Doug Casey on the Silver Screen

(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)

L: Doug, we've promised to talk about what you call the literature of today's world: movies. So, let's talk about the silver screen.

Doug: Good idea. Some may dismiss this as fluff, but I think it can be very important, as per our conversation on Avatar a couple weeks ago. In today's world, movies, not books anymore, are the most important media for transferring memes.

L: Okay, but there's so much to say – we could do a long interview just listing your favorite movies and saying why. But we should also talk about the medium as an art form and a social phenomenon itself. And the movie industry is a kaleidoscope mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Where do we start?

Doug: Well, let's start with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I think it – and almost all of Clint Eastwood's movies – are going to have staying power. That's partially because he's in them. He projects a certain strength of character and a certain attitude towards life that has justifiable appeal. He's also one of the few overt libertarians in Hollywood -- along with Kurt Russell, and Charles Bronson, who died a few years ago. In addition, Eastwood has almost always selected his roles very well. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a favorite of mine, and not just because of the great theme song…

L: A theme song we heard played live by an orchestra in Lithuania, conducted by the song's composer. One of my students invited us to the show, before the seminar on economics and entrepreneurship I organized there.

Doug: We caught that show in Vilnius in 2008.

L: Even jet-lagged, that was fun. But back to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Doug: It's not just that movie but Westerns as a genre that tend to be the most reliably engaging movies, in my view. As a group, I'd put them absolutely at the top for almost always having the most heroic themes and being philosophically sound. There's a reason for that. They deal – they must deal – with the basic stuff of life: Man and woman. Life and death. Earth and sun. Courage and cowardice. Survival against hostile opponents and hostile nature. The one against the many.

L: You know, I never thought of it that way. Of course it would tend to be so; Westerns deal with life on the frontier, and that's what it was like then.

Doug: Exactly. On the frontier, you're forced to be independent and solve problems yourself. There's nobody that's going to bail you out when you live in a solitary little house way out on the prairie. Of course, the cavalry can always save you in the final reel, but that's deus ex machina on the part of lazy scriptwriters. It would have been an exceedingly rare occurrence in real life, and it's not common in good Westerns. On the frontier, you have to solve your own problems and create your own future reality.

That's why I think Westerns are so great – and incidentally, I think that's why the chattering classes, as a group, tend to hold Westerns in low regard. Anything that smacks of individualism, independence, and industry will go against the grain of their values. I intuitively distrust the motives and values of people who dislike Westerns. Could Woody Allen produce a Western? I think not.

L: That makes sense. The "Westerns" aren't movies about Western Europe nor Western China, they're about the American West, a place and time that highlighted the virtues of "rugged individualism."

Doug: That's right. It's a uniquely American genre – and I mean American in the best sense of the word, dating to the time when America was America and not just the United States.

L: So, let's list some examples. What other Westerns are among your favorite movies?

Doug: Well, there's no question that my favorite Western, and perhaps my favorite movie of all time, is The Wild Bunch. I called my polo teams in Palm Beach and New Zealand by that name. Anyway, it's the movie that put Sam Peckinpah on the map. One reason that movie made such a splash – set a trend, really – was that it was the first movie that showed graphically detailed violence. It showed, for example, bullets hitting bodies and going out the other side. It had shock value – but that's not the reason I like the movie.

I like it because it is a pure Aristotelian drama. And by that I mean that it has a beginning and an end, joined by a plot line that has a crisis followed by a catharsis, in which the Good Guys wipe out the Bad Guys. Or, in the case of The Wild Bunch, in which the Kind-of Good Guys wipe out the Really Bad Guys. It's an excellent film from that perspective. And I think that William Holden and Ernest Borgnine were both truly excellent.

Another thing about it is the era it's set in, 1917, the end of the Long 19th Century (which really went from about 1776 to 1914). It was the end of the Belle Époque and the end of the Wild West. The protagonists, the Wild Bunch led by Holden, are aging outlaws looking to make just one more big score before they have to hang up their spurs. If they hadn't known that it was the end of an era and that they were dinosaurs, they wouldn't have taken on the Mexican army/bandits at the end.

