Nearly impossible adventures in literature, cinema, & robust conservative thought!

I read too much, watch too many movies, and think far too much about politics... All of which means that in my daily life I'm bouncing between odd points of interest from moment to moment in a sort of cosmic pinball machine. So save yourself a little time--I'll cull these experiences for the best bits and present them here for your edification and amusement. Adam - July 2004

Thursday, July 26, 2007

gone fishing

Not that this blog has been terribly active lately, but if I don't resond to e-mails for a few days, it's because I'm taking a mini vacation.

Quiroga's The Decapitated Chicken

It’s been quite a while since I discovered a collection of horror stories that excited me as much as Horacio Quiroga’s ultra-morbid book The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories. The current publisher of this book in English, the University of Wisconsin Press, appropriately compares Quiroga to Poe, Kipling, and Jack London—though a horror reference even more apt than Poe would be Ambrose Bierce.

Quiroga (1878-1937) was born in Uruguay but spent much of his adult life in the jungles of Argentina, where many of these stories take place. His stories are all themed around death and man’s struggle against cruel nature. Like Kipling, Quiroga wrote a number of stories featuring talking animals (this collection has 3 such stories), but at the same time he is an utterly unsentimental writer—so these tales are not quite what one would expect. And Quiroga’s morbid streak isn’t simply the suspicious mark of a poseur; the man came from a tragic family background that culminated not only with his own suicide while suffering from cancer, but also with the suicides of two of his children.

However, the dark element in Quiroga’s stories never becomes unbearable for the reader, and this is due largely to his Bierce-like story craftsmanship and his variety of technique. Even the collection’s title story, perhaps the darkest story here, remains compelling in a Conrad-esque, “Oh the horror!” manner due to the masterful structuring of a simple plot. “The Feather Pillow” is deliciously chilling, but is also a much more traditional horror story, wonderfully contrived and much like a Poe tale. “The Pursued” is possibly the most surprising story of the collection. It is very different from the others, with its modern, Kafka-like, existential themes of identity and mental disintegration. “The Dead Man” is quintessential Quiroga: a man is crossing a fence and trips, falling on his machete. He then spends several moments going through various stages of denial, believing that he isn’t really about to die. In “Sunstroke”—possibly the best of the animal stories here—a pack of dogs watch as a man, on a particularly hot day, works himself to death in the afternoon heat. The two stories which may surprise readers most here, though, are Quiroga’s two optimistic tales: “In the Middle of the Night” and “The Incense Tree Roof.” The latter, in particular, is a very fine story, the tale of a civil servant living in a small, jungle village who makes a Herculean effort to meet a paperwork deadline imposed by his urban superiors.

Finally, what makes this collection especially precious is that so little of Quiroga’s work is available in English. Though he published two novels and more than two hundred stories, it appears that only The Decapitated Chicken and one other small story collection, The Exiles, is available for English readers.

Friday, July 20, 2007

a movie called Whole
on 'wannabee amputees'
+ some questions for the 'Choice' crowd

Melody Gilbert’s short (55-minute) documentary Whole from 2003 acquaints us with a most unusual phenomenon, that of seemingly ordinary folk who want to have their healthy limbs amputated. Most of these “wannabee amputees” seem to be white males intent on riding themselves of a leg. Their reasons are pretty simple: “it’s just doesn’t belong there” or “it’s not part of me.” Some have tried to perform amputations themselves and succeeded, others have tried and ended up dead. Others have found doctors who were willing to help them “achieve their ideal body type.” Psychologists interviewed for the documentary insist that these men are not insane. . . at least not under the modern definition of insanity. (Though, I do wonder what these psychologists will say when, as inevitably someday they must, they meet the wannabee who is determined to see 2, 3 or 4 limbs removed.) And in fact, all the voluntary amputees or wannabees interviewed in “Whole” are mostly-functional and well-spoken individuals who seem to have rationally thought through their condition to the best of their abilities.

