The Iron Bank

The European Central Bank is failing abjectly in [update: what should be] its core mission to protect the common currency through shared prosperity as well as price stability. It no longer deserves its name and logo.

ECBlogo5So here are my proposals for a new name and logo. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Game Change

The most remarkable thing about Tina Fey’s SNL skit about Sarah Palin’s notorious Couric interview wasn’t the accuracy of her impersonation. It was the fact that the joke spoke for itself so plainly in the verbatim repetition of Palin’s words. If there’s a joke in this week’s film recommendation, it’s of a similar form. Julianne Moore plays Palin in Game Change, the HBO adaptation of the “high risk, high reward” selection of a running mate capable of shoring up the McCain campaign’s lack of popularity with younger—and especially female—voters.

A skin-headed Woody Harrelson plays Steve Schmidt, the campaign’s senior strategist. In a textbook case of the Halo Effect in action, Schmidt champions Palin once her inimitable charm compels him to leave her competence in politics and foreign affairs unquestioned. He easily sells the rest of the team on Palin’s suitability, even over McCain’s preference for Joe Lieberman. Notwithstanding the popularity and momentum gained by Palin’s rousing speech at the RNC upon accepting the nomination, Schmidt soon realizes that Palin is more of a liability than he had anticipated. Before long, the McCain campaign had to grapple with Troopergate, the Couric interview, and Palin’s general inability to differentiate between North and South Korea or between the federal government and the Federal Reserve.

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She also didn’t handle with much grace the creeping awareness that she had bitten off much, much more than she could chew. At times, she became catatonic; at other times, she was violently resentful at the way she felt treated by the staff. And her petulant outbursts never make clear whether Palin blames it all on herself or the “lame-stream media” (Harold Pollack is quite right on this one – why a mother to a physically disabled child coined the term “lame-stream media” just shows what a wasted opportunity Palin was for the country).

The two main characters both undergo a sad development throughout the film. Schmidt begins the campaign with ambitions of installing a noble and worthy leader in the Oval Office. But by the end, he happily jettisons that aspiration when he suggests that Palin ought to memorize 25 answers to pre-packaged debate questions, just to forestall the impending catastrophe of the VP debate against Biden. The plan works beautifully, and he oddly appears not so much relieved as he is proud of the Pygmalion he’s helped produce. For her part, Palin also goes through an un-flattering development. She begins as the hockey mom whose principal concerns are understandably with her constituents back home in Alaska. But that admirable concern eventually becomes a parochial distraction from more pressing national matters, and it’s also a leading indicator of Palin’s weakening capacity to cope under the pressures of office. It’s therefore all the more sad when she concludes the campaign convinced that she’s outgrown Alaska, as though obscurity doesn’t suit her any more.

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Even-handedness is never assured in political dramas of this sort—especially when, as here, the wounds of history remain so fresh—but Game Change has an air of fairness without flattering any egos. McCain, played by Ed Harris in an uncharacteristically middling performance, declines to intervene once Palin’s incompetence becomes apparent for fear that she may direct her anger toward him. Neither character seems particularly courageous as a result. Nevertheless, both of them inspire considerable sympathy: McCain, for the sense in which he feels authentic disappointment at the way the campaign inspired such vitriol toward Obama among the Republican base; Palin, for the sense in which she ingenuously aspires to being the next Reagan, only to be told that she’s not a fit successor.

On this last point, two of my favorite scenes are close to the very end, when Palin voices her determination to deliver a concession speech alongside McCain’s. Her interactions with McCain as he passes along the torch of the Republican party, and Schmidt as he hopes to keep the honor of politics intact are potent and well-wrought. While McCain encourages Palin to strive for something bigger, Schmidt voices the audience’s urgent hope that Palin be reminded of her limits. Presumably Schmidt’s guilt from having been the one to champion Palin’s selection all those months earlier leads to this one scene as a great payoff.

To Cultivate Open-Mindedness

Johann Koehler impressed me the other day (a common occurrence) by explaining why he no longer reads The Economist: “I came to the point where I could predict what they would say about everything”. This struck me as admirable because I think most people who had such a realization would promptly renew their subscription rather than end it.

Much of the audience of political/cultural media products is composed of people who adore having their expectations met (e.g., “Tonight on the show our investigative reporter shows that, once again, you were right about everything!”). Indeed, if their biases are not reinforced, for example if their favorite outlet presents some evidence that challenges their views, such consumers will react quite negatively. More than once I have started following an independent-minded, original, unpredictable blog and seen it be battered into predictability over time by hostile comments from readers in search of comfort food.

