Monday, February 24, 2020

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Friday, February 21, 2020

Novice on Film: A Joker's Progress

Joker, 2019 and The Dark Knight, 2008

A good comic book villain is more of a representative avatar than human depiction. None evinces this better than DC Comics' Joker.

His original origin story (he falls into a vat of acid and is disfigured), provides for a madman's revenge angle, but that familiar human motivation has proven forgettable, at least in the movies. His indifference seems to be the point. Behind the joyless grin and humor, Joker appears like a malicious and random force of nature. Or did. In this disillusioned century we have no choice but to cast him as an avenging angel.

The Western elite gives fanciful, crazy reasons--like those coming from a comic book lunatic--for the wars they wage abroad and the war they wage on the common man at home. Offended by the predictable populist responses of such as Trump and Brexit, they've lost all previous restraint. The mask hasn't slipped as much as it's been tossed away in defiance. Contempt they did not know they had surges in response to the challenge. Our elite has become like a comic book villain, taunting us as impotent and impertinent. Honesty doesn't become them.

And there's been Joker the whole time, his mask-grin a perfect riposte to that unmasked elite, his garish chaos a fun-house mirroring of the frenetic kitsch that is our culture. It took a while for Hollywood to appreciate the symbolic resource he is, after the dull camp of the first films ran aground.
Whatever his creators were thinking Joker was made for our age of endless amusements and vanishing humanity. In drawing their inspiration from engaging images of the near past (which are inspired by images from their near past, and on and on into historical obscurity) artists are continually searching out timeless evocative symbols.

Joker and similarly striking icons are discovered as much as created. Those that stick are those that strike the same sense in enough people, the same gut response of fascination, repulsion and mystery. Sharing this ineffable but profound reaction is probably what they mean by a collective consciousness, I don't know; but there is a sort of collective dialogue that goes on, that has to, beneath the level of language, and these timeless images are the established tropes and truths of that dialogue

Landing in the economic crisis of 2008, Heath Ledger's version in The Dark Knight appeared as an out-of-control nemesis coming to collect for elite hubris, but unloading his vengeance on the hapless whole--a very apt metaphor for either the Great Recession or the 2003 Iraq War.

Ledger took the film version of Joker from comic book camp to graphic novel noir. The avatar function of the character, where he once stood in for malice without purpose, was transcended, made specific and timely. It wasn't in the story (which I don't recall) but in Ledger's characterization that the transformation was made. The broad camp gave way to realism; Joker was brought into the real world. But he was still less a human character than a personification of something.

Notably, 2008 was also the year of Obama's election. The ensuing eight years would be defined by betrayal, first of elite accountability for the economic crisis and then of his promises of racial healing by engaging in racial demagogy. Police are still being shot at by those under that demagogy's influence. Black militants are like a comic book villain's minions; with Obama at the center, The Weasel (his physiognomy will lend itself well to the adaptation), putting the City in a trance with his bullshit while they loot and pillage.

But I don't mean to pick on Obama, who had to happen, in one person or another (perhaps it would have been better for all if he'd come sooner); hindsight reveals an inexorable logic to the civil rights narrative--it had to happen that it would become a betrayal. Looking back we see its transformation by countless little lies, starting from a moral argument for legal equality and ending in an atavistic demand for our collective head. That same magnanimous White America that acquiesced to what was presented as reason is now--by virtue of their acquiescence--a shameful thing that must be destroyed. This is the betrayal that defines America now.

Betrayal is the mark of the age. Personal betrayal exploded in the sexual revolution. Our atomized existence is largely about avoiding the risk and pain of personal betrayal. As betrayal becomes easier and more common, we retreat further into isolation, itself ever easier and more common.

But there are other grand betrayals. Through identity politics minorities betray whites, gays betray straights, women betray men, Jew betrays Gentile. Each of these movements were sold as equality and now operate as supremacy movements, gleefully appropriating, looting, condemning and promising no end until--they enthuse--they have eliminated the same straight white America that originally acquiesced to their moral arguments for fairness and equality. Not only was old America rewarded for her liberality by being slated for demolition, the demolition of old America is now the heroic foundational myth of the new, diverse America!

