Category: The Arts
From my email:
Hi, Mr. Cowen. I recently read The Complacent Class recently and enjoyed it. I’m writing because there’s an another example of American complacency that’s only come to light in recent weeks…
Specifically: the Billboard music charts..
Shape of You by Ed Sheeran last week broke the record for most weeks in top 10, with 33 weeks. The song it beat, Closer by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, set the previous record less than a year ago. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/7948959/ed-sheeran-shape-of-you-record-most-weeks-top-ten
(And yet another song in last week’s top 10, That’s What I Like by Bruno Mars, currently holds the 8th-longest record on that metric — and potentially still rising.)
Meanwhile, Despacito by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber tied the all-time record with its 16th week at #1: http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/record-labels/7942315/luis-fonsi-daddy-yankee-justin-biebers-despacito-ties-for
Meanwhile, the biggest country song in the nation right now, Body Like a Back Road by Sam Hunt, is currently in its record-extending 30th week at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart: http://www.billboard.com/files/pdfs/country_update_0905.pdf
This did not happen in decades past. Look at the Billboard charts from the ’80s — it was a new #1 song almost every week! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Billboard_Hot_100_number-one_singles_of_the_1980s
Just like how you describe in your book how people are moving less and want to stay in the same town where they were before, or how they’re switching jobs less and want to stay in the same job where they were before, people apparently just want to listen to the same songs they’ve been listening to already.
That is from Jesse Rifkin, who is a journalist in Washington, D.C. who writes about Congress for GovTrack Insider and about the film industry for Boxoffice Magazine. Jesse sends along more:
And if you want links for statistical evidence, here are two — one about which movies have spent the most weekends in the box office top 10, the other about which songs have spent the most weeks in the Billboard top 10:
How is making clothing for animals different than for humans?
“There is a whole different physiology when you’re designing for a pet. The animal has to be able to go to the bathroom without removing the clothing. The design must be comfortable, because you don’t want the dog chewing at it or taking it off on the runway.”
What’s the price range of your designs?
“Anywhere from $300 to $15,000. The most expensive item I did was a pageant dress for a Maltese for the New York Pet Fashion Show. It had a crown, a faux fur wrap covered in Swarovski crystals, and the gown was convertible — the skirt part came apart and the dog was still wearing the harness.”
How do you choose the dog models?
“I have a who’s who of the famous dogs of Instagram (including Norbert and Henry from Bideawee, a New York pet welfare organization). I use my clients’ dogs, and I always do a rags-to-riches story and feature a rescue animal that can be adopted.”
What’s it like being a dog clothing designer in New York?
“There was time when people would look at it weird, in the beginning when I was doing it. Now you can’t go anywhere where the dog is not wearing something. I mean, my dogs even wear shades.”
That is the excellent title they gave to my latest Bloomberg column. The piece starts by offering a very simple theory of what statues are for, and then I shift to the perspective of a foreigner. Here is one bit:
Or consider the debates in Macedonia. The city of Skopje went on a major statue-building binge several years ago, both as fiscal policy and to cement national identity. One of the resulting disputes is whether those statues should emphasize the country’s ancient Greek connections (e.g., Alexander the Great) or the Slavic heritage (e.g., Saints Cyril and Methodius). It’s a strange debate to an outsider, yet to many Macedonians and some of their Greek neighbors (who wish to claim Alexander as their own), it is one of the most fraught issues of the day.
Again, you won’t get too far on this one by debating the life and times of Alexander, whether he led aggressive or defensive wars, or by asking how many slaves he owned. It’s better to focus on which political faction you wish to see assume more authority in Macedonia, and then work backward to figure out your preferred statues.
Similarly, if Macedonians were asked to evaluate the relative moralities of historic American leaders, I hope they would consider a similar approach. I don’t find it so fruitful to debate how much Robert E. Lee does or does not have in common with George Washington — arguably Washington was a traitor of sorts as well, against a relatively benign British ruler, and he fought against Native Americans and owned slaves. American treatment of Native Americans makes it hard to find many truly “good guys” from that period. Still, we can ask what role Washington statues play in today’s politics; few people are using them to lord over Native Americans.
