Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and the dark temptations of paranoia

There’s something to be said for paranoia, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Our prehistoric ancestors faced a brutal, unforgiving world where misjudging a threat could prove fatal. Suspicion of strangers was a natural instinct, and a well-developed sense of “friend or foe” might mean you were more likely to survive and pass on your genes.

Long after the survival threat to homo sapiens became less pressing, the paranoid proclivity remained. When it is triggered by environmental or genetic factors, and causes abnormal suspiciousness and delusions of persecution or danger, clinicians call it “paranoid personality disorder.” As Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, has observed, “…it’s interesting to note how many psychopathologies, including paranoia, may simply be evolutionary ingrained tendencies turned up a notch too high.”

Many authors, artists and film-makers have been fascinated by the alienation present in paranoia, and while it seems to be a modernist concern (consider: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”) the theme surfaced in literature well before the advent of Freudian psychiatry. While Nathaniel Hawthorne did not set out to directly address the impact of paranoia in “Young Goodman Brown,” his haunting short story has retained its appeal long after its 1835 publication, I would argue, precisely because it taps into the feelings of isolation, fear of the Other, and, yes, the dark temptations of paranoia that are part of the human condition.

What do I mean by the dark temptations of paranoia? It’s that natural, and gratifying, inclination to blame others for our misfortune. It includes our very human tendency to bear grudges, to question the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends, to fear being exploited or deceived, and to credulously accept conspiracy theories. And “It wasn’t my fault. They were out to get me” offers a tempting explanation for trouble, one that neatly shifts any blame for failure or disappointment onto malevolent others.

Paranoid reality or paranoid dream?

Many literary critics have seen “Young Goodman Brown” (along with The Scarlet Letter) as part of Hawthorne’s critique of Calvinist theology as practiced in New England, especially the Puritan fascination with predestination and the role of the Elect—those divinely-selected Christians assured of a place in heaven. Certainly the story is crammed with religious symbolism and imagery and touches on many of these themes. Yet the universal appeal of the story lies in its portrayal of a young man struggling with his growing sense that the world has turned against him, and the open question as to whether his new-found disillusionment with family and friends is grounded in reality or reflects a delusional dream-state.

As with many horror stories, “Young Goodman Brown” relies on a series of small revelations, dark imagery, and hints of the supernatural to build suspense. Goodman Brown of Salem sets off on a mysterious journey with, we are told, an “evil purpose”; his wife, Faith, (“aptly named”) tries to entice him to stay home, but he refuses.

Once in the dark forest, Goodman Brown encounters an older man, a “fellow-traveler” whose companionship is not “wholly unexpected” by Goodman. Hawthorne foreshadows events to come as Goodman Brown wonders: “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”

Soon we learn that the devil, indeed, is at his elbow (disguised as his grandfather and carrying a staff “which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent”), that his religious mentor Goody Cloyse is a witch, and that Goodman Brown’s father and grandfather before him had embraced the occult.

When Goodman Brown reaches the clearing where the devil worshipers will hold their Satanic ceremony of initiation, he recognizes “a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity.” And these “grave, reputable, and pious people” are joined by “men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame”—good and wicked, sinners and saints joined in their “homage to the prince of all.” He is staggered by the enormity of the deception, aghast at his discovery that the Elect of his community are part of this “impious assembly,” one he has come to join.

Even worse, however, is discovering that the young woman also awaiting “baptism” into this congregation, “trembling before that unhallowed altar,” is his own wife. Young Goodman Brown hesitates, and then calls on his wife to join in resisting “the evil one.” In a flash he finds himself alone, “amid calm night and solitude,” but whether Faith has also turned away from Satan, “he knew not.”

When he returns to Salem Goodman Brown is a changed man, shrinking from contact from the minister, snubbing his wife when he meets her. Then, in an intriguing twist, Hawthorne introduces doubt about the reality of Young Goodman Brown’s experience. Perhaps he hasn’t uncovered a coven of “fiend-worshippers” but instead imagined the scene:

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

Be it so if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.

Is Goodman Brown’s nightmarish experience just that: a nightmare? Or has he discovered the reality behind the scrim of Puritan convention? The psychic damage has been done, in either case, for he can no longer encounter the townspeople, or his wife, without seeing them as secretly in league with the Devil.

A modern psychiatrist, rejecting prima facie the existence of Satan, might very well diagnose Goodman Brown as harboring paranoid fantasies. His belief that everyone around him had joined a sinister, and hidden, conspiracy would suggest paranoid personality disorder. (If the people of Salem were actually involved in witchcraft and secret devil worship, then the situation becomes much more complex.)

Contemporary demons

We may no longer believe in witches or the presence of Satan, but we still confront our own contemporary demons. Paranoia continues to have its artistic fascination. The Puritans of the Bay Colony had theological underpinnings for their fears, ours stem more often from half-baked ideologies (for example, 9/11 conspiracy theories) or junk science.

