Monday, October 31, 2005

Sports Report

Last night in a game against the Buffalo Bills, a player for the New England Patriots was penalized for "An unnatural act not common to the game."

No explanation was forthcoming, and there was no instant replay.

Call in the Wardrobe Malfunction police.
Appoint a Special Prosecutor.
Damn that Patriot Act! Bush lied!

David Cronenberg could not be reached for comment.
(for book deals, cocktails, interviews, photo-ops)

Atticus Finch is no further ahead.
It is apparent, but not confirmed, that Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has just spent two years investigating who did not commit a crime, or maybe who committed a non-crime.

He has decided that when the testimony of a powerful White House official contradicts that of a print or television journalist, the journalist is to be believed and the official must be lying. And/or that lyiing to a journalist about how much you know is an indictable offense. Or something like that.

Lewis "Scooter"Libby, top assistant to the Anti-Christ (or the Vice Anti-Christ, or something like that) has been indicted for doing some needless, idiot verbal tap-dance in the process of giving testimony that should never have been necessary had the most basic question about the Plame Name Blame Game been answered expeditiously-- was she covert? If not, no crime. No crime, no reason for a prosecutor to continue prosecuting, regardless of his low opinion of the players or the perceived dangers of being reckless with classified names. This does not mitigate the fact that lying under oath is criminally stupid and stupidly criminal, and if done, should be punished. That's why Oliver North was (temporarily) convicted. That's why Hillary Clinton was indicted and Bill Clinton went to jail-- oh, wait, that never happened.

The mysteries lurking on every side of the circuitous path by which we have arrived at the Libby indictment are legion, and well-covered by a host of wide-awake observers. Stephen F. Hayes at the Weekly Standard (author of The Connection, a blow-by-blow exposé of the long and intense relationship between Saddam Hussein's one-man government and Al-Qaeda) wrote a 13-page blow-by-blow account of the Wilson-Niger-Plame saga just before the indictment came down, which lays it all out clearly. This was followed by a close examination of how a "spooked White House" went knock-kneed in the face of a CIA leak-fest to deflect attention from its own Iraq intelligence failures. Hayes also provides a treatment of the CIA's general practice of "CYA" leaking (and possible prosecutions that could arise therefrom), as well as some well-deserved scrutiny of the once-Honorable Joseph C. Wilson the freakin' Fourth's own propensity for the Big Fib. Read Hayes because, as the song says, nobody does it better.

In his 13-pager on the path to prosecution, Hayes mentions a New York Times article on July 22 of this year which included a 19-point timeline of the (selected) major events in the story. Money quote from Hayes:

But there is one curious omission: July 7, 2004. On that date, the bipartisan Senate Select Intelligence Committee relased a 511-page report on the intelligence that served as the foundation for the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq. The Senate report includes a 48-page section on Wilson that demonstrates, in painstaking detail, that virtually everything Joseph Wilson said publicly about his trip, from its origins to his conclusions, was false. (emphasis added)

Or, as Hayes writes more succinctly on an earlier page, "It should be clear by now that the only one telling flat-out lies was Joseph Wilson."

Reflect on this: Hayes and other writers are prepared to state, in print, in widely circulated media outlets, that Joseph Wilson is a liar. Not "mis-statements", not "mis-speaking", not "inconsistencies"-- LIES. They have been writing about Wilson in these terms over much of the two years that this story has been under investigation. And Wilson, who has surfaced constantly in the effort to keep his name and victimhood on the front pages, has never taken legal action against a single one of those who have branded him LIAR. That's because when they do so, the journalists do not just toss out labels-- they have the goods, and they make the case.

One of the many things we have been waiting for as the Plame Name Blame Game has unfolded is the full story on what, if anything, will be the consequences for the first publication of the The Name by Robert Novak. Nothing, apparently. Novak has been fairly close-mouthed about his role in the investigation, but we now know that he testified early on and seems to have satisfied prosecutor Fitzgerald that it wasn't his job to keep this information under wraps. In my view, perhaps it was not Novak's legal obligation, but, based on his own version of the story, I think it was his moral obligation not to reveal Plame's name.

Novak has described how CIA official Bill Harlow warned him, in somewhat vague terms, that Valerie Plame "probably never again would be given a foreign assignment, but that exposure of her name might cause 'difficulties'." There seems to be a widely held perception that Plame's curtailed foreign career might be a result of Novak's revealing her name, but in fact Valerie Plame had been withdrawn from foreign service in 1997 because it was believed by the CIA that her identity was already compromised-- there was reason to fear that she had been 'outed' by traitor Aldrich Ames, who had been paid millions by the Russians to inform on Russian counter-spies (25 of whom were executed without trial, shot in the head while on their knees), and on numerous American under-cover operatives and their projects.

Novak seems to think that Harlow's warning was insufficiently serious to compel him to suppress Plame's name, especially since anyone seeking information about the subject of his article (Joe Wilson) would find his wife's name in publicly available sources like "Who's Who". Novak could also have mentioned Wilson's lengthy biography on the website of the Middle East Institute, a Saudi-funded think-tank, where Wilson was listed as an "adjunct scholar", and his wife was mentioned by name.

(In both cases she was "Valerie Plame"-- no one ever called her "Valerie Wilson" until well into the leak investigation, when she was getting more press coverage than her husband-- hmmmm. By the way, in the interim between the breaking of this story and the present, the Middle East Institute has re-done its website, where Wilson's bio is now considerably shorter, and Plame is no longer named. Too late, Joe.)

Nevertheless, as a moral question, I think Robert Novak should have erred on the side of caution regarding the name of anyone working for the CIA. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald may have been a little melodramatic about it (and his Libby indictments perhaps reflect a slight excess of that) but he is correct in saying that you're not going to get good people to work in this vital security area if they cannot be guaranteed a reasonable degree of protection-- not just by the government, but by the citizenry at large.

The name of Valerie Plame was of no significance whatever to the substance of Novak's original article-- which was (it is often forgotten) a kid-gloves handling of Joe Wilson's claims, because as an isolationist/conservative Novak was also against the Iraq war. He was clearly interested in Wilson's case as possible evidence that the war was as lousy an idea as Novak had long been saying. All of this could have been accomplished without naming Plame's name-- Novak should have let somebody else put two-and-two together, with the help of "Who's Who", if they really wanted to. On general principles, it was wrong. Even if Plame had been covert, and a crime had been committed, Novak would not be the guilty party. But what he did was wrong anyway. It needs to be said.

As the Leakin' Libby drama plays out, it will be a task to keep the central immediate question in focus (Was Valerie Plame covert?) as well as the now-distant seminal question (Just how big a liar IS Joe Wilson?). I was a Sunday New York Times subscriber when Wilson's op-ed first appeared, and I admit I found his claims alarming-- I remember bringing attention to them in conversation, and wondering what the fall-out would be.

But I also remember being struck by the false note in the Wilson chorus-- that crap about "I spent the next eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people". Even as my brow furrowed about his accusations, I thought this tea-business sounded like some girlie travel diary entry, the sort that would be followed by something like, "It was all too, too exciting! I was simply nackered and could barely decide which shoes went with today's frock!"

Just how seriously did Joe Wilson investigate the single 1999 Iraq-Niger transaction attempt he was sent to confirm or deny? James S. Robbins was on the case two years ago at NRO, placing Wilson's moves under the microscope of Robbins' national security expertise, and issuing a withering critique.

