Politics and Ontology in The Painting

Le Tableau - The PaintingAndrea wrote a teaser of an article over at ALE Designs about the 2011 French film, Le Tableau. In America, the film is called The Painting and so shall I from now on. It tells the story of a group of figures in an unfinished painting. There are the self-proclaimed leaders of the painting, the Allduns, so called because they are “all done.” Then there are the bourgeois called the Halfies, who are not quite finished, some of them only barely so. And then there are the forgotten people, the Sketchies.

The whole movie hinges on a relationship between Ramo (an Alldun) and Claire (a Halfy). And this leads to a journey with Ramo and Claire’s best friend Lola, a Halfy, and Plume, a Sketchy. Their quest is to find the Painter and ask him to finish the painting so that the class distinctions will be ended. The Allduns, for example, argue that the Painter loved them most and that’s why he finished them. This is a retarded notion, but no more retarded than the idea that there is something natural about paying people billions of dollars just because they are especially good at stock trading.

The Allduns from Le Tableau

What happens from there doesn’t much matter. What is important is that the film moves step by step, always getting more interesting. This is truth both in terms of the plot and the theme. What also happens is that the characters get deeper and their relationships expand. The one exception is Ramo and Claire. The screenwriter, Anik Leray, seems to go along with Shakespeare’s theory that young people in love are too boring to dramatize. But that’s just fine here, because the other characters are more than enough fun.

The Painting is more interested in ontological questions than in political questions. But I suspect the filmmakers would say that they are connected. After all, a lot of people turn to God to answer questions about injustice and evil. And just as in life, the characters find that they must answer these questions for themselves. And in the end, there is a social revolution that is brought on primarily by the Sketchies. It’s very sweet, even if it isn’t a solution that would work outside of the world in the painting.

As Andrea noted in her article, it is a beautiful film just to watch. There is much of Modigliani in the work, and as regular readers know, I’m somewhat obsessed with him. Apparently, the director, Jean-Francois Laguionie, wanted to set the period of the painter in the 1920s. So he was thinking of painters around that time including Chagall, Matisse, Derain, Bonnard, and Picasso. I see all that except Picasso, but his work is so varied, I’m sure that is simply my deficiency. But it is so much more than that, even though that is enough.


I will now briefly discuss the ending of the film. If you want to watch the film yourself, skip this part and come back to it when you have because I’m interested in what anyone has to say about any part of the film. I could easily spend all evening talking about it.

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John Steinbeck and Three Others

John SteinbeckIn 1807, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born. I’m not a big fan of him, but there is no doubt that he was talented. Edgar Allan Poe, although at first an admirer of him later became his harshest critic. I don’t think it is widely know, but during his lifetime, Poe was known almost exclusively as a literary critic. People were not terribly interested in his fiction. Anyway, Poe correctly predicted that Longfellow’s work was derivative and would not live on. The main thing anyone knows is “Paul Revere’s Ride” and not because of its literary merit. But Poe was aware of his talent, having written that Longfellow was “a determined imitator and a dexterous adapter of the ideas of other people…” But Longfellow seems to have been a much nicer man than Poe. In the end, that matters a great deal more.

The great writer Irwin Shaw was born in 1913. I dedicated the day to him last year. I wrote:

About a year ago, I spent a couple of weeks with his Short Stories, Five Decades. It reminded me of when I first started writing about 25 years ago. I became obsessed with his short story “The Eighty-Yard Run.” I read it again and again. It tells the story of a man’s life from one day in high school that he looks back on as the pinnacle: an eighty-yard touchdown run during football practice. It is perceptive that Shaw used this example. In one way, anyone can understand that doing this would make a boy feel very good about himself. Life is like that: relatively little things can put on shine on life. But another way of looking at it is that it is pathetic. It is high school and it isn’t even a game—just a practice.

All of Shaw’s work is filled with unspoken truths. No one ever seems quite able to communicate what they think and feel—even to themselves. Everyone is left with the vague sadness that you think life is really all about when you are young. Of course, as you get older, you learn first hand that this is exactly what life is about. The one thing we all share is regret about everything. Shaw conveys this idea with an expansive collection of characters and their stories.

