CITIZEN KANE ON CAMPUS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Tenth Rumination)

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Notes on attending Kane on campus last night….

1)   Watching it for the first time in a while–first time in decades with an audience–I was struck by how little its prescience has been noted by the crit-illuminati and/or their journo-politico fellow travelers re our recent political upheavals. I’ve seen Donald Trump compared to Adolf Hitler, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln (by himself), P.T. Barnum, Huey Long, Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, etc. Never once have I seen him compared to Charles Foster Kane. I’m sure it must have happened. But, as closely as I’ve been following along, I have to believe such comparisons have been few and far between. Now why would that? Hold on, I think I may have an answer way, way further down…

2) The main reason I go to watch classic movies on college campuses whenever I can is to participate in–and gauge–audience reactions. This was one of the rare times FSU’s Student Life Center was running a film in 35mm, so it was extra treat. (The Center, incidentally, is named for Reubin Askew, former Florida governor who was the only Democrat my mother ever considered voting for. In the end, she didn’t, citing her contempt for his running mate, though I always suspected she just couldn’t make the leap to the idea that the “New” Democrats were anything more than the Jim Crow scoundrels who had ruled her Southern childhood dressed up in sheep’s clothing. She was wrong about the thoroughly decent Askew–but had she lived just a little longer she would have spotted Bill Clinton for the smooth, duplicitous son of Pitchfork Ben Tillman he was right off, and taken some gently sardonic satisfaction in noting which one rose to the White House.) Re Kane, though:The reactions this time were….interesting.

3) The film was introduced by a couple of genial, slightly goofy student-age dudes, one of whom was evidently in charge of the theater’s programming, the other the projectionist (this being a rare modern occasion when one was required). They gave us an entertaining five minutes, during which I kept thinking “If this was Moore Auditorium in 1983, these guys would be chum for the sharks.” We won’t win any more wars, but the world was meaner then.

3) The main new thing that struck me in the movie–it’s one of those movies which will always reveal new things–was that when Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland returns his copy of Kane’s “Ten Principles” (along with a $25,000 check torn to pieces), it’s not a comment on Kane’s journalistic or political honor (Leland was the first to know he didn’t have any), and therefore must be meant to strike at his betrayal of his marital honor–the only kind he’s really broken faith with. I don’t think the college kids around me quite got this (though they knew it was a big deal of some sort–it elicited the only gasps and “o-o-o-h-h-h-s” of the night). There’s no reason they should have, of course, marital honor no longer being a thing. But I was ashamed of myself for not noticing years back, when it still was a thing.

4) When it was over,  a girl in front of me turned to her friends and said “It was good.” They all nodded along. The relief was palpable.

5) There was a moment during the film, when the kid behind me said “This is going on right now.” I honestly can’t remember which scene he reacted to, because I was pretty much thinking that about every scene.

6) It became obvious to me for the first time during this viewing that Welles didn’t screen Stagecoach forty times while he was making Kane so he could understand more about deep focus cinematography or how to film ceilings (those being two of many theories, some endorsed by Welles himself, of what he was after). He screened Stagecoach forty times so he could learn how people move and talk on screen and to understand film-rhythm.

7) For all that–and all its technical perfection (one understands why it knocks ’em over in Film School)–it still doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Gone With the Wind or The Searchers, the reasonable competition for Hollywood’s greatest film. It might be a greater film from a purely technical standpoint and it’s certainly formidable as a Narrative. But if Narrative is the prime value of story-telling–and it should be–it still comes a little short. I should add that this says more about the other films than it does about Kane, which is still a moving experience on every level. And more so, I find, with age.

8) I’ve never bought that it was one of the great Hollywood blunders for John Ford and How Green Was My Valley to have won Best Director and Best Picture for 1941. All in all, I might pick Welles and Kane, but it’s a close run. He was robbed of the acting Oscar, though. Gary Cooper–almost inevitably with war clouds looming, then breaking, during awards season–won for a fine performance in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (Ford’s own stated choice for best picture and director). But Welles gave one of the half-dozen signature performances in film. The only greater injustice in the history of the acting category was John Wayne being denied so much as a nomination for The Searchers. Welles was at least nominated.

9) Did I mention kids are so much nicer now? In the bathroom afterwards, three guys were talking about how “It wasn’t bad for 1941.” And another said, “I mean, it’s not something I’m gonna tell my friends they have to see.”

10) I was otherwise occupied, and thus robbed of my chance to share my Citizen Kane story with the younger generation. Had I been able to leave the stall a little sooner, I was planning to say something like this:

So I was sitting with my Dad about fifteen years ago, a few years before he died, and he puts down his newspaper and says ‘John, what is the significance of “Rosebud?”‘ I then proceeded to explain to him that it was a reference to the movie Citizen Kane (of which he had vaguely heard–my dad saw a movie about once a decade). I told him some of the plot and the presumed symbolism of it turning out to be the name of Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled, the one he was playing with when he was taken from his parents.

My dad listened patiently to all of that, and, when I was finished, he looked off into the distance for a minute and finally nodded and said “Oh yeah. Old Hearst’s mistress.” Then he went back to reading his paper.

Mind you I hadn’t said a thing about Kane being based, in whole or in part, on William Randolph Hearst, let alone anything about Rosebud being his pet name for Marion Davies’ private parts and that being the more or less real reason Welles got more or less run out of Hollywood.

The only thing I could ever figure was that in Dad’s Carny days, perhaps through his friend and business partner “Cy,” who was an intimate of Red Skelton’s (they having grown up together in the mob-owned night clubs of the Midwest–there were certain towns in Illinois from which it was necessary for Cy to absent himself from the show for a week or two), he had picked up some piece of stray gossip that stayed with him all those years and flashed to the top of his mind as the shortest, straightest way to sort out all the nonsense I had been babbling on about.

I’m not sure how much of that I would have had a chance to share with my fellow bladder-emptiers last night. But if, by chance, they hadn’t fled, I was going to finish with a flourish and say:

“Now you should probably go watch it again and see what you missed.”

Ah well. Their loss.

And I still can’t blame them because, for all its purported “modernity,” Kane’s fall is straight out of the oldest trope in Western Civilization: Pride goeth before a fall.

Today’s twenty-somethings could be forgiven for thinking that’s all a lot of hogwash.

[Addenda: To answer the earlier question….The crit-illuminati and journo-politicos will catch on to the similarities between Donald Trump and their “fictional” Welles-ian hero when the Security State arranges for The Donald to be found in Mar-a-Lago, with a snow-globe falling from his dying hand as he lies on his big brass bed and Melania is discovered by a maid, locked up in the bathroom, murmuring, “I never wanted it. He wanted it for me!” The reports of the event won’t suffice to awaken them, but the note from the boss will do the trick. You know, the one that begins “Our friends at CIA have requested…”

O YE OF LITTLE FAITH (At the Multiplex: January, 2017)

Hacksaw Ridge (D. Mel Gibson)

Mel Gibson is, rather famously, a devotee of a brand of right-wing Catholicism (that no one believes has subsumed mainstream Catholicism), which is a rough equivalent of the Protestant Fundamentalism which is now supposed, by all the best people, to have subsumed mainstream Protestantism. This may have been why he was drawn to the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who, as a WWII conscientious objector, became one of that war’s great heroes in a manner very different than Alvin York, the conscientious objector who had been a great hero of WWI.

Whatever Gibson’s reasons, I’m not sure he was the right person to tell this story.

Or, to put it more directly, I’m not sure that the Mel Gibson who has been striving mightily these last few years to get back in Hollywood’s good graces, was the right person to tell this story.

Mind you, what is here is good. It punches all the buttons a non-Christian audience would expect to have punched and a few that folks who don’t mind a little Christianity might expect as well. The acting is good (especially by Andrew Garland as Doss and Vince Vaughn as his hard-ass sergeant). Gibson’s direction is mostly crisp and unfussy, only straying when he reaches here and there for inspiration (artistic, not religious, though if you can’t find one, it’s unlikely you’ll find the other). And the principal action scenes, which follow Doss as a medic who, without benefit of a weapon (which he refuses to carry), delivers body after wounded body from a nightmarish no man’s land which has opened up between Japanese soldiers and American G.I.s during the brutal fight for Okinawa, are tense and moving. The movie even ends with snippets from a documentary about the now-deceased Doss, in which he and some of the seventy-five men he saved confirm bits of the improbable story we’ve just seen and it makes for a lovely, understated coda.

But I found the movie more than a little disappointing for what it did not do, which was depict Doss as a man of a specific faith that must, by its very existence in a believer’s life, transcend any secular notion of redemption or honor.

That is, it does not really seek to understand the one really important thing one would expect from a director who has previously worn his religiosity so explicitly–one might say garrulously–on his sleeve.

Namely, why religion?

And why this particular religion?

That Doss is a man of faith is pounded home, you might say, religiously. But the source of his faith is shown to be not divine inspiration but, via a flashback that comes near the end of the film, a mere extension of an “event” of the sort which is common enough to have led men in a host of different directions (one such man, Bill Clinton, even went into politics). In other words, Doss’s particular conviction is shown as his own choice and a choice of convenience at that–an option among therapies that one can forgive a Virginia hillbilly for not recognizing as a crutch in a time and place where shrinks were in short supply.

As any believer knows, though, your choice is only half the equation. The part where God reaches out His hand (which must be at least as familiar to Seventh Day Adventists and Opus Dei Catholics, as it is to, say, Baptists like myself) to offer the sinner a redemption he could not otherwise hope to find, is curiously missing.

Back when Hollywood was principally in the business of telling stories, they knew better. Watch Sergeant York, Ben Hur, The Robe, The Nun’s Story (the latter three made by Jews who escaped the Holocaust, Ben Hur by a man whose family did not) and, whatever one thinks of them, they all acknowledge the primacy of the hero’s (or heroine’s) conversion. Having had a dust-up with your old man in your teenage years, however horrific the details, does not explain an unarmed man’s willingness to defy an order to retreat from one of the most hellish battlefields man has ever created on God’s earth, so that he can rescue the wounded.

For that, you probably need to have seen the light.

Obviously, the light itself can led different men down different paths. Desmond Doss won his Medal of Honor for saving men, Alvin York won his for killing them. My father, who hailed from the same part of the woods as Doss’s western Virginia and York’s east Tennessee, was sent to a firefighting unit (a more normal assignment for C.O.’s, even those who, like my dad, had their status rejected by the draft board) and shortened his time after VJ day by volunteering for psychiatric experiments. Then again, he didn’t really see the light until the late sixties when he rejoined the faith and wound up becoming a missionary.

So it goes. But one thing all three men could have told you is that the story of a Christian without reference to his specifically Christian conversion is a story with a hole in its center. Without that, Hacksaw Ridge is just a well-made war movie and amounts to little more than Mel Gibson’s self-conscious (and, to all appearances, successful) attempt to get back in the good graces of a Hollywood which seems now willing to forgive his anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, et al, just so long as he doesn’t pretend those crazy Christians are motivated by their Christianity (as opposed to seeking “comfort” within it)–that any acts of heroism they may have committed are coincidental to their faith, as opposed to a feature.

