Watching “Tyson” and “Anvil” – Why Failure is as American as Apple Pie

The timing is truly fortuitous: two non-fictional movies about people in decline, having once been successes in their fields, trying to restore whatever former glory they had, all captured on film, yielding movies that are critically acclaimed, psychologically penetrating, fascinating to behold, and revealing, accidentally, the true character of America.

I’m talking about “Tyson” and “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” two limited release documentaries about Mike Tyson and hair-metal band Anvil, respectively. If you are in the DC area, “Tyson” is playing at the Gallery Place Regal Cinema, and “Anvil!” is playing at the Est Landmark Theatre. I cannot recommend these two films enough.

Structurally and thematically, these two films are very familiar. They are both documentaries, shot in very plain style, about Mike Tyson and the hair-metal band Anvil. Both of these subjects share the dubious distinction of having once been successes in their respective fields–boxing and hair-metal, respectively–but who now find themselves mired in faded glory.

Of the two, “Tyson” is more self-conscious, simply by virtue of the fact that the entire film consists of Mike Tyson talking about himself. While this may sound like a very unappealing prospect, after all, who wants to listen to a brutal thug, former convicted rapist, ear-biter, money waster, womanizer like Mike Tyson talk about himself for 70 minutes? I wouldn’t blame you, but all the critical acclaim piqued my curiosity, and I’m glad I watched the movie, because Mike Tyson turns out to be a fascinating, if not likable or sympathetic, human being. He is extremely self-aware (but in a way that both obscures and reveals, more on that later), very articulate and eloquent, brutally honest, and completely fucked up inside, and completely aware of it.

Mike Tyson has no illusions about his psychological motivation and need to fight, as he recalls a youth as an overweight kid, constantly being picked up, and using that resentment and fear to eventually channel into aggression. It’s absolutely fascinating to understand Mike Tyson as he understands himself, because beneath the ferociousness, the sheer power of his technique, now you, as the audience, know that there is a deep current of childhood insecurity, fear, and an alienation bordering on sociopathy, that fuels Mike Tyson’s impeccable boxing skills during his peak.

The most poigant part of the film is the part when Tyson recalls Cus D’Mato, his mentor, and more importantly, his father figure which he has been missing for his whole life. When Tyson talks about D’Mato, he does so affectionately and sincerely: he talks about how his mentor gave his life purpose, taught him discipline, channeled his raw skills into controlled technique, and gave his life some badly-needed stability. Which, of course, are all gone when his mentor dies before he won his first world championship. And you can tell, and Tyson can tell you in no uncertain terms, that the loss of his mentor re-awoke all his fears of abandonment, and the film makes it clear that was the beginning of Tyson’s fall.

Tyson then goes on to talk about his various fights, his problems with women, and how he lost all his money. And here Tyson tries to be revealing to the last drop, but it is also here that his self-analysis runs into a wall that Mike Tyson, perhaps out of an instinctive need to protect his psyche, cannot get past. He candidly talks about how his need to dominate women, sexually and psychologically, has come to hurt him, as evidenced by his disastrous marriage to Robin Givens and his rape conviction. But he refuses to acknowledge his own responsibility in this, especially in his rape conviction: he simply brushes it aside and calls Desiree Washington a “filthy swine of a woman.” Similarly, when he talks about his legal battle with Don King and his attempt to get his money back, Tyson reveals that he really has no concept of money, because he speaks of $10 or $20 million as a “very small sum.” Yes, Tyson admits that he has no one to blame but himself, but his refusal to really go deep both obscures his own self-understanding but also reveals, to the viewers, the limits of one man’s, and perhaps every man’s, ability to be fully accountable to himself.

In the end, Tyson acknowledges that he is fucked up inside, that he has never had a normal, psychologically healthy life, that he has never had any resemblance of a family, and that he’s trying to have a normal family relationship. I never got the sense that Tyson blames all this for his problems, because if there is anything that Mike Tyson wants you to know, he blames no one but himself. Now, whether you buy this or not is another question, but for my part, I tend to believe him, for the most part.

Switching gears a little bit, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” is by no means so self-focused. It’s marketed as a real-life version of “Spinal Tap,” which really goes to show you that life imitates art. But if you are going in expecting a real life Spinal Tap, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, you’ll be treated to a genuinely warm, affectionate documentary about two friends who saw each other through everything, who genuinely love what they do, and who cheerfully carry on their tasks in spite of everything.

Anvil, along with other bands of that era and genre, like Whitesnake, Quiet Riot, Poison, played a part in establishing hair metal, and it is by no means a joke, as the filmmaker got everyone from that time period, including Slash, to talk about the role and influence of Anvil. But for whatever reason, they never found lasting success, so now the two guys in Anvil have regular jobs, but they still soldier on, recording their 13th (!) album, hoping for something, anything. The film is a chronicle of their attempt as they go about doing this.

Is it funny? Undoubtedly, but it’s not played for cheap laughs. The film never laughs at the two guys in the band, but takes its humor from mishaps on their tour through Europe, managed by an incompetent, if very loyal, fan of theirs. This movie could have been a disaster, especially during the parts when you see how the band is playing in clubs for audience of tens. It could have easily taken the route of too much bathos or too much mean-spiritedness at their decline. However, the film avoids both, and instead, strikes a gentle balance: chronicling the improbable comeback attempt with much sincerity and cheerfulness as the guys in the band treat their own efforts. In the end, the film comes across as a genuinely affecting look at friendship, because really, it is the friendship between the two guys in the band that form the core dramatic relationship in the film. They are like an old married couple: they bicker, finish each other sentences, see each other through no matter what. Truly, this is a testament to friendship, united by a common love of music that comes across not the least bit phony but totally genuine. By the end of the movie, you will truly appreciate their friendship, and even more, you genuinely want to see them succeed.

Switching gears once more, now I want to talk about the more meta-textual aspects of these two films. In truth, these two films are very sophisticated in terms of what they demand from the audience. They both require the audience to have a meta-textual understanding of these movies: because neither “Tyson” nor “Anvil!” would make much sense, if any at all, if the audience were not aware of their subjects. In fact, both films derive their thematic heft precisely because they require the audience to know what happened to Mike Tyson and Anvil, their histories, and more importantly, what the movies are created for.

Why is the last reason important? It is important, as I will argue, because if you understand the reasons why these movies are made, you will have understood the true essence of the American character. For all intents and purposes, these two movies are made as deliberate attempts by the subjects they portray, Mike Tyson and Anvil, to rehabilitate or revive their own brands in the public consciousness, and as such, part of an overall effort to make money for the subjects.

There is nothing wrong with this, in it of itself. But it does sort of change the view you understand the movies. It doesn’t change the fact that both movies are interesting and fascinating to watch, and it blunts none of their aesthetic achievements. However, what it does change is the audience’s perception of the movies. Now you understand that neither Mike Tyson nor Anvil is so acutely self-aware and psychologically penetrating for the sake of being acutely self-aware and psychological penetrating: they are only so because being so helps them come across as more sympathetic figures. Because if there is one persistent, running theme in the American consciousness, it is the tale of the fallen celebrity, baring his soul for the world to see. We’ve seen this time and time again, and time and time again industry people know that this is the type of product that sells. It sure got me to see these two movies.

What is even more revealing is that the subjects of the films know this too. And again, like I said before, just because they are doing it for commercial reasons doesn’t change the fact that both Mike Tyson and Anvil say a lot of interesting things about themselves. You should not discount the movies because of this. But what this reveals about the American character is three-fold: first, that we are fascinated by failures, especially failures of famous people; second, that we are even more interested in seeing these failures unfold in public, and often spectacularly messy manner; third, that beyond all this, we are most interested by the way famous people understand their own public, spectacular failures and having this understanding process unfold in public as well.

But wait, there is yet another layer: that these people, who has had their public, spectacular failure, who has come to terms with their failure in public ways, KNOW that this is what Americans are fascinated by, and are willing to commercialize this, without necessarily being completely becoming commercialistic shills.

I submit that this is the very essence of America, because the way America deal with failure is an interesting balance between two extremes. On the one extreme, there is what I would call the Don Quixote approach, that is, complete and utter denial of reality and trying to succeed despite the certainty of failure. On the other extreme, there is what I would call the Sysphus approach, that is, knowing with certainty that the effort is futile, but doing it anyways out of some existential anguish, or a sense of nobility at braving the meaninglessness of an absurd situation.

Instead, the American way of dealing with failures is somewhere in the middle: aware of the unlikelihood (but not complete impossibility) of making a comeback, giving it everything that one has got, including being totally public and transparent about oneself and one’s efforts, and hoping that success, even in some attenuated, lesser form, would come. And if that success, however slight compared to what has come before, is that proverbial “second act” in American lives.

In this light, I think it is appropriate that both “Tyson” and “Anvil!” ends ambigously with no resolution: Tyson doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and Anvil doesn’t know if its 13th album will bring them any more recognition. But what these two films show, and what the subjects are conscious of, is that their last, best hope lies in coming clean about their own failures in public, and hoping for the best.

And if that’s not American, I don’t know what is.


Waltz with Bashir: A Nietzschean Movie

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes that music has a dual (and paradoxical) relationship with the world’s underlying metaphysical reality: music bypasses literal representation to bring us closer with the underlying metaphysical reality, but at the same time, it protects us from that underlying metaphysical reality (which to Nietzsche is fundamentally tragic, almost nihilistic) by aesthetisizing it and thus distancing it from us for safe viewing, as it were.

Now, apply that thesis to movies, and you’ll have a pretty good handle on Waltz with Bashir, the animated (yes I said animated) documentary about The First Lebanon War, particularly about the Sabra and Shatila massacre. More specifically, the movie is driven by the director’s inability to remember his own participation in the war as a member of the Israeli Defense Force. Curious as to why he can’t remember that time in his life, he finds his old war-time comrades and interviews them, trying to find out what they remember and whether their memories can help him remember.

However, as the interviews proceed, it becomes clear that the director’s comrades either cannot, and as it is made even clearer later on, do not want, to remember their own time in the war. Instead, their recollections are more dream-like than a literal representation. And it is during these dream-like sequences that the aesthetics of this movie really blossoms: whether it’s a dream in which 26 hell hounds run wildly through the streets of a Lebanese village, or a hallucination in which a giant naked woman rises out of the water to cradle a solider in her embrace, or a running image of three soldiers emerging naked from the beach while the sky was lit with flares, the images are vivid and pregnant with symbolism and possible meaning.

But of course, there are animated renderings of more “mundane” events, like the bombing of civilian targets, loading their corpses in a truck and dumping them at a designated location, shooting a child who shot a RPG at an Israeli tank, and being under sniper-fire, etc. What is surprising, and especially welcome, amongst these sobering recollections, is an absurd sense of humor, such as a montage of military action set to a rock song about “bombing Lebanon every morning,” or an episode in which one of the Israeli commanding officer’s watching German pornography in the middle of the war.

This part of the movie is the part in which animation might engage with the underlying reality of the war, as it was experienced by the people interviewed, more truthfully than a literal representation with real people and real footage. The reason I say that is the fact that the movie makes clear that the interview subjects are all, in some way, reluctant to really confront their memories of the war. They all speak of dreams or dream-like images they have, vague but filled with symbolic meaning. This way, the animation is a more faithful method to convey the fragmented, distorted way the interview subjects experience their war-time memories 20 years later.

And as the movie hints, but ultimately does not reavel until its very end, there is perhaps a good reason why the interview subjects do not want to fully confront their memories. I mean, these people experienced intense fear, shot and killed civilians, watched all kind of horrific things go on, so it’s not surprising that they do not want to confront these things so vividly again. But the distancing effect (and ultimately a protective one) of using animation is not made clear, in a devastating and powerful way, until the very end. As the story gradually goes on to reveal, all the interview subjects were there at the massacre, when they witnessed and did nothing to stop the slaughter of Palestinian civilians by the Christian Phalangist militia.

Then bam, it hits you: the transition from animation to real footage. The transition is first auditory, as the movie uses real sounds of women’s lament captured on tape, and suddenly the movie screen changes into real footage, as the audience witnesses the aftermath of the slaughter: dead bodies piled up everywhere, dried blood coagulating into caked pools on the ground, flies buzzing around the corpses.

And then the movie ends. The theatre that I was in was absolutely silent, I mean completely and utter silent, for a good two to three minutes, as no one can say anything or move a muscle. All you can hear and see is the credits rolling, but the theatre itself was dead silent. The effect is THAT compelling.

