The Only Interesting Thing About Meet the Press

Kevin Drum’s piece altered me to the fact that Jon Stewart was considered to be the next host of Meet the Press. I googled on “Meet the Press Jon Stewart” and found that Kevin’s was one of a tidal wave of pieces weighing in on this earthshattering revelation. The New York Times, Washington Post and US News and World Report were just a small set of the outlets that analyzed this Cuban Missile Crisis-Level near miss that might have destroyed our country forever. The Stewartgate coverage of course followed a good twelve months of virtually every political journalist in the country writing about how then-MTP host David Gregory was in trouble, and who would replace him, and would this person plunge the nation into peril or redeem its lost greatness (Lest you think that the recent spate of Meet the Press-related coverage was just because of Jon Stewart’s media profile, check out the non-Stewart-related MTP coverage at, to name only a few, New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post and FoxNews). God, the suspense of having our species’ future hinging on who — Dear Lord tell us, who? — would take the throne as Meet the Press host and thereby do something apparently quite important.

Or not. Seeing all these articles actually made me throw up a little in my mouth because I cannot take another round of journalists treating anything and everything that happens on MTP as more than remotely newsworthy. There are contests to name the most undercovered stories of the year in journalism. The goings-on at Meet the Press deserve the prize for the most overcovered story for several years running.

In the days when Lawrence Spivak walked the earth, Meet the Press developed an innovative concept in television: Have political journalists talk to each other and to politicians about the political events of the day. Since that time, this format has been copied to the point that one could literally watch such shows 24 hours a day every day if one were that masochistic. By Sunday everything momentous and everything trivial in the week’s politics has been chewed over 100 times already, and seeing the soggy orts remasticated on MTP et al. is the television version of experiencing “harsh interrogation methods”.

And alert to journalists: Almost no one other than you watches Meet the Press anymore. The many stories making a big deal about which of the Sunday morning shows is ranked first are analogous to making a big deal over who has the best batting average in Professional Baseball’s Double AA minor league system. Hit shows in the United States draw 10-20 million viewers per broadcast; you can be first among the not-so-vaunted Sunday morning talk show competition with less than 3 million viewers tuning in, counting all the people who are dozing off in the nursing home’s common room.

The only thing interesting about Meet the Press is that so many smart journalists think it’s interesting to anyone other than journalists. Please folks, find something more important to write about, like the war, the economy or what you did on your summer vacation.

“They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”

One of the difficult moments in a research career comes when you’ve made an unjustified attack on work you only partly understand (and desperately want not to understand) and get your hand slapped by the people you accused of being “accomplices” to a con job.

When you’ve demonstrably mis-stated the question, gotten the intellectual history completely wrong, missed most of the policy history, ignored almost all of the empirical evidence, and misquoted key implementation details of the idea you’re attacking, prudence generally counsels backing off.

Alas, as Talleyrand said of the restored Bourbons, some researchers learn nothing (about the world) and forget nothing (about their prejudices).

Of course, those are merely general remarks. As an interested party, it would be out of place for me to comment on this rejoinder to this (admirably restrained) critique of this attack on the idea of swift-certain-fair sanctioning systems (mislabeled “HOPE”) from advocates of the competing assess-and-treat paradigm, incorporating the Risk-Needs-Responsivity assessment process. So I will outsource the commentary to the colleague who alerted me that  the journal Federal Probation had finally published all three items. He summarizes the rejoinder:

The HOPE research is OK so far as it goes (we can’t find any fault with the conduct of the Hawaii Randomized Controlled Trial [RCT]), but it has limited external validity, and there is other research suggesting that threats have limited capacity to influence behavior. And here is a long list of bad things that will probably happen if HOPE is widely adopted.

Meanwhile, we know that RNR works, because we know that it works.

RCTs? We ain’t got no RCTs.  We don’t need no RCTs. We don’t have to show you any stinkin’ RCTs.

I will note, as a mere matter of objectively checkable fact, that the rejoinder addresses none of the substantive points in the critique; rather than either acknowledging or challenging the evidence and analysis that make nonsense of the claims in the original article, the rejoinder merely restates those claims at a higher pitch.  And it ignores the suggestion in the critique tht  the difference of opinion might be adjudicated by doing an experiment, with one group of offenders assigned to RNR and the other to SCF.  That might suggest – to someone with a suspicious mind – that the authors share my view about how that experiment would come out.

As Upton Sinclair remarked, it is remarkably hard to get someone to understand a point when his (or her) paycheck (or academic reputation) depends on not understanding it.

The (Drug Control) Empire Strikes Back

By and large, I’m not a fan of the work of the (self-appointed) Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Commission’s latest report draws strong conclusions:

Ultimately the most effective way to reduce the extensive harms of the global drug prohibition regime and advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation.

Unfortunately, those strong conclusions aren’t backed with strong evidence or strong argument. Calling your drug laws “regulations” or “taxes” rather than “prohibitions” doesn’t make them any easier to enforce. The claim that it’s possible to “get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation” has, for now, to be filed under “Interesting, If True.” Experiments with legal supply of “cannabis, coca leaf, and certain novel psychoactive substances” are a good idea, but of course most of the action in the “war on drugs” is in cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine; the drugs we would most like to legalize in terms of reducing the costs of prohibition would be among the hardest to legalize successfully in terms of public health. (We always have the bad example of  alcohol – which causes more violence, more health damage, and more addiction than all the illicit drugs combined – staring down at us.)

That said, the frustration with current drug policies that motivates the Global Commission is entirely justified. Changing the goals and means of the current international drug control regime in the direction of less violence and less incarceration is harder and more complex than denouncing the drug war in abstract terms, and less dramatic than legalization, but it’s necessary and important work, and someone who reads the Commission’s reports but doubts the existence of a regulatory utopia might be motivated to engage in that work.

Naturally, the international drug control empire is going to fight back. Yuri Fedotov, one of its Grand Pooh-Bahs as Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (serving, one might note, as the representative of a government with an especially stupid, vicious, and unsuccessful set of drug policies), says of the Commission report that “It’s very hard to reconcile these recommendations with the major provisions of drug-control conventions.” That, of course, is true.

But what Fedotov doesn’t say, and which is also true, is that it’s very hard to reconcile the premises of the drug-control conventions with observable reality. The Single Convention was written in 1961, before anyone knew about neurotransmitters and receptors. Why should we allow the outdated concepts embodied in that treaty and its successors – treating drugs with abuse potential as evil rather than risky, and assuming that the answer to illicit markets is always more and more law enforcement - to continue to dominate our thinking?

It’s too bad that many of the folks who are willing to say that the existing international drug control regime is based on fantasy insist on pushing the equal and opposite fantasy that there’s a magic wand called “regulation” that we could wave at the problem to bring it under control. But the first step in fixing something is noticing that it’s broken and the Global Commission has at least taken that first step. UNODC and its sister agency INCB, and their allies around the world, are still – if you’ll pardon the use of a technical term – in denial.

 

 

 

 

Crime, De-Incarceration and the Economy

The estimable Zusha Elinson has a solid piece out at WSJ on the very happy news that California’s violent crime rate has dropped to a level not seen since 1967. Further, after rising slightly in 2012, the property crime rate resumed the downward course it has been on for some years. As Zusha notes, this fall in crime has occurred while de-incarceration has been underway:

The state-prison population has dropped by about 25,000 since 2011, when California embarked on a policy of “realignment,” which has moved some nonviolent offenders to counties.

The shift has resulted in thousands of people on the street who in the past would have been behind bars. To be sure, the county-jail population has grown by about 10,000. But some counties have been forced to release offenders because of overcrowding, while others are choosing rehabilitation programs over incarceration. In 2013, researchers found that 18,000 offenders who would have been in either prison or jail in years past weren’t serving time behind bars.

The article quotes Magnus Lofstrom explaining the 2013 drop as an effect of county rehabilitation programs and “an improving economy”. The former explanation is credible. The latter explanation is invoked almost daily to explain why incarceration can go down without crime going up in response, so it’s important to emphasize that — as counter-intuitive as it may sound — there is no evidence that a bad economy causes an increase in crime. To quote our own Mark Kleiman:

The Roaring Twenties were a high-crime period; the Great Depression was mostly peaceful. The economically stagnant Eisenhower era had crime rates at historic lows; the Kennedy-Johnson boom in economic growth accompanied an explosion in crime rates. The Great Crime Decline didn’t pause for the recession of 2000-2001.

The decline of crime and incarceration in tandem is thus not a special circumstance produced by an improving economy. Rather, it’s an entirely expected outcome of releasing people who didn’t need to be behind bars and instead providing supervision and rehabilitation services for them in the community.

Presidente Marina?

As the resident Brazil “expert” (i.e., I’ve been there and wed a national) I feel I should bring you at least a straightforward update.

Brazil votes tomorrow in the first round of a general election. Where no candidate reaches an absolute majority, the races go to a runoff in 3 weeks’ time. The political landscape is fragmented, so there is never a clear majority party in the Parliament. Unlike France, Brazil has no Prime Minister. The President appoints ministers (not subject to confirmation), but must negotiate to pass every budget and law. Brazil is federal, and state governors have substantial power. I don’t pretend to grasp the whole picture. Like most outsiders, I’m mainly interested in who occupies the powerful presidency.

The latest poll is consistent with earlier ones. WSJ:

Ms. Rousseff got the most support in the survey by the Sensus polling company for ISTO É magazine, at 37.3% in the first round. Ms. Silva got 22.5% and Mr. Neves got 20.6%, a technical tie given the poll’s 2.2 percentage-point margin of error.

None of the many other candidates are significant. Dilma Rousseff has a comfortable lead but not an an absolute majority, so there will be a runoff. Marina Silva’s non-significant lead over Aecio Neves in this one poll follows a long series of polls giving her a statistically significant one, so I expect Nate Silver or Sam Wang would make her clear favourite for second place. I’ll update on Monday with the results. [Update: full names added]

All recent hypothetical polls for the runoff give Dilma a comfortable win over either rival, by 6 points over Marina and 9 over Aecio (footnote). (Let’s switch to first names as Brazilians do.) Still, three weeks is a long time in politics. Marina may not endorse Aecio – conservatives are even worse that socialists on the environment. But Aecio would have strong reasons to endorse Marina, who has promised an orthodox economic policy, including independence of the central bank. This has laid her open to demagogic attacks from Dilma that Marina would be abandoning Brazil’s poor, from which she, unlike Dilma, actually sprang. Cutting the incessant meddling by incompetent and/or corrupt bureaucrats in the economy – think of Olivares or the Permit Raj more than Colbert – would probably help the poor, though it would hit the unionized workers in protected industries that form the core base of Lula’s and Dilma’s PT party.

Silva

Marina Silva

Whom should we root for? The main interest the rest of the world has in Brazil is the conservation of the Amazon forest as the world’s green lung, and therefore an end to deforestation, preferably its reversal. Silva would quite plainly be far better on this, the issue on which she quit Lula’s government. For Brazilians, her platform is somewhat better than Dilma’s, against which you have to set her managerial inexperience and a lone-wolf style that has led her regularly to quarrel with allies. Her success in governing would depend on a wise choice of aides, as she lacks the personal skills in backroom dealings that more conventional politicians acquire early. On corruption, she is also far superior. Brazilians may have doubts on her competence, but respect her integrity.

Brazilian politics is pretty sleazy. A spoils system in the civil service, lacking a Sir Humphrey / énarque tradition of professional independence; ineffective regulation of political finance; rules on public contracts that are so complex that they are routinely bypassed; and great inequality that makes all politicians unavowably dependent on the rich few, keep it so. On top of this, Lula’s and Dilma’s PT has been in power too long and developed Chavezian tendencies of embedding itself so deeply in public institutions that the distinction between state and party is blurring. It is definitely time for a change.

The corruption issue may still be a live one. A major scandal has just emerged over the diversion of funds into political payoffs from the giant state oil company Petrobras. Its mismanagement was already a matter of record. The scale is alleged to be greater than the mensalão scandal of Lula’s first term, in which MPs were bribed to allow his legislation through. (Well, Lincoln did it too, in a greater cause.)

If the Petrobras scandal develops, and if Aecio endorses her, Marina Silva just may have a chance of becoming the first leader of a major country elected primarily to defend the environment.

Footnote
Brazilian parents show an exuberant freedom in the naming of their children, as you can see from any football team. Aecio commemorates the late Roman general and statesman Flavius Aetius, who (as I’m sure you remember) defeated Attila the Hun near Châlons in 451 AD, by one account without any regular Roman legionaries at all. I haven’t come across Brazilians called Stilicho, Narses or Belisarius, other warlords from the same era. Striker, defender and midfield playmaker, perhaps.

* * * * *

Update 1 Sunday
Three polls published on Saturday show Aecio with a lead over Marina, at least one statistically significant. So it sadly looks as if it’s back to business-in-politics as usual. Aecio has no chance against Dilma in the runoff. The count results may be delayed.

Update 2 Monday 6 October

Well, well. Results (99% in): Dilma 41.6%, Aecio 33.5%, Marina 21.3%, 8 others 3.5%. So much for “experts” like me in distant armchairs.

Marina’s support really did crash in the last week; she went back to near her score in 2010, 19.3%. Why? Much of her polled support must have been very shallow, and tipped back to Aecio once she showed some weaknesses and he some strength. The swings still show remarkable volatility, which I (nursing burnt fingers) will not try to explain. It’s not necessarily a sign of immaturity in the electorate; the behaviour also makes sense as sophisticated tactical voting.

Dilma’s support also fell substantially, though by less. She got 5.3% less than in the first round in 2010, half her margin on victory in the second. There may be a turnout effect – her poll lead was so comfortable that supporters could have felt safe not to show up. However, voting is in principle compulsory and many other offices were at stake. Aecio’s team will reasonably see the swing as a sign that his and Marina’s attacks on corruption and mismanagement are drawing blood. He has moved from no-hoper to underdog in the runoff.

One of Marina’s mistakes was a flip-flop on gay marriage. Dearie me. Since Julius Caesar ran for consul and John Wilkes for MP for Middlesex, it’s been the rule that you must stick by your platform, even if it claims that 2 + 2 = 5. Obama must have realized early on that his no-mandate position in health care was a crock, but he kept it until elected.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Manhunter

The October Hallowe’en season of RBC’s Weekend Movie Recommendations begins. Keith and I will be devoting this month to writing about terrific and ghoulish films. And what better ghoul is there to introduce the theme than the most horrific of them all, the notorious Dr. Hannibal Lecktor? It’s Michael Mann’s 1986 film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon: Manhunter.

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A brutal serial killer has a pattern of breaking into his victims’ homes and murdering the entire family as part of a series of grotesque and inexplicable rituals. In addition to shattering every mirror in the victims’ home and placing the fragments in the corpses’ eye sockets, he also leaves behind bite marks that have earned him the nickname ‘The Tooth Fairy.’ This strange M.O. has compelled FBI agent Crawford (played by the ever-impeccably mustachioed Dennis Farina) to lure retired criminal profiler Will Graham (played by William Petersen of CSI fame) back to help solve That One Case.

Graham’s the best at what he does, but his work comes at a price. His unusual capacity to inhabit the mind of the killers he hunts has brought him within harm’s way before, in the case that forced him into early retirement and that haunts him still. Indeed, the specter of one Hannibal Lecktor (played by Brian Cox) looms large, and when Graham is stumped in his search for the Tooth Fairy he is forced to consult Lecktor for advice on how the killer thinks. It is a strange and deeply affecting dynamic, wherein Graham empowers Lecktor to be both his own tutor, while at the same time (unbeknownst to Graham) Lecktor is guiding the Tooth Fairy as well.

This isn’t the first film I’ve reviewed by Mann here at RBC (see my review of Heat here), and this shares two important similarities with that later film: in addition to showing Mann’s idiosyncratic flair for (especially visual) style, both films play an unusual game with the audience’s sympathies. The conceit of that game is identical in both Heat and in Manhunter, as the villain and the antihero both complete one another in perfectly obvious ways. However, while the protagonists in Heat reach a rapprochement through their mutual admiration and dedication to one another’s craft, in Manhunter the relationship between Graham and Lecktor is unambiguously contemptuous: Graham freely tells Lecktor that he believes him to be insane, and in return Lecktor knowingly induces an acute panic attack that leaves Graham desperate for fresh air. And the symmetry between Graham and the Tooth Fairy is conspicuous, too: as Graham’s (willful) descent into the mind of a killer distances him further from his family, the Tooth Fairy’s (uncontrollable and reluctant) violence brings him closer to his first intimate connection with another human being. Therefore, while Graham and his prey are completely antagonistic towards one another, nonetheless they are manifestly incomplete without one another.

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Mann’s preoccupation with the characters’ duality shows up throughout the film in the vivid use of color and carefully considered camera-work that he obviously honed while working on Miami Vice. For some, Mann’s heavy reliance on over-saturated colors (and particularly his use of pastels) may be wearisome. But when compared to the visually drab interpretations of Harris’ sequel Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme or Brett Ratner’s re-make of Manhunter using the original title Red Dragon (both stupendous films in their own right but for different reasons), Mann’s gimmicky style takes on particular value. After all, serial killers with fantastically gruesome rituals of the kind that appear in a Harris novel are hardly meant to be under-stated in the first place. In that vein, Mann’s stylization makes sense as a pretty good visual expression of the chaos of the world he’s constructing. Instead of showing you the killer at work, as do Demme and Ratner, Mann instead draws you into the production of death as though by way of a carefully constructed installation exhibit that you explore after the damage is already done.

