Saturday, February 23, 2008

Kill the songwriters!

H. L. Mencken once wrote (yes, this is the most pretentious way imaginable to start an essay, but whatever), in an article dismissing jazz music, that he found the music to be a series of unpleasant sounds loosely strung together. I felt what he must have felt when I listen to some of these new-ish college rock bands. Overly literate lyrics coupled with suspect melodies and exotic (read unpleasant to listen to) instrumentation combine together for one ultimate explosion of suckiness. Were he still around, Mencken would certainly disapprove.

I suppose that I just don't care too much about the lyrics of a song, compared to some far more important elements--like, you know, the sound! I don't apologize for liking music that appeals to me sonically and for disliking that music which does not stroke me on that level. This is not some aberration--it is actually quite normal and evolutionary. You see, music is primarily a sonic medium, not a written medium, and the appeal of music is derived not from the words, which are at best not mind-numbing, but rather from the sound itself. Take that old chestnut, early rock 'n roll. In retrospect, Elvis and The Beatles were hardly revolutionary--in fact, their message was downright conservative, when you take it at face value. But the sound, that was something different, something enticing to young people, something unfamiliar and scary to authority figures everywhere. The pattern has considered apace since then, as every generation has looked for the new sound, the new rebellion. This took on even greater currency in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War--rock and roll was forbidden, a sign of vitality and excitement in cultures that were steeped in tepidity. The words mattered not at all--just the energy and excitement generated by underground broadcasts of rock and jazz music was enough to cut through the propaganda transmitted by the communists and give many behind the Iron Curtain a more favorable sense of America. It was the sound that mattered, not the words, which these people couldn't understand anyway. And if anyone thinks I'm overestimating the influence of rock on the fall of the Soviet Union, think again--it has always been that bold, exciting new sound that has brought about new rebellion. Of course, rebellion is now used to sell soft drinks, so one really wonders how much currency it still really has.

The idea I find most objectionable--essentially, that it's a group's songwriting that matters rather than, you know, all that music and whatnot--is based on a false dichotomy. There is a notion that valuing sound over lyrics is like valuing style over substance. The error here is to assume that style and substance are distinct--indeed, as Flaubert (the Madame Bovary dude) wrote, style itself can be an absolute way of viewing the world, too. The idea that an idea or emotion can only be conveyed through words is a puzzling one, considering that popular music for several centuries came largely without words. Nobody asked Mozart, "Hey, love that 40th Symphony. Can you come up with some lyrics for that?" In fact, being able to convey emotions without words is probably more impressive than doing so with words--with words it's too easy. With music, real virtuosity is required.

All of this is not to slag off the written word, and I'm not saying that all music ought to be instrumental from this day forward. I don't believe these things and I'm not advocating them. However, it seems peculiar to me that songwriting is seen as so important when the truth is that the vast majority of it is terrible when considered as prose. Every once in a while a musician will be able to transcend the popular music format and create some truly important art--Bob Dylan is one such artist, although inconsistent and often overrated--but compared to, say, wordsmiths like Dryden, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, there is not a single current "artist" who makes the grade. Songwriting is low-rent poetry, hack prose that is generally meant to explore some emotion (predominantly love) with great shallowness. Those who realize this tend to be successful at the game. It is all just a function of the limitations of the form, which have actually gotten worse over the past decade--the album has essentially departed, and it's all about singles now. Being able to express a compelling idea or emotion in three to four minutes is really difficult, and the rate that music professionals have to pump out albums makes that sort of sophistication and thoughtfulness difficult to find.

It might be easy to just shrug off modern music altogether, but there is something powerful to it. My theory is that it is evolutionary--we're just wired to be attracted to enthralling rhythms and melodies. Why else do primitive tribes develop musical instruments before a written language? A captivating song does not really work along an intellectual level, but rather on a deeper, primordial level, one that existed before language and conscious thought. That's its power, but also its weakness. That is why I tend to be suspicious of "great songwriters." Sting is, after all, a terrific songwriter, perhaps one of the best. He has no small amount of musical talent, either--The Police are one of the greatest bands in history, after all. I will concede that an evocative lyric here or there certainly improves music, and really stupid lyrics can hinder its enjoyment. However, Sting has rather become the apotheosis of my argument--he seems to care only about being a capital-A artist with Something To Say, and it has made the man intolerable. Great songwriters almost always tend to forget what it is that makes a great song, and it is never the writing--something that sounds like shit but has amazing lyrics is simply not going to fly. We're back to the false dichotomy again.

All in all, expecting a song to actually, you know, sound good is not a bad thing, and an individual should not be punished for expecting such a thing. Such is my thesis. Good day.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Films of Scorsese, Part One: Taxi Driver

This is part of a series of essays in which I will discuss Martin Scorsese's greatest films from my own point of view, looking at the things I find most interesting and important about them.

Taxi Driver
is a film that, upon a very cursory glance, appears to be one of a series of films that played into the crime-phobic, pro-vigilante feelings of the 1970s. This trend was exemplified by Charles Bronson's Death Wish, which undeniably caught the zeitgeist of the times, but is a very troubling document of them in retrospect. That film had Bronson's character, a liberal family man, turn into a vigilante after some toughs roughed up and killed members of his family, and he found no recourse to bring them to justice. For a time when crime seemed an out-of-control problem, this 1971 film struck a nerve and was quite successful, so much so that it inspired a half-dozen or so sequels, all terrible.

I've long been a firm believer in looking at what movies and TV shows were popular at a given time to understand the mindset of a given time, and there was a proliferation of movies about vigilantes due to the success of Wish. Unsurprising, of course, but what was troubling was the message that these movies sent. In essence, these vigilante films were just redressed revenge films, in which the protagonist suffered some sort of loss and went out looking for payback. The revenge story is a classic one that has been around for ages (The Count of Monte Cristo is one of many examples). But doesn't this whole setup seem a little, well, unrealistic? The moral message of these movies isn't that vigilantism is a terrible thing, or even something that the character finds necessary to procure justice for his loved ones. Instead, it is a noble action, in which the character is able to achieve some level of moral satisfaction from his deeds. Bronson's character is a good guy whose choice to start "cleaning up" the city is applauded because of his personal loss. Vigilantism then becomes a sacred duty--Bronson is just doing what he cops do not want to do, and he is rewarded for it by popular acclaim (in the film and out of it). If one wants to see the roots of the current strain of conservatism that has something less than respect for the rule of law, it was forged in crucibles not unlike this one.