There has been a brisk demand for horror films trading on the thrill of group paranoia. It’s why Hollywood has fashioned four film versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a science-fiction story of alien invaders who secretly transform humans into “pod-people.”

The first film version came in 1956 (reflecting concerns about Communist subversion), the best-known remake followed in 1978 (trading off post-Watergate paranoia), the third in 1993 (with fears of toxic waste and a compromised environment as a backdrop), and the most recent in 2007, retitled The Invasion, (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and featuring a plot revolving around an alien virus).

Since the AIDs epidemic, paranoia about infection has been a continuing theme in popular culture, whether in the form of science fiction thrillers about pandemics (Twelve Monkeys, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men) or in the current fascination with vampires (the Twilight series, HBO’s “True Blood,” 30 Days of Night). Then there is 2007’s very popular I Am Legend, the most recent cinematic version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (following The Last Man on Earth in 1964 and The Omega Man in 1971), which offers moviegoers both infectious disease and vampirism.

Fearing a global epidemic is not irrational, as the spread of AIDs and the outbreaks of bird flu in China and foot and mouth disease in Britain have highlighted the danger, but the probability of an unchecked pandemic is much less than Hollywood screenwriters would have you think, and the probability of vampire and zombie attacks approaches nil. But in troubled times, cathartic fear and loathing (the stuff of group paranoia) always plays well at the box office.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

February 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

That “stimulating” New York Post cartoon, recession denial on the American campus, and other strange happenings

With a doffed snow-covered cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon (for borrowing his signature phrase): nobody asked me, but…

WHAT WERE THE EDITORS OF THE NEW YORK POST THINKING WHEN THEY PUBLISHED that now infamous cartoon by Sean Delonas, a cartoon that could be construed (in the words of Foon Rhee of the Boston Globe) to “tie President Obama to a rampaging chimpanzee killed by police,” and therefore might be regarded as racist?

The cartoon linked the recent passage of the economic stimulus package and the shooting of a violent pet chimp in Connecticut. Delonas depicted two police officers looking at the dead chimp, with one remarking: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” (View the cartoon here.)

Al Sharpton quickly attacked the Post: “Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama and has become synonymous with him, it is not a reach to wonder, are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?”

Sam Stein of the Huffington Post echoed Sharpton:

“At its most benign, the cartoon suggests that the stimulus bill was so bad, monkeys may as well have written it. Most provocatively, it compares the president to a rabid chimp. Either way, the incorporation of violence and (on a darker level) race into politics is bound to be controversial.”

For his part, an unrepentant Delonas characterized the uproar as “absolutely friggin’ ridiculous” and told CNN: “Do you really think I’m saying Obama should be shot? I didn’t see that in the cartoon. It’s about the economic stimulus bill. If you’re going to make that about anybody, it would be Pelosi, which it’s not.”

Delonas received support from left-wing editorial cartoonist Ted Rall who said he didn’t think the cartoon was aimed at Obama or that it was racist: “It’s about his economic advisers who wrote the stimulus bill, and they’re a bunch of white guys.”

The editors of the New York Post eventually offered a qualified apology for the cartoon: It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period….But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologise.”

That didn’t quiet the critics, and after threats of a boycott by civil rights groups, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corporation (the owner of the newspaper) had to offer his own apology (“Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted…I can assure you — without a doubt — that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation.”)

Was the cartoon racist? Certainly any use of chimps or monkeys as symbols for black people trades on centuries-old racial caricatures, as Brent Staples of the New York Times pointed out in his piece “The Ape in American Bigotry, From Thomas Jefferson to 2009.” (Yes, Mr. Jefferson made a bizarre connection between male orangutans and black women, according to Staples).

But it’s a stretch to see the Delonas cartoon as deliberately racist: that grants the cartoon more coherence than it deserves. Delonas is guilty of dead-line laziness, trying to graft a high-profile news story (the chimp attack) onto the stimulus package, not racism. And the cartoon consequently makes little sense: the authors of the stimulus (whether Congress or Obama) weren’t stopped (“shot”), so what exactly is Delonas trying to say? Beats me.

Should Americans newspaper editors be sensitive to racial or religious slurs in cartoons and comics, intended or unintended? Yes. The editors at the New York Post should have caught the potential for insult in the Delonas cartoon before publication. (The dangers of cartoonists employing monkey imagery in connection with African-American candidates was a topic of discussion in a media course I taught at NYU last semester, months before the controversy.)

Should they overreact, as did the Washington Post in apologizing preemptively for a humor column (“Monkey Business“) that had absolutely nothing to do with African-Americans? No. I read the column and looked at the allegedly insulting illustration and I couldn’t find any troubling racial overtones, (unless they reside in the psyches of Washington Post editors). Perhaps the apology really should go to Gary Hart, whose presidential bid in 1988 collapsed when it turned out he vacationed with a young woman (not his wife) on a yacht aptly named Monkey Business.

WHAT ARE EDUCATORS THINKING WHEN THEY DON’T, OR WON’T, HELP OUT on behalf of their university during hard economic times? How deeply entrenched is the Culture of Entitlement on America’s college campuses? Endowed professor Florence Babb has challenged the University of Florida’s request that she increase her teaching load to three courses a year. This comes as her university “is slashing its budget and laying off faculty and staff,” according to Inside Higher Education.

Babb argues her appointment letter in 2004 stated she would only have to teach one course a semester, but the University counters that “changing teaching loads is permissible under Florida’s collective bargaining agreement with the union” representing Babb. How does being asked to teach one additional course represent a hardship for Babb (who is highly compensated and has a very light course load)? Beats me.

Another educator (or should that be “educator”?), Jim Calhoun, the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball coach, also is in recession denial. He has openly balked at any discussion of adjusting his out-sized compensation ($1.6 million a year) while his school (and the state of Connecticut) struggles with budget shortfalls. Calhoun’s tirade after being questioned about his salary by a freelance journalist prompted the Governor of Conneticut, M. Jodi Rell, to call it “an embarassing display.”

Yet another sad case of American elites (and college professors and Division I basketball coaches fall in that category) putting personal gain ahead of institutional loyalty. That educators are embracing a “me-first” attitude is particularly unappetizing.

WHAT WAS LIAM NEESON THINKING WHEN HE AGREED TO STAR IN “TAKEN“? Has the talented Irish actor been harboring a secret desire to appear in action-adventure films (a la “The Bourne Identity”)? Neeson’s considerable talents are wasted in a derivative and cliched effort. It’s disappointing because the script for “Taken” is from the usually inventive Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (collaborators on “The Fifth Element”). The plot holes in “Taken” are so gaping that viewers are left wondering whether numerous explanatory scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

WHAT WERE THE BOSTON CELTICS THINKING WHEN THEY SIGNED STEPHON MARBURY, a “me-first” player with a well-deserved reputation for wearing out his welcome? It’s true the defending champs have struggled against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers this season, and Marbury can provide needed backcourt scoring, and Marbury is saying all the right things about his willingness to be a “team player,” but he has caused chemistry problems at all of his prior NBA stops (Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix, and the New York Knicks). Odds are Marbury’s stint in green will end badly.

JOHN RICH’S POPULIST “SHUTTING DETROIT DOWN” has been quite popular on country music stations around the country. Rich, a John McCain supporter (who wrote a campaign song for the Arizona Senator “Raising McCain“), is closer to the Main Street wing of the Republican Party, which remains suspicious of Northeastern elites, including the Wall Streeters who generously supported George W. Bush. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

SIGN OF THE TIMES: “Honk if you are paying my mortgage,” hand-lettered sign on the back of a pick-up truck, spied on the Henry Hudson Parkway near the George Washington Bridge on the last day of February, 2009.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AUTHOR AND PHILOSOPHER HANNAH ARENDT (1906-1975): “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

May 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Those helpful higher oil prices, Sinbad and snipers, an explosive ‘Iron Man,’ and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THERE IS A CONTRARIAN VIEW, TO WHICH I SUBSCRIBE, THAT MAINTAINS SUSTAINED HIGHER OIL PRICES could prove to be a positive development in the end. To the extent that elevated oil prices encourage industrialized nations to shift away from fossil fuels and turn to alternatives like wind, solar and conservation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), the recent price surge could represent the proverbial blessing in disguise.

While I’m not ready to join MarketWatch columnist Chris Pummer in rooting for $8-a-gallon gas prices, the positive “green” ramifications of increased demand for oil, and pressure on prices, are hard to ignore. It will make it easier for Congress to support tax credits for alternative forms of energy, and it should spur private sector efforts for solar and wind power.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a report suggesting that the U.S. could derive 30% of its electricity from wind power by 2030 (up from the current 1%). For the market to work its magic, however, the cost of wind power must be competitive with that of oil and coal generated electricty.

WILL FUTURE HISTORIANS SEE COMEDIAN SINBAD’S DEBUNKING OF HILLARY CLINTON’S BOSNIAN SNIPER story as the pivotal moment in the Democratic Party 2008 presidential race? Sinbad, who had accompanied Clinton to Bosnia in 1996, refuted the New York Senator’s claim of a harrowing, corkscrew landing at the Tusla airport, and a harrowing dash across the tarmac to avoid possible snipers (“She lied. It’s on video. There’s no other side to it, because it’s on video.”) The exposure of Clinton’s fabrication helped deflect attention from Sen. Barack Obama’s emerging problems (Bittergate, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) and raised renewed questions about her own credibility at a critical juncture in the campaign.

WHEN IS A RECESSION NOT A RECESSION? It doesn’t raise confidence in practitioners in the dismal science to learn that economists can’t agree on whether the U.S. has slid into a slowdown or is suffering from a recession. Deciding where in the business cycle we are is an academic question, in one sense, but that designation carries great significance in an election year.

HAVE THE MERITOCRATIC ORIGINS OF THE SAT BEEN FORGOTTEN? As Smith College and Wake Forest University decide to abandon the SAT Reasoning Test as an admissions tool, let’s not forget that the SAT was originally established to introduce greater fairness in college admissions. A standardized test, it was thought, would allow schools to compare talented public high school students with those educated in elite private schools.

IN A GREAT HOLLYWOOD TRADITION, THE NEW FILM “IRON MAN” HAS IT BOTH WAYS, attacking the violent business of war and yet delighting in high tech pyrotechnics and massive explosions. Best moment of the movie: Jim “Mad Money” Cramer’s over-the-top cameo where he complains: “It’s a weapons company that doesn’t make weapons!”

SPEAK, MEMORY? HOW PLASTIC ARE OUR MEMORIES? Rob Walker’s Sunday New York Times Magazine article “Can a Dead Brand Live Again?” has a fascinating take on the question of human memory. Walker reviewed research on consumer’s memories of brands from the past.

The researchers found that subjects presented with a fake Disney World ad inviting them to “remember the characters of your youth: Mickey, Goofy . . . ” were significantly more likely to say they recalled that as children they had met “a favorite TV character at a theme resort” than those who didn’t see the ad. The fascinating thing was what happened when they repeated the experiment, tweaking the ads to include Bugs Bunny, who, of course, is not a Disney character at all. About 16 percent of subjects subsequently claimed that, as children, they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at a Disney theme park. Repeated fake-ad exposure apparently led to higher false-memory rates.

If the research is to be believed, then it is frighteningly easy to mold our memories of the past. Shades of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, where the past is constantly being revised.

FROM PHILIP K. DICK, SCIENCE FICTION AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE COMES THIS month’s closing words of wisdom: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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August 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

Fisking Robert Fisk’s 9/11 fantasies, a farewell to the Scooter, and other observations…

With a tip of the cap to legendary New York newspaperman Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

“FISKING” IS THE TERM COINED FOR THE PUBLIC DEBUNKING (by bloggers, journalists, and other critics) of claims made by British journalist Robert Fisk. A quick glance at “Robert Fisk: Even I question the ‘truth’ about 9/11” which appeared in The Independent in late August, helps explain why Fisk’s reporting raises so many eyebrows.

In his article, Fisk tries to distance himself from the more extreme elements of the 9/11 Truth Movement (the “ravers” he calls them) but then announces: “I am increasingly troubled at the inconsistencies in the official narrative of 9/11.” Fisk proceeds to list a number of these “inconsistencies,” which turn out to be a cobbled-together list of rhetorical questions that are favorites of the conspiracy theorists.

Fisking Fisk’s 9/11 questions is quite simple. Here are the answers to the four major questions he poses:

1. ”[W]here are the aircraft parts (engines, etc) from the attack on the Pentagon?” Much of the aircraft, a Boeing 757, was destroyed upon impact, but there are numerous photos of the wreckage of American Airlines Flight 77. You can find them here, here, and a photo of what’s left of an engine here, along with other wreckage photos and extensive eyewitness accounts of the debris found inside the Pentagon. (What’s really behind this question? Some 9/11 conspiracy theorists claim a missile slammed into the Pentagon, not the jet.)

2. “Why did flight 93’s debris spread over miles when it was supposed to have crashed in one piece in a field?” Some debris from Flight 93 did spread after impact, which is common in such commercial airline crashes, but not nearly as far as 9/11 conspiracy theorists assert. The “wide-spread debris theory” is thoroughly debunked here and here. (What’s behind the question? Many conspiracy theorists claim that Flight 93 was shot down by a military aircraft, a scenario which would produce scattered debris).

3. ”If it is true, for example, that kerosene burns at 820C under optimum conditions, how come the steel beams of the twin towers – whose melting point is supposed to be about 1,480C – would snap through at the same time?” This represents a complete misunderstanding of the causes of the Twin Towers collapse. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) concluded after a three-year study that “the impact of the planes severed and damaged support columns and dislodged fireproofing insulation coating the steel floor trusses and steel columns, which meant that the subsequent fire, which reached 1000 degrees Celsius, weakened the floors and columns to the point where they bowed and buckled, causing the towers to collapse.” (What’s behind this question? Many conspiracy theorists contend that the Twin Towers were brought down by controlled demolition, refusing to accept the conclusions of NIST and other scientific studies.)

I would encourage Fisk, and other 9/11 doubters, to take the time to watch this simulation of a jet hitting one of the towers, developed at Purdue University, to better understand how impact led to the collapse.

4. ”What about the third tower – the so-called World Trade Centre Building 7 (or the Salmon Brothers Building) – which collapsed in 6.6 seconds in its own footprint at 5.20pm on 11 September? Why did it so neatly fall to the ground when no aircraft had hit it?” While no aircraft hit WTC 7 directly, the building was badly damaged by debris from the collapse of nearby WTC 1. NIST’s working hypothesis is that WTC 7 fell because of the collapse of a critical column due to “fire and/or debris induced structural damage.” And the actual collapse of WTC 7 took longer, some 15-18 seconds (according to the seismic data), much of this activity not evident on the videos of the collapse.

My questions for Fisk would be: did you do any research on 9/11 before writing your piece? Talk to civil engineers? Read the NIST reports? You would be asking a different set of questions if you did.

A VERY STRONG ARGUMENT CAN BE MADE THAT “THE LIVES OF OTHERS,” last year’s Oscar winner for best foreign-language film was flat-out the best film of 2006 in any language. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, now available on DVD, follows an East German Stasi agent assigned to spy on a playwright and his actress girlfriend and traces the compromises and betrayals that become tragically common in a police state. The acting in the film is superb, understated and yet emotionally moving.

A Hollywood remake, in English, is slated for 2010, although it is hard to imagine it having the power or authenticity of the original.

AMMUNITION FOR ANTI-MONARCHISTS: news from Norway that Princess Märtha Louise is looking to charge people for teaching how to communicate with angels. “Now, some are calling for her to renounce her royal title” according to Der Spiegel. At least the embarrassing family members (Billy Carter, Margaret Trudeau, Cécilia Sarkozy, Neil Bush, etc.) of leaders in democratic countries eventually fade from sight when the leader leaves office.

I MET FORMER YANKEE GREAT PHIL RIZZUTO some 33 years ago, in 1974, when he was in Boston announcing a Yankees-Red Sox game. Rizzuto stopped by WEEI, where I was working as a weekend news writer, to record a syndicated radio spot. The diminutive Hall of Famer proved to be more than happy to talk baseball with a teenager. Nicknamed the “Scooter,” Rizzuto, who died August 13 at the age of 89, was an unaffected and genuinely warm man. Vale!

YOGI BERRA, a teammate of Phil Rizzuto and noted American philosopher, provides this month’s words of wisdom: “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Hollywood’s CIA fantasies and “The Good Shepherd”

Why is it so hard for Hollywood to make a compelling and serious film about the Central Intelligence Agency?

Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd (2006), recently released on DVD, like so many other formulaic movie treatments of the CIA, recycles the same tired old anti-Langley themes. It’s a shame, for DeNiro has assembled a talented cast and he focuses the movie on a fascinating time for America’s new intelligence agency, the period from the CIA’s post-World War II inception to the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

What greatly hampers The Good Shepherd is the apparent unwillingness by DeNiro, or his screenwriter, Eric Roth, to take seriously the reasons for the creation of the CIA: the clear and present danger represented by a Stalinist Soviet Union, and the need—first enunciated by Harry S Truman—for accurate intelligence on its expansionist designs. Roth’s flat screenplay is a puzzlement—he is credited with scripting both Munich and Forrest Gump and so he knows how to tell a story and how to deal with ambiguity, but he does neither in The Good Shepherd.

CIA fantasies

That Hollywood has a CIA problem shouldn’t come as a surprise. With few exceptions American producers, directors, and screenwriters hold left-of-center political views; consequently, it seems, they regard the CIA as an unnecessary and distasteful legacy of the Cold War, or a villainous organization willing to commit all sorts of heinous crimes to insure American hegemony in the world.

Other recent films from the “Left Coast” reflect those prejudices: see, for example, the conspiracy-fueled Syriana (2005) where the CIA blithely assassinates a Middle Eastern leader via a Predator-drone-delivered missile, or any of the recent Robert Ludlum-inspired Jason Bourne films where CIA executives calmly approve the murder of apostate agents. (The notion that the CIA has the proverbial “license to kill” ignores the history of the past 15 or 20 years, where any CIA covert action has required the clearance of battalions of government lawyers to say nothing of direct presidential approval). True, these are thrillers, not bound to reality, but their negative portrayal of the CIA speaks to the Hollywood mindset.

Despite DeNiro’s comments in some PR interviews that he wanted to offer a more nuanced history of the CIA, the underlying negative point-of-view behind these other “above-the-law” CIA fantasies also informs The Good Shepherd. That is artistically problematic, however, since it insures that what reaches the screen is ideologically-driven and clichéd (so much so that I kept looking for an appearance by Chris Cooper, Hollywood’s favorite all-American CIA/military villain). It certainly doesn’t make for anywhere near as authentic or entertaining art as would a movie with more ambiguity and an appreciation for the moral dilemmas of espionage. (Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t all wrong when he counseled: “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”)

What goes missing in is a sense of why the CIA exists, and why people are drawn to work for such an organization (patriotism? thrills? the intellectual challenge? a mixture of these motives?). We never get a sense of the conflicts that arise in operating an intelligence agency in an open society that prizes the rule of law. The nature of the Soviet threat is never explored, nor the historical debate over the best way of addressing Soviet gambits in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and whether containment would prove effective as a strategy or more aggressive “roll back” tactics should be employed.

The CIA as social club

Instead, in The Good Shepherd we get the CIA as Yale’s Skull and Bones writ large, a secret society aimed at defending establishment male privilege (or so the movie suggests). While it’s true that the OSS, and then the CIA, had Ivy League roots, the history of the period suggests that the men and women attracted to the CIA—especially the adventurers drawn to covert work—saw themselves as enlisting in an ideological struggle against Communism, not joining a post-college social club.

Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, The Good Shepherd’s repressed upper crust protagonist, as such a cipher that we can never quite understand what motivates or drives him. The tag-line for the movie proclaims, “Edward Wilson believed in America, and he would sacrifice everything he loved to protect it,” but it’s never clear that Wilson believes in much of anything, let alone America, or that he is capable of love. Damon’s emotionless performance made me long for a voice-over narration for some sense of the character’s interior life—not a positive sign for a movie. No doubt the idea of Wilson as a bloodless WASP was drawn from the real-life CIA mole-hunter James Jesus Angleton, but centering The Good Shepherd on this humorless workaholic robs the movie of any humanity.

The Good Shepherd explores the CIA’s misguided role in 1950s coups in Latin America and elsewhere, the continuing espionage battles with the KGB, and the agency’s Kennedy-inspired early 1960s obsession with Cuba. There’s no context to this, however, no Stalin, Beria, Mao, Korean War, Berlin Wall or Hungarian revolution, and the screenplay suggests that the CIA remained more interested in protecting American business interests in Cuba and Latin America than in countering Soviet aggression.

The CIA’s role in gathering and analyzing intelligence is slighted (no surprise) in favor of covert skulduggery. Among American films, perhaps only Patriot Games (1992) has tried to capture the pain-staking work of solving the intelligence puzzle that is at the heart of what spy agencies actually do.

That those who work for the CIA are also corrupt or motivated by elitism is another recurring theme in The Good Shepherd. Thus we have a Mafia capo, Joseph Palmi, questioning Wilson/Damon about his world view in this exchange:

Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish they have the homeland; Jews, their tradition; even the niggas, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?

Wilson: The United States of America…and the rest of you are just visiting.

In this ham-handed bit of WASP-bashing we are meant to see that Wilson’s patriotism (if it can be called that) is sparked solely by elitism. But does DeNiro really want us to conclude that the Cold War was about defending the right to exclude Italians, Irish, Jews, and blacks from establishment country clubs? And weren’t the most aggressive “clients” of the CIA, the ones pushing for assassinations and muscular covert action —Jack and Bobby Kennedy—Irish Catholics?

Flirting with Bruckheimerism

In an attempt to balance The Good Shepherd‘s thinly-veiled ideology with entertainment, DeNiro flirts with elements of Bruckheimerism—that Hollywood penchant , perfected by the producer Jerry Bruckheimer, for grand-scale blockbusters filled with violence and car-chases aimed at 17-year-old suburban boys. While DeNiro does not employ much “bang-bang” in The Good Shepherd (it actually might have given the film some needed zip), he does aspire for something grand—the PR for the film calls it “an epic drama.” (Some reports have suggested DeNiro sees the potential for a Godfather-like series of films on the CIA).

This fascination with the epic is yet another mistake—the characters get lost in the narrative sweep, and the underlying family drama seems manufactured and contrived. To provide some structure to the film, DeNiro resorts to popping up every 20 minutes as the character Bill Sullivan to provide us an awkward explanation for the latest turn in CIA history.

Spy stories don’t translate well into epics. Some of the better espionage films have been quiet, focused on a simple tale. Think of The Third Man (1949), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), the BBC mini-series based on John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982), The Conversation (1974), The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Patriot Games (1992), and, more recently, Steven Spielberg’s much-under-rated Munich (2005), which was criticized by some for the very ambiguity that, laudably, challenged the viewer’s pre-conceptions.

The best spots in The Good Shepherd are the quieter parts of the film. Tammy Blanchard is marvelous as Wilson’s college love interest, the deaf student Laura; Oleg Stefan makes a believable KGB foil; and Michael Gambon’s British agent/university don adds some needed color. When DeNiro narrows his directorial focus, and gives the actors some space and time, The Good Shepherd begins to intrigue. It makes you wish that DeNiro had chosen to adapt Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper, which covers the same historical territory but in a much more personal way, or even Ward Just’s post 9/11 novel Forgetfulness.

