The Music Man

The Music ManI sat down this evening and watched The Music Man. (Guess why.) In general, I don’t think musicals translate very well to the screen, but this film was even further harmed by the choice of Morton DaCosta to direct it. He directed the original Broadway version, and I’m sure he did a great job. He was, after all, a theater director. But the film is all over the place. At times it is just a filmed version of a theater piece, including fading spotlights to end scenes. But other times, it goes for realism. It’s disturbing because as a viewer, you never know how your supposed to approach the film.

One thing that I was more impressed with this time was Onna White’s choreography. It’s really fun and clever and completely in keeping with the time period of the film (1912). At times, its magical, as in the dance number for “Marian The Librarian.” But most dances numbers are at least denigrated by the direction. Overall, there is too much action. Each shot is filled with so many people, it is often hard to know what to focus on. DaCosta is in love with the long shot, like he had never seen any films past Griffith’s earliest.

Another problem is Shirley Jones. Her singing voice is so much stronger than all the other lead vocalist that it doesn’t seem to belong. (This is distinct from the ensemble singing that is without exception fantastic.) There is also an acting discontinuity between Jones and Robert Preston. As long as Preston is playing the cavalier con artist, he’s just great. But at the end, when the two of them fall in love, his performance is stilted and unconvincing. In fact, it is so much so that all these years I thought he was gay.

The film is sexist as it could be, not least of which portraying the affluent women as hens. And there is not a single non-white character in the film. It also portrays the people of Iowa in a very bad light and generally has a low opinion of small town America. It is, in short, an extremely cynical movie with a sentimental ending tacked on. But in its defense, the ending could have been a whole lot more sentimental.

Having said all this, you probably think I hate the film. That’s not true at all. It works. And it works on a number of levels. First, there are the songs. Meredith Willson was a genius. There isn’t a single song in the film that isn’t a winner. And Willson does something especially well that most songwriters do really poorly or not at all: he writes great bridges to his songs. The only person who rivaled him was Richard Rodgers in his early years.

The script is also very funny and clever. The respectable women in town are against Marian because she reads things like, “Chaucer… Rabelais… Balzac!” It’s funny at the same time that they’re right: those writers are dangerous to their small minded views of the world. And the film does a much better job of providing a back story for Harold Hill, where we see that in a fundamental way, he is conning himself more than anyone. This is paid off really well when Winthrop asks Hill, “What band?” And Hill replies ruefully, “I always think there’s a band, kid.”

The Music Man is a nice film and I definitely think it is something that you should share with your kids. I just wish the adaptation to the screen that been better done as it was in 1776. And interestingly, that was the same situation: the Broadway director also directed the film: Peter Hunt. And for obvious reasons, Hunt went on to be a highly successful film director. But in terms of the songs and the story, The Music Man is better. Not that the kids shouldn’t be forced to watch both!

You Are a Neanderthal!

NeanderthalI have great news: you are a neanderthal! As you may know, I fancy myself a defender of the downtrodden and vilified. This makes me a big booster for rats, for example. But it has also made me something of a defender of our neanderthal relatives. For one thing: they had bigger brains than we do, so we have no right to run around putting them down. And we do. I discussed this in an article last year, Are Humans Better than Neanderthals? I love watching documentaries about human evolution, but I’ve noticed a tendency for these to cast aspersions at neanderthals, like they went extinct because they weren’t as good as humans. And given that the entire human population dropped down to just a thousand people, we came a hair’s breadth from going extinct ourselves. So I figured that the neanderthals were just unlucky.

But that appears not to be the case. It seems that neanderthals interbred so much with Homo sapiens that they didn’t go extinct but rather were just assimilated as humans. Think: the Borg, but without all the pancake makeup. We are, after all, 99.84% genetically identical to neanderthals. And there are reasons to think that the two groups had things to offer each other. The neanderthals had bigger brains and Homo sapiens had larger frontal lobes, which is associated with communication. Or not. I’m just guessing. But I can’t imagine that the greater genetic diversity wasn’t helpful to the species.

All of this comes from a short article in Ancient Origins, New Study Suggests Neanderthals Never Went Extinct. And I learned a number of other things about our neanderthal ancestors. For example, I always thought that humans managed to survive in tough times because of their varied diets—especially their use of fish as a food source. But it turns out that the neanderthals ate plants and fish as well. So there you go. Really, it all means that they really weren’t much different from us and so interbreeding isn’t a surprise at all.

Now I must admit to my own error. I have often used “neanderthal” as a pejorative. For example, I wrote, “The liberals on the court have become moderates and the conservatives have become neanderthals.” And: “The truth is that the economic conservatives don’t care about the neanderthal policies of the social conservatives, because when you’re rich, the law doesn’t really matter.” And in, Kansas Wants to Close All Minds, I really let go:

A new crop of neanderthals has decided to get upset about a state-approved sex education diagram being seen in a middle school, Kansas Senate Weighs Bill to Ease Prosecution of Teachers Over Offensive Materials. The State Senate is currently working on Senate Bill 401, which would pretty much make illegal anything that any of the fellow neanderthals are against.

