Love and Marriage

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Marriage Story is a surprisingly good movie for being a fairly common story. It has received six well-deserved Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Noah Baumbach), Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johansson), and Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern). And it’s available in your living room, on Netflix, after a limited theater run that garnered less than half a million in box office sales. Go figure.

The film begins with Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johannsson) reciting the charming reasons they love each other. Their words are heard in voiceover as we watch endearing scenes of them doing the things that are described, set to delightful, lighthearted music. Charlie says, “What I love about Nicole: She makes people feel comfortable even about embarrassing things . . . She really listens when someone is talking . . . She cuts all our hair . . . She’s always brewing a cup of tea that she never drinks . . . It’s not easy for her to put away a sock or close a cabinet or do a dish, but she tries, for me . . . She is a mother who plays, joyfully.” Nicole says, “What I love about Charlie: He’s undaunted. He never lets other people’s opinions or any setbacks keep him from doing what he wants to do . . . He’s incredibly neat and I rely on him to keep things in order . . . He cries easily in movies . . . He’s very self-sufficient . . . He rarely gets defeated, which I feel like I always do . . . He takes all of my moods steadily . . . He’s a great dresser.” As I was reviewing my notes I noticed that Charlie’s reasons for loving Nicole were all about Nicole, and Nicole’s reasons for loving Charlie were all about Nicole too.

Divorce, it seems, is a continuation of marriage. It’s part of the package.

These tender but superficial affirmations of love appear to be some kind of modern marriage vows. But they’re not. They are assignments from their “separation mediator” (Robert Smigel). “In a divorce, things can get quite contentious,” he warns them. “I like to begin with a note of positivity . . . It helps to remember that this is a person you had great feeling for — and maybe still do in many ways.” That “still do” permeates the film. “Still do” is inherent in the “I do.” Divorce, it seems, is a continuation of marriage. It’s part of the package. Marriage never really ends.

Charlie and Nicole clearly do love each other. We can see it in the intimate way Nicole continues to cut Charlie’s hair after their separation and the way she strives to protect his feelings, even as she serves him with divorce papers. We see it in the tender way Charlie looks at Nicole and in the stumbling way he tries to navigate this unexpected and unwanted end to their marriage.

So why the divorce? Nicole feels that her film career in Hollywood has been stymied by their focus on Charlie’s career as an avant-garde director in New York (even though she has starred in all his plays). She wants to reassert her individuality and her voice by accepting a role in a TV series that will take her back to California, where her family lives. Meanwhile, Charlie’s Medea is being transferred to Broadway — and Nicole has been playing Medea in previews, until now. The timing couldn’t be worse — for him, or for her. I appreciate the two-sidedness of this movie. Marriage requires commitment and compromise by both partners. So does a career. Sometimes it’s just too much.

For the attorneys, the divorce has nothing to do with Charlie and Nicole; it’s all about winning, all about money.

Charlie and Nicole want to do this separation amicably, especially for the sake of Henry (Azhy Robertson), their adorable, playful, assertive young son. But once Nicole is persuaded to hire attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), all amicability is lost. So is all civility, as the attorneys compete to portray their client’s spouse as philandering, neglectful, and alcoholic. For the attorneys, the divorce has nothing to do with Charlie and Nicole; it’s all about winning, all about money.

For Charlie and Nicole, however, it’s not about stuff; it’s about the quality and direction of their lives. Where will they live — in California, where Nicole has a film career, or in New York, where Charlie is trying to hang onto his career as a director? Both of their careers have suffered from the marriage, and now both are suffering from the strain of a bicoastal divorce. And by the time custody of Henry is settled, he’ll be grown. “We’re draining his education fund on this divorce,” Charlie reminds Nicole, as he pleads with her to eliminate the attorneys and go back to self-filing.

Anyone who has had to go to court, especially family court, will appreciate what Charlie experiences as he negotiates the intricacies and unfairness of California law. Nora is glamorously warm and sympathetic as she slips off her red-soled stilettoes to curl up beside Nicole and offer a comforting shoulder during their first meeting, and she’s even more glamorously vicious as she pulls off her jacket and tears into Charlie’s reputation in the courtroom. Dern is powerful in this role. She strides through each scene with confidence and charm and cutthroat shrewdness. So are Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, Alda as the laidback attorney Charlie first hires, one so detached that he simply shrugs when the advice he gives turns out to be completely wrong, and Liotta as the $950-an-hour shark Charlie hires when he realizes, after meeting Nora, “I’m going to need my own asshole.”

We’ve all had those moments where the words come gushing out that are partially true yet patently false, when hate and love intermingle in a passion that spews venom and lost hope and despair.

Nicole believes she has lost ten years of her career in supporting Charlie, but Charlie feels loss too. “There’s so much I could have done! I was a director — in my twenties — who was suddenly on the cover of Time Out in New York! I was on my way! And I didn’t even want to get married. There’s so much I didn’t do!” In his anguish, Charlie is appalled to hear himself screaming, “I hate you!” into Nicole’s stricken face. “There are times that I dream you will die!” He dissolves into tears at this, and Nicole leans over him and caresses his shoulder. She understands. But she can’t give in. It’s an overpowering scene, full of hatred and love and white-hot passion, and acted with a rawness born of 50 exhausting, aching, emotional takes before Baumbach was finally ready to move on. The scene is so painful and so real it hits you in the gut. We’ve all had those moments where the words come gushing out that are partially true yet patently false, when hate and love intermingle in a passion that spews venom and lost hope and despair. In Marriage Story it is one of those perfect cinematic moments. If you have ever fought with someone you love, it will tear you apart.

