Hits and Misses

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A Simple Favor isn’t a libertarian film. It doesn’t make any political commentary, it doesn’t cover timely issues, and it has little to say about economics beyond an offhand remark about the relative value of stay-at-home moms and “working moms.” I suppose I could stretch it to consider what Ayn Rand might have said about the concept of doing simple favors, but I won’t.

So why am I reviewing this movie for Liberty? Because it’s surprisingly good, one of the most entertaining films in months, and worth seeing for the quality of the acting, the twists and turns of the plot, and the subtle, unaffected comedic delivery of Anna Kendrick.

These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a stay-at-home mom with a compulsive penchant for volunteerism, a chirpy vlog called “Hi Moms!” where she talks about cooking and crafts, and a dark secret that drives her compulsiveness. When Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous, high-powered working mom whose son attends the same preschool as Stephanie’s, befriends her, Stephanie becomes as giddy and malleable as a middle-school wallflower who suddenly finds herself walking home with the head cheerleader. Sean (Henry Golding), an award-winning novelist who hasn’t written anything publishable since marrying Emily ten years earlier, is suave, sexy, and hot for his wife. These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

When Emily goes missing, Stephanie volunteers to help Sean take care of their son, Nicky, and begins playing house in Emily’s mansion. Soon she starts her own investigation into Emily’s disappearance, discovering secrets in Emily’s past. Sean has his share of secrets too, and the result is a satisfying mystery thriller that is not only scary and suspenseful but often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when Stephanie tries to remain cool and nonchalant during an interview with the police about Emily’s disappearance — while wearing one of Emily’s dresses. With its bright colors, upbeat music track, and delightfully awkward leading lady, A Simple Favor is not your typical mystery thriller, but it is a simple delight.

Henry Golding, the handsome British-Malaysian whose previous screen credit was hosting a travel show, is having quite a season on the big screen. He’s also starring this month in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book of the same name by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan. Its greenlight follows the success of ABC’s TV series “Fresh off the Boat” and stars some of the same actors.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since.

CRA is trying very hard to be socially relevant by marketing itself as the supposedly first mainstream film that focuses entirely on Asian culture with an extensively Asian cast and crew. But it’s really just a light, fluffy romantic comedy that happens to be set in Singapore. Rich Singapore boy Nick Young (Golding) meets poor immigrant girl Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) while studying in the United States. Rich boy’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, who was stunning in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) tries to break up rich boy’s romance when they come to Singapore for Nick’s best friend’s wedding. Poor girl’s family has more integrity than rich boy’s family, leading to rich boy losing poor girl. Care to guess where they end up? Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since. CRA is cute and fun, but it isn’t groundbreaking, despite its marketing plan.

In fact, its IMDb page reveals just how muddled the claim to “first” is:

Excluding movies and animation extensively featuring Pacific Islanders and East Indians produced in America such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Moana, and excluding The Last Samurai (2003), which featured a majority East Asian cast but with a white lead, this is the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Other movies with extensively East Asian casts include Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014), A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Joy Luck Club (1993).

And that doesn’t even acknowledge the above-mentioned “Fresh Off the Boat,” now in its fourth season. With all those caveats, the idea that they would even attempt to call themselves “the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast” is pretty laughable.

If an American crew instead of an Asian crew had made CRA, Asian audiences would likely be howling “foul play.” First, its leading actor, whose character is supposed to represent old-world Chinese family and customs, isn’t even fully Asian! Golding’s mother is Malaysian, but his father is British. And yes, those rounder eyes and British accent probably make him more attractive to western audiences. (In fact, some are recommending Golding as the next James Bond.) Moreover, stereotypes are stereotypes. The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer. And the unmarried rich boys are sex-crazed and pathetic. Not a pretty portrayal, even if the author, director, and cast are all Asian.

The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer.

