The Unmaking of a Mayor

By William F. Buckley, Jr (1966)

New York may well be the greatest city in the world. The Varnished Culture loves it, as we have said again and again and again and again. But we are unlikely to have loved it in 1965. Then, as erudite Tory gadfly Buckley pungently puts it in his floridly verbose and fascinating account of that year’s Mayoral election, “You can’t walk from one end of New York to the other without a good chance of losing your wallet, your maidenhead, or your life; or without being told that white people are bigoted, that Negroes are shiftless, that free enterprise is the enemy of the working class, that Norman Thomas has betrayed socialism, and that the only thing that will save New York is for the whole United States to become like New York.”

“Fun City” (© NYC Mayor John V Lindsay, his best and as far as we can recall, only joke), was in the 50s and 60s much like its sister, Chicago – a large urban centre with sprawling boroughs, racial and ethnic enclaves, a hierarchy of bosses, and a virtual emperor at its head. Awash with crime, narcotics and under-policing, housing shortages (including ‘affluent ghettoes’ protected by rent controls), inadequate water storage and metering, a colossal and stretched welfare net, failing schools and transport systems, dirty air and waterways, excessive taxes and extravagant spending. Mayor Robert Wagner (not the actor) had ruled over the Democratic stronghold of NYC since 1954. Of his three terms, Buckley writes, “…the trouble in New York was – is – not so much with maladministration as with a frozen ideology.”

Who then to challenge that stasis? After Wagner decided not to run for a 4th term, 3 men stepped forward to vie for the Mayoral robes; Abraham Beame, the Democratic nominee and political heir to Wagner, was a decent if colourless fellow with the advantage of incumbency, union support, and most of the Jewish vote. Also, John V Lindsay, “glamorous” Congressman and R.I.N.O. (‘Republican In Name Only’* as Buckley points out, appending a key portion of JVL’s congessional voting record to the book), representative of New York’s ‘silk stocking’ district (upper East side of Manhattan), whose key selling point was; “He is fresh, everyone else is tired.”  Lindsay had glamour and a profile as a Congressman – even better, he had refused (though an elected ‘Republican’) to support the right-wing Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election, Goldwater being less popular in NYC than the Boston Strangler; hence he could pose as a moderate Republican while garnering support from the left-of-Democrat Liberal Party, while appealing to his own elegant constituency in Manhattan, lovingly lassooed by Buckley as the “densest national concentration of vegetarians, pacifists, hermaphrodites, junkies, Communists, Randites, clam-juice-and-betel-nut eaters.”

And the Third Man? Believe it or not, Buckley himself, the hard-line conservative warrior with no direct political experience. Columnist and magazine (National Review) editor. New England patrician and collector of enemies. Running on the shoestring Conservative Party ticket, he was asked, early on, what he would do if elected Mayor of New York. He replied that he would “demand a recount.”  With that kind of attitude, it becomes clear – in retrospect –  that Buckley wasn’t out to win, but to take some paint off the other candidates, formulate some genuine policy ideas for the flailing city, gain some insight into a political campaign, and perhaps enhance his reputation and editorial platform.

The Book is structured, broadly, thematically and chronologically. After an interlude in which Buckley is “hobgoblinized” and thereby discovers – or purports to discover – “a lackadaisical concern for the truth…[and]…the general journalistic indifference that immediately descends on the discovery that, after all, there wasn’t any scandal there at all, and never mind the incidental victims of the flurry“, a theme that recurs here and there in the book, he reviews the parlous state of NYC and the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of much of the political scene in 1965, compares himself with John Lindsay (well worth a read, for nasty snickers), and deconstructs the touchy issues of race and religion. There follows a rather dry (but thoughtful) summary of the various positions of the 3 candidates on urban issues (race, welfare, crime, transport and so on), and concludes with notes on the campaign and the result of the election.

Buckley dispensed with the usual disciplines and strictures of modern electioneering. He tossed off ideas and bon mots with abandon. However, 10 years of policy work at the National Review (often carried out under spirited debate) enabled the candidate to propound serious policies. Some of Buckley’s ideas appear impractical, some unsettlingly repugnant. However, many were thoroughly sensible – his thoughts on welfare resonate today – and others (such as dedicated bikeways in Manhattan) ahead of their time. Throughout, while Buckley drips with contempt when discussing Lindsay (especially) and Beame, he does offer enough evidence of his rivals’ bromides and lack of hard ideas to justify the following comment in a 2015 foreward to the book by his campaign manager, Neal Freeman; “At first a few reporters, and then more, and then at last the full mewling herd began to concede that maybe, just maybe, Bill’s was a serious campaign. One reporter, the legendary McCandlish Phillips of The New York Times, began to toy with another idea. Perhaps Bill’s was the only serious campaign.”

