Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Vincent Bugliosi: 1934-2015

Former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney, defense attorney, and author Vincent Bugliosi died in Los Angeles on Saturday. He had cancer. He was 80.

     The famed attorney/author from Minnesota prosecuted 106 felony trials. He lost one of them. (He never lost a murder case.) He apparently represented three defendants (and won acquittals for all three). Unfortunately, he lost two consecutive elections (running as a Democrat), in 1972 and 1976, for Los Angeles County District Attorney. (Angelenos still occasionally elect Republicans if they are sheriffs, district attorneys, and city council representatives from the Chatsworth area.) Perhaps the increasingly rare confluence of two positive traits, ability as a litigator and a commitment to justice, ensures that an individual is a poor campaigner.

     That commitment to justice, in a pragmatist culture, probably distinguished Bugliosi as much as his puissance as a trial lawyer. (Despite the fact that Charles Manson did not directly commit murder, Bugliosi convicted him. Decades later, Marcia Clark et. al. could not convict Orenthal James Simpson, as Bugliosi lamented and excoriated in his book Outrage.) His reputation as someone who was fair and accommodating to defendants as a prosecutor (in Outrage, he recounts his reputation among lower class defendants for being affectionately known as "bad"--which means good in street argot) suggests a commitment to justice above racking up successful prosecutions and "lock 'em up and throw away the key" sentencing that the "law and order" zealots relish. (Perhaps Bugliosi would have won his elections if he had been more conventional in that regard.) According to Wikipedia (yes, I know--but this particular datum is likely accurate), he refused to take cases of high-profile defendants after he became a defense attorney when he thought the defendants were likely guilty.

     Bugliosi had many flaws beyond his venial hick-from-rural-Minnesota writing style. He was a partisan Democrat at the very least. (If his book The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder was slightly hyperbolic, then his book-length defense of Clinton shenanigans and attack at those who tried to hold him accountable was downright shameful.) In a systemically dishonest and unjust Pragmatist culture, especially, those flaws are not paramount.

     As I noted in previous installments about the 1960s media-created hoax known as "The Boston Strangler", the media in the United States, as an institution, was thoroughly imbued with the anti-principles of Pragmatism (and other deleterious ideas) before the legal system. There was a time (now passed) in which the still somewhat accurately named justice system was still more or less committed to actual justice (the truth and accuracy of verdicts, the actual guilt or innocence of individuals accused of actual--non-victimless--crimes, and reasonable sentences). By the 1980s, the corruption of the legal system was essentially complete. Bugliosi was not such an anachronism when he prosecuted the turning-point cases of the Charles Manson family, but he likely became one by 1976 (when he lost his second consecutive election).

     One of the many topics few people discuss anymore is Bugliosi's commitment to justice in the Robert Kennedy assassination. Despite his reputation as an anti-conspiracy theorist (he eventually authored Reclaiming History, a prolix attempt at closing the case of the murder of Bobby's big brother from an "Oswald did it alone" perspective), Bugliosi long maintained that Sirhan Sirhan did not act alone at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in the early morning hours of June 5, 1968 (and likely did not fire the fatal point blank shots to the back of Senator Kennedy's head). In his second campaign for District Attorney, a significant part of his platform was his vow to reopen that case if he were elected. I have been unable to find his later views on the lesser-known assassination committed in his jurisdiction (it's one of many topics "polite society" would prefer to evade). His curious, counterintuitive views on the assassinations of the brothers Kennedy evinces a commitment to objectivity (at least in his evaluation of crimes from the perspective of an attorney and investigator) that is perhaps more important than the veracity of his specific beliefs.

     In a disingenuous, irrational, over-charging, over-prosecuting, over-sentencing, anti-principled, unjust Endarkenment of pragmatism, Bugliosi's principles were his principal virtue. While the competence and truthiness (to use a malapropism attributed to one of his nemeses) he concretized were gone (at least as a paradigm of legal culture) long before him, this writer cannot help but think that something, silently and without notice, died on Saturday.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Los Angeles's Big (Real) Wage Cut for Working Poor

Above, I correct this morning's latest banal, unprofessional, false (or at least incomplete and misleading) headline from the Los Angeles Times.
     Or, if you prefer: Los Angeles's Big Calamity for the Working Poor.
     The actual, risible headline (all spelling, syntax, capitalization, etc. sic): "L.A.'s big raise for working poor". (Three unprofessional professionals are credited with writing the article.) The article reports that the Los Angeles City Council predictably passed legislation that would raise the "minimum wage" (which is actually zero) in the city limits to $15 per hour by 2020.
     The latest absurdity in the newspaper's journalistic theater of the absurd should be so obvious--its errors and implications so arresting--that even the concrete-bound lummoxes of the Los Angeles Times should notice them (presumably most of them took a high school economics class prior to the mid-1990s) and write better-worded and more accurate headlines.
     One should never leave aside the ethics of outside parties (particularly government officials) dictating the terms and conditions of a voluntary relationship (and, contrary to the culture-wide Marxism and its ludicrous term "wage slave", it is a voluntary relationship). One should also not ignore the racist and eugenicist origins of minimum wage legislation. However, in an amoral, pragmatist culture (with a morality/practicality false dichotomy and an average attention span the length of a hardcore song), practicality is the primary topic of interest.
     Relatively basic economic concepts such as purchasing power, nominal (or money) wages versus real wages, falling prices as the primary determinant of purchasing power, elasticity of demand for low-wage labor, minimum-wage laws as a near-guarantee of rising prices (and therefore lower purchasing power), and minimum-wage laws as a guarantee of unemployment are basic, easily accessible, and established beyond all doubt. (Indeed, there is much more consensus among economists of the deleterious effects of such legislation than there is among scientists on the subject of "climate change".) On a more abstract level, the long-term and diffuse effects of minimum wage legislation on the entire population (including but not limited to the competition for jobs with wages previously well above the "minimum" driving down those wages, the increased taxes--including those of the working poor--to pay for compensation to the newly unemployed, and the stifling of innovation--including the creation of new jobs, goods, and services--due to those increased taxes and decreased economic activity) may require a population with a majority of people not conceptually crippled by progressive education and the rest of modern culture. Even accounting for the Endarkenment, however, the stark, incontestable economic destruction wrought by such legislation should be what the endarkened call a "no-brainer". Even those low-wage earners who keep their jobs and get a (nominal) wage due to the legislation will not get a real wage raise (and will likely get a real wage cut) when accounting for the less immediate effects of the law (no matter who notices those effects, if anybody). And there is certainly no excuse for the political and journalistic analogue of pre-nineteenth century medicine (the effects will certainly be analogous to a crosscut saw amputation with whiskey anesthesia) in 2015. It is no less absurd than firefighters pouring gasoline onto fire, or "Gasoline fights fire" as a respected newspaper headline. (This law was apparently inspired by similar, recent legislation in the even-further-gone city of Seattle. There are already reports of small businesses closing and "low-wage" workers noticing that actual wages have declined. Even ignoring the relatively high cost of living of the City of Devils--which itself has as much to do with "progressive" policies as much as housing demand and was probably cited as a "reason" for the law and which is one of the factors the law actually WILL raise--any "raise" any of the working poor will receive that is larger than the average "progressive"'s understanding of economics will be despite the legislation, not because of it.)
     The namesake of this weblog referred to this city as Los Angeles the Damned. What he would call it now is probably not printable even in today's newspapers.
     I hope Henry Hazlitt loved his thorough, cogent, valid work and died "rich", because he would have been better off writing comic books like Steve Ditko if he wanted his crucial, desperately-needed, corrective ideas to have the tiniest modicum of impact.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Snapshots of Endarkenment: A Sunday at the Theaters

