In Which I Discuss Gus Van Sant One More Time

GerryAbout a year before making Elephant, Gus Van Sant headed out into the wilderness with Casey Affleck and Matt Damon made Gerry—an improvised drama based upon the Kodikian and Coughlin story, which had happened just a few years earlier. Very little happens in the movie. Two guys go hiking. They get lost. They are near death. Affleck asks Damon to kill him and is rewarded with being strangled. Then Damon finds they are right by a highway. The film ends with him in a car, being driven away as he looks at the scenery.

I wrote before that Elephant moved at a glacial pace. Well, I need a new adjective. Gerry moves at a geological pace. There is one five minute shot of the two actors walking in profile. It is an amazing moment in the film. I could hardly believe that it went on so long. And most of the movie is like that: a long shot of the two guys walking; a close up of the two guys walking; several minutes of clouds; the two guys talk about what they should do. Repeat until running time equals an hour and forty minutes.

And yet, I found it impossible to turn away. The shots are beautiful. There is a relentless dramatic momentum. The biggest problem with the film is its dialog scenes. Most of these sound improvised by actors who are hardly masters at the art form. Nonetheless, as a viewer, I wanted to know how it was all going to go horribly wrong. Let’s face it, a director doesn’t show you long images of storm clouds gathering when a happy ending is on the menu.

Gerry is not a film you are likely to watch twice. If you want to experience something like this, you are better off with just about any Jim Jarmusch film. Dead Man comes to mind, but Down By Law would work as well. But it was an interesting artistic attempt. And it has me very eager to watch Restless, which has received bad reviews but looks to be much more lyrical than usual for Van Sant. But the main thing is that I think his work is worth checking out—just not if you’ve seen it advertised anywhere.

America Training Death Squads in Afghanistan

Glenn GreenwaldOn Sunday, I reported on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s allegations of American military torture and murder of civilians in that country. My article mostly discussed the assumption of Americans that Karzai had to be posturing because of course Americans never do anything like that. Since then there has been more reporting. Now it looks like these acts may have been perpetrated by clandestine militias. According to Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times, the US military and CIA have been training these “death squads” for years. And they are doing just what we taught them to do.

But it is still possible it is American forces. Glenn Greenwald directs us to an incident from 2010 when the military killed a bunch of innocents and then tried to cover it up:

As but one illustrative example: in 2010, as I wrote at the time, US forces in the Paktia Province, after surrounding a home where a celebration of a new birth was taking place, shot dead two male civilians (government officials) who exited the house in order to inquire why they had been surrounded, and then shot and killed three female relatives (a pregnant mother of ten, a pregnant mother of six, and a teenager). When local villagers loudly complained, the Pentagon lied about what happened, claiming that the dead males were “insurgents” or terrorists; the bodies of the three women had been found by US forces bound and gagged inside the home, and suggested that the women had already been killed by the time the US had arrived, likely the victim of “honor killings” by the Taliban militants killed in the attack. US media outlets, needless to say, mindlessly recited the US government’s claims (CNN: “Bodies found gagged, bound after Afghan ‘honor killing'”), but the Pentagon was finally forced to admit that its Special Forces had killed the women and then covered-up and lied about what happened.

Once again: my intent here is not to blame the United States, although even under the best case scenario, it seems that we are quite culpable. And this has nothing at all to do with making our government or military look bad. It is just that I’ve noticed that the only way to grow as a person is to admit when you are wrong. If you can’t admit this, you just keep doing the same bad things over and over. The same is true of the United States. We still haven’t really admitted that we spent much of the last ten years torturing people in our custody. And now we know that we are continuing to outsource this work to others. I have a three step plan:

  1. Admit what we did was wrong.
  2. Stop doing it.
  3. Move on.

We are not perfect. By admitting that, we can become more so. What’s going on in Afghanistan is heartbreaking. But it is also embarrassing.

God and Teen Pregnancy

Sarah KliffThis is from Sarah Kliff over at Wonk Blog. The Guttmacher Institute put together this map based upon teen pregnancy rates in 2008. For some strange reason, Kliff spends a whole article talking about how New Mexico has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any state. It turns out that the state doesn’t mandate sex education in high school. And the rate of teen women on birth control is low. But really: who cares?

Look at the map below; do notice a pattern? There are minor patterns, of course. It seems that living in the middle of nowhere like Wyoming keeps pregnancy down—maybe because everyone knows what everyone else is doing; or maybe because everyone’s afraid that Dick Cheney will show up. It also seems that living in a crowded and urbane state tends to push up pregnancy rates—maybe its the pheromones. But that’s not the clearest pattern.

Most of the deep south, where God and abstinence only sex education are gonna keep our little uns safe has the highest levels of teen pregnancy. Like all good conservatives, they just know that their baseless, anti-scientific beliefs are true. You know the story of the little conservative who thought it so? He spent his whole life spinning his wheels and never noticed.

Teen Pregnancy Map

I think it’s so; I think it’s so; I think it’s so; I think it’s so; I think it’s so; I think it’s so…

Afterword

There is also a high teen pregnancy rate in Delaware. I assume this is because of Joe Biden. The girls just can’t resist him.

Republican Winning

Greg SargentI really like Greg Sargent; I read his The Plum Line blog throughout the day. In particular, his gang (him along with Jamelle Bouie and Jonathan Bernstein) see the world pretty similarly to I.[1] But in his coverage of the Sequester, I’m afraid that Sargent is allowing Republicans to win.

The dynamic is an old one that Republicans are really good at using. They stake out some extreme proto-fascist position and insist upon it. The Democrats move to the right to meet them. The Republicans continue to insist they won’t compromise. The professional centrists, of course, lament that the two parties just can’t agree. And the liberals defend the Democrats by noting that the Republicans are being unreasonable. Eventually, a deal is reached that is far to the right of what Democrats would normally want, but all the liberals rejoice because the Democrats “won.”

The problem is that the Republicans won: they ended up with more than they could ever have reasonably expected. And this isn’t just true of particular battles. Right now, we live with an extremely conservative government. With a Democratic White House, we get policy that Nixon and even Reagan couldn’t have dreamed of. Look at Supreme Court nominees! The great “liberal” justice John Paul Stevens just retired. He was put on the court by Ford. So we won’t be dancing in the streets anytime soon.

I bring this up because this morning, Sargent wrote, The false Equivalence Pundits Are Part of the Problem. Everything he writes in the column is correct. But it is arguing on the conservatives’ ground. David Brooks isn’t make his ridiculous “Obama is to blame!” arguments because he seriously thinks that Obama is to blame. He is making these arguments so that we liberals will fight with him while the Republicans manage to pull the country ever to the right.

I don’t know what to do about this. I fall into this same trap. And let’s fact it: it is hard to get people to pay attention to an argument to eliminate the sequester altogether when the Republicans use this tactic. Also: the Democrats are the real problem here—Barack “Let’s negotiate with ourselves!” Obama especially. But there must be some way to counter the conservative offensive. The first step, perhaps, is to not accept David Brooks’ claim that he is a moderate.


[1] I know that “I” sounds awkward, but it is correct. If I used “me” it would indicate that they see the world the same way they see me.

What Republicans Do, Not What They Say

Ezra KleinEzra Klein hosted The Last Word last night and he said that he didn’t understand what the Republicans were doing regarding the Sequester negotiations (or lack thereof). As he understands it, the Republicans have five basic policy goals in the budget discussion: (1) cut the deficit; (2) cut entitlement spending; (3) protect defense spending; (4) simplify the tax code; and (5) lower tax rates. He notes that by compromising with the White House, Republicans can attain the first four of these five goals. So why aren’t they?

