Pass the Popcorn: The Best of Enemies

September 28, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This weekend I had the opportunity to see the documentary The Best of Enemies about William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. The documentary focuses on the decision of ABC News to hire the two rival public intellectuals to cover the 1968 Republican and Democratic Party Conventions.

I am going to fully confess my bias from the outset. In a disclosure that should shock no one, I went into (and left) the documentary as a fan of William F. Buckley Jr. I watched Firing Line growing up and enjoyed Buckley’s wit and flair. Perhaps a decade ago I read a collection of responses to reader inquiries in National Review and found it absolutely hilarious. Two of my favorite anecdotes- a reader complained that Buckley slouches in his chair on Firing Line, fails to comb his hair properly and could make a much better impression if he would take more pride in his appearance. WFB’s response fell something along the lines of:

If I was also attractive it just wouldn’t be fair.

Another reader wrote to renew his subscription to National Review despite a terminal prognosis, relating that he was not sure he would last to read all the issues. Buckley responded:

Not to worry-where you are going the pages of National Review are exfoliated from the wings of Angels!

Buckley always struck me as a happy warrior and an elegant and delightfully mischievous champion of his point of view. Going into the film I had very little awareness of Gore Vidal-I had seen him appear as a left of center pundit once or twice and knew he was an author of historical fiction that I had never read. I learned from the film that Vidal held a much more prominent status in the late 1960s.

ABC News decided to try to improve upon their third banana status as a news organization by inviting Buckley and Vidal to comment on the conventions. The Republicans held the first convention in Miami and from the start Vidal revealed his true purpose. He had no intention of bothering with the conventions, but rather focused his efforts on attacking Buckley. Vidal had spent months doing the equivalent of opposition research on Buckley, and came right out of the gate by accusing Buckley of wanting to drop atomic bombs on North Vietnam.

Vidal apparently viewed Buckley and his ideas as “dangerous” and a deep and personal antipathy developed. Although Vidal and Buckley shared a great deal in terms of background, education and debating style, they absolutely despised each other on ideological grounds. If Vidal however had an animating ideology that went beyond hatred for the Vietnam War and what now comes across as a rather boring promotion of alternative sexuality as a form of self-promotion, the film fails to make the case. Cross Madonna with the Boz, boost his IQ and send him to boarding school = Vidal as far as I can tell. In fairness to Vidal, he has had a lot of help over the last 50 years in making what may have seemed daring in 1968 seem like next year’s juvenile prank at the MTV Music Awards now. Nevertheless…yawn.

Matters came to a head at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. You may recall that Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President was heading for the nomination (although not the Presidency) and a huge anti-war protest attempted to storm the convention hall. Old-school Democratic Mayor Daley’s police commenced to beat back the protestors with clubs on live television. The protestors chanted “The whole world is watching!” but as divided as the country appeared at the time one wonders just how much of the world actually disapproved. The documentary air-brushes the “storm the convention” story element out of the narrative, and I wasn’t there so I won’t pretend to know what happened. Perhaps the Chicago Police gathered their forces and attacked the protestors to practice their softball swings, but I rather doubt it. The documentary also makes some effort to portray the “law and order” platform of the Nixon campaign as thinly veiled racism, but those hippies getting beat up by the police looked pretty pasty to the casual viewer.

Buckley and Vidal essentially provided color commentary to the melee. Vidal accused Buckley of being responsible and referred to him as a crypto-Nazi. Buckley lost his cool, informed Vidal that he had fought in World War II, used a derogatory term to describe Vidal referencing his sexual orientation and threatened to physically attack him if he described him as a Nazi again.

Time for a commercial!

Vidal got what he wanted and had consistently sought across both conventions- to get under Buckley’s skin and cause him to lose his cool. Buckley apparently regretted the incident until the day he died. Appropriately so.

Living well is the best revenge, and here Buckley clearly came out on top. The modern conservative movement that Buckley had founded reached an apex of influence under Reagan. Various “dangerous” Buckley ideas resulted not in the sky falling, but rather in a Soviet collapse. The sting of the defeat in the Vietnam skirmish ought to have diminished in winning the Cold War considerably.

Vidal outlived Buckley, with someone in the film speculating that hateful spite of Buckley may have prolonged his miserable existence. My lack of familiarity with Vidal was not terribly unusual for someone my age. Vidal’s later years became an oblivion of indifference as people stopped reading his books. After Buckley’s death, he wrote “Rest in Hell!” Vidal however had already entered the ninth circle for a narcissist- public apathy.