The truth of the matter, though, is that real-life vigilantes were not really like Bronson. They weren't decent men pushed to the brink--more often, they were dangerous and violent psychotics like Bernhard Goetz, men (and women) whose detachment from reality, whose desire for recognition and approval for their deeds, whose essential insanity could not easily be hidden. In short, these people were not incredibly different from Travis Bickle, the protagonist of Taxi Driver. Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader create a film that serves as the ultimate deconstruction of several subgenres, the most obvious being the vigilante film. Bickle isn't a good man pushed to the brink--he's a ticking time bomb about to explode. He cannot relate to people and often views them as an alien might. He expresses loads of grief about the crime and filth he sees on the streets, but that often seems more tied to his jealousy of other people and his virulent racism than it does to a sincere desire to see people better off in the world. It's all just his mind creating a pretext for him to go out in a murderous frenzy. And it has nothing to do with any noble pretexts--he first tries to kill Senator Palantine, which fails, and it's then that he kills the mobsters to "save" Iris. The rampage is hardly depicted as noble--it's an ugly, bloody, nihilistic mess. The movie's greatest irony is that he does wind up getting an incredible amount of fame out of his murderous rampage--even more than Bronson-like folk hero status, perhaps--even though the ticking time bomb just happened to go off in the vicinity of some bad people. That's how vigilantes are, the film seems to be telling us. Don't believe the bullshit.

Another thing about Taxi Driver is how thoroughly the film deconstructs the film noir genre, to the point where it almost seems like an anti-noir. Taxi Driver is a noir, of course, and it deals with the darkness of humanity, and as with all films noir this is reflected in a very dark look for the film (though this film isn't quite as contrast-y as some of those old noirs were). Still, this movie annihilates noir in much the same way that the Sex Pistols were supposed to annihilate rock and roll--by taking the genre too far to its logical conclusion, upping the stakes such that future entries in the genre would be unable to back down from the grittiness those respective acts brought to the fore, and thus destroy the popular enthusiasm that those forms had earlier held. Taxi Driver seemed to be more successful than did the Pistols at accomplishing its goal--sure, we've seen plenty of noirs since Taxi Driver, but the form would quickly morph into the neo-noir, which often bore little resemblance to Humphrey Bogart's old films. Sure, there was crime and the dark aspects of human nature in a seminal neo-noir like Michael Mann's Thief, but Thief was stylistically miles away from classic noir in terms of scoring, lighting, etc. Even the occasional forays into straight noir in the intervening decades have largely been deliberately retro--L.A. Confidential, a terrific movie from the late 1990s, comes to mind, as does the science fiction film Blade Runner, somewhat paradoxically. There is also the case of the recent film Brick, which has many elements of the classic noir but also lacks a few, particularly the visual look of the picture. The truth is that, in the 1970s, it was still possible to create a film noir that took place in the present day with all the conventions of the genre. It is no longer possible to do that, largely because of what Taxi Driver did to demythologize the genre. There has never been so full an image of a violent, psychotic madman than Travis Bickle. You can't get any darker than him. And you can't one-up Scorsese's nightmarish New York City from the film. Film noir is, for all intents and purposes, dead, and although its influence lives on in retro-noir and neo-noir making a straight noir is no longer possible. And this is actually a good thing, as we have seen the noir genre extend into different directions--in other words, progress has been made. Contrast this with John Lydon's attempt to end rock and roll with essentially the same tactics. Lydon was instrumental in creating punk rock, which was intended to be so nihilistic and so offensive that it would simply be impossible for the public to be anything other than to be repulsed by it. At the same time, by pissing on the old idols of rock and roll (although it was The Clash whose credo was "No Beatles, Elvis or the Rolling Stones/In 1977") and by making the punk ethos so pervasive, it would be impossible for anyone else to refuse the gauntlet that the Pistols threw down. The theory was doomed, though, largely because a lot of people still liked rock and roll--far more than liked film noir as such--and the punk prickliness that the Pistols purveyed turned out to be impractical. The Pistols were gone within two years of their inception, and second-generation punk bands either cashed in (like The Jam), abandoned the pure punk ethos for new ideas and new musical styles (like The Clash), or carried punk to its logical conclusion. The last group wound up becoming the advocates of hardcore punk, a virtually unlistenable genre dead set on calling every band ever a sellout to principles whose context and intent had largely been forgotten. Then MTV came along and destroyed punk for good, only to rebuild it as an adjunct to pop music in the late 1990s. Had rock and roll been more of a boutique genre (like film noir), Lydon might well have succeeded at destroying the form. It was, however, the most popular genre of music in the world, and punk wound up servicing it in the end. Lydon did ultimately get his wish to see rock and roll die out, as it is virtually dead now, thanks to the rhythmically-oriented onslaught of hip hop.

Ultimately, Taxi Driver is a study in contradictions--it is a vigilante film that happens to be anti-vigilante, and it is a film-noir that killed its genre by upping the stakes. It is much more than just these two things, and it is ultimately a definitive and searing portrait of its subject and a unique look at the seamy side of 1970s NYC. It also happens to be a very perceptive look at the 1970s and the values and attitudes of its time, and its loss of the Best Picture Oscar to Rocky, of all films, is at once sad and instructive--would you rather see your nation as the land of Rocky or the land of Taxi Driver? Not that it's really a multiple-choice question, of course. In retrospect, looking for films that really grasped the era in which they were made is difficult. I believe that Taxi Driver is a movie that is frequently watched today partly because it affords a clear understanding of its times.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The post-9/11 conservative mindset: my take

I was just thinking today about why the right wingers are so zealous in their pursuit of legitimizing torture. Why? In this debate, it often seems like the utility of torture as a method of extracting information (which is low) is often beside the point. Then you read something like this (from Kevin Drum):
"I don't have any problem pouring water on the face of a man who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11," said John Shevlin, a retired federal law enforcement officer.
Surely this is nonsensical? The perpetrators of those hijackings all killed themselves in the attacks. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed is in custody, but surely this man is not only suggesting that we waterboard him? And Osama bin Laden is still out there. This is confusing to me, as Democratic presidential candidates, from John Kerry to Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, have all insisted that capturing bin Laden and bringing him to justice would be a top priority of their prospective terms in office. Republican candidates, on the other hand, have downplayed the importance of capturing bin Laden, to such an extent that Mitt Romney, the Panderer's Panderer, said it wouldn't be worth spending much effort to get the guy. This seems crazy on its face. The GOP has only managed to win elections free and clear on this side of the millennium marker by being aggressive on terrorism, and yet capturing the world's best-known terrorist, and one who most definitely is responsible for the 9/11 attacks, seems to be not anywhere on the GOP's radar.

And why do conservatives so ardently back the Iraq War? Is it just a sense that, unlike Vietnam, they're not going to give into the goddamn hippies this time? It doesn't feel that way to me. Well, maybe a little. But Richard Nixon effectively ran as an anti-war candidate, did he not? He had a secret plan to end the war, right? At the very least he rhetorically was willing to make the point that it wasn't going well and had to end, in order to actually have a chance of winning in the general election, even though he had absolutely no intention of following through with ending it until he had no choice. Compare this with the modern GOP's treatment of rare anti-war members like soon to be former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest and soon to be former Sen. Chuck Hagel, both of whom were challenged in their party's primary by a more pro-war option. And then there's the peculiar case of Rudy Giuliani, a man who received no small amount of establishment backing despite being openly pro-choice, pro-stem cell, pro-gay rights, etc. Yet hardly anybody seemed to be really bothered by this in the Republican party, aside from an eleventh-hour resolution by some religious right leaders not to support Giuliani's nomination that had very little power. As it turned out, it didn't matter, as Giuliani turned out to be a buffoon who destroyed himself in an epic maelstrom of scandal, unpleasantness, and strategic incompetence. Still, that he was not immediately dismissed as a candidate while Senator Hagel is on his way out of office despite a lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union in the high 80's tells us something--namely, that "traditional values" are now a negotiable leg on the Republican stool, but that support for the war is not. And it is not even necessary to pay lip service to the things that have defined conservatism in the past, like small government and balanced budgets. George W. Bush is still a rock star with conservatives, but is loathed by literally nearly everyone else. How did this come to be? The Republican Party has shown itself willing to sacrifice literally everything to keep the war in Iraq going. Why?

Let's return to the aforementioned quote. So does Mr. Shevlin's comment then not make any sense? Well, clearly he said something that resonated with his fellow conservatives, since they applauded his sentiment. It seems rather incongruous, but it is actually quite sensible when one reconsiders the global war on terror as less of a struggle for the future of civilization and more of a vehicle for sating free-floating anger about 9/11. After that day's events, everyone--from liberals to conservatives--felt anger at what had happened and wanted to strike back. And why not? Should there not be justice for the victims? That is why Afghanistan was a logical target for a military incursion--after all, the Taliban were very friendly with al-Qaeda, more so than any other nation in the Middle East. Afghanistan was essentially an al-Qaeda base of operations. The case for taking down their government was a reasonable one, and I suspect that many liberals and moderates (and perhaps even conservatives) would have felt closure if that had been the end of our military adventures in the Mid-East.

It was not long after that, though, when suddenly the "global war on terror" mandated that we attack Iraq, a country in which al-Qaeda had no presence and whose government al-Qaeda despised. Saddam Hussein was an evil man, but he was no terrorist and he could not have cared less about global Jihad, inasmuch as it did not benefit him. Hussein was a prototypical strongman, interested only in perpetuating his own power. For reasons that were never entirely made clear, the decision was made by the Bush Administration to invade Iraq. "Evidence" was provided that Iraq and al-Qaeda had been in cahoots from the beginning. And people believed them. Eventually, the media learned that this was never true and stopped maintaining the argument, but conservative propaganda organs, such as Fox News and right-wing talk radio, continued to insist on a connection. Dick Cheney hedged, Bush continued to insist that Iraq was definitely a battlefield in the war on terror, and even though the facts are now widely known and most Americans disagree with the Bushies' initial assessments, conservatives continue to conflate the two. Indeed, they are nearly the only ones.

So, is it just that Fox is full of liars? Well, yeah, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think that, in their guts, most well-informed conservatives realize that Saddam and Osama weren't really hanging out on Saturday nights. But let's return to the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It shouldn't be too controversial to assert that the immediately post-9/11 period was a brief oasis of bipartisan cooperation and productivity. Pretty much everyone agreed on action against the Taliban. This was uncontroversial across the political spectrum--as comedian David Cross noted in his amazing stand-up album Shut Up, You F***ing Baby, even Ralph Nader would have invaded Afghanistan. However, the Republican Party still faced a political reality--they couldn't get their agenda passed because the Senate was controlled by Democrats, and a brand-new, nonpartisan era of cooperation was not going to allow them to pass the sort of initiatives they wanted to pass. This would go double if the Democrats managed to maintain their Senate control. Ultimately, though, the Republicans lacked a really effective wedge issue to use against the Democrats in order to win. So we saw a concerted effort on several fronts to use the terrorism issue against the Democrats. One one hand, George W. Bush's rhetoric took a sharp turn, from insisting immediately after 9/11 that we are not fighting a war against Islam, which he referred to as a religion of peace, to adopting the brash bellicosity of "you're either with us or against us." This is when we started to hear more talk about the "global war on terror," a radical redefinition of a conflict that had been seen, to that point, as a conflict with the specific group of guys in al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Karl Rove's shop began to put together strategies to take down some of the last remaining conservative Southern Democrats, like Max Cleland, that used the senator's perceived weakness on terrorism. The South is, after all, both tribal and conservative, so the strategy was both shrewd and obvious. We started to hear about the grave human rights abuses in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, talked about Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations, which is both murky and beside the point as those groups are largely uninterested in us. These actions, and others, decoupled the entirely understandable anger that followed 9/11 (and that much of the world shared with us) from the event itself and turned it onto the Muslim world at large. Initially, the public went along with the story, and the Iraq War happened. With time and media coverage of stories such as the 9/11 report, not to mention the disaster in Iraq, most people have fallen away from such views, and think that the Iraq occupation should never have occurred. Polls attesting to these facts are very easy to find, and such thinking has become conventional wisdom for all except conservatives.

But a strange cosmology has enveloped conservatism with respect to Islam of the extreme variety--in particular, the belief that all Arabs can be easily categorized into two groups, one of which loves freedom and America and the other of which hates America and wants to destroy it. Needless to say, while both groups likely exist, there are others as well. Hamas doesn't much like us, to be sure, but they've shown no interest in waging Jihad against us and are really more interested in achieving a two-state solution in Israel than anything else. And there are probably many Arabs that might be more favorably disposed to us but still don't agree with our values and don't want us meddling. Such distinctions are not favored among conservatives. It's us versus them, and the conservatives have cast themselves in the great anticommunist tradition while liberals seem to have been downgraded in their revisionist historical simulacrum--in real life, liberalism was every bit as opposed to communism as was conservatism. Some elements of the left were sympathetic to communism, particularly during the Vietnam War, but the comparison is favorable to the current-day left, from whom there is no vocal support for terrorism. That an opposition to Islamism could be decoupled from a desire to make the terrorists pay, ad infinitum, is simply inconceivable to these conservatives' frame of reference. So, the Democrats want to coddle the terrorists, of course, because it is impossible for conservatives to imagine a good faith disagreement on this issue. As Tom Cruise might say, in another context, either you're on board, or you're not on board.