And my conclusion:
So if you’re considering the worthiness of a particular statue, here are three pointers: Pretend you’re from some very distant foreign country and view the dispute through that more objective lens. Second, focus on the future, and third don’t be afraid to make some changes.
Do read the whole thing.
Here is the transcript and audio (no video).
We discuss what makes Florida special, why business writing is so terrible, Eddie Murphy, whether social conservatives can be funny (in public), the weirdness of Peter Pan, how he is so productive, playing guitar with Roger McGuinn, DT, the future of comedy, and much much more. Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: If I look at old slapstick, it doesn’t seem funny at all. Intuitively, you would think slapstick, being only physical, would have a much longer half-life. What I find funny is very culturally specific references. Now, am I strange?
BARRY: Well, not about slapstick. When I was a little guy, I maybe thought that the Three Stooges were kind of funny but that stopped a long time ago. Some physical humor is still funny to me. Abbott and Costello were pretty physical, but they were funny without being slapstick. Just hitting each other in the nose and going, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” never struck me as funny at all. I have forgotten the second part of your question.
On different comedians and what’s not funny anymore
COWEN: You mentioned Abbott and Costello. If you’re willing, I’ll talk about a few comedians, or mention a few, and you can tell me what you found funny with them, didn’t find funny.
Let’s start with Abbott and Costello. Favorite of my father. I’ve watched almost all the movies. As I kid, I didn’t find them funny, but I actually started to find them funny in retrospect after having watched a bit of Seinfeld and Larry David. What’s your take on Abbott and Costello?
BARRY: Yeah, I can see the connection there. It more relies on you letting it — the humor — slowly develop and the characters themselves being the humor without coming right out and saying what’s funny about it: The one who never understands what’s going on, the one who’s always losing his patience with the other one. The first, maybe, three or four times, it’s just mildly amusing. But after a while, when you see it coming, that becomes very funny to you.
It’s very rare to find that kind of patience in humor anymore. I don’t think the audience is as generous as it used to be, allowing humor to build the way it did in an Abbott and Costello sketch.
COWEN: And is Abbott or Costello funnier to you? Abbott being the straight man.
BARRY: Yeah, I think Abbott is funnier.
COWEN: I think he’s much funnier.
Most of all, I was impressed by Dave Barry as a managerial force for his own career. Again, here is the link.
Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of concrete communist architecture.
Link here, photos recommended. It seems it is also the roast pepper capital of the world, and this:
The city center holds concrete masterpieces sitting alongside every possible era of architecture from the last two millennium. An ancient Castle fortress looks down from one side, and the world’s biggest cross sits atop an inner city mountain on the other. On one side of the Vardar river that cuts through the city center, is a ancient neighbourhood that could be straight out of Istanbul. On the other, the city square with an enormous “Man On a Horse” statue (just don’t say it’s Alexander the Great, believe me) is a pleasurable and walk-able area normally bustling with activity. Connecting the two areas, is the Stone Bridge, built about 700 years ago – on top of much older Roman foundations. The layers and the contrast is unique for any city of this size.
Imagine a city that is part Habsburg in style, part Ottoman, part communist brutalism, and part Las Vegas/Venetian kitsch except it isn’t kitschy, and with a dash of 300 thrown in for good measure, distributed across dozens or is it hundreds of large statues?
The earthquake of 1963 is mentioned fairly often; it destroyed about 80 percent of the city.
Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, and there is a museum in her honor. A good day trip from Skopje is the St. Jovan Bigorski monastery, some of the finest woodcarving I have seen. It is striking to view the church in conjunction with the Saudi-financed mosque across the valley, thereby inducing one to ponder the use of stones to capture space in the game of Go.
I am told there are Macedonian enclaves in Totowa, Clifton, and Garfield, New Jersey.
The food is phenomenal, in addition to the roast peppers there are breads, baked pies, meats stewed with vegetables, white beans, stuffed peppers, trout, and Balkan cheeses, all with that farm to table touch. Further to the south I recommend the garlic spread.
There is sexual dimorphism in Skopje, and I am told that Donald Trump is more popular in this country than in any other.
