La La Land and the loving lap of capitalism

Show me the money: 

How post-Depression movie musicals choose the dollar bill over happy endings

Show me the money: La La Land and the loving lap of capitalism
La La Land (Credit: Summit Entertainment)

From its opening number — a cross between a restrained “Gotta Dance” from “Singin’ in the Rain” and a demure “Hot Lunch” from “Fame”— “La La Land” promises a Hollywood musical about fools who dare to dream and dreamers who dare to be fooled, both about love and career, though never the twain shall meet. From the moment the nameless hopefuls hopefully leap from their cars on a stalled Los Angeles freeway and begin singing about how they left their small towns for Tinseltown and Emma Stone gives Ryan Gosling the finger, director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle promises both screwball comedy and a nostalgic paean to the gilded age of musicals past. For the most part, he delivers.

Listen, no one will ever be Fred and Ginger. As my wife would say, Fred Astaire is the Michael Jordan of dance. There is, however, a certain dreamy, floating quality to Mia and Seb — Stone and Gosling — that is more reminiscent of Astaire movies than, say, the deranged earnestness of Garland and Rooney. The hopeful hopefuls trying to make it in the big town and put on a show. And by make it, I mean, make hay and make hay. Let’s remember that Fred Astaire movies were big at the height of the Depression. In fact, all movie musicals of this era are about class and entitlement. (See “Gold Diggers of 1933.”) Thus the obsession with the rich people falling down in the mud and the idea of the madcap heiress in a gilded cage or the girl who struggles as a dance instructor becoming a big star (“Swing Time”). Interestingly, aside from the Golden Age — the forties and fifties — the leaning of the Hollywood musical is more rom-trag than rom-com. For one, the music people were listening to on the radio had changed. “Hair” happened. While Broadway is mostly built on nostalgia and happy endings, “Hair” was a takedown of the establishment that basically ruined musical theater for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, “Grease,” a puff-piece valentine about a nice girl who puts on hot pants so everyone will like her, stole America’s left ventricle and reminded us how fun it was to be a slut and a delinquent and then get into a car and fly away.

When you really think about it, the “Grease” blip makes total sense after Watergate, as “La La Land” does in the era of 45. America hated all agents of power. Hollywood began banking on the fact that people were trapped in a nostalgic reverie of epic proportions. People knew America was in the shitter. The country witnessed an expansion of an earlier trend from pre-Depression capitalism that operated in a narrow band of faith. In short, the Depression, put on pause, merely popped up in the seventies. Thus the message of musicals: Democracy is a lie, capitalism is flawed, so forget that sunset, kids.

Capitalism may also be why the ol’ juggling-love-and-career trope rears its seemingly sexist head in “La La Land.” It’s not that Mia should choose a man over vocation as Annie Oakley was forced to in “Annie Get Your Gun,” as much as a bittersweet reminder of what still keeps us apart. How who we were make us who we are and what you have to sacrifice to make it in this lousy world. Is Seb a sellout? Is Mia? Does it matter? In America, the two most coveted dream gigs are movie star and rock star and this film kinda brass-rings it for both, at least from a bank account perspective. Aside from the song “The Fools Who Dream,” one of the most poignant moments in “La La Land” is when Seb listens to Mia talking to her mother on the phone about his lack of work as he gazes sadly at a rust stain on his popcorn ceiling. The rust stain is his stalled career. The death of jazz. Maybe even Hollywood itself.

True, class tension exists in all comedy, especially musical comedy. See Plautus or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The low-person-brought-high gives itself over to certain types of story that make it easy for a storyteller to expose a certain tension in certain systems about power and desire. This is what commedia is about. Love and money, the girl and the gold, hearts and dollar signs and the itchy impossibility of trying to get both simultaneously. In “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Millie, a lovable gold digger, comes to the big city to get a job and marry a rich man but instead ends up with a “green-glass love,” AKA the dorky loser who, lucky for her, turns out to be the son of an heiress.

What’s more, as Watergate made America embarrassed about itself, the idea that sad endings were more real and relevant pervaded.” Grit was good. Movie musicals, even those with “happy” endings, moved into complex territory. Even “Sound of Music,” the most successful movie musical pre-Nixon, was a harbinger of bittersweet endings to come — The von Trapps cross the Swiss mountains on foot only, oh wait: all the Jews died in an oven. “Cabaret” is both about the Holocaust and wacky broads who make life out of tragedy. “Chicago” has a happy ending about two vaudevillian murderers who manage to get away with it, and in “Rent,” Mimi, another performer, somehow rises from the dead, though we can only assume this will be short-lived.

In Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” we see the entire debate between love and money writ large. Will the hooker with a heart of iron pick the penniless artist or will she sell herself out to the wealthy man? Obviously, we’re supposed to root for Ewan McGregor and hope that Nicole Kidman joins him to starve in a garret. Because rich people are villains and capitalism equals the root of all evil. Money bad. Heart good. Only Nicky Kid dies in a big musical number in front of all of Paris, so not only does the whore die — yeah, yeah— but capitalism dies; so what are we left with? A new kind of story, where the nice rebel boychik gets his start in show biz by writing a tale that will live forever. Welcome to Hollywood, Mr. Arnstein.

“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the anti-“Moulin Rouge!” yet with a more rueful intensity. It’s about love and life and what could have been and can never be because of class and family and war. At the end of it all, Geneviève rolls up at Guy’s gas station in a Mercedes looking fab and they have a chat and then they say a wistful goodbye. Snow is falling. He kisses his children. There is, in this film as in “La La Land,” a sense that these characters wound up with the life they needed to have. I mean, Catherine Deneuve pumping gas? Get real. It’s not that they shouldn’t love each other, it’s that they cannot have a happily ever after. What’s romantic about “Umbrellas” is that they tried. . .

Maybe it’s not that love and commerce can’t intermarry, or that the girl can’t get the guy and the gig and the gold. Indeed, the pull of rich versus poor wages a strange war on a country’s heart. Who knows. Maybe they can still be friends.

Emily Jordan is a YA writer living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyBeJordan.

The discovery of a system with seven “Earth-like” exoplanets

24 February 2017

The detection of a nearby solar system of potentially Earth-like exoplanets orbiting the star Trappist-1 has evoked widespread public interest and enthusiasm. Millions of people have read reports, watched videos and posted on social media about the seven worlds that might have liquid water on their surfaces.

The Trappist-1 system is comprised of seven planets that orbit a nearby ultracool dwarf star (so-called for its comparatively low temperature). Six of the planets have been confirmed to have an Earth-like size, mass and density. None of them have any hydrogen in their atmospheres, further confirmation that these are all terrestrial, rocky worlds like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Moreover, due to the gravitational interactions between all seven planets and Trappist-1 itself, every world in the system may have liquid water.

Of particular interest is the fact that the planets are very close. They are Earth’s next-door neighbors, relative to the vastness of the universe. Trappist-1 is only 39 light years away—that is, it takes light, traveling at about 300,000 kilometers per second, 39 years to travel the distance. In comparison, the Milky Way galaxy of which our sun is a part has a diameter of 100,000 light years, and it is about 2.5 million light years to its larger companion, the Andromeda galaxy, one of trillions of galaxies in the Universe.

An artist’s rendering of the seven worlds of the Trappist-1 system, shown to scale in both size and distance, as might be seen from Earth with a future telescope. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Spitzer Space Telescope, Robert Hurt (Spitzer, Caltech)

The planets are so close that, in the not-too-distant future, it should be possible to make far more detailed analyses and even direct observations of exoplanets.

The discovery of these worlds is the most remarkable of a wave of new scientific findings since the first “exoplanet”—a planet outside of our solar system—was discovered around a Sun-like star in the mid-1990s. At the time, while exoplanets had been predicted for nearly four centuries, none had been conclusively detected, let alone directly observed.

Advances in measuring techniques and the use of instruments placed in the orbit around Earth, free of the distortions of the atmosphere, made it possible to detect very slight dips in the brightness of stars. When those dips were observed with regularity, they could be attributed to the motion of planets across the line of sight between the star and the observers.

When the first detection occurred, it opened a whole new realm of astronomy. The gravitational effects of these unseen planets could also be studied, providing evidence of their mass, density and other physical characteristics. Today, not only have scientists detected more than 3,400 exoplanets, the knowledge built up over the past 20 years makes it possible to visualize what these worlds might look like, either from space or from the surface. And with the launching of the James Webb Space Telescope next year, it should be possible to make far more detailed analysis and even direct observation of exoplanets.

Like most significant astronomical advances, the planets’ discovery was an international endeavor. The detection of exoplanets around Trappist-1 began in May 2016, when a team of astronomers used the Chile-based Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), remotely operated from Belgium and Switzerland, to first observe the star. They discovered three Earth-sized planets orbiting it, with the outermost one likely within the star’s habitable zone.

This encouraged further observations, which were conducted by a series of ground-based telescopes located in Chile, Hawaii, Morocco, Spain and South Africa. The Spitzer Space Telescope was also commissioned to use its higher precision and greater ability to see in the infrared to study the system. When it was discovered that the system had not three, but seven planets, the Hubble Space Telescope was employed to do an initial survey of the planetary atmospheres for hydrogen. Astronomers across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North America, South America and Southeast Asia coordinated their efforts to make sense of the data.

