Will Terry Gilliam Destroy Don Quixote?

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

According to The Verge, Amazon has ponied up some money, and next year, Terry Gilliam will start production of his long delayed film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. On the surface, it sounds like the perfect project for me. It is a cinematic take on Don Quixote — something that really has never been done properly. And it is a film by a director who I admire. Yet I am extremely leery about this combination.

I know I’m just a little punk, but I think most people don’t get Don Quixote. They focus on the iconography — and on the title character. Yes, that’s all very interesting: the crazy old man who thinks he’s a knight errant. But what is most amazing about the books is how they play with the distinction between literature and reality. Quixote’s insanity manifests itself in his inability to distinguish between the two. And it is taken to absurd heights where the crazy old man causes so much trouble in his delusion that he becomes a literary figure. People say that Don Quixote was the first modern novel, but it is actually the first postmodern novel.

When Orson Welles attempted to translate the books onto the screen, he had one brilliant idea: put Don Quixote in the modern world. This shows that he understood one important aspect of the story: Don Quixote was an anachronism in his own time. Even if his ideas about knights were based upon romantic literature, the actual knights they were based upon existed centuries before. So Welles was right to see that Don Quixote was no more out of place with motor scooters and movie theaters than he had been with barbers and college students.

But again, how would one really capture the feel of the books? I think you would follow Welles’ lead and make it in modern times. And you would make it as a documentary. Don Quixote likes nothing so much as to have long conversations about his important place in the history of knights errant. And the people around egg him on and get quite a lot of enjoyment listening to the crazy man. I can well see interviews with him as well as the simple, but firmly grounded Sancho. I’m thinking something along the lines of the approach that Bob Fosse took in Lenny and Star 80. It could be brilliant in the right hands.

I’m afraid that Gilliam is entirely the wrong hands. According to Wikipedia the basic plot is, “An advertising executive who finds himself unstuck in time unwittingly travels between modern-day London and 17th-century La Mancha, where he participates in the adventures of Don Quixote.” Good God! I have flashes of Time Bandits. To make matters worse, the advertising executive apparently becomes the Sancho character. I guess there are ways of making this work, but Sancho is really the most important character in the book. Without him, there is nothing. His simple practicality is the perfect foil for Don Quixote’s complicated delusions.

A similar dynamic happened in They Might Be Giants where Justin Playfair who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes mistakes his psychiatrist Mildred Watson as Dr Watson. The point, though, is that Playfair is not Holmes. Now Don Quixote is insane and constantly sees reality differently than it is. So it could be made to work. But it is a supremely dangerous choice. What’s more, Holmes is interesting without Watson. Don Quixote really isn’t interesting without Sancho. And pushing him out of the plot almost certainly destroys the fabric of the narrative.

But we’ll see. As regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of 12 Monkeys. Then again, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is co-written by Gilliam — never a good sign. I’ll still want to see it. And I will be the first to admit if I’ve been wrong about it. I really want to love it. Anything based on Don Quixote can’t be all bad. But sadly, most things based upon it are mostly bad.

Two Problems With Equality of Opportunity

Peter DormanThere are two large difficulties with equal opportunity as a principle of justice. First, what exactly should be this hypothetical moment of perfect equality — the equal starting line, to use the metaphor of a footrace? Should it be birth? This means that the unequal distribution of luck before birth must be counterbalanced, so that those who are congenitally stronger or more clever should be disadvantaged in equal measure. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then you perhaps imagine a moment even before birth and before genetic qualities are doled out. But related to this is the problem that, as soon as we are born, we begin to do things or have things done to us that, if not offset, will lead to unequal life chances down the road. The further back we push the moment of equality, the more subsequent inequality we must accept. If opportunities are to be equal at birth, then the advantages that some get in childhood will not count against “equal opportunity.” Perhaps you would set a much later age for the “starting point” — say 18. This commits you to much greater intervention to offset all the many pluses and minuses that can accrue by that age, including many that are due to the choices that children make for themselves. At the same time, it can be seen as a bit heartless, since it doesn’t allow for second chances. If someone discovers what they truly want at the age of 25 or so, too bad: they missed the moment of equality and they will have to make do with whatever opportunities they are lucky enough to still have. This sort of criticism can be addressed by requiring a multiplicity of “somewhat equal opportunities” that can reappear as one grows older, but then the criterion loses its sharpness: how equal must these second chances be and how many must be offered?

The second large difficulty is that equality of opportunity is compatible with almost any level of general inequality, as we defined it in this chapter. Suppose, for example, that you have a society that works according to this rule: every year a lottery is held with just one winning number. The individual who wins that year gets everything — every last penny of income, all the wealth, the land, everything of value. Everyone else must beg for enough to survive on. The principle of equal opportunity demands only one thing, that the lottery be perfectly fair, so that each person has the same chance to be tycoon-for-a-year, but surely this demand does not go far enough. Can extremely unequal divisions of life’s good things be viewed as just simply because the system is fair at the moment just before division?

—Peter Dorman
Inequality of Opportunity: Another View

Economic Trend Toward Large Employers

Timothy TaylorTimothy Taylor wrote an article that answers a question that I’ve wondered about for a while, What Share Work for Large Employers? If we define a large employer as a company that has 500 or more employees, then there has been a shift in recent years toward large employers. In 2003, 49.3% of all American workers were at large employers; in 2012, it was 51.6%. All of the smaller employers have lost market share, but the biggest loser has been the smallest companies — those with fewer than 20 employees. This is very interesting, but hardly surprising.

Americans fetishizes the “small business.” It’s very much like the “family farm.” I’m not sure why this is. Having grown up in a small business family, I can tell you the myth is nothing like the reality. It reminds me of a second season episode of Bob’s Burgers, “Bob Day Afternoon.” In it, Mickey notes that it’s cool that Bob has his kids work at the restaurant, and Bob replies that it’s only because he doesn’t have to pay them. When I saw that, I figured that one of the writers had a childhood like mine.

Arindrajit DubeThe other part of this is that I saw my parents treat the actual employees they had fairly badly. And they were not at all exceptional — I’ve seen it countless times with employers I’ve had as well as ones I’ve observed from the outside. They live in constant fear of bankruptcy. They never feel secure, even when things are going really well. And they expect their employees to care as deeply about the business as they do. Sadly, employees often do feel deeply committed to the business. But they are rewarded with bad pay and treatment until they finally have enough.

Taylor presented data that indicates this — at least as regard to pay. The average pay for workers at small employers is $36,912. It goes up the larger the firm. For firms with over 500 employees, the average pay is $52,554. That’s a 42% higher pay rate. Of course, this is average and not median. Also, one might think that companies with more employees are more successful and therefore can pay more. But I suspect it is just that if you have a thousand employees, you need them to stick around. It is costly to replace people. If you have five employees, well, there’s always some guy straight out of prison or rehab or a homeless shelter who is desperate for job.

Over the last couple of days, Paul Krugman and Arindrajit Dube have been discussing this issue of why it is that Walmart is seeing benefits from raising its wages. And what they propose is that rather than increased wages just being a cost, it actually has a feedback. When people are being paid less than the value of their work, giving them a raise will increase productivity. In other words: poor workers will reward their companies for being treated reasonably.

Compare this to the rich. I’m constantly amazed at this ridiculous conservative canard that if we raise taxes on the rich then they will stop working so much. I remember seeing a cartoon that summed this up. There were two corpulent rich guys laying by a swimming pool. One of them said, “I’ll tell you this: if they raise the capital gains tax, this is one coolie who won’t be breaking his back!” The truth is if a CEO is getting paid a million dollars per year, he isn’t going to be better at his job if you pay him ten million. In fact, such outrageous salaries are likely to make people complacent. I know if someone paid me $10 million per year, I’d quit after the first year and start a repertory company.

But it is always the best paid people who are the focus of company larges. And despite recent moves by Walmart and Target, I doubt that this is changing. It would be nice to think that these companies are starting to realize that having a strong middle class is actually good for them. It certainly would be good for the economy as a whole. But there is always money to be made next quarter for the CEO who keeps wages down, even if it is terrible in the long term. So I’m not keen about the economy’s move toward bigger employers. Even if they are better to their employees than the little companies are.

Obama Defeated on TAA, but He Will Shamble on

Barack ObamaWe Democrats all admire Obama. But unlike the stereotype, we don’t worship him. We’ve had a lot of problems with many of his policies. And I do mean “we.” Obviously, as a functional Democrat — I’m a member of the party because it is the more liberal of the two major parties, not because I agree with it — I have even bigger problems with President Obama. But he has never been so clearly outside the current thinking of the Democratic Party as he is on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). So now was a really good time for the Democrats in the House of Representatives to say what needed to be said, “Suck. On. This.”

Here’s what’s happened. There aren’t enough Republicans in the House who are willing to give fast track authority for the TPP. So in order to win over Democrats, the House has tried to pass the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). This is a program that is supposed to help workers who are displaced by the TPP. Now you have to wonder, if the TPP is going to be so great, why does it need a special program to help workers who will be laid off. What’s more, we’ve seen this same thing in previous trade deals. And as much as it works, it only ends up in allowing workers to find worse jobs. From my perspective, it is just a matter of providing political cover to politicians.

When the House voted on the TAA today, it went down to a stunning defeat: 126-302. The House plans to try voting on it again next week, but clearly Obama has a very big hill to climb. Assuming that the Republicans stay where they are, Obama will have to win over 92 of the 144 Democrats who voted no today. It’s curious because TAA is something that Democrats agree on. In theory, it is a good program. So the vote against it is a vote to stop the TPP. It’s interesting to note the other bill today, the TPA (Trade Promotion Authority — fast track) was passed by a very small minority. The Republicans are eager to screw over the American worker with TPP, but don’t want to provide even the lame TAA to make it slightly less painful.

