Behold — Neil Gorsuch

I defer to Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog: “[Neil] Gorsuch is still a very natural choice for any Republican president to nominate as a replacement for Scalia — someone who would espouse similar principles, stand firm on similar doctrinal commitments, reach similar outcomes, and even fill a similar role as one of the court’s most articulate defenders of conservative judicial theory.” More:

Gorsuch takes a very broad view of religious freedom, and in two separate cases (one of which was the famous Hobby Lobby case) backed religious challenges to the Affordable Care Act. “No one before us disputes that the mandate compels Hobby Lobby and Mardel to underwrite payments for drugs or devices that can have the effect of destroying a fertilized human egg,” he wrote in a concurrence. “No one disputes that the Greens’ religion teaches them that the use of such drugs or devices is gravely wrong.” Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Gorsuch argued, the government must give broad deference to religious groups’ explanations of what their beliefs entail, even if those explanations seem inconsistent or unscientific.

To my mind these views are a radical misinterpretation of the obligations of the religious to the body politic. He also wrote a book refuting assisted suicide.

On occasion he has shown deference to defendants:

Like Scalia, he has shown a willingness to occasionally side with defendants on criminal law matters. He sided with a Albuquerque middle schooler who was strip-searched by his school, dissenting while his colleagues ruled that the school police officer and other employees are immune from lawsuits. In one 2012 dissent, he argued against applying the federal law banning felons from owning firearms to a defendant who had no idea he was a felon. And he’s expressed concern with overcriminalization, saying that states and the federal government have enacted too many statutes forbidding too much activity. But on other matters, he has been, like his would-be predecessor, harsher.


A few Democratic senators, however, even those in safe seats, are not willing to follow the Dixie Chicks’ line about being not ready to play nice:

Democrats are worried, multiple aides said, about Republicans having an excuse to kill the filibuster on the Supreme Court now, and later use it to ram through an even more conservative nominee if there is another vacancy during Trump’s presidency.

That risk has many Senate Democrats wanting to play nice with the pick at the beginning before formally opposing a nominee after a thorough committee vetting. It’s the precise opposite of how McConnell handled Garland — a tactic that drew widespread criticism but was ultimately effective in galvanizing conservative support for Republicans in the 2016 elections.

For the life of me, will someone explain how this craven behavior makes sense even as politics? The GOP paid no price in 2016 for denying Merrick Garland a hearing. If Chris Coons worries about what mean ol’ Mitch will do regarding the filibuster, has it occurred to him that McConnell is ready to ditch the 60-vote threshold now and in the future (emphasis mine)? I watched Bret Baier’s Wax Museum at 6:30, and Charles Krauthammer and Laura Ingraham were already willing to defenestrate McConnell from his Richard Russell Building office for threatening to kill the filibuster instead of killing it already.

Total war then — the GOP has demanded it since January 2009 if not January 1981. Even if Chuck Schumer and the Dems do what I want, they’re not gonna stop Gorsuch’s holding the door for his fellow justices. Not even Susan Collins will forgo a chance to keep a conservative majority on SCOTUS, and the GOP cares about courts more than even the presidency. Most chillingly, Gorsuch is forty-nine. The odds are strong that he will outlive us all, long enough perhaps to return to a Lochner country.

‘The Exterminating Angel’ hasn’t lost its power to jolt

The most terrifying existential crisis, awful enough that it goes unmentioned in Sartre and Karl Jasper, is dealing with guests who don’t want to leave. In 1962, Luis Buñuel fused this and two of his other fascinations — food and the banal rich — into a pungent script he called The Exterminating Angel. The last film the Spanish director made in adopted home Mexico, The Exterminating Angel was also the last to benefit from a budget that covered the doilies and silverware but not the tuxedos. The cheapness of the film helps in the right ways: when the guests turn surly with hunger and exhaustion, the 800-peso formal wear, sewn from what Buñuel called tropical cloth, wrinkles like linen napkins left in the rain. The Exterminating Angel is a summa of the director’s Mexican exile, an exercise in jolting the audience out of its constrictions worthy of Hitchcock, and a grand joke never as piercing as Buñuel thinks at the expense of the bourgeoisie.

Although the credits say “based on a play by José Bergamin,” neither Buñuel nor co-writer Luis Alcoriza had seen it; nor had Bergamin, in an example of life imitating a Surrealist comedy, even written his play. As usual, Buñuel relied on his instincts for a gripping yarn. “That’s a magnificent title. If I were walking down the street and saw that title on a marquee, I would go inside to see the show,” he told Jose de la Colina in an interview collected in the essential Objects of Desire. Why this collection of decadents can’t leave the den of Nubile (Enrique Rambal) defies logic. Gripped by an inertia without cause, guests change their minds at the moment they’re about to cross over to another section of the mansion. First they drowse in their finery across sofas and chairs. Then they run out of food. They’re reduced to drinking stagnant flower water. Finally, they’re taking turns sipping from the pipes in the wall. Meanwhile all manner of Buñuelian nonsense unfurls in the background: a bear, taking advantage of the abdication of human authority, patrols the house; pet sheep hang out under the table; a delirious woman babbles about glimpsing an eagle flying over mountain peaks after using a closet turned into a makeshift toilet.

Mordant, gross, and very funny, The Exterminating Angel has become a locus for Marxist criticism over the years. Preparing for the dinner party that precipitates the disaster, the servants grumble about a sinister force that compels them to leave. The one who stays is Nobile’s most trusted servant and, as majordomo, the one whose pretensions run closest to the guests. Buñuel’s ear for the idle chat of rotters produces stupid-apt exchanges like the guest remarking on hearing a window shatter, “It was a probably a passing Jew.” Human fatuity provides him endless amusement. When a server trips, tray bearing a “Maltese” delicacy made of liver, almonds, and honey, the gusts laugh. Carlos Conde (Augusto Benedico), a doctor who’s all reasonableness and forbearance, finds his liberal values insufficient if not laughable in the face of squalor. But the film makes sense only to itself, as its delicious ending shows.

As previously stated, The Exterminating Angel marked an end of sorts for Buñuel. His next film was the French language remake of Diary of a Chambermaid, kicking off a fecund collaboration with scenarist Jean-Claude Carrière. A decade later, The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie, the purest product of their labors, lacked even a pretense of scurrility. If it was an indictment of the upper classes, it was the mildest kind. With the serenity of old age, Luis Buñuel understood that while some things never change it didn’t prevent him from laughing at them anyway.

The Exterminating Angel plays tonight at Gables Art Cinema at 7 p.m.

We’re in for it now #245

I haven’t responded to White House events as they’ve happened because human endurance has limits, but firing an acting attorney general days before a new attorney general takes command of the Department of Justice strikes me as a stupid mistake that will nevertheless please large portions of the president’s base, most of which thinks attorneys general, because the Senate confirms them, work for the president. It’s the YOU’RE FIRED that the base has wanted since November 2016.

Nothing frightens me more: The best of John Cale

Until drink and drugs froze the hockey mask into a manner and Lou Reed himself cleaned up, John Cale spent the seventies jumping from peak to peak. His was the most fruitful kind of cult career: record company exec, producer on the make for hungry acts, both of which funded increasingly reckless albums. Amanda Petrusich’s fine New Yorker retrospective is worth your time.

1. Fear is a Man’s Best Friend
2. Dying on the Vine
3. Barracuda
4. Hanky Panky Nohow
5. Ship of Fools
6. Andalucia
7. Gun
8. Cordoba
9. Cable Hogue
10. Paris 1919
11. Ghosts
12. Heartbreak Hotel
13. Mr. Wilson
14. Leaving It Up to You
15. Guts
16. A Dream (w/Lou Reed)
17. Child’s Christmas in Wales
18. Style It Takes
19. Graham Greene
20. Thoughtless Kind

Accessibility, with limits: Cloud Nothings and Kehlani

Kehlani – SweetSexySavage

“I’m too much of a woman, too much of a bad ass bitch,” Kehlani sings on a track, three quarters of the way through her debut, that plays like “More Than a Woman” without Aaliyah’s preternatural reserve. “In My Feelings” interpolates New Edition’s devastating “If It Isn’t Love” — apt, for SweetSexySavage takes its emotional cue from the 1988 track’s “Maybe she’ll take me back” middle eight. Taking no shit but giving a shit when the occasion demands it, Kehlani is the most rounded of new R&B singers: not as masochistic as K Michelle, indifferent to Fantasia’s self-help bromides. She prizes availability, with limits: “Everything I do, I do it with a passion/If I gotta be a bitch, I’mma be a bad one,” as she puts it in “Distraction.” With the well-named Pop & Oak sculpting settings that place hooks front and center but with a thick and sturdy rhythmic base, SweetSexySavage doesn’t let up. Like most albums in the streaming age, it’s too long, but I don’t know what to cut or, important, why I would cut it. As a listener entering his second full decade as an out homosexual, I savor subtext when I hear it, which is why “Undercover,” about realizing the object of desire loves you back when your friends and family don’t love him, gains in poignancy.

Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

Responsible for three punk albums as bracing as a bucket of warm saltwater in the face, this Cleveland quartet makes the expected move: reducing the distortion, jangling up. For the uninitiated, the piano with which “Up to the Surface” opens will sound like typical production sweetening, no more or less; for fans, the way Dylan Baldi and Chris Brown answer the chorus of “Modern Act” with guitar strums may prompt questions about when a Real Estate album crept into the playlist. John Goodmanson, the credits say, responsible for the million-buck sheen on clients as diverse as Brandi Carlisle, Sleater Kinney, Bikini Kill, and Hanson. Good for them. Clarity distinguishes Cloud Nothings from a thousand bands rehearsing in Ohio exurbs. Even when “Reason My Fate” rumbles past the five-minute mark, their arrangements resist sprawl, like brownstones in an old city. A singer whose screams are as intimate as whispers, Baldi also specializes in a shrewdly deployed skepticism: romanticism is the thing examined, not the prism through which to look at things. Drinking those tall refreshing glasses of driveway gravel before stepping in front of the mike helps. “I’m not the one who’s always right,” he observes in “Internal World.” “Feels like the tide is starting to come in,” he rasps elsewhere.

Sowing what we reap: Trump and the travel ban

As news of the Trump administration’s executive order imposing the temporary travel ban on refugees from countries that have sent no terrorists to destroy us, Glenn Greenwald was on Twitter doing his favorite thing: playing I Told You So, this time with context.

In The Intercept, Greenwald publishes a longer piece explaining how Trump is the culmination of sixteen years of war:

There are factions on both the center-left and right that are primarily devoted to demonizing Muslims and Islam. A government can get away with bombing, invading, and droning the same group of people for more than 15 years only by constantly demonizing and dehumanizing that group and maintaining high fear levels, which is exactly what the U.S. has done under two successive administrations. Both the Bush and Obama administrations ushered in all-new and quite extreme civil liberties erosions aimed primarily if not exclusively at Muslims.

Trump did not appear out of nowhere. He is the logical and most grotesque expression of a variety of trends we have allowed to fester: endless war, a virtually omnipotent presidency, unlimited war powers from spying to due process-free imprisonment to torture to assassinations, repeated civil liberties erosions in the name of illusory guarantees of security, and the sustained demonization of Muslims as scary, primitive, uniquely violent Others.

Longtime readers of HTV know to what degree Greenwald helped me understand the expansion of executive authority in foreign affairs during the Bush era and the degree to which the former president was bequeathing successors with powers beyond what the Framers envisaged; indeed, I withheld my vote for Barack Obama in 2008 because I objected to his support for what the Bush White House treated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court (I voted for him in 2012).

And here we are.

Twenty-five best films of 2016

1. Being 17 (André Téchiné)
2. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
3. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
4. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
5. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
6. The Measure of a Man (Stéphane Brizé)
7. Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante)
8. Little Men (Ira Sachs)
9. Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
10. The Other Side (Roberto Minervini)
11. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
12. No Home Movie (Chantal Ackerman)
13. Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
14. A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)
15. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
16. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
17. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
18. Other People (Chris Kelly)
19. Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
20. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)
21. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)
22. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)
23. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
24. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
25. Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro)

New and true and gay: The best of Luther Vandross

Eleven years ago, I wrote a consideration of Luther Vandross for Stylus. Many of my points now embarrass me, but I’ll post it anyway. To call Luther Vandross the greatest R&B singer of the era reminds me of what my French teacher said about Victor Hugo: greatest isn’t “necessarily” the best. Yet listening to the songs on the list below as I’ve aged has been an education in comprehending how we worship love as a substitute for love itself — the coppery taste of desire, ungratified and persistent. Votive candles lit for unseen presences are comforts.

1. Give Me the Reason
2. Glow of Love
3. Stop to Love
4. The Other Side of the World
5. It’s Over Now
6. Never Too Much
7. Sugar and Spice
8. If Only For One Night
9. So Amazing
10. Power of Love/Love Power
11. I’ll Let You Slide
12. Any Love
13. The Night I Fell in Love
14. Searching
15. A House is Not a Home
16. I’ve Been Working
17. She Loves Me Back
18. Dance with My Father
19. The Rush
20. The Best Things in Life Are Free

Best films of 2016 #1-5

We’ve reached the end. Older entries here. Click on the director’s name for links to the original reviews.

5. American Honey (Andrea Arnold)

Named after a Lady Antebellum single to which I was indifferent seven years ago, Andrea Arnold’s first American film is stuffed with music, much of it blessed hip-hop like E-40’s “Choices (Yup),” Migos, and Kevin Gates. Also Jeremih. Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love” accompanies an important bliss-out moment. Andrea Arnold’s first American film is one of the few in recent years that depicts teenage drift without trying to “understand.” Certainly Arnold is no closer to understanding the mystery of TheBeef, given his best and most awake performance to date while wearing a braided rat tail. The title works: the film has a sweet glow.

4. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)

The millennium’s about to end, and Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) and her dance troupe kick it to Pet Shop Boys’ marvelous cover of “Go West.” Although modern China’s most acerbic chronicler has nothing particular to say about what 2000 brought except exposure to western consumer goods, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart uses a thirty-year span to show the redefinition of a family, link by link.

3. Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman)

I’m also tempted to call Love & Friendship the best film Whit Stillman has made if Damsels in Distress and Metropolitan didn’t exist. But so sharply etched and well paced is Love & Friendship that it represents the apex of the director’s preoccupation with the way in which irony and persiflage conspire to peak behind the surfaces they helped construct. Not to tear them down, however. Whether he sets his films in discos or a country house in the 1790s, Stillman understands the value of these surfaces.

2. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)

Based on Maile Meloy’s short stories about people a rung or two up the economic ladder from the hardscrabble lives in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, Certain Women weaves three tentatively connected narratives about women at work and seething with suppressed frustrations. It boasts one of the year’s most delicate and romantic sequences: rancher Jamie, mesmerized by Beth’s ill-prepared and embarrassing lectures on education law to hostile night school attendees, dumps her car and rides a horse to class; Jamie invites Beth to join her on the saddle as they trot to their twice weekly debriefing at a diner. The pair hold on tight as the horse cuts through the cool rural Montana air. Nothing is said. Nothing need be said.

1. Being 17 (André Téchiné)

To be queer is to be aware of possibilities and, animated by the thought of transgressing, seizing them. Once in a while you watch a movie that dredges buried emotions and nuances. Being 17 is one of them. Directed by the seventy-three-year-old André Téchiné, Being 17 is as observant about teenage lust as a movie made by a man half his age, even if you discount the fact that Téchiné has long had an interest in exploring love roundelays with the eye of a novelist and grasping the consequences with the heart of a family friend. I wanted to hug this movie.

‘It’s working out very nicely’

Cabinet officials without governmental experience? What could possibly go wrong?

It wasn’t until Friday — the day Trump signed the order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days — that career homeland security staff were allowed to see the final details of the order, a person familiar with the matter said.

The result was widespread confusion across the country on Saturday as airports struggled to adjust to the new directives. In New York, two Iraqi nationals sued the federal government after they were detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and 10 others were detained as well.

In Philadelphia, a Syrian family of six who had a visa through a family connection in the US was placed on a return flight to Doha, Qatar, and Department of Homeland Security officials said others who were in the air would be detained upon arrival and put back on a plane to their home country.

Fortunately, the president speaks in a calm, reassuring manner, befitting the dignity of his office:

Asked during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office Saturday afternoon about the rollout, Trump said his government was “totally prepared.”

“It’s working out very nicely,” Trump told reporters. “You see it at the airports. You see it all over. It’s working out very nicely and we’re going to have a very, very strict ban, and we’re going to have extreme vetting, which we should have had in this country for many years.”

But the language of the executive order uses nuance and precision, eschewing jingoism:

The executive order, which he said was aimed at protecting Americans from terrorist attacks, singled out Syrian refugees as “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

When the refugee program resumes, the executive order calls for changes to “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.”

“We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people,” Trump said.

I recognize that the president has legal authority over refugees. Context matters, though. The speed with which the order was issue shows a wanton, reckless disregard for consequences.

The problem with “pro-life” as a position

After Friday’s nationwide March for Life, Alan Levonovitz, assistant professor of religion at James Madison University, asks obvious questions:

Why, as I look out on the sea of signs at today’s the March for Life, do I see nothing about maternity leave, much less paternity leave? Why aren’t expansive parental leave policies front and center on every pro-life website, and on the lips of every pro-life politician?

Why does every speaker fail to mention contraception? Why isn’t sex education front and center on every pro-life website, and on the lips of every pro-life politician?

Why is adoption mentioned only in passing, if it is mentioned at all?

To their credit, I saw several liberal sentiments at the march held by St. Brendan’s yesterday morning. We would be better off if abortion rights partisans would call themselves “pro-abortion” and its opponents “anti-abortion.”