Bravery in Art

Charlie Kaufman“The Post Postmodern Comedy Hour” is a television series that I’ve created. I’ve written two episodes for it. The extent of my illusions regarding it is that if I ever finish six episodes, I may take it down to public access and see if some people would like to try to do it. Along with a couple of short stories I’ve written, it is the best work that I’ve ever done. But more important, it is the only work that I’ve ever written that is exactly the kind of art that I want to see.

On its surface, it is a silly work: Captain Kangaroo for adults. It combines puppets, social satire, documentary, and comedy. But the back story is very dark. It is basically the same back story I used in my second novel, although without all the drug addiction. But it is worse, because in “Treading Asphalt,” Brian survives and manages to make his way in the world. Steve, in “The Post Postmodern Comedy Hour” lives in a fantasy land. Without his sister to shape a world around him, he would be lost. He has a childhood friend who has never grown up. And who doesn’t like him. It’s not that Steve is delusional. Reality simply terrifies him, and he wouldn’t go outside if he didn’t have to. If his sister died, he would probably starve himself to death like Kurt Gödel did after his wife died.

I was thinking about this last night while watching, Synecdoche, New York. I can’t conceive of writing anything as large as that. It probably represents the sum total of every fear that Charlie Kaufman has. And I share those fears. But I can’t get past the one fear that most defines my life: anxiety. It’s the fear of fear itself. It is meaningless. It is the fear of Jean-René in Romantics Anonymous, “Let’s hope nothing happens to us.” It is the fear of the threshold — the fear that any change will make us less happy, and we are very clear that we are already unhappy enough.

No one would ever get any of that from “The Post Postmodern Comedy Hour.” And I think the reason is because I am a coward. I obviously don’t mind talking about my many and varied psychological dysfunctions. But this is just talking. How does one create worlds that accurately express our souls? Forget about talent, the more important thing that separates me from Kaufman and David Foster Wallace is bravery. Art can be used to express reality or paper over it. Papering over is what hacks do.

Now if I were a total hack, I might be more successful. But I am always aware of just how terrified everyone is — or at least how terrified I am. And that is what I write. Cocooned in his studio with his imaginary friend, Steve can be a full person. With the help of his sister, he can play roles in the real world. But he’s never right with the terrifying outside. I don’t think anyone is. I think you’re all a bunch of liars — just like me. And if we talk privately, you’ll admit it. Because lying is what we do to make it through the day to buy food to eat and not live on the street. But it isn’t supposed to be what art does.

Afterword

On the other hand, I’d be lost if it weren’t for things like this:

Now You Are Gone

GoneWhat was once before you — an exciting, mysterious future — is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this…

As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving — not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are gone.

—Charlie Kaufman
Synecdoche, New York

Scott Walker’s Econ Record Not Good for Workers

Scott WalkerI was talking to my father the other day and he told that this “Walker fellow” seemed like he might be reasonable. It wasn’t my father talking; it was the Charles Krauthammer talking. My father doesn’t really drink. Like kids spinning in circles, my father gets loopy listening to Krauthammer’s calm monotone. Dad’s always been a sucker for people who put forward an air calm rationality. But I am not similarly fooled. Krauthammer is a joke. I’ve called him on his anti-science global warming denial. And his hypocrisy. And his general stupidity. But dad hears him say that Scott Walker is just the kind of reasonable politician America has been looking for, and dad follows along.

I didn’t shout. I just pointed out two things that I knew my father would bristle at. First, Scott Walker is a major union buster. Although in years past, my father was anti-union, in his middle years he became part of union and found that it was very nice. It wasn’t the leading the edge of communism as conservatives have been arguing since, well, since unions came into being. The second thing that I told him was that Scott Walker was a total supply sider — trickle down economics! Well, in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was pushing trickle down economics, my father was totally on board. A lot of people were. It sounded plausible. But over the following decade, he learned what a con it was.

