by Bastoche | 2/17/2008 01:18:00 PM
He’s back and he’s gunning for bear.

Norman Podhoretz, in his June 2007 essay, “The Case for Bombing Iran,” argues that the US can no longer afford to put off attacking Iran, the “main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11.” According to Podhoretz, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, wants to “wipe Israel off the map,” extend “the power and influence of Islam” throughout the Middle East and Europe, and diminish America’s ability to impede his fanatic quest. Such ambitious goals are mere pipedreams—unless Ahmadinejad has a realistic means of accomplishing them. Podhoretz argues that Iran is close to obtaining such means—nuclear weapons—and when it does so it will use the threat of those weapons to force the nations of the Middle East and Europe—and even the Great Satan itself—to submit to its demands. As Podhoretz says, Iran would not have to use its nuclear weapons to achieve its goal of regional domination and world influence. “Intimidation and blackmail by themselves would do the trick.”

Since the fanatic ambition of a theocrat like Ahmadinejad cannot be swayed by appeals to rational self-interest, America has only one recourse to avert the disaster that would inevitably occur should Iran gain a nuclear capacity: By means of air strikes America must destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. And in the Summer of 2007, when Podhoretz published this essay, it seemed as if George W. Bush might very well act on its advice. Unfortunately for Podhoretz and other similarly farsighted hawks, a summary of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate was published on 3 December. Among its “Key Judgments,” three were particularly relevant to those who were pressing for military strikes against Iran. First, the Intelligence Community judged with “high confidence” that Iran had been maintaining a covert nuclear weapons program “from at least the 1980s to 2003.” Second, the Intelligence Community also judged, and again with “high confidence,” that Iran had deliberately halted its covert program in 2003. Third, the IC judged with “moderate confidence” that Iran has not reactivated the program. Taken together, these judgments effectively scotched any idea of a military strike against Iran.

Befuddled and indignant, Podhoretz struck back in his 3 December Commentary response, “Dark Suspicions about the NIE.” In this piece Podhoretz argues that the current NIE and its predecessor, completed in 2005, glaringly contradict one another. Although the current NIE judges with “high confidence” that in 2003 Iran halted all attempts to develop a nuclear capacity, the previous NIE had reported with equally “high confidence” that Iran was, at that time, “determined to build nuclear weapons." Obviously, if Iran, as the 2007 NIE claims, had halted its nuclear program in 2003, the 2005 Estimate was considerably off the mark. But if the 2005 Estimate was in error, why believe that the 2007 Estimate is any more accurate? Podhoretz, for one, has no intention of assuming that the 2007 rather than the 2005 Estimate is in accord with the truth of things. Allowing his resentment free rein, he speculates that the Intelligence Community is still smarting from the fact that, prior to the Iraq War, they had supported “the then universal belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.” As a result, the IC has, in the 2007 Estimate, embraced a compensatory caution and “is now bending over backward to counter what has up to now been a similarly universal view,” namely “that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons,” a view publicly and loudly espoused, of course, by Podhoretz himself.

Entertaining “an even darker suspicion,” however, Podhoretz speculates that the Intelligence Community, “which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again.” It seems that the IC, wanting “to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations,” has published the report as a way of constraining the President’s choices, depriving him of one option, military force, and maneuvering him instead down the path of “appeasement,” that is, diplomacy. Having a deep knowledge of appeasement’s seductive allure, Podhoretz can scarcely hide his contempt for the report’s suggestion that the US should talk to Iran. Completely oblivious to its shameful capitulation, the Intelligence Community urges the US to offer Iran, as inducements to scuttle its nuclear program, alternative ways to “achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence.” But Podhoretz attempts no further critique of the Estimate, and his response sputters to a peevish and ineffectual conclusion.

1. Our Hero, Restored and Brimming with Confidence, Returns to the Fray

In his most recent Commentary essay, “Stopping Iran: Why the Case for Military Action Still Stands,” Podhoretz has regained his polemical poise. He recycles in this essay many of the arguments from his June 2007 essay but supplements them with some original material in order to come to a new and apocalyptic conclusion. Once again Podhoretz tells us that prior to the publication of the 2007 NIE, most informed observers assumed that Iran was trying to acquire the capacity to build a nuclear arsenal. Further, Podhoretz says, most observers agreed “that it must not be permitted to succeed” since Iran, as the world’s foremost patron of terrorist networks, “would transfer nuclear technology to terrorists who would be only too happy to use it against us.” Further, since its ambition “to become the hegemon of the Middle East” was evident to everyone in its neighborhood, its drive to obtain a nuclear capability would likely provoke a regional and potentially catastrophic arms race. Perhaps most important, its deeply held desire to eradicate the state of Israel would be made both feasible and attractive by its acquisition of a nuclear arsenal.

Even the attainment of those goals would not satisfy the fanatics in Tehran. According to Podhoretz, no judicious observer assumed that Iran’s hegemonic ambition was restricted to the Middle East. Like all autocratic states, Iran’s ambition was excessive and expansionist, and Tehran was well aware that a nuclear arsenal would enable it, by means of “nuclear intimidation and blackmail,” to exceed its borders and expand its sphere of influence, first throughout the Middle East and then beyond, transforming Europe “into a continent where Muslim law and practice would more and more prevail.” While engaged in this campaign of bullying the Middle East and Europe into submission, Iran would also target its great opponent across the Atlantic. It would not be able to obliterate the US but, by instilling in the Great Satan a craven “fear of triggering a nuclear war,” the mullahs in Tehran would be able to deter it from resisting their expansionary ambitions.

However, Podhoretz laments, many acute and knowledgeable observers who clearly recognized Iran’s ambitions entertained the illusory notion that the mullahs could be diverted from their grand design “by a judicious combination of carrots and sticks,” that is, by the gambits and ploys of coercive diplomacy. But neither the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in December 2006 nor those imposed in March 2007 convinced Iran that it was in its own national interest to curtail its nuclear program, and specifically to cease all attempts to enrich uranium to a weapons-grade level.

During this period when the free world waffled and temporized, Podhoretz, so he tells us, held onto one hope: George W. Bush, “a man who knew evil when he saw it and who had the courage and the determination to do battle against it.” Fortunately for those who, like Podhoretz, understood the gravity of the situation, George W. Bush possessed a profound and nuanced knowledge of history. He knew that if we did not act to quash the Iranian threat, future generations “would rightly judge us as harshly as we today judge the British and the French for what they did at Munich in 1938.” What the British and French did, of course, according to standard neocon view, was to collapse impotently before Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland to Germany. A true reincarnation of Churchill in his foresight and courage, George W. Bush, Podhoretz knew, would refuse to preside over another Munich-like capitulation to fascism.

Available to Bush at the time was an option that, had it been vigorously applied, would have effectively ended the Iranian threat: air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The advocates of appeasement and inaction, however, advanced a clever but dubious argument against the use of force. Though the 2005 NIE had indeed affirmed that Iran was intent on developing a nuclear capacity, it had also stated that Tehran would probably not be able to create a functional nuclear capability until sometime between 2010 and 2015. Bush could therefore with a clear conscience leave the problem of the looming Iranian threat to the next occupant of the Oval Office.

On the other hand, those who advocated the decisive application of force manfully replied that delay was dangerous, and for two reasons. First, the Intelligence Community had been in error before, and its claim that Iran was a full decade away from developing a nuclear capacity could very well be disastrously wide of the mark. Second, other experts claimed that Iran was less than a year away from developing a nuclear capacity. Clearly, therefore, even though unanimity of opinion had not been achieved, Bush had sufficient justification to proceed with air strikes against Iran, eliminating with one mighty stroke this new fascistic threat and consolidating his reputation as a farsighted and decisive defender of the free world.

Tragically, George W. Bush did not act quickly enough: in November, the 2007 NIE was released. The report’s claim that Iran had halted its attempt to develop a nuclear weapon wiped the military option clean off the table, leaving diplomacy and sanctions—the evasions of appeasement—as the only remaining tools to counter the Iranian threat. Worse, some in the foreign policy establishment, according to Podhoretz, are now, in the wake of the 2007 Estimate, reconciling themselves to the eventuality of a nuclear Iran since, so these realists say, the combined nuclear stockpiles of Israel and the US will deter Tehran from launching, at Israel or at any other nation, a nuclear warhead.

Such capitulation before the threat of Islamic extremism baffles Podhoretz. To make his apocalyptic case he has recourse to Bernard Lewis, “the leading contemporary authority on the culture of the Islamic world,” who has argued that for a Muslim like Ahmadinejad, “mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement.” In the grip of an irremediable fanaticism, the mullahs in Tehran would rather see their own people incinerated than be denied their ambitions: to dominate the Middle East, to assert their influence in Europe, to deter and marginalize the US and, perhaps most important of all, to annihilate Israel. According to Podhoretz, the Israelis, clearly seeing that Iran, once in possession of a nuclear weapon, would not hesitate to use it against them, “would be presented with an irresistible incentive to preempt—and so, too, would the Iranians. Either way, a nuclear exchange would become inevitable.”

Such an eventuality can still be avoided but, unfortunately, George W. Bush has been effectively foiled by a cabal of foreign policy factions: those in the Intelligence Community who, eager to hamstring the President, claim that Iran has given up on the quest for a nuclear capacity; those who argue that the judicious calibrations of diplomacy will prove effective against the fanatic will of the mullahs; those who are cynically aware that negotiations are futile and sanctions unworkable but who are nonetheless content to sit back and allow Iran to achieve a nuclear capacity. These factions “are likely to prevail even against the clear-sighted determination of George W. Bush, just as the forces of appeasement did against Churchill in 1938.” Podhoretz prays that either Bush or the next commander-in-chief has “the clarity and the courage” to recognize that the mullahs in Tehran are fanatic in their quest for nuclear weapons and world domination and that the only way to stop them is the swift and decisive application of military force. “If not—God help us all—the stage will have been set for the outbreak of a nuclear war that will become as inescapable then as it is avoidable now.”

2. Long Wars, Behind Us and Before Us

The neocons have a penchant for conjuring up unholy trinities, and one of their favorites comprises a person, a place and a year: Hitler, Munich, and 1938. Devoted though they are to invoking this trinity—and Podhoretz with a grim delight flourishes it more than once in his latest essay—in general the neocons assimilate America’s confrontation with Iran not so much to the shooting war with Nazi Germany as to the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

In the neocon narrative of the Cold War two vigorously assertive nations opposed one another across a stark geopolitical divide. On one side stood the Soviet Union, a totalitarian, one-party state controlled by an elite revolutionary vanguard. This vanguard, the Communist Party, espoused a Marxist ideology that claimed to illuminate the deep dynamics of history, including the endpoint toward which history was ineluctably moving: the universal liberation of the proletariat from bourgeois exploitation. As the principal sponsor of universal liberation, the Soviet Union committed itself to world revolution. The Soviet elite knew that socialism could not complete itself as a system as long as it liberated the working class of one country only. An irrepressibly expansive movement, socialism was determined to liberate the working class of every country, and it would not rest until it had done so. The revolutionary elite who would bring this task to fruition was dedicated, intransigent and, from the neocon perspective, so fanatically committed to its ideological assumptions that it could not be reasoned with or moved to compromise. Moreover, this elite was ruthless. If it could not arrive at its revolutionary goal peacefully, it would achieve it and maintain it by force. Since, therefore, the Communists were resistant to reason and addicted to force, they could successfully be resisted only by force, an insight expressed early on in the Cold War by George Kennan in his 1947 Long Telegram and again, in 1950, by the authors of the NSC 68.

During the years immediately following the end of WWII, the Soviet Union thus emerged as one of history’s “dangerous nations,” a nation committed to the expansion throughout the world of its totalitarian ideology and way of life. Opposed to the Soviet Union and its Godless despotism was the Cold War’s other dangerous nation, America, the world’s principal defender of freedom and democracy. But America’s role in the world was not just passively to defend democracy against Soviet Communism but actively to displace the dictatorships that the Soviets sponsored and to install democracies in their place. Like the Soviet Union, America was driven by an ideology that was inherently expansive—the ideology of individual liberty, democracy, and the rule of law. And in the neocon narrative, America, during its Long War against Soviet Communism, remained worthy of its task only because it remained morally steadfast and militarily strong. Now and again it wavered and flinched—especially during the era of détente in the 70s—but it was rescued from ignominy and shame by a stalwart band of Americans who consistently avowed that the Soviet Union was the embodiment of evil and that the spread of its malignancy was best resisted not with the appeasements of diplomacy and détente but with the “hard” power of military force.

Thanks to these neocon stalwarts (Podhoretz prominent among them) and thanks especially to the man who embodied the authentic neocon vision, Ronald Reagan, America brought the Soviet Union to its knees and finally claimed victory in its Long Cold War with the Evil Empire. But now, during our own historical period, the neocons have identified another dangerous nation that has emerged to threaten peace and freedom in the world: Iran. Like the Soviet Union, Iran is a despotic, totalitarian system, controlled in this instance not by a single political party but by a single Supreme Jurisprudent, the Ayatollah Khamenei. This Jurisprudent and his followers are committed not to a secular ideology but to a religious one, making these Iranian theocrats even less susceptible to reason and restraint than the Soviets, since according to their Islamic ideology it is not in the muck and mire of human history that they will find their utopian completion but in an eternal paradise beyond human history. Further, like the socialist creed of the Soviet Union, the Islamic creed of Iran is inherently expansionist, prompting Iran to exceed its borders and engulf the Middle East. The Iranian elite too, like its Soviet counterpart, is intransigent, fanatically attached to its worldview and arrogantly impervious to reason. As a consequence, it is resistant to the maneuvers and compromises of diplomacy. The Iranians will certainly engage in negotiation and happily manipulate, if given the chance, the gullibility of their interlocutors. But behind their façade of reasonable compromise they will, with the unwavering devotion of true fanatics, adhere to their ultimate goal: the submission of the world to the rule of the Supreme Jurisprudent.

Opposed to this new force of despotism and domination stands, once again, the nation that has steadfastly committed itself, for nearly a century now, to the protection of liberty in the world: America. For Podhoretz, however, America will remain worthy of its present task only if a leader worthy of America steps forward and with strength and will sees what needs to be seen and does what needs to be done. Though on more than one occasion its leadership stumbled in its epic confrontation with the Soviet Union—even Ronald Reagan faltered by succumbing to the charm of Mikhail Gorbachev—America finally emerged triumphant by standing resolute and determined against the expansive aggression of the Soviet Union.

So too in our present crisis, as Podhoretz argues, the US will emerge triumphant if its leader has the courage to see clearly what needs to be seen, namely that the radicals in Tehran are intent on developing nuclear weapons. Once in possession of these weapons, they will not hesitate to use them in order to bribe and threaten their adversaries into craven capitulation, thus achieving, without the delivery of a single warhead, their malignant scheme of world domination. If need be, however, they will deliver destruction on their adversaries, fearlessly ready to destroy themselves in the process, since, to repeat what Bernard Lewis has so chillingly said, to such utopian fanatics “mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement.” And Podhoretz prays that America’s leader, whether it is George W. Bush or his successor, having seen what needs to be seen, will in good time do what needs to be done, namely destroy, by means of air strikes, Iran’s incipient nuclear capability. The alternative, according to Podhoretz, is too horrible to contemplate: nuclear holocaust in the Middle East. But the alternative nonetheless must be contemplated so that by swift and decisive action America acts now to avoid it.

3. There Are Dangerous Nations and Then There Are Dangerous Nations

In the Long War behind us, the expansionary ambition of the Soviet Union was brought to a standstill and rolled back by the strength and will of America. In the Long War ahead of us, the expansionary ambition of Radical Islam will be thwarted and finally vanquished if, once again, the US shows the necessary strength and will. But just as it was not enough during the Cold War for the US to act defensively, it will not be enough during the Long War with Radical Islam. The US must take the offensive and fearlessly carry its own democratic values and way of life to every corner of the globe. According to Robert Kagan in his essay “Cowboy Nation,” such bold and spirited resolve is part of America’s national character. The US, as Kagan puts it, “has never been a status quo power; it has always been a revolutionary one, consistently expanding its participation and influence in the world in ever-widening arcs.”

America, then, like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Radical Iran, is an expansionary nation. Clearly, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, America sought to expand its territorial reach. Now, however, America has sublimated its expansionary ambition and seeks only to augment its ideological reach. America’s expansionary ambition, however, is driven by ideals that are radically opposed to those of Nazism, Communism, and Radical Islam. America’s great opponents, past and present, have enacted ideals of tyranny, despotism, domination of the weak by the strong, the enslavement of human freedom in the bonds of autocracy. In stark and edifying contrast, America has always espoused and will always espouse liberty, equality, the protection of the weak by the strong, the liberation of humanity from the shackles of tyranny. In order to spread their ideals Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union used the Hobbesian methods of deceit and force, methods employed today by Radical Iran. In order to counter the expansive moves of its enemies America has used and will use its opponents’ methods of deceit and force. But America, unlike its opponents, cherishes the Kantian ideals of reason and the rule of law and uses Hobbesian methods only to attain the goal that it was born to attain—the establishment and maintenance of worldwide peace and prosperity.

America’s dedication to that end has made it, since its birth, the world’s most dangerous nation—dangerous to autocrats of all kinds. The expansionary impetus of Nazism and Communism certainly made Germany and the Soviet Union dangerous nations. But it is a testimony to the corrupt and fraudulent nature of their ideals that those regimes, though doing indescribable damage to human life and liberty, were temporary and historically ephemeral. The expansionary impetus of America, on the other hand, has been continuous and lasting, testimony to the merit and nobility of the ideals on which the great American experiment has been, is now, and always will be based—individual liberty, democracy and the rule of law. And just as the bankrupt ideals of Nazism and Communism went down to defeat before the enduring ideals of America, so too will the latest incarnation of fascism, Radical Islam, go down to defeat before the unwavering strength and will of America and its leaders.

Kagan, however, both in his essay “Cowboy Nation” and in his much longer treatment of the topic in his book Dangerous Nation, does not evade the fact that the history of American expansion has been replete with violence and deeply tainted by the national disgrace of slavery. Nor does he gloss over the fact that the expansionary ambition of America has been driven by a motive that is irrational. The expansionary ambitions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were certainly infected by irrational motives. So too the expansionary ambition of Radical Islam. But not only is America, the great proponent of reason and the rule of law, also moved by an impulse that is irrational, it is precisely that irrational impulse—thumos—that serves as the source of America’s energy and drive and that will carry it triumphantly to its goal: the establishment of a worldwide federation of peace, prosperity, and the rule of law.

Next time I’ll look more closely at Kagan’s concept of Cowboy America and then, with the help of Harvey Mansfield, I’ll examine the neocon infatuation with thumos and with the Aristotelian virtue to which Mansfield attaches it: courage or, as Mansfield translates it, manliness.


I’ll return to Podhoretz and Iran—and John McCain—in a future post. Two good correctives to Podhoretz’s advocacy of violence over diplomacy can be found in the Foreign Affairs essay, “The Costs of Containing Iran,” by Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, and in the Foreign Policy interview with Dmitri Trenin, “What America Must Do.”

Crossposted at dailykos

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Blogger Bastoche on 2/17/2008 2:01 PM:

The Heroic Trio at Power Line selected Podhoretz’s book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, as its 2007 Power Line Book of the Year, demonstrating yet again that they have no trouble seeing exactly what’s in front of their collective nose: a mirror-image of their own neocon brand of reason and rectitude.

Note also this WSJ article, “The Neocons and Iraq,” by Peter Berkowitz, an apologia for the neocon worldview that I will also discuss next time.

Trouble, it seems, is brewing in Jurf al Sakhr, the town that I used in Our Window of Opportunity as an illustration of the Kagan/Petraeus surge strategy. We’ll see if this disturbance is temporary or if it’s indicative of something more fundamentally problematic with the strategy of paying one insurgent faction (radicalized Sunnis, both secular and religious) to suppress another (Salafi jihadis). (h/t Juan Cole)


Blogger Bastoche on 2/17/2008 2:18 PM:


Let's hope that clip becomes very well known in the coming months.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/17/2008 2:57 PM:

Or, we can make it better through comparison...


