The Best Altman Gosford Park

Gosford ParkI have mentioned many times that Gosford Park is one of my very favorite films. But I’ve never really written about it. Tonight I sat down and watched it again and it has lost none of its power. It’s hard not to compare it to Downton Abbey which is like a cartoon version of Gosford Park. The difference is that Downton Abbey is pure genre. Godford Park is what we might call postmodern genre. It pretends to be genre but it isn’t. It is a manor drama where someone is murdered and there are lots of suspects. But no one really cares about the murder mystery and it is clear from the start that that the inspector is not going to get his man.

Although it is an ensemble cast with some of the best actors working, it is the story of Mary MacEachran, an inexperienced lady’s maid played by Kelly Macdonald. She is the first character we see at the start of the film and the last character with any dialogue, and pretty much the last character we see. Because she really doesn’t know her job, she acts as us. And as such, she is the only person who solves the murder. And she gains great wisdom throughout the film.

People always get mad at me for “spoiling” films by explaining what happens. I don’t think such complaints are valid. Barring truly surprising endings like The Sixth Sense and Psycho, we all know how films are going to end. But in Gosford Park, it probably helps to know what’s going on. Because it is the densest film I’ve ever seen. I’ve talked to people who have seen it once who had no idea what happened in the film. I had figured out what the crux of the film was within the first quarter of it, but it took me a good five viewings to get straight all the subplots. I think the importance of the orphanage is pretty obvious if you are watching the film closely. The script is really good at setting up the denouement.

But it isn’t the main plot that keeps me watching the film. It is filled with interesting characters, all trying to get through life as best they can. And although none of them are absolutely terrible people, most of them are not very likable. And sometimes it is very sweet. The three sisters are an exercise in literary formalism. One of the sisters married for money and has a miserable marriage. One of the sisters married for status and has a miserable marriage. And the youngest sister married for love and has a nice marriage, although they are constantly struggling financially.

The younger sister’s husband is Commander Anthony Meredith played by the always wonderful Tom Hollander. He is feeling defeated generally in life and has hid away in the jam cellar. Dorothy, servant responsible for the jams who is played by the equally wonderful Sophie Thompson comes upon him. He asks her, “Why is it, would you say, that some people seem to get whatever they want in life? Everything they touch turns to gold. Whereas others can strive and strive and have nothing. I wonder, do you believe in luck? Do you think some men are lucky and some men just aren’t and nothing they can do about it?” She responds, “I believe in love. Not just getting it, but giving it. I think that if you’re able to love someone, even if they don’t know it, even if they can’t love you back, then it’s worth it. And…” At that point, she realizes that she has been too forward and revealed too much of herself. She’s embarrassed, but his eyes have been opened. He says, “That’s a good answer.” Then he goes to his wife in the drawing room and kisses her quite publicly and passionately.

Now sure: that could be sentimental. But it isn’t. It’s just a simple scene that shows a man, who like all of us, has lost sight of what is good in his life by focusing on the little problems. He has the one thing that no other man in the film has: a wife who loves him. And even though everyone looks down on them, that’s not their problem. They have an absolute good. And the others are living their lives like they are playing a game.

The other standout subplot involves an aristocratic man who married a middle class woman for her money. The money turned out to be less than he had thought. And so he hates her because of their lack of money and because of her bourgeoisie tastes. He is cruel to her and arguably the least likable character in the whole film. But over the course of the film, she finds herself. She realizes that she has value and her husband is just a pompous bore. That marriage may not last, but he will no longer have the power over her.

Even my very favorite films have little flaws. Gosford Park has none. If you love great film, you owe it to yourself to watch it. But not just once. It takes a couple of times watching it to figure it all out. That isn’t to say that it isn’t enjoyable the first time. You will fully understand the film on one viewing, but it becomes richer and richer with subsequent viewings—at least up to six.

Afterword

I’m a big fan of Robert Altman, especially of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye and many others. But Gosford Park is the best thing he ever did.

Anti-Constitutional Constitutional Conservatives

Operation American Spring

Yesterday, I made a brief mention of Steven Taylor’s excellent article, The Anti-Federalist Impulse. It deals with Cliven Bundy and the militia people and more generally the “constitutional conservatives” and the Tea Party folk. They all claim to be the protectors of the Constitution, but if you listen to them, they are just the opposite. They are making the same arguments that those who stood with the Articles of Confederation and against the Constitution.

