Friday, April 22, 2016

Snapshots of Endarkenment: Earth Day

What could be a more illustrative snapshot of the Endarkenment than Earth Day?

The  quasi-religious day in which guilty and guilt-ridden hippies, ex-hippies, and quasi-hippies take a few minutes out of their technological lifestyle to inconsistently sacrifice to their goddess and atone for their “carbon footprint” in a variation of secular Original Sin is on Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. (As one B. Bunny would say: “What a kwinky-dink!”). One of the founders was Ira Einhorn, a hippie who was convicted in absentia (while he was living in France) for killing and dismembering his girlfriend in Philadelphia (which had already seen better days)—and composting her remains. His defense attorney was statist politician Arlen Specter, whose other greatest hits (before becoming a US Senator) were introducing the single bullet theory to the Warren Commission (which may even be accurate in spite of itself) and prosecuting a movie theater for admitting teenagers to R-rated films when he was a Philadelphia County District Attorney. (A bright teenager could have told him that MPAA ratings are merely motion picture industry policy and not law, which is exactly what a higher court told him.)


The Objective Standard properly refers to the “holiday” as Exploit the Earth Day, which is exactly what I’m doing enjoying a coffee brewed from a “K-cup” with my Keurig brewer while I type this brief post. Then, I will drive my non-hybrid car to a concert venue where thousands of people will increase their metaphorical footprint of carbon. It's almost as if man and his mind are part of nature--and that using his mind to reshape his environment is also part of nature.

Happy Exploit the Earth Day!


Ira Einhorn
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8088924

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Everybody Wants Some!!" Will Not Be Wanted By Everybody

In 1993, writer/director Richard Linklater followed up his avant-garde independent breakthrough Slacker with his studio debut Dazed and Confused, a more commercial, autobiographical, naturalistic utopia that depicts the last day of high school (and its immediate aftermath) in the Texas of 1976. This began a pattern of vacillating between “artier” projects (e.g., Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) and more commercial fare (e.g., School of Rock, which he didn’t write).

After the commercial disappointment and Oscar® snubbing of 2014’s polarizing and experimental Boyhood, Linklater’s new film is Everybody Wants Some!! (Annapurna Pictures/Detour Filmproduction/Paramount). The press kit touts it as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. It is, and it isn’t. This film chronicles about eighty-six hours that climax with the beginning of the fall semester at South Texas State University in 1980,. Fans of Dazed and Confused (and, to a lesser extent, Linklater’s loftier material) will probably like it. Some of those (like me) who are starving for any original screenplay in today’s aesthetic wasteland of adaptations, remakes, reboots, and sequels (it is, after all, only a “spiritual sequel”), or who miss the raunchier cinematic comedies Hollywood used to produce when this film takes place, may like it. Most should try Dazed and Confused or Before Sunrise (but not Slacker) and find which mode of Linklater’s suits their taste.

One of Linklater’s strengths is capturing the visual and audio essence of an era in his period pieces. (His dialogue is not always period specific. Did anyone say, “I’m a grower, not a shower,” in 1980?)  Like that of Dazed and Confused (which does not include the Led Zeppelin song of the same name), this film’s soundtrack alone transports the viewer to a transitional period when metal was already mature, punk was a parvenu, new wave neared, and disco was hanging on as the Iran hostage crisis and a contentious presidential election between the less-worse forebears of Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders augured the darker future that is now. Linklater understands that, though transitional, 1980 was still essentially the Seventies. Although the Van Halen song immortalized in its title is heard late in the film, it is “My Sharona” that blasts the audience’s ear drums in the opening credits. The cars and sartorial sensibilities are accurate (I’m old enough to recall what my uncles, one of whom entered his senior year at this time, drove and looked like around that time). Linklater and production designer Bruce Curtis deserve some credit for showing 1980 in a way that Linklater’s entertaining, sometimes pseudo-intellectual dialogue and exaggerated, ironically unrealistic story do not. (The film is definitely movie time, not real time. The day before classes start is as long, over-eventful, and interminable as the final round in Rocky is short and fleeting.)

Linklater maintains that his “best talent” is casting, and Dazed and Confused contains memorable performances from then-unknowns including Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovoich, and Parker Posey. This time, the casting is adequate but less effective. The cast is mostly unknown (Temple Baker hadn’t acted since a fifth grade stage production). Some of them look too old to play college students (though the actor who plays the thirty-year-old fraudulent student who registers under an assumed name to keep playing baseball doesn’t). That’s a common cavil that is easy enough to overlook.

