Films of 2016, Ranked

All told, I’ve seen 31 of the movies given a non-festival release in 2016, 21 of them in the theatre. It was a wretched year for blockbusters, but full of wonderful indie films. A24 in particular dominated the field, with The Witch, Moonlight, Green Room, and The Lobster all flying under their banner. It is a reflection of the general mood of 2016 that the best of these releases tend to be far more dour than those of 2015; my top ten in particular aren’t exactly a bastion of cheerfulness. Capsule reviews for each film are below.

The Great

201601

THE WITCH – An overwhelming air of perversion pervades a movie that’s simultaneously one of the most unnerving horror films ever made, an incredibly well-researched period piece, and a scathing indictment of the truly evil Puritan God as well as his occult counterparts. I woke up screaming the night after I first saw it, and its unholy power hasn’t faded much with time. It feels deeply, viscerally *wrong* in the act of watching, an experience I’ve never quite had with any other representative of its genre. (★★★★½)

JACKIE – String ostinatos yawn steadily downward in the sonic equivalent of Dali’s clocks, ushering in a bottomless nightmare. The feverish vertigo of loss, the panic-stricken numbness of grief and displacement, swirl around and around with no sign of dissipation. Portman’s performance and Mica Levi’s hellish score are the twin pillars that hold this moldering dream upright, and neither a framing device too many nor a bum line here and there can even think of weakening that support. The ending shows superficial signs of resolution, but the audience knows the deeper truth. There’s no escape from this, and there never will be. (★★★★½)

MOONLIGHT – An indigo-tinged odyssey of pain, identity, and the possibility of healing set to hypnotic strings, Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film is a titanic achievement for both black and LGBT cinema and a highlight of A24’s already towering filmography. Every single performer in it deserves a nomination, and Jenkins is the natural frontrunner for Best Director—this had better be the year that #OscarsSoWhite is broken. (★★★★½)

13TH – Absolutely required viewing. A more accessible version of Michelle Alexander’s monumental book THE NEW JIM CROW, this documentary calmly and devastatingly deconstructs the war on drugs and exposes the United States penal system for what it really is: a new form of slavery and disenfranchisement for the black population. (★★★★★)

LEMONADE – If the universe were just, this thing would be in the running for about half a dozen different Oscars. The best album of the year by a country mile is equaled by a film that’s at once a hell of a lot of fun and a stunning meditation on grief in the black community. Never knew I’d be counting an extended Beyonce music video as one of the greatest movies of the decade, but here we are. (★★★★½)

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – I spent the first twenty minutes of my viewing wondering what the fuss was about and the next two hours absolutely riveted. A raw, aching portrait of the spiral of grief that’s made all the more wrenching by the contrast its frequent moments of humor provide. Casey Affleck is a rightful lock for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars—his performance is at once subdued and titanic in its effect. (★★★★½)

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS – A fount of constant visual imagination and emotional power. My issues with its mostly whitewashed voice cast aside, there’s no arguing with either the spectacle and beauty of Laika’s stop-motion or the poignancy that pervades the movie’s thematic and human core. (★★★★½)

GREEN ROOM – Almost like a snuff film in its incredibly disquieting sense of realism—nothing in this film is predictable, and yet things play out exactly the way we know they would in real life. Probably *the* exploitation thriller for our times, what with its exploration of the banality of evil and the seething mass of ugliness that lies beneath neo-fascism’s veneer of respectability. (★★★★½)

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – What begins as a Twilight Zone-esque look at the irony of a doomsday prepper who could in fact be right in his paranoia ultimately transforms into a remarkable parable of escaping abuse and empowering oneself to fight monsters. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Ripley and MacGyver in one. Give John Goodman a statue. (★★★★½)

The Very Good

201602

THE LOBSTER – A near-perfect and shockingly cruel first half gives way to an overlong and thematically muddled second half that’s redeemed by Lea Seydoux’s imperious presence—as a satire on relationships in the internet age it’s sharp, mean-spirited, and hysterical, but when it turns to skewering loners as if to grant both sides equal time, its target becomes ill-defined and its goals unclear. Nonetheless, its twisted humor, nerve-rattling score, and anxious performances gel to form the closest we’re likely to come to Wes Anderson on a Schopenhauer kick. (★★★★)

