Noah Millman

Storm’d At With Shot And Shell

I hope Daniel McCarthy is right that Russia doesn’t “want” Crimea. He certainly seems very sure of himself about that. But the history of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria doesn’t leave me particularly sanguine about his prediction for where things go from here.

The thing is, Russia no doubt has a preference hierarchy with regard to Crimea. At the top of the hierarchy is, undoubtedly, a unified Ukraine closely aligned with Russia. Next in the hierarchy might be a unified Ukraine aligned neither with Russia nor with the West. But it might not – and even if that choice is next on their list, at some point Russia undoubtedly prefers keeping a firm hold on Crimea even at the cost of hostile relations with Kiev.

The country that probably puts stability in Ukraine at the top of its preference hierarchy is Germany. A hostile Russia and a nationalist Ukraine are both problematic from a German perspective; a Ukrainian civil war would lead to a refugee exodus, many of whom would wind up in Germany; and it’s not 100% clear that Germany is that interested in EU expansion anyway, since they have to foot the biggest bill for bringing in poorer countries.

What’s most troubling to me is that I can make a reasonable case that Ukrainian nationalists should welcome Russian intervention in Crimea. The status-quo ante meant a large Russian bloc, and a large Russian naval base, within Ukraine. The former makes it harder for Ukrainian nationalists to dominate the country electorally; the latter makes it harder to maintain a policy of distancing from Russia. Lose Crimea, and both problems are solved. Of course, nationalists can’t simply allow sovereign territory to be seized by enemy forces. But what if Crimea achieves de-facto independence, but is not annexed by Russia and independence is not recognized by any other country? Kiev could demand an end to the violation of its sovereignty. And Russia could refuse to accede to that demand. And this could become the new status quo. Wouldn’t that, in the short-term, anyway, be optimal from the perspective of a Ukrainian nationalist?

There are examples beyond the Russian periphery that suggest these kinds of informal arrangements can last for quite a long time. The Krajina region of Bosnia, for example. Or Turkish Cyprus.

We should not be sanguine, in other words, that Russia is playing a sophisticated game aimed at a known outcome. They are, undoubtedly, making the moves they think are optimal for preserving what they can of their influence in their periphery. But they don’t hold all the cards, and a negative-sum outcome may appear to be optimal for both sides in the conflict if a positive-sum outcome – which, in this case, would be a unified Ukraine with friendly relations both with Russia and with the EU – appears unlikely.

That’s the kind of situation where honest, engaged mediation by trusted, powerful outsiders can, potentially, make a difference. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any outside powers that are powerful, trusted, and honest.

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Gained In Translation: A Doll’s House at BAM

Hattie Morahan and Dominic Rowan in Ibsen's A Doll's House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith
Hattie Morahan and Dominic Rowan in Ibsen's A Doll's House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Ibsen is a playwright with whom I have a conflicted relationship. On the one hand, he is the progenitor of a type of theater that I think has largely run its course: a theater of realistic characters and pressing social “issues” and everything played out under the proscenium arch. On top of that, he’s neither Chekhov nor Strindberg; I rarely sense the fineness of perception of the Russian, or the uninhibited ferocity of the Swede.

On the other hand, he basically invented theater for the modern age. There’s something a little ridiculous about someone as artistically insignificant as myself venturing to wonder whether I like or don’t like Ibsen. The question, ultimately, isn’t his stature; it’s whether he still works now, for audiences today.

Well, seeing the electric Young Vic production of A Doll’s House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey theater this past week has settled the question for me. Yes, he emphatically does speak to contemporary audience – if you treat him, his characters, his form of theater, and his text, as if he is.

Start with the form of theater. A Doll’s House plays out in the Helmers’ apartment, and the play doesn’t provide an obvious opportunity to step outside the four walls of that space and engage the audience directly (as, say, the recent Broadway production of Enemy Of the People did). So what set designer Ian MacNeil did is put the whole apartment on a turntable, so that we feel not like spectators at a scene being played out on a stage, for us, but people spying on a drama playing out in an actual space. That’s more a cinematic than a theatrical feeling – but, for a contemporary audience, making us feel like we’re behind a camera is, ironically, probably a good way of making us feel like something is real. (The ravishing production of Lady Windermere’s Fan that I saw this past summer in Canada similarly used elements that recalled film conventions to marvelous effect. It’s almost the opposite of actually putting film and video into a stage production, which often makes the film look stagy and fake.)

Next: the translation, by Simon Stephens. It feels alive, present, and does so without being exactly colloquial. And the performances match that feeling: we never forget that we’re looking at people in the 19th century, but we’re also never explicitly reminded of it. They act as if we belong in the same room together. And so we feel like we are.

It’s an extraordinarily subtle thing. It’s in the way that Nora, played by Hattie Morahan – who looks, moves, even breathes like a young Teri Garr – flirts with her dear friend, Dr. Rank, played by a strikingly handsome Steve Toussaint. She shows him a bit of ankle – that’s all – and the moment is alive with possibility. And, see, that’s how flirting still works – it doesn’t have to be very explicit to be very real. But it’s exciting, not mortifyingly forbidden the way it so often seems in period-y nineteenth century drama.  It’s in the way that Nora’s husband, played by a convincingly clueless Dominic Rowan, paws his wife when he’s drunk, and the way she resists without wanting to make a “thing” of resisting – and the sitcom humor of the way he reacts when interrupted, over and over, by unwelcome visitors. That’s all real to our life now – but it doesn’t feel false to theirs. It’s true to the relationship we’ve come to see, and know, on stage.

