The High and the Mighty

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Two thousand thirteen was a hard year for this column. As soon as things seemed to be settling down, another threat or evil tendency always intruded itself. You know what happens when you finally get the floor washed and waxed: along comes your neighbor, or the guy who’s replacing the sink, or your friend who just happened to be driving past, and suddenly the place is filthy again. Word Watch is still trying to clean up the mess of 2013, and now 2014 is making its own kinds of mess.

The verbal polluters hail from the strangest places. In December, Word Watch was informed, through the majesty of CNN, that someone absurdly styling himself William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, Baron Carrickfergus, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, and heir to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not to mention the British Dominions beyond the Seas, had made himself the centerpiece of a video documentary — a work so repulsive that it has to be noticed, and warned against, despite the strangeness of its apparition.

The thing is called “Prince William’s Passion,” but don’t get the wrong idea. What he’s passionate about is animal conservation in Zimbabwe. Oh fine. But the offspring of his passion — a documentary of unbearable length, whatever time it literally consumes — can be viewed for only a few minutes before one’s sanity is endangered. I stopped watching as soon as I suspected I was going crazy, so I didn’t get to see it all. It seems improbable, however, that the epos includes any reference to the fact that Zimbabwe harbors not only animals but one of the most rapacious tyrannies on earth. Prince William’s passion is conservation of wild life, not of human life.

Well, we all have our passions. Job candidates are tortured to reveal what they are passionate about. The people one meets at parties disconcertingly confess their lifelong passion for rubber baby buggy bumpers. Dead people are praised for having consistently succumbed to — I mean followed — theirpassions (note to file: check the Hitler obits). Angry people call radio advice shows to complain that their spouses are frustrating their passions — and again, sex is not the problem. The passion always turns out to be something like writing children’s books or running a home for ferrets.

Zimbabwe harbors not only animals but one of the most rapacious tyrannies on earth. Prince William’s passion is conservation of wild life, not of human life.

So the prince has passions; so what? What most alarmed this viewer was the documentary’s sad evidence of the deficient education that royal persons now receive. As the grand summary of his weltanschauung — or is it only his gestalt? — His Highness uttered these memorable words:

Conservation is so key.

For years we have observed the ugly progress of key from a normal, though uninteresting, modifier (“That was a key consideration”) to an ungainly predicate adjective (“That consideration is key”). So what’s wrong with that? Two things.

1. Key naturally evokes images of a physical object, an object that exists not for itself but as a means of opening or entering something else. The original setting of key was in sentences such as, “That consideration is the key to our success.”Thrusting key onto the stage alone is contrary to established and useful idiom and associations; it needs, at least, a noun immediately following it (“key consideration”).

2. Used in the new, naked way, key usurps the place of more useful and exact modifiers. There’s a big difference between an important consideration and a crucial consideration,a helpful consideration, and so on. Key obliterates the alternatives and ends the possibility of precision.

Maybe that’s why it has become a cliché — that is, an easy substitute for thought. Much worse, however, is the elevation of key to the status of a metaphysical quality that cannot be qualified but can only be intensified. How key is conservation, Your Highness? Is it really key? Sort of key? Very key? He can’t say. All he can say — with passion — is that it is so key. Dude.

Another dude is Christopher James (“Chris”) Christie, governor of New Jersey. Unlike Prince William, Christie is a dude but not a twit. He earned a lot of praise when, on January 9, he held a long, colloquial, and seemingly frank press conference to deny that he had anything to do with the artificial bottleneck that his aides created at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, in order to wreak vengeance on political foes. What has been forgotten was Christie’s first response to the bridge news (Jan. 8). Here is the entirety of his statement:

What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.

Notice that second sentence. It declares that the governor is outraged that wrong conduct happened without his knowledge — literally meaning that he wouldn’t have been outraged, had he known about it. He came close to a similar blunder in the first sentence, which damns whatever it was that he saw “today for the first time” but leaves open the possibility that he wouldn’t regret any bad behavior he’d seen for the second or third time.

Almost everything about the statement is odd. When have you ever heard of conduct being made? And when, in normal life, have you heard an apology that says nothing whatever about what is being apologized for? Unfortunately, however, such abnormalities have become normal in our political life. Politicians and their highly specialized, highly paid, highly communicative aides are constantly losing control of basic English, and apologies are constantly being wrenched into things like pretzels — all twist and no center.

Obama’s popularity is now at an all-time low, and according to all available polling, a major cause is people’s growing conviction that he is a phony, pure and simple.

Following the practice of his friend, President Obama, Christie originally reacted to criticism by sneering at it. He spent a long time denying that the bridge episode had happened. He ridiculed the very idea. He found nothing exceptional or exceptionable in the long, gross imposition of force that someone perpetrated on the public by restricting rush-hour access to a bridge in order to conduct a “traffic study.” If Christie had any interest in what words mean, he would have said, “What the hell kind of study!” and brought the matter — whether it was a traffic study or an intentional persecution of innocent drivers — to an immediate end. Of course he didn’t. Then, like Obama on the IRS scandal, he became outraged. Aren’t you tired of that word? Aren’t you saddened by it?

