Alex Haley VS An American Neo-Nazi

A twitter link on Alex Haley’s response to the racist George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi party, got me thinking that that would be an interesting movie.

And then I learned that it was already done, with James Earl Jones as Alex Haley and Marlon Brando as George Lincoln Rockwell in the concluding chapter of Roots: The Next Generations.

It’s excellent as a standalone video, but it also works pretty well in the context of the seventh episode of the mini-series, which has depicted generations of racism after slavery (the mini-series itself was a follow-up to the original Roots, which depicted the horrors of slavery.)  The final episode is thus closer to the present day, showing an encounter between the descendant of the people depicted in Roots and the embodiment of then-contemporary racism.

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Films Seen in 2021 Part 8: Zach Snyder and the Scandinavian Revival

This is a continuation of observations on films I’ve seen this year. For this batch, my subchallenges were ten movies for a Criterion based annual challenge, five films from the Scandinavian revival film movement (there will be overlap with the Criterion challenge) and five films produced or directed by Zach Snyder (there will be no overlap with the Criterion challenge.)

As a sidenote, I saw a list of top ten film movements and it seemed odd to include the Scandinavian revival, as by all measures, it was largely based on the work of two directors: Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman and Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer. It does remain a movement I’m unfamiliar with, so it seems worth diving into.

Movie #151: Tenet (Blu-Ray)
On this watch, I do appreciate the protagonist’s arc as he makes legitimately difficult decisions when manipulating others while facing a complex existential threat, and the care Christopher Nolan puts into the details of the plans. On the third watch, the interest in Elizabeth Debecki’s arc is justified as I know where the story’s going, and how it fits several themes (the mix of personal and private drama, the careful planning these people put into figuring out where to go next, the significance of an individual, etc.)

Movie #152/ New Movie #108/ Criterion Challenge #1: The Flying Ace (Facebook)
I was surprised to find a video on the Facebook account for a group involved in restoration of obscure silent films (Retrogarden) although the quality and commentary were decent. Ten minutes in is an interesting metaphor of an airplane joystick that provides a context for subsequent exchanges. There’s a theme of ordinary folk wanting to be movie heroes, in a story that is very much of its time (a World War one hero becomes a railroad detective.) There’s a bit of a summer stock quality evident in non-studio silent films but it is enjoyable. The character of Peg is a legitimately impressive movie sidekick.

Movie #153/ New Movie #109/ Zach Snyder Film #1: Dawn of the Dead (Blu-Ray)
A zombie movie with 21st Century production values. It does show what it takes to live through the apocalypse, with people pushed to the limits and slowly figuring out what’s going on. The characters are more complex than you may expect from Snyder or zombie movies, partly because we get an actual sense of the passage of time.

Movie #154/ New Movie #110/ Criterion Challenge #2: JSA Joint Security Area (Arrow Video)
It’s a procedural with a fantastic set-up (an investigation into a shooting on the Korean border) that is a bit of a reverse Chinatown, in that the truth is better than expected even if it is quite politically inconvenient. Has a lot to say about the dehumanizing effects of the border, and how the human spirit can persevere despite that.

Movie #155/ New Movie #111: Shang-Chi (Movie Theater)
It’s a good example of Marvel adapting existing genres to its world, in this case Wuxia martial arts cinema. Simu Liu’s lead probably isn’t one of the five best performances in the film, but it works. It is odd to see the Mandarin as a tragic villain, but Tony Leung sells his whole history, his stints as a crime boss and the years in between.

Movie #156/ New Movie #112: Candyman (2021) (Movie Theater)
It’s much more of a direct sequel than I anticipated, expanding the mythos with a good sense of setting and history. There are some interesting, deliberate choices and it raises some weird questions about how the victims are chosen. There are some great touches, like the mirror murders and the animated flashbacks. It does ultimately have a lot of people take a child’s game way too seriously.

Movie #157/ New Movie #113/ Criterion Challenge #3: Stop Making Sense (DVD)
It may deserve its reputation as the ultimate concert film. It’s a very nicely shot take of a top-tier band at the height of their powers doing a visually interesting concert (directed by future Academy Award winner Jonathan Demme) with some unconventional choices and a magnetic/ oddball lead in David Byrne.

Movie #158/ New Movie #114/ Criterion Challenge #4: Shadows (DVD)
It’s a different sense of 1950s New York than we’d see in most movies of the time. There is an amateurish quality to Cassavettes’ debut, but it feels real and raw, while tackling a very loaded question, when a white guy realizes his girlfriend is mixed-race and offends her family.

Movie #159/ New Movie #115/ Criterion Challenge #5: The Color of Pomegranates (DVD)
I went into the film cold, and saw a movie that was quite visually striking, but just completely outside my frame of reference. It’s about and in the style of an Armenian poet, and definitely has a sense of visual poetry, but it probably requires significant context to make sense. It’s hard to tell when something is a metaphor, and what’s meant to be taken literally. There’s an interesting use of color, where they focus on subtle distinctions between similar colors rather than major contrasts. It’s bold and avant-garde in the best way. I definitely need to see it again, perhaps after learning more about the subject.

Movie #160/ New Movie #116/ Zach Snyder Film #2: Sucker Punch Extended Edition (Blu-Ray)
Sometimes it’s visually interesting and sometimes it seems like cheap CGI. The narrative tricks are somewhat emotionally distancing. The action set pieces are just devoid of stakes because it’s a fantasy within a fantasy, although the club saga is compelling at times. It is obvious that it revels in what it critiques, but it may get reevaluated with Snyder’s new cult following.

Movie #161: Catch Me If You Can (Netflix)
The advertising and Youtube highlights suggest an outrageous and fun movie with some of the all-time great cons, but Spielberg & DiCaprio are able to convey the drama of a scared teenager pretending to be an accomplished adult.

Movie #162/ New Movie #117: The Discovery (Netflix)
One of those films worth exploring just to see why it didn’t work out. It had a good cast, and an interesting concept (the world deals with proof of an afterlife) although it’s quite bleak, which makes sense in a story about lots of suicides. A central problem is that I just don’t buy the American response to proof of an afterlife, which would make sense in a more atheistic nation, but not a country as religious as the US. Jason Segel’s lead is dull and overly restrained.

