Hail to the Victor

 | 

Joseph Ho, a writer for Liberty, tells me that on September 10 he was in Ann Arbor when the University of Michigan was preparing to meet its traditional rival, Notre Dame, on the field of Michigan Stadium. Threading his way through the pre-game crowds on the downtown streets, Joseph was accosted by a small boy, who ran up to him and shouted, “Hail!”

As you may know, Michigan’s fight song begins with the words, “Hail to the victors valiant!” That’s what the little boy was repeating, in his way; and Joe was charmed by his greeting.

But if there is one pleasure more intense than that of being hailed, it is the pleasure of finding someone you want to hail. It is therefore with great pleasure that I hail the publication of a book of essays by Leland Yeager, a distinguished economist and longtime contributor to Liberty. Confronted by Yeager’s additions to learning, the rest of us should feel like small boys. Yet we have something to hail.

Yeager calls his book Is the Market a Test of Truth and Beauty?: Essays in Political Economy. I won’t spoil the pleasure you’ll have in reading it by revealing the answer to the title question. It’s a great question, a fundamental question, and Yeager’s answer will not only inform but entertain you. As for the rest of the book — I couldn’t put it down, literally. I read it in bed, I read it in supermarket lines, I read it while I was supposed to be working. It’s a fascinating book.

Leland Yeager is a professional economist. That’s fine, but only a few professional economists have ever had his skill at developing the principles of their field. Much less have they displayed his breadth of interest in intellectual and historical issues. The 28 essays in this 500-page book have all the world as their subject, from the nature of the various schools of economics to the problems of democracy to the debate about free will to the theories of dear old Henry George to the writing of speculative and alternative histories. Every essay shows a mind that is individual, alert, probing, and knowing; every essay develops both the essential ideas and the curious ramifications of its subject. And every essay is interesting; every essay makes you want to know its author, as well as its subject, more. Fortunately, Yeager gives you 28 occasions for doing that.

Anyone who reads this book will learn the nature, scope, and analytics of libertarian economic theory (and practice, too). So it isn’t just for libertarians. But libertarians will benefit the most from it, because Yeager’s question-making mind constantly brings up new topics for us to consider. They are all vital topics, and Yeager’s rigorous intellect carries us far down the road in thinking about them. You may agree with him — as I ordinarily but not always do (I have debated with him in these pages)— or you may sharply disagree. But you will find him an excellent companion. I don’t need to tell you how seldom that can be said of other economists.

I’ll go farther. In an ideal world, scholars and academics would write nothing but the truth, as they found it, fully displaying their logic and evidence, and courting the most vigorous debate from informed opponents. Unfortunately, the academic world seldom lives up to that ideal. Yeager does, and it takes courage to do so. It takes courage, these days, to write real English, instead of academic jargon or (in Yeager’s field) the kind of analysis that substitutes numbers and formulas for thought. But Yeager always addresses himself to the intelligent person, not the narrow and desiccated specialist, and he treats the intelligent person as his friend in a great intellectual adventure, an adventure in which any thinking person would want to partake.

Here is true achievement. Hail!

 

 


Editor's Note: Review of "Is the Market a Test of Truth and Beauty?: Essays in Political Economy," by Leland B. Yeager. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011, 538 pages.



Share This


Liberty's Leading Ladies

 | 

John Blundell has just released a book designed to acquaint Americans with a fascinating, though largely unknown, part of their history — the role of women in maintaining (indeed, helping very significantly to create) America's tradition of individual liberty. His book is a series of introductions to 22 women who did important things for liberty.

The women are, in chronological order: Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bina West Miller, Madam C. J. Walker, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Lila Acheson Wallace, Vivien Kellems, Taylor Caldwell, Clare Boothe Luce, Ayn Rand, Rose Director Friedman, Jane Jacobs, and Dorian Fisher. Twenty-two women. How many of them do you know?

Most Americans will recognize Washington, Stanton, Stowe, and maybe Adams. Libertarians will recognize Paterson, Rand, Lane, and Friedman — maybe Jane Jacobs too. People interested in abolition and the progress of black people in America will add Sojourner Truth, Madam Walker, and others to their list. Conservatives will welcome Luce and others. But all of them deserve to be known to everyone who is interested in American achievement and American character, as well as American ideas about individual freedom.

Few of these women were libertarians in the contemporary American sense. The libertarian movement (first intellectual, then political) is best dated from the 1920s. But all of them had something important to do with ideas and practices of liberty with which libertarians will proudly acknowledge a connection.

Blundell is to be congratulated for presenting a broad spectrum of interests and occupations. The most obvious occupation for an advocate of liberty is that of writer, and there are many professional writers represented: Stowe, Paterson, Rand, Lane, Caldwell, Luce . . . But business people are also prominent in this book. Who can exceed the personal interest and allure of such businesswomen as Madam Walker, one of America's great black entrepreneurs, or Vivien Kellems, the great anti-tax crusader?

Who wouldn't want to know more about these dynamic individuals? Blundell's format limits him to about ten pages for each; but once you know these people exist, you can read more about them, and he offers suggestions for further reading.

I'm not an unskeptical audience, about anything. So I would quarrel with some of Blundell's judgments, one of which in particular I wish he would rethink: the high value he places on Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom (1943). Lane was a good writer, sometimes a writer of genius, but Discovery is a poor book — wandering, disorganized, self-contradictory, circular in logic, chronically wrong about historical fact.  If you want to see Lane to advantage, read Free Land (1938) or Give Me Liberty (1936). You'll find those books rewarding, and (something different) you'll like their author.

Such animadversions are, however, beside the point. Blundell’s project seems to me exactly right. The women he discusses are full of personality, full of vitality, full of fascination for any intelligent reader. It’s a disgrace that, as Blundell observes, so few people, so few libertarians, know much about them (with the exception of Ayn Rand). Blundell’s discussions are of exactly the right length and kind to stimulate interest. The book can be read at one sitting, as I read it, or at occasional moments in a busy week. In either case, it will entertain and inform. It’s a particularly good candidate for a Christmas gift to intelligent friends, libertarian or not. I would like to see it in the hands of young women, because young people right now are under great pressure to conform and become anything but vivid, eccentric, complex, vital, creative, or libertarian. And that’s no way to live.


Editor's Note: Review of "Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History," by John Blundell. New York: Algora, 2011. 220 pages.



Share This


Grim, Gripping, and Curiously Refreshing

 | 

In the 14th century, bubonic plague killed an estimated 75 million people, including, perhaps half the population of Europe. Historians calculate that roughly the same number were killed by the Spanish influenza in 1918 — 5 to 6% of the world's population at that time. Several films have speculated on what would happen worldwide if another supervirus broke out; they range from 1971's The Andromeda Strain andOmega Man to 1995's 12 Monkeys and Outbreak — and this summer's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Contagion. That last movie opened this weekend.

Surprisingly, given the familiarity of the theme,Contagion is a compelling film. Its calm, subdued tone, almost documentary in style, creates a growing sense of tension and authenticity that is somehow more riveting than the hysteria evoked by other films. Here, a character reacts in an unflustered, uncomprehending way to the news that his wife has died; his lack of emotion shows his unwillingness to process the horrifying information. The scene is profoundly moving — more poignant than if he had broken down in tears.

Contagion follows several plot lines, as health workers from the CDC (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet), WHO (Marion Cotillard), and private industry (Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle) try to trace the disease back to its original human host, contain its spread, and devise a vaccine. Director Steven Soderbergh deftly demonstrates how quickly we can be exposed to disease as we go about our daily lives, touching objects that others have touched. If you weren't a germaphobe before, you are likely to become one after seeing this film.

The film's title refers, of course, to the contagion of disease, but it offers multiple layers of additional meaning. We see how fear, rumor, and warnings can also be contagious, passing quickly from one person to another in an exponentially widening circle.

Meanwhile, we see the breakdown of normal distribution chains as people stop going to work, either from sickness or fear of sickness, and others are unable to purchase necessary supplies, such as food and medicine. Interesting moral problems arise as well.Situation ethicists often use the survival scenario to justify stealing. Ordinary people do also: when pondering whether a person should die in a snowstorm rather than break into a privately owned but unoccupied cabin, most would argue that it is all right to break the law in order to save one's life. But what if thousands of people are faced with starvation at the same time?

In this film, looting erupts as people become desperate — but that is not presented as an acceptable solution. Nor is the government's welfare solution — distributing food and medicine "fairly" — presented as working well, especially when there isn’t enough for everyone. In fact, if the film suggests anything, it is that people should prepare for disaster relief themselves, by stocking up in advance on food, medicines, bottled water, and yes, guns, for a self-imposed quarantine. I found this call for self-reliance refreshing in a Hollywood film.

It was also refreshing to see the pharmaceutical companies portrayed as good guys for once, as people working around the clock and taking personal risks to discover a vaccine. Yes, there are the usual barbs about profiteering, but the film acknowledges that everyone, not just the corporate bigwig, is strongly motivated to earn money, and that this is not such a bad way to control the distribution of goods. The alternatives — looting, or lining up for insufficient handouts from the government — are shown as leading to chaos.

Contagion is a fascinating, gripping thriller. The story is believable, and the acting is superb. But let me warn you: you will probably feel compelled to stop on the way home for a few gallons of bottled water and several cases of canned tuna and ramen noodles. And don't forget the plastic gloves — you won't want to be touching anything for a while . . .


Editor's Note: Review of "Contagion," directed by Steven Soderbergh. Warner Brothers, 2011, 105 minutes.



Share This


The Best of the Alien Films

 | 

Our summer of the aliens ends with the best alien encounter movie of the decade. Attack the Block has it all: mysterious creatures crashing out of the sky; kids on bicycles pedaling to save the planet; a mass of hairy apes climbing up buildings; and avowed enemies unitingagainst the invaders. Add to this a truly libertarian hero who learns that "actions have consequences," and enough blood to paint an elevator. What more could you want from a summer movie?

You might not have heard of Attack the Block, but you probably know its pedigree. It's a British film produced by Edgar Wright, who made Shaun of the Dead (2004) and last year's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It's directed by Joe Cornish, who was also involved in Hot Fuzz (2007) and the upcoming Tintin. I have to admit, these films are an acquired taste, but I think they are a taste worth acquiring.

The story takes place in a neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings in the poor part of south London. As Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walks home from her job as a nurse, she is mugged by a gang of threatening young men in ski masks. Their crime is interrupted by an alien falling out of the sky and into a car right next to them, and Sam is able to run away. The rest of the film follows the young thugs as they first try to make money from the beast and then run for their lives as the creature's larger pals come looking for it.

One of the unexpected delights of this film is the way we get to know the boys themselves. These are not hardened criminals but novice thugs on bicycles who strut down the street to impress each other while surreptitiously calling home to reassure their parents that they will be back by ten. Interestingly, Joe Cornish says he was inspired to write this film by being mugged by a gang of boys who seemed as scared as he was. They are led by a young tough with the unlikely name of Moses (John Boyega), who turns out to be quite the leader — almost like the preacher in Poseidon Adventure.

Moses recognizes that they can't rely on the police to help them, or even to believe them, so they must rely on themselves to escape the aliens and save the block. They don't seem to feel it is their responsibility to save the world, just their own little corner of it. As a libertarian, I like that. And then there are the unexpected side characters: the crazy drug dealers who get involved, the little wannabes who call themselves Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao) . . . and the rich kid wannabe . . . and the crazy weapons . . . and clever lines . . . Just trust me. It's a great movie. And the less you know in advance, the better.

