You Can’t Judge a Film by Its Title

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You might expect a film about organized crime and bearing the title A Most Violent Year to be filled with bloody, sadistic mayhem, à la Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. You would be wrong, however, as I was. Yes, there is violence in this story about a heating oil supplier who wants to run his business without paying for protection, without acknowledging mob-determined territorial monopolies, and without engaging in corruption. But it’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

The film takes its title from the fact that it’s set in New York in 1981, statistically one of the most crime-ridden years in the city’s history. Against this background Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is about to complete the biggest deal of his life, purchasing a large oil terminal that will allow him to double or even triple his business. He has already put down a million dollars — in cash — and now has 30 days in which to pay off the remainder, or he will lose his entire deposit. (This isn’t your typical real estate deal brokered by Century 21.) His banker has agreed to lend him the additional million and a half. Abel couldn’t be happier as he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) move into their brand new mansion, coincidentally closing that same day.

It’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

Well, maybe he could be just a little happier. Complicating the consummation of this deal for the oil terminal are two other deals: the Feds are suddenly investigating him for evidence of tax fraud or other crimes, and someone — he doesn’t know who — is threatening his employees by dragging drivers from his delivery trucks and roughing up his sales staff as they meet with potential clients. One of the things I like about this movie is that the employees aren’t the gangland thugs typical of this genre, and they aren’t shooting up everyone in sight. In fact, they aren’t shooting anyone if they can help it. They are ordinary young men and women — mostly white, mostly nervous — who are just trying to make a living at a relatively unskilled job, selling something as mundane as home heating fuel.

Surprisingly, that makes the film more suspenseful, not less. I actually began worrying about the men who deliver heating oil to my home in New York. Might they be involved in territorial warfare? Might they bring this violence into my backyard? The story is true in a way that is rare for Hollywood. They never use the word “Mafia,” and Abel’s name is Morales, not Morelli. The name suggests that he is able to run a business with morality and integrity, even in a city that is crumbling in moral decay.

This is the kind of film that suffers at the box office from not delivering what it seems to promise. Audiences who are drawn to thoughtful, character-driven, metaphorically rich films are likely to avoid it because of its title, while those who expect to see a typically violent and graphic gangster flick will complain that it was too bland and slow (as did many of the viewers in the theater where I saw it). And that’s a shame, because a film like this one, about an honest businessman trying to remain clean in a dirty industry, deserves a larger audience.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Most Violent Year," directed by J. C. Chardor. A24 (a production company that tops the funding list of over two dozen independent production and distribution companies), 2014, 125 minutes.



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Job Faire

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If Ever, Oh Ever, a Wiz There Was

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Entering his capital in triumph after a desperately hard campaign, Frederick the Great rode with his eyes forward, refusing to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. An aide said, “Sire, the people are applauding you.” Frederick, eyes still resolutely on the road, replied, “If you put a monkey on this horse, the people would applaud him.”

That is my idea about news “anchors” such as Brian Williams.

It’s not everybody’s idea. On Feb. 8, in one of the last columns he wrote before his untimely death, David Carr said:

For some time now, there have been two versions of Brian Williams. One is an Emmy-winning, sober, talented anchor on the “NBC Nightly News” and the other is a funny, urbane celebrity who hosts “Saturday Night Live,” slow-jams the news with Jimmy Fallon and crushes it in every speech and public appearance he makes.

Each of those personas benefited the other, and his fame and appeal grew accordingly, past the anchor chair he occupied every weeknight and into a realm of celebrity that reaches all demographics and platforms. Even young people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the evening news know who Mr. Williams is.

I’m citing this as a good example of the strange idea that there was a before and after to the Williams story — a before in which Williams was not just a celebrity but a funny, urbane, talented, appealing celebrity, and an after in which he was a dope and a blowhard, always telling ridiculous stories about himself.

As witnessed by the add-on adjectives, one can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time, but it’s still interesting to know. Unfortunately, it’s also evident that one doesn’t need to do much in order to be regarded as funny, urbane, talented, and appealing. To me, and to hundreds of millions of other people, there was never anything remarkable about Brian Williams. I don’t regard slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon as something that requires a lot of talent. Williams never crushed it with me.

Williams’ talent, such as it was, consisted merely of being a news anchor who did things that are usually not associated with being a news anchor. Lots of people are celebrities for reasons like that. Preachers and politicians get loud laughs when they tell a joke, but only because people think it’s amusing that someone with such a dull job can tell any joke at all. The animals on YouTube are considered amusing for doing things that any dull, ordinary person does every day; their talent is merely being animals that are trying to do those things. But if you found out that the dog wasn’t really a dog, or the cat wasn’t really a cat, or the news anchor wasn’t anchoring much of anything, no one would want to watch any of the supposedly amusing antics. And being a news anchor requires a lot less than being a dog or cat.

One can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time.

I am old enough to have been a victim of the Age of Cronkite, an age now deeply venerated by a lot of people who believe that at some time in the past there really was a Wizard of Oz. I say “victim” because in those days there was no national electronic news except the offerings of the three government-licensed networks. Cable TV — always called, suspiciously, “pay TV” — did not exist. Basically, it was illegal. So, for lack of competition, a complacent man of modern-liberal ideas who was capable of reading a few minutes of typecript, crying when Democrats were hurt or killed, and, essentially, reprocessing news releases from the White House (or, in times of Republican administrations, from opponents of the White House) was worshiped as a god. At the time, however, he was worshiped by nobody except people whose own intellectual equipment was so faulty that their fondest hope was to be like him.

I know of one “news anchor” who was smart and knowledgeable and a good writer of his own books. That was David Brinkley. There used to be a cable anchor who was even better than Brinkley, Brit Hume of Fox News. But Brinkley is dead, and Hume is retired. Compared with these respectable figures, Walter Cronkite was the little mouse you see in the diorama of North American mammals, nibbling seeds at a fearful distance from the lordly elk. Brian Williams is down the hall, in the insect diorama.

This kind of comparison is actually too good to waste on such a lowly subject as Williams. It would be more appropriate for creatures with real significance — dictators, kings, and presidents. In the presidential diorama, the elk herd would feature such important fauna as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Cleveland (who commanded his aides to “tell the truth,” and meant it); the mice would be Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, Hoover, and so on; and the insects would be Tyler, Carter, Clinton, Bush (the second), and Obama. Yes, I know, we may need to bring more animals into the metaphor. But the curious — or curiously predictable — thing is that Williams actually aspired to be one of the celebrity insects, who in our times are happiest scurrying about in their hard little bodies, irritating everybody else into noticing them.

Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

In a documentary filmed in 2006 about Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 flooded low-lying parts of New Orleans, and which with a lot of help from Williams enraged the nation at the inability of Republican administrations to overrule acts of God, Williams boasted: “People say we found our voice on this story, after some long, cold years of one Bush term and some change.” What? What did he mean by that?

He provided part of an explanation in a speech at Temple University last October. He was there, as Tim Graham put it in News Busters on Feb. 10, to pick up “an award for ‘excellence.’” They give each other awards, these excellent people. And if they have to lie, well what the hell? "I have seen thousands of dead people in different places," Williams claimed, erroneously. Then he demanded the reward of sympathy for his own imaginary suffering. Speaking of himself, he said, "You have to find a place to put that [his erroneous memories] or else you can't get up in the morning." Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

After that outburst, he turned to his reason for hearing a mighty significance in the “voice” he “found” in New Orleans — in the tale he told (with suitable adjustments, over the years, such as seeing dead bodies floating around the streets, or nearly dying, himself, of dysentery, or being threatened by gangs that busted into his hotel) about the New Orleans hurricane. I apologize for the syntax of the following quotation from Williams. You have to realize that this is how talented network news anchors (pay rate: $10 million a year) talk when they’re off-script:

For what it meant to our society. For what it still means. The issues. Race. The environment. Energy. Justice. The lack of it. It's all still there.

