I was born; they have kicked around since before my father was born, in the case of the Helen Hayes flick. They know exactly how long they run; if nothing else, haven't they a Maltin?
Knowing that key fact, they should be able to shoehorn any program of any length into a listing with a realistic and accurate time slot. How hard can it be? What could possibly go wrong?
January 24, 2011
The Green Bee... B-Movie, That Is
I may be stepping on Movie Badger's toes, but I happen to know I've got at least twenty pounds on him, and he has a glass jaw. Still, if'n he wants to chime in with his own review of the Green Hornet, he's welcome.
The best I can say is that I liked some elements of the movie somewhat:
- I liked the costumes, the character names, and the Black Beauty, because they were essentially identical to those in the TV series.
- I liked the Britt Reid/Green Hornet character arc, from vapid playboy, to thrill-seeking vigilante, to someone who actually cares about the people he's protecting. (Though not much concern about innocent bystanders and bydrivers!)
And... well, I guess that's it. I'm unhappy about the balance between sense of humor -- too much -- and sense of serious -- too little; one reason I-as-a-child liked the Green Hornet TV series more than Batman was that the former was a dramatic-action version of the latter.
Both series' superheros were ordinary mortals (and had great sidekicks -- literally, in Kato's case -- who were equally mortal); no Superman or Flash or Incredible Huck; no magical powers, no pagan gods. But Batman was camped up (those corny "Bam! Pow!" spelt-out sound effects during fights, the costumes and capes, and Burt Ward's pencil stub of a love muscle); it was a show for slow children and smirking, mocking, braying teens.
Contrariwise, my recollection of the Green Hornet is that it was presented in a more realistic and serious manner: No costumed supervillains, no silly riddles and other deliberate clues left by self-destructive criminals for the hornet to solve, no Republic serial-like cliffhangers (well, until the last episode, kind of).
The Green Hornet was to Batman as the Man from U.N.C.L.E. was to Get Smart. Even as a kid, I was a bit off-put by the conscious campiness of BM. So I was annoyed that much of the current movie has Seth Rogen (Britt Reid/Green Hornet) acting like a drunken, clumsy, credit-grabbing, arrogant, ungrateful, incompetent oaf, hamming it up and mugging for the camera. I have "issues" with Rogen himself; he seems so childish and truculent compared to the adult Van Williams in the series.
Of course, Rogen has executive-producer and writing credits on the production, as well as starring. I suspect this was a personal project, like Rocky, with comedian Rogen as the showrunner; and there was no way he was going to allow anybody else to play the title role.
All that out of the way, the plot is incredibly thin and very unoriginal, ripping off several of the series episodes: A crime boss has taken over "all the crime in L.A." (huh?), and the hornet wants to bring him to book. In fact, I think there was more plot in the 23 minutes of a typical Green Hornet teleplay than in this entire $120 million blockbuster 3-D feature. It's really just one shootout after another, one explosion after another, dressed with flipping cars, butchered bystanders, and more shattered glass than Kristallnacht... interrupted only by unrealistic unpleasantness between the main characters. And it has a Mission: Impossible 1 style "twist" that is just downright offensive to series fans.
In the final insult, they don't even play the heart-racing theme music (a modified "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Rimsky-Korsakov, played on a trumpet) until the very end -- and then they cut it short!
Very disappointing; though it was amusing to watch the putative "action" sequences and the end credits in "flat," speculating what they would look like in the 3-D version. Frankly, I would rather have re-watched Tangled in 3-D -- the best non-Pixar Disney animation since Walt kicked the farm -- than have seen this yawner.
(Sachi's review is that she almost fell asleep.)
April 19, 2010
Emptying My Thimble
Over on my favorite blog, Power Line, Scott "Big Johnson" Trunk has a series of posts called something like "emptying my spindle." The phrase, for those of you younger than Scott (i.e., born after 1907), a spindle is a vicious spike sticking up out of a flat base; the idea -- horrific even to imagine in today's Nerfworld -- is to take important memos (printed on paper!) in one's hand and jam them onto the spike with a lusty whack, where they will stick... along with your hand, if your aim be unsteady. Having been "dealt with," said memos are promptly forgotten until until Doomsday.
To empty or clear one's spindle is thus to go through one's old business and respond belatedly to urgent matters that should have been taken care of months ago. Scott uses the phrase to mean going back through his voluminous file of posts he meant to make but didn't, and write some quick and pithy abstract of his thoughts on the subject, jamming two or three hundred essays into a single post, like a fossil-rich sediment layer.
Well, I don't have a spindle-full of such ancient pith, but I think I can scrape together at least a thimble-full of comtemporary stories about which I have a milliliter or so of fresh pith. So here goes nothing!
A man, a plan, a genocide -- Ahmadinejad!
Secretary of Defense and Bush leftover Robert Gates says President Barack H. Obama has no plan for what to do when Iran gets its nukes. Doesn't that make your chest swell with ideological pride?
A memo from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the White House warned that the United States lacks a nimble long-term plan for dealing with Iran's nuclear program, according to a published report.
Gates wrote the three-page memo in January and it set off efforts in the Pentagon, White House and intelligence agencies to come up with new options, including the use of the military, The New York Times said in its Sunday editions, quoting unnamed government officials.
But of course, now that Obama's own SecDef has called attention to the gaping hole in our nuclear policy -- whoops, forgot all about that Iran thing -- surely the White House is rushing to rework our strategic posture to take into account this fairly likely scenario, yes? Well, not exactly:
White House officials Saturday night strongly disagreed with the comments that the memo caused a reconsideration of the administration's approach to Iran.
"It is absolutely false that any memo touched off a reassessment of our options," National Security Council spokesman Benjamin Rhodes told The Associated Press. "This administration has been planning for all contingencies regarding Iran for many months."
Ah, contingencies. So what contingencies are in place to deal with a nuclear Iran?
One senior official described the memo as "a wake-up call," the paper reported. But the recipient of the document, Gen. James Jones, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, told the newspaper in an interview that the administration has a plan that "anticipates the full range of contingencies."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, who did not confirm the memo Saturday night, said the White House has reviewed many Iran options.
"The secretary believes the president and his national security team have spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort considering and preparing for the full range of contingencies with respect to Iran," Morrell said.
Well, that certainly clears the air!
This is one area where President Obama actually has an opinion beyond voting "present." The man is so pure and adamant in his hatred of nuclear weapons that he refuses -- on principle, one must surmise -- to think about them... even to the extent of how to respond if the world's most beligerent and most anti-democratic, and most Jew-hating regime on the planet perfects them. To plan a response is to accept the existence of atoms, which is anathema to the Obamacle.
Rather, the administration's policy appears to be cajole, beg, threaten... wash, rinse, and repeat, ad infinitum. And if Iran doesn't listen?
Gates and other senior members of the administration have issued increasingly stern warnings to Iran that its nuclear program is costing it friends and options worldwide, while sticking to the long-held view that a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be counterproductive.
See? "Stern warnings": They do have a plan after all.
Renewing his bows
Speaking of the One Himself, Barack Obama has been bowing recently to all and sundry. From the Heisei emperor of Japan, Akihito, to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, to President Hu Jintao of China, Obama has groveled to them all.
This chaps my hide. What's next... will our president crawl on his hands and knees, scourging and debasing himself (or more likely George W. Bush) in penance for America's sins?
But I tell you this: The day Obama bows to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, I will forever refer to the Windy City community oorganizer as "President Hussein."
You may think it petty; I see it as symbolic... let the world know that he will have chosen up sides.
The mad tea-bash
Bill Clinton, in a fit of retro triangulation cleverly timed to remind us why we really don't miss that administration, has just equated tea-party rallies to the Oklahoma City bombing:
"What we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold - but that the words we use really do matter, because there's this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious [read: Democrats] and the delirious [Republicans] alike. They fall on the connected [liberals] and the unhinged [neo-conservative running-dog imperialists] alike," he said.
He warns the country against that lunatic fringe of "tea partiers" who hurl incendiary rhetoric like "Taxed Enough Already" and "repeal the bill." But here's the point missed by throwback leftists such as Mr. C.:
"I'm glad they're fighting over health care and everything else. Let them have at it. But I think that all you have to do is read the paper every day to see how many people there are who are deeply, deeply troubled," he said.
He also alluded to the anti-government tea party movement, which held protests in several states Thursday. At the Washington rally, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota railed against "gangster government."
Clinton argued that the Boston Tea Party was in response to taxation without representation. The current protesters, he said, are challenging taxation by elected officials, and the demonstrators have the power to vote them out of office.
No, actually, they don't; at least in most states, voters cannot recall their U.S. senators and representatives willy nilly as they please (nor do I wish they could). To set the record straight, we have the power to vote some of them out of office six months from now... but not right now.
Alas, in the upcoming demi-year, the Progressivist supermajority can do incalculable and irreversible damage to the United States of America. And we haven't even mentioned the horror that will attend the lame-duck session following the election, when scores of Democrats will know that their careers are ruined anyway... so why not be hanged for an entire abattoir of swine as be hanged for a single sheep?
Clinton says he isn't asking for us to censor ourselves, just tone down the demands; but freedom of speech includes not only the right to present the case for fiscal sanity, but also the right to do so colorfully and dramatically.
When the Left regularly drops F-bombs and N-words, plays the race card like a permanent joker, flashes its get out of jail free card to be exempt from all consequences of its actions and its own violent rhetoric, and encourages its members to confabulate wild, unsubstantiated urban legends for no reason other than to paint Republicans as ogres and cannibals... then why should the anti-Left be restricted to mild, hesitant argumentation, accompanied by much apology and forelock tugging?
I say, unconstrain your rhetoric, so long as you target the real culprits. Let the Left start responding with rational and logical debate, instead of special pleading and threats. Let a thousand points of light bloom. That may not be the Chicago way, but it's the American way.
Frame by frame
I had a fascinating revelation yesterday, what I shall call an "utterly obvious profundity."
Sachi and I were driving through an old section of town, one that was more or less intact from the twenties and thirties. As I looked at the buildings, I abruptly realized something: That world really was just as colorful and three-dimensional as today's. It's just that our only visual window into that world -- movies -- has a narrow aperature and happens to be in black and white.
While Cagney and Bogie and all the rest pursue their violent courses within a noir world of shadow, the real inhabitants of that spacetime locus wandered through the same colors, more or less, as we do today. (By the same token, when Enrico Casuso sang, his voice was not scratchy and drowned out by vinyl or wax hiss; that is simply an artifact of the recording medium.)
Perhaps this just proves my own banality; but I believe more people than myself subconsciously envison yesteryear as we've always seen it on late-night TV: grainy, black and white, occasionally silent, always narrowly constrained to the TV's dimensions... and constantly interrupted by adverts for Cal Worthington and his dog Spot.
My thimble is empty. Tally ho.
September 22, 2009
Darkness at High Noon: the UnAmericanism of an American Icon
A comment to the previous blogpost, That Big Ol' NEA Scandal... Just Déjà Vu-Du, has taken issue with my characterization of the seminal film High Noon as a deeply unAmerican, even anti-American movie that slanders the American character... at a time when the only form of unAmericanism that was acceptable to the intelligensia in the United States was Communism -- meaning Stalinism, as Josef "Uncle Joe" Stalin didn't die until 1953, at the ripe old age of 74 (evidently, somebody down there liked him).
I noted to the commenter that this was a deep enough question that it couldn't be answered in the comments section but required a follow-up blogpost. In the process, I hope to demonstrate how to "read" the moral character of a movie... which is a completely different process than simply deciding if it was well crafted.
Like nearly everybody else, I like the movie High Noon. I've seen it maybe half a dozen times. It's well written, well acted, lots of tension. But we must distinguish between liking a movie and approving its message (something neocon Michael Medved never seems able to do). By the same criteria above, I like Triumph of the Will; but I'm repelled by its cosmically evil Nazi message.
This is how I feel about the much subtler, but nevertheless morally corrupted and evil movie High Noon: I admire its artistry but am appalled by its vicious anti-American message.
There is a two-pronged test for art that I read somewhere; it boils down to asking two questions:
- What was the artist trying to do?
- Did he do it?
But I've always believed that a third question must be asked, one that is more important than the other two:
- Was it worth doing?
There is no question that all the films I mentioned in the previous post pass the two-prong test: They all set about doing something and actually pull it off. They are all artistic successes -- unless you apply the third test as well; that's where they break down.
One final caveat: In deference to one of the most famous penitents of Communism, Arthur Koestler, I titled this post Darkness at High Noon.
Before publishing, however, I discovered that CNN had already used that title... but in an Orwellian (or perhaps Dickensian) twist of fate, they used it for a documentary defending Carl Foreman, who wrote the screenplay to High Noon! Indeed, the love-letter to Foreman draws the same parallels to High Noon that I draw myself: that Marshal Will Kane represents Foreman himself and all others who continued to spit defiance at the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) until the bitter end; and that Frank Miller and his mob represent HUAC. (Foreman himself maintained this was what he had in mind.)
The irony, of course, is that Koestler wrote his novel Darkness at Noon two years after quitting the Party (even before the Hitler-Stalin Pact); and the novel is a powerful attack on Communism. It dramatizes the last days of an architect of the 1917 revolution, now imprisoned under sentence of death in a Communist country. To hijack that title for a hagiography of Carl Foreman takes chutzpah indeed.
Thus, in order to reclaim the moral clarity of Arthur Koestler (and also because you can't copyright titles), I shall maintain my title for this blogpost. So there. Now let's dive into the toughest movie position to defend: The case against High Noon for the crime of anti-Americanism. I won't bother footnoting; all of this information is readily available and uncontested: Google it. (Heh, I've always wanted to say that.)
High Noon was always meant to be a parable against "McCarthyism" -- rather, the left-liberal vision of McCarthyism. It was written by Communist Carl Foreman, who was called before HUAC sometime in 1951, while he was actually writing High Noon. In his testimony, he defied the Committee; he admitted to having been a Communist for many years, but he claimed he had become "disillusioned" with it some ten or so years earlier (1942? 1941?). He claimed to have quit, but I don't recall him offering any evidence for this other than his bare claim.
He also refused to name names.
It actually makes a difference when exactly he left the Party, if indeed he ever did; because if he stuck around from 1939 to 1941, then that means he maintained Party discipline even during the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when his beloved Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. I consider anyone who remained in the Party through those two flip-flops -- or who actually joined while the Commies and the Nazis were allied, like Dalton Trumbo -- to be a hard-core Stalinist. It required very nimble mental and moral gymnastics: Before the Pact, Hitler was the devil incarnate; then in 1939, he became the great patriotic ally against decadent Capitalism; and then in 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR, he went back to being the focus of all evil.
If a man (or woman) can do that, then he has no moral principles and the conscience of a hyena.
