Category: Film

NYT sentences to ponder

Kaia Gerber’s Dad Was a Model, Too


Rande Gerber is married to Cindy Crawford, is a father to the teenage supermodels Kaia and Presley Gerber, and is a tequila baron (with his pal George Clooney).

That is the front-page header for this NYT piece, you will note it is not a critique of the wealthy or famous.  Recommended, interesting throughout, and don’t forget to check out the photos…

Oh, and here is the closer:

The Gerbers can sound a little corny, and that’s because they are. Nothing confounds a celebrity profile like a happy family. They are four golden figures that, even viewed up close, seem to be constantly dissolving into a Malibu sunset.

“When I meet people from my past, they’re not really shocked where my life has taken me,” Mr. Gerber said, clinking his Casamigos and ice, flanked by his wife and equally symmetrical daughter.

“Most people just figured I would have been successful,” he said, and shrugged.

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

I think Ross, along with Steven Pinker, received the hardest (though never hostile) questions from me, but of course that is a measure of respect.  Plus serious questions about God are difficult by their nature.  Here is how the summarizers described the ground covered:

…Douthat’s views on religion and theology, but then moves on to more earth-bound concerns, such as his stance on cats, The Wire vs The Sopranos, why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics, eating tofu before it was cool, journalism as a trade, why he’s open to weird ideas, the importance of Sam’s Club Republicans, the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.

Not to mention Reformicons, CRISPR, Thiel/Girard, Godwin’s Law, euthanasia, what Ross learned his mother, and the dangers of too much smart phone use.  Ross responded in fine form, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

DOUTHAT: I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.

And I think this is borne out in many ways in everyday experience. This both-and experience of human existence. The idea that you can’t split up grace and works in any kind of meaningful way. It’s connected to larger facts about the nature of human existence. The tension between determinism and free will that persists in any philosophical system. You can get rid of God and stop having these Jansenist Jesuit arguments about predestination and so on, but you’re still stuck with the free will–determinism debate. That debate doesn’t go away.

So, yeah, there’s a point at the intersection of different ideas that is as close to the truth as our limited minds can get and in Christian thought, we call that point orthodoxy. Now, how that is connected to my political views is a really good question.


COWEN: We all know the Marcionite heresy: the view, from early Christianity, that the Old Testament should be abandoned. At times, even Paul seems to subscribe to what later was called the Marcionite heresy. Why is it a heresy? Why is it wrong?

DOUTHAT: It’s wrong because it takes the form . . . It’s wrong for any number of reasons, but in the context of the conversation we’re having, it’s wrong because it tries to basically take one of the things that Christianity is trying to hold in synthesis and run with it to the exclusion of everything else, and essentially to solve problems by cutting things away.

The Marcionite thesis is, basically, if you read the New Testament, Jesus offers you a portrait of God that seems different from the portrait of God offered in Deuteronomy; therefore, these things are in contradiction. Therefore, if you believe that Jesus’s portrait of God is correct, then the Deuteronomic portrait of God must be false; therefore, the God of the Old Testament must be a wicked demiurge, etc., etc. And the next thing you know, you’re ascribing to, again, a kind of . . . What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?

And so the orthodox Christian says, “No, any seeming tension between the Old Testament and the New, any seeming contradiction, is actually suggesting that we need to look for a kind of synthesis between them, and for a sense in which there is not contradiction, but fulfillment in some way, which —

COWEN: Bringing us back to Hegelian Douthat.

DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.


I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.


COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

On another topic:

I’ve been always disappointed that there hasn’t been a kind of sustained Watership Down revival because it’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.

It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.

You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.

So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —

COWEN: So, narrative again.

DOUTHAT: Narrative again.

Strongly recommended, and I do thank Ross for putting up with me.  Do read or listen to the whole thing.

And I very much enjoyed reading Ross’s forthcoming book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I found totally engrossing.

What Chinese viewers think of *The Last Jedi*

For China’s small but enthusiastic subculture of Star Wars fans, the latest film was a visual feast hampered by a protracted plot and uninspired characters. On popular review website Douban, the new film is rated a fairly weak 7.3, based on over 43,000 reviews. The most upvoted review complains that “the whole film really insults the IQ of its audience,” and demands to know how the universe could possibly be ruled by such an incompetent Galactic Empire. “In Star Wars, it seems only Darth Vader had a brain — it’s such a shame he’s already dead,” the reviewer concludes.


