Why I Am Not a Liberal

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By Scott Ross

In a waning year of the Roaring ‘20s Bertrand Russell famously delivered a lecture entitled “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Although I pretend to nothing approaching Russell’s excellent mind, nor to his precise articulation of its febrile thoughts, and while I do not for a moment imagine it is as courageous a thing in 2019 to admit of a distrust of liberalism as it was for an atheist to explain himself publicly in 1927, one has to move with caution nonetheless. For if there is one thing liberals hate more than conservatives, it’s progressives — or in any case those who lean either to independence of mind generally or to the far left sphere specifically. We who do not thunder with the herd must nevertheless tread gently.

Introducing his song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” to a live audience in 1966, the late Phil Ochs noted, “In every American community there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals… Ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cdqQ2BdgOA

But surely Ochs was being generous. In his own his time, and as he alludes to in his song, it was fashionable for liberals to applaud the efforts of Civil Rights workers and desegregationists while never once inviting a Negro into their homes (except perhaps to clean them) and, secretly, hoping integration would not arrive before their public school children were safely beyond its reach… or perhaps weighing the option of bombing the first bus that came to take the little darlings to another neighborhood.

The liberals of a decade prior were, nearly without exception, dedicated anti-Communists, only slightly to the sinister of J. Parnell Thomas and no more aware, apparently, of history or current geopolitical realities than Senator McCarthy. Were it to be pointed out to these types (which, in those days included not merely Democrats but moderate and even liberal Republicans, a class now entirely wiped off the political map) that no nation had suffered more in the late World War than the Soviet Union (8-10 million military deaths and 24 million civilians) or that it was Russia’s beating back of Hitler at Stalingrad which, more than any other single factor, including D-Day, led to the Allies’ ultimate defeat of Nazism, one would doubtless have been met with incredulous stares, quivering jowls and the trembling accusation that one was at the very least a parlor pink. If one, further, reminded his listener that Stalin repeatedly asked for assistance on the Eastern Front, was as consistently assured he would get it, and that FDR and Churchill reneged at every turn, preferring the blood-bath of Omaha Beach to a successful collaboration with Russia which might have made the D-Day landing superfluous… or that following Roosevelt’s death his successor instantly turned on the Russians, in contradiction of all previous assurances, and that, far from being a world aggressor, the Russian nation was entirely surrounded by our bases, with our missiles pointed squarely at her heart… the hearer of such appalling and treasonous sedition would almost certainly have reached for the nearest telephone and placed a call to his or her local branch of the FBI.

It is never the liberal who effects positive change. It is, rather, the radical (if, if you prefer a softer epithet, the progressive) for whom the notions of universal suffrage, collective bargaining, the 40-hour work week, the complete social and political emancipation for the descendants of our former slaves, the eminently reasonable demands of feminism and of the call for gay rights and an end to unjust wars (or indeed to stop their beginning) are not merely conversant with American ideals and traditions but virtually demanded by them, who move the nation to action. Although at present these past victories are touted, in easily-available memes, as “liberal” shibboleths (“The Weekend Was a Crazy Liberal Idea”), they were and are nothing of the kind.

Even as a teenager I was uncomfortable both with Democrats and with liberalism, although I could not at the time have articulated precisely why, or explored in any meaningful way the alternative. But when, at 18, I registered to vote, I instinctively did so as an Independent — just as, a year later, I cast my first ballot against the “liberal” Democrat Jimmy Carter. Certainly I did not vote for that senescent Pithecanthropoid Ronald Reagan; as I would in 2016, I voted as an independent… which is to say, independently. Little the former (moderate) Republican John Anderson did later in his life, including the founding of FairVote, prevailing at the Supreme Court in Anderson v. Celebrezze, endorsing Nader in 2000, or helping to found the Justice Party in 2012, persuades me that my vote was in any way squandered. That, in 1976, Carter had potential is not in dispute. But that he chose to surround himself with slathering Cold Warriors such as the vicious, vengeance-maddened Zbigniew Brzezinski and to, rather than engaging the Soviets, place himself solidly against them, merely encouraged the following decade of Red-baiting, nearly unregulated arms acceleration and the cultivation of “freedom fighters” who would, inevitably (and, as they continue to do today) turn their American-made (or at least, -paid) arms against the United States… that is, when they had a moment free from their torture and slaughter of civilians. And let us not forget that it was the liberal Carter who exacerbated tensions with the Iranians by first physically embracing the hated Shah, then permitting him refuge after he fled the country.*

It was liberals who made possible the Hollywood and television Blacklist of the 1950s, and who permitted the establishment, and growing encroachment, of a National Security State which now permeates every fabric of our lives, and who sat back and watched, clucking their tongues as police first aimed fire-hoses at and sicced attack dogs on, then fired their guns at, peaceful Black marchers in Birmingham and Selma, and anti-war protesters in Chicago and at Kent State. It was liberals who did nothing to stop American activity in Chile, El Salvador and Honduras, which led to the wholesale killings of tens of thousands. It was liberals, whose old novels I still read and whose old movies I still see, who more than anyone else peddled and belabored the most venomous stereotypes about homosexual men in their books and television sketches and motion pictures, throughout the 1960s and ’70s and ’80s, well into the 1990s and even into the early Aughts, far beyond a point at which they would dare pillory any comparable group in the culture… aside, of course, from women, on whom it is always open season. The more liberal, indeed, the writer or filmmaker, the more flagrantly he nursed his often obsessive sexual victimizing; even the otherwise estimable civil libertarian William Bradford Huie, for example, drove me from the perusal of his The Execution of Private Slovik with a casual (and, as I recall, wholly unmotivated) loathing for queers, and the equally liberal Sidney Lumet’s period work is likewise inexplicably filled with homophobic contempt.

