Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet” (2017) Is NOT Exploitation

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Hannah tries out for Casting JonBenetWatching Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet is a frustrating experience, but not for the reasons a film might typically elicit such a response. Yes, it has its merits and demerits, but so do many other works of art. No, one doesn’t glean many new facts about an already supersaturated bit of Americana, but that is a poor standard by which to judge a film, particularly an idea-driven documentary such as this. Rather, it is that Green’s strategy is so often brilliant that any future creative work on the JonBenet murder will in some way need to reference and transcend her own. Unfortunately, this also means that the film’s primary conceit can never be used again, even though it might be the most logical approach to what has now become a collective superstition: that there is an answer for everything, and that every question is valid, every concern justifiable. If anything, Casting JonBenet suggests that this is not so, even as it fails to obey its own rules and follow its best avenues to something greater.

Prior to analyzing the film, however, let us briefly discuss the event on which it’s based. On December 26th, 1996, child beauty pageant star JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled and sexually abused in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home. A few hours earlier, a mysterious ransom note alerted the Ramseys to JonBenet’s disappearance, as they contacted friends, relatives, and the police despite the alleged kidnappers’ warnings. Although parents John and Patsy Ramsey were first suspected in the murder, a rather sloppy investigation turned up no evidence of their involvement, with DNA testing ultimately exonerating both. This didn’t stop speculation, however, fueled not only by their supposedly ‘odd’ behavior, but confounding variables like the false confession of John Mark Karr in 2006, as well as revelations of a troubled home life and Burke’s – JonBenet’s brother – ‘smiling’ interview late last year. Today, theories range from the police’s intruder explanation, to Patsy’s alleged envy and murder of her daughter, and even suggestions that Burke struck and killed his sister with the ransom note forged by the parents as a cover.

A shot of chairs in Casting JonBenet.

The true story, of course, is irrelevant to the myth: the very thing Casting JonBenet tackles by way of its conceits. Thus, I will not give my own views on the case, but simply allow the work speak for itself, and let others’ biases reveal themselves. The film opens with a wonderful shot of some empty chairs soon filled by dolled-up girls. All are auditioning for the role of the murdered girl, as one of them (in a rather nice touch) awkwardly asks whether the viewer knows who killed JonBenet. In fact, the very lack of gravitas helps zero-in on something that’s already been long pontificated over, with a half-dozen or so kids implying they could have been victims, too, without Green quite fleshing out the ‘what’ nor exploiting the viewer’s empathy. It is all a touch too abaxial for such … Continue reading →

The Snowden Myth: A Retrospective

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The National Security Agency logo.Now that the Edward Snowden “controversy” is dying down, it is an appropriate time to finally put the man – and his leaks – into some kind of context. I put the word controversy into quotes because, try as I might, I can’t seem to find much issue either with the disclosure itself, or with the spirit (albeit not the reality) of the program Snowden’s disclosure revealed.

Let’s examine the two key issues here. The first is the “legality” of the leak, and where the first half of the Snowden myth began. Yes, Snowden could be charged with almost anything, but pure legalism is a rustic way to view an ethical dilemma. Jim Crow was a legal fact once. So is Monsanto’s bio-piracy. Just as morality is ensconced within religion, legality is under the auspices of another authority: government. Yet, neither have much to do with ethics, which has an objective reality outside of such institutions.

The fact is, few people are now wrangling about whether or not it was “legal” for Rome to have crucified 6,000 rebel slaves along the Appian Way. Clearly, it was. Yet such questions ultimately take a backseat to things people actually remember – namely, right and wrong, and the deeper, existential issues of personal meaning and survival. I guarantee that a decade from now, Snowden’s disclosure will have minimal impact on national security, even as the United States continues to do little about true long-term threats: climate change, corporate plunder, and silly wars that fuel terrorism the world over. Priorities are very slowly learned.

The second issue is government spying itself. Is it right? Is it wrong? In a way, it is neither. It just is. Government spying has been around forever, and it’ll continue to be around for as long as it’s deemed necessary. At some point, it will disappear, and be replaced with whatever other scheme that whatever other monopoly will devise, for the sake of – well, control. It’s wrong to assume, at the first crack of civilization, that we’ve either hit the apex or the nadir in these matters, for such problems and their legal implications are only beginning, if only because human flaws are so many, the desire to control them so strong, and the means for such so limitless and ever-changing. In Rome, it was mere appeal to The State. In America, it is merely a subtler hue of the same idea.

Thus, there’s a fatalism here, and one that Snowden’s well aware of. Governments set laws, and governments punish. Then, there are “troublemakers” who rush headlong into that reality. This makes Snowden little more than a cog within a process he’s merely on the wrong end of. Fifty years ago, the Pentagon Papers were deemed utterly destructive. Today, they’re hailed for having opened up the government to well-deserved scrutiny. Yet these are trivial “controversies” spanning mere decades. Ask yourself what, exactly, is fated to matter in this circuit, when such names grow distant, and … Continue reading →

Why Ben Shapiro Is A Total Fraud

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Image via Gage Skidmore.

[Update 5/8/2017: Given that there have been rumblings of a ‘debate’, Ben Shapiro is invited, below, to a Skype/phone debate with Dan Schneider as moderator. Alternatively, he is free to respond to this piece in writing as he sees fit, which would allow us to formulate our thoughts and cross-check each other’s references — Shapiro’s biggest foible and point of dishonesty. Note that I do not know whether Shapiro even knows of this article, nor will I reach out to him. I am leaving this message up due to the number of e-mails requesting some sort of ‘action’.]