Two products of modern culture and its ineluctable deterioration that I (coincidentally) watched within hours of each other yesterday represent two sides of one of the many false dichotomies tearing apart what’s left of Western civilization. (The latter connection is the primary reason they are paired and contrasted here.)
The first is a new feature film: Mad Max: Fury Road.
The second is a play: The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side.
The film can be succinctly summarized as action without significant characterization.
The play can be succinctly summarized as characterization without significant action. 
Neither is quite as execrable as some of the standard fare in each’s respective category (though the film’s score at the Internet Movie Database, 8.8 out of 10 as of now, is almost as absurd as its porcupine-like vehicles, its villain reminiscent of John Travolta in Battlefield Earth, and some of its other visuals). Not only do the Hollywood stars deliver respectable performances (unlike writing and directing, acting in general is better than ever), there is genuine, clearcut heroism in the film that is welcome in a “gray”, naturalistic/modernist culture (the film is, after all, entertainment, not modern “art”) as well as a few oases of poignant benevolence amidst its 120 minutes of malevolent, McLuhanesque mayhem. The play’s cast is actually affective and effective considering their source material. Neither is particularly recommended except as a barometer of a culture well on its way to total disintegration.
The standard caveats apply: this cranky curmudgeon has low expectations for everything new in modern “art” and entertainment and doesn’t like much of it (perhaps the resultant reviews slightly underrate their subjects as a consequence—but only slightly). Prior to viewing the new film, I had never seen a Mad Max film and do not really know the series’s story arc or iconography (I accepted the invitation to accompany a likeminded writer friend with similar views who would just as soon not be identified here). As one who generally studies and revels in writing and cinema prior to my lifetime, I may be under-qualified to evaluate frantic, frenetic twenty-first century blockbusters and ambiguous, open-ended twenty-first century character studies “fairly”, on their own terms (as opposed to evaluating the terms).
As William Greeley and others have noted, there was a time when screenwriters and playwrights integrated plot and thought, action and character, story and theme (and sedulously supplied abundant amounts of each, seamlessly fused together). With the rise of literary and filmic naturalism (in art) and mindless B-movie spectacle (in entertainment), the two have been disintegrated as has so much else in a culture of disintegration.
Like other current and recent blockbusters, Mad Max: Fury Road is a technician’s film as much as anything else, and technical work is distinct from writing and directing. It is generally not compatible with genuine creativity. The endless parade of kinetic objects flying across the screen; the interminable, wordless fights (every four hours or so there’s about a line-and-a-half of dialogue, or does the film just seem that long and sparsely worded?); the monster trucks; the eccentric personages (one ostentatiously makes noise with a futuristic electric guitar while riding on the front of a gargantuan vehicle); and the soundtrack (including both mismatched poignant music and more consistent earsplitting anti-music); surely deliver the kind of (literally) sensational fusillade that satiates the modern blockbuster consumer’s appetite for destruction. The audience of off-duty production assistants and technicians at the Arclight Cineramadome in Hollywood responded with the expected Jeff Spicoli-esque inarticulate, colloquial exclamations at the most mind-deadening modern action shots. What story exists in this latest dystopian wasteland is neigh on incomprehensible, especially without familiarity with its predecessors, amidst the beleaguered editor’s cutting and assembling of speechless visuals. (There was a time when sequels and follow-ups like Return of the Pink Panther and Batman Begins were coherent to those unfamiliar with previous films, but those days, too, have apparently passed.) There is some genuine dialogue and acting towards the end, but, as with so many other post-1980s pieces of Hollywood, it seems perfunctory, an obligatory, inchoate (and less than sincere) going-through-the-motions to satisfy fading sensibilities. Director George Miller deserves credit for forsaking trendy, lurid close-ups of gore. (Miller is obviously from an earlier, more tasteful generation—if only he consistently followed its mores. My companion authoritatively informed me that 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, co-written and co-directed by Miller, is teeming with thematic content, however trendy and false. There is no discernible, explicit theme or philosophy in this effort.) Unfortunately, he occasionally dabbles in Guy Ritchie-style extreme closeups of objects that flout human perception as well as near-subliminal flashbacks that are incomprehensible to series newcomers—these are conisistent with a culture-wide assault on and distortion of human perception and cognition. (Writer/director Sylvester Stallone used somewhat similar, less jarring flashbacks in Rocky Balboa that were nevertheless completely comprehensible to series newcomers.) The location, costuming, and makeup are reminiscent of the Tattooine scenes of Star Wars (some of the post-apocalyptic survivors evoke the dress and gait of Jawas and Tusken Raiders). The onscreen monster trucks are apposite as this experience is essentially yet another cinematic equivalent of a monster truck rally. It is Wrestlemania with better acting but less characterization.