Despite the fact that almost 50 years have passed since 1968 the tumult captured in the film seems very current. The past is never dead, it is not even past.

Pass the Popcorn: The Wind Rises

August 4, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I hadn’t intended to time a review of Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises, for the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. But it turns out to be perfect timing.

Every scene of this movie is visually gorgeous, sometimes in a reserved way but often strikingly so. It is a fitting consummation of Miyazaki’s mastery of his medium. But it seems at first a radical break in content. It is the only Miyazaki movie that takes place in the real world – well, more or less the real world. He introduces a few fantastical elements, but they are limited to dreams and visions, and of course the somewhat fantastic aeronautical physics for which Miyazaki is so famous. When the characters are awake, they are living in the real world. The closest Miyazaki has ever come to the real world before was in his first film, Lupin III, and that hardly counts, both because its genre conventions take us well beyond the boundaries of the “real” world and because Miyazaki was forced to work within another author’s established universe. As soon as Miyazaki gained the freedom to make his own movies he leapt into the world of magical fantasy and never looked back – until now.

This is also his only movie that is concerned with real historical events. It is a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who invented the Zero fighter plane and helped transform Japan from a comparatively primitive backwater into a global technology power. After the final scene fades, a title card appears informing us that the movie is a “tribute” to Jiro and to Tatsuo Hori, who wrote a short story from which this movie gets its title and from which it borrows core elements of its love story.


On a deeper level, it is almost his only movie where the real drama is in the writ-small world of one person. There are no epic quests here, no dispossessed princesses with magic amulets or gods warring to destroy humanity. Kiki’s Delivery Service comes close to this, but even Kiki discovers the meaning of her gift when she finds that she can use it to intervene in a major event. To find a movie as personal as this one in Miyazaki’s corpus, one in which no great fate rests in the balance of our hero’s actions, we must go all the way back to Totoro. But the Wind Rises goes even further than Totoro; here, our inability to change the really great historical events is actually central to the movie’s message.

Now I’m going to say something that may seem to contradict what I’ve just said. This is, at long last, Miyazaki’s political movie. Many of his works have had political themes; Miyazaki is well known as an environmentalist, a pacifist, and a former Marxist. But none of his previous movies was really a movie about those things. Only the shallow environmentalists think Princess Mononoke or Ponyo is really about environmentalism. Only the shallow pacifists think Howl’s Moving Castle is really about pacifism. Meanwhile, this movie – this highly personal movie that is all about one man, a man who knew he couldn’t stop war and therefore didn’t try – is the really pacifist movie.

And yet – contradiction looping back on contradiction – this pacifist movie actually argues that we can’t avoid politics, can’t avoid being part of our nations and the calling to make them great.

Okay, I’ve made this movie sound like a tangled mess. It isn’t. It’s quiet and still. The point only becomes confused when you attempt to express it in words rather than simply showing it in a story.

The whole point of the movie is to ask the great political question – what role does politics play in the meaning of human life? –  and give an answer that we Americans have always rejected with repugnance but which the whole rest of the world has always taken quite seriously, even when it disagrees with it. It is simply this: that it is a deadly mistake to look to our nations for justice, for they never deliver; but it is possible to look to our nations for identity and for opportunities to serve the world around us.


It would be flippant to say that the real message of this movie is “the men who built the horrible Japanese war machine were people too!” But that does come close to expressing it.

Our dreams are cursed. If we build our dreams, the things we build will be used for evil and destruction. Should we therefore not build? Give up dreaming? As one character puts it, “would you rather live in a world without pyramids?”

Jiro wants to build airplanes. He dreams of marvelous airplanes, far greater than any that have ever been built before. And the only way to build those dreams is to build warplanes for the military.

But here’s the catch. Jiro doesn’t only want to build better planes because they’re worth building in themselves. He also wants to serve his country – not the war machine, which is unambiguously horrible, but his people. They live in poverty and want. Hungry children are all around him. Japan is so backward that they use oxen to drag the prototype planes from the hangar to the test field.

Jiro knows that he and his team of builders can help catapult Japan out of the economic ghetto. They can feed the hungry children of Japan by building planes – planes that will be used to bomb the children of China.

The idea that Jiro could go build beautiful planes for some other country is not even considered. First, because all countries are viewed as monstrous. How much better would it be to make planes for China, or any other nation? If they’re not the aggressor now, they will be someday. But there is also a sense of duty to one’s own country. Jiro feels responsible to the people of Japan. We cannot escape who we are and where we come from.