A couple of weeks ago, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro delivered a Reddit AMA (‘Ask Me Anything’) on r/politics, a left-leaning subreddit which – to Shapiro’s credit – has never been a fan of his work. Yet as a liberal, myself, I’ve nonetheless found common ground with a number of Shapiro’s views, ranging from his critique of the Left’s attacks on free speech, to their over-use of emotion in what ought to be cold and detached argument, to the futility of identity politics, liberal intolerance, and – of course – a decades-old embrace of Third Wave feminism as a rational response to gender issues. No, r/politics isn’t THAT far left, but when I saw the AMA announcement, I nonetheless respected Ben Shapiro’s willingness to engage in what can be a notoriously unforgiving format with a group of people unsympathetic to his views. I expected, therefore, to see a little give-and-take, some dumb, bait-y questions, but also a few good ones, too, that he was perhaps not used to. Naturally, these would be questions that Shapiro – given his ‘attack-dog’ reputation – would of course answer. More, he would answer them in depth, after having time to think and formulate his responses, if only to prove once and for all that he is not the monster that so many claim he is, but might very well be the Right’s biggest intellectual star.

Well, I was wrong, to put it mildly. I was unfamiliar with much of Ben Shapiro’s work prior to his AMA, but, frankly, I am confused why he even agreed to the format in the first place, given how lazy and self-serving his answers are. He intentionally avoids the more difficult questions, goofs off on what he DOES choose to tackle, and refuses to meaningfully engage in any follow-ups despite others’ prodding. Not exactly the hallmark of a probing and far-ranging mind. Either Shapiro just doesn’t give a damn, and tried to use Reddit for publicity rather than genuine engagement, or he is as intellectually vapid as his worst critics suggest. More, despite a well-executed AMA serving as a kind of précis for one’s worldview, I cannot even use the bulk of Shapiro’s comments to string together anything coherent on that front, and must dig into his articles and videos in order to elaborate on the scant piffle he does provide. … Continue reading →

Analysis Of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “The Sheaves”

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Edwin Arlington Robinson as a young man.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, via WikiWand.

Just like Philip Larkin, Edwin Arlington Robinson is a poet better read in reduction. A good Selected, perhaps, or even just a handful of some of his better-known work will do more for his reputation than an appraisal of everything he’s ever published. This wasn’t always the case, however, as Robinson won three Pulitzer Prizes, and was even called the ‘greatest American poet’ by Yvor Winters at a time when a dozen or so far better American writers had already peaked. This shows how easily E.A. Robinson can worm into one’s mind, in his best poems, as well as the ease with which his critics are taken in by their own aesthetic biases…including Winters, himself, who was quick to accept whatever fit his aesthetic worldview at the expense of the poetry itself.

Yet that shouldn’t take away from what’s on the page, either. And while Yvor Winters was wrong for placing weird and artificial limits on poets – ‘Write little; do it well’ was a chief motto – his love for brevity sometimes led him to the right judgments, too, as with one of E.A. Robinson’s best poems:

The Sheaves

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay –
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Although I didn’t know it then, The Sheaves was my first ‘in’ to poetry as a high school freshman. I recall the teacher sort of passing it out, very briefly discussing it, then quickly moving on to better known yet qualitatively inferior poems. I wasn’t much of a reader then, but was confused by her lack of appreciation for the poem’s mysteries, the strange imagery and diction, and how nicely the sonnet’s division plays against itself once the whole thing is taken in. Now that I can articulate what was mere feeling, once, let’s break the poem down bit by bit.

The first two lines are already memorable. The syntactical inversion of ‘long’ plays off the line’s ‘o’ assonance, all the while encapsulating the sounds in an unconventional image (‘shadows of the wind’) that is nonetheless both logical and believable. The second line hints at the rest of the poem’s trajectory, as life is made to ‘yield’ to something unalterable, with no invocation of either God or science, as was often done in poetry, but a sense of finality in the word … Continue reading →

An Analysis Of Philip Larkin’s “Church Going”

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Philip Larkin Church GoingAlthough Philip Larkin is one of those writers best read in abridgment, one can’t deny that he has written some excellent poems at his best. More, Larkin is a great poet to read when young: that is, when poetry still feels like a second language, as he is not only easy to ‘get’ line by line, but is still technically competent even in his worst material. This means that Larkin can always be probed a bit more deeply…even if, coming out on the other end, one realizes it was all surface.

Although Larkin’s “Church Going” is one of my favorite poems, I can’t really argue that it’s a great one, or even Larkin’s best. That it fails in some spots, however, makes it especially ripe for analysis, and becomes – paradoxically – easier to argue for its immanent qualities given how quickly they bubble to the surface. By contrast, a poem like “High Windows” is cordoned off unless you know what to look for, and even then it is a bit harder to explain its successes. Not here, however, as “Church Going” maps its own trajectory in a way that’s less demanding of the reader:

Church Going

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

A good introductory stanza, and one that gets better as the poem goes on. It sets the scene, rhythmically, with solemn pauses (the first sentence; the use of lists and colons which nicely lend themselves to rest-stops) and does not hammer you with its deeper purpose outright. So far, it could be a theological poem or something else altogether, thus giving an opportunity for both poet and reader to meander a bit before settling into its actual narrative. No, there are no great lines here, but there are little details that do worm into one’s memory: casually baptizing the iconic portion of a church as “the holy end”, for one, or the neglect of church flowers as a small metaphor for what comes. More, the language creates – especially by the end of stanza 2 – a definite impression to play off of, which not only paces Larkin’s argument but also makes it easier to swallow when it does finally show itself.

One website incorrectly writes in a period after the stanza’s last word. Yet notice the negative effect this would have:

…Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

There is a finality here which locks the poem into a trajectory it does not have. Further, one expects more scene-setting – perhaps an addition to the first stanza’s lists – before the task of commenting on the scene itself. This is an issue of … Continue reading →