I believe that we're at the end of another epoch now, for what that's worth. That's something to talk about another day…

But there are a lot of other Westerns that fall into the great category.  All the Clint Eastwood ones, certainly including Pale Rider and Unforgiven. Hombre, with Paul Newman, is fantastic – definitely one of the best ones. It, like The Wild Bunch, has great Mexican bandits.

Incidentally, the portrayal of Mexican bandits in movies is almost a subgenre in its own right. The Professionals had excellent Mexican bandits. It was an underrated but terrific movie starring Burt Lancaster, also set in 1917. I'd put Burt in the same class with Clint Eastwood; all of his movies are worth seeing, just because he's in them. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre also had excellent Mexican Bandits. Everybody knows the classic line from it, "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no stinking badges." A great attitude I'd like to see more of from the general public.

Another characteristic of Westerns is their attitude towards weapons. Everybody is expected to defend himself and, if he's smart, comport himself in a way that simultaneously won't make that necessary but will gain the respect of others. I've got to believe that's another reason statists tend to hate Westerns. A proper Western naturally makes the typical self-loathing liberal very uncomfortable.

But not all good Westerns are confined to the cinema.

L. You mean TV? I don't know of any currently being aired.

Doug: I don't believe there are any at the moment. A sad sign of the times, perhaps. But my favorites are Have Gun Will Travel (HGWT) and Deadwood.

HGWT was on TV from about 1957 to 1962. Interestingly, everybody has heard the phrase, but apparently very few who weren't around in those days have seen it. HGWT is the original thinking man's Western. Paladin, who's perfectly played by Richard Boone, is, if you will, a professional problem solver. More important, he is a true Renaissance Man. Each 30-minute episode opens with him at his hotel in San Francisco, living the high life, a sophisticated man of the world. He might be outplaying a chess master, or commenting on a rare wine, or returning from the opera with the prima donna. Or he might be reading the paper, looking for a situation ripe for him to set right. After the catharsis, when justice is done, Paladin usually offers a quote from one of the Greek or Roman classics, or at least Shakespeare, to enlighten anyone left standing. I have the whole series.

L: Sounds quite a bit different from Deadwood

Doug: Oh yes. Deadwood specializes in the gritty reality of the eponymous town in South Dakota, at the time of both Custer's misadventure at the Little Big Horn and the discovery of the Homestake mine. Along with Rome, which is equally good, it's one of the best series ever done… and I mean ever.

The story revolves around Al Swearengen, the proprietor of a saloon and cathouse. Aside from the well-drawn characters – and I believe they must have somehow channeled Wild Bill Hickok, who was famously killed in a poker game there – I love the use of language in it. Most people will be shocked by it, of course, since it's at least as colorful as any you could hope to hear in the roughest barracks. But that's not the point. Many of the episodes are written in Shakespearean blank verse and are highly poetic. The series is good enough to be worth watching more than once.

One more that was made for TV: Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry did it, and he's not only an excellent writer but a scholar of the Old West. It's very well acted by Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones as the main characters.

L: Okay, I'll look into getting the ones you mention I haven't already seen. What about beyond Westerns? I know you like SF movies, and I'd guess you like most or all of the ones with Arnold Schwarzenegger in them.

Doug: Yes. I think the first two Terminator movies are absolutely fantastic. As I pointed out at the time, I think both Terminator and especially Terminator 2 showed the direction in which nanotechnology is going, that will make actual terminators possible. I do enjoy watching Arnold on screen; it's a pity he turned out to be such a terrible Governator.

The Matrix was even better, and it appealed to my solipsistic tendencies, with all of reality being a shared illusion.

Blade Runner is another fantastic movie that deals with the essentials of life. Blade Runner is in many ways a Western, set in the future. I'd say it makes my Top Ten list, especially the Director's Cut version.

And that reminds me of another Western that can't be overlooked, and that's High Noon with Gary Cooper.

L: Ah, yes. Did you see the SF version, called Outland?

Doug: With Sean Connery. Yes, it was interesting but not as good as the original, in my opinion. The originals are almost always the best in every genre.

But, you know, there's a similarity between SF movies and Westerns. If Westerns deal with the raw essentials and a related worldview set in the past, SF movies often portray the exact same essentials and worldview and set it in the future. That's why both genres of movies are generally disrespected by the so-called intellectuals of our day. Those people come from a totally different place, psychologically and philosophically.

L: That's interesting – I never thought of that before either.

Doug: Those two genres of movies are my favorites. They both take you out of the present and catapult you into a Once and Future reality. As any Zen master will tell you, it's important to live in the present, however sordid and degraded it may be. But stories about a heroic past and a heroic future help frame the present. It's myth, as good as, and in many ways similar to, that of Homer. It helps you keep your eye on the way life should be lived.

L: Well, there's the Firefly series and the Serenity movie sequel – they make that crossover explicitly. They're basically "cowboys in space."

Doug: Ah, yes. I'm glad you mention that. It was you and another friend of mine who thought enough of it that you both gave me a set of Firefly discs. I would definitely recommend it to our readers – both the TV series, which only lasted one season, and the Serenity movie based on it. They're very worthwhile, entertaining, and philosophically sound. For what it's worth, our partner David Galland looks like, and acts like, the lead character.

L: I'm glad you enjoyed them – my whole family loves Firefly. But a warning to any of our readers who want to give it a try: the story starts with a pilot episode called "Serenity," which is different from the movie by the same name that was made after the series was canceled. It's important to watch these things in order, because there are major plot twists and events that happen to the characters as you go along. Watching the movie first would spoil a bunch of great surprises in the story and take all the mystery out of it.

By the way of philosophically sound -- meaning, pro-individual, pro-freedom, laissez-faire, etc. -- that draws me back to your mention of The Matrix. While not explicitly libertarian, its central theme is choice, which is an essentially libertarian concept. One way of describing a libertarian is to say it's someone who's pro-choice – on everything.

Doug: [Laughs] Yes. And when it comes to the choice, always take the red pill. That's my advice.

L: Right. But while the Matrix movies were not explicitly political, the same guys made V for Vendetta, which is very political. It's so in-your-face political, it amazing it ever made it through Hollywood.

Doug: Yes, the Wachowski brothers. V for Vendetta is another of my all-time favorites. It's a fantastic movie – anyone who hasn't seen it should go out and buy it. Right now.

V also, I have to say, uses one of my favorite rock songs of all time for its end theme music: The Rolling Stones' Street Fighting Man.

L: [Laughs] One SF movie that didn't have great production values – and totally butchered the books it was based on – but did have interesting socio-political content was Logan's Run.

Doug: Logan's Run was good. It makes the point that it's worth living past age 30. But could they remake it to show that it's worth living beyond 60?

L: I'm sure they could – and use the same actors. Any others?

Doug: A genre I have mixed feelings about is the war movie. Well done, they can be riveting. Whether they're pro-war (we're the good guys, and the enemy needs killing – the kind John Wayne liked to make), or anti-war (war is a terrible thing, no matter who the good guys are – and good guys engage in wholesale murder).

The problem with either type, philosophically, is that the individual is caught in a hellish situation where he has little control and has to follow orders. That said, Apocalypse Now Redux (which has many important scenes that were cut from the movie theater version) offers a surreal thrill ride. Stalingrad is horrific, almost putting you in the battle. Saving Private Ryan is equally good. Aliens is SF, but it's actually a well-done war movie as well.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a fantasy, of course, but something of a war movie as well. It's as perfect a translation of the books to screen as can be done. I read the books, and it's as if Peter Jackson, the director, reached into my mind and put my own visualization of the books on film. It's a work of genius. And it demonstrates that a movie can be just as good as the book it was made from, while making the experience accessible to vastly more people.

L: Others?

Doug: One movie that's outside of these genres but is just an excellent, well-done drama is Casablanca. It's a classic for the ages, for good reasons.

