Grim, Gripping, and Curiously Refreshing

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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.



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The Best of the Alien Films

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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.



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"The Help" Deserves the Buzz

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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.



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The Missing Link

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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.



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Earth Invaded by Metaphor

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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.



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Anthem: The Libertarian Film Festival

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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.



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Just Super

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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.



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War and Peace

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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.



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Good as Gold

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James Grant is the best-spoken and most accomplished hard-money man in Wall Street. Plenty of people can inveigh against the Fed; the publisher of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer can put it in the context of today’s financial markets and also in the context of history.

Grant is also a historian. He wrote a biography of John Adams, and another of financier Bernard Baruch, and several other histories, including my favorite among his works, The Trouble with Prosperity: The Loss of Fear, the Rise of Speculation and the Risk to American Savings (1996). His new book, “Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!” should be of particular interest to readers of Liberty.

That’s not because of any deep interest I have in his nominal subject, Thomas B. Reed (1839–1902). Reed was a moderately interesting figure. He was fat, he ate fish balls for breakfast, and he spoke French. He was a congressman from Maine, first elected in the centennial year, 1876. He was a man of his time, a Republican stalwart who supported the tariff and gold and opposed foreign wars. Though he was for woman suffrage, he was no progressive, at least in the sense that today’s progressives are. He had no desire to teach other people how to live. “Pure in his personal conduct,” Grant writes, “he had no interest in instructing the impure.”

During the 1890s, Reed was speaker of the House. His claim to fame is how he changed the House rules to give himself, and the majority, much more power to get things done. Whether that was good or bad depends on your point of view.

Parts of the book are about Reed’s parliamentary maneuverings and also about his wit. These parts are well-written, but I was not much interested in them. The greater part of the book, however, is about the financial events and national political battles from 1870 or so to 1899, which I found very interesting.

Now gold is the money of the distant past. In the 1870s, Grant observes, “Gold was the money of the future."

Grant covers several such things, from the collapse of the Freedmen’s Bank to the stolen election of 1876. He has a particular interest in the currency. One story he tells is of Lincoln’s printing of greenbacks during the Civil War, and the struggle afterward over restoring the link to gold. In the ideology of the day, restoration was necessary. It was part of honorable dealing. But people dragged their feet about doing it, because a national debt had been piled up during the war, and what was the need to repay investors in gold if they had bought bonds with greenbacks? And besides, there was a boom on, and shrinking the money supply would spoil it.

The boom went bust in 1873. For the rest of the decade the country was arguing about the commitment to return to gold. The way in which this argument was conducted was much different from the way it would be today. Now gold is the money of the distant past. In the 1870s, Grant observes, “Gold was the money of the future”:

“A 21st century student of monetary affairs may stare in wonder at the nature of the monetary debate in mid 1870s America. A business depression was in progress. From the south, west and parts of the east arose a demand for a cheaper and more abundant currency. Yet such appeals were met with, and finally subdued by, a countervailing demand for a constant, objective and honest standard of value.”

“Resumption day” was Jan. 1, 1879. There followed “a mighty boom.” In the 1880s, prices fell 4.2% and wages rose.

This was the era of laissez-faire. “The government delivered the mails, maintained the federal courts, battled the Indians, examined the nationally chartered banks, fielded the army, floated the navy and coined the currency.” The big social program was Civil War pensions — for the Union side, not the Confederates. By the standards of the day, the Democrats were the small-government party and the Republicans were the big-government party, but policy differences were at the margin only.

The federal government was funded by the tariff, which the Republicans, and Reed, thought was good for American labor. The Democrats quoted the free-trade arguments of Frédéric Bastiat. “The Republicans,” Grant writes, “having no ready answer for Bastiat’s arguments, were reduced to pointing out that he was, indeed, French.”

The ideological atmosphere started changing in the 1890s. The Panic of 1893 brought on a severe depression, and another political battle over the currency. This time the supporters of gold battled it out with the supporters of silver, with bimetallists arguing for both at once.

Grant provides the best explanation of the gold-versus-silver battle I have read, especially the futility of having two metallic standards at the same time. Here he is not so proud of Thomas Reed, who was by then speaker: “One senses, reading him, that he was not quite sure what the gold standard was all about.” Reed’s position “lacked clarity, or, one might even say, courage. [President Grover] Cleveland had one unshakable conviction, which was gold. Reed had many convictions, only one of which — no free silver — was strictly nonnegotiable.”