The one exception to the designer hive in Singapore is Rachel’s quirky, yellow-haired friend from college, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), who rejects the fashion stereotype and is true to her own sense of style and identity. But she is accepted in Singapore society largely because her daddy’s rich and her family is old. And she, too, wears designer clothes, just quirkier ones. To be fair, in A Simple Favor Emily also has a closet full of designer clothes, shoes and bags, but at least she paid for them herself with her high-powered job, and she is anything but a follower. If any message is clear in modern movie making, it’s this: where women are concerned, the devil does indeed wear Prada.

Crazy Rich Asians is a fun movie if you’re in the mood for a predictable romantic comedy set in an exotic locale. The sumptuous wedding scene at Singapore’s Raffles hotel (where Nick is serving as best man, not groom — this isn’t a spoiler) is breathtakingly gorgeous. But if you’re looking for a serious film about serious issues, or even a lighthearted comedy with a little depth, this isn’t it.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Simple Favor," directed by Paul Feig. BRON Studios/Feigco Entertainment, 2018, 117 minutes; and "Crazy Rich Asians," directed by Jon M. Chu. Warner Bros., 2018, 120 minutes.



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Life is a Custard Pie

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"Life is a custard pie. Sometimes you get to eat it, and sometimes it smacks you right in the face." — Lori Heine

In my first eighteen months of life, I never took a step. I didn’t even crawl. Mom would set me down somewhere, and I would stay there, like a doll, until somebody picked me up again. My parents took me to the doctor to find out why I wasn’t walking yet. He told them to stop worrying over me, and to just let me do it when I got good and ready.

One afternoon, I sat out on our driveway, where I had been plunked. Beth Ann Kahn sat facing me, and we were playing. “Patty-cake, patty-cake . . . baker’s man,” I sang as she smacked each of my palms with hers — as if to compensate for not walking, since well before my first birthday I’d been an eloquent singer.

My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway.

“Bake me a cake as fast as you can,” Beth Ann murmured, casting a glance at the clown getting out of his car at the curb across the street. She scooted closer to me, watching the stranger in the polka-dotted jumpsuit.

“Hidy-ho, there, girlies!”

He waved a white-gloved hand.

The little girl who lived there was having a birthday party. My patty-cake frozen in midair, I watched with fascination as the clown headed for the neighbors’ driveway. Fwap-fwap . . . fwap-fwap went his gigantic, floppy shoes.

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

Beth Ann began to whimper. “That’s Curt the Clown,” my mom explained from the folding chair on our lawn. “I’ll bet he’s going to make animals out of balloons!”

Animals! Balloons! Gigantic shoes and bright orange hair! Beth Ann burst into tears. Transported into wonderland, I rose to my feet.

“Oh, honey!” I heard Mom say.

“Where you goin’?” sniffled Beth Ann.

Curt the Clown was going to go inside, and I wouldn’t see him anymore. He was almost to the front door. Maybe I could catch him, if I ran!

The world flew past as I strained forward. Faster — faster! “Hey!” I called to the retreating clown. “Hey, there!”

I reached out for him. That was a mistake. Not just because he was still too far away, but because the driveway tilted. It rose up to meet me, and I landed smack on my chest.

I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

“Oh, my baby!” Mom swept me up into her arms. “You walked! You ran!”

Mrs. Kahn was out of the chair beside my mom’s and she had picked up Beth Ann. “Lori doesn’t do anything halfway,” she noted, holding her sobbing daughter close.

I scowled at Beth Ann. She was the baby. Mom hoisted me into the air and laughed. I wasn’t sure what was so wonderful about it all. The clown was gone.

For obvious reasons, I have loved clowns ever since. I’m well aware that many people think clowns are creepy. It’s become a sort of collectivist prejudice. We’re simply expected to find clowns creepy because “everybody” says so. But like everything collectivist, I think that anti-clown hysteria is creepy.

Curt the Clown has gone on to that great three-ring circus in the sky, so I can’t thank him personally for the role he played in getting me on my feet. But in his honor, I’m on a mission to redeem clowns’ reputation. I’ve written a young-adult novel, appropriately titled Good Clowns. It’s being published September 10.

The Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit.

