Posts Tagged ‘ 2012 ’

Cowardly Art

Still reflecting on 2012, I caught an article on CNN declaring last year the “Year of Meh.”  The gist of Todd Leopold’s argument being that there was very little that was genuinely exciting in entertainment in 2012.

As a through-and-through movie geek, I paid most attention to his points about Hollywood.  In 2012, I had been looking forward to three giant geek-fest movies this year:  Avengers, Prometheus, and Dark Knight Rises.

The latter two are now notorious disappointments.  Prometheus is especially tragic since even though it was a clunk, awkward mess of a movie with some overwrought characters and some inexplicable ones, the deleted and alternate scenes (yes, I still watched the bonus material for a movie I didn’t like) prove that Ridley Scott had a decent movie on his hands, but he left it on the cutting room floor.

That would’ve been “decent,” but still nothing compared with his original sci-fi classics like Alien or Blade Runner.

The Dark Knight Rises was entertaining while soaking it up in the theater, but a little reflection opens up some gaping holes in the narrative.  More than anything, though it all had the feel of the last, sensational Batman movie, but lacking the bold presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker.  That feeling is getting all too familiar in Hollywood lately.

In the logic of Hollywood-think, “darker” is the new gravy train.  In the wake of the success of 2008’s The Dark Knight, the franchise factory has had its dials spun in one direction.  Sam Mendes, director of this year’s Bond movie Skyfall gives Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight direct credit as an inspiration.  That’s putting it mildly; the film actually turns out to be a kind of remake, with a villain constantly outmaneuvering the hero right up to the end, where the good guys still pretty much loses.  It even includes a scene with the baddie in a Hannibal Lecterish cell after allowing himself to be captured as “part of the plan.”  The need to recast all our pop culture heroes as dark or gritty continues in 2013 with a Nolan-produced Superman film Man of Steel and a new Star Trek sequel so eager to bask in the Nolan effect it’s actually going to be subtitled “into darkness.”

Next, prepare yourselves for the Avengers effect.  After Joss Whedon brought his distinctive voice to the Marvel comics superhero mash-up (which is still another dang comic book movie), Warner Brothers immediately rekindled plans to create their own super-hero all-stars flick, The Justice League.

It’s all so reductive.  And of course, this lack of originality stretches beyond just the action-adventure fare.  Romantic comedies are so formulaic, if you’ve seen the trailer then you’ve seen the whole story.  Hollywood is trapped by the three-act structure churned out by the bucketload.

It’s a shame.  Around the world, there is nothing more iconically American than our film exports.  Hollywood is the driving thrust of our cultural currency, our most potent ambassador.  It’s dearth of originality is a harbinger, a warning to dig deeper into ourselves and find more than an endless repetition of commoditized archetypes.

Yet even in this stew of “meh,” there are glimmers of genius, moments that speak to something deeper in us.  Mathew Shapiro stitches scenes from various films from the year together in his Cinescape series.  His 2012 entry is a tribute to the power of film.  It makes all these movies–slick successes and dreadful duds alike–look like intricate parts of a larger whole.  And that whole is our shifting cultural consciousness, prismed through the twenty-four frames of Hollywood’s often formulaic, sometimes moving story telling.

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An Open Letter to the Undecided Voters

Dear Undecided Voter,

There are only two things you need to know to make up your mind:

One, Mitt Romney is a liar.  Too harsh?  Nope.  Look it up.  He’s changed his position on almost everything at one point or another.  When he ran for governor in liberal Massachusetts, he said he was “moderate,” even “progressive.”  When he wanted the Tea Party Republicans to vote for him in the primaries, he claimed he was “severely” conservative.  Now he’s trying to convince you that he’s a reasonable, middle-of-the-road kind of guy again.  Don’t believe him.

Two, Barrack Obama saved this country.  Don’t believe that one?  Look at the graph showing where unemployment and every other indicator of our economic health was headed when Obama walked into the Oval Office.  Then look at where those lines are heading now.  Mitt Romney wants you to believe Obama has failed, but that’s another lie.  We know why Mitt Romney wants you believe that.  He told us himself.  (Well, he actually thought he was only telling a bunch of rich donors, but we saw the tape.)  He told that room full of $50,000-a-plate dinner guests and that one hidden camera that he intended to manipulate independent voters into thinking that Obama had meant well, but couldn’t deliver.

But that’s bull.  Look at the actual facts.  We are growing, and we’re growing with better regulations governing the banks, better guarantees for the health of our families, better opportunities for our young people to pay for college, and a better direction on a slew of other issues that matter to the backbone of America.  Obama did deliver.  We’ve turned the corner from the damage caused by the policies and ideas Romney has supported his whole career (not the policies he claims to support when running for office), and now the only thing that can hold us back is you voting the wrong way.

