Category: Film

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

Recommended.

Against digitalized subscription services for the movies

Quality public taste is a public good, and right now we are taxing it:

Another response to my whining might be to tell me that I live in a world of cinematic plenty, especially considering my various subscriptions and DVD collection. That is also entirely fair, but do keep in mind the original worry: that the future flow of movies is being broken up and that Hollywood is not regenerating the notion of a cinema with cultural centrality and import. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” and “Annie Hall” had real meaning to generations of Americans. Movies might now be in danger of becoming like board games: Many Americans love and play Scrabble, chess and Clue, but they are not a strong part of our common culture…

Now consider the landscape for movies: Streaming services include Disney+, Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and Fubo TV. (I’m not even counting services such as the Criterion Channel, which are not large in terms of revenue but crucial to anyone, like me, who loves foreign films.) I’m not yearning for monopoly, but I do miss the good old days of paying $13.50 to walk into any theater and see the latest release. And I could watch without being constantly nagged to join their popcorn subscription service.

That is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column. If instead everyone watches Rear Window or 2001 on a large screen, over time they help make each other’s tastes better, and to the benefit of broader society.

And no, I am not a huge fan of musical streaming either.  It makes the lower quality taste too easy to cultivate and preserve.

*Tenet* — a review (no real spoilers)

Although liquid securities markets play no role in the plot, this is nonetheless a movie where the value of information is repeatedly very high.

You can think of the movie as constructing a world so that a high value for information is ruling all of the time.  And how strange such a world would have to look.

Most plots are about effort, character, moral fortitude, luck, or preexisting conditions (“are they really meant for each other?”).  It is about time we had a film about information, even though the final world that is built is stranger than you might have expected.

“We must go now.”

But in fact, in the real world, you hardly ever need to “go now.”  You can go just a little bit later, and it won’t matter much.

But this is not the speed premium, rather the game-theoretic concept is that of last mover advantage, the opposite of Schelling’s first mover advantage.  Few of us are intuitively ready to take that concept literally and to order our understanding of a movie around it.

If you have studied Steven Bram’s book Biblical Games (and his other writings), this film will flow naturally for you — otherwise not!

Unlike most slacker films, this movie takes a decided stance on Newcomb’s Paradox, though to reveal that would be a total spoiler.

The movie also has genuine innovations in its chase and fight scenes, a rarity and indeed near-impossibility these days.

The soundtrack is excellent, and might at least some of the music be palindromic?

As for inspirations, you might consider Raiders of the Lost Ark, most other Nolan movies, the Book of Exodus, the Sator Square, James Bond, Frank Tipler and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and most of all Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr.

To be clear, I don’t love most of Nolan’s films, and Inception bored me, so I wasn’t expecting much from Tenet.  I walked away happy.

Should I now be rooting for a sequel? Or would that be a prequel?

Kudos to Alex for renting out the theater, he is the real Protagonist is this one.

From the comments, comedy vs. drama

I would say that many, if not most, comedies are “conservative” in their underlying messages or themes. Look at romantic comedies: the whole point is for characters to establish a committed relationship and either explicitly or presumably get married. The comedy is in watching characters who are notoriously bad at following tradition and institution find themselves desperate to follow tradition and institution. That’s a very conservative theme: happiness comes from family and a serious, formal commitment to family.

An American Pickle isn’t a romantic comedy, but it follows the same structure and offers the same lesson. That makes it a fairly typical comedy.

Dramas, by comparison, tend to be more “liberal” and “radical,” because they often show a character breaking from tradition or from institutional boundaries to find happiness or to resolve a serious problem. The messages of dramas are often the polar opposite of those of comedies.

That is a remark by WB on An American Pickle.  One striking feature of the creativity of Shakespeare, of course, is that he does not follow this usual pattern.

*An American Pickle*

I am not giving away anything by telling you the basic premise of this film is that a Yiddish-speaking NYC Ellis Island arrival is time-traveled 100 years into the future to the current day, where he meets up with his great-grandson, and the two start hanging out together.

At first it seems silly and slight, but over a short 90 minutes it is revealed to be one of the best movies about entrepreneurship ever made, a biting critique of PC and Millennials, a look at current American “complacency”/decadence, and a paean to the value of family and religion and Judaism in particular, all within the framework of a sufficiently entertaining comedy.  It is one of the most successful “right-wing movies” I have seen.

Not surprisingly, the reviews about this one are clueless, but large numbers of MR readers will pick up on the numerous subtle points and jabs.