One mistake that would be easy to make in this department is to overthink this phenomenon. If the statement of the conservative is representative of conservatives across the land--at the very least, it was the sentiment of the other conservatives in the room who applauded him--it is likely less an intellectual response and more one that is felt viscerally. And I'm sure that the person who feels it the least is Karl Rove. Rove is only partially to blame for this, after all. I don't think that, with those first steps, the Bush Administration was trying to stir up a hornet's nest that would eventually lead to majority support for torture of terror suspects among conservatives. In retrospect, though, it was inevitable. By broadening the struggle against al-Qaeda to include the Taliban, it became necessary to neutralize the Taliban to achieve closure for 9/11. By broadening the post-9/11 conflict to Iraq, it would become impossible for to achieve closure with respect to 9/11 until Iraq was under control. By broadening the conflict to the entire Arab world--well, you get the picture. The implications of this progression are startling--seven years after the fact, after the near-decimation of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq and, not coincidentally, after even a single terrorist attack, conservatives still well up with anger at even the thought of 9/11. This is not the bad part--such things should still cause anger. The bad part is that it is beginning to seem that their catharsis can only be achieved by the brutal subjugation of the entire Middle East, and that any action against a Muslim terrorist--any action--should be taken and exalted. As someone who is somewhat familiar with U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War I am ashamed that so many of the democratic regimes overthrown by my government were replaced with corrupt American-backed stooges who brutally repressed their people (e.g. Pinochet or Suharto), but I can also appreciate that these actions might well have been necessary at the time. This is called utilitarianism--Communist expansion would have made just as many people suffer, if not more, so such undemocratic actions might have been permissible if more people wound up being made happy by these actions. The opposite of utilitarianism is deontology, which holds that in immoral act is an immoral act, regardless of who benefits. Conservatives seem to hold a sort of inverted deontology on the subject of terrorists, and couple this with the notion that the "terror war" is a zero-sum game in which any action taken against a terrorist is noble, even (and perhaps especially) illegal ones. This is a very relativistic attitude, morally speaking, and it is ironic that those who used to inveigh so deeply against moral relativism (with regard to cultural matters) are now its practitioners. It bothers these conservatives not a whit that few prisoners at, say, Guantanamo Bay are actually believed to have actually perpetrated terrorist acts. Let's not forget Mitt Romney's notorious promise to "double Guantanamo," which proves the point clearly. What else can this be other than a call to lock up more shady Muslim types, regardless of whether they ought to be there? After all, there have got to be more terroristy people out there, no? Romney's comment was not exactly booed, and the calculus for just locking up more Muslims makes sense. If they're there, after all, there has got to be some reason why. Maybe they didn't do something wrong, but they're associated with people who would, and they've probably done something bad, or they might if they weren't in jail. This thinking is reminiscent of nothing less than the Sacco and Vanzetti affair, in which the two men weren't believed to be guilty of the specific crime of which they stood accused, but were executed nonetheless because they were Italians (not a popular thing to be at the time) and because they were probably guilty of something. That trial, of course, is one of the darkest points in our nation's history.

I apologize if the tone of this essay seems a bit too much like psychoanalysis, but I present this theory as one possible way of thinking about why conservatives have acted the way they have in recent years. In essence, my claim is that conservative leaders' broad redefinition of the post-9/11 conflict against Islamic terrorism has created a situation in which the deaths of September 11, 2001, must be avenged, and they must be avenged by striking at the amorphous menace of "terrorism." Until terrorism is defeated, vengeance cannot be fulfilled, and yet the victory over terrorism is simply not possible in practical terms--at least, not in the short term. Initially the public bought into this line of argument, but no longer, and only these conservatives still hold the essential truth of this narrative. Indeed, everything from preemptive military action to torture is acceptable, even noble, if undertaken against terrorists. Because of conservatives' trust in their leaders and their consumption of media organs designed to supplement their leaders' message, they have continued to cling to these views even after the rest of the country has moved on, and there is no sign of abatement, although many polls show that around a quarter of Republicans want to leave Iraq. The unpopularity of their views has served not as a deterrent but as a test of faith for conservatives, and their elevation of this issue, the war issue, in particular above all others is necessarily tied into 9/11. Why else would the laughingstock Giuliani have ever been taken as a serious contender? The buffoon struck on something powerful by accident--he linked September 11th with aggressive action against the terrorists overtly and forcefully with his campaign, which should by all rights have been dead on arrival. At this point, it seems fair to say that conservatives will never, ever yield on this particular issue, and should a Democrat be elected president in 2008 and proceed to narrow the scope of the "war on terror" to focus more on al-Qaeda and end the Iraq War, such a president will become an unbelievably intense object of hatred by the right that their feelings toward Bill Clinton will seem positively giddy, even if that president should be Barack Obama. The situation is far from hopeless, as it is conceivable that conservatives might eventually find some way to salve the wounds of 9/11, or perhaps these feelings will fall away with time. Ultimately, the bitterness will have to end, with the last resort being because their bitterness over these issues will consume them for the better part of a generation and will not abate until a new generation of post-9/11 Republican lawmakers is ushered into power after the Republican Party has been powerless for ages. The Republicans are on the holy crusade that George W. Bush infamously promised them, with the attendant religious (and it is religious) fervor of a tent revival. And since their conquest of the Middle East cannot possibly succeed, their anger simply cannot be relieved in the way they want it to be. The age of empire has long passed us up--it ended as soon as a poor insurgent could buy an AK-47 on the street for a couple of bucks. So, eventually, they'll have to give up their anger. The only question is: when? Will it be before 2012, after four years of Democratic control? Or will it take a lot longer? In any event, it is highly unlikely that an angry, embittered party obsessed with fighting yesterday's battles will hold power anytime soon, nor should they.

I recall House Republican Leader John Boehner saying in June that Iraq could lead to the collapse of the Republican Party. In the literal sense, this is perhaps untrue. However, in the sense of the GOP spending a generation in the wilderness because the public has moved on from the issues they are still obsessed with--he is absolutely right. To be fair, I'm sure there are many conservatives who are deeply upset with the direction the Republican Party has taken and want to bring their party into the mainstream, but they have their work cut out for them if they want to retake their party.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

McCain and Hemingway

One of the reasons I love Wonkette so much is because, at its best, it rises to an almost Menckenesque level of wit. This is one of my favorite posts of all time (about John McCain):

Do you have special heroes who help you decide what to do in your life or whatever? John McCain sure does! And they tend to be fictional characters from ridiculous juvenile books and movies, generally about how romantic it is to get shot down or blown up for some pointless bullshit cause that was always a losing proposition that wasn’t even wanted by the people it would ostensibly benefit.

