The Irony of Manifest Destiny

The Irony of Manifest DestinyIn The Irony of Manifest Destiny, William Pfaff argues for a return to realpolitik—basing our foreign policy on our own interests rather than an ideology of “improving” the rest of the world. I am torn on this question, as I dare say most people are. On one hand, I really do hate the massive amount of injustice that I see throughout the world. I hate the explicit sexism throughout the world. And left to their own devices, it seems the one thing you can count on humans to do is to go to war with each other. On the other hand, I know that such an endeavor is hopeless.

Even more than this, there is an assumption at the base of our ideological foreign policy that I always argue against: the end of history. Underlying conservative thinking is always that wherever we are is basically the destination of our historical journey. This kind of thinking indicates that we may be rough around the edges, but otherwise we are perfect. And it is only people who think they are pretty much perfect who can rightly tell everyone else how to live. I don’t like people like that. Nations like that are a good deal worse.

But I can go back and forth on this issue. For example, the ideological imperialism of the Romans and of Napoleon Bonaparte had good and long lasting consequences. Just the same, I cannot bring to mind any American imperialism with similarly good consequences, unless we count the Marshall Plan. But we shouldn’t count it. The question is not whether Americans have fundamentally decent instincts; it is whether we can improve the world by force.

Pfaff makes the case against “helpful” imperialism in a couple of paragraphs toward the end of the book:

A policy of nonintervention would rely heavily on diplomacy and analytical intelligence, with particular attention to history, since nearly all serious problems among nations are recurrent or have important recurring elements in them. Current crises concerning Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine-Israel all have origins in the Eurpoean imperial systems, and their dismantlement in the aftermath of the twentieth century’s totalitarian wars. They are the legacy or in a sense the residue of the history of the last century, and their resolution must be sought in terms of that experience, a fact generally ignored in American political and press references to history—which, despite the frequent polemical citation of historical “lessons,” is usually poorly know…

Had a noninterventionist policy been followed in the 1960s, there would have been no American war in Indochina. The struggle there would have been recognized as nationalist in motivation, unsusceptible to solutions by foreigners, and inherently limited in its international consequences, whatever they might be—as proved to be the case. The United States would never have been defeated, its army demoralized, or its students radicalized. There would have been no American invasion of Cambodia and no Khmer Rouge genocide. Laos and its tribal peoples would have been spared their ordeal.

I find these arguments very compelling. The only counter argument to them is to point our atrocities where everyone wants to help: Darfur and Rwanda, for example. Pfaff counters that there is nothing in his prescription that stops international efforts at policing and so forth. However, he notes that even still, much care must be taken to assure that more good than bad is done.

If you are at all interested in foreign policy and especially the abuses of the Bush Jr years, I highly recommend reading The Irony of Manifest Destiny. It will make you think, even if it doesn’t provide final answers.

Morning Music: Françoise Hardy

Françoise HardySince I watched Moonrise Kingdom recently, I thought it might be interesting to listen to a little Françoise Hardy. She doesn’t especially have a style. She sings a lot of different styles. It might be best to consider her a chanteuse. She is able to make me long for being in love. And sad. (More or less the same thing.)

But her early work is that classic French pop sound that I never seem to tire of. (Or that I just still like because it hasn’t been playing on the radio my whole life like the British Invasion.) A lot of Françoise Hardy’s albums are named, Françoise Hardy. She released albums of that name in 1962, 1963, 1963 (that’s right), 1965, and 1968. Today, we are interested in the 1968, Françoise Hardy. As is typical of these Morning Music posts, I’m limited to the videos I can find. But it really is a great one. It is “Comment Te Dire Adieu?” (“How to Say Goodbye?”) It is Serge Gainsbourg‘s lyrics for Goland and Gold’s It Hurts to Say Goodbye.

Under the Skin Review and Analysis

Under the SkinI just saw Under the Skin, the 2013 science fiction film based on Michel Faber’s novel, which I understand is rather different from the film. I’ve made it a point to find out as little about the novel as possible, because I’m interested in seeing the film as it stands alone. And Under the Skin is one of those films that makes you think. I’ve discussed it with many people, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is like a Rorschach test. Everyone has theories about what it all means — none of which agree.