Reed’s final battle was over war with Spain. He was against it. The new president, William McKinley, seemed to be against it, but lacked the courage really to oppose it. Ex-President Cleveland was against it, as was William Jennings Bryan, the presidential candidate whom McKinley had beaten in 1896. But the Congress was for it, and even with his self-enhanced power as speaker, Reed couldn’t block the war resolution of 1898. It passed the House 310 to 6.

A year later, Reed resigned. He wrote to a friend, “You have little idea what a swarming back to savagery has taken place in this land of liberty.” Publicly he said nothing. Three years later he was dead.

And so Grant ends his book. It is a fine book. I recommend it. Don’t be put off by any lack of interest you may have in Thomas B. Reed. I wasn’t much interested in him, either. You don’t have to be.


Editor's Note: Review of "'Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!' The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man Who Broke the Filibuster," by James Grant. Simon & Schuster, 2011, 448 pages.



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Appleby's Revolution

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One thing that has always struck me about the Communist Manifesto is that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels held capitalism in awe. “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together,” they wrote in 1848. They listed the wondrous accomplishments one by one, from steam navigation to canal building, and “whole populations conjured out of the ground.” Of course, their praise preceded a call for workers to overthrow the great capitalist conjuror.

Joyce Appleby’s book, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, conveys the same sense of wonder. She praises capitalism, saying that its “distinctive characteristic . . . has been its amazing wealth-generating capacities. The power of that wealth transformed traditional societies and continues to enable human societies to do remarkable things."

Appleby certainly doesn’t recommend overthrowing the system. But her appreciation of capitalism diminishes as the book goes on, just as Marx’s and Engels’ did in the manifesto. At the start, The Relentless Revolution is like an exhilarating train ride, full of insights and a historian’s gold mine of information, but it loses steam and slows to a crawl once the Rubicon of the Industrial Revolution has been crossed. At the end, Appleby is praising the US government for trying to rein in the capitalist beast.

Appleby, who taught history at UCLA, describes herself as a “left-leaning liberal with strong . . . libertarian strains.” Given today’s academic history departments and her own attitudes, she deserves admiration for looking at capitalism as objectively as she can. “In this book,“ she writes, “I would like to shake free of the presentation of the history of capitalism as a morality play, peopled with those wearing either white or black hats.” For half the book, she achieves that goal.

The Relentless Revolution fits into the recent parade of big books trying to explain the rise of the industrial West — books such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, and Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules — For Now. These and other authors are trying to answer a couple of giant questions: why did the West (not China, India, or another part of the world) make the transition from subsistence living to a world of constantly increasing productivity? And how exactly did it happen? As I shall explain, Appleby offers two major responses that I found valuable.

Appleby identifies two main factors in Britain’s rise: higher wages providing the incentive to increase productivity, and coal providing the means.

The pivotal moment in world history is normally called the Industrial Revolution (although perhaps that’s a misnomer, given its slow gestation). Many factors contributed to this revolution, and part of the “game” motivating the big books is to offer new factors. It’s generally agreed that the process flowered first in Great Britain, but the reasons may stretch back to such things as the European practice of primogeniture, the separation of powers between the Catholic Church and the state, and the system of rights spawned by feudalism under changing population pressures.

Appleby focuses on 17th and 18th-century England (why she gives short shrift to Scotland is a puzzle). She points to two reasons why the Industrial Revolution occurred there: England had higher wages than the Continent, and also cheap sources of coal. Higher wages provided the incentive to increase productivity, and coal provided the means.

The idea that England’s wages were higher is actually new to me and undoubtedly has a complex history of its own; Appleby merely says that England’s population growth had leveled off in the 17th century. As for coal accessibility, she agrees with Pomeranz, who says that China fell behind Europe partly because its coal deposits were harder to reach.

Whatever the precursors, actual inventions — especially of the steam engine — required talent and knowledge, and herein lies the first of Appleby’s distinctive insights. In a way that I haven’t seen before, Appleby integrates two related forces: the British tendency toward scientific theorizing (or “natural philosophy”), and the British tendency to tinker. “Technology met science and formed a permanent union. At the level of biography, Galileo met Bacon,” she writes.

She elaborates: “Because of the open character of English public life, knowledge moved from the esoteric investigations of natural philosophers to a broader community of the scientifically curious. The fascination with air pressure, vacuums, and pumps became part of a broadly shared scientific culture that reached out to craftsmen and manufacturers in addition to those of leisure who cultivated knowledge.”

The Royal Society illustrates this integration. Created in 1662, it was both practical and scientific. Its members studied that New World import, the potato, but it also “brought together in the same room the people who were most engaged in physical, mechanical, and mathematical problems.”

