Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Newton Knight, an American hero

July 22, 2016

My friend Hal Bauer urged all his friends to see the movie, Free State of Jones.  I saw it, and it is as good as Hal said it is.

The movie tells the story of Newton Knight, a white farmer in southern Mississippi, who led a rebellion against the Confederacy itself.

Newton Knight

Newton Knight

Knight was 6-foot-4 with black curly hair and a full beard—“big heavyset man, quick as a cat,” as one of his friends described him.  He was a nightmarish opponent in a backwoods wrestling match, and one of the great unsung guerrilla fighters in American history.  So many men tried so hard to kill him that perhaps his most remarkable achievement was to reach old age.

“He was a Primitive Baptist who didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, doted on children and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around,” said [local historian Wyatt] Moulds. 

“Even as an old man, if someone rubbed him the wrong way, he’d have a knife at their throat in a heartbeat.  A lot of people will tell you that Newt was just a renegade, out for himself, but there’s good evidence that he was a man of strong principles who was against secession, against slavery and pro-Union.”

Source: Richard Grant | Smithsonian

Knight hated the 20-slave rule, which gave slave-owning families one exemption from military service for every 20 slaves they owned.  He also hated Confederate confiscations of livestock, crops and food from small farmers.

For a time, his Knight Company drove the Confederate Army out of Jones County and surrounding areas of southern Mississippi.  Contrary to the impression given by the movie title, he didn’t intend to set up Jones County as an independent nation.  He was loyal to the Union.

He didn’t only fight for independent white farmers.  He fought against slavery himself.  He defended the rights of newly-freed slaves after the Civil War.  After the triumph of the Ku Klux Klan, he retreated to his homestead where he lived with his inter-racial family.

I had no idea Newton Knight existed until I saw the movie.

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Donald Trump’s excellent adventure

July 21, 2016

When Donald Trump phoned his pal Bill Clinton a little over a year ago, and asked his advice about running for President, I doubt that either of them thought that Trump would get as far as he did.

150930093139-bill-clinton-donald-trump-large-169I have no way of knowing Trump’s thinking, but I suspect that he figured that he had everything to gain and nothing to lose.

At worst, he would promote the Trump name and add value to the Trump brand.  At best, he would show up and pay back politicians and journalists who treated his political ambitions as a joke.  Coming in a strong second or third for the Republican nomination would have accomplished that.

But did he think he actually would be nominated?  I’m reminded of the Mel Brooks comedy, The Producers, in which two characters hatch a Trump-esque scheme to make money from a losing Broadway play.   They choose a script, “Springtime for Hitler,” which they think is sure to fail.  But, much to their consternation, it succeeds.

Unlike the Mel Brooks characters, I think Trump will take his own “Springtime for Hitler” production as far as it will go.  But if he loses, which at this point seems likely, I can imagine him sitting down a year or two from now with his friends, the Clintons, and having a good laugh about the whole adventure.

LINKS

Inside the Fraternity of Haters and Losers Who Drove Donald Trump to the GOP Nomination by McKay Coppins for Buzzfeed.  Coppins thinks his ridicule of the idea of a Trump Presidential candidacy may have goaded Trump into actually running.

36 Hours On the Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump by McKay Coppins for Buzzfeed (2014).  This is the article that Coppins thinks may have set Trump off.

Donald Trump’s ghostwriter tells all by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker.  Donald Trump as seen through the eyes of the ghostwriter who wrote The Art of the Deal.

Philip K. Dick’s greatest hit

April 2, 2016

Philip K. Dick was a science fiction writer whose main theme was the fluid boundary between illusion and reality, and sanity and insanity.

Sadly his insights were partly due to his own drug use and mental illness.  This may have been the reason so many of his novels and stories lacked coherence.

It also may explain why movies based on Philip K. Dick novels and stories – The Adjustment Bureau, Blade Runner, Imposter, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly and Total Recall – were all better than the originals.  I say nothing about other Philip K. Dick movies because I haven’t seen them.

man-castleI recently saw the Amazon Prime series based on The Man in the High Castle, which was excellent, and I went back to the original out of curiosity.  Unlike the others I mentioned, the novel is better than the TV series, both as a novel and as a science fiction novel.