Is Good Clowns a “libertarian” novel? It’s libertarian in spirit, if not in letter. Riley Brannigan, its 9-year-old heroine, is the daughter of professional clowns. She’s bullied for this at school, because most of the kids agree that “clowns are creepy.” In the parlance of young-adult fiction, my book takes on the issue of bullying.

“We’re a clown family,” Riley’s mother reminds her. “Clowns don’t fight.” This appears to put our heroine at a disadvantage, because the chief bully is more than willing to fight. But the Brannigans live by the Code of the Clown, so they handle threats of violence with dignity, grace, and wit — which call for far more courage than violence.

The Brannigan family may not know they’re libertarians, but since I created them, they certainly are. I won’t give away too much of the plot, as I hope as many as possible will read through to the conclusion for themselves. In any case, may we all persevere in handling the political violence we face daily with dignity, grace, and wit. May we never take ourselves too seriously. And may we eat the custard pie more often than we take it in the face.




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Putting the Art in “Art Film”

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What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981) is one of Raymond Carver’s most significant short stories. Four characters — two couples — sit around a kitchen table talking about — well, talking about love, in all its manifestations, but never actually communicating what they mean in a way that the others can understand.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor best known for his cinematic superhero alter ego, Birdman. The film could just as easily be titled How We Act When We Act as Though We Aren’t Acting. It’s a forgivably self-indulgent self-study of the art of acting, portrayed by some of the least celebritized actors in the business.

Like many celebrity movie stars today, Thomson is trying to shake off his stardom by treading the boards of Broadway. He has been pigeonholed by his fans as the Birdman and is trying to escape the character that seems to have taken up residency inside his brain. The Birdman talks to him in a voice that is strangely reminiscent of Batman, and seems to give Thomson kinetic powers. Thomson’s daughter in the film (Emma Stone) is often on the ledge of the rooftop, and Thomson is often on the edge of sanity. He sees and hears things that aren’t there, does things he doesn’t do — or does he? We really don’t know.

It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

Keaton portrayed Batman in two Tim Burton films almost a quarter of a century ago, so it’s easy to make a connection between him and the character he plays in this film. Keaton is a fine but reclusive actor, choosing his projects carefully, and mostly choosing not to work. Yet he has said in interviews that Riggan Thomson is the least like him of any character he has played — and he has played a lot of unusual characters, including Batman, Beetlejuice, and the Multiplicity clones.

The film is set in the St. James Theater on 44th Street, where Thomson is writing, directing, and starring in a “serious” Broadway play based on the Carver story. Art imitates life imitates art as characters break character within the play and actors occasionally break character within the film, making the audience intently aware of the difficulty of both filmmaking and playmaking.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wanted to film this movie in the way a play is made — live, uninterrupted, all in one take, mistakes and all. After discussing the project with stage and film director Mike Nichols, he realized he would need to settle for several long takes of 15 minutes or more rather than one two-hour take, and it was a good compromise. The camera work is stylized and unsettling without calling undue attention to itself. Instead, it recalls the unsettled and stylized state of Riggan Thomson’s fragile mind. For example, the camera climbs the walls to get from a sidewalk shot to a rooftop shot, preparing the viewer to accept Thomson’s ability to reinhabit the Birdman’s power of flight — for real. Or as real as acting can be. At one point the camera just sits in a hallway, waiting for Keaton’s character to come into view. Perhaps Inarritu intended it this way. Perhaps Keaton was late for his entrance. Either way, Inarritu left it as is, instead of editing it out. It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

In the Carver story, light plays a significant but subtle role; the room is light while the four friends are talking, but light gradually leaves the room as it becomes apparent that they will not be able to articulate sufficiently what love is. They can talk about love; they can feel it individually when it happens; they can share stories that seem to express it, but they can’t explain or define it for someone else. They talk about stories and examples that seem to prove what love is, but they discover that language is insufficient to express what they mean. In the film, music seems to take the place of light. The film’s soundtrack alternates between lush symphonies by Mahler, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff and a cacophonous interpretive jazz drum piece created brilliantly by Antonio Sanchez. The music is one of the best components of the film, conveying the changing moods of the character as he soars and frets, yet insufficient for expressing what Thomson is really experiencing.

