“American Gods” answers our prayers for a show worthy of worship

Divine drama: Bryan Fuller and Michael Green combine their talents to bring Neil Gaiman’s deity-driven story roaring to life

Divine drama: "American Gods" answers our prayers for a show worthy of worship
American Gods(Credit: Starz)

Take a moment to appreciate the spiritual symmetry Starz’s “American Gods” brings to the next eight Sunday nights. Millions will greet each of those mornings with ceremonial worship and prayer, and a share of those same people, as well as others who are less religious, will end the day watching this drama — a show that questions whether faith gains us anything in the end.

For there’s no question in “American Gods” as to whether deities exist. They walk among us and have done so for centuries, sharing many of the same urges and frustrations as humans do. What the gods are not, however, are interventionists. Pray all you want; odds are they’re not listening. But be careful because the ones who answer may not give the pious the deliverance sought.

“American Gods,” premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., represents Neil Gaiman’s contemporary take on pantheons merging and colliding, something genre fiction writers played with on page and screen many times over. Readers familiar with Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic books will recognize the insouciant humor and a similarly fluid sense of time and reality in Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s television adaptation.

The otherworldly travelers in “American Gods” are immigrants who arrive alongside their human believers but whose relationship with the faithful tends toward the parasitic as opposed to the symbiotic. In an opening scene set in the distant past, Vikings are marooned on an unfriendly North American shore and maim themselves to gain favor from Odin, the All-Father, whose bestowal of a piddly breeze is not commensurate with the stunning orgy of bloodshed that precedes it.

If Odin’s boys could only see him now! Traveling as Mr. Wednesday, the battered and rumpled old god (played sublimely by Ian McShane) merrily, lazily slides into the life of recently released convict Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). Shadow finds out as he’s released that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died unexpectedly, a terrible stroke of fate that brings him into Wednesday’s orbit.

Wednesday cons his way into first class by pretending to be senile and harmless, and Shadow, in a stroke of luck, is bumped up when his seat is double booked. Whether this was actually coincidence or the downward-trending god’s will is the first of many small mysteries “American Gods” sprinkles throughout its initial episodes — and probably the least important.

Mr. Wednesday is up front about who he is: a liar, cheater, swindler, hustler. A few drinks later Mr. Wednesday persuades Shadow to become his paid bodyguard, a job assured to come with a lot of perks as well as a high probability of a violent death. For Wednesday is gathering an army of old deities to take on the New Gods, a coalition of uncaring beings led by Mr. World (Crispin Glover), which includes the bratty Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and the seductive Media (Gillian Anderson).

While the Norse god can count on some truly potent allies, including a tall and pugilistic leprechaun named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Czernobog (Peter Stormare), a bloodthirsty Slavic lord of darkness, latter-day humanity’s obsession with material gain and convenience has decided tilted the odds against Mr. Wednesday’s team.

Now capricious creatures of faded glory, these formerly supreme beings have been forgotten, pushed into musty, small spaces and wrapped in dingy, plain clothes. Survival has transformed them from masters over the elements and protectors of humanity into con artists, thugs and killers. Yet they personify timelessness; regardless of the actor playing them, these beings do not seem recognizably young or ancient. Their places of worship may be velvety scarlet dens of supplication or a bank of screens at a big-box store; their altars are dreamscapes of temptation, threats and teeth that catch men by the throat.

“American Gods” takes place at the nexus of classic myth and modern techromancy, archetype and prototype, and wrestles with concepts no less than the churning of an unconcerned and enthralling cosmos.

Gaiman’s new gods, like the old ones, are manifestations of modern beliefs. And what do we believe in these days? The material and the measurable — fame, convenience, wealth. The new gods promise the kind of immortality that can accessed by a search engine, with none of the nonsense about souls or angels or never-ending bliss in union with the infinite.

But the infinite is dazzling, no question. Transitional sequences within each episode convey the wonder of the universe through wide shots of color-saturated natural vistas and skies streaked with carpets of stars. The show’s cinematography and digital imagery emphasize the juxtaposition of the natural world against the synthetic, reality versus the realm of the unreal, impressing upon the viewer how inconsequential man happens to be in the vastness of time and space. It also invites the viewer to see an extra level of magic within floating tufts of dandelion seed.

The drama provides an ideal canvas for Fuller and Green to unleash their creative and collaborative powers. The conscientious visual style that Fuller honed on “Hannibal” achieves riotous new heights of sensuality in this series. Green, a DC Comics veteran whose television credits include serving as an executive producer on “Heroes,” aids in harmonizing the story’s surfeit of histories and personalities into an intelligible and spellbinding structure.