It is in the story and characterizations that this film flags in comparison to its predecessor. Plotless, episodic, characterization-heavy naturalism generally works better the less time it depicts. This works for Linklater in Dazed and Confused and the Before films as well as the former’s spiritual cousin, George Lucas’s American Graffiti. At four-plus days (and what sometimes seems like an even longer running time), Everybody Wants Some!! plods and rambles. It centers around the school’s baseball team and mostly contains dumb and average jocks (with one female theater major/love interest to break the monotony who is mostly MIA until late in the story). Dazed and Confused has a much more heterogeneous dramatis personae and a more universal panorama of human concerns. In that film, the high school students (appropriately) drink and smoke less and have no sex. These hedonistic jocks are less cognizant of world affairs even as they are theoretically more mature and the cultural Endarkenment is starting to accelerate. Incongruously, they speak more of Linklater’s somewhat pretentious dreadful philosophy than the learned ones among the high schoolers of 1976 (who are only a few years younger). The harsher, snarlier baseball players and college students here are often lacking in Linklater’s generally benevolent touch and subconsciously positive view of humanity (which is a virtue of his that 2016 moviegoers really need). With less characterization, there isn't much this time other than the visuals, hedonism, dialogue, and popular music before homogeneity, Auto-Tune and assembly lines of professional songwriters.

Everybody Wants Some!! is original and entertaining, and it sometimes convincingly depicts a less worse time. If you can tolerate the aimlessness and mindless hedonism, if you missed the less worse time (I was settling into the terrible twos), if you miss the less worse time, if you need to see an original screenplay on the big screen, or if you’re a Linklater completist, there are less worse ways to spend your time in 2016. This one is better than Slacker and Waking Life but worse than the other aforementioned films (and somewhere around the quality of his remake of the Bad News Bears). If you have the misfortune to live in or near New York or Los Angeles, you can see it when it opens today. If you live in multiplex land, you’ll have to wait until April 8.



Everybody Wants Some!!

Produced by Megan Ellison, Ginger Sledge, and Richard Linklater
Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Blake Jenner, Tyler Hoechlin, and Ryan Guzman
Annapurna Pictures/Detour Filmproduction/Paramount Pictures

116 minutes




Friday, March 18, 2016

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Heroine

The Endarkenment has a number of false alternatives. One of them is systemically aesthetic but has much wider relevance. It can be described roughly as the naturalism/modernism vs. comic book/romance novel false dichotomy. One of its relevant implications is that heroes only exist in comic books and romance novels (and their equivalents).

“Serious” art, literature, and cinema has been primarily concerned with human foibles and weaknesses (at best) for well over a century, with heroism and human greatness relegated to popular entertainment (art versus entertainment is another false dichotomy). The proponents of such “seriousness” insist that their art is realistic and that heroism is either nonexistent or vanishingly rare and superficial. In their view, heroes only exist in fictitious books written by romanticists and romance authors (they cannot distinguish between the two).

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a heroine. Her memoir, Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007), demonstrates that conclusively. She is another living refutation of the Endarkenment. Her book, like the best romanticist art, is indispensable emotional fuel for that reason alone, but it has incalculable additional virtues and values as well.

Ali was born Ayaan Hirsi Magan on November 13, 1969 in Mogadishu, Somalia. In an age of unprecedented Western prosperity (however tenuous it has become) in which pampered children whinge at the slightest inconvenience or unsatisfied indulgence, Ali deftly describes a world of poverty and privation with the dry, objective, ostensibly unemotional tone of a skilled professional journalist. Indeed, compared to her background, most Westerners today live lives of mythical princes and princesses, but Ali is too puissant and bold to be concerned with safe spaces and trigger warnings. With a father largely absent due to fighting for the freedom of Somalians against an oppressive dictator, Ali was mostly raised by her Muslim mother and grandmother who exuded resilient optimism in the face of hardship. Her mother was fiercely independent and relatively secular by Muslim standards, and she took pride in those virtues. Unfortunately, the absent father and other circumstances necessitated many of the mother’s absences from the households (the family lived a nomadic existence all over northern Africa). Despite her mother’s insistence that genital mutilation not be inflicted on her children, the grandmother arranged for the barbaric practice for her grandchildren during one of the mother’s frequent absences. Ali recounts the ordeal of her clitoridectomy with her usual understated and subtle affecting effectiveness. 
Her life regressed before it progressed. She was frequently beaten by family and acquaintances.  Thanks to Ali’s voice and activism, it is now known in the West that this is extremely common in Islamic cultures (though multiculturalists still evade these facts). At one point, her skull was fractured during one of her horrific beatings. It is difficult to keep track of her many misfortunes. See the book for more details. She is fortunate to be alive, and the world is fortunate she is alive and active. Her recounting of her tribulations is trying to read at times, but the cumulative effect is entirely positive and exultant.

Ali, like most Muslims, took her religion seriously and tried to practice it as consistently as possible. However, she also cultivated a rational, inquisitive mind. This is a clash that, in an individual or a culture, cannot long survive without one of the elements dominating and subverting the other. The fundamental nature of Ali’s heroism is her rationality, which gradually developed and blossomed as she applied it to conflicts in her own life.

