Bad Oscar Winners

I just found this Watch Mojo video, Top 10 Worst Best Picture Oscar-Winning Movies. I thought it would be fun, but it only annoyed me. I probably should have guessed. Because there is one thing that I thought all people who really like movies as an art form agree on: the Academy Awards are a joke. So the video implicitly gives them status as though we should be surprised that they don’t stand up to the smallest amount of scrutiny.

My favorite example of this is that All That Jazz did not get the Best Picture award. What else was nominated? Well, there were three really good films: Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, and Norma Rae. But the winner? Kramer vs Kramer. You know, the one film nominated that could have been a Movie of the Week or perhaps better, Afternoon Special. What’s particularly wonderful (awful) about the film is how the court finds in the mother’s favor. But then they tack on a happy ending where the mother just gives the kid back. It’s the worst kind of melodrama and that’s what the Academy likes!

But our friends at Watch Mojo didn’t even mention the 1980 Academy Awards. But they did get some that are notable. For example, they did mention 1942. This was the year that How Green Was My Valley won. Actually, it is not a bad film at all. Certainly Citizen Kane should have won. But the video also complains that The Maltese Falcon didn’t win. I love the film, but its candy—not important in any way. I certainly think that two other nominees, Suspicion and The Little Foxes, were more deserving of the award. But the makers of the video seem more concerned about which film is the most entertaining or at least has the best reputation.

That’s especially true for Around the World in Eighty Days. Now I’ll admit that it isn’t a great film. And one of the films up against it was Giant, which is a great film. But the video also complains because The King and I and The Ten Commandments did not win. Really?! What other than the fact that the people at Watch Mojo have heard about the films makes them better than Around the World in Eighty Days? What’s more, they seem to think that Giant is great because James Dean was in it. What idiots!

It says that ET should have beat Gandhi. That may be true. Gandhi is rather an uninspired film. But the other film they mention is Tootsie. Good God! Both the other films nominated are better than it: Missing and The Verdict.

That last example was part of a pattern. The video is quite biased toward certain filmmakers. One is Martin Scorsese. Now he is a great director, but it is notable that they didn’t mention any of his best films. And then there was Steven Spielberg. The video even said that Shakespeare in Love should have lost to Saving Private Ryan. It’s just over the top. Just because a war film is realistic does mean it was good. Give it the Academy Award for best makeup effects.

The implication throughout the video is that the Best Picture Oscar should be for the most popular film. I don’t see the point of that. We already have such an award: it’s called the “box office” and it is a cash award. What’s more, popular by what standards? A lot of really fun films were never popular because the studio killed them for one reason or another. And many films aren’t even noticed by the Academy. Orson Welles won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Othello the year the Academy didn’t even notice it.

I understand that such videos are always going to be, in some sense, silly. But they ought to try not to be boring. Anyone could have made this list—And done it better!—going through each year and seeing what films are now held in high regard. But I will admit, The English Patient is a dreadfully slow film.

Neville Chamberlain Was Right

Neville ChamberlainLast year, I highlighted a u-boat captain who was celebrating his 100th birthday. And I am pleased to keep the World War II theme going this year, but with a more tragic figure—even if the tragedy is more lore than history. On this day in 1869, the English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was born. I have been wanting to write about him for months, because he has been unfairly maligned for decades. And now with his birthday as well as conservatives ranting about “appeasement” with regard to Putin, it seems like the time.

You know the story. On 30 September 1938, Chamberlain signed the Munich Pact with Hitler. It was peace in our time. But of course it wasn’t. Hitler never had any intention of following the pact. And when he inevitably invaded Poland, people blamed Chamberlain for his “appeasement” of Hitler. This became not only a conservative Truth about the cause of World War II, but an excuse for a generally belligerent foreign policy. Thus, we hold up Winston Churchill as a great hero and Neville Chamberlain as a weakling. There’s just one problem: it isn’t true.

Back in September, for the 75th anniversary of the Munich Pact, Nick Baumann wrote, Neville Chamberlain Was Right. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but I will give a brief overview here. Unlike the myth, Churchill was not the only one in England who thought that Hitler was a threat. After all, Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty under Chamberlain. The whole government was working on gearing up for war. But in September 1938, the military were not ready to go to war with Hitler. So the right thing to do at that point—the thing that the military wanted—was the Munich Pact. They wanted another year to get ready.

So there were a lot of heroes in World War II. And one of them is Chamberlain. In this country, especially, we have such a tendency to lionize those who go to war. But more often than not, the heroes are those who don’t go to war. If England had gone to war in 1938, Germany would have quickly defeated it. So yes, Churchill was a hero. But so was Chamberlain.

