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Identity Crisis: Exploitation

Identity Crisis is not misogynist. (I’m assuming somebody actually claimed it is. I’m sure somebody did. I said [in “Brief Reviews of Comics”] it was stupid that all the characters are obsessed with supervillains raping and murdering their girlfriends or wives (or ex-wives, although the Atom keeps referring to Jean Loring simply as his “wife” for some reason) (including Green Arrow worrying about Black Canary) but nobody is even a little worried that supervillains might rape and murder the women superheroes’ boyfriends or husbands. Well, I’m sure everybody’s very worried about the boyfriends and husbands as well, probably even about Ma and Pa Kent, but somehow nobody mentions these other people while blathering on about how supervillains are targeting their wives [or ex-wives, but nobody in the story ever remembers Jean Loring is an ex-wife].) Identity Crisis is not misogynist. It’s exploitative. It exploits every male comics reader who think it’s his duty as a man to protect women. It exploits the sort of man whose response to learning of a female friend’s assault is to want to injure or kill the attacker. It exploits the sort of man who believes women shouldn’t serve in the military because the male soldiers will be too worried about protecting the women to do their own jobs right.

Not every story that deals with these themes is exploitative—take Animal Man. Grant Morrison deals with the exploitative nature of the themes. I don’t have access to Animal Man right now so I can’t quote directly, but in issue #26, Morrison admits to Buddy Baker that he only killed off Buddy’s wife and children because he’d run out of good ideas and hoped to pump some excitement into the series. (Not that I believe Morrison had really run out of ideas, but he claimed to have for the sake of a good story.) Buddy and Ellen were an ideal couple for producing gripping narrative: their relationship was taut with tensions waiting to blow up into engaging conflict, mostly about Buddy’s idealistic and self-absorbed twin hobbies of superheroing and animal-rights activism. When Buddy finds Ellen and their children dead on the kitchen floor, all the possibilities of those conflicts are cut off, to be replaced by the narrow conflict of the revenge fantasy.

The revenge plot is easy to churn out: hero has a loved one, villain kills loved on, hero (kills villain / brings villain to justice / beats villain to a pulp before bring him [or, less often, her] to justice). There are nuances and opportunities for more interesting stories, but writers who’ve yoked themselves to the revenge plot rarely use them—it’s so much easier to stick to the basic formula. Loved ones of the hero killed off too soon to be defined beyond their relationships to the hero are an early warning sign of a creatively bankrupt story.

Words and Phrases You Should Never Use

  • “X does not a Y make” or “X a Y does not make”

    Why not? Because you sound like a pretentious asshole. Also because you probably sound stupid, because it’s very hard to get the meter of the sentence right. “Illiteracy does not make a good electorate” sounds fine, “Illiteracy does not a good electorate make” is clunky and clumsy.

    Exception: You’re Richard Lovelace.

  • “Methinks”

    Why not? Because you sound like a pretentious asshole. Alternately, because maybe you think it’s funny to talk like a pirate for no good reason, but it’s actually not.

    Exception: You’re really a pirate.

  • “Pot, meet kettle” and other glib rephrasings of cliches

    Why not? Because you sound like you’re try way too hard to be clever, but everybody can tell you’re not really clever.

    Exception: The Black Adder theme song.

Street Angel #2-3

Street Angel in “INCAdinkaDOOM” and “Going Street to Hell”
Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca

Call me a curmudgeon, but I didn’t much enjoy Street Angel #2. It’s amusing, but the humor slips too far into pointless silliness. It reads like a creative-writing class assignment gone awry: pull five unrelated plot elements out of a hat and write a story about them. Some of it works—the Incan sun god Inti sending Cortez and his men to modern Wilkesborough seems like a fine premise. The Irish astronaut Cosmick is fun (and his linguistic training to prepare him for contact with extraterrestrial life is the issue’s funniest joke), but he begs (in the text itself, even) to get his own story. In “INCAdinkaDOOM,” he only gets in the way. Inti’s Incan African hip-hop/gangsta business exectuive act is unfortunate and inexplicable. That Cortez and his men are pirates, complete with peg legs, pirate hates and “Yars!” is unfortunate and inexplicable—even moreso in juxtaposition with Gangsta Inti. I think I see the creative reasoning that must have gone into the piratical conquistadors: Ninjas feature centrally in “INCAdinkaDOOM,” and I believe they featured centrally in the first issue of Street Angel. Given an apparent necessity of ninjas in Street Girl and the Incans vs. Cortez vs. Street Girl premise of this issue, it makes sense (well, not really, but let’s say it does for the sake of my point) to have the Spaniards be pirates to exploit the ancient pirate vs. ninja vendetta. Everybodys knows, right, pirates are funny, and ninjas are funny, and pirates vs. ninjas is funniest? Well, it was funny for a couple minutes the first time I saw the joke on some web site. It’s conceptually funny, you can see how somebody might do a funny joke about pirates fighting ninjas. Rugg and Maruca make the mistake, too tragically common among humorists, of referencing a funny concept and relying on the conceptual funniness instead of working it into an actual joke that’s funny in practice. Roger Ebert often says in his reviews of unsuccessful comedies that a character in a silly hat isn’t funny—but if the character doesn’t know she’s got a silly hat on, you have the potential for real humor. It’s a simplistic example, but the idea is sound: referencing a silly thing offers little entertainment until you place them in a situation that exploits it for a comic effect beyond the basic silliness. Street Angel says, “Look, pirates vs. ninjas—eh!” and the joke falls flat.

Incan African gangsta sun gods, jokes about the lack of female Incan virgins available for sacrifice, pirates, ninjas, Irish astronauts—maybe there’s some funny story to be told about all these themes together, but Street Angel simply piles one on top of the other senselessly. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

“Going Street to Hell,” on the other hand, is lots of fun. The tone is different, darker and more ominous, but the core of the second issue’s sense of humor remains: Street Angel is dumped in the middle of a ridiculous supernatural battle and finds herself deeply unimpressed with all involved. Actually, what’s different this issue isn’t that the tone is darker, but that it has a tone at all—issue #2 had too much disconnected randomness from one moment to the next ever to develop one clearly. In issue #3, Rugg and Maruca confine themselves to one coherent and sensical premise—Christians vs. Satanists—which allows them to develop jokes that complement each other rather than distract from each other. Throwaway gags (including the valiant Bald Eagle, who becomes a literal throwaway gag) grow and send roots into the meaty heart of the story. Bald Eagle’s nightmare of soccer-playing sharks is as nonsensical as anything in issue #2, but it connects to the skewed Christian themes in “Going Street to Hell” and feeds on them until Bald Eagle takes on a life of his own and becomes a genuinely engaging character. Even the art looks better this issue—the stark black-and-white style, with many of the backgrounds hidden pure black, provides a strong visual foundation for the narrative to play off of.

As an interesting side note, John Jakala’s response to Street Angel is pretty much exactly the opposite of mine, at least w/r/t tone:

…Mastery of tone. In previous issues, everything “fit” no matter how odd or insane it seemed. In this issue, however, the humor feels out of place given the horrific elements that permeate the tale.

I haven’t read issue #1, so I have no idea how it relates to #2 or #3. “INCAdinkaDOOM” appears to be the work of artists with some good ideas but not enough control or discipline—and “Going Street Hell” appears to be the work of confident artists who know exactly what they’re doing. I have no idea what to expect from issue #4, then, but what I’ve read so far has convinced me to find out.

Wicker Park

Rose and I saw Wicker Park this weekend—which, as you’ll see if you check out Rotten Tomatoes, is not generally loved by critics (22% of the reviews are positive). Nor, judging by the reactions of certain members of the audience with whom we shared our theater on Saturday (and I can confidently say that these certain members are representative of the levels of intelligence, maturity, and critical-reading ability cultivated by many if not most Americans), will the movie go over well with the general public. The row behind us in the theater held two young teenaged girls, their middle-aged mother, and a middle-aged man. The girls giggled helplessly through the entire movie—especially during the sex scenes, which they thought were “sick.” The adults managed to restrain themselves until the climactic scene, when they began making snide comments to cover their abject confusion at the movie. I don’t really blame these people for their bad behavior—they’ve probably all been stunted by too many viewings of The Rock and Jersey Girl. They simply don’t have the mental faculties to grasp movies that deal in ambiguity, thoughtfulness, and emotional complexity. Wicker Park demands the viewer consider and even sympathize with the perspective of people who do bad things, and these people were simply not mature enough to abandon the comfort of dividing the characters into heroes and villains. I don’t blame them for their sad stupidity (or maybe just intellectual laziness), but I do wish they’d stayed out of my theater and seen something more appropriate to their intelligence, like Without a Paddle.

(Not that I want to equate the critics who reviewed the movie with the idiots who watched it with Rose and me. Most of the critics listed on Rotten Tomatoes seem to have reasonably sophisticated reasons for disliking the movie.)

Anyway, Rose and I enjoyed the movie. It’s a remake of the French L’Appartement. Matthew is a talented advertising designer, engaged to his boss’s sister Rebecca, and about to fly to China to seal a deal with a Chinese client of the ad agency. This isn’t the life he wants, and he drifts through it with a sense of dissatisfaction. He’s still hung up on a woman named Lisa, who apparently dumped him and disappeared from his life two years ago. He moved to New York after Lisa left, but he returned to Chicago a couple months before the movie begins. Going to a dinner meeting with representatives of the Chinese client, he runs into an old friend, Luke, whom he dropped when he moved to New York. Luke’s reappearance in Matt’s life foreshadows another specter from the past: he thinks he hears Lisa in a private phone booth in the restaurant, but she runs away (from him?) before he can confront her, breaking her shoe on the way out. The lure of finally solving the Lisa mystery outweighs Matt’s sense of responsibility to his fianc????e and his employer—he cancels his plane ticket, calls ahead to China claiming he’s sick and will be a few days late, and soon is hanging out at Luke’s apartment and applying his amateur sleuthing skills to track down Lisa. He finds a hotel key where she dropped it in the restaurant, breaks into her hotel room, steals her compact, and promptly falls unconscious as some sleeping pills Rebecca gave him take effect. Eventually he tracks her to her apartment, where he spies as an apparent ex-lover slips his key to the apartment under the door along with a farewell note. Matt steals the key and replaces the other guy’s note with one of his own. Later, he breaks into the apartment to wait for Lisa to return. Lisa does return—but it’s not his Lisa. She was at the restaurant the other day, she did run out and break her shoe, she did have the hotel room Matt broke into, the compact is hers—but she’s not the right Lisa. Even though she looked (from behind, at least) and sounded exactly like the right Lisa in the restaurant. What’s going on?

Matt’s stalker-like mission to find Lisa is juxtaposed with flashbacks to his first meeting and early relationship with Lisa. He, in fact, met her when he began stalking her. His first sight of her was in a video tape he watched when he was fixing her video camera (he worked in a camera store two years ago). His second was when he accidentally caught her onscreen on the sidewalk outside the store while playing with a video camera. After that, he followed her to the studio where she practiced dance, then pretended to be a shoe salesperson to get close enough to ask her out. Alas, she was onto his stalkerish ways, but she agreed to go out for coffee anyway.

I don’t usually bother avoiding spoilers, but I’m reluctant to give too much of this movie away to anybody who hasn’t seen it. A lot of the fun of the movie is watching the clockwork of the plot tick along and gradually break down, and observing how deftly the story sidesteps predictability. (It’s not that the story is really unpredictable or surprising, but the twisty plot is so clever that it never lets you get comfortable knowing what’s going to happen. Anybody who complains about the predictability of the plot is probably being disingenuous.) So, given my reluctance to spoil the movie, I warn you now that I’m going to give away the answers to some mysteries.

