Tangled-web Dep’t

Julia Ioffe, reporting on the insane theories about the Maylasian jetliner peddled on Russian TV and in Russian newspapers, points reports that Vladimir Putin is now caught in a trap of his own making.

Russian mass media is now dominated by an extreme-nationalist lunatic fringe, built up by Putin and his cronies but no longer under their detailed control. And the alternative reality presented there influences not only mass public opinion but also elite opinion, since to stay in touch people with real decisions to make have to pay attention to the prolefeed. If Putin wanted to act responsibly, he’d be swimming against the tide. Yes, it’s his tide, in the sense that he made it, but Ioffe – quoting a Karl Rove/Mark Penn figure named Gleb Pavlovsky, who fell out with Putin after helping to engineer his last election – suggests that he cannot control it in detail.

It’s a scary picture.

What’s scarier is that, if you change the names, it applies to the relationships among the plutocrats, the GOP apparatchiki, and the world of the Murdochized press, the Koch-driven think-tanks, and Red Blogistan.

Orwell was right: there are historical moments when insisting that 2+ 2 = 4 is a radical political act.

Does socialism cause dishonesty?

Here’s an interesting natural experiment.

For external, historical reasons, workers in one half of a culturally and linguistically unified but politically divided country had the right to organize unions to defend their interests against employers, while in the other half of that country workers’ organizations were state-controlled in the interests of management, and genuine union activity was punished by firing if not worse.  After that country was reunified, randomly chosen people from the union half and the non-union half were subjected to a standard psychological test measuring the propensity to cheat.  Those who had grown up under conditions were ordinary people could defend themselves openly from oppression by their bosses turned out to be more honest than their peers from the non-union part of the country.

Conclusion: Unionization makes people behave well, while union-busting makes them behave badly. 

Of course, it’s not an entirely clean experiment. The non-union side (East Germany) was under foreign control, with a secret-police network that recruited as much as one-third of the population as informants. So possibly dishonesty is caused by living in a world of fear and distrust, rather than by the absence of workers’ rights alone.

Worse than that, the non-union half was systematically looted by the occupying power, while the union half was treated much better by its conquerors and became rich. So maybe it’s scarcity, rather than or in addition to denial of workers’ rights, that makes people dishonest.

Still and all the result  is what it is: a strong labor movement is associated with improved morality.

Only somehow that’s not the conclusion the authors of the study (including Don Aireley, a prominent behavioral economist and the author of a good semi-popular book on the subject, Predictably Irrational) decided to draw. Instead, they focused on the fact that West Germany had, alongside wealth, the rule of law, personal freedom, and a strong trade-union movement, a primarily market-based economy, while East Germany was under the Soviet system – whatOrwell accurately labeled “oligarchic collectivism” – with arbitrary government with no rule of law and no respect for human rights; residents could be and were shot for trying to emigrate, and many tried just the same.

Using a definition favored only by Bolsheviki and fans of plutocracy, Aireley et al. elect to call the East German tyranny “socialism,” and pretend that their study shows that living under “socialism” worsens the morals of a population.

Having reached an extreme conclusion from a single poorly-defined case study, Aireley and his colleagues then stop, without trying to test their conclusion out of sample. Sweden, for example, has great personal liberty, honest government, and the rule of law, but much more state ownership of enterprise, more tightly regulated markets, and a far more redistributive tax-and-transfer system than Germany.  Swedes are also (if we restrict our attention to mostly-Lutheran Northern Germany) culturally similar to Germans. Would Aireley and his co-authors be willing to bet that Swedes are less honest than Germans (or Norwegians, living under a regime closer to German mixed capitalism than to Swedish social democracy)?  If so, I’m happy to take the other end of the bet.

The same applies if we were to compare Israelis raised in explicitly socialist kibbutzim to other Israelis, or  Englishpeople  raised before the Thatcher era with those raised after, or Canadians with Americans. (After all, the same people who use the word “socialist” to describe Stalinist tyranny also use it to describe national health insurance.)