Do you see what they did there? They changed our origin story.

Needless to say Todd Phillips, the Jewish director of 2019's Joker, probably doesn't share the views expressed above, yet he does seem to sense the role betrayal, or at least its perception, plays in modern life.

Authorial intent is not final authority. A work is more like a bird an artist sets loose than a drone he manipulates. To the extent the work is obscure, or leaves itself open to interpretation, the less control the artist has. Obscurity is its own dilemma. He can go public with demands his work be treated a certain way, but if the reception keeps resisting him what does that say?

Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy rescued Batman from camp and placed him in a more engaging noir setting. The whole sequence started in the positively optimistic (from this vantage) setting of the late eighties, with Tim Burton's trifling and boring Batman, spent the distracted and mildly (from this vantage) degenerate nineties with Shumacher (perfect fit) and woke up, with the rest of us, to the horror of the oughts: 9/11, the Iraq War and the greed-triggered Great Recession. Rubber nipples would be barbaric after such revelations of evil, to paraphrase someone else. Poetry is needed.

Thankfully as well the franchise has not yet been hollowed-out by mandated diversity.

The Dark Knight may have invited all manner of interpretation about the big crimes of war and corruption, and its scenes provide a wealth of striking analogies to them, but it has nothing to say about the existential terror and loneliness of the common man (which wasn't as far gone in 2008, of course) that is inseparable from those crimes. It is safely detached and, despite its admirable qualities, irrelevant.

The thing is, these grand betrayals are profoundly personal. They determine the way we live and suffer.

Todd Phillips somehow got the studio to agree to a radical genre-shift unprecedented for a studio franchise for his 2019 take, Joker.

Nolan's heavy noir was, somehow, relief from the shallow frivolity that preceded it, but as a stylized genre it operates at one more remove from realism. That remove is a cushion of detachment. There is no risk to the author or the viewer. Likewise there's no place for catharsis.

Phillips eliminates the cushion of detachment by adopting realism. Now it's dangerously personal--one might recognize himself in the characterization, not in broad outlines but in painful relief. Railing against our corrupt elite is necessary but safe. Turning the camera around upon us, even in sympathy, is dangerous: one might experience the shock of self-recognition.

Phillips takes Joker from comic book character to character study. He's now fully human and quite recognizable. His problems are common. All of a sudden it's very personal.

Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill loner in Gotham City in 1981--standing in for seventies New York--and the film is given the look of a seventies-era psychological thriller, but the social alienation, decaying civility and celebrity worship described look a lot like today.

The name is an ironic reference to another bastard, King Arthur: Fleck too will emerge from obscurity to assume a mantle.

Arthur lives with his dependent mother and works as a party clown. Working as a sign-spinner on the street, he suffers the first humiliation we witness, a recreational beat-down at the hands of some Puerto Rican punks. The film opens with Arthur at a mirror practicing his smile while in voiceover a news broadcast relates the progress of decline. Obvious but effective.

Arthur's mother has created for him a sort of origin story: he's the bastard son of Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce Wayne/Batman); she promises as soon as Wayne, who she reveres, responds to her letters things are going to be okay.

There are three older figures propelling Arthur's story: his mother, a talk show host named Murray Franklin, played by Robert DeNiro and Thomas Wayne.

 It will be Arthur's perception of betrayal by this symbolic triad--by Wayne, who can be interpreted as standing in for the elite, by DeNiro, standing for the culture, and by his mother, representing women--prompting his act of transformational violence and subsequent resurrection as degenerate demigod--returning the character to his role as avatar.

It's a reversal of the nameless (to me at least) but common trope wherein a character becomes fully human by behaving humanely--the Pinocchio trope in fairy tales. I don't know if it's intentional, but Phillips has turned that on its head: Arthur's arc is bound for resolution in his loss of humanity.