Wicker Park seems to follow the standard “breakdown of reality” narrative, as in stories like Vanilla Sky and many of Philip K. Dick’s novels: a regular, usually bland and mundane, protagonist sleepwalks through life, often vaguely dissatisfied, until he or she notices some little crack in reality, some small inconsistency or inexplicable oddness. Exploration of the crack leads to more and larger cracks, until finally the very foundations of the world shatter and the protagonist spirals down a vortex of insanity—or maybe finds a doorway and steps out into some new world. These stories usually offer a literal breaking of reality, on a cosmological level, but Wicker Park gives the formula a twist: there’s a seemingly mundane force behind the mysterious events tearing apart Matt’s life. Matt’s investigations, and the flashbacks to various important backstory events, suggest conspiracies and other sinister goings on, but it turns out that a woman named Alex who is in love with and/or obsessed with both Matt and Lisa has been manipulating them to keep them apart. Two years ago, Matt had asked Lisa to move to New York with him, and she wanted to go but couldn’t tell him in person (she had been selected to replace a famous dancer on a European tour and needed to leave immediately). She asked her friend Alex to deliver a letter to Matt, but Alex didn’t deliver the letter and told Lisa she found Matt in bed with another woman. Matt thought Lisa had dumped him, Lisa thought Matt had dumped her. Two years later, Alex is meeting Lisa in the same restaurant where Matt is meeting with his Chinese clients. Alex gets Lisa out of the restaurant with some quick maneuvering on a pay phone—but not before Matt thinks he sees her. The rest of the movie spans three days in which Alex insinuates herself into Matt’s life so she can manipulate both Lisa and Matt to keep them from finding each other. Her ruse finally collapses, though. She’s been dating Luke, at first without realizing the connection and later in order to keep tabs on Matt. By the closing scenes of the movie, the smooth clockwork of Alex’s machinations has transformed into a rickety love quadrangle that’s bound to implode on itself at any moment.

The answer to the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance is a case of mundane romantic obsession and manipulation, but the movie amplifies and skews it all until it takes on frightening proportions. It reminds me of The Usual Suspects, which takes a mundane activity (lying to cops to cover up a crime) and amplifies it until it becomes a horror story of a corrupted world, controlled by a man so powerful in his deceit that he might as well be the Devil himself, the Prince of Lies. Alex doesn’t achieve the terrifying power of Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze/the Devil in The Usual Suspects, but her deceit is nearly as devastating. The most important thing to realize about Wicker Park (something that entirely escaped the sadly stupid audience members behind us) is that she did fail—she’s only human.

The dominant theme in the movie, both visually and narratively, is perspective. What people see and why is central. Obviously, this is central to Alex’s plot: she strives to control what everybody sees. There’s a recurring split-screen visual motif used to show what people see. One half of the screen contains a character who is looking at something, the other half shows the object of observation from the character’s point of view. The split-screen motif is cleverly echoed in the flashback scene in which Matt first sees Lisa—he stands in the foreground aiming the camera, while the background is filled with TV screens displaying his tracking shot of Lisa. The movie constantly reminds us that the images on the movie screen are subjective, not objective. There are scenes shot from an objective perspective, such as one in which Matt and Lisa stand ten feet apart on a sidewalk and miss noticing each other by less than a second, but those scenes also emphasize the limitations 0f what we see.

There’s a more subtle use of the perspective theme in the narrative. Alex is superficially the bad guy of the story, Matt is superficially the beleageured hero, but only because the story is told from Matt’s perspective. He and Alex are both stalkers, but Matt’s stalking Lisa seems more harmless because nothing too bad comes of it. Stalking people you’ve never met to get close enough to ask them on a date, breaking into a hotel room and apartment you think belong to somebody you knew a couple years ago, and screwing your employer and dumping your fianc????e in an airport because you’ve rediscovered an old girlfriend you wish you’d never lost—these crimes of Matt’s are hardly less destructive and irresponsible than Alex’s. Matt and Lisa have a sweet reunion at the end of the movie, but it’s hard to be happy for them since the reunion occurs seconds after Matt cruelly and unceremoniously boots Rebecca out of his life. The movie makes Matt look like the hero by pushing the results of his destructive behavior to the margins, but a small alteration of perspective makes him as villainous as Alex.

Comment Spam

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Brief History Of Linux (#13)
Wanted: Eunuchs programmers

Everything you know about the creation of the Unix operating system is wrong. We have uncovered the truth: Unix was a conspiracy hatched by Ritchie and Thompson to thwart the AT&T monopoly that they worked for. The system, code-named EUNUCHS (Electronic UNtrustworthy User-Condemning Horrible System), was horribly conceived, just as they had planned.