Birdman is not a mainstream film. It’s not even a standard indie film. If you’re looking for an absorbing plot or wacky entertainment, this isn’t it. But it’s a fascinating piece of art and well worth watching.

How do you act when you act as though you aren’t acting?


Editor's Note: Review of "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)," directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Twentieth Century Fox, 2014, 159 minutes.



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The Film You’ve Been Hearing About

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Normally I go to a movie theater with a pen in my hand and a notebook in my lap. Yes, it requires me to break away from the universe created on the screen, but it’s a small price to pay on behalf of my readers. Ten minutes into Gone Girl, however, I put both away and settled back for the ride. Don’t even bother to fasten your seat belt — you’ll want to feel every twist and turn.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) arrives at The Bar with a board game under his arm and begins bantering with the barmaid Margo (Carrie Coon), who turns out to be his twin sister. Soon Nick’s phone rings. It’s his neighbor, and he rushes home. His cat is outside. The door is ajar. The glass coffee table is upturned and shattered. There’s a speck of blood on the range hood. And Amy, his wife — his girl — is gone.

Gone Girl is a “whodunit” in the tradition of the best classic murder mysteries but with a modern twist that keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end. Not only do we not know who done it; we don’t even know the answer to “done what?” Amy (Rosamund Pike) is gone, and someone has mopped up a pile of her blood from the kitchen floor. But without a body, homicide detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) can’t make an arrest. Meanwhile, there’s a boatload of possible suspects in the vicinity, including Nick’s mentally unstable father (Leonard Kelly-Young), Amy’s overachieving parents (Rand Elliot and Lisa Banes), Amy’s spurned former boyfriends (Neil Patrick Harris and Boyd Holbrook), the neighbor down the street who claims to be Amy’s best friend (Casey Wilson), and even Nick’s oh-so-close twin, Margo.

Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

Dark, good-looking, and lantern-jawed, Ben Affleck was obviously cast for his striking resemblance to Scott Peterson, who was tried in the media (and then in court) for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, after she went missing on Christmas Eve, 2002. In both the movie and the Peterson case, a wandering pet alerted neighbors that something was amiss. In both, the husband was alone on the water when his wife went missing. In both, the parents of the missing woman supported their son-in-law (until the girlfriend showed up). And in both, the cable news networks made it their lead story every night.

In many ways this story is an indictment of the “trial by media” that has become a regular staple in the daily diet of the news. Simply put, sensationalism sells. “We all know” that JonBenét Ramsey was killed by her father. Unless it was her uptight mother. Or her creepy stepbrother. (Choose a team.) Ed Smart was a prime media suspect in the disappearance of his daughter, Elizabeth, until she was found, alive, nine months later. (To his credit, Sean Hannity came to believe Smart’s story and gave him plenty of competing air time.) Casey Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her little girl, but “everyone knows” she did it; we reviewed the evidence night after night on cable, even before her trial began. Amanda Knox, a college student studying in Italy, was convicted of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in part because she was seen kissing her boyfriend and sitting on his lap while waiting to be interviewed by the local police. She just didn’t look distraught enough. And “we all know” what that means.

But we also know what a camera can do in the blink of a lens. Someone snaps a candid photo from across the room while you are in the middle of saying a word or while you are squinting into the sun, and you look angry or sullen or goofy. Someone stands next to you for a photo or a selfie, and you automatically smile, no matter what you are feeling inside. You see a friend across the room, and you smile as you wave hello, even if the occasion is as somber as a funeral or a trial. It’s automatic, even when you’re upset. Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. You just do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

The beauty of Gone Girl is that you just don’t know which of the snapshots to believe, or what is going to happen next. It’s a thrill ride of epic proportions, and I’m not going to spoil it for you by saying another word.

Unfasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a gloriously bumpy ride.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gone Girl," directed by David Fincher. Regency Enterprise-Pacific Standard, 2014, 149 minutes.



