WEIRDLAND: 2018

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Love is like Russian Roulette: Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Lou Reed

Five reasons why Rami Malek can win the Oscar for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” 1. He plays a real person and is physically transformed onscreen. It’s awardsology 101. The combination of portraying an actual individual plus altering one’s outward appearance is the easiest way to ensnare the academy’s attention. In the past twenty years alone, Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” Adrien Brody in “The Pianist,” Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote,” Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line,” Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose,” Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln,” Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” and Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour.” 2. He delivers what will likely be the flashiest performance of the final five. This year, Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the ultimate showstopper. Whether he’s in song, dance or discourse, he’s constantly acting for the camera. That’s over two hours of tears, torment and assorted theatrics. And then there’s the Live Aid concert at the end of the film, which has been singled out as the brightest bit in the movie. Malek’s fierce channeling of Mercury sends shivers down the spine. This might be considered his requisite “killer scene.” 3. He’ll win the SAG Award (and probably the BAFTA, too.) I’m abstaining from calling the Golden Globe race – but when it comes to SAG, Malek is the one to beat. Actors will see him as having the most challenging role. Can you imagine the risks of playing one of the most iconic singers of the twentieth century? Very, very frightening. 4. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a box office smash. Malek’s biggest Oscar obstacle is undoubtedly the mixed critical reaction to the film. It enjoyed a bigger opening weekend than “A Star is Born,” a film buoyed by two huge stars. As of this writing, “Rhapsody” is poised to cross the $100 million mark in the U.S. alone. 5. He might benefit from being the only first-time nominee. Malek is 37 and has paid his dues (time after time, although he's made mistakes – like last summer’s “Papillon”).  Nonetheless, some voters might wish to reward someone more “overdue” for the Best Actor crown. There’s no shortage of contenders. Take Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born,” hoping to produce his first victory after three previous losses. There’s Christian Bale in the upcoming “Vice,” who could use a bookend to his supporting prize for “The Fighter.” If just enough Academy members were rocked by Rami, he could be the champion on Oscar’s big night. Source: www.goldderby.com

The cast in Bohemian Rhapsody has plenty of recognizable names and faces that play these characters (of which are based on real-life individuals), bringing them to life. Leading the charge (and definitely shines the brightest in the movie) is Rami Malek as Farrokh Bulsara (aka Freddie Mercury). Malek, known for his role in Mr. Robot, truly does a fantastic job in the role. The movie also showcases the love (and interests) that Freddie Mercury courts, examining the lives of both Mary Austin (Freddie’s girlfriend / lifelong companion) and Paul Prenter (Freddie’s manager), who are played by actress Lucy Boynton (Murder on the Orient Express) and actor Allan Leech (The Imitation Game). Unfortunately, Boynton’s Mary complicated relationship with Freddie is a bit underdeveloped. It starts off strong, but becomes less and less important, failing to leave an emotional impact. We don’t get any real idea of who these people are outside of Mercury himself. There’s nothing to be learned about Mary Austin and why she was the most important figure in his life, nothing to learn about Jim Hutton or later Queen manager Jim “Miami” Beach (Tom Hollander). Is the Freddie characterization too gay, not bi enough, not gay enough? Freddie Mercury paid the tragic price for a hell-raising life of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Safe sex, he said, was possible, "But you can't expect to give up sex for ever." Ironically Mercury had claimed for years he was one of the loneliest men in the world. Freddie once told a close friend: "Love is like Russian Roulette for me, I've tried either side - male and female - but all of them have gone wrong. The one-night stands are just me playing a part. I can be a good lover but after all these years I'm not a good partner for anybody." 

Women also gave the superstar sleepless nights. For the past years, blonde Mary Austin caused Freddie deep emotional turmoil and heartbreak. They met in the early '70's as Freddie was shopping. He later said: "Mary is my only friend in the world." Within days they moved into a flat in London's Holland Park. Their love blossomed for seven years and they even considered getting married. "The sex was good," Freddie said. "The only thing that got Mary mad was when I would jump up in the middle of the night to write lyrics." Mary quit her day job to become his personal assistant. She traveled the world with his group, Queen, booking their hotels and concerts. In 1982 they split up but remained good friends. When Freddie dabbled in hard drugs like LSD and Heroin, Mary helped him kick the habit. Freddie bought her a £400,000 four bed-roomed flat in Kensington, near his Edwardian home. And two years later, when the romance was rekindled, she asked Freddie to give her a child Freddie responded by making her the sole heir to his massive fortune in his will but told her: "I'd rather have another cat." Freddie said of Mary: "Ours is a pure friendship but friendship of the highest standard. It's an instinctive thing. I still love her. I couldn’t fall in love with a man the same way as I have with Mary. We'll probably grow old together." Source: www.ageofthenerd.com

"Under Pressure" is a 1981 song by the British rock band Queen and British singer David Bowie. It was included on Queen's 1982 album Hot Space. The song reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart, becoming Queen's second number-one hit in their home country (after 1975's "Bohemian Rhapsody", which topped the chart for nine weeks) and Bowie's third (after 1980's "Ashes to Ashes" and the 1975 reissue of "Space Oddity"). Mercury and Bowie were friendly but rivalrous, both strong-willed and competitive. “Freddie and David locked horns, without a doubt,” Brian May said in a 2017 interview with Mojo magazine. “But that’s when the sparks fly and why it turned out great.” 

A brief, kaleidoscopic overview of David Bowie's conquests: actresses Susan Sarandon and Candy Clark, Playboy model and actress Bebe Buell; dancer Melissa Hurley; singer Ava Cherry; Jean Millington, of the rock band Fanny; and model Winona Williams, whom he invited to live in Berlin with him. Along the way he paid court to Monique van Vooren (twenty years his senior), had an affair with Dana Gillespie (who was then fourteen to his sixteen) and a dalliance with Cyrinda Foxe (a glamorous Monroe doppelgänger), and—in the spirit of his continuing rivalry with Mick Jagger—toyed with Jagger’s onetime girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, backing singer Claudia Lennear (the inspiration for Mick Jagger’s song “Brown Sugar,” and about whom David wrote “Lady Grinning Soul”), Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes and briefly dated Mick’s first wife, Bianca Jagger.