Is marriage bad for one’s career? Perhaps a better question would be, is a career bad for one’s marriage? In the end, which is more important? I don’t think it’s possible for a marriage to support two high-powered careers. Not successfully. Not for the long haul. Something has to give, and nowadays it’s usually the marriage. But divorce does not provide simple solutions, especially when children are involved.

But speaking of career competition: Baumbach’s partner is Greta Gerwig, an actress and director. She and her supporters have complained loudly about Hollywood’s snubbing of her in the director category for Little Women, blaming it on misogyny. But there is good reason Baumbach has been nominated for director and Gerwig has not, and it has nothing to do with her gender. To understand, we need look no further than Laura Dern’s performances in the two movies. Both directors used her as their supporting actress, but Dern’s Marmee in Little Women is a mere caricature of the strong, gentle matriarch Alcott created in her book (see my review), while Dern’s Nina Fanshaw in Baumbach’s Marriage Story commands every scene. And Dern is winning award after award this season, for her performance in Baumbach’s movie, while Gerwig’s Florence Pugh, nominated for her supporting role as Amy in Little Women, is not.

There is good reason Baumbach has been Oscar-nominated for best director and Gerwig has not, and it has nothing to do with her gender.

Moreover, the climactic scene in Little Women, where Jo proclaims “Women, they have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. And they've got ambition and they've got talent as well as just beauty, and I'm so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I'm so sick of it! But . . . I am so lonely!” feels like a polished speech, not a personal epiphany. As for her sister Amy’s much-lauded scene with Meryl Streep, where she proclaims, “I'm not a poet, I'm just a woman. And as a woman I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don't, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married” — this is just silly. Her sister Jo is already supporting the family as a writer of fiction! Moreover, Amy’s feminist complaint falls a bit flat in light of the fact that she is at that moment choosing between two wealthy suitors. I stand by my review of Little Women, despite its critical accolades.

Marriage Story is real, and raw, and tender, and devastating. It is helped along by Randy Newman’s superbly evocative soundtrack, and it contains not one but two perfectly selected and perfectly delivered songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. It’s the finest piece of acting by Adam Driver to date — and that’s saying a lot for an actor who delivers emotionally in every piece he does (see my reviews of BlackKklansman and Silence for an example of his range). I don’t know which of the nine nominated films will win the Oscar for Best Picture this year, but Marriage Story certainly deserves to be in the running.


Editor's Note: Review of "Marriage Story," directed by Noah Baumbach. Netflix Studios, 2019, 137 minutes.



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A Mess of a Movie

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Could there be a happier Christmas movie than Little Women, with its story of generosity, kindness, familial love, and individuality? And yet — do we really need another version of Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece? It has been committed to film at least seven times, including versions starring Katharine Hepburn; June Allyson and Peter Lawford; Christian Bale and a slew of A-list women; and a sadly modernized mishmash just last year that grossed barely a million dollars. Nevertheless, here we are again, with yet another LW, this one purporting to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist (as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago).

There is much for a libertarian to love about Alcott’s Little Women, including (some might say “despite”) its theme of voluntary sacrifice and charitable service. I happen to appreciate that Marmee teaches her girls to care for the poor from their own meager goods rather than expecting a government agency to do it (or worse, suggesting that the poor “got what they deserved”). Moreover, the wealthy landowner Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) is kind and generous toward the March clan, rewarding their generosity toward others with generosity of his own. He may be rich, but he is not evil.

This Little Women purports to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist, as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago.

In addition, Marmee (Laura Dern) demonstrates prudence, resourcefulness, and self-reliance as the head of the household while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army during the Civil War.

A side note: director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig couldn’t resist a few digs at modern white privilege, so she inserts an exchange between two schoolchildren about the war. It goes like this:

School girl 1: “Father says we should let them keep their labor. It’s none of our business.”

School girl 2: “Everyone benefits from their economic system. Why should only the South be punished?”

In another exchange, borrowing liberally from Michelle Obama, Gerwig has Marmee say to a black woman caring for wounded soldiers alongside her: “I spent my whole life ashamed of my country.”

Black woman: “You should still be ashamed.”Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Me: Ugh! Such anachronisms. No one talked like this back then, least of all schoolchildren or black women chastising white women.

But back to the reasons a libertarian should like this story: Marmee teaches her girls at home, another aspect of the story that should appeal to libertarians. She allows them the freedom to develop their own interests and talents — no public schools deprive them of their time or assign them inane homework that saps their creativity. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is an accomplished musician, Amy (Florence Pugh) a budding artist, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) a skilled writer, and Meg (Emma Watson) an aspiring actress who loves to wear pretty dresses, and attend pretty parties. She also wants to get married and have babies, and in my opinion that’s perfectly all right (though not in this film, where marriage equals misery). Aunt March (Meryl Streep) tells Jo, “No one makes their own way in this world, especially a woman — unless you marry well.” Yet Marmee and Jo are making their way quite nicely. Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

There is also much to love about this movie, despite its storytelling flaws, especially its light and airy musical score by Alexandre Desplat, its sumptuous outdoor settings, its period costumes, and its artistic cinematography. Gerwig often places her actors as though for a painting or a portrait, almost like a Mary Cassatt or Jack Vettriano painting. At times it can seem a bit schmaltzy, as when she frames a proposal scene with overhanging trees that resemble a Valentine heart. But I rather appreciate the effect, which echoes Alcott’s sometimes-schmaltzy Victorian language, whether that was Gerwig’s intent or not.