So, too, with Nora’s big finish. In Ibsen’s time, her decision to suddenly walk out of her marriage because she discovered her husband was a stranger to her – because of the horrible way he reacts when he discovers she forged her father’s signature on a document so she could take out a loan, which she needed for – well, that doesn’t really matter; that’s so much plot mechanics – when she walked out, it was scandalous. But here’s the thing: it’s still scandalous. It doesn’t matter that divorce happens all the time – when a happily married mother of three suddenly walks out of her life, we’re shocked. And we are – because Morahan doesn’t sound like she’s making a statement. She sounds like her life has come apart, all of a sudden. Which is just what is happening. Which is something that still happens, now, and is just as wrenching and disorienting when it does.

A Doll’s House was understood at the time as a feminist text, which Ibsen objected to – and Joyce did as well; I believe his line was “if he’s a feminist then I’m an archbishop.” Which is a fabulous line, because, you know, it’s also a compliment: Joyce probably knew as much Catholic doctrine and history as many archbishops. And Ibsen’s objection may, similarly, have been that he wanted to understand why a woman would do such a thing, not to make a point about women or marriage or structural oppression. But that – to try to understand a woman from the inside – is probably the most feminist thing a male artist can do.

It seems the director, Carrie Cracknell, sees things very much the same way – so I saw the play she wanted me to see. Her comment on the translation:

The intention of Simon and I, when we were working on the new version, was to really respect the original and not to try to make a radically departing version, but to release the original play for a contemporary audience. The way Simon approached that was to cut some of the slightly more over-expressed text in the translation, so that it felt more psychologically attuned to the way people speak now. We were also interested in uncovering certain elements of the play — for example, the relationship between Nora and the children, and the sexual dynamics between Nora and Torvald, which in its day was slightly more guarded in the way it was written. Simon made that more expressed and visceral in his version. But we also imagined our version like revealing layers of dirt from an old painting, nothing any more radical than that — trying to find the polish and shine of the original play.

And on the feminism of the ending:

The play has rightly been cast as a feminist play because it’s the first time we really staged a woman breaking out of the destructive confines of marriage. But I also appreciate the fact that Ibsen felt the play was more than that, and that he was trying to express something bigger or deeper about the individual within societal structures. It just so happens that heroine was a woman, and a woman breaking out of those structures. I also feel that it’s important that the final door slam [which occurs at the end of the play] isn’t a moment of triumph, not a moment of catharsis. It has to be the beginning of an unraveling of a life lived — of the lives of the three small children, of the lives of the staff, of the life of Torvald, and the life of Nora. They all have to wake up the next morning and work out who they are in this new perspective, and Nora has to head off into an uninhabitable world and find out who she is. So on one level she’s a feminist heroine, but the play is also darker and murkier and more complicated than a sort of triumphant finale.

The finale isn’t triumphant – but the production is a triumph. Go see it.

A Doll’s House plays at BAM’s Harvey Theater through March 16th.

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An Obligatory Oscar Post

Well, I suppose not obligatory – nobody’s making me write it – but this is a year where there is a modest amount of drama in the “Best Picture” category, and it’s also a rare year where I’ve seen almost all the major-category nominees. So I should probably say something. This, then, is something.

This is a funny year in which there was a large number of worthy films and no single film that is obviously a “Best Picture” film. Compare “12 Years a Slave” to last year’s “Lincoln.” I found Steve McQueen’s film to be far more interesting than Spielberg’s, but also much less-satisfying precisely because McQueen seems aggressively uninterested in providing the satisfactions of a traditional narrative.

Or compare “American Hustle” with “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s 2013 nominee. His newer film is much more ambitious, much more complex – and much more of a narrative mess. That makes it more interesting in many ways – but also much less of a “Best Picture” type of film.

Both of these films make you think about what they are doing even as you experience them. They don’t exactly carry you along. But that “on a great ride” feeling is a big part of what people love about the movies. So I think both “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” have a wall to get over to win Best Picture that another film – which I liked less – doesn’t.

That film is “Gravity.” Compare “Gravity to last year’s “Life of Pi,” another technically-pathbreaking, spiritually-oriented film about an individual adrift in a hostile environment. “Life of Pi” had a metafictional frame that contained the “message” of the movie, while the main story was a frankly fantastical one. That metafictional layering was clearly intended to make you think, even as the story of the boy and the tiger had a visceral power. “Gravity,” by contrast, keeps you rooted in the experience of the film itself; the “message” is the weakest, least-interesting aspect of the film. That slightness might hurt it, of course; “Best Picture” films are supposed to be important. But I’m betting not.

Best Picture is expected to be a contest between these three films, with the other six nominees as dark horses. I have a hard time seeing “American Hustle” win. I definitely preferred “12 Years a Slave” to “Gravity,” but I recognize the substantial technical achievement of the latter. (That long “shot” toward the beginning of the film deserves an Oscar all of its own.) There’s some talk that they may split the Picture and Director honors, Cuarón winning for Director while “12 Years a Slave” wins for Picture, but the funny thing is that what I liked best about both films was the direction, while other elements (particularly the screenplays) struck me as relatively weak.

If I were voting, from these nine films, I’d probably vote for “12 Years a Slave,” which is a consequential, powerful but flawed film. There are individual scenes that are going to stay with me forever, even if the film as a whole felt like less than the sum of those scenes.

But if I’m predicting, I’d predict “Gravity.”

My thoughts on the rest of the “Best Picture” nominees:

“Captain Phillips” (which I wrote up here) has stayed with me more for the performance of Barkhad Abdi than for anything else.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is the only “Best Picture” nominee I haven’t seen.

“Her” (which I wrote up here) has a great production design and a set of really compelling performances, but it is so, so sad, and not, ultimately, in a cathartic way.

“Nebraska” (which I took two cracks at, here and here) hasn’t stayed with me as powerfully as I thought it might have. I still think Bruce Dern gave a great performance, and I did love June Squibb, but I worry that the film wasn’t a challenge for Alexander Payne – that it took him places that, mostly, he already knew.

