An Enjoyable Adult Melodrama

A Late QuartetLast night after my less than thrilling Silver Streak adventure, I decided to watch A Late Quartet. This is unusual for me. The film is barely a year old, and I find myself more and more trying to go back and pick up gems that I have missed from the past. But this film called to me, probably because the story centers on an established string quartet. That meant at least the music would be good. What’s more, it allows for all kinds of fun with theme and metaphor. And after Silver Streak, I needed something a little more, well, adult.

The four primary characters are about to start the 25th season as their world famous string quarter, The Fugue. The group formed with three students and one of their teachers, cellist Peter Mitchell, played by Christopher Walken. He is having trouble playing and soon finds out that he has Parkinson’s disease and so decides to retire. How exactly the quartet will proceed with a replacement for him is the critical question. And, of course, things get all screwed up. The second violin, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and viola player, Juliette (Catherine Keener), are married with a grown daughter. But Juliette once was involved with the first violin, Daniel (Mark Ivanir). That doesn’t lead to the obvious conflict. The emotional core of the film is Robert and his feeling that he is second violin in both the quartet and his marriage.

Obviously, there is far more to the film. Each of the four parts are interrelated just as in a quartet. Or perhaps a quintet because the daughter (Imogen Poots) is very important. But she is mostly reflective of the others—almost a narrative device to show Juliette when she was that age without the dramatic noise of flashbacks or similar devices. Anyway, to get a good idea of the tone, look, and sound of the film, watch the trailer:

It is nice to see a film that at least tries to appeal to adults. But I’m not sure to what extent it succeeds. The film exists on two levels at once. Emotionally, all is right. I don’t know the extent to which this is owed to the actors, but I do think it is some of the best work that any of them have done. On another level, however, the plot is hackneyed melodrama. But maybe that’s brilliant, because in my experience, most people’s love lives are very much like hackneyed melodrama. I don’t know quite what to think about that. Ultimately, the plot doesn’t matter.

It also panders a bit. Again, this may be brilliant or at least not such a bad thing. But the primary theme of the film about the necessity of emotional adjustment and the health of relationships is made concrete through dialog twice. In general, I don’t like themes being forced upon me. I’m able to work out my own meaning. But those bits of dialog are some of the best in the film. The writers are at their best when they are being explicitly intellectual. It is hard not to join in their enthusiasm, but I’m left feeling locked into their way of viewing the film, and the evolution of thought is one of the fun things about the best films.

In the end, I don’t think A Late Quartet is a great film. It is, however, a great attempt to make a piece of art. In addition, it was satisfying in the way a well prepared meal is, regardless of the excesses or eccentricities of the cook. And that is a whole lot more than I normally get from a film.

Jules Feiffer and More!

Jules FeifferOn this day in 1911, the physicist Polykarp Kusch was born. Along with Willis Lamb, he demonstrated the magnetic moment of the electron was greater than the theoretical value. This caused a whole bunch of changes in quantum electrodynamics. I have no idea how one would go about such a feat. But then, experimental anything has always amazed me. I was lucky if I could get through an afternoon in the lab without breaking something.

Paul Newman was born in 1925. He’s a good example of something we don’t talk about very much. Most of the great old stars got to where they were because they were born pretty. Don’t get me wrong: I think Newman was an excellent actor. But I think that is maybe a quarter of what it takes to be a star. Other film geeks and I may love Eli Wallach. And he is a better actor than Newman was and at least as charming on screen. But he wasn’t as pretty. Newman was pretty.

Political activist and writer Angela Davis is 70 today. She was a convenient bogeyman for conservatives in the 1970s. An admitted communist! I don’t know much about that. She general makes rather good points that one is unlikely to hear in normal discourse. I know her mostly from the excellent book, Are Prisons Obsolete? I highly recommend it!

The great celloist Jacqueline du Pre was born in 1945. She died of multiple sclerosis at only 42. Even more sad, she gave her final public performance at the age of 28. Nonetheless, she is still considered one of the greats. Here she is at 17 doing the Intermezzo from Enrique Granados’ opera Goyescas:

Other birthdays: singer Maria von Trapp (1905); sportscaster Bob Uecker (79); actor Scott Glenn (73); playwright Christopher Hampton (68); film critic Gene Siskel (1946); David Strathairn (65); singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams (61); guitarist Eddie Van Halen (59); singer-songwriter Anita Baker (56); and comedian Ellen DeGeneres (56).

The day, however, belongs to the great cartoonist Jules Feiffer who is 85 today. He is most associated with The Village Voice and I love his work. He was one of the most distinct editorial cartoonists of my lifetime, and he has a wonderfully twisted wit, as you can see in the following cartoon:

Coned Explainers

Happy birthday Jules Feiffer!

Arbitrary and Inequitable Distribution of Wealth and Incomes

John Maynard KeynesPaul Krugman quoted John Maynard Keynes, who in his 1936 masterwork The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money wrote, “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” This is the kind of statement that drives conservatives crazy. How can he say that? Doesn’t that man know anything about economics?! But it is dead on, of course.

The main problem I have with economic conservatism generally is that it simply assumes that the market correctly picks winners and losers. But that isn’t even true if you accept that the winners and losers are correct. We have a political system that allows the winners to continue to enrich themselves through political favors. In fact, it is hard to find a rich person who has not made a very large amount of money directly from government contracts and various forms of special treatment.

My biggest problem, however, revolves around who the winners and losers are. It isn’t because I disagree with who ought to win and who ought to lose, although I certainly do disagree. My problem is with conservatives’ general unwillingness to admit that we have a society that selects for a certain kind of winner. And there is a reason that they are reluctant to admit this. Doing so has policy implications. If different political and economic structures select for different kinds of people, it does not justify the enormous amount of inequality in the world, because the distribution is largely an outgrowth of how the game is set up.

Kevin O'LearyYou probably saw the story last week, World’s Richest 85 People Now Worth Same Amount as Poorest 3.5 Billion. And you probably saw the followup, Reality TV Star Kevin O’Leary: It’s “fantastic” That 85 People Have More Wealth Than 3.5 Billion. O’Leary is typical of conservatives who think that all that is stopping a small town boy in Somalia from becoming rich is the lack of enough really wealthy people in distant lands to look up to. Now it would be one thing if those 85 people started off as a random sample of the world’s population, but of course, they don’t.

Consider Mr. O’Leary himself. He was born into the middle class in Canada where everyone gets basic medical care and education. After getting his bachelor’s and MBA from public universities in Canada, he started a business. Of course, his mother had $10,000 to give him to start the company. That in itself is a huge advantage. But the company was a success. It was, not surprisingly, doing nothing more than packaging up freeware and shareware that other people who had real skills created. Still, I don’t doubt that O’Leary is a smart and capable manager. But his success is owed to two very big things: his many and continuous environmental advantages, and luck.

O’Leary is estimated to be worth $300 million. But it just so happens that at this very moment, I am working with a brilliant young man on a high tech start up. It is, even now, far beyond anything that O’Leary could ever do. And we do hope that some day we can make some money with it or at least leverage it into a job. But we don’t look up to people like O’Leary, much less Carlos Slim Helu. People like that aren’t innovators. They are people who take the innovations of people like my partner and monetize them. To a large extent, we do the work just to see if we can.

But our society does not reward us a great deal for our work and initiative. And the more “advanced” our economy gets, the more that’s true. In fact, you can see it every week on O’Leary’s own show, The Shark Tank, where actual entrepreneurs stand up in front of a bunch of rich people and try to get money. Like most “reality” shows, it seems totally fake to me. What’s more, it doesn’t have much to do with how venture capital works. But it shows the way the game works: capital gets huge rewards, even though there is actually a lot of capital floating around with nothing to do. What the rich really want are safe investments that pay a lot of money. And we have a system set up so that they generally can get just that, even though that’s not supposed to be how it works. Seeing the show, I’m often struck with the fact that the “sharks” in the chairs are usually passing judgement on their betters.

It provides a great example of what’s wrong with our society. It is often the case that one of the “sharks” gets offended when one of the presenters turns them down. I’ve even seen one shark be offended on behalf of another shark, “You mean you’re going to turn down his offer?!” How dare they! Because in the world of the conservative, the rich aren’t just rich, they are better. And so they spin this yarn of bullshit about the “free” market and its magical powers. Thus, it isn’t necessary to provide actual opportunity to everyone. All they have to do is provide the example of the “Great 85” or the “sharks” and their wise beneficence. But the truth is just as Keynes pointed out. We have an economy that is an “arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.”


Just to be clear: I am not saying that bringing an innovation to maker is worthless. Not at all! But our society rewards that part of the process as though it were the hardest or most elusive part. But it isn’t. Everyone knows that it isn’t. But that has been the way that the system has been set up, and so people accept it as the way things ought to be. But it is a choice. Unfortunately, it is a choice that keeps making the already rich richer. If Kevin O’Leary had to come up with a great new idea for a business, I think he would be stumped.