Now that’s all great! It speaks well of a work of art that makes everyone think different things about it. At the same time, it makes me ultimately less interested in determining what it means. In that way, it’s kind of like one of my favorite films, Barton Fink. I don’t focus on what it means; I focus on the plot and the characters, which are more than enough.


Of course, in terms of feeling, Under the Skin reminded me of nothing so much as the German masterpiece, Die Wand (see my discussion of it: Die Wand or The Wall). There are a few technical reasons for that (beautiful cinematography and deliberate editing), but it’s more that both films are saturated with loneliness. It’s also the case that in neither film was I that interested in what was going to happen, but rather was just content to follow these women on their journeys.

In a sense, the plot of Under the Skin could not be more tired: space alien visits Earth with evil or ambivalent intentions only to learn to appreciate humanity. But it isn’t that simple. The Female (Scarlett Johansson) shows so much reticence and fear in much of the film that it goes beyond cliche.

Under the Skin Plot

Either with her skin or without it, she is unable to connect with anyone else.

The first half of the film is made up almost entirely of the Female (the character’s name) driving around and picking up guys who she is careful to determine will not be missed. She then takes them to a house under the pretext of seduction. They are led into a room where she slowly undresses as she walks backwards. They walk toward her, but slowly sink into the floor where they eventually caught in a kind of gel. This is all done without emotion, as though the Female were collecting butterflies.

But almost exactly halfway through the film, she picks up a man with a badly deformed face (played with startling fragility by Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis in real life). The Female seduces him as with the others. There are a few differences, however. First, he is the only of the men that she talks to during the process. “Dreaming?” he asks. “Yes we are,” she responds. Second, they are much closer physically. And third, it is the only such scene where she is completely naked. It is also the first time we are given an image of who is “under the skin.”

The seduction done, the man captured, the Female is about to leave the house, but catches her image in a mirror. She stares into it for a long time. And then the scene cuts to the door of the house from the outside. She opens it and Pearson is allowed to leave — naked but free (at least from her). It is a 12 minute long sequence, and the turning point of the film. The woman now goes off the reservation. It would seem that she’s been doing a job, but now she wants to escape.

A New Life

She tries to become part of the society she’s been studying or preying upon. She tries to eat and that doesn’t go well. Ultimately, she tries to have sex, and that doesn’t go well either. But between those two events, she visits a castle with a man who has been taking care of her. And as they leave the castle, they have to descend a steep spiral staircase. She is terrified, and he is helping her along. But their physical positions are a complete reversal of the previous scenes where she trapped the men. He is in front of her, facing her, encouraging her to follow him. It’s hard to mistake that she fears it is a trap.

Meanwhile, her earlier companion — a man on a motorcycle — has brought in three others and they are racing around the countryside looking for her. They don’t really matter. Under the Skin isn’t a boilerplate narrative. There is no confrontation. They are just there to stress that the Female has done something unusual and they are concerned about it. (One obvious, but interesting, way to analyze the film would be to put it in a Marxist framework.)

Looking for Answers

Ultimately, we do find out what is “under the skin.” But that is hardly the point. Either with her skin or without it, she is unable to connect with anyone else. She’s apparently not happy with her own kind yet can’t relate to humanity either. In this way, the Female in Under the Skin is even more lonely than The Woman in Die Wand. And the “sad” ending doesn’t seem sad. It comes as something of a relief. Because the whole film, we’ve watched the Female suffer.

Along with the suffering of the Female is a profound sense of confusion. While she’s doing what seems like a very boring job, she has a purpose — what I call Sudoku Meaning. But without that simulacrum of meaning, she has no meaning. This is something I understand very well. I go through periods where I feel it profoundly. But I am lucky in that I am the skin, so I am capable of connecting with people, even if it is just on a physical level. I’d probably go crazy if I didn’t have that, at least, to fall back on.

Given the life of the Female, death is a gift. Ultimately, it is to all of us. I feel that I will die much the same way: wondering what it all means one moment and then smoldering into the cosmos the next.

Donald Trump Plays a Populist on Reality TV

Paul Krugman - PopulistCardiff Garcia has a nice piece trying to figure out what might happen to the economy under Trump, taking off from the classic… analysis of macroeconomic populism in Latin America… Nice idea — but I suspect highly misleading, because Trump isn’t a real populist, he just plays one on reality TV.