Here is Wikipedia on the movie.  Streaming on HBO/HBO Max, but of course see it on a big screen if you can.

The film culture that is royal Britain

There have been few insights into what the Queen’s favourite film is but one might assume that it would be a black and white classic from her youth or perhaps Black Beauty.

According to Brian Blessed, however, one of her favourite films is Flash Gordon, the 1980 high camp space opera in which the actor stars as Prince Vultan.

Blessed said that the Queen told him that she sits down to watch the science fiction film every year at Christmas with her grandchildren. The actor, 83, quoted the Queen as saying: “You know, we watch Flash Gordon all the time.” Blessed added that the Queen had then requested him to perform his catchphrase from the film.

“And if you don’t mind,” Blessed recalled the Queen saying, “I’ve got the grandchildren here, would you mind saying, ‘Gordon’s alive?’”

Perhaps, then, if Blessed’s claim is true, it is little surprise that her other viewing choices are more sedate. Royal sources have previously said that the Queen likes to watch the quiz show Pointless and The Bill.

You may recall that the soundtrack to the film was written by Queen, though not by “the Queen.”  Or perhaps she is simply a fan of Max von Sydow.

Here is the full (Times of London, gated) article.

Rewatching *The French Connection*

I had not seen this 1971 movie since I was thirteen or so, and I was startled by how well I remembered the famous “subway scene.”  This time around, it struck me much more as a portrait of the decline of New York City than as a plot-driven vehicle per se.  “Popeye” (Gene Hackman) has no back story or love interest whatsoever, so I viewed this as a tale of how the dysfunctionality of New York simply was absorbing everything in its wake.  It is perhaps the best movie to view to understand just how much NYC has improved, and if you click on the top link you can see they were not just filming in dumpster bin sites but rather in the heart of Manhattan.

It is striking how tacky, and indeed poor, the “rich people” appear to be when the movie is trying to make a point about income inequality.  The critique of “the War on Drugs,” as it later became known, is ahead of its time.  The shots of Marseille are lovely.

It is hard to believe they almost cast Jackie Gleason in the lead.

Recommended.

Rewatching *Serpico*

When I was 12 it was one of my favorite books (by Peter Maas), and shortly thereafter I saw and liked the movie as well.  On this viewing I was struck by the excellent understanding of the culture of corruption, the notion that the mayor is beholden to the police who can threaten to shirk, the performance of Al Pacino, and the wonderful scenes of early 1970s New York City (yes that is Soho you are seeing).

The last quarter of the film should have been shortened.  And for all of its attempts to be a politically correct film, the degree of casual racism and sexism still is astonishing to the modern eye, specifically how either black criminals or attractive women are shown on screen.

Nonetheless recommended, and in particular as historical backdrop for understanding 2020.  Here is a John Arnold thread on the primary of culture in police departments.  And here is the police response to the recent protests.

Here is the Wikipedia page of the actual Frank Serpico, still speaking out against police abuses at age 84.

What I’ve been watching

Graduation, a Romanian movie and perhaps the most notable film about corruption I have seen, ever.  From the director of Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, also known as “the Romanian abortion movie.”  Both strongly recommended.

Moana.  I had to stop watching this one.  I am not amongst those who regard Disney as a tool of Satan, but the transparent emotional manipulations are so strong in each and every scene that they distracted me from the ongoing technical marvels.  It just wasn’t worth it, and I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee.  I thought this was a grave disappointment, noisy and cluttered rather than insightful, and grossly overrated.  To put my evaluation in context, I consider The Autobiography of Malcolm X to be one of the greatest American books of all time.

Bullitt, with Steve MacQueen, San Francisco crime drama circa 1968, interesting throughout.  Drama from start to finish, nothing hurried, wonderful soundtrack, always feels remarkably cinematic and reflects so many of the movie-making virtues of that era.  No one seems that surprised when a guy ends up on a plane with a gun, by the way.

Dust in the Wind, directed by Taiwanese marvel Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  One of his least scrutable movies, nonetheless memorable, and yes they are boyfriend and girlfriend.  Do keep track of which passages are said in which languages, and what is the vision of both Taiwan’s past and future.  Most of you won’t like this one, but nonetheless a landmark in Asian cinema.

Ozu, The End of Summer.  Could this be the most underrated movie of classic Japanese cinema?  It is hard for me to say more without bumping into spoilers, my only complaint is that the soundtrack is garish and unsuitable.