FENCES – It’s essentially a film-of-the-play rather than a piece of cinema in its own right, and it stretches things out a good twenty minutes longer than it should. But hoo boy, the performances. Washington and Davis deliver absolutely titanic renditions of their Tony-award winning characters, spouting August Wilson’s dialogue in a rapid-fire vernacular poetry that’s dense and exhilarating. The longer the film runs, the more both characters simultaneously stretch to larger-than-life proportions and collapse in on themselves. (★★★★)

LA LA LAND – Damien Chazelle, you crazy bastard, you somehow got a studio to hand you $30 million to make this. (It’s not the life-changing musical of our time everyone says it is—Chazelle is misguided in his villainization of new art forms over the old, and there are startlingly few songs, of which only “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is truly memorable. But good God is it pretty. Especially the ending, which is just *unreal*.) (★★★★)

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY – In an inversion of THE LOBSTER, two relatively lackluster if moderately enjoyable acts give way to one of the greatest sequences of sustained action in recent memory, replete with some of the most beautiful digital imagery ever to hit the big screen. Riz Ahmed is the best of us. CG Tarkin is and will always be an aesthetic and ethical abomination of the highest order. (★★★★)

ARRIVAL – Ted Chiang is one of the masters of his field, but I was worried that a big-screen adaptation of a short story that features linguistics as a key element would be impossible to render cinematic. I needn’t have worried. Amy Adams continues to turn in excellent, understated work, while the cinematography, sound design, and score are at once chilly and intimate. Would that this were the baseline for popcorn SF movies. (★★★★½)

THE REVENANT – There is no way in hell Alejandro Inarritu should have gotten a second Best Director Oscar for this over George Miller and MAD MAX. No way. I am still bitter. (It’s quite good, though, up until the non sequitur of an ending, even if its director is disturbingly fixated on brutalizing his characters at the expense of all else. Certainly the handsomest movie on this list, thanks to Lubezki salvaging Inarritu’s movie from his more ignoble impulses.) (★★★★)

VOYAGE OF TIME: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE – Maybe Terrence has decided to stop embarrassing his fans and make good movies again. This cut, at forty minutes compared to the 90-minute 35mm cut that will eventually be released, inevitably feels truncated, but is a welcome return to the well of nature-as-divinity that produced such breathtaking results in THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE. (★★★★)

The Good

201603

DON’T BREATHE – The screenplay is clumsy, there’s no greater thematic depth to be had, and there are couple of (fortunately brief) moments where the film crosses the line from enjoyably creepy to repugnantly exploitative. But the cumulative effect of these things can’t outweigh the sheer *fun* to be had as Fede Alvarez gleefully explores the premise of a home invasion whose perpetrators quickly realize they’re in over their heads. (★★★★)

HAIL, CAESAR! – Second-tier Coen Brothers, to be sure, but as a love letter to Old Hollywood it’s a delight, Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography and Carter Burwell’s gloriously pompous score anchoring a whirlwind of famous faces doing their best to out-ham each other (first place goes to Ralph Fiennes as a put-upon director of manners who’s forced to work with a cowboy song-and-dance man). (★★★½)

THE INVITATION – If one holds to the Hitchcockian tenet that suspense is not the bang but the anticipation of the bang, this film is somewhat of a masterclass. (★★★½)

LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT – This one wants to be profound but winds up merely intriguing. No more white Jesuses, please, but Ewan MacGregor does a great job in his dual role as the Savior and his tempter. Stop comparing this to Malick just because Lubezki’s the DP. (★★★½)

THE NEON DEMON – Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but what entrancing sound and fury. Worth picking up on Blu-Ray just for the pretty colors, ice-cold synth score, and pederast Keanu Reeves. (★★★)

ZOOTOPIA – Predictable and somewhat stale, but this gets *huge* points for a surprisingly (for a billion-dollar kids’ flick, anyway) well-executed exploration of culturally-ingrained racism and white privilege, even if the metaphor of predators and prey falls apart once looked at too closely. (★★★½)

PATTON OSWALT: TALKING FOR CLAPPING – The hilarity is dampened somewhat by the viewer’s knowledge that Michelle McNamara died on the day of its release, but Oswalt’s melange of pop culture riffs and relationship stories remains a welcome break from the outside world for an hour. (★★★★)

