State of the Union

The Giraffe Trick: Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty”

In decadent Rome, an aging art critic rides the success of his one, long-ago novel, and wonders if there’s more to life than having the best conga line in the Eternal City. He watches young nuns playing in a hedge maze, drifts into and through relationships with damaged women, and does a lot of eloquent smoking.

The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s update of/homage to La Dolce Vita, offers a lot of expected pleasures. Our antihero, Jep Gambarella (Toni Servillo), sometimes seems to be genuinely having fun, and at those points I tended to have fun right along with him. The camera swoons and swoops. The art and landscape of Rome look glorious–the many different, clashing landscapes, nuns scuttling past a satyr, neon lights and ancient stones. The satire of terrible performance art probably goes on too long (I would’ve cut the on-the-nose sequence with the man whose father photographed him every day of his life, and the knife thrower) but it ranges from acidic to surprisingly thought-provoking, disturbing, and nuanced.

Jep is a critic in the worst way: somebody who makes his living off of art. It’s a job which breeds cynicism. And Rome is famously a city of cynics.

But somewhere around the three-quarters point of the movie, something unexpected occurs. “The Saint” comes to Rome from Africa. This tiny old lady is a Mother Teresa caricature, surrounded by sycophants and bandwagoners, sitting propped up at the dinner table practically drooling, looking like humid death.

Read More…

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The Cleveland Plan

“Location, location, location” refers to real estate…and income mobility? The Times reports that the industrial Midwest and South are home to metro areas with the least income mobility—this economic geography matters. The sad thing is Congress can’t even pass a watered-down immigration reform bill, so the prospects of legislation that might actually grapple with this issue are slim to none.

But there is one thing that could unite Democrats and Republicans and begin to address the problem: let’s move strategically unimportant federal departments and agencies to economically impoverished cities and towns across America. Republicans would support it because, well, they hate DC and favor “real” America. Democrats would support it because their cities and states would benefit disproportionately (think Atlanta, Michigan, or Illinois).

Call it the Cleveland Plan after the city that exemplifies America’s decline. Not only does Cleveland routinely rank as one of America’s fastest-dying cities, but Clevelanders also had the indignity of watching the man who spurned them turn around and win the 2012 (and 2013) NBA Finals (not to mention they still claim Dennis Kucinich as a favorite son). Plop the Department of Energy HQ in Public Square and you suddenly have thousands of jobs that aren’t going anywhere.

Why is the Department of Agriculture on the National Mall when it could be in Kansas, which devotes 90.1 percent of its land to agriculture (compared to DC’s 0)? Shouldn’t government be close to the people it serves? In the same vein, perhaps one of the many blighted urban areas across the country could welcome the Department of Housing and Urban Development (hello, Detroit!). The Department of Education could even set up a roving headquarters in one of the nation’s worst performing school systems (scratch that—it’s already been done—ahem, DC).

Let’s face it: DC has been doing really well lately. From 2007 to 2012, DC expanded 14 percent (the rest of the nation grew by a measly three percent). Seems like the city could afford to, shall we say, spread the wealth around. Especially when you consider a city like Flint, Michigan, where less than a third of citizens are under 18 and a full tenth of residents up and left in the last decade (unemployment: 9.8 percent). Opportunities are evaporating in these communities which are rapidly graying and getting poorer. As economist Enrico Moretti explained in The New Geography of Jobs, people—especially non-college graduates—just aren’t as mobile as they used to be. Given this “stickiness” for the poorest among us, the solution might just be to bring the jobs to them.

If this strikes you as populist, you’re right. Just think: good, high-paying jobs would leave DC’s Super Zips—home to America’s new meritocratic elite—and return to the people. Look at the economic impact military bases have on local communities. When Fort Bragg announced a massive influx of new personnel after the most recent base realignment, my hometown newspaper in Lumberton, North Carolina (pop: 21,000) could not contain its glee.

And consider how much harder things would be for lobbyists! Instead of walking from K St to Constitution Ave (sorry, I mean Ubering from K to Constitution), they would have to fly halfway across the country to pressure regulators into making the “right” decision.

A few more salutary consequences: Traffic and congestion would disappear. Matt Yglesias could breathe a sigh of relief as rents start to fall. We could sell off the office buildings currently occupying prime real estate in downtown DC to start paying down our national debt. And don’t forget that the federal employee’s dollar would go a lot further in Casper, Wyoming than DC.

