Pepe, Parentheses, and Klonversation

Now that everyone's become aware of the loosely affiliated pack of fascist assholes who live on the net, and has learned the term "alt-right" to collectively describe them, I've seen a certain number of pearl-clutching articles about the disturbing fact that they communicate in code. They put cartoon frogs on things they consider theirs, they put parentheses around the names of people they think are Jewish, they talk in acronyms and in-jokes and dog-whistle references. This is dismaying, and I wouldn't mind the resultant pearl-clutching except for two things.

First, that pearl-clutching is exactly the intended effect. Most of the little shits in the alt-right are having fun, chuckling to themselves about how easy it is to get a rise out of the [insert disgusting plural for non-racist people here]. Second, some (not all) of the pearl-clutchers seem to think this is a new development. It's not. Let's rewind a hundred years and see just how not-new their cute little codes are.

The second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1915 by a guy named William Simmons, who belonged to a lot of secret societies, and wanted to start his own based on a movie he'd just seen. If you look at the handbook for his KKK, you'll notice it's very big on rituals, cool-sounding titles, special Klan-only names for things, and special code phrases so you can identify other KKK members in public without tipping your hand. Like Masonic handshakes, these codes served as recognition symbols, and as fun, winking, inside-the-clubhouse toys.

That's the important thing to remember: Simmons' KKK was designed to be fun. Lots of little codes and symbols, masks and rituals, titles that read like the D&D Monster Manual. For a lot of guys, that was the appeal. Klan membership was a way to feel special, to get out of the house and spend time with the guys, to put on costumes and march around and set stuff on fire. The KKK was a social fraternal organization, a chance to sip some 'shine on the sly and talk shit with like-minded friends.

They also murdered, raped, maimed, and terrorized many, many thousands of people. It's literally impossible to determine how many, because a lot of their murders weren't reported on, since they weren't considered news, and weren't prosecuted, since they weren't considered crimes. One recent study found hundreds more lynchings than had previously been estimated. The report on its results is worth reading, because it puts into historical perspective the unspeakable horrors committed by guys who were just having a good time with the boys.

Fascism is fun. It provides a nice sense of purpose, a feeling of strength, and a way of connecting with other people. Thus, it tends to recruit among guys who lack those things. Turns out there are places on the internet where aimless, weak, socially disconnected guys were already gathering, self-sorting by self-loathing. Those places, to the surprise of nobody, are where we're seeing the alt-right infection taking hold.

Just like the KKK, these fascists provide fun. It's fun to use words you've been told over and over you must never use. It's fun to do what you're not allowed to do. It's fun to have in-jokes with people. And yeah, it's fun to get a reaction out of folks who don't like you. And why shouldn't you? You've been ostracized your whole life, told to swallow your pain and check your privilege. You are, in your own view, a plucky underdog who breaks the rules to get back at the bullies. You probably don't actually believe most of the shit you post--that's why it's called shitposting, right?--you're just having some fun.

And just like before, just like always, that fun will have real-world consequences for many, many people. Because the dumbasses just having a good time, just taking out their feelings of displacement and alienation, are good marks for the genuinely hateful. It's easy--it's always been easy--to use guys like that as the warm bodies needed to make a few scumbags start to look like a movement, and to make a movement big enough to start really hurting people.

We've heard this song before, more than once, and while the lyrics change, the melody never does. The sad guys who make up the alt-right are being suckered, and the in-jokes they think are so funny are the tools being used against them. And they won't get the real joke in time, because they never do. It's up to the rest of us to stop them, undo their damage, and dammit maybe this time try to inoculate the next generation against this infection.

Oscar Project articles

Wings (1927)

It’s hard to remember now just how amazing airplanes were in the 1920s. Barnstormers used to cruise from one small town to another, charging impressive fees just to show off their miraculous flying machines. That sense of wonder deeply informs Wings, in a way that’s hard to understand from here in the miracle-jaded future. The story of two young pilots and their service in WWI is nothing new even for the time, but the flying shots are spectacular, and in 1927 they might as well have been magic.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

I hated this movie. Hated it. Hated it in a way that started to feel weirdly personal after a while. The title song is repeated every five minutes by someone or other, which would be tolerable if it were a good song, but it’s not. There’s not a single likable character in this movie, which is a serious problem since we’re supposed to find them all charming. It’s about various people trying to achieve true love and showbiz stardom, but I didn’t want anything good to happen to any of them.

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

This is the earliest Best Picture winner that doesn’t require any apology or explanation before showing it to contemporary friends. It holds up perfectly, a stark and even angry look at the pointless, brutal cost of war. Its characters join the German army as teenagers full of idealism and hope and all that dulce et decorum est crap, and everything goes downhill for them from there.