Now really, what can you make of that? Beneath the total incoherence appears to lurk some claim that by reporting (falsely) on a flood, Williams was somehow addressing issues of race (granted, most of the people who were flooded out by Katrina were African-Americans), energy (huh?), justice (it’s unjust to be flooded by a hurricane?), and “the environment.” The only way in which that last phrase makes sense is to assume that Williams is indicting Mother Nature for being, as Tennyson called her, “red in tooth and claw.” But I’m sure that’s not what he meant.

Whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap.

When something is really bad, it’s impossible to parody. Its literary effect cannot be enhanced, no matter what you do. But the political and social interest of Williams’ bizarre statements has not been fully developed. The big question is, why didn’t somebody at NBC stop him from saying all this crap? Everybody knew he was saying it, over and over again, for years. And I’m not just depending on anonymous sources to make that allegation. Given the nature of television broadcasting, it has to be true.

To me, one of the most amazing things in the world is that people give some kind of credence to the word “reality” in connection with what they see on television. Consider the term “reality TV.” Twenty feet away from those morons who face the camera and pour out their hearts about how lonely and helpless they’re feeling is a crowd of photographers, directors, producers, make-up artists, best boys, gophers, and people whose jobs cannot be described. In the same way, whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap. When he dribbled out his life story to interviewers on other media, hundreds of people back at NBC were following the publicity it gave him, and them. They knew, all right. The social and political question is, why did they let it go on, for more than a decade?

One answer is that they were lazy. But that’s the wrong answer. People who have responsible positions with TV networks aren’t sleepy little puppies; they’re sleepless sharks, required to compete with other sleepless sharks. OK, try this: nothing was done about Williams because he was being paid ten million dollars a year, and you don’t mess with that kind of investment. If you do, the investment will make like a shark and mess with you. That’s a better answer. And maybe it’s a sufficient one, although it doesn’t account for the behavior of the top predators, the ones who were doling out the money and should have been more risk-averse.

A third answer, which may be true, or partially true, is that Williams was protected by his dopey, inarticulate, yet constant political correctness. Here is the guy who interviewed the last President Bush, long after he had left office, and expressed astonishment that his recent reading matter could actually have included a Camus novel and three of Shakespeare’s plays. Astonishment. To the man’s face. Anyone not a dopey leftist would have said, “Oh, Mr. President, what impressed you most about those works?” But Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda. He believed that Bush was dumb, and he didn’t know how to deal with the counter-evidence. (Or, probably, with the literary conversation that might have ensued.)

I hope you won’t write in to accuse me of being a partisan of George Bush, either one of them. Don’t worry about that. But everybody with the least curiosity has always known that Bush (regnal years 2001–2009) is a huge reader of books. Whether they do him any good — that’s another question. But what books has Williams ever read? Certainly none that would reveal to him the individuality of human life, its constant war with social stereotypes (e.g., “Republicans have no culture”). So naturally he aspired to become a stereotype — in just the best and brightest way. He cast himself as a thoughtful advocate for such stereotyped issues as, oh, “the environment,” “justice,” and the like. No one could possibly fear that he would ever harbor a critical thought about such things.

Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda.

And that, I believe, is why “liberal” commentators have been so anxious to defend him, regretting that he quit, being confident that his offenses didn’t rise to the level of lying, bringing in psychiatry to remind us that people easily and innocently confuse their memories, and doing all the other stuff they’re paid big bucks to do. I guess they don’t want to lose their own license to lie.

NBC’s official approach is different. Network pooh-bahs are taking the line that presidential spokesman Josh Earnest recently took, in response to questions about Obama’s decision not to join the Charlie Hebdo protest against terrorism, or to send anyone important to sub for him. The basic policy is that responsible officialsaccept responsibility only for successes. Failures are no one’s responsibility. They happened. Well, sort of. But now we can move on.

As Julie Pace of the AP informed her readers, Earnest explained his boss’s absence from the Paris demonstration in this way:

Earnest said the White House took the blame but that Obama himself was not personally involved in the decision. Earnest would not say who was responsible for deciding the administration's participation in the event.

In other words, it is now possible to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, or not to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, and still have nothing whatever to do with the decision, personally. It wasn’t the decision of anyone who lives in the White House; the White House itself made the decision, or at least took the blame. Personal now means impersonal, and responsibility means freedom from responsibility.

Good. Very good.




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Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P.

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On February 22, a memorial will be held in Los Angeles for Nathaniel Branden. Branden (1930–2014), a close associate of Ayn Rand during the writing and initial success of Atlas Shrugged, remained a brilliant interpreter of her philosophy and a strong influence on libertarians and individualists. He was also a controversial and perennially interesting personality.

Old friends of Rand and Branden have had much to say about him. Liberty asked two younger friends to comment, the writers Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian.

Garin:

A half century ago, when he was a student at UCLA, Nathaniel Branden wrote a letter to Ayn Rand. Many years later, when I was a student at UCLA, I wrote a letter to Nathaniel Branden.

I had discovered Objectivism through my friend Alec Mouhibian. In high school we had read most of Rand's writings. We had read Branden’s writings, too. We had become good disciples, I think, although there are some reports of our arrogance from those years. In the tenth grade we published a political newsletter called "A Dose of Sense."

It was Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (and later Barbara Branden’s book The Passion of Ayn Rand) that had alerted us to the possible excesses of our passion. Nathaniel had raised important questions: was there a “principle of benevolence” in addition to the “virtue of selfishness” praised by Rand? Were we guilty, in our endless debates with classmates and teachers, of an “appalling moralism”? Had we become bad and unkind people?

There is a time in life when one is certain of things and then there is a time when one is not, and for me and Alec the transition between those times was marked by Nathaniel Branden and his essay. That is why I had written to him. It was one of the last letters I wrote to anyone from my college e-mail address: rational@ucla.edu.

The following week Nathaniel took me out for a cheeseburger. Some time later, Alec met him, too. And then we met together. I will let Alec finish the story here and to tell you who Nathaniel was for us.

Alec:

When I first met Nathaniel Branden, a full decade ago, I had a good sense of how Ayn Rand felt when he walked into her home for the first time in 1950. What a day that must have been for her! Some writers, if they are lucky, get to see their creations come to life on a movie screen. Rand’s highly idealized, very unrealistic hero stepped right out of the pages of The Fountainhead and through her front door, destined to convert the peculiar genius of her stories into a cultural force that would never die. That is what Rand thought, during the next 20 years of her life, until her disastrous break with him over matters that had little to do with culture.

He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both.

One must talk of movements in a memorial of Nathaniel Branden. He cofounded the Objectivist movement. He inspired the self-esteem movement in psychology. He spent a great deal of time apologizing for both. (Movements tend to call for that.) His work with Rand, and his reflections on it, were also vital to the modern libertarian movement. His essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” offered all aspiring martyrs for liberty a priceless, personal account of how a passion for ideas can become a slavery to ideas, if one forgets the more mysterious values of human life.

Like so many people over the years, I had a strong desire to meet Nathaniel Branden, and in 2004, at the age of 19, I was lucky enough to get the chance. I was introduced by my comrade Garin Hovannisian, who had written about Nathaniel and subsequently met him for a cheeseburger. I showed up at his front door without a cheeseburger, but with many, many questions to ask. I asked him about Rand, of course, and I asked him about Iraq, torture, the meaning of death. We even discussed some dark subjects, like self-esteem and sex.

There is a reason the Q&A sessions after Nathaniel’s public talks invariably set off a stampede to the microphone, with brutal consequences for anyone in the audience who had forgotten to wear steel boots. Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small. I asked him everything on my mind that afternoon. Most of all I longed to know, not disinterestedly, how he had recovered from that glorious time when he once knew everything. Our conversation itself was his answer, not that I fully appreciated this at the time. We parted on warm terms.

