Why Isn’t Alan Parker Making Films?

Alan ParkerSometime around this day in 1818, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born. Given that he was born a slave, we don’t know exactly what day he was born. He only managed to escape after many attempts at the age of 30. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, is an amazing book. It shows the complexity of the slave-owner relationship without whitewashing its absolute brutality. I especially remember his discussion of what all the slaves considered a “good” plantation manager as one who would not take pleasure in whipping them. I always remember this when I come upon slavery apologists. And sadly, I come upon slavery apologists quite often. There are a lot of people, in the south especially, that while claiming that slavery was wrong, still want to argue that slaves were treated well. Other than having watched Gone With the Wind, I don’t know of any actual evidence they have to support their claims. On the other side, we not only have the testimony of escaped slaves like Douglass, we have the treatment of Nat Turner and countless testimonies of freed slaves after the Civil War. In this last category, I recommend Andrew Ward’s The Slaves’ War: the Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves. And you definitely should read Douglass’ autobiography.

Other birthdays: inventor of the typewriter Christopher Latham Sholes (1819); inventor Margaret Knight (1838); meteorologist Charles Thomson Rees Wilson (1869); painter Nina Hamnett (1890); comedian Jack Benny (1894); labor organizer Jimmy Hoffa (1913); actor Edward Platt (1916); mathematician Herbert Hauptman (1917); actor Vic Morrow (1929); actor Florence Henderson (80); dancer Gregory Hines (1946); magician Teller (66); radio host Terry Gross (63); actor Meg Tilly (54); and actor Simon Pegg (44).

The day, however, belongs to Alan Parker who is 70 today. He is one of my very favorite directors. And he hasn’t made a damned thing in over a decade! I don’t know why. Anyway, he is one of the most varied filmmakers ever. And yet, he has a clear visual style and storytelling perspective. To give you some idea, he directed Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments, and Evita. My personal favorite is Angel Heart, which I think is a perfect film. Sadly, Parker seems to regret doing the film because it doesn’t have an important message. If bringing important messages to the screen means more things like The Life of David Gale, I beg Parker to bring me more melodrama! Regardless, I don’t think Parker has ever made a film that wasn’t at least worth a try. And of his 14 films, 13 of them are definitely worth watching. And here are but two of 113 wonderful minutes of Angel Heart:

Happy birthday Alan Parker!

Economic Lensing and Fairness

ProductivityThere is this thing in economics called Marginal Productivity Theory. It claims to show that in a world of perfect competition, everyone makes exactly what they are worth. So if a CEO makes $30 million per year, that must be because he adds $30 million per year to the economy. It doesn’t really matter whether the theory is true, of course. There is no such thing as perfect competition in the world. This is something that constantly amazes me. Physicists deal with idealized systems because it is often the case that real world systems can be approximated that way, or controlled to be that way. But economics, which is a social—and therefore, practical—science has many practitioners who make the most ridiculous assumptions about the state of the world.

I came upon Marginal Productivity Theory because I’m trying to get my head around what I think is a fundamental flaw with a pure capitalist system. What I have seen all the way through my working life is that even on its own terms, people do not get paid what they are worth. The big example of this is the CEO who costs his corporation millions but ends up with a large bonus. But let’s not think that large. In general, the way the economy works is as a lens to magnify the differences between people. I have seen this kind of thing often:

Person Productivity Reward
A 1.01 10.00
B 1.00 1.00

What I’m showing here is just an example, but a 1% advantage in productivity can easily produce a ten-fold increase in compensation. That’s not the point that I’m making, however. Rather, I just want to show the economic system does do this to one extent or another. And the effect gets particularly ridiculous on the upper income margin. But in America, we just assume that the there is some kind of linear correlation between someone’s value and their reward. But this is most clearly not the case.

Consider a winner-take-all market like screen acting. If George Clooney had never been born, then there would be someone else in his position. His value to the economy might be slightly less, but it would be close. Instead, it is quite possible that the Slightly Less Wonderful George Clooney Replacement doesn’t even make a living as an actor. But one thing is for sure, because of the lensing effect of the economy, this guy isn’t making anything close to what Clooney makes. But any fair economic system should only reward Clooney for the marginal improvement that he provides over the Slightly Less Wonderful George Clooney Replacement. (Note: I’m a big fan of George Clooney; he’s the Cary Grant of my generation.)

All of this is to counter the conservative mythology that people are worth exactly what they are paid. I mean this in strictly economic terms. I’m not even considering all the hobbies and so forth that people have that add value to the society but are never compensated. Unfortunately, the neoclassical economists are convinced that their simplistic and unrealistic assumptions are valid. So they claim that of course the economy is perfectly efficient. Never has a tautology been so widely believed! Meanwhile, in the real economy, we have all kinds of inefficiencies and distortions. But given that this theory tells the rich that they absolutely deserve everything they have and more, it is accepted as fact.

If we are ever to make the economy relatively fair, we must get past this idea that the markets are perfect and someone’s pay is representative of their economic value. This is one of the most damaging ideas in our society.

A Little Valentine’s Day Reality

You'll Do

I am a cynical son of a bitch when it comes holidays and romance. So Valentine’s Day is a big day for me. In 2012, I wrote The Blood of St. Valentine’s Day. It was about the two (or three) saints who the day is most likely named after. And it turns out that they were both brutally murdered, like most saints. Ah, romance! In 2013, I wrote Play Valentine’s Day Well. It was my advice to men about how to play the game of love. Actually, it is very good advice. But what do I have to say for 2014?

According to Wikipedia, “In 1797, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own.” This is still with us today. But now guys can’t even be bothered to copy the trite and plagiarized sentiments; we just buy greeting cards. Still, I think it is a hell of an idea. Most women love it when you write them a poem. I know because I’ve done it for countless friends and it always plays well.

So I thought for 2014, I would update that tradition. I offer the following poem to young lovers everywhere to do with as they please:

I hope that I should never see
You screwing a guy who’s not me.

A guy who’s handsome and can speak,
Who’s manicured and does not reek;

A guy who’s total take-home pay—
One month of mine takes him one day;

A guy who drives a great new car,
Who pals around with movie stars;

Upon whose greatness all rely,
And always hate to say goodbye.

If this attractive you would be,
You never would have been with me.

I actual like that poem because it does get down to the ultimate truth of romance: we punch our weight. People don’t hook up with us because we are the best person in the world to them; we hook up because we are each about as good as we can get. And that’s great! It’s the nature of the universe. The only word that I disagree with is “if” when Stephen Stills wrote, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Settling is not only acceptable, it is necessary.

As you live through this Valentine’s Day, remember the wisdom of That Mitchel and Web Look. Be a little bit deluded in each other’s favor. That’s what love is!

Rian Johnson’s Problematic Looper

LooperAnother day, another time travel movie. Last week, I watched Looper and last night, I watched a bit of it to remind me what it was all about. It is the third film by Rian Johnson. The first was Brick, an interesting but ultimately disappointing film. The second was The Brothers Bloom, an interesting but ultimately disappointing film. Looper is also an interesting but ultimately disappointing film.

The basic plot is that a crime syndicate 30 years in the future sends people back in time to be killed and disposed of. The Loopers do the killing. When they are done with their careers, they from 30 years later are sent back to be killed. After that, they get to hang out for 30 years until the syndicate finds them and sends them back in time to be killed. Time travel narratives are always difficult. I’m fine with paradox, but it really creates a drag on drama. And personally, it takes me out of the film.

A good example happens at the beginning of the film where a minor character allows his 30 year old self to escape. In order to get the older character to come in so he can be killed, they start cutting parts off the younger character’s body. These immediately disappear from the older character. By the time he comes in, he has so little left of his body that he has to crawl. This creates nothing so much as a thousand questions in my mind. It is later explained in the film that as different things happen, it changes the probability distribution of the future character’s life. I think a fairly interesting science fiction story could grapple with some of these issues. But the film does not and it creates a muddled foundation on which to hang the plot.

Apart from this, there are other problems. Johnson is a distinctly intellectual writer. When it comes to emotion, he is largely lost. Other than having less stylized dialog, the main character in Looper (Joe) is no different than the main character in Brick. They are both hard men who don’t seem to care about anyone. Yet both plots depend upon the character actually caring. There is no arc for the character. This is particularly problematic in Looper, where the plot depends upon Joe changing from selfish to altruistic. In the end, I didn’t buy it.

The film is also overly dependent on exposition voice over. It’s almost too much at the beginning when Joe provides what seems like a treatise on loopers. And it comes in multiple chapters, I assume because even Johnson realized he was telling the audience way too much to do it all at once. But that isn’t the greatest sin—we are used to films talking too much to get the plot rolling. The problem is at the end when Joe does something that is completely out of character. The denouement is totally dependent upon it. But it would have made no sense if Joe hadn’t been there to explain it.

Having now seen all three of Rian Johnson’s feature films, I do think I have a handle on him. I think he is a good director. And as a writer, he has a lot of good ideas. But he is badly in need of a writer to fix the many problems that he doesn’t seem capable of fixing. First, he needs someone who can write interesting characters. Even his best characters are two-dimensional. Second, he needs someone who can provide an emotional core to his scripts. He’s clearly aware of this problem because he does play around with it, even if he is ineffectual. And finally, he needs someone who can land the ending. Brick was okay because it was pure genre. But both The Brothers Bloom and Looper have endings that don’t mesh with what came before.