One conflict that was a monumental crossroads was her arranged marriage to a cousin she had never met. She was told the marriage was a dream come true, and by the standards of arranged marriages to unknown cousins, it might have been. The man was a wealthy Canadian citizen, and she would have emigrated to Canada. Ali’s reason and self-assertiveness prevailed, however. Unlike untold millions of passive victims, she fled to Europe, seeking refugee status.

She settled in The Netherlands and used her grandfather’s name to avoid detection from her family. She prevaricated during the refugee admission process because she thought (probably correctly) that she would not be accepted otherwise due to the quantity of prospective refugees. (This would lead to problems with authorities and citizenship status later.) Fortunately, she was accepted and became a Dutch citizen. She continued to develop her active, rational mind, reading Spinoza (another Dutch citizen) and other Enlightenment thinkers. She eventually threw off the contradictory albatross of Islam and became an atheist. And she educated her fellow citizens about the medieval horrors of those cultures she escaped. She left the Labor Party for the Liberal Party. (The Liberal Party is, appropriately, the “right wing” party in Holland, but it is significantly interventionist by American standards.) She became an outspoken advocate of universal individual rights with an emphasis on the rights of women in Islamic cultures, leading to unprecedented awareness of the oppression of women in Islam. This led to her criticisms of relativism and multiculturalism, which has led to strife among the recreant Western establishment. She ran for Dutch Parliament as a Liberal and won, leading to a larger platform, a wider audience, and more authority. Then, she met Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

Theo van Gogh was an eccentric Dutch director with a reputation for being outspoken and politically incorrect. He encouraged Ali to write a screenplay to a short film he would direct about the subjugation of women in Islamic cultures. It was titled Submission: Part One because it was supposed to be the first in a series. They made the film. Subsequently, van Gogh was brutally murdered. His killer pinned a note to his heart. In the note, the killer took responsibility in the name of Islam and implied that Ali would be next. The Dutch government whisked her into hiding, where she remained, inconveniently incognito, for quite some time.

The foregoing is a necessarily brief recap of her almost literally incredible life story. It omits and elides several salient events and aspects. This is another reason you should read it.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali thought her way out of Islam, and decided to face the world as an apostate, after September 11, 2001. She was in her thirties. That, alone, is extraordinary. Few people can (or do) change fundamental beliefs past the age of twenty-five. Certainly, few Muslims renounced their faith after 9/11. Indeed, the perceived penalties from Allah, and the actual ostracism from community, are much greater for apostasy from that religion than from any other, which Ali points out at some length. Also, in an individual or a culture, bad ideas and psychology, when unchecked by the antidote of reason, are often irreversible. (In an age with monumentally different aesthetics, Robert Louis Stevenson dramatized this in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Additionally, Islamists and their apologists remind us that most Muslims are good people, which is true—most remain Henry Jekylls—but is irrelevant and misses the point. Most Muslims do not commit murder and terrorism because of the nature of humanity, not Islam. Those who do were corrupted into Edward Hydes by Islam

In the Endarkenment, if an adult does change a fundamental belief, it is more common to adapt an irrational one. (Secular Canadian turned Islamic activist Beverly Giesbrecht is just one example.) In an individual—or a culture—bad ideas and their concomitant psychological defense mechanisms become entrenched, ossifying into an unregenerate, rationalistic (not rational) frame of reference in which the world is constantly (mis)interpreted. The older one (human or culture) becomes, the harder it is to overcome ideological and other death carriers. (The language is not really hyperbolic and is certainly necessary and appropriate.) Eventually, a point of no return arrives (in an individual and a culture) in which it is impossible to change. It is extraordinary, and heroic, enough to overcome and renounce one’s oppressive, mortal upbringing and culture in the privacy of one’s own mind. To face the world and openly proclaim such an apostasy is more extraordinary still. (Ali’s beloved father, one of the more rational Muslims, disowned her. Who knows how many closet apostates exist, but the quantity is almost certainly relatively small.) To tirelessly advocate for awareness and reform amidst a stubborn status quo of relativism, multiculturalism, and political correctness the way she has would cement Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s status as a twenty-first century heroine. 
But she did more.

In the face of unspeakable death threats and mortal danger, she shrugged off her Dutch security squad (read the book) and continues her advocacy and activism, explicitly extolling reason and Enlightenment values. (See here and the link to my own post above for an impassioned tribute from Mark Steyn when Brandeis University withdrew her proposed honorary degree.)

In a cynical, soul-retarding culture, it is easy for almost everyone to forget two facts: humanity is strong and noble, and heroes exist. After reading Infidel, it is hard to forget those facts. She wrote an engaging, perspicuous, objective account that demonstrates human resilience and rationality and greatness and provides a roadmap for courage and personal change.

