Archive for the ‘film’ Category
Tommy Boy, starring the late Chris Farley, is one of the funniest movies of all time. But it also provides us with lessons that are useful in understanding the 2012 American presidential election, particularly the question of Mitt Romney’s role as a “vulture capitalist” for Bain Capital.
In Tommy Boy, Farley plays Tommy Callahan III, a hard-partying recent college graduate (after 7 years) who inherits Callahan Auto, his father’s brake-pad company. The business is on the verge of bankruptcy, so Tommy has to travel across the country (with his sidekick, portrayed brilliantly by David Spade) to drum up sales for the company, which is the economic foundation of the small town in which it is located.
The point is that Tommy Boy is all about saving the American auto industry, the same industry that Romney effectively told to drop dead. And of course, Romney has had lots of experience dismembering businesses for his own profit at Bain Capital. Free marketeers will argue that Romney was just making the market more efficient by shutting down failing corporations. But, as we well know, presidents aren’t just interested in making the market more efficient, especially when that efficiency translates into big profits for the few, job losses for many, and without any noticeable improvement in productivity, reduction in consumer prices, or innovations that better our quality of life.
Beyond that, Tommy Callahan III could relate to the workers at his plant, whereas Mitt Romney cannot relate to anyone, least of all the vast majority of Americans who aren’t as wealthy as he is. Indeed, Chris Farley, perhaps America’s greatest slapstick comedian, could make everyone laugh, regardless of class or social background. President Obama has his flaws, and he’s more David Spade than Chris Farley, but at the end of the day, he’s a president who at the very least can relate to people across America’s socio-economic spectrum. So if you love Tommy Boy, you should vote for Barack Obama.
In a sense, the excellent Israeli movie Footnote tells a thoroughly Jewish, or even Judaic tale. The movie is in Hebrew and set in Israel. The plot revolves around two professors, a father and a son, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Both are Talmudic scholars.
And yet, more fundamentally, the movie is universal, and not Jewish at all. The Israeli setting, the Hebrew language, is incidental. This is a story about family, and about academia. The language, setting, and the academic discipline are irrelevant. It could just as easily have been about literary scholars in France, or chemists in England.
Some might argue that the elephant in the room of this film is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel is able to make a movie that completely ignores the existence of the Palestinians, which simply provides more evidence of the power of the occupation.
I read this fact differently. I think it is the fulfillment of one kind of Zionist dream, specifically Theodor Herzl’s dream of Jewish and Israeli normalization. Herzl supposedly quipped something to the effect of: “A Jewish state would only be a normal country if Jewish street-cleaners and gardeners worked in the same cities as Jewish doctors, lawyers and businessmen, and when Jewish policemen arrested Jewish prostitutes.”
Well, there certainly are Jewish sex workers in Israel (though I don’t think they should be arrested). But my point is that movies like Footnote are evidence of the partial normalization of Israel. They provide a vision of what Israel might be, if the Palestinian conflict were resolved. A country like any other, with the ability to tell universal stories using its own language and cultural markers. It’s a vision I endorse, one that seems far away, but provides the occasional glimmer of hope.
In any case, the movie is terrific. It’s funny and poignant, with great dialogue and superb acting. The film is accesible to anyone, but it’s especially relevant for historians (as Talmudists, the protagonists are de facto medieval historians) and anyone familiar with archival research and the academic life. And this isn’t just my opinion: Footnote was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Go see it.
Thinking a little more about our friend Greg Smith who just quit his job at Goldman Sachs, it occurred to me that Smith must have a very short memory. He claims that Goldman used to have a “culture” that “revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.” But when exactly was this? He started at Goldman Sachs 12 years ago, in 2000. But thirteen years before that, in 1987, Tom Wolfe wrote Bonfire of the Vanities (25 years ago now!). Four years later, in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis came out with American Psycho. Both novels parody (or celebrate, depending on your point of view, the arrogance, materialism, and overall douchebaggery of Wall Street. The main character in Bonfire, a white Wall Street trader named Sherman McCoy, thinks of himself as a “Master of the Universe” (and not the He-man variety, which would have been awesome). In American Psycho, the protagonist, investment banker Patrick Bateman, is driven to a psychopathic murderous rampage (or is he?) because intense elitism and douchebaggery of the corporate culture. No humility there. Heck, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, which some capitalists curiously misinterpret as a celebration of the financial sector, is in fact a criticism of the Ayn Rand/Gordon Gekko “greed is good” mentality that was rampant during the 1980s, including, I’m sure, at places like Goldman Sachs.