According to David’s ex-wife, Angie, who hawked a variety of negative stories about David since their divorce, there may also have been a moment with Mick Jagger himself. In Angie Bowie’s version of the alleged event, first published in her 1981 autobiography Free Spirit, she returned from a trip to find Mick and David in bed together, something which David took the rare step of denying. At the young age of ten, Bowie was already aware of girls, and claims to have fallen head-over-heels in love with one of them. “I went out with her years later, when we were about eighteen—but I fucked it up. On our second date, she found out that I’d been with another girl. I could not keep it zipped,” he said. However, his propensity for assuming that any girl was fair game, no matter who else had already laid claim to her, led to one of the most seminal events in his life. In the spring of 1961, when David was just fourteen years old, a girl named Carol would inadvertently be the architect of the first tragedy of his life—one that would ultimately become the cornerstone of his image. His best friend George Underwood had fixed his amorous attentions on Carol and arranged a date with her. David, who had designs on Carol himself, told a massive lie to George, declaring that Carol wasn’t interested in George and therefore wouldn’t be going on the date he had set up with her. When George learned the truth, outraged, he took a swing at David and caught him in the eye. David stumbled and fell down. His punch had caught David’s left eye at an odd angle and scratched the eyeball, causing the muscle that contracts the iris to become paralyzed.

David Bowie’s left pupil remained permanently dilated, giving that eye the appearance of being a different color from his right eye. It also left him with damaged depth perception, so that when he drove, cars didn’t come toward him but just appeared to get bigger. His unmatched eyes also lent his gaze a hypnotic quality, and although it took him some time to adjust to the fact that his eyes were no longer identical, and he thought that he looked “weird,” he admitted, “I quite enjoyed that as a badge of honor.” David Jones had traveled inordinately far from the winsome, saxophone-playing thirteen-year-old boy who was already his school’s Casanova, and whose desires had in those early days appeared to be directed exclusively at girls, and only girls. When asked by this author to name his ideal woman in bed, he cracked, “Snow White.” “There was a certain spikiness between Lou and Iggy, and they obviously didn’t get on very well,” David remembered about his American rock friends. While Iggy regaled everyone with stories about growing up in a trailer park and his forays into heroin and crystal meth, David’s bond with Iggy was forged. Years later, David said, “Iggy’s a lot more exuberant than I am. I tend to be quieter, more reflective. He’s always a little bit on the dangerous line. I’m not particularly; I’m much more of an observer.” His friendship with Lou Reed was equally problematic, even more thornly due to Reed's moody personality.


Was David’s “I’m gay” announcement a cynical ploy he resorted to to promote Hunky Dory, and a way of starting the process of launching Ziggy on an unsuspecting world, or was it a battle against sexual conformity? In a 1997 interview, Changes: Bowie at 50, a BBC radio program released in conjunction with his fiftieth birthday, he looked back at his revolutionary revelation that he was gay and said, “I did it more out of bravado. I wanted people to be aware of me.” “He was always very flirtatious. He looked you straight in the eyes, but he wasn’t condescending. He treated women with the same equality as he treated men, and looked at your intelligence as well as your sexuality,” Cherry Vanilla remembered. “The sex was as dirty, rough, and aerobic as anyone could want, but it never felt like we were just having sex. It felt like we were really making love.”

In 1972, David played Carnegie Hall, to great acclaim. That night, backstage, nineteen-year-old groupie Josette Caruso made a play for David. “When I arrived at the hotel suite, which included a living room, a piano, and two bedrooms, David was sitting on a couch, wearing a black shirt and black pants. I sat next to him. He poured me a glass of wine and started talking about Catcher in the Rye and he told me that he identified with the book’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield,” Josette remembered. “He was in a very playful mood and sang ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ to me. Then there was a knock on the door, and Ian Hunter and some other guys from Mott the Hoople turned up and we all chatted. Then they left, and David and I went into the bedroom together. “In bed, he was a wonderful lover, massively endowed. David was very romantic, kissing me, holding me, calling me ‘Josie,’ whereas everyone else called me Josette. He was a wonderful lover, but it wasn’t about size, but about his technique. He didn’t just fuck, he made love. He was romantic, charming,” Josette remembered. “But there was nothing gay about him, nothing effeminate. I wouldn’t have thought he was bisexual. He was all man. He was aggressive, took charge, knew all the moves, wasn’t kinky, but really controlled me in bed.” 

For while Bowie had once relished her uninhibited sexuality when they were both single, childless, and flouting convention, the moment Angie had became the mother of his son, he instantly reverted to Victorian tradition and wanted her to stay home and play the role of wife and mother. Instead, she continued to have lovers, both male and female. As a settlement during the divorce process, Bowie paid her $750,000 in 1980. “It was like living with a blow-torch,” Bowie said later about Angie, and “She has as much insight into the human condition as a walnut and a self-interest that would make Narcissus green with envy.” Angie said in 2016, shortly after Bowie's death: 'I knew I had to save David - and by giving him our son, he had a reason to live.'  

David Bowie was always very gracious with me, and deferential to Lou. David genuinely wanted to help Lou succeed as a solo artist, but he also knew that being associated with Lou and his legendary cult status with the Velvets would, by association, bring him cachet and prestige himself, too. Lou wasn’t particularly enamored with Angie; she was David’s wife, though, so Lou was always respectful to her. With women Lou was polite, shy, and almost behaved like a high-school kid. I had bought a white crepe floral dress in London, when Angie and I went on a shopping spree on the Kings Road. Lou kissed and said quiety: ‘I love you. There are no words to tell you how much, Princess.’ That night we took dinner with David and Angie at the Ginger Man. I remember Bowie abruptly turned around to Angie and said, ‘Why can’t you wear a dress, like her?’ Both Lou and I noticed there was some tension between David and Angie, but we didn’t dwell on it. They had an entirely different relationship to us, and they drew very different boundaries around their marriage than either Lou or I would be comfortable with—an open relationship with lovers. From the beginning of our relationship I told Lou in no uncertain terms that if I saw a needle anywhere near him, I would—without fail—leave him. Hard drugs were his Achilles’ heel, and I knew they would destroy him if he started taking them again. —"Perfect Day: An Intimate Portrait Of Life With Lou Reed" (2016) by Bettye Kronstad

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Rami Malek channels Freddie Mercury's hurt in "Bohemian Rahpsody" (2018)

More than most bio-pics, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is carried by the performance of its lead actor, because Malek offers more than a skillful impersonation—he offers an imaginative interpretation. Malek does an impressive job of re-creating Mercury’s moves onstage, but the core of the performance is Malek’s intensely thoughtful, insight-rich channelling of Mercury’s hurt, his alienation and isolation even at the height of his fame. While watching the movie, I found his performance eerily reminiscent, as if based less on Freddie Mercury himself than on some other movie actor’s performance. Then it struck me: Malek wasn’t just channelling hurt; he was channelling Hurt—Malek’s quiet and nearly abashed delivery of lines, in a way that emphasizes both Freddie’s extra teeth and the emotional effect of being singled out for them, reminded me of John Hurt’s performance as John Merrick, in David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man.” “Bohemian Rhapsody” makes the case that Mercury is more interesting than his music—and, by extension, that popularity itself, the ability to become a mainstream star and hitmaker, is itself no fluke or by-product but a conscious creation and a mark of genius. Source: www.newyorker.com

Rami Malek gets asked whether Freddie Mercury as a ‘Gay Icon’:  The team behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” have already been accused of “straightwashing” Freddie Mercury; now, Rami Malek has made headlines because of his response to a question about the singer’s sexuality. Malek, 37, was asked by Into magazine whether he saw the Queen frontman as a “gay icon,” and his answer left fans rather confused. The actor shared, “What’s really great about him is he never wanted to, or thought of himself as being boxed into anything. He just was. I’ve heard him say, when asked, he says, ‘I’m just me.’ If he’s an icon to one there’s no reason that it requires another adjective.” Mercury spent most of his life battling the public, the press and even some in his personal life about how he chose to identify himself. Many labeled him as gay, and very few chose to validate his inherent bisexuality. So is Mercury’s bisexuality erased in that scene with Mary Austin? No, it is made to be real. Source: etcanada.com

With her apricot hair, green eyes, and Bambi lashes, Mary Austin — who he once called the love of his life and who inspired Queen's song "Love of My Life"— was the embodiment of a Hulanicki Biba poster. When the fashion designer founded the Kensington emporium from which a flourishing fashion movement arose, Barbara Hulanicki might have chosen Mary as her muse. Petite and fine-boned, what Mary lacked in terms of stature and confidence she more than compensated for with almost textbook seventies style. “Freddie was already living with Mary when I met him, so I got to know and love them both equally,” Mick Rock says. “I was always popping round to their little flat to hang out with them at teatime. At the height of the glam rock scene, Mary was a really cute-looking lady who could have had anyone, done anything. But she never saw herself as anything special. She never wanted to put herself forward in any way. She was self-effacing, sweet, and charming. You just wanted to give her a cuddle.”

Pale, coy, and peering through shiny tresses, she had the demeanor of an earlier namesake, Mary Hopkin—the fresh-faced prodigy of Paul McCartney who’d had a hit with “Those Were the Days.” What would later be dubbed “the Stevie Nicks look” after the Fleetwood Mac singer was already common on Kensington High Street: midi dresses, maxi coats, suede platform boots, chiffon scarves, velvet chain chokers, purple lips, and smoky eyes. “She’d had a tough background,” remembers trusted journalist David Wigg. “Her parents, who were deaf and dumb, and who communicated through sign language and lip-reading, were poor. Her father worked as a hand trimmer for wallpaper specialists, and her mother was a domestic. But that wouldn’t have bothered Freddie. He somehow preferred people a little below his own level. He did like people in his life who were artistic, or who had come from nothing. Artistic and amusing were the key: he loved to laugh. Mary was shy, but she could make him giggle.” Mary also knew that Freddie had suffered, since childhood, something to which he rarely admitted: a persecution complex. That is, he worried that people were making fun of him behind his back, and that he was indeed ridiculous. It was to remain one of his fiercest inner demons until his death.

Despite her shy demeanor, Mary found herself caught up in London’s rock scene. Having pestered Brian May for an introduction, Freddie landed the girl of his dreams. The attraction between them was immediate, mutual, and would last a lifetime. The pair became inseparable and almost immediately began a sexual relationship. Their relationship would take precedence over every affair, with man or woman, in which Freddie would later indulge. Over the years, Mary became Freddie’s rock. He would rely on her to be strong for him. Whenever Freddie felt his sex/drugs/rock ’n’ roll lifestyle spiraling out of control and was unable to cope with the pressures of recording and touring, it was to Mary that he turned. They soon began living together, in a cramped, shabby £10-a-week bedsit in Victoria Road, just off Kensington High Street—the London neighborhood to which Freddie would always return. Today, the street is officially the most expensive for property in England and Wales, the average residence having an estimated sales value of £6.4 million. “I liked him and it went from there,” Mary would recall. “It took about three years for me to really fall in love. I’ve never felt that way before or since, with anyone. . .  I loved Freddie very much, and very deeply. I felt very safe with him.” 

Mick Rock remembers Freddie being “beside himself” over his issues with sexuality. “He was not exclusively gay, and that screwed him. He was torn. It was almost as if he had to know whether he was one thing or the other for sure, but he was caught in this middle ground, in a kind of no-man’s land. He loved women. He enjoyed their company immensely. Later in life he may have been more promiscuous with men, but he loved to get with the girls. Mary, of course, was the love of his life . . . the closest emotional bond he had ever known. Perhaps that had more to do with the woman in question than sexual preference. There was a real true love there between him and Mary. The sexual thing wasn’t nearly so important as their emotional and spiritual bond.” In 1976, Freddie decamped to an apartment at 12 Stafford Terrace in London’s Kensington and bought Mary a place of her own.

