Many Words About Milos Forman

Milos FormanOn this day in 1848, Louis Comfort Tiffany was born. He did a lot of “decorative arts,” but is primarily known for his wonderful stained glass work. He was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, the jeweler would founded Tiffany & Co. But Louis’ work really does stand on its own. I recommend clicking over and checking out a bit of his work. Of course, I have a great fondness for stained glass. I’m not sure why.

Charles Schwab was born in 1862. He isn’t that Charles Schwab. He was an engineer who went on to lead Bethlehem Steel very effectively. And then he lost all his money in the mid-1930s and died in poverty in 1939. How many times have you heard this story? It makes sense. In a truly free market, this is exactly what you would expect: opportunity to succeed also means opportunity to fail. But we don’t see this kind of thing anymore. Sure, working class people crash and burn all the time. But not the elite. And that’s because we don’t have a free market. In 2007 and 2008, there should have been any number of billionaires who lost everything. There should have been a number who went to jail. Instead, they all kept their wealth and their freedom. I would have a much higher opinion of Republicans if they would be for allowing the rich to fail. And of course, they will tell you they are. But when it comes down to it, they never are. Modern conservatism is best characterized as a religion that worships rich people.

Pee Wee King was born in 1914. He was one of the great country songwriters of the last century. He is best known for writing the music to “The Tennessee Waltz.” And that’s as good a reason as any to listen to David Bromberg’s great version of the song:

The great singer and songwriter Irma Thomas is 73 today. I love her work and especially the album Live: Simply the Best. Here she is doing “It’s Raining”:

Other birthdays: Bloody Mary (1516); inventor of the battery Alessandro Volta (1745); physicist Ernst Mach (1838); stainless steel inventor Harry Brearley (1871); actor Edward Arnold (1890); pediatrician Hans Asperger (1906); actor George Kennedy (89); cartoonist Johnny Hart (1931); novelist Toni Morrison (83); talentless rich person Yoko Ono (81); film writer-director John Hughes (1950); actor Cybill Shepherd (64); singer Juice Newton (62); actor John Travolta (60); actor Greta Scacchi (54); actor Matt Dillon (50); and Molly Ringwald (46).

The day, however, belongs to the great film director Milos Forman who is 82 today. He has made some of my favorite films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ragtime, and The People vs Larry Flynt. And he’s had some notable failures like Valmont. One thing I really like about him is that he works closely with writers but generally doesn’t take screen credit. Of course, on Valmont he did take screen credit. And I think it is illustrative. The film is based upon Les Liaisons dangereuses. At more or less the same time, Dangerous Liaisons was released and it is the one that everyone has seen. There are many reasons why Valmont is an inferior adaptation, but the biggest one is that Forman and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere decided that the ending where the Marquise de Merteuil gets her comeuppance wasn’t necessary. They decided that it was only in the book to appeal to the moralistic culture of the time. I totally disagree. I think we very much want to see her taken down—not because she is immoral but because she is an awful person. But I think it is great that they grappled with that question and made a reasonable, if ultimately incorrect decision.

My favorite of Forman’s films is the director’s cut of Amadeus. If you have not read it, I recommend reading my rather long discussion of the difference between the original released version of Amadeus and the director’s cut. The original version is very good. But the director’s cut is great. And I don’t think anyone else has addressed the issue, but I don’t think I’m alone in noting that something was slightly off in the original. However, I will warn you that most people seem to prefer the nice safe original version. But I expect more from my readers.

It is almost impossible to pick a scene from Forman’s work. Although he makes beautiful films, what’s more important is that he’s good at telling two hour long stories. But I picked a scene from Ragtime. This is a subplot in the movie (but a large part of the novel). It’s very sweet and funny:

Happy birthday Milos Forman!

Corpse in the Dorm

Nicholas BarnesOver the years, I have written a lot about the corpse under the bed. For those of you who do not know it, it is the story of motel guests who complain about a bad order that is determined to be a dead body rotting under the bed. What’s sad about the story is that it isn’t a legend. It happens all the time. Here’s one from just last year, Police Arrest 40-Year-Old Connected to Suspicious Death at Hickory Motel. And each and every story sounds pretty much the same, “One guest at the motel described smelling a foul odor Thursday, but it wasn’t until lunchtime Friday that police got the 911 call…”

To me, these stories are about a fundamental problem in our society. People don’t stuff dead Senators under motel room mattresses. They stuff people who they think no one will miss. It makes me think of Matthew 25:40, “To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.” Generally, the people who stuff bodies under beds are desperate and frightened people, but they are also serial killers. There is a larger indictment of society here.

Gawker reported last night, University of Chicago Student’s Body Found Decomposing in Dorm. It seems that 20-year-old Nicholas Barnes died in his dorm room over a week ago and just like the classic story, no one noticed until the smell of his rotting flesh started seeping out into the hall. This is, of course, very sad. A young man has died. But as a society, we should be ashamed that it took a bad smell to notice.

According to CBS News, Barnes was a Germanic Studies major who spent last fall in Austria. It quotes Dean of Students Susan Art, “Nick will be painfully missed. He was an excellent student, admired by faculty and peers alike.” I don’t doubt that this is true. And that makes it all the worse.

In our society, someone can be well liked with lots of what passes for friends now days. But when they disappear for a week, no one notices. The modern world allows us to have social connections that are a mile wide and an inch deep.

I used to just worry that as a society we were dividing into the worthy and the unworthy. But the death of Nicholas Barnes reminds me that our problems are much deeper than even that. We are becoming a society of individuals who only know how to interact in the most facile ways. Oh, you were sick? I just thought he decided to leave Twitter! I really question whether these are the kinds of lives we want to lead. But habit is a powerful thing. And we have developed some very bad habits.

Angry People and Democratic Wimps

Thomas FrankThomas Frank is back with a great article at Salon, The Matter With Kansas Now: The Tea Party, the 1 Percent and Delusional Democrats. It is the angriest I have ever seen from Frank. He argues that the pseudo-populism of the Republican base did not come about in a vacuum. The base really is angry at the elites of the country, but while the Republicans appealed to that in the most disingenuous way, the Democrats did nothing.

The only word I disagree with is “nothing.” The Democrats actively pushed the social conservatives away by turning into a socially liberal but economically conservative party. As a result, the social conservatives had no choice but to go with the Republicans. They could either get social conservatism with economic elitism from the Republicans, or social liberalism with economic elitism from the Democrats. At the same time, economic liberals have been effectively demoralized. They will vote for the Democratic Party, but they are none too excited about it.

Frank sums up what happened pretty well:

Democrats essentially did nothing while their pals in organized labor were clubbed to the ground; they leaped enthusiastically into action, however, when it was time to pass NAFTA and repeal Glass-Steagall. Working-class voters had nowhere else to go, they seem to have calculated, and — whoops! — they were wrong.

The problem is that being wrong hasn’t changed them. After the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, we needed up with yet another New Democrat who on economic issues is only distinguished from the Republicans in being slightly less eager to enact more neoliberal policies. It almost makes me think there was a conspiracy. The power elite took control of both parties so that we would have no real choice on economic issues. Then they made the Republicans so crazy on social issues that liberals dare not go to a third party for fear that it would cause a Republican to win. In this conspiracy theory, Ralph Nader would be key.

Of course, we need no conspiracy. It is simply that money is extremely important in politics. Politicians have to appeal to those who have money. They do it by giving them the rich policies that they want. Frank’s solution is for the Democratic Party to make a populist turn on economic issues. But the fundamentals of politics push against that. We see that right now in the jockeying for the Democratic presidential nomination. The reason that everyone thinks Clinton is unbeatable is only partly because of her poll numbers. The bigger issue is that she will be a fundraising juggernaut. And I don’t think anyone expects that as president she will be anything much different from her husband or Obama. Remember: Obama got lots of little donations, but he’s governed entirely in the interests of his big donors.

I expect for this to continue on for the rest of my life. As it is, in the mainstream press “liberalism” has been redefined to mean what I call “social liberalism.” But there is no doubt that the Democratic Party is better on economic issues than the Republican Party. The Republicans want to makes things far worse while the Democrats want to limit how fast things get far worse. But Thomas Frank is right: even on the level of electoral politics, it is likely that the Democrats will lose. There are too many people who are angry and if the Democrats don’t appeal to that on a rational level, the Republicans will on an irrational level.