Now one aspect of this issue that is really fascinating to me is the potential of the “wannabee amputee” problem for modern ethics. Currently, voluntary amputations are not met with the same legal and societal acceptance of, say, abortion or “gender modification.” Why not? A wannabee is not proposing that he remove from his body something like a fetus, something with its own brain and the potential to become a separate human being. Nor is he trying to swap his sexual equipment for that of a woman. Isn’t this, really, a minor concern in light of what we do allow people to do with their bodies today?

say hello to Pres. Cheney!

[Yahoo] Bush to undergo 'routine' colonoscopy

'President George W. Bush, 61, will undergo a "routine colonoscopy" at the Camp David retreat on Saturday, briefly ceding power to Vice President Dick Cheney, the White House said Friday.'

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

cool things found in old books

I used to say that the coolest thing I'd found in a used book was a $10 bill. But this--found in an old copy of The Screwtape Letters--is even better. It's definitely the nifty-est old movie ticket I have... And it's for a movie that I really like, despite it's dated look. I even wrote a sort of review of the film ~here~ (written about 1 year before I went to Oxford and visted Lewis' house). How interesting it must have been to see the film being presented by Rev. Hooper.

Branagh's Hamlet, finally coming to DVD

I just realized... It's only 1 month till Branagh's excellent, full-length production of Hamlet comes to DVD. And about time! The film was first released on VHS a decade ago, about the time that DVD technology was entering the marketplace.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Oprah's Cormac McCarthy interview

I missed Oprah's interview with Cormac McCarthy a few weeks ago. So, she's finally done it. . . She broke down my defenses, and I registered with her site I could see . . .

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Thomas Sowell's Independence Day column

My favorite African American, secular conservative is always worth listening to learning from. . .

[Townhall] Taking America for Granted

"Slavery was cancerous but does anybody regard cancer in the United States as an evil peculiar to American society? It is a worldwide affliction and so was slavery. Both the enslavers and the enslaved have included people on every inhabited continent -- people of every race, color, and creed. More Europeans were enslaved and taken to North Africa by Barbary Coast pirates alone than there were African slaves taken to the United States and to the colonies from which it was formed.

"Yet throughout our educational system, our media, and in politics, slavery is incessantly presented as if it were something peculiar to black and white Americans. What was peculiar about the United States was that it was the first country in which slavery was under attack from the moment the country was created.

"What was peculiar about Western civilization was that it was the first civilization to destroy slavery, not only within its own countries but in other countries around the world as well."

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

reading 2007, second quarter
+ Francis Ford Coppola's new film
+ Malamud's great novel

Here’s the list of books I’ve read in the past three months (the year's earlier list can be found here). The books are more-or-less in the order that I read them, except where I've grouped more than one title under a single author. I've put a "*" next to anything that gets a high recommendation. "PO" is for poetry, "YA" for young adult book, and "GN" is for graphic novel.

Alberto Manguel, With Borges * (memoir about Jorge Luis Borges)
Mark Strand, The Untelling -PO-
John Gardner, Nickel Mountain * (3rd time)
Roald Dahl, Boy * (memoir written for children, 2nd time)
-----, Going Solo * (memoir written for young adults)
Robert Westall, The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral -YA-
Horacio Quiroga, The Decapitated Chicken & Other Stories *
Eli Wiesel, The Accident
Carlos Fuentes, Aura (novella)
Bret Lott, The Hunt Club
-----, A Dream of Old Leaves * (stories)
Jeffrey Overstreet, Through a Screen Darkly *
-----, Auralia’s Colors * (manuscript, due out September)
Russell Kirk, Old House of Fear
Elizabeth Kantor, The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature *
Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth * (novella)
Doug TenNapel, Iron West -GN-
-----, Gear -GN-
Bernard Malamud, The Assistant *

I also read several short stories by Alice Munroe (very, very good), Adam Haslett (ranging from so-so to awful), and Rudyard Kipling (all superb stories from Plain Tales from the Hills).

