Aesthetics vs. Prophecy: John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.

The Boys at RLM Recently did one of their “list” re:View episodes, about the films of John Carpenter. Let the record state that I’m not the biggest fan of this particular format. re:View works best as an opportunity to dust off an old/forgotten piece of cinema, turn it over backwards and front and make a case for why it’s worth looking at. The episode about Freddie Got Fingered is perhaps the pinnacle of the series, in that Mike and Jay argue that Tom Green made an anti-movie, a deliberately nonsensical and ridiculous parody of the entire art of cinema. And while a deliberately bad movie is still a bad movie, giving Green the benefit of inention has merit. This is kind of critical reconsideration is what makes re:View worth watching.

Instead, we get a set of quick commentaries on the man’s entire oeuvre, in the format of a “ranking”. I hate “rankings”. They’re an attempt to impose empirical order on what is by definition subjective, usually justified with un-nuanced blather. The internet does not need to be more like Buzzfeed.

In any case, regarding Carpenter’s 1996 film Escape From L.A., Jay and Rich basically say what they’ve always said, which is that it’s an unoriginal reboot of Escape from New York, with the same plot and a bunch of mid-90’s CGI stuffed into it. Which is nothing more than what the mass of critical opinion on this film has been since the 90’s. Nor am I going to attempt to argue with it. Some may say that Carpenter did this on purpose, which means he degenerated througout the 80’s and 90’s from being Ridley Scott to being Tom Green. And besides, that’s pure conjecture.

But there’s another way to look at Escape From L.A.: as a piece of hidden prophecy. Behold, Brian Niemeier:

In the early 21st century, an American presidential candidate wins a highly unorthodox election by leveraging a national disaster. As the front man for an extreme moralizing movement, he oversees the implementation of sweeping neo-puritanical directives to enforce his sect’s moral vision nationwide. Federal law enforcement is tasked with prosecuting Americans whose speech and actions were tolerated before the election. Citizens guilty of no crime are stripped of their rights and assets without due process and are exiled from society for retroactive violations of the new moral precepts. The government uses an engineered virus purported to be lethal, but which turns out to be a slightly enhanced version of the flu, to coerce citizens.

Meanwhile, mass immigration has overrun American cities, especially Los Angeles, with a plague of poverty and crime. Despite the construction of a wall on part of the southern border, a full-scale third world invasion of America looms.

But enough current events.

Let’s talk about John Carpenter’s 1996 Escape from New York sequel/remake/parody, Escape from LA.

Escape From LA” – brianniemeir.com

And again, you can argue how much of these things Carpenter intended. But as Niemeier has it, there’s at least as much of a calling-out of the pieties of our age here as in say, Demolition Man. Action movies of this era have no kindness towards secular utopianists, because action movies depend upon the knowledge that achieving the good means fighting for it, that those who would abuse civilization will always be found.

In any case, he’s sold me on actually watching it, which the RLM guys did not do. Advantage Neimeier.

The Aesthetics of McNuggets, Or Brooklyn Status Panic Drugs

No, I’m not talking about the Saucy Nugs guy again. That meme sadly failed. I am disappoint.

No, this is a link to a long post by a fellow calling himself Monsieur le Baron, who is some manner of Red Monarchist (which is not absurd, the Soviet Union was a series of Tsars, and anyone who says otherwise did not pay attention. Just go ahead and watch The Death of Stalin, it’s on Netflix). That’s fine because he uses the pretext of McNuggets to dunk (le pun! C’est absolument destiné!) on the PostModernist “art” crowd I have pondered on before. Enemy of my enemy and all that.

There is, in fact, much spicy aesthetic wisdom in this post, linked here, including meditations on mediums and messages, high art vs. pop art, symbol & referent, and a host of other things I have begun dimly to understand. In any case, here is his knife-point, at the peroratio where it belongs:

The disdain of the modern artist for the commercial is not a sign of their own good breeding, as they so suppose, but in fact evidence of the smallness of their souls, for they are unable to emerge from the smallness of their own souls and submerge themselves in anything greater than themselves. For the act of creating such is the act of channeling the essence of the greater thing, whereas they can only write of their own meager selves. Depression this, anxiety that, and a lot of Brooklyn status panic. That about covers the bulk of modern artistic production, doesn’t it? A self-absorption.

“Aesthetica McNuggetica, Or Idealism Real Word Count by the Baron”, An Inelegant Viceroy

This differs in diagnosis from what I drew from Ruskin earlier:

I’m less interested in disputing this argument than in noting the pervasiveness of it in the world of art today. If, as Ruskin seems ready to argue, the industrial world has abandoned art, in favor of infinite replicability, then it seems as predictable as night following day that the art world would abandon industry. Thus the demand for absolute novelty and uselessness in the art world, to the point where Modern art today is really anti-Art: a pose and a hustle, the creation of the maximum of bewilderment and absurdity with the minimum of effort, papered over with post-modernist bafflegab and self-congratulatory obscurantism. This is not accident, it is intentional. The modern artist can only be an artist by running from the world.

