Noah Millman

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


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


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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Why I’m Not Getting On the “Interview” Outrage Bandwagon

James Franco on a tank
James Franco on a tank

I’m afraid I feel like a bit of a contrarian on the subject of “The Interview.” Maybe it’s just that if George Clooney and Jonah Goldberg are reading from the same hymnal, I’ve got an itch to find another church.

First of all, Sony is a Japanese company, right? I mean, inasmuch as we’re imputing nationality and civic obligations to some set of values or ideals and all that, that’s what Sony is, right? The particular subsidiary involved in making the decision to kill “The Interview” is American, but if we want to talk about a larger entity implicated in a decision here, it’s Sony Pictures’s parent, which is in Tokyo. Right?

I’m not suggesting that Sony behaved in an “un-American” fashion because it is, you know, actually not American. I’m just pointing out that expecting huge multinational corporations to take a stand for the values of a particular political community is a little absurd on its face. Indeed, we have a hard enough time getting huge multinational corporations not to run roughshod over the ideals, values, traditions and even basic human needs of particular political communities – forget about actually standing up for their ideals.

Second, aren’t the theater owners the main ones who caved in to terrorism? The hackers threatened violence if the movie was released – the specific expectation was that theaters would be bombed. The theater owners were advised that if an attack happened, they’d be liable for any injuries or loss of life. So they decided not to screen the film. By pulling the release, Sony is responding to a reality created by the theaters, and is doing so in such a way that maximizes its (limited) options going forward. That’s hardly a profile in courage, but in truth the only way to actually “stand up” to terrorism, in this instance, would have been for the theaters to show the film – because the theaters were the ones directly threatened with violence. No other action comes remotely close.

And by the way, we still don’t know for sure that the Guardians of Peace are actually working for the North Koreans, though the FBI is convinced they are. What if they aren’t? Treat it as a hypothetical: if the hackers and extortionists are a bunch of freelancers with a private grudge, using North Korea as a pretext, does that change how we feel about everybody’s cowardice? If Sony delayed or canceled the release of a film because a Unabomber type of individual threatened to blow up the premier, would we be talking about the first amendment? What if it were a John Hinckley type who threatened to blow up the premier of a film that he thought showed his favorite star in a poor light? In those cases, we’d take it for granted that the issue is security, not censorship.

Third, I’m curious to know how the inevitable law suits for breach of contract are going to be settled, because the answer strikes me as extremely relevant to the “artistic freedom” question. If Sony keeps the rights and simply sticks the film in a drawer, while the various suits that will be filed in various directions are settled for money, then we can truly say that the terrorists intimidated Sony into refusing to let people see the film. But that’s not the only possible outcome. The film could be released at some point in the future. Sony could give up its rights as part of a settlement. Does anyone else want them? Do they think they are worth anything?

Studios put films in drawers all the time, for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. Scott Rudin shoved Ken Lonergan’s film, “Margaret,” in a drawer for years because they couldn’t agree on what the final cut should look like. And nobody would argue that questions of freedom were implicated. Obviously, shelving a film because of threats of violence is different from shelving a film because you are in a pissing match with the director – but my point is that in this situation, any industry player can be a profile in courage if they want to be. Heck, George Clooney could offer to take the film off Sony’s hands for a dollar and release it himself. That would certainly call Sony’s bluff – wouldn’t it?

Fourth, I think it does matter that the film’s politics appear to be kind of awful. Now, to be fair, I haven’t seen the film; I’m going by the descriptions I glean from Gracy Olmstead’s round-up, and Adrian Hong’s piece in The Atlantic. George Clooney is, of course, absolutely right that first amendment tests tend to come from “bad” defendants: pornographers, exploitation artists, vulgar propagandists. But still, it would be nice if anybody were willing to finish the sentence “this film is important because” with something they actually believed.

But I want to make another point about the film’s politics, such as I understand them to be, and how they connect to the common knee-jerk “we’ve got to fight back” response. To whit: the way in which the film assumes the normalcy of its premise. Not the “let’s use journalists” gimmick, but the premise that killing Kim is a perfectly normal American policy.

This is a film that presumes it’s American policy to try to assassinate the leader of North Korea, because – well, that’s what America does: assassinate people who are horrible. To be clear: the government of North Korea is truly, monumentally, Guinness Book of World Records-class horrible. The whole regime should drop dead tomorrow. But that doesn’t explain why we would be fantasizing about killing him. It’s significant, I think, that while “Team America: World Police” simultaneously satirized America’s hegemonic pretensions and indulged in them (and, as an aside, I do wonder how well that film has aged), from the descriptions it sounds like “The Interview” simply takes those pretensions for granted. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but the premise is kind of like “Zoolander” but with Mugatu as the good guy. Right?