Hacksaw Ridge is hardly without value–if Casey Affleck really is the competition for Best Actor, and really is going to be bypassed for his Clintonesque sins, my feelings would not be hurt if Garfield won it instead.

It’s just not what it might have been if Mel Gibson had found forgiveness for his own real sins and put his heart back in his chest where any true believer knows it belongs.

AMERICAN TRAGEDY

WARNING: Proceed With Caution. Spiritual Speculation Ahead.

I found myself shaking hands with him. I got out of the car hastily, and after it drove away I wiped my hand on the side of my trousers. I felt dazed. He had focused a compelling personality upon me the way somebody might focus a big spotlight. He had that indefinable thing called presence, and he had it in large measure. I tried to superimpose the new image the upon the fellow I had met in Jack Omaha’s house, listlessly tying his tie after a session in Jack Omaha’s bed. That fellow’s anger had been pettish, slightly shrill. I could overlap my two images of the man. I wondered if my previous image had somehow been warped by the great blow on the back of my head when the explosion hurled me off my feet.

This man had been engaging, plausible, completely at ease. He made me feel as if it were very nice indeed to be taken into his confidence. There were dozens of things I wanted to ask him, but the chance was gone. The chance had driven away in a gleaming limousine, cool in the heat of the morning.

Yes, if he could project all that to a group, he could be elected. No sweat.

(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974…In the character of Travis McGee, offering the best description of Bill Clinton (aka “Frederick Van Harn”) anyone has managed, in fiction or elsewhere…note the date)

“By God, there’s nothing twisted about a man liking his pussy and going after it any danged place he can find it.”

(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974… In the character of Judge Jake Schermer, Bill Clinton’s (aka Frederick Van Harn’s) most succinct apologist, in fiction or elsewhere. Note the date.)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark 8:36 (KJV)

Same for a woman.

The cruelest irony of Hillary Clinton’s final defeat is that she failed because she never managed to believe in the first lesson any meaningful definition of feminism should have taught her–the value of herself. The Quaker women who–driven and consoled by the Christian conscience, rather than nagged and annoyed by it in the manner of the modernist–assembled in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, to launch the women’s rights movement, could have warned her of the cost.

Had she heeded their lessons–and those of the Methodism in which she herself was raised–she might well have become President long since.

She had all the other qualifications…and had them “in large measure.”

Instead, she chose, by all accounts with the utmost care, a different path. She chose to hitch her wagon to a rising male star and to place complete trust in his ability to drag her to the top with him.

Imagine how she felt on the day she realized she had married not only the man she thought she married (and he really was that man who “could be elected”) but also the man described–perfectly–above. Imagine how she felt, wherever she was along the journey (and it may have been as late as when she was presented with the unassailable evidence of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress), when the harsh reality became inescapable.

Imagine how she felt the day she finally realized There’s nothing he won’t do….

Imagine how she felt when she realized that the man she had wrapped all her dreams around deserved to be stung to death by fire ants, like Fred Van Harn, but that such things only happen in pulp novels, never in real life. That if her husband was the conscious-less horn dog she never quite believed he was, he was probably also the lip-biting rapist and dixie-fried racist gunrunner she never quite believed he was either. And that, even if he was none of those other things she could never again quite disbelieve, he was still a conscious-less horn dog who would go to any lengths to personally and politically humiliate her (exactly where were his legendary persuasion skills, when Hillary-Care was going down in flames?…the same place his famous “political judgment” was the day he waited for Loretta Lynch on a Phoenix tarmac?) on the biggest stages in the world.

Imagine how she felt the day she realized she had married a man who would stop at nothing to keep her from doing the one and only thing that made it worth marrying him in the first place.

I don’t mean becoming America’s first woman president, though there is that.

I mean letting her breathe. For a minute.

Imagine how she felt when she realized that Hillary Rodham had long since disappeared into Hillary Clinton who disappeared into Hillary Rodham Clinton who finally disappeared into “Hillary Clinton”–more brand than name–all for the purpose of serving evil’s endless banalities so that she could one day do the greater good her Methodist soul kept telling her would some day make it all worthwhile, only to find that, at the last possible moment, she had fallen one single grinding, humiliating, soul-killing inch short.

And that she had come short because, instead of believing in herself and marrying some small town businessman or college professor content to live in her shadow and perhaps even be in love with her, she had instead done it the old-fashioned, old-world, self-arranged political marriage way, and was now finally forced to accept the awfulness of her choice.

Now hold all that in mind and walk a mile in her shoes.

Imagine that the star you hitched yourself to finally revealed himself as the scum of the earth. This after you spent nearly half a century trying to convince yourself you could one day wipe the stains clean, only to discover that the very voters who so readily forgave him his sins abandoned you in large part because, consciously or otherwise, they managed to convince themselves you–the very first “you” that you should have held on to, the one who was never quite all the way hidden from view–should somehow have not only known better than to keep forgiving him, but than to marry him in the first place.

Imagine realizing that the old “well their sex life is their own business” trope really meant “well HIS sex life is HIS own business…but from you we expected better” all along.

Imagine that you had enough of the Methodist missionary spirit left in you to suspect they might be right.

