DEEP WEB (Alex Winter, Ross Ulbricht) Is Libertarian Hypocrisy

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Ross Ulbricht lies in grass

Let’s get aesthetics out of the way, first. If a film about a drug boss starts with an anarchic proclamation, it needs- at a minimum- for that proclamation to be well-phrased. This will at least offset some of the political clichés surrounding drug prohibition, and might make it easier to repeat them without hurting the film on more substantive grounds. But if after engaging with the writing- “giant Fuck You to the system”, “fascists”, “real base of power lies with us”- one wonders WHY the film was even made, that question IS a relevant lens through which to view the film’s subject. I mean, just consider any other work on any other drug dealer: from the experts’ self-pillory in Mr. Untouchable, to the dread and ennui of Mean Streets, to the dum-dum brutality of American Gangster, the world’s mobsters are rarely presented as unequivocal heroes. In most cases, they aren’t allowed to have childhoods, nor to wax philosophical from home videos (although, in the coming decade, some will). They do not earn science degrees, and certainly were not nurtured by a loving family driven to exonerate them. In fact, if they were street-peddlers, their stories simply gain no traction at all, and cannot, on an individual basis, ever be the face of a grassroots political movement. That Ross Ulbricht, the incarcerated founder of darknet website Silk Road, gets to enjoy all of these things, and more, is a story far more interesting than Alex Winter’s Deep Web allows it to be. Indeed, one ought to ask why Ross Ulbricht is a cult figure for so many libertarians, if only because the answer sheds light on how awful the parsing of more important questions has become. The war on drugs, I’m afraid, attracts dupes and hypocrites on both sides, and by stripping his film of all artistic appeal, Alex Winter gives an inadvertent glimpse into how both sides conduct themselves.

But, even more than these glimpses, I am interested in their framing- what makes it in, what is omitted, and the order in which each element gets polemicized. The story proper opens with the shuttering of Silk Road and an explanation of the deep web, which the narrator (voiced by Keanu Reeves) makes sure to differentiate from illegal activities on the darknet. We learn of the website’s sophistication and massive sales: over $1 billion at its peak, with additional details provided by journalist Andy Greenberg, the trope ‘voice of reason’ made more sympathetic to Ross Ulbricht than it perhaps is. He discusses Silk Road’s community of anarchists, while another expert opines that the website was not really about selling drugs, but “a political statement”. A former Silk Road dealer is brought in to corroborate this, as the over-voice primes the viewer for the film’s main argument- that there is insufficient proof tying Ross Ulbricht to the site’s admin, the Dread Pirate Roberts, or, failing that, at least insufficient proof … Continue reading →

Review Of “Donald Trump’s THE WALL” (2016)

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Donald Trump's The Wall splashed across Pink Floyd album cover.Having now watched the anonymous pseudo-documentary Donald Trump’s THE WALL a few times since its 2016 release, I am even more convinced of the future of multidisciplinary art and the slow asphyxiation of the written word. This is not because one is better than the other- there will be no greater art than writing for centuries to come- but because of how easily these art forms tap into sensory experience, and how naturally they cohere into small, digestible narratives brandishing just one or two core ideas. No, they are not ‘serious’ in the way that- say- John Banville’s trite, overmodified prose is serious, but what of that? One of the worst elements of contemporary art is how self-aware it tends to be, yet how little it feeds off of this awareness: how little, for example, it wants to work with its own constraints and re-define the ‘how’ of how good stories are told. I mean, just compare the tired cultural commentary of The West Wingdown to quoting Leviticus against the religious– to a three-minute video from Vic Berger which similarly attacks religious hucksters, but does so with humor and fresh narrative tricks. Or consider this interpretation of Ted Cruz, which- while polemical- does more than critique a politician: it offers up a startling image of American zealotry, and even manages to invert familiar tropes. The real question, however, is if such pieces can sustain themselves for any appreciable length, which Donald Trump’s THE WALL tests across an hour-plus of historical footage set to Pink Floyd’s album of the same name- a clue as to why it’s been removed so many times from video platforms, even as the film itself is a boon to an otherwise forgettable record.

