motion picture, it's called

Monday, January 29, 2007

Top Ten Movies of 2006

Yes, I know it's almost February, but this is a very weighty topic requiring much contemplation (ok, I'm a lazy bum too):

1. Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski)

2. Cache (Michael Haneke)
3. The Wayward Cloud (Ming-liang Tsai)
4. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater)
5. Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer)
6. The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chris Marker)

7. The Motel (Michael Kang)
8. The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry)
9. Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater)
10. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Edsall’s Building Red America: Triviality that Almost Succeeds

Thomas Edsall’s Building Red America is a frustrating book. Edsall’s topic is how the New Right has achieved power, and possibly permanent power, by permanently transforming, in a revolutionary way, American society at all levels. In his general thesis, Edsall is certainly correct (even if his thesis is not precisely new or groundbreaking or deep). For this, Edsall should probably be praised.

What is frustrating about Edsall’s book, however, is much more interesting than his correct overarching thesis. Building Red America is a book about Right politics in America that does not even mention the word capitalism. As frustrating as a book about Left politics that failed to discuss capitalism would be, a book about Right politics in America without capitalism is simply incoherent and eventually trivial. The frustrating fact is that Edsall is very close to understanding a great deal, but seemingly intentionally verves off into shallowness.

The heart of the discussion over how the New Right attained such power lies in the following conundrum: the middle class and upper working class in America (outside of the South), like most middle classes in the vast majority of liberal capitalist democracies, had accepted moderate Manchester liberalism for most of American history (think the liberal Republicans who dominated the politics of many states outside the South for roughly 100 years after the Civil War). Accepted it, that is, until the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the white middle classes moved almost universally to a quite extremist version of Manchester liberalism coupled with nihilist and radical versions of fundamentalist Christianity.

This has been the primary puzzle of intellectuals and political pundits for the past thirty and more years, of course. In some sense, it’s simply a version of the 100 years old Marxian false consciousness of the proletariat thesis updated for the current American scene. The Marxian false consciousness thesis, however, describes a continuum – the working class has never opposed capitalism as much as Marxists do. This has been a constant throughout the Industrial and post-Industrial eras. What is inexplicable in the American scene is a recent move from a very long-held moderate Manchester liberalism to a very extremist version of the same (and, of course, newly combined with the above mentioned fundamentalism).

One fundamental fault of Edsall is beginning his book by discussing “politics at the top” – i.e. current politics as it looks primarily from elite circles in Washington, DC. This is not a repetition of the too-common criticism of elitism. Rather, my criticism is of the value of Edsall’s particular elitism to understanding this phenomenon. The power of the New Right is not primarily explicable by the New Right’s machinations in the 1990s and 2000s. Those machinations were only made possible by the near-universal popularity of the New Right’s politics on a grassroots level starting in the late 1960s, thirty years before the New Right began it’s latest stage of concretizing its power under the second Bush administration.

Edsall analyzes the effects before analyzing the causes (if he can be said to analyze the causes at all). The primary puzzle is how the middle class in America became radicalized, not how that radicalization was later transformed into political power. It’s comparatively easy to gain political power if a lot of people are already willing (even eager) to vote you into office.

Edsall’s background as a journalist makes him ill-prepared to perform this analysis. Journalists primarily understand politics at the overt political level – reporting on elections, government ministries, policy plans, parliamentary developments and so on. Strangely, this type of journalism is actually most useful in an aristocratic, pre-Enlightenment states. In aristocracies or monarchies, who is King, who are the King’s ministers, who the heads of the leading aristocratic families are is actually of the highest importance.

This is not true of liberal capitalist democracies, which shift conflict from the political realm to sublimate that conflict primarily within the economic realm (and sometimes in the religious realm). The political, economic and religious are all one thing in the pre-Enlightenment state: the polis in Greek philosophy. But the Enlightenment state separates these things into separate realms, even though that separation has always been largely illusory.

Thus, the identity of government ministers or overt policy plans or the composition of the legislature within liberal capitalist democracies is paradoxically not of very great political importance. Most of the primary political decisions have already been made by Enlightenment ideology long ago: the social contract state from Hobbes and Locke, capitalism from Locke and Smith, private life by Rousseau’s romantic family and so on. Pre-Enlightenment (which also means pre-ideological) states had more politics on an overt level because many more decisions (political, economic, religious, private and public) were overt political decisions.

So, Edsall’s focus on the elite end of democratic politics in Washington is not very helpful in answering our puzzle.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The New Noir Comes from Europe: Hans Werner Kettenbach's Black Ice

One mystery of literary noir fiction is the why of it's disappearance in America after the mid-Sixties. The genre continued to have it's immense cultural impact upon Europe - we can't imagine the Nouvelle Vague or Italian post-war cinema or even the German New Wave without American noir literature. But except for Patricia Highsmith, the actual American writers of noir literature had all shut down most of their creative activity by the mid-Sixties.

Highsmith, of course, is precisely the writer who pointed the way out for noir literature. Certainly, a large part (but only a part) of noir's decline in the Sixties was due to the vast majority of white Americans moving out of the inner cities (noir's beloved environment) and into the suburbs, which made many of the noir trappings, plots and even philosophy implausible. It was Highsmith who was able to transcend noir's original inner urban setting and make suburban angst work for noir - see in particular Highsmith's The Cry of the Owl, but also her A Suspension of Mercy.

Few American writers have taken up Highsmith's clarion call, preferring to degenerate to the commonplace of today's mediocre mystery/crime genre scene. But we might expect that some Europeans might take up the challenge - and Hans Werner Kettenbach's Black Ice (originally published in German in 1981) is apparently merely the first of these to appear in English translation, from the spanking new publishing house Bitter Lemon Press.

Black Ice comes as a revelation as to what English-language crime fiction could be, and has now fallen so far short of. Taking place in one of the affluent small towns that cover Southern Germany, Kettenbach uses the mystery genre to begin to dissect such topics as class structure, the toxic nature of modern day office life, the dead-ending of careers and ambition and so much more. Kettenbach's stunning results of applying realism back into the mystery genre allow Black Ice to cut deeper, to be more truthful than any English-language crime novel from the past 30 or more years.

Read it.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Art Moment

Tilman Riemenschneider, Mary Magdalene w/ Angels, Bavarian National Museum
Taken by my own hand, September 2005