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If you want to see how American women have moved center stage this year, check out today’s Washington Post Style section (March 2, 2018). With the exception of a National Symphony Orchestra Mahler concert review by Anne Midgette, all the articles deal with women and their accomplishments. Three cover film: Ann Hornaday’s interview of Jennifer Lawrence, the world’s highest paid actress; Elahe Izadi’s piece on Rachel Morrison, first ever Oscar nominated woman cinematographer (Mudbound) who also did Black Panther; the Reliable Source item on Catherine Hand, producer of A Wrinkle in Time. There’s Karen Heller’s rave review of Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, Asymmetry. An essay by Monica Hesse on Hope Hicks about to leave Trump’s White House, and another Reliable Source item on Omarosa Manigault, who already did. Have I mentioned the gender of both Source writers—Helena Andrews-Dyer and Emily Heil? Finally, Carolyn Hax’s advice column. Interestingly, for a newspaper whose women photographers consistently win the most prestigious awards, almost all today’s photographs are by men.
Milcho Manchevski has done it again. His 1994 film, Before the Rain, is a masterpiece of storytelling still analyzed in university film and cultural studies programs around the world. It spins a circular, three-part narrative out of the hatred and violence of the Balkan wars. The focus is on a young monk and a burned-out war photographer who returns to find his village as dangerous as the circle of exploding rifle cartridges young boys ignite around a hapless turtle in an early scene.
In his most recent film, Bikini Moon, Manchevski sets a more linear story in New York City, where he lives, and builds it around a homeless woman of that name, played by the astonishing Condola Rashad. Here, Manchevski plays with the lines between feature film and documentary. A film crew trails Bikini from social service agencies to makeshift shelters on the streets to the suburban house where she believes her lost daughter is in foster care. The members of the crew intervene directly in Bikini’s life, for sex, for charity and for their film. But there is no way to put a frame around Bikini. She is a force of nature, switching in a flash of her eyes from demureness to coquetry to deadpan humor to volcanic rage. When they finally trail her into the Lower East Side basement where she has made her own shelter, her ongoing fascination with the symbol of the praying mantis culminates in a scene that makes you think this is the film The Shape of Water wanted to be and didn’t know how.
Donald Trump is no original in democratic politics. Crass, ignorant, but clever blowhards have done well throughout history. But I had no idea how far back until I took Thomas Cahill’s “Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter” on a recent vacation trip to Cyprus, just as the final presidential primaries were taking place in the US. Cahill’s marvelous book on ancient Greek culture and politics points up, among other things, the influence of the city state of Athens on US political institutions. In the sixth century B.C., he relates, Athens under the leadership of Solon experimented with a political system based on the consensus of its citizens (not counting slaves, of course.)
As Solon neared death, his cousin Pisistratus began his rise to power. Cahill describes Pisistratus as “a political grandstander of the vilest variety, a mine owner’s son who presented himself as a populist speaking on behalf of [the poorest class of citizens.]
“Pisistratus staged an attempt on his own life and in the ensuing chaos pushed the Assembly into voting him a bodyguard, which he then used—just after Solon’s death—to seize the Acropolis, the lofty citadel that loomed over the city. Declaring himself tyrant (which initially meant a nonhereditary king who attained his position by excellence and only later came to mean a dictator), Pisistratus was subsequently driven out by a temporary alliance of two of the four classes of citizens, an alliance that frayed soon enough, plunging Athens into tumult once more. Here was Pisistratus’s opportunity. He made a sensational return in a golden chariot accompanied by an extraordinarily tall and beautiful young woman dressed in full battle armor, who he announced was the goddess Athena come to restore order to her city. Simple people knelt along Pisistratus’s parade, raised their arms, and gave thanks in the street. Though only the most credulous members of the Assembly could be counted on to swallow such nonsense, there were, as there often are, quite enough of them to ensure initial political victory to an unscrupulous liar who piously invoked the powers of heaven. Only later, when the damage is done, do such dodos of democracy regret allowing themselves to be so easily taken in.
“Athens would be saddled with Pisistratus and his progeny for a generation and would reestablish its Solonian ideals only in the last decade of the sixth century after expelling the last Pisistratid.”
With his own gold-trimmed Boeing 757, Trump doesn’t need the chariot. But he’s found the “dodos of democracy” in majorities of the Republican primary voters and all but a handful of the party’s leaders.