Election Postmortem

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If you’re one of those folks who’s wondering what (s)he could’ve done differently to stop Donald Trump from the White House, let me throw some water on that. This election was a perfect shit-storm, and there is nothing that any individual could’ve done to alter its appropriately shitty outcome. Okay, there are a few high-profile agents you could blame—you know who I’m talking about—but looking back on this, historians are going to view this more as a slow-burning accumulation of multiple small causes than as one massive eruption. Hillary Clinton and her campaign turned complacent and choked. The DNC played favorites and ate crow for it. Some Sanders voters made good on their stupid, nihilistic Bernie or Bust promise and either stayed home or went for a third party. There was voter fraud—by which I mean, voter ID laws and other measures were instituted in key states to prevent “voter fraud,” which is GOP code for non-whites, millennials and poor people voting. There was a severe Obama backlash. There was a sharp backlash to PC culture. Every long-simmering prejudice you can think of resurfaced. The economic alienation of the Rust Belt pushed it rightward. The anti-intellectual conservative propaganda machine flew off the handle. Every major ideological branch of the GOP sold out and convinced enough of their base that Trump was a normal candidate and they should stay loyal to the party. The FBI intervened—with help from, among others, an overgrown fuckboy who once dreamed of being mayor of New York and who now needs to depart the public eye for good. Russia intervened—with help from, among others, a certain tool of theirs in London’s Ecuadorian embassy—for several variously troubling reasons.

(Let’s unpack that last one, since to me, it is the most disturbing of contributions to Trump’s good luck. What did Vladimir Putin want so bad that he was impelled to violate American sovereignty to get it? Does he hope to do to the Baltic states what he’s done to Crimea? Maybe he thought Clinton’s proposed no-fly zone over Syria would lead to WWIII and he sought to deploy some realpolitik to prevent that—which is understandable. More likely, he wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in power—which is disgusting. Maybe he perceives America being the world’s sole superpower as hazardous and wants to take it down a peg and equalize Russia—granted it’s a thin line between that and elevating Russia to the status of world’s sole superpower. Worst-case scenario: Putin is a power-mad Soviet hanger-on who aims to envelop the world into a hard right-wing political paradigm in which might is right and strength is measured by crushing dissent, in which political elites form friendly relations based on their shared belief in demonstrating willpower by keeping their respective subjects leashed, in which Putin can disregard national sovereignty even more wantonly than he is wont to, in which he can influence the lives of Americans such as yours truly for his own pleasure and subject our democratic republic to death by a thousand cuts. If that’s the case, he’s not only winning—he’s penetrating the Iron Curtain and dismantling the West in ways Stalin could never have imagined. And we thought the Cold War was over.)

Our political system has become dominated by spite—no wonder the more spiteful candidate prevailed. Our two major parties have grown so polarized and so internally divided that many think the U.S. is on the verge of Balkanizing—and yes, I am taking the threat of California seceding very seriously, because at this point, anything goes. The shit has hit the fan. Do you really think Trump would have a problem with a Calexit? Politically, it’d be all to his advantage. (Gov. Jerry Brown would and will resist it, and for good reason.) We have grown contemptuous of the other perspective to the point of devolving into narrow cultish mindsets. This goes well beyond standard issue confirmation bias. I am noticing a disturbing trend on the right, among many Trump voters, of taking everything around oneself as confirming their deepest beliefs, tragically mistaken as they are. When Trump speaks to what they feel, they are gratified. But when the opposition—liberal media and such, plus people that had an existential investment in seeing Trump defeated—protests and counter-argues, it gratifies them even more. They hate the opposition so much and are so convinced of their ineptitude, they see the pain of the “other” as further proof that Trump is right. Do they think that our pain is contrived and selfish? Or that their pain is greater? Or is it just that it bothers them to hear about it? Don’t overthink it: this is a defense mechanism meant to discourage and tame the opposition, and it’s present in several GOP superstars, from Mitch McConnell—who relishes his villainous reputation—to Steve Bannon—who is proud to be called an anti-Semite by the New York Times and CNN. These men, with Trump at the helm, have abandoned the idea of politics as a cooperative endeavor, preferring to make it a victors-get-spoils zero-sum game in which the losers’ angst is part of the fun. Trump did not cause this gross authoritarian way of thought; he catalyzed it.

