Die Wand or The Wall

Die Wand - The WallImagine a film that combines My Side of the Mountain and Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death. Sound like fun? Then you should see Die Wand, Julian Polsler’s faithful 2012 cinematic adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s book of the same name. Perhaps in the past, you’ve thought, “I like Wim Wenders’ films, but they don’t have enough explicit philosophical dialog!” In that case, Die Wand is the film for you!

In English, “Die Wand” means “The Wall,” and that is the name that it has been released under here in the United States, despite the obvious problem that it might be mistaken for Alan Parker’s film Pink Floyd—The Wall. It tells the story of an unnamed woman who goes to a hunting lodge with some friends. The friends go to town and don’t return. She soon finds that an invisible wall has appeared that prevents her from going to town. This is not such a bad thing, however, because it appears that everyone outside the wall has died.

Thus we follow the woman (that is literally her name: die frau) for the next two years as she comes to terms with and deals with her situation. She is caught inside with a pregnant cow, a cat, and a dog who she doesn’t like all that much at first. We watch her plant potatoes, cut hay for the cow, hunt deer, and much else. But mostly, we hear (in voice-over) her discuss the nature of existence. At one point early on, she says, “Perhaps it would have been wiser to go to the village with Hugo and Louise.” What she means is that if she had gone with her friends, she would be dead and would not have to make the many decisions she is now forced to make—like whether to kill herself or not.

There are many ways to interpret this film. I suspect the simplest is the best: it is an allegory of life. It is not that everyone outside the wall is dead, it is just that she cannot connect with them. As a result of this, she becomes as dependent upon her dog as he is on her. Dogs, because they are, in the grand scheme of things, stupid, love us on a level that we can never get from humans. And it works the other way around. Human relationships are too complicated because humans are too complicated. There is nothing complicated about a dog.

Despite what I’ve said, the film is engaging from beginning to end. I don’t think that the incessant voice-over was really necessary. I think the existential themes in the film come across loud and clear. That’s largely due to an exceptional performance by Martina Gedeck, who is the whole film. And most of what she gets to do is walk around and stare out of windows. Yet it never seems staged and never gets boring. From the beginning, the viewer cares about the woman.

Die Wand is also exceptionally beautiful. Each shot is framed with great care. And the film is edited very deliberately with relatively long shots. It is designed to be soaked in—to be enjoyed as a process. That said, I suspect most people won’t like the film. They want a film that is going somewhere. Die Wand is not going anywhere. It ends pretty much where it starts: she will continue on until she doesn’t. Just like all of us.


There is one strange technical thing in the film that is worth noting. It is in German with subtitles whenever anyone speaks—which is almost never. The voice-over, which seems to have been done by the same actor, is in English. I’m glad for this. I’m not a fan of subtitles. But it is odd, and I wonder that they didn’t just dub the little dialog that was in the film. It would have been easy with modern technology. (Yes Virginia, dubbing really can be done well.)

American Well-Being

Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index

Every year since 2008, Gallup and Healthways have put out the State of American Well-Being where they ranked each of the state by how well they are doing based upon “55 unique measures of well-being that went far beyond physical wellness and traditional health risk factors.” They interviewed over 178,000 people. The minimum number of respondents for any given state was 462 and the maximum was a bit more than 17,000. I assume those are something like Wyoming and California respectively.

What we see in the map above are the states put into quintiles. Perhaps surprisingly, a bunch of really cold states are in the top ten. But this is deceptive. This year the two Dakotas are at the top of the ratings, even though they were at 12 (South) and 19 (North) just last year. It’s hard not to conclude that this has something to do with the oil money they have recently been getting. The truth is, all of those northern states in the top ten have very low unemployment rates—North Dakota has a rate of just 2.7%. But I can’t say for sure, because the full report is not out yet. Indeed, the surveys themselves are over a year old. But it is a lot of data to deal with.

Other things stand out in the report, however. Just as the northern states seem to be doing well, the deep south is doing really poorly. This is especially interesting when you consider that unemployment isn’t that high there. Louisiana and Oklahoma have an unemployment rate of only 5.4%. Alabama’s rate is only 6.1%. Arkansas and Mississippi do have high rates: 7.4% and 7.8%. But this is nothing compared to California (8.3%) and Rhode Island (9.3%), both of which rate much higher.

Coal country doesn’t seem to be doing well. In fact, West Virginia has rated last every year the report has been done. I think they all might do better if they stopped trying to hang onto the 19th century and decided to move into the 21st. I don’t doubt that the rest of the country would be willing to sink a lot of money (not that we aren’t already) into helping the people of West Virginia break free of their coal economy. Of course, there are very powerful energy interests who do everything to stop that. I assume the people who own those companies would rate high on the wellness scale.

Another thing that sticks out is the difference between Oregon and Washington. I’ve lived for long periods in both states and they seem very similar to me. Yet Washington ranks 9th (15th last year) and Oregon ranks 25th (24th last year). This may be due to the fact that Washington is just a little better than Oregon in a whole bunch of ways. They add up. And the politics of Washington are distinctly more liberal than Oregon, so there’s that.

There are various other things to note. California is now, as always, in the high teens. That makes sense. We are too big a state to make major changes from year to year. Nevada made a huge increase this year from 39th to 26th. I suspect that people are still feeling relieved that Sharron Angle is not their Senator. Actually, it is probably because their unemployment rate has dropped a lot, even if it is still the second worst in the nation at 9.0%.

My conclusion on all of this is that living in a liberal state is generally the best thing, unless you have huge numbers of petrodollars flooding your state. Burying your head in the sand and refusing to except science, hating people who aren’t like you even when they don’t bother you, and pining for a nation that never existed? These are things that keep you down and not feeling well. You are all welcome in California!

H/T: Chris Cillizza

Vivaldi’s Opera

Antonio VivaldiLast year, I wrote about Antonio Vivaldi who was born on this day in 1678. And I’m afraid that I’m forced to do the same thing this year. There are a couple of other interesting people, but I still have a couple of things to say about him. Vivaldi was one of the greatest Baroque composers. As I’ve gotten older, I have found Baroque music less interesting. But when I was younger, I loved his work.

He is mostly known for his instrumental work. The best known of these are the violin concertos The Four Seasons. I was found of his six flute concertos, most especially number 3, “Il gardellino.” I know that concerto so well that I’m pretty sure I still have it memorized, even though I haven’t played it in 30 years. I was surprised to find the following performance of it with James Galway on flute. It isn’t surprising that he would perform the piece, of course. But he’s reading music, and it surprises me that he doesn’t have it memorized. I suppose he isn’t as big a fan as I am. Of course, I never played it (or anything else) like this:

Another surprise to me was that Vivaldi wrote a lot of operas—at least 50, but according to one letter he wrote, 90! So I spent some time listening to some of his work. Now, I have to admit, I wasn’t hopeful. Opera didn’t really come into its all until the Classical period. And indeed, much of it is not terribly compelling. The over-technical aspects of Baroque music that work so well with most instruments sound awfully strained to me in the human voice. Still, there is much to like in Vivaldi’s operas.

Here is a bad video of a wonderful duet from one of Vivaldi’s later operas La Fida Ninfa. I think that translates “The Trusting Nymph.” It sounds playful. I will have to look into it more, but until then, enjoy this couple of minutes:

Happy birthday Antonio Vivaldi!

The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders

Andrea brought my attention to the following Saturday Night Live faux-trailer for a Wes Anderson horror movie with the very funny title, The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders. I think the idea is to play with the idea of Wes Anderson as Wes Craven. Mostly, it is a parody of The Royal Tenenbaums. But it is a good reminder of just how distinctive a filmmaker Anderson is. I find him uneven, but there is no doubt that you always know you are watching a Wes Anderson film. And that’s a lot more than you can say about most directors.

“Picture of Edith Piaf”? How about a song, instead:

Ukraine Is Putin’s Problem

Michael CohenFinally we are getting some decent reporting on Ukraine! I’m not talking about reporting on what’s going on there. The reporting on that has been reasonable. And it’s been sad. But I try not to be focused on whatever tragedy the mainstream news is focused on. The world is full of tragedies: you can have your pick. My interest is what the Russian invasion of Crimea means to the United States. And despite all the yammering from conservatives, what Russia’s actions mean is: very little.

Yesterday at The Guardian, Michael Cohen wrote a great article, Don’t Listen to Obama’s Ukraine Critics: He’s Not “Losing”—and It’s Not His Fight. Now, he could focus on John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the latter of which said, “We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression. President Obama needs to do something.” I do love these proclamations. They are very American: doing anything is far more important than doing the right thing. But the fact that the entire Republican Party is rising up in unison to call for “something” to be done is not a surprise. It is a gambit. They will criticize whatever Obama does.

Cohen, however, is interested in actual reporters and pundits. He goes through the various ridiculous ways that the conflict is being framed: from some kind of personality battle where Putin is invading just to thumb his nose at Obama, to inappropriate historical analogies like Leonid Bershidsky who compared “seizing Crimea to the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938.” Fun stuff! But his focus is on how the analysis is making the Ukraine crisis all about us. “As in practically every international crisis, the pundit class seems able to view events solely through the prism of US actions…” Indeed. If a country other than Russia had invaded Ukraine, the mainstream press probably wouldn’t even notice.

This is old Cold War thinking. But it isn’t the Cold War and Russia isn’t the Soviet Union. In 2012, the United States spent $682 billion on its military. That same year, Russia spent $91 billion. Our friend Mr Arithmetic tell us that the big bad Russian military is 13% the size of our hopelessly fragile military. I don’t know how Americans sleep at night! The ex-communist hordes are coming for us!

Cohen focuses on what a mess Putin has put himself in, calling Ukraine “Putin’s Waterloo.” That’s almost certainly true. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, it too was characterized as Carter’s problem when it really wasn’t—at least until Carter made it his problem. Cohen sees Putin’s situation as similar to Brezhnev’s:

Putin has initiated a conflict that will, quite obviously, result in greater diplomatic and political isolation as well as the potential for economic sanction. He’s compounded his loss of a key ally in Kiev by further enflaming Ukrainian nationalism, and his provocations could have a cascading effect in Europe by pushing countries that rely on Russia’s natural gas exports to look elsewhere for their energy needs. Putin is the leader of a country with a weak military, an under-performing economy and a host of social, environmental and health-related challenges. Seizing the Crimea will only make the problems facing Russia that much greater.

And sure enough, as Jason Karaian (via Ed Kilgore) noted:

But the markets are punishing Russia much more swiftly than the diplomats. A wide range of Russian assets—stocks, bonds, and the ruble—plunged in value today. To shore up the ruble, which is plumbing record depths, Russia’s central bank unexpectedly hiked interest rates today. It ratcheted up the benchmark one-week rate from 5.5% to 7%, and traders report that the central bank has also been spending billions of dollars in currency markets to stem the fall in the value of the ruble…

For most people in the Political-Entertainment Complex, we have to act and that requires military hardware. But they are just dusting off their old arguments from 11 and 12 years ago, as Cohen explains:

You don’t have to listen to the “do something” crowd. These are the same people who brought you the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other greatest hits. These are armchair “experts” convinced that every international problem is a vital interest of the US; that the maintenance of “credibility” and “strength” is essential, and that any demonstration of “weakness” is a slippery slope to global anarchy and American obsolescence; and that being wrong and/or needlessly alarmist never loses one a seat at the table.

That’s right, because inflicting pain on other people—be it the poor in this country or the civilians in others countries we claim to be helping—is what makes one Serious.

EITC Doesn’t Replace Minimum Wage

Raise the Minimum Wage?

Jonathan Chait has a good article about Obama’s new budget plan, Obama To Republicans: You’re Right, Let’s Expand The Earned Income Tax Credit. After Obama started talking about raising the minimum wage, the whole Republican movement went around crying, “Raising the minimum wage is a bad idea; let’s increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) instead!” Chait notes that this is just Obama’s way of calling their bluff.

What Chait doesn’t mention is that the whole Republican EITC offer is just their usual bait and switch. It reminds me very much of the whole individual mandate. When the Republicans were afraid of single payer healthcare reform or even HillaryCare, the Republicans were all for the “free market healthcare reform” that was Obamacare. But the moment that Obamacare became the Democratic plan, it was, “Socialism! Socialism I tell you!”

The same thing is going on with the EITC. As long as the Republicans are afraid that the Democrats might raise the minimum wage, then the EITC is a great talking point. It implies that they actually care about the poor, but just disagree about tactics. But the moment that the Democrats start talking about the EITC, the Republicans will turn against it. Many of them will go back to their usual “moochers” narrative that far from getting money from the government, low wage workers should be paying. Otherwise, they will support the welfare state. Blah blah blah.

But the more common response will be, “Yes, let’s raise the EITC! How are we going to pay for it?” Because that’s a requirement whenever a Democrat is in the White House. (A requirement that the Democrats have been very compliant about.) So now that Obama has agreed to the EITC discussion, the Republicans will have new demands about how it will be paid for. Obviously, there can’t be any taxes. And it can’t come out of any spending that the Republicans support. How about this: we cut food stamps to increase support for the EITC!

The point of all this, however, is not to actually increase funding for EITC. The point is to have a plausible position to avoid doing anything for the poor. So moving around some money so that how the poor are helped would be fine, although even that would likely get push back from many conservatives. Ultimately, what the Republicans want is to make the poor even more desperate. That is effectively what Paul Ryan is pushing in his poverty report, The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later.

Think for a moment about what raising the minimum wage does. As I write about all the time around here: raising the minimum wage (or the corporate income tax or whatever) does not cause prices to go up. That’s not how markets work and its not what business owners do. So raising the minimum wage is effectively a tax on businesses that employ minimum wage workers. That’s why Republicans hate it: it takes money from the wealthy and gives it to the poor; conservatives think the flow should go the other way. And it usually does!

The EITC, however, works the opposite of the minimum wage. By having a program that gives low wage workers cash, the government subsidizes low wage employers. According to economist Arindrajit Dube, 27% of the money given to workers via EITC goes indirectly to their employers in the form of lower wages. So you can see why Republicans have mixed feelings about it. On the bad side, three-quarters goes to poor people, but on the good side, one-quarter goes to those heroic job creators!

So note: moving money from food stamps to the EITC would be a net loss for low wage workers. And, in fact, any pay-for that would be acceptable to the Republicans would be a net loss for low wage workers. So Democrats would be crazy to cut a deal. But I’m sure they won’t. Jonathan Chait is right, “Obama’s embrace of Republican proposals to expand the EITC will likely wind up serving the sole function of calling their bluff.”