Weekend Film Recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife

Your film reviewer is on Christmas vacation this week, and so we re-run a prior recommendation that is perfect for the holiday season…

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The only people who grow old were born old to begin with.

If you were asked to recall a 1947 Christmas movie that was nominated for a best picture Oscar, you would probably come up with the famous Miracle on 34th Street. But remarkably, it was only one of two Christmas films so honored that year. The other is this week’s film recommendation: The Bishop’s Wife.

Anglican Bishop Henry Brougham (A miscast but appealing David Niven) is under strain as he attempts to raise money for a new cathedral. Donations are not arriving, and the wealthiest woman in town (Gladys Cooper) will only help if the building is made into a tasteless monument to her late husband. Meanwhile, since becoming an Archbishop consumed with finances and grandiose plans, Henry has been drifting apart from his long-suffering wife Julia (the ever-luminous Loretta Young). He prays to God for aid and a friendly, dashing, sharply dressed fellow arrives at his office (Who else but Cary Grant?). Calling himself Dudley, the new arrival says he is here to help, which Henry takes to mean help raising money. But Dudley spends most of his time trying to restore Julia’s happiness instead, much to Henry’s irritation.

Some films live or die on the strength of a star’s charm, and this is an example of a film living, indeed thriving, on the charm of the inimitable Grant. Director Henry Koster seems to have instructed every female member of the cast to swoon upon meeting him, and it’s utterly believable given the warmth and gentleness that the handsome Grant radiates in ever scene. Loretta Young’s devout-and-goodly performance is perfectly matched to Grant’s, as the story requires their relationship to be intimate but at the same time innocent. She was at the peak of her powers in 1947, during which she not only garnered raves for her role in the Bishop’s Wife but also won a Best Actress Oscar for The Farmer’s Daughter.

Grant and Young get strong support from the rest of cast, particularly Monty Woolley as an atheistic retired college professor who is an old friend of Julia and Henry’s. The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir are also on hand for a mellifluous number in Henry’s former and very poor church, a symbol of the simpler faith and life that he has lost.

the-bishops-wife-deep-focusThe Bishop’s Wife rewards the eye as well as the heart, thanks to Gregg Toland being behind the camera. The town looks lovely, peaceful and Christmassy as can be. And Toland gets to be Toland, as you see on the left, which is my favorite shot in the movie, during which the characters slowly accrue at different depths away from Grant, who is making an emotional and religious connection to Henry and Julia’s little girl (played by Karolyn Grimes, who essayed a similar role in It’s a Wonderful Life).

The Bishop’s Wife is not a film for the cynical nor for those hostile to religious messages. But if the Christmas spirit animates your soul at this time of year, you will find much to love in this extraordinarily sweet movie.

I embed below the amusing “un-trailer” of the film, featuring the three leads and absolutely, positively no spoilers.

Cheap oil fallout

I filled up my car for just under $3 a US gallon yesterday and got a short-lived sugar high, followed by the predictable crash. Gasoline in the US retails for about half what it should counting its climate effects and the taxes it should carry for road use, so this is overall, and importantly, a Bad Thing, as is anything that makes fossil fuels cheaper rather than more expensive.

Of course $55 oil is a very big deal in an world addicted to petroleum in other ways, like selling it, as the Russians and Venezuelans will tell you. Oil companies, of course, are scrambling. BP, trying to stop the bleeding across its operations, is also pulling the plug on its cellulosic biofuels projects. I am quite ambivalent about this last development. On the one hand, the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute here at Cal has done a lot of good science and people I like and respect have worked there for several years, mostly trying to make liquid fuels out of whole plants. They are going to be seriously dinged by BP’s pullback.

On the other hand, I am broadly skeptical of liquid biofuels generally, and especially of trying to make them out of whole plants, and I think BPs retreat signals twilight for the latter enterprise.  Getting the lignin off the cellulose, and then breaking the cellulose down into something a yeast will eat, has been very refractory. If you have a big pile of biomass in one place to use for energy, why take a bunch of thermodynamic hits doing chemistry on it to make liquid fuel?  Just throw it in a boiler in place of any fossil fuel (especially coal), burn it directly, and make electricity.

A cautionary example, and a special case, is ethanol from sugarcane, especially in Brazil, where they have spent many years getting really good at it.  This is a C4 grass, the most efficient solar collecting kind of plant, grown where there’s lots of sun and (except this year) water, that only has to be planted every six years or so, and makes sugar that can be fermented directly, so no enzymes to dismantle starch.  Because the whole plant stem has to be hauled to the refinery to be squeezed, the fibrous residue is burned as fuel to run the plant and make electricity to put back in the grid. (If the Brazilian grid were less green–they have a lot of hydro–it would be better.)  Like any crop-based biofuel, it displaces food production and winds up pushing agriculture into forest land, with a big carbon discharge from land clearing.  This is about as good as whole-plant liquid fuel can get, and it’s still only about a third less carbon-intensive than gasoline; it will be very hard for cellulosic liquid fuels to come close, especially at tolerable cost.

Sexual Assault Has Declined Dramatically in a Generation

Sociologists have long noted that public perceptions of social problems can depart dramatically from the reality of social problems. For example, during the height of Ebola coverage, many Americans were more terrified of Ebola than the flu, even though the latter disease is a much greater threat to U.S. public health. Because of the recent spate of media coverage about sexual assault, many people I read and encounter are convinced that the problem has never been worse and will get even worse in the future. Rather than descend into panic and despair about this terrible crime, let’s not forget that the prevalence of sexual assault has declined dramatically over the past generation.

Twenty years ago, the National Crime Victimization Survey was redesigned to do a better job detecting sexual assault. The revised questions showed that in a nation of 258 million people, nearly 550,000 rapes occurred. Two decades later, the most recent survey reported that in a nation of 316 million people 300,000 rapes occurred. Thus, in the space of one generation, the raw number of rapes has dropped by 45% and the population-adjusted rate of rape has dropped 55%.

I started my career working with and advocating for rape victims, and no one needs to convince me that the only acceptable goal for society is to have no rapes at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that we have experienced an astonishingly positive change that should lead us to (1) Figure out how it was achieved so that we can build on it (personally, I credit the feminist movement, but there may be other variables) and (2) Never give up hope that we can push back dramatically against even the most horrific social problems.

Living well with breast cancer by choosing wisely

Over at Wonkblog, I checked back in with one of my favorite people, Amy Berman.AmyBerman_1x1 5 (1)

Amy is a program officer at the Hartford Foundation. She is on my real-life Madden team. She has been living with stage IV breast cancer for several years now. By the judicious use of palliative care, she is living well despite the challenges of a spreading cancer. It is a strange experience yucking it up over Skype sipping diet soda and discussing metastatic cancer. Life is funny like that.

We spend so much time debating what a good death might look like in end-of-life care. She has had a good life for the past several years despite an incurable cancer, because she has sought and received excellent care.

More here.

The Eurozone: Something’s Gotta Give

The turmoil in Greece is but one instantiation of the broader crisis in the Eurozone. I chart below the latest jobs data to illustrate that the zone’s unemployment rate is worse than that of any non-zone European country. That big red bar on the far right reflects substantial human misery.

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Charting economic growth adds insult to injury. The Eurozone is dead last here, generating not even a third of the growth of the best performers, Britain and Hungary.

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Numbers like the above, both in themselves and relative to other European countries outside the Eurozone, create enormous pressure and something’s gotta give. But what will it be?

Will it be a massive stimulus package? European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker announced an impressive sounding 315 billion Euro investment package, but upon close inspection it turns out to be quite puny, and in any event Juncker’s future is unclear as revelations emerge that he may have helped wealthy corporate friends evade taxes. Meanwhile, Germany ordoliberals remain committed to spending restraint, suggesting that the Eurozone isn’t likely to go on a spending binge in order to avoid a deflationary spiral.

Another alternative is that the pain continues to mount until populist movements gain control of member governments and start taking radical action, for example defaulting on their debts, or, exiting the Eurozone entirely. The Euro doesn’t have a well of democratic legitimacy upon which to draw. It was always an elite project designed with little regard for (or understanding of) the man and woman on the street. The elite commitment to not owning up to the basic flaws of the system will therefore not count for much if the suffering masses get their hands on the levers of power.

Sunday Pub Quiz: Anglo-American Politics

This is a quiz about American politics, and it’s fairly hard. Google not and see if you can get half of these right, all of which I derived from Raymond Seitz’s charming book Over Here. As ever, post scores and comments/critiques at the end.

1. Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” was about the relationship between the United States and what other country?

2. If Hillary Clinton is elected President, she will be the first POTUS with prior experience as Secretary of State since who?

3. Before he became Secretary of State, James Baker was asked whether he had ever visited a communist country. He replied “No, but I’ve been to”….where?

4. William Gladstone said it was “The most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man”. To what was he referring?

5. U.K. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was a distant relative of which U.S. President?

6. The first communication by Transatlantic Cable occurred between Queen Victoria and which U.S. President?

Continue Reading…

More Sunday pylon blogging

In the High and Far-Off Times (2008 and 2011) I blogged some photos of modern French and other designs for high-voltage electricity pylons that look like well-designed pieces of engineering, not a child’s failed Meccano project. I told you that the British Department of Energy and Climate Change had launched a competition for pylons for the British grid, then I forgot about it. Rather late, here are the winner and the five others that made the shortlist. This was actually announced – ahem – in October 2011. There hasn’t exactly been a rush anywhere to phase out the old lattices, so it’s still a good idea to publicise the new designs. The assessment included National Grid, the operator of the transmission network, and an eminent academic engineer served as one of the judges, so we can assume all the shortlist met engineering standards.

Winner: T-pylon from Bystrup of Denmark

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This clean but not very exciting design won in part because of its low height, making it less intrusive in the landscape: it cuts 35 14 metres off the existing lattices. National Grid are committed to this to the extent of building a line of six at their training centre in Nottinghamshire, and will offer the design as an option to communities affected by new lines.

Also-rans below the jump. Continue Reading…

“This one photo shows why Michel du Cille was an incredible photojournalist”

This is just a terrific piece by Vox’s Amanda Taub remembering a distinguished photojournalist. I won’t spoil the image. Please click through. The look on this child’s face is just one element that makes this a fantastic and heartbreaking picture.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Brief Encounter

Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.

brief_encounter2A few years back I recommended In Which We Serve, the first collaboration between Noël Coward and David Lean. As their partnership evolved, Coward ceded full directorial control to Lean and the two men made a series of films (now available as a boxed set from Criterion Collection) that both reflected and defined Englishness for a generation. This week’s recommendation is the strongest of their efforts, which is truly saying something: 1945′s Brief Encounter.

Expanded from a one-act play of Coward’s, the plot is so simple that it would have been slight in less talented hands. A plain-looking, thoroughly respectable suburban housewife and mother named Laura Jesson is waiting for her regular train on her regular shopping day. A train throws a piece of soot into her eye. The handsome Dr. Alec Harvey comes to her aid and something sparks between them. They meet again by chance, a third time by intention mutually disguised as a trivial convenience, and then, guiltily, on purpose. A forbidden — though by modern standards, extremely restrained — romance develops. But where can it go, for two married parents with a lifetime of British socialization in their veins?

Other than The Browning Version, no British film conveys the nature of quiet desperation as achingly as does Brief Encounter. Coward wisely does not make the choices simple for the characters or the audience. Laura’s husband is gentle and devoted and her children loveable. Alec’s family is never seen, but the audience imagines something similar regarding his own responsibilities and constraints. Alec and Laura are drawn to each other not because they are fleeing violence, hatred or some other overt misery. Rather, they are running from dullness towards passion, which is underscored (pun intended) by perfectly chosen music by Rachmaninoff.

Lean and his frequent collaborators Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan understood the possibilities of film as well as any team in the history of cinema (Not incidentally, they went on to make many classics together post-Coward, including prior RBC recommendation Great Expectations). This movie is one of many times when they hit it for six. The tone, look, pacing and editing are all unimpeachable.

The other undeniable virtue of Brief Encounter is the acting. Trevor Howard, as Alec, is strong, but Celia Johnson tour de force’s as Laura, the more fully developed of the two characters, will stay with you until the end of your days. She might have been an unsympathetic character but Johnson’s evident humanity and emotional turmoil will elicit forgiveness from even judgmentally-inclined viewers. Johnson’s most unforgettable moment: Her character’s realization that her husband loves and trusts her so much that the lie she tells to cover up meeting Alec has no chance of being detected. Johnson deservedly received a 1947 Oscar nomination for her performance. It came that long after the 1945 British release because a movie in which infidelity is not punished was long considered too scandalous to release in a number of countries, including the U.S.

Every moment, every look and every gesture rings true in Brief Encounter. Pour yourself a cup of tea, get out your hanky and watch this truly magnificent film made by a creatively matchless group of artists.