And that might be her greatest achievement of all.



Photo by Gage Skidmore


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Wonderful Crazy Night: Elton John at Disneyland

Note: this has also been published at the other weblog.

On March 25, 1947, the individual now known as Elton John was born.

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened.

The culture of the middle of the twentieth century was an alien realm, mostly for worse, from the perspective of a perspicacious observer today. However corroded “serious culture” and politics already was, the results had not yet metastasized in popular culture and economics. Americans, still relatively free and on the gold standard and the Breton Woods monetary system, produced genuine wealth and real prosperity on a grand scale in nearly every corner of every city and town, from the enterprising small business owner to … Walt Disney. Motion picture studios and record labels still produced large quantities of intelligible, stylized “products” that depicted life as exuberant, or, at least, exciting and fascinating, with characters that were heroic and dignified, or, at least, not depraved. Musical compositions had melodies and a modicum of instrumental skill and complexity, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to the early rock and rollers who also inspired … Elton John. He would synthesize both styles into something unprecedented during what was arguably popular music’s apogee. Introducing him and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin as they were inducted into a worthless, meaningless institution not worthy of inductees or even orator, W. Axl Rose referred to it as “my classical music”.

Popular music has long since degenerated into the worst kinds of rap and punk (and worse), and even The Walt Disney Company now dabbles in aesthetic modernism (and more than dabbles in propaganda of the worst sort). But the Enlightenment has not entirely faded yet, and when two of its waning rays meet, it is a cause for celebration.

Last night, Elton John and his tight, versatile band performed on Disneyland Park’s Plaza, in front of the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle, while cameras were rolling for a forthcoming television special celebrating Disneyland’s sixtieth anniversary. Thousands celebrated.

Although rumors had been circulating for days, they were not entirely confirmed even after Friday morning’s park guests saw a stage set up with a draped grand piano. (The “release form” signs acknowledging the ongoing filming of Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special were not out of the ordinary.) Throughout the day, after a soundcheck with a choir exposed said piano as a familiar red Yamaha, they were just about confirmed.

After an unusually early iteration of the nightly Disneyland Forever sixtieth-anniversary fireworks display, an emcee greeted the gathered crowd and gave the usual directions/encouragement for the sake of the camera crew and television footage. Around 7:59 PM, the choir and band took the stage. Band members included original Elton John band guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson (unfortunately, bass guitarist Dee Murray died over twenty years ago). Flamboyant erstwhile percussionist Ray Cooper may have been present; my view of the auxiliary percussion stand was blocked. The percussionist behind the bass drum emblazoned with Wonderful Crazy Night", the title of the new Elton John album, was likely John Mahon. Normally, I would complain, but Elton’s piano and, later, Elton, were blocking the percussionist (and Davey Johnstone). To a roaring ovation, the star singer/composer/performer/knight ascended the temporary stage in a characteristic full-length coat with his initials embroidered on the back. He’s older than Disneyland, and he and Taupin addressed some of the concerns of advancing age more than a decade ago in “Weight of the World”. Although my companion said he was transported to and from the stage in a wheelchair, he looked nimble and agile enough onstage, and his voice, while worn with age, has the weathered strength of experience. Unlike many of his peers, when he started singing, he sounded indubitably like himself.


What he started singing was “Circle of Life”, the song he wrote with Tim Rice for Disney’s The Lion King, the first John/Disney collaboration and one of the more satisfying cultural artifacts of an otherwise dismal decade. It’s not one of my favorites (even from that film), but it was hard for anyone but the most cynical modernist and pop culture detractor not to feel empowerment from the music (including that voice) and gratitude for life itself. Indeed, Elton John, even Disney at its best, is more than pop culture. It is art in a culture of dumbed-down pop non-art and modernist anti-art, from the ironic realism, surprising subtlety, and texture of the animators to the rock-classical concept album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (MCA, 1975) (which I had the privilege to see Sir Elton and company perform in nearly its entirety at Madison Square Garden in 2005). The band’s and choir’s performance was a harmonious blend. Johnstone was hard to hear in the mix, but the “pop” aspects of Elton John’ s pop have never overemphasized the talents of the backing band. The entire ensemble contributed to an integrated whole that emphasized the quality of the songs over the competent musicianship. For the first song in question, Rice’s lyrics are slightly too maudlin in their post-hippie ethos, but they are well-written and do not detract from the music’s majesty. The musical, exuberant “Yeah!” that climaxed the song cemented its effectiveness in the moment. Afterwards, Elton enthusiastically engaged the audience with his trademark earnest gestures and expressions without any of the smug self-importance and seeming condescension of so many performers. The audience chanted his name. When he sat back down at the piano, he said, “It’s great to be back at Disneyland. I’ve never played here. I’ve never been here at night!” He announced another run-through of “Circle of Life” for the audio and video crew. Before running through the song again, he puckishly banged the F major seventh chord that punctuates the beginning of “Bennie and the Jets” followed by the impish grin and finger to mouth of a lovable child caught doing something vaguely naughty but harmless. Then he sang “Circle of Life” with the same conviction and soul. Keyboardist Kim Bullard’s synth doodles added whimsical color. Afterwards, Elton said, “How about a cheer for the choir; they’re amazing.” 

