Three Smart, Suspenseful Movies

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The leaves are settling, the goblins are gone, and you have a bowlful of leftover candy that you convinced yourself you would need for all the trick-or-treaters. Why not sneak those treats into a movie theater and enjoy an evening of intense suspense? I’ve reviewed three gripping new films that will send shivers down your spine. All three contain characters who face demons — of the psychological kind. All three examine the concept of choice and accountability, and all three offer unusual definitions of freedom.

Drew Goddard and Jason Blum are the new masters of suspense, lifting the genre above the slasher model of the ’80s and ’90s and the bloodfests of Quentin Tarantino to return to the psychological suspense dramas that were made in the ’50s and ’60s. Their films are characterized by sophisticated scripts, top quality cinematography and music, and lavish, almost garish, set dressing. After writing and directing 2012’s remarkable The Cabin in the Woods (see our review), Goddard explained, “The horror genre gets you in touch with our primal instincts as a people more than any other genre I can think of. It gives you this chance to sort of reflect on who we are and look at the sort of uglier side that we don't always look at, and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.” His latest film, Bad Times at the El Royale, is an ensemble piece that does just that, taking us on a dark and stormy night to a hotel as eerie and secretive as Hitchcock’s Bates Motel.

The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us.

The movie begins almost like a stage play; the scene, an oversized hotel room with an unnaturally wide expanse of floorspace in the middle where actors could mingle and emote, fills the screen and is as wide as a stage. A bed sits far stage right and a desk far stage left, with a small couch under the window next to the foot of the bed. A man enters, backlit through the hotel room door. He crosses stage right to the window and looks outside uneasily, then crosses downstage left to deposit his bag and crosses back to the window, where he closes the curtains furtively and finally turns on the light so he can get to work. The motions feel staged and unrealistic. That is their purpose. Nothing is going to be realistic in this movie.

Scene 2 occurs ten years later at the same hotel, circa 1968 (assuming that a particular news item on a black and white TV is meant to be a live broadcast). Several characters are gathering in the once-glamorous lobby of the rundown El Royale Hotel to check in for the night; we assume that at least one of them is related to the action in the opening scene. Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), who introduces himself as a vacuum cleaner salesman on a junket, displays stereotypically sleazy gaucherie, especially toward Darlene (Cynthia Ervio) a young black woman carrying a bundle of bedrolls. By contrast, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) treats Darlene with genteel manners that may or may not be sincere, offering to carry her luggage to her room for her. The fourth guest (Dakota Johnson) is cool, glamorous, and haughtily aloof to them all as she selects a room far from the rest of the guests.

The El Royale is loosely based on the old Cal-Neva Hotel in Lake Tahoe, whose claim to fame (besides having once been owned by Frank Sinatra) was that the state line ran directly through the lobby. “Would you prefer the warmth and sunshine of the West, or the hope and opportunity of the East?” Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the El Royale’s desk clerk, asks expansively as customers arrive. “California rooms are a dollar extra,” he adds matter-of-factly. Well, of course.

Yes, a National Geographic documentary is the scariest movie I have seen in ages.

It’s a significant decision, because choice and chance are important themes in this film, where nothing is as it seems and choosing wisely can be a matter of life and death. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Whom should we trust? What deep secrets are kept at the El Royale, and can the truth set them free? The plot backtracks and restarts numerous times as it is retold through the perspective of the various characters, insisting that our perspectives change too.

Occasional allusions to events that took place in the ’60s become important later in the film. The vintage clothing, automobiles, music, and mid-century furnishings also contribute to the rich Hitchcockean atmosphere. The women are stylish, the men are masculine, the young desk clerk is troubled, and Goddard even kills off a key character just a third of the way into the story, à la Hitch’s main character in Psycho. The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us. Horror might not be your genre, but this film is just about perfect.

Another film in which being off balance can lead to instant death is Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s breathtaking attempt, last year, to become the first person to solo climb the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Yes, a NatGeo doc is the scariest movie I have seen in ages. My heart was pounding and I had to look away from the screen several times as Alex fought to balance on a tiny toehold here, a half-inch protrusion there, making his way up the nearly perpendicular giant — without a rope or parachute. One slip, and he would be dead. In terms of Goddard’s definition of the horror genre, Free Solo reveals the psychological need to “get . . . in touch with . . . primal instincts, . . . [offers a] chance to sort of reflect on who we are . . . and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.”

What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death?

Alex Honnold is, by his own admission, an odd duck. Raised by an emotionally distant father and a mother for whom no accomplishment was ever enough, he notes that he had to teach himself how to hug when he was in college after noticing that hugging was something other people did. He never heard the words “I love you” from his parents. He earns “about as much as a moderately successful dentist,” through sponsorships, books, and speaking engagements, yet he lives in his car, a minivan that he modified to include a small stove, a refrigerator, and a platform bed. He eats his car-cooked meals from the skillet with a spatula.

This background is offered as a kind of psychological answer to the obvious question: What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death? Alex is possessed by personal demons that only seem to leave him when he is enjoying the freedom of the climb. As head cinematographer and co-director Jimmy Chin observes, “You have to be perfect in this sport. It’s like being in the Olympics where you either win the gold medal, or you die.” Dozens of extreme climbers have indeed fallen to their deaths, adding to the suspense of Alex’s pursuit.

In order to successfully ascend the mountain without a rope, soloists must practice repeatedly with ropes and a belaying partner until they know every inch, every crook, every cranny of the face. As Alex trains for the climb, he slips off the face and dangles over the canyon floor — a lot. This adds to our suspense as he finally starts the main adventure. Chin wisely decided to widen the angle of the documentary and include the filmmakers as part of the story, and we see how carefully they, too, prepare to document the feat. They must select the best vantage points along the way, roping into the face with their heavy cameras while remaining out of sight and making sure they don’t interfere, physically or psychologically. Jimmy’s greatest fear isn’t not getting the shot; it’s causing a distraction that might lead to his friend’s death.

The cameramen become our vicarious eyes and hearts. One repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death. I found myself looking away too, willing him to get to the top and end the agony of watching him glide impossibly up the sheer expanse of the mountain.

Despite the agony of suspense, the film is breathtakingly beautiful. The camera work is exquisite, capturing the magnificence of the mountain. It’s matched by the grandeur of the music and the precise choreography of the climb. Alex knows exactly what he is doing; he has memorized all 3,000 feet of the granite precipice. It’s the scariest and most awe-inspiring film I have seen in ages. The look of joy on Alex’s face as he turns to the camera after a particularly grueling section says it all. To quote Drew Goddard again, this kind of horror “lends itself to a sort of freedom” that few of us will ever know.

One crewman repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death.

Our third film is horrifying in that it isn’t fantasy — it’s fiction, yes, but it’s based on true-life experiences of gang life, drug culture, and trigger-happy police officers. The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, tells the story of a family determined to escape by staying put. They reside in a rundown, longstanding black neighborhood, but they send their children to a private school where they have a better chance of getting a good education and, let’s face it, living to adulthood without being sent to prison. Passing by the public high school, the main character, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) tells us in voiceover narration, “That’s where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list. And that’s one of the horrors presented by this film.

Starr must learn to navigate two worlds as she moves between her mostly white school and her mostly black neighborhood. Her school friends play at being cool by listening to rap music, dancing with a cool R&B vibe, and using black slang. But because she is truly black, Starr studiously avoids the vernacular of her black world. She fits in by not joining in. Meanwhile, at home she hangs out with her childhood friends (those who are still alive) while trying to remain safely aloof from the fights and drama that break out between them. She has a complicated relationship with many of the neighborhood kids; “Kenya’s mama had Seven with my daddy, but she’s no relation to me,” she explains to someone at a party.

When a fight breaks out at the party, Starr’s childhood friend and somehow-relation, Khalil (Algee Smith), grabs her hand and drives her to safety — almost. When he is pulled over by a cop (for the egregious crime of changing lanes without signaling) Starr quickly puts both hands on the dashboard as her daddy (Russell Hornsby) has taught his family to do, and frantically urges Khalil to do the same. But Khalil isn’t about to be submissive; with the swagger that comes from knowing you’ve done no wrong, he challenges the police officer. As the confrontation escalates, Khalil is shot and killed. Even though you know it’s going to happen, the moment is shocking, brutal, horrifying.

The public high school is “where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list.

What follows is a fair and complex assessment of all the things that have led to this moment. Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common), a black police officer, explains to Starr that cops have to make split-second decisions based on what they see and what they expect. He tells her that he probably would have ordered Khalil out of the car too, in order to keep an eye on him while running his license. Starr listens but then asks, “Would you have told a white business man in a Mercedes to get out of the car?” “Probably not,” he admits.

The message is clear: like Alex Honnold in Free Solo, those who challenge the granite face of the law need to respect the power of the opponent, even when they have a right to be where they are. Keep your hands where they belong and focus on potential risks. The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

Meanwhile, the police try to smear Khalil by painting him as a common drug dealer. “Good riddance,” is the message, even if he wasn’t doing anything wrong at the moment he was shot. They want Starr to testify against the local drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), who controls the neighborhood and oversees the violent turf wars (and happens to be her half-brother Seven’s father). While protestors chanting “What do we want? Justice!” at City Hall are being pummeled by tear gas, King is tossing fire bombs at local black businesses that are standing up to his authority. This message is clear too: the problems in the ’hood aren’t black and white, in the racial or the metaphorical sense.

The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

According to rap artist Tupac Shakur, “Thuglife” is an anagram for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everything.” One of the common threads in these three films is that children who are traumatized or neglected often grow up to commit traumatic or traumatizing acts. The Hate U Give offers much to think about as we figure out how to solve the problems in our urban neighborhoods, beginning with the public school system that acts as a racial boundary and the drug laws that act as a direct pathway to easy money followed by death or prison. That is true horror, in ways beyond anything we ever see on Halloween.

Bad Times at the El Royale, directed by Drew Goddard. Twentieth Century Fox, 2018, 141 minutes.

Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. National Geographic, 2018, 100 minutes.

The Hate U Give directed by George Tillman Jr. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2018, 133 minutes.




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The Movie of the Multipliers

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The multipliers. These are some of the most dangerous elements of political life.

Intelligence, knowledge, persuasiveness, experience in political affairs — all these good things may add much to a politician’s ability to succeed. The lack of such qualities may subtract from it. But you can be possessed of all of them and still be only half as likely to win public office as a person who lacks them completely, but has real money, or one-quarter as likely as a person whose father happened to be a noted politician, or one-tenth as likely as a person who happens to possess the right age, color, or creed. Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.

The first President Bush, a man of normal abilities, achieved high political office by means of multipliers unrelated to political ideas or performance. He was rich, his father had been socially and politically important, and his contrast with Ronald Reagan endeared him to journalists who, for their own reasons, valued that contrast. The second President Bush, a man of no ability at all, was a nice guy, which added something to his political appeal. But the multiplier was the fact that his father had been president and had been surrounded by a gang of hacks who wanted to get back in power.

Wealth, unearned prestige, the accidents of demographics — these are multipliers, and there are many others.

Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying. One of the Kennedys — John — had intelligence, courage, and a personality that was attractive in many ways. On its own, this ensemble of good attributes would probably have gotten him nowhere important in the political life of his time. His success depended on multipliers — a large fortune; an ambitious, politically manipulative father, good at surrounding young John with media toadies; a family ethic that sanctioned and demanded constant, conscienceless lying; a support base of fanatical Irish Catholics prepared to vote for anyone who shared their ethnic and religious identification, no matter what that person did; and an unbroken phalanx of media writers and performers for whom “Jack” embodied fantasies of male potency and sophisticated “culture.” His assassination provided another mighty multiplier, so mighty that sane people should thank God every morning that his brother, Edward (“Teddy,” then “Ted”) Kennedy, the inheritor of John’s manufactured charisma, never realized his life’s purpose of attaining the presidency.

Few readers of this journal need to be reminded of the fact that Edward Kennedy had no good qualities whatever, political or otherwise. Yet he might have become president; and after he died, he continued to be celebrated by crazed or cynical followers who would have hounded any person without his multipliers out of politics, if not out of the country.

Finally, a mere five decades after the event, a serious film has been made about the great divider of Kennedy’s political prospects, the incident of July 18, 1969, in which a drunken Kennedy drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, drowning the young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was with him. Kennedy left her to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement. This proving impossible, he admitted some vague form of responsibility, retreated to his Irish Catholic base, which, I repeat, would swallow any kind of explanation from a Kennedy, and, with the aid of friendly media and the accustomed throng of social and intellectual gofers, rebuilt his political career.

