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.

William Shatner, Red Letter Media, and What Everyone Gets Wrong About Fandom

Never meet your heroes.

I’ve mentioned Red Letter Media before. They’re a YouTube channel that discusses film in a serious way, but with lots of jokes – spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down. They’re different from most cinema nerds on YouTube in that they’ve actually undergone the process of making movies themselves – schlocky B-movies, that they themselves do not take seriously. But they’ve done it. They have some understanding of what it involves, so they talk about the nuts and bolts, which for a layman is an education.

Their infamous 70-minute review of The Phantom Menace taught a whole generation why the prequels weren’t working. Yes, they’ve savaged the Disney films as well. They especially made fun of Rogue One, which is the one everyone seems to love. They’re fair-minded and upfront about their perspectives.

They also do a MST3K-ish panel discussion of bad movies, called Best of the Worst, and they’ve had other creatives on as guest stars. Schlock ninja filmmaker Len Kabasinski has been on a couple of times, as has comic artist Freddie Williams, screenwriter Max Landis (before he got cancelled), comedian Patton Oswalt, and Macaulay Culkin, who’s practically a regular at this point.

I mention all of this because they’re a growing brand that is gaining widespread awareness. They hit 1 million YouTube subscribers recently. People have heard of them. Now, two of the three RLM stakeholders (Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans) are big Star Trek fans (I’m not going to call them Trekkies, for reasons that will become clear later). They talk about Star Trek a lot. They’re critical of the Next Generation movies, but love the show. They have nuanced criticisms of the recent film reboots. They do not like the more recent Star Trek Series, such as Discovery and Picard. But they stood up for one of the least-liked Trek movies, the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a movie I’ve been wont to dismiss as “two hours of blue stuff”.

These two trends explain why RLM fans may have gotten it into their heads that William Shatner might become a guest on their show. They never invited him, but it became a meme anyway. This is an important point I’m going to come back to later.

Now I’m going to let Mike and Jay explain what happened next:

If you don’t want to spare the 20 minutes, Shatner got tired of being bugged on Twitter by RLM fans to be on the show. He was polite at first, if a bit shakey on the definition of “podcast” (which is fine, as “podcast” has a shakey definition). Then he started being less polite, then he started casually dismissing the RLM crew, watching tiny snippets of their videos and picking nits. This being Twitter, the volume increased, until the RLM guys had to stop what they were actually doing to announce that this was all a tempest in a teapot and it should all go away. Mike ends with the words “Leave him alone, because I just can’t take Captain Kirk pulling up pictures of me on The Nerd Crew (a satirical show they do) set, and calling me a moron. I just can’t take it.”

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. That video came on Thursday, (July 23rd). Yesterday (July 27th), Shatner unloaded both barrels at the RLM guys with a Medium.com article called “The Toxic Empires of Egoligarchies“. If you’re having a hard time getting past the title, I’ll summarize it for you: Shatner didn’t watch the video, even though he used pieces of it, and brings in GamerGate and a host of screencaps to prove that… RLM sent its fans on Twitter to harass him.

In William Shatner’s mind, this is the only possible explanation. Three guys from Milwaukee have a zombie horde of fans that they can turn on and off like tap water. That’s how fandom works.

The absurdity of claiming, in the face of no evidence, in the face of all contrary evidence, that the RLM guys signaled their fans to harass Shatner staggers the imagination. The entire pretentious diatribe (truly an accomplishment for Medium, a platform that specializes in transmogrifying peoples’ shower thoughts into “essays”) has enough circular reasoning in it to flatten a trailer park.

William Shatner knows better than this. William Shatner has had to deal with his own fans being out of control. So has George Lucas. So has everybody who has a fandom. Fandoms (oh, I how I loathe that word) are not armies, sent out into the world like digital stosstruppen to do their master’s bidding. If they were, then Red Letter Media, which is based on fans being critical of product, couldn’t possibly exist. Fans are human beings, and act along the gradient of human behavior. Some of them will be monsters, and some saints.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was small. I’ve never gone to a fan convention. I’ve never bought a lightsaber or any other Star Wars paraphanelia. The only T-Shirts I have were given to me as Father’s Day gifts. I sold my old box of Star Wars toys at a yard sale for $5. More to the point, I think people who do fill their house with junk and go to such conventions are spiritually depleted dorks. Am I still a fan?

Art is a worthy topic of discussion. That’s why I have articles about Star Wars on this blog. But art is meant to be enjoyed, considered, and critiqued, not worshipped. Liking something is not a substitute for an identity. The RLM guys get that, which is why I watch their YouTube channel.

But I would never bother an octogenarian actor on Twitter to be on their show. I don’t understand why anyone would. I think doing that is just brainless schoolyard trolling, of the kind that makes Twitter nothing more than a blood-pressure surge device. Anyone who bugged William Shatner about a YouTube channel he’s never heard of is a waste of a rational soul. There’s no reason for it; you didn’t achieve your goal, and you manufactured the phoniest kind of drama in a world that is filled with real-life, actual drama. You are shrieking gibbons flinging poop and bits of half-chewed berries at the gravestone of our culture.

Now ask me: am I still a fan?