Money quotes:

In 1981, Seyni Kountche, president of Niger, said that his country would "sell uranium even to the devil." He made good on his word, doing business with both Libya and Iraq, and funneling billions in profits into private slush funds to prop up his corrupt is useful to remind people, in an age of short-attention spans, that Niger and Iraq were part of a nuclear family dating back to the 1970s.
[Wilson] spent most of his time at the hotel — a fourth-floor suite at the Gawaeye, one report said. He was very open about his mission and its object, and began to take meetings near the pool...It is unclear with whom Wilson met. No Nigerien officials have admitted to attending those meetings. El Hadj Habibou Allele, who runs COMINAK, the major uranium-mining concern, stated he was never contacted. (emphasis added) For their part, the staff at the Gawaeye thought Wilson was a nice guy, and they nicknamed him "Bill Clinton" after his former employer.
It hardly seems credible that Wilson could have single-handedly investigated every aspect of the Niger-Iraq connection spending "eight days drinking sweet mint tea" and talking to people. If Niamey were nurturing such a relationship with Baghdad it surely would have been highly secretive. Uranium trade with Iraq was illegal after all; you could not expect to get a straight answer from anyone involved in it.
Wilson came away with no evidence that the 1999 uranium sale had taken place...this very narrow finding has been taken as proof that Iraq never even tried to obtain uranium. That was not the question Wilson was sent to Niger to answer, and his investigation certainly never came close to being that thorough.
Dr. Robbins is a senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and a Professor of International Relations at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He worked briefly for the Pentagon in communications, because of his talent for communicating many things briefly, but left when a giant bureaucracy kept hitting him in the face.


Actually, we're told he intends to visit the U.S. for the first time in decades to lecture Americans about tolerance of peace-loving Islam. But the accompanying photograph in Britain's Telegraph newspaper would indicate that there has been some interest in bringing royal ceremonial jewelry more in line with the unspeakable tackiness associated with Miss America and friends. (The Crusty the Clown hair arrangement is pretty effective too.)

Over my 34-odd years living as an American in Canada I have at various times entertained the possibility of applying for citizenship, especially after it became possible to hold dual citizenship (I believe that came in under Clinton, who was always mindful of how nice it would be to collect the taken-for-granted Democratic votes of immigrants who didn't want to give up their connection to Mexico or wherever else they came from). At one point I even favoured this course because I thought it would be kind of cool to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

I got over that, as I watched her low-brow children assume their high places in society and contract ridiculous marriages they had no intention of preserving (or, in Andrew's case, a ridiculous marriage he would probably love to have preserved, but his mother, Defender of the Faith, won't allow him to reconcile with his tramp of choice, despite their being perfectly suited to each other).

So with each passing year, and each passing anti-American tantrum on the part of Canadian public officials, I become less inclined to undergo even a pro-forma Canadian citizenship ritual. (Not long ago I met an American woman married to a Canadian, who figured it would be best all round if she took out dual citizenship-- she said she wept with grief through the entire ceremony!)

Anyhow, it looks like Americans, especially those in the Washington receiving line, now have the prospect of having to hold down their cookies while being preached at by the under-achieving heir to the English throne about what a superior thing it is to oversee (or at least "tolerate) your national identity's slow death by a thousand cultural cuts, as official Britain systematically grovels to Muslim hyper-sensitivities about the customs of their adopted home.

(Yes, many a Muslim was in fact born in the United Kingdom, so it's not in that sense "adopted", blah, blah, blah-- bottom line: Britain is an ancient land whose history pre-dates the invention of Islam by eons, and its laws and institutions are what they are because of its Western Christian culture. If you don't find them desirable, move somewhere else where Western Christianity hasn't been so influential. I understand Indonesia has a few vacancies where a few school-girls' heads used to be.)

Perhaps the hapless prince will also try to export Britain's latest exercise in tolerance, the banning of all public representations or other detectable presence of PIGS, in deference the Islamic discomfort at the very thought of the little swine. In case you haven't been following it, Kathy Shaidle at Relapsed Catholic is a clearing house for the "Free Piglet" campaign. Intrepid Middle East chronicler Michael J. Totten has a few choice comments on the subject too, though, as always, Mark Steyn has the last word (and it is "Pooh").

Peaceful Islam update: Best accessed through Little Green Footballs-- exciting tales of tolerant beheadings of little girls in Indonesia, peaceful riots in Paris, profoundly spiritual compulsory head-scarves for non-Muslim women in Malaysia, hypothetical hangings of stock market players in Tehran, just capital punishment** for a 14-year-old in Saudi Arabia. Well, I guess that's only fair in countries that were part of that imperialistic Coalition of the Willing that invaded Iraq-- oh, no, wait, that was somebody else.

**(heck, even peacekeeping Canada was prepared to do that once!)

Friday, October 28, 2005


Historian Victor Davis Hanson has some advice for President Bush at NRO today:

It is also time to step up lecturing both the American people and the Iraqis on exactly what we are doing in the Sunni Triangle. We have been sleepwalking through the greatest revolutionary movement in the history of the Middle East, as the U.S. military is quietly empowering the once-despised Kurds and Shiites — and along with them women and the other formerly dispossessed of Iraq. In short, the U.S. Marine Corps has done more for global freedom and social justice in two years than has every U.N. peacekeeping mission since the inception of that now-corrupt organization.

(emphasis added)
Hanson, once a full-time farmer, is a Classics scholar and prolific author of books and articles, with a unique dual emphasis on matters military and agricultural. Now a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, he established the Classics Department at California State University, Fresno, and has taught at Stanford University and the U.S. Naval Academy. My impression is that he is an expert in keeping his head when all about are losing theirs. Attention should be paid.

That means you, Mr. President. Fight the war, strengthen the court-- what you do in these two arenas will be a matter of national life and death long after you yourself are unemployed and then dead. Everything else is footnotes.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

For Courting's a pleasure, and parting is grief....

There are a hundred versions of that old song (of British origin, and much-changed by the time it got over the ocean and became "On Top of Old Smokey). The words just popped into mind at news of the withdrawal of Harriet Miers from nomination for the US Supreme Court. After all this angst, she's not the only one suffering withdrawal. A collective "Wphew!!!" has just gone up from all corners of the Last Remaining Superpower. This particular episode of the OK Corral was not going to be pretty.

Paul Begala (author of one of the worst pieces of yellow journalism in American history, and I mean ALL of American history-- his attempt to link Bush and "Red-state" America to the red blood of Matthew Shepard, James Byrd. and the Oklahoma City bombing victims) said to Wolf Blitzer on CNN this morning that the withdrawal of nominee Miers will be seen as a sign of weakness in Bush, making him a lame duck (a dead duck if his guru Rove is indicted). I couldn't help but remember what was touted as one of Bush's worst moments in the 2004 election "debates"-- where at the townhall-type forum he was asked if he could name a few mistakes that he had made as president. Bush's reply was as lame as much of the rest of his debate performance-- he said he regretted a few appointments he had made. (Heh!)

The response to this from the left was that an inability to admit mistakes is one of Bush's greatest character faults-- of course, they had a very specific list of what he should consider to be his mistakes, the first of which (after his having the temerity to get up and draw breath every morning) was the invasion of Iraq. Back when they were holding him up as the antithesis of the nuanced and sensitive perfections of John Kerry, Bush could have risen in their esteem if only he were to demonstrate an awareness of his errors in judgement, and reverse them. This would be a sign of humility and open-mindedness.

Now it's a sign of weakness that will bring the President to his knees. Begala (whose continued employment in the news business, as if he were a person of any respectability instead of a bigoted hack) tried, as always, to disguise his wishful thinking as pundit speculation. No sale. The President screwed up. Charles Krauthammer (God bless him) gave him an exit strategy and he took it. It could not have been easy, but it was wise.

Prior to the announcement of Miers' withdrawal, Kate O'Beirne, a fine lady who is heard from too seldom in National Review, composed an open letter to her, advising her to get out of the bubble and seek counsel with some friend who was willing to tell her the truth. "Harriet, the hearings are going to be an embarrassing disaster...The smart money is betting you won’t be confirmed. (Are you being told that?) Your decision to accept the nomination was ill-considered. If you accepted owing to your desire to help the president, you should know that nomination has only damaged him. "

Ouch, ooch. But the truth, and O'Beirne (who does not apparently know Miers personally) is one of the best friends she has in Washington just now.