“Notes on Ruskin: Modern Art is Anti-Art”, Content Blues

Yet perhaps not. It can be a case of “yes, and”. The young artistic type yearns to make Art. He does so with a certain degree of isolation, for only in isolation can Art be made. He gradually absorbs, without it being directly taught him, that Muh True Art stands against Muh Status Quo. This is exactly what his teachers believe, exactly what the universities have long accepted, as they grow their endowments on the stock market. Give us New Things to Sell, the Bourgeoisie command. So is the Hip Rebel transmuted into Establishment and vice versa.

In other words, it’s all a Hustle. And you have two ways to escape: find something Grand to subsume yourself into, or retreat into the tiny redoubt of yourself. Which has his education prepared the young artist to do?

The Reproducibility Trap, Or Why Everything Original and Curated Becomes Re-Heated Crap

Somewhere on I-81 in Virginia, there’s a billboard for Cracker Barrel, because of course there is. If you find yourself on the interstate and there isn’t a Cracker Barrel within 30 miles of you, then start taking pictures of the alien plants and the non-Euclidean geometry, because you’ve slipped into an alternate dimension. Anyway, this particular billboard caught my eye because of the slogan: “What’s the secret ingredient? Care.”

Now, I’ve eaten in many a Cracker Barrel, and enjoyed it every time, so I’m not coming from a place of dismissal. But there are 665 Cracker Barrel locations in the United States. How many Uncle Hershel’s Breakfasts do you suppose get served in them on a given day? Who invests care in them? How much?

To ask the question is to answer it. The cooks at Cracker Barrel are trained in making the food the way Cracker Barrel wants it done, so that whether you order an Uncle Hershel’s Breakfast in Tennessee, Arizona, or Maine, you are assured of getting the same meal. The cook doesn’t really care about the food, not in the same way as if he’d be cooking his own recipe. He’s following the Training. He’s working his shift.

Instead of care, the food at Cracker Barrel gets Quality Control, with Food Policies. Everything is 100% Sustainable and/or Raised Domestically, whatever that officially means. Stipulate that this isn’t just advertising, that the people who run Cracker Barrel actually want their food to have a level of quality and wholesomeness you won’t get at Denny’s. This is on-brand for them, and for the other thing they’re selling: nostalgia.

My point is that the ubiquity of Cracker Barrel is contrary to the image it’s selling. This isn’t their fault; it’s just what happens at scale. Perhaps the most relevatory film about American business of the last ten years is The Founder. Watch it and you’ll realize that there was a time when McDonald’s was revolutionary, a masterpiece of motion-study, space-management, and quality-control, when these things were new on the ground. The food was good too, simple and well-prepared. But the film also demonstrates, that at scale, commitment to care and individualization goes out the window. Why spend money refrigerating milk and ice cream when you can just make a milkshake with powder?

But at that moment, you’ve surrendered the thing that got you started. You’re no longer a chef, not even a businessman anymore. You’re a CEO, part of the network, part of the System. You may run your shop better or worse than others, but you’re a million miles removed from the customer experience. Yet however bad that sounds, it really doesn’t matter, because once you’ve created a product that reaches sufficient recognition, you don’t need to curate customer experience anymore. McDonald’s isn’t a burger joint, competing with other burger joints, it’s a brand, competing with other brands. The brand sells the burgers, not the other way around.

This is what’s happening in entertainment as well. People who bemoan the loss of original content might as well be speaking in Linear-A, for all the suits will hear them. A movie can succeed or fail at the box office. An Intellectual Property cannot fail once its hit critical mass. People screamed to the heavens about the Ghostbusters remake, and it bombed, but they made another movie, didn’t they? It doesn’t matter that its dumb, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t manage to create a Cinematic Universe out of it. It’s an Intellectual Property. It cannot fail, it can only require new recycling. There’s still a market for Halloween movies, isn’t there?

I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s been talked about on Shallow & Pedantic: the point at which the product no longer requires editing, because people who like it have become FANS. Fans aren’t always uncritical, but they’re always customers, and a hater’s dollar is just as good. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Therefore, you can screw up Star Wars as much as you want, and people will still buy tickets for it. This creates a perverse incentive for the creators. If I can butcher the story as much as I want, and pissed-off fans still buy tickets, then what difference does it make?

This is why they keep making Terminator movies. Of course they suck. Any film after T2 was destined to suck, because they could only make them by wrecking or rewriting the lore of the first two films. But if angry fans keep showing up, then announcing their criticisms to the world, then the brand still exists. Everyone hated Terminator: Genysis; but Terminator: Dark Fate happened anyway. Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a Terminator movie since 1991. I am utterly at peace with its flailing.

The only thing that kills brands is indifference. Either indifferent leadership and bad management, or worse yet, public indifference. People have been hating McDonald’s as long as I’ve been alive. It’s still there. The day people stop caring about it, forget in their head that it even exists, that’s the day it stops being a brand, and becomes an artifact for historians.

Aldous Huxley is Cool

Will not explain.

