My dad and I love watching history documentaries. He sent me one the other day about Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister.
I learned that, in addition to things like making newsreels and staging rallies and so on, Goebbels also served as a producer on German movies. Think Cecil B. DeMille but a Nazi, and you get a pretty good idea of his cinematic style.
The documentary showed a few clips from a film called Kolberg, an epic war film set in the early 1800s, depicting the German town of–you guessed it–Kolberg withstanding a siege laid by Napoleon’s forces.
I have to say, some of the clips I’ve seen from the film look surprisingly good, from a technical standpoint. Look at this:
The film was intended to boost German morale–it’s supposed to be an Alamo or Thermopylae-like story of a small group of fighters defying overwhelming odds. Goebbels apparently was so hell-bent on making it that he required tens of thousands of German soldiers to serve as extras.
That’s right: between 1943 and 1944, the Nazi-controlled film industry was using military assets to make epic war propaganda films. In case you needed any more evidence that these people were insane.
When the Kolberg was finally released in January 1945, it was a box office disappointment, owing possibly to the weather (winter ’44-’45 was extremely cold) or possibly to the fact that MOST OF THE MOVIE THEATERS HAD BEEN BLOWN UP BECAUSE GERMANY WAS IN THE PROCESS OF LOSING A WORLD WAR!
Anyway, Goebbels was apparently pleased with this thing. Supposedly he gushed after seeing it that the die-hard Nazis who fought to the end would be remembered like the city leaders of 19th-century Kolberg.
I assume a lot of Goebbels’s subordinates knew he was nuts, but just didn’t say anything.
Architecturally, their plan mostly failed since nearly all Nazi-era buildings were destroyed. But it bothers me sometimes how much Nazi iconography persists in modern media. Granted, it is inevitably used as a shorthand for evil, but I fear that sometimes the symbols trump the larger message. SS uniforms, for example, were designed to convey darkness and power, and those things are alluring to some people.
It’s no coincidence that lots of internet trolls use Nazi symbols as avatars, logos etc. Partly this is just because trolls like to be ham-handedly shocking in order to get attention–that’s almost the definition of a troll. But I think there’s also something inherent in the design that strikes a chord–and not a good chord either, but a chord of power and aggression.
I’d never heard of the story of Kolberg before, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve studied the Napoleonic wars more than most. There’s clearly good material here for a drama–indeed, a German writer named Paul Heyse wrote a play based on it in 1865. Heyse was apparently pretty well-respected in his time, because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. The film is based on the play to a degree, although they didn’t give Heyse proper credit because he was Jewish.
I have a feeling I’d rather see Heyse’s version of the story than Goebbels’s. But this is exactly the problem I mean–the pages of History are filled with the words and deeds and icons of psychopaths who wanted to be remembered at any cost, not those of normal people who just tried to do good work.
Kolberg is available online, by the way, but I’m not going to link to it, because ownership of the rights is unclear, and I’m not sure if these are legal.
I remember an episode of The McLaughlin Group from years ago, in which John McLaughlin asked Pat Buchanan “Who won the week?” Buchanan hesitated, and McLaughlin pressed him harder: “Come on, Pat! Someone’s got to win the week!”
Buchanan finally answered that nobody had won the week–“It was a draw,” he explained. McLaughlin let it go after that, though he didn’t seem happy about it.
McLaughlin was a pioneer in this entertaining-but-superficial style of political reporting. But as is so often the case, those who followed the trail have mimicked all of his flaws while picking up none of his entertaining virtues.
And so the political press covers everything with a fast-paced and myopic focus on which groups happen to be winning or losing at the moment. In general, the extent of one side’s win or loss is over-hyped, giving an impression of a more permanent victory or defeat than is warranted.
For instance, remember a month ago when President Trump was winning in the headlines because the press liked his address to Congress? That seems like ancient history now, because all the headlines are about the defeat Trump suffered when his health care bill couldn’t pass the House.
It’s sort of like coverage of a sporting event, except that unlike sports analysts, political pundits tend to assume that whichever team happens to be winning at the moment will continue to do so forever, even if the lead is extremely small.
The real problem with this is not just that leads to absurdly hyperbolic analysis, or even “we have always been at war with Eastasia“-style retconning in the way journalists re-phrase narratives to make them appear consistent.
“Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but — more precisely — advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: ‘values matter.’
The poster goes on to assert: ‘We are part of a growing consciousness that is bigger than food — one that champions what’s good.’ This a particularly blatant example of the increasingly common phenomenon of what might be called ‘virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous.”
My take on this would be: “It’s a poster; what do you expect?” It’s propaganda (or “public relations”, if you prefer). But we’ll have it your way, Bartholomew.
All of these things could also be described as public relations or publicity stunts. The Ice Bucket Challenge did get a bit ridiculous as a way for do-gooders to establish their liberal bona fides. I mean, look at this guy:
But where did this term come from, anyway? Wikipedia explains:
“Signalling theory has been applied to human behavior. Costly religious rituals such as male circumcision, food and water deprivation, and snake handling look paradoxical in evolutionary terms. Devout religious beliefs wherein such traditions are practiced therefore appear maladaptive. Religion may have arisen to increase and maintain intragroup cooperation. All religions may involve costly and elaborate rituals, performed publicly, to demonstrate loyalty to the religious group. In this way, group members increase their allegiance to the group by signalling their investment in group interests. Such behavior is sometimes described as ‘virtue signalling’.”