The sad thing about all this is the Bush himself does not appear to have any such friends of his own. He seems to be in a bubble that almost no one can penetrate, except people (like Karl Rove, Andy Card, and Karen Hughes), who should at least be sharing his ear with others who have differing views. It's friends like these three who insulate him from the humility that would have prevented the mess he just got himself into. (And who stood by as he went into the above-mentioned campaign debates so absurdly under-prepared.) His next nominee will say a lot about whether he got the message-- whether he has true friends, or just bubble polishers.

Two things: military casualty counts are not simple things, which is why the military doesn't trade in them anymore. (Tommy Franks is often quoted, with disdain, as saying, "We don't do body counts," like he was trying to hide something. What he meant was that we don't use enemy corpse numbers to signal victory, as Robert Incredibly Stange McNamara did during Vietnam.)

Here are a couple of people absolutely in the know about these matters, who can show why it's a mistake to be simple-minded about them:
Lt Col. Steve Boylan (thanks to Powerline and Michelle Malkin)
James Robbins at NRO

And JD at Faces from the Front has one of those comments that tell the salivating peaceniks why they should just shut the hell up.

As for the salivating simple-minded, don't let anyone tell you they're not happy to see the Grim Milestone soldier die-- just look at their faces.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Back on track--
after a wonderful family week, culminating in the first wedding among the amazing cousins-- in a society where children are the most endangered species, having achieved a bizarre status suspended somewhere between "life-threatening burden" and "self-actualizing status symbol," my generation (just one sister and me) have between us produced seven knock-out fabulous kids, whose tight circle has just stretched to include an eighth, and will be welcoming a ninth in a couple of months.

The song that kept going through my head all week (as a sort of preparation for what I figured would happen on the day) was the dance "hostesses" lament from the musical "Sweet Charity"--

I always weep at weddings / I'm a soggy creep at weddings...
I walk into a chapel / and get happily hysterical.
But there really wasn't much of that, since I am finding in my old age that historic events which express themselves in appropriate readings from Scripture (and boy did we have a bunch of those!) take on a majesty which suppresses and transcends mere sentimentality. Like, it's all just so cosmic, man-- and I mean that.

Have spent hours the last two days just catching up on events in the world. (My sister has no internet at home-- AAAAAAAAAAAGHH!!!!) Here's a little sampling of what apparently took place while I wasn't looking:

It's GRIM MILESTONE Day, round two

A round of complimentary kleenex for our friends on the left to help them catch their drool as the tote board chalks up the 2000th military death in Iraq. Official channels have been fuzzy as to when or whether this number was reached, but it seemed likely that today would be the day.

Never ones to let the recently placed cemetery sod grow under their feet, Democrats in the Senate were primed for this moment, and trotted out the re-worked versions of their Grim Milestone I (1000 deaths) speeches. Vermont's scintillating Senator Patrick Leahy informed one and all that we will never beat the insurgents (news, I'm sure, to the fighting men who have been pounding them into the desert dust with considerable success lately) and must now concentrate solely on that noble goal of just "extricating ourselves"-- by God! That's the stuff that made America great!

West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, looking every inch the senior statesman with every Klan-white hair in place, was feeling distinctly Halloweeny as he intoned, "Too much blood!" several times (who does he think he is? a special effects guy on a Cronenberg film?). How much is too much, Bob? How much is too little? How much is just right to be spent on freeing 25 million brown-skinned slaves? Aye, there's the rub...

Powerline forwards a report from their contact "Major E" in Baghdad, who joins the massive chorus of military voices expressing their total astonishment at what passes for news back home, and how the mainstream American press (among others) has created some kind of parallel universe in their reporting of life and events in the combat zone (not to mention the fact that they never report anything at all from the 14 out of 18 Iraqi provinces which are NOT combat zones).

...seemingly every person knows of Fallujah and remains aware of the high casualties taken by the Marines who secured the city late last year. Yet no one seems to know that just last week, an estimated 70,000 Fallujans voted in the referendum. That is a dramatic increase over voter turnout last January, when essentially zero votes were cast because the lack of security made it too dangerous to establish polling stations.

Money quote:
"Many Americans seem to know the bad news from last year, but not the good news from last week."


That special set of Greatest Generation Heroes, the surviving
Tuskegee Airmen, are on their way to Iraq to bring both encouragement and admiration to the heirs of their proud company designation, the 332nd Air Expeditionary Group. To no one's great surprise, they seem to recognize what really counts in the evolution of race relations in America (a refreshing change from the insidious race-baiting that continues to issue forth from high-profile maggots upon the body politic like Sharpton, Farrakhan, Belafonte, Rangel, Jackson, and the good doctor of white extermination Kamau Kambon)

Money quote from Ted Johnson, 80, who graduated from the Advanced Flight School in 1945:

It was the Tuskegee Airmen who made America come to its senses, that individuals should be judged on their accomplishments, rather than their ethnicity and color.
James Taranto responds at Best of the Web (OpinionJournal)

That last comment is one of the wisest things we've heard anyone say in a while about race in America. What's so inspiring about the Tuskegee Airmen is that they served their country, and had faith in it, at a time when the country had not yet earned it.


New York Times reporter Judith Miller has been de-canonized by her employers, who had elevated her to sainthood when she went to jail rather than reveal the source who had waived confidentiality a full year before she put on the orange jumpsuit.

Apparently she is now demoted to Bush-administration-WMD-shill and drama -queen-in-residence (the latter is probably accurate). Washington Post regular
Robert Kagan has the gall to remind the public that the Old Gray Mare Times was one of the biggest WMD shills in history during the Clinton administration, fervently endorsing Slick Willie's mini-bombing of Iraq, and raising equally fervent alarums over the appointment of Hans Blix to oversee weapons inspections, due to his "decade-long failure to detect Iraq's secret nuclear weapons program before the Gulf War." Etc., etc., etc., year in and year out from 1998 onwards.

Kagan doesn't let his own employer off the hook, reminding readers that the Washington Post weighed in on Jan. 29, 2001, taking the outgoing president to task for leaving his successor what the Post amusingly termed a "booby trap" in the Middle East:

...none is more dangerous -- or more urgent -- than the situation
in Iraq. Over the last year, Mr. Clinton and his team quietly avoided dealing with, or calling attention to, the almost complete unraveling of a decade's efforts to isolate the regime of Saddam Hussein and prevent it from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction. That leaves President Bush to confront a dismaying panorama in the Persian Gulf, [including] intelligence photos that show the reconstruction of factories long suspected of producing chemical and biological weapons.

Somebody said "facts are stubborn things." Unfortunately their stubbornness often goes unnoticed when it is kept locked in a closet, bound and gagged, by the wilfully amnesiac mainstream press.


This week should see the climax of the two-year Plame Name Blame Game, and what a farce it has become. (Well, it's always been a farce, but the crazed left has ratcheted up the whole farce quotient in recent weeks.)

Where we need to bring in Atticus Finch is in the matter of his most basic question in the To Kill A Mockingbird courtroom where black sharecropper Tom Robinson was about to be railroaded by an all-white jury on a charge of rape (of a white woman-- verdict never in doubt). At any point in the process, wondered Atticus, was it ascertained by a doctor that this crime had ever been committed? The answer in this fictional case was "NO". But Tom got convicted anyway, because that jury knew in its all-white bones that "these people just do this kind of thing-- that's how they are."

This is precisely the same thing we have going on in the alleged "outing" of an allegedly "covert" CIA agent's identity. At no point in the process has it been established with certainty that any crime was committed at all. The whole investigation is likely about a case as fictitious as the Mockingbird novel (though the costs, financial and political, are all too real.) But that hasn't stopped MSNBC's Chris Matthews from expanding the list of possible indictees to include Mary Matalin and a few other names which have played NO PART whatsoever in the speculations of the last two years. (One blog comment entry describes Matthews of late as being "off his meds"!)

It hasn't stopped anyone in the left-wing lynch-mob from gutting the White House staff down to the President and a janitor because everyone else will be in jail. And at no point does the mob (which knows nothing about anything that has transpired before the Grand Jury) clarify that an indictment is not a conviction. They just shout gleefully, "Hang 'em all! Because we know that these people just do this kind of thing-- that's how they are. Screw the evidence-- hang 'em all."

We're still watching the righting of wrongs done 50 years ago when juries convicted or acquitted on no other grounds than race. It's sad to see that the presumption of innocence is still at the mercy of tabloid yellow journalism and the frothing madness of the lynch-mob.

The truth is, many of the people most closely surrounding President Bush make my skin crawl-- and that's a totally shallow judgement based on vague impressions, mostly looks. If they are half as sleazy as left-wing speculation suggests, I'd be happy to see them sent packing. But at this moment there are only a handful of people with any real knowledge of whether that is so, and they aren't talking yet. (Unless someone on Fitzgerald's staff has been leaking things, in which case they should be the first in line to be "frog-marched away in handcuffs", to borrow the unspeakably sleazy Mr. Plame's own words.)

Ambassador Joseph Wilson the freakin' Fourth has been proved to be a publicity hound, a public liar, and the one person most responsible for any of us knowing anything about his wife. I wonder if he's also the guy responsible for his wife's suddenly being referred to as "Ms. Wilson" when her maiden name and professional profile shoved his off the front pages. As somebody famous once said (was it Oscar Wilde?), "The suspense is killing me. I do hope it will last."

SPEAKING OF WMD SHILLS, East London MP George Galloway, the famously bloviating, self-loathing, homicidal tyrant-loving gas-bag who blew off the Senate Sub-Committee investigating the gargantuan UN Oil-For-Food scandal, and then copiously dis-gusted at Christopher Hitchens in their ballyhooed Grapple in the Big Apple "debate", seems to have been caught with his well-manicured hand in the petroleum cookie jar. Smoking gun evidence is on the table that:

* Galloway personally solicited and was granted eight oil allocations totaling 23 million barrels from the Hussein government from 1999 through 2003;

* Galloway’s wife, Dr. Amineh Abu-Zayyad, received approximately $150,000 in connection with one allocation of oil;

* Galloway’s political campaign, the Mariam Appeal, received at least $446,000 in connection with several allocations granted under the Oil-for-Food Program;

* Illegal “surcharge” payments in excess of $1.6 million were paid to the Hussein regime in connection with the oil allocations granted to Galloway and the Mariam Appeal; and

* Galloway knowingly made false or misleading statements under oath before the Subcommittee at its hearing on May 17, 2005.

[Hat tip: Powerline]

As David Warren is fond of tapping out in his more malicious private musings: BWA-HA-HA-HA!!!! Can't wait for the next chapter on this one.

Speaking of totally partisan schadenfreude, is there any prospect more delicious than that of Al Gore and John Kerry refusing to accept their respective terminal diagnoses and insisting on making another run for President in '08? This is the best news for Republicans in years, especially since there is no credible prospective GOP candidate ANYWHERE on the horizon at this moment. (I will never vote for George Allen's hair, which seems to be a foreign occupying army on his head.)


Criticism of President Bush from his putative allies on the right is making lots of news these days, but it is, in fact, nothing new.

Throughout his administration Bush has been subject to stinging conservative criticism in spades, on all sorts of issues, like steel tariffs, immigration chaos, federal education policy, prescription drug benefits, politicization of the war on terrorism, refusal to fire anybody ever (the hapless Michael Brown being the inexplicable exception), and baffling wimpiness in the face of the left-wing truth-bending machine-- that source of Orwellian distortions of the Kay and Deulfer reports, sagas of defeat in Iraq, the 9/11 Commission whitewash, bizarre conspiracy fantasies about the Katrina aftermath, and shameless race-baiting, not to mention the worst Democratic candidate in living memory coming within a few points of beating Bush in 2004.

The Harriet Miers nomination is simply the last straw for many of Bush’s conservative critics and the rhetorical temperature has shot up noticeably. So it’s worth examining the right-wing criticism, and contrasting it to its opposite number.

From the Right—Reasonable partisans (as well as the sometimes less reasonable constituencies) who are generally supportive of the President and his administration, analyse decisions and policies and support them— or not— on their merits. The political right is the real “big tent” and does not march in lock-step on any important issue. Criticism focuses on policy rather than personality. The Miers nomination controversy is all the demonstration one needs that the conservative “movement” and Republicans as a group are not in any respect held hostage by the “religious right” – they are, in fact, voicing strong objections to the use and influence of religious considerations in this process.

From the Left—Partisans who were once reasonable have gone mad, and have either embraced or bowed to the power of their most irrational constituencies. They are entirely held hostage by the, Democratic Underground, Code Pink, ANSWER, Chomsky-ite Acolytes of Juan Cole, abortions-for-everybody crowd. Dissent is unwelcome because the radical factions will make life miserable for (and take all George Soros’s money away from) those who don’t toe the line. Criticism of the President and his administration is personal, crude, trite, spitefilled and infantile, offering neither substance nor alternative ideas. Democrats have become a party united by hate, differing only in degree. This is political suicide.

The Right has proven that there are plenty of substantive complaints to be made about five years of Bush “strategery”. Don't get me started!!!! (Actually, I'd be happy to start with Rumsfeld.)

The Left chooses to be impotently wedded to the rabid carping of: Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, Teddy Kennedy, Carl Levin, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Joe Biden, the shameless race-baiters (see above) and the Hollywood America-haters (Al Franken, Alec Baldwin, Barbra Streisand, the Sarandon-Robbinses, weeping Canadian Donald Sutherland, and all that jazz)-- all hopelessly enmired in vacuous, ad hominem attacks in embarrassingly extremist rhetoric, thus ensuring that the majority of voters will not be taking their party seriously at any point in the foreseeable future. Whereas criticism from the right is about policy, the left seldom rises above "stupid, fascist, greedy, war-mongering, AWOL, religious fanatic, ugly-like-a-chimp, and his daughters are tarts." Pathetic.

From the Right—It is held universally by all straight-thinkers that a sitting President has a right to nominate whomever he wishes to sit on the Supreme Court—it is a privilege that goes with having been elected by the American people. Call it “stacking the Court” if it makes you feel better, but it’s the President’s right, which is why you see lefty ideological judges like Ruth Ginsberg getting confirmed with 98 votes.

From the Left—When a Republican picks a righty ideological SCOTUS nominee, it is undemocratic stacking of the Court, (in the present case by a President who stole two elections so his executive privilege doesn't really exist anyway). When Democrats stack the Court, enlightened progressive public policy becomes a way of life.

Fact, not opinion:
When Republicans stack the court our elected representatives get their workload increased, since they, and not the judges, are charged with setting public policy. Democracy thrives.

When Democrats stack the Court, our elected representatives have less work to do, because policy is set by unelected judges. Democracy sleeps.

P.S.-- On the "Chimp" thing: Yet another study recently confirmed that human beings share 96% of their DNA with chimpanzees. Morphing the face of George W. Bush into that of a chimp takes NO TALENT WHATSOEVER. Any caricaturist worth his salt should be able to do that convincingly with any living human being. Steve Bell of Britain's left-wing Guardian newspaper has written an essay and illustrated the evolution of his caricature of Bush as Chimp, as if this was somehow an inspiration born of a lengthy artistic sweat. Puhhleeze. Cartooning 101, folks. Nothing to see here.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Another Day, Another Earth-shaking Historic Turning Point

Iraq votes to ratify its Constitution-- Iraq VOTES -- a predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East VOTES a Constitution to shape a government for which they VOTED and will VOTE again in December.