Just kidding. I first read Brave New World while in college, and it remains both more plausible than 1984 and less terrifying. There are those who say that Brave New World should be more terrifying, precisely because it’s a seductive dystopia. Which, I get. But both of them are prophetic in their way. Orwell was dead on about the politicization of language and the hatefulness of its priests. Huxley was right about the perversion of morality by industrial efficiency.

I only mention these because I picked up a copy of The Doors of Perception (which includes his “Heaven and Hell” essay) and found it edifying. Yes, I know it launched a thousand hippies, and gave the Doors their name. I don’t think it’s fair to blame that on Huxley, though. For one thing, he wasn’t a miscreant like Ken Kesey or Tim Leary, selling a generation on LSD in order to advance their own Oedipal conflicts/guru fantasies. He was a serious scholar and a careful thinker, one who recognized what C.S. Lewis called the Tao of Tradition. He’s serious enough to advance some solid aesthetic principles in the appendices of Heaven and Hell.

Pagentry is a visionary art which has been used, from time immemorial, as a political instrument. the gorgeous fancy dress worn by kings, popes, and their respective retainers, military and ecclesiastical, has a very practical purpose — to impress the lower classes with a lively sense of the masters’ superhuman greatness. By means of fine clothes and solemn ceremonies de facto domination is transformed into a rule not merely de jure, but, positively, de jure divino. The crowns and tiaras, the assorted jewelry, the satins, silks and velvets, the gaudy uniforms and vestments, the crosses and medals, the sword hilts and the crosiers, the plumes in the cocked hats and their clerical equivalents, those huge feather fans which make every papal function look like a tableau from Aïda — all these are vision-inducing properties, designed to make all too human gentlement and ladies look like heroes, demigods, and seraphs, and giving, in the process, a great deal of innocent pleasure to all concerned, actors and spectators alike.

Aldous Huxly, “Heaven and Hell”, pg 160

For another, anyone who knows anything about Jim Morrison knows he was going to be an asshole no matter what he read. And the Doors were still a pretty good band.

In any case, the other thing I discovered was that Huxley was a positively voluminous author, whose career ran from the 20’s through the 60’s (he’s the third guy, along with C.S. Lewis and You-Know-Who, who died on November 22nd, 1963, imagine being a third wheel in death). He’s best known for Brave New World, and to a lesser degree Doors, but he’s got scads of stuff newly in print. It’s fun to discover/rediscover authors and dig through their stuff. I think I’m gonna go for Devils of Loudon next.

The Rule of 30 in Podcasting

I’ve got a Content Blues Podcast about halfway recorded, and then there’s a Shallow & Pedantic planned to be recorded this weekend. Of the two, the CBP is easier, because I can add to that whenever I want. The work is getting enough recorded to fill out about 30 minutes or so of material. Any more than that is probably too much to listen to one person talking. Also, I find myself running out of things to say at about that time.

Shallow & Pedantic has the opposite dynamic. The last two I’ve had to edit things out so as to not get past an Hour and a half. Which has been about standard since we added the third man to the podcast. Prior to that, episodes were about an hour. So it seems that each person adds 30 minutes of talking. That doesn’t exactly match all podcasts I’ve listened to, but I have noticed that the more people you add, the longer it goes on. That must be why carrying a conversation at parties feels like such a chore.

Doing a podcast can feel like playing in a jazz quartet: you’ve got to keep some kind of a rythm, you’ve got to trade the flow properly, and you never know when you’re going to begin what it’s going to sound like. Some podcasts are free jazz or avant-garde, everyone just shouts, and the strongest voice will be heard. We’re not going for that vibe. It’s a serious podcast about unimportant things. A lot of them are unserious podcasts about important things. Which is better, I guess than unserious about unimportant. But I can’t imagine doing it that way. Why talk about the maelstrom of pop culture, most of which is derivative and unoriginal, unless you’re trying to form some kind of understanding of the world and why we respond to it in this way.

Art is the relationship between man and nature. If it’s bad, something’s going on to make it bad. You can call this “structural” if you want to, but that’s a word clunky and overused by communists. I prefer to call it “the thing unspoken”. Why are sitcoms the way they are? Something unspoken in their conception, production, and marketing, known to those inside the biz but not to the audience. That’s the kind of things that interests me.

Anyway, podcasts imminent. Watch this space.

Maybe I’ll see Nomadland, Maybe I Won’t

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.

Time for the Yearly George R.R. Martin Abuse Post

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.

When I did this today, I caught recent news. More specifically, an article in the Daily Express entitled “Winds of Winter progress: George RR Martin shares cryptic Winter is Coming image and more”

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.

True, true.

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.

You know what would help?

Fine patrons of artistic merit taking a chance on a little magazine that could.

Click here to buy this new issue on our Gumroad.

Click here to subscribe to our Patreon.

Doing Things For a Reason: Miller’s Crossing and the Friend/Enemy Dynamic

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.

Let Us Now Tap-Dance on the Grave of the Oscars

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.

Notes on Ruskin: the Ideal

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.

For example:

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.

ibid, pg. 75