After doodling at the piano a little (it sounded like “Take Me to the Pilot”), the pianist said, “No fireworks from beginning to end of the song, all right? This is a song called ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’. You’ve never heard it before, and it’s the title song from our new album. So, pretend you know it.” Wonderful Crazy Night (Capitol/Mercury) will be released February 5 and is available for pre-order in multiple editions and formats. All of its songs have Taupin lyrics, and it is the first album with the band since 2006’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy sequel The Captain & the Kid (Interscope). “Wonderful Crazy Night” may or may not become a future John/Taupin classic, but the songwriting team is an active cultural treasure, and the song is a joyful, rollicking romp that was perfect for the occasion. Elton’s welcome and familiar skillful piano fills, chords, and glissandos do provide the song with the characteristics of a John/Taupin classic. A fireworks spectacle lit the castle and backdrop. At song’s conclusion, Elton remarked offhand that they had to wait for another set of fireworks.

During downtime, he continued, “About 50,000 people work here every day … 80,000 people come through the park every day. That’s 130,000 people a day that come through this park. When I came over on December the 23rd, I thought there was 330,000 people: the busiest day of the year.” He announced another run-through of “Wonderful Crazy Night” for the camera eyes and microphone ears. “And they’re going to spend more money on fireworks! You’ve been amazing, by the way. Thank you so much.” Someone in the audience yelled, “You’re the amazing one!” and the amazing one bounced another F major seventh chord off his red Yamaha, with the predictable response. He followed this with a longer “teaser”: a full chorus of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, the perfect song from The Lion King with perfect, enlightened Tim Rice lyrics. It seemed much longer in the moment, and the absence of the rest of it was acutely felt. Then the ensemble played another rousing version of “Wonderful Crazy Night”, and the glorious twenty-five minute set was over, capped by a director’s further instructions for the capturing of incidental B roll footage.

These are trying times, and the continuing popularity of perennial icons like Disney and Elton John is a testament to the paucity of artistic culture in the West’s post-twentieth century doldrums. The audience gathered last night seemed to have some idea of the significance of the occasion even if few had the slightest idea why it was significant or how profound it really was in an unspeakable culture of vulgar, atonal, cynical, snarky trash. To the credit of the institutions behind the performance, what could have been pointless nostalgia was not. “Circle of Life” may have been predictable, but it is still relatively new in the context of a songbook of hits and artistic obscurities stretching back several decades now. And it was not only new; it was appropriate as well. And “Wonderful Crazy Night” is not even out yet. In a time when even Bruce Springsteen (of all unlikely artists) has succumbed to the nostalgia of “The River Tour 2016”, Elton John’s indefatigable commitment to new music is notable and admirable.

I recommend Disney animated classics (through The Lion King, but no later), even with their necessary limitations, and I recommend a visit to the Disneyland Resort if it’s logistically and financially feasible in the false, government-engineered "prosperity" of this "extended recovery". I cannot recommend Elton John enough [personal favorites include the aforementioned John/Taupin autobiography Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and the secular gospel Peachtree Road (Universal 2004)among many others]. But if neither is to your taste, find your own skillful, representational celebration of life. Or, better yet, make your own, if you can. And support others who do, from your local school/theater group/small concert hall to the aging baby boomers who still fill the arenas and stadiums (and movie screens). You need it, and so does a dying culture.



Capitol and Mercury will release Wonderful Crazy Night on February 5, and the Disney ABC Television Network will air the Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special later in February. Check the listings.


Elton John

Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special
The Plaza
Disneyland Park
Disneyland Resort
Anaheim, CA, USA
Friday, January 15th, 2016

set:
Circle of Life
Circle of Life
Wonderful Crazy Night
Can You Feel the Love Tonight [excerpt]
Wonderful Crazy Night





My friend Mindy captured all of the spectacular images. Thanks, Mindy.

Words and music, impeccably integrated and impeccably delivered ...

Nigel Olsson, who started playing with Elton in 1970, looks on.

Important, but not self-important.


My sources tell me that Kim Bullard is the brother of underrated vocalist/lyricist Mike Tramp, best known for fronting White Lion.


Band of brothers: Matt Bissonette's brother is Greg, best known for providing the beat behind David Lee Roth, Steve Vai, and Billy Sheehan.



