Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Bardoclasts' Case: Further Reflections

In considering the "Bardoclasts'" case recently I concerned myself mainly with the charge that seemed easiest to assess--namely that Shakespeare was an "Establishment" poet who was not merely of conservative sympathies, but exceedingly and unremittingly flattering of the Powerful and disdainful of the People. Indeed, it has seemed to me that that charge was virtually irrefutable, so much so that George Orwell, in specifically attacking Lev Tolstoy's essay on Shakespeare in his own piece ("Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool"), actually embraced the charge and made it one of the bases of his counterattack rather than trying to refute it (very readily agreeing that Shakespeare "was not a saint or would-be saint," had a "considerable streak of worldliness," "liked to stand with the rich and powerful," etc.).

The aesthetic merits and demerits of Shakespeare's work are a trickier matter. However, it does seem to me safe to say that just as the Bardolators have done Shakespeare a disservice by treating him as something he was not content-wise (a perfect "moral teacher" for all times), they have done him a disservice by making him something he was not where form also was concerned. At least to go by G. Wilson Knight, nineteenth century critics of this stripe, attempting to reconcile their Bardolatry with their era's realist literary standard, the hallmark of which is its centering on characters who think, feel, act in ways so much in accord with what we have (presumably) observed in real life that fiction about them feels to us as if it were an account of real events, or even a real event unfolding before our own eyes, hailed Shakespeare as a supreme realist--claiming for Shakespeare a perfection according to a standard alien from the standpoint of 1600. Indeed, Knight quite plausibly argues that had it not been for this bit of foolishness Tolstoy, reacting to what to that supreme realist was the incomprehensible idolization of Shakespeare as such, would have had no occasion to write his essay.

All this said, we are left with the question of what we can appreciate Shakespeare for, rather than what we cannot. The usual answer Shakespeare's admirers offer is Shakespeare's language itself, the supremacy of which even many a Bardoclast who takes Shakespeare to task for his politics happily grants. Upton Sinclair, for example, was withering in his criticism of Shakespeare's politics, but totally concedes this point, declaring in Mammonart that Shakespeare was "gifted with the most marvelous tongue that has yet appeared on Earth. Golden, glowing, gorgeous words poured out of him at a moment's notice"--and just as Orwell was to use Shakespeare's being an Establishment poet as a basis for assailing Shakespeare's critics, Sinclair made this a basis for his own charges against them. The fact that those words poured out of him so readily, in Sinclair's view, "saved him the need of thinking," with the result that the ideas that Shakespeare expressed in the golden, glowing, gorgeous words are "commonplace, many are worldly and cheap, many are the harsh prejudices of his time and class" (for instance, what "To thine own self be true" really means) and the golden, glowing, gorgeous language "tempts us into sharing his emotions without thinking," a temptation for which many have indeed fallen.

Yet this is more open to disputation than the Bardolators appreciate--a fact underlined by their tendency to argue in a priori fashion. Responding to foreign Bardoclasts they argue that a foreigner cannot appreciate the beauties of Shakespeare's poetry. Yet I am not so sure that this really follows. Poetry is not wholly unknown to make an impression even in translation. And being foreign-born does not necessarily mean a complete lack of feel for the English language. (Can anyone deny that, for example, Vladimir Nabokov had a feel for English? Even as one espousing the unpopular opinion that Nabokov is wildly overpraised I certainly do not deny his gifts here.) This point seems especially worth raising in the case of Tolstoy, who tells us that he did read the plays in English (as well as in Russian and German), and because it is the case that anyone who can read the plays in English with even a literal understanding has a far greater competence in that language than the great majority of the native speakers of English. (Thus do high school students read their Shakespeare in "No Fear" editions translating Shakespeare's English into the idiom of the twenty-first century, and think this just as natural as reading Homer in translation.) Would such competence, and experience, not likely impart to someone who acquired it--and still more, a figure with the extraordinary literary gifts of a Tolstoy--some basis for an aesthetic judgment at least as good as that of some native speakers?

Moreover, it seems to me worth acknowledging that not every native English speaker is quite so immediately overwhelmed by Shakespeare's language as such critics would have it (and not just the No Fear edition-reading students). The gorgeous, glowing words that a Sinclair praised can sound purple to a modern ear--while even long before that one could have argued, as William Wordsworth did, for the most satisfying poetry often being that speech which is most natural (as Shakespeare's was not natural).

In fairness, I do not consider the counterargument as necessarily settling the matter. What is important is that the counterargument exists on this point, and is rather better than flimsy, leaving the claims of the Bardolator, and the middlebrow who repeats what they say unthinkingly, very much open to debate.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

What Ever Happened to the Romantic Comedy?

A great many have remarked the decline of that old box office stalwart, the big-screen Hollywood romantic comedy, over the years. And many have proffered explanations--some more plausible than others, but all of those with which I am familiar missing important facets of the matter.

What seems to me really important here is that the genre, which originated in the day of Ernst Lubitsch, was fairly well-worn by the '90s, and perhaps too much a hothouse flower for this later period--the genre emerging in an era which, in actual life, was not so different from any other period, our own included, in the critical areas, but where on the screen, at least, a certain delicacy, a certain portrayal of innocence, was plausible; in which the rhythms of filmmaking were different, often slower and gentler. Such a genre, while not necessarily unsophisticated (in the view of some, at its best a good deal more sophisticated than anything we would get later), was a poor fit with '90s irony, and '90s crudity, and '90s cinematic technique, which already well into the age of high concept was characterized by the short takes and close shots that have gone with the music video-izing, or action movie-izing, of all of cinema--hardly the thing for a film about two people discovering and dealing with their feelings for each other. Consistent with all this it seems significant that the most celebrated romantic comedy of that decade was Sleepless in Seattle--a romantic movie actually about romantic movies, at least as much as it was about the lovers at the story's center. (Indeed, Rosie O'Donnell scored the film's most memorable line when her character told the Meg Ryan character "You don't want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.") And following that hit the follow-up by the film's director and stars was . . . You've Got Mail, a remake of a classic directed by Lubitsch himself--The Shop Around the Corner. I recall writer-director Nora Ephron declaring proudly in some piece of publicity that "We put a computer in it!"--but putting a computer in a romantic comedy, too, had been done before. Long before. By Nora Ephron's OWN PARENTS, Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron. That movie was 1957's Desk Set. (I'm sure someone must have mentioned its existence to her, sometime.)

