Why People Like Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise KingdomThere is a wonderful moment in Moonrise Kingdom. Suzy just revealed a painful secret to Sam and he laughed at her. She stormed away and hid inside the tent. Shortly after, Sam opens the entrance to the tent and says, “I’m sorry… I’m on your side.” And the conflict is over. It’s very mature. Yet those two are outcasts in the world. No one understands them. But more important, they don’t understand the world. They are looking for a way to navigate the world in the same way they attempt to french kiss. And in this way, they are connected to everyone else.

Despite its extreme charm, Moonrise Kingdom is an existential nightmare. It is a narrative demonstrating what Schopenhauer said in The World as Will and Idea, life consists of “momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium [everyone against everyone], everything a hunter and everything hunted, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum [forever and ever] or until once again the crust of the planet breaks.” Physical circumstances may change — generally for the better in this film — but no one is anymore happy at the end than at the beginning. They simply make it through today in order to be allowed to make it through tomorrow.

None of this depresses me. This is simply the way I see the world. At least for the time, I have made my peace with the Will. But most people find my outlook on the world to be a decidedly unpleasant one. So why does everyone seem to find this film so pleasant? Is it just that they don’t over-think films like I do? Or is it just that it is about children and we assume that things will work out? After all, we all know how well things work out for our childhood selves! I don’t think it is any of this.

Wes Anderson creates such odd characters that we don’t see them as real people, even as we recognize ourselves in them. The characters are taciturn as they suffer through their lives — just as we all secretly think we are. It doesn’t matter how much we complain about the injustices that plague us, there are more profound wounds that we simply don’t have the language to communicate. But only in an Anderson film do we see characters manifested who share this existential dread that, just as always, today will be just like yesterday.

A good part of Wes Anderson’s work leaves me cold. But as big a part of it is exceptional work. And I think Moonrise Kingdom is the best film of his that I’ve seen — unquestionably a great film. But it is great almost by accident. And this may be why so many of his films don’t really work. They are cut off from external reality, and so only sometimes do they manage to grab hold of an internal truth and sing it. Otherwise, it is just odd characters acting in odd ways.

Having said this about his films working, I want to be clear that they are always well made. He has a distinct visual style that is usually rendered with great care. And that really is the case here. Moonrise Kingdom is an incredibly beautiful film. It could consist of only still images and it would be compelling. What’s more, it is genuinely funny with an extremely well structured story that triumphs over its own cherished absurdity. But what makes it work escapes me. And I think it escapes Anderson too.

So what is the “happy” truth in Moonrise Kingdom? I think it is that we are all lost — muddling through life on a hopeless quest. One moment we are the shame of the troop and the next, we are the hero. But always, we should cut each other some slack. Not that it matters.

Conservatives Aren’t Practical: Obamacare Edition

We Heart ObamacareIn Paul Krugman’s column on Monday, he went after those pundits who will never admit to being wrong, Nobody Said That. It is about this tendency for pundits to make predictions, and then, when they are shown to be wrong, to claim that they never made the prediction. Krugman focused on Obamacare. It is now common for people to claim, “Nobody ever said that Obamacare wouldn’t insure more people.” But of course, lots of people did just that — including Speaker of House John Boehner just one year ago.

What’s really going on here is that conservatives are not being honest when they make their arguments in the first place. As I’ve been saying for many years, the real conservative complaint about Obamacare has nothing to do with what they talk about. The law raises taxes on the rich. Conservatives are completely against that on principle. But the optics are terrible. Conservatives can’t go around saying that they hate a law that helps struggling workers just because millionaires can’t ever be taxed. So we got arguments about the tyranny of the individual mandate — an idea conservatives had supported just a few years earlier. And, of course, we got “Socialism!” and “Death Panels!” and all the other hysteria.

Paul KrugmanThis pattern is something that I’m very used to with regards to libertarians. The classic minimum wage discussion with a libertarian goes as follows. The libertarian will say that the minimum wage costs jobs. When you point out that at its current rate it doesn’t cost jobs — or at least that the research on it doesn’t show much to support their claim — they change the argument. Now the libertarian will say that people should have the right to enter into any contract they want. These arguments always go from practical claims that are not supported to theoretical claims about values that cannot be countered with evidence.

The same thing is going on in the fight about Obamacare. Elites who hate the law could not care less about what the law is trying to accomplish. But most people aren’t interested in theoretical arguments. So they start with the practical claims. And the truth is that even the claims that it is “Socialism!” and “Will kill granny!” are practical claims that really can be countered with evidence — and have been! But there is a certain amount of brilliance on the part of conservatives with regard to this.

Critics of Obamacare always acknowledged that if the law got going, it would be impossible to stop. Once people are receiving benefits from a government program, they tend to like them. (This doesn’t stop conservative elites from continuing to try to kill Social Security and Medicare.) So it made sense to make dire predictions about the law that even they knew were rubbish. The same tactic was used to get us into the Iraq War. By the time the truth came out, those who wanted the war had succeeded.

But notice how different this is from the liberal movement, which for all its problems, is very practical. If Obamacare had failed to insure more people, if it had caused prices to go up, if it had tanked the economy, then something would have to be done. This is because the Democratic Party pushed Obamacare for practical reasons. It wasn’t pushed — as many conservatives fatuously claim — just to make government bigger and control more people. The arguments for Obamacare were the actual reasons that supporters had for the law.

What continues to boggle my mind is that so many people vote for the Republican Party when it actually doesn’t talk straight. We have seen the case of Tea Partier James Webb who decided (briefly) to vote for the Democrats because of Obamacare. But I suspect in the end, the conservative movement will be fine because of what our good friend Ambrose Bierce knew a century ago, “Radicalism: the conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today.” Obamacare will become something that the conservative base depends upon (while its elites continue to look for ways to kill it). But the base will continue to vote for tax cuts for the rich in the name of whatever distractions the conservative elites are pimping at that time.

What’s important to remember is that for the conservative pundits, what they were saying over the last few years about Obamacare doesn’t matter. What they meant was that they didn’t like the law because it took money from the rich and gave it to the non-rich. That was always the issue. The practical arguments were just for the prols.

Anniversary Post: Le Nozze di Figaro

Le Nozze di FigaroOn this day in 1786, Mozart’s great opera Le Nozze di Figaro — “The Marriage of Figaro” — was first performed in Vienna. It was the first of the big three — the others being Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte — “The Magic Flute.” All three operas are still in the top ten of operas performed.

The opera is based upon a now largely forgotten play, La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro — “The Mad Day, or the Marriage of Figaro.” It is associated with the French Revolution because it is largely a denunciation of the aristocracy. At the end of the play, the title character gives an angry speech against the idea of hereditary rule. That was a big deal at the time. Now, of course, we don’t believe in it; we just quietly legislate it. But the opera was made non-political.

If you’ve seen the movie Amadeus, you probably have a very skewed view of both Mozart and Le Nozze di Figaro. The libretto was approved by the state before Mozart started working on it. And it was quite a success. I love the movie, but it is almost as much a distortion of Mozart’s life as it is of Salieri’s. In particular, Mozart’s financial fortunes were definitely improving — and had he lived, he would have been quite comfortable within just a couple of years. He also wasn’t childish and self-destructive — or at least any more so than any other artist at that time or this.

Le Nozze di Figaro is long — about three and a half hours when done in total. It usually isn’t done in total. Sometimes, it is savagely cut. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Here is a 16 March 2013 performance that comes in at a respectable two hours and forty minutes. It is quite charming, and has a lively audience interaction. You can also check out the 1975 filmed version directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. The music is especially good in it. But if you don’t know the opera well, there is this filmed stage production that is mostly notable because it has good subtitles:

Happy birthday Le Nozze di Figaro!