And then you realize why the director chose to go with animation for the bulk of the movie: because the truth is too horrific to bear. The interviewees and the director himself were unwilling to really confront their own time in the war because they all knew that they were complicit in allowing the massacre to happen. They all knew that they did some horrible things in the war that they don’t want to acknowledge, that they can only get in touch with those memories through dreams and symbolic images. That time in their lives is simply too dark a place for them to confront in its entirety, and the animation, like music for Nietzsche, is a way to distance the audience from the horrific truth and shield it from such a terrible truth.

Much like music in The Birth of Tragedy, animation in this movie allows the director to reconcile the truth of what happened while remaining a safe distance from that truth. The lessons of this movie are powerful: that war is horrific, and its horrifying nature is such that people who fight in wars forget wars for good reason. But the flip side of that lesson is even more powerful: the reason why people want to forget wars is the same reason why war cannot be forgotten, for if war is forgotten, the tragedy will just repeat itself.

But if we must remember the horrors of war, at least movies like Waltz with Bashir can allow us to do so by both confronting and shielding us from the painful truths of war, truths which almost everyone would like to forget or veil in dreams and symbols.

A Portrait of the Vampire as a Pre-Adolescent Girl

If you are going to see only one movie based on a book adaptation this year about the relationship between two young people, one of whom is a vampire, let that one movie by Let the Right One In. For the love of God and all things good, do not go see Twilight…

Unless your significant other is so turned on by the guy who plays the male protagonist that she will be mentallying projecting his image on (what is most likely going to be a much inferior) your body that you’ll get laid…

Which if it resembles the book in any way at all, means that you won’t get laid. So please, skip Twilight, and see Let the Right One In instead.

What is Let the Right One In, or as it’s called in its native Swedish tongue, Låt den rätte komma in. Already an astute and ironic reader will have made a mental note about this: namely, that it is foreign, and that it will have subtitles. And this very astute reader will have also assumed certain things, correctly I’d say, about me: namely, that I am one of those people who enjoy, without irony, arty foreign movies with subtitles that are released by independent distributors and shown only at a select number of theatres.

But I would ask the astute reader to, for a moment at least, put aside those justified condescensions about people who enjoy foreign language arthouse cinema and give this film a honest, open-minded chance. Because it has much to offer, and this is a point I cannot emphasize enough, it is leaps and bounds better than Twilight.

The plot is simple: Oskar, a 12 year old Swedish boy living in the tail-end of the 80s, shortly before the Wall came down, is constantly being bullied at school, collects newspaper clippings of murders, and someone whom you know, if not intervened upon, will exact Columbine-style revenge on his high school one day–this same Oskar meets Eli, a 12 year old looking girl who moves in next door in his run-down aparment complex with what appears to be her father, and then proceeds to duct tape all windows with heavy cardboard to block out the light.

You can see where this is going: it is obvious that Eli is a vampire, a 200 year old vampire that happens to be trapped, both physically and emotionally, in the body of a 12 year old. Two outsiders, though for different reasons, develop a budding friendship, but complicated by the fact that one of them needs to drink blood everyday.

It really is a simple story, but the movie loses nothing from this classic premise. The devil, as they say, is in the details. The movie gives a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of what it is like to be a couple of 12 year olds, socially awkward, alienated, and outcast. It depicts, with subtlety, the kind of working-class despair in working-class towns at the tail-end of the Cold War. The movie also does not shy away from the violence that inevitably comes with being a vampire, though such violence is always treated very realistically, without making it stylish. There is also great attention paid to what exactly it would take, from a logistical point of view, to extract blood from a victim as to make the whole process as efficient as possible.

So in a way, you can call this movie a realist vampire drama. Another way of putting it is that the movie features realistic characters, one of whom happens to be a vampire. And it takes seriously the question of what life would be like as a 12 year old girl who has the need to drink blood everyday. If you take away the vampire element, the movie is like a modern update of My Life As A Dog, another Swedish movie adapted from a book that came out in 1985 (see a pattern yet?)

And the best thing about the movie is undoubtedly the developing relationship between Eli and Oskar. It would have been easy to go with the forbidden love angle, as Twilight does so artlessly (as it crudely reduces the relationship between the two protagonists into a simple metaphor for miscegenation, fear of losing one’s virginity, etc). The relationship between Eli and Oskar is beyond sex, because the sexuality is incidental to their relationship. There is a scene in which they both lie naked under the sheets, but this scene is presented intimately, but erotically. But in a Hollywood movie, this scene is virtually impossible because it raises the spectre of that which cannnot be mentioned: children’s sexuality.

Second, the relationship between Eli and Oskar bypasses gender altogether, as Eli asks Oskar at one point whether he would still like her if she was not a girl. Obviously this question contains symbolic meaning whose nature is only clear to the audience, but not to Oskar. Yet in this moment of dramatic irony, Oskar innoncently asks: are you a boy? And just as soon as this question is posed, he says it doesn’t really matter what Eli is. It is little touches like this that make this movie sweet, yes, sweet, something you normally do not expect from a vampire flick.

Perhaps the best way to think about this movie is to see it as a contemporary fairy tale, but not the Disney kind. Because like all fairy tales, Let the Right One In is a story about children and the inevitably dark, sinister undercurrents that lie beneath. The technical aspects of the movie really reinforces this, as the palette is almost entirely white, which makes the rare and sudden gushing of blood that much more visually stunning as you see the almost black-ish red blood flow across the immaculately white snow. The cinematography really captures winter, and certain long shots really establish the mood quite effectively.

So please, I urge you, see this movie instead of Twilight. And see it before the inevitable American remake defangs (pun intended) all that is good about the original.

Don’t Psychoanalyze the Villain Please

Or, to paraphrase Woody Allen playing Alvy Singer: I resent movie-makers’ attempts to reduce evil down to simple psychoanalytic categories.

Which is why my top three movies of the last two years all feature major characters that emerge, fully-formed with no backstory, as evil motherfuckers that wreak havoc on the moral fabric of their surroundings.

I’m talking about Anton Chirgur in “No Country for Old Men”, Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood”, and of course, The Joker from “The Dark Knight”.

All three characters emerge fully-formed, out of some circle of hell which Dante hasn’t visited, and their awesomeness makes them much more interesting characters. All three are driven purely to do acts of evil, without explanation, and they won’t stop until they have done those evil acts, and one gets the feeling that they will never stop, because that is their nature.

There is often a tendency in the mainstream culture to rationalize evil using folk psychology: it’s either the traumatized childhood, or that mommy didn’t hug the villain enough when he was young. For the life of me, I cannot understand why film-makers feel the need to explain away evil. After all, the evil is the point of the character: just take the evil for granted, and then create a realistic portrayal that is consistent with the internal logic of the movie.

Of course you have to have great actors to inhabit these fully-realized characters, and in all three cases (Javier Bardem, Daniel Day Lewis, and Heath Ledger) absolutely embraced their characters.

Hopefully this trend will continue, and there is reason to hope, seeing how No Country and Blood both received nominations, and one of them won, and The Dark Knight made tons of money.

What the fuck does anything have to do with Vietnam!?

David Haglund has a piece on Slate about the politics of The Big Lebowski, as seen through the film’s two central characters: The Dude and Walter:

“Ten years on, though, the movie’s most striking role belongs to John Goodman as Walter Sobchak: a hawkish, slightly unhinged Vietnam vet and the Dude’s best friend and bowling partner. Watching The Big Lebowski in 2008, it becomes clear that appreciating Walter is essential to understanding what the Coen brothers are up to in this movie, which is slyer, more political, and more prescient than many of its fans have recognized. Perhaps that’s because Walter, with his bellowing, Old Testament righteousness and his deeply entrenched militarism, is an American type that barely registered on the pop-culture landscape 10 years ago. He’s a neocon.” (emphasis mine)

This is not an implausible claim, and Haglund presents credible evidence to support his claim:

“If that seems like a stretch, consider the traits Walter exhibits over the course of the film: faith in American military might (the Gulf War, he says, “is gonna be a piece of cake”; in the original script, he calls it “a fucking cakewalk“); nostalgia for the Cold War (“Charlie,” he says, referring to the Viet Cong, was a “worthy fuckin’ adversary”); strong support for the state of Israel (to judge from his reverent paraphrase of Theodor Herzl: “If you will it, Dude, it is no dream”); and even, perhaps, past affiliation with the left (he refers knowingly to Lenin’s given name and admits to having “dabbled in pacifism”).”

However, as plausible as this piece is, I think Haglund could have done a better job drawing a more explicit connection between contemporary neo-con policies with Walter. For example, Haglund references one of the most hilarious scenes in the movie, the “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!” scene in which Walter violently smashes up a Corvette in order to try to teach Larry a lesson.

This scene is symbolic on a number of levels. First, it is a perfect demonstration of Walter’s (and thus by extension, the neo-con’s) tendency to hastily resort to violence in the face of apparent diplomatic difficulties. Second, the fact that Walter ends up smashing the wrong car is the perfect demonstration of how neo-cons have fucked up their strategic priorities: focusing on Iraq while Iran is the real de-stabilizing force in the region, focusing on non-existent ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq when Afghanistan is still the real stronghold. Finally, Walter’s exhortation of Larry to “see what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass” can be seen not only as the neo-con’s tendency to use force, but also ironically as a statement about blow-back: when you fuck a stranger in the ass, they tend to fuck you back.

Also, there is an even more explicit connection between Walter and current American politics that Halgund fail to make: namely, that Walter is John McCain.

For both men, Vietnam is the central, and perhaps ONLY, lens through which they interpret reality. It is for them both, as Walter says, “a line in the sand” (or perhaps in McCain’s a case, a cross in the sand). It is the watershed event that constitute a clear “before” and “after,” a singular event that becomes the whole and only basis for their narratives. This should become clear to anyone, and I mean, anyone, who has watched McCain campaign in the general election this year. McCain has used his Vietnam experience to justify everything from his leadership qualifications to why he doesn’t know how many houses he owns.

But of course, the problem for any rational observer is, as The Dude puts it so much more eloquently than I can: “And what the fuck was all that about Vietnam, man!? What the fuck does anything have to do with Vietnam!? What the fuck are you talking about!?”

Then again, this could just be well, you know, like my opinion, man.

Protecting Our Precious Bodily Fluids: The Nature of Sovereignty in Dr. Strangelove

In Political Theology, Carl Schmitt famously argues that the “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Thus began Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which is a hilarious exploration of what happens when political contingencies–such as a nuclear attack capable of destroying all life on earth–is decided by the pre-determined rules of deterrence.

Schmitt’s argument in Political Theology can be seen as a direct attack on liberal constitutionalism, or the idea that all political decisions must fall under the purview of established rules that limit what political actors can do. Schmitt’s basic argument agaginst liberal constitutionalism is that it cannot account for the truly exception, the contingencies that the rules cannot anticipate. In the face of these contingencies, the legal order is unable to decide, because the rules do not apply. Thus, it falls upon the sovereign to decide what to do, and this kind of political decision-making is no longer rule-based but existential. Subsequently, in The Concept of the Political, Schmitt argues that it is the existential decision-making process that defines politics, not a priori rules.

Dr. Strangelove deals extensively, and almost exclusively, with a singular political contingency: the decision by General Ripper to unilaterally initiate an attack on Russian military targets whose logical consequence is total annihilation of the Earth. A large part of the film’s humor, and its plot, derives from all other political actor’s inability to deal with this contingency with existing rules. In the first scene in the War Room, President Muffley is exapserated by General Turgidson’s explanation for why he cannot override General Ripper’s command: because the rules have taken out any element of individual human control. And ironically enough, as General Turgidson reminds President Muffley: you approved these rules yourself.

Of course, the central metaphor for pre-existing rules is the doomsday device: a device that completely removes any and all elements of individual decision-making. The doomsday machine is automatically and irreversibly triggered when a certain set of circumstances are present, and there is no one anything can do about it. The doomsday device is a stand-in for deterrence and MAD, in that it is supposed to be public information whose very publicity is designed to deter the very kind of aggression that the machine itself is doing when it is activated. The idea is that once all the actors are aware of the rules, they will play by them since the consequences of violating the rules are too great to bear for any rational actor. Thus, the rule creates behavior that is stable and self-sustaining.

Except when contingencies happen, in which case the rules are unable to account for any unforseen circumstances that the creator of the rules could not anticipate. And Schmitt’s central argument in Political Theology is that the realm of the unanticipated contingencies is precisely the realm of the sovereign, who by its nature is beyond the rules. After all, if rules could be designed such that they can anticipate every single possibility, then there would no longer be a need for actual human decision-making. But since this is obviously impossible, the sovereignty exists to make those decisions.

The hilarious, and fatal, problem in Dr. Strangelove is that all the political actors involved have stripped themselves of sovereignty by making rules that remove all elements of individual decision-making. In other words, the political actors in Dr. Strangelove have de-politicized themselves, in order to avoid an undesirable political situation: namely, total annihilation.

Schmitt was always critical of liberalism precisely because he felt that liberalism tried to de-politicize the political, which to him is neither possible nor desirable. He explicitly rejected the idea that the political solely consists of rules and laws; rather, he wants to say that it is precisely that which is NOT covered by the rules that constitute the essence of politics.

Does this mean that Dr. Strangelove takes a position one way or another? I don’t know, but one thing’s for sure, the movie is pessimistic that rules and their publicity can prevent distastrous outcomes. It is a critique of MAD and deterrence, because the outcome of following these rules to their logical extreme is complete annihilation. In fact, the movie mocks the political actor’s inability or unwillingness to make decisions. For example, in the scene when Dr. Strangelove is talking about preserving a certain percentage of people underground, the President says he is unwilling to make the choice, at which point Strangelove says that a computer can make the choice instead. Surely this scene is mocking, because it exposes the trust that political leaders have in the ability of rules to solve all political problems, when it is the singular act of General Ripper that started the entire crisis.

And this is why I love the movie so much, because every time I see it, I catch something new. I would have never detected any Schmittian ideas in the movie before I started reading Schmitt. However, now that I have, I see something new in the movie that makes me think about both Schmitt and the movie all over again, and anything that prompts me to think and re-think is always good in my eyes.

Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I just came back from watching the new Indiana Jones movie, and I have to say that it is decent, but not great. In terms of how it compares with the rest of the movies in the series, I’d say it’s on the same level as The Temple of Doom, which means it’s the worst of the bunch, but still entertaining nonetheless.

Now, how much nostalgia plays into my assessment can’t be evaluated objectively. Although I was still in China when the first three movies premiered, I nonetheless have very fond memories of those movies, seeing as how they were some of the first few movies that I have watched in America. It is safe to say that Indiana Jones created my expectations of all action adventure movies should be.

I came into the movie with somewhat modest expectations: I didn’t expect the movie to recreate the excitement I felt when I first watched the movies, but I did expect some entertaining action sequences. In that respect, the movie did not disappoint. Whatever my opinion of Steven Spielberg’s body of work, I have to say that he is, on a technical level, an excellent director. All the stunts and action sequences were very well choreographed. The edits weren’t so quick as to induce nausea, like most action movies have a tendency to do, and the cameras are all placed strategically so that there is never any interruptions in the action. Also, the special effects are obviously much better looking than the ones in the original trilogy, and they weren’t over the top in any blatant way.

So yes, the movie is entertaining, but I felt like there was too much of an inclination to try to one-up the stunts and action sequences in the previous movies. Understandable, of course, since it is a sequel after all. But some of the stuff is ridiculously over the top that even someone like me, who is already familiar with the already implausible actions in the movies, found it incredulous. But I don’t think this is a serious problem, because if you are already a fan of the franchise, you quickly learn to ignore these things and just enjoy the spectacle of it all.

But the movie is disappointing in the sense that it never does manages to recreate the kind of pure joy in watching Indy pulls off some crazy shit, like the first three movies did. To this day, I still get a thrill when I watch the old movies, albeit not to the same degree as I did when I was younger. But this movie largely fails to elicit that kind of response from me. I appreciated the action sequences from a technical point of view, but I had no visceral reactions to them. There were a couple of moments when I had that feeling, when John William’s familiar score is playing, and Indy is doing some crazy shit, and it does take me back a little. However, those moments are largely absent from the movie as a whole.

Who knows, maybe I’m just getting older, so it would be unrealistic and unfair for me to expect the same kind of visceral thrill that I got when I was much younger. So again, I return to the original question: just how much does nostalgia have to do with it? In the end, I would have to admit, if I were to be completely honest, that without the words “Indiana Jones” in front of the title, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would not be all that different from movies like The Mummy or National Treasure.

Which is ironic, because without Indiana Jones, movies like The Mummy or National Treasure would not exist. So it is strange to see Spielberg and George Lucas making a movie that feels like movies that are imitation of the franchise that they have created.

Man, I feel old.