Movie #163/ Criterion Challenge #6/ New Movie #118: The Swimming Pool/ La Piscene (Movie Theater)
The most interesting question of the film may be how it managed to be a surprising arthouse hit this summer. It’s good, but not considered all that great. It’s not especially influential. The cast isn’t A-list. But I get it. People stuck in New York for the second summer wanted to see beautiful people at parties in the French Riviera. There’s enough mystery and ambiguity about character motivations that it remains rewatchable. Younger filmgoers can identify with the main characters, while older viewers may have fond memories of the time.

Movie #164: The Death of Stalin (Netflix)
This movie’s growing on me as one of the best and most rewatchable films of the decade. This time I appreciated how close Beria (a legitimately great film villain) came to winning, to being the reformer who changes his reputation post-Stalin. Nikita Khrushchev may very well be Buscemi’s best role, although Jason Issac’s Zhukov is even better, as the alphaest alpha male.

Movie #165/ New Movie #119/ Snyder (Produced) Film #3: Wonder Woman 1984 (Movie Theater)
For whatever reason, it was playing on Regal cinemas one weekend, and with all the action set pieces and grand locations, it’s definitely worth seeing in theaters. There are some obvious blind spots in the narrative (the lack of concern for ordinary people affected by the events) and it seems clear Gal Gadot is not on the level of her costars. Her arc seems a bit weaker, although the film is clearly about something and highlights what makes Wonder Woman special.

Movie #166/ New Movie #120/ Criterion Challenge #6: Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Amazon Prime)
An excellent thriller that gives a good sense of New York at the time, even if it is a little idealized. There’s a lot we don’t know about the characters, but we know what we need to. The storytelling is excellent, with some nice swerves about made-up features of New York City subways like the dead man’s switch and how it is overcome. Walter Matthau is decent as a Subway cop who was not prepared for this kind of situation. Shaw and Balsam are an interesting villain duo; one is a ruthless mastermind, and the other is an ordinary schmoe with insider knowledge.

Movie #167/ New Movie #121/ Criterion Challenge #7/ Scandinavian Revival #1: Summers with Monika (Blu-Ray)
It’s an interesting well-told story of young love and how it curdles. A teenage romance gone bad is quite compelling in Bergman’s hands.

Movie #168/ New Movie #122/ Criterion Challenge #8/ Scandinavian Revival #2: Smiles of a Summer Night (Blu-Ray)
When Ingmar Bergman makes a romantic comedy, it’s not surprising that it goes further than most, with higher stakes, suicide attempts and some weird revelations in addition to the usual manipulations.

Movie #169: Goodfellas (Movie Theater)
It’s the best crime movie by the best crime director. With this rewatch I had a good sense of why crime was so appealing to the blue-collar Henry Hill, and how the crazy stuff they did made sense to them. The excesses of crime are captured better here than in any other film.

Movie #170/ Zach Snyder Film #4: Batman- Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition (Blu-Ray)
It’s the extended cut of a film that was already too long. The problem with the first two acts is that Lex Luthor is mainly a generic mad scientist, although Doomsday becomes legitimately impressive towards the end of the film. The central conflict between Batman and Superman is set up pretty well, with two iconic heroes having understandable contrary positions, and the film does pick up when Wonder Woman makes her debut (possibly the best scene in any of the DCEU films so far.)

Movie #171/ New Movie #123: Venom: Let There Be Carnage (Movie Theater)
It’s certainly a step up from the first one, embracing the weirdness of Eddie Brock’s partnership with the symbiote. Woody Harrelson’s Carnage and Naomie Harris’ Shriek are decent Marvel villains. It’s a fast movie as one of the shortest superhero films. The ending may have the loudest applause of any movie I’ve ever seen.

Movie #172/ New Movie #124/ Scandinavian Revival #3/ Criterion Challenge #9: Day of Wrath (DVD)
It’s similar to Dreyer’s best-known project The Passion of Joan of Arc, another ninety-ish minute black and white period piece about a trial and allegations of a religious crime where the penalty is being burned alive, as well as some of Bergman’s work (a stepmother/ stepson relationship that takes a different turn from Smiles of a Summer Night.) It’s quite austere, but that acts as a contrast for Anna’s later joy and passion. It doesn’t go with the cliched direction you may expect from the plot. It’s not about someone wrongly accused, but more about what it’s like to be a flawed person living in a world where these types of allegations destroy lives, a metaphor for Nazi-occupied Denmark. A fantastic beginning to the Scandinavian revival.

Movie #173/ New Movie #125/ Scandinavian Revival #4: The Red Line (DVD)
I tried to go outside Bergman and Dreyer to see if the Scandinavian revival movement extends to other directors. This Finnish one is a black and white period piece about a poor family, depicting a level of poverty rare in film. An expressionistic dream sequence is a highlight. The music and composition seem to be more influenced by early Hollywood. There is humor to it, although tonally it is all over the place, with an ending that just doesn’t seem to match the rest of the film.

Movie #174/ New Movie #126/ Scandinavian Revival #5: Kon-Tiki (Amazon Prime Rental)
Norwegian writer Thor Heyerdahl wanted to prove his thesis that Peruvians – back in pre-Colombian times – could have crossed the seas to the Phillipenes, so he set out on a balsa wood raft using technology they would have had. The result was an Academy Award for Best Documentary, which may be one of the most epic wins in an academic pissing match ever. The film is obviously not made in an ideal environment (a 1940s black and white documentary made by people on a boat far from supplies/ experienced filmmakers), but it is quite enjoyable and shows the challenges of the crew, as well as the joys.

Movie # 175/ Zach Snyder Film #5: Watchmen Directors Cut (Blu-Ray)
The original comic is one of my favorite works of fiction ever, and this adaptation is okay. It’s flawed, but it does get some stuff right, especially Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach. Visually it seems quite reminiscent of Kubrick. It’s rarely subtle, as the musical choices are quite obvious, and nuances of some great scenes are sanded down. But it does have a clear arc, and it reorients focus on different characters and their struggles as the world is on the verge of nuclear armageddon.