All of this has escalated greatly since. And as if all that were not enough, the film business was changing dramatically. The ever-onward and upward ascent of the high concept vision of filmmaking, the ever-more intense competition from content on the small screen, meant that there was ever less reason to invest in a production that did not derive some significant benefit from being seen on a large screen, or which at least could not be replicated by makers of content for the small. This was all the more the case in an era of rising budgets, with their inducement of those obliged to mind the books to think about maximizing their revenue streams from all the available sources, not least those the opportunities beckoning in a global age (as the whole ex-Communist world opened up, Asian consumers in particular got more affluent, etc.). The result was that Hollywood studios wanted movies that would travel well, and preferably series' and franchises and even universes of movies that would travel well. They wanted merchandising potential. All this was to the great advantage of the action film whose death had been so greatly exaggerated circa 1990, and the animated family movie that had likewise been so marginal for so long--and the great disadvantage of everything else, the more in as the old institution of the film star, on which they might have counted in the absence of so much else, waned.

The romantic comedy was a natural early casualty. Because it does not generally get much mileage from spectacle. Because it does not travel so well. (Being doable on a low budget, Hollywood has no natural monopoly here, while the subtleties of comedy and romance do not always transcend cultural barriers. Think of how Crazy Rich Asians was hyped as a sure winner in China and the revival of the form in America, and then completely failed to be either of those things.) Because it does not launch sequels and franchises and move lots and lots of merchandise. Meanwhile those actresses who had made careers of them moved on to other pursuits on and off the screen--a good many now concentrating on their "wellness empires."

Still, like so much else not to be seen on the big screen anymore there is plenty of romantic comedy on the small. The Hallmark Channels certainly have done well out of them--arguably helped by the fact that as prestige TV lovers glory in the dark and the "edgy," Hallmark has gone in the opposite direction, serving up cozy fare where, as much as anyone can offer it in the 2020s the requisite delicacy, innocence, rhythms are the order of the day.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Deglobalization of Cinema?

Much has been written over the years about how Hollywood has taken increasing interest in the Chinese movie market, making or adapting its movies in the hopes of increasing their appeal to the vast audience in that country in particular--and sometimes achieving significant success in the process, with Marvel's three big hits in 2019 taking in almost $1 billion in China alone.

However, in the American press at least, Chinese cinematic efforts have tended to get little attention--save when they put their backing behind essentially American films like Iron Man 3, and The Meg (the John Turletaub-directed, Jason Statham-starring adaptation of Steve Alten's novel by that name). However, as all this was going on China did see its own domestic producers, with their economy and their box office growing, make enough money from Chinese films made for Chinese audiences that they could start thinking of dealing with Hollywood as equals, competing or collaborating in the same kinds of splashy projects internationally. The making and release of the movie The Great Wall (2016, U.S. release 2017) would seem to represent the peak of such aspirations, with Chinese and American production companies (China's China Film Group and Le Vision Pictures, America's Legendary Entertainment and Atlas Entertainment) coming together to finance a $150 million film scripted by American writers (Tony Gilroy), helmed by a famed Chinese director (Zhang Yimou), and bringing together representatives of both countries' "A-lists" (Matt Damon, Andy Lau).

Of course, the film fell well short of what was hoped for it, in large part it would seem because of particularly weak American earnings. (Had the Matt Damon starrer done as well as even a Jason Bourne movie in non-Chinese territories the movie would have at least broken even--and had it done as well as even the poorer-performing examples of Hollywood's own CGI-filled sci-fi blockbusters it would have been respectably profitable.) And since that time China's domestic production has not quite attempted anything like it, instead seeming to focus on its domestic market with projects unlikely to travel very well--like Wolf Warrior 2 and The Battle of Lake Changjin. Meanwhile it would seem that Hollywood has followed a similar track--after investing considerably in making its movies appealing to the Chinese market, apparently losing interest, with the tendency evident in how recent Marvel films have been made with little regard for Chinese sensibilities (and as a result got shut out of that critical market again and again), and Top Gun 2 saw its Chinese backer (Tencent) exit, while such alterations to the film as the American backers may have made for the sake of a Chinese release were kicked to the curb.

Simply put, just as Chinese producers for now seem less prone to chase after the global market, doing well in China seems to be becoming less of a priority for Hollywood, with producers in both countries ready to fall back on a plain old nationalistic appeal to their huge domestic markets at the price of exportability. The price is bigger in the case of China, which can less easily export a jingoistic film than the U.S. can, but even for the U.S. there are costs. As those crowing over the success of Top Gun: Maverick should note, the movie is selling a lot of tickets overseas, roughly matching its earnings at home--but many a movie rakes in two or even three times its domestic haul abroad, and Top Gun's performance only confirms how much less likely such a film is to do that than a work with a broader international appeal like Avatar or the more successful releases of the Disney-Pixar-Marvel complex. A movie as big as Top Gun 2 has become still leaves the producers with little to complain about, but as a strategy for a Hollywood addicted to the blockbuster model, especially in a time in which American moviegoing is still depressed well below pre-pandemic levels with future prospects uncertain, this does pose an obstacle to its broader, longer-run profitability (especially with the making and marketing of movies not getting any cheaper).

The result is that we may be seeing a "deglobalization" of cinema, with this less a first-choice than a response to rising barriers entirely in line with the trajectory of the world economy and the international order these past several years as trade wars return to the world--and shooting wars between the world's major powers become an ever graver prospect.