Nigel Olsson, senior band member--even more senior than Davey Johnstone

Captain Fantastic--not self-important, just important

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Countdowns

A few brief notes:

The inestimable Mark Steyn has recapped the year with a brief overview of, and links to, some (or all) of his articles this year. It is well worth your time. I particularly recommend his writing on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and what he calls Big Climate.

Robert Tracinski has a new website up with his usual year-end recap of what he considers to be the top stories/topics of the year. His latest concerns the academic left, their institutions, their spawn, and their ineluctable and inexorable downward spiral over the decades (with a prediction that may or may not turn out to be prescient). Here is #3, "The Year the Chickens Came Home to Roost", in his "Top Stories of the Year" series; #4 and #5 are accessible at his site (with the top two forthcoming).

I would write more, but I am preparing to enjoy one of the irreplaceable values a declining (if not already declined) culture still has to offer: an annual homecoming live performance by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (here is a review I wrote of their latest album; here is a review I wrote of two of their recent performances).

The frame of the Gregorian calendar is somewhat arbitrary, but New Year's Eve is an appropriate time to reflect on the last revolution around the Sun. Much of my writing this past year has yet to be published (here or anywhere else). However, I think it was the most productive year yet. (The concert review linked above was one of a few diverse pieces published elsewhere. That was a first.) The culture wanes, but I wax.

Whether or not I will continue to use this platform, I am determined to see that 2016 is even more productive. As I see the continued effects of logically-developed false and invalid ideas metastasize throughout the entire culture, I conclude that time is running out. However, despite the headlines, the universe is an agreeable, favorable place; many (most?) human beings are still astoundingly good; and there is still tremendous value in the culture.


Happy New Year



Jeffrey Falk
Red Bank, New Jersey, USA
December 31, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Creed": Much Better (and More Original) Than Anyone Could Reasonably Expect

In a scene in Ryan Coogler’s Creed (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Warner Bros. 2015), Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) asks Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) about Johnson’s biological father, Apollo Creed. Balboa tells him that he was the best: he uses the word “perfect”. When Johnson asks how Balboa beat Creed if that was so, Balboa holds time responsible. “Time takes everybody out; time’s undefeated.” This is an important theme deftly dramatized by Cooler and his co-screenwriter Aaron Covington; this theme and its deft dramatization are one of the reasons Creed succeeds more than yet another new adaptation should.

I had resisted seeing Creed for some time since its November 25 release date. Primarily, I skipped it for weeks because I thought it was the only “Rocky” movie not written by Stallone and directed by John G. Avildsen or Stallone. I also agree with Bob Dylan that nostalgia is death and regarded yet another sequel as another nail in the coffin of a once-vibrant, fascinating culture. I had read a negative review in L.A. Weekly that seemed plausible. To quote myself after seeing Rocky Balboa nine years ago yesterday, “Sometimes it’s great to be wrong.” (There is nothing great about L.A. Weekly.)

Let’s stipulate that Creed is not perfect. It eventually succumbs to too much nostalgia and mimicry of the “Rocky movies”, and it dabbles in a contemporary vulgarity that represents the worst of the trends that succeeded and countered the ethos those movies represented. (No one expected Sylvester Stallone to graphically pretend to vomit onscreen; the deterioration of aesthetics and standards accelerates exponentially.) But Creed is not so much a Rocky movie; it has its own themes, character, and stylistic panache. Coogler’s direction is often a seamless hybrid of the best of classic and contemporary filmmaking. Since it is not so much a Rocky movie, and Balboa, though lovable as ever, has his first supporting role, it is entirely appropriate that others wrote the screenplay and directed without Stallone’s help (especially considering some of his recent track record).

Creed begins in Los Angeles in 1998, with Mary Anne Creed (The Cosby Show’s Phylicia Rashad, who has never played the role before) pulling very young Adonis Johnson out of some kind of reform school/juvenile hall. Johnson already has a penchant for fighting, and Creed takes him under his wing because he is the son of her late husband and his mistress. Seventeen years later, Johnson, who has an undefeated underground boxing career in Tijuana clubs, quits his executive job in Los Angeles to pursue his career dream: fully-professional boxing. His surrogate mother tries to talk him out of it, and, when she fails, she shuns him. Johnson moves to Philadelphia to enlist the training services of Balboa, who also tries to talk him out of it. When he also fails, he eventually takes the son of his former rival and best friend under his metaphorical wing, at least until a twist of fortune starts to hamper his ability to do so. This metaphorical knockdown is unlike any of Balboa’s previous knockdowns, and it contributes to the story’s uniqueness. Coogler and Covington adroitly weave and integrate the subplot into the film’s theme, and any film with such integration is a lifeline in a culture of disintegration.