Political multipliers can be mildly amusing, innocently useful, morally disgusting, or existentially disturbing. In the case of the Kennedy family, they are terrifying.

Jason Clarke, who plays Kennedy in this film, and director John Curran, both apparently modern liberals, seem to think that Kennedy rebuilt not only a career but a self; they seem to believe that he became a genuinely great political figure. The idea is absurd, and the film does nothing to support it. It shows Kennedy deciding to recover from the incident at Chappaquiddick by founding his life on ever more aggressive lies — which is exactly what he did.

The film is, indeed, closer to fact than any historical movie I have ever seen. By the time it’s done, you have encountered all the relevant evidence, evidence that gains power by being introduced slowly, by frequent revisits to the scene of the crime. The scenes, both indoor and outdoor, are impeccably authentic and meaningful as further evidence. To select a small detail: the camera notices that when Kennedy is to make a particularly “authentic” television broadcast, he is seated at a serious looking desk behind a case full of important looking books, but the legs of the desk are propped by haphazard piles of the same kind of books — a good indication of the importance of knowledge in the life of Ted Kennedy.

As for acting — at the start of the movie, Clarke doesn’t look or talk much like the Kennedy we saw all too frequently, but as he develops the character’s psychology he actually convinces you that the two are exactly the same, right down to the shape of the face. The other well-known people who are impersonated do the same (a sign of great direction). One of them is Bruce Dern, playing Kennedy’s father. Dern is the most recognizable of actors, but I didn’t discover who he was until I read the credits. Kate Mara has a hard job playing Mary Jo Kopechne, and her performance is not memorable, but she had a difficult task, given the fact that Kopechne was not allowed to achieve distinctness in real life. Clancy Brown does a magnificent Robert McNamara; Taylor Nichols presents an interesting view of the psychology of Ted Sorensen (perhaps the most respected of the Kennedy hacks), though without aspiring to the height of Sorensen’s towering arrogance; and Ed Helms does an excellent job in the difficult role of the one good guy, Kennedy sidekick Joe Gargan.

Ted Kennedy left Mary Jo Kopechne to die, trapped in the car. Then he tried, in various ridiculous ways, to conceal his involvement.

Real artists often exceed their conscious ideological programs simply by taking seriously their jobs as artists, so that in their hands a representation of human life takes on a life of its own, which is simultaneously our own real life, seen more deeply and rendered more self-explanatory. Artistic insight becomes analysis, and fact becomes a more suggestive truth. This is what Chappaquiddick does. Particularly revealing are the serious but irresistibly comic scenes in which all the hacks that money can buy are assembled to advise Teddy Kennedy about how to get out of the mess he has made. Here, viewed without overt explanation, analysis, or moralization, are a horde of important men, operating on the assumption that (A) the politician they serve is a destructive fool; (B) this politician must be elected president; and (C) his supporters must create all the lies and corruption necessary to make him so. The childishness is funny; the absolute lack of conscience is, in these true images of the powerful, terrifying. Add to that the movie’s evocation of the stolen prestige of John Kennedy’s presidency, and the Mafia-like adulation of “family” that has always characterized the Kennedys and their followers, and you have all the multipliers you need. The picture is complete.

I consider Chappaquiddick the third-best film about American politics, after Advise & Consent and The Manchurian Candidate. That’s quite an achievement.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chappaquiddick," directed by John Curran. Apex Entertainment, 2017, 101 minutes.



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The Cruelty of the Self-Righteous

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I am generally favorable to President Trump, and I can give you reasons for that. But I am not favorable, at all, to his role in the current “you aren’t doing enough about this” war between political factions about the so-called opioid crisis. Trump has upped the ante by calling for the death penalty for illicit peddling of opioids. The only way you can call and raise him on that is by recommending the death penalty for users — something that, unfortunately, may already be entailed by the agitated proposals now issuing from Trump and other officials.

Look. Every 20 years there’s another drug “crisis.” This has been going on for more than a century. But seldom has it gone on about a more useful family of drugs than opioids. These drugs reduce severe and chronic pain, and pain is a good thing to reduce. Often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to prevent a suicide; very often it is something that needs to be reduced in order to give sick people a real life.

To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

There is no doubt that these drugs can be falsely prescribed, over-prescribed, and abused. There is no doubt that they can cause addiction and death. I hope I am not offending you by saying that all of this is a familiar part of life on this planet. The best, and in fact the only, way of meeting this “crisis” is to exercise responsibility for your own medications. It is not to tell your neighbor to take those little pains to the nearest Zen master, or man up and bear them.

To raise the price of “illicit” drugs by raising the penalty for peddling them merely increases profits for the vast majority of dealers who always escape such penalties. To arbitrarily limit the number of prescriptions for useful drugs, which is what is now being proposed on all sides, is to arbitrarily increase the amount of human pain. That’s pretty much the definition of cruelty.

So I say, Damn your cruelty, Mr. President. And damn the cruelty of all the self-satisfied people who agree with you only about this, of all things.




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The Cruz Case: The State’s Kindly Cruelty

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An informative article by Paul Sperry in Real Clear Investigations shows how Nikolas Cruz, a violent lunatic who was a frequent subject of complaint at home and at school, could have maintained a record that was clean enough to allow him to buy guns and massacre 17 people at his high school in Florida.

Although he was disciplined for a string of offenses — including assault, threatening teachers and carrying bullets in his backpack — he was never taken into custody or even expelled. Instead, school authorities referred him to mandatory counseling or transferred him to alternative schools.

That did a lot of good, didn’t it?

How could Nikolas Cruz, a violent lunatic who was a frequent subject of complaint at home and at school, maintain a record that was clean enough to allow him to buy guns and massacre 17 people?

But why was he treated this way? The reason appears to be that, inspired by modern liberal educationists, officials — police honchos and the rulers of government schools — had adopted a policy of not punishing or even recording crimes committed by young people. I’m not talking about violations of some marijuana law. I mean crimes. The policy, adopted with great ceremony and self-applause, was addressed not just to “nonviolent” offenses but also to “’assault/threat’ and ‘fighting,’ as well as ‘vandalism.’”

