If you haven’t seen this, I thought it was funny as hell:
But it has been a long day.
If you haven’t seen this, I thought it was funny as hell:
But it has been a long day.
I have long been a fan of the Scottish director Bill Forsyth. He is most remembered for two of his earlier films: Gregory’s Girl and one of the greatest movies ever made, Local Hero. Annoyingly, after that, few people seemed to care, even though he made three excellent films in quick succession: Comfort and Joy, Housekeeping, and Breaking In. And the two films after that (Being Human and Gregory’s Two Girls) have been savaged. I am here to tell you that there is a 90% chance that whatever films you watch over the course of the next month will be worse than the weakest Forsyth film, and there is a 99% chance they will be worse than his average.
Over the last week, I’ve been revisiting Forsyth’s film. It all started when I at long last got to see his first film, That Sinking Feeling. It tells the story of a bunch of unemployed youths who learn how much steel sinks are worth. From there it turns into a bizarre heist movie that is really just an excuse for spending some time with all of the colorful characters Forsyth has created. And that’s pretty much what goes on in all of his films: there is some plot that is an excuse to meet and hang out with what are always very interesting people.
After that, Forsyth made Gregory’s Girl, which was hugely popular based almost entirely on its overwhelming charm. It tells the story of Gregory’s search for a girlfriend and a kind of “girl’s union” that sees to it that he gets the right one. What makes it so enjoyable is that it portrays boys as various kinds of nerds who are focused on whatever (like one friend’s obsession with Venezuela because he’s heard there are many more women than men there), guided along by wise and practical girls who are immune to such nonsense. But mostly, there are just wonderful characters like Gregory and his ten-year-old sister Madeleine.
This theme of Forsyth’s continues in his next film, Local Hero. But instead of boys, it deals with men. From the owner of an oil company to the old beachcomber who stands in the way of a deal, all the men are strangely detached from the practical aspects of life. The film emphasizes the importance of the larger community to the individual. This is distinct from later films were he is more interested in sub-communities where people find meaning together outside their larger connections. I suspect this film is so well loved because it is Forsyth’s most overtly artistic film. There is lots of material to allow the viewer to speculate about meaning. But again, it is really just an excuse to hang with more wonderful characters.
Next up is probably my favorite Forsyth film, Comfort and Joy. And typically, it isn’t even available on DVD in the United States. It tells the story of a guy whose crazy girlfriend leaves him heartbroken. In attempting to get over her, he becomes involved a turf war between two ice cream truck companies. Rarely does a film combine three of my favorite things: crazy women, the meaning of life, and ice cream. Don’t pass up the chance to see this film. And right now the whole film (in 7 parts) is on YouTube. But don’t wait! It may disappear soon!
After a couple of years off, Bill Forsyth came back with his first theatrical film based on someone else’s story, Housekeeping, from the novel of the same name by Marilynne Robinson. He couldn’t have chosen better—it exemplifies the themes that clearly interest him. But it adds one that doesn’t come easy to him: the way in which the larger society can stifle the individual and keep sub-communities from existing. All of Forsyth’s films are deliberately paced, but they tend to be rather loud and chatty. Housekeeping is very quiet and arguably his most beautiful film. It also features a remarkable performance by Christine Lahti as crazy Aunt Sylvie.
Two years later, Forsyth was back to his old tricks with Breaking In. Again, he didn’t write it, but he chose well; it was written by another of our greatest modern storytellers, John Sayles (if you haven’t seen it, go watch Silver City—I’m figuring you’ve already seen The Brother from Another Planet). It is about a bored teenager who breaks into houses just to hang out. One night, he meets a professional thief when they both break into the same house at the same time. They start working together and become good friends. Here we get back to Forsyth’s fascination with the nerdy interests of men: in this case, burglary.
The last two films took five years each to see the light of day. The first was his largest budget film, Being Human starring Robin Williams with a really excellent supporting cast (John Turturro, Bill Nighy, Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Carlyle, Hector Elizondo, and on and on). I don’t have much to say about it because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. It was originally 3 hours long and the producers had it cut down to 2 hours. The director’s cut has never been released. It is clearly not Forsyth at his best, but it is a lot better than people say. Give it a watch if you can find it.
