Monday, January 01, 2018

Nothing Changes on New Year's Day

Happy new year, world!

I can't say I will miss this last one. Personally, it was not as bad as the year before - 2016 felt like hell on earth. But objectively - 2017 was a shit show. Trump as president was as bad as anyone could ask, and though his incompetence tended to suppress the enactment of his bad ideas, the year ended with one of the worst ideas - that tax cut - going through. I don't know how long it will take for that thing to wreck the economy - but if it isn't quickly undone, it will. But on the bright side, we haven't had a nuclear war - yay!

But along side Trump, we've had mass shootings; we've had terrorism mostly from the right, but a few from foreign agents. (The left mostly behaves itself, though - as usual.) The right - the hard right, the racist right - has been out in force all year,and show no signs of going anywhere. Why should they? Trump is a fascist, and has spent most of the year testing how far he can push his authoritarianism, racism, and so on - his followers gleefully competing with him in their own fascist ravings. As policy, it is mostly aimed at immigrants - though the continual attacks on the media, education, political protests and other activism, voting, could always bear fruit.

It is easy to be depressed. But there are reasons for hope. The one tool we have to make things better is the vote (well - there are lots of tools, but that is the one that had direct and immediate consequences.) And this year, the Democrats have tended to smoke the Republicans at the ballot box. The most extreme instance being the election of Doug Jones overRoy Moore in Alabama - yes, the GOP had to run a child molesting fascist nutcase to lose, but they did lose. And though Republicans have won a lot of special elections this year too, they have done so in hard-right districts, and the Democrats have run them very close. In Montana, in Georgia - if this continues, it bodes well. The Democrats have to overcome a massive structural disadvantage to win the house - a strange thing, but gerrymandering and other oddball vote distributions makes that body remarkably undemocratic - but they might be able to do it. Might have to win 5 million or so more votes to break even in the house - but that has happened before and might again.

Politics: I have written more about politics than anything else here,this year,and more than I have in a long time - politics is maddening these days,but it's also vital. It feels like life or death for the republic, sometimes. And it is hard to be optimistic - the last two years haven't just shown that white resentment is hanging on in the country, and can still hold a great deal of power; it's also shown that the system itself doesn't work. The constitution itself at its worst is explicitly racist (most of that is gone, thankfully, but the Electoral college remains), and often practically racist (the senate, by helping exaggerate rural votes is practoically racist, at this point in history at least) - but the bigger problem is that the system, with its checks and balances and diffusion of power gives overwhelming power to minority groups, if they are willing to use it. The American system depends on the good faith of all participants: and the Republicans are not operating in good faith. There is nothing to force them to operate in good faith - they took control of the courts,in an act of shocking bad faith - so there is no counter to any ofthis except the vote,and the system currently requires a massive landslide toward the Democrats to overcome the system.Depressing.

But not hopeless. Or - put plainly - in politics, you can't afford to take things for granted,good or bad, because, in the end, what you do determines what politics is. So I guess, keep at it. Vote, argue, work - what else is there to do?

I have to write something about something else. Alright. This was a momentous year - I moved, which has changed my movie watching options for the worst - I compensated with a fair amount of TV, or at least, with some TV - whole first run TV shows, watched first to last! Ken Burns' on Vietnam; and of course Twin Peaks - the latter of which was more or less awe inspiring and brilliant - obviously better than anything else I saw this year, since I barely saw anything else - but as good as anything I've seen on a screen in years. I also watched a good deal of old TV this year,for the TV Countdown at Wonders in the Dark (including the coming Part 2) - but not enough movies.

And so? I suppose the new year is a time for resolutions - and - well: I wish I had some. Or rather, I wish I had some I felt sure of following through on. But I guess the new year is the time for promises, listing the things you hope you do or will regret not doing - I can play that game. So:

1) I hope to post here again, more than once a week (though I suppose that should really be, at least once a week, as I have fallen well short of that unimpressive standard). I know, I know, blogs are old hat - but I am old hat, so, I would rather write for this than for twitter or something like that. Now - I fear if I deliver on this resolution, it will bring a lot of politics - but that is the world we live in, so...

2) I hope I can get back to a more regular film watching regime. Might not be possible to do my habitual 2 new films a week, plus 2-3 older films somewhere - but I need to get in the habit again of watching films. Probably will - I don't lose that habit for long, usually.

3) I hope I write about films, and other subjects - books, TV, music - here - once in a while. It has been a while since I have made a habit of writing longish posts about arts here, and I don't know if that habit will come back (without external stimulus - I get work done for other people, when I can...)

4) I will try to acknowledge the fact that this is 2018. the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, and all the stuff that went on around it - so some Great War blogging might be in order. I hope. Reconstruction blogging, too,if I can - 150 years since 1868 - a vital part of the country's history....

5) Finally, a lot of this depends on my ability to write, in general. f that goes well, then, some of it should end up here.

And so - that's enough for now. Happy New Year!

(And here's a holy shit I'm old moment for you: U2, 35 years ago:)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Good News For Once!

Another week in the books. A good one, I have to say - the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama is a wonderful thing. Doug Jones has been leading for much of the race, since the stories about Moore's adventures at the mall came out, but his lead had been eroding as the election date approached. The Republicans, of course, doubled down on supporting Moore (except a few outliers like Jeff Flake), and Alabama is the heart of evil white men in this country, so I was prepared for a loss....

But we won. Democrats, and especially African American Democrats, showed up, and they won. It's a wonderful thing, even if it is only likely to last until their next election. But it is a reminder that Democrats have run very close in a lot of impossible elections this year - and have won everything they had any chance of winning,and won it clean. Trump is poison, the Republican party is madly overplaying their hand, either because they know they've only got a year to destroy the country, or because they think they are going to be able to keep stealing elections forever.... But they couldn't steal an election in Alabama - that's not likely to stop them from trying,but so far, voting has, in fact, worked against them. So - keep voting!

Meanwhile,Trump and company continue to move closer to the moment of truth, when they have to face the truth about their dealings with Russia or start scrambling for ways out. A continuing procession of men are revealed as serial harassers - this week it's been Dustin Hoffman, Russell Simmons, Morgan Spurlock (who tried to head off trouble by confessing before he was caught), Mario Batali - that's who I remember off the top of my head. One of them, a particularly loathsome Kentucky preacher and legislator named Dan Johnson, shot himself over his misdeeds, which in this case involve raping a 17 year old. It's a depressing litany, but it is better that this stuff comes out - maybe if there are consequences for the kind of routine sexual abuse that has gone on, it will stop. Some of it will stop. You have to hope. And it it doesn't stop, well - at least there should be consequences for it.

Along with the new accusations, there have been more accusation about some of the more notorious abusers. Selma Hayek detailed her experiences with Harvey Weinstein; and a number of Trump's accusers talked about it in TV. Will Donald Trump ever answer for his actions? Probably not directly, not for a while - he's president; he isn't going to resign or shoot himself (since either of those would require at least some small awareness of what a sense of shame would feel like), and congress is obviously not going to do anything about any of his crimes until the Democrats get control. But his actions are already having a very noticeable affect on elections - his presence in the White House certainly helps the Democrats win elections.

As for his supporters - oy. I have cousins who are true believers, and they keep polluting Facebook with their attempts at defense - but man - have I ever seen a more desperate and self-contradicting set of defenses? Posts insulting one of the women for not looking like an eastern European supermodel. Posts saying Trump is a billionaire surrounded by beautiful women - why would he do this? Posts asking - "you were groped by a world famous billionaire and you didn't say anything - why?" And when all else fails, back to trans-bashing, men in the women's room again... It's amazing. Trump himself - it's hard to imagine a more desperately insecure human being than Donald Trump in the best of times - highlighting his insecurity makes a really poor defense. Some of those memes - just put a thought balloon over poor Donnie with "If not for my Daddy's money, none of these woman would look at me once" and be done with it... The rest - answer themselves: do you really have to explain how world famous billionaires get away with sexual assault? (Granted, "billionaire" might be aspirational in Trump's case, but still...) Insulting the looks of the women he groped - changing the subject... It's pathetic. Trump is pathetic,his supporters are pathetic, they make themselves look worse every time they open their mouths....

And al this despite the fact that Trump has admitted to a lot of the things he's accused of - grabbing them by the pussy; parading around backstage at beauty contests - the only defense they really have is that he's such a pathological liar and so desperately insecure, that he would lie about his sexual exploits to impress the likes of Howard Stern and Billy Bush.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Obituary Anniversaries

Well,December 8 - one of those days that the coincidences of bad things sometimes seems too much. 36 years ago, some asshole shot John Lennon in cold blood on the streets of New York; 13 years ago, some asshole shot Dimebag Darrel, guitarist for Pantera, in cold blood on stage in Ohio. I am tempted to make a political remark - what possesses this country not to pass better anti-gun laws? Especially now, when we have routine incidents of mass killings - but tat doesn't seem to have helped. Celebrities dying didn't change gun laws; 27 people shot in a church doesn't change gun laws... We have a problem.

But I'm not going to be able to change it by complaining. Instead - here's Pantera and Dirty Mac, showing what Dimebag and Winston were all about.

Pantera, live:



From the Rock and Roll Circus:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Armistice Day, 2017

I've already managed my World War I post this week, getting the Russians in there along with Third Ypres. But today is Armistice Day and it is good to remember it, and to remember why this day was remembered as a day to bring abut the end of war. The horrors of Passchendaele sum up the horrors of WWI quite succinctly, and those horrors are a distillation of the horrors of all wars. We should keep it in mind, and we should try to stop this stuff from happening.

Here is a documentary about the battle of Passchendaele:



And a bit of Iron Maiden, to mark the time:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Shaking the World

Happy Friday again, the only day I seem to post - but 1 is better than none.

A strange week, this one: November 7-8 marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution - the Soviet Revolution, that brought Lenin to power. I should have posted something, but I am lazy and careless - but what is stranger is that I have seen almost nothing about it anywhere. Maybe it isn't American history; maybe the Soviets are well out of fashion - but this was one of the most important events of the 20th century - top, you know - 2 maybe - and you would think it would be talked about. Maybe it was and I haven't seen it - the news this week has been busy, with another mass shooting, an election that saw decisive Democratic victories around the country, another celebrity caught whacking off in front of strangers, and what might be the least surprising revelation of all time - sometimes judge Roy Moore, right wing, racist, homophobic god bothering scofflaw running for senate in Alabama, turns out to also be a pedophile, dating 17 year olds and making lewd passes as 14 year olds. So poor old Lenin and Trotsky and co. had a lot of competition this week.

That doesn't mean they should get a shout out. The Russian Revolution is, well - difficult. There's no denying the wickedness of the Tsar's regime, or its incompetence; there's no denying that WWI gutted Russia; there's not much likelihood that the government could have changed into something else without a revolution of some kind. But Revolutions never really work out - not in the short term, usually not in the medium term. The February Revolution held some promise, but no one was able to form a stable government, the war gutted the provisional governments as much as it gutted the Tsar's government - and it failed. And the Bolsheviks took over and - weren't willing to accept anything less than total victory, so slowly moved to banning all political opposition, crushing all dissent - which then sparked civil war, foreign invasions, massive and horrible political reprisals, devastating famine....

That is usually the result of revolution: war, death, devastation, famine and disease,and tyranny at the end. But among their horrors, sometimes governments emerge with some breathing room, with the space to get better.Could the Russian Revolution have done so? I am not sure what I think about the Russian revolution - the horrors of the revolution and civil war are horrors of war and revolution; it is more fruitful to ask what they led to. I don't know: there are signs, in the 1920s, that Lenin and some of the others in the government might have been willing to move toward a more just society - there is no denying that the revolution unleashed a torrent of cultural change, artistic change, which was very exciting. But that only lasted a couple years - and Stalin's version of the revolution codified and solidified the absolute worst possible elements of the revolution. He brought out the absolute worst possible outcome for the revolution. (As did Mao, in the 1950s; as did Pol Pot, for example.)

So what is the Russian Revolution? The hope of the overthrow of the Tsar? the promise of the people rising to create a new kind of government in November 1917? (That's what China Mieville emphasizes in October.) Or the fall into civil war and terror in 1918? The tyranny and cruelty of the 20s? or the almost immeasurable sense of possibility it created? Or both? Or the sheer (and wildly self-destructive) horror of Stalinism? The exhilaration of Eisenstein's October is real - the film creates it, of course, but you sense the exhilaration of the moment itself, the hope, the sense of liberation and empowerment. I can see the appeal. Though I am too much a cynic, or maybe a historian, not to know how this stuff ends. How all of them end: in blood and devastation, the guillotine, the ax, in a decade long war with Iraq. Or in retreat - the old guard takes over - or the new guard proves to be just like the old guard, only more racist and more self-righteous. (You thought I forgot the America revolution, didn't you!) I don't want any revolutions around me, thank you very much. I get worried when people start talking about them.

Though I know that most of them, a generation or so down the road, ended up making the world a better place. The world is better for the English Revolution, the French Revolution, certainly the the American Civil War - and it's probably better for the Russian Revolution. Just that - sacrificing a couple generations for the sake of the future seems like a sub-optimal route to a better world...

Meanwhile, today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, aka, the Battle of Passchendaele, another in the gruesome series of pointless bloodbaths that marked that war, especially on the western front. I suppose in the end, it's impossible to say that this one was more or less pointless than any of the others - though by 1917, it's hard to see what anyone had in mind in these exercises. I suppose it is true that one of the things the Allies had in mind was distracting Germans from the eastern front, where Russia's first revolution had cast the war effort into serious doubt. Indeed, Lenin and company mounted their revolution largely on the platform of getting out of the war for good. (Maybe because Lenin was bankrolled by the Germans, but that seems more like opportunism on both sides - the Germans were surely not communists.) In any case, Passchendaele didn't keep the Russians in the war, so...

I can't find any ambiguity in World War I: there is no greater unambiguous disaster in modern history. World War II! you say - but that damned thing continued with barely an interruption the first one. The horrors of the Russian Revolution would not have happened without the Great War - who knows what would have become of that country, but it's probably nothing like the bloodbath it was. And Passchendaele? Individual battles in the first world war are mind-boggling affairs, endless repetitions of what didn't work 6 months ago, tweaked with that one thing that did kind of work for a day or so 6 months ago.... When it changed, it changed because of sheer numbers and some real innovation, first by the Germans, then by the Allies (taking advantage of the German's complete collapse.) Everyone finally got bled out, I guess. Passchendaele contributed to the bleeding, of course, but that doesn't recommend it. It did help establish one of the dominant images of the Great War: if the Somme is the ultimate in the Doomed Charge image, Passchendaele is the ultimate in the Flooded Trench image, fought as it was in the wetlands of Belgium, in a very rainy summer and autumn. But there is nothing else there - heroism, but what good is that, when it's put to no end? There is no hope to be lost at Passchendaele, no missed opportunities - nothing but death, and there was never going to be anything but death there.

