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As the World Burns

It’s hard to imagine a less promising film title than An Inconvenient Sequel. Maybe Another Imposition Upon Your Time? It’s clear, in the opening minutes, as we watch him shake off the slights and smears of his critics, that Al Gore is too savvily upbeat a technocrat to give the follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth the name he’d prefer, one Rush Limbaugh slapped on a bestseller the year after Gore became vice president: See, I Told You So. With its thorough and horrifying slideshow, and his clear passion for his subject, An Inconvenient Truth persuasively cast Gore as truth-teller and doomsayer, the person in the coal mine who points out that those crunching sounds when you walk are the bones of canaries.

Now, in 2017, the truths he told are self-evident, at least to everyone who doesn’t stand to profit from ignoring them. His new role is a return to one of his oldest, the New Democrat guise he and Bill Clinton ran under in 1992: He’s the pragmatic fixer bringing government and industry together to face — and profit from — problems neither is likely to face on its own.

Since it’s the planet that’s dying, Gore’s not tacky enough to run a victory lap. But when he springs on us, in the new film, a slide reminding us that fifteen of the sixteen hottest years on record have come this millennium, how can he not look a little smug? Today, it’s not his claims about rising temperatures that seem outrageous — it’s the insistence of politicians and petro-funded think tanks that the issue remains unsettled.

One of the new film’s few laughs comes when Gore, in boots, mucks through seawater on the streets of Miami Beach and then observes that Florida governor Rick Scott, a climate-change denier, won’t even meet with scientists. A subtler laugh comes earlier, during that montage where we hear audio of the Sean Hannitys of the world calling Gore’s crusade crazy — it’s through those sneering clips that we’re reminded that Gore’s work on this problem yielded the man an Oscar and a Nobel Prize.

Don’t expect the world to chuck medals at this follow-up, though. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the new film mostly tosses out the filmed lecture approach of An Inconvenient Truth. Instead, they’ve fashioned something on the model of Michael Moore’s justly forgotten The Big One, the scruffy doc that followed the scion of Flint, Michigan, on a big tour. This one’s the opposite of scruffy, but it’s still a somewhat aimless travelogue of meet-and-greets and brand-building, lacking the urgency of the 2006 film or of recent climate-change docs like Jeff Orlowski’s weep-along marvel Chasing Coral. We watch Gore swan about the globe, tut-tutting sadly at Greenland’s exploding glaciers, glad-handing the conservative mayor of a Texas town that has embraced renewable energy sources, meeting with reporters, flood victims, and participants in Gore’s own how-to-speak-about-climate-change workshops. Gore tours us through his childhood home; we watch his staff worry over his schedule. His one-on-one meeting with then–Secretary of State John Kerry is every bit as stiff as you might fear, the conversation only interesting for what it doesn’t touch on: What’s it like to be manhandled by George W. Bush?

The most illuminating new footage finds Gore working his phone at the 2015 Climate Change Conference, brokering an arrangement to get a recalcitrant India to sign the Paris Agreement. If he can get the World Bank to agree to a special loan rate, and get Elon Musk on board, an American company can install fields of solar panels on the subcontinent. But even that doesn’t illuminate much. The film suggests that the ideas for such deals leap right from Gore’s head, and that they benefit everyone involved, but the directors are tasked with celebrating their subject rather than reporting on him. The movie perks up when the filmmakers offer excerpts from Gore’s current traveling slideshow. He remains an effective, even compelling speaker, capable of thunder and pathos. Unfortunately, the cutaway shots to audience members quaking in rage, guffawing at his jokes, or dabbing away tears prove a distraction, suggesting that the directors don’t believe that Gore’s presentation is itself enough to move us.

The film creates a conflicting impression: Here’s a committed wonk and public servant seizing every opportunity he can to combat what appears to be the greatest danger facing our planet. But here’s also a man who would sign off on a movie that so often sets aside his message so that we might admire him and his work. Maybe it would be more effective to say I told you so, and then keep telling us.

 

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

Paramount Pictures

Opens July 28

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PLANET GORE

For as widely as he’s been lampooned, Al Gore has earned great respect throughout the world (as well as a Nobel Peace Prize) for his role as an environmental activist. His bestselling book, An Inconvenient Truth, made such a compelling, lasting argument that the threat of man-made climate change has entered even the most stubborn of consciences, allowing the proper platform for a conversation on the issue. But more gravely, it has opened the floodgates for other macro-level dangers to rush into view. Gore’s latest book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, presents six pressing concerns of a world that is at its most industrial, international, and greedy. The Future and surrounding topics will be the subject of conversation at the PowerHouse Arena, which recently recovered from flood damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Fri., March 8, 9 p.m., 2013

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ManBearPig Resurrected: Is Global Warming To Blame For Sandy’s Destruction?

As you know, weather happened in New York City this week, leaving dozens dead, millions without power, and pundits arguing about whether “Global Warming” is an actual thing.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg appears to be on the side of Al Gore and the Inconvenient Truth-ers — yesterday, the mayor endorsed President Barack Obama in this year’s presidential election, citing “climate change” contributing to Hurricane Sandy’s wrath as his primary reason.

Governor Andrew Cuomo fell short of blaming the hurricane on Global Warming during a press conference Wednesday, but he noted that New York needs to come up with a better way to prepare for “a 100-year flood every two years.”

Global Warming is a touchy subject — many look at it as a serious problem that could potentially lead to the destruction of the planet. Others see it as a left-wing conspiracy dreamed up by Gore — et al — to scare the shit out of people.

Earlier this week, Gore issued his “Statement on Hurricane Sandy,” in which he claims that “scientists tell us that by continually dumping 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every single day, we are altering the environment in which all storms develop.”

That said, a growing number of scientists disagree with Gore’s position on climate change — many cite the lack of “warming” over the last 10 years.

From a January op-ed in the Wall Street Journal signed by 16 notable scientists:

Perhaps the most inconvenient fact is the lack of global warming for well over 10 years now. This is known to the warming establishment, as one can see from the 2009 “Climategate” email of climate scientist Kevin Trenberth: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” But the warming is only missing if one believes computer models where so-called feedbacks involving water vapor and clouds greatly amplify the small effect of CO2.

Regardless of where you stand on Global Warming, Bloomberg made a good point during a press conference Wednesday: it doesn’t hurt to err on the side of caution.

That said, we want to know what you think: is Global Warming to blame for Hurricane Sandy?

Cast your vote below.

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LIVE FROM NEW YORK

From playing on Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy!” as a faux Sean Connery (“Knock, knock, Trebek”) to imitating former vice president Al Gore so well that it was rumored the Inconvenient Truth star began taking notes, Darrell Hammond donned the suit of almost everyone during his time on the show from 1995 to 2009, the longest run of any member. Impersonations aside, he frequently speaks on air at The Howard Stern Show, performs at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, and has popped up on episodes of Law & Order: SVU. Last November, he surprised fans with his personal memoir of booze and wrist-cutting behind the scenes at SNL, titled God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked. With a new decade of stars to brutally but hysterically impersonate, Hammond brings his latest material to a four-night stint at Carolines.

Thu., Feb. 9, 8 p.m., 2012

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PLUCK OF THE IRISH

The extreme heavy-metal subgenre black metal is largely preoccupied with destruction and closely associated with anti-religious lyrics, church burnings, and bad makeup. Altar of Plagues, the face-paint-free band headlining the collection of arty black-metal bands tonight, however, writes songs about preservation in a roundabout way. James O’Ceallaigh, the vocalist-guitarist for the Cork, Ireland–based group, has a degree in ecology and environmental science, and his lyrics often ponder the effects of ignoring Mother Earth—not that listeners can readily make out his words through his raw-throat rasp. The band’s direct support, like-minded Colorado black metallers Velnias, play the genre with folk influences and nature lyrics and even have a song dedicated to, uh, an oak tree. Al Gore could get behind this, too. With Castevet and Man’s Gin.

Sun., Aug. 1, 7 p.m., 2010

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The Harrowing Adventures of President Obama

Until a few counties in places like Florida and Ohio decide this thing on Election Day, we’re skipping ahead a few years. We’re impatient that way.