The first few minutes are a summary of Donald Trump’s public persona- his business ventures, media appearances, and personal wealth- cleverly synchronized with Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh?”, as the album morphs into Trump’s own biography. Not all of this is explicitly political: a lot of time is spent building Trump by other means, such as photographs from youth, newspaper clippings of his rise and fall, and Trump’s implied dependence on his father’s wealth (set to “Daddy, what did you leave behind for me?”) with politics serving as just one extension of a damaged character. Now, the film does get more declamatory as it goes on, with extended footage of migrants and of war played against Trump’s infamous reading of Al Wilson’s “The Snake”, which is itself inverted as Trump becomes the subject of his own recitation. Yet the film remembers to give characters their own little arcs, as well, with shots of the ridiculous post-Trump Ivana (set to “Vera”: “what has become of you?”), and even offers some emotional reprieve by making Trump a pitiful figure (“Nobody Home”) rather than a merely evil one. It is no coincidence that- although released before the 2016 election- Donald Trump’s THE WALL is still able to … Continue reading →

Coleman Hughes Cannot Be Trusted

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A photo of Coleman Hughes speaking

There has never been a Golden Age of Internet punditry- just a bit of blight around an anemic middle, and all the responses rushing in to fill the void. Now, I don’t know how most critics have navigated these last few years, but I’ve had a tough time disconnecting from both the punditry as well as the responses. Perhaps it’s because I am a bit younger than my favorite writers, and must come to terms with the fact that ‘my’ (but not their) culture is pretty much bitcoin, Twitch, anime, and whatever fresh regurgitation wants to get mopped up. Or perhaps it’s because I recognize that the best way to deal with wasted human capital is not to discard it, but to re-purpose it, and hope that people notice. It was only a matter of time, then, before I came across the name Coleman Hughes- a recent graduate of Columbia University, and the token child of the Intellectual Dark Web. And why not? A left-wing critic of Affirmative Action, Coleman believes in personal responsibility, bottom-up changes in cultural mores, and the rejection of extremism, divisiveness, and ‘easy’ conversations: ideas which, by analyzing his thought process, will beget important lessons about the state of American discourse. The purpose of this article is to understand those lessons, if only in the hope that young readers with Coleman’s ambitions do not make Coleman’s more ambitious mistakes.

To frame his POV more fairly, I will first offer a digest of Coleman Hughes’s breakout piece- Quillette’s “The High Price of Stale Grievances”- followed by a line-by-line analysis of some actual macro-proposals. Not to be accused of ignoring his philosophical and perhaps more substantive work, I will (briefly) set Coleman’s ideas against his preferred vision of humanism and end with a practical test of his stated commitments: Coleman’s interview with Dave Rubin, where he was given ample opportunity to confront false claims, divisive rhetoric, and bad faith actors on both sides of the political aisle. This is to ensure that I’m not only dealing with ideas, but also with the evidence presented for these ideas, the conviction behind them, and the most probable trajectory for Coleman’s worldview to play out. And although I am well aware of the risks in ad hominem attacks, I will also argue how poorly understood- from a dialectical point of view- ad hominem is, and propose a framework for both tapping and responding to this tactic. As the lesson’s practicum, we shall take informal bets on some possible directions of Coleman Hughes’s career, keeping a ledger of how many stereotypes he dutifully embraces for every taboo he gleefully rejects.

Coleman opens with a rather emblematic example of his own grievances: that it was permissible for Rihanna to fire non-blacks from a concert (she wanted an “all-black aesthetic”), whereas firing black artists for similar reasons would be met with outrage. He then examines a common justification for this- slavery- and dismisses it, wondering how … Continue reading →

“Heaven Adores You” (2014) Is Bad For Elliott Smith

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby featherElliott Smith plays Miss Misery on Conan O'Brian, in Heaven Adores You.

In perhaps the most revealing moment in Nickolas Rossi’s Heaven Adores You, there is footage of Elliott Smith’s uncomfortable performance at the Academy Awards in 1998, just when he was at the height of popularity. It’s a ridiculous scene- Smith is forced into a silly, maudlin version of what is in fact one of his better songs, and is refused a request to play seated, as he’d so often done before. Instead, the stage moves as if to partition itself for him, as he sings in a white suit- inaudibly, at first- for an audience which had never before heard his name. The Oscars, after all, and all else like it are antithetical to anything of lasting value, and although Smith’s two minutes of music were the only thing of note in a ceremony dedicated to one of the worst films ever made, it is an open question as to what will be more remembered: the irony of Smith’s appearance, or the fact that Titanic snagged eleven awards, beating out Smith’s “Miss Misery” in the process.