Notes on 2 of the books above:

Mircea Elaide's Youth Without Youth is a wonderfully mystical novella about an old man who is struck by lightning and suddenly finds himself defying medical science in the years just before WWII. He is granted a secret second life and lives on the margin of society, experiencing strange adventures and finding that he has become a kind of walking, talking Holy Grail for certain mystical and progressive-scientific groups. Youth Without Youth has been adapted as a film by Francis Ford Coppola, which will be released in December. It is Coppola's first film in a decade and has the potential, if he plays it right, to be his best film in about 30 years. Well, we'll see.

Bernard Malamud's The Assistant is a gentler sort of Crime and Punishment, set in a small Jewish grocery in New York. It's a truly remarkable work of moral fiction, and its final paragraph is one of the most effective, satisfying, and yet startlingly unexpected finales of any novel I've read.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Russell Kirk's Old House of Fear

An aging American tycoon of Scottish decent has long wished to purchase the home of his ancestors, the castle Old House of Fear on the remote Carnglass Island. Finally receiving a favorable sign from the island’s occupants, he sends a resourceful employee, Hugh Logan, to negotiate on his behalf. Logan’s journey is far more difficult than he expected, and he finds himself either blocked or pursued at every turn. Eventually he reaches the island only to land in a hornet’s nest of political conspiracy and bizarre threats from occult quarters.

Russell Kirk’s Old House of Fear, first published in 1961 and now reprinted by Wm. B. Eerdmans, will be for the right audience — fans of Kirk’s superb ghost stories and of the Victorian gothic-adventure tale — a highly entertaining read. For today’s general reader, however, it is likely to be a disappointment. One the one hand, Kirk’s prose is often a joy in itself, and his characters are always a delight. Kirk manages to create larger than life characters in just a few sentences, and his heroes are refreshingly (almost disarmingly) audacious and proactive. They are men in the Indiana Jones mold, able to take care of themselves in almost any situation. Even more importantly, the book has a truly satisfying and chilling finale moment which, in a well-rounded novel, would have been its crowning jewel.

The central flaw that prevents the book from being really exceptional, though, is a certain imbalance between “back story” and present-moment narrative. That is, the book relies on a large amount of background material which is well thought-out and very involving. In the active narrative of the novel, though, Kirk fails to flesh out a few things in a convincing manner. We have a villain with a terrible reputation who never becomes quite as menacing as we expect. There is one narrow escape for our hero that comes a bit too soon, and too easily. And, finally, there is a romantic subplot that is both convenient and sudden, a bad combination. It may be true that all of these elements correspond with traditional, gothic-tale conventions, but to today’s ears this argument can only be heard as a plea for indulging unsophisticated storytelling. Kirk obviously had a great affection for the tales he was paying homage to in Old House of Fear, and for those who share this affection, his enthusiasm will certainly be infectious. Unfortunately, many others are likely to find the novel only infrequently engaging.

Friday, June 29, 2007

films of 2007, the first half

I haven't seen a ton of new movies this year. But, in general, so far there has been a wide gulf between the good and the bad. Here's the way I rate them, on a 10-point scale. . .

A Bittersweet Life - 8 [Korea]
Diggers - 8
Fay Grim - 8
Grindhouse : Death Proof - 8
Grindhouse : Planet Terror - 8
Lake of Fire - 2
The Lookout - 8
9th Company - 7 [Russia]
Offscreen - 3 [Denmark]
The Pervert's Guide to Cinema - 9
The Return - 9 [Russia]
Them - 4 [France]
28 Weeks Later - 4 [U.K.]
Waitress - 6

Allegro - 8 (late arrival in the US, thouth I saw it in 2006)
Into Great Silence -9 (ditto)
Starfish Hotel - 6 (saw it in 2006, no US release yet)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Naomi, dancer

Somebody had her first dance recital this month.
Gosh, ain't she just too cute?!