The major Macedonian exports are chemical goods, machinery, clothing, iron, and steel. The measured unemployment rate is about 23 percent, and there is a comparative advantage in producing “fake news.” There are varying estimates for per capita income, but about 13k (PPP) seems in the ballpark.
Politics was discussed and maps were shown. To put a twist on the famous quotation about religion in India, when it comes to history, every Macedonian is a millionaire.
English proficiency is high, as Macedonian has only slightly more than 2 million inhabitants and none of the immediate neighbors has a language that is very useful elsewhere. The people are very friendly and helpful, and it is quite safe here for a tourist.
On the television I watched the first quarter of “NBA Team Africa vs. NBA Rest of the World,” Serge Ibaka vs. Dirk Nowitzki, etc., a real game with refs and a crowd, does the NBA even tell the American market about contests such as this?
If food, architecture, and history interest you, visit the fresh and vibrant Skopje.
…the theater and film industry are beginning to recognize the need for “intimacy directors,” people who specialize in choreographing onstage intimacy.
They are practitioners who use concrete guidelines and techniques, such as the “four pillars” of intimacy direction, according to Alicia Rodis, a member of Intimacy Directors International.
Consent: Get the performers’ permission — including concrete boundaries and out of bounds body parts, and do it before you start.
Communication: Keep talking throughout the process. What’s working, what’s not, who’s touching who and how and do they feel safe.
Choreography: Performers wouldn’t spontaneously add an extra pirouette to a dance number or an extra kick to a fight scene. Don’t add an ass grab or extra kissing.
Context: Just because you kiss someone in one scene doesn’t mean you can kiss them in another scene without communicating about adjusting the choreography and seeking consent to do so. Just because someone is topless with you on stage, it doesn’t mean they won’t mind being topless around you offstage, or in another scene onstage.
To explore the ideas of intimacy and safety on stage in a variety of situations, LEO spoke with Rodis, as well as Tony Prince, a local director; and Sarah Flanagan, a Louisville-based fight director.
Rodis, the New York intimacy director, started as a fight director, and that led to her new focus. She shared one experience from that evolution.
“There was one show I was working on where there was a woman who slapped the man and then kissed him. So I was brought in for the slap.”
She ended up working on the slap and the kiss. For that kiss, she used her stage combat skills. That included asking standard questions like where do the actors touch each other, and new questions like how long does the kiss last?
Here is the full story, via Catherine Rampell.
That is Dave Rubin the comedian. It is thirty minutes long, no transcript or video, audio only right here. We covered comedy and political correctness, which jokes should not be told, the economics of comedy, comedy in Israel and Saudi Arabia, comedy on campus, George Carlin, and the most underrated Star Wars installment, among other topics. Here is one excerpt:
Cowen: How much do you think comedy is what’s sometimes called ‘a winner take all’ market? So another way to phrase the question is 20 years from now do you think there will be more or fewer professional comedians? You might say, for instance, “Well, you’re on YouTube, you’re real ly funny, I don’t need to go to a comedy club.” There’s this fellow in South Korea, Robert Kelly, he did an interview, he was trying not to be funny doing the interview, his two kids ran into the room, his wife pulled the kids back, it created a viral video, one of the funnier things I saw all year.
Cowen: Maybe not a funny guy, he was trying to keep it serious, so it was hilarious, and I can find those through my filters, through Twitter, through search. What’s the role of a professional comedian when an amateur’s best moment from a guy who isn’t even funny goes so viral?
Rubin: Well, the role is always there because the commentary on society is always gonna be there, so the moments like… Of course, I saw that video and it’s hilarious and it’s in the moment and it’s a beautiful thing. By the way, there was an outrage to that, because a lot of people were saying that the woman who came in was his nanny because I think she was Asian but it was actually his wife so then that created… So even that, just a pure moment of something hilarious happening became part of the outrage machine too. But the role for the critic of society, it’ll always be there, but it’s just not gonna to come from the clubs anymore, I think. I think that unfortunately… Comedy in its rawest form of standing in front of a group of people with a microphone and connecting to them that way, it’s as beautiful as it gets, there’s nothing in between you and the audience. It’s like painting, if you were a great painter and every stroke you had to go, “Was that okay? Was that okay?” Well, that would make you kinda crazy as a painter, but in stand up up you have to do it that way, every line you have to make sure is funny. I have not been funny here today at all, maybe we have to do something else.
Cowen: There’s less live music in New York City today than in the 1970s, is there less live comedy?
I enjoyed doing the interview very much.
Yes, I am in Vienna, but I will take this country in discrete chunks because the contributions are so significant. Today is literature, here are a few remarks:
1. Thomas Bernhard. One of the very best post-war writers, obsessive and funny and extremely neurotic. The Loser [Der Untegeher] is the one that works best in English, though his unique style is not at its most fevered pitch. Wittgensteins Neffe [Wittgenstein’s Nephew] is my favorite, one of the smartest and funniest novels I know, close to perfect. Das Kalkwerk is entrancing, though I suspect unreadable in English. He remains grossly underrated in the English-speaking world, mostly for linguistic reasons but also he is a rebellion against the idea of a culture of entertainment. In my personal canon he is one of the more significant writers.
2. Hermann Broch. Death of Virgil is a 20th century classic, again much under-read amongst the American educated classes. Die Schlafwandler [The Sleepwalkers] is impressive, and perhaps seen as his major work, but it is more uneven in quality and eventually it falls apart.
3. Robert Musil. There are wonderful and historically significant major passages in The Man Without Qualities, but the drama loses its interest, the loose ends are not tied up, and ultimately I will call him overrated, especially compared to Bernhard or Broch.
4. Peter Handke. In German only, I say, and in any case not my taste. He is serious about politics in exactly the wrong way, and I hope future generations reject him.
5. Elfriede Jelinek. Many were surprised when she won the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature, and you are most likely to know her for writing the book behind the movie The Piano Teacher. Like Wagner, you could say her work is “better than it sounds,” but still it doesn’t sound that good. I find it irritating and offensive, plus she is a communist. Nonetheless, irritating fiction is better than boring fiction, see “Günter Wilhelm Grass.”
6. Karl Kraus. I used to think his work would eventually “come together” for me, but the more of it I read, and the more I read about him, I conclude he is a figure of historic interest only, and a good aphorist, but not an enduring literary artist. He was a keen satirist of the mores and totalitarian tendencies of his time, and that is to be appreciated. But if you try reading the rambling 500-page The Last Days of Mankind, in either English or German, you will conclude it was a work of its time only.
8. Christoph Ransmayr. He is popular in contemporary Austrian literature. I was not convinced, but will try again, if you love The Last World let me know.
9. Heimito von Doderer — I have not yet read him but am hopeful.
9b. Ingeborg Bachmann. I just bought some this morning.
10. Johann Nestroy. From the Enlightenment, mostly a playwright, worth spending some time with to get a perspective on Austrian literature before the 20th century.
11. Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein are both often best read as literature.
12. Stefan Zweig. The World of Yesterday is a favorite, sad and bittersweet, and it treats the European civilization that was passing away at the time of the Second World War, still relevant. Zweig committed suicide in Brazil, here is an excellent biography. The rest of his fiction still is read around much of the world (not so much America, famously in Russia), but I find it pretty ordinary and of its time.
I’m not counting Canetti, Kafka, and the like, who are not properly Austrian, though they lived in the Empire. Rilke does not count either, though he is one of the greatest of poets. Joseph Roth was born in Galicia, yet I think of him as an Austrian rather than Polish writer, again still somewhat neglected in the English-speaking world. Try Radetzky March. Franz Werfel I find ordinary, though I have not yet read Forty Days of Musa Dagh, for some his masterpiece, I did buy a copy of that one recently.
The bottom line: There are amazing wonders here, and yes “weird stuff.” Most of the educated people I know are not clued into them.
I am in Delaware only briefly. I have not covered the state before, so here are some of my picks:
1. Chemicals manufacturer: I think that one has to go to the Duponts, I enjoyed the Gerard Zilg biography of the Dupont family and history.