As I wrote about yesterday and the day before, the Republicans don’t care about the deficit. So they don’t care about policy goal number one. They do care about entitlement cuts, but hurting the poor is not nearly as important as helping the rich. What’s more, they know that entitlement cuts are unpopular so they are very careful about them, even as they constantly call for entitlement “reform.” So policy goal number two is out. Sure, they don’t like defense spending cuts, but one must have one’s priorities. And they don’t care at all about simplifying the tax code. There goes policy goals three and four!

Of the five policy goals Klein lists, number five is by far the biggest priority. And that’s the one they don’t get with the White House deal. So on the surface, it looks like such a deal is an 80% winner (4 out of 5). But if you weight the list correctly, you see it is more like a 90% loser. For the umteenth time: funneling money to the rich trumps all else for Republicans.

This morning, Jonathan Chait notes in a longish article about the Republican plans for the Sequester, he notes something important about policy goal four, simplifying the tax code:

Republicans in Congress never actually wanted to raise revenue by tax reform. The temporary support for tax reform was just a hand-wavy way of deflecting Obama’s popular campaign plan to expire the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Conservative economists in academia may care about the distinction between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates. But Republicans in Congress just want rich people to pay less, period. I can state this rule confidently because there is literally not a single example since 1990 of any meaningful bloc of Republicans defying it.

This is the same thing that happened with the individual mandate that became Obamacare. The Republicans were never actually for it. They were only offering it up as a policy they hated less than some of the good policies liberals were then pushing like a single-payer system. Once they didn’t have to worry about any liberal plan being enacted, they were against the conservative plan.

I can’t call what Ezra and Matt are doing false equivalence. But it is related. They are scratching their heads trying to figure out why Republicans are behaving so strangely. It doesn’t equate them to the Democrats, but it does give them more credit than they deserve. The reason why some of us see this more clearly is that we don’t listen to what Republicans claim; we watch what they do. And that is painfully clear.

Stuart Stevens’ Bizarre Apologia

Stuart StevensStuart Stevens was Romney’s chief campaign strategist. And I have a certain fondness for him, which I’ve discussed before. But he just wrote a bizarre OpEd over at the Washington Post, The GOP Revival Must Go Beyond Joining Twitter. He does give some lip service to this question. But really: is this what anyone is saying? Republicans lost the last election because they didn’t have good enough social networking? What is bizarre, however, is that he quickly drops discussion of this issue at all.

For the rest of the OpEd, he just rambles on about this and that. At the beginning, he seems to be defending himself against the argument that Romney lost because his campaign was bad. I will admit that there are some who are making that argument, but I’m not one of them. Romney’s campaign was fine. And it wasn’t the 47% remark either. So I’m open to a Stevens defense on this issue. But his defense was just pathetic.

Stevens claims that young people voted for Obama because he was offering them the gift of free contraception. And old people voted for Romney because they “are more concerned with the economy than with same-sex marriage.” Yeah, those retired people on fixed incomes are really concerned about the job market, unlike those free wheeling young people! This is quite clearly the same line of argument that Romney used when he said that Obama gave “extraordinary financial gifts” to Latinos and others.

The big problem with this is not that Obama didn’t give political gifts to voters. The problem is that this is what all politicians do. More to the point: this is what Romney did in a much more obvious way. All that talk about putting back the $700 billion that Obama took out of Medicare? Does Romney really what us to believe that he was doing that because it was good policy rather than just politics? But even more concerning: does Stuart Stevens believe this same claptrap?

After that shameful display, Stevens finally says something smart, “A Republican renaissance will inevitably be driven by policy.” But that’s the extent of his intelligence. He then goes on to argue that the Republican Party will be just fine. They are just one election cycle away from being relevant again. There is an ounce of truth here. Given the right circumstances, the Republicans could win the White House in 2016 or 2020. But that hardly means that the party is back. It still faces big challenges that a demographics defying presidential race win will only make harder to solve.