World War I is a very depressing subject to care about.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Friday Miscellany and Music

Hello again, Friday. Nice to see that the World Series turned out to be as entertaining as you could hope. I wish they could have finished some of those games a bit quicker - how I long for the days of dueling 7 inning starters! I think the Dodgers might have hurt themselves, over the series - taking out starters before they were really starting to lose meant they wee using most of their pen almost every single day. It started to show. The Astros had some of the same problem, but got around them by putting starters in to relieve, and letting them go for 3 or 4 innings. (Something of a trend: starters pitching better in relief than as starters - from the Red Sox, getting great outings from Price and Sale, to several Astros, to Kershaw and Wood when it was all too late for the Dodgers...) Anyway. This was a good one.

And now? I've been chipping away at Ken Burns' Vietnam war series - almost too depressing to watch more than an episode a week... Interesting to be reminded that yesterday, 11/2, was the 49th anniversary of the day Saigon pulled out of the Paris peace talks at the urging of Tricky Dick and company. 49 years since Nixon committed treason to get elected president. Meanwhile, every day in the news, we're reminded it's been a good deal less than 49 years since Trump committed treason to get elected... That and watching the Democrats continue to try to tear themselves apart - is it 1968? It is horrible watching Democrats continue to try to undo the results of last year's primaries, while the Republicans are trying to undo the results of the Civil War...

But that is all the politics I can stand for today.

So - Friday - some music. Maybe 1968, huh? Kind of cool to hear the Velvet Underground in the middle of the 1968 episode of the Vietnam War - this one, in fact,shown here with some nifty animations:



Meanwhile the Beatles:



And the Stones, taking on the political world of the time:



Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday on my Mind

Hello Friday, hello two more obituaries in the music world - what can you do? I'm getting old... Fats Domino was one of the big ones - popular and fantastic, helping establish what rock and roll was, and thrilling in his own right. Here he is on Sullivan....



And Ain't that a Shame:



And this week also saw George Young's demise. Another one who had a neat career on his own, with the Easybeats and Flash N the Pan - though the little brothers rather surpassed him.

Nothing else that bugs me more than working for the rich man.. You bet! Friday on my mind:



And later, Young and Harry Vanda recorded as Flash N the Pan, new wave almost before new wave existed. (Complete with making fun of the younger Young sibs...) Done my time in hell...

Sunday, October 22, 2017

World Series

This is a great relief, the Astros winning the American League Championship. They did it in style - the back end of their rotation teaming up to throw a shut out, Altuve hitting another bomb, Brian McCann driving in two runs on the Yankee's dime. This is the matchup people were hoping for in the middle of the summer, when the Astros were lapping the field offensively and the Dodgers were overwhelmingly good on the mound. Both teams sort of took the foot of the gas, the Indians got hot, and people started paying more attention to the Red Sox and Yankees, involved in that strange anachronism known as a pennant race. But Astros and Dodgers were pretty much the best all year, and they have both returned to form in the playoffs, so - we should get a nice series.

One thing I want to mention, that I alluded to Friday, is this. I see lots of stories and comments about how now the Yankees are done, but they have the makings of a dynasty there - I can't argue with that. They have Judge and Sanchez; they have Hicks and Bird and Torreyes, who could be pretty good themselves; they have Gregorius and Castro and the like; they have Severino and Montgomery and so on - young and good, and likely to spend the money to keep them there.

ut that's the Red Sox, too - and the Dodgers - and the Astros, if they are willing to spend the money, and the Indians, and the Cubs - even the Nats, Diamondbacks, even the Twins (if they were willing to spend the money.) Call Judge and Sanchez the stars - and compare them to Betts and Benintendi (and Bogaert and Devers); to Seager and Bellinger; to Altuve, Correa, Springer and Bregman; to Lindor and Ramirez; to Bryant and Russell and Baez and Schwarber (and Rizzo, something of a veteran). Bryce Harper and Trea Turner (and Rendon and Michael Taylor) - and don't forget that Harper hasn't turned 25 yet. Even the Twins, who are kind of an afterthought in this, have Sano and Rosario and Buxton and Kepler and Polanco, starting to come into their own - all 25 and under. This is what made this post-seaosn kind of an especially fun one - the Rockies and Diamondbacks were the only teams without one or tow (or more) major stars under the age of 25. And they both feature players in their mid-late 20s. It's fun to watch. Now, obviously, some of these guys will regress - some of them will get hurt - some of these teams will be unwilling to pay to retain them when they get expensive - a lot of these teams have much shakier and less promising pitching (though here the Rockies fit in again: 4 starters with 10 wins or more, all under 25 years old. Colorado is a terrible place to pitch, but, that gives them a chance.)

It loks like we're coming into a pretty neat time to be a baseball fan.

And remember, for all the talent in the post-season, the best player in the game, by a still significant margin, wasn't in the playoffs, and is 25 years old. You do have to hope the Angels get their act together sometime - it is quite noticeable that they are NOT built around good young talent, even when they have the best...

Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Sport and Music

I want to check in briefly, long enough to say something about baseball, which seems to be approaching the eldritch apocalypse of a Yankees Dodgers world series. I don't want to be too quick to write of the Astros - they can win two in a row from the Yanks if they have to - but...

I dread Yankees and Dodgers in the series. The AND is important - I don't particularly dread either the Yankees or the Dodgers. They are, to be sure, franchises I loathe (loyal New Englander that I am), but the Dodgers have long been an afterthought, almost enough to make you feel sorry for them. One never feels sorry for the Yankees of course... And more than that, their current collection of players are both rather likable. It's hard not to like Aaron Judge or Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Gary Sanchez - as a pure, neutral baseball fan. in that sense, it's been hard to find teams to hate int his post-season: almost all of them are young, up and coming squads - at least full of young, exciting players - even teams that got there by buying up stars mix it with their own good young players - there aren't any teams to cheer against, as collections of ball players. Just those franchises, and even that is mostly the combination - Yankees vs Cubs or Nats would not have been terrible. Someone to cheer for, someone to here against, and a villain who, if they win, would be rather entertaining doing it. Same with the Dodgers, against any of the AL teams besides the Yanks.

But this combo: ugh. So go Justin Verlander! put the in their place! win two ore, Astros, and save us the indignity of 1977 reborn!

Though 1977 was a way better year than 2017 on principal, so....

Anyway on a very different subject - where I was last week: Feelies, still at it after 40 odd years. Not the first time I've seen them...

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday 13th for America

Another Friday has come, and despite this being a Friday 13, no famous or interesting artists have died - it's almost confusing.

As for Friday 13th - this whole year has been one long Friday 13th. I thought last year sucked - but this one has just gone from worse to worse. Trump has more or less delivered on his promises to make everything worse - not by doing a lot, since he and the Republicans can't seem to pass much, the old fashioned way - but he has authority as president that he can use for evil (and not use for good), and my god, he won't shut up! He has certainly enabled the worst elements of our fair republic - I doubt there are any more racists and Nazis and confederates around now than before, but they are a lot louder about it. Granted - this is making it easier for people to repudiate them - and there are, in fact, a lot more of us than them - but it makes it hard to get through the day.