It was liberals who did nothing to curb the worst excesses of Carter’s successor. It should be remembered that, throughout Ronald Reagan’s eight-year Administration, it was Democrats, not Republicans, who were the party in charge of Congress and who, whatever their rhetoric, acquiesced time and again to the President’s wishes, approving his nominees and enacting his laws, exactly as they have those of the man they have professed to despise, and oppose, since 2016. It was the “liberal” Bill Clinton and his colleagues in Congress who gave us the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1996 which has, by itself, changed Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 Network from a satirical warning to a virtual documentary. It was a liberal named Madeline Albright who, asked whether the 500,000 Iraqi children dead as the result of U.S. sanctions were “worth it,” replied in the affirmative. It was liberals who, rather than enacting a universal healthcare plan which could have covered every man, woman and child in the nation, gave us a bill modeled on Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. It is liberals who now tell us that single-payer — in the words of their erstwhile savior, Hillary Rodham Clinton — “will never happen.” (This is not to mention her laughing uproariously at the truly horrific 2011 murder of the Libyan Muammar Gaddafi, sodomized with a machete.)

It is liberals such as Pelosi, Schumer, Booker, Harris and Schiff who are now most in thrall to big pharma, the insurance industry, the military-industrial complex, the bankers and Wall Street generally. It was the “liberal” Barack Obama who, quite contrary to ending our illegal wars abroad, expanded two wars to seven… and liberals in Congress and the Senate who permitted, when they did not in fact encourage, him. It is liberals who evince public nostalgia for the un-indicted war criminal George W. Bush and who — including such alleged progressive stalwarts as the over-hyped and imbecilic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — wail and rend their garments over the passing of men such as his equally vile (and equally un-indicted) father, as well as the unrepentant war-monger John McCain. It is liberals who applaud and defend officials of CIA and even the once-hated FBI, whose current agents are the descendants of those who routinely infiltrated student groups and civil rights organizations in the 1960s and who murdered their leaders (Malcom, Martin, Fred Hampton) with impunity and without punishment or even governmental investigation. It is liberals who not only accede regularly to Trump’s demands but routinely give him more than he asks for; when he submits a defense budget larger than that of any previous occupant of the White House the Democrats, not content with that obscenity, tack on millions more. It was liberals who embraced a war-mongering sociopath as their candidate of choice and, having endured her all-too-predictable defeat, turned at last to the bogeyman-god of, not their own youths but that of their parents, as the receptacle into which they have placed all of their hurt, anger, fear and pique. And it is liberals now who, after three years of screeching that Trump is both a puppet of Vladimir Putin and an existential threat to America and the world, cheerlead for his attempts — roundly condemned by those nations not entirely in America’s thrall — at a putative putsch to eject from Venezuela its duly elected leader. There is your liberal “Resistance.”


The 2105-2016 election period was a bruising one, particularly if one had liberal friends. I suspect I lost more friendships during that 18-month period than during the previous several decades of my life, some of them stretching back 40 years and more, to childhood. As dispiriting as it was to see so many old liberals quiver with senile avidity over Clinton, to hear supposed lefties and alleged feminists like Gloria Steinem sneeringly dismiss young women in the Sanders camp as “boy-crazy” and the Human Rights Council proffer its endorsement, not to the candidate who has been a vocal, public supporter of gay rights since the early 1970s but to the woman who opposed marriage equality (until, that is, the magic 51% of respondents said they supported it) how much more depressing was it to hear and read the comments and see the actions of our own old friends as they championed, and campaigned for, a reactionary neocon in liberal Democrat pantsuits? For it is liberals who, succumbing to Hollywood pop-imagery, proclaimed themselves “The Resistance” and now hold marches in support of a man who helped lie us into Iraq and carry placards assuring us — as if we didn’t already know — that, if a mainstream (read: neoliberal) Democrat was in office, they’d be having brunch instead of making a protest.

Yet something larger than mere selfishness is at work here. Those of us who were equally repulsed by Clinton and Trump have not allowed our special disgust at the latter to interfere with our ability to think, and to reason, for ourselves; indeed, it was precisely this positive trait, I would argue, that would not permit us to vote for Trump’s immediate rival. And many of us who have been dismayed for three years by our liberal friends’ inability to sort reality from fantasy, truth from rumor (Steele dossier, anyone?) have presumed that they are exhibiting cognitive dissonance, an offshoot of the apparently permanent derangement with which so many were left by the seemingly endless election and the, to them, insupportable results of that protracted assault on our pretensions of Demos. But as my friend Eliot M. Camarena (https://emcphd.wordpress.com/) suggested to me recently, American liberals today are stuck in that phase the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget termed “transductive reasoning.” A few bits of definition and commentary should be sufficient to define the concept. (Thanks, Eliot.)

“As children progress from infants to toddlers, they also progress from the sensorimotor stage to the preoperational stage. The preoperational stage includes transductive reasoning. According to information on Piaget’s Theory from Michigan State University, transductive thought involves seeing a relationship between two things that are not actually related. Your child may be using transductive reasoning if she tells you that an orange is a ball. Because both the ball and the orange are round, her transductive reasoning tells her that they both must be a ball.” — Kristen Lee, List of the Cognitive Development of Early Childhood
https://www.livestrong.com/article/231931-list-of-the-cognitive-development-of-early-childhood/

“With transductive reasoning, a child reasons from case to case, ignoring important, well-established facts they have yet to learn. For example, a child might reason that pizza is triangular in shape rather than round, if they have only seen single slices. Also, a child might reach the conclusion that he is capable of turning into an Asian if he eats rice, because his friend Larry, who eats rice regularly, is Asian. Both of these cases exemplify the use of transductive reasoning.” https://www.reference.com/world-view/transductive-reasoning-mean-eabbb9bff8ee8b16

“Transductive thinking in preoperational stage: Transductive thinking is prominent in children’s thoughts. They create a connection between two situations that occurs at the same time, even though there’s nothing in common to both of them. Transductive reasoning leads to illogical conclusions, since it involves reasoning from one particular instance to another particular instance without reference to the general. Transduction can sometimes yield a correct conclusion, but the overgeneralization resulting from this type of reasoning often leads to stubborn, rigid behavior. As the child matures, he becomes capable of logical thought based on inductive and deductive reasoning. ‘Inductive reasoning’ proceeds from specific to general ‘Deductive reasoning’ moves from general to specific.”
— Ashana Suri https://www.slideshare.net/AashnaSuri/cognitive-development-including-piagets-theorymainly-in-preschool-years

“[Transductive reasoning] is so called because it focuses on concrete instances and does not follow the principles of either induction or deductive reasoning. Also called transductive logic, but this is avoided in careful usage, because it is clearly not a form of logic.” [Emphasis mine.]
— http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803105323835

Am I saying my liberal friends — those few I have left — are children? No. Merely that they are thinking like children. And in so doing, are assisting the very man whose presence in the Oval Office has driven them from reason. The unintended result of their ceaseless yammering and instant adoption and repetition of words and concepts (collusion, the Emoluments Clause, redaction) about which they know nothing has been to strengthen the position of Donald J. Trump with his electoral base… and perhaps with a considerable number of his quieter foes as well.


Such transductive reasoning as has gripped liberals for the past three years plus is, of course, wholly enabled and abetted by the legion of CIA assets in the American corporate media. As I write these words, the Ecuadoran Embassy this morning opened its doors to a phalanx of British secret police, who duly arrested and carried Julian Assange — “guilty,” as far as is known, of little more than being a publisher — into a waiting van. Passing by for a moment the shame-making sight of a dozen burly, uniformed thugs dragging one small, bedraggled and, from what one hears, seriously ill, man into the street — how brave the guardians of law! how noble the soldiers of order! — I note that the babbling heads on CBS This Morning have already begun the disinformation campaign, accusing Assange of, in addition to the spurious and easily disproven charge of “conspiring with and encouraging” Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, of somehow being involved in the “Russian hacking of our elections.” Thus is the official National Security narrative begun, and reinforced. Next up: Endless reiterations of the false and discredited accusations of rape and the horrified/outraged cries that this Australian and, now, Ecuadoran citizen, is somehow a “traitor” to a nation he has never been a citizen of.

Cue too the delighted squeals of liberals across the land as Assange, slayer of their goddess, is first surrendered to U.S. authorities, then perhaps carried in secret to some “rendition center” (possibly in Saudi Arabia?), there to be further tortured and denied the basic jurisprudence no liberal would countenance having removed from him or her. But then, as they will no doubt smugly remind us all, they would not be engaged in “espionage.” (What do they think doing the bidding of America’s shadow government for pay is — knocking on doors for the Welcome Wagon?) What, one wonders, will their excuse be when they are dragged from their homes in the early morning hours? For an unfortunate majority of liberals, the concept that one is innocent until proven guilty is merely a quaint remnant of unenlightened thought. How else could they have kept going for three years, with a concomitant waste of our national treasure, their inane (if not indeed actually insane) natter that Trump, in the face of no supporting evidence whatsoever, has been demonstrably guilty of this offense, or that?

I was deeply depressed by the news this morning. That depression has given way to intense anger. But although I am at present absolutely livid, I have seldom been more relieved than I am at this moment that I am not a Democrat.

And I have never been prouder of not being a liberal.
________________________________________

* I had wondered often over the years, since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, why, as the Shah was a Central Intelligence Agency-installed puppet, and as we are so often told by our elders and betters that the analysts employed by that Agency are non pariel, the C.I.A. was unable to warn the U.S. government to get its employees out of its embassy before the takeover. It has lately come to my attention that the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq during this crucial period was no less a personage than that chilling psychopath Richard Helms, one of the men most likely to have given the go-ahead for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We may be forgiven, then, for entertaining the notion that Helms, no fan of Carter’s, knew what was coming, smiled that sneering grimace of his, and let it happen.


Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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Keep Gloating!

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By Scott Ross

My previous essay on this topic, from 2018:
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/crucible/

At a rather woefully under-attended press conference at Duke University a few years ago, for a starry staged reading of Gore Vidal’s Civil War play On the March to the Sea, I asked Vidal how it felt to be nearly always correct about world events and to be consistently either ignored or traduced by what is laughingly called our free press. Vidal purred back, “The four most beautiful words in the English language are, ‘I told you so.'”

Although I have since become aware that this serene aperçu was one Vidal had used before, the wit and the truth of the remark are no less apt for repetition. Indeed, I have thought of it often in the last couple of weeks, since the odious Robert Mueller — predictably now beloved of the Clinton crowd, but only so long as he appears to be “going after” Donald Trump — announced that, after two years of costly investigation, there was no evidence the President had “colluded” (a word these types had never heard of before 2016) with a foreign government in the late, un-lamented, American election.

“Gloating” is a word much maligned in the language, and not without reason, as it typically denotes a sneering ugliness and self-regard unattractive at best and insufferably narcissistic at worst. There are, however, exceptions, and it seems to me that people such as Michael Tracey, Elizabeth Vos, Jimmy Dore, Matt Taibbi, Caitlin Johnstone, Jesse Ventura, Glenn Greenwald and Aaron Maté, who have from the very beginnings of this false, sordid and militantly partisan saga spoken or written about the subject with admirable skepticism and those rarest now of American journalistic virtues, thoughtfulness and reason, have more than earned the right to say, “I told you so.” That their voices were, and are, marginalized when not actively maligned, merely adds to their entitlement.

Naturally, and on cue, the very men and women who have been the loudest and most egregiously culpable in running a three-year scam against reason and perspicacity are now screaming that the Traceys and Matés of the world are “victimizing” the likes of Rachel Maddow merely by pointing out how knowingly duplicitous she has been. Maddow a victim? If so, she has certainly been well-compensated for her victimhood, unless you consider $30,000 a day scant recompense for self-induced martyrdom.

When I use the word “scam,” I am not being hyperbolic, merely realistic. As Dore is fond of pointing out, even a “jagoff nightclub comedian working out of his garage” was not fooled by the accusation, cobbled up by the cabal surrounding a Democratic candidate who was so disastrous she could not prevail against a self-regarding television game-show host to account for her eminently predictable (indeed, predicted) loss, even after taking control of her party’s operational arm and disenfranchising millions of voters in what looks to be the most monumentally fixed (and, predictably, un-punished) campaign in modern American history. A candidate, I might add, whose own machinations while Secretary of State, to sell uranium to the Russian Federation in exchange for a half-million dollars given to her equally corrupt husband, inspired her to employ the oldest trick in the political book: Deflection. “Don’t look at my dealings with Russia — look at him!” Anyone with a modicum of unaligned intelligence could see how transparently phony the whole business was. And indeed, as Jonathan Allen and Amy Parnes write in their book Shattered:

That strategy had been set within twenty-four hours of her concession speech. Mook and Podesta assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up. For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public. Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument. [Emphasis mine.]

The very word “hacking” is key. For well over three years, we have been treated to the absolute lie that John Podesta’s emails were “hacked” by WikiLeaks… or by Russian actors… when, as Ray McGovern and Bill Binney of VIPS (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity) have proven, the information was not “hacked,” but rather downloaded internally — possibly, if unverifiably, by the now conveniently dead Seth Rich at the Democratic National Committee. That WikiLeaks does not “hack” information from anywhere but merely publishes documents provided to them by third parties is conveniently left out of the narrative of those I call the Professionally Piqued… all too often, I’m afraid, women over 50, so desperate to see a person with a vagina elected to the office of President in their lifetimes they were willing to back any woman, even one as demonstrably corrupt and right-wing as Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the position.

That Clinton herself, like her erstwhile boss, the appalling Barack Obama, is so beloved of the supposed “Left” simply proves how neoliberal, or perhaps merely unthinking and reactive, most of these people really are. In fact, I would categorize the brunch-missing Pussyhat Brigade as worse than neoliberal; their words and deeds during the last three years have revealed them as deeply, and dangerously, reactionary. Their incessant Red-baiting, when the Soviet Union has long been a distant memory for many, and a non-existent one for anyone under the age of 30, reveals not merely an ugly and insupportable strain of naked xenophobia (Keith Olbermann: “Scum! Russian scum!”) but a willingness to push America toward an armed confrontation with another nation that would endanger not merely the U.S., or Russia, but the entire planet, and no one more vociferously or blindly as the now seemingly irreparably and permanently deranged Rachel “Victim” Maddow. The alleged “Left” has shown itself, in the main, to be worthy of that worst of all epithets in a sane society: Reactively pro-war.

Nearly as bad — indeed, insupportable — has been the avidity with which these same pique-maddened types, busy with demonstrations in support of, first, James Comey (after they vilified him) and then Mueller, and their cohorts in the corporate media have ignored, when not actively supported, their own nation’s current drive to overthrow the elected president of Venezuela. That they do not organize marches in support of the heroic Chelsea Manning, pardoned by Obama yet currently languishing in prison for a second time or in support of the besieged Julian Assange is equally telling, although explicable: Manning’s revelations involved the Administration of their beloved Obama. And it was Assange, of course, their one-time darling (always providing he limited his exposés to Republicans) who published the damning evidence of Hillary Clinton hypocritically assuring Wall Street that she had a public face and a private one. This last sin of Assange’s is the one which is of course wholly unforgivable.

That their allies in the corporate press are, collectively, sanguine about the perhaps imminent rendition of Assange to almost certain imprisonment in America, likely for the remainder of his life, should surprise no one. It was, after all, the enactment of Bill Clinton’s hideous, proto-fascist Telecommunications Act of 1996 that heralded the end of a free press in America, the fruits of which are now visible in every corner of our lives in what we are permitted, in the land of the free, to see and hear about events both at home and abroad. Were there still a free press in the United States, beyond the pockets of genuine (as opposed to in-name-only) resistance on outlets such as RT America, The Real News, Johnstone’s Rogue Journal and Vos’ Disobedient Media, journalists everywhere — including in Europe generally and in the United Kingdom specifically — would be daily, if not hourly, decrying the forced exile and probable arrest of a publisher.

That they do not, and that we have surrounded Russia with our bases and missiles, and make daily incursions into its air-space, while reflexively accusing that nation’s every attempt to defend itself and its territories as “aggressive,” and that none of the voices in corporate media ever call out this insane and dangerous hypocrisy, is indicative of the ways in which the American news media are still very much the employees of the CIA. Anyone who seriously imagines that the exposed and reviled “Operation Mockingbird” ended decades ago is living in a dream. The rest of us, who get it, are alas living the nightmare. And I hereby, and with no courage whatsoever, predict that the very voices stilled in possible protest at our government’s persecution of a publisher will be squealing in dismay when they are under indictment by that same, anti-democratic, entity ere long. It only takes one case to establish precedent.

In brief, then, I say to Michael Tracey, Elizabeth Vos, Jimmy Dore, Matt Taibbi, Caitlin Johnstone, Jesse Ventura, Glenn Greenwald, Aaron Maté, and all the others who “got it right” three years ago when they said and wrote that the so-called “Russiagate” investigation was an edifice built on the finest sand: If you feel like gloating, gloat. If only to remind the members of a Fourth Estate largely now turned into a Fifth Column of the sentiments of the late Sage of Ravello.

We told you so.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Armchair Theatre Quarterly Report: January – March 2019

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By Scott Ross

Nothing I’ve seen so far this year has elicited in me a great desire to write a full review. Hence this installment of minis.

The Man from Larrabee (1955)
The sixth and final collaboration between James Stewart and the director Anthony Mann is a solid adult Western, although not a patch on their best work together. It’s based on a well-regarded novel by Thomas T. Flynn, originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, and with a screenplay credited to Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. Burt was a frequent contributor to Stewart’s splendid, short-lived radio series The Six-Shooter; Yordan was one of the busiest fronts of the blacklist era, but as he claimed authorship of any number of disputed scripts whose actual writers later challenged his participation, it’s anyone’s guess whether he wrote a word of this one, or who else might have. The credit itself is less urgent than that the material begins promisingly and, while never less than intelligent, devolves irredeemably into melodrama — probably because there is simply too much plot for one brief movie to contain. Stewart, seeking the seller of rifles to Apaches (and whose Cavalry brother has died as a result) finds himself at loggerheads with an isolated town’s wealthiest and most powerful family of ranchers, led by Donald Crisp, secretly going blind and haunted by recurring dreams in which a stranger murders his arrogant son (Alex Nicol). His foreman (Arthur Kennedy), meanwhile, struggles to make his worth clear to the old man while battling the owner’s spoiled, impulsive progeny. And that’s not to mention the son’s fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell), nor Crisp’s nearest rival (Aline MacMahon), who has an agenda of her own. You see what I mean about the overlarded plot? Stewart, Crisp, Kennedy and MacMahon acquit themselves admirably, Jack Elam shows up as a villainous ranch-hand, Charles Lang’s Technicolor and CinemaScope photography is sumptuous, George Duning contributed a fine score, and Mann’s direction is both taut and expansive. Unfortunately, their combined efforts don’t add up to much. Interestingly, Mann later began another Stewart Western, the deeply disappointing Night Passage and quit, feeling — quite rightly — that the thing was “trash.” Mann was entirely correct; had the finished movie hewn closer to Norman A. Fox’s very effective short novel, it might have been an ideal picture for him, and for Stewart.

Bend of the River (1953)
This one is everything The Man from Laramie isn’t. Based on the 1950 novel Bend of the Snake by Bill Gulick (whose later The Hallelujah Train is perhaps the wittiest and most delightful Western novel ever written) it features a finely-wrought screenplay by the redoubtable Borden Chase, stunning cinematography by Irving Glassberg of the Oregon wilderness (the glimpses of the Mt. Hood area are especially mouth-watering), a rousing Hans J. Salter score, tight Anthony Mann direction, a compelling story and terrific central performances by James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy — although the latter plays what amounts to a precursor of his The Man from Laramie character. The picture concerns the efforts of a former border-raider turned scout (Stewart) to supply a wagon-train of homesteaders with the crucial provisions they need to survive their first Oregonian winter. Somehow that précis makes the thing sound deadly, but it isn’t; the movie is done with the intelligence, humor and dramatic integrity that mark Gulick’s work, and at 91 minutes it’s self-contained and compelling. There’s a spectacularly effective climactic gun battle, and the fine supporting cast includes Julie Adams, Jay C. Flippen, Rock Hudson, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano and Frances Bavier. In such company you don’t even mind the presence of Stepin Fetchit.

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The Hot Rock (1972)
William Goldman, a longtime admirer of Donald E. Westlake’s comic caper novels, wrote this one, a transliteration of the first in Westlake’s ingenious Dortmunder series (originally planned, curiously, as a “Parker” novel for the author’s grittier non de plume Richard Stark.) Goldman’s screenplay is a model of adaptation: Everything that makes the book work is there, perfectly trimmed to screen-time, with very little interpolation from the screenwriter, and no fat whatsoever. Goldman’s script deviates in minor ways, and they only add to the pleasure: First by giving Dortmunder an ulcer — a comic invention I’m surprised Westlake never thought of — and second by letting his crew emerge triumphant; his ending is so perfectly realized it makes you grin in appreciation. (Although I am not widely read in the Dortmunder novels, those I have assayed invariably end with the team losing its illegal quest in some ironic manner. Goldman upends this, and you’re grateful for the deviation.) The entire picture, wittily directed by Peter Yates, generates goodwill; you know from the first scene that you’re in good hands, and that allows you to relax and enjoy the ride. It helps too that the characters are comically idiosyncratic but never cute or self-consciously “wacky.” The plot concerns the theft, for an African delegate (Moses Gunn, wry and very funny) of a fabulous gem; once the caper is pulled off, it runs into seemingly endless complications. Robert Redford is Dortmunder, too smart for his makeshift crew of hapless would-be jewel thieves but too desperate, and maybe too essentially decent, to do any better. His cohorts are George Segal, Ron Leibman and Paul Sand; Charlotte Rae has a good cameo as Leibman’s mother(!), with whom he listens to race track recordings; and Zero Mostel makes a kosher feast of his role as a duplicitous lawyer (or am I being redundant?) whom Goldman slyly promotes from the Sand character’s uncle to his father. Quincy Jones composed a spritely earworm of a main theme in march cadence, and the picture is one of those time-capsule movies that vividly capture the New York of the period: For example, during an unsettlingly vertiginous open helicopter trip (Leibman says he was terrified) we catch long glimpses of the World Trade Center, then nearing completion. Surprisingly, considering Redford’s ascendancy at the time, The Hot Rock lost money on its release. Seeing it now, you can’t imagine why; it’s one of the cheeriest caper movies ever made, sunny and amusing. Watching it makes you feel happy and refreshed — good all over.

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True Crime
(1999)
There was an interesting movie in the journalistic story behind this one, but it was completely transformed between reality and realization, and not I think for the better. I presume the people who made it (Clint Eastwood, the director and star; the credited screenwriters, Larry Gross and Paul Brickman and Stephen Schiff — as well as Andrew Klaven, on whose novel it was based) saw the story of a dogged journalist’s painstaking investigation of a miscarriage of justice as too prosaic and mundane: There was only one man’s freedom at stake, after all. The stakes, so beloved of the Hollywood suits, were duly raised, the central premise made more urgent by an innocent man’s impending execution for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s a schizophrenic movie; its central narrative is compelling and often defeats second-guessing, yet its arc is itself a cliché and the picture is cavalier in its sudden devolution into superman-type heroics and an anguished inner-city grandmother’s instant conversion to Eastwood’s comic sidekick. At the same time, the filmmaking is often so assured the damn thing almost works. Eastwood, however, was far too mature at this point in his career to play the serial cocksman, and the sight of him with his shirt off is no longer arousing — it’s distracting. If he wasn’t also the director, it would even seem cruel: You’re not enjoying the sensuality, you’re counting the folds in his flesh. And at 69 the former sex symbol looks years older. If the women with whom he consorts were as superannuated as he is, there might have been some poignancy to the enterprise. As it stands, his womanizing is just embarrassing. Eastwood’s character, a once-celebrated reporter named Steve Everett, behaves as if he considers himself catnip to the distaff. This too could carry a certain frisson, if the movie made us aware of how hollow that conceit is. Instead, the young women he hits on, even as they’re turning down his threadbare seductions, grin at him as if they’re flattered by the old rake’s attention. The actor had also, at that point, lost so much of the almost feline grace he’d exhibited in his prime that when he walks across a room you’re aware that the parts no longer move the way they once did. It happens to us all, of course, but most of us aren’t operating under the merciless glare of arc-lights and widescreen cameras. There’s some good acting here, however, especially by James Woods as Everett’s indulgent editor; Denis Leary, subdued for once as the supervisor itching for a reason to fire Everett; Lisa Gay Hamilton as the grieving wife of the accused; Diane Venora as Everett’s long-suffering mate; Hattie Winston as the grandmother of a deceased felon; Bernard Hill as a prison warden; Michael Jeter as a weasely, unreliable witness; Frances Fisher as an angry D.A.; and little Francesca Eastwood as Everett’s tiny daughter. As the condemned man, Isaiah Washington is astonishing. He’s so good, so sure-footed in his emotional responses to the insupportable, you wish the movie that surrounds him was as deep as his characterization; his reaction to seeing his young daughter for the last time is raw and unforgettable. True Crime isn’t a disaster by any means, but it’s sure an oddity.

Any Given Sunday (1999) I’ve always thought televised football was at once stupid, loud, overlong and boring. Amazingly, it took the considerable and combined talents of John Logan and Oliver Stone to deliver an equally stupid, loud, overlong and boring movie about the game. There are two central stories, involving, primarily, a Miami franchise head coach (Al Pacino) and his struggle to hold onto his job and, secondarily, concentrating on a rising young star quarterback (Jamie Foxx) who first becomes an arrogant show-off and then must learn to be a humble team-player by the play-out. There are also sub-plots involving an aging team captain (Dennis Quaid) nursing a potentially debilitating injury and the team’s embattled owner and general manager (Cameron Diaz), and the characters include a duplicitous team physician (James Woods), a veteran linebacker with a cortisone addiction (Lawrence Taylor) and an egomaniacal sports reporter (the odious John C. McGinley, doing his usual overbaked caricature). Shall I go on? If all you want is two and a half hours of scabrous people and their petty problems and rivalries, or have always hoped to see a detached human eyeball in bloody close-up, Any Given Sunday is for you.

W Josh Brolin gwb080901_560
W (2008)
Oliver Stone was, ludicrously, slanged in 2008 for not making George W. Bush more of a caricature, and for sympathizing with his central character. That succumbing to the former is the sign of a hack or a satirist (all too often the same thing) and that embrace of the latter is the primary job of a dramatist does not seem to have occurred to the partisans among Stone’s critics. To take on the first accusation: How much more may an artist caricaturize a man who is already a walking self-parody? Stone’s Bush, as written by the scenarist Stanley Weiser and enacted by the redoubtable Josh Brolin is, it seems to me, George W. to the life: Belligerent, untutored, ill-informed, appallingly ignorant — narcissistic in the proscribed macho manner of the Texas playboy who has seldom, if ever, heard the word “no” and been forced to comply with it. To address the second allegation: Although Bush as a man is not as complex as the 37th President of the United States, nor as essentially and tragically bifurcated, this indictment was also leveled at Stone in 1995 when Nixon premiered, and was no more legitimate then. Again, only a parodist or a creative hack reduces his subject to abject villainy. Was Shakespeare traduced for locating the humanity in both Caesar and Brutus? Do we not in part respond to Citizen Kane precisely because Orson Welles offered him in more than a single dimension? And while W is not as ultimately plangent, or as moving, as Nixon, it is certainly nothing to whinge or sneer at. It encapsulates and anatomizes its subject in sharp and often very amusing vignettes that hint strongly at the central emptiness within its eponymous subject. Is that, somehow, the same as bestowing laurels on him? The only area in which I think Stone errs is in his and Weisner’s conception of George H.W., and in their casting of James Cromwell, who neither looks nor sounds like the elder Bush. If any member of the dynasty depicted here deserves vilification, surely it is Bush Senior, that unrepentant liar, conscienceless CIA operative (who claimed, like Nixon, not to remember where he was on the day Kennedy was murdered) and un-indicted war criminal. Ellen Burstyn comes off much better as Barbara Bush, but then, the woman herself scarcely seemed to deserve the unholy brood she gave birth to. Richard Dreyfuss makes an appropriately serpentine Dick Cheney, alternately sneering and bullying. (Although he and Stone apparently differed on the characterization.) The always splendid Scott Glenn gives a good account of Donald Rumsfeld, Toby Jones provides a correspondingly fine embodiment of the Pecksniffian Karl Rove, and Stacey Keach is fascinatingly ambiguous in a role that was conceived as a composite of several of Bush’s spiritual advisors… whose collective failure with their charge is all too obvious and instructive.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
Interestingly, this sequel to the 1987 Wall Street is richer and more entertaining than its predecessor, at least until the wholly unnecessary — and utterly unbelievable — climax. The last-minute deus ex machina conversion of the merrily amoral Gordon Gekko rends the fabric of his character: Although he’s appalling, his actions have a unity that renders him whole; turning him into a penitent fairy godfather smacks either of studio interference, or a last-minute cowardice on someone’s part. Because we’re unsure of him through most of the picture, Michael Douglas becomes mesmerizing. And when, near the end, he reveals himself as wholly unchanged, the effect is both delicious and sick-making. It makes that sudden reversal a betrayal of the character, and of our apprehension of him. Shia LaBeouf is a more benign version of the Charlie Sheen character in the first movie (Sheen himself makes a cameo), although I think overall he’s a rather limited actor. Josh Brolin has a good role as LeBeouf’s nemesis, Carey Mulligan is permitted a wide range of emotional response as Gekko’s estranged daughter, Susan Sarandon has a few juicy scenes as LeBeouf’s mother, and Eli Wallach is as usual a deft delight as a high-rolling old financier. Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff wrote the mostly (until that unfortunate climax) intelligent screenplay, Rodrigo Prieto provides some lovely cinematography, and Oliver Stone directs not as if he’s taken on an obligation but as though the subject is fresher with him now than it was 23 years earlier, proving that Thomas Wolfe’s famous dictum concerning staging a return is not a universal truth.

Snowden
Snowden
(2016)
One of the least seen of Oliver Stone’s important pictures, Snowden sits on the shelf with the writer-director’s explorations of American governmental power (JFK, Nixon, W.) and, like Nixon, is both intelligently written and surprisingly moving. Perhaps audiences in 2016 already thought they knew the Snowden story; if they were consuming the Western corporate media’s coverage of his announcement, they didn’t, and don’t. Stone and his co-scenarist, Kieran Fitzgerald, depict Edward Snowden as an exceptionally bright young man of conventional conservative bent, “patriotic” in the way of so many American youths who have incorporated the deliberate inculcation of their public schools, a passive press and all-too active governmental indoctrination into their view of the world. His gradual awakening to the means by which — and the lengths to which — his employers are able, and willing, to go to infiltrate every aspect of his fellow Americans’ lives, and his determination to expose both, form the core of the narrative. (The screenplay was based in part on The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. That Harding has since allowed the Clinton machine’s absurd claims of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election to unhinge him completely should, one supposes, not mitigate his former good work.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as the eponymous anti-hero, and however much one might deplore the reactive manner of Snowden’s thinking, Gordon-Levitt’s performance conveys the young man’s basic decency and kindness as well as his slow awakening in wholly explicable terms. It was the role many of us who have admired this gifted young actor since his sitcom years were waiting for, and it’s a genuine pity that so few have seen it, and that he received no major award nominations for it. Shailene Woodley is equally fine as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, as are the superb Melissa Leo as the documentarian Laura Poitras and Zachary Quinto as the irreplaceable (and un-repressible) Glenn Greenwald. Nicolas Cage plays a character suggested by the estimable former National Security analyst — and fellow whistle-blower — Bill Binney, and Snowden himself appears briefly at the end of the picture. Craig Armstrong’s musical score is a strong asset, as is Anthony Dod Mantle’s rich cinematography and the kinetic editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy. The ultimate willingness of one so young to leave behind his life, love and family in the furtherance of an ideal becomes quietly devastating, and for this, Stone is to be commended. Yet it is a measure of the contempt in which Oliver Stone is held by the government stenographers who now comprise the ranks of corporate journalism that a movie as vital and important as Snowden received far less press than a lumbering exercise like Any Given Sunday. And it is equally illustrative of where the American movie audience is now that Sunday was a hit domestically, Snowden a flop.


Born on the Fourth of July
(1988)
I missed this picture when it was new, owing partly to my perpetual aversion to its star, but had I seen it in 1988 I suspect I would have appreciated it more. I had attempted, a few years before, to get through Ron Kovic’s memoir, but was defeated by its grim and seemingly unremitting horror. Now that I have read it, Oliver Stone’s adaptation (written with Kovic) almost seems to affirm some of the criticisms often leveled at his work as sensationalist and excessive. In the main I do not agree with the opprobrium with which Stone is so frequently assaulted, but Born on the Fourth of July all too obviously embodies those faults others — admittedly, and largely, his political opponents —invariably see in Stone. Kovic’s book is so vivid, incendiary and felt, it scarcely required embellishments like the wholly fictitious Kara Sedgwick character, or Tom Cruise’s romantic run-through-the-rain-to-the-prom. It most especially did not need the sequence in which he and Willem Dafoe (in, again, a role for whom there is no antecedent in Kovic’s life) roll around on the Mexican sand and argue over whose claims of baby-killing are the most true. Even such incidents as Kovic’s shattering his leg and nearly losing it are turned, by Stone, into vulgar, overstated show-pieces (he was merely exercising his useless limbs at home, not parading around in a demented attempt to prove he could walk) and when, at the climax, Kovic is beaten by cops at the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, Stone cheats fact by turning it into Kovic’s heroic last-stand when the reality — he was brutally assaulted by para-military creeps who, when they finally realized he was, as he’d been telling them, a wounded vet, behaved with shame-faced obsequiousness — was so much more inherently and honestly dramatic. Wouldn’t that make a better sequence than presenting Kovic as storming (or anyway, wheeling) back into the convention hall to “take” it, a cinematic fantasy that manifestly did not occur? That sort of phony uplift is contemptible, and beneath a man of Stone’s gifts. I will grant that the picture brings up a subject Americans do not like to address, and which Kovic’s book repeatedly rubs our noses in: The sudden emasculation of the sexually incapacitated. That such lifelong impotence is routinely visited on one so young is one of the great, unspoken tragedies of war. Cruise is, as usual, insufferably over-dramatic, an amateur actor who only knows how to perform when the scene calls for overt, hectoring anger. One of the few unadulterated pleasures of the picture is the performance of Raymond J. Barry as Kovic’s gentle, shattered father, unable to cope with the wreck his country has made of his child. There’s dignity in that, and quiet honesty. It’s something Born on the Fourth of July could use more of.

Lord Love a Duck - Gordon and McDowall
Lord Love a Duck (1966)
George Axelrod and Larry H. Johnson’s determinedly strange adaptation of a little-known novel by Al Hine is the last thing in “mod” era outré. The great Roddy McDowall, nearing 40 but playing — somehow believably — 18 is Alan “Mollymauk” Musgrave, a young genius and idiosyncratic non-conformist, who plays everyone around him against each other (and themselves) in furtherance of the attainment of the vacuous desires of his unrequited inamorata Barbara Ann Greene (Tuesday Weld). Axelrod threw all of his bitterness at then-current California popular culture onto the screen, with results that are less riant than determinedly, even dementedly, weird. Thus we get health fads, psycho-babble and smother-love (all embodied by Ruth Gordon), drive-in religious services, physical culture, fly-by-night motion picture production, permissive educational policy (Harvey Korman, in the movie’s funniest performance, is the easily-manipulated, shame-facedly lecherous high school principal), the pathos of the almost-was actress as hopeless lush (Lola Albright as Weld’s mother), cliquish snobbery and, for good measure, repressed and guilty incestuous craving (Max Showalter, giggling guiltily as her father). It doesn’t really hang together, and it’s not nearly either as hilarious nor as poignant as Axelrod seemed to think it was, but it has cult status, and if you’re at all interested in what was happening to the movies in that uncertain period between buttoned-down suppression and full-scale candor, it demands a viewing. Interestingly, Axelrod intended us to hear McDowall screaming “Fuck you!” at his captors during the bizarre climax but was overruled. The shattering of that taboo had to wait another few years, for Robert Altman to include a football game ad-lib by John Schuck in his final cut of MASH.

 

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross