I may have made fun of it a while back, but honestly, I don’t hate the concept. I might scope it if it rolls through one of the apps I have. I cannot, however, promise that I will do that. Movies in this era are largely an individualized aesthetic exercise, not a community one. The atomization of entertainment has accomplished this. There will be big tent things – Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones-type things going forward, but with diminishing returns I suspect. They’re expensive, and depend on a consumer base that can turn on you if you don’t give them exactly what they want. See, also, everything I’ve written about Star Wars.
This means that the future of the Oscars is in the Art House. The double-tier of Art Gratia Artis vs. Cinematic Circus for the Masses — Nomadland on one hand, Godzilla vs. Kong on the other — will become more pronounced. There will still be an audience for the Oscars, as there will be a lot of money in making sure there is (one might argue that all the dim Wokery of recent years reflects not just the actual sentiments of Hollywood but a need to generate controversey, live-action clickbait, if you will). But as a reflection of the people it will pass. It’s going to become a lot easier for most folk to simply not care.
This will become exacerbated as streaming becomes the normal way to see a film for the first time. Scorcese was fighting a rear-guard action. There might be a boomlet in going to theaters when the pandemic finally ends, but all the economic forces are shoving against prioritizing the theater experience. The younger generations are not as devoted to it. Family movie nights are going to be replaced by Family Movie Tickets on the Streaming Service of your choice.
And because of this, the films that make the most impact will be harder to determine. Netflix is famously secretive about its streaming numbers. Thus, the kind of box-office academy coup wherein a less-artistic but popular film (everyone talks about Shakespeare in Love, but does anyone remember when Titanic and Gladiator won Best Picture?) overwhelms the snobs’ favorite will become harder and harder to pull off.
This means that Oscars are going to be harder and harder to pre-game and will include more and more films that nobody has seen. It will eventually be as relevant as the Emmys. Huzzah.
Every now and again, because I do not learn, I google the phrase “winds of winter”, the title for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (remember Game of Thrones?). I do this because, nine years ago, I did this for “A Dance With Dragons” and happened to catch a blurblet that Martin’s publisher was expecting the book in a short time, or that it was mostly finished, or that it had indeed been turned in, or something like that.
Click on it, to bring yourself to a vision of the nadir of journalism.
George RR Martin’s latest blog update arrived this week headed by an image saying “Winter Is Coming”. It’s not clear if this is the 72-year-old’s way of teasing that he’s approaching the finishing line, but the rest of his post may provide some clues nonetheless.
UK Daily Express, “Winds of Winter Progress”
Every journalist who uses the word “may” should be beaten with a tire iron and left in the desert. Spoilers: this article provides no clues, nor does the blog post it’s using as a source. That’s right, a newspaper that’s been around since 1900, is now farming clickbait out of George RR Martin’s pseudo-livejournal. It’s over, guys. The Matrix won.
But don’t take my word for it, I’m just a regular blogger and writer. I haven’t made millions shoving Robert Howard tropes into high fantasy and then left my fans twisting in the wind. Look at it yourself: Not-a-Blogging
Way back when on LiveJournal, when I started this column or journal or whatever it is, I called it my “Not A Blog,” because I could see that regular blogging was a lot of work, and I didn’t think I had the time to devote to it. I was late on a book even then, though I do not recall which one. I figured I would just make posts from time to time, when I had an important announcement, when the mood struck me, whatever.
People this is news to: 0
Number of words: 85
I might be starting to understand the problem.
I am hugely behind right now, and the prospect of trying to catch up is feeling increasingly oppressive.
After nine years of waiting for you not to complete, but just to organize the third act of this series, following a year the entire world spent inside, this is not what anyone wants to hear. Yeah, it must be tyranny itself to have to find ways to balance time writing against time spent on that day job you don’t have or taking care of kids you don’t have. Maybe an hour less swimming in your pile of money like Scrooge McDuck? I don’t wanna mess with your flow or nuthin’.
My life has become one of extremes these past few months. Some days I do not know whether to laugh or cry, to shoot off fireworks and dance in the streets or crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. The good stuff that has been happening to me has been very very very good, the kind of thing that will make a year, or a career. But the bad stuff that is happening has been very very very bad, and it is hard to cherish the good and feel the joy when the shadows are all around.
Gotcha, good is good, bad is bad.
Tell me more about how Tolkein’s universe is morally simplistic.
If any of you read the stories about me on the internet, you will know my good news. I have a new five-year deal with HBO, to create new GOT successor shows (and some non-related series, like ROADMARKS) for both HBO and HBO Max. It’s an incredible deal, an amazing deal, very exciting, and I want to tell you all about it… although it seems the press has already done it. There are stories in all the trades. You can read about it there. (These days I almost never get to break any news about myself, the Hollywood press is always ahead of me. Some of their stories are even accurate). I will blog about it, I expect, but not today.
Good for you on your continuing exploitation of a series that a) is still unfinished, b) led to a show whose ending retroactively tainted the entire enterprise. I can’t tell you how excited I am to discover that there will be GoT prequels for nerds to get even madder about. Zippity. Do. Dah.
Also, why not blog about it? The hell else are you doing?
On the other side of the coin… well, I am now fully vaccinated, hurrah hurray, that’s good. However, I have now lost six friends since November. (Only a couple to Covid. Alas, I am old, and so are many of my friends. Valar morghulis, I guess). And a seventh friend, a very old and dear friend who has been a huge part of my life for a long time, is in the hospital, very sick, recovering from surgery… at least we hope he is recovering.
Sorry for your loss.
That’s all. I’m not a ghoul.
Honestly, it is hard to dance in the streets even for the deal of a lifetime when another loved one dies every two/ three weeks, and that has been going on for me since November, when my longtime editor Kay McCauley passed away.
If only there were some large project you could channels your energies into.
There’s lots more going on as well. Meow Wolf stuff. Railroad stuff. Beastly Books has reopened, but the JCC is still shuttered. The Jets traded Sam Darnold away. I am going to be leaving my cabin in a couple of months. I am close to delivering PAIRING UP, a brand new Wild Cards book.
I don’t know what Meow Wolf is. It sounds like a joke I don’t want to get.
I don’t know what Beastly Books is. I’m guessing it’s a store. I live on the other side of the country from you, so I don’t care.
I don’t know what the JCC is.
You are the only man on earth who cares about the Jets.
I wish I had a cabin. You know what I would do there? WRITE BOOKS.
And he has to close with the one bit of news guaranteed to Red-Wedding the hopes of anyone mildly intrigued by the direwolf sigil that appears on top of the post (which The Daily Express found so interesting). Every time George R.R. Martin blogs about Wild Cards, a Stark child dies at the hands of his enemies. So good to know that in between mourning his friends and signing his checks, Martin finds the time to edit the latest entry in a series 0.00000000000000011% of his audience cares about. I’ll bet if I had those kind of customer appreciation strategies, I’d be a bestselling author, too.
I will tell you about some of this, I guess. But not today.
What a Cliffhanger, you guys! I’ll just have to subscribe to your notablog so I can get the hot insights about the next derivative HBO series I won’t watch or dithering analysis of the Jets lineup or what glorified Funko-Pops based on GoT characters are now available. It’s a good thing the only reason I ever read this meandering tripe isn’t because I’m waiting for you to announce that you’ve finally finished the book you’ve been working on since my tween daughter was a zygote. I might be mad.
Some of you might be thinking, you know, I think he actually is mad. You know what, you’re right. I’m mad that this guy can’t ever scribble on his blog without reminding us that he doesn’t want to have a blog and then demonstrate why he shouldn’t. I’m mad that this guy vomits this non-tent and the media acts like a new layer of the Rosetta Stone just got unearthed.
Basically, I’m mad ’cause I’m jealous. Which is a low, unworthy emotion, speaking more about me than anyone else, that I will forthwith remove from my soul.
Carl Schmidt was a German jurist and political philosopher of the Weimar and Nazi eras. True to the time, his writings contain very strong critique of what he called “the liberal critique of politics.” He phrased it that way because to his mind there was no such thing as true liberal politics, as the essence of politics was built around having enemies, and liberalism eschews conflict in order to reduce everything to a free exchange. Being German, and being embraced by the Nazis, Schmidt went all the way with this idea, reducing all significant poltical questions to determining one’s enemy. “Tell me who your enemy is” says Schmidt, “And I’ll tell you what your politics are.”
