I Saw This In Brussels (It’s Scatological)

September 3, 2019

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Satan Defends The Constitution

August 12, 2019


I missed HAIL SATAN? at Sundance last winter — you can’t see ‘em all. But I’ve just spun the DVD, and man, is it something. It’s one of those documentaries that opens your eyes and changes your perspective. It’s more than entertainment, it’s enlightenment.

Hold up, there. I didn’t become a Satanist after simply watching a movie. (See the “Satanic Panic” below.) But what did happen was that my prejudices regarding The Satanic Temple — the subject of this beauty — were completely upended, redefining my inner regard of “Satanism.” Which was exactly, precisely, the point, both of the filmmakers and the Satanists.

First, let’s anchor The Satanic Temple. You may have noticed the people who have peacefully and nonviolently opposed the placement of a giant replica of the Ten Commandments on public property in the Bible Belt. Their method is by legally applying to set alongside it an equally giant statue honoring Baphomet, the man-goat, bat-wings extended, the embodiment of Satan. (And, in one storied incident, they succeeded, at least for one day.) Before I saw this movie, I assumed they were political pranksters, like the Yes Men or the Yippies. But pranks these are not. These people are dead serious in their beliefs, yet those sincerely held beliefs are not what you may think. (They might indulge themselves in a little fun sometimes; note the question mark in the film’s title.)

Now, if you are a devout who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, some of what will follow may strike you as blasphemous. Fair warning. TST, as I’m going to call the group hence, doesn’t want to injure or restrict or delimit your faith in any way. Believe whatever you like, with their compliments. They just don’t want you to impose your own particular beliefs upon the rest of the country. 

You frequently run into the trope, “America is a Christian nation.” Um, no, actually it isn’t. Most of the founders had nominal religious affiliation (even George Washington, who didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed; Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity or resurrection; and Benjamin Franklin, who rarely attended Presbyterian services because he found them dull), but many of them were “deists” rather than the type of “Christian” represented by today’s evangelicals. You will search in vain for the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord” in the Constitution or any amendment, except for the Signatory section: “…the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” Let one of the Founders explain: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”

Yes, but what about “one nation under God,” and “In God We Trust”? As we learn in this film, both are artifacts of the Red-Scare era. The Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the phrase “under God” until 1954. “In God We Trust” became the national motto in 1956, not 1776, and first appeared on paper money the following year. Those who say America was founded as a Christian nation have it exactly backward: the Founders wanted to escape religious persecution and establish a pluralistic republic. Furthermore, those giant Ten Commandments stone blocks that to this day adorn small towns all over the country? Most of them came not from the hand of God but from the publicists of Paramount Pictures and Cecil B. DeMille, who distributed 4,000 six-foot granite tablets to municipalities around the country to promote their 1956 blockbuster movie. Their original partners, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, kept ’em coming for years afterward.

Okay, we may not be a Christian nation, but why worship the Evil One, and doesn’t that mean dancing naked around a fire and drinking blood? No, those are the fantasies conjured by Hollywood movies and the thousands of parents who thought playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to heavy metal music drew their little darlings to Satanism during the “Satanic Panic” of the Eighties and early Nineties. It proved to be as bogus as the Salem witch hunt or Joe McCarthy’s debunked commie counts during the similar Red Scare. Those imaginary covens and spooky chants are not what TST is about, not anything of the kind. 

TST members do not espouse evil. They do not endorse violence or physical harm of any kind. We see one leader of a local chapter basically get drummed out of the organization for giving a speech in which she advocates violent revolution, and there have been other internecine skirmishes off camera, but if you’re speaking for TST you toe the line. In fact, the Satanists don’t really “worship” anything. To them Satan is a mythical fallen angel who dares to question God, and if you were brought up in a religious household, you might have had some of the same questions. Satanists would put it this way. Considering Bible verse as literal truth for a moment, when the serpent persuades Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge while God prefers that she and Adam remain ignorant souls in Eden, is the snake really the bad guy? When God orders Abraham to sacrifice his own son and then relents, is that an act of charity? How about the bullying of Job? When Satan suggests to a starving Jesus that he take food and water, does that suggestion do harm? Yes, TST might be stretching points, but that is the point.

To put it clearly, these Satanists don’t even worship Satan. According to TST co-founder “Lucien Greaves” (who cheerfully admits this is not his given name), “Satanism is a non-theistic religion, meaning we don’t venerate a personal Satan or deity; we recognize it as a metaphorical, mythological construct. For us Satan is iconic of the ultimate rebel against tyranny. We also place the highest value on rational exploration and the pursuit of knowledge.” TST (based in Salem, Massachusetts, natch) is only a religion for tax purposes, just as is Scientology. Rather than dogmatic ritual, TST espouses seven tenets for interpersonal behavior that make at least as much sense to me as do the Ten Commandments. 