The OS, quickly renamed to a more respectable “Unix,” was adopted first by Ma Bell????????s Patent Department and then by the rest of the monopoly. AT&T saw an inexpensive, multi-user, portable operating system that it had all rights to; the authors, however, saw a horrible, multi-crashing system that the Evil Ma Bell Empire would become hopelessly dependent on. AT&T would go bankrupt trying to maintain the system and eventually collapse.

That didn????????t happen. Ritchie and Thompson were too talented to create a crappy operating system; no matter how hard they tried the system was too good. Their last ditch effort to sabotage the system by recoding it obfuscated C was unsuccessful. Before long Unix spread outside of Bell Labs and their conspiracy collapsed.

The Manchurian Candidates 2: Corporations

Part two of a two(?)-part post. See The Manchurian Candidates 1: Communists. Yesterday was John Frankenheimer’s 1962 The Manchurian Candidate, today is Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version.

First of all, a question. Does anybody know what year the new movie takes place? Rose is convinced she saw a “2008″ somewhere in the movie, but I did not and assumed the year was 2004. When the events of the movie occur is important. The 1962 Candidate is set in 1956, making it alternate history. It’s not about what is happening or what will happen, but about what might have happened. The movie’s concern is not paranoid speculation about Communist plots, but criticism of that paranoia.

I wrote yesterday that the movie validates McCarthyist fear even as it criticizes it—except that the validation is subverted by the fact that the object of fear is created through manipulation of fear. The alternate history further subverts. If the movie were set in the future, there would be room for speculation as to the possibility of a real Communist plot. But set in the past (or the present time, creating an alternate present), the movie explicitly discourages such speculation by emphasizing the fictionality of the threat. You can still speculate about possible Communist plots, certainly, but the alternate history is a subtle warning that speculation isn’t the point.

The 1962 Candidate, set in 1956, is about a Communist conspiracy that manipulates anti-Commie fear to turn a fictional threat of Commie infiltration into a real threat. The 2004 Candidate is about a plot to manipulate fear that’s going on now, in the real world. The United States government is manipulating public fear and insecurity, for good or ill, to promote the War on Terror(ism). (This isn’t a new tactic for the governments—in fact, it’s exactly what Senator McCarthy was doing.) If the movie is set in 2004, it’s metaphorically about that manipulation of fear. If it’s set in 2008, it enters the scary realm of possibility. The movie’s residence in the realm of implausibility does little to soften its speculative power. Rogue government officials and corporate officers are probably not going to be endorsing a science-fictional mind-controlled candidate in the 2008 elections—but people with power are capable of inventing, and have actually and will continue to invent, more viable and no less drastic conspiracies.

The modern equivalent of Commies would be Islamic terrorists (although planting sleepers in the White House isn’t really their style), but the new movie abandons the old movie’s specter of an outside threat. Terrorism is a constant present in the movie, but never a direct one. There are news reports of terrorist attacks, orange and red terror(ism) alerts, the familiar political debate of security against outsider terrorist vs. civil liberties for American citizens—but there are no terrorists or terrorist attacks. The terrorists are phantoms, much less substantial than the fear of terrorism. The old Candidate is resolutely anti-Communist even as it criticizes McCarthyism, but the new movie focuses its critique solely on current American political rhetoric. (An absence of anti-terrorist sentiment is not the same as implicit approval of terrorism.)

The older movie is at least a little optimistic, letting rationalism and democracy save the day as Ben Marco breaks his brainwashing and breaks out Raymond Shaw as well. It’s not a great victory for America—the government would probably have fallen to the Commies if not for Raymond’s desperate intervention—but it’s more than the new movie offers. Frank Sinatra’s Ben Marco is basically a good guy who seems to be going crazy for a while but manages to pull himself together and convince his Army superiors about the Commie conspiracy. Denzel Washington’s Ben seems to begin along the same trajectory, but he never pulls out of the descent into madness—he never manages to convince the Army, and most of the people who believe either disappear or turn out to be working for the other side. Delp seems to be Ben’s friend, but he used to work for Manchurian International making brain implants. And after Delp helps Ben recover his hidden memories, Delp disappears—did the conspiracy get rid of him, or was he working for them all along, Ben’s recovery of his memories merely part of their plan? Rosie seems to be helping Ben—but why is she helping? (More on Rosie below.) Ben seems to be the only character in the story definitely not in on the conspiracy—until that scene in the classroom on election day, when Raymond asks him why he never wondered if the conspiracy knew he was going to discover the truth. What if Ben’s discovery of the truth and attempts to convince people of it are only another part of the conspiracy’s byzantine plot? Frank Sinatra saved us from the Communists, but now there’s nobody to save us from ourselves.

