The most important book of 2015

I have wrung my hands in the past, in this space and elsewhere, about the collapse of a workable market for digital goods.  I find it hard to get people as excited about this as I am–if I still had enough hair for anyone to notice it would be on fire–but I have some help from Scott Timberg now  so I am going to try again.  Short version: buy this book, Culture Crash, and read it. Now. I believe it is the Piketty of 2015, and the first book I’ve stayed up to read straight through at one sitting–sometimes literally in tears, both of pain and of rage– in years.  It is not just about culture, but about whatever really big issue you lie awake worrying about.

Long post, get a cup of coffee (no, not a substitute for the book; read it) .

Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Psycho

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Part of Alfred Hitchcock’s magnificence as a filmmaker stemmed from his restlessness. He ruled 1950s cinema, delighting both audiences and critics with big budget, suspense-and-romance movies shot in glossy color. The studio heads at Paramount Pictures expected that for the final film he was contracted to shoot for them, he would go back to the well that had made him world-famous and Paramount executives very rich. But the suits misjudged the genius’ desire to keep pushing the envelope rather than repeating himself. Hitch announced that he wanted to make a low-budget, black-and-white horror film based on the exploits of real-life serial killer. The studio execs wouldn’t touch it, so he got the money together on his own and used the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show to shoot the movie. The result was a trendsetting, nerve-shredding masterpiece: 1960′s Psycho.

The story opens with Marion Crane (an achingly vulnerable Janet Leigh) and her lover (John Gavin) discussing how they can never get married because of the financial constraints they face. Enter one of Hitchcock’s most inspired MacGuffins: $40,000 in cash that Marion is entrusted by her boss to deposit in the bank. Impulsively, she steals the money and drives to visit her lover, getting lost on a lonely road in a rainstorm. Fortunately, she finds an empty motel, where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, in his signature role). The lonely young man tends the failing motel, while also watching over his emotionally disturbed mother. As shown in one of the movie’s many beautifully scripted and acted scenes (with evocative incidental music), Marion and Norman connect with and at the same unnerve each other:

I was blessed to see Psycho many years ago with no idea of the plot or legend of this film, and for that reason I will reveal no more of the story other than to say that it’s a masterclass in horror and psychological tension, with coruscating performances, direction and camerawork (The staircase sequence with private investigator Arbogast and the subsequent shot of Norman carrying his mother down to the fruit cellar are both technical marvels). The famous score by Bernard Herrmann is one of his best, and amps up the terror almost beyond belief. Credit also must go to screenwriter Joseph Stefano for realizing that Robert Bloch’s novel had to be significantly altered to work as a film, particularly in terms of building out the backstory of Marion Crane and re-conceptualizing the character of Norman Bates.

It is difficult to appreciate today how challenging it was for Hitchcock to get this film past the censors in 1960, but to give you one example of how strict the prevailing norms were, this is the first American movie to show someone flushing a toilet (Think of the children!). There is of course much more here than that to upset the censors, but Hitch mostly got the sexuality and graphic violence he wanted, thus pre-figuring what the 1960s would later bring in a flood to movie audiences. As ever, the Master was ahead of the curve.

p.s. With the aid of fellow director Barry Levinson, Mel Brooks brilliantly parodied the most famous scene in Psycho in his 1977 film High Anxiety.

p.p.s. The 2012 film Hitchock focuses heavily on the making of this movie. Although it garnered mixed reviews, I thought that Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren have rarely been better.

Wicked waste: How museum culture cheats citizens out of access to art

Mike O’Hare explains how accounting policies (no, really) make art museums much less useful than they ought to be. The basic problem is that they don’t account for their art as an asset, and therefore don’t feel accountable – and aren’t held accountable – for whether they’re creating a reasonable return on that asset in terms of the experience that actual people have with art. This fits in with the taboo on “de-accessioning” (i.e., selling) art, which keeps paintings that would be important exhibits in second-rung museums isolated instead in the basements of first-rung museums. (There is one Monet on display in the state of Florida, zero in the rest of the south, zero in the Midwest outside Chicago, zero in the Mountain West, zero in the Pacific Northwest. There are twenty Monets not on display in the inventories of American museums.)

By selling 1% (by value; of course, more by item count) of its inventory, any big museum could endow free admission forever. Another 1% would finance 30% more wall space, allowing more art to be displayed. And the stuff sold wouldn’t drop down into a black hole; someone would be seeing it.

That such an obviously good idea is even controversial testifies to how ossified museum practice has become.