But it's this brief summation that makes it art: "In other words, McCain is a 70-year-old man who still reads Hemingway books." That is such a brilliant encapsulation of the man that it seems pointless to add anything to it. But there is more to him than just that. One interesting thing to note about John McCain is that he's never held a job outside of the government for very long. Between his army service and his congressional service he's been drawing a government paycheck for ages. His father was a powerful Naval officer. The sad thing isn't that McCain reads Hemingway books, but that he has so little life experience outside of the cocoon of the very powerful that he actually thinks that life is like that. After all, he's got nothing with which to compare it. The worries of average folks are things that are to be looked down upon with contempt. It's all about honor and glory. He's conservative because Republicans were more pro-military when he started his political career than were the Democrats, but ironically he's probably more statist than, say, Barack Obama is (it's debatable w.r.t. Hillary Clinton), even though he claims to be a small-government conservative. I tend to be less than sympathetic to the conservative critiques of his sins (e.g. his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, etc.) but the larger critique--that he doesn't feel the small-government philosophy in his bones--seems eminently valid, and I can understand why a lot of conservatives dislike the guy.

For the record, I can't stand Hemingway, and John McCain's Hemingway love is actually a much more powerful strike against him from my perspective than, say, his stance on the war. Hemingway is a bete noire of mine because he is so palpably full of shit. His work is generally lazy roman a clef, I find, too light on analysis of his characters' motives and feelings and too heavy on derring-do and romanticism of war. Plus, once you get past the novelty of how differently he forms sentences from Fitzgerald and his ilk, it is indisputable that he is just a terrible writer. Significant moments pass by without much heft very frequently. A man who loves Ernest Hemingway simply can't be anything other than a conventional White man whose conception of meaning is defined through conflict. Hell, even Bush seemed to evince an affection for Camus on occasion. I will grant that Hemingway does effectively manage to convey his worldview and beliefs through his writing, but as both are utterly banal and sentimental and, well, bullshit, I find it hard to respect someone who really reveres this trash and takes it seriously. These are romance novels for men, make no mistake about it. Hemingway's continued popularity bothers me nearly as much as the continued popularity of Gone With The Wind, another intensely shallow trip through the human psyche that is infinitely more tolerable because it sticks with the story and characters instead of deciding to babble about human nature quite so much.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War: A Return to Form for Sorkin

And when I say this, it's not just a euphemism for "finally making something not sucky." I mean it in a very literal sense--i.e., that Sorkin has returned to the entertaining form he used to exhibit in the days of Sports Night and early West Wing and has abandoned the heavy-handed didacticism that has plagued him for years.

Let me explain.

From A Few Good Men until the first two seasons of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin was on an unbelievable hot streak that yielded him quite a bit of success. Each film and television project he tackled was entertaining and, with the exception of Sports Night, quite successful. Sorkin has never been a perfect writer, and his faults at the time were evident--his movies were too talky and stagebound, his characters often talked alike and acted alike, etc. This has all been said many, many times. Nevertheless, with Men and The American President, he created two successful genre efforts that were truly entertaining, funny, and touching. This is no small achievement. His television efforts were similar in tone and thrust. Sorkin, perhaps more so than most writers, has a real interest in the corridors of power and in powerful people, but this had largely manifested itself in telling good stories in heady settings with powerful people. Sure, there was plenty of speechifying about The Right Thing To Do. It didn't get in the way of the rest of the stuff.

Now, there is one exception to this rule that I haven't discussed, and that is Sorkin's first film, Malice. A terrible film, but one whose terribleness manifested itself in interesting ways. If anyone has ever wondered what would happen if Sorkin tried his hand at noir, this is the movie you want to watch. As Roger Ebert notably remarked, it's the only movie ever made that throws in a plot about a serial killer just for atmosphere. Characters are either completely good or utterly evil, contrivance is piled upon contrivance, plot twists that just make you sit back and say, "What the fuck?" It's not unlike the recent Mr. Brooks, from what I hear. With Malice, it was evident that Sorkin Had Something To Say, and wanted to paint a morality play that had A Message about Right And Wrong. And it was awful.

Malice was bad, but it is bad in a way that sorta stays with you. With me, anyway. And with the later seasons of West Wing under his care and the really awful Studio 60 after that, I couldn't help but be reminded of that movie. During the 1990s, Aaron Sorkin seemed content to provide great entertainment, gently tinged with his liberalism. Then he suddenly morphed into a humorless and self-important dramatist who suddenly had things he Had To Say About Life And Everything. And it destroyed him. The inflection point, as it were, was between the second and third seasons of West Wing, and there were several important events that happened between June and September of 2001. One might point to Sorkin's high-profile arrest for drug possession, or his divorce, but maybe we should listen to our Inner Giuliani and just say "9/11!" The World Trade Center attacks were a traumatic event for everyone, but judging from his work before the attacks and his work afterward, one can see certain traits. We have discussed his work before the attacks--afterward his work took on a far more political and overtly moralistic. He started examining societal and political problems in greater depth on West Wing, which seemed to fit the show but really ruined its quality as the show became far more dour and heartless. Then he did the same exact thing on his next show, Studio 60. One can almost admire the farcical extent of 60's overreach--it's a show that was just full of shit from start to finish. Serious plotlines involving family members recruiting mercenaries to save family members abducted in Afghanistan were thrown in alongside casual plots centering on snakes in the studio, which stood next to incredibly tedious multi-episode arcs about dinner parties. As one can imagine, the series was a total mess in terms of tone and message--it often felt as though Sorkin was trying to mention every single issue in America on every single episode--but despite these inconsistencies it was consistently unfunny. Oh, and it was preachy and patronizing throughout. At least West Wing could get away with these sorts of sins because of the gravitas of the corridors of power in which it was set. Studio 60 often functioned as a deconstruction of Aaron Sorkin, his missionary impulses and self-regard laid bare. Even the central conceit of the series didn't work--the meta-show was supposed to be an intelligent, bold onslaught on the status quo, with sketches that would really shake up the debate, you know, like "Pimp My Trike!" That tells you all you need to know about the show.

Charlie Wilson's War, on the other hand, felt much more like Sorkin's pre-9/11 work. It was educational but still entertaining, often serious but never Serious. It maintained a consistent tone throughout--we saw the buildup to Charlie's merry little war, thrown together without anyone's knowledge and without much knowledge of how to do it--and it actually manged to be funny. A bit lacking in subtlety, especially around the endgame, when talking about the import of the whole saga, but I thought that it's worth making a movie to note that even a hard-partying buffoon can change the whole course of history, for good and bad. All in all, though, it wasn't a bad film. It is encouraging that Sorkin seems to be emerging from his post-9/11 mindset. In the wake of a slate of really shitty post-9/11 films from Lions to Lambs to Redacted, the world has had enough Hollywood hand-wringing about the War on Terror. But someone who can make a point with humor, tell a good tale that tells us a little something about our history--we can always use someone like that.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Can I trouble you for a Parliament? A Modest Proposal on Reforming the Presidency

Something I thought of while writing another post: George Bush effectively lost the confidence of his base and party when the immigration bill failed. He lost the ability to accomplish anything in office, and for the last year and a half of his term he's basically just killing time until his term ends. Does this make sense to anyone? It's a major shortcoming of our constitutional system--rulers that have lost the confidence of the people can remain in office for years without having the political capital or resources to address the crises of the day. In the pre-New Deal era, this wasn't a problem, since it was not incumbent upon Presidents to worry about such stuff. You could work for three hours a day, like Woodrow Wilson did for much of his term in office, and catch everything. Presidents didn't try to get their legislation passed through congress, didn't infringe upon the cabinet departments' prerogatives with things like the Council of Economic Advisers, etc. Presidents had foreign policy autonomy, for the most part, and that was about it. It was about all they needed to have, too, since their responsibilities kinda ended there, and there was the Monroe Doctrine to consider.

