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R.I.P.

David Bowie is someone whose work has meant quite a lot to me. He was a true artist: few of his songs are as simple as they seem, and it was far from uncommon for his songs to touch into politics, psychology, and spirituality, as well as tons of other subjects, often with surprising depth to them. Everyone’s going to tell you to listen to the hits today, and it’s not like you can go wrong by putting on Suffragette City. But here are a few that I think best illustrate the man’s artistry.

God Knows I’m Good and Letter To Hermione, from Space Oddity (1969)

Space Oddity is not the greatest David Bowie album, but it’s definitely a very interesting one. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar and a folkier feel than what he’d soon become known for. (In the case of over-9 minutes of Cygnet Committee, maybe more of a folk flavor than we wanted.) But it’s more personal than many of the rest too: Letter To Hermione is a love song that is as earnest and lovely as can be, as emotionally transparent as Bowie ever got, while God Knows I’m Good is an utterly brilliant piece of psychospiritual analysis that rings true to this product of a religious right exurb. Of course, one doesn’t need religion to be an amoral asshole. But a belief in a loving, understanding God often just makes it easier for people to rationalize their actions, which is something that people in general don’t have much of a hard time doing. Religious hypocrisy may have been a fresher topic in the late 1960s than it is today, but I struggle to think of a better expression of this basic conundrum anywhere.

Repetition from Lodger (1979)

Bowie has always had this glitter rock image: a flamboyant, omnisexual, ultracool force of nature, which he certainly was. But he wasn’t just that. I’ve always liked this song from the end of his legendary Berlin era, about a cycle of domestic abuse set to a repeated, droning bass and electric guitar riff. As with God Knows I’m Good, the song gets into other stuff too: poverty and how economic hardship plays out, but without becoming a screed of any sort. The album it’s from is definitely a mixed bag: you can feel the divergence of visions as Bowie tries his hand at all these sorts of world music that he doesn’t entirely assimilate into his musical vision, while main collaborator Brian Eno was shortly to move on to other artists that would be more receptive to this direction. Still, there are more than a few that work well here, and this is one.

Under The God from Tin Machine (1989)

It’s not like Robert Christgau was wrong when he lampooned Bowie on this album for channeling all the anger a millionaire can feel. But it was at least a little unfashionable to make a song denouncing right-wing extremism in the 1980s, and you have to give him some credit for that. Tin Machine was sort of a big risk that didn’t entirely pay off–college rock had not yet become alternative rock–but it has some great stuff in it, and this definitely counts. It has (sadly) aged quite well: a line about “beating on blacks with a baseball bat” no doubt went right over the heads of people in the late 1980s, but now that sort of thing is something we hear about and think about quite often. The bit about leaving a swastika over the door is at this point an exaggeration, though only a slight one considering the re-mainstreaming of fascist ideas. By recording and releasing the song at a point where this was far from peoples’ minds–the year after the Willie Horton ads–the song underlines the persistence of these attitudes regardless of the attention paid to them.

Fall Dog Bombs The Moon from Reality (2003)

This one is a pretty neat trick–a pretty, almost soothing melody over a lacerating series of lyrics pretty obviously aimed at the Bush Administration and its Iraq misadventures. But there’s more to it–I find myself thinking about the bit where he talks about these dark years, with no height nor depth, no underground. Is this connecting the war to the obviousness and shallowness of culture during the aughts, or to the plight of the people the speaker is bombing? Probably both.

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Ed Kilgore finds a Jeb! Bush comeback highly unlikely:

Yes, it’s always possible that Bush could benefit from Trump and Rubio and Cruz and Christie and Kasich all taking each other down several notches, but Jeb’s not a sure thing to beat Carly Fiorina with his current levels of popularity. The odds of him boosting his numbers by 600 percent or 700 percent (what he’d need to become genuinely competitive) as everyone else declines are not very good, and seem to become vanishingly small if you remember how Bush got into this situation in the first place. Jeb apparently calculated that a few positions that weren’t terribly popular with the GOP’s conservative base wouldn’t hurt him in a nomination contest, and might even give him some electability points. He picked the worst year in living memory to accentuate his independence on hot-button right-wing issues, and to make his success as governor of Florida some time ago his calling card, along with a last name that connotes “betrayal” to conservative activists. If he now executes a comeback, it will be in defiance of just about everything we’ve learned during the invisible primary.

Bush’s candidacy having failed as ferociously as it has cannot help but be immensely satisfying for those of us who have contested the media’s perpetual narrative that the Republican Party is finally coming to its senses, and is preparing itself to put the grown-up technocrati back in charge. The only explanation for Jeb!’s poor campaign is that the man deeply believed that this had happened, and would continue to happen, and the bulk of the party’s money also bought into this myth and saw Bush as the most obviously grown-up of the field. But there was never any particular reason to believe this narrative other than for self-serving image reasons on the part of Republicans: it has never been all that convincing, particularly as it was pushed in 2014 amidst the Republican establishment “grown-ups” embracing the likes of Joni Ernst, maintaining nominal control as they lost all power. The whole thing amounts to one of the biggest misreadings of the political terrain by the establishment of a political party arguably since the Whigs before the Civil War, and now the contest has veered wildly out of control, partly because Bush’s financial backers are stumbling all over the sunk cost fallacy. It’s all quite satisfying.