The [original] essay focused on the examples of Allende’s Chile and Garcia’s Peru; an update would presumably look at Argentina, Venezuela, and others. But how relevant are these examples to Trump’s America?

Allende, for example, was a real populist, who seriously tried to push up wages and drastically increased spending…

Is Trump on course to do anything similar? He’s selected a cabinet of plutocrats, with a labor secretary bitterly opposed to minimum wage hikes. He talks about infrastructure, but the only thing that passes for a plan is a document proposing some tax credits for private investors, which wouldn’t involve much public outlay even if they did lead to new investment (as opposed to giveaways for investment that would have taken place anyway). He does seem set to blow up the deficit, but via tax cuts for the wealthy; benefits for the poor and middle class seem set for savage cuts.

Why, then, does anyone consider him a “populist”? It’s basically all about affect, about coming across as someone who’ll stand up to snooty liberal elitists (and of course validate salt-of-the-earth, working-class racism). Maybe some protectionism; but there’s no hint that his economic program will look anything like populism abroad.

—Paul Krugman
The Macroeconomics of Reality-TV Populism

John Hurt: a Personal View

John HurtI was extremely sad to learn that legendary actor John Hurt died last week. The announcement came on Friday, but he actually died Wednesday, 25 January 2017. I assume it was due to pancreatic cancer, which he was diagnosed with a year and a half ago. But none of the reporting I’ve read has indicated a cause of death. I’m not linking to anything because even the best coverage gives what I think of as a skewed view of his career.

For most Americans, John Hurt is known for one part: Kane in Alien. Admittedly, he is central to the most memorable scene: Kane is with a crew eating a meal when he goes into convulsions, ending in the immature alien bursting out of his stomach. Incredibly cool, but hardly a star part. To me, the only important thing about the part was that Hurt played a huge diversity of roles in a great many different different kinds of films. The Internet Movie Database lists 204 films that he was in. And he wasn’t a character actor. He was the star of many of those films.

Discovering John Hurt

I first noticed him in 1979, while I was in high school. He played Raskolnikov in a PBS miniseries of Crime and Punishment. Shortly after that, I saw him play Caligula in I, Claudius. I was blown away, “This is the same actor?!” At that point, I would watch anything that he was in. And it wasn’t always pleasant. Neither Night Crossing nor Partners (both in 1982) were compelling films. But he was great in both.

But he was in a lot of film that were deserving of his talent. An obvious one that comes to mind in The Elephant Man, where he played John Merrick (Joseph was the real Merrick’s first name). At the time and to this day, I think he was robbed of the Academy Award. It was given to Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, proving yet again that Hollywood can’t appreciate subtlety in acting (not that I thought De Niro was bad).

The other parts that come easily to mind are Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Max in Midnight Express (1978), Braddock in The Hit (1984), Stephen Ward in Scandal (1989), and, of course, his outstanding performance in Krapp’s Last Tape (2001). There are many more — roles both small and large. I don’t believe a movie ever failed to be better because of his participation.

Winston Smith

But to me, John Hurt will always be Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. (1984). I had just read the book for the first time when I first saw it. It’s incredibly rare that a film so perfectly captures the feel of a book. But even more, John Hurt wasn’t so much playing Smith as being him. I wanted to find a nice scene with Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton, but the earlier ones that I could find were too short. This one from the very end is brilliant with both of them completely defeated:

I didn’t know John Hurt. But I’m still sad that he’s gone, even with all the fine work that he left us. I didn’t particularly care when Michael Jackson died or Prince. Carrie Fisher or Mary Tyler Moore, who died on the same day. But John Hurt was something special — at least to me.


I just noticed that Krapp’s Last Tape is online. It is an hour well worth spending. I’ve seen a half dozen productions of it. This is the best one — and not just because John Hurt is fantastic in it.

The Cat from Outer Space Review and Analysis

The Cat from Outer SpaceThe Cat From Outer Space is a 1978 Disney film, very much like many other Disney features from that period spanning The Shaggy Dog in 1959 through to The Love Bug in 1968 to three direct sequels culminating in a short-live 1982 television series. (Ultimately, there was the made-for-television The Love Bug in 1997, starring Bruce Campbell, and then the theatrically released Herbie: Fully Loaded in 2005 starring Lindsay Lohan.) These are formulaic films, produced on the cheap (except for the Lohan film) for an audience that was easily pleased. So it may come as something of a surprise that The Cat From Outer Space was really quite a good film.