Which brings me to the performances. Despite the fact that it appears Petersen showed up for work the day after having undergone a frontal lobotomy, he actually works surprisingly well in the tortured role of Will Graham. This, too, might be related to Mann’s stylization: Petersen’s vapid stares help to ensure that the viewer’s eyes aren’t over-loaded with stimuli on the screen, in much the same way I described Kevin Costner’s subdued delivery as oddly appropriate given the bombastic scenery in Dances with Wolves (review here). Brian Cox is a superb Lecktor, and that opinion stands even after having seen what Hopkins did with the role. He is frightening, compelling, and one can’t help but hope for more screen time with him to indulge the fascination he instills. For his part, Tom Noonan is a commanding Tooth Fairy. He reputedly refused even to introduce himself to other members of the cast until they shot scenes together, as he preferred instead to seclude himself privately and silently in his trailer, in the dark, between takes. Ghoulish indeed.

Unlike Mann’s other films, the denouement of Manhunter isn’t as high-octane as is his wont (as in, for example, Last of the Mohicans or The Kingdom). But the fun in this film is to be had elsewhere, as the main payoff is in the taut chase scenes – even something as banal as a handwritten letter becomes the focus of a superbly-executed mind-game pitting Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy against Graham and the FBI.

The Pyroholic Brethren II: Kant and the fine print

My earlier post with a sermon on five steps to carbon sobriety fell flat and attracted no comments. I promised a wonkish follow-up on the underlying principles. A small ethical problem: is a promise made to the empty air still binding? Bentham would no doubt have said no, Kant yes. I’ve written the thing anyway, so, any gentle readers, here it is.

I won’t defend the particular numbers I gave; they are only relevant to my family’s particular circumstances.

I A collective action problem – but what sort?

Carbon reduction is usually discussed here as a collective-action problem.

Let me see if I get this idea. It helps to distinguish between strong and weak versions. Continue Reading…

Major Mariam

F-16 UAE Air Force_screenshotWhat the fighter jocks and hens (footnote) say about Fox’s sexist disparagement of Major Mariam Al Mansouri of the United Arab Emirates Air Force, who took part in the strikes on ISIL as pilot of a F-16 (illustrated).

Let’s also note a brilliant act of psychological warfare. Jihadists are, among other things, misogynists. They are quite ready to die as Ghazis in a hail of bullets from infidels. But the prospect of being killed in combat by a Muslim Arab woman must be deeply disorienting. The Nazi pilots and U-boat crews did not know how many of their deadly enemies were women. Had they known, the effect would have been similar.

Major Mariam is a brave officer. The publication of her name has made her a target, more than in her cockpit.

Footnote
Do the armed forces have a better term for a woman fighter pilot? I constructed “fighter hen” from the Scots. A “Jock” is a Scotsman, especially a Scottish soldier; “hen” is a common term, affectionate and not pejorative, for a woman.

Patriots

Colorado Congressman David Lamebrain Lamborn, who represents Colorado Springs and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, responded to one of his constituents, who asked a question that referred to “the Muslim Brotherhood in the White House” with a noncommittal
“I can’t add anything to that.” But the lamebrain added:

A lot of us are talking to the generals behind the scenes saying, hey if you disagree with the policy that the White House has given you, let’s have a resignation. Let’s have a public resignation and state your protest and go out in a blaze of glory.

Now of course a general who thinks the White House is seriously misguided has the legal right, and sometimes the moral duty, to resign and speak out. (Equally of course, he or she cannot speak out without resigning; that’s what “civilian control” and “chain of command” and “Commander in chief” mean.)

But for a politician to lobby serving officers to quit as combat action starts up is about three inches shy of inciting insubordination. If there are any actual patriots left in the GOP, they will join the rest of us in denouncing this grossly inappropriate behavior and demanding that official GOP bodies distance themselves from Rep. Lamborn. Their failure to do so will testify once more to how totally the Party of Lincoln is now in the hands of its lunatic fringe.

Footnote It ought to be remarkable that a serving Member of Congress should smile and not protest as of his dimwit constituents repeats war criminal Dick Cheney’s cowardly lie that the Administration has “supported the Muslim Brotherhood” (cowardly because Cheney said it behind closed doors to a bunch of GOP Congresscritters, to ensure that the falsehood would be reported but maintained Mr. Five-Draft-Deferments’ deniability). But of course the Weimar Republicans abandoned any pretense to civility years ago. In sober fact – and this goes back to Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay stabbing Bill Clinton in the back over Kosovo – most Republican politicians act as if they prefer American defeats as long as a Democrat is in the White House.

