Both Sides and the Supreme Court

Trump Gorsuch

Donald Trump has made his second nomination for the Supreme Court, and some Democrats are pissed, with a push to increase the court to eleven the next time they have the White House and the Senate (They don’t seem to quite realize that Trump could do it now if Mitch McConnell mentions this will let him put runner-ups from the Gorsuch/ Kennedy interviews on the court.)

A big part of the Democratic complaint is that McConnell behaved outrageously denying Merick Garland a vote. However, I think a look at the history suggests that Democrats are willing to play hardball on Supreme Court picks, and have escalated the situation.

In 1968, Abe Fortas’ nomination to Chief Justice was rejected by the Senate, although a third of his supporters were Republicans and about a third of his Senate detractors were Democrats. There were some ethics questions, which meant that this fell under a different category than the later controversies.

The defeat of Robert Bork represented a new development where a judicial nominee was defeated because of disagreements with his views, as opposed to personal scandals as occurred with Fortas a generation earlier. In 1991, the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas 52-48.

Bill Clinton appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated by 96-3 in the Senate, while Stephen Breyer got 87-9. This showed that Senate Republicans were willing to support qualified nominees from Democratic presidents. In contrast, half of Senate Democrats voted against John Roberts, and the overwhelming majority voted against Alito who was confirmed 58-42, mainly because of political disagreements. When Obama became President, the majority of Republicans voted against his first two choices for the Supreme Court, but this didn’t happen in a vacuum.

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There are a few things during the Bush years that did set the stage for opposition to Obama. Schumer used many Senate maneuvers to block conservative judges Bush nominated for lower courts. As the New York Times noted in 2003…

Most important, people on Capitol Hill say, Mr. Schumer urged Democratic colleagues in the Senate to use a tactic that some were initially reluctant to pursue, and that has since roiled the Senate: a filibuster on the floor of the chamber to block votes on nominees he and other Democrats had decided to oppose. The resulting standoff has Democrats and Republicans on the committee so tense that some joke that they need to come to work with bodyguards.

An internal memo by the staff of Dick Durbin suggested it was important to block judicial nominee Miguel Estrada partly because he was latino, and a potential Supreme Court pick. Schumer expressed a policy goal of blocking any Bush appointees in Late 2007. Democrats showed their support for this by backing him for leadership posts.

As Senator, Obama voted against Roberts and Alito. He was rewarded with a presidential nomination suggesting that Democrats are in agreement with the idea that what matters is the politics of a pick rather than qualifications or character.

The filibustering of Gorsuch represented one more escalation (and it was mostly about posturing, since Republicans broke the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees for a conventionally qualified justice who didn’t change the makeup of the court rather than having to justify it with someone less qualified, or someone who would represent a bigger change from the preceding court.)

I’m sure the escalation will continue, and I don’t know what form it will take. It’s kind of scary to imagine what happens if there’s a vacancy at any point when the opposing party controls the Senate. You can add to that the problem of half the country not being able to identify any Supreme Court justice, which means the people who care the most will be the partisans.

Given how close the 2016 election ended up being, and how some conservatives held their nose for Trump, it’s possible he wouldn’t be in the White House if Obama had recognized that the Republican controlled Senate was going to allow liberal justices to gain a majority on the court, and had picked an old moderate Republican to replace the conservative Scalia.

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Movies Watched in 2018 Part 4

Johnny Belinda

This is a continuation of notes on films I saw this year, following Part 1Part 2 and Part 3. I set myself a challenge of watching ten films per decade (counting the silent era as one decade) allowing for recent additions with additional goals of ten movies from 2016, seventeen from 2017, and eighteen from 2018. I picked some smaller challenges for this entry with five films from the same country (Germany this time), five films by the same director (Fritz Lang for the overlap), five films from the same genre (Noir- also overlaps with noir) and because there are some omissions in the films I’ve seen with female leads- five films with the same actress (Meryl Streep) and five films in which actresses won Academy Awards (here too is some overlap.)  I decided to record which films I saw in theaters; God bless New York’s independent theaters and Moviepass.

Movie #91/ New Film #51/ 1940s Movie #7/ Best Actress Oscar #1: Johnny Belinda
This was once an acclaimed film that has fallen out of fashion, with nominations for Best Picture and every acting category. I was curious about it since Ronald Reagan’s ex-wife won an Academy Award in it (and I get that it’s potentially sexist to mention an accomplished woman in the context of her relationship with a man, but he was President.) This film’s about a doctor teaching a deaf woman how to understand the world in the context of a nasty small town, where she has a loving father and aunt who underestimate her. There are some big twists, some of which are going to be rightly seen as quite problematic due to major decisions made in which she has no agency, and some assumptions about a traumatic event that undercut the message about her intellect.
7/10

Movie #92/ New Movie #52/ 2000s Movie #7/ Meryl Streep Film #1/ Musical #6: Mamma Mia
The musical has its charms, and some decent musical set pieces, as well as a few that undercut the song. For what it’s worth, my mom seems to think it’s imminently rewatchable.
6/10

Movie #93/New Movie #53/ 1940s Movie #8/ Fritz Lang Film #1/ Noir #1: Scarlet Street
This was a film noir with a lot of weird twists and a strange style: the vamp says “jeepers” a lot quite unironically. It’s fun until everything goes to hell, in a way that might seem tonally off. Edward Robinson is great as a sap, who isn’t as pathetic or as innocent as he seems.
9/10

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Movie #94/ New Movie #54/ 2016 Movie #6: Your Name
It’s a comedy with some stunning cartoon art that has a lot of fun with the central concept (teenagers in different part of Japan realize they’re waking up in one another’s body and fall in love the more they learn about one another.) There are some excellent twists and call-backs.
9/10