What they object to is the rule of a theocratic society, particularly the stranglehold of the religious right. “Some people would think it ironic, but I’m probably most popular in the Bible Belt territories,” muses Greaves. “People there seem to understand our relevance more and more.” I always thought these folks were doing, you’ll pardon the expression, God’s work by acting to remove theocratic icons from public spaces using rational jujitsu: if you get yours, then we get ours. As TST well knows, most town councils would give the hook to their Commandments rather than have to stare at Baphomet every time they walk into the courthouse — but the attendant lawsuits are expensive and they move at glacial speed. 

I don’t want to make this flick sound too weighty. It’s hilarious to watch down-home folks try to find legal ways to stop TST from erecting something they obviously view as a monstrosity. And one can never be entirely sure how firmly TST tongues are placed within their cheeks. But these are very smart, very devoted people who will absolutely not countenance the establishment of any official state religion. The Satanic Temple is not the ACLU. But by visually showing the general public what their religious icons look like to nontheists — kinda how the man-goat looks to them — TST is coming after the same thing.


A typical DeMille promo installation. The movie had already been released by now, but with the Fraternal Order of Eagles behind the project from the start, it took on a life of its own.


TST’s response. For my money, it’s the children who make it hilarious. In real life they wouldn’t get anywhere near that thing.

8/13/19: Today the Church of Satan tweeted me: “That film has nothing to do with us or the religion of Satanism.” The first part is absolutely correct. Here is an amusing comparison between that group and the subjects of this film. And in the spirit of free speech, here is the Church of Satan’s official response.

Ten Years Ago (On A Cold Dark Night)

July 27, 2019


One decade ago today, we (that is, I) published our (that is, my) first post. Ensuing entries have not arrived all that often, violating rule #1 of blogging, Keep ‘Em Coming. They’ve been freewheeling in the extreme, violating rule #2 of blogging, Stay In Your Lane. And they’ve varied in length and intention, violating rule #3, Keep It Simple, Stupid.

All that’s why this site is still nothing more than a little club for likeminded ponderers with no particular rules or requirements, even after having been “Freshly Pressed” (that’s a good thing) twice by our host, WordPress. Recently I began working on another blog for a different group of people and I’m trying my best, on their behalf, to observe all those pragmatic rules. It’s true: they really do have a salutary effect on activity. But the very personal legato dreamland right here is where I prefer to play. Though I really do want you to enjoy visiting my blog, frankly I’m doing this more for myself than for you. This exercise helps me remember exactly how I felt at the moment I was writing. Better even than a photo. This blog is a fantastic gonzo diary, especially since I strain to make every word in every post as true as my skill will allow. It really pays off when you re-read years later. Trust me.

My posts are erratically timed, sure. I only put one up whenever I feel like it. But then, I’ve managed to accumulate almost 300 of them — because I’ve never missed posting in any single calendar month over the last ten years. So that’s sort of a schedule, isn’t it? It’s an inner one that forces me to the keyboard, and for me, the starting is the hardest part. (RIP, Tom Petty.)

I was ten years younger when I began this, yet I’m still happily tapping the keys. Maybe I’ll still be doing that ten years hence; I sure hope so. I wonder what sort of culture we’ll have become by then. Hopefully not Eloi. Just kidding. No, I’m not.

Meanwhile, amidst all the pomp and celebration, I’d like to state for the record what should be obvious, but never gets articulated frequently enough:


How To Stick It To The Man

July 10, 2019


Funniest book I’ve read in a long time wasn’t written by a humorist, not exactly. Most of it was written by legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. That makes it even funnier.

HOW TO BECOME A FEDERAL CRIMINAL is a guide to the craziest, most arcane federal laws that are still actually on the books. They’re either in the United States Code (“USC”) if they were statutes passed by Congress, or the Code of Federal Regulations (“CFR”) if they were rules set by executive branch departments and agencies, but they are the no-lie law and you can definitely be punished if you disobey. Author Mike Chase is a criminal defense lawyer who operates the @CrimeADay Twitter feed, and he’s never at a loss for material. This is essentially a greatest hits compilation, styled tongue-in-cheek as a handbook for potential lawbreakers.

It’s a daunting task, even though Mr. Chase limits himself to the federal code and the overwhelming majority of convictions in the U.S. are for violations of state crimes, of which we have fifty different sets. But we’re going to set those aside for now. (Although the “Assimilative Crimes Act” allows the government to adopt any state crime from the state where fed property is located and deem it federal.) The USC/CFR code alone has grown so vast that nobody really knows its scope: “Lawyers from the Department of Justice once tried to count all the federal crimes on the books and gave up. Since then, others have tried and failed.”