Of course in all of those cases one could name other factors that might influence the outcomes. But that’s precisely the point: the same is true of the German case. Yet Aireley and his co-authors seem to think they’ve proven something, and the Economist and Alex Tabarrok (who certainly knows better) at Marginal Revolution swallow it whole, without raising a single methodological red flag. “When it comes to ethics, a capitalist upbringing appears to trump a socialist one,” trumpets the Economist, hoping that its readers will vote to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer while “reforming” union power out of the labor markets.

To call this a “mistake” would, it seems to me, be far too generous. A blunder that extreme only happens when the people making it want to fool themselves and others. It’s an example of what Dan Kahan calls “motivated cognition.”

Do the thought experiment for yourself.  Imagine that the results had come out the other way. How do you think the paper would read, and what do you think Marginal Revolution would have had to say about its methods?

I know that some of my libertarian friends consider my views of their movement uncharitable, but honest to God, the combination of high IQ and good formal economics training with great willingness to believe and repeat obvious nonsense that characterizes that group is really hard to take.  Of course con-cons and professional lefties also believe some truly stupid sh*t,  but neither group is as good as the glibertarians at pretending to be Serious Social Scientists.

Here’s a Pro Tip: If you never reach and publish a conclusion that doesn’t support  your prejudices, no on has any reason to take any of your results seriously.



Weekend Film Recommendation: He Walked By Night

hw3Last week I recommended The Naked City, one of the many crime investigation procedurals that became popular after World War II and continue to be a staple of television and movies today. This week’s recommendation opened in theaters a few months after The Naked City, but is markedly different than that film because of its pronounced noir elements: He Walked by Night.

Normally, police detectives have substantial advantages over perpetrators. The typical violent offender is unintelligent, impulsive, minimally-skilled and ignorant of police procedures. But every once in awhile a criminal comes along who is smart, planful, technically proficient and knowledgeable about the investigative methods of law enforcement. One of such extraordinarily dangerous people was Erwin M. Walker, who repeatedly evaded Los Angeles law enforcement while engaging in an extended violent crime spree in 1946. He Walked by Night is a Dragnet-style dramatization of the Walker case, and indeed the origins of that famous radio and TV show are right here to see.

Richard Basehart gives an icily compelling portrayal of Walker, who is here re-named Roy Morgan. Basehart is particularly skilled at embodying Morgan’s disturbing level of emotional restraint, even when he is inflicting violence on others. The only visible break in the killer’s sociopathic detachment comes in a riveting scene in which he does meatball surgery on himself to remove a bullet from his ribcage. On the other side, Roy Roberts, as Police Captain Breen, is credible as usual in one of his many no-nonsense authority figure roles. Some of the portrayals of police procedure (e.g., the assembling of a composite sketch) will be dramatically slow for modern audiences who have seen it all before. But of course that wasn’t true of audiences in 1948, so be forgiving.

he walked by night 7The docudrama’s look is one of the many jewels in legendary cinematographer John Alton’s crown. In an interview, he said the crew and director all asked him where the lights were when they started filming the justly famous chase through the sewers. He told them that a single flashlight was enough, which gives you an idea of how very dark he preferred his shots. If you watch very carefully you will see that the king of darkness did have a trick up his sleeve: There are wires visibly trailing the actors in some of the sewer chase shots, indicating that he rigged the flashlights with much more powerful than usual light bulbs.

In addition to Alton’s bravura work behind the camera, this film also benefits from effective use of silence. In several highly arresting sequences (no pun intended), the sound goes dead as the police close in on the killer. The suspense is amped up enormously by these eerie scenes, as hunter and prey creep noiselessly through the dark until a violent confrontation shatters the silence.

The one mystery this film does not solve is who directed what. Alfred Werker got the director’s credit on screen, but it was later revealed that much of the film was actually directed by Anthony Mann (whose work I have previously touted here and here). Some scenes scream “Mann” in their style but others could have been directed by either him or Werker. Whoever did what, this taut, exciting film hangs together in tone and style with no directorial seams showing.

He Walked by Night is sadly little remembered today, but it did launch some much better known radio and television shows. Jack Webb, who plays a police investigator here, befriended L.A. police technical advisor Marty Wynn on the set and soon launched Dragnet to dramatize the real-life cases of the L.A.P.D. (FYI: This story is well-told in John Buntin’s terrific book L.A. Noir). Richard Basehart never became a big movie star, but was able to parlay his modest cinema success into a long-running career on television, most notably as Admiral Nelson on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

This thrilling, visually stunning docudrama is in the public domain, so I am posting it right here for you to enjoy.

p.s. The fabulous sewer chase sequence in one of the greatest films in British history, 1948′s The Third Man bears more than a little resemblance to the similar sequence in He Walked by Night. No one seems to know for sure, but given that He Walked by Night’s production studio, Eagle-Lion films, had extensive British ties it is entirely possible that Carol Reed et al saw this movie and decided to mount something along the same lines.

The Passing of John Leach, Who Helped Make Spy Movies Cool

1280px-Modern_Concert_cimbalomJohn Leach has passed away. He was a multi-talented composer and musician with many artistic achievements to his credit. He also made a small but important contribution to the ambience of the spate of espionage films that emerged from Britain in the 1960s and eventually became a world wide phenomenon.

The theme music of many of these movies featured sonorous notes — at times evocatively asynchronous — that came from a cimbalom, a hammer dulcimer from Hungary that Leach mastered. The musical touchstone is the theme to The Ipcress File (Michael Caine’s superb first outing as Harry Palmer). The music was written by the legendary John Barry with Leach adding his own magic, and the resulting style was widely copied in later films using either a cimbalon or other instruments that could generate a similar effect (e.g., the plucked strings of a piano or a properly tuned electric bass guitar).

When I hear those intoxicating notes, I see in my mind a hundred ultra-cool, glumly professional spooks in overcoats, walking down dark streets and battling it out with their opposite numbers in The East. Music really can help define and enrich a film genre. Well done Mr. Leach. R.I.P.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Naked City

Film_380w_NakedCity_originalDisruptive innovations in technology have been one of the defining aspects of the short history of cinematic art. The introduction of sound in the 1920s, followed by color in the 1930s, followed much more recently by computer-generated imagery — all of which had profound creative implications — are the ones with which most movie fans are familiar. A lesser known but still important set of innovations occurred in the 1940s: faster film, improved microphones and lighter-weight cameras and equipment. Combine these enhanced technologies with a large number of cinematographers gaining experience in shooting under every conceivable condition during World War II, and you had the basis for a raft of films shot in realistic style on location. This week’s film recommendation is a high-quality example of the form, which explicitly packaged itself as such: Jules Dassin’s 1948 docu-drama The Naked City.

As the famous voice-over narration tell us as the film opens with a stunning airplane shot of Manhattan, The Naked City is not just a story of a murder investigation but of New York City and the people in it. The narration was provided by producer Mark Hellinger, a Runyonesque Big Apple journalist whose own colorful life could have been the basis for a fine biopic itself if he hadn’t sadly dropped dead shortly after the movie was finished. With New York and New Yorkers being the main characters, the film tells the story of the murder of a beautiful striver/gold digger and the efforts of the police to solve it. In addition to being distinctly its own film, The Naked City also fits into the then-emerging subgenre of crime investigation procedurals (Call Northside 777 and He Walked by Night were also released in 1948).

The City that Never Sleeps, as seen through the Oscar-winning camerawork of William H. Daniels, has rarely been captured so vividly in film. Dozens of small performances, most of them I assume turned in by average NYCers rather than professional actors, add flavor throughout: The lady at the root beer stand, the guy hawking newspapers on a streetcorner, the funeral home director, the cop on the beat, the woman having her hair done and many others get their moment. Many of these little slices of life bear no relation to the murder mystery, but are instead intended to bring alive post-war Gotham life.

The murder mystery itself is actually a bit slow and convoluted, but it’s watchable because Barry Fitzgerald once again plays a twinkly-eyed charmer with a brogue. As Detective Lieutenant Muldoon, he has wonderful father-son style byplay with his eager-beaver protege and investigative leg man Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor). The two of them help the film along during its slow spots, which most viewers will forget anyway because of the thrilling conclusion in which the police chase the killer on the Williamsburg bridge.

One critical note on The Naked City. It is often referred to as a film noir, but I don’t think the noir elements are really here. Jimmy Halloran’s incredibly happy and loving suburban family is revealed underneath to be…an incredibly happy and loving suburban family. The cops are all honest and clearly differentiated from the very bad gang of criminals. Urban dwellers are generally portrayed without cynicism and the look of the film owes more to Italian Neorealism than noir. If you want a police docu-drama that is also a noir, see my recommendation of He Walked by Night.

the_naked_city_scena1Final suggestion: The Naked City is so visually striking that if you seek it out, you owe it to yourself to watch the restored print available from the Criterion Collection.

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

Measure of the Sin is now available by Video on Demand

measure_texture_new_02Looking for an artistic and gripping movie to watch during your holiday weekend? Please consider A Measure of the Sin, which is now available via Video on Demand.

You can watch it here on Vimeo.

Or if you prefer the HD version (which looks amazing), it’s available here on Amazon.

If you want to see reviews by critiques, check out IMDB. Overwhelmingly positive, with a few reviewers dissenting. I expected that, as like most art house films, it’s not for all tastes. But I am happy to see how passionate its growing fan base already is about the movie.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Fall of the Roman Empire

Although writing reviews of remakes throughout last month was a lot of fun, there was one original that came to mind that I really wanted to review. The new month brings the opportunity to switch over and recommend the movie that inspired Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. It’s Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

Many years campaigning and pacifying the frontiers of the Roman Empire have wearied Marcus Aurelius, played by Alec Guinness (who, thanks to make-up and costume is an absolute spitting image of a marble imperial bust). Although the emperor’s health is deteriorating rapidly his wits remain sharp: he knows that his son Commodus, played by a young and seriously dashing Christopher Plummer, is unfit to rule. Aurelius decides that the soldier Livius, played by Stephen Boyd, should succeed him. In anticipation of the tumult this will cause the empire, soldiers arrange to hasten the death of Aurelius to ensure Commodus’ unequivocal accession to the throne.

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But when the despotic Commodus becomes emperor, the chances of realizing the stable pax romanum Aurelius had hoped for disappear entirely. The empire falls into disrepair, and Livius is caught in a quandary: he owes Rome loyalty, but he also hopes to save her from the irretrievable depravity of her emperor. Livius’ love for Commodus’ sister Lucilla, played by Sophia Loren, helps Livius decide which path to take. But the ending is not altogether straightforward…

******SPOILER****** Continue Reading…

The Secret Dubbing of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady

Audrey Hepburn is a justly beloved star, but when the producers of My Fair Lady passed over Julie Andrews for the role of Eliza Doolittle, they created a problem for themselves: Hepburn just wasn’t in Andrews’ league as a singer. Their solution was to turn to Marni Nixon, the magnificent soprano who had previously provided uncredited singing help to other big Hollywood stars.

The difference is night and day. Here’s Audrey in her own voice:

Here she is dubbed by Nixon:

“Audrey as wonderful singer” became part of her legend (not that she was a bad singer, but certainly no Nixon), but only for viewers who did not know of the dubbing. Multiple readers of this post report that they DID know of the dubbing of the time and some diligent angels dug up this 1964 Time Magazine article revealing to the general public that Nixon was the singer.

Nixon got no credit in the film. Not incidentally, only late in his life did Jeremy Brett, who played Freddy, acknowledge that he didn’t do his own singing either.