I cannot and will not apply a double standard: the left is equally as mired in this sort of moral one-upmanship. Through the end of this traumatic election season, we assured ourselves that calling Trump supporters bigots for their mere willingness to associate with the guy would, one way or another, shame them into seeing the light and either voting for Clinton or staying home. Boy were we wrong. (And yes: I plead guilty.) The time for partisan demonization is long over. We must be attentive to how another’s unique life experiences have shaped his/her political outlook. We must show our political opponents that perceiving society as divided by severely contrasting demographic identities does not work for society in the long term and is bound to backfire. When a Black man lives in fear of running into a rogue cop who associates his skin color with a criminal disposition; when an undocumented immigrant brought across the Rio Grande as a mere infant lives in fear of deportation to the narco-state of his birth; when a Muslim family lives in fear of incessant NSA surveillance facilitated by a registry; when a woman lives in fear of losing her bodily autonomy to a rapist, or perhaps to the state; when a gay couple lives in fear of losing their marriage and being subject to a new Jim Crow regime; when a bright autism spectrum kid lives in fear of people focusing not on his intellect but on his eccentricities and claiming that we ought to get rid of them by getting rid of vaccines; when a working class family lives in fear of losing benefits and seeing their public sector union dismantled; when an indigenous people lives in fear of seeing their ancestral lands sold out by the government to an oil corporation; when millennials live in fear of facing arrested development in a quagmire of unpaid internships, student debt and mental health issues; when our military lives in fear of the government sending them into combat (maybe to clean up a mess it made) and then taking their service to America for granted; when the poor and homeless live in fear of more and more wealth being redistributed away from them; and when laymen all over live in fear that one day, they’ll fall victim to a gun massacre, or that one day, the effects of manmade climate change will pass the threshold of human adaptability because we prioritized short-term profit over long-term survival—we all neglect and lose something of the spirit of America, and we all suffer. These are legitimate concerns, and I don’t think I’m being a delicate snowflake or a hypersensitive crybaby by elevating them. If you have more of a problem with my expression of pain than my pain, or if you think I should swallow it because my side lost the election, that’s on you, not me.

Trump’s campaign rhetoric is henceforth moot. All I care about now are his actions, and the actions of his VP Mike Pence, a smooth-talking Santorum-level wack job who already seems to be playing Cheney to Trump’s Bush. Some questions remain, and there is still some benefit of the doubt, but most of those actions thus far—cabinet appointments among them—have been unusually irksome. For what it’s worth, I no longer have any use for the pessimism and sensationalism of the left-leaning news sources that I relied on before November 8. (The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Bloomberg have been helpful, healing replacements in that regard.) There is no need to reiterate and dwell on all the ways the Trump presidency may well feel like a four-year prison sentence not just to liberals, but to the nostalgic Reaganite rural and working classes who are about to learn the hard way that this was not a gamble worth taking. We know the ways. Now is the time for activism—at the local and state level where the federal is bound to fail, because as the cliché goes: all politics is local. A situation in which stagnation is the best-case scenario is intolerable. Let it be said that the resisting grassroots mobilization I have seen take shape in the past month is awe-inspiring and unprecedented in my lifetime. I’d still be in a state of panicky despair without it. It’s what I need, and it’s what this nation needs now more than ever. The First Amendment is what, if anything, makes America great. If you are not capable of listening to, learning from and taking criticism from alternative perspectives—whether from dissenting speech, a gadfly press, or a protesting assembly—you are unfit for the presidency. As an artist, a writer and a principled devil’s advocate who has been and will continue to be vocal against Trumpism on this blog and elsewhere, I have invested in the First Amendment and stand to lose much if it is crippled. I feel on the brink of a unique historic maelstrom; we really are about to find out how strong our Constitution is. In the event that Clinton won, I was planning to write an extravagant über-dark alt-history Trump presidency-themed sci-fi novel. Chances are, if there’s a God, He put Trump in the Oval Office to prove to pessimists such as yours truly that America is more resilient than we think it is—or at least that we American millennials are more resilient than we yet know.

From now on, for every comment I receive from a troll, I donate $10 to a left-wing political activist organization of my choice.

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Election Postmortem

Review: “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”

agirlwalkshomealoneatnight_iranianfilmdaily The place is called “Bad City,” and I believe there’s a pun. A common suffix for cities in the Middle East is abad, which indeed roughly means “city” in Arabic. Hence, “Bad City” could well translate into “City of Cities,” a place in which the sense of urbanity—and perhaps too its inherent badness—is intensified, if not doubled. One can also interpret Bad City to be a mirror, or a representative, of cities, one in which part and parcel of the exacerbation of urbanism is that there is a mise-en-abyme, a metropolis-within-the-metropolis, a reiterative element that is often hidden and opaque but that is nonetheless crucial to its identity as a city. Lastly, and this may be stretching it, but there are affectations of arrogance, insistence and dubious uses of power in the emphasis that are far from irrelevant to the nasty history of the Middle East. Remember how Muammar Qaddafi (rot in Hell) styled himself as the “King of Kings.”