We are well past the point where we have to acknowledge that Trump himself is a simple, and open, Fascist. Authoritarian - racist and xenophobic - addicted to the aesthetics of politics (even if his aesthetic models are crappy game shows and reality TV - and Vegas whorehouse decor, I suppose) - nationalist, in that simplistic jingoistic sense - embracing political violence - it's all there. He's nearly open in his support of the white nationalists; consistently attacking any sign of dissent - attacking free speech, attacking the press, attacking civil society - attacking the rule of law. A deadlocked congress helps him - makes it easier to rule by fiat, to rule without law - that's how Hitler did it; Trump's working toward it just as surely.

I wish I were more optimistic - but I think the problem is more than Trump. It's built into the country. The Constitution is admirable in many ways, but it is a very old document, a kind of beta test for Constitutions - they didn't have a lot of models. They worried about a lot of things that didn't prove to be problems; they worked off assumptions that were already eroding, and should have been dumped. They were worried about democracy - what if were subverted? Turned into a tyranny of the majority? So they built in checks and balances, they built in barriers to protect the minority, to exaggerate the power of the minority. Which worked, more or less, as long as all parties agreed with the underlying assumptions of society, and all participated in good faith,accepting defeat knowing they could win the next election. But this broke down when underlying assumptions changed, and when minority groups, used to power, realized they could not win elections honestly. And then - the constitution becomes a level that shrinking constituencies could use against the majority.

That is what happened in the 1840s and 50s - slavery became increasingly regional, votes grew faster in the north than the south (partly because the north was more democratic, though mostly because it had more people), and the slave-holding south was in danger of becoming a permanent minority bloc. So they sabotaged good government - held the country hostage; manipulated the system to keep themselves in control, even as they were shrinking - and finally tried to burn it all down...

That's close to what is happening now. Has been happening for about 25 years, probably. The Republicans transformed themselves from the money party into the money and white nationalism party, all the way back in the 1960s. They took over all the dixiecrats when the Democrats finally decided to treat African Americans as human - they took over the old confederacy, without really changing much except the letter by the name of all those old racists. The world kept on turning - it's easy to forget, given how bad things are, but the country has gotten better in a lot of ways in the last 50 years. Blacks do have rights and protections they did not have in 1960; women have rights and protections; gays have rights and protections. Many things that were - maybe not accepted in 1960, but deliberately and systematically hidden - are now, still hidden, but the systems are weaker. (Ask Harvey Weinstein. When he whines about growing up in a different era, he means, he expected the system to protect him from accusers, not that what he did was once acceptable and now is not. It was always wrong, everyone knew it was wrong, but men were protected. Still are, or this would have happened 25 years ago.) But as the world kept turning, the Republicans doubled down on their new identity - maybe they started out playing to the racists to get their votes (to govern like plutocrats), but as their constituencies shrank, and their social and cultural ideas became less popular, they have turned to more and more open effectual racism. They identified more and more as the party of white supremacy. And with it, the party of authoritarianism, suppressing the vote, suppressing speech, the party of amateur (as well as professional) political violence and so on.

And the party of using the constitution against itself. Refusing the act in good faith - there is nothing more egregious that the Senate's refusal to hold a vote on Merrick Garland - that in itself constitutes something close to a coup. They manipulate the vote - using gerrymandering to give themselves an unfair advantage; suppressing the vote outright when they can; working to make voting as difficult and unpleasant as they can. And as a permanent minority party out to control government, they work very hard to break down the system of government itself. They have always attacked government in principal (though are very quick to use its capacity for violence for their own ends), directly and indirectly. Directly - government is evil! keep your government off my medicare! and indirectly - it doesn't matter who I vote for; there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the parties; government can't do anything right, we should leave it to the market. And of course, buying votes...

Enough. I don't know how we get out of this mess. We vote, I suppose - but the Republicans have been doing everything they can to make your vote not count; to make voting difficult and ineffectual; to convince the public that voting doesn't matter. The constitution was written to protect minority interests - and probably even more explicitly, the interests of the agrarian south. That is certainly how this has played out - the agrarian south, the slave-owning south, then the racist south, has always been the party to take advantage of the constitution's anti-democratic features. From the electoral college (explicitly designed to favor slave states) to the Senate to - etc. All of which adds up to the fact that for voters to save the country, we have to get 60-70% of the vote, to overcome the built in resistance to democracy.

Or maybe evil white men just die off, and - it's not comforting: if decent people can see that history is bending their way, so can the villains, and they will just act, more aggressively to protect themselves. There's more of that going on than I'd like - people like Trump, like all the neo-Nazi and neo-confederte marchers, the pro-treason crowd, the people yelling about football player exercising their political rights - are becoming more aggressive, more active, in no small part because they are losing. They know they are losing, and know they have to cheat to stop it. So they cheat. It doesn't bode well.

So happy Friday the 13th.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Tom Petty

I still try to get in here ad post a music post,if nothing else, every week. Unfortunately they all seem to turn out to be obituaries. This week it is Tom Petty. I like Tom Petty - I remember hearing Breakdown, way back when, and thinking, that's such a cool song... Then Refugee came out, which is when he started to get a lot of airplay - that was all over the radio, Refugee, I'm the Night Watchman - that might have been just about the best music you were likely to hear on the radio in 1979.... And he kept on going, and was always solid, and sometimes fantastic. Sometimes, maybe, in the 80s, he seemed to fade into the background - duets with Stevie Nicks, nice pop songs on the radio... But unlike most 70s rockers trying to be relevant in the 80s, he didn't really embarrass himself. "Don't Come Around Here No More" makes some gestures toward fashion, with its drum machine sounds and Dave Stewart cameos - but it's still a solid Tom Petty song, and mostly he just kept on going, doing what he was good at and letting people come to him.

Breakdown, live in 1978:



Refugee, same show:



don't Come Around here no more, as 80s as he got, I suppose:



Free Fallin'


Friday, September 29, 2017

Hefner after Dark

Just popping in for a bit - another obituary, I suppose - Hugh Hefner, of all people. I had,I fear, forgotten he was alive - well... He has, I suppose, what one might call a mixed legacy. Mainstreaming porn - is that good or bad, actually? He supporting civil rights and LBGT rights. He was a skeevy old man (after a lifetime of skeeviness) - he exploited women all his life. He published great writers and writing. He - he was - all that and more.

I wil leave it to others to figure him out. I will say that when he pushed other people's culture - he didn't mess around. When he ran a TV show, he brought in some really good guests - some of the best late 60s music clips come from that show. Like - Ike and Tina Turner (speaking of mixed legacies...) on Playboy After Dark, doing Sly and the Beatles, CCR and the Stones. (Plus Doug Kershaw in a purple suit? oh, the 60s...)



(Speaking of which - nothing to do with Hef, but here's Kershaw, flying the velvet and fiddling his ass off...

Friday, September 15, 2017

Grant Hart

Though I hesitate to big foot my own post, I have to here. It is Friday, when I usually try to say something about music - and god damn it - there's another obituary to write about. Two actually, though one in front of the mics and one behind....

Grant Hart is dead. He was 56. He had cancer. It's still too soon. I've written about Husker Du - it's probably true that I've listened to them less, thought about them less, than the other bands I loved in the mid-80s - but that is praising with very faint damns, since I go back to all those groups a lot. Replacements and Meat Puppets and Butthole Surfers and Feelies and REM - and Husker Du. I could praise them with faint damn by saying they were the third best band out of Minneapolis in the 80s - you know, after Prince and the Replacements.