I don’t think the nature of the film is irrelevant to the cowardice of the entertainment industry in the face of the threats of terrorism. Our eagerness to address unpleasant problems with violence is one side of a coin whose other face is our cowardice in the face of threats of violence to ourselves.

Which brings me to my last point. This week, the United States took the long-overdue step of publicly pursuing normal relations with Cuba, ending a half-century of pointless hostility. In the course of that half-century, the United States entertained some pretty ludicrous plots to assassinate Fidel Castro, none of which worked. Most of those who look back at that record do not conclude that it covers America with glory.

The situation on the Korean peninsula is far more treacherous, and North Korea’s regime is vastly more horrible than Castro’s was at its worst – and Cuba is not currently at its worst. But I still have to ask, notwithstanding the awkward timing: what is the purpose of America’s policy of hostility? What is our realistic goal here? And how does the fantasy policy of assassinating the latest excrescence of the Kim family relate to those goals, if at all?

The United States has never seriously considered normalization of relations with North Korea. Why not? Can anyone seriously argue that the policy we have pursued for 60 years has been successful? That North Korea has changed for the better in any way, or become any less of a threat? South Korea has changed enormously for the better – with a thriving economy, a vibrant democracy, and a military fully capable of repelling a North Korean attack without American assistance (albeit any such attack would still be devastating to the South). North Korea has only changed for the worse, not only in terms of its human rights record but in terms of its potential threat, having acquired both atomic weapons and ballistic missiles. Either that situation is a consequence of our 60-year policy or, at a minimum, that policy has done nothing to prevent it.

I doubt that the Kim regime could survive normalization with the United States, which is why I think any overture would be rebuffed. That is not only not a reason to avoid such overtures; it’s a positive reason to declare that America’s goals on the Korean peninsula involve normalization with the North. Let such a declaration be scoffed at; let it lead nowhere for the time being. Let the conditions for normalization – denuclearization of the peninsula, an end to North Korean support for terrorism, North Korean recognition of South Korea – be treated as non-starters and evidence of the unseriousness of the American overture. I don’t care: given America’s current stance, merely declaring such a goal, even if it led to no on-the-ground changes, would represent a fairly dramatic change in direction.

Or, you know, we could get all worried that we’re too chicken to stand up for our right to indulge in the stoner comedy equivalent of hashtag activism.

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The Worst General Election Ever

Unlike Daniel Larison, I think Jeb Bush will be a very formidable candidate whose entry will seriously change the shape of the race. We have every reason to believe that the most-likely choice the voters will be presented with in 2016 will be Bush versus Clinton.

Why do I believe this? Here are a few reasons.

First, Jeb Bush would not be running if he were not highly confident of his ability to circle the wagons of the GOP donor class. And that class has been making it very clear that they want to circle the wagons. They do not want an open contest for the “establishment” candidate. They want a clear favorite, and they want it early.

This should not be a surprise. Pretty much right after George W. Bush won reelection to the Texas governorship, the GOP donor class closed ranks around him as the presumptive nominee for 2000, and they moved heaven and earth to drag him across that finish line despite his many manifest weaknesses. They view Hillary Clinton as at least as formidable as Al Gore; they believe that the way to oppose strength is with strength; and they have every reason lack confidence that the rank and file, with their past enthusiasms for ludicrous candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, can be trusted to select the nominee most likely to actually win.

The fact that Jeb is in the race proves that enough movers and shakers in the GOP are not worried about the Bush name, that either they view it as a net asset rather than a net liability or they view Jeb’s other assets as substantial enough to offset the negatives associated with the name. I can tell you anecdotally that, speaking with former Wall Street colleagues who regularly vote Republican, I’ve heard very little concern about the Bush family name being a serious problem – and plenty of satisfaction with Jeb personally.

What this means is that the remainder of the establishment-acceptable field has to hope for one of two things to happen to get serious traction. Either Jeb Bush needs to stumble very badly, revealing himself to be a much weaker candidate than originally appeared – or, alternatively, one particular member of the field needs to show signs of serious rock-star status, rising definitively and quickly above the rest of the pack, in a way that promises real potential in the primary and in the general election.

I don’t see either of those things happening. Jeb Bush hasn’t run for office recently. But he’s not a political novice. He’s both lost and won difficult contests in a complex state. He’s got a substantial political operation and has been preparing for a jump to the national stage for some time. I will be shocked if he melts down like Rick Perry or deludes himself about what it takes to win like Rudolph Giuliani.