O’Hare’s essay is a classic piece of policy analysis; I may assign it for my first-year course. He starts with the fundamental question: What is the public interest to be served here? And then he thinks carefully through the questions of how to serve it better and what organizational and conceptual barriers are in the way.

Let’s face it: the fact that there’s only one Michael O’Hare is a Heavenly judgment on the wickedness of contemporary society. If we’d just been good, there would be at least six of him. But what’s done is done; let’s enjoy the O’Hare we have, and in the meantime let’s get something done about the scandalous waste of resources created by the way our great museums are managed.

Weekend Film Recommendation: They Made Me a Fugitive

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Despite the end of the war, food, clothing and other essentials were rationed in Britain throughout the late 1940s, a policy so hated that it ultimately lead the voters to dump Atlee’s Labour government. Because post-war rationing was not seen as legitimate, many otherwise law-abiding people began buying goods on the black market. The spivs who ran the black market soon became the subject of a series of films, one of which, Brighton Rock, I recommended some time ago. Like that fine movie, this week’s recommendation weds a story about spivs and the conventions of film noir with tremendous success: 1947′s They Made Me a Fugitive.

Because much of the respectable British public was happily doing business with spivs, it was possible in this era to portray at least some of them as admirable, and that is the case with the protagonist here, Clem Morgan. Played with grit and style by Trevor Howard, Clem is that durable noir archetype, the embittered ex-soldier. Drinking heavily and out of work, he is drawn into a black market operation by his much nastier acquaintance Narcy (A superbly chilling Griffith Jones, whose film career inexplicably never really took off). Narcy, filled with class resentment, realizes that Clem’s upper class manners may come in handy and he also has his eye on Clem’s lovely girlfriend (Sally Gray, who was with us not long ago in a less sympathetic role in Obsession). Clem has no qualms about smuggling nylons and coffee, but when he finds that Narcy is also moving “sherbet”, he draws a moral line, and Narcy decides to frame him for a horrible crime. The struggle between the two men provides the meat of the rest of film, up to and including an appropriately unhappy ending.

They Made me a Fugitive is a well-acted, tough, thrilling tale of crime and vengeance which Director Cavalcanti and cinematographer Otto Heller carry off with many memorable visual flourishes. Narcy’s distorted face in a mirror as he metes out savage violence is one of several sequences that recall noir’s origins in German expressionism. Noel Langley’s screenplay, based on a novel by Jackson Budd, is another strength of the movie. There’s some terrific dialogue, nice touches of black humor and some hair-raising moments of unblinking cruelty. The sequence in which Clem, fleeing from the cops, gets help from a stranger who has her own grim motive perfectly conveys the dark, cynical outlook on humanity from which the best noirs draw their lifeblood.

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The one disappointment in this film is that the final fight scene is poorly choreographed to the point of being almost unintentionally comic. Fortunately, this is immediately compensated for with a rooftop showdown between Clem and Narcy that is Hitchcock-level suspenseful (and has a Hitchcock-level joke embedded: Look at those three letters!).

Some elevated types in Britain hated movies like this for their “morbid burrowing” into the dark reaches of the human psyche…but that’s precisely where drama, excitement and intrigue are always to be found.

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

Two sad stories, not just one

Jon Ronson tells the story of “Hank,” who joked about “a really big dongle” and “forking someone’s repo” at a tech conference.

Another conference attendee was offended and complained to the conference organizers, including a photo of “Hank.” As a result, “Hank” lost his job. Ronson thinks this is a sad story, and I agree. So does Christina Hoff Summers, who Tweets:

Man tells innocuous joke to friend at conference. Overheard by aggrieved woman. What happened next is frightening.

And, yes, the story is pretty much as you might guess. In Ronson’s telling, the complainant is a “men’s movement” caricature of the sort of woman who uses “being offended” as a weapon and has no remorse about wrecking someone’s life for an off-color joke.

But – also in Ronson’s telling – the complainant, named Adria Richards, is then the victim of an internet lynch mob. She is subjected not only to insults but to physical threats. She, too, loses her job: the on-line mob takes down her employer’s server, and threatens to keep it down unless she is fired; the employer (not named by Ronson) complies.

And, unlike Hank, who quickly finds a new job (at a place that, conveniently for him, doesn’t employ any women), the complainant is still out of a job, and still subject to digital harassment, two years later.