Combining their strengths, Fuller and Green have taken a story long believed to be untamable and channeled its powers into a delirious odyssey that takes its time with character development without putting too much drag on the tale’s velocity.

It doesn’t take long for Shadow and Wednesday’s road trip to become a Technicolor debate about the nature of belief and the power of faith. Mr. Wednesday needs both to continue to exist. Shadow Moon, as his name implies, is a guardian of the threshold between the mortal and the eternal. He believes in nothing. Yet the oddity he witnesses at Wednesday’s side gives him pause.

Fuller and Green co-wrote five of the first season’s eight episodes, and their scripts gives the show’s superlative cast a buffet of opportunities to chew the scenery. Orlando Jones’ introduction as Mr. Nancy is marked by a blazing monologue evocative of Alec Baldwin’s epic “Glengarry Glen Ross” speech and it’s chockablock with just as many cold assurances.

McShane ascends to his usual level of brilliance, but Whittle’s Shadow wields a seductive, brooding charm that stands up to the “Deadwood” star well enough. And their partnership gives credence to the idea that the gods could be a little insane.

But Fuller and Green accentuate the comedic side of these gods and goddesses much more than their cruelty (the exception being Yetide Badaki’s divinely concupiscent Bilquis) which imbues “American Gods” with a cheeky flair. And if the performances by the likes of Jones, Stormare, Schreiber and Cloris Leachman seem outsized, that’s proportional to the beings they play.

So numerous are the number of gods that we don’t even meet them all in the first four episodes. Those who are introduced, however, are fascinating enough to purchase the viewers’ patience with the relatively leisurely speed that “American Gods” travels through the plot. It takes time to construct a world worthy of worship.

The significance of Trump’s proposed elimination of arts, humanities spending

By David Walsh
7 April 2017

Various protests have been organized in recent weeks by arts groups opposed to Donald Trump’s plan, part of his budget proposal for 2018, to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The proposal also defunds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Library and Museum Service.

The most sizable rallies took place in Washington, D.C., New York City and Boston. In addition, a petition opposing the cuts, organized by various liberal groups, including PEN America, People for the American Way, and the Nation, and which warns about “a new Dark Ages in America,” has been signed by some 240,000 people to date.

The NEA and NEH are among 19 government agencies, as the WSWS noted recently, “most of them long targeted for destruction by ultra-right ideologues and Christian fundamentalists,” slated for outright destruction.

The two organizations at present receive a pittance, $148 million each in 2016, a tiny fraction of the nearly $4 trillion federal budget.

The attack on the endowments, each of which received funding last year the equivalent of the cost of one Air Force F-35A fighter, has primarily political and ideological motives.

In keeping with the administration’s thuggish character, Trump officials defended the savage budget plan on the grounds that it was helping move the country “toward fiscal responsibility” and “eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to redefine the proper role of the Federal Government.”

The eradication of the token amount the US government has been spending on culture goes hand in hand with a proposed increase in the Pentagon’s budget to a staggering $639 billion. Money that went to dance companies and libraries and local theaters will go instead to killing people in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, North Korea and other parts of the globe, apparently the “proper role of the Federal Government.”

According to the Hill, “The proposed cuts hew closely to a blueprint published last year by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has helped staff the Trump transition.”

Outfits like the ultra-right Heritage Foundation, which do nothing with their time except calculate how every possible penny of the national income can be shoveled into the pockets of the super-rich, like to posture as friends of the “little people” when it comes to the NEA and similar organizations. “The NEA is welfare for cultural elitists,” claims the Foundation. Or, in the words of White House budget Director Mike Mulvaney, “The president finally got to the point where he said, ‘Do I really want to make the coal miner in West Virginia, or the auto worker in Ohio, or the single mom in Detroit pay for the National Endowment of the Arts or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?’ And the answer is no.”

One can make all manner of criticism of the NEA and NEH, but for the defenders of unending war and repression and billion-dollar boondoggles for giant corporations to complain about the miserable subsidy of the arts and humanities in the US as an example of “elitism” goes beyond obscene hypocrisy into some other, yet uncharted realm.

The hostility of the extreme right toward the NEA has almost nothing to do with what the toothless, thoroughly cowed agency actually does. The fascistic, militaristic right fears art because of what art might do, has done. This is the significance of one such attack on the NEA and NEH: “These are all propaganda arms for the far-left. They don’t deserve a penny of taxpayer money. Why should American citizens have to pay for globalist, anti-American, socialist propaganda? This budget is urgently needed.”

Utterly absurd, but the fears are legitimate. Socially critical art, very little of which the NEA actually subsidizes, would challenge the status quo and would almost inevitably be “far-left” and “socialist.”

We have commented before: “The assault on art, on the artistic personality itself, by the American political establishment flows from its crisis and its predatory aims. The ruling elite is frightened by everything it cannot control, cannot understand, everything that does not serve the interests of the market. It is instinctively hostile in the US at present to truthful and penetrating depictions of life. Such depictions must show it up for the anti-democratic, authoritarian, rotten husk that it is.

“The ruling elite knows as well that it cannot inspire serious art. In the honest and forthright, it only inspires disgust and loathing. Endless war, a policy of everything for the rich, continuous attacks on the rights of the people—under these conditions only the most miserable toady and the opportunist gravitate toward the powers that be. The artist, particularly the young artist, must find a new orientation, based on opposition to the status quo in every one of its aspects.”

Every civilized society subsidizes serious art work, which, by its very nature, is not geared toward earning a profit. The production of work that reflects on and brings out the deepest character of the society, including its most serious flaws, should be the responsibility of that society. Any healthy society, that is. As we noted in 2004, and things are far more advanced now, American capitalism is so decayed and rotten that its rulers and their apologists cannot bear to see an honest portrait of life in this country. Hence, the instinctive and relentless desire to stifle art and the artist.

The claim that art should rely on the “market” is not, as is claimed, an argument for letting “the people decide.” In fact, the “people” would have absolutely no say in the matter. The decisions would be left entirely to the handful of conglomerates who already determine much of what the American and world’s population sees and hears on a daily basis.

If one wants to know what the “genius” of the market produces, consider the current fare on Broadway or the films in the “Top Box Office” list in the US, which include Beauty and the Beast, The Boss Baby, Power Rangers, Kong: Skull Island, Logan, etc. Has such a list ever been more dispiriting? This is what art-by-conglomerate produces, mostly empty bombast. This is the dream of the ultra-right and the American elite as a whole, the suffocation of art as a means of sharpening the critical faculties of the population.

The argument that the loss of public funding would be more than made for up by private sources, even if it were true, reveals the kind of art the American establishment—including figures like the wealthy, preternaturally pompous and smug George Will (“Abolish the National Endowment for the Arts,” March 15)—has in mind: work that is acceptable to wealthy benefactors, produced by artists who are in the humiliating position of being beholden to these “philanthropist” millionaires and billionaires. As we wrote in 2010: “This dependence on the largess of the wealthy is degrading and intellectually restrictive in the best of times. In a period of crisis, it threatens catastrophe. Now the very presence of music, art and drama in a given community may depend on the financial vicissitudes of the ultra-rich.”

The recent protests against the Trump assault on the arts have not been especially large and, if one reads between the lines of the media accounts, not all that inspiring. No wonder, since they are dominated by Democratic Party politicians and their allies.

The New York City rally, for example, was organized by the City Council’s Democratic Party leader, Jimmy Van Bramer. Among those in attendance, according to Artforum, were “New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, and a number of arts organizations, such as the protest group We Make America and the Actors’ Equity Association.” Furthermore, “Council members from Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens were in attendance to make mention of the positive effects the arts have on all manner of community, great and small.” Beloved figures, these council members, every one of them!

Van Bramer made a demagogic statement, including these comments: “Just as the President assaulted healthcare for millions of Americans, he’s now assaulting the arts, culture, humanities, and libraries, and seeking to deprive hundreds of millions of Americans the right to experience and express themselves through art and culture. We want to have the same kind of resistance movement against Trump’s assault on the arts.”

The record of the Democratic Party is miserable and right-wing on every one of these counts. The Obama administration presided over unprecedented social inequality, while launching illegal drone strikes and stepping up mass surveillance and attacks on democratic rights. In this regard, the comments of warmonger Representative Nancy Pelosi of California about the proposed arts cuts are especially repugnant: “It’s about enjoyment and inspiration and jobs, but it’s also about our humanity. This is about America and who we are as a nation.”

Going further back, the record of the Clinton administration record on civil liberties and the arts was generally atrocious, from support for the so-called Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, to strengthening the police ability to obtain wiretaps, to speeding up the death penalty process. It was the Clinton Justice Department that appealed a federal court’s ruling that the anti-democratic law requiring the NEA to consider “general standards of decency” was unconstitutional to the Supreme Court and won, against artist Karen Finley and three others.

The NEA hierarchy itself, establishment to its core, is largely impotent and incapable of appealing to wide layers of the population, having spent the past 30 years or so retreating from the attacks of semi-fascists like Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and his ilk. The argument of the NEA leadership that its programs are essentially civic-minded and harmless and even generate income will do nothing to arouse popular interest or support.

The arts in America will have to be defended through the emergence of a mass socialist-minded working class movement directed against the foundations of the profit system, the source of the unrelenting assault on art and culture.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/04/07/arts-a07.html

Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts

Laurel Lawson and Alice Sheppard performing in December 2016. CreditRobbie Sweeny

In 1937, ascending leaders of the Third Reich hosted two art exhibitions in Munich. One, the “Great German Art Exhibition,” featured art Adolf Hitler deemed acceptable and reflective of an ideal Aryan society: representational, featuring blond people in heroic poses and pastoral landscapes of the German countryside. The other featured what Hitler and his followers referred to as “degenerate art”: work that was modern or abstract, and art produced by people disavowed by Nazis — Jewish people, Communists, or those suspected of being one or the other. The “degenerate art” was presented in chaos and disarray, accompanied by derogatory labels, graffiti and catalog entries describing “the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or pencil.” Hitler and those close to him strictly controlled how artists lived and worked in Nazi Germany, because they understood that art could play a key role in the rise or fall of their dictatorship and the realization of their vision for Germany’s future.

“Degenerate Art,” a Nazi-curated exhibition, at the Haus der Kunst in Berlin, February 1938. CreditReuters

Last month, the Trump administration proposed a national budget that includes the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA operates with a budget of about $150 million a year. As critics have observed, this amount is about 0.004 percent of the federal budget, making the move a fairly inefficient approach to trimming government spending. Many Americans have been protesting the cuts by pointing out the many ways that art enriches our lives — as they should. The arts bring us joy and entertainment; they can offer a reprieve from the trials of life or a way to understand them.

But as Hitler understood, artists play a distinctive role in challenging authoritarianism. Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value. Like the proverbial court jester who can openly mock the king in his own court, artists who occupy marginalized social positions can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.

Authoritarian leaders throughout history have intuited this fact and have acted accordingly. The Stalinist government of the 1930s required art to meet strict criteria of style and content to ensure that it exclusively served the purposes of state leadership. In his memoir, the composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich writes that the Stalinist government systematically executed all of the Soviet Union’s Ukrainian folk poets. When Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, muralists were arrested, tortured and exiled. Soon after the coup, the singer and theater artist Víctor Jara was killed, his body riddled with bullets and displayed publicly as a warning to others. In her book “Brazilian Art Under Dictatorship,” Claudia Calirman writes that the museum director Niomar Moniz Sodré Bittencourt had to hide works of art and advise artists to leave Brazil after authorities entered her museum, blocked the exhibition and demanded the work be dismantled because it contained dangerous images like a photograph of a member of the military falling off a motorcycle, which was seen as embarrassing to the police. Such extreme intervention may seem far removed from the United States today, until we consider episodes like the president’s public castigation of the “Hamilton” cast after it issued a fairly tame commentary directed at Mike Pence.

In its last round of grants, the NEA gave $10,000 to a music festival in Oregon to commission a dance performance by people in wheelchairs and dance classes for people who use mobility devices. A cultural center in California received $10,000 to host workshops led by Muslim artists, including a hip-hop artist, a comedian and filmmakers. A chorus in Minnesota was granted $10,000 to create a concert highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ youth, to be performed in St. Paul public schools. Each of these grants supports the voices of the very people the current presidential administration has mocked, dismissed and outright harmed. Young people, queer people, immigrants, and minorities have long used art as a means of dismantling the institutions that would silence us first and kill us later, and the NEA is one of the few wide-reaching institutions that support that work.

Ai Weiwei and remnants of an installation for the Venice Biennale in 2013. CreditGilles Sabrie for The New York Times

American observers shook their heads in disapproval when the performance artist Danilo Maldonado was arrested and jailed for criticizing the Castro regime, and when the Chinese sculptor and photographer Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest and had his studio demolished by the government. But closer to home, it is imperative that we understand what Trump’s attack on the arts is really about. It’s not about making America a drab and miserable place, nor is it about a belief in austerity or denying resources to communities in need. Much like the disappearance of data from government websites and the exclusion of critical reporters from White House briefings, this move signals something broader and more threatening than the inability of one group of people to do their work. It’s about control. It’s about creating a society where propaganda reigns and dissent is silenced.

We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. When the canary in the coal mine goes silent, we should be very afraid — not only because its song was so beautiful, but also because it was the only sign that we still had a chance to see daylight again.

A comment on Robert Osborne (1932-2017), host of Turner Classic Movies

By David Walsh
8 March 2017

Robert Osborne, the longtime principal host for cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM), died March 6 at 84. He had been largely absent from the channel since early 2016. The cause of his death has not been announced.

Osborne was a calming, affable and intelligent presence on American television—something terribly rare! He came across as a decent person and clearly had a genuine commitment to the films he introduced.

In recent years, in the face of the overall condition of American television, it felt at times not simply that TCM was the best channel, but that it was the onlychannel one could watch.

Robert Osborne in 2014 (Photo credit: The Peabody Awards)

Osborne was born in the small town of Colfax, in eastern Washington. His father was a high school principal. Osborne fell in love with the movies at an early age. After graduating from the University of Washington, he tried to find work as an actor, with limited success. Lucille Ball, at whose Desilu Productions Osborne was under contract as an actor, suggested he concentrate on writing about American film history. He eventually became a critic and columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. He also wrote Academy Awards Illustrated (1965), with an introduction by Bette Davis. He became a host at TCM on its launch in 1994.

What role Osborne played in TCM film programming over the years is difficult to say, but clearly intriguing things happened in an undertaking with which he was associated. He certainly had a feeling for film history and traditions. Turner Classic Movies began operations, quite deliberately, on April 14, 1994, in New York City. In his introduction to 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter (2016), Osborne explains: “That day marked the 100th anniversary of film in the United States. It had been on April 14, 1894, that the first kinetoscope [early moving picture device] parlor opened in New York City—the launch of the film industry in the U.S. of A.”

Interior view of Kinetoscope with peephole viewer at top of cabinet

Over the past 23 years, in a generally difficult cultural landscape, TCM has proved one of the few locales in the American media-entertainment universe where decisions were made largely on the basis of artistic merit. However and by whoever it was established, a certain integrity seemed to reign there. The cable channel continues to broadcast several hundred older films a week, most made before 1970, uncut and without commercials.

In regard to the latter issue, Osborne told an interviewer, “It’s so essential to see films without commercial breaks and interruptions. If you see Hitchcock’s Rebecca … that whole movie is predicated on mood and slow suspense. You can’t break that mood for a commercial. You lose the rhythm and the impact of it.” Readers around the world may not find the thought of commercial-free film presentation so startling, but, unhappily, in the US, where television is largely a scaffolding for corporate promotion—in November 2015, nearly 20 percent of all programming minutes were devoted to paid advertising (the figure is closer to 25 percent on major networks)—it is extremely, almost provocatively, unusual.

Speaking of a certain integrity, Osborne publicly identified himself with opposition to the Hollywood purges, hosting “Survivors of the Blacklist: A Panel Discussion” in November 2009 in New York. Actress and blacklist victim Lee Grant, along with Christopher Trumbo (son of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) and Joe Gilford (son of Jack Gilford) were among the panelists.

It is not necessary, of course, to make Osborne into more than he was. At its weakest, Osborne and TCM pandered to Hollywood nostalgia, small talk and star worship. Not every one of his introductions was especially profound.

But then on TCM, out of the blue, one would encounter Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, or Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite or a program of 26 films by Akira Kurosawa (in March 2010, to mark 100 years since the Japanese filmmaker’s birth)—and one’s jaw would drop. This—something that doesn’t obviously and immediately earn large profits, something that seems to be done merely for the beauty or the interest of it—on American television! It won’t last, someone will see to that!

Poster for Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) (1933)

It is probably true that no other enterprise has done as much to make important films accessible to a wide audience. According to media reports, TCM has an audience in the US of some 62 million people a month, many of them unswervingly loyal.

To Osborne’s credit, he insisted on showing a variety of films. In his introduction to 52 Must-See Movies, he wrote: “The programming plan for the channel was always to show movies from all countries and from all eras, big productions, small ones, legendary ones, as well as B-budget movies.”

Where else on American television would you have had the chance to see Nine Days in One Year, the 1962 Soviet black-and-white drama film directed by Mikhail Romm, or The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), another Soviet film? Or R.W. Fassbinder’s 1973 World on a Wire ? Or various Italian neo-realist works? Or Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959)? Or films by Michael Powell, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, Kenji Mizoguchi, Federico Fellini, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Abbas Kiarostami, Michelangelo Antonioni, Max Ophuls, Yasujiro Ozu and Alain Resnais?

Aside from introducing younger audiences, and others, to some of the remarkable and complex efforts made by American studio directors from the 1930s to the 1960s, TCM programmers have made genuine efforts to broaden its viewers’ tastes, showing silent films, short films, and documentaries and raising the issue as well of those who have been largely excluded from Hollywood productions. The cable channel broadcast “Black Images on Film” in 2006, “Asian Images on Film” in 2008, “Latino Images on Film” in 2009, “Native American Images on Film” in 2010 and “Arab Images on Film” in 2011. In 2007, TCM aired the series “Screened Out,” on the history of the representation of homosexuality on film.

In its “Star of the Month” segment, TCM focuses on dozens of films by a particular performer, often bringing to light relatively obscure or forgotten works. Aside from the obvious luminaries, those performers have included Leslie Howard, Christopher Lee, Jane Wyman, Kay Francis, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Robert Ryan, Jean Harlow, Susan Hayward, Fred MacMurray, Marie Dressler, Ava Gardner, Ann Sothern, Rita Hayworth, Sterling Hayden, Lauren Bacall, Stewart Granger, David Niven, John Garfield and many others.

In one of the more intimate and often charming TCM segments, various contemporary performers or commentators (or offspring) pay brief tribute to actors and actresses of a previous period. So, over film imagery, we hear Elizabeth Taylor on Montgomery Clift, Robert Redford on Natalie Wood, Kevin Spacey on Jack Lemmon, Janet Leigh on Norma Shearer, Julianne Moore on Myrna Loy, Bill Irwin on Harold Lloyd, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Laura Dern on Barbara Stanwyck, Tony Curtis on Cary Grant, Claire Bloom on Charlie Chaplin, Jane Fonda on Henry Fonda, Ernest Borgnine on Robert Ryan and so on.

There are many reasons for the decline of American filmmaking, and this is not the occasion to discuss them. But just let it be said here that, without for one second intending to, the mild-mannered, unassuming Osborne and the countless films he introduced stood as a sharp and constant rebuke to the generally empty, crude, noisy and dull efforts of the contemporary movie industry.

 

Milo Yiannopoulos isn’t ready for “Real Time” and it shows

Bill Maher’s public service:

Most people have no idea who Milo is, except that he claims to be “Dangerous.” Friday night, Bill Maher showed them

Bill Maher's public service: Milo Yiannopoulos isn't ready for "Real Time" and it shows
(Credit: Getty/Drew Angerer/HBO/Salon)

When it was announced that this week’s episode of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” would feature so-called “right-wing provocateur” Milo Yiannopoulos, some people freaked out. Many seemed to believe that bringing Yiannopoulos on the show would legitimize a noxious professional troll, as if that horse hadn’t already escaped the barn when America elected one president.

Journalist Jeremy Scahill, co-founding editor of The Intercept, canceled his own booking in protest. In his one-on-one segment with Maher at the top of the show, Yiannopoulos called that approach out: “If you don’t show up to debate, you lose.” On one hand, not every debate is worth sitting in the makeup chair for. (I’ve seen the Milo show; I’ve seen better.) But Yiannopoulos isn’t leading a political movement; he’s an attention-seeking troll. They don’t feed on legitimacy, but rather scandal and outrage, which Scahill helped deliver. For my part, I was irritated that I’d have to sit through an interview with this guy before getting to Leah Remini’s Scientology Dirt Bag, so it’s not like I had a high horse to climb off of.

It’s easy to forget, if you don’t live on the Internet, that most people in America — and quite possibly most “Real Time” home viewers — likely have no idea who Milo is or if they should care about him at all. (Third *NSync alum from the right?) If their first up-close exposure to Milo Yiannopoulos, C-Lister Famous for Something or Other, was last night’s “Real Time,” I can’t imagine they now understand what all the fuss is about.

Yiannopoulos came out quite saucy and self-satisfied — ain’t I a stinker? — so Maher, ever the comedy veteran, heckled him right out of the gate: “You look like Bruno.” Milo pouted, and then turned his exaggerated frown into a smirk after a beat. “You know I told [the make-up artist] to dial down the contouring.”

Despite their flirty greetings, Maher didn’t let Milo off easy. They agreed on a few things, like how liberals are too easily offended, but throughout the interview, Milo seemed squirmy, a bit flustered and obviously outmatched by his host. Maher wasn’t interested in gossiping about Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman, whom Milo lamely joked were funny before they “contracted feminism.” In fact, he dismissed most of Milo’s low-hanging outrage-bait as just kind of stupid.

Maher’s challenge here was not being cast as Principal Skinner arguing with Bart Simpson, and for the most part, he succeeded. “You’re wrong about certain things,” Maher tells him flatly, giving examples from Milo’s own spiels: “Black Lives Matter is a hate group. There’s no such thing as white privilege.”

Maher, a consistent atheist, also dinged Yiannopoulos for “bullshit stupid thinking” when Milo gave Catholicism a pass he doesn’t extend to other religions.

Yiannopoulos insisted that he’s funny and that his jokes “build bridges.” All he cares about, he claimed, is free speech and free expression, which he described as “now a conservative position.”

“I’m the guy who always defends jokes, right up to the point where they pointlessly hurt people,” Maher said, bringing up the campaign of vicious harassment against “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones that got Yiannopoulos banned from Twitter.

Milo’s defense was a mess of facile talking points. “I like to think of myself as a virtuous troll,” he said. He also claimed, “What actually hurts people is murder, violence. Mean words don’t hurt people.”

“Which some people would say you’ve incited,” countered Maher, though he didn’t give any concrete examples.

“They would be idiots,” said Yiannopoulos.

For a couple of years in the 1980s, my family lived in Germany, where Nazi symbols were, for very understandable reasons, forbidden. As an earnest 7-year-old who read a lot of children’s literature set during World War II, it freaked me out to see swastikas scratched and inked into naughty graffiti, presented with as much gravity and political intent as butts-and-boobs doodles were back home. Little kids test social boundaries all the time. They’re drawn to the illicit — like giggling over Nazi symbols, which they know are bad but don’t quite understand — because that which is frightening for abstract reasons can also be thrilling, even titillating. Part of growing up — as I hope the kid at my Catholic school who was responsible for that graffiti did, eventually — is learning how one kid’s abstract illicit thrills can be another person’s concrete and dangerous threats, and adjusting your behavior accordingly.

Yiannopoulos is an intriguing conundrum because even though he’s an out gay man in his 30s, not a doodling child, he refuses to connect his own flippant denigration of gay people as hyper-sexed, druggy and untrustworthy — abstract jokes he’s in on — to the concrete threat of discrimination or even violence that LGBT people face from those who may feel emboldened or justified by those attitudes. Maybe he feels those fears are idiotic. Most of his fans are likely in it for the dark thrill of an illicit giggle alone: the permission to laugh at a gay joke because a gay man made it. But how grotesque of a spotlight-chaser does one have to be to ignore the possibility of the fan that isn’t? And how narcissistic is it to forcibly extend that “in on the joke” intimacy to those who haven’t issued an invitation first, like women, black people or Muslims?

On one hand, it’s a pity Maher didn’t have time to delve that deep into a discussion of the philosophy of “j/k lol” with Yiannopoulos. On the other hand, it’s not like Milo said anything on “Real Time” that indicated he’d be up for a challenging intellectual discussion about where the line is, and what it’s used for.

Throughout the segment, Milo demonstrated that as far as provocateurs go, he’s nowhere near Maher’s level. You can disagree with Maher’s positions on politics and religion, but he’s a pro who can back a gag or a flat statement up with reason and consistency. Milo’s a snarky brunch friend on a second round of Bloodies for people who don’t have snarky brunch friends. (Get off Gab once in a while and buy a round, fanboys! You can get your fill of Lena Dunham jokes in person.) He’s managed to build a public speaking and publishing career on little more than being shameless, disgusting and reasonably attractive at the same time. America, land of opportunity!

Maher closed the segment by scolding his audience. “Stop taking the bait, liberals!” he cried. “You’re all freaking out about this fucking impish British fag! You schoolgirls!”

Maher’s using his words as a blunt instrument here, but the sentiment’s not wrong. Exposing Yiannopoulos as a lightweight “famous for doing nothing” vacuous Twitter celeb on TV — as Maher just did — is likely going to be more effective at limiting his cachet and influence than inadvertently building up his illicit, underground cred through outrage. Pushing a malignant thing like Milo Yiannopoulos out into the spotlight isn’t necessarily normalizing it. Sometimes the cliché is true, and sunlight really is the best disinfectant.

The Trump press conference: A ferocious conflict within the ruling elite

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17 February 2017

The news conference given by Donald Trump Thursday afternoon was extraordinary and unprecedented. The event took on a surreal character as, for more than 75 minutes, the US president traded insults with journalists and otherwise engaged in a bitter battle with his nemeses in the media. It is not comparable to anything seen before in modern American history, even at the height of the Watergate crisis.

In witnessing such a spectacle, it is always necessary to uncover the rational content, the underlying political dynamic. In this case, the press conference gave expression to a vicious conflict within the American ruling class over foreign policy as the United States hurtles toward war.

The news conference was initially called to announce Trump’s new pick for labor secretary, but this took up only one minute of the event. Trump began with a litany of achievements and actions he has taken since his inauguration, which was largely directed at the ruling elite in an appeal for support. The stock market has “hit record numbers,” corporate regulations are being eliminated, immigrants are being targeted for deportation, and Trump has ordered a “massive rebuilding” of the US military, among other right-wing measures.

However, from the media, channeling the US intelligence apparatus, questions focused almost exclusively on the ties of the Trump administration to Russia and the circumstances behind the forced resignation earlier this week of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, over his pre-inauguration telephone conversation with the Russian ambassador.

Trump responded with a diatribe in which the media served as a stand-in for his real opponents in the US ruling elite, comprising the bulk of the permanent military-intelligence apparatus that really runs the government, regardless of which party controls the White House or majorities in Congress. He repeatedly denounced what he called “illegal leaks” to the media from sources within the intelligence agencies.

It was remarkable that when Trump directly denounced the media as a mouthpiece for the intelligence agencies, there was no attempt to rebut him. Everyone knows it is true. Likewise, when he flatly denied any contact between his campaign and Russian intelligence agencies, not a single reporter could cite evidence to the contrary.

In the course of the press conference, Trump blurted out a number of astonishing comments that point to the extreme dangers facing the entire world.

Responding to questions about what he would do about a Russian ship conducting surveillance operations in international waters off the coast of Connecticut—the same type of operations US warships conduct on a much larger scale off the coasts of Russia and China—Trump said, “The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles off shore right out of the water. Everyone in this country’s going to say ‘oh, it’s so great.’” He continued, “If I was just brutal on Russia right now, just brutal, people would say, you would say, ‘Oh, isn’t that wonderful.’”

Trump pointed out the implications of such a clash, given that Russia and the United States have the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world. “We’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are they,” he said. “I have been briefed. And I can tell you one thing about a briefing that we’re allowed to say because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it: a nuclear holocaust would be like no other.” In other words, there are ongoing discussions, at the highest levels of the American government, about a potential nuclear war with Russia, for which preparations are well advanced.

When challenged by one reporter on why there was no response by the US government to a series of what he called “provocations” by Russia—largely consisting of incidents provoked by US and NATO war maneuvers along Russia’s borders—Trump replied, “I’m not going to tell you anything about what response I do. I don’t talk about military response.”

He expanded on this theme, declaring that he would not talk about military operations in Iraq, North Korea, Iran or anywhere else. “You know why? Because they shouldn’t know. And eventually, you guys are going to get tired of asking that question.”

Such conflicts within the ruling elite over foreign policy are usually fought out behind the scenes, as with discontent within the military-intelligence apparatus over Obama’s retreat from a direct military intervention in Syria in 2013, when he failed to enforce his so-called “red line” against the government of Bashar al-Assad.

This time, however, the conflict has exploded into the open. Aside from the specific form that the debate within the US state apparatus has taken, it is an expression of an underlying crisis of the entire capitalist order. Twenty-five years of unending war are metastasizing, with extreme rapidity, into a major conflict involving large nation-states. National security journals are full of articles in which there is open discussion about war with Russia, in which the question is not if, but when and how. Trump, on the other hand, has focused his attention on China. In either case, the consequences are incalculable.

What was perhaps most striking is how remote the entire press conference was from the sentiments and concerns of the vast majority of the American population. There was virtually no questioning at the press conference about Trump’s war against immigrant workers or the nationwide day of protest by immigrants and their supporters that was taking place at the same time.

Those participating in the mass protests that have erupted since Trump’s inauguration are not motivated by a desire to launch a war with Russia, but by hatred of Trump’s authoritarian, anti-democratic policies and the oligarchic government that he has set up.

Trump’s critics in the Democratic Party and media, however, are responding to powerful sections of the US ruling elite who welcome Trump’s ultra-reactionary domestic policies—tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, deregulation of corporations, attacks on democratic rights, persecution of immigrants—but regard his posture of seeking better relations with Russia as intolerable.

The Democrats have responded with passive handwringing while Trump has assembled his cabinet of billionaires, ex-generals and right-wing fanatics, and issued a series of reactionary and unconstitutional executive orders. But when given the opportunity to attack Trump as soft on Russia, they engage in savage witch-hunting that recalls nothing so much as McCarthyism.

There is no faction with the American ruling class that is opposed to imperialist war. In the struggle to prevent war, it is up to the working class to intervene independently, opposing both factions in the US ruling elite, both Trump and the line-up of the CIA, the media and the Democratic Party.

Patrick Martin

WSWS