Don't see that every day!

It's clumsy, it's tin-eared, it's one step forward and two steps back, but sometimes it does the job, the one that needs doing the most. Another world historical, making your planet a better place to live turning point, brought to you by the Bush Administration.

No big woop.

On Hiatus, as they say in TV-land

Away to Texas for a week (marrying off the niece) --blogging ceases till the 24th.
Have a little Newfoundland scenery for contemplation.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

More Canadian Content! --
David Cronenberg:
Film-maker with a history of violence

[On the remote chance that you’ve heard of this movie without learning about its plot tricks, be warned that there are major spoilers in what follows.]

“It was evident to me from the beginning that this was a very American story set in middle America, almost a garden of Eden, perfect American town. Of course that made it perfect to be shot completely in Canada,” quipped director David Cronenberg at an interview during the Cannes Film Festival last May, following the première of his new movie A History of Violence.

He got the round of knowing chuckles he was looking for from the press, and accomplished two things with this one glib little swipe. First he gave the requisite nod to an assumed superiority of Canada over the United States, and the former’s greater likelihood of yielding up an idyllic environment for shooting his film. But he also hinted at the more pertinent point that this idealized “American-dream” setting is itself a fantasy and does not really exist anywhere, certainly not in America—the aura of peace and happiness is a veneer over dark secrets and darkened natures.

None of that will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Cronenberg portfolio. My own familiarity is limited to the few of his films that I have managed to sit all the way through, plus a couple of others from which I have seen clips that generally made me wish to see no more (Rabid and Scanners come to mind). Together these were enough to illustrate what I understand to be a continuing Cronenbergian theme of the corrosive power of inner demons.

In their crudest rendering, the inner demons are manifested in physical form, in microbial and parasitical critters that transform, devour, and issue forth from their hosts in some creepy and disgusting way. Cronenberg’s later films, while carrying on with as much of his favored sex’n’gore combo as he can paste in, treat the inner demons as more psychological in origin, though still connected to the physical.

When he’s serious, as in The Fly, he can use out-of-control physiological manifestations to ferry talented actors into the realm of real suffering and tragedy. But mostly the actors seem to get there in spite of the visuals rather than by means of them— Cronenberg is known for going for the gross-out shot that is gratuitous and intrusive, and the actor is lucky if he can transcend it.

I have never been able to shake the sense that even if Cronenberg is on to something regarding human frailty, he is handicapped by a modern secularism which fetters the expression of his ideas to the material realm—everything determinative resides in the body, and where destiny is dark (as it usually is), the body is a vessel for all that is vile and repulsive.

He makes the shopworn claim that an exploration of ideas and human behaviors is incomplete without the physical and sexual (implying that there is something daring or unconventional about his insistence on including this stuff--- yawn, snore, blah, blah…), but one can detect in his work a curiously conventional, almost Puritanical hostility or revulsion towards the body. From within the secularist’s frame of reference— that we are thralls at the mercy of our material selves—he appears to believe that our “master” is one cruel and twisted overseer.

Maybe this is just Cronenberg’s particular version of a Canadian “thing” about which Margaret Atwood has written in her lit-crit works [such as Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature and Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature] – her theory being that the wild and forbidding Canadian landscape shapes its inhabitants into people with an eye for the dark and violent. (If it sounds like I’ve read these works, confession time: I haven’t. I didn’t grow up in Canada, and was thus never force-fed “Can-lit” in school. Everyone I know who was, has urged me not to invest precious reading time in the works of Atwood and company, so I seldom do. I’ve read more about Miss Peggy than by her.)

As to the Canadian thing: I don’t think this year’s Cannes Film Festival made quite as much ado about the duelling Canadian directors, Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, as was made of them back here at home. Egoyan has been less commercially successful and recognizable outside the cinéaste cocoon than fellow-countryman Cronenberg, since his work is usually “edgier”—that’s a film-speak code-word for “contains more graphic deviant sex than most people care to see. I can’t recall ever seeing an Egoyan film all the way through—about ten minutes of Exotica, his “study” of lap-dancing catering to paedophilic fantasy via the packaging of pre-teen looks in a school uniform, satisfied what little curiosity I might have had about his work. His entry this year is Where the Truth Lies, which will probably tank at the box office owing to the NC-17 rating it received in the United States, about which he has complained bitterly but declined to shave any frames off the artistically important three-way sodomy scene. Cronenberg came away from Cannes with big “buzz”—Egoyan, not so much.

I read a few post-Cannes reviews of A History of Violence (written up in magazines about film as ART with a capital A), and they left me wondering if another of my favorite actors (Viggo Mortensen) was going to be permanently “Cronenberged” for me the way Jeremy Irons was after starring in Dead Ringers, a revolting and pointless tale about twin gynecologists sharing mutual kinks for a woman with a deformed uterus. (It was every bit the gutter-ball it sounds—double yuck.) Up until that point I had been ready to see just about anything Irons was in, but since then I find I can barely look at him—even revisiting his younger self’s tour-de-force in my beloved Brideshead Revisited began to carry a little residual gyne-goo on it.

Worse, doing Dead Ringers seemed to provoke some appetite in Irons for “edgy" stuff (see above definition) and he spiraled into M. Butterfly, Damage, and Lolita. It would be a shame to see Mortensen swirl down that same plug-hole, since he’s already misspent much of his movie career in the bilge tank, in such forgettable efforts as The Prophecy (an incoherent, fall-off-your-chair-laughing religio-horror flick— Mortensen actually does a respectable job as Lucifer, the one well-drawn character in the entire script), or Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (self-explanatory).

The reviews of A History of Violence in magazines about film as ART, written by people who frequent festivals of film as ART, described in clinical detail its explosive gore, jarring comedy, and unconventional sexual acts, and prepared me for something disturbing and a bit sleazy. But that’s not the film I saw. It made me wonder if maybe the Cannes screening was a director’s cut with frames that didn’t make it into general distribution— but I’m more inclined to think it’s a difference in the viewers’ moral universe: skewed and cynical agnostics saw one thing, those of us with faith in humanity and God saw something else.

I had the advantage of watching the film on a Saturday afternoon with only a couple of dozen people in the audience (on its opening weekend—this does not augur well), most of them older than the target movie demographic of 15-25. As a result I was not subjected to the sort of contagious teenage-dumbass over-reaction which apparently has produced gales of laughter at many a screening of the film. (I gather this was the case at Cannes, so now we know that all those European sophisticates are operating at the level of teenage-dumbass.)

Cronenberg gets off on the idea that he is duping his audience into complicity with what is truly horrible by manipulating them into reflexive laughter or cheering at the first sight of it, thereby proving his cynical social Darwinist view of humanity. But I think he has unwittingly undermined his own objective, thanks to the hole in his own moral universe.

Ostensibly Cronenberg presents the audience with two possible scenarios—is the central character what he appears to be, or something entirely different?— and they must puzzle over which one to accept as the reality of the story. But the two competing scenarios prove to be a lopsided mis-match, because the storyteller himself (Cronenberg) does not accept that either version could be equally plausible, for Tom Stall or any other man. He believes that one of them (the happy family in the peaceful town) is universally a myth, and the other (dark secrets and darkened natures) is universal reality.

Still, for the sake of the drama one would think that Cronenberg would at least set the scene for the myth by constructing a credible façade of normalcy, even if he intends to bring it crashing down later.

However, this director’s personal cynicism is telegraphed immediately when the viewer meets the family at the centre of the story. In the opening scene the four family characters come together around a child’s nightmare, and form a portrait more oozingly cloying than the Brady Bunch’s worst TV moments. As the story advances they do ease up a bit on the cloy-o-meter, and eventually the two principal actors (Mortensen and Maria Bello, as Tom and Edie Stall) sink their teeth into superb performances that vastly out-class the unworthy material they have been given, raising it to the level of tragedy.