This reflection reminded me of wonderful quote passed along by Andy Sabl in an excellent post about life at Harvard:

an alumnus wrote me to say that he’d always thought there were two Harvards: one that was about intellectual inquiry and expanding one’s horizons, and one that was about exactly the opposite.

As a professional educator and more generally as someone who wants our democratic republic to function properly, I despair at the tendency of so many people to use the wonder of the Internet mainly to search out whatever narrow slice of the media world will never surprise them, never being them into contact with competing views/facts and never teach them anything that they don’t already know. I wish I knew how we could produce more people who saw value in consuming the unfamiliar, the challenging and the off-beat rather than living on the empty calories provided by predictable confirmation of their own prejudices.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Traffik

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I once saluted the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy mini-series as the summit of BBC programming. This week’s film recommendation is in the same league: 1989′s Traffik. Most Americans remember Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning adaptation of this series, but far too few have seen the British original, which at just over 5 hours allows much more character and plot development than could Soderbergh’s fine movie.

Simon Moore’s masterful script anchors what could have been a sprawling, confusing series in the lives of a small number of characters: A UK Home Office drugs minister (Bill Paterson) whose daughter is a heroin addict (Julia Ormond), a dogged German cop (Fritz Müller-Scherz) who relentlessly pursues an ice queen (Lindsay Duncan) who steps into the drug trafficking business when her husband (George Kukura) is indicted, and a desperate Pakistani poppy farmer (Jamal Shah) who finds work with a ruthless drug lord (Talat Hussain). As events buffet the protagonists and their respective story arcs cross, Moore’s narrative skills and Alastair Reid’s deft direction ensure that the viewer is irresistibly drawn in emotionally and able to track the complexities of the plot.

The performances by the actors range from good to amazing. Though it is hard to choose some to single out for praise, Müller-Scherz completely inhabits his role as a working class police detective who seems to hate traffickers as much for their wealth as their drugs. Paterson is marvelous in a tragic role, playing a rigid man who desperately wants to do good at home and at work yet almost always fails in both domains. Lindsay Duncan is also impressive, beginning the film as a woman accustomed to wealth and knowing yet not wanting to know where the money comes from. After her husband’s arrest, Duncan makes credible her character’s transformation into someone even more cold-hearted than he, revealing the greed and entitlement that was lurking in her all along. Her character, along with Talat Hussain’s Pakistani drug lord, are used by the film to portray the drug trade much as socialists tend to see all of capitalist enterprise: A system with a few rich sociopaths on the top and countless marginal people (whether in the drug trade or addicted to its products) scraping by and suffering at the bottom.

The cinematic team behind Traffik took a somewhat subjective approach in their portrayal of drug production and daily life in Pakistan. Home Office minister Jack Lithgow (Paterson), improbably, roams around Pakistan unstaffed, not unlike Macbeth lost in the haunted forest. His encounters with the locals are more emblematic than realistic, including his somehow running into Fazal, the farmer who will be a hub of the story that unfolds. Coupled with dreamlike, sun dappled shots of the countryside by cinematographer Clive Tickner, the whole effect of the Pakistan sequences is akin to watching a surrealist play. Yet it works because Lithgow is on a mission of unreality, trying to stop drug production with a feeble crop substitution program and more generally trying to control a culture that he can barely even understand.

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In contrast, the scenes set in Europe are more gritty and realistic, particularly Ormond’s descent into addiction. The skies are darker, the shadows longer and the cinematic look grimier. And over both the European and Pakistani scenes hangs Tim Souster’s music, a quasi-mystical threnody that accentuates the emotional anguish that the film creates. You won’t get his score out of your head quickly and you will not want to.

Traffik is a powerful, mournful film that doesn’t speechify or offer easy answers about drugs. Both artistically and as an education about its subject, it’s a triumph from start to finish.

Young Writers: You May Be Cute, But Not Special

In John Singleton’s powerhouse movie Boyz n the Hood, Laurence Fishburne plays a divorced dad who successfully raises a son largely on his own. He fishes for a compliment about his parenting from his ex-wife, played by Angela Bassett, and she responds that while he’s been a good dad, he has only done what countless mothers have done “since the beginning of time.” Gently but firmly, she compliments him thus: “You may be cute, but not special.”

I think about this exchange often when I read political/cultural commentary by young writers, whether it’s in a book, a student paper or on blogs. Too many essays begin with words along these lines: “No one in this country is talking about X, so let me lay out some hard truths that can no longer be ignored!” And then they go on to offer some shattering observation such as “money is corrupting politics,” “Hollywood movies are sexist,” “Intimate relationships can be difficult,” etc.

One of the things that happens to you as you age and read more is that you realize almost everything that has been said about politics and society has been said before. When I read outlets that cover politics, I can almost imagine the editors giving out assignments to their reporters: “Bill, give me a lion-in-winter-plotting-his-comeback piece on ex- Senator Jones. Sally, I need a rising-young-pol-who-happens-to-be-Black profile on Congressman Green. Dave, how’s that he’s-controversial-but-he’s-a-happy-warrior piece about Governor Harris coming?”

Here’s a humbling experience that every writer should seek. When you think you have something new to say, google the relevant words and see how many other people have already said it, perhaps better than you would.

Does this mean you can’t say something again or in your own way? Of course not. First, every generation needs to work things out for itself. Even if what you are writing is old news to many people, it can be important for you in your own life to figure out important things through your writing, for example how you will handle the tradeoffs between parenting and career or the disappointments inherent in political activism. Second, if you are writing in the service of a cause, repeating what others said make sense because “everything has been said before, but you have to say it again because no one listened.” (It’s too perfect that that quote is attributed to more than one person.) Obviously, the fact that someone wrote about racism last year doesn’t mean the problem is surely resolved by now and need never be discussed again.

However, and it’s a big however, never package your own personal take on the eternal verities as a breakthrough in human development. Never write in a tone that suggests that you are the one, extremely special, unusually sensitive soul in our society who — gosh darn it — still cares. And never imply that your readers should be embarrassed for not having grappled with your unique perspective before (because it ain’t unique and they’ve probably heard it multiple times before).

Fresh voices humbly engaging history’s age-old debates make for good reading. But fresh voices who think history starts with them turn off the very readers they hope to engage.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Victim

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The 1957 Wolfenden Report kicked off a decade-long debate in Britain over whether consensual sex between men should be illegal. In that era, British police regularly jailed gay men on charges such as “gross indecency” and “homosexual acts”. Men with economic means and status were rarely among the arrested, but they were soft targets for blackmailers. In this environment, it was nothing less than daring to make this week’s film recommendation: 1961′s Victim.

The plot of the film concerns a barrister named Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), so successful in his profession that he has been asked to take silk at the tender age of 40. His life radiates conventional respectability: Cambridge education, comfortable house in an upper-middle class neighborhood, lovely and devoted wife (Sylvia Sims, very strong in a complicated role). But everything comes unraveled when the police inform him that a young gay construction worker named “Boy” Barrett (Peter McEnery) has hanged himself, and has left behind a series of photos and news clippings which suggest that he and Farr had a strong emotional attachment. The police tell Farr that Barrett was being blackmailed, leading Farr on a righteous hunt for the perpetrators. But the risk to everything Farr possesses is enormous, for the blackmailers have a photo that can reveal his sexuality to the world.

Dirk Bogarde, who was gay in real life, personally lifts Victim from good to great. The handsome star was a screen idol of the teeny-bopper set in the 1950s, but with this movie he turned his back on all that to begin a far more artistically remarkable career in offbeat and challenging movies. Even though Janet Green and John McCormick’s script design Farr to be as unthreatening to audiences as possible (He is married, resists his homosexual urges and, like Bogarde himself, stays in the closet), taking the role was a risk to Bogarde’s emerging stardom. And the performance itself, with thick layers of British composure hiding surging rage and sexual desire, hits discerning viewers like a thunderbolt.

vic The script has two other important virtues. The first is its unwinding of the blackmail mystery, which includes a superb bit of misdirection followed by a most intriguing portrayal of the criminals’ motives. Second, the script is sensitive to how different heterosexuals come to a position of tolerance of gay people. A friend of Barrett’s tells him sympathetically “It used to be witches” who were persecuted, and we find out later his sympathy comes more from pity for gays than respect. In contrast, in an understated and moving exchange, Farr’s law clerk tells him simply that he has always respected Farr’s integrity and sees no reason to change his mind upon learn that Farr is gay. Unlike Barrett’s friend, the clerk sees Farr as an equal, indeed even a role model.

Victim is one of many films made after the war by the team of Director Basil Dearden and Producer Michael Relph. The two were recently awarded the distinction of a Criterion Collection boxed set, and there has been an effort by some critics in recent years to say that their talents have been grossly underrated. I recently went on a little binge of watching their films, and I must say that Dearden and Relph strike me as justly underrated filmmakers. I often find myself drumming my fingers because of the leaden pacing of most of their films. I also dislike their occasional lapses into heavy-handed music, speechifying and camerawork and I sometimes suspect that they didn’t have sufficient emotional understanding of the controversial material with which they were often working. Their filmmaking is serviceable, but I suspect a more talented producer-director team could have made every one of their movies better.

