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It’s not a great time to be a science fiction movie fan.* The genre seems to have lost all sense of identity since a flurry of really great output in the late aughts (IMO 2009 was the best SF year since 1982, what with District 9Moon, and Star Trek for starters). But that was then. Sci-fi in the movies is now content to act as a different wrapper for inferior superhero-reject bullshit. The fact that Lucy was a box office smash despite being outrageously stupid and irritatingly pretentious is bad enough, but the craziness of this is enough to make a person long for mere stupidity and pretension:

Asking, “What happened to the Wachowskis?” is I think a complicated question. On a narrative level, they’ve clearly lost any talent at putting together a satisfying, coherent story, which is what seems to happen to plenty of people who get called a genius a little too often and start to believe that they don’t need all these conventions for mere mortals. George Lucas is another easy reference point here: he’s clearly not an artistic genius, but he is (or was, anyway) a solid craftsman who used to have a talent for synthesis and storytelling. The immediate accessibility of his earlier films provides perhaps the best argument against his genius: it’s not a sign of genius where everybody immediately recognizes what you’re doing and loves it right away. Creating something genuinely new and groundbreaking typically involves some confusion and indifference at first, though Lucas deals in secondhand truths anyway. At any rate, the prequels were his attempt to make the movies his muse wanted to make, regardless of what the conventions dictated or fans wanted. We see the results.

But it’s the thematic level where the real peril lurks, the true danger that seems to be that a genre filmmaker gets a reputation for being philosophically deep or intellectual when that’s not the case. Call this Battlestar Galactica syndrome, in which a show that initially combined mostly-potent political themes and excellent genre elements got labeled as a deep show, persuading the showrunners to chuck those elements out and torture us with their pseudo-poetic nonsense and thoughts on religion, faith, destiny and all that. And it should be said The Matrix is not a philosophically deep movie. All the fate/freewill stuff and “what is reality?” stuff is hardly original (you can get more by reading any Philip K. Dick story) and doesn’t really arrive at any sort of broader takeaway. It’s a movie that plays with ideas within the world of the film, but fails to generalize them into anything to actually think about. Not that this is unusual. Dick’s story of Minority Report is a searching story with no easy answers, while the movie is cut-and-dried to say the least. So while The Matrix makes the case for fate over freewill in the context of the Matrix world, and makes the case that what is real isn’t real because the Matrix isn’t real, the whole thing fails to link up to the real world. And that’s fine, since The Matrix is not a P.K. Dick story, but rather a fun Summer action film that deals in almost every variety of late-90s cool there was–Hong Kong bullet opera, Fincheresque decay, sleek Michael Mann-esque surfaces, men in black, expensive sunglasses, black trenchcoats and flip phones (!)–but somehow hasn’t aged poorly and remains kick-ass. But there are no real ideas there, merely well-worn concepts introduced and applied non-metaphorically in the fictional world of the movie. Unfortunately, lots of dumb people thought there were ideas there. Stuff like this happened. And so the Wachowskis keep trying to give us more of these “ideas” as they go along. The result along both of these tracks is increasing aesthetic failure.

*It should be stated that sci-fi books continue to flourish, driven by numerous great authors: Alistair Reynolds, Charles Stross, John Scalzi, etc. And there have been some worthwhile TV ventures in the genre as well. It’s movies that fall flat these days.

Bob Saget will almost certainly participate in Fuller House. Sure, it might seem odd for a guy who’s spent nearly two decades distancing himself from all of that to jump back in, but I liken it to Joe Rogan spending years bemoaning Fear Factor and then returning to Fear Factor. While there are people in show business who have scruples and standards, neither of those guys is one that immediately comes to mind as having them. Riding the fame pony one more time will always win out.

Also, this show is going to be just unspeakably awful, in no small part because of how awful the original was. I don’t know if people my age objectively remember just how lousy child entertainment was back in the day, but you could make the case that it was the worst it’s ever been in the late 80s/early 90s. I mean, you had the avalanche of cliched, unfunny dumb jokes that was Step By Step, the astonishing contempt for the audience of Family Matters (IRL, Steve Urkel’s tossed-off inventions should have earned him a dozen Nobel prizes), the bizarre phoniness of Saved By The Bell, for starters. And that’s just TV. Toss in such other ephemera as Barney the Dinosaur and Raffi and you get a generation bred on lousy entertainment. This explains a lot, actually.

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I’ve been out traveling for a few days, so I’m not fully back up to speed yet, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the only reason for this PATRIOT Act brouhaha is that Mitch McConnell wants to make Democrats vote against maximalist national security legislation for 2016 narrative possibilities (it’s no secret the GOP wants it to be a foreign policy election, which ignores the modest role foreign policy nearly always plays in national elections). Only thing is that seventh-term Senator McConnell is out of touch with how the public and his own party feel on the issue, so he’s been hoisted by his own petard. Cynical and incompetent: what a brilliant beginning to a (hopefully short) stint running the Senate.

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So Jeb Bush has finally executed one of the most public, painful 180s ever by a politician, taking nearly a half dozen separate stances on the Iraq War before finally just admitting that it was a mistake. So, now it’s over. Just another gaffe that will be forgotten about within a couple of weeks, right?

I actually don’t think so, in part because it points to something unusual about this particular Bush candidacy. Jeb Bush not only bears the burden of his brother’s disastrous presidency, but also of his father’s better-looking-in-retrospect but still not particularly beloved presidency. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that GOP hawks were beating up on Bush because he considered James Baker an adviser. Bush’s views bore little resemblance to Baker’s–the latter being the dean of the GOP Old School of restraint and prudence in foreign policy. But the fact remains that he’s said some things about Israel (and, frankly, because he is James Baker) and thus called back to Poppy Bush’s foreign policy, which is (to say the least) out of fashion in Republican politics these days. So within the space of a month, Bush has been publicly savaged for being both too meek on foreign policy, as well as for being idiotically stubborn. That’s pretty impressive.

I think this points to the fundamental problem with Bush’s candidacy: he has to pay for two wildly different sets of sins, his brother’s and his father’s. This is nothing new. Garry Wills’s book The Kennedy Imprisonment argues persuasively that Ted Kennedy wound up taking a lot of shrapnel from his brothers’ mistakes and for how they used power. To name some examples: Teddy got slammed for womanizing, even though his forays into the area were both less voluminous (and, Wills argues, less selfish and narcissistic) than John’s. He was continually mocked for his drinking in ways that few national figures are, because of the fetishization of control and machismo that were linked to the Kennedy brand. He took more fallout for his (admittedly inexcusable) college plagiarism than John took for his phony authorship of Profiles In Courage (in actuality, the book was fully written by Ted Sorenson). And even Chappaquiddick–which hung (not unfairly) over his entire career–was linked to the sins of his father and brothers. If you dispense with the conservative conspiracy theories that posit that the whole thing was some weird version of Death Proof, what you’re left with is a man so used to using the personal power of the Kennedy family, of keeping things within closed doors, of making use of family “fixers” that it never occurred to him that his first call should be to the police, instead of to family cronies in order to lock it down and hush it up. He abused the power of the Kennedy family to save his hide, and was horrendously wrong to do so. But he was hardly the first Kennedy man to do that. He was not even the third.

Point being, Kennedy’s 1980 run–even on its face, a tough proposition to unseat a sitting president in a primary–was hobbled by this stuff. As the brother who lived, he became the channel for people to punish everything that was wrong with the Kennedys, even though his character flaws were objectively of a substantially lesser degree than his father and his still-beloved brothers’ were (Wills argues this). The ways in which the Kennedy family used power in effect formed a prison that trapped Ted Kennedy. And this is with a family that is hugely popular among the American public! The Bush name may still have meaning among a large subset of Republicans, but among the general public, it isn’t much of an asset. And the Iraq controversy provides an interesting example of just how bad this dual imprisonment of Jeb’s can be. Today’s GOP hawks are very willing to use Jeb’s father’s legacy against him, to extract more substantive promises from him. On the other hand, his adoption of certain positions simply makes them poisonous because of the Bush legacy. Jeb’s embrace of the Iraq dead-enders turned that position into something of a dead letter in Republican politics, as other GOP hopefuls couldn’t wait to hang him out to dry. This surprises some, but it’s basic politics. They realize what a weakness it is to have the brother of the guy who started the Iraq War–and indirectly gave us Obamacare, if you think about it–sitting out there, defending it. It’s in the interest of Bush’s opponents to make him run against his brother (and father) as much as they can, because it undermines the rationale of his candidacy. It’s a weakness that’s just sitting there to be exploited. Ironically, the exact same thing happened with Robert Kennedy’s presidential run, in which Gene McCarthy constantly tried to use John against him. Wills writes about when McCarthy sprung a clever trap by which he promised to fire J. Edgar Hoover as FBI Director if he were elected president, which not only highlighted Bobby’s refusal to do so (and John’s earlier refusal to do so), but also made the irresistible subtext poignant that the reason why they couldn’t was because Hoover had something on (at least) John. McCarthy explicitly used the strategy that other Republicans made use of so recently, and this really explains why Kennedy struggled so mightily against a (no offense intended) second-tier Minnesota Senator (not to mention the man outpacing both of them, Vice President Hubert Humphrey) to compete despite the still very recent, and very raw, memories of his brother’s assassination.

The other thing it’s important to say is that we’ve merely seen the beginning of this dynamic. What happens when Jeb Bush becomes an official candidate and releases his tax plans? You can immediately imagine Grover Norquist (and other Republican candidates) invoking the memory of George H.W. Bush’s tax hikes to try to get more out of him. You can also imagine Bush receiving lots of mainstream criticism for following the legacy of his brother when he introduces a plan with hugely regressive cuts, which he undoubtedly will, and being again befuddled by this dual onslaught. Obviously, his immigration position follows closely those of both his brother and his father, which is also a liability in Republican politics as well. Wherever you look, Bush has to constantly try to thread the needle, to emphasize the family legacy that allows him the chance to run. But that legacy also makes him uniquely vulnerable to being attacked, since he is connected to two presidential legacies in very direct ways. Ted Kennedy–the best politician of the entire family–fell flat on his face when attempting to do that. Jeb Bush, it must be said, is running a less difficult race than the one Ted chose in 1980. But he faces a similar situation: his greatest asset is also his greatest weakness. He may yet still win the nomination: it’s difficult to imagine Marco Rubio defeating Bush since Rubio is Bush’s base’s second choice, and Scott Walker remains a hothouse flower who seems to wither once outside of the safe environment of the Milwaukee suburbs. I say it’s still Bush’s race to lose. But after the past week, it’s a lot easier to see how that happens than it was before.

Makes it through the State Senate. Feeling better about it.
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moneyIn recent years, particularly on the Republican side, the prevalence of candidates who lack what are commonly called conventional credentials has become hard to miss. This was much commented upon in 2012, where it seemed like a good portion of the field was merely running in order to increase their notoriety and advance their personal brand: to grab a FOX News gig, say, or a book or radio deal. This seemed a pretty puzzling grift: running for president, even a Potemkin campaign, requires real fundraising/self-funding, after all, and the additional scrutiny could lead to public humiliation that would otherwise never have occurred (even though Herman Cain actually did manage to parlay his run into a radio gig, he had to have his extramarital affairs dragged out over the media, for starters). So I just went ahead and looked at how that business plan worked out for the people who ran (I’ve excluded Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, all of whom seemed to actually want to be president and had some real base of support, regardless of whether they held onto it):

  • Newt Gingrich: Turned out pretty bad, actually. Saw his existing business empire crumble. Alienated many of his conservative fans by dissing Paul Ryan. More ignored now than ever before (which is a good thing).
  • Buddy Roemer: Who?
  • Jon Huntsman, Jr.: I honestly don’t know why he ran in the first place. He had an awesome job, after all. Then again, it was also hard to figure why he took Ambassador to China from Obama in the first place, if his goal was to run in 2012. May not qualify as a business plan candidate so much as completely delusional. Now the guy who pretended to be moderate and got Beltway hearts fluttering is running Tea Partying Sen. Mike Lee’s re-election campaign. Then again, he’s about as close to being president as he was before, though minus the hype
  • Michele Bachmann: No regular FOX News gig. Hasn’t appeared on the network since last year, apparently. No new book, no radio show, nothing but increasingly desperate sound bytes, making her Palin without the media savvy. She’d probably still be in the House now if she hadn’t run. Also, she really thinks 100% of Americans are Tea Partiers.
  • Gary Johnson: Became a Libertarian.
  • Herman Cain: Things worked out quite well for him, aside from the mockery and humiliation he endured in 2012.
  • Thaddeus McCotter: Dumb motherfucker lost everything over a longshot presidential bid. If he’d just not run and paid attention to getting those signatures in, he’d probably still be in the House.
  • Tim Pawlenty: Doomed by friendship? Why’d he even run if he wasn’t willing to throw a punch at the frontrunner. Also this.

So, by my count, you have one who is in an objectively better situation (Cain), a few who are basically in the same place as they were before (Roemer, Johnson, Huntsman) and the rest are worse off in some significant way (Gingrich, Bachmann, McCotter, and Pawlenty). If you wanted to include everyone, then it’s apparent that Perry is worse off after his forgetful, alienating 2012 run, while Romney, Santorum and Paul are essentially in the same place (Paul could have run for both his seat and president in 2012 as he did in 2008 but did not, so he would have wound up in the same place regardless). As it turns out, running for president is hardly a cost-free proposition for a second-tier Republican to build their brand. In fact, going by the empirical evidence, there’s an even chance that running for president will ruin your career, and only a one in eight chance that it will improve it.

It is interesting that Cain is the only real success story here, if you discount the collateral damage to his marriage. It makes sense: he was one of the least known and got to score points by attacking Obama with less danger of being called out for being a racist. Since Obama’s on his way out, the odds of Dr. Ben Carson following in his footsteps seem remote, but for say Carly Fiorina, a new spot may be opening up…