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The Courageous Conversations Compass

I came across something interesting in a Professional Development event a while back: the Courageous Conversations Compass.

It was used as a method of talking about race.

Something I’ve recognized before is how people can talk past one another, and it’s a fair point that this can occur if they’re coming from a different point on the compass. If one person is emotional and another is rational, there may be some opposition. The emotional person will feel that their concerns aren’t addressed, while the intellectual will be confused about inconsistency. One person may want to be heard, while another thinks the best response is to do something, and a third is considering about first principles.

This disconnect can also explain a lot of internet arguments.

One unique problem is that the emotional arguments are really hard to communicate since the other person may have a different frame of reference. One person may be thinking about how they feel due to instances of what may have been systematic racism, while another’s emotions may be riled by the sense they’re accused of racism.

This obviously extends to other topics. You could certainly imagine these different kinds of reactions on questions to do with mask mandates, vaccine requirements, educational priorities, congressional spending, etc.

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Films Seen in 2021 Part 7

This is a continuation of observations on films I’ve seen this year. For this batch, I didn’t go with any further challenges, although I did end up watching several African-American horror movies, and did my best to take advantage of some temporary streaming service discounts.

Movie #126: Sgt. Stubby (DVD)
This is an accessible and enjoyable animated film, perfect for watching with relatives/ family friends of all ages (older folk interested in history, kids who like dogs and animation.) It has a decent match of animated hijinks and serious subject matter (mustard gas.)

Movie #127/ New Movie #90: The Secret Life of Trees (Movie Theater)
It demonstrates how ordinary nature documentaries have become capable of astounding visual beauty. It’s a decent spotlight on an environmentalist, as well as how how trees operate and coexist as part of a larger ecosystem.

Movie #128/ New Movie #91: The Suicide Squad (Movie Theater)
I haven’t seen the original, but this remains accessible and fun. Stylistically it’s quite interesting, although it gets really dark, even for an R-rated superhero film in a way that isn’t believable or satisfying. There can be a discussion piece about the extent to which the film critic community is okay with movies that have a dark left-wing view of things. That said, some of the stuff does work pretty well. Margot Robbie’s Harleyquinn and Idris Elba’s Bloodsport make for great antiheroes.

Movie #129/ New Movie #92: Extra Ordinary (Showtime)
It’s a decent horror comedy, with a take on ghosts that is both funny and mundane.

Movie #130/ New Movie #93: Stillwater (Theater)
This was a movie that had to tread very carefully given the sensitive subject matter of a middle-aged blue collar white guy investigating suspicious events in France involving people of color and his daughter’s same-sex relationship. Matt Damon provides a good sense of a guy out of his element, who means well but has been a fuckup since long before the movie started. A key development seems a bit derivative of a recent well-regarded film from a similar genre. However, it is a great conversation starter.

Movie #131/ New Movie #94: Red Riding: 1974 (AMC+)
It feels like a 1970s noir. Andrew Garfield is decent as a reporter who gets caught in a messed up conspiracy. Rebecca Hall is better as the tormented survivor. The central mystery is a bit vague, a set-up to a larger trilogy and the bad guys are generic. Still, there are some decent twists at the end.

Movie #132/ New Movie #95: Horror Express (AMC+)
The set is decent, although from an earlier film. The generic horror movie debate about scientific exploration is kinda lame. It’s the type of film that acts as if Christopher Lee should immediately realize a mummy is alive and hunting people on a train.

Movie #133/ New Movie #96: The Green Knight (Theater)
This is a beautiful film that sometimes feels deliberately confusing and unsatisfying, although it works pretty well to get viewers debating what just happened. This is not a film to see cold, given all the references to medieval lore. There’s a sense of people similar to us living in a society that is quite different, where it is natural to see giants or ghosts. There are some excellent tricks with time and possible futures, as it gets to some important questions about honor and meaning.

Movie #134/ New Movie #97: Pandorum (Showtime)
The sci-fi story may have too many high concepts, featuring a race of evolved hunters, people waking from cryogenic sleep with limited memories, an odd form of craziness and the destruction of the Earth. The quality of the twists is inconsistent.

Movie #135/ New Movie #98: The Tomorrow War (Amazon Prime)
This is a time travel sci-fi story by a writer I like, so I should enjoy it. But it’s not good. Part of it is that the aliens aren’t great, kinda like The Quiet Place without the genius sound design or a hook about what makes them interesting. the response to a major event just doesn’t seem right. Twists are predictable and I’m not sure it plays fair. The third act is tonally off, but at least addresses plot induced stupidity when a small group puts the world in danger.

Movie #136/ New Movie #99: Source Code (Showtime)
I checked it out because it was much better reviewed than I thought, and it’s a decent combination of mystery and an ordinary man’s response to an extreme situation. A central twist with the tech is inconsistent with the set-up.

Movie #137/ New Movie #100: Horror Noire (AMC+)
It’s an okay overview of the depictions of African-Americans in horror (and anything that’s meant to scare) from Night of the Living Dead to Get Out. It did encourage me to watch a bunch of the films that were covered, even if this wasn’t particularly compelling as far as documentaries about movies go.

Movie #138/ New Movie #101: Tales From the Hood (Starz)
This is worth checking out just because it’s Twilight Zone stories with a 1990s indie African-American aesthetic, which is not a combination found elsewhere. Good horror anthologies get to the drama and supernatural events faster, which is one reason I enjoy them so much. Here it works to go for a nuanced message than just featuring one story. It can cover the harms of so-called black on black violence as well as racist politicians and police officers. It can sometimes seem ridiculous in the depiction of race, but it did come out at a time when David Duke was a credible candidate for office so some of that is forgivable. The frame story gets around some of the logical inconsistencies.

Movie #139/ New Movie #102: Free Guy (Theater)
It’s a fun sci-fi comedy, similar to Ready Player One (same writer) and The Truman Show, and while it’s not great, it works on the strength of Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer.

Movie #140/ New Movie #103: Blacula (AMC+)
It’s a decent horror movie, with probably the best take on the common trope of a vampire’s love for a reincarnation of his ex. It has some striking images and is interesting as an artifact of the 1970s, although ahead of many other films of the time in the depiction of diverse young professionals.

Movie #141: Monterey Pop (Criterion Blu-Ray)
This is clearly my favorite concert film, and I’ve been thinking about what makes it so effective. The songs are great, with most being decent music videos in their own right. It’s short, although there is additional material available as extras on the Criterion editions for anyone who rightly wants more. It seems more honest than the usual concert film, showing what the festival is like, but also showing when 1960s outdoor concern sound systems aren’t perfect.

Movie #142/ New Movie #104: Ganja & Hess (Showtime)
There is a 1970s indie film vocabulary that is a bit tough to follow, especially in the worldbuilding. Bill Gunn’s style remains experimental even if you do take that into account. The visuals are compelling, and it is thematically rich, with new takes on vampires (technically this is a different monster) and religion.

Movie #143: Kameradschaft / Comradeship (Criterion DVD)
Last time I was disappointed with Eisenstein’s 1930s films due to the propaganda, but I still enjoy this story of workers from different countries uniting for a common class-based goal, so it’s worth considering what makes it different. Part of it is the message is fair. It is important for people from different countries to work together (especially in the context of a film made prior to World War II.) The little stories work. There is actual conflict (IE- French border patrol agents shooting at a German rescue team) and misunderstandings. Most importantly, in addition to impressive sequences, there can be a sense of humor, like when a dramatic scene of young men leaving a village is interrupted by a mom making sure her son has sandwiches.

Movie #144: I, Tonya (Showtime)
Margot Robbie is not the expected lead for a film about someone who falls in love with a guy who calls her pretty, but despite the moral question of casting someone who doesn’t look like her character, she is fantastic, and it fits her persona as an actress (a brash old-fashioned broad.) The film handles ambiguity well to the extent that actions of certain characters remain mysterious. It also has some great villains, including Alison Janney’s trainwreck mother, the idiot who engineers the attack, an abusive husband who may be the victim of unreliable narrators or worse than we believe, and the community of judges. This is a great example of film as an empathy machine, but it doesn’t let the lead off the hook.

Movie #145: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (Criterion DVD)
It’s a grim cold war story of a spy sent to infiltrate an organization, but set up to fail in the effort. It’s a great showcase for Richard Burton’s British world weariness; he’s like an English Bogart and it’s quite effective here. It takes a while to get going, but the end is powerful.

Movie #146/ New Movie #105: Death Takes a Holiday (Criterion DVD)
Friedrich March’s take on Death is alien and strange, and makes for some humor when he pretends to be a foreign prince. It hints at some big questions, but doesn’t really get to it. Perhaps it is a bit tainted by better work on the grim reaper, and a more mature understanding of the fascination with death, but I still enjoyed it.

Movie #147/ New Movie #106: Candyman (1992) (DVD)
It’s got a great hook with researchers checking out urban legends getting drawn into horror. It’s shot like a 1990s psychological thriller, which works when things go supernatural. There’s a bit of a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? sensibility at times, as it is both ahead of its time and behind ours in depictions of race. Virginia Madsen is a good horror lead, balancing the naivete of the first half prior to an effective fakeout and the intensity/ vulnerability of the second half when things go much worse. Tony Todd’s Candyman is one of the most underrated horror film monsters.

Movie #148: Darkest Hour (DVD)
This movie is certainly my jam. It’s sometimes obvious, but in a way that’s acceptable in a great film. It’s a good look at an iconic moment in England, as a flawed man who is right for the moment considers appeasement or fighting. Oldman is excellent, the epitome of the transformation of a name actor into a world-historical figure, showing Churchill at his most brilliant and aggravating at a time when his legacy was being defined.

Movie #149/ New Movie #107: Forty Guns (Criterion DVD)
It’s a decent short western on the theme of people good at handling themselves in the wild west struggling to find a place for themselves in a more civilized setting. It has a more complex take on the bad guys than usually; we can really see why Barbara Stanwyck’s character likes them despite her understanding that their time has passed.

Movie #150: Midnight in Paris (Amazon Prime)
It’s easily the best of Woody Allen’s late films, from that period when he’s famous enough to get A-list casts to play out his dramas. It’s effective at making the story of a screenwriter trying to be a novelist unpretentious, partially through the contrast of lead Owen Wilson with Martin Sheen’s pedantic professor. Marion Cotillard is adorable, and I like the twists with her character. It has a great take on nostalgia and the search for a golden age.

One thing I came to appreciate in this month of filmviewing is the effectiveness of movies as conversation-starters. The best of it here certainly qualifies. I think you could have really interesting conversations about Candyman, The Green Knight, I Tonya and a few others. It’s an interesting test for the value of a film.

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Dishonesty as a virtue

Years ago, I read The 48 Rules of Power. My brothers got it for me as a Christmas gift, since I like to write stories about powerful people, and they figured this would provide advice for stories about successful assholes. That was certainly the case.

Some of he major rules are to be dishonest in selective ways. Even the appearance of honesty is to be used in a selective fashion.

There are similar books about this, mainly dealing with improving your love life.

But what interested me is the people who take this seriously in their professional lives, especially if they’re operating in the public sphere. How do you deal with ambitious people who are really skilled at lying, and see it as virtuous? Scott Adams made a case that this was one of Trump’s great abilities, that he was willing to bend the truth in ways that go beyond standard politicians. Even if it failed him (which is debatable as he’s the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024) there may soon be people who are better at it. Some will be on your side politically.

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This Should Be a Movie


Once upon a time it was controversial to suggest that doctors should wash their hands. The Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis was the first to advocate for the need for this. It did not end well.

So Semmelweis hypothesized that there were cadaverous particles, little pieces of corpse, that students were getting on their hands from the cadavers they dissected. And when they delivered the babies, these particles would get inside the women who would develop the disease and die.

If Semmelweis’ hypothesis was correct, getting rid of those cadaverous particles should cut down on the death rate from childbed fever.

So he ordered his medical staff to start cleaning their hands and instruments not just with soap but with a chlorine solution. Chlorine, as we know today, is about the best disinfectant there is. Semmelweis didn’t know anything about germs. He chose the chlorine because he thought it would be the best way to get rid of any smell left behind by those little bits of corpse.

And when he imposed this, the rate of childbed fever fell dramatically.

