In 1997, the island of Manhattan has been walled off and turned into a giant maximum security prison within which the country's worst criminals are left to form their own anarchic society. However, when the President of the United States crash lands on the island, the authorities turn to a former soldier and current convict, Snake Plissken, to rescue him.
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(”Escape from New York” is briefly mentioned in this.)
In 1975, President Ford famously told New York City—in essence—to drop dead. Six years later Isaac Hayes, as the pimped-out Duke of New York, captured and tortured the president of the United States, played by Donald Pleasence. This alone might make 1981’s “Escape From New York” the ultimate blaxploitation flick: in a setting of urban rot that at the time seemed only slightly exaggerated, a badass black man was collecting those dues Melvin Van Peebles had warned everyone about years earlier, at the end of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”
Not that I saw it that way. I was a young teen living outside a Minnesota mining town where almost everyone was white ethnic—a hyphenated bunch of Scandinavians, Slavs, Italians. I didn’t know from blaxploitation, though I’d recently had a glancing encounter with the world it portrayed. On a trip to the city Ford had told to expire, and which looked like it might still comply, my family and I drifted, after dark, into a neighborhood where we didn’t belong. Since the whole metropolis was alien to me, I didn’t realize our error until two black women following us on the sidewalk shot epithets our way that were as vivid as the skimpy clothes they wore: “Tight-ass white motherfuckers.” “Honky bitches.” They were joined by a black man leaning against a Cadillac only somewhat less fancy than the Duke of New York’s. As my sister and I were being gathered to our mother’s hem, it struck me as astounding—if thrilling—that we could provoke such indignation.
However memorable, the hostility was the least of that encounter. There was, after all, brutishness aplenty in the depressed mining towns up where I lived, but none of it had such style. Ours was a scene of rural blight: rusted cars, high unemployment, greasy flannels, and grim futures for anyone connected with the mines, which—directly or indirectly—was everyone. So I couldn’t help but be dazzled by those presumable hookers and that guy with the luxury sedan. Their aesthetic, however disreputable, had that urban panache that I’d seen in movies, heard celebrated in pop music, and enjoyed foremost in my dad’s Playboy magazines, but that until then I’d never seen in the flesh, as it were.
The differences, though, were notable not just for being urban as opposed to rural. They were “urban”—the national euphemism for “black”—as opposed to white. In between the crossover successes of peak-period Motown and disco, with their metropolitan sounds and their diverse roster of stars, there was a pronounced strain of pop-cultural white flight—from the city, from women, in some cases from civilization as a whole. (And since where I grew up people regarded disco the way the HUAC regarded communism, this strain prevailed throughout the ’70s and beyond, until—in a Sinclair Lewis–meets–“Soul Train” kind of way—native-son Prince turned everyone into boosterish converts to funk.) One of the first non-animated movies I saw in the theater was 1974’s “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams,” in which Dan Haggerty’s character, wrongfully accused of murder, heads for the hills and finds the love of a good bear. It’s hokey family entertainment, to be sure, but it’s not much different from 1972’s “Jeremiah Johnson,” directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford, in which we learn that one of the mountain-man characters had spent a year cohabiting in a cave with a female panther, though “she never did get used to him.”
This yen for depictions of the unpeopled high country and consequent union with hefty quadrupeds—if also sometimes accommodating Indian maidens, a bit of good fortune that Jeremiah Johnson seems mostly to resent—surely reflected some kind of cultural anxiety of the moment. The motives of Redford’s embittered war vet character—never made clear—might have been a metaphorical comment on Vietnam, but they’re as easily read as part of an insidious fatigue with the battle of the sexes, or with the war on poverty and the attendant collapse of American cities, or with contemporary life in general. Whatever the case, anti-urban, anti-modern sentiment was in the air. There was “A Man Called Horse,” “A Horse With No Name,” and a pony she named “Wildfire”; Pure Prairie League, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Neil Young’s “Harvest”; “Rocky Mountain High,” the Blue Ridge Rangers, the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and Richard Proenneke’s One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey. In an age of space exploration, interstates, and urban riots, it was all purposely escapist. Purposely or not, it was also exceedingly white.
Take “Woodstock.” With its earnest, mostly white kids splashing around in the muck and begging approbation from the wider culture, the 1970 film is a rock opera of nostalgie de la boue. Among the few black acts there, Sly and the Family Stone seem to have arrived from a shiny, distant future. Almost everyone else, including Jimi Hendrix—whom writer and producer Nelson George has made clear was always more a white favorite—goes for that salt-of-the-earth vibe. In short, a bunch of nitty-gritty dirt bands.
