Trevor Noah talks economics, and it’s so refreshing

On The Daily Show last night, Trevor Noah played this clip from Donald Trump, part of a speech he’d given in New Jersey, a speech which was greeted by wild applause:

A company moves to Mexico . . . and they think they’re going to take our people, fire all of our people, move to Mexico, make their air conditioners, and sell ’em right across the border, no tax, no nothing, guess what, folks? Not going to work that way anymore. Every unit you make, that you sell in the United States, you’re going to pay a 35% tax. 35, very simple. We’re losing our shirts, folks!

Here was Noah’s response:

When Donald Trump says you’re going to pay a 35% tax, you do understand that he means ‘you.’ The American consumer. That’s who ends up paying the tariff. It seems like just yesterday shoppers were pulling knives on each other to save ten bucks on a blue-ray player. And now people are cheering for more? When everything coming from another country is suddenly a third more expensive, Trump is essentially putting sanctions on America. You know, sanctions, the same things the US uses to cripple other countries. That’s basically the Trump economic recovery plan. A plan that could deepen the trade imbalance, throw our economy into recession within a year, and lead to trade wars with China and Mexico. That’s a trade war.

Cut back to Trump:

These dummies that say ‘oh, well, that’s a trade war.’ A trade war?! We’re losing five hundred billion dollars a year in trade with China; who the hell cares if there’s a trade war? That’s crazy.

And here’s Noah’s response:

No, you’re crazy! How is this guy a Presidential candidate? I know you don’t care, Donald Trump, but you know who would care? The four million Americans that would stand to lose their jobs if a trade war happened! There’s no war with China that you can say you don’t care about. It doesn’t matter what kind of war it is; a military war, a trade war.

Here’s why I liked this moment so much. I watch a lot of media, and a lot of political media. I watch Sunday morning political talk shows. I watch several shows on cable. I read several political and news websites every morning. And of course, Donald Trump has been covered extensively throughout. But not like this. Not analysis of the economics of his plans. It took a Comedy Central fake news host to point out what has seemed obvious to me from the beginning. Donald Trump’s economic program, with high protectionist tariffs and unilaterally re-negotiated trade agreements, would, if enacted, seriously and negatively impact the US and world economies.

Here’s how this entire exchange would have played out on mainstream news media outlets. There are two possibilities: “New Jersey supporters applauded Donald Trump today, as he reiterated his call for a 35% tariff on imports from Mexico if elected, as he continues to tighten his appeal heading into the fall election.” That’s the more likely approach; the focus entirely on the horse race. Or, a second, rarer possibility: “Donald Trump continues to call for a protectionist tariff on Mexican imports. Some economists believe that such a tariff could lead to a trade war with Mexico. Other economists disagree.” Mainstream media folks are exceedingly reluctant to even appear as though they’ve taken sides on issues, even on issues as seemingly black and white as, you know, the idea that starting a trade war is a good idea. So they play this ‘some people say . . . on the other hand, others believe. . .’ And that constitutes appropriate balance. (“Some Americans believe that the earth is flat. Others, however. . . “)

In fact, though, the vast majority of economists agree that Trump’s actions would, in fact, constitute a trade war, and lead almost certainly, to a recession. And that a sudden, immediate price increase on some (but not all) consumer goods would be inflationary, and harmful to most US consumers.

Because Trump is a businessman, there’s an assumption that he knows what he’s talking about on economic questions. Because he’s successful, people assume that his economic plans make sense, and are a good idea. Maybe, on foreign policy questions, he’s a little uninformed, but surely on the economy, he’s a guy we can trust. He has a chance to renegotiate trade agreements, and that will be good for America.

But it’s on economic matters that Trump’s invincible ignorance is most pronounced. His plans are insane. They won’t work. They won’t Make America Great Again. They’ll lead to trade wars and a recession. He really, genuinely, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And it took a comedian to say so. Well done, Mr. Noah.

Death wish scenes: a review of A Walk in the Woods

Years ago, I noticed a phenomenon that, to my mind, spoiled otherwise fine films. I saw it first in The Other Side of Heaven, but I kept seeing examples of it, and I even wrote and presented a paper on the subject. I called it “the death wish scene.” A death wish scene is not just poorly written, or badly placed, or unnecessary. A death wish scene is a scene in a movie so poorly conceived that it ruins the picture. It’s a scene of such astounding idiocy that you wonder if the producers secretly wanted the movie to fail.

Over the years, I have developed a great fondness for death wish scenes. There aren’t many of them. Sure, lots of films have scenes that don’t work. That’s not a death wish scene. A DWS has to directly contradict everything else that you like about the film. It’s an act of deliberate, in-your-face narrative destruction.

And I saw one last night! A rare sighting, to be sure. In a major Hollywood film, a film starring big-name movie stars, a film with, like, a budget, a distribution deal in place, good craft services. That kind of film.

The film is A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. Directed by Ken Kwapis, written by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman. It’s based on a book my wife and I love, Bill Bryson’s account of his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. We’re big Bill Bryson fans anyway, and looked forward to this film. Redford plays Bryson, and Nolte plays his old friend Stephen Katz, who hiked the AP with him. Thompson plays Bryson’s British wife, Catherine.

The book isn’t really about any issue of great import. It’s a gently humorous account of out-of-shape middle-aged men taking on a physical challenge that was probably a bit more than they were up for. It’s about the eccentric characters they met on the trail. And to some degree, it’s a book of self-discovery. It’s also about the AP itself, a two thousand mile hiking trail through some of the prettiest terrain on this continent. I figured that the movie would be like the book–a genial, reasonably low-stakes character-driven comedy. Robert Redford isn’t the first actor I would choose to play Bill Bryson, but he’s certainly a fine actor, and Nolte’s perfect as Katz, who, in the book, is Bryson’s grouchy, hard cussing comic foil.

But the movie makes some odd choices from the beginning. Bill Bryson is a professional travel writer. He’s also a fine historian, and a science writer of the first order, but he made his bones writing about his travels in Australia, and Europe, and the UK. Once he got the idea of writing about the Appalachian Trail, he contacted his agent and his publisher, and got an advance to pay for it. That’s all perfectly clear in the book. But the screenwriters, for some reason, decided that, in the movie, he wasn’t there to write a book. No, indeed. This was just something personal he had to do. His wife doesn’t think it’s remotely a good idea–she frankly thinks he’s gone mental–but she finally relents when Katz agrees to come along. And she loves him, and he loves her, and she’s willing to be supportive. And so, in the movie, Redford, as Bryson, consistently has to say ‘I’m not writing a book.’ Like, this hike isn’t about something as crass as mere commerce.

That’s not the death wish scene–we haven’t gotten there yet–but it is an odd choice. It’s as though the film’s producers decided that we wouldn’t care about this man’s spiritual journey of self-discovery if it were somehow sullied by him also carrying out his writerly obligations. Me, I like competent professional people trying to do a difficult job well. I think that makes for a fine conflict. If they also learn something about themselves, all the better.

But this bizarre decision makes Katz’ presence all the stranger. Stephen Katz is Bryson’s alcoholic friend, from his home town of Des Moines. He’s spent his life working a series of blue-collar jobs. In the book, it’s clear that Bryson pays Katz’s way. Bryson buys his backpack and tent, pays for the food and lodging, when they’re able to find lodging. No big deal–it all comes out of Bryson’s advance, and Katz knows from the outset that he’s going to be a character in the book. It’s perfectly clear in the movie that Katz can’t afford to be on this hike. But they sort of gloss over it. Again, we haven’t gotten to the death wish scene yet, but from the beginning, we sense how poorly the film’s director/producers/screenwriters had thought through the film’s most important character and story decisions.

But not entirely. Early in their hike, Bryson and Katz meet Mary Ellen, an astonishingly annoying woman who denigrates their equipment, appearance, and supplies, who chatters away at them incessantly. Kristen Schaal was perfectly cast as Mary Ellen, and her scenes with them are a treat. And other eccentric folks they meet on the way are equally vivid in their film incarnations.

So the film is plodding charmingly along, marching down the trail with confidence and aplomb. And then, for no reason whatsoever, it flings itself off a ledge into the waiting arms of a bear.

The AT (inevitably) crosses highways along its course, and at times, passes close to small towns, where hikers can find a restaurant, a motel, and (most important), a laundromat. Bryson and Katz arrive in such a town, and check into a motel. The motel’s proprietor is Jeannie, played by Mary Steenburgen. And the three of them make small talk. And we can see a budding, mutual attraction between Bryson and Jeannie.

Later that night, Bryson runs a shower, but before he can step in, he realizes the bathroom did not come with towels. Wearing a bathrobe, he goes into the motel office, and sees Jeannie. Wonderful Mary Steenburgen. She apologizes, and goes with him to an outdoor storage room where they keep the towels. She gets him a towel; they make small talk. And you can see, there’s a spark. And they look at each other, and they’re about to kiss. And then Katz interrupts them.

And the movie’s irretrievably ruined.

Later, Katz teasing him, asks Bryson if he’d ever cheated on Catherine. And Bryson says no, and we believe him. Katz, crass and cynical, doesn’t. He assumes, as a matter of course, that Bryson, world traveler, has had a few on the side. And this Bryson, the Bill Bryson of the towel scene, probably has. But the Bill Bryson established earlier in the movie, would never cheat. And thus is the movie ruined.

It’s not that the basic situation is implausible. Steenburgen’s Jeannie is an attractive, deeply lonely woman, stuck in a small town, running a motel. It’s not inconceivable that she would be attracted to a guy like Bryson, or that he would be attracted to her. But the whole first fifth of the movie establishes Bryson for us in terms of his family and his marriage. He and Catherine are exceptionally close. He’s a good Dad, and that’s important to him. In the book, Bill Bryson takes every possible opportunity to phone home, and those phone calls are immensely sustaining to him.

It’s as though the movie goes out of its way to establish Bryson as a decent family man. Every choice, in the early going, develops that characterization. And then, for no reason, the movie throws in, not an affair, but at least the potential for one. Even hired Mary Steenburgen to play the love interest. Nothing early in the movie sets it up, and nothing later in the movie justifies it.

It’s the very definition of a death wish scene. It’s as though someone went ‘you know what this character needs? A love interest. To attract women viewers, you know. Chicks love romance.’ I know, it’s unfair of me, to make that assumption, that the film’s director or producers are that moronically sexist. But really, it’s as though someone decided ‘this guy can’t go on a spiritual quest without being tempted by adultery.’ Whereas lots of hikers and campers go on perfectly satisfactory personal journeys without being remotely tempted to cheat.

I will say this; that scene, all by itself, ruined a movie my wife and I were enjoying up to that point. Robert Redford and Mary Steenburgen are fine actors, and attractive people. But the scene involving their characters was not just unnecessary. It was idiotic. They were making a movie about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Make that movie.

Green Room: Movie Review

As Green Room opens, we see a van in the middle of a corn field, everyone in it sound asleep. The camera pulls back, and we see the path the van followed as it swerved off the highway and into the field. A sleepy driver drove off the road; funny, though also scary. And a metaphor for the entire film, which is about a group of musicians that has veered off the road, and is trying to survive.

In the van, The Ain’t Rights, a punk band, traveling from gig to gig, siphoning gas to keep going, playing wherever they can. They’ve essentially decided to call it quits, at least short-term, but accept one more engagement, because it pays enough to get them home.

So they show up, to a log cabin-ish venue in the woods, a bar where most of the patrons are skinheads, on the walls neo-Nazi regalia for decorations. And so their lead singer, Pat (Anton Yelchin), picks what I think was a Dead Kennedys anti-skinhead song, ‘Nazi Punks F off’ to begin their set. Very punk rock; edgy and tense and real. The crowd reacts furiously, throwing things and spitting at the stage, but we don’t sense The Ain’t Rights are in actual trouble. Yet. But that will come.

When they finish their set, they’re escorted by security up some stairs to a green room. And on the floor, they can see a woman with a knife sticking out of her head. Dead.

Panicked, they pull out a cell phone and call 9-1-1, reporting ‘a stabbing’ and the address just before the phone is confiscated by security. The rest of the movie is about this punk band, fighting for survival, attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads working for the venue’s owner, Darcy, played by none other than Patrick Stewart.

Darcy’s basically trying to clean up a mess. The venue’s headline band’s lead singer, high on drugs, killed the girl, his ex-girlfriend, because she was planning to leave him, and the whole skin-head lifestyle, behind. (That mystery, about who killed the girl, isn’t particularly important, and gets resolved very quickly. This movie isn’t about who-dun-it, it’s more about who is likely to survive).

The result is a fascinating film, a horror thriller that manages to transcend the essential conventionality of its structure. The writer/director, Jeremy Saulnier, clearly knows his subject matter. The day to day interactions of the band is completely convincing. I don’t know Saulnier’s background, but the film felt like it was written by someone who toured once with a band, who then based a screenplay on the jokes they shared about some of the sketchier venues they played. ‘What if we went into the green room and there was a dead body on the floor?’ That kind of thing. And then Saulnier took it from there.

I don’t know much about the whole punk rock/skinhead death metal scene. I sense that it contains an almost infinite numbers of sub-genres, and that Saulnier knows intimately the differences between them. The details of the world of this film is so convincingly rendered, I was completely with it throughout, despite my own ignorance of the film’s background. It felt very Zola-esque, a perfectly realized simulacrum of the denizens of a demi-monde. I loved Alia Shawcat as Sam, their guitarist, her shoulders hunched over her instrument as she plays. I loved the way they started songs, with Yelchin suddenly shouting, very quickly, “2, 3, 4” and instantly a hard-driving punk beat starts up. I loved the camaraderie of the band, how quickly spats get resolved and decisions made.

Although it’s not remotely a political film–its a horror thriller, with punk rock/skinhead setting–I can’t help but see a tremendous political subtext. It’s a film, after all, about neo-Nazis terrorizing punk rockers. About skinhead death metal vs. punk–immensely political music worlds colliding lethally. All under the deceptively benevolent direction of Patrick Stewart.

Because Darcy, the film’s uber-villain, is also genial and sympathetic. We instinctively feel that we can trust him; that when he tells the band members that he wishes them no ill, that he means it. Of course, he’s lying. Of course, he’s using a gentle manner to mask an essential sociopathy. So what is that characterization intended to convey about skinheads generally?

Darcy gives orders, intending them to be obeyed, and at times his followers do just as they’re told. For example, knowing that a 9-1-1 calls has reported ‘a stabbing,’ he orders one of his followers to stab his brother. The cops show up, are given a stabbing victim and perp, and drive off, satisfied. Leaving Darcy to complete his clean-up. Including, of course, disposing of witnesses.

Those extra resonances, the film’s implicit politics and the intersection of politics and music in the genres it explores, are what moved this film from exciting and powerful to unforgettable. I don’t know what it all means, but I want to learn, and spent the morning listening to The Misfits and Fugazi, trying to understand. Green Room got under my skin, is what I’m saying, and I’m grateful. It’s very seriously R-rated, and some will find it an unpleasant viewing experience. But I loved it.

Bathroom madness

People have–how to put this?–certain sanitary needs. Men, women, young people, old people, all races; we all gotta go number one and number two. Straight people have to; gay people have to, and transgender people have to. We all gotta pee and we all gotta poo. And since America is a civilized society, we have provided sanitary and comfortable public spaces where we can take care of those needs with some measure of privacy. Typically, we have separate men’s and women’s restrooms. And generally, all of it works out just fine.

I suppose, to some extremely limited degree, transgender people might be said to complicate the issue of restrooms. Except that’s not really true. Gender dysphoria is a real thing. Transgender people aren’t confused about themselves. If someone who looks like a woman, and considers herself a woman, goes into the women’s restroom, no one thinks anything of it. It’s not like we can tell if she was born with male genitalia. And it’s not like we have any reason to care. In fact, generally, when we go to a public restroom, we pay as little attention as possible to the other people we’re in there with. What we do, and what we want everyone to do, is to conduct our sanitary business as quickly and anonymously as possible.

(We don’t like to think about it, which is why it can become comical when people do think about it. As, for example, with the several websites out there on the interwebs having to do with urinal etiquette. This one is my favorite. Haven’t found many corresponding comical women’s restroom etiquette sites. Odd, that.)

Except that oh-so-welcome restroom anonymity that we all rely on and are grateful for has disappeared, and the issue of which bathroom to use has suddenly become politicized. Now, suddenly, the fact that trans people have been using their own gender appropriate public restrooms for years has become a whole new thing.

The pattern has gone like this. It tends to start with well-meaning attempts to pass some local ordinance prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, followed by conservative backlash. That’s what happened in Houston in 2014, and in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2015. In Houston, the local ordinance looked like a winner, until opponents raised the issue of transgender bathroom use. In North Carolina, the local bill passed, alarming the state legislature, which again used issue of trans folks using public restrooms as the wedge to pass a bill overriding the Charlotte bill, denying other LGBT rights. And anti-trans bathroom bills are pending in a number of other states.

We should be clear about this; this really isn’t about where people go potty. In North Carolina, people are required to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. But central to gender dysphoria is the individual’s realization that s/he is, in the profoundest, most personal way, not the gender s/he was born with. Webmd.com covers it nicely. That’s what the North Carolina bill, and other similar bills in other states, denies.

These bills are the equivalent of legislators holding their hands over their ears and shouting ‘la la la la’ whenever anyone mentions transgender people. Which, of course, only has the effect of drawing unwelcome attention to what they’re doing. Next thing you know, Bruce Springsteen is canceling concerts, and businesses are moving out of state, and the federal government is filing lawsuits. Bathrooms are places where something messy is handled as neatly and cleanly as possible. These bills take that neatness and make it all messy again.

It’s important that we recognize this. The issue is not ‘which restroom should folks use.’ It’s ‘are transgender people dealing with a real condition.’ Is the central sexual and gender identity of a person what he or she says it is, or is that an issue that the state should decide for them?

