Chocolat: Where Liberal and Conservative Meet

ChocolatI finally got around to watching the 2000 film Chocolat. I loved it. It’s like a fairy tale. It reminded me most of The Boxtrolls, which I reviewed earlier this year (The Boxtrolls and the Happy Ending of Class). The emotional core of the film is Vianne’s first customer, Yvette who uses a special chocolate concoction to revamp her love life with her husband Alphonse. I don’t think it is about sex so much as sensuality. People can have sex without connecting with one another. Think of phone sex or pornography. But we see Yvette and Alphonse throughout the movie as a doting and happy couple. That is the magic of chocolate and Chocolat.

But I noticed that on Rotten Tomatoes, the film does not have a terribly high rating: 63%. It speaks to our culture that the overwhelming majority of negative reviews come from men. And far too many of the critical reviews are political in nature. I’m not against that in general. I write many film reviews from an explicit leftist perspective. But the reviews that I read were only implicitly political. They didn’t engage with the film’s politics. Instead, they referred to it as Jeremy Heilman does, calling it an “offensive liberal fantasy” and that it “treats Catholicism as folly.”

Most of the negative reviews come in the form presented by James Kendrick, “For all its anti-religious and anti-establishment posturing, Chocolat is terribly conventional.” But how is it anti-religious and anti-establishment? If it is, so is the 1970 holiday staple, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Because the main character in the film is not Juliette Binoche’s chocolate making wanderer Vianne Rocher; it is Alfred Molina’s Comte de Reynaud, who is distorting the town and its church because of his own personal problems. Vianne may delight the town, but ultimately, it is de Reynaud whose transformation changes the town. And that transformation is not brought on by chocolate, but by his secretary Caroline telling him what everyone knows about his wife, “I don’t believe anyone would think less of you if you were to say she was never coming back.”

The problem that is evident in the “anti-establishment” complaint is that people like Vianne and Johnny Depp’s “river rat” Roux live in opposition to the establishment. They simply want to be accepted enough to exist unmolested. Some people have the gift of fitting in better than others. But as the film ably demonstrates, the church is about acceptance. From the beginning, we see that the young Father Pere Henri understands this. But he is oppressed — not by the church but by the Comte de Reynaud. And it is not out of dedication to the church or traditional ways that de Reynaud does this, but out of pain from his abandonment.

In the end, all the different factions in the film learn to live together. But this is not revolutionary. Because we do not start with a natural state. We start with a town that has been distorted by a very powerful man. When Vianne blows into town with the north wind, she brings not chaos but tranquility — a return to normality. This is something that liberals and conservatives alike should understand and celebrate.

I loved the movie. It is a rare film — a modern classic that Frank Capra would have made.

Afterword

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” They were saying this, testing him, so that they might have grounds for accusing him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, he straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and he was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”

Will the Fed Destroy Our Fledgling Recovery?

Janet YellenThe monthly jobs report came out last Friday and it was pretty good. Dean Baker wrote, October Jobs Growth Pushes Unemployment Rate Down to 5.0 Percent. And you know what that means: the inflation is coming! Because, as we all learned in Econ 101, 5% unemployment is full employment. Of course, that actually means nothing. But that doesn’t mean that the Federal Reserve isn’t going to step in and slow the economy to stop even the possibility of inflation.

The unemployment rate may be down, but that doesn’t actually mean that much. As Baker noted, “The labor force participation rate is actually down 0.4 percentage points from its year-ago level.” The employment to population ratio of people between the ages of 25 and 54 was 80.0% in January of 2008. Today, it is 77.2%. So we have a low unemployment rate because lots of people in the prime working age range are simply not trying to find jobs because they aren’t readily available.

But what does that matter?! The Federal Reserve wants to increase interest rates because rich people think they might lose a little money due to inflation. So what is inflation currently? The core inflation rate right now is 1.89%. It has been almost three years since inflation has been above 2% — and then just for a single month. You have to go back a year further to find inflation above 2% for several months. How high? It peaked at 2.31%. And then you have to go back to November 2008 to be above 2% again.

They reason I bring this all up is because the Fed’s inflation target is supposed to be 2%. But it sure doesn’t look like that. It looks like the Fed has a 2% inflation ceiling. If we had a 2% inflation target, we would think years of less than 2% inflation would be followed by years of more than 2% inflation. But that’s not the way the Fed works, apparently.

In addition to suppressing workers’ wages and keeping millions of others out of work, the Fed could be setting the stage for a Republican president in 2017.

Dean Baker’s conclusion is pretty much what any person in the normal economy would think, “In short, this is a much more positive report than we saw in the prior two months. However, there is much in the report that indicates there is a still a large amount of slack in the labor market.” In other words: there is no fear of inflation. Workers aren’t making more money. And the power elite think we need to stop this from happening out of fear that modest inflation might happen.

Matt Yglesias wrote a very good rundown of what everyone should know, We Could Have an Economic Boom This Winter — If the Fed Doesn’t Screw It Up. That’s the thing that is so horrible about the Federal Reserve. It is an institution by, for, and of the power elite. It is supposed to have a dual mandate: keep inflation low and employment high. But it never much frets about employment. For the last five years, it has been looking for any excuse to raise interest rates. It isn’t the case that the Fed is monitoring the economy and deciding what to do. It wants to raise interest rates and it is simply looking for an excuse to do it.

Chad Stone, the chief economist at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities tweeted out what should be obvious, “Three more months of jobs reports like today’s and maybe the Fed should start considering the possibility of raising rates.” That would be the reasonable thing. But instead, the Fed acts like an AA member standing at a free bar, “Gimme an excuse!”

In addition to suppressing workers’ wages and keeping millions of others out of work, the Fed could be setting the stage for a Republican president in 2017. Sure, there is some risk of a moderate rise in inflation if the Fed doesn’t raise interest rates. But there is a far bigger risk that it will tank the economy if it does. But that latter possibility doesn’t much concern the Fed, because it isn’t likely to hurt them or anyone they know.

Anniversary Post: Overpriced van Gogh

Self-Portrait Without Beard - Vincent van GoghOn this day in 1998, Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait Without Beard sold for $71.5 million. At the time, it was the third most expensive painting ever sold. Now (adjusted for inflation), it is 26th. As regular readers know, I’m not a big van Gogh fan. But he is unique. Still, prices like this for a work of art say nothing of the work and everything about the narcissism of the art collector.

And if you look at the most expensive art there is a remarkable sameness about it. It is overwhelmingly Impressionist (more accurately, post-Impressionist) and representational modernist work. And there is a smattering of Abstract Expressionism — Rothko and Pollock. But the main thing is that you know the people buying these works would have hated the works when they were being produced. For all I know, they hate them now. It’s just something to impress the swells with.

I do all my writing sitting right next to what I know was once a beautiful painting by Bernard Frouchtben. But like far too much art that no one has been told is good, it was badly abused. In its case, it was left out in a carport for years. But even if it had been treated with the care and respect it deserves, it probably wouldn’t even be worth as much as $10,000. As it is, it is worth nothing in terms of money. But I dearly love it, even though it also saddens me to look at it.

I love art. But art as commodity offends me. For the price of that one van Gogh, a hundred Bernard Frouchtbens could have been supported in perpetuity. Imagine what kind of works would have result from that kind of investment. But instead, these people buy art the way decorators do when they are furnishing a new Days Inn. And the truth is that if you told these art collectors that paintings of bullfighters on black velvet was the thing, they’d be spending millions on every Edgar Leeteg that went on the market. And I’m not saying that Leeteg is bad. But his paintings don’t sell for millions for the same reason that van Gogh’s do — at it has nothing to do with what the buyers like or don’t like.