The book is a terrific read, and in addition, valuable as a primer on political campaigns, an autobiography of an electoral neophyte, a delectable series of poison-pen correspondence, and a relic of mid-century American conservatism, which at the time was thought dead but was merely playing possum. Viewed through the high-resolution retrospect-o-scope, it also presages the shift in politics in the US (and beyond) that Buckley dissects among the voting patterns (though only yet impressively getting 13% of the vote, or 340,000 votes, especially among those later identified as ‘Reagan Democrats’) whereby the Left, always tending to the elitist, has become increasingly exclusively so.

Some of Buckley’s more inspired lines in the book:

“…Mayor O’Brien, whose daze during the entire period was symbolized by his speech to the Greek-American society in which he confessed his lifelong devotion to ‘”that great Greek poet, Horace.'”

But nowhere does one find any identification of Lindsay with a set of ideas designed to deliver New York from the succubi that had been emaciating the city.

“…the point might be made that there is no extant Republican philosophy, and that Lindsay is its prophet.”

Not only have I been unrewarded in the Times, I have not ever discovered, in all of America, from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam, a single “ultraliberal”…”Ultra'” (or “extreme”)…is exclusively reserved (a) for the unfashionable right (e.g., the Goldwaterites), or (b) as a dainty way of handling the Communist left (“the ultraliberal Paul Robeson...”)”

Political leverage tends to gravitate to the wealthy, to the influential, to the organized, to the (upper case) Minority.”

“…it is especially easy to apply a double standard, to disdain the moral and rational powers of the one class of voters – because its choice of candidate is different from your own…” [‘Basket of Deplorables’]

(On a muddled attack by Lindsay); “So help me, I could not believe my eyes. The sheer, utter, hopeless, humorless, philistine fatuity!

I was to learn that punctuality is yet another sign of the non-serious candidate.”

I had …an invaluable advantage, namely that I did not expect to win the election, and so could afford to violate the taboos.”

(After a superb lunch with senior people at The New York Times, unanimously hostile to him, Buckley was asked how he felt); “As though I had just passed through the Berlin Wall.”

Conservatism in America is rather a force than a political movement….I greatly regret the prospective decline of the GOP, because the alternative is likely to be a congeries of third parties, adamantly doctrinaire, inadequately led, insufficiently thoughtful, improvidently angry, self-defeatingly sectarian [in Australia, One Nation comes to mind – Ed.]…[Republican setbacks] might better have been absorbed as a necessary convulsion, a prelude to the crystallization of strong new programs distinctively Republican – bracing, realistic, courageous, strategically adventurous. Such programs at a national level should be delineated; and, if they aren’t soon, by more experienced men, I suppose I shall have to threaten another book, if not another campaign.”


[P.S. After his 2 terms as NYC Mayor, and an abortive run for President (as a Democrat), Lindsay tried acting, appearing in the critically panned Rosebud. Richard Schickel, reviewing the film for Time Magazine, opined; “John V. Lindsay plays a U.S. Senator pretty much as he played being Mayor of New York City – like a B-picture leading man.” – From The Golden Turkey Awards (1980) by Harry & Michael Medved (granting Lindsay the Award for ‘The Worst Performance by a Politician’).] [P.PS. The incisive 1972 political drama, The Candidate, in some ways resembles WFB’s 1965 NYC election (rookie draft pick, no chance to win – say what you like, etc, etc.) Did writer/director Michael Ritchie read Buckley’s book?] [*Think Malcolm Turnbull as a progressive posing as a conservative.] Continue Reading →

Blonde (Joyce Carol Oates)

November 25, 2019 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Fiction, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WRITING & LITERATURE |

(published 2000)

We at TVC have never been charmed by the pasty, lumpy creature ‘Marilyn Monroe’; the bundle of affected moues, fleshy wiggles and whispers that the Frankenstein Studio reportedly stewed-up from some bits of lovelorn redneck Norma Jean and handfuls of sexpot glamour queen Marilyn.  Other than her almost-acting in “The Misfits” and her quite realistic impression of a starlet in “All About Eve“, her performances are tedious repetitions of wide-eyed Marilyn cooing and writhing her way through a sea of leering men.

So, while we have little faith in Marilyn’s ability ever to inspire, we have much in Joyce Carol Oates’ ability to inspire – sometimes. When she is good, she is very very good. And her ‘biographical novel’, Blonde, is very very good. Oates has said that her interest was in how pretty, illegitimate Norma Jean Baker became the mega-star Marilyn Monroe, dead at 36. How did a poverty-line teenage wife morph into the global sensation who, sans shame or underwear, breathed ‘Happy Birthday’ to her lover, the President, in an obscene nude dress? But in Blonde, Norma Jean herself never ‘becomes’ ,’morphs’ or is ‘made into’ into the ghastly, livid construct MARILYN MONROE (the name in caps by the end of the novel). MARILYN MONROE is a skin that she puts on, requiring years of work, hours of makeup, hair-dressing, costuming, cosseting, dieting, drugs and true acting.

Oates’ sympathetic insight softens her presentation of the cruel ambition which this woman must have used against others. Some may feel that she glosses-over the psychic damage caused by the abuse which the foster child and studio bit player suffered; but Oates’ Norma Jean is not defined by either of these aspects of her personality. Her rise to the spotlight is both a hard-won surprise and expected by her at the same time.

Events of Monroe’s real life are followed in broad strokes. The nameless character standing in for joltin’ Joe DiMaggio is a peasant boor. The Arthur Miller character is treated more kindly – she dumped him. Don’t read this book if you dislike reading unkind words about JFK. Monroe’s famous tardiness and tantrums are a logical consequence of her circumstances, although we can understand why actors such as Tony Curtis loathed her.

Blonde races at the speed of the deadly courier in the first pages. Its’s real page-turner, but it is not pulp. Its few faults are the annoying use of italics and some unlikely inventions – a series of letters, a long-term three-way relationship, but this is fiction after all. The final scene, insidious and lovely, is another invention – but entirely credible.

The early chapters are the less successful passages – unhappy childhoods are all alike (pace Tolstoy – Ed.) – but persist – Norma Jean did. Bravo.

Continue Reading →

O Lucky Man!

November 17, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Lindsay Anderson) (1973)

(Seen at the Britsh Film Festival, Palace Nova Cinema, North Adelaide, November 2019)

We still can’t believe we saw this freak-show, so overlong that afterwards you need immediately to check-in to an oxygen tent.  Whilst we rather liked Lindsay Anderson’s If..., the first ‘instalment’ of the Michael Travis ‘Trilogy’ (if that doesn’t sound too grand), as to this sorry excuse for a film, one can do little more than plunder from a review of the generic Anderson approach, written by Clive James*:

If Anderson had brought nothing but his talent to the job, the show would have been all over in five minutes. Luckily he had something more formidable to contribute – the power of his intellect. Anderson is certain that Bourgeois Society is crumbling. His way of conveying this is to give you a close-up of a ceiling cracking. It would be a trite image if it were merely casual, but supported by the focused energy of the director’s mind it attains a pinnacle of banality that can only be called heroic.  Actors love Anderson. They give him everything. Such force of personality is not to be despised. But actors are not necessarily the best judges of a director’s quality…[or of a script, eh, Mr MacDowell? – Ed.]…People like Lindsay Anderson can never learn what people…should know in their bones: that common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.”  [Take note, Warner Brothers – Ed.]

Well, there you have it.  O Lucky Man! is so humourless, so trite and incongruous in every department (including musically – Try “Poor people are poor people – They don’t understand” or “There’s a lot of poor people who are walking the streets of my town Too blind to see that justice is used to do them right down” – haunting), such a chaotic mish-mash of straw targets (Imperialism, Racism, Capitalism, but not Sexism, certainly not an attack on Sexism) for the Director to puncture, such a waste of actors like Malcolm MacDowell, Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, Rachel Roberts, Helen Mirren, Graham Crowden et al, that we’ve virtually nothing to add. So as to justify our own review, here’s some lyrics you can hum along to**:

If you’ve not spent 3 hours, watching this hodgepodge – 

You are a lucky man!

And if you managed its high idiocy to dislodge – 

You are a lucky man!

Actors and viewers and Warners might bleed,

They’re much better off simply reading Candide,

If you’ve got the option, go instead for a feed –

Stay a lucky man!

“You recall ‘A Clockwork Orange’, don’t you?”