Amazingly enough, though, that’s not how it appears on the right. The North Carolina bill is defended as a measure that protects young women from sexual predators. The idea is that trans women, or unscrupulous men dressing like trans women, could sneak into a women’s bathroom and harass or assault women. And that’s a potent argument, I suppose, because let’s face it, public restrooms are places where we all feel particularly vulnerable.

There is no factual basis for this fear, however. This article summarizes the existing evidence. Certainly, women are occasionally assaulted in public restrooms, but not by men pretending to be trans. Men do awful things sometimes. But assault and harassment are already illegal. A bill banning trans women from using women’s facilities would accomplish nothing. In addition to being almost impossible to enforce.

And yet the paranoia and fear this issue generates has become quite extraordinary. Watch Megyn Kelly’s takedown of Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. He consistently says ‘I don’t want an eight year old girl in a public restroom with a thirty year old man.’ ‘A man,’ asks Kelly, ‘or a transgender woman?’ That’s the key distinction and it’s one Patrick never manages to get his head around. To Patrick, there’s no such thing as a trans woman. Just a man in a dress, in a place where he shouldn’t be.

Here’s another expression of the same fear, from a Facebook post. And I know; it’s just a Facebook post. But it captures a certain level of paranoia so perfectly that I finally decided to use it:

As I recall from Roman/Hebrew history the Romans made it a law that all Hebrew brides had to be raped on their wedding night by a Roman officer to consummate the marriage. Finally the Jews rebelled and it was stopped.
This similar thing happened in Scotland when the King of England made it a law that all Scottish brides had to be raped by an English officer on their wedding night.

Principally I think that this Obama gender coed bathroom thing is similar and will foster a lot of feelings and many problems and I think cases of rape will go way up!

Yes, this person actually cites the imaginary medieval legend of ‘droit du seigneur’ as somehow similar to this bathroom controversy. It’s as though the Obama administration, for siding, quite properly, with the LGBT community, is not just indifferent to the epidemic of rapes that’s sure to follow, but actively encouraging it. ‘Cause, you know, Obama=pro-rape. And, by golly, that’s where we’re going to draw our line in the sand. Over bathrooms.

Obviously, this will eventually all die down. Six months from now, it won’t be an issue. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that something as mundane as using a public restroom can become a battlefield in the cultural wars?

Veeps

Let’s talk Veeps. We’re a few weeks out from the conventions, and the two major party nominees have essentially been decided, (with all due respect to my Bernie-phile friends). So, who should Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump choose as their running mates? Who are they likely to choose? And what difference will it make?

Apparently, Sarah Palin is on The Donald’s short list. She’s apparently up for another go. As Salon’s Bob Cesca recently reminded us, last time, she never really did seem to get her head around what being vice-President actually meant. In her debate with Joe Biden, Palin clarified her understanding of the role of the Vice-President with this splendid word salad:

“Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president’s agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we’ll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation.”

Yes, indeed. Thank you for reminding us of the ‘Flexibility Clause’ right there in the Constitution. Article II, Section 5, if I recall correctly.

In fact, the Vice-President has just one constitutional duty: to break a tie in the Senate. In addition, thanks to the 25th Amendment, the Vice-President officially becomes President in the case of the death or disability of the President. And, as Al Gore reminded us on Futurama, the VP’s job is “to prevent disruptions of the space-time continuum.” In fact the Vice-President’s job is, constitutionally, pretty useless. Some Veeps have made more of the job (or been allowed to by their POTUS)–Dick Cheney, specifically. Others would likely echo “Cactus Jack” Garner, elected Roosevelt’s VP in 1932 and ’36, who opined that the office wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm piss.” That vivid characterization of a constitutional office is today about the only thing for which anyone remembers Cactus Jack.

Of course, when it comes to choosing a running mate, pundits set out the usual criteria, none of which ever seem to matter much. You want someone who ‘balances the ticket.’ You want someone who appears ‘Presidential,’ (though not too Presidential). You want someone who will support your legislative agenda, and who will campaign effectively. Ultimately, though, Presidential contests aren’t won by having brilliant VP picks. But they can be harmed, even lost, by particularly bad VP choices. (See Palin, Sarah, above. Or Quayle, Dan).

It seems to me that the choice of a vice-President is a particularly tough call for both of these candidates. Secretary Clinton still has to wrestle with the false impression that she’s not really a progressive, not really a liberal. That she doesn’t represent the ‘Democratic’ branch of the Democratic party. And the challenge from Bernie Sanders has largely been driven by the passion and energy of the Sanders insurgency, which is in turn driven by the excitement of Sanders ‘democratic socialist’ policy proposals. Ordinarily, a liberal candidate, like Clinton, would want to choose a more moderate running mate, for ticket balancing purposes. In her case, a competing rationale may suggest itself; shoring up the base.

Her obvious running mate would be Bernie Sanders himself. There are several objections to this. First of all, he may not accept the job. Second, wouldn’t there be a danger that he would overshadow her? Although she’s winning fair and square, Sanders’ supporters have an energy that has transformed this race. She wants to make positive use of that energy, but risks offending those voters? And there are age considerations. As I write this, she’s 68, and Sanders is 74. Should she choose a younger running mate?

I think her ideal candidate would be someone like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. He’s known as a solid, unimpeachable liberal. At 64, he’s younger than Secretary Clinton. He would fit all the ticket-balancing criteria. And he’s an aggressive, effective campaigner. There are other excellent possibilities–New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former San Antonio Mayor (and current HUD Secretary), Julian Castro, plus of course, every liberals’ fave-rave, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. I expect Clinton to choose from someone on that list.

For Donald Trump, the choices get even trickier. He’s run as a maverick, as an anti-Establishment candidate. He’s not well liked by the Republican leadership. He’s despised by wide sections of the electorate, with exceedingly high negatives from women, blacks, and Hispanics. There are concerns about his temperment, and about his basic fitness for the Presidency. If he picks a Washington insider, he risks losing his entire constituency. On the other hand, if he picks someone equally maverick-y–looking at you, Governor Palin!–he could appear even more out-of-his-depth than he does right now.