Both the TV series and the novel depict a world of 1962 in which the Axis has won the Second World War.  The Nazis occupy the United States east of the Rockies, and the Japanese occupy the U.S. Pacific Coast, with the Rockies a neutral buffer zone.

There are three plots in both.  One is an attempt by hardscrabble Americans in San Francisco to make and sell fake art objects to sell to rich Japanese antique collectors.  Another is an attempt to head off a conspiracy by a Nazi faction in Berlin to launch a nuclear first strike against Japan.

The third is a search for “the man in the high castle.”  In the novel, he is the author of a underground novel set in a world in which the Allies won, which, however, is different from the real world (I almost wrote “our” world).  In the Amazon Prime series, he has mysteriously obtained actual newsreels of the real world.

The novel is better because it is more realistic, and because the characters have more psychological depth.  The Amazon Prime series has an anti-Nazi Resistance movement, which is not in the novel, and characters undecided about their true allegiance, which wouldn’t be tolerated either by real Nazis or real anti-Nazi fighters.

The excellence of the novel and the TV series is in showing how living under Nazi and Japanese occupation could come to feel normal, and in developing realistic and memorable characters.

One is Mr. Tagomi, the humane Japanese bureaucrat whose life is guided by the I Ching.  Another is Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, who appears in the TV series but not the novel.

I look forward to Amazon Prime’s second season in the series, which will take the characters beyond the scope of Dick’s novel.

A good movie’s window into Iranian life

August 17, 2015

The 2011 Iranian movie “A Separation” is one of the best movies I ever saw.   It is good in itself, and a good window into life in Iran.

There are at least two kinds of separation depicted in the movie.  One is between husbands and wives.  Another is between the educated middle class and the uneducated lower class.

It begins with a conflict between a educated woman, who wants to leave Iran, and a husband, who is unwilling to leave his sick father.  The wife separates from the husband, and he hires an uneducated woman to look after his father while he is away at work.

The husband comes home one day and finds his father alone and unattended.  The woman comes back, he flies into a rage, something happens outside camera range and she falls and has a miscarriage.  It then is revealed that the woman got a job without the knowledge of her strict Muslim husband, who disapproves of women working outside the home.

Iran is a right-to-life country and an unborn life has the same value as anyone else’s.  The educated woman’s husband is charged with murder.   Two mysteries then need to be cleared up – what really happened off-camera to cause the miscarriage, and why the educated woman left her place of work.

One of the bonuses of watching the movie was the glimpse I had into everyday life in a country I never expect to visit.

In one scene, the elderly father falls in the bathtub, and his caregiver fears it would be a sin for her to see the naked body of a man not her husband.   She picks up a phone and calls a hot line for advice.  An expert on Muslim law tells her that her duty is to help the old man.

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How to make a trailer for an action movie

May 2, 2015

Hat tip to kottke.org.

Validation

April 18, 2015

 

A Thin Wall

April 11, 2015

Last night I went to the Little Theater here in Rochester, NY, to see the world premiere of a moving documentary film on the partition of India and Pakistan.

It was directed by Mara Ahmed, a Pakistani-American women who lives in the Rochester area and studied at the Visual Studies Workshop here, and co-produced by Ahmed and Surbhi Dewan, who was trained at Rochester Institute of Technology.  I’ve lived in Rochester more than half my life, and yet never knew about them until now.

The movie is in three parts—interviews with their aging relatives and friends about the peaceful life in India before partition, then interviews about their terrible experiences during the massacres and flight of peoples during partition and a final part about the ongoing tragedy of division Indians and Pakistanis, culturally similar peoples except for religion.

It includes dream sequences, animation and poetry—all of which work well in the film.

The movie is so even-handed that I sometimes forgot whether I was hearing the experiences of a Hindu or a Muslim, their tragedies were so alike.

Blame for partition is put in the British and to an extent the leaders of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.  They did virtually no advance planning as to how it would be carried out.  Nor did they ever hold a referendum or consult the people on whether the subcontinent should be partitioned in the first place.

I don’t know enough to say whether Hindus and Muslims would have been able to live in peace in a united India.  There was a history of rioting and violence between the two communities.

