Harlan County, USA

Harlan County, USAI’ve seen scenes from Barbara Kopple’s documentary about the Brookside Miners’ Strike, Harlan County, USA. But I’d never sat down and watched it—until tonight. I’m very fond of documentaries generally, but this one is certainly one of the best I have ever seen. It was so good, in fact, that as soon as it was over, I put it back on and watched it again. Cinema verite can be annoying to me, but here it provides a real and completely unsentimental look at people involved in an epic struggle.

What’s perhaps most amazing is how this young New Yorker with an elite background manages to tell this story without error. This was particularly clear at the end. I thought the film was over 15 minutes before it was. That was the point in the film where the mine workers finally got the contract that they had been striking for. That would have made a very nice, dramatic ending. But she keeps telling the story. Once the Brookside miners are finally part of the United Mine Workers of America, they are soon faced with a union-wide strike. The union negotiates a new contract, which the mine workers agree to without much enthusiasm. Yet they struggle on, because there is no choice.

There are three players in a struggle like that documented in Harlan County, USA: strikers, scabs, and owners. I understand the scabs: going on strike takes great courage that I don’t think I’ve ever had. And they make the noble sacrifice of the strikers that much more compelling. The owners, of course, I have no sympathy for. They are people who hold marginal profits higher than they do the lives of their employees. There’s one point at which a company spokesman says that of course they want to make sure their workers are healthy but that there just isn’t any evidence that Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (Black Lung Disease) is actually harmful. That’s the owners.

But I found a review of the film by Dennis Schwartz. Overall, it is a good review (although the B+ rating alone shows that Schwartz is some kind of idiot). But he starts the review with, “One of the better and more rousing labor strike films that calls attention to class war in America, though it doesn’t offer enough analysis or balance on the issues.” [Emphasis mine.] There is so much wrong with that sentence that I could write a book. Two things though. First, the movie isn’t about the owners or the coal industry generally. This is entirely typical of film “critics”: his only complaint about Harlan County, USA is that it wasn’t a different movie.

Far more aggravating (book length aggravating) is his call for balance on the issues. Just what kind of balance is he calling for? A little he said and she said? “The coal miners are calling for greater safety because a coal miner dies every other day. But the coal industry counters that they don’t give a shit”? The fact is that the film gives the owners quite a bit of time to speak for themselves and it only makes them look worse. Most of all, however, the comment shows that Dennis Schwartz has lost his way as a critic; he was judging the film when he should have been living it. That’s why it takes multiple viewings before one can reasonably discuss a film.

I cannot recommend Harlan County, USA enough. Even apart from its politics (which ought to appeal to readers of this site), it tells an incredibly engaging story of actual human beings trying to live their lives under difficult circumstances. And the music is fantastic.

Afterword

None of the people in the films are made to look particularly noble, and yet, I could not help thinking of the chorus to Bruce Cockburn’s “Nicaragua”: “In the flash of this moment; you’re the best of what we are.” And indeed, warts and all, they are.

Pretend Liberals

Andrew CuomoEric Alterman had a great article in last week’s print edition of The Nation, Cuomo Vs. Cuomo (that link it behind a pay wall, but a subscription only costs $9.50 per year—I think The New York Times charges more per month). In it, he talks about the two sides of Cuomo the Younger (Andrew): Socially Progressive Economically Conservative. This is so common (as readers of this blog know) that some clever pundits have coined an acronym: SPEC.

I have a better term for such people: Pretend Liberals. It is really quite simple: it doesn’t matter what laws you have if the power of individuals is too unequal. If you have the money, you can get around most laws. Wanna launder drug money? That might cost you a few bucks, but certainly not your freedom. If you don’t have money, you just better be lucky. Wanna launder drug money? You’re looking at life imprisonment. Hell, you don’t have to do anything at all for the state to kill you.

(It’s interesting to think about this for a moment. There is a great test case: OJ Simpson. Rich OJ had no problem getting a not guilty verdict against a case that was pretty strong. Poor OJ got 33 years for a fairly trumped up charge. Rich man poor man: free man caged man.)

Thus, I think we really need to do something about the Democratic Party. Over the last 20 years, the party really has abandoned economic issues. Just watch MSNBC. It is frightening. Now, I’m not suggesting that the people on MSNBC don’t believe in economic liberalism. Rather, they are all well-to-do, and are more than willing to overlook the economic issue if they can get some decent policy (Or lip service!) on guns or gay rights. What’s more, we have our great liberal president whose idea of fair is for the rich to pay an extra percent in taxes while the elderly get their benefits cut by substantially more. That’s not liberalism; that’s conservatism; it’s just not fascism.

We need to rework our political party. We need to embrace economic liberalism. It is not an option. “Economically conservative” means “conservative.” And the only way that most liberal voters will understand this is if we promote the idea. We’ve lived through 20 years during which the Democratic Party has been nothing more than Republican Lite. Not only is that completely at odds with what most liberals want, it is a losing strategy. The Republicans were still winning in 2009 when Democrats controlled the executive and legislative branches of government because the terms of the debate were still conservative. Note that even with overwhelming control of both houses, we couldn’t even discuss single payer healthcare. The Republicans won before the debate started.

We need real liberals. New Deal liberals; Fair Deal liberals; Great Society liberals. Not Economic Conservative liberals. They aren’t real liberals. When we elect one, we lose.

Dramatic Momentum and Third Acts

Happy, TexasI’ve been thinking about two comedies recently that have what I normally consider problematic third acts. The first film is kind of a classic of this kind of problem, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The third act is a total muddle. Lothos tries to woo Buffy, she rejects him, he attacks her and is killed in an action sequence so brief that you need to watch it over just to figure out what happened. (Not much.) Now, I’m all for quick third act resolutions, and overly long third acts are now the fashion. But the third act needs to pay off the other two and Buffy provides nothing other than showing Kristy Swanson in a very pretty dress.

The second film is Happy, Texas. It too has a very short third act with one of the most forgettable car chases in movie history. Yet, it works perfectly. There are a number of reasons for this. Fundamentally, it is about characters. Happy has lots of interesting characters with their own story arcs. By the end of the second act all the characters have become new people. All the third act needs to do is some clean up. The two romances must face the reality of who the men really are, the beauty pageant must be held and the bank robbery stopped, and of course, we have to provide a happy ending for Sheriff Dent’s sexual awakening. And all of that (And more!) is done in just a couple of minutes of screen time.

Comparing the two movies, what matters is not the length of acts. Famously, North by Northwest cleans up all of its many loose ends inside a minute. What really matters is the dramatic momentum going into the third act. Happy, Texas has great momentum with lots of different plot lines colliding. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a number of different plot lines, none of them interesting and they certainly aren’t colliding. Will Buffy’s friends stay with her as she takes off with Pike? They’ve already abandoned her and there is no reconciliation. I’m not sure what the vampires want except that Lothos wants a date. The only compelling relationship in the film is Buffy’s with Merrick. And after his death, the film just muddles on. (It does, however, pretend to set up the third act, but totally fails in the effort.)

When it comes to theater or film, dramatic momentum is all. Sadly, it seems more and more a thing of the past. I watch far too many movies with almost random plots. I have a very hard time predicting where these plots are going. This isn’t because they are clever. It is just that where they’re going is random. It’s film making by the numbers: a car chase, then a sex scene, then a fight. Or perhaps: a fight, a sex scene, then a car chase. But I don’t think that I’m just some old guy who can’t get behind the new trend. The truth is that 500 years ago, theater was much like this. The history of drama has been mostly about the refinement of dramatic momentum. I don’t think it is going away. I just think there are a lot of really bad films made.

Afterword

Yesterday, I wrote about weak acting performances and how it is often the director’s fault. That is certainly the case with Rutger Hauer in Buffy. I know he is a talented actor from other films. But in this one? He seems like an amateur.

End the Corporate Income Tax?

Matt YglesiasMatt Yglesias has a modest proposal. He says we should get rid of the corporate income tax. It only brings in 1-2% of federal income taxes. So given how good corporations are at getting out of it, let’s just abolish it. As he notes, the main good it does is to provide employment for “a small army of accountants, tax lawyers, lobbyists, and CNBC talking heads.” He says we can replace it with a better targeted tax.

Fair enough. But what kind of tax? Here, I’m totally with Yglesias: get rid of the current low tax rates for dividend income. In doing that, we would effectively be taxing the same people the corporate tax did. Except it would be even better: creating a more focused, direct tax. What’s more, it would get rid of the specious argument that corporate taxes just get passed onto consumers.

The problem I have with this idea is that (like most of Yglesias’ bright ideas) it wouldn’t work that way in the real world. Sure, both political parties would be happy to eliminate the corporate income tax. Really: both. But Republicans would claim that tax cuts don’t have to be offset because they pay for themselves. That would result in another huge tax cut for the wealthiest among us.

The other possibility is that the Democrats would force some offsetting tax. But there is no way that the Republicans would allow the tax to be offset with a tax on the rich. It just wouldn’t happen. Instead, we would get some tax that (as usual) soaks the middle class. So Yglesias’ idea is sound in theory, but in practice would just redistribute more income upward.

We don’t need any more of that.

Afterword

Now that I think about it, the idiotic idea that corporate taxes are just passed on to consumers might be used to justify a middle class tax increase. Conservatives could argue that the middle class will get better prices from corporations so it is a wash. This, of course, is totally wrong. But I can well imagine it catching fire in the conservative echo chamber.

In Which the Birthdays Suck

Steve GaddThis is by far the worst day for birthday since I started this. But let’s get it over with. Carl Perkins was born on this day back in 1932.

Hugh Hefner, who I think is a distinctly creepy guy, is 87. Objectivist psychologist and Ayn Rand lover (as in sex, not necessarily devotion) Nathaniel Branden is 83. Jim Fowler of Wild Kingdom is 81. Dennis Quaid is 59. Idiot pundit Joe Scarborough is 50. And the actress who plays the least annoying character on Sex in the City, Cynthia Nixon is 47.

And the day belongs to a really great drummer, Steve Gadd, who is 68 today. He isn’t really associated with any band, he’s mostly just a studio hired gun. Check out this amazing drum solo on “Aja” by Steely Dan: