Empire of Pain–Book Review

Patrick Radden Keefe, the author, pictured at right.

Empire of Pain is a book that will make you shake your head so much, you will be in danger of injuring your neck.  You are also likely to gasp, gape and rage at Patrick Radden Keefe’s secret history of the Sackler family dynasty.  Despite the difficult subject matter, the book is so well written and so thoroughly researched, that you won’t put it down for long.  I breezed through the volume’s 400 plus pages in less than a week. And it was that very week that the Sacklers reached a settlement with about 120,000 U.S. state and local governments, families and individuals that have sued Purdue Pharma for opioid related damages.

The Sackler family are associated with the marketing of Valium, and, more infamously, with the production and aggressive marketing of OxyContin, the pill considered the prime culprit in the opioid epidemic now facing much of the world.  The book is divided into three parts:  “Patriarch” focuses on the exploits of Arthur Sackler and his younger brothers Mortimer and Raymond; “Dynasty” revolves around Raymond’s son Richard who ran Purdue Pharma as it developed, promoted and defended OxyContin; “Legacy” examines the protests and lawsuits that eventually arose when it became clear that Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family acted without concern for the horrible addiction that OxyContin unleashed.

Arthur Sackler, the eldest child of Isaac and Sophie Sackler, was born in Brooklyn to an immigrant family short on cash but big on dreams.  Keefe makes a point of relaying the story that while Arthur’s father Isaac, who had suffered business reverses, could not give his sons much cash, he insisted that he was giving them something much more important than money:  a good name.  Two generations later, the Sackler name would be one of the most reviled in America. Keefe carefully documents the early years of the Sackler family’s exploits and convincingly makes the case that the model for much of what was to follow was established in the decades of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.  Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond all become doctors.  Their early work at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Centre in Queens, New York led them to an interest in a biochemical solution to mental illness; this was an era where electroshock therapy and lobotomy were the common treatments given to serious mental illnesses.  Arthur’s position at the advertising agency William Douglas McAdams saw him rise due to his aptitude with visuals and language; he soon handled the Pfizer account for McAdams and would be essential in the advertising of anti-biotics, and later of Valium.  Arthur made a fortune advertising drugs and began buying businesses at which he installed his younger brothers.

The template that Arthur set up was one that would work for the Sacklers for decades:  promote drugs in the medical journals that he owned; recruit key people in regulatory and legal positions to take his side; aggressively deny any hint of wrongdoing in terms of knowledge of side effects/addiction potential of these drugs; downplay the size and impact of their ‘minor enterprises’; carefully keep the Sackler family name separate from any decisions made by businesses the family owned; aggressively promote the family name by becoming artistic philantropists and insisting that donations be exchanged for naming Halls and Wings of prestigious museums in New York, Washington, London and Paris, and at universities throughout the States after the Sacklers.  It is both disturbing and illuminating to read of how the Sacklers manipulated those who were charged with regulating the licencing and sale of drugs, often through outright bribery.  Equally fascinating is the appearance that was maintained of performing a valuable public service.

Just as being pioneers in using pills to treat anxiety and mental illness had made Arthur’s generation a fortune, so the next generation of Sacklers would make an exponentially bigger fortune in using pills to treat chronic pain.  To read about how Purdue Pharma, led by Richard Sackler, pushed OxyContin on America and later the world is to witness the excesses of capitalism at its worst.  The book documents how profit crazy the Sacklers were regardless of how many people were suffering as a result of their irresponsible marketing of a highly addictive drug.  They ignored studies that might interfere with OxyContin sales and lied about when they knew what they knew.  The extent of their callousness is something that in fiction might be seen as unbelievable, but, sadly, research bears out that this not only happened, but that the toll on individuals, families, communities and countries continues to mount.

The final section of the book is frustrating because attempts to bring the Sacklers to justice fail so miserably.  Keefe explains how the Sackler family used Purdue Pharma as a cash cow, withdrew umpteen billions for the family and then left the company on the verge of bankruptcy just as the lawsuits finally started to catch up to them.  While museums and universities eventually caved to pressure and began to refuse further Sackler donations and strip many esteemed halls of the family name, the Sacklers played the justice system by hiring and bribing so many insiders that they managed to evade any personal responsibility for what they had wrought. Empire of Pain is a deeply disturbing book, but it’s a book worth reading both because it is so powerfully written and because it is a quintessential example of what happens when regulators and justice officials are as singlemindedly profit hungry as drug pushers.

A Fairy Tale (I wish)

Once upon a time, there was a fine city on a great lake.  It was filled with people from all over.  They came because the city had fine restaurants, intriguing neighbourhoods, exquisite parks, dynamic theatre and wonderful museums.  It’s true that the city also had traffic jams, overpriced real estate and long, grey winters, but still people flocked to the city.  And the people were very proud of their city; they were proud of their big tower and their relatively low crime rate and their relatively clean streets.  Mostly they were proud that they weren’t part of the neighbouring big country that was always in the news (even though they tried very hard to be just like that big country).  But no matter how many people came to that city, and no matter how proud they were of their tower, their diversity and their museums, the people of the city couldn’t truly be happy.  And that’s because the city was cursed.

No one knows exactly when the curse began and why the curse happened.  In fact, some people (admittedly a smaller and smaller number) didn’t even believe in the curse.  But the curse had such a grip on the citizens that even in their happiest moments, there was a little piece of their mind that thought of the curse, so that they were never completely happy.