Movie #95/ 2000s Movie #8/ German Film #1: The Lives of Others
An excellent work about art and what it’s like to live in a totalitarian system. It deserves its reputation as one of the finest films of the 21st Century.
10/10

Movie #96/New Movie #55/ 1950s Movie #5/ Fritz Lang Film #2/ Noir #2: The Big Heat
A pretty nasty noir that seems to invent the things that are now cliches, and raises some interesting questions about how far the hero should go in his quest for justice.
9/10

Movie #97/ New Movie #56/ 1950s Movie #6/ Criterion Film #20/ Noir #3: In a Lonely Place
Excellent Bogart/ Graehme Hollywood romance that doesn’t go in the direction you expect when Bogie’s troubled writer is the top suspect in a murder. The takes on LA that were once bracing have been surpassed, but the cinematography is excellent, the central questions about character are compelling, and the ending is powerful.
9/10

Metropolis 25

Movie #98/Silent Movie #6/ Fritz Lang Film #3/ German Film #2: Metropolis
The first great science fiction movie works as an exploration of values, and a showcase for some of the most stunning sets in film history.
10/10

Movie #99/ 1960s Movie #10/ Theatrical Release #23: 2001- A Space Odyssey
I couldn’t resist the chance to see possibly the greatest science fiction film ever in the 70mm 50th anniversary rerelease. Stunning work of pure cinema in an epic that tackles man’s past and future, with a detour involving one of the great film villains- Hal, whose motives seem quite understandable in this viewing. The take on the future is prescient in some ways, and revealing in its mistakes, but very fully realized.
10/10

Movie #100/ New Movie #57/ 2000s Movie #9: Murnau, Borzage & Fox
Decent documentary on an underappreciated period in film history: when the producer William Fox made popular and critical smashes with German emigre Murnau and Borzage, a largely forgotten two-time Oscar winner.
7/10

Movie #101/ New Movie #58/ 1930s Movie #5/ Criterion Edition #21: Emperor Jones
Excellent showcase for the great Paul Robeson, possibly the best African-American actor in the first half of the 20th Century. There are some technical issues, as well as reflections of dated racial attitudes, but Robeson’s performance is still ahead of its time; an ambitious swindler who tricks his way into becoming ruler.
7/10

Movie #102/ New Movie #59/ 2018 Movie #11/ Theatrical Release #24: Deadpool 2
It’s a decent superhero comedy, although that part’s a bit tonally difficult due to the tragedy that occurs early in the film, as well as Cable’s motivations. The additions to the cast (Brolin’s hardass Cable, Zazie Beetz’s joyful Domino) are pretty decent and there are some nice swerves (the first mission of the X-Force, the post-credit sequence.)
7/10

Movie #103/ New Movie #60/ 1940s Movie #9/ Best Actress Oscar #2/ Hitchcock #6: Suspicion
Hitchcock/ Fontaine’s follow-up suffers in comparison to their Rebecca, as well as the other Hitchcock/ Grant collaborations. It’s a bit dull in the set-up to the heiress getting suspicious of her husband’s potential for murder, which robs the final act of its gravity.
7/10

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Movie #104/ 1940s Movie #10/ Best Actress Oscar #3/ Film Noir #4: Gaslight
The film’s culture cache has increased since I first saw it thanks to the discussions about gaslighting as a phenomenon. The most striking part of it might remain the weirdness of a young Angela Lansbury as a tart maid. Ingrid Bergman is excellent as a young wife who begins to suspect her sanity, unaware of how she’s being manipulated as the victim in a complex theft.
10/10

Movie #105/1930s Movie #6/ Fritz Lang Film #4/ German Film #3/ Criterion Film #22: M
Creepy early sound film with a powerhouse performance by Peter Lorre as a criminal so nasty everyone in Berlin wants him dead. Tremendous cinematography and a dark exploration of difficult questions without any easy answers.
10/10

Movie #106/ 1970s Movie #6 / Meryl Streep Film #2: The Deer Hunter
A while back, I considered the ways artistic output could be measured: how often someone hits high marks, and their batting average. Michael Cimino is an odd act, because he didn’t succeed in either category: he wasn’t prolific, and he had a shit batting average. However, his first film was decent, and his second film was an acknowledged classic (a best picture winner everyone agrees deserved it.) He followed that up with a series of failures, legendary (Heaven’s Gate- even if it’s now reevaluated; Razzie winner Year of the Dragon) and ignored. Watching The Deer Hunter, it’s worth considering what the film industry might have been like if this guy had a few more hits. It remains an interesting film, slow and revealing, matching the best actor of his generation (De Niro) with the best actress (Streep) with a third guy stealing the show (Oscar winner Christopher Walken.)
10/10

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Movie #107/ 1960s Movie #11/ Theatrical Release #25: The Witchfinder General
This was playing at the Metrograph, so I couldn’t resist. The first film on the list that doesn’t count for a category since I’ve seen ten from the 60s. It’s a film I like much more than it’s reputation might merit, aside from the five-star Empire review that brought the film to my attention. The unconventional British period piece about revenge and abuse of power shows has lovely cinematography and a surprisingly powerful performance by Vincent Price as the villain.
10/10

Movie #108/ New Movie #61/ 2018 Movie #12/ Theatrical Release #26: Solo- A Star Wars Story
Decent, but not great Star Wars. It’s probably the weakest film in the series since Attack of the Clones. The cast isn’t bad, but it might be missing something when it’s all about Han Solo, and there isn’t a Luke or Obi-Wan for him to play against. It plays with expectations nicely, especially with the introduction of Chewbacca.
7/10