The TPA still has a very good chance of going through. And a big part of the problem can be found in Greg Sargent’s article on the vote Friday morning, Liberals Plot New Way to Blow Up Obama’s Trade Deal. Apart from the obvious bias in the headline, Sargent consistently refers to proponents of TPP as “pro-trade” — implying that opponents are “anti-trade.” This is absolutely untrue. In fact, an argument can be made that exactly the opposite is true. But this has been the line from The Washington Post all along: nonstop TPP apologetics. It’s sad to see it coming from a reasonable guy like Sargent.

I’m sure that Obama will continue to push the TPP along. Frankly, there doesn’t seem to be anything during his presidency that he’s felt so strongly about. I don’t remember him working so hard on Obamacare or the Public Option. Then it always seemed that whatever would be, would be. He was the zen president. But this, he thinks, will be totally fantastic. And for him it might be. But if he gets it, he may end up with a Johnson legacy: Obamacare was good, but unfortunately, he saddled us with that horrible TPP that Scott Walker eventually tweaked to make even worse.

But I could be wrong! Just because the TPP is being sold with the exact same arguments — often in the exact same words — doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to be totally different than those. If Obama weren’t just the second coming of Bill “we will no longer accept uneven trading relationships” Clinton, I might be inclined to rethink it. But TPP will be the same as all the trade deals that went before. It will be hugely successful at making the rich richer and poor poorer. That will be your legacy Mr President. You must be so proud.

Morning Music: Jean Sibelius (and a Cat)

Allegro Non TroppoI’m not a big fan of Jean Sibelius. In fact, he is just the kind of Romantic composer that I’m thinking of when I say that I don’t like Romantic music. But that isn’t to say that he wasn’t a great composer. And he certainly didn’t commit any of the truly vile sins of the period like mindless chromaticism. And there are some times when you really want Romantic music. It is still very much alive in many film scores.

Not surprisingly, Sibelius wrote a lot of incidental music for the theater of his time. One such piece is Valse Triste — the sad waltz. It was part of the incidental music for the play Kuolema (“Death”), written by Arvid Järnefelt, who was apparently Sibelius’ brother-in-law. It sounds like a very expressionistic affair. It starts with the protagonist as a young man and Death comes for his mother. And it ends with him a man with his own family. Their home is burned down and Death comes for him in the form of his mother. You know the Finns: they know how to have a good time!

I thought the burned down house was interesting, because that is the centerpiece of the animation created by Bruno Bozzetto for the song in his film, Allegro Non Troppo. In this short film, we see a cat wandering around a burned house. It gets lost in its pleasant memories of the past. The implication is that all the humans have perished. The cat’s memories are brutally destroyed by the intrusion of the current reality. This is a rather negative take on the theme of Kuolema, which is about the way that the past is kept alive in our memories. Bozzetto seems to be saying that maybe that isn’t such a great thing.

This is a beautiful fusion of sound and image. I’ve introduced it to many people over the years. They never forget it. Nor do many of them ever forgive me. It is, as a commenter on the video put it, “heart-rending.”

Anniversary Post: Miranda v Arizona

Ernesto MirandaOn this day in 1966, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court found that the police must tell suspects of their right to remain silent in Miranda v Arizona. It’s a curious case. It means surprisingly little. Most cases do not depend upon the things that the defendant said. In drug possession cases, for example, it is very simple: the officer said he found drugs on or near the defendant and that’s that. It’s easier to get off a murder charge than a drug charge. So Miranda never meant that much, but it was a good sign that for a bright shining moment, the United States stood up for actual rights and not just theoretical ones.

Unfortunately, Miranda came to be seen as an icon of the state’s supposed placing of criminals’ rights above those of the victim. When I was growing up, every one thought that murderers were commonly set free because some police officer didn’t read the Miranda warning to the letter. This, of course, was not the case at all. Consider for a moment the case at hand. Ernesto Miranda was retried without his confession and found guilty.

Of course, since Miranda, the Supreme Court has found all kinds of exceptions for when the police do not have to provide the warning. It really doesn’t matter. The default here in the United States is that the police must have complete power to coerce suspects — even to the point of providing false confessions (which they do all the time). The United States is an authoritarian country because far too many of us are authoritarians.

At this point, Miranda just provides us with a theoretical right. You have the right to remain silent, unless the police do not want you to. You have the right to an attorney, unless the police don’t want you to. An attorney will be provided for you — eventually — if you live in the right kind of state. (As I recall, in Wisconsin, you are said to be able to afford your own attorney if you make more than $3,000 per year.)

Happy anniversary Miranda v Arizona — for all the good it does us.