Monday, June 27, 2022

How Postmodernism Really Fits into the Picture

In thinking about modern political ideology I have tended to think about it the way philosophers and political scientists seem to me to generally do--to start with its epistemology, and its assumptions about human nature and society, and how they could and should be organized, and the conclusions it draws from these premises.

So have I done with postmodernism. In its misanthropic view of human beings, its disregard for reason as a basis for knowing or ordering the world, its rejection of universalism in favor of a stress on identity, its disdain for progress and projects of human emancipation, it rests squarely within the classical conservative tradition, and indeed its darkest quarters (think de Maistre even more than Burke, with this more than confirmed by intellectual historians alert to its lineage by way of aspiring court philosopher to Hitler Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche et. al.), with all this more than acknowledged by those who actually pay attention to politics (like a few CIA analysts who definitely understand these things a good deal better than a great many academics of whom I am aware).

Alas, as I have personally discovered, you can explain this over and over again until you are out of breath and get only blank stares bespeaking stupidity from most people, to whom all that stuff is quite alien and, they are certain, entirely irrelevant. They are sure that the possibilities of knowledge, the nature of human nature, the character of society, the prospects and perils of guided change, have nothing to do with anything. In an American framework, for example, there is what the folks on FOX News tell people to think, which is "conservatism"; there is what the folks on MSNBC tell people to think, which is "liberalism"; and all this tells them that postmodernism is a "left" thing. Q.E.D.. (What's Q.E.D.? one may ask them. They won't be able to tell you the Latin words it stands for, or what the English equivalent is, they just know that it's something that lets people feel smug after they have made their point.)

Certainly it never occurs to them that even with all this being the case the supposed "left" may be just another flavor of right; that what they are looking at could well be a collision of different right-wing nationalists, rather than the right with anything like the old, universalist, left, from which the postmoderns of today have grown quite far removed, standing for the total opposite as, rather than concerning themselves with the problems of Society, they turn their attention instead to the problems of the Self.

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Word "Dotard" and Walter Scott's Ivanhoe

I recall years ago hearing how the use of the word "dotard" in an official statement of the North Korean government led to a certain amount of confusion and amusement in the American press on account of the word's obscurity to the folks in the news media.

Remembering it I found myself thinking some time ago "I guess they don't read Ivanhoe anymore"--in which classic novel that word appeared frequently. (The villainous Brian de Bois-Guilbert uses it in reference to the Grand Master of the Templars at least a half dozen times.)

Recently thinking of this I checked out the word on Ngram and was surprised to find that the last great spike in the word's popularity was at about the time of the novel's publication (1819). Granted, it had already been bouncing back from its drop from earlier heights (generally rising from 1815 on), but all the same dotard's post-mid-eighteenth century peak was in the years surrounding the book's much-celebrated release, the word having a score of 0.000045% in 1823.

Since then the decline has been pretty consistent, with the '90s seeing the word's usage drop to about 4 percent its 1823 level circa 1991 (with a score of 0.0000016%). It edged upward a little after that point, but in 2016, the year before the word made the headlines, its usage was still at a level scarcely a tenth of its Ivanhoe-period peak (with a 0.0000049% score).

Is it possible that one of Ivanhoe's unexpected consequences was to make the word a little more popular than it was before? And is it possible that the book's falling out of fashion as it has has made the word a little less familiar than it might otherwise have been? I can certainly imagine that being the case.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

What Josh Trank's Fantastic Four Got Right About Scientific R & D

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe apparently pressing ahead with another shot at a really successful Fantastic Four series (the more clearly so after Reed Richards' little cameo in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) one may wonder if the third time will not prove to be the charm--and find it an appropriate time to look back at the preceding attempts, not least the last such effort, Josh Trank's 2015 film.

Trank's Fantastic Four, of course, was not a commercial success relative to the resources invested and the hopes set on it. (The $56 million it made domestically, the $167 million it made worldwide, would generally have been regarded as solid indeed for a small film like Trank's prior Chronicle--but a disaster for a would-be summer blockbuster that cost ten times as much, and from which a half billion or more would have been hoped.) Moreover, it is hard to see how it could have been that kind of success. There were, after all, the numerous alterations the film made that could be expected to displease purists (like making the Fantastic Four over into Young Adults), and more general superhero movies audiences (the downbeat, grim-and-gritty tone, the body horror element, the slightness of the action by the standard of such projects)--even before getting into the tangled matter of how well or how poorly all this was done (at least, to go by the results of a reportedly brutal and sloppy editing process).

Still, speaking for myself I did find much of interest in the film (in making this superhero film Trank was going for something unconventional, subversive, critical, and for much of the film accomplished that, even if it wasn't the movie most Fantastic Four fans or most summer moviegoers would want to see), with this extending to what, for a Hollywood production, is an extraordinarily astute handling of scientific R & D. While at the outset there is a bit of garage-tinkering, per Edisonade cliche, really making the big breakthrough means entering the world of Big Science, with its large teams and expensive equipment, all as, rather than some hand-waving after a big "Eureka" moment, what we see is lots and lots of hard work--exhausting, collaborative hard work in which the team has to piece together the jigsaw from puzzle pieces that might be scattered very far and wide, and certifiable geniuses get corrected by their colleagues, and as they keep at their task longer than is good for them they fall asleep at their work stations (all of which can only be shown in montage form, but all the same, it's more than most movies give us). And of course, all of this means submitting to the big organizations that have the big money to pay for all this, which are controlled by people who know and care little about science and scientists, but determinedly pursue agendas not necessarily nicer than those of a Victor Von Doom, in the course of which the scientists eventually realize that where science fiction may present them as gods among men, in the real, practical world their status is that of hired help to those who really have power, who are apt to rather rudely remind them how dispensable they are, unlikely to get the credit they deserve, and likely not even get to finish what they might have been so naïve as to think was "their" project, which can be taken from them at any time, and eventually is.