The pacifist nationalism of The Wind Rises ultimately fails to persuade; at least, it didn’t persuade this American. Like most Americans, I think the nation must be made to deliver justice. You can’t remove justice from the political sphere; to put it another way, no matter how beautiful your planes are, it matters whom you make them for. Despite this film’s best efforts – and they are impressive – one cannot escape, or at least I cannot escape, the feeling that Jiro is fleeing from responsibility. Refusing to make planes for a war machine is one of the ways we serve our country.

The attempted tragedy of this movie – we must build our dreams even though they’re used for evil – fails because it is trying to escape from an even deeper tragedy: That the demands of justice are uncompromising and inescapable, that we do not have the option of building planes and then sighing with regret that they’re used for a war of aggression.

We cannot have our cake and eat it, too; we cannot hate or regret injustice and at the same time hate or regret politics.


The attempt to do so leads in the darkest directions. Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel Magic Mountain is invoked explicitly in this movie. Hans Castorp himself briefly appears and laments the evils that are arising in the world, wistfully declaring that we can sometimes find a “magic mountain” in our lives where we can forget those evils and find healing – but the evils will always remain. Like that book, The Wind Rises confronts the big questions of the 20th century and is ambiguous about the answers.

But we cannot pretend we’re still in 1924. In The Wind Rises, Castorp doesn’t leave the “magic mountain” to march off into the trenches of WWI; he flees town one step ahead of the secret police. Mann could get away with ambiguous mysticism in 1924, but we who know what came next must not leave things where he left them.

Pass the Popcorn: They Came to Help Because of Sadness

July 22, 2015

They came to help

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

For the second time ever, it’s a Pass the Popcorn too big for JPGB. If you liked my 21 word review of Inside Out, you’re going to love the 4,000 word review. Spoiler: Pixar saves American culture.

Pass the Popcorn: Take Her to the Moon

June 19, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Joy is Life.

Sadness is Wisdom.

Go see this movie while it’s still in theaters or we’re not friends any more.

Pass the Popcorn: Romantic Individualism and Technocracy 

May 16, 2015


[CAPTION NEEDED, something about cooks and broth]

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Only mild spoilers lie in wait for you here, but if you want compete nonspoilage, don’t read. 

The new Avengers is awesome while you watch it but doesn’t live up to the original. A certain amount of comic book schlock – magic gems and a slew of newly introduced characters and bad guys who turn into good guys in the blink of an eye and . . . a magical biotechnological AI robot/human hybrid thingy that the bad guy built to be one thing but it became something else because the program upload was interrupted and it had a magic jewel put in its forehead . . . or something . . . well, a certain amount of that is okay, but past a certain point it’s just too damn much. 

But living up to the first Avengers film is a high standard to set from someone who called it “the movie for our time.” We’ve been spoiled by too many really outstanding comic book movies. This one is a lot of fun, go see it. Just don’t try too hard to follow the plot. 

I understand the original cut of this movie was three hours and Whedon had to chop it to the 2:20 we see on the screen. That would explain not only the confusing and inadequately explained plot and the underdevelopment of the character conflicts that made the first Avengers such a triumph, but also the mismatch between the themes early web articles anticipated would be in the movie and the absence of those themes from the movie. I saw several articles written on the assumption that Ultron, programmed to establish world peace, wanted to wipe out humanity because he realized that human beings are evil and will always create war and suffering, and deserve to be wiped out. That could have made a fascinating movie, but it’s not the one we got. 

What I do think is present in this movie is the tendency of Romantic (capital R) individualism, even in its most libertarian forms, to produce a destructive and oppressive technocracy. One of the great illusions of our time is that we can escape the tyranny and dehumanization of technocracy by romanticizing the individual. That is precisely what we cannot do. It was and is the romanticization of the individual that creates technocracy. Romantic individualism consistently ends in unsustainable narcissism. As the results of the narcissism become unsustainable, the Romantics – less and less willing to give up their Romanticism as they become more and more narcissistic – seek technocratic solutions that will take care of our problems for us without any of us having to practice self-denial, which is for them the sin against the Holy Ghost. Technocracy, they hope, will maintain the necessary conditions for individual narcissism. That is what Stark is doing when he creates Ultron – solve the problem of war not by creating people who want justice but by creating machines that will eradicate [people who practice] injustice. 

The whole logic of this is laid out admirably in Tocqueville, in Eliot’s famous line about “systems so perfect,” and in Wall-E. Men who live for nothing but pleasure are fit for nothing but slavery. 

The movie clearly understands what it is that makes Romantic individualism plausible and attractive. We see it in the fact that Stark’s hubris produces Vision as well as Ultron. We see it when Stark says “I’m not in charge, I just . . . pay for everything and make everyone look awesome.” We also see it when he says to Steve Rogers, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a dark side.” Here we really see, as we did in the first film, that the difference between them is a religious one, and it boils down to what one does with one’s dark side. Stark gives in to it, like Emerson, whose response to the doctrine of the sinfulness of man was that he did not think he was sinful, but even if he were, “if I am the devil’s child I will live then from the devil.” What is there for a man to do but be what he is? Stark, like Emerson, does not believe there is a Power who can purge the darkness and truly make men clean. 

Rogers opposes Stark’s individualism not by overt appeal to God but by appeal to human relationships. We are made to live and work with one another, to solve – or at least cope with – our problems “together.” The solution to our problems lies not in machines and systems but in people wanting to be in right relationship with one another. 

This is just as religious a claim as “there’s only one God, ma’am.” I am not sure it isn’t an even more religious claim. For it asserts that we are made not simply to be what we are and do what we want, but to overcome what we are and control what we want in order to achieve a fulfillment that lies outside ourselves. 

I am surprised to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to recognize that it is Steve Rogers’ America, not Tony Stark’s, that holds the secret to saving all that they both hold dear. 

Pass the Popcorn: How Bad Will Hollywood Get?

December 19, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Check out this excellent essay on the way franchises have transformed Hollywood. It is not, I promise, just another long lament that there are too many comic book movies, too many sequels, etc. The author, Mark Harris, is thinking seriously about Hollywood’s business model, and there are lots of data and interesting quotes I haven’t seen elsewhere. Seeing the list of franchise movies already announced from the major studios really was an eye-opener. And he makes an insightful point about how Hollywood is now so skilled at creating anticipation that it’s forgetting to provide the payoff. What used to be payoff is now only a calculated part of a larger plan to keep building anticipation for the next product.

Now! That having been said, I think Harris is too pessimistic, for two reasons.

1) While Harris acknowledges that not all franchise movies are bad, and some are very good, he nonetheless seems to assume as a basis of his case that artsy movies – that is, movies intended to be serious rather than mere ephemeral entertainment – are, on the whole, more likely to be very good than franchise movies. This has not been my experience. Even if we discount the value of entertainment and judge strictly on “artistic merit,” I think franchise movies are about as likely to be very good as artsy movies. Not because franchise movies are necessarily good, but because artsy movies generally fail to have much more artistic merit than franchise movies. My wife and I were avid moviegoers during the very height of the independent movie era, and we saw a lot of them. Most of them had “entertainment value” rather than “artistic value.” They were witty or exciting or whatever, and we enjoyed them while we were watching them. But most of them were not great art.

Harris estimates that about 150 franchise movies will open in the next six years. At the end of the article he concedes that some of them – “more than two and fewer than twenty” – will be “very good.” Let’s say “more than two and fewer than twenty” is ten movies. That’s less than two very good movies per year, so it’s a conservative estimate. If so, by his own showing one out of every fifteen franchise movies is “very good.” I’d put up that track record against the arthouse any day.

2) Harris assumes consumer tastes will not revolt against the rise of the franchise. Franchises rule because they are financially rewarded. Must this remain so, even after franchises have squeezed everything else off the studio slate? I see no reason to think so, and every indication that consumers are already clamoring for something else. The idiots who run Hollywood just haven’t figured out how to give them anything else. But someone will, and when they do, the bubble will pop. (Barriers to entry in the entertainment sector are rapidly approaching zero.)

On both points, Harris’ argument fatally rests on the assumption that movies made for the purpose of having artistic merit rather than for the purpose of pleasing general audiences are more likely to have artistic merit. Yet there is little empirical evidence this is the case.

Pass the Popcorn: Bearing New Images

September 2, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Fans of Hayao Miyazaki (a previous PTP subject) might like to know about this fascinating essay on his critical view of Japanese culture and what he thinks it needs from its filmmakers. Over on Hang Together, I connect his thoughts to western debates about capitalism and the role of entrepreneurs in cultural regeneration:

Verily, freedom and economic development create opportunities for people to distort their desire. But to contract freedom and development would only deliver us into the hands of an elite formed by that cultural decay, locking in the distortion of desire, freezing in place the present decadence. The solution instead lies with those who not only make responsible use of their opportunities, but inspire others to follow them in doing so (“to spur audiences to seek and love the world”).


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