He stands in for us, a people whose humanity is under peril.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

How to Not Get Knocked Out with James LaFond

James LaFond is in town so we're going to do a self-defense series. We did this one on the fly so the quality will get better. Today's lesson is on rolling with a punch to the chin.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Mayor Rainbow and the Pot of Gold

On February 4th Max Blumenthal reported on the neoconservative billionaires funding Shadow Inc and its suspect voting app:
This firm was staffed by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaign veterans and created by a Democratic dark money nonprofit backed by hedge-fund billionaires including Seth Klarman. A prolific funder of pro-settler Israel lobby organizations, Klarman has also contributed directly to Pete Buttigieg’s campaign.

The delay in the vote reporting denied a victory speech to Senator Bernie Sanders, the presumptive winner of the opening contest in the Democratic presidential primary. Though not one exit poll indicated that Buttigieg would have won, the South Bend, Indiana mayor took to Twitter to confidently proclaim himself the victor.
He reminds us of a New York Times article from January 31:
[Iowa]’s role as the first in the nation to vote may be much debated inside the Democratic Party, but its system of caucuses is a blessing for security. The caucuses are far more transparent than typical elections, with groups of people gathering in rooms and openly choosing candidates. Any attempt to fiddle with results after the fact — a serious concern among officials and experts who are working to secure the 2020 election — would most likely be spotted by caucusgoers who know the outcome of an event in which they took part. And, of course, there are not voting machines to hack...
So naturally you'd want to take the process online! 
Additionally, while the caucuses have relied on mobile apps to record and tabulate results in the past, the Iowa Democratic Party is using a new app this year that has been included in tests and exercises of the reporting system by cybersecurity consultants. Described as a “fancy calculator,” the app will help precinct chairs tabulate results during each phase of the caucus, and then send results to the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters. (For those chairs who don’t feel comfortable with an app, the traditional phone hotline will still be operating.)
And, just as obviously, you'd want to entrust that process to someone from a political camp known for its integrity:
In November, Iowa’s Democratic and Republican Parties teamed up with the Defending Digital Democracy Project at Harvard to run a drill of worst-case scenarios. The event, led by Robby Mook, the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Eric Rosenbach, a former chief of staff at the Pentagon, featured a fire drill of sorts, designed by future Defense Department officers.
Mook is denying his ties to Shadow Inc, naturally, but it all looks like someone is manipulating residual Russian hacking hysteria to...hack elections. Returning to hedge fund billionaire and pro-settler neocon Seth Klaman, I find more relevant the longtime commitment of this Republican donor to open borders and pro-LGBTQ issues.
When the Rhode Island State Senate tallied up the votes against a same-sex marriage bill passed there on Wednesday, something was missing: Republicans.

All five of the chamber’s Republican lawmakers had voted for the bill, stunning opponents and sending the measure to the governor’s desk and almost-certain victory next week.

The vote reflected not only the rapidly shifting tides of public opinion on same-sex marriage, but also the influence of a new Republican advocacy group called the American Unity Fund, which spent weeks helping the state’s gay rights organization cultivate Republican senators.

Now the group is preparing a major push in Washington and in state capitals intended to reshape the Republican Party, by building support for same-sex marriage and bolstering its acceptance among candidates and party activists around the country. 
Klaman and others are committed to buying Republican lawmakers away from popular will--something little noted, so the illusion the popular will is behind the advance of LGBTQ privilege is retained in the trappings of democracy, as elected representatives enact the will of the elite in defiance of the people.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Tunnel Town

