Review Of Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”

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Errol Morris Donald Rumsfeld The Unknown KnownErrol Morris’s excellent 2013 film, The Unknown Known, will indubitably be compared to 2003’s The Fog Of War, and many — for reasons irrelevant to the films themselves — will not like this. They’ll point to how ‘slippery’ Donald Rumsfeld is, vis-a-vis Robert S. McNamara, and how difficult it was for Morris to tease out the answers that he (and his audience) wanted. They’ll point to the facade that Rumsfeld erects, and use that impenetrability as a means of keeping the film from greater company. And, of course, they’ll note that Rumsfeld’s charisma — at least here — and his well-placed pauses, the odd philosophical quips, the memorable phrasings, are quite at odds with the man’s total lack of integrity. In fact, they will probably hate him (and the film by proxy) for it, since Rumsfeld is unwilling to provide the sort of resolutions that they, as beings with moral biases, absolutely need. If un-exacted, there is a feeling that something is, for lack of a better phrase, not quite ‘whole’. And given that we’re dealing with a film — that is, a work of art — it’s all too easy to extrapolate this lack of ‘wholeness’ with an aesthetic one, for while The Fog Of War is clearly a superior film, it is superior for reasons almost 100% contrary to those typically given, even as both films are far more alike than not.

The short answer is that The Unknown Known does less with more, and while it is an error to merely expect answers from an art-work, the answers that Morris’s latest film provides are not only more tame (which is forgivable), but often limited to base political queries that have already been much dissected elsewhere, as opposed to Fog Of War’s more transcendent ones. In the earlier film, for instance, Errol Morris extrapolates “11 Lessons” from McNamara’s life, thus allowing the former Secretary Of Defense to opine on things beyond war or the details of some now-hazy political event. By contrast, The Unknown Known has a stellar first half — as good as anything Morris has ever done, really — with great poetic visuals, memorable little quips from Rumsfeld that get polished and inverted at the narrative unfolds, and a controlling metaphor that subtly posits his tens of thousands of internal memos as pointless, even duplicitous exercises forced upon the White House staff over many decades. The image of “snowflakes” (Rumsfeld’s affectionate term for these documents) only adds to this effect by twisting our normal associations with snow into something altogether different — sinister, even — as the film moves through wintry scenes. But while Fog Of War keeps this sort of thrust for the entirety of its 107 minutes, The Unknown Known’s second half devolves into a far more ‘informational’ film that, ironically, doesn’t offer any more information than we’ve already learned in the past decade, making its utter dependence upon context (as opposed to what’s on the screen) frustrating. Yes, … Continue reading →

Perils In Palacio: On R.J. Palacio’s “Wonder”

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R.J. Palacio Wonder

R.J. Palacio. Image via The Telegraph.

Near the end of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, an interesting — nay, emblematic — thing starts to happen. Just when Auggie, the book’s friendless, deformed, 5th-grade hero gets all the abuse that he could possibly stand, a mildness comes over the other children. Perhaps this is because Auggie finally stands up for himself. Perhaps it is because the popular girl befriends him, then ‘risks all’ to stand by him. Or perhaps it is something altogether stranger, less definable, in the way that a mob might rise and go despite still suckling at their accumulated aims. Yet none of this matters, really, for Auggie gets friends, a possible romantic interest, and even receives the school’s most prestigious award for — well, for survival, I guess, despite not doing much to earn it. He gets, in short, the sort of rich fantasy life that every bullied ‘loser’ must on some level entertain. The only difference, here, is that nothing is imagined, for there are just too many hands (of adults, kids, God) laying it all out on a platter.

Now, I’ve wondered how this could be; how a children’s book that purports to teach kids about life prepares them for nothing but its bowdlerization. There are, I suppose, many answers to this, but the short one is that condescension, for all intents and purposes, is dead. No one cares to talk ‘up’ to anyone, for everyone, we are reminded, is corralled into ghettos of both mind and place. No one really understands dilution (of compliments, emotion), for what was once an end, and very much ‘the’ end, is now a means to something vaguely therapeutic. No one wants to hear of inborn talent unless it is doled out and democratized for all. Yes, this is pure condescension — all of it — but when few care about the word and how it applies to things, when it ceases to be something that is feared, defended against, rebuked — then it is dead, for it has entered into the body as an autonomic impulse rather than a choice.

