Noah Millman

Oscar Predictions (Now Don’t Be Grouchy)

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I’m going to start with an overarching statement about this year’s contest: the most important category this year is Best Editing. Why? Because the two most interesting films nominated this year are “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” and both are overwhelmingly editing-dependent films.

With “Boyhood,” you have footage compiled over the course of a dozen years, and a story which, presumably, was structured initially to hedge against the possibility that something might happen over the course of time that would necessitate massive changes. What if Patricia Arquette got hit by a bus? What if Ethan Hawke got really fat? What if one or both of the kids grew into lousy actors? What if Richard Linklater went through a messy divorce, and it changed his view of the kind of story he wanted to tell?

No chance for re-shoots here; you’ve got to take the footage compiled over this long period, and assemble it into a story that is tonally consistent and narratively compelling. However much one feels that Sandra Adair succeeded in this effort, the challenge itself is honor-worthy.

Meanwhile: with “Birdman” you have a story that depends, substantially, on constant, consistent forward motion, on the sense that we are stumbling down a flight of stairs, trying not to trip and fall and break our skulls, but unable to stop to regain our balance. Now add that the entire film is supposed to feel like a single shot.

The unqualified success on the technical side was absolutely instrumental in the success of the film as a whole. But there was no margin for error.

Both “Boyhood” and “Birdman” deserve nominations for Best Original Screenplay and for various acting slots. But in each case, the real stars of the show were in the editing room. So: my overarching prediction is that the winner of Best Picture will also win Best Editing.

Predictions listed in descending order of personal confidence. That confidence is based on very little; it’s not like I’m a Hollywood hairstylist, who might actually know something.

BEST PICTURE:

“Boyhood”
“Birdman”
“The Imitation Game”
“The Theory of Everything”
“Gone Girl”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“Selma”
“American Sniper”
“Nightcrawler”
“Foxcatcher”

Everybody expects “Boyhood,” “Birdman” and “The Imitation Game” to be nominated, and for one of them to win, and I agree with the consensus. Behind them come four films that have obvious Oscar cachet, none of which I really see being snubbed.

After that it gets tougher. I think “Nightcrawler” has enough enthusiastic support to get through (though I didn’t love it); that “Foxcatcher” will get a nomination because of the trio of really interesting performances (even though many people didn’t exactly like the film); and that “American Sniper” was directed by Clint Eastwood (and will do great box office).

But I could be wildly off – it could turn out that this year we have only six or seven nominees. My understanding is that to get onto the list of nominees you need a certain percentage of voters to place you first or close to it on their ballots. So the more consensus there is at the top in the initial balloting, the shorter the list of nominees will be. And this feels like a year where there could be a lot of consensus at the top.

Or perhaps I’m right, and the people who like “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” hated “Nightcrawler” and “Gone Girl” and vice versa, so that we have ten nominees. In which case my list above feels about right to me.

BEST DIRECTOR

Richard Linklater – “Boyhood”
Alejandro González Iñárritu – “Birdman”
Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Ava DuVernay, “Selma”
Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”

I haven’t seen “The Imitation Game” yet, hence my low level of confidence in that final slot. I’m also aware that “Selma” has not set the world on fire, though I still think it has a constituency solid enough to get nominated. In any event, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a perennial like David Fincher or a young upstart like Damien Chazelle take one of those two slots.

BEST ACTOR

Michael Keaton – “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne – “Theory of Everything”
Benedict Cumberbatch – “The Imitation Game”
Steve Carell – “Foxcatcher”
David Oyelowo – “Selma”

Again, I haven’t seen three of these films (I only saw “Birdman” and “Foxcatcher”), so take that list with a grain of salt. There are a lot of other plausible contenders. But I think the Academy will want to reward Carell for doing excellent work way outside his usual box, and the Academy frequently likes actors who play historical figures.

From the films I have seen that have an actual shot, I’d be very happy for Ralph Fiennes to get a nomination. I thought Jake Gyllenhaal did a fine job in “Nightcrawler” but I have some kind of grudge against that movie so I didn’t put him on the list, though he’s probably got at least as good a shot as Fiennes.

BEST ACTRESS

Julianne Moore – “Still Alice”
Rosamund Pike – “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon – “Wild”
Amy Adams – “Big Eyes”
Jennifer Aniston – “Cake”

I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see “Cake,” but people seem very eager to show how pleased they are with Aniston’s stretch. As for the win, everyone is saying Moore has this in the bag.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

J. K. Simmons – “Whiplash”
Ethan Hawke – “Boyhood”
Ed Norton – “Birdman”
Mark Ruffalo – “Foxcatcher”
Josh Brolin – “Inherent Vice”

I’ll be truly surprised if Simmons doesn’t win this – so many people seem to want him to. Josh Brolin is my wild card pick here; there’s not an obvious contender for the fourth slot.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Patricia Arquette – “Boyhood”
Emma Stone – “Birdman”
Keira Knightley – “The Imitation Game”
Meryl Streep – “Into the Woods”
Jessica Chastain – “A Most Violent Year”

Patricia Arquette may have been my favorite thing in “Boyhood” – I hope she wins this. The others I’m all quite uncertain about. I’m basically assuming you have to nominate Meryl Streep and Jessica Chastain if you are presented with a remotely plausible reason to do so.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo - “Birdman”
Richard Linklater – “Boyhood”
Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness – “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Mike Leigh – “Mr. Turner”
JC Chandor – “A Most Violent Year”

If I’m completely honest, I have to assume that “Nightcrawler” has a better shot than “Mr. Turner” or “A Most Violent Year.” But I did not much like that script, and I have great admiration for both Leigh and Chandor. So I’m voting my heart here rather than my head.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Graham Moore – “The Imitation Game”
Anthony McCarten – “The Theory of Everything”
Gillian Flynn – “Gone Girl”
Damien Chazelle – “Whiplash”
Nick Hornby – “Wild”

I’m really hoping I got this one completely right. I think I might have.

Not sure going further down the list will be all that meaningful – I’m assuming “Citizenfour” is the most-likely winner in the Best Documentary category, that “The Lego Movie” is the most-likely winner in the Best Animated Feature category, that “Birdman” is the most-likely winner for Cinematography, and that “Force Majeure” is the leader in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

But the main category to watch this year is Best Editing.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?

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Clearly not by launching a massive surprise attack on its military, followed by a massive ground invasion and occupation. That should go without saying, but apparently it needed to be said, so thank-you, Daniel Larison, for saying it. But is there anything we actually can do?

Well, let’s think backward from the end-game, which is a reunified Korean peninsula. If the North Korean regime fell, it would be hard for South Koreans not to want reunification, but the costs would be staggering – much higher than the costs of German reunification. So it would behoove the South to take its time. Stabilizing the North in the meantime, and preventing a massive refugee exodus, would require the help of the Chinese. China is also going to have strong opinions about the orientation of any successor regime in the North – they are not going to tolerate American troops on the Chinese border.

So getting to this end-game is going to require getting China comfortable with it. At a minimum, what I would imagine that would require is committing that a reunified Korea would be non-aligned (formally allied neither with China nor with America and trading freely with both) and denuclearized. That might not be enough – and if it isn’t, there’s probably nothing more we could offer. But perhaps it would. Perhaps China would see that as a net win – replacing a troublesome ally and a dangerous American bastion in Asia with a formally neutral, much more powerful country that would quickly become Finlandized. If they saw it that way, perhaps the Chinese, who have some influence with North Korea’s military, might be in a position to use that influence at a critical juncture in the future to neutralize the Kim family, and create some kind of opening.

I’m speculating wildly – and frankly, I don’t think there is much we can do to help North Korea; I don’t think China is likely to be helpful, and I wonder how helpful they actually could be (and perhaps one reason they wouldn’t be helpful is that they don’t want to reveal how little influence they actually have). But my basic point is: while China may not be capable of facilitating a positive change in North Korea, they are certainly capable of preventing one by shoring up the existing regime. So if there is any possibility of positive change, it still matters whether we convince China to be cooperative.

Earlier this week, there was some discussion in this space about the whole “credibility” argument, and I made the point that it would be more logical for credibility to be a concern for advocates of restraint – because if credibility is fragile then we should be wary of making commitments. But there’s another way in which credibility matters enormously from the perspective of advocates of restraint – and that is: America’s credibility when it promises to be restrained.

Let’s say that America approached the Chinese in secret to say something like the above: a promise that, if China helps ease the way to a reunified and democratic Korea, that America will withdraw its troops and unwind its formal alliance with the new country. There might be any number of reasons the Chinese wouldn’t bite – but a big one is, they would find our promise to be not credible. After all, we promised not to expand NATO into former Soviet territory – and then we did. We promised that NATO was a purely defensive alliance – and then we used it to prosecute non-defensive wars in Kosovo and Libya. Why wouldn’t China simply assume that we would renege on any promise we might make to them regarding the Korean peninsula?

I know I wouldn’t trust us. Why would the Chinese?

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wants to solve an awful humanitarian problem. That’s admirable. He is blithe about the likely massive humanitarian costs of aggressive war. That’s unconscionable. But he’s also blind to the ways that the kind of behavior he’s encouraging – America’s easy resort to unilateral exercise of military power – is one of the reasons why the North Korean regime still has a powerful friend like China.

Of course, a Finlandized but united Korea might not be as free as South Korea is today. Maybe it’s better to be under the American umbrella than to be neutral. I’m not sure that’s true – but posit that it is. And weigh that loss against the gain for the poor people of North Korea. It’s not a close call, is it? But I imagine very few advocates of aggressive action to save the North Koreans would see it that way. Why would that be?

Maybe because the actual humanitarian outcome is less important than playing the part of the savior.

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Bullets of Pure Love

My first piece at The Week is up today:

The overwhelming reaction to the attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week has been one of solidarity. “Je Suis Charlie” — “I Am Charlie” — is the expression of the hour. But how would the wags at Charlie Hebdo have responded to their own massacre?

Check out the whole thing there.

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If Credibility Is Fragile, Then Commitments Should Be Rare

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Daniel Larison on how hawks use credibility as a bludgeon:

The “credibility” argument is almost exclusively used by foreign policy hawks, and they pay no attention to negative international reactions to U.S. behavior that contradict their assumptions about “credibility.” If other states react to provocative and confrontational policies by becoming more assertive in their respective regions, hawks interpret that as proof of the other states’ inherent aggressiveness and “expansionist” tendencies.

Hawks usually don’t accept that adverse responses that directly follow U.S. actions have any connection to U.S. policies, but any development that happens to take place after the U.S. “fails” to “act” somewhere is preposterously traced back to the moment of “inaction.” Thus the U.S. is blamed for somehow “causing” unrelated events in one part of the world by choosing not to do something in an entirely different part, but it is excused from responsibility for the direct negative consequences of whatever it has actually done. That’s because the only thing that jeopardizes “credibility” in their eyes is “inaction” (i.e., not attacking or threatening to attack someone), and adverse consequences of “action” (e.g., expanding alliances, invading/bombing/occupying other countries) are ignored or spun as the result of later “weakness.”

This is all correct, but the funny thing to me is that credibility arguments should be the almost exclusive preserve of advocates of restraint. Why? Because if credibility is an important asset that allows America to achieve some objectives without deploying resources (by simply making a commitment to respond if some other actor takes some other action), then we shouldn’t squander that asset by making commitments we don’t intend – or cannot – make good on.