The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side falls squarely on the other side of the false dichotomies. As inconsistent, eclectic modern plays that sprawl across the naturalism/modernism axis go, it is intermittently entertaining, funny, and engaging. (It is mostly relatively realistic naturalism but panders to the woozy metaphysical-mystery worshipers near the end in what is either supposed to be a mystic experience or the character’s hallucination—the lack of clarity ensures it is a modernistic touch regardless of the playwright/director’s intention. Unusually, the playwright directed the play.) The story (which is mostly intelligible and “realistic” in a manner that already guarantees a ranking above much of its competition these unfortunate days) chronicles the lives of four members (two male, two female) of a contemporary version of a hippie commune at the intersection of Stanton and Ludlow Streets in Manhattan. (They receive rent-free lodging and victuals, and one of the guys receives support for his underground newspaper, from the wealthy building owner/heir. In exchange, they run his “vegan fast food” restaurant on the ground floor. The four share one “romantic relationship” and engage in bisexual trysts and “foursomes” that are not dramatized during the play’s scenes--unless extended bisexual kissing counts.) This is the Los Angeles premiere of a play that debuted in the city in which it is set (and apparently gained some notoriety, even in contemporary New York, for an actor’s erection.) The apartment set of the current Hollywood production is somewhat confusing: An imposing painting of Ernesto Guevara’s menacing collectivist visage adorns a wall at stage right, but a sign printed with the legend “Private Property—Keep Out” adorns a wall off stage left. (If this was supposed to be an Hegelian synthesis indicative of the confusions of young idealists or the compromises noble leftists must make with the fortunate remnants of capitalism that still remain, it eluded my ken.) There is a graffito consisting of the word “PEACE” (with an anarchy symbol for an “a”) and a Guy Fawkes mask (the aspiring journalist, at least, is an anarchist) that clashes with the notorious militarist and government-employed hippie persecutor Guevara. There are also posters for Easy Rider and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars—but no indication from the set design or music references (the entire music collection is superannuated vinyl) of anything that occurred after 1973. The most far-fetched, reality-flouting aspects of the play (at least until the modernist anti-conclusion) center around the male residents of the apartment. They are named after Billy and Wyatt, the main characters of Dennis Hopper’s famous film. (It is actually one of the most misinterpreted films in history. The original Billy and Wyatt could have been named Gene Simmons and Ted Nugent—they are actually capitalists with long hair. Hopper, who portrayed Billy, was a Republican, incidentally.) This Billy and Wyatt bear little resemblance to their shamesakes—they have short hair and large muscles. (How the journalist, an indolent drug addict, could maintain those muscles is also beyond this observer’s considerable powers of comprehension.) The story unquestionably takes place in the present—there is at least one sleek cellular phone and all kinds of post-Sixties (and -Nineties) slang and terminology. The first act or so (there are three, with intermissions after the first two) is one of the more enjoyable pieces of recently-written theater I’ve seen (it’s not saying much even though I have seen a few plays)—the viewer must be inured to the coarseness, permissiveness, and inarticulate nature of twenty-first century culture to appreciate any of it. Playwright/director Derek Ahonen writes in the program: “I really care about these characters. I hope that you do too.” If the play’s quality had sustained past its first half, he may have succeeded. There is some skillfully negotiated drama as the journalist’s puerile (even by today’s standards) and provincial younger brother visits from the midwest and is shocked to discover his brother’s lifestyle and living arrangements. (This ensures that the fairly extensive nudity is not even gratuitous as the other three waggishly greet the awkward brother in the nude. Unlike in New York, there was no erection in Sunday’s performance.) There is a copious amount of intellectual discussion (by the standards of an obscurantist, anti-intellectual culture) that is neither pedantic nor didactic but integrated with the characterization.  (Contra some reviews, the play is not limited to interminable sex talk, even if it is, eventually, interminable.) The atheistic journalist discusses freshman metaphysics with his mates, and the three-hour play has more than enough time for politics. Unfortunately, a fair amount of the intellectual dialogue is platitudinous, clich├ęd leftism (perhaps by design). Even when it is not, it is usually invalid. The smarter female character inverts the truth when she opines that if most people were as responsible as their landlord, capitalism could work. When the landlord subsequently arrives and drops a bombshell (and the smarter woman’s words come back to haunt her), Ahonen’s story still had the potential to rise far above a low culture. Unfortunately, it’s too long and it settles for trendy irresolution and ambiguity as it drags toward its non-conclusion. Even then, the performances are uniformly impressive.
The integration of a Casablanca, a Rocky, or a Cyrano de Bergerac is almost entirely absent from modern writing. (The Shawshank Redemption may have been a swan song of sorts.) Since both sides of this false cultural divide provide essential elements that are missing from each side (and I require at least some art and entertainment that is set in my own unfortunate time and/or written from its perspective), I continually look for the best of each side with low expectations and a certain reluctant tolerance for Endarkenment. The false cultural divide is yet another aspect of the culture’s split between mind and body. Neither of yesterday’s “shows” is likely to be entirely satisfying to an objective observer, not even for one with a reluctant tolerance for this split, though either may satisfy its nonobjective partisans (as the film’s IMDb score, if not the play’s mixed reviews, suggest). Although their exiguous virtues would likely elude all but the sharpest observers, Mad Max: Fury Road may provide a starving romantic with a tincture of heroism and benevolence; The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side (while it takes no ethical side on any of its egregiously flawed characters) may even inspire a thoughtful objective viewer to think a little about implicit philosophy and explicit human relationships. And, in the culture of anti-heroes and anti-thought, that may count for something.

