Sad that this needs to be said. Even sadder that so few Republicans are saying it.

President George W. Bush is rightly remembered as a failed president because of Iraq, Katrina, and more.

I’ve always thought he was a pretty decent man who deserved credit for several things. Foremost was his personal triumph of PEPFAR, which saved millions of lives around the world. There was also his support for mental health parity and his support for religious tolerance after 9/11.

We’ll never know what would have happened had 9/11 not erupted on his watch. I suspect that he would have had a different, more worthy presidency. (h/t Fusion–more here.)

What’s the matter with Kentucky?

My liberal friends are anxiously reading Alec MacGillis’s, “Who Turned My Blue State Red,” in the Sunday New York Times about growing Republican strength in poor communities. Alec brilliantly explores why eastern Kentucky and similar locales support Republican politicians pledged to cut Medicaid, Food Stamps, and disability programs that specifically benefit these very communities.

MacGillis notes two key points. The first is depressingly familiar: low voter turnout among the specific people most harmed by Republican policies.

The people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period.

MacGillis presents reams of figures that document the simple fact that nonvoters are much more likely than voters to be uninsured, to be unbanked, to have serious unmet economic needs.

The second point is more interesting and more comprehensible at a human level:

The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder… And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder.

These Republican voters are not particularly lashing out at supposed others, be they immigrants or black residents of the inner city. Rather, these voters are reacting to their own neighbors and perhaps friends and relatives, who rely on food stamps, Medicaid, or disability payments and who don’t seem fully deserving.

I’m not sure what lesson this provides, from the standpoint of either politics or policy. Supporters of expanded social provision must find better ways to engage poor people, to get out their votes. We can also find more opportunities for fruitful alliances across economic and ideological lines. Over the next several years, I am confident that Medicaid will be expanded across the South, despite widespread opposition. There’s too much money at stake for too many people for the battle to continue much longer after President Obama leaves office. Some tightening of particular programs may help, too. On balance, it’s probably a good thing that federal disability programs have tightened some of their procedures in evaluating mental health and musculoskeletal conditions that have shown the greatest increase in recent years.

Whatever the political or policy lessons, Alec’s essay captures a basic human reality, aptly summarized in the title of Paul Thorn’s great country song: “I don’t like half the folks I love.” 


Viewed from afar, one might think that categories such as “deserving poor” or “disabled” are reasonably clear-cut. Viewed up-close, things seem much more fuzzy. Many people who rely on public aid straddle the boundaries between deserving and undeserving, disabled and able-bodied. Many of us know people who receive various public benefits, and who might not need to rely on these programs if they made better choices, if they learned how to not talk back at work, if they had a better handle on various self-destructive behaviors, if they were more willing to take that crappy job and forego disability benefits, etc.

It’s easy, even viewing our own friends and relatives, to confuse cause and effect regarding more intimate barriers. A sad reality of psychiatric disorders is that the very symptoms which inflict mental pain on the sufferer can make themselves felt to others in ways that undermine empathy and personal relationships.

Across the Thanksgiving dinner table, you see these human frailties and failures more intensely and with greater granularity than the labor economist could possibly see running cold data at the Census Bureau. But operating at high altitude, the labor economist sees structural issues you can’t see from eye level.

There have always been vulnerable people, whose troubles arise from an impossible-to-untangle mixture of bad luck, destructive behaviors, and difficult personal circumstance. That economist can’t see why your imperfect cousin can’t seem to get it together to hold a basic job. She can see that your cousin is being squeezed out by an unforgiving musical-chairs economy. Every year, in the backwaters of America, that economy seems to put out fewer and fewer chairs.

An integrated registry of real hazards

Donald Trump has the attention span of a gnat, so it’s not surprising he forgot what he meant about the registry of Moslems.  The other Republicans are flailing about trying to find a coherent system for protecting Americans, but most of them have been irretrievably stupefied by years on a public payroll and lack any management skills.
That’s not all: a government database?? We can’t depend on incompetent, lazy, government civil servant nincompoops and their jack-booted thugs to manage and  use such a thing. (Honestly, when these RINOs go to bed and wake up, I think they just forget everything and have to figure it out again from scratch!) Here’s where we absolutely need privatization and outsourcing, and Visa plus any of the specialist outfits we hired to do Iraq for us are totally ready to step up. The database needs to be a private sector enterprise with appropriate profit incentives and guarantees, plus exemption from civil liability (honest businessmen occasionally make well-meaning mistakes, but only a heartless Commie like Elizabeth Warren would think they should be punished for them).
Finally, we need to be smart about what perils we focus on, and Moslems are not even in the top four risks.  Here are the most dangerous creatures loose among us, along with some operational definitions therefor, so we can get them correctly labeled once and for all.  One integrated national database of the following threats, searchable by anyone who can be trusted to look in it, biometrically checkable, will save a lot of wasteful duplication. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Cat in Paris (Une Vie de Chat)


I like to recommend films for kids every now and then, and I want to get back to that this week. Accordingly, allow me to point you to a charming 2010 Oscar-nominated French animated film originally titled Une Vie de Chat that was subsequently re-voiced using English language actors as A Cat in Paris.