Who was Nathaniel Branden? Objectivist, psychologist, therapist, or God forbid, “public intellectual” — none of these labels, in my view, measure up. Ideologues, even good ones, tend to be transparent and predictable, whereas Nathaniel remained a mystery to adversaries and admirers alike. I myself have tritely attempted to liken him to a character in a novel, for I believe that a profound love of liberty, and that elusive ideal of objectivity, were alive and pure in his soul. One of the last times I saw him was at a screening of the first Atlas Shrugged movie. Barbara Branden, his former wife and eternal friend, was also present, and there was nothing trite at all about how exhilarated they were by the long-delayed illustration of their early intellectual dreams. The poem had survived.

Nathaniel loved a good question; his joyful lucidity brought light to almost any subject, big or small.

When news of Nathaniel’s final illness began to surface, Stephen Cox, a longtime friend of his, wrote this about the ever-surprising question of influence: “We literally do not know what we are doing.” An unexpected epitaph for a man dedicated to rationality, and also a perfect one. Nathaniel Branden was ultimately a monk of the mind, whose thoughts, like the prayers of a religious monk, performed wonders far beyond what anyone could track.




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Of Love and Violence

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Two films opened during the Valentine’s weekend with hopes of becoming the box office blockbuster of choice, but neither is a traditional date-night romance. One feeds into typical male fantasies, while the other is based on a series of books that has had women swooning for three years. Which won at the box office opening weekend? And more importantly, which is the better film? We decided to switch things up and invite a man to review Fifty Shades of Grey while our entertainment editor, a woman, reviews Kingsman.

First up is the film that met with the most pre-release outrage. Reviews of Fifty have been published with titles such as “Fifty Shades of Smut,” “Fifty Shades of Shame,” and even “Fifty Shades of Dull.” In fact, Fifty Shades of Greyhas met with so much uproar that Kingsman: The Secret Service slipped right under the radar of the morality police. The authors of these reviews have good reason to be concerned about the long-term effects of pornography, especially pornography that focuses on violence. But does Fifty Shades of Grey, edited to receive an R rating rather than NC-17, really fit the definition? We asked film historian Steven DeRosa for his review.

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Fifty Shades of Grey

How does one review the cinematic qualities of a cultural phenomenon? A good rule of thumb is to forget the phenomenon and judge the film on its own merits. In that regard, Fifty Shades of Grey succeeds on a certain level, but suffers under the restraints — no pun intended — of Sam Taylor-Johnson's direction and Kelly Marcel's screenplay. As a movie, Fifty Shades is entertaining to a degree, titillating to an extent, but falls short of the mark in terms of its aspirations. No, Fifty Shades was not aiming to be serious art, but in the spirit of its Valentines' Day weekend opening, this should have been a fun, sexy romp.

At the outset, allow me to disclose that I have not read E.L. James's novel. I should also state that I teach cinema studies at a liberal arts college and include in my curriculum the Steven Shainberg film Secretary (2002). The reason I bring this up is that the character portrayed by James Spader in that film bears the name E. Edward Grey. I am often asked by students if there is a correlation between Spader's Grey and the Grey of Fifty Shades, to which there is no easy answer. Was E.L. James inspired by Secretary?

Grey is somehow so charmed by Anastasia's naiveté, awkwardness, and lip biting that he later stalks her and shows up at the small-town hardware store where she works.

Decades ago, Hollywood churned out weepy melodramas known as "women's pictures." While scarcer, they are still made, and are now referred to as chick flicks. Fifty Shades fits into this category in that it expects its predominantly female audience to identify with the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, whose aim is not so to much attain the unattainable as to tame the untamable. On its most basic level, Fifty Shades succeeds in doing that, yet the film has significantfailings, caused largely by several faults of dramatic structure and partly by a lack of chemistry between the two leading characters, as portrayed by Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan.

The film opens on clumsy, doe-eyed Anastasia Steele, an English major substituting for her friend, journalism major Kate, who was to interview 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey for their school newspaper. Anastasia literally stumbles into Grey's office, and for whatever reason he feels compelled to take pity on her and help her conduct the interview. Grey is somehow so charmed by Anastasia's naiveté, awkwardness, and lip biting that he later stalks her and shows up at the small-town hardware store where she works. Here she helps him with his shopping list of serial killer supplies — two sizes of duct tape, a package of zip ties, and rope. Rather than being alarmed by this, Ana is intrigued.

The odd stalker-like behavior continues when Christian sends Ana a rare edition of Tess of the D'Urbervilles and shows up to "rescue" her one night when she drunk-dials him from a club. All of this is leading to Christian's deflowering of Ana, which comes far too soon. Some of the most romantic movies ever made succeeded simply by keeping the lovers at a distance until it was almost excruciating — think of James Stewart kissing and then losing and losing again Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, or Daniel Day-Lewis unbuttoning Michelle Pfeiffer's glove to kiss her exposed wrist in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence.

Even Secretary had the good sense to concentrate on small, intimate details of the characters. At the end of that film's first spanking scene, there is a closeup of the dominant's hand brushing against the submissive's, and she responds by interlocking her pinky with his. This attention to character detail is absent from Fifty Shades, in favor of scenes showing off Grey's toys, and not the ones in his "Red Room of Pain." The scenes involvea more conventionalhelicopter and glider, piloted by him. Grey beds Steele so early in Fifty Shades that, again, there is no tension — dramatic, sexual, or otherwise.

If Ana Steele's goal is to domesticate Christian Grey and turn him into boyfriend material — someone who will take her out to dinner and a movie, cuddle up with her on the couch, and spoon with her on a cold winter's night — he reveals to her too soon that all of this is a distinct possibility. "If you agree to be my submissive, I'll be devoted to you," says Grey. There simply is no tension built up to suggest otherwise. After all, he sleeps in the same bed with her that first night, in spite of protestations that he never does that. If Ana plays along, she'll be able to top from the bottom for the rest of her days with Grey.

Even after the relationship has already been consummated, this bizarre courtship continues with Grey presenting a contract to Ana so they can solidify terms such as safe words, sleeping arrangements, and which activities and toys she will allow Grey to subject her to or use on her. Oddly, the contract negotiation scene is both funny and sexy and one of the few memorable scenes in the movie. The sex and domination scenes do little to connect the audience with either character, so those scenes fall flat.

If Ana plays along, she'll be able to top from the bottom for the rest of her days with Grey.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in Fifty Shades is that it barely scratches the surface of its Christian Grey. At one point in the story, Grey confesses to Ana details about "the woman who gave birth to him." It is a moment in the movie that is quickly glossed over, but is supposed to begin to explain something of the character's backstory. "I had a rough start in life. That's all you need to know," hesays. And that's all we get to know. Thevulnerability caused by this void is an element not fully explored, at least not in this installment, which is obviously a setup for two sequels to come.

Was Fifty Shades of Grey going to be the movie that put BDSM in the mainstream? No. Were sales of wrist restraints and riding crops going to skyrocket overnight? Probably not. Fifty Shades of Grey misses the opportunity to be a very talked about movie for the simple reason that it is so antiseptic and watered down that it could never live up to the imaginations of readers who devoured E. L. James's books. — Steven DeRosa

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

Who needs Mr. Grey when you can have Mr. Darcy? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the most romantic stories ever written, and Colin Firth, who played the dashing and noble Mr. Darcy in the 1995 made-for-TV miniseries, stars as Harry Hart in this homage to James Bond.

Hart is certainly dashing in his impeccable Saville Row suits, and he’s noble too — quite often he sets his umbrella gun to “stun” instead of “AK-47” mode when he’s engaged in battle.

Firth, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of King George VI (The King’s Speech, 2010) is usually cast in more dignified roles, but he is surprisingly perfect as Harry Hart: he is elegant and edgy, unintentionally funny, and sports a newly trimmed-down physique that makes his action sequences — 80% of which he did himself — believable. (Well, as believable as 200 corpses in a single fight can be.)

