Notes on Fargo

Fenster writes:

The new season of Fargo is pretty good. Not as good as the earlier seasons but those seasons set pretty high bars for TV. It is spooned out weekly so I am five episodes in. A lot can happen to make or break a mini-series in the home stretch.

The earlier seasons were loosely connected plot wise with one another and with the Coen brothers movie. So far this one has no connection direct or indirect to the buried suitcase in the snow. But it does carry forward the quirky sensibility of the movie and the earlier seasons of the series. A little too much for my tastes: while the ghosts of the Coens are ever-present this season tilts heavily in the direction of Wes Anderson. The perfectly symmetrical camera shots. The Coen’s cleverness morphed into pose and archness. And the exaggerated visual palette: never have I seen so many shades of green.

Ethnically speaking the Coens deal with shades of white and have never been known to bow to political correctness. So how would this season of Fargo deal with the introduction of black themes for the first time? TV more or less has to be PC–would Fargo submit?

So far so good–but only in the sense that through episode five the show has thread the needle quite well: introducing all of the required doctrinal elements but handling the material in an offbeat way that to some extent defies a conventional explanation.

Recall the world that Fargo summons up. It is an America in which the earnestness of the heartland is simultaneously mocked and celebrated, with the emphasis on the latter. Nice white Minnesotans are naive all right but isn’t wonderful that we have such Americans to counter the bad effects of the country’s submerged dark side?

And in the Fargo universe the country does indeed have a dark side. There are the sociopaths, like Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the first season and the evil nurse this time out. And then there are the forces of greed and violence. In the Coen universe we do not see a conscious fight between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Rather we see people who cannot help be what they are struggling more or less blindly as they go forth in the world, colliding with one another with hard to predict results. It can be a pretty pagan place.

One odd feature of the current season is that while the show honors the current racial tropes about white racism the portrayal of blacks is quite idiosyncratic. Essentially they are shown to have a good deal of Midwestern niceness. The leader of the upstart black gang is played by Chris Rock, who is no one’s idea of a sociopath. He talks about being mean and no doubt he has had to do nasty things. But he comes across as genuine and nice in a Minnesota manner. He and other black gang members live in beautiful old houses, tastefully but not extravagently furnished–all very “homey” in the old fashioned meaning of the term.

Rock and his gang are natty dressers and speak well. He and his top lieutenant — who was a lawyer at Nuremberg –are criminals in part because the white world will not honor their genius. They try and fail to introduce credit cards to the world by bringing the idea to a large white owned bank. Their idea is rejected–partly out of racial motives but also because the white bankers in 1950 still cannot wrap their heads around the fact that their customers would ever consider financing consumption.

It is almost as though the blacks on the show are secretly white. Other than the fact that they are discriminated against as blacks–there’s the nod to the required dogma–they don’t appear to be black in any serious way. Indeed you could make a case that they are not WASP white but perhaps Jewish white in disguise. The unusual credit card scene suggests this: it is hard to accept blacks inventing the idea of a credit card with high finance charges but that makes more sense if the black gang were a stand-in for Jewish mobsters, the discussion of which is still more or less verboten decades after the wall came down over the discussion of Italian crime as an Italian thing.

But, as I say, we are only in episode five, and there have been a few hints that the show will take a turn for the conventional in its treatment of race.

That would hardly be unusual in a mini-series. Political correctness is now so out of control that it cannot be avoided as a subject of some ridicule–provided of course that the ship is sailed into the safe harbor of conventional dogma by episode 10.

Such was the case with the Amazon series Upload. In that show the white male main character dies in the first episode and has his consciousness uploaded to a fancy simulated heaven. The show flirts with all kinds of reprobate notions, like the connivance of his girlfriend and his black business partner in his death. In the last reel he is of course revealed to be more or less the bad guy, having forgotton the nasty deeds that contributed to his death, and he is given a chance as Clueless White Guy to repent.

So there is time for the current season of Fargo to repent as well. We’ll see how it goes.

BONUS: I wrote here about the film Kumiko The Treasure Hunter. That film is literally “about” the movie Fargo and features a heroine, if you can call her that, who in the Coen fashion cannot help be who she is, with tragic rather than comic results.

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Boomers Won’t Go Away, Part XXV

Fenster writes:

The master of clever dialogue and champion of progressive romanticism Aaron Sorkin is coming out with a movie on the Chicago Seven. Such a gaggle of characters! For Sorkin writing his brand of ultra-rich conversation will be like shooting fish in a barrel.

But I am waiting to see how Sorkin deals with the fact that the only black–the Black Panther Bobby Seale–was part of what was originally called the Chicago Eight, until he was severed from the group to be tried separately. How can Sorkin build his gabfest around seven white guys? That would be the most white guys behind one camera since Saving Private Ryan. Can’t have that.

So what will his solutiion be, folks?

Me, I am guessing he will find some way to jury-rig things to bring the Panther front and center, even if it means mangling the history.

Maybe it will be like Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. Billy J. isn’t a Dakota, silly. He’s Billy J.!

“Bobby Seale and the Chicago Seven”.

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Notes on The Jack Benny Program

Fenster writes:

Let me put a plug in for the old Jack Benny Show. It had several incarnations on radio and TV but the basic structure and cast ran through them for the many years he was a favorite.

I didn’t have much familiarity with him growing up. His peak years were his first years on TV, as he was making the transition from his wildly successful radio show, and people were taken by the fact that unlike a lot of radio stars he made the leap to TV with ease. The long pauses, his deadpan delivery, his skinflint persona.

But that was when I was too young for much to register, and by the time I was settling in to TV comedy we were on to the Beverly Hillbillies, Andy Griffith, and Dick Van Dyke–true sitcoms, without the need for the vaudevillian trappings–the opening scene in front of the curtain, shenanigans out front before the sitcom kicks in, the incorporation of the advertiser right into the action.

So I watched a couple of early shows from I would guess 1954 or so. As Blowhard Esq. says “couldn’t do it today.”

Benny is clearly Jewish. His persona is that of cheapskate or skinflint but not in the Dickensian count-your-coins kind of way. He is clearly out to gain advantage over others and is not afraid to take unfair advantage of them in the process.

In the show I saw he is all worked up over the fact that he has snagged Johnnie Ray for his show the following week but has money concerns.

Remember Johnnie Ray? Me, just barely. He turns out to have been much more of a pivotal figure in pop music than I knew–halfway between a crooner and Elvis, just in that time slot. And he is recognized for that too. He has gone down the memory hole today but he was a big big deal in the early 50s.

And in a pre-Elvis way, too. As Benny’s sidekick Don Wilson reminds him girls go wild at a Johnnie Ray performance, hooting, hollering, crying and tearing their clothes off to throw on stage. Ray had that allure–he was it seems a wild man on stage, having spent time as a white kid from the Northwest in black churches and clubs.

But Benny cannot get over the fact that the draft contract he has been presented with puts a price tag of $10K on the performance. “Well . . . . (pause) . . . I’m just not going to pay that much and that’s all there is too it”. Wilson’s Don McMahon-like helpful but obsequious nudges to the star ( “but Jack he gets that in nightclubs”) are to no avail, and Benny decides to visit Ray at his apartment to get him to change his mind.

The first part of that scene–how can I put this?–emphasizes not just Benny’s cheapness but that he is a kind of a shyster. The tall gangly ultra-white Ray is naivete personified, and Benny tries one trick after another to get Ray to use the ridiculous contract Benny trots out. Ray does not know for negotiating–shucks, he just thinks his contract is fair is all.

So he asks Benny to bear with him while he sings the songs he plans to do on the show. Maybe that will persuade Benny to relent.

And so Ray breaks into song.

Now the weird part here is that Benny, whom I believe to have been straight, has more than a whiff of the gay about his demeanor. I think it is all unstated, unlike later comics like Paul Lynde who could be openly, flamboyantly, gay while still never saying so.

Odder still, Ray in real life was gay, or at least bi, and was arrested for male solicitation just before his career took off, and on at least one other occasion as well. His marriage is widely viewed as having been a sham, though many believe he fathered a child with close friend – the small world of the 50s –Dorothy Kilgallen, whose husband was himself gay.

Yeah yeah nothing ever happened in the 50s.

So as Ray belts out his tune, getting really into it, we see Benny start to melt. He goes cross-eyed like one of the “silly girls” who go nuts at Ray’s concerts. He musses his hair all up. He starts pawing at his clothes, ripping them off his body. When Ray stops and asks Benny what he thinks Benny makes a mad dash for the contract, rushing to sign it. We find out only later he agrees to pay Ray $15,000.

So you got the Jewish thing going and you got the gay thing going and . . . oh yes, there’s Benny’s black manservant Rochester. The show opens with Benny coming into his apartment to see Rochester sprawled out in the big living room chair, in an expensive robe and smoking a cigarette (Lucky Strike) through one of those high class cigarette holders.

Benny might like a bite to eat.

“Sorry boss, my day off.”

There’s a nice comic interchange with the hapless Benny off-screen in the kitchen trying to make a cheese omelette.

Benny: Rochester where are the eggs?
Rochester: Top shelf of the refrigerator, boss.
Benny: Ouch! You sure that’s right? This one’s warm.
Rochester: That’s the light bulb boss.