The titular cat of the film is Dino, who lives a double life. By day he is the beloved pet of a little girl named Zoe. But at night he makes a daring (and amusing) journey across the neighborhood to the flat of Nico, who is a (what else?) cat burglar. The two conduct daring robberies until dawn, when Dino races back to Zoe’s bed. Zoe very much needs Dino because she has been so traumatized by the murder of her policeman father that she has lost the ability to speak. This frustrates her grieving mother Jeanne, who is a senior police detective. Jeanne is trying to track down her husband’s fearsome killer as well as the burglar who is stealing precious jewels across the city. She has no idea that the two mysteries will become completely interwoven. The stage is set for suspense and excitement, as well as the possibility of healing both for Zoe and Jeanne.

The snazzy, jazzy animation is somewhat impressionistic but not so much that children will be confused. Nico’s movements and figure show that he is at heart as much a cat as Dino. Through some artful drawing and script writing, Jeanne, initially seeming to be on the steely side, is revealed in a scene where she practices martial arts to have a bit of the cat in her as well, albeit hidden under emotional scar tissue. This feline connection ties Dino, Zoe, Nico and Jeanne together thematically and artistically in a way that makes the resolution of the story highly satisfying (even if you are more of a dog person).

I watched this movie with three little boys who enjoyed it as an exciting story, but I think I would recommend it even more for little girls. The struggles to understand each other that mothers and daughters can have are well brought out, and Jeanne (voiced by the great Marcia Gay-Harden in the English language verson) is a terrific role model as a wounded but also strong and brave woman. Jeanne chides her daughter at times but when the chips are down, she protects her with inspiring ferocity.

Roses to Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol for their artistry and for their ability to craft a film that parents and children can enjoy together. A Cat in Paris delivers drama, excitement, sweetness and laughter in a pleasing combination that will put a smile on your little one’s face and quite probably yours as well.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sniper


Edward Dmytryk was a talented filmmaker whose career and life were severely damaged during Hollywood’s red scare. As one of the Hollywood Ten, he refused to testify to the House of Un-American Activities Committee and was sentenced to jail. He fled to England, where he made some high quality films including prior RBC recommendation Obsession. When the Brits kicked him out he came back to the U.S. and was incarcerated. He then decided to testify against his communist associates, meaning that Hollywood was divided between those who hated him as a communist and those who hated him for naming names. However, in 1952 his career got back on track when Stanley Kramer hired him to direct The Sniper, a brooding B-picture about a serial killer that gave Dmytryk a chance to express his alienation and isolation on screen.

The story opens with psychologically disturbed veteran Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) struggling against his impulse to gun down a woman in his neighborhood, right at the moment she is kissing her lover on the stoop. As Miller walks the streets, his chance encounters illuminate how he has felt scarred by women from childhood through his adult life, filling him with a mixture of misogyny and sexual frustration. After his efforts to seek help for his psychiatric problems are met with incompetence and indifference by the health care system, this ticking time bomb of a man is stung when a women to whom he is attracted (Marie Windsor) does not reciprocate his feelings. In a rage, he comes unraveled and goes on a fearsome, guilt-wracked hunt for the women whom he believes have wronged him.

For the period in which it was made, The Sniper was startling stuff, particularly the scenes of Miller stalking and then executing his victims. In style and structure, the film draws a good deal from the the police procedurals that became popular after the war (e.g., prior RBC Recommendations He Walked by Night and The Naked City) as well as from film noir. It also has a pronounced streak of urban alienation and rage that prefigures later films like Taxi Driver (I was not surprised to learn that Martin Scorcese admires The Sniper).

Other than Adolphe Menjou, who plays the police detective who tries to track Miller down, the cast of this low-budget picture are unknowns with unremarkable faces, which works well with the underlying message that horrors such as the film portrays have become everyday, ordinary events. Harry Brown’s script, which is based on a story by Edna and Edward Anhalt, underscores this point even more by having the city in which the crimes occur have no name. It could, implictly, be anywhere.

Most of the film was shot in San Francisco, which has rarely looked as moody or lonely. When Miller stalks his first victim, the shadows are surreal as is the lack of any other person on the street. Burnett Guffey, whose work I have praised before, contributes effective photography and Dmytryk worked with him to create excellent camera set ups throughout. I particularly liked the scene where Miller, who has a menial job delivering dry cleaning, is being upbraided by his boss (another women who makes him feel weak and worthless). Rather than shooting the scene in an open space, the film makers put the camera in the front of Eddie’s parked van looking back at him as he crouches in the cramped, dark space surrounded by hanging dresses. His boss on the loading deck is visible because the van’s back door is open, making her tower over him as if he were a worm under her heel.


The only significant weakness of the film is something characteristic of many Stanley Kramer productions (Judgement at Nuremberg, The Wild One, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner): It needlessly makes some of its points with a sledgehammer. Starting a film with a printed message telling the audience how shocking and serious the subject is and including a scene where the authority-figure-makes-the-big-pious-speech-about-how-society-is-to-blame are the sort of things that earned Kramer a reputation as the kind of sanctimonious and self-satisfied liberal who drives away more people from his causes than he draws in. Some of that cringeworthy stuff is on display here, and it just doesn’t work.

But let that flaw go and this tautly directed, disturbing film will get under your skin. My belief is that The Sniper is in the public domain, so I offer this link as a place where you can watch it for free.

p.s. Trivia: The bar where Eddie’s first victim sings is the Paper Doll Club, famous in real life as one of America’s first lesbian bars even though it isn’t portrayed that way in the movie.

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

I am truly baffled by this video.

Here’s a pro-tip. If you are fighting for social justice by interfering with others’ First Amendment rights, you’re doing it wrong. You are violating core principles of American democracy. And the rest of America will encode you as extremists and will simply stop listening to what you have to say.

The individuals in this video associated with #ConcernedStudents1950 owe photographer Tim Tai an unequivocal apology. It isn’t complicated. They were entirely in the wrong.

With the exception of Mr. Tai, the people in this video disgraced themselves in what should have been a moment of triumph. I am just baffled by the whole thing.

Semi-pro athletes, our moral lodestars

If you still aren’t sure about how completely big-money sports have corrupted universities, today’s WaPo rundown on how the University of Missouri–which is full of philosophers, sociologists, organizational behavior professors, furious students, and what-all other sources of insight–figured out it needed new leadership should knock some scales from your eyes.

Weekend Film Recommendation: In the Line of Fire

In this week’s movie recommendation, Clint Eastwood makes a delightful play on his earlier career persona. He trades the brooding, solitary gunslinger for a much more vulnerable and aged Secret Service bodyguard in Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire.

Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, a man bedeviled by his legacy as “the only active agent who ever lost a president.” It was he, JFK’s favorite, who blundered in Dallas on November 1963. When the Warren Commission confirmed his fears that indeed there was more—much more—he could have done to save the president, Horrigan descended into wretched drinking habits.

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Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Big Trouble in Little China

To close out this themed month of horror films, we’re going for John Carpenter’s light-hearted send-up of scary films in the 1986 Big Trouble in Little China.

Kurt Russell plays Jack Burton, a truck driver with more than a passing interest in the paranormal. He’s a slack-jawed, wise-cracking, superbly-mulleted man with a flair for adventure and a drawl that’s uncannily similar to John Wayne’s. Jack is thrust into action early in the film when a local gang kidnaps the fiancée of his spritely pal Wang, played by Dennis Dun. Being partly at fault, Jack resolves to help Wang on the ensuing rescue mission with the aid of their new acquaintance Gracie (played by Kim Cattrall). The search leads them back to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where they soon become embroiled in a bitter and deadly gang war. But Jack, Wang, and Gracie are not the only intruders in the feud; before you know it, magical sorcerers and wizards intervene in the brawl, and the film takes a turn toward the supernatural.

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It turns out that Wang’s fiancée has been kidnapped by the ancient villain Lo Pan, played by James Hong in a get-up that is too close to Fu Manchu not to be an homage. The legend of Lo Pan is that he remains cursed to frailty in old age unless he can sacrifice a bride with green eyes. Both Wang’s fiancée and Gracie fit the bill, of course, so it’s up to Jack to foil Lo Pan’s dastardly plot.

If the storyline seems convoluted, it’s because it unquestionably is. For what amounts to a relatively straightforward adventure flick, with references to horror movie tropes throughout, the story of Big Trouble appears to have much more going on than is really the case. Scratch the surface, and it’s actually a pretty simple movie. From scene to scene, the film does little more than present little challenges to the protagonists that unlock their path to the next room, where yet another challenge awaits them. But the shallowness of the plot notwithstanding, neither the story—nor, for that matter, the characters—matter all that much, because Carpenter is very much in on the joke. How could he not be, with his wanton reliance on tired tropes and clichés ranging from the damsel-in-distress (times two, no less!), to the lonesome cowboy, to the trafficking in cheap Sinophobic gags.

