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

Thursday, December 28, 2006
SELF-PROMOTION: Today's
column for Reason Online is about James Brown.

I also have two brief articles in the latest print edition of Reason, dated February 2007. One is about the latest turn in the FCC's efforts to regulate speech, and one is about the possibility that the feds will try to tax virtual worlds.


posted by Jesse 3:41 PM
. . .
AND THEN THERE WERE 66: So far we've looked back at the best films of
1996, 1986, and 1976. Time for 1966:

1. The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade
Directed by Peter Brook
Written by Adrian Mitchell, from a play by Peter Weiss

"Marat, these cells of the inner self are worse than the deepest stone dungeon, and as long as they are locked all your revolution remains only a prison mutiny to be put down by corrupted fellow prisoners."

2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Directed by Sergio Leone
Written by Leone, Luciano Vincenzoni, Age Incrocci, and Furio Scarpelli, from a story by Leone and Vincenzoni

"In this world there's two kinds of people, my friend: those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig."

3. Persona
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

It's either the original 3 Women or the original Fight Club, depending on how you prefer to interpret the story.

4. Seconds
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by Lewis John Carlino, from a novel by David Ely

The most Phildickian film Phil Dick never wrote.

5. Punch and Judy
Written and directed by Jan Svankmajer

A surreal and violent take on the world's most famous puppet show. Easily my favorite Svankmajer short.

6. It Happened Here
Written and directed by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo

An alternate-history tale, shot documentary-style, in which Britain falls under Nazi occupation.

7. Death of a Bureaucrat
Directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea
Written by Alfredo L. Del Cueto and Ramon F. Suarez, from a story by Alea

A dissident Cuban comedy. Like Kafka crossed with Laurel and Hardy.

8. Lapis
Directed by James Whitney

Kaleidoscopic, psychedelic.

9. A Man for All Seasons
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Written by Robert Bolt, from his play

"Listen, Will. Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman. Now you're a passionate Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head's finished turning, your face is to the front again."

10. Alfie
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Written by Bill Naughton, from his play

It just occured to me that this list begins with two of my favorite radical movies and ends with two of my favorite conservative movies. There's no contradiction in admiring all four.


posted by Jesse 2:52 PM
. . .
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
JAMES BROWN ON GERALD FORD: As far as I'm aware, the late
Gerald Ford never made a public statement about the merits of the late James Brown. Brown weighed in on Ford, though, in his 1986 memoir The Godfather of Soul, written with Bruce Tucker:
I released another message song around this time, too: "Funky President (People It's Bad)." It was about President Ford, who had taken over from Mr. Nixon in August. Every time he made a speech, it gave people the blues. He was a nice man, but he talked a lot and didn't say anything. He was there as a caretaker after Watergate, and I think he did that. He was a good man, but I never looked at him as a president.
That last line wasn't meant as praise, but as far as I'm concerned it's the kindest thing you can say about a politician. I can fault Ford for many things, from pardoning Nixon to meddling in Angola, but I'd take a Ford over a Bush any day. Caretakers are my favorite kind of president, and it would be wonderful to have a chief executive who doesn't fret about his "place in history."

As for "Funky President," for years I assumed the song was about Nixon, who Brown infamously endorsed in 1972. I even wrote as much in an obit for Nixon in Liberty 12 years ago. (Consider this post a belated correction.) In my defense, it has some of the most opaque lyrics in the history of political songwriting. Here's a sample:
Let's get together and get some land
Raise our food like the Man
Save our money like the Mob
Put up a fight down on the job...

Turn up your funk motor, get down and praise the Lord
Get sexy sexy, get funky and dance
Love me baby, love me nice
Don't make it once, can you make it twice
Brown was a great musician, a great composer, and a great American, but he wasn't always a cogent commentator. The important thing is that "Funky President" is one of most danceable singles he ever recorded. If Gerald Ford inspired it, it ranks as one of the greatest accomplishments of his administration.

(cross-posted at Hit & Run)


posted by Jesse 10:23 AM
. . .
Friday, December 22, 2006
SELF-PROMOTION: As you've probably heard, Time has picked "you" as its Person of the Year. Reason asked a bunch of writers, including me, for some alternative suggestions; our answers are now
online.


posted by Jesse 5:24 PM
. . .
THE CINEMATIC SPIRIT OF '76: Time to continue our rundown of the best movies released in years ending with a 6. We've already done
1996 and 1986; now we've reached the '70s.