L: Hm. I saw that a long, long time ago. I don't remember it having any particularly strong ideological content. You like it just for being a good movie?

Doug: That's right. But it does have a sort of philosophical content, in that Rick is a cynical, nihilistic guy who makes a point of looking out only for number one. But he gradually redeems himself in the end, proving to have a heart of gold. There's something to be said for people finding themselves and going off in the right direction. Also, the dialogue in the movie is first class.

L: Are you a fan of Humphrey Bogart in general?

Doug: No question about that; Bogart is one of the greats. I like almost all of his movies.

I'm trying to think of who else is a great actor on that level, whose movies are reliably good.

L: How about Charlie Chaplin? You must have loved his film The Great Dictator

Doug: You sent me that, but I haven't made time to watch it.

L: You still haven't seen The Great Dictator???

Doug: No.

L: That's amazing. He was criticized for his unflattering portrayal of Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator, before the horrors of WWII made admiration of German efficiency dwindle. His speech at the end of the movie is an eloquent plea for human liberty and dignity in the face of brutality and oppression.

Doug: I'll go watch it when we're done here.

L: I won't twist your arm, but I think you'll really like it. The movie is totally amazing in many ways, not just intellectually. Chaplin was one of the few old movie actors who made the transition to being a "talkie" actor. Not only did he make the transition as an actor, but he uses his voice absolutely brilliantly, speaking pseudo-German via his Hitleresque character that's very, very funny. And special effects too, including an upside-down scene shot 70 years ago! He even wrote the music for the film. He was a true genius. And even his depression-era masterpiece, Modern Times (arguably his most famous movie), in which he works for a large, impersonal corporation and literally gets sucked into a giant machine, is not anti-business.

Hm. What about Mel Gibson? Braveheart is a great pro-freedom movie, and The Patriot wasn't too bad either.

Doug: Ah, yes… Well, Gibson appears to be a religious fanatic, but Braveheart is a fantastic movie and The Patriot is both excellent and well done.

L: I especially like the way the nobles in Braveheart are always turning their backs on the people – when they are not actively abusing them. Something to think about, for those who imagine that government attracts any more of the best and the brightest now than it did then. What about Gandhi? That was a great movie that dealt with the fundamental relationship between governments and peoples.

Doug: I haven't seen that one. But another actor comes to mind who had very few clinkers: Steve McQueen. His movies don't necessarily have a lot of ideological import, but I've enjoyed them. My favorite by him is probably The Sand Pebbles, in which he plays a China sailor during the Boxer Rebellion. Did you see that one?

L: No.

Doug: It's fantastic. A very good movie I recommend highly. Another Western starring McQueen is Nevada Smith. Great movie, very underrated.

Another one along those lines is The Aviator, which is about Howard Hughes, before he went off the deep end. The movie presents many important values positively and shows what a creative man Hughes was. That scene where he's testifying before Congress, being interrogated by the scumbag senator, is, alone, worth the price of admission.

L: What about ladies? Any favorite female actresses?

Doug: Well, there was Katherine Hepburn, who played with Bogart in The African Queen, a super movie.

L: That's right. She also played with John Wayne in at least one movie.

Doug: I think that was Rooster Cogburn. I like John Wayne's Westerns, of course. I might put my finger on Hondo as one of his best. The thing about Wayne, like Eastwood, Bronson, Bogart, and Lancaster is that they basically just played themselves. A lot of these guys got into movies by accident, with no acting training at all. My friend Porter Stansberry, of our friends at Stansberry Research, has probably never seen a Burt Lancaster movie – which is a shame, since he could probably play all his roles without missing a beat. Many actors today – I'm thinking Ed Norton, Johnny Depp, and Orlando Bloom, for instance -- have better technical skills as actors. But because of that, it's much harder to tell who they are as people.

L: So, who's your favorite femme fatale? La Femme Nikita?