So yes, the fierce douchbaggery of the financial sector is nothing new, nor is the reputation for pulling a fast one on clients and committing either outright fraud or legal manipulation of unsuspecting customers. Greg Smith should have known that, and could have known that from simply cracking a fun book or watching a fun movie like American Psycho (I doubt there’s an investment banker alive who hasn’t seen that movie). But if the pop culture history isn’t enough, Smith can read this op-ed by William D. Cohan, which documents how
Goldman Sachs has been in and out of trouble throughout its 143 years — chiefly because it chose to put its own interests before those of its clients. What appeared to be a revelation to Smith was actually available to anyone who looked for it, buried deep within Securities and Exchange Commission and court records. Smith could have saved himself grief if he had only used his Stanford education to examine Goldman’s DNA before crossing its threshold.
Cohan’s article, titled “Goldman Sachs’s Long History of Duping its Clients,” focuses on one incident in particular, the June 1970 bankruptcy of Penn Central Transportation Company, the nation’s largest railroad.” According to Cohan, Goldman Sachs has been screwing over clients since at least 1928. I read the article. Now I think I’m gonna buy Cohan’s book, Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World. Greg Smith and all the other former and current financiers should probably read it too.
Still, despite my criticism here, let me re-emphasize that I applaud what Greg Smith has done. Even if his op-ed read a bit like a resume, he still did a good thing. Quitting was the right move, and telling people how sleazy Goldman Sachs has become, even if it, like all the other banks and hedge funds out there, have actually been that sleazy all along, is an extremely important message to get out there. It’s especially important coming from the inside. If it inspires others to quit, or to avoid applying in the first place, it will be a greater accomplishment, and a greater mitzvah, than even winning a gold medal in ping pong at the Maccabiah Games.
I just read a great article in last week’s New Yorker, “Kin and Kind: A Fight About the Genetics of Altruism,” by Jonah Lehrer. Unfortunately, it’s behind a pay-wall, so you should try to find a paper copy somewhere. As a humanities major, I can’t really do it justice, but it’s all about how various species, from vampire bats to the above pictured leaf-cutter ants, engage in different degrees of altruism, from the Darwinian phenomenon known as “inclusive fitness,” where animals look after not only their own offspring but also their nephews and nieces, to the “eusociality” of ants and other insects, “in which individuals live together in vast cooperative societies.” Human beings, of course, also live in complex cooperative societies, regardless of what Republicans might tell you about rugged individualism. The article is also about the academics attempting understand the biology behind benevolence, the “genetics of altruism,” and includes interesting discussion on the difference between mathematicians and biologists, who have been working together to understand these phenomena.
What interested me the most, however, was an apparent throw-away paragraph (that was clearly not a throw-away paragraph) about one of the scholars involved. Corina Tarnita, a math prodigy who grew up in rural Romania, had excelled at Harvard as an undergraduate, but was becoming bored in a doctoral program there until she discovered a textbook on “the mathematics of evolution.” Unlike her previous research on abstract algebraic geometry, this seemed more concrete, and got her excited. She emailed the author of the textbook, Austrian biologist Martin Nowak, also at Harvard, to see if she could work with him on this. But her life remained at a crossroads:
At the time she emailed Nowak,Tarnita had a dilemma. She’d recently received a job offer from a large hedge fund, for a lucrative position as a quantitative analyst. She was tempted by the money. “I like fancy clothes and fast cars,” she says. “I told myself that if Martin didn’t email me back then maybe I would leave Harvard.” Fortunately, Nowak responded and soon invited Tarnita to join his working group.
The word “fortunately” in the final sentence reflects a bit of editorializing on the part of the piece’s author, Jonah Lehrer, but it’s an opinion I’m sympathetic to. I think it would have been rather disappointing had Tarnita given up a potentially path-breaking career in the academy for the rewards of Wall Street.
I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time on Monday night. I know, the fact that it took me this long to see it is a real shanda (scandal).