[* Review in “The Observer” of The Old Crowd, 4 February 1979.] [** To be sung to O Lucky Man! by Alan Price, 1973.] Continue Reading →

The Aspern Papers

November 17, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Julien Landais) (2018)

“…So Percy Shelley, his wife Mary and their friend Edward Trelawny indulged in a little Venetian ménage à trois…” No, start again.

Shelley washes up from the Golfo dei poeti, in the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea, where his wife finds a portrait and a satchel of early drafts“…This won’t do.

Henry James was bedazzled by European sophistication and scared of its vestiges in formidable and incorruptible women, so one day he decided to revamp Madame Merle and Isabel Archer within a literary mystery of elegant design, where the papers of debauched dead poet Jeffrey Aspern would be pursued in extremely tasteful surroundings.” Okay, we rather like that.

(…But then he found that a nouvelle such as he had done would make an inadequate, ineffectual film, and thereby became demented.)

Alas, yes, whilst this picture is very Merchant-Ivory pretty, with Venice’s gardens, palazzos and watery by-ways featuring heavily, to the swells and swoons of, inter alia, Tristan und Isolde (a very Richardson effort!), it doesn’t seem to hang together very well.

We didn’t mind the playing: Vanessa Redgrave, as Mrs Bordereau, was aptly pugnacious, sharp and suspicious; Joely Richardson as her daughter was coy, a-tad-past-winsome, vague and yet wily; everyone else was dressed beautifully and mooned about in a statuesque manner. 

We did not even mind (too much) the weird playing (and accent) of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the Jamesian role of literary detective, though we wondered if that was tobacco he constantly puffed or something stronger.  James, after all, is wordy and arch, and so was this. Yet with the crucial additions of dull sluggishness, some of the strangest plotting and mise en scène imaginable, and an abject failure to point-out anything which might excite the vaguest interest in Aspern, his decadence, or his quill-scratched tottings.

Continue Reading →

The Double (Jose Saramago)

November 13, 2019 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Fiction, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WRITING & LITERATURE |

(English translation: 2004)

Secondary-school history teacher Tertuliano Maximo Afonso (almost always referred to by his full name) is depressed and apathetic. He cares little about his work (believing that history should be taught in reverse not forward), neglects his mother, can’t remember what led him to get married, forgets why he got divorced and is trying to dump his girlfriend, Maria da Paz (also almost always named in full). He lives alone and spends most of his free time listlessly plodding through a large tome on Abyssinian history. His only friend, a fellow teacher, suggests that he is out of sorts: I have been feeling a bit low, Health problems, No, I’m not ill as far as I know, it’s just that everything tires me and bores me, the wretched routine, the repetitiveness, the sense of marking time.

The dialogue is all like this – no quotation marks or dashes are used. The reader must pay attention to work-out who is speaking. The effect, together with that of Saramago’s long, looping, orotund sentences, drag the reader along on a kind of dull and pointless trek, rather like Tertuliano Maximo Alfonso’s life. At his almost-friend’s suggestion, Afonso hires a video. The video store assistant sneers at him, in particular at his outdated name. The film (The Race is to the Swift) is a second-rate comedy. Tertuliano Maximo Afonso becomes obsessed with the actor playing a minor character. Does this all sound familiar?   Yes indeed, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso has a double – Giles De’Ath from the marvellous film Love and Death on Long Island (1997, director Richard Kwietniowski)*.

Unlike Dr De’Ath, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is not fascinated by the actor’s beauty. Rather, he is knocked for a hoop by the actor’s perfect physical and vocal resemblance to himself. At this point we are reminded of Hermann Hermann in Nabokov’s Despair (and, again, a superb 1978 film adaptation by Rainer Werner Fassbinder).

The jacket blurb on our 2005 Mariner edition (translator Margaret Jull Costa) says, irritatingly, that Tertuliano Maximo Afonso is awoken by the VCR replaying the video. This erroneous, supernatural suggestion jars with the tone of the book, which is affectless, bearing a lassitude sometimes suggestive of mental illness.

Tertuliano Maximo Afonso plods off in search of his actor double. Each of them finds the idea of a twin abhorrent and unendurable, particularly the possibility that one is the ‘original’ and the other the ‘copy’. Each is horrified by the prospect of being seen with the other. Their loathing and suspicion compound. The plot, although tortured and peculiar, is consistent with the characters’ circumstances until a point at which it goes off its double rails – rather as if Saramago ran-out of ideas, resorting to sensationalism and leaving plot holes that a double-decker bus could be driven through. The very end does redeem the book somewhat, but by then it is too late.

Saramago’s exploration of identity, self-perception and delusion make this a worthwhile work, but I’d prefer to stick to the originals.

Dirk Bogarde in "Despair"

Speaking of originals, we’ll take Nabokov’s “Despair” where the protagonist seizes the chance to change places with his double (who looks nothing like him).

[*We at TVC must admit to not having – yet – read the source material for Love and Death…,  i.e., the book of the same name, by Gilbert Adair.] Continue Reading →

Russian Roulette

(by Michael Isikoff and David Corn) (2018)

This is an absorbing, readable and – remarkably – balanced account of the 2016 US election and the possible effect of Russian or Russian-sponsored hacking and disinformation.

The existence of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and Putin’s apparatchiks relies on a number of guilt-by-association inferences, commercial ties with Russian oligarchs, and meetings attended by the numerous idiots connected with the campaign. Ultimately, the authors leave open the question both of direct collusion, and of the causative links of Russian meddling to Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of circumstantial evidence as to Russian perfidy: after all, disinformation, sabotage and espionage have been hallmarks of Russians since the days of the Cheka*. And Putin embodies the old saw – “Once KGB, always KGB” (res ipsa loquitur). As the book acknowledges, elections are often targeted by foreign intel – the US has been known to do it, too.

Plenty of folks have misread this book as a damning indictment of Trump and his cohort. Respectfully, this is likely to be a symptom of Trump Derangement Syndrome, the epidemic paralysing the brains of liberals and country-club Republicans alike. In fact, the biggest losers emerging from this squalid story are: 1. The US Intelligence Community; 2. Barack Obama, and 3. the Clinton Campaign.

The FBI et al

American power and majesty, unlike with other empires, do not primarily rest on the keeping of secrets, which the Yanks are not good at. So whilst the Russian hackers got access to the Clinton trove of confidential stuff via the extraordinary lapses of the Clinton Campaign (of which, more below), it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Russkies could have got there by subscribing to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. (Especially since the Muscovite trolls were ‘schooled’ in US politics by binge-watching House of Cards.)

FBI head James Comey, it seems, took seriously a bunch of secret reports by former British spy Christopher Steele, who a decade previously had done good work investigating the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko by Russian agents, but was now ex-MI6, described by his business partner as a ‘boy scout,’ and seemingly galvanised by salacious Rick-James-type stories about Trump getting-off watching lesbian marathons in a Moscow hotel suite (when Trump defended that charge on the basis that he – a germaphobe – would never countenance ‘golden showers,’ it struck us as so insane that he might be telling the truth).

Steele’s 3-page memo, and his breathless follow-ups, were raw, unsourced, florid, and described by an intel agent as “pillow talk.” They seem as credible as Tony Blair’s ‘sexed-up’ dossier on Iraqi WMDs. In any case, the FBI did a sloppy job of looking into the Clinton email scandal, dropped the case and then, sensationally, picked it up again and informed Congress – a week out from the election. That smothered Trump’s ‘locker room talk’ imbroglio that pundits said would destroy his campaign, and Clinton’s late lead of 4.7% was shaved to 2.9% – within the margin of error.

Furthermore, though the FBI, CIA and NSA all had solid evidence “that the Russians were mounting an aggressive and wide-ranging effort to interfere in the election”, there seems to have been a turf-protecting approach by the various intel agencies. Operating from silos, a lack of integration, a failure of imagination, and a certain naivety prevailed. By the time a co-ordinated effort was agreed, to present the evidence and response plans to President Obama, it was August – just over 2 months to election day – and the Commander-in-Chief was holidaying on Martha’s Vineyard.

Barack Obama

The biggest do-nothing President since Eisenhower had clear and cogent evidence of Russian hacking and disinformation, well ahead of polling day. The intelligence services, Congressional leaders, and the Clinton campaign, all wanted Mr. Obama to do something about it. A range of options were presented: Obama ‘shirt-fronted’ Putin at a G20 summit and warned him not to cross the line.

Previously, the President had warned President al-Assad of Syria not to ‘cross the line’ on chemical weapons ‘or else’: Assad unduly crossed, and nothing stopped him. (By then, of course, the US had bugged-out of Iraq and outsourced middle-eastern policy to Putin, paving the way for ISIS and the rise of the Caliphate).

Same here: when national security officials finally presented their evidence in co-ordinated and compelling fashion, that Putin and his running dogs had ‘crossed the line’, Obama, having mocked Republicans in the 2012 election for daring to suggest Russia remained a substantial adversary, took no action, to the shock of his staff and the exasperation of Clintonites.