Things have changed, as we all know. I'm starting to think that the parliamentary system is a better way to go for governance in this day and age. At this point, the utility of allowing Bush his full second term seems equivalent to keeping a comatose patient alive by extraordinarily expensive means with the knowledge that he'll never wake--it's just a waste of time and resources that could better be used elsewhere. Had Bush lost a confidence vote after immigration, the GOP would have had the opportunity to install someone else -- at least there would have been a shot that fresh leadership that had the confidence of his party that might well have been able to deal with some of the crises of the day and try to rebound from the morass in which the GOP found themselves. Instead, thanks to an outmoded constitution written in a much less government-intensive and much slower-paced time, both conservatives and liberals have to have the Bush presidency unnecessarily prolonged.

Adopting a new model of the presidency is essential to this new(ish) era. We need effective leadership to deal with crises as they develop, and allowing the Presidency to function as an emeritus position for failed leaders simply doesn't cut it. My idea is as follows: keep the same four-year term for a president, but allow a party to remove an incumbent president if half the party's congressional delegation (both House and Senate), in a closed session, votes for a change of leadership. The party would then be able to select a new leader that would be able to serve without a plebiscite until the next congressional election. So, if George W. Bush had been removed under this provision and replaced with, say, Rick Santorum (horrors!), we would only have had to suffer through President Sant...(I can't bring myself to write it) for a year and a half. But if the GOP had decided to axe Bush a year into his term--say, after his disastrous Social Security reform proposal failed. The GOP might have had him replaced with the (then) non-radioactive-to-Republicans John McCain--we would have had a special Presidential election in 2006 to confirm that selection. This election would not preempt the regularly scheduled 2008 Presidential Election. So, under this scenario, McCain would have had about three years in office as of 2008 and he would be able to run for one more term, as he would have served more than two years of someone else's presidency. So, about seven years altogether for McCain. As can be seen, the changes to the constitution would need only be minimal, and the present term limit structure could be kept. The Santorum Administration could have more time in office, up to about nine and a half years. This, too, corresponds to the constitution, as the 22nd Amendment allows a president to serve more than two terms if the President serves less than two years of another president's term. So, Sanny would have served more time in office than any president since FDR. There's a scary thought...

And there is that frightening element to it--what, just allow a party to pick a president? It seems just, so, un-American, doesn't it? But it need not be that scary. A party that has lost confidence in its leader would be able to choose a new one--either as a caretaker or as an incumbent to run again. In the latter case, picking someone acceptable to the public at large would be desirable, as picking an unlikeable wingnut would mean certain defeat in the upcoming elections. This is why Rick Santorum wouldn't be selected. And as to the undemocratic nature of the thing--well, it is possible to become president without being elected as it stands now, is it not? A selected president, chosen by his (or her) party to replace an unpopular president, would also have enormous pressure to face the crises that the leader failed to address, as their status as an unelected (and unaccomplished) chief executive would inevitably be an enormous boon to the opposition party in the upcoming elections. Additionally, such an ordinance would greatly enhance the power of the power of congress over the president, which has become unbalanced in the wrong direction, I fear.

Now, there are problems with this proposal. Parties would become much stronger, and a president that bucked their party's positions might be removed for no valid reason. I submit that replacing a popular, heterodox president with an orthodox one would probably not be a winning move for a political party that wants to hang onto their power for more than two years. In any event, that is not the problem that occurs very often these days, is it? Base politics is the most common paradigm at this point, and politicians are unlikely to merely ignore the base these days. Admittedly, George W. Bush's immigration proposal was a defection from his base, and that is the key point of this essay. Does this not undermine my whole argument? Not at all. When a defection from orthodoxy damages the confidence of the president's political party in their leader's ability to move forward, it ought to be their prerogative to choose whether or not to stick with him. It does not necessarily follow that they will choose to remove him. As Bush is still popular among the GOP in general, indeed, they might not have done so. And to the extent that the right wing is hesitant to give the left what they want in removing Bush, it does not seem likely that they would have allowed them a "victory" like this. That choosing to keep an unpopular leader in place just to spite the opposition is the prevailing (and quite shortsighted) calculus reflects more on the polarization of the moment and less on the wisdom of the plan. This reflects the need to keep the process behind closed doors. What could be less democratic than that? Well, coming out against your party's leader is difficult to do in public. In private, members could freely voice their grievances. Parties select their congressional leadership by secret ballot, after all.

This does beg the question: does this mean radically changing the nature of the presidency to a much more party-centric model? In theory, it certainly does. In practice, it does not. The presidency is unquestionably a partisan at this point, but our constitution still lags two centuries behind the times when it comes to defining a role for political parties. The founders, as we all know, were largely opposed to political parties. They assumed, rather arrogantly, that parties would never form just because they didn't want them to. This oversight ought to be corrected, but that is another discussion altogether. In reality, since the early 19th century, presidents have effectively served at the pleasure of their respective parties. But the concern is well-taken, so I would be willing to stipulate a mechanism to provide a check on the power of orthodoxy--allow the removal request to go before both houses of congress. If two-thirds of the members of both houses vote to retain the president, the president would be retained. In this way we create a balance in this removal doctrine between a party's need to unload a disastrous leader, while purely ideological differences between a leader and his party would not necessarily be the end of a presidency, in practical terms as well as in concrete terms.

The result of all this is another check on the office of the presidency, whose power has grown to a far greater extent than the framers might have imagined. In the much more fast-paced world and president-centered government of the United States of America, we no longer have the luxury of presidents who lack the potential to accomplish their goals. To this end, I submit to you a new way of thinking about how to remove a president from office that does not involve impeachment, does not threaten a party change in the presidency, and ultimately fixes a long-persisting but progressively more urgent problem in our government today.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sigourney, Scorsese, and a nonexistent trio of aliens in Alien3

Alien3 presents one of the most intriguing and stark examples of a film that is so paradoxical that it is difficult to imagine its existence. One can point to many examples of contradictions in the film--its juxtaposition of pure, wild creative ambition with cost-cutting corporatism; its mood, extraordinarily moving but simultaneously numbing; its technical virtuosity, nevertheless replete with many examples of sloppy work on both sides of the camera. The trouble with Alien3 begins fairly early, even before the movie starts--the title of the film, if taken literally, suggests that there will be three of the famously fearsome alien creatures in this film, where there is merely one. Well, another one is a bit of a plot point, and it is seen in the earlier, theatrical version of the film, but not in the newer and more authentic restored version released on DVD a few years ago. Nevertheless, Alien3 is a film that drove many an audience up many a proverbial wall upon its release. After the enormous success of Aliens, audiences no doubt expected another thrilling, rollicking, ass-kicking adventure, replete with heroics and chills from beginning to end. Alien3 contains many heroics and a fair amount of chills, but Fincher's first film is such an exceptional case study in confounding audience expectations that it is difficult to describe just how efficiently he manages to do it without citing some examples.