It is thus not surprising to me to have read that it was Bogarde who demanded the key scene of the Victim, in which he speaks passionately of his desire for another man (a mainstream movie first) and explains so movingly to his wife the emotional vice that his closeted life places on him. Bogarde personally gives psychic weight to Victim that was lacking in, for example, Sapphire, a less successful Relph-Dearden effort to make a social message film (That one was about race — not bad really — but just not in the same league as Victim).

Given the talent of a remarkable lead actor and a strong script, even a middling producer-director team can make a classic movie, and that is what we have in Victim. It succeeds both as social message and as art, and also may have contributed to the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain in 1967.

p.s. Kudos as well to another gay actor — Dennis Price — for taking the risk to play another prominent victim of the blackmailers.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Special Relationship

THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP

Screenwriter Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen ventured into the life and career of British Prime Minister Tony Blair three times, with tremendous success. The Queen is by far the best known of these films, but this week I recommend the conclusion of the trilogy: 2010′s The Special Relationship.

The film begins with a wet-behind-the-ears Tony Blair (Sheen) being briefed on how Bill Clinton’s (Dennis Quaid) third way brought Democrats back to power in the U.S. Fast forward to Blair’s own resounding 1997 victory, and a congratulatory phone call from the POTUS he so admires (Blair hanging up on Jacques Chirac to take the call is one of the movie’s many funny and satisfying moments). Soon the Blairs arrives in Washington for an in person meeting. Tony is star struck, but his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) is more skeptical of the slick Arkansan. Cherie does however admire the steel of the First Lady (Hope Davis), even while wondering why she puts up with Bill’s skirt chasing. The relationship between the world leaders develops further, with an initial triumph in Belfast followed by the Lewinsky scandal, which reverses the dynamic between a now-weakened President and a rising, more confident Prime Minister. They then cross swords over Bosnia, with profound consequences for their relationship as well as for the lessons Blair will take forward in his dealings with the next U.S. President.

If you are a political junkie and/or an Anglophile, this is compulsively watchable stuff. The events are recent enough to be well recalled by the audience, but the insider perspective of the movie enlivens those happenings rather than boring us with what we already know. The film is also professionally made from stem to stern. Stephen Frears did not sign on for the third installment of the series, but he was succeeded by another worthy of British directing, Richard Loncraine, so the series does not skip a beat in that department. Even the actors in the smaller parts make a strong impression.

In an age when intelligent dialogue is disappearing from film, Morgan’s screenplay is an oasis in the desert. Although some of the exchanges between the characters are imagined, sufficient research went into the script that everything feels plausible. The script is craftily constructed to reveal character structurally: Cherie and Tony pad around their kitchen minding their kids and digging through the laundry for lost shirts, but Bill and Hillary are generally shown as the power couple who are thoroughgoing politicians even when the news cameras are not rolling. The script gives the Clintons no real domestic life (Chelsea never appears). Even their private moments brim with impression management and campaign messaging, most painfully when Bill lies to Hillary about his relationship with Lewinsky and then, guilt-wracked, watches her on television as she gamely denies everything on his behalf.

Last but definitely not least, the film provides a plausible explanation for why Blair befriended his ideological opposite, George W. Bush, and went on to immerse his country in two wildly unpopular wars. The Bosnian success that resulted from a mix of good intentions and grandiose Churchillian aspirations was apparently easy to overgeneralize. The script also hints in its excellent closing scenes that Blair’s personal desire to be a player on the world stage ultimately overcame whatever policy goals he had at the beginning of his career (Indeed, the film questions whether those goals were even genuinely valued before his election).

THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP This film recalls Sinclair Lewis’ observation that men can seem completely different on the surface while being exactly the same underneath, whereas women who seem the same on the surface can be completely different underneath. As Cherie and Hillary, the lead actresses are utterly credible, and they peel their characters like onions, progressively revealing new layers. McCrory and Davis deserve plaudits for giving full-blooded performances rather than merely impersonating their real-life counterparts.

At this point in his career, Sheen could have played Blair in his sleep. But he doesn’t sleep, turning in another strong performance as the British Prime Minister. As President Clinton, a heavily made-up Dennis Quaid easily surpasses John Travolta’s half-baked impression in Primary Colors (another film with a terrific portrayal of Hillary, that time by Emma Thompson). But of the four leads, his performance is somewhat less compelling for reasons that are hard to put one’s finger on. Perhaps Bill Clinton is simply a hard part to play for anyone other than Bill Clinton.