In any case, the “two-state solution” did not solve the Indian subcontinent’s minority problems.  There are still 176 million Muslims in India, and their rights are a fraught issue.

The filmmakers said in a Q&A after the showing that Hindu and Muslim emigrants from the Indian subcontinent get along very well, as do ordinary citizens of India and Pakistan when they meet.  As they said, the least that could be done is to allow free travel between the two nations.

LINK

An interview with Mara Ahmed. [Added 4/24/2015]

 

A good movie, but not the story of Alan Turing

January 5, 2015

I saw The Imitation Game on Saturday night.  It was a good movie.  I liked it a lot.

It was about a character called Alan Turing, a tormented and rejected genius who nevertheless, through sheer power of intellect, broke the German codes and hastened Allied victory during World War Two.

The most touching part of the movie was his relationship with a character called Joan Clarke, a brilliant woman whose gifts Turing recognized and fostered despite prejudices of the time against women, and who in turn helped bring the misfit Turing out of his social isolation and related to other people in a human way.

But as much as I enjoyed and admired the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly, I had a problem with the movie, and that is that the central character was named Alan Turing.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Because, as a little Internet research showed, the real Alan Turing bore no resemblance to the character in the movie.  He was a much more interesting person.

The movie showed Alan Turing as emotionally crippled by the need to conceal his homosexuality.  But he didn’t conceal it.  Like many members of the Oxford and Cambridge intelligentsia, the real Alan Turning was openly and flamboyantly gay.

His biographers say he was moody, eccentric and had little tolerance for fools, but he was extroverted, gregarious and had a great sense of humor.   What got him into trouble was not inability to express his emotions, but his lack of discretion.

He was one of the top mathematicians of his time, and worked with British intelligence on cryptography even before the outbreak of World War Two.   He was recruited for the Bletchley Park codebreaking effort as a matter of course.  He led a team consisting eventually of thousands of people.  One of his assignments was to encrypt the personal messages between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

His breaking of the German code was not a once-and-for-all breakthrough as depicted in the movie, nor did he do it all by himself, even though his contribution, especially the use of machine intelligence for decoding, was essential.

Bletchley Park broke the German Luftwaffe code almost immediately, and the German Naval code later on.  The Germans then thwarted the codebreakers for a time by complexifying the Naval code, but that obstacle, too, was overcome.  Cryptography and codebreaking were and still are a continuing duel of wits.

Alan Turing never knew John Cairncross, the Soviet spy who infiltrated Bletchley Park, let alone agreed cover up his treason as shown in the movie.

After the war Turing continued to do work for a time for MI6 and its successor, GCHQ (General Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to the U.S. National Security Agency.  This was cut short when, under pressure from the U.S. government, the British government declared gays to be security risks.

Turing’s arrest and conviction for homosexual activity was unfortunate, and his sentence to a year of chemical castration, by means of hormone injections, was a horrible and unjust ordeal.  But it didn’t inhibit his intellectual activity and his work on the theory of artificial intelligence during that period or for the year after.

Nobody knows why he committed suicide, and there are those who wonder if his death really was suicide.

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Jackie Chan on action comedy

December 27, 2014

Via kottke.org.

Jackie Chan is one of the most entertaining performers in movies today and one of the hardest working.

The cougar, the bear cub and the grizzly

October 17, 2014

The bear cub, the adult grizzly and the cougar are actors in a feature-length film, The Bear, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and released in 1988.  The cub befriends the grizzly, and the grizzly protects the orphaned cub as they face non-human and human predators.  I never heard of this movie until I came across this YouTube clip on Flixxy.com.

The facts behind the movie “Belle”

June 11, 2014

The other evening I saw “Belle,” an enjoyable movie about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a West Indian slave, who was adopted into the family of William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

It’s a sweet love story.  It is an interesting picture of the life of the 18th century British aristocracy, and the interplay of race and social rank.  And the real Belle must have been a remarkable person.  BUT:

It is less than just to Lord Mansfield, who is depicted as an old fogy who needed to be prodded by idealistic young people to do the right thing.

Lord Mansfield was an opponent of slavery who, as a judge, was faced with the fact that slavery was established in law.  Only a naive person would think that he was in a position to abolish slavery simply by decree.  But he established judicial precedents, within the existing law, that weakened slavery.

Mansfield in the movie is shown as reluctantly accepting the child Belle into his household because she is the illegitimate daughter of his nephew, Admiral Sir John Lindsey.  In fact he was not reluctant at all, and Belle was not a blood relation.  She was the daughter of a pregnant mulatto woman liberated from a Spanish ship that Lindsey captured in war.

The movie focuses on the Zong case, in which Mansfield ruled against owners of a slave ship who claimed insurance compensation for chained slaves overboard on a voyage.

The Somersett case, in which Mansfield ruled that a runaway slave need not return to his master, was much more significant.    Mansfield’s decision was that, in the absence of a specific law establishing slavery, it could not be permitted because it was inherently “odious”.

This was roughly the same position that Abraham Lincoln took prior to being elected President.  He said he did not have the legal authority to abolish slavery where it existed, because it was established by the Constitution, but slavery was so obviously wrong that it could not be allowed to spread into new territories.   This was unacceptable to slaveowners, which is the reason for the Civil War.

At the end of the movie, it seems to me, the characters spoke and thought more like contemporary people than people of their own time.  As if the present generation represents a pinnacle of wisdom!  I think that is a common flaw of historical movies.  I think Amistad would have been a better movie if the John Quincy Adams characters had made the arguments that the real John Quincy Adams made, and not what Steven Spielberg thinks he should have made.   The movie Lincoln was better because it put Lincoln in the context of his times.

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Click on ‘The Black Must Be Discharged’: the Abolitionists’ Debt to Lord Mansfield for more background by Stephen Underwood for History Today.

12 Years a Slave: reviews of the movie

December 7, 2013

In my previous post, I shared my thoughts on the movie, 12 Years a Slave.

Here are some links to reviews and articles that give deeper background and different perspectives.

A Confederacy of Kidnappers by Matt Karp for Jacobin.  Hat tip to tashqueedag.

Henry Louis Gates on 12 Years a Slave and The African-Americans, an interview in Time magazine.

Jezebel and Solomon: Why Patsey Is the Hero of 12 Years a Slave by Amy Davidson for The New Yorker.

Silenced by Christopher Benfrey for the New York Review of Books.   This is an interesting review, but the things Benfrey criticizes as being corny and sentimental are based on facts as set down in Northrup’s book.

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12 Years a Slave: the movie and the book

December 6, 2013

I have long understood the evils of slavery on an intellectual level – that is to say, I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way understood them.  But seeing the movie, 12 Years a Slave, and reading the book has helped me to understand it in a deeper and more visceral way than I did before.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and who survived to tell the story of what happened to him.  The movie is true to the book.  Some details are left out, and some are changed in unimportant ways, but anybody who sees the movie will get the essence of the book.

The movie is a powerful evocation of the slave-holding South.  The movie helps me imagine, as much is possible for me to imagine, what it would be like to be ripped out of my everyday life, and suddenly thrown into a situation in which I had no rights and no identity, subject to people with the power to commit rape, torture and murder without any consequences.   The scenes of everyday slave life are as powerful as the scenes of whipping and abuse.

Northrup experienced the extremes of slavery.  His first owner was William Ford, a sincere Christian, who sought to treat slaves as humanely as possible without giving them freedom.  Under him, slavery was probably as endurable as it was anywhere in the South.  But Northrup spent 10 years of his servitude subject to the power of the half-insane sadist and sexual predator, Edwin Epps.

Epps’ chief victim was a young slave woman named Patsey, whom he used as a sex object, then allowed his jealous wife to abuse and have whipped.   It culminates in a scene that is almost too painful to watch.  Epps, to please his wife orders Northrup to whip Patsey half to death, and then takes the whip himself.

While the movie is true to the Northrup’s experience, Northrup’s book gives you insight into his mind.  He accurately describes not only what happened to him, but what he observed—the conditions of life, how the system worked, how sugar cane and cotton were grown.   He judged people, even white slave-owners, as individuals, and he never gave way to hatred of white people in general.  I don’t think I could have done that in his situation, even assuming I would have survived in the first place.