She would remain his devoted assistant at his side almost daily until his death fifteen years later. In a 1985 interview, Freddie Mercury said of Mary Austin, "All my lovers asked me why they couldn't replace Mary Austin, but it's simply impossible. The only friend I've got is Mary, and I don't want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage. We believe in each other, that's enough for me." In his will, Mercury left the vast majority of his wealth, including his home and recording royalties, to Mary Austin and the remainder to his parents and sister. —"Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography" (2011) by Lesley-Ann Jones

Sunday, November 04, 2018

"Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc" (Review)

Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc (2018), directed by Matthew David Wilder (Your Name Here, Dog Eat Dog), is the latest of a long list of film adaptations of Joan of Arc’s legendary story. The real Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431) was a French martyr and canonized Catholic saint. A descendant from a peasant family at Domrémy, Joan of Arc had a prominent key role in the liberation of France that had fallen under English dominion during the Hundred Years’ War. In 1415, King Henry V had taken advantage of the internal divisions and many French nobles were conspiring with the English crown against the Armagnac faction. In 1430, Joan was captured by the traitorous Burgundian faction and she was handed to the pro-English Bishop Pierre Cauchon, who declared her guilty of heresy and other charges in a rigged trial. 

Joan of Arc (nicknamed 'The Maid of Orléans') was burned at the stake in 1431. The trial transcripts were used as evidence for her canonization in 1920, previously having become a symbol of French nationalism impulsed by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803.

In a recent interview with Alain Hertay, Wilder acknowledged his inspiration from Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) and Jacques Rivette’s Joan the Maiden (1994). Undoubtedly Wilder is following the tempo structure of the trial and interrogations and use of the semi-static camera that gave Bresson’s film a theatrical yet realist tone. In Tony Pipolo’s book Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (2010) we learn that influential critic Susan Sontag judged Bresson’s film a failure because his “experiment” had reached the “limit of the unexpressive,”  his aesthetic “moving in the direction of documentary.” 

In contrast with the poetic silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Pipolo posits that in Bresson’s version all conflict stems from the language used by Joan and her judges during the trial: “the very rhythm of questions and answers creates tension and suggests the persistent danger of Joan’s falling into the traps laid by her interrogators. Florence Delay’s performance seems perfect, an unsentimental embodiment of a singular historical figure. Joan embodies the human figure not just as a noble creation, but as the projection of the filmmaker’s elusive idealized self.” Delay adds a naturalism to the sacred figure of Joan that rivals Maria Falconetti’s poeticism, Sandrine Bonnaire’s belligerence, Ingrid Bergman’s radiance in Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948), Jean Seberg’s vulnerability in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) – an adaptation by Graham Greene of George Bernard Shaw’s play – and Milla Jovovich’s lunacy in Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc (1999).

Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc updates the events into a dystopian USA where alt-right activists are rampant. These religious zealots have developed a gullible fanbase whose gatherings are celebrated around their mysterious saviour Joan, who has been detained and charged for acts of domestic terrorism. Nicole LaLiberté is certainly a revelation as Joan of Enid, Oklahoma – she is also known as Joan of Arc, Joan Doe, or Joan of Waco, aliases that strengthen the notion of her mythical dimension and, at the same time, typify her as a more local personality who belongs to the modern and traumatic history of the USA.

Her supporters want to reinforce the more traditionalist principles of Christianism. Seemingly devoid of intellectual curiosity or scientific rationality, they aim for a white, rural, intolerant, and inescapable fate. As Wilder points out, Joan is very much one of the so-called Trump “deplorables,” despite her name’s origins: Enid may well mean Eneit, “spirit, life” in Middle Welsh dialect.
We witness a military trial set in a Guantanamo Bay-like prison, where Joan is spied upon and tormented on a daily basis by Major Calhoun (Christopher Matthew Cook), a stand-in for Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick, the English commander responsible for prosecuting the real Joan of Arc. In fact, it was Beauchamp who after Joan’s execution ordered her ashes thrown into the Seine.
Indelible scenes highlight the loneliness, mystical fervor, and possible mental illness of our post-modern Joan. Oddly, both Wilder and LaLiberté manage to elicit sympathy and understanding toward this self-obsessed martyr figure, who evokes a defiant melancholy and other-worldly magnetism.
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc is a tortuous portrait of a self-appointed saviour of so-called Christian values. Through her very powerful performance LaLiberté makes you believe Joan is pure, incorruptible, even magical. Wilder has successfully avoided the postmodern cliché of coloring historical fiction with the brush of learned cynicism, which only would have disfigured Joan of Arc’s memory. Despite her terrible flaws, Joan of Oklahoma is fundamentally devoted to her creed and mission of spiritual salvation. There is a subtext of mordant irony too. The real Joan of Arc was a descendant of French peasants who opposed the English occupation despite being surrounded by England’s Burgundian sympathizers. In this case, it’s Joan from Oklahoma fighting ferociously for reestablishing the fabled English Puritanism in the land of the free.

There’s also a lot of humor in the dialogue: “Do you see the angel…when you look at the President?” Joan is asked. A prison official snickers: “You know Calhoun tried to get a gig on Fox off this? They said he wasn’t a true believer enough.” Amidst the serious and austere mise-en-scène, a subtext of irony pervades, sometimes in the form of an over-conscientious Human Rights Watch agent or a self-righteous Breitbart reporter: “You can play along with these Elites. Truth is gonna get out there.”
Although the tone is sometimes claustrophobic during the court proceedings and the waterboarding room scene. Other times it turns comically absurdist, as in the cat-and-mouse game where Joan’s prosecutors show their different degrees of manipulation and political opportunism, represented (among others) by the two-faced NSA director (Erin Aubry Kaplan).
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc really works out to be a metaphor for the current radicalization of Republican Christians in the USA, especially their hardcore faction and those advocating the use of violence to restore their alleged supremacy. It’s a brilliant allusion that Joan’s people, who lament the new “decadent urban sensibility” taking over their country, have become the embodiment of human decadence. As one of the court interrogators asks Joan: “If the Devil came and took the form of an angel, how would you know the difference?” Joan evades the question and later reveals ominously: “Truth makes a traitor in a time of scoundrels.”
Personally, this is one of my favorite interpretations of Joan of Arc's storytelling, and its inspiration confirms Matthew Wilder as a necessary auteur and visionary. The final post-credit visual coda is magnificent, giving you a chilling effect by adding a futurist premonition that will provoke complex thoughts about our exasperating present and unpromising future. These dark, menacing, complex, compassionate thoughts will certainly persist through time.
Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc premieres on Thanksgiving at IFFI, the International Film Festival of India (20-28 November 2018).
Article published previously as Movie Review: ‘Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc’ on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Star is Born vs Vox Lux