But is this a satisfying interpretation of Alcott’s work? Notwithstanding its rave reviews, I think not.

Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response.

Most unsatisfactory is the disjointed telling of the story, with its self-inflicted spoilers, clunky flashbacks, and complicated scene changes. The film begins at the end, with Amy in Europe as Aunt March’s companion — so the audience will not experience the unexpected heartbreak when Jo learns that Amy has been chosen to take her place on the wonderful journey. Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is also in Europe, where Amy calls him a “vain, lazy, drunken sot.” And he is indeed a falling-down drunk at that point in this movie. This is the feminist version of LW, after all; I guess we can’t have our first impression of our leading man as the kind, generous, noble friend he has been to the March girls throughout their childhoods.

I happened to bring a visitor from Argentina to see the film with me. He had heard of the novel but had never read it or seen a film adaptation. He confessed that he could not follow the story — he knew there were flashbacks, but it was hard to tell which scenes were in which era, because Gerwig did not bother to provide visual markers — the hairstyles, settings and clothing were virtually the same in both the future and the past. Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response. We learn of Beth’s illness before we even know that she is a sister. We learn that Jo has rejected Laurie’s proposal before we have ever seen them together. We see Amy’s treachery in burning Jo’s manuscript before we see the tender love Jo has for her youngest sister, etc. Gerwig then quickly cuts to the past, where she provides brief glimpses of the relationships leading up to those moments.

My Argentinian friend was utterly lost. All he saw was a bunch of women bickering with one another. He didn’t even realize they were supposed to be teenagers because the actresses were all in their mid-20s. The only reason it worked for me at all is that I could tap into my remembered emotions from having read the book. Many young girls were in the audience with their mothers, presumably experiencing the story for the first time. I felt sorry for them. All they got out of it is that marriage is bad.

Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.

Gerwig’s direction is clunky too. She chose to cast older actresses for the four sisters; then, to portray them in the flashbacks, she resorted to whiny petulance and temper tantrums to make them seem young. This does not work, especially for 12-year-old Amy, who is portrayed by the voluptuous Florence Pugh. Meanwhile, Timothee Chalamat as Laurie has a very boyish face and physique, and his head is so much smaller than Saoirse Ronan’s that they look almost freakish together.

The kind and noble Marmee is laughably portrayed as well. To demonstrate the joy and fun of the March household, Gerwig directed Dern to laugh uncontrollably much of the time, even at the simplest moments. (Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.) Dern’s giggles create a caricature that feels more like a 1930s Mammy than the strong and gentle Marmee, which is unfortunate, because Dern is capable of so much more with so much less — a comforting touch, a beaming countenance, a disapproving glance could have been much more effective, as seen in her portrayal of the teacher in October Sky. She is allowed to display her full range only once — at the death of her beloved Beth. In most scenes she is a giggling goon.

Gerwig even failed with Meryl Streep, whose wooden performance as Aunt March made me long for the acerbic wit of Maggie Smith as the deliciously officious dowager in Downton Abbey. She delivers her lines with all the enthusiasm of a driver delivering a pizza. And if, as she and Jo claim, women had no rights to property in 19th-century America unless they acquired it themselves as single women, how is it that Aunt March inherited the family estate rather than her brother, the father of those little women? Now there’s a backstory I would love to explore!

My biggest disappointment is with Jo’s character. Not with Ronan’s portrayal — she’s fine. More than fine. But Gerwig, like Alcott, only skirted what I think is Jo’s true nature. Alcott hinted at Jo’s sexual orientation; Jo has a masculine name, while her love interest, Laurie, has a girl’s name. Jo usually plays the pirate and other masculine roles in the girls’ attic theatricals. And of course, Jo becomes the family breadwinner. I have long thought that Alcott planted these clues to hint that Jo is gay, in an era when hints were as far as a writer could go.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts.

Gerwig almost gets there. In the movie, Laurie joins “a club for girls” when he is admitted to the March girls’ thespian society. Jo and Laurie often wear the same clothes, though not at the same time. When Jo rejects his proposal, she tells him, “I can’t love you as you want me to. I don’t know why. I can’t. I’ve tried it and I’ve failed.” And when Meg decides to marry, Jo pleads with her, “Don’t do it! Stay with me! You will be bored of him in two years — and we will be interesting forever!” She adds, “I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” Yes, I thought. This time they will have the courage to get it right. Jo will come out of the closet at last.

And yet, for all the preening about the oppression of marriage — despite Amy arguing with Laurie, “Don’t tell me marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is! . . . If I marry, my money would belong to my husband and my children would be his property,” and Aunt March sighing, “Until [Amy] marries someone obscenely wealthy it is up to me to keep the family afloat” — the conflict and climax of the movie resides in Jo discovering that she loves Laurie after all. “Women have minds and they have souls as well as hearts and they have ambition,” she admits, “but I’m so lonely!” And so she writes Laurie the love letter telling him she wants to accept his proposal of marriage. (Of course, we’ve known since the first scene of the movie that Laurie and Amy are already loving it up over in Europe, so we don’t experience Jo’s devastation when she learns the truth.)