If Cronenberg has any real genius it may lie in his casting (with one glaring exception: the young daughter, Sarah, played so obnoxiously badly that, as her family is increasingly threatened, concern for her welfare barely registers with the audience). Young newcomer Ashton Holmes, as the Stalls’ teenaged son Jack, does his best with a weirdly-drawn character, much of whose dialogue sounds like unused scraps left over from Seth Cohen in television’s The O.C. That’s not necessarily fatal to his believability—kids in rural Indiana watch cable like everybody else.

However, with a mother who has been to law school, and an intact supportive family, he would be unlikely to envision for himself the kind of bleak future where kids “get jobs, have affairs, and become alcoholics,” as he describes to his high school friend while smoking a joint and loitering on a Saturday night streetcorner. Anyone familiar with the place of college in American culture (like me, for instance, having put three kids through small American colleges) would be aware of the heightened sense of life’s possibilities felt by most American youth, compared to the tell-me-what-hoops-to-jump-through-so-I-can-get-a-job attitude typical of too many university-bound Canadians. The film attributes to Jack Stall a “trailer-trash” hopelessness which is a staple of anti-American stereotypes, but it is a poor fit for this particular boy.

Cronenberg has said he had no idea when he first read the script that it came from a graphic novel, yet the story and characters are baldly cartoonish. The dramatic complications are built on a mound of clichés, with dialogue suited to one-dimensional good and bad guys; the parallel to “old-style westerns,” which the director himself has invoked, is an apt one. There are plot holes** you can drive a truck through (speaking of clichés…), which one might be able to ignore if the rest of the film were similarly flimsy—but the painful unraveling of the two main characters’ relationship is being played out so convincingly that the film’s weak spots are magnified.

Cronenberg’s basic operating premise is that the happy family and the peaceful town are cartoon myths that need deconstructing (a point of view which is itself a modern intellectual cartoon); the audience is supposed to go “hmmm” about the age-old nature-versus-nurture debate (snooze), as various characters whose heretofore peaceable existences are shattered not just by tooth-rattling incidents of violence, but by an apparently deep-seated appetite for it.

“Violence is inevitable,” Mortensen said in a post-première interview. “It exists—it will always exist. But we have free will. We can choose.”

I’m not sure that is Cronenberg’s message in this film—there is a distinct whiff of determinism about it. Yes, Tom Stall made a free choice to put his violent past behind him, but when it is summoned up by circumstance, we are supposed to see not just impulse, but genuine killer instinct. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone buys right into this (with the appropriate anti-American twist): “Cronenberg knows Americans have a history of violence,” he writes. “It's wired into our DNA. Without a hint of sermonizing, he shows how we secretly crave what we publicly condemn, and how we even make peace with it.”

Other critics get on board with this bromide. Desson Thomson [Washington Post]: A History of Violence forces us to confront our Pavlovian conditioning to violence.” Jonathan Rosenbaum [Chicago Reader]: “Whether violence begets violence, whether perception is reality, whether a destructive animal instinct for combat really is lodged in the peaceful heart of every man—these are the themes that entertain Cronenberg…” (and put the rest of us to sleep?!!)

Allison Benedikt at the Chicago Tribune sees through the pretensions: “Cronenberg squeezes in his requisite social commentary, but the criticism feels detached and tends to lean toward the obvious, with Tom’s cross always hanging out of his shirt after he gives someone a serious beating.” Yes, the cross is a symbolic truncheon, reminiscent of the red surgical scrubs featured in Dead Ringers, fashioned to look like the robes of a Catholic Cardinal, suggesting (wham, wham goes the hammer) how doctors are the modern high priesthood of science—ooh, insight! (Costumes by Cronenberg’s sister Denise, for both films.)

[Sidebar: Cusack”, Tom Stall’s alter ego, is an Irish name— so just to make things juicy, one can speculate that the killer-for-hire and his mobster brother were brought up Catholic! (Thanks a lot.) This may explain the cross, since Protestant men are not much given to wearing them. Tom hears a “See ya in Church” from a diner customer, more commonly a born-again Protestant expression than a Catholic one.

One thing is certain: don’t waste any time wondering if the references to Christianity reveal any ambivalence or nuance about religion on Cronenberg’s part—feel free to read the signs as the tiresome clichés about religious hypocrisy that they are. As he told the New York Times, "I'm an atheist, and so I have a philosophical problem with … God and heaven and hell and all that stuff. I'm not just a nonbeliever, I'm an antibeliever—I think it's a destructive philosophy."]

Peter Travers fleetingly detects something rather more important about the story, at least as it has been delivered by the two lead performances: “The family tableau that ends the film is as chilling and redemptive as anything Cronenberg has ever crafted.”

Does Cronenberg ever craft things that are “redemptive”? I haven’t seen enough of his work to pronounce definitively on that, but it would surprise me if that were his conscious aim.

My feeling, however, is that Cronenberg has indeed grappled with the Big O— that is, Original Sin, a largely misunderstood and wholly Christian concept—the one Christian belief, according to G.K. Chesterton, whose existence is absolutely self-evident.

[Sidebar: as defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Original Sin is a state of deprivation of original holiness and justice… a human nature wounded (but not totally corrupted), subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin.]

David Cronenberg doesn’t accept any of this, of course. So he nibbles at the edges of the real story, and never pursues it down its own logical path. When you refuse to buy into the primacy of the spiritual, yet you still want to explain the persistence of evil in the same world where there is love and beauty and goodness, you will inevitably be trapped inside the memory of blood and shattered bone, degenerative disease and deformity, and the split-second passage between the person and the corpse. You will also be trapped in the hyper-significance of that other split-second Big O, the orgasm.

There, in the materialist shadowlands, sits David Cronenberg, film-maker: aspiring artist trapped in a low-rent ghoul.

Believers in Original Sin watch a film like A History of Violence with more seriousness, but less despair, than those who don’t believe.

For the life of me I don’t understand how people could roar with laughter at any point in this film. There are certainly some light moments— Tom’s explanation of how he came up with his alias is genuinely funny (“It was available”), but only mildly so, a very human vapidity in a moment of huge crisis, as he sputters, desperately and lamely, to hold his house of cards together.

The much-vaunted exchange between father and son— (Tom) “In this family we do not solve problems by hitting people.” (Jack) “No, in this family we shoot them!”—is ironic and absurd,but hardly guffaw material, considering the context. I was most struck by the way Mortensen delivered his half of it, flat and unconvincing because his character knows what an empty platitude it is.

More than one reviewer found the two sex scenes funny—I’m afraid the comedy eludes me. The first one is a warm and playful romp that could only happen between long-time lovers. Despite its involving a position that would probably cause Pat Robertson’s ears to stick out even further and flap with alarm, it is nevertheless (in my view) so intimate and affectionate that watching it made me feel more like an intruding voyeur than any cinematic sex ever has before— this was a real invasion of privacy.

The second sex scene, by contrast, is nearly a rape, and is deeply disturbing to watch, not just for its violence but for its incongruity within the story. Maybe we can swallow the idea that Tom could, for an instant, blindly lash out at his wife when she rejects his gesture of conciliation. But when he forces her down with a chokehold it’s plausibility that takes the beating, despite the fact that once she is flattened he regains his senses and begins to release her.

That’s when things get really unpalatable and unbelievable, for it is Edie who pulls Tom back toward her and begins to devour him, having found herself sexually charged up by his violent assault. What follows is rough and desperate sex, not wholly devoid of the remnants of their bond, but still too huge a stretch for the story.