Finally we come to Gregory’s Two Girls, a sequel to Gregory’s Girl, set 20 years in the future when Gregory is a would-be radical, teaching English at his former school. I heard nothing but horrible things about this film, so I was really worried going into it. But as usual, the complaints of the critics were meaningless. I think the problem is that critics will only be happy if Forsyth makes Gregory’s Girl or (especially) Local Hero again. Gregory’s Two Girls is everything that I’ve come to expect from him: interesting characters, strange but ultimately pointless plot, and a bold and positive theme. Now I know how Forsyth could have made Gregory’s Two Girls into a film that everyone would have loved: changed the beginning and end. The opening is a most inappropriate sexual fantasy between a teacher and a student. He could have cut two minutes off it and everyone would have found it charming. Instead, they tended to find it disturbing. I think Forsyth thought it was funny as hell, and it is on a second viewing after you know what’s going to happen. People also have a problem with the ending which would likely work better in a novel than it does on the screen: it is too uncertain. But Forsyth knows what he’s doing; it isn’t a random ending.
And that’s the thing about the reactions to Forsyth: people get angry when he doesn’t provide them with the film they hoped he would make. This is my biggest criticism of film “criticism”: rather than approach a film on its own terms, the ombudsmen complain that it is not a different film. In the long run, history is kinder to the artists who maintain their idiosyncrasies. And that defines Bill Forsyth. That Sinking Feeling fully predicts Gregory’s Two Girls. And I’m glad for that. I am so tired of seeing innovative filmmakers turn into predictable Hollywood hacks.
Now go and sin no more. And watch Comfort and Joy while there’s still time!
To make it very easy for you, I’ve created a play list so you can watch all of Comfort and Joy together:
I just watched the whole film. There is a problem. It cuts off during the credits. There is a voice over during them where Dicky reads an add for the new product. It isn’t critical to the film, but it is a nice touch. The film is every bit as good as I remembered it. And it is a lot funnier than I had recalled. It’s brilliant.
 Forsyth made a TV movie Andrina based upon a George Mackay Brown short story. It has never been released in any form so far as I know.
James Monroe was born this day in 1758. Portuguese painter Jose Malhoa was born in 1855. The lesser brother, Lionel Barrymore was born in 1878. Blues great Charlie Patton was born in 1891. Romance novelist and despot Saddam Hussein was born in 1937. And Bruno Kirby was born in 1949.
The great Harper Lee is 87 today. On even the most impressive days, she would be the person of the day—just not today. Not totally unreasonable conservative James Baker is 83. Novelist Terry Pratchett is 65. Once funny comedian Jay Leno is 63. And actor Penelope Cruz is 39.
But the day belongs to mathematician Kurt Godel who was born in 1906. When I was young, I worked very hard to understand his incompleteness theorems. These basically said that any axiomatic system of sufficient complexity was necessarily incomplete. Since the time of Euclid, mathematicians had hoped they could state a few postulates and create a complete system based upon this—know everything about the system. Not true, showed Godel. Here is Rudy Rucker’s non-mathematical proof from his book Infinity and the Mind:
Of course, Godel was a nut. Many mathematicians are profoundly introverted, living largely in an unseen word of ideas. Even with my little brain, I feel very much a kinship in this way and I regret having studied physics rather than math. Regardless, I’m not crazy. Godel starved himself after his wife died because he would only trust food she had made. It is very sad. But he left us a great legacy.
Happy birthday Kurt Godel!
Mike Elk is a labor reporter at In These Times Magazine. “A labor report?” you ask. “I thought those weren’t allowed in the mainstream press!” Well, In These Times Magazine ain’t exactly mainstream. They only have a circulation of about 20,000. Now if they started covering everything from the standpoint of the business community (especially big business), then maybe people would taken more Seriously. But thank God for the few Mike Elks foraging on the edges of the media forest. Last week, the Washington Post, which is committed to never allow pro-labor reporting, did open its opinion pages to him.
He wrote, The Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion Cannot Be Forgotten. It is a fantastic article that compares the coverage of the Fertilizer Plant explosion with that of the Boston Marathon bombing. As I discussed last week in Profits Before People, as much as the Boston bombing is a tragedy, the Texas explosion is worse.
Elk provides more details that are not widely know. (He’s clever that way: slipping actual facts onto the pages of Fox on 15th Street.) Here are a few of the highlights:
The main point is that a lot of people die in preventable workplace accidents and very few die from terrorist attacks. In fact, the number of American killed by terrorist attacks each year is about the same as the number crushed to death by their TVs.
But there is an even more fundamental issue going on and it gets to the heart of the culpability of the Washington Post and other mainstream media outlets. During the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Elk tweeted and Ken Ward Jr responded brilliantly:
@mikeelk Terrorists want media attention, so we give it to them. Unsafe industries don’t want media attention – so we give that to them.