It is impossible to dramatize such a story and such characters without some looking back, and there’s no reason to completely avoid references to the past. Creed is teeming with obscure and semi-obscure references to the Rocky saga. For much of the film, Coogler executes them with subtlety that manages to be effective and paradoxically striking. (Although the specific piece is not listed in the credits, what sounds like variations on Bill Conti’s elegiac French horn piece “Mickey” from Rocky III quietly whispers in the background of the score during some of the references to characters time has taken away in the film’s fictitious universe.) Those characters would talk about those people and topics while keeping them on the periphery of their attention in a world and lives that have moved on. Coogler understands this or writes and directs as if he does.

Although, like every film with Rocky Balboa, Creed is not about boxing, Coogler’s boxing sequences are more realistic than Stallone’s. There is more of the constant hugging one sees in actual matches (though the punches are still too loud). Furthermore, Coogler’s directing style retains the stationary camera and long shots and takes of a more cultured, classy era while employing smooth, panoramic tracking shots during the training and match sequences that compliment the graceful footwork of a nimble prizefighter. Unlike his McLuhanesque contemporaries (including, ironically, Sylvester Stallone), Coogler’s cuts and tracks are seamless and stylized. Incorporating modern street patois, sartorial trends (tattooed boxers), and modern anti-music, Creed manages to reflect its dark times while also transcending them, reminding the discerning viewer that there are still lingering embers as the cultural fire continues to wane in intensity.

Some of the film’s modern touches are inevitable. Some are debatable. (There is the anti-music of rap, but Johnson’s love interest, portrayed by Tessa Thompson, composes and performs better contemporary R&B music.) Some are unfortunate, such as the modern, reflective titles that announce each boxer and his won-loss record. Also, by the film’s end, the director and writers tilt too much toward nostalgia, with unsubtle, classic Bill Conti music (unequivocally identified in the credits) and familiar boxing trunks. And the end, as perhaps expected, leaves room for sequels in the age of sequels. These are relatively minor problems. Creed is not Furious 7000 or Pirates of the Caribbean XXIV: Jack Sparrow’s Gouty Balls Part II. It is its own film (Dumas and Balzac wrote long series of novels), and it is a romantic, realistic, and integrated one. In an age with few of any, much less all, of the above, it deserves to be celebrated, whatever its flaws.

Postscript: The financially successful Creed may be a new franchise (or semi-new spinoff) followed by sequels, but it is the end of an era, of sorts. It is the last film co-produced by Robert Chartoff of Chartoff Winkler Productions, who co-produced every film with the Balboa character to date (as well as Raging Bull, among others) but died in Santa Monica on June 10 at the age of eighty-one. Creed is dedicated to him. His son William (along with his partner’s sons) have, like Creed’s titular character, adopted his father’s profession and also co-produced the film.




Creed
Produced by Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin King Templeton, William Chartoff, Charles Winkler, and David Winkler
Story by Ryan Coogler; Screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington
Directed by Ryan Coogler 
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, and Tessa Thompson

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Warner Bros. (in association with New Line Cinema)



"Creed poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Six Days Later

The Endarkenment turned another corner last week.

     As virtually everyone knows, last Friday the Islamic State perpetrated a series of horrific attacks at multiple locations in Paris, an historic, cultural, and symbolic capital of Western civilization which has birthed the likes of Voltaire and Hugo. (Elsewhere that day, a lethal attack in Kenya of similar scope left scores of victims. While it is not as culturally significant as the assault on reason and civilization in Paris, it is also noteworthy.) [See note below--11/20/15.] These attacks were ideologically similar to but much more ambitious and devastating than the January 7 attack on the headquarters of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo when two Islamists murdered magazine staffers for publishing cartoons that depicted Mohammed. Last week’s attacks were horrific but not surprising to those who have been paying attention and understand the nature of ideas and the consequences of appeasement (which means they were probably surprising to most people alive today). As of Wednesday evening, the death toll was well over one hundred. The count of injured victims was well over three hundred. As of Thursday morning, the alleged mastermind of the attacks was killed in a police raid.

I was away from home and computer for an extended time during and after the attacks, which is one of the reasons I have not posted much until now. Another is that more prolific commenters (Mark Steyn, to name one) have said most of what needs to be said. (They are relatively unusual in a militantly non-judgmental culture of relativists, appeasers, and cheek-turners, including many “libertarians”.) A third is that, when dealing with broad abstractions and fundamentals, their application in relation to concretes and specifics is a job for policy makers and generals (who are failing miserably primarily because they have the wrong fundamental ideas and abstractions). After a while, the rare integrator in a culture of disintegrators sounds like a broken record (to use a trite simile). The menace of “terrorism” (which is symptomatic of a deeper cause, the Islamic religion) has the same fundamental solution as the ongoing economic meltdown, the dumbing down of the Eloi, the increasing sloth and ennui of a once-robust culture, etc. Follow reason. Embrace the individualism and secular reason that once lit the lamps of Enlightenment and liberty.