“Philomena” I haven’t had a chance to write up, other than in passing in my post from yesterday on religious films. I don’t have too much to say about it; it’s a sweet little film, well-written and well-structured. It certainly benefitted from low expectations on my part; it didn’t sound like something I’d like, and lo and behold, I liked it. I’m sure it’s thrilled to be nominated.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” I also haven’t had a chance to write up – and I should. DiCaprio’s performance is technically amazing – that scene where he has to get out the door, down the stairs and into his car while unable to stand up because he’s taken too many quaaludes is a comic tour de force. And Scorsese is absolutely in control of his film. But I found myself falling between the “love” and “hate” camps with respect to the film, in a place of relative indifference. Why? Two reasons. First, the film is too short. I’m entirely serious. People chortled when Thelma Schoonmaker said it was really hard to edit the film down from four hours, but I felt like I could see what she meant. They managed to preserve all these set pieces, but I felt sometimes like multiple peripheral characters never got defined, or got lost, because there wasn’t time to let us understand who they were. And I assume that’s because too much was left on the cutting room floor. The second, more important reason, though, is that Jordan Belfort just isn’t a very interesting person. His story is a boringly self-aggrandizing one. This isn’t really a story about Wall Street, because Belfort was a petty criminal who just made it much bigger than you’d ever expect. It’s like, what would happen if Ricky Roma from “Glengarry Glen Ross” somehow made hundreds of millions of dollars. So, he’d be a jerk on a colossal scale. What else? Not much else.

Now, for the other categories:

Best Director: Cuarón, for “Gravity.” He’ll get this one whether “Gravity” gets Best Picture or not.

Best Actor: Everybody says it’s McConaughey’s to lose, and since I didn’t see “Dallas Buyers Club,” I can’t really venture an opinion. Of the other four nominees, I would probably pick Bruce Dern.

Best Actress: Everybody says it’s Cate Blanchett, who has swept every prior award this year. I saw “Blue Jasmine,” but haven’t written it up. I thought she was fantastic, and single-handedly saved the film from being kind of unbearable. I would certainly vote for her.

Best Supporting Actor: Everybody says it’s Jared Leto, and again, I didn’t see “Dallas Buyers Club,” so I can’t say. I’d vote for Michael Fassbender from the other four nominees, but I wouldn’t be upset if either Barkhad Abdi or Bradley Cooper won.

Best Supporting Actress: I predict Lupita Nyong’o. I’d also vote for her, even though I adored Jennifer Lawrence and think June Squibb is a hoot and a half.

Best Original Screenplay: this will probably go to “American Hustle,” and I’m not sure how I feel about that because I feel like the screenplay has loads of marvelous stuff but also real structural problems. On the other hand, it’s a much more interesting screenplay than “Nebraska,” and I actively disliked the writing of “Blue Jasmine” – so maybe I’d vote for it after all. Or maybe I’d vote for “Her,” just for sheer cussedness. Yeah, I’d probably vote for “Her.” I wish I could write in “All Is Lost” – a screenplay with essentially no dialogue. Just for total cussedness.

Best Adapted Screenplay: this will surely go to “12 Years a Slave,” which I’m not thrilled about since I think the screenplay is the weakest part of the film. I would probably vote for “Before Midnight.”

I really hope “The Act of Killing” wins Best Documentary, because that film knocked me flat – it was by far my favorite film of the year. Would have written it up except Eve Tushnet got there first with the best headline ever (and an excellent review under it).

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve seen none of the Foreign Film nominees.

Technical awards: “Gravity” should take the lion’s share of these: Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing and Mixing, Visual Effects. People say it will also win Best Score; I admit, I don’t remember the score. I do remember the score for “Her,” which drove me nuts, and which suited the film perfectly, so I’d vote for “Her.” “Gravity” might also win Best Production Design, but I would definitely vote for “Her.” Costume Design I would vote for “American Hustle;” I don’t really have a view on who will win. What else? Makeup?

Feel free to tell me your own predictions in comments. I can still change mine for the pool up until Sunday night.

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Net Debt Doesn’t Mean What Matt Yglesias Thinks It Does

Matt Yglesias wants us to stop worrying because the national debt is still less than our national assets:

[O]n a net basis the United States of America does not have any public debt and perhaps never did.

The conventional way for debt scaremongers to measure the national debt is to compare gross public debt to GDP. But the normal way you measure the debt load of a business or a household is to ask for a net figure. Just because you have hundreds of thousands of dollars in mortgage debt doesn’t mean you’re a pauper. In fact it probably means you’re a rich person who owns an expensive house. It is of course possible to take out a large mortgage and then end up “underwater” because house prices decline, but it’s simply not the case that a large amount of gross debt is a sign of overextension. It’s typically a sign of prosperity and creditworthiness.

But “net debt” doesn’t mean the difference between assets and liabilities – that’s the definition of net assets. Because when liabilities are greater than assets, you are technically bankrupt. I doubt that anyone is reassured by the fact that the United States is not technically bankrupt – I should hope nobody thinks that we needn’t worry about public indebtedness until that happens.

“Net debt” on the other hand means liabilities minus current assets – assets that are either cash or readily convertible to cash. If Yglesias’s chart is labeled correctly – and I can’t see his underlying data, so I may simply be misinterpreting what he’s trying to show – then we’re looking at overall public assets versus public debt. Most public assets are certainly not readily convertible to cash. And the public debt is frequently quoted as a net debt figure – that is, debt minus short-term receivables, cash and other marketable securities – so I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if the red line is already a net debt figure. Without access to the underlying data and clear definitions thereof, I can’t be sure, but it certainly doesn’t look like a chart showing that the United States never had any net debt – and it couldn’t be, because the US did, and does, have net outstanding debt.

Yglesias disparages the debt-to-GDP ratio, but it’s a pretty good rough-and-ready tool for measuring fiscal health, because your GDP is your tax base, and you service your debt out of taxes. If interest rates are very low, you can service a higher debt more cheaply, but over the long term rates should have a close relationship to nominal GDP, so if you’re projecting very low rates for a very long time, you’re also probably forecasting very low nominal GDP for a very long time. Which would be another reason to worry about a high degree of indebtedness.

For a business or household, you’d also pay attention to leverage – that is to say, not merely how above water you are, but how close to the water line. If you own a house at 5% down, you have a more risky financial position than if you own a house at 25% down, regardless of the value of your house. If you’re a bank with only 3% true equity capital, you’re running a riskier bank than if you have 10% true equity capital. To a certain extent, this is true for countries as well; there’s generally no way for foreigners to foreclose if the value of national assets drops below net debt, but currency crises aren’t exactly a picnic either. In the context of banking, Yglesias understands the importance of leverage. Why, here, does he suggest that the only thing that really matters is whether you’re in the money or not?

Here’s what I see when I look at the chart: from 1850 to 1950, both public debt and the value of public assets grew at a much faster rate than the economy as a whole. Debt expanded rapidly in wartime (Civil War, World War II, War War I), and tended to contract (as a percent of GDP) thereafter. Since 1950, however, the value of public assets has been relatively more stable (rising modestly through 1970, then falling through 1990, then rising again to somewhat above the 1970 peak) while the public debt first dropped dramatically (by nearly 50% to 1970, measured as a percentage of GDP) and then shot back up to around its 1950 peak. We’re not yet as leveraged as we were after the Civil War or after World War II, but our “net national equity” is smaller than it was in any other period, and (if you extrapolate out) shrinking.

Piketty’s argument is (in part) that the 1970-2010 period is much more representative of what trends in wealthy countries are going to look like for the foreseeable future than was the period from 1900 to 1970. That’s a period in which public indebtedness was rising rapidly while public assets rose barely at all. Why that’s a basis for complacency, I have no idea.

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What Is A “Religious” Film Anyway?

Charlton Heston as Moses in "The Ten Commandments." Paramount Pictures
Charlton Heston as Moses in "The Ten Commandments." Paramount Pictures

Michael Cieply, writing in The New York Times, tells an anecdote to illustrate Hollywood’s aversion to religious films for a mass market audience:

It was in the mid-1990s, and a good writer, earlier nominated for an Oscar, had an earnest modern-day Christ story about a damaged man in Los Angeles who might or might not be the Messiah. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” meets “Falling Down,” more or less.

We tried it out on Columbia executives, but four minutes into the pitch the studio’s production president ran out to take calls. A remaining vice president nodded off in his seat. “At least I’ve got an anecdote,” the writer muttered.

With a few exceptions that have generally skewed toward humor or horror — the God comedy “Bruce Almighty,” the angel romance “Michael” and the exorcism film “The Rite” come to mind — it has been that way for decades. Major studios suddenly get distracted when anyone suggests tackling serious religious subjects.

Hmmm, I thought. Mid-1990s. I seem to recall that there were films made more or less around that time, with a decidedly similar theme. Here’s one. Here’s another. And another. And another. Is it possible that Cieply’s anecdote of Hollywood indifference is one that could be told about, well, almost any kind of script?

Now, each of the movies I linked to has a distinct sensibility of its own. But that “Christ may be walking among you, where you least-expect to find him” theme is common to all. Only one of them, the Canadian “Jesus of Montreal,” is a small-scale film. The other three were solid mid-budget films aimed at a mass audience, and all of them did well by one measure or another. “The Shawshank Redemption,” which probably did the worst of the bunch in its initial box office, is now widely cited as people’s favorite movies of all time.

Cieply complains that Hollywood used to make films like “The Ten Commandments,” but won’t take that kind of risk anymore. Did he manage to miss “Prince of Egypt,” a book-of-Exodus-based biblical epic put out by DreamWorks in 1998? Or does it not count because it is animated – notwithstanding that animated films have been some of the most successful, both financially and in terms of cultural impact, of the past twenty years.

As Damon Linker points out, films like “The Ten Commandments” are hardly serious takes on religious themes. Have there been many of the latter kinds of films? No – but there never have been, and there certainly weren’t piles of them in the 1950s. Meanwhile, he identifies “The Chosen,” “Shadowlands,” “The End of the Affair” and, especially, “Tree of Life” as serious films about religious questions and living a religiously serious life. If I were making my own list, I’d add the powerful ’90s indie, “Household Saints,” the searchingly skeptical Coen Brothers film, “A Serious Man,” (which, as I’ve noted before, makes a fascinating double-feature with Malick’s “Tree of Life”), and much of the career of Bruce Beresford, with particular emphasis on “Black Robe” and “Tender Mercies,” the latter one of my favorite films of all time. If you add in films that appeal to a spiritually-minded audience without having anything explicitly religious about them, the list is longer. In honor of the passing of Harold Ramis, I’ll mention only one, “Groundhog Day,” the “It’s a Wonderful Life” of this generation.

But Cieply’s dismissive response to two serious films on religious themes reveals that he’s looking for something specific in a religious film. Those are current Oscar nominee “Philomena” and Martin Scorsese’s monumental 1988 drama, “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

“Philomena” is a sweet little film about a sentimental and culturally-sheltered old Irish lady (Judy Dench) searching for the boy she gave up for adoption fifty years ago. The story is told through the eyes of a cynical journalist (Steve Coogan) who agrees to help her on her quest, and in the process uncovers exactly the tale of Catholic corruption and mendacity that he expected to find. But it’s not his story, and the film is only incidentally an exposé of the Catholic church. It’s Philomena’s story, and her story is the story of someone who holds fast to her faith even in the face of real wrong done to her by her church. Our own journey, over the course of the film, follows the journalist’s – we start out condescending to her, to some degree, then feel sympathy, and finally we’re put in our place by her. To read this simply as an “anti-Catholic” film in the vein of “Agnes of God,” as the New York Post did (which is all Cieply tells us about the film) strikes me as willful misreading – unless you define “anti-Catholic” to mean “honest about the sins of the Catholic hierarchy.” (The film is based on a true story.)

Similarly, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” adapted by Paul Schrader from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, is a very searching examination of Jesus’s experience, and specifically the idea that, as Christ is supposed to be fully human, he faced the ultimate temptation from Satan in the form of an offer of a normal, happy human life. It’s not only a serious film about the central Christian myth, it’s one that takes that myth deeply seriously. It’s not a skeptical film in any meaningful sense of the word. But, of course, it was protested by Protestant and Catholic groups who didn’t like its emphasis on the human side of Christ’s dichotomous identity, the notion that temptation was something Jesus actually experienced, in a deep way, a test he didn’t pass easily.

These films are in no sense anti-religious; they are obviously serious; and they clearly deal with religion, religious people, and religious themes – and they take the faith of the religious seriously. But they aren’t necessarily films that will make religious people comfortable – they aren’t obviously flattering to religious sensibilities, and may indeed offend those sensibilities. Is that the standard of what counts as a “religious” film – something pious and flattering to religious believers?

I think so, because Cieply’s complaint seems to be about marketing rather than about substance – he’s interested in films that “appeal to a Christian audience.” As Cieply knows, there is a whole industry of Christian filmmaking out there providing that kind of product. Hollywood is perfectly good at flattering its audience – that’s its standard modus operandi, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hollywood tried to break into a lucrative niche market. And if it doesn’t, then Christian filmmakers will fill the void – they are already doing so, much as Tyler Perry has done with a different lucrative niche market that Hollywood has had trouble cracking.

But what Cieply seems to want is a variety of mass-market films with a sensibility that flatters a specifically religious audience. The barriers to that, though, aren’t some kind of anti-religious bias in Hollywood, which was likely as secular in the 1950s as it now, and just as focused on the bottom line. It’s changes in film economics – and cultural changes in the larger society.

As Cieply surely knows, there are more movies being made than ever, covering a wider variety of stories and aimed and a more diverse audience. But the studios are making fewer and fewer films, and the ones they are making keep getting bigger. What this has meant is that the middle-budget film is becoming a thing of the past. Films either get made for under $20 million (and usually much less than that), or for more than $100 million. Films in the former category have trouble achieving the epic scale that Cieply clearly wants to see. Films in the latter category have to be essentially immune from box-office failure, which is why we see so many blockbusters based on properties with a pre-existing audience, so many films with the same formulaic story line, and with protagonists and villains that will play everywhere from Johannesburg to Jakarta.

Meanwhile, in the 1950s American culture was broadly but shallowly Christian; it was not the 1850s. Nor was it like today, when there is a much more substantial non-Christian or even anti-Christian segment of the population, while conservative religious groups are much more engaged in active resistance to the culture at large. The 1950s Waco, Texas family in Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” for example, is Christian, but not counter-culturally so; their Christianity doesn’t stand out as a fact. This change in American religious demographics has implications for the marketing of a film; you can’t just assume that a mass audience shares common religious assumptions, which means if your film partakes of a certain set of assumptions you risk confusing or alienating part of your audience. Far safer to stick to Oprah-approved spiritual sentiments without much content.

So, on one level, Linker is right that “Hollywood doesn’t have a religion problem. It has a quality problem.” But to the extent that this is true, it is substantially a function of economics.

I think about this question a lot, because one of my scripts, probably the one I’m most attached to, deals very centrally with religious themes, and takes religion quite seriously indeed. It’s substantially inspired by “Tender Mercies” – and if anybody reading this knows Bruce Beresford, please put us in touch. But I worry whether it could get made, precisely because it isn’t exactly flattering; it’s neither a comfortably secular film nor a comfortably feel-good religious or “spiritual” film. It doesn’t obviously fit in a box. And the movie industry likes its boxes. (Also I worry that it just isn’t good enough – but it’s my baby; I believe it is!)

Meanwhile, the more obvious complaint to make about Hollywood with respect to religion is precisely that it goes in a box – that it’s an “issue” rather than being portrayed as simply a part of life for the majority of characters, whereas in fact this is the reality for much of America (though certainly not all of it). Making movies with serious religious themes is hard because making any film is hard, and making anything spiritually serious is hard, so doing both is almost impossible. Including religion as a routine component of character just requires research.

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Protecting Religious Freedom Without Invidious Discrimination

Sign posted at Rocco's Little Chicago Pizzeria, Tucson, Arizona.
Sign posted at Rocco's Little Chicago Pizzeria, Tucson, Arizona.

A variety of states are contemplating statutes that would affirmatively allow various kinds of discrimination by private actors against gay couples. The asserted concern is that same-sex marriage violates deep and sincere religious beliefs of many people, and that, in the absence of a specific immunity carved out in law, private individuals may be required to provide services that, to the provider, feel tantamount to an endorsement of such a marital state.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that such efforts are sincere (they may or may not be, but I think that’s the right assumption to start with), the problem of course is that an explicit carve-out in law allowing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prima facie invidious discrimination. It’s worth pointing out that the Supreme Court has already struck down laws manifesting such discrimination for failing the rational basis level of scrutiny – the lowest level of scrutiny. I’m skeptical of their reasoning, which appears to me more to suggest a heightened level of scrutiny is being applied, comparable to sex or race-related cases, but so it’s not terribly material why exactly the Court feels such laws are illegitimate; they clearly do.

And, whether or not you endorse the entire edifice of equal protection jurisprudence, it’s a bit of a hard lift, I think, to argue that there is nothing wrong with singling out a class of people as being ok to discriminate against. It would be a much easier lift to provide religious protections without identifying a uniquely “unprotected” class.