Auralia's web site

I've had the pleasure of reading Jeffrey Overstreet's wonderful fantasy novel, Auralia's Colors, a few months ahead of time (it'll hit stores in September). In some ways it strikes me as a fantasy answer to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. In other ways, it's just its own animal--lots of fun, and full of unexpected surprises. Anyway, Auralia's web site is now looking pretty snazzy, what with providing access to the world's map and the novel's first chapter. Check it out...

Auralia's Colors - The Web Site

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bret Lott's A Dream of Old Leaves

Bret Lott’s first book of stories, the 1989 collection A Dream of Old Leaves, is one of best volumes of literary stories that I’ve read in some time. It is a very small book filled with brief stories: 14 stories in 138 pages. Nearly all of the stories focus on the daily life of the nuclear family, viewing this basic building block of society by way of unexpected, but affectionate, angles.

The title story is one of the best (though there are no bad stories here) and also one of the collection’s three Paul and Kate stories--all tales about a certain young family and its children. In this one, Paul and Kate’s small son David endures a period of terrible nightmares until Paul discovers the rather ordinary source of the sound of “old leaves” plaguing his son, and Paul has a small epiphany about the milestones required of a child’s courage. In another, “What Our Life Is Like,” a husband and wife are facing the dreaded atrophy brought on by routine when, one day, the washing machine breaks down and the wife meets a sort of ballerina at the local Laundromat. Then life momentarily expands for the couple in a way they never could have foreseen. In “Garage Sale,” a family is challenged to either move away from its home of many years or stay and face untold harm. Their moving sale suddenly becomes a how-low-can-you-go bidding war for their communal identity.

Lott draws his characters with such insight, brevity, and expert technique that they all come to life in a way that many authors can hardly accomplish in an entire novel. Furthermore, these people are not the typical freaks and counter-culture misanthropes that populate so much of today’s literary fiction. These are ordinary folks: a little crazy, yes, but no more than you or I at our worst--or sometimes, best--moments.

Frank Schaeffer - Never Gonna Read It

I’m taking my disused Never Gonna Read It Award out of virtual storage and awarding it this month to Frank Schaeffer and his book Crazy for God: How I Helped Found the Religious Right and Ruin America.

Okay, confession. I did read the prologue and a page here and there from an advance copy for this book, due out in October from the self-styled bad boy of evangelical Christianity, the disgruntled son of theologian Francis Schaeffer. And it’s not the only Schaeffer book I’ve tried to read. I tried his recent novel, Baby Jack, and got only a couple chapters into it (very forced and phony fiction). I also tried to read his Addicted to Mediocrity: Contemporary Christians and the Arts. This last book treated an interesting topic, but was a little “mediocre” on the writing side itself, and laced with too much bitterness.

Bitterness—there’s the word to sum up Schaeffer. He wants to ride the fence on everything, play the professional contrarian, and look down on the rest of the world. He wants, in his new book, to drop names (his sister was babysat by President Ford’s daughter!), coast on his father’s big name, and air the Church’s dirty laundry in public. But can you get any more annoying and pathetic than screaming at the top of your lungs: I helped create this mess, and I’ll take no responsibility for it! That’s the theme of the new book, and I hope Schaeffer’s not disappointed if the book doesn’t sell more than a dozen copies. Really. Who wants to read this?

George Costanza: "So I'm the bad boy. I've never been the bad boy before."

Monday, June 25, 2007

more inconvenient facts about Gore

Thanks to my buddy Chris for sending this along...

[The Independent] Too little, too late: Gore blames scientists for climate crisis

'Mr Gore accuses his nemesis, President George Bush, of having taken "virtually no steps to address the problem. Worse, he and Vice President Cheney have led the nation in precisely the wrong direction."