Gerwig gives in to marketing pressure, and ends her film with a traditional love story, just as Jo gives in to the same marketing pressure from her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), to marry off the protagonist of her novel, and Alcott succumbed to the same pressure to provide a husband for her alter ego, Jo. Alcott’s Mr. Bhaer is old enough to be Jo’s father. It’s a marriage of convenience, rather than romance, that was not unusual for women who wanted to hide their sexual orientation within a socially acceptable marriage. Gerwig betrayed Alcott, however, by making Jo gigglingly schoolgirlish as she runs after her Friedrich Bhaer, played by the devilishly handsome — and young! — Louis Garrel, to proclaim her love, while her sisters giggle joyfully in the carriage.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts. She adds little that we don’t already know about women’s economic rights and capabilities; she utterly rejects marriage as a viable choice for rational and talented women; she then marries off her lesbian protagonist to the sexiest man in the movie. Good grief.

There was a smattering of applause at the screening I attended, probably led by die-hard ’70s-era feminists who cheer anything made for, by, and about women. But do the young girls in your life a favor: give them a copy of the book, and keep them away from this movie.

Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. Columbia Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.




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Sugar and Spice

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When I was a child, our neighbors had a little girl who would stand outside and scream her lungs out. One day I went over to see if she needed help. She stopped screaming long enough to grin at me, then went right back to it. She was doing it just for the fun of it.

That was a frightening peek into feminine psychology. “Some little girls just like to scream,” my mother told me. “It makes them feel important when people come running.”

They’re screaming because they love to. Apparently, it makes them feel alive.

Many little girls do love a good scream. Whenever there’s a birthday party, or any other gathering of female children, you can hear them for blocks. Their philosophy must be “I scream, therefore I am.”

That seems to be what the professional “progressive” feminists are doing. They’re screaming because they love to. Apparently, it makes them feel alive. They like to make people come running.

I grew up thinking I was a feminist. I don’t think I ever left feminism, but feminism has certainly left me. I don’t even pretend to understand it anymore.

When did making people feel sorry for us replace earning respect? And how can other people’s pity help us to respect ourselves?

I don’t think I ever left feminism, but feminism has certainly left me.

Those on the feminist Left thinks that men have been mean to them. They want to make them sorry. But when your sense of well-being depends on eliciting any particular response from someone else, that does nothing to make you more respectable. All it makes you is codependent — which is something feminists commonly claim that they don’t want to be.

As the cancellation of a recent Women’s March shows, progressive feminists are now competing with one another to hear who can scream the loudest. The screaming never stops.

The Women’s March rally was canceled, it appears, simply because too many of its prospective participants were white. No one is arguing that some are more female than others (though that issue is indeed raised in the transgender-inclusion debate). The “whiteness” issue centers on race: the skin color of those who would be marching.

Much has been made of sisterly loyalty, especially in connection with the #MeToo Movement. But what’s most notable in this kerfuffle over “whiteness” in feminism is not loyalty — the fruit of which is cooperation — but competition. In their attempt to determine who should or should not speak for women, left-feminists are at one another’s throats.

Scream too often, and most people will simply tune you out.

It was famously said, by no less a light than Jesus himself, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” By blundering into the tall weeds of whiteness, left-feminists are doing their cause no favors. As happens continually in the progressive aggrievement Olympics, the social justice troops are too busy shooting at each other to take aim against any common enemy. Or, to return to my original analogy, the scream’s the thing. And the objective appears to be simply attracting attention.

They’re not even doing a very good job of that, especially not concerning particular problems. Scream too often, and most people will simply tune you out. Our neighbors didn’t waste too much time rushing to the aid of our own little screamer. She could have been torn apart by wild dogs and no one would have noticed.

I hold out no hope for “believe every woman, no matter who the accuser may be.” In the #MeToo Movement, sooner or later the troops are going to turn their guns against other women. The Fair Sex suffers from a deficit in mutual loyalty. Women are just as prone to aiming at one another as they are to pointing the guns of their indignation at men.

Many women need to figure out what real self-respect means, and how it may be won.

It may well be asked if men don’t have the same tendencies. I think in general, they display more of a solid front. Much of their success in keeping the upper hand over women for so many centuries can be attributed, it seems to me, to their confidence that women will compete with one another.

Men are a long way from being the source of all our problems. Many women need to figure out what real self-respect means, and how it may be won. And when we hear some women screaming their lungs out, we need to demand an intelligent answer to the question of what the hell they’re screaming about.




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Take Your Mitts Off Our Myths

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Bear with me here. I have some explaining to do with this review, so don’t start throwing tomatoes yet. Here it goes:

I loved watching the new Star Wars episode.

At the same time, I’m glad that fans almost unanimously hate the new story, even if they don’t completely understand their visceral reaction to it. The Last Jedi is indeed bad, but not because of its repetitive plot or unlikely character development. I rather enjoyed the humorous asides, reminiscent of the original Han Solo. Benicio del Toro as the codebreaker DJ is delectably suave and sinister. Daisy Ridley is fresh and courageous and conflicted as the female lead. And the Stephen Jay Gould-inspired moment when Rey (Daisy Ridley) snaps her fingers and sees herself as a continuum extending into her future in front of her and from her past behind her offers a sophisticated and subtle answer to the conflict between destiny and free will — if her past exists along with her future, does she have the power to change the past? Or is her future predetermined by her past?

Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar.

My beef is with what the movie tries to say about our culture. But as a professor who teaches classes on mythology, I was engaged by the classic conflict between good and evil, inspired by the continuing offer of redemption, and fascinated by the evolution of the Star Wars myth.