Happy birthday Neville Chamberlain!


This is not a great Elvis Costello song (Shipbuilding is much better). But it applies:

Killers, Drug Dealers, and a Racist Dwarf

In BrugesLast night, I watched In Bruges from writer-director Martin McDonagh, probably best known for the recent Seven Psychopaths. It’s interesting that his films are so visually interesting when he is, at heart, a playwright. But the thing about filmmaking is that it is a group effort. I know if someone were foolish enough to have me direct a film, I would hire a great cinematographer and carmeraman and listen to them very carefully. And for all I know, MCDonagh does the same thing.

The one thing that really does dominate the film is that it is shot in Bruges, which apparently is one of the most beautiful towns in the world. And great care is taken to make every shot beautiful. This is distinctly different from Seven Psychopaths, which was quite obviously meant to be ugly. All things equal, I’d rather watch a beautiful film. And In Bruges shows that pretty images don’t hurt a black comedy. In fact, I think they heightened the effect.

The plot of the film is simple: after accidentally killing a young boy during an assassination, a rookie hitman is sent to Bruges by a crime boss, where he will be murdered. The film lives in its own moral universe that has nothing to do with our world. But if that isn’t a problem, it’s a charming story. The crime boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), sends the rookie hitman, Ray (Colin Farrell), to Burges to give him a little joy before he has him killed. The hitman hates Burges, however. The other more experienced hitman, Ken (Brendan Gleeson), just loves Bruges. And along the way, they meet up with thieves, drug dealers, prostitutes, and an angry American dwarf who is very racist when he’s on cocaine.

It’s a bit of a problem that Ray dances on the edge of being completely unlikable. I found myself wishing through most of the film that Ken would just kill him so we could get back to our nice holiday with the entirely likable older hitman. But it never got too bad because Ray always seemed to shift back onto the likable side of that line. Even Harry with his queer notions of morality was often hard to dislike. In fact, there is a funny scene at the hotel where Ray and Harry negotiate how they will continue their gun fight outside so that they don’t accidentally harm the pregnant owner.

The problems with the film are confined to the ending. Even by its own terms, it gets far fetched. One character jumps off Belfry of Bruges to save another character before dying. It’s got to be ten stories high! There is no way anyone is going to survive for even a second after that fall—especially after losing most of his blood from a gunshot wound. But that is forgivable. In fact, it almost seems reasonable in the film. But the final couple of minutes change the filming style to make it all seem like a dream. This is done for thematically defensible reasons. But I don’t really think it works. What’s more, it is a hasty ending to a film that was deliberately (and enjoyably) paced.

Despite blowing the ending, I thought the film worked really well. I especially liked spending the time with Ken. I felt very connected with him: an older man who has lived a mixed life and who now just wants to enjoy the little things that are left. Part of that is Gleeson’s performance. And another part is the great chemistry between Ken and Ray. Ray’s constant juvenile complaints and Ken’s responses are what give the film much of its charm. And ultimately, it is a very positive film. Or at least as positive as a film can be that involves three murders, a drug dealer, and a racist dwarf.

Update (18 March 2014 5:27 pm)

I had meant to note that I think the Dwarf’s racist rant was meant to be a parody of Quentin Tarantino. That made it all the funnier to me.

Democrats Should Expand Entitlements

Hands Off Entitlements

Digby highlighted a National Journal article this morning, Did Social Security Cost Democrats a Seat In Florida? It highlights how the Florida 13th district has one of the highest percentages of people over 65 years old. So the Democrat, Sink, tried to use the Republican Jolly’s support for privatizing Social Security against him. But as the article put it, “Jolly had an easy comeback: he denied wanting to privatize Social Security, and fired back by noting that Sink voiced some support for the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction plan, which included cuts to Social Security.” Ah yes, the Grand Bargain!

What Digby focused on is that support for the Grand Bargain is bad politics. Social Security and Medicare should be a winning issue for Democrats. Remember during the vice-presidential debate in 2012? Joe Biden delivered what I think of as the best line of the whole campaign, “Folks: use your common sense! Who do you trust on this?!” But that doesn’t work when the Democrats run around everywhere pretending to be Very Serious People wanting to cut benefits with absurd mechanisms like chained-CPI. As Digby noted, there is no political advantage to such a deal “unless you count Villagers extolling them for being ‘grown-ups’ which should get them at least a hundred votes in Virginia.”

Last year, I wrote, The Terrible Bargain. It is mostly about how the Grand Bargain is a bad idea just based upon the economics. As usual, what all the Very Serious People just know to be true isn’t. It all comes down to the idea that if something is painful for you, it must be good. Of course, note how cruel these people are: the pain suffered is never by the people pushing these policies. And the notion is ridiculous. Hacking off your hand with a meat cleaver is painful and does no good unless you are in Evil Dead II.