One can find this approach unbalanced, but not altogether wrong. George Washington is oft quoted by libertarians as saying “Government is force.” Hence, the liberal critique of politics. But this rather gives the game away: if the essence of government is naked force, well, against whom is naked force permitted?
After all that Nazi business went pear-shaped (don’t mention the war), Schmitt never renounced his allegiance to the Third Reich, and his obstinance won him the unlikely (or perhaps not so unlikely, depending on how well you know the history of browns and reds) respect of left-wingers, who are all about naming enemies. In recent years, he’s been embraced by thought-leaders on the online Right, pointing out that so-called liberal hypocrisy is just the friend/enemy dynamic applied rhetorically. Of course lib-progs don’t apply their arguments fairly. Why would they? Who does?
Which is fine as a summation of the ongoing collapse of our political culture, but it interests me more as an example that Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon when you become aware of a thing and start seeing it everywhere. I’ve suddenly become aware of Miller’s Crossing, my first and still perhaps favorite Coen Brothers movie, as a story bound up in the dynamic of friend vs. enemy.
The theatrical trailer lays the players out: Leo, the Irish mob/machine boss running an unnamed city during Prohibition, Caspar, an Italian sub-boss/capo with eyes on the prize, Tom, the film’s protagonist, Leo’s lieutenant and consigliere, Verna and Bernie, a sister and brother who are more or less trouble, and The Dane, Caspar’s lieutenant and muscle.
It’s a wonderful puzzle of a film, with Tom racing to keep one step ahead of all the players and their games, plus keep his own bookie from breaking his legs. The film rehabilitates noir by eschewing the formal trappings of the genre (it’s in color; we don’t have that shadows-of-blinds-across-the-face trope) and drilling down to the essentials; a plot of ever-escalating tension and characters who speak obliquely, Byzantinely, trying to say no more than they need to. So if you haven’t seen it, I advise you to stop reading this and do so now. If you like the Coen Brothers, it’s really required viewing.
HERE BE SPOILERS
The plot begins with bookmaker Bernie putting the word on the street whenever Caspar fixes a boxing match, thus smashing the odds and cutting in to Caspar’s profits. Caspar wants Bernie dead. Leo, however, has taken up with Verna, Bernie’s sister, and Verna would prefer her brother not dead. Tom, on the other hand, thinks Bernie shady and untrustworthy, and that Verna is just using Leo. He knows this for a fact, actually, as he’s taken up with Verna, too. Tom tries to get Leo to dump her, without telling all, but Leo will not. The big sap’s in love.
Leo: You do anything to help your friends, and anything to kick your enemies.
Tom: Wrong, Leo. You do things for a reason.
This exchange highlights the differences between the two men. Leo, a king among men, has risen to leadership by identifying friends and enemies, and acting accordingly. He rewards those who help him, smites those who cross him, and the rest is noise. He’s combative and fearless, but also big-hearted and loyal.
Tom, by contrast, is constantly accused of having no heart. He certainly eschews sentimentality, and seems to regard men as little more than nodes of power, angles to play. Rather than people-oriented, he’s result-oriented: what does doing X gain or lose us? The rest is noise.
A shooting occurs that seems to implicate Caspar. Leo prepares to go to war, Tom tries to talk him down, but nothing doing. Desperate to save Leo from being a sucker, he confesses that he has cuckolded him. Enraged at the betrayal, Leo casts Tom into the outer darkness, and breaks with Verna, too. But the train has no breaks: gang war breaks out.
Betrayal begets betrayal: The local government and police switch sides from Leo to Caspar: Leo goes underground, and Caspar takes over as Boss of Bosses. A small but pugnacious man suffering from a sense of inferiority, Caspar values the idea of grabbing Leo’s advisor and brings Tom into the fold. He still wants Bernie dead, and Tom can help with that. Tom, smiling, does.
The Dane ain’t buyin’ it. Not only does he resent his role being diminished, he and Tom share the natural antipathy of muscle and brains. The Dane’s lack of subtlety shouldn’t be confused with dimness: he thinks quicker than most, but has a profound distaste for “smarts” that hide mendacity. So to prove his new loyalty, Tom must deal with the schmatta who started the problem; he must take Bernie out to the titular Miller’s Crossing and put a bullet in his brain.
