Some Totally Pointless Criticisms of The Mask

The MaskI just watched The Mask for the first time in a decade. It is a charming film. And in a sense, I am more the target audience for the film than just about anything else I can think of. It appeals to all the prejudices of the kind of guy who thinks that he’s “nice” and walked around with a puppet on a stick for many of his teen years. And I still spend a fair amount of time watching Bugs Bunny. He is one of my heroes. And yes, he is a hare.

But as one gets older (if he is paying attention at all), one notices one’s prejudices. And the “nice guys finish last” trope has come to annoy me. It’s also, I’m afraid, really sexist. The truth is that men and women make terrible mistakes in their love lives. In my experience, nothing is as attractive as self-confidence. And it is often true that people who are self-confident are jerks. I suspect it works differently from the way many people think. Being highly desirable makes people self-confident, but it also makes them more selfish. It’s human nature.

Of course, in The Mask, Stanley Ipkiss is a truly nice guy. I say that because he likes cartoon and has a great dog that likes him. And what is sweet about the film is that Stanley wins the girl the way men have always won the girl: by allowing her to see past all the discomfort and pretense to who he really is. This is why the ending is so sweet with Tina Carlyle (played surprisingly well by Cameron Diaz) throwing away the mask. The truth is, Stanley’s unchecked id was a bit too much for her, but surely she likes knowing that it lives within him.

On a technical level, there are some problems with the film. But I doubt anyone watching the film for the first time notices. As soon as Dorian Tyrell (the bad guy, played by Peter Greene) gets the mask, the film stalls. I understand the problem. You can’t make Tyrell the wacky character that Ipkiss turned into. But the mask doesn’t bring out his naughty child; it just seems to turn him into a more angry version of himself. So those scenes are tiresome. What’s more, I’m afraid that Greene is miscast in the part, because he is too convincing a heavy.

But things do pick up, as Ipkiss breaks out of jail and eventually takes us to the climax of film that is as zany and wonderful as anything that came before. It just would have been a whole lot better to move faster from the point of reporter Peggy Brandt’s double-cross to Ipkiss’ escape. They could have trimmed five or even ten minutes from the film and sped into the third act without driving through a pothole that upsets a very consistent momentum throughout the rest of the film.

Really though: what’s not to love? Jim Carrey has never been so adorable. The script is the silliest of fun. And it has the cutest dog ever. I don’t know why I waited this long to watch it again.

John Hodgman Does Ayn Rand

John HodgmanThe other day, Andrea called to read from an article by John Hodgman in The New Yorker, Ask Ayn. In it, he created excerpts from a column she had supposedly written for Parade Magazine shortly before her death. Of course, the article isn’t presented that way. It starts, “After a couple of appearances on the interview program Donahue, in 1979 and 1980, the author and philosopher Ayn Rand enjoyed something of a renaissance in popular culture, including a week as a panelist on Match Game and a guest appearance on Fantasy Island as the Spirit of Capitalism.” I did not get the joke.

I knew she had been on Donahue, so it wasn’t a stretch that she was on a second time. And the truth is that Rand had a love a pop culture. Corey Robin’s essay on her is titled, Garbage and Gravitas. And the fact that I have read a couple of biographies of her made the joke much more opaque. She was a supremely strange person. In addition to this, I knew that she had written a column for a popular audience. It turns out it was for The Los Angeles Times, but that isn’t too far off.

Anyway, Andrea started reading to me the fake columns. Here’s the first one she read:

Some of you wrote in last week to express surprise that, when I appeared on the Phil Donahue program, I told him that I was a fan of Charlie’s Angels. This just shows how poor your critical thinking is. It should be obvious why I love Charlie’s Angels. The show is about three beautiful women who are not ashamed of their beauty or their ability at solving crimes. And when their talents were not appreciated by the police department and they were forced to become crossing guards, they refused! They refused to take money from the government to train American children to believe that the state will forever protect them from risk! They left their jobs and made new lives for themselves in a private capitalist enterprise. They went Galt.

Again, I was confused. I remembered that she did claim to like the show Charlie’s Angels. And she was totally hung up on beauty. Whatever else you can say about her, Ayn Rand was not a beautiful woman and she was painfully aware of it. She idolized Marilyn Monroe, writing at least one entire essay about her. So I was kind of confused because all of the fake columns started off with things Rand believed, written in ways that Rand wrote. Hodgman recreates her style very well. But then the columns slid off sideways but rarely into total absurdity—rather typical of Hodgman.

The whole experience was yet another example of how it is not healthy to know a lot about Ayn Rand. But luckily, John Hodgman performed the piece live and it is on YouTube. And it is hilarious. But at the start of it, he mentions that all of the bits start off with “pretty much verbatim quotes from Ayn Rand.” That would have helped a lot—context is everything in comedy. But you can’t miss the comedy with his performance. Even after having heard most of it, I still really enjoyed this:

For the record, Ayn Rand hated Reagan. She also hated the libertarian movement. She hated pretty much everyone. Even among her circle of Objectivists, people were constantly being excommunicated over trivial matters. There are very good reasons why people call Objectivism a cult. I don’t know if I would go that far. But it was typical of small revolutionary groups so brilliantly parodied in Life of Brian:

Libertarian Zealot Milton Friedman

Milton FriedmanToday is J K Rowling’s 49th birthday and clearly the world is a better place because of it. I’ve tried to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and I have to say that I didn’t make it very far into it. Not really my kind of thing. It is, after all, written for grammar school children. What I find amazing is that a lot of adults like it. There is no accounting for taste. But I like the fact Rowling seems to be a decent person and even tried to publish a novel without getting massive sales based upon her name. So that’s all very nice. But since I don’t know much about her and don’t particularly want to know anything about her given I have a nice feeling about her and I don’t want to spoil it, I am not going to write about her for today’s birthday post.

Instead, I’m going to provide you with a slightly edited version of last year’s birthday post about probably the most pernicious academic of the twentieth century. That’s right, rather than write about the nice British lady, I am going to write about a nasty American man who symbolizes most of what is wrong with our shared country. A man who not only did great harm here, but also exported his pernicious ideology to other countries where countless were harmed, many dying many years before they would have. All of this happened because of ideas pushed by an ideological zealot.

On this day in 1912, the undoubtedly great economist Milton Friedman was born. The truth is, though, that being a good economist doesn’t mean you know anything about economics in the real world. The the Chicago School that he was so important in building shows that to this day. The people who have followed him tend to get lost in their models and mistake them for reality. I’ve seen it happen in my own field. And I think by the end, you could say the same thing about Friedman.

He was far more influential as a popularizer of libertarianism. That was especially true of the very disingenuous book he wrote with his wife, Free to Choose and then the PBS series Free to Choose. (It is amazing how much conservative propaganda the “liberal” PBS has pumped out over the years.) In this capacity, he pushed the thinking on the right to such an extent that now they would consider him a socialist who wants to steal everyone’s money via the Federal Reserve and its money printing. Of course, I figure if he were still alive, he’d be as crazy as they are. As he got older, his arguments became less grounded in economics and more like the thinking of a religious fanatic.

The other thing about him is that the 2008 economic crisis showed that he was wrong about his greatest claim to fame. He supposedly showed that the Federal Reserve caused the Great Depression; he claimed that if the Fed had just increased the money supply, all would have been well. That is exactly what the Fed has done since 2008 and you can see that it simply isn’t enough. The only reason we aren’t in the same place as we were in the 1930s is because of automatic fiscal stimulus in the form of Social Security and Unemployment—the very kinds of policies that Friedman was against.

I have long wondered what Friedman would have said if he had lived to see the crisis of 2008. It is certainly the case that most of the people who followed in his footsteps came up with clever ways to justify themselves. I feel fairly certain that Friedman would have used his own remarkable mind to justify his old thinking rather than to adjust it. As it was, he was an adviser to Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Every time Friedman’s free market ideas failed to pan out, Friedman’s excuse was always, “It’s that the economy isn’t free enough!” This is, by the way, a common trick of libertarians and communists and, for that matter, any utopian thinker. There can never be the perfect system (whatever the ideologue might see it as), so there is never a way to disprove their theories. So if Friedman had still been alive in 2008, he probably would have been part of the chorus claiming that there was a crash because the deregulation didn’t go far enough.

The thing is that even though Milton Friedman was totally wrong about the main things he is now remembered for and even though he caused so much pain and suffering all over the world, he had a great life. And even in death, he is deified by modern conservatives, especially the libertarians. He considered himself an agnostic, which means that in his reality, there’s at least a reasonable chance that he is burning in hell. So there’s that.

Now that you’re dead, happy birthday Milton Friedman!