Sincerely,

Richard T. Helmling

Non-Democrat who voted for Obama (twice)

The Souls of Presidents

Jim Young

On November 4th, 2008, John McCain took the stage in Phoenix to mark the end of his bid to be president.  It would, presumably, be his last such campaign.  As he graciously conceded to then Senator Barrack Obama, the assembled crowd booed at the mention of his adversary’s name.  Twice.  McCain, showing what may have been restrained disgust, offered his palms to the audience and asked for them to stop.

No one else can know what moved through John McCain’s mind that night, but I like to believe that that instant was one of anagnorisis.

In Aristotle’s analysis of the theater of Ancient Greece, anagnorisis was the moment of realization that must come to the tragic hero before he can accept his downfall.  To be sure, McCain did not suffer a horrendous reversal like Oedipus or Agamemnon, but it is equally certain that the candidate who had secured the Republican nomination for the 2008 presidential race was not the John McCain who had sought the Republican party’s nomination in 2000.

McCain, long heralded as the “Maverick of the Senate,” was vehemently opposed by powerful voices in the Republican party during the 2000 primaries.  He was too moderate, too liberal, some said, to be the Republican nominee.  After a vicious campaign which included racist attempts to malign the parentage of McCain’s daughter, George W. Bush secured the Republican nomination.  Eight years later, an aging McCain had one last opportunity to fight for the presidency.  He charged into it with aplomb.

What exactly happened is open for interpretation.  Had his views changed with age or with the shifts in American politics in the post-9/11 world?  Or did he cynically shift his positions to the right in order to quell the concerns of those within his party that he simply wasn’t Republican enough?  Who can say?  The facts, though, demand some sort of explanation.

McCain, who once argued that banning abortion would lead to unsafe, illegal procedures that would threaten women’s lives, suddenly called for the overturn of Roe v. Wade.  During the campaign, he spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, despite having called its founder an “[agent] of intolerance” during his 2000 run.  He even turned against legislation he himself sponsored, saying that he would vote against his own 2006 proposal for immigration reform because in 2008 “the people” wanted the border secured.

Wanton hypocrisy?  I’m not sure.  Perhaps I am just eager to defend the man I wanted so badly to vote for in 2000 (though I would’ve cut off my hand before voting for him in 2008).  He didn’t, after all, reverse course on every issue.  He remained committed to addressing climate change, a priority shared by few Republicans.  He refused to employ the dirty, underhanded race baiting that had been used against him in South Carolina in 2000.

In Ancient Greek tragedy, the hero’s fault or error–called hamartia–lies unknown to himself until the moment of anagnorisis.  Is it possible that McCain unknowingly allowed himself to be swayed by advisors and others?  Could his single-minded pursuit of the office have slowly eroded his famous integrity?

Maybe he really didn’t see it until that November night, until he had to look out at the booing crowd and realize those were the people he had forsaken his honor to please–the reactionary right wingers that Heilemann and Halperin called “furies” in their 2010 post-mortem on the election, Game Change.  McCain had sold his soul to get that nomination and kept on selling it to try to win, but I don’t think he’d really realized it until that night in Phoenix.

One might argue that it’s a fool’s errand to probe the soul of any man through newspaper clippings and cable news sound bites, but sometimes it’s actually quite an easy task.

It’s hard to imagine that President Clinton had any illusions about whether or not he was doing wrong during his tawdry dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  Though his actions have inspired novels, plays, and films, Aristotle would have seen nothing cathartic in this uncomplicated drama of an empowered, entitled man gratifying himself and lying to an entire nation.

No hamartia.  Bill Clinton undoubtedly knew himself to be a horndog, as we all know him to be.  No anagnorisis.  His scripted apology to the nation offered words only, no public penance, no gouging of his own eyes as with Oedipus when he discovered his sin.  Nothing but more slick Willy.

But again, perhaps I am too harsh, too quick to cast judgment because of a sense of personal betrayal.  He was the first president I’d voted for and he looked out from the TV and pointed right out at America (right at me, I tell you!), assuring us that he, “did not have sex with that woman.”

Then came Bush.  If Clinton had been morally wrong, Bush was wrong in almost every other way.  Wrong about weapons of mass destruction.  Wrong about the dangers of climate change.  Wrong about torture.  Wrong, I still believe, about waging a “War on Terror” that would claim as its first casualty our own sacred civil liberties.

But was he, like Clinton, knowingly wrong?  Did Bush ever recline in that chair in the Oval Office with the smug satisfaction of a shoplifter with a fresh take–as Clinton must have done, post-fellatio?

Bush’s tragedy may still be unfolding, his hamartia waiting for the man to look back and see, in a blinding epiphany, that nation building for profit is morally wrong or that economic policies that favor only the flow of capital weaken the bedrock of the middle class.  Who knows, but for all the ways that George Bush weakened this country, I cannot level at him the kind of contempt I feel for his predecessor.

