How to Succeed by Failing

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While Hollywood remains determined to commit financial suicide by focusing on their never-ending stream of superhero flicks (such as the recent Suicide Squad), film lovers can still find satisfying fare by looking beyond the major studios. Florence Foster Jenkins is a case in point. Produced by BBC Films, it is utterly delightful — and it delivers an important message about passion and dreams to boot.

The film is set in 1944 New York, where Madame Florence (Meryl Streep) is a popular socialite and patron of the arts, a woman who has established several music clubs to further the careers of budding composers and musicians. She also loves to produce tableaux and small operatic concerts with herself in the principal roles. The only problem is that she can’t sing. The solution, for her, is that she is blissfully unaware of how painful her voice is, and her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant) is determined to keep it that way. He sits in on her lessons, hires only the best voice coaches and pianists, and invites “members only” to her performances while keeping the legitimate press away.

This ruse becomes more difficult when Florence books herself at Carnegie Hall, and St. Clair has to work even harder to protect her from learning the truth about how she sounds to others. (Evidently there is more than one way to get to Carnegie Hall; while most musicians have to “practice, practice, practice,” “money, money, money” can be just as effective.)

Their love is entirely believable and entirely captivating. We glimpse the richness of a relationship that endures in sickness and health, in good times and bad.

As Madame Florence prepares her new accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), for their “rigorous” training schedule, she warns him, “I practice an hour a day — sometimes two!” She hires the likes of Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) as her voice coach, and St. Clair sits in on the lessons, smiling contentedly as she sings. We in the audience wince painfully, and Cosmé can barely control his embarrassed laughter — until he realizes that St. Clair is as serious as Florence about her singing.

Soon, however, Cosmé is drawn to Florence’s eccentric charm. So are her numerous friends. And so are we. From the flowery froufrou and feathers of the self-designed costumes on her matronly figure to the bathtub full of potato salad for her lunchtime soirées, we can’t help but love her free spirit.

Because Florence has a chronic health condition, she and St. Clair have a platonic marriage. But their love is palpable. He protects her and cares for her with a tenderness that transcends the tear-off-her-clothing kind of love portrayed in most movies. And she returns his affection with the confidence and sincerity of a woman who feels adored. Their love is entirely believable and entirely captivating. We glimpse the richness of a relationship that endures in sickness and health, in good times and bad.

Hugh Grant made his career playing the young and somewhat bumbling British heartthrob with the self-effacing demeanor and dazzling boyish smile. Then, in Music and Lyrics (2007), at the age of 47 he played a washed-up singer almost as an aging parody of himself, as though he couldn’t imagine himself as a believable love interest any longer. Happily for us, he was coaxed from a self-imposed semi-retirement by the prospect of playing opposite Meryl Streep. Actors have said that they love performing with Streep; she is so fully engaged in her character that they can become more completely engaged in their own. In this case Grant seems to provide that same emotional depth for Streep, who as Florence Foster Jenkins gives what I think is her finest performance ever — and this is a woman who has been nominated for 19 Oscars and has won three of them.

Madame Florence hears the voice of an angel when she sings, and that is the subtle message of her story: embrace your passions, whether or not you have the skill or talent to succeed by the world’s standards. It made me think of the many people this month who, fueled by the passion they’ve seen in the Olympic athletes, donned track shoes or swim suits and began “training” for the Tokyo Olympics four years from now. I remember the skating moms I knew when my daughter was a competitive figure skater, and how each of us imagined our daughters would stand on that ultimate medals platform — even though we knew, deep down, that the chance was pretty slim.

I also remember performing in Oklahoma! many years ago and being so surprised when I saw the video of the show — I had danced with the heart of a Rockette, but in reality I had barely left the ground. Still, I love to dance, and I’m perfectly happy never to see what I look like. In my heart and my mind, I’m a pro. As Madame Florence confesses with a smile, “They may say that I can’t sing, but they can never say I didn’t sing.” So sing your heart out. Or run. Or do whatever it is that brings you joy. Don’t let what others think keep you from doing what you love.

Embrace your passions, whether or not you have the skill or talent to succeed by the world’s standards.

Just how bad was the voice of the real Florence Foster Jenkins? When Streep began to sing, I thought she was exaggerating the squawkiness out of fear that modern audiences, raised on pop culture, wouldn’t know a well-sung aria from a flat one. I thought that no one could really sing that badly. But as the credits were rolling at the end of the film, a recording of the real Florence’s voice was played, and I have to hand it to Meryl Streep — she nailed it. It was godawful. But the film is brilliant. Don’t miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Florence Foster Jenkins," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2016, 110 minutes.



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A Libertarian Novel of Ideas

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“You couldn’t make this stuff up, yet it all seemed so natural and matter of fact” — so says Free Dakota, William Irwin’s new novel, in a comment about some of its own plotline. The first part of the comment is, of course, as fictional as the novel itself: Irwin made all “this stuff” up. But the second part is real and true: Irwin’s unusual work of fiction does somehow seem natural and matter of fact.

The book demonstrates, for one thing, that you can start to make a fantasy seem real if you surround it with realistic detail. Free Dakota is as loaded with Americana as a Tom Wolfe book, or it would be, if it were as long as a Tom Wolfe book. Actually, Free Dakota is becomingly brief. Irwin selects exactly the right details to make a fictional small town feel like a real small town, to make a fictional diner in North Dakota seem like a real diner. He does the same with his characters. But descriptive details are never enough. Irwin adds to the details a story that appears to be real because the plot develops naturally from his characters’ psychology.

If there’s a protagonist of this novel, it’s Don, a middle-aged novelist with an enormous writer’s block and even more enormous ennui. Don finds a purpose in life in the attempt of a libertarian group to get like-minded people to move to North Dakota and then vote to secede from the Union. Vying with Don for the role of protagonist (the “apron” as the novel calls it, for various good reasons) is Lorna, a high-class madam who unexpectedly (but reasonably, as Irwin makes it appear) follows Don to North Dakota and becomes a libertarian activist. A third interesting person is Mackey, a dropout from a Catholic seminary who in place of formal religion has adopted classic libertarian ideas, and a desire to live up to them.

Irwin selects exactly the right details to make a fictional small town feel like a real small town.

The plot takes us all the way through the secession campaign, and I won’t spoil the fun by telling you how it turns out. Along the way, there are many arguments for and about libertarian ideas, arguments that most libertarians have encountered before, but probably not in so clever and attractive a guise. And this may be the place to record what Irwin told me about the genesis of his story:

I've always wanted to write a novel, but I wanted to have something to say. I love Plato's dialogues for their ability to raise questions and expose how little we know. I'm an accidental libertarian. I just didn't care much about politics or political philosophy until I was well into my 30s. I just wanted to be left alone, and it was becoming more and more clear to me that the government wasn't leaving me alone. I read [Robert] Nozick and others. Only much later did I read the novels of Ayn Rand, and Atlas Shrugged made a big impression on me. For all its faults, it's a great novel. I think you need to read it as being in the same genre as Brave New World and 1984. It's not meant to be completely realistic, but it conveys important ideas. So, along with Plato's dialogues, Atlas Shrugged is the main source of inspiration for Free Dakota. Readers will find plenty of allusions to Atlas Shrugged in Free Dakota.

That’s true, and charming. More remarkable is the novel’s wealth of libertarian ideas, and how easily Irwin gets us into and out of the arguments about them. Free Dakota is a “novel of ideas” that has freed itself from the melancholy history of its genre. The ordinary “novel of ideas” is all ideas and no novel — witness Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back (1951, 1966), a complete guide to free-enterprise capitalism, written by a good economic journalist. Time Will Run Back is one of the most intelligent books in the world, and one of the nicest. It’s even nice enough to offer a basic plot — a story about the conversion of a dictatorship into a libertarian society. But the plot doesn’t really matter, and neither do the characters. It’s only the arguments that count, and long before you reach the end, you’re ready for something else, such as a real novel.

Irwin’s book, however, is a real novel. You can read it without knowing anything about libertarian ideas and still get involved with the story and characters. And this is strange, considering the way in which Irwin, a professor of philosophy, says that his book developed: “I started with the exchange of ideas and added layers of detail concerning characters and settings in subsequent drafts. I had a basic idea for the plot but not a detailed outline, so I let it develop naturally.”