Mr. Chase begins with everybody’s favorite federal crime, the one I’ll bet you’ve considered committing at least once if you haven’t actually done so. You know, the mattress tag that says DO NOT REMOVE THIS TAG UNDER PENALTY OF LAW. It’s a real law, and breaking it is punishable by fines and up to a year in prison. But it wasn’t intended for you: in fact, “ultimate consumers” like you are exempt. It’s intended instead to punish unscrupulous mattress dealers. Even the most risible laws on the books are there for some reason: as Mr. Chase writes, “we get many of our laws from people doing dumb, gross, and dangerous things.” And, “Sadly, time has shown that the crimes people will commit in the national parks are as limitless as human stupidity itself. Park visitors have been arrested for taunting bison, taking selfies with bears, and urinating into Old Faithful.”

The U.S. Code splits some interesting hairs. Although it is of course a federal crime to deface paper money, “purely recreational coin mutilation” is fine. So flatten a penny on the railroad tracks or in a penny press machine to your heart’s content; that’s for small-timers, chumps and fancy-pantses. This book is for people who affirmatively want to become actual federal criminals. 

The breadth of the long arm of the law is, well, breathtaking. Here are a few examples, out of context (where they are funniest). You may not use a falconry bird in a movie that isn’t about falconry (film crews actually use lookalike birds or CGI to avoid breaking this law). In 1979 McDonalds discontinued its popular miniature coffee-stirring spoon to avoid running afoul of 21 U.S.C. § 863(a)(2), which prohibits mailing “drug paraphernalia,” after an anti-drug crusader testified to Congress that the “McSpoon” would be just jake for snorting cocaine. If you sell shingle-packed bacon, you’re a criminal if customers can’t see at least 70% of a “representative slice” through the clear plastic on the package. You may not pledge or accept stolen explosives as collateral for a loan. (Stolen explosives, mind.) There are only three forms of pasta with federally mandated shapes and dimensions, “macaroni,” “spaghetti,” and “vermicelli”; ziti and rotini are in the ristorante equivalent of Sergio Leone’s Wild West. You may not hold a child over a moat at the National Zoo. (Remember: dumb, gross and dangerous.) “Knowingly and willingly” moving a table on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) ground can make you a con. Piracy laws dating from the 18th century are still valid, even on the Great Lakes. 

Stupid laws can definitely wear thin quickly beyond one-a-day Twitter length, but two features save this book from drudgery. First is the author’s droll sense of humor. His offhand remarks liven up the most idiotic of statutes. Reporting that swine sexual odor, or “boar taint,” is prohibited, Mr. Chase notes, “Aside from being a great metal band name, boar taint is said to smell like a mix of sweat, urine, and feces. Again, not unlike a metal band.” You may not take a cat on a raft trip in the Grand Canyon, causing him to observe, “The sad part about this rule is that it bars cats from doing the thing they are known to love most: white-water rafting.”

The second is a series of deadpan illustrations, drawn by the author himself, that sell the satirical perspective of a how-to book. With the innocence of a Fifties educational film, they underline the mundanity of the United States Code and make you struggle to imagine what godforsaken real-life behavior it took to get these things codified into law. 


Mr. Chase winds up by swerving into bizarre but true corners of the U.S.C., by naming actual, genuine lawsuits that have been brought in federal court: United States v. Twenty-Five Packages of Panama Hats, United States v. Seventy-Five Boxes of Alleged Pepper, United States v. Thirty-Dozen Packages of Roach Food, and my personal favorite, United States v. 11 1/4 Dozen Packages of Article Labeled in Part Mrs. Moffat’s Shoo Fly Powders for Drunkenness. He also details how cigarette lighter manufacturers are required by law to test the safety of their lighters on at least one hundred children between 3 1/2 and 4 1/4 years of age by deliberately letting the toddlers play with them.

But the pièce de résistance comes in 1971, when the USDA Forest Service introduces a cartoon character named Woodsy Owl. You may remember his slogan: “g-ve a h—t, d-n’t po—ute.” I didn’t print that because it’s against the law to use this slogan for profit without the prior approval of the Secretary of Agriculture, and no blog post (there are ads below) is worth facing federal hard time, Jack. The hilariously banal testimony before both houses of Congress, with Mr. Chase carefully redacting the protected phrase, is laugh-out-loud funny. Leave it to Rep. Gene Snyder (R-KY) to sum it up: “Angela Davis is loose. The Chicago Seven are loose. Ellsberg is loose after giving away the secrets of the country and so on. Now we want to send somebody to jail for saying, ‘G—- a h—-, d—- poll—-.’”

Sometimes stuff like this can make you irritated. But Mr. Chase is such a genial host that ineptitude is reduced to entertainment. Don’t take the government so seriously, he says. That’s not a bad message for these times.