This is the best kind of sci-fi horror movie. Early encounters with the aliens take place off screen or behind walls, with sudden quick bursts of teeth or fur that don't let us focus enough to see what they look like. We just know they are terrifying. We see them creeping through the shadows, with occasional glimpses of their neon-bright teeth, but we don't have a full view of the creatures until at least halfway through the film. To be sure, there's enough blood and gore to warrant the R rating, but the violence is brief and somehow fun.

Give Attack the Block a try. You'll be laughing with horror and screaming with delight.


Editor's Note: Review of "Attack the Block," directed by Joe Cornish. Studio Canal, 2011, 87 minutes.



Share This


"The Help" Deserves the Buzz

 | 

The Help is the film everyone has been talking about this week. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, it has been eagerly awaited by book club members and sensitive readers nationwide since it was published two years ago. The film provides an intimate look at the often-demeaning relationship between white women in Mississippi and the black maids who served them during the turbulent 1960s.

During this time, women up north were beginning to recognize the vast career options available to them. But in the Deep South, women were still staying at home with their children, joining the Junior League, hosting bridge clubs, and criticizing "the help" — and each other. In this story, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the "queen bee" whose opinion matters to everyone, black or white. She controls the social life of the town by voicing her opinions firmly and then leads the shunning of anyone who dares to disagree with her. Her kind of female has always existed, of course, and not just in the South. She has been immortalized in such films as The Women and Mean Girls, and can still be found controlling social groups, PTA meetings, cheerleading squads, and even board rooms, with a raised eyebrow and a withering look. No one likes her, but no one dares to cross her.

In the story, Hilly has been leading her group of friends since grade school. All of them are now married with children, except Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has chosen to finish college and wants to become a writer. She lands a job at the local newspaper as an advice columnist answering questions about house cleaning. Ironically, of course, Skeeter has never polished a spoon or scrubbed a bathtub ring in her life. So she turns to "the help" for help, in the person of Aibileen (Viola Davis), her friend Elizabeth's maid. Eventually she convinces Aibileen and a dozen other maids to share their stories, and a book is born.

As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly.

Aibileen is what Skeeter ought to be. Like many white college graduates, Skeeter simply "wants to be a writer." She doesn't have a burning topic just itching to come out. She wants the title of "writer" as much as she wants the occupation. When she applies for a job at Harper & Row, the editor (Mary Steenburgen) tells her, "Write about something that disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else." Skeeter looks for a topic that will allow her to become a writer, rather than using her writing to expose a problem she cares deeply about. Aibileen, by contrast, is simply a writer. She writes every night for an hour or two. She writes what is in her soul. She writes her prayers.

In many ways, Viola Davis as Aibileen carries the show and at the same time embodies the central conflict of the story. I say this because, although Davis is one of the finest actors in Hollywood, with an Oscar to her credit, you will seldom see that accolade in print without the modifier "black actress." As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights: our schools and neighborhoods are fully integrated. We have a black president in the White House. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly. I would love to ask Davis how she feels about the roles she has been offered.

Equally impressive is Octavia Spencer as Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson, an outspoken maid who has lost so many jobs because of her sassy back talk that she now works for the last woman in town who will hire her — Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who is shunned by the ladies because of her "white trash" background. Celia doesn't know the rules of maid-employer relationships. Ironically, Minny teaches Celia the boundaries she and the other maids are trying to expose with Skeeter’s book. Spencer's large liquid eyes alternately shine with sharp-witted laughter and melt into pain-filled tears. If Aibileen is the soul of this black community, Minny is its heart.

Having read the book, I wasn't pleased to learn that the beautiful Emma Stone had been cast as the tall, skinny, unattractive Skeeter, since her gangly appearance is such an important part of her character. But somehow Stone manages to look like a plain Jane in this film — her eyes are too big, her lips are too thin, her hair is too curly, and her face is too pale. In short, she is perfect.

Despite having grown up in Jackson, Skeeter really doesn't fit in with her snooty friends. She is disturbed by Hilly's insistence that Elizabeth install a separate bathroom for Aibileen. In fact, Hilly wants a law mandating separate facilities in private homes, "for the prevention of disease." This prompts Skeeter to examine the way maids are treated by the women who employ them. "Colored women raise white children, and twenty years later these white children become the boss," she muses. "When do we change from loving them to hating them?" Aibileen observes the same dilemma: "I want to stop that moment coming — and it come in ever white child's life — when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites."

Toilets, and the material that goes into them, become the strongest recurrent image in this film. From diapers and potty training to vomiting and pranks, toilets are a symbol for what was wrong with the "separate but equal" policy in the south. The facilities were separate, but they most assuredly were not equal. Aibileen's bathroom is a plywood closet located in a corner of the garage with a bare bulb hanging from a wire, and toilet paper resting on a bare 2x4. The symbol, which emphasizes how badly blacks could be treated by whites in those days, provides moments of both shame and laughter.

However, the film misses the richer, darker, and more sinister tone that underlies the book. For black women to write about their employers was no joke, and the book makes it clear that its women are risking real dangers when they decide to tell the truth. Permanent job loss, physical violence, and even jail are real threats in a society where the mere accusation of a crime can lead to vigilante justice with lifetime consequences. By showing this clearly, the book gains a tension and suspense that is missing from the film.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood?

Strangely, I found it more difficult to enter the minds and lives of the maids while watching the film than I did while reading the book. The story is told through the three voices of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, who narrate alternating sections of the book. These voices are strong and rich, and I could enter their worlds, empathizing with their experiences vicariously. In the film, however, I was merely an observer. I often felt defensive, rather than empathetic, about what I was seeing, as though I were somehow responsible for the actions of those women long ago, simply because I am white. If we learn anything from our battle for civil rights, however, it is that each person should be judged individually, and not collectively as part of a race.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood? Stockett, who was reared in Mississippi by a black maid whom she says she loved, suggests that they learned it from their mothers, by example as well as by instruction. To quote Oscar Hammerstein in South Pacific, racism "has to be carefully taught." But books like this also suggest that children can be carefully taught not to be judgmental. Every day Aibileen tells Elizabeth's little girl, "You is smart. You is kind. You is important." She says nothing about little Mae Mobley's appearance, good or bad. Knowing that she will likely be fired or retired before Mae Mobley reaches her teen years, Aibileen hopes desperately that these words will be enough.

As is often the case, the film is good, but the book is so much better. Don't take a short cut this time. Read The Help first, and then see the movie. You will enjoy both so much more if you do it that way.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Help," directed by Tate Taylor. Dreamworks, 2011, 137 minutes.



Share This


The Missing Link

 | 

Alien creatures threaten civilization as we know it, and humans must band together to defend themselves. Is this another review of Cowboys & Aliens? No — it's a review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the iconic 1968 film Planet of the Apes that is earning praise from critics, moviegoers, and even PETA, the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, who sent picketers out to show support for the film when it opened. Now there's a switch!

The original Planet of the Apes was sort of a space age Gulliver's Travels: an American space crew, headed by Charlton Heston as the Gulliver character, discovered a planet populated by intelligent apes instead of Jonathan Swift's horsey Houyhnhnms. In both cases, humans in the strange new land have no language skills by which to prove their intelligence, and are used as breeders and beasts of burden. Interestingly, Jonathan Swift coined the word "yahoos" to describe the morally bestial humans in his fantasy world.

No one who has seen Planet of the Apes can forget the gasp of horrified realization that happens when Heston, trying to escape the topsy-turvy planet and return to Earth (he's riding a horse, in a deliberate nod to Swift's story), discovers the top of the Statue of Liberty submerged in sand.  This scene has been immortalized through allusion and satire for nearly half a century. The message is clear: we cannot escape the future we create for ourselves on this earth.

The new film has its own gaspworthy instant, although it occurs midway through, not at the end. I won't tell you what causes the audible gasp in the audience, but I will tell you that I've asked everyone I know who has seen the movie if that gasp happened during their screening too, and all have said yes. It is a powerful moment, made more powerful by the astounding acting of Andy Serkis, an unsung hero of CGI technology. Serkis is the body behind Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002); the ape in King Kong (2005); and now the chimp, Caesar, in Rise. His movements, especially the expression in his face and his eyes, bring sensitivity, pathos, and life to what could have been flat computer generated characters.

Don't you just get so tired of the predictability of Hollywood movies blaming greedy pharmaceutical manufacturers for all our problems?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes creates a possible backstory for how the apes became the cultured, speaking, master race, while humans devolved into brutish creatures. I say "possible," because I'm not convinced that the film's premise works. The idea is that scientists, experimenting with chimps to discover a cure for Alzheimer's disease, inadvertently create the master race of apes and destroy the humans at the same time. The story is smart and engaging and ties up all the loose ends satisfactorily. But it blames the mutation on a single manmade event, completely changing the premise of the first film, which suggested that evolution and devolution will lead to the rise of apes and the fall of humankind.  The sand-covered Statue of Liberty at the end of the 1968 film suggests that the transformation happened over the course of many centuries, not in one generation.

Not surprisingly, capitalism (rather than science itself) is portrayed as the ultimate enemy to mankind. While research scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is motivated by a desire to cure Alzheimer's, the company he works for is owned and directed by the obligatory greedy capitalist who uses and abuses the chimps in his quest for profits. (Don't you just get so tired of the predictability of Hollywood movies blaming greedy pharmaceutical manufacturers for all our problems?) This film goes a step further, however. For some reason I shudder to contemplate, the casting agent chose Nigerian David Oyelowo to play the brutish bad guy with a British accent. Not sure what the message of this decision might be, but it's hard to believe that the casting was accidental. Enough said about that.

Ironically, despite the filmmakers' obvious distaste for profits, they inadvertently acknowledge the power of money as a motivator when Caesar, the chimp who has been transformed by the chemical trials, wants the other primates to follow him: he buys their loyalty with Chips Ahoy cookies instead of fighting each one of them into submission. And it works! Now there's a message worth sharing.

A message that does not work, however, is the one that PETA especially liked — the portrayal of chimps as misunderstood neighbors who should not be feared. When Caesar makes his way outside to play with a neighbor child, the little girl's father picks up a baseball bat to protect her. He is portrayed throughout the film as a man with a bad temper (although he's an airline pilot; have you ever known an airplane pilot to be anything but calm and comforting?), and we are supposed to take the side of the chimp. However, the memory of the Connecticut woman whose face and hands were torn off by one of these animals two years ago makes it hard to sympathize with the man-sized creature and its lion-sized canines. Even if he does wear pants and a sweatshirt.

Several subtle moments add to the classy styling of this film. At one point, for example, Caesar sadly observes Will kissing his girlfriend (Freida Pinto), creating a poignant allusion to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the creature's longing for a woman like himself. Caesar is like Frankenstein's "monster" — too smart to be an ape, but too much an animal to be a human. Where does he belong? Another example: the primate house where Caesar and dozens of other apes are caged overlooks San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz Island, where the notorious prison was located. And a third: a brilliant moment of self-parody occurs with the musical motif that begins when the apes start escaping from the primate house. We hear an undercurrent of the "Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius" melody from The Simpson's musical parody of the original Planet of the Apes. How's that for aping one's apers?

All the Planet of the Apes films can be seen as cautionary tales, warning viewers that power and authority are ephemeral. Although the specific catalysts and destructive philosophies are subject to change, the impending doom — transference of power —  does not. On a weekend when the credit rating of the United States was downgraded for the first time in a century, this film is a timely reminder that there may, indeed, be real threats to our comfortable styles of living.


Editor's Note: Review of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," directed by Rupert Wyatt. Twentieth Century Fox Entertainment, 2011, 105 minutes.



Share This


Earth Invaded by Metaphor

 | 

When I was a little girl, all the kids in my neighborhood would gather on summer afternoons to play Cowboys and Indians. I had never met an Indian (heck, I had never met a cowboy, either) but I saw them on TV. I knew the Indians were the bad guys because they were different from me. The men had long hair, seldom wore shirts, slept in round tents, and grunted "How" when they talked. The women wrapped in blankets and carried babies on their backs. The cowboys were good because they wore boots and hats and talked in complete sentences. Their women wore eye makeup and beehive hairdos. They were like us.

My kids never played Cowboys and Indians. The game has long fallen out of favor, being considered insensitive to Native Americans. But they did play Aliens. A lot. (They still do, in fact, mostly on Xbox.) Space is the new frontier where we can still hold onto our prejudices — the ones that assert, "My kind are good; the other kind are bad." I realize that we never were fighting against Indians, really. We were fighting against "other," that unknown quality of beings that are different from us. We called them "Indians," but they were really just "aliens" all along.

So the only surprise about the film Cowboys and Aliens that opened this weekend is that no one thought of it any sooner. I awaited it eagerly, knowing that it would be laden with metaphor and ripe for a review.

Director Jon Favreau makes the point about aliens quickly and clearly. Daniel Craig plays Jake Lonergan, an amnesiac drifter with a mean right hook; and Harrison Ford is Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rancher who's mean and rich (his name says it all). Initially the setting is populated by groups of people who don't like each other: city folk who don't like ranchers, bandits who don't like city folk, and Indians who don't like anyone white. Interestingly, however, on a personal level there is a lot of interracial connection in this movie — the white innkeeper is married to a Mexican woman, for example, and the rancher has a close relationship with the Indian who watches over his son.

When space aliens appear on the scene and begin kidnapping local residents, all the groups band together to fight the aliens. The message is clear. It has been used by government leaders (and tyrants) for centuries: to establish local harmony, simply unite the masses against a common enemy.

The "western" part of this western works well. It begins as a classic western would — with a sweeping panorama of the desert, complete with sage brush and sandy cliffs. The story is character driven, and as we learn the characters’ back stories we discover why children behave the way they do when they become adults. Favreau's point seems to be that the more we know about why people act as they do, the more we will come to understand and accept them. This point is made with special effect in the case of Woodrow Dolarhyde, whose personality warms throughout the film. Through Dolarhyde we also learn the true meaning of fatherhood, as we see his maturing relationship with three young men: his son, Percy (Paul Dano); the Indian hand (Adam Beach) who looks out for Percy; and Emmett (Noah Ringer), an orphan boy whom Dolarhyde takes on. It's a little heavy handed, but an important value nonetheless.

The casting is excellent. One of the standouts is Paul Dano as Percy, Dolarhyde's spoiled, juvenile delinquent son who shoots up the town with impunity, knowing that Daddy will fix things for him later. Another is Clancy Brown as Meacham, the local minister who spouts aphorisms while toting a gun. He's a practical kind of preacher, and I liked his philosophy, which offers such wisdom as "It's not who you were, it's who you are," and "Whether you go to heaven or hell isn't God's plan but your choice." Sam Rockwell is endearing as Doc, the innkeeper who must learn how to shoot a gun and "be a man." And 12-year-old Noah Ringer is marvelous as Emmett, the boy who also learns to be a man during the quest to destroy the aliens. My only complaint is Ella (Olivia Wilde), the obligatory girl who comes along for the ride. Her role eventually deepens, but for half the film she is simply a drain on the landscape.

However, as much as I loved the idea of this film, the manifestation of the idea doesn't quite work. The alien part of the movie is simply too alien for a western. For one thing, westerns are slow-paced and character-driven; space aliens have no character. The two simply don't mix. Moreover, the metaphor is so heavy-handed that the aliens never really enter the story. The humans never even question who the aliens are, where they came from, or how they are able to fly through the sky. We're just supposed to know what they represent — invaders seeking to plunder the minerals under the soil and turn them into fuel. Sound familiar?

This is the second "alien encounter" film produced by Steven Spielberg this summer, but oddly, although the aliens in both films look nearly the same, the message of the two films couldn't be more different. In Super 8 the message is "An alien is just a friend you haven't met." Here, the alien gets caught on earth while he's just passing through, and the nasty government scientists kidnap him. In Cowboys and Aliens the beings from outer space are plundering invaders and the message is "kick their asses back where they came from."

It was nice seeing the Indians, townies, ranchers, and even bandits becoming friends. I especially liked seeing the development of Dolarhyde's character. But I'm not sure I like the idea that we can only become friends by uniting against an enemy. The film tries hard to please, but the metaphor overpowers the story and collapses from its own weight.


Editor's Note: Review of "Cowboys and Aliens," directed by Jon Favreau. Universal Pictures, 2011, 118 minutes.



Share This


Anthem: The Libertarian Film Festival

 | 

Anthem may not be the first libertarian film festival, but after the success it enjoyed at FreedomFest this month, it may well become the most lasting. With 30 outstanding films by rising artists and ten provocative and entertaining panels, Anthem was called by many FreedomFest attendees "the best new idea you've had in years."

Full disclosure: by "you" they meant the management of FreedomFest, but where Anthem was concerned, they meant especially me, since the film festival was my baby. I might debate the "in years" part of that statement — the producers of FreedomFest have added great new programs every year — but I enjoyed the compliment, nonetheless.

FreedomFest is a big conference: 150 speakers, panels, and debates, and ten events going on simultaneously during breakout sessions throughout the three-day event in Las Vegas. Why add a film festival?

First, I love movies. I love entering another world, getting caught up in a conflict, and seeing how the conflict is resolved. I love being surprised. I even love being outraged. Storytelling provides a powerful way to reveal the truth, even when the story itself is fiction. Ayn Rand was well aware of this power. It's the reason she chose to devote most of her writing to fiction (including the novel Anthem) and scriptwriting.

Second, I want to encourage more filmmakers to produce works with libertarian themes, and a film festival is a good way to do that. In recent years film festivals have blossomed around the country, with thousands of small ones focusing on specific niche audiences. These festivals give low-budget filmmakers a following and a distribution chain. Libertarianism is one of those niches. A hefty grand prize offered by our co-sponsor, the Pacific Research Institute, provides still more motivation for films that fit the theme.

Third, the FreedomFest umbrella offers something most festivals struggle to provide: a convenient location and a ready audience. Most of our costs, and our risks, can be absorbed by the larger organization. It's a great way to start small and grow.

I have to admit, however, that my greatest asset in producing the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival was withoutabox.com. What a great company for festivals and filmmakers alike! Withoutabox acts as a meeting place for filmmakers and festival producers. Filmmakers receive notices every week about festivals and everything having to do with them, including themes, locations, deadlines, and requirements. I asked some of my filmmakers how they found Anthem, and most of them told me they looked through the withoutabox listings regularly. The name "Anthem" caught their attention as potentially Randian, and the details listed on my withoutabox account confirmed their expectations. A look at my website (anthemfilmfestival.com) suggested to them that it was a high-quality, professionally organized festival, and my submission fee ($15 for early bird registrations, up to $60 for last-minute submissions) was low enough to be worth a risk.

It was capitalism in action: efficient, smart, convenient.

For festival organizers, withoutabox offers even more advantages. They handle all the paperwork involved with accepting submissions — the application forms, legal releases, submission fees, and even the advertising, all for a startup fee of $500 and a graduated advertising program. Because I wanted to start small, I opted for the least expensive advertising option: four group ads to be sent out two weeks before each of my four deadlines. The people at withoutabox processed all my fees and sent me a check, keeping a small percentage for themselves. It was capitalism in action: efficient, smart, convenient. I was happy to pay them their percentage, in exchange for not having to hire someone else to do the work.

I received 60 film submissions from sources I would never have known without withoutabox. It was thrilling to discover young filmmakers with libertarian leanings who had never heard of Liberty Magazine, or Reason or Cato or Atlas for that matter. They simply understand instinctively the principles of liberty and want to express these ideals through their art. One of the best parts of the festival was getting to know these young filmmakers and encouraging them to continue making films with libertarian themes. All of them expressed a desire to come back to FreedomFest next year, with or without a new film, just to hear the speakers.

Of those 60 films, I selected 30 to present at Anthem. Our movies focused on issues of individual freedom, personal responsibility, and self-reliance, as well as the problems of government intrusion and overregulation. Many were satirical, some outrageously so. But these movies were not preachy or didactic. They were entertaining, moving, and motivating. They were movies first, and libertarian movies second. I think that's important—storytelling must touch the emotions first, and guide the listener or viewer to experience a truth. The new media available today offer great new venues for presenting a message in this way.

As might be expected in a festival like ours, we had more documentaries than feature length films. Several of our documentaries focused on education, including Indoctrinate U, about the loss of free speech on college campuses in the wake of political correctness; Zero Percent, about the remarkable education program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility that is entirely funded through private donations and inmate tuition payments; and The Cartel, about the plight of public education and how to fix it. This film, directed by Bob Bowdon, was awarded the PRI Prize for Excellence in Presenting Libertarian Ideals.

We also had documentaries about public policy issues such as the environment (Cool It), international finance and economics (Overdose: The Next Financial Crisis and Free or Equal), and the justice system (A Remarkable Man). Each of these films was followed by a panel discussion, with speakers from all over the world participating in lively and stimulating conversation. Bjorn Lomborg, who wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist and is the featured narrator in Cool It, flew in from Sweden for the festival,and Bob Bowdon of The Cartel moderated two panels, one on education and the other on how to use the new media. We even had a panel called, “What’s Wrong with Selling Sex?” that preceded Lady Magdalene’s, a narrative feature set in a Nevada brothel that stars Nichelle Nichols, the original Lt. Uhura of Star Trek.

The film judged Best Narrative feature was "alleged," starring Brian Dennehy and Fred Thompson in a fresh look at the famous Scopes “monkey trial” that challenged the teaching of evolution in schools. The film focuses primarily on the role of the press in shaping people’s opinions. Journalist H.L. Mencken, a darling of many libertarians, comes off as devious and mean-spirited — which shows that libertarian films aren't going to follow a party line. The film was especially timely in the wake of the high-profile Casey Anthony trial.

Marathon is a poignant true story about poet William Meredith and his partner, Richard Harteis, who faced the difficult decision of what to do when Meredith suffered a debilitating stroke. It has a particularly libertarian theme, because the two men don’t pity themselves or turn to government or other institutions for help. Harteis takes care of Meredith himself. The title refers to the fact that they were both marathon runners, but it’s also a metaphor for going the distance when life gets hard. Harteis produced the film and was on hand to discuss it, and the work won the jury prize for Excellence in Filmmaking.

I was particularly impressed with the short films, most of which were made by novice up-and-coming filmmakers. Usually they were five to 15 minutes long, and all of them focused on libertarian issues. Some were serious short dramas set in dystopian futures, demonstrating what might happen to individual liberties if governments continue down their intrusive paths. Others were satirical comedies using humor to make the same point. Final Census, which won the prize for Best Short Comedy, was so outrageous that I had to soothe a sweet old lady who didn't quite see the humor of a census taker who calmly determines the social value of the people he is hired to count, but I laughed out loud when I saw it the first time.

Bright, the film that won the jury award for Best Short Drama and the Audience Choice award for Best Short Film, is reviewed separately below. Its production values, from the quality of the acting to the music and lighting, were remarkable, especially for a film festival, where movies are generally made on a shoestring budget. Bright was made for $10,000, for example, and Final Census for a mere $150. Next year we will have a panel called "Fiscally Responsible Filmmaking" to showcase their feats of funding magic. For a complete list of the films we screened this year and the awards they earned, go to anthemfilmfestival.com.

One of the most difficult problems with starting a film festival is, of course, that of attracting audiences. Even though we had a ready audience of 2,400 people attending FreedomFest, each film still had to compete with ten speakers — and one other film, as a filmmaker emphasized with a hint of disgruntlement at my decision to screen two films at a time. This year our screening rooms were located in the Skyview Rooms on the 26th floor of Bally's, a long walk down the hall and up the elevators from the main action in the Event Center. Potential viewers had to be fully committed before coming to the films — they couldn't just poke their heads in and then decide whether to stay. Our late submissions deadlines also made it nearly impossible to promote specific films in advance.

But these are simple problems, easily rectified before next year's festival. In 2012, I will, for example, probably select fewer films and show them more than once, since word of mouth grew throughout the conference, and many people were disappointed to learn that a great film they heard about wasn't playing again.

The Anthem Libertarian Film Festival will definitely be back at FreedomFest next year with a new batch of long and short films expressing libertarian ideals. I can't wait to see them, and to meet the filmmakers who will produce them. I hope Liberty's readers will be there too.

But now, let me introduce you to Bright.

Describing the essential requirements of a "skillful literary artist," Edgar Allan Poe wrote in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales from an Old Manse: "The unity of effect or impression is a point of great importance . . . Without a certain continuity of effort — without a certain duration or repetition of purpose — the soul is never deeply moved." Every moment, Poe said, must be "conceived, with deliberate care, [to create] a certain unique or single effect."

These movies were not preachy or didactic. They were entertaining, moving, and motivating. They were movies first, and libertarian movies second.

Director Benjamin Busch has created such a work of art with his short film Bright. It's about Troy (Eric Nenninger), a young man who must overcome a paralyzing fear in order to move forward with his life. Every moment in the film is skillfully and deliberately planned to create a particular effect in the viewer. From its opening moments on, the film establishes a rich atmosphere, filled with symbolic imagery, especially the imagery of light. Troy is raised by a blind adoptive father, Irwin (Robert Wisdom), who represents the iconic blind sage of mythology and guides Troy on what turns out to be a spiritual journey. Irwin is blind, but he can "see"; Troy is sighted, but his back is always toward the light.

In this dystopian future, Troy works as a restorationist, helping people regain a sense of continuity with their past by finding old-style original light bulbs for their homes. This spinoff from the current light bulb controversy is, of course, a metaphor for the conflict between what is natural and what is artificial, what is light and what is dark, in the search for courage and meaning in life.

The pacing is deliberately slow, filmed at "the pace of real thought," according to director Busch, who wants viewers to have time to hear the dialogue. Viewers are able to contemplate the film's philosophically provocative lines: "There's danger in all this safety" . . . "Someone who never sees, never knows" . . . "I miss the light but I can remember it" . . . "I loved and I lost, and I'm glad that I loved" . . . "How much would you pay to be happy?"

Bright is a film to be seen with friends, and discussed in long, leisurely conversations afterward. As Poe said of Hawthorne's Tales, "withal is a calm astonishment that ideas so apparently obvious have never occurred or been presented [like this] before." I think Poe would have been pleased with Bright.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bright," directed by Benjamin Busch. 2011, 40 minutes. Anthem Film Festival Best Short Drama and Audience Choice Award.



Share This


Just Super

 | 

Super 8 is the best Steven Spielberg movie to come along in years.

And it isn't even a Spielberg film.

Spielberg's name is on the project as executive producer, just as George Lucas' name is on Spielberg's Indiana Jones movies as producer. But Super 8 was written and directed by J.J. Abrams, who is better known for his work as a producer of "Lost," "Alias," and a variety of other television shows. Nevertheless, it is the most Spielbergian film to come along in many years,a veritable homage to the master of blockbuster films inhabited by preadolescent protagonists. Among the Spielberg effects that Abrams incorporates in this science-fiction coming-of-age thriller are the trademark bicycles spinning into getaway mode, the classic suburban settings, the snappy potty-mouthed dialogue among kids, and the Orwellian military bad guys, reminiscent of E.T.

Abrams creates the best kind of suspense, chilling us with the terror of what we don't see, rather than grossing us out with what we do see — thus doing what Spielberg did so effectively in the first half of Jaws. We know something scary is out there, but it is always obscured by the likes of train cars, bushes, or gas station signs. Our hearts pound and our imaginations run wild as we endure long moments of eerie silence while the camera takes us down paths we would rather not tread. Fearing the unknown is always more terrifying than facing a concrete enemy.

Best of all, Abrams employs the particular kind of coming-of-age storyline for which Spielberg is known. Yes, there's a monster out there, but the real monster is at home, in the form of an unnamed tension between parent and child that has to be resolved. In this story, the tension begins with a mother's funeral. Her son Joe (Joel Courtney) is not allowed to associate with Alice (Elle Fanning) because Alice's father (Ron Eldard), the town loser, was somehow involved in his mother’s death. Joe likes Alice — he likes her a lot! — and that creates tension between the two of them, as well as between Joe and his father (Kyle Chandler), who forbids Joe to see Alice. This iconic conflict between father and child, set against the backdrop of an unknown monstrous intruder, gives this film a satisfying heft.

The story centers on a group of middle-schoolers who have been friends since toddlerhood. Abrams' kids ring true. They're precocious and nerdy in a believable, unassuming way. Their dialogue also rings true, throughout. Charlie (Riley Griffiths) has been the leader of the gang. Like Spielberg, who began making movies with his super 8 camera at the age of 10, Charlie wants to make a movie to enter in a local film festival. He enlists his friends as actors, cinematographers, script consultants, and makeup technicians, and he barks at them throughout rehearsals and filming with the commanding voice of an artistic perfectionist. Charlie is a young Spielberg himself.

One evening Charlie takes his cast "on location" to an isolated train depot to film a scene as the train goes by. He's looking for a dramatic backdrop for his characters' climactic "hill of beans" speech. (This amounts to an homage within an homage, and it works.) But the train suddenly derails — in the most spectacular wreck ever created on film. Ever. The audience in the screening I attended erupted in spontaneous applause as the final piece of wreckage plopped to the ground.

Then, as another homage to Spielberg, Abrams focuses our attention down to a small piece of bloody wreckage, creates a sense of terror as we suspect what might be underneath it, and follows with a gotcha laugh that releases the pent-up tension that the train wreck built so skillfully. Pure genius. Pure Spielberg. In reality, collaborated Abrams.

The rest of the film becomes a typical kids-versus-the world story as these young people try to figure out what the government is trying to hide about the train and its contents. What isn't typical, however, is the quality of the dialogue and the acting of the kids. They are stunningly natural and believable. One of my favorite lines: Charlie says, "We need to develop this film right away. I'm gonna go steal some money from my mom." No hesitation over a moral dilemma. He's a director. He needs money. And he's a kid. He gets it.

With the exception of Elle Fanning (whose career has been active, though overshadowed by that of her older sister, Dakota) these are virtually unknown actors, fresh and new and ready to be molded by their director. I expect to see a lot more of them in the near future. The parents, also, are believable and natural. They are too caught up in their own grownup worlds to recognize what is going on with their children. As a result, their kids are free to roam the town, think for themselves, and learn how to make things happen.

The film has a message, and it's a good one. It argues for overcoming grudges and learning to understand one another. At one point a soldier is lifted by his rifle high into the air. If he holds on, he will die. If he lets go, he will live. Such a simple, subtle message: Let go of the guns. Let go of the grudges. One of Charlie's characters says, "You do have a choice. We all do!" That's an important truth to remember, the truth of individual responsibility and freedom.

Super 8 has it all: great entertainment, great characters, great special effects, great story, and a great message portrayed subtly at the micro and macro level. What more can you ask from a movie?


Editor's Note: Review of "Super 8," directed by J.J. Abrams. Paramount, 2011, 112 minutes.



Share This


War and Peace

 | 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good movies begin with good stories. By that criterion, Incendies is not just a good movie, it is a great movie. Set within a backdrop of bitter hatred and torturous war, it is nevertheless a brilliant film about love for family and finding a personal peace.

The story begins with the classic Romeo and Juliet conflict: Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), a young Christian Arab woman, is in love with a young Palestinian man, and her family disapproves. What happens next — retribution, abandonment, shunning, and revenge — sets the stage for an alternate story line, 35 years in the future, after the woman has died. In her will she asks her young adult children, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), fraternal twins, to find the brother they did not knew existed and the father they thought was dead. This will require them to leave their home in Canada and return to the land of their ancestors in the Middle East.

As Jeanne heads to Lebanon to begin the search for her father in her mother’s hometown, the film flashes back to the young Nawal and her lover, Wahad. The film continues to switch between the two stories as the brother and sister follow the cold dark trail of the mother they only thought they knew. These alternating points of view allow the audience to know Nawal’s story more intimately and completely than the young siblings do, enhancing our compassion for the protagonist and our growing sense of horror as the two slowly discover the truth.

As war breaks out, young Nawal tries to escape the fighting while searching orphanages for the son her grandmother forced her to give up. Along the way she observes the bitterness and retaliation of both religion-based factions. Two scenes stand out as representative of the senselessness and atrocity of this kind of conflict. In the first, Nawal quickly removes the cross from around her neck and rearranges her scarf to cover her, so she can avoid the wrath of Muslims. In the next scene, she quickly doffs the scarf and pulls out her cross to show rebel guerillas that she is a Christian. But she is still the same person, inside and out; only the label has changed. Changing the label saves her life — but the death and destruction she observes destroy her soul.

Incendies is a thrilling mystery about a family’s quest to reunite itself. But it also has a powerful symbolic message, revealing the bitterness that comes from assigning divisive political and religious labels. What does it mean to be a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew? Beneath the labels, all in the Middle East claim the same ancestry. Arabs (Christian or Muslim) may hate Jews because Ishmael is their ancestor; Jews may hate Arabs because Isaac is their ancestor. But trace their roots back just one more generation, and all honor Abraham as their father. All are cousins under the labels. All are of the same lineage and family.

Incendies is the most engrossing film I have seen since last year's The Secret in their Eyes (also a foreign film). Yes, you will have to read the subtitles at the bottom of the screen — unless you speak French, Arabic, and another dialect I didn’t recognize. But it will be well worth the effort. Don’t miss this outstanding film if it comes to your town.


Editor's Note: Review of "Incendies," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010, 130 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.