The Stupid: America’s Most Privileged Class

I’m not a fan of tennis, but I gather that a long-time broadcaster of the sport for ESPN bit the professional dust a few days ago for a “horribly insensitive racist” utterance. He referred to Serena Williams as a practitioner of “guerilla tennis”. The writer of the explanatory piece I read was easily able to trace the offensive phrase back five or six years in the parlance of broadcasters, sportswriters, and players themselves. I infer that “guerilla tactics”, in tennis as elsewhere, involve ambushing your opponent by aggressively appearing where you were not anticipated. The problem, of course, is that “guerilla” is a homophone with “gorilla”, or… well, not really; but people who can’t speak very clearly also tend to have trouble with spelling, and indeed may not know how to read, or at least don’t read anything but the telegraphic gibberish on their Twitter accounts. And if they suffer from all of these problems together, we’re looking at a collection of symptoms that indicates terminal stupidity. So the real problem is that our hapless broadcaster was taken down by the pandemic of crippling, infectious imbecility which has swept across our society.

Something very similar happened several years ago when David Howard, an aide to D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, employed the word “niggardly” to describe stingy behavior. There is no etymological connection whatever between this and the notorious “n” word; and, let’s face it, they are clearly not pronounced the same way, so anyone whose hearing was not as impaired as his brain should have been able to figure out that a routine slur wasn’t at issue. No matter. They’re in the same ballpark. You should have reflected that idiots of my group are too dull to distinguish between the two words, and hence you should have abstained even from coming near the suggestion of an analogy of a relationship. Except… wait: wouldn’t that mean that you really were a racist if you took for granted that everyone in my group is an idiot?

I used the word “aide” above. If I were to say something dismissive about aides in any context, would that imply that I wasn’t concerned about gays dying of AIDS?

A lot of towns and geographical features have names drawn from Native American culture. How many high school football teams are called the Apaches or the Cherokees? Shouldn’t this be stopped—aren’t we demeaning our noble predecessor in North American by reducing him to a mascot or a cartoon character? And what about truly native names, like the Monongahela and Oostanaula Rivers? Shouldn’t we at least be paying royalties to someone for those? Did the tribes in question give us the rights to them?

How many of our fearless leaders and celebrated mouthpieces have maintained that referring to foreign nationals as “aliens” stigmatizes them as if they were little green men from Mars? Never mind that this science-fictional use of the word is itself a tiny backwater in its flow of possible meanings: once again, we’re dealing with people who watch TV and movies rather than read, so we must assume that their exposure to any idea whatever is limited to the experience of it they’re likely to have had through those media. Otherwise, we’re insensitive.

The Stupid would surely be our most privileged minority if they were not (I’m afraid) a growing majority. They enjoy so much special treatment that we are in fact required to anticipate how they will mutilate communications framed in functional-adult language. We must imaginatively squeeze our brains into their tiny skulls or risk losing our jobs—and maybe even, in the near future, going to prison.

Why, then, do we waste so much time promoting education and so much money sending our kids to college? It’s plain that the real key to a bright future in Dumerica is to fry those little gray cells as fast as you can.

The God of Change Is a Very Old Idol

At some point when I have more space and time, I want to write more amply about French author Guy de Maupassant’s view of the bourgeoisie. A latter nineteenth-century man of letters who particularly excelled in the genre of the short story, Maupassant projects through his condescending disgust the value system that survives and thrives in twenty-first century academe. Many have labeled this mindset “progressivism”, and not without just cause: its essential component does indeed appear to be a quasi-religious (or, better yet, a cultic) faith in the transformative power of trampling down traditional institutions (without much regard for that which must replace them). The God of Change turns out to be a very, very old idol.

The specific short story which has started me down this path is titled “Adieu”. I could add other of the same author’s works to my witness list; but for now, I don’t have time to do much more than encapsulate the plot, throw in a few translated passages, and offer some disjointed comments at the end.