'. . . .Mr Gore claims that concerns over the environment formed [his own] "principal agenda for eight years in the White House". But he is light on details of what he did while in office, beyond a brief mention of his work with the Kyoto treaty (which was never ratified by Congress).

'During his tenure as vice president, America's carbon dioxide emissions shot up far faster than at any time in modern history - by 15 per cent, compared to just 1.65 per cent during President Bush's first term.'

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Literature

I’ve finally gotten around to experiencing my first “Politically Incorrect Guide,” a series of books--cultural correctives, really--put out by Regnery Publishing. I was a tad skeptical going in, worried that this modern, reactionary conservative scholarship might not be up to a standard I could live with. But what a nice surprise to be proved wrong!

Elizabeth Kantor’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature is a little bit of heaven for an English-major like me who wanted to go back and take a refresher course on everything from Beowulf to Flannery O’Connor. It’s a book unapologetically in love with The Dead White Males (+ Jane Austen, Emily Dickenson, O’Connor, Frederick Douglas, etc.). And it’s so nice to breathe easy and just take in these authors in the spirit of their own day, before they were all branded with idiotic post-modern labels. Kantor is an exceptional writer and scholar, and she brings a great wealth of traditional perspective to this book.

Also, I highly recommend the audio book, read James Adams--a guy you could listen to for days and days on end. One caution, however. The printed book has little, boxed factoids every few pages. These are titled: “Can you believe the professors?” or “A book you’re not supposed to read” or “What they don’t want you to learn from Shakespeare.” These digressions are included in the audio book and will be slightly distracting the first few times you encounter them--breaking up the train of thought slightly, as they do. But Adams does the best he can with the transitions.

Check out the complete P.I.G. line here!

Monday, June 18, 2007

The complete Twin Peaks, finally!

It looks like we may finally be getting the complete Twin Peaks DVD set, including the pilot episode, around Halloween time:

[TV Shows on DVD] Twin Peaks the Definitive Gold Box Edition

SIFF 2007 ends

Well, that's it. It was a pretty typical festival for me. I saw a modest 5 films. 2 were a couple of the best I'll see this year, and 2 were maybe the worst. Another (Them) just gets a bored thumbs down.
Anyway, here are links to my 5 reviews:

Straight from SIFF: 5


Danish actor Nicolas Bro borrows a camera from his director friend Christopher Boe to film his own life over the course of the year. However, the filming immediately becomes an obsession, driving away his wife (Lene Maria Christensen) and friends. In the end, Bro loses his mind, commits an unspeakable crime, and disappears.

What poses as an egocentric self-portrait is in fact a faux documentary, directed by Boe and staring a good friend, Bro, who has appeared in Boe’s earlier two films (both excellent), Reconstruction and Allegro. When Christopher Boe appeared at the Seattle International Film Festival last year with Allegro, he made an offhand comment that his third film (what turned out to be Offscreen) “doesn’t make any sense,” and unfortunately he was being completely honest. Simply put, Offscreen is a huge letdown. The first hour or so is mildly interesting at times, but mainly just self-indulgent and dull. True, there are occasional moments of life in Bro’s performance, and both Lene Maria Christensen and Signe Skov are wonderful--but even the performances aren’t enough to lighten this dull and, finally, ugly fare. The ending of the film, after all, is just that: pure ugliness. After a final split with his Lene, Bro goes over the edge and turns “evil,” as he puts it, committing a crime that no audience will want to see and that they will not even understand.

Offscreen certainly had potential, at least at the conceptual level. It had something to say about the YouTube generation and the new addiction of filming the mundane, of cine-oholism. But Boe misses his opportunity here, by a wide margin. At the beginning he fails to make us care, and in the end he makes us wish we hadn’t bothered to listen to him at all.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Straight from SIFF: 4

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

“Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire; it tells you how to desire.”