Watching the 1973 “Wattstax” documentary, one is struck by an entirely different vibe. First, the event was held not in a dairy farmer’s field but in a modern municipal stadium made for such large gatherings. Second, the audience wasn’t composed overwhelmingly of self-conscious youths but instead of people of all ages, who are dressed up, not necessarily in their Sunday best but certainly not looking like they hail from Dogpatch, U.S.A. There was very much an out-on-the-town feel to the event, and those in attendance were admonished to celebrate, even assert, their rightful if complicated place within the culture at large—the concert marked the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots. Those in “Woodstock,” whose status in the wider culture was uncomplicatedly privileged, nonetheless wanted to get back to the metaphorical garden and fashioned Max Yasgur’s farm into a place of both pre-fallen innocence and libertinish abandon. The childlike incoherence of the one pales in comparison with the upbeat world-weariness of the other.
Of course, it’s hard to feel nostalgia for farms, mud, dirt, a premodern past, when you have the kind of history that blacks in this country have. As one of the pimps interviewed in Christina and Richard Milner’s 1972 sociological study Black Players puts it, when justifying his taste for modern luxuries: “let them White boys go hippy, grow their hair long, and go without shoes. I know what it’s like to go barefoot. I was born without shoes, we was all kickin’ mud, you dig? Now I want all the stuff those White boys had. If they want to be kickin’ mud now, it’s cool with me.”
African-Americans are, of course, more American than almost anyone, their lineage, however tortured, going back much farther than most people’s. And so it was—for the Milners’ pimp and so many other blacks—that their material aspirations were often expressed with bitterness that such comforts had been too long denied, or were offered only in exchange for the profitable loss of one’s soul. This bitterness runs through most blaxploitation films and is central to “Super Fly,” not just the best of the genre but nearly the only one of the bunch that can still be watched simply as a very good movie, of whatever label.
Yes, it has all the typical blaxploitation touches: jive-turkey dialogue, gross negro caricature, sugar-plum women, evil honky cats, shaky stunt coordination, choppy editing, uneven acting, and occasional slippage in the sound synching. But Gordon Parks Jr., like some of the directors working in B-movies of old, made a film that transcended its technical shortcomings, themselves proof of his having had no budget to reshoot and refine. For all its rough edges, the movie is tense, sad, and very well paced. And Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack is even better.
Like much blaxploitation-affiliated music, the work of Mayfield and others amounted to a beautiful, damning requiem for urban black America, whose confines were coming to resemble decades-old scenes from war-torn Europe, with crumbling, blown-out buildings; violent underground economies taking root; and vulnerable people making deals with devils to get by. But however frank the music was, however much it seemed to ac-cent-tchu-ate the negative, it certainly wasn’t glib or nihilistic. Much of it expressed outrage over the collapse of families and communities, such outrage indicating that the social fabric had until recently held, and ought still be holding, which in its way is a very affirmative sentiment.
But in focusing too much on the aesthetics of despair, there’s the danger, in the words of the late essayist and novelist Albert Murray, of seeming to “degrade U.S. Negro life to the level of the sub-human in the very process of pleading the Negro’s humanity.” At worst you risk seeming to be out for a slummy contact high—perhaps especially if you’re a white outsider.
At the time, however, whites appeared to be out for anything but, preferring as little contact as possible. But while white mountain men were snuggling with animals in popular movies, and the Eagles’ “Desperado” wouldn’t let anybody love him, and the guy who at least seems to enjoy occasional quiet time with women in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” was setting out to fulfill his destiny as a white wanderer—while all that was going on, Billy Paul had a thing going on with Mrs. Jones, Marvin Gaye was getting it on, and the seductive Al Green was tired of being alone, though one suspects he rarely was. Yes, that thing with Mrs. Jones probably didn’t end well. And Marvin Gaye’s was in many ways a cheerless insatiability. And Al Green only wishes he were alone the night his girlfriend poured scalding grits on him before killing herself in his house. Still, it was an electric ladyland compared with all the buckskin and manly solitude so many whites seemed drawn to at the time.
Which brings us back to those insulting women and their standoffish man on the streets of New York decades ago and how perversely sophisticated they seemed to a country-come-to-town kid. “In the ghettos the brothers grew up with their own outlook, their own status system,” Tom Wolfe writes in his 1971 classic “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” which first appeared—appropriately enough—in Cosmopolitan magazine.