The discovery of a planetary system around Trappist-1 is not merely a piece of luck. It is the confirmation of a scientific hypothesis, first advanced in 1997, that, due to the physics of stellar formation, stars with about a tenth of the mass of the Sun are more likely to have terrestrial-sized planets. Trappist-1 is one of many candidates to be studied using this hypothesis, and the first for which the idea has been borne out.

This scientific breakthrough is the culmination of several centuries of advances in astronomy and physics: the understanding of how solar systems are formed; the analysis of visible light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation; and mathematical methods of analysis used to discover the subtle signals in the data from stellar observations.

Trappist-1 is a demonstration of the power of human cognition, science and reason. It is a powerful rebuke to the incessant contemporary glorification of irrationalism, whether through the cultivation of backwardness and religious prejudice or the promotion of postmodernism and its rejection of objective truth, and a mighty vindication of the materialist understanding of the world, that there are objective laws of nature and that humans can comprehend them.

Among millions of people inspired by such discoveries, there is an instinctive understanding that the methods employed to find the Trappist-1 planets and make other scientific and technical advances should be used to solve social and economic problems, to provide sufficient health care, education, shelter and food for all humanity. How can our society discover seven potentially Earth-like worlds more than 350 trillion kilometers away, yet proceed, through environmental recklessness and nuclear-armed militarism, to destroy the planet on which we live?

The exoplanet discovery was based on collaboration towards a common goal whose driving force was the pursuit of knowledge, not the amassing of insane amounts of personal wealth. This sort of thinking is totally alien to the world’s ruling elite, which flaunts its backwardness, vulgarity, ignorance and parasitism, personified in the figure of Donald Trump.

This discovery highlights another contradiction of modern society. The organization and planning required to produce these results is a testament to humanity’s ability to rationally and scientifically coordinate resources on an international scale. The scientists on the project also had to reject the constant mantra of national chauvinism, espoused by the ruling elites throughout the world. While science probes the seemingly infinite distances of galactic space, humanity remains trapped at home within the prison house of the nation-state system, with barbed-wire fences, wars, invasions, bombings and mass flights of refugees.

The squandering of trillions of dollars, yuan, yen, roubles and euros to enrich a parasitic capitalist elite and to wage war around the globe is one reason why scientific announcements of this order are so rare. Immense resources, material and human, are wasted, which should be devoted to the improvement of the human condition and the conquest of knowledge of the material world.

The creation of a society in which the development of knowledge can be freed from the constraints of capitalism requires the application of science and reason to the evolution of society and to politics. In opposition to postmodernism and its many variants, which insist that there is no objective truth, Marxism is rooted in an analysis of the laws of socioeconomic development.

Driven inexorably by its internal contradictions, capitalism is leading mankind toward the abyss of world war and dictatorship. These same contradictions, however, also produce the basis for the overthrow of capitalism: the international working class. The objective process must be made conscious, and the growing opposition of millions of workers and youth around the world must be transformed into a political movement that has as its aim the establishment of an internationally coordinated, rationally directed system of economic planning based on equality and the satisfaction of human need: socialism.

Bryan Dyne

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/02/24/pers-f24.html

Will Trump and Bannon drag us into another big ground war?

It could happen sooner than we think

Our president wants to “knock the hell out of ISIS” and “take the oil”; his key adviser longs for World War III

Will Trump and Bannon drag us into another big ground war? It could happen sooner than we think
(Credit: Getty/ Chip Somodevilla/everlite/Salon)

On Wednesday NBC News released a poll reporting that 66 percent of Americans surveyed were worried that the United States will become involved in another war. One might think that’s surprising since President Donald Trump has famously been portrayed as an old-school isolationist, an image mostly based upon his lies about not supporting the Iraq War and his adoption of the pre-World War II isolationist slogan “America First.”

As I laid out for Salon a few weeks ago, that assumption is wrong. Trump is anything but an isolationist. He’s not much on alliances, preferring to strong-arm other nations into supporting the U.S. “for their own good.” But if they are willing to cough up some protection money, he might agree to fulfill our treaty obligations. His adoption of the phrase “America First” reflects his belief that the U.S. must be No. 1, not that it should withdraw from the world.

In other words, while Trump has no interest in perpetuating the global security system under which the world has lived since the dawn of the nuclear age, that’s not because he believes it hasn’t worked. He doesn’t know what it does, how it came to be or why it exists. He simply believes other countries are failing to pay proper respect and he is aiming to make sure they understand that America isn’t just great again; it’s the greatest.

This has nothing to do with American exceptionalism. Trump is happy to admit that American pretenses to moral leadership are hypocritical, and he’s openly contemptuous of anyone who believes that the U.S. should try harder to live up to its ideals. If you want to understand what Trump believes, “to the victor goes the spoils” pretty much covers it. He means it in terms of his family, which continues to merge the presidency into its company brand all over the world, and he means it in terms of the United States, believing that this is the richest and most powerful nation on Earth and we can take whatever we want.

One of his goals is to “defeat ISIS.” And when he says defeat, he means to do whatever it takes to ensure it does not exist anymore. That does seem like a nice idea. After all, ISIS is an antediluvian, authoritarian death cult and the world would be better off without it. The question, of course, has always been how to accomplish such a thing.

Thoughtful people rationally understand that “defeating” radical extremism of any kind isn’t a matter of killing all the people. Indeed, the more extremists you kill, the more extremists you tend to create. But while Trump simply sees the world by playground rules, his consigliere Steve Bannon sees the threat of ISIS as a preordained apocalyptic confrontation between Western countries and the Muslim world. In a notorious speech he gave at the Vatican in 2014, Bannon put it this way:

We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict . . . to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.

He has called Trump his “blunt instrument” to bring about this global conflagration. Bannon is now a member of the National Security Council and is said to be running a parallel national security agency called the Strategic Initiatives Group, which he has stacked with kooks who share his views. He is a powerful influence.

Trump has promised to take the gloves off, and I think we all know exactly what he meant by that. He said it many times during the campaign: He favors torture. And he reiterated it just last month in his interview with ABC’s David Muir saying, “When ISIS is doing things that nobody has ever heard of since medieval times, would I feel strongly about waterboarding? As far as I’m concerned, we have to fight fire with fire.”

And Trump went on to grudgingly promise that he would listen to the secretary of defense and hold back on torture if that was his recommendation. But Trump also claimed that he’s talked to people at the highest levels of the intelligence community who told him that torture works like a charm. So we will have to see if the president is really able to restrain himself. (His CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, has been all for it in the past. Maybe they’ll simply decide to leave Defense Secretary Jim Mattis out of the loop.)

But what about Trump’s promises to “bomb the shit out of ’em” and “take the oil?” What about Bannon’s desire to bring on WorldWar III? Will that really happen? It might, and sooner than we think.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday:

More American troops may be needed in Syria to speed the campaign against the Islamic State, the top United States commander for the Middle East said on Wednesday.

“I am very concerned about maintaining momentum,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the United States Central Command, told reporters accompanying him on a trip to the region.

“It could be that we take on a larger burden ourselves,” he added. “That’s an option.”

Despite his unfounded reputation for isolationism, it’s obvious that Trump is itching for a war. Responding to a debate question about whether he would follow a military commander’s advice to put troops on the ground, Trump said, “We really have no choice; we have to knock out ISIS. We have to knock the hell out of them.” When asked how many troops he thought might be needed, he replied that the number he had heard was 20,000 to 30,000.

Nobody thought much of Trump’s bluster at the time. But now he’s in the White House with an apocalyptic crackpot whispering in his ear and generals on the ground talking about taking on “a larger burden.” Whether his administration’s military advisers, Defense Secretary Mattis and his newly installed national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, are as eager for this battle remains to be seen. But it appears that the two-thirds of Americans who are worried that we’ll be dragged into another war are anxious for good reason.

 

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

As the media hails Lt. General McMaster, the military strengthens its grip on the government

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23 February 2017

The US media and political establishment has responded with virtually universal praise to Donald Trump’s choice of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster to replace the fired ex-general Michael Flynn as his national security adviser.

Observing the response from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as the corporate media, one might conclude that a memo had gone out from CIA headquarters on the language to be used in describing McMaster. He is a “scholar,” an “experienced commander,” an “iconoclast,” even an “intellectual.” The received wisdom is that this mixture of Thucydides and Clausewitz will provide “reasoned and sound judgment” to guide the foreign policy of the Trump administration.

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gushed that McMaster is a “card-carrying grownup,” while Democratic New York Representative Steve Israel proclaimed him a “brilliant, reasoned leader.” Former Obama administration official and Clinton advisor Jared Cohen called him a “brilliant strategist and thinker.”

On the part of the media, the New York Times, which functions as a de facto organ of the Democratic Party, set the tone with its editorial on Wednesday. Its response was particularly noteworthy given the newspaper’s leading role in the anti-Russian campaign waged by the intelligence agencies.

The editorial’s headline appealed directly to Trump and his top White House aides: “Now, Let General McMaster Do His Job.” It declared the latest Trump general to be “an enlightened choice.” It went on to advise, “If Mr. Trump empowers him and defers to his judgment, General McMaster could be an important moderating force in an administration packed with radicals and amateurs.”

The editorial praised McMaster as a “student of history,” “one of the military’s most gifted scholars and strategists,” and “one of the best American commanders” in the Iraq War. According to the Times, McMaster’s book on Vietnam War decision-making in Washington, Dereliction of Duty, “lays out the consequences of abetting misguided presidents with ill-conceived policies.”

The Times piles on the flattery in an op-ed column by Jonathan Stevenson, a former Obama national security aide, who describes McMaster as “a compelling choice: a scholar-warrior in the mold of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, with the bonus of looking every inch the part,” and “a proven cavalry officer and a formidable defense intellectual,” who demonstrated in Iraq “exemplary application of counterinsurgency doctrine.”

The immediate issue driving the praise for McMaster is the hope that his foreign policy views, which adhere to the conventional anti-Russian consensus of the bulk of the military-intelligence apparatus, will prevail within the councils of the Trump administration, particularly when General Mattis at the Pentagon and General John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security weigh in as well.

More generally, the exercise in collective deification is an expression of the disintegration of American democracy and the extraordinary power of the military over all official institutions in the United States.

The growing influence of current and former generals, who occupy four top positions in the Trump national security hierarchy—secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, national security adviser and National Security Council chief of staff—is no cause for concern to the media pundits and newspaper columnists, who appear to have forgotten the core democratic principle of civilian control of the military.

Especially noteworthy in the praise of McMaster—who will remain on active duty as national security adviser—is the reference to the lessons he drew in his analysis of the Vietnam War. McMaster’s book denounced the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to demand that President Lyndon Johnson commit the resources required to “win” the war up-front: as many as 700,000 troops, no restrictions on ground operations in South Vietnam, and unrestricted targeting of North Vietnam for bomb attacks, including MiG fighter bases and ports where Soviet and Chinese military personnel would likely have been killed.

His thesis is a variant of the criticism leveled against the methods of “limited war” in Iraq and Afghanistan in favor of an all-out approach, summed up by the slogan, “Go big, or go home.”

That such methods would have constituted a massive war crime in Vietnam, even greater than the one actually perpetrated by the tactics of gradual escalation—millions of Vietnamese dead, more than 50,000 American soldiers killed, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia laid waste—does not interest McMaster’s fan club in the slightest.

Even more reactionary is McMaster’s argument that the main defect of the Vietnam War was the failure of the generals to assert themselves more forcefully against the civilian leadership. Their “dereliction of duty” consisted of allowing themselves to be overruled by a president who, in McMaster’s view, was more interested in winning the war on poverty than the war in Southeast Asia.

More recently, McMaster has been engaged in a military project to study the conflict in Ukraine and the lessons to be drawn by US military planners preparing for war in Eastern Europe against the Russian army and air force.

The response to the selection of McMaster underscores the fact that the conflict that has raged within the political establishment since Trump’s inauguration has nothing to do with the concerns motivating millions of people opposed to Trump’s authoritarianism and right-wing policies. As far as Trump’s establishment critics are concerned, the more power the military and intelligence agencies have over the instruments of state, the better.

In terms of policies, if the desires of those promoting the “moderate” McMaster are fulfilled, there will be a vast escalation of US militarism in relation to Russia, a nuclear-armed power. As for Trump’s other “moderate” generals, Department of Homeland Security head John Kelly is overseeing the assault on immigrant workers and has signed a memo calling for the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of national guardsmen to enforce it. Secretary of Defense Mattis, a war criminal responsible for the destruction of Fallujah, is overseeing a massive expansion of the military in preparation for world war.

All of this demonstrates, as the WSWS has stressed, that Trump is not an interloper into an otherwise healthy democratic society. His administration is the outcome of twenty-five years of unending war and decades of social counterrevolution. The American financial aristocracy stands atop a deeply diseased social order and relies ever more directly on the instruments of war and state repression to maintain its domination.

There is no popular support for further military adventures in the Middle East, let alone the cataclysmic prospect of war with China or Russia, both nuclear-armed powers. The drive to maintain the dominant world position of American imperialism by means of ever more bloody military aggression abroad is inseparably linked to a frontal assault on the social conditions and democratic rights of the working class at home.

Patrick Martin

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/02/23/pers-f23.html