Hart is one of an elite group of British spies trained in spectacular martial arts whose purpose is to save the world from dastardly masterminds who would rather see it destroyed. In this story, their nemesis is Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Hart? Valentine? Now you understand why the film opened this particular weekend.

The violence is so over the top that it’s cartoonish rather than gruesome, but still — I was looking for my “safe word.”

Kingsman contains all the ingredients of a James Bond film: the evil mastermind who has a physical deformity (Valentine speaks with a lisp); the sultry villainess who has a deadly physical specialty (Valentine’s sidekick, Gazelle [Sofia Boutella], has blades instead of feet and slices her opponents with the accuracy of a delicatessen chef); the spectacular opening scene that is actually the end to a previous episode; multiple exotic settings around the globe; cartoonish fights and chase scenes; and an evil plan that will destroy the world if the master villain isn’t stopped in time.

Writer-director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, Snatch) adds a twist to the James Bond homage by focusing this plot on the recruitment of a new crop of Kingsmen — sort of X-Men: First Class Goes to Spy School. Hart sponsors a smart but troubled teenager named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as his protégé, and Eggsy is soon part of group of wise-ass teenagers competing against one another in deadly tasks for the honor of becoming a Kingsman.

Meanwhile, the official Kingsmen are engaged in trying to thwart Valentine’s evil plan to dominate the world, and soon the two groups (what’s left of them) join forces. I should probably give you a warning: V may be for Valentine, but it’s also for Violence. Vaughn is the director of Kick Ass, after all. He goes for edgy. The violence is so over the top that it’s cartoonish rather than gruesome, but still — I was looking for my “safe word.” In addition to sliced limbs and spurting blood, you’ll find 50 shades of grey matter exploding in this film, as well as a fireworks display you aren’t likely to forget. And that church scene? It’s all done in a single take. Now that’s impressive.

So who wins the Valentine’s Day contest? RottenTomatoes gives Kingsmen: The Secret Service a 71% critics’ rating, while Fifty Shades of Grey earned a mere 26%. Splat. But the box office tells a different story. Kingsmen earned $35 million during opening weekend, while Fifty Shades brought in more than twice that much, $81 million — and Kingsmen had an extra day, opening on Thursday instead of Friday. It will be interesting to see which film has more staying power in the theaters; I suspect that everyone who was panting to see Mr. Grey has already had enough. — Jo Ann Skousen


Editor's Note: Review of "Kingsmen: The Secret Service," directed by Matthew Vaughn. Twentieth Century Fox, 2015, 129 minutes; and "Fifty Shades of Grey," directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Focus Features, 2015, 125 minutes (14 minutes and 17 seconds of which are sex scenes).



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Seizing Reform?

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Well, you can knock me over with a spotted owl feather!

Eric Holder — yes, the same leftist hack who has turned the US Attorney General’s office into the Obama Enforcement Mob — has done something for which I commend him.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department will stop participating in asset seizures by local police. And it quotes Holder as saying that this move is only “the first step in a comprehensive review” of the feds’ asset-forfeiture program.

Local police have increasingly used the decades-old asset-seizure programs to grab cash and other assets from people in order to augment their own budgets. Asset-forfeiture laws are a powerful tool, allowing police and prosecutors to seize assets from presumed perps without a conviction, or without even a trial — indeed, without even a search warrant.

Police all over the country started to move from seizing the property of mobsters and dope dealers to seizing the property of anyone they suspected of criminality of any kind.

These laws were allegedly created with the good intention of combatting organized crime. The idea was to stop crooks from amassing huge stores of loot that would make it worthwhile for them to risk going to jail. However, seizing their property before any trial conveniently had the further advantage for police and prosecutors of making it hard for these evil criminals to prove their innocence in the courtroom, because they no longer had any money to hire good attorneys!

But, as the cliché rightly has it, the road to hell (or at least prosecutorial tyranny) is paved with good intentions.

Over the years, the feds have increasingly colluded with municipal police agencies to seize assets of presumed bad actors. These actions are called “federally adopted forfeitures.” By partnering with the feds, local cops can keep much more of what they seize than what many state laws allow. In effect, federal adoption allows local agencies to evade state laws. In these seizures, the local cops select a target, seize his assets (cash, cars, boats, jewelry, or whatever else the cops want) on suspicion of violating the law, and then invite the feds to join in. The feds will then liquidate the assets and hand over a major chunk of the money to the cops.

You could have predicted what subsequently happened. As quickly as you can utter the words “perversion of purpose by corrupt cops,” police all over the country started to move from seizing the property of mobsters and dope dealers to seizing the property of anyone they suspected of criminality of any kind — indeed, even if they had no idea what the criminality might be.

This led to an exponentially increasing explosion of seizures from the 1980s on. In the last seven years alone, there have been 55,000 such seizures, with a total booty of $3 billion — a bountiful boon to supposedly cash-strapped local police departments.

This obvious abuse of what was a dubious legal mechanism to begin with has led to a rare convergence of thought among what are normally political opponents — libertarians, modern liberal groups, and conservatives concerned about due process. The ACLU welcomed Holder’s move, as did conservative Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). As Grassley put it, “The rule of law ought to be about protecting innocent people. Too often, we’ve seen just the opposite with civil forfeiture laws. The practice up to this point had perverse incentives.”

He added that he wanted to see exactly what Holder plans to do — not an injudicious stance to take, given Holder’s less than stellar performance in office.

The WSJ followed up its report with an editorial approving the Justice Department’s move. It notes that in those cases in which the feds “adopt” a local case, they keep 20% and give the local police the remaining 80%. That’s perverse incentive, indeed. And the Journal quotes data from the estimable Institute for Justice showing that 80% of citizens whose property is seized are never charged with any crime whatsoever.

Forget shows like the old Miami Vice; now the people targeted are mainly small-time operators, not major drug kingpins.

Of course, as the editorial rightly notes, Holder’s action just suspends federal adoptions (as opposed to ending them outright) and exempts the DEA from the suspension (as well as cases of accused child pornographers). Still, as the old saw puts it, when a pig flies, you don’t criticize it for not staying up very long.

Credit for the rising public awareness and disapproval of civil asset forfeiture must in part be given to the Washington Post, which late last year ran an extended expose of the abuses of the program. The piece obviously hit a public nerve — nearly 2,500 comments were posted online. It opens by reporting the existence of a nationwide network of cops who are in competition to see who can expropriate the greatest amounts of citizens’ assets. This private “intelligence network” even has a name: the “Black Asphalt Electronic Networking and Notification System.” It allows cops to post pictures of the loot they have confiscated and to share information about possible targets (names, addresses, social security numbers, and even distinguishing tattoos). One cop (Deputy Roy Hain) unwittingly admitted the true motives for the network when he gloated in a self-published book, “All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine.” This constitutional scholar boastfully added that we should be “turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.”

Superb idea, deputy! Turn street cops into just another type of hood, liberated to shake down drivers for whatever cash they can grab. How cool!

The Post found that in the nearly 62,000 seizures made since 9/11 without either indictments or even search warrants — seizures that copped $2.5 billion for the cops! — more than half were less than $9,000. In other words, forget shows like the old Miami Vice; now the people targeted are mainly small-time operators, not major drug kingpins.

After rehearsing the evolution of the forfeiture laws in some detail, the Post recounts some of the more outrageous cases of abuse by police of this self-serving power. In one case, Ming Liu, a Chinese-born naturalized US citizen, was stopped on a freeway for doing 10 mph above the posted speed limit — hardly a major crime. Ah, but Liu was carrying $75,000 of his family’s money to buy a Chinese restaurant that they had seen advertised for sale. The deputy who stopped Liu to ticket him asked for permission to search his car. Liu, with a very limited grasp of English, allowed the cop to proceed. The cop then confiscated the cash, later claiming that Liu had given contradictory stories about his plans — which, even if true, probably just reflected Liu’s inability to speak English proficiently. The deputy then hauled the hapless gent into the department’s office and called in the US Customs and Border Protection to adopt the seizure. Hey, the cash prize here was just so sweet!

Mr. Liu hired a lawyer who fought tenaciously and successfully to get the family’s precious capital back, but it still took nearly a year for the cops to disgorge it.

In another case, two Hispanic Americans were driving a rented car on a Virginia freeway when a state trooper stopped them, allegedly for speeding and tailgating. The trooper, one C.L. Murphy, was a member of the Black Asphalt network and a “top trainer” on asset seizing. In other words, the cop was primed to seize. You might say Trooper Murphy pursues his own version of Murphy’s Law.

Over the years, many states have enacted their own forfeiture programs, often with even less oversight than the federal one.

As it happened, the two men he stopped were carrying about $28,000 in cash. Why? They were carrying money donated by their evangelical congregation — of which they were both lay ministers — for the nefarious purpose of buying land in El Salvador for a church. Just the sort of monstrous mobsters from whom the police are hired to protect us!

The men consented to a car search, and Murphy naturally grabbed the cash. He ignored their explanation of why they had the money, offering the usual rationale that he didn’t buy their outrageous story because it contained “inconsistencies.” The men deny his claim.

No matter. The cop called in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to adopt the theft — excuse me, the “seizure.” However, to the profound dismay of the cop, his department of “Murphy law enforcement,” and ICE, the men fought back. They forced the ICE-local police mob to forfeit back the whole amount. But it took hiring a lawyer and fighting for months to get it.

A more recent report by Daniel Payne in The Federalist concerns an especially egregious case that occurred in Virginia. A SWAT team — a SWAT tream — was used to break up an unauthorized poker game. Yes, learning that ten guys were playing a friendly game of high-stakes poker, the local (Fairfax VA) cops sent in eight SWAT officers brandishing assault rifles. There was absolutely no evidence that any of the poker players was armed, or that they were posing a threat to anybody. Nor is poker playing itself against Virginia law (it is instead government-controlled).

What reason did the cops give for this threatening intrusion? They said that sometimes poker players have illegal weapons, and sometimes “Asian gangs” will “target” such games. How dare they! Don’t these gangs understand that only the cops should be free to target gamblers?

The real reason the cops acted is that they were able to grab the $200,000 the poker players had, of which they wound up pocketing 40%. That is quite a fine for playing an unauthorized game of poker! As Payne puts it, “Governments control gambling not to legitimize and sanitize the practice, but to extract as much money from the citizenry as they possibly can. In the state’s eyes, the fault of the poker players in Fairfax lay not in betting money on a card game, but in not pouring money into the state’s bank account while they were doing so.”

The capstone of the Post series was an insightful piece by two clearly unbiased experts, John Yoder and Brad Cates, surveying the sorry evolution of the federal asset seizure program from its inception to the present day. And friend, they should know: Yoder headed the Justice Department’s “Asset Forfeiture Office” — yes, there is a whole division of the department devoted to depriving citizens they view as criminals of their property — from 1983 to 1985, and Cates headed it from 1985 to 1989.

Their view is damning. What started as a tool to fight drug lords (and later, mobsters in general), the authors aver, only wound up corrupting prosecutors and police departments. Forfeiture started by targeting the cash put aside by dope dealers, which enabled them to prosper even after completing their jail time. In 1986 the program was expanded to include all assets of the alleged criminals purchased by money that was presumably obtained illegally (money floridly called “the fruit of the tainted tree”). This was expanded by the legislative creation of whole new classes of crimes, such as various types of money-laundering. Over 200 crimes were quickly added to the forfeiture roster.

Yoder and Cates note that over the years, many states have enacted their own forfeiture programs, often with even less oversight than the federal one. And (as noted in the aforementioned WSJ editorial), state and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors routinely came to use asset seizure to fund their departments. As the authors note, “this led to the most extreme abuses: law enforcement efforts based upon what cash and property they could seize to fund themselves, rather than an even-handed effort to enforce the law.” As they nicely conclude, forfeiture traps are the modern analogs of the old speed traps, since they are programs for selectively taxing individuals targeted on the sly — typically minorities.

Indeed, honest sirs. We have tried in the past to reform this Frankensteinian program that has not only failed to end drug-dealing and organized crime but has turned to attack the citizens it was supposedly designed to protect. The reforms were gutted by a concerted effort of lobbyists for the local police departments. I think it is time to simply end the thing, once and for all.

Forfeiture traps are the modern analogs of the old speed traps, since they are programs for selectively taxing individuals targeted on the sly — typically minorities.

A government surely should have the power to seize the assets of a citizen — but only after that citizen has been found guilty in a court of law, and only as part of appropriate punishment. A court should have the power, upon issuing a warrant or an indictment, to order the defendant not to dispose of, convey, or hide his assets, except to pay for his legal defense. But until some jury (be it criminal or civil) finds the defendant guilty, no government agency should be allowed to take those assets.

In fine, the real poisoned tree is the authoritarian idea that property is completely unrelated to its owner, so is exempt from the presumption of innocence built into our criminal (and civil) system of law. And the fruit of that poisoned tree is and always will be corruption and the abuse of power.

I would hope that such a rule would be made into not just a federal law but a constitutional amendment. Only then will this justice-subverting monster be put to the torch.




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Four Films

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Thomas Jefferson famously said of fiction that it is “a mass of trash” and avowed, “A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels” (letter to Nathaniel Burwell, March 14, 1818). He did allow, however, that some fiction “is not without some distinction; some few modeling their narratives . . . on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality.”

The older generation has long been suspicious of popular culture. I suspect that if Jefferson were alive today, he would abhor the film industry. Indeed, much of it is a “mass of trash.” (Don’t expect an account of Fifty Shades of Grey from this reviewer.) However, I disagree with the premise that fiction is “dangerous” or a waste of time. Fiction takes us to other worlds and other cultures. It challenges us to consider other value systems and allows us to encounter vicariously other trials, triumphs, and obstacles than our own.

This is particularly true of several of the films nominated for the major awards this year, including Best Picture and best leading and supporting actors and actresses. Most of the films nominated in these categories have already been reviewed for Liberty:

In this article I will review four more Oscar-nominated films that take us into worlds we might not have experienced for ourselves and ask us to consider how we might have reacted.

Three of these films focus on women who face profound loss, including the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, and the loss of a sense of self.

* * *

Wild is based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who hiked 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from southern California to Oregon, after the death of her mother (Laura Dern). Strayed selected her surname after her divorce, and it fits her wandering personality. She has strayed far from the normal path to happiness, and she knows it. She is trying to get back on track.

She begins her journey in the way I probably would: she purchases the best supplies and equipment, carefully folds and organizes everything she will need for the journey, and arranges it all neatly and tightly in her backpack. Then she fills her cloth containers with water and straps herself in. But she can’t stand up. She doesn’t have the strength to lift the enormous weight. Undaunted, she rolls onto her knees, her backpack resembling the shell of a turtle, and slowly pulls herself upright. When I saw that,I laughed ruefully, knowing I would probably have done the same thing.

This girl might not be prepared physically, but she is determined not to give up. She tells herself, “You can quit,” with every arduous step she takes, but that freedom of choice seems to drive her forward. No one is making her do this, and because of that she keeps going.

Along the way she has plenty of time to think and grow strong. “I’m an experimentalist,” she says; “I’m the girl who says ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’” But “yes” often comes with unintended consequences, and the wanton consequences of her often reckless and destructive choices flash onto the screen unbidden and unwanted, the way painful memories often flash unexpectedly into our consciousness. We turn away from the images on the screen, as a person turns away from difficult or painful images in the mind. “Problems don’t stay problems — they turn into something else,” Cheryl tells another hiker whom she meets on the trail. Facing these experiences and turning them into something else is the purpose of her journey.