In the past, when asked who his ideal vice-President was, he has responded ‘Oprah Winfrey.’ Oprah has supported President Obama pretty strongly in the past, but she has also voted for, and supported, Republicans. She would help Trump with women voters, and she’s a charismatic and powerful presence on the stump. And she’s not a political figure.

On the other hand, the chances of her accepting that particular nomination aren’t good.

If Oprah turns him down, I actually have the perfect replacement. Donald Trump should ask Shonda Rhimes. She’s the most successful TV producer in Hollywood. And the shows she produces are smart, compelling, and at times, highly political. Rhimes has talked about politics on occasion, and insists that she’s non-partisan–that she sees herself as a moderate, political patriot. A successful African-American woman would help Trump enormously.

But–see Oprah comment above–the odds or her accepting a VP nomination from Donald Trump are very poor. She’s added a nasty nasty new character to the show Scandal, who she says is based on Trump.

And that’s Trump’s problem. The people who really would help his cause–highly respected non-politicians–have no interest in joining that cause. Colin Powell would be a great choice for him, for example. He’d add foreign policy expertise to Trump’s campaign. He also won’t do it, he’s said.

So what about the politicians who have already joined his candidacy. Chris Christie? Another big blustery white guy? Newt Gingrich? Adding his three marriages to Trump’s three?

Honestly, I think the best choice for Trump may well be Sarah Palin. Why not? It’s not like this race can’t get funnier.

 

Donald Trump, making politics funny

He’s going to make America great again. There’s going to be so much winning, we’ll get tired of it. He’ll pay off the national debt (not reduce the deficit, pay off the debt) in eight years. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President, in large measure because a sizeable number of Americans are convinced that this guy, more than anyone ever before, knows how to fix the American economy. For everyone. No tradeoffs, no trickle-down, no pain, pure gain.

How is that not funny?

When Stephen Colbert took over the late show on CBS, he knew he would be covering the election. He was desperately afraid that Donald Trump’s candidacy would end before he had the chance to make fun of him. I remember a similar sentiment back in 2004, when, on David Letterman’s show, one of his writers came out and announced his support for the re-election of George W. Bush. His reasons? “I’m sixty one years old, and a professional comedy writer. And frankly, I just don’t want to work all that hard anymore.” It’s our right, as Americans, to make fun of politicians.

In Ohio, it is against the law to knowingly and recklessly lie about an opponent or policy or ballet initiative. This law was challenged in court by a non-profit, the Susan B. Anthony List. Their suit is winding its way through the court system, with one finding, by the US Supreme Court, that the non-profit did have standing to sue. What I love about this lawsuit is an amicus brief filed by the Cato Institute and comedian P. J. O’Rourke. Can government criminalize political statements that turn out not to be true? O’Rourke argued that the answer has to be no. As O’Rourke put it: “This case concerns amici because the law at issue undermines the First Amendment’s protection of the serious business of making politics funny.”

This Politico article includes the O’Rourke amicus brief in its entirety. If you read it, don’t skip the footnotes; they’re funnier than the brief itself, which is plenty funny. But O’Rourke makes a serious argument:

While George Washington may have been incapable of telling a lie, his successors have not had the same integrity. The campaign promise (and its subsequent violation), as well as disparaging statements about one’s opponent (whether true, mostly true, mostly not true, or entirely fantastic), are cornerstones of American democracy. Indeed, mocking and satire are as old as America, and if this Court doesn’t believe amici, it can ask Thomas Jefferson, “the son of a half-breed squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Or perhaps it should ponder, as Grover Cleveland was forced to, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”

In modern times, “truthiness”—a “truth” asserted “from the gut” or because it “feels right,” without regard to evidence or logic—is also a key part of political discourse. It is difficult to imagine life without it, and our political discourse is weakened by Orwellian laws that try to prohibit it.

The preposterous overstatement, the unsupported assertion, the ad hominem attack, the construction of various straw men, they’re all an accepted and essential part of our political discourse. As, of course, is the outraged denial, the counter-accusation, the competing fantasy narrative. And, yes, it’s true that The Donald exemplifies everything coarse and ugly about our politics. But also everything ridiculous, foolish and preposterous. Human beings, are, after all, pretty ludicrous. Shouldn’t that be reflected in our most elevated discourse?

Is Donald Trump a serious threat to American democracy? Of course he is, through his xenophobic nativism, his astounding ignorance, his buffoonish notions of foreign policy. But aren’t those same qualities–ignorance, prejudice, buffoonery–also pretty funny? Trump is literally clownish. Best of all, he’s astonishingly thin-skinned. And that’s funny too.

We wouldn’t want to live in a country where we can’t make fun of our leaders. And we need to recognize exactly what country it is we do live in. This is America, home of hucksters and flim-flam artists. This is the country of tacky late night commercials and used car salesmen and televangelists. This is the country that invented the mullet. We’re named after Amerigo Vespucci, for heaven’s sake. Have you read his book describing this cool place he discovered? It’s pure P. T. Barnum.

And that’s why Trump’s candidacy strikes me as so . . . American. He’s salesman, first and foremost. I mean, his signature achievements are a whole bunch of hilariously over-decorated hotels with his name on them. The name Trump isn’t so much associated with success as tackiness. And, again, that’s funny.

So we have a Republican candidate for President who isn’t remotely qualified for the job. A thin-skinned, obsessively litigious, sexist bozo. Surely laughter is our best response.

As long as he doesn’t win.

 

The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Movie Review

My wife and I wanted to see a movie last night, and the far more popular movie in town was completely sold out. So we went with The Huntsman: Winter’s War. And didn’t regret it, to be honest. It’s a lunatic movie, really, with a story that makes no sense at all, and above all, a movie where the biggest question is ‘why did this even get made?’ And in the middle of all it, there’s a sweet and tender love story, nicely acted and lovely.

Let’s see; where to start? This is the sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. That one starred Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Chris Hemsworth as The Huntsman, and Charlize Theron as wicked Queen Ravena. It wasn’t bad, though why anyone thought we needed to see the extended backstory to the Snow White story escapes me.