To top it off, he dismisses the Democratic Party in 2016 as being either of the old candidates Clinton or Biden. He contrasts them to the usual list of supposedly great young Republicans (e.g. Rubio). He’s making a couple of mistakes here. One is that someone like Nikki Haley stands out because she’s good rather than because the Republican field doesn’t have much to offer. Most of the people he names would be back benchers if they were in the Democratic Party. But the biggest mistake is that he seems to think that with the same policies these candidates can gain the White House with their charm. And like I said: with the right environment (Economic crash in September 2016?) any one of them can win. But it won’t mean the Republican Party is back.

So Stevens tells us that technology will not save his party. But anyway, it isn’t surprising that Romney lost with all the gifts Obama was handing out. But what really matters are the party’s policies. But they don’t need to change them. Because they have these great young Republicans who are going to beat the Democrats who only have old people to run in 2016.

See what I mean: bizarre.

Kathleen O’Brien Wilhelm

Kathleen O'Brien WilhelmRemember the Deer Lady? She was the Ohio blogger who thought that deer crossing signs were a waste of money because (1) deer can’t read and (2) they wouldn’t follow the law anyway. Well, I’ve been staying up to date on her. And it is really getting hard to believe that she isn’t involved in some kind of satire. I’m talking Billy Bob Neck level of satire. The vast majority of her blog posts are nothing more than logorrhea of conservative talking points.

Let me be clear: as much as I would like it, it does not appear to be satire. In particular, if you read the comments, you will see friends of hers defending what she has written. It isn’t like on Billy Bob Neck videos where there is the occasional comment, “It’s satire, you idiot!” Given this, her blog is of great concern. We are long past the time when we had actual communists ranting about the dictatorship of the proletariat. But we do indeed have a rather large subculture of proto-fascists.

This week, Kathleen O’Brien Wilhelm admonishes us to, Trust Your Gut America. She comes out swinging. As if to prove that Tea Party members really are racists, she starts by explaining why you would have to be an idiot to go where the wild things are. You know: cities. “No one with half a brain has walked down a dark alley knowingly in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit where gangs and drug-scum hang.” Why are alleys so dark? Perhaps it is because there isn’t a lot of reflected light off the faces of the people there. Regardless, “gangs” and “drug-scum” are signifies.

She follows up this sentence with a great example of one of my most hated conservative canards, “A hopeless bad place; pity the good people and police who must be part of this.” Right! The gang members and drug addicts aren’t victims in any way; they are just immoral people. I hear this kind of thing more and more. It is nothing but a justification for the rich being rich and the poor being poor. (Note also that the police are part of the “good people” because they never do anything wrong!)

Wilhelm is just getting going! Now is when the conservative talking point core dump comes into its all. Are you ready?

Yet, that gut instinct isn’t kicking in as America moves down this campaign trail of Obama, his crew and Obamacare. Run, flee, scream louder than the worst pain America. Obama’s zombie garble is taking America down. America is beginning Obama’s next four years. He’s had four full years to lead the greatest country in the world. However, all this socialist liberal has done is bad. Bowing to countries that hate us, giving to countries that want to kill us, focusing on his friends to kick at our values and break down the respect the world has for us.

This reminds me of a section call “No Comment” in The Progressive. Doesn’t this all speak for itself? The first sentence doesn’t even make sense. In the second she says we should scream in cancer level pain because… What? Gays can serve openly in the military? People with existing conditions have the ability to get healthcare? What exactly is it that makes America the dystopian hellscape that she thinks we should be screaming about? What is a “zombie garble”? What is a “socialist liberal”? Do you see why I call this logorrhea?

Then she just spews out long discredited claims. Bowing to countries that hate us? Not true. The rest of it makes no sense, except that last part about how much the world no longer respects us under Obama. Also: not true.

But she isn’t done yet! This is the last paragraph in full:

This golfer, campaigner is a danger to capitalism, freedom, the US Constitution. He is making America that dirty place like Chicago—corrupt, murderous, non productive, taxed and drained. What is America doing? Who is screaming with pain? One wonders if America is giving up, laying there and just taking it.