Cimarron (1931)

This is one of those movies that has to be taken in context. It traces the history of the development of the American West through the life of one man, from the first Oklahoma Land Rush up through the present day. Thus, the first piece of context that must be taken into account is that “the present day” means “the Hoover administration”.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Watching Grand Hotel, the 5th-ever Best Picture winner, it struck me how rapidly I was seeing the art of filmmaking develop. An audacious plotline-juggling comedy, this movie makes remarkable use of the camera in ways that haven’t shown up in previous films, but will continue showing up in subsequent ones. (Except for the fact that Greta Garbo has a proprietary lighting system that exists only for her character, as though she’s in a whole different movie by herself. That one’s all Garbo.)

Cavalcade (1933)

This was based on a play by Noël Coward, and the nicest thing I can say is that maybe it worked better on stage. On film, it’s a godawful tedious slog through two generations of affluent London life, showing the great upheavals of the 1899-1933 period via a bunch of colorless, unlikable characters who mostly die, but not soon enough to suit me.

It Happened One Night (1934)

This movie feels like the beginning of an era. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Frank Capra directing, and a romantic-comedy plotline we’re still using today. These are all elements that became dominant over the coming years, but here they all still had that new-star smell. The storyline’s nothing new, your basic fall-in-love-over-an-involuntary-journey bit, but the journey in this case provides a wonderful look at 1930s Americana, all the little motel cabins and logistical weirdness that made up a pre-freeway road trip.

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)

A scene I’m 100% sure took place in Irving Thalberg’s office at MGM one day in 1935:

“So, last year Gable took his shirt off in It Happened One Night, and we made… how much money again?”

“All of it, sir. All the money.”

“Oh yeah. That was great. We also won enough Oscars that I had to have my mantelpiece reinforced. Anyway, having said that, what’ve we got this year?”

“We’ve got a picture where Clark Gable is shirtless for literally half the running time.”

“Good start. What’s he wearing the rest of the time?”

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Do you like long, slow musical numbers that involve almost nothing but looking at showgirls’ legs? No? Well, tough shit, because you’re in for a LOT of them. Get comfy.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

This is what you call surefire Oscar bait: a period biopic that talks about an Important Social Issue. The Life of Emile Zola is a weirdly-paced story with a strange two-part structure. First, we have your conventional biopic. Zola starts out penniless and living in a garret, but perseveres and works hard and finds success with Nana, because it turns out sex sells. He raises a family, yadda yadda yadda, and his career and the film are both slowing down by the halfway mark.

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Of the various films in the genre of “Frank Capra directs Jimmy Stewart and several other stars in a surprisingly funny drama about socioeconomic injustice”, You Can’t Take It With You may be the least of them. Adapted from a George S. Kaufman play, it feels stagebound and claustrophobic, lacking a strong sense of visual expression. The story is just about a rich guy meeting a houseful of Manic Pixie Dream Anarchists, and some of the jokes don’t really work in the 21st century.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Gone With The Wind is a serious problem for me.

On the one hand, as a movie, it’s pretty good. The cinematography’s great, the actors are gorgeous, the sense of an epic is powerful and heartfelt, and the score is top-notch.

On the other hand, most of that is also true of Triumph of the Will, and it’s hard to escape the comparison.

Rebecca (1940)

In beginning this review, I had to double-check the date. Rebecca was seriously released in 1940? Weird. It feels later than that, like maybe 1950, give or take a couple years. The product of another ten years of the development of film as a storytelling medium, in other words. That may have been what tipped it over to victory; it’s not just emotionally compelling and visually gorgeous, it has a level of nuance and emotion in the structure of every shot and scene that one just doesn’t see in other films from that year.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: nobody actually thinks this was the best movie made in 1941. Nobody thought it back then either. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Citizen Kane is better than How Green Was My Valley, but that William Randolph Hearst was a vindictive sonofabitch who owned half the newspapers in the country and had Louella Parsons on permanent payroll. It simply wasn’t safe for voting members of the Academy to support Kane, so they went with a safety.

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

This film is part of a brief, awkward period in Oscar history: the two years following Hitler's invasion of Poland and preceding Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. From 1939-41, there was a very strong "America First" movement in the U.S., which opposed America's entry into the war, often because they were outright Nazi sympathizers. This demographic was not well-represented in the film industry, because many of Hollywood's leading figures, like Lubitsch, Wilder, Dietrich, and others, were German by birth.

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca. What can I, or anyone, write about this movie that hasn't been written a hundred times? That it's awful darn good? It is. You may have heard this is a very good motion picture. I must inform you that you heard correctly. Glad we had this talk.