It is quite astonishing that a film-maker in the 21st century has the gall to offer his audience the repugnant and misogynist myth that women get turned on by being beaten. And it is discouraging that a modern young actress acquiesced to this director’s proposition. Cronenberg says of the scene:

Edie’s dealing with someone she doesn’t know—a Tom/Joey hybrid creature, and she finds that repulsive and exciting at the same time. Joey’s violence does have an erotic component… It’s the best sex she’s ever had, and also the most terrifying. Does she want more of it or not?

Elsewhere he says:

Sex and violence have always got on very well together, like bacon and eggs. I think there is always a sexual component in violence and a violent component in sexuality, to me that’s just a natural thing to explore. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Conflict is the essence of drama.’

Very symmetrically put, but no, not deep, not clever, not natural, and not true—and what does Shaw have to do with it? That bit is just a non sequitur.

Sorry, I’m not buying. Maria Bello has done too good a job of creating a realistic loving wife for us to graft this hackneyed grotesquerie on to it.

The actress commented shortly after the film wrapped that for the period when this scene was being shot she felt ill at the prospect of going in to work in the morning; she also noted that the large scab shown on her back in the film was a real injury incurred during the shooting. Well, she should have listened to her inner rumblings and told her director to stuff it— that scene was a violation of her character as well as her personal dignity.

Sure, Edie experiences the feeling of being simultaneously attracted and repelled by the husband she thought she knew—drawn to his obvious suffering, as he clings like a drowning man to shards of the refuge he had constructed for himself; yet horrified by the capacity for efficient mayhem he has suppressed for nearly 20 years.

But I don’t believe for a minute that this woman could give herself over to orgasm after being slapped and choked— and I really don’t accept the notion that the man who has known nothing but tenderness with her all those years could give himself over to choking and thumping her in a sustained assault. Cronenberg added both the sex scenes to the script (surprise, surprise). While one was at least a believable character study, both were unnecessary and disruptive in their way— the first gave “too much information!” as the saying goes, and the second violated the logic of both characters.

Graphic sex has a way of taking the audience out of the story and into the reality of the actors’ personal selves, which does neither the story nor the performers any favours. As actors these two have more than enough talent to have communicated in their eyes and faces every emotional nuance that either sex scene served, unimpeded by the intrusive realities of, for instance, yet another cinematic flash of Viggo Mortensen’s photogenic buttocks. (Ditto the later frontal flash from Bello.) How much nuance was communicated by that unexpected moonrise?

[Sidebar: It is no great compliment to Mortensen that his star-turn in Lord of the Rings has taken him from being a B or C-list actor in the front ranks of every director’s rolodex under the category “Willing To Get Naked And Have Sex On Screen” – to now being an A-list actor, still in the front ranks of the rolodex under "W.T.G.N.A.H.S.O.S.". I’ve never seen Maria Bello in anything else, but apparently her name is in that same part of the rolodex. (As one reviewer put it, “She’s never heard the words “No Nudity clause.”) What a sad way to get work— neither of them will ever know if that’s a deciding factor in their being cast in anything.]

Bottom line (as it were) — even if we pretend for the moment that the sex scenes contribute to the story, where and how they struck anyone as “funny” is quite beyond me.

The only places I can imagine spontaneous laughter breaking out are the aftermath shots of the gun battles, but these are not “funny ha-ha” or even “funny peculiar”—they’re just ludicrous. The flesh-blasting and bone-crunching always seem to exceed the credible capacities of the weapons and fisticuffs which produce them, and the prosthetic and technically-generated enhancements are glaringly obvious. Allison Benedikt nails it again:

Cronenberg may want to say something important about violence, but he’s also head over heels for it, ending each gunfight and neck-breaking with a close-up on the victim, blood either pooling behind his head or brains spilling from his face. Big laughs.

There were no big laughs either time I saw the film, though on my second viewing there were persistent titters during the final shoot-out— these, however, issued from a trio of teenagers skipping school, who talked steadily throughout the film (perhaps made twitchy by the array of small metal objects perforating their lips, chins, and eyebrows beneath greasy dyed bangs). This was teenage-dumbass at work, and not to be taken too seriously.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that it is a huge challenge not to elicit laughs when the bodies pile up in any sort of drama — I’m thinking particularly of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. It takes a fairly able director to pull off the domino-of-death climax without getting hoots from his audience. That doesn’t mean we’re all ghouls— it just means that some scenes don’t work with modern audiences or perhaps were not even very well-written to begin with. How many theatre companies even bother to do Titus Andronicus these days?

One can’t be blamed for suspecting that Cronenberg’s subconscious aim is to make the audience complicit not so much in society’s dark side as in his own— as in, “Hey, I’m not a kinky weirdo if everybody else is just like me.” The gore-fests in this film are fast and forgettable, and the fact that they didn’t set me or my fellow adult movie-goers giggling is probably due to our having dismissed them as silly distractions, preferring to move on and focus on the good acting work.

So, what about the Big Themes as I see them, Original Sin and redemption? I’m not going to claim that this is what the film is really about, or what it ought to be about. Merely that this is what the film could have been about. I doubt these themes interest the graphic novelists, I know David Cronenberg doesn’t believe in their existence, but I do think that the lead actors were working with them, whether they knew it or not. (I’m not sure actors ever know intellectually what they’re working with, but instead draw on instincts and a reservoir of unarticulated observations collected by osmosis.)

Tom Stall used to be Joey Cusack, and apparently (although back-story details about everybody in the film are a little sketchy) he used to kill for a living. He was good at it, having lightning reactions, overwhelming martial arts skills, and deadly accurate aim. At some point he lost his taste for that life, went out into the desert for three years, and remade himself. (Very John the Baptist, very Jesus, very St. Anthony of Egypt—or so it resonates with me.) Somehow he ended up in Millbrook, Indiana, met and married a local beauty with brains, and settled down into peaceful anonymity.

What happened out there in the desert? Did Joey transform himself into the consummate con artist, out of total self-interest? Or did he undergo a genuine conversion? I’m willing to wrestle with those questions because I believe that either possibility could actually happen. David Cronenberg stacks the deck against Tom because he doesn’t buy into conversion—real conversion, real fundamental change in human self-understanding, real exercise of self-mastery. When violence re-asserts itself in Tom’s life, we are given to understand that the nature of Joey Cusack has merely lain dormant and is instinctively unleashed to repeat its familiar patterns. We are expected to blur the distinctions between murder-for-hire and legitimate self-defense or protection of the defenseless.

It’s not so surprising that an artistic collaboration— issuing as it does from a community of people predominantly wedded to the socially irresponsible principle of mindless pacifism— asks us to see no difference between self-defense and deliberate homicide. These are the same sort of folk who cast the word “murder” as a net to include police shootings (where the target is a racial minority), war (where death is inflicted by Americans in uniform—avoiding the term when referring to terrorists in street-clothes), and moral prohibitions of condom-use (where the source is the Catholic Church).

Cronenberg wants to impute guilt to the audience that takes satisfaction in the deaths of the first set of hoodlums, as if there is no difference between Tom shooting them and them shooting the hotel staff and their child, or (as they intended to do) the diner waitress. But there is a difference-- spare us the "moral equivalence" stuff. Tom is not free to choose to do nothing to stop them. It is his duty to intervene, with "extreme prejudice” if necessary.

It is traumatizing to be the agent of violent death, but Tom’s response is not excessive just because it is professionally effective; nor is there excess in his son’s later decision to pick up the shotgun and save his father. Cheering at these deaths is a kind of childish release of tension, but any viewer whose sense of justice feels satisfied is “complicit” in nothing, and need not apologize. Sometimes you do end up solving your problems by hitting or shooting because you’ve run out of options and innocent lives are at stake. Mario Bello is less reticent than her director on this subject regarding her own child:

I don't think you understand what levels or what fears [sic] until you have a child of your own. I mean, I've never loved someone so much and I've never been so afraid in my life. And the truth is I would kill someone, whoever tried to hurt him. I would. I have no doubt about it.