Mad Max: Fury Road
Produced by George Miller, Doug Mitchell, and P.J. Voeten
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris
Directed by George Miller
Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult
Kennedy Miller Mitchell/Village Roadshow Pictures/Warner Bros. 

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
Written and Directed by Derek Ahonen
Featuring Adam Brooks, Heather Mertens, Agatha Nowicki, Ben Reno, Patrick Scott Lewis, and Jordan Tisdale
The Matrix Theatre, Hollywood (through May 24)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fifteen Books

Here is a list of books I compiled when I was asked to "come up with 10 books that have influenced you or stuck with you in some way." It was published elsewhere on September 1, 2014. I thought it should be reproduced here. (Obviously, I added an addendum of five.)

1. McKeon, Richard, ed.  The Basic Works of Aristotle.  c. 335 - c. 323 BC.  New York: Random House, 1941.
These are essential writings from the progenitor and architect of Western civilization.

2. Hugo, Victor.  The Toilers of the Sea [Les Travailleurs de la Mer].  Trans. James Hogarth.  1866.  New York: The Modern Library, 2002.
One of the first of many neglected classic novels, this one, to use one of its author's favorite words, may be ineffable ("bittersweet" certainly doesn't cover it).

3. Mencken, H.L.  Notes on Democracy.  1926.  New York: Dissident Books, 2009.
This was probably even more risible with alcohol prohibition raging and twentieth-century politics and popular culture waxing.  It is still funny, but, in hindsight, this author's marginalization, the new prohibition (I'm not just referring to the "War On Drugs"), and the legacy of twentieth-century politics and culture is even less excusable (and more than a bit alarming).  He saw it all coming, and he was all the rage among flappers and others with high school educations who were able to understand his vocabulary, historical references, and logic without a Department of Education or No Child Left Behind.

4. Rand, Ayn.  The Fountainhead.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.
This ode to individualism, egoism, and life's grandeur embodied in diverse and heterogeneous major and minor characters (you don't remember Steven Mallory? re-read it) is not understood to a fraction of the extent to which it is admired.

5. Rand, Ayn.  Atlas Shrugged.  New York: Random House, 1957.
Contrary to what the mainstream commentators of a disgraceful culture will tell you, it's all here: an integrated, unprecedented philosophic system; romanticism; realism; more diverse, vivid, heterogeneous characters; science fiction; renascent epic literature; economics; the ethics of suicide; heroes of every economic class; villains who are almost invariably rich; "gray" people (and areas) in context (the context being that the fundamentals are fundamental); the camaraderie and respect between geniuses and "common people;" ad infinitum.  (That might scratch the surface.)  Ignore it, and fail to understand it, at your own risk.

6. Lee, Harper.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  New York: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1960.
Heroism and individualism next door.

7. O'Rourke, P.J.  Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government.  New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991.
Notes on Democracy, End of the Century Edition.  The title and subtitle speak for themselves.  In a halfway rational culture, it would be required reading in every high school (along with most of the books on this list).  No matter who you are, you'll find at least a little to agree with here (and you'll laugh uncontrollably).

8. Ledgin, Norm.  Diagnosing Jefferson: Evidence of a Condition that Guided His Beliefs, Behavior, and Personal Associations.  Arlington, Texas: Future Horizons, Inc., 2000.
Thomas Jefferson is one of the most misunderstood (and, lately, maligned) figures in American history.  Whether you agree or disagree with this controversial book's thesis, you'd be unlikely to finish the book without a revaluation of the book's subjects.

9. Peikoff, Kira.  Living Proof.  New York: Tor, 2012.
Romanticism of and for the twenty-first century (which desperately needs it), this novel managed to rekindle hope and light in me (no easy task) amidst a culture of despair and darkness.

10. Peikoff, Leonard.  The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West are Going Out.  New York: New American Library, 2012.
It's not "negative"--it is a concerned, realistic battle cry.  It is certainly the kind of "complex" (and integrated) approach to philosophy that a disintegrated culture desperately needs.  "To save the world is the simplest thing in the world; all one has to do is think," its author once wrote.  Read this, and learn how.  (The subtitle is Kira's.)

Addendum: Almost everything you think you know is wrong.
These books certainly "influenced and stuck with me"--and since they address misunderstood and/or neglected and/or distorted topics, I couldn't fail to mention them.

Hazlitt, Henry.  Economics in One Lesson.  Revised Edition.  New York: Crown Publishers, 1979.
This man (as well as Mencken, who called him "one of the few economists who could really write") was actually published in The New York Times frequently when it was still worth the paper it was printed on.

Fumento, Michael.  The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS: How a Tragedy has Been Distorted by the Media and Partisan Politics.  New York: Basic Books, 1990.
It's not dated because the (public) credulity and ignorance and (government and media) dishonesty still exist and are even worse now.

Kelly, Susan.  The Boston Stranglers.  Third Edition.  1995.  New York: Kensington, 2013.
It's not a justice system.  It hasn't been since the 1950s (at least).  And the press deteriorated before the legal system did.

Ruddy, Christopher.  The Strange Death of Vincent Foster: An Investigation.  New York: Free Press, 1997.
After reading the above books, this shouldn't have surprised me, but, somehow, it did.  Miquel Rodriguez, where are you?

Anonymous.  Failure of the Public Trust.  Self-published, 1999.
The subject is the same as Ruddy's book, but this is more thorough, accurate, and convincing (and it's available for free online).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review of Mark Steyn's "America Alone: Imagine the World Without Her"

My review of Mark Steyn's book America Alone: Imagine the World Without Her has been published at ParcBench (thanks again to Gregory Zeigerson). Click the link to read it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" is Not Good, But It is Illustrative

The first line of dialogue in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel Studios) is simply: “Shit!”
And, if the reader will excuse the crude, cynical language of a crude, cynical culture, Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is simply shit.
Whedon is an acclaimed auteur (or what passes for one these dark days), and the superhero blockbuster he wrote by himself may be slightly better than the hypothetical result if the second Avengers film had been the usual twenty-first century blockbuster assembly line fare with a director for hire and more credited writers than bottles in Ted Kennedy’s liquor cabinet or trollops in Bill Clinton’s harem. It would be slightly better in the sense than Friday the 13th is slightly better than Friday the 13th Part II. Whedon’s cameras actually stop occasionally (unlike the typical cinematic version of Judy McGrath’s eMpTyV Networks), and there are some moments of subtle, tender human emotion. Unfortunately, most of those moments depict a robot. Otherwise, it is the usual McLuhanesque parade of special effects, flying metal, explosions and digitized screens. It has a token semi-story that is barely coherent, a gaggle of assistant directors and effects experts equal to the population of North Dakota, and a sound design with the decibel level of a Nashville Pussy concert (without the class and subtlety). The overpaid Whedon’s hoary one-liners aren’t much better than they would be if the usual succession of underpaid script doctors in overpriced, rent-controlled Los Angeles studio apartments developed a thin “blueprint” for technicians to mangle (though Whedon gave Samuel L. Jackson a line about Catholic rabbits as a metaphor for fecundity that is rather clever by today’s standards if a little too recondite).
As intimated above, the antagonist, such as it is, is sort of a lethe, artificial intelligence iteration of Dr. Evil with a literal heart of lead. Whedon and his technicians manager to imbue the robot with a subtle, enthusiastic personality that makes Katie Couric come across as Steven Wright by comparison (and Wright is as energetic as Couric compared to Mark Ruffalo in this film). Otherwise, the expensive CGI glitz generally gussies up the look of the film (and it is all look) in a thoroughly unpleasant, counterintuitively drab unattractiveness that is antipodal to what such budgets and star power are still supposed to provide. It has the effect of a late-middle-aged socialite’s botched cosmetic surgery. Whedon somehow found a way to make Scarlett Johansson look homely.
Leslie Halliwell once aptly pointed out that movies underwent a paradigm shift in the 1970s (when the golden age of comic book films started, and there were spectacular, worthwhile examples). Prior to that time, Hollywood made A movies and B movies. The former had the budgets and were serious movies for adults with both plot and theme. The latter were for the young, the young at heart, and others who needed to relax with light fare for an hour or two (and the likes of Roger Corman proudly skimped on the budget). Then studios started making B movies with budgets, and the A movie died. The late William Greeley identified a causal link between the rise of naturalism (and death of romanticism) and this trend with its false dichotomy (in the age of false dichotomies) of shallow action and/or comic book movie with heroism and plot but no thought and serious adult movie with thought but no heroism and plot.
Avengers: Age of Ultron has little plot (in either the conventional definition or the romanticist definition), and a rapid-fire succession of disintegrated action scenes with characters without characterization fighting a robot is not heroism versus villainy in any significant sense. The Incredible Hulk in this film is an anti-hero who harms innocent bystanders. Those attracted to superhero films because of the Endarkenment's exiguous heroism and values could surely find better examples elsewhere (they can start with last year’s Whiplash and The Imitation Game).
What is on display here (and it is a display: a hyper-visual bombardment of unintegratable, disparate sense data that adds up to little) is another Hegelian synthesis in an age of clashing contradictions in which “heroes” do not have the inevitable, character-building hesitation or complex tentativeness of a Gregory Peck character or the racer in “Don’t Worry Baby” but the crippling self-doubt and ennui of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2. Hollywood protagonists from classic Marvel comics are updated with banal, boorish twenty-first century lines like: “Don’t hate”; “Dick move, Banner”; and, “He did a Banksy at the crime scene.” What thin thematic content is in the picture is a less eloquent recapitulation of post-9/11 egalitarian U.S. foreign policy. And some of The Mighty Thor’s off-duty wardrobe looks like it was purchased at Abercrombie and Fitch. It is possible to update superannuated twentieth century comic book characters without coming across as a 2015 period piece.
Over the last four decades, the vestiges of a better culture started rapidly declining (and went into free fall at the halfway point). Lucasfilm fell from American Graffiti to Attack of the Clones. Sylvester Stallone started with Rocky and ended with Rambo and The Expendables. The epic, romantic Bruce Springsteen of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run aged into the Marxist/nihilist Bruce Springsteen of Wrecking Ball and American Beauty. And electoral politics imploded from the likes of Gerald Ford and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who were bad enough) to George W. Bush and Elizabeth Warren. And superhero films declined from Richard Donner’s Superman (with a story by Mario Puzo of The Godfather fame) to this. As culture (popular and otherwise) continues to disintegrate into entropic chaos in accordance with a sort of Second Law of Thermodynamics of metaphysics as the ideas underpinning the culture logically evolve into their inexorable end, a viewer searching for values and the connectivity of a complicated story structure would do well to avoid the countless new superhero movies and turn to older films and books (even comic books). Tim Burton’s Batman is a classic by comparison, and Donner’s Superman is the Mona Lisa. (Those films also have the verisimilitude of To Kill a Mockingbird compared to Whedon’s A.I. hokum.) Today’s best films tend to be documentaries, biopics, and literary adaptations. Art is a human need and can be satisfied to some extent with the benevolent, realistic naturalism of Richard Linklater’s and Kenneth Lonergan’s best work (and not much else that is new, these days). That is the side of that particular false dichotomy more fully actualized in contemporary fiction cinema. Those films are half of something. Avengers: Age of Ultron is none of nothing.

Whedon fans may well like this. The 141 minutes went by fast enough considering the content (or lack thereof, depending on perspective). However, I’m not sure the victims of progressive education that constitute general audiences today will like it. Many of those in the audience of the screening I attended repeatedly laughed, and many applauded when the credits rolled. But they were mostly writers in Hollywood with the standards of Limp Bizkit groupies. My companion, who has higher standards, is much more enthusiastic about twenty-first century superhero films than I, and he detested it at least as much as I did.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
Produced by Kevin Feige
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Starring Robert Downey, Jr.; Chris Hemsworth; and Mark Ruffalo
Marvel Studios
In theaters Friday, May 1

Monday, March 30, 2015

"Progressivism": A Companion Piece to a Previous Article


On March 17, ParcBench published an article of mine that is a follow-up to my piece on the etymology and epistemology of the word "liberal."  It can be read at the above link.  Thanks again to Gregory Zeigerson and ParcBench.