It’s simply not in Obama’s repertoire to express the appropriate righteous anger over this behavior. But I wish someone would. Maybe Bill Clinton?

Weekend Film Recommendation: Chasing Amy

When I heard that Alison Bechdel had been awarded one of this year’s MacArthur grants, I reflected on some of the films I have reviewed and wondered how many would pass her test for gender bias in film. Recognizing that I unfortunately could think of only very few, this week’s movie recommendation was chosen on the basis of its memorably strong female lead character, in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997).*

The film is set in a slice of New Jersey and New York that is heavily steeped in writer and director Kevin Smith’s familiar territory of comic books, cuss words, weed-induced munchies, and under-sexed pseudo-intelligentsia. Our two protagonists are bosom buddies and room-mates Holden (played by an uncharacteristically fragile Ben Affleck) and Banky (played by an unapologetically childish Jason Lee), who collaborate on the successful comic series Bluntman and Chronic for a living. At a comic convention, Holden meets the coquettish Alyssa (played by Smith’s muse for this autobiography of sorts, Joey Lauren Adams) and soon finds himself intrigued, then enamored, then hopelessly besotted.

Screen shot 2014-09-26 at 01.14.00

The challenge for Holden is twofold: Alyssa is both toweringly more intelligent and self-aware than is he (not difficult, given that he really is something of a dolt), and she is also a lesbian. The ‘forbidden fruit’ angle to the story, however, is given attention in this story line only after Holden has successfully bitten into the apple, so to speak: when Alyssa, too, develops strong feelings for Holden, the story focuses less on her struggle with her sexuality (which, in truth, becomes something of a footnote in the film’s plot) and instead looks to Holden’s insecurities and Alyssa’s process of overcoming the ostracism that accompanies her revealing the relationship to her lesbian social circle. A relationship between the two blossoms, and a strain develops in Holden’s relationship with the intensely jealous Banky.

This is one of the tricky aspects to Chasing Amy. On one hand, Alyssa is more mature and socially competent in herself than is any man in the film, by leaps and bounds. And yet, one still gets the sense that gender bias plays out in the oddest of ways. This is, after all, a film about sexuality as told for straight guys by a straight guy. The lesbians in Smith’s world are represented throughout the film either as nameless props to be seduced and lusted over anonymously in the back of a filthy bar, or as elusive prizes who would happily turn straight if only, to borrow one of Banky’s lines, they discover what it’s like to “have a good dicking.” Even physical intimacy itself is represented in a manner that resembles a pubescent fantasy: Smith has no problem showing on screen the passionate embrace, warm kisses, and raunchy attraction between Holden and Alyssa. But on-screen lesbian sex dare not trespass beyond fatuous and fumbling kisses or mere narrative descriptions of the mechanics of sex, lest the viewer become too uncomfortable. (For the record, Smith’s first film Clerks was released with an NC-17 rating, so it’s hardly the case that he simply had squeamish sensibilities.)

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There’s no question that Alyssa is the only character who has her act together enough to know what she wants, and she unquestionably is in the right whenever she and Holden descend into a lovers’ dispute. Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that our impression of women in general, and lesbians in particular, can be reduced either to vindictive friend groups protective of ‘losing another companion to the heteros’ (as does the group that turns Alyssa into a pariah), or to be pointed at with puerile fascination (as does the childish Banky).

Smith’s overly simplistic representation of lesbianism notwithstanding, Chasing Amy is a highly complimentary representation of how a main character like Alyssa with identity issues can be a complex, impressive, and inspirational figure worth watching. Even though Holden and Banky come off as being ultimately unsympathetic characters, the comic conceit of the film relies on more than ‘one smart woman and a bunch of dumb guys.’ For example, the on-screen cameo that Smith brings as Silent Bob, the inspiration for Holden and Banky’s comic, reveals not only the origin of the title to the film but also that Holden’s challenge is to overcome his own vanity and trust in the love he’s found.

 

 

* Testament to the validity of Bechdel’s hypothesis about gender bias in film, Chasing Amy only barely passes. Trivia points to whomsoever can name, in the comments section below, other good films that pass the test. The requirements: name a film with at least two named women characters, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.