At the time Foreman was writing the screenplay, the "Hollywood Party" was reeling; hearings by HUAC had been in full swing since the late 1940s, and the public was waking up to the viper in its bed.
The Party line during this period was that witnesses before the Committee who had always opposed Communism, such as Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan, and George Murphy (who fought against Communist influence in Hollywood when he was president of SAG, as did his protégé Reagan), and who "named names" of Communist ringleaders in Hollywood, were just sniveling cowards who had been threatened and intimidated by the Committee and by its allies who created an informal blacklist of Reds.
(In a twist of wonderful irony, one of the most steadfast anti-Communists in Hollywood was Gary Cooper, who starred as Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's the Fountainhead; then just three years later, he played the lead in High Noon! Truly, Coop the Dupe was the man for whom the phrase "useful idiot" was coined.)
Those who fought the Committee had nothing but contempt for the "friendly witnesses;" the Left simply could never accept that courageous people of good will could see Communism as an evil that must be rooted out. But this contempt was nothing compared to the rage against the traitors -- those witnesses who had actually been in the Party, had perhaps defied the Committee by refusing to cooperate once, but had since recanted, returned to testify again and name names. Some former fellow travelers also wrote public repudiations of their earlier position.
Humphrey Bogart is the most conspicuous example. He traveled to Washington in 1947 to protest HUAC, as part of the newly formed Committee for the First Amendment, which also included Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, John Huston, and others. There, Bogart railed against the investigations and defended the Hollywood Ten (who were then still eleven, as Bertolt Brecht had not yet fled the country). Bogart insisted the Ten were completely innocent... which is what he and the other liberals in that group had been told by the Left.
But after meeting the Ten (and being harrangued by one of them, doctrinaire Communist John Howard Lawson), Bogie recanted; evidence had by then emerged that the Ten were indeed Stalinists, and that they really did have an ongoing program to insert Communist propaganda into their movies and plays. In his article in Photoplay magazine, “I’m No Communist,” Humphrey Bogart admitted he was duped by the Hollywood Left. It was a serious blow to the cause, as were similar articles by John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, and others.
This must have been much on Foreman's mind while writing High Noon; he later claimed that he saw himself as Marshal Will Kane, the lone man of integrity standing up to both the sin of commission -- the investigations -- and the sin of omission, those who, in Foreman's view, stood idly by out of fear and did nothing to stop HUAC.
This is what was happening on the national stage when Foreman sat down to adapt the short story "the Tin Star," by John W. Cunningham. I haven't been able to find the text of Cunningham's original; I'd love to read it to see how much of the anti-Americanism was his and how much was Foreman's. My guess is they shared the same low opinion of frontier Americans.
Internal evidence of anti-Americanism
The plot of the movie clearly is an allegory on what a (current or former) Party member would imagine McCarthyism to be like; both Left and Right have agreed on that from the beginning. Villain Frank Miller is coming to town (metaphorically Joseph McCarthy; in practice, the members of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, as McCarthy was a senator, not a member of the House of Reps), having inexplicably been pardoned just before his hanging; he has sworn vengeance on Will Kane (Carl Foreman). Kane tries to rally the townspeople; they agree to help stop Miller (refuse to cooperate with the Committee), but then one by one they chicken out (recant, name names): They're all too afraid to take a stand against him.
The townsfolk all agree with the marshal (Foreman) that Miller must be stopped; but they're all worried what might happen to them and their families if they stand up to the bully. Those despicable, cowardly friendly witnesses! Eventually, Kane must take on all the bad guys alone, while the townspeople (our American ancestors) quake in their boots and hide under the bed (from the "nonexistent" Red Menace).
One reason it has always seemed so clearly an allegory, which nearly all political critics accept, is that the plot is historically false to the period in which it's set. 1900 was the high point of vigilantism in America; it was commonplace for citizens to band together to hunt down criminal suspects. There were not enough lawmen to act as a "police force," which by then some big cities in the East were hiring; frontiersmen had to take matters into their own hands.
Most middle-aged town citizens in the West in 1900 would have been veterans of the various Indian wars that swept the country after the Civil War, either as regular Army, private scouts working for the Army, local militias, or as members of an ad-hoc posse comitatus that would fight against Indian raiders or raid Indian tribes themselves. Everybody had guns; they were as necessary in that part of the country as water, beef, and coffee. And everybody knew how to use them (hunting probably supplemented nearly everyone's food supply).
So how in the world could a whole town of such hard-bitten survivors be so afraid of four measley guys? Why wouldn't they just take care of the problem, one way or another, as they'd been doing all their lives, against both man and beast?
No, it doesn't fit its time period at all; nor does it fit previous Westerns, where the hero could always round up a posse to help him. But it certainly does fit what liberals and lefties imagined to be the "cowardice" of people during the late forties and early fifties, who refused to stand up to the bully investigators hunting for Communist infiltration of both government and key industries, very much including Hollywood.
Aside from the personal factor, there is also a larger thrust of the movie: It's a direct frontal assault upon one of the central organizing myths of American culture. In this case, "myth" does not mean an incorrect or invalid belief; it means a belief that underlies Americans' "sense of self." The belief in question is that of the rugged individualist.
It's a truism, believed by and large on both sides of our northern border, that the fundamental difference between America and Canada is this: The American frontier was tamed by cantankerous, antisocial, extremely self-reliant individuals who went west to escape the clutches of the "big government" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -- which wouldn't look very big to us today but loomed large in the eyes of pioneers from Daniel Boone to Davy Crockett to the classic Western period of about 1870 through 1900.
The Canadian frontier was tamed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties.
Far from being a false myth, rugged individualism is a historically accurate depiction of most settlers of the West in that time: They fended for themselves because they had to; they solved their own problems, scratched for their own seed, raised their own food, and defended themselves. They didn't "call the cops," because by and large, there were none. (Even today, America is woefully under-policed -- by the standards of Europe.)
When one man could not handle a task, he banded together with the smallest number of friends and neighbors to get the job done. Settlers regularly "lit out" from a settlement when they decided it had become "too citified fer fit livin'." There were always those who welcomed the encroach of civilization, of course; they were the majority. But they came by train, long after those who first walked across the Great Plains, even after those who drove Conestoga wagons.
The Law mosied in later and chased out the remaining rugged individualists.
By 1900, such a sense of self-reliance was firmly established as a critical part of the American character, a major reason it was the age of vigilantism: Locals took care of their own problems, for good or ill. They didn't yell for the cops to come rescue them.
High Noon depicts weasley, knee-knocking townsmen pleading with one man, Will Kane, to save them; the movie utterly slanders the American character as no other Western had ever done. It caricatures our ancestors as not the self-reliant individualists with a deep sense of honor we have always thought them, but as whiny, hypocritical, cowardly vermin who were too afraid to confront evil -- even at odds of twenty-five to one! For Pete's sake, there must have been at least 100 adult males in Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory, and only four bad guys.
This is character assassination of the entire United States of America, since the Old West is such an integral part of our national heritage.
A big picture's big picture
This mockery serves not only the narrow agenda of Foreman -- in a snit because the country was turning decisively against Communism in 1951-52, which he probably believed could only be explained by cowardice -- and the cause of dissing our ancestors, but also the larger agenda of the ComIntern (Communist International front). At the very time Foreman was writing the movie, America was engaged in our first true war against Communism, the first real campaign of the Cold War: defending South Korea from invasion by the Communist North.
In 1951-52, victory was still very much uncertain. North Korea had originally been "communized" by the Soviets towards the end of World War II, just like Eastern Europe; by the early 50s, they were allied with Red China as well.
In January 1951, we -- United Nations forces, mostly American -- were nearly driven off the Chosen peninsula; but we rallied and battled our way back north of Seoul. By the end of May, we and the North Korean and Chinese forces were stalemated, neither side being able to oust the other and achieve total control of Korea. (We did, however, ultimately achieve our victory conditions of protecting South Korea.)
Foreman must have intensely followed the back and forth, which occured either during or immediately before he began writing the screenplay. Given his extreme political ideology, he probably was rooting for America to lose... as American lefties have done almost ritualistically ever since the end of the last "good war," when we were allied with the Motherland of Communism. And what could better help "the cause" in Korea than to demoralize the American citizenry and delegitimize the American government?
Some reds from the 1930s used to call themselves "premature anti-fascists;" I maintain that Carl Foreman was a premature Yippie: He unsuccessfully used tactics that would be used to far greater effect just a few years later by the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and other members of the loose leftist coalition of anti-Vietnam War activists.
The final cut
But the consequences of what Foreman tried to bring about in High Noon were dire; in 1952, fascism had already been thoroughly discredited in the United States... which left Communism as the only viable form of anti-Americanism that was acceptable to the intellectual elite. And Communism then still meant Josef Stalin, who had killed tens of millions and was obsessed with infiltrating and overthrowing democracies around the world, including the United States.
By a direct and logical chain of reason then, High Noon was intended to achieve the following:
- Vindicate its screenwriter's (Foreman was also associate producer) stand against HUAC;
- Brand as cowards all those who thwarted the Party's radical agenda;
- Undercut Americans' sense of themselves as exceptional and different from the corrupt and decadent democracies of Europe, which were toppling to Communism one by one;
- Fatally damage the morale of American citizens while we were at war with an expansionist Communist dictatorship backed by both the Soviet Union and Red China;
- Delegitimize our government, which was steadfastly waging that war;
- And ultimately bring about a Red victory in Korea that would be a stepping stone to the communization of all of Asia.
Draw a loop from Eastern Europe, down around Turkey, the Arab states, around India, south of Indonesia, hooking around the Philippines, encompassing Japan, around Siberia, and back across the north to Eastern Europe; that would likely have been the Communist sphere of influence, had we lost the Korean War.
That would have been significantly larger and more powerful than what historically happened; if Korea were a unified "people's republic," I don't see how Japan, Singapore, and the Philippines could have survived as independent countries, not to mention the British city-state of Hong Kong. Such a military defeat might even have emboldened the ChiComs enough to endanger Australia and New Zealand.
Reds would have given virtually anything to have achieved all that. While I assail Carl Foreman's vile anti-Americanism, it's tough not to admire his nerve.
Foreman came close on many of those points, just as his political co-conspirators today try to degrade and smear America anent the war against the Iran/al-Qaeda axis. Fortunately, as strong as was the Hollywood Party in the mid-twentieth century -- and the Hollywood Ummah today -- its enemies are stronger... but only because we remain vigilant.
That's my story; the prosecution rests. If anyone wants to mount a defense for the movie's moral corruption, be my guest.
Cross-posted on Hot Air's rogues' gallery, naturally enough...
That Big Ol' NEA Scandal... Just Déjà Vu-Du
Today saw new posts by Power Line and Patterico's Pontifications on the newest Obamic scandal; in this one, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was nabbed red-handed leaning on "artists" -- rather, those who are so unsuccessful that they must suckle at big government's teat -- to promote the partisan agenda of President Barack H. Obama... presumably with the threat of a cut-off of NEA grants as the "stick," and new, juicy buckets o' bucks as the "carrot."
The prime mover in this case is once again Andrew Breitbart, whose site Big Hollywood is breaking the NEA story -- just as Breitbart's Big Government by and large broke the ACORN story by hosting the first videos of James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles earlier this month.
I think there is no question that Breitbart has the goods on the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, its director Valerie Jarrett (a longtime Obamanista), her deputy director Buffy Wicks, and another federal agency, United We Serve. There is no doubt that the Obamacle is misusing and abusing the public trust, peddling propaganda, and using the threat of government power to coerce (and entice) artists into supporting his partisan agenda
And there is every likelihood that members of the Obama administration -- and perhaps the president himself -- have engaged in criminal behavior that, in a more rational and law-abiding era, might even lead to impeachment.
But such an era would surely not have been the 1930s and 1940s; and therein lies the reason why this particular scandal fills me with ennui: For an earlier president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pioneered this exact tactic: using literary writers, playwrights, screenwriters, movie directors, producers, actors, radio dramatists, painters and sculptors, songwriters, composers, singers and entire orchestras -- and all the trade unions, professional societies, and literary and artistic guilds associated with the arts -- to advance his own leftist agenda for America.
And critics were not only called "unpatriotic," they were subject to arrest... if the mobs fomented by Roosevelt's New Deal cult didn't tear them limb from limb first. Let's see Barack Obama and his puny New Black Panther Party and SEIU unionistas top that.
Throughout the FDR 30s, Hollywood was pressured into making numerous propaganda promos for the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the primary vehicle of New Deal socialism and vicious anti-Capitalism; these promos starred the biggest names in Hollywood and villified the profit motive, competition, individualism, and liberty in practice (while extolling liberty in name only). But there were also a great many major, A-release features that self-consciously pushed Rooseveltianism slyly, as storyline in mere dramas and comedies.
The Communist (read: Stalinist) Left had so taken over Tinseltown that there was a "redlist" long before there was a blacklist. Anti-Communist actors, such as Adolph Menjou, saw their careers severely damaged. By contrast, lefty producers, directors, and screenwriters benefitted tremendously from their Party affiliation.
And not just Hollywood; painters and sculptors were likewise pressed into service to sell the American people on one of the most radical leftist programs ever foisted upon this country. The very reason those Obama posters from last year's election look so familiar is that the heroic-worker style is copied wholesale from the 1930s New Deal posters.
Songwriters were pressured to sell the NRA and rural electrification and Social Security and all of it. Good Lord, Barack Obama is a pathetic, little wannabe huckster compared to the Master of Evil, he with his mile-wide grin and mile-long cigarette holder.
But the corruption sank even deeper, for it wasn't just American leftism that the president was pushing, using the arts and farces as his populist bulldozer: Roosevelt himself personally ordered Jack Warner (an anti-Communist studio head) to produce a sickening, fawning, bootlicking paeon to Josef "Uncle Joe" Stalin torn from the pages of the journal kept by Roosevelt's hand-picked ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies.
The movie was titled Mission to Moscow (1943)... and I rib you not, you cannot possibly believe what I say about it until you actually see it. We learn that peace-loving Uncle Joe has always been a great friend to America; he tried as hard as he could to bring about peace between the allies and the axis. Russia is full of nothing but happy, contented people -- well fed, free and independent, able to speak their minds on any subject with no threat from the government. (This is in stark contrast to Germany, where everybody suffers under the bootheel of oppression by the Nazis.)
Factories are run by the workers, who labor solely for the good of all. Eventually, we get to the infamous show trials... wherein we discover that all those Trotskyites were really just -- Nazi spies!
The Hitler-Stalin pact goes unremarked in the movie, though it had been signed, sealing the alliance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and finally abrogated two years before the movie was released; nor does the movie (or book) dwell on the dismemberment of Poland by Germany and -- who was that again? -- and the Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik.
