Klavan On The Culture

Klavan On The Culture

Overlooked Entertainment: “Pain & Gain”

May 29th, 2015 - 6:27 am
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Fans of true crime movies ought to take a look at Michael Bay’s Pain & Gainnow streaming on Netflix. It only gets about a 50 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s way better than that. It’s about twenty minutes too long, I’ll admit, but it’s also funny, intelligent, insightful and really well acted by a fine cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub and especially Ed Harris.

The film is based on a real life kidnapping case — call it a cut-rate Fargo. It follows three body builders whose aspirational rah-rah can-do American-dream attitudes mask dysfunctional narcissism, selfishness and stupidity. It uses the story of their extraordinary crime to create a satire of self-help culture and entitlement culture. Ken Jeong does a hilarious few minutes as success guru Johnny Wu. He doesn’t know why God gave us ten fingers when we only need three to count the steps to success: Get a goal; get a plan; get up off your ass.

Michael Bay gets a lot of disrespect. Possibly this is because his characters believe in God and aren’t leftists. Just possibly. When he’s in his element — snark and action — he’s really good. This is a good, entertaining, interesting — and overlong — film.

We Need A “Warrior Culture.”

May 27th, 2015 - 9:21 am

An interview headlined “On The Battlefield of the Psyche” in Psychology Today provides an interesting coda to Memorial Day. The person being interviewed is my wife’s psychologist colleague, Larry Decker, who specializes in treating the mental disorders of veterans and has recently published a book on the subject called The Alchemy of Combat.

I especially liked these remarks:

There is no true warrior culture in America—no preparation or training for soldiers. There’s none of that…  Millions of dollars are spent… on programs that train soldiers to become psychologically resilient, so that they don’t have emotional responses to killing. Basically, this just removes their conscience, as well as a sense of empathy for the enemy. Instead, soldiers are taught that in order to kill they have to dehumanize their enemy. Thus in Vietnam, they were called “gooks,” and in Iraq they became “Hajis” or “sand niggers.” By contrast, the Greeks and other ancient warrior cultures understood the concept of the “honorable enemy,” or “honorable foes…”

As has been well known in the field of psychology, and as I’ve seen in my own clinical experience, the effects of dehumanizing the enemy can lead to serious problems when soldiers return from war; their PTSD symptoms can become very, very severe. Essentially, when veterans attempt to re-enter the civilian world they eventually have to come to grips with the fact that their enemies, whether Vietnamese or Japanese, are human beings—not just “nips” or “gooks.” This realization creates enormous grief over the killing, torture, and mutilation the soldier may have been involved in. He was able to do those things in the war because he had convinced himself that the enemy was not really human. Now how can he forgive himself?

In other words, if I’m reading this right, the truth would set our soldiers free — the truth, I mean, that war will come and men must fight it, on our side as well as the other. Warrior is an honorable profession and should be treated as such.

It’s pretty obvious that we don’t know how to respect our enemies — and it’s not just the name-calling — the “gook” and the “hadji” of it all. In fact, name-calling seems to me an all-too-human part of any hostile situation. But it’s the condescension too. The Obama administration has gormlessly suggested, for instance, that Islamic terrorism is merely a result of the poor economy in the Middle East! This is so incredibly contemptuous and dismissive of our opponents!  It’s as if they weren’t as capable of coming up with, believing in and fighting for a philosophy as we are ourselves. No, they’re only helplessly reacting to circumstances (for which we are mysteriously responsible).

So much better and more honest to say of our enemies: these are grown-up men like our grown-up men. They believe in militant Islam as we (or at least some of us) believe in freedom. In keeping with their philosophy, they want to enslave and/or kill us. They are willing to fight bravely to accomplish their aims and we must fight bravely to stop them. The job is horrific and painful, and so we honor our warriors when they do it.

Rudyard Kipling gave us a taste of this attitude in his tribute to the “Fuzzy-Wuzzy,” the Sudanese warriors who broke the British square while fighting for the Mahdi, a self-proclaimed Islamic messiah:

“We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
An’ some of ‘em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot…

 So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man…”

This sort of straightforward attitude to an enemy fighter sends the left running to their safe rooms, but in reality it’s far more respectful to the warriors on both sides than some ginned-up undergraduate sociology that masks the hard truth of the situation.

Such bluff, honest respect for the enemy — and by extension for our own warriors — would not be a cure for PTSD but at least it would serve to create an honest place in our society for the men and women who fight to keep us free.

Beowulf and Memorial Day

May 24th, 2015 - 9:15 am

A Deplorable Incident of Drago-phobia!

This 2010 essay of mine on Beowulf — the oldest epic poem in English (and great stuff if you’ve never read it) — is available in the excellent collection Thrillers: 100 Must ReadsI reprint it here in honor of Memorial Day, with humble thanks to all those who gave and give their lives to keep us safe and free.

Great works of literature often peel away the mask of our piety to expose the raw life underneath. So it is with Beowulf, a brooding, blood-soaked celebration of warrior manhood.

We in the modern West have been so powerful, so dominant, so safe in our homes for so long that we slip too easily into the illusion that we live at peace. We are never at peace, not really. When we go to the ballet or walk in the park or stop to smell a rose or read a book, we only do so by the good graces of the fighters who stand ready to kill and die to defend us. Soldiers on our borders, police officers on our streets—only the threat of their physical force keeps those who would murder, rob, or enslave us at bay. Every moment of tranquility and freedom implies the warrior who protects it. The world of Beowulf is the real world.

And what a wonderful poem it is, a tale and a tone of such ferocious, melancholy virility that it shocks the sometimes overdelicate modern mind. It’s the story of the Scandinavian hero Beowulf and his battles with monsters. It begins when Beowulf travels from Geatland in what is now Sweden to Denmark to come to the aid of King Hrothgar in his towering mead hall Herot. The Danes are being plagued by the swamp monster Grendel, “that shadow of death,” who hunts their warriors in darkness, “lying in waiting, hidden in mist, invisibly following them from the edge of the marsh, always there, unseen.” Beowulf is such a tough Geat, so bent on winning fame for his courage and prowess, that he disdains to use a sword to kill the beast and wrestles him bare-handed, ripping his arm off by main strength. Grendel slouches home to his swamp to die, thus sparking the rage of his mother, who comes for her revenge.

There’s plenty more—including digressive tales of war, betrayal, and tragedy—all set on misty fens and under murky waters and in broken, crumbling towers and halls that seem the earliest inspiration for the setting of many of today’s video games. Which is fitting, because really you have to turn to those games to find anything in modern art that so boldly elevates and celebrates the warrior and his drive to “win glory and a hero’s fame” in battle.

If you want to see how completely more “sophisticated” modern artists have lost the ability to understand those virtues and their ever-present necessity, take a look at the 2007 CGI film Beowulf by director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Note how entirely it subverts and corrupts the vision of the original. In the film, the warriors are drunken thugs and Grendel is King Hrothgar’s bastard child. This implies not only a measure of responsibility on the part of the Danes for their own slaughter, but also a tiresome Freudian psychomachy underlying the action. In the poem, conversely, Grendel is the child of “those monsters born of Cain, murderous creatures banished by God.” He is roused from his slumber by the music and rejoicing in Herot, especially a poet’s song of the world’s genesis. The implication in the poem is far more insightful and unflinching than that in the film. The poem’s Grendel is a primal force of evil spawned by sinful human nature itself and now perennially at war with the creation. The guilt is not sexual and personal but general in terms of mankind’s instinct toward fraternal violence.

That general guilt gives Beowulf ’s heroism its context. It tells us that evil is woven into human nature, but that individual men may choose to stand against it. The film Beowulf descends into moral equivalence and relativism as Beowulf, in his turn, is seduced by Grendel’s mother, a slinky CGI version of the likewise slinky Angelina Jolie. “I know that, underneath your glamour, you’re as much a monster as my son, Grendel,” she tells him. Which is blithering nonsense. In the poem, she’s the monster and he’s the guy who’s got to kill her so that men may live in peace. That may not be nuanced or urbane or pseudo-deep, but it’s actually more honest, more like life as it is lived. The evils of this sad world are not always susceptible to analysis or negotiation. Some monsters are really monsters and just have to be taken down. That’s why poets write—or used to write— epics honoring the warriors who do the job.

And that’s why it’s fair to trace the thriller novel’s pedigree back to Beowulf and to include the epic in a list of thriller must-reads. It may not be a thriller in the modern sense of the word, but it holds the kernel of the idea that gives our genre one of its key reasons for being. In modern fiction, only genre novels—crime, horror, fantasy, sci-fi—regularly dramatize the existence of evil, the need for courage, and the glamour of physical strength and fighting skill. It’s an essential and too often neglected role of the arts to portray these things. If they don’t, it becomes too easy for us to forget them, too easy for us to be self-satisfied with our lives of compassion and peaceful loving kindness without paying tribute to the warriors who make those lives possible.

[Game of Thrones spoilers.]