Free Dakota is a “novel of ideas” that has freed itself from the melancholy history of its genre.

I can think of no other literary work that was written in this manner — starting with the intellectual debates, and adding the details later — that still succeeded in recommending itself as a novel, as opposed to a series of essays. The vitality of Irwin’s story can result from only one source — a sustained interest in the varieties of human life and character. That’s why the plot could “develop naturally” and not mechanically.

There’s another unusual thing about Irwin’s narration, and I believe it has something to do with the “naturalness” of the book. In a normal novel, one learns a great deal about the youth, education, career choices, dietary preferences, and other features of the major characters. One often learns these things soon after the characters come on stage. Irwin’s novel, by contrast, functions on a rigorously need-to-know basis. Most characters are hardly introduced at all; they just show up. Later, one finds out more about them, but seldom anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to the movement of events.

This method never advertises itself; it’s simply a thing one begins to notice. It wouldn’t work in a story that tried to accomplish anything like a sociological survey, or depth psychology — but, come to think of it, it manages to preserve more of the alluring mysteriousness of the human mind than many a chapter of Henry James. And what one sees on the page is more realistic, more natural, in one definition of those terms, than the normal novelistic treatment. In real life, new people aren’t introduced to us with full accounts of themselves, extensively cross-indexed. They just show up, and if we’re interested in continuing the relationship, we learn enough about them to do that. The basis of Irwin’s tale might pompously be called the epistemology of normal life. Whatever you call it, it gives the book a good deal of its realism and credibility.

Something that Irwin told me suggests that for him, creating characters was a good deal like the experience of meeting people in normal life. We meet Person X, recognize similarities and differences between him and ourselves; then, perhaps, we establish further relationships, with the people he knows:

I started with the protagonist, Don Jenkins. Like me, he's an accidental libertarian, but there aren't too many similarities between us beyond that. . . . Most of the other characters developed in reaction to Don Jenkins. I would ask myself who Don would meet in a given situation and I would go with the images and ideas that occurred to me.

It’s a part of normal life to connect ourselves not just with real people but also with the people we meet in books. So it’s very natural for Irwin to add, “The diner owner, John Mackey, is inspired by Hugh Akston from Atlas Shrugged.” Readers who already know Hugh Akston will be interested, and I think amused, to see their old friend from a new perspective. But that’s the way the world really is; people change in interesting ways when we see them in new company.

In real life, new people aren’t introduced to us with full accounts of themselves, extensively cross-indexed. They just show up.

Almost as natural is another comment from the author about the images and ideas in his story: “Some of these changed in subsequent drafts, of course.” Free Dakota is natural in its method but well meditated in its execution. It’s a work of libertarian thought and action that libertarians will warmly welcome.


Editor's Note: Review of "Free Dakota," by William Irwin. Roundfire, 2016. 203 pages.



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The New Cable

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“As a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or offered in your network TV listings. Strange things are afoot in home entertainment, and the made-for-Netflix series Stranger Things is a brilliant case in point.

If you’re tired of the endlessly inane sitcoms, crime dramas, talent shows and trashy pseudo-reality shows offered by CBS, NBC, and ABC, turn off your networks and turn on your Netflix. There you will find well-scripted shows with movie-quality production values streamed to you on your phone, your computer, or your Smart TV. And it won’t cost you the nearly $200 a month many are paying now for cable television throughout their homes. My Netflix account costs $9.99 a month — and I can even carry it with me when I travel and share it with family members in other states at no extra charge. I don’t need a cable box or even a digital video recorder, because Netflix provides all of its listings to me on demand, whenever I feel like watching it — no commercials, no interruptions, and no set schedule. All I need is an Internet connection. And the quality of the programming can be superb.

Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced.

Stranger Things, an eight-episode sci-fi series made specifically for Netflix, is a great example. Set in 1983, the show begins with a group of 12-year-old boys playing Dungeons & Dragons. They’re a lot like the kids in Steven Spielberg’s Goonies — likeable and outgoing, but slightly off. One has cleidocranial dysplasia, a genetic condition that prevents his permanent teeth from growing in; another has a weak chin that gives his face a beaklike quality. All of them are a little nerdy, but their friendship overcomes any sense of inadequacy.

When the game ends, the boys jump on their banana-seat bicycles and head for their various homes. (My immediate reaction: “Yes! Geeky boys on bicycles! I’m in!”) One of them, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), encounters a strange beast that seems connected to a strange government installation on the outskirts of town. No one is home when he arrives there, and he goes out to the shed to investigate. The lights start flickering, an ominous predatory growl is heard outside, and suddenly Will vanishes.

The rest of the series focuses on finding out what happened to Will and uncovering the truths behind that secret government laboratory. The eight hourlong episodes are sharp and suspenseful, and each ends with a cliffhanger reminiscent of Fox’s phenomenally successful, movie-quality 24. I “binge-watched” the entire series in a single day.

What makes Stranger Things so compelling? First is the quality of the scripts and the acting. Great shows are driven by great scripts, and the dialogue in this show feels natural and unforced, reminiscent of my own son and his friends hanging out in the ’80s. My only caveat is Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, mother of the missing boy, who is cloyingly, ferally crazed throughout the series, until her character suddenly and inexplicably ends up wearing lipstick, eyeshadow and false lashes with her hair combed out of her eyes in the last two episodes. (Winona must have seen the rushes and decided too much was too much.)

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time.

Even more impressive than the script is the quality of the production. Netflix provided them a budget that allowed them to create a movie-quality show. But budget alone doesn’t lead to success; witness the nine-figure superhero films that have been dropping like flies at the box office this summer. The Duffer Brothers (twins Matt and Ross), who created the show and directed most of the episodes, know what they are doing. Much of their success (at least with semi-nerds like me) is in their skillfully crafted homage to Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, which is as impressive as J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011). It’s a little bit E.T. mixed with Poltergeist, The Goonies, and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner) too, with nods to numerous Stephen King books.

Prop master Lynda Reiss managed to recreate the ’80s with a budget of just $220,000 for eight hours of screen time. She reportedly searched eBay, flea markets, rental companies and estate sales to find the vintage boomboxes, telephones, bicycles, cars, movie posters, clothing and home furnishings that give the show its striking ambience. The soundtrack too, is authentic ’80s, with the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” providing a particularly poignant recurring motif.

This is a show that could only be set in the ’80s, when boys could still ride their bikes around town without telling their parents where they were going or when they would be home (and without their parents being investigated by Child Protective Services for letting them do so). It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems, stand up to bullies, navigate relationships, and manage not to get killed while snooping around empty buildings or abandoned rock quarries. Without cellphones, it was also a harder time for parents in many ways. I love how often the characters have to look for a pay phone in order to contact one another, and the reminder of how a mother had to wait anxiously at home beside the landline phone to hear from a late or missing child. Worry and trust went hand in hand back in the ’80s; it was a magical time, and I hope filmmakers continue to remind us of what it was like when kids roamed free.

So how is Netflix able to produce great programming such as this on a subscription model of ten bucks a month for unlimited viewing with little-to-no commercial advertising? There was a time when “made-for-TV” was code for “don’t expect much” from a movie. I expected that would be even truer of “made-for-Netflix,” with its inexpensive business model. Stranger Things is no anomaly, however. Series like House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and the wildly popular (and well-made) Orange is the New Black are just as impressive. I wondered how Netflix could afford such quality while the traditional network shows are becoming markedly worse. So I did some checking around.

It’s a reminder of just how free life was less than a generation ago, when kids learned all by themselves how to solve problems.

Netflix started as a home-delivery alternative to Blockbuster. Instead of driving to the local video store, wandering the aisles in search of something to watch on Friday night, and then paying exorbitant late fees when you inevitably forgot to take it back on time (after forgetting even to watch it), customers could create a list of films they wanted to see and have them delivered to their mailbox with a pre-stamped return mailer. When they finished watching the movie, whether it was the next day or two weeks later, they just set it out in the prepaid mailer for the mail carrier to take, and Netflix automatically sent them the next film on the list (or films, depending on their subscription plan). Eventually streaming replaced the need for physical DVDs, and instant gratification was possible.

Netflix had signed a deal with Starz that provided them access to a huge library of current movies, but when that contract ended about five years ago, their selection shrunk significantly overnight. They were still making a ton of money off subscriptions, but they needed to give those subscribers a reason to keep paying each month. Just as they had recognized that the video store model had to change, they realized that their new business model needed to change again. People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow, the monthly streaming subscriptions.

Meanwhile, the television entertainment model was changing too. For decades the three major networks had dominated entertainment television, with cable as the poor stepsister largely providing cheap local-access programming, infomercials and news shows. Then HBO realized they could make inroads into in-home entertainment by providing original programming. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire,and Curb Your Enthusiasm provided top-quality scripts, actors, and production values, while also pushing against FCC rules regarding language and nudity that controlled network programming.

When their contract with Starz ended, Netflix programmers realized that they could continue to spend a ton of money buying existing content, or they could create their own exclusive content. They’ve done both, providing their customers with favorite old network series from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but also commissioning great new programs.

CEO Ted Sarandos was dead set on creating shows on par with those being made for HBO, and he had enough surplus cash to do it. Their first production was House of Cards, an American remake of a British series of the same name, and they managed to land David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl, Se7en) as director and Kevin Spacey as the star. (Netflix also greenlighted Fuller House, so the quality of their programming runs the gamut.).

People weren't going to leave Netflix right away, but if their library stayed small and uninviting, Netflix would eventually lose their cash cow.

The biggest difference between Netflix programming and HBO programming is that Netflix is straight-to-consumer and subscription based, while HBO continues to go through the local cable TV model and requires a premium upcharge. With cable companies now requiring that customers rent a separate cable box (at $10 or more) for every television in the house, in-home entertainment now costs more than $100 a month. Add the Internet service and landline telephone that are usually bundled into the cable service, plus premium charges for movie channels, sports and HBO, and before long you’re paying closer to $200 a month. Is it any wonder that so many households are ripping out their landlines and cable and opting just for Internet-based entertainment? Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are all subscription-based, on-demand Internet streaming options that offer good quality programming at a more affordable price.

In response to the cable-free movement in many homes, most networks are now offering some form of streaming, including HBO. Of course, if you’re paying $9.99 for Netflix, $14.99 for HBO Now, $99 a year for Amazon Prime Video (a bonus with shipping perks) and a few specialty stations, pretty soon you’re back over $100 for in-home entertainment. Perhaps in the future some of these services will start rebundling, and customers will be able to choose the services they want at a reasonable price. Choice — what a novel idea!

What’s next? It’s hard to say. The Hollywood studios have made a conscious decision to focus entirely on blockbuster franchise films and ignore the smaller, script-driven movies, creating a vacuum that wants to be filled. Netflix has been responding to that vacuum, committing to a six-film contract with comedian Adam Sandler and winning a bidding war on a script called Bright from Max Landis, son of John Landis of Thriller fame and a super-hot screenwriter in LA right now. Bright has a reported $90 million budget, comparable to almost any Hollywood studio product.

Netflix is also experimenting with a new distribution model of purchasing independent films and releasing them in theaters and on Netflix almost simultaneously. Beasts of No Nations with Cary Fukunaga of True Detective fame is one example. It earned almost nothing in the box office — not surprisingly, since a single ticket, small popcorn, and small drink currently costs close to $25. I love the atmosphere of a movie theater, but at those prices I’m starting to think it’s time to convert the basement into a home entertainment center.

I’m also concerned about how this new model will affect the careers of fledgling directors, since my understanding is that they earn very little, if anything, from individual views on Netflix. How will new filmmakers be able to continue their craft in the future if “success” means a distribution deal with one week of ticket sales in the theaters and an eternity of streaming on Netflix? I have hope that the market will solve this problem, just as it is solving the problem of outrageously expensive monopoly cable service. In the meantime, if Orange is the New Black, then Netflix is the new Cable. And I think that’s a good thing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Stranger Things," directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. Netflix, 2016, eight 50-minute episodes.



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Total Regime, Total Propaganda

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Choozoo: We went up and down that pile of dirt for four days. Fixed bayonets, hand to hand. Fought ‘em something fierce. They gave back as good as they got. Lots of men died. We were in the 23rd Infantry. We joined the Corps later. Hell, we were even younger than you.

Corporal “Stitch” Jones: I never heard of no Heartbreak Ridge.

Choozoo: That’s ’cause it ain’t in any of the history books. Just a little piece of war. Place didn’t even have a name, just a number. Stoney Jackson took one look up at it and said, “Ladies, if this hill doesn’t kill us, it’ll surely break our hearts.” — Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

Over the last couple of years I have devoted most of my all-too-limited time for research to the study of propaganda — what it is, how it works, and why it works. How can irrational propaganda persuade people of even high intelligence to believe absurd or silly things, much less do evil things? I have focused on Nazi Germany, because it was arguably the most successful dictatorial regime in modern history at rapidly consolidating political power and maintaining popular support, support that remained fairly widespread even as the country got pummeled in the last two years of the war.

The reason for the Nazi Regime’s large basis of support is, I believe, in great measure the power of its propaganda machine. The book under review is a useful illustration of how comprehensive in scope that machine was.

But a bit of conceptual analysis would be helpful here, for the term “propaganda” has a number of different meanings.

Let’s start with a basic distinction. Suppose I want Smith’s car. How might I try to get Smith to let me have it? Or better: what are the broad methods I might employ to get Smith to comply with my desire? Three, I think.

The first is attempted coercion, or what I will call simply power. This includes force, or the threat of force, or theft. I use the qualifier “attempted” to make it explicitly clear that the coercion may or may not succeed, depending on the situation. For example, my threat to beat Smith up unless he gives me his car will work only if he views me as able to beat him up. If he is bigger, younger, better trained in martial arts, and in better shape than am me, he likely will laugh at my threat.

The reason for the Nazi Regime’s large basis of support is in great measure the power of its propaganda machine.

The second broad method of obtaining compliance is attempted purchase. This includes offering to trade money, physical objects, labor, or whatever else I think the other person may value. Again, I use the qualifier ‘attempted’ to signal that the attempt to purchase might or might not succeed, depending on the situation. For example, if I offer Smith less than his “reservation price” for the car, he will refuse to sell it to me.

The third broad method of compliance is attempted persuasion (or promotion). Persuasion means offering reasons other than the use of force or the offer of goods in trade. Once again, the qualifier “attempted” indicates that the persuasion may or may not succeed, depending on the situation. For example, I may try to persuade Smith that he ought to give me a car by pointing out that he owns two of them and I own none, and appealing to the notion of fairness. But if he doesn’t view me as deserving of help, he will likely dismiss my appeal.

I grant that some might view coercion or purchase or both as types of persuasion, but this view strikes me as doubtful. While someone watching me hold a gun to Smith’s head and demand his car might say that I am trying to “persuade” him that appears to me to be a misuse of the term — really, it would be an ironical use. Similarly, it would be far from a normal use of language to say that when I bought Smith’s car for $30,000 I “persuaded” him by a “monetary argument.”

Some people use the term propaganda to cover the promotion of anything from products to policies to religious beliefs, but it is closer to common usage to use the term marketing (including sales and advertising) for the attempt to persuade people to buy specific products (goods and services) or patronize a brand. (Persuading people to patronize a brand simply means trying to increase the chances that they will buy products with that brand in the future.) I will use the term propaganda more narrowly to refer to the promotion of ideas — specifically political, social, and religious ideas and ideologies.

While someone watching me hold a gun to Smith’s head and demand his car might say that I am trying to “persuade” him that appears to me to be a misuse of the term.

So “marketing” means here messaging intended to persuade a target audience to buy the products the marketer (or his principal) desires them to buy. And “propaganda” means here messaging intended to persuade a target audience to support the ideas, ideology, policies, or political candidates that the propagandist (or his principal) desires them to adopt.

Of course, the distinctions I have drawn are not completely clear-cut demarcations; they are broad categories, and there are borderline cases. So ads for Amtrak (the federally-owned passenger rail system) can be viewed not merely as marketing the service, but also as propaganda for the federal government. Similarly, a regime that runs ads bragging about its new universal healthcare system can be viewed as making propaganda for public support but also as purchasing the support of the majority by giving them services paid for by taxing a minority. But I want to distinguish here between the use of force and the trading of goods, on the one hand, from the messages about them, on the other.

Let us turn to the Nazi propaganda machine. (I will look at both the Nazi power and purchase machines in subsequent reviews.) As Nicholas O’Shaughnessy has accurately observed in a recent article, the Nazi Regime (hereafter just “the Regime”) was based on imagery: “Propaganda was a governing philosophy, not merely a means to an end but an end in itself.” To the Regime, propaganda was foundational, and it exploited every medium it could to push the Nazi brand and its specific policies: film, newspapers, magazines, books (including children’s books), pamphlets, school curricula, art, architecture, music, performance dance, plays, sports events, public festivals and rituals, TV shows, posters, and radio shows. It was a war, a propaganda war that (like World War II) took place in various “theaters.” A theater of war is a place with natural boundaries within which military actions — “campaigns” — take place, more or less independently. The Regime waged its war by various campaigns in all the media — the theaters — of propaganda.

Let’s look at some examples. In the medium of film, the Regime had an anti-British campaign, an anti-Semitic campaign, and so on — each campaign understood as a group of films advancing that message. In the medium of popular art, posters played a big role in the presentation of the Regime’s message. The Regime focused especially on radio, issuing inexpensive radio receivers that could receive broadcasts only from the Regime. (For a detailed study of the role that radio played in the rise of the Regime, see Adena et. al.) Children’s books were made to inculcate the Regime’s message — for instance, Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom, 1938), in which a boy and his mother go picking wild mushrooms. She teaches him the difference between edible ones and poisonous ones and then compares mushrooms with people, likening Jews to poisonous mushrooms. And newspapers such as Der Sturmer (The Attacker) and Volkischer Beobachter (The Peoples’ Observer) were potent propaganda tools.

For the purpose of waging its propaganda war, the Regime created a separate ministry, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, with a staff of over 2,000 people and a budget of nearly 190 million Reichmarks. This ministry had seven divisions, one each for administration and legal matters; mass rallies, public health information, youth, and race; broadcasting; national and foreign press; film and film censorship; art, music, and theater; and defense against foreign and domestic counter-propaganda.

The principal effect of the book is the spectacle of a Regime with a massive presence in even the tiniest areas of life.

It is against this backdrop that we can consider the book under review. It isn’t about the Regime’s propaganda war, or even a major theater of it, but just a little piece — a campaign in a microtheater, so to say. It is about the uniforms and accompanying insignia that the Regime employed, that is, the dress and graphical designs used to distinguish people within an organization by rank or status. Insignia include badges, cockades, coats of arms, medals, military patches, and so on. The Regime had an enormous number of organizations, many of which had distinctive uniforms, and those uniforms and insignia helped reinforce order, discipline, and unity. Uniforms have immense psychological power to create a feeling of unity. Each of the armed forces had its uniform, as did the SA, SS, the Party hierarchy, the Hitler Youth, the Fire Service, the German Red Cross, the Railway Police, and even the Postal Service. The editors (Chris Bishop and Adam Warner) do a thorough job of showing how the insignia looked and explaining their significance. But the principal effect of the book is the spectacle of a Regime with a massive presence in even the tiniest areas of life.

The editors begin by noting that two of the most commonly employed and emotionally potent symbols were the German eagle and the swastika, which were stamped, engraved, printed, or painted on most of the medals and other items the Regime provided to groups.

The editors then take up one of the most infamous of the specific symbols, the Totenkopf or Death’s Head. The Death’s Head has a long history in the German military. It was worn by 18th-century Prussian elite units, and by certain units in World War I, including flamethrower squads and early tank units. As Bishop and Warner note, the Death’s Head was not intended as a ghoulish symbol but one that connoted the utmost devotion, literally the willingness to fight to the death.

Early in their history, the Nazis used the Death’s Head on the caps and collar patches of SS uniforms. The SS (Schutzstaffel) was formed as the elite bodyguard of Hitler, but rapidly grew, first displacing the SA (Assault Division, the Storm Troopers or Brownshirts) and then attaining a size of 800,000 at the height of the war. The SS was divided into the Allgemeine SS (the general SS) which handled police functions of all sorts in the Regime (including the Gestapo), and the Waffen SS (the armed SS), which consisted of elite fighting troops and the Totenkopfverbande (SS-TV, the concentration camp guards). The Death’s Head was on the cap of every concentration camp guard. Also, the Death’s Head was worn by armored units and a few special regular army units. But the Death’s Head worn by SS members was different from the one worn by the regular military units: it was a newer design that featured a jawbone, while the other was the traditional Prussian design (no jawbone).

The editors next discuss the various banners carried at the Nazi Party rallies, as well as the rallies themselves. The earliest rally was held in Munich in 1923 and was fairly modest, with 20,000 Party participants and an unknown number of observers. The second rally (also 1923) was in Nuremberg and featured a parade by 80,000 SA Stormtroopers. In the same year Hitler was imprisoned for the Beer Hall (or Munich) Putsch and his Party was outlawed for a few years, so the next rally was in 1926 (in Weimar). The fourth was in 1927 in Nuremberg, and featured the first torchlight parade. With the onset of the worldwide depression, the Party’s membership grew rapidly. The 1929 rally was the first “major extravaganza,” with 2,000 Party delegates listening to Hitler speak, and men marching in swastika formation. At the Berlin rally celebrating Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, attendance hit a half million. The important architect Albert Speer designed the layout of the field, with massed flags and innovative lighting. The SS and the SA had their own banners (Feldzeichen), and the Party had a special banner (the Blutfahn) that had been displayed at the Beer Hall Putsch and was stained with the blood of a Nazi “martyr.” The 1934 Nuremberg rally, fully planned by Speer, was the one featured in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda classic, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willen, 1935). The largest Nuremberg rally was held in 1938. The editors show the various flags and banners that figured so prominently in these rallies.

The Death’s Head was not intended as a ghoulish symbol but one that connoted the utmost devotion, literally the willingness to fight to the death.

The next section of the book is devoted to the uniforms, badges, patches, and ceremonial daggers used by the SA, the Storm Troopers, also called the Brownshirts. Bishop and Warner briefly sketch the history of the SA from its start in 1924 to its peak strength of about two million in 1934. They do not report the killing of its leaders in the “Night of the Long Knives” and its subsequent displacement by the SS.

The editors then show us the uniforms, patches, banners and ceremonial daggers of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), which was formed in 1926 and absorbed all the other German youth groups in 1933. In 1939, all German boys and girls were required to join the Hitlerjugend — which came to have 3.5 million members. Actually, children ages 10–14 first joined the Jungvolk (for boys) and Jungmadel (for girls). At age 14, the girls entered the Bund Deutscher Madel where they focused on training for house or farm work. At age 15, the boys entered the Hitlerjugend proper, where they trained for military service. With the outbreak of war in 1939, a million of them worked in the war effort. When the Regime started losing the war in 1943, they were inducted into the armed forces, where they acquired a reputation for fighting with extreme devotion, suffering enormous losses along the way.

Bishop and Warner move on to the uniforms and insignia uniquely worn by Nazi officials — the NSDAP Leadership Corps. These officials fell into seven, dizzyingly multiplying groups. The first and foremost consisted of the Führer, of course. Then there were the Party Directorate (Reichsleitung); the hierarchy of men employed in monitoring the populace, the “bearers of sovereignty”; the Gauleiters, who controlled territories the size of a county; Kreisleiters, who controlled areas that were large subdivisions of a county; Ortsgruppenleiters, in control of towns, groups of small villages, or city districts of about 1500 to 3000 households; Zellenleiters, in charge of smaller groups of households equal to four to eight city blocks; and finally the Blockleiters, the political controllers of about 40 to 60 households. Each lower level reported to the higher — with the Gauleiters reporting directly to the Führer — and all had the authority to call in the SA, SS, or other organizations to help enforce discipline.

The editors then describe the orders and paraphernalia of the Luftwaffe (the air force). The Luftwaffe was formed in 1933 but kept hidden because it was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. It was made public in 1935, at which time it had 1,000 aircraft and 20,000 members. It grew rapidly, and by 1939 had about 1.5 million men in uniform — though only about 50,000 of them were airmen. The Luftwaffe formal uniform was similar to that of the RAF — blue, with rank badges and lapels. Returning to the SS, Bishop and Warner take up the SS uniforms. The SS started with a black uniform, but as it grew, the Allgemeine SS and the Totenkopfverbande kept the black uniforms (with the characteristic SS runes and Death’s Head badges), while the remaining Waffen SS members, who fought alongside the regular Army, began to resemble those military service members, though keeping the SS patches and badges.

Next up are the various medals, orders, and honor insignia the Regime issued, which could be found on any of the uniforms. For courage in battle, the Regime kept the two orders of the traditional Iron Cross (the Eisernes Kreuz), but added a new order for conspicuous gallantry, the Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz), which could be repeatedly given, and had additional grades: Oakleaves; Oakleaves and Swords; Oakleaves, Swords, and Diamonds; and Golden Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds. Additionally, there were specific combat awards, such as the Luftwaffe Pilot’s Badge (given to pilots upon completion of flight school); the Luftwaffe Flak Badge, awarded on a point basis for bringing down aircraft; the Wound Badge (gold, silver, or black, depending upon how many wounds the soldier received); and the High Seas Fleet badge (for a sailor of the Kriegsmarine serving 12 weeks on a battleship or cruiser).

The Party had a special banner that had been displayed at the Beer Hall Putsch and was stained with the blood of a Nazi “martyr.”

The editors discuss decorative porcelain and china, much of it made at the Dachau concentration camp — the SS ran various industries staffed by concentration camp labor. The Regime either sold these items to the public or gave them as gifts or mementoes. They then show us some of the large number of awards the Regime gave out for long service, good conduct, bearing children, long-term Party membership, and exemplary service, even for street fighting: the Meritorious Order of the German Eagle (for friendly foreign dignitaries); the Cross of Honor of the German Mother (bronze for four or five children, silver for six or seven, and gold for eight or more); the Faithful Service Cross (for members of the public services who worked continuously for 25 or 40 years); and the Gold Party Badge (for the first 100,000 members of the party).

The use of the Nazi eagle is discussed in a separate section, with illustrations of its appearance on buildings, uniforms, medals, daggers, and so on. The eagle had been used as a German national symbol since AD 800 and was embraced by the Regime as the symbol of the Aryan race.

We next see the uniforms and insignia worn by the Ordnungspolizei (the “Orpo,” the ordinary police, which included inter alia the urban police, the rural police, the water and river police, and the fire service). All of these police and ancillary forces were under the direct control of the SS. It is just to describe the Nazi Regime as a massive police state.

It was also a state that seems to have been endlessly involved in propagating armed services of every kind, as Bishop and Warner illustrate in their consideration of the insignia of the NSKK (the Nationalsocialistisches Kraftfahrkorps, i.e., the National Socialist Motor Corps). The NSKK started life in 1930 as the NSAK (Nazi Automobile Corps), a motor pool for transporting party members that was under the control of the SA. In the ensuring four years it was renamed and became independent. The NSKK acted was a training organization to teach people how to drive, a traffic enforcement force, and a roadside assistance service — rather like the Auto Club combined with traffic cops. But with the start of war, it was militarized and given the duty of providing logistical support for the SS and Wehrmacht.

The editors discuss and illustrate the various symbols put on documents issued by the SS. They also review the wide variety of items that served as mementoes of the Nuremberg mass rallies. Nuremberg had a special significance for Germans; it was the meeting place for the Germanic rulers of the medieval period. The mementoes included pennants, plates, certificates, plaques, postcards, medals, and badges. The dispensing of mementoes — however kitschy — was a way of purchasing support for the Party as well as propagandizing for it.

All of these police and ancillary forces were under the direct control of the SS. It is just to describe the Nazi Regime as a massive police state.

An important part of Nazi ideology is the Führerprinzip — the "leader principle" — formulated by Hitler as early as 1921. It meant that any organization must always be ruled by the strongest individual — the Overman — and that this individual will always rise above the pack. Stripped of the Nietzschean cant, it really meant that Hitler was to be more than just the absolute dictator; he would be the object of worship in a personality cult. Pictures of Hitler were displayed everywhere, and the greeting “Heil Hitler!” accompanied by a Roman salute, was the required greeting during the tenure of his Regime. The editors give the reader a number of examples of Führer mementoes: such as porcelain plaques commemorating his 50th birthday, gold-embossed, leather bound editions of Mein Kampf, and personal invitations from him. Some of this was sold, but much of it was given away — again, propagandizing and purchasing go together.

In the next two sections the editors return to uniforms. They discuss and show the uniforms and insignia for the Panzerwaffe (the tank force, within the Reichsheer, or German regular army). The Regime certainly had very snappy uniform designs across the board; the Panzerwaffe arguably had the snappiest. The Germans had tank units as early as 1917, but the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from building tanks. Yet the army clearly planned to develop tank units in 1929, years before Hitler took office, for that was when it designed the new tank unit uniforms. The formal uniforms were black, with the Prussian Death’s Head emblems within pink borders, and instead of peaked caps, they had berets. (The field uniforms the tank soldiers wore in the African desert war were of light tan, no doubt for the sake of comfort.) The editors also show us the familiar gray Reichsheer uniforms, together with the officers’ dress daggers and other emblems and patches.

The book discusses SS cuff titles and infantry equipment, before turning to yet another uniform, this for the Reichsarbeitsdienst (the RAD, or the Reich labor service). Before the war, the RAD put men to work on large-scale infrastructure projects, while also training them for military service. In 1935, the Regime ordered all men between 18 and 35 to work in the RAD for a six-month term. With the outbreak of war, the RAD became in effect construction battalions for the Wehrmacht. Again, great care obviously went into the design of the RAD uniform, which had a sort of axe-like knife — a small machete — rather than a dagger, and unique forester caps.

In examining the insignia of foreign legions, which is their next task, Bishop and Warner rightly note that most people are unaware that about two million men from other nations fought with the Nazis, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because of coercion, and sometimes — as in the case of General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army — sometimes because of rebellion against their own governments. We see insignia from uniforms for Bosnian Muslims, Muslims from Turkestan, Danish volunteers, Latvian volunteers, and others.

The editors examine the use of the swastika on banners and flags. Usually appearing in black within a white circle against a red surround, it became a common ensign in 1933 when the Regime took power and the national flag two years later. The swastika was an Indian symbol; indeed, the word swastika is Sanskrit, the language used by the Aryans, the Indic people.As early as 1910, racists in Germany associated it with the so-called “Aryan” race, and the Nazis adopted it as their own symbol. The book also returns to the design of the Iron Cross.

The book discusses very briefly Nazi art (specifically, statuettes and dishes) before turning to the various daggers carried by uniformed organizations. Not only did fighting units carry symbolic daggers, but so did members of the German Red Cross, the Forestry Service, the National Political Education Institute, and even railway and postal workers. For most services, the dagger was merely part of the uniform, the symbol of the warrior. But for the SS, the dagger was only awarded after someone successfully passed probation, and had to be returned if the person was dismissed from the organization.

Hitler was to be more than just the absolute dictator; he would be the object of worship in a personality cult.

This brings us to the uniforms and insignia associated with elite Party schools, primary and secondary. One group of such schools was the Napolas(the National Political Training Academies), initially run by the SA and SS with the cooperation of the Ministry of Education. The second major group was the Adolf Hitler Schools, run independently of the Ministry of Education, but closely associated with the Hitler Youth.

After a short discussion of Nazi Party printed media (the Party newspaper, books, and magazines), Bishop and Warner return to uniforms and insignia, first of the foreign Nazis (in Slovakia, Moravia, Bohemia, Norway and Holland) — another topic of which most people are unaware — and of the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst, the security service, later combined with the Gestapo and Kripo) and a few of the many civilian uniforms. The Germans had well over 60 different uniformed organizations, from the German Red Cross and Customs Service down to the National Stud Farms groups. The prospect of these groups, each with its uniform, cap, dagger, eagle, swastika, and whatnot, is vast and appalling. One is relieved when one comes to the discussion of the Nazi party badge and other tokens, because these are the last items considered.

I have many problems with the Nazis, but only a few with Bishop and Warner’s book. First, they include a section about Nazi art, although (like all the sections of the book) it is quite short. A proper discussion of the Regime’s propaganda campaigns in the realm (or theater of war) of art needs a separate book, and is in any case quite distinct from the topic of uniforms and their symbolic paraphernalia. The same criticism applies to the editors’ brief and out-of-place discussion of Party print media.

Second, the book would have been better structured around the separate uniformed services (SA, SS, NSDAP hierarchy, and so on), with each in a separate chapter. For example, the editors could have collected the four scattered sections of the book on SS uniforms, SS documents, SS cuff titles, and SS personalities into one proper chapter.

Third, the book should have had an introduction discussing the psychological power of uniforms and the different psychological effects of different forms of uniforms. There has been a fair amount of psychological research on this topic, some of which is discussed in an article by Richard Johnson. Consider just the color of uniforms. Psychological surveys of college students show that they associate colors such as white and yellow with weakness, blue with security, and black and brown with strength. Is it a mere coincidence that the preferred colors for the Regime’s numerous uniforms were darker: blue for the Luftwaffe, gray for the army, brown for the SA and NSDAP Party higher-ups, black for the SS and Panzerwaffe?

Perhaps one sign of the power of the design of the extravagant array of Nazi insignia and paraphernalia is the number of websites that sell these items even today, and the prices they typically fetch.

These issues notwithstanding, this slim volume, with numerous color photos, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Nazi propaganda in particular and propaganda in general — not least because it shows just how much effort the Regime put into even this little piece of the war.


Editor's Note: Review of “German Insignia of World War II,” edited by Chris Bishop and Adam Warner. Chartwell Books, 2013, 144 pages.



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Revolution by Revolutionary Means

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When Barbra Streisand announced Hamilton as the recipient of the Tony for Best Musical on June 12, it was the most anti-climactic award in the history of awards shows — everyone knew it was going to win. (I knew it the moment I saw the show, even without seeing the other potential contenders. It’s that impressive.) Yet it was the most electrifying Tony show in ages, precisely because Hamilton was going to win. Audiences across the country would finally get a taste of what everyone had been talking about, because at the Tonys the casts of each nominee for Best Musical perform a medley of scenes from their show. The cast of Hamilton closed the night and brought down the house.

Hamilton has become a nationwide phenomenon this year, with people who have never attended a Broadway show purchasing the cast album and reading the Ron Chernow biography on which the play is based. Even the Treasury Department has been caught up in the newfound enthusiasm for its first Treasurer, announcing, after years of promising that a woman would replace Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill, that Jackson would be replaced on the twenty instead. Hamilton has had that kind of influence.

Hamilton erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion.

So does the play live up to the hype? It’s just a bunch of rap songs and hip-hop dances, right? Anyone could do that. It’s street entertainment, not Broadway! And the show isn’t even accurate — they cast minority actors for the major roles of Washington, Hamilton, Burr, Lafayette and the Schuyler sisters — only King George is played by a white man. Doesn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda — who wrote the music, lyrics, and book, and stars in the production — know anything?

As a matter of fact, Miranda knows plenty. His decision to use rap, hip-hop and minorities for Hamilton was carefully calculated to tell a richer, truer story than racial “accuracy” could have achieved.

Let’s start with the rap. To the untrained ear (and the untrained rapper) it’s the laziest form of rhythm and rhyme, seeming to ignore all rules about meter and feet so as to shove as many syllables into a single beat of music as the human mouth can manage. It’s also associated with minorities and outsiders. Miranda chose rap for both reasons. “Rap is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story. It has more words per measure than any other musical genre . . . It has density, and if Hamilton’s writing had anything, it was density,” Miranda explained to Graham Messick in an interview for 60 Minutes. “Hamilton spoke in whole paragraphs, so the opening song of our show is this crazy run-on sentence":

How does a bastard, orphan,
son of a whore an’
a Scotsman,
dropped in a forgotten
spot in
the Caribbean
by Providence,
impoverished in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Well, OK — you have to hear the rhythm and tone to experience the passion and cleverness of the line. But trust me — when it’s sung, it works. Miranda says he took weeks to get each couplet right. “Every couplet needed to be the best couplet I ever wrote. It took me a year to write ‘My Shot,’ which is Hamilton’s big ‘I want’ song,” he says. He imbues his lyrics with the playfulness and creativity of a Cole Porter (one of his early influences) but with a decidedly non-Cole Porter ferocity. It took six years to write the show, financed in part from his success with his Broadway debut In the Heights, also a Tony winner for Best Musical.

And what about those minority actors? Here’s the effect it had on me: it erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted, upper-crust-accented aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion. It reminded me forcefully that the colonists were themselves immigrants, and the Founders were outsiders who were working against the powerful government, not part of it. In essence they were the Occupy movement of their day, but they weren’t sitting around waiting for someone to fix the injustices they saw. They risked everything they had, even their lives, and they were not “throwin’ away their shot” — their one shot — at freedom and self-government.

It made me realize, too, that the founders had the mental, physical, and financial resources to focus on just one battle — one shot — for political liberation from the monarchy of King George. They did not have the power or resources to overturn all injustices at once. Thomas Jefferson recognized the evil of slavery and in his draft of the Declaration of Independence furiously inveighed against the slave trade. But that was a battle that would have to wait for another day. Just as Martin Luther King focused on civil rights for black Americans and left the fight for gay rights to the next generation, so the Founders blazed the trail for political freedom but left the fight for racial and gender equality for generations to come. Future generations will look back and criticize us too for not recognizing the needs of other marginalized groups. The Founders had the power and resources for “just one shot,” and they would likely have failed if they had tried to shoot in every direction at once.

The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Miranda also recognizes the important influence of the women who surrounded Hamilton, particularly the three Schuyler sisters, one of whom he married and another of whom he loved. Peter Stone included women to some extent in 1776, with John Adams’ letters to and from Abigail and Jefferson’s visit from his wife Martha as he is writing the Declaration. But in 1776 the women were mostly back home in Massachusetts or Virginia, wearing their pretty gowns and taking care of their lovely homes. They show up for a moment but remain mostly offstage, while the men create a nation. By contrast, the Schuyler sisters and other women in Miranda’s cast and chorus are an ongoing, integral part of the action.

The decision to cast actors in multiple roles also adds to the message of liberty as a living movement. I was keenly disappointed when Lafayette went back to France at the end of Act 1, because I had been so enamored by Daveed Diggs’ charismatic performance. Not to worry — Diggs returned in Act 2 as Jefferson, with an even greater intensity and charisma. This was not a money-saving tactic on the part of the producers; in fact, all the actors whose characters die in Act 1 return in Act 2 with new roles. This technique reminds us that revolution is not about a single person. The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Sadly, many of the actors who created the roles of this landmark play are leaving the cast this summer. I’m grateful I was able to see the original cast — it’s a moment I will remember as vividly as I remember seeing Les Miserables in 1985 with Colm Wilkinson and Patti Lupone. It was still in previews; the music was brand new, and it was breathtaking. I look forward to seeing what the actors of Hamilton do next.

But the beauty of this show is that new actors can enter the roles and the message will remain. As Miranda points out, in America we would keep changing leaders, and it would work. We didn’t need a monarchy. So my hope is that when a touring company comes to a theater near you with its new leaders in the roles, Hamilton will still have its message and its passion — that it doesn’t need a Miranda or a Diggs. Music and theater arts schools had better start adding rap to their repertoires, because Hamilton is going to be touring for a long time to come.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "Hamilton," directed by Thomas Kail. Richard Rogers Theater, New York.



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Infinity in One Hour, 48 Minutes

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Biographical films, or “bioflicks” as they are often called, constitute a challenging genre for filmmakers — for a variety of reasons.

One major challenge is the difficulty of avoiding the extremes of hagiography and exposé. The temptation of a bioflick maker — especially one who is very sympathetic to the subject of the story, or who knows his audience is — may be to understate or omit relevant but unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or exaggerate the character’s good qualities or actions. One thinks of many of the biographical films of sports stars, artists, and political leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. Conversely, the filmmaker — especially one who is very hostile to his subject, or who know the audience is — may be tempted to exaggerate the unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or to understate or omit the character’s good qualities or actions. There are even cases in which the bioflick maker is sympathetic to the perceived flaws of the real character and is tempted to exaggerate or accentuate them, in an effort to convince the public that they aren’t really flaws.

