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A shot from Peter Mullen's "The Magdalene Sisters", depicting a young man and woman flirting.

Art As Issue: On Peter Mullen’s “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002)

I sometimes wonder how my life would’ve been if I’d been born 50 or 100 years before. Typically, these ponderings are answered by the sense of having made a narrow escape. Learning that the last of the Magdalene laundries was shut down just the year before I was born is almost surreal, having grown up in an Ireland experiencing its first flushes of wealth and donning a newfound secularism. The abuses of the church were becoming something to be taken for granted, rather than being trapped in whispers. Yet, the truth that Peter Mullen’s The Magdalene Sisters depicts is that mental freedom is much harder come by than the physical kind. I’ve heard the quiver that lingers in so many older people’s voices when they speak of the nuns that tormented them back in primary school—70 years on. The suspicions that they lacked the language to express, back then, about the parish priest’s strange behaviour.

Of course, most of these people remain devout Catholics. The label of “anti-Catholic” is typically tossed out as a lazy attempt to refute those who are frank about the abuses the Church allowed and facilitated. The Magdalene Sisters predictably got this same tarring, yet there is no condemnation of any religious doctrine here. In fact, it’s pointed out that many of the women retained their faith, as their real-life counterparts overwhelmingly did. The abuses depicted here are not solely the domain of those in habit and cassock, but are recognisable wherever complacency and fear allow cruelty to fester. […]

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A stylized set of portraits of R.B. Kitaj, who is being re-appraised by English painter Ethan Pinch.

Critical Mass: The Case Against R.B. Kitaj

To revisit the work of American artist R.B. Kitaj is to revisit the scene of a ritual murder. He is, after all, a painter noteworthy for being ‘assassinated’ by his critics—a grievous mantle which, though Kitaj has been dead for over fifteen years, has thankfully found no indisputable successor. What stands today as a classic fable of yellow press journalism is the account of a London Tate retrospective so viciously panned that it is now held to be the catalyst for Kitaj’s eventual suicide along with the tragically premature death of his wife, Sandra, from a stroke.

Kitaj had been, for most of his career, a sort of enfant terrible—so it follows that he should have been accustomed to some negative criticism, or at least journalistic vulgarity. Yet the ’94 Tate retrospective, an event intended to finally confirm his critical legacy, instead gave rise to one of the most vicious pile-ons in the history of broadsheet criticism. A ‘cyclone of abuse ‘. A ‘lynch mob‘.

But what’s the real substance behind all this tabloid melodrama? Could it just be another case of critical caprice? Of obstinance and snobbery? Or was it, as Kitaj loudly alleged, a case of antisemitic blood libel: of gentiles bashing and scapegoating an expatriate Jewish artist for the crime of merely existing? […]

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A black and white depiction of horses running amidst dust, as imagined in Jess Bowers's "Horse Show" (2024). [Featured image via SorcerySoap HocusPocus for Pixabay.]

Standing Horses: Review of “Horse Show” by Jess Bowers

We have forgotten the horse, and in doing so, are erasing our own history: the collaboration between horse and human extends into prehistory, and the effect of horses upon human civilization now extends into the width of our roads, our vehicles, and everything we have built that is predicated on that measurement—in truth, the width of a hitched team, the width of two horses yoked together. It is at our peril that we forget the horse, that we forget what we owe them for our civilization; any document of human history involves movement across land and the most formidable masses of moving humans were collaborating with horses. It’s not just us, although humancentric views are internalized as such.

The equestrian world, of humans and horses together, exists almost as a parallel reality to that which we know prosaically as modern society. Horses are large and require room to move about, they require land which is being erased by endless human rapaciousness, they are fragile and the hard corners of human habitation often are their undoing. Caring for a horse involves the muscles of your body and getting them their dinner before you get yours; it involves insect bites, dirt, feces, and a rudimentary skill as a medic. Horse habitat also involves complex natural ecosystems, and in many places has become the last retreat for too many species of wildlife. […]

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Tom Cruise smiling at his bar in Roger Donaldson's Razzie Award winner, "Cocktail".

The Wistful Longing Under the Drink Umbrella: On Roger Donaldson’s “Cocktail” (1988)

Imagine a guy whose life goals are to become a simple-minded millionaire and own a bar, albeit not necessarily in that order. How he gets there, though, is not by owning the bar, but by marrying a ‘rich chick,’ who will not only fund his shallow endeavors but also provide the down payment for the bar, or at least her father will, but we don’t know for sure. Do we care?

The 1980s spawned a plethora of bad films that rivaled the 1940s paint-by-number melodramas where the simple script is churned out with a particular star in mind. Enter in some friction where the guy goes off to hustle another woman for a while, but in the end love triumphs. After all, it’s not difficult to think you’ve met your soul mate while screwing for a week on the beach in Jamaica.

Cocktail stars Tom Cruise as Brian Flanagan (who I will just refer to as Tom Cruise throughout this review), a materialistic dullard just out of the service and desperate to open a bar and become a millionaire. He reads lots of ‘get rich quick’ books, but none work. He wants a high-paying job with influence, but his lack of a degree is getting in the way. Then he meets a seasoned bartender named Doug (Bryan Brown), who offers him a job. Doug also happens to be the only entertaining character in the film, and is full of lots of advice, like how a bartender is the ‘aristocrat of the working class.’ ‘The waitresses hate me,’ Tom Cruise says. ‘Wait till you’ve given them crabs. Then they’ll really hate you.’ Huh? […]

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A black and white photo photo of a Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert. Captured by Jay George from Pixabay.

Breakfast Stories: In a Box

“We will show them Our signs in the universe and within themselves…” — 41:53, Quran

Having no street legal car or bike to race, Rob and I were to race each other—not what we’d expected at this once noticed-in-the-mags, Ramona drag strip, aka, San Diego Raceway. We both knew Rob would likely win, his having the newer bike, better tires, but racing each other at least met the first rule of adventure: wasting time in a manner that could kill you.

And kill it might have had Rob not noticed that my front tire was nearly flat and a danger at speed, even in a straight line. No alarm, though, a pump was available and I was near certain the air would hold for the run. […]

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Posters over time depicting Fritz Lang's classic silent film, "Metropolis" (1927).

Myth in Motion: Review of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927)

Sometimes, restriction can push greatness into being, heightening what’s left in its confines. I’ve often noticed this in poetry, with certain writers reaching their zeniths in formalism while their talent slackens in free verse. But my recent attempts to become more acquainted with silent films have provided me with another example of this principle at work. In fact, I often find myself thinking that silent cinema seems like a whole different medium to the “talkies” (it’s really kind of a shame that it couldn’t have continued to develop alongside the latter as a parallel variant of film, but I digress). Silence instils its own demands, and so, its own unique opportunities for pay-offs. What clearer demonstration could be had of this than watching Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis?

Viewing Metropolis in 2024, I’m left with an impression of something both familiar, and somehow alien. The film’s depiction of its setting has created a wake of imitators over the last almost 100 years of science fiction—its skyscrapers continue to loom in pop-culture’s view of The Future. Metropolis’s towering imagery has left its imprint, and yet this does nothing to diminish the distinctive power that it holds. Part of the visual signature of the film, and in my opinion, one of the most striking and unusual (to modern eyes) aspects, is in the stylised way its actors move. I often felt like I was watching a dance. From the opening scenes of workers mechanically trudging like cattle at their shift change, we move to the fluid frolicking of the city’s young elites in their gardens above, and through their movement, we understand all that we need to about this unequal world. It’s not altogether realistic—but this is a strength, since it’s very much in keeping with the fable-like tone of the story. […]

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Photos of Maxim D. Shrayer (Максим Д. Шраер), one with "dunce" written on his forehead, one with a Soviet hammer and sickle across his face, and another with the flag of the Khmer Rouge blocking out his ill-shaped head.

Maxim D. Shrayer Is A Post-Soviet Fraud & Murder-Apologist

It’s been years since I’ve written a takedown of a poseur or freak, largely because they are such time-sinks, yet offer so little themselves. They seek unearned attention, and, if attention is given, seek to take one away from deeper aims. To wit: Ben Shapiro (does it not damage my essay that I expect you to know who this was?) might ultimately get exhumed by trivia hunters, but this would only be slightly better than Shapiro’s own goings to and fro on the earth. Coleman Hughes certainly represents a ‘type’, but hasn’t this type been discussed to the point of acquiring its own slur? Such cons are obvious, yet the Russian émigré poet Maxim D. Shrayer lords over a grift many won’t pick up on, not only due to their ignorance of immigrant politics, but also the ease with which nonimmigrants get brow-beaten by American liberals. Shrayer’s recent essay on murdered Palestinian academic Refaat Alareer has exposed this grift, though it requires another ex-Soviet to identify its parts. And so, as I enter a more mindful middle age, I can only justify writing of losers if I also expound upon their fiefdoms—particularly if these are lesser-known fiefdoms with poorly understood dynamics.

Maxim Shrayer, a professor at Boston College, was born in 1967, in Moscow, at the start of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. This conflict entailed geopolitical re-alignment as the Soviets backed Egypt, America backed Israel, and Russia began to suspect its own Jewish citizens as insufficiently loyal. His father, David Shrayer-Petrov, was (is) a writer, war veteran, and medical researcher stripped of his title upon application for an exit visa in 1978. This was a typical outcome for (upper class) refuseniks, whose contributions to the Soviet Union were deemed too important remit. After years of harassment, Shrayer’s family was allowed to leave for America in 1987, sparing them not only the final years of empire, but the violence and destitution which soon befell Russia. By most metrics, then, Maxim Shrayer is one of the truly fortunate. Moving from the Pale of Settlement, to postwar Leningrad, to Moscow—Russia’s wealthiest city—his family, unlike most Soviet Jews, even had the foresight to skip Israel in favor of joining the academic elite of Rhode Island, where they were quickly accepted. This is unlike the treatment most refugees get, since they are not educated, not (passing) white, and not easily used to score political points. One of his first bits of self-description (‘refusenik’) recycles his father’s identity, while his flaunting of an Israeli flag must be especially galling to an ethnostate which has ‘lost’ Shrayer to America. His career focuses on the Jewish experience, Russian translation, the writing of (bad) poetry, a devotion to the overrated Vladimir Nabokov, and, most recently, the justification of Israeli war crimes. Indeed: take away the accidents of birth and Shrayer could have been quite comfortable as a Soviet functionary. He has no personal center, no obvious gifts, and would already be forgotten if it weren’t for his willingness to patsy for a dying regime. As an apparatchik, however, Maxim D. Shrayer hasn’t quite learned that merely separating oneself from the hoi polloi is not really individualism, but an absurd mix of might-makes-right, on the one hand, and Nietzschean slave-morality on the other. Put another way, he is encouraged to speak as a victim, then leverages real-world assets to punch down. […]

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A shot of a nervous-looking Talia Ryder in Sean Price Williams's "The Sweet East" (2023).

Whirling Girl: Review of Sean Price Williams’s “The Sweet East” (2023)

Here is an interesting, if haphazard, debut from Sean Price Williams, script courtesy of noted film writer Nick Pinkerton. Is The Sweet East a bildungsroman? Is it a picaresque? Many (including the filmmakers themselves) have attached these labels to the film, but if they are true, then to its credit the film resists conventional approaches. The Sweet East is unafraid to play with form, and this is clear from the get-go: a tender post-sex scene between two young lovers (one of them Talia Ryder’s Lillian, our protagonist) with an almost Cassavetes feel transitions to jump-cuts between the iPhones of several dirty-mouthed, bird-flipping students on a school trip to D.C. Then, in the middle of this raucous grungy indie opening, Lillian seems to notice the camera cramped alongside her in a squalid karaoke bar bathroom and suddenly, forlornly, sings right to it. Are we watching a musical now?

What follows is a journey along the wilds (urban, rural, cultural, emotional, etc.) of the American eastern seaboard as Lillian attempts to improvise a personality that’s commensurate with whatever her adolescent longings seem to signal.

Is she a flat character? I wouldn’t wholesale deny such a description, but I’d say instead that she is a fundamentally simple sort of person: a beautiful girl from Nowheresville, South Carolina who knows she’s beautiful and knows even better how to utilize her looks—as well as others’ assumption of her naivete/guilelessness—to her advantage. What’s most striking, though, is how blasé she is with the rather extraordinary sequence of events she finds herself in: from the ramshackle home of a rich-kid-turned-revolutionary-punk-wannabe with a pierced penis to being kidnapped by a young man who camps out with homosexual Muslim isolationists, she takes it all in stride and always manages to slip away whenever a good opportunity arises. She is continually insulated from real danger, as protected by her beauty and youth as she is by her pluckiness. […]