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Words on Trial

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For me, the biggest entertainment event of this month has been the Jodi Arias murder trial.

I confess: I am not one of those happy, productive citizens who are too immersed in real life to follow the latest trashy court case. I am one of those trivial people who have nothing better to do than rush home and watch the evening replays of endlessly repetitive testimony delivered by amateur actors in an Arizona courtroom. I don’t really mind admitting this, but I feel impelled to note that silly people like me outnumber the sober, industrious folk by about 100 to 1. People who tell you that they never heard of Jodi Arias are almost undoubtedly trying to fool you.

But why do we like this stuff? The answer would be more obvious if there were some great mystery in the case. But there isn’t, unless it’s the mystery of how it could possibly have dragged on so long. On June 4, 2008, in Mesa, Arizona, Jodi Arias killed her boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Of course, she started out denying it. Her first claim was that she was nowhere near the site. Her second claim was that the crime was committed by a gang of home invaders who surprised her and her boyfriend, injuring her and killing him. Nevertheless, her current claim is that, yes, she killed him, but she did it in self-defense.

To put this in another way, Jodi Arias drove several hundred miles to have sex with Travis Alexander, did so, then took pictures of him naked in the shower, then stabbed him 29 times, cut his throat from ear to ear, shot him in the head, and went off to visit another boyfriend, leaving Travis Alexander’s body to be found, days later, by friends who were wondering what had happened to him. Jodi Arias claims that she acted in self-defense against Travis Alexander’s domestic violence; that much, she’s sure of. But most of what happened after she started acting in self-defense . . . she cannot remember. At that point, she claims, she had entered a mental “fog.”

The words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.

But this brings us to the reason why the Arias case is so interesting. It offers the fascination of watching someone tell lies, thousands of lies, one lie after another, for days and weeks on end, without convincing, perhaps, even a single person that these lies are truths, but just going on and on telling lies.

You may say, “I can watch politicians do that, any old time; why should I turn to Headline News and watch Jodi Arias do it?” You’re right, there’s not much difference between Jodi Arias’ approach and that of our national leaders, except that our leaders’ performance is impossible to appreciate on a purely verbal level. You keep thinking, “Wait! You’re ruining the country!”, and “Wait! I can’t believe that people voted for you,” and “Good Lord! Half the people in the country actually think you’re motivated by high moral ends!”

With Jodi Arias, there are no such distractions. You can sit back and enjoy the performance — and be instructed by it, too. Jodi — it’s impossible not to be on a first-name basis with someone who is always in your home — provides an index and review of the kind of lies considered (and not without reason) most likely to succeed with 12 jurors culled at random from the ranks of American voters and possessors of a license to drive. Ridiculous, but true: the words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.

Home invaders! Those words sell “security devices” and “security protection” contracts by the tens of millions. Remember, home invasioncan happen to anyone, at any hour of the day or night. We are all in danger. Not being a drug dealer or a gang kingpin, nor having outstanding debts to gamblers or usurers, I naively assume that gangs of armed men are unlikely to burst into my home. Apparently, however, I am one of the few people who feel this way. Jodi must have felt that she had a hell of a compelling story when she thought of home invasion.

"Impact" means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions.

Her only problem was that the murder scene presented no actual evidence of home invasion, but it did present evidence of murder — by her. So obviously, her best bet was a claim that she was forced to defend herself from her sex partner, her abusive sex partner. Was your boyfriend ever abusive to you before? Arias was asked. Oh yes, she answered, he had been abusive, but not as abusive as he was when he suddenly flew into a rage and charged at me, lunging out of the shower like a linebacker, just before I killed him.

Travis Alexander wasn’t built like a linebacker. Travis Alexander was one of those smiley, sort of pudgy, momentarily good-looking guys who are about to become fat. But if you could get people to picture him as a linebacker, and remember how men like that have wild mood swings and are given to roid rage, then they might be able to see why the victim of his domestic abuse would have to shoot, stab, and virtually decapitate him. Just to stop him, you know.