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Been travelling, couldn’t post. Travelling is when I catch up on the big-budget Hollywood movies that I rarely see in theaters or for home viewing–often they’re free on planes, and my concentration is better suited to those while on the move. So here are a few things I watched recently:

  • Bridge Of Spies. I’ve enjoyed the recent period of Steven Spielberg’s career, which has seen his movies take on political dimensions that weren’t really there in his early work. It hasn’t always worked out well: Munich was a masterwork, but the political material in Lincoln and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (!) ranged from laughable to inappropriate. But this movie is definitely in the first category–it makes a very simple case for liberalism as not only the idealistic way, but also (ultimately) the strongest and smartest way. Tom Hanks plays a New York lawyer who spends the first half of the movie valiantly but unsuccessfully defending a Soviet spy, and in the second half has to oversee his client’s exchange for some American captives. Both halves have Hanks pushing to do the right thing, and taking on substantial risk to do it, against a variety of bureaucrats who continually pressure him to take the easy way and compromise his convictions. This isn’t necessarily a top-five Spielberg film or anything like that, but there are some quite nice sequences and strong character work, and a very nice ending. The message is also quite pertinent. It would be facile to say that the Soviets posed less of a threat to American freedom than did national security bureaucrats and illiberal politicians (though it’s hardly facile to say they pose more of a threat to freedom than ISIS or al-Qaeda), but the film makes the case that the harder way of scrupulous following of legal procedures is ultimately the only way to go.
  • Ant-Man. Ant-Man most assuredly follows the usual Marvel formula of origin story, training/learning, and climactic battle that these films always have, down to the final battle in which the protagonist has to fight the bad guy with a bigger/more powerful suit than they have, by this time a cliche that those folks really, really need to retire. But within the formula the film does manage the (in a Marvel context) extraordinary feat of keeping things light and not taking itself too seriously, something that the Thor series pretends it does, right up until they unleash that blue laser pointing into the sky and pan over Natalie Portman’s ashen face. It’s a little strange because this is so clearly a Marvel movie, something that means nothing to me–I see the films of theirs that interest me and ignore the various television offerings and such–and it has that baggage, but it does also have a looseness to it, and genuine humor as well. Part of that comes from the ace casting of Paul Rudd in the title role, as well as a generally strong cast. But I think it mostly comes from filmmakers that understand that you can’t really take a character named Ant-Man all that seriously. It’s easy to imagine this as the first movie where Marvel really ate it. That it avoided that fate–and in fact, is a cut above their usual fare–speaks to the quality here, and taking a (slightly) different direction from the usual thing. Certainly a hell of a lot better than that snooze of an Ultron movie.
  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Say what you want about Marvel, but the conventions that their artists must obey are nothing compared to the hyperconservatism of this franchise. I should say at the outset that this is basically a successful film that accomplishes what it wants to and is watchable. But the series has become an exercise in rearranging the same elements as little as possible, such that the result can still technically be a new movie. You can (and people have) described the plot of each movie in one sentence with all the same words, just rearranged, though this one swaps out the usual arms dealer baddie for new evil organization The Syndicate (which is from the TV series, bonus for continuity). It all plays out much as you might expect–globetrotting investigations and action setpieces all around, with the characterization and other fictional elements being mainly window dressing for the genuinely impressive stunts–but I found myself wishing that the next film would just have Ethan Hunt get a mission and the movie would be his team accomplishing it, with no traitors, people going rogue, etc. There’s a lot to be said for a straightlaced spy thriller, you know, and the reliance on the same tropes over and over again has become wearisome and lazy.

    What’s interesting is just how similar this movie is to the recent Bond film Spectre, including the protagonist’s organization merging with a larger one that is hostile to it; that organization insisting that MI6/IMF are obsolete, irrelevant fossils in a world of techno-spying; the protagonist’s discovery of a hugely powerful and insidious organization that nobody else believes in; the protagonist being entirely on his own, with no support or backup, as his agency is closed down. Hell, both films even spend a substantial part of their running time in Morocco, though in the case of Mission it’s hilariously inaccurate in its portrayal of Casablanca as a rural backwater rather than as a Western-looking big city with public transit and everything. At least Bond put away the dusty “Mexico” sets and shot for real in Mexico City. Spectre is hands-down the better film–it doesn’t quite sell the romance between Bond and Madeleine Swann as well as it could have, but there’s at least some attempt at political commentary and character work, and you get the sense that the setpieces and the scenes between the setpieces are taken equally seriously. The Mission: Impossible series is more like 24 at its most ludicrous, but thankfully without the torture fetishization and right-wing politics. In fact, there are no politics here at all, which would be more than fine if there was any substance here at all, or even any new style. That this franchise is entering its third decade with Ethan Hunt not registering as a character in the public consciousness says something–Tom Cruise might as well just drop the pseudonym and just get it over with (why he wasn’t Jim Phelps in the first movie, and Jon Voight being someone else, I’ll never know, but that’s another discussion). It all begs the question of whether this even counts as a new movie–the only real change here from the last one is that the film trades in IMF team member Paula Patton for femme fatale Rebecca Ferguson, which is not necessarily a trade I’d make, but whatever. My point is that you can do more interesting stuff even within the confines of a big mainstream movie. It’s a matter of interest, I suppose.