2. Economic historian: Alfred Chandler.
3. Monetarist who studied policy instruments and uncertainty: William Poole.
4. Semi-libertarian journalist: Dave Weigel.
Hmm…music? I don’t like George Thorogood. A quality novelist? How about a painter or sculptor? Some big time NBA star? Biden is my favorite of Obama’s VPs. It is claimed that the movie Fight Club is set in Delaware. So many special dishes too, in the local cuisine.
The bottom line: Small wonder it is!
“A male artist in the room is — for women and men — cultural Viagra,” she says. “As for a woman, there may be one or two who are glad you are there but you don’t make the same impact.” None of this is said with bitterness. If anything, she values being left alone to concentrate on her writing. “For all my affability, I am also cold.”
That is from her Lunch with the FT, by Janan Ganesh, interesting throughout.
Almost all of the artifacts described as the oldest in the permanent collection of the Mexican Museum are either forgeries or cannot be authenticated to display in a national museum.
Ben was wildly charming and charismatic before the crowd. My questions tried to get at how he thinks rather than the hot button issues of the day. Here is the transcript, audio, and video. We covered Kansas vs. Nebraska, famous Nebraskans, Chaucer and Luther, unicameral legislatures, the decline of small towns, Ben’s prize-winning Yale Ph.d thesis on the origins of conservatism, what he learned as a university president, Stephen Curry, Chevy Chase, Margaret Chase Smith, and much more.
Here is one bit from Ben:
Neverland and Peter Pan is a dystopian hell. Neverland is not a good place. You don’t want to get to the place where you’re physically an adult and you have no moral sense, you have no awareness of history, you have no interest in the future. Peter Pan is killing people, and he doesn’t really care; he doesn’t remember their names. It’s a really dystopian thing. Perpetual adolescence is the bad thing.
Adolescence is special. We need to figure out how to use adolescence; it’s a means to an end. So that’s what the book’s about.
I am an Augustinian in my anthropology, but Rousseau is a romantic. I think he’s wrong about lots and lots and lots of things, but I think he’s really, really smart. You have to engage him, and you have to engage people who have ideas that are different than yours because you may ultimately be converted to their view, and you need to encounter things that are big and challenging and threatening to your worldview. Or you may sometimes come to believe you’re right and be able to respond to the counterarguments, while your argument will be better. You’ll grow through it, and you’ll become more persuasive to others through it.
So I think Rousseau’s fundamental anthropological understanding of why we feel that things are broken in our soul is, he’s got a reason to blame society for everything we feel is wrong in the world, and I think there’s a lot of brokenness deep inside all of us, and so, that’s the Augustinian versus Rousseauvian sense of what’s wrong.
But I think the Emile is brilliant, both because it forces me to wrestle with ideas that I don’t agree with, or mostly don’t agree with, but I think it’s also just an incredibly good read.
Then there was this:
COWEN: …Might one argue that the more one thinks and writes about sex, the more you’re led to Rousseauian conclusions that a certain kind of constraint will prove impossible, and then one is pulled away further from Ben Sasse–like conclusions.
SASSE: That’s a really fair question. I wanted to stay away from sex 100 percent, and then ultimately I couldn’t do it.
COWEN: There’s three pages in your book about sex.
COWEN: And page 33 mentions it once.
You’ll have to read the whole thing to see where Ben took that line of inquiry, his answer was excellent.
In honor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States here are four Indian movies, not movies about India, but Indian movies, that are well worth watching. Most are available on Netflix.
Kahaani is a Hindi mystery-thriller starring Vidya Balan as Vidya Bagchi (there is a funny scene involving the pronunciation of Vidya, I wonder if she gets that a lot?) a pregnant software engineer who arrives in Calcutta from London in search of her missing husband. A police officer offers to help her and they start following the clues. It soon appears that her husband was not the man she thought he was. The further they explore the more mysterious and dangerous the situation becomes. Calcutta is featured in a lovely way–many of the scenes were shot guerilla style on the street, during the festival for Durga. There are allusions to the films of Satyajit Ray. The tension between Vidya and the police officer, who grows to like and become attracted to her, even as they search for her husband, is nicely handled. The ending brings plot, theme and location together in a way that is cleverly foreshadowed. The director knew what he was doing.
