The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Tuesday, December 31, 2002
TREE AND LEAF: I haven't seen The Two Towers yet, and it'll probably be a while before I do. The first film in the trilogy didn't exactly blow me away, and I expect to have a similarly mixed reaction to this one, but I'll still watch it sooner or later, if only out of respect to my Younger Self:
The Lord of the Rings was my favorite book from around age 8 to age 12, at which point I discovered Vonnegut and pretty much abandoned the high-fantasy literature that had been a staple of my preteen years. For all his flaws, I still have a warm spot in my heart for Tolkien, though not for the sometimes awful imitations he inspired. It's a warmer spot, actually, than that occupied by Vonnegut, who by the '80s was turning out his own awful imitations of himself.

By college, my favorite Tolkien tale was not The Lord of the Rings but "Leaf by Niggle," a short story he published first in 1947 and then, paired with the essay "On Fairy-Stories," as the slim volume Tree and Leaf in 1964. Both the story and the essay are defenses of fantasy, and it is the essay that includes Tolkien's famous response to those who deride fairy tales as escapist: "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in a prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?"

As a self-contained argument, the essay is engaging but not really complete. As a companion-piece to the short story, it serves quite well. Faerie, it declares, "holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the Earth, and all the things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, when we are enchanted." It is this realm that the title character creates in "Leaf by Niggle," devoting his spare hours to a vast picture he's painting in a tall shed in his garden. Like Faerie -- or, more broadly, Fantasy -- Niggle's art serves as an escape, a fantastic diversion from a bland and bureaucratized life. While the world around him seems obsessed with trite legalities and matters of state, Niggle passes his time in the act of creation, inventing a new reality that not only is preferable to the world of a "serviceable cog" (Tolkien's phrase), but at story's end is truer than that world as well.

"On Fairy-Stories" declares the chief purposes of fantasy to be recovery, escape, and consolation, and Niggle's painting serves as each. It is a recovery of a clear view, the work of an artist "who can paint leaves better than trees" in a country where the individual leaf is sacrificed to the higher collective order. It is an escape from the "nuisance" of one's "duties" to that order. And it is a consolation, not only for Niggle but, later, for all those who use the world he has created "for convalescence." A theme of the essay reverberates in the story: that the fantasist, at his best, creates something more real than can ever be fashioned by the world's jailers, and that long after all the jails have decayed, Faerie will remain.

For a monarchist, Tolkien was quite the anti-authoritarian. His hobbits lived in a Chestertonian sort of anarchy; and Niggle is, in his ground-down way, an individualist hero -- smaller, realer, and altogether more interesting than the boring supermen favored by another sort of libertarian.


posted by Jesse 6:10 PM
. . .
Monday, December 30, 2002
FORTY YEARS AFTER: First
'92, then '82, then '72 -- you may have sensed a pattern by now. Next up: my favorite movies of 1962.

1. The Exterminating Angel
Directed by Luis Bunuel
Written by Bunuel and Luis Alcoriza, from a play by Jose Bergamin

This was the first Bunuel film I ever saw. A dozen or so later, it's still my favorite.

2. The Music Man
Directed by Morton DaCosta
Written by Marion Hargrove, from a play by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey

A real movie musical, completely liberated from its stage origins, with a sophisticated score and an enjoyable anti-bluenose streak.

3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by Lukas Heller, from a novel by Henry Farrell

"You mean, all this time we could've been friends?"

4. Knife in the Water
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski, Jakub Goldberg, and Jerzy Skolimowski

Polanski's first feature. Very tense.

5. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
Directed by John Ford
Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, from a story by Dorothy M. Johnson

Unravels one legend, helps invent another.

6. The Manchurian Candidate
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by George Axelrod, from a novel by Richard Condon

My memory's a little hazy and I might be getting the chronology confused, but I'm pretty sure I went to a revival screening of this hyper-paranoid thriller on my first date, back in high school. Make of that what you will.

7. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Directed by Robert Enrico
Written by Enrico, from a story by Ambrose Bierce

One of two templates for Siesta, Jacob's Ladder, Lulu on the Bridge, Abre Los Ojos, The Sixth Sense, Vanilla Sky, and Donnie Darko.

8. Carnival of Souls
Directed by Herk Harvey
Written by John Clifford

The other template.

9. Lawrence of Arabia
Directed by David Lean
Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson

After Woman of the Dunes, this is probably the best movie ever made about sand.