Hillary Inc.

And how did the Russian hackers and troll farmers get into the DNC and Camp Clinton in the first place? Through Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta! Chapter 5 of the book succinctly demonstrates how easily one can open the digital gate to the barbarians:

“…for some reason Podesta clicked on the link in the phony [sic] email and used a bogus site to create a new password [no doubt, ‘password’]. The Russians now had the keys to his emails and access to the most private messages of Clinton World going back years.”** Yes, and to secret communications of a former Secretary of State and a leading candidate for President of the United States.

The Clinton response to this – ignore the emails, concentrate on Russian / Trump interference – show her to be “ingrained…not to take responsibility, but to deflect” – which sums up the meretricious nature of the candidate. In fact, if you used the description: ‘glib, sloppy, crafty, unscrupulous, boorish, negligent, hypocritical, vain, vindictive, devious, self-obsessed and egomaniacal,’ you could be talking about either Clinton or Trump. Indeed, this book conveys the strong impression that the 2016 Presidential nominees were very much alike.

And the wash-up? There isn’t and can’t be credible evidence that the digital invasion flipped the result – unless you assume Trump voters wear tin hats and willingly take their instructions from Moscow. The Varnished Culture suggested in July 2016 that Trump could win because he was articulating the rage of the American people, and add a fairly unlikeable opponent (with indifferent support from her President) who had a sense of disbelief that she could lose, the result is explicable even without bringing-in the theory of malign revenge by Putin on the woman who had compared him to Hitler and supported economic sanctions against his nation.

The authors have little faith in any of the principals in this saga, but ultimately leave it to Robert Mueller, ex-FBI Director, who had “one supreme passion in life: making criminal cases and putting malefactors behind bars.” (We all know how that turned out.)

In the same case? (Pencil art by Salavat Fidai)

And another thing:

One wise thing said after the election – where the votes were fairly even, narrowly favouring Clinton, but Trump scooped the Electoral College – was that whereas Clintonites and most pundits took Trump literally but not seriously, many voters took him seriously but not literally. Most Presidents put on an act, pre and post election: Trump just takes that to the max. Freddy Gray in The Spectator referred to Trump’s “addiction to Twitter, his rolling-news attention span, the backlit narcissism of his reality-TV presidency.“*** Trump knows he creates a firestorm every time he opens his mouth and thumbs out a tweet – it’s his strategy. And for the past 3 years the Democrats have bitten the baited hook, every time.

It is TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome). People just can’t accept that he won. Angus McIntyre posted this on election day as the result was crystallising: “Just stress-ate 3 quarts of ice-cream, a bag of frozen peas & an entire tube of Crest toothpaste. Also, 2 sachets of silica gel & my phone.” At least Angus was amusing. What about Dianne Feinstein? The Senator announced she would vote against any Trump nominee for the Supreme Court, irrespective of his or her qualifications (Imagine if Trump had nominated someone like Ruth Bader Ginsberg – who, to her credit, attended Brett Kavanaugh’s swearing-in, implying what she thought of the Kafkaesque disgrace posing as the Judge’s confirmation hearing.)

In a way, this describes why there was so much noise about Russian interference after the election – because no-one predicted the result. Mueller opened a can of worms but it lead to no charges. Yet the Democratic Leadership now brings impeachment proceedings based on Trump’s phone call to the Ukraine President (or, more accurately, hearsay about the phone call). The hypocrisy is breathtaking, and the ‘process’ (compared, say, to the Watergate inquiry, which was at least prima facie bipartisan) has already been lashed by that well-known Trump supporter The Washington Post. (Naturally, Trump, having tagged the Mueller probe a ‘witch hunt,’ now calls the Ukraine thing a ‘lynching,’ doubtless knowing this will send the ACLU and others batshit-crazy.)

The accepted interpretation of the law against soliciting ‘money or other value’ re an election is that such doesn’t include information, so Trump’s prurient interest in dirt on Joe Biden’s son, Hunter – unlike ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ apparent boast that as VP he’d threatened to withdraw aid to Ukraine unless they sacked the prosecutor looking into Hunter’s alleged corruption – couldn’t amount to ‘high crimes or misdemeanours’ – and if it did in Trump’s case, a conviction in the Senate – by a 2/3rds majority under Republican control – is only going to stand if no-one turns on a fan.

