The State of the Union is…

bad. I had intended to post this before reading today’s Paul Krugman column. I agree with Krugman that America is facing a crisis of governance. It has serious long-term budgetary problems with which Congress seems either unable or unwilling to cope. For me, the fabled US Constitution lies at the heart of the crisis, because the Senate gives far too much power to small and unrepresentative parts of the US citizenry and because the constitution has been interpreted to mean that it is impossible to limit “special interest” spending in political campaigns. So there are two institutional factors which are tending to make it very difficult to raise federal taxes. In the meantime, it is very difficult to cut federal spending, with the exception of discretionary spending that is most dear to Democrats. In particular, the defense budget is now virtually sacrosanct, which is a terrible thing for the country. But of course we also are confronted with a situation in which the same people, Republicans, who say they are for individual responsibility and against irresponsible government spending, use scare tactics about death panels to prevent the country from rationing government-financed health care for the elderly, which everyone knows to be absolutely necessary if the country is to avoid bankruptcy.

I watched Obama’s speech and close to three hours of pre- and post-speech “commentary” on CNN International. Few things have ever depressed me as much as those CNN broadcasts. The nonstop instant analysis, the disingenuousness (Mary Matalin is so unremittingly partisan, I just don’t understand that marriage, it’s revolting to me), but mostly the “feel” of the broadcast, which is akin to that of a gameshow, with garish high-tech screens on which now can be read Twitter posts, all these things combine to create a sense of last days and utter degeneracy. There is also nothing worse than listening to participants in a network-sponsored focus group be interviewed. Democracy seems utterly pointless if we have to inspect the entrails in that way. Maybe things work out in the great marketplace of ideas, maybe the American people possess some collective wisdom in the aggregate, but the individual cases tend to leave me in a state of despair.

Having stayed up virtually all night to watch the speech and some commentary, I finally went to sleep feeling very depressed. I think I perhaps need to spend less time following politics, just for the sake of my psychological well-being.

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“Human Desire,” starring Glenn Ford

Ask, and it shall be answered.  We recently watched “Human Desire” (1954) on Turner Movie Classics, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Broderick Crawford and directed by Fritz Lang.  The film is based upon Zola’s “La bête humaine.”  Somehow watching an American film noir with French subtitles in the middle of the night in the French countryside adds an additional allure to the experience.  My wife and I saw “The Blue Dahlia” with Alan Ladd in a very crowded and hot small cinema in Paris in the early 1980’s – an unforgettable experience.

Ford plays a Korean war veteran, Jeff Warren, who returns home to his job as a railroad engineer.  He is tempted by the corrupt Vicki, played by Gloria Grahame, who is unhappily married to a railroad yard foreman played by Broderick Crawford, while a more wholesome young woman (Jean, played by Peggy Maley), who happens to be the daughter of Jeff’s affable older friend and brakeman, suffers from an unrequited love for Jeff.   It is interesting to see the apparently wholesome character played by Ford be tempted by the devil, as it were.  When Jeff realizes that Vicki has been manipulating him in order to induce him to murder her husband, he recoils from the brink of complete depravity.  Vicki had asked him, before his realization, if it was difficult to kill a man.  “No, it’s the easiest thing in the world,” he replies, speaking of his wartime experience.  But I have just been introduced elsewhere to research which claims that a very small percentage of soldiers actually are willing to kill the enemy and that most killing in war is performed by a small percentage of the soldiers.  In any event, it turns out that Jeff Warren has not been transformed by his wartime experience into a criminal, and the film’s ending indicates that he will opt for the wholesomeness of his friend’s daughter.

This is not a great movie, but it is a highly enjoyable entertainment.  The atmospherics of the railroad yard and of the small town dominated by the railroad are appealing.  It all takes me back to childhood, Glenn Ford, and the comforts of late-night movie watching.

I was disappointed to read that Ford became a Republican in later life.

