An Encomium of Pankot – In Defense of Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom

I’ve written on the Indiana Jones series before, explaining the problem I had with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A lot of people complained about the tiredness of that movie, the strain of it, and they were right to do so. But for me the problem was theological:

So sure, say the movies, Indiana Jones, may be a swinging adventurer and more of a graverobber than an archaeologist, but even he knows how to deal with something man was not made to covet. This provides a moral undertone to the films that allows them to rise above all the blunt violence; even to put that violence into some kind of context where the blood matters and makes sense. When at the very end of Last Crusade, the Knight of the Temple salutes Indiana, the gestures doesn’t feel hokey or out of place. Our modern Hero Adventurer has proven worthy of his ancestors.

Now compare that to the latest film, which was about…aliens.

Yeah.

Part of the problem is the shift from an interwar adventure to a Cold War struggle. The Nazis made good foils for Indy, because they really were the sort of people who would have liked getting their hands on the Ark and the Grail and the Holy Lance and such. Nazism was occultist and Nietszchean. But Soviet Communism was brutally athiest. No KGB officer, however dashing with a saber, would do make any effort to obtain an ancient artifact, save to blow it up. The idea that a sacred object could actually do anything undermines dialectical materalism. So the idea that KGB would spend a rouble chasing Native American legends simply doesn’t work.

Indiana Jones and the Blah of Whatever“, Contentblues.com

It wouldn’t be overstating matters to say that the Indiana Jones movies are the last pulp films in which mystery and sacredness actually exist, and matter to the plot. Certainly the last notable ones.

But I’m not interested in talking about Crystal Skull, any more than I am in discussing the new film, still in production, which I have already abused. Which is to say, I abused Harrison Ford for doing it. And understandably so, for reasons I don’t feel the need to repeat. However, I will add a caveat, which is that Indiana Jones is without question the best character that Harrison Ford ever created (yes, actors create characters. Writers only provide the limits), a mix of adventurer and scholar, rogue and saint, who genuinely deserves the name of “hero”.

And I’m going to argue that much of his heroism was first brought to light in the second film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Temple of Doom is no one’s favorite. General normie opinion has Raiders in front, with Last Crusade a close second (some contrarians like me enjoy reversing these), and Temple of Doom fun but inferior, but at least better than Crystal Skull. There are good reasons for this. Raiders was the first one, which always has the virtues of originality and narrative freedom, establishing the canon as it goes. Plus, the love-interest in Raiders is everyone’s favorite, because she’s actually given space to be a character, rather than simply a foil (Aesthetically, however, who wouldn’t prefer Elsa Schneider from Last Crusade?).

I’m sorry, but Karen Allen cannot compete with this.

However, having watched ToD for the first time in a long time over the weekend, it has risen in my estimates. And I’m well familiar with it: my dad taped it off of HBO back in the 80’s, and I watched it a lot. It’s still not my favorite, that’s still Last Crusade, but it’s virtues are clearer, and it’s vices to my mind overstated. Like Back to the Future, Part II, and The Empire Strikes Back, it has the benefits of being the trilogy’s odd man out.

Two things need to be said about this film, both of them obvious. First, this is a dark movie, both literally and figuratively. Most of the second half of it takes place underground, in mines and corridors and pits, where they only light is torches and the Hadean glow of lava. The characters are routinely hemmed in, pressed on, squeezed, and nearly dropped into the center of the earth. So long do we spend in the belly of the beast that when the freed slaves emerge into sunlight for the first time in forever, we feel it with them. Like Gollum, we almost forget that the sun exists.

This matches the theme of it, which is largely about slavery; both physical, literal slavery, and spiritual slavery. The cultists force people to drink “the black blood of Kali” which makes them brainwashed drones. Indiana Jones himself becomes victim to this, and is freed only by the cleansing pain of fire (a subtle reference to Lord Agni? Perhaps). There’s an irony there, as the cultists sacrifice people to the lava pit after magically ripping their living heart out, a savagery that seems more Aztec than Hindu (then again, Hindus were somewhat devoted to the suttee, or widow-burning). Around all this, there is an army of child slaves, emaciated and beaten, digging in the earth for precious gems and sacred Shankara stones, the film’s maguffins.

These stones do not actually exist, nor is there any tradition of them existing. Shankara is another name for Shiva, one of the principle deities of Hinduism, who is invoked as the force of goodness, as against Kali, the cultists’ butchering cthonian goddess. In reality, of course, Shiva and Kali are consorts, but let’s just acknowledge that the Hinduism of this film is Movie Hinduism, bearing little resemblance to the reality (yes, the Thuggee did exist, yes they were murderous. They did not rip people’s hearts out and dump them in lava pits, and they had no megalomaniacal plans for world domination. They were criminals who preyed on travelers).

Indiana Jones takes the legend of Shankara Stones about as seriously as we do. The sacredness of these rocks is nothing to him but a chance at “Fortune and Glory”. He wants the stones, so he throws himself into the bowels of the earth to take them. He is already enslaved by the lust for them, casting aside a chance to spend a night in Willie Scott’s bed to hunt for them. Becoming a brainless devotee of Kali, ready to cast Willie into the lava at Mola Ram’s command, is but an intensification of what is already going on.