The story suggests to us that Tom is not a killer. And indeed, he doesn’t want to be. Confronted with the prospect of murdering a man, even a man who he distrusts and dislikes, Tom demurs, fakes the shooting, and tells Bernie to disappear.
The story picks up steam from here. Caspar, satsified, sets himself to running the city, and finishing off Leo. He is unable to do either effectively. The Dane, un-satisfied, starts hunting harder for what Tom is really up to. Bernie, unappreciative, decides to make Tom’s mercy a liability. He wants Tom to kill Caspar, or he’s gonna start showing his face in public. Tom focuses in on Caspar, cutting into the trust he places in the Dane, drip by drip, word by word. It culminates in Caspar putting a bullet in the brain of his loyal captain, who was 100% right the whole time.
For Tom has set Caspar and Bernie up, and in short order, both of them are dead. The usurper overthrown, Leo returns to his rightful place. The enemies are smited, the problems are solved.
Except not. There’s still Verna to be reckoned with. She makes her play off-screen, proposing marriage to Leo. The big sap accepts. Tom, having navigated a labyrinth and slain a monster to rid Leo of a troublesome dame, finds her all the more ensconsed. This is the end of the line. Tom tells Leo good-bye, and stands in the woods, beholden to none, ready to start a new tale.
Thus, the film is an illustration of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: are you playing with someone you can trust, or not? A binary question, and one that drives all interaction between characters. Characters who trust too freely find themselves suffering or dead thereby. Characters who trust no one end up little better. The game must be played minute by minute, word by word: extend trust, then withdraw it; stab and then refrain from stabbing. Tom seems to spend the movie having hardly any plan at all, bouncing around from scene to scene while men make demands upon him. Only at the end is his play revealed. Even Leo can see it.
The question in all of this is why? Leo says you help friends and hurt enemies; Tom claims a goal, or a gain. But what is his goal? What is he gaining from his deft play? He acts, not against his own enemies, but Leo’s. He remains, despite, or even because of his betrayal (a pennance?), entirely loyal to his true master. He helps Leo because Leo is his friend, even if he doesn’t know it. No other motive is clear, or even presents itself in subtext. Bernie is scheming scum, Verna a sharp-eyed trollop, the Dane a cruel myrmidon, Caspar a raging dupe. But Tom would need only to absent himself from the proceedings to remove these problems from him. He doesn’t do that because he cares about the only true friend he has, a king worth falling on his sword for.
No order can be built or maintained without loyalty. Loyalty is both fed and undermined by enemies.
I don’t care how dead the horse; I’m gonna beat it more.
Observe the nominees for Best Picture:
The Father: Someone feeds Anthony Hopkins from his gruel bowl for two hours. Feels ensue.
Judas and the Black Messiah: Did you Know that the FBI infiltrated groups hostile to the United States Government? I am shocked, shocked I say! And Appalled!
Mank: Rhymes with stank. I saw this on Netflix, because I thought it might be interesting. It isn’t. It’s just the usual Hollywood Onanism. Not even Gary Oldman can breathe life into this opera of obvious. Fincher needs to start picking better projects.
Minari: Family goes farming. They’re Korean so it’s A Profound Commentary On Our Times. Granny shows up and cusses to keep people awake.
Nomadland: Eat, Pray, Love goes slumming.
A Promising Young Woman. I saw most of this. It’s not bad. There’s even an aspirative nod towards elements of Greek mythology. I found myself re-writing the third-act confrontation in my head, and the final minute should be part of the Merriam-Webster entry on “contrived” but I didn’t hate it.
The Sound of Metal: I might still check this one out. There probably won’t be enough Metal, though.
The Trial of the Chicago 7. Okay, Boomer.
All of these are Movies With Causes: Old Age Care, Racism, Eat the Rich, Immigrants, Poverty, Rape Culture, Disability, and Civil Rights for Leftists (imagine a cinematic hagiography of the Capitol Rioters. Even describing a world where that would happen is practically sci-fi). They’re not movies; they’re sermons. And nobody saw them.
“Yeah, but that’s because of COVID”. Wrong, Slappy. Movie Theaters were still open last year. COVID shrunk box-office takes, but didn’t wipe them out. People still dropped 200 Million to watch Bad Boys For Life. There were other choices. They chose these because these are what Oscar movies are now: pseudo-indie moralizing stuffed into a three-act structure. The power of cinema to appeal to mass audiences, to achieve art for the masses, has been swallowed up in the cynicism of Algorithim Nostalgia. The Art is for Artists, everyone else gets schlock. And the beat goes on.