But the most jaw-hinging aspect of Mission to Moscow is its provenance: It was made from the allegedly nonfiction book written in 1941 by Ambassador Davies when he returned from his posting to the Soviet Union; and Davies, an attorney who chaired the FTC under Woodrow Wilson, was personally selected by FDR for that "mission." Ye gods, imagine what peril the nation was in, when a man like that could be sent to one of the most delicate, sensitive diplomatic posts in the known universe.
When I decry Roosevelt defiling the arts by drafting them into his leftist political agenda, I'm not talking about movies made simply to help the war effort; that's mere patriotism. But even deep into the 1940s, FDR pushed Hollywood to release movies that went far beyond "demonizing" the Nazis (if such a thing is possible) and the Imperial Japanese or even praising our ally, the Soviet Union... movies like:
- Keeper of the Flame (1942 -- written by Communist Donald Ogden Stewart in consultation with the Bureau of Motion Pictures in the U.S. Office of War Information): Katherine Hepburn discovers her husband, in concert with a number of veterans, plans a fascist coup d'état. Damn Republicans... they're everywhere!
- Tender Comrade (1943 -- written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Edward Dmytryk, both later members of the "Hollywood Ten"): Ginger Rogers and other wives of servicemen discover the joys of living in communal farms -- just like in the Soviet Union! -- while their husbands are off fighting the Nazis. Incidentally, in case anyone is interested, Dalton Trumbo joined the Party during the Hitler-Stalin pact... such much for him merely being a "premature anti-fascist."
- Song of Russia (1944): An orchestra conductor travels to the USSR shortly before the Nazi invasion -- which means during the pact, of course -- and sees, as Wikipedia so perfectly puts it, "happy, healthy, smiling, free Soviet citizens, blissfully living the Communist dream."
Each of these movies, along with others (e.g., the North Star, 1943) sang the praises not of Russia but of Communism, and worse, of Stalinism. And each of these films was made by studios that were in near constant contact with the U.S. Office of War Information. This was Roosevelt's baby, his conduit to wartime posters, wartime movies, wartime radio, and so on.
It was not used merely to promote patriotism and support for the war; as seen above, it was a powerful federal agency that pushed the graphic arts (fine and pop), literature, movies, drama, and music to support FDR's political agenda and encourage the hysterical Roosevelt-worship that characterized his entire reign. The OWI was established by executive order in 1942 and lasted through the war -- though in 1944, Congress was so disturbed by some of its domestic projects that it defunded, among other elements, the Bureau of Motion Pictures.
But even death did not release the arts community -- not the Bureau's death, nor even FDR's. After Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, his skeletal hands reached and clutched at we the living; the project continued, and we got movies like It's a Wonderful Life (1946) -- in which we discover that the banks should simply forgive all their loans and redistribute the wealth -- and High Noon (1952) -- all the more corrupt and vile for the sheer artistry of its propaganda, and its duping of dim bulb Gary Cooper: Marshal Will Kane must stand alone against Sen. Joseph McCarthy -- er, I mean outlaw Frank Miller -- and the ravening hordes of HUAC... I mean, his two thugs.
The story of High Noon is set in or about 1900, but it makes not the slightest lick of historical sense; if the town was that worried about Miller, they would simply have formed a committee of vigilance, surrounded the train depot, and either ordered Miller to hop back aboard and ride the iron rail to the end of the line... or just blown him to glory with their own rifles and scatterguns. No need to interrupt the marshal's honeymoon.
When I gaze upon the awe-inspiring majesty of the New Deal's corruption of art for political propaganda, not to promote good citizenship and patriotism but specifically to promote the partisan political projects of Franklin Roosevelt, and the joyous brazenness of FDR's blasphemy and heresy within the chapel of freedom and liberty he inherited -- and then I turn my eye to the insignificant insect bites of Obamunism's own arts project... honest to mercy, I just find that my give-a-damn's busted.
Sorry, no red meat on this one. I'll stick with the much more significant and systematic dismantling of ACORN.
Cross-posted on Hot Air's rogues' gallery...
December 9, 2008
R.I.P. Nina Foch 1924 - 2008
Even though I've known this was coming for a while, considering she was elderly and in poor health since the first time I met her, it made me quite sad to learn that Nina Foch passed away last Thursday night at the age of 84.
Foch was one of the people you've never (barely) heard of, yet who has had an enormous influence on modern film. She initially was an actress, appearing in Scaramouche, the Ten Commandments, Executive Suite, an American in Paris, and Spartacus. But far more important, she taught about acting and working with actors to every directing and screenwriting student of the USC Film School for the last 40 years.
She profoundly changed the way I think about actors and acting, and no doubt did the same for other students in her class; that includes Judd Apatow, John August, John Carpenter, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, George Lucas, Josh Schwartz, Bryan Singer, John Singleton, Stephen Sommers, and Robert Zemeckis. Anyone on this list that went to film school since the 60s was hugely influenced by Nina Foch.
She also did extensive private work with actors, directors, and singers, changing the way they think about acting as well.
As an instructor, she was scary as hell; she delighted in pushing people from their comfort zone. But in doing so, she left us with a much better understanding of film than when we started -- and a strong bond with our classmates. She truly loved teaching, even teaching a class on the day she died. She will be missed.
Here's the Los Angeles Times obituary. And here is a video of her in the Mandy Moore movie How to Deal. Jump to 0:32-0:40 and 2:21-2:32:
May 5, 2008
Ben Stein's witty agit-prop documentary is not primarily about science. It is about the politics of science. As such, it documents how some of the ideas of Charles Darwin have been misused, creating stumbling blocks to unfettered research in disciplines unrelated to evolutionary science.
During an interview with Geraldo Rivera, Stein insisted on a clear distinction between "intelligent design" and "creationism." Stein does not view himself as a creationist but rather as an opponent of what he considers to be the State Religion of "Darwinism." The trouble is that the film itself lacks intelligent design at crucial moments.
When scientists are interviewed who happen to be atheists there is no doubt that they employ science as a means of bolstering their belief system. Metaphysics aint the same as physics! Richard Dawkins is always honest and even complains about mainstream Christians (Catholic and Protestant) who reconcile God and evolution. Pope John Paul was a famous example of this.
Here is where we get into trouble. Every time a propagandist is about to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth he simply cannot resist cheap shots and omissions. Sure, Stein is better than Michael Moore or Ann Coulter. So what? He doesn't heed his better angels in this film. The result is a good film that doesn't tell the whole truth. This could have been a great film.
When Stein interviews the heretics against Darwinism it is rarely clear who is a creationist as opposed to someone who has no problem with the obvious fact that species originate from other species over the vast gulfs of time required for this genuine miracle. There is at least one creationist in the woodpile who pooh-poohs changes in anything but an already established species.
Close attention to this movie inspires our own dangerous thoughts. For example, this writer never forgets the science fiction of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quatermass and the Pit, both advancing ideas that would fall under the heading of tinkering with the evolutionary process (i.e., intelligent design at interesting moments). Never mind that these works of SF are not in the business of providing proof for their wild speculations. According to the State Religion of "Darwinism" -- that Stein proves exists to some extent -- these movies are not science fiction. They have a tinge of intelligent design. Intelligent design of any kind is indistinguishable from creationism. Therefore quite a lot of science fiction (if you add it all up) is dastardly creationist fiction. This burning issue is not going to be discussed in scientific journals but it is at the core of why Stein has a point.
What came first, the chicken or the egg? Creationists say "Chicken" and evolutionists say "Egg" -- and your humble reviewer likes his science sunny side up. Of course the evolutionary process is real. We don't need no stinkin' fossils to prove that. All we need is to take a good look at the duckbill platypus or the angler fish.
But Expelled shows molecular biologists punished for questioning any part of the old Natural Selection notions of what was an amazing theory in the Nineteenth Century but maybe could use an upgrade. Darwin's ideas of the cell were primitive compared to what we now understand. One commentator says that if Darwin saw the cell as an automobile it is now a galaxy. The most visually stunning part of the film shows the cell as sort of a surreal Disney nano-factory. Hey, that's not the Garden of Eden! How can any science person get in trouble with another science person over nifty stuff like that?
Michael Shermer tells Stein early in the film that no one loses a job for the heresy of intelligent design in various fields. Stein shows case after case of people not having contracts renewed for exactly that. A professor with tenure couldn't be fired but his grants mysteriously went extinct. Coincidence? It just happened naturally. No prime movers need apply.
Stein wins this part of the argument. There is a Science Orthodoxy that has nothing to do with scientific method. Grant money is the math that matters.
Ben Stein should have quit while he was ahead. There are two things he gets spectacularly wrong. The first is the casino cartoon where he attempts to show how highly improbable it is for a specific genome code to emerge by random chance. At this point we turn the review over to J. Kent Hastings (co-author with the reviewer of the novel Anarquia) who knows a little something about science. Take it away, Kent:
"There are many viable non-lethal mutations that can survive and reproduce. Perhaps getting a particular exact genome code is as improbable as Stein suggests. But some organism that fits an ecological niche will very likely emerge with an equally improbable code. The scientific consensus is that the vast amount of time since life began on Earth is sufficient to account for the species we observe today and the fossil remains of any extinct species."
This reviewer claims to know a little about scientists and that's where Stein really screws up. He digs up the old fossil canard and tries to link poor Charles Darwin to the Nazis. Stein sort of says he isn't doing what he then proceeds to do, thus qualifying him to be the kind of person who fires other persons without admitting the reasons. Charles Darwin was not a Social Darwinist. He had nothing to do with eugenics. Stein plays a trick worthy of Michael Moore. He quotes a typical Nineteenth Century attitude from Darwin about the breeding of better sorts of animals so isn't a shame that better people don't do all the breeding. That is very different from equating Darwin with the mystical racism of Hitler. It also isn't the same as Darwin advocating any kind of government program to do the impossible by Darwin's standards. The author of The Origin of Species didn't think that human beings could guide the course of evolution.
Ben Stein makes sure that we in the audience know that he's Jewish during this section. He doesn't bother informing us that the vast majority of educated Nineteenth Century Jews could and did make the same kind of remarks that he berates Darwin for making. If the film had ended here it would have left a very bad taste.
For the good of the film, it ends on a much higher note. Stein deserves an Oscar for this bit. Panspermia rears its Hydra heads at just the right moment. Dawkins and Stein meet in a battle worthy of King Kong vs. Godzilla! The contemporary world's most famous atheist insists he doesn't believe that any concept of a god or goddess could have any merit. Stein plays his victim, the passionate disbeliever, like a musical instrument. Somehow he gets the great man to admit the possibility of life being seeded on Earth from space. And then comes the kicker. There could be super intelligent aliens involved somewhere along the line.
Yes, Ben Stein gets that admission from Richard Dawkins. Game over! What, something to study? Intelligent whatsit? Life engineered somehow? Richard Dawkins is married to Lala Ward, the second Lady Romana on the greatest science fiction TV series, Doctor Who. You'd think he would have remembered some of the god-like super aliens that Lala Ward had over for dinner and avoided Stein's trap.
Earlier in the film, and in the trailer for the film, the seed was planted. Evolution is not about the origin of life. It's about the origin of species. There is no convincing science about the origin of life because we still don't know. Evolution is not a theory. It's an established fact. But the origin of life is still theory!!! Take your amino acid mud bath and invite Dr. Frankenstein over with his electrical equipment. Or imagine some incomprehensible something speaking a Word. Or imagine eternal life and the eternal return if you prefer. So far, science doesn't have the answer. The atheists insist on what the answer must be but science is silent on the subject. We could find life forms on a thousand worlds and still not know how it all began.
If Dr. Frankenstein discovers the ultimate question we can hope he shares the answer before the villagers get to him with fire and pitchfork. And we can be sure of one thing. After seeing Expelled, we know that the lynch mob is as likely to storm out of the university classrooms as the village tavern or church.
Brad Linaweaver is an award winning science fiction author and libertarian activist. This article is available to anyone who wants it so long as there is no editing and the author's name is spelled correctly. It can also appear on copyrighted sites: just run copyright 2008 by the author with permission to reprint granted to everyone.
April 25, 2008
Expelled: No Intelligence Offered - part 2 (Ben in the Dock)
(For Brad Linaweaver's review, see here now!)
Here lieth the second and final part of the analysis and meditation upon Ben Stein's movie Expelled, wherein is to be found absolutely everything that is wrong with Intelligent Design write large across the silver screen. Cushlamochree!
(The first part contained fits 1-5; this part contains the final four fits.)
Fit the sixth: Hear ye, hear ye!
Critical to the core thesis of Expelled is the claim that the high priests of "normal science" have never really looked at ID; they just fire "dissenters"to silence them and shut out the new paradigm. ("Paradigm" in this case means "a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in an intellectual discipline.")
But this simply is not true; many scientists have responded to the claims of ID -- very effectively; Francis Collins is only one among many. The problem is that ID proponents have no persuasive scientific answer to the points raised against it.
The primary argument against ID is that it does not fit the normal definition of science: In order for any hypothesis or system of thought to be considered "scientific," it must pass all of the following five tests:
- It must be predictable: It must tell us what we will find if we make certain measurements in the future, measurements we have not yet made.
- It must be tentative: It must say, "This is how things appear at the moment, according to current evidence." Since theory flows from evidence, then as evidence changes, the theory must also change. If the system is eternal -- if contradictory evidence "proves" (to proponents) that the evidence must therefore be mistaken -- then it is not science.
- It must be falsifiable: Proponents must enunciate some humanly possible experiment that has the potential to totally discredit their hypothesis. In other words, "if measurement X isn't within this range, then my theory is shot down.
- It must be based upon previous scientific inquiry, not pulled out of left field; it must arise from the literature and be compatible with all previous observations, allowing for occasional experimental error.
- It must invoke only natural causes that still exist in the world today and can be measured by other means, not supernatural causes that either no longer exist or never could have been observed in the first place.
So does ID meet these requirements? Remember, it must pass all five tests... but in fact, Intelligent Design passes none of them.
It predicts nothing; ID proponents never say, "make the following brand-new observation, and this is what you will find."
It is not tentative; for example, no matter how many examples of "irreducible complexity" are shown to be thoroughly reducible, Behe, the Discovery Institute, and all of Intelligent Designdom stubbornly embrace the conclusion that life is irreducibly complex, hence could not have evolved via traditional evolutionary theory. Faith in Intelligent Design is primary; evidence that does not conform is rejected.
ID invokes a cause -- the "Designer" -- that not only cannot be measured today, He, She, It, or They would actually exist outside the physical universe itself, if exist the Designer did. Therefore, it is definitely not falsifiable, either; how could any experiment imaginable disprove the existence of a designer who is, by definition, outside the entire spacetime continuum and operates according to laws far beyond all physical laws that humans can detect?