Don’t expect Hollywood to change the formula anytime in the near future. This summer Turner Network Television will broadcast The Company, a series based on the epic—yes, another epic—CIA novel by Robert Littell on the history of the agency. A hint as to the likely villains in this cinematic exercise: they won’t reside in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.

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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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An under-appreciated “300”

The critics who have lambasted 300, the new movie retelling the story of the heroic Spartan stand against the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae, have it all wrong—they just haven’t appreciated the movie for its distinctive cinematic virtues.

Some are offended by what they see as the film’s political incorrectness (Dana Stevens of Slate, for one); others by its historical liberties, comic book sensibility and non-stop video-game violence. The Iranians, we learn, object to the movie’s portrayal of their legendary Persian emperor, Xerxes, and his invading army as populated by mutant sexual deviants, some muttering that the whole thing is meant to prepare the U.S. for war with Iran.

But 300 has virtues which its critics would be well-served to reconsider. Here are just five!

First, director Zack Snyder made the inspired decision not to cast bodybuilders in the leading female roles. Since the Spartan men all look like steroid-enhanced extras from Pumping Iron, (the 1977 movie about body builders that introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno to American audiences), Snyder must have been tempted to extend the hyper-muscularity to the women in the movie. He resisted, thankfully. Since there is nothing less aesthetically pleasing than a female bodybuilder (except perhaps a fully oiled and pumped-up male bodybuilder), Snyder did viewers a favor by showing this restraint.

By the way, Snyder apparently did not realize that cut 12-pack abs and bulging pecs were not de rigueur in Sparta or Athens, even if they are highly prized in L.A.’s gyms.

The second under-appreciated virtue of 300? The lead actors read their lines—and the dialogue is far superior to that in either Conan the Barbarian or Conan the Conquerer, despite what you may have heard—in plummy English accents, as is the unwritten convention for “sword and sandal” movies.

Why is this, you may wonder? Perhaps because what might sound like a clunky howler in a New York accent rises to almost Shakespearean dignity when delivered in an Oxbridge voice. In 300 this holds true except for the character of King Leonidas, Gerard Butler, whose accent is pure Edinburgh burr—which left me wondering how a Scot snuck into the Greco-Roman Actors Guild.

Again, this isn’t appreciated by the critics. Imagine if it had been, say, Kevin Costner, as one of the key Spartans. Remember his memorable performance in Robin Hood where he played Sherwood Forest’s favorite outlaw with an uninflected Southern California blandness? (On the other hand, English actor Stephen Fry recently observed that Americans wrongly assume acting talent whenever they hear a clipped Brit accent.)

Third, why hasn’t the homage to other manly films been properly appreciated by critics? 300 openly lifts Gladiator’s sun-dappled golden field of wheat, patiently-waiting wife in clinging white robes, and the high female voice (Azam Ali) warbling plaintive faux-classical world music lyrics (it’s a language singer Lisa Gerrard invented which sounds like GreekLatinWhatever) to background flutes and violins. And 300’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) could be a ringer for Gladiator’s Princess Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Don’t forget 300’s last battle scene—taken almost directly from Braveheart. Or the creepy AC/DC Living God affect for Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) borrowed from Jaye Davidson’s Egyptian/alien Ra in Stargate. Or the hunchback Gollum-like character, Ephialtes, courtesy of Lord of the Rings.

Look at it another way: why bother inventing new scenes when you can liberate tried-and-true ones from other testosterone-laden movies? And 300 does throw in some high culture references—like the final image of King Leonidas pierced with arrows, mirroring Christian iconography of Saint Sebastian, as a way of signalling to high brows that, like the Wachowski brothers, Snyder reads more than just comic books.

Fourth, the clever leverage of computer-generated imagery (CGI) to give 300 that proper epic feel (with clashing armies of thousands) has not received the praise it deserves for its efficiency and economy—employing this technique meant that director Snyder saved billions of lei that otherwise would have been spent on renting the Romanian army (or some similarly impoverished former Iron Curtain military) to act as extras, or abusing animals (like the rhino and elephants and horses), an outrage that would have angered PETA, et. al.

Finally, shouldn’t Snyder be admired for his inventiveness in lovingly showing stabbings, slashings, appendage amputations, beheadings, and spear impalings in all their slow motion bloodiness? This lets us ponder the horror of war. I think. Or perhaps appeal to the video gamers. Whatever, as they say in Orange County. And isn’t it important to prove to Al Qaeda and other amateur cinéastes that any horrors they can video, Hollywood can top? American innovation and all that.

Considering all this, Zack Snyder shouldn’t be blamed for any bitterness when 300 is shut out at the Academy Awards next year. But shouldn’t the film at least be a contender for best comedy of the year?

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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (February 16th, 2007)

As Jimmy Cannon, columnist extraordinaire, used to say, “Nobody asked me, but…”

NEW YORK CITY MAY BE LOSING SOME GROUND TO LONDON as a center for financial markets, but the Big Apple will remain the world’s capital of media, publishing, fashion, art, and pop culture whether or not some investments move from Wall Street to The City. The longer-term threat to New York’s reputation as the Center of the Universe will come not from London, but from Shanghai, another port city with economic vitality, ambitious people, and a long tradition of cosmopolitanism.

YOU CAN GAUGE AL GORE’S HUNGER FOR THE PRESIDENCY by checking out the size of his waistline. If he’s eager to be drafted as a compromise candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination looking as bloated as he did at the Grammy Awards—presenting the “Best Album” award to the Red Hot Chili Peppers along with co-presenter Queen Latifah (a bizarre grouping that could occur only in America)—doesn’t send the appropriately telegenic message that he’s fit, trim and ready to run.

Steve Kornacki of the New York Observer (itself recently trimmed into tabloid format) reports that Gore continues to weigh a 2008 run, but is delaying a decision until September, hoping to remain above the fray, and “…use the time to hit the gym and sweat off some of the weight he piled on the months after he conceded the 2000 race to President Bush.”

Before I face accusations of weightism, I’ll confess that I empathize with Gore on this (weighty) issue—it’s very hard to cut out enough carbs to get the bathroom scale needle headed in the right (and healthier) direction.

Gore will definitely stay in the public eye over the next few months. There is his likely Best Documentary Oscar win for “An Inconvenient Truth” on Feb. 25, and his “Live Earth ” climate change concert (Gore just announced the musical lineup this week) that will be a huge summer event. Meanwhile, long-time Gore backers assemble a draft campaign, and the former Vice President’s Gallup poll numbers swing up. Could it happen? Never say never.

As to the upcoming presidential race, when I recently suggested to a savvy Democratic pollster I know that the Electoral College map looked promising for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s ’08 presidential run, he demurred, arguing that Clinton could run into trouble in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania. He was sandbagging, in my view. With a Democratic governor, two Democrats in the Senate and a congressional delegation tilting blue, the tide is running Mrs. Clinton’s way.

The reality: it’s difficult to imagine Sen. Clinton losing any of the blue states carried by John Kerry in 2004, even if she is facing Rudy Guiliani or John McCain. If she carries Ohio (where the polls show her leading) , or Florida (where her husband is a decided plus in the black and Jewish communities), then Hillary Clinton becomes the first female president of the United States.

SUPPORT AMONG COUNTRY MUSIC ARTISTS FOR THE BUSH ADMINSTRATION’S IRAQ POLICY is waning, a development noted by the Boston Globe editorial board in its commentary “Speak up and sing.”

The Globe points out that the Dixie Chicks, outspoken in their dislike of President Bush, just won five Grammy Awards and that the music of other country singers, like Merle Haggard, Darryl Worley and Trace Adkins is reflecting a growing disillusionment with the Iraq war.

What the Globe editorial obscures, however, is that singers like Toby Keith, with his “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and Darryl Worley (“Have You Forgotten?”) wrote tough songs in response to the 9/11 attacks. Keith for one, says he opposed the Iraq war.

Country music singers are patriots, not partisans; many are blue-collar Democrats, including Keith, Tim McGraw (who apparently has political ambitions), Hal Ketchum (a member of the Music Row Democrats, along with Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith), and Billy Ray Cyrus (whose “We the People” became candidate Bush’s 2000 campaign theme song).

That isn’t to say there are many Nashville pacifists; country music’s roots are in the ballads brought to America by the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachian mountains and valleys, known for their sometimes violent frontier culture founded on male honor and religiosity. The Scots-Irish became a willing source of manpower for the American military for centuries.

As Walter Mead Russell pointed out in his 1999 National Interest article “The Jacksonian Tradition,” and James Webb reiterated in his book “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” America’s Scots-Irish have little patience for limited wars: they believe in fighting to win, and winning quickly. That helps explain, in part, why the Bush Administration has seen support for its adventure in Iraq slip in Red States.

PRESIDENTIAL WANNABE JOE BIDEN has provided ample comic relief these past few weeks with his “let Joe Biden be Joe Biden” and “Barack Obama is clean and articulate” riffs. But the Maryland Senator is not always clownish; his op-ed piece in the Miami Herald calling for the immediate opening of the Nazi archives at Bad Arolsen for Holocaust survivors, historians and researchers is public service at its best.

Germany and other European countries are foot-dragging on this because of “privacy concerns, logistical problems associated with making the records widely accessible and fears of new legal claims,” but the real reason, I suspect, is embarrassment over the tale of complicity and inhumanity the files will tell. Biden is right to call for an immediate opening of the records, before it is too late for the many aged survivors.

OUR WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from the great New England poet Robert Frost: “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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