For all his faults–and even his supporters must at least admit that he failed to achieve his policies in Afghanistan and that his economic policies contributed to the 2008 financial collapse–it seems, from this distance, that George W. Bush did what he believed was right.  Galling as it is to liberals and moderates, I think he did believe that what was good for business must be good for the country as a whole and that violating people’s rights–here or abroad–to keep them safe really was the right thing to do in the face of the evil of terrorism.

What, then, of his successor?

There are no small number of disaffected liberals who simmer with rage for Barrack Obama.  Despite the fact that the Republican party and its radical Tea Party fringe have decried the Affordable Health Care Bill as socialism, it is actually so business-friendly and so conservative a reform package that almost every single component of the law was at one time or another proposed by a Republican (most hilariously of all, the individual mandate that is such anathema to today’s right wing was passed in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney).  Obama’s most liberal supporters were irritated that he surrendered the fight for a public option, which would have moved the United States much closer to the kind of universal healthcare provided by nearly every other industrialized democracy.

That, though, is only one example of the disappointments liberals feel when reviewing Obama’s four years as president.  Though President Obama has halted the use of “enhanced interrogation” made famous by leaked photos from Abu Ghraib, he has reneged his promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay.  What’s more, he has continued fighting Bush’s “War on Terror” with a vengeance.  A robotic death-from-above vengeance.  Eric Holder’s legal gymnastics to justify the drone-strike assassination of an American citizen now rival the logical loop-de-loops of Alberto Gonzales.

Progressives have been further infuriated by Obama policies that validate the Republican’s supply-side economics, all while the President has failed, until recently, to move on important liberal cause célèbre like gay rights and immigration.  Policy reform on other crucial issues–education reform and action on climate change–remains largely on the shelf.

The question is: Has Obama sold his soul?

And does he know it?

Now, as the election cycle for 2012 goes into full swing, President Obama urges us “forward.”  Indeed, anyone with even a basic understanding of the history of recessions in the country must favor him over the bizarre logic of Mitt Romney who argues that because what we need is jobs, then we should cut federal spending (When, Governor Romney, has cutting government spending EVER resulted in more jobs?).  But while liberals and progressives know they want Obama to defeat his vulture capitalist opponent, it is another question as to whether he can actually persuade them to vote for him again.

As November approaches, I think back to the moment when Barrack Obama really appeared on my own radar.  It wasn’t long after his Senate win and his coming out party at the Democratic National Convention.  I read about and from him in Time, and I was impressed.  His views and words were nuanced, careful, and reasonable.  In Time’s excerpt from The Audacity of Hope, he related his struggles to find middle ground between progressivism and faith, including with anti-abortion protestors who occasionally visited his campaign stops.  What I took away from that first impression was that Obama was a man deeply committed to compromise, to meeting halfway.  I had no idea that two short years later he would be America’s first African-American president.

As it turns out, compromise has been the name of the game throughout the Obama presidency.  To slip past filibusters, Obama has had to offer concessions to the Republicans at every turn.  The public option, an early plank of the health care bill, was abandoned to appease them and get the bill passed.  He bought an extension of unemployment benefits with an extension of the sacred-cow Bush tax cuts.

Responding to criticism of Obama’s many compromises, Fareed Zakaria said in 2011, that the president was “a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good” and that his failure to live up to expectations was really an acknowledgment of the complexities of the current political reality.  To be sure, that will be the view taken by many an Obama apologist in the weeks to come.

This might be a more favorable picture of the president than that of the weak-kneed reed that bends to every right-wing breeze, but it is none-too-inspiring when placed up against the “Yes, We Can” and “Change” enthusiasm of 2008.

If we want to probe Obama’s integrity, though, we might look to his recent gesture of support for gay marriage.  Obama began his political life as an opponent of gay marriage, but added, “when you start playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that’s not what America’s about.”  In keeping with that position, he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act.  In fact, he admitted in his book that, “It is my obligation…to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided…and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history.”  Now, he has declared that, in fact, he believes he was wrong.

It would be easy enough to read all of this arc as a series of calculated moves.  Obama in 2004 read the handwriting on the wall and decided to keep evangelical voters satisfied by opposing gay marriage.  Now, in 2012, he has reversed positions in an effort to shore up his liberal supporters.

This narrative, though, neglects the simple fact that this reversal is unlikely to win him any significant number of votes, just as his previous soft stance was unlikely to really lose him much support from the left.  The gay and lesbian community is, ultimately, a small proportion of the population, and not many of them were ever likely to vote Romney.  At best, this move gets a few people off the sidelines, but demographically they probably live in urban centers in already blue states.

It could be that Obama really did make the move for the reason he claimed, because it was “the right thing to do.”

In that case, Obama may be skirting the boundaries of a different kind of drama, one in which he has compromised politically without compromising his integrity.  Or it could be that his willingness to be pragmatic is his hamartia, laying in wait for the final episode in his tragedy.