This will be the last of these, as I’ve finished the book, and am now Observing Nietzsche flop-sweat his way through Why I Am So Wise. I kind of want to smack him, but Ruskin has proven a very informative read. For a 19th Century Englishman, he is both articulate and relatively concise. And he has given me interesting aesthetic ideas to poke about with.
The Greek Sculptor could neither bear to confess his own feebleness, nor to tell the faults of the form that he portrayed.
John Ruskin, “On Art and Life”, pg. 44
This is a reference to the Hellenic habit of idealizing its subject, as contrasted to the Gothic willingness to dance with the Savage and Grotesque. Ancient Greeks, we are told, even carved the backs of columns, the ones the public would never see, while the more practical romans would leave them rough, because who cares? This is because the Greek was aiming at a true Form, a divine Ideal. The permanent expression of a higher ideal is, or ought to be, what all architects aim at.
The Nation whose chief support was in the chase, whose chief interest was in the battle, whose chief pleasure was in the banquet, would take small care respecting the shapes of leaves and flowers.
ibid, pg. 46-47
Here’s he’s contrasting Early Medieval Germanic Art, a simple form, with High Medieval Gothic Art, which has embraced Naturalism. This would seem to be a rebuttal of my point about Art emulating Ideal, but it isn’t. Barbarians idealize the chase, the battle, and the banquet as expressions of power and granduer, which in their theology is the very essence of divinity. Valhalla is very Heaven.
No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple; which refuses to address the eye, except in a few clear and forceful lines; which implies, in offering so little to our regards, that all it has offered is perfect; and disdains, either by the complexity or the attractiveness of its features, to embarrass our investigation, or betray us into delight. That humility, which is the very life of the Gothic school, is shown not only in the imperfection, but in the accumulation, of ornament.
ibid, pg. 54-55
Another prophecy of Brutalism, which expresses nothing but the power of the organization that builds or occupies it. It is Cyclopean, Titanic. And contrary to the Cathedral, which is open to all, high or low, rich or poor, and a center to the life of the whole community, the skyscraper or government office block is for no one but those who have business with it. It is closed off, a fortress of money or of rules, acting to exercise power over those who will never darken its doors. The corporation as the Nietzschean Superman.
Your iron railing always means thieves outside, or Bedlam inside – it can mean nothing else.
We are used to hearing about Myth as untrue, and also as “a special kind of truth”. I like the religious definition of “a story that tells a sacred truth,” as this cuts to the heart of it. That’s really, one suspects, what Tolkein was getting at with Middle-Earth: telling a story that told deep and real truths. In this sense, Myth becomes a kind of synonym for Art.
Let us now, by way of comparison, imagine abstract man, wihtout the guidance of myth – abstract education, abstract morality, abstract justice, the abstract state, let us imagine the lawless wandering, unchecked by native myth, of the artistic imagination; let us imagine a culture without a secure and primal sacred site, condemend to exhaust every possiblity and feed wretchedly on all other cultures – there we have our present age, the product of that Socratism bent on the destruction of myth. And here stands man, stripped of myth, eternally starving, in the midst of all the past ages, digging and scrabbling for roots, even if he must dig for them in the most remote antiquities. What is indicated by the great historical need of unsatisfied modern culture, clutching about for countless other cultures, with its consuming desire for knowledge, if not hte loss of myth, the loss of the mythical home, the mythical womb? Let us consider whether the feverish and sinister agitation of this culture is anythign other than astarving man’s greedy grasping for food – and who would wish to give further nourishment to a culture such as this, unsatisfied by everything it devours, which transforms the most powerful, wholesome nourishment into “history and criticism”?
Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, pg. 110
I have often found Nietzsche to be a passionate and entertaining mountebank: he talks nonsense, but he does so in a way that hits upon realities, incants the inexpressible. I have read that he was intended for the ministry; he makes a fine shaman. And this passage hits upon a reality. Why is our age so devoted to superheros? Why do we fight over them as past ages fought over gods? Because of the need for myth, some emotional primality, some ur-sense. The more we bust Myths, the more we long for them.
We are not, and never will be, as rational as we imagine. Some part of our deeper brain has needs that abstraction cannot satisfy. Words are not merely vehicles of argumentation, but of entrancement. This does not exist for no reason, or devil’s anti-reason. That which exists, fulfills a need.
We dramatize the weather, the traffic, and other impersonal phenomena by employing exaggeration, ironic juxtaposition, inversion, projection, all the tools a dramatist uses to create, and the psychoanalyst uses to interpret, emotionally significant phenomena.
We dramatize an incident by taking events and reordering them, elongating them, compressing them, so that we understand their personal meaning to us – to us as the protagonist of the individual drama we understand our life to be.
David Mamet, “Three Uses of the Knife”, pg. 3-4
The greatest sin we can commit against ourselves is to refuse to be human, to demand godhood of ourselves. We are not gods, and God forbids us to think of ourselves as such. Myth invits to share in what is greater than ourselves, not to supplant it.
A long essay, but worth your time, which dovetails nicely with other things I’ve written on the subject. Our Cranky Professor lays out three “approaches” to aesthetics/beauty:
The Psychological Approach – In which one experiences beauty as an individuated response to the appearance of a thing. A Flower is Beautiful.
The Rational Approach – An understanding that beauty runs parallel to order. A well-ordered thing is a beautiful thing, whether or not you enjoy looking at it. The Human Brain is Beautiful.
The Mystical/Spiritual Approach – The idea that Beauty is rooted in the supernatural, as a reflection of a cosmic truth. The Buddah is Beautiful.
These can intersect (there are those prepared to argue that the Psychological Approach is simply the recognition of what is found in the Rational Approach), but what I like is that it covers the multiple meanings found in the word “beautiful”. Recall when I wrote this:
On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.
This issue is handled by Approach Theory. Something can be “rationally beautiful”, while not eliciting a psychological response. A thing can be beautifully constructed, and still boring. This helps me understand what Camille Paglia was blathering about when she praised the end of Revenge of the Sith as a work of profound art.
The Mustafar duel, which took months of rehearsal, with fencing and saber drills conducted by sword master Nick Gillard, was executed by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor at lightning speed. It is virtuosic dance theater, a taut pas de deux between battling brothers, convulsed by attraction and repulsion. Their thrusts, parries, and slashes are like passages of aggessive speech. It is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping. The personal drama is staged against a physical one: wrangling and wrestling, Anakin and Obi-Wan fall against the control panels of a vast mineral-collection plant, which now starts to malfunction and fall to pieces. As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with natures brute primal power.
Camille Paglia, GLITTERING IMAGES, pgs. 188-189
Stipulate that George Lucas had all this in mind when he made the scene. Stipulate that Revenge of the Sith is the closest thing to the pony in the pile of turds that is the Prequel Trilogy. It’s still a boring movie to watch, and this scene is only slightly less boring. For one thing, it goes on way too long. For another, the emotions Paglia find in the scene are turned on an off like switches, a problem that abounds throughout theses movies. Suddenly Obi-Wan is in tears, yes, and McGregor does his level best to make it real. But there’s been nothing building to this moment. We haven’t seen Obi-Wans’ face grow in passion. They’ve been staring at each other and fighting for what seems like an hour. I don’t suddenly feel attached to McGregor’s performance. It leaves me cold like everything else in this trilogy does. I understand what Paglia’s saying. I can see truth in her assessment. It doesn’t change my individuated experience of the film one bit, and I’ve watched this scene since I’ve read this book. The prequels are still dull robot-kabuki decanted in a lab.
Thus, adopting an awareness of Approach can go a long way towards settling our various disagreements about aesthetics. It recognizes the subjective and the objective. Read the Whole Thing.
There once was an Epicurean Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus, who lived in the 1st Century BC. I say “Epicurean” as a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicureanism began as a combination of an empirical epistemology (we can know things only insofar as we can observe them), atomistic materialism (there is nothing but atoms and the void) with concomitant naturalistic evolution, and a kind of agnostic Deism which early Buddhism would find agreeable. The simplistic reduction of all this, “seek pleasure, avoid pain” made the word “epicurean” a synonym for “libertine”. Mass awareness always destroys nuance.