And ID arises from no previous scientific theory; it arises from the ashes of Creation Science, which itself is not a science (and arose from Biblical Creationism). The idea of a "Designer" bubbled up as a way to restore Genesis literalism in the wake of the publication of the Origin of Species; and it came from religious leaders who were critical of evolutionary theory back when Charles Darwin was still alive. Their main complaint, like Phillip Johnson's, was that natural selection appeared to dethrone God and raise up blind chance in His place.
All right, perhaps Intelligent Design is not itself a scientific theory. But isn't it at least a valid critique of traditional evolutionary theory? Shouldn't it be taken seriously as a worthwhile activity and given some latitude to be developed? After all, science (including evolutionary theory) has a long and honorable tradition of responding to strong, scientific criticism by reworking its theories and models to fix any contradictions or disagreements with the evidence. That's part of the "tentativity" requirement above.
If ID were scientific criticism, this would be a valid point. But the same problems that prevent it being a scientific theory also plague its ability to be proper scientific criticism.
Simply put, when ID "scientists" raise criticisms, and established scientists respond -- either with further research or by demonstrating the points are not actually problematical -- IDers do not respond in kind. In fact, it's ID proponents who ignore the establishment response and grimly stand by their critique. Here is a perfect example...
I noted above that Michael Behe of the Discovery Institute argues that complex biological structures composed of many components are "irreducible," thus cannot evolve by random mutation. Every mutated component of a complex structure, argues Behe, would have to appear via mutation simultaneously for the structure to provide any survival advantage; and such simultaneous mutation is so unlikely, it could not have occurred within the lifetime of the universe.
But this argument has been answered many times, both by argument (Darwin himself in Origins on the evolution of the mammalian eye) and by scientific advances, e.g., in genetics. The claim of "irreducible complexity" is thoroughly exploded in Collins' the Language of God, pp. 189-193. Collins first notes "the well-established phenomenon of gene duplication": A rung-by-rung examination of DNA discloses that many genes appear multiple times on the strand. This is important, because if one of the duplicates of a vital gene mutates away from its original function, the organism would not die... because there are still other copies that can provide that essential functionality.
Thus, the mutated version can mutate further and futher, until by random chance, it hits upon a new function that advantages the organism... and natural selection is off and running. Taking Michael Behe's favorite example, Collins explains how gene comparisons conducted since Behe's original writings on "irreducible complexity" are in fact reducing the complexity of bacterial flagella to more primitive parts that could have evolved separately while still advantaging the organism:
A particularly damaging crack in the foundation of Intelligent Design theory arises from recent revelations about the poster child of ID, the bacterial flagellum. The argument that it is irreducibly complex rests upon the presumption that the individual subunits of the flagellum could have had no prior useful function of some other sort, and therefore the motor could not have been assembled by recruiting such components in a stepwise fashion, driven by the forces of natural selection.
Recent research has fundamentally undercut this position. Specifically, comparison of protein sequences from multiple bacteria has demonstrated that several components of the flagellum are related to an entirely different apparatus used by certain bacteria to inject toxins into other bacteria that they are attacking.
This bacterial offensive weapon, referred to by microbiologists as the "type III secretory apparatus," provides a clear "survival of the fittest" advantage to organisms that possess it. Presumably, the elements of this structure were duplicated hundreds of millions of years ago [gene duplication], and then recruited for a new use; by combining this with other proteins that had previously been carrying out simpler functions, the entire motor was ultimately generated.
To date, Behe has neither acknowledged this counterargument or come up with a counter-counterargument of his own. Even today, right where you are sitting now, you can download a "briefing packet for educators" on "the Theory of Intelligent Design" from the Discovery Institute which states, on p. 8:
What Are Some Scientific Problems with Darwinian Evolution and Chemical Evolution?...
Biochemistry: Unguided and Random Processes Cannot Produce Cellular Complexity. Cells contain incredible complexity, similar to machine technology but dwarfing anything produced by humans. Cells use circuits, miniature motors, feedback loops, encoded language, and even error-checking machinery which decodes and repairs our DNA. Many scientists have claimed that Darwinian evolution does not appear capable of building this type of integrated complexity.
This is nothing but Behe's "irreducible complexity" redux, just as if no one had ever answered him, as if there had been no advance in genetics in the fifteen years since he first raised the issue.
Thus the answer is No, ID is not a scientific theory; and it is not even a good scientific critique of the traditional theory of evolution by random mutation filtered through natural selection. It is barely more scientific than astrology.
Would any reader find it odd or conspiratorial that a refereed astronomy journal would refuse to publish a paper on astrology? Or that a researcher, having received a grant to study some question of astrophysics, who was found to have frittered the money away studying the zodiac and the writings of Nostradamus, would have his grant revoked and his contract not renewed?
Wouldn't any respected university or accountable government body want to protect its good name by not allowing university donations or taxpayer money to be used to investigate how the stars at our birth control our destinies?
Contrary to Expelled -- that's what we're reviewing here, in case you forgot in all the excitement -- "Big Science" has indeed deigned to notice and respond to the claims of ID; but there has been no counter-response, no new research, no answer to the points that scientists raise against ID. The lights on, but nobody appears to be home.
Fit the seventh: God of the gaps
All of the arguments ID offers against mainstream evolutionary theory fall into the same argumenative category, what Wall Street Journal science writer Sharon Begley calls the "argument by personal incredulity" (she attributes the term to "one wag"):
For years, intelligent-design theory had been bogged down in what one wag calls "the argument from personal incredulity" ("I can't see how natural forces could produce this, so it must be the work of God"). Darwin's new foes, however, are smart enough to realize that just because most of us can't imagine how the sun can burn so hot for so long, it doesn't follow that God, not nuclear fusion, keeps the fires stoked.
In 1996, biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa., therefore offered a stronger argument against evolution. Complex living structures, he argued in his book "Darwin's Black Box," possess "irreducible complexity." That is, they can't function until all their components are assembled, much as a mousetrap isn't much good until the base, spring, bar and all the rest are connected.
I have already dealt with this argument on its own terms; but now let's understand the terrible danger such an argument poses to religious faith. It is not evolutionary theory that leads to atheism. It is the premise that God is to be found wherever there is a temporary lack of understanding on some scientific point, no matter how small. As Collins notes:
ID proponents have made the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, or the unsolved with the unsolvable.
Such reasoning reduces the role of the "Designer," God, to hiding in any tiny evolutionary mousehole that is unexplained today. Collins calls this the "God of the gaps" fallacy.
The danger is that science never stands still; it perpetually moves forward. Given time, it will inevitably explain all of the unexplained gaps in our understanding of evolution. And what of God then, when His gaps disappear? Collins -- a very religious Christian for whom the existence of God is not a proposition but simple truth -- makes his fears explicit on pp. 194-5:
The perceived gaps in evolution that ID intended to fill with God are instead being filled by advances in science. By forcing this limited, narrow view of God's role, Intelligent Design is ironically on a path toward doing considerable damage to faith.
The sincerity of the proponents of Intelligent Design can hardly be questioned. The warm embrace of ID by believers, particularly by evangelical Christians, is completely understandable, given the way in which Darwin's theory has been portrayed by some outspoken evolutionists as demanding atheism. But this ship is not headed to the promised land; it is headed instead to the bottom of the ocean. If believers have attached their last vestiges of hope that God could find a place in human existence through ID theory, and that theory collapses, what then happens to faith?
A long time ago, people believed the thunder and lightning were God's wrath; then we discovered it was a completely natural electrical discharge -- and God lost the thunder.
Ages ago, people believed the stars were the lights of heaven; then we deduced that stars were natural fusion engines burning unfathomable distances away -- and the lights of heaven dimmed.
Once we thought that God pushed the sun, the planets, and the stars around the Earth; we now understand the motive force is simple gravity, the same gravity that pulls us all towards the center of this planet -- and that the focus of the solar system orbits is the sun, not the Earth. God abruptly lost his digs in the gated community of the Celestial Spheres. (Technically, each planet's orbit has two foci, since it's an elipse; but the other foci are all points in empty space near the sun.)
Each of these discoveries caused a crisis of faith -- but only because men had foolishly assumed that yesterday's unknown was unknowable. These were early examples of the fragile "God of the gaps," trying to substitute the supernatural for every hole in our knowledge of what was then called natural philosophy. Each was resisted by the religious ancestors of today's Intelligent Design movement.
And if ID believers continue that sad legacy by declaring that their inability in 1996 to explain the "irreducibly complex" bacterial flagella proves the existence of an intelligent Designer, then what happens to our Designer when even Michael Behe is forced to admit that flagella are quite reducible after all?
Will he find some new system, not yet perfectly explained, and argue that that's the real-deal irreducible complexity that proves intelligent design? Or will Behe lose his faith entirely, taking the opposite route that Francis Collins took some decades ago?
I don't know the man, but I presume he's not an utter fool. At some point, even Behe will come to realize that hunting for the "irreducible complexity" in nature is a mug's game, like trying to find a left-handed monkey wrench (or a right-winged monkey trial). Millions who now clutch at ID as their lifeline to living faith will be left empty handed. And the blame will fall on those like Michael Behe and Ben Stein, who lured conservatives into believing that God can be hidden in every lacuna in human knowledge -- even while they knew, somewhere deep down, that every mousehole would eventually be plugged.
So what is the way out of this labyrinth? Must science on the left and faith on the right be forever divided by the intellectual Berlin Wall posited by Stein? Must you abandon your belief in God in order to accept the findings of evolution?
That vile implication is what makes this movie so dangerous... and lowers Ben Stein far below those he attacks.
Why pinch the human intellect into an unbridgeable dichotomy? Both the left and right hemispheres of our brains are connected by the corpus callosum, which mediates between logic and dream, math and myth. Our right brain craves the connectedness of our mythos... but our left brain helps us select between myths that are true and healthy and those which are false and poisonous.
Fortunately, then, the answer to our question above is No; science and faith, properly considered, are not in any conflict... but you would never know it from watching Expelled.
Fit the eighth: The Great Divide
So what about Stein's secondary thesis, that the study of traditional evolutionary theory must by itself lead to atheism, with all the attendant evils and ills it portends? That a "Berlin Wall" rises between faith and science, and one must choose the former, lest one be dragged, willy nilly, into the latter?
In Expelled, Stein shows us an intact wall. We see some folks hammering on it; but by the end of the movie, the fanciful divide remains unbridgeable, as if we perpetually lived in the days of the 1961 tank confrontation.
But there is no more Berlin Wall in Germany; it was torn down shortly after Reagan's famous speech. Officials of the reunited Germany left a marker and a museum where "Checkpoint Charlie" once stood, just to remind themselves what used to divide the two cultures. I think this a more fitting image of the future than Stein's glowering gun towers and scientific no-man's land.
Stein has fallen for the same exclusionary fiction that animates Dawkins, thereby proving himself Dawkins' ideological twin brother. Why would a movie by an evolution dissenter feature an evolution absolutist in such a starring role? Because Dawkins is a militant atheist who hopes, as Stein fears, that studying science will lead to atheism.
This plays into Stein's idea of the recruiting power of evolutionary theory. He sees "Darwinism" as a charismatic, evangelical version of atheism -- "Dawkins-ism." It's true that Richard Dawkins shares Stein's belief in the miraculous (diabolical, in Stein's eye) power of evolution to convert; even so, he's nowhere near the monster that Stein paints him.
To be fair to Dawkins -- which Expelled is not -- he does not believe that losing one's faith in God means losing the idea of right and wrong; nor does he believe that his radical materialism negates the idea of free will. Dawkins finds himself falling back on his childhood belief in moral law -- even while he makes unconvincing protests that such morality can arise naturally. Even more astonishing, he believes that religion may arise naturally in human societies as a result of evolutionary processes... that it "may very well have a conventional Darwinian survival value." (Does that include celebate monks and nuns?)
In responding to an interviewer who asked Dawkins about his idea that human beings are "gene machines" and how that might relate to free will, Dawkins said:
I am very comfortable with the idea that we can override biology with free will. Indeed, I encourage people all the time to do it. Much of the message of my first book, "The Selfish Gene," was that we must understand what it means to be a gene machine, what it means to be programmed by genes, so that we are better equipped to escape, so that we are better equipped to use our big brains, use our conscious intelligence, to depart from the dictates of the selfish genes and to build for ourselves a new kind of life which as far as I am concerned the more un-Darwinian it is the better, because the Darwinian world in which our ancestors were selected is a very unpleasant world. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. And when we sit down together to argue out and discuss and decide upon how we want to run our societies, I think we should hold up Darwinism as an awful warning for how we should not organize our societies.
On the question of moral law:
QUESTION: If, as you have said, there is a tendency from our genes for us to be selfish, would that perhaps suggest that we need institutions like religion to encourage us to override this innate selfishness?
MR. DAWKINS: The phrase "the selfish gene" only means that genes are selfish. It doesn't mean that individual organisms are. On the contrary, one of the main messages of the selfish gene is that selfish genes can program altruistic behavior in organisms. Organisms can behave altruistically towards other organisms -- the better to forward the propagation of their own selfish genes. What you cannot have is a gene that sacrifices itself for the benefit of other genes. What you can have is a gene that makes organisms sacrifice themselves for other organisms under the influence of selfish genes.
I think we certainly benefit from social institutions which encourage us towards moral behavior. It's very important to have law. It's very important to have a moral education. It's very important to try to inculcate into children moral rules, such as "do as you would be done by." It's very important to do moral philosophy, to try work out the principles we want to live. But when you say religious principles, there I think I would part company. I see no reason why they should be religious. But I certainly think that they should be developed by society and not necessarily following biological dictates.
Despite these Dawkinsian positions -- easily found by a bit of Googling -- Stein devotes an entire section in Expelled to some professor of biology who goes on and on about how free will is just a delusion and how personally liberating he finds that queer state of affairs. I wish I could remember his name. In any event, when Stein attributes by implication this position to Darwin-induced atheism in general and Richard Dawkins in particular, he engages in "deception by omission."
[The professor -- of history, not biology -- has been tentatively identified as Will Provine of Cornell. Hat tip to commenter JoshuaZ.]
Stein could have allowed Dawkins to state his real views; the science writer is hardly shy about expressing himself. But instead, he segues directly from mainstream evolutionary theory, to Richard Dawkins' atheist dreams, to [Professor Provine] fulminating against free will. Stein thus leaves moviegoers with a dreadfully false impression.
Expelled clearly implies that those who reject Intelligent Design form an undifferentiated mass of anti-morality radicals... when instead, they form a continuum of divergent beliefs, running the gamut from the lunatic who believes humans are entirely gene-driven -- to a sincere, mainstream Christian like Francis Collins.
