Film Review: House of Sand and Fog

Truly an excellent film.
Truly an excellent film.

House of Sand and Fog is a tragic masterpiece. I’d seen it once before, years ago, but I decided to revisit it in order to share the experience with my husband. Like Requiem for a Dream, another film in which a mature Jennifer Connelly depicts the struggles of addiction, House of Sand and Fog portrays sad and destructive material with a seductive beauty that is impossible to deny or ignore. Let’s break it down into pieces to better understand why it is such effective art!

Use of Lighting

Notice how the lighting makes the fabric textures come alive in this shot.
Notice how the lighting makes the fabric textures come alive in this shot.

The use of lighting in House of Sand and Fog is masterful. The scenic nature shots of course have beautiful natural light and there are plenty of opportunities to catch light with fog, but these types of shot do not require the same level of skill as the lighting used for interior scenes, and that is where design expertise really came into play. Ordinary household objects gleam, glow, and exhibit rich lustre in this film like I rarely see in real life. It’s most obvious once the Behrani family gets their possessions set up in what used to be Kathy’s house, because the fabrics and metals the family would be using would be high quality and well-maintained, and the lighting makes those qualities more obvious. But even something as simple as the plain curtains surrounding Kathy’s window during the eviction scene are granted beauty and life by the film’s lighting. Not since American Beauty have I seen diegetic lighting make common objects look so striking. This means that even when the narrative content of the story gets ugly, the film remains aesthetically excellent.


Kathy's finally ready to admit she needs help... and her brother has no time to talk.
Kathy’s finally ready to admit she needs help… and her brother has no time to talk.

The characters in House of Sand and Fog are truly real. Everyone’s flawed and everyone’s trying to do the best they can with what they have. Ben Kingsley’s sense of honor paired with a short fuse broke my heart, Jennifer Connelly plays just the sort of wench I hate to hate, and Ron Eldard beautifully demonstrates just why a vigilante’s sense of justice is a dangerous threat to innocent people. The supporting characters play their parts excellently as well… Let me return to Connelly’s character, Kathy. I think it’s ingenious that the film never clearly explains why Pacific County tried to get her to pay business taxes in the first place. Based on the rest of her character’s actions and behavior, my hypothesis is that she legitimately owes those taxes because she tried to run a housecleaning business of her own, and she managed to fast talk her lawyer into thinking there’d been some sort of mistake… but there’s not enough evidence in the film to prove or disprove that hypothesis. The film keeps the focus on her current, dire predicament, and that gave her character what shreds of sympathy I could muster for her. Maybe I should read the book.


A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

On the surface, one can interpret the title of this film as referring to a literal, physical house, owned first by Kathy, briefly by Pacific County, and then by Colonel Behrani. But I think the real house of sand and fog the title is referring to is 21st century Western civilization. Kathy and Behrani are both trapped in overlapping webs of social systems like flies having their blood drained by political spiders. Whether or not Kathy legitimately owes Pacific County a few hundred dollars, Pacific County’s solution of evicting her from her home makes about as much sense as using a nuclear option, particularly when you consider the fact that her brother is also part owner of the home. Why should he lose his property because Kathy owes tax money? Colonel Behrani was in a fine social position in Iran but lost everything and had to emigrate when the Ayatollahs took over. In times of political upheaval, people suffer who were only cogs on the wheels, not the wheel-turning force. Kathy and the Colonel both fight fiercely for agency; Kathy’s strategy basically amounts to scorched earth, the Colonel’s is more sophisticated but ultimately neither succeeds. Game over. The house always wins.

Don’t enter the experience of House of Sand and Fog with any illusions about a happy ending. Know what you’re getting into. House of Sand and Fog will make you sigh, might make you cry, and if you have an empathetic bone in your body will poke you where it hurts. But sadness can have a beauty too, the beauty of truth. Reality ain’t always pretty. House of Sand and Fog is nothing if not real.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.

Film Review: The Apostle

Just what is an apostle, anyway?
Just what is an apostle, anyway?

Before viewing this film, I thought I had as clear of an understanding of the term “apostle” as anyone would need. But after hearing the word repeated so many times in such short succession (the film’s main character, played by Robert Duvall, adopts the name “The Apostle EF” when he goes on the lam), I got a little curious about it and decided to go beyond my working definition to its technical meaning. According to its entry in the Internet’s default encyclopedia these days, the word “apostle” is derived from a classical Greek term that can be accurately translated into English as “emissary” – one who is sent away. In the context of early Christianity, when the Disciples became Apostles, they were sent away to found churches. Sonny Dewey/The Apostle EF’s self-appointed mission to start a church is therefore consistent with his chosen label.

Now that I’ve gotten that bit of explanation out of the way, I’m going to take a moment to talk about my take on religion. Remember how I said a few reviews back that I’m a pacifist who loves to watch war movies? I’m also an atheist who loves to examine religion. The way I see it, religion serves the same purpose in life as the magic feather that gives Dumbo the confidence to fly. I’m not saying this to trivialize religion; goodness knows how much blood has been shed in its name, I would never want to mock the pain of its victims. I’m saying this because I think it’s an accurate description of religion’s psychological function. When inspired by religious fervor, people easily become capable of doing things that would otherwise be monumentally difficult for them to risk doing. Some of those things are very beautiful. Others are very ugly. I believe that any of them would be possible without religion, just as Dumbo eventually learned to believe in himself and fly without the feather. But sometimes it’s easier to pretend the finger puppet you’re talking to really is alive than to admit with embarrassment that, as a fully-grown adult, you’re talking to an imaginary friend.

This is the perspective that I brought with me to the table when I sat down to watch The Apostle.

Plot (warning: this section contains spoilers)

Sonny Dewey has a short temper.
Sonny Dewey has a short temper.

The film begins in Texas, with Pastor Dewey’s marriage in a tailspin. It’s not long before we learn that he has committed adultery in the past and that his wife is currently having an affair with the church’s Youth Minister. Shortly after his wife requests a divorce, Pastor Dewey learns that he has been voted out of the church that he founded. Confronted with losing both his wife and his church, Dewey attacks the Youth Minister with a baseball bat. Realizing that he may have killed the man, Dewey flees town. Trusting in God and his talent (Dewey started preaching at the tender age of twelve), he settles in a small town across the state line in Louisiana and tries to start a new church under an assumed name. But fortunately for gullible country folk everywhere, the law is only a few steps behind him, and when the wife he has abandoned hears his voice on a radio broadcast, his days as an apostle are numbered.

I’ve never lived in a one-horse town like the one Dewey chooses to manipulate, so I’m not sure whether he could really get away with his reinvention of himself as easily as the film portrays. Given my understanding of human nature, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of thing were possible, especially in the heart of the South, where (again, according to my current understanding, I haven’t dug into any statistics on this) Pentecostal churches are more common than they are here in the Midwest. Dewey/The Apostle EF never labels his faith with any denomination name, so I can’t be sure as to what particular flavor of evangelical Protestantism he practices in the film, but despite the lack of speaking in tongues, my gut instinct is to say Pentecostal (tongues may have been omitted simply to make the film more palatable to a mainstream audience; note that many Pentecostal churches also refer to themselves as “apostolic”). It’s not hard to believe that devoutly religious people would be willing to listen to a man despite his mysterious past if he were to display determination and a gift for spouting off with fervent devotion. The aspect of this story that bothers me the most is Jessie Dewey’s conveniently timed interception of The Apostle’s radio broadcast. It was never established earlier in the story that the Deweys’ radio could pick up a signal local to rural Louisiana, nor is any explanation given for why it would suddenly do so. I smell plot magic.

Acting (warning: this section also contains spoilers)

Just a country boy with a bulldozer who wants to be Saved.
Just a country boy with a bulldozer who wants to be Saved.

I don’t care that Robert Duvall got nominated for an Academy Award for his work as the main character; the actor who really displayed his chops in this film was Billy Bob Thornton, who I usually can’t stand. Thornton plays the only man in Louisiana who doesn’t buy The Apostle’s hype… at first. He dares to question The Apostle’s lack of a name (and lack of racism), gets beaten up as a result, and returns to bulldoze The Apostle’s church. But when The Apostle challenges him to run over a Bible in order to put his bulldozing plan into action, Thornton’s character is required to break down and become The Apostle’s follower. Thornton plays this character’s arc with amazing believability. From skepticism and racism through self-doubt into dazed belief, I was able to follow this character’s story with ease and sympathy. It’s unfortunate that Thornton really isn’t seen again after the bulldozer scene. I wanted him to show up again as The Apostle’s most fervent follower. The newly converted are frequently the most zealous practitioners of a faith. Just pay attention to the story of Paul after his transformation from Saul to get what I’m talking about.


And just how does submerging in muddy water provide redemption?
And just how does submerging in muddy water provide redemption?

I think I know what thematic content I was supposed to take away from The Apostle. It was supposed to be about the tension between grace and grit, or faith and flesh, with grace and faith emerging triumphant. But instead, all I saw was the extent to which religion is theatrical. I found myself wondering, don’t these people ever get tired of repeating the same sentence or phrase five to ten times before they say something new? And then coming back to it again later? The purpose of that sort of ritual is emotional manipulation and activation. There is a mood and feeling that must be maintained, and the rational mind is meant to be disengaged. This is not the sort of spirituality that I want anything to do with. I want to bring my mind with me on my spiritual journey. Watching unsuspecting men, women and children willingly participate in their own manipulation under the misguided notion that they need it in order to be saved from a real and malevolent devil… it frustrated and at times sickened me, and my concerns were never addressed by the film. It seemed like the filmmakers were just as captivated by the siren’s song as the characters they had created.

I watched The Apostle because I had gathered from the back of the box that it was going to be a serious exploration of a preacher’s humanity. I didn’t get too far into the film before I started to feel cheated, and that feeling did not go away despite Thornton’s excellent work. This is a film in love with evangelical Protestantism and anyone who chooses to watch it should have no illusions about what they are getting into. My advice is to skip this one unless you have a particularly deep interest in Hollywood depictions of Pentecostal churches. Or possibly if you find stories about people assuming alternate identities and preying on the kindness of strangers particularly entertaining.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5.

Reading Review: I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream (1983 edition) by Harlan Ellison

classic sci-fi at its most misanthropic.
Ellison’s best known work.

I haven’t read much Ellison. I was very impressed with a collection of his later work titled Angry Candy when I was in high school and undergrad, so much so that I told more than one person he was my favorite author. Even then, I knew I was cheating if I said that without reading the earlier collection I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream. It was a long time before I got around to doing my homework – a long time before I asked for a copy of the collection, another long time for my copy to sit on my shelf gathering dust and not being read, a long time between when I started reading that copy and when I finished it. But I’m done now, and I have some things to say about this seminal work.

The Collection’s Unsung Gem: Delusion for a Dragon Slayer

The only aspect of this collection that really troubled me was its misogyny. I talked about it a little with my friends, and one of them pointed out that Ellison’s work is misanthropic overall, but its world-weary cynicism about people in general doesn’t bug me as much as I might expect; its attitude towards female characters, however, does get under my skin. In its pages, both men and women get mistreated and occasionally murdered, but women also get denigrated, ‘taken down a peg’, objectified, beaten and raped, etc. and the men who do these things generally either get away with it or in some cases are rewarded for their behavior. Yes, I understand Ellison wrote this material in the 1960s and misogyny was in the water of the genre, but after regarding Angry Candy with such fondness for its insight, I kept turning this collection’s pages hoping to see Ellison pass on the Kool-Aid – and kept getting disappointed.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer was the story that broke the mold.

The moral of Delusion for a Dragon Slayer, laid bare.
The moral of Delusion for a Dragon Slayer, laid bare.

Its premise is simple: when the protagonist dies in a construction accident, he regains consciousness in the body of a strapping hero taken straight from epic legends. He learns that Heaven is real, it is individual, it takes the form of the innermost dreams and aspirations of a person’s spirit, and it must be won in a trial that will take the shape of that person’s beliefs about challenge and the highest of standards… and then his trial begins. In case you didn’t notice, this is good stuff, people. Ellison weaves a story of mythic archetype proportions and expresses it in delirious prose that is both descriptive and taut. And this is the only story in the collection in which a man experiences direct and dire repercussions as a result of treating a woman deplorably. As a woman and a feminist, these pages read like triumph, but that triumph is expressed through lamentation, not sanctimonious sermonizing. This is the Ellison I love.

…And the Raspberries Go to: World of the Myth

Space opera at its worst (image taken from Red Claw).
Space opera at its worst (image taken from Red Claw).

At the other end of the spectrum, from triumph to tragedy, we have World of the Myth, in which a bizarre love triangle of the future churns out its unrealistic drama after a crash landing on a planet populated by hive-minded telepathic ant creatures. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even an astronaut, to reason out that a woman who has been violently raped is not going to be coquettish with her rapist afterwards (unless she’s trying to deceive him as a means of self-preservation, and that’s not how Ellison’s protagonist spins the actions of the female character in question). The rapist is not likely to be a serious contender for the woman’s affections. Her sick dread and bone-chilling rage, likely. Affection and love? Not very likely. The vast majority of real women do not view rape as a contest of wills in which the rapist is a winner and therefore worthy of respect. Real life is not The Fountainhead. The way Ellison scripted Iris in this story made me want to throw the book against the wall. Needless to say, I was not surprised to read in the introduction to Lonelyache that Ellison’s first and second marriages failed.

Another failed attempt to create a realistic female character.
Another failure at creating a realistic female character.

Maybe you’re the sort of sci-fi fan who can take misogyny with a grain of salt. Maybe you’re really good at saying “Cultural context! The Kool-Aid musta gushed into his mouth like a firehose!” I’m not so good at that. I like authors who can get at the truths I perceive to be timeless. Angry Candy demonstrated that quality to me. I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream just felt… dated. And the title story? The one that won the Hugo Award in 1967? Maybe I would have loved it if it weren’t considered such a classic, but after all the hype, I felt really let down. My advice is to skip this collection and focus on Ellison’s later work. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Film Review: Seven Samurai

six circles for the real samurai, a triangle for 'Lord Kikuchiyo'
One should never have a battle without a flag.

When my husband told me he’d never seen the Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai, my jaw practically hit the floor. Looking back, I’m really not sure how many times I’ve watched this film; I do know that the first time I saw it was for my Analysis of Film class during my senior year of high school. I eventually bought a VHS copy as a gift for my father (yes, I really did just say ‘VHS’) and I may have watched that copy more times than he did. For Joel’s viewing pleasure, I got my hands on a copy of the Criterion Collection edition, and let me tell you, reader, if you’re going to invest in a copy of Seven Samurai, the Criterion Collection is the way to go, if for no other reason than the superior translation quality of the subtitling. As someone who has seen three different subtitle translations of the same Japanese, I will say that the Criterion text catches more nuances and provides more subplot details than either of the other two. While I doubt that I have anything to say about this masterpiece that has not already been said, I’m still going to offer my two cents about it. Note that this review probably contains spoilers, but give me a break, Seven Samurai came out in 1954, I should be able to discuss it freely.


There's a reason Kikuchiyo is in the foreground.
The old man said to find hungry samurai.

The premise is simple, yet compelling: some starving farmers decide to fight the bandits who want to steal their entire barley harvest, by hiring samurai to defend the village. Much of Act One is devoted to the process of finding the samurai who are willing to do this, and their tactical decisions upon seeing the setup of the village. Act Two is battle time. Subplots include the question of just how low the villagers have stooped in their past bargaining with the bandits, and also the question of what intent the worldly samurai have toward innocent village girls, but really, Seven Samurai is a primitive, small-scale war movie. I know that Kurosawa was inspired by the Western genre (which is why the Hollywood response of The Magnificent Seven feels so ironic) but Westerns tend to bore me, while war movies, I adore… see one of my previous posts,my review of Apocalypse Now. And I do adore Seven Samurai. My one criticism of this film has to do with pacing. Because the plot is so simple, I’m not sure about Kurosawa’s choice to linger so lovingly on details and turn this into a two-act film. It just moves so slowly! And I like to think of myself as having a longer-than-typical attention span. We broke this viewing in a couple of places, to deal with phone calls and food, and with the Criterion Collection material present, it ended up taking more than four hours. That’s a pretty big demand to put on today’s viewers. Maybe when Seven Samurai came out, people were less busy, or at least more patient.


He hasn't had a good day in a really long time.
If your wife had been sacrificed to the pleasure of bandits, you’d be pretty sore too.

In previous viewings, I was drawn to the character of Heihachi, samurai “of the Wood Cut School.” His genial nature, gentle humor, and attempts to balm the spiritual wounds of his comrades won me over. Heihachi wasn’t any less of a great guy this time through, but I actually found myself drawn to someone who hadn’t really caught my eye before: the intense, simmering farmer, Rikichi. Rikichi is the first farmer willing to take a stand and fight the bandits, and pretty much the only one for most of the story’s length (until after the samurai have trained the farmers to defend themselves and have instilled confidence). According to several passages of dialogue, Rikichi should really be considered an aberration, as it is the farmer’s way to (depending on who’s talking) endure, to grovel, or to two-facedly deceive as an act of self-preservation, certainly not to fight! The question becomes, would Rikichi still have thought to attack the bandits – his original plan being to do it himself, not to involve samurai – if his wife were still with him? To what extent is the aggression he exhibits part of his spirit and identity, versus to what extent is it the result of scarring and trauma? He does not get enough focus in the script for the answer to this question to be clear, but I would be willing to guess that it is mostly due to the trauma… because if he had been so aggressive before losing his wife, the villagers would have picked another woman to sacrifice, to avoid angering him.


"It's time for The Speech... You know the one..."
Mifune gives The Speech.

No review of Seven Samurai could be complete without discussing the performance of Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo. I have heard that Mifune had a background in kabuki theater. I can’t find much information on the Internet to give credence to this, but neither can I find anything definitively disproving it, and whether or not Mifune was actually trained in kabuki, his exaggerated facial expressions and expressive gestures smack of the art. He chews the scenery, but the kicker is, he makes you enjoy him doing it! You want to see more of the scenery chewing! I’ve never seen another actor grandstand so effectively. And Seven Samurai, as a film, seems to have a conflicted soul regarding the simple question of whether it is an ensemble performance, or a vehicle to showcase Mifune’s bombastic talent.

Seven Samurai is a hallowed piece of cinema that has stood the test of time. I could grasp and appreciate its themes as a teenager, but re-watching it with adult eyes was a pleasurable experience and fresh mental exercise. Be warned, if you embark on its journey, you should probably block out a full afternoon of time. It’s worth it. Believe me.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Morning Dew”

The day my sister first married,
her eyes glowed green
as a spring leaf caught against a ray of sunlight.
I was seventeen,
and time has faded that day in my mind
covered many moments with a patina of wistful fondness
I was jealous of her that day.

I wanted to be ready
for love and family
for life and freedom
but I wasn’t even ready for college.
The maid-of-honor has a story too.

I remember waking up early
for rituals of beauty
marking a special day.
She was marrying a soldier,
and in his remarks during the ceremony
the minister said there was a time for war
as well as a time for peace.
I stood and smiled.

I remember fast and blurred impressions
of the reception
of watching the first dance, a cryptic U2 hit
of my sister coyly shaking her head
before her soldier retrieved the garter
of fast high kicks from the young men, joined by my father
during a rousing country line dance tune
I remember that I didn’t want to eat.
It was my most poorly-timed fast for political protest.

I remember that I ate the wedding cake anyway.

My sister has always been beautiful.
In the pictures taken of her that day,
she shines
with ripe golden potential
wearing a fine, full gown
and our mother’s garnet cross.
Dark red goes so well
with gold and white roses.
But it is her eyes that captured me then
that capture me now
Their ecstatic shades of green as life-giving as farmer’s soil.


After being warned by a test reader that the first poem posted to this blog, “Hatred”, was ‘a little opaque’ (which is a nice way of saying “I had no idea what you were talking about, Lyn!”) I knew that I wanted my next poem to be easy to follow. While I do enjoy writing cryptic material, I don’t want to frustrate my audience to tears because then I won’t have an audience for long. I decided to take a little stroll down that familiar avenue, Memory Lane. As I did, I noticed something strange; the houses I was passing didn’t look the same as they had on previous jaunts. Everything seemed to be coated in mist, so that I could make out general shapes and looming impressions, but few fine details. I decided to craft a poem to reflect this far-away, misty experience.

OK, enough with the extended metaphors. “Morning Dew” is an example of a poem that was written in its entirety without a title, and then I chose a title for it as a capstone or summary of what had already been created. I chose to title it “Morning Dew” because I wanted an image that implied three things: 1) a fresh beginning, 2) messiness, and 3) ephemerality. The purpose of a wedding is to celebrate the fresh beginning of a marriage, and my sister’s first wedding was no exception to this. It was a celebration, but I also remember it as being a somewhat messy one, not in a literal sense like I spilled my food or something, but in my role as maid-of-honor I remember a lot of rushing around and worrying about loose ends. My guess is that most of the guests did not experience this aspect of the event, but this isn’t their poem. Have you ever walked across grass coated in morning dew? Definitely messy. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted the title to invoke an ephemeral quality. Just like dew evaporates, my sister’s first marriage eventually ended. (She has recently remarried, perhaps it was attending her second wedding that stirred these memories in me.) Also, as I have already noted, memory is ephemeral. Almost everything that I remember from that day is contained in this poem. That’s not a lot of details for a full day of existence, and it’s much more than I can remember of the days that surrounded it.

Structurally speaking, this can be looked at as another “5 paragraph essay” poem, with a slightly longer introduction and a truncated third body point (for dramatic effect). The rhetorical repetition of “I remember” as a stanza starter points to this. Maybe next poem I’ll try to focus on varying my structure a bit more. Structure may be the poetic element that I put the least amount of conscious thought into and for which I am most likely to just ‘go with what I know.’

I don’t have as many comments to make on specific lines in this poem as I did in my first one. This may be a sign that this poem does better at standing on its own feet. I will say that the image of my sister’s eyes being the color of sunlit leaves was not created fresh for this poem; I believe I thought of it around the time of that first wedding, and it has stuck with me ever since. Almost every time I see green leaves with sunlight shining through them, I think of her. I will also say that in writing this poem, I faced one of my least favorite artistic challenges: to pop-culture reference, or not to pop-culture reference? The song that the men danced to during the reception was the mid-90’s version of “Cotton Eye Joe,” but having just given a specific band name a few lines before (U2), I decided not to drop a second reference. If I were going to change anything about the poem as it currently stands, I would probably figure out a way to take out the mention of U2 as well. I generally try to avoid pop-culture references as much as possible in my writing, because I feel they quickly date the work and I want my material to hold up to the test of time, but sometimes they are unavoidable and I do recognize that some people really appreciate them.

“Morning Dew” was not a difficult poem to write, and I didn’t really challenge myself creatively in the process for it (though I did look up the definition of “patina” to make sure I was using it correctly). But art doesn’t have to be a painful struggle to express a truth, because the truth is not always painful (thank goodness!). Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to play it safe and speak comfortably. Plus, when you make exploring painful and uncomfortable material a regular staple of your artistic process, exercising restraint and not going there becomes, simply put, another type of challenge.

Image found through the Open Clip Art Library.

Lyn’s Essays: On Politics and Patriotism

Second Wave feminism had a motto: “the personal is political.” This motto makes sense if one defines politics as the means and methods by which power is negotiated in a society. Power to take actions, power over other people, the distribution of material resources, are all political questions that have been wrestled with and renegotiated over the years. Today is a national holiday for the United States of America. The word holiday came from the term “holy day,” a sacred and certainly religious observance. So I guess the celebration of Independence Day is an indication of how it is possible to make a religion out of patriotism. (Some other time, I’ll write an essay called “On Religion” that will explore how people frequently divorce the concepts of religion and spirituality from the concept of God. As a spiritual atheist, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.)

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a patriot. I do not derive any part of my conscious identity from my country. I derive some part of it from the geographical region I have been tied to, referring to myself as a Midwesterner (or prairie blossom if I’m feeling eloquent), but the way I see it, on a fundamental level what I’ve gotten from the USA as one of its citizens is laws to govern my conduct. The fact that something has been done to me, doesn’t change who I am (unless I let it).

You see, my political philosophy could probably best be termed “anarchosyndicalism lite.” This means I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, and if you got that Monty Python reference, this image is for you:

There you go, bringing class into it again...
There you go, bringing class into it again…

I call it anarchosyndicalism lite as an acknowledgment of the fact that I haven’t done a lot of homework on my position and despite the obscurity of what I did learn about it, I’m not invested enough to do any more research on the topic. I found out about anarchosyndicalism through my reading of Noam Chomsky. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Chomsky is a brilliant linguistic theorist and political intellectual based out of MIT. I read a book of his called What We Say Goes and while I was a little miffed at his lack of citations (as a friend of mine pointed out to me later, “When you’re Noam Chomsky, you don’t cite the source, you ARE the source!”) I was amazed at how everything he was saying gave factual credence to the way I’d suspected the world worked all along but had never bothered to put into complete thought. Then I started reading Hegemony or Survival, in which Chomsky does cite sources, and it still felt like someone had finally found evidence for what I’d suspected in my heart for as long as I’d had independent thought. So I looked up information on Chomsky online and found out he’s an anarchosyndicalist. I read the definition of the philosophy provided by Wikipedia and when I read it, it completely made sense to me, but I had trouble keeping it stuck in my mind. The terminology was easy to forget.

I have a libertarian friend. To maintain a friendship with him, we have agreed to disagree on many points of political philosophy. But of all the people I know, he would be the one best able to correctly identify and label fringe political positions. So I turned to him one day and said, “I think I may be an anarchosyndicalist. Can you help me figure out if I’m right?”

He asked me, “In your ideal world, what would government look like?”

I thought about it for awhile. I knew that what came out wasn’t going to be substantial or eloquent. “Two things come to mind,” I replied.

  1. When I was a child, I read a lesser-known novel by Piers Anthony called Triple Detente. The world governments in that book are governed by a principle of child psychology: if you have a slice of cake that needs to be divided between two children, for optimal results an adult does not cut the cake. The children will resent the adult for somehow dividing it unfairly. Instead, the adult gives one of the children the knife and says “You get to cut, but the other child gets to choose.” What will result are the two most mathematically equal slices of cake those children will ever see.
  2. The other concept that governs my political philosophy is decision-making by consensus. Democratic and even republican systems can produce a “tyranny of the majority”, in which the rights and needs of smaller minority voices get trampled on. In decision-making by consensus, the process is an active negotiation and compromise in which no one has to give away the farm but everyone recognizes that they’re not going to get everything that they want. Decision-making by consensus is a painstaking process and it falls apart in large groups, so I’d say I wouldn’t want any unit of governance to have direct control of more than a tribe of about 300 people.

My friend looked at me evenly. “I’d say you’re right. You just summed up the philosophy of anarchosyndaclism pretty well.”

Viewing my society and life through anarchosyndicalist eyes isn’t always easy. In fact, most of the time, it’s pretty frustrating. This post from The Onion sums up much of my internal monologue when I try to relax, and not be so serious all the time. Life out here on the fringe can get pretty lonely. For a while, when I was living in the city and my thinking was more muddled and my loneliness more desperate, I flirted with joining a Trotskyist activist group. Thanks for the memories, but no thanks, guys. I’m just a writer.

I hope this post has shed some light on my reticence to participate in 4th of July festivities. If I show up at a fireworks party, it’s only because I want to see the other people there. I’m not endorsing my country.

Film Review: Apocalypse Now

Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, artistically rendered.
A Francis Ford Coppola classic.

I love war movies. Truly and sincerely. This might come as a surprise to those who know how much I hate war. As a woman, I have never been draft material, but I suspect that I might have been able to make conscientious objector status had I ever been in a position to make the argument. I’m the sort of person who, to the argument that WWII and fighting the horrors of Hitler was just, will reply that Hitler would never have risen to power without WWI. I hate war, truly and sincerely… yet I love war movies. The only war movie I’ve ever started that I didn’t love was Enemy at the Gates, I couldn’t abide its stereotyped, no-nuance portrayal of Communism. That one, I didn’t finish. Apocalypse Now is much more my style.

Use of Color

golds and greens and tans, reds and black for accent and shadow
This shot exemplifies the film’s color palette.

The color palette of Apocalypse Now is very limited. Gold and green and tan dominate. Red shows up for accent (usually in the form of blood), white is used for highlight and contrast, and dark brown or black makes the shadows come alive. The only real notable exception to this palette is the diegetic (film term: pertaining and relevant to the world of the characters) use of purple smoke by the soldiers, and let me tell you, after taking in so much of the same information in slightly different permutations for so long, those swaths of purple smoke are almost a relief to the eye. At the start of the film I was enjoying how completely the color was controlled while seeming to remain natural and diegetic. Even the sky is somehow gold all the time! But by the end of the film I was dying to see something blue. The color control seemed not just forced, but suffocating. That may have been the intent. The film as it stands definitely conveys the heat and mugginess of Vietnam. There were some shots in which beads of sweat were captured in such exquisite detail that I felt slimed by them.


Marlon Brando, doing what he does best.
Very intense.

Apocalypse Now is wonderfully cast. Marlon Brando is at the top of his game as the megalomaniac Kurtz, and Dennis Hopper seems even more disconnected from reality as the photojournalist playing into Kurtz’s cult of personality. Harrison Ford’s leading man charisma gets dampened down perfectly in his supporting role as a staff officer during Willard’s briefing, and I doff my hat to him for managing that, I’m sure it was harder than it looked. Laurence Fishburne’s talent is evident in his portrayal of unripened youth faced with terror. And regarding the character of Willard, our narrator – I haven’t seen much of Martin Sheen’s work but he conveys the stark horror and hypervigilance of PTSD without chewing the scenery. Really, there’s not a single performance here that’s flawed, and with the ensemble working together as well as they do, if there were a flawed performance it would be noticeable. Coppola drew out the best in these men.


Captain Willard rises from the waters of the subconscious.
Captain Willard rises from the waters of the subconscious.

This film has become best known for Kurtz’s dying half-whisper of the phrase, “The horror, the horror.” Yet despite the carnage Willard wades through and at times participates in, it is not a grisly show of horrors we as viewers have been invited to here. Make no mistake, gore is present (at one point, the Cambodians ritually slaughter a large animal, and the killing blow is shown). But it’s not the point. There are no cheap thrills, no edge-of-the-seat jumping at a sudden noise after silent tension. This is far from a slasher film. The pace of the film is slow – agonizingly so, at times. Apocalypse Now is an exploration of what it means to be evil, what it means to be mad, what it means to be human and ultimately what it means to have honor. If this film is to be believed, in the Vietnam War humanity had to take a backseat to honor. Kurtz loses his humanity but retains his honor and an argument can be made that he is more the film’s hero than Willard. Apparently there is a fine line between honor and horror, and not just linguistically.

I’m sure that Apocalypse Now is not for everyone. The first time I saw it, more than a decade ago, I was bored long before the end, most likely due to the slow pacing. But for someone who likes war movies, appreciates good acting from a professional cast, and wants to see what tight directorial control can really produce, Apocalypse Now is a film to watch with the lights off.

Overall rating: 4 stars out of 5.