The Artist Is Silly and Wonderful

The ArtistI just saw The Artist for the first time. I haven’t avoided it; tonight was simply the first chance I got to see it. A number of people have recommended it to me. And let me be blunt: it is my kind of film. People like me love films about film. And The Artist is charming as hell. If for no other reason, the film should be viewed just to see the dog.

Looking through what people have said about the film, it looks like they may have taken it all too seriously. That’s especially true of the few who didn’t like it. To put it simply: it is a 1920s silent film about a 1920s silent film star’s career. And as such, the film relishes the same cliches that it parodies in films inside the film. And it is melodrama from beginning to end. Yet it is incredibly compelling.

It has me thinking how little reality we ever see in any film. But modern films work very hard to hide that fact and I guess as the audience, we play along. Still, that means that the storytelling gets clogged up with a lot of nonsense. What I felt more than anything in The Artist was how fast the story moved along. The film is the same length as both The Expendables II and A Good Day to Die Hard. Yet The Artist seemed half as long.

Part of this is undoubtedly just that The Artist is a well crafted script. Too much of these action film scripts are padded to death with explosions and so on designed to distract. The Artist is filled with wonderful comic bits, which at least tell us more about the people and the totally unreal world they live in. But it is more than just screenwriting craft. The story works because it doesn’t try to be anything but a story. Normally, I would think that would create something of limited interest, but apparently not.

It’s also nice that the film is devoid of any subplots. To me, subplots are what writers come up with when they can’t make the main story interesting (Or long!) enough. As you may have noticed, I haven’t mentioned the female lead Peppy Miller because she isn’t really all that important to the film except that she and Valentin clearly have a thing for each other and she is the counter example to his decline. There is one great scene with them in the middle of the film where he overhears her talking to reporters saying, “Out with the old, in with the new. Make way for the young!” It’s right out of All About Eve, but especially terrible because we know Valentin can hear her. So he goes up to her table and says, “I’ve made way for you.” And he walks out.

Another aspect of the film is its almost complete absence of exposition. When Valentin was arguing with Zimmer about continuing it make silent films, I thought The Artist screwed up. It didn’t need all that explaining. In fact, I thought the film could have used half as many title cards. Still, it had one-tenth the exposition of most modern films. Well crafted films don’t have to do much telling. A great example in the film was when we first meet Valentin’s wife and all we see of her is the newspaper with the headline “Who’s That Girl?” It made me think of this great “Breakfast Montage” scene from Citizen Kane. The last cut with her reading Kane’s competitor’s paper needs no words:

One more film I was reminded of was Umberto D when Valentin tries to kill himself. Sometimes the only thing between us and eternity is a little dog who teaches us the meaning of life. And that’s a very interesting contrast because Umberto D is a serious film with serious things to say. The Artist is a silly film with nothing particular to say. Yet they both do say a great deal.

Afterword

Technically, the film was wonderful as well. The music is especially important. The emotional content of almost all the scenes could have been completely changed with different music. It was wonderful.

Americans Never Listen!

Brian WilliamsFor obvious reasons, I am behind on my writing about the various outrages that result from even a cursory attention to the news. So you will forgive me if I dig back a bit into my collection of current events. Over a week ago, Glenn Greenwald brought my attention to a bit of mainstream media propaganda that is totally unacceptable, Brian Williams’ Iran Propaganda.

On the 27 September NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams covered Obama’s historic phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He said, “This is all part of a new leadership effort by Iran—suddenly claiming they don’t want nuclear weapons!” Greenwald goes into the long history of Iran claiming this, including the fatwa by the top leadership in Iran. Iranian official Ramin Mehmanparast said, “We are the first country to call for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. When the highest jurist and authority in the country’s leadership issues a fatwa, this will be binding for all of us to follow. So, this fatwa will be our top agenda.”

