Archive for December, 2011

PopMatters Best Albums of 2011 Entry – Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: PopMatters is running its year-end Best Music of 2011 feature over the next week or two. I have contributed a couple of entries to these list features, which I will link to from this blog. Click on the link to go to the page with my entry, but do check out the whole list if you have time as well.

The 75 Best Albums of 2011 – #25 – Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials


Categories: Music, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun with Search Engine Terms #2

December 11, 2011 5 comments

Back by popular demand and specific request, I’d like to share the most amusing, interesting, and occasionally head-scratching recent search engine terms that have pointed web users in the direction of Random Dangling Mystery. The last post of this sort is from July, and can be seen here. Perhaps this will become a biennial feature. Or perhaps not. This blog aims to be nothing if not inscrutable. Let’s do fifteeen terms again. Once again, enjoy.

sociologist riot london

The new clubhouse leader for search term hits, dwarfing Amare Stoudemire’s glasses. The way it’s worded always puts me in mind of a riot conducted by mild-mannered academics with tenure, which would likely resemble a slightly wild cocktail mixer at a library.

anonymous movie historical accuracy

I engineered a bit of a purposeful SEO with this post’s title, but it’s proven popular nonetheless. Of all the film-related posts I’ve done, the most viewed is about a movie I haven’t seen and probably wouldn’t pay to watch. Go figure. One would certainly hope that the googlers had considerable doubts about said historicity, but perhaps I give them too much credit.

inception dradle

It’s called a “totem”. Meshuggah goys.

four lions waj confused face

I just took a picture of my face, and it’s deffo not my confused face.

william & catherine a royal romance flower

These little doggies are barking up the wrong tree entirely.

murderer from the ugly bones

A detailed explanation of the concept of irony is evidently in order.

the ozarks winters bum

That’s the gay porn parody, isn’t it?


Why, thank you. I think.

art bizarre sadomasochism

That’s the best description of Picasso I’ve ever heard.

retarded cartoon dinosaur

I believe the preferred term is “developmentally-delayed animated extinct prehistoric reptile”.

is steve kloves to blame

As long as there are absolutely no follow-up questions: yes. Yes, he is. Fully.

chris bosh looks like a raptor

Not anymore. Now he looks like a… Heat? A Hot? Something warm, anyway.

rob ford and raccoon

I smell a sex scandal brewing.

are there raccoons in a circus?

Not as of yet, but I wouldn’t put anything past those kooky Quebecois acrobats. “Our new spectaculaire is entitled Procyon. We shall frolick entrancingly through chimerical piles of refuse for two hours, then conclude by taking a whimsical shit on your roof! Tickets start at $150! Magnifique!”

do raccoons have biceps

They will by Procyon‘s opening night, I have been assured.

“The Red Prince” and the Downfall of Nationalist Self-Determination

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Timothy Snyder’s The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke is an ambitious if curiously-tilted history of a relatively minor figure whom the author constructs as symbolizing grander and deeper shifts in the social and political order of the continent in the twentieth century. Snyder sees Wilhelm von Habsburg as a microcosmic figure, his ideological affiliations and identity self-constructions revealing something fundamental about the changing Europe of the past century, if more through contrast than through reflection. Working from this perspective, Snyder inflates the mildly interesting life of a man of passable accomplishments into a half-remembered myth, or perhaps it’s the extraordinary times and places that Wilhelm lived in that do the inflating.

Born into the waning days of the shrinking Habsburg state that we now refer to (not entirely accurately) as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wilhelm was a younger son of an archduke without a throne to inherit, and both father and son, in the soon-to-be-passé mode of their monarchy, settled on potential territories to reign over. Rebelling from his father’s (and older brothers’) state of choice (Poland), Wilhelm identified with the people and culture of Ukraine, and backed up this identification, in the long tradition in Habsburg pan-nationalist adaptation, by learning the language, wearing the clothing, commanding the military units, and adopting the interests and causes of Ukraine. If his political affiliations and the nature of his efforts underwent drastic modifications over his adult life, then Wilhelm’s main aim never did: the creation of an independent Ukrainian state, preferably with himself at its head as dynastic monarch.

As students of history will know, Ukraine did not achieve independence for more than seven decades after Wilhelm began striving for it just before the First World War. By the same token, Wilhelm never came especially close to creating a Ukrainian state or to mounting a Ukrainian throne, despite numerous plans, schemes, and plots with that aim in mind. The Red Prince, then, is an annal of failure, ending abruptly with Wilhelm’s anticlimactic capture by Stalin’s secret police and death in prison in 1948. It seeks to define an era not by focusing on the grand accomplishments of great men, as so much historical inquiry already has, but by focusing on the various misfires of a man who ought to have been great, but never really was.

Certainly Snyder’s research is impeccable, and his writing can range from sturdy to compelling to awkwardly quasi-poetic to ludicrously hagiographic (who could really possibly care that Wilhelm really, really loved his cat?). But in telling Wilhelm’s interesting enough but hardly revelatory story, he mostly skims over the much more fascinating characters who cross the Habsburg’s path, among them serial intriguers like Paulette Couyba and Trebitsch Lincoln. Additionally, although Snyder makes some mention of Otto von Habsburg, the one-time pretender to the Austro-Hungarian throne who became one of the architects of the European Union, he doesn’t seem to think that the more prominent Habsburg’s narrative arc (who did not have the best of relationships with the book’s main subject) says more about the historical trajectory of Europe than does Wilhelm’s, and that seems a little off to me.

But perhaps Snyder is on to something with his reading of Wilhelm as an atavistic figure in the history of Europe. The vaunted Community that Wilhelm’s rival Otto worked so hard to erect, only ever an economic union that was always already riven by fissures in national identity, now seems to be teetering on the edge of collapse. Although nationalism is not as destructive a force on the continent as it has been in the past, it is still undeniably strong and absolutist in terms of the self-definition of citizenship. This element of Wilhelm von Habsburg, his capacity for choosing his nation, is the one quality that Snyder finds most attractive about him (certainly more so than his assumptions of aristocratic privilege or his playboy dissolution).

Yet it is a quality that is not borne out in the EU, let alone in Wilhelm’s chosen nation, the non-EU Ukraine. A supra-national schematic that allows for economic participation in another nation does not make one a citizen of that nation. Although the pitiless racial nationalism of the Nazis has been repudiated, national belonging is still mostly assumed to be a matter of birth and inheritance. There would thus not only be some legal question to Wilhelm’s assumption of a Ukrainian identity, but a more amorphous and symbolic question as well: is nationality a simple matter of choice, or is it more determined than that?

The Red Prince does not exactly answer this question, nor should it be expected to provide a cut-and-dry solution, but Snyder’s sympathies clearly lie with the freedom of nationalist self-determination. That most European states do not seem to agree, at least on the level of public policy, is a statement on the nature of the ideological forces that endured through a messy century of war and strife and those viewpoints that have atrophied away to quaint insignificance. As elegantly as Snyder can sometimes make his case for the Habsburg conception of national identity that Wilhelm personified, there’s little question that this conception has lost its foothold on the continent. Nations are not created, they simply exist, and men who are not already a part of them cannot make themselves so. Wilhelm, Snyder, and even I may not like to accept that, but it seems to be the path that has been chosen.

Film Review: In The Loop

December 7, 2011 Leave a comment

In The Loop (2009; Directed by Armando Iannucci)

Despite frequent instances of foul-mouthed inspiration, Armando Iannucci’s biting, pitiless political satire doesn’t quite add up to the kind of wide-ranging critique of those who make public and foreign policy that it is attempting to achieve. In The Loop is most definitely a whirling expose of a world where vicious pitbulls stay ahead and decent conscientious actors are shuffled violently offstage, and its wit is more than often jagged enough to draw blood, but its insight is as superficial as it is cynical.

You said bad words! Meanie!

Although this is a full cast list with many interlocking and interacting personalities, the central vicious pitbull and conscientious actor, respectively, are the British Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) and MP Simon Foster (Tom Hollander). The wankly nebbish Foster sets the wheels of the plot in motion by producing a few stumbling soundbytes on an impending war in an unnamed Middle Eastern country (the Bush-Blair intervention in Iraq is the obvious reference point). These quotes, despite being highly equivocal (the initial “war is unforeseeable” is certainly that, though a later metaphor about “climbing the mountain of conflict” is perhaps leaning towards a more hawkish tone), are seized on by pro-war agitators in the government of America, who are arranging the deck chairs for an imminent invasion.

Tucker, a flame-throwing Scot who speaks pretty much entirely in creative, obscenity-laced insults (Capaldi relishes every nasty syllable), starts off working against military action before colluding with a supercilious State Department bureaucrat (David Rasche as an evidently conservative chickenhawk who keeps what he claims to be a live hand grenade on his desk) to manufacture the shady war in question. There’s also another US appointee (Mimi Kennedy) working against them, supported not-so-ably by her assistant (Anna Chlumsky), who has written a derided (but feared) policy paper arguing against armed intervention, and an imposing anti-war general (James Gandolfini), who occupies the Colin Powell role in this particular orbit.

The friction created by these characters can be entertaining enough, but the lean satire of the rush to war in Iraq is saddled with less lithe subplots. Much of the film is filtered through a floppy-haired beanpole Special Advisor to Foster (Chris Addison), a fount for inadvertent press leaks whose relationship with another press agent (Olivia Poulet) is sundered by an inebriated dalliance on a state trip to Washington. There’s also a goof on local constituency politics featuring a collapsing wall and Steve Coogan in a skull cap (proving that not only American films can find ways to waste his talents) that snowballs into an unlikely scandal for Foster, which proves quite useful for blackmailing purposes when he chooses to resist the rush to war.

Perhaps it is In The Loop’s uncompromisingly cynical view, its complete certainty of the inevitable corruption of power, that defuses the ringing, caustic wit of its dialogue. Perhaps its exceedingly rare sympathetic figures are too foolish and pathetic to earn our compassion as they are torn down by their less scrupulous peers (you feel none of the grudging kinship for the characters that was engendered in the far superior and much funnier Four Lions, which was also co-written by two of this film’s screenwriters, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell). Or maybe it reaches for too many brass rings of satire and loses focus on the promising target of the political selling of the Iraq war. Whatever the reasons for doubt are, and as sharp and funny as it can be in individual moments, In The Loop is not quite the razorwire satire it sets out to be. Unfortunate, because all of the components are in place and the fuse is lit, but the explosion never quite goes off.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

PopMatters Film Feature – The Beauty and the Horror: Peter Jackson’s King Kong – Part 2

December 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: Over the past week, PopMatters has been publishing my multi-part feature essay on the social, political, and cultural meanings of the three canonical King Kong films. Click on the title below to go to the concluding article.

The Beauty and the Horror: Peter Jackson’s King Kong – Part 2




Categories: Culture, Film, History, Reviews

PopMatters Best Songs of 2011 Entry – Coldplay – “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”

December 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: PopMatters is running its year-end Best Music of 2011 feature over the next week or two. I have contributed a couple of entries to these list features, which I will link to from this blog. Click on the link to go to the page with my entry, but do check out the whole list if you have time as well.