Making an unreasonable gesture to a passing horse is illegal too.



Acting Residential

April 29, 2019


I think I know the secret identities of the (probably only) four original Residents. In fact, I’m so confident that I’ll name them now: Jay Clem, Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, and John Kennedy. Four monikers you and I have never heard of. So who cares? Well, that’s kind of the whole point.

That reveal is germane because when these (probably all) boys set out from Shreveport, Louisiana (one Resident may be from Texas) for the West Coast, to live the bohemian life among like minds that didn’t much exist in the Bayou State, they settled almost immediately on the Theory Of Obscurity. Only the art matters. Only the work. The cult of celebrity demeans and dilutes the end product by its very nature. Therefore we will forever remain anonymous, and go to great lengths to preserve that state. It’s as if Clark Kent were in reality a black hole: there they are, up there live on stage, but they steadfastly decline to acknowledge identity, and that’s why they always wear disguises in public. Sia is working the same street nowadays, but The Residents paved it a very long time ago. Their road work began about 1970.


Devotees believe the soon-to-be Residents came from the visual arts, oriented toward images intended for the optic nerve. (More on eyeballs later.) Arriving in a Bay Area that had already upchucked the excesses of the Summer of Love, they noticed that popular music was reorienting itself from the anything-goes era of Hendrix and Zappa toward a Laurel Canyon-lite soft sound. Icky! They found some instruments and a place to record them and produced avant-garde (actually more like en garde!) tracks that deconstructed the barriers between the givers and receivers of music, as the Fugs had done in New York years earlier. Legend has it that a major label declining their anonymously submitted demo tape sent it back addressed to “Residents.” Aha. A band name!


The original Residents — I say that because there’s no telling just how many different people of either gender have performed or created with or as The Residents over the years — were conceptual artists; they have never professed to be accomplished musicians. Heavily influenced by such mavericks as Captain Beefheart and the Sun Ra Arkestra, they produced freewheeling audio tracks that were energetic, dissonant, thought-provoking, offputting, funny, freaky, fascinating, difficult, and utterly unique in American culture. But although they have released dozens of albums and performed these compositions in live shows, it’s not quite accurate to think of The Residents as a “band.” Again, they are primarily visual artists, and their media are multi.


They were true pioneers of music video (some of their work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where The Residents have been represented in five exhibitions) and digital media (they did two acclaimed discs for Voyager back when CD-ROM was the Hot New Thing). Yet if you leaf through The Residents’ audio catalog, you will nevertheless find among the outre screeching some interesting slices of Americana: covers of songs by Elvis, Hank Williams (they perform “Kaw-Liga” under a sample of the opening beats from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), even John Philip Sousa. And rising from the gleeful cacophony, their remarkable 2002 album DEMONS DANCE ALONE is one of the most sensitive reactions to 9/11 that I’ve ever heard. So their sonic creations are not without meaning. In fact, an indicator I once employed to quickly evaluate the savvy of any newly visited record store, back when there was such a thing, was to head straight to the Rs. (The Virgin Megastore that opened in the Times Square building which also housed my employer, Bantam Books, was outstanding in this regard.)


But The Residents are, above all, provocateurs. Their most famous stage costume features formal top hat and tails, white tie, elegant cane — and a giant veined eyeball mask covering each Resident’s head. They want you to stare back at them just as hard.

The most amazing thing about The Residents is that, without the slightest care for fashion, they have been making a living producing art on their terms for almost fifty years now. How long can one swim upstream? Yet here they still are.


But we may have arrived at an inflection point. Sadly, last November, Hardy Fox, longtime president of The Residents’ business entity, the Cryptic Corporation, passed away at 73. The other three gentlemen named above have also been Cryptic officers. You can see them all interviewed in the wonderful Residents documentary THEORY OF OBSCURITY. They “work for” The Residents, to whom they always refer in the third person. Who knows who’s up on stage these days, but it’s probably not septuagenarians. And who knows how the collective’s creative output is derived? Maybe Hardy’s death will finally break up the group, or maybe obscurity theory will allow it to continue as long as it wants. I so admire how these stalwarts have carved themselves a place in the culture despite all odds, all evens, despite everything. I’d tip my hat, but the eyeballs below it are far too small.


P.S. To hear a curated sample of The Residents’ music, check out the 2017 compilation 80 ACHING ORPHANS, with extensive liner notes by Homer Flynn. To see their amazing and sometimes disturbing music videos, get ahold of the compilation DVD, ICKY FLIX.  


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The Medium Is The Massage

March 28, 2019


Think the world is getting smaller, sometimes even to the point of claustrophobia? You’re not alone. Furthermore, people have always felt that way. The technological pace keeps quickening at an ever-quickening pace. But today we may have reached a point where we can actually notice the acceleration in our lifetimes, for an inchoate feeling of turbulence just outside our grasp. It feels strange because it is strange. But where mass media are concerned, strange is normal.

I think the first real jolt in the media was the invention of movable type. It made books and newspapers easier and cheaper to produce (if much less breathtaking than those monk-inscribed illuminated manuscripts), and it released them from the arcane possession of the privileged and the consecrated. But movable type still had to be set by hand, letter by letter, an excruciatingly laborious process that limited daily newspapers to eight pages until the late 19th century. That’s when the “linotype,” a machine that could set individual letters much faster than any human, blew open the newspaper business and made possible the much greater proliferation of much fatter daily editions. But the next quantum leap in mass communication was already upon us.

“What hath God wrought!” is a phrase from the Book of Numbers (23:23, to be exact), but it’s far better known as the first Morse code message transmitted in the U.S. On May 24, 1844, the “wire” arrived (at least the Baltimore-Washington telegraph line) and changed everything yet again. We had received our news with a time delay ever since town criers were our anchormen. But now the transmission of news had become nearly instantaneous. Newspapers’ timeliness was transformed by the telegraph, especially when press barons got together to share field reporting: the Associated Press and Reuters were formed almost immediately, and the United Press Association and International News Service (which later merged to become UPI) just after the turn of the century. It was amazing: today’s front page could tell readers anywhere what had happened yesterday — or, in the case of afternoon editions, what had happened just this morning. Paul Revere was so passé.

Reading a book or a newspaper is a private, individual act that you can enjoy any time you like. The next step forced the audience to adhere to a schedule. When the first AM radio broadcast was achieved in 1906, the buildout of national networks was still some twenty years away. But for nearly three decades thereafter, commercial radio was far and away the most popular form of home entertainment. Families gathered around the box at nighttime for dramas, comedies, music, and the occasional chat from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Radio listening was still a private, individual (maybe with relatives) act, but now the event was happening everywhere simultaneously. Never before had it been possible to assemble a mass audience in real time. The implications for marketers were enormous.

Movies were once far more important in our cultural life than they are today. In 1930, nearly two thirds of Americans attended a movie at least once a week. But movie attendance peaked in 1946, with 90 million tickets sold, and it isn’t hard to finger a culprit: the emerging medium that could bring movies into your home, and was so mesmerizing that it actually created addicts. Television. The baby boomer generation was the first cohort of Americans who were weaned on the boob tube, which strained for lowest-common-denominator advertising-supported programming and squandered the dramatic potential of pioneers like Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Rod Serling. But then came a series of new media explosions that are still reverberating today — and reforming our world faster than we can process the alteration.

When I worked at Bantam Books, I became friends with Ian Ballantine, the company’s founder, whose office was near mine. Ian was in his late seventies, but unlike most people who have attained that age, he didn’t sit around grousing about some vanished “good old days.” He was the most forward-thinking septuagenarian I’ve ever known, embracing progress with the fervor of an adolescent. One day I asked him, what’s the biggest technological leap of your lifetime? Without hesitation he answered, “Aviation.” He batted the question back to me. “The personal computer,” I said. But that was some twenty years ago. Now I still wouldn’t hesitate, but my answer would be different. Now I’d have to say, “the Internet.”

We would still be restricted to processing words and slinging spreadsheets were it not for the power of near-instantaneous individual communication, which has come a long way in a short time. When Ian and I were chatting, a generation ago, I was Bantam’s titular editor for Arthur C. Clarke. Sadly, I didn’t get to work on any fiction with Sir Arthur, but there are many housekeeping duties inside a big publishing house that require regular contact — for example, we always informed the author and agent whenever a book of theirs went back to press. Occasionally I had questions. But I was in New York and Sir Arthur lived in Sri Lanka, halfway around the world. One day I noticed a PC connected to a dial-up modem, the only one on our floor. I brought in one of those formerly ubiquitous AOL disks and sent Sir Arthur an email. By the time I got to the office the next day, my answer was already waiting for me. We went back and forth like this, one emailing while the other slept. The main reason I remember this is that one of Arthur C. Clarke’s replies marveled at this new super-speedy form of communication; it was “so science fictional!” This from the man who proposed the geosynchronous communications satellite! And by now, having to wait overnight for a reply already seems rather quaint, doesn’t it?

Digital technology, and its communication at electronic speed, are upending entire industries and altering the way we process information. Mass media are still mass media, but we also consume them as private, individual acts: the great, almost unimaginable numbers of users represent an aggregate, not a coordinated movement. Pondering is becoming extinct: whenever a group is unable to remember a specific fact, somebody will whip out a smartphone and the answer is instants away. The major movie studios are now forced to focus on blockbusters, the presentation of spectacle, because contemporary home entertainment gear is getting close to replicating the experience of seeing a movie in a theater; it’s up to the moguls to top that somehow. The “Big Five” book publishers have all but abandoned the “midlist” in favor of “brand name” authors or newsmakers whose candles burn briefly indeed. Newspaper print editions are shrinking and dying, and with them goes local reportage that helps us sift truth from chatter.

Certainly there are upsides. The rise of digital media can be empowering. You might not have $100 million to spend on a superhero movie, but it’s cheaper and faster to shoot a modestly-budgeted independent film than ever before. You no longer need to pay a kingly hourly rate to a fancy recording studio or mastering plant. You can self-publish a book and have it on sale at the largest retailer on earth within a few minutes. You can become your own newspaper, specializing on a location or niche interest. Even radio is making a comeback with the rise of podcasts. There’s lots to love.

The problem is that media are inundating us, faster and faster, led by the din of “commenters” whom we’d cross the room to escape at any cocktail party — yet when we do escape them we escape dissenting views, which isn’t healthy for a society. We can feel our own attention spans contracting; what will life be like for children who have never known anything else? When will we finally lose the patience to sit through a two-hour movie, let alone a 500-page book? Or pay attention to somebody with whom we emphatically disagree?

All we know for sure is that we don’t know. “The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan (I just confirmed the spelling of his last name on Google), but with a world’s worth of information at our fingertips, maybe instead it’s become the massage: lulling us into thinking we’re smarter and more erudite than we actually are. Absent a nuclear attack’s electromagnetic pulse, there’s no going back. We’re headed into a world almost unthinkable only a quarter century ago, moving faster than the ability of most futurists to speculate. We can only watch in wonder and try our best to enjoy the ride.


My Sundance 2019

February 11, 2019


We played tag with the polar vortex this year: we barely got out of Dodge and spent an hour on the tarmac as horizontal snow poured, plows worked the runway, and we were de-iced. The next day there were subzero wind chills in New York, but we were already out West, where we missed a huge snowfall and came back just before Park City slipped into the teens. By that time it was damn near balmy back home. I like weather that cooperates.


THE TOMORROW MAN*** (World Premiere) The first feature by Noble Jones, a veteran of music videos and second-unit crews (including THE SOCIAL NETWORK). It’s a romance, fairly b-flat in structure, but with one interesting twist: the couple are seniors. John Lithgow is an end-of-the-world “prepper” who spends his money on survivalist goods rather than the medications he needs, and Blythe Danner is still suffering from the long-ago trauma of losing her daughter. These sad sacks clearly need some help, and they find it in each other. There are complications, of course — boy has to lose girl in the classic plot — but they’re back together for a startling ending you’ll remember more than the body of the picture. 


LIGHT FROM LIGHT** An investigator of paranormal events, a single mom who has had dreams that predict the future, is introduced to a new widower who suspects that his wife is haunting their farmhouse. This is a quiet movie which is all about mood, with tightly controlled performances by Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan that fairly blend into the east Tennessee setting. Their characters are full of regret but cling to the possibility of discovering something outside their understanding. This film is less chilling than it is calming, and that can wear on the viewer. 


SHARE*** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting: Rhianne Barreto) Lately there have been interesting attempts by artists to address the effect of social media on youth culture. It’s a phenomenon that’s still developing, but films like SEARCHING, EIGHTH GRADE and INGRID GOES WEST at least manage to propose the topic. Here, a high-school sophomore has too much to drink at a party, and cell-phone videos of her half-dressed and incoherent go viral but she can’t remember a thing. Who took them? Did anything worse happen? Should she bring the law into this situation? Will she ever be able to live it down? Writer-director Pippa Bianco and a delicate performance by Rhianne Barreto peg the girl’s confusion and disorientation as the situation metastasizes at electronic speed. Compellingly, she is surrounded by people with good intentions, including her parents, but it’s as if you first have to identify a problem before you can begin to solve it offline.


THE MUSTANG*** (World Premiere) A hulking convict who shuns human contact enters a rehabilitation program in which prisoners train wild mustangs in the Nevada desert. As he becomes a horseman, he discovers that he can see himself in the eyes of a particularly unruly animal. I guess the astonishing THE RIDER spoiled me, because despite the best efforts of all concerned, I had a little trouble buying the training process: to me, it felt like five minutes or so was missing. One moment he manages to touch his horse, then the cut is to him riding with a saddle — we didn’t get to see any gradual progress. Still, Matthias Schoenaerts does a fine job in the lead, even a lot of convincing riding. Though this is a work of fiction, there are actual programs like this in several states in the Southwest. The mustang as metaphor is a bit on-the-nose, but it contributes to a touching conclusion.