Stein's is the tactic of demagoguery, not debate. It is another example of which side is actually seeking to stifle dissent and mislead the public. Millions of people who see Expelled will now imagine that evolutionists believe we have no free will and that the only morality is nature "red in tooth and claw," when in fact they (and Dawkins) believe precisely the opposite.
Fit the ninth: The labyrinth and the Minotaur
Phillip Johnson and the others at the forefront of the ID movement today object to evolutionary theory primarily on grounds that it "defaiths" America (my term) by making the miraculous mundane. Under the relentless erosion of faith by science, God loses his thunder, his heavenly lights, and his celestial heavens.
But this makes no sense theologically: If it's miraculous that a "Designer" would pre-load bacterial DNA with instructions to create a flagellum, as Behe has suggested, then how much more miraculous is it that some intelligent "Designer" might have created the entire universe and its physical laws -- including those that allowed bacteria and their blessed flagella to evolve in the first place? Why accept only microscopic miracles as the acts of God, but not the creation of, well, all Creation?
ID simultaneously gives God too much jurisdiction and not enough credit. There is no need to invoke divine intervention to explain how bacteria move themselves; if we can move ourselves, there is no reason crabs, flatworms, seastars, and even microbes cannot do the same.
So if God's role is not to personally push all the buttons and pull all the levers of material processes, to perform micromiracles, like Maxwell's Demon, inside the gaps of our scientific understanding, then what is it? Why not return to Him the realm He has always historically occupied, and to which science lays no serious claim?
You may believe -- I certainly do, Dawkins or no Dawkins -- that civilized morality cannot be supported among mass numbers of people without a societal belief in what Dennis Prager calls "ethical monotheism"... a single, unitary God, omniscient and omnipotent, whose overriding concern anent human beings is that they treat each other with decency and justice. Prager believes it's more important for individuals to be decent and for institutions to be just. (I make no claim whether this societal belief is true, only that it's necessary.)
Unlike Francis Collins since his conversion, I am not certain of the existence of God. Unlike self-professed "Darwinist" and science writer Richard Dawkins since his disillusionment, I'm equally unconvinced of the contrary proposition. But let's consider the thesis that Prager's "ethically monotheist" God exists, the God of the Jewish and Christian Bibles, and that He created the universe... and that ever since that moment of "fiat lux," the physical universe has ticked along fully according to the physical laws that are inherent in Cosmos.
How then could faith in God be diminshed by scientific advancement, no matter how many amazing discoveries we make in the next hundred years? Rather, wouldn't every such discovery simply make the faithful even more awed by the glory of their God? That is certainly Collins' reaction.
Does this leave us with a Deistic God, rather than a Theistic one? Do we live in a clockwork universe with a God who is so remote that He cares nothing about human beings? Once He set the cogs in motion, has He turned His back and walked away?
There is no theological necessity for such an assumption: A Theistic God is perfectly consistent with all the creation occuring the moment before the Big Bang -- because the aspect we're interested in is not whether God personally spurts lava out of the volcano, but whether He personally responds to prayer, judges souls, and in the case of Christians, grants forgiveness to those who accept the sacrifice of Jesus.
A Pragerian God is not concerned with specifics of human biology but with our souls, which are forged by the decisions we make (driving actions or beliefs) from our own free will.
The most important article of Judeo-Christian faith, then -- as an agnostic, I may be treading on sensitive ground here -- is not that God personally created the bacterial flagella, but that He has a personal relationship with each human being and will lead humans away from sin and towards righteousness. (I am deliberately vague as to how, since different religions offer quite different mechanisms, from the Law to conscience to Christ.)
It's more important to believe that God wants us to be decent and just than to believe that God specifically designed the blood-clotting cascade... rather than "merely" designing the whole universe and its physical laws, which He (being omniscient) knew would ultimately evolve it.
Science flows from our reason, which is an essentially human (hence, to a believer, soul-bound) endeavor; faith flows from our mythic unconscious. To any believer, both ultimately derive from God. How can they conflict?
Science seeks only to explain the natural world; nothing discoverable by science could jeopardize faith, so long as the believer does not inappropriately hitch his faith to today's lack of knowledge. Faith civilizes society, and a civil society is necessary for free and open scientific inquiry. They compliment each other like the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
And I think culture is the analog of the corpus callosum: Culture is what mediates between science/rationality and faith/mythos. A sick culture allows one or the other to seize control and run everything, as in "jihadist" religious movements, or allows both to run rampant and enslave the masses, as with Communism, Naziism, fascism, and every other totalitarian socialism.
But a healthy culture trims the flight of each to keep them in formation: Faith does not try to squelch legitimate scientific inquiry -- into, say, embryonic stem-cell research -- while science is willing to accept ethical boundaries over its behavior, such as restricting such research to using only techniques that do not kill the embryo.
That is how to bridge the divide, by assigning each endeavor, science and faith, its own sphere. Science tells us what, faith (religious or otherwise) tells us why. And while the twain should frequently meet, there is no reason they should collide.
Science, even evolution, does not force us into atheism, because the Western God is no "Wizard of Oz," pulling levers behind a curtain. He is not the God of the gaps... He would be the God of the mythos; the deity of reason; the guardian of good and evil; the maker of morality; and the source of science. He did not specifically design the universe to trick us into materialism; but He left sufficient evidentiary clues to lead us through the labyrinth to a scientific understanding of the physical world. Reason and faith, connected by a thick bundle of cultural nerves.
But there is a monster lurking in that maze: A bullheaded man who will not think it possible he could be wrong, who will not accept that scientific reason is just as godly as religious faith, who imagines that the two can never be reconciled -- but that one must conquer the other. He has created a brutish movie that may ensnare many sincere people who should not be told they cannot pursue both hemispheres of knowledge.
At the end of this analysis, I find an unexpected burst of pity for Ben Stein. The dismal science he studied at Columbia appears to have led him into the Slough of Despond, and I don't know that he can find his way out.
I hope so; even a Minotaur should be allowed to evolve.
April 24, 2008
Expelled: No Intelligence Offered - part 1 (Win Ben Stein's Monkey Trial!)
(For Brad Linaweaver's review, see here now!)
Conservative anti-evolution activist Ben Stein has a monkey on his back; perhaps I should say a monkey is haunting Stein, the monkey of "Darwinism." It climbs through his window at night and, pace Poe, attacks him in his dreams.
I have just suffered through 90 minutes of being informed that not only was I a Nazi, but a Communist and a eugenicist. I have been told I don't believe in free will, and that I actively suppress brilliant scientists whose only "crime" is to "raise the question" of Intelligent Design (ID). And I have been thus attacked by a man who I still support and defend on many other issues, and who I have long respected as an otherwise rational person. But on this subject, Ben Stein has truly gone off the rails.
He has released a documentary called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed; it's getting a lot of favorable buzz in conservative circles -- for all the wrong reasons: Not because it persuades (it doesn't); not because it bridges the divide between science and faith (rather, it deepens it); and certainly not because it is fair or just or truth-seeking, as it claims... because on those civic virtues, Expelled is more akin to Fahrenheit 9/11 than to the Path to 9/11.
The reason for its near ecstatic reception on the right is mostly (I believe) that it reaffirms the anti-evolution bias of a great many conservatives. Many (but not all) conservatives passionately believe that the theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection is a boondoggle that "Big Science" -- yes, Stein uses the term in the advertising -- has somehow foised upon the world for nearly 150 years.
(This piece is long, so I will post it in two halves; the second should appear sometime late tonight.)
Intelligent Design dates to about 1993; it stems from a group of religious Christians and some Jews who reject modern evolutionary theory -- which they insist upon calling "Darwinism," or sometimes neo-Darwinism, as if it hadn't, well, evolved in the 149 years since Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species. The driving force behind it was Phillip Johnson, a lawyer and a very religious Christian at UC Berkeley; Johnson published Darwin on Trial in that year (and a number of other similar books since). Darwin on Trial spends some time arguing that there is no good evidence for evolution; but the conclusion of the book argues a very different point: That "Darwinism" is actually a materialist religion; and that the study of evolutionary theory leads directly to atheism. Thus Johnson posited a great divide between science (materialist religion) and faith (Creator-based religion)... and you must pick one or the other.
Ben Stein has clearly bought into the same fallacy; he believes that religious faith and science, or at least evolutionary theory, form a dichotomy -- which the movie symbolizes by the Berlin wall. Everybody is either on one side or the other. No Mugwumps allowed! He is a very partisan supporter of Intelligent Design (often abbreviated ID by its supporters); so partisan that virtually everything he says sounds suspect... even those points that are true!
I will not mince words: The movie is a monstrous and deadly lie. This piece, part review, part response, will show why Expelled is a lie -- and why it is so dangerous not only to society but even to mainstream religion...
Fit the first: Strategy and tactics
The first disappointment is that Ben Stein squanders the greatest asset that conservatives generally hold over liberals: fundamental fairness. The shorthand is that liberals use the appeal to emotion, while conservatives argue from the mind.
But in Expelled, Stein builds his thesis in the sensationalist and tendentious fashion of Michael Moore: He carefully controls the argument so that those he agrees with are allowed to endlessly explain their positions while tugging at our heartstrings, while those in the enemy camp have their words creatively clipped to provide maximal confusion. It's easy to win a debate when you get to script both sides; likewise, it's just as easy to win when you run the edit bay.
The core of Expelled is the "parade of horribles": He shows us number of (we are told) eminent scientists who have been "fired" (or "expelled," as Stein puts it) merely because they "questioned" the "dominant paradigm" and showed that the emperor has no clothes. Easy to understand; equally easy to misunderstand.
Each of these putative scientists is allowed to tell his or her tale of woe uninterrupted and clearly planned and rehearsed, while their counterparts get only a minute or so of raw, scary-lit footage at the very end to rebut.
Too, each interviewee who supports the "firing" of one of the ID-supporting "scientists" is hit with explicit questions about the situation with no warning, no chance to refresh his memory about the case, and no opportunity to gather his notes... a perfect conservative analog to the "60 Minutes" style. And Stein doesn't note for the audience another very important point: The squirming "neo-Darwinist" is legally restrained from defending his actions due to employee-privacy laws.
If he said what he really believed, the supposed victims could sue him and his university or governmental employer. That certainly dampens any enthusiasm the evolutionists might have to defend their decisions.
Those on the side of "Big Science" must fight with their tongues tied behind their backs, a perfect microcosm of the fundamental unfairness of the rest of the documentary. But wait... aren't the scientists, as clearly depicted in the movie, bad guys who "unfairly exclude" ID from the discussion? If so, then it's only right, some anti-evolution viewers argue, that ID gets a chance to do the same.
Is that the argument? If so, then Stein is really saying, Sure, we're being totally unfair to mainstream scientists; but if you believe the scurrilous charges we hurl at them, they deserve to be treated unfairly!
This is not an inspiring message. Worse, it's not a conservative message; it's "liberal logic," the same kind that gives us affirmative action: Blacks were wrongfully discriminated against for so long, isn't it about time we started wrongfully discriminating against whites, to even things out?
Truth would have been better served if Stein had allowed both sides a fair chance at making their points. If he complains that "Big Science" has discriminated against ID, the solution is not to discriminate in favor of ID instead. Alas, this is the paradigm of the entire movie Expelled. One reason this review expanded into a response is just that: no intelligent response allowed in the movie itself.
Fit the second: Absence of evidence is evidence of conspiracy
The reader has probably noticed that I've used terms like "putative" and "so called," along with scare-quotes, when I describe the supporers of Intelligent Design depicted in the movie as scientists. That is because many are medical doctors, rather than academics or working scientists; one is a philosopher; and another is actually a journalist, not a scientist. And even among those with some level of scientific credentials, none is shown even to be an adequate researcher, let alone eminent in his field. I can't say they're not, but Stein gives us no reason to believe they are, beyond his personal say-so.
A word about Ben Stein himself. He has no science background, unless one counts economics; he wasn't even a high-school science teacher, though he played one on TV. Even so, he should realize that merely calling someone top notch or brilliant is meaningless without some more substantial evidence.
Stein took his first university degree in economics, from Columbia College, then attended Yale Law School; like Phillip Johnson, founder of ID, Stein is a lawyer. But in both those two very respected fields, economics and the law, "truth" is an elusive concept.
At law, for every argument, there is a counterargument; neither can be said to be absolutely wrong. While a judge may decide against one side, the next year, the same judge may decide against the other. Nothing is fully resolved except by power-play: When a big enough court decides an issue, it can enforce its decision -- whether "right" or "wrong" in some cosmic sense (think of Dred Scott v. John Sanford or Roe v. Wade).
Similarly, in ecnomics -- especially back in the 60s, when Stein was learning the field at Columbia -- everybody has his own theory; nobody can prove, within the field of economics, that one economic theory is better than any other. Great economists have included free-market economists (Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman) and absolute statists (John Maynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith), or "neoliberals" like the contemporary Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor; all five still have followers in academe.
But no working, respected, frequently cited physicist today rejects special relativity or quantum mechanics in favor of pure Newtonian mechanics. Newton's theories still hold true in limited cases; outside those limits, newer theories prevail; and nobody in the field stubbornly clings to the old ideas.
In science, there are no absolute proofs of hypotheses, but there are absolute refutations. Once you show that, i.e., Newtonian mechanics cannot explain the planet Mercury's orbital precession or the bending of starlight as it passes close to the sun, it's finished as a universal theory of everything (even though parts of Newtonian mechanics are still useful in special cases). Scientists are constantly refining our understanding of, for example, how best to model an atom; but no chemist or physicist disbelieves that molecules are composed of atoms and harkens back to the four "elements" of antiquity -- earth, water, air, and fire.
Ben Stein is unequipped by his education to deal in the realm of absolutes in nature. I'm sure he accepts what he calls "absolutes" in morality -- but there, he means absolute in the sense of divine revelation, the word of God. He does not understand that science is filled with a different kind of absolute, the natural absolute of mathematical and experimental evidence.
Judging from this movie, he thinks that it's "only fair" that ID gets to win some of the arguments, some of the time. After all, those "eminent" scientists who were "expelled" from Big Science are so passionate and sincere!
But they're passionately wrong.
This point is vital to Stein's thesis. If the academic employees whose contracts were not renewed were less than fully competent by the objective standards of science, then isn't that a perfectly valid reason to let them go? We need not look for some deeper conspiracy -- suppression of dissenting opinion and neo-Darwinist corruption, as Stein suggests. And here he means literal corruption; he explicitly charges that Big Science dangles grant money to bribe scientists into supporting evolutionary theory. Presumably, absent the big bucks, scientists would reject evolution as charlatanry, just as many conservative lawyers and economists do.
But if that were the case, then what caused scientists to accept evolutionary theory in the first place? All the establishments of the nineteenth century opposed it for decades. And why haven't we seen a flood of new, young researchers, who don't yet have established grant empires, overturning evolutionary theory in order to make their bones? Again, no need to posit a vast, Darwinian conspiracy: Evolutionary theory as explicated by Charles Darwin prevailed in the nineteenth century, and continues to hold sway today, because the evidence of scientific observation thoroughly supports it; and two hundred years of evidence (the earliest predating Darwin's solution by more than 50 years) could not be explained by any competing scientific theory.
This is a point that conservatives especially should understand better than they do. After all, conservatives have used the very same argument to defend President George W. Bush from conspiracy charges in his decision not to renew the appointments of some United States Attorneys. On that occasion, liberals led the crusade to accuse Bush of conspiring to suppress information by "firing" USAs who investigated the "Republican culture of corruption."
The charge was ludicrous then, and its brother is ludicrous now, even if a conservative makes it.
Fit the third: The vague-abond king
One of Expelled's biggest failings is that none of its "bad boy" ID proponents actually explains why evolution could not have occurred, why Intelligent Design is a better hypothesis to explain the rise of species than variation and natural selection, why ID is scientific, or even what, exactly, ID theory actually claims.
At what point in the evolution of life is the intelligent Designer supposed to have intervened? And how exactly -- by what physical mechanism -- did He do so? Is there any evidence for this intervention beyond the "argument by personal incredulity" ("I just can't imagine how X could have occurred naturally, so it must not have.")
None of these issues is even addressed: Not only do Stein's subjects never offer evidence for ID (or even against mainstream evolutionary theory), none of the expert witnesses can even define Intelligent Design in the first place!
The irony is that one ID proponent in the flick carefully and accurately defines traditional evolutionary theory; then another ID expert at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the Mecca of Intelligent Design, is shown bitterly lamenting that reporters always misstate the claims of ID. He tells us what he thinks ID does not claim -- that some structures of life are "too complex" to be explained by traditional evolutionary theory; yet he never tells us what ID actually does claim.
Thus Stein leaves the audience in the dark -- what, specifically, is the argument actually about? We don't learn from Expelled; we only learn that it isn't about whether evolution can create complexity.
Which is a breathtaking assertion... because the chief scientist-architect of ID -- Dr. Michael Behe -- in fact explicitly claims that ID's best argument is the "irreducible complexity" of some biological structures, such as the mammalian eye, the bacterial flagellum (a "nanomotor" that allow bacteria to move by themselves), and the human blot-clotting cascade. Isn't "irreducible complexity" an argument from complexity?
Behe asserts that such complex structures, which comprise many separate components (simple structures or proteins), are "irreducible." By this, Behe means that complex structures could not have evolved by random mutation, because (he argues) every component would have to evolve simultaneously for the structure to work properly, thus to provide any survival advantage to the organism.
He tries to make his case by noting that if you chemically suppress, for example, any of the dozen proteins involved in blood clotting or any of the 40 or so proteins used by bacterial flagella, the entire system fails. Since, he says, the individual components themselves confer no advantage without all the others, how could they have evolved in the first place?
While Behe relies mostly upon the flagellum example, lawyers like Michael Medved prefer to use the mammalian eye -- likely because they can't understand Behe's argument about flagella or clotting cascades, having never studied biology or any other science. Medved often notes that a retina all by itself, without an optic nerve or lense or cornea, is useless. Likewise, a lens all by itself, without the other components, has no function, and so forth. The problem with this example (and why Behe rarely uses it), is that even Darwin himself presented a very persuasive, step by step way that the eye could have evolved. Since then, of course, the evolution of the eye has been extensively researched; scientists, unlike Michael Medved, know almost exactly how the modern eye came into being.
If you're incredibly interested, there are entire books published on the subject; but Francis Collins has a succinct sketch in the Language of God, pp. 191-2. Anybody interested in this debate cannot skip this book, no matter which side the reader is on; I will return to it over and over. Collins himself is a world-renowned geneticist and physician -- he headed the Human Genome Project -- but he is also a traditional, scripture-believing Christian. He had been an atheist until he was converted in 1976 by reading several works by C.S. Lewis.
I will return to Behe's primary example, bacterial flagella, later. For now, it's enough to note that his argument is that some structures are "irreducibly complex," so could not have evolved by random mutation coupled with natural selection.
This seems remarkably well described by the shorthand, "some structure in life are too complex to be explained by traditional evolutionary theory;" I don't know why the chap from the Discovery Institute is so exercised. Stein leaves theater-goers tip-toeing on eggshells, trying not to misquote IDers, but with the uneasy feeling that whatever we think we know about ID is necessarily wrong.
There is a good reason this movie, arguably the most important (and unarguably the best funded) media support for Intelligent Design ever, does not actually define Intelligent Design: ID proponents refuse to define it themsleves. Trying to get IDers to clearly state their core theses is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Reading the ID literature looking for anything deeper than an intense loathing of "Darwinism" is an exercise in futility: You're groping in the dark for a black cat who isn't there.
Do they argue that organisms don't change over time? No; they believe in "microevolution." Do they say that even the slightest change in an organism is personally directed by some intelligent designer? Definitely not. Is the Designer God? They won't say publicly (but they spilled the beans in an internal Discovery Institute memo that leaked).
Do they argue that the sheer complexity of life proves the existence of ID? Apparently not -- that is the very "misunderstanding" that so exercised the director of the Discovery Institute, though it appears to be a perfectly respectable journalistic shorthand for Behe's "irreducible complexity."
Well, what specifically does ID claim? Where does it differ from mainstream evolutionary theory? They're too coy to say. In fact, supporters of ID only seem comfortable arguing one thing for certain: Whatever really occured to produce all the species now living on Planet Earth, it couldn't have been caused by random variation and natural selection, by "Darwinism."
Fit the fourth: Cult of poisonality
Stein's refusal to call evolutionary theory by its correct name is not simple truculence: By linking evolutionary science inextricably with one man (and one book, the Origin of Species), he reduces science to a religious-like sect... or even to a political cult.
What other general systems (as opposed to technical terms like Newtonian mechanics LaPlace transforms) are identified by a proper noun followed by a variant on "-ism or -ite?" Those I can think of are either religious movements -- Lutheranism, Paulite, Franciscan; political movements -- Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Hitlerism, Jeffersonian, Stirnerite, Reaganism; or bizarre cults of various stripes -- Nietschean, Fullerism, Chompskian, Keynesianism.
What do all of the above, forgetting Darwinism for the moment, have in common? They are systems of thought, philosophies, that follow the teachings of some leader... a guru, if you will. Each constitutes to some extent a cult of personality; in some cases benign or even beneficial, such as Lutheranism and Reaganism; in others dangerous or repellant, as with Maoism and Wahhabism. But in each case, acolytes attempt to follow to the letter the goals and principles of the founder, which are held to be eternal verities.
And then there's "Darwinism." As they sang on Sesame Street, "one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong."
Contrary to what Expelled would have us believe, evolutionary scientists do not seek to promote the teachings of Charles Darwin, any more than modern physicists do not practice Newtonism and contemporary chemists do not engage in Boyleism.
Fit the fifth: Science of unreason
Ben Stein believes and wants to convince moviegoers that modern evolutionary scientists act as Mediaeval thrones, powers, and cherubim, singing endless praise of Charles Darwin, god of evolution. But this is a grotesque misunderstanding of science. There is no "Newtonism," "Boyleism," or "Mendelism;" the greats of science are not worshipped, nor are they considered inerrant or their systems eternal.
By the very nature of science, nothing is eternal; by definition, all is tentative -- that is to say mutative, ever changing. The core idea of evolutionary theory remains constant -- that natural variation or mutation in an organism's genetic code, coupled with an environment that privileges a few variations while punishing most, leads to evolution over time of one species into another. Yet the differences between what Charles Darwin wrote and what contemporary evolutionary scientists believe are myriad. It has been nearly a century and a half, and science never stands still even for a minute.
Evolutionists do not continue to believe in evolutionary theory simply because they have been seduced, either by the weight of tradition or by the lure of research grants. They continue to believe evolution because every experiment, every measurement, every observation without exception confirms, over and over, that the theory is a still-valid model of physical reality... even while the details of that model are constantly readjusted.
But still it is not eternal. Biologists, geneticists, and other evolutionary scientists are always aware that Darwin's ideas could (in theory) be overturned in a moment, even after standing for centuries. After all, that's exactly what Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg, et al, did in physics with relativity and quantum mechanics; and that's even what Kurt Gödel did for mathematical logic with his famous Incompleteness Theorem (see Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter).
Evolutionary theory's continued existence depends utterly upon the evidence from experiment and observation; if that ever stops supporting it, if some new way of measuring contradicts what the theory predicts, then down it goes, in flames.
Yet proponents of Intelligent Design have made no headway whatsoever into the scientific community. Ben Stein tells us that it is they are suppressed, repressed, and oppressed by the scientific establishment. This is partially true; Big Science does tune ID out, ignore what they say, and refuse to sanction Intelligent Design as being on a par with mainstream evolutionary theory... but not because scientists reject freedom of speech. Rather, ID is dismissed because it is not a science, it was not developed scientifically, and its proponents have no positive, scientific evidence to offer. (They claim boatloads of evidence, mostly of the "how do you explain this niggling little detail?" variety; but again to paraphrase Fred Pohl on a different subject, "You and I have completely different ideas of what constitutes 'evidence.'")
What does Expelled give us to resolve this intellectual quagmire? A few scraps of suggestive firings (or contracts not renewed); an occasional angy atheist who is also an evolutionist; and the reassurances of partisans that they're right and the other side is wrong.
Of course, scientists say they're right and ID is wrong; it's he-said, she-said -- let's split it down the middle and give both sides equal weight! That is certainly the position Ben Stein takes; but would conservatives agree if the subject were not evolution but the war against global caliphism? Bin Laden and Zawahiri want to turn the entire world into one giant caliphate, destroying all democracies along the way; we say this is evil incarnate, and we'll fight them every step of the way. Is that just he-said, he-said? Do we split it down the middle and invite al-Qaeda to create a hemispherical caliphate?
Conservatives normally argue that just because two people disagree doesn't mean the truth necessarily lies somewhere between them. Sometimes (not always), one side is right and the other wrong, end of story. Yet too many folks on the right will not even entertain the possibility that "Big Science" might be right and Intelligent Design wrong, that evolutionary theory dominates the sciences because it's one of the most well-documented and persuasively evidenced theory in the history of science. Conservatives would do well to remember what Oliver Cromwell once wrote:
Scientists live by this motto; there is not a scientist alive who has not seen a beloved pet theory collapse due to some observations that he expected to go the other way. He is forced to abandon his theory and start over from scratch; it's a normal part of life in the scientific world. But in the realm of philosophy and religion, this almost never happens -- for such systems never die by disproof, but only through ennui.
This subset of conservatives also refuses to address another charge: That the only purpose of ID is to throw sand at evolution for purely religious reasons: Some Christians (and a few Jews) have talked themselves into believing that evolution denies the two creation passages in Genesis. Expelled can't even see this question and the potential it has to destroy the very idea of ID; if ID is nothing but Biblical Creationism tarted up to look scientific, then who but the most anti-American religious zealot would demand it be taught as science? Would you demand we teach as science the doctrine of the Trinity?
But this is not to say that Stein doesn't see a religious dynamic at issue here; he does. And not very surprising, given his legal background, the movie spends much of its time warning against the same deadly threat that Phillip Johnson associated with "Darwinism."
Ben Stein's primary thesis in Expelled is of course that Big Science hasn't given Intelligent Design a fair hearing, that it stifles and suppresses them for sundry unsavory reasons. But his secondary thesis, nearly as important, is the claim, made explicit throughout the movie, that merely by studying evolutionary theory -- or, one surmises, any science at all -- faith in God is chipped away until, in the end, the student is left shorn of belief in deity, in transcendence, even in free will. The young become easy pickin's for Progressivists who ache to create the "New Socialist Man," per one of Adolf Hitler's speeches that Stein helpfully shows us.
(Given all the Nazi references in the movie, my brother wondered whether Ben Stein had utterly "Godwinized" himself.")
Let's take each of these in turn, starting with whether establishment science -- the "dominant paradigm," as Stein puts it, using the language of Thomas Kuhn's the Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- has really suppressed mountains of evidence pointing to Intelligent Design, all in order to prevent a paradigm shift that would leave the establishment no longer king of the anthill.
December 30, 2007
The Best Years of Their Lives: Hollywood and Franklin's War
This JoshuaPundit piece, which we linked on an earlier Watcher's Council post, raises an interesting question: Why were Americans so much more supportive of World War II -- demonstrating what I would call a "frenzy of patriotism" -- than they are of the current War Against Global Hirabah (WAGH)?
Certainly the WAGH is even more "existential" than the so-called good war: On December 7th, 1941, Japan bombed a fairly remote territory being used as a forward operating naval base in the northern Pacific. When that famous headline appeared -- "Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor" -- I suspect the vast majority of Americans had no idea where Pearl Harbor even was. Or Oahu, for that matter; how many even knew that was an island in Hawaii?
By contrast, every American who wasn't a subliterate troglodyte knew what the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon were. Do you know anybody who didn't (and who was over five years old)?
During the war, many Americans may have fretted that the Japanese and Germans would attack the American heartland; but they never did. By contrast, the 9/11 attacks, which killed more Americans than died at Pearl, struck at three of the four chambers of America's heart: the financial center in Manhattan, the central fortress of the American military, and the political center of the White House or Congress (we don't know the intended target of Flight 93). Had that third prong of the attack succeeded, the devastation could have rivaled the sacking and burning of Washington D.C. during the War of 1812. (The only chamber they missed was some social and entertainment center, such as Disneyland in Anaheim, California.)
Finally, even had we lost World War II, the suffering caused to America would probably be less devastating than it would be if we were to lose the WAGH: Hitler wanted to control America, but he didn't want to kill us all and burn America to the ground.
So why are Americans not particularly anxious to do everything they can to win this war, as they were during World War II? Why do so many Americans urge appeasement, surrender, and even nakedly support the enemy during wartime?
Freedom Fighter's answer was that President Franklin Roosevelt was simply a much better leader than Bush; but I believe that is simply unsupportable. As much as people like to extoll FDR as a leader comparable to Washington and Lincoln, the plain fact is that he just wasn't.
He was likeable; but sheer likeability is not the same as leadership... Bill Clinton was eminently likeable, even lovable; but that didn't make him a leader.
Mere likeability doesn't explain the willingness of Americans to sacrifice virtually every traditionally American verity: the ability to travel freely (rationing of gas and tire-rubber), to eat what we want to eat (food rationing), to be free of massive government intrusion into our lives (the militarization of the country), and even the most essential freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly (censorship, wholesale violation of habeas corpus at Manzanar, even direct control of media outlets by the government).