1976 was a terrific year for filmgoers. The three pictures at the top of this roster would be on my short list of the best movies produced in any year.

1. Seven Beauties
Written and directed by Lina Wertmuller

A pitch-dark comedy about sex, fascism, domination, submission, cruelty, conformity, and machismo.

2. Taxi Driver
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Paul Schrader

The lost bridge between John Wayne and John Hinckley.

3. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Written and directed by John Cassavetes

The oddest, least predictable gangster movie I've ever seen. Quite possibly the best as well.

4. The Outlaw Josey Wales
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, from a novel by Forrest Carter

An anarchist western.

5. Television Assassination
Directed by Bruce Conner

The death of John F. Kennedy as a televised dream.

6. Harlan County U.S.A.
Directed by Barbara Kopple

Anyone who thinks actually existing capitalism is a product of purely peaceful trade should watch this documentary. Anyone who thinks unions are uniformly devoted to the interests of the working class should see it too.

7. The Tenant
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski and Gerard Brach, from a novel by Roland Topor

Paranoia, claustrophobia -- Polanski at his most Polanskian.

8. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
Directed by Nicolas Gessner
Written by Laird Koenig, from his novel

Just try to imagine a studio making this picture today.

9. Network
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Paddy Chayefsky

No, it isn't all that prophetic; and yes, like most of Chayefsky's efforts, it's absurdly overwritten. But it still carries more laughs in any given 15 minutes than most comedies can conjure in two hours. My favorite scene: when the host of The Mao Tse-Tung Hour renegotiates her contract.

10. Mikey and Nicky
Written and directed by Elaine May

Contrary to rumor, co-star John Cassavetes did not ghost-direct this film. But he sure left his fingerprints all over it.

N.B.: Once again, I'm including a movie that was technically released too early to qualify. According to the IMDb, Seven Beauties made its European debut in 1975, a year before it came to America. If I had realized that when I made my 1975 list last year, it would have appeared in first place.


posted by Jesse 5:03 PM
. . .
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
THE BUNNY CODE: In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert
summarizes the subtext of Goodnight Moon:
The struggle between parent and child that is the explicit subject of so many bedtime stories is, in "Goodnight Moon" only implicit. Indeed, there's no parent on the scene. The story begins with the little rabbit, drawn with wonderful flatness by Clement Hurd, already in bed. It is seven o'clock. A few pages later, according to the blue clock on the mantelpiece and the yellow clock on the bed table, it is seven-twenty. Then it is seven-thirty, then seven-forty. When the "good-nighting" begins, it is not clear who is doing the speaking. The moon is rising, yet the light grows dimmer. The clocks tick on -- seven-fifty, eight o'clock.

A parent is bigger than a child, but still a person. He or she can be appealed to, as in "Bedtime for Frances," or even tricked, as in "Good Night, Gorilla." The arrangement in "Goodnight Moon" is completely uneven. Time moves forward, and the little bunny doesn't stand a chance. Parent and child are, in this way, brought together, on tragic terms. You don't want to go to sleep. I don't want to die. But we both have to.

I thought I had a knack for reading disturbing new messages into children's books, but I doff my hat to Ms. Kolbert. I'm not sure she's right that there's no parent on the scene -- the bunny's relationship to the Old Lady Whispering Hush is never clearly defined -- but nonetheless, well done.

After you've read these books a certain number of times, you start to spot little jokes and cul-de-sacs. Peggy Rathmann's Good Night, Gorilla is filled with hidden gags and subplots just waiting to be spotted on a fifth, fifteenth, or ninety-ninth reading; I presume they're there to keep the experience fresh for the parent as he's dragged through the gorilla's adventures yet another time. Once I started to notice those, I naturally began to hunt for Easter eggs in other books. Like Saussure and his anagrams, I soon was spotting them whether or not they were supposed to be there.