This is an example of a phenomenon that often occurs in academic or bureaucratic writing: using overly-complicated language to describe a simple and straight-forward idea.
Demonstrating that one is part of a group is not an unusual or complex concept. It is the basis for how organizations function. It’s an elementary part of social activity.
But by calling it “virtue signalling” and applying the phrase in such a way that it becomes a pejorative, it creates a whole new way to criticize commonplace behavior.
This manipulation of language to cast mundane things in a more sinister light is an age-old technique. For example, in the marvelous book Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman writes:
“The word plot also acquired negative connotations during the seventeenth century… Yet the etymology of plot resembles that of plan. Both originally referred to a flat area of ground, then to a drawing of an area of land or a building, then to a drawing to guide the construction of a building, and eventually to a set of measures adopted to accomplish something.”
“A set of measures adopted to accomplish something” has neither good nor bad connotations, but by using the word “plot”, one can make it sound inherently malevolent.
Something similar has happened with the use of “virtue signalling” to make routine statements or actions seem disingenuous or hypocritical.
The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.
That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.
But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.
This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.
From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.
As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.
In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.
Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.
When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.
But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.
Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.
Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.
Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.
As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”
The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.
II. Review; Praise and Criticism
The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.
Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.
The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.
In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.
This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.
Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.
There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.
In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.
The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.
At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.
Who the hell talks like that?
At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.
One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”
First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.
Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.
There’s no reason for her to say this. It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?
The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.
The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)
The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight. The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.
This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture. Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.
I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography. If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”
But that would ignore something. Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…
“It’s a failing show, it’s not funny. Alec Baldwin’s a disaster, he’s terrible on the show and, by the way, I don’t mind some humor but it’s terrible.”
People have again expressed amazement at how thin-skinned the guy is. And he is, but there’s actually a bit more going on here besides that.
SNL isn’t exactly the only shop in the Trump-mocking business. Making fun of the President isn’t a niche or novel concept, and Trump is currently very unpopular. Lots of comics and satirists are mocking him. MAD magazine mocks the hell out of him, and I’ve yet to hear him complain about it.
If Trump were just hellbent on responding to everyone who mocks him, he’d never do anything else. No, he singles out SNL.
I have a theory: NBC, which broadcasts SNL, is also the network that aired Trump’s show The Apprentice. I suspect Trump has some feud with the upper management at NBC, and so is fighting a proxy war against them by attacking one of their shows.
Another frequent target of Trump’s wrath is CNN, which he repeatedly attacks as “dishonest” or lately, “fake news”. But CNN isn’t the only news organization to report negative stories about him–CBS does that too, as does ABC. And PBS does too. (Yes, I know he plans to shut that down, but that’s a standard Republican wish-list item. I don’t recall him tweeting about it.)
It makes more sense once you know that the President of CNN is one Jeff Zucker, who had been President of NBC until a few years ago. In fact, Zucker originally signed Trump for The Apprentice. I don’t know all the details, but it seems likely that Trump had some sort of falling out with him. I hear Trump can be temperamental, believe it or not.
My point is, Trump isn’t just randomly lashing out at any group that insults him. Rather, he is deliberately lashing out at specific organizations tied to people whom he most likely personally dislikes.
I love conspiracy theories. I wrote a novella centered on the conspiracy theories and political machinations. (Not to spoil it, but it involves a takeover of the United States government by an insane dictator. But that’s another story.) The point is, I’ve spent a lot of time reading popular conspiracy theories.
Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to so-called “fake news” on social media, and the role they played in the recent U.S. Election.
People who listen to the radio frequently are familiar with these things. A lot of strange ideas have been floated over the air on shows like Coast to Coast AMfor decades now. It’s not new.
I think what is new is the politicization of conspiracy theories. In the old days, conspiracies were about the Illuminati or Extraterrestrial life, and those are never on the ballot. But now, the conspiracy theories are deliberately meant to certain political factions.
It may have started with the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which were inevitably explicitly political in nature. Or it might have just been that political strategists realized they could take advantage of people’s love for conspiracies in order to advance their aims. (Good strategists are always looking for any edge they can get.)
But I’m curious about is why the term “fake news” (which evokes something more like satirical sites on the order ofThe Onion) seems to have supplanted the term “conspiracy theory”. What reasons could there be for this?
When reading political news, I often read phrases like “a study from the non-partisan such-and-such institute/group/think tank/shadowy syndicate/whatever found blah blah blah…”
When I read that, I ask myself: “how do you get to be labeled as ‘non-partisan’ organization?” Is there an application to fill out? Does it just mean they are not actively being paid by any political party to lie on their behalf? Do they just get a room with one half Republicans and one half Democrats and make sure they are both unhappy with their conclusions? Or do they just have to file a report saying they’ve put an equal number of studies out that enrage both sides?