More to the point: for a number of years there has been no evidence at all that the Iranians are trying to build nuclear weapons. And if you look at the world from Iran’s perspective, they are much more interested in getting nuclear weapons out of Israel than they are getting them into Iran. The big unstated fact is that Israel has lots of nuclear weapons and that has to concern the rest of the countries in the Middle East, especially considering how belligerent the Israelis are. (Not that I’m saying they don’t have some cause for that!)

None of this takes away from the fact that Iran might be working on a nuclear weapon or that they might at least want one. I’m absolutely certain that some people in Iran want nukes; there are those kinds of people everywhere (especially in the United States). But Williams’ comment is really interesting because it shows that it doesn’t much matter what Iran (or pretty much any other country) says; he doesn’t listen. If he wants to hate on Iran, fine; he could say, “Iran has long claimed they don’t want nuclear weapons, but objective journalists like me—Brian Williams—know better!” But to pretend that Iran has not been saying what they most definitely have is beneath contempt.

More than that, it is dangerous. I remember after the Iraq invasion, after it was clear there were no weapons of mass destruction, people in the mainstream press were amazed. I even remember someone on television (I don’t remember who) saying, “Why didn’t Saddam Hussein just say he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction?!” That blew my mind. I didn’t follow the news nearly as much as I now do, yet I knew that Hussein had said just that over and over and over again. Whenever it was mentioned, of course, it was ridiculed. At minimum, the subtext was, “Yeah, right!”

I suspect if the neocons got their way and we had a huge war with Iran that killed (my guess) a couple million people, we would find the same thing. It would turn out that the Iranian government had no nuclear weapons program. If that happened, I can well imagine Brian Williams saying with some shock, “Why didn’t they just tell us they had no nuclear weapons?!” And similarly ignorant American television audiences everywhere would scratch their heads, “It’s a puzzler, ain’t it?”

Oh, Not to Be With Carole Lombard

Carole LombardOn this day in 1897, the great biochemist Florence Seibert was born. She isolated a pure form of tuberculin which is an important part of tuberculosis tests. You have to remember that a hundred years ago, tuberculosis was a terrible disease that killed many people in a very painful way. There is such a tendency to forget the contributions of female scientists like Dr. Seibert. I know from my own experience in academia that there are often “big men” in fields who have not done that much. And then there are others (much more likely to be women) who are not big deals despite important work. Somehow, they just don’t have “gravitas.”

Other birthdays: mathematician Richard Dedekind (1831); inventor George Westinghouse (1846); composer Karol Szymanowski (1882); pioneering astrophysicist Riccardo Giacconi (82); actor Elisabeth Shue (50); and actor Jeremy Sisto (39).

The day, however, belongs to actor Carole Lombard who was born in 1908. I especially remember her for her last film To Be or Not to Be. Shortly after making it, she died in a plane crash returning from a tour selling defense bonds. It’s sad, but she left us with a whole lot of fun films from the 1930s. It is slightly ironic that her last film spoofs the Nazis. But it is as good today as ever—maybe better. The film is very funny, but there aren’t a lot of great clips. Lombard is amusing in the following clip. “This is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes. Bye!”

Happy birthday Carole Lombard!

How The Shutdown Ends

Matt YglesiasFollowing up on my afterword in the last article, Matt Yglesias has an interesting (very short) article about how the government shutdown will resolve itself. He is riffing on a tweet by the front man for everything House Republican, the National Review’s Robert Costa, “The theater of the standoff is integral to House GOP unity; unless you go to 11th chaotic hour, many on right will yell, ‘Ya caved!'” I’m sure that’s important in the thinking of the House Republicans, but I think it’s silly. The base is going to say “Ya caved!” regardless of when it happens. People like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh have primed the base to think that all the Republicans have to do is hold out long enough (Four months? Two years? Whatever it takes!) and they will win.

I think it is really strange. The Republicans have been absolutely fantastic at managing expectations outside the party. Everyone expects that they will do nothing or at least nothing good. So when they manage to approve pay for furloughed federal workers, there is dancing in the streets. But when it comes to managing expectations inside the party, the Republicans are hopeless. I don’t think there is any secret to why it is: Fox News and the radio ranters are what define the thinking of the base. But after all this time, I would think the party would have taken control.