10. Lolita
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Kubrick, from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov

Officially, the screenplay is by Nabokov, but the shooting script bore little resemblance to the novelist's self-adaptation. It is, at any rate, a fine black comedy, with especially amusing performances by Peter Sellers, James Mason, and Shelley Winters.


posted by Jesse 11:21 AM
. . .
Sunday, December 29, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: A while
back, I mentioned a piece I wrote for Reason about utopian experiments in the suburbs. That article is now online.


posted by Jesse 11:14 PM
. . .
THE INFANT AVANT GARDE: The weekend before Christmas, I spent many hours playing with a one-year-old cousin. That meant I got to see heaps of picture books and toys, and that meant I experienced a pair of epiphanies -- new ones to me, though the parents among you might think them old hat:

1. The books are also toys. Tactile tomes like
Pat the Bunny used to be rare; now they're everywhere. The familiar pop-up book continues to thrive, along with more radical artifacts that do not pop up so much as they unpack. A children's book might include a mirror or two, a series of strategically placed holes, or some detachable creatures that can be played with separately; it might come in a special waterproof edition, printed on material that bears no resemblance to paper or even to cardboard; it might owe more to its designer than to either its author or its illustrator.

There is as much experimentation in these books, as much willingness to move beyond traditional ideas of narrative and of text itself, as in the most avant-garde postmodern novel. I'm especially enamored with the brief but endlessly fascinating Hello Bee, Hello Me, to the point where I may have to buy my own copy.

2. The toys, meanwhile, are also texts: they speak, sing, or are covered with writing. If there are books that are more interactive than ordinary toys, then there are toys that contain more actual words than some of the books. There may be a direct line between installation art and these mass-produced playthings, the chief difference being that the latter tend to be more concerned with delighting their audience.

Whatever this strange in-between medium may be, I found some more examples of it at the Walters art museum today. Searching the building for some hint of modernism, R. and I stumbled on its manuscript room, which contained handcrafted books both from medieval times and from the last few years. The second group turned pop-ups and the like toward more mature and eccentric themes, transforming the toy-book into an avenue of adult expression.

Meanwhile, yet another plaything -- the video game -- is converging with the movies, creating what looks to me like a mass art in its Nickelodeon stage. Toys, games, books, art: there's a hundred culture-studies papers to be written about all this, I tell you. (Ninety-nine of which were probably published long ago. Chances are pretty good that I'm late to this party. Oh, well: it's nice to be here, nonetheless. Hello, bee. Hello, me.)


posted by Jesse 10:54 PM
. . .
Friday, December 27, 2002
THIRTY YEARS AFTER: In which I continue to avoid listing my favorite films of 2002. I've already offered top-ten lists for
1992 and 1982 as substitutes. Now we visit 1972.

1. The Godfather
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Coppola and Mario Puzo, from Puzo's novel

Well, duh.

2. The Ruling Class
Directed by Peter Medak
Written by Peter Barnes, from his play

The rap on this movie is that it isn't nearly as profound as it thinks it is. My response: Yes, but it's funny.

3. Images
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Altman and Susannah York

An unacknowledged horror picture.

4. The Candidate
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Jeremy Larner

Every time I flip by this on TV, I wind up watching it to the end.

5. Frenzy
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Anthony Shaffer, from a novel by Arthur La Bern

Hitch's most modern movie -- this is the second-to-last film he made, and the first with any nudity or genuinely graphic violence -- is also remarkably traditional, a straightforward thriller starring one of his most familiar characters: the innocent man wrongly accused.

6. Sleuth
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written by Anthony Shaffer, from his play

Witty, suspenseful, perfectly crafted.

7. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Directed by Luis Bunuel
Written by Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carrière

Cinema's greatest surrealist having fun.

8. Cries and Whispers
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman

One of the most painful and depressing films I've ever seen. Part of me thinks it should be much higher in this list. Another part doesn't want to include it at all.

9. Play it Again, Sam
Directed by Herbert Ross
Written by Woody Allen, from his play

Remember when Woody was young enough that you could hope he gets the girl without creeping yourself out?

10. The Heartbreak Kid
Directed by Elaine May
Written by Neil Simon, from a story by Bruce Jay Friedman

For once in his mostly regrettable career, Neil Simon shows some fangs -- or maybe I should credit Elaine May for refusing to soften the story's edges. Either way, this comedy is exquisitely cruel.


posted by Jesse 6:52 PM
. . .
SELF-PROMOTION: The February issue of Reason arrived today. It includes two short pieces I wrote for the Citings section: a quick report on the matrículas program, which has partially achieved the arguably impossible task of devolving immigration policy to the local level, and an abridged version of my November
column on "free speech zones."


posted by Jesse 4:51 PM
. . .
THE YEAR IN LITERATURE: In the last year, I have read novels -- in some cases two or more novels -- by William Burroughs, Michael Chabon, Daniel Clowes, Max Ernst, Graham Greene, Alfred Jarry, Ken Layne, Jonathan Lethem, Ken MacLeod, Haruki Murakami, Frans Masereel, Tim Powers, Greg Rucka & Steve Lieber, B. Traven, and Gore Vidal. And probably others I'm temporarily forgetting.

None of them were published in 2002. I therefore have absolutely no thoughts on the state of fiction in the last year.