Of course, Palacio’s badly written, badly edited, tin-eared, and poorly thought-out book is not the problem. The real problem is that someone decided to bring this book into schools, and schools, always so very sensitive to trends, decided to teach it, and teachers, wanting to believe the best of their kids, simply bought it, and kids, being kids, nodded their heads at the book’s various ‘lessons,’ and went back to a far more bitter reality — often with glee. In fact, Wonder’s peculiar brand of irreality has been making inroads for decades, now, as people were slowly brought in from the margins (into schools, jobs, relationships) and, lacking skills or any way to make their worth tangible to the real world, they were simplified rather than dealt with, to the point that our innate differences were quietly erased. In this arrangement, human nature … Continue reading →

When Google Met WikiLeaks: Julian Assange & The Making Of A Live-Long Pattern

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When Google Met WikiLeaks Julian Assange

Image via WikiLeaks.

Some time ago — oh, say, on the order of 40,000 years — a few tribesmen shored onto New Guinea, and were puzzled to find the place quite empty. Sun, highlands, and the moon’s egress, mid-day and night; things, all, no doubt, big things, even, but without the confluence of people to make it real. In short, the tribesmen were too used to activity, not quiet, analyzing others’ body language and being analyzed in turn, at every turn, for everything was violence and negotiation for as long as they could remember. Yet they were only a few families, still, with an immediate environment that was quite easy to control. So, they’d let the generations pass, until, one day, they woke up to clamor.

It wasn’t war, exactly. It was, in fact, mere over-crowdedness, and each person — not used to crowds after all these years of re-adapting — could no longer sense what the other was thinking. In time, something big will happen, something new, wherein people could finally organize themselves, find new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, and open long-closed doors to productivity. Except there will be one problem: not everyone’s on board. And, whenever there are folks on the margins, there’s always the threat (or so the thinking goes) of a new and better, perhaps endless order.

No, I can’t know these things, as facts, but I know (or think I know) people, and the ruts they inevitably fall to. Thus, in reading Julian Assange’s When Google Met WikiLeaks, on Google’s Eric Schmidt’s meeting with Assange in 2011, I was reminded of the above precepts. They are not, to be sure, value judgments per se, but simply an admission that as the world grows more complex, the human tendency is fear, and that fear leads to paranoia, and paranoia leads to irrational and presumptive behavior — Assange’s real critique of government secrecy, both in the book and elsewhere, whether or not he realizes this, for the issue is not so much the desire to pry data, or hide bad behavior (human constants, all), but the particulars of this arrangement, and especially when the balance starts to favor the powerful.

In fact, as I’ve argued elsewhere, far too much has been made of, say, the legality of Edward Snowden’s leaks, despite the fact that pure legalism is a rustic way of viewing far deeper ethical dilemmas. I mean, just think of it: Jim Crow was a legal fact once. So is Monsanto’s bio-piracy, and bank policies that — unless immediately curtailed — will lead to financial chaos once more. Such things are outside of the scope of ethics, however, for when they’re ensconced in mere legalese, as pundits and laypeople so often do, they refer strictly to contracts: what people agree to do or not do, NOT the immanent justice of such contracts, which is the deeper and more relevant discussion.

Eric Schmidt Julian Assange When Google Met WikiLeaks

Eric Schmidt: “‘If you have something that you

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Woody Allen’s Women: How He Got Them, Kept Them, & Got Some More

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Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Mia Farrow Mariel Hemingway Mia Sorvino Samantha Morton Scarlett Johansson Winona Ryder
Let us pretend, for a second, that Woody Allen’s worst feminist detractors are right. Let’s pretend that he’s written too many manipulative women, too many heart-breakers, and too many ditzes to ever be comfortably on ‘their’ side. What then? What does this say of Allen’s oeuvre as a whole, and Allen as the progenitor of such? And, more importantly, is there any evidence of these things to begin with?

