Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Casablanca Critique I Did Not See Coming Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism eBook: Noah Berlatsky: Kindle Store

Excerpt from Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism by Noah Berlatsky

I went to an anniversary screening of Casablanca a couple years back and was stirred, moreso for being in crowd that was also keen for it, by the "La Marseillaise" scene. Utterly, I confess, blind to its hypocrisy. It was anti-Nazi, so the subtext Berlatsky highlights remained below my threshold of recognition. Likewise, Rick's contempt for Ugarte and his paternalistic attitude towards Sam seemed like relatively tame bits of period racism. The obvious fact Laszlo was the proper hero, and the Rick-Ilsa romance is a slap in the face to not only the character, but what the character (ought to have) stood for, was obscured by Henreid's dutifully dull characterization of Laszlo and Bergman's luminescent screen presence. Yes, Laszlo gets the girl in the end and so is rewarded for his heroics, but the film does not recognize Laszlo is a better man than Rick. Rick's sacrifice is the real act of heroism in the cinematic world where the problems of three (but especially two) white people clearly amount to more than a hill of ethnic types.

Berlatsky's critique is much-needed eyewash. Compare the excerpt I screencapped above with this passage from Ebert's five star review:
What is intriguing is that none of the major characters is bad. Some are cynical, some lie, some kill, but all are redeemed. If you think it was easy for Rick to renounce his love for Ilsa--to place a higher value on Laszlo's fight against Nazism--remember Forster's famous comment, “If I were forced to choose between my country and my friend, I hope I would be brave enough to choose my friend.
His analysis is literate, thoughtful, and insightful in its way but Ebert is blind to the film's moral failings.

I'll never look at Casablanca the same way again, and there's a feeling of loss that comes with that, because I, like most (I suspect), love to be stirred by anti-Nazi resistance; I get the appeal of sympathizing with the noble sacrifice of the martyr for love. But even at this late date, I recognize that I need to keep growing up and not holding on to my old favorites simply because they are my old favorites. We'll all be better off if we appreciate Casablanca for what it is, not for what the kid who first watched it wanted it to say about him.

"Why are you promoting a trashing of Casablanca? Why read so much into a love story set amidst the battle against Nazism? The Nazis are bad guys, the French Resistance are good guys: this is enough to know or care about ... nobody watches a romantic drama for insights into the North African colonial experience," is a reaction I sort of expect I'd get if anyone were to actually read this post. It's a reaction I sympathize with to an extent. But, if that's your gut reaction, my simple ask is that you interrogate it just a little. Why are you invested in defending Casablanca against leftist criticisms? Why not imagine what kind of movie it might have been had it treated Sam like a complex, authentically human character? If you knew a Capt. Renault in real life, would you befriend him, or would you think his corruption and exploitation of vulnerable women was just a rakish fun? If you wouldn't, what does that say about Rick? If you would, um, what does it say about you? Maybe also consider how French patriotism in light of its opposition to Nazism is a backdoor  whitewashing of French colonialism -- erasing the history, and humanity, of the people who lived in Casablanca before the imperialists rolled in and set up shop. It's great that the film's sentiments anti-Nazi, I'm not suggesting we lose sight of that, only that we deal honestly with what the French ideal of freedom actually looked like? You might not know much, or care much, about French imperialism, but what you think about it in this movie might inform how you watch later movies like The Quiet American, or maybe even the whole genre of Vietnam War movies.

I'm not saying it's time to hate Casablanca, only that it's well past time to temper the reverence we have for it with a consideration for what anti-racist, feminist, and other leftist perspectives bring to bear. Like it or not, praising Casablanca is a political act, in addition to being commentary on the art of filmmaking. How we praise it, what we identify as its virtues and its flaws, matters because we don't appreciate it in a vacuum.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

First 10K

So, not only did I gear up for maximum dorkiness, I stumbled from getting my chip into the starting box and took off without warming up, got off to a miserably slow start, and got stuck at a crosswalk for what seemed like an eternity in the first half of the race.

Despite all those impediments, I managed to come in 2nd in my age group and 27th overall. For my first 10K, I guess I'll take it.

How dorky, you ask? So. Effin. Dork.