There are, by my count, ten shootings (or deaths by other skull-cracking means—it all happens too fast to enable a coroner’s report on the spot) in A History of Violence, all of which are unambiguously done in self-defense or defense of others in extreme jeopardy. (One could argue that Richie Cusack’s death is nearly an execution, but he has a gun tucked under his arm and has made his intention to kill Joey/Tom abundantly clear.)

Roger Ebert makes the persuasive argument that, “If Tom Stall had truly been the cheerful small-town guy he pretended to be, he would have died in that diner. It was Joey who saved him.” However, we have all heard of ordinary folk who have done extraordinarily heroic things in an emergency, made possible by nothing more than a flood of adrenalin released by their sense of duty and concern for others in need. It is possible that Tom Stall’s reflexes are stimulated by at least a mixture of altruism, fear, and an expertise at survival—it is not necessary to believe that old appetites play a part in the action.

Is Joey Cusack capable of conversion and redemption? Real, permanent redemption? The quick answer to that is the Catholic one, which holds that any and all human beings are capable of redemption, but that no conversion should ever be assumed to be permanent while we are still alive—we (Catholics) do not believe that one is ever “saved” on earth (as the Evangelicals express it in the past tense, tying it to one transformative temporal instant), but we must strive for continuous conversion all the time, every day. (St. Thomas Aquinas is quoted in the Catechism: “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater, even after sin." And St. Paul: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”)

Genuine, unsalvageable psychopaths do exist, but they are rare. On the evidence at hand (in particular his changed way of life), Joey/Tom is afflicted by no deeper defect than that which we all carry, a vision clouded by Original Sin. Like all other men, Joey need not be fated to be a slave to his past if he chooses another path. He can “put on the new man” as St. Paul exhorts us, and even, like Paul, and Peter, and Abraham before them, enshrine his new life in a new name. (A more clever writer might have called this character “Paul [Saul] Thomas” instead of “Thomas Stall,” layering on the symbolism of faltering doubt and conversion. But a more clever writer would not have written this particular screenplay at all. Clever actors improved upon it.)

Joey/Tom journeys to sue for truce with his criminal brother, and perhaps bring closure to his own criminal past. He enters the house unarmed, so there is no question of premeditation. Later, having fought savagely and killed to save himself, he slinks home and tries to take his place at the family table, sitting down to face the wreckage of what he once had. There is clearly a desire to rebuild, expressed in tentative, tortured looks and gestures on the part of all of them, but everything that once held them together is gravely damaged.

The believer in sin and redemption also believes in forgiveness, a Herculean task for this family. If they inhabit a universe where there are no moral distinctions between homicide and self-defense, they will be overpowered by the fatalistic belief that violence is in the blood, from generation to generation. But if they believe in free will, they will know that forgiveness and conversion are possible.

The one completely unsettled issue at the end of this story is that of justice and restitution. The “born-again” Tom will never have peace when he has never answered for his earlier crimes. And if he is re-admitted to the family circle, their peace will likely always be at the mercy of the next shadow from his past. This is a dilemma with no conceivable resolution (except perhaps, ironically, the Witness Protection Program the sheriff imagines Tom is already in!)— a dilemma which the Stalls around the dinner table are nowhere close to confronting yet. The best you can say about the final tableau is that it offers a glimmer of hope.

Rounding off the corners of A History of Violence are the performances of Ed Harris and William Hurt, who are winning heaps of praise from most quarters for, in my view, taking an expert ride astride the broken-down horses which are their tired gangster roles. High opinion of Harris’s skillful characterization seems universal, but critics either love or despise Hurt’s hammy cameo.

The film score works well, as underplayed Copland-like Americana, contributed by Howard Shore of Lord of the Rings fame. The lighting is noticeable, which is a bad thing—everything is under-illuminated, sometimes as if in tunnel-vision. (Again, all the subtlety of wham, wham goes the hammer.)

The setting successfully evokes the little bite of Eden that some of us know is real. David Cronenberg needs to join those of us who have actually passed some time in Franklin, (Tennessee), Phelps (Wisconsin), Marietta (Georgia), Randolph (Vermont ), Crystal Falls (Michigan), Mineola (Texas), Bardstown (Kentucky), Jacksonville (Oregon), Sackett’s Harbor (New York), and Epping (New Hampshire) before he pontificates to us that the peaceful American town is a fool’s fantasy. He don’t know squat about it.

Joshua Tyler at writes one of the better “emperor has no clothes” reviews of this film, making precisely the point that Cronenberg just doesn’t know “normal”:

I don’t think Cronenberg has any concept of what normal people are like… The movie feels like he’s been stuck in a filmmaking vacuum for so long he’s no longer properly able to differentiate between fantasy and what the world is like out here for the rest of us… There’s a gripping, intense experience buried in History of Violence, but Cronenberg’s embarrassing and awkward unfamiliarity with normalcy degrades it.

On a personal note from the world of us normal folks, I couldn’t write a word about this movie without mentioning my young friend April Mullen, the girl who gives great scream over her hot fudge sundae when the first round of bad guys rolls into Stall’s Diner. She's already had a bigger audience, I think, than she’ll get with this movie: the millions upon millions who watched her portray Mary Magdalene in the unsurpassed Toronto Way of the Cross for World Youth Day 2002. But now she’s been seen (and heard!) at Cannes, and good things may well be in store for her. I wish her the best of luck (and pray she steers clear of that rolodex).

Thanks to the skewed agnostic critics of film as ART, I was fully prepared to hate A History of Violence, but found that I couldn’t. Some of it is just too well done. It’s a shame that on the whole it is so much less than it might have been. It’s a chuckle to hear the cast of this film lauding their director (chacun a son ghoul, I guess) for giving them the freedom to play their parts as they saw them. The truth is, they left him eating their dust.


Heads up, look out for **plot holes! Just for starters:
The Baddies --
The two drifting bad guys who set the plot in motion are obviously on the lam from some previous crime. (Oh so obviously-- their expository dialogue is clumsier than the cloying family portrait that follows it. "Keep heading east, huh? Avoid the big cities, right?") Their strategy is to make slow progress over thousands of miles, through backwoods locations where everyone will know that they are strangers as they commit needlessly savage acts in pursuit of piddling amounts of money, thereby bringing maximum attention to themselves and leaving a messy trail of evidence where it can be easily detected. Blowing people away in the diner on the main street of a small town in broad daylight for the contents of the cash register is just another brilliant move. These guys are suicidal idiots. How could they possibly have eluded capture anywhere in the last five hundred miles, long before they hit Indiana??!!!!

The Goody --
Tom Stall pops up in Indiana and lives for the better part of two decades without ever having contact with any family member or friend from his past, and managing never to reveal a single chink in the armor of his adopted identity. He has been married for 17 years to a woman smart enough to finish law school who has been content to see no evidence whatsoever of his life before he met her, yet professes shock when she learns he's not who she thought he was. Having successfully maintained his cover story all these years, when the jig is finally up Tom's attempts to cover his tracks couldn't be more unprepared or lame. ("What do you think you heard?" he transparently asks Edie from his hospital bed.) How did he manage to get married, buy a house and a diner, and file his income taxes, while sharing his life with a lawyer, and never have a past?

The Wifey --
Tom's situation has clearly been eased by his having an incurious wife who is clueless to the fact that his background is full of holes. But hey! How much do we really know about Edie? Presumably she has a family, maybe living right in Millbrook-- did they never want to know anything about her husband? Why does no one in this close-knit family ever mention Grandma or Uncle Howie? What is Edie trying to hide? Who is this woman? Hmmmmmm.....

Favourite critical comment about the director:
"As a filmmaker whose roots are in horror films, Cronenberg has mutated over the last few decades as a true original filmmaker."
[Brian Eggert, film guide on