Doug: La Femme Nikita impresses me as a very anti-government movie. And it's a hell of a good story. And the same director, Luc Besson, did The Professional with Jean Reno and Natalie Portman. It's about a very sympathetic and competent but somewhat naïve hit man. He's the good guy, and all the cops and government agents are the bad guys. The movie fires on all cylinders, as does Besson's The Messenger: Joan of Arc. Anyway, The Professional gave me the nub of my idea for a series of six novels I'd love to write but fear I'll never get around to. I need a competent novelist as a co-author -- but they don't grow on trees.

L: As a writer, I'd love to take a whack at that – but I'm pretty busy kicking rocks. Maybe you could talk to my boss about that… Who would you say was the most beautiful lady of the silver screen? Marilyn Monroe? Bo Derek?

Doug: Cameron Diaz may the best looking. But she appears, based on what I've heard her say in real life, to be a ditz. Angelina Jolie is much more interesting; her character Laura Croft could have been a Randian heroine. And I understand both she and Brad Pitt, whose stuff I also like, are fans of Rand. Charlize Theron is incredibly beautiful, incredibly talented, and, based on what I've read in an interview, very intelligent. But one of the most appealing roles I can remember is that of Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson's King Kong. That guy is probably the best director in the business, but Watts was perfect in that role.

L: Back to hardcore ideological movies, there were the film adaptations of Ayn Rand's We The Living and The Fountainhead.

Doug: I never saw either of those.

L: You never saw The Fountainhead?!

Doug: I've seen bits of it, but no, surprisingly enough, I haven't.

L: Well, it's not actually that great a movie. There was just too little time to get into the philosophy, which reduced it to a bunch of one-liners that lacked persuasive power. I suspect it was strangled by Ayn Rand refusing to give up any artistic control over the film. It might have been better to take a few key elements and write them into a more powerful screen play.

Doug: I wonder if Leonard Peikoff or any of the second-handers left over from the Randite movement will strangle Atlas Shrugged in the same way.

L: Well… They keep talking about producing that as a miniseries, which would give you more time to work in more of the ideas. But that's a project that's been said to be in the works for many, many years and has never gone anywhere.

This may surprise some people, but I found the original Star Wars movies uplifting and even philosophically useful. I liked that Han Solo was an unabashed capitalist and black-marketer. George Lukas' first movie was called THX 1138, which was the name of a man in a dystopian future, in which the totalitarian government kept everyone on drugs all the time to control them. THX-1138 becomes guilty of criminal drug evasion. But in spite of the interesting concepts, the movie was slow and rather boring. I always thought that some older hand must have taken Lukas under his wing and said, "George, that was great – really important stuff. But people won't get it. There were no explosions, no villain in black, no jet fighters. Try throwing in a princess that needs rescuing, next time. Maybe some funny robots…"

Doug: [Laughs] Well, as I said, most SF movies, like most Westerns, tend to be sound. It's really too bad they are such underrated genres by the critical powers that be, in most cases. It's really shameful.

L: But does that matter? The movies make money in the box office anyway, so good storytellers like the Wachowski brothers can get powerful ideas out to lots of people, as they did with V for Vendetta.

Doug: True enough. But I've noticed that once people rise to a certain level in the world, they tend to disavow those two classes of movies and the values that they tend to represent. 

L: Okay. Hm. Investment implications?

Doug: In a way, it's all just good fun. But I'll say again that movies are the literature of our times. Books are wonderful, of course, and until computer graphics came along, there were many things you could describe on paper that you just couldn't show in a movie (except in the case of some really good cartoon animation). But movies shouldn't be put down, as compared to books, as a form of literature.

That's because the amount of information you can take in, in a minute, from a movie is an order of magnitude – maybe two – above what you can take in from a minute of reading a book. That time is often wasted in bad movies, but in well-done films, vastly greater volumes of subtle meaning, sense, emotion, and just straight data about the world being shown can be transmitted. That's a power that can be used to create powerful, meaningful art. Literature.