Second Thoughts About Silver Streak

Silver StreakLast night, I sat down and watched Silver Streak. I was kind of excited actually. I hadn’t seen the film since I was in high school. And much later, I read a screenwriting book by Syd Field. In it, he talked a lot about the film and clearly thought that it was a great script. Even at the time, I thought that was a stretch. I didn’t recall it as much more than a vehicle for Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. So I was interested to see what I had missed.

The short answer to that query is, “Not much.” But I see why Field liked it! It is very well structured. The first act ends with Wilder getting thrown off the train. The third act starts with Wilder and Pryor jumping off the train. What’s more, the second act is divided into two parts by Wilder—Can you guess—getting removed from the moving train. I’m not saying that the script is bad because of this. But I’m also not saying that the script is good because of this.

What most bothers me about the script is that it goes for realism and yet is full of plot holes. I don’t mind all the cute coincidences; that’s totally in keeping with style of the film. I don’t even mind that Pryor’s character clearly was supposed to leave at the beginning of the third act, but was brought back because he is absolutely the best thing in the movie. But I do mind that the FBI acted stupidly throughout the film so that there was a film. And I do mind that the villain doesn’t have anything close to a plan that would allow him to get away.

Basically, Devereau kills the professor to get the Rembrandt letters because they will prove that two paintings that Devereau purchased are forgeries. So his plan is to substitute a lookalike for the professor. Okay. The professor’s picture is on the book and obviously his publisher and other people would know, but I can accept it. But when things go wrong and Wilder finds out, they just try to kill him and leave his body on the train. Under the best of circumstances, no one is going to be allowed off the train until the police search everyone and everything. Of course, that isn’t the only murder. And at the end, we have Devereau running around with a rifle shooting cops in helicopters. Yeah, those snobby art collectors are know to be very good at gun play.

All of that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the totally illogical behavior of the feds. When the agent who is on the train gets killed, the first thing the authorities would have done is check him for ID and they would have found his badge. And then, they could have just waited for the train to stop at a regular stop, got on board and taken Devereau and his men into custody. After all, they were the only people on board with guns!

I can appreciate what Colin Higgins was trying to do in the screenplay. But I don’t actually think it works. The first act is a romance. The second act is a comedy. The third act is action. And that first act is the killer because that’s the one that gets you into the mood of thinking this movie will have something to do with reality. Contrast that to another Arthur Hiller film, The In-Laws, which is preposterous from the first minute. Of course, the film works because Wilder and Pryor are great together. But this film is going a very long way out of the way to have a good second act with these characters.

There is another problem with the film for modern audiences. It is sexist and racist. The two women on the train are apparently sex starved. And the heroine is consistently a prop who can only moisten the foreheads of men who have been clubbed. Blacks in this universe are either AMTRAK employees or Pryor, who plays a petty criminal. In fact, even after the train crash, he steals a car and goes on his merry. The one exception to this was still a stereotype: the shoeshine man in the train station. He was, however, part of a very telling moment. Wilder is in the bathroom having put shoeshine on his face and is now trying to learn how to walk in rhythm to the music. The shoeshiner comes upon him and says, “You must be in pretty big trouble, fella. But for God’s sake, learn to keep time!” In our segregated society, that’s very true. In general, a white guy would equate “trouble” with “bad guy.” The black guy knows that trouble doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. This is, of course, a lesson that more and more white people are learning each day.

I understand that I’m focusing on the film’s failings. The truth is that the second act is really good. And if that’s what you want, you should watch Stir Crazy. It has the advantage of being silly from beginning to end.

Ross Douthat’s Weird Idea of Compromise

Ross DouthatRoss Douthat’s last column was about—Wait for it!—how the decline of marriage is causing income inequality, More Imperfect Unions. But that’s really just the pretext. The actual point of the article is to complain that liberals are not willing to look at evidence, the way he and other conservative “reformers” are. It’s a funny claim, given that not only have liberals yielded on some of this nonsense, but the Democratic Party actually passed legislation. A large part of “ending welfare as we know it” was about reforming the social ills of the poor that were supposedly holding them back from becoming nice middle class people.