The number one complaint about The Last Jedi that I’ve read on fan blogs and social media is that the recent stories are all retreads of the original Star Wars plot. Well, duh! Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar. Greek plays tended to tell the same stories from multiple angles, just as the Star Wars episodes all surround the central characters of Luke and Leia. This should come as no surprise. Why have there been at least 59 movies made about Jesse James, more than a dozen about the shootout at the OK Corral, and annual movies about Santa? Don’t we already know how they’re going to end? We watch these movies again and again because we want to experience vicariously how heroes (and antiheroes) face conflict, interact with supporting characters, and find redemption even in tragedy. Aristotle called it catharsis. Each version of the story gives it a slightly different spin as each generation’s definition of heroism changes, but the change is cloaked in the familiarity of the characters and their stories.

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth. We can trace the evolution of our beliefs, values, and culture simply by studying the films of succeeding decades. Just watch how women are portrayed in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and in current movies to see how American culture has changed. And has it ever changed in The Last Jedi!

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth.

From the beginning, George Lucas embedded in Star Wars the characteristics of American myth. His original story relied heavily on the western genre of the lone, flawed maverick who rides into town, is transformed by friendship, and chooses to risk his life and possessions to help protect his new community from treacherous invaders. Han Solo was that maverick hero. The values of that first film were the values of America: rugged individualism, rebellion against tyranny, reliance on instinct, and reverence for freedom. We saw those same values in the many movies of the 20th century with heroes who defy orders, take risks, act instinctively, and save the day. I also love the offer of redemption that permeates the Star Wars mythology. In each episode a hero has been seduced by the dark side, but all is not lost. He can return to the light and a hero’s welcome if he simply chooses it. Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader; now his grandson, Ben Solo, has become Kylo Ren. But the potential for good is strong in this one. He, too, can be redeemed.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down. Once again we have a maverick hero, Poe (Oscar Isaac), who acts on his own, and is demoted for it by the interim leader, Resistance Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Of course we expect that his instincts will prove correct. We also have a trio of rebels (Finn, Rose and BB-8) who secretly boards the First Order’s ship to push a button that will save the Resistance ship. If the story is truly repetitive of earlier episodes, this brave and risky ploy will work. Celebrations to follow.

But not in this movie. Our would-be heroes are caught and their plan is thwarted. Because of this, Vice Admiral Holdo’s secret plan for protecting the ship and its crew is also thwarted, and many Resistance soldiers are killed. The new message is clear: authority figures have no obligation to tell underlings their plans; and those who defy authority and follow their instincts will cause misery to the entire group. So shut up and obey.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down.

Fans are also troubled by the fact that our hero of 40 years, Luke Skywalker, has virtually given up on the Jedi. Discouraged and faithless, he has no desire to help the Resistance and is content to live out the rest of his life on a secluded island. Director and scriptwriter Rian Johnson has destroyed our once incorruptible hero, and his religion as well. I guess the pen truly is mightier than the light saber.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of Hollywood controlling and creating the American myth. Hollywood people hardly represent my own values, beliefs, or culture, or the values and beliefs of most Americans. Apparently Star Wars fans don’t like the idea either. While they complain about esoteric details of plot and character, I think what they are instinctively resisting is the new message of the film.

Mythology resonates with us. That’s one reason such franchises as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the superhero movies endure. Cultural values can evolve over time, but when basic beliefs about free will and individualism change as outrageously as they have in The Last Jedi, we begin to feel “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror.” It’s time to resist the First Order of Hollywood and stop letting it control the American myth.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Last Jedi," directed by Rian Johnson. Walt Disney Pictures, 2017, 152 minutes.



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All About Eve

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In America, the political Left is like a once-beautiful woman who, over the years, has lost her looks in bitter and wasteful living. Nothing remains but her essence, which is evil. She was rotten to the core even when she was young, but then her beauty concealed that, bewitching and bedazzling a great many who couldn’t see past the surface. Now that her looks are gone, only the evil remains: desperately grasping to hold onto the only thing she ever really cared about, which is power.

Hillary Clinton never was a feminist in any true sense of the word. She was, and is, a servant to power. Over the years, she has lost any charm — however slight and shallow — she ever had. Most of what existed in the first place was not her own, but that of her husband. Slick Willie mastered the art of wooing to get what he wanted.

What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power.

Third-wave feminism, the name for its present, grotesque incarnation, is actually nothing more than a graphic illustration of how all too many women still don’t get it. Despite their endless prattle about “equality,” they simply can’t understand why, for such a long stretch of human history, women were stuck in second place.

The so-called feminism of today totally subordinates itself to the Left. What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power. The Left never takes its eyes off of the prize. And it won’t share that prize with anyone.

What has kept women for so long in second place is our disloyalty to one another. In a strictly superficial sense, leftist feminism pays lip service to an understanding of that. But in its savage treatment of any woman who thinks for herself and refuses to play by its rules, it shows its true colors.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away.

We were never admonished, by our leftist betters, to vote for a candidate who demonstrated any genuine concern for our wellbeing. We were expected, as a matter of course and in a pathetic facsimile of loyalty, to vote blindly for power. And not for women’s empowerment, whatever that actually means anymore, but for the juggernaut of tyranny that is the insatiably power-hungry Left.

A couple of years ago, I got to hold a real Academy Award. Oscar was heavy, coated with gold, and bigger than he seemed in pictures. As I stood there, feeling its heft in my humble hands, all I could think was, “Holy crap, Batman! I’m holding an Oscar!