And yet, despite everything one might say about this performance, it is only incidental to Rossi’s film. In fact, there would be no way to direct a biopic on Elliott Smith’s life without at least touching on the commercial high point of Smith’s career. To praise its inclusion, then, as a deft and meaningful narrative choice would be to miss the point. Put another way, there is no pathos Heaven Adores You must at all work for- it was simply handed to Rossi, purely by happenstance, just as Smith’s music was handed to Rossi, making the film’s worst missteps all the more fantastic, and predictable. How? It’s simple, really- for if one assumes that merely having access to great things guarantees their articulation, one is already doomed to fail. No doubt that Rossi and everyone the film showcases- friends, critics, relatives, former bandmates, and others- respect Smith’s work and implicitly understand its value. More pertinent, however, is the fact that no one- not even once- says anything remotely insightful about it, with Rossi thus crafting a trite hagiography of the misunderstood, suicidal artist, as talking-heads praise Smith’s music in the most bland terms.

Perhaps Rossi’s biggest narrative faux pas comes just a few minutes into the film. After a solid introduction, where footage shows Elliott Smith claiming he is “the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” it is quickly ruined by a sinister baseline which is made to end Smith’s words, thus leading the viewer by the nose into a banal narrative that will control much of the film. And, sure enough, this soon gives way to images of Smith’s Figure 8 mural in Los Angeles, covered in flowers, messages, and commemorative graffiti, as those who knew him at the time of his 2003 death recall their shock at hearing the news. But why spend one’s narrative capital so early, and eliminate all ambiguity in the … Continue reading →

Talking Woody Allen: A Conversation With Joel Bocko

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For those who missed it, I was- in 2015- interviewed by critic and filmmaker Joel Bocko for his website, Lost in the Movies. The topic was my book, Woody Allen: Reel to Real, and everything that might spring from it. We ended up covering cinema and the arts more broadly, over the course of 15,000 words, with special focus on some of Woody Allen’s more misunderstood or less-known works. Joel recently tweeted it out, thus reminding me of our conversation. I am posting it here again.

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Talkin’ WA … a conversation on art, criticism & Woody Allen w/ Alex Sheremet, author of Woody Allen: Reel to Real

A year ago, writer and critic Alex Sheremet contacted me about his newest project. After editing the Take 2 guide to Woody Allen’s work, which included some of my reviews (as did its predecessor, the Take 2 guide on Steven Spielberg), Alex had immediately followed up with another e-book for the same publisher, Woody Allen: Reel to Real. In this work, the author guides the reader through every single one of Allen’s films, his work as an actor, and also the critical engagement with his work as represented – or misrepresented – by six critics: Roger Ebert, Dan Schneider, James Berardinelli, Pauline Kael, Ray Carney, and Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose subsequent exchange with Alex concludes this section). Alex wanted to discuss the book with me, and I agreed, but the book is long (627 pages according to Amazon), I had some major projects and so the conversation kept getting postponed. He was very patient, and when I was finally able to tackle the work I discovered it was worth the wait: despite its length, I read the entire text in a few days, glued to the screen by the author’s passion and rigor. (My review of Reel to Real has just been posted on Amazon, where you can purchase a Kindle version.)

Throughout the book, Alex keeps his eye on both the particular – the specific Allen film in question – and the general – not just Allen’s entire body of work, but the operation of art and criticism as a whole. I found myself both frustrated and fascinated by Alex’s assertions of objectivity, his frequently casual dismissals of celebrated works by other artists, and his implicit (and, by the end of the book, explicit) privileging of intellectual over intuitive appreciation. I agreed with a great many of his conclusions, possibly the majority, yet often questioned his overarching philosophy. As such, I couldn’t wait to talk with him. The following conversation was conducted via email, and actually represents only half of our correspondence. The other half centered around meta-issues of criticism and art, featured much longer individual responses from each of us, and will be presented in an upcoming update of Alex’s book (in its “DigiDialogue” capacity, the e-book is continually revised as new readers engage with the text and its author over … Continue reading →