Beautiful Losers

A Lost Rant

Before I was out of high school I read the brilliant, obscene, and intoxicating novel Beautiful Losers, a gush of orgasmic narrative that forever demolished every remaining preconception I had of love as a delicate waltz of chivalric gestures and sentimental aphorisms.

From Beautiful Losers I learned that love was desperation and cunning, flagellation and mysticism, grunting and grasping and kissing and licking and scratching for the tiniest fragment of grace in a world of obscene emotional brutality.

Viet Nam 20 Years After Indifference

George Bush is about to travel to Viet Nam with a contingent of 200 business leaders, on the occasion of Viet Nam’s probable admission to the World Trade Organization. He will be attending the Asia Pacific Economic forum. Viet Nam hopes to showcase it’s emerging economy at this meeting: we’re ready to join the Asian tigers.

Bush has already met with Viet Namese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.

It is 2006. In 1973, the U.S.-backed government of South Viet Nam collapsed and the U.S. army fled. Millions of refugees got into boats and ended up in refugee camps. Many were admitted to the U.S. The communist government of North Viet Nam unified the country and established a dictatorship. The U.S. went on it’s way to try to mess up Central America as much as possible, before watching the communist government of Russia implode (thanks largely to their disastrous attempt to foist a communist government on Afghanistan, leading to the triumph of the Taliban).

An objective person could be excused for wondering if there are lessons to be learned. In both cases, Afghanistan and Viet Nam, attempts to impose a friendly government (friendly to Russia, France or the U.S.) on a foreign nation conflicted with the nation’s own sense of identity and independence, and hostile political groups were able to take advantage and establish themselves as the representative of nationalist aspirations. The determination of the occupied to expel the occupiers was beyond the wildest imagination of the invader. Both Russia and the U.S. thought that superior technology and military might would, in the end, triumph.

What if the U.S. had decided, in 1963, to just leave Viet Nam alone?

What if the Soviet Union had decided, in 1979, to just leave Afghanistan alone?

Well, what if the Americans, who were funding the Mujahideen, who later became the Taliban, who later became Osama Bin Laden, had just minded their own business in Afghanistan as well?

And what if America had just stayed out of Iraq?

I think some generals already have come to the conclusion that as long as the U.S. remains in Iraq, they will be the focal point of opposition, and the opposition is always going to be led by the people most hostile to U.S. values and policies.

George Bush and his Republican apologists have been fond of saying that you couldn’t just leave Saddam in power. Well, you couldn’t just leave Viet Nam. And you couldn’t just not invade Cuba. And you couldn’t just not give military aid to the opponents of the Sandinistas. And so on, and so on. Time and time again, history shown that these kinds of grand schemes almost never work out.

Time and time again, the militarists are proven wrong by history, and proven right by their own delusions: they are always ready to enter a new quagmire.


The Peculiar Undeserved Rehabilitation of Marie Antoinette

How can you not root for poor, abused, exploited, and misjudged Marie Antoinette in Sofia Coppola’s fine film biography, “Marie Antoinette”? She’s nothing more than a naïve waif, an exuberant absolutist cheerleader and aesthete, with the charming hobby of playing at being a milk maid and gambling away her nation’s treasury.

It is a peculiarity of our times that historical judgments no longer consist of balanced assessments of all the facts and circumstances of someone’s life. Sofia Coppola does an extravagantly wonderful job displaying the spectacular indulgences of Bourbon court life, and she does a great job, in half the film, in dissecting the nuances of manner and gesture and style in the life of a 15-year-old princess newly introduced to the most dangerous and sophisticated social strata in Europe.

And then, suddenly, she draws back, evades, ignores, and her selectivity becomes transparent. We never see this Marie Antoinette contact royalist factions among the revolutionaries and try to arrange escape, and a counter-revolution, and civil war, all for the purpose of restoring her husband and herself to absolute power. We don’t see soldiers killing unarmed peasants. We don’t see the starving children of peasants, though we hear Marie’s children cry when the mob comes to move the royal family back into the palace in the city.

Marie Antoinette was hardly the monster her contemporary enemies portrayed her as, but she wasn’t this callow, harmless teenager either. And that leads me to the second failing of this film: no young woman, given the power that she had, could have survived court life as long as she did without developing the ability to manage, direct, and command others, not necessarily because she wants to, or because she’s a bully, but because she is royalty in an age that genuinely believed that God had appointed one class of people to scrounge and slave and suffer and die in poverty, and one class of people to collect almost all the wealth they created and rule over them.

We almost never see this Marie Antoinette do what princesses and queens do: order people about, dismiss them, communicate her wishes. We see her frolicking in her lovely, pastoral gardens, and we overhear a few snippets about the outlandish costs, and she cavorts with her attending ladies like a school girl, but Coppola never shows us the Queen of France exercising her will, and the people around her reacting to the immovable force of her preferences, her desires, her tastes.