Mothering and housework aren’t chores to get through so you can get on with “real life”; mothering is something. It’s an important part of everything.

The editing of the flashbacks within the story of her trek is highly effective throughout the film, particularly the flashbacks to memories of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern, also nominated for an Oscar), who has recently died of cancer. Cheryl has conflicted memories of her mother. She is angry at her for choosing an abusive alcoholic as a husband and a father of her children. At the same time, she admires her mother’s courage in leaving that abusive marriage and returning to college to become a teacher. She chastises her mother for taking time away from her studies to fix dinner for her brother and his friend; “He’s 18! You don’t have to do everything for him. You have a paper to write.” Mostly she misses her mother’s radiant glow and love for life and everything in it. These memories are intertwined and nonlinear, as deeply conflicted emotions usually are. She doesn’t come to a chronological realization that she loved her mother. It’s always there, along with the anger.

Bobbi’s reaction to Cheryl’s “you don’t have to do everything” gets at the heart of this film and made me love her too. “But I want to do everything!” she exclaims, as though the thought should be apparent. And “everything” includes cooking for her family, playing with her children and telling them stories when they are young, loving them and nurturing them. Mothering and housework aren’t chores to get through so you can get on with “real life”; mothering is something. It’s an important part of everything.

In the end, through this 1,000-mile trek, Bobbi teaches Cheryl how to live without regret. “Is it possible to be sorry for something you’ve done, yet not want to change anything, because it brought you here?” Cheryl muses. Being able to answer that question with a joyful “Yes” makes a journey like hers worth every blistered, bloody step.

* * *

Jennifer Aniston was not nominated for an Oscar for her role in Cake, but many critics thought she should have been, and she was nominated by the Screen Actors Guild for their top award, so we are including her performance in this review.

First you notice the scars. They feather in soft white lines across her cheek, under her chin, into her open neckline. Next you notice the way she moves — gingerly and cautiously, with deliberate care. Her head doesn’t turn on her neck; instead, she moves her whole body from the waist to address a person standing next to her. She doesn’t look up, but tips backward to see into the person’s face. In her eyes we see not only the pain of sorrow but also the pain of physical agony.

As Cake opens, Claire (Aniston) is attending a support group for people with chronic pain. The facilitator is encouraging members to express their feelings about the recent suicide of one of their group, Nina (Anna Kendrick). Claire becomes fascinated by Nina’s choice to end her life and begins to dream and hallucinate about Nina, eventually contacting Nina’s husband, Roy (Sam Worthington). Gradually we learn what has happened to Claire, and it is indeed horrific.

There are certain agonies no one can understand except a person who has experienced them firsthand. This is one of them, so I have no vantage point from which to judge the way Aniston plays this role. I haven’t the right to judge how a person facing her particular grief reacts. I can’t say, “This is how she should play the part.”

Having said that, I still want something different from this character. I want her to be more like me, or more like I think I would be if I experienced the same thing — though how can I know, since I never have (and hope I never will) had the experience myself? It has been said that adversity does not build character, it reveals it, and in this film adversity reveals a character bereft of strength or courage. I want to say to her, “Choose life, or choose death, but don’t choose this!” If one purpose of fiction is to allow us to consider how we would react if we were in the protagonist’s shoes, I want to believe that I would be stronger and more courageous than this.

I’m reminded of the husband in Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” who tries to empathize with his wife’s inconsolable sorrow after the death of their toddler: “Let me into your grief,” he begs. “Give me my chance.” But then he adds, rather insensitively, “I do think, though, you overdo it a little . . . in the face of love.” And there you have it. People grieve differently. Some need to be utterly alone in their grief, while others crave the company and support of others. Neither is wrong, because we are entitled to grieve in our own way. But it is painfully more difficult to survive tragedy when one personality type is married to the other.

It has been said that adversity does not build character, it reveals it, and in this film adversity reveals a character bereft of strength or courage.

Similar to the wife in this poem, Aniston’s character does “overdo it a little” — yet she underdoes it at the same time. Claire is consumed by pain, both physical and emotional. She is incapable of connecting with people, even those who love her and want to help. But while Claire overdoes it, Aniston underdoes it. To a certain extent she is still Rachel Green of Friends, mooning over her on-again, off-again romance with Ross and fretting over the petty concerns of her coffee-shop life. Claire has Rachel’s perfect hair, framing her perfect oval head and her perfect rosebud lips. Miraculously the scars have avoided marring her nose, her eyes, and her mouth — and she speaks almost the way Rachel does in the episode where she trips and bites her lip (please don’t ask why I know this).

Sometimes Aniston also forgets her character’s limitations. For example, while she does move cautiously from the waist to talk to a person next to her, she is unaccountably able to lower herself to poolside for a water therapy session in one smooth, agile gesture, without reaching out to balance herself or hold her weight up gingerly from her damaged legs. These jarring moments cause me to think that the Academy got it right in overlooking Aniston for the Oscar nomination. And it isn’t a very good movie, either.

* * *

The loss of a parent, a child, or a close friend (Wild, Cake, Foxcatcher, American Sniper, The Judge, etc.) is understandably devastating. The loss of physical ability caused by illness or injury can be just as traumatic (The Theory of Everything, Cake, etc.) The loss of mental capacity through the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease is explored in Still Alice, a filmabout Columbia professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50, at the height of her career as a teacher, writer, and lecturer in, ironically, linguistics — the study of language.

Any film about senility, Alzheimer’s, or mental decline runs the risk of becoming slow, maudlin, and depressing; witness Amour, the 2012 Oscar nominee about an octogenarian couple struggling with the wife’s mental and physical decline after she has a stroke — a movie that was, by all accounts, slow, maudlin, and depressing. (Even the film’s own IMDB page acknowledged that it leaves audiences in a “pensive, quiet, — even downcast — mood.”)

That Still Alice avoids this inherent problem is due entirely to its casting of Julianne Moore in the title role. Most films of this type tell the story through the eyes and experience of the family watching the slow disintegration, but writer-director Richard Glatzer had the courage to tell this story from the point of view of the person who has the disease herself. This format invites the audience to experience along with her the gradual loss of cognitive recognition and the determination to hold on to her sense of self for as long as possible.

It’s ironic that the new American Dream eschews the accumulation of material goods in favor of accumulating memories — yet in the end, all Alice will recognize will be material things.

Glatzer uses the camera’s focus to demonstrate both the fog of Alice’s forgetfulness and the sharpness of her intellect. In one moment we are running with her through Central Park on a perfect, crisp fall day; in the next moment we are surrounded by blurred buildings and the confusion of wondering where we are. The technique is used effectively throughout the film to demonstrate how her memory comes and goes as the disease progresses. The story focuses on the early stages of Alzheimer’s, when she knows what is happening and remains engaged in the fight against it, while preparing for the inevitability. She pores over photo albums, watches home movies, writes notes to herself, plans family trips and “one last times” as she struggles to stay connected to who she once was. It is sad, yes, but also heroic and admirable. She will neither give up nor give in.

Alice’s husband and children react in different ways. Her husband (Alec Baldwin) tries to be sympathetic, but he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t want to discuss it, as though discussion means acceptance. He grows impatient and often leans away from her when they sit side by side. I don’t fault him in this. It’s tough to watch the person you love and respect for her charm and intellect turn into someone entirely different. But it’s even tougher to see the person you love and rely on pull away from you in the hour of your greatest need.

Ironically, it is Alice’s youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who gives her the most support. Ironically, because before the onset, Lydia was the rebel who fought against her mother. Ironically, because Lydia is an actress whose craft relies on memorizing lines. Ironically, because Lydia gains understanding for her roles and a deepening of her talent through observing the suffering — no, through the struggling, Alice would say — of her mother. And ironically, because Kristen Stewart has never been a particularly good actress, but in this role she is at her very best.