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Hayao Miyazaki, the great animator, to retire

September 28, 2013

HIyao Miyazaki, the great Japanese animator, announced earlier this month that he intends to retire from making feature-length films.  I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m not too disappointed, because there are so many of his films that I haven’t yet seen.

He is a great storyteller with a great visual imagination.  The trailers I’ve included in this post hint at it, but don’t fully show it.  His stories are exciting and full of derring-do, but they generally end with reconciliation and never with the annihilation of the losing side.

Spirited Away, whose trailer is shown above, is about a little girl who finds herself trapped in a sort of vacation resort for supernatural beings.  It is highly imaginative, and yet, for me, evokes the feelings of a young person on their first job—having to do things that seem impossible, being subject to the whims of powerful, unreasonable beings, and somehow figuring out how to adapt and function well.

Click on Hayao Miyazaki for his Wikipedia biography.

Click on Hayao Miyazaki to retire, his real reasons for leaving anime in the Asahi Shimbum for background on his retirement.

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The greatness of Lincoln on film

November 29, 2012

I saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln movie during Thanksgiving week, and liked it a lot.   It was well-written, well-acted and well-staged, and so far as I can tell, broadly true to history. The movie focused on a few months in early 1865 when Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, through Congress.  It showed the two sides of Lincoln, the cunning politician and the idealistic believer in freedom and democracy.  If Lincoln had been less of either, slavery would not have been abolished when and how it was.

An early scene showed two black Union soldiers talking to someone with his back turned; then the camera revealed the person to be Abraham Lincoln, whose expression of good-humored, kindly shrewdness showed Lincoln as I imagined him.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a splendid actor.  After watching him as Lincoln, it is hard to recall he played Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. 

Tommy Lee Jones was great as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical abolitionist Congressman, who is depicted as a man ahead of his time, as he was, instead of as a dangerous extremist, as he usually is shown.  Sally Field (no longer young and perky) gave a fine performance as the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln, as did David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward.

The movie provides much-needed push-back against revisionists who claim that Abraham Lincoln was a power-hungry opportunist who cared nothing about slavery.  There are two versions of this—a left-wing version that says Lincoln was a servant of capitalism and a right-wing version that says the Civil War was really about state’s rights.

The Southern leaders in fact only cared about state’s rights as a means of defending slavery.  They used the power of the federal government to override Northern states that harbored fugitive slaves.  It is true that Lincoln did not run for President as an abolitionist.  A Thaddeus Stevens could not have been elected.  Lincoln’s platform was to stop the spread of slavery into parts of the nation where it did not then exist.  This, he claimed, would lead to the gradual extinction of slavery.  The Southern leaders agreed.  They thought Lincoln such a threat that they led their states out of the Union.

Lincoln wrote a famous letter to Horace Greeley, saying his priority was to save the Union by any means necessary, whether that meant freeing the slaves, leaving them in bondage or freeing some and not freeing others.  This was a correct priority.   Emancipation of the slaves would have been meaningless if the Southern whites has established an independent slave nation.  But when he wrote this letter, the Emancipation Proclamation was in a desk drawer, awaiting a Union victory for Lincoln to issue it.

Critics of Lincoln said the Emancipation Proclamation, which referred only to slaves in areas then in rebellion, did not free a single slave.  This isn’t so.  Many slaves fled behind Union lines to freedom.  The Emancipation Proclamation was based on Lincoln’s claim of wartime authority to confiscate enemy property.  He did not have the authority under law to emancipate slaves generally on his own decision.  This required a Constitutional amendment, which, as the movie shows, he introduced in due course.

Emancipation of the slaves had political and strategic benefits.  It deprived the South of its work force and its moral claims.  Black troops added to the Union strength.  But it had its costs.  Northern whites were divided on this issue.  Southern whites were motivated to fight to the bitter end because emancipation meant an end to their way of life.  Without emancipation, the Confederates might have surrendered before Sherman’s march through Georgia and the rest of the physical devastation of the South.  Or a compromise peace might have been negotiated, as the movie indicates, and the war ended sooner, but with slavery intact.

Click on Lincoln: A More Authentic Wonderment for an appreciation of the movie in the New York Review of Books.

Click on Fact-Checking ‘Lincoln’: Lincoln’s Mostly Accurate, His Advisers Aren’t for historical background in The Atlantic.

Vladimir Estragon on “The Master”

November 18, 2012

I saw the movie “The Master” the other night.   Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the part of a cult leader whose ideas have a family resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard of the Church of Scientology.  I admired his performance and the performance of the other actors.  I was persuaded that someone like him could persuade people to accept a version of reality in which it made sense to say, “You’re either in this for a billion years, or not at all.” But, even so, I didn’t know quite what to make of the movie.   My friend who uses the name “Vladimir Estragon” on the Internet has an interpretation.

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Can Cloud Atlas be made into a movie?

September 9, 2012

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is an amazing novel.  It consists of six interlocking stories—the journal of an idealistic young American in the South Pacific in the 1850s, the letters of a penniless Englishman working his way into the household of a distinguished Belgian composer in 1931, a hard-boiled detective story about a woman investigator proving wrongdoing at a nuclear power plant in 1970s California, a comic account of an English publisher in the present trying to escape for a home for the elderly where he was confined by mistake, a dystopian science fiction story about a cloned worker in a future totalitarian corporate Korea, and an account of inhabitants of a more-distant future Hawaii who have relapsed into barbarism.

Each of the stories would be good as a stand-alone story.  But in the novel, each of them except the last breaks off in the middle and becomes an element in the next story.  So the novel as a whole is more than the sum of its parts.  It shows how the past shapes the present, and both past and present will shape the future.  The structure was more than a clever trick.   Mitchell made it work—at least for me.

Now Cloud Atlas is going to be made into a movie.  I don’t see how this is possible, but I’ll certainly go to see it.

Click on  David Mullan’s Cloud Atlas Review Part One and Part Two, David Mitchell on Writing Cloud Atlas and Reader Responses for a discussion of Cloud Atlas in The Guardian newspaper’s Guardian Book Club.

Click on The Wachowskis for a New Yorker feature article on the making of the Cloud Atlas movie.

Dagny Taggart and the railroads

April 27, 2011

I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged many years ago, and last week saw the movie “Atlas Shrugged Part One,” the first of a trilogy based on the novel.  It is ironic that Ayn Rand chose the railroad heiress Dagny Taggart as the heroine.  American railroads are one of the starkest illustrations of the difference between actual existing capitalism and Ayn Rand’s “capitalism, the unknown ideal.”

The American railroad system did not come into existence as a result of autonomous individuals engaging in voluntary exchange in a free and unregulated market.  The railroads were built by government-chartered limited-liability corporations exercising the power of eminent domain and other quasi-governmental powers.  The transcontinental railroads were subsidized by huge grants of public lands, whose value far exceeded the cost of the railroad construction.

Railroad operators in the 19th century expropriated small property owners in the name of the greater good, and obtained monopoly rights in the name of the public interest.  They never hesitated to call in state militias or federal troops to suppress strikes.  But when farmers and small merchants proposed regulation of monopoly freight rates, they called a violation of property rights and the free market.

Give credit where credit is due.  Construction of the American rail network, and especially the transcontinental railroads, was a great achievement – second only to the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Russia.  It is no small thing to supervise the construction or operation of a railroad. People who can do this well deserve respect and reward.  But few of the fortunes that were made from railroads at the time were made by the people who made the trains run on time.  They were made by financial and political manipulators.

Railroads in the late 19th century were notorious for issuing “watered stock” – stock in such amounts that the stocks’ face value greatly exceeded the value of assets.  At least the stock did represent a tangible asset, however inflated the pretended value.  The market manipulators of today trade in “derivatives,” which do not represent any asset at all.

Railroads carry freight with less expenditure of energy than trucks and much more less than airlines. Yet in the 20th century, the railroads were unable to compete.  It was left to the federal government to reorganize bankrupt railroads into the Conrail and Amtrak systems.

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The best documentary film I ever saw

January 21, 2011

“Waco: the Rules of Engagement, directed by William Gazecki and released in 1997, is about the 1993 stand-off between the Branch Davidian cult and forces of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the avoidable killings that followed.  It is a little long to watch on a TV monitor, but it is the best documentary film I ever saw and one of the best examples of investigative journalism.