Two men who have reached the mid-century mark in age are wiling away a Parisian afternoon in a sidewalk café. One of them is lamenting the deterioration of his body. The other, rather better preserved, offers a different complaint. He is dismayed that age can hurl her thunderbolt with such suddenness even upon the healthy—a danger especially observable in his relationships with women. He explains.

In his prime, he had always enjoyed the public beaches because of the advantages they afforded to observing feminine curves. The best vantage (he details) is one that allows the ladies to be studied just as they emerge from the waves on their way back to dry land.

Very little can withstand the trial of the dip. That’s where a final verdict is reached on everything from the calf to the bosom. The exit leaves the thin exposed, especially, although seawater can provide vital assistance to figures that have been allowed to slide.

The first time that I saw this young women in such a setting, I was ravished and seduced. She held up good and firm. There are certain figures whose charm suddenly transfixes us, invading us all of a sudden… and then it seems that we have found the woman that we were meant to love. I had that sensation and that shock just then.

An introduction is not difficult to secure, and one thing quickly leads to another. The lady is married, but her husband travels down from Paris only over weekends. A three-month affair ensues, at the end of which our narrator is called to parts far away. He journeys to America and spends years there, yet he never forgets the woman of his dreams. Always, she is as fresh in his memory as if he had seen her just yesterday.

Twelve years are of such little account in the life of a man! They follow one upon another, the years, gently but swiftly, slow yet hurried, each of them long but so soon finished1 And they add up so abruptly, they leave so few traces behind—they evaporate so completely that, in turning around to contemplate times past, you no longer find anything, and you cannot understand how you happen to have grown old.

Of course, the specific occasion of these gloomy thoughts was a return to France. Our narrator did not seek out his favorite and most cherished conquest: fate, rather, intervened to re-introduce them.

At the moment when the train was departing, a fat matron climbed into my wagon, escorted by four young girls. I hardly spared a glance to this mother hen, overgrown and rotund, with a face like the full moon framed by a ribboned hat.

She was breathing heavily, winded by having to walk so fast. Her children began to babble. I opened my newspaper and started reading.

We had just passed Asnières when my neighbor said all of a sudden, “Excuse me, Monsieur. Aren’t you Mr. Carnier?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She thereupon began to laugh—the hearty laugh of a spirited woman, yet a little sad.

“You don’t recognize me, do you?”

I hesitated. It struck me that I had in fact seen this face somewhere…. but where? When? I answered, “Well… yes and no. I do recognize you, but I don’t recall your name.”

She blushed slightly.

“Mme. Julie Lefèvre.”

Never have I received such a blow. It seemed to me at this instant that all was over with me. I felt that a veil had been snatched from before my eyes, and that I was going to make all kinds of horrible, nauseating discoveries.

It was she! This fat, common woman… this, then, was she? And she had hatched these four daughters since I had last seen her—they astonished me as much as their mother. They had come out of her. They were already big, had already claimed part of the living world’s space. As for her as she had been… that marvel of exquisite, coquettish grace no longer figured in reality. It seemed to me that I had seen her just yesterday… and now I found her like this! Was it possible?

A keen mournfulness seized my heart, as well as a revulsion at nature herself—an irrational indignation at this brutal, outrageous act of destruction.

What have I to say about the egotistical, repellently superior, implicitly hedonistic turn of this fictional character’s mentality (a very close approximation to his author’s, by all accounts)? More than I have space to say it. The “shopping the meat market” approach to beachcombing, the equation of an easy three-month adulterous fling with the romance of a lifetime, the instant reduction of the lover-turned-mother to a dumb beast (with beastly little fledglings surrounding her), the stupefaction at the female physique’s ability to bear children, the combination of all this into an indictment of nature’s horrid brutality… even, for that matter, the intermediate reflection on how quickly twelve years pass, as if tomorrow should always replicate today and the supply of tomorrows should be inexhaustible… how many times have I seen and heard it all among the people who came of age with me in the Seventies! Especially in the Ivory Tower: there to this day, and now deeply embedded in ideology. What childishness! And what an arrogant, spoiled-brat child!

God and Science: A Delicate Balance

I’ve been trying to shuffle around some vague ideas in the context of a class where we read a lot of ancient literature. Cultures that don’t have reading and writing are called oral-traditional by the scholars (and sometimes tribal by me): they have a certain way of looking at the gods, who are generally associated with powerful natural forces that only make sense to a pre-scientific mind as projections of human-like thinking and feeling into a super-human setting (a.k.a. anthropomorphism). Everything in this world is instantly “god”. The wind is an angry or restless god. The midday stillness is the sun god’s touching earth briefly with such imminent presence that you tremble under his golden breath. A huge, oddly shaped stone is not a representation of an earth god, as by a symbol: there are no symbols here, only nearer and farther brushes with the divine. The stone therefore is the god… and so is the mountain upon which it sits, and so is the broad world running down to the ocean.

In science, things are likewise not representative or symbolic of higher realities: they are mere things embodying the operation of unseen yet wholly natural, impersonal forces. They have no higher meaning because nothing has higher meaning, in a sense that would convey plan or purpose. The laws of nature run as they do because… because that’s how nature is set up. Out of chaos came an order which seems random to us since it has no affective content—no beautiful or noble objective. The intricate wheels of that order turn because all is enlisted into the turning, and what does not turn cannot exist.

Of course, the evolution of science was highly dependent upon literacy, since accurate records of previous observations and wide dissemination of those observations were essential to the new method. (The printing press, in fact, was needed to disseminate ideas with sufficient breadth, speed, and cost-effectiveness.) Yet literates are not necessarily devotees of the cult of science. Letters teach us to distinguish between sound and its representation; and, with a little further reflection, we realize that the sound itself represents an idea rather broader and vaguer than any one word. We slow down and ponder more deeply when we read and write, too. We understand that the stone is not the god. We start looking into ourselves for the source of that admiration, that reverence, that finds a crude symbolic expression in physical vastness and grand stillness. We begin to appreciate the separation of the ideal from the imagined, created, or fancifully interpreted objects with whose help we chase after that ideal. The world grows allegorical. A little thing may stand for an immeasurable and very sketchy truth. A sunset is not “the god” in person, but neither is it just a refraction of light through a thicker cross-section of the atmosphere’s prism. To both the tribesman and the scientist, the sunset is “thingness”; but to the former it is the greatest of things, and to the latter the merest of things. One has indiscriminately deified everything, and the other has systematically demystified everything. Neither offers a “yes and no” option where an alternative reality—not entirely captured by material but working through the material—may exist.

The ultimate challenge to the modern mind has been to proceed with the scientific analysis of material reality while not dismissing the possibility of another—a higher—reality to which litmus tests are unresponsive. One may in fact believe in one kind of knowledge and simultaneously believe in the other kind; but in practice, this proves to be a position commonly despised by the most advanced scientific minds.

The reason, I must suppose, is human arrogance: hubris. Once we create a system, we’re not content to let anything escape it. We like being in control. Upon our Mt. Olympus of scientific method, we reign like so many Zeuses. We adore our own intelligence in having been able to produce explanations that account for so much—we will not accept that the “so much” is not eventually “everything”. In this respect, science may indeed become a cult, a kind of religion unto itself. It takes on faith that nothing exists which it cannot understand and explain.

I think I prefer the tribesman, in all his ignorance. He at least clings to a natural kind of humility. He puts gods where they shouldn’t be—in stones, in winds, in sunlight; but he abstains from elevating to godly status his own capacity for imposing order.

