Shallow & Pedantic 12: BEHOLD

This has actually been up for a week, but we were finalizing the new issue of Unnamed Journal, so I forgot to post it. Also I’ve been lazy about posting this month, for reasons best left unexplored.

In related news, I’m going to be experimenting with Anchor, the podcasting platform/service that’s partnered with WordPress. Due to Covid, we’ve been recording the podcasts remotely, via CleanFeed. That’s worked well enough, but there’s been some audio glitching. There’s also the possibility of recording video as well as audio, which may add a new element.

In any case, this episode quickly caroms off it’s initical topic, vampire comedy, to embrace a host of related topics, up to and including reminiscences about the Goth Scene from back in the day. I shaved about 10 minutes off of what we recorded, as I’ve decided going past 90 minutes is excessive. In the past I’ve limited my edits to taking out dead space and brain farts; going forward I’ll be making aesthetic judgements as well.


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.


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.

The Bradley Font and Classic Pulp

I found this today on Twitter:

And it’s entirely in line with the whole Pulp Revolution indie scene, in which classic pulp fantasy tropes are lovingly dusted off and embraced. Cirsova Magazine is a good go-to (I’ve bought an issue; it’s excellent if you like that sort of thing), all hail the spirit of Robert Howard.

It’s a bit over the top, frankly, and I don’t know if I’d want to use it for my big fantasy project that I keep telling myself I’m going to start. But I might like to throw down a longish novella for 2020, along lines earlier alluded to. Since this would be a self-pub, I’m fine with playing up the glorious pulp-cheese of it.

You might ask why I’d even think about such a thing when the story’s in outline form. I say unto you, the spirit of composition matters. I think in the next few days I’ll start jumping on the first chapter.

Here’s another look at the Bradley font.

Not-So-Quick Review: Frozen II


I have the reputation of being a grump who hates everything. I deserve this reputation, as I have done everything possible to earn it. I am the sort of person who tries to understand what people see in football halftime shows that is remotely entertaining, and cannot do it. I don’t tend to like things unless they stand out from the herd. Call that elitism, call it snobbery; I don’t care. I can’t pretend to like things I don’t like.

That being said, I did not hate Frozen II.

I also didn’t love it. It gets a C.

Sequels are hard to do. Unless your characters are so charming and entertaining that you’ll watch them do anything (Toy Story), you’re going to find yourself either repeating character motivations or undermining them with some form of retconning (e.g. Marty McFly’s sudden homicidal rage at being called chicken).

And of course, you need a story that isn’t just a retread of the first movie.

Frozen II has that. The story is an expansion on the world we know, and has a mystery at its heart. That is welcome. And at least half of the characters undergo actual growth. And considering they’re the most important character and the fan favorite, this constitutes success.

Not only that, but there are some funny moments scattered throughout, and a couple of action set pieces that worked very well. So if you sat behind me in the theater when I saw it with my family, you’d have heard me laugh and say, “that was cool” a couple of times. And really, what more do I have any right to expect from an animated kids movie?

So that’s the good. It made me laugh, it had a different story, it wasn’t completely tedious.

The bad is… well. Let’s talk about characters first. Frozen introduced us to an ensemble that became our core character group. They are:

  1. Elsa, Queen of Aerendale (Arendelle? Arundell? Airdale?) who possesses ice-magic powers but doesn’t know how to control them, and spends most of the movie terrified of herself.
  2. Anna, her emotionally starved sister.
  3. Olaf, a magical snowman who is equal parts six-year-old child and Mystic Sage.
  4. Kristof, a grumpy ice merchant who forms pair-bonds with reindeer and trolls.

Over the course of the first movie, the following happens:

  1. Elsa figures out how to temper her magical powers with Love.
  2. Anna reforges her relationship with her sister by gallantly sacrificing herself for Elsa (and being revived thereby, because this is a kids movie).
  3. Olaf gets to experience warm weather without melting.
  4. Kristof gets a new sled, and becomes Anna’s tacit boyfriend.

So what does Frozen II do with them?


Elsa, having figured out how to control her magic, now seeks to undo a great wrong on Arendiale’s frontier, and in the process, discovers who her mother was, who she actually is, and why she is a being of greater importance than a mere monarch. Basically, she becomes the Messianic figure her powers always pointed towards.