And the district’s legally written discipline policy also lists “assault without the use of a weapon” and “battery without serious bodily injury,” as well as “disorderly conduct,” as misdemeanors that "should not be reported to Law Enforcement Agencies or Broward District Schools Police.” This document also recommends “counseling” and “restorative justice."

In other words, students and other young people could roam about, assaulting people and threatening them, with no punishment other than a silent referral to “counseling.”

The Cruz case illustrates the cruelty of modern liberal policies and tactics, which encourage crime, especially in poor and middle-class communities, and then respond to it with demands that means of self-defense (otherwise known as guns) be removed from the same communities. It illustrates the folly of conservatives’ bizarre faith in “law enforcement,” which more and more appears as highly paid but irresponsible use of force, whether manifested in “kindly” social engineering or in the brutal recklessness of assaults on unarmed civilians.

Students and other young people could roam about, assaulting people and threatening them, with no punishment other than a silent referral to “counseling.”

But the Cruz case also has a lesson for libertarians. Our genial, live-and-let-live philosophy and our well justified fear of government sometimes lead us to ignore the fact that government’s legitimate purpose (or, if you’re an anarchist, the legitimate purpose of a contractual defense agency) is to prevent or punish the initiation of force — by anyone. Gangs on the streets and lunatics in the corridors are the principal dangers to liberty that many people, especially young and vulnerable people, have to face. To ignore private dangers to liberty is to adopt the irresponsible elitism so much in evidence among the blind conservative proponents of “law and order” and the smug liberal advocates of “social justice.”




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Caesars Non-August

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I should have known. The first time I saw Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel on TV, he was wearing four gold stars on each side of his collar. The highest rank that anyone can hope to achieve in the US Army is the rank of four-star general. It is difficult — no, ridiculous — to equate a four-star general with an elected cop in a county in Florida. I should have known that a person who would parade around that way would have lots more blustering incompetence to show us.

And he did. Not caring — or perhaps not even caring to know — that his guys had scores of contacts with the lunatic who killed 17 students in a Broward County school, and yet did nothing about those contacts, thereby allowing said lunatic to purchase guns and pursue whatever evil purpose he might find, Sheriff Israel leapt onto the TV screen to insist that more power be given to governmental agencies such as his own, to deal with citizens who want to own guns.

It is difficult — no, ridiculous — to equate a four-star general with an elected cop in a county in Florida.

When it became known that, during the massacre, one of Israel’s armed minions had declined to attack the lunatic, allowing him not only to continue killing people but to walk away from the scene and refresh himself at two fast-food joints, the sheriff self-righteously denounced the cop — while deflecting accusations that three or more other cops had done the same. Israel highhandedly refused to release the videotapes of the event — because the release “would expose the district’s security-system plan.” There was a plan?

Sheriff Israel responded to criticism by modestly observing that he had “given amazing leadership” as sheriff and by reciting nonsensical rhymes:

Listen, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books.

Two years ago, Israel responded to accusations of political corruption by saying, “Lions don’t care about the opinions of sheep.” He’s the lion, you understand.

I should have known that a person who would parade around that way would have lots more blustering incompetence to show us.

The Florida State Attorney’s office had already started more than 40 investigations of Israel’s little troupe of Scouts. Then there is the case of Jermaine McBean. Sarah Carter summarizes it in this way:

While Israel is battling allegations that his office failed to appropriately respond to the Cruz shooting, he is also fighting a civil court case brought by the family of Jermaine McBean, an African-American information technology engineer. McBean was killed in 2013 by Israel’s deputies after they responded to a call that McBean was walking in his neighborhood with what appeared to be a weapon. It was an unloaded air rifle.

McBean was shot by one of the three cops who accosted him, a man who “feared for his life” because of the “gun” that McBean was carrying on his shoulder.

You can see the history of the case in Carter’s article. You can make your own judgment. But here’s the most sickening part, to me:

Three months after the shooting, Israel awarded two of the deputies [involved in the McBean affair] the BSO’s prestigious “Gold Cross Award.” But under mounting criticism he later told reporters the deputies should not have received the awards, adding that he didn’t award the deputies but couldn’t investigate the matter because someone accidentally destroyed the paperwork.

If you want to see how people look when they’re giving and getting awards of this kind, go here. It’s not a pretty picture. The 2015 report just cited notes that “while the investigation has dragged on for more than two years, the decision to give the officers awards was swift.”

He’s the lion, you understand.

I am not at all sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, and I happen to think that many anti-police accusations are phony, transparently phony, and villainous. Others turn out to be mistaken. But there are plenty that don’t turn out that way, and if the 17 deaths in Broward County — make it 18, counting Jermaine McBean — can possibly result in any good, it will be the continuing exposure of the preening little dictators who stand at the heads of so many well-funded agencies of the police state that is the enforcement arm of the welfare state.

Oh, you’ll be happy to know that the FBI (remember them, and their record of efficiency and impartial justice) is investigating the McBean case — at least as reported a mere two and a half years ago.




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Knights in Dark Satin

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It’s awards season again, that glittery time when Hollywood elites gather to praise each other’s work, comment on each other’s clothing, and make political statements we mere mortals in suburbia couldn’t possibly understand without the help of their stunning insights.

The circuit began with the Golden Globes on January 8 and will culminate in the awarding of the Oscars on March 4. At the Globes, all the gals showed up in sexy black evening gowns to show their solidarity with women who have been mistreated, abused, harassed, or misunderstood. It made me think of junior high: “What are you going to wear?” “I don’t know, what are you going to wear?” “Muffy Sinclair is wearing plaid overalls and knee socks.” “Ooh! Me too! Me too!” Suddenly the elite of the elite were controlling what all the women would wear to the Globes. And scarcely anyone dared to be different.

I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear.

Regardless of how I feel about their particular issue, I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear. Any woman who had chosen to express her own voice by wearing red or blue or white, no matter what the reason, would have been castigated by the press and by her peers. Just as women knew they had to play the Weinstein game if they wanted a role in Hollywood, they knew they had to wear a black dress if they wanted to fit in. Nothing has changed in Hollywood. You either toe the party line or move into another career.

Let’s face it: many of these seasoned women in their glitzy black dresses had to have known all about the Hollywood casting couches long before Harvey Weinstein’s shame became public. They endured it to get ahead, and then kept quiet about it when other women had to endure it. Sorority hazing at its worst. Not until it became public and, might I say, fashionable, did they join in with their #MeToo stories. Until then, they dared not risk the careers — for which they had paid dearly — by speaking out against Weinstein and his ilk. In fact, they embraced him. They played the game. Even after they were rich enough and famous enough and awarded enough that they didn’t need to. Now, to assuage their guilt and cover their shame, they’re shouting the loudest and pointing the longest fingers. And pressuring other women to play along, like it or not. It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped them get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

Two years ago the hypocrites of the Academy self-righteously awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to Spotlight (2015), a good but hardly great film about the Boston Globe’s exposé of pedophilia within the Catholic church, as though pointing a finger at someone else’s institutionalization of systemic sexual predation would atone for the guilt in their own institution. Last year, after the Academy fielded complaints of racism for not nominating enough black actors and filmmakers in 2016 films, the award for Best Picture went to Moonlight, an obscure little film about a transgender black. Again, a good film, but not great and not memorable.

It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped the likes of Weinstein get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

This week, in another bid for both relevance and absolution, the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor went, predictably, to Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about a plucky woman who stands up against injustice (or seems to). After all, this is the year of the woman as victim, right?

So let’s review this film that’s bound to garner increasing acclaim as the award season drags on. Is it a good film? In terms of production values, yes. The story is quirky and unexpected, the plot taking one dark turn after another. The actors are all in, portraying their characters with the kind of free-for-all abandon that often leads to critical acclaim and award nominations. An upbeat musical score contributes to the quirky tone and provides a jarring contrast to the beatings and violence that turn up at the least expected moments. The dialog is sharp and punchy, and the small town setting is authentic and believable, even if the characters are not.

And that’s my main criticism of Three Billboards, a film that’s supposed to be about a heroic woman’s fight against Town Hall in the form of the police department. She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic. She’s vengeful and pathetic and, in many ways, wrong.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving and disgruntled mother whose daughter has been gruesomely raped and murdered. Seven months later, angered that the police haven’t arrested anyone for the crime, she turns on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) and publicizes his failure by leasing the rights to three billboards, on which she posts: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Understandably, the chief is not amused.

She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic.

But he isn’t unsympathetic, either. The thing is, we really can’t find fault with the chief. He’s kind. He’s understanding. And he’s trying. There simply aren’t any leads in the case. Mildred wants a conviction. Any conviction will do. But the only thing worse than not convicting the perpetrator of a crime is arresting the wrong man and convicting him instead, just to make the community feel safer.

I appreciate the chief’s methodical rigor in this case. At one point he says to Mildred, “I'd do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don't match no one who's ever been arrested, and when the DNA don't match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn't a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well . . . right now there ain't too much more we could do.” And I abhor Mildred’s mean, spiteful, crude, ugly vengeance. She responds to Chief Willoughby’s rational concerns about civil rights and due process with “If it was me, I'd start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”

The story completely jumps the shark when Dixon, Chief Willoughby’s deputy (Sam Rockwell), a disgraced, racist, drunken cop, suddenly becomes the hero, in a way so bizarre and unbelievable that even if I told you how it ends, you would think I was kidding, in order to avoid revealing the true plot. So I won’t tell you. But it’s bad.

Three Billboards has an interesting premise about a vigilante citizen using public opinion to shame a police force into doing its job of bringing a criminal to justice. But it squanders the premise on vulgar, vengeful, violent characters created more for shock value instead of any enlightening or lasting message. You might want to see it just for the production values, but it would have to be an awfully rainy day or interminably long flight to induce me to see it again.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity.

The only reason Three Billboards won three Golden Globes is that it’s about a woman whose daughter was raped and who blames a man, because that’s the name of the game this awards season in Hollywood. Ironically, those short-sighted, dimwitted Hollywood voters didn’t even notice that their heroine agrees to go to dinner with a man and implies that she might “be dessert” in order to get something she wants. Sheesh. Have they learned nothing?

Well, they did learn to wear black dresses to the party when Oprah says so.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity. Libertarians won’t want to miss Molly’s Game, which tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who for a dozen years ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Her clients included celebrity athletes, Hollywood stars, Middle Eastern moguls, and underworld figures who came as much for the celebrity as for the game.

Molly is everything we want to see in an entrepreneur: she’s smart, she’s honest, she anticipates demand and creates supply, and she makes decisions based on long-term goals and expectations. She plays within the rules, provides a service that people want, and cares about her customers and her employees. She’s the model libertarian. No wonder the Black Dress Ladies ignored this film.

Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients.

The movie begins two years after Molly has closed her business, when 17 FBI agents bang on her door and arrest her at gunpoint. They know she’s clean, but they arrest her anyway because they need her to turn state’s evidence against some underworld types who had been regulars in her game. Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients. Virtually penniless now and living with her mother, she nevertheless convinces attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her by telling him her story, which we see in flashback and hear in voice-over narration. Based on the book Molly’s Game by the real Molly Bloom, this is a fascinating tale about an unlikely heroine dressed in Coco Chanel and Jimmy Choo’s without a single conservative (or conformative) black dress in the wardrobe closet. Libertarians won’t want to miss it.

Even more impressive in the female protagonist genre is The Shape of Water, a beauty and the beast tale with the added twist of the classic conflict between the individual and the state. Directed by the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water has the magical quality of a painting brought to life. In this film he does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

The story is set in the 1950s, an era characterized by the Red Scare, nuclear experiments, conservative values, and the race for space. The Russians have launched a dog into orbit, fueling Americans’ fear of failure. Giant irradiated ants and spiders and creatures from the Black Lagoon terrorize communities on the silver screen. Against this backdrop, life imitates art as military scientist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) discovers an amphibious man (Doug Jones) in a South American river and brings the creature to a secret laboratory in San Francisco where military leaders hope to learn something that can help them in the race against the Russians.

Del Toro does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who works the night shift at the laboratory and lives a solitary life above a movie theater — another contribution to the film’s liquid mixing of art and life. Found as a baby near a river bank, she has a strange affinity for water, even before meeting the river creature. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely, out-of-work artist with a dozen half-eaten slices of lime green pie in his refrigerator and a pride of cats on his couch. He and Elisa watch old musicals on television and share a close but fraternal relationship.