The enduring appeal of A Star is Born is apparent in Cooper's rendition. Two lovers connect for a brief moment in time, inspiring one another to creative and emotional heights, only to burn up in a cloud of inescapable self-destruction. Jackson Maine woos Ally with his philosophy that success comes from "having something to say in a way that people want to hear it." She's helpless to resist his Southern drawl and aching vulnerability. Most of Ally's ascension is observed at a distance through Maine's drunken haze. One particularly painful scene finds Maine watching from offstage as Ally performs on SNL. Flanked by gyrating back-up dancers, Ally wags her finger at a pretty boy sitting on the stage, chastising him, "Why'd you come around me with an ass like that?" All Maine can do is take a swig from his beer bottle and die a little bit inside. If he wasn't depressed before this debacle, he certainly is after watching Ally debase herself on national television.

This is, perhaps, the most compelling (and untapped) theme swirling around A Star Is Born; one must smother their artistic integrity in order to become a pop star. The genuine girl slugging her way through life – the girl Maine fell in love with at the cabaret – is long dead by the midpoint of the film. All that's left is a fashion model, meticulously crafted to maximize the bottom line. Indeed, re-visiting each version of A Star Is Born and tracking what constitutes stardom in that particular era is more fascinating than the films themselves. If 1954's version was a celebration of Hollywood glamour and the 1976 update was a celebration of sleazy excess, this modern edition is a celebration of selling out. Ally can't wait to succumb to the trappings of stardom. She manages only a tepid refusal when her image-obsessed manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) enrolls her in dance classes and encourages her to abandon heartfelt songwriting. "I don't want to lose the part of me that's… you know… talented," Ally insists, only to completely abandon all substance in favor of style.

Unlike the 1954 and 1976 versions of A Star Is Born, Ally seems perfectly willing to not stand by her man. Visiting Maine during his hospitalization for substance abuse, Ally casually drops the suggestion that he might not want to come home again. In this moment, the audience (as well as a clearly shaken Maine) realizes that Ally has become the embodiment of all that she once despised. Had Cooper focused on this surprising trajectory for Ally, A Star Is Born might have found some much needed energy in its final act. Lady Gaga undoubtedly soars during her vocal performances, displaying a startling range, particularly in the film's pop chart single "Shallow", but she isn't asked to do much heavy lifting in the acting department. 

Bradley Cooper is more problematic, particularly when compared to the previous incarnations of his character. James Mason's 'Norman Maine' from the 1954 version is a raw nerve; a snarky buffoon who transforms into a 'mean drunk' at the slightest provocation. Even edgier is Kris Kristofferson's portrayal of 'John Norman Howard' in the 1976 revival. Compared to these burnouts, Cooper's version of Maine looks like a misunderstood angel. He gets drunk and passes out after the show. Sometimes he'll smash some pharmaceuticals into dust with his cowboy boot and then snort them. Otherwise, we aren't troubled with the ugliness of addiction. Maine's decline is precipitous and contrived, culminating with his nadir at the Grammy Awards. His edge is further dulled by an unnecessary backstory involving his stage manager/brother (Sam Elliott) and the ghost of their alcoholic father; all designed to make an implausible ending seem slightly more plausible. Source: www.popmatters.com

Cooper delivers one of his most emotionally rich performances yet as Jackson Maine, a character who could have easily come off as creepy and self-entitled but is charismatic and sympathetic in Cooper's hands - making it all the easier to believe that people would flock to him, despite his self-destructive behavior. Cooper the director offers a window into how unnaturally charismatic even the sloppiest rock stars are, and why the people who know them best usually seem to take a kinder hand. Ally helps Jackson’s embattled brother/roadie Bobby (Sam Elliott) drag him into bed after he drinks himself unconscious, and they share a knowing exchange about the magnetism of his talents, even as both remain aware that he’s burning every candle at every end. A Star is Born is refreshingly unsentimental about what a come-up in the entertainment industry looks like, and the film carries itself knowingly when it comes to lingering over the things people force themselves to do, just for the sake of maintaining comfortable illusions. Curiously, A Star is Born feels like a tighter version of what La La Land was trying to do, a melancholic musical about how the realization of superstar dreams usually comes at a great personal cost. Source: consequenceofsound.net

A Star is Born never complicates the idea that the further from Jackson’s influence Ally gets, the worse her music becomes. What makes a star isn’t just talent, Jackson argues. You have to have “something to say.” And as an anguished Jack reiterates to Ally in front of an airbrushed billboard of herself, it has to come from deep down in her “fucking soul.” In music criticism, the turn of the 21st century was marked by the struggle between rockism, which Kelefa Sanneh defined in the New York Times as “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; and 'poptimism,' which Saul Austerlitz fretted in the Times a decade later, had replaced the exacting standards of rock with the glib worship of artifice. A Star Is Born treats Jackson’s suicide as both a noble act of self-sacrifice and the ultimate validation of his tortured lyrics.