Of course, these aren't the sorts of things that the typical film critic can be expected to appreciate. Indeed, looking at the film's cynicism about the powerful and their agendas ("We could send our political prisoners there. Waterboarding in the fourth dimension could be very effective") I suspect that at least part of the cause of the critics' opprobrium was their usual hostility to the appearance of a critical standpoint in a movie made for the broader public--the obverse of their happily suspending their critical faculties as they cheerlead for an Iron Man or a Top Gun 2. That is a testament to the failings of the critics, not the movie--which on this score displayed far more intelligence and offered more truth than Hollywood, and science fiction, generally offer about this hugely important side of modern life, with this certainly going for a plenitude of work that they have praised far more highly.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Reflections on Samuel Shem's The House of God

We live in a society where, as sociologists like Charles Derber have argued, the professional classes--their self-interest, their ethos and prejudices--are a hugely powerful force in our life, especially insofar as the professional group in question is itself powerful. Few such groups compare with doctors in that respect, with the result that, even in a society where the glorification and glamorization of professionals to a preposterous degree is the pop cultural default, the propaganda for the image of the doctor as a "god in a white coat" stands out for its sheer relentlessness.

Naturally, when I learned about Samuel Shem's The House of God in an Internet forum discussing the film version of the novel and claiming that the movie's (alleged) suppression was the work of an outraged American Medical Association, I was intrigued. As it happened I found absolutely no evidence whatsoever that this actually happened--but that people would think (even falsely) that the book's content is so offensive to the medical Establishment that it would take such drastic action still interested me, and eventually I found my way to the novel (not the film, which as of the time of this writing I have not seen).

As the blurb on the back of my paperback edition explains, it is about the experience of medical school graduates through their first year of residency training at a thinly veiled version of the Harvard Medical School's teaching hospital in what (as we are reminded time and again by way of the references to current events) the Watergate era. What that basically comes down to is that the narrator-protagonist and his colleagues are thrust into an exceedingly difficult situation without preparation or guidance by seniors who, the wise and humane figure like the Fat Man apart, seem to be either complete idiots, or completely corrupted careerists--with the resulting nightmare threatening their humanity, and even their lives. (Before the tale is over one of their group will take his own life--amid far, far more death, not least due to these residents' own mistakes and worse.)

There is a great deal of reckless and revolting behavior on the part of the residents as they struggle to get through it all--which, wherever one finds a discussion of the book, is the subject of enormous amounts of sanctimonious commentary. As my use of the words "reckless" and "revolting" to characterize their behavior I do not at all approve or defend what they do, but the sanctimoniousness--which, characteristically, seems to focus overwhelmingly on the sexual antics rather than the cynical and often terrifying medical stuff (again, a lot of patients are treated horrendously, and frequently die), as is usual with people whose minds run to such things in such ways--only shows that they completely missed the point. This is a story not about a few young folk conducting themselves in a manner unbecoming, but rather the evils of a system that tortures and destroys patient and doctor alike out of venality as well as stupidity. It is the essence of the matter that at this point in the development of the state of the art there are a great many situations in which, for all its pretensions and airs, medicine can do nothing, but does it anyway, painfully and expensively. ("Most of us wouldn't know a cure if we found one in a Cracker Jack box . . . I haven't cured anybody yet and I don't know an intern who has," one says at the end of that year, and it is not flippancy.) This is not least a matter of its keeping people alive as "gomers," preventing their passing but only keeping them in a state as "human beings who, through age and sickness, [have] lost . . . what goes into a human being"--a problem the older generation of doctors completely failed to appreciate. Indeed, never have I seen such a strong case made for "medical nihilism" (against which the taboo in this society is, predictably, enormous). Yet at the same time, while one can only be horrified at what awaits patients passing into such hands as these, never has a work of fiction made me feel such empathy for what awaits those who enter the medical profession--especially if, like our hero, they do so with hopes of doing good rather than just doing well.

I have read that there has been some reform of the system of medical training since this book's publication, prompted in part by this book (which many in the medical community found all too true of the experience). However, it remains the case that the health care system is far from what anyone would like it to be, in this respect as in so many others--be it the grueling hours worked, the ever-more grinding testing system, the lack of solidarity and support, all far worse than it has to be, and that a function of that same business-mindedness. The result is that a novel by some newly minted doctor taking an equally frank look at their profession would seem way overdue these days. Alas, it seems likely to remain overdue, publishing a very different thing from what it was when Shem came out with his book, such that I would not hold my breath for the arrival of such a forcefully critical work in print, at least by way of the Park Avenue types who have decided that they and they alone decide what deserves to be read as they slap the names of the superannuated bestselling hacks of yesteryear on as many books as they can for the sake of shaking a few more pennies out of the pockets of what remains of a reading public.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Robert Ludlum and the Election of 1988

Recently looking at Robert Ludlum's Trevayne earlier this year I read with a fair bit of interest the introduction to the 1988 edition, in which he remarked the writing of the older book--the product of the Watergate years and the wide public outrage over the revelations of arrogance, criminality and outright contempt for democracy in high places (which, I find it necessary to always repeat, went far beyond the planting of a few bugs to which most people seem to reduce the whole affair).

Of course, that more political Ludlum (whom we see in such books as The Matlock Paper and The Gemini Contenders, and especially Trevayne and The Chancellor Manuscript) soon gave way to the epic scale international chase-cum-shoot 'em up Ludlum, with The Holcroft Covenant a turning point in that direction, and the old political Ludlum all but vanished from view by the time of the book for which he has been best known for decades, The Bourne Identity (the political premise of which is slight and conventional, an excuse for Jason Bourne to run about getting into fights and shootouts). Afterward Ludlum did sometimes give a political theme more attention (most notably in The Aquitaine Progression), but all the same, his trajectory was set.