What Semmelweis had discovered is something that still holds true today: Hand-washing is one of the most important tools in public health. It can keep kids from getting the flu, prevent the spread of disease and keep infections at bay.

You’d think everyone would be thrilled. Semmelweis had solved the problem! But they weren’t thrilled.

For one thing, doctors were upset because Semmelweis’ hypothesis made it look like they were the ones giving childbed fever to the women.

And Semmelweis was not very tactful. He publicly berated people who disagreed with him and made some influential enemies.

Eventually the doctors gave up the chlorine hand-washing, and Semmelweis — he lost his job.

Semmelweis kept trying to convince doctors in other parts of Europe to wash with chlorine, but no one would listen to him.

The iconoclast in me would like to see a film in the point of view of someone fighting for a horrible cause, turning the idea of film as an empathy machine around in order to make the audience see the perspective of someone who screws up terribly. This one would probably work better from the perspective of Semmelweis as the traditional underdog, fighting for a noble cause but failing terribly. It’s useful as a reminder to people to not be like his critics who ended up on the wrong side of history.

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Reforming political primaries

It seems to me that there should be a few reforms to political primaries.

There should be runoffs. It’s problematic if a candidate wins in a crowded field with a quarter of the vote, especially if it’s for a safe congressional district or mayoral election, where the only threat is going to be from the party’s base. In New York City, Eric Adams has more legitimacy because he won a clear majority with the Instant Runoff vote. That system had some complications, although part of it was the expectation that we’ll know the winner immediately, which isn’t necessary months before the general election, and half a year before the next mayor’s term begins.

In the 37 states in which there’s a Lieutenant Governor, it should be selected the same way the Vice President is selected. The dumbest approach is to have separate elections for the two, in which case the Governor and Lieutenant Governor may be from a different party, so they’re often at odds with one another when it’s time to serve. It creates situations where a Governor’s departure outside of an election can change the party in charge, which has some perverse incentives.

But I don’t think it’s a great idea to have candidates running specifically to be Lieutenant Governor from the beginning. There will be a better pool of potential Lieutenant Governors if it’s selected after the primaries. In that case, it would include not only those who decided that their best chance for political advancement was by running for the #2 position, but those who sought nominations for other offices. A losing candidate for Senate might be a better fit than someone who recognized they wouldn’t be a contender for the office.

There is also a question of when to hold the primaries. There should be some balance between allowing late entrants and giving general election candidates enough time to be known. It seems to me that summer primaries are a bad idea, as it tends to weed out more casual voters. A September primary is a bit late.

Primaries in May or June allow the general election candidates time to introduce themselves to voters. And it gives independent candidates time to get on the ballot, if that’s necessary as an alternative to major party nominees. There are people who won’t run if the Democrats and/ or Republicans pick decent candidates, but would have an opening if one party picks extremists. Independents would have time to get on the ballot if the primary is settled by June, which I see as a good thing.

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Films Seen in 2021 Part 6

This is a continuation of observations on films I’ve seen this year. For this group, I added four sub-challenges: five movies by female directors, five Russian movies, five Shakespeare adaptations and five movies that were nominated for Academy Awards last year. With theaters shut down due to Covid, I didn’t see as many of those as I usually do.

Movie #101/ New Movie #71/ Russian Film #1: Alexander Nevsky (Criterion DVD)
The medieval certainly has an epic scale, and is effective propaganda. It’s probably worth analyzing more for the historical context than its worth as a traditional film. There are some interesting choices, like how Nevsky disappears for big parts of the narrative. The villains are lacking in personality, which makes the fight scenes less meaningful, even if they are legendary.

Movie #102/ New Movie #72/ Female Director #1: La Pointe-Courte (Criterion DVD)
This was arguably the first French new wave film, and it remains stylistically daring, with interesting cuts and cinematography decisions. It’s great use of an interesting location, where people prepare for jousting on boats and a river by someone’s house needs to be crossed. It shows a small community that isn’t happy with bureaucrats, a conservative message for a French new wave film. The argument between the couple is longer and nastier than I expected, going from intellectual to personal quickly. It’s a great example on a particular type of film, showing the difference between the visitors and the locals, and the many stories in a small town over one weekend.

Movie #103/ New Movie #73: Walkabout (Criterion DVD)
It’s a beautifully shot film about a clash of cultures, and two young siblings trying to survive. It’s a great sense of something that film excels at conveying: the difficulties of communication. I’m disappointed in how it ends, but this is not due to a defect of the film. I understand what happens; I’d have preferred something different due to an appreciation of the characters.

Movie #104/ New Movie #74/ Female Director #2: Zola (Movie Theater)
This film was interesting in how it depicts very modern facets of communication (text messages, twitter posts) in a crazy story about people in a very different culture than the one we usually see in film, also getting to the different codes of the leads. I could believe that these people exist outside of the film, and there are some interesting tricks with unreliable narrators. It ends a bit anticlimactically. I’d have liked to see more of a later reckoning, like what happened to the people involved after their crazy story went viral.

Movie #105: Chungking Express (Movie Theater)
Wong Kar Wai has some fantastic tricks when it comes to editing, and he makes some brilliant and deliberate choices in telling the stories of two cops, like the more confident one being the traffic cop who never has to take anyone down. It’s two stories that work well together, a neonoir in the perspective of someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, and a more traditional (but exceptional) romantic comedy. This grew on me, as I didn’t care for it as much the first time I saw it (partly due to the twist in the middle making this a different film than what I expected.)

Movie #106/ New Movie #75: Cruella (Movie Theater)
It really comes across as a knockoff of Joker (period piece about the origin of a famous villain with similar soundtrack decisions) which is likely unfair because it had to be in production before that one came out. I don’t envy directors and writers who have to tell an edgy Disney story, but it is fun and it gets into a conflict which may sanitize the character, but has meaning- whether to embrace the dark side. I’m still trying to figure out how Cruella got so much attention in the fashion industry without any customers, and whether Disney will one day make a prequel with a more sympathetic take on the Baroness.

Movie #107/ New Movie #76/ Russian Film #2: Major Grom- Plague Doctor (Netflix)
It’s an odd superhero film about an extraordinary cop taking on a vigilante. It’s interesting in what it says about Russia, with a populace on the verge of rebellion, and a message that they just need a tough guy who can break all the rules. The main story is generic (the riots seem to be like Bane, a CEO is a lot like Mark Zuckerberg, there’s a Marvel end-credit sequence) and some narrative tricks get in the way of making the film understandable.

Movie #108/ Shakespeare Film #1: Ran (Amazon Prime)
Like Bergman, there’s something off about seeing a Kurosawa film in color, even if he uses it to great effect. The medieval source material (merged with a Japanese legend) translates well to the samurai era, and there is the new element of the betrayed king dealing with the consequences of terrible things he’s done in the past in order to gain and maintain power. There is a new great villain in the evil daughter-in-law, over the top but with motives that fit the context.

Movie #109/ New Movie #77/ Nominees #1/ Female Director #3: Nomadland (DVD)
This is a fully realized take on a (largely involuntary) lifestyle/ class that’s rarely seen in major American films. Even indies typically skew younger. It’s really good at showing the dignity of the marginalized. It’s often lovely but shows a way of living that is hard. It’s a fantastic character study: Frances McDormand’s lead is a tough complex woman even if these circumstances, showing both a need for community and self-sufficiency, as she’s learning the ropes. This is a rare type of film: modern neorealist with excellent production values, where you gasp when a character accidentally breaks something, because you know how meaningful it is.

Movie #110/ New Movie #78/ Nominees #2: Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (Netflix)
It’s charming enough, with some good gags. My problem is that I can appreciate wordless or silent animated films, but it only so far.

Movie #111/ New Movie #79: Fallen Angels (Movie Theater)
A companion to Chungking Express, it still has really nice cinematography but goes too far in the contrast between the narratives, as well as the increasingly eccentric cast.

Movie #112/ Shakespeare Film #2: Chimes at Midnight (Criterion DVD)
The Welles Falstaff-centric adaptation of (mainly) Henry IV Part 1 is imperfect; he liked ADR too much, the narrative is less effective when he combines events in multiple plays, and he had to compromise to get A-listers Jeanne Moreau and John Gieguld for limited shoots. But he is exceptional as one of Shakespeare’s best characters, and he gets to a central conflict of the different paternal influences on the future Henry V pretty well.

Movie #113/ New Movie #80: Monte Cristo Part 2 (Youtube)
The revenge continues in satisfying fashion. Trademarks include opulent settings, and reaction shots of large crowds to big news. There are some good character moments, like the resolution to a duel, although some moments are underplayed, like the main character’s romance. This is one of the most ordinary-looking leads I can think of in early cinema, and that’s quite fitting for a story of someone mysterious and underestimated.

Movie #114/ Russian Film #3/ Shakespeare Film #3: King Lear (1971) (DVD)
Kozintsev’s King Lear is beautifully shot. Jüri Järvet is a quieter Lear than I’m used to, ibe who doesn’t dominate the narrative, which works for this film and the director’s themes of focusing on the political turmoil of Shakespeare.

Movie #115/ New Movie #81/ Russian Film #4/ Shakespeare Film #4: Hamlet  (1964)(DVD)
Kozintsev’s Russian adaptation works really well, fitting Hamlet’s brooding and mood swings. As with Lear, there’s an interesting sense of political turmoil, that the recent death of the king has left the situation in Denmark unstable. The inevitable confrontation is legitimately sad, and it sells the big moments. The Facets DVD is imperfect, sometimes pixelated with a translation that seems to skip some stuff (this isn’t just Hamlet, it was an adaptation by Boris Pasternak.) But this is still a good adaptation of one of the best stories.

Movie #116/ New Movie #82/ Oscar Nominee #3: Minari (DVD)
It’s paced in an interesting way, casual but with a narrative force that slowly develops. It does a great job of showing the differences of the family members affected by the dad’s dream, and the sense of being outsiders in a weird environment, still quite different from the cliches. It’s rare to see the struggles of ordinary people depicted so well in film.

Movie #117/ New Movie #83/ Oscar Nominee #4: Hilbilly Elegy (Netflix)
I’m kinda pissed off at critics for hating this so much; that seems to be clearly political. It has a distinctive ethos in the struggles of a kid growing up in a weird family that is flawed, but more complex than the caricatures. The JD Vances are overshadowed by better performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams, although that’s more about their talents than a problem with the film. It is odd to see the eras where I grew up as cultural touchstones in flashbacks.

Movie #118/ New Movie #84/ Female Director #4: La Pelle/ The Skin (DVD)
It’s a bit distracting to see Italian dubbing for American characters in a story that’s supposed to highlight American ignorance and bravado. It’s light on plot, showing the horrors after a country loses a war, and it’s interesting to see what Americans look like from the outside, in a perspective that recognizes complexity, even if it is often way over the top (IE- the revelation of what hundreds of soldiers are lining up to see.)

Movie #120/ New Movie #85/ Russian Film #5: Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (Criterion DVD)
Eisenstein’s biopic on one of Stalin’s role models looks nice, but it’s often boring. It’s a bit like Alexander Nevsky in that the requirements of propaganda make the narrative less satisfying.

Movie #121/ New Movie #86/ Shakespeare Film #5: Macbeth (1971) (DVD)
Polanski’s version (produced by Playboy) conveys a sense of a man grappling with ambition and destiny. The medieval setting feels lived in. I can see why lead John Finch was in such high demand at the time (studios offered him James Bond; he was the lead in a Hitchcock film the year after this.) He shows a Macbeth who is believable in the role, while not comfortable with what he does. This is more like a supervillain origin story. It was controversial at the time, but now tamer than Game of Thrones.

Movie #122/ New Movie #87: Chopping Mall (Amazing Prime)
Sometimes this story of teens VS robots plays with expectations about slasher films, as they recognize how stupid it is to go separate and go alone. And it has fun with consumer culture. But it doesn’t make the end result good.

Movie #123/ New Movie #88: Bamboozled (DVD)
This was an odd film to watch as I wasn’t sure where Spike Lee was going and whether I’d ultimately find it to be a good film. He touched a lot of third rails. Some stuff is dated, especially a particular type of early digital filmmaking, but much of it is quite prescient about controversies of representation and blackface. Some of it is genius, although the lead is annoyingly inscrutable, which makes his story less interesting.