So, for example, if the issue is being coerced to provide services for marriage ceremonies that violate one’s religious beliefs, why not write a law specifying that notwithstanding any anti-discrimination statutes, nobody can be required to provide services for a wedding ceremony which violates their religious beliefs? Would that allow florists to discriminate against gay weddings? Yes. It would also allow florists to refuse to provide flowers for a Catholic who was getting re-married after a divorce, or for a Jew marrying a non-Jew, or for an Indian wedding that involved pagan idolatry, or for a polyamorous ceremony taking place on a cruise ship. If providing flowers for a wedding amounts to endorsement, then I can see very good reasons for religious believers of various stripes to object to one or more of the weddings described. (Or maybe not – maybe there is only one group anyone cares about actually discriminating against; notwithstanding what may or may not happen, the law at least would be neutral.) If the issue is protecting florists from feeling they are endorsing weddings that they believe are wrong, then the statute should address that issue generally, and need make no specific reference to gay couples.

Some of these laws are being written even more broadly, in that they cover not just services for a wedding ceremony but any services to gay couples. So, a hotel owner might, under such statutes, be able to refuse a room to two men who are married, even though he would not refuse a room to a man and a woman who are married, or (possibly) even a man and woman who were unmarried. Ditto for restauranteurs, etc. Here, again, it’s unclear why gay couples should be singled out uniquely for being the object of discrimination.

If the issue is that the guest professes something that is religiously objectionable to the proprietor, and promotes it publicly by participating in a ceremony such as marriage (or simply by letting people know he is gay), then presumably there are other such professions that might be made that are equally deserving of protection. For example, I know many people who find proselytism religiously objectionable. Why shouldn’t a proprietor be allow to discriminate against individuals who engage in such activity? What is the difference between endorsing the legitimacy of a gay union and endorsing the legitimacy of Islam, or Mormonism, or even mainstream Christianity? If merely providing a room to a married gay couple counts as endorsing their marriage, then surely providing rooms to a Mormon mission counts as endorsing that mission. Right? A properly worded statute not invidiously aimed at stigmatizing gay couples by singling them out would need to allow for general discrimination against any individual whose declared conduct or identity poses a religious objection to the proprietor or service-provider.

This is roughly what Arizona did. Actually, Arizona went considerably further, making an asserted “substantive burden” on an individual’s religious freedom a legitimate defense against individual violations of any state law, regardless of whether it is generally and neutrally applicable. If I understand the law correctly, not only would it legalize a wide variety of types of private discrimination, not limited to my examples above, but would do much more. It would legalize polygamy and marriage with underage girls (both sanctioned by so-called fundamentalist Mormon groups). It would permit public school teachers to explicitly proselytize to their students (I’m quite certain you could find fringe Protestant groups or individuals who hold that such witnessing is mandatory at all times). I’m not sure, but I think if you founded a Church of Nude Defecation, and declared that God told you the Arizona state legislature was your temple, the state of Arizona could not expel you for practicing your faith in the place that God had designated.

Even if the law isn’t quite as nuts as that, it’s pretty nuts. Most people don’t actually want to repeal the process of balancing different interests by making one principle an absolute trump card. They just want to adjust the balance slightly when they don’t like a particular result. Which is completely fine – continual readjustment is exactly what that balancing act requires.

And this is a balancing act. The principle of non-discrimination is plainly in conflict with the principle that people should be free to deal with whomever they damn well please, and not with anybody else. Both principles are weighty and valuable. If the law required you to provide flowers for your ex-wife’s wedding to the guy who used to be your best friend, you would obviously suffer an injury. Well, somebody morally appalled by gay marriage who is coerced, by the law, into providing flowers for a gay wedding (or else exit the florist business) has also suffered a real injury. But so has somebody who is disgusted by black people eating alongside white people when he is prohibited by law from running his restaurant according to the rules of racial purity to which he ascribes. The question is whether there is any remedy for that injury that doesn’t cause a much greater injury to others.

There is nothing wrong with adjusting the balance of equality-versus-freedom. Of course, as the Arizona law suggests, doing so may get you a lot more than you bargained for. But adjusting the balance only to permit discrimination against married gay couples transparently singles out those couples as uniquely unprotected. It’s practically a textbook example of invidious discrimination in law. If you want to adjust the balance, you have to adjust the balance generally. You don’t just make an exception for people you don’t like.

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Defense Cuts Are Welcome, “Pre-WWII Levels” Headline Is Deceptive

I am pleased to see that the Pentagon is looking at meaningful force reductions and making some tough choices about what equipment is necessary, and that there is some recognition that this will necessitate some change in mission. But I strongly suspect that the “pre-World War II Army” headlines are designed to alarm, rather than inform.

A few reasons why:

  • The Army is the service branch that is being shrunk significantly. There are cuts elsewhere, of course, but we’re hardly going back to a pre-World War II Navy.
  • A much bigger reduction in the size of the Army took place after the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War. Over the course of the 1990s, active personnel shrank by roughly 1/3. There was some ramp-up over the course of the 2000s, but the service never approached the Cold War levels of the late 1970s and 1980s, to say nothing of the wartime peaks of Vietnam or Korea. ”Win-hold-win” was a doctrine that took hold in the 1990s, and is not a consequence of the proposed reductions.
  • The proposed reduction takes active Army personnel down to a level only modestly below its 2000 level. That level is more than twice the size of the active Army circa 1940.
  • Comparisons to the pre-World War II Army are specious anyway because the modern Army operates in such a wildly different technological environment.

So what’s the reason for describing the proposed reductions that way? My base-case assumption is that “lowest levels since 1940″ is just a lot more dramatic than “below the levels of 2000″ or “largest reductions since 1992.” But it is potentially deceptive precisely because it is more dramatic.

The proposed changes in forces structure do not imply a shift non-interventionism. They will make it even more difficult to contemplate long-term, large-scale occupations, but such would have been difficult to contemplate even at a 500,000-person Army. That still leaves very much open the use of force in more “discrete” ways – drones, Special Forces, etc. – that have been the hallmark of the Obama Administration since the beginning of the drawdown in Afghanistan. We should also remember that fighter jock Donald Rumsfeld also advocated a lean and mean Army, and planned the Iraq War precisely as a demonstration of how much we could achieve without deploying an occupation-scale force. We all know how that turned out, but while some learned the lesson, “don’t do that again,” others learned the lesson, “we need to learn how to do that better before we do that again.”

I’m not suggesting that advocates of a more restrained foreign policy shouldn’t be pleased by the proposal. This is the way you turn an aircraft carrier: slowly. It should just be clear that this is another incremental turn away from the Cold War forces structure. It’s compatible with a reorientation of American foreign policy, but it doesn’t constitute such a reorientation.

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Did Islam Give Us Gay Marriage?

Damon Linker asks whether gay marriage isn’t the next logical step in a cultural progression that begins with Christianity’s radical egalitarianism:

For Tocqueville, the march of equality was upending age-old institutions and moral habits “in all the Christian world.” It was a “providential fact,” by which he meant that there was nothing anybody could do to stop it.

The ultimate source of the democratic revolution — the motor behind its inexorable unfolding — is the figure of Jesus Christ, who taught the equal dignity of all persons, and declared in the Sermon on the Mount that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and that the meek shall inherit the earth.

These are among the most subversive teachings ever uttered — and according to Tocqueville, Western civilization has been working out their logic for the better part of two millennia, as political communities have applied Christ’s egalitarian teachings in stricter and stricter terms.

An interesting argument. But what about the other radically egalitarian monotheist religion: Islam?

Islam is supposed to be a brotherhood of believers in which all are regarded equally by the divine. Pharaoh is the Quranic representation of outrageous arrogance, the man who would make a god of himself rather than submit to the only true divinity. Just as Christianity was an appealing religion to the slaves of the Roman Empire, when Islam reached India, it became a primary mode of escape from the caste system for many low-caste Hindus.

There is no hereditary priesthood in Islam (unlike in, say, ancient Israelite religion). The hierarchy of Islamic jurisprudence, at least in its dominant Sunni variety, is in theory both meritocratic and libertarian; you gain authority as an interpreter of Islamic law by convincing other interpreters to follow your interpretations. (This is the way rabbinic authority historically worked as well.) De Tocqueville’s argument that the openness of the priesthood to different classes paved the way for modern democracy should be even more true of Islam.

While most Islamic societies have been monarchies for most of their history, the same is true of most Christian societies; Islam, however, does not have a doctrine comparable to the “divine right of kings.” Indeed, for most of the history of Christianity, the Catholic Church proclaimed that monarchy was the only political system in harmony with Christian principles, reversing course on this point only very recently. Similarly, yes, most Islamic societies were slave societies for most of their histories – but most Christian societies embraced slavery and/or its close cousin, serfdom. Meanwhile, Islam has been far more consistent historically in rejecting religious sanction for race-based slavery or a natural hierarchy among humanity. The same cannot be said of Christian societies.

Finally, Islam emphatically believes in bringing the actual social world into line with its ideal conception thereof, while Christianity frequently gestures in the opposite direction, declaring its kingdom to be “not of this world” and talking about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. If gay marriage is the “logical” result of a leveling egalitarianism, then surely the Islamic religious matrix is where it would emerge.

Or, you know – not.

When I first read the title of Linker’s piece, I thought he was going to make a different argument for Christianity’s implication in the movement for gay marriage by pointing to Christianity’s rejection of the cycle of procreation and death, its valorization of celibacy and friendship over the value of marriage and clan continuity, and showing how these ideas make it hard to argue against gay relationships as somehow against the proper order of things as ordained by God. The Cathars were a Christian heresy – and a very popular one – that embraced non-procreative sexual activity; the association was strong enough that the coarse term, “bugger,” originates as an epithet for the Cathars. Maybe this is the true intellectual genealogy of marriage: not in Christianity’s radical egalitarianism, but in its rejection of procreation? I certainly think you could write a persuasive column based on that argument.

Except . . . what about the Buddhists? Who also have a celibate priestly class. Who also focus on an escape from the cycle of procreation and death. If this is the intellectual genealogy, why should gay marriage have originated in the secularizing Christian West rather than in, say, Thailand?

Maybe the problem with all these kinds of arguments is that ideas don’t have consequences – at least, not in the way that Linker wants them to. The older I get, the less Hegelian and the more Darwinian I get about the way that culture changes over time. That is to say: I am less and less convinced that a conversation about ideas is the motor of history, and more and more convinced that cultures prove themselves more or less adapted to challenges – material or ideational – that their cultures could not possibly have foreseen.

The political democracy that de Tocqueville studied emerged in the Christian west after the discovery and settlement of the New World; the ructions of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation (was the former the “true” Christian development, and the latter somehow “false”?); the transformation of both the British and French monarchies into more autocratic, less-feudal systems; the emergence of capitalism as an economic system; the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; and a world war between Britain and France. Which of these momentous developments do we fully understand? Which is the inevitable outgrowth of the Christian idea, as opposed to a contingent historical development?

Christianity was around for two millennia before the idea of gay marriage reared its head. Moreover, Christianity arose in a Roman world that was not exactly reticent about sexuality or about the existence of same-sex attraction. Heck, the Emperor Nero married a man! And yet, we are having this argument now, not in Nero’s time. Why, then, should we think that Christianity has anything to do with it?

When I read Augustine’s argument that marriage is a sacrament, I see an argument equally applicable to gay couples as to straight. But that merely demonstrates that his ideas are – in my view, not the view of an orthodox Christian – more readily adaptable to the challenge posed by gay couples demanding recognition than, say, the views of comparable figures in my own religious tradition (Judaism). It doesn’t prove that those gay couples are making their demand because of the inevitable working out of Christian principles, because there is no such thing as the inevitable working out of principles, Christian or otherwise. History just doesn’t work like that.

