Monday, January 30, 2006


I've fallen under Gus Van Sant's hypnotic gaze. I've always liked his more conventional films, "Drugstore Cowboy" and "To Die For" especially (and I'll always have a soft spot for "Good Will Hunting," for reasons that, if you read this humble space on a reg basis, should be immediately apparent), but for years he fell off my viewing radar, and when he released "Gerry" in 2002, the description of it didn't rouse me to rush to the theater ("Rental" I told myself, like Harmony Korine's "Julien Donkey-Boy," neither of which I've yet seen). Then came "Elephant," Van Sant's interpretation of the Columbine killings, and here my interest kicked in. I've long been fascinated with and horrified by school shootings, seemingly a unique American phenomenon, and one I can sort of understand on a raw conceptual level, having been a bullied teen myself. But unlike the other Columbine flick, "Zero Day," which packs immediate punch, "Elephant" drifts slowly along, taking its time while playing with time, gently but steadily placing us in the middle of an innocuous high school day, only we know what's coming, and the long single takes before the violence erupts increases our anticipation and anxiety.

Truth be told, I didn't like "Elephant" upon first viewing. It was my initial exposure to Van Sant's newer, smaller, slower style, and I was extremely impatient while watching those kids walk and walk and walk across school grounds and through the hallways. Still, the film stayed with me, and when I watched it again about a month later, I enjoyed it a lot more, and understood, cement-head me, what Van Sant was attempting and appreciated what he achieved. So when he followed "Elephant" with "Last Days," I knew that I had to allow the film to guide me, and not force my attention on it. Releasing my grip, I got so much more out of the viewing, watching it twice over the weekend.

"Last Days," as I'm sure you know, is about, well, the last days of a popular drugged-out rock star named Blake, who is clearly modeled on Kurt Cobain. Nothing much happens. The majority of the action, such as it is, takes place inside a dilapidated rural mansion where Blake and his two bandmates (along with their two girlfriends) shuffle around, get high, listen to music, watch TV, sleep, fuck, eat, pet kittens, stare off into space. A Yellow Pages salesman and a pair of young Mormon missionaries enter and leave quickly, and there is a subplot of sorts (never developed) where a private investigator, sent by an unseen Courtney Love-ish character, is looking for Blake, but doesn't find him as Blake, in a rare burst of energy, bolts outside and hides amid the trees. And that's about it. Blake says practically nothing to anyone, and when he does, you can barely hear what he's muttering. He continually changes his clothes, nods off here and there, plays a little guitar, but overall seems imprisoned by his own emotions, his drug habit, and by the financial pressure to go on tour, which he doesn't want to do. So he slowly wastes away, seemingly convinced that whatever is passing for reality really isn't worth engaging.

Van Sant's single, slow, beautifully-shot takes hauntingly convey Blake's numbed-out world -- a dope-tinged voyeurism where you feel the heaviness that weighs Blake down. I've never done smack, or anything close, but I have, in younger times, participated in days-long drug & booze fueled communal partying where everyone stumbled over each other, doing nothing constructive save for keeping the buzz going for as long as possible. Though unlike Blake and his band, we did from time to time engage in political/artistic discussions, however hazy and unfocused. But I know that underwater-like sensation, and Van Sant captures it well. It's depressing as hell and counter-creative and reserved for the young and supposedly fit. Yet when you watch Blake walk as if he's eighty-years-old, the physical endurance of youth seems fragile and easily destroyed. For Blake, it's the self-inflicted punishment for fame.

The clearest performance in "Last Days" belongs to Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth who, I'm guessing, is playing herself. She urges Blake not to be a "rock star cliche" and offers him a chance to escape his slow suicide and get cleaned up. But Blake is beyond escape, mumbling from under his dirty blonde locks, and Gordon reluctantly leaves him to his fate. I know that Nirvana got its first big break opening for Sonic Youth, and that Gordon and partner Thurston Moore were quite close to Kurt Cobain. I don't know if either of them ever tried to get Cobain some help, but this scene feels as if Gordon is talking to Cobain's ghost, sadly chastising him for making such a foolish and predictable choice. It's perhaps the film's most conventional scene, the sole direct attempt to shake Blake out of his stupor. The look on Blake's face after Gordon exits shows that he's aware of where he's soon headed, but he's either too weak or too resigned to do anything about it.

"Last Days" ends with Blake's dead body discovered by a gardener. Though he's been playing with a shotgun through parts of the film, we never hear a blast nor see Blake pull the trigger. There's no "Kurt and Courtney" speculation about whether or not Blake had help ending his life (that film's director, Nick Broomfield, believes that Kurt Cobain acted alone) -- just a thin pale corpse in tattered jeans and sneakers, finally free of this mad world, naked soul climbing up to something presumably better. After enduring Blake's ponderous and painful final days, the last scene seems somewhat happy, or as happy as one can hope for in a story so layered in sadness.

Friday, January 27, 2006


Having read very little of Victor Davis Hanson's output, I'm indebted to Ian Garrick Mason, who apparently can ingest large amounts of Hanson's inflated prose without choking to death on the guy's pro-slaughter sanctimony. Ian's review of Hanson's new happy war tome was just pubbed in The Spectator, so read it already. Ian, a Toronto-based scribe and new friend of mine, is much calmer than I would be were I to review that book. Actually, I wouldn't review that book. I'd feed it to a woodchipper, then use the remains to line a Habitrail for the hamsters to crap on -- a form of "functional literacy" that goes beyond mere reading.

As I'm sure you've noticed, Ian has joined my semi-revised blogroll, along with pal K. of Bitch/Lab, satirist Barry Crimmins, a great guy who once wrote for Dennis Miller and emerged with wit intact, Michael Bérubé, an academic lib who's readable and actually funny, and Against The War on Terror, a new site run by grad students at Columbia who are asking and exploring overlooked and quite necessary questions about our present degraded state. Read them all. That should buy me enough time to cough up some new posts.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


After reading dozens of libs denouncing Chris Matthews for ostensibly comparing Osama bin Laden to Michael Moore, I'm left wondering what kind of media they truly think we have. Yoking the Enemy Of The Moment to whatever dissident or muckraker is making the most noise (or has made a significant cultural/political dent) is part of the program. Been going on for decades, and not all of those smeared have had the wealth and media power of Michael Moore, whom I suspect, given his response to Matthews, is scarcely shaken by it. Indeed, any publicity is good publicity, as a PR pro like Moore clearly appreciates.

Besides, who really cares what Chris Matthews says? The majority of the country doesn't watch him, and even among those who for some strange reason look to cable news nets for information, his ratings are not all that impressive. But if you live on a steady diet of Crooks and Liars and Media Matters, as well as some of the bigger lib blogs, then hacks like Matthews are huge stars, their nightly utterances ringing loudly from coast to coast. And when Matthews says what he did about Moore, ZAPPO, a fresh blog site pops up to counter him and tries to shame him into apologizing to Moore and retracting his slander.

All good fun as far as it goes, like letting people line up and throw rotten fruit at a cardboard cut-out. Channels some hostility and makes you feel a bit better. But even if Matthews were to flog himself with razor wire while standing in a bucket of bullshit, begging Moore and outraged online libs for forgiveness, the media structure that makes him inevitable remains, and there are plenty more mouthpieces who'll say, and have said, pretty much anything to get attention and thus an extra ratings point.

The Bash Chris Matthews campaign buys into and extends the politics of personality and celebrity, and diverts attention away from the real issue, which of course is the corporate stranglehold on the "public" airwaves. The beauty of the Web is that average citizens can be seen and heard in a way unthinkable less than a generation ago, and the instant, uncensored connection between people who've never met ensures that ideas and calls to action are spread to areas where door-to-door canvassers could never reach with any regularity. So why waste time demanding that Matthews say he's sorry? There are much more urgent problems to address and larger themes to take apart, as I'm sure many of you are aware. What Chris Matthews thinks of Michael Moore is meaningless, as is all this online "talking back."

Thursday, January 12, 2006


Taking a quick breather from mocking the trog-right (his main act, these days), James Wolcott waded into the James Frey fray, sharing the amusement that so many others have shown in the wake of Frey's apparent memoir fraud. Frey certainly had it coming, it seems, for how do you claim to undergo a root canal minus anesthesia and not expect some suspicion in return? Then there's all his alleged criminal behavior, reading Tolstoy in jail, and so on -- too cinematic to be remotely true, or so thought the diggers at Smoking Gun who exposed Frey's deceit to light and sent him scurrying for cover. In a culture where the slickest lies earn the biggest paychecks, you really can't blame Frey for doing what so many others would try, or have tried and failed. Reality is fiction taken seriously, something many Americans are comfortable with, the screens in their minds playing various but familiar scenarios.