Ronson skilfully uses language and selects facts to make “Hank” sound like an innocent victim, and Adria Richards like someone who was last seen knitting next to the guillotine. Naturally, Richards (as relayed by Melissa McEwan) tells the story somewhat differently: among other things, she asserts that she protested against the firing of “Hank.” She also, (quite plausibly) accuses Ronson of practicing the bait-and-switch characteristic of low-rent journalism, setting someone up for character assassination by pretending to provide a sympathetic ear.
But put that aside for the moment.

Let’s assume arguendo that Adria Richards is precisely the sort of unsympathetic character Ronson portrays. (Of course, it’s also possible that being fired and then harassed for two years might have somewhat depleted her stock of empathy.) She is also – again, by Ronson’s account – the victim of a crime, and someone who lost a great deal more for complaining about the rude jokes told by “Hank” than Hank did for telling them. But somehow Ronson and Sommers sympathize only with “Hank.” Like millions of battered women and rape victims before her, apparently Adria Richards was asking for it. How is it possible that Ronson, Sommers, and editors of Esquire, and the publishers of Ronson’s book all missed a point which was obvious even to me, based entirely on Ronson’s own account?

After all, I’m squarely in Ronson’s target audience. I’ve been the victim of enough “STFU-you-privileged-white-male” treatment to fully sympathize with someone in the position of “Hank.” My natural response to pompous unsolicited moral advice is a rude gesture; I’ve been known to respond to the two hours of dim-witted “sexual harassment” training the University of California imposes on me every year by asserting I am already expert at sexual harassment and require no further training.

But how morally challenged do you have to be not to sympathize with Adria Richards, the victim not merely of organized intolerance but of a criminal conspiracy involving extortionate threats?

There’s a broader point here, too “Hank” and Richards both lost their jobs, though neither had done anything anywhere close to violating the law, or even raised serious questions about their job performance. That was possible because of the doctrine of “employment at will,” which makes puts every (non-union, non-civil-service, untenured) employee at the complete professional mercy of his or her employer. I think professors and civil servants are somewhat over-protected against being fired for incompetence or shirking. But it seems obvious that the rest of the population is grossly under-protected against the whims – or, in Adria Richards’s case, the mere cowardice – of the kind of people who wind up working in “human resources” departments.

Weekend Film Recommendation: 20,000 Days on Earth

“Writers are awful to people who ask us where we get our ideas from,” said Neil Gaiman. “We get mean, in a writer-y way, which means we make fun of you for asking.” Creativity will always inspire curiosity, especially among those of us who lack it. We want it to be laid bare, explained, deconstructed. We who lack a true sense of imagination sometimes feel as though there’s a manual out there, possessed by all the geniuses who manage to spin beauty out of nothingness, the contents of which provide instructions on how to create art. Perhaps this curiosity is precisely why there’s an inexhaustible interest in artists explaining their method to us, like in this week’s movie recommendation, 20,000 Days on Earth. Continue Reading…

Sympathy for the Unhappily Unmarried

Stephen Merchant, unmarried

Stephen Merchant, unmarried

In watching a comedy special by the hilarious Stephen Merchant I was startled when he announced that his routine was about his inability to find a wife. An army of unmarried male and female comics do routines about their quest for romance or sex or a date or a boyfriend or girlfriend and a comparably sized throng of married comics regale their audience with jokes about their rotten marriage/dopey husband/nagging wife. It was strange therefore to hear a comedian define himself explicitly as unhappily unmarried.

There’s a lot of cultural space out there to be happily married, whether it’s someone rubbing people’s noses in their bliss with wedding anniversary photos on Facebook or a magazine writer managing to work an adoring, successful spouse into a profile of a famous person (particularly if the result is a vaunted “power couple”). With the arrival of gay marriage, the space for happy marriage has been expanded even further.

Unhappily married people also get their cultural due. It’s hard to count all the great novels and plays that plumb their painful existence.

As for the happily unmarried, the positive cultural image of the carefree, smiling, confirmed bachelor goes way back, and has recently been joined by you-go-girl-don’t-need-marriage types in pop culture. If you are unmarried, and a higher proportion that Americans than ever are in this state, you are now generally expected to be excited about it.

But many unmarried people aren’t excited about being unmarried, but find it hard to say so. How do most people react if someone says “I really wish I were married, but I’m not”? Too often I suspect it’s to the view the person as a failure who ought to be marketing their brand better on Match.com or as some emotional misfit who can’t fulfill their duty of joyfully embracing singlehood.

