Thursday, December 29, 2005


Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” has haunted my heart since I left the theater last evening. I feel so terribly fucking sad and the feeling will not go away. So, I thought I’d write about it. Rattle and hum on the keyboard for a little while to shake the mental sheets. Exorcise a demon, maybe.

Spielberg’s getting a lot of credit for Munich, and that credit is deserved. Munich is powerful, disturbing, sorrowful filmmaking. But much of the credit also goes to Tony Kushner’s screenplay. It allows no easy resolutions, no pat moralizing, and no redemption. The circle of violence is unbroken, and Kushner and Spielberg remind us of that with Munich’s final shot – actor Eric Bana left standing alone in a desolate, deserted playground with the Twin Towers hovering like ghosts behind his solitary shape.

On its face, Munich is about the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by Palestinian terrorists. But like most of the film’s I find most affecting, Munich is about far more than any one event. It is about the way that violence degrades and dehumanizes us all. It is about the way that vengeance – righteous or otherwise – delivers the slimmest of reassurances.

Like George Clooney’s similarly admirable (though far less involving) Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich is about the present as much as it is about the past. It reminds us that History repeats itself. That history repeats itself. It questions the results of “eye for an eye” retribution. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” goes the old saying, and there is no one left unblinded in Spielberg’s film.

What begins as a clearly monstrous terrorist act devolves into a moral and ethical quagmire of immense and frightening proportions. The surety of righteousness melts in the heat of cordite and plastique as a mission of deceptive simplicity becomes a killing floor of unanswered questions and uncoiling fear.

Munich dares to ask what the results of retribution – justified or otherwise – truly are. Eric Bana’s broken Mossad agent finds himself tearing into mattresses and lying awake in fear despite all he’s done, and despite Israel’s “strong stance” against Palestinian aggression, their actions appear only to have increased the violence and conviction of their enemies.

But to both Spielberg and Kushner’s credit, and despite their inarguably firm end-position, they give all sides of this too, too pertinent argument a clear voice. When Daniel Craig’s coolly loyal fellow agent defends their actions by saying, “The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood,” he means it and his character stands for millions of people who believe that the interests of their nation come before all else. When Bana’s Avner shares a stairwell smoke with an unsuspecting Palestinian, that Palestinian’s motivations for what he does are laid out in such a way that only the hardest and most narrow-minded of people cannot understand what those motivations are.

No one in Munich is a two-dimensional monster. They are simply people fighting for “Home;” a concept as abstract and misleading as it is comforting and desirable. Some folk have already called this approach into question, maintaining that “evil” does exist in the world, and that “evil” is definable.

I would suggest, with humble trepidation and an awareness of my own “liberality,” that if “evil” exists, it does not choose sides any more than the Lord chooses sides. Evil exists everywhere. It is our nature to succumb to the temptation to do harm – to wreak bloody vengeance upon those who have done us harm – and so long as there are men and women who meet escalating violence with violent escalation, evil continues unabated.

For all the shocking violence of Munich (and there is blood in spades – not the cartoon violence of an action film, but the disquieting crimson interruptions of real carnage), the most appalling act comes during a quiet conversation between a Mother and her son. When Avner returns “home” after years spent pursuing an ever-receding conclusion to his appointed task, he meets with his mother in the hospital. She tells him that she’s proud of him for what he’s done for their country.

“Do you want to know what I’ve done,” asks Avner, his tone suggesting that he needs to share the horrors he’s perpetrated and endured. “No,” answers his mother.

Avner’s mother wants vengeance, or retribution, or justice, but she wants it on her terms. Would hearing about Avner’s actions alter his mother’s perception of his heroism? Would the knowledge of the betrayals, the insecurity, and the blood muddy her convictions and her passion? It very well might, and Avner’s mother chooses the comfort and philosophical security of ignorance over the troubling, gruesome specter of her son’s new reality.

It is Avner’s mother – his true, original home – who stands in for every man and woman who just wants to be told that they are safer, better, stronger, without worrying about the costs and future implications of what has been done in order to give them those feelings. Avner’s mother does not truly want understanding. She does not want a world without violence. She only wants a world she can understand without moral equivocation.

And that world, safe and comforting as it is, collapses once Avner moves beyond the frumpily dignified setting of Golda Meir’s living room. It dissolves into a frustrating shadow land of convenient economic allegiances and fervent mistrust. No one and nothing is what it seems when you are playing on the world-stage. Was Avner’s bomb-building compatriot murdered in an act of retribution? Was he killed by his own work? Did he kill himself in grief over what he had helped to do? The answer is unavailable to us. Only the symbolic import of the moment speaks – showing us how his past literally blows up in his face.