January 20, 2009:

Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. On an innovative “second stage,” U2 performs; presumptive Secretary of the Interior Al Gore arrives in a hot-air balloon to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on climate change. Obama’s Inaugural Address quotes Lincoln (“the better angels of our nature”), Kennedy (“The torch has been passed to a new generation”), and John Cougar Mellencamp (“You’ve gotta stand for something or you’re gonna fall for anything”). He promises a 50 percent reduction in nuclear weapons by 2012, an “effective end” to the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by 2010, and “no substitute for victory” over global warming; he also references hope, pride, humility, change, renewal, redemption, and peace. Half of the media coverage is cautiously skeptical (“Obama’s Tall Order,” The New York Times); half is openly contemptuous, assailing the president’s “airy generalities” and “wonkish specifics,” his misattribution of a Ginger Rogers quote to Mellencamp, U2’s lame performance, and the carbon footprint of Gore’s hot-air balloon

January 21, 2009:

President Obama is forced to hit the ground running after it is announced that multinational forces have invaded Iran from Iraq to take out suspected “nuclear facilities,” an attack secretly ordered by President Bush before his successor took the oath of office. John Woo, Douglas Feith, and other former government officials appear on television to explain the constitutionality of this action. General Petraeus is fired when he refuses Obama’s countermand and is replaced by a recommissioned Wesley Clark. Obama labors around the clock to minimize the damage and to replace other officers who have resigned in protest, including all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “TREASON!” headlines run in several U.S. papers. Obama is lynched in effigy. He sets up a meeting with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad within the month. Senator Tom Coburn announces that he will introduce a bill of impeachment..

January 24, 2009:

Obama’s children are said to complain that he has not yet delivered on the puppy he said he would buy them after the election. “ANOTHER BROKEN PROMISE,” reports the Boston Herald, running a picture of a cute puppy next to a grainy photo of three American soldiers who have been captured by the Iranians.

January 27, 2009:

American forces withdraw from Iran but wait near the border as Obama negotiates with Ahmadinejad. Maureen Dowd calls this “the cool line,” but Ahmadinejad is slow to deliver the soldiers, and “Nuke Iran” throwback T-shirts are distributed at NASCAR races and megachurches. In a dramatic speech on the Senate floor, Coburn renounces his impeachment bill, saying he would prefer to “smack some sense into our so-called president with my bare hands.” A raucous session ensues lasting into the night, until the sergeant-at-arms engages bouncers from a local nightclub to restore order. Outside the chamber, Jim Webb beats John McCain unconscious and spends the night in jail.

February 7, 2009:

The three captive U.S. soldiers are finally released. They arrive at Andrews Air Force Base and hold a press conference at which they denounce President Obama for “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

March 2, 2009:

Obama announces that he’s sending John Kerry and Richard Clarke to negotiate a reduction in nuclear arms with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev under the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Medvedev, enthusiastic at first, sends mixed signals after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, at a widely covered private party, is given a cake in the shape of Ukraine, which he enthusiastically cuts and distributes to his distinguished guests, all of them Russian gas-company officials. Through back channels, the Russians suggest that disbanding NATO might help smooth negotiations; Obama indignantly refuses. Kerry and Clarke spend the Russian meetings drinking vodka and talking over old times and leave empty-handed. “NOTHING BUT NYET! ‘Bama Lays an ‘O,’ ” reports the New York Post.

April 30, 2009:

Despite Democratic domination of the House and Senate, Obama tells Secretary of the Interior Gore, whose weight has ballooned to 370 pounds, that “we don’t have the votes” to pass his Mandatory Windmill Act. Gore gives a controversial speech at Columbia University attacking “entrenched interests at the highest levels of our government,” goes into seclusion for eight days and emerges with a beard. He vows not to shave again until greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced by 50 percent.

May 13, 2009:

Gore is felled by a fatal heart attack during a two-day teach-in in Missoula. The Wall Street Journal‘s lead editorial bids farewell to “Carbohydrate Al.” Obama replaces him with oilman T. Boone Pickens, who accepts the job only when the administration raises the interior secretary’s salary to $7 million a year and throws in a private jet.

[

July 23, 2009: A House subcommittee considers a bill of censure against Obama for failing to withdraw any troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. At a press conference, a visibly annoyed Obama says that “these things take time,” especially since several of the command leaders in those areas have been replaced by Blackwater mercenaries who are “just getting the hang of things.” The next day, Obama is further embarrassed when one of these new appointees, former drilling-rig assembler Jerry Gingold, publicly urinates on a Koran while drunk, precipitating the Second Battle of Haditha.

June 29, 2009:

At the behest of the Obama administration, Congressional Democrats hold hearings on renegotiating NAFTA. When they focus on the traffic and safety issues raised by the expanded use of rickety but colorfully painted Mexican trucks on the nation’s highways, Republicans respond by asserting that Obama “thinks Mexicans can’t drive.” Mexican-American NASCAR drivers appear before the committee to dispute this slander. George Lopez publicly switches to the Republican Party.

August 2, 2009:

To protest the “arrogant conceit” of the Obama administration, the Republican members of his cabinet resign en masse. “I never wanted the job anyway,” comments Postmaster General Joe Lieberman.

December 14, 2009:

In a New Yorker exposé, Seymour Hersh reveals that President Obama has engaged international mercenaries to monitor and destabilize foreign governments. Pundits debate whether the story’s headline, “Black Ops,” is racist. A man claiming to be one of these so-called “Obama’s Boys” starts a blog recounting his alleged secret activities in Caracas, Ashkhabad, Harare, and other world capitals. When he and the blog disappear, rumors spread that the administration has had him assassinated.

January 27, 2010:

At his State of the Union address, Obama is loudly heckled by the few remaining Republican senators, who greet specific words in his speech (“military,” “health care,” “hope,” etc.) with different pre-arranged group responses, including hisses, kissing noises, donkey-like braying, and muffled “bullshits” and “fuck you’s.” Al Franken goes to the bathroom and never comes back; Senator Hillary Clinton is seen at intervals talking on her cell phone and eating trail mix. In the Republican response, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal appears with a Bible, from which he quotes extensively as soft organ music plays.

March 8, 2010:

After another failed coup, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez announces, “Fuck it—no more oil for the gringos!” and terminates shipments to the U.S. Obama dispatches Joseph Kennedy III to talk to Chávez, who demands a public apology and a talk show on CNN. An enraged mob tears down the Citgo sign outside Fenway Park. After weeks of negotiation—between Kennedy and Chávez, and between Obama and various U.S. and British oilmen—there is another coup attempt, this time successful. Obama sends a multinational force to Caracas “to keep the peace.” Conservative writers ask: “Whatever happened to national sovereignty?” Obama’s poll numbers, previously in the single digits, rise significantly.

May 7, 2010:

Ancient rumors that Obama wasn’t born on U.S. soil are revived when bloggers circulate grainy images of a young Luo tribesman who bears a striking resemblance to the president. Some assert that the real Barack Obama was switched with this boy by his father as some kind of multicultural experiment. Prominent right-wing citizen-journalists, funded by PayPal donations, hire Geraldo Rivera to scour Kenya for evidence.

July 7, 2010:

Drudge posts video of John McCain, not seen since his beating, giving a speech at a Phoenix Chamber of Commerce luncheon. McCain slurs his words, sings a little of the Novas’ 1964 hit “The Crusher,” and lurches between passages from his 2008 campaign speeches and dirty limericks. Bloggers suggest senile dementia. “Senile or not, he’s a better man than President Hussein Obama,” says California senator Bo Derek. Seventy percent of Gallup Poll respondents agree.

November 2, 2010:

Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress by wide margins. Led by California congressman-elect Michael Savage, they promise to impeach the president as soon as they’re sworn in. At an election-night press conference, a shaken Obama promises to “listen to the voice of the people.” Most TV stations cut him off to cover the victory celebration of one of the few Democratic survivors, Senator Clinton, who tells a cheering crowd that “our long national nightmare will soon be over.”

November 19, 2010:

President Obama holds private talks with House Speaker Savage. Two days later, the Republicans introduce a flurry of bills, including the Welfare Prohibition Act, the Freedom From Eco-TerrorismAct, and a Proclamation of a National Day of Mourning for Terry Schiavo. Obama signs them all. Rush Limbaugh is on hand to receive a ceremonial pen.

November 21, 2010:

At the traditional presentation of the Thanksgiving turkey, Obama says he will not issue the customary presidential pardon, and will instead have the bird slaughtered and served at a White House dinner with Speaker Savage and various prominent clergy.

[

May 1, 2011: Large demonstrations are held in several American cities to protest the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Monaco, Peru, and Zimbabwe. Republicans deplore the financial drain of the occupations. Hillary Clinton addresses an anti-war gathering in Central Park to thunderous applause: “All we are saying,” she tells the crowd, “is give peace a chance.” Later, she is photographed playing hacky sack with students on the Columbia quad.