Of course, in their way, they all were. They all starred excellent actors. Their scripts were written by very competent comedy writers. There’s nothing to impress a cinephile. But they were professional productions that created exactly what they set out to. Even the special effects were, for their time, quite good. On that front, I’d certainly rather watch The Absent-Minded Professor than North by Northwest.

Such “Nice” Films

The only problem with these kinds of films is that they are so very determined not to offend. The whole group of films (and there were a great many more than I’ve mentioned), was parodied brilliantly in Matinee as “The Shook Up Shopping Cart.” In it, Uncle Cedric is a shopping cart. In one minute of screen time, we see all the cliches: the inexplicable but undeniable character, the 1950s social mores, the clueless bad guys, the tired slapstick, and absolutely no moment when any of the protagonists feel like they are in any danger.

Just the same, the other parody in Matinee — “Mantz” — isn’t really any more threatening. It’s all good old fashioned American morality. Consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, where Ed Wood sets up an interesting premise: aliens have come to destroy humanity because we are on the verge of creating a bomb that will destroy the universe. The happy ending of this would be that the humans are destroyed. But let’s give Wood credit: he understood what he was saying, but he also understood that audiences wouldn’t stand for the proper ending.

I Never Did Like ET

While watching The Cat From Outer Space, I couldn’t help but compare it to ET the Extra-Terrestrial — made just four years later. Now I know, everyone is supposed to love the film. “ET phone home” and all. But as I sat in the theater at 18 years old, my main reaction was boredom. It had one of those plots that make you feel dragged through the mud. I’m not complaining that it was predictable — that’s given. But it took itself so seriously. It’s a silly film, but it was directed like it was Schindler’s List (which actually had more genuine laughs in it).

So what?! They create a different looking space alien and we’re supposed to think it is any more real? ET is every bit as silly as The Cat From Outer Space. The problem is that the people who made ET didn’t realize that. So it was really nice to sit down and watch Cat, which is totally without pretense. It’s just a silly comedy with a cat: That Darn Cat! with the wonderful addition of a some gentle ribbing of the Cold War mentality of the 1950s.

(One repeated joke is that the general gives a command to the captain. The captain gives the command to the lieutenant. And the lieutenant gives the command to the sergeant — played by Ronnie Schell, who also provides the voice of Jake the cat. Presumably, the sergeant is the only one who does anything. Everyone else just “delegates.”)

The Cat From Outer Space Is a Fine Film

The cast is really good: Ken Berry, Sandy Duncan, McLean Stevenson, Roddy McDowall, and Harry Morgan. It’s also filled with a bunch of great character actors — notably Hans Conried, Jesse White, and William Prince. There was also a brief appearance by Alan “Willlburrr” Young. Really, you could just set them all in a room and have them talk and it would be entertaining — even without a cat with a cool collar.

In it’s way, it’s a perfect film. Anyone who decides to rent or buy The Cat From Outer Space will be getting exactly what they expect. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have changed a few of things. Although the film tries hard, and most succeeds, at given human women their due, it rather fails in the world of cats. The ending goes on for far too long. And the epilogue is totally without merit (even if it does feature Sorrell “Boss Hogg” Booke). But none of that is surprising given that it is a Disney film about a cat from outer space.

What Cervantes Wanted to Do With Don Quixote

CervantesThis period produced one great work of literature that ranks ahead of all others. It is the tale of Don Quixote de la Mancha, authored in two parts by Miguel Cervantes. In our literary canon, the novel has come to dominate the other forms in modern times. And with respect to the novel we can say, “In the beginning was Cervantes.” The genre springs from his work. And even today, after four hundred years, how many novels can begin to compete with this one? It is a work of amazing flexibility; it piles layer upon layer of meaning. It can be studied in universities and performed in Broadway musicals. Cervantes’s genius was to be simultaneously great, complex, subtle, and yet packed with immediate popular appeal. Cervantes fills a great panorama and he perfects the art of the tragicomedy. What seems at first blush a farce, a comic send-up, turns into a work filled with pain, loss, horror and introspection. What seems at first shallow soon emerges, especially in the second part, as a work of great philosophical depth; of wit and profound and timeless wisdom.

