Movies – Dogtooth

Submitted for Academy Award – Foreign Film consideration by Greece is the brilliant and unsettling Dogtooth (Kynodontas) (2009), a sometimes darkly sinister, sometimes oddly farcical study of an insular family living what they regard as a safe and secure existence in the unstable modern world.

The three ‘children’ (though they all seem to be in their early-mid twenties) never leave their spacious country home – they’ve been instructed that everything past the fence that surrounds the home is abject chaos and danger. Only the father can leave to manage the factory he makes his living at. Even venturing a few feet outside of the fence can only be done by the father, protected inside his car. Certain horror awaits any others.

The children pass their time inventing games for one another, usually physical challenges like holding their breath underwater or playing blindfolded hide-and-seek with Mom. Any words they might possibly hear that describe life outside the home are immediately redefined by the parents: ‘the sea’ is the leather armchair in the living room; a ‘highway’ is a strong wind. One of the daughters happens across the word ‘cunt.’ Mom (Michele Valley) assures them it’s a large lamp – ‘the cunt switched off, and the room got all dark.’ ‘Shotgun’ is a beautiful white bird.

The father (Christos Stergioglou) pays a woman from his factory, a young security gate keeper, to satisfy his son’s urges, pre-empting the boy’s asking about it himself. All cats are indescribably evil and vicious, he instructs – they’re from Outside. A ghostly other ‘brother’ haunts the other side of the fence, omnisciently judging the three and reporting their progress to Dad. An English recording of ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ they are told, is their grandfather singing, and the lyrics are conveniently translated by the father as a paean to family and the sanctity of Home. The security girl (Anna Kalaitzidou) surreptitiously lends the eldest daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) some videos, in exchange for furtive sexual favors, and the daughter starts acting out what she’s learned from ‘Rocky’ and ‘Jaws,’ while the younger girl (Mary Tsoni) makes free-associative attempts to figure out what licking is for. During an anniversary party, the eldest daughter dances for the guest-of-honor parents in an erratic and exhausting whirl; all I could think it to be, transfixed, was a Diane Arbus version of ‘Rite of Spring.’

There are certainly Americans who understand how family dynamics are macro-manipulated by government regimes or religious extremists to infantilize and enslave their subjects or followers. But I think Europeans feel it far closer to home – from Caligula to the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, in the jaundiced portraits of corrupt incestuous royalty painted by Goya, from Franco to Hitler to Ceausescu and Milosevic, all those horrors, past and potential, happened right over there, three or four hours away. When Americans portray it, it’s aberrant and foreign to our own experiences – controlling psychotics and ‘family annihilators’ on ‘Law and Order’ or ‘Criminal Minds;’ outlandish exceptions, pumped up for dramatic effect. We make ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Natural Born Killers.’ Europeans make ‘Prime Suspect,’ ’Red Riding,’ and ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ And ‘Dogtooth.’ They understand what an intrinsic part of the cultural fabric that all can be, how vulnerable each and every one of us is to being reared on, or reverting to, that kind of savage moral ambivalence.

Director Giorgos Lanthimos’ most impressive feat is making the whole thing so compellingly entertaining. The exploratory wonderment and amusement of the ‘children’ is easy for us to identify with – we remember how that felt for our own younger selves. The father is endearing in many ways – he releases large fish into the luxurious backyard pool, knowing the children will recognize it as A Bad Thing from The Outside, and dons goggles and a spear gun to ‘protect’ them from the interlopers. He often breaks into song for their admiring benefit. Lanthimos never overtly points out the psychological incongruities – we reach our own conclusions about whether this family is just hermetically eccentric or irretrievably sinister. The gorgeous cinematography and novel-but-not-showy composition from DP Thimios Bakatakis illustrates a world that any of us would be perfectly comfortable in – there’s no Coen Brothers-ish feeling of distortion or exaggeration. His images are minimal, artful, crisp and clean.

As a dark satire of home-schooling and family values (as many read it) or as a comedic-yet-cautionary tale of larger humanistic portend (as I and others glean), ‘Dogtooth’ is well worth your viewing time. The film has done very well at film festivals – I’m confident it will get an Oscar nomination, which will hopefully lead to re-screenings. It is not yet, but will be, available on Netflix.

Politics / Economics

I’m dreading the onslaught of self-righteous patriot crybabies when we start talking about cutting defense department budgets, but it’s gotta happen. In my view, a 20% overall reduction is not only realistic, it’s imperative. Gates is proposing $100 billion over five years – that’s a start, but hardly enough when the overall tab is $700 billion per year. And that’s just the stuff in the budgets – good luck finding honest accounting for the slew of ’emergency appropriations’ we’ve absorbed over the last eight years.

“Let me be clear: I’m a believer in a robust military, which is essential for backing up diplomacy. But the implication is that we need a balanced tool chest of diplomatic and military tools alike. Instead, we have a billionaire military and a pauper diplomacy. The U.S. military now has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has in its foreign service — and that’s preposterous.

“…it’s often people with experience in the military who lead the way in warning against overinvestment in arms. It was President Dwight Eisenhower who gave the strongest warning: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” And in the Obama administration, it is Defense Secretary Robert Gates who has argued that military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny; it is Secretary Gates who has argued most eloquently for more investment in diplomacy and development aid.”

Uberhawk John Bolton has already started in, although I’m delighted to hear he’s a ‘potential 2012 GOP presidential candidate.’ Bring the crazy, Mr. Ambassador! And Frank Gaffney for VP!

Media / Politics

The unjustified derision heaped upon Julian Assange highlights the new wave of apologists-of-the-empire writers employed by mainstream media these days. Matt Bai of the NYT follows in the footsteps of the Judith Millers, Mark Halperins and John Burns of the world, journalists whose ‘investigative’ journalism turns out to be artful paraphrasings of what the administration wants you to know, rather than objective analysis of the truth.

“In a sense we should thank Matt Bai for this article, because it leaves nothing to the imagination. This is the attitude of the political class in D.C. – and that class includes insider journalists like Bai who first and foremost believe it is their job to defend, rather than question, the Beltway’s political elites. Why such loyalty from the journalists who are supposed to be employed to challenge rather than serve power? Because today’s “journalists” like Bai see no difference between themselves and those they serve. Indeed, when they hear the term “political elites” – they now see themselves in the mirror.”

Denis Dutton 1944-2010

“He was widely known for Arts & Letters Daily, a groundbreaking early Internet aggregator featuring links to commentary on arts, literature and events.
“Dutton established Arts & Letters in 1998, later saying in interviews that he was simply looking for a way to capture and organize the ballooning number of book reviews, articles and essays available online. The site, designed to look like an 18th-century broadsheet, quickly gained a loyal following, with London’s Guardian newspaper describing it in 1999 as “the best website in the world.”

“Through Arts & Letters Daily, Denis helped prove that the Web could be a platform not only for fast-paced celebrity gossip and pictures of cute animals but for long and serious writing and the exchange of complex ideas.”

Economics / Socioculture

David Cay Johnston has this funny idea that sound economic theories predate Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election. By, oh, say, 2,400 years. But make no mistake – our current economic dilemmas are, indeed, historical, and we may be battling them for tens, if not hundreds, of years from now.

“Our societal panic is about what we as a nation fear almost as much as death itself — the end of American abundance, the death of the idea that each generation would do better than the last, the end of the notion that everyone who works hard and plays by the rules will at least prosper in the sense of having a roof over their heads and enough to eat. Our societal panic is about a new world of mind-numbing complexity where speculation with algorithms and borrowed money pays more in a day than thoughtful investment may return in a lifetime, where jobs pay less tomorrow than yesterday, and where loyalty is something we associate with frequent flier programs rather than careers.

“The fear of what the new American economy means is killing reasoned debate about taxes, tax policy, and how to distribute the burdens of making our great nation function.
“Fear keeps us from talking about how to create an economy in which prosperity is widespread and how using taxes can make us richer by insuring the efficient and bountiful supply of the common goods and services that modern economies require: education, research, infrastructure, and universal healthcare as a service, not a profit-making insurance product.

“The 20th century, what some historians will look back on as the American Century, prospered under a national, industrial-wage economy, flush with high-paying jobs and tax rules that discouraged withdrawals from operating businesses. Taxing wages was a smart way to finance government because wages were rising. But since 1973, with some brief exceptions, this has not been true for the vast majority, whose average income in 2008 was less than 1 percent greater than in 1980, while incomes at the top soared, spurred in part by rules that encourage withdrawals of capital from business for unproductive consumption because of extremely low tax rates.
“The 21st century is an era of a global, digital, and asset economy with rules that favor the free flow of capital over labor, which is brutally suppressed in China and legally suppressed in America through anti-union laws, lack of enforcement of wage laws, and the dampening effects of a growing reserve army of the unemployed.
“America’s current societal panic is not going away soon. Tens of millions of people are out of work and tens of millions more fear their next paycheck could be their last. The temporary Bush-era tax cuts will not end next month, even though the huge deficits run up since 1980 hover over us like dark clouds of debt that could drop enough worthless government bonds to drown us all.
“The adoption of misguided economic policies, the election of politicians unwilling to be disciplined in opening the public purse, and the artificial deadlines imposed on us by the legislative gamesmanship used in enacting the 2001 and 2003 tax cut laws, together with our faux free trade policies, have put us in a deep hole.
“In clawing our way back we must keep in mind that those Bush tax cuts were not tax cuts at all but simply loans against a future which has now arrived in giant waves of red ink.”