The first time he sings to Ally, he’s foreshadowing his own death alongside the “old ways” he represents, framing the world as “one big old Catherine wheel” of endless torment. In the bluesy duet “Diggin’ My Grave,” he looks forward to a time when “I’ll be gone from here/ and you’ll all be dressed in black,” and in “Too Far Gone,” he proclaims, “I can’t go on if I ain’t livin’ in your arms.” One hopes “I’ll Never Love Again” isn’t true for Ally, as moving as the rendition she sings at Jackson’s postmortem tribute is, but it’s certainly true for him. It doesn’t take much to imagine Jackson Maine’s death casting an ineradicable shadow over his work, the way it has for Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse. Perhaps Jackson was always doomed, and the best Ally could ever have hoped for was to slow his descent. But it’s telling that his final act effectively sets her back on course. After Jackson dies, Ally appears at a concert in his honor. Having dropped her surname to go pop, she takes his on for the first time, introducing herself, “I’m Ally Maine.” She’s a star, but the song is his. Source: slate.com

Brady Corbet's latest film Vox Lux, which had its North American premiere at TIFF 2018 and boasts original music by Sia, is almost definitely going to be overshadowed by Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born, even though the two have almost nothing in common. While the crowd-pleasing A Star Is Born is about a pop star who deals with fame and addiction, Vox Lux has a pop star, and fame, and addiction, but focuses instead on political and philosophical questions about what we're doing to ourselves as a culture. Vox Lux was a true surprise – an almost antidote to A Star Is Born. Just as Corbet really goes for it as a director, showing zero fear of haters, Portman gives a big, loud, unrelenting performance as the adult Celeste that's bold in all the right ways, while teetering on a bit too much. She captures the confidence of a woman who takes for granted that she's always the most talented, interesting, powerful person in the room, but isn't unusually smart or empathetic. During one of her very best scenes, Portman's Celeste answers questions from reporters about why international terrorists have started wearing masks from one of her videos, and we can tell that she both believes and doesn't believe what she's saying; that she's impatient with the questions, but feels a professional responsibility to be polite; that she's trying to hit the talking points her managers gave her, but she really doesn't care and wants the whole thing to be over. Source: www.popmatters.com

Vox Lux (2018) is a roiling satire of post-traumatic popsploitation, where perhaps the cruellest joke of all here is that Celeste (Natalie Portman) is a somewhat unremarkable performer, reliant as much on pyrotechnics and costume changes to dazzle her fans as she is raw musical talent. Under the questionable guidance of a gruffly jaded manager (Jude Law), she’s dragged all too roughly down the path to stardom, and sent on a recording trip to Stockholm that rapidly hastens her loss of innocence. Portman’s outrageously over-the-top turn may still come as a shock. Channeling the performative theatricality of Lady Gaga and the imposing feistiness of Madonna, she’s gratingly cartoonish in her early scenes, delivering not so much a character as a physical manifestation of the corrosive effects of superstardom. But gradually, a more troubling vulnerability comes to the fore. Corbet's film steers away from glamorising the notion of suffering for one’s art, ensuring that his sharp social satire remains on firm moral ground. Source: www.bfi.org.uk

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Levittown, "A Star is Born" progression

The surging size and increased emphasis on style and luxury in American cars were just one sign of the new abundance of the era. After World War Two most Americans had a vision of a better life just ahead. At the core of it was owning one’s own house—and as Henry Ford’s invention and a rapidly improving network of roads and highways opened up the vast spaces of farmland surrounding American cities, the vision started to become a reality: Suburbia. Indeed, people knew even what they wanted to pay for their first house: $5,000, which was then roughly equal to an average family’s wages for two years. Right after the war, auto workers made about $60 a week, or $3,000 a year, while workers in other parts of the manufacturing sector made about $2,400. If the first great business figure of the American Century was Henry Ford, the second, arguably, was William J. Levitt.

It was Bill Levitt who first brought Ford’s techniques of mass production to housing, up to then the most neglected of American industries. Until he arrived on the scene, builders were small-time operators, employing multiple subcontractors (“graduate carpenters and bricklayers”). The typical prewar builder put up fewer than five houses a year (few put up more than two a year since the Depression). Levitt revolutionized the process of home building with remarkable planning and brilliant control procedures. These techniques made it possible to provide inexpensive, attractive single-unit housing for ordinary citizens, people who had never thought of themselves as middle-class before. As much as anyone, William Levitt made the American dream possible. As Paul Goldberger of The New York Times noted years later, “Levittown houses were social creations more than architectural ones—they turned the single detached single-family house from a distant dream to a real possibility for thousands of middle-class American families.” It was, Levitt liked to boast, capitalism in the most personal sense. “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do,” he once said. No industry had suffered more than housing during the Depression and World War Two; housing starts fell from 1 million a year to fewer than 100,000. But during the same period the marriage rate and, not surprisingly, the birthrate increased sharply, the latter reaching 22 per 1,000 in 1943—the highest it had been in two decades. Estimates placed the number of new houses needed immediately at over 5 million. In 1944 there had been only 114,000 new single houses started; by 1946 that figure had jumped to 937,000: to 1,118,000 in 1948; and 1.7 million in 1950. Levittown was an astonishing success from the very beginning.

The first Levitt house could not have been simpler. It had four and a half rooms and was designed with a young family in mind. The lots were 60 by 100 feet, and Bill Levitt was proud of the fact that the house took up only 12 percent of the lot. The living room was 12 by 16 feet. There were two bedrooms and one bathroom. A family could expand the house by converting the attic or adding on to the outside. The house was soon redesigned with the kitchen in the back so that the mothers could watch their children in the yard. In his book Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson noted that in their simplicity, durability, and value, the early Levitt houses were not unlike the Model T. The basic Levitt Cape Cod sold for $7,990; an expanded ranch-style house sold for $9,500. In the beginning the Levitts threw in a free television set and a Bendix washing machine as incentives. By July 1948 they were building 180 houses a week, finishing thirty-six houses a day. The homebuyers themselves seemed quite pleased with Levitt homes, which over the years proved unusually sturdy. Yet the very nature of what Levitt was doing and the scope of his success made him a target for those who disliked and even feared the new mass culture of postwar society.

The most relentless critic of the new suburb was Lewis Mumford, one of the most distinguished architectural and social commentators of his time. Mumford did not stop with one or two articles. His attacks were persistent and more than a little cruel. It was as if Levitt and his subdivision came to symbolize all that Mumford hated about the homogenization (and democratization) of American culture then being wrought by the combination of increasing affluence and mass-production technology. In 1961, some ten years after the completion of the first Levittown, Mumford described it as “a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless command waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold manufactured in the same central metropolis. Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.” Other critics agreed. The original version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, noted writer Ron Rosenbaum, was “about the horror of being in the ’burbs. About neighbors whose lives had so lost their individual distinctiveness they could be taken over by alien vegetable pods—and no one would know the difference. And those evil pods that housed the aliens and stole the souls of the humans: Were they not metaphors, embodiments of the Cape Cod pods of Levittown and the like, whose growth and multiplication came from sucking the individuality out of the humans housed in them?”