Race 1 - "Decem-burrrrr Dash" - 12/3/16 - 29:10
Race 2 - "SPCA Hot Chocolate Run" - 1/15/17 - 28:25
Race 3 - "I Heart 5K" - 2/11/17 - 26:58
Race 4 - "Running Over Cancer 5K" [official results] - 3/12/2017 - 25:32
Race 5 - "Racing for Rescues" - 5/7/2017 - 25:03 [official results]
Race 6 - "Run the Quay" - 6/3/2017 - 25:11 [official results]
Race 7 - "Decem-burrrr Dash" - 12/2/17 - 24:43 [official results]
Race 8 - "SPCA Mutts & Marshmallows Hot Chocolate Run" - 1/13/18 - 26:27 [official results]
Race 9 - "Cary Greenways 10K" - 4/24/18 - 55:48 [official results]

Monday, April 16, 2018

Housing as a human right

The tragedy is that it’s entirely within our power to do something about it: homelessness is not a choice made by the individual, it is a reality forced by government policy. As homelessness has rocketed in the UK – up 134% since 2010 – it has fallen by 35% in Finland over a similar period of time. The Finnish government is now aiming to abolish it altogether in the coming years. 
I recently travelled to Finland to understand how it had done this. It turns out its solution is painfully simple and blindingly obvious: give homes to homeless people. As Juha Kaakinen, who has led much of the work on “housing first” in Finland, explained to me when I met him in Helsinki, “this takes housing as a basic human right” rather than being conditional on engaging in services for addictions or mental health.
The American liberal may have some reservations about this policy. (I'm not bothering to consider the Conservative case, we'll get to most of it in addressing liberal concerns, the rest will simply be too despicable, cruel, and racist to engage with.) There are three main concerns raised fall under:

  1. We can't afford to give homes away.
  2. Even if we could, we shouldn't because doing so would be demotivational and encourage people to be dependent on the state. (That is to say, lazy.)
  3. Doing so will interfere in the proper functioning of free market capitalism.
Let's take them in order and see if they're reasonable concerns with any evidential support. 

First, the idea we can't afford to just give everyone who needs one a home. The argument we can't afford not to is far more persuasive. The return on investment would be greater than, say, the return we get on paying to develop F-35s, among other things. (The idea that we can't stop spending on the military because it will cost jobs at Boeing, United Technologies, etc. isn't very convincing. For all the whinging you hear about socialist inefficiency, the idea that spending this way to provide jobs is somehow more efficient is ludicrous. How is it not self-evident we'd be better off putting that money directly into improving peoples' lives by meeting their material needs, better for them and better for society as a whole. Not to mention all the brown people of the world we'd scale back bombing the shit out of.)

Is everyone ready and able to maintain a home? The expense associated with maintaining a home may be more than many homeless individuals could afford, and those suffering from mental illnesses would certainly face other challenges. These aren't unreasonable concerns where they apply, and they probably don't as much as you might think, but the obvious problem here is we don't have universal healthcare (a separate issue, but one with a similarly blindingly obvious solution) or guaranteed basic services (again ... ).  So, conceding for the moment giving everyone a place to live would have foreseeable, and potentially unforeseeable, complications, my proposal is simply that we deal with them as they arise, since we'll certainly be in a better position to do so for people with a home than for those living rough. 
The evidence from Finland – as well as numerous other pilot schemes across the world – shows ... [w]hen people are given homes, homelessness is radically reduced, engagement in support services goes up and recovery rates from addiction are comparable to a “treatment first” approach. Even more impressive is that there are overall savings for government, as people’s use of emergency health services and the criminal justice system is lessened.
Are we talking about single family dwellings in suburbs? Townhomes or apartments in cities? Look, I'm open to solutions as radical as seizing the uninhabited properties of the ultra-wealthy to give directly to the poor, to simply paying their rent on apartments near where they're currently living. Solutions in rural areas will likely be different than solutions for the biggest cities, but there's no reason states and localities could experiment until the best solutions were found. 

Talking about the cost of providing homes leads almost directly to addressing the moral concerns about whether we even ought to. Above, the potential for additional costs as we address the difficulties of transitioning of the mentally ill from the streets to housing was considered as part of the affordability, but really the question about whether we'd *really* be helping people if we just gave them homes, thereby disincentivizing them (the argument goes) from providing for themselves. Honestly, "Oh noes, we're going to create state-sponsored parasitic zombies by providing for people!" moral panic is difficult to take seriously, but it is offered as a serious concern in the mainstream debate, so I guess we have to. 