I'm certain, for instance, that Goodnight Moon contains a product-placement ad for the same author's Runaway Bunny. I'm less certain about the book's great unanswered question: What's going on in that dollhouse? At the end of the story the young rabbit is asleep, the old lady has vanished, and darkness has fallen everywhere -- except in that mysterious toy house in the corner, where the lights are still on. The little bunny might not stand a chance, but someone is staying up late. Or so I tell myself as my daughter reaches for another book.

It's Pat the Bunny that drives me crazy. "Judy can read her book," the text tells us, and we see not just a picture of Judy reading but a copy of Judy's tome itself, helpfully affixed to the opposite page. But if you compare the illustration to the actual book, you'll see that Judy is holding her book upside down. Obviously she can't read it. Like Lolita or "The Tell-Tale Heart," Pat the Bunny has an unreliable narrator.

But that pulls out the rug from below us. If Judy can't read, what other lies are we being told? Can Paul really smell those flowers? Can he get his chubby finger through Mummy's little ring? Why isn't Mummy wearing that ring, anyway? "Judy can feel Daddy's scratchy face" -- well, she's touching some guy's face. How do we know that's really her daddy?

What? Stop looking at me like that. I'm just trying to decipher the damn book. Its endless row of riddles keeps drawing me deeper...hidden messages in the margin...Pat the Bunny! Ever notice that that's an anagram for Buy Then Pant?

Be checked and I don't want harmony. Yes, please, police are. Ah, no! French-Canadian bean soup...



posted by Jesse 8:25 PM
. . .
Sunday, December 17, 2006
'86 LUFTBALLONS: Last week we reviewed the best movies of
1996. Now 1986 gets a turn.

1. Hannah and Her Sisters
Written and directed by Woody Allen

He's right: The Marx Brothers are a reason to live.

2. Castle in the Sky
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Everything a fantasy film should be.

3. Sherman's March
Directed by Ross McElwee

A man addicted to filming everything around him makes a movie that's mostly about his troubled love life. His love life's chief trouble, in turn, is that he keeps filming everything around him.

4. The Singing Detective
Directed by Jon Amiel
Written by Dennis Potter

I never saw the feature-length remake of this miniseries, and I'm not sure I want to. Potter's story of a disfigured detective writer's fever dreams is best told at a leisurely pace, with plenty of time to get lost in the hero's hallucinations and memories.

5. and 6. Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring
Directed by Claude Berri
Written by Berri and Gerard Brach, from a novel by Marcel Pagnol

To borrow a line from another movie: "You mean, all this time we could've been friends?"

7. River's Edge
Directed by Tim Hunter
Written by Neal Jimenez

A punk In Cold Blood.

8. Stand by Me
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, from a novella by Stephen King

It's hard to believe today, but back in the '80s Reiner made some good movies.

9. Blue Velvet
Written and directed by David Lynch

"A candy-colored clown they call the sandman/Tiptoes to my room every night/Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper/Go to sleep, everything is all right."

10. Man Facing Southeast
Written and directed by Eliseo Subiela

Possibly the first motion picture to name a supporting character after Philip K. Dick. Gets a special jury prize for the best use of Beethoven's Ninth by a filmmaker not named Kubrick.


posted by Jesse 3:28 PM
. . .
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
SELF-PROMOTION: New at Reason: my
interview with Tom Bogart, author of Don't Call It Sprawl.


posted by Jesse 5:23 PM
. . .
OLD '96: As
promised, the top ten movies of ten years ago:

1. Fargo
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Snowy noir.

2. The Delta
Written and directed by Ira Sachs

A coming-of-age story in which no one really comes of age; a brilliantly acted movie with a cast of nonactors; a film that depicts interlocking cultural worlds without the P.C. superficiality that often mars such pictures.

3. Flirting with Disaster
Written and directed by David O. Russell

This screwball road movie is by far the funniest film to star Ben Stiller, but that just scratches the surface of its merits. It has a deep bench, and some of its best pleasures involve the supporting players, from Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin as aging desert hippies to Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins as gay feds in love.

4. Bring the Pain
Directed by Keith Truesdell
Written by Chris Rock

The most essential hour of stand-up comedy to be recorded in the 1990s.

5. Microcosmos
Written and directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou

No angels, just insects.

6. Conspirators of Pleasure
Written and directed by Jan Svankmajer

Cinema's greatest surrealist since Bunuel spins a weird web of fetishes and invisible connections. A romantic comedy on bad acid.