The 75 Best Songs of 2011: #57 Coldplay – “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”



Categories: Music, Reviews

Newt Gingrich and “Conservative Intellectualism”

December 4, 2011 7 comments

One major aspect of the current Republican Presidential Nomination race that I did not comment on in my recent post on the subject was the sudden polling surge of Newt Gingrich. I held off because the indications of the increase in his support from GOP base support were then rather fresh, and this has been a primary characterized by wild and insensible swings in polling preference from the evidently fickle and easily-persuaded sample population (remember when Donald Trump was leading the polls? Yeah, exactly). But Newt’s numbers have not only sustained themselves but even grown, so a word or two on his unlikely rise seems to be demanded.

I knew I shouldn't have had those prunes before this appeareance...

Gingrich still faces a lot of obstacles (most of them of his own making) on the road to the nomination and would seem to have few realistic prospects in the general election against a seasoned political campaigner (if also a widely-doubted governing figure) like Barack Obama. But his return from relative political obscurity to front-runner status should not, perhaps, be so surprising.

Despite his ample personal liabilities, Gingrich has achieved a neat trick that I believe explains his current resurgence: he has become a pure conduit for the uncompromising rhetoric of incoherent conservative ideology. He has succeeded in subsuming his identity to the expression of a cause that conceives of itself as revolutionary in scope. The American Right boasts no shortage of enthusiasts for hyperbolic comparisons of Obama to communist leaders, but at the same time its ideological denizens have demonstrated a particular susceptibility to the stark propagandistic strokes favoured by the sort of populist demagogues they claim to fear. After all, what is Fox News but the state propaganda network of a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship simply waiting to be implemented?

Gingrich speaks the language of the (counter-)revolutionary conservative movement, and he does so with Southern verve and bloviating quasi-intellectualism (Andrew Sullivan recently and memorable described him as “a dumb person’s idea of a smart person”). The right has a curious relationship to intellectualism. Outwardly, they deride it loudly, setting their purportedly “common sense” popular-touch ideas in opposition to the eggheaded ivory-tower wisdom of their liberal antagonists. But there is also an obvious hunger for the appearance of scholarly rigour that supports the conservative worldview. Glenn Beck once typified this, with his professorial blackboards, book recommendations, and suggestions of vast hidden webs of interrelations. That his musings descended into cartoonish paranoia and anti-Semitism and eroded his audience share does not diminish the evident hold that his general approach had on the right-wing masses.

Gingrich, always willing and able to adjust to changing circumstances, has modulated his pronouncements to vibrate on this preferred frequency. His statements in debates and speeches are full of not only the usual conservative dog-whistles about Obama’s “otherness”, but also the kind of direct analogies to communist dictatorships and fear-mongering about Islam that masquerades as big-picture thinking on the right. He seems to understand that the bigger and more audacious the inaccurate statement is, the more difficult it is to even begin to refute. As illogical as Gingrich’s now-trademarked statement that he fears the United States becoming a secular atheist nation dominated by radical Islamists may have been, it was also a perfect distillation of conventional Christian-conservative opinion.

Hail, Comrade Newt!

Maybe right-wing politics is more about identity than about the expression of ideas (though not policy; none of the GOP candidates seem too interested in that). Gingrich is, after all, a Republican par excellence: a cranky white Southerner who wants the godless hippie freeloader bastards off his lawn. Republicans with a long enough memory (selectively so, since the Bush years have been conveniently Eternal Sunshined) can likely even recall that he was a constant thorn in the side of the last Democrat antichrist, Bill Clinton. And unlike the done-like-dinner Herman Cain, Gingrich is unlikely to have lurking sex scandals yet to burst out, because all of his questionable relationship choices have been out in public for a good decade now.

But ideology always matters on the right, generally more so than on the left, even. It may not be cognitively consistent or make a lot of logical sense, but conservative intellectualism has carved out a place for itself in the movement and will always need its champions. As of right now, that champion is Gingrich until it’s someone else. Judging from the poll fluctuations of this nomination race, we may not have to wait long for that someone else (when is Rick Santorum’s turn on top coming, I wonder?), but Newt has endured through much and may be able to keep his current lead in spite of the odds.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics