Flea markets

One of the local sports round Perpignan, where we’ve just bought a house, is going to village flea-markets on Sundays. They don’t go in for car boots: trestle stalls are rented cheaply by the organising villages, so the atmosphere is pleasant, even for a reluctant shopper like me. This is Latour-bas-Elne. On a given Sunday, there are half-a-dozen such dos.

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How do flea markets by amateurs match up against the idealised markets of Walras and Arrow? Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Prowler

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This week’s film recommendation is an unusual, disturbing film noir that has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years: 1951′s The Prowler. Made by left-wing artists who were being harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, it’s a dark take on class resentment, sexual repression and the ruthless pursuit of the American dream.

Many film noirs feature cops who are half-witted or on the take, but The Prowler is the only one I know where the central character is both a police officer and a calculating, manipulative psychopath. Van Heflin is mesmerizing as Webb Garwood, a flatfoot who is called to investigate a report of a prowler in a wealthy neighborhood. The call comes from Susan Gilvray, played with vulnerability by Evelyn Keyes (I previously raved about her work in 99 River Street). Webb lusts for Susan immediately, not just physically but also for her and her husband’s obvious status in society.

Susan is both flattered and scared by Webb. Sensing her ambivalence, he pays her several more visits until the lonely and repressed Susan gives in to his advances. Eerily, their liaisons are accompanied by the sound of her husband’s voice, a radio announcer who works at night. Webb now has the wealthy man’s wife that he wanted, but he knows he doesn’t possess her completely, nor does he have access to the money he wants to buy his own place in the world. But if her husband were out of the way, who knows what might be possible?

In terms of establishing character and framing the plot elements, the script of The Prowler is one of the best in noir. The screen credit went to Hugo Butler, but Dalto Trumbo wrote much of the script. He was blacklisted and couldn’t be acknowledged publicly as a screenwriter, but in what was probably an inside joke at the expense of the McCarthyites, he provides the voice of Susan’s husband on the radio (again, uncredited). Anyone who wants to learn how to write strong scripts should watch the scene early in the movie in which Webb and Susan discuss their experiences growing up in Indiana. As Webb explains how he blew his chance to get a college education, the audience understands immediately his smallness as a human being and his entitled rage towards people whom he tells himself have denied him what he deserves.

The film also demonstrates something many producers forget: Characters don’t have to be likable, they just have to be interesting. Neither of the principals are people you’d want as your neighbors, but it’s extremely compelling to follow the tenebrous twists of their relationship.

The direction, by the soon to be blacklisted Joseph Losey (probably best known for the thematically similar The Servant), is unusual and effective. He structures the scenes in play-like fashion, with long takes in just a few key, evocative sets. Those locations each have their own vivid bleakness, especially the ghost town in which the third act occurs. Congratulations are due to Art Director Boris Leven and Set Designer Jacques Mapes for tremendous work on a small budget.

The film suffers slightly from a lull between the first and third acts as well as some plotting improbabilities, but it’s still a bit surprising that it wasn’t more of critical and popular hit upon release. It may have been a bit ahead of what a 1951 U.S. audience wanted to see in a story focused on a police officer. It was however very popular in Europe, where Losey was soon to flee to escape political persecution. Later, the film was reappraised by U.S. film noir devotees and its reputation has deservedly grown.

The Prowler is in public domain, so I am posting here a watchable version that someone seems to have videotaped off television. There is also a remastered version by UCLA’s vaunted restoration team which no doubt looks even better if you can find it.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Congratulations to Dr. Vivek Murthy, our 19th Surgeon General

Just a nice moment.

Congratulations to Dr. Vivek Murthy, our nation’s nineteenth Surgeon General. Here’s a nice article in Vox about what he hopes to do in the position. Here’s another on why I am especially gratified by the outcomes of the successful nomination fight.

Also congrats to Dr. Alice Chen, with whom I worked closely at Doctors for America, which I advise.  I remember especially fondly sharing a burger with Alice and my brother-in-law Vincent while Vinnie and I were on a Hollywood vacation. Alice is a whirling dervish of energy. And she does it all with a smile.

PS. Congratulations to both Dr. Murthy and Dr. Chen on their engagement.

PPS: Dr. Murthy’s grandmother was on-hand to see Vice President Biden officiate at the swearing-in-ceremony. What kind of nachas is that?

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The Smokers We Treat vs. Those We Study

The profile of the smoking population in the developing world has changed dramatically in recent decades. The era when smoking was normative among adults is gone, to be replaced by one in which those people still smoking tend to be low income and/or have mental health and alcohol/drug problems.

You might think that this new world of smoking would lead smoking cessation researchers to focus intensely on how to help smokers who have comorbid problems. But as my colleague Anna Lembke and I describe in the current issue of Tobacco Control, just the opposite is true:

One review of the smoking cessation trial literature found that 40% excluded depressed smokers, 55% excluded smokers with alcohol use disorders and 59% excluded those taking psychiatric medications. One critic described the practice of excluding smokers with mental health issues as a ‘scandal’, which is reasonable given the stunning 62% rate of smoking among people with schizophrenia, the 42.6% rate of binge drinking among all smokers, and the enormous tobacco-related health damage in the seriously mentally ill population.

Smoking cessation research is one of too many cases where the science that is supposed to guide medical practice for all patients is generated primarily by studying relatively healthy, wealthy, happy and young research subjects. A scandal indeed.

The Eurozone’s Inbuilt Compassion Deficit

The Euro is the Windows 8 of the economic policy design world: In both cases, it’s very hard to understand how putatively smart people worked so hard to create a product so ill-suited to the needs of those who were supposed to rely on it.

That’s yours truly writing at Mother Jones about another way that the designers of the Euro seemed not to understand basic principles of human psychology (not that they grappled honestly with basic economic principles either). I have written before about other psychological failures of the system, in this case I am referring to the false assumption that all Europeans have a strong shared sense of identity which would generate compassion rather than screw turning in hard economic times.

You can read the whole piece here. Far more important than my Euro-ramblings is this: For the next two months that learned knight of the blogosphere, Kevin Drum, will go through the final phase of his cancer treatment. While he is recovering, a passel of bloggers who admire him will be filling in at Mother Jones, so you can keep watching his column with an expectation of blogging activity and I hope also an occasional update on how Kevin is coming along. My best wishes to Kevin and his wife (and also of course, their cats).

Another feather in the cap of big-time college sports

When the next college sports scandal breaks…shouldn’t be too long now…remember that the corruption of the higher education enterprise by the money sports, MBB and FB, is redeemed because those athletic scholarships are a path for poor kids, especially poor kids of color, to get a college education.

Three Duke basketball players (so far) are off to the NBA as freshmen.  Most of a single academic year, physically present on the actual Duke campus, shuttling from practice to training to practice, is pretty much the same thing as a Duke degree, right?

Abe Lincoln

Wednesday was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death.  It’s hard to spend too much time reflecting on Lincoln; I use the first thing he ever published, comparing two infrastructure projects in a local election campaign, as an example of policy analysis avant la lettre, and he just gets better and better from there. Even David Brooks says he becomes a better man spending quiet time in the Lincoln Memorial.  The second inaugural is one of great works of public discourse; terse, just, humane.  I think French’s portrait nails it: brilliant, menschlich, determined; open hand, closed fist.  Lincoln makes everyone reach a little higher.

I listened the grooves off this wonderful cantata when I was a kid, and I’m pleased to find that someone has posted it here , here, and hereIt was performed live, after fifty years on the shelf, in 2009.

There’s no video; remember how to make your own pictures in your own head? Take a half-hour, just to be sure we don’t forget what a real American is.

 

Weekend Film Recommendation: D.O.A.

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Last week, I recommended The Turning Point, starring Edmond O’Brien and featuring Neville Brand in a small part as a vicious killer. For a change of pace, this week I recommend a film starring Edmond O’Brien, featuring Neville Brand in a somewhat larger part as a vicious killer: 1950′s D.O.A.

D.O.A. has one of best opening premises in the history of film noir. A man stumbles down an impossibly long, shadowy hallway at the police station, followed by a tracking camera. Upon meeting the officer in charge of homicide investigation, he announces that he wants to report a murder: His own. What follows is partly a mystery/action story and partly an existential meditation.

The central character, Frank Bigelow (O’Brien) has a life that screams conventionality. He’s an accountant in a small town with a small town girlfriend (Pamela Brittan) who is nagging him to do the decent thing by marrying her, settling down, and having a conventional family. This is a noir film, so naturally Bigelow wants nothing more than to flee. He goes for a wild weekend in San Francisco, where he ogles sophisticated urban beauties and swills liquor until for an inexplicable reason, someone covertly poisons him with a lethal, slow-acting toxin. After the terminal diagnosis is confirmed, s justly famous film noir sequence commences as Bigelow races madly through the crowded streets until, exhausted, he looks up to heaven and then down to see a little girl’s ball at his feet. He returns the ball to the girl and then sadly stands up, knowing that he will never be carefree as a child again for he is doomed to die, and very soon at that (Nice touch: Look at the particular magazine arrayed next to him in the shot above).

Although Bigelow cannot save his life, he is driven to understand why he will die, and thus spends his final precious days not enjoying what remains, but ruthlessly pursuing his killer. With his death in no doubt, he transforms from a mild-mannered accountant into a fearless, even brutal, angel of vengeance. He doesn’t fear death from the assorted villains he encounters, just the prospect of dying before he can find out why a nobody accountant from a nothing small town was worthy of cold-blooded, calculated murder.

As you would guess, D.O.A. offers much to chew on thematically. It can be enjoyed at one level as an exciting (if overly complicated) crime mystery, but at another level it’s a philosophically engaging take on venerable film noir themes of isolation, futility and the cruelty of fate.

Director Rudolph Maté earned his place in movie heaven as a cinematographer, including in my prior recommendations Vampyr and Gilda. He directed much less often, and that’s a good thing because he didn’t attain the same level of excellence in that role. Here, he allows some of the actors to go over the top too often, and there is also an embarrassingly puerile use of a “Va Va Voom” sound effect when O’Brien sees attractive women that is completely inconsistent with the noir mood.

I would say I wish Maté had been director of photography instead, but that wouldn’t be fair to Ernest Laszlo, who gives the film a stunning look, especially in the street scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The crowded street shots must have been particularly challenging from a technical viewpoint.

DOA10Neville Brand, in a role that helped make his fairly successful if completely typecast career, is admirably scary here as a psychopath, and Luther Adler makes a smooth, cultured but ultimately nasty villain. As mentioned, some of the other performances — including O’Brien’s — are uneven, but all the main actors have their moments.

The basic existential conceit of D.O.A. is not about a man trying to prevent his death; he doesn’t have that power. Rather, it’s all about the desire to know why — why me and why this fate? The best noirs never answer this question, but bathe the audience in the agony of being unable not to ask it nonetheless. D.O.A. is a noble example of this tradition.

D.O.A. is in the public domain, so you can watch it for free on Internet Archive. However, that print looks nowhere near as good as the digitally remastered version, which as of this writing is free for Amazon prime subscribers.

Liberalism doesn’t just displace arbitrary power. It reduces it.

Paul Krugman in a recent post argues that opposition to the welfare state is rooted in attachment to “traditional hierarchy”:

Both social insurance and civil rights are solvents that dissolve some of the restraints that hold people in place, be they unhappy workers or unhappy spouses. And that’s part of why people like me support them.

Samuel Goldman in the American Conservative responds with a charge of hypocrisy. While he admits to favoring traditional hierarchies, he claims that liberals like Krugman support meritocratic, technocratic hierarchies of their own:

The conservative position has never been simply that a hierarchical society is better than an egalitarian one. It’s that an egalitarian society is impossible. Every society includes rulers and ruled. The central question of politics, therefore, is not whether some will command while others obey. It’s who gives the orders.

Radical leftists understand this. That’s why Lenin’s “who, whom?” question became an unofficial motto of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks promised that a classless society would one day emerge. In the meantime, however, they were open and enthusiastic practitioners of power politics.