     In addition to an increasingly rare antidote of generalized Enlightenment in the metastasizing Endarkenment, I have a few things to add that may be semi-unusual.

     One observation is mostly personal, but I was particularly saddened that the site of one of the attacks was Le Bataclan, a concert venue built in 1864 on le boulevard Voltaire. On June 25, 1998, the extraordinary Dream Theater (who would be a household name in a rational culture) recorded their live album Once in a LIVEtime (EastWest Records America 2CD, 1998) in the venue. It is appropriate, symbolically, that one of the last bastions of exultant expertise and musical brilliance in a dying genre and culture has a connection to one of the prominent sites in one of the most significant, coordinated, and extensive attacks on the West.

     Another is more general. 

     Although nothing significant has changed in the past week in terms of the day-to-day lives or quality of life of most people (yet), those who identified Friday’s events as a turning point are correct. The Islamic State, an exceptionally wealthy and organized organization that is starting to display the characteristics of an actual state (such as controlling territory), carried through a notable series of attacks. One might reasonably say they won the battle. Western leaders will likely respond according to the inertia of the Endarkenment, with more appeasement, more welcoming of “refugees” (who were numbered among Friday’s attackers), and more of a siege mentality at home, treating everyone but Muslims with suspicion and more feckless “security checkpoints” and laws and “safety precautions” while the inchoate police state continues to rise around a once-free West. (Matt Drudge and others are reporting that the Transportation Security Administration misses 75% of dangerous weapons.) Both the multiculturalist left and the religious right are fundamentally the same on this issue (as they are on so many others), which is why there are no significant improvements in policy and nothing significant changes. And that means there will be more (and worse) attacks. The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to metaphysics as well as physics: When nothing changes, everything gets worse.

     It is true that the ongoing jihad against the West is not “the fault of all Muslims”. That is also irrelevant. It is the fault of Islam. It is impossible to practice any bad ideology consistently, and most don’t come close. The exceptions are the consistent exemplars of the ideology. Human beings are generally good, including most Muslims, but that does not mean that Islam is not evil and that its consistent embodiments are not waging war against the vestiges of human civilization.

     A perspicacious thinker with whom many reading this are familiar once said to me, “There’s still a lot left to lose.” That was a few years ago, and more lights have been snuffed (even before last Friday), but the lights are not completely out yet. From weblogs to Dream Theater live albums to technology to human camaraderie, it is still easy enough for the intellectually disarmed to evade the Endarkenment and the intellectually aware to live in defiance of it. And defy they should. Islam means “submission”. Don’t submit (to Islam or anything else). A war (which is what it is—the enemy certainly sees it that way) starts with one mind and body at a time. Like everything else in life.

     Even if leadership and general competence were better, practical responses to the crises are no longer enough. Current and not-so-current events should have indicated by now, even to the pragmatic and the status quo supporters, that the global crises are philosophical. The (global) culture needs a paradigm shift down to its deepest roots, or Friday’s attacks will soon seem comparatively trivial (and today’s status quo will be as dead as the gold standard and rifle ranges in downtown Los Angeles).

     In “The Duel Between Plato and Aristotle”, the epilogue to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), Leonard Peikoff wrote, “To save the world is the simplest thing in the world. All one has to do is think.” It should be simple enough, but few are up to the task anymore. Hence the spectacle of millions of Facebook profile pictures modified with the superimposition of the French tricolor flag while a tiny fraction of those might seriously examine the problem and its solutions. If most individuals of the older (meaning post-teen) generations aree irrevocably stunted by Pragmatism and the culture it spawned, it would be imperative to try to educate children properly and encourage genuine critical thinking and inductive reasoning.

     With an entrenched education monopoly, that may be a hopeless undertaking. But the universe is a benevolent place (contrary to the conventional culture and its headlines and horror movies), the human mind (virtually each individual one, including those of the aged) has enormous potential, and a conscientious, rational individual should keep fighting (intellectually and otherwise) as long he can.



*Update, 11/20/15: A reader and friend has informed me that the aforementioned attack on Kenya occurred months ago. Reports circulated on the Internet that day by people who ignored and evaded the categorical differences between the attacks and used them to assert that the Western media and its customers and viewers do not care about Kenya and Kenyans. I was busy working at the time of the reports and was not able to read them in as much detail as I would have liked. 


"Bataclan, Paris 6 April 2008" by CĂ©line from Dublin, Ireland - Bataclan - Paris. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bataclan,_Paris_6_April_2008.jpg#/media/File:Bataclan,_Paris_6_April_2008.jpg