Don Wilson arrives and while Benny is in the kitchen Wilson asks Rochester for help working the Lucky Strike ad into the next show. Rochester suggests using “The Sunny Side of the Street”, and starts in Louis Armstrong style on a version that incorporates Luckies.

. . . on the Lucky side of the street . . .

Rochester gets up and does the old soft shoe and is soon joined by the very tall and portly Wilson, the last person you’d expect to get up and dance. But Rochester beguiles, and the two of them do a nice though not Astaire quality job. The audience applauds. Don Draper gets a bonus.

So there you have the black thing too–black, gay, Jewish–the whole megillah. Not a whole lot missing even by today’s standards. And it is all done with gentle good humor and sly innuendo. That’s what you can’t do today, goddammit, and the world is poorer for it.

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ASHE Redux

Fenster writes:

Back in the innocent year of 2011 I attended the national conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education in Charlotte, North Carolina. I wrote about my impressions at a now-defunct blog mostly dealing with higher education but the blog is still up and my post is here.

I will start this follow-up post in the same way I started the 2011 post: by letting readers who may not follow higher education inside baseball know a little about the purpose of the organization. From 2011:

“ASHE is a scholarly society with about 2,000 members dedicated to higher education as a field of study.”

Got that? The main society for the academic and scholarly study of higher education, not a student services group, or a diversity bootcamp, or a political indoctrination center. Not even fundamentally a practictioner group. Practitioners look from. Scholars look at.

Even then, in the crisis mode that was developing, there was plenty of room at ASHE for a scholarly while engaged examination of the beast. As I wrote in 2011:

“Higher education is, by most accounts, in a period of dramatic change, if not crisis.  The issues that have long bubbled under the surface are increasingly mainstream concerns: too many administrators (Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty and the Goldwater Institute’s analysis of bloat in American universities), faculty productivity (Richard Vedder’s UTexas study), a lack of student learning (Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift), the corporatization of the university, the subsidies flowing to big research and big athletics from student tuitions, the lack of usefulness of much of what passes for research, colleges as amenity-driven leisure factories, the cost-benefit trade-offs of expensive postsecondary education, the pedagogical challenges of enhanced and well-designed on-line alternatives and new modes of credentialing, the so-called higher education bubble,  etc.  The list goes on.

But very little of this debate was on display at the conference.  This seemed a bit odd, especially since the conference title was “Meeting the Challenge of a Changing Future”.  For the most part, it seemed, the faculty studying higher education were proceeding with their fairly narrow-gauged research as if Rome were not burning.”

If you read my post you can see I was having a hard time squaring the scholarly nature of the society with what seemed to be a strong endorsement of the quasi-religious tenets of the Church of Intersectionality.

Now, we didn’t use that hiughfalutin’ word in 2011. But the concerns that fall under that umbrella in the current period were on abundant display. Questions related to identity, race, gender, feminism, under-represented populations, sexual preference (trans had not yet arrived in a big way) and affirmative action loomed large.

And not only did they loom large but it was almost as though there existed a quota, set at 40%, for such issues in connection with all conference modalities.

“By my count something like 40% of the conference seemed to revolve around questions of diversity and identity.  This rough proportion seemed to hold for a variety of modalities: papers delivered collectively as part of concurrent sessions, papers delivered individually at table sessions and symposia devoted to topical discussion.  Even the past dissertations of the year seemed to hold to this rough rule, with somewhere between a third and a half of winning dissertations dealing with such topics.”

I found that remarkable at the time. But, as I say, those were the innocent years.

I got an email today from ASHE announcing its 2020 Awards.

No names required here. The shorthand version will do.

Presidential Medal: A woman of color whose “research examines the sociocultural influences on socialization during graduate education and the professional experiences of underrepresented populations, particularly Black women, in academia.”

Honorable Mention 1: A woman of color who serves as a Director of Diversity and Inclusion.

Honorable Mention 2: A woman of color whose “research agenda focuses on higher education policy related to access and equity for historically underrepresented groups, particularly students of color.” No, that’s not the same person as the medal recipient.

Distinguished Service Award: A woman of color recognized for having since 2008 organized the Annual Laninx/a/o Scholar Collective Dinner.

Dissertation of the Year: A woman of color who penned “Collective Resistance in Higher Education”, dealing with the issue of undocumented students.

Dissertation of the Year Honorable Mention: A black male (!) whose dissertation discounts the concept of fit in the search process and calls for a greater focus on diversity.

Early Career Award: A woman of color (whew!) whose work “has deployed Critical Race Theory to explore the experiences of Multiracial students, staff, and faculty and has interrogated the varied ways race and racism emerges across various higher education contexts.”

Distinguished Career Award: A woman, probably of color, whose “singular focus (has been) on increasing racial equity in higher education outcomes for students of color.”

Mentoring Award: A white woman whose focus has been on”mentorship as a mechanism for addressing inequities facing marginalized groups.”

Outstanding Book Award: a (presumably) gay male, for Gay Liberation to Campus Assimilation.

Research Achievement Award: An man of Asian descent (POC?) who “has applied his research to advance social justice in educational policy and practice for over two decades.”

Special Merit Award: To the the Indigenous Scholars Collective, which has “initiated a transformation in ASHE that tilts towards justice and makes ASHE a better educational organization.”

Special Conference Lecture: An Asian woman whose work relates to STEM and community colleges (note: the first award not explicitly on the catechism).

Award for Exemplary Scholarship 1: A (Native American) woman of color who “embodies the spirit and gifts of cultivating with love exemplary scholarship that unearths, unhinges, and uplifts those in which academy refers to “underrepresented” populations.”

Award for Exemplary Scholarship 2: A woman of color who “has made significant contributions to the study of Black women in higher education.”

Award for Research in International Higher Education: to a book that “presents a timely and much-needed analysis of existing research and scholarship on key areas in the study of education abroad with a truly global focus.”

Excellence in Public Policy Awards 1: to a woman of color who “teaches courses on higher education law, equity and diversity in higher education, and race, law, and education.”

Excellence in Public Policy 2: A white man (Armenian or of Armenian descent) who handles federal relations and policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Univeristies.

OK, there you have it: the complete 2020 list of awards, in the order in which the announcement presents them. If you’ve gotten this far you will spot just one white man, the guy in the caboose that is more or less the only person dealing with issues, you know, serious issues of policy. Even he is a practitioner dealing with one aspect of a complex set of institutions in a kind of crisis. It is noteworthy that for an organization that styles itself as being dedicated to higher education as a field of study the scholarly contributions are completely one-dimensional, and that many of the awards have no real scholarly grounding.

Sixteen awards to individuals (not collectives or group efforts).

Women of color: 11/16

Men of color: 2/16

Total people of color 13/16

White women: 1/16

Gay white men: 1/16

Total white men: 2/16

Female/Male 13/3


As I half expected the society has gone way around the bend since 2011. The 40% rule no longer applies, at least in the area of annual awards. It is about as close to 100% as you can get without being there.

Interestingly–and in keeping with my observations when more active in the field–higher education is very much a black thing. Indeed whereas in 2011 there was a certain amount of diversity in Diversity it is now a much more uniform thing, in keeping, I expect with the composition of the institutions and the educational programs that support them. Gay, transgender and feminist issues are present but all appears subsidiary to preoccupation with the color Black.

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“Cuties” (2020)

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

I had planned on avoiding this — I didn’t find the subject matter or controversy compelling — but my curiosity got the better of me. The conservatives condemning this movie as a celebration of tween sexualization are off-base, I think, although their outrage is a little understandable given the original, misleading but now-withdrawn Netflix poster that sparked the outcry. It might’ve been a good idea to take a look at the movie before erupting, though, because there is much in the movie that conservatives would likely agree with.

The feature debut of French-Senegalese writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré, it’s the coming-of-age story of Amy (played by Fathia Youssef, that’s her on the far left of the cover photo), an 11-year-old West African girl who has just moved into a Parisian housing project with her mother and two younger siblings. Bored by her hidebound Islamic culture that preaches deference to men, Amy finds herself entranced by a group of girls at her school who have a hip-hop dance troupe. Many of the familiar MEAN GIRLS beats are hit: Amy is initially rejected, bullied, and tested until she proves her worth and is accepted by the group.

Like Larry Clark’s KIDS, whose title CUTIES consciously recalls, the children of Amy’s world are more or less feral. Parents are a spectral presence, assuming they’re present at all. While the kids in KIDS centered around heroin and casual sex, and the male teenage gang in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE coalesced around violence (there’s a scene, captured on the French movie poster, that seems to deliberately echo a famous sequence from Kubrick’s movie), Amy’s cohort mainlines the validation they receive on Instagram. Their only currency is their budding sexuality, so they exploit it even though they’re mostly unaware of the effect it has. They twerk, shimmy, and pout because that’s what the adults do and it gets them the attention they crave. The girls’ dance troupe is preparing for a competition and Amy earns their respect by introducing even more provocative moves that she sees in, while not exactly a porn movie, the kind of pornified hip-hop video that has catapulted Cardi B to fame. Doucouré shoots their dancing in an intentionally robotic manner: master shot, close-up of bare midriff, close-up of thighs, close-up of butt, master shot, repeat. Is it celebratory? Is it erotic? In my opinion, no, hardly. It looks sad and desperate. It looks like a bunch of little girls lost at sea.

