ISIS As The Old You

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A few weeks ago, a silly, overlong article made the rounds, angering quite a few people before the predictable quiet. No, it’s not the terrible, bigoted, poorly-researched piece it was said to be, but amidst all its details, the political suggestions (many of them quite solid), the REAL issue was still obscured, and Islam — a 1500 year-old phenomenon — was still left blurred by mystique. The problem is that Graeme Wood’s essay has everything you’ve come to expect of political backtalk: trite observations, vague yet over-the-hill fear-mongering (apparently, ISIS controls a region ‘larger than the United Kingdom’; much as, using similar logic, a band of sea-lions might control half of Antarctica), accusations re: American tolerance of such, and, of course, the requisite contradictions, such as when the author calls the group ‘dystopian’ in one breath and ‘medieval’ in the next. Yet despite the 10,000+ words spilled on the subject, the key to understanding ISIS is not to be found in a bulleted look at Islam, but somewhere in the past, wherein today’s bullshit tends to linger, if only so that it’s mistaken for something else — something harder to explain — tomorrow.

In other words, for all of the books on Islam, for all of the articles, the fear, the PoMo-level analysis on both sides, the beheadings, ISIS (and everything else like it) is little more than the old you. Now, just stop and think what this entails. There was a time, recall, when you — assuming you’re a white Christian in America — put on a stinky old vest, smeared your face with mud, recited a few nonsensical sermons, and still won your converts. This was when things were good. In more difficult times, you’d swap your vest for armor, find a horse, and lance a few skulls in Jerusalem. A century or two later, in Constantinople, you’d pillage, rape, and even destroy your Lord’s churches — for what’s a vow, really, when you know what’s best in your heart of hearts? And this was Christianity in power, at a time when amusements were at a minimum. There were no other outlets, and little else that could be called ‘purpose’. Sometimes there’d be war, and sometimes there was peace, but peace — you’d come to understand — was merely preparation. You never quite knew what for, exactly, but such is faith, and God’s love is narrow and stippled with requirements.

But perhaps you’re neither Christian, nor white. Let’s assume you’re, oh, I don’t know, a Chinese Buddhist. If lucky, you might have seen yourself in a Chinese king — Taizong, say — who felt the need to send his armies where they did not belong, partly for reasons of empire, and partly to help Buddhism as a kind of ‘charity’. Sure, you might have railed against superstition here or there, but given the nature of your era, you couldn’t help but replace one superstition with another, and even adopt that condescending smirk as … Continue reading →

BlueInk Review: Unprofessional, Dishonest, (A)pathetic

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BlueInk Review Scam[UPDATE 11/11/2015: I have just received a phone call from Patti Thorn, owner of BlueInk, indicating that she has refunded my money. She has apologized for the review, apologized for the way BlueInk handled my complaint, and admitted the review should have been handed over to another staff member and re-written. I am thankful for her honesty and willingness to admit error, even as I indicated that, out of fairness, I cannot take down this post, only amend it with this note. To BlueInk’s credit, they did not ask me to alter this article in any way, nor guilt, manipulate, or entice me with any promises.]

A couple of months ago, I submitted my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, to a popular pay-for-review site called BlueInk Review. Now, I knew the risks, for I’d seen the complaints against Kirkus and other ignoble book-review services; I smirked at BlueInk’s poor website design which accosts you with its ‘legitimacy’ as opposed to a sampling of good writing that can speak for itself; I saw the 300 word-limit rule for reviews, an obvious labor-saving measure dishonestly presented as some sort of charity to “busy readers” and “industry professionals”; the Google searches which turned up nothing — nothing — except de facto ads written by its own staff, rather than any real analysis of the service and its benefits; as well as the reality that most of the books they’d push as ‘good’ were actually selling fewer copies than my own — with many not having had a sale in months — despite Reel To Real getting almost no press upon release. This last fact, especially, alerted me to the true extent of BlueInk’s pull, for if I could make something out of nothing, purely on the strength of reputation, and personal outreach, what’s preventing BlueInk from forging their own reputations, and minting new ‘names’ as per their stated goals? At any rate, I didn’t have to wonder very long.

My review came back on time, but anonymously written. People, as a rule, do not wish to attach their names to garbage, and this was no exception. Jesus, I thought; where does one even begin? I mean, I had to proofread the thing, myself, pointing out obvious errors in everything from pagination (they printed out a 12-pt, Times New Roman MS Word document and counted that as the completed work, reducing the true page count by half!), to the odd misuse of universally-understood phrases, to the reviewer’s allusions to things that simply never occur in the book, to the fact that I was continuously quoted out of context to argue against ‘points’ I’d never made. Ridiculously, I was openly accused of everything from ad hominem to refusing to provide evidence for claims, despite that the book — this not an opinion, now — gives a scene-by-scene evaluation of many films, provides hundreds of references to 50+ years of Woody-related writing, and responds to dozens of critics virtually … Continue reading →

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 →

On The ‘Lost Films’ Of John Cassavetes

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In preparation for my John Cassavetes panel discussion from a couple of weeks back, I decided to look into the director’s less-celebrated and/or actor-only efforts, just to see if I’d missed any lost gems. Now that the much-lauded Love Streams is simply out of the run as a potentially great work, perhaps there’s something else out there that qualifies?

Saddle The Wind John Cassavetes Robert Taylor

Saddle The Wind. Image via Wikipedia.

Saddle The Wind (1958)

Directed by Robert Parrish and written by Rod Serling, Saddle The Wind is an odd little film that, in 1958, was notable for starring Robert Taylor, but today is strictly remembered due to the names Rod Serling and John Cassavetes. The titled lured me in with its sense of poesy, and with Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) as writer, I was hoping for a neglected classic. Yet the film is poorly scripted, cliched in parts, features a bad, tacked-on ending, and mediocre acting from all involved, except John Cassavetes. In fact, from the first shot of Nick (Cassavetes) in the sun, the viewer simply sees a different caliber of acting that subtly predicts Nick’s character arc without giving too much away. The way Nick blinks, or moves his hands nervously; the tiny, easy-to-miss gestures; the disappearing smiles or slight shifts of mood — these are all hallmarks of character realism, and present Nick as a real entity with an accumulating, psychotic streak as opposed to a mere symbol of this or that. There’s little Nick can stand for, and despite the script’s issues, it’s a credit to Serling that Nick is simply a villain transplanted to the Old West, as opposed to the heavy-handed ‘commentary’ that the Western genre had become known for by this time. Sure, the decision also strips the film of depth, but a few subversions of genre tropes, like this, keep Saddle The Wind from being in worse company. An OK work, overall, but one of Rod Serling’s minor efforts, even as it’s one of Cassavetes’s best performances from the 1950s.

Too Late Blues John Cassavetes

Stella Stevens as Jess. Source.

Too Late Blues (1961)

Of all of John Cassavetes’s ‘meddled-with’ productions — these include A Child Is WaitingGloriaBig Trouble, and 1 or 2 others — this is no doubt his best, and retains more of his characteristic style and vague character resolutions that manage to keep a few possibilities open. It begins with a jazz musician, Ghost (Bobby Darin), and an aspiring singer, Jess (Stella Stevens), seemingly falling in love, then trying to figure out what to do about their careers. Ghost is idealistic while his band-members are ready to compromise, but, as with so many other artists with potential, Ghost’s personal lacks (physical cowardice, irresponsibility) feed into the art, as well, thus stripping it and ruining both his chances with Jess as well as art. He leaves the band, makes some money as a sell-out (via a patron who sees right through him), and finally returns to his band, only … Continue reading →

Review Of John Cassavetes’s “Love Streams” (1984)

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John Cassavetes Love Streams Gena RowlandsIn looking at John Cassavetes’s films a quarter-century after his death, a dilemma emerges. No, I don’t mean this in the silly, cliched sense that there’s a ‘problem’ (ugh- that word!) with the films, themselves. I simply mean that Cassavetes is still close enough to OUR time that he could provide a glimpse into the critic’s psyche, and the sort of trends most art-goers are utterly shackled by. This is because Cassavetes went from writing and directing 3 or 4 neglected masterpieces — often booed and hissed out of movie theaters — to being given the sort of love and adulation that is the inevitable due of most great artists. In this way, quite a few people in the industry probably feel stupid — that is, if they’re even remembered, now — and feel the need to make amends. And what better way to atone for such than to praise everything Cassavetes has done (as Ray Carney does), and push the director higher, higher: precisely where he belongs?

Except there’s just one problem. A reaction to one extreme with yet another is not exactly helpful, for — being a kind of mirror image of the same, original stupidity — it still disrespects the art, the artist, and the process which lets one become the other. (Cassavetes, after all, is gone. You had your chance, folks.) The fact is, for every masterpiece John Cassavetes had made, there was at least one mediocrity. Faces, Opening Night: classics, both of them. This just can’t be reasonably argued against. Husbands, too, is an interesting watch, with brilliant moments, albeit quite flawed. A Woman Under The Influence is similar in this regard. As for Minnie And Moskowitz? An oddity, to be generous, even if saved by 2 or 3 flat-out great scenes. Shadows, little more than a young man’s first, solid exercise. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie — one of the greatest films ever made, by any director, in any time period or genre, and my own personal favorite, as well as my vote for cinema’s most ‘enigmatic’ creation. Then, there’s 1984’s Love Streams, another interesting movie with a handful of brilliant parts — the equal of anything else in the man’s output, really — nonetheless marred by lots of fluff, weak editing, and a too-prosaic end. Yet it’s Cassavetes’s final film, and, what’s more, feels like it, too: a fact that encourages film-lovers to love it, now, especially since they were unable to support Cassavetes at a time when he could have really used the help.

Love Streams opens with Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes) getting yelled at by his secretary — likely over some bit of bad behavior — and interviewing a number of young women, most likely for “a book about nightlife,” about what it means “to have a good time.” The girls are all quite nervous: a nice touch, for he’s already distant and unapproachable just a few minutes into the … Continue reading →