Olaf, having achieved a stable existence, starts to suffer an existential crisis in which he realizes that all things end and he doesn’t understand why. Naturally, there’s only one way to handle such an exercise, and that’s death, and only one way to solve it: Elsa-ex-Machina (Elsa is to Messiah as Olaf is to Suffering Servant). After his reincarnation, Olaf is at peace with existence.

These are the characters mentioned above, who had actual character growth. As for the others:

Anna strikes exactly the same notes as the first movie. Did you know she loves her sister? Did you know her relationship with her Sister is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN HER LIFE? Does it seem completely normal to you the way an ostensible adult behaves like a toddler when separated from her co-dependent mommy-substitute? I hope the answer to all these is Yes, because that’s all Anna has to give you.

I suppose it can be construed that her taking action in the third Act to Undo the Great Wrong, for which she is rewarded by becoming Aerundaillie’s new Queen, can be considered a small piece of character growth, but honestly, she only did that because Elsa told her to via IceMail. This is just Anna saving Elsa’s bacon again. Been there, done that.

Kristof gets trapped in a sit-com plot where he’s trying to propose to Anna, but circumstances and his lack of fluency in Womanspeak keeps preventing him. I’m not gonna say it’s not funny, but it gets old well before it gets resolved. Frankly, the fact that they can’t think of anything better for him underlines his secondary status. Kristof has no connection to the story other than through Anna. This was fine in the first movie, when he provided a kind of grounding foil to Anna,  but here he’s just a lovesick puppy. His entire character could have been removed from the movie, and nothing else would have been affected. And given that he’s gone for most of the second act, that’s probably what should have happened.

Thus for the characters. We now move on to the plot, which as I said, was different, in the sense that it was not a retread of the plot of the first movie. But that doesn’t mean it’s not entirely predictable. I knew what the Surprise Reveal – Elsa and Anna’s grandfather was a villain who wanted to enslave the natives of the magic land – was going to be as soon as the question was posed. You’ve got some Sami/Natives, who are “in harmony with nature”, and then you’ve got, well, white people. We know who the bad guys are going to be. King Runeard is all jaw and beady eyes. Your cerebellum knew what was going on before anyone met an Northuldrian.

So I’m not at all surprised to discover that Runeard is a man who acts out of the fear of magic. Nor was I surprised to see Elsa rebuke his ice-ghost for it. Sure, it’s laughable for the woman who spent the last movie in a catatonic torpor to be lecturing her dead grandfather about Fear, and sure, given the events of the first movie, it’s hard not to think the old man had a point. But that’s exactly the sort of message that has to be conveyed by a major studio film in 2019. No other message is possible, no matter how much we have to force the narrative to convey it.

{And while we’re on that, if Runeard built the dam to trick the Northuldrians into becoming economically dependent on him, and to destroy their magic, why does he kill the Northuldrian chieftain? Wouldn’t that achieve, you know, the opposite of his stated purpose? I’m not saying he might not have done that rashly, if he felt threatened, but we don’t see anything leading up to that. It’s just Make the Bad Guy Bad, which I suppose is a tradition in Disney films, but usually there’s a thing to be avenged or a loss of status or something. This is just cartoonish, pun intended.}

There’s more I could nitpick in there, but the only other point I want to make is that the songs just weren’t there. I’m not alone in thinking so, but ultimately all I need to argue this is that I can’t remember any of them. I remember thinking the Olaf song was funny, but it was no “In Summer,” which I could probably sing from memory.  The rest seemed like it was trying to be EPIC and HUGE but ultimately didn’t pay off.

“Let it Go” paid off because we’ve seen Elsa repress every part of her personality to Conceal, Don’t Feel for an hour beforehand. “Into the Unknown,” happens in the first few minutes of the movie, and I don’t know why Elsa cares. It sounded okay, but not memorable, which given what they were clearly going for, feels like a failure. The only bad song was Kristof’s hair-rock video; I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

All of that being said, it wasn’t a bad movie. It was an okay movie. The kids will love it. I was amused and entertained enough by it. The rest is commentary.

SXSW Film Review: ‘Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine’ — Variety

If Rolling Stone aspired (after somewhat “underground” beginnings) to be the Rolls Royce of rock magazines, CREEM was by contrast the Volkwagen band-van: pungent with reefer, speed sweat, and last night’s groupie action. The hubris that had it self-dubbed “America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine” was strictly of a working-class, sex-drugs-and-you-know-what variety that ridiculed all…

via SXSW Film Review: ‘Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine’ — Variety

If you’re going to be Rock n’ Roll, be obnoxious about it or go home.