Yglesias and Costa both seem to think that the Republicans will “cave.” I don’t see it like that. The Republicans will demand something to save face. The most obvious is the repeal of the medical device tax. I think it is a very good tax. The government is pushing lots of new business to these companies, the least they can do is pay a bit (2.5%) back. But the Democrats might go for it because they are also corrupt and they take money from these same companies.

I hope it doesn’t work out this way. The best situation would be that Boehner allows a vote in exchange for “negotiations.” That would probably work well with the base because the Republicans have been saying for week that they are the reasonable ones; all they want is to negotiate. The facts say quite the opposite, but that doesn’t much matter to the base who only get their news from the right wing echo chamber. The other possibility is that the Republicans could listen to Ramesh Ponnuru who has been trying to remind the Republicans if they get something they want, they must give the Democrats something in return. His idea is a one year delay of the individual mandate for a one year elimination of the Sequester. (That’s a typical conservative gambit itself: give us what we want and we’ll give you something we both want. But it’s a start.)

Overall, it is good news. The government will be back up and running in a week and a half. The Debt Ceiling will be out of the way for another year. Federal workers will get paid. And we can get back on to our usual dysfunction. The Republicans will probably come away from the whole experience with a bad taste in their mouths, but they won’t have lost anything. Maybe it will make other such hostage taking less likely. Maybe. But the main thing is that we have to beat the Republicans at the polls. That’s the only way they will start acting like a normal political party.

Discharge Petition Is Very Bad

FilibusterI was amazed on Friday to see that Rachel Maddow was again pushing the discharge petition as though that is going to solve all of our government shutdown problems. She even showed a rather long clip from Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, which she claims explains the process really well. Except that it doesn’t. A discharge petition has all kinds of limitations that make it almost useless in this case.

Sarah Binder is a political scientist over at The Monkey Cage, which is unfortunately now part of the Washington Post. On Wednesday, she wrote a really informative article about how discharge petitions work. Two things are critical. First, the bill to be discharged (in this case the clean continuing resolution) must have been stuck in committee for at least 30 days. Second, after the discharge petition is filed, it is put on the discharge calendar, but the House will only vote on them on the second and fourth Mondays of the month. That would put a vote sometime in mid-November.

But some smart people came up with a way to get around the 30 day limit. Greg Sargent reported Friday, “But now House Democrats say they have found a previously filed bill to use as a discharge petition—one that would fund the government at sequester levels.” This bill has been stuck in committee since March of this year, so it’s ready to go. It could get a vote as soon as the 14th of his month. There, are, of course, big problems.

This bill, Government Shutdown Prevention Act, would cause there to be an automatic continuing resolution (CR) for 4 months any time Congress failed to enact a new budget or pass a CR itself. I like this idea very much. And that is very much the problem. It would be hard enough (most likely impossible) to get Republicans to go against their party on a single CR. Given that the Republican Party now govern entirely on shutdown and Debt Ceiling threats, a vote for this bill would be a vote to eliminate half of all the Republican “tools” going forward. In addition, the Senate Republicans would almost certainly filibuster such a bill.

But let’s assume for a moment that all of this worked: the discharge petition worked and the bill got through the Senate and the president signed it. We would be 2 days from hitting the Debt Ceiling. And given that the House Republicans would feel that a particularly dirty trick was played on this, we can be pretty sure that the deadline for that would be missed as well. So a discharge petition would be a terrible thing. Luckily, we don’t have to worry about it.

Afterword

The way I see this all playing out is that the government shutdown will drag on through next week. At the end of the week we will see things loosen up. By Monday, the House will offer something like a repeal of the medical device tax in exchange for the continuing resolution and a Debt Ceiling increase. That isn’t so bad on one level. But it will be another example to the Republicans that they really can use extortion to get what they want. I am seriously thinking about giving up on politics and going back to my essays on communities. This is messed up.