Prodded and studied by the self-righteous and sadistic Strickland, the creature attacks him and draws blood. Yet Elisa isn’t afraid of him. Assigned to clean the creature’s space, she shares her lunch with him, expressing a shy charm reminiscent of the ingénues in the romantic musicals she enjoys with Giles. She develops a tenderness toward the creature and vows to rescue him when she learns that he is going to be studied by vivisection and then autopsy.

Sally Hawkins delivers a luminous performance as Elisa, communicating eloquently through sign language, body language, and facial expressions that make us forget she cannot speak. She manages to be both meekly shy and fiercely powerful. Richard Jenkins portrays the quiet despair of a man too old to start over who senses that he will leave no footprint on this earth. Michael Shannon has settled nicely into the sadistic villain role that seems to have become his forte. And the creature is, as artist Giles describes him, “beautiful.” This film has been described as “beauty and the beast,” but the only beast in the film is Strickland.

In sum, The Shape of Water celebrates art, emotion, intuition, difference, choice, and individuality. It is everything the Black Dress conformists are not. No wonder they overlooked it in favor of the vulgar, violent, vengeful Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Don’t you make the same mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," directed by Martin McDonagh. Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight, 2017. 115 minutes; "Molly’s Game," directed by Aaron Sorkin. STX Entertainment, 2017. 140 minutes; and "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Fox Searchlight, 2017. 123 minutes.



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You Won’t Like This Video

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On December 9, National Review ran a story, written by David French, about the police killing of a man in a hallway of the La Quinta Inn at Mesa, Arizona. The story begins in this way:

If you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch one of the most outrageous and infuriating videos I’ve ever seen.

The article includes the video.

I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to think of another way to put it — to say something wiser or cleverer or more analytical than the sentence I just quoted. I can’t think how to do that. Maybe this is because I can’t get over the emotional effects of what I saw when I watched the video. But if you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch it too.




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Christie Redux

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In 1931, renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie was traveling on the Orient Express when a flash flood suddenly washed some of the track away. The passengers were stranded while repairs were made. This was not the first time the Orient Express had been stranded; two years earlier a blizzard had halted the train for six days. While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!” The setting for Murder on the Orient Express was established. Now she just needed a plot.

Christie wrote 66 murder mysteries and 14 short story collections, as well as a handful of romance novels and the longest continuously running play in London (The Mousetrap). Most of her mysteries are solved by the eccentric Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot or the no-nonsense matron-next-door, Miss Jane Marple. Her novels have sold an estimated two billion copies, and have been translated into a record 103 languages. She remains one of the world’s best-loved novelists.

While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!”

Murder on the Orient Express can work especially well for film because of its closed set (it takes place almost entirely on a train car) and its large cast of suspects. You may have seen the 1974 film version, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar; you might wonder: do we really need another? Perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment. Is it worth seeing this version? Yes, indeed.

Even if you’ve already read the story or seen it on screen, you haven’t seen this one, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the detective Poirot. The enjoyment of an Agatha Christie doesn’t come so much from figuring out who done it or how it was done as from understanding what might drive someone to commit murder — and for a short time, finding ourselves in sympathy with a killer. From that standpoint, Murder on the Orient Express could as easily have been called “A Jury of One’s Peers.”

The story is simple: a group of seemingly unconnected people is traveling together from Istanbul to Paris. Each has a reason for needing to arrive on time. Each is harboring a private grief. Each grief will be uncovered by Poirot. And one of them will be killed. But who is the murderer?

You might wonder: do we really need another version of this story? But perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment.

Filmed in New Zealand and Switzerland, the movie is beautifully rendered, especially the long, wide views of snow-covered mountains and cloudy, luminescent skies. It almost feels as though the train is barreling through a Thomas Kincaid painting. Early scenes in Jerusalem, where Poirot is winding up a previous case before boarding the train, are filmed at odd angles, emphasizing Poirot’s odd way of seeing the world. Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

The cast of suspects includes such notable actors as Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Willem Defoe, and Dame Judi Dench. Gad, usually cast in silly comedic roles, is surprisingly good in his first truly dramatic turn. Even Emma Thompson, Branagh’s former wife, who has appeared in many of his films, makes a cameo appearance in this one. That’s a very young photo of her in the picture frame Poirot keeps by his bedside.

Poirot’s denouement is especially provocative, as the characters are blocked and staged in a way that emphasizes the ultimate theme of the story. I won’t say more here, but watch for it. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

Murder on the Orient Express evokes the glamour days of drawing room murders populated by characters with impeccable manners camouflaging their sharp claws. Its Alpine landscapes and exterior scenes in Jerusalem are breathtaking. Don’t wait for Netflix — this is one you’ll want to see in a theater. And see it on IMAX if you can.


Editor's Note: Review of "Murder on the Orient Express," directed by Kenneth Branagh. Twentieth Century Fox, 2017. 114 minutes.



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The Preventables and the Deplorables

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Ayn Rand says somewhere that you don’t understand a specific concept or thing until you can state the general class of objects to which it belongs, and you don’t understand a general class until you can identify some of its specific constituents.

She’s right, of course. The problem is that people can, and commonly do, get the specifics in the wrong classes.

We all know Democrats who meet a Republican and immediately put him or her in the class of Bigots and Dumb Asses. And we all know Republicans who meet a Democrat and immediately put this nice, unoffending person in the class of Destroyers of the Republic. When Democrats or Republicans encounter a libertarian, you can see it going on, right behind their eyeballs — the classification process effortlessly identifying “nice young person” as “good example of the Naïve and Feckless Class.”

Whatever the gunman’s motives, it is difficult to see any way of preventing this kind of thing from happening again, except by holding all public events in a bank vault.

This way of thinking can damage the thinker, as it did when Hillary Clinton naively and fecklessly put many of her potential voters in the “basket of deplorables.” More often, it damages society at large.

We live in a time and place when a vast range of specific problems are automatically put in the class of Things that Can Be Prevented, which is considered equivalent to the class of Things that Should Be Prevented, No Matter What.

The latest example is the horrible massacre at Las Vegas. Whatever the gunman’s motives, it is difficult to see any way of preventing this kind of thing from happening again, except by holding all public events in a bank vault. But before the victims’ blood could be wiped from the streets, talk turned to the question of how to, in effect, construct the bank vault.

I hope that means of putting cancer, insanity, and sheer stupidity in the Can Be Prevented category will ultimately be discovered, but they haven’t been discovered yet. And before you discover a means of prevention, your attempts at prevention are bound to be both feckless and destructive. In fact, if we keep going in this way, we will soon be unable to think, because the only classes of concepts we will have in our brains will be (A) The Preventables and (B) The Deplorables who “refuse” to prevent them.




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Liaisin’ the Night Away

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No, I am not going to do the predictable thing — review Hillary Clinton’s book. I reviewed her earlier one, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us (Liberty, May 1996, pp. 51–54), and that’s enough to expect from me. True, this one seems to have been written by different ghost writers, although it’s hard to be sure. There’s a point below which stylistic analysis can’t be conclusive. But that’s not enough to justify further consideration of this “author’s” work.

Besides, a lot of other people have already done a good job with What Happened. One of them is Joseph Bottum in the Washington Free Beacon. Says Bottum, writing about the “writer”:

Has there been a more self-conscious major-party presidential candidate since Richard Nixon? The stiff way she moved, the personalizing of every slight, the grimacing smile as though she had been forced to teach herself how to wear her face: Nearly everything about Hillary Clinton spoke of a self-consciousness so vast, so heavy, that only the sternest will could shoulder it. Like a robot with slow actuators, she always seemed to have a gap between a stimulus and her response — a brief but noticeable moment of deciding how to react. Leave aside questions of her truthfulness about everything from her Rose Hill law firm's files to her private email server while she was at the State Department. Trump's needling epithet of "Crooked Hillary" gained traction because, regardless of her actual honesty, she had the affect of dishonesty — the pause that recalls for many viewers a liar choosing what to say.

Well put, and I’ll leave well enough alone. On to other matters.

In 1959, Isabel Paterson found a young couple who wanted to buy her old wooden farmhouse near Princeton, New Jersey. “The young wife,” she wrote to a friend, “‘loves an old house.’ She has certainly got something to love.”

Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses, luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments.

I’ll say the same thing about the good old English language: those who love it have certainly got something to love. It has the largest vocabulary in the world, and the most chaotic spelling, and sources that are stranger and more varied than those of any other language. In addition, it has the world’s most insensitive users.

I can’t establish that scientifically, but I have plenty of what “scientists” disparage as “anecdotal evidence.”

Here’s some:

On July 27, Wyndham Lathem, a science professor employed by Northwestern University, and Andrew Warren, an employee in the business office of Somerville College, Oxford University, allegedly butchered the boyfriend of Lathem in the latter’s high-rise apartment in Chicago. I put in high-rise because murder stories are always supposed to have stuff like that in them. Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses (Ayn Rand wrote a murder play called Penthouse Legend), luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments. Readers want class.

If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing.

Now, after what seems to have been a high-rise thrill-killing, Lathem and Warren apparently left the corpse to cool and — you will never guess what they did next. They drove to the public library in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where Lathem made a contribution of $1,000 in memory of the victim. They then escaped to California, where they eventually turned themselves in. They are now in jail in Chicago.

I thought your curiosity would be aroused by that part about the donation to the library. It leaves me with a few thousand questions, too. If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing. But what makes the story relevant, more or less, to reading and writing is what spokespersons for Oxford University had to say about the university’s employee, Mr. Warren.

The PR release was sensibly worded. It said, among other things: “We have been in contact with the police in the UK and are ready to help the US investigating authorities in any way they need.” Unfortunately, the principal of Somerville College wouldn’t leave well enough alone. She added this:

We and the university authorities will liaise with the investigating authorities and provide any assistance that is required.

This comes as upsetting news to all of us. Counselling support can be made available to anyone who needs it.

The principal, Alice Prochaska, is a distinguished archivist and curator who was once head librarian of Yale. Yet her acquaintance with books seems not to have extended far enough to inform her that “liaise with” is a pretty poor substitute for “help,” especially when it is used as a redundant parallel to “provide assistance.”

At first I was willing to congratulate Principal Prochaska on avoiding the temptation to administrative overreach. According to the well known statement of Rahm Emanuel (which I am about to paraphrase), administrators seldom fail to waste a good crisis, but the principal’s double qualifiers, “anyone who needs it” and “any assistance that is required,” somewhat allayed my fears. Then I realized: everything in the principal’s message is classic overreach.

It’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality.

Consider the rush from helping investigators to providing counselling support for “anyone who needs it.” Is Somerville College, whose alumnae include Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Daphne Park, the Queen of Spies, so sheltered a place that the rumor of crimes committed by a clerk in the financial office can drive its inhabitants round the bend? Principal Prochaska’s psychiatric initiative looks like just another way for a modern bureaucracy to reach out to its subjects and clutch them to its smothering breast.

Somerville College had no connection with the murder. If you were wondering, for some bizarre reason, whether the college would help the police with any facts it might have about Andrew Warren, the press release cleared that up. The principal’s only function was to expand useless verbiage — which appears to be why we employ college administrators. Under their tutelage, help becomes assistance, and assistance gives birth to counselling. To increase the number of syllables, counselling generates counselling support (we wouldn’t want anyone to think that our counselors will be non-supportive), and they need generates that is required. It is only proper, in such an authoritative message, that authorities should appear twice in the same sentence.

But it’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality. That’s where liaise comes in. Its function is to convert a common, low-quality, bureaucratic communication into something fairly stinking with high intrigue.When I read “ready to help,” I picture one cop calling up another cop and saying, “Ya know this bloke Andy Warren? Yeah, that’s the one. Got anything on him?” When I read “liaise,” I picture Allied agents behind the German lines, hoping that the message they inserted in the shoe of the Swedish diplomat will somehow make its way to Churchill.

The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities.

It would be unfair to the British if I left this discussion of the Chicago murder case without providing a parallel anecdoteabout American verbiage. Here are the wise remarks of a Chicago police spokesman about the murder’s probable cause: "Something pivotal happened that resulted in the victim being attacked." You don’t say so! I thought it was something completely unimportant. I thought it was something on which nothing turned, so to speak. Now I know it was like, oh, the voyage of Columbus, or the invention of the incandescent light. It was something . . . pivotal — whatever it was.