Thus begins The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, in which Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek applies his Freudian/Lacanian brain-scalpel to world cinema. This film in three parts is the second feature documentary directed by Sophie Fiennes (yes, sister of Ralph and Joseph), and it is a notable accomplishment, clocking in at 2 ½ hours of talk from one man and yet remaining humorous and engaging throughout. In essence, it is an extended film lecture, and one of the best you may ever get. Over the course of the film, Zizek guides us through a catalogue of obsession and desire in film history. He touches on more than 40 films and, in particular, spends a great deal of time with Hitchcock, Lynch, Chaplin, Tarkovsky, the Marx Brothers, and Eisenstein, but he also takes a close look at Persona, The Conversation, Three Colors: Blue, Dogville, Fight Club, and The Exorcist. Thematically, Zizek’s inquiry into cinema ranges from thoughts on the death drive to the “coordinates of desire,” and from Gnosticism to “partial objects.”

The Pervert’s Guide will be a slightly better experience if you’ve taken a few minutes to bone up on your basic Freudian terminology. However, even if you’re not steeped in Freudian theory, Zizek’s dynamic and hilarious personality carries the film forward with such gusto that you aren’t likely to balk at the occasional, specialized lingo. The film frequently cuts from movie clips to images of Zizek inside the movie he is talking about--that is, in the original locations and sets. The transitions in these sequences sustain such tension and humor that the trick never gets old. And Zizek himself is constantly making us laugh, either from bizarre little jokes or from his enthusiastic insistence on, for example, a bold Oedipal interpretation of The Birds. And this go-ahead-and-laugh attitude, on the parts of both Fiennes and Zizek, is essential to the gonzo character of the film. It is the spoonful of sugar that helps us digest Zizek’s weird medicine. After all, don’t we all have a sense that, past a certain point, psychology theorists are just “pulling our legs”? The perverts!

Now, on a Lynch-fan note. . . Slavoj Zizek has been a figure of interest for me since 2000, when he published a 48-page monograph with the University of Washington Press, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway. In The Pervert’s Guide, I was delighted to find that his interpretations of both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive coincide largely with my own interpretations. But also, he subscribes to a notion that many Lynch fans are uncomfortable with: that is, these films are “two versions of the same film.” I also appreciated this vital observation that Zizek makes: “What makes both films, especially Lost Highway, so interesting is how they posit the two dimensions--reality and fantasy--side by side. Horizontally, as it were.” Also fascinating is his enthusiasm for giving multiple readings to something, as in the three different readings he gives for the horrifying rape scene in Blue Velvet.

Finally I just have to say--and maybe this shows what an oddball I am, as someone who can never pass up a good lecture--that there hasn’t been another film this year that I’ve enjoyed more than this one. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially for the dedicated film buff.

P.S. You can see clips from the film here (and especially the Lynch stuff here) as well as Fiennes’ short film on Lars von Trier.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


This is pretty fascinating: a harsh critique of the American Left by one of the more leftist magazines out there:

[AdBusters] The American Left's Silly Victim Complex

"But American college types don’t have to fight for sh*t anymore. Remember the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill album? Remember that song “Fight for Your Right to Party”? Well, people, that song was a joke. So was “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “And the Cradle Will Rock.” The only thing American college kids have left to fight for are the royalties for their myriad appearances in Girls Gone Wild videos. Which is why they look ridiculous parading around at peace protests in the guise of hapless victims and subjects of the Amerikan neo-Reich. Rich liberals protesting the establishment is absurd because they are the establishment; they’re just too embarrassed to admit it."

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Great-Hearted Fiction

As much as I enjoy Cormac McCarthy or Kazuo Ishiguro, et cetera, I am getting more and more weary of the trend of the past half century (or more) toward fashionable cynicism in literary fiction. It really starts to wear on one after awhile. And because of this, authors like Mark Helprin and John Gardner are a necessary (and rare) antidote. Gardner in particular was a big champion of non-cynical literature, as seen in nearly all of his work--but some of my favorite examples are stories like "The Art of Living" and "John Napper Sailing Through the Universe." Or take that beautiful and simple moment at the end of Nickel Mountain when little Jimmy responds to his father's declaration of love with "Well I don't love you" and Henry is able to let the moment pass with great wisdom, perspective, and not a trace of anger, saying only: "Poor dreamer."