Was the studio’s deception ethical? Does the fact that it failed to fool many filmgoers make it better or worse, or does it not matter? Hollywood has always dealt in myth-making about stars, though today it’s more often done with uncredited stand-ins during nude scenes than through dubbed singing. I am not aware of Nixon ever publicly expressing any resentment about the arrangement, though what she feels in private moments only she knows. In any event, she certainly hit it out of the park as a singer in this and a number of other films for which she received no on screen credit.

UPDATE: Thanks very much to readers who responded to this post with information of which I was ignorant. I have rewritten it to reflect your contributions, and my agent will be in touch with you to arrange for your share of the royalties!

Weekend Film Recommendation: Heat

This month’s reviews of great movie remakes draws to a close with the film that finally brought Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together, face to face. It’s Michael Mann’s remake of his own TV Movie LA Takedown, which six years later became Heat (1995).

A heist organized by a slick team of gangsters goes wrong. An impetuous last-minute recruit kills the three guards without authorization from the gang’s leader Neil McCauley (played by Robert De Niro) to cover up the gang’s tracks. The gang departs the crime scene, leaving the investigating cop Vincent Hanna (played by Al Pacino) with little more than the certainty that he’s up against a team with as much dedication to their craft as he to his.

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At the most superficial level, this is a film about cops, robbers, and heists. Hanna is trying to catch McCauley, while McCauley tries to settle the score with the renegade gang-member who screwed up the heist in the opening scene. But just below the surface, there are multiple plotlines that make the movie’s three hours pass by surprisingly quickly. The dénouement of the film isn’t the big shoot-‘em-up that would usually book-end a high-budget film from the same genre; instead, the final scenes are intimate affairs, designed to show how both of the lead characters are shaped by one another.

Mann makes the symmetries and inversions between the two main characters abundantly clear. McCauley lives by a code of detachment, whereby he makes himself free to disappear as soon as he notices the eponymous ‘heat’ around the corner. Nonetheless, he finds himself inexorably drawn toward the charming ingénue Eady (played with admirable sophistication by Amy Brenneman). On the other hand, Hanna can’t seem to muster affection for the people around him even if he wanted to: his third marriage is looking to be about as successful as his previous two, and he barely notices that his stepdaughter is spiraling into a self-destructive pattern of fear and isolation. The parallel is present in their professional lives, too: McCauley commands an air of cool, calculated, precision in just about everything he does – he senses when he’s on the precipice of being made by the cops and correctly orders a strategic withdrawal. Hanna, however, is so bellicose that he alienates his colleagues with his irate and wanton pursuit of McCauley.

Whatever subtleties about the characters’ similarities and differences might have been obscured until the half-way point in the film are explicitly brought to the fore in one of the finest scenes in recent movie history. Hanna, upon realizing that McCauley is aware of his pursuit, invites the latter for a cup of coffee. The two frostily discuss their respective approaches to their work, and reach a common understanding about the obligations of their positions should they encounter one another in less propitious circumstances. Despite the spare choice of wording and the tense shifting in their seats, Hanna and McCauley share the expression that they’ve finally met someone who understands them in a way that others can’t. It’s magnificent.

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Years working on the aesthetic in shows like Miami Vice and Crime Story honed Mann’s stylistic flair. Heat is seriously slick. The clothes, the panache, and the tightly rehearsed action shots make this film cooler to look at than your first iPhone. Even the sounds of the assault rifles have an unusual percussive resonance that brings out your basest I-like-fast-cars-and-big-guns impulse. This is all the more impressive considering that although Heat is nominally a heist film, it’s the most character-driven heist film of which I’m aware. Each member of the long list of secondary characters, played by heavy hitters including Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Val Kilmer, Dennis Haysbert, and Natalie Portman, has a distinctive and identifiable backstory.

Trivia time! My choices for remake films definitely overlooked some worthwhile contenders. Name some of your favorite remake films that you think deserve an honorable mention! Who’s going to suggest Sex and the City, that superb remake of Tenko? Anyone? No, no-one?