Pete Davis on the West Wing mentality and how it’s ruined Washington’s Millennial politicos

Over on the porch:

The act of “engaging” with national politics has come to resemble more and more the act of watching The West Wing, as political media – from MSNBC to POLITICO – focuses in on the internal dramas of the Beltway kings’ courts. After you have watched all the episodes where Josh Lyman wheels and deals his way to another win, you can turn on the real news and watch talking heads discuss how Mitch McConnell’s or Valerie Jarrett’s next move might give their team a win, too. It’s no surprise that political statistician Nate Silver joined ESPN last year: his meteoric rise over the past elections was the final keystone in the complete ESPNification – with its wins and losses, points and scorecards – of American political journalism.

Viewing hundreds of millions of Americans who are not Washington insiders as useful only for votes and campaign donations is not an idiosyncrasy of Jim Messina and his fictional counterparts on The West Wing— it’s endemic to Beltway politicos. As Theda Skocpol pointed out in her wonderful book Democracy Diminished, we have moved from a “membership democracy” to a “management democracy” in the past century. A once-thriving national network of participatory federated societies – which involved routine local activities in small town chapters which cascaded bottom-up into member-driven state conventions and influential national offices – gave way to a politics where we send our checks in to D.C. managers, who engage in democracy for us. The West Wing will be a perfect historical artifact of this age of political management.

Go read the piece, it’s great.

Film accessibility levels chart

This is a one-dimensional chart I made ordering films based on how accessible they are to the viewers. Though the rankings are my opinion, I am not actually a weird elitist, so it’s tongue-in-cheek. Ranking things is just fun!

The criteria for ranking is listed at the top of the image. Note that this ranking has nothing to do with how good a filmmaker is, since that’s very subjective. If you think something is out of place, comment here or tweet a suggestion to @robert_mariani

American Beauty and false liberation

I am pretty sure that behind American Beauty’s is an exercise in the Buddhist understanding of liberation. Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, is a jaded middle-aged suburban man, unhappy with his job and his marriage. At this point, the viewer might be led into thinking that American Beauty is typical Hollywood fare where the protagonist has to discover himself to defy lame old suburbia. This, thankfully, is not the case.

Lester does try to pursue his desire and experience all the novelty the world has to offer. Is he going to find truth and love and all that? He thinks so, and it seems like that. In that iconic scene, Lester fantasizes about Angela (Mina Suvari) with falling red rose petals falling. We see the color red used similarly throughout the film as a symbol for defiant passion. The Real Estate King, Buddy has red advertisements, and he is having an affair with Lester’s wife, who is defying the repression of suburban expectations. The free, directionless spirit of red is highlighted with the scene where the plastic bag is dancing on the wind in front of a red wall. Red is perhaps the color of the energy that defies civilization itself, in all of its beautiful and irrational glory.

When Lester is presented with the opportunity to have sex with Angela, she reveals that she is a virgin, despite her pretenses. Angela represents the insatiability of desire – even when she is totally his, Lester remains unsatisfied. He doesn’t even want her now, thinking of her as an innocent child. His fantasy of satisfaction set the bar far higher than could be reached.

The attempts to engage passion lead to bad results. This is ultimately expressed by the neighbor, Frank, in a homoerotic-turned-violent moment with Lester. Rather than the repression imposed by his environment, Frank’s repression derives from his futile attempt to control that which cannot be controlled, whether it be his son, society, or his neighbors. Lester is shot dead and achieves some sort of analog to Nirvana. He is free from the meaningless context that he existed in and also free from the consequences of destructive passion, yet can appreciate beauty without attachment. Before credits role Lester sees past his delusional fantasy of this young girl, with the music playing with its lyrics “castles burning” alluding to Lester’s false expectations of the “American Beauty” burning away to reveal the unglamorous interior.

The suburban grind is a prison, but so is bohemianism. They are competing systems of trying to sate insatiable material appetites. Breaking out of routine and expressing yourself by dancing on a table, or something, doesn’t save you. Hollywood was wrong. Liberation isn’t a carefree journey of self-fulfillment

Liberation hurts.

Want to see something really scary?

The horror genre is much bemoaned for its tendency toward artistic bankruptcy. Filmmakers are content to adhere to cliché in the form of gore, scare chords and contrived suspense. If these cinematic temptations are defied by a sophisticated auteur who understands the nuances of audience manipulation, the result is a film to be remembered. Indeed, meticulous attention to detail is among the most celebrated aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s legacy. Even for a Stanley Kubrick film, the production of The Shining was long and painstaking. The film took almost a year to shoot at 51 weeks, while it was only intended to take 17 weeks, and it had very long workdays — rewrites of the script would happen several times a day.