For one, let's visit the sequence about fifteen or so minutes into the film. To give a bit of background, the characters from the first film (Ripley, Newt, Hicks, Bishop) crash-land on a rather desolate planet, Fury 161. Ripley is the sole survivor. After some exposition, Ripley asks to see the body of Newt, the young girl she saved in the first film. The body is produced. Ripley fears she was infested by an alien and looks down the dead girl's throat to try to see said alien. Finally, after some harrowing flashbacks, she orders the doctor, Clemens, to perform an autopsy. He complies. So, within the first half-hour of this film, Alien3, we see one of the beloved survivors of the first film being cut open in a sequence that isn't edited for maximum gore but rather for maximum emotional effect. It is a brilliant scene, and after watching it, many Aliens fans probably immediately gave up on the film right away, perhaps understandably. But the sequence is an effective way of introducing the sensibility of the new film--by killing off the old characters and literally ripping them apart in front of our eyes, we know that this film is going to take place in a much darker place, literally and spiritually, than its predecessor. Fincher was letting us know that we were in for a different kind of ride, and if you weren't ready for it, then you ought to get the hell off the boat. Unfortunately, as it turned out, too many people did jump ship then and there. Nevertheless, one does have to admire the integrity of the thing done, even if repelled by the very idea.

For those who have not seen the film, I will not spoil the plot, which is fairly well-constructed and contains a few really good twists. Suffice it to say that Ripley ultimately faces a choice between continuing to live despite being guaranteed (by an admittedly sketchy source) that the aliens will not be used as weapons, or making the ultimate sacrifice to save us all forever. She chooses the latter option. How easy it would have been to have taken the unctuous company representative at his word and continue living? How many of us would have made that choice? We needn't be reminded that Ripley was not born a hero--in the very first Alien she was often less than commanding. And yet she sacrificed herself in a noble, selfless, and beautiful act. For a moment--just one--she seemed to consider the offer. This film is hardly Aliens, Part Two--it's The Last Temptation of Christ! At least in the central dilemma it creates. If anything, Ripley seems to less actively contemplate absolving herself of her fate than did the Jesus of that film--it just wasn't an option, not to her, not to anyone who gave up her family (twice! well, sorta...), all her friends, her job--literally everything was destroyed by these aliens. While revenge was certainly a motive in Ripley's ultimate decision, I believe that her decision in this film goes deeper than just payback. At some point Ripley, just like Jesus in Last Temptation, realizes that she has to save the world simply because nobody else will do it. Nobody else would have died for the sins of the World, and nobody else would have died to keep the world from an infestation by indestructible aliens. All of the other mechanisms for accomplishing her mission had failed. Ripley had to take the one action that she could to save humanity. Scorsese's film came out only two years before Alien3, but their respective protagonists have such compatible and selfless motives that the intertextuality seems almost deliberate, and unexpected. There are differences, though: where Jesus's choice was predetermined, to some extent, Ripley's choice is not. Ripley was an unlikely survivor in Alien, and while heroic in Aliens, the character did nothing that would indicate such a grandness of spirit. And yet her decision is entirely plausible, thanks to Fincher. After the loss of everything else, she managed to find something--not faith, exactly, but a sense of purpose so strong that it substantively differs little from that of a religious mission. If anything, the comparisions to the LT Jesus are favorable, as Ripley displays little of the existential angst and uncertainty that Willem Defoe inhabits as Jesus. The final irony is that the Christ allegory in the film is so overt despite that Ripley's heroic final act is the act of suicide, one of the mortal sins according to early Christian teaching. Ripley, like Christ, would not have been able to enter Heaven upon her death. The Christ allegory in Alien3 is so perfectly presented and worked out in every detail, and yet it is presented to nonchalantly and naturally that one might not even catch it the first time viewing the film. All in all, though, the film's use of the Christ allegory is interesting in that it seems to thread the needle of presenting a person who is certainly heroic but--and here's the trick--not superheroic. Ripley's act is honorable, but Fincher manages to keep her as a creation of flesh and blood rather than of marble. It is a very interesting companion piece to Last Temptation.

Fincher also seems to get more personal with his characters than directors in other Alien films bothered to. Ridley Scott's original was genuinely scary, more in its sustained suspense than in the few shocking scenes where the alien showed up (though those were expertly done as well). However, Scott kept the characters distant from us--while they felt plausible, they were never made personal. So, say, when Tom Skeritt's character Dallas gets killed by the alien in the air shaft, we feel bad, but not shattered. Scott takes more of a sociological view of the situation--the competition between man and alien interests him on an intellectual level, as a springboard to look at all sorts of late 1970's anxieties, which he does brilliantly. Especial credit ought to go to Scott's interesting preoccupation with sexuality between humans and nonhumans, such as the attempted rape of Ripley by the (non-equipped) android Ash and the (possible?) rape of a female crewmember (not Ripley) by the alien, not to mention the "birth" of the alien. Still, it's a movie that aspires to chills and is interested in ideas, but doesn't really push the emotional angle. And Aliens, while entertaining, cannot help but feel a little shallow emotionally. Much of the terror in that movie is generated by putting women and children in danger, and otherwise by having scary things pop out at the screen. It's a movie that feels fulfilling at its end because of the gamut of emotions that are run through watching the thing, but none of the emotions are terribly deep and there is little to take away from the film. I would talk about Alien: Resurrection, but it's not really worth talking about, or seeing, for that matter. Some smart people keep insisting that it's satirical rather than shitty, which reminds me of nothing other than those people who insist that the offensive remark they just said was just a joke. It is indefensible and will remain undefended.