One thing that everyone continues to be tired of and saddened by is the president’s folksy fakery. There are millions of examples, but here’s one from an interview he gave on Nov. 14:

I’m just gonna keep workin’ as hard as I can around [he emphasized that word] the priorities the American people have set for me.

If you want proof of how out of touch Obama is, try that remark. Nobody thinksthat by dropping his g’s he’s bein’ anythin’ other than phony, yet he jus’ keeps on doin’ it. As for workin’, it didn’t take very long for people to find out that Obama doesn’t work very hard at anything but golf. After seein’ his popularity fall from very high to very low during the first few months of his presidency, he started playin’ these verbal tricks. Result? Nothin’. His popularity is now at an all-time low, and according to all available polling, a major cause is people’s growing conviction that he is a phony, pure and simple. But he jus’ keeps on pretendin’ that he’s nothin’ but a workin’ man, sweatin’ away on the job site jus’ like ever’body else.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the president’s curious conviction that he lives in the 1970s. I doubt that there’s a political program he’s offered that wasn’t one of the American people’s priorities, as identified by Jimmy Carter — with the sole exception of amnesty for illegal aliens, whom ’70s Democrats generally perceived as inimical to the cause of high union wages. (They still are inimical to union wages, but the unions of today are down so low that their only hope is to assemble enough naïve voters to help them retain their political power and subsidies.)

The tipoff is that word around. Nobody but leftists, embedded in the ideas of the ’70s like rocks in a glacier, uses around in that (frankly) idiotic way. Asked what they’re doing with their lives, kids who have been coopted into what are now old-leftist pressure groups can be depended upon to say, “I’m working around issues of income inequality”; “We’re working around questions of peace”; “I’m interested in working around issues like, uh, climate change.” In the same way, Obama keeps working around priorities.

Just try to picture this working around. Imagine an issue, or a question, or, for God’s sake, a priority. Never mind whether you think that the American people set thatpriority. Just try to picture the thing itself. Now picture somebody working around it. What’s he doing? Is he fencing it off? Laying tile to keep the ground water out? Or is he evading it, as people do when they try to get around an obstacle?

However you picture it, around in ’70s speak has the same rhetorical function that it has in such sentences as, “I think there are around a hundred fallacies in the president’s argument.” Its only use is to impart vagueness. Yet in the stale old “radical” tradition from which Obama has not escaped, people assume that around imparts some kind of solemnity. It doesn’t, and the fact that they think it does is sad evidence of their inability to reflect on what they’re saying.

It wasn’t the grace of God that kept Barack Obama from poverty. It was a banker grandmother, elite private schools, an indulgent Harvard Law School, adoption by a political machine, and fat contributions from wealthy people.

The president’s addiction to folksiness is closely linked to his passion for clichés. Almost anything he says is a cliché, but I was especially impressed by the phoniness of the double cliché he emitted when speaking on January 7 of people’s supposed entitlement to be paid despite the fact that they don’t have a job. He was speaking in favor of the dozenth extension of unemployment benefits since mid-2008. How could anyone be in favor of that? Because it helps people survive until they get back to work? But economic studies, with which Obama is presumably familiar, indicate that people tend strongly to get back to work when their unemployment payments are about to cease.

Obama stated his reasons, and they had more to do with metaphysics than they did with economics: “We’re all in this together,” he opined. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

May I suggest that it wasn’t the grace of God that kept Barack Obama from poverty? It was a banker grandmother, elite private schools, an indulgent Harvard Law School, adoption by a political machine, and fat contributions from wealthy people. In return for these favors, he now spends his days ladling out clichés like we’re all in this together. And he talks of God.

And speaking of God: the deity’s friends and purported friends — holy men and hirelings, true shepherds and false — have performed more service for the English language than anyone but that skeptic, Shakespeare. Consider the King James Version of the Bible. Consider the Book of Common Prayer. Consider the Anglican manner of the KJV and BCP, as echoed by Jefferson and Lincoln — or, if you want libertarians, Paterson and Rand. But that was then; this is now. A news item of January 4 reports that “the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans,” is supporting yet another revision of the Book of Common Prayer, which his cohorts have already revised within an inch of its life. This revision eliminates all mention of sin from the baptismal service, thereby eliminating a good deal of its seriousness and almost all of its purpose. If you’re not a sinner, why do you need to be baptized? Why do you need a church, and a baptismal rite to let you into it?

Well, not to panic. Welby is far from the real leader of the world’s fourth-largest group of Christians. Outside of Britain, which is the only place affected by this latest theological-linguistic plague, he is generally regarded as a fifth wheel. And the anti-intellectual, or at least the anti-theological, tendency of the current mania for revision is sharply opposed by other religious potentates. According to AFP and the Mail:

Former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali said the move, which is being trialed until Easter in around 1,000 parishes, was part of a "constant dumbing down of Christian teaching".

"Instead of explaining what baptism means and what the various parts of the service signify, its solution is to do away with key elements of the service altogether."

Amen. But look at what Britons call this process of dumbing down. The “move,” they say, “is being trialed.” Lord save us — this locution may invade America. Beware the first symptoms:

“Are Jim and Susan living together?” “Yes, they’re trialing their relationship.”

“The administration continues trialing its newest version of what happened at Benghazi.”

“I was once a conservative, but I was only trialing.”

“I trialed writing English, but it was just too tough for me.”




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And We All Frack On

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Several recent stories show that the amazing technology of fracking continues to transform the energy world.

First is the news out of Russia that it has begun drilling a well that aims to tap the huge Bazhenov shale formation. The Bazhenov field, in Siberia, may be the biggest shale formation in the world.

Until now, Russia hasn’t bothered with fracking, even though it has the world’s largest reserves of shale oil (and the ninth largest of shale gas), because it has immense reserves of conventional fossil fuels. But lately its conventional production has begun to stagnate.

So Russia is allowing Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil to partner with its state-owned Gazprom Neft to start the process of developing fracking operations. How quickly it can mimic the American success in this area is hard to tell — certainly, other countries with large shale reserves (such as China, Poland, and the UK) have yet to get any production going, because the technology is tricky. What Russia has going for it is that — unlike the US — Russia has a leader who actually wants to enhance fossil fuel production, rather than destroy it.

Even more fascinating is the report out of Brussels that the European Commission now wants to cut back on the “climate protection” schemes it has pushed in the past and — wait for it — embrace fracking!

Yes, apparently the Commission’s plan is to step back from its aggressively Green agenda, called “20-20-20,” set back in 2007. The plan then was to achieve a 20% drop in greenhouse gas emissions, raise the EU’s output of renewable energy to 20% of all energy consumed, and achieve a 20% increase in the EU’s energy efficiency — all by 2020. The plan now is to switch to pursuing these green energy goals only on a voluntary basis.

As regards fracking, the Commission now intends to establish only minimal rules, instead of the very strict ones it was considering.

The interesting question is whether Germany’s head Angela Merkel will continue to push for an increase in the use of renewables. She has set the goal for generation of renewable energy in Germany at 60% by 2036. Considering that after Fukushima, Merkel ordered that the German nuclear power industry be closed by 2022, and that half the plants are already shuttered, achieving the renewable goals will drive the cost of German power through the roof.

But she is running into flak from German industry. An article late last year noted that the rising energy prices in Germany and dropping prices elsewhere were beginning to put pressure on German manufacturers to start offshoring much of their operations.

I mean, this is just fascinating: when America is finally free from our current Green president, and we once again encourage domestic oil and gas production, we may find that we get back some of the heavy industry we lost to the Germans decades ago. Hell, maybe their automakers will completely relocate here.

Of course if they do, they will need new names. Instead of Bayerische Motoren Werke, might I suggest Tennessee Motor Works? And Mercedes Benz — well, “Mercedes” is so dated. We might try “Miley” (after our famous twerker-girl pop star). Perhaps “Miley Bends” would work . . .

A recent Wall Street Journal piece noted that many EU companies are moving production to the US, because of our relatively inexpensive energy — and, one might add, because at least in the half of all American states that have right-to-work laws, our labor rules are more realistic.

Finally there is a story about a start-up company called Siluria, which may possibly have solved the technological hurdles in the way of turning abundant natural gas into cheap gasoline — gasoline at about half the price of the current product distilled from petroleum.

Siluria is trying to do what so far has been impossible. While gas-to-liquids plants do exist (plants that convert natural gas to liquid fuels, including gasoline), they are very costly. It takes a lot of energy to do the conversion. For years, companies have searched for a catalyst that would make the conversion more cost-efficient, but so far, no catalyst has succeeded. Siluria has a new approach: it has built an automated system for making and trying out new catalysts. The system has already sifted through 50,000 possibilities, and the company feels that the performance of the catalyst currently in use at its experimental conversion plant justifies opening two larger-scale plants to prove to investors that it has a commercially viable approach.

A number of other companies are trying to find a commercially attractive way to convert natural gas to liquid fuels — none of which, please note, receiving the lavish funding accorded Obama cronies’ multitudinous green energy companies (most of which have failed).

In fact, the whole fracking revolution was entirely the creation of a handful of brilliant entrepreneurs in the private economy, operating in the face of the administration, not with its help. Over the decades, the role of the federal government in confronting our energy dependence on the Mideast has been one of trying to pick winning technologies, and failing every time. Not just failing, but failing at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars, all the while impeding private enterprise.

It is time just to end the idiotic Federal Energy Department, and let the free market solve the problem.




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Fog of War

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Two Films: One Right, One Not So Right

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The weakest of this season’s Oscar finalists is Philomena. This film about an Irish woman’s search for the baby she gave up for adoption, more than half a century earlier, has received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It is a good film, with moments that are lighthearted and funny and other moments that are deeply emotional and full of anguish. The performances by Judi Dench as Philomena; Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the down-on-his-luck journalist who helps her; and Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena are top-rate. But the film is marred by the same characteristic that is probably driving the critics and the Academy to rave about it: it revels in unfair and bitter vitriol against the Catholic Church. Hollywood loves to hate religion.

Philomena is really the story of two souls — the title character and the journalist — who have had their lives pulled asunder by external forces. When the young and unmarried Philomena becomes pregnant, her parents send her to a convent house where unwed mothers are hidden away and cared for until their babies are born and put up for adoption. To earn their keep, the girls do domestic work inside the convent, and they are allowed to see their babies every day until homes are found for them. But the outcome is known from the beginning: the girls have come to the convent to hide their pregnancies, give up their babies, and return to normal life. The nuns are simply doing what they agreed to do.

Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church.

The sad truth, however, is that no one knows until she has experienced it how hard the mothers’ role really is. How can she “return to normal life” once she has had a baby growing inside her? Whether she marries the father, raises the child by herself, gives the child to another family, or terminates the pregnancy, there is no forgetting the child and no going back to what life was like before. Parents of the pregnant girl might mean well in trying to go backward; “six months away and it will be as though it never happened,” they might think. But they don’t know. Certainly the nuns and priests don’t know; they’ve taken a vow never to become parents except indirectly, as Mother Superior or Father to the flock. Only the members of this exclusive club of special mothers can truly know what it’s like, so I won’t pretend to suggest that I know the answers. I only know that it’s hard.

The film turns the nuns and the church into the villains of the story, and it’s true (or seems to be true) that they were harsh in how they enforced their rules. But it should be remembered that no one in the church reached out and kidnapped these young unwed mothers; their parents sent them to the convents, and social custom embraced the plan. In a climate in which unwed mothers were treated as outcasts and their children were treated as bastards, these premature grandparents did what they thought was best for their daughters, the babies, and the childless couples who wanted them. And yes, for themselves. But Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church, through several disparaging remarks made by Sixsmith toward the Church, and even more through the cruel, heartless way the nuns treat the mothers of the babies, and by the deliberate withholding of information by the convent’s head nun. I’m not Catholic, but I am offended by the anti-Catholic sentiment that permeates the film.

Martin Sixsmith has experienced a frustration of his own: as the film opens, he is a former journalist who has been sacked from his position with the Labour Party over an offense that he did not commit. He is outraged by the unfairness and tries to have his job restored, just as Philomena tries to reclaim her son, but to no avail. After reporting international news for so long, he feels demeaned by accepting this fluffy human-interest story for a magazine. But accept it he does, and the two set off for America to trace the snippets of information available to them about the child’s adoptive parents.

They are an unlikely pair, Martin with his international political interests and Philomena with her game shows and romance novels. She nearly drives him nuts with her never-ending summaries of the latest love story she is reading and her penchant for talking to strangers. These lighthearted scenes provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the movie, and balance the scenes of unbearable anguish portrayed by Young Philomena and the more controlled, but just as real, anguish felt by her older self. This is a lifelong pain that never goes away.

The film is certainly worth seeing, on its artistic and its social merits. But better than Inside Llewyn Davis? Or even Saving Mr. Banks? (Neither of them was nominated for Best Picture.) Not on your life. Philomena was nominated purely for its political correctness in hating on the Catholic church. And that’s just not a good enough reason in a season of such outstanding films.

No external considerations were necessary to produce admiration for the next film that I want to consider — another nominee for Best Picture: her.

her is a cautionary tale about the love affair with electronic devices and the disconnect it is causing in normal relationships, from simple inattention to internet dating and cybersex. Even the name, “her,” suggests objectification; the title is not She, and it is not even capitalized. “her” is just the objective case of what once was a woman.In this story of a near-future utopia, the voices that talk to us from our phones and GPS units and have names like “Siri” have developed emotions and personalities that aren’t almost human; in many ways they’re better than human. But this is not Westworld (1973) run amok, with sentient robots destroying their creators in order to take over the planet. No, “her” is a soft-spoken voice that comes in the night, whispering sweet nothings and taking over the creators’ emotions.

But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation.

Theodore Twolmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is an emotionally crippled introvert who writes “heartfelt personal letters” for other people. It’s sort of like being a cross between a Hallmark poet and Cyrano de Bergerac. Theodore is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he has known since childhood, and is very lonely. His days are filled with writing love letters, but he lacks any love in his own life. He turns to what amounts to porn calls in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t satisfy him. He spends his evenings playing holographic video games and becomes so immersed in the adventure that when he’s out on a blind date, he talks about the video character as though he were a friend. And the date gets it. Without thinking it’s weird or nerdy. Just as Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, the people on the screen have become family.

This scene in which Theodore talks about his video friend reminded me of the time, years ago, when my son completed the final level of the first “Zelda” game. He had been working at it for a few weeks, and I thought he would feel exhilarated. Instead, he was morose and despondent. “You can start the game again,” I told him, thinking that would help him shake the blues. He responded with great sadness, “But she won’t remember me!” That was my first understanding of just how deeply someone can become involved in a cyber relationship, even one that doesn’t have a real person at the other end of the email.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the witty, husky voice inside Theodore’s electronic devices. When Theodore purchases a new operating system to manage his electronic information and Outlook files, he is surprised to find how humanlike the artificial intelligence interface is. Because this software has complete access to all his files, “she” knows him inside out and can evolve into a personality that responds to his emotional as well as organizational needs. And he responds viscerally to this being who knows him so deeply. It is what he has been aching for.

The film’s delicate tone makes it both very special and very disturbing. The sets and costumes contribute a great deal to that tone. The colors are mostly soft oranges and greens, the fabrics natural and touchable. The clothing is only slightly futuristic — the shirts have a different kind of collar, for example, and they are tucked into pants that ride high above the waist, instead of riding low on the hips as they do today. Furniture is sleek and mildly mid-century, with wall hangings and table decorations made of wood or stone. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet so natural and comfortable that I expect to see it “in reality” next year. The overall effect is rather dreamy and inviting, not unlike Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.

Soon Theodore is spending all of his time talking with Samantha. He takes her on “dates” by putting his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera facing forward, and they have flirtatious conversations together. At a party he leaves the group of human friends to go into an empty side room and chat with Samantha. At night he feels especially close to her. He lies in bed in the dark, watching for his phone to light up with a message from her. There is something so magical and enticing about speaking to her in the dark. He tells others that Samantha is his girlfriend. He becomes goofy with happiness, giddy with the swivet of romance. It leads to a sick isolation from the real people in his life — an isolation many real people create for themselves as they engage in cyber relationships.

Of course, the nighttime conversations eventually lead to cybersex. Despite the giddiness of the growing “relationship,” he still feels morose and disconntected.

He tells her, “Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel, and from here on out I’m never going to feel anything new.” After a pause he adds, “But you feel real to me, Samantha.”

And then it starts. “I wish I could touch you,” he says. “How would you touch me?” she asks, genuinely curious, since she does not have a body or any experience with touch. “First I would . . .” and he tells her where he would touch her. And touch her.

His imagined touching is gentler and more romantic than his experience with phone porn earlier in the film, before he has “met” (that is, purchased) Samantha. It suggests that their deep intellectual conversations have led to a deeper, more meaningful sexual connection as well.

“Mmmmmm,” she responds. “That’s nice.” And he expresses more places he would touch her if he could.

And then . . . the fireworks. For both of them.

It seems utterly romantic. They’ve been talking for weeks. It feels like real communication. They seem to be connecting on a deep, intimate, personal level. There’s a reason sex is called “intercourse.” But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation. Or in this case, single masturbation, because Samantha exists only in his computer. She’s not real, and what they seem to have is not real, either. He loves the rush he feels when he is talking to her, but it keeps him from having any real relationships with real people. And that, of course, is the danger of cyber “relationships.” They are emotionally stimulating, but socially crippling.

“How do you share your life with someone?” Samantha asks when Theodore tries to tell her about his relationship with Catherine and his grief at their breakup.

“Through influence,” he suggests, thinking about how he and Catherine would talk to each other about their writing and their careers. “Try this, try that,” he explains about their creative influence on one another. “You grow and change together,” he continues, trying to understand the sharing of a life as he explains it to Samantha — who is, of course, his own creation. “But the danger is growing apart.”

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity.

He believes that he cannot grow apart from Samantha, because they are so completely in sync and in love. “You’re mine,” he says simply. But there are no guarantees in cyber relationships; there is only what you believe you have created. And that, too, is a danger. It is far too easy in cyber relationships to invent personas that aren’t quite real, to create dialogs that are fresh and funny and exciting, but in the end are just scripts in an evolving melodrama.

Are human relationships any better? “Falling in love is socially acceptable insanity,” Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) opines at one point. And perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity. Perhaps there isn’t any logic or sense or sanity about human relationships. They’re hard to develop and even harder to maintain, especially in this day when everyone’s head seems to be dipped toward an electronic device. “Falling in friendship” can be just as inexplicable. We seem drawn toward communicating with cyber friends, checking our email and updating our tweets, even while a real, live friend is right there beside us. It’s a serious and growing problem, this love affair with electronics, a problem that is beautifully, disturbingly displayed in this creative and powerful film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philomena," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2013, 98 minutes; and "her," directed by Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



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Obama Reveals Sudden Emergence of Racism

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To someone from the New Yorker, President Obama has now repeated what his allies have said many times before: his popularity suffers because of his race: “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president.”

The president’s sentiment is even more pathetic than his grammar and diction (“there’s folks”), and it reflects as poorly as anything could reflect on his analytical power and knowledge of history — even, in this case, his own political history.

According to the Rasmussen poll (to cite just one of many concurring polls), on inauguration day, 2009, 67% of Americans approved of the president whom they had recently elected, and 32% disapproved. Only 16% “strongly” disapproved. According to the same outfit, five years later, on Jan. 20, 2014, 49% approved and 50% disapproved, four-fifths of them heartily disapproving.

At what point did the president’s race change?




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Oscar Shrugs

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Good filmmaking has much in common with good poetry. Filmmakers and poets both employ language and techniques, specific to their art, that allow them to give their works multiple layers of meaning within tightly condensed packages. Poets use metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, tone, symbol, euphony, and rhetorical structure to streamline their communication with their audiences; filmmakers use lighting, music, costumes, setting, and those same metaphors, rhythms, and symbols to create a similar effect.