Consider two possibilities. In one, we live in a world where credibility matters a lot. Actors in the international system pay close attention to what other actors say as well as what they do. When the two line up closely – an actor who does what he says, and only what he says – that actor’s words carry great weight. They are credible. When they don’t – an actor who mouths off a lot but doesn’t actually do much – not only do that actor’s words carry little weight, but other actors presume that the actor’s behavior indicates essential weakness, and are willing to escalate challenges to find whether there is any point where that actor will act.

This is not an impossible world. In fact, it’s probably what the world would look like if most actors had generally low confidence in their ability to assess each other’s true interests and capabilities. In the absence of objective information of that sort, that assessment would, perforce, be deduced largely from behavior. Consequently, bluffing would play a very important role in the international system.

A very important role – but also a very risky role. Because if this is the way the world works, then credibility is fragile. Bluffing, and having one’s bluff being called, can be devastating to one’s position, and invite all kinds of mischief. In this world, where credibility matters greatly, it is therefore vital not to bluff recklessly – that is to say: not to blithely make commitments that one intends not to honor. If credibility is very important, then we should be relatively commitment-averse, the better to be able to back up all our commitments with resolution and maintain our precious credibility.

Now: consider an alternative world, where actors have higher confidence in their abilities to “read” each other – to know what each actor’s objective interests and capabilities are. In this world, credibility is much less important. Actors in the system may bluff, but bluffs are unlikely to work very often – and for that very reason, nobody in the system cares very much when they don’t work.

But for that very reason, this is a relatively less-risky world for adventuresome hawks. They can make unwise commitments or threats without worrying terribly much about the negative consequences – at least if they aren’t likely to personally be in harm’s way. What determines outcomes is not bluff, primarily, but the objective correlation of forces. Since the outcome of any contest is to some degree uncertain, those with more appetite for combat may roll the dice when the odds look good enough. And they can change their minds if they decide it’s not worth backing up a bluff that is called, without fearing that this will invite catastrophe.

Now, obviously, we live in a world somewhere between these two poles. Most actors in the international system have some degree of confidence in the objective capabilities and interests of most other actors – but far from perfect confidence in any case, and in some cases (North Korea, for example, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the Iraq War) very poor. Some actors go out of their way to make their capabilities clear, so as to make deterrence more effective; others go out of their way to hide the true extent of their capabilities (which usually is a sign of weakness, not strength). America has generally followed the path of projecting objective strength – because we have it.

That’s why I say that credibility arguments should really belong to the advocates of restraint. They should be arguments against extending commitments beyond the bounds of our manifest objective capabilities and interests. So why are they deployed so routinely on the other side, as arguments for making (and then backing up) such commitments?

Well, the United States’s position in the international system is unique, because our power vastly exceeds that of any other actor. For that very reason, we have a much higher degree of discretion in how that power is deployed. While our resources are not infinite by any means, they so far exceed any other actor’s that we can exceed the plain bounds of interest in terms of our commitments for quite some time before paying a significant price in terms of diminishment of power.

So how can another actor determine whether we are going to be more restrained or more expansive in our actions? How can they determine whether we will voluntarily limit ourselves to deploying power only where it makes sense in terms of rational national self-interest? How are they to interpret declarations on America’s part that there are effectively no limits to our interests? Are they to take these sorts of claims seriously?

By any objective measure, the United States has no compelling national interest at stake in who governs Afghanistan, in who controls eastern Ukraine, or any number of other matters in which we are engaged. But we are engaged.

The “retreat” that hawks fear is a retreat to more-readily discernible lines related to the national interest. They want other actors to believe that we will continue to act well beyond that line. Which really does require repeated demonstration, across multiple theaters of conflict, because it cannot be “read” from our objective interests and capabilities.

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“Broken Windows” and the Urban Renaissance

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There’s an active debate going on now in my city about the role of the police, and whether we’ve gone too far as a city in terms of the “broken windows” approach to policing. This approach argues that tolerance of low-level offenses – turnstile jumping, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, defacement of property, etc. – creates an environment in which more serious criminality thrives, both because criminals believe nobody is watching and because law-abiding citizens do not populate the streets. A vigorous police presence maintaining order both serves as a direct deterrent to criminal activity and incidentally may result in the apprehension for lesser charges of criminals already wanted on more serious charges.

The case against the “broken windows” approach holds on the one hand that an aggressive approach to pursuing minor offenders has had little to do with the historic drop in crime, arguing that it was driven primarily by demographic, economic and possibly even environmental factors; that to the extent that better policing was effective the most important element was simply increasing a visible police presence in high-crime areas, not targeting literal or metaphorical broken windows; and that in practice “broken windows” policing has been implemented in a way experienced as oppressive by minority communities, and has resulted in far too many tragedies like the death of Eric Garner.

William Bratton and George Kelling have mounted a vigorous defense of “broken windows” policing here. A reasonable place to start for a round-up of various theories behind the historic drop in American crime rates is here. The Dish also has a good run-down of the current discussion.

Whenever I read about this question, I think about how much of the discussion glosses over the ways in which demographic and economic variables are inevitably intertwined with police practices. What if, for example, “broken windows” policing is very popular with homeowners – much more popular than can be justified by any demonstrable change in crime. Well, policies that are really popular with homeowners tend to improve home values. Which, in turn, can produce economic and demographic change – which, in turn, can drive down crime rates.

The 1990s saw a massive drop in crime across the country, and a larger and faster drop in the big cities, among which New York was a leader. The 1990s also saw an urban economic and demographic renaissance – and, again, New York was a leader. Was “broken windows” policing pivotal in terms of reducing crime by making the environment less-favorable to criminality? Or did it only have a modest direct effect – but a more substantial indirect effect by facilitating demographic changes in the city? Or did causality run the other way, with more and more aggressive policing strategies the product of a changing demographic (and political) profile of the city that demanded them? Because both trends happened together, it’s undoubtedly hard to tease out the answer to the question.