The bill specifically targets “teachers, librarians or school principals.” Because the only way to stop an intellectual with “bad” facts is a conservative neanderthal with an unconstitutional law.

I now feel very bad about this. I’m going to have to come up with another name to slander the supposed conservatives of this country. I was thinking Australopithecus afarensis, but that seems unfair to this great ape. Then I thought of the Cynognathus, but that only goes back 200 million years, and isn’t that a cruel comparison for these proto-dogs? So now I’m just thinking reptile. It’s simple, evocative, and indicates only lower brain functions like fear and anger. Still, alligators are a whole lot more civilized than most conservatives. If you have any ideas, please let me know!

H/T: Infidel753

Competing Freedom Interests

Paul WaldmanPaul Waldman wrote an interesting article over at The Plum Line, The Maximum Freedom of the Rich to Influence Elections. It follows off of Harry Reid’s recent idea that we need to have a constitutional amendment
to reverse the Supreme Court’s recent “money is speech” rulings. From my perspective, this is far too little, far too late. But that doesn’t mean that conservatives aren’t freaking out at the thought of it.

Mitch McConnell’s spokesperson Don Stewart started tweeting out rubbish like, “Sen. Reid on the floor now calling for an amendment to the Constitution to restrict the First Amendment.” Given the assumptions, you really can’t argue with this. It’s just that the assumptions are all wrong. Imagine a city council meeting where everyone got to speak, but the only person anyone could hear was the one with the loudest voice. Would that be democracy? That’s what the “money is speech” argument is.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of the fundamental libertarian principle (which is also the basis of conservatism more generally): government is the only entity that can limit your freedom because it is the only entity with the legal right to put you in jail or kill you. But that isn’t even true in the most basic way. I can think of three rich people who seem to have gotten away with murder: OJ Simpson, Phil Spector, and Robert Blake. And they all did it because we live in an Animal Farm country where everyone is equal but some are more equal than others.

The End Is NearThere is no greater risk to the liberty of all Americans than granting the right of a tiny fraction of Americans to spend as much money as they like on presidential campaigns. I’m certainly willing to yield Stewart’s point: limiting campaign contributions would indeed decrease one kind of freedom in this country. But it would be far offset by the increase in the liberty of everyone to make their own unmolested political decisions. But Stewart’s argument is typical of libertarian argumentation: there are no competing interests. This is just an excuse to keep the status quo and to avoid increasing the total liberty of the nation. This is why, when you get right down to it, libertarianism becomes nothing but a system designed to remove all limits from the rich at the expense of the poor. Such a system would be even worse than communism under Stalin.

But I’m not too keen on many of the ideas out there for dealing with money in politics. Reid’s idea, as I said, is tepid stuff—even if it makes conservatives apoplectic. And I’m not too interested in Waldman’s pet idea of making all donations go into a blind pool were candidates didn’t know who gave to them. The problem, I think, is that this would work great for the super donors like the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson, because it isn’t just anyone who can give $100 million to a political candidate. There are other ideas—many others. Political scientists are really smart people. Personally, I would like to see strict limits to campaign lengths, but I don’t think that would be enough.

Regardless, I am behind any proposal that makes things better. Because what we have now is basically an oligarchy. And it is only getting worse.

The Greatest American Economist

Paul SamuelsonOn this day in 1915, probably the greatest American economist ever Paul Samuelson was born. He is the man most responsible for establishing Keynesian economics to its place as the fundamental basis of the science. But today, there are real debates as to whether economics is a science. There is no doubt that Samuelson was as scientist, and he did brilliant work in a number of areas, in the end publishing almost 400 papers. But what about the profession?

I think what liberal economists do is science. This is something that Paul Krugman talks about a lot. When new data come along, they alter their theories of the science. But look what happened to the conservative economists in the 1970s. When stagflation (high inflation coupled with high unemployment) happened, they found that economic shocks could throw the economy on tilt. In that case, it was an oil price shock. But instead of building on the Keynesian base that had worked so well to explain the economy up to that point, they threw it out. And what’s worse, they clearly threw it out because they didn’t like the political implications of Keynesian theory. The Keynesians, on the other hand, did use the shocks to build on the existing theory. (Although even they didn’t seem to do that great a job, but at least it was still science.)

Consider Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. It didn’t cast away Newtonian mechanics. Newtonian mechanics was a special case of relativistic mechanics. That was one of the reasons we could have confidence in the theory. The same goes for quantum mechanics: if you pull out and look at macro-scale phenomena, you see that it becomes good old fashioned classical mechanics. That’s how science works. If you are bopping around from one incompatible theory to another, you aren’t doing science.

To this day, many conservative economists think that people like Samuelson and Keynes were wrong, or worse: a joke. This is despite the fact that Samuelson was hugely important in showing that the neoclassical approach to microeconomics leads to Keynesian macroeconomics. Of course to people who do economics as a science and not mathematical doodling, Paul Samuelson is a towering figure. He also built the MIT economics department, bringing in three really important economists who I’ve actually heard of: Franco Modigliani, Joseph Stiglitz, and Paul Krugman.

Also, he was born in Gary, Indiana:

Happy birthday Paul Samuelson!