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Corporate Culture As A Sophisticated Interlocking Brick System

I see another Noah beat me to the punch on “The Lego Movie.” But, you know, you can always add another brick to the critical wall. So:

A lot of the commentary on the movie has asserted that the message (or a big part of the message) of the movie is: don’t limit yourself by following the instructions. Let your imagination run free! But this strikes me as a seriously weak reading.

Emmett does not have a soaring imagination yearning to fly free. The only thing he ever invented is a double-decker couch, which everyone agrees is a terrible, terrible idea. There’s actually a scene where the other characters go inside his mind, so we know just how sunshiny-spotless it is. The only thing his head is good for is to serve as an impromptu axle for a wheel.

What he is good at is following instructions – and making sure that other people follow them.

There’s a crucial scene where the evil forces of Lord Business are attacking cloud cuckoo land, and the various master builders – Batman, Wild Style, Unikitty, etc. – have to work together to build a submarine so they can plunge safely into the ocean below. But they don’t exactly know how to do that. They each have a “thing” – Batman uses only black pieces, natch – and so they each work independently on a portion of the sub. Vitruvius even tells Emmett, in the middle of the crisis, that he can contribute to building the sub by, you know, doing whatever comes to mind. (This is when Emmett builds his double-decker couch.)

Lo and behold, only a few minutes after submerging, the sub breaks apart into its constituent pieces. It fell apart because it lacked a unified design to hold it together. As Emmett points out later, the master builders’ problem is they don’t know how to work as a team. Which is the one thing Emmett does know how to do.

Emmett does become a master builder after his encounter with the “man upstairs” (an instantaneous transformation that doesn’t actually make any sense in story terms), but even after this transformation he isn’t able to defeat Lord Business. Lord Business can only be defeated by convincing him to switch sides, stop micromanaging, and work with the master builders as their leader and coordinator rather than insisting that all ideas have to come from his office.

Yes, Kristula-Green is right that on the “meta” level of the humans who are playing with the Legos, this narrative resolution parallels the reconciliation of father and son. But within the frame of the Lego universe, this resolution represents the apotheosis of corporate management culture truisms. There’s no revolution to overthrow Lord Business; instead, Lord Business retains his position of authority but learns how to properly manage a corporate environment that encourages individual creativity and channels it effectively towards corporate ends. The captive master builders are freed from their prison cells and the rebellious ones outside are re-integrated into the new corporate culture.

This is how companies like Apple and Google present themselves. It’s also how the Lego corporation presents itself. And it’s equally valid as a metaphor for the process of making a movie like, say, “The Lego Movie,” which required effective coordination of the efforts of numerous creative individuals and the interests of multiple corporate franchise holders, and could never have been accomplished if those creative individuals had been shackled and forced to conform to a single person’s vision – but also could never have been accomplished if there were no coordinating vision at all.

And that’s not the message for the grownups. The sentimental business with the father and son – that’s the message for the grownups; that’s the ad. The corporate culture message is for the kids. Take a trip through kids’ entertainment these days, much of it produced by the Disney corporation, and you’ll see quite a bit of very similar messaging. And the dystopian visions of so much YA literature are the dark mirrors of the same corporate scenario, where children are forced to compete with each other in brutal games arranged by heartless adults. Rod Dreher has been writing a bunch about “narrative collapse” lately, but the narrative hasn’t collapsed. We still tell stories about how we’re supposed to live our lives. It just isn’t the narrative he’s looking for.

“The Lego Movie” isn’t distinctive for selling kids on the promise of a “cool” workplace culture where you can exercise your creative impulses if you learn to work well with others.

It’s distinctive for making that world actually seem fun. As fun as, you know, playing with Legos.


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Running On Empty Claims Of Competence

Daniel Larison misunderstands my point about competence and a hypothetical Clinton-Paul contest:

This [my claim that Clinton will run on competence not ideology in foreign policy] jumped out at me because Clinton doesn’t have any particular claim to foreign policy competence. Her tenure at State during Obama’s first term was very busy in terms of traveling around the world, but one would be hard-pressed to identify any successful major policies that Clinton could take credit for. Obama centralized foreign policy decisions in the White House to a great degree while she was the Secretary of State, and many of the major policies that Clinton is known to have supported don’t help her to claim competence in this area. As an advocate for arming the Syrian opposition, pushing for regime change in Libya, and backing escalation in Afghanistan, Clinton routinely took the more hawkish side in every internal administration debate, and that put her on what proved to be the wrong side of some of the most important decisions of the first term. For that matter, the main reason that Clinton is ever credited with foreign policy competence is that she reliably takes the conventional and “consensus” position on every major issue. In other words, her claim to competence is that she sticks to a predictably hawkish line. She would have to emphasize ideology, since that is what her foreign policy reputation is based on in the first place.

My point was not that Clinton actually has a record of competence in foreign policy; I don’t think she does. I agree, in fact, with pretty much all of Larison’s criticisms of her foreign policy record. I just don’t think Clinton is going to run on a platform of “She’ll keep us at war.” Rather, she will claim that she has the experience to know how to negotiate effectively and get results without war, and the clout to build a broad coalition of international support when the use of force is necessary. Whereas, she’ll portray Paul as a naive ideologue who doesn’t understand how the world works. Her actual foreign policy preferences are quite close to Senator McCain’s, but she won’t make jokes about bombing Iran, and won’t present herself as the heir to “bear any burden, pay any price.”

Clinton does not need to run on foreign policy ideology, because nobody will be asking her to – except, assuming he’s her opponent, Rand Paul. Why would she give him a debate he wants to have?

Maybe I’m wrong about that, and Clinton relishes a chance to make the case for her brand of hard Wilsonian foreign policy. But I doubt she thinks that’s the way to win. And she will be focused on that objective.

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