Blogger Joe Gabriel on 2/17/2008 4:50 PM:

Hey Bastoche,

Thanks for posting this over at Politics and Letters. Would you mind including a link to our site in your "crossposted at" blurb at the bottom, both here and at dailykos? We'd appreciate it. Thanks!


Blogger Bastoche on 2/17/2008 5:23 PM:

Hi Joe.

Add links to PoliticsandLetters? Consider it done!


Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/17/2008 5:38 PM:

Love the Sweeney Todd bit, Jeremy.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/17/2008 5:55 PM:

Thanks. Have you seen the whole show -- the original w/George Hearn and Angela Lansbury? It's way, way better than the Tim Burton version. Hearn's presence on stage is just astounding.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/17/2008 8:17 PM:

I have the Len Cariou/Angela Lansbury soundtrack (and it's imprinting, perhaps, but I thought Heard overplayed it in the clip; Cariou switches modes so much faster), but the only time I ever saw it staged was in college. Loved it so much after seeing it the first night that I went back and saw it again, went right out and bought the soundtrack, and have been stuck on Sondheim since.


Blogger Bastoche on 2/17/2008 8:56 PM:

Jeremy: I haven’t seen the whole show, but you’re right: Hearn seems to bring to the role a manic, possessed energy that’s quite remarkable. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing the film since I liked the two Burton/Depp “Ed” collaborations, Scissorhands and Wood.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/18/2008 3:42 AM:

Bastoche, sorry to continue the hijack of your thread (that I started), but apparently YouTube has video of Cariou as well: here. Production quality is horrible, but you do get the sense of a truly insane man, while I think Hearn plays Todd better with his tortured energy. We can argue about which one is best, Hearn or Cariou, but I think they both easily top Depp, who unfortunately just can't sing.

Now -- how do we get McCain to sing this song? Hmm...


Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/18/2008 4:10 AM:

Just have to tweak the words a bit, do a little overdubbing: "No, not one year; no, not ten years, nor a hundred can assuage me...."
"That's all very well, but what are we going to do about the Iranian?"

By the way, Bastoche, I also wanted to say that the "Cowboy" theme is disturbing enough, but I honestly didn't expect to see it taken up by your subjects as a self-description. I'm horrified, fascinated, and impressed at their lack of hypocrisy....


Blogger workshop on 2/18/2008 9:27 AM:

I wouldn't call it lack of hypocrisy. I would call it a neocon knack for taking on their adversaries head on, and for always grabbing a whole loaf, never a half. One might see some courage in that, if there were intellectual honesty involved. But since most neocons I am aware of seem to be utterly without conscience in regards to truth, attacking head on is the simplest thing in the world. As with Bush there's an element of shock and awe.


Blogger Bastoche on 2/18/2008 12:40 PM:

Jeremy: The thread could not have been hijacked by two finer fellas. ;-)

And besides, you can always draw me into a discussion of film. Speaking of which, I’ll grant you (even though I haven’t seen the film) that Depp might not be adequate as a vocalist, but he is a very good actor, and his acting ability might make up for his vocal deficiency. Further, Burton has quite a flair for visually imaginative production design, both real and computer generated, and the visual context might effectively enhance the expressive power of Sondheim’s lyrics. But, again, I won’t be able to judge until I see the film.

Ahist: This is just speculation on my part, but I think it’s possible that Kagan, in using the adjective “Cowboy” rather than “Dangerous” in the title of his essay, might have been influenced by Mansfield’s book, Manliness, which Mansfield published in 2006. In his book, Of Paradise and Power, Kagan references High Noon more than once. So too does Mansfield in Manliness. But Mansfield goes further, and as a contemporary example of thumos, he frequently uses John Wayne. Not Wayne the person, of course, but the fictional characters Wayne played in Hollywood Westerns. But although he once mentions two of John Ford’s films, Stagecoach and The Searchers, Mansfield does not in any detail discuss them. Nor does he discuss any other film of either John Ford or Howard Hawks, in whose Westerns Wayne gave his best and most uncharacteristic performances.

More on this as the series progresses.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/18/2008 12:53 PM:

Bastoche, since you jumped on it...Tim Burton is a great filmmaker. Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Big Fish are some of the truly great films of our time. But since Big Fish, I'm of the opinion that he's gone downhill. Corpse Bride was a pale copy of TNBC. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was far inferior to the original and featured the incredibly weird idea that Willy Wonka ought to look and act something like today's Michael Jackson. And as far as I can tell, Sweeney Todd appears to be merely a way for Burton to act out his fantasy of having Johnny Depp do nasty things to his wife. (For the record, yes, they are both great actors.)

The problem is that Burton has a very unique style -- an unforgettable depiction of the sort of sideshow craziness of everyday life -- but it's not a very adaptable style. So I think it was a big mistake for him to start making remakes, because they don't necessarily fit his style very well. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, isn't nearly dark enough for Burton; it's supposed to be a morality tale about the whimsical imagination of good-hearted children. Too many people who interpret Roald Dahl do him way too dark (i.e. The Witches); the first Willy Wonka was blessedly free of that, thanks mostly to the inherent gentleness of Gene Wilder.

In Sweeney Todd, on the other hand, Burton has the opposite problem. His brand of dark is very carnivalesque and stylized, but Sweeney Todd isn't supposed to be like that; it's a truly gritty story about the anguish and inherent evil of the human soul. I think Burton's just incapable of making a film that conveys all that, so he returns to his stock figures: the ethereal witch, the searching young Brit. It just doesn't work for me.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/18/2008 3:55 PM:

Ah, yes, who could forget the conservative and neo-conservative devotion to proper gender roles, and the lost virtues of masculinities past. Makes perfect sense: all their anxieties in one convenient package! (workshop: I do think there's a fundamental honesty at work in their theoretical formulations that's abandon when they get to policy which is intended to sway the masses)

I had very mixed feelings about the Burton/Depp Sweeney Todd project given how abysmal the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was (as an historical side note: the reason there's never been a movie of the Great Glass Elevator is that Roald Dahl despised the movie for its unfaithfullness to the book and never would authorize the sequel. Personally, I take the movie and the book as two different works on the same theme, separated by medium.) Singing quality isn't required for Sweeney Todd (neither Angela Lansbury nor Len Cariou are great singers, though they can stay on key, at least, but they were fantastic character actors who really got the characters) but good direction is absolutely essential.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/18/2008 4:09 PM:

I did not know that about Dahl. GGE is a terrible book, anyway; not sure I'd want to see a film adaptation of it, frankly.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 2/18/2008 4:53 PM:

It has some good bits, but it's definitely a lot weaker than Dahl's best work. I think we're overdue for a cinematic James and the Giant Peach, though not in the hands of either Burton or whoever it is that's savaging the Dr. Seuss books....


Blogger Bastoche on 2/18/2008 5:46 PM:

Jeremy: Film adaptations of source material (prose fiction, plays, comics, other films, etc.) are, of course, tricky things. Does the filmmaker try to remain faithful to the source material (assuming that the filmmaker has some insight into the source material in the first place), freely transform the source material according the filmmaker’s sensibility, or some combination of the two? Examples abound, but I’ll mention only two from one of my favorite filmmakers. In Rashomon, Kurosawa adapts two Akutagawa stories, In the Bamboo Grove and Rashomon, and while in certain respects he remains faithful to the source material, in others he radically transforms it according to his own sensibility and produces a masterpiece. In Throne of Blood, he again remains basically faithful to the source material, Macbeth, but again transforms it according to his own creative sensibility and produces perhaps the most effective film adaptation of any Shakespeare play.

I completely agree: Burton’s earlier films are far better than his later ones. And his adaptation of Sweeney Todd might be a complete misfire. Even Kurosawa didn’t always get it right: his adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is one of his failures. But I’m still intrigued by the possibilities of a Burton/Depp Demon Barber, and I won’t mind if Burton transforms the original according to his own creative sensibility—as long as he also retains something of the original’s depth and power.

Ahist: James has already been made into a film, produced (but not directed) by—you guessed it—Tim Burton.