— Kenwardjr (@Kenwardjr) April 19, 2013
This really is not a question of journalists just chasing the exciting story. There could be a great deal of excitement chasing after the plant owner and asking him why 1,350 times the legal limit of ammonium nitrate was in the plant. In fact, that sounds like something 60 Minutes did in the old days. There could be countless pundits on cable news screaming about how unacceptable this is. Instead, after it was determined that the West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion wasn’t a terrorist attack but just another greedy company that cares only of profits and nothing of its employees, the media tuned out. Anyway, most news outlets don’t have labor reporters. How would they even cover it?
You know how racism works, right? You hate blacks; you think they are violent. You see a news story about some black guy who killed his girlfriend. That’s more evidence that blacks are violent. You see another news story about some black guy who helps young people start small businesses. Well, that’s the exception; you never said that all blacks were bad (even though you in fact did). It’s all about an inclination. Racism is natural for us as a species. The real question is if you have strong feelings about any group of people, are you going to feed it with biased information or not? You can fight against these irrational feelings or your can use your rational mind to reinforce them. It is up to you.
The same thing goes on with societies at large. The best example of this is how Islam is portrayed. Every time there is a terrorist attack by a Muslim, the whole country emits a huge, “See?!” When a terrorist attack is performed by someone else, the reaction is vague confusion, “Oh, what a surprise!” And it gets filed under, “Sometimes terrorists are not Muslims, but usually they are.” And that’s as far as it goes.
Juan Cole wrote an amazing article over at his blog informed COMMENT, Terrorism and the Other Religions. He looked at political and religious violence over the last century and found that very little of it was done by Muslims. They make up almost one-quarter of the population but only about 2% of the killing. Now most of that killing was in the world wars. But he goes on to note the universality of terrorism. This part particularly struck me:
I remember back to all the trouble in Northern Ireland when the IRA was most clearly a terrorist organization. They killed over 600 civilians in a country of only a million and a half. (That is equivalent to over 100,000 in the United States.) That was political and religious. And yet no one went on TV and attacked the Irish. There was no discussion of radical-Catholicism. And there’s a good reason for that: the Irish and the Catholics by that point were well integrated into our society. Muslims are still thought of as outsiders. I even hear people say the same things people said about the Irish and Catholics earlier in our history, “They stay among themselves; they don’t want to integrate!” It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. There is a process and it takes generations.
Our media really need to take a lot of blame for this. All this emphasis on Muslim terrorism and endless apology for all others just feeds the cultural bigotry against one of our more recent groups of immigrants. You can go back to the beginning of our republic and see the same dynamic again and again. We should learn to put this stuff in perspective. Juan Cole’s article is a small corrective. I recommend reading the whole thing.
Here is a great Bill Moyer interview with Glenn Greenwald on some of these issues:
The day, however, belongs to Samuel Morse who was born on this day back in 1791. In addition to all that business about the telegraph, he was rather a good painter. He was also a total asshole. Let me count the ways. First, he was radically anti-Catholic, because, you know, he was a protestant and knew the one true way. Second, he was anti-immigrant, because, you know, he was already here. Third, he was pro-slavery, because, you know, being born in Massachusetts he had no reason to be for it except that the Bible told him so. Just listen to the great man on the subject:
That’s the problem with getting your morality from a book—especially one from thousands of years earlier that is filed with the vilest of social conventions cloaked in the idea that it was God’s will. Anyway, like most evil men, he had a long and happy life. He certainly didn’t make as much money off his patents as he could have, but he lived and died quite rich. So if you hear anyone complain that he didn’t get his due, remember: he lived like Mitt Romney but might have lived like Warren Buffett if his patents had been better controlled. Excuse me if I don’t care.
Anyway, happy birthday you bigot! Morally, you should have telegraphed to the word: . . . – – – . . .
Kenneth Rogoff, last year:
In a series of academic papers with Carmen Reinhart… we find that very high debt levels of 90% of GDP are a long-term secular drag on economic growth that often lasts for two decades or more.
Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, today:
Nowhere did we assert that 90 percent was a magic threshold that transforms outcomes, as conservative politicians have suggested.
I will admit, Carmen Reinhart did not run around the country claiming that we had to have austerity or we’d have slow or even negative economic growth. No, it’s always been Kenneth Rogoff. Just the same, we didn’t hear a peep from Reinhart that he was mischaracterizing their work. But let’s lay that aside for the moment. If Reinhart & Rogoff didn’t show that a 90% debt to GDP ratio was some bad tipping point, what was the big deal of their paper? Matt Yglesias answers this question, “The raw fact that there’s a statistical correlation between debt:GDP being high and GDP growth being low is trivial and offers no policy guidance.”
What we have here is a case of scientists riding a popular wave based upon an obscene overstatement (that they helped create) of their work. And then when their work is shown in no uncertain terms to not show what was claimed, they retreat back to the safety of scientific objectivity and caveats. This is totally unacceptable. Rogoff especially should be thrown out of the field. But of course he won’t be. He’s “elite.” And you know what that means: unless he’s caught tweeting pictures of his junk, he can’t be touched.
Have you heard? Senate Votes to End Furloughs of Air Traffic Controllers. The House is working on it as I write this and the President is likely to sign it. Are you surprised? Only if you’ve been living in a cave your entire life.
I think we should call this the “Rich People Can’t Be Inconvenienced in the Least” act. Because that is what this is all about. It is totally okay if the poor and weak are harmed by the Sequester. Shared sacrifice, am I right?! We’ve all got to pull together and if that means that malnourished children have to march for days without shoes, that’s just the way it has to be. On the other hand, if a rich man has a pebble in his show, why, we’d better do something about it. Perhaps a few barefoot children could carry him.
The Senate cares about these flight delays because because it affects them and their wealthy friends. This is not a partisan issue! They are all in it against the rest of us. When the Sequester hit the Head Start program hard, that was just the way it had to be. And I understand this: the Sequester was a terrible piece of legislation. But now Congress has decided to make it even worse. The rich, whose lives are already, shall we understate it and say “good,” have Congress (and the President!) jumping to attention to make sure that the Sequester only hurts people whose lives already suck.
Paul Krugman’s column this morning was called, The 1 Percent’s Solution. In it he talks about how the people of the United States do not want austerity. They do not want to cut programs for the poor. They do not want to cut programs for the old. But can you guess who does want all these things? The rich, of course. And Krugman points out what we have become: a country “of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent.”
And so it goes on. Our supposedly democratic government will continue to inflict pain on the poor and weak. Why? Because they are poor and weak. At the same time they will do anything the wealthy and powerful want. Why? Because they are wealthy and powerful.
And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!
In case anyone is wondering, I know a lot of non-rich people travel by air. I am one of them. But that is not why Congress has sprung into action.
Art theorist and painter Gian Paolo Lomazzo was born on this day in 1538. French master Eugene Delacroix was born in 1798. American impressionist Edmund C. Tarbell was born in 1862. And everyone’s favorite Nazi Rudolf Hess was born in 1894.
Carol Burnett is 80 today!
But the day does not belong to painters, comedians, or even Nazis. No, today belongs to the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s hard to know what to say about him. His work was largely analytical—more math than philosophy. What I find most interesting is his discussions of how language maps to reality and how we can transcend the limits of language. Umberto Eco in his essay “Absolute and Relative” puts it well:
It’s that kind of stuff. But harder.
Happy birthday Ludwig Wittgenstein!
Last night, I tried to watch two films. I’ve been putting off watching Three Kings for some time, so I finally sat down to watch it. It seems partly based upon Kelly’s Heroes, which I don’t much like. But I have to say, Three Kings made me appreciate it more. This isn’t because of the film. It is about how the characters act. Regardless of how actual soldiers acted in World War II versus how they acted in the Persian Gulf War, the representations indicate that we are devolving. Put simply: we apparently don’t have to bomb a people back to the stone age to show them that we are assholes. After about a half hour I stopped watching the film. It isn’t that the film is not well made, I just wasn’t in the mood for it.
So I put on In the Loop. It is a comedy about the lead up to the Iraq War. It isn’t in any way accurate in the details, although I tend to think it is exactly right broadly speaking. Basically: there were a bunch of powerful people who really wanted to go to war so we did. The first two acts are very funny. Actually, the third act is very funny, I just didn’t laugh. It got too real and I got increasingly angry that these assholes pushed us into war and then managed to screw over everyone who showed the least sign of a soul or backbone. It does not have a happy ending because the Bush-Blair days were not happy. (I still have a great deal of anger toward Blair because I tend to think without his help, Bush could not have gone to war in Iraq; but I might be overestimating Bush.)
The highlights of the film are two actors. First, Peter Capaldi is Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed alpha male Director of Communications. I first saw him in Local Hero where he played such a nice young man. Since then, he seems to have been type cast as a profane Scot. He is hilarious here, although you might want to put on the subtitles so you don’t miss any of the great writing. The second actor is the always wonderful Tom Hollander, who plays Simon Foster, the Secretary of State for International Development. He is a man who really believes in things. Except when he doesn’t. And he goes back and forth on this quite a lot. Here is perhaps the high point of the film where Simon is (quite rightly) chewing out his assistant for showing up at a meeting in his slept-in clothes after a hard night of drinking:
If you like British comedy, you can’t help but enjoy In the Loop. But if you are sometimes offended by the language I use on this site, you should avoid it. The film relishes in its obscenities.
On a related note, the much maligned film War Inc. is very good. My guess is that it will become popular over the next 20 years as people realize that if they don’t approach it as “the sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank” that it is brilliant social and political satire.
Back in February, I wrote about the situation with H1-B visas. These are visas that allow highly educated workers in science and technology (STEM) to come to the United States to work. High tech companies are always pushing for more of these visas. But as I pointed out then, this is not a form of immigration; it is more like indentured servitude. But most important from a policy standpoint, it is yet another example of how companies who are well connected can get unfair advantages from the government.
I also noted that company requests for H1-B workers did not represent the fact that there were not qualified workers in America; they represent the fact that companies don’t want to pay the going rate for workers with these skills. Well, on Wednesday, the Economic Policy Institute released a report by Salzman, Kuehn, and Lowell (SKL), Guestworkers in the High-Skill U.S. Labor Market. Their conclusion, “Our examination of the IT labor market, guestworker flows, and the STEM education pipeline finds consistent and clear trends suggesting that the United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations” (italics in original).
There is one fundamental economic fact about the supposed lack of STEM workers: there is no unusual growth in wages. If there really were a high demand for workers and a low supply, wages should increase to push more people into the field. This is not happening so there really isn’t any reason to think there is a huge unfulfilled demand. As SKL noted, “Employment and wage levels in IT jobs have been weak, trends that are not consistent with strong demand.” What’s more, they showed that there is more than enough supply of STEM workers coming out of college. The United States graduates 50% more college educated workers than go into the field. Most of these graduates go into other fields because they can make more money, but roughly a third just can’t find jobs in their fields.
Meanwhile, guestworkers make up a large and increasing part of the workforce. In IT, as many as one-half of the new hires are guestworkers. In addition, a good one-third of the workforce doesn’t have college degrees at all. This isn’t to say that college degrees are necessary to do this kind of work. Rather, there are a lot of people who can fill the positions that these firms claim they need guestworkers for.
So we are left with a very bad situation. SKL conclude, “The supply of IT guestworkers appears to be growing dramatically, despite stagnant or even declining wages.” This is at a time when corporate profits are sky high. And even this explosion of guestworkers is not enough; the industry wants more. But let’s be clear: they want more because they want to keep wages as low as possible, not because they can’t find the workers.
According to The Hill yesterday evening, House Lawmakers Pull Immigration to the Right. That’s to be expected. As Idaho Republican Raul Labrador notes, “[There’re] a lot of things in the Senate bill that are right, but the reality is that the Senate is controlled by Democrats and the House is controlled by Republicans, and what you’re going to see out of the House is probably a more Republican bill.” There’s no problem with that thinking at all!
And that’s why it is so important for the Democratically controlled Senate to produce bills that maybe kind of sort of just a wee bit liberal. Instead, the Senate’s great compromise is that undocumented residents will be able to become citizens in a minimum of 13 years—that’s eight years of temporary legal status before they can get a Green Card. Compare that to conservative icon Ronald Reagan’s law: 18 months. Is this what we are supposed to think is a great liberal proposal? It isn’t even an acceptable liberal compromise. And that’s not even including all of the other right wing pro-business aspects of the bill.
But naturally, the House bill will have to be worse. According to The Hill, it will require 15 years. And remember, this is coming from a bipartisan group. What finally gets out of the House will be even worse. How about 25 years? 50 years? The maximum age that a human can live seems to be 124. So why not make it 125 years?! In fact, that would be perfect for Congress. They could pass a bill that doesn’t do a thing and still claim that they are doing something. A win-win!
Perhaps some day the Democratic Party will learn that if they put forward a proposal for a 3-year path to Green Card (which they could correctly argue is twice Reagan’s law), they might have ended up with a 5-year path. “But the Senate had to get past a filibuster!” Well whose fault is that? Regardless, even if they can’t pass legislation, the Democratic Party has to stand up and say, “We are for reasonable policies.” As long as they hurry to meet the Republicans in the middle, the conversation just moves further and further to the right.
And that’s how we got to this place. We need to get back to where we were in 1970 (at least). And we won’t get there by moving inch by inch to the right.