7. Breaking the Waves
Directed by Lars von Trier
Written by von Trier and Peter Asmussen

A rarity at the cineplex: a nuanced look at faith.

8. The Wife
Written and directed by Tom Noonan, from his play

A dark comedy, or perhaps a bleakly comic drama, about an unplanned encounter between a manipulative New Age therapist, one of his patients, and their wives. Constantly unsettling, as though the characters' mind games are spilling off the screen.

9. Paradise Lost
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

A modern witch hunt is captured on film. The result is another rarity: an investigative documentary that makes a genuinely compelling case rather than an outline of a case best read elsewhere.

10. I Shot Andy Warhol
Directed by Mary Harron
Wirtten by Harron, Daniel Minahan, and Jeremiah Newton

"Valerie Solanas took the elevator, got off at the fourth floor..."

Honorable mentions:

11. Kingpin (Bobby and Peter Farrelly)
12. Personal Belongings (Steven Bognar)
13. Three Lives and Only One Death (Raoul Ruiz)
14. Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz)
15. Gabbeh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
16. Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh)
17. Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne)
18. When We Were Kings (Leon Gast)
19. Forgotten Silver (Costa Botes, Peter Jackson)
20. Capitaine Conan (Bertrand Tavernier)

N.B.: According to the IMDB, The Wife and Forgotten Silver technically debuted in 1995. That may well be true, but I left them out when I posted my 1995 list last year and I wouldn't want them to be lost on the cutting room floor.


posted by Jesse 5:07 PM
. . .
Friday, December 08, 2006
JEANE KIRKPATRICK, 1926-2006: Jeane Kirkpatrick, arguably the archetypal first-generation neoconservative, has
died. She was a hawk on foreign policy and a social democrat in the domestic sphere -- in other words, her views were pretty much the opposite of mine. But I have a peculiar personal connection to her, one of those six-degrees things that makes the world so unpredictable.

Her son Stuart, who later changed his name to Traktung Rinpoche, got involved in the Rajneesh movement and lived for a while in the Bhagwan's northwestern commune. He later moved to Ann Arbor and attracted a circle of followers, including one of my housemates. I met the younger Kirkpatrick a few times, though I didn't know him well; my housemate was and is a good friend, but I didn't share his religious outlook.

Still, it was through this connection that I learned that Berke Breathed, who had invoked Jeane Kirkpatrick in several funny Bloom County strips, had sent her the original art for the cartoons. Kirkpatrick, apparently unaware of the cultural cache that Bloom County enjoyed at the time, was set to throw them out until her son the guru intervened and explained that they were actually valuable.

For those of you who don't remember them, the strips featured Kirkpatrick in a steamy love affair with the perennial presidential contender Bill the Cat. I have no idea what she thought of the peculiar pop-culture status they gave her. But I'd like to think that one or two of them eventually found their way onto her wall.

(cross posted at Hit & Run)


posted by Jesse 11:35 PM
. . .
CHRISTIANS URGE MARY CHENEY TO ABORT HER BABY: OK, so the headline isn't true, but to hear some of the rhetoric flying around right now I half-expect it to happen by Monday. Item: a
press release from Paul Cameron, chairman of the Family Research Institute:
Unmarried women should not deliberately have children. Their children are more apt to experience privation and disruption. Consequently, such children are more apt to do poorly in school, disrupt society (e.g., engage in criminality), and be personally troubled. These wrongs are compounded when the child is brought into a homosexual setting....Our society already has too many children born without the benefits of marriage; Cheney's action is not only a bad example, but poor treatment of an innocent child.
Words I never thought I'd write: The most cogent response to this nonsense comes from John Podhoretz. Reacting to a similar statement by one of the Concerned Women for America, he wrote: "This is disgusting. The birth of a child is never unconscionable. Adults who say such things about the impending birth of children are."

Speaking of Podhoretz, he may be the first neocon columnist to be namechecked in a hip hop song. From Papoose's "50 Shots":
John Podhoretz from the New York Post
Wanna know why Bloomberg and Al Sharpton still close
I read his article questioning
Why was Bloomberg surrounded by African-Americans
I guess the loss of a life wasn't major
He called Sharpton a race-baiting cop hater
The rhyme and meter need a little work, but it's a start. Question for the panel: If Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz formed a rap group, which one would take the Chuck D role and which one would be Flavor Flav? (I assume that Professor Griff's chair will remain empty.)

