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Obama the Obstructionist?

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Obama the Obstructionist?

The Republican Party takes its role as the opposition with the same seriousness a white, gun-toting suburbanite protects his or her colonial home. Two weeks ago, a certain talk radio host criticized President Obama for not responding boisterously enough about the Somali pirate hostage crisis. Before launching into an incomprehensible—and incomprehensibly long and sarcastic—monologue about how the pirates couldn’t be Muslim because Obama claims we’re not at war with Islam (“I suppose they could be a rogue band—a very, very, very tiny, small infinitesimal minority of Islam. But we’re not at war with Islam. The president said so. So the Somali pirates—I mean, the story is that they’re Muslims, but that can’t be, because we’re not at war with them. My guess is it’s the Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews committing piracy in the open seas off Somalia over there, there’s no question in my mind”), Rush Limbaugh claimed that the reason there has been a resurgence of piracy of late is “because idiots like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama think pirates and terrorists—and this is terrorism—are criminals, not enemies.”

Never mind that the recent piracy scourge began during the last administration, but if Limbaugh believes that piracy is terrorism and that we’re indeed at war with Islam, then why, after Obama approved an operation in which U.S. snipers shot down three of the hijackers and thusly rescued the U.S. hostage, did he say this: “You know what we have learned about the Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers that were wiped out at the order of Barack Obama, you know what we learned about them? They were teenagers. The Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers who took a U.S. merchant captain hostage for five days were inexperienced youths…Now, just imagine the hue and cry had a Republican president ordered the shooting of black teenagers on the high seas”? Yes, the bloated face of the Fringe Party is also, fittingly, the bloated face of hypocrisy.

Subtler, though no less duplicitous, is the daily assessments of Bill O’Reilly, a man who bases the quality of his network’s coverage on the number of viewers who saw it. On The O’Reilly Factor last night, Fox News White House Correspondent Jim Angle chided Obama for deeming waterboarding “too harsh,” but ordering air strikes on terrorists “in their homes, presumably with their wives and children.” When asked by O’Reilly about “some” people—read: “us”—who think Obama is “making a big deal out of [waterboarding],” Angle said: “One could argue that waterboarding isn’t nearly as bad as being blown up.” He actually said that. Out loud. I suppose he deserves some credit for his transparent attempt to dress it up so that he could later claim that he wasn’t the “one” who was arguing that insidious point.

Partisan spin is expected from these political hacks. But if there was ever any question about who was running the country for the last eight years, the recent flood of criticism about the fledgling Obama administration from senior members of the Bush team, and the relative silence of Bush himself, should leave no doubt. “You should not exaggerate and lie like this when you are the vice president of the United States,” Karl Rove said without a hint of irony in regard to an anecdote recalled by Vice President Joe Biden. (Rove’s hypocrisy deserves a piece in and of itself—and it’s already been written.)

And speaking of vice presidential liars, Dick Cheney has at least exhibited the virtue of consistency by claiming that Obama is putting the country at risk by, among other things, halting the previous administration’s torture program. For that, Obama has been praised by both the left and the right. But his disinterest in prosecuting the C.I.A. operatives who committed the crime of torture and those in the Bush administration who sanctioned those acts, though consistent, has angered many of his supporters. Unlike Republicans, who acquiesced to George W. Bush’s every war-mongering, Constitution-dismantling, executive power-grabbing whim, it seems that Democrats are unwilling to sit idly by and blindly support a president who seeks to obstruct justice in the name of politics.

Starting a witch hunt at the C.I.A. could result in the kind of mass exodus of seasoned intelligence officers that weakened the agency during the Clinton administration. Obama understandably doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of his Democratic predecessor, and the announcement last week that his administration has no intention of seeking prosecutions of C.I.A. employees who carried out policies ordered by Bush and Cheney is further evidence of that. But Obama’s disinterest in pursuing justice extends to even operatives who went beyond what was authorized in the recently released memos regarding those “aggressive interrogation techniques,” the top Bush officials who composed those memos, and presumably Bush and Cheney themselves.

Over the weekend, Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told ABC that the president believes that those who devised the torture policies should not be prosecuted. This kind of stance is not simply disappointing or embarrassing, it’s downright lawless. The message continues to be that the United States can do whatever it wants, that we can ignore international laws and treaties. More specifically, it signals that the country’s politicos and their minions will not be upheld to the same standards of justice as ordinary citizens. As lefty Glenn Greenwald so nonpartisan-ly put it: “Perhaps it’s time to begin a FREE BERNIE MADOFF campaign based on Obama’s oh-so-moving decree that this is a time for reflection, not retribution, and that we must look forward, not backwards.”

This “look forward, not backward” mantra has become as disturbingly pervasive as any of Bush’s asinine slogans, with Emanuel, increasingly inept White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and a chorus of others in Washington employing it ad nauseam. But before I join the ranks of those on the left crying foul, I’d like to examine, briefly, the possibility that Obama is attempting the ultimate have-his-cake-and-eat-it-too political move. In the current issue of Newsweek, Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas cite sources inside the Department of Justice who suggest that Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, is still considering investigating the issue of torture, while Democrats in Congress, specifically head of the Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy, still want a commission to examine the abuses. As president, Obama has an obligation to focus on the country’s most pressing issues—the economy, health care, those pesky wars—and to keep the intelligence community on his side, and that’s exactly what he’s doing. Presidents aren’t prosecutors, and, unless you’re George W. Bush, the executive office doesn’t run the DOJ. That means it’s your move, Mr. Holder.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that feels like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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