Our nation’s capital is on the Potomac because it was at the center of the country in 1790. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that it’s 2013 and the geographic center isn’t Maryland, but Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

Surely that deserves at least a Cabinet department.


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Do You Know the Bible?

In one of the most ingenious interviews of “The Colbert Report” (at 5:00 below), Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) tells Stephen Colbert about legislation he co-sponsored to have the Ten Commandments displayed in both houses of Congress.

“The Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and respect,” Westmoreland explains.

Colbert deadpans: “What are the Ten Commandments?”

“What are all of them?” Westmoreland asks, dread creeping into his eyes. “You want me to name them all?”

It’s so embarrassing it’s hard to watch: Westmoreland ums and ahs through a few before admitting, “I can’t name them all.” (Quick quiz: can you?)

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently had his own Westmoreland moment. Lamenting the neglect of biblical principles in American life, Brooks wrote,

In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. …”

That this sentence didn’t catch the eye of Brooks or his fact-checkers denotes a basic ignorance of the New Testament, as Jesus did not travel to Greece. (The author of the quote is Paul, who did).

Alan Jacobs and friends had some fun with Brooks’ error this week:

The last time the Times flubbed a Bible quote, Eric Metaxas went into full-on culture wars mode:

In the world of Manhattan cultural elites, the Bible is mostly thought of as a quaint and useless artifact…Is the secular bias at the Times so pervasive that it has affected not just the writers but the fact-checkers too?

The Times is “out of touch with middle America,” he wrote.

It’s easy to beat up on Brooks, but there is in fact little indication that “middle Americans” crack open the Good Book much more than those “cultural elites” who fact-check the Times.

In recent nationwide survey, nearly a fourth polled believed that “the values and morals of America are declining” due to “a lack of Bible reading,” and 56 percent said the Bible should have a greater role in American society. But how many read the Bible regularly? About a fifth. As Christianity Today put it, Americans revere their Bibles so much that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition.

David Brooks, House Republicans, and everyday Americans alike love to appeal to “Biblical principles” or “Judeo-Christian morality.” Actually reading the Bible, not so much. As the Virgin Mary told the Thessalonians, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”


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These Girls Are Sad For Now

“You have to watch this show; the first few episodes are the most reactionary critique of sexually liberated Brooklyn possible; it’s a dystopia.”

Paraphrased, that’s what one wise friend told me last year about “Girls,” the HBO series that captured best Comedy Series at the Golden Globes last night, along with a Best Actress nod for its creator, producer, and star Lena Dunham. The show also premiered its second season last night.

The series has become something of a fixation for the overclass. It is our financial crisis era-hipster version of “Sex and the City,” but written by a woman! The boys at Slate are learning to love it. The new editor of Gawker hates it. Good grief, even Esquire has episode recaps now.

The show has been hailed as “revolutionary” but from the opening scenes it has always felt fairly inevitable to me. As it exposes a certain privileged slice of new white transplant life in Brooklyn, I feel like I’ve been observing these characters for a decade. The Girls (now, really, young women) went to Oberlin, I went to Bard. A significant portion of my friends are also new white transplants in Brooklyn with similar ambitions, though they lack access to parental reserves of cash and social capital to construct their lives. But my friends can occasionally overlap with those people in Girls. In some ways, it is a life I might have lived or at least lived around, if I hadn’t self-consciously rejected certain features of it.

There is a self-awareness about the show and its creator that is endearing. Characters utter precious modern truisms in hilariously self-interested and defensive ways. Dunham’s character is portrayed as sexually depraved and worse–kind of creepy–when she visits her hometown in Michigan in one early episode. Dunham was also hammered in some corners of the press for not having more racial diversity in her show. This season her character is dating a black Republican played by Donald Glover. It is a bit of the diversity people asked for mixed with a diversity they didn’t. The world and characters that “Girls” portrays will surely spit him out soon.

“Girls” may be impossible to watch for some people. Dunham is nude in it, frequently. Her on-off boyfriend will utterly repulse anyone with a hint of bourgeois sensibility. It isn’t delicate. It is so obviously partly based on true events, and partly fictionalized. It is difficult to refer to the characters by their fictional names rather than their identities: Dunham, Brian Williams’s daughter, David Mamet’s daughter.

Girls portrays an oddly telescoped kind of life. There are no children. The parents are far away and exist only intermittently. In the latest episode, one character’s mother shows up and talks frankly about sex, disgusting her adult daughter–ground well trod by Noah Baumbach in “Kicking and Screaming.” By comparison I see my in-laws no less than once a week, usually more times than that.

Instead the show is about 20-somethings who live in a world that seems parenthetical to  one with personal inter-generational obligations. The drama consists of the characters making demands of the world and demands of themselves, and failing to be satisfied. As with many of my friends (and myself) they invent and announce codes of ethics and conduct for themselves on the spot. “I’m doing this a different way, I’m not just going to show up on your door in the middle of the night… I’m going to make logical responsible decisions when it comes to you,” one character says.

The oddest thing about the show is that these girls are fascinated–that really is the right word here–by men who have so few qualities. And the fate of these girls is to continue these confusing sexual relationships with badly damaged men, where pantomimed rape fantasies are a feature and a bug, for perhaps a decade. Only then it may become permissible for their social set to start thinking of marriage.

Perhaps I underestimate the trials of my more suburban, married existence in comparison to those of my Brooklyn friends and their stand-ins on this drama. But for a show with the tone of wild celebration in self-discovery, enabled by so much social capital, the ambitions and possibilities for these Girls seem so small and sad, and their 20s seem tragic.

Of course, they’re all famous and will be pretty wealthy soon. So, maybe it is worth it?

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God Gave This Land to Me

This is going around, very well done. Who is Nina Paley?

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Jury’s Still Out in Spike Lee’s Trial of God

On Saturday I saw “Red Hook Summer,” the latest in Spike Lee’s “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series (of which 1989′s terrific “Do the Right Thing” is the most famous member). The plot is straightforward–a rebellious boy’s mom sends him to her father, a preacher in Brooklyn, and he spends a summer falling in love and learning painful truths about the world and his own family. That’s pretty much the only straightforward thing about this meandering, confused movie, which throws a lot of rich and provocative material onto the table but seems to wander away without delving deeply into any of it. The movie doesn’t end so much as it gives up.

Early into “Summer’s” two hours, the D.C. audience was really into it: We laughed with recognition when Brooklyn girl Chazz caught our hero Flik stealing potato chips from the church and busted out a perfect tattletale’s “Oooooohhhhhhh!” (I swear I heard that exact noise every other day of my childhood.) We were thrilled when Spike Lee himself turned up onscreen reprising his “Do the Right Thing” role as Mookie–still delivering pizzas decades later. When Bishop Enoch preached that there are “too many baby mamas,” several women in the audience “mm-hmm’d” their approval. After a while, though, it started to feel like we were really not getting anything new and a couple people sneaked out.

Those people missed the shocking twist, the dark secret at the heart of Little Peace of Heaven Church. But that twist just sort of lies there, like the dead rat Flik finds in the church basement at the beginning of the movie. The other characters have oddly suppressed reactions. Nobody talks in any serious way about repentance, even though a church has just been confronted with evidence of serious sin. (Nobody talks about sin at all, actually.) The church has already been exposed as fake on many levels–all its Jesuses are blond, and Bishop Enoch’s preaching always returns to the central theme of raising money. But even after the climactic revelation there’s no sense of how the events of the movie have changed any of the characters.

That’s partly because there are no alternatives. There are literally no other churches in the movie, for example. There’s one Jehovah’s Witness lady who is sweet but pathetic; and Flik is a vegan atheist with an iPad, which is not exactly a worldview. If you show the collapse of the only source of hope and authority in a community, I would expect the movie to end on a despairing note–but instead Lee closes with a bizarrely cute montage of cheerful Brooklyn life, which seems to shiver queasily from ice-cold satire to warm nostalgia. Seriously, people, a rainbow appears behind the girl Flik loves, and I don’t think that’s especially ironic. You just can’t end this movie this way.

In the earlier part of the movie I was powerfully reminded of Stew’s musical “Passing Strange,” which Spike Lee himself made into a movie in 2009. “Passing Strange” offers much gentler satire of the black church. But its satire also feels fresher (even though it’s older!) and more lived-in, more real. It also offers actual alternative worldviews and communities. You should watch it; it’s available streaming on Netflix if you have it. It’s not a substitute for “Red Hook Summer” by any means. Lee’s new movie tries to be a much more ferocious assault on money- and power-hungry, self-satisfied black preachers. But Stew’s imagination is larger than Lee’s.

Clarke Peters, as Bishop Enoch, does probably the best acting here. Jonathan Batiste, as coded-gay organist T.K. Hazelton, has a surprising amount of charm and poignancy in a tiny role. (The moment when he underlines one of Bishop Enoch’s polemics against absent fathers by caroling, “They ain’t men!” is played for laughs in a way which struck me as more than a little mean-spirited.) The two children, Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith, have fantastically expressive faces but when they speak they tend to sound like they’re reciting lines. The film’s infrequent anti-naturalistic touches always make it preachier, giving it a shrill but startlingly empty moral voice.

There will be better movies about shame, cruelty, and doubt in the black church. Those movies will owe Spike Lee a debt, even as they surpass him.

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Gotta Have Somebody Serve . . .

It occurs to me that I have yet to give my nod to a candidate in the Republican Primary, So without further delay I proclaim that it’s Harold Stassen’s time. He’s at least as plausible as Newt Gingrich.

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No Mas

I understand that _____ _____ has been in the news recently, and if there is one person in the world that I am sick of hearing about it is _____ _____. I know in the past that I have comment on the doings of _____ _____, but no more. (S)he and his/her family are the most over-exposed people in the world, and I for one and sick of them.

So in case anybody is wondering, I have nothing to add to the most recent controversy involving _____ _____.

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Throw Them to the Lions (in Detroit)

The confluence of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and the first full day of the 2011 National Football League season is sure to be a treat.  NFL Commissioner Roger “Don’t Touch Me I Bruise Easily” Goodell has promised to “unfurl patriotic themes” at each stadium.  Huge American flags that cover the entire playing field being waggled by platoons of soldiers in combat fatigues are becoming passé, as are the by now yawn inducing flyovers by F-16s, so I would propose that the cash rich and morally challenged NFL work with the Department of Defense to do something really spectacular.  Surely an American flag that covers the entire stadium can and should be considered to remind everyone that the Federal government is there like an enormous security blanket to protect honest folk who like to go out and get drunk and swear a lot between the increasingly rare plays on the field.  Dick Cheney can supervise the coin toss at the start of the game and will hand out free copies of his book to the team captains.

And to hell with the singing of the National Anthem, all that complicated rockets’ red glare stuff.  Fans can be given cards with a new loyalty oath which they will be required to recite or face expulsion from the stadium.  The oath will include a pledge to provide one’s first born for the next war wherever that might be and whenever the White House considers it appropriate.  Government in action might be highlighted by a Transportation Security Agency live simulation up on the food tier in which fans can vote on what kind of security screening they would prefer.  After the game is over, everyone present will be either groped or irradiated, depending on which option comes out on top.  It would be like reality TV and sports combined.

And then the piece de resistance.  At the end of a game a line of Taliban prisoners can be paraded along the top wall of the stadium.  A prisoner will be tossed into the parking lot for each touchdown that was scored in the game while the crowd chants “We have always been at war with Eurasia!” If no touchdowns are scored, one prisoner will be tossed anyway to show the Afghans that we mean business.  America has never lost a war.

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To His Coy Murdoch

Bill Kristol been taking liberties with Andrew Marvell yet again.

From time to time, I too must cross Harvard Yard, where last night a fleeting figure too bright to be his lady thrust into my hands this odious marvel:

Has Rupert world enough, and time,
To suffer young Bill’s latest rhyme?
Though he has authored, reprobate,
Conservatism’s parlous state.
While some teahouses on The Hill
Still deign to serve The Standard’s swill.
Others down by Watergate
Await Murdoch’s dictated slate.
Any other they’ll refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

But at his back, inspiring fear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurries near
As Newsweek in the dust doth lie
We hear The Weekly Standard cry
Subscribers no more can be found,
The economy’s run hard aground,
The markets plunge, jobs disappear,
As Kristol leads us from the rear.
Iran lacks nukes, yet still his Standard scores
Our nation’s policy by its count of wars.
Fought in middle eastern dust,
While Yankee credit turns to rust.
The Fed’s a fine and private place,
But none I think our bonds embrace. Read More…

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