Fiction Reviews – The Libertarian Standard Property - Prosperity - Peace Wed, 27 Apr 2016 06:16:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A new website and group blog of radical Austro-libertarians, shining the light of reason on truth and justice. Fiction Reviews – The Libertarian Standard clean Fiction Reviews – The Libertarian Standard (Fiction Reviews – The Libertarian Standard) CC-BY Property - Prosperity - Peace Fiction Reviews – The Libertarian Standard TV-G Dallas Buyers Club Sun, 12 Jan 2014 04:06:30 +0000 dallas-buyers-club-poster-570x844A recent post by Jeffrey Tucker identifies a common theme in many of today’s movies: “powerful people are not our friends but our enemies – so if we want to have a free and flourishing life, we are going to have to get busy and figure out how to make it happen.”

One movie in theaters now that reflects this message as much as any is Dallas Buyers Club, which is based on the true story of Ron Woodruff, an electrician and rodeo enthusiast diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live in 1985.

Soon after his diagnosis, Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) learns that there’s a drug for treating AIDS, AZT, but it’s still in FDA trials. He can participate in a trial, but he won’t know whether he’s getting the real drug or a placebo. Understandably, he doesn’t find this satisfactory.

Woodruff’s efforts to get a reliable source of AZT lead him to a clinic in Mexico, where he’s told that AZT is actually harmful — in fact, it did seem to be making his condition worse — and that there are other AIDS drugs that aren’t available in the U.S., thanks once again to the FDA. The clinic gives him DDC and the protein Peptide T instead. Soon he’s getting them not only for himself but also for many other AIDS patients, distributing them through a “buyers club” he starts with a transgender woman (Jared Leto). When the supplies in Mexico run short, he starts traveling to other countries, such as Japan and Israel, to get more, convincing customs officials that it’s all for his personal use.

Eventually FDA agents raid the club and take all the DDC. Woodruff sues to at least be allowed to distribute the non-toxic Peptide T but loses.

Through all of this, the FDA is portrayed as a nothing but a villain for stopping terminally ill people from getting treatments they believe will help them. Woodruff, on the other hand, is portrayed as a hero for defying the feds — even as he makes lots of money doing so. What a change from movies of past decades, where the businessman was always the villain and government agents always saved the day!

A title card at the end informs that AZT later proved to be an effective treatment in lower doses, but I doubt anyone will walk away thinking this vindicates the FDA. The movie’s message is that people should be free to make their own health decisions.

Artistically, the film is watchable if not especially ambitious. The story is told straightforwardly and is compelling without indulging in melodrama. McConaughey gives a great performance as a once-bigoted cowboy who improves as he befriends and serves his fellow patients, and Leto is quite good, too. Although the movie takes place in the 1980s, the filmmakers don’t give consistent attention to period details — look closely and you’ll see present-day stuff sitting around. And it is somewhat annoying to learn from the internet that many things in the film — though not the stuff about the drug smuggling and the FDA — are fictional, including Woodruff’s bull riding, Leto’s character, and Jennifer Garner’s sympathetic doctor character.

Still, Dallas Buyers Club is much better than most movies and about as libertarian as they come, so I highly recommend it.

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The Wolf of Wall Street Mon, 30 Dec 2013 00:28:16 +0000 wolf-of-wall-street-poster2-610x903Murray Rothbard, the great libertarian theorist and economist, hated Goodfellas. He especially hated the depiction of gangsters as “psychotic punks” whose violence was “random, gratuitous, pointless.”

He preferred the Godfather films, where the gangsters never engaged in violence “for the Hell of it, or for random kicks,” but only used it to enforce contracts the government police and courts wouldn’t uphold.

For Rothbard, Goodfellas’ unflattering portrait of gangsters was practically a smear on libertarianism itself. According to him, “[o]rganized crime is essentially anarcho-capitalist, a productive industry struggling to govern itself,” which provides consumers with products — such as gambling, drugs, prostitution, imports — that the government has arbitrarily and unjustly made illegal. So he was offended by Goodfellas, where the “organized” criminals are little different from “street” criminals and are defeated by the cops in the end.