I put the “liked” in quotes because, in fact, I could barely watch the scene, having developed so much protective affection for Sansa Stark and conceived such a visceral hatred of the squirrely sadist Ramsay Bolton who attacked her. I should also, just to be precise, put the “rape” in quotes since I imagine, in the medieval-style world of Game of Thrones, that was not technically a rape at all but merely a husband enjoying his wedding night privileges as he saw fit. But frankly, to hell with him; it was rape in my book.

And I should clarify, since those attacking the scene keep using words like “explicit” and referring to the show’s overuse of nudity: there was no nudity in the scene and it was not explicit at all; it happened offscreen.

But bottom line for me: While I’m sure this will be misread as blaming the victim, the rape flowed naturally out of all the characters’ actions and natures. What did you think a creep like Bolton would do to his bride? And did you really think Littlefinger cared for Sansa when he convinced the traumatized and innocent girl to barter herself away? And when Sansa agreed to Littlefinger’s plan, wasn’t she agreeing to buy revenge and power with her body and virginity? Game of Thrones is all about revenge and power and what people will do to get them. And the answer is: Anything.

The scene was attacked on one side by feminists, for… well, whatever silly reasons their fluffy little heads came up with. One girl at Salon whined that the camera focused on a male character’s reaction instead of the victim’s!  Absurd. That was to keep from showing us the rape and also because the director knew we were all looking to that male for rescue — it made the scene infinitely more painful to experience as he stood there helpless.

Anyway, it always makes me snicker right cruelly whenever someone on the left declares himself offended by a work of art. Art should shock you! they say. Art should challenge you! they say. But by you they mean you, not them; they have no need or desire to be shocked or challenged out of their pristinely moral positions. So, as with Ramsay, so with the feminists: to hell with them.

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Conservative Culture At Work!

It was my understanding when I agreed to do a blog that all the commenters would agree with me and all the female commenters would be beautiful. Sadly, only the second of these has turned out to be the case. When, a day or so ago, I put up a post explaining that Mad Max: Fury Road was a not-very-good movie and had been greeted with ecstasy by critics because of its feminist bent, several benighted and also misguided souls took it upon themselves to contradict me. I know, right? Crazy! But there it is. So with the kindly thought that it might be instructive and improving to these lost lambs to learn how they are mistaken, I offer a few responses.

First, to those who made comments to the effect that I was “thinking too much” and “politicizing everything,” let me assure you that I was thinking only exactly as much as necessary and, in fact, politicizing nothing at all. My point was not that Mad Max was not very good because it was feminist. I enjoy fantasy pictures! My point was that the story was poorly constructed, the central character ill-drawn, the action repetitive and the resolution absurd — and that the critics have overlooked this for political reasons. It was they who were being political, not I.

Second, several commenters rejected my idea that outlooks that are dishonest in general may produce honest stories because stories are individual and specific. My point was that while it’s absurd to say, for instance, “American women are oppressed,” a specific American woman may well be oppressed (just ask my wife!), and if you told a good story about her your stupid feminist philosophy might produce something worthwhile in spite of itself. Socialism is despicable nonsense but Germinal is a great novel — and indeed, its searing honesty ends by exposing the horror of its socialist philosophy, for which Zola was roundly criticized by the left despite his socialist credentials.

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Mad Max: Fury Road is not a good movie and the ecstasy with which the critics received it was dishonest. Tastes differ, of course, but I think in this case the critics are just lying for political reasons.

“It’s enough to renew your faith in the movies,” said Ty Burr of the Boston Globe. Peter Travers at Rolling Stone urged us to overlook the fact the picture doesn’t make sense and “Just go with it.” He praised director George Miller (who also directed the terrific original Mad Max and its sequel) as an “indisputable visionary genius.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times said this: “It’s all great fun, and quite rousing as well — a large-scale genre movie that is at once unpretentious and unafraid to bring home a message…. It’s about revolution.”

I believe they said these untrue things because this not-very-good movie is feminist.

Now, I’m not a feminist. I’m an individualist who believes each person should do what he or she wants to do and is able to do without fear or favor. I believe that, in such a free world, more men will choose to do manly things and more women womanly things but that strikes me as a feature not a bug, since gender differences seem to me among the great beauties of life. Identity politics, on the other hand, is a misery imposed on us by the powerful in order to divide us so they can consolidate their power.

But while I consider feminism a dishonest and oppressive philosophy, I believe good feminist stories can be told. This is because even a philosophy that is a lie in general may be the truth in a specific, individual case and stories are individual and specific. Dishonest outlooks can produce honest stories. The left has been living off this fact for decades.

So while ideologically corrupt critics are going wild over Fury Road because it’s feminist, I’m not criticizing it because I’m anti-feminist. I’m criticizing it because it’s not very good. Its title character is ill-defined. His mission is emotionally muddy. The non-stop car chase action becomes tiresome about 45 minutes in (though I did find myself wondering wistfully if there was a video game to go with it!). The finale is unbelievable even in context. The color palette, I admit, is beautiful but if you’re watching an enormous action sequence and thinking about the color palette…  well, you get the idea.

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Brilliant! If John Boehner were always this honest and direct, he’d be Ted Cruz. But then he’d hate himself!

Still, I love this. Shameless, heartless, soulless Democrats use the deaths of those killed in this week’s Amtrak crash to score political points — really, how do they sleep at night? Then, a “journalist” dutifully megaphones the nonsense — and really, how do they sleep at night? And for once, instead of cringing and shuffling and shutting down, a Republican gives the minions of corruption exactly what they deserve. More! More!

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Werewolf Cop is “Awesome”

May 13th, 2015 - 7:03 am

An American literature teacher from Wheaton College delivered an excellent review to my new novel Werewolf Cop in the Providence Journal this week. Urging readers to ignore the “terrible” title (where is the irony???), Sam Coale wrote:

Forget the terrible generic title of this horrific, hallucinatory, haunting and harrowing tale by the author who’s won the Edgar Award twice. This “police procedural” suddenly turns toward the supernatural in such a suspenseful yarn I couldn’t put it down, mesmerized, horrified and actually frightened…

Klavan’s novel is so taut and tense, and he grounds the supernatural goings-on so carefully in a cop’s investigations, that you’re seductively led into the Black Forest of the soul and beyond… This horror story is awesome.

You can read the whole review here. And you can get your copy of the novel here.

Pamela Geller Acted Morally

May 10th, 2015 - 9:53 am

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Pundits from the editors of the New York Times to Bill O’Reilly have denounced anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller for her Garland, Texas, Draw Mohammed cartoon contest. The contest, as everyone knows, was attacked by two Islamic terrorists who could have murdered many, including friends of mine, if they had not been shot dead by a heroic Texas lawman.

“Jesus would not have sponsored that event,” said O’Reilly, perhaps forgetting that Jesus was himself murdered for his harsh, public criticism of a religion. (He ought to read Killing Jesus!) ”The goal of every decent person in the world should be to defeat the jihad. And in order to do that you have to rally the world to the side of good — our side. The emotional displays, like insulting the Prophet Muhammad, make it more difficult to rally law-abiding Muslims.”

I am well convinced of O’Reilly’s full, honest and courageous commitment to American liberty but I think it should give him pause to find himself in agreement with the New York Times editors, who have no such commitment. The editors said of the jihadis, “Their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event. These can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.”

Now the argument that Geller’s event was mean and therefore a poor anti-jihad strategy is at least somewhat better than blaming Geller for the attempted violence. When I hear an editor or headline writer or commentator suggest that Geller somehow caused the attacks, I simply shoot him dead and then have him arrested for provoking me.

But the Times-O’Reilly argument is flawed because it effectively privileges violent Islam and dismisses Islamists as mindless beasts who can only react to provocation with murder. The Times, whose reviewer gave an absolutely ecstatic review to the Mormon-mocking musical “Book of Mormon,” routinely celebrates those artists who insult Christianity and even supports their receiving government funds for their attacks. They have also repeatedly called for Christians to be forced to participate in gay weddings which violate their religious consciences. They are no friend to religion, only enemies of the west and its belief in individual freedom for the common man.

I would never lump O’Reilly with tyrannical leftist knuckleheads like the Times editors. But I didn’t. O’Reilly did and, as a good and honest guy, he ought to think about that.

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Cartoon by Bosche Fawstin.

Had a good talk with John Gambling at 970 the Answer in New York about the Garland, Texas jihadi attack in response to Pamela Geller’s Mohammed cartoon contest. A lot of people, even on the right, have blamed Geller for what could have been disastrous violence. I don’t see it that way at all. It has nothing to do with whether I agree with Geller or not or whether I think she was being polite or kind or wise. I just don’t believe there’s a “but” after the first amendment. The idea that her Mohammed cartoon contest caused the violence is a logical nonsense, like saying a girl’s short skirt caused a rape. The cause was the will of the violent men who tried to attack her and, beyond that, their ideology.

The interview is here. My talk with John begins around 15:50.