The Rosie subplot in the new movie may be the most brilliant evocation of conspiracy-theory paranoia I’ve seen on film. Janet Leigh’s Rosie is intriguing and worrying, but Kimberly Elise’s is downright scary. This Rosie is definitely spying on Ben—she works for the FBI. She seems to be trying to protect him. Why? The obvious answer is that she was sent to keep an eye on him after the Army decided he was unstable and dangerous to Raymond, and that she gradually becomes convinced that Ben is right about the conspiracy and decides to help him defeat it or at least protect him from it. The Manchurian Candidate is the sort of movie that makes you distrust anything that can be described as the “obvious” answer, especially if the obvious answer makes somebody seem trustworthy. Rosie is as untrustworthy as any character in the movie, but the disturbing thing about her is that her allegiance is genuinely unknowable. Her actions make it look superficially like she’s working against the conspiracy or at least doesn’t know it exists—she never does anything that makes her obviously a conspirator. She never even does anything that might arouse suspicion. But she also never does anything that can’t be interpreted as benefiting the conspiracy. Why does she shoot but not kill Ben after he assassinates Raymond and Eleanor Shaw? Was it an panicked impulse reaction, or was she trying to make it look like he’d been killed? For whose benefit? Why does she erase all records of his being in the building where the assassination took place? Is she simply protecting him from the consequences of the murders he was brainwashed into committing (or hiding him from the remnants of the conspiracy), or is she covering up for the conspiracy? Who’s really in charge of the investigation of the secret brainwashing hospital at the end of the movie?

The new The Manchurian Candidate isn’t exactly pessimistic. It doesn’t preclude the older Candidate’s guardedly optimistic ending, but it doesn’t offer the luxury of security as the older movie does. After all, Eleanor Shaw is the movie’s foremost proponent of security.

The Manchurian Candidates 1: Communists

Roger Ebert, in his review of Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, writes, “To compare Demme’s version with Frankenheimer’s is sort of irrelevant.” This is a ridiculous statement. As J.W. Hastings pointed out when somebody asked him why on Earth he was comparing apples and oranges J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Howard, “I firmly believe that it is not only okay but a critic’s duty to compare apples and oranges.” Indeed. Of course, John Frankenheimer’s and Demme’s movies aren’t like apples and orange, they’re more like—oranges and grapefruits? At any rate, they’re both based on the same novel by Richard Condon, they have similar plots, they engage related political themes in very different political climates. What’s not to compare?

If Frankheimer’s Candidate has a flaw, it’s that it seems to want to criticize McCarthyism even as it validates McCarthyism’s worst nightmares of Communist infiltration. The movie conjures a paranoid fantasy of Cold War politics in which there don’t seem to be any genuinely Communist politicians in the U.S. government, but there is at least one who’s married to a Communist. Senator Johnny Iselin, a bold caricature of Senator Joseph McCarthy, is a drunken buffoon easily controlled by his wife Eleanor, who is the American handler for a brainwashed Soviet sleeper agent planted in the United States. The sleeper happens to be Eleanor’s son Raymond Shaw. The plan: get Senator Iselin on the ballot as the vice-presidential candidate, then send Raymond to the convention to assassinate presidential candidate Ben Arthur, leaving Iselin to ride a wave of freedom-loving hysteria right into the Oval Office, where he will be controlled by the Communists through Eleanor. (Except that Eleanor, upon learning her own son is the assassin, vows to avenge her son and destroy her Communist allies who destroyed her son.) This ridiculous plan would have gone off smoothly if not for the intervention of Major Ben Marco, who was leader of Raymond’s platoon during the Korean War and who, when the platoon was captured and taken to Manchuria for brainwashing, was instructed to award Raymond the Congressional Medal of Honor (part of the plan to make Raymond’s stepfather Senator Iselin look like a good vice-presidential candidate). Ben, plagued by nightmares—a ladies’ gardening club meeting mixed surreally with a meeting of Russian and Chinese military leaders in which a Chinese doctor does Freudian brainwashing/hypnotism on Marco and his platoon—figures something must be wrong. At first he fails to convince his Army commanders anything but that he’s going insane, but he eventually convinces them he’s onto something and an investigation of Raymond begins. Ben tries to unhypnotize Raymond, thinks he must have failed when Raymond disappears on a mission with instructions from his evil mother—only to discover, to his relief and horror, that he had succeeded in breaking Raymond free, but that Raymond decided the only way to stop the Commie plot was to assassinate his mother and Johnny Iselin himself. He explains to Ben, “You couldn’t have stopped them, the army couldn’t have stopped them—so I had to.” Then he shoots himself. Not a happy ending, but at least a victory for the good guys, such as they are. The movie suggests that the United States is vulnerable to Communist infiltration—not least because hysterical fearmongers like McCarthy make it easier for infiltrators to manipulate the public—but that there are a few good people willing and able to stand up and fight back for America.