Some libertarians may dislike Goodfellas director Martin Scorsese’s latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, for similar reasons.

This film tells the story of a stockbroker, Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio), who cares about nothing but money and gratifying himself. His startup Long Island brokerage takes off when he and his cohorts start pushing penny stocks on working-class investors by cold-calling them and convincing them they can get rich quick by investing in purportedly great companies that are actually terrible. Belfort makes even more money by using third parties to invest in some of the companies whose stock he pushes and stashes the profits in a Swiss bank account.

Meanwhile, Belfort and his colleagues’ lust for money leads quickly to Caligula-style decadence, with non-stop sex-and-drug parties in and out of the office, which the movie dwells on at length.

Just as Goodfellas never acknowledged the valuable services Rothbard believed the Mafia historically performed, The Wolf of Wall Street never acknowledges the essential service that stockbrokers provide in a market economy. A character played by Matthew McConaughey — who, like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, appears just once early on to deliver a memorable greed-stoking speech — claims that stockbrokers don’t “create” anything but just pointlessly move money around while taking a cut for themselves.

At that point, some libertarians may be tempted to walk out, assuming that the rest of the movie will be an attack on capitalism. But walking out for that reason would be a mistake, and criticizing the movie for that character’s statements would be misguided, just as Rothbard’s criticism of Goodfellas was misguided.

Rothbard failed to mention that Goodfellas, unlike The Godfather, was a true story. Those characters did those things, more or less. In fact, the Mafia does not just engage in Defending the Undefendable-style heroism by providing black-market goods and services; it also engages in theft, insurance fraud, protection rackets, vending machine rackets, and other thuggery. And who carries out these activities? Thugs, of course: mediocrities who see gangsterism as their chance to become a “big shot,” like Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, and psychos who see an outlet for their violent inclinations, like Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito. (Come to think of it, if we want to use the movie to make a libertarian point, we might observe that government attracts similar lowlifes for the same reasons.)

Whether you want to see a movie showing the real-life violence those people carry out is up to you. Randians, I assume, would argue that art shouldn’t depict anything so ugly and but should instead show us man at his best — so they wouldn’t want to see it. But I find it interesting to get a glimpse of how such people think and live — and Scorsese could not have done a better job telling their story. So I have no complaints about Goodfellas.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not a masterpiece like Goodfellas, but I approve of it for similar reasons. It too is based on a more-or-less true story. We can’t know whether Belfort fabricated or exaggerated details in the memoirs on which it’s based — if the office orgies shown actually happened, one would think hostile-work-environment lawsuits would have shut the place down long before the SEC or FBI noticed it — but the parts about Belfort’s stock trading are basically correct, as far as I know.

And I don’t doubt that some stockbrokers are jerks whose views aren’t much different than those of the McConaughey character. After all, most of them aren’t economists, so why would they understand the important role they play or how the economy works beyond what’s necessary for them to do their sales jobs? And there have, in fact, been “boiler rooms” where salesmen push bad stocks on ignorant people. Libertarians are not obliged to approve of such things or pretend they don’t exist, though we can point out that they are the exception and not likely to last long in a true market economy.

So what’s wrong with making a movie about those people? Nothing, as long as it holds the viewer’s interest and doesn’t try to make a broader point about all stock trading being evil.

The Wolf of Wall Street passes that test. There are vague allusions to “the one percent” and Wall Street’s role in our recent economic troubles, but there is no “message” apart from the obvious one that greed can lead people to be short-sighted and nasty. So I don’t think the film is especially objectionable from a libertarian perspective.

From an artistic perspective, there’s room for debate. You get the sense that the movie aspires to be Goodfellas set in the financial world, but it falls short. Like Goodfellas, it opens with a preview of an especially over-the-top scene from later in the film. It also uses a freeze-frame effect familiar to anyone who has seen Goodfellas, and it has similar narration by the main character. You can tell Scorsese is trying to recreate that movie’s visceral effect, but he doesn’t quite succeed.