Go ahead, ask me.

Quick Review: The Irishman

the-irishman-feat

It was boring.

There.

Actually, let me be fair.

The first half is kind of boring. The second half describes the conflict between the mob and Jimmy Hoffa, and it’s more interesting than you’d think. Obviously it was dumb for Hoffa to get in bed with organized crime, and obviously that was only gonna end one way. But the way that end comes about suprises with it’s politeness, it’s almost genteel conversation of the essential conflict. It comes down to two men declaring their intentions, each of whom never raise my voice, each of whom express respect to the other. It matters not. The source of every conflict – who is to have power, who is to give way – cannot be avoided.

And so as you go through the movies second half, the power of things unstated chokes the characters off. The film becomes almost Bergmannian in its slow shots of characters in inescapable agonies. That’s to the good.

What’s to the bad is the story itself. Goodfellas and its comic twin, Wolf of Wall Street, succeed as cinema because they provide an answer to a question: Why does this institutional wickedness exist? What need does it serve? The Irishman leaves a hole in the role of its titular character. Why is he this way? Why does he just fall into the role of an assassin? We get a taste of some prisoner-clearing in WWII – a far more common practice in that war than is commonly known – but that’s only a hint. There’s nothing at the heart of this man that we can get a grip on, not ambition, not hatred, not bloodlust. Is it merely loyalty, without any higher connection to anything else? That seems rather shallow for Scorsese’s body of work.

Is it worth watching? If you’re curious as to how Jimmy Hoffa went down, sure. If you like a slow-burn drama, this’ll work for you. But if you’re expecting the electricity of Scorsese’s better-known work, you won’t get it here.

Quick Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

jake-gyllenhaal-in-velvet-buzzsaw

People always make the mistake of thinking art is created for them. But really, art is a private language for sophisticates to congratulate themselves on their superiority to the rest of the world. As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance.

-Bill Watterson

Modern art is good for nothing so much as the joy you experience in hating it. A trip through MoMA in New York is a wonderful opportunity to sneer, and it is a merited sneering, because most people not in the modern art scene have intuited that the singular mood of that scene is one of sneering at them. Whether modern art has any aesthetic merit is a separate question. The bulk of it doesn’t, as it is driven by the sneering to produce anti-art more than anything else.

There is thus something disturbingly satisfying to the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, which inflicts horror-movie tropes upon art-scene stereotypes. Horror is largely a genre of Judgement, and one of its unspoken messages is that the victims deserve their fate because of their ignorance. The drunk girl who swims out into the night ocean at the beginning of Jaws is a fool tempting fate, and fate devours her. To see this applied to the brokers and curators and critics, to see them killed, as all of them are, by Art, cannot but evoke a knowing nod of the head.

And yet, it doesn’t quite work. The other unspoken rule of Horror is that the Dread Thing, the Monster, have clear rules, thereby giving characters an opportunity to escape. At some point, late in the second act, it is traditional for some Outsider possessing knowledge of the Monster to explain to our protagonists how to avoid it. This never fully happens in Velvet Buzzsaw (some underdone investigating occurs), consequently, the Monster is never fully seen, and can pretty much do whatever it wants whenever it wants. The film thus devolves to an indie version of Final Destination; Death comes when it needs to, for no particular reason.

Probably there are two many characters in the narrative, each traveling their own arc, to give the Monster enough development. One of the reasons its handy to put horror protagonists in a single Place (an island, a cabin in the woods), is that we don’t have to give time to exploring their unique lives, and can so focus on the encounter with the Monster and so figure out how to escape it. But Velvet Buzzsaw is so determined that we find these snobs execrable that they end up without the advantages of a bunch of teenagers in a Slasher flick.

Bottom Line: fun mis-en-scene, almost rises to satire, but incomplete. On the other hand, it’s on Netflix, so watching it won’t cost you anything you haven’t already spent. That’s more than most Modern Art can say.

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.

    Ludovico
    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?

Roger Ebert’s Hilariously Vicious Bad Reviews, and How to Survive Them

You’ll read these for the reason they are making their way ’round the internets: bad reviews are themselves a form of entertainment, and a necessary corrective to the fear that we are drowning in the swill that pop culture produces. It is thus both pleasing and useful to announce to the heavens that The Love Guru was crap.

Every reference to a human sex organ or process of defecation is not automatically funny simply because it is naughty, but Myers seems to labor under that delusion.

But suppose you were a creator of one of those failures? How would you respond to having your labors set on fire for the edification of others? Let us not forget, up until Love Guru, Mike Myers was an in-demand comedic actor and widely considered to be funny.

Ebert’s review of the 1994 film North (“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it”) stung it’s screenwriter (and author of the novella upon which it was based), Alan Zweibel, rather hard. The MentalFloss listicle mentions that Zweibel had the opportunity to confront Ebert in a men’s room some years later. Fearing the worst expression of critic-directed creator-rage, I clicked the link.

You should, too. Zweibel demonstrates the value of philosophy and the virtue of good humor, and the story ends in the best possible way. If the highbrow New Yorker editors could have come up with a less wearisomely obvious headline than “Roger and Me”, it would have been perfect. Read it anyway.