I was almost instantly reminded of the ambitious ingénue who appears at the end of the classic movie All About Eve. I don’t remember the character’s name — it could have been any of a hundred forgettable names — but she hungered to take her place in the spotlight. As she stood in Eve Harrington’s dressing room, holding the stage star’s Sarah Siddons Award, she fantasized that it was her own, and bowed to her adoring, invisible audience.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away. They cling to a prize that is not their own — and which they can never keep. It will be passed on to “sisters” who do not appreciate what they have done, want the bauble only for the hollow and fleeting satisfaction of holding it for a while, and then will reluctantly pass it on to successors who neither understand them nor appreciate any genuine good theymight have done. Leftist feminism is an endless succession of incarnations, each uglier and wearier than the one before. It may eventually lead to annihilation, but never to Nirvana.




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Not Me Too

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We probably needn’t worry about missing a gaudy bandwagon when it comes around. Another one will be by in a couple of days. Now in the news and social media, it’s #MeToo. As I write this, America is already tired of “the narrative,” and the bandwagon is lumbering on, but before it fades too far into the distance I want to put in my two cents. The Left won’t listen, but perhaps reasonable people will.

Feminism is now in reverse gear. It’s going backwards, because instead of earning women more respect and trust from men, it’s causing even many who previously held us in high esteem to distrust us and view us with contempt. But contrary to what women are so often told, it isn’t the political Right or the Republican Party that is moving us back. It is the very people who have so loudly taken up our cause.

Those of us who live in the real world, where there are not 50 “genders” but two sexes, understand that because the human race is divided about evenly between them, our fortunes are inextricably tied together. There is really no such thing as a “women’s issue” or a “men’s issue.” There are only human issues, and in one way or another each of them affects us all.

There is a world of difference between having your feelings hurt and fearing for your life.

I have experienced both sexual harassment and sexual assault. They are nowhere near the same. It is an insult to women everywhere that the #MeToo movement conflates them. To mush these two related-yet-separate issues together is to do a disservice to both. And it makes women not more safe, but less.

It also leaves men understandably confused. How on earth are they expected to make sense of such a jumble? It very much appears that they are now under suspicion no matter how innocent their intentions may be. Will even a dinner invitation lead to an accusation of rape?

There is a world of difference between having your feelings hurt and fearing for your life. Nearly as large a gulf exists between finding an eligible woman attractive and stalking her with the intention of committing a savage assault. “Oh,” friends have sobbed to me, “but when you hear their stories, you’ll understand what a horrible problem this is!”

My own Inner Child wants to run as far away from this crusade as she can get.

But precisely what is “this?” And who is telling the stories of the people (mostly men, but not always) whose shared experience is, evidently, not welcome? Men are tepidly and belatedly being invited to “share their stories,” but I see little indication that their recollections are taken as seriously as those of women. Those brave enough to come forward are even being ridiculed.

This is touchy-feely, “Womyn’s Retreat in Sedona” stuff. It calls to mind hippie-dippy singalongs and flannel shirts, and isn’t too far removed from getting in touch with our Inner Child. Most men don’t gravitate to this sort of thing, and I don’t blame them. My own Inner Child wants to run as far away from this crusade as she can get. I refuse to see half of the human race as The Enemy, and consider far more dangerous those who would poison my mind into accepting such a view.

This is how both of the big-league statist political teams operate. Each takes a stand in which there can be found a grain of truth, and that’s how it takes its minions in. But coated in gunky layers around that kernel is a syrupy glaze of emotion. Often it’s slathered on so thick that it’s nearly impossible to get down to what’s essential. Sexual harassment and rape are bad — m’kay — and every civilized person agrees on that, but extreme Harvey Weinstein types aside, harassers and rapists are usually very different individuals.

Male chauvinist abusers and man-hating witch-hunters alike flourish in an atmosphere of chaos.

The rules need to be clearly defined and reasonably easy to grasp. The game can’t be booby-trapped against anyone who’s required to play it. If the net is cast too widely, and enough innocent people are caught up in it, all that will do is discredit any further movement for women’s rights and make enemies it can’t afford to have. Alienating large swaths of the populace, and making ourselves look like loonies, is not going to make anyone safer. Such irresponsibility and incoherence are exactly what hasthrown the women’s movement into reverse.

The only people helped by a self-indulgent sobfest like #MeToo are those who are genuinely bad. Male chauvinist abusers and man-hating witch-hunters alike flourish in an atmosphere of chaos. When the lines are so blurry that any tasteless joke can be construed as tantamount to rape, then confusion can be used as an excuse to push the boundaries even farther. And every busybody, regardless of the circumstances, finds license to make accusations and ruin lives.

Oppressive government thrives on confusion. If it’s all too complicated for us to sort out, the authoritarian state will gladly do it for us. But because it cites, as its justification, the existence of the problem itself, in order to hold onto its power it can never permit the problem to be solved. If we can’t find a way to solve the problem ourselves, one way or another we will all end up being victims.




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Designer Reality

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Libertarians take great stock in the law of supply and demand. We understand that as long as something is in demand (as long as it isn’t a cure for cancer), there will generally be a supply of it. As it was with alcohol — the consumption of which only increased as a result of Prohibition — so, too, has it been with such drugs as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

Less obvious, perhaps even to us, is the driving force behind the seemingly unstoppable popularity of alternative reality. Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth? I don’t believe it can simply be explained as dissatisfaction with dystopia. There appears to be a general notion that people can believe whatever they want, and that reality is so subjective that it is mere clay, to be molded into whatever shape they choose.

In childhood, this is called imagination. If it persists into adulthood, it can become a form of mental illness. And instead of the remedy for dystopia, it appears to be the cause of it. Even a great many of those who never resort to alcohol or other drugs are addicted to designer reality.

Why do so many people, in this increasingly dystopian century, appear to be disconnected from objective truth?