The Special Relationship did not receive quite as strong reviews as did the first two entries in the trilogy (The Queen and The Deal), perhaps because some critics felt it was a case of too many trips to the same well. But if like me you find real politics more engaging than the goings on of the royal family, you will enjoy The Special Relationship as a meatier film than The Queen. The movie brings home the apocryphal Foreign Office quip that the two most important things in the world are love and Anglo-American relations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Paper Chase

While the opening credits roll, we watch the latest batch of first-year law students find their seats in the classroom at Harvard Law School. Rather than beginning the first lecture with some cliché about how only one person is ‘cut out’ to graduate from law school among the one in your seat and the two on either side of you, Professor Kingsfield, played by John Houseman, dives straight into Hawkins v. McGee—the infamous ‘hairy hand’ case. In Kingsfield’s contracts classroom, there are no prefatory remarks, no congenial introductions, and no easy questions. There is just the law. Those who can keep up are welcome to James Bridges’ The Paper Chase (1973). Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Pather Panchali [Song of the Little Road] (1955)

Originally trained as a visual designer, Satyajit Ray is regarded in Indian cinema history as one of its greatest directors, and as the auteur responsible for creating the first domestic film to acquire success abroad. That film, which is the first of both Ray’s career and of a trilogy named after its protagonist “Apu,” is Pather Panchali [Song of the Little Road] (1955).

While the sequels deal with Apu’s life as an adolescent and then as a young adult, Pather Panchali centers on Apu’s birth and early childhood. Born to a penurious family in rural Bengal, the father Harihar (played by Kanu Banerjee) is a scholar, poet, and priest who is perennially trying to scrounge together some money to repair the family home, feed the children (Apu is accompanied by an older sister named Durga, played exquisitely by Uma Dasgupta), and purchase new clothes for his wife Sarbajaya.

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Although the trilogy is named after Apu and follows his life over multiple decades, it is his mother Sarbajaya, played by Karuna Banerjee, who is really the focal point for Pather Panchali. At the beginning of the film, she is the proud guardian of the homestead, delegating responsibilities and keeping the children fed. Even though she is understandably hurt when she overhears her neighbors gossiping unflatteringly about her parenting, Sarbajaya is a composed and dignified woman. As the story progresses, however, and the family’s poverty deepens, it’s through her quiet frustrations and increasingly exasperated efforts to pawn belongings that we notice the growing intensity of the family’s despair, and the gradual weakening of the formidable determination she showed when we first met her. Apu’s upbringing is thus told through his relationship with his mother, who—although always loving— is over-bearing, stern, and disciplinary.

Sarbajaya’s efforts to keep Apu on the straight and narrow are repeatedly flummoxed by Harihar’s cousin, the elderly Indir (played by Chunibala Devi). To Sarbajaya, Indir is a complete pest: she encourages the children to misbehave, she completely over-stays her welcome, and she has an unsettling fondness for morbid folk-tunes that enervate Sarbajaya’s spirits. All the same, Indir has an unusual charm. Her meditations on death and life border on insincere attention-seeking, but in her absence the other characters learn that Indir has the most to teach.

Apu’s outlet for childish mischief is his relationship with his older sister Durga, who shares with Apu her curiosity about the daily locomotive that passes near their home. Ray’s fawning representation of the train and the associated industrialization of India synchronized with Nehru’s platform of non-alignment, as Pather Panchali evokes a welcoming of new-ness and a readiness to participate in the new world of industrial advance and technological progress. The congruity between Ray’s thematic delivery and Nehru’s political agenda secured not only the funds necessary to complete filming, courtesy of the West Bengal government, but it also earned Nehru’s endorsement when Ray took the film abroad to Cannes.

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Rather than assigning a leitmotif to each character, Ravi Shankar’s soundtrack assigns a classical raga that corresponds to each emotion or impression conveyed over the course of the film. The music sometimes follows the mood of the film, and at other times it leads the audience’s impression. The pace obeys none of the forms that modern movie-going audiences have come to expect, and so some may find the film slow and even possibly tedious, especially during the first half. But Pather Panchali rewards patience, as the story gathers weight and Ray’s vision becomes clear.

Rather than post a trailer, here’s a clip of Apu and Durga playing in the rain that gives a flavor of the film’s mood.

Stuff you couldn’t make up dept.

The ill-loved Confederate flag flies in deluded pride at the South Carolina state capitol.

A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia

Attached to its flagpost by chains.

Image by Reuters, h/t Daily Kos.