I am not the first person to note that a large part if not a majority of the people in these groups are neo-confederates. This also goes for libertarians. One of the reasons I fell out with the libertarian movement was that most people in it wanted to get rid of the federal government. Indeed, if you listen to libertarians argue, they will always come to states’ rights at some time. They will claim that the more local a government is, the better it represents its people. That was never what I saw. It was state and local governments who prevented blacks from voting under Jim Crow and allowed lynchings. When it came to protecting the most basic liberties a human can have, it is the federal government, not the states that have walked the walk.

All of this came up for me when I heard about Operation American Spring. The leader of this movement, Retired Army Col Harry Riley had some pretty amazing things to say. For example, he is calling for the ouster of pretty much everyone, including the Republican leadership. “They have all abandoned the US Constitution, are unworthy to be retained in a position that calls for servant status.” He went on to say that he hoped it would all be peaceful, but thus far, that tactic hadn’t worked. “For more than five years, ‘we the people’ have been writing, calling, faxing Congress, the media, screaming in town halls, marching, rallying, demonstrating, petitioning, all to no avail.”

I’m the first to admit that this is hilarious. But it’s also dangerous. And just plain sad. Democracy is not a system where you just get what you want or you take up arms and start killing people. All the while that Riley was “writing, calling, faxing” his elected officials, so have I. And guess what: I’ve been telling them to do the opposite of what Riley’s been telling them. It isn’t as though in a fundamental sense Riley’s wrong. The truth of the matter is that our elected officials don’t actually listen to either of us. But rather than looking at the real problem—money in politics—he’s more of an “ACORN stole the election!” guy. He said, “We have no faith in the ballot box any longer, as many believe this sacred secret box has been compromised.” Translation: the darkies are voting!

Well the day has come! It is 16 May 2014, and the “10 to 30 million” people have converged on Washington. Well, they didn’t quite reach their target. Think Progress had the best headline I’ve seen today, Tens of People Descend Upon the Capitol to Drive the Obama Administration Out of Office. They had a whole lot of fun with the story:

When Col Harry Riley announced his plan for an Operation American Spring, he sought to evoke the same kind of populist uprising that toppled regimes in the Middle East, protests that were collectively given the moniker Arab Spring.

And while the photos that poured in from Tahrir Square were incredible, depicting tens of thousands of people in the streets, the pictures from American Spring were…less so:

Operation American Spring

It does rather look like a failed church picnic, but the weather looks fine. You couldn’t ask for a better day for armed insurrection!

Most of the coverage was like that. Gawker went with much the same, writing, “Compared to the Tea Party, Operation American Spring is… nothing, in truth. Like, literally tens of people sitting around being crazy.” But for pure derision, no one compares to Abby Ohlheiser’s article yesterday in The Wire, How to Manage Expectations for Your Rally to Overthrow the American Government:

Retired Army Colonel Harry Riley expects that somewhere between 10 million and 30 million people will help him shut down Washington on Friday for Operation American Spring. Operation American Spring, in case you didn’t get your invitation, is a militia-heavy protest explicitly aiming to force Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, and Eric Holder from office. This is not going to happen. 30 million people will not show up for Riley’s protest. And the protest will not overthrow the government.

So, for the benefit of the future of the Overthrow Obama protest movement, here is a guide to managing expectations and making your attempted coup the best version of itself.

She offers some tips like: look at past events. She goes into Glenn Beck’s rather successful rally, that I managed to have a really nice flame war about four years ago. She points out that the million man march had only 837,000 people, and that was fine. It was close enough. But if you say ten million, you are probably setting yourself up for a fall. She also suggests a backup plan. You know: if you are planning to overthrow the government, it would be a good idea to have something else to do when that doesn’t happen. My suggestion: puppet theater!

But Ohlheiser brings up one really important point, “Look at Some Polls.” This is what I find so exasperating about conservatives generally but the far right especially. I used to always say that the difference between MSNBC and Fox News is that the people who watch Fox News think they are getting neutral reporting. I have some pretty radical opinions like my belief in a guaranteed minimum income. But I’m not under the illusion that this is a widely shared belief or that the only reason Congress hasn’t passed this bit of legislation is because they aren’t following the Constitution.

These people are neo-confederates. And I don’t mean that they are racists, although I think a great many of them are. Mostly, they have no idea just how much the federal government does from them. But they are very aware of how much money they pay in taxes and they fret over every federal dollar spent on people and things they find unworthy. They are living in a fantasy land. That’s all fine; there is no law against being delusional—nor should there be. But it really bugs me that these people claim to be the defenders of the Constitution. Because they are the opposite. They want to destroy the Constitution. They want to do more than that. They want to destroy democracy at the federal level, and you can bet if they managed that, they’d set about destroying democracy at the state level too.

The “Constitutional Conservatives” are a great danger to the United States and the Constitution. I do think they’re funny. I do laugh at them. But I am more than a little wary.

A Depressed Economy Is the Time to Address Global Warming

Paul KrugmanOn Monday, Paul Krugman wrote an interesting article, Crazy Climate Economics. And today, he’s written another global warming related article, Points of No Return. They are both worth reading, but I wanted to bring up something that Krugman doesn’t: environmental remediation as economic stimulus.

Marco Rubio has gotten a lot of attention recently for saying that doing anything about global warming would have a “devastating impact on our economy.” Krugman mocked him for this by noting:

Normally, conservatives extol the magic of markets and the adaptability of the private sector, which is supposedly able to transcend with ease any constraints posed by, say, limited supplies of natural resources. But as soon as anyone proposes adding a few limits to reflect environmental issues—such as a cap on carbon emissions—those all-capable corporations supposedly lose any ability to cope with change.

But there is a deeper issue here. Our economy is depressed. Corporations are not investing because they see no demand. Corporations are notorious for their lack of long-term planning. The government forcing the business community to clean up its act and move to green energy would be great for their long-term prospects. But there’s more.

Marco RubioForcing companies to make these necessary environmental changes would create jobs. It would act as a stimulus program and that in turn would increase demand and so company profits would go up. So Rubio’s claim that addressing climate change would hurt the economy is backwards. What’s more, every day that we wait to deal with global warming makes fixing problems that much more expensive. It is one thing to invest in windmills that will more than pay for themselves in the long run; it is quite another to build a ten foot tall sea wall all around Miami.

Conservatives will tell you that if we are going to deal with our environmental problems, we must do it when the economy is good. This is exactly backwards. Now is the time that corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars. Now is the time when banks are desperate to loan money. When the economy is roaring along, environmental mitigation will take resources away from other uses. Now, mitigation uses resources (human and capital) that are going unused.

Now is the time to act! People like Marco Rubio know as little about economics as they do about climate science.

Jonathan Richman

Jonathan RichmanJonathan Richman is 63 today. I am deeply divided about him. He is one of the most profound popular musicians of the last half century who was hugely influential in the punk movement. And much of his work is marvelous. At the same time, I can’t really think of an artist who is as lazy as Richman. For years, he released half-hour records filled with new versions of old songs—and never his best material. What’s more, his later songs are rarely refined, often in need of second, third, and fourth rewrites.

What was always best about his work was the raw emotion that he put into his songs. He was never afraid to admit to his emotional needs. At 17, when most young men spend most of their time pretending to be stoic and without need, Richman wrote, “People all over the world are starving… for affection.” But he’s widely misunderstood. Most of his work is pedagogical. In fact, if you listen to him carefully, he can be annoying because he is very interested in tell you how to live your life.

With the release of Richman’s second album, Robert Christgau wrote that the album needed “one funny song as astonishing as ‘Pablo Picasso’.” Christgau is wrong; “Pablo Picasso” is not a humorous song. It tells the story of a cool guy and how all the girls are just giddy over him.The refrain is “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.” This is sometimes followed up with, “Not like you.” But the song ends with a devastating payoff, “Pablo Picasso was never called.” This is the defining theme of Richman’s work: you must risk being hurt in order to be loved. Sadly, it isn’t just Christgau who doesn’t understand this. Many people have covered the song and most don’t end it correctly. Most fans seem to think the song is about the painter. It’s really sad.

Even more sad is that most of the time, I don’t think that Richman knows what he’s doing. After boycotting the song for decades, he has begun doing it again. But now the song is more about confidence. It’s still pedagogical. But thinking is not his strength. The song is also an homage to the Velvet Underground, more so than any other song:

After this period Richman began doing charming children’s music that still holds up reasonably well, but is certainly nothing to be proud of. Finally, he came back to what the music was all about with a kind of stripped down surf music. His most fulfilling album was 1985’s Rockin’ and Romance. (Typically never released on CD.) That’s where his raw emotion met with having a wife and a child. Here is a live version of one of the songs off that album, “Now Is Better Than Before.” It’s adult without losing any of the youthful idealism of earlier songs like, “Girlfriend”:

And here is a little of his surf music from the same album, “Vincent Van Gogh”:

Happy birthday Jonathan Richman!