And although the broad strokes of the story may be true, many details feel false. The characters go from ordinary to outrageous too quickly, and the office parties seem implausible in the 80s and  90s, after the rise of sexual-harassment lawsuits and political correctness. And while Goodfellas showed an Italian-American subculture that Scorsese had observed first-hand, Wolf creates a world whose look and feel he can only guess at — and you can tell.

Also, he reportedly kept editing this movie — to three hours, down from four — until the last minute, and it feels like he still didn’t get it quite right. You get the sense there is a tighter, better movie that could have been made of it.

Still, if you’re not offended by films that dwell on vice, crime, and the people who engage in them, it’s worth seeing. DiCaprio is great as always, and Jonah Hill is pretty good as his sleazy partner. Despite the excesses, I appreciated the depiction of how people can behave — against their own long-run interests — when they believe they’ve discovered a way to wealth and happiness that does not require them to think about how they can actually benefit their fellow man.

Is Power Stupid or Smart? Thu, 01 Dec 2011 02:55:31 +0000 If you seek power over others, how much of an advantage does raw intelligence gain you?

If you look at the makeup of the U.S. Congress — which now has a 9% percent approval rating — or if you watch the Republican debates, you are not immediately inclined to label either the smart set.  In fact, you have to be a dim bulb to repeatedly say many of the things that seem necessary for electability. On the other hand, a certain amount of cleverness is obviously necessary to outwit the media and your opponents.

Which is it? Two films that explore the relationship between power and brains are “Being There” (1979) and “Limitless” (2011). The films came out thirty years apart but deal with the same issues. “Being There” suggests that being dumb as a chicken is a huge advantage for those who seek political success. “Limitless” suggests that politics is the inevitable trajectory of a person who is far more intelligent than everyone else. Which is more realistic?

I’ll state my own view up front: politics is a gigantic waste of brains. If a person really has a gift for high-level thought, almost any profession would be a greater better to society and probably more self-fulfilling in the long run. Whereas it was probably once true that the political life attracted some of the best and brightest, it no longer seems true at all today.

“Being There” is both hilarious and serious, worth sitting down with at least once every few elections seasons. Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine star in this adaptation of a novel by Jerzy Kosinski about an illiterate and simple-minded man named Chance who happened to be in the right place at the right time. His utterances are few and most concern what he has done his entire life, which has been to tend one garden on one estate and otherwise watch television.

When his benefactor dies, he is turned loose on the world and is taken in by a wealthy and influential industrialist who is close to the U.S. president. His new caretakers mishear his name and call him Chauncey Gardener, and they mistake his stupidity and space-cadet ways for discreetness and quiet dignity.

Wearing the right clothes borrowed from the attic of his old house, and otherwise seeming to hold himself well and convey the right messages, Chauncey inadvertently leads everyone around him to think he is brilliant, well connected, a great lover, a worthy successor to the great men of our time, and, in the end, is even considered for president.

When he does speak, it is about the only thing he knows, which is gardening. People around him imagine that he is speaking in high-level metaphors. This happens in private and even on national television. He rises to such social heights that he is beyond negative judgment. The only person who knows the truth decides not to reveal because to do so would be such a crushing blow to people he loves.

Unrealistic? Not so much. The only reason we tolerate the blather from the political class at all is entirely due to power and position of its members. If you put the same thoughts and ideas in the mouth of your neighbor, you would find him tedious, annoying, and largely deluded.

You can try an experiment using C-SPAN. Watch any random subcommittee hearing sometime and replace the faces you see by imagining the same said by the clerk at the convenience store or the worker laying asphalt in a new subdivision. Only then do you fully realize: the real talent of these clueless people is the ability to fake it for extended periods.

Much of our perception of the relative weight of a person’s words is due to the significance of the person using them. How else can we explain how the chairman of the Federal Reserve gets away with giving several speeches and testimonies per week that consist of nothing but long strings of platitudes, buzzwords, and long-refuted fallacies?

And it is the same with every head of every main government agency. They only get away with this because the media play along, never really asking serious questions that deal with fundamental issues or call upon a serious use of brain power. The unstated rule among those covering Washington is to never challenge the stupidity of big government itself. This pertains in those political debates, in committee hearings, or in any press conference.

“Being There” has been popular for so long among smart film critics precisely because it seems to account for so many political successes. It was once said to apply perfectly to Ronald Reagan. I couldn’t say. All evidence suggests that it explains George W. Further, I’ve watched the presidency of Obama, and the Chauncey effect here is completely undeniable. The frenzy that once surrounded his presidency (but probably not so much anymore) was wildly out of proportion to the reality.

“Being There” is more of a commentary on those around Chauncey than Chauncey himself. He never really wanted all this attention and it was never clear that he even knew what was happening around him. He was a happy man just experiencing life as it came to him.

The trouble was that as soon as he entered society, he bumped into many needy people. An aging industrialist needed an heir, and he fit the bill. His wife needed a younger and similarly heroic new and virile husband. Match. The servants in the household needed a new and distinguished visitor, the media needed a star, the president needed an adviser without baggage, and finally  the establishment needed a new president. Chauncey was there. He never wanted it, never sought it, but he was there.

The tendency to find vessels for our dreams and worship fakes of our own creation is a universal one. It happens in every sector of life. But no sector is more replete with this problem than politics. The entire show is based on fundamental myths.

The candidates talk about their “vision” for America as if one man can remake a country in his own image merely upon being sworn in. It is not possible and that’s fortunate for us. It is a despotic longing. And yet people cling to these visions as if this one person can somehow become a conduit for realizing all their likes and dislikes throughout the whole of society.

In this sense, every candidate is Chauncey Gardener — a complete fake that voters themselves construct as part of a national ritual. It is a ritual rooted in a lie that government is anything but what it is, which is an agency of force that enables us legally to steal from each other. Government is not wise, it is not compassionate, it is not a creator of anything. It is a stupid, clumsy, and malevolent agent of legal compulsion, and nothing more.

“Limitless” — starring Bradley Cooper and Robert Di Niro — turns the plot of “Being There” on its head. A failed and down-and-out novelist is given a drug that allows him dramatically heightened ability to think clearly and thoroughly. His IQ soars to four digits and, suddenly, he can make great use of every bit of data that resides in the recesses of his brain.

He turns his life around, finishes the novel in a few days, and it becomes a bestseller. He turns to stockpicking and becomes rich in a matter of days too. He is then recruited to mastermind the largest corporate merger in history. Eventually he turns to politics, and we are somehow led to believe that this is the culmination of his excursion into the realm of advanced thought. The plot is energized by the scarcity of the pills and his quest to find more.

One merit of this film is its focus on intelligence as the key to amazing life performance. As I thought about it, I realized that very few comic book heroes are known for their distinctive ability to think as the main source of their power. They have physical strength, the ability to fly, the capacity to stretch or freeze, x-ray vision, or whatever, but none are known for amazing intelligence alone. It’s usually the villains who are smart and they are always beaten in the end.

Kudos, then, for this film for recognizing that thinking is far more important in the scheme of things than power and might. This is an unusual message that speaks an important truth, and it is a rare thing to see this featured in a movie.

On the other hand: the film completely stumbles with this idea that someone in this position would naturally gravitate to becoming a senator. Anyone with a high-powered brain would likely steer clear of such a thing. If you could make millions in days of stock picking, outsmart every corporate attorney in the world, save lives through medical research, speak any language after hearing it once, and so on, that person would surely dedicate himself to being part of the flow of real life, not becoming a mime in the mythical world of politics, where they pretend to hold the world together through legislation and regulation while we pretend to believe in their ghastly “visions” for how we should manage our lives.