FDR was certainly not a great leader in terms of policymaking; his response to the Great Depression that brought him to power was an exercise in futility. The unemployment rate spiked to 25% in 1933, then remained mired in the low-20s over the next two years. Until 1940 and the wartime boost in industrial output, unemployment never dropped below 14%, more than five times the unemployment rate of in 1929 (3.2%). Most of the time, it was at 17% or more; that's a lot of Americans out of work and standing in breadlines.
The stellar book by Amity Shlaes, the Forgotten Man, demonstrates quite unequivocably that FDR's economic policies were disastrous and almost certainly prolonged the Great Depression years longer than necessary.
Made it run,
Made it race against time;
Once I built a railroad, now it's done...
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Roosevelt's wartime leadership was hardly any better. Starting with Pearl Harbor, the Army and Navy under Roosevelt made an avalanche of stupid mistakes. It was only because of the even more colossal mistakes by Adolf Hitler, such as holding his Panzer divisions back and allowing the Brits and free French to evacuated more than 300,000 soldiers from Dunkirk, that we were able to stay in the war until our superior industrial capacity could finally put us back in the driver's seat in 1943-1944.
And then the pinnacle of poor leadership occurred in February 1945, when Roosevelt made the colossal mistake of going to Yalta personally, despite his serious illness, to preside over what turned into the enslavement of half of Europe, handed over lock, stock, and manacles to Roosevelt's great friend, Josef Stalin.
Roosevelt didn't simply honor our Soviet allies... he deified them. One need only watch Mission to Moskow, the FDR-ordered Warner Brothers hagiography of Stalin, to see what I mean... but more on this amazing movie later.
And of course, it's hardly the mark of leadership to allow Stalin's spies to riddle the American administration from top to bottom.
So if it wasn't Roosevelt's putative "leadership" that brought virtually Americans on board during World War II, then what did cause that "frenzy of patriotism," and why isn't it happening today? In a single word, the answer is Hollywood.
World War II was America's first "movie war." While there were newsreels made (often staged) during "the Great War," and even some fiction movies, film was still in its infancy in 1917. But by the late 1930s, movies had supplanted radio (which had, in its day, supplanted vaudeville); film was the dominant American art form and primary entertainment medium in the country. Everybody went to see every film that came out; it was a shared American gestalt that we've only recreated since then for rare, exceptional TV shows, such as the Tonight Show during the decades when Johnny Carson was hosting... and even rarer historical events: the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963; the moon landing on July 20th, 1969; the days right after 9/11.
World War II married the power of the great American medium to the ideological fervor of its creators: The struggle gave leftist Hollywood both an enemy it could truly hate -- Fascism -- and an ally it could truly love, the Soviet Union (at least, after that embarassing little interlude from 1939 to 1940).
Both partners in the nuptials were necessary to produce that frenzy of patriotism. Had we decided to join Germany in its war against the ComIntern, instead of the other way around, we would never have seen the tidal wave of patriotic movies that flooded theaters in the 1940s. But Roosevelt hated Hitler and loved Stalin, so our decision was foreordained (and to be fair, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were certainly the most immediate dangers to the United States).
Counting B-movies and featurettes, I'm sure there were more than a thousand World War II-related movies and shorts produced during the war... and every, single film made about the war during the war was completely and unabashedly on the side of the United States and our allies, and against our enemies.
It is probably the only time in American history that the Brahmins of art and intellectualism were 100% behind the actions of a presidential administration during wartime. Gone was the world-weary cynicism, the smirking and winking, the nihilist anarchy we generally associate with the leftist intellegencia. Peer pressure, ideology, personal economic benefit, and the Vision of the Anointed crashed together in a perfect storm of patriotic production.
Every movie, every radio broadcast, stage production, article in a national magazine, pronunciamento from the White House, and congressional floor speech (from either side the aisle) sent Joe Dokes the same message: If you don't jump aboard the military bandwagon, you're a slug and a creep and fair game to be stomped by your erstwhile friends.
Look, there were anti-war movies before WWII -- though like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and the Road to Glory (1936), most of these pacifist flicks were about non-American forces. And there were anti-war movies made after WWII, including From Here to Eternity (1953), Paths of Glory (1957), and Catch-22 (1970). But from 1942 through 1945, and probably for a number of years after we won, no movie about the war could be produced unless it took America's side.
America's side and the side of Hollywood's favorite American ally: In 1943, FDR personally ordered the very-conservative Jack Warner to produce Mission to Moscow. This flick, astonishing to see today, is a two-hour journey by Roosevelt's ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936-1938, Joseph Davies, from credulous naïveté to full-blown Stalin worship. You will never believe it until you actually see it; and even then, your mind may boggle at what your eyes and ears tell you. You may think it was somehow faked by Karl Rove; but I assure you, it is absolutely real. And Mission to Moscow is more typical than anyone cares to remember: Song of Russia (1944) also extolled Stalinism; while in Tender Comrade (1943), Ginger Rogers learns the joy of American-grown Communism.
In any event, during the war, more than a hundred million Americans watched scores of movies telling them that their patriotic duty was to sacrifice their time, money, and freedom "for the duration"... movies that had become the bedrock of the shared American community were all pulling in the same direction, like a twenty-mule team.
It's hardly a shock that Americans patriotically supported World War II like no other before or since: They received the word from on high, delivered by the holy bishops of Hollywood, from Jimmy Stewart to Irene Dunne, to Spencer Tracy, Esther Williams, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, Humphry Bogart, Jane Wyman, Errol Flynn, Ann Miller, Henry Fonda, Betty Grable, Gary Cooper, Marlene Deitrich, Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Van Johnson, Hedy Lamarr, and on and on. If the Almighty could be half as persuasive as the American cinema in full cry, He would be a happy deity.
Not to mention the songs, of course... from Vera Lynn to Dinah Shore to Sophie Tucker to the Andrews Sisters (I won't bother listing any guys, you know who they are). In every jukebox in America and on every radio broadcast, citizens back home could expect to hear "The Last Time I Saw Paris," or "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B," or "Der Fuhrer's Face," or any of a thousand other pro-war, anti-Nazi songs.
It was not government leadership that drove patriotic support for the war; it was the vise-like grip on popular media by the pro-war Left. There were also pro-war novels, plays, production numbers, paintings, and pin-up girls. You couldn't hardly swing a dead Kraut without hitting some elitist member of the Communist Party or fellow traveler -- from Ernest Hemingway, to Dashiell Hammett, to Lillian Hellman, to Dalton Trumbo, to Paul Robeson, to Pete Seeger, to Eleanor Roosevelt -- manipulating some aspect of the mass media to promote victory over the "right-wing" hordes in World War II.
And of course, the right-wingers in the arts (John Wayne, Adolph Menjou, Jimmy Stewart, et al) were bright enough to keep their mouths shut about any disagreements they had with the way FDR ran the country -- or even the war itself -- and just pull along with everyone else... a talent that the Left has sorely lacked (when the president is Republican) since "the big one."
The distinction between then and now is manifest... and maddening. For years, Hollywood simply ignored the WAGH, as if it were all just a crashing bore. And now, finally, they're releasing some war-related product. But what do we get?
- Paradise Now (released on October 28th, 2005);
- Jarhead (November 4th, 2005);
- Syriana (November 23rd, 2005);
- Day Night/Day Night (May 7th, 2007);
- In the Valley of Elah (September 14, 2007);
- The Kingdom (September 28th, 2007);
- Rendition (October 19th, 2007);
- Lions for Lambs (November 9th, 2007);
- Redacted (November 16th, 2007).
Can anyone find a single moment in any of these movies that takes America's side in the war on global hirabah? Can anyone think of a single serious movie -- with the possible exception of a Mighty Heart (June 22nd, 2007) -- that was released after the 9/11 attacks that unambiguously takes America's side in this war? (Even considering comedies, I can only think of one: Team America, October 15th, 2004.)
In music, there are some Country-Western songs that are pro-America or anti-terrorist, from Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" to Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" to Chely Wright's "the Bumper of My S.U.V.," probably lots of others. But the saturation is nowhere near as overwhelming as it was in the 1940s; I can't offhand think of a single rock song that fits the category.
And of course, the nattering nabobs of the elite "news" media keep up a steady tom-tom beat of negativism: We're losing, we've already lost, even if we win we've lost our soul; America is on the verge of collapse, we're going to hell in a hambone; say... did George W. Bush bring down those buildings by controlled demolition?
The huge gulf between the movies, music, arts, and literature of World War II and the same sources today explains the difference in patriotic fervor quite nicely... and much more believably than the supposed "leadership" of FDR, or the concomitant "leaderlessness" of George Bush. There is no need to look any deeper for an explanation than the hurricane of bleeding hearts and artists, and what they tell today's media-driven culture, about commerce and conquest, freedom and sharia, the modernity of the West and the Mediaeval pinings of radical Islamists -- and the steel-cage death match they're fighting between them for control of tomorrow.
November 25, 2007
Not a movie review; I haven't seen the movie.
But of course, neither has anybody else. That's the point. According to Box Office Mojo, Brian De Palma's new anti-war, anti-American, anti-soldier tour de farce Redacted, winner of the Best Director award at the Venice Film Festival -- which tells the stirring and subtle story of how American soldiers raped, murdered, and burned a fourteen year old Iraqi girl, and then raped, murdered, and burned her entire family to silence them, and then raped, murdered, and burned the military investigators, then the news reporters who tried to report on it, then families of random American soldiers, then Mr. Whipple, then all the animals at the petting zoo -- has enjoyed a resounding lifetime box office gross of $25,628 dollars.
But wait, that's not entirely fair; that's just the domestic gross. We really should include the international take, too... that would be $71,968 (all from Spain, where the movie opened), for a whopping grand total of $97,596.
Over three days (November 16th, 17th, and 18th), at 15 theaters in its widest release (I believe distributer Mark Cuban has reduced the number of venues since that high point). That works out to a domestic take of 1,700 clams per theater. Assuming a measley two showings per day per theater, and assuming tickets average $8.50 each (factoring in the bargain matinees!), that indicates that about 33 people per showing managed to straggle into the theater, some of whom probably thought they were buying tickets to that animated movie about the mouse who wants to be a cook.
It only seems to be playing at one theater in the LA area now; check your local listings!
Director Brian De Palma is doing everything he can to persuade American audiences to go see the movie:
[De Palma] said the film provided a realistic portrait of U.S. troops and how "the presentation of our troops has been whitewashed" by mainstream media.
De Palma, who looked at the atrocities of conflict in the 1989 film "Casualties of War," which also centers on the rape of a young girl by U.S. soldiers, believes news coverage of wars had changed since the Vietnam War.
"We saw fallen soldiers, we saw suffering Vietnamese. We don't see any of that now," he said. "We see bombs go off, but where do they come down? Who do they hit?"
The U.S. invasion of Iraq was "clearly a mistake," he said, that was perpetuated by "defense contractors, big corporations of America" profiting from the war.
"How many billions of dollars are those companies making? And who gets more famous than ever? The media. There is nothing like a war to fill the airwaves 24 hours a day," he said.
But for some unfathomable reason, moviegoers just aren't responding, no matter how conciliatory De Palma gets. I believe the point of his movie is that the biased, conservative American news media simply refuses to report on the rape and murders in Mahmudiyah, which were ordered by Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon; just as they refused to report on the Rumsfeld-ordered Haditha massacre, the Rumsfeld-ordered sex-torture at Abu Ghraib, the Rumsfeld-ordered butchery of an innocent wedding party, and the well-established fact that nearly all the bombings and sectarian violence in Iraq since 2003 were committed by American soldiers disguised as Sunni al-Qaeda groups and Shiite death squads, and operating under the direct orders of Donald Rumsfeld.
So what do you want to bet... the lesson Hollywood will take from Redacted -- and Lions from Lambs (Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Michael Pena -- $13.8 million domestic), In the Valley of Elah (Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron -- $6.7 million), and all the other anti-American, spit-on-the-soldiers movies about innocent Moslem terrorists being mugged, raped, and brutalized by vicious, bloodthirsty, criminal American soldiers -- the lesson Hollywood takes will be... "Gee, I guess Americans just don't like war movies anymore; war has become unpopular at the movies!"
You know, like We Were Soldiers ($78 million domestic), Master and Commander ($94 million), Troy ($133 million), 300 ($211 million), and Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers ($342 million).
The lengths the industry will journey in order to avoid drawing the obvious conclusion -- that Americans don't like being told that we're nothing but a bunch of depraved, murderous, racist thugs, the world hates us, and we're responsible for all the ills that befall innocent people everywhere -- is little short of astonishing. I predict the result of the debacle of this spate of films exploring the war against global hirabah will not be a batch of pro-America movies; instead, they will simply stop making war movies altogether.
I reckon the alternative, that Americans like movies where we're the good guys, is simply too horrible to contemplate.
May 1, 2006
United 93 - a Meditation
We went to see the movie today (Sunday), yet this isn't a review. Indeed, it's impossible to "review" this movie, because it's not a movie in the normal sense of the word: there is no plot per se, no story, very little acting. But it is compelling to the point of anxiety in some viewers.
It squrims around, it turns about and swallows its own tail; this piece, I mean -- I write it as it bubbles up, and I will leave it unedited, warts and all.
United 93 unfolds simply as a moment by moment recounting of the four hijackings that occurred on 9/11 (the 9/11, one of only three days in American history that are known only by their raw dates. One of the others is December 7th, 1941). We see the hijackers of United flight 93 preparing to board; we watch the routine coordinated chaos of flight control to the point of numbness; but this section is for a reason... we must remember the normality of that day, that date, just a nameless number on the calendar until --
For the same reason it's impossible to review the movie, it's almost impossible to spoil it. Ooh, cover your eyes... four planes get hijacked; two plough into the World Trade Centers, one into the Pentagon, and the hero (the flight itself is the protagonist) ploughs into a field in Pennsylvania instead of the Capitol dome. You see? It cannot be spoiled, because it is not watched: it is experienced. Or rather, re-experienced.
If you felt it like lightning on that day, you will experience the movie as the aftershock of thunder. There is really little acting: everyone simply reacts the way he or she reacted at the time (made eerily verisimilitudinous by the fact that nearly all the important figures at the FAA, at NORAD, at the flight-control center in Virginia, and at two airports are actually played by themselves).
The actors playing the passengers on flight 93 are given little room to act, because (of course) their only option was to re-act: to the initial bloody violence of the first assault by the hijackers, to their attempts to calm themselves with the mantra (do you remember?) that "a hijacking is a survivable situation," and to the horrible realization that this was not a hijacking: it was a pagan ritual sacrifice to Moloch, the death-eating god of the "Holy Land" before the Hebrews arrived to sanctify it.