Still, in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal the political element was topical again, sufficiently so that it got explicit mention here-- as "a series of events so ludicrous they would have been a barrel of laughs but for their obscenity." The presidential election of 1988 only added to his ire—this, so far as he concerned, the occasion of "two of the most disgraceful, debasing, inept, disingenuous and insulting presidential campaigns that living admirers of our system can recall," serving up "packaged" candidates speaking "'sound bite' zingers" and elevating "image . . . over issues," down to "presidential debates that were neither presidential nor debates but canned Pavlovian 'responses' more often than not having little or nothing to do with the questions."

Ludlum refrains from naming the candidates in question, but anyone familiar with the election of 1988 knows full well that he is talking about George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, the two singularly unexciting candidates their respective parties intended to run in defiance of the mood of growing public dissatisfaction with, and anxiety about, where America stood in the twilight of the Reagan administration, when declinist fears made of Paul Kennedy's academic treatise on the rise and fall of great powers a 34-week New York Times hardcover bestseller--and the two parties, per usual, contemptuously dismissed those worries and the people who held them in favor of offering up more of the same. (Neoliberalism yesterday, neoliberalism today, neoliberalism tomorrow, neoliberalism forever! was and remains their slogan.) Indeed, reading Ludlum's more particular expressions of dislike I suspect that Ludlum was not impressed with the unintentional gag comedy of Michael Dukakis riding around in an Abrams tank, the dog-whistle Willie Horton ads, or the "Big Society"-ish drivel about a "thousand points of light."

I regard that distaste as very much to Ludlum's credit.

But as anyone looking back on all that from 2022 can only think when reading Ludlum's remarks, he hadn't seen anything yet. And I can only wonder what the Ludlum of the '70s would be writing today if he were still around, and still permitted to publish the kind of fiction he did back then by the self-appointed arbiters of American letters on Park Avenue--which, of course, he probably wouldn't be. Instead, were he still alive, and physically and mentally up to the rigors of finishing a novel, what we would probably be getting would be more Jason Bourne sequels cranked out by others under his name—just like we are getting now.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Remembering George Orwell's "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool"

In recently turning my attention to Tolstoy's criticism of Shakespeare I found my thoughts returning to Orwell's counterblast at Tolstoy, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool," which ran in Polemic back in 1947.

I remember regarding the piece with distaste because of its biographical-psychological approach--grubbing about in the life of the author, digging up dirt (Orwell does not hesitate to reference Tolstoy's sex life), and using that dirt to dismiss his opinions. In criticizing Orwell for all this I will not go so far as to say that seedy, pathetic motives are never relevant to understanding the work of a writer, even a great one, but in my experience, at least, such motives are less often relevant than some people seem to think, and that we see the approach as much as we do is more often a testament to sheer nastiness rather than its interpretive value--while the nastiness is in this case undeniable. In this particular piece Orwell held that Shakespeare's King Lear (to which Tolstoy devoted most of his attention), far from being so unaffecting as Tolstoy claims the play to be, hit too close to home for Tolstoy, whose later years struck Orwell as being too much like Lear's for that play to be bearable to him, and indeed, excite more than ordinary dislike for its author.

Yet there was another, significant aspect to Orwell's criticism of Lear--namely that Tolstoy was a sort of figure about which Orwell had become exceedingly cynical, namely a person who wanted to change the world for the better. Indeed, one can see in Orwell's sneers a pack of right-wing clichés directed against the type--that the person in question does not want "to work an improvement in earthly life" but "to bring it an end and put something different in its place"; that the alleged opponent of oppression is really a tyrant himself, and, if they are at all serious about their purported abjuring of violence, given to an even more insidious moral manipulation that is more important than anything else they are or aspire to do, with Orwell specifically attacking pacifism and anarchism (to both of which the later Tolstoy subscribed in his idiosyncratic fashion) as ideologies that "encourage this habit of mind." Besides making him cynical about Tolstoy Orwell saw this, too, playing its part in Orwell's hatred of Shakespeare, who was all too this-worldly a figure for such. And if anything all this seemed affirmed for me by the fact that the darker, more pessimistic, more reactionary aspects of Tolstoy's thought, so plainly evident in a work like War and Peace, and distilled so forcefully by a critic like Isaiah Berlin who finds so much common ground between Orwell and that "apostle of darkness" Joseph de Maistre (in his classic, "The Hedgehog and The Fox"), form no part of Orwell's argument with Tolstoy.

Indeed, it all seems very reflective of the fact that Orwell was well into that frame of mind that, in spite of the socialist he had been and which he (is supposed to have) remained, saw him produce a work that the right so easily claimed as, as Isaac Deutscher put it, "an ideological super-weapon of the Cold War," and so identified Orwell not with the struggle for a better world to which a younger Orwell had devoted himself, but the conservative's condemnation of such struggle to the point that Orwell's very name is synonymous with dystopia.

It does not even seem inconceivable that, in a moment when anti-Communism in many minds was conflated with anti-Russian sentiment generally, Tolstoy's nationality itself figured into Orwell's reaction, and Tolstoy's standing suffered with it (in spite of Tolstoy's having been as disdainful of Marx as he was any other major thinker of the nineteenth century, as he made clear in the very essay for which Orwell took him to task).

Certainly that is what happening now in this era of "New" Cold War, which is seeing the cancel-minded set their sights on Tolstoy.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe in China

As China's economy has burgeoned, so have the revenues of its movie theaters. On average the Chinese remain poorer than their American counterparts (with a per capita GDP of $10,000, as against $63,000 for the U.S., in 2020). Still, at $9 billion in 2019 the gross of the Chinese "box office" was not so far behind its $11-$12 billion American counterpart in that last "normal" year for the movies, and amid the pandemic has actually outperformed America's here (in 2021 selling $7 billion worth of tickets, versus the under $5 billion North America managed), making China, for now, the world's biggest film market.

Of course, long before it got to this point the Chinese box office was too big for Hollywood to ignore, and getting a piece of that action has driven a great deal of Hollywood's decision-making, to the point that a number of big-budget Hollywood features would likely not have been made at all without the expectation that they would appeal to Chinese filmgoers (like Pacific Rim: Uprising or Warcraft). A good many more films saw creative choices intended to add to their appeal or interest in that specific market (like the casting of Chinese star Angelababy in Independence Day: Resurgence).