I have read Don Quixote three times in my life; the last time just now. On each reading, I felt Don Quixote said something to me about life and the times in which I lived. “Don’t be consumed in the quest for needful things,” it said, “the real quest leads inward. Beware of the vanities of the world, the frivolities of human existence. And remember wherever your life takes you, and whatever love you may seek from time to time, the need for kindness and respect, the essential qualities which make human life worth living. Life will bring pain and hardship, but have the disposition to be modest, to learn, to be kind and the edge will come off.” Cervantes wants to entertain his readers; but he also wants to reshape them.

–Scott Horton
Cervantes’s Golden Age

State Department Departure: Evil, Incompetent, or Both

State Department ResignationsI don’t want to write about politics, but I feel I have something of a civic duty to say something at this point. Trump has been president just one week and it’s been even worse than I feared. I no longer think that he couldn’t possibly be worse than Mike Pence, except that he and everyone around him seem to be almost completely unqualified to do their work at the most basic level of competence.

Take yesterday’s story about the State Department resignations, Departure of Top State Officials Fuels Concerns About Talent Loss. Apparently, all political appointees submit their resignations when a new administration comes in. But standard practice is that the new administration refuses those resignations to allow for continuity. But not the Trump administration. No, it just accepted them.

Most of the Government Doesn’t Change

What’s important to remember here is that a government is not just our elected officials. In fact, it is just the visible tip of the iceberg. As you may know, roughly 90% of an iceberg is below the water. (You can see the same thing by dropping a cube of ice into a glass of water.) The “under water” part of the government is made up of all the civil servants who keep the country moving regardless of administration: Democratic or Republican, good or bad.

It is this make-up of government that keeps countries stable. It is the same way in every developed nation. Democracy is about a whole lot more than voting. Voting doesn’t even matter if you don’t have some degree of stability. We quite simply don’t have the time to switch from a social democratic dream to a libertarian nightmare and back every eight years. So over more than 200 years, we’ve developed this largest part of the government that is not partisan. And it is critically important. It’s why we have better lives than the people in many other countries.

(Yes libertarians, I know. If there wasn’t any government, then everyone would have peace and prosperity. The whole thing wouldn’t collapse into a kind of Neuromancer-type dystopia where corporations rule us. Nor would it cause the rise of a ruthless ruler like Robert Mugabe. The only problem with all that is that I’m spending all my “believe” energy keeping Tinker Bell alive. So I can’t wish your particular fantasy into existence. Sorry.)

Ignorant Contempt for Government

But in order for such a government to work, everyone has to accept it. And that has generally been the case. But certainly over the last 40 years, I’ve seen a rise in people who have what I can only term “glibertarian” views toward government. They aren’t libertarian, because they don’t think about it enough to be. Instead, they have a vague hatred of the government, even though they don’t have a clue about all the really important things that the government does (under Republicans and Democrats alike) to keep them safe and even reasonably happy. And so it comes to this.

Now we have a man in the White House who is the perfect fulfillment of this kind of ignorant resentment. He’s an authoritarian. Read Michael Hiltzik for just one side of that, Trump Is at War With Science and Knowledge, and That Should Terrify You. Yet he’s also totally incompetent. That brings us back to those State Department resignations.

What’s Up With the Resignations?

I don’t know if they are a sign of Trump’s authoritarianism or his incompetence. Or maybe it is both. The truth is, he could do a good old Stalin-style house cleaning at any time. Now, he actually makes the job that Rex Tillerson is going to do (For Exxon or the US? It’s not clear.) harder. Now these positions have to be filled.

The whole thing makes me very worried. Yochi Dreazen reported the truth, The Worst Things You’ll Read About Trump Come From His Own Aides. But does it matter that our very own Stalin is incompetent? Authoritarians are not known for being competent about anything — except staying in power. I’m not sure Trump will manage even that. And that would give us Mike Pence, which, hard as it is to say, would probably be the best thing for this country.