So my father’s enthusiasm has waned for Walker. But sadly, it isn’t just Krauthammer who is going to cram Scott Walker down our throats for the next year or more. Yesterday, Media Matters reported, CNBC Host Demonstrates How Not to Interview Scott Walker About His Weak Economic Record. You see, Walker doesn’t have a good economic record. He has a great record as far as the power elite are concerned: funneling money to the top and destroying unions. But as Eric Hananoki pointed out in the article:

In reality, job and wage growth under Walker have trailed behind the national average, and he “will skip more than $100 million in debt payments to balance the books thrown into disarray by his tax cuts.” …

Reuters reported in a February 15 article that Wisconsin has lagged behind the nation and the Midwest in private-sector employment growth: “Private-sector employment has grown by 6.8 percent in Wisconsin under Walker, behind the national pace of 8.4 percent, according to preliminary data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Private-sector employment in the industrial Midwest, from Ohio to Minnesota, grew by 7.1 percent over that period.” …

Marc V Levine, professor of history, economic development and urban studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wrote last June that Walker’s “failure” on reaching his job creation goal should lead to “a serious discussion of why the policy choices made after 2011 failed to generate job growth in Wisconsin at a level remotely close to national averages and what policy options might better address Wisconsin’s jobs crisis going forward.”

But what does any of that matter? For the CNBC set, making the economy better has nothing to do with economic growth and new and better jobs. It is about making the economy better for the people for whom the economy is already working really well. That’s the Republican Party platform. It’s all they really believe in. But they aren’t going to put it that way, because almost no one would vote for them. So they talk about how great economic grow is under Republicans like Ronald Reagan, even though it wasn’t that good under Reagan. And they needn’t worry. No television commentator is ever going to challenge them on their lies.

Greece: Call Germany’s Bluff!

GreeceAs expected, Germany has balked at the new Greek government’s quite reasonable request for changes in its austerity plan. Paul Krugman has the main details, Insert German Curse Word Here. I think two words are necessary: verdammte arschlöcher. (Look it up; I don’t do English curse words here anymore.) Basically, Germany is trying to force Greece out of the euro. And that makes sense, because the oh so moral Germans have never had economic problems and have never started a world war and never staged a genocide. So it just makes sense that they would want to divorce themselves from a country that spent beyond its means a decade ago.

What the Germans seem to want to do to the Greeks is what the French and British did to the Germans after World War I. The mistakes are different, but Germany wants to punish the Greeks just as they were punished just short of a century ago. I’ll be honest, I’m not fond of Germany. It is the country most like the United States: absolutely convinced of its moral superiority. And it is the big dog in the European Union. And it doesn’t just use that power; it abuses that power.

What Greece absolutely must do is stand strong. They have to be willing to leave the euro. Although as Dean Baker has previously suggested, maybe it would be best if Germany left the euro. But if Greece left the euro, big deal. It would certainly cause some disruption. The next year would be marginally worse than it would otherwise be. But it would be marginally worse — not a lot worse. And then things would get better — and fast. The German prescription for Greece is Khan’s to Captain Kirk, “I’ve hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you.” Does Greece really want to live through another five years like the last five years? Because that’s what Germany’s plan for them will provide.

So Greece needs to say, “You won’t yield? Fine. We’re gone.” I doubt seriously that Germany, much less the rest of the euro countries, are going to go for this. As many other observers have noted: if Greece exits the euro and it goes well, there will be enormous pressure on Spain and Italy to exit it as well. And at that point, how exactly is the euro a shared currency?

Although I have to wonder what good the shared currency is anyway. I understand that a shared currency makes trading easier. But it doesn’t make it that much easier. And the down side is that when there is a recession and a country like Greece needs to reduce labor costs, it can only do it with great difficulty. As it is, when the euro was first being discussed, many economists recommended against it for this very reason. And history has born this out.

It isn’t just in Greece’s interest to play hardball with the Germans. It may be what saves the European Union itself. As it is, the euro gives the large German economy far too much power. And as we know from at least a century, a Germany with too much power is not a good thing.

Andrew Bergman

Andrew BergmanThe great film writer-director Andrew Bergman is 70 years old today. There are other great birthdays today: Ansel Adams, Robert Altman, and last year’s birthday boy, Richard Matheson. But I picked Bergman this year. I really admire his work. He is one of the greatest comedy writers ever. His script for The In-Laws is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. He is also the true genius behind Blazing Saddles, although as usual, Mel Brooks has done everything he can to minimize the work of his betters. What has always amazed me about Bergman’s films (The Freshman, Soapdish, Striptease) is that they are funny all the way through. A big problem with most comedies is that they stop being funny in the third act. That is never the case with Bergman’s scripts and when he is also directing the comedy continues to the end like a freight train. Unfortunately, like a lot of filmmakers I admire, he doesn’t make films anymore. He’s even stopped writing novels. Here is one of many funny scenes from The In-Laws:

Happy birthday Andrew Bergman!