Movie #109/ New Movie #62/ 2000s Movie #10/ Chinese Film #1: The Eye
It’s an excellent concept for a ghost story, as a blind woman regains her sight after a surgery, and slowly realizes that she can now see the dead. It has a great twist, as a photograph leads to a terrible epiphany. The climax is a bit weak, although it does serve as an exploration of further aspect of the lead’s power.
8/10

Movie #110/New Movie #63/ 1940s Movie #11/ Fritz Lang Film #5/ Noir #5: The Woman in the Window
The story of a middle aged man whose decision to spend an evening with a woman leads to an accidental murder may just be the definitive noir. There are (slightly) better ones, but nothing as noir to the core. It helps that Fritz Lang adds his incredible style to it. The ending was the result of Hays Code censorship, but it works quite well thematically, and as an explanation for some of the more ridiculous plot points.
9/10

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Movie #111/ New Movie #64/ 1980s Movie #7/ Meryl Streep Film #3: Out of Africa
This best picture winner is a beautiful film, but slow. Streep and Redford have solid chemistry, although some of the other relationships are quite underdeveloped, especially when it comes to the African servants, and Klaus Maria Brandauer’s flawed husband (I could see why he was nominated but he might have won if the script were better.)
7/10

Movie #112/ Silent Movie #7/ German Film #4: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Since it came out before the 1920s, it is conceivable that the early horror film was for a few years the best movie ever made. The expressionistic sets are a wonder, and it uses intertitles in surprisingly clever ways. It’s the definitive expressionistic film, and silent horror.
10/10

Movie #113/ 1950s Movie #7: Witness for the Prosecution
A witty legal drama with an excellent performance by Charles Laughton, as a legendary lawyer recuperating from a medical emergency, convinced to take on a murder case. There are excellent twists involving Marlene Dietrich as the wife of the accused, a cold fish who is more than she appears.
9/10

Movie #114/ New Movie #65/ Silent Movie Era #8: Underworld
Probably the most notable of the silent crime films, this film has a surprisingly compelling love triangle at its center, and impressive visuals, while depicting a subculture of the time rather well.
9/10

Movie #115/ New Movie #66/ 1950s Movie #8: Gigi
This musical about a young woman educated to be the mistress of a powerful man is a bit different than I expected (for some reason, I thought there would be more disagreement about matrimony) but it’s quite lovely in the depiction of French high society and has some good songs. The Blu-Ray includes a cut of the 1940s French film, which could use significant restoration but does highlight the faithfulness of the adaptation.
7/10

Movie #116/ New Movie #67/ 2000s Movie #11/ Best Actress Oscar #4/ Meryl Streep Film #4: The Hours
The reputation is a bit mixed. There is much that’s good in the connected arcs of three people facing crises decades apart, and there is power to the final connections, although it is sometimes a bit pretentious and bleak. Nicole Kidman’s transformation is especially impressive.
8/10

Movie #117/ New Movie #68/ 2010s Movie #11/ Meryl Streep Film #5/ Best Actress Oscar #5: The Iron Lady
This is an excellent showcase for Meryl Streep who depicts Margaret Thatcher as a rising politician, world leader, and later in her dotage. The result is generally satisfying, even if sometimes a bit incongruous (although that does seem to be the point with the contrast between her place when her life ended and where she was once was in the world.)
8/10

GLS Aguirre

Movie #118/ 1970s Movie #7/ German Film #5: Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Looking at German films, I’m noticing a trend of powerhouse lead performances that don’t get a lot of screentime, and feature protagonists willing to let others lead the action for a while. Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre is one such man, remaining second in command following a coup. It’s a fascinating take on the arrogance of the early explorers in the Americas.
10/10

Movie #119/New Movie #70/ 1930s Movie #7/ Musical #7: Shall We Dance?
On the one hand, it’s a bit of a trudge, a narrative where the logical ending just keeps getting delayed, and it’s all based on a divide between ballet and Broadway that is utterly alien to modern audiences. On the other hand, it’s Astaire and Rogers. It’s got some great set pieces. And one of the all-time classic movie songs (Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off!)
7/10

Movie #120/ 1930s Movie #8/ Theatrical Release #27: The Old Dark House
Last year, I saw the unrestored version VIA a streaming service, and enjoyed it. I was able to catch a restoration at an independent theater, and it was quite impressive, highlighting the effectiveness of the sets and the skillfullness with which James Whale creates a sense of mood, in a film that has a good sense of character and humor. It peters out a bit at the end, when the bad guy shows up, but is a lot of fun.
8/10

While looking for images for this entry, I did find a nice photo of The Woman in the Window, that seems to not be from the film. It seems to come from a film noir homage by the artist David Lee Guss.

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Best Film I Hadn’t Seen Before: In a Lonely Place

Best Film: 2001, a Space Odyssey

Best film with lead actress Oscar: Gaslight

Best German film: The Lives of Others

Best Fritz Lang film: M

Best Noir: Gaslight

Best Meryl Streep film: The Deer Hunter

Oddly enough, I’ve done two of these entries without touching the 90s.

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On Virtue Signalling

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I had an argument on politics where the phrase “virtue signalling” popped up. I realized that the other guy and I were coming at the topic from different angles. He focused on people who were insincere in their stated convictions, seemingly with the belief that the convictions are understood by all to be good and just. So, an example might be former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a favorite of the #metoo movement until last week when it turned out he was physically abusive to multiple ex-girlfriends. Presumably, he had always known he was in the wrong on that one.

Obviously that’s an example of insincere virtue signalling, but there are further implications. One question would be why an opinion is considered popular enough to signal. If there is a consistent failure for people to be completely ideologically consistent with expressed views, there is a possibility that there is a deficiency in their position. In some cases, the problem may be that the virtue they’re trying to signal isn’t able to withstand scrutiny. There was an example of a writer whose protagonist didn’t seem to stick to his political ideas. If a writer says they have one view, but they don’t articulate in work that addresses the topic, because the situation is more complex and messy, it might suggest the fallacy of their stated view. The same could be true of efforts to implement ideas as policies.

The stated “virtue” will often have unintended consequences, especially when taken to extremes and efforts at oneupmanship. For example, modern politics seems to prize outsiders and denigrate career politicians, so elected officials may virtue signal about their ties to the community and unfamiliarity with the capital. There can be some drawbacks, as decent people who know about the issues and have been involved in it for a while feel the incentive to lie about who they are, and ignoramuses who get elected into office by being fresh faces get rolled by lobbyists who have a better understanding of the existing structures than the newcomers.

Many controversial topics do come down to competing interests, so there will be rivaling virtues to signal, which gets to be another complicating factor. There’s diversity VS qualifications, believe the woman VS innocent until proven guilty, giving young people chances VS ageism, nuance VS moral clarity, etc.

“Virtue signaling” can apply to a situation in which someone takes a good thing and goes too far. The official definition “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue” does allow for the possibility of taking the wrong stand, or someone doing the wrong thing to demonstrate their good character. The idea that all humans should be treated equally works as a starting point but can be problematic if taken to an extreme, if someone demands that airline companies have the same percentage of minority pilots as found in the population, or that hospitals have the same percentage of minority heart surgeons. You can believe that cultures should be treated with respect, but disagree when there’s a push for the United Nations to make cultural appropriation illegal. Virtue signalling could also be something nice but impractical, such as excessive generosity, as when someone supports a project that sounds good, but is either a scam or well-intentioned but poorly run. An example would be FanCon, at best a deeply flawed effort at an inclusive comic convention.

Finally, “Virtue signalling” could be applicable to people who believe in wrong and disgusting things. Antisemites might try to make sure their fellow antisemites know how much they hate Jews. The willingness to threaten an abortionist could be seen as virtue-signalling for members of a far-right group.

I wonder if there’s an underlying reason I came at this from a seemingly atypical angle. Perhaps I’m a particular type of conservative who is concerned about unintended consequences, so my skepticism of virtue signalling is to be suspicious of the incentives, rather than just the individuals who fail to live up to their image.

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Movies Watched in 2018 Part 3

39_Steps_1935_36-1498071315-726x388

This is a continuation of notes on films I’ve seen this year, following Parts 1 and Part 2. I set myself a challenge of watching ten films per decade (counting the silent era up until 1929 as one decade) while allowing for recent films with additional goals of ten films from 2016, seventeen from 2017, and eighteen from 2018. I picked new challenges for this entry with five films by the same director (Hitchcock), five films in the same genre (musical), five films from another country (Italy) and five films connected by a theme: in this case, five directorial debuts, because I’m interested in how people in film choose to do their first projects. At this point, I also aimed to be at least four films into each yearly category.

Movie #61/1930s Movie #4/ Criterion Edition #12/ Hitchcock Film #1: The 39 Steps
The early Hitchcock thriller suffers a bit from technical issues, and some plot-induced stupidity, but it does put the lead through some fun situations and has some decent twists. It has influenced some better movies in later decades (Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the 1990s The Fugitive) but it’s still enjoyable.
8/10

Movie #62/ New Movie #34/ Silent Movie #3/ Directorial Debut #1/ Russian Film #2: Strike
Eisenstein’s debut has striking imagery and sequences, taking advantage of the resources (large groups of extras, interesting 1920s factories) to show major political developments, giving the revolution an epic scale.
9/10

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Movie #63/ New Movie #35/ 1960s Movie #5/ Criterion Edition #13/ Directorial Debut #2/ Musical #1: Head
This is part of Criterion’s BBS Blu-Ray collection, and the first film from the studio that produced Easy River, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. The Monkees film is a just a mess, seeming to be a combination of sketch comedy and modern museum video performance art project, which would be fine if any of it were good.
3/10

Movie #64/ New Movie #36/ 2017 Movie #15/ Directorial Debut #3: The Lego Batman Movie
Chris McKay’s solo film debut is an inventive take on the Batman and Robin story, providing a narrative spine about a loner learning to work together to inspired gags and sequences for a parody and celebration of the dark knight.
7/10

Movie #65/ New Movie #37/ 2017 Movie #16: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
It’s not terrible, as the effects and sets are decent, and there are solid action sequences, but it’s a weaker film than any of the original trilogy, with a villain that isn’t all that interesting, and little new for Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow. The male lead is generic, although Kaya Scodelario’s astronomy buff is better, even if she’s a bit generic in this type of film.
6/10

Movie #66/ New Movie #38/ 2018 Movie #5: Game Night
Decent comedy about sibling rivalry, and mistaken identity, as an ordinary game-obsessed couple comes into conflict with career criminals. Winning performances by Rachel McAdams, and Jason Bateman as the central couple, and Kyle Chandler, as the always one-upping brother whose story takes some decent twists.
7/10

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Movie #67/ New Movie #39/ 2018 Movie #6: Chappaquidick
I can’t help but think this film would have been made forty years ago if it was about a Republican Senator. It is a decent character study of a man who screws up in a terrible way, and a procedural about the inevitable cover-up. Good performances, and it’s also an effective conversation starter.
8/10