Via James LaFond:
I do electrical work for a living and I've been working in old Baltimore lately and most of the buildings in Baltimore are connected by tunnels. So about a few months ago I was working on a building on East redwood st putting lights in the tunnels. Well on day on my lunch brake I decide to walk around them, so im walking for about 20 minutes when I thought I heard my Foreman call me down one of the halls, i assume he went to look around as well, so I start to walk down the hall and it started to get deeper and colder, i think about turning around because I don't want to get lost when I hear it again so I a little deeper. Eventually I hit a room about the size of baseball court with probably 20' high ceilings, the ground is all sticky and every step I take sounds like I'm undoing a heavy velcro strap, there are skulls from small animals everywhere in there that shape in a big triangle that points to a very large dog-like skeleton. At this point I'm freezing and really scared, i start to smell a harsh burning smell and hear what sounded like a big dog running on concrete, i can hear it get louder and closer, louder and closer. I start running like I have never ran in my life, finally after what felt like an hour of running at full Sprint I run into a stair case with a big heavy metal door at the end of it, I here the noises now like they are right around the corner. So with all my might and adrenaline fueled strength I rip the door open and slam it behind me and then hear and feel a hard "thud" against the door. I turn around to see im standing under the docks by the four Seasons and the Marriott hotel. I call my boss and tell him I got lost in the tunnels and need to get picked up. Since the day I refuse to go in the tunnels under Baltimore or go in to sub basements in Baltimore.
This is a Reddit post from a couple of years ago.

I wanted to learn more about Baltimore's tunnels and I came upon this, about a mining disaster in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. (I don't know why the tunnel is named "Baltimore No. 2")

The Weekly Courier June 12, 1919:
Wilkes-Barre, Pa., June 5 — Eighty-three men lost their lives this morning as a result of an explosion blasting powder in a car attached to a train load of miners being transported to their work in Baltimore No. 2 mine of the Delaware Hudson Coal company, while at least 31 were injured, according to a list given out by the company officials at noon. 
More than 100 mineworkers were riding to their work, crowded into what is known as a trip of mine cars drawn by a motor. The rear car carried 12 kegs of black powder used for blasting loose the coal in the chambers. The mine is modern and equipped electrically. The trolley wire snapped when the train had gone about 200 feet from the entrance. The wire sputtered and sizzled and the sparks emitted touched off the powder. 
This news account is remarkable for its literary quality, compared to the sort of report you would expect to read today:
The terrified men on the cars instantly were aware of the danger that confronted them, but they stood powerless to avert it.

There was a roar and in an instant every man and boy on the train was either dead or dying. Terribly mangled bodies were found everywhere by the rescue crews which instantly rushed into the mine. Fire fighters working frantically succeeded in an incredibly short time in subduing the flames which followed the blast. 
The "mainstream media", broadly defined, today would never engage in the sort of explicitness above and below:
 Flames caused the greater loss of life. Many of the bodies were burned to a crisp. Other men who were burned and were trying to reach safety died of suffocation. When rescuers reached the tunnel there were dead and dying scattered everywhere. The injured were rapidly removed and sent to hospitals as quick as ambulances could be provided and the dead were brought out and placed in tiers on the green.
"The.dead were brought out and placed in tiers on the green." sounds like Hemingway.

The historical marker and current accounts say the disaster led to laws against transporting men alongside explosives, but according to the Courier's account they were already in place:
Carelessness and violation of the mine laws of the state caused the great loss of life. One of the most drastic provisions of the anthracite mine code is the section forbidding the transportation of men on a car or train which carries explosives. Yet the train of little cars conveying its freight of miners had attached to its rear a dozen kegs of powder. Investigation will disclose whether the men or the company is responsible for the violation of the law.

Some of the first bodies brought from the tunnel were burning when they reached the surface. Clothes had been burned away and the flesh was roasting form the intense heat. Water was poured on these to put out the fire. It was such sights as this that made brave hearts turn sick.

Company employees state that there is a "pull" of 186,000 cubic feet of air per minute in the tunnel and that the air pulled in the flames from the powder directly over the men. Alongside of the tunnel there is a creek and after the flash of the flames some men who were walking along the side of the cars dropped into the water and saved their lives. Several employees state that it was not the force of the explosion that killed the men. Flames and the lack of air caused all the fatalities. All admit that the accident was the result of the violation of the law but they state that miners are accustomed to these violations.
I was kind of hoping to find the subterranean Baltimore imagined by Poe.