One of the strangest things about the curse was that it was impossible to come to an agreement about how best to end it.  Some powerful men thought the way to break it was through toughness so they hired strong, aggressive men to bash it into submission.  But that didn’t work.  Some other powerful men thought the way to end it was through finesse so they hired fast and skilled men to dazzle it away.  But that didn’t work either.  Finally, it was agreed by many that what was needed was a combination of toughness and skill, but that failed like all the other plans.

The curse seemed to grow in strength because the people in the city genuinely believed that each year brought the best chance to end it.  And so the people of the city would nod in approval as the current wizard would calculate the numbers and trade away some of the future to achieve just the right chemistry to kill the curse.  And each year they would seem to forget how it felt when they had been tricked by the curse; they would forget how they had grown very quiet when the curse reappeared; they forgot how they promised not to care any more. When the trees turned colour, some people refused to pay attention, but by the time the snow fell, most were watching, and by April, the frenzy was back as if they had never had their hearts broken time and time again.

And so if you ever visit this fine city on the great lake, enjoy the time you spend there but keep in mind that the city is cursed.  And a curse is a powerful force that resists the will of mere humans to overcome it.

Pandemic Reveals our Basic Misunderstanding of Science

Part of the frustration many people have been experiencing regarding the COVID 19 (et variants) pandemic is the seemingly contradictory expert opinions being expressed almost everywhere you look.  Never in recent memory has science been looked to more urgently for guidance to a crushing problem.  The spectacle of governments cueing their resident expert or news sources clamouring to get a sound bite from the epidemiologist du jour has become standard operating procedure.  It is no surprise that politicians want to have scientists on side given the reverence most citizens have for science.  As it is strongly associated with the technological breakthroughs that we have come to take for granted, science gets good press.  Does anyone really want to go back to a time without electricity, the internet, smart phones, diagnostic imaging, commercial flight, plastic and modern agriculture?  Even those non-conformists who yearn to live off the grid depend on science for energy storage, countertop gardens and composting toilets.   No wonder politicians at every level want to be perceived as having scientific support in their pandemic policy making.  Not only does it legitimize their decisions, but it gives them a convenient whipping boy if things go south—“Don’t blame me; I was just following the scientific experts.”  Even those campaigning most aggressively to re-open the economy are loathe to be seen as anti-science.  So, how, one might ask, is it that both governments and those criticizing the government can claim to have science on their side?  The answer may stem in part from a basic misunderstanding of what exactly science is.

Science is not a monolithic discipline.  In fact, part of what makes science so fascinating is that it is in a constant state of flux.  Yes, there are many topics on which a vast majority of scientists will agree, but especially with emerging developments such as a new and mutating virus, there are bound to be many differences of opinion among educated practitioners.  The history of modern science is not merely one of continual refinements, but just as importantly, outright transformations of what was considered accepted knowledge.  

As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his landmark book The Structrue of Scientific Revolutions, scientists do not operate in a bubble of rationality, but instead are influenced by the prevailing intellectual framework, social assumptions and paradigms of the era in which they toil.  When there is a paradigm shift in science, it is not that the data has changed fundamentally, but rather that there is a new way of viewing the data.  For example, the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics is largely a change in assumptions about the universe.  A question like “what does the data mean?” is unhelpful if it does not take into account the conceptual frameworks being utilized in assessing the data. Even in periods of what Kuhn referred to as “Normal Science”, there are anomalies and stubborn exceptions to the prevailing model.  When these outliers begin to build up, science enters a “Model Drift” phase which sees a gradual erosion of confidence in the paradigm.  As more and more scientists desert the prevailing conceptual framework, a “Model Crisis” phase is begun which ends in a “Model Revolution”.  Once the paradigm has shifted, a new period of “Normal Science” begins and the cycle repeats. 


There are a few key takeaways in all of this for the layperson.  The first is that all observation in science is seen through the prism of a particular concept.  The second is that there is probably no moment when all scientists will have full confidence in the prevailing concept used to understand the world, and many moments where there is a significant number of scientists who are extremely uncomfortable with aspects of the paradigm.  The third is that total objectivity is pretty well impossible in a discipline subject to such strong social, economic and political pressures bearing down on human beings who are naturally replete with a series of biases, assumptions and perception filters.

When we apply this to the current pandemic, we should see that it is unreasonable to expect science to yield a single, straightforward answer to our questions.  Not only is the situation rapidly evolving, but the answers we are looking for involve issues in the even more erratic and unpredictable disciplines of social science such as economics, psychology, history and philosophy.  The question of “What is an essential service?” is really a thorny, philosophical one.  Similarly, the question “What is the best method to motivate people to stay home?” is a psychological one that has bedeviled many municipal leaders.  While scientists can hope to achieve controlled conditions by devising ingenious experiments with necessary control factors, social scientists deal with the most complex and unpredictable subjects of all:  human beings.  Add to this the role of the media in directing the conversation based on what will attract viewers, and you have a scenario in which confusion, frustration, disagreement and laying blame are quite likely inevitable.