Don’t you just love the attack on Obama’s recent golf game?! Somehow, I suspect that she never had a problem with George W. Bush being a golfer. But okay, I hold it against Obama too. She then moves onto calling Obama a “campaigner.” This is the same old line that “Obama is only good in front of a teleprompter!” It’s just sad. But she isn’t done with her conservative riff! On she goes to mention the three things that every conservative loves but has only the vaguest of conceptions. It is hard to take these seriously from a woman who apparently thinks that one of the great freedoms we are missing out on is the freedom not to pay for signs that deer won’t read anyway.

What I’m most taken with here is that she abandons the “dark alley” and goes full tilt: Chicago is a dirty place! It is corrupt, murderous, non-productive, taxed, and drained! I think she starts that sentence talking about Chicago and ends talking about America. She seems to be under the impression that Chicago is a non-productive taker. Illinois is one of the many over-taxed blue states. Most of that doubtless comes from dirty Chicago. But smart people don’t turn to Tea Party members for facts.

The main thing about Kathleen O’Brien Wilhelm is how hateful she is. She just knows that all these people she has precious little experience with are evil and immoral. The Tea Party may only represent 8% of the population, but that is a lot for such vile thinking.

Naive Pundit Thinks GOP Cares About Deficit?

Matt YglesiasMatt Yglesias wants to know why the Republicans keep holding to their no new taxes pledge, even while rejecting deals that are overwhelmingly in their favor. I can’t really believe that he is being serious. Yglesias is a smart guy and in no way naive. If he has a fault, it is intellectual arrogance that causes him to think he really knows what’s going on when he doesn’t. But in this case, he’s just being dense. He seriously thinks the Republicans are interested in deficit reduction!

I wrote about this only yesterday, Major Media Have Sequester All Wrong. This all comes down to the Republican commitment to the rich. Republicans do not care if the poor are taxed more. Republicans do not care if the poor receive less money from the government. The only thing that Republicans do care about is giving more government money to the rich and taking less money from the rich in taxes. That’s all there is to know about the Republican Party.

Just look at why the Republicans now claim to be against reducing tax loopholes that they were supposedly for only two months ago. They don’t want to close loopholes because they want to use them later to lower tax rates. For a long time, I thought there was some great reason that was unknown to me why this made sense rather than just moving around who exactly paid what. There is a little economic theory behind it. Basically, it is distortionary and causes people to make investments that they wouldn’t normally make. That’s it! So the question naturally arises: why do Republicans care about this?

They don’t. But they know that it is really hard to raise tax rates. Just look at the Fiscal Cliff deal! So they want to get tax rated lowered by claiming that they are revenue neutral due to eliminating the loopholes. But in coming years, it will be easy to reintroduce loopholes. Given that loopholes most affect the rich, you end up with a big tax cut for the rich! And once again: making the rich richer is by far the most important concern of the Republican Party.

I am willing to believe that a lot of political pundits don’t understand this. But Matt Yglesias?! I don’t think so. I think he’s being coy. Or maybe he just doesn’t have much to write about. It is a slow news day after all. Except that C. Everett Koop just died at 96.

Contents of Character

Martin Luther King JrFifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is a wonderful sentence, wise in content and poetic in style. I thought of it watching Democracy Now! this morning, during which they showed extended clips of the 1970 documentary King: a Filmed Record. It is really good and I recommend you check it out. The problem is that I don’t necessarily agree with the sentiment.

In some ways, Chris Hayes was wrong in Twilight of the Elites; America is something of a meritocracy. People who have more than enough to eat do not steal bread. And that is what is going on with the vast majority of so called immorality: teen pregnancy, drug use, and even violent crime. These are problems that explode due to insecurity, want, and apathy.