When her phone is taken away from her, Amy begins a downward spiral that involves awkwardly trying to seduce her older cousin, publishing an explicit nude on social media, stabbing a male classmate in the hand with a pencil, and almost killing someone. The movie’s climax presents her with a choice: attend her father’s wedding to his second wife (a wife and wedding which her mother regards as a great humiliation) or attend the dance competition. Via the aforementioned nearly attempted murder, Amy attends the dance competition where her team performs their hypersexualized routine. The audience reaction is mostly disgust. Some clap, at least one male leers, but most of the women in the audience signal their revulsion. Is the movie trying to have it both ways: exploiting the girls while pretending to disapprove? Maybe, but given the events leading up to the competition, the audience reaction, and the fact that Amy abandons it in the middle of her performance, it’s clear what the film is saying.

Doucouré falters, I think, in the movie’s ending. After leaving the competition, she returns home, puts on a modest sweater and jeans, goes to her father’s wedding reception, but decides not to stay. While outside she begins playing jumprope with some other girls, leaping higher and higher into the air, smiling, as the camera tracks her. It’s similar to the fanciful finish in THE FLORIDA PROJECT that I recall Fabrizio telling me that he found unconvincing. I guess we’re meant to see that this resilient black girl has risen above her obstacles. Has she? The preceding 90 minutes reasonably wonder what will nourish girls like Amy, what will center and guide them, and finds nothing of much value in the culture around her. A more ambiguous ending — I can’t help but think of something like THE 400 BLOWS — would be more appropriate given everything we’ve seen.

The conservatives attacking the movie are employing the same “normalization” argument that has become common. Kim Kardashian and other celebrities invoked it recently with their #StopHateForProfit campaign that calls on Facebook to censor things that make them feel bad, and progressives used this argument a few years ago during the 50 Shades of Grey phenom. The argument goes something like, “X idea is so odious that it must not be accorded the respect we give to other ideas, therefore it should be scrubbed from public life lest it irredeemably corrupt innocent souls, American democracy, or that most sacred of objects, my social media feeds.” Context doesn’t matter, perspective doesn’t matter. I guess the one thing budding Bowdlers can agree on is that small-l liberalism has failed and they’re going to duke it out over who gets to forcibly impose their worldview on the other.

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Notes on “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”

Fenster writes:

That’s a new book garnering a lot of praise for what the author claims to be groundbreaking work in a neglected aspect of Germany at the time of its defeat in WW2: a suicide epidemic.

It is an odd book given its aspiration to be straightforward about a topic the author claims has been cloaked in denial and confusion. It leaves me more confused than when I started, and not in a good way.

The first third of the book relies on a lot of documentary detail relative to one town in Germany: Demmin, where the suicides were known to be large in number and where a good deal of documentation exists from the Germans who survived and the Germans who later ended up taking their own lives.

The second third of the book seems to be a high-gloss socio-psychological portrait of the German people from the end of WW1 to the end of WW2. All the usual suspects: the anger at and humiliation from Versailles, the Weimar years decadence and all, the exhaustion at the time of Hitler’s arrival and the initial suspicion, the elation during the go-go 30s, the growth of the Hitler cult, the high spirits at the beginning of the war, the slow disillusionment leading to despair by the end. Nothing about this is new and no new ground is broken.

Then the final piece tries to sum things up. But I am left with a lot more questions than answers.

Huber seems to step too gingerly around the horrors faced at war’s end, especially at the hands of the Soviet army. He spends quite a bit of ink on “well, wouldn’t you be mighty pissed off if you were a Soviet soldier, given Hitler’s perfidy, the evil things the Nazis did en route, and the fact you had been at the end in state of constant war with no respite for years?”

And he spends precious little ink on anything the Soviets actually did. A lot of the suicides just seemed to happen. One minute Gramps went down to the river. Then he went in.

First person accounts are essential and can be a good antidote to too much philosophizin’. What actually happened? What did Gramps actually do? What was he thinking? What were you feeling?

But this seems to be an example of phenomenological overkill, if I may use that word in this context. You can get lost in the weeds at the river’s edge, and Huber seems to be stuck there.

Is it intentional or just lazy methodology? Dunno. May have to ask Huber. But I have my suspicions there are axen being grinded and oxes being gorded.

There’s a lot of ink spilled describing Nazi propaganda, “with its terrifying slogans about ‘Bolshevik Mongol Hordes.’” When the Soviets first started rolling across German territory the Wehrmacht sent its propaganda machine to mount a “sensationalist campaign.” No wonder they killed themselves! They had heard so much propaganda about what the Soviet troops would do!

At one point Huber is recapping the thoughts of a German woman just before the Soviets arrived. She noted that Demmin had been spared so far but she wasn’t stupid. “She knew what she’d seen in Hamburg. She’d heard the reports from soldiers home on leave or billeted in Demmin. She knew what had happened to the refugees who had lost their towns to the Russians and were now flooding west in even larger numbers than before–”

Rapes? Murders? Pillaging? Hell on Earth?

Er . . . no.

“–stubbly-whiskered old men in battered hats, stooped grannies, hollow-eyed young women in headscarves with harassed looks on their faces, snotty-nosed children with stinking pants.”

Those Russians–always mit der harassment!

The very first account in the book of an encounter between a scared German and a Soviet soldier is a heart-warming tale of a soldier who rousts a woman and her child from her hiding place. He didn’t turn them in, let them stay in hiding, checked in on the kid from time to time, and warned her that not all Soviet solders were as nice.

Huber builds a huge case around how the suicides were the direct result of the failure of Nazi ideology. Why is this a special Nazi problem and not a more general problem related to the loss of identity, as with Japan after World War 2 or the Jews at Masada? And why the much larger prevalence on the East rather than the West? Huber hints here and there about the geographic disparity but, as this Guardian article notes, he doesn’t say much about it.

The Guardian piece also notes that there were two waves of suicides in Demmin: a first wave, driven by fear of the Soviets, and a second, in the bloody and rapey aftermath. You have to squint to find this distinction in the book. I went back and re-read the Demmin sections to see if I had missed anything. As far as I can see Huber mostly just sees these suicides as something that just happened out of fear of what was to come. Too bad about that Nazi propaganda and death cult ideology. Lots of lives could have been saved.

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Life During Wartime in a People’s Republic

Fenster writes:

Other than the fact that I am surrounded by sanctimonious hypocrites that are doing great harm to the nation and the world what could be better than living in a people’s republic like the one I live in, Newton Massachusetts?

No–that’s too harsh. Let me explain.

Newton has a lot to offer. In ordinary times you take its safe environment for granted but these are extraordinay times. So it counts for a great deal in wartime that I have zero fear of crime or violence. I lock my doors at night out of habit and prudence but in the summer will often say what the hell I’m not going downstairs even though I know I left the back door wide open. Black misbehavior and its aberrant cousin, white Antifa violence, are far-away things.

Lots of greenery and beautiful architecture. The faculty member who lives next door may preach modernist architecture at the university but he lives in a tastefully restored Victorian. The prevailing aesthetic is Christopher Alexander and Andres Duany, not Peter Eisenman and Thom Mayne. Newton consists of a passel of Victorian streetcar suburbs, and my Victorian condo is a short stroll from bars, restaurants, stores.

People are nice. I mean, really nice. They will almost certainly play the role of Samaritan in a crisis or emergency, and will do so happily no matter the gender or race of the person in trouble. Social trust–the bedrock of community–is high. You dont need a gun but you can get one if you want, after some minor inconveniences in the approval process. I mean, people in Newton are nice and so the police see little danger in approving a shotgun permit for, say, a retired college professor.

The Jewish communitarian impulse is strong. And not just Jews: the Unitarians and many others bring a sense of community spirit. Here, diversity works, or at least it is not a disaster. The Indian engineer volunteering at the Audubon Sanctuary. The Nigerian doctor engaged to your daughter.

At a time of identity politics and hostility to assimilation, a soft version of assimilation is everywhere. Most people share a common set of values–clearly American, even Anglo– in origin. The English language is universal. And good English, too! No Ebonics. Not even “ain’ts” Even the gentiles are gentle and genteel.

The library is incredible, with whatever books and movies you might want. If they don’t have it the nice reference librarian, Sharon Goodstein, will find it at a nearby university and have it for you in a few days. She’s professional, friendly and cute besides.

The Senior Center buzzes with activity–book clubs, outings to museums, support services. That same smart and pleasant Indian engineer from Audubon–a Brahmin so I have heard–leads the men’s book discussion on Thursdays. Yes, the nonfiction books have a certain je ne sais quoi in keeping with the Newton spirit–John Bolton’s memoirs more likely than Sean Hannity’s–but that comes with the territory, and in the next weeks we will be tackling Montaigne and Faulkner.

There are a few flies in the ointment of course. From the point of view of day to day living it is increasingly hard to express a political or cultural opinion other than the orthodox progressive one. The place has always been liberal but the old world of give and take, where progressives might find iconoclasts amusing or odd, has given way to a sterner view.

Not only is there limited tolerance for non-conforming opinions–you are also subtly expected to participate in various ritual activities as a way of showing solidarity with the prevailing views. “Allah–peace be upon him” is one such ritual formulation common in much of the world. Here, there is no analogous phrase to be uttered word for word. But there is a general expectation that people in normal conversation will find ways to disparage Trump, with that expectation extending to all within earshot, who are expected to either agree or signal assent in some way.

That is distressing and constricting of course–at least if you do not share the orthodox view. But such is life in a people’s republic. We are not only in wartime, with a relatively clear adversary, but also in the throes of a religious awakening. Goodness how do you expect people to behave under the dual pressures of war and zealotry? We are not immune from history so please don’t be aghast when the good citizens of Newton behave the way people have behaved since time immemorial under similar circumstances.

So you take the good with the bad. As far as lifestyle is concerned you put up with the cultural demands in return for the other good things, and if you don’t like it you (or rather I) can always leave.

That’s something I have considered. In the meantime I am in no immediate danger of facing a late night police raid, to be being dragged to the re-education camps. And I hope I’d have the good sense to leave before anything like that would ever happen.

But beyond the somewhat petty annoyances relative to lifestyle there are some larger political questions to consider. Taking a page from the progressive playbook, has Newton even begun to come to grips with its privilege? Its money privilege. Its status privilege. Its power privilege. Its white privilege. Its Jewish privilege.

Newtonites are quick to locate white privilege outside the city’s borders, especially when it manifests itself in communities where the residents are less well-educated and less affluent — less . . . privileged, if you will. So the situation reeks of hypocrisy.

But is that the end of the matter? If Newtonites were to suddenly come to grips with what they fastidiously deny–what then?

Would the scales fall from their eyes, leading to a sudden rush to repent even more energetically? Build that low-income housing project! Merge the schools with those in Dorchester! Dear daughter: marry not that Nigerian doctor but instead direct thine attentions to that Roxbury rapper with a rap sheet!

Or would Newtonites come to grips with the fact that they really like the life they have, and that they will move–indeed have moved–heaven and earth to secure its blessings?

If you want to know what people really believe it is better to watch what they do than what they say. So in my mind if Newtonites were to seriously grapple with privilege they would first look to hold on to what they have, and would be reluctant to make serious adjustments in line with their newfound, more honest, perspectives.

Is there anything wrong with that? Well, one can get lost in issues of political economy, and of the obligations of various classes and strata of society to one another in matters of taxation, government policy and political activity. Can one ever rest easily if there is injustice in the world? Does an ethical life as a good citizen, reliable taxpayer and community servant give you at least some sort of fair ticket to the life you are living?

Those issues are always in dispute, and not easily resolved.

But say this: if you opt to protect the things you love and to hold on to the world that you value at a minimum stop doing things that undermine the ability of others to do the same thing. Stop using the status, money and power privileges you deny to preclude others from doing the same thing you seek to do: live the life you wish to live.

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Notes on “Back to Burgundy”

Fenster writes:

Cédric Klapisch’s Back to Burgundy is a family drama. Jean returns to his family’s vineyard in Burgundy after a ten year absence prompted mainly by a strained relationship with his father, who is near death on his return. His arrival sets of tensions with his younger sister and brother, with the sibling tensions setting off others in an extended family chain.

The main plot driver is set in motion with the father’s death. The father leaves the vineyard to all three, along with a requirement that all the siblings are to agree on changes to the estate such as sale or division. This serves to both bond the siblings and at the same time threaten to escalate the underlying instability in the three-way relationship, made volatile by Jean’s long absence and failure to return for his mother’s funeral some years before.

This terrain–how a family deals with the problems of inheritance–is a familiar one. Olivier Assayas’s excellent Summer Hours deals with similar material in a French setting, though in the context of art rather than grapes, and in a somewhat more serious fashion than Back to Burgundy.

In truth, Back to Burgundy has its share of soap opera qualities. But there is good melodrama and bad melodrama, and in my view Back to Burgundy is the former.

Further, it has its share of darker undercurrents–there were gnarly tensions everywhere between the siblings, in the marriages, between generations, and across extended families and friendships. But you know in your bones it is not going to be a tragedy, or to end with the viewer overwhelmed by angst and ambiguity. It is too sunny for that. Yet neither do you believe it is going to resolve in an overly pat ending–everything back the way it was neat as a pin.

The problems faced by the characters are real and specific. But, stepping back, we are invited to understand them as the inevitable result of the way life works. C’est la vie. Things change. People get older and die. They don’t say the things they should say. They have to balance obligations and yearnings.

So “wine” is a nice metaphor, non? Complexity, nuance, some dark undercurrents–but in the end beguiling and satisfying, even if not wholly transparent, and with a necessarily mysterious quality.

Jean has married during his time away and owns a vineyard in Australia with his wife, from whom he may or may not be separating. Her appearance on the scene creates further complications.

In speaking to his wife–new to France–Jean contrasts Australian wines with those from his native Burgundy. Australian wines are easier, made for the year. French wines are made for many years. They are harder to do. They take judgment, commitment, sacrifice. His wife asks which type of wine is better. He answers–with some truth mixed in with some diplomacy–that both kinds of wines have their pleasures. So too with the conduct of lives.

The movie itself strikes a nice balance between easier and more challenging pleasures. It mostly takes a side in favor of challenging but is pretty generous of heart about it.

The gorgeous locations didn’t hurt either.

The French actresses don’t hurt either. I dunno what it is about them.

I did have to wonder about how much of the narrative was realism and how much romanticism. I’d have guessed that French vineyards at harvest time would be filled with migrant labor, and that any blacks doing the harvest would be burlier and less agreeable than the charming and winsome black vendangeur from Brittany Jean almost falls for.

As one who has done time in the fields commented:

My crew is a mixture of different ages, migrants from Spain, people without regular full-time jobs, and retirees.  Some are immigrants (or their descendants), from the Maghreb, France’s former North African colonies of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. 

Not so in the film, where the pickers seem mostly like nice white college kids having a good time. In real life do they meet nightly for lively parties filled with coy flirtatiousness, Dionysian excesses kept in check by good manners and old-fashioned French gender distinctions and sexual preferences? Do they dispense with techno and rap, break out a guitar, and sing happy folk songs? I don’t know but it looked like fun.

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Notes on “All Night Long”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Middle-aged George Dupler is ousted from his position as a corporate executive and finds himself managing the nightshift at a SoCal pharmacy. Deciding that isn’t to his taste, he leaves his wife, rents a loft, and makes art. Looking at his creations we sense he’ll fail at art too. Dupler would probably agree, and do so while grinning: he’s unbothered by the prospect of failure. The farther he falls down the social ladder the happier he seems. He’s mastered the art of not giving a fuck. Gene Hackman, who plays Dupler, handles his character’s transitions with unassuming grace. (This may be my favorite Hackman role.) He’s so unceremonious that we occasionally need to remind ourselves that he’s performing. By the movie’s end, when Dupler is amorously satisfied and almost beatific in his relaxation, we remember the early scenes in which he was bent with frustration and giggle at the trick Hackman’s played on us. That trickiness is built into writer W.D. Richter’s conception. Richter, who wrote movies like “Slither” and the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers,” has a knack for putting across a certain sensibility (when he finally directed a movie, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension,” it was nothing but sensibility), and here the insouciant attitudes and bedhead ambience hold our interest even when the plot doesn’t fire. Some of the plot problems stem from Barbra Streisand’s casting in the role of Cheryl, notoriously after production had started. Cheryl is meant as a fantasy to whom the male characters react almost without thinking (both Dupler and his son are sleeping with her), and though Richter’s idea may have been to show how a sexy butterfly can inspire hurricane-sized changes in a man simply by flitting her wings, Streisand’s presence is too big for the wispy conception. We keep expecting Cheryl to have smarts or drive or something, and when it doesn’t manifest we notice at a subconscious level that something in the plan doesn’t jibe. Yet the picture’s slapdash quality often works in its favor; it plays into the relaxed, European flavor of Jean-Claude Tramont’s direction (he doesn’t make a big deal out of anything) and augments the daydreamy quality of Dupler’s stumblebum odyssey. (If you’d told me beforehand that the musical theme from Chaplin’s “City Lights” would play on the soundtrack whenever Tramont reached for whimsicality, I would have groaned, but it works surprisingly well.) A lot of downbeat divorce movies were made in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. “All Night Long” is something of a rebuttal — the divorce movie as a bit of wish fulfillment.

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Notes on “The Devil’s Playground”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:Though it’s little known even among aficionados, I’d rank Fred Schepisi’s 1976 “The Devil’s Playground” among the great directorial debuts. Few films are so achingly corporeal. Schepisi, who also wrote the picture, keeps us tuned in to flesh, bodily needs, fluids — and yet it’s never crass or vulgar. There’s a profound sympathy for the movie’s young men, trainees for the priesthood, and the Catholic brothers who are their teachers and models. The latter are more adapted versions of their wards, so accustomed to sensual deprivation that circumventing Catholic restriction has become second nature (they freely acknowledge how this has distorted them). Though the movie focuses on one boy, Tom Allen, a serial bed wetter, it has a decentralized feel, and Schepisi’s attention to marginal details gives it the texture of a documentary; it often made me think of the work of Frederick Wiseman. Visually, it’s muted and melancholy; even the grandiose images, like a brother’s revery of swimming nudes — a weightless tangle redolent of the paintings of Luis Ricardo Falero — seem hazed over, as though they’re registering in a rarely used corner of your mind. “The Devil’s Playground” can be taken as a critique of Catholicism, but it’s too sympathetic a work to read as condemnatory; Schepisi is using the Catholic milieu to amplify and examine, in a highly personal way (the movie is largely autobiographical), a universal theme: our often fraught relationship with our bodies.

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