But is great-hearted fiction mainly a thing of the past, of the age of Dickens and before? A few of my favorite such stories are the Mary Chase play Harvey, C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength, and Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. As with Gardner's books, I think these are stories that avoid not only cynicism but that "Pollyanna" quality, at the other end of the spectrum, which Gardner warns about.

So my question is: What "great-hearted" fiction is being published today?

I think that Helprin's Winter's Tale, Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, and Louis De Bernieres' Corelli's Mandolin fit the bill. There are a few others that I haven't read for several years but that might also qualify: Frederick Buechner's The Storm, Ivan Klima's Love and Garbage, and Oscar Hijuelos' Mr. Ives' Christmas. As far as I remember, all of these books end on a note of hard-won optimism and hope for the future. There is certainly also a hint of this sort of thing in the few novels published by Steve Martin and Peter Hedges--and how odd that such work would come out of Hollywood, of all places!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Nat Hentoff, pro-life liberal

In Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye gives a very few seconds of screen time to a single intellectual pro-lifer: Nat Hentoff. The catch is that when Kaye brings Hentoff back later in the film--again for only a few seconds--we see that Kaye chose Hentoff because he seriously deviates from most other pro-life intellectuals. That is, Hentoff is a liberal who considers most of the pro-life movement to be hypocritical because they are also pro-death penalty, pro-Second Amendment, and pro-military.

Still, Hentoff makes very, very good sense on the ethics of the abortion issue. Check a brief account of his "conversion" story here:

[Washington Times] To Be Liberal and Pro-Life, Champion of "Inconvenient Life"

Excerpt. . .

'He went after the story, later publishing it in The Atlantic as "The Awful Privacy of Baby Doe." In running it down, he found himself digging into the notorious, 2-year-old case of the first Infant Doe. That Bloomington, Ind., Down's syndrome baby died of starvation over six days when his parents, who did not want a retarded child, refused surgery for his deformed esophagus.

'Then Mr. Hentoff came across the published reports of experiments in what doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital called "early death as a management option" for infants "considered to have little or no hope of achieving meaningful 'humanhood.' " He talked with happy handicapped adults whose parents could have killed them but didn't. It changed him.'

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Straight from SIFF: 3

Lake of Fire

Be prepared. In Tony Kaye’s documentary, Lake of Fire, you will see a small portion of an abortion procedure. You will see the dead pieces of a being you cannot simply label “fetus” and thereby distance yourself comfortably from it. You will see crime scenes with the bodies of people executed by anti-abortion zealots. You will also see quite a number of Bible-slappin’ loudmouths and pro-choice intellectuals.

First off, to be fair, Kaye’s documentary does allow two moments that are very strong for the pro-life camp. The first comes near the beginning of the film, in which we do actually see the dismembered pieces of that aborted baby. This is echoed later with shots of other corpses stored in a clinic freezer. The second moment comes with the story of Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” of Roe v. Wade. Kaye presents McCorvey’s story of working in abortion clinics after her trial and then, in 1995, converting to Christianity and completely reversing her position toward abortion. McCorvey’s conversion came about largely through the efforts of a man we see here, a man who, incidentally, is perhaps the single non-wacko pro-life leader that Kaye deigns to show us: Operation Save America’s Flip Benham.