Cross-city comparisons are also complicated by the fact that cities and regions compete with each other. Jersey City is competing with Hoboken and Newark for commuters looking for a cheaper alternative to both New York proper and the more expensive suburbs. If Jersey City implements “broken windows,” and thereby convinces commuters to move there, demographic change may drive crime down further. But this, in turn, will drive up housing values, creating “relative value” in Newark even if Newark didn’t implement “broken windows” policing. A rising tide in the region may lift all boats, at least to some degree – maybe to a considerable degree. But that doesn’t mean that there are no benefits to being a first mover rather than passively waiting for the tide.

Then there’s the problem of what we’re using as a baseline condition. For example: compare two jurisdictions, one that implemented “hot spot” policing (which involves concentrating police presence in high-crime areas) and one that did not. There’s evidence that “hot spot” policing can reduce crime – and not merely displace it. But my impression is that “hot spot” policing is not a resource-neutral strategy. At a minimum, you need to invest in the infrastructure and training needed to identify “hot spots” and deploy officers accordingly; at a maximum, you need to increase the size of the force so that “lukewarm” spots don’t wind up being virtually un-policed. So what you really want to know is what the bang is for the incremental dollar. That’s an especially important question when you start talking about much more expensive strategies, from “broken windows” policing (which definitely requires a larger force) to mass incarceration.

I’m sure the sociologists, criminologists and political scientists who investigate these questions are aware of these complicating factors, and I’m sure they try to control for them the best they can. But “best” may not be all that good. And when it isn’t, we fall back on a combination of common sense and personal bias.

So what’s my common sense, and my personal bias?

I know that, as a citizen of New York, I approve of low tolerance for offenses like graffiti and public disorder. I remember New York in the 1980s and I do not want to go back. (Neither does the Mayor, as it happens.) But I want to see order without oppression; I want every community in New York to feel like the police are there to protect them, and not to protect one part of the city from another.

“Hot spot” policing makes a lot of intuitive sense to me – it really amounts to no more than deploying your resources to maximize their direct impact. I suspect that “broken windows” policing has some direct effect on crime rates, but a small one; I suspect it has a bigger impact on gentrification, and that the arrow of causality runs both ways – that is to say, quality-of-life crime-fighting strategies make an urban area more attractive to gentrifiers, and a gentrifying neighborhood will increase political pressure to do quality-of-life policing. “Stop and frisk” was among the more intrusive strategies deployed, particularly when it was applied so widely, and had long ago reached the point of diminishing returns. I’m glad to see it cut back sharply under de Blasio.

I suspect that the average citizen of a high-crime area, likely to be someone in the left half of the income curve, approves of police efforts to improve quality of life and crack down on offenses that disrupt public order even if they are non-violent – and also approves of greater efforts by the police to integrate into and show sensitivity to the community. Neither approach is resource-neutral; the political question becomes whether the city – and the NYPD in particular – sees it as worthwhile to spend money and time on the latter even if it has no direct effect on crime rates (the statistic with the most bearing on the political fortunes of leadership of the NYPD).

 

Finally, I worry about the public choice consequences of a larger (unionized) police force, which are a big part of what has been revealed in the current fracas between Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD. The sheer weight of the police department means it has much more influence than it did before the 1990s. As well, this is an organization with a sense of mission and of accomplishment – crime, after all, went down an enormous amount in the past 20 years. It is obviously not taking kindly to suggestions that this accomplishment is only partly due to their efforts, or that those efforts are viewed by at a big chunk of the citizenry as self-serving.

But that’s why the head of the NYPD is a political appointee. Bratton does not need to turn against his own legacy – nor does he need to defend it aggressively. The consensus against allowing crime rates to go back up is overwhelming. What Bratton needs to demonstrate is that he has control over his department, and that he is committed both to keeping crime low and to reducing the perception that the police are an oppressive presence.

Which, however, genuinely represents a change of mission. It’s implicitly admitting that driving crime rates ever-lower is no longer the overwhelming priority – that the “change” goal is to lighten the police footprint. A change of that sort could very well be demoralizing – even threatening – to the NYPD. But Bratton surely remembers that CompStat itself was threatening when it was introduced – it meant telling beat officers that the computer knew better than they did how they should do their job.

So there’s a sale to be made: selling the department on the idea that improved community relations and more sensitive policing are really about a more effective and efficient use of police resources – a continuation of improvements in policing rather than a rebuke to the police. Ultimately, that sales job is what will deliver the results that critics of the police are rightfully demanding. I can’t think of anybody better to do it than Bratton. Now let’s see how much he makes that a priority.

 

 

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Science Is Not Found Through God Either

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I see that Damon Linker and Rod Dreher have beaten me as usual to the discussion of (in this case) the Eric Metaxas “God is the most likely explanation for our unlikely existence” piece. There are undoubtedly dozens of possible points of attack on Metaxas’s piece, and I happily endorse both Linker’s (that the God of Plato and Aristotle bears little resemblance to the God of the Hebrew bible or of the Christian scriptures) and Dreher’s (the point isn’t to prove God exists or to believe God exists; the point is to know God).

But I want to grasp the other end of the question. Why, after all, would anyone want to prove the existence of God? If Dreher is right that this is a mistaken way to approach God, why does anybody try to do it?

A frequently-suggested reason is the prestige of science. In our age, supposedly, if something isn’t validated scientifically then it’s hard to justify believing in it. I’m tempted to retort, “tell that to the anti-vaccination movement,” but really I think this kind of “reason” treats scientific discovery as no different from, say, the miraculous appearance of Jesus in one’s breakfast. That is to say: if you are looking for signs, you’ll surely see them, whether you look in the laboratory or in the kitchen.

I’m not saying that such experiences are illegitimate, or that nothing in the laboratory could affect you as a sign from God – on the contrary. I just think a more honest way of talking about it would be to talk not about proof but about the experience of awe. It is entirely natural to really look at the vast cold universe, and feel that only exceeding tenderness could have nurtured our little spot of green therein. But that’s a subjective experience, not a syllogism. And the same experience awe can also lead to other feelings, ones that are not so suggestive of tender divine concern.

A more sophisticated reason for wanting to proceed to proof is not to shore up religious belief but to shore up belief in science. Science is a highly unnatural activity that rests on extremely shaky philosophical foundations. We don’t even have a well-grounded reason for accepting induction. Ultimately, the knowability of the universe presumes that there is always a deeper order beneath apparent chaos. That’s a very religious-seeming conviction, and inasmuch as science appears to wear away at religious belief one might reasonably fear that science is thereby wearing away at its own foundations. And not merely the foundations of science – the foundations of reason itself. If you are afflicted with that fear, it would seem entirely sensible to find evidence within science that justifies continued belief in God, and hence that the order and knowability of the universe is real, and not just posited.

I happen to think that, for the philosophically-inclined, this is an important reason for wanting to be convinced that there exist good, philosophically grounded bases for belief in God. But I also happen to believe that it’s a mistake.

Neither as a matter of intellectual genealogy nor as a matter of philosophical necessity does science depend on religious conviction. Religion appears to be ubiquitous in human culture, but it is also very varied, and the roots of modern science can be found in pagan Greece, in Hindu India, in the medieval Muslim world, and in the modern era science was as often as not advanced by non-believers. And what is the philosophical problem with saying that ultimate knowability of the universe is an ungrounded but necessary assumption in order to be able to do science? Meanwhile, the activity of science itself is justified entirely pragmatically: it produces useful results.

If you’re the sort of person who worries about the philosophical grounding of inductive reasoning, then what I just said will sound like pure question-begging. You can’t justify induction pragmatically; that’s equivalent to justifying induction by induction. But belief in God won’t get you any closer to some kind of ground than simply believing in induction directly.

The universe, after all, is in practice too vast and deep to actually be known, not merely in terms of its extent in space but in terms of its structure. The discovery of atoms (named so because they are supposed to be the smallest units of matter) leads inevitably to questions about their constituents, the oxymoronic sub-atomic particles. And these have constituents in turn – and once we’ve mapped the behavior of the hypothesized quarks we have to ask whence comes their considerable variety, and so on and so on. It really is turtles all the way down.

So what does it gain you to add God at the bottom? If the universe is unknowably vast and complex, then God, the ground for the universe’s existence and every aspect of its character, must be even more so. If believing in God feels necessary to justify believing in the universe and its knowability, that really just means you have a too-limited notion of what you are believing in when you say you believe in God. You are, by definition, believing in something much harder to know objectively than the universe itself. (The word “objectively” is there for a reason – perhaps God wants to be known, subjectively, in a way that humans can comprehend. If so, well and good – but that still doesn’t help you if you are trying to ground the knowability of the universe in the knowability of God. We already know we can know the universe subjectively – we do it every waking moment of our existence.)

Fine: so far I’ve argued why I think resorting to proof of God’s existence is pointless if your goal is to find a firm ground for belief in the orderliness and knowability of the cosmos. But why do I go further and say it is actually a mistake?

I said above that people who see proof of God’s existence in the physical constants of the universe aren’t really that different from those who see that proof in a piece of toast. What I meant by that is that there’s a powerful confirmation bias operating. Nobody sees an image in their toast and says: I wonder whether that looks more like Jesus or more like Shiva? Similarly, I don’t know a lot of orthodox Christians who have learned about superstring theory, the possibility of multiple universes, or the theory of evolution and said to themselves: gee, it sounds like the Hindus were right after all and the Christians were wrong. But that’s exactly what you’d expect people to do if they were actually treating the toast or the science as evidence for one or another religious system.

Instead, believers tend to reason apologetically – to explain away phenomena that are troublesome and to point to phenomena that are confirmatory. Which is fine – for religion. But it’s not fine for science.

I want to be clear. Science is not some un-psychological, un-social phenomenon. Scientists operate within the constraints of patterns of metaphor that we use to understand the universe – patterns that may be highly individual or cultural. They can’t operate without some such patterns – nobody can; we can’t process the universe directly. But what scientists have to be open to is shifting paradigms as evidence accumulates that the accepted paradigm is faulty. Their only inhibition in that regard should be a healthy natural conservatism about making any hasty large moves.

Religion is a very powerful nexus of such metaphors. It makes all the sense in the world for religions to be extremely conservative, institutionally, about preserving that nexus. For that reason, it’s highly problematic to import that nexus into the realm of science where it necessarily has to risk being discarded or transformed in ways that are not at all sensitive to the religious implications. It’s problematic for religion – but even more so, it’s problematic for science, and for a scientist’s ability to maintain that openness.

Again: to be clear, I’m not at all saying that it’s somehow difficult for a scientist to be an orthodox Christian believer or an adherent of any other kind of religion. I’m just saying that a religious scientist has to be able to say to herself: I don’t necessarily know how to reconcile everything I believe with everything I posit, and that’s ok. I have faith that they can ultimately be reconciled, and that’s enough for today. That is the diametrically opposite position from a scientist who says: I have come to believe because the science convinced me that belief was more justified than not.

As it happens, I don’t think this is much of a problem for believing scientists. They compartmentalize as well as humans do in all aspects of life. It’s more of a problem for popular understanding of science. But that’s still a problem worth addressing.

