French Kiss Just As Good Two Decades Later

French KissIn 1995, I walked from my place on SE 12th St in Portland to the Bagdad Theater — one of the best things in the city: a microbrewery that showed cheap movies. It was during my days of 16 mm filmmaking and I went to see films just to see how it was all done. On display that night was French Kiss. I knew nothing of the film. I think I was expecting something like Kiss of the Spider Woman. It wasn’t just because they both had “kiss” in the title. I associate “kiss” with film noir. The point is, I was expecting something with a little grit, not a Meg Ryan romantic comedy.

There is something very special when you see a film cold and it works for you. I loved the film. It starred Kevin Kline with his bad French accent and it took place in France and it had a lot of French music. What’s not to like?! It’s also quite interesting in that the first, second, and third acts all have distinct looks to them. That really does help. It is also a perfect Hollywood script. Adam Brooks nails his act transitions with Meg Ryan dumped on the phone as she sits on the kitchen floor setting up the second act, and then the reveal of the necklace that slams the plot into the third act. I don’t think there was a more perfectly structured script in the 1990s except for maybe Tony Gilroy’s Dolores Claiborne.

From the first time I saw it, I thought that French Kiss was pretty much a modernized version of one of my all time favorite films, It Happened One Night. I mentioned this to Andrea and she scoffed at the thought. “It’s just that they are both about two people who are forced to travel together for the length of the film,” she said. So I let it drop. But last night, I watched the film again and I think I was right.

Certainly it is true that the main thing is that they are road movies. But what’s critical is that they don’t like each other but are secretly attracted. Throughout the first two acts, we’ve gotten the impression that Meg Ryan was trying to get rid of Kevin Kline. But that isn’t the case. She knows what he’s after from the cab ride from the airport onward. She knows that he will be back, so they are bound together from their first meeting — even though they aren’t always together, just as is the case in It Happened One Night. And Kline — just as Clark Gable before him — starts by seeing her only as the repository of his second chance at life, only to slowly come to see her as a critical element in that life.

There are other aspects that link the film. But I think the biggest is that the hero and heroine are equals but not in the usual ways: they represent different classes. Ryan is the model of bourgeois values, and Kline represents the fallen decadent rich. And because it is a Hollywood movie, they fall in love and learn good bourgeois values. The twist is that they may end up in his country doing what he wants to do, but they are living in her world. In that way, it is much easier to see them living happily ever after than I ever could Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night.

Regardless, it doesn’t really matter. I fully admit that French Kiss is not a great film like It Happened One Night. For one thing, its firm stance in favor of bourgeois values was hardly needed in 1995, whereas it was in 1934. But even after 20 years, French Kiss still works. It is still as delightful as when I first saw it. Contrast that with Green Card. Twenty years is a long time for a romantic comedy to survive. In another 20 years, I may have to rethink its non-great status.

The Subtlety of Monolithic Islam Bigotry — In Me

Charlie Hebdo: Faut Pas Se Moquer - You Must Not MockOn Wednesday, I published, Je Suis Charlie. And I stand by most of what I wrote. But there was one thing that I wrote that was based upon hearsay rather than actual research, “In the case of Charlie Hebdo, any outrage is totally unjustified because the magazine took on everyone.” It was also based upon the cover illustration to the left that mocked both a Muslim and a Hasidic Jew. But I think there might be a problem with this contention.

Earlier today, Glenn Greenwald wrote, In Solidarity With a Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons. It is a reaction to a push by many all over the political spectrum who claim that we should celebrate the offending cartoons that supposedly caused the recent massacre of innocents in Paris. It is an interesting and thoughtful analysis of the issue. (Contrast it with Jonathan Chait’s incredibly uninteresting response, Charlie Hebdo Point-Missers Miss Point.) I’m not quite sure where I stand on it. But this part struck me:

With all due respect to the great cartoonist Ann Telnaes, it is simply not the case that Charlie Hebdo “were equal opportunity offenders.” Like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do. If forced, they can point to rare and isolated cases where they uttered some criticism of Judaism or Jews, but the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims, not Judaism and Jews.

I don’t speak French, so I’m not in a position to say. But it made me realize that the cover illustration above may actually indicate the fundamental problem with my own thinking. The problem, as I now see it, is that the Muslim is generic and the Jew is not. The implication is simply “all Muslims and particular Jews.” But I don’t think that this is intentional. It is more along the lines of, “All Japanese look alike!” What such claims actually mean is that the speaker has little experience with Japanese people. (I’ve had this problem myself — cured by years of Japanese cinema watching.)

It is pathetic, of course, that I now feel I must mention that I’m a free speech absolutist. It is not just that it is obviously wrong to kill people for the “offense” of saying things you disagree with. The idea that people should not have the right to encourage draft resistance during a war (“shouting fire in a crowed theater”) is simply ridiculous. Just the same, it is curious, isn’t it, that we do not have such clearly political — First Amendment — rights, but we do have the right to snipe at minority groups in any way that we choose — including “the right of neo-Nazis to march through a community filled with Holocaust survivors…”

According to Juan Cole, two-thirds of Muslim heritage French people don’t even consider themselves religious — much less “radical.” The problem here is that even among the very small world population of Jews (less than 20 million), we distinguish. But the 1.6 billion Muslims are monolithic for us. And that’s why that Charlie Hebdo cover struck me as fairly even handed (I would have preferred a Christian in there — but intolerance is not limited to any religion or non-religion).

Bigotry is, at base, about classification — treating individuals as members of a group. It is a very big issue that I fight with in myself constantly regarding racism. I fear that many people who, like me, worry about racism, don’t worry about such grouping problems when it comes to religion. After all, people supposedly choose their religions. There are a couple of problems with that. First: people don’t choose their religions. Almost every religious person is a member of the faith they grew up in. Second, as we know only too well, there is very little that can be generalized about a hippy Unitarian and a right-wing evangelical Protestant. The same is true of all people. I’m sure there are even cruel Jains.

I would hate for the tragedy in Paris to leave us with nothing but what we should have always known: people shouldn’t be killed because others find them offensive. Worse still is the idea that this is all about Islam, because if these actions really spoke of the religion, those 1.6 billion Muslims would have forced us to live under a worldwide caliphate by now. I suppose that it is asking too much for everyone to take this as an opportunity to examine themselves. But it really is on all of us non-Muslims, because it isn’t like the terrorists are going to start wearing “gang colors.” And it is wrong to ask Muslims to abandon their heritage so we can better spot those we ought to fear. (Not that it would work, of course.)

Hitchens’ Questionable Feminist Record

Richard SeymourAmong Hitchens’ criticisms of religion was what he considered was its opposition to the liberation of women, and their reproductive rights. Yet, if the notion of Hitchens as a feminist is unconvincing, it is not only because of his trivial shock-jock commentary on why women are not funny (unless they are “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three”) or because of his rape jokes and snipes about feminism. He also had a record of opposing certain reproductive rights for women, suggesting that society should “claim a right and an interest” in the fate of the unborn child and therefore might limit abortion access to any woman who “is the victim of rape or incest, or if her mental or physical health is threatened” as part of a “historic compromise” offering in return a health service with free contraception and an adoption service.

Thus Hitchens urged that the state should be involved in adjudicating the specific rights and wrongs of individual abortion cases. And, if he conceded that, in some circumstances, abortion might be justified, his celebration of the abortion by nature of “deformed or idiot children who would otherwise have been born” indicates certain unnerving normative criteria about just who might be considered candidates for future members of the human race. Drawing a parallel with evolution, he suggested that “the system” was “fairly pitiless in eliminating those who never had a very good chance of surviving in the first place.” It is hard to detect in this a moral position on abortion qualitatively superior to that of the Reverend Falwell.

—Richard Seymour

McConnell, Romney, and the Confidence Fairy

Mitch McConnellWe have a another good jobs report out today. We add 252,000 new jobs, the headline unemployment rate is down to 5.6%, and the job gains from the November and December reports were revised upward significantly. People who read this blog should know who ought to get credit for this: no one. As long as you don’t constantly harm an economy, it will eventually heal. This recovery has taken a long time, and we can say who is primary to blame for that: the Republicans in Congress. But the Republicans, of course, do not see it like that.

This last week, Mitch McConnell said that he had noticed a powerful correlation, “After so many years of sluggish growth, we’re finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope; the uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress. So this is precisely the right time to advance a positive, pro-growth agenda.” Just to be clear, what he means by “pro-growth agenda” is cutting taxes on the rich, allowing corporations to rape the earth, and cutting support for the poor.

McConnell’s remarks have been widely mocked. DNC Communications Director Mo Elleithee said, “Hahahahahahahahahahaha. That Mitch McConnell is one funny guy.” Of course, McConnell isn’t being funny. It is just that conservatives — even many of their so called serious economists — believe in the Confidence Fairy. This is the idea that people aren’t spending because they lack “confidence” and if they just know that the government is doing the “right thing” (translation: what conservatives want the government to do), “confidence” will be restored and the economy will start booming. This is closely tied to the “job creator” myth where the owners of companies don’t hire because they need workers to fulfill demands for their products; instead, the owners hire out of a sense of beneficence or noblesse oblige or the fact that the Republicans control Congress.

You may think that I’m overstating this and that McConnell is just saying such nonsense as a rhetorical flourish. But you would be wrong. You doubtless remember the famous “47 percent” video with Mitt Romney. I never thought that much about what everyone else got so excited about. It simply demonstrated what we already knew about Romney. The truly jaw dropping moment in the video is after one of the millionaire attendees asks how Romney will improve the economy. Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider caught Romney’s response, “My own view is if we win on November 6 there will be a great deal of optimism about the future of this country. We’ll see capital come back and well see — without actually doing anything, we’ll actually get a boost to the economy.”

I’m not sure how the causation works here. Is it that the Republicans have no real ideas on how to improve the economy because they believe that the only thing that is holding back the economy is a lack of “confidence” and things like Obama calling bankers “fat cats”? I think it is more likely the opposite. Republicans are committed to economic policies that help the already rich and not the economy. As a result, they’ve had to look for a justification for doing nothing. Just look at Romney’s campaign. His whole economic plan was to give massive tax cuts to the rich. This was, interestingly, justified with Keynesian theory, which conservatives dismiss any time anyone talks about government stimulus that doesn’t involve tax cuts or military spending.

So McConnell’s recent statement is funny. But he and the rest of the Republican Party are dead serious about this. And there are lots of voters who believe this nonsense. Economic policy doesn’t need to make sense. As we saw during the 1980 election (and every one since then), economic policy just has to sound plausible for voters for them to accept it. But laughing at such claims is probably for the best. We don’t want to end up with more “both sides now” reporting: “Republicans say that the simple fact that they are in power will improve the economy and Democrats say the economy doesn’t work that way. Who can say? I’m just a reporter!”

Richard Nixon Superstar

Nixon Fights BackAnother 8 January, another year without Nixon to kick around. I’m going to be lazy and reprint mostly what I said last year. I have a lot of outside work to do. But also, there are some articles that I just don’t think got read. That’s especially true of birthday posts where, when they were good, they tended to be very long because I was talking about a number of people. I just want to add to what follows with this: I’ve got to go through my files and see if I can find my old Nixon White House puppet plays. They are some of my favorite writings. Maybe by next year, I can post one of them.

Richard Nixon was born on this day in 1913. Look, the man was imperfect. He had a real paranoia problem — but not without cause. And his foreign policy was a disaster. But was it worse than Johnson’s? Well, I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t a lot worse. And he did eventually decide it was time to pull the plug. He also wasn’t bad on domestic issues. But the reason that I love him is that he is the most successful loser in the history of humanity. Even at the peak of his fame, I think he still felt like a loser. And, as mentioned, there are my puppet plays about the Nixon administration. So in a sense, Nixon is no longer a person to me; he’s a character. And in that group, he’s an okay guy. Kind of a Caspar Milquetoast compared to the rest of the cast.

And another thing. Here’s what Nixon said after he lost his election to become the governor of California:

How do you not love that man? He’s angry. He’s sad. But he thinks he’s being funny. And do you know what? I think he was funny! I present the video because when people quote it, they get the tone all wrong. That’s understandable. There’s a lot going on inside him at that point. But it isn’t an angry denunciation the way people usually say it, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore…” He wasn’t just talking about the media there either. He was talking to the world generally. It’s poignant.

One thing I definitely think: Richard Nixon was not bad for this country in the way that Reagan, Bush the Younger, and even the New Democrats have been. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t be a crazy Tea Party guy if he were in politics today. But even in his own time, the conservative Republicans didn’t much like his liberal social policy. If Nixon had been more of an economic conservative, his party mightn’t have abandoned him so willingly over Watergate. I for one am damn sad that we don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Happy birthday Richard Nixon!

The title is a reference to the David Frye comedy album, Richard Nixon Superstar, which I thought was hilarious as a child, even though I didn’t get a lot of it. The one bit I remember is the obstetrician who delivered Nixon saying, “He was the only baby I ever saw with a five o’clock shadow.” Or something like that.