A Brief History of American International Pictures

The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film - American International PicturesProbably the most important company in this book is American International Pictures (AIP). Founded in 1954 as American Releasing Corporation (ARC) by Samuel Z Arkoff and the late James Nicholson, AIP (1956-1980) defined the postwar youth-oriented feature. Shortly after its 25th aniversary, the company was purchased by outsiders and renamed Filmways. Soon thereafter, disengaged from its exploitative past, but recent releases like Amityville 3-D indicate that its AIP origins linger.

During its heyday, AIP had several subsidiaries. Filmgroup made some of the most offbeat features (often produced or directed by AIP standby Roger Corman). By the late 60s more lurid features dealing with sex and drugs were released by Trans-American. During the 70s, Hallmark released the most shocking of the (mostly European) horror acquisitions. AIP-TV released dozens of Mexican, Japanese, and European films directly to American television. It also sometimes made extremely cheap features to be sold as part of TV package deals.

—Michael Weldon
The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

The Long Goodbye Review and Analysis

The Long GoodbyeWould you kill your best friend?

This is a question I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about because of the film The Long Goodbye. It does ask you to answer that question (the novel does not). And the question fascinates me because loyalty is really important to me. That may seem odd, since I am anti-tribal. But that’s not really that difficult to explain. Tribalism is about labels, not actual bonds. Friendship is, for me anyway, about love.

Now, I can’t say that I would kill my best friend, because I don’t endorse that under any circumstances. But I would rollover on my best friend, which is ultimately the same thing: the abandonment of loyalty.

Marlowe Makes the Film

The truth is that The Long Goodbye is something of a mess of a film. Yet I’ve always loved it. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I feel much like Marlowe (Elliott Gould) in it. He’s a man out of time. He’s constantly interacting with a world that makes no sense to him. But he has what amounts to a mantra, “It’s okay with me.” Note his amused indifference to his young women neighbors. When Harry (David Arkin) says he thinks their naked stretching exercises indicates that they are lesbians, Marlowe says, “They’re just doing yoga.” What? “I don’t know what it is, but it’s yoga.”

What’s critical in The Long Goodbye is that Marlowe knows he doesn’t fit in, but everyone else thinks they have him completely pegged. It’s only Wade (Sterling Hayden) who thinks he’s odd, and that’s simply because the two of them suspect each other. (Marlowe thinks Wade killed Terry Lennox’s wife, and Wade thinks Marlowe is having an affair with his own.) Everyone else in the film plays him for a fool. Of course, he isn’t a fool. He’s just from a different time.

When People Peg You — Wrong

I had an experience recently that made me feel much the same way. I was running my errands — walking from the library to the Target — and these two young women singled me out to ask if I had a light. There were a lot of other people around, but I was the one they picked out. This is not all that uncommon, but the example was so stark that I couldn’t pass it off as people simply asking anyone nearby. It was the first time that it became clear to me that people see me as someone at the margins of society — a smoker, drug addict, whatever.

I’m well aware that I don’t fit in. But I thought that I came off as simply eccentric — absent-minded professor who doesn’t care what he wears or if his hair is combed. I wanted to yell at the young women, “Wrong stereotype!” But they have to be forgiven. Whereas Marlowe dresses for his stereotype, I give decidedly mixed signals — usually wearing jeans, a CAT hoodie, and a badly faded San Francisco Giants baseball cap. And even as the distracted intellectual that I am, there is little continuity — I’m as likely to be watching an old B horror film as I am a new translation of the Aeneid.

The Long Goodbye

But I do have a strict (some would say rigid) moral sense. Like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, “It’s okay with me” — until it isn’t. And that’s what makes the ending of the film so powerful. For Marlowe, being liberal about the universe he finds himself in is not really a choice; there is no other universe that he can live in. Naked girls next door make no sense, so he has a cat. But we all have limits, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

In The Long Goodbye, that limit is when your best friend savagely beats his wife to death. And after that, Marlowe walks away, playing the harmonica and dancing with a woman on the street. “It’s okay with me.”

The Interminable Opening of Alabama’s Ghost

Alabama's Ghost - Deadly ZetaWhile storm clouds gathered over Europe in the years before the war, Hitler’s most brilliant and renowned young scientist, Dr Kirsten Caligula, vanished suddenly from her laboratory in Berlin.