At least the next time we want to know ‘what the scientific answer is’, maybe we won’t be so naïve to expect a single, definitive response.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Its Many Contemporary Echoes

Trump is sounding a lot like Nixon - CNN Video

There are certain years that contain events so prominent that they take on an understood identity.  1789, 1848, 1914 and 1929 are such years. For America, 1968 is also such a year.  The country was polarized and awash in violence.  In January, the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive convinced many Americans that the war in Vietnam was nowhere near a successful conclusion.  As President Johnson increased U.S. troop involvement in that conflict, anti-war protest at college campuses and beyond ratcheted upwards.  The daily death tolls of American soldiers were inescapable.  Much of the promise of progressive leadership disappeared when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in the span of sixty-three days.  Riots were common and the predominant feeling for many was of a downwards spiral.

That year, the Republican party held their national convention in Miami and endorsed a ticket of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.  The anti-war constituents saw their only hope in the Democratic party.  Without Kennedy, hope turned to Eugene McCarthy.  In the end, the Democrats chose Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie at their national convention in Chicago. 

In the years that have passed, that convention has perhaps become better known for the way America treats protest than the official endorsement of politicians practically indistinguishable from the establishment Republicans.  Chicago became the place to be that August for anyone disenchanted with the U.S. government.  The violent reaction to protestors by the Chicago police under the direction of mayor Richard J. Daley was front page news and the protestors knew it evidenced by their shouts of “the whole world is watching”.

Which brings me to the film The Trial of the Chicago 7, currently available on Netflix.  The trial took place from September 1969-February 1970 while Nixon was president and John Mitchell was his attorney general.  As the film makes clear, the trial was a thinly veiled attempt to round up divergent anti-government forces and throw them in jail based on a law that had never been used before.  The so called “Rap Brown Law” made it a crime to cross state lines with the intent of participating in mischief.  Mitchell had attorneys round up Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of Students for a Democratic Society, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Youth International Party (Yippies), David Dellinger, a conscientious objector and anti-war movement organizer, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers and Lee Weiner and John Froines, two lesser known activists.  What followed was one of the most notorious trials of the decade complete with an unhinged judge, thinly veiled racism, courtroom theatrics and underhanded tactics.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 True Story - Real Events Behind Aaron Sorkin's  Netflix Movie
From top left clockwise, Rubin, Hoffman, Hayden, Davis, Dellinger, Froines, Weiner and Seale

The trial has long been a well known cultural touchstone, but what makes it and the Aaron Sorkin film about it so fascinating now are the numerous parallels between 1968 and the present day.  


Some of the parallels are depressingly obvious.  The racist treatment of Black Americans is evident in the inclusion of Seale in the trial to begin with and then the refusal to grant him basic rights during the proceedings.  Seale being bound and chained in the courtroom is the most lasting image of the trial and one of both unjust authority and blatant racism.  Fifty years later, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and numerous others speak to the systemic racism that is still very much a part of the American fabric.  Familiar too is the extreme polarization of Americans; the division over the war in ’68 is matched today by the schism over Trump.  Lack of faith in the justice system is another link between now and then.  Judge Julius Hoffman’s bias and recklessness reminds us that the U.S. Supreme Court has been ideologically stacked and that it is difficult to function as an independent branch of authority when the legislative branch shapes the judicial one in such a partisan manner.  Police brutality unleashed in Chicago and sanctioned by Daley is painfully reminiscent of the never ending video clips of contemporary police engaging in excessive and often fatal force against unarmed citizens.  So too can we see echoes today of the division within the Left.  Where Hayden and Hoffman clashed on tactics, today we have a fundamental division within the Democratic Party about how to proceed.  Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are as distanced politically from Joe Biden as Biden is from Trump, if not more so.  Interesting too that the Democrats chose the conservative Humphrey in 1968, just as they ultimately chose the safer Biden this year.  Even Ramsey Clark’s refusal to participate in the transition to John Mitchell as Attorney General reminds us of Trump’s petulant refusal to prepare for a Biden administration. 

Meanwhile, some of the connections between the film and our present are subtler, but still edifying. Two of the more progressive jurors receive written threats supposedly from the Black Panthers but clearly arranged by the prosecution as a means of removing them from the trial.  Is it that different from right wing extremists who commit vandalism and arson during protests to paint peaceful protesters as radical threats and to sow fear among the ignorant?  The FBI and other organizations infiltrated protest groups with people working to undermine them and then called on them as witnesses in the trial.  Today, huge numbers of people are manipulated on social media by forces that have ready access to their interests and opinions and the means to influence them.  Americans in 1968 heard nightly statistics on the number of U.S. deaths in Vietnam while Americans in 2020 tune into daily figures on COVID testing.  The prosecution in the film successfully bars critical evidence from the trial on the grounds that it could compromise national security just as the current Trump administration has done on numerous occasions including Trump’s impeachment.  Finally, a President uses his position and resources to attack those he feels slighted by—sound familiar?

7 Reasons Why the Chicago 8 Trial Mattered - HISTORY
Lawyers Leonard Weinglass (far left) and William Kunstler (far right) defended the Chicago 7

One of the most compelling scenes in the film is a disagreement Abbie Hoffman has with Hayden about the nature of what they are facing.  Hoffman calls it a political trial while the pragmatic Hayden says there’s no such thing as a political trial, but only criminal or civil trials.  In light of the past fifty years, I think we can agree with Hoffman.  As much as someone snatched from 1968 into our world might be bewildered by the internet and other technological advances, the racism, political circus, polarization, disillusionment with authority and general despair would inevitably evoke a forlorn déjà vu.  Like so many films about recent history, The Trial of the Chicago 7 succeeds not only because of its subject matter, but because it’s holding a mirror to ours. 