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Carpenter has never bothered to try positioning himself as an especially nuanced and thoughtful film-maker beyond his capacity to thrill audiences. He’s a master of effects and suspense, not an auteur of studies in the human condition. Whether it’s The Thing, or the Escape from… series, or Halloween, Carpenter delights in using special effects to drive much of the entertainment value. In his world, characters aren’t so much well-spun or fully-developed as they are vehicles designed to convey an audience from one set-piece to the next. And, for the record, the set-pieces are magnificent. The fight scenes are absurd, the effects are—while clearly dated—charming in their own odd way, and there’s a tongue-in-cheek tone throughout. Throughout the film, Carpenter peppers self-referential elbow nudges in the audience’s side that excuse many of the worse moments as though they’re just part and parcel of Big Trouble’s intended frivolity.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to close out our month of horror-themed movies with a film that so proudly and irreverently sends up that very genre. But given Carpenter’s credentials as one of the maestros of scary films, he knows exactly which buttons to push to make the send-up work. It really is a very fun film, and it’s worth enjoying over Halloween weekend.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Masque of the Red Death

download Halloween in getting closer, so let’s keep the frightening films coming. Low budget film genius Roger Corman once said the two films he was proudest of were The Intruder (a searing film about racism and civil rights which I recommended here) and this week’s horror movie: Masque of the Red Death.

Corman had been enchanted by Edgar Allen Poe stories since reading The Fall of the House of Usher at age 11. After directing a number of schlock black-and-white films made in 10 day shoots, he persuaded James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkhoff to let him do a Poe adaptation and to make it a “big budget” movie: Not only would it be in color, but he would have 15 whole days to shoot it! With his usual brilliance at spotting affordable talent, Corman cast as the lead Vincent Price, an actor who otherwise might have faded into obscurity along with his youthful good looks. The Fall of the House of Usher proved a big money maker, and an enduring cinematic collaboration was born (Corman, Price and Poe, often joined by other terrific horror actors and writers).

For our Halloween month two years ago, I recommended the Corman-Price-Poe film Tales of Terror, which while a lot of fun is not quite as impressive cinematically as Masque of the Red Death. The latter was filmed in the United Kingdom because the government at the time had a film production subsidy policy, giving Corman more to work with financially than usual. The film also benefited from the cinematographer being the gifted Nicholas Roeg, one of the many soon to be famous film artists who was nurtured in the university of Roger Corman. Couple those virtues with Corman’s scrounging ability — he recycled much of the opulent set of Becket here — and you have the best looking of any of the Corman-Price-Poe films.

The plot of this 1964 release comes from the Poe story of the same name, with a subplot drawn from Poe’s Hop-Frog. The story opens in a foggy forest in Medieval Italy, where a mysterious figure cloaked in red foretells of a coming plague (His face is never seen, and I assumed his wonderfully sonorous voice was provided by the late Christopher Lee, but it turns out to be John Westbrook). Meanwhile, the rich, cruel, Satan-worshiping Prince Prospero terrorizes the peasants, and casts a lustful eye in particular on a lovely, impoverished lass named Francesca (played by Paul McCartney’s one-time beau Jane Asher). As the plague spreads through the land, Prospero’s castle fills up with both his greedy courtiers and his unwilling prisoners. Debauchery and nastiness ensue, coupled with ample surrealism and existential dread for good measure.

picture-51 Corman was utterly in command of his material by this penultimate entry of his Poe cycle, and benefited from a strong script by R. Wright Campbell and the legendary Charles Beaumont (co-creator of the Twilight Zone). The almost hallucinatory ambiance of the film makes it both uniquely unnerving and a foreshadowing of the more experimental film style that would flower as the 1960s went along (including the moments when Corman strains for artiness a bit too much). As for the actors, this may be Vincent Price’s most impressive horror performance: he dominates every one of his scenes. Of the many good supporting performances, particular praise is in order for the little-known Skip Martin. As Hop-Toad, a wronged dwarf who seeks revenge, Martin conveys impressive emotional power. He had the bad luck to work in the pre-Peter Dinklage era where good parts for little people were virtually never written into films, but at least he made the most of his opportunity to shine here.

Masque of the Red Death succeeds as a horror film and also as an art house drama. Congratulations to Corman and his crew, as well of course to the magnificent Edgar Allen Poe.