This end-of-the-year-roundup thing is easier than I thought.


posted by Jesse 4:45 PM
. . .
Thursday, December 26, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: The January/February issue of The American Enterprise contains many articles on homeland security that give short shrift to civil liberties. It also includes my brief review of The Nat Hentoff Reader, in which I praise Hentoff for his lifelong devotion to civil liberties. Irony abounds.


posted by Jesse 3:29 PM
. . .
TWENTY YEARS AFTER: In which we continue the
practice of listing the top ten movies, not of this year, but of other years ending with the digit "2." Today: the best of 1982.

1. Sans Soleil
Written and Directed by Chris Marker

A bizarre and wonderful essay-film about Africa, Japan, festivals, robots, Hitchcock, and much, much more. There is no movie in the world that is remotely like this one.

2. Danton
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Written by Wajda, Jean-Claude Carrière, Jacek Gasiorowski, Agnieszka Holland, and Boleslaw Michalek, from a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska

The best film ever made about the French Revolution, salted with pointed parallels to events in the director's native Poland.

3. Blade Runner
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, from a novel by Philip K. Dick

There are those who say the director is the true author of a movie. That theory doesn't fit this film, which owes its greatness to Dick's story and Lawrence G. Paull's production design. That said: if you haven't seen Blade Runner before, it's the director's cut that you should rent, not the studio's somewhat blandified original release.

4. Fitzcarraldo
Written and Directed by Werner Herzog

Herzog's best picture, about a mad scheme to build an opera house deep in the Brazilian jungle.

5. Dimensions of Dialogue
Written and Directed by Jan Svankmejer

As with most of Svankmejer's short films, this is rather difficult to describe. Suffice to say that you might never be satisfied with ordinary animation again.

6. The Draughtsman's Contract
Written and Directed by Peter Greenaway

Greenaway is one of those moviemakers whose shorts tend to be better than his features, perhaps because there isn't enough time for the picture's conceit to get tiresome. Despite that, this feature-length puzzle-box about sex, sketches, and secret societies is my favorite of his films.

7. Burden of Dreams
Directed by Les Blank

A documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo (see above), in which Werner Herzog seems at least as mad as his title character.

8. Moonlighting
Written and Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

No, not the TV series. This one's a rather depressing picture about Polish workers in London during the Solidarity uprising.

9. The Return of Martin Guerre
Directed by Daniel Vigne
Written by Vigne, Jean-Claude Carrière, and Natalie Zemon Davis, from a novel by Janet Lewis

A middlebrow historical picture. Sometimes they're actually good, you know?

10. America Is Waiting
Written and Directed by Bruce Conner

A music video of sorts, though I doubt it ever aired on MTV.


posted by Jesse 2:04 PM
. . .
Monday, December 23, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: Behold, my latest Reason Online
column. It is, basically, the product of a man who faced a deadline, and wanted to write something about the late Joe Strummer, and realized he didn't have it in him. How do you get a whole article out of the observation that "Career Opportunities" is about as close to perfect as a rock song can get? You can't; or I can't, anyway; I just put on the record, pause to enjoy it, and write about Time's silly Persons of the Year award instead. Rest in peace, Joe.


posted by Jesse 5:47 PM
. . .
TEN YEARS AFTER: I wish I could add to the flurry of December top-ten movie lists, but I haven't seen enough of the year's films to do a credible job. Many of the pictures on other critics' lists haven't even made it to Baltimore yet. I'm as fond of this game as the next fellow, but I won't play until I have a reasonably complete deck.

Until then, I offer a different list -- instead of the top movies of 2002, my favorites ... of 1992:

1. Glengarry Glen Ross
Directed by James Foley
Written by David Mamet, from his play

It's a filmed play, and it shows. But it's also the best Mamet adaptation ever to grace the screen.

2. Unforgiven
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by David Webb Peoples

Wise and bleak.

3. Brother's Keeper
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

How is it that two moviemakers could go to a small town, start filming the real events transpiring there, and somehow capture a story more engaging, compelling, and mysterious than almost everything produced by people who get to make shit up?

4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Directed by David Lynch
Written by Lynch and Robert Engels

The Cannes crowd praised Lynch's Wild at Heart, and then they lacerated this prequel to his TV series. I think they got it exactly backwards.

5. Prime Suspect 2
Directed by John Strickland
Written by Allan Cubitt and Lynda La Plante

A very solid Brit mystery miniseries, complete with red herrings, unpredictable plot twists, and other features sadly lacking from most TV police procedurals -- including, alas, some of the subsequent Prime Suspects.

6. Reservoir Dogs
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Written by Tarantino with Roger Avary

Keep your stupid backlash, and stop blaming him for all the poor imitations he inspired. I like Tarantino, and I can't wait for him to finish another movie.

7. The Player
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Michael Tolkin, from his novel

Altman does Hitchcock.