There is nothing in Raiders or Last Crusade that equates to the horror this film inflicts on its viewers. Watching Nazi faces melted by the wrath of God, or Donovan withering into dust for drinking from the false Grail, is one thing: those men were villains and they deserved their comuppance. Watching an innocent, unnamed man tortured and burned into nothing, his beating heart bursting into flames in a cruel priest’s hands, is altogether different. Indy was beaten by Nazis, buried by Nazis, nearly blown up by Nazis, but the Nazis never enscorcelled his soul. This film is dark, a vision of hell and sin against which the other two are but madcap journeys.

The second thing to say is that this film Does. Not. Stop. From the opening table confrontation between Indy and a Chinese gangster in Shanghai, the movie rolls from spectacle to spectacle, stopping for breath only to set the scene for the next rush. We do not have learned discussions among academics pourring over dusty tomes in libraries. We do not see Indy teaching a class. This movie has no time for that. Car chase, shootouts, bailing out of planes, whitewater-rapids, escaping from locked rooms, armed combat with temple guards while Willie sinks into the flames, roller-coastering over the fiery abyss, fleeing an underground flood, all culminating in a battle over a collapsed rope-bridge while hungry crocodiles writhe in a feeding frenzy in a river at the bottom of a canyon.

This dizzying pace benefits the film, but also has drawbacks. On the one hand, the movie is never boring, never wallowing in arcana or any more expository dialogue than it absolutely needs. Even on the journey from the village to Pankot Palace, there’s always something happening.

On the other hand, the pace can make the film, despite its savage vision, seem strangely light and unreal, half a joke. I suspect that’s the purpose of the song-and-dance number that opens the movie: Willie Scott singing “Anything Goes” in Chinese in the Shanghai nightclub, before our hero even appears. Bizzarely, the camera goes back into the Lion’s mouth from which Willie first emerges, where there’s an entire sound stage featuring two kick lines of dancing girls, tapping away to the heart of the song. Willie emerges again to sing the song’s final line, and everyone applauds.

However, the audience in the nightclub had no way of seeing the dancers. What’s on the other side of the lion’s mouth is walled off entirely. Only the movie audience saw it.

It’s tempting to think of this as just a meaningless continuity error, but this is Spielberg we’re talking about. He knows what he’s doing. This scene, so utterly discordant from the rest of the movie, is the director winking at us. “All of this is unreal, a dream. Don’t get lost in the details,” the movie is telling us. The song isn’t “Anything Goes” for no reason.

Does this cut against the film’s darkness? Yes, and I think that’s deliberate. One needs comedy and fantasy to relieve the grim horror. Which is why the other two characters of Temple of Doom’s heroic Trimurti are as important as Indiana Jones.

Everyone loves to hate Willie Scott. She lacks Marion Ravenwood’s chutzpah and Elsa Schneider’s wry humor. She, like the scene introducing her, is entirely out of her element in this rollicking adventure. Indiana Jones calls her “doll” and apart from her physical attractions finds her mostly irritating. The audience agrees. Nor she doesn’t have much in the way of redeeming characteristics: she’s shallow, arrogant, and doesn’t do much to get us on her side.

And that’s kind of the point of her. Of all the leading ladies in these movies, Willie is most like a classic damsel-in-distress. Not entirely so, she has a core of toughness that the movies busts down to, but she’s dressed up like a princess for a reason. Sacrifices in ancient religions were all about offering up what was precious. Willie Scott is precious, not least because she doesn’t deserve anything that’s happening to her, and everything that’s happening to her is entirely Indy’s fault. He dragged her away from her life in Shanghai for his own reasons, pulled her down into the depths beneath Pankot for his own reasons, and got her captured by the Thuggee. She’s as much his victim as Mola Ram’s. He has to pull her out of the hell he’s sent her to, quite literally. Only then can he be redeemed.

During the escape from Pankot she casts aside all her pretense and is finally a Team Player, freeing slaves and throwing rocks and keeping an eye on Short Round as much as he keeps an eye on her. She’s no warrior, but she does her best. Who among us, stuck in this gorge of peril, would do better?

Given that the movie is set in 1935, the year before the events of Raiders, continuity suggests that their association was brief. The movie doesn’t give us any reason to think otherwise. Willie’s attraction to Indy is as shallow as his attraction to her, and she knows it. She never becomes a devoted, wide-eyed school girl, because she isn’t. Good for her. Go in peace, Willie. You’ll never have to eat snakes again.