Quick Review: The Favourite

the-favourite-image-credit_-yorgos-lanthimos-rachel-weisz-olivia-colman-e1532374834538One of these days, I’m going to write one of these that’s not about the Stuart dynasty in some way.

Queen Anne reigned briefly at the beginning of the 18th century, and spent most of her reign at war with France over who got to sit on the throne of Spain (that Hapsburg penchant for cousin marriage caught up with them). She is not well-remembered. Fat, sad, gouty, and childless, she seemed largely at the mercy of court favorites, especially the Churchills (yes, Sir Winston’s ancestors, the 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife). Her 17(!) pregnancies resulted in 4 live babies, none of whom made it past the age of 11. When she died, the very Glorious Revolution that put her sister and then her on the throne decreed that a Hanoverian clod named George should occupy it instead of the surviving members of her family. In short, in an unlucky dynasty, she was perhaps the unluckiest, almost certainly the saddest. Even her grandfather’s grandmother Mary, in her proud, defiant exile, never approached that level of melancholy.

Now, historians will quibble over how true that really was, and point out counter-narrative facts, like how Anne presided over Cabinet meetings far more regularly than her predecessors or successors. But this is the movies, and the movies will print the legend. So Queen Anne becomes a cipher controlled by other women.

And more than controlled. Because this is a 21st century film, we must treat 18th century gossip-rag rumor (the Gawker of its day) as Gospel truth, and believe that Her Majesty was giving away more than her trust to her favorite women. We will leave utterly unexplored the relationship between her and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, the father of those 17 pregnancies, nor give any credence to the widely-reported rumor that she loved him deeply and was heartbroken at the loss of him. That kind of film won’t give us a chance to see Emma Stone naked.

That being grumbled, did I like the damn thing? Yes. It aspires to a kind of Barry Lyndon feel, and it gets there. Rachel Weisz, as Sara Churchill, is at least as much fun as Glenn Close in Dangerous Liasons. Actually, more so, because Sara Churchill has a depth to her that the Marquise de Merteuil does not have. Churchill doesn’t play the game just to be Queen of the Mountain, she actually cares about the politics. She favors the vigorous prosecution of the war with France, even at the risk of her husband, the great general Marlborough. She labors against France just as her descendant Sir Winston would labor against Germany, and for the same reason. Louis XIV was no Hitler, but he was the head of the strongest state in Europe with a habit of bullying smaller states and seeking to make himself the arbiter of Western Civilization. The War of the Spanish Succession was in this respect as epoch-defining as the Napoleonic wars were a century later. And the film focuses on this, brings it right front and center. The script gives Weisz a chance to elevate Sara Churchill from mere schemer to stateswoman.

By contrast, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) has no interest other than not going back to the scullery. Which, who could blame her, but the cynical disinterest in policy, the refusal to even countenance that her actions will have consequences, is not driven home until the last scene, when it becomes clear what she has bought herself. The ending is dour to the point of being anticlimactic.

But that’s what happens when you try to do history, which gives us very few third-act turnarounds. In real life, the Churchills were disgraced, the war party-Whigs sent packing, and peace with France was negotiated. The Churchills lost, and Anne died a few years later. That was how it was, and the film finds a poignant if irretrievably current way to express that. Peace to all of them, and to the shades of them we conjure up on film, just for good measure.

It’s Only Words, And Words Are All I Have

This is the pure truth. Stylistic choices are not Divine Commands.

Mad Genius Club

We are writers.  That means our tools of the trade are words.  Most of us — but not all — are more fascinated with words than we should be.

So, why is it most writing books say nothing about words, except perhaps for telling you things like “eschew all adverbs” (they’re wrong) and for the more extreme “eschew all adjectives” (they’re even more wrong) and for the idiots who imbibed the aesthetic without understanding it (older kid had an English teacher who suffered of this) “avoid pronouns.”

Because they really can’t tell you much about what good writing is at the word level.  Because it’s a matter of personal taste and a matter of fashion.

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Don’t Blog. Write!

This is a useful reminder…

The Art of Blogging

I know what you’re thinking.

But I am just a blogger.