As for the competition: Rand Paul may well do better than his father – may even win a state like New Hampshire. But he is still not trusted by the establishment, and if it comes down to a Paul-Bush matchup, I’d bet heavily on Bush. In Bush’s absence, candidates like Christie and Rubio would have the room to jockey for the support of the various Republican factions. But with Bush in the race, they have to prove not only that they are plausible winners, but that they are better than Bush. A candidate like Rick Perry, Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney has an even higher wall to scale to get a serious look. The donor class thinks Bush would be fine – I would bet they like him better not only than any GOP nominee since his brother, but than any losing GOP primary candidate. Why take a risk on someone with more obvious flaws?

The one oft-mentioned candidate who I think could have presented a serious challenge is Scott Walker. He’s won three times in a purple state and he hasn’t done it by running as a moderate. He presents as both a conviction politician and a winner. In a GOP primary he’s got very little baggage and a whole lot of credibility. And he hasn’t had to declare himself much on a host of issues that potentially divide the party. I personally think that, domestically, he’d lead the country in the wrong direction – not to a renewed broad-based prosperity but to a greater secession by the economic winners from the country as a whole. But I recognize that he’s got something potent to sell to the GOP primary electorate, and potentially to the country at large.

But I don’t know that he’ll have the time to build the national infrastructure of support necessary to make a frontal challenge to Bush. And in terms of geography and base credibility, he’s almost a perfect running mate for Bush – which, if he isn’t sure he can win, is a very good argument for not pissing off the Bush campaign by going for the jugular in the primaries. Assuming he runs at all.

So sharpen your straight razors, people. The 2016 primaries on the Democratic side will feature Hillary Clinton ignoring a handful of protest candidates who never get any traction. And on the Republican side they will feature Jeb Bush coopting his most formidable opponents on his way to defeating a Rand Paul insurgency that more closely resembles Eugene McCarthy in ’68 than Ronald Reagan in ’76. And the general election will be the most-depressing of our lifetimes.

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Can Putin Survive a Full-Scale Ruble Crisis?

Photo by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office
Photo by Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Will all those parties of the far right who have expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin’s brand of authoritarian cronyism with a traditionalist veneer need to find a new idol to worship? That’s one way of phrasing the most important question to be asking right now, as Russia lurches toward a possible repeat of the 1998 crisis that led to the Putin era.

Russia is suffering from the coincidence of multiple blows. First and foremost, the steady slide in the price of oil, coupled with evidence that this slide may not be short-lived, has been devastating to an economy overwhelmingly dependent on extractive industries – and oil in particular – for foreign exchange, and overwhelmingly dependent on foreign imports for both high-value industrial and consumer goods. Next, in the wake of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, Western sanctions have damaged Russian trade and seriously hampered the operation of Russian banks. Finally, corrupt shenanigans by the central bank to prop up a favored business led to a collapse in confidence internally, and a flight of capital out of the country. The central bank is belatedly hiking interest rates ever higher in an effort to stem that outflow, but the risk is that even if it works it will strangle the domestic economy.

It’s still possible, of course, that the country turns a sharp economic corner, but most people aren’t betting that way. And if it doesn’t, then ordinary Russians are going to suffer through a brutal 2015, the worst year by far that they’ll have experienced in the Putin era. What will that mean for the fate of the regime?

There’s no easy way to answer that, but a brief glance at Russia’s last two regime crises  can provide some insight. The first of these, the collapse of the Soviet Union, bears little comparison with the current situation upon inspection. Like Putin, Gorbachev faced an economic crisis because of low oil prices, and a political crisis because of a failed war in Afghanistan. But Gorbachev was a reformer across multiple fronts, and the abortive coup against him was launched by a faction in the armed forces concerned about the threat of those reforms. The audacious adventurism of Boris Yeltsin in dissolving the Soviet Union added a unique dimension to the crisis, creating a very stark choice for the organs of the state as well as for Russian society as a whole. No matter how fundamentally weak the Putin regime is, it is not especially comparable. There is no one in a position comparable to Yeltsin’s, nor anyone with his stature, nor is there any appetite for revolutionary change in a liberal and democratic direction.

The second crisis, the 1998 default, seems a better fit to current conditions. The Yeltsin regime survived that crisis, but Yeltsin himself very quickly had to hand over power to his groomed successor – Putin. Putin’s prior job (before being appointed head of the FSB) was basically a glorified bag man. He ran the Presidential Property Management Department, which handled state-owned property. He was the person who knew the regime’s – and the “family’s” – financial secrets. Handing power over to Putin provided a kind of continuity of insurance to Yeltsin and his closest cronies. Meanwhile, Putin’s persona identified him with ideas about security and national strength that the country badly wanted to see restored in the wake of Russia’s humiliation – as it was seen – at the hands of the West.

Could the same thing happen again? Possibly. If an economic meltdown leads to widespread popular discontent, the regime will have to respond in some way. The most appealing way – because the least risky for the regime – would be to stage-manage a change in leadership that promises change while changing very little.