Other factors, according to Chen, include Chinese audiences’ preference for physically attractive protagonists and stories rooted in reality. He points out that, for example, superhero films from Marvel — a Disney cash cow that has enjoyed great success in China — feature recognizable settings, such as New York and even China, and are filled with larger-than-life leads who meet the public’s aesthetic standards. The Star Wars characters, meanwhile, look ordinary by comparison.

“These actors aren’t very beautiful, which may deter a lot of Chinese from seeing the recent films,” said Chen. “We fans often joke that if Finn were played by Will Smith, Chinese people might be more inclined to watch it — because he’s very handsome.”

Here is more from Sixth Tone.

It seems like there won’t be another Mickey Mouse copyright extension act

…advocates of a new copyright term extension bill wouldn’t be able to steamroll opponents the way they did 20 years ago. Any term extension proposal would face a well-organized and well-funded opposition with significant grassroots support.

“After the SOPA fight, Hollywood likely knows that the public would fight back,” wrote Daniel Nazer, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email to Ars. “I suspect that Big Content knows it would lose the battle and is smart enough not to fight.”

“I haven’t seen any evidence that Big Content companies plan to push for another term extension,” Nazer added. “This is an election year, so if they wanted to get a big ticket like that through Congress, you would expect to see them laying the groundwork with lobbying and op-eds.”

Of course, copyright interests might try to slip a copyright term extension into a must-pass bill in hopes opponents wouldn’t notice until it was too late. But Rose doesn’t think that would work.

Here is the full piece, via someone in my Twitter feed sorry I forget.

Why Spielberg’s *The Post* bugged me (full of spoilers, but if you already know the history…)

The movie centers around Daniel Ellsberg’s revelation of the Pentagon Papers and their publication in The New York Times and most of all The Washington Post, the center of the dramatic tension.  The courts rule for the newspapers (and ultimately Ellsberg) and Spielbergian triumphalism reigns.  Yet so many of those liberties have reverted to the state — had he stuck around, would Edward Snowden have received a public trial before a court of law?  You may believe Snowden is a different case (read Gladwell), but shouldn’t a public court be deciding that?  The feel-good tone of The Post also would not match a movie about a minor American military victory in the Vietnam of 1966, given what followed.  Does historical context matter so little?  Post-Obama, can newspapers protect their anonymous sources in matters of national security?

I usually don’t mind when movies play fast and loose with the truth, as is done in almost every biopic or history.  (They didn’t actually blow up that Death Star, they merely damaged it.)  But this case is different.  The whole theme of this film is about standing up for the truth even when commercial considerations dictate otherwise.  It then feels dishonest to give Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) a wildly overblown role, as this portrait does.  But it does make for a better story and presumably a higher-grossing movie.

For an artwork that pretends to defend freedom of the press, the underlying message is remarkably Trumpian in an almost Straussian manner.  The press collude, dine and party with leaders, and refuse to reveal their crimes and scandals, all to receive “access” and to be flattered.  Every now and then their need for reputation, and the desire for a broader national market, spurs them to “turn on” a president gone astray.  “The people” don’t have much of a say and fake news is everywhere.

The sadder commercial reality is that the first quarter to third of the movie is sophisticated and then it falls into good guys vs. bad guys.  It’s not smart enough to be Strauss.

It feels as if every actor or actress in the movie is a “grizzled veteran” of some kind or another.

The scenes of newspaper and print technology will go down as some of the finest cinema of our time.

Henry George, Swift, and Piketty go to the movies (premises discussed, but no spoilers)

Yes, I’m talking about Downsizing, starring Matt Damon.  If Henry George is right about exorbitant rents and land scarcity, of course the solution is to shrink the people, thereby creating in real terms more land (plus solving a lot of environmental problems).  In this movie, shrinking people to a few centimeters tall raises the value of a dollar by about 1000x — how’s that for a Georgist result?  The small people live in splendid houses, massive relative to their diminutive size, and can eat all the gourmet food they want because they need only a snippet of foie gras or for that matter a very small piece of diamond.  Yet they still must interact (badly) with the larger world, thus the Swift connection.  How about Piketty?  Well, the small people have trouble mastering nature or producing for the larger outside world, so they are dependent on their preexisting wealth.  The wealth to income ratio is remarkably high, and woe unto anyone who has to rely on labor income in the “small world.”