I saw it on the big screen, with my wife and some friends and a few hundred screaming feminists (screaming with glee at the sight of a shirtless Patrick Swayze, that is). Prior to the film, one of the event organizers, my friend Irin, interviewed the movie’s screenwriter and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein. The evening was organized by Jezebel, with proceeds going to benefit the New York Abortion Access Fund, an all-volunteer organization that helps provide funds to poor pregnant women who want abortions but cannot afford them.
Much has already been written about this showing, by Irin herself, by the Wall Street Journal‘s Sarah Seltzer, and by Esther Zuckerman of The Village Voice. Indeed, between these articles and Irin’s earlier piece arguing that Dirty Dancing is “the greatest movie of all time,” I’m not sure what I can really add to the conversation. Nevertheless, I’ll share my main take-aways from the evening [spoiler alert]:
1) I knew the movie was popular, a cult classic seen countless times by North American girls and women, but I had no idea how big it was internationally. In Australia, truck drivers watched it at repeatedly at rest stops. In Germany, the dubbers were so obsessed with having the mouth movement at least resemble German words that they translated Johnny Castle’s signature line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” to “My Baby belongs to me. Is this clear?” And apparently that’s the line they love and remember. Ah, the Germans: always thinking everything belongs to them.
Following weiner’s suggestion, I went to see X-Men: First Class this weekend and really enjoyed it (particularly the parts filmed in Oxford!). During the previews, we saw one for the Green Lantern movie. This movie, which I haven’t seen because it hasn’t come out yet over here (not sure if it already has in the states) has a familiar premise: some alien force is going around the universe/galaxy wiping out civilizations and/or taking over planets. Like Independence Day (awesome film), War of the Worlds, and dozens of others, the assumption seems to be that humanity will band together as a global community to defeat the invading force.
Now, call me a cynic, but it’s just not going to happen like that.
I saw X-Men: First Class last night. Really good movie. It was especially fun for historians, and not only because it fictionally ties in to real events like the Holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War. It also deals with the modern academic trifecta of race, class, and gender in relatively interesting ways, of course using the notion of mutants to complicate these matters (oh, no I used the term complicate! the next thing you know I’ll be trying to problematize something!).
What I will say is that January Jones must be the world’s worst actress. Unless she was supposed to play a mutant super-villain in the same way she does Betty Draper. Still, it was an awesome movie, and you should see it.
For some time now I’ve been meaning to write more about this character who I found in the archive, an abolitionist named Daniel Foster, about whom I’ve found almost nothing published (Wikipedia has entries for Dan Foster the West Virginian politican, Daniel Foster, the Nigerian DJ, and Danny Foster, the British Football star). I was telling myself I should wait for something relevant to happen that might make his story meaningful, but couldn’t really find anything, and doubt that I would. I don’t think I’ll use him much in my dissertation, but I really just wanted to write about him, for reasons I wasn’t quite sure of at first.
I found Foster’s papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society, where they ended up sometime in the early 20th century. Foster was born in New Hampshire, educated at Dartmouth, and ended up in Concord, MA, as the Congregationalist minister. Rare for an orthodox minister, he was drawn both to the anti-slavery fight and the Transcendentalists. Emerson, generally no fan of Congregationalists, spoke warmly of him, writing that he “respected certain heroic traits which appeared in him” and that Foster “was a brave good pastor, & took care of the outcast & forgotten.” Among the “outcast & forgotten” who Foster aided were a number of fugitive slaves, including Thomas H. Jones, whose memoir Foster helped publish.During the crisis around the rendition of Thomas Sims, Foster distinguished himself. Sims, a 17 year old from Georgia, was captured under the terms of the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Act. Taken to prison, his freedom quickly became a cause célèbre among Massachusetts radicals, who had taken pride in their (erroneous) belief that no slave could be captured in Boston. In his journal, Foster obsessed about the case, writing that he was “hardly been able to think of anything else all day,” and eventually traveled to Boston in order to attend Sims’ trial and participate in the activity of the Boston Vigilance Committee, which was plotting, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to free Sims. When the 17 year old was finally deported, it took, according to Foster’s diary, “500 thoroughly armed [soldiers] assembled around the Boston Bastille” to carry him to the dock. A crowd of abolitionists followed, and when Sims was finally put aboard the ship to bring him south, Foster was called on to read the prayer. Thoreau, whose family was friends with Foster’s, wrote in his journal that when he read that “the man who made the prayer on the wharf was Daniel Foster of Concord, I could not help feeling a slightly pride because, of all the towns of the Commonwealth, Concord was the only one distinctly named as being represented…”
Throughout the 1850s he wrote for The Liberator before moving to Kansas in 1858, determined to prevent Kansas from becoming a slave state. According to a friend, he was a “bosom companion” of John Brown, while in Kansas. When the war broke out he volunteered first as a chaplain with the 33rd Massachusetts, and then asked to be transferred to a black regiment, the 37th U.S. Colored Volunteers, and serve as a soldier. The US Army only began arming black soldiers in late 1862, and even then, demanded that the officers be white. Foster became one of these officers, a particularly dangerous position. Not only, of course, did skin color make it much easier for the enemy to identify, and therefore target, officers, but Confederates considered white officers who led black troops to be inciting slave rebellions, a crime punishable by death. Agreeing to lead a black regiment was generally a sign of strong commitment to the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War, and a faith in black equality. At Chapin’s Bluff, in Northern Virginia, Foster was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter while warning his troops of enemy movement.
Certainly there are more remarkable lives, but Foster, by any standard, lived a life worth admiring. Like any great social movement, the anti-slavery fight drew on thousands of unrecognized and forgotten men and women, only a few of whom we recognize in public memory.
But I think the reason I wanted to write this blog post came from something different, and perhaps some of the other historians reading this will understand what I mean. It was not so much Foster’s extraordinary life, but his absolute ordinariness. There is a very strange and poignant feeling when you open up a folder or a box in an archive that contains the entire life of a long-dead person. The first couple of pages, normally letters from their grandchildren who are submitting the collection to the archive, then a yellowed journal, perhaps a short collection of letters, maybe a momento from an organization, some official documents, likely a will, etc… In this case, a letter written to Foster’s wife by an army companion after his death. Most of the material, of course, is mostly unusable from the perspective of the historian. Take Foster’s journal. Like everyone, Foster only rarely mentioned political or social affairs. Instead he was mostly concerned with his daily life: he misses his wife, who must stay with her mother, is touchingly anxious before her childbirth, is devastated when his infant daughter dies. The basic struggles of anyone, repeated, no doubt, millions of times over by people both famous and forgotten.
I think I found Foster’s story poignant partly because his journal, which seemed so honest and believable, made him seem like such a knowable person, and partly because he illustrates so well the profound unfairness of historical memory. I’m sitting in the library of the Boston Athenaeum, one block away from the famous statue of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Commons. Shaw, of course, was another white abolitionist who died leading black troops. If anything, Shaw did far less for the anti-slavery fight than Foster did, and yet there he is in one of the most famous Civil War memorializations ever. They made a Hollywood movie about him, and in Robert Lowell’s 1960 poem For the Union Dead, Shaw serves as the symbol of submerged New England idealism buried by a plastic modernism.
Why will Shaw remain forever famous, while Foster is completely forgotten? All Shaw did was be born rich and then die in battle. Foster’s family was not wealthy, he came from New Hampshire and not Boston, he was overshadowed by famous contemporaries, and, likely, his papers were not deposited in an archive for years after his death. I suspect, as well, the commonness of his name makes him forgettable. But if it seems that Foster was treated unfairly, think about how many more people didn’t even have his privileges, because they were illiterate, or peasants, or black or brown, or women, or gay, and so no archivists ever took them seriously.
This is not to say, of course, that Shaw doesn’t deserve memorialization. And regardless of his own merits, as David Blight has shown, the memory of Shaw and the 54th served as a powerful counter-discourse to the racist Lost-Cause ideology of the late Nineteenth Century. But it is to say that the celebration of Shaw, instead of Foster or any other equally heroic figures, is more or less random and arbitrary.
I think there is an element of history, if I could get absurd and existential for a second, that is motivated by our anxiety towards death and existencelessness. Telling someone’s history is, in a way, a manner of keeping them alive, fighting that nagging sense that we’re pushing that boulder up a hill for reasons that can’t possibly matter in some truly ultimate way, that death will wipe all our petty accomplishments away. Certainly I think this is true of millions of Americans who study their own family history. There is just this strong desire to believe that all of the little struggles and triumphs of our life, and of our family, matter. That it matters to history that Daniel Foster’s 2 year old daughter died in 1853, in some way approaching how he felt it mattered. It’s a bit like that Smiths song: “ So we go inside and we gravely read the stones, all those people all those lives where are they now? With the loves and hates and passions just like mine, they were born and then they lived and then they died. Seems so unfair and I want to cry.”