What is the point of this country? Why are we, allegedly, exceptional? What is the best idea the Founding Fathers had?  The preamble to the Constitution holds the answer. Now, before we go on, the Constitution is certainly a flawed document, as it was written and as it exists today, authored as it was by white supremacists with some pretty deluded ideas about who they were and conflicted ideas about what kind of country we should be. Still, when you read this:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
What you don't find is anything that says we absolutely must be a capitalist economy and the economic liberty to concentrate as much wealth in the hands of a small number of families ought to be our overriding concern. My main point here is "promoting the general Welfare," is clearly laid out as one of our founding principles. There's more than one way to gauge how we are doing currently at pursuing those lofty goals, but one simple way, no less valid for its simplicity, is to look at how much we spend on the common defense versus how much we spend on promoting the general welfare. It's not as easy as saying the two amounts should be equal, but I maintain that when you already have the most powerful military in the world and nobody is trying to invade you, you don't need to pump a significant portion of your overall spending into developing more armaments or fighting imperialist wars abroad. Rather, the greatest chunk of our wealth (and we are, after all, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world) should be spent on promoting the general welfare. That general welfare, if we take Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a starting point as good as any, it seems to me if we aren't addressing at least the physiological needs (shelter, food, health care) and safety (national defense, sure, but also clean air and water, untainted food, safe communities where you don't have to worry about individuals with access to military-grade weaponry terrorizing your schools, etc.) then we don't even have a country worth defending.

The freedom to accumulate wealth should not be seen as illimitable. It must be balanced against the freedom of all people in a society to live free from want so they can self-actualize to the best of their abilities. We're not talking about "mandated equality" or Orwell's grim take on communism, we're talking about revolutionizing our way out of neoliberalism to what I'll call democratic socialism, which I hope would lead to full communism, but to the extent that's a utopian vision, we'll let democratic socialism do for now. Mere tweaks to the current system, incremental reforms aren't going to get it done. We need radical, revolutionary change to get after living up to our Constitutional mandate because we've gotten it so, so wrong so far.

Is "the Constitution says" the final word here? Can we trust so flawed a document? I stuck to the preamble because it lays out principles I think all reasonable people could find morally acceptable, but the morality of the thing shouldn't be disregarded. What if promoting the general welfare is actually one of the Founders' mistakes? What about the enslavement of the people by the state, who make them weak and dependent by subsidizing their base needs -- stealing from the deserving rich to indulge the lazy poors!

OK, I'm not going a very good job at taking this concern seriously, but here's why: not even, and perhaps especially, the people who advance the concern even do. They wield the idea like a weapon, but when we look at the context in which the concern is raised, what we see are trust fund babies and trust fund baby daddies who've benefited from being the privileged heirs of wealth arguing that their peers (conveniently labeled "job creators") are the most deserving of government largesse to help them become wealthier, with the presumptive benefit of that wealth trickling down to the lower class. When you see these guys who were sent to elite prep schools, graduated to work at dad's firm, got bailed out each time they failed, then lauded each time they succeeded, arguing that giving people things spoils those people, the hypocrisy is enraging. They exploit the working parents' concern, a natural one, that spoiling a child leads to ungratefulness and laziness. But, children are children, and all children deserve to be raised in safe houses, well-fed, given the opportunity to play and learn, and with the ability to see a future for themselves. We don't have that today.

I'm not saying give all children gold toilets to poop in, or that children don't need to learn to self-discipline, but let's get on the same page about how to do that and level the playing field for the children of migrant laborers and the children of investment bankers and Senators. (As long as we have investment bankers, that is.)

Furthermore, adults are not children and the idea because you happen to be wealthy you should be able to act paternalistically, in their "best interest," is disgusting. That's a kind of freedom, the ugly freedom for me but not for thee kind though. You might argue I'm saying this while arguing for a paternalistic state that provides for its citizens. However, I'm not telling people how they ought to live, nor how their suffering builds character while my privilege builds my character based on some predisposition to superiority; I'm saying the state has an obligation (Constitutional and ethical) to provide the freedom for all people to decide how they want to live by giving them freedom from as much suffering as it can. Will some people end up living more luxurious lives than others due to their motivational drive and a bit of luck? Yes, I'm only saying there's a limit to how luxurious that life can be before it impacts the freedom of other people's children to enjoy the same opportunity to make that life for themselves.