If everyone in government were like the smart guy in “Limitless” we should seriously fear for our lives. Fortunately for us, government is more like “Being There” in two respects: its power and ways attracts and retains people with neither vision nor distinctive intelligence, and, institutionally, it lacks the means finally to rule a world of seven billion people with their own ideas of how to conduct their lives.

[Prometheus Unbound]

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Power, Both Pathetic and Terrifying Thu, 24 Nov 2011 18:00:16 +0000 J. Edgar, the new film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is making the news for dealing frankly with the decades old rumors concerning Hoover’s private life. But that’s not what makes the film immensely valuable. Its finest contributions are its portrait of the psycho-pathologies of the powerful and its chronicle of the step-by-step rise of the American police state from the interwar years through the first Nixon term.

The current generation might imagine that the egregious overreaching of the state in the name of security is something new, perhaps beginning after 9/11. The film shows that the roots stretch back to 1919, with Hoover’s position at the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation under attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer. Here we see the onset of the preconditions that made possible the American leviathan.

Palmer had been personally targeted in a series of bomb attacks launched by communist-anarchists who were pursuing vendettas for the government’s treatment of political dissidents during the first world war. These bombings unleashed the first great “red scare” in American history and furnished the pretext for a gigantic increase in federal power in the name of providing security. In a nationwide sweep, more than 60,000 people were targeted, 10,000 arrested, 3,500 were detained, and 556 people were deported. The Washington Post editorial page approved: “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties.”

Here we have the model for how the government grows. The government stirs up some extremists, who then respond, thereby providing the excuse the government needs for more gaining more power over everyone’s lives. The people in power use the language of security but what’s really going on here is all about the power, prestige, and ultimate safety of the governing elite, who rightly assume that they are ones in the cross hairs. Meanwhile, in the culture of fear that grips the country – fear of both public and private violence – official organs of opinion feel compelled to go along, while most everyone else remains quiet and lets it all happen.

The remarkable thing about the life of Hoover is his longevity in power at every step of the way. With every new frenzy, every shift in the political wind, every new high profile case, he was able to use the events of the day to successfully argue for eliminating the traditional limits on federal police power. One by one the limitations fell, allowing him to build his empire of spying, intimidation, and violence, regardless of who happened to be the president at the time.

There is a startling scene from 1932 surrounding what H.L. Mencken called the “biggest story since the resurrection”: the kidnapping of the child of Charles Lindbergh. When the federal agents showed up at Lindbergh’s house, they are treated as interlopers without any authority over the matter. The New Jersey police had the relevant jurisdiction here. Hoover fumed about this event and used it as the pretext to demand wider authority. The eventual result was to make kidnapping a federal crime, thereby setting a precedent for the eventual federalization of any and all crime. Today there is essentially nothing outside the jurisdiction of the feds.

(As a side note, making a brief appearance in the film is the role of FDR’s gold confiscation in the course of the investigation. The ransom was paid in gold certificates, which FDR had ordered be surrendered by federal criminal law by May 1933. The spending of these notes after this date is what tipped off merchants about possible criminal activity.)

World War II furnished more fodder for Hoover’s march toward total power. The Cold War was next. The civil rights movement and antiwar movements were next. At each stage, Hoover was able to regain his reappointment through a subtle blackmailing of each new president and whipping up of public hysteria based on the latest headlines about criminal activity and the need for federal intervention and control.

Was Hoover popular in the public mind? According to the movie, his popularity ebbed and flowed but mostly ebbed. This bothered him but it hardly mattered. He and his policies were never subjected to a plebiscite though he exercised incredible power as the head of an agency that had more in common with the Gestapo or the Stasi than anything ever envisioned by the 18th century liberals who shepherded America into existence.

Most interesting is the subtle psychological portrait of what kind of person seeks and keeps this kind of power, and what power does to this kind of person. It is a frightening feedback loop at work here. The worst get on top, as Hayek says, but the top makes the worst people even more corrupt than they would otherwise be.

The powerful man truly imagines that there is no real distinction between his personal interest and the interest of the cause he imagines himself to represent. He talks effortlessly about his own desires and and the desires of the people he imagines himself serving; they are one and the same. At the same time, these people can easily rationalize their own personal corruptions and private indiscretions as small and much-deserved rewards for their personal sacrifices.

Most telling are the final stages of the film where Hoover is growing ever more obviously old and feeble, but he, like all people who have held the golden ring too long, is tempted by the fantasy of earthly immortality. He cannot and will not see the end. And his dreams of holding on forever are assisted by a doctor who keeps him constantly full of medications designed to preserve his life as long as possible.

Even until the very end, people feared him, mainly because of the private files on powerful people that he is rumored to have kept in his office. But did he still control the world he created? That is unclear. He created and built an security-state empire and he continued showing up for work every day, and there is no question that he imagined that the fate of the world rested in his hands.

Everyone saluted him and made the right noises in his direction. At the same time, he had only one feeble friend, no real colleagues at the agency, and freely told others that he can no longer trust anyone at the agency. He had died professionally long before his body finally expired. Tributes that followed his death were perfunctory and short lived.

When he died, he was no one’s hero. But the monstrosity he built lived on with unchallenged jurisdiction over the lives of all Americans. The pathologies of this man became the pathologies of the entire nation-state. For the young people who need a primer in the rise and corruption of the U.S. central state in the 20th century, this film is worth a close viewing.

[Prometheus Unbound]

My Take on Atlas Shrugged the Movie Sat, 16 Apr 2011 18:06:54 +0000 I read Atlas Shrugged about three years ago. There is nothing in the movie not in the book and the stuff that is skipped is obviously skipped for the sake of time. It’s technically set in modern times, but with a heavy-handed attempt to pay homage to the art-deco, 1920s aesthetic of the book. The result is an awkward identity crises in terms of overall artistic intent and ends up just screaming ‘budget film’. The acting was rather atrocious, but when your screen-play is cut-and-pasted Ayn Rand, the writing doesn’t help either. Platitudes read on the page are far more believable than when stated in flesh and blood as normal dialogue. They worked very hard to avoid the sermonizing that is so characteristic of Rand and did a decent job of keeping things moving – though where to, you were never really certain. If you’re starved for rational ideas from the silver screen, it’s refreshing and invigorating to hear your ideology in the mouths of beautiful movie stars. But if you have much discerning taste regarding good movie making, you’ll be left wanting.

I went with two Rand fans who are not Objectivists but big sympathizers. They thoroughly enjoyed it. I think this is largely due to the fact that they were just excited to hear the anti-government, anti-welfare, pro-industry, pro-property message so clearly proclaimed. When I asked what they thought of the overall effect of the film outside of the ideas, their response was “well, it was an Indie film” as if this is supposed to excuse lack of creativity. I love a lot of Indie films precisely because they use their status and low budget to take a different approach to cinematic story-telling. If the creators of Atlas Shrugged the movie had started with a clear artistic/creative vision of how they wanted to tell the story rather than merely simply trying to translate Ayn Rand’s text to the screen, I think they could have really leveraged their status as a low-budget Indie film. As it is, it comes off as trying really hard to be a glossy, big-budget, epic film – and just falls flat.

That being said, I recognize that they potentially would have had thousands of Randroids all over them if they’d tried something too different from the text. Making movies of popular books is always a challenge and having a small budget is always a challenge. But the best art/storytelling views such limitations as opportunities for creativity, not defects to be disguised.

So should you go see it in theatres, should you wait for the DVD, or should you skip it altogether? Well, if you’re a libertarian, you should probably watch it at some point, especially if you haven’t and don’t want to read the book. It definitely gets the gist across in far less time. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to free-market, anti-government ideas, though, as I think you have to already be sold on these ideas, or at least be considering them, to really enjoy the movie. It is a good excuse to go have a fun night out with friends or significant other who share your ideology. But if you prefer saving money, I would wait for the DVD.