Politics / Economics

It’s Top Ten List season, and here’s a newly-discovered favorite of mine:
Top Ten Ways the Right Will Wreck the Recovery.”

Some highlights:

4. Dismantle Medicare (and Give Seniors “Vouchers”)
“Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is successfully positioning himself as a thought leader among conservatives, is pushing a plan that would end the Medicare program for seniors and replace it with vouchers that seniors would use toward the cost of private insurance … Ryan’s voucherization of Medicare, however, would control costs not by restraining insurance companies or health-care corporations but by keeping the value of the voucher below the increase in health care costs, thus shifting increasing out-of-pocket costs onto seniors themselves. Conservatives say this means government won’t be rationing care to seniors. With vouchers, seniors will forced to ration care on their own.”

5. Undo Financial Reform, and Let the Predators Run
“Rep. Spencer Baucus, the Republican who will take over the House Financial Services Committee, has said that the primary function of government financial regulation is not to protect the consumer but to “serve the banks.”

9. Starve Public Education
“Here is an easy way to keep the rich rich and the less well-off part of the permanent underclass: continue the decades-long conservative-led assault on public education. In just the past month, one report says U.S. children lag behind those in China, Finland, South Korea, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and New Zealand in educational achievement, and another says one in four youths fail the Army entrance exam.
“Our inability to provide a quality education to all of our children is a risk to our national security as well as our economic well-being and competitiveness. Yet many conservatives in Congress want to respond to this national crisis by abolishing the national agency charged with addressing the problem, the Department of Education. That’s on top of the continuing push for school privatization and private-school vouchers, the scapegoating of teachers and their unions, and the shifting of funding burdens to states that simply can’t handle the load.

10. Don’t Ask the Rich to Help Reduce the Deficit; Ask Low-Income Americans Instead
“Cutting taxes on the rich and increasing military spending caused the deficit. But the solutions offered by the conservative elites all center around cutting the things government does for the people.
“Republicans want to make their “cutgo” scheme the law of Congress, in which new spending authorized by Congress must be offset by cuts elsewhere but cannot be offset by tax increases or fees on anyone. But new tax cuts would not have to be offset by spending reductions. That should finish off any molecule of credibility they had left on their feigned concern about the deficit.
“If the wealthy aren’t being asked to sacrifice something, guess who is.”

Media / Politics

The demonization of Julian Assange continues, apparently unabated. How sad for us.

“From the start of the WikiLeaks controversy, the most striking aspect for me has been that the ones who are leading the crusade against the transparency brought about by WikiLeaks – the ones most enraged about the leaks and the subversion of government secrecy – have been . . . America’s intrepid Watchdog journalists. What illustrates how warped our political and media culture is as potently as that? It just never seems to dawn on them – even when you explain it – that the transparency and undermining of the secrecy regime against which they are angrily railing is supposed to be . . . what they do.
“What an astounding feat to train a nation’s journalist class to despise above all else those who shine a light on what the most powerful factions do in the dark and who expose their corruption and deceit, and to have journalists – of all people – lead the way in calling for the head of anyone who exposes the secrets of the powerful. Most ruling classes – from all eras and all cultures – could only fantasize about having a journalist class that thinks that way, but most political leaders would have to dismiss that fantasy as too extreme, too implausible, to pursue. After all, how could you ever get journalists – of all people – to loathe those who bring about transparency and disclosure of secrets? But, with a few noble exceptions, that’s exactly the journalist class we have.

“If one thinks about it, there’s something quite surreal about sitting there listening to a CNN anchor and her fellow CNN employee angrily proclaim that Julian Assange is a “terrorist” and a “criminal” when the CNN employee doing that is . . . . George W. Bush’s Homeland Security and Terrorism adviser. Fran Townsend was a high-level national security official for a President who destroyed another nation with an illegal, lie-fueled military attack that killed well over 100,000 innocent people, created a worldwide torture regime, illegally spied on his own citizens without warrants, disappeared people to CIA “black sites,” and erected a due-process-free gulag where scores of knowingly innocent people were put in cages for years. Julian Assange never did any of those things, or anything like them. But it’s Assange who is the “terrorist” and the “criminal.”
“Or consider the theme that framed last night’s segment: Assange is profiting off classified information by writing a book! …Bob Woodward has become a very rich man by writing book after book filled with classified information about America’s wars which his sources were not authorized to give him. Would (CNN anchor Jessica) Yellin ever in a million years dare lash out at Bob Woodward the way she did Assange?”