Other than those two points, all the scoring goes to the pro-choice crowd. Kaye includes as many homophobic, gun-toting, anti-abortion loudmouths as he can find. And he can’t hide his own prejudices when he zeroes in on the mouth of one particular windbag and lets it fill the screen while he rants—a technique, it should be noted, that is never applied when Alan Dershowitz is onscreen. Here we have pro-lifers who do the cause no favors by opening their mouths, saying for instance that they think blasphemers should be executed, that they’ve seen Satan-worshiping abortionists barbecue babies right in front of them, etc. And this spectacle goes on and on, with only one answering clang on the Left. At one point we do see a single leftist dork: a woman singer who dances 95% nude during her performance, shoves a coat hanger in her crotch, and mimes giving herself an abortion and eating the baby. We also get to hear this “artist” speak in interview, and she is stunningly clueless. But that’s it for whack-jobs presented on the Left, and we're clearly meant to come away from the film with the sense that the majority of pro-lifers are sub-mental creeps while the majority of pro-choicers are enlightened, brainy people you’d trust to guide public policy.

Nearly all the people interviewed for this documentary use dishonest, loaded arguments: that is, “the Bible says so” (and if you don’t believe the Bible, you don’t count), or “it’s a woman’s right” (and obviously the fetus isn’t a person, so it doesn’t have any competing rights). The difference is that the people Kaye sought out are primarily articulate intellectuals on one side, and on the other they are primarily uneducated and backwards. The film includes only a few brief seconds of articulate speech on the pro-life side, in contrast with the nonstop barrage of interviews with leftist celebrity intellectuals like Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky, and Peter Singer. Chomsky, who has several PhDs in Hair Splitting, gets away here with everything from comparing the religious climate in the U.S. with that in Iran, to raising absurd, overly-clever counterarguments such as his statement that women kill bacteria every time they wash their hands. Dershowitz pulls some similar garbage when he points out that every time a man and woman refrain from having sex they are preventing a potential human being from being created, and therefore maybe we should have sex 24/7 if we’re really going to make God happy. And Singer? Well, he defines murder in terms of “what makes it wrong.” That is, murder is killing someone who has the mental capability to wish otherwise, and since an unborn child doesn’t have the cerebral development allowing him to know what he’s missing out on—well, tough.

Particularly disappointing—and revealing, in terms of the documentary’s prejudices—is that no effort was made to bring in articulate intellectuals from the pro-life camp. You’ll see no Peter Kreeft here, no Frederica Mathewes-Green. And while Kaye gives screen time to a conspiracy theory about Christian Reconstructionism and the Religious Right’s desire to retake the country and execute anyone who doesn’t obey the ten commandments, no similar, reasoned examinations are made of possible conspiracies on the Left. No mention is made, for example, of Planned Parenthood originating from a scandalous soup of eugenics, racism, and elitist, upper-class paranoia directed at the burgeoning lower classes.

This pro-choice prejudice is seen further in the film’s recurring, sledgehammer theme: pro-life = anti-abortion terrorism. Kaye is little interested in portraying anything but the sensationalistic, media stereotypes of pro-life activists, and the final portion of the film stresses these stereotypes again and again. As the film winds down and we follow a woman into her clinic to see the tough, brave choice she’s going to make and see that she’s an emotionally disturbed woman who really shouldn’t raise a child, we get an answering bombardament from the Left. All the intellectuals that Kaye brought out earlier now return, and we’re given a dizzying number of alternative, grey-scale methods for thinking about abortion, methods for making a simple thing more “complex.” For instance, Alan Dershowitz says that when it comes to abortion, “everyone is right.” This is a good, non-conclusive answer that will not lead to any hasty overturning of laws.

Finally, on a personal note, I was glad I saw this film, but can’t recommend it to very many people. After all, a documentary heavily skewed to one side can’t be recommended for its intrinsic worth. However, for anyone on the pro-life side who has already thought through their position, this is an interesting experience. It’s not only a lesson in how a film can pay lip service to “fairness” while ending up with a propagandistic message, but it is also encouraging to see all these Leftist intellectuals brought together, given free reign and, finally, showing themselves capable of only very flimsy and flawed arguments.