Apparently, though, we didn’t just need to see the Snow White backstory, but a detailed and extensive narrative exploration of the whole other mythology on which Snow White rests. So this starts off as a sort of prequel to the earlier movie, but time passes, and we end up with a parallel story, which makes occasional passing reference to the events of SWATH. Most of which I’d forgotten. Like, didn’t Charlize Theron die in the other movie? And wasn’t it The Huntsman who killed her? Or him, with Kristen Stewart’s help? So why is Evil Queen Ravena here, in this movie? (She says she’s neither alive nor dead. Half-dead. Living in that mirror.) Getting killed, again, by Chris Hemsworth? But I thought that already happened. Or would happen, soon. These movies link how?

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. We begin with Queen Freya (Emily Blunt), Ravenna’s sister. She meets a guy, falls in love, gets pregnant, intends to marry him, has the baby. (Who? Snow White? The baby is a threat to Ravenna because she’s going to grow up to become Fairest of Them All. Snow White, right? Kristen Stewart, right? What’s going on?) But the fiancee guy sets the nursery on fire, killing the baby. Freya turns psychotic, leaves, goes into solitude, then raises an army and starts invading other neighboring ‘Northern’ kingdoms.

At which point, as my wife pointed out, the movie turns into a demented version of Frozen. I’m totally not kidding. Freya’s superpower involves ice. She can turn people into ice sculptures, and shoot ice spicules at them, and build ice walls, and she creates an entire castle made of ice. She’s Sociopath Elsa. Remember Olaf, the comic relief snowman? There’s an owl who serves the same purpose. Remember the rock people/dwarves? There are dwarfish equivalent characters in this. It’s Frozen, without Anna. Oh, wait, I forgot Jessica Chastain; there’s also a sort of Anna.

(Seriously? Frozen? Let it go.)

Freya is also, kind of, Daenarys Targaryen, building her own army by kidnapping children, who she raises to become soldiers. (And we see her army; all thirty of them). The best of her fighters she rewards, with the proviso that they never fall in love. All love is strictly forbidden. All love: Agape, Filio, Eros. Only, you know, kids will be kids, and her two favorites fall for each other: Eric (Chris Hemsworth), and Sara (Jessica Chastain). Get together in a really romantic hot spring. And Psycho Elsa/Freya finds out, and Eric is exiled. But before he leaves, both he and Sara are shown false visions; she sees him just leaving her, and he sees her dying. So they don’t look for each other much. For seven years.

But, it turns out, someone back in Snow White Land (where Snow White lives; remember? Kristen Stewart? Who is not in this movie, but whose character is constantly referred to?) has stolen the magic mirror. And Sara, now Freya’s main captain, has been tasked with finding it. As has Eric/Huntsman. And his two dwarf sidekicks, Nion and Gryff (Nick Frost and Rob Brydon).  Quest narrative! Sara and Eric are initially pretty hostile to each other, on account of their false visions, but they work through that pretty quickly. Though they do have seven years of separation issues to work through.

But it was really sweet, the developing love story between Sara and Eric. It really was the one thing in the movie that made emotional sense, and the one story element in the movie that wasn’t completely ludicrous. It didn’t hurt that it was Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain, two immensely engaging actors. Especially Hemsworth, who affects this Scottish-sounding brogue which renders a third of his lines incomprehensible, not that it ever matters. He’s charming, and self-deprecating, and he carries a ridiculous movie almost effortlessly. And Chastain is fierce and strong and Katniss-good with a bow and arrow. Wonderful physical performance.

You know that thing they always do in movies like this? They’re in a scene together, and talking, and suddenly their heads come together, and he’s about to kiss her. Only she pulls a knife, and holds it against his throat. Only he disarms her, and flings her around, so her back is against a wall. And they’re inches apart, breathing heavily. And then she breaks away. So romantic, even though it doesn’t make a particle of sense.

Anyway, in the diva-off between Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain, Jessica wins going away. She’s fierce, and intelligent, and she has Chris Hemsworth to act across from. Charlize chews the scenery in a most satisfying way, while Emily Blunt’s persona is too sane, frankly, and too bright to really work all that well in a part as hare-brained as Ice Princess/Freya/Elsa/Loony McLoonybins.

The last scene of the movie made me giggle aloud in the theater, and giggle again when I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it. I mean, it’s standard confrontation-against-bad-guy stuff; Chris Hemsworth’s trying to whack Charlize with an axe, and she fights him off by shooting black tar things out of her, which he has to block with his axe. What made me laugh is imagining how they filmed it; in a sound studio, with Charlize Theron waving her arms around menacingly, with big two-armed spell-casting gestures throughout.

And yet, at the end of the battle scene, Eric and Sara, Chris and Jess, our heroes, get to hug and kiss, and that love story, the only thing in the movie worth watching really, gets the screen time. It’s a demented movie. But two good actors made one small part of it work. How hard we work for the smallest pleasures.

Baseball advanced analytics, and movies

If you’re a fan of American team sports, you will undoubtedly have come across something called advanced analytics. I just celebrated a birthday, and my son gave me my annual present, the new Baseball Prospectus. It’s a very large paperback book filled with the names of baseball players, and lots and lots of numbers. It does include such traditional statistical measures as batting average, or runs batted in. But most of the numbers are more esoteric: WAR, FIP, TAV. I am famously bad at math. But I devour this book, for one simple reason. The numbers in it help me understand the game of baseball better.

The point of advanced analytics is to look for market inefficiencies. Let’s suppose that your careful examination of baseball statistics leads you to conclude that some particular baseball skill is more valuable than other teams think it is. You may be able to acquire players with that particular skill at a discount. This gives you a competitive advantage. Like acquiring a catcher who is good at pitch-framing. You can get those guys on the cheap.

My son and I were talking today, and we wondered if this same dynamic might be applied to movies. Obviously movie producers have certain beliefs about what qualities audiences are looking for in movies. Number one, they like movie stars. They clearly believe that audiences are attracted to movies that star actors people have heard of and liked in previous roles. If Tom Cruise approaches a studio with the script for an action movie, it’s almost certain to get funded. But the star in question generally needs to be a male, and youngish. Tom Cruise isn’t actually young–he’s 53 years old–but he looks young, and can plausibly play young action stars. Demi Moore was born the same year Cruise was, but she isn’t a legitimate star anymore, because she’s a woman. (She’s also probably a better actor than he is, but that’s also not relevant).