In substantial part because the people who run Hollywood are profoundly ignorant not only of Chinese culture, but even the strengths and weaknesses of their own product, these efforts have often been spectacularly unsuccessful. (Disney, for example, apparently in denial over the extent to which the Star Wars franchise is living off of nostalgia, failed miserably to interest the Chinese public--which has no nostalgia for Star Wars, having been in a very different place way back in 1977--in that franchise. The same company's effort to sell its live-action remake of Mulan was similarly ill-conceived--that movie, like Crazy Rich Asians, made with American audiences and concerns, not Chinese audiences and concerns, in mind, and simple-mindedly thought they would translate automatically and fully.)

Still, if Hollywood's failures in China have been as colossal as they were predictable, it has also had successes. The Fast and Furious franchise has been very big indeed in China. And Marvel has also done very well. So far as I can tell, of the 23 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies released between 2008 and 2019, 21 were released in China (all but Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011). Collectively they made $3 billion, most of that in the most recent years as Marvel's earnings, growing along with those of the Chinese box office generally, exploded. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame took in over $600 million by itself (a sum few movies achieve from even their global releases)--while Spider-Man: Far From Home and Captain Marvel took in another $350 million or so, with the result that in that one year alone Marvel sold nearly a billion dollars' worth of tickets, a rough fifth of the $5 billion the three blockbusters took in globally that year.

As all this demonstrates, China was at that point a hugely important market for the brand, and showed every promise of becoming still more lucrative. However, Marvel's winning streak in China ended with "Phase 3" of the MCU. Phase 4, which launched with Black Widow, has consistently struck out, with not a single one of its movies landing a release in that country. To date this comes to five first-rate blockbusters (besides Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and now it seems, also Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) which could have picked up at least another half billion, and perhaps much more. Bad enough for the company ordinarily, it was worse still amid the pandemic, with Hollywood not only needing every penny it could get, but China relatively close to normal because of its comparative success in keeping the spread of the disease in check. And now one might wonder if Marvel is not out of China for a good long time.

Of course, the last few months offer some reassurance that Marvel can get along without China. In spite of not being release there Spider-Man: No Way Home made nearly $2 billion, while Doctor Strange is closing in on the $1 billion mark. Still, the diminution of the films' revenue by possibly hundreds of millions of dollars each is far from trivial, and in its way also ominous. It may be coincidence that Marvel just happened to produce a succession of projects particularly offensive to the sensibilities of Chinese authorities (the "anti-Communist" and "anti-Russian" Black Widow, the evocations of Victorian-Edwardian racism in the Fu Manchu-inspired Shang Chi, the public criticism of the Chinese government by Eternals director Chloe Zhao, etc.), and later projects will not run into such obstacles, and Marvel and China will make up. However, it may also be that the Chinese authorities are raising the bar of political acceptability. (After all, Marvel's Iron Man 3, in spite of its having the Mandarin for a villain--in however modified a form--got not only a wide Chinese release but Chinese financial backing via DMG Entertainment.) Moreover, such a turn on the part of the Chinese authorities may not only be because their ever-bigger market gives them more leverage, or because they want to bolster their own film industry, but because the political winds inside the country are shifting in a more nationalistic direction (certainly to go by what we are seeing of China's own movies, with hits like Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea and The Battle at Lake Changjin). At the same time Hollywood may grow less hopeful of access to the Chinese market, and perhaps, especially in the wake of the success of Top Gun 2, find more nationalistic filmmaking more appealing financially as well in the circumstances. Running all too parallel to the disturbing and frightening course of international politics in recent years, and recent months, it is a reminder that frivolous as box office grosses and the like seem, they are far from being untouched by the hard politics of a very troubled world.

The American Box Office Returns to Normal?

Since the outbreak of the pandemic the box office has just not been the same, with the theaters shut during the period of lockdown, and then after reopening, seeing significantly lower attendance. The clearest indication of that disruption was the absence of the big hits that account so disproportionately for the theaters' income, with such releases being subject to long delays, and then when coming out (sometimes, while simultaneously made available to viewers at home at premium prices) taking in a lot less than they would have made in ordinary times. (Thus did No Time to Die put in the weakest showing for the James Bond series in American theaters since Licence to Kill flopped way back in 1989.)

However, after coming out last December Spider-Man made a record-crushing $800 million, while Batman in March pulled in just under $370 million, that first big movie of the summer season, the Dr. Strange sequel, has exceeded that performance, and Top Gun: Maverick scored $400 million in its first 18 days, with that movie's success followed up by a strong $140 million+ opening weekend for Jurassic World: Dominion.

Still, a glance back at past years dispels any illusion that all is well. Some quick calculations show that in the five years before the pandemic the box office averaged about $13.5 billion when the numbers are adjusted for inflation to equal current, early 2022, dollars.

However, almost halfway into the year, over one month into the critical summer season, the box office has scored just a little over $3 billion. This is a considerable improvement over what we saw in 2020 (when the take was a bit over $2 billion for the whole year) and 2021 (when it was under $5 billion for the annum), but still well under a quarter of the earnings for a normal year. What are we to make of that? I suppose one factor is that much of the public remains leerier of the theater than before on grounds of the never-ending pandemic. (The mainstream media, in line with its prejudices, gives an enormous platform to those outraged over anti-pandemic measures, and scoff at even those purely personal measures like vaccination and masks; but ignores or dismisses the part of the public that wanted a more vigorous public response, and in its absence feels itself sufficiently unsafe that it will make significant sacrifices to protect itself, with all that means for such little luxuries as taking in a movie now and then, such that we likely underestimate it.) Of course, Spider-Man was playing even as new cases of COVID surged toward the 800,000 per day we saw in January, but it seems relevant that the situation was not nearly so bad as that when the movie actually hit theaters, and began a run that was, per usual for Hollywood blockbusters, highly front-loaded (on December 17, 2021, the 7-day average was more like 125,000, not particularly bad by the standard of the prior months). And I dare say that had the infection rate in mid-December been as bad as it was to be a mere month later it would have put a significant dent in the figures.

More generally I would say that that element of caution, likely to spike when the pandemic gets particularly bad, along with the related problems of a diminished habit of going out generally as a result of recent experience; the shuttering of a good many theaters on what may prove a permanent basis and in many areas make a trip to the theater longer and less convenient; and the other troubles people have had since (like the inflation giving us $5 a gallon gas, and doubtless raising the always horrifying price of concession food to new highs), which may well be worsened if inflation combines with recession, as seems all too likely; will at the very least delay a complete recovery. Indeed, if the crunch really drags, with what it means for personal habits, and for the viability of theaters, it is far from implausible that movie going will not completely recover--that we will, for example, see Americans cut back their movie going to the levels long seen in places like Germany and Japan, Americans making one or two trips to the theater on average instead of four or five even in normal times--and in the process slashing ticket sales by two-thirds (turning that $13-$14 billion box office into a $4-5 billion box office, barring higher ticket prices, which would likely mean still fewer trips to the theater).

If that indeed proves to be the case I would suspect that, even more than is already the case, this will mean a raising of the bar in regard to what gets people into the theater--which, given the dynamics of Hollywood, will likely mean that much more emphasis on that handful of giant hits that can be sold as have-to-see-it-now-on-the-big-screen "events" as everything else gets kicked to the small screen.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick--An Update

Extending the success of its spectacular Memorial Day weekend opening Top Gun: Maverick's gross has in the first 18 days of its North American release crossed the $400 million mark. As things stand the film has a good chance of not only reaching the half billion-dollar mark domestically, but even soaring past it, while doing about as well overseas as it is in the U.S. the movie, it has a real shot at becoming a member of the exclusive billion-dollar club--a feat all the more impressive given that this is not a Star Wars/Marvel-type franchise film, but an old-fashioned star-centered movie, and a grounded one at that compared with the giant sci-fi CGI-fests dominating the market, and that it will do all this without a release in the ever-more important China market too.

The political right, is, of course ecstatic about all this, claiming this as some victory of the conservative masses over the woke elites--more, I think, than has been the case with any movie since American Sniper way back in 2013. However, it has to be remembered that this was not some underdog of a movie coming from outside the System that fought its way past better-resourced Establishment competition to the audience, or even a passion project by some "maverick" insider staking all on a personal vision in the face of the Suits' opposition, but an extremely big-budget, high-profile Big Five Hollywood studio (Paramount) release that the backers have been trying to get made for the sake of pure and simple lucre for decades —with the entertainment press solidly in their corner, spreading positive buzz for years that it has now capped off with an extraordinary critical reaction. Where the original Top Gun, as would be expected from a summertime action film described even by the favorably disposed as a 2-hour Navy recruitment ad, was no critics' darling, the critics' rave reviews adding up to a 97 percent score for Top Gun 2 at Rotten Tomatoes, as against the 57 percent score the original has (which arguably says more about how the critics have changed than it does about the superiority of the second film to the original). Indeed, beyond making it clear that they were anything but hostile to the movie, it would be unbelievable if this massive support did not play a significant role in making what could have ended up another failed attempt to milk an old success for more of moviegoers' dollars into a record-breaking blockbuster.

The result is that, rather than some triumph over the woke the movie is a reminder of just what a limited thing wokeness has always been in American life, taking a back seat to a good many other priorities--and generally ending at the border, beyond which Hollywood can, in spite of all the gripes of the culture warriors, generally be counted upon to salute the flag and support the troops in that familiar bipartisan way (mainstream anti-militarism died sometime around Obama's election, neoconservatism firmly in the saddle ever since), with Hollywood looking even more ardent here than before, as the "Chinese angle" makes clear. Not so long ago there was quite the fuss over minor details of the film being altered to please Chinese opinion--specifically the reported removal of Japan and Taiwan patches from "Maverick" Mitchell's jacket. (Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly condemned the move.) However, the patches were reportedly to be seen in the film, any digital alteration dispensed with, along with the Chinese financial backing it had been enjoying at an earlier phase of the project, and the prospects for a Chinese release.

Does this mean that Hollywood, which has for so long valued the Chinese market, and in various ways successful and unsuccessful, pandered to it, is becoming less concerned with Chinese opinion? It would not be very surprising given how Hollywood has so often proven clumsy in pursuing an audience there--with every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie after Spider-Man: Far From Home getting frozen out by the relevant authorities, and many of those movies that have made it through the system gaining little traction--mainly because Hollywood's pandering came from a place of profound ignorance of the culture which it approached, and even the character of the product it made itself and was so eager to sell (its attempt to sell Star Wars to Chinese moviegoers falling flat, Crazy Rich Asians and Mulan underperforming, etc., etc.)--while others developments can seem still more ominous. Not the least of these is that, with international tensions ever in the ascendant, Hollywood may be less hopeful of political acceptability to the Chinese market, the authorities' stance toward which seems reflected in the way the country's domestic filmmaking seems ever more dominated by blatant jingoism (the Rambo-like Wolf Warrior and Operation Red Sea movies making Chinese film in the '10s seem like Hollywood in the '80s), an impression only reaffirmed by such hits as The Battle at Lake Chang-jin and its sequel, Water Gate Bridge.

All of this may sound innocuous--but the geopolitical shifts underlying such moves are no piece of entertainment industry fluff. Rather they are reflective of the world's life moving in a far more dangerous direction--with implications far more worrisome than a few lost box office dollars.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Francis Urquhart and the Truth About Respect

In the epigram at the start of Michael Dobbs' novel House of Cards the deeply cynical Francis Urquhart contemplates the epitaph "Respected By All Who Knew Him," and sneers at the "monumental whimper" he considers it to be. "Respect," he quips, is nothing next to fear--and indeed the most likely way to get it, for "When a man is afraid you will crush him, utterly destroy him, his respect will always follow."