8. Candyman
Directed by Bernard Rose
Written by Rose, from a story by Clive Barker

Lots of horror movies are based on urban legends. This one is about urban legends, and the whole process of cultural transmission they represent. And yes: it's scary, too.

9. Swoon
Directed by Tom Kalin
Written by Kalin and Hilton Als

The best Leopold 'n' Loeb movie ever made.

10. Zentropa
Directed by Lars von Trier
Written by von Trier and Niels Volser

A very un-Dogme movie from the man who invented Dogme.

Honorable mention:

11. A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris)
12. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan)
13. Wayne's World (Penelope Spheeris)
14. My New Gun (Stacy Cochran)
15. L.627 (Bertrand Tavernier)
16. Malcolm X (Spike Lee)
17. Rock Hudson's Home Movies (Mark Rappaport)
18. Highway Patrolman (Alex Cox)
19. Barjo (Jerome Boivin)
20. Léolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon)

Sooner or later, I'll work up a list for this year too. Or else I'll leap even further back, and give you my favorite films of 1982.


posted by Jesse 5:14 PM
. . .
Thursday, December 19, 2002
TURDS AND TRENTS: Seems hard to believe that less than two weeks ago, I could describe what Trent Lott said about Strom Thurmond and
complain, "Where's the uproar?" Now there's so much uproar, I almost feel sorry I asked for it. It's nice to have so many people on my side, but some of them are bound to sprain their elbows patting their own backs so furiously.

I have no position on whether Lott should step down. I merely have a position on whether he is a turd, and whether he makes the rest of the Republican Party look like turds. He is, and he does. Removing him from his post won't address the first problem, but it might help with the second. Then again, by this point it might be too late.

But you know who really looks like a turd? Anyone incapable of responding to this story without bringing up the bigotries, real and alleged, of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Robert Byrd, or any other Democrat. It's the right-wing version of the Bill Clinton defense: "Everybody does it! So let's move on." Haizeus Foogin Christ, man, are you even capable of looking at the world without counting up partisan chits?


posted by Jesse 11:10 PM
. . .
SELF-PROMOTION: I have an
article on the Reason site today about the painter Joe Coleman and the slippery boundaries of "outsider art."


posted by Jesse 12:13 PM
. . .
EXTRA CREDIT QUESTION: In what ways would history be different if the Velvet Underground had been founded by J.J. Cale and Jerry Reed?


posted by Jesse 12:08 PM
. . .
Wednesday, December 18, 2002
THE POP SCENE: Kevin Michael Grace made two vital points in The Ambler
yesterday:

1. Referring to a certain variety of singer: "When did emotion get conflated with trying to cough up a lung?"

Amen. The ability to hold a very loud note is not, in itself, a bad thing, but it's nothing compared to the ability to put nuance and emotion into a song. Bob Dylan is a better singer than Barbra Streisand, and Willie Nelson is a better singer than Celine Dion.

2. Referring to Christina Aguilera: "How do we even know she's a chick? When did pulchritude get conflated with looking like a drag queen?"

A second amen, and perhaps a hallelujah. Aguilara is so frightening-looking, she makes Britney Spears seem human. And Britney's a wax robot.


posted by Jesse 1:34 PM
. . .
Tuesday, December 17, 2002
I USE THE PHRASE "FORBIDDEN LOVE": Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven has two interwoven plots, one involving a husband's forbidden love and the other involving his wife's. If you've read anything about the movie, you know already that the first love is homosexual and the second is interracial.

I've got a question about that.

The film was made in an almost perfect imitation of a Douglas Sirk-style social-commentary soap opera of the 1950s, faithfully recreating elements both wonderful (beautiful Technicolor photography) and grating (exposition-heavy dialogue). In the homosexual subplot, Haynes deliberately pushes the genre's boundaries: I doubt the movies he's imitating would bring their viewers into a gay bar, let alone allow us to see a male-on-male kiss or hear the word "fucking." In the interracial subplot, though, the genre's conventions remain unshattered: not only is there no interracial kiss, but there's no credible black character, just a stiff Noble Negro caricature that would have embarassed even Sidney Poitier: an intelligent black man who inexplicably loves a white woman who's incredibly patronizing to him.

Now, I think Haynes is one of the best filmmakers working today. (Certainly much better than Sirk, who's never impressed me much -- the only Sirk picture I've seen that I like at all is All That Heaven Allows, which was pretty much the direct inspiration for Haynes' movie.) So I'm willing to believe that the writer-director had a compelling artistic reason to let one subplot play with the genre's boundaries while the other leaves them intact.

But I can't imagine what that reason might be. If you can, please
let me know.


posted by Jesse 8:10 PM
. . .
Monday, December 16, 2002
CAPSULE REVIEW: Yesterday we finally got around to seeing Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The filmmakers make some missteps (unnecessary reenactments, overwritten narration, a fog machine), but despite all that it's a fine documentary about the people who actually played the music on all those Motown hits of the '60s. I have the standard pop-snob preference for Stax over Motown, but I have to say I enjoyed almost all the movie's music -- especially Meshell Ndegeocello's Memphis-style performance of "You've Really Got A Hold On Me." And the interviews are terrific.


posted by Jesse 5:16 PM
. . .
Friday, December 13, 2002
LITERARY QUESTION: Which is harder to get through, a Peggy Noonan column or a David Foster Wallace novel?


posted by Jesse 7:20 PM
. . .
ANTIWAR NOSTALGIA: Tuesday night, the student government at the University of Michigan
passed a resolution against war with Iraq. Boy, that takes me back.

Twelve years ago, in the leadup to another war against Saddam and his country, one of my hobbies was being a burr in the side of that same student government. Having spent much of the previous two years arguing with its leaders about free speech, equal treatment under the law, and other civil liberties that they had found "progressive" reasons to abuse, I was suddenly working side by side with them, attempting, in various pathetically inadequate ways, to avert Operation Desert Storm.

"Side by side" may be stretching it: it wasn't a happy partnership, and I wasn't an equal partner. With the student left in the driver's seat, the antiwar movement had a knack for alienating people otherwise opposed to military action. It seemed, for example, as though every single speech at our rallies had to include a condemnation of Israel's behavior in the West Bank and Gaza. I agreed with the sentiment, but a lot of antiwar Jews did not, and I didn't see why the organizers had to take every opportunity they could to stress such a significant point of disagreement. The speakers seemed to see the marches as an opportunity to recruit bodies for their other causes, not a chance to build a coalition with people who didn't share their other concerns.

The posturing reached a low point at a big rally on the eve of the war, where a speaker felt the need to list all the people suffering from oppression around the globe -- or, at least, from oppression by the U.S. and its allies. By the time she'd reeled off a dozen or more victims of official violence in South Africa, Central America, and the Levant, the crowd was getting restless. Usually when I heckle someone, I make an ass of myself, but this time, for once, I yelled the right thing:

"And the 14 Lithuanians!" (Soviet troops had just killed 14 Lithuanians, sullying Papa Gorbachev's international image.)

The speaker look startled. "Um -- yes," she said. "And the 14 Lithuanians."

"And the Chinese!" yelled someone else. (Tiananmen Square was still a recent memory.)

"Um," said the speaker, and chuckled nervously. "Yes, there's lots of problems in the world."

The crowd laughed. The speaker got the point. And the coalition lasted a little while longer, though we never did stop the war.


posted by Jesse 6:15 PM
. . .
Wednesday, December 11, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: Monday I got into a
tangle over Trent Lott at Hit & Run, which ended with me throwing up my hands and declaring my side of the conversation over. Nonetheless, I went and wrote a column today about the Lott/Thurmond controversy.


posted by Jesse 2:40 PM
. . .
WALKER'S TWENTY-THIRD LAW OF MOVIEGOING: A "Hitchcockian" picture, no matter how great, will never be as good as Hitchcock. Yet a "Godardian" movie will probably be better than almost everything by Godard.


posted by Jesse 12:59 PM
. . .
Monday, December 09, 2002
REST IN PEACE: For several years, I corresponded with a fellow named Keith Vick, who sometimes called himself The Slave. I never met him in person, and the e-mails we traded were not always, shall we say, kind and gentle. But I liked him, and I admired his active, open mind; and I was very sad to learn that he just
died, in a horrible collision of bicycle and truck. I'll miss him.


posted by Jesse 4:14 PM
. . .
Sunday, December 08, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: I have a new weblog to roam in: Reason's
group blog, dubbed Hit & Run, has just debuted. So now I'll be posting there as well as here, along with my occasional ventures into Stand Down. I expect my posts at Hit & Run will usually be of the hey-look-at-this-interesting-link variety, while this site will be more oriented toward commentary and jokes.

Mostly jokes, as there are people actually willing to pay me to write commentary.


posted by Jesse 10:58 PM
. . .
SUBURBAN UTOPIAS: There's a growing sense, in the academy and the press, that there's more to the suburbs than the bland and uniform landscape derided by so many novelists, songwriters, and city planners. Few realize, though, just how strange that landscape can be -- that the territory around America's cities is not simply a social experiment in itself, but contains many social experiments, some as radical as any utopian or communal colony of the past. I wrote about some of those in the January issue of Reason. Let me tell you about one more place, a town I originally intended to describe in the Reason piece but left out to make the essay more manageable.

Greenbelt, Maryland, belongs to that species of suburb that's often described as leafy. A tree-filled, pedestrian-friendly garden city, Greenbelt feels more like a small town than a 'burb just north of the Washington Beltway, surrounded by the notoriously sprawling D.C.-Baltimore metrosmorgasborg. Unobtrusive underpasses allow one to walk across much of the town without ever having to cross a street, while green space envelops its public buildings and private homes. Evidently, there is a market for comfortable leafiness, just as there is a market for strip malls and Dairy Queens.