Well, there is, partly because one can find almost anything in a complex film if one searches hard enough, and partly because — as Dan Schneider argues — there is an odd tinge of “loathing” underneath it all, wherein Woody Allen’s women fight, cheat, steal, or even lust after a man too old and too manipulative to ever be fair game. At times, this is even played off for comic effect, although the irony is, of course, that there is always someone (even if not Allen) imagining himself in such a position, and tries to be precisely that. Yet assertions without numbers are a hard sell, and have gotten many a critic into trouble with such ‘frills’ as evidence. So, how does one gauge how true the claims are? How does one even measure how good or bad a female Allen character really is? The latter is easily answered: with one’s eyes. Allen’s characters all have motivations and behaviors, for good or ill, and it is up to the viewer — and not a film book, or a theorist — to untangle them. As for the numbers? Let us merely take, for the sake of this thought-experiment, a tally of those who might be OK’d by a feminist reading, and those that will simply never be.

Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Annie Hall

Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, perhaps the most famous of Woody Allen’s women.

Allen’s early films are none-too-fertile ground for such an analysis since they are, without question, more gag-driven than character dependent. Yet even here, one sees Allen’s desire to invert Hollywood tropes, and even play rough with gender stereotypes. Many of these women, for instance, simply reject Woody’s advances, or otherwise poke fun at him. Nancy (Louise Lasser) from Bananas wants nothing to do with a rote, passionless ‘weakling’ like Fielding Mellish; Louise (Janet Margolin) from Take the Money and Run is almost beyond analysis, given how steadfast she is, and without reason; and the Diane Keaton/Allen ‘troika’ of SleeperPlay It Again, Sam, and Love and Death has the male lead chasing her, and often losing her. Sure, one sees Boris (Love and Death) already bed a woman well beyond his means, but one also sees some interesting inversions in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*, especially the last sketch, wherein the woman is the aggressor, and a priest represents male “Catholic guilt”, to balance out some of the less flattering depictions of women. One cannot, at any rate, get what’s necessary here — at least not for our purposes.

Allen’s first glimpse … Continue reading →

Images from the “Millions March” protest (NYC)

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About to break out of Washington Square!  Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

About to break out of Washington Square!

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend the “Millions March” against police brutality with Milton X. Trujillo’s Atlas: DIY organization, and was struck by a number of things. First, the behavior of the cops — while unbelievably arrogant and entitled in the wake of 2 homicides, and possibly murders, for which no one will be held accountable — is quite different from what I was used to.

About a decade ago, I’d attend pretty much every protest in NYC, and was sure to see belligerence, cowardliness, and downright evil from the cops’ direction every time. On Saturday, however, it was clear that much of the status quo had changed. Part of this is due to the cops’ hyper-sensitivity about their image at this point, and part of this came from real concern from the officers, themselves. Lots has been written of the NYC arrest quota system, there’s been exposes, there’s been black cops who are asked to ‘take sides’ (and get bullied and threatened for doing the right thing), and cops, being people, likely hate much of the same bullshit as we do. This is probably why I heard a number of officers give compliments to protesters (away from the ears of other, whiter cops, of course), for only the most deluded of black cops can ever be emotionless in the face of 2014’s slayings.

Anyway, here are the images that we took, and here’s to hoping for something better…and a little fear, where fear belongs.

Making posters with Atlas DIY, an immigrants-rights organization. Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

Making posters with Atlas DIY, an immigrants-rights organization.

 

Starting from Washington Square Park.  Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

Starting from Washington Square Park.

Millions March, NYC. THIS STOPS NOW.  Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

Millions March, NYC. “THIS STOPS NOW!”

Flood.  Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

Flood.

Millions March, with Freedom Tower. Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

Millions March, with Freedom Tower.

For the kids.  Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

For the kids.

'Cuz black bears matter, too. Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

‘Cuz black bears matter, too.

They really give a damn.  Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

They really give a damn.

One of the 'famous' images at Millions March. Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

One of the ‘famous’ images at Millions March.

Signs for Eric Garner.  Eric Garner Michael Brown Police Brutality Protest Millions March NYC

Signs for Eric Garner.

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