It’s ironic, too, that the new American Dream eschews the accumulation of material goods in favor of accumulating experiences — that is, memories — yet in the end, all Alice will recognize will be material things. As she describes what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s, Alice says, “All my life I've accumulated memories — they've become, in a way, my most precious possessions. The night I met my husband, the first time I held my textbook in my hands. Having children, making friends, traveling the world. Everything I accumulated in life, everything I've worked so hard for — now all that is being ripped away.” This realization, spoken with such eloquence and dignity, rips at our hearts. Still Alice is a film that brings many tears to the audience, but it is not maudlin or depressing. It is a celebration of the indomitable spirit that leads us to keep hanging on until the last light goes out.

* * *

Selma is an Oscar nominee that also takes us to another world and challenges us to consider how we might have reacted to the values of another time and culture. The film focuses on Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and the historic 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights for African-Americans.

As most students of American history will recall, the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution had established the right for all American males over the age of 21 to vote, but enforcement of those amendments had often been left up to the individual counties in each state; and in the South, it was almost impossible for new voters to register. Among other requirements designed as barriers to registration, first-time registrants had to pass a literacy test made of difficult civics questions; pay a poll tax; and provide a voucher from a registered voter who would “vouch” for them as residents of the county — and few white voters were willing to risk the ire of their neighbors by vouching for a black voter. White voters could circumvent these barriers through “grandfather laws” stating that if their fathers or grandfathers had voted prior to 1867, they were allowed to vote without passing the tests — and no Southern blacks could vote prior to 1866 or 1867.

Although President Johnson eventually signed the Civil Rights Bill, it was not government that came to the rescue.

The film demonstrates the unwarranted violence and outright brutality that was perpetrated against African-Americans at this time: churches blown up, citizens chased down and beaten with billy clubs, unarmed activists shot and killed by police officers. FBI agents tapped Dr. King’s phones, watched his house, and recorded his movements. Yet King also had the ear of the White House and met frequently with President Johnson. It was an era of ambiguity as government scrambled to keep up with changing public opinion.

King knew that a change this significant could not be accomplished through black activism alone. “I want to raise white consciousness, and that requires drama,he says in the film.I want to be in their papers in the morning and on their TVs at night.” President Johnson might not have liked it, but he could not ignore it.

Although President Johnson eventually signed the Civil Rights Bill, it was not government that came to the rescue. Those are police officers wielding clubs and blocking the road; FBI agents tapping phones and spying on the activists’ movements; government officials creating onerous rules to hinder voting registration. Democratically elected government is by its very nature conservative, with a strong instinct for self-survival. Government tends to maintain the status quo until enough pressure is brought from the people to enact a change. By the same token, laws cannot change public opinion or personal beliefs. Persuasion, not force, is the key to lasting and peaceful change.

Despite its significance in dramatizing a turning point in history, Selma is strangely uncompelling. It has moments of intensity when these acts of violence occur, but Oyelowo simply does not possess the charisma to portray King convincingly. His oratory is not fiery and his ability to inspire is lacking. This might be partly because of the fact that King’s own words could not be used in the film due to copyright restrictions, so director Ada DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb had to paraphrase his speeches. Moreover, the film barely skims the surface of controversy surrounding his personal life. And then there’s Oprah Winfrey, inserting herself into the center of nearly every scene where violence occurs — even in the closing credits, there she is in the center of the photograph.Winfrey is far too well known as a TV personality to be convincing as an actor any longer, and her presence breaks the fictional barrier necessary for a film to be believable.

Laws cannot change public opinion or personal beliefs. Persuasion, not force, is the key to lasting and peaceful change.

The best part of this film occurs at the very end, when footage from the actual march is included.There are Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Lena Horne. More importantly, there are hundreds of ordinary people who marched for a cause they believed was just — and a third of the marchers were white. King was right — they needed to raise white consciousness in order to effect a lasting change. The ending credits are powerful too, as we realize how many future leaders participated in the march — men such as future Alabama congressman John Lewis, future mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, and minister-activist Ralph Abernathy (King’s right-hand man, who has been all but exorcised from civil rights history for having had the audacity to write about King’s extramarital affair the night before his death).

Selma asks us to consider on which side of the bridge we would have stood that day, and by association, on which side of “justice for all” we stand today. It’s good, but with a better script and a better actor, it could have been great.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wild," directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Fox Searchlight, 2014, 115 minutes; "Cake," directed by Daniel Barnz. Cinelou, 2014, 102 minutes; "Still Alice," directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Sony Pictures Classics, 2014, 101 minutes; and "Selma," directed by Ava DuVernay. Cloud Eight Productions, 2014, 128 minutes.



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Brian Williams: The Political Effect

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Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I have known for a long time, and whom I would describe as an idolator of Hillary Clinton. My friend is an intelligent person, but Hillary is her blind spot. Every national election cycle has seen her proudly hailing Hillary’s political progress or bitterly regretting her failure with the electorate. Any attempt to suggest grounds for skepticism has been greeted with a swiftly rising cloud of anger.

Yesterday was different. When she pointedly brought up Brian Williams, I thought I would soon hear her favorite refrain about “people who lie — just like George Bush.” This time, however, the “just like” was Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s amazing lie about being shot at in Bosnia was recounted in detail, and with something approaching glee. My efforts to divert the discussion from such an unpleasant subject were unavailing. My friend now despises Clinton.

When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying.

I suspect there are a lot of other people like her. I also know there are a lot of other problems with Hillary, besides the one that got to my friend. Hillary’s lies about not being rich. Her being rich, with money accrued during the political process. Her total lack of accomplishments. Her bizarre and ridiculous husband, and the bizarre and ridiculous things she has said about him. Her slick, repellent friends. Her friendship with crony capitalists. Her “what difference does it make?” speech about Benghazi. Her “business doesn’t create jobs” speech. Her “vast rightwing conspiracy” speech. Her apparent inability to give a speech that anybody actually likes. Her own complete lack of likability.

I was surprised to hear someone as savvy as Doug Schoen (speaking on Fox News on February 9), alleging that none of this matters to Hillary’s prospects. He pointed to the disarrangement of the Republicans, which supposedly makes people like Hillary more. I have another theory. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’m trying it out. When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying. Similarly, when people hate Clinton for being a nepotist, the little bell goes off again, and they hate Jeb Bush for the same reason. And when people hate President Obama for his babbling obfuscations, they remember the babbling obfuscations of most of the leading Republicans.

These reactions, which are normal and natural for normal people, may clear a lot of bad candidates out of the field. Hell, it worked with Romney.




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Dear 454729: Welcome to CUNY

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Probably I should save this for a Word Watch column, but here goes. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, once a distinguished academic institution, has commanded staff to drop “Mr.,” “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and I suppose “Miss,” when addressing people. Faculty are urged to follow suit. The preferred option is, apparently, to address people as “John Doe” or “Mary Roe,” not as the hated, sexist, “Mr. Doe” and “Ms. Roe.” It is intimated by the administration that federal anti-discrimination laws require this.

Of course, it’s all idiotic. It is also grossly tasteless, despite the pretense that it is intended to "ensure a respectful, welcoming and gender-inclusive learning environment.” “Gender-inclusive” is different from “genderless.” And how do you feel when someone starts a letter with “Mary Roe: Welcome to the fall semester” — let alone “Mary Roe: I am sorry to tell you that your mom has died.” I don’t feel warmly welcomed or deeply respected when strangers can’t come up with a better door opener than “Stephen Cox” when they want to confide their thoughts and feelings to me. Returning to “inclusive”: if inclusivity means not knowing whether someone is a man or a woman, we will have to banish all first names, too. They might give it away. And if you want to be ethnically inclusive as well as gender inclusive, there go the last names. Soon the only way to communicate a respectful welcome will be to address people by numbers.

Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea.