The great script writer Peter Stone was born in 1930. He is probably best known for writing the great screenplay for the film Charade. But he also wrote Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? as well as the very lively script for Sherman Edwards’ 1776. Here is the wonderfully silly trailer of the wonderfully silly Chefs:

Other birthdays: the man who killed Christianity as a vibrant religion, Constantine the Great (272 AD); Russian realist painter Nikolai Ge (1831); jurist Hugo Black (1886); historian Arthur M Schlesinger Sr (1888); actor Joanne Woodward (84); actor Elizabeth Taylor (1932); activist Ralph Nader (80); actor Howard Hesseman (74); actor Timothy Spall (57); Sid Vicious’ murdered girlfriend Nancy Spungen (1958); and actor Richard Coyle (42).

The day, however, belongs to John Steinbeck who was born on this day in 1902. He is probably my favorite novelist. He grew up in a wealthy family. Of course, that was during the robber baron days when inequality wasn’t as bad as it today. So he wasn’t out of touch. In fact, he worked at nearby ranches during his summers where he was introduced to migrants and others who weren’t working as just a summer job. It is easy, however, for a person like Steinbeck to not see the problem. Doing a crummy job voluntarily and temporarily while you wait to enter Stanford University isn’t that bad. But the experience did have a profound impact on his life. And we see that in books like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is a great writer in terms of raw storytelling ability, but certainly not better than William Faulkner. Yet I never think it is a good idea to go read some Faulkner, even though I greatly admire him. But I read at least some Steinbeck every year. Even as harsh as his stories sometimes are, I always find them edifying. Steinbeck’s point of view is eternally the same as mine: humanistic. He always understands his characters and sympathizes with them, even when they aren’t sympathetic. That’s the way I look at the world—or at least try to.

Happy birthday John Steinbeck!

Obamacare Surcharge

Obamacare Surcharge

The image above comes to us from Jonathan Chait, who does not have as much fun with it as you might expect, Obamacare-Hating Restaurant Now Charging Obummer Tax. Gator’s Dockside is a sportsbar chain with 21 restaurants in northern (conservative) Florida. And they have put a sign outside some of their restaurants that reads, “The costs associated with ACA [ie, Obamacare] compliance could ultimately close our doors. Instead of raising prices on our products to generate the additional revenue needed to cover the costs of ACA compliance, certain Gator’s Dockside locations have implemented a 1% surcharge on all food and beverage purchases only.” And you can see the extra 20¢ “ACA Surchar” on the receipt above.

In one way, this is hilarious. You can imagine some owner calling into Rush Limbaugh, “You wanna know what I’m gonna do! I’m gonna charge my customers an Obamacare surcharge and see how all those moochers like it!” But in a more fundamental way, this is very sad. It shows that one can own a successful business and not understand the first thing about business. It makes me wonder if such business people are just lucky. There must be some fraction that fall into that category.

From a business perspective, customers don’t care what the cost is of your doing business. If the cost of hot dogs went up, it is most likely that the owner of Gator’s Dockside would not raise the price. He would instead just eat the loss in profits. If the cost increase was particularly large, he might raise prices—at least eventually. What he would not do is put a sign on his door that read, “The costs associated with Chili Cheese Dogs have gone up. Instead of raising prices on them to generate the additional revenue needed to cover the increased costs of Chili Cheese Dogs, Gator’s Dockside has implemented a 1% surcharge on all Chili Cheese Dogs.” That would be ridiculous. No customer cares. If they saw a sign like that, they would think, “What a whiner! Just serve me my Chili Cheese Dog and shut up!”

With Obamacare, it is far worse. In this case, they are admitting that they don’t care enough about their workers to provide them with health insurance. When the government steps in and makes them, they don’t deal with it. They don’t find ways to be more efficient so they can absorb the cost. No, they whine about it and shove it off on the customer. They make a big public spectacle of themselves so that everyone knows that they don’t value their workers or their customers.

Also, it is important to remember that prices are not set by costs. There is no doubt that almost all of that $2.49 for an “ice” tea is profit. Gator’s Dockside charges that much because that’s the amount that maximizes their profits. If the same number of people would be willing to pay $2.52 (1% more) for it, why are they not charging that? The very idea that the difference between staying in business and going bankrupt is 1% is ridiculous. This isn’t an iron mine! And if Gator’s Dockside really is that inefficient that they barely make a profit for a $2.49 “ice” tea, then it is best that they go out of business and yield the market to a business that can do better.