That said, market is not the first word that jumps to mind when you think of this town. From its origins as an experimental colony grown from the left wing of the New Deal, Greenbelt has been tied to the federal government. It wears this history proudly: The plaza at the heart of Old Greenbelt is called Roosevelt Center, after Eleanor's husband, and while other parts of town conform more closely to the conventional suburban landscape -- shopping centers, freeways, office parks -- the buildings at Roosevelt Center reflect the formerly futuristic art deco style of the 1930s. There are remnants here not just of the Depression era's architecture, but of its leftist ideals as well: there is a cooperative supermarket, a cooperative pharmacy, a cooperative coffeehouse called the New Deal Café. The latter's bylaws require it to "serve as a water hole or 'living room' for the community with a 1930s decor" -- and, on the exterior, it has the '30s flavor down pat. The interior is a bit more contemporary, resembling hundreds other countercultural coffeehouses around the country.

Greenbelt was the brainchild of Rexford Guy Tugwell, one of the most technocratic figures in American history. (In a megalomaniacal bit of light verse composed in college, the future bureaucrat declared, "I bend the forces untamable;/I harness the powers irresistible--/...I shall roll up my sleeves--make America over!") These authoritarian origins left a mark. Greenbelt was the first municipality in Maryland to adopt the centralized council-manager form of government. Its first citizens endured rules regulating everything from the pets they could own (only fish were allowed) to the hours they could use their clotheslines. Its houses were owned by the federal government, and its residents had to be vetted by income and for professional and religious diversity before they were allowed to move in. Blacks were barred entirely.

Such petty repression shouldn't come as a surprise. The New Deal emerged from the Progressive tradition, an ideology that favored a "scientifically" managed society dominated by large, hierarchical institutions. But there was a more populist faction along the edges of Roosevelt's regime, influenced more by the cooperative movement than by the Progressives; and from them, Greenbelt acquired a parallel current of local initiative. In theory, the cooperators favored a decentralized economy controlled directly by workers and consumers. In practice, many co-ops were actually organized or subsidized by the state. When private entrepreneurs failed to invest in Greenbelt, the Department of Agriculture decided to set up consumer cooperatives instead, contracting with a Boston-based co-op -- the Consumer Distribution Corporation, or CDC -- to organize the town's economy.

Obviously, neither the Department of Agriculture nor the CDC represented any sort of local initiative. But the CDC was serious about passing control of the enterprises it was underwriting to the actual citizens of Greenbelt, and soon a local group, Greenbelt Consumer Services, had taken them over. The townspeople launched more cooperatives of their own: a health care association, a weekly newspaper, even a Gum Drop Co-op run by schoolchildren. Along with the cooperatives, Greenbelt enjoyed the comfortable self-regulation found in many small communities. As of 1940, its public library imposed more fines than the police did. The school was small, the firemen were volunteers, and there was no city jail. Even the council-manager government had a more democratic shadow: the Greenbelt Citizens' Association, which sponsored town meetings.

More significant, perhaps, was that the entity that invented Greenbelt was less and less comfortable with its creation. In
Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal (2001), the historian Cathy Knepper notes that the town "suffered repeated attacks from its creator, the federal government" in the decade following World War II, starting with a congressional investigation of cooperatives in 1947 and concluding with a McCarthy-era witch-hunt in which several naval employees who lived in Greenbelt were fired as security risks. (Rumors of subversives in the suburb actually predated the red scare. Many pacifists who had refused to fight in World War II had moved to Greenbelt, a town tolerant of political dissent if not of those who used their clotheslines after 4 p.m.) The biggest change, though, came when the feds decided to disentangle themselves from the town. "Federal officials originally described Greenbelt as a great social experiment," writes Knepper. "By the end of the war...officials regarded Greenbelt as a collection of houses that the government no longer wished to own."

In 1952, Congress sold off most of Greenbelt's public housing. A resident-owned co-op bought the bulk of it, along with 708 acres of the undeveloped land that surrounded the town and gave it its name. It was a privatization that even socialists could love: the transformation of a government town into a co-op community, with affordable housing and a liberal political culture. But if the feds were changing with the times, the cooperatives were too. Gradually, the city was going capitalist.

Even as one co-op was buying up government houses and holding them in common, a second co-op was buying homes from the first and re-selling them to individual owners. More important: Unable to pay the taxes on the vacant land it owned, the Greenbelt housing cooperative sold it to a private developer. The ultimate result was a building boom that the Greenbelt faithful could not control.