L: That thought has crossed my mind, particularly in terms of power to persuade the masses. If Thomas Paine were alive today and were of a mind to write a new version of his pamphlet that so inflamed colonial America, Common Sense, he wouldn't write a pamphlet. He'd make a movie. That's what farmers did for entertainment back then; they read avidly anything they could find with news and views. Oration is another largely lost skill that used to make for a decent living back then; great orators would tour around speaking on almost any subject, and people would pay to hear them, just as they pay to go to the movies today. And that's why movies that are propaganda for destructive ideas, like Avatar, as we just discussed, are so dangerous.

Doug: Exactly. Movies engage almost all of the senses today – and eventually they will engage them all, including smell, touch, and taste. That will give them even more power to reach deep into people's emotions and thoughts.

L: This is Big Business. Would you invest in new movie technology? I don't know who did the 3D graphics for Avatar, but would you invest in that company? Would you risk venture capital in the first company to introduce smell and other sensory input to movies?

Doug: Well, believe it or not, I've actually invested in several movies. Small indie things. But that's been leading with my heart, not my head. It's a long shot to make any money investing in movies, especially with Hollywood accounting – it's legendary how those people will find some way to screw you, no matter how much money a movie makes in the box office. But still, if there were a great script and good, independent actors, I'd be up for investing in a movie, because you don't need to have a $400 million budget like Avatar's to have a good movie. Casablanca had a very low budget. I think there's room for something like that out there.

So, I wouldn't recommend investing in movie studios, but if you can get a good script and good actors who will work for nothing, as Harrison Ford did in Star Wars – he worked for $50,000, realizing that if he got lucky, it would make his name – taking it on as your own start-up would, if nothing else, be fun. It'd be extremely high-risk, but very high-reward.

L: Heh. I remember noticing the bit-part he played in Apocalypse Now – and how young he looked! Well, there's one movie I know we disagreed on, Once, an independent film I loved, but that you didn't "get." It was very low-budget – it was just an unknown guy and a girl walking around Dublin, playing music, and falling in love. Sort of. But it won so many awards, they must have made a fortune on the soundtrack and DVD sales.

Doug: Once? I must have kicked it out of my mental hard drive, since I don't have much room left. I don't remember it at all. But I remember Ford also had a bit part in American Graffiti. I liked that movie because I had a few nights that seemed like cuts from it. It's a must-watch – but there are so many of those.

L: [Laughs] You didn't like Once – it must have put you to sleep. But it was a smashing success, all driven by pure story. Just goes to show that you don't need to spend half a billion bucks on special effects to produce something powerful and make money.

But what about movie technology? If someone came up with an idea for "smell-a-vision," would you invest in it?

Doug: Probably not. The first guy to invent something rarely makes any money from it. But I'm very interested in successful companies in new fields. That's why I'm so pleased we have a genuine technologist on board, editing our new Casey's Extraordinary Technologies newsletter. I'd been wanting to do something like this for years, as you know from our conversation on technology, and I'm very excited that we finally have someone to do it. Alex Daley, our chief techno-nerd in residence, knows more about emerging technologies than almost anyone else I've ever met.

L: Well, I was a physics major and a technophile as well, so I'm no slouch, but I've spoken with Alex, and I have to say that he leaves me in the dust. I was fortunate enough to get to spend some time with him at our Denver conference last year, and we talked about a dozen things – and it quickly became obvious that he knows more about all of them than I do. Now, I'm a proud man but, I hope, not blindly arrogant. I know there are many, many people who know more than I do on almost every subject, especially their own fields of expertise. But I run into very, very few who know more than I do on every single subject we discuss. Talking with Alex is a bit humbling, but a lot of fun.

Doug: I've had that same feeling. But anyway, that's how I'd play the movie industry; either taking it head-on, getting involved in an indie project yourself – but for love more than for profit – or through new technologies. But at a minimum, our subscribers have a whole bunch of movies now that are worth watching.

L: Okay then. Thanks Doug.

Doug: My pleasure. Talk to you next week.

Doug and Louis are right: Alex Daley, senior editor of Casey's Extraordinary Technology, knows just about everything about anything in the tech sector. That's how he years ago managed to invest in Google right after its IPO and make a killing -- and that's how he does the same today for Casey subscribers. Click here for more.

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Feb 17, 2010