NYMPHOMANIAC

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I’ve only seen two films by Lars von Trier, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, and I think they could both be best described as banal.  Each has a prominent organizing hook, and each hook is developed in the tritest way possible.

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In Melancholia, a dysfunctional extended family is being torn apart by bleak despair at the same time — the exact same time! – as a previously hidden planet is hurtling towards a possible collision with the Earth.  The name of the planet is — wait for it — Melancholia!  What are the odds?

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In Nymphomaniac, a woman recounts a life devoted to satisfying her voracious sexual appetites.  It turns out that she has since childhood felt a profound inner emptiness which she thought that various forms of purely carnal sex might fill up, though — wait for it — they didn’t!  Imagine that!

The drama of the dysfunctional family in Melancholia is familiar bad soap opera stuff.  The incidents in Nymphomaniac are more varied and engaging.  Some of them are even vaguely erotic, even if they don’t add up to much as a psychological portrait of their protagonist.

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Von Trier is, philosophically speaking, an existential nihilist, and he makes a valiant attempt to cast his protagonist’s acceptance of her basically meaningless life as an act of courageous heroism.  Some, like that happy-go-lucky hairpin Jean-Paul Sartre, might find this convincing but it seems a bit puerile to me.  It’s certainly no fun, presenting sex as a desperate existential chore.  Lie back and think of Huis Clos.

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Von Trier also makes an utterly unconvincing case for his protagonist as a feminist pioneer, suggesting that if a man had led the life of sexual adventuring she led he would be admired.  Perhaps, but only by idiots.  Heartless sex is heartless sex, whatever the gender of those who engage in it.  It’s not the worst thing in the world but it doesn’t make any life worth living sub specie aeternitatis, or any other specie I can think of.

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There are, as I say, a few amusing and titillating passages in the film and it has a witty, unexpected twist at the end but, by the second half of the four-hour version I watched, its governing mode had become pure ennui.  You have to work hard to make sex boring but von Trier pulled it off in Nymphomaniac.

HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’

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Rick Perry is conducting his public defense against his indictment for abuse of power like a political campaign.  His booking on the charges was the occasion for a jaunty and rousing speech and even the mug shot (on which the gag poster above is based) turned out to be a successful photo op.  That mug shot may be the best of all his official portraits.

Perry knows politics, particularly Texas politics, as well as anyone who’s ever lived, which is one reason he’s the longest-serving Texas governor ever.  He seems to be a political animal down to his fingertips, so it’s instinctive with him to turn a fingerprinting session into a campaign event.

Perry is also contemplating another run at the Presidency, so it’s important for him to limit the national public’s perception of the damage from the indictment.  Treating it like a silly gnat that he can swipe away with the flick of a wrist is just the ticket for that.

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In the courtroom, it may not be so simple.  Perry is accused of violating a very plain and very Texas sort of law which prohibits an official from using his power to coerce another public servant into taking an action that the other public servant doesn’t want to take.

In the wake of her very public and very humiliating arrest for drunk driving — very drunk driving — Perry tried to get Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg (above) to resign.  A lot of people agreed that she should, but she refused to.  So Perry apparently used various implements in his tool box to force her to resign, including a threat to veto funding for a government watchdog agency she headed, a threat he eventually carried through on.

Perry knew he would win the public relations battle over his actions, as he largely has, but he failed to take the anti-coercion law into account.  Linking his veto threat specifically to Lehmberg’s resignation was, on the face of it, a clear violation of that law.  Perry may well win the public relations battle over his case and still get convicted of a felony or two.

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Perry is like a modern-day John Henry, a man who knows how to drive steel with a hammer better than anyone else, but is baffled by the task of operating a screwdriver.  That bifurcation of skills and perception is the fascination of the man, and will be the fascination of the trial.  He and his legal team will try to bring Perry’s hammer into the courtroom.  The prosecutor will try to turn the jury’s attention towards the mishandled screwdriver.

It will be one of the most interesting political trials since the days of Watergate.

SATURN 1970

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A new three-track EP from Todd Fletcher, whose last album Wake Up Vanishing I reviewed here.

The new tracks are driving, invigorating melodic grooves — it’s hard to imagine that they were made by a solo artist creating multiple tracks.  They seem like the works of an experienced and wildly interactive ensemble.  Buy them here and pay what you want for them.  An awesome deal.