World press received unconfirmed reports that Dr Caligula, an expert in robot technology, had been dispatched to Calcutta, India on a top secret mission for the Führer himself.

Her orders: to interview the world famed magician and spiritualist Carter the Great, at his mountain retreat near Calcutta — there to study his most recent discovery: a rare super-substance known as Raw Zeta.

It was rumored among scientists of the time that Carter’s substance resembled a highly potent form of hashish — known as Khartoum Khaki. Other authoritative sources in the Far East reported that Raw Zeta, when refined electronically, and introduced into a human body by Chinese acupuncture techniques, could result in the formation of Deadly Zeta.

In his last public statement, Carter warned that any mortal wired to Deadly Zeta could be used as a broadcasting catalyst to enslave all humans within the sound of his voice — thus becoming an unwitting tool for the most diabolical forces of evil known to man.

Soon afterwards, Carter vanished forever while visiting his sister in San Francisco — perhaps a victim of his own prophecy.

Seven years later, when Carter was pronounced legally dead, his admirers held a spirit funeral over an empty black coffin.

–Fredric Hobbs
Alabama’s Ghost

District 13 Review and Analysis

District 13When I reviewed Bloody Mallory, commenter Marc wrote, “While we’re on the subject of ‘silly French movies that are still a lot of fun to watch,’ permit me to recommend Banlieue 13.” A banlieue is basically a suburban area. So in the English speaking world, the film is known as District 13. It was released in 2004 and it stars two stunt men and a former female porn actor. I mention that as a compliment. First, it speaks well of the producers to cast such people. And watching it before I knew that, I had assumed they were all just regular actors — although with the men having training.

The two lead actors, David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli, are practitioners of Parkour (or close enough) — that seemingly gravity-defying style of running and jumping that isn’t that different from the wire work in The Matrix. There are two set pieces in the film with this: the first with just Belle and the second with both of them. These go along with such fast-paced editing (thanks, I assume, to director Pierre Morel) that it brought on actual motion sickness in me. I quickly got used to what was happening on the screen, and the nausea went away. But still, it was pretty intense. And it speaks well of a film that it can be that powerful — even if for a short period of time.

At this point, I suppose Parkour is a little tired. It was used in the 2006 version of Casino Royale. By the time something shows up in a James Bond film, it’s pretty much dead. But I still find it fascinating. It’s like watching an insect move. So I think the movie is worth watching just on that front.

District 13′s Plot

It’s also interesting if you look at it as an allegory of the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s because the story is about how the power elite of Paris wall off District 13 because it is poor and filled with gangs and so on. Things just get worse as a result of that, where the people inside live in a kind of Mad Max work. And it is more and more of a political problem for the people outside. But I kind of doubt there was a great deal of thought given to this. The film is pretty clearly an homage to Escape From New York — although the substantial plot differences make it a far more interesting story.

The major problem with the District 13 is that when the action sequences aren’t taking place, the film is downright didactic. I don’t mean that it is trying to teach us how to be good human beings; I mean it is trying to teach us what the plot is. The writers Luc Besson (!) and Bibi Naceri didn’t take the time to show us what the action was about; they just tell us through dialog that is often unrelenting — particularly after Belle and Raffaelli team up.

It Works

All the same, it’s an enjoyable film. It skirts most of the action film cliches that are in every Hollywood blockbuster. A good example of this is that the hero must have some fateful confrontation with the alpha villain at the end. Not so here. Instead, the beta villain simply allows his gang to kill the alpha villain. And then it turns out that the beta villain is, all things considered, pretty reasonable (which we expected, largely to a great performance by Tony D’Amario). None of this should come as a surprise to fans of Luc Besson’s classic Léon: The Professional.

District 13 is certainly not a great film — or even an especially interesting one. But it’s entertaining. It’s story is far more compelling than most action films. And the action sequences themselves are as good as they get. If you’re interested in this kind of film, I don’t see how you can miss with it. And if it isn’t your kind of film, it’s far more bearable than most other action films.


I had mentioned in my review of Bloody Mallory that the English dubbing was very bad and that you really did have watch the film in its original French. That’s not true for District 13. The dubbing is quite good both in terms of technology and acting. The French voice acting is notably better. But the English voice acting is good, and it doesn’t spoil the film.