As promised, a new episode of friendly rambling. I plan what I talk about with these, some notes I want to make, and then I just let the ramble happen. It gives me ideas and let’s me talk out loud about where my thoughts are. This one covers new readings and old movies.
Time for Low-Rent Clint Eastwood to Ride Again.
The only question is Why, and there’s only one answer. No one is going to enjoy this. Harrison Ford is too old for this. He was too old for it in the last movie. It’s going to be regurgitated trash, that will almost but not quite pay homage to the movies that were actually good because they were made by artists in their prime. Nerds will fight about it on the internet, but enough dopes will buy tickets that it will cover expenses.
Shia LaBoeuf won’t be in it, you see. It’s all Shia LaBoeuf’s fault that Crystal Skull was bad. It’s all Hayden Christensen’s fault the Prequels were bad. It’s all Emilia Clarke’s fault Terminator: Genysis was bad. There’s always enough stupid people to keep these creaky franchises afloat.
What will the plot be? Who cares? Fighting Neo-Nazis for control of some maguffin. Throw a Boys From Brazil surprise in there, why not? Have some zombie ninjas, some drug dealers, some hippie alien cultists. DO IT. Indiana Jones has never been anything but a glorified B-Movie. Go all the way, so the real entertainment will be watching Harrison Ford looking around utterly bewildered, trying to glare his way through the existential crisis that his career has become.
You thought you were different, didn’t you, Harry? You thought you were special. You thought you were a Thesbian, you absolute chump. Have you seen any of your movies?
You thought that if you played a megalomaniac sweating in the tropics, or a disabled lawyer, you might get an Oscar. You don’t even have a Golden Globe, do you? You couldn’t even play Jack Ryan convincingly. That’s right, you got out-acted by a Baldwin. A Baldwin, you putz. How does it feel?
You should have done cowboy movies. You should have done a pirate movie with Cary Elwes. Or some cop movies that didn’t suck (Witness is good. I will give you Witness). You should have embraced your success, not run away from it, acting like you were above it. Because guess what? Here you are, 40 years later, and you’re still Han Solo and Indiana Jones. No one cares about anything else. Now, some of this isn’t precisely your fault. But you’d have done yourself a favor and played every kind of adventuring rogue there was. Not only would that mean there would be a bunch more franchises for Disney to feed off of, it would mean you’d have built an oeuvre everyone would remember fondly. Get yourself some producer credits and you could be profiting off the inevitable remakes instead of dragging your geriatric ass around the back end of the world trying not to lose your hat.
Yeah, I get it. Hollywood has its own rules. You’re just a player, not a power. Like I said, not fully your fault. But is this really how you wanna spend your Golden Years, squeezing one last drop out of a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since its target audience was in grade-school? There’s a reason you didn’t do one of these for a long time. Stop. They won’t do one without you. They don’t dare. You don’t need the money, do you? Go direct something. Go produce something. Hell, run for governor of California. You’d win in a walk. Do anything else but this. This is a waste of everyone’s time.
Not really. I think I had that in mind when I conceived the episode, but when it came time to do the recording, we were far more even-handed. Kevin Smith has moved beyond his View Askew films from the 90’s, and although he’s done other things the universal critical consensus is that he’s never really grown as a filmmaker. So our conversation gets into the Why of that. We have some pretty interesting conclusions.
I’m adding a bunch of links this time, from a variety of our distribution channels. First Spotify:
Punk Rock's Dead Mix Tape – Shallow & Pedantic
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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.
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.
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.
The best part of doing this podcast is the way the scrum of conversation keeps bringing up new ideas. Episode 5 gave us the General Theory of Creative Bloat (successful franchise = abandonment of editorial control), which gets mentioned again here. But this time we came up with what I call the Pie Theory of Popular Entertainment. It comes at the tail end of the episode, but it does kind of tie everything we jabber about together nicely.
These things keep getting longer, but we’ve sorted out all the audio issues, and are able to do this all from the comfort of our respective homes using CleanFeed.
This is going to seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.
A “Feature Length” film is one 60 minutes or longer, according to the Screen Actor’s Guild. Most movies are somewhere between 80-120 minutes, although some popular films, such as nearly all the Star Wars movies, are longer (The Last Jedi, the longest one, is 152 minutes, or 2 hours and 32 minutes).
So to watch a movie is to take 1-3 hourse out of your day. And that’s usually done in one sitting. Very rarely do you watch a movie, stop halfway through, and then finish the rest later. Halfway through a movie, you’re usually invested in the story, and want to watch the rest. Movies are dense, quick-structured, A-B-C storytelling. They have to be to get you to sit through them.
Short stories, are stories less than 7,500 words. That is a quick read, giving an author not very much time to:
- Establish setting
- Establish character
- Establish conflict
- Build conflict
- Resolve Conflict
Hence, short stories are dense, leaving as much unsaid as said, and stripping everything down to the meat. There is no more description, dialogue, or anything else, than their needs to be. Raymond Carver is the exemplar of the form for this reason.