THE FAREWELL***** My favorite movie this year. As a title card explains, it’s “based on a true lie.” The beloved grandmother of an assimilated Chinese-American woman is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, but per Chinese custom her relatives decide not to tell her so that her final days will be happy ones. Instead, they schedule a wedding back in China which will also serve as a reunion — and, secretly, a chance to say goodbye to “Nai Nai.” This situation actually happened to writer-director Lulu Wang (thus the “true lie”), and the notion of grandma giddy with delight at being surrounded by far-off family while everyone else is choking back tears lends itself to both guffaws and sniffles in Wang’s deft hands. Awkwafina is terrific as the director’s surrogate. Much of the picture takes place in China and is in Mandarin with subtitles (the American family is fluent in English but nobody much else is). But despite the exotic location and the language barrier (and of course the central custom which does not translate to the West), you’re constantly made aware of the universality of human experience. You discover much more in common with this Eastern clan than differences: this could be your family. 


TO THE STARS**** In a small Oklahoma town in the mid-Sixties, a mousy schoolgirl strikes up a friendship with the new girl, a charismatic charmer who coaxes her inner self forward. That’s the bare-bones description, but this beautiful film is far more subtle. At the edge of the coming-of-age story is the role of women in what might as well be the Fifties but is soon about to change. The actress Kara Hayward, who plays the nerd, is actually gorgeous, and is debeautified until she can blossom on camera, but we have come to accept that in the fantasy world of the movies. The sublime black-and-white cinematography makes it look as if the picture had been shot during the period. It’s an actor’s piece, with fine work by everyone, but particularly affecting is Tony Hale, playing way against type.


BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON**** (Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic) A fictionalized version of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s real-life best friend is a “hot mess” who finally gets tired of fat-shaming and begins training to run the New York City Marathon along with two pals. It doesn’t go smoothly. She is played to perfection by Jillian Bell, who kicks everything off with a brilliant bit of wise-assy rat-a-tat improv as she tears tickets at an off-off-Broadway theater. From there humor and pathos swirl around each other (Colaizzo is an award-winning playwright and it shows) as we cross our fingers in honor of the young woman’s grit and determination. There are some prosthetics used in the earliest scenes, but Bell actually took weight off during the shoot. This is a real crowd pleaser and will be a tonic for anyone who doesn’t yet accept that, yes, you can take charge of your own life.


TROOP ZERO** (World Premiere) This movie is so derivative that you can actually pitch it as a High Concept: “REVENGE OF THE NERDS, but with Brownies.” We’re in rural Georgia in 1977, and a nine-year-old moppet who’s obsessed with space discovers that the winner of the upcoming “Birdie Jamboree” talent show will get to record a message to any ETs for NASA’s Voyager project. At first she tries to join the existing troop, but she’s far too unhip for the snobbish Birdies, so she uses a loophole in their rules to form her own ragtag troop of lovable misfits, etc etc. The flick’s greatest asset is a glowing Mckenna Grace as the young instigator. The likes of Viola Davis, Jim Gaffigan and Allison Janney (as the snooty school principal) cannot rise above the material, which nevertheless may very well be enjoyable and even empowering for girls of the troop’s age.


THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND**** (World Premiere) (Alfred P. Sloan Prize) A terrific true story of ingenuity and determination, written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who makes you mad that somebody who looks that good can also be that talented. A young boy in Malawi, raised by hardscrabble farmers (the director plays his father), shows tremendous aptitude in school, particularly in the area of electronics. When forest-clearing and poor weather conspire to cause a famine, he researches a possible solution in the school library, even surreptitiously after he is expelled because his parents can no longer afford tuition. Ejiofor draws a heartbreaking picture of a good man who understands the value of education for his children, but has no time for theoretics when he’s trying to stave off starvation. Dick Pope’s location cinematography is gorgeous, and Maxwell Simba in the title role is a real find. 


EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE*** (World Premiere) The documentarian Joe Berlinger dramatizes the multi-state rampage of pretty-boy serial killer Ted Bundy, with pretty-boy Zach Efron doing the acting honors. But for the most part the camera averts its eye from murder and mayhem in favor of Ted’s longtime relationship with single mom Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), who only gradually begins to realize that the wonderful, daughter-loving law student she’s been seeing might actually be a vicious sociopath. Efron’s Bundy seems over the top until some of the actual footage (his murder trial in Florida was the first one covered by a camera) during the end-credit roll reveals that, as far as the public appearances, Berlinger is more replicating than inventing. The title comes from the mouth of Bundy’s judge, played here by John Malkovich. This movie is well made but only intermittently interesting, unless you really care to know what it was like to be Ted Bundy’s girlfriend. Bundy’s dual personality (he’s a lady-killer in more ways than one, but only the public face is presented here: you have to infer the monster) gives Efron a lot to chew on, and he masticates his ass off.