Then the movie starts!  It’s an uneven film in a number of ways, still for economics “food for thought,” or for that matter social critique, I haven’t seen anything nearly as good for a while.

My Conversation with Andy Weir

Andy was great, here is the text and audio, here is the introductory summary:

Before writing a single word of his new book Artemis, Andy Weir worked out the economics of a lunar colony. Without the economics, how could the story hew to the hard sci-fi style Weir cornered the market on with The Martian? And, more importantly, how else can Tyler find out much a Cantonese meal would run him on the moon?

In addition to these important questions of lunar economics, Andy and Tyler talk about the technophobic trend in science fiction, private space efforts, seasteading, cryptocurrencies, the value of a human life, the outdated Outer Space Treaty, stories based on rebellion vs. cooperation, Heinlein, Asimov, Weir’s favorite episode of Star Trek, and the formula for finding someone else when stranded on a lonely planet.

My favorite part was this, which Andy answered with no hesitation:

COWEN: What if there were two immortal people, let’s say it’s the two of us, placed on opposite sides of the Earth, an Earth-like planet, and we can wander freely with no constraints but just foot speed. How long does it take us to find each other?

WEIR: Can we collude in advance in any way?

COWEN: No, we cannot.


COWEN: But we know we’re trying to find each other.

WEIR: We know we’re trying to find each other. Well, we should both — but can we have a — are we both rational actors and we —

COWEN: We’re as rational as you and I are; take that as you wish.

WEIR: So, no?



WEIR: I think the best thing to do would be for both of us to pick an arbitrary great circle to walk, around the planet, and leave markings along the way denoting what direction you’re walking. So I would arbitrarily pick a direction to go and I would just go that direction with the intention of circumnavigating the entire globe, and I would walk at maybe half what is a comfortable speed for me. And you would do the same thing. Now, somewhere, our two — in fact, in two points — our great circles will intersect.

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: And when one of us reaches the other one’s, then they start following the markers at full speed, and then you get the guy. Right?

COWEN: And what’s your best guess as to how long that would take?

WEIR: Well, if you pick two points, I’m guessing one of us would have to walk probably about a quarter of the way around the planet before we found the other one’s great circle. And then you’d have to walk again. So in terms of circumnavigation times, it would take you 2x to get all the way around the planet, because my initial plan was you’d walk half-speed. So I’m guessing it would be a quarter of that, so one-half x to get to your great circle, and then a quarter x to find you along your great circle, on average, I’m guessing. So one-half plus a quarter, so .75x. So three-quarters of the time that it would take to circumnavigate the planet.

COWEN: OK, great answer.

WEIR: That’s my guess.

Do read/listen to the whole thing

Star Wars and net neutrality

That’s why the latest Star Wars trilogy is so dark: It’s looking more and more like real life, where the credits never roll and problems can always recur…The Last Jedi premiered a few hours after we learned that the FCC had reversed its stance on net neutrality; we all sang “Yub Nub” back in 2015 when that vote went one way, but we know now that the war wasn’t won.

Here is the Ben Lindbergh piece on the pessimistic themes in Star Wars.  Ted Cruz also serves up some unusual remarks.

My Conversation with Douglas Irwin, audio and transcript

Doug’s new book Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy is the greatest book on trade policy ever written, bar none. and also a splendid work of American history more generally.  So I thought he and I should sit down to chat, now I have both the transcript and audio.

We covered how much of 19th century American growth was due to tariffs, trade policy toward China, the cultural argument against free trade, whether there is a national security argument for agricultural protectionism, TPP, how new trade agreements should be structured, the trade bureaucracy in D.C., whether free trade still brings peace, Smoot-Hawley, the American Revolution (we are spoiled brats), Dunkirk, why New Hampshire is so wealthy, Brexit, Alexander Hamilton, NAFTA, the global trade slowdown, premature deindustrialization, and the history of the Chicago School of Economics, among other topics.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here goes. The claim that 19th century American growth was driven by high tariffs. What’s your take?

IRWIN: Not really true. If you look at why the US economy performed very well, particularly relative to Britain or Germany or other countries, Steve Broadberry’s shown that a lot of the overtaking of Britain in terms of per capita income was in terms of the service sector.

The service sector was expanding rapidly. It had very high productivity growth rates. We usually don’t think as that being affected by the tariff per se. That’s one reason.

We had also very high productivity growth rates in agriculture. I’ve done some counterfactual simulations. If you remove the tariff, how much resources would we take out of manufacturing and put into services or agriculture is actually pretty small. It just doesn’t account for the success we had during this period.

COWEN: Is there any country where you would say, “Their late 19th century economic growth was driven by tariffs?” Argentina, Canada, Germany, anything, anywhere?

IRWIN: No. If you look at all those, once again, in late 19th century, they were major exporters, largely of commodities, but they did very well that way. You know that Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world in the late 19th century. It really wasn’t until they adopted more import substitution policies after World War I that they began to fall behind.

Definitely recommended, and here is Doug’s Wikipedia page.

The best films of 2017

I thought the year started very slowly, but later picked up, here were my favorites.  There are reviews behind the linked items, or occasionally a link to outside information.  With the foreign films, as always, I classify these according to the year I saw them, not the year of their initial overseas release.  Here goes:

Toni Erdmann (rollicking German satire about parents and children)

After the Storm (Japanese complacent class, plus pending doom)

Magnus (the chess prodigy)

Tower (animated with graphics, about the Texas tower shooting in Austin, history of violence and how people respond to it)

Wonder Woman

Paths of the Soul

Dunkirk (uses angles better than any movie ever)

Get Out (racial discrimination, plus a satire on both horror and Sidney Poitier)

Columbus (architecture in the Indiana town, when to leave home)

Two Trains Runnin’ (history of rediscovering the blues)

The Florida Project (the Brazilians and Cubans find American lower income groups tough to deal with)

Faces, Places (Agnes Varda, travel, memories, art, and the transience of it all)

Thor: Ragnarok

The Square (European intellectual mainstream is bankrupt)

For visuals and the staging of scenes, the winner was Dunkirk.  For social science, Get Out and The Square and Paths to the Soul (pilgrimage) were the richest.  If I had to pick a single winner, it would be the Chinese-Tibetan Paths to the Soul, replete with tales of signaling, social cooperation, journeying, and life and death, especially when seen on the large screen.

The top classic movies and books about American politics and DC.

The estimable Chug asks me:

Curious what you consider the top classic movies and books about American politics and DC.

Today let’s do movies, the following come to mind:

1. All the President’s Men.

2. No Way Out: Gene Hackman at his peak.  The Conversation also might count as a DC movie.

3. The Exorcist, set in Georgetown.  Maybe The Omen too?

4. The Manchurian Candidate.

5. Wedding Crashers.

6. The Day the Earth Stood Still.

7. Born Yesterday.

8. Contact.

I don’t really like Independence Day, but it deserves some sort of mention.  The Oliver Stone Nixon movie I’ve yet to see.  I like Being There, and it is set in DC, but it doesn’t feel like a “Washington movie” to me.  Legally Blonde, Logan’s Run, and Minority Report are all worth ponders, and have their cinematic virtues, but I am not sure they are true to the spirit of the question.

The real question, in my mind, is which of these captures the unique way in which Washington is the world’s epicenter for extreme productivity (don’t laugh) in the areas of economics, public policy, law/lobbying.  What is special but also sometimes despicable about DC area culture?  Might this be a mix of Contact and No Way Out?  I’ve yet to see anyone fully explain the DC micro-culture, as extreme and hyper-specialized as that of say Hollywood or Silicon Valley.

By the way, all the movies you thought I forgot to mention I didn’t, rather I don’t like them.

*The Square*

I didn’t like The Square at first, because I initially believed the filmmakers were taking the Swedes entirely seriously, and that it was pretentious windbaggery.  Instead, the main theme is that the Swedes are incapable of dealing with others who do not share their premises.  The film touches upon issues of immigration, gypsies, Muslims, terrorists, Putin, sexual liberation, contemporary art, YouTube, crucifixions over social media, how trust decays, and more.  It’s not “alt right” or objectionably racist (the Swedes and indeed the Westerners more generally are the real target), but most of all it is critical of mainstream liberalism and its inability to see outwards.  It won the Grand Prix at Cannes, but American critics have been quite indifferent, I would say oblivious.  It is hard to think of a current movie with more brilliant scenes, or that is more appropriate for 2017.  The deployment of Elisabeth Moss from The Handmaid’s Tale is mind-blowing.