{No one in India eats chilled monkey brains! Yeah, that’s the point: what’s going on at Pankot appears to be civilized and orderly, but is actually twisted and cruel. While Indy is getting stonewalled by the Maharajah’s vizier, Willie is trying to eat normal food and can’t. Even the British Captain, an old India Hand, is quietly disturbed by what’s going on. Only Indy seems not to notice.}

That brings us to Short Round, whom everyone enjoyed, and whom has now been condemned by the Priests of Intersctionality. The character is an echo of Gunga Din, of colonial associations of native assistants to the white interloper. Let’s just acknowledge that the character bears shallow resemblance to such, and then get right back to ignoring it. Short Round, or Shorty, is a chinese orphan boy, a victim of the Japanese, whom Indy has taken under his wing. Unlike Willie, Shorty has all but imprinted on Indy like a baby duck, parroting his speech patterns and serving him devotedly.

I say “all but” because in reality, the two are more like junior and senior partners than servant and master. The scene on the road to Panko in which they play cards while Willie freaks out at the local fauna shows us something closer to real friendship: they commiserate about what a pain Willie is, accuse each other of cheating, and start arguing with each other in Chinese. Throughout the film, Short Round has no problem telling Indy what’s what. There’s more equality in their association than their seems at first glance.

Willie, and the rest of us, meet Short Round for the first time and see a Kid. Indy knows different: he sees that Shorty is resourceful and tough as nails. It’s Shorty who has to rescue Indy from the spell the Thuggee have him under, so that he can rescue Willie. It’s Shorty who has do the same to the Maharajah, to stop him from using his voodoo doll on Indy (voodoo in India? Forget it, they’re rolling), saving him not once but twice. Nobody rescues Shorty from slavery. He breaks his own chains.

Of course, Current Year find Short Round to be absolute Cringe. A modern adaptation would do away with his accent and have him say something like “actually, I’m from Stockton. I don’t even like Chinese food. Where’s the hamburgers?”, because the safest way to have Asians in modern movies is to make them whiter than white men. Only in the 80’s could a boy from Shanghai actually be Chinese.

None of this really matters, because in Pankot, Shorty is just as much a stranger as the white people. So if the White SaviorTM narrative bothers you all that much, just remind yourself that a good bit of the work was done by the Chinese boy.

Of course, you’ll be missing the entire point of the movie, which is that Indy becomes heroic, in a classic sense, by restoring to the people of the unnamed Village not only their sacred stones but their children. Hero is he who restores justice and order under the gods, and nothing that happened in Raiders approximates this. The first Indiana Jones movie is a Maguffin Hunt, in which the maguffin becomes a literal deus ex machina. You might find that movie superior on points, but the sight of lost children running into the arms of their parents has a satisfaction to it that Top Men boxing up the Ark just doesn’t. At the end of the first film, Indy is furious that they aren’t doing metallurgy on the Ark, despite being a (blind) eyewitness to what happens when the unworthy touch it. In this movie, he recognizes that the Shankara Stone means much more as the sacred center of a community than as rock collecting dust in a museum. Whatever else he ever may have done, casting aside his own interests to save a village of strangers is more heroic than most of us will ever be.

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.

Content Blues, The Podcast – Episode 3: Poems, Prose and Princes

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.

Available on Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, and Spotify.

4. The Lost Summer Episode Content Blues

We're back from Summer Vacation with a bunch of notes we took months ago and will turn deftly into a full episode: Why I Care. A Lot. is as bad as you've heard. Why Aldous Huxley was as good as you've heard. Why Ronnie James Dio is better than you've probably heard. Huzzah for Content!
  1. 4. The Lost Summer Episode
  2. 3. Poems, Prose, and Princes
  3. 2. Thus Stuffed Zarathustra Funko Pops into The God-Shaped Hole
  4. 1. Absinthe is Delicious

Oh Good, a New Indiana Jones Movie

Time for Low-Rent Clint Eastwood to Ride Again.

Am I actually supposed to care theat John Williams is doing the score? Is this what they’re reaching for now to put butts in seats?

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.

Shallow & Pedantic 13: Let us Now Abuse Kevin Smith

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:

Then iHeartRadio:

WordPress doesn’t seem to want to embed the Deezer link, and the Spreaker link is always glitchy, But here’s the feed as it appears on PodcastAddict:

Trifles of the King Shallow & Pedantic

We have a series of agreements about film adaptations of Arthurian Legend, beginning with The Green Knight and ending with John Boorman's Excalibur, which is objectively the best King Arthur movie. You can disagree, but you're wrong.
  1. Trifles of the King
  2. Teenage Dungeon Vampire Space Pirates
  3. Punk Rock's Dead Mix Tape
  4. Kevin Smith is Henry Rollins
  5. Würrk, Dåmmit, or Let's Do the Goth Dance Again

Also there’s Podchaser. Regardless of what channel you prefer, make sure you Like and Subscribe. That’s the kind of data that creators need, not only because it gives us an idea of what content is really connecting with our audience, but because a little positive affirmation goes a long way in keeping us going. With that in mind, have you considered dropping a few coin on Unnamed Journal? We’re available on Gumroad, Amazon, and you get access to all content if you subscribe to our Patreon!

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.

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.

Old Favorites: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

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.

Shallow & Pedantic 7: A Fistful of Samurai Pies

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.