But who is Putin’s Putin? Once upon a time, the obvious answer would have been Dmitri Medvedev. But in the wake of his administration, and his agreement to hand the Presidency back to Putin after one term, I’d argue Medvedev is too closely-identified with Putin to be a plausible replacement for the regime in the event of any real discontent. Moreover, the context for any forthcoming discontent is different from 1998. Back then, ordinary Russians overwhelmingly blamed the catastrophe on Yeltsin’s weak leadership. They wanted a stronger state. Putin’s regime brought that stronger state – but also rampant cronyism. It seems likely that cronyism will bear a significant part of the blame for the coming economic collapse. What will the people demand to satisfy them that a new set of malefactors have been brought to heel? How can the regime satisfy them without eating its own?

If the regime cannot stage a satisfactory bit of theater, then the remaining options are uglier. Putin could deliberately try to provoke the West in the hopes of blaming Russia’s economic troubles on foreigners. Or he could turn force inward against internal “enemies” of Russia. Or the regime could hand Putin’s head to the mob without a clear plan for succession, leading to a period without clear leadership at the top until someone emerges from the internal struggle for power. Least likely of all would be a genuinely revolutionary situation such as obtained in 1991. None of Russia’s organs of power are willing to take that kind of risk again.

What should already be buried, though, is the idea that there is a thing called “Putinism” that represents some kind of alternative to the Western way of organizing society. Nationalism is very much on the rise worldwide, but Putin only gets cited as a leader of this “movement” because he wants to be – it’s very much in his personal interest and the interests of his regime to be seen that way. But in fact he represents nothing more than the self-interest of the regime he heads. And to the extent that he represents more than that, it’s something very specifically Russian: a reaction to the chaos and vulnerability of the Yeltsin years.

Even while Putin was riding high, nobody of consequence in China or India, or Japan or Germany, was saying: I hope we can make our country more like Putin’s Russia. They certainly won’t be saying it now.

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A Man and a Woman Are One. A Man a Woman and a Sea Trout Are One.

Hugh Jackman as The Man, Laura Donnelly as The Other Woman in THE RIVER, a new play by Jez Butterworth, directed by Ian Rickson, at Circle in the Square Theatre (50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue).
© Richard Termine
Hugh Jackman as The Man, Laura Donnelly as The Other Woman in THE RIVER, a new play by Jez Butterworth, directed by Ian Rickson, at Circle in the Square Theatre (50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). © Richard Termine

You know those guys? The ones who point out that if you take the twist ending of “The Sixth Sense” seriously, then the entire film that went before makes no sense (particularly the behavior of the mother)? The ones who say they were kind of annoyed rather than thrilled by “The Usual Suspects” because Verbal’s “con” makes no sense (starting with the fact that his “short con” is never convincing, and proceeding to the fact that at the end of the film the cops have his picture). These stories don’t have integrity, these guys will say; they are a con of the audience, who are tricked into believing they are involved in a story only to discover that the author views “story” as just a higher form of audience manipulation.

I’m one of those guys.

I understand the opposing perspective. These stories are about revealing that story is a form of manipulation; about exposing the mendacity inherent in story construction because that process is a process of seduction, and seduction is, inherently, about lies, about deception.

But see, I’m just not that cynical. I think there’s nothing so seductive as truth, because there’s nothing so seductive as vulnerability. That vulnerability may be withdrawn – and hearts may be broken in consequence. But the fellows who set out to be stone-cold seducers, who think they have “game” – even a very sophisticated version of it – probably come off as creeps more than not.

Which brings me to Jez Butterworth’s latest play, The River, now on Broadway at Circle in the Square, starring Hugh Jackman as “The Man” (yes, “The Man”) and Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly as, respectively, “The Woman” and “The Other Woman.”

I can’t actually talk any further about this play without spoiling it utterly – that’s the problem with writing about these bits of twisty business. But the thing is: I really do believe that if the play or movie or novel doesn’t work once you know the twist, then it’s an inferior work. “Fight Club,” for example, is an exception to my rule of not liking these kinds of twists, because the movie is even better on second viewing. But even so,  there’s still some value to not knowing the first time, so you can have that experience of revelation. So if you plan to see The River, and don’t want the experience spoiled, you might want to stop reading this write-up now.

The play is set entirely in a fishing cabin where The Man has brought The Woman for a special weekend. This is a moonless night in August, after a rain, and the sea trout are running. There will never be a better night (so he says) for landing these peripatetic princes in the midst of their migration from river to sea and back. And she has been chosen especially to share this experience with him.