The “New Normal” May Revolutionize Commercial Real Estate


I was at the bank the other day, or rather I was outside the bank spaced six feet away from the other customers, waiting for a bank rep to come out and deem us worthy of entrance.  The ‘bank bouncer’, as I like to refer to this new breed of employee, determines whether you really need to go into the bank or if you could achieve your financial transaction online in which case you are shooed away.  This, of course, is all in the name of social distancing and flattening the curve.  So, understandable of course.  But a part of me wonders if this COVID-19 pandemic is playing right into the hands of not only banks, but other businesses.  You will recall of course that many businesses have for years been in the habit of reminding customers that what they are trying to do in person or over the phone can actually be done much more conveniently and efficiently online in the comfort of your own home and at a time of your own choosing.  In many cases, actually securing a phone number for customer service requires an effort similar to Frodo’s getting into Mordor.  I was trying to find a phone number for help with a computer printer the other day and was continuously redirected to e-mail, other websites or even live chat.  If by some miracle, you are actually able to procure a phone number, you are warned about the high volume of calls and generally made to feel like you have endangered lives by making a phone call, after which you will be put on hold to the accompaniment of music that has even been rejected by elevator soundtracks as too sadistic.  The wait can be half an hour or more, but it’s a pandemic so what else do you have to do if you have the time to call customer service in the first place?  The point is that most businesses discourage you from even phoning them.  This retreat from customer service started with we don’t wish to actually see you and has progressed to we don’t even want to talk to you.


Now what, you may well ask, does this rant about customer service have to do with commercial real estate? Well, over the past seven weeks, it has been suggested that getting back ‘to normal’ is something that may not happen for a long time, if ever.  Ontario is moving very cautiously and Prime Minister Trudeau has said that normal is a “long way off”.  There have also been rumblings that we may never totally replicate our pre-pandemic way of living.  This may be especially true in the area of commercial real estate.


There is no doubt that fragile small businesses such as restaurants will see many closings.  Even with government assistance, many restaurants and bars will not be able to survive the lockdown.  That means there will be an increase in supply of commercial real estate.  Great news for people looking to open up a small business, but how many people are able to open a small business now?  Certainly not businesses that rely on providing service to people in close quarters.


But the real paradigm shift may have been something that was happening slowly before the pandemic, but has now been accelerated by COVID-19.  This is the switch away from bricks and mortar to online platforms. Certainly, this was already underway in the retail sector.  But it is not just retail stores that will be rethinking the money they spend on renting physical space.  Now that many businesses have asked some of their employees to work exclusively online, they may be noting that the gap between productivity in the lockdown and productivity in a ‘normal’ business environment is rather slender.  It may be common for CEOs and Board Members to start asking the question ‘is it really worth it to rent as much space as we do?’.  If employees can meet regularly on Zoom or other online video conferencing apps, the thinking might go, then what is the necessity of providing them with their own office?  One or two multi-purpose rooms might be enough for a large firm that needs to physically meet with clients from time to time.  You can be certain that you will start to receive assurances from companies that while face to face experiences will always be important to them, safety and economic realities have forced their hand to reduce their real estate footprint.


So while the ‘new normal’ may not be such great tidings if you are a commercial realtor, it may actually present our communities with some new opportunities.  Perhaps the numerous malls that dot our landscape can be repurposed as homeless shelters, affordable housing, community centers or cultural/athletic facilities.  Perhaps with some zoning flexibility, office buildings can be transformed to student residences, artist’s colonies or designated spaces for refugees or victims of domestic abuse.  Ironically, companies’ enslavement to profit may force society to change the way they utilize spaces.


This may be part of a larger reinvention of cities as urban centres start to re-evaluate how much space is devoted to getting in and out to work and play, and how much space is dedicated to actual living.

Liberty Ain’t What it Used to Be


Remember when “liberty” was an inspirational principle, as in the first of the three guiding values of the French Revolution, or the name of the revered statue that has welcomed millions of immigrants to American shores?  Those, apparently, were Liberty’s halcyon days.  Now, we are confronted with protestors mid-pandemic, waving flags and symbols of a more dubious nature, demanding city lockdowns be ended in the name of liberty.  John Stuart Mill could only blush.  It was Mill in his influential treatise On Liberty who endeavoured to establish criteria for when authority could legitimately restrict individual freedom.  Mill quite rightly averred that a person should be left as free to pursue their own interests as long as this does not harm the interests of others.

Admittedly, there are cases where it is difficult to identify how pursuing an interest could harm the interests of others.  For example, some people might say the decision to smoke cigarettes, as long as there are no captive people around experiencing second hand smoke, is an individual one.  If I want to smoke, the argument goes, then it will affect me and that’s my business.  Or is it?  For if continued smoking results in lung cancer or any of the other diseases that regular smoking has a correlation with, where do you think the individual goes?  Yes, to a hospital where they will occupy a bed and the attention of medical authorities.  Maybe that bed and medical staff are not available for others as a result.  So, there are times in a high tech, fast paced, interconnected world when it is difficult to disentangle personal and communal interest.  Opening up cities to “normal” behaviour in a pandemic is not one of these tricky cases.  It is dead simple.  Going to a hair salon or a gym or a restaurant or a theatre in a pandemic is not a liberty you can with any legitimacy claim.  It is the same reason why people are not allowed to drive drunk or serve food at a restaurant without regulation.

So, what are we to make of these protestors? These protestors, it should be remembered, are a tiny minority of the population who have received disproportional media attention.  Well, I think we can safely link them with the gun lobby and the anti-vaxxers.  And not just because in some protests, like in Michigan, there were a number of citizens carrying semi-automatic guns as evidence, I suppose, of their enhanced sense of liberty.  No, the reason we can lump these groups together is because, as Anna Merlan has stated, “they don’t think their choices affect other people”.

How is it that you can live in a globalized world and not understand this?  What you do or choose not to do impacts others in every sphere I can think of:  in the political sphere, who you vote for or whether you vote at all and your level of civic engagement affects others; as a consumer, what you buy or avoid buying affects others; as a citizen, your behaviour affects the natural environment in innumerable ways; as a family member or as part of a relationship, can there be any doubt that what you do affects others?

That liberty has been reduced to the role of ubiquitous mask for selfishness is appalling.  That it is now conflated with carrying guns around cities, getting your hair done in the middle of a plague and being able to golf whenever and wherever is sickening.  Did Delacroix paint and Bartholdi sculpt so the tanning salons could stay open?  And it’s sad too that the natural reaction of the majority of rational beings is now to flinch ever so slightly at the contemporary mention of “liberty”.  This is what happens when a noble principle gets hijacked by a small group of cretins that shelter behind the aura of a word that historically has a revered place in our society.  Well if usage really dictates meaning, then liberty now means ‘a misguided rationale for harmful and irresponsible behaviour’.

That sound you hear is John Stuart Mill weeping.

Waiting for Godot–Updated


By Paul Rose (with apologies to Samuel Beckett)


A road.  A tree.  Evening.

ESTRAGON:  What do we do now?

VLADIMIR:  While waiting.

ESTRAGON:  While waiting.


VLADIMIR:  We could do our exercises

ESTRAGON:  Our Netflix

VLADIMIR:  Our Amazon Prime

ESTRAGON:  Our Crave


ESTRAGON:  Our YouTube


ESTRAGON:  Our Disney


ESTRAGON:  That’s enough.  I’m tired.

VLADIMIR:  Slacker!

ESTRAGON:  That’s the idea, let’s abuse each other.

They turn, social distance and face each other

VLADIMIR:  Hand cougher!

ESTRAGON:  Hand sneezer!

VLADIMIR: Non-essential!

ESTRAGON:  Hoarder!

VLADIMIR:  Price Gouger!

ESTRAGON: (with finality)  Trrrump!


He wilts, vanquished, and turns away. 


ESTRAGON:  Let’s go.

VLADIMIR:  We can’t.

ESTRAGON:  Why not?

VLADIMIR:  We’re waiting for vaccine.

ESTRAGON:  Ah! (he sits and is soon dozing)


VLADIMIR:  Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?  Am I sleeping now?  To-morrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of to-day? That with Estragon, my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for vaccine?  That we watched Netflix, Amazon and Trump?  But in all that what truth will there be?

Enter Boy right

BOY:  Mister…

VLADIMIR:  Do you have vaccine?

BOY:  No sir.

VLADIMIR:  But WHO sent you?

BOY:  Yes sir.

VLADIMIR:  And you’ll come back tomorrow?

BOY:  Yes sir.

VLADIMIR:  Without fail?

BOY:  Yes sir.

Boy exits right.  Estragon wakes.

 VLADIMIR:  Well?  Shall we go?

ESTRAGON:  Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.


The Coronavirus is No Laughing Matter (but we need something to laugh about)


We are living in strange times.  Businesses and schools shut, sports leagues and entertainment suspended, places of worship shuttered, and grocery stores ransacked.  The price of gas has dropped but there’s nowhere to go; the kids are out of school for weeks, but the museums, zoos and movie theatres are closed; there’s time to play sports, but no place to do it.  It’s easy in these times to draw profound conclusions about how fragile the thread of normalcy is, about how globalism is a double edged sword, about how these crises bring out the best and the worst in people, about how important leadership is in dangerous times, and about how casually we take for granted the choice, freedom and safety we normally possess.

But we also need to keep laughing.  We need to take our eye off the stock market which is behaving like an EKG and have a good, hearty laugh.  I read an entertaining article this morning by Michael Schulman in The New Yorker entitled “Convincing Boomer Parents to Take the Coronavirus Seriously” (just another reason I’m glad I follow Jane Mayer on Twitter).  No matter how grim things get, there is always a place for comedy; laughter is as genuine and necessary a human activity as worrying or crying.  And we need a balance.  We need to remember that previous generations survived much worse threats (different, but objectively worse) than we are currently facing.  And as bad as it may be for you and your family right now, there are probably people in your community who are in a worse situation. So take a moment to laugh, to find the humour in an aspect of a grim situation.  Don’t misunderstand—I’m not advocating laughing this whole thing off which would be idiotic.  But take a moment now and then to embrace something funny, to share it and to lighten temporarily what could be a long and very different road ahead.