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trump

Hard to believe, huh?

I think part of the Trump phenomenon that people aren’t getting–one that I think is massively responsible for his popularity and staying power–is that Donald Trump is a genuine right-winger. Allow me to explain. Most of what we call right-wingers in America are quite different from what goes for far-right around the world. Very rarely does this type of person include a devotion to minimal state/Austrian economics–Marine Le Pen is to the left of Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party on a number of issues, and Vladimir Putin has not only greatly increased spending on social programs during his presidency, but has refused to eliminate industrial subsidies of the sort that sustained working classes in the West until the 1980s, when right-wingers killed them off in the name of efficiency (even though those savings often wound up being a lot less than expected). But they’re not leftists by any means–genuine Marxism has an internationalist component and envisions some kind of solidarity not only between the races and genders but among working classes of different nations. The far-rightist typically wants more socialism for the dominant group, and less of it for minority groups, coupled with vilification of those minority groups. It’s a natural application of tribalism and hierarchical thinking. Trump’s not calling for new social programs for white folks, not that I know of. But the overall outline is very familiar. (Incidentally, I have a strong belief that the UKIP in Britain has been a conspicuous failure in this trend precisely because it doesn’t follow this paradigm–it’s basically just a more extreme version of Toryism, and thus has been unable to compete successfully in the deindustrialized North, often believed to be fertile ground for such an appeal.)

It’s been widely noted that today’s far-rightist–particularly in Europe–is very often a former left-winger who lost their job and can’t find another one. The far right has become quite good over there at convincing these folks that they have the same enemies as they do, which is sometimes true. The late Tony Judt made this point very well in his recent book. There’s a fundamental conflict between the essentially nationless, laissez-faire capitalist model that Republicans champion and the general nationalism they employ to sell it, and people whose jobs were wiped out due to that capitalism wind up being quite receptive to purely nationalist arguments. Trump is unusually well suited to make this argument–as a famous businessman he doesn’t seriously have to worry about being called anticapitalist when he decries neoliberal trade deals and benefit cuts that tend to have some significant bipartisan support. The only real time we saw something like this before was when Pat Buchanan made his presidential runs in the 1990s–notably right after the first big wave of cataclysmic job losses due to globalization. Now Trump is moving the ball forward in the shadow of a devastating recession and anemic recovery. The Republicans’ ability to hold back this sort of right-wingery has been due primarily to very zealous ideological enforcement. And despite leftists’ (including my own) incredulity, quite a few “normal” people actually do want the GOP’s economic agenda, it must be admitted. But Buchanan ran (a) against an incumbent president, and then (b) in 1996, during an economic boom. Neither of those applies now. It’s the most fertile ground ever for real right-wingery in America. And given recent history, it only stands to get better.

So if you wonder why the Republican Party is so desperate to stop Trump, this is why. It’s not because he’s making it awkward for them on some issues and saying the quiet parts loud. It’s because he threatens the plutocrats’ control over the party they recently bought on an ideological level. And even if he doesn’t get the nomination, if he’s able to win some amount of success, there’ll be more like him. But absent good jobs appearing for people who don’t live in coastal metropolises, there doesn’t seem much to stop it in the long run. A reprise of Clinton-era prosperity seems unlikely, in large part thanks to some of the bills Clinton chose to sign. But this is getting off topic a bit. Trump is a real right-winger. This is why he’s doing well. That’s all.

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The dream is over. Lindsey Graham has dropped out of the presidential race. This Times infographic from last month shows just what an exercise in futility his entire campaign was. Nobody but nobody likes the guy:
nh

So despite spending over a goddamn month of his life in New Hampshire, he was polling within the margin of error of having no support at all. I predict this will affect his being on the old Sunday Morning shows not at all.

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Hmm, sounds Muslimish – bomb it!


via Balloon Juice

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I seem to be one of the very few people who is basically indifferent to the imminent release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I may see it, I may not see it, but I don’t really have any feelings about it one way or another. You might think this is my usual contrariness speaking, and it probably is to some degree. I guess my feeling is that, whatever the novelty of expertly repackaged old entertainment with a nostalgic bent back in 1977, pretty much everything is repackaged entertainment with a nostalgic bent these days, at least in film, though admittedly not often expertly assembled. Having seen Abrams’s Star Trek movies, I’m sure the film will be entertaining, though since I have seen those films, I wouldn’t expect much more than that. And making it even less special to me is that it comes after a decade which has been flooded with fantasy-themed films. Which is all fine, but it doesn’t move me to care all that much.

Also, it might have something to do with the television at the restaurant I ate lunch at having ESPN on, which thought it a good use of everyone’s time to ask football players what they thought about Star Wars. Is there anything grosser than that? Literally anything?

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