Rewatching *Dirty Harry* (no real spoilers)

Released in 1971, as usual with San Francisco movies one can see the reach of NIMBY — the city doesn’t look much larger or busier today.  The subtext of the film is that law and order is collapsing, yet San Francisco was far cleaner back then and street harassment never is presented as a risk.  Even the red light district of 1971 seemed better kept than many of the nicer parts circa 2020.

You can see how much the debate has shifted from “how the police treat the guilty” to “how the police treat the innocent.”

It is startling to see actual San Francisco children in the movie — they did not seem to be hired extras.

Yana was shocked that Clint Eastwood did not direct the movie, I was amazed when he started directing.

Overall it held up remarkably well I thought.  Virtually every scene is good, and its ability to offend both sides (and indeed other sides too) remains evident.

Movies to watch under lockdown

I/we have been watching the following:

The Wedding Plan, Israeli movie about a religious woman who precommits to her future wedding, yet without having a particular groom in mind.  Full of subtlety, motivated by behavioral economics and game theory, poignant, recommended.  Israeli cinema and TV remain an underexploited profit opportunity.

Teorema, directed by Pasolini, this one makes no sense but is utterly captivating.  I say it is the devil rather than Christ, but you could argue it either way.  Don’t expect any scene to cohere, but this one is from the golden age of cinema and it shows.

The Lady from Shanghai.  Could this be my favorite Welles movie, as he had not yet started to take himself too seriously?  It spans sailing life, New York, Acapulco and Mexico’s Pacific coast, noir, and San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The look at 1947 SF is enough to scare some YIMBY into the most desperate protectionist.  This was a rewatch for me, and it seemed even better the second time around.

Rhapsody in August, late Kurosawa from 1991.  Not for neophytes but the frankest cinematic treatment of Nagasaki you are likely to find.  The best 2/3 of this film are very moving and indeed unforgettable.  It is sufficiently subtle that most of the reviews are suitably bad.

Beforeigners, a Norwegian television show with a unique twist on the usual immigration story.  Due to a time warp, migrants from earlier periods of history, such as medieval times and also the Stone Age, climb into current-day Oslo.  You are not allowed to call them “Vikings,” rather they are “people of Norse descent.”  And they cannot assimilate to a very foreign culture, though at least one of them ends up working in the Oslo police department.  Clever and original, I hope they make more than just the first six episodes.

My Conversation with Glen Weyl

I found it interesting throughout, the first half was on Covid-19 testing, and the second half on everything else.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Tyler invited Glen to discuss the plan, including how it’d overcome obstacles to scaling up testing and tracing, what other countries got right and wrong in their responses, the unusual reason why he’s bothered by price gouging on PPE supplies, where his plan differs with Paul Romer’s, and more. They also discuss academia’s responsibility to inform public discourse, how he’d apply his ideas on mechanism design to reform tenure and admissions, his unique intellectual journey from socialism to libertarianism and beyond, the common element that attracts him to both the movie Memento and Don McLean’s “American Pie,” what talent he looks for in young economists, the struggle to straddle the divide between academia and politics, the benefits and drawbacks of rollerblading to class, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

And:

And:

For me the most instructive part was this:

COWEN: What do you view yourself as rebelling against? At the foundational level.

But you will have to read or listen to hear Glen’s very good answer.

Definitely recommended.

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

We do another CWT, here is the audio and transcript (link corrected), a very good installment in the series.  Here is part of the summary:

Ross joined Tyler to discuss why he sees Kanye as a force for anti-decadence, the innovative antiquarianism of the late Sir Roger Scruton, the mediocrity of modern architecture, why it’s no coincidence that Michel Houellebecq comes from France, his predictions for the future trajectory of American decadence — and what could throw us off of it, the question of men’s role in modernity, why he feels Christianity must embrace a kind of futurist optimism, what he sees as the influence of the “Thielian ethos” on conservatism, the plausibility of ghosts and alien UFOs, and more.

A welcome relief from Covid-19 talk, though we did cover Lyme disease.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Does the Vatican have too few employees? There’s a Slate article — it claimed in 2012, the Roman Curia has fewer than 3,000 employees. Walmart headquarters at the time had 12,000. If the Church is a quite significant global operation, can it be argued, in fact, that it’s not bureaucratic enough? They don’t actually have state capacity in the sense that state capacity libertarianism might approve of.