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A bipartisan disaster in finance

December 28, 2010

Here is an interview with Charles Ferguson, director of the documentary movie “Inside Job,” about the roots of the 2008 financial crash.  It begins with pointed comments about conflicts of interest and Wall Street influence on the economics profession.

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“Inside Job” is an excellent movie

November 11, 2010

Last night I saw an Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job,” a documentary movie on the Wall Street crisis.  It is excellent journalism and excellent cinema.   Most people who see this movie will leave it not just angry, but better-informed.  Ferguson both names the culprits behind the crisis, and clearly explains the deeper systemic problems.

Ferguson makes the point that there has been no criminal prosecution of financial manipulators, unlike in the lesser savings and loan crisis of an earlier era.  Maybe there is not only such a thing as “too big to fail,” but “too powerful to prosecute.”  The Charles Keatings of that era had much less clout than the Henry Paulsons of today.

Ferguson does not go easy on the Bush administration, but he shows origins of Wall Street’s capture of the government in the Reagan and Clinton administrations and its continuation in the Obama administration which, as in so much else, continues the Bush policies with many of the Bush appointees.

He shows the conflicts of interest among top economists, who receive big consulting and directors’ fees from the financial industry they supposedly are analyzing impartially.  Long ago there was a scandal when radio disc jockeys accepted payola from record companies to play certain records.  We ought to be equally scandalized about payola to academics.  But in fact, these economists are still treated with respect by officialdom and the press, while the economists whose warnings proved true are still regarded as marginal figures.

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Which do you like better? Yoda or Spock?

September 25, 2010

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My favorite Chinese movie

April 22, 2010

My favorite Chinese movie – maybe my favorite movie, period – is “The Emperor and the Assassin,” which came out in 1998.  Its subject is Ying Zheng, who made himself the first ruler of a unified China; his Chin dynasty gave China its name. It is an epic on the scale of “Ben Hur” or “Cleopatra” which took three years to produce. The recreations of ancient palaces, costumes and battles are supposed to be historically authentic. There is a cast of thousands, and the real Chinese army supposedly helped in the battle scenes.

The fascination of the movie is in the moral trajectory of the two main characters.  One is the future emperor, Ying Zheng, who begins as an idealist who wants to unify China and establish peace, and ends as a cruel remorseless tyrant; and the assassin, Jing Ke, who begins as an amoral sociopathic killer and ends as a self-sacrificial hero.

The most unforgettable scene I have seen, in this or any other movie, is the one that introduces the assassin, Jing Ke. He is given a contract to murder a family of sword-makers, which he does with ruthless efficiency.  He first cuts down the old man, then the grown sons with a few swift sword-strokes. Then he hears a sound in the next room. He enters and sees a 12- or 13-year-old girl, standing with her hands behind her back.

He perceives that the girl is blind. She says quietly, You’ve killed my family, haven’t you?  I want you to kill me. You can see I can’t survive on my own like this. Just kill me.

The assassin hesitates. The girl then pulls out a sword in her right hand, and plunges it into her stomach. He involuntarily moves forward to pull it out. She then pulls out her other sword in her left hand, and makes a stabbing motion. Unfortunately, being blind, she miscalculated his position and only stabbed thin air.

Oh, she says calmly, You’re left-handed. And she dies.  The assassin cries out in anguish, not at having killed a harmless little girl, but at witnessing the death of a spirit mightier than his own. His anguish causes him to renounce violence – for a time.

I love this scene, not because I am a sadist, but because it shows what it means to be totally committed. I have lived my own life by the principle of “moderation in all things.” That can be the key to a good life, but greatness (for good or evil) is achieved by those who stop at nothing to achieve a goal.  The movie is full of scenes like that.

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Why I like Chinese movies

April 21, 2010

I became an enthusiast for Chinese movies for a few years after attending the 1996 World Science Fiction convention.  In one suite, there was a continuous showing of Japanese animation films, and, in another, of Hong Kong action films.

The host for the Hong Kong action marathon was Ric Meyers, who wrote a column called Inside Kung Fu.  He was a fan of Hong Kong action videos at a time when they were not shown in the United States outside Chinatown neighborhoods, and the movie theater staff discouraged Westerners from attending.