We see her innocently imitate a milk-maid, but the servants who actually do the work of gardening and maintenance are all cheerful and picturesque.

The process of rehabilitation is easy. No one is a perfect monster, or, as in this case, perfectly trivial. It doesn’t strike me as particularly significant that, once France began to fall apart, we find evidence of Marie Antoinette dressing less extravagantly, and refusing more diamonds, or that she was a decent, loving mother, or that she had her charities.

Or, pity her grace, after her arrest and the death of Louis:  “some of the guards going as far as blowing smoke in the ex-queen’s face”.

But it is striking to me how this kind of historical revision seems to overcompensate. Louis XIV was an incredibly incompetent monarch, and France’s ruling class did almost everything possible to bring about a revolution by creating absolutely intolerable conditions for the poor and middle classes, while indulging their own tastes for unbelievable extravagance, and financing a war in America.

And, contrary to “Marie Antoinette”, both Marie and Louis conspired to arrange for an army from Austria to invade France, arrest and kill the revolutionaries, and restore the Bourbons to the thrown.   Had she carefully avoided association with the Austrian threats, and the attempt to flee to Varennes, she might have escaped.

There is no excuse for the omission of this central fact about the fate of Marie Antoinette.  She didn’t deserve to die– nobody did– but she was not innocent.

Drop that Bass! I Mean it! Don’t Make me use This!

Life gets more and more like Dr. Strangelove, the movie.

Read About Your New  Well-Armed Coast Guard Here.

The U.S. Coast Guard now, having carefully and rationally considered the threat of Al Qaeda storming Duluth from across Lake Superior, are going to arm their cutters with 7.62 mm machine guns capable of firing up to 600 rounds per minute.

Yes, the U.S. Coast Guard, having carefully and thoughtfully considered the threat of Al Qaeda infiltrating Port Burwell and Port Dover, Ontario, Canada, and hijacking high-speed fiberglass sail boats or diesel powered fishing vessels, or a kayak, and stealthily crossing the deceptively placid waters of Lake Erie, to launch a major anthrax or fertilizer assault on Erie or Toledo…. we will not let it happen!

The U.S. Coast Guard, armed, and tested, and resolute, and disciplined, will stand up with courage and determination, and give their lives, if necessary, to stop them… God bless you, U.S. Coast Guard.

I’ll bet you think I’m joking. Or maybe you think, well, doesn’t seem likely, but I’ll bet the Department of Homeland Security knows a lot more than I do about the threat from Al Qaeda and about exactly how rigid those screening programs for refugees coming to in Canada. My God! It’s another 9/11 just waiting to happen.

Or maybe not. Maybe you will vote for someone else in five weeks or so.

How Dare You Not Stop Everything When I Tell You Too

When construction crews at the site of the World Trade Centre found some human remains in an abandoned manhole last week, some of the families of the victims were “outraged”. They demanded a stop to all construction. They demanded that the world stop turning and the winds stop blowing, until their grief has been adequately recognized by a monument 1150 miles high, made of pure titanium, and costing more than a billion, trillion, zillion dollars.

And all of the other suffering people in the world– your suffering is not important or significant or worthy of memorials or cash awards because, you are not me.

Nobody will publicly take on the families of victims of 9/11 because their shrieking outrage will be deafening and the media is terrified of displeasing them in any way, so they get to make demands like this with impunity, without blowback, without anybody calling them out.

And one thing the media would not dare to do is raise the question of why other victims of government malfeasance or neglect, like black families living in poor neighborhoods because of red-lining,  polluted by lead factories or dumps of asphalt shingles or leaky refineries, suffering outrageously increased rates of cancer and lung disease, — why do these families never receive even a penny of compensation for their suffering?

Yes, we do know.  And it is an outrage.


Shut-up and Vote Like the Rest of Us: The Jury System

The jurors in the Heidgen case apparently considered that. Twice they sent the judge a note saying they were deadlocked. After the fourth day of deliberations, an 8-to-4 majority in favor of a murder conviction became 10 to 2, according to the jurors. In the fifth day, the last two holdouts joined the majority. But one of those two, the jury forewoman, said later that she had felt unbearably pressured by other jurors. She said she was still convinced that Mr. Heidgen was guilty of manslaughter, not murder.
New York Times, October 21, 2006

God help you if someone is on trial for his life, as Mr. Heidgen was, and you are on a jury and you are in the minority that doesn’t believe that drunk driving is the same thing as taking a knife and stabbing it into someone’s chest, even if the results of your criminal foolishness are very, very bad.

You will not have the option of voting against conviction on the more serious charge– murder. This is for a man who was DUI and got into an accident causing the death of a 7-year-old girl. Some members of the jury, while agreeing to convict of manslaughter, felt that what he did was not the same as taking a gun and shooting someone.