Nor are libertarians immune to the addiction. I recently made the mistake of involving myself in one of those pointless Facebook flame wars I keep resolving to stay out of. It was on a libertarian page, and some cocky young gun posted yet another of those dreary challenges to feminine patience: “Why aren’t there more libertarian women?”

Of those who jumped into this discussion on the commentary thread, at least half were women. Real live, flesh-and-blood women were saying that we did exist, explaining how we had come to be libertarians, and suggesting how more of us could be encouraged to follow. Not that this appeared to teach the young gun, or his buddies, anything of value.

The answer to every one of our comments was some variation of the same: “Libertarianism is a logical philosophy, and men are logical, but women are not. Women are emotional and cannot be logical.” It was basically only a slightly more mature version of “Girls are stinky and have cooties” or of that old playground taunt: “Girls go to Jupiter to get more stupider. Boys go to Mars to get more candy bars.” I suppose the goal was to get us to be more emotional, so they could prove their point.

The word “logic” kept being repeated, as if it were a magical incantation. I saw zero evidence that these guys were using much of it, but they seemed to think if they kept asserting that they possessed superior logic, they needed to do no more. They had their designer reality, it gave them a terrific high, and they could imagine nothing better. The possibility that if they stopped telling us how illogical we were, and actually made the effort to explain the libertarian philosophy to us, they might meet with more widespread results, apparently never occurred to them.

It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies.

Taking the chance that since they talked so much about logic, they might actually recognize it when they saw it, I attempted to reason with them. I pointed out that libertarians believe in the value of the individual. That one of their sages, Ayn Rand (herself — ahem — a woman), proclaimed that the individual was “the smallest minority” and stalwartly championed individual rights. And that they were speaking of women in a strictly collective sense — lumping us all together in a most unlibertarian way. They responded by casting Rand, and presumably any other woman who actually used logic, as a freak of nature who was at worst a horribly deformed woman, or at best some sort of an honorary man.

I have had this experience with nearly all the designer reality addicts I have ever engaged in conversation, no matter what pretty world they’ve chosen to inhabit. The cherished belief is doggedly repeated. Regardless of how good my argument happens to be, or how much evidence I present to support my position, it has no effect except to make them less logical and more — well — emotional. It differs little from telling children that Santa Claus doesn’t really come down the chimney and eat those cookies. They seem not so much indifferent to the truth as afraid of it.

The problem does not begin with the seemingly endless variety of designer reality available to us. Its origin can be traced to an insatiable demand. And the lure is powerful. This is not because all designer reality is utter bunk, but because in almost every version, there is at least a grain of truth.

Women can be emotional. I know that after that online conversation with those male libertarians, I wanted to scream my head off. But the political powers-that-be can take a grain of truth, add a little yeast, and expand it into a monstrous blob of dough. Many women turn their frustrations with men into protest-marching, silly-hat-wearing, man-hating lunacy. Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

The big-government power structure functions as a duopoly, neither side of which is totally right or wrong. Most people choose the portions of truth they prefer and ignore the fact that the rest of what they’ve chosen is falsehood. The powers-that-be are basically telling us that we can have no more than part of the truth. That we are not entitled to the full truth. That we must be content with whichever lies we find the most pleasant — or at any rate, the least painful.

Today’s feminists have managed to make burning bras look, by comparison, charmingly quaint.

A temptation to accept partial truth is, it seems to me, the contemporary equivalent of taking the apple from the Serpent. It is the fruit the State dangles before us. And when we get cast out of the Garden, we waste our time arguing over trivialities — such as whether to blame Adam or Eve. Or maybe Adam and Steve.

Liberty enables us to pursue the full truth. We certainly don’t all agree on what that is, but each of us who values freedom should never settle for anything less. When we waste our time bickering over whose designer reality is prettier, we sell our freedom short. And, so divided, we invite the potentates of big government to conquer us.




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Weight and See

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The Few, the Proud, the Insufferably Entitled

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Students at the University of Oregon have demanded that a quotation by Martin Luther King, Jr., be removed from the wall of their student union building because King’s remarks were not “inclusive” enough. The offending words? “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream . . .”

It seems that King did not acknowledge the LGBT community when he argued for racial equality, and that makes him privileged and insensitive. So, off with his head — and his quotation.

Never mind that King was risking his own life to lead the way for racial equality (a risk that ended in his murder). Never mind that he was a minority voice with no political power save the art of persuasion. Never mind that his dream of his children being judged by the content of their character can include minorities of all kinds, or that the LGBT community and the feminist movements were blazing trails of their own at the time. King is privileged and insensitive for not including them specifically.

When you’re blazing a trail, you cut away the biggest obstacles first, and leave the paving of the road for those who come behind.

Change is a process. You install new carpet and then realize the walls need new paint, which makes the curtains look dingy so you replace those, and before long you have a whole new room of furniture. Yet these same students who are so self-righteously criticizing the leaders of the past have no idea whose rights they are ignoring — or even trampling — today.

It was, in fact, Oregon students who 30 years ago demanded that the university replace its motto, “Leader in the quest for the good life for all men,” with the King quotation, after feminists objected that the motto did not include women. Too bad they didn’t think of the LGBT community back then. (And too bad they didn’t realize that the word “men” originally was inclusive of both genders.) The point is, when you’re blazing a trail, you cut away the biggest obstacles first, and leave the paving of the road for those who come behind. It’s a process, not a destination.