STAR TREK BEYOND – Diverting fun, with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses that brings—a welcome return to form after the cynical nadir that was INTO DARKNESS, even if it doesn’t hit the heights of Abrams’ original reboot. Definite plusses include McCoy’s finally being reinstated to the main-character status he held in the Original Series and the introduction of Jayleh to the crew. RIP, Anton. (★★★)

The Mixed

201604

AUDRIE & DAISY – This doc’s narrow focus is to its detriment—its subject, the sexual assault of the titular girls, is horrifying, but it doesn’t build enough of a case for such events’ everyday occurrence for the sheer scale of the problem to truly hit home. (★★★)

KNIGHT OF CUPS – Malick’s latest narrative movies are everything that people wrongly complain THE TREE OF LIFE is—absent of characters and emotion, full of buzzword-laden narration that tries to generate meaning out of endless banalities, concerned almost entirely with author rather than audience. I would say at least watch it for Imogen Poots, but we have GREEN ROOM for that. (★★½)

SECRETS OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – As a peek into the pre-production of the biggest cinematic event of our generation, it’s interesting enough. As a documentary on how the film was actually made, it’s an abject failure. (★★★)

The Godawful

201605

DEADPOOL – About 30% of the jokes are funny, but these land amidst a morass of middle-school level humor that’s even more teeth-gritting due to how “edgy” it thinks it is. What’s most annoying is the way it follows the Marvel formula to the letter while trying to distract the viewer from this by mocking itself; rather than actually trying to be genuinely subversive or innovative, it relies on misdirection to convince you that it is those things. (★★)

BLAIR WITCH – One of those sequels that not only spectacularly ignores all that was effective about its predecessor but actually manages to damage the original with its incredibly stupid storytelling choices. Useful as a means of illustrating by contrast just how ingenious THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT truly is. (★½)

RISEN – I don’t know what I expected, really. The one emotion I felt other than overwhelming annoyance at the level of condescension being thrown my way was a fair bit of sympathy for Tom Felton, who’s been reduced from one of the highest-grossing film series of all time to this. (★)

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM – At once overstuffed and empty, full to bursting with plotlines but never endeavoring to *mean* anything substantial. Even Katherine Waterston and Colin Farrell can’t rescue what’s at once the ugliest and the worst-structured movie of the year, a drab, dim slog that’s near-completely void of humanity and succeeds in sucking almost all the emotional and visual magic out of a film universe that was already a mere shadow of its source material. And we have four more of these to look forward to? (★)

BEST PICTURE: Robert Eggers and A24, The Witch

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Travis Knight and Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Ava Duvernay and Netflix, 13th

BEST DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman, Jackie/Viola Davis, Fences

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: August Wilson, Fences

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: James Laxton, Moonlight/Linus Sandgren, La La Land

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Mark Korven, The Witch/Mica Levi, Jackie

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: Beyonce, “All Night”, Lemonade

BEST EDITING: Stefan Grube, 10 Cloverfield Lane

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Industrial Light and Magic, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

BEST SOUND DESIGN/MIXING/EDITING: Sylvain Bellemare and Pierre-Jules Audet, Arrival

BEST ART DIRECTION/PRODUCTION DESIGN: David Wasco and Austin Gorg, La La Land

BEST MAKEUP/HAIRSTYLING/COSTUMING: Erin Benach, Erin Ayanian, and Shandra Page-Edwars, The Neon Demon

Advertisements

Obituary for 2016

We didn’t beat 2016. There will be no victory marches, no celebratory gatherings, no cheering in the streets. Or rather, there will be all these things—the New Year will be celebrated, appropriateness be damned—but they will be hollow, and we will know that they are even as we pantomime them and wait for the ball to drop and for this year to just end.

You would think we’d have learned by now. If nothing else, this year has been a spectacular lesson in allowing our smug assurances to blow up in our faces. We knew there was no way enough British citizens could be taken in by thinly veiled white nationalist bluster to leave the EU, and then they did. We got our Clinton victory parties ready, secure in the knowledge that surely an admitted sexual assaultant could never win the White House, and then he did. We tweeted photos of Princess Leia strangling Jabba the Hutt, confident that Carrie Fisher would never let something as trivial as a heart attack at age sixty take her down, and then she did.

The internet has done its best to trivialize the idea that there’s been something worse about 2016 than other years within our lifetimes—churned out memes, created hashtags, and rendered the phrase “God damn it, 2016,” a near-reflexive response to negative occurrences. But the year won’t be transformed into something banal despite our best efforts to normalize it. There is a tangible weight that humanity has carried on its shoulders for the last twelve months, and whether it’s unique to this year or 2016 simply happened to be the breaking point for the majority of us as we realized where exactly humanity currently stands is ultimately academic. It is there, and it is heavy.

It’s the weight of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s corpses as they’re slowly lowered into the ground, leaving their loved ones and their communities doubled over with an anger that’s slowly eating them apart; the weight of even a silent protest at a football game being too much a disruption of the white world to be tolerated by those who pride themselves on never seeing color.

It’s the weight of every single brick that’s been displaced from its fellows in Aleppo, every single mother who has no child left to bury and every single child who has no parent to bury them once they run out of places to hide. It’s the weight of reading last messages thrust into the void by people who are utterly powerless, who know their last screams to a world that could stop this will very likely accomplish nothing.

It’s the weight of staring numbly at our television screens and our cell phones as we watch neo-fascists and white nationalists across the globe thrust themselves into positions of power; the weight of witnessing the concept of satire die before our eyes as with each tweet, each appointment, each new unutterable thing uttered, these bigots and tinpot dictators render themselves immune to parody and yet go on grabbing power.

It’s the weight of each trans man and woman being told they are a danger to society and can’t be trusted to do so much as use a public restroom without preying on children.

It’s the weight of all the melted ice that’s slowly washing over our coasts, of the frozen water drenching protesters who ask that if we’re going to continue killing the planet, can we at least avoid desecrating yet more native graves to do so?

It’s the weight of watching our heroes slowly being taken away from us. David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Leonard Cohen, Richard Adams, Kenny Baker, George Martin, Anton Yelchin, and on and on and on. With each last breath taken, another chip is dashed from this multilith we call “culture”. We have stopped being able to see the world in the new ways these people would have seen it; we have lost poets, and titans, and artists, and with each of them humanity has lost a means of expressing itself. Leonard Cohen will never write a song that cuts Donald Trump down to size. We will never see Alan Rickman give us a new way to interpret a character from Shakespeare. Anton Yelchin will never shoot his directorial debut. Untold numbers of screenplays will never be shaped and molded by the same mind who rewrote her own lines for The Empire Strikes Back.

Perhaps most of all, it’s the weight of watching the concept of truth slowly disintegrate. It’s the weight of knowing that expert consensus is only worth something to those who would have agreed with that consensus beforehand. Facts are only facts if they align with the narrative that makes us the most comfortable. A public figure can say one thing and his followers will swallow it; he can deny it fifteen minutes later and they’ll swallow that too. There is no such thing as facts anymore, someone said toward the end of this cesspool of a year; and while this was decried, those of us who decried it did so knowing that our protests would be futile.

There have been some brief moments of respite. Good art was made. Bob Dylan took home a Nobel Prize. The murderer of Philando Castile was actually indicted, the first time such a thing has happened in Minnesota in over three decades. The DAPL was delayed, for now. But as Jenny Lewis wrote, the lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap. When we look back on 2016, we won’t think of the times we came up for air. We’ll think of all the time we spent underwater, our lungs like stones as they filled with rancid fluid.

If there’s one thing we must take away from this year—this flaming conglomerate of rubble and refuse, this shit-stained rictus grin, this idiot god of destruction—it’s that passivity is not an option. The universe does not bend toward justice. There is no cosmic balance striving to restore order, no transcendent being who’s going to work things out according exactly to their plan. There is no one and nothing that gives a single damn about this moisture-flecked hunk of rock except its inhabitants. We had best start acting like it.

Because, while 2016 has been uniquely awful, it is not some sort of anomaly. It’s a harbinger, not the main event. We cannot afford to let ourselves relax once December 31st fades away. We can no longer indulge in the luxury that is passivity.

Love everyone around you. Actively love them. Hold your friends close to you, and spend more time with them than you can afford. There’s no guarantee that they’ll make it through the next year any more than there is that you will.

Fight for causes you believe in. Advocate, put time in, spend what you can spare, whether you’re battling for good art or social justice or the existence of truth in the face of meaninglessness.

Never tell yourself that someone else can solve this problem, or create this work of art, or help these people, or speak this truth to power. Because, as 2016 has taught us, “someone else”—that vague formulation, that abstract notion of others that never once latches onto actual individuals—can’t and won’t. It’s up to us. Those of us who are privileged with the ability to be complacent have the power to make or break the world through our decision whether or not to exercise that privilege.

2016 will soon be dead. We will not have killed it. It will destroy itself in one final blaze of ignobility, smothering us in the detritus. We are Ozymandias, and we have looked upon our works and despaired. But low and level sands, if they have left us half-sunk, do not yet stretch far away. And if we choose not to wallow in our despair—if we choose to take action—we may yet stave off the incursion of that infinite, silent desert.

And so, good-bye, 2016, you festering mass of putrescence, you blistered carcass, you sadistic, inbred court jester. You have conquered, and your avatars have been given power to roam the earth for a time. And there’s no guarantee that this will not remain the state of affairs. But it’s my dearest hope that in bringing humanity this low, all you’ve ultimately done is somehow taught us how to keep our feet once we’ve regained them.

Just for fun: Dante, Don Quixote, Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Petrarch walk into a library . . .

m1176As part of my final for Classic Literature, I was tasked with composing a dialogue amongst five figures of the Renaissance period debating the highest virtue. This rather lamentable farce is the result.

* * * *

Extract Discovered in the Papers of the Late Miguel de Cervantes

The scene: the Berntsen Library, University of Northwestern—St. Paul. If there is an explanation for this anachronism, the papers do not give it.

The players: Don Quixote de La Mancha, an addled knight; Dante Aligheri, a poet and receiver of divine visions; Niccolo Machiavelli, a scoundrel; Francesco Petrarca, a poet of the starry-eyed persuasion; and Michel de Montaigne, a loghorreic essayist.

The dialogue: the highest virtue, its existence, & c.

All enter. Quixote trips on his own feet and collapses.

DQ: Good sir, would you be so kind as to help a noble warrior to his feet?

NM: (disparagingly) The noble warrior should regain his own feet, or he is not fit to go to war.

DA: You villain, do you not know there is a circle of hell reserved for those who commit violence against their neighbors?

NM: I commit no violence, and he is not my neighbor.

DA: Excuses! A sin of omission is still worthy of being boiled in deep, deep blood, as broad flakes of fire shower steadily down upon you.

NM: Aren’t you a cheery fellow.

DQ: Perhaps you, then, court poet, would help a poor knight to resume his quest—

DA: (ignoring him entirely) Cheer! I care not for cheer. Love, love of God, is the only virtue which means anything.

FP: (shrieks and clutches at his chest) Love! Love! O love, tormentor of my soul! Love, highest virtue of all existence, and yet the highest pain!

(all stare)

DQ: I say, he’s not quite right in the head, is he?

DA: You besotted idiot, romantic love is nothing compared to love for the Creator of all the world.

DQ: But dear court poet, what about your Lady Beatrice?

DA: Silence, addlepate.

DQ: Of course, she is nothing next to my Lady Dulcinea, but then—

NM: You fools make me laugh. Has love ever conquered a frontier, unified a nation, shifted the power of one dynasty to another? If love is the highest virtue, it has done a pretty poor job of maintaining its position.

FP: O heartless, soulless wretch! O lizard, o fish, o creature of reptilian mien! You commit blasphemy against my beloved, my Laura, the only pure creature on the face of this earth, the power of amorous hope that sustains me in my bitter life.

DQ: There I must object. My Lady Dulcinea—

DA: And what is the highest virtue, then, you devilspawn?

NM: Now, now. If you’re going to call names I just won’t play.

DQ: If I may speak, my saucy tactician—

NM: You may not.

DQ: It seems clear to me that all three of you miss the mark. It is clear that valor is the highest of the virtues by a goodly margin. For well I know the meaning of valor: namely, a virtue that lies between the two extremes of cowardice on the one hand and temerity on the other. If I had to choose one image that best sums up the best of mankind, it would be the knight-errant who, traversing deserts and solitudes, crossroads, forests, and mountains, goes seeking dangerous adventures only for the purpose of eternal glory. It is valor that gives us the courage to do the impossible, to dream the unthinkable. It is valor that gives me the courage to rescue maidens from lions or wizards, that allows me without a second thought to tilt at the giants who would otherwise overwhelm the countryside of Spain. What I would be without my valor, I do not like to think.

NM: It seems to me you would be standing upright.

DQ: Let me be upright in heart rather than in stance.

DA: My clumsy friend, you have it all backwards. It is not our glory but God’s that must win the day. The Love that moves the sun and other stars must by necessity be that which draws the bulk of our adoration, else how can we call ourselves moral creatures? And after all, Satan himself has valor—one must be courageous to face the prospect of being buried with only half his chest above the ice, the frozen water burning all the same.

DQ: This Satan would make a fine knight.

DA: O blasphemer, get thee hence!

(DA kicks DQ in his armored ribs; DA grabs his foot and hops about, bellowing, while DQ moans and attempts to shift himself to a more comfortable position)

NM: For shame, my friend. Do you not know there is a circle of hell reserved for those who commit violence against their neighbors?

(DA makes a highly worldly gesture)

FP: Such is the unhappy fate of one whose heart is cold.

DQ: Precisely, my afflicted friend! One’s heart must burn with valor if he is to truly live a virtuous life. I say, would you mind giving me a hand—

FP: No, no, no, simpleton! I spit on your valor, I give not a fig for your valor.

DQ: Why should I want a fig?

FP: My Laura’s eyes are like figs, you know. Dry and shriveled and capable of producing a highly edible paste—(frowns)—that simile doesn’t work, does it?

DA: (still clutching at his injured foot) It certainly doesn’t scan, either. Amateur.

FP: It isn’t my fault you wouldn’t recognize good art if it were to drag you through hell.

DA: (affronted) If that is an insinuation against the great Virgil—

DQ: Lady Virgil? I thought it was Lady Beatrice.

FP: Virgil was a heartless bastard. To force Aeneas to leave Dido a suicide, all for the dream of some distant empire which fell to barbarians anyway! How could he have sailed, blown by winds of grief from the course he ought to steer? I could never use my Laura so, even if I were offered a thousand empires. Had Aeneas remained with Dido, perhaps no epic would have been written about him, but he truly would have seen what a virtue love is.

NM: (chortles) I was prepared to simply sit back and observe, as does our dear Montaigne, but this is really too much. Aeneas give up Rome for a woman! The mind boggles.

DA: Perhaps it’s the size of the mind in question that’s the cause.

NM: Flattery will get you nowhere, my dear Dante.

DA: You still have not answered my challenge, heathen. What is the greatest virtue, then, if not love of God?

FP: Or love of one’s beloved?

DQ: (muffled, as in endeavoring to rise he has fallen on his face) Really, I still feel that valor—

FP: No one asked your opinion, Spaniard.

NM: You are all equally correct, which is to say you are all entirely wrong. You operate from the wrong premises. There is no virtue.

(DA and FP gasp, horrified; DQ spasms, his armor rattling)

DA: Good knight, slay this demonspawn.

DQ: Oh dear, my sword seems to have fallen out of reach. Perhaps if you could help me to my feet—

NM: The good Don was almost correct in one thing, at least. I don’t know how good a knight Satan would make, but he’d be a first-rate prince.

DA: A prince of darkness, yes! A prince of villainy, of damnation, of—

NM: Virtue exists insofar as others around the prince believe it to exist. It is necessary that he be prudent enough to understand how to avoid getting a bad name because he is given to those vices that will deprive him of his position, of course, because to be deprived of rule is to fail; but were the virtues he held believed to be vices and the vices believed to be virtues, he would have to reorient his apparent moral compass lest it interfere with his image. Moreover, he should not be troubled if he gets a bad name because of vices without which it will be difficult for him to preserve his position. For the survival of the nation, unity must be achieved; I don’t much care how it is achieved.

DQ: Villain, I would smite you across the head if I had the use of my legs!

NM: Imagine yourself a new pair, why don’t you. Or blast me from across the room with your valor.

DA: Even for you, scoundrel, this is absurd. How is the populace to be kept under control if there is no virtue to guide them?

FP: How should I live without the virtue of my love to sustain me?

DQ: How should I win glory without virtuous deeds to perform?

NM: Hard to worship your beloved God if there are no churches being built for him due to a lack of government donations. Hard to write poetry about your beloved Laura if you both are part of separate, squabbling sub-provinces. Hard to be a knight if you have no lord for whom to fight. Hard to be an essayist (he inclines his head to MM) if . . . well, on second thought, Montaigne, I don’t believe that any circumstances could force you to put down your pen.

FP: Well, here’s a fellow we haven’t asked yet! And it’s said the French are beginning to do truly great things with deduction and science. Surely he’ll know!

DA: I do not think that is such a good idea.

FP: (to MM) My good man, which of us is correct? What is the virtue that rests above all others—(glares at NM)—assuming, of course, that virtue exists in the first place?

MM: I thought you’d never ask.

It seems to me that all of you fellows’ philosophies, each admirable in its own way, operate from the wrong premises. The question is not “What is the chief virtue?” but “What way of life is most conducive to virtue?”

FP: That’s really venturing outside the scope—

MM: (overriding) It is no mistake, good Dante, that your own Virgil wrote: “These manners nature first ordained.” If we would only follow the example of the cannibals in the New World, our society would instantly revert to a primitive stage in which the absolute best in us is allowed to flourish. You, good Machiavelli, claim that virtue must subordinate itself for the good of unity, of order, so that society may be preserved, churches raised, love experienced, knights provided for, etc. I counter that you, along with our poets here, could not imagine a naturalness so pure and simple as we see by experience; nor could you believe that our society could be maintained with so little artifice and human solder.

NM: You’re right, I cannot.

MM: (as if NM has not spoken) It is simply that the windows of your perception are too small! If we were to strip ourselves naked—

DA: Horrors! Damnation!

MM: (see previous descriptions) —and transplant ourselves to the jungles of the New World, how much better off we would be! Never would we grow sick and die, or find ourselves bent in old age. Resources would be plentiful, and with no industry there would be no need to squabble over such things as money or property or women.

In fact, this reminds me of a coach I once rode through the streets of Paris, an experience which left me profoundly sickened. If only I’d not had the opportunity to travel on a coach, I never would have been sick! And if I had not been sick and home abed, who knows what multitude of good deeds I could have performed!

DA: I do not see how this is particularly relevant—

FP: (simultaneously) I would fight for my Laura regardless of whether or not she were considered property—

MM: (overriding) I must emphasize to you all the importance of this. Take boating, for example . . .

Lights fade down over the course of several seconds as MM continues speaking.

Several hours later, the lights fades back in, dimmer. Night has fallen outside the library. DA, NM, and FP have slipped away in pursuit of a more taciturn moderator. MM has not noticed. DQ twitches every so often; he has somehow become trapped beneath a chair. His entangled position has not improved.

MM: . . . and this incident with the squirrels clearly demonstrates the essential frailty of the human condition! It is a perfectly logical progression. Wouldn’t you say so, Machiavelli?

(silence)

MM: . . . Machiavelli?

(silence)

MM: Alas, it seems I have worked myself into a trance and they have vanished. A pity; Francesco in particular would have appreciated my metaphor about the viaduct and the blood libel, I think. (sighs) Well, I must be getting home.

DQ: (faintly) Excuse me, my good man . . .

MM: Good heavens! Is this to say you’ve been lying here all this time?

DQ: Indeed, and I’m not at all sure what will become of my Lady Dulcinea without my lance to protect her from the giants. Or Sancho, for that matter.

MM: My dear fellow, I completely sympathize. This situation reminds me of the meat-vendor who I once encountered while walking down the street on a Tuesday evening . . .

DQ: (to himself, as MM continues to speak) And just think. The entire time the highest virtue was that of cannibalism, and now I’ve no one to tell. I suppose I shall have to start eating my enemies once I’ve dispatched them, in order for my valor to increase. (considering) A giant should make enough to feed the entire castle. I shall have to tell Sancho at once.

(he attempts to rise, groaning, and collapses once more)

DQ: Essayist? Essayist?

Fade to black.