THE REPORT**** (World Premiere) Behind the scenes as Senate staffers investigate the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program instigated after 9/11. Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a driven aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, very fine), who becomes ever more scandalized by the use of “EIT,” or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA’s infamous euphemism for torture. Writer-director Scott Z. Burns shows just enough horrifying EIT in flashback to give us the idea without descending into torture porn, but this is mainly a bureaucratic battle, one yobbo against a powerful army of stonewalling spooks. The great Ted Levine is the film’s smarmy bad guy — the CIA director! As we now know, EIT are brutal, immoral and ineffective, even though there are still some die-hard fans today (Donald Trump seems to be one). I knew very little about the machinations behind how we came to understand the atrocities which were once perpetrated in our names, and though this is not a documentary, it gave me a better idea of the enormity of the struggle.


LATE NIGHT**** (World Premiere) A charming confection that should be very popular, thanks to star power and a familiar subject: tv talk shows. In this movie fantasy world, there is a female late-night host, played by Emma Thompson with hilarious crotchety imperiousness (she assigns numbers to her writers so she won’t have to remember their names). She has had a long, successful run but is showing signs of creative decay, so is goaded into a writers-room “diversity hire,” a funny young woman of color played by the movie’s screenwriter, Mindy Kaling. You can tell where the story’s going to go within the first five minutes, but it’s still fun to see it happen, and Thompson is obviously having a wonderful time as the Cruella de Vil of television. The script is very sharp and full of insider authenticity. It’s the closest thing to a commercial slam-dunk that I saw this year.


THE SOUVENIR* (Grand Jury Prize: World Dramatic) One of those jury mysteries that reminded Sundance old-timers of the notorious PRIMER, which inexplicably won two awards fifteen years ago. This turgid, improvisatory goulash is about a naive filmmaker who has the misfortune to share her first love affair with a horrible person who soaks her dry financially and emotionally. The actress is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, and mom also appears. Watching this movie is a debilitating chore; it feels twice as long as it is. And for one final shock, get this: according to IMDb, there’s a sequel in pre-production!


ONE CHILD NATION**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary) A fascinating and frightening documentary on the effects of China’s One Child Policy, which forcibly restricted family size for more than thirty years for fear of overpopulation, but was then rescinded when it had the opposite effect. Directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang emphasize the tragedy visited on individual human beings. The concept of being prohibited from raising more than one child is almost incomprehensible to Americans, but the loss of that freedom is only the first of the consequences, many of them horrific. Forced sterilization is rampant. Unauthorized infants, nearly all girls, are abandoned in public markets so frequently that a cottage adoption industry forms. One woman who was responsible for thousands of state-sponsored abortions, even murders, bears such a burden that she became a midwife and now strives to bring forth lives that she once ended. The relentless propaganda machine that supported this policy is on view, with freshly-scrubbed performers spouting the party line in song. Wang, a new mother herself, has her child in tow as she learns secrets from her own family’s past, making her investigation intensely personal. An eye-opening revelation about a holocaust that happened under Westerners’ radar.

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CLEMENCY**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic) A searing drama about capital punishment. It begins with a botched execution, shown in detail so we get familiar with the procedure, which will be vital at the climax. Alfre Woodard is the female (a nice touch, courtesy of director-screenwriter Chinonye Chukwu) warden of a maximum-security prison, and she has presided over so much sanctioned carnage that it’s eating away at her soul. It’s becoming harder to snap out of it and relate to her husband (a terrific Wendell Pierce). Meanwhile, the next final date is looming for an inmate with whom the warden is forming a personal bond — always counterindicated on death row. Prison dramas are full of meaty parts, but I was really struck by Aldis Hodge as the inmate; he’s been working for some time now but I’d never seen him before. He’s sensational in this flick. Chukwu maintains a foreboding intensity that never lets up, even when we mercifully escape the prison for domestic scenes at the warden’s home. A fine job.


KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE*** (Audience Award: U.S. Documentary) A fly-on-the-wall look at the long-shot candidacies of four women in the 2018 midterm elections. We watch them campaigning, speaking, working the phones, juggling home life with the all-consuming challenges they have accepted. The bad news is that three of the women — Amy Vilela in Nevada, Cori Bush in Missouri and Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia — lost their elections. The good news is that the fourth is New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I assume there’s lots of unused footage of the first three candidates, but Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory over ten-term incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley was the biggest upset of the year and, with the full benefit of hindsight, she dominates the movie. One thing all four women had in common were patronizing, well-connected opponents; another was the fierce conviction that the system was broken and that the solution was ordinary citizens presenting themselves for office. They were right: even the valiant campaigns of the losers make you feel better about your country.


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