But despite his blase vivisection of a plucky ten year old at the beginning of the film, Fincher's film actually treats life with far more reverence than his fellow directors do. Yes, people die fairly often in this movie, many of whom we never know. But the deaths of the characters we are supposed to care about do register, and their deaths often feel less like heroic sacrifices for the good of humanity than just senseless killing. Fincher feels their deaths, even while understanding their ultimate purpose. And so do we. But the deaths do have meaning, and often prove one point or another about humanity. One central character is devoured by the alien about halfway through the movie in what might be considered a cheaply ironic shock tactic, but it truly is shocking--just like the alien kills off the most compassionate and likable character on a physical level, so it eradicates the "better angels of our virtue" on a deeper level. This film takes place in a prison, although in a long-deserted prison where a small amount of religious prisoners have remained behind to live as monks, tending to the machinery. Despite their religion and their oft talked about vows of celibacy, sexual tension does not only linger beneath the surface but remains right on top. Ripley, unsurprisingly, is nearly raped early on in the movie, a somewhat frequent event in these films, which raises the question of whether spiritual convictions are valid if there is no test for them--after all, it is easy to be celibate when Sigourney Weaver isn't around, no? One might suspect the film to turn into a polemic against religion, but it does not, as the very character who attempts the rape ("Junior") later gives his own life to save her from being killed by the alien. He actually finds virtue through the course of the film. In fact, virtually all of the prisoners risk their lives (and most of them give them up) to kill the alien in order to keep it from falling into the hands of the evil company. Now, this is one of the flaws of the movie, as many of those characters are difficult to distinguish and many don't register when they die. However, the heroic deaths of Ripley and Dillon, the evangelical leader played brilliantly by Charles Dutton, are quite shattering, and the film is very generous and humanistic when it comes to people--one senses, after a time, that the main message of the movie is that all people are fundamentally good. Couple this with the Christian angle, and you have a very interesting series of themes advanced by the film. When push comes to shove, most people in the film do the right thing, even though they usually don't want to, and not just out of selfish reasons. It's characters are generally noble. Aside from the company men, of course.

Coupled with the film's humanism is a distinctly distinctive style. The atmosphere of the film is at the same time tinged with dread, decay, spirituality, fear, but not without the occasional touch of dark humor. All of this is to say that the film hews very closely to the rest of David Fincher's canon, and fans of Fincher must watch the film. It is surprising just how on his game this rookie filmmaker was, and how much of his own personal style was evident right from the start. The visuals are also incredible, the best of all the Alien films, which is not a trivial achievement. The look of the film owes much to other dark sci-fi like Blade Runner and, of course, the original Alien film. Lots of steam, contrasts, and dark and drab colors. It's all pretty compelling on a visual level.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is such a mess that one might be forgiven for not appreciating the subtle nuances of the Christ allegory at its core, or the sublimity of the characters. This film has got some pretty significant flaws. Despite frequently being deeply felt, the movie also frequently induces a great deal of numbness in the viewer. While the combination marks a unique feel it can't help but feel schizophrenic--it often feels nihilistic, despite the fact that the message of the film is anything but, and one is tempted to lay the blame at the feet of David Fincher, who might not possibly have had the full command of tone that he would later come to possess. It does work a little bit in a strangely converse (and compelling way) in that it keeps daring the viewer to give up hope for the characters: that they'll be rescued, that they'll kill the alien, et cetera. One shouldn't blow it out of proportion, as the film's tone is actually one of the most memorable parts of the experience, and while it isn't consistent it is predictably inconsistent. During the key moments we are right there with the characters, adrenaline pumping. Otherwise, the film takes on an elegiac feel. All in all, the taste of the film is an acquired taste, but one suspects that it could have used a bit more thought and refinement before filming began.

The difficulties of the third Alien film go beyond the tone, too. Despite having some unbelievable visuals and atmosphere there are many parts where the special effects for the alien are so unconvincing as to make a typical episode of Charmed or early Buffy, the Vampire Slayer look realistic by comparison. The final action scene is easily one of the worst I have ever seen in my life--it is impossible to understand or visualize what is going on, and shifts to and from the alien's point of view are clumsy. The production values are high for much of the film, but these sequences are conceptually flawed and bring down the movie right before the exultant finale. Fincher does not entirely deserve the blame for this, as it was during this point where Fox really put the screws to him and made his life impossible. On the other hand, the decision to cast a group of generally similar-looking, largely British, all bald men to play the cast of convicts was an egregious error on Fincher's part. It is difficult even for me to tell them all apart, and I've seen the film a half dozen times!

Still, some of these errors are not the fault of Fincher. The third Alien film has one of those "stories behind the film" nearly as fascinating as the final product itself. The script went through several iterations and several directors, but various ideas from all of them wound up in the final version because preproduction had already started. That is one of the most interesting (and paradoxical) aspects of the movie--many of the unique ideas found in the film were cobbled together not out of some wild ambition but merely because the ideas were all present in various drafts of the script, and the studio wanted to save money by using the sets/props/costumes that they had already constructed. With each new version of the script, radically different settings, characters and ideas were put forward. Pre-production was begun, then ended. The completed (and expensive) output was then utilized in the next draft. Thus, a script about a prison planet and another about a planet of monks culminate in a story of prisoner monks, with a little bit of Ripley fighting aliens on Earth tossed in, but only on an outer rim planet. The end result was, to put it mildly, memorable.

Eventually David Fincher was named the film's director. Fox seemed to believe from the beginning that it knew how to make a film much better than David Fincher did, and second-guessed him constantly, continally screwing up his film in many ways. One of the greatest embarassments was the film's tagline, "On Earth, everyone can hear you scream," a takeoff on the famous tagline of the first film, but the action doesn't take place on Earth at all. The final action scene is dreadful largely because Fox became impossible to deal with for Fincher at that point, and after Fincher finished his film, the studio lopped off a full half-hour of the movie so as to allow more viewings in theaters--this was the pre-multiplex era, after all, and Fox wanted to get as much people to see the movie as possible. As it turned out, the cuts weren't necessary, as the movie was a big, fat bomb. And rightly so. The theatrical version is horrid. The half-hour removed contains a subplot in which one of the prisoners tries to make a deal with the alien (shades of Judas), completing the Christ allegory. In addition, the subtractions destroy the pacing of the movie, and add a crowd-pleasing ending that lacks the beauty of the original one. The whole story about the making of the film is available as part of the recent Special Edition, and I highly recommend both it and the extended version of the film. As regards the theatrical version, it is an interesting curiosity, but a bad film that generally contains the same themes as the first, but much of the character development is cut out, and the aforementioned pacing problem and shorter running time make the response upon the end of the film more in the "who cares?" realm than the intellectual and emotional impact with which the more recent version culminates.

All in all, Alien3 is a study in contrasts and paradoxes. Despite its failings, the movie has many moments where it just connects and finds considerable impact. It does require a certain level of intrepidness, however. On the grand scale of artistic achievement it does not quite belong among the first rank of human endeavor in the arts, and probably not even the second, but it is a solid work of art, and the best of the Alien films, largely because it is the most human of those films. I defy anyone to watch the film (in the extended cut, of course) and not remember that last scene where Ripley makes her sacrifice. People who watch that scene, knowing what has led to it, and find themselves unmoved are more alien than any other kind of creature in the film.