First of all, I suggest you give up on the “just.” You’re not just a blogger. You’re the blogger. A blogger. But never just.

Secondly, there’s a bit of writer in you, even though – out of fear – you try to deny it. I know this because you’re reading this post, so you must be a writer. I also know that you are afraid of thinking of yourself as one.

Well… what if I were to tell you that there’s this one thing you need to change, and then you’ll be proud to call yourself a writer?

Would you believe me?

One small thing, that’s all it takes. And then you’ll be a writer for the rest of your life.

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Why I’ll Continue to Dislike Mamma Mia

Making a movie is hard. Making the crappiest B-movie requires thousands of man-hours and and Sisyphean struggle. Making a moderate cheeseball popcorn flick for a major studio, such as Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a huge undertaking, from which humans rightfully earn a hefty salary.

So I accept the “Get Over Yourself, Shut Up and Singalong, Dorks” spirit of this review from The Onion:

That said, I can’t actually follow the advice proffered. This is why:

  • I Dislike Musicals. Musicals are that genre of entertainment that interrupt the story so one ore more actors can sing a song about how they feel about certain aspects of the story. I do not like this device and never have. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t need the story explained to him. Sit me down midway through any piece of entertainment, and within five minutes or so I’ll be able to figure out who is who and what part of the story we’re in. So I don’t need the ingenue to describe her romantic longing to me with string accompaniment. You want to not be where you are, got it. Let’s get you there.

    This isn’t a hard and fast rule. I do like some musicals, either because the story is good enough for me to look past the singing device, or because the musical numbers are entertaining enough to overcome my antipathy. I like Guys and Dolls. I like West Side Story (although “I Just Kissed a Girl Named Maria” is the classic example of the kind of song that violates my rule above. I know you kissed her bro, I JUST SAW IT). I like Singing in the Rain (even with the over-the-top movie-within-the-movie that stops the story cold in its tracks. It’s fun enough so that it doesn’t bore me). I liked Rent. There might be one or two others (I’d probably like The Sound of Music better than I did as a kid if I watched it today. I didn’t hate it then, truth be told).

    But a musical in which the story is wrapped around old pop songs that were not written for that story? No thanks. Which leads me to…

  • I Really Dislike Jukebox Musicals. The trend of building a musical around a pop musician’s body of work reeks of the genre’s desperation for “relevance”. It has not resulted in good musicals. It has died the death and needs to be buried. However much I dislike Oklahoma, I appreciate that the songs in Oklahoma were written for that story. They are a part of the story. I’m not big on Rogers & Hammerstein, but I recognize how hard they labored for their art. Jukebox musicals are dreadfully lazy by comparison. They are to actual musicals what The Emoji Movie is to Wreck-It Ralph.

    So instead of a variety of songs written in a variety of moods, to suit the story (yes, I don’t like the result, but that’s just my opinion), we have a story shoehorned to fit around ABBA songs, which mostly all have the same mood and tone. Which brings me to…

  • I Really Really Dislike ABBA. ABBA has an emotional resonance and wavelength that does not reach me. All of their songs are in that orchestral-disco pop style that formerly made me cringe and now provoke weary sighs. There’s a strangeness and a cloyingness to them that I cannot get past. Yes, they’re a multiplatinum, international success. Yes, millions worldwide love them. Good for them.  I do not. A musical based on ABBA songs nights as well be the Ludovico treatment to me.

    Why are they singing again? MAKE THEM STOP SINGING

All of which means nothing more than I’m Not Their Target Audience. Which is fine. Lots of people like ABBA, and even more like musicals. So I can simply ignore this product for one more to my liking. If you’re the sort of person who likes this sort of thing, then that’s completely cool. I like enough of my own dumb stuff, which is by no means superior to your dumb stuff. Which brings me to…

  • Mamma Mia is Transformers for Women. Which is to say, it’s wish-fulfillment schlock, appealing to women in the same way that dumb action schlock appeals to men. Husbands and boyfriends dragged along to see this will feign Interest and Appreciation the same way wives and girlfriends do for a Fast and Furious sequel. Emotional Europop and romance and Cher snarking it up are just car chases and ‘splosions and “Yippie-ki-yay, motherf$%*er” for the fairer sex. And since it’s obligatory to lament the very existence of dumb guy schlock every time it makes its presence known to us, it should be equally obligatory to do the same for dumb chick schlock.

Sound fair?