Conservative Concessions

Douthat starts with conservative concessions that he doubtless thinks are major. He says that conservatives ought to admit that mass incarceration and “creative destruction” have “often made it harder for low-income men to find steady work.” (They have also made men with steady work unable to support a family, but Douthat doesn’t seem interested in that issue.) But the only policy recommendation he has is maybe a bit more along the lines of the earned income tax credit. So he, a supposed conservative reformer, is offering up less than the bare minimum here. There is no discussion of unions, which have been effectively destroyed thanks to the work of conservative US government policy. And somehow the decade’s long attack on the middle class is going to be reverse by subsidizing minimum wage pay checks? I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but the government already subsidizes minimum wage work. And this is a subsidy not of the worker but of the employers.

It gets worse. He claims, “Right now, I think some conservatives—though not enough Republican politicians—are willing to concede these points.” If by “not enough Republican politicians” Douthat means “none at all,” then I’m with him. I’m sure that Douthat can point to a handful of politicians who might give lip service to this. But when it comes down to it, who in Congress is willing to redistribute even a penny to the poor? As Jonathan Chait has pointed out recently, even the couple of policy initiatives designed to encourage marriage just take money away from one set of poor people to give it to another. This isn’t serious policy.

(This is something that really annoys me about “reformers” like Douthat. They are forever claiming that plans like Rubio’s are serious when they are just for show. I’ll admit that when it comes to immigration reform, Republicans have put forward some actual plans. But when it comes to doing something about the poor, the Republican Party is only interested in looking like they are doing something. And even if they backed something like Rubio’s plan, it would hardly be a compromise: taking from one group that they don’t care about to give to another group they don’t care about.)

Liberals Won’t Compromise

But that’s all preamble. After talking about what little he thinks conservatives need to concede, Douthat gets to his real point, which is that while the conservatives are looking at the evidence and changing, those liberals have just ossified:

But I don’t see a readiness among liberals to make any concessions of their own, beyond the minimal acknowledgment that all things being equal, two parents are often better than one.

I think reason that Douthat doesn’t see a readiness among liberals to make any concessions is that they don’t think conservatives are serious. Liberals are open to policies that will encourage marriage. But it doesn’t help liberals to talk about this kind of stuff publicly when people like Douthat are only pushing the “marriage is the cure for poverty” narrative because they think marriage is a good in itself. We have an observation: income inequality is very high and it is getting worse. Solution: ban abortion! So the solution to a huge social ill is exactly the policy that conservatives always want. There are very real reasons for liberals to disregard the conservatives on this matter. But liberals are willing to discuss this stuff. I’ll come back to this later.

Conservatives Aren’t Offering Anything

The biggest issue here is that Douthat has defined conservative concessions so vaguely without any actual policy ideas that they mean nothing. Then he contrasts them with very explicit policy: limit abortion and eliminate no-fault divorce. I think that Douthat is disingenuous on the former and misinformed on the latter. He proposes making second term abortions illegal. But 90% of all abortions take place in the first term. So is this really going to do anything for marriage or is it just a way to pander to the Republican base that thinks that all abortions and many forms of birth control out to be outlawed?

As for no-fault divorce: I don’t especially see the problem. This is not a huge issue for liberals. The main concern is that woman in abusive relationships will not be able to get out of them. According to the Stanford Business School study comparing states with and without no-fault divorce, having it reduced suicides in women by 20%, murder rate of women by a small amount, and domestic violence by 33%. So liberals aren’t ignoring the facts, as Douthat claims; they are just focusing on different facts. But as long as there are safeguards to protect women in these situations, I don’t see a major problem. (Or is Douthat arguing that keeping women in abusive relationships is a social good?) I certainly don’t see liberals completely closed off from discussing this issue.

It is interesting that the party of “freedom” is so interested in depriving people of freedom. I understand in abortion because social conservatives believe that the fetus’ rights are equal to or greater than the rights of the mother. But no-fault divorce?! It may well be that it is a social ill that is keeping the poor in poverty. But there can be no doubt that it is a great deprivation of individual rights. After all, marriage is a contract. If people want out of a contract, what gives the state the right to stop them? Modern conservatism doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Liberals Are Willing to Compromise

My position is that economic policy trumps most other things. So I’m willing to talk about anything. And so are others. What I’m not willing to do is offer up a ban on second term abortions in exchange for taking money away from single parents to give it to married parents. A compromise is when you give something in exchange for getting something. And if the best that conservative “reformer” Ross Douthat can do is provide regrets about past policy and the idea that maybe a little redistribution would be okay, then what exactly is the conservative movement offering? I can tell you: nothing.