July 18, 2011:

President Obama begins a four-week “working vacation” in Honolulu, where he does a lot of hiking with his family, oversees the groundwork for his presidential library, and grows a mustache. He keeps a hand in the country’s affairs via BlackBerry and is visited by former president George W. Bush, with whom he is photographed laughing, smoking, and drinking out of hollowed-out pineapples.

December 7, 2011:

Upon his return from Hawaii, President Obama announces that he won’t run for re-election in 2012, and begins quietly pulling troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and Peru. Americans preoccupied by runaway inflation and falling wages barely react to the news, and only military contractors complain.

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The Charge of the Light Brigade

In the observation room of the spacecraft Icarus II, passengers sit on a bench in front of a large, rectangular screen displaying a view of what lies ahead. They gaze at the spectacle as you might marvel at special effects on some ostentatious plasma monitor. A seething orb of gas and flame burns in the void. Icarus II is en route to the sun.

It is the year 2057. Approximately five billion years ahead of schedule, the sun is beginning to die. In a desperate attempt to keep the lights on, global resources have been directed toward a solution, presumably with input from Al Gore and the writers of Armageddon. A team of experts will deposit a bomb the size of Manhattan inside the fading light, thus—theoretically—giving birth to a vigorous new star. Given its ominous name (was Fat Chance already taken?), it comes as no surprise that the first Icarus expedition failed and then vanished. Enter Icarus II, a fresh crew, and the convolutions of Sunshine, a heady science fiction written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle.

We begin in the observation room as Searle (Cliff Curtis), the medical officer, converses with the onboard AI in that deep, slumberous monotone common to ponderous outer space sagas. He requests to view the sun at maximum brilliance, is obliged, and staggers out in a state of quasi-religious rapture. Within the sequence, Boyle rhymes the bright circumference with Searle’s dazzled corneas. This correspondence of shapes is sustained throughout the film as if in homage to the poet Ronald Johnson, who liked to imagine the eye as an organ evolved by the sun to contemplate itself.

Oh, yes—there will be poetry. As it rockets toward the fate of mankind, Sunshine alerts all passengers that they have boarded a first-class head trip. Big Questions are posed. (What is man’s role in the universe? What happens when you stare into the abyss? Is Chris Evans hotter with long hair or short?) Ethical Quandaries are dramatized. (How do you reframe the basic tenets of civilization when faced with its imminent extinction?) There will be ghosts in the machine, signs and miracles, manifestations of the intergalactic sublime. And there will also be a rampage by what appears to be Freddy Krueger in the throes of one seriously gnarly God complex.

Ideas scintillate over the surface of Sunshine without ever quite igniting, but at least the movie sparkles. What it doesn’t do is cohere. Action flick, sci-fi thriller, metaphysical adventure, incoherent allegory, ethical hypothesis, and horror film all at once, this mad multitasker has the agenda of a dozen movies. Problem is, we know which ones.

Sunshine is a nearly perfect pastiche, every computer glitch, hazardous space walk, navigational gambit, and act of mad heroism traceable to the sci-fi canon. These genre tropes are slyly acknowledged when the crew locates, and boards, the mysteriously vacant
Icarus. “Afraid we might get picked off by aliens one by one?” they tease each other, and us. That’s good for a laugh, but how are we supposed to take things seriously when this is more or less exactly what happens later in the picture?

Funny thing is, Sunshine works despite feeling both over-familiar and over-ambitious. It crescendos with a legitimate sense of wonder (if not profundity) thanks in large part to the luminous and uncanny score by electro legends Underworld. Cillian Murphy heads an ensemble graced with vivid physical presence (Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh), an asset given the dialogue’s tendency for sci-fi boilerplate. It is what it is as a movie of ideas, but makes an evocative contribution to the Malfunction Adventure drama.

Stupid things happen in Sunshine—e.g., a finale plagued with redundancy and cheap thrills—yet the movie never feels stupid. Its achievement falls somewhere between a pair of underated oddballs maudits: Steven Soderbergh’s suavely introspective Solaris remake and the earth-drilling disaster flick The Core, a movie rich in pulp abstraction. Boyle plays it safer than both. Neither philosopher nor hack, serious or ridiculous, he’s an able craftsman with a canny sense of timing. Just as Trainspotting spoke to ’90s disaffection and 28 Days Later to post-9/11 anxiety, Sunshine suits a climate where the possibility of ecological apocalypse 50 years hence is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

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Awash in Complexity

Would it interest you to know that Google posts 638,000 entries relating to “clusterfuck?” The title and content of Levi Gonzalez’s eponymous new work could be pinned to quite a few of them, which fact is, in itself, a sort of clusterfuck. Leaving out the word’s reference to a sexual daisy chain, it encompasses all kinds of mess, complexity, confusion, anarchy, and possibly deadly screwups (think Iraq).

When Clusterfuck begins, performers and spectators alike are bathed in lights bright enough for an interrogation room. Standing pressed against the back wall, heads bowed, Gonzalez, Hristoula Harakas, Isabel Lewis, and Kayvon Pourazar very slowly build minimal shifts from foot to foot into a step-touch, step-touch pattern that accelerates and starts moving them along the wall. A sleepwalking chorus line. I thought I heard one of them snore.

A blast of sound by James Lo and a switch to more typically theatrical lighting by Joe Levasseur interrupts their neat but lackadaisical drills. The four freeze and confront us, staring, striking uncomfortable poses (Lewis pulls half of her hair and her head way over to one side). They’re too glum to be revolutionaries.

The program offers a quote from Dave Hickey that begins, “Rock and roll. . .presumes we might possibly get it together, play this simple song, and play it right. Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can’t. The song’s too simple, and we’re too complicated and too excited.” In other words, folks do their best, but shit happens, and art has a way of getting out of an artist’s control.

Before long, the performers are enmeshed in clutter of their own making. Actually of the choreographer’s making. Gonzalez tosses pillows, blankets, cartons, rubber bath toys, a ball, stuffed animals, toilet paper, plastic bags, crepe paper streamers, and what all onto the stage. No one wants to play in this sandbox. Instead, stopping occasionally to stare into space, the dancers feed into and out of fairly clear, loose-bodied movement patterns, trying to ignore the objects they stumble over or have to kick away; more than once someone walks along with a foot tangled in paper. They’re not particularly friendly to one another either. While Harakas stands, hunched over, arms stretched to each side as if she’s been hung out to dry, Pourazar picks her pocket.

The confusion and unfulfilled projects escalate, as in a digitally deranged world. The piece itself has ADD, and it could be catching. Short snatches of well- known melodies erupt and die in Lo’s clamorous score. So long, Fleetwood Mac, hello Rite of Spring; “Tonight” meet “White Christmas.” People go offstage and return with more junk; now it includes pillows with the stuffing coming out. They retreat to their basic chaining steps, but what good does it do for them to pull the backs of their sweaters up and over their heads when their pants are coming down? Harakas rouses herself from where she’s been lying like a discarded doll to whip the floor with a plastic sheet. Gonzalez lashes himself into a lurching, flailing, repetitive ordeal, which fatigue eventually undermines. The others start pelting him with stuff. The choreographer beset by his own creation!

One of the work’s texts surely has to do with manic consumption and waste. Gonzalez, however, is no sober-sided Al Gore. The four likeable performers abandon their lethargy and dark looks and use a long rubber strip as a slingshot. We’re now part of the mess in the playground and part of the problem. Duck everyone! Here comes a bunny!

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The War on War

So there isn’t a song on Living With the Living about the Nets absconding to Brooklyn or that miasmic odor-cloud that drifted over from Jersey into Manhattan back around January, nor a song about Al Gore’s Oscar-night neck-weight or any of the other random things that’ve reminded me of Ted Leo since he’s been gone (“Since U Been Gone” too, since he covered it). Ted’s political punk reps Jersey to those of us who know nothing about the place, and he’s cornered the protest-song market too—but there ain’t much competition there.

Living With the Living is a better title than Living With War, and the rhymes are better too: “abnegation” to cap “accusation”, “absolution” to finish “confusion.” One song goes, “Yes, eternal peace awaits, but for now you get eternal war/And not even the government knows what the fuck it’s for anymore.” It’s more blunt than 2004’s already pointed Shake the Sheets, and more streamlined as well—spelling out in lieu of selling out. If his partisan angst to the blaring “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb” pales craft-wise beside the cheery Thin Lizzy upticks on “Who Do You Love,” it’s because Leo can’t help reminding us that pop escapism can be political. He plays to his weaknesses so that we might better spot our own.

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Spoiler Alert

It is November 7, election day in America, the year of our Lord 2000, and en route to the ballot (screen, chad dimpler, whatever) every hand miraculously freezes in mid-selection. All at once, there is a lightning-fast stroboscopic blip of the future: two planes, human rain, a shower of debris and dust; tortured prisoners heaped in a pile; flag-draped coffins. Muzzle flashes blink in the Superdome. A grinning man in a flight suit poses before a banner reading, “Mission Accomplished.” A flash, a fade, the world unfreezes, and all eyes return to the ballot. Having seen what they’ve seen, does anyone vote for Ralph Nader?

Infuriating, combative, infernally self-righteous—and often right—the vexing vote-splitter is the subject of An Unreasonable Man, Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan’s sprawling documentary. A cornucopia of talking-head rancor, indefatigable idealism, and livid history, the film argues that the crusading activist, organizer, and working man’s champion deserves a bigger place in history than as just the Grinch Who Spoiled the Election.

Like its subject, the movie leads with its chin, starting with Nader’s announcement of his 2004 presidential run—a move that sent liberals still smarting from 2000 (including many former supporters) scurrying for torches and pitchforks. “Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq War . . . thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the Constitution,” catcalls The Nation‘s insufferable smarm-bucket Eric Alterman, as if the mag hadn’t hailed Nader’s hoisting of the Green flag early on when it was politically convenient.

Hard to believe, but the Benedict Arnold of the weather-vane bleeding-heart set was once a hero—a little guy who brought Big Auto to heel, helped prevent more than 190,000 automotive deaths in 30 years, and was directly responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, the Freedom of Information Act, and other vital public safeguards. The question An Unreasonable Man addresses is why—as in, why didn’t Nader the public servant just hand over his votes to Al Gore or John Kerry, and concede that a lesser evil is still better than a greater one?

The answer the movie presents is complicated: because Nader grew up amid the town-hall government of his Connecticut hometown, and came away certain that open debate and citizen engagement are the purest forms of democracy. Because Nader is convinced, rightly or wrongly, that all his missions carry a public mandate. Because Nader is one competitive, argumentative cuss. And not least of all because he couldn’t stomach the candidates. “I’m a 20-year veteran of the folly of the ‘least worst,’ ” Nader tells the filmmakers.

An Unreasonable Man shifts from Nader’s present infamy to his first public triumph: his early-1960s crusade against accident-prone design flaws in Detroit’s sleek, sexy machines. When GM played hardball, hiring hookers and detectives to discredit Nader, the resulting congressional inquest and six-figure invasion-of- privacy settlement made his career—Nader became the Capra-esque embodiment of the guy who fights City Hall and wins. The revelation of Mantel and Skrovan’s documentary is how long he maintained that reputation, and how deeply he instilled his ideals in others.

Though plainly sympathetic, An Unreasonable Man doesn’t so much endorse as explain Nader’s decision to not step aside after it was clear he had campaigned too effectively for the Democrats’ comfort. (The Dems were the “meanest bunch of motherfuckers I’ve ever run across,” observes the invaluable investigative reporter James Ridgeway.) The filmmakers give ample voice to usual-suspect critics such as Alterman and Todd Gitlin, who brand Nader a deluded megalomaniac. More affecting are the former Nader Raiders who respectfully regret their boss’s refusal to back down, and find his subsequent brush-off a brutally unsentimental rejection of their shared past. Sadder still are the clips of Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore actively campaigning against him—as if the ideals they once shared were no longer even an option.

The question remains: Knowing what they know now, do Nader supporters regret their vote? For most, almost certainly—and Gore today seems a much more progressive figure than the lump of centrist taffy who stumped in 2000. But An Unreasonable Man reminds us why a vote for Nader mattered: It represented the unshakable belief in a better future, and in an individual’s power to effect positive change. The film’s title refers to George Bernard Shaw’s dictum that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man” who insists on bending the world to his will. If the film shows that few men are as unreasonable as Ralph Nader, it also shows that few have so succeeded in shaping their world: His legacy of progressive legislation will affect generations to come.