There is no safe harbor for Avner or his family in this world. There is no righteousness when we become the thing we fear. The sense of community and belonging, so important to Jewish culture, is decimated in this film. “Will you break bread with me in my home?” Avner asks this of his Mossad “handler” in the film’s final moments. He tells his handler (played with great skill by Geoffrey Rush) that breaking bread is what Jews do. He asks in a moment of personal, private desperation. And Rush’s answer to him is as mournful as it is utterly chilling. “No.”

When Avner's "source," the enigmatic and supposedly non-political "Papa," calls to tell him that if Avner or his family are harmed, that harm will not have come from him, that promise rings slight and unconvincing. After all, "Papa" knows Avner's real name. How? And why? And even if his words are sincere, they are selective. Simply because "Papa" himself will not harm Avner does not mean that he has not sold Avner out to a third party. Midway through the film, Papa tells Avner, "You could have been my son. But you are not." With two seemingly sentimental sentences, Papa lets Avner know that this is simply business. And he plays no favorites in business.

Munich paints a world in which brotherhood, be it by blood or country or experience, is an illusion. In a world subsumed by the impulse to revenge – to right wrongs by committing other wrongs – brotherhood is a bedtime story told to keep people like Avner’s mother feeling safe at night while the world grows ever wilder and more terrifying outside her door.

Spielberg and Kushner’s film is a masterpiece, made more powerful for having such direct implications for our present-day existence. It is strong, moving work guaranteed to provoke discussion and thought. I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay it. It’s my fervent hope that watching Munich will encourage us to break bread with one another – to put to shame the isolation that Avner ends the film in.

I believe in community, and in communion. I have hope for our world. As utterly devastating as Munich is, it leaves me with the desire to confront its thorny moral briars. Those who believe that discussion is pointless and that violence is the only language that certain people understand would do well to remember that for Br’er Rabbit the briar patch ended up being the safest place of all. Toss us into it, I say. We may be scratched, and bruised, and bloodied by the experience. But in the end we may find that home lies directly within it – at its center.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

King of the Ruse

Alicublog pointed me toward a "critical appraisal" of Martin Luther King, Jr., which I thought was provocative enough to comment on - if only for my own benefit.

From the Claremont Institute:

But there is the other King conservatives loath—and with good reason. This King stressed unlawful action (civil disobedience) where bargaining with local notables might have prevailed. He lobbied for the extension of the welfare state, with all its disastrous consequences, in the claimants and in the growth of the bureaucracy. Moreover, he irresponsibly attacked his own country on the issue of Vietnam. He provided legitimate cover for a radical left that contained the worst elements of American life, posing as our true patriots. His crowning achievement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, turned out to be a vehicle for the centralized regulation of political life. A plain reading of it sought to relieve individual injuries to one’s civil rights; the bureaucratic interpretation (the one that has prevailed) established group remedies, hiring and promotion quotas, and the emphasis on race-based solutions that bedevil our laws today. Similarly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has subordinated state and local governments to the whims of the Justice Department. Thus King's version of equality cut off the relationship between the civil rights cause and the ideals of the American Founding; far from protecting limited, constitutional government his vision led to unlimited government. And all this does not mention the plagiarism and infidelity that infected his character.

A lot of what Ken Masugi says above seems wrongheaded to me. It's not that Masugi does wrong by citing instances of action and character that he disagrees with. In fact, I think it's important not to whitewash the people of history. What bothers me is the implied assertion that King and his legacy are made less because of them.

The post-Clintonian era is an interesting one. Clinton was arguably the first President to have his sexual shenanigans outed by the media. Prior to Bubba, Executive trysts were considered unspokenly out-of-bounds. Jefferson fucked around. JFK had Marilyn Monroe on rotary speed-dial. Outside of the oval office, Ben Franklin spent long years in Europe getting down with the powdered wig hunnies, while his wife and daughter hung 'round the house in Philly. But somehow, Ben Franklin's business is excused, unmentioned, uncriticized.

Martin Luther King, Jr. liked the ladies. Does this lessen his legacy or sap his credibility? I think it does so only if you're willing to play character assassin. Jefferson founded a nation while barn-dancing with Sally Hemmings. Franklin did double duty as proto-Ron Popeil and colonial-Kenobi. King contributed a powerful voice to a long-overdue seizmic shift in the culture. What they did in their off-hours is, I think, their business. It's between them and God, not snippy moralists.

As for his attacking the U.S. on Vietnam, well, he was a Preacher. His first allegiance was to the creator and not to any country, even his own. God doesn't have a nation. If you devote your life to God as a man of any faith there are going to be instances where you come to disagree with the actions of your government. As a rule, Preachers advocate non-violence, and Vietnam was a war.

And while I have no business commenting on whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became "a vehicle for the centralized regulation of political life," I'm fairly comfortable objecting to Masugi's laying the responsibility for that evolution at the feet of one man.

Finally, America wouldn't exist without civil disobediance. The colonies lobbied Britain for representation in Parliament for years prior to revolution. It was Britain's resistance to representation, and their dismissal of the desire of the American people for a voice in government that directly led to the Declaration of Independence - an act of civil disobediance if ever there was one.

None of this is to say that King was a saint, or that his history should not be critically discussed. His problematic reliance on plagarism/appropriation in his papers and speeches is an area that does affect my opinion of the man, if only of his originality. But I think Masugi doth protest too much when he calls into question whether or not Martin Luther King day is necessary.

We must focus our attention on that cause. In doing so, it would be far better to honor the better angels of King’s character in the Presidents we honor next month—Washington and Lincoln.

If I read this correctly, Masugi is saying that it would be better to celebrate the spirit of King's cause in the holidays devoted to Washington and Lincoln, than to celebrate that spirit on a day devoted to the flawed King himself.

But Lincoln suspended habaeus corpus, unconstitutionally prevented the Southern states from recession, and liked to sleep (however innocently) with other men. Washington hated New Englanders, finding them dirty and uncouth. He was, in early life, a pretty questionable military leader. He levied one of the first, unwanted taxes on the American people. He grew hemp. Despite a laudable growing belief in the unjustness of slavery, he did not free his own slaves until after his death.

No man is safe from flawed character, or from mistake.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Virtual Judiciary

From ZDNet:

A federal judge has blocked enforcement of a California law restricting violent video games, saying it violates the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte ruled late Wednesday that the state law, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October, unconstitutionally restricts minors' rights to information and granted the video game industry's request for a preliminary injunction.

Over at Wrandom Wramblings, Cap's posted this article. Click on over to his site to read his initial post.

My feelings on this are mixed, actually. As violent as video games are nowadays, most kids can't buy them without the consent of their parents. In this way, I see games as similar to R rated movies, or parental advisory music. Granted, kids can find ways around the movie rating restrictions, and music is often bought without parental knowledge, but minors aren't banned from watching R rated films, or from buying flagged music.

So, on that level, I don't understand why video games should be treated differently.

on the other hand, I resent the way that graphically violent games (some of them endorsed by the US Army) pander to the youth demographic. I believe that video game violence may not cause violence, but it does deaden your emotional response to violence. No business is moral, really, so I can't expect the gaming industry to be, either.

The real issue comes down to parenting. Maybe it's overly strict of me (and I don't believe it is), but a parent should be policing their children about this sort of thing. Your kids may not always like the rules you set, but sometimes those rules are necessary anyway.

Be parents. The government shouldn't babysit your kids. That's taking jobs away from thousands of teenage girls with a need for petty cash. Codemorse is firmly pro-babysitter.

Of course, there's the entirely separate question of whether the judge was interfering with legislation. The judge bases his opinion on the right of "Free Expression," and that seems justifiably open for debate. Is it free expression to play a video game?

Maybe there is, if it's the same kind of Free Expression that allows access, on a limited basis, to films. If that's the case, then the judge is right in his opinion. But is that the case?

"The Chronic! What?! Cles of Narnia1"

Courtesy of my brother:

The Chronic of Narnia

"Mr. Pibb and Red Vines equals crazy delicious"
Funniest SNL bit in years.

Checkpoint Charlie

From the Boston Herald:

Over the coming year, the T will install automated fare collection equipment at every subway station and on every bus, allowing riders to pay easily with taps of special smart cards in their names.
But each transaction with the plastic CharlieCards will be recorded electronically, creating a record of where users were at a particular time on a particular day. Those records could be subpoenaed by cops, courts or even lawyers in civil cases.

Riders who don’t want the T keeping records on their movements can continue to buy paper CharlieTickets after the new system is fully operational sometime in early 2007.
“If you want to be anonymous, use cash for a ticket and there’s nothing tracked at all,” advised Grabauskas, who said he expects many commuters will choose the convenience of CharlieCards.

Yes, yes, I know. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.


ROME, Italy (AP) -- Droopy-eyed character actor Vincent Schiavelli, who appeared in scores of movies, including "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Ghost," died Monday at his home in Sicily. He was 57.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Schiavelli.

Surviving Christmas

Welcome back, all. Codemorse returns to its regularly scheduled programming of half-baked rants and semi-literate raves. Here's hoping everyone enjoyed the weekend, the holiday, and their family and friends.

Christmas this year was outstanding. It gets harder every year to get the whole family together for any length of time, but Christmas is ol' reliable in that regard.