But is that actually true? For example, Liam Neeson is 64 years old, but has reinvented himself as an action movie star in all those Taken movies. Heck, Colin Firth, hardly an exemplar of male studliness, starred in an action movie, and was great in it. Emily Blunt, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez and Scarlett Johansson have all starred in action movies within the last year. So has Helen Mirren.

Here’s what I think; audiences are attracted to good movies, and turned off by bad ones. Tom Cruise is still an action movie hero, not because audiences still clamor to see him in movies–most audience members think he’s kind of a weirdo–but because he has a good eye for scripts that showcase his skills.

Would you go see an action movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer? I sure would, if the script was good. Would you go see a buddy cop action/comedy starring Michelle Williams and Maggie Gyllenhaal? I would love to see that movie. Would you go see a sci-fi adventure movie starring Michelle Yeoh, with Michelle Rodriguez as second lead? Absolutely! What about a mainstream revenge action film with Amanda Peet? She’s a terrific actress, and that’s the kind of role she’d rock.

And such are the realities of Hollywood that you, Mr. or Ms. Producer, would save a lot of money in salaries. I mean, it totally stinks that Jake Gyllenhaal (a wonderful, charismatic actor) gets more per picture than his frankly more talented sister Maggie gets. But for the right, savvy producer, that particular brand of sexism could also mean money in the bank. It’s a market inefficiency, and one you could exploit.

Yes, there’s tremendous sexism in Hollywood. No question about it. And it reflects a larger sexism in society generally. But in the world of television, there’s one producer who regularly casts women in action/murder/suspense TV series. Her name is Shonda Rhimes and she’s doing pretty darn well.

Drew Barrymore, action star. Make it happen. Get a pitch-framing catcher, Hollywood. Sexism is, in addition to being reprehensible, a market inefficiency. Trade on the margins, Hollywood, and give some great actresses a chance.

Searching for the meaning of life, Donald Trump edition

I feel for anyone trying to write political satire these days. Reality, man. Add me to the list of former Trump skeptics forced to eat crow; I’ll have mine with a side of snark, garnished with whatever the opposite of relish might be. Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. This is really happening.

For me, this simplifies everything. I’m a liberal. I probably wasn’t going to vote for the Republican this year anyway. The Democrats are almost certainly going to run Hillary Clinton, an outstandingly well-credentialed candidate, and someone I’ve liked for years. Is she untrustworthy? According to Politifact, she is, in fact, the most honest candidate running. I am going to support, with time and money, the candidate I’ve favored all long. Easy-peasy.

But Republicans are in disarray. Trump’s going to be the nominee. And so Republican pols have to decide if they can support him, or whether they should find some poor schmuck to run as a third-party conservative alternative. Or, they might decide to blow this year off, and vote for Hillary. Amazing.

The stark choices top Republicans face came into clear focus the day after Cruz’s withdrawal, in the person of Paul Ryan. Right now, Ryan is, as Speaker of the House, the most powerful Republican around. Except that, normally, the presumptive nominee becomes the notional ‘head of the party.’ If the two men were in lock-step ideologically, this wouldn’t be a problem; they’d just work together. Hah.

Vox.com covered the resulting spat nicely. In an interview with Jake Tapper, Ryan said  “I think conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?” That’s fair enough; Ryan does need to know the answer to those questions. The difficulty is that Trump’s been running against the Republican agenda the whole time.

Let’s unpack that a little. That core–a belief in limited government and adherence to the Constitution–seems like something that would be easy enough for Trump to agree to, because it doesn’t mean anything. (Or, at least, it means different things to different conservatives). All Republicans call themselves conservatives, and say they believe in limited government and Constitutional principles. The problem is, conducting your affairs based on empty, meaningless rhetoric is essentially what Trump seems to mean by ‘political correctness.’ It’s the main thing his entire campaign has been about opposing. Trump’s attacks on political correctness are sometimes portrayed on the left as simply him declaring a license to insult people. But it’s more than that. Ask any Trump fan, and they’ll say ‘he tells it like it is.’ That’s what they like about him.

Let’s get specific, show how this works in relation to a single issue; the development of a single aircraft: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Building that jet is part of the Republican legislative agenda. It’s something Paul Ryan supports. Trump opposes it.

The F-35 is a little faster than the F-15 or A-10, which it would supplant, and it has a little bigger gun. Plus, it would keep defense contractors happy. It’s very expensive–building and deploying it will cost over $1.5 trillion dollars. Seems to me that spending huge amounts of money on an aircraft that’s not needed expands the size and reach of government. It’s difficult for me to see how building a very expensive new plane just because it’s a little cooler than the perfectly adequate planes we already deploy is consistent with principles of ‘limited government.’ But, Paul Ryan’s version of conservativism is sufficiently flexible to allow him to support that plane, and to not worry overmuch about how it’s going to be paid for.

But Trump doesn’t care. It’s expensive and we don’t need it. Get rid of it.

The spat continues, and on some issues, Ryan seems right, and Trump wrong. Paul Ryan’s version of conservatism also includes “a message that would appeal to all Americans in every walk of life, every background. . . .” It’s not hard to decode that: he’s asking Trump to tone down the anti-immigrant demagoguery. This isn’t just political calculation. I mean, sure, Republicans know they have to broaden their appeal to minority voters. Trump’s anti-Hispanic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Chinese nastiness is genuinely troubling to us all. Ryan’s right on that point. But I don’t think it’s likely that Trump’s going to back away from any of that. His line about how Mexico is going to pay for ‘that wall,’ (the one he wants to build on the Mexican border) is the biggest hit of his stump speech. From Trump’s perspective, Ryan is asking him, Donald Trump, to give in to political correctness. Ain’t gonna happen.

The differences between Ryan and Trump are more than stylistic, in other words. They’re substantive. Paul Ryan is an ideological conservative. Conservatism is core, even when it doesn’t make sense. As an outsider, I think conservatism’s weird. I understand conservatism as a tendency, but not as a movement. In other words, saying ‘I want to carefully vet any piece of legislation, to make sure it’s fully funded’ makes sense to me. Saying ‘in general, I’d rather not raise taxes, though of course there are times you have to’ makes sense. To say ‘as a matter of constitutional principle, the government shouldn’t do much, should never raise taxes, and above all, shouldn’t do anything that might make the lives of citizens better, because it would expand government and that’s always bad’ seems very weird to me. (I also don’t mean to misrepresent conservatism. Please let me know if I just did.)

Conservatives don’t think Trump is a conservative. They don’t count his paleo-conservative nativism as, you know, actually conservative. They believe that conservatism is a set of principles, the first of which is a small, limited government. Trump isn’t that kind of conservative. His policy proposals tend to be poorly thought-through, and he changes his mind every ten minutes, while ferociously denying he’s doing anything of the kind (has there ever been a candidate for high office this thin-skinned?). But there doesn’t seem to be much ideology behind them.

But if what drives him isn’t ideology, what is it? It’s essentially his life-experience as a businessman. He sees foreign policy as essentially deal-making. He can’t see how destabilizing his proposals are, because in the business world, you can always renegotiate any deal. It’s not that Trump opposes multi-national trade agreements out of principle, the way Bernie Sanders seems to. Nor does he embrace them the way Paul Ryan might; free trade as an extension of conservatism. No, Trump looks at any trade deal in isolation; did we get a good deal here? Does it massively favor the United States? If not, we’ll renegotiate. Don’t worry, Europe. It’ll be great. It’ll be huge.

And so, this week, as part of his spat with Ryan, Trump actually said something remarkable, not that anyone noticed. He changed his mind about supporting a big tax cut. Said ‘I’m not necessarily a big fan of that.’

Tax cuts for the top 1% is as close to Republican orthodoxy as any issue could be. Every Republican candidate in this race favored tax cuts. When Republicans talk about a ‘pro-growth economic program,’ that’s what they mean; tax cuts, and trickle-down economics. Kasich favored a tax cut. So did Jeb!, so did Rubio, so did Cruz. Tax cuts transfer money from the public sector (bad!) to the private sector (good!). Tax cuts automatically make government smaller (yay!). There’s not a single issue that unites conservatives like tax cuts. Trump proposed one too–the biggest tax cut of any of them. (The fact that tax cuts don’t trickle-down, that they’re fiscally ruinous, and fraudulent and terrible public policy, we’re not supposed to notice. Hillary Clinton, by the way, is the one fiscally responsible candidate in this race).

Now, having just won the nomination, Trump is backing off from them. He’s saying “I’m not necessarily a big fan” of tax cuts. And nobody noticed. Really, it blows my mind how little attention mainstream media pays to policy.

If Trump actually runs on this issue? If he actually make opposing tax cuts a centerpiece of his campaign? I think it’s the one thing he might do that gives him a chance against Hillary Clinton. And it destroys the Republican party. Wow, do we live in wacky times.

 

 

 

Keanu: Movie Review

Keanu, the new Key and Peele movie, is, I think, the funniest comedy about racial code switching in the history of film. It also stars an adorable kitten. So you probably now have enough information to decide whether or not to see it. My work here is done.

What’s that? Oh, code-switching. You know, the way a bi-lingual speaker alternates between two language variants over the course of a single conversation. Or between two linguistic modes, or cultural referents. We’re all multi-lingual, and we do this all the time, suggesting class and ethnicity in how we speak. And nobody has built their comedy on this notion more than the smart, savvy comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

On their Comedy Central show, they repeatedly built sketches around the various social roles African-Americans assume. In fact, Key and Peele are educated, middle-class fantasy nerds. But they can, and often do, play urban gangbangers, hilariously.

As they do in Keanu. Peele plays Rell, and Key plays Clarence, best friends, upscale and affluent. When Rell’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he’s initially distraught, but is comforted when a kitten shows up at his door. Before long, he’s photographing the kitty wearing costumes in a variety of movie set recreations. He’s making a calendar, he says. Then, on a weekend when Clarence’s wife and children have to be out of town, the cat, named Keanu, is abducted. Clarence and Rell go on a search. And discover that Keanu has been taken by a street gang led by a guy named Cheddar (Method Man). And so Clarence and Rell code switch; begin talking and acting like gangbangers. And its really very funny.

Cheddar finds their act convincing, and sends them out with a few of his gang members. They’re to show these guys the ropes, in exchange for the kitten. And before you know it, Clarence is introducing these thugs to corporate team-building exercises. (“The key, guys, is communication.”) Then, while Rell is making a big drug sale to Anna Faris (playing herself as a cokehead) with a female gangsta named Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), Clarence introduces the other gang members to his favorite musician; George Michael. (“But what happened to Andrew Ridgeley” “He was never seen again” “They offed him?!?!” “He was never. Seen. Again.” Anyone familiar with the history of Wham! will get that joke.)

Eventually, Cheddar’s gang runs into another gang, this one run by Bacon (Luis Guzman). Both gangs, it turns out, want Keanu, mostly because he’s a very cute little kitty. And violence ensues, with Key and Peele scared witless and Keanu busily dodging bullets. It turns out that there is something inexpressibly funny about long, slow-mo, gangbanger shootout scenes when you add a kitten to the mix.

I kept wondering what I was missing. Key and Peele are exceptionally bright guys. Is this just a comic action movie with a kitten, intended as their breakthrough out of sketch comedy and into mainstream movie-making? Possibly that’s all that’s going on. But I do think there’s more to it than that. The male African-American experience is not, after all, just about drug gangs and violence. In fact, somewhat nerdy middle-class dudes like Clarence and Rell are closer to the norm than the likes of Cheddar and Hi-C. But because of the movies, we know all about urban violence, and gang warfare. Surely this movie is as much satire as it is parody. Surely there’s at least one level of protest built into its structure. Which is why one of their most famous and successful sketches involves not just the preternatural cool of Barack Obama, but the seething rage that (we imagine), may underlie it. (Careful; there’s some language)