But more to the point, the politics are even worse than the economics. The idea of the Grand Bargain is to raise taxes in exchange for lowering entitlement spending. So it is a lose-lose. No one likes raising taxes and no one likes cutting benefits. And it is especially stupid given that the Republicans will never swap tax increases for entitlement cuts. Now I’m not at all convinced that Sink lost the election because she didn’t have the Social Security issue with which to beat up Jolly. But it certainly would have helped.

As Dibgy noted, some Democrats are waking up to the issue. Not only can Democrats be the party for protecting entitlements, they can be the party for expanding them. After all, the Republican argument is that they are protecting the programs by cutting them. And they are always absolutely clear that they won’t cut benefits for people currently on the programs. But the fact is that our benefits are about the stingiest in the developed world. They ought to be expanded. And if Democrats took up this cause, the voters would have a clear choice.

Nothing Left

Nothing LeftIn this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, Adolph Reed wrote Nothing Left. Sadly, it is behind a paywall. I went and got a hard copy when I heard about it. And it is a great article. Unfortunately, my well marked copy has set idle because I haven’t had much to add to it. It is very much what I think. But this morning, I read an article by Ed Kilgore where he largely dismisses it. That’s not a surprise. Kilgore is a New Democrat and Adolph Reed’s sights are set on the New Democratic movement.

Reed’s argument is that the Democratic Party doesn’t really stand for anything anymore other than winning elections. What he says is what I say around here all the time: economic issues are what matter. My favorite example is that it is more important for a gay man to be able to find work than to marry. It’s a Needs Hierarchy thing. But the Democratic Party has pretty much turned in all their economically liberal ideas and now depend almost exclusively on social issues as the basis of their claim to be liberal.

This is the critical passage from the article:

Each election now becomes a moment of life-or-death urgency that precludes dissent or even reflection. For liberals, there is only one option in an election year, and that is to elect, at whatever cost, whichever Democrat is running. This modus operandi has tethered what remains of the left to a Democratic Party that has long since renounced its commitment to any sort of redistributive vision and imposes a willed amnesia on political debate. True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will.

The response from the Democratic elite and the Obama worshipers is always that Obama (or Clinton, or whoever) really is liberal, but the political realities dictate being more conservative. Give him the House and 60 members of the Senate see what he does! Of course, we did give him that. And what did we get? The Republican healthcare plan! A supremely watered down stimulus. And this wasn’t the result of resistance from the Blue Dog Democrats. Obama never even proposed liberal policy. As he is quoted in The Obamas, “I’m a Blue Dog at heart.” Indeed he is.

But it isn’t just the economic issues. Reed does a good job laying out the supposed necessity of Democratic politicians to have a Sister Souljah moment. It’s interesting that there is never such a requirement for Republican politicians. In fact, it is rather the opposite. But what it mostly comes down to is Democratic politicians criticizing powerless constituencies. Reed notes how it is always portrayed as being a show of strength when it is just the opposite. After all, beating up on the weak is what we would call bullying if it happened on a school yard.

An excellent example of this was Obama’s “Popeyes Chicken” speech where he chastised a mostly black audience about feeding their kids junk food. “You can’t do that,” Obama said. “Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.” Apart from the fact that of all the issues facing minority children, the eating of friend chicken is pretty minor, the comment is simply offensive. As Reed notes, “Perhaps, but it’s noteworthy that Obama didn’t give the Popeyes speech to groups of investment bankers.”

Another way to put the problem is, “Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to anti-discrimination.” This goes along with the neoliberal idea we don’t have to do anything about inequality as long as the inequality is color blind. As long as 5% of billionaires are gay and 10% are black, everything’s okay. Except that it isn’t. Such a society is still unfair.

I also think that the New Democratic attacks on Reed are unfair for another reason. He isn’t saying vote against the Democratic Party. He has a long-term vision of building a truly liberal movement. It is absolutely the case that the Democratic Party will not be doing it. But as a liberal movement grows it will take over the current Democratic Party. Regardless, he isn’t saying that Bush and Gore were the same, only that they weren’t much different when it came to economic issues. And it is no way forward for the Democratic Party to be Republican Party Lite.

If there is a liberal demographic tidal wave that it coming, the Democratic Party will squander it if we liberals just allow things to continue on as they have been. It will be 2009 all over again with Democratic super-majorities. If the Democrats continue to provide the same watered down liberal policies and super-strength neoliberal policies, people will back away. They’ll stop voting. And I can’t see that there will be any reason to blame them.