The Neurosis of E-Life: An Addendum

What happens when messages can be conveyed easily from one party to another? Messages proliferate. What happens when messages proliferate? Everyone becomes saturated in “information” of widely varying quality. What happens when the good stuff and the bad is all stirred together in the same dumptruck-load of malodorous “communication”? The good stuff gets neglected with the bad. What happens when negligence becomes epidemic? People start feeling isolated and depressed, or even getting chippy and rude. What happens when depression and rudeness suddenly spike? People grow plangent—they want more attention, and they want everyone to apologize to them. What happens to a society of hurt, whining children and sullen, smarting victims? It fragments. You have the children who continue to whine and form groups of whiners; you have withdrawn clams who tune everything out, including the desperate sufferers who are in anguishing need; and you have the whackos who decide to blow themselves and everyone around them to hell since they can’t find an audience.

Welcome to our world.

In a professional context, you also see the multiplication of petty tasks to virtual infinity. Since it’s now so easy to demand that minions and underlings do thus and so, demands grow more numerous. The manufacture of demands, indeed, becomes itself an arduous chore: the tinpot dictators snuggled behind their keyboards actually manage to overwork themselves. They need more supporting staff, so more funds must be allocated to more hiring. At the other end, the minions grow more stressed-out because the day’s hours have not been multiplied to keep up with the rising volume of minute tasks to perform. They cut corners on the work they were intended to do in order to complete absurd surveys, questionnaires, and tutorials. The threat of harsh consequences if they do not accede to every latest demand wears upon their health, as well; for the demands are entirely impersonal and often, therefore, imperious. When you can order someone about remotely, never seeing the person’s face or hearing the person’s voice, you tend to order a little more often and a little more peremptorily. One thinks of the subjects of the Milgram Experiment, turning up the “pain” button on their tortured victims (who, unknown to them, were just acting), because they nestled behind the anonymity of a command chain and a two-way mirror.

Give a man a hammer, it is said, and everything looks like a nail. Give people the capacity to send messages simply and quickly… and you have a society of people who do nothing but “message”, to the extent that they haven’t enough time to live something worthy of report. As a society, the model is pretty crappy, really. I could almost wish for an EMP to wipe it all away; but then, most of us would die in the process.

Then again, are we alive right now?

Hollywood: Feeding On What It Most Hates

I doubt that the creators of War Dogs are remotely aware of the title’s Shakespearean allusion, which is as accidental as every other connection with the past in our post-culture.  You probably saw the commercial fifty times in October.  A couple of punks are getting rich selling arms to the U.S. government that they’ve bought from shady sources all around the world (e.g., Albania, awash in Chinese weapons and ammo after the Cold War).  The central plot is supposedly factual.  The Bush Administration deregulated arms sales in a manner that would allow small dealers to pursue government contracts… and this blow on behalf of efficient spending of public funds and against crony contracting with mega-corporations is–of course–represented by the film as corrupt and incompetent.  The two f-bombing idiots might have stepped straight out of the scenes of at least half a dozen recent Wall Street/Jordan Belfort movies: thinking of nothing but money, doped up for half their waking hours, and aware of what they’re doing only to the extent that they understand themselves to be doing nothing–to be playing a shell game with no pea under any of the husks.

My son wanted to watch the flick over Christmas break, and I have to disclose that I myself didn’t make it through to the end.  I’m really more curious to know what impact this kind of fare has on his generation than to find out how the cartoon ends.  (As a student of cliche, I pretty much know that after twenty minutes.)  When popular culture surrounds you with images of businessmen either boring each other to death in gray flannel suits or snorting coke and plotting how to get at the pensions of widows, how can your impression of reality not be affected?

To say that the entertainment media are undermining the morale of Western capitalism is itself a cliche, I know.  It would be far more interesting to spend some time reflecting on how capitalist greed and amorality have created the entertainment industry.  All I feel inclined to jot down for the moment, though, is that I can’t really see any coherent, premeditated conspiracy behind the demoralization.  People tell me that academe is also trying to subvert our way of life, and I respond the same way: I believe the “establishment-bashing” is more accident–more being part of the club (the anti-establishment establishment) than deliberate sabotage.  It’s the sort of ganging together that you observe on any playground.

Hollywood’s case is uniquely interesting to me, however, in that it makes enormous profits off of what its operatives see as humanity’s worst tendencies.  Violence is evil–but a film without violence is a bore and a bomb; so Hollywood creates visions of violence that exceed almost anything perceptible in real life, and then either blames the causes of violence on the “evil class” or celebrates the violent rebel for blowing up that class.  Exploiting the vulnerable is evil… so Hollywood exploits females in sexual displays approaching or surpassing the pornographic and the sadistic in order to paint the exploiters as arch-villains.  You live only by representing the thing that you most hate, so that you may both legitimize it as a real and formidable presence in the world and cast yourself as the constant, faithful crusader against its dark power.  Like the Puritan censor whose job is to smell out smut and send its producers to jail, you keep your nose in the dirt 24/7.  If the dirt should suddenly go away, your perverted vital energies would gnaw themselves into oblivion.

Will we ever take a good, hard look at how we amuse ourselves, how our amusements are leaking into our souls, and how we allow clowns and impersonators to have such influence over our cultural life?

Trying to Understand Chinese Culture

I don’t… but I’m trying.

One thing I’ve been doing a lot over the past year is watching Chinese movies available on Netflix.  Since I like legend, myth, epic, and all that, I often go for the flicks that are set a thousand years ago; and, of course, since no film about the past is ever really about the past, I’m fascinated by Kurosawa’s “seven samurai” paradigm which gave our Westerns The Magnificent Seven and has given Chinese producers, apparently, abundant ways to fantasize about a few dedicated souls fighting off armies of bullies.  I mean, if you live under constant censorship and the imminent threat of being “invited for tea” at the police station, you obviously have to address the subject of tyranny with caution.  Staging a clash between Martial-Arts Loner and All the Emperor’s Men is one way to keep your hands clean.

Yet these movies tend to degenerate into special-effects extravaganzas where combatants spring fifty feet into the air while twirling the Sword of Destiny that beats away all of eighty thousand arrows.  Even in the worst Hollywood B-Westerns, the most overloaded six-shooter only carries eleven or twelve shots.

There’s plenty of matter to revisit later in this topic.  The pilot of a TV serial I watched last night is what’s on my mind at the moment.  I discovered belatedly that CSIC is actually produced in Taiwan–which isn’t quite the same thing as mainland China, whatever the PRC insists on the subject.  Immediately of note is how the CSI serials in the US have been ripped off without any pretense of concealment.  (Well, it’s only fair turn-around after the way everyone ripped off Kurosawa: even Fistful of Dollars patently plagiarized Yojimbo).  The techie setting, the mock-digital overlays, the rhythm of the editing… pure rip-off.

The characters, interestingly, are indeed nerdy but rather more “teen” and frivolous than their American counterparts, like a fashion show in a college computer lab.  The only occasions when their winsome flippancy yields to passion involve such social naughtiness as consuming alcohol, especially before driving.  All of the Puritanical fury infused into our nation’s anti-gun crusades seems to be expended (in this episode, at least) upon cases of DWI (“drunk while intoxicated”, as we say down South).  The message is very powerfully projected that cops are your friends if you’re a law-abiding citizen.  They don’t take bribes, they bristle at the hint of bending rules to favor the privileged, they release a slavering rage upon nightclub owners who allow patrons to exit in a pasted condition, and they offer the liberation of a clean conscience to culprits in need of confession.  They’re a cross between Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Father Brown… with a dash of Miley Cyrus.

Maybe Taiwan and the PRC do have something in common, after all.  I’ve noticed this same effort to sanitize “your local policeman” in Jackie Chan’s films for his admiring audience of Communist Party hacks.  State official: selfless, devoted servant of virtue; money-making entrepreneur: unsavory, unprincipled pimp.  All black and white–no gray on either side.

And yet, I hear that want-ads for plum positions in China often stipulate that the applicant must be able to hold his liquor, and that girls post cards on matchmakers’ bulletin boards expressing their desire for a Mercedes and an upscale apartment.  On either side of the Formosa Strait, contemporary life doesn’t really sound like what you see on Netflix.  Seems that the Chinese, even when they try to portray survival on the streets, are still leaping fifty feet in the air and twirling the Sword of Destiny.

The War on Thinking (Continued)

I may have left the wrong impression yesterday in writing that readers detest big words and closely reasoned arguments nowadays–that there’s a kind of war on thinking, and that some of us who like to think things through (even if we don’t always do so effectively) are starting to feel lonely.  “Targeted” may be too strong a word; and as soon as a word like that flickers across my mind, I shift to recollections of self-perceived victims saying that newly empowered Trump supporters are threatening them on the streets.

So let me be clear.  I didn’t vote for The Donald–honestly, the final vote I cast last year was in the primaries.  (Verbum sagacibus sufficiat.)  But I am not a Trump-a-phobe, either.  My latest encounter with big-league suppression of speech was in a class of English majors last fall.  Annoyed that so many of the group consistently skipped our meetings and/or didn’t produce homework, I tried to pave over my irritation on one mid-semester occasion.  I remarked, “Well, I guess we have ten students missing today because Question Four drove them to suicide.”  You would have thought that I had uttered the “n” word or announced that the Holocaust was a Jewish-devised myth, judging by the reactions of three or four girls.  I was so stunned and appalled by the willfully uncharitable interpretation of my little bid for levity (one girl charged that I was “satirizing suicide”) that I devoted most of the following class to a defense of the First Amendment… to no avail.  I didn’t move any of those who had pounced on me with both feet.  Instead, they trotted out some rather Maoist arguments about how people need to think before they speak and society (read “government” as the Will of Society) should enforce the consequences of “not thinking” (read “not kowtowing to the hyper-active sensibilities of protected groups”).

Late in the semester, much water having flowed under the bridge, the same class was working in groups on a challenging task.  One girl declared very audibly in frustration, “I think I’ll just shoot myself.”  I peeked around for any hint of a response.  All heads remained lowered with utter fixity.  I couldn’t make out whether nobody had registered even a blip on the indignation screen or whether–just as likely–they all realized that one of their one had done exactly what I’d done, and nobody wanted to acknowledge it.

So… please accept my clarification.  The political ideology that imagines itself the home-sweet-home of deep thought is, in my experience, the most repressive of openly shared ideas.  I do understand the complaints of those who’ve been hooted at by rednecks in pick-up trucks.  Every time I try to use my old-fashioned push-mower in the front yard, someone drives by and shouts, “Faggot!” at me out the window of that invariable, stereotypical pick-up.  I don’t know why.  So it’s more manly to park your gluteus maximus on a riding mower and burn gallons of gas than to force a manicure upon your grass with brute strength?  As a walker of long miles in my youth (I once covered 600 miles around Ireland in a month), I’ve also had projectiles hurled at me from passing vehicles that might have killed me outright if they’d landed a headshot.  Apparently, pedestrians are also “faggots”.  Non-faggotry clearly has something to do with gas consumption.

Yes, homo inerectus is among us: I get it.  And he always will be–you need to get that.  My beef is that people who used to think and converse in a calm, civil manner are cutting each other off now.  That’s a crying shame.

Auld Lang Syne… Just Move On

During my long car ride to the eastern seaboard a few days ago, I was able to wile away many hours by scribbling.  Among other things, I ground out a poem answering an invitation to attend my high school class’s forty-fifth reunion.  I’ve posted the whole poem under a pseudonym on another site.  None of my quondam classmates will read it there… and none will read the final fragment here.  (When I notified the whole group of a book I’d published through Smashwords two summers ago, four said that they had bought or would buy a copy, not knowing that I’m automatically informed of sales.  There was one purchase.)  The poem’s first part represents the invitation, full of “school spirit” and almost clad in a letter-jacket.  This brief portion is my answer:

Appreciate the thought

(If no more deep it went

Than matching roster spots

With invitations sent).