Movie #68/ New Movie #40/ 2016 Movie #3/ Criterion Edition #14: Personal Shopper
It’s a weird film that might be trying to do a bit too much, although it has a terrific performance by Kristen Stewart as a woman dealing with a lot (she’s a professional psychic trying to get a sign from her deceased brother, something terrible happens to an employer, she starts getting voyeuristic texts.)
7/10

Movie #69/  1960s Movie #6/ Criterion Edition #15/ Directorial Debut #4: Night of the Living Dead
Romero’s genre-inventing independent film holds up, introducing some of the most iconic monsters in film, while suggesting very ably that humans might be worse. The extras on the Criterion collection are quite illuminating on how he was able to get so much done with limited resources.
9/10

Movie #70/ New Movie #41/ 2018 Movie #7: The Endless
This is an interesting horror film that has some effective world-building, establishing a mystery with some decent payoffs, although the conflict of the characters (two brothers who left a cult as teenagers, and have been unable to find success in their adult lives) isn’t as well-developed and often tonally off.
7/10

Movie #71/ New Movie #42/ 2018 Movie #8: Isle of Dogs
Impressive stop-motion film that has solid animation, a witty script and astounding voice cast. Not Wes Anderson’s best, but a good reminder of his talents.
8/10

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Movie #72/ Criterion Edition #16/ Silent Movie #4: The Passion of Joan of Arc
This might remain the best silent movie I’ve ever seen, a film that just isn’t like anything else, due to the focus on the the last moments in the life of Joan of Arc, as she faces her greatest struggle, the script largely based on the actual trial transcripts, and the artistic decisions Carl Theodore Dreyer that strip anything that isn’t essential tot he story, and focus as much as possible on the powerful performance of Maria Falconetti. It’s unclear that anyone has ever been better.
10/10

Movie #73/ 2000s Movie #7/ Musical #2: Chicago
The musical adaptation has great production values, songs, and cast (four Oscar nominated performances and it could easily have been five- poor Richard Gere) and a messed up take on celebrity culture.
9/10

Movie #74/1950s Movie #3/ Hitchcock Film #2: Rear Window
It might not even be Hitchcock’s top three, although I can’t think of any director who clearly has a better fourth best film. It’s a clever concept as a convalescing photographer recovering from his injuries notices a potential mystery in his building. That part’s executed really well, while there’s also Jimmy Stewart as the lead- likable but a bit flawed, Grace Kelly as the ice queen girlfriend who wants him to settle down, and the stories of everyone else in the apartments.
10/10

Movie #75/ New Film #43/ 1980s Movie #5/ Italian Film #1: Cinema Paradiso
A really-well made film about the power of cinema and fantasy that incorporates specific developments in Italy (censors forbidding the depiction of any kissing, classified information about war dead, a complex massive lottery system) while covering the great artist as a young boy (kind of a brat), young man falling in love with a girl outside his station, and legend returning home.
9/10

Movie #76/ 1960s Movie #7/ Criterion Edition #17/ Italian Film #2: La Dolce Vita
An excellent film on many levels. Structurally, it’s quite interesting, a largely episodic take on the life of an Italian reporter hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, in stories that vary in tone, from fun to pathetic to absolutely shocking. His famed night with Anita Ekberg’s flighty starlet is a smaller role than I remembered from the one time I saw the film, although it’s definitely memorable. I’ve never seen a film that is so effective at burying the character arc, so that it comes out in the intersection of the episodes. It holds up to deep study, but doesn’t require it.
10/10

Movie #77/1940s Movie #4/ Hitchcock Film #3: Rope
A decent thriller where the characters’ amorality is a bit extreme, but it often makes excellent use of the one-shot gimmick.
8/10

Movie #78/ New Film #44/ 1960s Movie #8/ Italian Film #3/ Directorial Debut #5: Black Sunday
Mario Bava’s debut is a creepy take on witches and haunted lineages. It’s very dark and moody, stark, overdramatic and fun. Technically, Bava had directed earlier films, developing a reputation for saving troubled projects after the original directors ran away.
8/10

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Movie #79/ New Movie #45/ 2018 Movie #9: A Quiet Place
It’s a film that shows quite well the day to day life of a family in a messed up environment, with unusually excellent performances for the genre, and tough questions on meaning and purpose.
8/10

Movie #80/ 2016 Movie #4/ Musical #3: La La Land
The Hollywood romance has catchy songs, great costumes and design, winning central performances, and is about something, even if that topic (artistic independence) might come across as increasingly indulgent on a second viewing. Still pretty good, and the parts that are a bit annoying aren’t necessarily unrealistic.
9/10

Movie #81/1940s Movie #5/ Hitchcock Film #4: Saboteur
It’s definitely lesser Hitchcock (the great master admits as much in Hitchcock/ Truffaut) as the story of an innocent man on the run (a common theme Hitchcock typically does better) is combined with clumsy World War 2 era jingoism, which isn’t the best fit for a story about how the right thing to do is to ignore the authorities and help out the guy who seems nice.
6/10

Movie #82/ New Movie #46/ 2018 Movie #10: Avengers Infinity War
This is a weird film to consider because it can’t really be judged in the most basic way: as a standalone film. Instead, it’s essentially the first part of the conclusion to a decade-long saga spread out across 22 films, as well as the beginning of a decent adaptation of Jim Starlin’s cosmic Marvel comics. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but have a different context for it than most filmgoers. As the beginning of a movie equivalent of an event comic, it works pretty well giving most of the heroes decent moments, while keeping the focus on Thanos after years of build-up (and keeping it interesting- imagine the disappointment if he hadn’t been one of the best MCU villains.) Some of this clearly seeds moments in the sequel, although I appreciate how the generic Thanos henchmen serve as the equivalent of mini-bosses, so the heroes accomplish something in this film. And the big moment does deliver.
9/10

Movie #83/ 1940s Movie #6/ Hitchcock Film #5: Shadow of a Doubt
There are parts of the take on small town American life that seem over the top in unintended ways (everyone’s eager to hear a visitor from New York give a speech, dramatic revelations are made at inappropriate times, a sociopath with really strange views goes undetected) although the general story of a teen girl realizing her beloved uncle is a sociopath and trying to figure out how to communicate this to anyone is elevated by the combination of small-town life and noir sensibility, Hitchock’s use of tension, and the performances by Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton.
9/10

Fiddler on the Roof 2

Movie #84/ New Movie #47/ 1970s Movie #4/ Musical #4: Fiddler on the Roof
Exceptional musical, that works with the strength of the material, the cast, and the central story of a Jewish family adjusting to change in Czarist Russia.
9/10

Movie #85/ New Movie #48/ 2016 Movie #5/ Musical #5: Popstar Never Stop Never Stopping
Decent satire of the modern music industry elevated by the quality of Lonely Island’s absurd riffs (The Bin Laden song), and the payoff to some jokes (the quickchange disaster being a highlight.)
7/10

Movie #86/ 1950s Movie #4/ French Film #6/ Criterion Edition #18: Pickpocket
The story of a young man compelled to commit petty crimes is stylistically quite daring, and worth deeper examination in the complex decisions made by the characters. The mechanics of how the pickpockets operate is a highlight.
9/10

Movie #87/ New Movie #49/ Silent Movie Era #5/ Directorial Debut #6: Nanook of the North
The context is a bit weird, since it was essentially a prototype for two types of films: the documentary, as well as a sustained narrative starring amateur actors. It’s a fascinating spotlight of a very different culture (the Eskimo about a hundred years ago) with personality and strong visuals.
9/10

Movie #88/ 1960s Movie #9/ Criterion Edition #19/ Italian Film #4: 8 1/2
One of the best films ever about the creative process, as well as one of the best films ever about a person’s inner life (granted, you probably can’t have the former without the latter). An excellent cast, and some truly inspiring twists.
10/10

Movie #89/ New Film #50/ 1980s Movie #6: The Karate Kid
An excellent underdog sports movie, where the best part is the friendship between the kid (an Italian from New Jersey who has to go to California) and his mentor. Some of the moments seem kind of obvious, although that’s largely because of the impact of the film, and how it has permeated the culture (IE- the wax on/ wax off training.)
9/10

Movie #90/ 1970s Movie #5/ Italian Film #5: The Conformist
Beautifully shot film about a man who just wants to be ordinary, but who has the bad fortune to live in Fascist Italy.
9/10

Best Film I Hadn’t Seen Before: Cinema Paradiso

Best Film overall: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Most Disappointing Film: Head

Best Musical: La La Land

Best Italian Film: La Dolce Vita (they were all good)

Best Directorial Debut: Night of the Living Dead

Best Hitchcock: Rear Window

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A Vice-Presidential Primary?

There was an interesting hypothetical on a political forum: What if nominees for Vice President were selected in primaries the way many states select candidates for Lieutenant Governor?

It highlights the problems with the method many states have of selecting Lieutenant Governors. Those should be replaced by a system where a candidate for Governor chooses a running mate after securing the nomination, so that the pool of potential nominees can include people who lost primaries for other prestigious posts, rather than limiting to those who initially see Lt. Governor as their best shot. It could very well be that an also-ran for Governor, Senate, US House, or Attorney General has greater political talent than those who pick this one particular office.

There is a bit of a distinction that Lieutenant Governors have specific responsibilities, like presiding over the State Senate, whereas a Vice President’s power can be determined by the strength of their relationship with the president. So it may make more sense to have these primaries, although this rarely comes up in the campaigns.

There are additional issues with applying a primary system to Vice Presidents, which would prevent some recent nominees from being selected. The VP would be someone who has been campaigning for the post for at least an year before the election, which excludes presidential primary also-rans (Ronald Reagan picked George HW Bush, John Kerry picked John Edwards, Barack Obama picked Joe Biden), retired statesmen who might be talked into campaigning for a few months (Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney) but not longer, and statewide officeholders/ prominent cabinet-congressional members who might be uncomfortable spending over an year running for non-presidential national office, or for promising to serve with any presidential candidate their party selects. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine probably would have been willing to do it, though, so it might not have changed too much in 2016.

The constitutional restriction against electors voting for people from the same state also complicates matters. How would it be coordinated that two California Democrats or two New York Democrats or two Texas Republicans don’t win both spots on the ticket, resulting in a potentially difficult situation with electors who are legally not allowed to vote for candidates for President and Vice President from their state?

One further problem is that the VP candidate might end up being a poor match for the top of the ticket. In 2012, John Huntsman could have been a good fit for Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Tim Pawlenty, but not Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon businessman. There could be weirdness if the same ethnic or religious minorities were on both the top and bottom of the ticket, without either candidate wanting that outcome. You might also have two candidates for different offices trying to sabotage one another during the primary process, which isn’t conducive to party unity.

Electing an Attorney General makes more sense, though.

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Oscar Ratings And Popular Films

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The ratings for the most recent Academy Awards were the lowest-ever by a large margin. This leads to some questions about why that is.

Is there too much focus on material that isn’t commercial? Is Hollywood liberalism turning off moderate and conservative viewers? Are the decisions made by powerful white men turning off viewers?

One major issue is that the Academy makes certain decisions that aren’t based on merit, and this diminished the award. There’s some focus on the private lives of nominees, but a related problem is that the Academy isn’t nominating the most popular films. That’s an understandable decision when the films are bad, but not as much when the films are well-reviewed. There are certain types of films that will get nominated if they’re good enough (the likes of The Post) and I could understand why viewers wouldn’t be interested in the awards if they felt that a superior film that they liked wasn’t nominated.

In the last decade, there have been opportunities to nominate good films that haven’t been taken. I do have a general rule when criticizing Oscar nominations that someone has to be willing to mention what shouldn’t be nominated when promoting someone else, so I’ll look at that as well.

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In 2008, the decision to not nominate The Dark Knight is seen as responsible for the Academy expanding the best picture nominations to ten. It was probably a worthier choice for Best Picture/ Best Director than any of the nominated films, as something that was excellent at the time and remains relevant today. Downey Jr’s Tony Stark had a bigger effect than Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, so that would have been a better lead actor nomination. A quick issue is that suggesting a film should’t be nominating isn’t the equivalent of saying its bad, just not in the top one percent of its category. There’s a bit of a problem in Hollywood that quite a few films are made under the assumption of Oscar nominations as part of the marketing, which really should never be the case, because no one would know in advance if a supporting performance will be the fourth best of the year, which means it should be nominated, or the seventh, which means it should not.

2009 included Best Picture nominations for Avatar and Up, so there isn’t much of a complaint in that category. I do suspect more people will fondly remember Up than than The Hurt Locker, so there’s an argument that it should have been the one to win Best Picture.

In 2010, Toy Story 3 was nominated as was Inception. Neither was nominated for Best Director, even if their work was better received than David O’Russell for The Fighter.

2011 was a bit of a rebuilding year for blockbusters. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was good, but not the top ten films of the year good. A nomination would have been popular, although largely based on the strength of the rest of the series. The rest of the Top five was pretty weak, with a Twilight sequel, a Transformers sequel, a Hangover sequel, and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean.

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In 2012, Jennifer Lawrence probably didn’t get a nomination for Hunger Games, because she’s only limited to one per category, and she had Silver Linings Playbook. Skyfall was an acclaimed hit, so it would’be been better had it been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (over David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook, or” Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild), Best Actor (over Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook), and Best Supporting Actor (over Alan Arkin in Argo, although it was a strong year in the category.)

2013 honored Gravity, which did win Best Director. I do think Frozen should’ve been a Best Picture nominee, as it’s had more staying power than Philomena (a perfectly good film).

In 2014, American Sniper was the movie of the year, and got multiple nominations. Captain America: Winter Soldier is one of the contenders for best MCU film, so it should have been nominated for Picture (over The Theory of Everything), Director (over Morten Tydum), and Screenplay (over The Theory of Everything).

In 2015, The Revenant was a hit and The Martian was nominated in major categories. To be fair, the best picture winner Spotlight wasn’t a box office smash, but it was really good. In terms of ratings and cultural impact of the Oscars, it might have been better to nominate the Force Awakens, although its staying power is a bit questionable, due to the later realization that it rehashed old territory.

In 2016, Captain America: Civil War should have been nominated for Best Picture (over Hacksaw Ridge), Best Director (over Mel Gibson), and probably Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey Jr- although I’ll be honest I’ve got to catch up on Lion, Manchester By the Sea, Nocturnal Animals, and Hell or High Water before making a definitive declaration here.)

In 2017, Star Wars: the Last Jedi should’ve been nominated for Director (over Phantom Thread), Picture (over The Post), Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Mark Hamill over Woody Harrelson), Adapted Screenplay (over The Disaster Artist) and Supporting Actress (Carrie Fischer over Octavia Spencer.) Wonder Woman should have gotten a nomination for Best Actress since we’ll remember Gal Gadot’s performance for some time, probably more than Margot Robbie in I, Tonya.

Nominating good popular films is a key way to go in order to increase the relevance of the Oscars, although this is a bit incomplete. How do you change the habits of Hollywood insiders? Lifetime bans on anyone who hints that anything other than quality matters would be controversial. This was an issue during the #metoo movement when there’s a push against douchebags nominated in key categories. And they can’t really just kick out people with bad taste. They could try to nudge voters in a particular way, but this could backfire.

If there was a way to put a thumb on the scale to get popular nominations, that might engender a backlash or a push for further manipulation. This was a suggestion to offset the Oscars So White backlash, allowing for extra nominations that fit some quota. Once you do it one way (well-received blockbusters), there’ll be pressure to do it in another (representation, political messages, etc).

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There has been a push for new categories limited to effects heavy films, such as best live-action performance. One idea might be a category for characters that aren’t the result of one actor. This could be animated characters, stop motion performances, and even trained animals (which opens it up to films like The Artist). It would fill the Academy’s goal of educating the public, in a way that I’d imagine people would enjoy.

A fair counterpoint to the view that the Academy should consider popular films more, is that they have another more significant bias against foreign film (it is ridiculous to suggest that Amour is the only foreign language film in the last decade to be one of the best of the year) but there’s no real push against this because there’s no financial interest in nominating people from films that make even less money in the US than the typical Oscarbait films.

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat suggests that one issue is the lack of middlebrow films with broad appeal. The problem isn’t that Hollywood is nominating the wrong films, but that it isn’t making enough of them in the first place.

The ideal Oscar nominee is a kind of high-middlebrow work, a mix of star power and strong writing and gripping storytelling that at its best achieves great artistry (as happened often in the 1970s, less often in other eras) but even if it falls short maintains a certain level of quality joined to broad, dare-one-say populist appeal. The classic Hollywood genres, from gangland movies to historical epics to literary adaptations to Westerns and war movies and musicals, were all calibrated for this zone, and when the calibration was successful, the Oscar nominators had a lot of material to work with that was at once popular and pretty-good.

To pick a representative year from my adolescence, in 1996 the academy nominated five movies for Best Picture — a classic-novel adaptation and romantic comedy in “Sense and Sensibility”; a historical epic-war movie in “Braveheart”; a work of can-do Americana in “Apollo 13”; and then an ingenious children’s movie in “Babe” and a foreign film in “The Postman” (“Il Postino”). The foreign movie made “only” about $21 million in domestic United States box office (still a large haul for a subtitled movie); the other four made about $354 million combined, with “Apollo 13” the easy leader. Adjusted for today’s ticket prices, that works out to well over $700 million in contemporary dollars between them …

… which is more than the total earned by the nine movies nominated for Best Picture in 2018. The winner, “The Shape of Water,” is the most popular trophy-getter in five years — and its current box office take is just $58 million.

What has happened in the intervening years is well known to everyone. The combination of a global audience (which doesn’t necessarily relate to a lot of old-Hollywood genres and tropes), the ease of substituting special-effects work for storytelling, the ascent of geek culture and the lure of online life and the flight of talent and viewers to the ever-expanding realm of prestige TV have turned Hollywood into a comic-book blockbuster industry with an Oscar-bait subsidiary.

The result is a cinematic common culture increasingly reduced to Marvel sequels and other genre remakes and reboots and spinoffs. Half the Top 10 highest-grossing movies in 2017 were superhero movies; you have to go 13 spots down the list, to Pixar’s “Coco,” to find a movie that isn’t based on a “presold” pop culture property. This is the landscape from which the academy has to pick its nominees, and it basically offers them a choice between mass-market mediocrity and the more rarefied fare that now dominates the Oscars.

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One issue with his response is that it is largely based on subjective opinions (he thinks Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn’t worth nominating for Best Picture, but Blade Runner 2049 is when the latter doesn’t make sense from the point of view of honoring blockbusters) which any would-be pundit is vulnerable to. In these analyses, it helps to look at metrics developed by other people, like imdb ratings or rotten tomatoes scores. I’m a bit curious as to how someone would objectively measure why Spotlight (a Best Picture winner with a domestic gross under $50,000,000) isn’t a middlebrow mix of star power and strong writing.

A final factor in declining ratings, and the nominations of films with low box office is the nicheification of culture, as people fall into smaller and smaller subgroups with increasingly limited common ground. One result of this may be the way movies from the early 90s (Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs, Unforigven) regularly pop up on Best of lists, but films from later years don’t do so in the same frequency. There’s less of a consensus on what’s the best of that era, which could diminish the perceived significance of markers of consensus like academy awards.

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The Firing of Kevin Williamson

Atlantic

The Atlantic made a really bad decision recently in firing Kevin Williamson for expressing a controversial opinion on abortion, weeks after hiring him because he is able to articulate controversial opinions.

Some of the people pushing for his removal predicted a spate of hot takes defending him, although this isn’t really a hot take matter, since there are sincere good-faith opinions on multiple sides (people who disagree with Williamson on most issues and think he was a poor fit for the Atlantic, people who agree with Williamson on most issues and think he’s good fit for the Atlantic, people who disagree with Williamson on most issues and think he’s a good fit for the Atlantic.) Hot takes are done in bad faith, and most of the discussion doesn’t fall in that category.

The underlying question is more about what ideas should be considered so beyond the pale that there must be professional repercussions to voicing them, and whether the belief that abortion should be treated as a serious crime with what this implies in terms of criminal penalties falls into category. Personally, I don’t think obtaining an abortion should be treated as a serious crime. My view on the controversy is that the belief that abortion should be a serious crime should not be considered to be so outrageous as to be a cause for denying employment, especially when the specific goal was to get a diverse array of opinions.

There is a key distinction here that might not matter for many. My understanding of Williamson’s comments was that it was about a policy going forward, with the understanding that this would be unlikely to actually be put into law, rather than an explicit endorsement of ex post facto or extralegal punishment. I don’t know how much this matters to anyone, whether there’s someone else who thinks the idea that in the future abortion can have the maximum criminal penalty possible is acceptable to discuss, but advocacy of prosecuting anyone for things they did in the past when these were legally and fully protected by the law is going too far.

There are two further problems with the Atlantic’s decision.

I think people should be honest about the implications of their views, and the decision encourages an intellectual cowardice in which people are unwilling to say what they believe, or to openly consider the implications of their own views. Late-term abortion is a rather icky procedure, and people who advocate for it should be honest about what they want, rather than sanitizing it. People who want police officers to change their procedures and use force less often should be willing to discuss the downside of what they want (greater risk for police officers which does mean more dead cops) in addition to the upsides (other people get to live; probably resulting in a net gain in terms of lives saved.) There’s a potential counterpoint to that one in that there will be people who believe that there will be no effect on police safety if they are trained to wait longer before opening fire, although that suggests the pundit would be willing to abandon the earlier position should any new information come to light.

The second problem with what the Atlantic did is that the belief that abortion should be treated as a serious crime is one that is held by a non-trivial percentage of Americans. It’s not going to go away if there’s a refusal to engage it, and when people who hold these positions are marginalized or realize that they should keep quiet, the main result is that the public and the media are less informed, and don’t realize the popularity of a position until a state legislature passes a bill on it. Buck Sexton notes how a smaller range of acceptable ideas creates more ideological polarization, a further issue.

Selfishly, I’m happy that this mess probably means the continuation of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen podcast.

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