DOUTHAT: Right. State capacity libertarianism would disapprove of the Vatican model. And it reflects the reality that media coverage of the Catholic Church doesn’t always reflect, which is that in Catholic ecclesiology and the theory of the institution, bishops are really supposed to be pretty autonomous in governance. And the purpose of Rome is the promotion of missionary work and the protection of doctrine, and it’s not supposed to be micromanaging the governance of the world Church.

Now, I think what we’ve seen over the last 30 years — and it’s been thrown into sharp relief by the sex abuse crisis — is that the modern world may not allow that model to exist; that if you have this global institution that has a celebrity figure at the center of it, who is the focus of endless media attention, you can’t, in effect, get away with saying, “Well, the pope is the pope, but sex abuse is an American problem.”

And to that extent, there is a case that the Church needs more employees and a more efficient and centralized bureaucracy. But then that also coexists with the problem that the model of Catholicism is still a model that was modern in the 16th century. It’s still much more of a court model than a bureaucratic model, and pope after pope has theoretically tried to change this and has not succeeded.

Part of the reality is, as you well know, as a world traveler, the Italians are very good at running courts that exclude outsiders and prevent them from changing the way things are done. Time and again, some Anglo-Saxon or German blunderer gets put in charge of some Vatican dicastery and discovers that, in fact, the reforms he intends are just not quite possible. And you know, in certain ways, that’s a side of decadence that you can bemoan, but in certain ways, you have to respect, too.

Definitely recommended, a very fun CWT with lots of content.  And again, here is Ross’s (recommended) book The Decadent Society: How We Became a Victim of Our Own Success.

Robert Browning and Ingmar Bergman in a Bloomberg column

With all those fools going to bars and concerts, or running marathons, it is evident we still need to solve the problem of entertainment, as I argue in my new Bloomberg column.

It is instructive to look back to the days of World War II. The U.S. government played a critical role in encouraging Hollywood to make cheery movies, and it helped by not trying to force every actor into the armed services. Major league baseball, the national pastime of the era, continued to hold a regular season and a World Series, again to distract people from wartime worries. Many top players, such as Ted Williams, were away fighting, but there were adequate replacements. The government knew that wartime drama could not be the only drama on tap.

With Covid-19, the goal is to keep people at home, at least if they are not essential workers. But if staying at home is too boring, cabin fever will take over and people will run out to social gatherings when they ought to be staying put. So solving the entertainment problem is one very real piece of the puzzle for minimizing the effects of the coronavirus and keeping Americans not just in good spirits but healthy.

The very worst scenario is that the coronavirus itself — how it is playing out, how officials and celebrities and neighbors are reacting — becomes our main entertainment. It could become an ongoing horror show that drives us crazy and makes people even more cynical about politics.

To avoid such a mix of frustration and terror, I have a modest proposal: We should restructure a few of our traditional entertainments to be safe from the coronavirus.

As suggested on Twitter, how about inducing a few of the cable providers to offer free streaming for a few months?  The Met has announced a big increase in opera streaming.  And:

Or how about proceeding with some version of the NBA Finals? Take a subset of the best qualifying teams, test every player for coronavirus, isolate them in a remote area with a college gymnasium, and have them proceed with a shortened version of the real thing in front of only a TV crew. With so many other public events closed down, television viewership would probably reach an all-time high, and the sense of drama would be incredible. It would be one NBA Finals we would never forget, and the quality of play would respond to the very high psychological stakes.

Ben Golliver serves up a concrete NBA proposal.  You’ll have to click through to get to the Browning and Bergman parts, the latter being Easter egg.  At least the Candidate’s Tournament still seems to be on in chess, you can all watch that for the next few weeks, starts Tuesday I believe, try www.chessbomb.com.

Lecturing alone won’t work: we really do need to make it more fun for people to stay at home!

*The Seventh Seal*, directed by Ingmar Bergman

We watched this movie the night before, and it struck me as very different this time around, perhaps because it is set during the time of the Crusades with the plague as a major theme. I no longer think the death character is real, and I now view the film as about how much we flirt with the idea of death, and apparitions of death, in order to make life tolerable and to feel in control. Don’t take the opening scene “as is,” but rather contrast it with all the other ways humans use the death theme for their own theatrical purposes (theatrical, both literally and figuratively) over the next 30-40 minutes of the movie, and then later throughout. Perhaps the key line is “All the damn ranting about death. Is that sustenance for modern people?”

Recommended, especially the new Blu-Ray edition of Bergman’s complete works.