 

Someone of your name once

Knew someone who had mine.

Their boyhood, by a chance,

Shared common place and time.

 

They went their separate ways…

Or one stayed, one left town.

With him, he took my name—

But ditched his cap and gown.

 

And how he sought his god,

And what truth found him bare

And dressed him for the road—

That’s nothing I will share.

 

The boy I was is dead—

The one you thought you knew.

Your kindly card was read

To something in a tomb.

 

Me, I remain alive—

But not where beads are pearls.

Appreciate your time.

Right name, but not right world.

 

 

On the Absence of Gears in the American Psyche

I don’t review movies, and I’m not even going to try to defend The Assassin as a film.  It sits at one star on Netflix, which means that the vast majority of the few who have seen it must positively have hated it.  The rank and file of the American public usually does detest anything that garners an award at the Cannes Film Festival, or is otherwise decked in artsy laurels.  Sometimes I’m one of those people.  For instance, I don’t see anything creative or inspired about placing a crucifix in a jar of urine.  If that’s art… then flush it.

The avant garde‘s pseudo-intellects have brought this upon themselves.  When they actually award a worthy creation, their verdict suffers from a bad case of Boy That Cried Wolf Syndrome.  The sensitive, delicate people with rainbow colors mingled in their spiked hair and pondering over a Starbuck’s which gender pronoun and restroom to patronize today cheat themselves of a chance ever to be taken seriously by compromising their credibility in a thousand frivolous matters.  The Assassin really is a work of art–even if it did win awards.  I say this having given the film four stars out of five.  I withheld the fifth because I could never fathom the motives behind the plot or, frankly, locate much of a plot.  Some of my confusion–perhaps most of it–is likely a product of my cultural limitations: I’m sure things would have made more sense if I were Chinese.

Nevertheless, I’d be willing to bet that what bothered the great American audience the most wasn’t obscure motivation or buried transition, but rather the extraordinary degree of stillness and silence from one end to the other of this film.  Productions like House of Flying Daggers and Red Cliff did very well on Netflix, despite being drenched in exotic oddities.  Characters talked.  Things happened.  When Assassin offers intense combat scenes (and there are a few), they tend to melt into other scenes while the outcome is still in question.  Far more typical are studies of brooding courtiers shot behind waving veils, panoramas of mountains or forests in the morning mist, and sequences of the conflicted assassin herself standing still as a slender statue or meandering meditatively through a field.

I found the result mesmeric.  I confess that I came back to it over a period of days.  Consuming twenty-minute or half-hour stretches was a welcome escape from the all-too-hectic pace of the holidays.  And I watched alone, so that I wouldn’t have to listen to the complaining of family members.  I still don’t really know what I saw: I just know that seeing it admitted me to a trance-like state.

The way Shu Qi’s character was able to absorb all the silence and stillness into her being, into her beautifully brooding face without hope that seemed to incarnate the landscape, fascinated me.  Having studied and written about myths of journey to the Other World all of my professional life, I couldn’t help reading in her much of the shamanic outcast who is able to drift back and forth across the life/death interface.  I might almost hazard that the movie sees the land of the living from the boundary of the dead, where voices have grown inaudible and deeds have lost all their haste and purpose.

Okay, maybe not in the running for your favorite Christmas movie.  But hated it?  Everyone who has watched The Assassin on Netflix has hated it?  Can we not content ourselves with saying, “I’m just not in the mood for this right now,” or, “Something’s going on here that I just don’t understand.”  How about two stars, at least?  Do you have to hit the “terminate” button on everything that doesn’t offer explosive car wrecks to a heavy-metal soundtrack?

That’s what really nags at me: the one star.  I’m reminded of the story about Bum Phillips after the Oilers won the Superbowl.  He ordered champagne, was told that the bottle brought to him was twenty years old, and complained, “Hey, this is a celebration!  Bring us the new stuff!”

I wish we had a gear for stillness and silence.  It would come in handy for Christmas, especially.