But others thought that Mumford was not quite fair; the young sociologist Herbert Gans, who decided to buy a house in the third Levittown with his young family, was surprised by the rich and diverse quality of life there. Levitt loathed critics like Mumford. When people spoke to him of the texture of a community, he turned cold: He was in the business of putting up good low-cost housing; he was not in charge of human relations after the building was finished. It was the classic confrontation of the doer and the critic, of the older America and the newer, entrepreneurial one. The criticism was, for someone of Bill Levitt’s background, like being told that no matter how successful he was, how much money he made, and how many good houses he built for people who wanted them, he was somehow not good enough for acceptance by the privileged, educated classes. When in 1956 the Levitt group decided to offer a greater variety of houses, Levitt said at the meeting, “Now Lewis Mumford can’t criticize us anymore.” In the press release on his third Levittown, Levitt wrote, “We are ending once and for all the old bugaboo of uniformity.... In the new Levittown we build all the different houses ... right next to each other within the same section.” (Almost thirty years later, when Ron Rosenbaum wrote a piece for Esquire magazine celebrating the most important men and women of the last half century, he called Levitt, only to discover that the builder was still angry about Lewis Mumford. “I think by now we’ve shown that critics like Lewis Mumford were wrong,” Levitt told Rosenbaum. He thereupon launched upon a bitter diatribe that concluded: “I think that Lewis Mumford has been shown to be a prophet without honor.”)  "The Fifties" (1994) by David Halberstam

The first A Star Is Born (1937), directed by William A. Wellman, starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, emerged from an era when the city of Los Angeles, teeming with delusional newcomers attracted to the nascent movie industry, wanted to discourage vulnerable young women from seeking fame and fortune. “From the teens onward, droves of young women went to Hollywood to make it as actresses. Young men too,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the U.C.L.A. Film & Television Archive. “It was a bit of a plague.”

Judy Garland hoped A Star is Born (1954) would be her big comeback, and though it secured her an Oscar nomination, she didn’t win and much of what people remember about her interpretation of the film is the parallels to her life. But as this take on Esther Blodgett, the script actually takes the time to deconstruct the nature of addiction. In one scene, Esther discusses how much she loves Norman who “tries” to keep drinking, yet she “hates him” for continuing to lie and fail her. It’s a powerful moment none of the versions, then and since, have attempted to recreate. There are lines of dialogue that recur in some of these movies but not others; the only one that pops up in each and every one of the films is “Just wanted to take another look at you”. It’s a key element of the story’s tragic climax — a line said in the first flush of love becomes a kind of farewell.

Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a combination of all three takes on the character: possessing March and Mason’s drunkenness, alongside John Norman’s musical background. But what he does differently than the other three is examine how his character has been shaped like celebrity, a facet that holds more in common with the 1937 version which emphasizes how tightly Hollywood controls a star’s persona. Lady Gaga’s Ally is certainly the most divergent, being a blend of Gaynor’s sweetness, Garland’s tenacity, and Streisand’s feistiness.  When Ally performs her final song at the end, it isn’t about showing that her husband gave her a career, nor is it perpetuating the idea they were partners. It’s a romanticization of all that’s come before, and seems more at home in 1937 than 2018. Will this be the final A Star Is Born? It seems unlikely. As long as there is Hollywood, there will probably be more versions of the same old story. The shape they take and the details will morph with the times, but the core story — a love story, a melodrama, and a tragedy all wrapped into one — seems to hold unending appeal. Source: www.slashfilm.com 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Breaking Bad, Ozark, Suicide of the West

Life and Death on Breaking Bad by Jonah Goldberg — When we meet Walter White, he is an overqualified high-school chemistry teacher who works part time at a car wash for extra money. (In what becomes a crucial plot device, Walter worked for a tech startup but took a stupid buyout for $5,000. The company went on to be worth billions.) In the first 20 minutes of the first episode, he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Impeccably decent and upright, Walter is confronted with the horror of leaving his wife, teenage son (who has cerebral palsy), and unborn daughter destitute. He gets the idea that he could use his skills as a scientist to cook methamphetamine (crystal meth). The once-promising professional (The Dr. Jekyll of Walter White) slowly turns into the Mr. Hyde of his street name “Heisenberg” (an homage to the author of the uncertainty principle). When we meet him, Walter White is not an antihero; he’s even a hero in the small ways good fathers, dedicated teachers, and faithful husbands are. And what he becomes is not an antihero but simply, straightforwardly, a villain. What begins as a kind of play on the Thomistic principle that it is moral for a man to steal bread to feed his starving child grows into a painfully realistic tale of how a good man becomes evil.

Over time, Walter’s definition of self-defense grows beyond any moral justification, and his reluctance to kill shrinks to almost nothing. Once you step outside the borders of morality and the law, self-interest becomes self-justifying. Indeed, this is how pragmatism unchained from moral principles simply becomes a Nietzschean will to power. But the choices Walter makes have tragic consequences. The lies he needs to tell to his wife, Skyler, ultimately destroy his marriage. She cannot abide the deception, and when she finds out about Walter’s new profession, she wants a divorce. This plotline is absolutely brutal to watch and is easily the best treatment of a family coming unglued in any television show. Skyler, too, finally becomes seduced into Walter’s world. Personal corruption is infectious. What the viewer has only dimly suspected, thanks to Cranston’s incredibly subtle portrait, is now coming to the fore: Walter enjoys being Heisenberg.