Meanwhile, Greenbelt Consumer Services was evolving from an idealistic venture into a big business, expanding its operations into Takoma Park, Wheaton, and Washington. "Continuous expansion is a basic principle of cooperatives," the company's president wrote in 1952, "and of any business that wants to remain healthy." Power was centralized in the hands of management, which was regularly accused of making decisions without consulting the co-op's members. The company eventually moved its headquarters to Savage, Maryland, leaving Greenbelt behind in everything but name.

There is still a strong co-op movement in the town, but the phone book is filled with conventional businesses as well; and, as the history of Greenbelt Consumer Services shows, cooperatives can respond to market signals the same way other businesses do. Old Greenbelt still has a small-town flavor, but the city's outskirts have more in common with the rest of the region's sprawl. Federal money, too, still plays a role in Greenbelt, as it does in virtually every corner of America. But D.C. doesn't run the place anymore. With Washington just a short drive or subway ride away, the feds' chief role in the town is to sleep there.

American history is filled with tales like these. One crank or genius dreams up a new way of living, and suddenly a brand new village or compound or crash pad is attempting to realize his ideals. Decades later, the dream has either died or, more intriguingly, evolved, adjusting itself to changes both inside and outside the community. These experiments are not utopian in the sense of being perfect societies, or even necessarily of aspiring to perfection. But they fit Robert Nozick's idea of different social visions competing within a larger framework of freedom. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick proposed "a wide and diverse range of communities which people can enter if they are admitted, leave if they wish to, shape according to their wishes; a society in which utopian experimentation can be tried, different styles of life can be lived, and alternative visions of the good can be individually or jointly pursued." Evidently, such parallel worlds are not just the stuff of philosophers' thought-experiments. They are scattered throughout the American past and present, constantly being born and dying, evolving in different directions and influencing the society around them.

Greenbelt, granted, is an unusual case. It would be excluded from Nozick's libertarian "framework for utopia," at least before 1952, because it was built and initially owned by the state. On the other hand, it is a part of a specific tradition of suburban experiments, not all of which were federally funded. One of its original inspirations, launched in 1928, was Radburn, a privately backed effort to build a self-sufficient garden city within two square miles of New Jersey. (The colony is still there, but it stopped trying to be a utopia long ago.) After Greenbelt there came the corporate-run new towns of the '60s and '70s -- i.e., the places I write about in my Reason article. Reston, Virginia; Columbia, Maryland; Irvine, California.

Utopia, Nozick writes, "is what grows spontaneously from the individual choices of many people over a long time." Not everyone shares this flexible and patient concept of utopia; to most, the word implies a perfect, static society that need never improve or change. Besides, in our present cultural context it's hard to square the idea of utopia with that of Gulf Oil (which owned Reston for a spell), or the CIA (Langley is a 12-mile drive from Reston, and many agency employees live there) or the NSA (Columbia is adjacent to Fort Meade, headquarters of the National Security Agency). Paradoxes can be fun, you may complain, but come on.

Very well: You can shed the notion of utopia, and the significance of these little experiments will remain. "Reston is not utopia," one citizen of that suburb told me while I was researching my Reason piece. "It's not Nirvana. Not everything we've started here has worked. I don't need to be in a place that's perfect. But at least, in Reston, we try." And, outside Reston, the rest of us try other things. That is freedom, in all its banality and splendor.


posted by Jesse 10:45 PM
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Friday, December 06, 2002
SELF-PROMOTION: The January issue of Reason is out. It includes a fairly long essay by yours truly -- the article is theoretically a review of Nicholas Dagen Bloom's
Suburban Alchemy, but it also draws heavily on material outside the book. I also have a brief piece in the "Citings" section, about the Free State Project and its various antecedents.

While I'm at it: the December issue is now online, so if you missed my squibs on Argentina and outer space the first time around, you can now read them on the Web for free.


posted by Jesse 1:24 PM
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DEREGUBLOGGER: The first libertarian periodical I ever read was The Deregulator, a tabloid/zine published in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the mid-'80s. The editor, Rick Henderson, went on to work for Reason, leaving for greener pastures shortly before I joined that magazine's employ.

So I got a nostalgic boost when I learned today that he's revived The Deregulator as a
blog. (He's not the only Reasoner to transform a print zine into a webzine, by the way: Brian Doherty's Surrender also began in paper form.) Whatever else might turn up at Rick's new soapbox, I'm sure that there will be a lot about three things he and I share a strong affection for: individual liberty, rootsy music, and Tarheel basketball.


posted by Jesse 12:46 PM
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HOLLYWOOD ARCHIVES: A few weeks ago, as I dropped by my favorite Baltimore
video store, the clerks were watching Can't Stop the Music, an infamous 1980 vehicle for the Village People. The movie has a reputation as an unwatchable piece of Hollywood detritus, and I suppose that, taken in full, that may be true. But the part I saw amazed me: a transcendently bizarre "YMCA" that felt like something Busby Berkeley might shoot, if he were (a) tripping on a double dose of peyote while (b) getting fisted.

If your local video shop doesn't carry that tape, the second-best alternative might be to watch Matt Round's tribute to the stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. It offers neither the cinematic skill nor the psychedelic spirit of the Village People's effort, but the two clips do have ... heh heh ... something in common.


posted by Jesse 10:17 AM
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Thursday, December 05, 2002
YOU GORGEOUS PREPPY: With an aging Garry Trudeau in
decline, what cartoonist will mercilessly mock John Kerry? How about ... the young Garry Trudeau? Eve Tushnet has uncovered a couple of strips from 1971 that seem, as she writes, "somehow still so fresh."


posted by Jesse 7:52 PM
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CONVIVIAL GURU: Ivan Illich is
dead. I'd like to write more about this sad development sometime soon, and perhaps I will, though it's not a project I'd take up lightly. A radical with a reactionary streak -- or was it the other way around? -- Illich married a brilliant critique of bureaucracy and the professions to a disturbingly static view of the world. This outlook was a closely woven whole, which in many ways made things worse. If, like me, you found yourself profoundly influenced by his work yet just as profoundly alienated from some of his most basic assumptions, it was no simple matter to say you bought into this much Illich and left the rest aside: figuring out exactly where you parted company with the man required a very careful parsing of a very dense analysis. In retrospect, this parsing was one of the most rewarding intellectual experiences of my life.

One common critique of Illich held that his ideas were too abstract to be useful in practice. But at their best, they opened the door to thinking much more practically about social problems than before. The evidence lies in the hands-on work of Illichians ranging from Gustavo Esteva to John F.C. Turner to John McKnight, men whose ideas and accomplishments are a welcome contrast to the dead hand of the development bureaucracies.

The first Illich book I read was Deschooling Society, and to me, it's the best of the lot. Its opening paragraph is still one of my favorite passages in modern political literature:

"Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby 'schooled' to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is 'schooled' to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve those ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question."

Rest in peace.


posted by Jesse 6:10 PM
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RECYCLED FRAUD: In the leadup to the Gulf War, propagandists invented a story of Iraqi soldiers ripping Kuwaiti babies out of incubators. The tale helped make the other side seem unalterably barbaric, and thus softened the road to intervention. After the war was over, the hoax was uncovered.

Now, with another Gulf War on the horizon, HBO is
reviving the incubator story in its docudrama Live from Baghdad, as though the debunking had never happened. When an antiwar outlet does something this dishonest, you can be sure the axis of warbloggery will be all over it. Where are you, guys?


posted by Jesse 10:23 AM
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Wednesday, December 04, 2002
STRENGTHEN THE THINGS THAT REMAIN: Karl Marx may no longer have Christopher Hitchens
by the throat, but Henry Kissinger still gets him tied up in knots.


posted by Jesse 7:44 PM
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ANOTHER REMAKE:
RiShawn Biddle writes to remind me that Steven Soderbergh's Traffic was also a remake -- in its case, of a British miniseries. I had forgotten this. I've been told that the original series is better than the Soderbergh movie but, not having seen the original, I can't say whether I agree.


posted by Jesse 10:02 AM
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Tuesday, December 03, 2002
SOLARIS 2: THE REVENGE: The first time Steven Soderbergh remade an older picture, he turned the minor classic Criss Cross into The Underneath, a watchable but far too stylized neo-noir that replaced the original movie's intensity with an almost clinical detachment. If he found a lesson in the experience, it may have been that it's usually unwise to remake a film that doesn't require much improvement.

And so he turned his attention to the rat pack's Ocean's Eleven and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, two very different movies with a significant feature in common: both are tedious and overlong. Last year, under Soderbergh's direction, Ocean's Eleven was transformed from a bland heist picture into a pleasantly glib piece of Hollywood entertainment. And now we have his Solaris, which takes a film weighed down with ponderous philosophizing and replaces it with something more than an hour shorter yet no less intellectually charged. If Tarkovsky were still alive, he could have learned a lot from the economy with which Soderbergh tells his tale, revealing more in a few short scenes than ever emerged from the original picture's long yet superficial speeches. Even in the one area where the first film deserves the praise it received -- its sometimes remarkable visual style -- Soderbergh has matched and perhaps outdone his predecessor. (Impressively, he shot Solaris himself, under a pseudonym.)

Having just recommended a movie, I should tack on a warning: when it comes to this filmmaker, my tastes can be pretty far removed from both critical and commercial opinion. Soderbergh's two most popular pictures -- sex, lies, and videotape and Erin Brockovich -- are the two I most firmly dislike; meanwhile, I've enjoyed such much-derided efforts as Kafka and the hilarious Schizopolis. And while there's plenty of people who share my fondness for The Limey, I may be alone in thinking it's the director's sole masterpiece.


posted by Jesse 2:22 PM
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