I don’t mean to put down Dr. King at all. He was talking at a different time. Not being judged by the color of your skin is necessary but not sufficient. And it isn’t as though we have become a color blind society. People (especially conservatives) who wanted to say that Obama’s election meant that we had moved into a post-racial era have shown themselves to be silly indeed. If anything, Obama’s election showed just how much racism was festering below the surface throughout the country. Have you heard about the research showing that less than 4% of fashion models are nonwhite?

The last year was frustrating for me. I hated hearing that Obama was for equality of outcomes while Romney was for equality of opportunity. First, of course, this isn’t even true. Obama is very clearly in the “equality of opportunity” camp and Romney is in the “equality of inheritance” camp. But the bigger issue is that “equality of opportunity” is a lie. There simply isn’t any such thing when “equality of outcomes” is so skewed.

Any society that allows one working man to make 500 times what another working man makes is morally bankrupt. There is simply no justification for such a system. As is well established, the more money one makes the easier it becomes to make money. In other words, we have developed a system that is nonlinear and unbound. Bill Gates makes millions of dollars every day even though he no longer works. I know all of the arguments to justify this income. None do I find compelling. But there are obvious and very strong arguments against it. I think the best one is the conservative argument: incentives matters. How does Gates’ ridiculous wealth incentivize the economic system to work better? The answer is that it doesn’t. The truth is that Bill Gates’ wealth is no more deserved than Edmund Tylney’s.

What I propose to you is that the billions of dollars that Gates gives away to (often repellent) charities speaks very little of his moral character. A guy at a rescue mission who gives an unwanted fish stick to his neighbor demonstrates a higher moral character. I’m all for judging people on the content of their character, but we need to contextualize it. We need to remember that a poor person’s stealing a cookie is hardly a moral failing at all. And giving away part of your unearned fortune is mostly if not wholly vanity. Most of all, we need to create a society that is equal enough so that we can reasonably judge the content of our character. Martin Luther King Jr certainly understood that.

Repeal Sequestration

Chris HayesYesterday’s Up with Chris Hayes was really interesting. It was good in the way the show usually is, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Through much of the show, Hayes was pleading to the world—including his panel—to have congress pass a “one sentence law saying no sequestration.” I share his exasperation.

The economics of this are very clear. Our economy has spent the last four years crawling very slowly out of recession. The government should be spending more. Now is not the time for austerity. We’ve already cut one and a half trillion dollars in the disastrous 2011 Debt Ceiling deal. Then we increased taxes by roughly $600 billion in the Fiscal Cliff deal. The deficit has been reduced every year that Obama has been president. Where is the fucking fire?!

Meanwhile, Greg Sargent reports this morning that Republican governors are starting to push for a Sequester deal. This isn’t that surprising. Congressional Republicans can obstruct and delay, looking toward a time when they are again in the White House. But Republican governors actually have to govern. As crazy as they are, they know if the trains stop running or the schools close down, they will be blamed.

Of course, all these people calling for a deal are missing the main point. While it is true that raising the taxes of rich people doesn’t hurt the economy as much as taking food stamps away from poor people, it does still hurt the economy. I was none too happy with the Fiscal Cliff deal. Yes, I think that the rich should pay more in taxes. (Of course, as usual, the administration didn’t even do a very good job at that goal.) But many liberals celebrated like it was some great blow for the people. Passing card check would have been infinitely better for the people.

Republicans aren’t the only problem in this Sequester fight. I find myself very frustrated with liberals who seem to think that the critical issue is between good and bad government spending. Sure, it is best that the government spend wisely. But in a depressed economy, spending is a good thing. There are no caveats. Howard Dean has been going around saying that the Sequester, while unfortunate, is a winner. At first, he was just making the same specious arguments about debt and “certainty.” Now he seems to be claiming that this is a once in a generation opportunity to cut defense spending. While this new argument may be better than the old argument, the economy can ill afford these cuts right now.

I almost dread a deal for the way liberals will act—pretending it is on par with the second coming of Christ. As it is, the administration isn’t even asking for half revenue. It is more like one-third revenue. So you can imagine, if a deal is struck, it is likely to be one-quarter revenue. I’m not saying that would be terrible, but I will be galled to hear people claim it is a liberal victory. A true liberal victory would be a “one sentence law saying no sequestration.”

Update (25 February 2013 9:05 am)

The Washington Post has an excellent table that runs down how the Sequester will affect education funding in each state. Even if you want to (and you shouldn’t, because it is a canard), this isn’t about “waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Update (25 February 2013 9:27 am)

What do you know! The Pew Charitable Trust has put together an interactive map that shows how big the cuts will be to state budgets. It turns out that the non-defense Sequester hurts red states a lot more than blue states. Part of this is just that red states (The real America!) are the “takers” and the blue states (The anti-American bastards!) are the “makers.” But don’t think this will cause a ground swelling of Republican opposition to the Sequester. Most conservatives believe they don’t have their hands out to the government. In fact, I am constantly amazed at how many Fox News quoting conservatives live off SSI. They are for cutting programs because they just know that Rush, Sean, and the whole gang understand that Mr. Conservative SSI Recipient is one of the “deserving.” They would never cut funding for such loyal conservative media consumers!

Elephant

ElephantRecently, I wrote very negative things about Gus Van Sant while discussing his most recent mediocre film Promised Land. I said that his days as a great director where behind him. I used that film as well as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester to make this case. But as long time reader Karl Paniczny pointed out, Van Sant was making small, personal films; it was just that I wasn’t watching them.

I thought that was an excellent point. So I picked up Gerry (which I plan to watch in the morning) and Elephant (which I just watched). Elephant is an odd film. It combines cinema verite with pointedly stylized camera work. The film operates at a glacial speed with incredibly long static and Steadicam shots that seem designed more for theme and mood than for plot. Other than a number of scenes shown from different perspectives at different times, the film makes almost no concessions for the viewer. Mostly, you are just left to piece the timing of various scenes together in retrospect. This works well, however, given that the story it tells is very simple.

I don’t find the main plot of Elephant that interesting. It is basically a fictionalization of the Columbine High School massacre. It is an almost impossible task to show a mass shooting without somehow trivializing the motivations of the perpetrators. Is it bullying? Is it video games? Is it insanity? In the end, I’m afraid it is all these things and nothing. The essence of drama is motivation, and Van Sant provides lots of motivations for Alex and Eric without pushing it too hard. But in the end, the act is so heinous that I rebel against the very notion of causality.

It reminds me of The Ox-Bow Incident, a film that is also about a heinous act. But in that case it is the result of group think and shows how everyone’s little faults work in synergy to create a tragic fault. In Elephant there is some evil synergy. And I felt like I understood where the two boys were coming from. But the result was so catastrophic compared to the causes. That does seem to be how life is at times. It is just not very fulfilling as drama.

Having said all of that, the the film is really compelling; the shooting seems almost like an addendum. I was particularly taken with how Elephant shows all the things that the kids do and worry about. Three girls go to the bathroom after lunch so they can vomit up all those calories, lest they suffer the horror of being a normal weight. A young couple is concerned that the female may be pregnant. Michelle seems to be afraid that her PE teacher will make her undress for class the next day. All of these fears are for nothing given how much longer they will live.

Especially compelling to me is the story of Benny. After most all of the carnage is over, he walks through the halls almost in a daze. He seems unable to accept that what most clearly has happened is still happening. It doesn’t end well for him. But I understand his quest. It just has to be all some big misunderstanding. In a fundamental sense, his quest is that of the film and the viewer.

Despite so much carnage, Elephant has almost no on screen violence. Almost all of the deaths are implied rather than shown. The main point of the last half hour of the film seems to be to show the lack of empathy of the perpetrators. Eric often shows anger, but Alex is completely disconnected as though he were playing a video game. This from a boy who a day before was frustrated playing the “Moonlight Sonata.” It is chilling, as it ought to be.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that Elephant was a great film. It may not even be good. I have problems with it, especially with the third act. But there is no doubt that it is a work of art. There is no pandering. It seems to accomplish what it is trying to do. And so I owe Gus Van Sant an apology: Promised Land is just his day job. He’s still working the graveyard shift in Portland on things that matter.

Afterword

For a film that won the Palme d’Or, the DVD for this film really sucks. In terms of features, it has the trailer and a 12 minute “On the Set” video. That is to say that it isn’t even a featurette in the sense of a “Making Of” documentary. It is very disappointing. I would have liked a director’s commentary. I suspect that Van Sant has a few things to say about his very stylized approach to the material. (Then again, as I recall, his commentary on Drugstore Cowboy was of little insight.)

Major Media Have Sequester All Wrong

SequesterIt is Sunday, so I’m going to explain the Sequester to you and why most of the media have it all wrong. Back in 2011 when it was invented, the idea was to make something so horrible that neither side would accept it. Instead they would replace it with some bipartisan plan that the two sides disliked less and everyone would sing “Kumbaya.” But even when pushed to come up with an “unthinkable” plan, the Republicans wouldn’t go for any revenue increases. So instead, half the Sequester became military cuts.

Skip ahead a year and a half. Now everyone is standing around asking, “Will the Republicans really be willing to cut their beloved military?” My reaction to these people is: where in the hell have you been for the last 30 years?! We could be talking about the complete elimination of the military. Hell, we could be talking about the very destruction of the United States and Republicans would be against taxing rich people even a dollar more—so long as those rich people would be able to keep their wealth after America was destroyed. The one overriding policy issue for Republicans is to keep the taxes of rich people down. (Note: when it came to the payroll take that is highly regressive, they had no problem letting it go back up.) The fact that major figures in the media think that isn’t the case is a big part of the problem with politics in America.

Ezra Klein was surprised last week that Republicans didn’t seem to understand what their own economists tell them: deductions are in fact government spending, just done in an unusual way. Think of the mortgage interest deduction. This allows homeowners to pay less in taxes. It would have exactly the same effect if instead the government had a program that gave homeowners money for owning a home. So what’s the big deal with eliminating tax loopholes? They too are just government spending in another form. Ezra Klein thinks the Republicans just don’t understand this.

It is possible that he’s right in part. Never underestimate just how stupid and ignorant Republicans are. But whether they know this or not is not the real issue. Republicans care above all else that rich people keep as much money as possible. Dean Baker calls this MPRP: Money in the Pockets of Rich People. This is what Republicans care about. Their problem with government spending is just that much of it goes to poor people.

So we are left with a media who keep pretending that the Republican Party is something other than it is. They can’t just bring themselves to believe that the Republicans really are what they always claim Democrats to be: class warriors. After all, you can kind of understand how someone would be a warrior for the poorer classes. But to be a warrior not just for the rich but the super rich? There must be some other explanation. But there really isn’t one.

Update (24 February 2013 6:55 pm)

Ezra Klein wrote another article about the Sequester, On the Sequester, the American People ‘Moved the Goalposts’. He concludes the article with a paragraph that is either stupid or hopelessly naive:

Here in DC, we can get a bit buried in Beltway minutia. The ongoing blame game over who concocted the sequester is an excellent example. But it’s worth remembering that the goalposts in American politics aren’t set in backroom deals between politicians. They’re set in elections. And in the 2012 election, the American people were very clear on where they wanted the goalposts moved to.

I don’t mean to be cynical, but who actually believes this kind of nonsense? Politicians in Washington do not do what the people want. They just assume that they can message their way to agreement with the electorate. Or that the electorate doesn’t even know what it wants or will forget it by the time of the next election. The American people were pretty clear this last election. And the fact that the American people are getting pretty much nothing they want is a good example of just how American politics really works.