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Introducing Prometheus Unbound Thu, 25 Nov 2010 23:24:34 +0000 Last week I launched a new website called Prometheus Unbound.  I aim for it to be a sort of online “magazine,” a libertarian review of fiction and literature. The site will feature reviews, news commentary, articles and editorials, and eventually (I hope) interviews, from a libertarian perspective. I’m entertaining the possibility of publishing original fiction in the undetermined future, but won’t be doing so anytime soon.

I’ve already got a number of posts up, some old and republished from other sites, some new. I’m hoping this won’t be a one-man show, so I’m looking for some regular writers as well as submissions from irregular or part-time contributors. There are already a few others on board, so you should start to see posts from them before long. If you’re interested in contributing a review, news commentary, or the like, contact me.

You can learn more about Prometheus Unbound, my reasons for creating it, and what I’m looking for in submissions by starting with my introductory post. I’m particularly interested in science fiction and fantasy prose fiction, but Prometheus Unbound will be open to submissions dealing with just about any genre or medium, including film, tv, comics and graphic novels, and poetry.


Cross-posted at Is-Ought GAP.

The Ghost Writer Sun, 13 Jun 2010 03:16:18 +0000 Libertarians may especially enjoy Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, which is now playing in second-run theaters and coming to DVD in August.

I wish I could tell you more about why, but it’s the sort of movie that’s best entered with minimal knowledge. The plot involves a man (Ewan McGregor) assigned to write the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who has recently been charged with war crimes for torture. An earlier ghost writer who worked on the book was found washed up on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, and McGregor’s unnamed character tries to solve the mystery and avoid the same fate.

It was delightful to see the movie not only call attention to the Blair/Bush/Obama war crimes but also depict the CIA as nothing other than a force for evil in the world.

Above all, though, it’s a great, old-fashioned suspense thriller — written for intelligent adults, not teenagers — which is refreshing at a time when it seems that most movies are little more than a series of special effects, brutal killings, and/or dirty jokes.

I recall that Murray Rothbard referred to a certain type of film as a “movie movie.” I’m not sure what that means, but I’m pretty sure this is one.

Libertarian Themes in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Sun, 30 May 2010 19:37:27 +0000 SPOILER ALERT: I try my best not to “spoil” the movie, but some plot elements are revealed.

Prince of Persia

There are lots of things to like about the movie Prince of Persia: Jake Gyllenhaal‘s abs, the parkour, Gemma Arterton‘s attitude and beauty, or Ben Kingsley’s well-proven ability to portray the bad guy. But I like the libertarian themes.

The movie is inspired from the video game franchise of the same name. All of the important elements of the movie are directly from the video game: the parkour, the street rat, the princess, the dagger of time. The fact that videogames are perhaps becoming in our age the leading form of art for the young is well explained in the lecture series Commerce and Culture by Paul Cantor. Many libertarians have underscored this essential link between market and art, and especially the way that copying is at the heart of artistic development.

The plot itself has libertarian themes. The antagonist, seeking political power, lies the Persians into a war of conquest on the false report of weapons manufacturing and collusion with a known enemy. After the invasion is over and won, there is a scene where the king admonishes one of his sons for his act of invasion, which could be interpreted as an unintended allusion to the foreign policy fiasco perpetrated by George W. Bush over the counsel of his father George Bush, among others.

But the overt libertarianism in the movie is a running gag throughout the movie delivered by Alfred Molina‘s character Sheik Amar, whose role in Raiders of the Lost Ark we cannot forget. The gag is that Amar is the proprietor of a community whose reputation is crafted to prevent tax collection, reminding me of Ralph Raico’s point (I believe he raises it in this lecture) that the Arab stories of caves full of wealth were likely based on the reality of businessmen hiding their wealth from the tax man. Molina/Amar makes many anti-tax comments throughout the movie, which were cheered in the theater where I saw it. As another homage, Molina’s famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark is replayed in Prince of Persia between the male and female leads.

Not only for its libertarian themes, but also for its action, characters, plot, and overall impact, I highly recommend the movie. Great summer movie for the family, rivaling the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean.