The positive aspect, though, of being forgotten, is that you avoid being sainted. You remain a person. Shaw, after all, must always remain that bronze statue (or the stuffy horrible performance by Matthew Broderick), more symbol than human. Foster, on the other hand, still seems like a real person with real loves, and struggles, and fears. I guess I liked him because he’s a reminder that people can be, well, just normal everyday forgotten people, and still have done amazing things worthy of the highest praise. And that, in fact, most of the best things ever done are probably totally forgotten.
So, perhaps, read correctly, there is democracy in the arbitrary absurdity of the archive. Yes, most of us won’t end up like Shaw, praised for centuries to come. But that doesn’t at all mean that those who end up in statues and movies have a monopoly on heroism or good lives. In fact the arbitrariness of it is the exact proof that there is no link between fame and good deeds. Which is another way of saying, perhaps, that we shouldn’t look at great movements as the products of its famous heroes (your Abraham Lincolns, Eugune Debs, etc…) without remembering that there are countless people who made those things happen who will never be remembered.
What is it about the New Year, or 2011, that reproduction is suddenly becoming the focus of such media scrutiny? Could it have anything to do with the coming into power of a militantly anti-choice Speaker?
Cultural sniffer Ross Douthat has also noticed this trend and decided to add his two cents in a recent Times column. Mostly it’s a yawn-fest whose point of view can be most quickly summed up by the fact that he refuses to call embryos and fetuses anything except the “unborn.” But he’s really doing his best to do a nuanced analysis of
recent all the media representations of abortion ever and the adoption vs. surrogacy debate. I’ll hold back from line edits, but I thought I’d helpfully provide Douthat with some feedback on larger ideas that I think could use reworking.
1. The American entertainment industry has never been comfortable with the act of abortion.
Ross, the recent, sanitized, and mainstream American entertainment industry is not comfortable with abortion. But watch a Paul Mazursky film from the late ’70s, say the really wonderful An Unmarried Woman, and you’ll find the 15-year-old daughter casually talking to her mother about helping to pay for a classmate’s abortion while they set the dinner table together. Note that this is the only mention of abortion in the entire movie. There’s no hand-wringing, abortion just happens to be embedded in the everyday.
2. MTV being MTV, the special’s attitude was resolutely pro-choice. But it was a heartbreaking spectacle, whatever your perspective.
Is any media representation in the era of reality TV going to be anything but a “heartbreaking spectacle”? On the Real Housewives of New York being late for opening night at the Met is a “heartbreaking spectacle.” What network is going to air a woman self-assuredly and quietly going in for an abortion? In this case, and since you yourself say the American media is uncomfortable with abortion, should you really use a reality show as your only case study to show “how abortion can simultaneously seem like a moral wrong and the only possible solution”?
3. Last month there was Vanessa Grigoriadis’s provocative New York Magazine story “Waking Up From the Pill“…
Hang on, just a quick word choice suggestion even though I know I said I wouldn’t line edit, but “provocative” doesn’t seem to quite capture Grigoradis’s story. Let me know what you think of one of the following instead: sensationalistic, outlandish, insupportable.
4. In every era, there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason…Since 1973, countless lives that might have been welcomed into families like Thernstrom’s — which looked into adoption, and gave it up as hopeless — have been cut short in utero instead.
Though you don’t cross all your t’s, I get your underlying contention that it’s a tragedy that all these young, poor, unmarried girls now have the option to terminate their pregnancies rather than gestate for 9 months so that a wealthier, older, better-positioned, married woman can take their baby off their hands, and that now these wealthier women are forced to actually pay those women who now have a legal choice to act as surrogates or supply eggs for their (re)productive labor. I don’t have any real suggestions on this one, I just thought you could make that more clear.
5. This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.
Wait, I’m confused. For something you want to find so concrete (“unborn life,” not “a mass of cells”), I’m surprised that you’re abstracting here so much. Which life? Whose life? Is this the unborn life of someone who desires a child, or the unborn life of someone who doesn’t? I think differentiating between the two might help resolve this paradox.