In that unpleasant thought is an acknowledgment of the too little spoken truth about respect--that what we mean by it is not civility, but deference; and a regard for another's superior conscience, wisdom, judgment (on those rare occasions when people are prepared to acknowledge another as genuinely their superior here on an occasion when this really counts) far less likely to bring about deference than fear of utter destruction.

When we talk of respect, we are, even if we do not fully realize it (as most don't) thinking from inside of a world of force and fear, of domination and submission, of authority and hierarchy, and all the brutality and cowardice and degradation--and inevitably, stupidity--that are associated with them.

Remember that when you next speak of respect--and don't confuse the genuine esteem for a person of worth with this far more common, ugly, destructive stuff.

Netflix's House of Cards

Today the creation of vast amounts of big-budget, high-profile, "prestige" content by and for the premium streaming services is an established, familiar part of the scene, but a decade ago it was all just getting started--with Netflix's remake of the classic 1990 BBC miniseries House of Cards a milestone in that development.

I have to admit that I was one of those skeptical about the project--in part because I had seen and admired the original and am generally dubious about remakes, but also because I knew that this particular remake brought a whole train of problems with it, not least the transfer of the intrigue from one very different political system and political culture to another, while the intended expansion of a four hour miniseries (and at most, its two similarly compact sequels) into a multi-season show that ultimately ran for well over fifty hours seemed highly questionable.

Seeing the first season of the show (which is all I have seen of it to date) confirmed my suspicions. The translation of Francis' intrigues from British parliamentary politics to the American system was predictably awkward, and the extension of the compact original story into a sprawling soap opera was not an improvement. (Quite the contrary--one of the great improvements the miniseries made over Michael Dobbs' novel was to give a rather loose book a center around which to tighten up the material, and this was exactly what was kicked to the curb in reimagining it on this different scale.)

All of this cost the material the great bulk of its charge. Not the least of these was what it derived from the class dynamics of the original. The show was about "politics, not policy," but all the same, in his own person Ian Richardson's Francis Urquhart was a perfect manifestation of what "FU" represented, the ultra-reactionary blue bloods who had, far from regarding 1688 as the "end of history," regarded 1688 as already progress gone too far; the kind of modernity and egalitarianism-hating people on whose behalf folks like Evelyn Waugh wrote, and were lauded for writing. (Indeed, as Urquhart boasts in his final confrontation with a monarch he despises in the sequel, To Play the King, "My family came south with James I. We were defenders of the English throne before your family was ever heard of.") Any attempt at a real American equivalent would, again, be flimsy, and the writers wisely went in the exact opposite direction with "Frank" Underwood--a move that had some potential here, but alas, the bitterness of a man born far from privilege clawing his way up to the top never seemed to figure much in Underwood's character, the man rarely ever seeming more than a vulgar opportunist.

The narrative's enlargement did mean more room for policy with the politics--but again this failed to amount to much, with this significantly reflected in the decision to make a vague educational reform the center of that policymaking in the first season. The fight with the teachers' unions felt anachronistic, the whole thing a much less "hot" topic than two decades earlier, while the writers themselves did not seem to understand it very well. Blaming the schools, and those who teach in them, for a lack of "competitiveness" has long been a cynical ploy for those diverting public attention from other more consequential factors in industrial decline (like a government preference for the priorities of the service sector over industrial policy)--as well as a handy cudgel for the "privatize everything" crowd. But the writers did not seem to have any perspective on that, out of their depth on this point as they are on so many others.

It may be that the show's later seasons were stronger in these respects, but if so, I have seen little evidence of it in the reviews I have read, what I had actually seen apparently representative of the longer course. However, others took a far more favorable view, making for a virtually rapturous reception to Netflix's creation--helping bring about the business of streaming as we know it today.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

The Decline and Fall of the Arrowverse?

The Arrowverse was, once upon a time, a unique phenomenon in TV land, an extraordinary sprawl of interconnected television series' putting a truly unprecedented amount of DC Comics-based content on the air.

A decade on it is looking rather weary. The flagship show Arrow is gone, of course, while Legends of Tomorrow and Batgirl have been canceled, and most of the rest are in trouble.

Much of the comment about the matter points to specific missteps on the part of the shows' writers--like an underwhelming follow-up to the "Crisis on Infinite Earths" arc, or (alleged) political backlash for some offense or other to this or that part of the audience (too "woke," not "woke" enough, etc., etc., ad infinitum and ad nauseam). Yet other factors seem worth mentioning, not least the fact that this whole TV universe has been intensively mined for a decade now--a problem the greater because of the inherent limitations of the format. (I remember watching even earlier seasons of Arrow I found myself thinking of just how many, many, many times we had seen all this done before.)

There is, too, the matter of the general decline of broadcast television, with the margin perhaps especially slight for a relatively junior, relatively youth-oriented network (as against that "old folks"-coddling ratings champion, CBS), and its particularly heavy investment in a form of content with a necessarily finite audience (like a collection of arc-oriented, intricately interconnected superhero shows). The difficulty of holding that audience would seem all the greater with the competition in this very area on the rise, not least in streaming--viewers here now having a superabundance of other small-screen superhero content to enjoy (with the Marvel Cinematic Universe increasingly on TV as well), and from what I can tell, others producing plenty of other DC Comics Universe content that is newer, fresher, more varied, and for those who go for that sort of thing, more "adult" (with the new HBO Max streaming service trumpeting the fact in its promotions).

In short, the Arrowverse made a splash, but the world has since moved on as what was novel became commonplace, and has come to be delivered to the consumer via different, freer media. That being the case it may be that the Arrowverse will be wrapped up, with perhaps certain legacies transferred elsewhere--or reinvented altogether.

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