Am I being petty? No, I’m not. The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly, or emphatically, or wittily, or charmingly, or poetically, or individually, or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities. That being so, it’s easy to see that this is commonly the language, not just of obscurity, but of obvious untruth, which the recipients are nevertheless expected to swallow.

One of the TV stations in my area has been trying to capitalize on the autumnal return of school children to their places of so-called instruction, by advertising a series about bullying in the schools. In one of its ads, a reporter intones, “We’re not afraid to stand up to bullying.” Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

Also refreshing is the station’s openness to the community. “I want you to be part of the conversation,” the reporter assured me. Well, maybe not me. Maybe the million little me’s out here in watcherland who are thought to be gullible enough to believe that by listening to some gasbag on TV, they’re participating in a conversation.

Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

If there’s a grossly politicized word in the vocabulary, it’s conversation. Remember when everyone in the Obama White House wanted to start a national conversation about that never-before-discussed topic, race relations in America? In other words, they wanted a conversation in which they had the final, and possibly the only, word. I remember Gorbachev, when he was in power. He was always calling for openness. One day, when he was out in the street conversing with his fellow citizens, a woman actually said something, and it wasn’t favorable to his policies. His response was, “That is what you think. Now I will tell you what I think.” How much more preposterous is someone with a microphone and a TV tower, inviting the invisible people who pick up his electronic signals to start a lively conversation with him? I quoted Gorbachev; now I’ll quote Brooklyn: “How dumb da ya think we are?”

The issue here is manipulative speech, speech that is less concerned to convey facts or even opinions than to neutralize the audience’s well-justified resistance. In this regard, television “journalists” and political “leaders” face a similar problem. Their audience really doesn’t care what they think; it doesn’t care to converse. It prefers, for the most part, to be left alone — unless, in some highly unusual case, a useful fact needs to be extracted from the flow of sound. Say, for instance, a useful fact about an approaching hurricane.

God help me, I squandered many hours of time watching the TV coverage of Hurricane Irma, particularly the 24/7 treatment offered by the Weather Channel. From this coverage I derived one useful fact: if you live in Florida, a hurricane may hit you sometime, so you should consider the obvious choices — leave or stay. If you stay, you should take in supplies and board up your windows.

That’s it. No other valuable knowledge was imparted. Despite graphic displays of predictive models — the European Model, the American Model, etc. — practically nothing was confided about how these models are constructed, or how hurricanes are constructed, or how to respond to the constant changes in the models’ estimates, or . . . anything.

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going.

As wall-to-wall coverage completed its sixth day, I began to pity all those hapless souls who had to stand in front of a camera and recite the same shrill warnings, purported facts, and solemn speculations over and over again. I was fascinated by the number of times I heard how foolish it is to try to ride out a hurricane in a small boat, and how dangerous it supposedly is to use candles if your power goes out.

I could forgive a lot of blather from people who have to keep talking long after they’ve exhausted their material. I could even forgive their obvious desire to cover a big story, which could only be the story of terrible destruction. I had more trouble forgiving their inclusion of the word “meteorologist” in every available sentence: “Turning now to meteorologist Jane Doe,” “As a meteorologist, I can say that this is indeed a big storm,” and so forth. I found it impossible to forgive anyone, meteorologist or not, who inflicted on the audience such locutions as, “Miami stands to get a large douse of rain” and “During the past week, millions of people fleed.”

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going. On Monday, September 11, the day after it hit, the weather guys had nothing to do but stand in a light breeze, muttering forecasts about the dreadful things that could yet happen. “There’s nothing weak about this,” one of them said, “only weaker.

Well, OK. What else can you do with all that airtime? One thing you could do is provide a sober consideration of what went wrong with all the confidently scientific predictions about where the storm would strike, how hard it would strike, and what the effects might be. That would be interesting, both scientifically and humanly. “Let’s see where things went wrong” is a fascinating study in imperfect humanity. Or you could share your knowledge (if any) about the history of evacuations, particularly the costs and benefits of leaving a place rather than staying in it.

The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty.

I heard none of that. What I heard was an increasingly shrill hall-monitorism — more warnings about using candles, evading curfews, driving on the roads during the recovery period. On Monday morning, one of the Weather Channel people positioned himself on a residential street and spent 15 minutes bemoaning the fact that a few cars were making their way through the light debris (palm fronds and such). Why are they here? he wondered. Why can’t people see that they may be blocking the way of first responders? Seeing a plump middle-aged gentleman walking calmly along, the weather guy said, “Let’s find out!” So, sir, why are you here?

The man explained that he had refugeed out but was now returning to see how his house was. He also commented that the storm hadn’t been nearly as bad as expected, and gave details. The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty. As he dismissed the home owner with an admonition not to block any first responders, I wondered what the gentleman might have replied, if he hadn’t been a gentleman, to this weird guy standing in the street with a microphone and a truckload of TV technicians. “Same to you, fella”?

I can’t resist dragging another party into court — Rick Scott, governor of the state of Florida. Scott seemed to me a competent organizer of disaster preparations, such as they are. He may have precipitated a run on gasoline by the millions of people whom he urged, perhaps uselessly, to evacuate, but he did arrange for gas to be stored and rushed to market afterward. And probably he can’t be blamed for trusting the scientific models of coming disaster. But I do resent his failure to notice the existence of 54 % of his state’s population.

His failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation.

What I mean is that 54% of adult Floridians are single, but in Scott’s long string of televised announcements he talked almost exclusively of “families” — as in his oft-repeated, literally absurd promise, “No resource or expense will be spared to protect families.” For the sake of families, he was willing to blow up Disney World, execute every alligator in the state, cut off his thumbs, and destroy every unmarried person he could find.

Or maybe not. Maybe he was just being pompous. But his failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation. And this disdain is generally reciprocated. Somewhere there are people who love Rick Scott for finally mentioning families. Somewhere there are people who feel that they are actually conversing with a television station by listening to its lamentations about childhood bullying. Somewhere there’s a person who warms to university administrators when they mention their passion for liaising. But I’m sure that these people amount to far fewer than 46%.




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