This same criticism is made against the Founding Fathers because they did not address the slavery issue when they declared independence from Great Britain. And yes, they were Founding Fathers. Not a single woman signed the Declaration. But that doesn’t mean women weren’t involved. They were managing family farms, running family businesses, overseeing their children’s education, maintaining home security, and ensuring there would be enough income and capital to allow their husbands to focus on freedom. These were partnerships, even if the women’s names didn’t appear on the documents.

I dream of a time when people will be judged by the culture of their own times, and not by the social progress of the future.

Should they have emancipated the slaves at the same time? From our perspective, of course. But the country wasn’t ready for that much change. Slavery had been an economic institution for millennia, and few people realized that you could persuade people to do the grunt work without a whip, simply by paying them a good wage. It was a revolutionary idea to think that a country could be governed of, by, and for the people without a monarch in charge. To proclaim that everyone had been born with certain inalienable rights took six bloody years to prove. They blazed the trail. Blacks and then women would pave it.

I dream of a time when people will be judged by the culture of their own times, and not by the social progress of the future. I forgive the imperfections of past leaders, because they were blazing new trails for me, cutting through oppressive underbrush and battling archaic beliefs, so that I could travel their broad highways while searching for new trails to blaze.




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Ayn Rand: Champion of the Working Class?

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In his libertarian manifesto For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard accused Ayn Rand of being a pawn of corporate people profiting from the welfare state. As evidence that she was out of touch with reality, he cited her famous statement that the businessman is America’s most persecuted minority (Mises Institute edition [388], quoting Rand, “America’s Most Persecuted Minority: Big Business” [1962]; reprinted in Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal).

Objectivism, to the extent that the general public knows anything about it, is often regarded as a rightwing position and can be seen as a boon to efforts to push libertarians into the hand of the Tea Party Right. While this belief is ignorant, the masses do not have a detailed and nuanced grasp of the details of libertarian doctrine, nor should we expect them to. Many people merely adopt a false and shallow impression that libertarians are some type of conservatives who are on the far Right, compared to moderate Republicans. Some left-libertarians, such as I, are very frustrated with the tendency of Objectivism to be classified in this way. The truth about Rand (like the truth about all things) is deeper and more surprising than a first impression would allow. Rand should not be considered a member of the Right. In several important ways, indeed, she resembled a populist leftist.

The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

To examine the sense in which she was, historically, a friend of the working class and an enemy of the conservative Right, several things come into focus. First, let us consider Rand herself. She was a working-class woman, and quite poor during much of her adult life. It was only with the sale of the movie rights to The Fountainhead, when she was almost 40 years old, that she achieved significant self-made wealth, which was to last and grow for the rest of her life. To say, then, that Ayn Rand hated the working class and loved the rich would be to assume that she hated herself for many years — something absurdly contrary to her fundamentally self-loving and perhaps narcissistic personality.

Second, Rand always had a particular affinity for working-class people who want to earn their wages instead of relying on the welfare state. For example, Rand pushed to have The Fountainhead movie premiere in a working-class area, saying that she knew her “real audience” was there (Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Anchor Books edition, 212). When the audience in working-class Southern California applauded the movie at its premier, Rand said, “That’s why I like the common man.” The middle-aged Rand, still fresh from her own experience of poverty, tended to respect working-class folk more than rich people.

Third, and perhaps most obvious and also most extremely inconvenient for rightwing libertarians, is the conservative movement’s frequent hatred of Rand, and her counterattacks against that movement during the 1960s. Any disciple of Rand knows what the hateful, anti-Randian sentence “To a gas chamber, go!” means and embodies; for those who don’t, a more extensive knowledge of the history of the libertarian movement is required (for which I recommend Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, one of the best works on the subject). Rand’s hatred of conservatives is undeniable. The title of her essay “Conservatism: An Obituary” (1962, reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) is self-explanatory. If one goes beyond the title to read the text, one sees that Rand held nothing back. She was full of anger. She once said that liberals seek to enslave the body and conservatives seek to enslave the mind, both conceding freedom to that part of human existence which they care about least. This comment is hardly flattering to the Right.

Fourth, and finally, consider Rand’s signature novels themselves. Of course, all her fans have read them, but few have read carefully. In The Fountainhead, Gale Wynand gets rich by pandering to the stupid masses in his newspapers. In Atlas Shrugged, James Taggart, the major villain, is, among many other things, a rich white male businessman who inherited vast wealth and is the CEO of a major railroad. Is this a character created to praise the rich, a character that rich people should love?

Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist.

Or did Rand seek to praise productivity and intellect, not the rich as such? Compare James Taggart to his sister Dagny, a hero of the novel. Dagny is a woman who actually runs, not simply pretends to run, a great railroad. Her role in the novel makes it years ahead of its time in terms of gender equality. Let us not forget that Rand was a woman, and, as such, a living embodiment of the freedom of women to pursue careers, a freedom by no means certain for most women in America during Rand’s lifetime. Most people would regard progressive feminism as a leftist element in Rand. The creator of Galt’s Gulch, the Utopia in Atlas Shrugged, is fairly prosperous in the Gulch itself, but in “our world” he is a mere day laborer who lives in poverty — and that’s where he lives during most of the book. It is easy to connect the dots and assume that Rand would have seen the working class as a place where many potential John Galts exist. One of the basic messages of the novel is that our world would condemn all such people to a meager existence.

Murray Rothbard despised the big business Right (at least before his “paleolibertarian” phase); I believe that Rand did as well. Contemporary conservatives may exploit Rand’s ideas, just as they exploit so many other ideas, both economic and philosophical; but that’s no reason for working-class libertarians and left-libertarians not to embrace Rand as one of their own.




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