Our Town’s “Happy” Ending

Our TownIn 1938, Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town. It was hugely successful, ultimately winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And as I’ve discussed, it is a fine play. Ultimately, what is most innovative about it can be found back in 1921 in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. But not everything needs to be innovative. And Our Town does deal with a fundamental issue about the perspective of life in an omniscient context.

This is established at the beginning of the play when the Stage Manager talks about the newspaper delivery boy, Joe Crowell. The Stage Manager tells us that he is very bright and will go on to graduate high school at the top of his class. Then he will go to Massachusetts Tech and graduate at the top of his class there. He was going to be a great engineer. But then World War I came and he was killed in France. The Stage Manager sums it up, “All that education, for nothing.”

But in the context of the play, that can be said about everything. The one thing that is most clear throughout the play is that people die. They live their lives and then they die. There isn’t much more to it than that. We may have a positive or negative impact on others, but they too will die. The significance of our lives is like an asymptote that approaches zero the further we move in time. Wilder seems to have something to say about appreciating the present, but it is vague and the play itself seems most interested in death.

It is thus interesting to see what Hollywood did with the play when they first tried to film it in 1940. Clearly, they had to get rid of the obvious theatrical nature of play. So there are real sets much like we found in director Sam Wood’s earlier film, Goodbye, Mr Chips. But that doesn’t really matter. Trying to maintain the “theaterness” of a play in a film is usually a bad idea. It’s better just to film a play, which worked well for the filmed versions in 1977 and 1989.

The problem with the film is the ending. As Emily, dead from her second childbirth, goes to visit her 12th birthday, she has the same reaction that she has in the play. “Oh, Earth you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Oh, I want to live, I want to live, I want to live!”

And then she wakes up. It was all a delirium from her second pregnancy. Praise the Lord, they gave Our Town a happy ending! Or did they? After all, the film is otherwise very faithful to the play. We learn that Joe Crowell died in the war. Everyone dies. The film is still all about how people die and how they can’t see their lives in their completeness. But we are deprived of an edifying ending. We just get Emily having a bad dream. The film commits the same sin that the play indicts the whole of humanity for.

This is the problem with art as commodity. I can imagine the producers thinking that they needed to tack on a “happy” ending, even though the film itself isn’t happy. But it wasn’t just these money grubbing fools. The film was nominated for an Academy Award. If lost to Rebecca, but so did The Grapes of Wrath!

Anyway, I can’t imagine why people do this kind of thing. If you want to give people pleasant films, give them pleasant films. Don’t try to trick them into thinking that a sob-fest is okay because we get to end on a nice picture of Emily with her baby. Emily will die. And millions of women will die during childbirth. It’s a disgrace. Literally.

New Republic and the Pernicious Meddling of the the Rich

Chris HughesAs I was getting ready to leave town Monday morning, I saw that Chris Hughes had decided to sell New Republic. It’s interesting to me because I was harsh in my criticism of the late 2014 resignation debacle. I first wrote, New Republic: 1914 – 2014. And then later, Attack of the Crybaby: Why Chris Hughes Turned Against New Republic. It is this latter one that I find myself thinking about now. What exactly was Chris Hughes thinking all this time.

I don’t think that what happened is opened to debate. Hughes started by thinking it would be fun to own a magazine. He had a great time hanging out with really accomplished, sophisticated people who had earned their reputations at the top of the liberal publishing pyramid. It must have been heady for Hughes, because let’s not forget: all Hughes did was happen to be Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate. That’s it. There’s no doubt that he’s smart enough, but he isn’t even at Zuckerberg’s level, and that level is low itself.

But after hanging out with the cool kids for a couple of years, Hughes got bored with it. After all, people like Jeet Heer were little more than celebrities to Hughes. And the truth is to them, Hughes was probably just a rich kid who owed his position to luck. They appreciated the money, but that was as far as it went. So given that New Republic was no longer fun, Hughes had to come up with a reason to have bought it — something to save face. So he came up with the idea he would revolutionize publishing.

What it shows is that it is dangerous to have really rich people around. Hughes is like Bill and Melinda Gates. They are all people who think that because they are wealthy, they must be smart and able to fix difficult problems.

The problem was that Hughes couldn’t revolutionize anything — the best he could hope for is to be the roommate of someone who might revolutionize publishing. And that wasn’t going to happen. But even if he had been a genius, he didn’t understand the publishing industry. So he was destined to fail regardless. And so that led to his letter Monday where he announced that he was selling New Republic because of the question he can’t answer, “Can it find a sustainable business model that will power its journalism in the decades to come?”

Well, it’s going to be pretty hard to sell New Republic as anything but a brand name that someone might want to take on. Thirteen months ago, it employed a great staff of writers and editors. Now they are mostly distributed throughout the publishing industry. Now I pretty much only follow Brian Beutler and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Stoker. I don’t see who is going to be all that interested in buying Chris Hughes’ plaything now that he’s broken it.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo made a great point about the constraints of running a news organization within a budget. That was something that Hughes had no interest in. The idea of managing New Republic better doesn’t seem to have ever occurred to him. Instead, he blew $20 million in four years. His idea seems to have been that he could use the power of the internet to turn the magazine into something really special. But of course, there are already millions of people on the internet trying to do that.

A lot of people are talking about the old New Republic business model: modest financial losses made up for with donations from rich donors. Certainly that is what I thought Chris Hughes was going to do when he first bought the magazine. But he’s turned out to be far more immature than that. He never had a plan. He never tried to make the magazine efficient. He just tried to have fun. And when he was done, he tried to say face.

His legacy will be that he destroyed the magazine. There really is no point in it continuing on. But of course, it will continue on — just like Netscape continues on. But what it shows is that it is dangerous to have really rich people around. Hughes is like Bill and Melinda Gates. They are all people who think that because they are wealthy, they must be smart and able to fix difficult problems. And because they can throw around a lot of money, there are always lots of people around to tell them they are right. But now that Hughes isn’t having fun and everyone is laughing at him for being incompetent, he’s giving up and going out looking for something else to have fun with. After the Gates Foundation manages to finish all its education “reforms” only to find that they’ve made things worse, the Gates will find something else that they don’t understand to help “fix.”

No one should care that New Republic is dying. But we should care very much that our excessive income inequality allows rich fools to destroy venerable institutions because they think their money makes them smart.

Morning Music: Frank Zappa

Frank ZappaI’ve long felt that Frank Zappa was one of the most underrated guitarists of all time. But it has only been over the last decade or so that I really began to appreciate his later work. When I was younger, I tended to miss what he did. Now, its brilliance seems self-evident.

In 1981, he released a double album of instrumental tunes called, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. He eventually went on to release two followups. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this. I think most people recognize the brilliance of Frank Zappa. It’s sad that we lost him so young.

Here is a nice pseudo-reggae tune, “Treacherous Cretins”:

Anniversary Post: 2010 Haiti Earthquake

Haiti Earthquake 2010On this day in 2010 was the 7.0 M earthquake in Haiti that killed well over 100,000 people. The death toll was so high because it struck the most populated area of the country. In all, over three million people were affected by it. I think Haiti is an embarrassment to the west. There is no reason for us to allow its people to live in such poverty and suffer so much. But of course, that’s the modern American way: people are divided into the winners and the losers — the producers and the moochers. If someone was a winner, they would be smart enough not to be born in Haiti.