Movies, an introductory post

I have always loved the movies, since I was five or six years old and attended double-feature matinees in the local theater in Columbus, Ohio.  And I loved watching movies on television as a child, especially late at night when my parents were out.  I associate this experience with Glenn Ford, for some reason.

More recently, I came to enjoy going to theaters less.  It’s just a lot of trouble, getting in the car and finding a parking place, and it became rather expensive.  Now we have a big-screen high definition television, and we primarily watch movies that I have recorded on DVR from our satellite television service in France, which means that we are about a year behind in our viewing of recent feature films.  In 2009, I think we went to the cinema perhaps three times.  We saw “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Wrestler” in English with French subtitles at local cinemas.

It was also becoming increasingly difficult to attend the cinema in the US without being disturbed by the talking of fellow customers.  That happens less often in France.

In any event, I am happy with the domestic viewing experience, and so we rarely attend the cinema anymore.  In addition, we are regaled with a fabulous selection of movies to watch on our French satellite television service, because we pay for two separate premium services, Canal+ and Canalsat.   We do this for two reasons.  One is to compensate for the fact that we are no longer going to the cinema very often, and there is no video rental service comparable to Netflix in France.  There are such services, but they do not have a comparably broad range of titles.  The second reason is that I can follow some American sports, particularly the NBA, to some extent by subscribing to these two services.  In addition, there are two excellent music channels, Mezzo and BravaHD, on CanalSat.

As regards the selection of movies, American movies are much in evidence, in English with French subtitles.  Turner Classics is available, with the addition of a small number of films that are not American and are shown in their original language.  CanalSat also has its own classic movie channel which is international in scope but with a French concentration, as might be expected.  Broadly speaking, the selection of films available is better than anything I could have imagined, including both art films and commercial films, from all over the world.

For anyone interested in the history of French film, having these two satellite services is a voyage to paradise.  It is a paradise I rarely enter, however, because my wife’s French is not good enough to watch unsubtitled French movies with any pleasure.  And, truth be told, my own success in being able to follow an unsubtitled French movie is hit or miss.  The older the film, the more difficult it is, because of the quality of soundtracks.  Crime films are particularly difficult, whether old or recent, due to the prevalence of slang and the slurred and clipped way in which people tend to speak.  A French actress of our acquaintance recently told me that she has been asked on film sets to speak in a less articulate way, in order to be “more natural.”  But, in fact, the way people speak in many movies is not really natural, it’s an invented hyper-naturalism in which people speak in a muffled and highly accelerated way.  It is as though there is a contest to distinguish the real French speakers in the audience from the pretenders, and the pretenders can include Frenchmen who are not attuned to the latest slang.  There is nothing peculiar to French cinema in this regard, of course.  We have watched episodes of “The Wire” on DVD with English subtitles, because we were unable to follow crucial parts of the dialogue without subtitles.

So I hope that this will be the first of many posts devoted to commentary on film and television.  My taste in film generally tends towards social realism.  I am not generally attracted to film that is primarily visual in its ambitions, nor am I attracted to surrealism in film or poetry.  And I generally like film narratives to be readily comprehensible.  If there is jumping back and forth in time and perspective, I don’t like to feel that I am taking an IQ test in order to be able to follow the narrative.  I will probably have a post about “Slumdog Millionaire,” which I recently recorded but also saw in a theater, and about which I had what might be a novel interpretation that might not survive a second viewing, that speaks to this.

Frank Rich deserves Pulitzer, gets Ledocsian

This piece by Frank Rich in today’s NYT is one of the best political columns I have ever read. It’s about, surprise, surprise, the need to reregulate the financial industry. This is the big story that is being neglected by almost everyone.

www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/opinion/10rich.html

I would never have guessed that this former NY drama critic would become a truly great political columnist.  In recognition of his contributions to the general welfare to date in his capacity as political columnist, Frank Rich is the first recipient of the coveted Ledocsian, a nonmonetary, purely verbal award conferred by me upon the recipient.   Thank you, Mr. Rich.  If you did not exist, we would have had to invent you.