This is especially true of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, who have been creating startlingly brilliant films since Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987). Those two freshman films — one a violent crime thriller and the other a quirky, lighthearted romp (OK, its main characters are criminals too, but they have such good hearts!) — demonstrated early on the breadth of their artistic palettes. While many filmmakers have such recognizable styles that they eventually become adjectives (Hitchockian, Spielbergian, Bergmanesque, etc.), others do something new and inventive each time. The Coens are like that. While they tend to repeat some of the same artistic tools — they have favorite actors, cinematographers, and musicians — each film offers something predictable only in its unpredictability.

Music is one of their most effective artistic tools, so it should not be surprising — and yet it is — that the Coens would make a film that is simply a week in the life of a folk singer in the 1961 Greenwich Village music scene. As the film opens, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is finishing a set in a small, dark cabaret. When the theater manager tells him that a friend in a suit is waiting for him outside, he goes out back and is promptly punched in the face. We don’t know why, and we don’t find out why until much later in the film. Nevertheless, this event seems to be the beginning of a long week of unhappy events in the life of a struggling artist.

Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival.

Llewyn has no money, no gigs, and no real hope of future gigs. He’s trying to make it as a solo artist after beginning his career as half of a duo, and so far it isn’t working. He sleeps on the couches of friends and bums cigarettes and sandwiches whenever he can. He’s a likeable guy, though down on his luck, and he has a gorgeous, haunting voice. The best part of this film is simply listening to the music. As Llewyn says after finishing a song, “If it isn’t new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” The soundtrack might be based in the ’60s, but the music feels as contemporary as yesterday, with emotion that is deep and painful.

Llweyn makes a lot of unwise decisions that lead to the unfortunate circumstances he encounters, and that’s an important but subtle message in this film. Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival. When it’s winter in New York and you have no home, no overcoat, no food, and no cigarettes, you make decisions based on short-term needs rather than long-term consequences. For example, you might take the quick hundred bucks for playing a recording session rather than holding out for the lucrative royalties that are due to you as a represented musician, because you need the money right now. (By the way, that studio session in which Llewyn, who doesn’t read music, learns his part by ear and then performs it for the recording is simply magical.)

This aspect of the film reminds me of the interchange between Siddhartha and the merchant Kamaswami in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in a scene that occurs shortly after Siddhartha leaves the ascetic life of the monks to join the materialistic world of the city:

"Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish," [Siddhartha begins.]
"Yes indeed. And what is it now that you've got to give? What is it that you've learned, what are you able to do?" [Kamaswami responds.]
"I can think. I can wait. I can fast."
"That's everything?"
"I believe, that's everything!"
"And what's the use of that? For example, the fasting — what is it good for?"
"It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn't learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for."

But Llewyn doesn’t know how to fast, or how to wait, and so he takes the cash in hand now instead of waiting for the more valuable royalties that could be worth much more later. He is like Esau, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage when he was famished from hunting in the forest.

In this film John Goodman portrays the most despicable character of his career, even worse than his shyster Klansman in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (another Coen Brothers film with a sublime musical score and ethereal lighting and cinematography). His character isn’t violent, but he’s vile. Goodman can and will do anything, and good directors know it. He’s having quite a career as a character actor.

Like good poetry, and good art, this is a film to be savored, pondered, and re-viewed in order to understand the richness of its meaning. Several recurring images — a cat, or cats, that show up throughout the film, for example, and the way Llewyn adjusts his coat just before he sings — create a disconcerting yet satisfying sense of ambiguity that adds to the layers of meaning. You’ll want to go with a friend, just to talk about the film afterward. Inside Llewyn Davis is about an aspiring ’60s folk singer, but it’s about so much more. It’s about choice and accountability, about survival in a harsh environment, about the conflict between commercialism and individuality. It’s about the artist in us all, and the price most of us aren’t willing to pay for greatness. It’s one of my favorite films in a season of good films.

A note about recognition: snubbing Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the stupidest mistakes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made in a long time. Philomena?? Instead of this?? I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they just didn’t want to put in the effort it takes to peel back the layers of genuine art.


Editor's Note: Review of "Inside Llewyn Davis," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2013, 109 minutes.



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Pigs R Us

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Responding to President Obama’s January 17 speech about intelligence gathering (i.e., spying on people), some anti-NSA activists opined: "Rather than dismantling the NSA's unconstitutional mass surveillance programs, or even substantially restraining them, President Obama today has issued his endorsement of them. . . . The speech today was 'historic' in the worst sense. It represents a historic failure by a president to rein in mass government illegality and violations of fundamental rights." The madcap Julian Assange commented: "I think it's embarrassing for a head of state like that to go on for almost 45 minutes and say almost nothing.”

For once I agree with the supposed progressives (although Assange could have made the same remark about any of Obama’s speeches). The president has no interest in restraining any aspect of government. In this he resembles his immediate predecessor, and the resemblance is becoming uncanny. From government stimulus of “the economy” (i.e., state employees, welfare recipients, and phony capitalists) to government interference with education to government intervention in foreign wars, Obama has been enthusiastically devoted to Bush’s causes and Bush’s ways of working. The difference is that he has been less “transparent” about how he carries on his work.

While listening to Obama’s monotonous, empty speeches, one often feels one’s mind wandering, just as one felt one’s mind wandering while one tried to listen to Bush. You find yourself doing things you seldom do. You dust that odd place behind the DVDs. You inspect the carpet to see if the edges need repair. You see if you’ve got enough cards to send next Christmas. Sometimes you lapse into fantasy. In recent weeks, I’ve been picturing myself on the last page of Animal Farm, where Clover wonders why everything seems “to be melting and changing.” How is it that when you look at the purported animals and the purported men, it’s impossible to say which is which?




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Little Film, Big Heart

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I have great admiration for the people who work closely with the elderly, either as professionals, volunteers, or simply family members or friends. It takes great patience, humor, patience, affection . . . did I mention patience?

My sister has cheerfully cared for five elderly family members: both our parents, both their spouses, and her own mother-in-law. Of the five, only our mother is still alive. We joke that while I raised children, my sister raised parents. She swears she got the easier task. I know she did not. It takes tremendous fortitude and patience to listen to the same stories and respond to the same concerns day after day.

The film Nebraska takes a close look not only at elderly people but at an elderly town and an elderly way of life. It is filmed in gray in the autumn of the year, emphasizing the graying generation in the autumn of its life. The film is slow, just as its characters are slow. But it is also funny and enlightening and oh-so-true.

Woody Grant (the wonderful Bruce Dern) has received one of those Publishers Clearing House-like sweepstakes certificates telling him that he has “won” a million dollars, and he is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska before the deadline to claim his prize, even if it means walking. From Billings, Montana. He sets out several times, only to be turned back by his sons or the sheriff, who simply cannot convince him that the certificate is a marketing ploy. When one person asks if Woody has Alzheimer’s, his son David (Will Forte) replies, “No. He just believes what people tell him.” Missing the irony, the person replies with a patronizing shrug, “That’s too bad.”

Finally David agrees to drive his father to Lincoln, partly to appease him, partly to spend some time with him, but mostly just to shut him up about the sweepstakes money. What he discovers is the father he never knew.

Along the way they stop in Hawthorne, a one-light town where Woody grew up and where most of his friends and family still live. Woody hasn’t been there in 20 years, so all of his brothers get together for Sunday dinner. The scenes with his brothers are a hoot, reminding one of the patience it requires to spend extended time with the elderly. A typical conversation among Woody and his brothers goes something like this:

Woody: You still got that Impala, Verne?
Verne (Dennis McCoig): What?
Woody: You still got that Impala?
Verne: Didn’t have an Impala. Had a Buick.
Woody: You still got that Buick?
Ray (Rance Howard) joins in: It was a ’78, wasn’t it?
Verne: ’79.
Woody: They don’t make cars like that any more. Those cars’ll run forever.
Ray: You still got that car?
Verne: Nope.
Ray: What happened to it?
Verne: Stopped runnin’.

All this time the brothers and cousins are staring slack-jawed at a rerun of The Golden Girls. It’s enough to drive someone nuts. And oh, so true. This was a generation that was taught not to talk about feelings, or politics, or anything that might be considered controversial. So they talk about the weather. And cars.

David warns his father not to tell anyone about the award money; he’s trying to protect him from ridicule. But when Woody lets it slip out, everyone is convinced that he is indeed about to become a millionaire. The more David denies it, the more the townspeople believe it. And they all feel entitled to their share. “We helped him when he was down and out,” they claim. “He owes us!” The ugliness of greed and envy is forcefully demonstrated as Woody becomes both the town hero and the town villain because of his supposed windfall. But David becomes increasingly protective of his father, and his understanding and affection grow.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the film is its treatment of the simple fact of aging. We see people who were once vital, quick, and strong now shuffling and slumped but still as dynamic on the inside as they ever were. One of my dearest friends, a gracious, talented 40-year-old living inside an 80-year-old body, once told me that it shocks her every time she looks into a mirror. “Honey, I just don’t know that woman,” she said. “I still feel 40.”

That seems to be the way the people in this film feel. Their bodies are stooped and wrinkled and their waists have expanded, but they are still active and involved in their community. (Well — except for Woody’s couch-potato brothers and nephews.) Particularly touching is Angela McEwan as Peg Nagy, a woman who had a crush on Woody before he met and married David’s mother. Peg is beautiful and charming, with a smile that starts deep in her eyes and lights up her face, even when she is holding back the sadness of losing the love of her life. Life wasn’t easy for the Depression generation, and they learned to take everything in stride.

Many of the actors inNebraska are new to the job; they were cast right in Plainview, Nebraska, where much of the movie was filmed. Director Alexander Payne said of his extras, “I pay myself few compliments, but I think [casting director] John Jackson and I cast well.”

They did indeed. This is a small film with an enormous heart and an outstanding cast. It will make you want to call your father and hug your mother. And even listen to them as they tell you yet again about that ’79 Impala that was really a Buick.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nebraska," directed by Alexander Payne. Paramount, 2013, 110 minutes.



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Based on a Part of What Actually Happened

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The film opens on a man dressed in a ’70s leisure suit primping in front of a mirror. He wears a heavy gold chain around his neck, and more than a hint of chest hair shows above his open collar. He pulls back what is left of his thinning hair and sprays adhesive on his bald pate. He carefully pats into place a wad of dark wool that looks more like a Brillo pad than hair. Then he sweeps his long thin hair forward from his crown, shapes it over the wool, and sprays it into place. Voilà! He looks like a million bucks. A million bucks with a combover.

Will Ferrell in Anchorman 2, you might guess. And it would make sense. This is the kind of character that he revels in portraying. But no. The actor is Christian Bale — Christian Bale, for heaven’s sake! — and the film is American Hustle. This is not a mindless, zany Will Ferrell-style comedy, but a pseudo-serious film about a sting operation that involves a fake Arab sheikh, underworld mobsters, and congressmen taking bribes. You might even remember it as Abscam. But don’t expect to learn any history in this film. It isn’t Argo. As the opening credits proclaim with refreshing honesty: “A part of this actually happened.” Ha! “A part.” They don’t even try to claim that it is “based on a true story.”

Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-potatoes con man running a small-potatoes Ponzi scheme based on accepting phony finder’s fees for phony loans from phony backers. This is the late 1970s, when inflation and interest rates were both in double digits, and loans were difficult to come by; I remember signing an interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgage at 14.25% in late 1979 and being relieved to qualify for it. When Bale is stung by an FBI operation, he is forced to help the Bureau create a larger sting operation to catch some dirty politicians and a big underworld mobster.

Everyone is conning someone in this film: not just the con men, but the FBI, the politicians, the husbands, and the wives. As one example, Irving is totally smitten by the vivacious, beautiful, and unpredictable Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), but he is equally smitten by his sexy, kittenish wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who has an affair with the mobster’s chauffeur out of revenge for Irving’s infidelity. Meanwhile, Sydney falls for the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), who also falls for her, even though he is “sort of” engaged to be married. All of this is sleazy, but in the best sense of the word. The characters are deliciously amoral and completely unaware.

The film is a sexy, smart, kooky romp with some of the finest actors in Hollywood simply reveling in their over-the-top characters. The dialog is quick and witty, and the sting itself has satisfying twists with unexpected outcomes. Remember: only part of this actually happened. And because of that, none of it has to be true.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Hustle," directed by David O. Russell. Atlas Entertainment, 2013, 138 minutes.



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An Unforeseen Development?

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On NPR this morning, I heard that 525,000 people had left the American labor force in December. I couldn’t find the number on the NPR website, so I looked on the Labor Department’s. My “find” function came up empty there as well. It’s probably there, but I think you have to add and subtract a little from the relevant columns of figures to come up with it. Having wasted precious minutes, I grew impatient. I baited my Google hook with the raw number (525k) and cast it into the data sea. The number was reported on many suspect blogs, tagged with red doughnuts warning me away. Then: Voilà. An article from Economics Analytics Research, Unemployment Rate Plunges to 6.7% in Dec. As Labor Force Shrinks; Payrolls Up Disappointing 74K”:

The drop in the unemployment rate came as a result not of new jobs, but a sharp increase in the number of persons not in the labor force — 525,000 — to 91,808,000, an increase of 2,969,000 in the last year. In 2012, the number of persons not in the labor force increased 2,199,000.

Why are people dropping out of the labor force? Some retire. Some grow weary of a fruitless job search and move in with their parents. Others migrate to the underground economy. But why the “sharp” increase at the end of 2013?

Let’s face it, there are people who will choose to glide into Social Security and Medicare on the wings of Obamacare.

At least part of the reason may be this: before January 1, 2014, when you left the labor force early, not only did you lose any possibility of unemployment benefits but you were also probably tossed into the healthcare jungle of uninsurable pre-existing conditions, crowded emergency rooms, and lousy medical treatment.

Let us say that you are a 60ish empty nester who has been downsized. You have been looking for work for a year. Your unemployment benefits have run out and all your job leads have led nowhere. While you have a modest nest egg, Social Security won’t kick in for a few years and Medicare a few years after that. Your company-sponsored health insurance has run out and you are on the verge of applying for jobs for which you are ridiculously overqualified just to get the insurance.

But not so fast. Beginning on January 1, 2014, if you don’t have a job or more than a modest income, you are eligible for Medicaid — healthcare provided at no cost to you as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Please note: non-income assets don’t count against eligibility, and, under the new law, the allowable income ceiling has been raised (eligibility requirements have been relaxed) to allow millions more to enjoy this benefit, including the boomer described above.

Let’s face it, there are people who will choose to glide into Social Security and Medicare on the wings of Obamacare. They will choose not to take a big step down the career ladder in order to secure a benefit that is available for the asking. There is a facet of human nature that shrugs, “Why not?”

It has to be asked: was this incentive to hang it up early an intended part of the new law, or was this “sharp” shrinking of the labor force an unforeseen development?

In either case: heck of a job, guys.




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