Drishyam is a Hindi film starring Ajay Devgn as Vijay Salgaonkar, a successful family man and businessperson who runs a small cable TV service in Pondolem, Goa. Vijay hasn’t had more than a 4th grade education but he’s smart and he picks up things by watching people and movies. He’s respected in his town but he butts heads with Gaitonde, a corrupt police officer. At this point Drishyam seems like it is going to be a straightforward morality tale about a good man caught in a corrupt system but the story goes in a very different direction when his wife (the beautiful Shriya Saran) and daughter kill a young man. The young man is the son of the police inspector general, a tough as nails woman, played by the stunning Tabu. How is Vijay going to extricate his family from this awful situation? His love of movies will come in useful. Devgn drives the film forward with an excellent performance that reminds me of Gary Cooper. Tabu is superb as the police inspector who must be stronger than the men in her life but who is also the mother of the victim.
Drishyam has been remade four times, this is the fourth. I hope to convince my brother to make it a fifth time!
Court is a Marathi-language courtroom drama. It won the Best Film award in the Horizons category at the 2014 Venice International film festival and the Luigi De Laurentiis (Lion Of The Future) award for it’s first-time director Chaitanya Tamhane. It has won many other awards since, including a 100% positive tomatometer. But can I recommend it? Courtroom drama brings to mind Henry Fonda as the one person who turns around the jury of 12 Angry Men or Tom Cruise as the lawyer who pushes Jack “you can’t handle the truth” Nicholson to confess.
Court is not that. There are no great speeches, no climax, no triumph of justice. The great virtue of Court is that it shows you how ordinary people participate in the boring, tedious, and mundane production of injustice. But that is also its vice. How do you show such a system? By being boring, tedious and mundane. Indeed, Court not only shows the mundane production of injustice it structures itself around that theme. Scenes drift on for longer than expected. The movie builds tension like a conversation with uncomfortable pauses. The audience begins to fidget and think “when will this be over.” That’s intentional. In a two-hour movie Tamhane makes you feel a little like what the people in Indian court must feel, trapped.
The nominal plot is about a people’s poet who is charged with encouraging, through one of his performances, a suicide by a sewer worker. I enjoyed the poetry slams performed by the defendant (the way these lively performances contrast with the other scenes is part of the message). This long piece on India’s sewer workers is good background that underlines the absurdity of the charges.
At the end of the day, I’m glad I watched Court, it has a lot to say about the Indian courts, caste discrimination, the strange carryover of British law (it’s notable that much of the movie is in English because courts operate in English, even when defendants do not) and the mundane production of injustice, the latter of which applies well beyond India. But I confess that I watched it on Youtube at 1.5 speed.
What makes Court interesting is not what happens when you watch it but how you think about it later.
Ok, Lion isn’t Indian cinema, it’s actually an Australian movie starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman but much of it takes places in India and it’s excellent. The movie is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley who as a five year old got separated from his brother and accidentally ended up on train that transported him from his small village to Calcutta, nearly 1000 miles away. Unable to find his way back home, Saroo ends up on the streets fending for himself until he is adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years later and using every scrap of memory he has left, Saroo manages to deduce the location of his hometown using Google Earth.
With Nicole Kidman’s star power, Lion could easily have fallen into the trap of the white woman saving the brown boy but it rises above that and keeps its attention on Saroo and real emotion. It’s hard not to tear up more than once.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is just one excerpt:
I see Trump as not a ruler but rather akin to the various fools, jesters or, in the case of Lear, the character of Edgar, who appears before the king in disguise and warns him of his enemies. Don’t interpret the word “fool” too literally here. The most common features of these characters is that they speak between the cracks in the action and utter sentiments that no one else dares to voice. That’s Trump on Twitter. Would the word “covfefe” be so out of place in one of those poetic rants?
And looking forward, what might a study of Shakespeare tell us to watch for in the evolution of the Trump administration? How’s this for a start?:
- Blood may be thicker than water, but nonetheless power struggles can break family bonds rather easily.
- Power cannot be given away and still retained.
- Don’t overweight legitimacy and birth order in determining succession.
- Love is a wild card.
- There is no maximum limit to chaos.
Do read the whole thing.