Movie #124: Blast of Silence (Criterion DVD)
This is a weirdly positioned noir, bordering between the end of the original noir era and 1960s Independent New York cinema verite. It’s distinctive with cool shots, a Christmas setting (very fitting), second person narration and a lead who is out of his element in the big city.

Movie #125/ New Movie #89/ Oscar Nominee #5/ Female Director #5: Crip Camp (Netflix)
It’s a well-told story where the directors benefit from having decades of material to explore the lives of disabled Americans who had meaningful experiences in a summer camp, and reconnected through activism. The film gets into the process of what they do in interesting ways, even if I disagree with some of it (hunger strikes did not seem productive.) It certainly shows the many reasons they had for sit-ins and other protests (a desire to live ordinary lives, a sense of purpose and their loving community.)

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Judicial Philosophy

One thing I’ve observed when listening to discussions about policy on conservative and progressive podcasts, or reading articles about the matter, is that conservatives tend to care about legal rationale, while progressives focus more on results. This got me thinking about how as a reasonably informed person, I could pretty easily explain originalism and textualism, the main conservative philosophies, but not the progressive understanding of how the law is supposed to work.

I asked the following question on multiple forums to get a better understanding of the other side.

In a lot of the discussions about the Supreme Court rulings, I haven’t seen much explanation about the rationale of the liberal position(s). The subtext sometimes seems to be that the court should use whatever pretext possible to get the best policy outcomes, but that doesn’t seem correct. So I’m asking if anyone can recommend a good primer on the left-wing approach to the law.

I can appreciate that there may not be one left-wing approach, just as the approaches tied to conservatism: originalism and textualism have some differences, and there are further nuances (a literal interpretation from a text can differ from a consideration of how it would be understood.) But if anyone has a good online source (video, podcast, article) explaining left-wing judicial philosophies, I would like to read it. Does anyone have a recommendation?

One response was that Breyer wrote good books on the matter, and that there were some decent articles about the unwritten constitution, as well as a discussion between Breyer and Scalia for the Supreme Court historical society that get into these differences.

Thomas C Grey’s “The Uses of the Unwritten Constitution.”

There was also an argument that the constitution did not survive the Civil War, and that it was replaced by the 14th amendment, which has taken some time to be realized. Thurgood Marshall articulated this in his bicentennial speech.

While the Union survived the civil war, the Constitution did not. In its place arose a new, more promising basis for justice and equality, the 14th Amendment, ensuring protection of the life, liberty, and property of all persons against deprivations without due process, and guaranteeing equal protection of the laws. And yet almost another century would pass before any significant recognition was obtained of the rights of black Americans to share equally even in such basic opportunities as education, housing, and employment, and to have their votes counted, and counted equally. In the meantime, blacks joined America’s military to fight its wars and invested untold hours working in its factories and on its farms, contributing to the development of this country’s magnificent wealth and waiting to share in its prosperity.

It was also interesting to see how some progressives really misunderstand the originalist position. For example, there was a common response that originalists would be opposed to amendments, when originalists explicitly support the amendment process. These were listed as reasons to be an originalist in an overview of judicial philosophies by the UM-KC School of Law.

5. Leaving it to the people to amend their Constitution when need be promotes serious public debate about government and its limitations.

7. If a constitutional amendment passed today, we would expect a court five years from now to ask what we intended to adopt. [Can the same be said for a court 100 or 200 years from now?]

8. Originalism more often forces legislatures to reconsider and possibly repeal or amend their own bad laws, rather than to leave it to the courts to get rid of them.

Among the reasons to be a non-originalist was the difficulty of using the amendment process, This still requires originalists to favor it.

4. Non-originalism allows judges to head off the crises that could result from the inflexible interpretation of a provision in the Constitution that no longer serves its original purpose. (The amendment process is too difficult and cannot be relied upon to save us.)

The bar association’s discussion of this frames the question as “Is the Constitution a static document, the meaning of which is set in stone until the people chisel in an amendment? So the idea that originalists reject the 13th and 19th amendments is absurd.

I think part of the reason people are so mistaken on this is that they have to come up with a caricature to argue against because originalism and textualism otherwise just seem so sensible when determining the role of a judge. This is helpful for conservatives. Progressives would benefit from clearly articulating their view of the courts. Much of the criticism of the right is that originalism or textualism is used as pretext for policy decisions that Republicans want, but without an articulation of a different philosophy the main defense of progressive judges is that they’re going to go for preferred policies without much pretext. There’s less sense of the neutral principles at play.

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Films Seen In 2021 Part 5

This is a continuation of notes on films I’ve seen this year. For this batch, I’ve had a few sub-goals: five French films, five films from AFI’s list of the funniest movies ever, five films by actor-directors and because I’ve realized that I haven’t been many watching any silent movies this year (that’s what happens when I don’t keep track of decades): five movies from the silent era.

Movie #85/ New Movie #59: Tom & Jerry (DVD)
It’s mostly pleasant all-ages film. I like the conceit that human characters are live-action, and all animals are animated. There’s a carelessness to the story as evident by the lack of attention to what makes an A-list celebrity wedding special. Are they both famous? Are they actors? Influencers? The main arc is pretty obvious, although it’s resolved okay.

Movie #86/ New Movie #60/ Actor-Director #1: A Quiet Place Part 2 (Theater)
It may be a little self-indulgent for John Krakinski to do a film about how his character is so awesome. This sequel continues logically from the first, and builds on the world okay. There is some plot induced stupidity and the narrative trudges a bit, although it is interesting where it gets to the point where you don’t know what’s happening next.

Movie #87/ New Movie #61: The Sparks Brothers (Theater)
It’s a straightforward documentary about a relatively obscure long-running band. I’ve never heard of them, aside from the trailer for their upcoming other film Annette, although I do get the sense that they’ve been parodied dozens of times before, which makes sense. They’re so distinctive, and they’ve been visible enough over the years while still being kinda unknown. For the same reason some people who saw the movie thought it was an elaborate mocumentary, they are great to parody. Wright gets to what makes the band special, even if more time on individual songs would be appreciated when we’re dealing with a band so obscure. Granted, that trick might be hard with 25 albums. It does certainly show the band’s ability to change, and how they were often ahead of everyone else.