The sense of space is a basic subconscious instinct that all human beings have and rely on every day. This is the pressure point that Kubrick chooses to strike at in order to disorient and ultimately disturb viewers on a level that conventional horror technique cannot approach.

An obviously intentional example of this is the scene where Halloran is leading Wendy through the kitchen. The Steadicam precedes them as Halloran winds through counters and tables, taking twists and turns that that camera and the gaze of the audience moves with. Ultimately, we see him from behind opening the freezer with his right hand – we cut to the camera inside the freezer, and Halloran is seen opening what is supposed to be the same door with the other hand, and the door is now hinged and swinging from the wrong side. When they exit, they, the door swings from the original hinging, giving the impression that they are on the same side of the hall, but this time the kitchen is flipped in front of them and they walk towards it in the wrong direction. In the scene where Jack is interrupted by Wendy, we have a depth of field shot there is a chair clearly in-focus behind Jack. The camera cuts to Wendy then to Jack, and the chair is gone. Geoffrey Cocks notes in the documentary film Room 237 that this disappearance could have been intentional, or could have been just been a continuity error. A third intriguing possibility is that it could have been a continuity error that Kubrick chose to keep. A similar phenomenon occurs with the typewriter changing colors between shots. The third possibility raises interesting insights into the nature of The Shining and of choices in films in general, where even films with meticulous production are fertilized by the unintentional. The interior of The Overlook hotel itself is replete with physical impossibilities, which are, in line with the movie being a psychological horror, instinctually disturbing on a less than conscious level to the viewer. The constant spatial challenging of the psyche is noted by Juli Kearns in Room 237:


The end of the rainbow: Eyes Wide Shut analysis

Eyes Wide Shut is probably my favorite film, but it didn’t acquire this distinction until quite a long time after I had first watched it. A second viewing was followed by the nuances of the film creeping up in my mind and demanding a share of my daydreaming. When I watched it a third time, and the rest was history.

I am in some pretty good company – Stanley Kubrick considered it to be his greatest contribution to the art of cinema. Before the film was released, Kubrick died, leaving this enigmatic film for viewers to ponder without its creator to chime in. But the film was not a sudden act of inspiration that came to the auteur, but a culmination of decades of meditation and influence that provided Kubrick with a capstone that ultimately summed up his vision as a filmmaker. Kubrick had been envisioning a film about sexual relations since early in his career, and upon reading the early 20th century novella Dream Story, he decided to buy the rights to it in 1971. For almost 30 years Kubrick held the rights, and the ideas that were to become his final masterpiece took shape throughout that time.

Kubrick’s exploration of the dream world of the film that the audience is part of is ultimately manifested in Eyes Wide Shut. The diegesis of Kubrick is a dream in which the audience is invited to take part in. Kubrick stated early in his career,

The representation of reality has no bite. It does not transcend. Nowadays I am more interested in taking up a fantastic and improbable story…. I always enjoyed representing a slightly surreal situation in a realistic way. I have always had a penchant for fairy-tales, myths and magical stories. They seem to me to come closer to our present-day experience of reality than realistic stories, which are basically just as stylized.

To this end, Kubrick’s films walk the line between the dream and the reality even within his films. Mixture of the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are a tool used throughout his filmography, at least since 1957’s Paths of Glory, over four decades before his final film. We hear a non-diegetic percussion piece when the soldiers are sent into No Man’s Land from the trench. Later, when being executed, a percussion piece plays again, only this time, we learn that the drummers are in the reality of the film. In A Clockwork Orange, the main character Alex is both the main character and the narrator; he is both the gaze and the object of the gaze. By walking this line, Kubrick recognizes that dream-state of film that always exists in the medium whether creators intend or address it or not. Films are necessarily believable and internally consistent absurdities that echo the mental filtering of reality. In a film, characters are funnier than reality; the passing of time is more perfect than reality. This is because our gaze is restricted to the narrative that is relevant to the auteur’s vision. In real life, our idea and memories of our friends are funnier than reality. Our idea of Christmastime is more wonderful and cozy than can be. Our real life gaze conserves details by only cataloging those details that are relevant to our personal narrative.