I suppose I should be harder on Frey, given that I'm writing a pseudo-memoir of my own, and Frey's mini-scandal further muddies the water for my and other's efforts. Ah well. What can you do? Publishing's choked with hucksters, so throwing eggs at Frey is wasted energy, esp with larger, deadlier problems we the living face. But Frey's main theme -- redemption -- got under Wolcott's prickly hide, causing him to scratch out this:

"I'm just automatically suspicious of every tale of woe that's peddled as a tale of redemption. The whole concept of redemption seems fishy to me, another form of sentimentality. How many people do you know have found redemption? What does 'redemption' really mean? It's got a lofty religious sound, but the vast majority of people improve or worsen in varying degrees over time, and even those who radically turn their lives around or pull themselves out of the abyss still have to go on doing the mundane things we all do, often suffering relapses or channeling their sobriety and sadder-but-wiser maturity into passive-aggressive preening of their own moral goodness. Most change for better or worse is undramatic, incremental, seldom revealed in a blinding flash or expressed in a climactic moment of heroic resolve. The whole cult of 'redemption' has acquired a Hollywood-holy aura emanating from the therapist's couch. And when a tale of redemption becomes a success story, it's as if the monetary reward is the special prize bestowed on spiritual growth in this bountiful, forgiving land, where each closeup tear from Oprah and her readers is worth its price in gold (closing price today: $545.70 an ounce)."

It's certainly true that a redemption "cult" of sorts exists -- more of a market, actually. So many people fuck up so many things in their lives that they naturally warm to anyone who can express the sadness, confusion and the hope of overcoming bad decisions or rotten luck that they themselves cannot put into words or images. And naturally people like Frey take advantage of this. And while Wolcott is right about the crass commercial uses to which "redemption" is put, he's decidedly wrong about the very concept of redemption itself.

Redemption does exist and people experience it every day. Not all redemption is a full-blown widescreen CGI encounter -- indeed, I suspect that rarely happens, and if it does, I doubt that any person could fully grasp or comprehend such a serious emotional upheaval and/or cleansing. I imagine you just roll with it and see where it takes you. But turning your life around, or seeing the world from a different or better angle is nothing to sneer at, as Wolcott does above. In my case, part of which I shared here, everything changed for the worse within a matter of weeks. And no, I didn't suddenly see the light and march upward to seize and use it to illuminate my preening "moral goodness." I went through a number of negative emotions and levels of self-pity before I s-l-o-w-l-y became aware of another reality, one I'd dismissed with the same elitist scorn that Wolcott displays. I'm not a Maoist, nor do I revel in thoughts of parading intellectuals in dunce caps before a heckling proletarian crowd, but I do think that NY scribes like Wolcott should take a break from brunching at the Telephone Bar and trading quips with Conde Nast stablemates and sink into some anonymous, blue collar work from time to time. If nothing else, it'll strengthen his arms, back and legs; and who knows, maybe there's a bit of redemptive emotion hidden under all that cynical cover.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Freedom Granted, Freedom Won

It is the Soldier not the reporter, who has given us Freedom of the press. It is the Soldier not the poet, who has given us Freedom of speech. It is the Soldier not the campus organizer, who has given us the Freedom to demonstrate. It is the Soldier not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial. It is the soldier, who salutes the Flag, who serves beneath the Flag and whose coffin is draped by the Flag, who allows the protester to burn the Flag.

Columns of drums beat as a solemn white male voice -- Sam Elliott? -- recites each line, indicting those who don't fall to their knees at the sight of a camo-painted Hummer or a Predator drone cleansing some Haji-infected neighborhood.

Stirring stuff. Gets the wood nice and stiff. Only thing is, it's bullshit.

Of all American manias, military worship is particularly noxious. Much of this fetishizing comes from civilians who've never worn the uniform, but who get excited at the idea of others Kicking Ass. They believe that the military is a sacred religious order to be obeyed and revered without question. But there are those who've worn and wear the uniform who feel pretty much the same way. It's drilled into them from boot camp on. It appeals to those who have little else in their lives.