Hong Kong action films were low-budget movies designed to appeal to laborers in Hong Kong.  Compared to Hollywood action films, they had more acrobatics, more surprising plot twists, more violence, a higher body count, broader comedy and more over-acting – every possible element that would lend universal appeal.

With old-time Hollywood Westerns, critics used to ask how the gunfighters could fire their six-shooters an indefinite number of times without reloading.  The Hong Kong action heroes avoid this dilemma by bringing enormous satchels full of assorted weapons to their showdowns.  When an action hero runs out of ammo fork, say, his AK-47, he throws it away and reaches into his satchel for an Uzi, or whatever.

Meyers said that a distinguishing mark of Chinese movies is that absence of a boundary between the tragic and the comic.  In the action film “The Killers,” the Chinese star Chow Yun Fatt plays a professional assassin who is doing one last job in order to retire.  In the process, he accidentally causes an innocent young girl to be blinded, and so takes on one more assignment to raise the money she needs for an operation.  He himself is blinded in the final showdown, and he and the girl crawl toward each other. Then they unknowlingly crawl past each other, because they are blind! It is funny, and awful, at the same time.

You have the same thing in the higher-end Chinese movies. In “To Live,” a young woman in childbirth is hemorrhaging and the Communists have sent the doctors to labor camps to punish them for thinking they are superior to nurses and other medical workers.  The woman’s husband, an idealistic Communist, has enough influence to pull a doctor out of the camp.  But the doctor is dazed and tottering on his feet, and the family realizes he is weak from hunger.  They quickly cook an emergency bowl of soup, and spoon it into his mouth, upon which he drops dead.  This is a horrible scene, but somehow funny; I could not keep from laughing, even though I was appalled.

Meyers said the plot of “Hamlet” would make a good Chinese action movie.  Hamlet’s motivation, to avenge the death of his father, is typical of a Chinese movie, as is the high body count and the death of the hero at the end.  In a Western action film, the hero wins the heroine or prepares to move on to his next adventure.  In a Hong Kong action film, the hero goes down impaled on a spear or riddled with bullets, knee-deep in the bodies of his enemies, having avenged the great wrong that has been done him.

The only difference, Meyers said, is that if “Hamlet” had been a Hong Kong action film, somebody in the last act would have been hit in the face with a custard pie.

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Scene from a Chinese movie

April 20, 2010

There is a scene in the Chinese movie, “To Live” (1994) which I have never been able to get out of my mind.

The movie begins with a wealthy young Chinese man, who likes to go out in the evening and gamble.  His young wife and aged father ask him not to, but he says that he works hard all day, and is entitled to some relaxation.

In the scene, the young man has sat down with a professional gambler, when his wife comes in to ask him to go home.

The gambler says, Maybe you’d better go home tonight. The young man answers, No, my wife doesn’t tell me what to do; I decide for myself.

They play their game of chance, and each time the young man loses, he makes puts his chop (signature stamp) in a book.

After a few rounds, the gambler quietly says, The game is over.

The young man says, What do you mean? It’s early yet.

The gambler says, “No, the game is over.  Here is the total of your debt.  Here is a list of all your assets. You owe me everything you have.  The bailiffs will come around tomorrow and sequester your property.

The young man says, At least give me a chance to win my property back?

The gambler says, What are you going to bet with? No, the game is over.

In the movie, this proves to be a blessing in disguise, because when the Communists take over, the gambler is taken out and executed and the penniless young man and his wife are spared.  The rest of the movie is about the couple’s struggle to survive the ups and downs of Communist rule.  During the Great Leap Forward, their little boy is killed in an accident after working himself into a state of total exhaustion in a backyard steel mill project.  During the Cultural Revolution, their grown married daughter dies in childbirth because all the doctors in the hospital have been sent to labor camps.

But it is the opening scene that sticks in my mind. How many times does it happen in the life of an individual, or a nation, that you tell yourself that a habit is harmless because it hasn’t had any bad consequences, and then one day you wake up and see you have passed a point of no return.

I think about this when I think about the path the United States is on – our declining manufacturing industry, our foreign trade deficit, our gridlocked political system. Will we wake up some morning and realize it is too late to do anything?