What is going on here? This is bizarre. We have a jury system. The prosecution presents its case. The defense presents their counter arguments, the jury discusses the case, and then they vote.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask a deadlocked jury to go back, discuss some more, and then hold a second or even a third vote. But when some jurors declare that they are not willing to vote guilty and the judge sends them back over and over and over again, even after the rest of the jury has declared itself to be deadlocked, the judge is essentially ordering a verdict of guilty. He is essentially over-ruling the jury system: because in the jury system a man is not guilty unless the entire jury finds him guilty. Clearly, this jury, after what any sane person would deem “reasonable” discussion, did not attain unanimity. It should have been released and sent home. (Actually, they would have found Heidgen guilty of manslaughter instead of murder, which would have been, given the circumstances, a more reasonable outcome.)

The judge knew this.  The judge did something despicable and contrary to the principles of justice.

But then Neil Flynn would have been very, very unhappy.

And the prosecutor, who was elected on a platform of getting tough on drunk drivers, would have been unhappy. And the judge himself, also facing election, would have been unhappy.

So the majority of the jury was allowed to continue bullying and intimidating the remaining jurors until they got their way. There was no other result that will bring an end to the psychological torture being inflicted on the minority jurors.

This was a kangaroo court.

As difficult as it might be to summon any sympathy at all for a man who drives with three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood and causes an accident that takes the life of a young girl…. Mr. Heidgen deserves better. We all do.

There is a video interview with the father of Katie Flynn on the NY Times website. How hard is it to lose sympathy for the father of a 7-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver? When “justice” starts to look more like vindictiveness and revenge.

Will Neil Flynn be happy after Martin Heidgen has rotted in a federal prison for 20 or 30 years? I doubt it. But maybe it takes a remarkable act of spiritual ascendancy to not want to just bash somebody after you’ve been the victim of an unjust act.

Every citizen should be required to see the movie “12 Angry Men” at least once in his or her life.

But I doubt it would make any difference.

And don’t tell me that Mr. Heidgen got “closure”.  What he got was revenge.

Scorcese’s Undeserved Oscar

An artist starts out being his own man. He develops a style, a voice, a signature, and it is very good. He finds an audience who are astonished at his gift. Again and again and again.

And then he fails them.

He tries to wander away from his formula, and the audience, expecting the formula, resist. Even worse, he now has a new audience who never really liked his own, original work, but they know that a number of astute fans and critics do, so they join them, and lo it was good, and they did esteem each other’s good taste.

So Scorsese is back, trying to look like “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas”. And a lot of critics and pundits who didn’t understand what was so original about “Taxi Driver” in the first place, but know it is one of the most esteemed films in American history, are falling over themselves to praise what they think is the next classic. By golly, I think Scorsese is finally going to get an Oscar. If he does, as is Hollywood tradition, he will receive it for an inferior work, one that possibly stinks. [Scorsese did indeed win an Oscar for “The Departed”]

“The Departed” is Scorsese imitating Tarantino imitating Scorsese. He is imitating himself. He’s looking for scenes and passages that resemble scenes and passages from other movies that people thought were pretty cool. He references himself, instead of reality. All of the anguish in Billy’s heart must be expressed with writhing and moaning and curses, because Scorsese has forgotten– or doesn’t care– how to make it come from inside.

This is the same virus “Gangs of New York” suffered from: violence so gratuitous and pointless, it all becomes comical and ridiculous. There is a sequence in “The Departed” where betrayers betray each other and themselves, like dominoes. It doesn’t play as clever as it might sound.

The problems are thus: we are asked to believe an undercover cop would improve his chances by declaring loudly and insistently, “Yoo hoo– I am not the cop.”

We are asked to believe that a police department psychiatrist would feel some odd compulsion to put up with an abusive client beyond all reason, probably because she’s attracted to the big whiny lug. Scorsese, in this long, long movie, doesn’t have time to build this relationship. You must absorb attraction in a couple of brief scenes, and then she’s possibly having his baby and going to his funeral. How can she possibly miss him? All they’ve done is twist their own arms: why should I be your patient– you’re probably an idiot. I hate you. I hate it that you make me talk to you, again and again… Well I hate you, but I feel this odd compulsion to sit here and let you continue to abuse me so I can fall in love with you, you big whiney lug…

The worst defect in pseudo-serious Hollywood movies is this trope in which a character is compelled to expose his soul, bitching and whining the whole time, to a psychiatrist, or lover, or buddy, and he or she cares about you so much that she or he will continue to demand that you allow them to pay attention to you no matter how much your pretend you don’t want their attention.  It’s sophomoric.

“Reign Over Me” anyone?

We love this because there is nothing more self-gratifying than the idea that someone would still love us even if we resisted.  The option to discard knowing that she or he will never let you go.

And then there is the prince, Jack Nicholson. Does he even think he’s acting anymore? He just makes personal appearances, as the Joker this time. The last time he had to think while acting was “About Schmidt”, when he suddenly realized he didn’t have caricature of himself to fall back on. Just his own empty shell. Waiting, like Scorsese, to receive awards that are actually for work he did a long, long time ago for which he didn’t receive the deserved recognition.