I know. I was there. I saw it. When I was in boot camp, our Drill Sergeants, when not calling us scum, maggots, ladies, faggots and pussies, told us how special we would be once we went into active duty. We were part of a fearless Warrior Tribe, the fiercest in the world. We were connected to something larger than ourselves, a sacred trust where no one was left behind and everybody had your back. To a bunch of 18/19-year-old kids, mostly rural whites and inner-city blacks, this was hard-core stimulation. Many of those I trained with had little in the civilian world to go back to. This was their best shot to achieve greatness and no commie civilian was gonna tell them otherwise.

A seductive pitch. So I understand where this mindset originates, how powerful it is to those who desire some kind of power in their lives. But even a general glance at American history shows us something else.

The claim that the "Soldier not the reporter" gave us freedom of the press, and the "Soldier not the poet" gave us free speech, while reassuring, is mostly wrong. Actually, war, the threat of war, and post-war periods often deliver the opposite of free press and speech.

Look at the post-Revolutionary period and discover numerous violations of freedom of the press and speech, mostly notably in the Federalist-supported Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which essentially made it illegal to criticize the president (John Adams), the possibility of war with France (desired by Alexander Hamilton) being a motivating factor.

Continue through the 19th century and you'll find writers, speakers and activists, primarily those who advocated for women's suffrage and the abolition of slavery, harassed and silenced via sedition and criminal conspiracy laws. Neither the Mexican War of 1846-48, nor the Civil War of the 1860s, ensured, protected or expanded free speech and a free press. Those rights were fought for and won by the writers and poets themselves, oftentimes in the face of mob violence (as was the case with Mexican War dissidents). The grabbing of Mexican territory and the smashing of the Confederacy had more to do with expanding and consolidating Federal power (while enriching those with the right connections) than with clearing the path for unfettered discourse.

In the 20th century, American wars and those who waged them further undermined critical speech. Woodrow Wilson's repressive actions were justified by war in Europe and class war at home. The Sedition Act of 1917 and the Espionage Act of 1918 made it a crime to criticize U.S. entry into World War I. Newspapers and magazines were shut down or denied mailing privileges. Public speakers were banned, harassed, and in the case of Eugene V. Debs, jailed for daring to oppose Wilson's autocratic laws.

During World War II, conscientious objectors were herded into work camps under a program called Civilian Public Service. They were sentenced to hard labor for nine hours a day, six days a week, and had to pay the government for room and board. Those who refused this arrangement were imprisoned. After the Second World War, loyalty oaths, censorship and blacklisting further narrowed permissible public speech. Again, it was civil libertarians and other activists, not soldiers, who battled the government and beat back political repression.

During the Vietnam War, the government spied on dissidents (when not, as with Fred Hampton, killing them outright), infiltrating their ranks and helping to create disorder and exploit rifts. In today's Terror War world, we have the perpetual Patriot Act as well as an increase in domestic spying and surveillance of those who are critical of endless war, rendition, and corporate state power.

In short, the romantic idea that American soldiers fought and died to allow dissidents room to breathe really doesn't hold up.

You might point to the defeat of Nazi Germany as an exception, assuming that the Germans had the power to invade and occupy the U.S. (The war with Japan, begun years before Pearl Harbor, was a battle over oil reserves and control of Asian markets.) The Soviet Union played a major role in Hitler's downfall, yet I rarely see American patriots give Stalin any serious credit. Corporate outlets make it seem as if the U.S. won World War II largely on its own. So in the one case where their claim may be valid, patriots must romanticize reality in order to make it true.

The freedom to demonstrate, the right to a fair trial, the freedom to burn the flag -- it was the activists, lawyers, writers and other advocates who were on the frontlines of those battles, at times facing the very soldiers who supposedly were granting all that freedom to begin with.

Soldiers, by and large, are tools used to advance the interests of those who own and run the country. They are lied to, conned and conditioned to believe they are fighting for "freedom" when in most cases they are killing, dying and being maimed to enrich domestic elites and their allies/business partners.

A hard truth to swallow, which is why so many Americans prefer the standard story. Recently, I caught on radio a reporter just back from Iraq and he addressed this very issue. Some of the soldiers he spoke to were upset that their recruiters and officers lied about what awaited them in Iraq. The con job was cracking.

Instead of exploring why this was so, many of these disgruntled soldiers further retreated into a black and white world. They are fighting for Good while those opposed are Bad. Understandable: no one likes to be lied to or made a fool. But it's also dishonest and potentially destructive, both to soldiers and society at large. The Soldier Mantra above is an authoritarian appeal and historical dodge. You don't honor the troops by making them gods. This deprives them of their humanity, their only hope of finding some peace.