Is it just about their tax-exempt classification? If so, that’s pretty weak stuff. Or is it just something political journalists say because they don’t know and haven’t investigated the potential biases of the organizations in question?
There’s been a lot of talk this week about how horribly wrong the conservative press got their election predictions, picking Romney to win in a landslide despite no polls supporting this idea. They have been roundly criticized for attacking Nate Silver, who had the idea to go look at the polls and predict how people would vote based on them. (Personally, I think my method is even better: I predicted who would win just by looking at the candidates. But that’s an aside.)
The conservative press–Fox News, Limbaugh, and that crowd–are, of course, a bunch of liars. I have no doubt about it, and I didn’t even before this election. It’s so obvious as to be hardly worth dwelling on. So I won’t. No, what I want to talk about is the non-Fox mainstream news media’s coverage of the election, especially election night itself. It was not quite as bad as Fox, but it wasn’t good. It covered everything as a neck-and-neck horse race, and really only reported states as they came in. (I will admit up front that I did not watch all of it; I went to bed at 10:00 pm Eastern Time, with total confidence of Obama’s victory.)
On my PBS station, I get something called “BBC World News America“. As you may have guessed, it’s BBC news for Americans. The difference between this and the regular American news is very striking. On election night, the BBC did a good job pointing out that if you counted in the electoral votes of the solidly Democratic and Republican states, the President had a sizeable advantage. Romney was, in short, playing with a handicap. He was trailing before the competition actually started.
On all the other networks, all they really talk about is the “swing states”. Obviously, these are the most important, but to watch the coverage you would think that the whole affair rested entirely on who won these states. They didn’t seem to focus so much on the fact that Obama had more margin for error. It was just a “ooooo, who will win the next state?” sort of show, like a “reality” show of sorts.
Then there were people like David Gregory, who seemed to think he was covering a football game. He kept talking about Obama’s “defense” and Romney’s “offense”. That means nothing. It’s not really that kind of competition. People vote for and against candidates for lots of reasons. I mean, the weather can determine the outcome of elections.
All in all, the television political press is pretty lousy, in my opinion. Fox News is just a Republican P.R. office and the rest of them just like a close race so they can have something exciting to talk about.
I feel truly sorry for the people who get their political and macroeconomic ideas from Rush Limbaugh. The man is a skilled entertainer, but he twists and distorts terms to try to justify his ideology. Actually, this isn’t even about ideology; it’s just about trying to make his slogans sound good. When you go around telling everyone “OMG! Government is so bad, amirite?” people start to internalize that as a pillar of their ideology, and then the government goes and does something you think is cool. What’s a poor millionaire talk-show host to do?
This rover wasn’t really a government project, anyway.
This is a very suspicious defense, right up there with the old “I didn’t do it, you can’t prove I did it, and it didn’t hurt anything anyway”. Think I’m distorting what he said? Here it is:
RUSH: In the first place, I’ve never said that government never gets anything right. Secondly, throughout the course of this program, I have always heralded NASA for the contributions they have made to the advancement of science and the human standard of living, American standard of living. Obama shut it down.
And then a bit later:
RUSH: You know, one might say when speaking of NASA that the space flight realm of NASA, the vast majority of it is actually done by private aerospace companies bidding for the jobs. Private aerospace companies bid for certain aspects. Like the government didn’t build the rover. They got a contract for it. A private sector firm — yes, with Obama bucks — I take it back. The money was allocated before Obama came along. That’s probably why the money was still there. But it was our taxpayer dollars that were rewarded to a private sector company, probably a bunch of ’em combined, built various aspects of the rover. The rocket. Somebody won a bid to build that parachute, for example. The rockets to slow the rover down as it approached the Martian surface.
Well, okay. Then I suppose you won’t do anymore whining about Solyndra, right? I mean, it was a private company! Well, yes, it was given tons of money by the government and wouldn’t have existed without it, but still; private company!
Limbaugh and his listeners aren’t against government; they’re against certain things government does and certain individuals in the government, but it also does a lot of stuff they like, like space exploration and especially military stuff. And the weird part is, they don’t even seem to realize or want to admit it!
I’ve seen three of Moore’s films: Roger & Me, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine.Bowling is technically speaking the worst one, but it’s also by far the most interesting. Because unlike the other two, which are amusing but kind of simplistic propaganda pieces, Bowling is really more of an open-minded exploration of the issues.
It starts out as a propaganda, dark comedy sort of movie, but it actually turns into more of a examination of American culture. At one point in the film, Moore says that people also own lots of guns in Canada , but they don’t have the same crime problems we do. Surely, this point contradicts any gun control agenda he may have. The middle of the movie is very interesting; Moore seems to admit he doesn’t have all the answers, and is actually revising his opinions as he learns more.
Now, towards the end, Moore remembers that he is making a movie, and he reverts to his ambush/ask awkward questions style and it totally doesn’t work and it makes him look like a jerk. It makes for a really uneven movie, but it’s still thought-provoking to watch.