Except, she hasn’t. He’s done this before, with the Other Woman, who makes her appearance about fifteen minutes into the play, taking over for The Woman whom we met initially.

There’s no indication that we’ve moved backward or forward in time, so at first I wondered whether I was in a version of “That Obscure Object of Desire,” if these were supposed to represent one women, two women, all women – Woman with a capital “Wuh.” Certainly the lack of names encouraged such an interpretation. But they seemed like specific people with distinct personalities and histories – personalities that get teased out by Jackman’s Man, who is both a lyrical talker and a pretty darn good listener. He seems genuinely fascinated and delighted by their stories, and genuinely eager to tell them about – well, mostly about fish. Plus he can cook. (He prepares one of the trout on stage, gutting it and baking it with lemon on a bed of fennel and onion. His knife skills are more fluid than mine, I can tell you that much.) He is, in other words, a hell of a catch. Any woman would see that.

But (here’s the big spoiler) he’s not about to be caught. He’s the one fishing. He’s lured them here, made it seem that he really loved them, made them feel like they might love him. And all in order to . . .

Well, that’s the question we’re left with at the end. It’s all too much effort just for sex, and besides, he can only play this particular trick on a moonless night in August – i.e., once a year. Maybe that’s enough for a sea trout – but for Hugh Jackman? His parting words to The Woman throw her own words back at her – “I’m not sure I know what love is” – saying these are the only true words either of them have spoken the whole weekend. But if that’s true, then what exactly is he after?

Laura Donnelly’s Other Woman seems to think he’s looking for some kind of feminine perfection, or for an image of woman that he had and lost. Cush Jumbo seems more on her guard from start to finish, more aware of and more wary of both the games he might be playing and whatever the truth might turn out to be. She never really gives herself to him – and then he lets her go with that parting shot. So: did he catch her? What exactly is the game?

I don’t really know – which, personally, I found quite irritating. Even Jackman’s entirely convincing and beautifully restrained performance can’t cross that final rubicon, because there’s nothing on the other side, nothing for him to play. When he is wooing, he manages to be seductive while still conveying that nothing has really been revealed. When he is caught out on the myth of eternal recurrence that he’s enacting, he is suitably ashamed. But when he fires his parting shot, I honestly don’t know what it means – emotionally. He’s cold. But what is the source of the chill?

What with the no-names policy and the over-extended fishing metaphor, I sense that Butterworth is trying to say something essential about Man and Woman and their perennial dance in the moonless night. But I wound up feeling he was saying more about himself as a playwright, and his relationship with the audience.

And I don’t fancy myself a fish to be hooked.

Nonetheless - The River runs through February 8th at New York’s Circle in the Square theater.

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Why Repealing “Push-Out” Doesn’t Matter, and Why It Does

With financial regulation, there’s a problem, akin to the problem of seeing the forest for the trees, which I will call the problem of the weeds and the swamp. In an environment as ugly and overgrown as that, it’s hard to tell what’s a noxious invader, and what’s a healthy and important part of the ecosystem. Which means there’s always the temptation to stop working so hard at managing the swamp, and simply let it go to seed.

Take section 716 the “push-out” provision of Dodd-Frank, which requires banks to trade uncleared derivatives out of uninsured subsidiaries rather than mingling them with the FDIC-insured parent bank. The provision was a response to one driver of the financial crisis – the fact that large banks (prominently Citigroup, who lobbied heavily and repeatedly for the provision’s repeal) held huge positions in senior risk associated with pools of mortgages that they had securitized (or, even more dangerously, in pools of asset-backed securities based in turn on such pools of mortgages).

Because of their seniority, the risk associated with these positions was treated as nugatory by the ratings agencies and, consequently, by the capital rules that govern such banks. The underlying mortgages would have had to fail at historically-unprecedented rates, and the recovery values for the mortgaged properties would have to be unprecedentedly low, for the pools to lose enough value to create a liability to the bank. So the banks were allowed to say that this simply wouldn’t happen, and hold capital accordingly.

And then, of course, it happened – and the banks had to be bailed out.

The push-out provision forced FDIC-insured banks to put such activities in separately-capitalized subsidiaries. This was supposed to prevent the catastrophic failure of such a swaps dealer from bringing down the insured bank, requiring a bailout.

There are several problems with this theory, however. First of all, AIG was structured in exactly this fashion. And AIG required one of the largest bailouts, notwithstanding that it wasn’t FDIC insured – indeed, it wasn’t a bank at all. Second, if I understand correctly, the uninsured bank can still use highly customized swaps for hedging. This is what Goldman, for example, did with their senior risk – they hedged it. With AIG. One of the scandals of the AIG bailout is precisely that it was done on terms that made Goldman whole, even though, logically, Goldman should have known that if it ever needed to make a claim on its “hedges” with AIG, AIG would never have been able to pay (since such a claim would imply that there had been extraordinary, historic losses in the mortgage market, and such extraordinary, historic losses would surely have already wiped AIG out, as indeed they did).