For my family it had an additional appeal, since the setting was the Persian Empire, and we’re preparing to leave for Turkey in a few days. PFS meeting, here we come!

Robin Hood, Magna Carta, and the Forest Charter Fri, 07 May 2010 22:50:12 +0000 I, for one, am sick of the Robin Hood myth and movies. Or I thought I was. On the latest episode of Mark Kermode’s BBC film review podcast, there’s a fascinating discussion with Russell Crowe and Billy Bragg about the upcoming Ridley Scott film Robin Hood, starring (and co-produced by) Crowe. The new movie is a departure from other versions, with Robin Hood involved in the Magna Carta and also the Forest Charter which, “In contrast to Magna Carta, it provided some real rights, privileges and protections for the common man against the abuses of the encroaching aristocracy.” One line I like from the Forest Charter:

Any archbishop, bishop, earl, or baron who crosses our forest may take one or two beasts by view of the forester, if he is present; if not, let a horn be blown so that this [hunting] may not appear to be carried on furtively.

The discussion about this with Crowe and Bragg (9:00 to about 32:10 of the podcast) goes into how the Norman aristocracy unjustly invaded the land rights of the common people, which was redressed to some degree by the Forest Charter. Sounds interesting.

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F***ing with the wrong Mexicans Fri, 07 May 2010 07:00:08 +0000 The fury over Arizona’s new anti-illegal immigration law continues at a brisk boil, and it couldn’t come at a better time for filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.  The 41-year-old Texan, himself of Mexican descent, is known for his gritty and graphically violent movies set in Mexico and featuring protagonists who seek bloody vengeance against those who have wronged them.  Like his friend and collaborator Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez is a fan of the pulpy, culturally exploitive action films of the 1970s; part of the fun of Grindhouse, the double-feature he and Tarantino directed, were the over-the-top trailers for films which didn’t exist…until now, at least.

MacheteRodriguez has now expanded one of the trailers, for a film called Machete, into a full-length feature starring Danny Trejo, a fixture in many Rodriguez movies, including the family-friendly Spy Kids series in which Trejo also played a character named Machete.  I hope parents don’t confuse that Machete with this one, however, as the new “illegal” trailer makes clear (warning: NSFW language and violence).  In the new film, Machete is a former Federale and migrant laborer who drifts around Texas looking for work.  He is hired by a businessman (played by Jeff Fahey) to kill a corrupt senator who’s trying to kick all of the illegal immigrants out of the state.  But it’s all a setup; Machete is the patsy for a deeper conspiracy to whip up anti-immigration hysteria so that tough new laws can be passed without much protest.  Machete then goes on the signature Rodriguez rampage of killing bad guys and scoring with hot women.  As the voiceover in the trailer says, “They just f***ed with the wrong Mexican.”

The real fun may be in seeing this movie played out against an all-too-real backdrop of anti-illegal immigrant hysteria.  The senator in Machete, played by Robert DeNiro, uses rhetoric not much different from that heard by officials such as Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who warned of an epidemic of cop shootings by illegals after one of his deputies was wounded by suspected drug smugglers near the border.  No evidence of such an epidemic exists — only one cop in Arizona has been killed by an illegal immigrant since 2008 — but the amplification effect of non-stop media coverage lends credibility to Babeu’s histrionics.

Los SunsThen there’s the condemnation of forcibly removing illegals from the country, and the rallying of immigrants by Machete’s compadres to fight back, echoing the political and cultural backlash against Arizona’s new legislation.  Even professional sports have gotten in on the act; the Phoenix Suns wore “Los Suns” jerseys on Wednesday to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and take a swipe at the immigration bill.

Whether Machete is just a Mexploitation flick using illegal immigration as a pretext for a gory revenge fantasy, or represents a deeper political statement by Rodriguez, won’t be known until the film is released in September.  Of course it can be both; politics and pop culture often make strange, not to mention lucrative, bedfellows.  Such is the wonder of American enterprise!

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