Hence, these are the forms of efficiency. You strap in and you take the ride. You expect the story to reward your attention with immediate payoff. Movies are short stories.
TV Shows, on the other hand, are episodic. An Episode is a self-contained story that takes place within a larger context. Each successive episode reveals more about the characters, because the pressure of writing demands it. Even a TV show that intends to repeat a situation ad infinitum – a “situation comedy”, for example – finds that in cannot. Each episode adds to the character.
In times past, this growth was largely incidental, a process of creating new scenarios for the characters each week. This had more in common with the old penny dreadfuls, in which new chapters were published each week, and writers paid by the word, increasing the incentive to drag out the story and add new characters. TV Shows are kept on the air until their audience starts to leave, then they are given a hurried ending that most people find unsatisfying. See everything I’ve written about How I Met Your Mother for further elucidation.
So the production of TV shows still leads to dragging plots out, but the rise of “prestige” dramas and “concept” comedies yields the concept of an overall arc over a show or a season. The whole of a TV program can now tell one long story, and the episodes are mere chapters. The advent of streaming, and therefore binge-watching, a show, correlates to this phenomenon.
The best way to think of something like Breaking Bad or Maniac is as a visual novel. The problem with this metaphor is that, unlike modern novels produced and sold as a discreet unit, TV shows are ordered by-season. This is a function of cost. A book publisher is willing to take the risk on a print run, because that’s peanuts compared to funding the batallion necessary to produce a TV show. Hence, while a novel is always finished, a TV show will only continue so long as it maintains an audience. There’s a tension between immediacy and narrative built right into the structure.
This explains the aforementioned habit of TV Shows to screw up their finales. Most of the time, as with Seinfeld, a show has nothing particular to say, and so a finale is simply a process of saying good-bye. But when there’s a concept, an overall narrative and arc, the need to give an ending reflecting an audience’s emotional commitment becomes paramount. But it’s impossible to give proper attention to everything, and the longer a show goes on, the more true this becomes. This is why the last season of Game of Thrones felt so rushed, why fans left it so unsatisfied (The tendency to gloss over realities from the published world of the books did not help). There were so many threads left hanging, so many interesting things that they could have done, but which were not.
Thus, my current mood with regard to TV shows. I’m more in a movie mood, so I can enjoy narratives properly built and executed, rather than meandering their way and then getting cut off like a sausage. I’ve born disappointments enough from the attempts to transcend the structure.
My wife suggested we go see it, when we had a free evening. I was willing, but not enthusiastic. In the end, we ended up not doing that instead. The film had good word of mouth, and I know Nolan to be a competent director, but the excitement to do it wasn’t there. And according to Variety, my experience is microcosmic:
Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” willed itself past the $300 million mark globally this weekend even as the overall domestic box office appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
Disney’s “Hocus Pocus,” a Bette Middler comedy that flopped when it was initially released in 1993, but became a cult hit on cable and streaming, almost matched “Tenet’s” grosses in North America and beat those of “The New Mutants.” Re-released just in time for Halloween,” “Hocus Pocus” picked up $1.9 million from 2,570 theaters. “Tenet” earned $2.7 million from 2,722 venues, pushing its domestic haul to a paltry $45.1 million. “The New Mutants” eked out $1 million from 2,154 locations, bringing its domestic total to $20.9 millionVariety.com, “‘Tenet’ Tops $300 Million Globally, but Domestic Box Office Is in Crisis Mode“
Getting beat by “Hocus Pocus” (a film whose charms have always eluded me), is newsworthy enough, but the deeper question is why? There’s a whiff of a suggestion in the article that the Pandemic is to blame, but I’m not buying it? If people are willing to come out for a re-release of a Bette Midler cult hit, why not a buzzworthy film from a seasoned director? Is this just Millennial Nostalgia choking off the roots of everything else, like a weed?
Or is this the Uninteresting Name factor, as with “John Carter” back in 2012? I for one wondered what “Tenet” was supposed to refer to? A tenet of what? For whom? What kind of movie is this? Arty? Action? Arty-Action? The name doesn’t tell you anything. All we have to go on is director-name-recognition. And it appears Nolan is no Tarantino in this regard.
It might be that the pandemic suspicion is correct, in a different way. It might be that the habit of Going To The Movies is fundamentally altered, and we don’t go to the cinema anymore unless we really feel it’s “worth it”. Things were moving in this direction anyway, and the lockdowns didn’t help. Sure, “Tenet”, whatever it is, might be good, but I don’t know, and do I want to pay $40 to find out? I’ll just wait for it to stream.
The consequences of this are real. If Hollywood can’t sell a big-name director, with a lot of buzz, then their business model is fundamentally flawed.