What it will do is what nobody dreamed possible – get the country to start feeling sorry for The Donald (‘he lowered your taxes, raised employment, and hurt your feelings’), and vote him back in 2020. Nice one, Nancy! No wonder you fought like a steer to avoid the farce of a ‘Trumped-up’ impeachment charge.

[*See “KGB” by John Barron.] [**Russian Roulette, p. 67.] [*** 28/9/2019.] Continue Reading →

The Dark Master

November 3, 2019 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Oz Asia Festival

Space Theatre, Adelaide, October 29, 2019

(Director: Kuro Tanino)

Japanese rural inns are a mainstay of horror films and video games.  The Dark Master merges these genres when a hapless young backpacker (Koichiro FO Pereira) is bizarrely inveigled into running a once popular bistro in an undefined area of Japan (possibly Osaka).  The former proprietor (Susumu Ogata), who may or may not have operated the inn for the last 30 or 35 years, disappears upstairs and issues instruction to his apprentice, via earpiece.

The young traveller, who has never so much as boiled an egg, learns quickly how make umama (?), steak and fried rice for the customers, who return as word of the marvellous food travels. The audience hears the instructions via their own earpieces, but the effect is lost somewhat as the dialogue is in Japanese, but the surtitles are in English.

The set is marvellous, if static. A dingy diner/restaurant complete with working kitchen is the one room in which all action takes place, and unfortunately, from some seats in the Space Theatre, entrances and exits were blocked from view. Close-ups of the cooking on a large suspended screen did not quite work, not gelling with the action and being rather blurry.

The actors are accomplished, the action fast, the overall effect a clever blend of fable and film noir. There is some unnecessary titilation from grafted-on prostitute characters.  The political message is a little obscure.  The previous restauranteur had suffered in the so-called “Lost 10 Years” or “20 Years”, when Japan’s economic bubble burst in 1991. The new restauranteur (who also says he has been in business for 30 or 35 years, although in reality it is a few weeks or months) is under threat from a current very real menace to Japan [That would be China? – Ed.].

The script seems unpolished, the action slightly hysterical, but overall The Dark Master is a most engaging play, with the bonus of interesting if slightly doubtful recipes.

Continue Reading →

Wagner Returns (in shimmering gold and black)

November 3, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | MUSIC, Opera, OPERA, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS, WAGNER |

Wagner Gala, Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, 2 November 2019

TVC descended on gloomy, beautiful Hobart for the much awaited return of Nina Stemme, currently the world’s greatest soprano (only the 2nd person to be awarded the Birgit Nilsson Prize, for those for whom awards matter), with the great bass baritone John Lundgren, who gave us a night of selected Wagnerian hits in concert format.

Stemme made a big splash in Hobart in 2016 singing excerpts from Tristan und Isolde with Stuart Skelton. No Tristan this time unfortunately, but the programme was ideally suited to the leads: The Wotan and Brünnhilde tête-à-têtes from Walküre, Act II, scenes I and III, together with the “Ride,” and then, after the interval, The Overture from The Flying Dutchman followed by an excerpt from the Hollander’s Monologue, which Lundgren – who played the part in Stuttgart – did superbly, aided by the TSO Chorus, hidden somewhere up near the ceiling.

The final pieces brought a splendid evening to a close: Siegfried’s Funeral Music (Trauermarsch to you) and Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene (Götterdämmerung). Stemme, looking fine in a shimmering gold and silver ‘glo-weave’, showed why she is the star of the moment, combining (even in concertised form) the humanistic acting sensitivities of a Callas with the superb Wagnerian voice of a Nilsson or a Norman.  Marko Letonja, conductor of the 2016 concert, brilliantly kept the mighty TSO on track, playing fast and yet with feeling.

It was an excellent evening, and one could gladly have stayed on for more. But by the time we ‘saw the World End,’ there was nothing left but flowers and standing ovations.

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A Joke With No Laughs: “Joker” is the Worst Movie of the Year

October 26, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Directed by Todd Phillips) (2019)

Joker is All Dog, from snout to tail. It displays a breathtaking conceit as to its own importance, a delusion, in fact, of grandeur, and of relevance. It shamelessly rips-off much better films such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. It is completely tired and lustreless; it is neurotic and incoherent; it is inept, pretentious and self-indulgent; it has no insights to offer, just tritely psychologised solemnity that gets so murky it’s (almost) funny. In fact there is a special kind of unredeemed awfulness throughout the entirety of what we might loosely call ‘the production.’ When the lead character smothered his mother with a pillow we just had to hit the bar.

Arthur Fleck is a failed clown and psychopath in a town like Gotham (circa 1976, or 1982, or now: whatever) who badly wants to get on the Murray Franklin TV show. But he isn’t funny, he isn’t talented, he isn’t humble, he isn’t even nice. (When his closing-down-sale sign is stolen and he is beaten, we longed to join in.) That’s because his Dad may be a nasty millionaire Republican, and when your clown-gig is terminated, your medication is cancelled, your girlfriend rejects you, your acts of heroism (whilst, absurdly, venerated) go unrewarded, and no one understands your jokes, the only way out is TV standup, right?

Unfortunately, we can’t let star Joaquin Phoenix off, either. Far too old to play Arthur Fleck, having no visible understanding of the shambles and shenanigans of his character’s ‘journey,’ Phoenix’s performance contains nary a glimpse of subtlety or credibility. He comes across like Arnold Horshack from ‘Welcome Back Kotter,’ only without the charm. The film is supposed to concern the genesis of a supervillain, not the masturbatory, sanctimonious self-aggrandizement of an actor let off the leash.  It’s enough to give anti-Americanism a bad name: They’d be better off staging a troupe draped in stars and stripes, wielding butcher knives and singing ‘Send in the Clowns.’

Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) meets Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) again.

“We’re doing a read-through, or you’re not talkin’ to me…”

All one has to do, in sum, is paraphrase Lousie Corbin, who brilliantly tore apart another pile of pretension, Last Year at Marienbad:

Historians of the future who are concerned with the Decline of the West would do well to glance at this so-called motion picture, and to ponder the reasons for the fatuous things that are currently being said in its praise…The simple truth about [Joker] is that a not untalented filmmaker [Phillips] has foresworn the hard work artistic creation entails and has allowed his immature and meaningless fumbling to be promoted by those who wish to convert Western culture into an irrational confusion.’

“Ma….Pleeeeeease…stop calling me…”

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October 26, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

By Jaha Koo

(Oz Asia Festival – Space Theatre, Adelaide 25 October 2019)

TVC has had problems with rice cookers before – but never like this.  Hana (the quiet one) makes the rice (which smelt very nice); Duri (the alpha one) talked about making rice, but mainly traded pungent barbs with the florid one, Seri, who came with coloured L.E.D and a boppy soundtrack (the local brand name for the cookers is “Cuckoo”). Their owner, auteur Jaha Koo, uses these appliances as a trope for the plight of his nation, South Korea, in the wake of the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s. His bête noire, or one of them, is Robert Rubin, President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, who led the $50b IMF bailout described as Sth Korea’s ‘Day of Shame,’ and his thesis appears to be that the country, in agreeing to the ‘rescue,’ traded fiscal rectitude for national independence, putting lots of folks under plenty of heat and pressure. The idea is that ordinary people – who had little to do with creating the crisis – were pressure-cooked and scooped-up, packed and spat-out like the cakes of rice assembled at the finale.

This is a clever piece: in slightly over an hour, with a combination of telerobotic by-play (the Cuckoos observe Asimov’s 3 Laws and turn on each other instead) projected images (some very confronting – be warned*) and direct speech by Koo to the audience, the layers of damage done to the people’s psyche after the economic crisis – through various stats, oral autobiography, and some deeply personal, tragic, vignettes – are reprised in a very dark and moving way.

We have to take issue with the central thesis: that this state of flux and economic repression can be solely attributed to the assistance-with-strings given in 1997-98.  We would hazard a guess that the writer/director/actor is not a fiscal conservative. He probably rejects the real causes and effects of the crisis: too many countries in Asia lacked fiscal discipline, engaged in crony capitalism, had inflexible exchange rates and massively over-valued assets – the price exacted by the US (on behalf of the IMF), and Japan and Australia (the only countries to provide additional assistance to help Korea adjust to the downturn) was to require better monetary policy, balanced books, and increased productivity, which over time led to increased confidence, better investment, higher employment, and a rise in the standard of living.

In the final analysis, however, this is not the real point. Jaha Koo is like a Dickens who can’t provide a remedy, or even perhaps an explanation, for the prevailing malady. But he can vividly describe the symptoms, with accuracy, with humour, with anger, and with compassion. Cuckoo gave us that.


[*suicides, isolation and acute social withdrawal, unemployment, a sense of ennui, malaise and despair – these are some of the symptoms at play in Cuckoo, and they can be hard to watch and hear. But subject to warning viewers with particular vulnerability, we thought none of them are presented or imagined in any gratuitous or exploitative way.]
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