My gut feeling is that the provision was a form-over-substance attack on the real problem, and one that I don’t think would have been particularly efficacious in the run up to a 2008-style crisis. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so worried by the prospect of its being scrapped.

Except that I am worried.

From my perspective, we’ve never grasped the nettle of what we want our banking system to do. Classically, banks turn savings into capital, and classically they do it pretty directly, by taking deposits and lending to businesses and consumers. Banks are supposed to be good at evaluating the individual risks associated with these loans, as well as constructing portfolios of sufficient diversification to minimize the risk of them getting any of those individual evaluations wrong. Bank regulation is supposed to keep banks from pushing the envelope on either front in the interests of higher profit.

In our modern world, most of what banks do is intermediate in more complicated ways. They don’t do a whole lot of evaluation of individual loan decisions; instead, they are expert at aggregating and repackaging financial risk. The upside to this is that a much larger world of borrowers can access a much larger world of lenders, which should push down the cost of lending generally, and thereby facilitate growth. The downside, which has only manifested itself over time, is a financial system with an ever-increasing aversion to real risk (because nobody involved in large institutions can really evaluate it, and small institutions cannot achieve economies of scale to compete effectively with the large ones), coupled with an ever-increasing appetite for complexity that provides inherent reflexive self-justification (you need a really complex and well-paid operation to manage that complexity, so finance can never reliably be shrunk as a percentage of the economy).

I can’t help but believe that financial regulation and innovation in capital rules has facilitated the above development. In a world where hedge funds do more and more of the direct lending to small businesses – the kind of activity that used to be bread-and-butter for FDIC-insured banks – whatever financial regulation is doing, it isn’t forcing insured banks to return to their “proper” core economic function. And the kinds of activities that 716 tries to push out into uninsured subsidiaries are precisely the kinds of activities where much of the real risk lies in the tail of the distribution – the place where crises come from.

The repeal of 716 matters not because “push-out” was such a successful or important reform, but because it shows how the terms of debate have changed. We’re now debating whether it’s “time” to weaken financial reform, and let the banks operate more “efficiently,” when financial reform never actually achieved its core goal of taming finance’s role in the economy.

The core question is not whether uncleared derivatives are too risky to live in an insured bank, but whether we’re creating incentives to take risk or to hide it. Banks are supposed to do the former. They have a lot of natural incentives to do the latter. Financial regulation needs to be exceptionally vigilant about sniffing out that kind of behavior and punishing it. Encouraging banks to stuff those risks in an uninsured subsidiary that could then, in a crisis, bring down an insured bank doesn’t strike me as an especially auspicious solution. Scrapping that solution because it isn’t capital efficient, and replacing it with nothing, is even more alarming, because it implies that no solution is necessary. Bankers and politicians agree: the problem no longer exists. Which is exactly when we should start worrying that it’s about to smack the economy in the face yet again.

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Keeping It Real

Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing at the American Airlines Theater in New York
Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor in The Real Thing at the American Airlines Theater in New York

The Real Thing is generally regarded as the most accessible of Tom Stoppard’s plays. It isn’t playing with big ideas and historical or political themes. It’s about people: principally, marriage and infidelity. And love. That’s what the “real thing” of the title refers to, and it’s the something that the main character, Henry, can’t figure out how to write about, and only very belatedly and with some surprise learns he can really feel.

Stoppard’s earlier work was up-front about the fact that it was playing with theatrical convention both in language and structure. No one would confuse Travesties or The Real Inspector Hound or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for anything resembling reality. They both depict and provoke real emotion, but they are self-consciously artificial. Later works, like Arcadia or the Coast of Utopia plays – or Indian Ink, which the Roundabout mounted earlier this year - are conscious constructs, but not self-conscious ones. That is to say: the worlds we’re observing exist, that these are plays about a reality that is “out there.”

The Real Thing, in this scheme, is a bit of a hinge, and my impression prior to seeing it was that it fell definitively on the “mature” side of the line. But having now actually seen a production (the current revival also at the Roundabout; they’re having a very Stoppard year over there), I’m mulling over how different it really is from the earlier works of Stoppard’s oeuvre. To what degree it is depicting something resembling reality. To what degree it’s actually trying to.

Sam Gold’s production struck me as resting somewhere on the fence on that question. The production and costume design are chock-a-block of period details – mostly very unattractive ones – but the structure of the stage itself is very abstract, with soaringly high walls and a wide, narrow strip of a stage that strings the action out like beads on an abacus rod. I felt sometimes like I was looking at the set of a Pinter play. The acting, meanwhile, though punctuated by expressionist touches such as having the actors, out of character, singing pop songs at the top of each act, felt like it was generally intended to be naturalistic. And that only highlighted the degree to which the dialogue was not naturalistic, but highly self-conscious.

This is a play that centers on a playwright – Henry (Ewan McGregor) – and a trio of actors – Henry’s wife, Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), and another couple, Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Max (Josh Hamilton). Henry isn’t just any playwright, but the kind of playwright who delights in wit – a man whose political and cultural prejudices mark him as Stoppard’s author surrogate, but who can also be read, though the character himself would probably cringe at the comparison, as the lineal descendant of Noël Coward. The play opens with a scene from one of Henry’s plays – House of Cards, which unfortunately doesn’t involve floridly murderous politicians but an architect with a (possibly) unfaithful wife. The writing in the play-within-a-play isn’t nearly as good as the writing in the larger drama – it’s more obviously stagy – but it’s really just a matter of degree. Henry, when he talks, sounds very much like one of his male protagonists.

And much of the action of the play – through the recombination of the central couples (we learn early on that Henry and Annie are having an affair) and that new pairing’s subsequent marital trajectory – is driven by Henry’s attempts to control his life by writing it. And, consequently, the female characters’ – his two love interest’s and his daughter’s (Madeleine Weinstein) – attempts to discover what kind of play they are in, and play their parts correctly.

Charlotte is all barbed wit from the moment we meet her, but later in the play, she explains that this persona grew as a response to her recognition of her husband’s emotional detachment. She assumed that he was fooling around and that he expected her to do the same, that their marriage was not a burning romance but a mutually-agreeable arrangement for intellectually and emotionally emancipated adults. And so she became a kind of curdled Coward character.

Annie, when we meet her, is playing a woman overcome by desire, some combination of chemistry and admiration. But not long after she leaves her husband for Henry, she feels the same sense of distance from him, of not really caring. It isn’t that he doesn’t love her, or even that he isn’t in love with her. He’s just too secure in his position, too impregnable in his fortress of words. And so, a couple of years later, she takes up with a younger actor – Billy (Ronan Raftery) – not because she doesn’t love Henry anymore, but because she’s drawn to the fierceness of Billy’s desire, to his need, to the opportunity to write a story herself. And because she wants Henry to feel pain.

Which he does. His authorial indifference is finally pierced – and he finds himself playing an unexpected role, the “civilized cuckold” who knows his wife has another lover, and tolerates it, because he knows she needs the other man but she isn’t going to leave her husband for him. It’s a comical part as old a theater itself, but it’s not one he would have written for himself. But then, he’s no longer playing the writer of his own life. He’s just a writer living a life, a life in which he’s playing the part he’s given.

I saw all of this, but I didn’t feel it the way I should, and I concluded, on reflection, that one reason I didn’t was that the production didn’t let us know when the characters were speaking in their self-created, stylized voices – when they were playing parts – and when we saw them struggling to play those parts, and thereby saw a glimpse of the “real thing” underneath. That the production was to convinced what we were seeing was real people, and not the personae that they had adopted for the scenes that they were in.

I don’t think we’re supposed to see more than a glimpse of those real people. I don’t think we’re ever supposed to take these people’s self-presentation as an unmediated expression of their inner selves, except for maybe at one critical point for each character. In the production now running in my mind’s eye, what we’re supposed to see are the creaking mechanisms of self-creation and self-presentation. The masks never fully come off, but we are supposed to see that they are masks, and that they don’t quite fit.

I think, in other words, that The Real Thing should be directed as if it had more affinity for the works that came before it. As if the writing of this play were an attempt, by Stoppard, not to escape the strictures of his prior work, but to transcend them. To do the same kind of post-modern, meta-theatrical thing he had been doing, but this time in a world we might take for real, and with people of whom there is some hope they might be.

That’s not this production. But if seeing it led my thinking down this path, that in itself justifies the ticket price for me.

The Real Thing plays at the American Airlines Theater through January 4th.

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We Are the Sugar Daddies We’ve Been Waiting For

TAC logo

When Chris Hughes took over The New Republic, the initial reaction was ecstatic. Here was a man deep-pocketed enough to finally ensure that this landmark magazine, an institution in American politics and letters, would be able to continue its mission notwithstanding the very difficult landscape for journalism. Here was the sugar daddy they’d been waiting for.

Some months later, a very different assessment obtains.

The American Conservative, like TNR, struggles to survive and thrive in that treacherous media landscape. To achieve our mission, we need to spread the work of our contributors as widely as possible, which means not hiding behind a paywall. Traditional web advertising never paid well, and pays worse and worse over time. And more contemporary strategies of reader manipulation – semi-pornographic click-bait, “native” advertising, etc. – which pose a threat generally to the integrity of journalism pose an even greater threat to a magazine with our mission.

And so does reliance on a sugar daddy. It’s not just that you never know whether his or her plans will ultimately dovetail with the mission of the organization, that we don’t want to risk that mission becoming service to the whims and obsessions of a particular owner. It’s that our mission is, in some ways, inherently uncongenial to the sort of person who buys a magazine like ours.

People who buy journals of opinion generally do it to achieve prestige and influence. In its heyday, TNR was known as the in-flight magazine of Air Force One. It set out, consciously, to shape the agenda in Washington, both by advancing specific ideas and policies and more generally by setting the terms of debate.

TAC is not trying to set the terms of debate; we are trying to open up those terms. We are not trying to be the in-flight magazine of Air Force One. We are not merely providing power with a better set of ideas – we are raising questions about the distribution of power as such. Our mission is populist in that most basic sense.

Which is why, as a financial proposition, we have to rely not on deep pockets, but on many.

Our course, we do get some support from relatively deep-pocketed individuals – not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church door, as the poet said, but we hope they’ll serve. They want to know, though, that there is a wider base of support out there that can be tapped, that we matter as much as we believe we do to enough people. That we are getting through.

To that end, two of our supporters have offered to match donations made through the end of the calendar year, up to $20,000.

The goal is not just to raise money, though that is very much needed. It’s also to determine how wide that base of committed support is. So even if – especially if – you can only reasonably make a small donation, now would be a very good time to do it.

You can make fully tax-deductible contributions here.


Why Did We Torture?

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter / Released
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter / Released

I don’t have much to say about the torture report released by the Senate. While many of the details were unknown to me – or to any ordinary civilian – prior to the release, nothing that has come out strikes me as a particular surprise. We already knew that we committed brutal, systematic torture; we already knew that many credible analysts concluded that it was useless; we already knew that what was done was done in knowing violation of American law; and we already knew that the Executive branch as a whole and the CIA in particular labored mightily to cover it up.

The United States is obligated by treaty to punish those responsible, both those who committed the acts and those who ordered them. Orders to commit torture are illegal and must be affirmatively disobeyed; American law is crystal clear about that, so the only real defense is to claim that illegal actions did not occur, which is no longer a plausible claim. I assume that we will refuse to comply with this obligation.

None of this is a surprise. All of this could have been known in advance. So why did we do it?

Most commonly, torture’s purpose is not to extract intelligence, but to extract confessions. Whether you’re talking about the Inquisition or the NKVD, there is value to a given regime in “proving” that the accused is guilty. It vindicates the justice of the regime’s actions generally; it demonstrates the power of the regime over truth itself. It may well be of distinctly secondary importance whether or not the confession is actually true, whether the accused is actually guilty. So long as he confesses, the regime’s power is confirmed.

Relatedly, torture is a valuable tool to instill fear in the general population. Incarceration is fearful, but if incarceration brings with it terrible physical and psychological pain, including the possibility of permanent injury or death, then the possibility of being apprehended by the authorities is much more fearful, and ordinary civilians will be much more cautious about risking that possibility. If instilling fear is more important to a regime than inspiring confidence, cooperation and loyalty, then torture serves these purposes well.

These are the primary reasons why regimes like the Nazis or Soviets used torture extensively. Yes, they also used torture to try to extract intelligence, but that was never the primary purpose of such techniques. There were other, fully rational reasons to torture.

I believe that our reasons were far less rational.

I’ve written before about the overwhelming fear that afflicted the country in the wake of 9-11, and how, perversely, exaggerating the severity of the threat from al Qaeda helped address that fear, because it made it acceptable to contemplate more extreme actions in response. If al Qaeda was really just a band of lunatics who got lucky, then 3,000 died because, well, because that’s the kind of thing that can happen. If al Qaeda was the leading edge of a worldwide Islamo-fascist movement with the real potential to destroy the West, then we would be justified in nuking Mecca in response. Next to that kind of response, torture seems moderate.

Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence. It certainly wasn’t about instilling fear or extracting false confessions – these would not have served American purposes. It was never about “them” at all. It was about us. It was our psychological security blanket, our best evidence that we were “all-in” in this war, the thing that proved to us that we were fierce enough to win.

I’ve used “we” all through this piece, and the reason is not just because America is a democracy. Our government tortured for us, not just in the sense that it is our representative nor in the sense that its motive was our protection, but in the sense that we, as a country in aggregate, really wanted the proof of seriousness that torture provided.

That’s something we’ll have to grapple with, as a country, if we’re ever to have the strength to follow our own laws and bring the guilty to justice.

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