Archive | July 4, 2010

Sumner Time Blues

William Graham Sumner said lots of things I like. (See, for example, his “Conquest of the United States by Spain.”) The following (which I apparently transcribed a couple of decades ago and just came across today) isn’t one of them:

[H]ow are we to appreciate the work of the Constitution-makers? How can we understand what their task was, what difficulties they had to overcome, what the grounds were of the opposition which they had to meet? Everyone knows nowadays that the people by no means leaped forward to grasp this Constitution, which is now so much admired and loved, as the blessing which they had been praying for. Why did they not? To put it in the briefest compass, the reason why not was this: that Constitution was an immense advance in the political organization at a single step. It made a real union; it reduced the independent (I avoid the word “sovereign”) states to a status of some limitation; it created a competent executive – one who could govern, not influence or persuade; it created a treasury which could reach the property of the citizen by taxes, not by begging; it created a power which could enforce treaties. Considering the anarchical condition of things and the waywardness and irritation of the public temper, it is amazing that such a step could have been accomplished.

William Graham Sumner

Its opponents declared that the new Union was simply taking the place which Great Britain had occupied; that its dominion was as intolerable as hers had been; that they had only changed masters by the War. … Therefore, to sum it up, the doctrines of the radical Whigs were now the doctrines of the radical Antifederalists. The latter claimed with truth that they were consistent, that they had all the same reason to oppose and dread the Union which they had had to oppose Great Britain, and that the Union had inherited and was perpetuating the position of Great Britain. It became a current expression of discontent with the federal system, of which you hear occasional echoes even now, that it was an imitation of the English system invented and fastened on the country by Alexander Hamilton – and this was rather a distortion of the true facts than an utter falsehood.

What, then, shall we infer from all these facts? Plainly this: that the Revolutionary doctrines were anarchistic, and inconsistent with peace and civil order; that they were riotous and extravagant; and that there could be no success and prosperity here until a constitutional civil government existed which could put down the lawless and turbulent spirit and discipline the people to liberty under law. This is the position which was taken by the Federal party; this is why New England, although it had been intensely Whig, became intensely Federal. The people knew the difference between war measures and peace measures and they realized the necessity of tightening again the bonds of social order. This is also why the Federal party was so unpopular; it was doing a most useful and essential work, but it is never popular to insist upon self-control, discipline, and healthful regulation. … (“Advancing Social and Political Organization in the United States,” 1896 or 1897.)

(For Sumner in a more anarchist-friendly mood, see here.)

But Sumner is crucially right even in the midst of being wrong: the doctrines of the Revolution were anarchistic, and the Constitutional order that was subsequently established represented the betrayal rather than the fulfillment of the principles of ’76 – as, for that matter, did the Articles of Confederation. The whole idea that the legitimacy of governmental institutions depends on the “consent of the governed” immediately invalidates all state institutions everywhere.

Something to think about this Independence Day.

Jonah Sux

I can’t really say I was disappointed by the Jonah Hex movie, because I had low expectations going in. But they certainly did a thorough job of ruining a good story. (Spoilers follow, if it matters.)

Jonah Hex

At least they picked the right story to tell – the excellent Quentin Turnbull arc from the early Weird Western Tales days. They even (mostly) abandoned their earlier plans to combine the Turnbull arc with a zombie story. But then they got rid of just about everything that made the Turnbull story interesting, and replaced it with a mass of clichés.

In the original story, Hex was framed for betraying his comrades and killing Turnbull’s son; in the movie, he actually did it (and it all happens offscreen, thus weakening its dramatic impact) but it’s presented as justified (as anti-terrorism, what else?). In the original story, Turnbull is pursuing Hex for revenge; in the movie, Turnbull has already taken revenge (by scarring Hex’s face and killing his family – things he wasn’t responsible for in the comics) and it’s Hex who’s out for counter-revenge. Nor was Turnbull originally a James-Bond-style supervillain with plans to blow up Washington DC with glowing orange torpedoes launched from a scarlet steampunk submarine; he was just a bitter old man who’d lost his son. The original story featured both Union and Confederate villainy; the movie ramps up the Confederate villainy and erases the Union villainy. And unlike the comics, the movie never shows us the affection that Jonah Hex and Quentin Turnbull originally felt for each other. In short, most of the moral complexity of the original story is ironed out, along with most of the drama.

In general the movie seems unsure how to handle Hex’s Confederate past. In the comics, Hex had found himself unwilling to fight any longer for the Confederacy (primarily because of the slavery issue), but also unwilling to turn his former comrades over to Union forces; that’s apparently not anti-Confederate enough by contemporary Hollywood standards (Civil War movies nowadays tend to whitewash the Union, just as in the old days they tended to whitewash the Confederacy), so, as I mentioned, the movie actually has Hex betray them and shoot his best friend (though, strangely, for reasons that have nothing to do with slavery). Moreover, the chief plot concerns Hex’s protecting the Federal capital from an attack by unreconstructed Confederates. But the movie also has Hex, in dialogue, say that he rejects both the Confederate and Union causes as hypocritical. We’re further told that Hex never favoured secession, yet the rebel anthem that plays over the closing credits suggests the opposite. It’s as though the script had been co-authored by a Union apologist, a Confederate apologist, and a curse-on-both-your-houses Hummelite. Well, something for everyone, I guess. (Interestingly, the Confederate villains never give a clue as to what they were fighting for; they say nothing about slavery, secession, or anything else. Instead, they’re depicted as being motivated by pure ungrounded hatred of America.)

Jonah Hex

Moreover: in the comics, although Hex’s adventures occasionally included supernatural or science-fiction elements, they weren’t the norm (apart from what I’ve elsewhere called Phases III and IV, both relatively brief), and Hex himself was certainly never portrayed as possessing supernatural powers. Seeing Hex raising the dead and Turnbull wielding a futuristic super-weapon (or indeed Hex himself wielding slightly futuristic weapons) was jarring. And what’s up with all the crows, and the constant reversion to the red-tinged astral plane or whatever it was? The movie keeps focusing on these as if they’re going to be important, but they turn out not to be and are never explained.

Between the high-tech doomsday weaponry, Megan Fox running around pointlessly in her underwear, and originally complex antagonists transformed into simplistic over-the-top moustache-twirling Confederate-flag-waving megalomaniacal psychos with bad Southern accidents, I kept having unpleasant flashbacks to watching the 1999 Wild Wild West movie desecrating yet another childhood favourite – though this movie wasn’t as bad as that one. (The recent Sherlock Holmes movie, though much better than either mess, had similar problems.)

As for casting: Josh Brolin didn’t quite capture Hex for me (the character was inspired by Clint Eastwood’s westerns, and it’s hard for me to see anyone but Eastwood in the role) but he actually did a decent job. The rest of the cast didn’t do so well (apart from Michael Fassbender, who was fun to watch as a psychotic Irish assassin). John Malkovich basically just walked through his part; but it’s hard to blame him, as the character of Turnbull was made into a cardboard villain, leaving Malkovich very little to work with. (I’d love to see Malkovich tackle the role of the original Turnbull.) As I’d feared (here and here), Megan Fox as Lilah was blah; and her passing mention that her real name was Tallulah Black – no doubt intended as a nod to the fans – was really closer to being an insult to the fans. In the comics, Tallulah Black is the female equivalent of Hex himself: hard-bitten, cold-blooded, cynical, vengeful, massively scarred, and missing an eye. Well, Hollywood isn’t going to go for a massively scarred Megan Fox, and as for the rest, Fox is not exactly the ideal actress for that sort of thing; Angelina Jolie would be a better choice. (For the original Quentin Turnbull arc, see Showcase Presents Jonah Hex; for the first appearance of Tallulah Black, see Jonah Hex: Origins.)

Tallulah Black and Jonah Hex

A couple of other gripes: for a movie about a character so obviously inspired by the spaghetti westerns, it rarely makes an attempt to look interesting. Contrast the unforgettable opening scenes of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West with … well, I’ve already forgotten the opening scene of Jonah Hex. The spaghetti westerns also knew how to build suspense with pauses and silence, while Jonah Hex has A.D.D. pacing, evidently subscribing to the view – a popular one in Hollywood – that nothing builds excitement like a relentless, nonstop barrage of bigger and bigger explosions. Also, you’d never guess that Jonah Hex is any kind of western at all, for there are no distinctively western landscapes; in fact most of the action takes place in the southeast, and the one scene that I guess is supposed to be in the west is a giant sandpit that is apparently someone’s idea of what a southwestern desert looks like.

In addition: voiceover narration is a very tricky thing; it can be done well, but it seldom is, and narration from a character who’s supposed to be somewhat mysterious and remote, like Hex, is an especially bad idea. (Would The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly be improved by narration from Eastwood’s character?)

Finally: for a movie that features not only Ulysses Grant but also the White House, the Capitol Building, and an under-construction Washington Monument, the disclaimer at the end that all persons and buildings were fictional was an appropriately risible and bogus ending to a risible and bogus film.

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