Turning to the last objection, the need for free market capitalism to ensure maximum freedom. We've been running this experiment for quite some time and have seen how unfettered capitalism distributes wealth: monopoly and wage slavery. So, we've settled on neoliberalism as the best way to regulate markets in line with white supremacist imperial principles. "B-b-b-but Soviet gulags, Venezuela, and Cuuuuubbbbaaaa!" neolibs inevitably point to as the failure of so-called socialist states and their supposed tendency towards totalitarianism ... while failing to recognize the degree to which those examples were, and are, state capitalist oligarchies, usually under intense pressure from international alliances working against them. I'm no apologist for Stalin, but it's a bad reading of history to paint Stalinism as socialism.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Suddenly, I Have Hot Takes

Suddenly (1954) - Flickchart
Suddenly (1954) via flickchart

Eddie Muller played Suddenly for the most recent installment of Noir Alley on TCM. I'd never seen it before, don't think I'd ever even heard of it, but I won't let that stop me posting my hot takes.

First. it's not a film noir. You could make the case Sinatra's playing a noir character, his would-be assassin John Baron is perhaps not too dissimilar to (the literary source of) Bogart's Dix Steele from In A Lonely Place, so there's at least one element there. But, there's only one woman in the cast and, whatever her virtues, she's no femme fatale, Sheriff Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is not at all an anti-hero, and it's filmed as pretty much a straight crime drama, none of the shadow work or creative framing you'd expect in a noir.

That all said, I'm glad it played in Noir Alley, else I probably wouldn't have watched it. Muller's intro gave some intriguing insight into Sinatra's relationship with JFK and his having played in not only this movie, but later in The Manchurian Candidate. It's as perhaps the first of the assassination conspiracy thrillers that Suddenly is ahead of its time and worth a look beyond Sinatra's performance. Unfortunately, it's all the ways it's solidly of its time that ultimately sink it.

The damage is done early when Sheriff Shaw meets up with the widowed Nancy Gates after having bought her son a realistic looking (Chekov's) gun -- I didn't realize it was only a cap gun until it was explained later -- and basically mansplains how she ought to be raising her boy while berating her for not loving him back as she should. (That their virtuousness and the inevitability of their pairing up is signified by the fact they'll attend church together on Sunday also raised my hackles.)

Worse still, the movie promotes the idea that it is the citizen's duty to serve their President, even to the point of laying down their lives for his; an idea as ass-backwards as they come. The Secret Service agents who guard the President, sure, that's what they signed up for, but the idea law enforcement (it's really Shaw that expresses this) can sacrifice civilian lives in order to protect the President is repulsive, yet considered just and right by this movie. Shaw tells Nancy in no uncertain terms the he, her, and even her son don't matter, their lives must be sacrificed if there's a chance to prevent the assassination.

Fuck that. Now, you might think Trump being if office is coloring my judgment here, but even if we had a President Sanders, or Warren -- there is no way I'd choose saving them over a random person on the street, never mind a family member. The President's job is to serve us, the people, not the other way around. There's a VP, and a line of succession after that, to ensure our government can still function if the chief executive is taken out. The risk of assassination is accepted when seeking out the job and mitigated by the security provided by the Secret Service. It's not my job, or any other civilian's, to sacrifice our lives for the President's. That's not to say on a simple human level, the President is less of a human being than anyone else and there aren't scenarios in which it would be reasonable or virtuous for a civilian to risk personal harm or death if they could save the President's life, but the situation laid out in Suddenly is not, I'd argue, such a case.

Shaw, frankly, is a fascist. A McCarthy era, flag-draped all-American fascist. That he's presented as an upstanding, heroic figure reduces the film to a propagandistic screed. (The more I think about, the more I hate it.) Baron is a sociopath, probably a war criminal, and yet it'd have been a better movie had he killed Shaw -- and Shaw's passing gone as unlamented as the poor TV repairman who took a bullet for his part in foiling the plot, or of the Secret Service agent whose corpse spent a good chunk of the film rolled in a rug at the bottom of the basement stairs to nobody's particular distress.

One last irksome element: the script goes out of its way to obscure the President's party, or identify the authors of the conspiracy as either reactionaries or radical leftists. Baron doesn't know who hired him and he doesn't care about the Who or the Why of his enlistment. But, in the spirit of having their McCarthy Cake and eating it too, we're given a bit of offhand dialogue about filthy commies to make it clear the filmmakers aren't down with *that* sort of un-Americanism.

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