Near the top of the heap was the pimp style. In all the commission reports and studies and syllabuses you won’t see anything about the pimp style. And yet there it was. In areas like Hunters Point boys didn’t grow up looking up to the man who had a solid job working for some company or for the city, because there weren’t enough people who had such jobs. It seemed like nobody was going to make it by working, so the king was the man who made out best by not working, by not sitting all day under the Man’s bitch box. And on the street the king was the pimp. Sixty years ago Thorstein Veblen wrote that at the very bottom of the class system, down below the ‘working class’ and the ‘honest poor,’ there was a ‘spurious aristocracy,’ a leisure class of bottom dogs devoted to luxury and aristocratic poses. And there you have him, the pimp.
Such ghetto toughs who brought an air of blue-bloodedness to raw social disadvantage haunted the literary and popular imagination of the day—including my own that night in New York City. Saul Bellow’s Riverside-bus pickpocket in 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, for instance, embodies every louche trait whites long associated with black males: Predatory. Check. Dandified. Check. Smoove. Check. Cocky. Check, in more ways than one. Bellow, in keeping with the aristocratic theme, infamously described the character as “this African prince or great black beast” who exhibited “mystifying certitude. Lordliness.”
When we first meet the Harlem kingpin in Wally Ferris’s 1970 novel Across 110th—from which the blaxploitation film “Across 110th Street” was adapted—we find him thus: “Seated in a high-back leather chair as though on a throne, he dominated the room with all the elegance of a potentate surrounded by his retinue … . On a knotty-pine wall above a mahogany bar, his portrait looked down benignly, like an ash-black African king.” And in Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker, from 1961, the title character negotiates over stolen junk with East Harlem’s desperate poor, among them “the gaudy little Tangee in a wide-shouldered, checked suit” who “walked out with his retinue like one of those strange little chieftains who are so impressive because they do not see anything ridiculous in their air of power.”
The implication, of course, is that there is something both ridiculous and unnervingly powerful about these fops. Or ridiculous and unnervingly impotent, if you turn things around and take the perspective of the Last Poets, who in 1970 positively mocked the devil-take-the-hindmost black player in “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution.” Though it might have seemed a frightening goad to action to some, the bitter, hilarious resignation in the song’s delivery suggests that the prevailing culture never really had anything to fear. Along those lines, I should admit that that night in New York decades ago, my family was with an FBI agent uncle of mine who, as always, was wearing a concealed weapon, a pistol in an ankle holster. So however vulnerable we seemed, it’s arguable we still had the upper hand. Even as a rattled pubescent from the sticks I was the Man on the streets of Manhattan. We all have our assigned roles to play, however awkward or reluctant we are in playing them.
So the whole idea of black power was confusing to everyone, but that these particular people went in for wild, borderline ridiculous threads was commonly acknowledged. Wolfe again: “The pimp is the dude who wears the $150 Sly Stone–style vest and pants outfit from the haberdasheries on Polk and the $35 Lester Chambers–style four-inch-brim black beaver fedora and the thin nylon socks with the vertical stripes and drives the customized sun-roof Eldorado with the Jaguar radiator cap.”
Even Albert Murray, while avoiding Wolfe’s smirking tone, couldn’t help ending with a hint of the ridiculous when celebrating Harlem’s fashion enthusiasms in this passage from 1970’s The Omni-Americans:
Harlem Negroes do not act like the culturally deprived people of the statistical surveys but like cosmopolites. Many may be indigent but few are square. They walk and even stand like people who are elegance-oriented. They talk like people who are eloquence-oriented. They dress like people who like high fashion and like to be surrounded by fine architecture. The average good barber shop and tailor shop in Harlem is geared to a level of sartorial sophistication that is required only from the best elsewhere … . Not even the worst dressers in Harlem are indifferent to high fashion. They are overcommitted to it!
So these self-styled and often untutored aesthetes, many of them of southern sharecropper stock and therefore new to city life, or born of parents who were new to city life, created a vogue all their own, nearly Victorian in its ornateness, a riot of styles that seemed a witting or unwitting parody of urban sophistication and cosmopolitan good taste. Even the black middle class went in for ostentation, as sociologist E. Franklin Frazier pointed out decades ago. Small in number, lower-middle-class in the main, their access to capital, union membership, and higher education limited, their ranks typically unwelcome in the more influential neighborhoods, fraternal lodges, professional associations, and churches—which often doubled as informal professional networks—members of the black bourgeoisie consequently spent a disproportionate amount of their earnings on the types of cars and clothes that would suggest a more commanding socioeconomic presence. Denied the subtler underpinnings of social standing, they hoped to consume their way to a different—if unfortunately counterfeit—status.
Is this more worthy of ridicule than the urban-cowboy phenomenon? Or the fact that while whites were plowing out of the city and into the suburbs, many were dreaming of upcountry ruggedness and often dressing the part? Robert Redford’s time on location during the filming of “Jeremiah Johnson” even led eventually to his Sundance line of frontier-chic clothes, housewares, and accessories, plus associated movie theaters/galleries/cafés, with stores and theaters found in such frontier locations as Marin County and Westchester, New York. Which makes perfect sense, if only because more than 80 percent of Americans now live in densely developed metro areas. Yet to watch any NFL broadcast these days, with its preponderance of beer, pickup-truck, and erectile-dysfunction ads, you’d think we were a nation of performance-enhanced field hands riding the range in muddy trucks after having a cold one out by the fence line, and—what’s more—that we’re actually desperate to be seen, and to see ourselves, as such. (The prime example of this being the Dodge Ram/Paul Harvey “So God Made a Farmer” ad from the 2013 Super Bowl broadcast.)
I grew up partly in Iowa, and even still I hardly know any farmers. One family friend did doctoral-level seed and soil research, and one family member had a manufacturing job at John Deere. But about the only farmers I’ve ever known—a couple of cow-punching brothers from eastern Montana—now work city jobs in public relations and hospital administration. Decades after blacks left sharecropping to cultivate their fanciful urban aesthetic, whites were sitting in man caves watching Dodge’s Paul Harvey ad on TVs bigger than any patch of land they’ve ever worked and dreaming of being something out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A spurious proletariat.
Of course, black or white we’re increasingly a nation of suburban fantasists these days. Whites’ postwar relocation to the suburbs is well known. Perhaps less well known is that the Great Migration began to reverse itself around 1970, with many blacks moving back South, often to burgeoning suburbs in Texas, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina. More recent census data show that blacks have continued to leave the city for the suburbs, for all the same reasons anyone does, whether to escape urban ills like crime and congestion, to buy a bigger house in a better school district, or because American cities, so far now from being on the verge of dropping dead, have in many cases become too precious and exclusive for most people to afford.
So while in one suburb’s man caves they may have been watching the Super Bowl on their big-screen TVs and imagining they could relate to Paul Harvey’s ode to earthy virtues, in another suburb’s man caves they may also have been watching that year’s Super Bowl on their big-screen TVs and imagining they were down with the urban chic and Busby Berkeley-esque sophistication of Beyoncé’s halftime show. Depressing as it may be to some, it’s heartening how blandly common we’ve become. Another crossover success story.
Jon Zobenica’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The American Scholar, andThe New York Times Book Review.
(”Escape from New York” is briefly mentioned in this.)
What happens when you take a camp premise seriously?
I once saw a production of a musical adaptation of Dracula that did that. Dracula’s leitmotif was sombre and doomy, Van Helsing sang forcefully about the urgency of combatting “the children of Satan” – it was all played utterly straight. And, of course, it was unintentionally very funny. Bram Stoker’s original novel is wonderful, but it’s also lurid and outlandish right from the get-go, and you have to acknowledge that, and not pretend that you can treat it as straight melodrama, or you’ll wind up with something very silly indeed.
The question came to my mind again when I recently went to see “Under the Skin,” the Scottish science fiction fable from director Jonathan Glazer starring Scarlett Johansson. The premise of the film: Johansson is an alien life form whose task it is to seduce solitary human males to their dooms. She drives around Glasgow in a white van, asking directions of the men she passes and then offering them a lift. When they get in, she flirtily chats with them and ultimately invites them back to a secluded cabin, whose interior I will not describe because it is one of the signature horrors of the film.
This is, as I say, a pretty campy premise – actually, the seductress picking up men in her white van is worse, a low-budget porn premise. And I worried: won’t the characters in the film understand that? If they do, won’t that spoil it for the rest of us? And if they don’t, won’t that spoil it worse, by making them seem idiots?
I went in hoping, in fact, that the film would be cleverly conscious of its own campiness, and thereby transcend it – that it would be an updating of “Liquid Sky,” the early ’80s cult classic. There are some obvious points of comparison, after all. Both films are about female visitors to a strange and hostile city. Both films identify sex with violence and death, both reverse the trope of male predation and female victimhood, and both show us that reversal from the female perspective. And both involve aliens with a taste for human flesh, albeit in the case of “Liquid Sky” the woman is not herself the alien – she just has aliens living on her roof.
“Liquid Sky” was self-conscious – but no less-affecting for that. It’s a highly idiosyncratic nightmare portrait of New York at a certain point in time, a lot more distinctive and convincing than, say, “Escape From New York” if not nearly as coolly accomplished as, say, “After Hours.” And, taken seriously, it has something real to say about the despair of that sexual moment as well:
So I was taught that I should come to New York, become an independent woman. And my prince would come, and he would be an agent, and he would get me a role, and I would make my living waiting on tables. I would wait – till thirty, till forty, till fifty. And I was taught that to be an actress, one should be fashionable, and to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful, and I kill with my c—. Isn’t it fashionable? Come on, who’s next? I’ll take lessons. How to get into show business: be nice to your professor. Be nice to your agent. Be nice to your audience, be nice. How to be a woman: want them when I want you. How to be free and equal: f— women instead of men, and you’ll discover a whole kingdom of freedom. Men won’t step on you anymore, women will. So come on, who’s next? Who wants to teach me? Come on, teach me. Are you afraid? You’re right, because they’re all dead. All my teachers.
That sure ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s not “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” either. It’s something that has gone through camp and come out the other side, into something like sincerity. Is that what “Under the Skin” aimed to do?
As it turns out, “Under the Skin” does almost the opposite. It does an exceptionally good job of threading the narrow eye of the needle that avoids camp entirely, in spite of its outlandishly camp premise. It does this by emphatically identifying us with Johansson’s alien perspective.
We first glimpse Johansson when she receives her skin, from what appears to be the corpse of the human she’s modeled on (it’s a bit vague what’s precisely going on, but the emotional tone is clear). But this skin is provided her by a male handler, a kind of evil Power Ranger, complete with dopey motorbike. He’s effectively her pimp – so from the beginning, we’ve avoided identifying Johansson with a kind of male horror fantasy of female sexuality. And we’ve also avoided the porn fantasy by showing us the existence of a power structure of some kind behind that fantasy’s enactment.
Then we travel around with Johansson in her white van, observing as she does – and the crowded streets are shot in such a way that we never get a sense of purpose to any of the activity we observe. Johansson’s eyes flit about, looking for prospects; she isn’t trying to understand what these creatures are doing, and so we never understand. They’re just a mass of humanity, a herd from which she culls a gullible few.
Moreover, we’re in Glasgow, and the male citizens of Glasgow speak in an almost impenetrable accent, while Johansson’s accent is vaguely London – the kind of accent someone might learn to play a British character in a not-very-good film. She’s not trying to fit in; she’s barely trying to pass. She speaks what sounds like a script, and barely varies it; when she picks up a severely deformed man, she shows no sign of noticing any difference from her other marks. If she weren’t so good-looking, there’s no way she’d pass the Turing Test. And yet she’s the only one we can reliably comprehend.
All of these factors help us forget the camp absurdity of the premise, which no longer feels like it is even terribly important. It’s certainly never explained at all; the movie seems completely uninterested in motive. It’s just a given that this is her social role, and the movie is interested in what it’s like to be her.
But who is she? Why invent this person, and ask us to spend time with her? About half an hour in, after an exceptionally horrific scene of callousness on Johansson’s part, where she kills an unequivocally good person and leaves another innocent to die without even noticing, I began to wonder what this film meant on a metaphoric level. It didn’t seem to be interested in satirizing the sexual dynamics of contemporary Scotland, not in any direct way.
And then Johansson’s character changed, abruptly. She felt pity on one of her victims, and allowed him to escape, and as a consequence became completely unmoored from herself. She wandered in a daze, eventually to be taken under the wing of a sympathetic (and strangely incurious) Scottish man, before fleeing him in turn and winding up the victim of yet another man, one as one-dimensionally predatory as she had been.
What did this reversal mean, this reversion to female victimhood that seemed to flow inexorably from the alien’s minimal concession to humanity? There was something dark and sad being said here, something that harkened back to the junkie-eat-junkie landscape of “Liquid Sky,” where our protagonist, primed to be a perfect victim, discovers new powers of predation, and gets no satisfaction or release from them. Johansson seemed to me to be representing yet another new womanhood, not the worn-out androgene of 1982, but something lush and overtly feminine, but as scripted, anhedonic and cold as the men who follow seduction guides. She has no history that brought her to this state – it’s not a choice, but a role she is given by others. But having learned that role, she’s lost and helpless when first she tries to be human. That’s a heck of an abyss to find at the bottom of a movie with such a camp premise.
But if stare into a camp premise long enough, it seems, eventually it will stare back at you.
(”Escape from New York” is briefly mentioned in this.)
I count myself a big booster of J.C. Chandor on his rapid rise through the ranks of American filmmakers. His first feature – “Margin Call” – is the only film I’ve ever seen to accurately depict the Wall Street that I knew when I worked there (by which I mean: he gets the culture right; the terminological details don’t really matter). His second feature – “All Is Lost” – was a daring cinematic venture, but also an intriguing meditation on the Randian myth of the self-sufficiency of the captains of industry.
His most recent film, “A Most Violent Year,” however, left me puzzled, and dissatisfied. I have a funny feeling that, for the first time, Chandor is either trying to do something that I don’t understand, or that he’s tried to make a relatively conventional movie, and simply failed. My respect for his intelligence and creativity inclines me toward the first explanation. Hence my list of questions.
1. The film is set in 1981, at the time the peak year for violent crime in New York history. This violence was largely of the un-organized variety, and fueled a broad public perception that New York was descending into chaos. “Escape From New York” premiered that year, for God’s sake.
But there is remarkably little violence in “A Most Violent Year,” and the violence we do see is of the organized variety – a turf war between mobbed-up heating oil companies that carved up their territory generations ago. The city we see feels almost empty – there’s no hint of the frenzied crush of humanity that we get from “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Serpico,” not even when we make our way through a graffiti-festooned subway car as part of a chase sequence that is the only point in the film where the adrenaline really gets flowing. The police never shoot at an armed suspect fleeing a shootout on the 59th-street bridge – and when that suspect later changes his mind about turning himself in, and runs, the police are once again flat-footed, and nobody is terribly concerned or surprised.
Was this all an unavoidable consequence of working with a low budget? And if the latter, why set the film in a period with so much cinematic resonance? Or was the choice deliberate, and is Chandor suggesting that the movies of the time made the city more lurid than it really was?
2. Oscar Isaac appears to be doing something of a young Pacino imitation. He speaks slowly, deliberately, precisely, as if barely husbanding a great deal of energy and potential for violence. But he almost descends into parody, what with enunciating of every consonant and refusing to use contractions. (I was reminded of Matt Damon’s diction in “True Grit” more than once – but there I know the delivery was supposed to be funny.)
Moreover, what his character, Abel Morales, actually says is frequently emptily portentous. For example: when he calls together his various rivals, at least one of whom he knows is stealing from him, and tells them simply: “Stop it. Now.” The tone suggests a quiet, very serious threat. But no actual threat is delivered. Just as with the scenes when he tells his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) that he’ll “take care of” any threats to them or their kids, I get the sense that he’s all bluff. That he thinks he can win any contest by sheer force of sustained eye contact.
Which might have been Chandor’s point. That, after all, is the main technique Morales teaches his own salesmen – maintain eye contact for longer than is comfortable and you’ll close. Perhaps that’s really his only trick. Was that what Chandor intended, I wonder – to send up the whole Pacino myth by pointing out how much of it is nothing more than intense brown eyes? And that this intensity is the only reason we ever bought into Michael Corleone – and all his subsequent defining roles – in the first place? (And, perhaps, is the only reason we take business people seriously as well?)
3. The more I thought about the plot, the more it seemed that the stakes of the film are exceptionally low. Consider: in the opening sequence, we learn that Morales is taking a huge risk in putting down a $1 million deposit on a piece of waterfront property. He has 30 days to deliver another $1.5 million or he will lose the property to a competitor. Leave aside the oddity of this contract – we’re introduced into a world where Morales is daring to go toe-to-toe with bigger, tougher competitors and muscle them out of a property vital to their future prosperity. If he fails, he loses everything.
So the initial stakes are financial, but significant within that realm. One assumes – particularly given the title – that the stakes will only escalate from there to something more personal. But, in fact, every time the stakes appear to rise, they actually reveal that they were never that high in the first place. Thugs who bring guns to his house, and to hijack his trucks, never fire them – and certainly never intended to. Indeed, the thugs are generally polite and even helpful whenever they get into conversation. Perhaps Morales is right not to worry about the violence – that it’s all so much bluff and theater.
As Morales himself describes it, his reluctance to fight violence with violence is pragmatic – he will lose the bank loan if he comes under public scrutiny and they think he is mobbed up like his competitors. But when charges are brought against Morales’s company for corrupt practices, the bank stands with him. And when the bank, later, does drop him, Morales simply goes and gets the money he needs from his competitors – the same competitors who, supposedly, were so desperate to get the property for themselves.
When he doesn’t get the money quickly enough – the seller of the property gives him a grace period of three days to pull it all together. When his wife reveals that she’s been stealing from their company and socking the money away for a rainy day, Morales is furious, fearing this might get him in trouble with the D.A. who is investigating him (David Oyelowo). But it doesn’t. Once he’s closed on the property, and has a clear future as an important local businessman, the D.A. quietly offers to downgrade the charges in exchange for political support. Most notably, when Morales figures out which competitor has been stealing from him, his competitor rolls over and pays him whatever he asks with barely a whimper.
It seems that all that was ever really at stake was Morales’s self-image as someone who could achieve all his goals on the basis of pure sustained eye-contact. His competitors weren’t really determined to ruin him. Nobody was really going to get personally violent. If all went well, he’d get the property free and clear for a great price. But because his competitors made it hurt, he got the property on somewhat worse terms and he has to take on one of them as a partner (and he would have had to take on another if his wife hadn’t socked away money for a rainy day).
So again, I wonder: is this part of Chandor’s point? That these “high-stakes” business dealings only feel that way because of the atmospherics we surround them with? That, in reality, we’re generally talking about the difference between doing fine and doing fantastically well, between being the sole boss or having partners, between doing it “the most right way” or having to cut a few corners?
I could ask more questions of this ilk. Over and over, this film felt to me that it was subverting the expectations we have of the genre and the period, but I couldn’t tell to what end. If Chandor really was trying to make an homage to the great New York movies of the 1970s, stories of crime and corruption and battles for supremacy over a feverish and perhaps-dying city, then “A Most Violent Year” is simply a failure. But if he was trying to say, “no, it wasn’t really like that; it was honestly more like this, with much lower stakes than the lighting, score and line delivery would suggest” – well, he got what he wanted. But I’m not sure how satisfying a successful result really is as a cinematic experience.
(”Escape from New York” is briefly mentioned in this.)
Bill de Blasio is mayor-elect of New York. According to many of de Blasio’s critics as well as his supporters, the unsurprising outcome of Tuesday’s election reflects a decisive turn in the city’s politics. The Nation claims that “Bill de Blasio’s exhilarating landslide victory over Joe Lhota in New York’s mayoral election offers a once-in-a-generation chance for progressives to take the reins of power in America’s largest—and most iconic—city.” In National Review, Kevin D. Williamson evokes John Carpenter’s b-movie classic, Escape from New York.
I say: not so fast. Neither turnout and polls nor de Blasio’s career so far support hope (or fears) that he’ll try to transform New York into Moscow on Hudson. Mayor de Blasio will not cultivate the the chummy relationship with Wall Street that Michael Bloomberg did. But there’s likely to be more continuity between their mayoralties than most people expect. In fact, that continuity is a bigger threat to the city’s future than the immediate collapse that some conservatives fear.
First, the election data. As Nicole Gelinas points out, de Blasio’s election was not the mandate for change that the margin of victory suggests.
Preliminary results show that about 1 million New Yorkers voted yesterday. That’s 13 percent lower than four years ago. Back then, remember, many voters disillusioned with the choices—Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was running for a third term against the uninspiring Bill Thompson, Jr.—just stayed home. Turnout this year was as much as 30 percent below 12 years ago, when Bloomberg won his first victory. Voters supposedly so eager for change this year didn’t show that eagerness by voting. And a slim majority of the people who did vote—51 percent—told exit pollsters that they approve of Bloomberg, anyway. Though de Blasio’s victory margin was impressive, the scale of the win looks less stellar when put into recent historical context. As of early Wednesday, de Blasio had 752,605 votes—a hair shy of Bloomberg’s 753,089 votes in 2005.
So de Blasio did not win the votes of unprecedented number of New Yorkers. And many of those who did vote for him also supported Bloomberg. That doesn’t mean that they like everything Bloomberg did. But there’s no evidence here of a progressive tsunami.
What about de Blasio’s career? The tabloid press paid a great deal of attention to de Blasio’s visits to communist Nicaragua and the Soviet Union as a young man. More recently, however, de Blasio worked as a HUD staffer under Andrew Cuomo, and as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton. De Blasio took liberal positions during his tenure on the city council, particularly on symbolic issues involving gay rights. But this is not the resume of a professional radical.
It’s true that de Blasio made “a tale of two cities” the central theme of his campaign. As many observers have pointed out, however, he lacks the authority to enact his signature proposals: a tax increase on high earners, to be used to fund universal pre-K. Nothing’s impossible, but the chances of the state legislature approving such a tax hike are slim. The same goes for several of de Blasio’s other ideas, including a city-only minimum wage higher than the state’s minimum and the issuance of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.
The real issues under the de Blasio’s administration will be matters over which the mayor has some direct control. That means, above all, contracts with city workers, and policing. Will de Blasio blow the budget to satisfy public employee unions? And will he keep crime under control after eliminating stop-and-frisk ?
I’m cautiously optimistic about public safety. New Yorkers didn’t like living in fear, and de Blasio is smart enough to know that he’s finished if crime returns. Stop-and-frisk is not the only weapon in the NYPD’s arsenal.
The unions are a bigger problem. New York’s short-term fiscal outlook is reasonably good, so it’s hard to imagine de Blasio playing Scrooge to faithful supporters.
Even so, de Blasio’s mayoralty is unlikely to be a revolutionary moment. As Walter Russell Mead has argued, the biggest risk is that he pursues the same high-tax, high-regulation, high-service style of government on which Bloomberg relied. Those policies have helped transform much of New York into a gleaming shopping mall, which is admittedly a lot better than an urban jungle. But they are a bad strategy for prosperity in the years and decades to come.
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President Goldman Sachs Presents 'The Muppet Show,' Sponsored by GE
(”Escape from New York” is briefly mentioned in this.)
Unexpectedly! "Weekly Jobless Claims Hit Higher Level Than Expected," a CNBC headline reports, using a variation on what Jim Geraghty dubbed a year ago, "the most common adverb of the Obama years."The It's Only Words blog replies:It’s always unexpected with these people. Seriously, can’t you picture the entire Obama Administration standing on the White House lawn, gazing eastward and marveling that the sun has risen yet again?The image will be that much sunnier, when the Photoshop I create last year for a Victor Davis Hanson post titled "The Coming Post-Obama Renaissance" becomes a reality:In the meantime, the Washington Dispatch contrasts today's malaise-ridden Obamaconomy with the recovery of the 1980s under President Reagan in graphic terms:Click over to their blog to see the two charts full size -- and then check out Jim Pethokoukis at the American Enterprise Blog, who writes, "I wish Obama could time travel back to 1980":In 1980, there were plenty of forecasters who thought the American standard of living would decline over coming decades. Just look at all the dystopian films back then: Blade Runner, Soylent Green, Americathon, Escape from New York. Gloomy stuff.But by the mid-1980s, those films were giving way to ones depicting a much sunnier tomorrow such as Back to the Future, Part II and the Star Trek revival. Indeed, from 1983-2007, U.S. real GDP grew by 3.3% a year, 2.2% on a per capital basis. Now, this was not as fast as the 1950s and 1960s when GDP growth averaged near 4%. But as Sumner explains, “Growth has been slower, but that’s true almost everywhere. What is important is that the neoliberal reforms in America have helped arrest our relative decline.And the key reforms, by the way, are lower marginal tax rates and less intrusion by government into markets and the private sector via deregulation, eliminating price controls, and privatization.Why would the president want to reverse course instead of recommitting America to the successful policies of the past decades?By the way, it isn't just the labor force that's shrunk under Mr. Obama, as CNBC noted earlier this month, with another "unexpected" subtext:It’s one of the biggest mysteries on Wall Street. How can stocks be in their fourth year of a bull market and trading activity be so low?During March, average daily volume in equity shares was at their lowest level since December 2007, according to new data from Credit Suisse. This is the same month that marked the three-year anniversary of the bull market that caused the Standard & Poor's 500 to double from its March 2009 credit-crisis low.Actually that same CNBC article partially clears up the mystery, but the reader has to click on a hyperlink embedded first. Buried much deeper in the same article is this little tidbit:“The financial industry has placed itself above the investing public ('muppets') and will take every advantage it can secure,” said Alan Newman, author of the Crosscurrents financial newsletter. “The public's confidence has been shattered, possibly beyond repair.”And buried within the word "muppets" is a link to an earlier CNBC story from late March:Goldman Sachs has begun scanning internal emails for the term "muppet" and other evidence that employees referred to clients in derogatory ways, Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein told partners in a conference call this week, according to people familiar with the call.The company-wide email review comes after an executive director named Greg Smith resigned last week in a scathing op-ed column in the New York Times in which he said he saw five Goldman managing directors refer to clients as "muppets," at times over internal email.In the United States, "muppet" brings to mind lovable puppets such as Kermit the Frog, but in Britain "muppet" is slang for a stupid person.On the conference call with partners this week, Blankfein said the company was taking Smith's claims seriously and was conducting a review of his assertions, including the email scan, according to these people.Consider this another example of Blair's Law: Goldman Sachs, the company that thinks of its customers as "muppets," is deeply in bed with the Obama administration, right down to their fundraising operations. The leader of said administration thinks of most Americans as lethargic bitter clingers, typical white people, who've acted stupidly, who've become soft, and who have lost their imagination and willingness to go along with the big government projects he envisions for them. ("What about more smart grids?" "We need more moon shot!")
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(”Escape from New York” is briefly mentioned in this.)
by Adam Rath The Purge: Election Year was released thirteen months after President-Elect Trump’s announcement of his candidacy, giving the producers plenty of time to tap into the periodic emotional frenzy of democratic societies. The theatrical poster evoked the themes of Trump’s campaign, including the tagline “Keep America Great.” For those unfamiliar with the Purge […]
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