THE CASE AGAINST PERRY

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Commentators on Rick Perry’s indictment are falling into a pattern — mischaracterizing the charges against him, and then defending him or attacking him on the basis of those mischaracterized charges.  Perry is not charged with using his power, specifically his power of line-item veto, in an irresponsible or unethical way — he’s charged with using those things for the one purpose he’s legally bound by Texas law not to use them for, namely, attempting to coerce a public servant, Rosemary Lehmberg, into taking an action she didn’t want to take and wasn’t legally required to take, resigning from office.

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Perry’s motives for doing this are irrelevant.  He may have, as he’s argued, simply wanted to rid the state of an official who’d lost its confidence, due to her problems with alcohol and the law.  He may have, as his opponents have argued, really wanted to replace her with a Travis County DA less liable to tangle with his administration.

Neither of these things are important to the case as a legal matter, and won’t figure into the prosecution’s arguments, which will try to prove that Perry committed a felony or two by attempting to coerce a specific public servant into resigning, which the law forbids.

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As a defendant, Perry has in his favor the presumption of innocence, the affection of most of his fellow Texans, and the notion, on both sides of the aisle, that the charges against him are sketchy, punishment for playing hardball politics as usual.  But the law is the law, and a very careful, reportedly non-partisan prosecutor has determined that he broke it.

Spinning the case as a question of ethics, or intention, or partisan politics is the business of Perry’s supporters and enemies.  The trial will deal with facts and the law, and none of the spin will figure into it at all.  I suspect that this will take a lot of the pundits, and those who follow them, by surprise.

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW

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There has long been a theory that his first wife Polly Platt was the creative genius behind Peter Bogdanovich.  It’s based on the fact that after he stopped working with her, a few years after they separated, Bogdanovich’s career went into a precipitous decline from which it never quite recovered

Platt encouraged Bogdanovich to film Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show.  There have been rumors that she worked closely with McMurtry and Bogdanovich, uncredited, on the screenplay and played a decisive creative role on the set.  The actor Ben Johnson said she virtually co-directed the film.  She certainly designed the film, her credited role, with impeccable authenticity and taste.

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Bogdanovich was a fine filmmaker, but It was Platt’s critical evaluation of material, and the ways to approach it, that seemed to keep Bogdanovich on course in the years of his success, and whose absence left him a bit adrift after Platt moved on.

Platt (pictured above with Bogdanovich) described their creative partnership this way — “He’s the locomotive, I’m the tracks.”  Bogdanovich’s career after Paper Moon, the last film he worked on with Platt, can be fairly described as a locomotive that’s gone off the tracks.

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In any case, The Last Picture Show is a genuine masterpiece, wonderfully cast and brilliantly shot.  Though Timothy Bottoms (above) carries the film as its principal character, our window onto the tale, the heart of it is Ben Johnson’s powerful performance as Sam the Lion, for which he won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.

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The film is about the passing of time, the dying out of a small Texas town, and Sam the Lion (above) personifies what’s being lost in the process, the old breed of Texan whose world is vanishing.  Without Johnson’s character, we wouldn’t have quite the same sense of what’s at stake in the film’s mournful, bittersweet parade of longing and disappointment and heartache.  Johnson gives the film an epic dimension, elevates it into the highest ranks of American cinema.

MORE TEXAS IRONY

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When Rick Perry tried to encourage (or, according to the indictment against him, coerce) Rosemary Lehmberg, the DA of Travis County, to resign, he argued plausibly that her drinking problems, which landed her in jail, had eroded trust among Texans generally in the Public Integrity Unit she headed.  So he threatened to veto funding for that office unless she resigned, and carried through on that threat when she didn’t.

Perry was probably right about the erosion of trust in Lehmberg, but who knows for sure?  I doubt if Perry conducted any scientific polling on the issue, and Texas history is full of politicians who couldn’t hold their liquor yet served without controversy in their posts.

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Lehmberg’s problems with alcohol and with the law would certainly have distracted her from her duties, for a while, but as far as I know Perry never offered any concrete evidence that Lehmberg’s office wasn’t performing its statutory functions in a competent way.  It was all based on Perry’s notion, reasonable though it may have been, that there was a public perception of incompetence.

Perry’s own legal problems will certainly distract him from his duties as governor, for a while — probably far longer than Lehmberg’s DUI conviction and jail term distracted her — but Perry clearly has no intention of stepping aside as acting governor until his legal problems are resolved.

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And if someone argued that being indicted for two felonies created a perception of incompetence on the governor’s part, requiring his resignation, he would hardly be moved to do so.  And finally, if the Texas legislature voted to de-fund any of the various agencies Perry controls, in an attempt to coerce him into resigning, he would be well within his rights to take the legislators to court.

Texas has a law against attempting any such coercion of a public servant.

SIMPLY GRAND

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Although my sister Libba had no need to photograph The Grand Canyon for her documentary, and I had no reason to go there for my own research, I felt it imperative that she see the place, especially since we were so near to it.

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So we drove north again from Flagstaff and checked it out.  Looking into the canyon is like looking up at the night stars — awesome but impossible to process rationally.  In Kant’s formulation, it is sublime, beyond comprehension, rather than beautiful, a phenomenon with a quality of aesthetic unity.

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The sublime is always somewhat forbidding, somewhat terrifying.  It reminds us that the mind of God passeth all human understanding.

[Photographs © 2014 Libba Marrian]

Click on the images to enlarge.

MORE ON THE PERRY INDICTMENT

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Rosemary Lehmberg, the District Attorney of Travis County, Texas, does not serve at the pleasure of Texas Governor Rick Perry — she serves at the pleasure of the voters of Travis County.  The law Perry has been accused of violating, by trying to coerce Lehmberg into resigning, was designed to keep such lines of demarcation clear.

It’s actually a pretty good law, and totally in line with Texas ideas about government.  It promotes the decentralization of power by prohibiting powerful officials from bullying less powerful officials, setting a strict limit on the power any particular official can exercise.

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Perry’s indictment thus contains a profound irony.  Texas libertarians and conservatives are being hoist by their own petard, with one of their own tripped up by a law designed to enforce their own beliefs about limiting the power of government officials.

The debate seems to be centered on whether or not Perry was right to want Lehmberg to resign, and a good case can be made that she should have, but that’s not the legal issue in play — it’s whether or not Perry tried to coerce Lehmberg into resigning, in violation of Texas law.

Big difference.

LONE STAR

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I have a certain amount of affection for Rick Perry.  His lackadaisical style and common sense approach to governance have served his state well for a long time.  The economic success of Texas through bad times for the economy in general has benefited not just the fat cats but all Texans across the economic spectrum.  Now, however, his common sense has run afoul of the laws of Texas, which have always sought to limit the power of elected officials — a limitation that Perry endorses as a core principle.

The District Attorney of Travis County, a Democratic enclave in a Republican state, is charged with investigating the ethics of the lawmakers who work in Austin, the seat of Travis County as well as the state capital.  This creates a natural tension between a Democratic DA in Travis and a Republican state administration.

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The current DA, Rosemary Lehmberg (above), had some personal problems recently — she was arrested for driving around stinking drunk and didn’t behave well in police custody.  Many people, across the political spectrum, thought she should resign, but she didn’t — she served her jail time, went into rehab and carried on.

Perry decided to try to force her out of office.  He argued that this was a simple matter of good governance, though of course her resignation would also allow him to appoint her successor, a Republican less inclined to tangle with his administration.

What Perry did was veto the funding for the Public Integrity Unit Lehmberg headed — on the face of it a reasonable measure, since it could be argued that Lehmberg’s office had lost the confidence of the public and shouldn’t be entrusted with public funds.

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What Perry didn’t take into account was a Texas law making it a felony for a governor to use his power to coerce another public servant.  His veto was clearly an effort to coerce Lehmberg into resigning.  Her resignation might very well be a good thing for the state of Texas, and would certainly be a good thing for Perry, but Perry was legally prohibited from trying to coerce it.

Hence a real Texas mess.  Most Texans would not be inclined to criticize Perry for wanting Lehmberg to resign, calling for her to resign — but there was that law forbidding him from trying to coerce her into resigning, which it seems he did.

Texans want severe limits on the power of elected officials, but they tend to look the other way when they exceed their power for the good of the state.  Those two impulses have now come into conflict in a most ironic and spectacular way.  It’s all very . . . Texan.

SHORT TAKE: EXPERIMENT IN TERROR

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A fairly enjoyable thriller with no particular depth or complexity, stylishly shot in black-and-white by Philip Lathrop and stylishly directed by Blake Edwards.

The real pleasures of the film are its stars, the ever vexing Lee Remick and the ever reliable Glenn Ford, and a super-cool score by Henry Mancini.

It was recently released in an excellent Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, with the memorable score available on an isolated track.