Lucretius was an Epicurean of the old school, however, and composed a poem to Preach the Good News of Epicurus, called On the Nature of Things . It is not the most entertaining of works. Poetry can be a good vehicle for philosophy, but overall Lucretius appears to be one of those fellows in love with the sound of his own voice. I don’t mind volubility in Virgil; he’s telling a ripping yarn, and while the plot of the Aeneid moves slowly from point A to B, there’s plenty of action on the way. But listening to Lucretius tell me how good his arguments and sound his proofs are gets old quickly. Roman Stoics, at least going by Seneca, had at least the good sense to be laconic.
That said, one or two passages do leap off the page as good analogies:
Men shot; the hills re-echoing hurl their voices toward the stars; the cavalry whele, then suddenly post and pound with earthquake power across the open fields. Yet high in the hills there is a place from which They seem a motionless bright spot on the plain.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, II.327-332
This perspective-shift serves to explain a problem with atomism described several lines above (II.309-310), that of “why, though all the basic particles are in motion, their total seems to stand at total rest.” Lucretius is at his best at moments like this, painting a picture to honor the bright and illumine the dark parts of his adopted philosophy. I argued in my post about “Cuties” (remember that? That was only a few months ago. This year is a lifetime) that Art achieves its highest form as a vehicle for ideas. It does not have to do that consciously in order to be successful, but it can aim for immortality that way. There’s no reason that someone in 21st-Century America should have found this in the poetry section of a Barnes & Noble, other than its a higher and nobler form of Art. Stylistic quibbles aside, that merits the consideration.
A while back I made a vow to ignore the pulsating mediocrity of our degenerate film industry and embrace film classicism. This hasn’t exactly panned out how I envisioned it, as there’s only so much scratch you can throw around for Criterion Blu-Rays when you have mouths to feed. However, a flash sale enabled me to get my hands on an old favorite: Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation of Macbeth. It goes under the title “Throne of Blood”, and I was first introduced to it in my younger days.
Its plot recreates Macbeth entirely, making only changes in naming and dialogue (Washizu, the Macbeth of this story, copies MacBeth’s first line “So fair and foul a day I have not seen,” pretty fully, though). In the place of Medieval Scotland, we have Spider’s Web Castle, seat of a powerful daimyo (the petty kings of Medieval Japan), which appears at the opening and closing of the film as an ruin with a monument, like Shelley’s Ozymandias. There’s an idea that while the past may be dead and buried, and the things that animated ancient struggles nothing more than vanity and chasing after wind, nevertheless their ghosts still haunt us. The past is past, but it is also prologue, even if we don’t fully understand the story.
Re-setting the Macbeth tale of ambition, regicide, tyranny, and comeuppance in Japan allows the cruel nihilism of the story to find a spiritual home in that country’s Zen and Shinto worldview. Shakespeare’s play ignores Catholicism, letting the Heathen witches dominate the tale, giving Macbeth an oracular doom he is no more able to counteract than Oedipus was. In Throne of Blood, the Three Wierd Sisters become a Single Spirt, a kami that laughs at man in a cosmic sense, a being unto-death. He is not here to corrupt Washizu, to accomplish some chaotic goal. He simply does not care, because there is nothing to care about. Life is to be glorious and short, like the cherry blossom. What else would it be?
Another element of the story is it’s staging. Elements of traditional Noh acting and costuming were brought in. This lends the film a genuinely wierd and primal tone, in keeping with a tale of blood and thunder. Everyone looks like they’re about ready to burst under the strain of struggling. This is especially true of the Lady Macbeth composite, Asaji, who’s makeup renders her visage nearly demonic. She has an expanded role in this production, the constant needle in Washizu’s heart, twisting him to further his ambition. Kill or Be Killed, she wheedles, stoking dead coals of fear into bright bloody deeds. I’ve always considered Lady MacBeth to be all talk, as incapable of using a dagger as she is of conceiving a child. Throne of Blood doesn’t upend that conception as much as illustrate the power of talk, the devilish way rhetoric can get inside our heads. Gorgias would be proud.
The critical hot take is that this is the best film of MacBeth there is. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom said it was the only successful version. I would disagree, as the most recent version with Michael Fassbender has a bold and striking production value, and Fassbender breathes life into the title character better than any version I’ve seen. But Throne of Blood, in cutting the story loose from its usual setting, lets us see the character and drama apart from the obligatory Bardolatrous reverence. That is a great service, worthy of renown.