This disinformation might have been conveyed in a hysterical tone — and at certain times Jodi has, as the media say, broken down in tears. That’s expected, even required, of people in court cases. But our society has become an intensely bureaucratic one, and Jodi often prefers the kind of language that people who sit in cubicles spend their days typing into computers. What do you mean, she was asked, by “lunging at you like a linebacker”? Well, she said, “He got down low and he impacted my torso.”

Impacted. The universal word, the word for anything. It means “smashed, slashed, hit, touched, influenced, had some kind of unspecifiable influence upon, made a difference in some way to.” “The president’s speech,” we are told, “impacted the public debate.” So what exactly was that impact? You will never know. “Her action,” someone says, “impacted my life.” Was that a good thing, or should we take you to a hospital? Either way; whatever. “John Smith is one of our firm’s most impactful executives.” Gosh, I hope the insurance company will reimburse us for the damage. Meanwhile, we’ll give him a promotion.

Impact means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions. If you demand to know more, if you want to know what kind and degree of impact somebody thinks has occurred, you are likely to get the answer that Jodi Arias kept giving to the prosecutor’s demands for more specific information: “You’re scrambling my brain.”

Her brain was not too scrambled, however, to remember that abuse can include sexual abuse, and that accusations of sexual abuse can have a very major impact, sometimes to the extent of scrambling the brains of everyone who hears them. It was inevitable that Jodi’s testimony would eventually go there, and it did.

A brief interjection. Somewhere it needs to be said that Jodi Arias’ circus of lies could not have been staged without the assistance of a judge who was obviously prepared to admit anything and everything in evidence, and to license the prosecutor, the defense attorneys, Jodi Arias, and members of the jury — who in Arizona are allowed to put their own questions to a witness, and did put questions, hundreds of them — to use as many millions of words as they felt like using. So they have used millions of words.

Several days of the trial was consumed in the consideration of a recorded conversation, 45 minutes long, in which Jodi and Travis explored with gusto all the things that adult heterosexuals might want to do with each other’s bodies. More days, or was it years?, were consumed in discussions of their actual sex practices. Despite all this adult, triple-X fare, Jodi guessed that accusations of pedophilia — that kind of abuse, or potential abuse — might have an impact. So she claimed that one day she had surprised Travis enjoying pictures of young boys. She thus tried the same trick that the Menendez brothers tried when they suggested (1993) that they had killed their father (and, by the way, their mother too, but who’s counting?) because the father had abused one of them when he was young. No objective evidence was presented, in either case; in our society, nevertheless, it’s worth a try.

But speaking of remembering things, that was the other big prong of Jodi’s defense. She killed Travis; yes, she conceded that; she recalled that happening, sort of; but simultaneously she remembered that she suffered a crucial loss of memory, right after killing him. Of course, an expert in psychology came forward — and stayed there, for over a week — to testify that what Jodi suffered was actually (guess what?) “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” and there were “tests” to prove it.

The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.

Question: are those the kind of teststhat doctors use to find out whether you have cancer, or are those the kind of tests that psychiatric professionals use to find a name for what you claim you suffer from? The prosecution asked that question in approximately 100,000 ways, and the answers were not impressive. Other topics of discussion, at this point, were “dissociative amnesia,” “temporally circumscribed amnesia,” and “transient global amnesia,” which, we were told, between three and eight out of 100,000 people have been shown to suffer from, at some time in their lives. You can add that to all the other things you may suffer from, at some time in your life. If one of those things doesn’t get you, some other one undoubtedly will.

The Arias trial has been a festival of lies, but unlike most such festivals, it has been a benefit to society. It has provided a satire — unintentional, of course — of the multitude of ways in which discourse is twisted and debased by the clichés that modern Americans resort to when they try to think. The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.