David Brooks again, what a guy

David Brooks in today’s NYT:

“The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should `go our own way’ has risen sharply.”

It is not until one reads the concluding paragraph of this column that one realizes that Brooks intends for himself to be ranked among the educated class against which some large swath of the public is rebelling.

I think the story Brooks is telling here is probably basically correct, that there is a deep anti-intellectual, anti-technocrat, anti-expert, anti-elitist movement afoot in America and that there is nothing new here.  But it seems to me that the movement has been fueled tremendously by the Obama Administration’s horrible missteps in its handling of the financial crisis and in Obama’s failure to indulge in enough anti-Wall Street populist rhetoric or to have taken enough anti-Wall Street action.  The only explanation for these failures that makes any sense to me is that Obama is to a large extent in the pocket of Wall Street, due to past campaign contributions and anticipated future ones.  I say this because a more forceful anti-Wall Street posture would seem to be such an obvious political requirement, with virtually no downside for the administration beyond the possible alienation of some big donors.  It strains credulity that the credit-rating agencies, just to take one example, may well emerge from the financial crisis unscathed, essentially unregulated, and in better financial shape than ever.  This really is scandalous and would constitute, in and of itself, a huge indictment of the American political system.

I don’t see any conceivable workable alternative in the modern world to government by technocratic elites.  But of course being well educated does not provide immunity from error – far from it.  Obama has made a tragic error, in my judgment, in not providing better legislative and rhetorical leadership in response to the financial crisis.  The error is both political and substantive, it will hurt in the coming midterm elections, and it undermines confidence in the technocratic elites, just as Brooks says.

The new language war in France

One of the most difficult aspects of moving to France for me has been the fact that French people want to practice their English-speaking skills with me.  When they speak English pretty well, conversations often become a linguistic turf battle between them and me.  I did not move to France in order to speak English with French people.  I could count on one hand, and perhaps on two fingers, the number of occasions on which the French person’s English is better than my French, although I suppose that this is a very difficult think to judge.  For instance, the French person might find my accent, which is a light anglophone accent and not an American one, difficult to bear.  In any event, French “hauteur” has been transformed over the past 10-20 years with regard to the question of speaking English.  Now, it can be difficult for the anglophone to speak French in France, even when he wants to.  If one betrays the slightest hint of linguistic difficulty with one’s French, certain French interlocutors will take that as a cue to switch to speaking English.

After 3.5 years of living here, I still do not have a good way of addressing this problem, and I have as yet never directly insisted to anyone that he or she not speak English to me.  I hope to find a polite way of saying this and to be able to introduce this gambit into conversation at appropriate times.

Wishful thinking or disingenuousness on the left?

I have been very remiss in my blogging over the past several weeks, but one of my resolutions for 2010 will be to make blog entries on a much more regular basis.  I have been counseled to make shorter blog posts, and I expect to take this advice in 2010.

On the year-in-review edition of “Left, Right, and Center,” Tony Blankley and Matt Miller, representing the right and the center, respectively, both said that they feared a secular trend of reduction in US wage levels due to foreign competition.  Robert Scheer, representing the left, demurred, saying that he thought the US continues to have good long-term economic prospects.

<http://www.kcrw.com/news/programs/lr/lr091225a_look_back_at_2009>

Scheer’s professed optimism on this point bothered me quite a bit, insofar as it might represent either naïvete or disingenousness on the left.  I was also bothered, and continue to be bothered, by assertions, such as that made repeatedly by Al Gore during his unsuccessful bid for the presidency, that there is no conflict between environmentalism and economic growth.  It does seem to me that US wages will be under downside pressure due to a worldwide overabundance of labor for the foreseeable future, and I remember thinking that this would be the case forty years ago, when I attended a conference of labor leaders at Penn State University.