I said that if the movie has a flaw, it’s the simultaneous criticism and validation of McCarthyism. This isn’t quite a flaw, but it is a little weak. If the Commies had been capable of orchestrating and nearly carrying off such an intricate plot to seize control of the White House, Joe McCarthy would have had reason to be worried. On the other hand, the movie makes a good point that those who wish to take power unscrupulously could easily adopt McCarthyist tactics to cultivate public fear and manipulate political paranoia to their advantage.

The good guys win in the end, but there’s one worrying thread left untied at the end: Rosie, Ben’s weirdo girlfriend he meets on a train. The common theory to explain Rosie’s strange behavior is, maybe Ben has also been brainwashed to receive post-hypnotic instructions, and Rosie speaks to him in code to trigger instructions. The biggest problem with the theory is that, if it’s right, Ben’s hypnotic triggers are nothing at all like Raymond’s. Raymond always responds to a suggestion to play Solitaire, and the sight of the Queen of Diamonds (a symbol associated with his mother by way of a massive oedipal complex) puts him in a receiving state where he obeys any command he hears. Rosie’s dialogue with Ben is much more complex, and Ben never enters a trance state as does Raymond. There is one tenuous coincidence which seems to support the theory: The first thing Rosie says to Ben when they meet on the train is, “Maryland is a beautiful state.” Ben replies by pointing out that they’re in currently in Delaware—why would Rosie mention Maryland? Later in the movie, Raymond and his love Josie fly overnight from New York to Maryland to get married. Why go to Maryland? Ben is waiting to arrest Raymond when they return, and Josie informs Ben they’ve just returned from Maryland. Raymond ended up marrying Josie after years of estrangement only because his mother invited her to a party. Is this some absurdly convoluted subplot put in motion by Eleanor Iselin? Get Raymond and Josie married and then hypnotically command Ben to believe that the power of love may cure Raymond of his brainwashing? The idea is even more implausible than the rest of the movie, but it’s the sort of paranoid speculation the movie seems to encourage. Nevertheless, nothing more than paranoid speculation ever comes of it. Ben tells Rosie everything he plans to do—she could easily have prevented him from helping Raymond. Rosie may very well be Ben’s handler, but there’s no indication that Ben can be controlled as Raymond can.

Eleanor Iselin (and Johnny, unwittingly) are apparently the only Americans involved in the Communist conspiracy. If the conspiracy remains intact after their deaths, that fact remains buried deep in the movie’s subtext. More likely, this plot has been defeated. (But will there be more?)

Browse Happy

Browse Happy: Download a good web browser today.

23 August 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

Cell Phone Users Are Finding God

Cell Phone Users Are Finding God: "From Muslims who use their phones to point them toward Mecca, to Roman Catholics who collect text messages from the Vatican, religious observers across the globe are turning to their cell phones for aid and inspiration in practicing their faith."

19 August 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

Don’t Copy That Floppy

Don’t Copy That Floppy: Anti-piracy rap propaganda of the early 1990s.

Via: Mark Pilgrim
See also: “Don’t Copy That Floppy” lyrics

17 August 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled