9 April 2018: Armando Iannucci’s Death of Stalin
All Russia all the time! Just kidding. I can obsess on certain things but, seeing as my attention span can be measured in fractions of seconds, this should be it for a while.
I had some apprehension about going to see this film because it is a political satire comedy based on the French bande dessinée La mort de Staline and we all know what happens when the French perennially turn their hand to comedy: you’ll get more laughs at the funeral parlor. Nevertheless, I was still keen to see one of my all-time favorites, Steve Buscemi. You don’t? Re-watch the blood orgy Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s best film bar none, and you’ll remember how much you’ve loved him ever since. As a side note, forget about figuring out how to pronounce Buscemi. A tedious debate interminably drones on about it, between the terminally bored, on the Internet* (but, of course, I wouldn’t know anything about that).
A bald-headed and bloated Buscemi delivers, creepier and toothier than ever, in his tilt portraying reformist Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s eventual successor after the absurd (but not entirely off the mark, historically) power jockeying amongst the senior leaders of the Central Committee which the movie focusses on. So does the rest of the mostly British, and accordingly quirky, cast. As another side note, if the lovably awkward dolt who plays Molotov seems familiar and you can’t place him, that’s Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. You don’t? Ask your parents and, if they give you any shit about smoking pot again, ask your grandparents. You’ll be vindicated.
I just realized this is sounding an awful lot like a movie review which was not the original intention. I was most struck, morbidly as usual, by the notably unfunny scene close to the end where a screaming and frothing at the mouth Lavrentiy Beria, as malevolently duplicitous and power-hungry in real life as Simon Russell Beale plays him, is dragged to a dreary courtyard and summarily executed with a single gunshot to the head following a kangaroo hearing led by Khrushchev. His fat corpse, splayed out on blood-drenched snow, is then doused in gasoline and set ablaze, his devastated smoldering remains contemptuously shoveled into a burning oil drum. The camera lingers for a moment on the black ashes being blown about, helter-skelter, into an angry winter sky glaring down over a bleak Russian landscape. The peculiar blend of pure terror, defiance, and resignation when confronted with the great levelling finality of imminent death, the violent reduction to nothing (with not a little shame I admit to having downloaded repeatedly the awful video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging and studied the expression on his face), I’m exploring in my book.
Until then, enjoy the movie!
*Yes, I capitalize “Internet” and I don’t give a fuck.
11 April: This is Your Digital Life
I have been watching with curious amusement the data scandal that has engulfed Facebook these past few weeks. In case you have only just returned from being stranded on a desert island, in mid-March it surfaced that back in 2014 some personal data of as many as 87 million Facebook users was improperly (not illegally) harvested via a quiz app called “This is Your Digital Life” and shared with British firm Cambridge Analytica to create psychological profiles of U.S. and U.K. knuckleheads…er, I mean voters. Since this so-called revelation, the outrage has been so clamorous Facebook has lost $60 billion in market capitalization to date, a contrite Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to Congress for a 2-day grilling (during which he spent half his time explaining to those old geezers what Facebook actually is), and a #deletefacebook campaign was hatched that went viral.
However, unlike its recent #MeToo predecessor, are people genuinely so shocked by the “violation” of their online privacy? So far, there is no evidence that Facebook’s 2.2 billion monthly active users are shuttering their accounts en masse, Facebook’s advertisers are staying the course, and savvy investors are making easy money scooping up cheap Facebook shares that will profitably re-inflate as surely as the sun will rise. Why? Conventional analysis suggests that the public, after actively undertaking a painstaking cost-benefit analysis, lets out a collective sigh of resignation and then overwhelmingly opts to surrender personal data to advertisers in order to indirectly pay for the awesomeness of free platforms offered by the likes of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Google/Gmail, YouTube, Messenger, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, Reddit, Tmblr, and so on. The conclusion is that only government regulation of big bad tech can save the public from being so exploited by its own imprudent choice.
But doesn’t it go beyond that? With each click of a Facebook reaction button, you are aware that you are building a digital personality. You get a kick out of knowing how your choices and reactions to things are being tracked and monitored by powerful AI algorithms which, with each passing day, more accurately profile how cool you are through your tailored newsfeeds, suggestions for music on Spotify, TV content on Netflix, products on Amazon, etc. Even Porn Hub accurately nails your heretofore unknown predilection for watching MILF midgets engaging in interracial gangbangs. You sit back in your desk chair, surrounded by sodden Kleenexes, and are seized by the feeling that your devices, seamlessly synced with each other, know you better than some of the closest people in your life.
This is only natural considering we spend infinitely more time communicating with our devices than we do with in-the-flesh human beings. With the exception of protecting our online financial data, we don’t want digital privacy. We want digital intimacy. The nascent rise of AI-powered digital home assistants, currently led by Amazon Echo and Google Home, and virtual reality platforms, will only intensify that desire into the future. If we’re honest, we’re probably more gripped by fear at the prospect of our governments regulating our relationships with our machines than anything else. Of course, some people dispense with privacy all together, such as the alarming many who post on social media naked pictures of their toddlers, a prosecutable career-ending offence if the same images were published on the dark web. At the other end of the spectrum, my mother is deeply apprehensive about anything plugged into a power outlet, including the toaster. Even my wife half-jokes about putting tape over her laptop camera just in case beady-eyed Jeff Bezos himself is peering through it checking out what décor might better suit our home.
For myself, I will strap on my VR crash helmet as we hurtle toward the singularity and the end of humanity. In the meantime, I’ll re-watch Her* (but only after logging into Facebook and taking the quiz ‘If you were the moon and the moon was made of cheese, which cheese would you be?’)
*Starring the great Joaquín Phoenix and well worth checking out. Here is the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzV6mXIOVl4
15 April: Louder than Barrel Bombs
The only thing surprising about waking up yesterday morning to the news of coordinated American-led strikes on beleaguered Groznified Syria (the U.K. and France also chipping in), was that they hadn’t occurred earlier in the week upon confirmation that craven dictator, Bashar Assad, had once again deployed chemical weapons to murder his own people. Of course, the strikes had to be delayed after America’s own craven dictator, Tweeter-in-Chief Donald Trump, broadcast via infantile tweet #1,564,289 advance warning of incoming “nice and new and ‘smart!’” missiles. Didn’t Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s exhausted face this past week remind you of the figure in Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’? If I were him, I’d have disencumbered myself of the stress over my T-in-C compromising military strategy by re-watching Jeff Flake’s ‘I will not be complicit or silent’ Senate floor speech, typing up my resignation letter, tossing back a stiff drink, and sleeping like a baby until the next election.
Nevertheless, as delayed as it was, the strike was undoubtedly the right thing to do. In his televised address to the nation the T-in-C quite rightly invoked, twice, the carnage wrought by chemical weapons in World War I and the global imperative that followed banning their use. At almost the same time last year, Syria and Russia (I lied! All Russia all the time!) tested whether the new Washington administration would be as much of a pussy about the “red line” as the previous one. Their answer came in the form of 59 cruise missiles that allegedly degraded the Syrian air force by up to 20 percent. After the T-in-C recklessly tweeted his isolationist twaddle about ending American engagement in Syria three weeks ago, his “red line” resolve was again tested. This time 105 Tomahawks eventually rained down on three separate targets which have allegedly significantly degraded Syria’s chemical weapons production and stockpile.
Vladimir Putin is predictably incandescent and has characterized the strikes as an attack on Russia itself. This must make the T-in-C particularly gleeful as he is extremely anxious to smack down the growing impression that, despite all his tough guy mobsterish bluster about virtually everything, at the end of the day he is little more than Putin’s bitch. Too bad he can’t now keep his mouth shut. No, instead he is gloating “mission accomplished!” and one wonders of those two words will dog him to the same extent as they did Dubya after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Probably not, but as heroic old maverick Senator John McCain points out, as necessary as these strikes are they are not connected to any broader strategy in Syria. With this horrific civil war (and proxy war for regional and super powers) grinding into its seventh year, with no end in sight, one is urgently required.
As unlikely as it may be, if the T-in-C could pull off foreign policy wins in Syria and North Korea, he would be much better positioned to make like Don Corleone and invite Putin and Xi to the White House to kiss his rings (or his orange ass, as he sees fit).