Elephant

ElephantRecently, I wrote very negative things about Gus Van Sant while discussing his most recent mediocre film Promised Land. I said that his days as a great director where behind him. I used that film as well as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester to make this case. But as long time reader Karl Paniczny pointed out, Van Sant was making small, personal films; it was just that I wasn’t watching them.

I thought that was an excellent point. So I picked up Gerry (which I plan to watch in the morning) and Elephant (which I just watched). Elephant is an odd film. It combines cinema verite with pointedly stylized camera work. The film operates at a glacial speed with incredibly long static and Steadicam shots that seem designed more for theme and mood than for plot. Other than a number of scenes shown from different perspectives at different times, the film makes almost no concessions for the viewer. Mostly, you are just left to piece the timing of various scenes together in retrospect. This works well, however, given that the story it tells is very simple.

I don’t find the main plot of Elephant that interesting. It is basically a fictionalization of the Columbine High School massacre. It is an almost impossible task to show a mass shooting without somehow trivializing the motivations of the perpetrators. Is it bullying? Is it video games? Is it insanity? In the end, I’m afraid it is all these things and nothing. The essence of drama is motivation, and Van Sant provides lots of motivations for Alex and Eric without pushing it too hard. But in the end, the act is so heinous that I rebel against the very notion of causality.

It reminds me of The Ox-Bow Incident, a film that is also about a heinous act. But in that case it is the result of group think and shows how everyone’s little faults work in synergy to create a tragic fault. In Elephant there is some evil synergy. And I felt like I understood where the two boys were coming from. But the result was so catastrophic compared to the causes. That does seem to be how life is at times. It is just not very fulfilling as drama.

Having said all of that, the the film is really compelling; the shooting seems almost like an addendum. I was particularly taken with how Elephant shows all the things that the kids do and worry about. Three girls go to the bathroom after lunch so they can vomit up all those calories, lest they suffer the horror of being a normal weight. A young couple is concerned that the female may be pregnant. Michelle seems to be afraid that her PE teacher will make her undress for class the next day. All of these fears are for nothing given how much longer they will live.

Especially compelling to me is the story of Benny. After most all of the carnage is over, he walks through the halls almost in a daze. He seems unable to accept that what most clearly has happened is still happening. It doesn’t end well for him. But I understand his quest. It just has to be all some big misunderstanding. In a fundamental sense, his quest is that of the film and the viewer.

Despite so much carnage, Elephant has almost no on screen violence. Almost all of the deaths are implied rather than shown. The main point of the last half hour of the film seems to be to show the lack of empathy of the perpetrators. Eric often shows anger, but Alex is completely disconnected as though he were playing a video game. This from a boy who a day before was frustrated playing the “Moonlight Sonata.” It is chilling, as it ought to be.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that Elephant was a great film. It may not even be good. I have problems with it, especially with the third act. But there is no doubt that it is a work of art. There is no pandering. It seems to accomplish what it is trying to do. And so I owe Gus Van Sant an apology: Promised Land is just his day job. He’s still working the graveyard shift in Portland on things that matter.

Afterword

For a film that won the Palme d’Or, the DVD for this film really sucks. In terms of features, it has the trailer and a 12 minute “On the Set” video. That is to say that it isn’t even a featurette in the sense of a “Making Of” documentary. It is very disappointing. I would have liked a director’s commentary. I suspect that Van Sant has a few things to say about his very stylized approach to the material. (Then again, as I recall, his commentary on Drugstore Cowboy was of little insight.)

Major Media Have Sequester All Wrong

SequesterIt is Sunday, so I’m going to explain the Sequester to you and why most of the media have it all wrong. Back in 2011 when it was invented, the idea was to make something so horrible that neither side would accept it. Instead they would replace it with some bipartisan plan that the two sides disliked less and everyone would sing “Kumbaya.” But even when pushed to come up with an “unthinkable” plan, the Republicans wouldn’t go for any revenue increases. So instead, half the Sequester became military cuts.

Skip ahead a year and a half. Now everyone is standing around asking, “Will the Republicans really be willing to cut their beloved military?” My reaction to these people is: where in the hell have you been for the last 30 years?! We could be talking about the complete elimination of the military. Hell, we could be talking about the very destruction of the United States and Republicans would be against taxing rich people even a dollar more—so long as those rich people would be able to keep their wealth after America was destroyed. The one overriding policy issue for Republicans is to keep the taxes of rich people down. (Note: when it came to the payroll take that is highly regressive, they had no problem letting it go back up.) The fact that major figures in the media think that isn’t the case is a big part of the problem with politics in America.

Ezra Klein was surprised last week that Republicans didn’t seem to understand what their own economists tell them: deductions are in fact government spending, just done in an unusual way. Think of the mortgage interest deduction. This allows homeowners to pay less in taxes. It would have exactly the same effect if instead the government had a program that gave homeowners money for owning a home. So what’s the big deal with eliminating tax loopholes? They too are just government spending in another form. Ezra Klein thinks the Republicans just don’t understand this.

It is possible that he’s right in part. Never underestimate just how stupid and ignorant Republicans are. But whether they know this or not is not the real issue. Republicans care above all else that rich people keep as much money as possible. Dean Baker calls this MPRP: Money in the Pockets of Rich People. This is what Republicans care about. Their problem with government spending is just that much of it goes to poor people.

So we are left with a media who keep pretending that the Republican Party is something other than it is. They can’t just bring themselves to believe that the Republicans really are what they always claim Democrats to be: class warriors. After all, you can kind of understand how someone would be a warrior for the poorer classes. But to be a warrior not just for the rich but the super rich? There must be some other explanation. But there really isn’t one.

Update (24 February 2013 6:55 pm)

Ezra Klein wrote another article about the Sequester, On the Sequester, the American People ‘Moved the Goalposts’. He concludes the article with a paragraph that is either stupid or hopelessly naive:

Here in DC, we can get a bit buried in Beltway minutia. The ongoing blame game over who concocted the sequester is an excellent example. But it’s worth remembering that the goalposts in American politics aren’t set in backroom deals between politicians. They’re set in elections. And in the 2012 election, the American people were very clear on where they wanted the goalposts moved to.

I don’t mean to be cynical, but who actually believes this kind of nonsense? Politicians in Washington do not do what the people want. They just assume that they can message their way to agreement with the electorate. Or that the electorate doesn’t even know what it wants or will forget it by the time of the next election. The American people were pretty clear this last election. And the fact that the American people are getting pretty much nothing they want is a good example of just how American politics really works.

America: We’re Like Everyone Else

Hamid KarzaiAfghan President Hamid Karzai has called for the removal of American troops from the province west of Kabul. He claims that the troops have been involved in torture, some even leading to death of civilians in that area. Here’s what I know: nothing. It could just be Karzai playing politics or it could be what he says is true or it could be both. American troops have done this kind of thing before. They have even done this kind of thing in Afghanistan. So it would be absurd to just dismiss the claim out of hand.

Unless, of course, you are part of the overwhelming majority of Americans who just know that we could never do any of the terrible things that we absolutely have done. The My Lai Massacre never happen, for example. That’s one of the frustrating things for most Americans: they have no idea why anyone in the world would hate America. After all, they’ve never seen news to indicate that America is anything but a force for good in the world. Those people who hate us must be insane or hate us for our freedom!

I first read about the Karzai allegations at NBC, Afghan President Orders US Forces Out of Key Province. The reporting is pretty objective. My only problem with it is in comparison with how it would have been reported the other way around. The American news media tend to take military claims as the truth. But I’m happy enough with this reporting: at this point it is just Karzai’s claim.

What was more interesting was reading the comments. I didn’t go all that far through them; I read around 50. But with one exception, they were all of the form: Karzai is just lying and we ought to get out of there anyway. But the one comment that was different was really telling. He actually believes the claims:

Why are we not surprised? I really think it’s high time that we do unto our enemies as they have and still do unto us. We don’t know what those troops are dealing with day in and day out. I say whatever it takes to make it home to your love ones. Being a retired service member myself and having served in combat I support them (the troops) 200 percent.

I feel so warm inside. I want to break into “You’re a Grand Old Flag”! After all, we’re just doing to “them” what they do to us. And we don’t know what those troops are going through, so we should support them twice as much as it logically possible. If they just want to massacre a whole village, they must have a very good reason! I need to take a breath…

When I hear people talking like this, it makes me think that it doesn’t matter how many al-Qaeda leaders we kill, they won this war long ago. It is one thing for a government to be evil—they pretty much are by definition. But the fact that people on a middle-of-the-road website cheer for torture shows that we’ve become a far worse nation than we were when I was a kid. At least then we had the ideal of rising to a higher level.

But the other commenters bother me more. They are the ones who really think they have a good bead on reality. They think they know what’s going on. They can’t imagine that they would ever fall for propaganda. And in this case, they may well be right. But the assumption they all make is that of course Karzai would lie and of course American officials tell the truth. And that is even more dangerous than the pro-torture cheerleaders.

Afterword

I almost forgot! I like that line about there never being a “boast or brag.” On one level, it is hilarious, because of course, it is a boast and brag. But on another, there used to be a feeling that we were such a great nation that we shouldn’t go around rubbing the noses of other nations in it. Well not anymore. I were to write the equivalent song today, it would be called, “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!”

Obama’s Evil Secrecy

Obama Question MarkGlenn Greenwald is one of the most important liberal journalists we have. And of course that means he works for a British newspaper. On Friday he wrote, Obama Officials Refuse to Say if Assassination Power Extends to US Soil. This is the kind of stuff that liberals would be all over if the president were a Republican. But a lot of liberals claim that they “trust” Obama to use these powers wisely. Even apart from the absurdity of the claim that anyone with Obama’s power can be trusted, isn’t it clear that Obama will not always be president? Isn’t it clear that these precedents will be used by very bad men in the future? Isn’t it obvious that a few generations down the line the president will use the exact same justifications to assassinate troublesome journalists on the streets of New York? It’s obvious to me, anyway.

Both CIA head nominee John Brennan and President Obama himself have been asked the same question, “Could the administration carry out drone strikes inside the United States?” In both cases, the answer is, “We aren’t doing that and we don’t plan to.” This is a problem. This implicitly opens the door to a future statement that, “We changed our minds!” It almost screams, “Yes, we can!”

The administration has secret legal documents that justify targeted assassinations of American citizens outside the country. Most of these documents the administration won’t even show to the Senate. If this all sounds kind of familiar, it is because this is just like the Bush administration.

And who is the hero in all this? Up until recently, it was pretend libertarian Rand Paul who was all alone. He has promised to filibuster Brennan’s nomination vote until he gets an answer to the question, “Do you believe that the President has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a US citizen on US soil, and without trial?” He also says that the only acceptable answer to the question is no. In general, Paul is a total fucktard. But in this case he’s my hero. Of course, this says little about him and a whole lot about most politicians and political watchers.

I understand that all administrations are evil. But what I find most troubling about Obama’s administration is how much they’ve followed the Bush administration when it comes to secrecy. Here is Greenwald:

Critically, the documents that are being concealed by the Obama administration are not operational plans or sensitive secrets. They are legal documents that, like the leaked white paper, simply purport to set forth the president’s legal powers of execution and assassination. As Democratic lawyers relentlessly pointed out when the Bush administration also concealed legal memos authorizing presidential powers, keeping such documents secret is literally tantamount to maintaining “secret law.” These are legal principles governing what the president can and cannot do—purported law—and US citizens are being barred from knowing what those legal claims are.

He goes on to note that there is no justification for keep such documents secret. What he means is that there is no good justification. It is clear that the administration wants to keep these documents secret because the administration knows that the legal reasoning is at best questionable and that if the public knew about them, they would rebel against them. That’s the thing about the vast majority of secret government documents. They are secret because the government (or specific powerful people inside it) don’t what the American people to know about it. Government secrecy is almost never right.

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Catholic Church’s Procreation Problems

Ghanaian Cardinal Peter TurksonI read this morning over at the Bilerico Project, Top Papal Candidate Blames Child Sex Abuse Scandal on Gays. In it, John Becker quotes Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson as claiming that there are unlikely to be many pedophilia cases in Africa because the culture there just doesn’t countenance homosexuality. This is offensive in all kinds of ways, but let me start by naming two of the minor ways. First, I would think that someone from Ghana would not make the American mistake of thinking Africa is one homogeneous entity. Second, it is the most ignorant of people who think that by making homosexuality taboo a society will limit it.

What is most offensive about the comment, of course, is the old canard that pedophiles are homosexual. It turns out that generally what makes one a pedophile is not having developed a mature sex drive. Thus, they aren’t interested in adults as sexual objects at all. Of those who do, it seems to be a wash: statistically they are like the rest of the population. Now let us think: what is a good way to stunt someone’s sex drive? I can think of one way: dogmatic religious doctrine requiring priests to be celibate.

This got me wondering why Catholics are so anti-gay when in some ways they are fairly enlightened. Only part of it is the Bible, and I think they could get past that. The big anti-gay writings are in the Old Testament. The anti-gay passages in the New Testament were all written by Paul who seems to have had a hard on regarding the issue. In Romans 1:27, he’s downright pornographic, “And in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” Jesus, of course, was silent on the subject. And no one at that time could have imagined the nice same-sex couples we have today with their very boring jobs, kids, and music tastes. On this issue, I think the church has to ask, “Are we really going to continue to base our theology of the bigotry of people 2000 years ago?”

The Bible is the least of the problem, however. The church’s position on homosexuality is primarily wrapped up in its totally messed up ideas about sex. But in its defense, at least it is consistent. The church claims that the pleasure of sex is only to encourage us to make babies. That’s why Catholics can’t have condoms or homosexuality. Of course, there are cracks in the philosophical edifice. The biggest is the embrace of the “rhythm method” of birth control. If God hates condoms then he also hates intended non-reproductive sex acts. Also, if God made sex pleasurable to encourage procreation, why did he make oral sex pleasurable? Why did is place the clitoris in its unusual position?[1]

The biggest problems facing the Catholic church come down to its ridiculous idea about sex being only for procreation. If that idea changes, then everything else will fall in line. The problem is that the church has spent so many centuries working out their careful “sex is fun only as a byproduct” philosophy, that they will greatly resist changing it. But they have little choice.


[1] The clitoris position is unusual from a theological perspective, not a Darwinian perspective. And from a “sex as fun” perspective, especially sex vis-a-vis mastrabation, it is extremely well placed. Now really: only an evil God would design sex organs like than and then say, “Don’t touch!”