Modern liberals find this vision upsetting. So they pretend that their policies are about reducing inequality and promoting freedom rather than empowering some people at the expense of others. …

Krugman doesn’t see the énarques [the French technocratic elite] as a ruling class that need to be knocked down a peg because their authority isn’t traditional. They wield power over other people’s lives because they got good grades, not because they have a lot of money or are heads of households or leaders of religious communities. But academic meritocracy is not the same thing as a fluid and fairer society. It’s certainly no fairer that some people are lucky enough to be smart than that others are good at making a fortune.

There are serious arguments in favor of rule by a highly-trained administrative class within a moderately redistributive capitalist economy. … What modern liberals really want, however, isn’t freedom or equality—terms that have no meaning before it’s determined for what and by whom they will be enjoyed. As conservatives have long understood, it’s a society in which people like themselves and their favored constituencies have more power while the old elites of property, church, and family have less.

True, if I had to choose between giving great power over my life-choices to Cardinal Dolan and giving it to Cass Sunstein, I would, with the greatest reluctance, choose Sunstein. But I think Goldman is mistaken: that’s not the choice I face. Liberal governance doesn’t just mean replacing one set of rulers with another. It means taking many matters out of the sphere of “ruling” altogether—by leaving some of them up to individuals, and making others a matter of law and non-discretionary policy rather than arbitrary decision.

Continue Reading…

Free-range kids

My late colleague Bob Leone used to teach that good managers don’t try to avoid risk, because it’s impossible: they try to choose the right risks.  Parents are violating this rule left and right, and clueless, nitwit, busybody bureaucrats in Montgomery County (not to mention other parents who call the cops instead of just asking a loose kid if he’s OK)  are acting out really anti-kid behavior, choosing the wrong risk trying to have none.

I grew up in New York City, 30th and 3rd in Manhattan; at the time, not a snotzy address.  I went to grade school a mile and a half away alone, from the age of 7, on the 3rd Avenue El and the 2nd Avenue bus, unless I decided to walk home afterward along one of those busy, commercial streets full of strangers and grownups doing all sorts of interesting things.  That walk could take a hour; there’s a lot for a kid to see in a real city. On the three blocks of 3rd N and S of my street were about 50 retail establishments, most of the proprietors of which knew me by sight if not by name.  I was completely safe in front of Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street”. When I was a baby, my mother would shop at the A&P on 3rd above 31st. She would park me in a pram on the sidewalk outside the store, usually with two or three others, tell her Irish Setter to lie down under the pram, and shop.  If anyone leaned over the pram to ogle me, a serious growl came up from underneath, but the kids without canine undersight weren’t at any risk either.

As I got older, I was allowed to cross one-way streets alone, which at that time limited me to about a square mile; I was instructed to always have a dime for pay phone call (never needed it).  When I figured out how to climb up to the El station and back down on the other side of 34th Street, my parents gave up and I was loose, at about eight.  From then on I was all over the city, which meant (for example) that I could go to the Museum of Natural History and hang out on my own, for hours and hours. One afternoon my friends and I had the idea to go to Coney Island on the subway; when I called home realizing I was about three hours late getting home and said where I was, I admit my mother’s cool  was a little rumpled.  Once some big kids punched me in Central Park and took my wallet. I walked home three miles from my girlfriend’s house in Greenwich Village at all hours and never wanted to cross the street or hurry.

Of course, that was a different world; the murder rate (for example) in NY was only, um, wait a minute, the same as it is now!   Yes, there were a bad few years in between (though not especially bad regarding risks to kids), but it’s over.  Now middle-class parents are denying kids all they can learn making up games, learning to mediate their own disputes, watching real life, and deciding how to spend their time, which is a big risk to the kids: my students are much less confident trying new stuff than we were at their age. I believe it is because their lives have been locked down in parent-chauffered travel to parent-organized activities in order to avoid the truly trivial set of dangers that actually confront kids out on their own.  This web page has the relevant facts: parents, let your kids have a life, especially if you live in the city where there are places to actually walk to. No, they are not going to be abducted or injured by strangers, and you get your own life back!