Movie #88/ New Movie #62/ French Movie #1: Le Chinoise (Mubi)
This is an odd Godard film. Mainly it’s intellectual debates among ridiculous left-wing radicals before they go and take things up a notch. It’s strange that Godard seemed to believe in militant maoism given how well he makes fun of it.

Movie #89/ New Movie #63/ French Movie #2: The Oldest Profession (Kino Lorber Blu-Ray)
It’s an oddball anthology with top French directors tackling the world’s oldest profession. I suspect that no one would be surprised that a 1960s French movie about prostitution is sometimes a bit misogynstic. For the subject matter, it’s also typically quite tame. Some of the jokes are okay.

Movie #90/ New Movie #64/ Silent Film #1/ AFI 100 Laughs #1/ Actor-Director #2: The Navigator (Blu-Ray)
It’s a fun Keaton film with two incompetent young people stuck on a boat together, barely able to manage, required complex rube goldberg devices to manage the most simple things. It often showcases Keaton’s mastery of the comedic long-shot. A final encounter with an island of cannibals has not aged as well as most of the film.

Movie #91/ French Movie #3/ Silent Movie #2: The Passion of Joan of Arc (Criterion Blu-Ray)
This time I watched the 24 frames per second version with the score by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory. The score was very modern, but worked quite well with the timelessness of the source material. It remains one of the best movies ever made, with a powerhouse performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti at the destruction and spiritual salvation of a great woman.

Movie #92/ AFI 100 Laughs #2: Monkey Business (DVD)
It’s the Marx brothers, so it has some inspired gags, and is sometimes ahead of the audience. The brothers play stowaways who get involved in a mob conflict, which works as a centerpiece.

Movie #93/ New Movie #65/ French Movie #4/ Actor-Director #3: Let’s Make a Dream (Mubi)
This is very obviously a theatrical adaptation, with the direction a bit dull. Sometimes it goes on a little bit too long, although it is witty and charming. The restoration on Mubi is imperfect, but it does have some great sequences and twists, especially a cad’s elaborate fantasy of what his girl is doing when heading his way.

Movie #94/ New Movie #66/ French Movie #5/ Silent Movie #3: Monte Cristo Part 1 (Youtube)
I started watching clips someone put on Youtube, and then ordered a DVD of it to get a better transfer. Unfortunately, the DVD only included a 40 minute long cut (from a movie that totals three hours and forty minutes and in released in two parts in France), and the transfer was much worse than the Youtube.

This is quite naturalistic for a silent movie. The direction and performances are okay, but it is a bit of a struggle in the beginning, especially before the lead gets him arrested. It gets much more interesting when his imprisonment begins, and we get a sense of his suffering and a cleaner narrative with his friendship with someone who initially appears to be a lunatic. The story is quite episodic, with sections of the narrative dealing with new characters as the lead disappears for major stretches. Some of the stories are more powerful than others, but the results are satisfying.

Movie #95/ New Movie #57/ AFI 100 Laughs Movie #3/ Silent Movie #4: The Freshman (Youtube)
It’s a fun time capsule of college in a very different era. Harold Lloyd is a bit too old to be a college freshman, but he does a good job of playing someone well-meaning but way too eager to please. Some of the gags are inspired, and quite complex, especially where a party sequence where his clothes are falling apart, and a dizzy tailor has to help. There is legitimate emotion to it, and the narrative turns aren’t as obvious as you’d assume from a silent film. When he gets a chance to play in the big game, it initially does not go well for him.

oMovie #96/ AFI 100 Laughs Movie #4/ Actor-Director #4: Bananas (DVD)
There’s one joke here that aged really badly, when Woody Allen has to justify buying a porno mag by saying that he’s studying moral perversion and moving up to child molestation. Otherwise, it’s a decent early Woody Allen film with an earlier version of his nebbish persona and jokes that seem more common in a Mel Brooks film, or Airplane (many of which came out later.)

Movie #97/ New Movie #68: Black Widow (Theater)
It’s an okay Marvel movie with some decent sequences. The cast is fine, with Florence Pugh as a standout, setting up a potential replacement who is entertainingly self-aware. The story is a bit generic MCU (squabbling siblings, fight scenes on a base in the air, a villainous conspiracy going back decades) even if it is darker than most (a conversation about forced sterilization works to reveal character and just how the twisted the system the widows came from is) and it does have a larger point about how women and girls are overlooked. The direction is consistently impressive. It is over the top at times, closer at times to the stereotypes about Michael Bay and the Fast & Furious films than most MCU movies.

Movie #98/ New Movie #69/ AFI 100 Laughs Movie #5: Topper (PBS)
Cary Grant’s eight films on the AFI 100 Laughs countdown are built on his abilities as the best straight man in film, or as evident here, the life of the party trying to encourage someone else to loosen up a little. In this case, he’s doing it beyond the grave as a ghost. This might have one of the most flagrant examples of category fraud in Oscars history with the nomination of Roland Young’s Topper, the ultimate man who needs to loosen up, in the category of Supporting Actor. The results are fun.

Movie #99: Black Bear (Digital)
It’s interesting watching this again knowing what the twist is going to be. It’s a bit of an intellectual puzzle to figure out what’s going on, which makes it tougher to connect emotionally to a story about a couple and a stranger in an enclosed environment, although the difficulty of connecting emotionally is one of the themes of the story. One thing the film does quite well is to show the three leads and the setting in radically different circumstances, and it depicts both of those circumstances quite well.

Movie #100/ New Movie #70/ Silent Film #5/ Actor-Director #5: The Circus (DVD)
A Chaplin film which was a hit when it came out, and it still has a decent reputation, although it seems to now fall just outside his Top Five. There are some fantastic set pieces in the circus, as Chaplin’s little tramp ruins performances and briefly becomes the star of the show, getting involved in a love triangle with a poignant ending. Even if it’s not top-tier Chaplin, it has great sight gags. Especially when monkeys get involved.

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