It was nothing out of the ordinary; it was an environment of vaguely aspiring, vaguely enterprising 20- and 30-somethings, the environment of guys who party, and take girls to Cancún, and like doin’ things in the outdoors — “outdoors” being a place where they go to get their pictures taken, smiling broadly or mugging raffishly or flashing fake gang signs at the camera. This is a pretty laid back world, a world in which Travis Alexander (and even, briefly, Jodi Arias) could be mistaken for a devout Mormon. It’s a world in which Jodi — who is obviously one hell of a nutty woman, the kind of woman who can be locked in a police interrogation room and start doing handstands, or sit on the floor in handcuffs and burst into “O Holy Night,” or grin when her mugshots are taken, because she thinks to herself, “What would Travis do if he was in this situation?”, and concludes that “he would smile . . . he would flash that grin” — could be regarded by Travis’s friends as a bit strange. Just a little bit strange. Maybe not exactly right for Travis.

What tipped them off? Maybe it was her starey eyes. Maybe it was her way of pushing her face into any available camera (but Travis did that too). Maybe it was the rumor that she once slashed Travis’s tires. But surely it wasn’t her words. There is nothing unusual about Jodi’s mode of discourse. Even her most solemn utterances are clichés in use by millions of people, every day:

“If I’m convicted, that’s because of my own bad choices.

“I believed that it was not OK to take someone’s life.”

“I trusted him . . . I just wondered about his agenda, I guess.”

“When [after killing Travis] I finally came out of the fog, I realized, ‘Oh crap, something bad has happened.’”

Apparently none of Travis’s friends got much farther in analyzing Jodi than she got in analyzing Travis, when (as she claims) she wrote in her diary, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is just off with that boy.” When asked for specifics — “What do you mean by that?” — she replied, “My kind of indirect way of referring to his issues that in my mind I couldn’t look past and accept.”

She couldn’t put her finger on it. There wereissues.

But Travis was also part of that weird, flat landscape. So who was Travis Alexander?

This is a cruel thing to say, but Travis was a motivational speaker. In today’s America, this is a respected occupation. But what does it mean?

Travis Alexander (T-Dogg to his friends), worked for something called Pre-Paid Legal Services, an outfit selling legal “insurance” by “multi-level marketing.” In other words, it has a marketing scheme in which higher-level salesmen sell the idea of selling to lower-level salesmen, who then try to sell something to you and me. Usually, the new guys don’t sell anything (in 2005, the company admitted that less than 25% of its salesmen sold more than one insurance contract during the year). Given the unattractiveness of their occupation, these people need something to keep their enthusiasm up, at least until a new crew can be cycled in. That’s how Travis Alexander made money — enough money to buy the home in which he was murdered. He appeared at the séances held for Pre-Paid Legal salesmen, told lame jokes, and puffed the company. Judging from surviving videos, the audience response was second in enthusiasm only to the characters in The Bacchae. The participants laughed continuously; they shrieked like banshees; they greeted poor Travis Alexander as the best thing since Joan Rivers, if they’d ever heard of her. In the world of American discourse, there are many Travis Alexanders, practicing their trade. Well, it was a living. But Travis’s old friends all testify to his sterling qualities: “he was a great man,” “he always wanted to help people.” It doesn’t take much to be a standout in that world.

What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?

All right. I apologize for being insensitive. I find nothing likable about Travis Alexander — and nothing particularly unlikable, either. But I’m sorry that he is dead. He didn’t deserve to die. And nobody deserves to die the way he did. I’m happy to think that his murderer’s lies will be rejected by the jury, as they have been rejected by everyone else who has observed the trial. The whole affair has been an encyclopedic exposition of popular thought and language, and I actually think it will do some good, if only by showing the emptiness of the words now popularly used to conceptualize moral problems.

But did I say moral problems? I should have said life problems. What kind of life can you lead when you regard all challenges and conflicts, all moral difficulties and psychological disabilities, as issues, like revisions of the copyright law or the regulation of sugary soft drinks? What kind of life can you lead when you regard your desires and plans, your passions and obsessions, as items on an agenda? What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?

It isn’t a wonderful life. It’s barely a human life. But you can’t detect what you’re missing until you have some real words to use when you go to look for it.




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