That's trivia, I guess. I sure liked Husker Du. I started buying their records when they came out; a friend of mine who knew them gave me a tape of a bunch of their early stuff, singles, maybe, pus Metal Circus, and I gave that, along with tapes of some of their newer records, to another friend, and we wore them out (we wore out a lot of tapes), driving around the South Shore. (That reminds me - he bought New Day Rising on his own, maybe because I hadn't bought it yet...) So yeah.

I have to admit as well, I always liked Hart more than Mould. He was a better singer, and he had a better way with melodies - and, I think, usually a better way with words, though both of them seemed to be slipping by the end... Mould talked about how much he loved the Beatles, but Hart's songs were the ones that sounded like the Beatles - at least like the early, direct, Beatles impersonators, like Badfinger and ELO. (Not coincidentally, the guy who kept their tapes in his car was a huge ELO fan; and I have always adored Badfinger. Everyone loves the Beatles, obviously.) So - all right. A sad day.

The other obituary is for Paul Hamann - who, following his father Ken Hamann, was a major studio force for bands like Pere Ubu - and thus, another rather important person in my world.

So: here's Hart solo, singing So Far From Heaven, from his recent Paradise Lost album:



And here he is with Husker Du in full flight, doing Books About UFOs:



And Hart solo, singing one of those magnificent ballads from Candy Apple Gray:



And here is a Pere Ubu video for We Have the Technology, produced by produced by Paul Hamann:

Monty Python's Flying Circus

(Another TV post, cross-posted from Wonders in the Dark, part of the TV countdown.)

This is very near and dear to my heart. For my money, Monty Python's Flying Circus is the best show ever on television.



What was it? A sketch comedy show, made by a group of writers and performers (and a doctor) from Cambridge and Oxford, plus an American animator, aired at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s on BBC; some of it was recorded in front of a studio audience, but this was augmented with material shot outside the studio, as well as animation. It ran 3 1/2 years, 45 episodes in total. After it ended, the troop continued to work, together and separately; they made a compilation film from reshot versions of some of their best sketches, a way to distribute the material in those pre-video tape days (and before the show went into syndication, in the US at least); a couple years later, they made an original film, a spoof of King Arthur tales (and Eisenstein), that became much more of a success. Somewhere in here, the show was picked up by PBS in the United States, and soon became a hit, which encouraged PBS to start picking up other British comedy shows. They also made records, right from the start, and went on to make more films, to perform live and so on, generating a fair amount of product. However these things were received when they were made, by the mid-70s they were part of the culture, and easy to find - on radio, syndication, by word of mouth. By the end of the decade, and into the 80s, Monty Python had sunk very deep roots in youth culture, here in the USA at least. For me and most of my pals, anyway: you walked around high school and college quoting them and stealing their jokes, you watched the reruns on PBS and you scrounged up the VHS of the Holy Grail and watched that, over and over and over, you wore it out, you bought the records and listened to them, you sang the songs (sit on my face and let my lips embrace you!), you learned the names of philosophers and cheeses and many, many synonyms for death, you heard of things like Watney's Red Barrel and Biggles and Algy that might not otherwise have jumped the pond, you made jokes about your idiom, you learned what litotes was, you picked up many excellent insults (sniveling little rat faced git), and years later, you saw Godard's Weekend and recognized half a dozen Monty Python bits. Well, I did.

That kind of adoration doesn't always hold up. Things get into the culture (some part of the culture, large, small, who cares), they become cults of a kind. And later? Some of them you outgrow; some stay the way they started out - shared jokes and references and the shared memories they can point to. These things can be fun, smart, perfectly good works of art or entertainment - but they never really go beyond that; their quality never quite surpasses the joy of sharing a fun secret with people. I've felt that way with, oh - watching Star Blazers with the physics majors back in college; or with a few films - Better off Dead or Reanimator and From Beyond or watching early Beavis and Butthead or South Park. But then there are things, things that start the same way, as a shared reference among your friends, that you look at later, or over time, and realize they are better than your love of them. They are just as good from a distance as up close. They are as intellectually stimulating as they are amusing. You realize, this thing is great. I've seen films make that move, for me, and in the culture - The Big Lebowski might be the best example, which went from being dismissed, to become a cult favorite, to being seen as something like a masterpiece. (That's my trajectory for the film, and not just mine I think.) Monty Python started at that cult favorite stage for me, but every time I come back to it, the deeper, smarter, more comprehensively brilliant it becomes.

It is the best. But what makes it the best? I think to answer that, we must go to the tape:



(Makes you wonder, by the way - I wonder where the Semi-final of Part 3 of Kierkegard's Journals, starring Richard Chamberlain, Peggy Mount and Billy Bremner would come in this poll?)

Let's start with the obvious - it is very funny, as funny as anything on TV. That is especially true of its peaks - The Piranha Brothers, the Dead Parrot Sketch, the Upper Class Twit of the Year, the Ministry of Silly Walks - any of those are as good as any 5 or 10 minutes of television anywhere. But it is also true that over 45 episodes, with half a dozen skits a show, and maybe another half dozen bits every week, it is hard to maintain the high points. There are bad skits, there are bad episodes - but not a lot, and "bad" is definitely relative. There is almost always something to hold on to - a turn of phrase, a visual gag, a half-serious idea - to make everything at least a bit interesting. And those peaks are very high peaks. Taken just as comedy; and it is remarkable what a range of comic styles it offered. Over-educated verbal play to be sure, but also plenty of physical comedy, plenty of satire - political, social, cultural, parody and other cultural references, plenty of low humor - bawdiness, toilet humor, it is irreverent, scatological, sometimes very nasty (cannibalism jokes abound), and often deliberately, and knowingly, offensive. Racial, ethnic, gender stereotypes abound, sometimes rather nasty ones. But part of what makes it so good is that all these comic modes get mixed up relentlessly - The Royal Philharmonic Goes to the Bathroom - and never seem to stand still. What exactly is being made fun of doesn't stay the same very long - usually because everything is being made fun of at once.



All that, I suppose, is what might make it the best comedy ever aired on television; there's more, and that's what makes it the best show. It's not just how funny Luigi Vercotte describing Doug Piranha's way with words is - it's that it is almost beautiful. The words themselves, in their best verbal sketches, are beautiful, as words, as performances. The way Palin lists off Doug's literary tropes; the way Cleese declares that parrot dead; the way Palin says of the space alien out to win Wimbledon, "he wasna so much a man as a blancmange!" - the images are absurd, and the words flow. And the ideas behind the jokes swerve and twist, shift registers, like the way the satire shifts from Dinsdale's ultraviolence to Doug's sarcasm, or the way the mostly verbal comedy of the Dead Parrot sketch turns into something bit different when Cleese walks into what is supposed to be different pet shop, to see the same guy behind the counter, the same cage on the floor. Along with everything else going on in the sketch, the show has just made a joke about generic props on TV - but here, Cleese's character notices, is startled by it - for him, the world is changing shape. Everything has shifted a bit further into surrealism, beyond the verbal absurdity, to a surreal world. Only to completely break the illusion, with Cleese stepping out of character and Chapman coming in to break it up before it gets any sillier. That fluidity is fundamental to the show , it;s always there. The comedy shifts registers, sketches break in the middle, turn into something else, characters in one walk off into another, the world changes around them. Most episodes maintain this kind of protean world - there can be a kind of continuity, but it's continuity of jokes, or words, or performers, who find the world swirling around them like they were Buster Keaton in the Playhouse, or agent Cooper at the end of Twin Peaks.



(Speaking of fluidity - look how that clip starts with comedy about language, shifts to satire about greedy doctors, then to film parody, and jokes about TV interviews, then a joke about adaptation - spinning always everywhere at once.)

There is always philosophy running just under the comedy in Monty Python's Flying Circus. It's there in the show's consistent deconstruction of comedy - explaining their jokes, dropping (or mocking) their punchlines, showing the process of writing the joke, or introducing the writer ("Eric wrote a sketch"), or making up a a whole sequence out of writing a joke (The Funniest Joke in the World.) Even more, though, it's in the linguistics of the show - the magnificent verbal comedy, and all the verbal play, the puns and anagrams, the love of names, titles, phrases, words, all the jokes about words, all the jokes about figures of speech (it's a pun! no, not a pun, what you do call it when it's the same backwards as forwards?), all the sketches that hinge on some kind of linguistic problem. TV presenters indicating pauses and punctuations with gestures; semaphore versions of Wuthering Heights; a talk show host making his speech first in a normal voice, then in a high pitched comic whine; policemen who can only hear you when you speak in a certain register; people who only speak the beginnings, middles or ends of words; people who multiply every number by 10; people who speak differently in alternating sentences - this list could go on a while. But it adds up - the use of language (use and abuse) is always there, thematically. It's funny - but it's informative, too - it is philosophy; some sketches come close to being as much concrete enactments of philosophical (or linguistic) problems as Dekalog is. (Though here the philosopher is more likely to be Wittgenstein.)

Let's take the poet McTeagle:



There's a good deal of fun being had here with the pretensions of modern art; there's a joke on the idea that calling something art makes it art. But then again - Ewan McTeagle's "poems" are not that far from being poetry after all. Note their economy, their rhythms, their directness: "If you could see your way to lending me sixpence. I could at least buy a newspaper. That's not much to ask anyone." The Pythons are poking fun at modern poetry, maybe at William Carlos Williams ("I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox..."), but they're doing it by writing lines that get most of what they need to have to be poetry. They almost sound right, even if the material is a joke. And the sketch is packed with jokes - making jokes about Scotsmen, mocking pretentious critics, and of course parodying a real historical figure, the poet William McGonagall. And that joke has some layers to it: McTeagle's joke poems are probably genuinely better poetry than McGonagall's was. (Especially if you like modern poetry.) But the joke shifts again - it might start by taking the piss (from McGonagall, maybe the likes of Williams, definitely the critics it is mocking), but it gets harder as you go to dismiss the idea behind it - if you say you are making art, that's art. Or maybe, the admiration in the sheer bloody mindedness it takes to persist for someone as bad as McGonagall. And there is no getting around the fact that, whatever these poems are as poetry, they are hilarious as comedy - and as verbal comedy. And that good verbal comedy is not far from being poetry itself. I offer as evidence:

A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat!
It's the old stockbroker syndrome, the suburban fin de siecle ennui, angst, weltschmertz, call it what you will.
Oh, we use only the finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in the finest quality spring water, lightly killed, and sealed in a succulent, Swiss, quintuple-smooth, treble-milk chocolate envelope, and lovingly frosted with glucose.
Someone whose boots I would gladly lick clean until holes wore through my tongue, a man who is so totally and utterly wonderful, that I would rather be sealed in a pit of my own filth, than dare tread on the same stage with him. Ladies and gentlemen, the incomparably superior human being, Harry Fink!
He used... sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and... satire. He was vicious.
I'll do what I like, because I'm six foot five and I eat punks like you for breakfast.
Oh, I've had such a morning in the High Court. I could stamp my little feet the way those QC's carry on.
Listen, I gotta fight the lion. That's what that guy Scott's all about. I know. I've studied him already.
Well there are three things we can do with your mother. We can burn her, bury her, or dump her.
Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.
I wandered lonely as a crab.

Look how serious I've gotten.



I love how the show flows, all those changing registers of comedy, its all-consuming appetite for culture - pop culture, high and low culture, anything, everything. I love its parodies, and how easily it switches from making fun of a pretentious TV talk show to Mummy references, to a ridiculous musical interlude, to chicken fighting archeologists. I can't make anything like a list of the cultural references in the show - but I can suggest the range. Art films (Pasolini, Godard, Visconte), Hollywood prestige films (Hitchcock, Peckinpaugh), Hollywood epics (David O Selzer! 20th Century Vole!), B movies (monster films and westerns and noir and spy pictures etc), even underground films (parodies of stag films and the like) - they hit everything. Usually in a way that is both very funny in itself, and makes you want to go watch a low budget Mummy picture, or something with Rock Tree and Doris Dog. They get the same range in literary references (the poet McGonagall to Shakespeare's Gay Boys in Bondage - wait: how many types of literature is that parodying at once?), art references, jokes about history, the law, politics, sports - anything. (Anything goes in, anything comes out - fish, bananas, old pyjamas, mutton, beef and trout.) (Thus mocking Cole Porter, World War II documentaries, censorship, and making a modestly serious anti-war statement.) (Etc.)



Finally, let me talk about the men who made this show. It's rather unique in being almost completely self-contained: the 6 principals wrote and performed it, supported by a very solid crew, including some excellent supporting actors. (Carol Cleveland and Connie Booth, the Fred Tomlinson singers, in particular.) The fact that they wrote and played all of it gives it a lot of the unity it has: its fascination with language, history, films, art, literature, its surreal, absurdist tone, all remain through the series, and come up immediately in the work the members of the troop did later. They have thrived afterwards - John Cleese maybe the most, as writer and performer - though Eric Idle and Michael Palin had long, interesting careers as actors, and Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam both turned to filmmaking. Gilliam's work on the show contains a lot of the things I've been harping on about - most of the imagery is found imagery, old magazines, cartoons, high and low art, as well as his own drawings, all of them combined to create worlds that are capable of anything. Nothing in fixed - everything can turn into anything. He's followed those ideas through his film career. Graham Chapman might have had the most disappointing post-Python career, struggling with alcoholism and never living up to his promise as an actor. He was good - maybe better out of the sketch comedy of the show - Arthur and Brian are almost well realized characters in the films. He didn't have Cleese's comic virtuosity, or Palin's versatility, or Idle's ability to find a Type he could embody. (No one does smarm better than Eric Idle: another word I learned from the Pythons, by the way.) He was always a fine part of the ensemble, but only really seemed to emerge as an individual performer in those later films - especially Life of Brian, where he excels.

In any case, the fact that the 6 of them made the show - wrote it and played most of it and maintained significant control of it, is surely how it stayed as good as it did. It gave it the unity it had - and it meant that it was easier for them to stop, when they started to run out of ideas. 



So to finish this off - I am going to make two lists. First - my favorite sketches - then, my favorite episodes. Because it's not enough just to run yourself over in a car - you have to get through the course and shoot yourself, to become twit of the year! Best sketches:

1. Piranha brothers (Season 2, Episode 1)
2. Upperclass Twit of the year (1.12)
3. Dead parrot (1.8)
4. Science fiction sketch (Scotsmen and a Blancmange at Wimbledon) (1.7)
5. The Ministry of Silly Walks (2.1)
6. Election Night Special (the very silly party seems to have risen quite far since those days) (2.6)
7. The Argument clinic (3.3)
8. Scott of the Antarctic (2.10)
9. Archeology Today (2.8)
10. Lifeboat (How long is it? that's a rather personal question!) (2.13)

And episodes: the show tends to be thought of first through its skits rather than the episodes - but some of them are quite strong. There are a few with complete narratives (the Cycling Tour, in particular), and others where one or two sketches take up the whole show. Those, I admit, tend to be the ones near the top.

1. Dinsdale (2.1) - silly walks and the Piranha brothers, in the same show?
2. Spanish Inquisition (2.2) - Spanish inquisition and courtroom charades, as well as those semaphore classics
3. Man's crisis of identity in the latter half of the twentieth century (1.5) - confuse a cat, police raids, a nightmare job interview - this is the 5th episode of the show, and probably the first great episode. They started slowly, started to get up to speed around the 3rd and 4th episode (Idle's Nudge, Nudge sketch is in episode 3) - but this one is the one that really nails what the show can be.
4. You’re no fun anymore (1.7) - This one has the science fiction sketch, scotsmen, tennis and a blancmange.
5. Cycling Tour (3.8) - a complete narrative, in which Mr Pither attempts a tour of Devon and Cornwall - only to rescue Clodagh Rogers who turns into Trotsky, le revolutionaire, then Eartha Kitt....
6. Royal Episode 13 (2.13) - this has some fine linguistic games (men who only speak the beginning, middle or ends of words), historical jokes (13 reasons why Henry III was a bad king), and then the lifeboat and undertaker cannibalism sketches, just in time for the Queen to tune in...
7. Scott of the Antarctic (2.10) - “I played Mrs. Jesus Christ in a geological siscline!”
8. The Naked ant (1.12) - this one has Mr Hilter in Mineshead, the upperclass twits, etc.
9. Archeology Today (2.8) - has archeology today, of course, but also the judges, Mr. and Mrs. Git, hunting mosquitoes with a bazooka, and so on.
10. The Ant, an Introduction (1.9) - llamas, lumberjacks, hunting films, and a quiet evening at home ruined by unwanted guests - "what's brown and sounds like a bell?"... Though as it should be, the scatology gives way to a cheerful Christmas carol as the credits roll - "Ding Dong Merrily on High," obviously, after that bell joke...

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dekalog (For Wonders in the Dark)

(Cross posted on Wonders in the Dark, part of the television countdown.)



Dekalog is a 10 part television series, made in Poland in 1988, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski, written by Kieslowski and Krzystof Piesiewicz, his frequent writing collaborator. Each episode in the series is dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, though the links are often quite free. The series is, in practice, more like a film cycle than television series - each episode is self-contained, linked only in their relationships to the commandments, and the setting, a large apartment complex in Warsaw. (And the filmmakers and crew.) Kieslowski conceived of the films as 10 separate films. He did not conform to TV conventions: recurring characters in an ongoing story; the need to pace the stories to match the way TV is watched, in the home, with the phone ringing and tea boiling and so on. Indeed, since 1989, Dekalog has been treated more like a film, or group of films, than as television. This is understandable: the films were distributed theatrically outside Poland, and Kieslowski himself was an established filmmaker when they were made, and his subsequent works made him a major art house figure internationally in the 1990s. He is a filmmaker first, and so Dekalog is treated as part of his film career. This is probably even more the case for Dekalog than for other TV shows made by people established in the film industry. David Lynch and Twin Peaks comes to mind - a series made by an established film figure a year or so after Dekalog, that, however congruent with Lynch's career, is still seen primarily as a television show. Of course, Twin Peaks did play by the rules of television - a continuing series with characters and a through-plot and so on - which certainly helps explain the difference. But the fact remains, Dekalog's origins in television is seen as somewhat incidental to what it is.

I don't really mean to dispute that - Kieslowski’s own remarks and ideas about the show push criticism in that direction; I have certainly always thought of these films that way myself. But it is interesting to consider how they do relate to television, as an art form, as a social force, as technology. The strongest link to television, I think, is the way Dekalog is structured around the home, the family, the domestic space. Television is a domestic form of entertainment and art - it exists in the home, to be watched in the home; Dekalog is centered around the idea of home. Far more than other Kieslowski films, which are often about individuals making their way in the world, or at least about how people live in public, outside the home, Dekalog is almost entirely rooted in domestic spaces. When it leaves the domestic sphere, it either brings it in through other means (as the ways the domestic ethical problems of Episodes 2 and 8 are discussed in a class in Episode 8), or makes the loss of the home a felt absence in the story (Episode 5 can be seen this way.) The apartment complex where the series is set may seem to be just the device linking these stories - but in fact, those homes become central to the stories being told. The importance of children in the series, and the importance of relationships between parents and children, is an obvious theme - but these themes are themselves part of the series' emphasis on the home. Home as family, as social space; home as physical space, actual buildings and rooms; home as symbolic space - a place of safety, rest, protection. Almost everything in the series hits one of those themes.



Kieslowski and Piesiewicz present a complex vision of the domestic world, as well. Homes (as physical spaces as well as domestic spaces) are complicated - sheltering and protective, but also dangerous, often broken. They promise protection but don’t deliver, neither the physical space or the social one of families. Homes do not protect you from bombs - they do not protect you from being spied on - they do not protect you from being pulled out in the middle of the night on a wild goose chase - they do not protect you from being stolen by your relatives - they do not protect you from thieves. When they do offer protection, that protection is not guaranteed - you can be refused shelter. You can be banished from your home. And even when you seem to have a stable, safe home, there is no guarantee that what you have is what you think you have. Your wife's child may not be yours; the man you thought was your father may not be; you sister can be your mother. Someone could be listening in on the phone; and if you think going back to your mother's house will offer you protection, be careful - you never know who's hiding in the closet. Home promises stability but it is never there.

In many of the episodes, this instability is shown through a significant absence. So in Episode 1, the mother is out of the country; in Episode 2, the husband is in a coma; in 3, Ewa's husband is missing, so she pulls Janusz away from his family on Christmas eve; Episode 4 is structured around the dead mother; Episode 10, a dead father. Episode 9 has a more symbolic version of this - first, in the husband's very Freudian lack, that his wife tries to fill with a young lover; later, by shifting to the more abstract idea that they are missing a child, which they hope to fill by adopting. These absences create many of the stories - certainly 2, 3, 4, 9 and 10 work that way - the thing that is missing drives the plot. The story itself, of course, can go a couple different ways - it can end up destroying a home and family (as in 1), it can end up restoring a home and family (2, maybe 9, even 10, in a sense) - but  for all of them, the status of the family, the home, is what is at stake in the story.



Other episodes approach it from different angles. The protagonists may have lost their homes, or at least their connections to others, as in Episodes 5 and 6; they may be expelled from the home (or expel themselves) as in Episode 7; they may be denied the shelter of a home as in Episode 8. Or home itself may disappear, as literally happens in the Doctor's backstory in Episode 2. It is interesting that Episodes 5 and 6, the most famous episodes, both expanded into feature films, feature protagonists who are the most isolated. The characters of 6 are all alone, separated from any family, and most companionship. Magda has lovers, but they are not very reliable or satisfying; the landlady's son is on the other side of the world, and though she sometimes treats Tomek as a surrogate son, she and he are both intensely solitary figures; Tomek has no family, and has even lost the closest thing he had to a friend. We usually see these three in their apartments, in their homes - but these are places that offer very little solace. Their living spaces give them no privacy, no protection - they all spy on each other, interfere with one another, often with very dire consequences. They all look for a connection - and you can almost imagine the three of them forming a kind of family of their own - but it doesn't come, and the connections they form are imaginary ones, existing only in the own heads.

Episode 5, and A Short Film About Killing, is even more extreme. (One of the harshest films ever made, frankly.) Of all the films in the cycle, it spends the least time in anyone's home - none, that I can think of. It all takes place in public. Despite the story occurring out in the streets, Jacek and his victim are almost perfectly alone in the film, living completely in their heads, hostile to everyone around them. Even in this episode, though, home operates as a structuring absence. The end of the film, with Jacek telling the attorney about his sister's death, reveals, probably, the reason why he is here, alone in the city. Having helped kill her in a drunken accident, he has lost his family and home. We have less information about the cab driver's isolation, but we see it played out. He treats his neighbors with contempt (leaving Andrej and pregnant Dorota in the cold, rather than giving them a ride); we get a hint at how his neighbors treat him, when someone drops a dirty rag on him. He lives in the apartment complex, but he rejects it - and it rejects him. Unlike the other characters who live there, we never see him at home - all we hear of his family are his pleas with Jacek that his death will leave his wife alone, and the possibility that the woman in a wheelchair in the courtroom scenes is his wife. The attorney, meanwhile, is only seen in either public places - school, the court, prison - or alone. We do, though, get a glimpse of his family life when a colleague congratulates him on his child. That is all.



The double edged significance of home, though, probably comes out the most starkly in Episodes 7 and 8. In 7, a girl in her early twenties kidnaps her 6 year old daughter, who has been raised as her sister. It's notable that this is almost the only episode in the series to show a complete, intact family (we get a glimpse at one in 3, though the poor father is pulled out in the middle of the night) - and because this is by far the most poisonous family in the series. Majka's parent's home may contain the entire family, but it is a family based on deception, on the exploitation of children - the younger Majka as much as her daughter Ania. Even here, though, Majka is driven as much by the desire to find a home as the desire to leave the one she is in - she takes Ania and seeks out the child's father, a teacher who seduced (to put it as kindly as possible) her when she was 16. She doesn't say so, quite, but she seems driven by the hope that she can find a new home, a real home, uniting her child with its true parents. It is a vain hope, even though Woytek seems to regret losing the same thing - and has turned to making teddy bears, as if in compensation for losing his child. They come together, sharing a space sharing a shot briefly - but they can't even look at one another, and their child is asleep, buried by teddy bears....



And it ends. He calls Majka's mother, she leaves - that is all. In the end, her mother finds her, takes Ania back, and Majka rides away alone on a train. She loses everything - her mother keeps the semblance of home, but it is one based on a lie, and it's hard not to see Majka's absence becoming the fissure that destroys that home in the end.

Episode 8, finally, is structured around the notion of home as shelter, and shelter denied - as well as raising the stakes, by setting that drama in the midst of the holocaust. It is also the most metafictional part of the series - discussing its own backstory in a class, along with the plot of Episode 2; containing direct comments on the apartment block, the idea of all the stories going on in that space. It brings the themes to the foreground: children in peril, what adults owe children, the notion of a home as a refuge, a chance to live - though also the possibility of betrayal. (The real backstory of the backstory - the false information that the family intended to shelter Elżbieta were collaborators - raises that image: home as false security.) Though this is not about a family in the present, or even really about homes in the present, these images permeate the film. The home Elżbieta is denied; the house where she met Zofia and her husband during the war, which they return to, and Zofia finds herself turned away; the tailor's home - which was denied its possibility of saving a child.

Episode 8 might also be seen as a model for the series as a whole. Zofia's class is a seminar about ethics - from what we see of it, it seems to operate by posing ethical dilemmas, that are then filled in by the class. That's not far from the structure of the whole Dekalog: take 10 situations suggested by the commandments and tell them as stories, rooted in lived human experience. That is what Kieslowski and Piesiewicz do - and indeed, the sense of lived experience elevate them. It is also important, I imagine, that episode 8 is also both explicitly based on an actual story from World War II, and brings politics and history explicitly into the series. Grounding these things in the lived experience of 2 specific women, yes - but also implicating them in the overall history of Poland in direct, inescapable ways.

All together, then, Dekalog is a magnificent piece of work, as film, as television, however you want to slice it. It is a very rich text, for its stories, for its ideas, and certainly as filmmaking. There are many ways to look at it - taking it as a meditation on the idea of home, family, on how they work as both shelter and menace is just one to look at it, though it's an important element. And one that links it more strongly to television - an art form made for the home, about home. It has to rank very high.



(Let me offer a quick recap of the episodes: it may help.)

1. Father and son live happily, though his wife is gone; they work work with computers, waiting for the pond to freeze; father and sister differ, one religious, one rational. The father calculates that the pond is frozen, then tests it – but the boy goes skating and disappears, leaving his father and aunt desolate.

2. A man is in a coma, his wife has had an affair and gotten pregnant - if the man lives, she needs to abort the child, but if he is going to die, she will keep the baby. She nags the man’s doctor to know if he is going to live or die. He refuses to answer, she insists - he finally tells her the man will die. The man of course lives,and is pleased to have a child, even if it is not his.

3. Christmas eve, a man’s former lover comes to his house, saying her husband is missing and asking for help finding him. He goes with her, and they search the city and replay the end of their affair. In the morning she admits her husband left her long ago - she just bet herself she could keep this man out all night, or she would kill herself.

4. A man and his daughter are happy together - but there is a letter from her mother that she finally can't resist reading. She looks at it, and may or may not open it - she makes up a fake version and reads it, saying she is not the man's child. She then makes a pass at him, but he resists. In the morning, she repents - they end up burning the original of the letter, except for a bit of it, which says the same thing she wrote in the forgery. (Assuming it was a forgery.)

5. Follows a young lawyer, a bitter taxi driver, and a young man, the lawyer through his exams, the young man looking for a cabbie to kill. He kills this one, a brutal, horrific murder. Then cut to the end of the trial, then the execution, with the lawyer trying to comfort the killer, and railing against the system.

6. A postal worker spies on a woman; when his stalking starts causing her problems, he confesses. Later they go out together, but she ends up humiliating him - she immediately repents, but not before he tries to kill himself.

7. A woman kidnaps a child who has been raised as her sister but is really her daughter. They are found, though and she leaves alone in the end.

8. A professor has a visitor in her class – a woman who tells a story about a jewish child who was refused by a Polish family who said they could not bear false witness, to claim she was Christian. It was the professor of course, and the woman who tells the story was the child – the professor had good reasons for her actions, but has hated herself since anyway. She takes comfort in the child’s survival.

9. A doctor is impotent - he half tells his wife to have an affair, but when he finds out that she did have an affair, he becomes wildly jealous. He also treats a girl who needs major surgery to be able to sing, professionally - she would rather not, but her family, and the doctor get her to do it. In the end, the man and wife are nearly reconciled, but the lover hangs around, leading to a near crisis.

10. Two brothers discover that their father was one of the country’s most important stamp collectors. They get tied up in a scam to trade a kidney for a crucial stamp, but this is a ruse to allow someone to rob their father's apartment and take all the stamps. In the end, after many trials, they forgive each other and bond over having picked up their father's bug for stamps.