Appleby’s second valuable contribution is to take a cold-eyed look at the role of New World slavery in creating the markets that nurtured the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, like Pomeranz, she sees slavery as a major factor behind the engine of progress.

In The Great Divergence, Pomeranz says that the vast expansion of agricultural cultivation in the New World enabled Europe to avoid the “land constraint” that kept the Chinese from developing an industrial economy. And slave labor played an enormous role in the cultivation of sugar in the Caribbean and cotton in the United States. Thus, Pomeranz says, Europe overcame the limitations of land by colonizing the New World, which made agriculture possible to an extent unlikely in tiny Holland or England.

Appleby’s take is a little different. She emphasizes more the three-way trade that we learned about in middle school (slaves from Africa were taken to the New World, where sugar was purchased and taken to Great Britain, where finished clothing and other products were bought, to be sold in Africa). Pomeranz and Appleby are not arguing that slavery was profitable, or that it was “necessary,” but, rather, that it was a significant element in the system of trade that led to the Industrial Revolution. Enthusiasts for capitalism such as myself tend to focus on the “trade”; critics of capitalism — along with Appleby — stress the “slave” part of the trade.

Furthermore, Appleby considers American plantations and British inventions as two sides of the same coin. “These two phenomena — American slave-worked plantations and mechanical wizardry for pumping water, smelting metals, and powering textile factories — may seem unconnected. Certainly we have been loath to link slavery to the contributions of a free enterprise system, but they [the phenomena]must be recognized as twin responses to the capitalist genie that had escaped the lamp of tradition during the seventeenth century.”

Whether she is right about this, I don’t know, but she brings to public attention the periodic debate by economic historians over the role of slavery, a debate that Pomeranz reawakened with The Great Divergence.

Unfortunately, after these interesting observations, The Relentless Revolution begins to wind down. As the book moves on, Appleby tends to equate anything that takes industrial might — such as the imperialist armies that took possession of Africa in the late 19th century — with capitalism. “Commercial avarice, heightened by the rivalries within Europe, had changed the world,” she writes in explaining the European adventures in Africa. I dispute that. While Cecil Rhodes and Henry Morton Stanley may have been private “investors,” for the most part Africa was overcome by government power, not by individuals or corporations.

While Cecil Rhodes and Henry Morton Stanley may have been private “investors,” for the most part Africa was overcome by government power, not by individuals or corporations.

Even greater blindness sets in as Appleby’s 494-page volume moves into the recent past and she becomes influenced by modern prejudices. In Appleby’s view, the financial crash in 2008 was caused by financiers; the only contribution by public officials was to “dismantle the regulatory system that had monitored financial firms.” No word about the role of the Federal Reserve, the Community Reinvestment Act, or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Indeed, capitalism becomes the same as exploitation, in spite of her more balanced initial definition of capitalism as “a cultural system rooted in economic practices that rotate around the imperative of private investors to turn a profit.”

In her last chapter, Appleby writes, “The prospect of getting rich unleashed a rapacity rarely seen before in human society.” This extravagant statement does not jibe with archaeological (not to mention historical) evidence of the human past. In Why the West Rules — For Now, Morris reports on an archaeological excavation at Anyang village in China. In 1300 BC, this home of the Shang kings was the site of massive deaths. Morris estimates that, in a period of about 150 years, the kings may have killed 250,000 people  — an average of 4 or 5 a day, but probably concentrated in large, horrific rituals — “great orgies of hacking, screaming, and dying.” This was the world before capitalism.

To be fair to Appleby, she is saying that the productivity unleashed by capitalism extended the breadth of human rapacity, and to some degree the example of slavery supports that notion. Eighteenth-century British gentlemen could think high-minded thoughts while enjoying their tea with sugar grown by often brutally treated slave labor — which they may have invested in. “This is the ugly face of capitalism,” Appleby writes, “made uglier by the facile justifications that Europeans offered for using men until they literally dropped dead.”

True. At the same time, it was the British who abolished the slave trade, at high cost in patrolling the seas. Before that, Africans were enslaved only because other Africans captured and sold them to the Europeans. (Malaria and other diseases kept Europeans out of the interior of Africa until late into the 19th century.) There is a lot of blame to go around.

So this book is a mixed bag. Even though Appleby increasingly departs from objectivity as she proceeds into modern times, I respect her project and appreciate her insights. I hope that her “left-leaning” historian colleagues read her book and expand their understanding of the past — just as I have.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism," by Joyce Appleby. Norton, 2010, 495 pages.



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