You will be gripped. You will not be bored. But you will not be "entertained," in the normal sense of what most folks expect from a movie. The audience left quietly; perhaps they remembered... and if they did, the movie did good. If they never knew before, then the movie did more than "good," it served the cause of humanity and modernity: some things are best not forgotten by the culture.
Everybody reading this will see it, excepting only those who cannot live through it again. If it helps make up your mind, you do not see the buildings collapse, you don't see that couple holding hands and jumping -- or indeed, any jumpers. United 93 is not lurid in any way, save that the incident itself spirals into an inevitable pit of blackness, like the smoking hole awaiting the brave citizen-soldiers on that flight; like a Lovecraftian summoning of the Elder gods.
Somebody on some blog somewhere -- it passed through me in the dark night of my soul -- said that what the passengers did on flight 93 was strike the first military response to the attacks of that same day. And I am pround of my countrymen that the first blow against the new enemy was struck, not by professionals in camouflage but by ordinary, extraordinary citizens: because that is the lesson of the eponymous United 93 (the flight)... in the end we will march victorious not because of our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Special Forces, cops, pols, or diplomats, but because we are who we are.
Because we are Americans.
April 27, 2006
Hero's Father, Flight 93
There are those who question the timing of this project and the painful memories it evokes. Clearly, the film portrays the reality of the attack on our homeland and its terrible consequences. Often we attend movies to escape reality and fantasize a bit. In this case and at this time, it is appropriate to get a dose of reality about this war and the real enemy we face."
Mr. Beamer does not believe it's "too soon":
It is not too soon for this story to be told, seen and heard. But it is too soon for us to become complacent. It is too soon for us to think of this war in only national terms. We need to be mindful that this enemy, who made those holes in our landscape and caused the deaths of some 3,000 of our fellow free people, has a vision to personally kill or convert each and every one of us. This film reminds us that this war is personal.
Flight 93 should have been made much sooner. If the war-on-terror happened under Clinton, there would have been a movie made within a year of the attacks. (Had it happened under FDR, every studio would have abandoned every other project to churn out two hundred pro-America movies by 2004!) But because this is "Bush's war," Hollywood still hasn't made up its mind whether it's with us -- Flight 93 -- or with the terrorists -- Syriana.
Flight 93 has everything a movie should: heroism, drama, love of country, love of family, and the perfect tag-line: “Let’s Roll!” It's unbelievable that such a story took this long to be made. And people are complaining about being too soon?
We needed this movie three years ago, when we were contemplating going to Iraq. It would have helped some people to make up their mind whether we were going to stand up and fight terrorism, by whatever means necessary, where it is born -- in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Venezuela -- or from a defensive crouch, at a time and place of the terrorists' choosing:
The passengers and crew of United 93 had the blessed opportunity to understand the nature of the attack and to launch a counterattack against the enemy. This was our first successful counterattack in our homeland in this new global war--World War III.
This film further reminds us of the nature of the enemy we face. An enemy who will stop at nothing to achieve world domination and force a life devoid of freedom upon all.
The complacency that David Beamer writes about frustrates many of us. Some people live eternally in September 10th. (Some even earlier... a quarter of the country wants to party like it was still 1999.)
But however painful the memory is, we should always be reminded how we felt that day, as Darryl Worley so eloquently sang in "Have You Forgotten?":
Said it's too disturbing for you and me
It'll just breed anger that's what the experts say
If it was up to me I'd show it every day
Some say this country's just out looking for a fight
After 9/11 man I'd have to say that's right
No, we should never forget it. This movie and many more movies like it must be made. "Let a thousand flowers bloom."
We must always remember to remember.
December 30, 2005
King Kong Died for Your Sins
That phrase is the ironic, iconic, and sacrilegious refrain that runs through Illuminatus!, the trilogy by the two Bobs, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. But whether they knew it or not (I'm inclined to think not, at least in the case of Bob Wilson), "King Kong died for your sins" perfectly encapsulates the whole point of the King Kong story... and it also illuminates exactly what is wrong with the disappointing Peter Jackson remake that was released a few weeks ago.
Even before viewing the new King Kong, I was puzzled by the lack of blockbuster ticket sales. Mind, it's not that the movie is doing badly at all; worldwide, as of this writing, it has earned a box office of $289,232,875, according to Box Office Mojo. Since the movie cost only $207 million to make (figure another $75-$100 million to market), it has either already earned out or is pretty close... and this is only the first run. It will likely make at least another $100 million worldwide, then more from cable showings, video sales and rentals, a broadcast TV deal, and of course as much as everything else combined in merchandising (games, t-shirts, soundtrack CD, novelization, action figures, jewelry, etc).
But those are the figures of a profitable movie -- not a blockbuster movie. By contrast, the Lord of the Rings trilogy fared much better: the Fellowship of the Ring cost $93 million and earned $870 worldwide (9.4 times cost); the Two Towers cost about the same ($94 million) and earned $926 million (9.9 times cost); while the Return of the King cost $94 million and earned $1.1 billion worldwide gross -- the second-highest grossing movie of all time, after Titanic -- 11.7 times cost. Even if King Kong gets that extra $100 million I anticipate, it will only have earned 1.9 times cost (and I suspect the rentals and merchandising will be correspondingly lower as well).
So I was already scratching my head. Then I finally went to see it -- and I think I now understand why.
Let me start by saying I'm a big Peter Jackson fan. Besides the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I consider to be the greatest fantasy movie ever made (it's really one 11-hour movie split into three parts, grossing a staggering $2.9 billion worldwide), I also saw (and enjoyed) Heavenly Creatures when it first came out eleven years ago. And while I'm not the world's greatest fan of the original King Kong, I liked it -- and I detested the Dino de Laurentiis version, so my qualifications are quite in order.
When I watched the movie, I liked it; it was good. But it just didn't grab me the way the Lord of the Rings had... or even as Heavenly Creatures had. At first I couldn't articulate why not; but words are my stock in trade, and I think I can explain it now.
Jackson is a first-rate director of black comedy (Heavenly Creatures)... and he is one of the greatest directors of epics who has ever lived, right up there with Michael Curtiz, David Lean, and the Korda Klan (Alexander, Zoltan, and Vincent). But the problem is that King Kong is not an epic.
An epic must contain the following elements:
- A vast, sweeping story arc
- A great hero who controls his own destiny, but with tragic flaws that might possibly bring about his downfall
- A clear delineation of good and evil, right and wrong
- And the fate of worlds in the balance
But King Kong belongs to another class of movie entirely: King Kong is a morality play. To understand the dynamics of this sort of movie, let's look at the prototype of the movie morality play -- which has the same title as one of the movies above and is even directed by the same fellow, but is a completely different creature: I'm talking about DeMille's 1923 silent classic, the Ten Commandments.
That earlier movie has a prologue about the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage; but the real story is about two modern (1920s) brothers: one is religious, the other irreligious. The latter argues that his atheism is liberating and more suited to the real world; and to prove it, he brags that he will break every single one of the Ten Commandments from Exodus, yet still prosper beyond the wildest dreams of his faithful brother.
He does so, and at first he seems to be right; but then everything collapses around him (literally). In the end, he is broken and repentant, having caused great and irreversible harm to those he loved by his arrogant blasphemy.
Here are all the elements of a morality play: the hubris of the Arrogant Man who flouts traditional morality; and the Steadfast Voice of Conscience, a secondary character who remains faithful, even when it appears that his rigid moral code is cutting into his material success. The Arrogant Man flies too close to the sun and crashes like Icarus; he ends the story lying in ruins of his own making, brought to his knees by the divine consequences of his wickedness. At that point, one of two paths open: either the Arrogant Man truly repents and may perhaps put his shattered life back together with the help of the forgiving Steadfast Voice of Conscience; or else he remains obstinant... and is dragged down to Hell like Don Juan at the end of that opera.
I think it quite clear that this structure perfectly fits the Kong story. Carl Denham (Jack Black) is, of course, the Arrogant Man; he comes to Skull Island, sees the giant ape, and decides to haul it back to New York City and put it on display for his own profit. The Steadfast Voice of Conscience is Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts): she is the leader of the "Keep King Kong on Skull Island" faction. At first -- look, I'm assuming y'all know the basic story, even if you haven't seen this version; if you don't and want to remain a spoiler-virgin, click to the next or previous post now! -- at first, it appears as though Denham has pulled it off; he is making money hand over fist displaying Kong for a Broadway audience. But then the flashbulbs go off, Kong goes ape, and he pulls the world down atop Denham and everyone else.
Denham is incapable of true repentance, so in the end, he too is shattered. Or at least, he should be.
Alas, Peter Jackson evidently did not understand this distinction, because he appears to have story-boarded Kong as an epic, not a morality play... and it just plain doesn't work that way, leading to cinematic catastrophe. (Jackson is a great filmic workman, so he salvages enough to make a profit; but it's a wonderful opportunity lost.)
In an epic, the struggle is the important part: in the Lord of the Rings, we cross all of Middle Earth with Frodo and Sam, as well as taking side excursions with Gandalf, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and we weep for poor, weak Boromir. Along the way various characters slide in and out of focus, either helping (Treebeard, Faramir, Smeagol) or hindering (Shelob, Saruman, Gollum) the great quest. The journey is the thing, personalized by Sam's statement at the very beginning, deeper in meaning than he imagines, that "if I take one more step, I'll be farther than I've ever been from home." The whole epic is about all of them going farther than ever from home, in a dreadful effort to save home.
But when Jackson misunderstands Kong to be an epic, he spends far too much time on the struggle on the dadburned Skull Island. We see endless sequences of giant "hellish creatures" menacing the cast, from dinosaurs to insects to carnivorous worms to giant bats to the Mighty Monkey himself. Sympathetic characters die, even after they have survived two or three dangers -- because that's what happens in an epic: heroic death is the rule, not the exception. (Say, why aren't the dinosaurs bigger than they were in real life too -- like Godzilla-sized, hm?)
But in a morality play, this whole section is pro-forma. We want to see the fight between Kong and the dinosaurs... but we only need a taste of it. The real story is Jack Black hauling the ape back to civilization, against the stentorian, prophetic, voice-of-doom objections of everybody else, because he knows better (the Arrogant Man); the dangers of Skull Island itself are window dressing and should never threaten Denham.
And the entire sequence that should be the focus of the story, the hubristic display of the ape-god as if he were an exhibit in a museum (not even a living zoo!), is almost glossed over in Jackson's mad rush to get to the top of the Empire State Building and the Playful Primate battle sequence with the biplanes.
We never even see the beginnings of doubt, the crisis of conscience that must play out in Denham's mind as the warnings of Ann Darrow start to get to him... a critical part of all morality plays. The Arrogant Man must begin to think, what if I'm wrong? What if there really is a God? Then he must force himself forward anyway -- because it is vital that he understand his wickedness and make the conscious decision to continue in sin regardless, to justify the gods bringing so low later. If the Arrogant Man is really only blind, stupid, or ignorant, the morality play has no impact whatsoever.
Finally, in the end, the last line of the Jackson version of King Kong is played utterly wrong... and there is no one to blame for that but Jackson himself. It is completely out of character -- and worse, completely outside the structure of a morality play -- for the Arrogant Man to wax philosophical, shake his head, and opine, "no... 'twas beauty killed the beast." Carl Denham would never have delivered such a line... not sincerely.
It would have made much more sense if Denham ran to Kong's body, obviously feeling terrible guilt and remorse but being unable to internalize his own responsibility for the death not only of the ape but of all those ordinary people that King Kong slew in his madness. Somebody recognizes him, and soon the whole crowd is pointing and accusing Denham of being to blame for everything that has happened.
Suddenly, Ann Darrow appears, having come down from the top of the Empire State Building. She screams in anguish and runs to Kong. And at that point, Denham can use the line -- but just as a means to try to shift the crowd's attention away from him and towards her. "No! No, don't you understand? It wasn't me -- it was Beauty killed the beast!" He repeats it a couple of times, a little more shrill and desperate.
Then Denham turns to his longtime cinematographer (I honestly don't remember the character's name or whether he lives, but he should, if only for this scene), and oblivious to the crowd around him, says "yeah, we can work with that: 'twas Beauty killed the beast. It's perfect! Write that down." But his only friend turns away and walks into the crowd and out of Denham's life. The Arrogant Man looks back at the crowd... but one by one, they turn their backs in disgust, until finally Denham is left alone inside his own manufactured world.
Fade to black: but Jack Black still repeats the line one last time in the pitch-dark theater... almost with a sob. Who is he trying to convince now?
It's always a temptation for a writer to rewrite another writer's failed fable; but in this case, I'm only doing it to illustrate my thesis: Peter Jackson completely misunderstood the point of the story, and he was probably the wrong director to film it in the first place. He would have done far better directing a remake of Prince of Foxes, the Three Musketeers, or Scaramouche, and just leave the poor primate alone.
October 17, 2005
Der Beste of Der Krapp
Way back in the dim mists of antiquity, before many of you were more than a gleam in your parents' eyes -- I refer to the dark hell of the Carter 70s -- Brad Linaweaver began a column about the best of the worst movies ever made, the "golden turkeys," as Harry and Michael Medved dubbed them. Brad called his column Der Krapp.
While occasional columns have been reprinted here and there, and he even wrote a retro column in the 1990s, at no time for the last twenty-five or more years has the entire run of Der Krapp been collected: if you missed them in their original magazine, fanzine, and advertising-circular venue, you were just SOL.
But no longer! Brad, who is of course a partner in this very website, has turned over publication of (eventually) every, last Der Krapp column right here on Big Lizards. To read the first "boxed set" of seventeen columns right now (confusingly numbered 1 through 16 with two number 11's), just click on the Movies button in the navigation bar up top (if you can't work the graphic nav bar, use the text-based equivalent at the top of the sidebar on the right hand side, above).
Or else just click here. In either case, just follow the links!
(Yes, amazing... some non-blog content on Big Lizards!)
Some of the topics Brad covers:
- The rise and tragic fall of Bela Lugosi!
- The exquisite agony of Robot Monster!
- A complete rundown of Japanese giant-monster and space cinema (and some of them are very run-down indeed!)
- The gore-fest vulgarities of Hershell Gordon Lewis!
In other words, it's like Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- except done by somebody who actually likes movies!
I cannot recommend it enough, and not through lack of trying, either. You'll laugh! You'll cry! You'll cringe! But best of all, you'll increment our page views through the roof!
As Bela said, chomping on his stogie, "Some of these brains wouldn't be missed."
P.S. Check out the nifty drop-down menu, by which you can jump immediately to any piece of Krapp that you desire!
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