This stuff is hypocritical. Do you think the exalted leaders of the City University of New York have stopped referring to themselves as “Dr.,” despite the class distinction and often the ethnic distinction involved in that? I mean, to call oneself “Dr. Smith” shows that you are better than other people, doesn’t it? And aren’t most people with Ph.D.’s Caucasians? Case closed.

But why is this important? One reason is that laws — while bad enough in themselves — become the basis of decrees, which are ordinarily worse. These decrees proceed from someplace so deep in Cubicle City that no one can tell what perpetrator to fire, supposing that anyone had the power to fire anyone. Invariably, rules intended to remold society come from people whose minds are too small to grasp the real diversity of society, minds with but one idea (in this case the bureaucratic sponsorship of the “transgendered”). Nothing else matters: custom, grace, the real respect owing to the people with whom one wants to communicate, nothing.

A society that allows itself to be thus cheapened, bit by bit, day by day, will eventually have no customs, social graces, or respectful gestures to enable differing people to dwell together sociably. It will be a constant, meaningless drama of inflamed sensitivities on the part of some and sullen acquiescence on the part of others.

Libertarians are often remarkable for our lack of intellectual interest in the kinds of daily interaction that make liberty possible. Hayek didn’t suffer from that lack; neither did Mises or Paterson. But for too many of us, nothing bad can happen unless a government agency is directly responsible for making it happen. That leaves the rest of the culture, the culture whose values enable the government to do whatever it does, completely off the hook. You may say, “Well, CUNY is an agency of government,” and it is; but you know, or else should know, that private colleges are almost equally busy coarsening our intellectual and cultural life. We can’t let ourselves off the intellectual hook by imagining that individualism can be robust no matter how debased the surrounding culture may be.




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Stevie, Dictator of Togo

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I was a student at the Université du Bénin in Togo in 1983. With typical and, I think, admirable American disrespect for authority, my fellow exchange students and I enjoyed calling the president of Togo “Stevie,” because he had changed his name from Etienne (French for “Steven”) to Gnassingbé, to sound more African. Our Togolese friends did not find it funny. It wasn’t that they were offended. They were afraid when they heard us talking like that and told us of ditches where the tortured corpses of the president’s critics appeared overnight.

According to my sources, the legends about Eyadéma Gnassingbé were officially encouraged. One, the story of the plane crash, was the subject of an entire comic book that I read when I was in Togo. In the comic, the president of Togo figured as a superhero with metaphysical powers. It was meant to be taken literally.

It’s true that Eyadéma survived a plane crash in 1974. It’s also true that he credited his survival to his own mystical powers. In the comic book, the plane was sabotaged, and his survival was definitely the miraculous result of his personal magic. In a national monument built to commemorate the incident, Eyadéma’s statue towers over images of the heroic officials who apparently didn’t have enough magic of their own and died in the crash.

A vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and they usually ended up dead.

It’s also true that Eyadéma was a leader of the coup that unseated Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo. At the time of the coup, Eyadéma was called Etienne Eyadéma, and the legend is that he personally machine-gunned Olympio at the gates of the American embassy in Lomé, where the then-president was seeking asylum. By the way, that coup followed a common pattern in sub-Saharan, post-colonial Africa: colonial powers establish trading relations with coastal tribe (in Togo’s case, the Ewe). Colonial powers assert administrative control over a large inland area, making the coastal elite a minority within the colonial borders. At the time of independence, the coastal elite takes over. (Sylvanus Olympio was Ewe.) The army is dominated, numerically, by inland tribes. (In Togo’s case, they included the Kabye.) The soldiers get fed up and stage a coup. (Eyadéma was Kabye.)

One day, I was walking through the market with a Togolese friend when he told me another story about Stevie. I had pointed out to him a very pretty girl selling chocolate bars. The girl was about 13. She balanced an enameled tin platter on her head. The platter bore a perfect pyramid of scores of identical chocolate bars in white and red paper wrappers. And the grace note was the girl’s matching white and red dress. She had made herself into a lovely advertisement for dark chocolate. Clever and pretty. But it only reminded my friend of the legends about Eyadéma’s sexual powers. He said that a vast black Mercedes limousine trolled the market streets of Lomé scooping up pretty teenaged girls for the president’s use, and that they usually ended up dead, not because of any abuse beyond presidential rape, but as a mere side effect of the great girth of his manhood.

Stevie died in office. At the time of his death in 2005, he was the longest serving head of state in all of Africa. His son, Faure Gnassingbé, took over and is still president.




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Die Nasty

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Statist “progressives” are obsessed with wealth and power. I think that back in the ’80s, they must have been sucked into their TV sets, and they’ve been trapped ever since in an endless episode of Dynasty. This must be why they have no idea what the real world is like.

Oliver, a friend of mine who’s about to retire, will need to go on working — just to survive — until he dies. He can’t disclose to the government that he’ll still be earning money, or he’ll lose the Social Security he paid for with money he might otherwise have invested. Without it, he can’t make enough money, at any job that will still have him, while living on Social Security alone would reduce him to poverty. When I complain about this to people with standard-issue leftist views, all they do is rant about the greedy rich and the big corporations — as if Oliver didn’t exist.

On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas.

Another friend, Kevin, keeps bees and chickens at the home he shares with his life partner, on a spacious property in a semi-rural area. The city, or county, or whoever hands down such edicts, does not permit him to have enough bees or chickens to make a living selling honey and eggs. So he must return to an office cubicle — to spend the rest of his life working for big corporations and the rich.

How does any of this make sense? I mention my second friend to people who care so much about “the working class”. And I get blank stares and silence. Then they launch into yet another diatribe about “social justice.”

I’m beginning to think that they live on a different planet. A good name for it would be Die Nasty. And that’s definitely the way a whole lot of us are going to die, if “progressives” keep showing us their compassion.

The first requirement of honest politics, it seems to me, is that they apply to real people, here on earth. On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas. They ignore those of us who actually exist. Stereotypical, one-dimensional characters are all that interest them.

I’m much more concerned about actual human beings. Oliver would love to spend his golden years camping and fishing, and God knows he’s worked hard enough to earn it. Kevin’s farmette is within a stone’s throw of the zoo. He loves getting up to the crow of the rooster and the roar of the lions, and tending to the living things that flourish in his care. But although the American Dream looks different to each of us, for many it’s been preempted by a nightmare.

Were I to appeal to one of my own favorite fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes, he would quickly collar the culprit. “Tell me, my dear Lori,” I hear him muse, as he puffs on his pipe and plays the violin, “who really benefits from this mad scheme?”

I don’t need Doctor Watson to help me find the answer. It is elementary, indeed. The statist Left is the only sector of our society that gets anything out of the equation. “Splendid!” Holmes would declare. “And there is . . . do you not agree . . . a terrible beauty to it all.”

I suppose there is. Leftists keep making the very problems they purport to solve even worse than ever, thereby assuring that they themselves will keep being needed to save the day. Only day after day goes by, and no matter how many years pass, the problems remain. We keep getting more and more desperate for a solution, and far too many of us continue to call upon our “progressive” heroes to help.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it.

Both Oliver and Kevin are diehard progressives. They persist, against all evidence to the contrary, in thinking that their saviors will come through for them. Racial tensions soar into the stratosphere, the battle of the sexes goes thermonuclear, and gay activists snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by attacking religious freedom just as same-sex marriage is gaining ground. Still, the faithful keep faith. If I were to tell my friends that government is making their lives miserable, they would quickly protest that — oh, no! — government is noble, and has We the People’s best interests at heart.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it. I have stopped, because I no longer believe in statism at all. I, too, will have to work for the rest of my life, because Obama and Company have robbed me of the chance that I might ever retire. I still believe in progress, but I refuse to accept the silly mummery that claims to promote it as any substitute for the real thing.

Real people need real solutions. It would help if more of us got a clue. Where is Sherlock Holmes when we need him?




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