Imagine you had long ago abandoned your own innate social conservatism for libertinism; your economic liberalism for feudalism; your wariness of radicalism for the cloak of radical chic that finally clung too far from your skin for any genuine radical to trust you, but not far enough for anyone else to believe you could any longer cast if off at will.

Not to mention trading your disdain for corruption for the pettiest, most transparent forms of influence peddling,

Imagine that, in losing one self after another, you had ended in a place where no deal was too shady, so long as it pulled you one step further up a ladder which would only be worth climbing the first rung if you made it all the way to the top.

Imagine discovering, here at the very last, that you were the toughest, smartest, best-positioned-by-history woman to achieve the thing you burned to achieve….and it turned out you had, at the very beginning, chosen the only path that would have led any place but the place you wanted to go.

Imagine that you had chosen the only path that could have led you here, where you have at last gained exactly what the Good Book said you would…

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…and where the only song left to sing, is this one.

 

SOME THOUGHTS I DIDN’T HEAR FROM ANYONE ELSE….

Per that “election” thing (going past Isaiah, who reminded us to “Put not your faith in princes”):

Point 1: Yes, there were many encomiums to how “historical’ it all was. I didn’t hear anyone say that no one else, living or dead, could have done what Donald Trump just did. This will become clearer next time around when Mark Cuban throws his hat in the Democratic ring and gets the usual four percent that Billionaire X gets when he tries to take over a mainstream political party.

Point 2: Trump’s campaign strategy was twofold and it never changed or wavered from day one. He bet that he could, by force of personality and riffing a catchy White Boy Blues on a few constant sorrows, hold the generic Republican coalition together and also pull in enough voters who came out to vote only for him to put him over the top. I suspect he didn’t do quite as well on either front as he hoped…but he still smashed the expectations of conventional wisdom. (Caveat: I encountered some of this reasoning in the fringes of the blog-world–i.e., what some people have started calling “the alt-right,”–but it was never put quite succinctly. Everybody I read either over-analyzed it or just yelled Trumpslide! at the top of their rhetorical lungs. In mainstream outlets it was never put coherently at all, being reduced to mutterings about Trump’s “hidden” voters, who no one allowed on television believed in until last night.

Point 3: Blacks and Latinos shifted a few percentage points in Trump’s favor vs. Romney four years ago. That shift is why he’s president-elect this morning. I wonder how long before Good Liberals start blaming them for averting paradise, the way Ralph Nader did in 2000?

Point 4: On the most pressing issues–immigration and the economy–Trump ran as a New Deal Democrat and Clinton as a Reagan Republican. (Woody Guthrie wrote “Deportees” about FDR’s Bracero program, not Reagan’s blanket amnesty, and it wasn’t Ms. Clinton who ran on bringing Glass-Steagall back and overturning NAFTA.)

Point 5: Trump understood that harping on “social” issues was meaningless. Yes, he had to mention them (usually when he was asked about them point blank) and yes, he got in hot water a time or two for not having developed a coherent position about abortion or gay rights or transgender bathrooms, etc. But social issues are adjudicated by Culture. Presidents play little role. That’s why the man who supposedly can’t let go of anything, kept letting go of his social-issue “mistakes” and turning them into here-and-gone twenty-four hour news cycles. Or, make that “news” cycles.

Point 6: Trump realized that, just like everyone else, present day conservatives—even church-going Evangelicals–have been roughened by the cultural collapse that has benefited him so enormously. Sorry, the little old lady in the second pew every Sunday morning at First Methodist might find talk of “pussy-grabbing” from a man on his third marriage distasteful, but she’s not shocked anymore. And just because she’s still too well bred to say, “Yeah, but will he punch those suckers in the face?” out loud doesn’t mean she’s not thinking it.

Point 7: The charismatic one always beats the stiff. Always.

Point 8: Having created a culture where “everyone has their own truth” should we be surprised by the success of a man who embodies the concept? Not that it really even does, but you didn’t think that was only going to help lonely weirdos, did you? Speaking as a lonely weirdo, get the hell up off of me.

Point 9: America’s enduring, subliminal yearning for a Royal Family has gone unremarked, no matter that Trump’s brood of tall, handsome children makes the Kennedys look like The Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association.* Camelot is taken, but don’t be surprised if Trump makes some like-minded concept stick to the national imagination like a squashed bug to a windshield. I have a sneaky feeling it will start with an aside at a press conference where President Trump starts riffing off the cuff about “This Shakespeare guy. I was reading him the other night and boy…I mean, I never had time to read him before I was leader of the free world. I was always too busy, but now I’ve read him and boy he’s really something. MacBeth, sure, who wants to be him? I say, Melania, don’t get any ideas! But Prince Hal? I see a lot of myself in that one…and Falstaff, too. What a guy! I feel like I’m both of them somehow. Sometimes I’m one, sometimes I’m the other. Sometimes I’m both at once and how great is that?” Also, don’t be surprised if the media spends a few days chaffing him for getting “off message”–they aren’t going to stop feeling superior to those they report on and report to just because they’ve been dumped under a manure truck…they’ll still come crawling back–before swallowing the narrative whole and referring to the impending Trump Dynasty as “Shakespearean Royalty” by default. Once that’s properly absorbed, liberals can start an endless stream of clever tweets about Ivanka going all Goneril on him.

Point 10: Bill Clinton has now accomplished his life’s one real goal, which was to humiliate his wife on the biggest possible stage. Wait, you thought all those well-timed “gaffes” in 2008 and 2016 were…unintentional? Please. I eagerly await the forthcoming Wikileaks release of the video showing Bubba and Trump, on the day they cooked this whole thing up, sharing a hooker and a cigar, perhaps in the Mar-A-Lago honeymoon suite where Micheal Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley once canoodled, while their mutual theme song plays….

…because there ain’t no way anybody’s gonna shut down the Lolita Express now.

*Folks, I didn’t think of that. J. Berry/R. Christian/D. Altfeld did, God bless them. For yea, verily, I say unto thee, we can all use a smile today.

And, yes, five will still get you ten that the Stones play the Inaugural. The second if not the first. By then, even Donald Trump will be able to afford them. And don’t worry, he won’t let them chicken out like they did at the Super Bowl. It won’t be “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up” this time around. Maybe they don’t go all “Stray Cat Blues,” but I bet we at least get “Gimme Shelter.”(I’m thinking Beyonce for the Merry Clayton part. By then, he’ll be able to afford her, too.) Might even get “Brown Sugar.” Maybe with Bey going down on whatever Mick’s hanging between his legs and using for a member by then.

If you think this can’t happen because of late-to-the-party nonsense like this, you haven’t been paying even the least bit of attention.

SPOOKS, REAL AND IMAGINED (Monthly Book Report, 8/16)

This month’s offerings are both from the world of pitch-black secret ops: a re-read of Kingsley Amis’s fantastic sixties-era spy novel, The Anti-Death League, and, Compromised, Terry Reed’s account (with John Cummings) of his days triangulating between the gun-running, money-laundering and dope-dealing elements of the eighties’-era CIA and the multi-generational power struggle for political control of the U.S. government that ensued, the effects of which linger on.

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Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA (Terry Reed and John Cummings, 1995)

“There’s a lot goin’ on here besides patriotism.”

(C.I.A./D.E.A. operative, Barry Seal, shortly before his murder, which occurred right after a judge “misguidedly” ordered him kept in plain sight, where his enemies could find him.)

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Terry Reed was a mid-level CIA asset in the eighties who, through a combination of misguided self-will, cruel luck and the peculiar brand of stupidity that often strikes intelligent people in the name of patriotism, got his ass caught in a muddy sling during the “Iran-Contra” phase of American decline-and-fall. This is his story, told with co-author John Cummings (a veteran journalist who had cut his teeth covering the mob), so, of course, you have to discount some inevitably self-serving elements.

That said, a book like this isn’t really about what’s “true.” In the real spook world Reed and Cummings describe, in sometimes excruciating detail, truth is a commodity and “facts” are the most uncertain things of all. It depends on who’s telling the tale and all that. The real issue is whether any given story is credible. Not, did it happen just this way, but could it have happened pretty much this way.

On that level, I found Reed’s account credible to the point of mind-numbing obviousness.

It’s not an easy read. Neither Reed nor Cummings seems to have possessed any knack for story-telling and a good editor could have probably cut two hundred turgid pages out of this nearly seven-hundred-page affair. And, of course, this is hardly a book that will be worth the slog for anyone who carries even a single drop of water for any member of the Bush or Clinton families.

For the rest of us, this is chilling stuff

Compromised‘s very mundanity makes the book’s tales of the Security State’s kudzu-like growth and rapacity in the go-go eighties all the more throat-grabbing. Get deep enough inside something so very much like the most reasonable assumptions behind the otherwise inexplicable rise (and rise, and rise) of the Bush Empire in Texas, the Clinton Empire in neighboring Arkansas, and the Security State everywhere, and you don’t know whether to gag or just stop breathing. The condemnation is thorough-going. If this thing had any style I might have just slipped into a bathtub about half-way through and opened a vein.

To put it in shorthand: This is as close a look as we’ll ever likely have at the exact machinations used by the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating, Bush and Clinton cabals, to turn Texas and Arkansas into full-fledged Banana Republics, on the way to doing the same for the good old U.S. of A.

The point man running the game in between what, at that point, were the Vice President’s office in Washington D.C. and the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas (then home ground for a secret base training Nicaraguan rebels), was a wide-eyed, gung-ho C.I.A. operative who Reed knew in his operational days as John Cathey. His real name, of course, turned out to be Oliver North, the modern era’s Edward Lansdale.

This was a fact Reed discovered about the same time everyone else did, long after he had gotten an up-close-and-personal look at how the Clintons and Bushes each thought they had used the C.I.A. to get dirt on the other, only to discover that the Security State, of which the C.I.A. was/is only the most visible tip, had used their own mendacity (which, in Clinton’s case, had included the incredibly stupid move of skimming from the C.I.A.s cash-laundering operation embedded in his state’s banking system) to get a vice grip on them in turn.

Wild-eyed notions to be sure.

But, knowing what we know now, nothing in this book–a virtual, organic sequel to both Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (better, as it happens, than McCoy’s own update, The Politics of Heroin), and The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s fictionalized account of Lansdale’s early career in Southeast Asia–seems the least bit outlandish. If it does no other service, it certainly debunks the old notion that “wild-eyed” conspiracy theories are just that because, in the land of the free, there’s NO WAY you could ever hush a thing like that up!

If you believe that, Compromised should be mandatory reading.

That being the case, the appropriate response to the shrill phrase “this country,” so prominent in any political season, and nauseatingly so in this one, is affirmed yet again by this tale of days supposedly gone by.

What country?

The Anti-Death League (Kingsley Amis, 1966)

He was handed the transcript of a wireless message announcing Jaggers’ arrival by helicopter at the exact moment when the machine could be heard taking off from the meadow. No further information was given.

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I know I swore off Sir Kingsley a while back on the basis of life being too short to spend any more time with his world-weary nihilism, even if he still made me laugh.

But I wanted to re-read this, after a quarter-century plus, to confirm or deny my suspicion of its atypicality.

Consider my suspicion confirmed. Perhaps the cover of genre was good for him.

In The Anti-Death League, Amis pulled off the impossible and applied his trademark acerbic wit to a genuinely riveting, even moving, spy novel. Spy novels rivet and move–when they do–by casting small men (they seem to always be men) as improbable movers and shakers in large events that sweep over them and leave them, and us, scarred by the experience. There probably haven’t been more than ten really good ones, all, so far as I know, by Brits or adopted Brits (like Joseph Conrad and Henry James, whose heart-stopping The Princess Casamassima qualifies directly, even if you don’t accept the proposition that all his best novels qualify indirectly).

I have no idea what prompted Amis the Elder to adopt, for the length of this one novel, the view that human beings might be a source of something other than misery and crapulence, but the evidence that he managed it is on every page. In addition to an engrossing spy-narrative (rare in itself), he manages a fine love story and a real philosophical treatise on the nature of God and the Universe, all so beautifully interwoven that you can forgive a bit of awkwardness in dove-tailing his several plots and even his inability to keep nature from taking its course on a thud of a last page where he can’t help killing a dog, of all things, to prove how meaningless it all is here, among the humans he had, for once, so fiercely and painstakingly evoked.

LIFE BEYOND MARS…UPDATED (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #72)

Jimmy Carter, wherefore art thou?

So today The National Enquirer outed the “morality” candidate, Ted Cruz, as a hound dog. Allegedly, of course. Like Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Jessie Jackson, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, and other previous tabloid deniers before him, he has issued heated categorical denials. We shall see.

Anyway, pursuing the leads on-line, I ran across this, which is the most succinct analysis of our present down-the-rabbit-hole state I’ve seen. I mean one is never surprised, but…

Anybody who thinks Donald Trump is merely an obnoxious doofus who sprang from nowhere and is riding a periodic wave of Standard American Nativist Paranoia to inevitable defeat is sadly mistaken. His (or his campaign’s) canny use of popular music was, as I suspected, a canary in the coalmine. He came from this tabloid world, was in fact created by it, and understands it better than anyone he’s running against. Way better.

And, having done his research (boy did he do his research), and smelled an opportunity, he’s tearing it down, board by maggot-ridden board, on his way to a presidency which his five predecessors–three Republicans and two Democrats–have gradually prepared the entire electorate, half the country at a time, to accept as a purely authoritarian office, subject to no oversight but the executive’s own will.

There’s a certain irony in a man who may have privately benefited from our increasingly public combination of social libertinism (the obsession of the Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate, not-so-discreetly enabled by the “right”) and economic feudalism (the obsession of the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve, not-so-discreetly enabled by the “left”), more than any other single individual on the planet, taking a wrecking ball to the inevitable consequences. If he does indeed turn out to be some sort of proto-fascist, he’ll have been one of our own making and exactly what we deserve. Donald Trump–and Hilary Clinton (a pure product of the world captured in the link above and now likely the only person who can prevent him from becoming president, thus preserving half the present style of corruption for another round or two)–are what emerge from the walls only after the foundational timbers have rotted.

So here’s to Ted Cruz, while we await his inevitable tearful apology concerning the “pain he caused in his marriage”:

And to the “Republican” Establishment, which finally swallowed its own tongue and threw in with the previously leper-like Cruz mere days before Trump put him in his sights:

LIFE ON MARS? NO, WE’RE WAY PAST THAT….NEPTUNE MAYBE. (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #70)

Okay, I confess, I’m now trying to catch the most interesting part of Donald Trump’s act, which is his exit music after a big speech. He’s still going with the opera number I can’t identify and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and prefacing those with Van Halen’s “Right Now.”

But last night, the post-show schmoozing went on a bit longer and proved beyond a doubt that whoever is programming the playlist is some sort of evil genius. Who exactly that genius is devoted to reaching with the obvious coded messages I don’t know. My operatives are seeking clarification as I type but, honestly, they’ve been kept hopping by persistent nagging rumors that the conversation long assumed to exist between Trump and Bill Clinton in which Bubba, clearly haunted by the fear that he may have finally run out of ways to humiliate “the love of mah life,” pleads for the Donald to jump in the race lest she steamroll the dwarfs remaining in her way, may have actually been caught on tape last summer, somewhere around the seventh green of a golf course to be named later.

The messages are there, though. There’s no longer any doubt about that.

Given five extra minutes, the Invisible Hand at the digital controls dialed up the usual, except “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” previously the closer (and, of course, also the strangest message ever sent to any audience by any campaign expecting to win…is it meant ironically? in your face? a cry for help? character analysis perhaps? but, if so, which character? foot-loose man? surely not bleeding man!…the mind boggles), was switched with the opera (which, for all I know, may be sending even more perverse signals).

And when the opera was over?

“Rocket Man.”

Of course!

I’m not the man they think I am at all…no-no-no-no!

The song played and the Donald, inscrutable as ever, edged closer and closer to the door.

The suspense was killing me.

Would he actually leave on that?

On burning out the fuse I’m living on?

Oh, me, of little faith.

Just as the exit door opened into that mysterious hallway that, unique to Trump’s halls, always seems to be waiting off to the side, like a vault where the secrets and the real future are kept, and the steady shaft of phosphorescent white light swallowed up the secret bearer, the Laughing One (aka Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, etc.) started patting his foot in time to the bonus track.

And at that point, Satan wasn’t the only one laughing, because I realized it was back to business with his house band and everything was still on track:

Even money, now, on whether the inaugural theme will be “Gimme Shelter” or “Let It Loose,” though “Get Off of My Cloud” is definitely starting to generate some action in the back room where the bookies are also being given strict orders to take no bets whatsoever on whether citizens will be encouraged to dedicate the eventual winner to “the establishment” or vice versa.

GIVING IN TO THE RUSH HOUR (Memory Lane: 1988, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002 and, yeah, just yesterday)

Soon after I checked the index of Real Life Rock, the new compilation of Greil Marcus’s “Real Life” columns from 1986 to 2014, I started reading it. Good idea. I’m fifty pages in and it’s already blown past Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces as valuable cultural history.

I might pull that judgment back a bit later, but since I’m still in the Reagan Years and he’s only fallen into the “I’m so edgy” trap a few times (my usual peeve with him…No Greil, Laraine Newman’s nose job was not more tragic than John Belushi’s death), I won’t be surprised if it sustains. We’ll see if I can stand up to the inevitable “Bill Clinton made me feel like an American again” tongue jobs as well, but, for now, I have high hopes and look forward to many happy reading hours.

But speaking of cultural history, one of the things the book is reminding me of is the great CD vs. Vinyl debate of the late eighties. Of course that debate still goes on, albeit in much more muted form, and, by now, I’m pretty much comme ci comme ca. But I was a fierce defender of vinyl back then and a very slow convert to the new order.

There was a reason beyond nostalgia and the fact that CDs were clearly a means to jack up prices, a decision that, following along with the entire eighties-and-beyond approach to the political economy, prized short term profit over not merely long term profit but long term survival. (Worked like a charm, incidentally. Record companies and their multi-corp overlords made out like bandits for about fifteen years. Another fifteen years later, the music industry is toast.)

That additional reason was simple and good: early digital mastering and re-mastering was highly variable in quality. At best, which was seldom, it didn’t improve anything. At worst, which was often, it dispersed sounds that were meant to be fully integrated and sucked the life out of everything it touched.

Over time, this problem was addressed and, if there’s still nothing quite like virgin vinyl, the distance between that and a well-mastered CD (of which there are now many) has long ceased to be any kind of deal killer for me.

But it was tough hump to get over there at the first. Marcus brought the memories flooding back because, in the first part of the book, he frequently writes about the lifeless nature of the wave of poorly conceived and executed oldies’ packages that accompanied the rise of digital technology. I can well remember hearing “Kentucky Rain” on a radio station’s CD player for the first time and saying: “Never!”

I was still young then (how young you’ll find out if you stick with me another minute). I did have a vague idea that never was a long time. CDs were the coming thing, even by 1986. I managed to hold out for four whole years.

Somewhere in there, I accumulated a CD ready receiver. It didn’t mean much at first because, well, I didn’t have a CD player and I certainly didn’t have any CDs.

If you’ve been around here a while, or just know me from the outside world, you probably won’t have any trouble guessing which I bought first.

Ah, but which CD? Which CD made me cough up a few bucks, knowing good and well it might be months yet (or, in my fevered imagination) even years before I actually possessed a CD player?

Don’t even bother guessing. No matter how well you know me, you wouldn’t get it. I wouldn’t even get it myself, just by knowing me.

I had to be there.

There used to be a southern record chain called Turtle’s. In the late eighties/early nineties, something, maybe the CD boom itself, helped them expand beyond their Atlanta base and they opened an outlet in Tallahassee. As record stores went, it wasn’t anything special. Better than the mall stores. Not as good as the old Record Bar. Nowhere near as good as local legend Vinyl Fever.

Still, just about every record store has its merits. At Turtle’s they had a pretty good bargain bin. Along about 1990, I don’t recall if they were carrying any vinyl or not. But I was in there for some reason, maybe just because it was handy to the town’s good video store at the time (both to be shortly subsumed by Blockbuster, may it rest in shattered pieces…in one of life’s rare good jokes, the video store survived by moving to a new location and actually outlasted the giant by some years, though it, too, is now gone).

Whatever the reason for me being there, I happened to start browsing the bargain bin for CDs.

Well, not really browse.

It was more like I stood there, asking myself if it was any way humanly possible that some good could come of just stepping over there and going back to my roots, shuffling through cheap CDs the way I used to shuffle through cheap records. Did I still have the endless patience required to find the occasional nugget among the dross? If not, could I re-acquire it?

Were there any nuggets among this particular pile of dross?

Not much new stuff was getting released on vinyl by then. Maybe nothing was. The memory hazes.

So I stood there, hooked on the horns of a classic dilemma. Not much of a way forward. Certainly no way back.

Then my eye fell on something in particular, sitting up at the front of the bin, and I gave myself a little shake, like I was dispensing with a haint, and took the fateful step that brought me within arm’s reach.

What I saw was this:

JANEWIEDLIN

Who remembers the cost on the shrink-wrap’s price tag? $3.97 maybe? Sure, let’s go with that. Anyway it was remaindered. Its one big hit hadn’t been enough to keep it from the very large cutout bin at Turtle’s.

Once I determined the hit was on the CD, I tried to put it back. Honestly.

But it kept sticking to my hand, probably because that one big hit kept sticking in my head.

I think I was still sweating when I exited the place, my first CD purchase in hand.

I had paid money, for what I was pretty sure was going to be one song (about that I was right), that I couldn’t play for God knew how long because I didn’t have anything to play it on.

A line had definitely been crossed.

Twelve years later, when the great CD selloff of 2002 occurred, I held back exactly three items. One was the Shangri-Las’ Myrmidons of Melodrama. I’m sure you don’t need me to go on about that. One was a beach music comp that had Billy Ocean’s “Love Really Hurts Without You” on it. I missed it on 45 in 1976 and spent more than twenty years tracking it down. That one I wasn’t letting go.

And one was Jane Wiedlin’s Fur.

Which I held on to for some of the same reasons I had once held on to vinyl for so long that Fur ended up being my first CD.

I had missed “Rush Hour” on 45 in 1988. Assuming it was even on a 45. In any case, I had found it there in Turtle’s in 1990, by which time I had already decided “cassingles” would not be any kind of long term solution to my burgeoning problem–How to get hold of that one song that will drive you crazy if you can’t play it when you want to?

I had missed out on “Rush Hour” and then found it a mere two years later.

On a cheap CD.

Good thing. Because vinyl-wise, I had a better chance of tracking down “Love Really Hurts Without You.”

So I gave in, there in Turtle’s in 1990, and, really, I know it was for the best.

When the old battles finally can’t be won, you develop new strategies. Or let the kids do it. (They have, which is probably why vinyl is still around. Heck they even sell it in places like Books-A-Million now, where it tends to cost more than the CDs.)

Out of my then-new strategy one very peculiar phenomenon arose.

I developed a habit of getting up in front of my speakers whenever I played “Rush Hour” and, more or less, dancing.

The only other song that ever occasionally made me want to do anything similar was the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” The dance I used to do to that–very occasionally–was long past me by 1990. I mean, I turned thirty that year. Unless you’ve stayed in top training, you can’t run in place and clap your hands between your knees when you’re thirty. At least you can’t do it in perfect time for three choruses.

You might still be able to just do the running in place bit, though. Hence, was born the Rush Hour Dance at the Ross apartment.

It went something like this: You run in place for about the first three and half minutes, varying your toe-tap speed in time with the music, but gradually gaining intensity throughout. Then, with about forty-five seconds to go, you move out of “place” and start moving around the apartment in a circle. Short up-and-down steps at first, then longer strides as the record nears the final climax.

Then, if you are at the Ross apartment (as you’ll see in a moment, this should never be tried anywhere else), you come up behind the solid oak table with the slate top that sits between your two recliners, leap into the air and land on the beat, preferably with a windmill or two from the right arm.

And when the song is over, you hop down.

I’m not going to pretend this was some every day occurrence.

But every few months or so, for a few years, it did happen. Mostly it was for private consumption. I have a sterling reputation as a wallflower and I generally prefer to uphold it. Too much pressure, I’ve found, in leaving the world with confused and exalted expectations if you start hinting at previously hidden possibilities.

I can therefore swear that the only time any portion of the Rush Hour Dance was witnessed by other human beings was in 1994, at Doak Campbell Stadium, after Florida State scored a touchdown to tie Florida at 31-31 in the waning minutes of the game.

There was plenty of room to run in place on the row in front of me, because the people sitting all along it had shown perfectly good common sense and departed twelve minutes earlier when the score was 31-3.

If we had gone for two and made it, who knows? I might have added the leap.

As it happened, the leap was not long for the world and neither was the Rush Hour Dance.

There came a day in 1998 (or so), when I realized I hadn’t done it in a while. In fact, I hadn’t really done it since I moved to my house in 1995.

So it began to bug me a bit. Could the Rush Hour Dance be transferred?

It was one of those questions that could not go long unanswered.

Cue Fur.

Punch in Track Two.

Start running in place. Play air guitar. (Oh, did I forget to mention that? That’s important. You have to play air guitar. Otherwise you just feel stupid.)

Keep it up for three minutes plus. Feel the music. Feel the need to break out.

Start running in your circle.

Move out to the left, around the second recliner, just like always.

Become lost in ecstasy, as though time has stood still.

Realize that time has not really stood still, because your legs never used to burn like this.

Sing along. (Oh yeah, did I mention that while you’re running in place, and then just running, and playing air guitar, you have to sing? Otherwise what’s the point?)

Run along behind the recliner. Move toward the table.

Don’t look at it.

No fair looking.

Judge the leap. Get in perfect time, with “Rush Hour” and the universe.

Leap and turn at the same time.

Rise into the air.

Reach the peak.

Smile as it comes back to you that this elevation you somehow achieve during the Rush Hour Dance is at least a foot higher than you can jump normally.

Look down.

Recall at that very instant, that your solid oak, slate topped table, has been replaced by a cheap piece of plaster board and plastic tubing that will be crushed like a grape if anything larger than a marble lands on it from your present height.

Imagine yourself in traction.

Think fast, at the hyper-speed which, in fact, only the Rush Hour Dance permits.

Point your toe like a freaking ballerina.

Continue soaring through the air.

Pray.

Skim lightly over the surface with a single skip you could never repeat in a thousand years and land safely and squarely on your feet in front your speakers.

In perfect time.

Fall into one of your recliners, who cares which one, laughing hysterically like a man who just escaped being shot at.

Take ten minutes to fully catch your breath.

Resolve to retire the Rush Hour Dance. Forever.

Know that you, and the dance, went out on top, with Jane Wiedlin whispering in your own ear, and that of every Rio-t-t-t Girl and Pop Tart ever born: “We’re still the Go-Go’s. And you’re still not.”

Have a nice weekend. I have to get back to reading.