Parasite (spoiler) is (spoiler) worth (spoiler) the (spoiler) hype (go see it before reading this)


This year, the Oscars got it right.  Parasite is fully deserving of the abundant praise it has received.  The film demands your attention from the opening shot and keeps you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre.  If you haven’t seen it, you are missing out.

Much has been made of what the film has to say about class inequality, and with good reason.  Parasite largely centers around two families, the down and out Kims and the wealthy Parks.

The film begins with the Kims eating together.  Now it’s not like there’s many other spaces for them to inhabit in their tiny basement dwelling, but still this is one more family meal than we ever see the Parks eating together.  At the spacious Park house, bedroom doors are frequently closed.  The father, Dong-ik, is usually at work, and daughter Da-hye is in her own teenage world, most commonly wearing headphones.  She has to be coerced to go on the family camping trip that fizzles out.  Interestingly, despite the squalor they live in, the Kim family displays incredible unity. This is evident early on when the family works together to transform massive quantities of flat cardboard into folded pizza boxes.  And rather than unravelling when the pizza joint employee is intent on penalizing them for poor quality control, the family works together to try and persuade the worker to give the son, Ki-woo, a job inside the store.  And once Ki-woo lucks into a job tutoring the Park’s daughter, the Kims work as one unit to extract the most benefit from this new association with this wealthy family.  Needless to say, it is the upper echelon Parks and not the hand to mouth Kims who require tutors, therapists, drivers and housekeepers.  And while the young Park son, Da-song, has a good reason to be traumatized by his past, the way his parents indulge him is both sad, and, ultimately, tragic.  It is only when the Kims taste a bit of the high life that their family comes apart. Sure, the film seems to say, the Park’s house and grounds are beautiful, but there is a cost that comes with this lifestyle and it is not merely measured in won.

In fact, the rich and poor are depicted here almost like different species.  It nearly approaches the level of HG Wells’ Eloi and Moorlocks. The rich Parks, tucked away behind formidable walls and sealed doors are contrasted with the long suffering Kims who must put up with the sight of neighbourhood drunks regularly urinating outside their window. While the Parks are entirely oblivious of the existence of an underground dwelling and an underground dweller beneath their house, it is the poor Kims that uncover the subterranean truth and must try to grapple with it.  The life below is literally “sub-human”, but this, the film tells us, is what extreme debt can drive a person to.  This is intimately connected to the title parasite.  While the Kim family or the housekeeper’s husband might at first blush be considered the parasite, there is a case to be made for the Parks and their wealthy compatriots to be recognized as the true parasites of society.  What do they actually contribute to society compared to what they extract?  Some of the most poetic aspects of the film speak to this chasm between the high and the low.  Early in the film, Ki-taek, father of the Kim household, is seen battling the stick bugs that have infiltrated the Kim’s basement apartment.  He is so bothered by them, that he insists his family leave the windows open when the street outside is being fumigated in hopes that it will kill the bugs.  Later in the film, in one of the rare displays of Kim disunity, Ki-taek reacts violently when his wife compares him to a cockroach.  Still later, we see that to the Parks, Mr. Kim is the stick bug. The Parks are nauseated by the smell of Mr. Kim.


The Parks have a hard time dealing with the smell of the lower class

In the climactic birthday party scene, with carnage all around, it is the smell of Mr. Kim that most sickens Mr. Park, and Mr. Kim’s recognition of this is what precipitates murder.  Another grimly poetic scene contrasting the poor with the wealthy involves the deluge of rain which floods the Kim’s neighbourhood.

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Raw sewage floods the streets and basements of the Kim’s neighbourhood

As the Kims scramble to retrieve valued possessions, it becomes clear that the sewer system has flooded and that the basement apartment is literally awash in shit.  Perhaps this is what happens to your perspective of poverty once you have had a taste of the high life.  Also poetic is the use of the scholar’s rock, which is given as a gift to the Kim family by Ki-woo’s friend Min.


Ki-taek holds the Scholar’s Rock which is brimming with symbolism

It is supposed to bring material wealth, and in a way it does, but it brings much more with it too.  As a poetic talisman, it takes its place alongside the swords, rings, chalices and cloaks that have made such a mark in stories throughout the ages.




Like many current films, Parasite is immersed in pretence. To get the tutor job, Ki-woo must pass himself off as a university graduate, and thanks to his sister’s wonderful forgery work, he succeeds at convincing Da-hye’s mom, Yeon-kyo, that he is a certified scholar.  One deception begets another, and soon Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jung, is posing as an arrogant art therapist to deal with the Park’s troubled young son.  In rapid succession, the Kim parents take on the roles of driver and housekeeper at the Park residence.  All of this proceeds almost too easily before an unexpected twist throws the Kims a challenge that stymies them.  There is other role playing going on too.  The young Park boy is continually donning an Indian headdress and shooting arrows all over the house.  In fact, at his birthday party, he insists that others take on subsidiary roles in this drama. 


At the birthday party, the layers of pretence collide violently

And the Park parents engage in some make believe too when Dong-ik fantasizes about his wife wearing the underpants found in his car.  It’s little wonder then that after pretense heaped on pretense, Ki-woo looks out at the yard full of wealthy, beautiful people and anxiously asks Da-hye if he fits in.  Pretending, the film seems to suggest, alienates one from the authentic self and no good can come of it.