(cross posted at Hit & Run)


posted by Jesse 10:19 PM
. . .
CONSERBERALTARIANS: Virginia Postrel
zeroes in on what has bugged me the most about the response to Brink Lindsey's "Liberaltarians" article:
...it seems much clearer to me than to many other commenters that Brink Lindsey's TNR article is proposing an intellectual and policy alliance/debate, along the lines of the fusionism on the postwar right, not a short-term partisan political coalition to win the 2008 election. The stuff about 13 percent of the vote is mostly news-peg boilerplate. That's how you get TNR and the WaPost to pay attention. It's as irrelevant today as it was in the 1950s just how many libertarian-identified voters there are. The point is to talk seriously about policy ends and means and the role of market processes in serving liberal (in all senses of the word) values.
I'll add that just as libertarians have more to offer than a pathetic voting bloc, the left has more to offer than the pathetic Democratic Party. I really don't see much hope at all for turning the Democrats in a libertarian direction (though I'll cheer on anyone who's willing to try), but I know plenty of people who reflexively vote Democratic (when they vote at all) but are easily 80% libertarian in their own attitudes. Call them Whole Earth Catalog libertarians, Santa Fe Institute libertarians, bOING bOING libertarians. They appreciate spontaneous order, entrepreneurship (many of them are entrepreneurs themselves), decentralization, free expression, and peace. The hard-core do-it-yourselfers among them (and the veterans of the New Left) also appreciate the widespread private ownership of guns. They might not agree with everything in Brink's article, but hey, neither do I. That's fine. It's a big tent.

Another pet peeve: Why does this have to be discussed as a "divorce" from the conservative movement? A divorce from the Republican Party, sure -- my hat's off to Ron Paul and a few others in the GOP, but the Republican establishment is as hostile to liberty as the Democratic leadership, maybe more so. But there's plenty of 80%ers on the right, too, and I'm as happy to hang out with them as I am to hang out with friendly liberals, friendly leftists, and friendly counterculturalists. There are many lefts, and there are many rights. We don't have to marry any of them, and we don't have to divorce any of them either. Insert the free-love metaphor of your choice here.

(cross posted at Hit & Run)


posted by Jesse 9:10 AM
. . .
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
SELF-PROMOTION:
Speaking of movie lists, this week's poll at The Cinematheque asked for the top five Robert Altman movies. My ballot, and many others, have been posted at the site.

The December Reason included an interview with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone that was conducted by yrs. truly and Nick Gillespie. That interview is now online as well.

The January Reason is not online. But if you pick it up at the newsstand, you'll see that I have one bylined contribution in it: a news brief about a UFO cover-up. No, there's no aliens or flying saucers or secret extraterrestrial technologies involved -- just regular old butt-covering bureaucrats.


posted by Jesse 10:22 PM
. . .
A SPARSE CROP OF MOVIES: The December tradition at this blog is to skip the traditional list of the year's best movies and instead offer lists of the best films released 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and so on. The rationale for this is that I never manage to see all the movies I want to watch within a given year, so why not avoid the rush?

Never has that been more true than in 2006. Parenthood has been cruel to my picturegoing habit: By my count I saw only six mass-market releases in the theater this year, and two of those were leftovers from 2005. I did also catch Mission: Impossible 3 on an airplane, but there's no way that one would come anywhere near a top-ten list. Indeed, while I liked most of the movies I did see, the only one that approaches top-ten quality is A Prairie Home Companion, and even then I suspect I'm grading on a curve.

Am I really missing anything? Yes, I have high hopes for The Departed and A Scanner Darkly and a couple other flicks that have so far slipped past me, but I doubt that Hollywood produced anything in 2006 that was as good as the third season of Deadwood or the fourth season of The Wire. And I suspect that half the video mash-ups I watch on YouTube will be better than whatever wins an Oscar for Best Picture.

Or maybe I'm just rationalizing. Either way, stay tuned. Our glances back at 1996, 1986, and the rest will be posted soon.


posted by Jesse 10:10 PM
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For past entries, click here.


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