Tunnels are probably trending, as those with wealth and exposure consider Bernie on one side and "white supremacists" on the other, such as this wealthy stock trader:
A wealthy stock trader is being charged in the death of a young man who was helping him dig secret tunnels under his Maryland home.
Daniel Beckwitt awaits trial on charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of 21-year-old Askia Khafra (ASK-ee-uh KA-fruh).
Phonetic pronunciations of vibrant new names is something you wouldn't get in the old days, I'll allow that.
The young man was helping Beckwitt dig the tunnels under his Bethesda, Maryland, home when a fire broke out last September.
Prosecutors say Beckwitt recklessly endangered Khafra's life. Beckwitt's lawyer says Khafra's death was a tragic accident, not a crime.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Bloomberg Wins Iowa Caucus

Michael Bloomberg's strategy is to wait out the early Democratic primary votes and swoop in on Super Tuesday to save the Party from Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.

The Democratic National Committee has to be afraid of Bloomberg and determined on a more dependent and malleable candidate like Pete Buttigieg.

But Bloomberg's strategy is looking pretty good so far--whatever happened yesterday in Iowa it wrecked the victory for the victor and no one emerged a clear winner anyway:
When the unfinished count eventually materialized Tuesday evening, it recorded a pileup at the top of the leader board between former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and five candidates attracting double-digit support for the first time ever in the caucuses.
The Democrats will give themselves over to Bloomberg to avoid Bernie if it comes to that. Their desperation at Elizabeth Warren's fadeout and Bernie's remarkable strength broke out into the open when John Kerry was overheard expressing it in public.
Meanwhile Tuesday's ineptitude is extremely suspect. It might be Bernie Sanders getting cheated again, in plain sight this time:
The tech firm that designed the app used by the Iowa Democratic Party to report the results of its caucus is run by veterans of the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign.

The Huffington Post reported the app was designed by Shadow, Inc., which was founded by Gerard Niemira and Krista Davis. Both Niemira and Davis worked on the Clinton campaign, Niemira as director of product and Davis as a software engineer, according to their LinkedIn profiles. Shadow’s own product manager, Ahna Rao, also worked on the Clinton campaign as special assistant to the campaign’s chief technology officer.

Shadow is an affiliate of Acronym, a Democratic non-profit. Acronym’s website states it is an “organization committed to building power and digital infrastructure for the progressive movement.”  
The Iowa Democratic Party had refused to disclose the company building its caucus reporting app due to cybersecurity concerns.

 HuffPost reported that the Nevada Democratic Party also paid Shadow to design its caucus reporting app.
How brazen do you have to be to name your democracy-hacking organization "Shadow"? Here's Clinton veteran Niemira's statement on yesterday:
We sincerely regret the delay in the reporting of the results of last night's Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused to the candidates, their campaigns, and Democratic caucus-goers. As the Iowa Democratic Party has confirmed, the underlying data and collection process via Shadow's mobile caucus app was sound and accurate, but our process to transmit that caucus results data generated via the app to the IDP was not. Importantly, this issue did not affect the underlying caucus results data. We worked as quickly as possible overnight to resolve this issue, and the IDP has worked diligently to verify results. Shadow is an independent, for-profit technology company that contracted with the Iowa Democratic Party to build a caucus reporting mobile app, which was optional for local officials to use. The goal of the app was to ensure accuracy in a complex reporting process. We will apply the lessons learned in the future, and have already corrected the underlying technology issue. We take these issues very seriously, and are committed to improving and evolving to support the Democratic Party's goal of modernizing its election processes.
The DNC has to take out Bernie for Buttigieg or Warren. But they need a clear establishment candidate, strong enough to withstand the coming Bloomberg assault. Iowa didn't help that.

If Bernie takes this one lying down, like last time, his supporters should abandon him.


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