The actual ending might be even darker than the savagery of the birthday party.  For at the end, Ki-woo wishes for nothing more than to be rich and have the ability to buy the Park house.  He wishes to rightfully own it, which would in turn free his father.  Sadly, he seems to have learned nothing about the plight of the wealthy.  He should be in a privileged position to understand that with wealth comes fragmentation and a variety of curses.  Yet, despite all that he has experienced, he thinks that being rich can bring him peace. And, in that, he would be as misled as most of the rest of us.  More’s the pity.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–Or, another in a series of reviews of films that have been out for a while (so, yes spoiler alert for those more behind than me)


I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood recently.  It’s an interesting film that can be experienced on a few levels.  On the surface, it’s pure Tarantino, and by that, I mean great musical soundtrack, attention to costuming, a blend of fact and fiction, looming violence and self-conscious parodying of television, film, advertising, and to a certain extent, the late 1960’s as a whole.  It’s easy to chuckle at the film’s sardonic coda which rolls along with the credits that has DiCaprio pitching Red Apple Cigarettes in a black and white testimonial.  The pitch of course is so out of touch with our contemporary health concerns and with our mistrust of celebrity endorsements, that it is hilarious even before the commercial ends and we see DiCaprio drop the cigarette in disgust and drop kick a life size cut out of himself for having a double chin.  Similarly, it’s easy to enjoy a scene midway through the film in which a self-pitying DiCaprio fearing he is as washed up as the paperback bronco buster he is reading about is comforted by a startlingly precocious child star.  And though some have pointed out the racial overtones of the scene in which Brad Pitt’s character takes on Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Lantern, it is hard to deny the visual interest of the sequence.

But I’m more interested in what the film implies about divisions in American society, whether Tarantino intended this or not. Quite clearly, the film illustrates the huge divide between rich and poor.  This is seen most evidently in the contrasting home and lifestyles of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio’s television star) and Cliff Booth (Dalton’s stuntman and best friend played by Brad Pitt).


Pitt’s Cliff Booth and DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton


Dalton lives in the Hollywood Hills in a gorgeous home with a swimming pool (natch); posters/paintings of himself and his roles abound both inside and outside the house.  Booth, by contrast, lives in a trailer home at the back of a drive-in movie theatre. In a scene detailing his grim existence, there is not much to choose from between the canned slop Booth serves his dog and the boxed Mac and Cheese Booth eats right out of the pot.  While there is no glamour in Booth’s world, he still has access to television, which seems to unite all social classes in the film:  movie directors watch it, the hippies in Charles Manson’s family watch it, and Dalton and Booth watch it too.  Also interesting about Booth’s habitat is that for the first third of the film, we would never guess that he lives this way.  He drives Dalton’s huge yellow Cadillac Coupe de Ville (a nod to Gatsby’s car perhaps?), spends time eating and heavily drinking with Dalton, dresses comfortably but respectably and has a sweet convertible himself, a VW Karmann Ghia. One of the themes of the movie is clearly appearance and reality, and Booth hides the reality of his dilapidated home life so well, we are shocked when we see where and how he lives, and later learn other dark facts about his past.  But that is his job after all.  He is a stunt man and gets paid a meagre fraction of what Dalton does to trick the audience into thinking Dalton is engaging in dangerous and death-defying stunts.  The layering of artifice makes sense here as Booth represents pretense for the pretenders. In an early aside, the audience is informed that contrary to Dalton’s statement that Booth is his driver, Booth drives his car because Dalton has lost his license after repeated drunken driving infractions.  Not only does Booth drop Dalton off at the movie studio and pick him up once the shooting day is done, but he also fixes things at Dalton’s luxurious home. Fittingly, we see Booth up on the roof, fixing Dalton’s television antenna, a nod to both how far technology has come since the sixties, but also to the central role of television to this film and to the enduring North American fact of rich guys hiring laborers to fix their toys so they can maintain access to escapism.  So, Booth does the dirty work and Dalton gets the benefit.  But Booth doesn’t seem to mind the exploitation at all; on the contrary, he seems to revel in it.  If you can’t own your own Hollywood Hills home, the message seems to go, at least you can hang out at one doing whatever the owner asks.  And the seduction of affiliation with the rich and famous seems to hoodwink the audience too.  As I watched, my sympathy and interest was clearly with Booth rather than Dalton.  What does it reveal about those watching that the hero of the film might be a hanger on whose ambition consists of getting drunk and avoiding jail?  The exploitative nature of the relationship between the two main characters is furthered near the end when Dalton informs Booth that now that he is married, he will not be able to afford Booth’s services.  It takes the film’s drastic and violent conclusion before Dalton seems to understand the value of Booth’s friendship.

But the division between the wealthy lead actor and the physical stunt man is not the only one that the film points out.  There is a massive separation between the actors and “the Hippies”, and, in fact, the depiction of the latter is quite disturbing.

fullsizeoutput_fcPerhaps Tarantino is simply viewing things from the perspective of the homeowners in the Hollywood Hills, but the Hippies in the film are seen as lazy, dangerous and criminal.  And, yes, those in the Manson family who were involved in the Tate LaBianca murders were just that.  And, yes, in Tarantino’s fictional world, Dalton lives next door to Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski.  But there seems to be something troubling to let the zombie group think of the Manson family be equated with all Hippies.  You would never know by this account that most Hippies were peaceful and rejected conventional values like materialism, competition and exploitation. In a very lengthy scene in the film, stunt man Booth picks up a pretty young girl who is looking for a long ride to the ranch where Manson’s family has ensconced themselves.  Booth seems curious as he used to film on the ranch and knows the owner.  He goes to extraordinary lengths to check on the owner and puts himself at great risk in the process.  The film admits of no middle ground between the brutal capitalism of Hollywood and the criminal manipulation of Manson.  Of course, it is no wonder we end up siding with Dalton, Booth, Tate and the world of rambling pool parties and blenders of frozen margaritas over the weapon wielding and stoned out Manson family.  Still, in the final scene when Dalton goes over to have a drink at his neighbours’ place, I felt a bit conflicted.  Is this Tarantino’s message then:  that the audience of Baby Boomers who used to fight for ‘peace, love and understanding’ have now withdrawn behind their gates where, whilst sipping Scotch, they commiserate with neighbours about the perils of the underclasses breaching their security?  Talk about implicating your audience.  With Tarantino, however, you wonder how much is intentionally intellectual and how much is just a random product of a dedication to lush visuals and sounds?

There’s another division too and it surfaces in the egotism of certain individuals.  For Dalton and Tate are so immersed in their careers that they seem to have lost a genuine understanding of others outside their circle of fame. In a particularly affecting scene, Tarantino has Tate drive to a movie theatre where her latest film has just opened.


Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate on the cusp of stardom

Tate admires her name on the marquee and her picture on the posters for the film, before asking for free entrance based on the fact that she is “in the movie”.  I suppose one effect of this scene is that it humanizes Tate and we see her portrayed as awestruck by her burgeoning success as an actor; it’s as if she has to see the film in the theatre to believe that it’s really her up there on the screen.  No one can accuse her of being jaded.  This parallels a later scene in which Dalton and Booth watch Dalton’s guest turn on the tv show FBI as if they were kids watching themselves on television for the first time.  In fact, Hollywood seems to inevitably promote insecurity as is evident in an intense seen where Dalton berates himself for forgetting his lines and screwing up a scene.  It is no coincidence that Dalton warns his eight year-old co-star that she will face this identity crisis herself soon enough.  Yet, this self-preoccupation and vanity has really forged a demarcation between Dalton and everyone else.  Nowhere can this be seen with more force than in the film’s climax when a violent confrontation envelops his house while Dalton floats obliviously, headphones on, in his backyard swimming pool.  It’s hard to take this scene totally seriously upon seeing Dalton’s reaction when he finally clues in to what is afoot, but the fact that his swimming pool is his retreat (perhaps another Gatsby allusion?) might hint that the endgame of retreating into a community of wealth is ultimately withdrawing into a community of one, where interests other than your own do not merit a moment’s attention.

There are other implied divisions too.  For example, I cannot seem to recall a single line in the film spoken by a Black character.  Perhaps I am forgetting the odd line or two, but surely one of the make-believe elements of this ‘Once Upon a Time’ tale is that Black people don’t exist. I don’t know if this speaks to the limits of Tarantino’s imagination or the complications that adding the dimension of race would produce for his film.  But it is rather unnerving to say the least.  Still another division exists between the glamour of feature films and the somewhat low brow world of television, with the Spaghetti Westerns of Italy finding themselves somewhere in the middle of the two.  There’s also an interesting division between young and old that is unveiled in the car of the Manson family members who have come to Hollywood with murderous intent.  When two of the older family members in the front seat are amazed that the guy who just chewed them out on the road was none other than Rick Dalton from Bounty Law, the two in the backseat who are too young to remember the show, treat their nostalgia with disdain.  In fact, one of them, Sadie, moves from annoyance to a chilling thesis which states it is acceptable to kill the actors who are associated with the media because it was TV that brought killing into living rooms all over the world. Again, Tarantino seems to unfairly associate this extreme and irrational argument with young hippies who reject American conventions.

And one final thought on division in the film.  It concerns the division between on screen violence and violence in the real world.

Dalton’s TV show, Bounty Law, sees his character get paid for killing wanted fugitives.  Killing is his job and audiences viewed this as entertainment.  Of course, what hangs over most of the film is the specter of the horrifying Manson family murders which gripped and terrified much of the world. Playing on the audience’s uneasy knowledge of the murders, which included the repeated and fatal stabbing of the eight and a half months pregnant Sharon Tate, Tarantino saturates the end of his film with a violence that is almost cartoonish in nature.  It is undoubtedly a relief.  Yet it shouldn’t obliterate the questions we must have about how we can be drawn so completely to the seduction of screen violence and be repulsed so thoroughly by the prospect of actual violence.  How can we account for this dichotomy?  How much Tarantino really wants us to wrestle with this issue and how much he is just using violence for cinematic suspense and engagement is an open question.

In the end, I suppose Tarantino’s genuine intentions are largely irrelevant.  The film is worth seeing because it raises many questions.  For me, those questions largely center on forces that divide us. And while some may suggest that the divisions belong to a period half a century ago, my fear is that they have compounded since then.  The reckoning waiting for us might just make Manson seem an insubstantial nuisance by comparison.  The film that looks back fifty years to our time might just be too dark to view.