Coen Brothers and the Stupidity of Film Rankings

Coen BrothersIs it okay to tell Erik Loomis to shut up? I mean, he’s a brilliant guy. I love his political analysis and his discussions of labor history. But does that mean that I have to sit by and just accept it when he writes, The Coen Brothers Films, Ranked. Look, I get it. I’ve done it myself — sort of — in Rotten Tomatoes for Orson Welles. But in general, I hate rankings just as I hate stars or anything else that tries to quantify the quality of art.

It reminds me of those lists of the most expensive paintings. But I don’t think anyone ever takes those rankings to mean that these are the best. All they show is what kind of people the super rich are. It shows an extremely limited set of tastes and a huge reliance on what conventional wisdom thinks of as “nice” art. It’s not that I dislike it. In fact, the top ten include paintings by Cézanne and Modigliani, who I am very fond of (although not so much the particular paintings). I suppose this ranking of Coen Brothers films tell us something about Erik Loomis too. And it isn’t good.

Erik Loomis is responding to an even more disastrous ranking by Bilge Ebiri, Every Coen Brothers Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best. That’s the problem with people who are supposed to know about film: they insist upon being difficult. For example, he ranks Raising Arizona as the best Coen Brothers film. It isn’t just that I have long felt that to be by far their most overrated film, it is the obvious “people who aren’t that into the Coens like it” double-bluff. Give it a rest!

At least Erik Loomis has the advantage of making a top pick that I know is what he really thinks: The Big Lebowski. Then he (and Ebiri) fall into mostly a lot of conventional wisdom (although Ebiri, to his credit, ranks the difficult masterpiece The Man Who Wasn’t There highly). They both hate The Ladykillers. And they are lukewarm on The Hudsucker Proxy. Now that’s really interesting, in that the two films are going for the same kind of comedy. Just the same, they both love Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Again: similar in type. So isn’t it more correct that these guys are just telling us what they want the Coen Brothers to do and nothing at all about what the Coen Brothers are actually trying to do?

Comparing Coen Brothers’ Diverse Style

How do you compare The Hudsucker Proxy to Blood Simple? Really! It’s like trying to compare Nu Couché au coussin Bleu with Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Different films are doing different things.

I always hate it when people say, “That film wasn’t funny!” Really?! It’s much more likely that the problem was the viewer and not the film. I thought that Dumb and Dumber was stupid and I shut it off after about five minutes. But loads of other people thought it was hilarious. The film is what it is, and apparently works brilliantly on its own terms. It’s not my kind of film — at least not when I tried to watch it. When InSession Film asked what “my” favorite Coen Brothers film was, I said it was hard to say. I think Barton Fink is a perfect film, but that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the one I enjoy watching the most.

Neither of our rankers think much Barton or O Brother. And neither of them really have a reason for it. It really just comes down to what they like and then filling in the details as to why — or, in many cases, not. I could write several thousand words on why No Country for Old Men is not the masterpiece that people claim. Much of the plot makes little sense. It’s more or less The Terminator set in west Texas. But the fact is that the film is everything that it tries to be. That’s true of most Coen Brothers films. It’s a whole lot better to spend an article talking about why you like Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski than it is to put together a list that probably changes from year to year anyway.

Afterword: Coen Brothers

For the record, I admire the Coen Brothers, but I’m not a fanatic. I haven’t seen all their films. Pretty much, True Grit broke me. After that, it seemed clear that the boys were really not that interested in making innovative films anymore. I’m probably wrong. But I’ve never made a fetish of the Coen Brothers. They are damned fine filmmakers. And every one of their films I’ve seen was at least a worthy effort.

Could Sanders Win? Why Is Clinton Whining?!

Hillary ClintonWith Bernie Sanders’ better than expected finish in New Hampshire, I decided to go and look at the road ahead. And what I found really confused me. I mean: really. Why the full freak out? Why did Gloria Steinem go off on the youngins? Why is there now apparently a whole industry for psychoanalyzing the youth of today and why they totally don’t get it? Because the road ahead looks bad for Sanders in terms of winning the nomination. Really bad. So why so much whining from the Clinton campaign?

Look: I understand that things can get out of hand. I know that Bernie Sanders is going to get a bump because of his win in New Hampshire. But have you looked at the polls in the upcoming states?! They are not good for Sanders. Here are the Real Clear Politics averages for the next few states:

The only one that Sanders has any kind of chance at is Nevada because it is a caucus state and there isn’t much polling and it is old. If Sanders does manage to win that, it will look bad for the Clinton campaign. But I just don’t see it changing things in Texas and Georgia. I don’t see how Bernie manages to win the nomination. The odds are stacked badly against him.

Has Clinton Campaign Harmed Itself?

At the same time, various Clinton surrogates have done much to alienate Sanders supporters — most especially young ones — and even more most especially young female ones. And for what?! Because even the smallest chance of Clinton not getting the nomination is totally unacceptable? It strikes me as total madness. And I know: some will say that I’m naive. They will say that Sanders has “momentum.” And I would say to those people: you don’t understand much about political science. There is no such thing as momentum. That’s a myth that was created by people on television so they could sound smart when talking about contests they really know little about.

Last summer, I found myself on a lot of liberal blogs with Clinton supporters and I talked a lot about how they should calm down. So this whole thing has been going on for a long time. And it doesn’t speak well of the Clinton campaign nor the Democratic Party. I think the Republicans have actually been better about Trump. At least they spent most of their time attacking him and not his supporters. What’s more, Trump is actually winning. He got twice as many votes as his nearest competitor in New Hampshire. And he looks poised to do it again in South Carolina.

What it reminds me of is the old saying, “Republicans fear their base; Democrats hate their base.” And I’m not just talking about Sanders supporters here. There’s this overriding idea that primary voters are idiots and can’t be trusted. They must be told what is for their own good! And the interesting thing is that the Democratic Party treats its base very much in the way the Republicans stereotype them treating the people of the nation. But as elected officials, Democrats do not do that; it’s the Republicans who try to control the lives of everyone who isn’t rich. But when it comes to campaigning, the Democrats seem to be lost.

If Sanders suddenly jumps ahead in South Carolina, then clearly I have misjudged the situation. If not, I don’t want to hear it. No whining from people 30 points ahead in the polls!

Frank Moraes, Glenn Beck, and Libertarian Insanity

Glenn Beck and Frank Moraes: LibertarianOn this day exactly 52 years ago, radio personality Glenn Beck was born. That just happens to be the exact day that I was born. In most ways, I am not pleased about this. As I have discussed before, his attempt to co-opt the legacy of Thomas Paine was vile. He thinks he’s a libertarian! Of course, he’s done the same thing with Martin Luther King Jr. He thinks he’s not a bigot! Like a lot of modern conservatives, Beck thinks that he is the real radical. In a sense, he’s right. But the radicals of the past who he looks up to were working to help the weak. Beck is a radical in the name of helping the powerful.

I am impressed with Beck in that he is a searcher. Unfortunately, some time ago, he discovered The Truth™. And so all his searching goes into the service of discovering what he thinks is the truth. And it has sent him down the rabbit hole that is the world of conspiracy theories. The basis of everything for Beck is Cleon Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap.

But you have to give the man credit for combining his own bizarre collection of beliefs with a messianic sense. While my father’s girlfriend laid dying, she was glued to Beck’s television show. She had to be there every day — the same way as people in cults. She felt that Beck was transmitting secret truths to her. She died before seeing his downfall. But he’s still hugely successful on the internet. There are a lot of people like my dad’s girlfriend. They never tire of the oracle. I, of course, see him more like this:

A Quick Libertarian History of Frank

As for me, well my life went something like the following. I was raised by a very conservative father and what I would call a swing voting mother. In the fifth grade, I began to see that many of the things that my father had told me weren’t exactly true. It was kind of like conservative radio before there was such a thing. So there was always a kernel of truth, but I didn’t have the context. This created in me a desire to find, as best as possible, the full truth.

This caused me to bounce around a bit ideologically over the years. The problem with ideology is that it tends to create the kind of shortcuts to truth that got me screwed up with my father when I was a kid. That’s because you have this theory about the way the world works and then you simply filter the facts in the pursuit of proving the theory right. Of course, everyone has an ideology. But when it is something ossified like free market fundamentalism or Stalinism, you aren’t as nimble intellectually.

When I was first in college, I thought of myself as more or less a liberal. I worked for the nuclear freeze movement and for Michael Dukakis’ campaign. And then I met my first wife who turned me onto libertarianism. And if that sounds like she was offering me heroin, good. Because libertarianism is a kind of opioid. It’s highly addictive in its facile simplicity and completeness. And as long as you only talk to other libertarians, you will never get over your addiction because you will never want to.

I did, however, talk to a lot of non-libertarians. This was partly the result of my not liking most libertarians. I found them to be mostly conservatives who were unhappy with the purity of the Republican Party. Indeed, that’s how the Libertarian Party got started. And by the end of graduate school, my libertarianism was starting to crack. For one thing, it was so theoretical and went so much against my natural inclinations that it was hard to maintain. As I’ve discussed before, while being a libertarian at that time, I hated it and felt trapped by it.

But then I found an actual physical addiction that was much less dangerous: drugs. But unfortunately, they extended the run of my libertarian habit because I wanted my drugs to be legal. And in varying states of clarity I stayed at that point. But even there, cracks continued to appear. It became clear to me that any libertarian politician was far more interested in cutting my taxes than allowing me my drugs. And even on an economic level, that was a terrible deal for me.

The real turning point for me was George W Bush and the Iraq War. Obviously, as a libertarian, I was fanatically anti-war. Truthfully, as a libertarian, I was far more of a radical than I am now. But I remember that I was working at home during the six months leading up to the Iraq War and I listened to a lot of NPR. And despite what conservatives claim, NPR is about as milquetoast and center of the road as you can get in media. Yet even still, it was clear as day that we were going to war and the Bush administration was just laying out the propaganda in support of it.

I felt I needed to be involved in the fight against that kind of thing. A vote for a libertarian is a vote for a conservative. And there was another part of it: on the drug front, it was the liberals who were actually doing things to help users’ lives. They were the ones supporting syringe exchanges; the conservatives largely continue to this day to claim that syringe exchanges promote drug use. But there was a final thing, which is that I was always on the far left of libertarianism anyway.

Once the dam breaks, things rearrange themselves in a more natural way. Maybe my thinking now is too natural — too comfortable. But I probably will die this way. I only have a few working principles. Mostly, I believe we are all interdependent. Our capitalist system distorts reality, benefiting some and harming others far out of proportion to individual worth. And as a result, yes, we who benefit from the system can pay more in taxes. It’s either that, or we get a whole new system. And I ask my rich friends: which would you rather it be?

And with that menacing thought, I wish myself and Glenn Beck (who I feel sorry for) a happy birthday.

Update (9 February 2016 9:28 pm)

I really don’t appreciate this!

Frank's Birthday Google

I know Google knows all. But I find it kind of creepy.