The truth is that there are enormous structural barriers to marriage these days. In communities where men have high unemployment rates and/or are in and out of the correctional system, marriage is harder to initiate and sustain. As the age of first marriage rises, a once common place to find a mate (college) comes at the wrong time in life. The decline of religiosity lessens the opportunities at another meeting ground where many of the current generation’s parents and grandparents found their life partners. There is of course on the job romance, but depending on that rules and informal norms in the workplace, that’s often an unappealing career and/or legal risk for the parties concerned.

Rather than simply expect every unhappily unmarried person to work it out on their own despite all that (and blame them if it doesn’t pan out), the rest of us could no doubt do more to support them in their quest. I used to think that “setting people up” inherently constituted annoying, Yenta-ish meddling. But my married friends who were “set up” speak glowingly about the third parties who brought them together. If done respectfully and thoughtfully, matchmaking for unhappily unmarried people is a community and personal service. Indeed, it can be a gift that lasts a lifetime (ask the Veillards).

Happy 82nd anniversary

Happy 82nd anniversary

Weekend Film Recommendation: Hobo with a Shotgun

Back in 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino released a pair of ’80s exploitation revival feature films under the combined title of Grindhouse. They also held a competition for directors to submit trailers of imaginary films, consistent with the theme of the genre, that could be screened beforehand. One such trailer was eventually turned into its own feature length film four years later, and is this week’s movie recommendation. It’s Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (2011).

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Weekend Film Recommendation: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

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Have you ever seen a movie that stuck in your head for reasons you couldn’t fully explain? A film that you eventually realized had a much bigger impact on you than it seemed to when you were sitting in the theater? That was my experience with this week’s film recommendation: 1943′s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Made during the war by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (aka “The Archers”), the film tells the eventful life story of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) over a more than 4-decade span. The borderline-bizarre opening sequence, which might just as easily have presaged a big-budget MGM musical, introduces us to Candy in the winter of his life, where he has taken on the unappealing characteristics of the self-satisfied, out of touch cartoon character known as Colonel Blimp. But with a nice bit of camera trickery, Candy recalls the memory of his salad days, and is transformed into the markedly different young man that he was: Handsome, kind, brave and in some ways boyishly innocent. The film then portrays his adventures through heroic moments, comic situations, romance and friendship, with two other other figures serving as foils. One is a noble German officer whom he meets in World War I (Anton Walbrook) and the other is the eternal feminine: Three different characters all played by Deborah Kerr who stay the same age as Candy ages through life.

There is much to love about this long, multi-layered and richly rewarding film. The craft and humanity of the producer-director-screenwriting team is on full display, making it surprising that this movie is not remembered as often as their other triumphs such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Powell and Pressburger’s characters are unusually well rounded and evolve over time, which was rare for movies of this period. Indeed, Winston Churchill allegedly opposed the release of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp because it portrayed a German soldier so movingly that the British public might sympathize with their current enemy (once you have seen the movie, you will realize how ludicrous this fear was).

The thematic latticework of the film is truly compelling. On the surface, the movie can be enjoyed as an exciting life story full of moments of humor and action. But at a deeper level, the film explores how old-fashioned values were unable to meet the demands of the mid 20th-century, how the young can grow up to be very different older people than ever they planned, how loving one’s country has rewards and limits, how men may think they are smarter than women but are almost always wrong, and how we don’t always understand what we long for until it is gone. Wonderfully, the film never preaches a particular simple message about any of these themes. Rather, it gives each character and viewpoint its due, sympathetically and sometimes sadly, without ever taking sides.

Visually, this is Technicolor at its best, with Georges Périnal painting the screen with one stunning shot after the other. The anchoring performances by Livesey, Walbrook and Kerr are also magnificent, not just individually but in the way they play off each other. Indeed, the performances (and the well-scripted characters) make the film even better than a similar epic movie made in the same era: Cavalcade. That fine movie at times kept the viewer at some emotional distance because its toffy characters were a bit inaccessible; here one can’t help but be drawn into the emotional lives of the people on screen.

There could be no better closing to this review that Martin Scorsese’s description of how this landmark movie was restored to its original, glorious form. Scorsese is not just a brilliant filmmaker in his own right; he is also a lifelong student of cinema and a champion of preserving its past. He first saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as a child. Even though it was a mutilated version with over 40 minutes cut out and the rest of the scenes re-arranged, and even though he watched it on a small black and white television, he could still perceive Powell and Pressburger’s genius. Scorsese’s 5-minute featurette is an inspiring example of what film restoration can do and also includes intriguing information for film buffs on how Technicolor movies were made.