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The Way of the Latke

Latke topped with pea puree and roast lemon salsa
Latke topped with pea puree and roast lemon salsa

Probably the most fun part of preparing my eight-course Hanukkah dinner has been coming up with new latke toppings every year – three new ones each year, in fact. And one of the benefits of having done this eight years in a row is that I now have a suite of latke toppings to trot out for years to come – along with some general principles for latke topping construction. These may seem obvious to others, but I’m the kind of guy who has to experiment repeatedly before learning the obvious.

First of all: the latke itself. I view the latke as the pedestal and the topping as the bust, so I don’t tend to go in for exotic ingredients in the latkes themselves. Just russet potatoes (shredded in the food processor, not pureed, not pre-boiled), onions, egg, salt and pepper. Heat a layer of oil in the pan, drop dollops of latke batter in, fry, flip, fry. The goal is a crispy latke with structural integrity, something you could pick up with your fingers if you prefer to.

Now: toppings. What works, flavor-wise? Almost anything. Salty, savory, sweet, sour, bitter; meat, dairy, fish, vegetables, fruits – it’s all good. But the best toppings, in my opinion, had something with umami and then another flavor element that made the whole combination “pop.” For example: at this year’s dinner, one of the toppings was smoked sturgeon, chive pesto and katsuo ume. The sturgeon provided the umami, the chive pesto provided a color element and also sharpened the flavor of the ensemble, and the katsuo ume provided a pop of salty-sour. Another very successful topping, from year 6, was chicken liver mousse and dried cherry marmalade. The chicken liver provided the umami – and making it a mousse by folding in beaten egg whites kept it from sitting too heavily on the latkes – while the dried cherry marmalade provided a pop of sweet-tartness.

Or, to pick a non-savory example, in year 2 one of the toppings was a spicy pineapple relish with a sliver of lime peel on top. The pineapple relish was sweet but because of the spice and cinnamon it had a very round mouth feel. Without the lime peel, it would have been very good – but the lime peel made it pop.

Toppings that lack that pop can be extremely tasty. Mushroom stroganoff (year 7), tuna and pear tartare (year 4), and apple-persimmon compote (year 5) were all very good, but they weren’t a complete flavor meal in one bite. That’s one advantage, of course, in having multiple toppings: you can get that flavor meal across several bites. So, for example, in year 5 the other toppings were pea puree and roast lemon salsa (umami from the pea puree, a pop of sour from the lemon salsa), and smoked salmon with goat cheese and melted leeks (a salty umami-focused topping). In the context of the other toppings, a largely sweet compote topping worked extremely well.

Structurally, the best toppings are easy to cut with a fork, and ideally do not interfere with eating the latke as finger food. Two toppings that worked very well from a flavor perspective but that were not great from a structural perspective were a steak tartare topped with a quail egg yolk (year 2) and sautéed baby spinach topped with a poached egg and red pepper coulis (year 6). Neither could really be picked up – they had to be eaten at table with a fork and knife.

There were really only three toppings that flat-out didn’t work. My first year, one of the toppings was chopped matjes herring and shiso leaf. The shiso leaf was overwhelmed and the herring did not benefit from being chopped – it turned to mush. In year 4, aioli, steamed snow peas and roast red pepper was kind of bland flavor-wise, and the snow pea was too fibrous for a latke topping. And in year 7, brandied figs with crumbled gorgonzola and toasted pine nuts had multiple problems: the brandy flavor was overwhelming; the figs were too chewy; and the pine nuts rolled off. If I were interested in trying something akin to that flavor combination again, I’d spread the gorgonzola and top with a fig butter.

Finally: here are my personal top toppings by category:

Best sweet topping: adzuki bean paste, slice of Meyer lemon, and matcha (year 8). Runners up: apple-ginger compote and hot pepper jelly (year 1), spicy pineapple relish with lime peel (year 2).

Best fish topping: smoked sturgeon, chive paste and katsuo ume (year 8). Runners up: schmaltz herring, pickled beet and mustard and dill sauce (year 2), tuna and pear tartare (year 4).

Best dairy topping: Shropshire blue cheese with cranberry-kumquat relish (year 3). Runners up: wild mushroom stroganoff (year 7), crème fraîche and trout roe (year 1).

Best meat topping: chicken liver mousse and dried cherry marmalade (year 6). Runners up: seared duck breast with dried cherry sauce (year 4), steak tartare topped with quail egg (year 2).

Honorable mention for one of the best all-around toppings that didn’t fit any of the above categories: pea puree topped with roast lemon salsa (year 5).

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Iron Chef Millman VIII: The Final Feast

For the past eight years, I’ve been throwing a dinner party one night during Hanukkah, thematically linked to the holiday. It started as an alternative to a free-for-all latke party such as we used to throw; when we renovated our apartment, we decided we didn’t want our new furniture trampled under foot by hordes of guests, so we shifted into a more “genteel” mode of entertainment. But, being a bit of a nut about games with rules, I decided that my dinner party had to have rules that connected it to the holiday. To whit: eight courses, each featuring olive oil.

This year was the eighth iteration of this dinner, and I think in this case eight is enough. If anything, I’ve enjoyed throwing the parties more and more each year, but I’ve enjoyed the rigidity of my rules less and less. So whatever I do next year, it’ll be something different.

Meanwhile: here’s the menu we prepared for Iron Chef Millman VIII:

Course 1 – Zensai: Latkes three ways, topped with -

  •  Anko, a thin slice of Meyer lemon, and matcha;
  • Smoked sturgeon, chive pesto and a dollop of katsuo ume;
  • Coarse mustard, a slice of pickled cucumber and deli meat (cured tongue and pastrami).

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The accompanying cocktail is an as-yet-to-be-named concoction of sake, vodka, grapefruit and Meyer lemon juices, lemongrass, ginger and sugar.

Course 2 – Sūpu: Curried mushroom soup with fried wild mushrooms.

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I had made this a few days earlier without the curry and with fried shiitakes. Thought it was a little bland, so added the curry. Also thought chanterelles would be even better than shiitakes. Curry improved it, but shiitakes worked better than chanterelles – they had more moisture so they withstood the frying better.

Course 3 – Sarada: Napoleons of marinated raw halibut, golden beet and cucumber, accompanied by frisée, drizzled with blood orange juice and chive oil.

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Presentation-wise, this dish was a big success, but if I were doing it again I would alter the marinade to make it a bit less salty and to give it a bit more pop.

Course 4 – Kakin: Korean fried chicken with seaweed salad.

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Gochujang and a counter-top deep fryer: my two new loves.

Course 5 – Men: Torcetti with roast peppers, fried lemons, fried parsley, and bottarga.

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Course 6 – Niku: Lamb meatballs with tomato sauce accompanied by oil-roasted leeks.

I somehow managed to forget to photograph this course.

Course 7 – Chinmi: Meyer lemon custard and olive oil-rosemary cookies.

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The custard was an unequivocal success. The cookies were fantastic right out of the oven but they were pale shadows of their best selves by the time they made it to table. In future, serve immediately.

Course 8 - Kēki: Dark chocolate olive oil cake.

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Past year’s menus can be found here: 2013201220112010200920082007.

Recipes, as always, available upon request, to the extent that I can find or remember them.

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List, List, O List: a Premature 2014 Movie Rundown

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Any attempt on my part to assess the year in film is bound to be inadequate, because there are just too many films I know I ought to see that I haven’t seen yet. Moreover, that list of “oughts” has already been shaped by the reactions of other critics; it’s already too late for the joy of discovery that I felt, say, attending a screening of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” back in January, before everyone had heralded Ana Lily Amirpour’s Persian vampire noir western as the hot new thing. And anyway, films are largely incomparable across genres. Which was a “better” film, “Boyhood” or “The LEGO Movie?” It’s kind of a silly question – they aren’t trying to do anything remotely comparable.

Nonetheless: posts must be blogged. So: let’s start with the critical consensus. The nice folks at Metacritic have compiled a meta-list, combining the views of 137 different critics on what they think are the top ten films of the year, for a meta-list of 20 films. Herewith:

1. “Boyhood.” My feelings about the film tracked very closely with Eve Tushnet’s. I admire the experiment, and I was drawn in deeply during the first hour. But in the last hour I found myself far more interested in the parents than in the titular boy, which to me feels like the film didn’t achieve all that it set out to do.

2. “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I am a great admirer of Richard Linklater’s work, which is why I was surprised that I didn’t respond to “Boyhood” with raptures. Wes Anderson I am much more ambivalent about. But “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was for me a sheer delight from end to end, and may even have become my favorite Anderson film, because for once I felt his fussiness was fully justified by the film’s subject and setting. Leon Hadar’s thoughts on the film are also very worth reading.

3. “Under the Skin.” I posted my reactions to this creepy Scarlett Johansson sci-fi flick here. Its highly original vision has definitely stuck with me. Rent it.

4. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” I posted my thoughts on “Birdman” here. I think it’s a tour-de-force.

5. “Selma.” A film I have not yet seen, and plan to, though I fear I won’t like it. I don’t tend to like pious movies, regardless of the object of piety, and I fear this will be one.

6. “Whiplash.” I wrote up my thoughts on Damien Chazelle’s film here, and then followed up with additional thoughts here, but I continue to chew on it. “Whiplash” is very worth seeing, but it irritated me, and I wonder whether that reaction says more about me than it does about the film.

7. “Ida.” Near the top of my list of films I need to see.

8. “Gone Girl.” Amazingly, I still haven’t seen this film. I begin to suspect I’m avoiding it, and I’m not entirely sure why.

8. “Inherent Vice.” I’m only falling more in love with P.T. Anderson with time, and am very eager to see his latest.

10. “Nightcrawler.” I find myself away from the pack on this one. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom seemed like he had dropped to earth from Mars in the first frame. What, I wondered, did he do the day before the film began? The month before that? The year before that? I found no really plausible answer to these sorts of questions. Nor did I buy this young man’s sudden transformation from bizarre recluse to a ruthlessly effective manipulator of other people. The film presents itself as a dark satire – I kept thinking it was trying to be a noir-esque, indie-scale “Network” – but I never felt like the satire connected with anything terribly specific.

11. “Mr. Turner.” Another one near the top of my list of films to see. Mike Leigh is a wonderful filmmaker, and I specifically adored his last foray into biopic.

12. “Force Majeure.” I haven’t seen it yet, but hope to do so.

13. “Goodbye to Language.” Haven’t seen it yet, clearly need to – it’s actually somewhat relevant to a script I’ve written.

14. “The Immigrant.” Jeepers, I haven’t seen this one yet either – and this one wasn’t even on my list of want-to-sees. From the description, the film sounds like an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, which makes me want to see it to see if that’s how it plays on-screen.

14. “Foxcatcher.” I wrote up my thoughts here - definitely an intriguing film, worth seeing for three notable performances.

16. “Only Lovers Left Alive.” I described “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” as a “Jarmusch-esque” vampire flick without having seen Jim Jarmusch’s own vampire flick. I suppose I have to find out which is more Jarmusch-esque: the actual Jarmusch or the homage? In any event, Eve Tushnet’s always-worthwhile thoughts can be found here.

17. “Two Days, One Night.” I am extremely eager to see this film, largely because I read Eve Tushnet’s review.

17. “The LEGO Movie.” My thoughts on this interlocking brick system of a movie can be found here. A much, much better film than it needed  to be.

17. “Snowpiercer.” This extremely stylish and idiosyncratic action-flick-cum-allegory of global inequality was far darker than I had expected. Indeed, inasmuch as it has a clear politics, those politics are almost pure anarchist rage. Far from presenting a brief for revolution, the film paints a deeply bleak and pessimistic picture of the choices before humanity in an age of scarcity driven by ecological impoverishment.

20. “Citizenfour.” Another film I need to see, but that I expect not to be enraptured by as so many have been.

So I’ve only seen 9 out of 20 of the films that comprise the aggregated “critics’ picks” list. Not a particularly impressive showing – though I expect to improve upon it substantially over the next month or so.

Meanwhile, what’s missing from this meta-list in terms of my personal  faves of the year? And what else am I eager to see that I haven’t gotten to yet?

Not necessarily films that I would put on any kind of “Top 10″ list, but all worth renting, are: “Frank,” “Listen Up Philip,” (reviewed here), and “The One I Love.” All extremely well-written films, and all films that would work just fine on a small screen. Films about prickly, difficult male artists (a theme of the year), and about the cold war between the sexes. And two doses of Elizabeth Moss to boot.

What am I eager to see? Apart from those mentioned above, I’d add “Wild,” “The Babadook,” “The Overnighters,” “Big Eyes,” “Leviathan,” and “A Most Violent Year,” plus (from stuff I missed from earlier in the year) “Gloria,” “Calvary,” “The Dog,” “The Blue Room,” and “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”

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Theatrical Double-Feature Feature: White Christmas Edition

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I don’t usually do double-feature features for live theater, because, well, you can’t generally see them as double features. But if you’re in the New York area this weekend, don’t mind a little schlepping around, and want a perfectly matched pair of plays, with a seasonal hook to boot, allow me to make a pair of recommendations.

First, tonight, go to the Lyric Theater on Broadway and take in On The Town, the Comden and Green confection about three lonely sailors on a day’s leave in New York. I was somewhat apprehensive about the show going in, most particularly because I love the film version, and I was pretty sure the stage version would suffer by comparison, if only because how are you going to beat Gene Kelly and Anne Miller, Betty Garrett and Frank Sinatra (and no knock intended on the rest of the cast). I also worried that the stage show would seem dated, as previous revivals are reported to have been, which the film – perhaps because of that star power, perhaps because it is embedded in history, not being revived in our time – never does, at least to me.

I needn’t have worried. The great thing about On The Town is that the show is as frank as a contemporary sex comedy but without the  adolescent impulse to show off that frankness to hide the deeper insecurity, the pose of cynicism that so cripples that genre today. These are just three guys with 24 hours to find girls – strangers, women they’ll most likely never see again. And so what? The girls are just as plainly itching for someone to come and show them a good time – and there are no nagging social conventions to be overcome, just the difficulty of actually connecting in such a short time, given human nature and the complexity of the city.

That’s not a dated situation, and those aren’t dated feelings, any more than youth itself is dated. And because this production simply lets them run, and sets its dances and other set pieces to its natural galloping pace, it has a feeling of youthfulness not too many revivals manage – and not too many contemporary shows either.

I still missed certain bits from the film – Anne Miller’s knockout dance number in particular – and I think the film makes a better meal of Lucy Schmeeler’s character than does the stage show. But Alysha Umphress and Jay Armstrong Johnson took definitive ownership of Hildy (as a belter with an all-about-that-bass figure) and Chip (as a remarkably acrobatic nerd) respectively, Megan Fairchild was incandescent as Gabey’s love-object Ivy Smith, and Jackie Hoffman served up well-seasoned slices of ham in multiple comic roles. And most especially, we get back two beautiful songs lost in the transition to film, Gabey’s lament, “Lonely Town,” and his song of anticipation, “Lucy To Be Me,” both sung with true feeling by Tony Yazbeck.

Then, tomorrow, head to Madison, New Jersey to take in the final performances of Much Ado About Nothing, in a production directed by and starring Scott Wentworth (opposite his wife, Marion Adler, as Beatrice) that borrows the sentimental feelings we still have about the era of On The Town to warm the sometimes frosty heart of Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy.

This Much Ado is set World War II at Christmastime. The lights come up on Wentworth’s lonely G.I. listlessly peeling potatoes, and finally nodding off to Bing Crosby warbling “White Christmas” on a radio. As he falls asleep, the stage is transformed, Nutcracker-like – a tiny tree is replaced by a full-sized specimen, the dark frozen barracks becomes a decked-out ballroom, and the grunt himself goes from private to colonel. And then Shakespeare’s play begins – with the promoted G.I. as Benedick.

The conceit works grandly. Much Ado is very close in spirit to the romantic comedies of the 1940s, as is the fantasy of an ordinary G.I. placing himself in a scene from such a movie. The transposition is particularly helpful to the Claudio-Hero plot: layering the stylization of Hollywood’s Golden Age over the stylization of Shakespeare ironically makes that plot more approachable than it often does. We know how to read it, and that we’re not supposed to simply turn on Claudio (though credit also has to go to Charles Pasternak’s earnest performance for that achievement as well). And the final wedding scene may have had a specific filmic referent; at all events, it prompted my wife to lean over to me and whisper, “positively the same dame!”

That layer of stylization is also helpful to Beatrice, fully inhabited by Adler as a ’40s leading lady – Irene Dunn’s sensuality, but with Kate Hepburn’s steel and fire mixed in. (I admit to having teared up along with her at the first announcement of Hero and Claudio’s nuptials.) And the lampoon of Dogberry (Jeffrey Bender) and the rest of the watch benefits greatly from turning them into the local branch of Civil Defense.

And when Shakespeare’s play is done, the costumes come off, and our dreaming G.I. returns to his cold barracks. And “White Christmas” is still playing. And if that’s a moment that trades on nostalgia – for our cinematic memories of World War II if not the real thing – well, for once nostalgia works, even on me.

On The Town plays at the Lyric Theater in New York in an open run. Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey through December 28th.

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