One of the reasons he enjoys it is that, unlike the underachieving high-school chemistry teacher of his former life, Heisenberg is the best there is at something. While he could once live with the fact that his former peers have gotten rich in the private sector (off his ideas, he tells himself), it is now a source of seething resentment. The sins of pride and envy — not greed — are the secret to Walter White’s character. The arrogance of Walter’s intellect, married to the bitterness of not fulfilling his potential, seduce him to the idea that he can set the rules, that he is smart enough to control all of the variables in life. Untethered from traditional morality, he’s set adrift, believing that he can chart his own course through raw intellect alone. Now that he’s cancer-free, the money is meaningless to him save as a measure of his ability and superiority. Gilligan and the other writers brilliantly draw out how envy of the success of others fuels a sense of superiority and entitlement. In one telling scene, White tells his students the (true) story of how the inventor of the synthetic diamond was rewarded by GE with a $10 savings bond. The subtext is that Walter never got the recognition he deserved as a scientist, and he yearns to correct that as a meth cooker.

“I just feel like I never had a choice in any of this,” he explains. “I want a say, for once.” As Jackson Cuidon writes, “When you first watch the scene, not knowing the kind of person Walt is going to choose to be, it’s a poignant moment. Walt wants to spend his last months with his wife on his own terms, rather than as a powerless and weak and hollowed-out shell of who he used to be.” When Walter says this in the first season, he means it. The problem is that, over time, he takes this desire for control over his own life and externalizes it to society. His response to cancer transforms him into a cancer in his family and in his community. Cuidon is entirely right that the essence of Breaking Bad is choice: Walter chooses to become evil. Breaking Bad is not a religious allegory (though it could be seen as one). The lies Walter hears are not coming from the Devil, they’re coming from Walter himself. (Gilligan has said that while he can believe there’s no Heaven, he can’t abide by the idea there’s no Hell.) An even more striking aspect of Breaking Bad is the omnipresent backdrop of the horrors of drug addiction. Meth is particularly evil, ravaging not just addicts but whole communities. Walter becomes evil as he rationalizes away that fact.

And here is where I think Gilligan himself has it wrong. “Walt has behaved at times in what could be regarded as an evil fashion, but I don’t think he’s an evil man,” he told the website Vulture. “He is an extremely self-deluded man. We always say in the writers’ room, if Walter White has a true superpower, it’s not his knowledge of chemistry or his intellect, it’s his ability to lie to himself.” But what is evil if not the ability to delude yourself into believing you are the sole arbiter of what is right and wrong based on your self-interest? Freedom itself is not evil, but freedom devoid of conscience is very close to the definition of evil. Hitler, Stalin — the historical figures we use as stand-ins for metaphysical evil — believed they were acting on their own personal definitions of the good. They didn’t feel constrained by the “slave morality” (Nietzsche’s term) of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Of the many conservative themes in Breaking Bad, the one I appreciate most is the fragility of civilization: Preserving it requires a constant struggle. When I say “civilization,” I don’t mean just the particular swath of time and culture we call “Western Civ”; I mean families, communities, and individuals. These can be healthy only when individuals are willing to take on faith that some moral laws are there for a good reason. As Chesterton tells us, pure reason doesn’t get humanity very far. The merely rational man will not make commitments to causes greater than his own self-interest.

We need binding dogmas to constrain us even when our intellects or appetites try to seduce us to a different path. Long before one gets into the partisan or ideological precepts and dogmas, there is at the irreducible core of conservatism the idea that human nature is what it is. Nation-states, technologies, cultures, even religions come and go, but what remains is humanity. Breaking Bad is one of the great novels of our age because it grapples with the crooked timber of humanity as it is, and painfully demonstrates that, once you choose to break out of the cage of civilization, you are not so much free as lost. Source: www.nationalreview.com

Our moral expectations in the world of art differ from our expectations in the real world around us. The people we are at work, at the grocery store, play by one set of largely artificial rules: the rules of civilization. But beneath—or perhaps beside—the person of manners, custom, and law resides a different being. The moral universe of cinema sometimes mirrors the real world, but just as often the actors on the screen play roles more consistent with the moral universe of our inner savage. It’s like a scene in some science fiction movie where the protagonist develops a roll of film and finds that the people he photographed are different from those he saw with his naked eye. Art captures a reality that we tend to deny in the “real world” around us. In novels, movies, TV, video games, and almost every other realm of our shared culture, the moral language of the narrative is in an almost entirely different dialect from the moral language of the larger society. When we suspend disbelief, we also suspend adherence to the conventions and legalisms of the outside world. Instead, we use the more primitive parts of our brains, which understand right and wrong as questions of “us” and “them.” Our myths are still with us on the silver screen, and they appeal to our sense of tribal justice. We enter the movie theater a citizen of this world, but when we sit down, we become denizens of the spiritual jungle, where our morality becomes tribal the moment the lights go out. When we lose our civilizational confidence—and pride—in what it has accomplished, we are committing a suicidal act on a civilizational scale.  —"Suicide of the West" (2018) by Jonah Goldberg

Martin 'Marty' Byrde (Jason Bateman in Ozark):  If I want to put all $7,945,400 into a hot tub, get buck naked and play Scrooge McDuck, that is 100% my business. You see, the hard reality is how much money we accumulate in life is not a function of who's president or the economy or bubbles bursting or bad breaks or bosses. It's about the American work ethic. The one that made us the greatest country on Earth. It's about bucking the media's opinion as to what constitutes a good parent. Deciding to miss the ball game, the play, the concert, because you've resolved to work and invest in your family's future. And taking responsibility for the consequences of those actions. Patience. Frugality. Sacrifice. When you boil it down, what do those three things have in common? Those are choices. Money is not peace of mind. Money's not happiness. Money is, at its essence, that measure of a man's choices. Half of all American adults have more credit card debt than savings. 25% have no savings at all. And only 15% of the population is on track to fund even one year of retirement. Suggesting what? The middle class is evaporating? Or the American Dream is dead? You wouldn't be sitting there listening to me if the latter were true. You see, I think most people just have a fundamentally flawed view of money. Is it simply an agreed-upon unit of exchange for goods and services? $3.70 for a gallon of milk? Thirty bucks to cut your grass? Or, is it an intangible? Security or happiness - peace of mind. 


“The question of whether America is in decline cannot be answered yes or no. Both answers are wrong, because the assumption that somehow there exists some predetermined inevitable trajectory, the result of uncontrollable external forces, is wrong. Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is written. For America today, decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.” —Charles Krauthamer (1950-2018)