This nuance is just one of the endless things to admire about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a Farsi-language film shot near Bakersfield, California, that has been billed as an “Iranian vampire western.” The directorial debut of one Ana Lily Amirpour, Girl wears the trappings of the genres it stirs together on its sleeve with such pride and braggadocio that I doubted it was satirical or even tongue-in-cheek. For all of the narrative traditions it copies, it takes itself seriously—but it more than earns the right to do so because it deals with the genre conventions on their own terms, even when it twists them. I imagine that a city that has a city inside itself would be more aware of its own urban qualities and more capable of challenging and subverting them. Likewise, the characters in Girl have so many classic film genres and precedents around them that they have no choice but to attune to and reckon with them.

In its most critical riff on the vampire trope, Girl announces itself as a radical (maybe post-) feminist statement. This much is evident from the way the opening credits (and the trailer) wring every possible drop of tension out of the film’s verbose title. Some men may not understand the conflict and risk innate in the very act of a girl walking home alone at night, but most if not all women do. Anyway: in our culture, the vampire is a placeholder for the predatory man, draining young girls of blood in lieu of raping them. In Girl, that tradition is reversed; the vampire is the girl (Sheila Vand, the treacherous maid in Argo), and she targets the men of Bad City who treat women like crap. It’s vigilantism, yes, but it’s still bloodlust; there’s one telling scene in which it’s clear that this girl truly struggles with her homicidal nature. Feminism is an essential good, but it is no less vulnerable to abuse than the world’s plentiful other isms, and the film gains much of its strength from wrestling with this truth.

Frankly, I’d be more hesitant spoiling the film’s vampirism if it wasn’t already advertised so much. The film takes its time to introduce us to Bad City, its futurist western landscape and its Persian population: the young James Deansian car fanatic Arash (Arash Marandi), his cat, his ne’er-do-well father Hossein (Marshall Manesh, the limo driver on How I Met Your Mother), the stylish courtesan Atti (Mozhan Marnò, the reporter on House of Cards), her über-tattooed client Saeed (Dominic Rains), and a little boy with a skateboard. Amirpour’s Bad City is one of broad interiors, Magrittean architecture, lurid industrial piazzas and oddly subdued suburbs, and I felt at home in it right away. The first scene where the girl shows her ace is an extended confrontation between her and Saeed that arrives about half an hour in. The pop soundtrack, the reliance on character and action more than dialogue, and the slow pace—which at once is relaxed and stores a blistering payoff—reminded me much of the botched-drug-deal climax of Boogie Nights. I mean it when I write that Amirpour could be the next P.T. Anderson.

Especially deserving of attention and study in Girl is its use of juxtapositions. Of course, it is shot in black and white, and Nick Schager of The A.V. Club has written a stupendous analysis of Lyle Vincent’s cinematography that I will not maim by quoting. For now, I will elaborate on a small but crucial way in which the film’s self-referencing buttresses its contrasts. To the extent Girl has a plot (it’s best viewed as a tone poem), it’s a romance between the girl and Arash, who meet after a Halloween party. Arash is buzzed on ecstasy and dressed as Dracula; placed next to the actual bloodsucker, he is garish and almost hilarious. The problem with love in cinema is that the effort to cram a well-developed romantic relationship into about two hours is often an exercise in futility. (Usually, love takes years to blossom.) Girl approaches this issue with a refreshing honesty—in which it is understood that Arash and the girl are acting on instinct and mutual lust and could well be having a brief fling—and with a counterpoint that contrasts its short timespan with its measured pace. Its best scene involves Arash in the girl’s room, walking to her, slowly, and her accepting his advance, slowly, all to the tune of White Lies’ “Death”—a song that is still stuck in my head. The moment is so simple and banks so much on its soundtrack choice that it demands flawless acting—and gets it. David Thomson, a tough and contrarian British film critic, is already on record naming this “one of the most ecstatic scenes in film history,” and it’s hard to argue against that.

As a hodgepodge of genres, Girl is constructed in part as a series of vignettes, and as a film buff, I will treasure most of the vignettes on display here for a long time. Smitten with the girl, Arash spends one breakfast prodding a sunny-side-up egg with his fork; he hesitates to break the yolk, in contrast to the girl’s impulse to break skin with her teeth. The girl has a run-in with the skateboarding boy, and we can see the post-feminist perspective wherein she might be taking it an inch too far. In a cinéma vérité diversion, Hossein loses his shit and goes postal on the cat, with ugly consequences. Even a fleeting shot of a world map is infused with much power here. If we are in the real world, then are we in California, Transylvania, or Persia? Most of the suspense comes from Arash’s unawareness that his love interest is a vampire. As the story builds up to Arash’s inevitable epiphany, the characters devolve, the mood grows more somber, and dialogue is eschewed more in earnest, with the final five minutes or so being totally wordless, elemental and pure. I can see where some critics would call the last scene a copout, but in the end, the Ah-fuck-it bravado of the resolution won me over. Endemic as sequels are in cinema today, I will have no issue if Amirpour decides to return me to Bad City in her next film. Neither will you.

Grade: A

Review: “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”