Of course, it is highly likely that this is all just a stunt. The 1% surcharge sounds too convenient. I doubt Obamacare is costing this company anything at all. This is probably yet another conservative who just doesn’t like the idea of Obamacare and so is making a protest. People are allowed to use their businesses any way they like. But this is a bad business move. Roughly half of the Gator’s Dockside customers are Democrats. And the vast majority of all their customers just don’t care.

I’ll tell you how this all plays out. Eventually they take the signs down and remove the surcharge. And everyone will forget that the owners of Gator’s Dockside are hateful, but ultimately silly people. What won’t happen is that this catches on and restaurants all over start adding an Obamacare surcharge. Remember, the new healthcare law is just one of many laws that business owners must follow. How about a “FDA Making Sure Your Beef Isn’t Bad” surcharge? Or a “Zoning Ordinance So the Roof Does Crash Down on You During Your Meal” surcharge? Or a “Police So You Aren’t Murdered by Roving Gangs While Walking From Your Car” surcharge? The only thing that is different from these ridiculous surcharges and the ACA surcharge is that those have been around longer.

The Croods Has Something to Say, I Think

The CroodsLast night, I watched the 2013 animated feature The Croods. It’s an amusing and fun but ultimately forgettable film about a family of cavemen and their journey from fear to curiosity. Or something. It is kind of hard to say because the film only plays around with a plot.

The story focuses on Grug, the father, and Eep, his discontented teenage daughter. Grug believes in the old ways, which are basically that doing things as you always have is the best way not to get killed. This is summed up very well at the beginning of the film when Grug tells the family a story, “Tonight we’ll hear the story of Krispy Bear. A long time ago, this little bear was alive. She was alive because she listened to her father and lived her life in routine and darkness and terror. So she was happy! But Krispy had one terrible problem: she was filled with curiosity. And one day, while she was in a tree, the curious little bear wanted to climb to the top. And no sooner than she climbed to the top, she saw something new… And died!”

At the end of this story, the son, Thunk, says, “I will never do anything new or different!” But the family is forced to do something new because it seems that they are living on a volcano that is quickly becoming active. Or at least that’s what I assume is happening; it is never really explained. Along the way, they hook up with Guy, a creative young man who knows the secrets of fire and puppets. Plus, he has a pet sloth named Belt, who might as well be a puppet. So he’s the smart and creative hero of the film. He contrasts with the rather dim but good-hearted Grug.

The whole clan make their way to safety and learns valuable life lessons along the way. Fair enough. But the film shows all the advanced thinking on gender roles as an episode of Leave it to Beaver. This is not helped by a stream of mother-in-law jokes, even if they are funny. But most of all, the main character is supposedly Eep, the girl who wants more out of life than simply not dying. However, after Guy shows up, she spends most of her time mooning over him. This is often adorable, but not exactly what I would want my children (that I don’t have) watching.

The biggest problem I had with The Croods was getting over its absolutely ridiculous portrayal cavemen as stupid and fearful. Humans have long been alpha predators. There are few creatures who we need fear, and only a couple who see us as prey. At one point, the family catches a ride on a mammoth, but it never occurs to them that they might kill and eat it. But then, none of animals make much sense either. The animals are all very creatively rendered, but aren’t anything the earth has ever seen. As a result, I spent much of the film wondering if we weren’t on another planet or something.

I fought through all of these concerns, though. Ultimately, however, I think the filmmakers would have been better off restricting themselves to something a little more grounded in reality. What they ended up with was a universe of creatures that were too fanciful. They didn’t create a unified whole the way that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland did. The problem is likely related to the fact that the cave area terrain is realistic. Later in the film when they are in the jungle, the whole thing looks rather like Wonderland, and as a result, works.

Ultimately the film is a romp and as such, it is rather fun. But it doesn’t rise to the level films like ParaNorman and Frankenweenie. And that’s a shame because the animation itself is really good. I was very impressed with the water and wind and fire effects. And the faces conveyed far more emotion than is normal in animated films. What’s missing is a compelling character focused plot. Instead, the film just meanders from sequence to sequence. Almost randomly, Grug and Guy have a meeting of minds and work together. Guy seems to to become attracted to Eep at a certain point in the film, not because he sees anything in her but because the writers got tired of pushing the “Eep coming on too hard” jokes. And given that there is nothing constraining the universe of the film, the whole “road trip” aspect of the film is nothing but an intellectual exercise. We don’t know where we are going and the road to get there runs from Mad Max to Alice in Wonderland to Lord of the Rings.

But I enjoyed it. How could I not? It’s a very pro-puppet movie. And it’s all very sweet and has a number of very funny bits in it. And I liked all the characters, especially Grug, who is voiced perfectly by Nicolas Cage. But I wanted more. And with a budget of $135 million, the least they could have done is work a little harder on the script. That’s over twice the cost of ParaNorman and three times the cost of Frankenweenie. But there are worse things, like most live action Hollywood films. And I can’t complain too loudly about any film that tries to celebrate intelligence and open-mindedness.

Camp’s Budget Another Giveaway to Rich

Dave CampDave Camp has a new federal budget reform proposal (pdf) that is making a lot of liberals weep with joy. This is simply the result of how the Republican Party has gamed the system. After decades of absolutely unreasonable proposals like the Paul Ryan budget, when someone comes along with a budget that isn’t completely delusional, liberals stand up and applaud.

Camp is a typical Republican piece of work. You can look at his positions and right down the list he is pure: anti-choicer, climate change denier, Social Security privatizer. And he’s been pushing for more welfare “reform” because he’s afraid single mothers aren’t working hard enough. Remember in Republicanland, it is only important for rich mothers to stay at home and raise the kids.

As noted, the budget is not all bad. It gets rid of the carried interest loophole. It also imposes a fee on big banks for the government’s implicit too-big-to-fail insurance. And after finding that he just could not make the numbers in his budget add up with his preferred top marginal tax rate of 25%, he changed it to 35%. So those things are okay, but I would hardly call them good. The carried interest loophole is a travesty, but it is not big: just $2 billion per year. We should charge the big banks for their safety net (however, breaking them up would be better), but as Dean Baker points out, Camp’s fee is an order of magnitude less than what the banks are getting in return. As for admitting that he couldn’t make the 25% tax rate work, that isn’t saying much on its face and as we will see, it doesn’t actually say anything at all.

Jared Bernstein has an excellent discussion on the Economix blog, The Promise and Pitfalls in a Tax Reform Plan. He focuses on Camp’s “timing gimmicks.” These are ways that Camp made his budget reform bill revenue neutral for ten years—the period over which budgets are scored. For example, “The corporate rate is phased in slowly, so revenue losses occur outside of the budget window.” This means that the federal budget would be okay for ten years and then the deficit would explode causing Republicans like Camp to scream for cuts to entitlements and welfare for the poor.

It has other aspects that I don’t like. He gets rid of our current seven tax brackets and replaces them with two: 10% and 35%. The truth is that we need more tax brackets, not less. Republicans always claim that they do this to “simplify the tax code.” But if you have ever done your taxes, you know the easy part is looking up your taxable income in the table. The hard part is determining your taxable income. So reducing the number of tax brackets isn’t about simplifying anything. It is rather about getting to a flat tax. And Republicans are for a flat tax because they want to shift the tax burden off the rich and onto the poor.

Camp’s proposal isn’t about budget reform at all. Instead, it is yet another Republican plan to “starve the beast.” Clearly, Dave Camp is smart enough to know that he had to throw in a couple of bones to the Democrats. But they aren’t great bones and they are supported by more reasonable conservatives anyway. Otherwise, the proposal is just an attempt to get what Republicans always want: lower taxes on the rich. The word is that Camp worked for years to try to make his budget work with a top tax bracket of 25%, so you can see what his actual priorities are. And he only managed to make the 35% number work with a bunch of tricks.

So don’t be fooled: Camp’s budget is just a proposal to lower taxes on the rich and starve the government of funds. It is a typical Republican proposal; it just doesn’t sound as crazy as usual.