For these very reasons, bioflicks are often used as propaganda. Political regimes have long recognized the power of biographical film to advance their political causes, either by adoring portrayals of certain figures (such as key leaders of the regime, or historical figures whom the regime views favorably) or hateful portrayals of others (such as key opponents of the regime or historical figures whom the regime views unfavorably). For example, the Nazi Regime used bioflicks such as Hitler Youth Quex (1933) to convince people that the Party had among its supporters many noble young people.

The young Ramanujan apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers.

Another challenge is conveying what the subject of the film actually accomplished, together with its significance. This is relatively easy if the subject is (say) an artist: the filmmaker can inter alia show pictures of the artist’s work, while portraying the difficulty he or she faced in gaining acceptance (as is nicely done in Vincente Minelli’s acclaimed biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life [1956]). Again, if the subject is a composer, it is easy to make his major compositions part of the movie’s score (a successful instance is Richard Whorf’s popular biography of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By [1946]). It can be more difficult if the subject of the film is a scientist, or worse, a mathematician. One sees these challenges, and a creative response to them, in an excellent new bioflick, currently showing in art houses.

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan was born in Erode, in the state of Madras, in 1887. He was of a Brahmin family (on his maternal side), but his parents were of limited means. His father was a clerk in a dress shop; his mother was a housewife. He survived smallpox when he was two, and grew up in a modest house in Kanchipuram (near Madras). The house is now a national museum in his honor. His mother — to whom he was very close, all his life — had three other children, all of whom died as infants. Raised as a devout Hindu, he kept the faith and Brahmin customs (especially vegetarianism) as an adult.

While Ramanujan went through secondary school and attended some college, he was largely self-taught. He mastered advanced trigonometry by age 13, discovering some higher-level theorems by himself. At age 14 he was able to pass in half the permitted time the high school math exit exam, and at age 15 he learned how to solve cubic equations. Then, by himself, he figured out how to solve quartic equations. A crucial year for him was his 16th, when a friend gave him a copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, a compilation of 5,000 theorems by G.S. Carr. He apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers, a subject on which he published a paper some years later. He was graduated from Town Higher Secondary School that year (1904), winning the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics.

Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as an editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

Unfortunately, although he was given a scholarship to attend college, he refused to focus on any studies besides mathematics, a refusal that resulted in his failure and dismissal. He subsequently left home and enrolled in another college, but again focused only on mathematics and was unable to get his bachelor’s degree. He left college in 1906 and worked as a poor independent scholar. In 1909 he married a very young girl, Srimathi Janaki — marrying very young was an Indian custom of the time — and after a bout of testicular disease, found work as a tutor helping students prepare for their mathematics exams.

In 1910, Ramanujan showed his work to V. Ramaswamy Aiyer, founder of the Indian Mathematical Society, who recognized his genius. Aiyer then sent him to R. Ramachandra Rao, secretary of the Indian Mathematical Society. Rao was initially skeptical but became convinced of Ramanujan’s originality and genius and provided both financial aid and institutional support so that Ramanujan could start publishing in the society’s journal. As the editor of the journal noted, Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as the editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

In 1913, Rao and some other Indian mathematicians tried to help Ramanujan submit his work to British mathematicians. The first few who received the material were unimpressed, but G.H. Hardy was quite struck by the nine pages of results he received. He suspected that perhaps Ramanujan wasn’t the real author, but he felt that the results had to be true, because they were so intricate and plausible that nobody could have dreamt them up. Hardy showed them to his colleague and friend J. E. Littlewood, who was also amazed at Ramanujan’s genius. Hardy and others invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to work. The Indian was at first reluctant, because of his Brahmin belief that he shouldn’t leave his country, and apparently also because his mother opposed it. To the disappointment of Hardy, he obtained a research scholarship at the University of Madras.

Nevertheless, in 1914 — apparently after his mother had an epiphany — Ramanujan agreed to come to Cambridge. He started his studies under the tutelage of Hardy and Littlewood, who were able to look at his first three “notebooks.” (Ramanujan’s fourth major notebook — often called the “lost notebook” — was rediscovered in 1976.) While Hardy and Littlewood discovered some of the results and theorems were either wrong or had already been discovered, they immediately put Ramanujan in the same class as Leonhard Euler or Carl Jacobi. Hardy and Ramanujan had clashing styles, personalities, and cultural backgrounds — among other things, Hardy was an atheist and a stickler for detailed proofs, while Ramanujan was a Hindu and highly intuitionistic — but they collaborated successfully during the five years Ramanujan was at Cambridge.

One of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is his personal friend.”

In 1916, Ramanujan was awarded a Bachelor’s of Science “by research” (a degree subsequently renamed a Ph.D). In 1917 he was elected a Fellow of the London Mathematical Society, and in 1918 to the extremely prestigious Royal Society. At 31 years of age, he was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society ever elected, and only the second Indian so honored. In that year also he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Ramanujan became ill in England, his sickness perhaps intensified by stress and (as the film suggests) by malnutrition. He was increasingly depressed and lonely, receiving few letters from his wife. The film identifies the cause as his mother’s jealous refusal to mail his wife’s letters to him. In 1918 he attempted suicide and spent time in a nursing home. He returned to Madras in 1919, and died the next year, barely 32 years of age. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, though one doctor, examining his medical records, has opined that it was actually hepatic amoebiasis. His young widow lived to the age of 95.

The film centers on the period of his life shortly before the point, shortly before his death, at which the adult Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is gaining recognition through his work at Cambridge. As the film opens in 1913, we meet Ramanujan in the temple of the goddess Namagiri, writing an equation. (The film rightly portrays him as believing that mathematical truths are divinely crafted.) We see him desperately trying to provide for his pretty young wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and his proud but rather domineering mother (Arundhati Nag). While the film focuses primarily on the relationship between Ramanujan and his work, it does skillfully present his loving but difficult marriage (he was in England, separated from his wife for nearly half his married life) as well as the strained relationship between his wife and mother.

The main part of the film, which ends with Ramanujan’s death in India, concerns his time in Britain, following with fair accuracy the real timeline of his life. We meet Hardy (Jeremy Irons) as he is given Ramanujan’s first letter and asked to comment on the handwritten pages. Irons plays Hardy as a crusty old bachelor, but also as a person who is obviously sincere in his desire to help Ramanujan. The film capably explores the relationship between the two, showing the transition from a mentorship to a friendship based on deep respect.

We watch as Hardy and Littlefield (Toby Jones) try to get the rest of the faculty — especially the racist Professor Howard (Anthony Calf) — to recognize Ramanujan’s worth. The film explores at length the antipathy that many of the British, even the faculty and students, felt toward Indians, culminating in a scene in which Ramanujan is beaten up by some soldiers — an episode that has a dramatic function, since racism against the immigrants from the colonies coming into England at the later part of WWI (to work in a labor market that had been decimated by the war) was exceedingly common — though this specific episode may have been invented. It also shows Ramanujan battling poor health in the face of a cold climate and lack of nutritious food. But Ramanujan’s spirit prevails, and we see him elected a Fellow of the College, a satisfying vindication of genuine genius over jealous bigotry. As one of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is [his] personal friend.”

The film takes the mathematics quite seriously. Two distinguished mathematicians — Manjul Bhargave and Ken Ono — are associate producers of the film. Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal — often called “the Nobel Prize of mathematics” — and Ono is a Guggenheim Fellow.

How can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof?

Portraying Ramanujan’s work cinematically is of course especially challenging. Even if the audience were shown mathematical formulas he devised, few would comprehend them, much less see the genius it took to come up with them. And, unlike some scientists or other scholars that have a sudden dramatic “Eureka!” moment when they encounter the central theory or discovery for which they become famous, Ramanujan produced a continuing torrent of major work, even when ill — nearly 3,900 results during his short life (really, just 14 years of mature research).

The film, however, is rather effective at conveying Ramanujan’s work directly, as in the scene in which Hardy describes to his valet what “partitions” are — the number of ways a number can be the sum of others, as “4” is the sum of “4,” “2 + 2,” “2 + 1 + 1,” and “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” — as well as the scene in which Hardy and Ramanujan are waiting for a cab, and when one pulls up, Ramanujan immediately observes that its ID number (1729) is unique in that it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. The film even more successfully conveys his genius obliquely by showing how the other great Cambridge mathematicians received it: Hardy and Littlewood immediately recognized the genius in his work, and we see how the other mathematicians (who are initially governed by their prejudices) are eventually compelled to recognize it. Still, this is not a movie for the completely innumerate.

The acting is outstanding across the board. Dev Patel — well-known to American audiences from his leading roles in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) — ably conveys Ramanujan’s earnestness, integrity, and perseverance. Toby Jones is also superb as Littlewood, and Jeremy Northam givers a good supporting performance as Bertrand Russell. The supporting actresses are also excellent — Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s young wife and Arundati Nag as his mother. But especially noteworthy is Jeremy Irons’ performance as Ramanujan’s sponsor, mentor, and friend G.H. Hardy.

Director Matthew Brown does an outstanding job conveying Ramanujan’s story, with descending into melodramatic hagiography. Really, he doesn’t need to because the true story — a modest, decent, indigent, largely self-taught genius in a colonized, poor country rises to the very top ranks of mathematics, in the face of considerable hostility, becoming a hero in his native land, before dying tragically young — is the very stuff of legend.

This film explores a number of issues of philosophic interest. Regarding the philosophy of religion, the exchanges between the avowed atheist Hardy and the devoutly religious Ramanujan on whether the gods give Ramanujan immediate access to mathematical truth are illustrative of how atheists and theists see the world in significantly different ways.

Regarding epistemology, Hardy is portrayed working hard to convince Ramanujan of the need not merely to recognize that a mathematical theorem is true, but to construct a proof that it is. This is an issue among other things about epistemic style: does any science advance more from bold broad conjectures, or by exact argumentation? (The movie interestingly presents Russell as counseling Hardy to let Ramanujan “run”; i.e., to let him do math as his heart dictates, which is by intuition instead of meticulous proofs. But considering the detailed constructive logical proofs that Russell — along with his mathematician coauthor Alfred North Whitehead — created in their seminal logical treatise Principia Mathematica, one is surprised and puzzled at this.)

Regarding history, the film nicely shows the effect that World War I had on the British intelligentsia, with some, such as Russell — and here the film is undeniably historically accurate — being opposed to the war, and having meetings on campus to organize opposition, while the rest of the faculty is outraged at what was taken to be a lack of patriotism.

Regarding psychology, the film invites us to think about the nature of mathematical genius: how can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof? Here we should observe that many of Ramanujan’s conjectures on prime numbers were proven incorrect — however insightful and reasonably accurate they may have been — by Littlewood and others. I would suggest that his tutelage by Hardy was of great use in getting him to provide more proofs, and that most of his 3,900 results have been proven, including work that is being used today to understand black holes.

Finally, regarding an issue of concern in America today, The Man who Knew Infinity helps the audience understand the value of immigrants. The vicious discrimination that this estimable and amiable genius from India faced at the hands of the British makes one wonder why immigrants to our own country today are being targeted for systematic abuse. This is as counterproductive as it is immoral.

In fine, this is a bioflick of rare insight, and not to be missed.[i]

 


[i]It should be noted that in 2014 an Indian company produced a major biographical film, Ramanujan. It ran two and a half hours, was shot in multiple languages (including some pidgin languages, such as Tamenglish), and had a mixed reception. I don’t believe it was generally released in America.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "The Man Who Knew Infinity," directed by Matthew Brown. Pressman Film/Xeitgeist Entertainment Group/Cayenne Pepper Productions, 2016, 108 minutes.



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Hollywood Fights Market; Market Wins

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Money Monster isn’t billed as a comedy (in fact, it’s supposed to be a thriller), but it is still one of the silliest films I’ve seen in ages.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a cable TV investment personality of the Jim Cramer school, with a shtick that includes dancing girls, funny hats, crazy film clips, party noisemakers, and outlandish recommendations that often turn out to be profitable investments. He doesn’t think much about his viewers’ actual profits and losses because he never sees his viewers — that is, until Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) shows up on the set with a figurative axe to grind and a literal gun in his pocket. He also has a funny explosive vest to go with Lee’s funny hat. He makes Lee wear it.

We are expected to believe that Budwell, the terrorist, would be able to wander onto a live set, simply because he is dressed like a deliveryman and carries a couple of cardboard boxes.

I’ll warn you here that this review is going to contain a few spoilers, but knowing some of the plot twists is not going to ruin the film for you; it’s pretty much ruined on its own, and these are mad meanderings, not genuine twists. Besides, I don’t recommend that you waste your money or your time on this monster of a movie, and revealing some of the plot is the only way I can demonstrate to you just how silly and unbelievable the premise is.

Hollywood will go to great lengths to cast aspersions on Wall Street, business, and the free market, even greenlighting a movie with a script with more holes than a Chuck E. Cheese Whack-A-Mole (and a lot less entertaining). First we are expected to believe that Budwell, the terrorist, would be able to wander onto a live set, simply because he is dressed like a deliveryman and carries a couple of cardboard boxes. Sorry, folks, the days of Cary Grant sneaking into the boss’s office carrying a florist’s bouquet are long gone, and security at a television station is much tighter than that.

Then we are expected to believe that the cameras would continue to roll and the signal would continue to be broadcast while a lunatic holds a gun to the head of a nationally known journalist — or anyone, for that matter. Regardless of what the terrorist (and the voyeuristic television consumer) might be demanding, someone — anyone — would have pulled that plug immediately.

We are also expected to believe that Kyle invested all his money — all his money — in a single hedge fund. The SEC has rules about that. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, “qualified investors” must have a net worth of at least a million dollars, not counting their personal residence, or an income of at least $200,000, in order to purchase shares in risky investment vehicles such as the one in the script. Kyle makes $14 an hour as a sanitation worker. He is not a qualified investor. The hedge fund would not have accepted Kyle’s money. George Clooney and Jodie Foster (the film’s director) probably don’t realize this because they have managers who invest their money for them. They’re qualified investors; they just aren’t qualified to play with investors in the movies.

Next is Lee Gates’ ridiculous solution to Kyle’s problem. It seems that Kyle invested his money in a hedge fund that Lee recommended a few weeks ago, and the fund’s price tanked, taking Kyle’s money with it. Lee turns to the camera and asks his viewers to start buying the stock in order to pump up the price for Kyle and his fellow losers. First, viewers would smell a rat if a showman like Gates made such an outlandish plea. Remember Soupy Sales? “Kids, take a dollar out of your mother’s purse and send it to Soupy at this address . . .”

Kyle's girlfriend bawls him out and dares him to pull the trigger on the bomb — while she is in the studio. Who in the world would be that crazy?

More importantly, Lee’s idea wouldn’t help Kyle or the others who have lost money, even if the stock did return to previous levels. Stock prices rise and fall as new buyers purchase shares from current owners. It’s the ultimate example of supply and demand. In this case, the people who sold on the way down don’t own any shares anymore, so they aren’t going to get their money back, even if prices climb to the sky. They’re just going to feel worse. The only people who could make money on Lee’s new deal are the ones who buy at the bottom and sell at the new top. And believe me, Lee Gates would be investigated for investment fraud after these shenanigans were over. (Assuming he made it out of the exploding vest in one piece.)

The cops are just as stupid. They bring Kyle’s girlfriend to the studio to talk some sense into him and calm him down, even though they know she’s fit to be tied about him. And she’s just as stupid. Instead of calming him down, she bawls him out and dares him to pull the trigger on the bomb — while she is in the studio. Who in the world would be that crazy? And then there is the usual Hollywood inanity of having SWAT teams or, in this case, bomb squads enter a highly volatile location without wearing helmets. I know, it’s a film technique considered necessary so that we (the audience) can see their pretty faces while they talk.

In such situations, we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief, and usually I do. But in this movie my disbelief was suspended so far above reality that I became positively giddy from lack of oxygen.

The denouement is just as ridiculous as the build-up. We are supposed to believe that the greedy director of the hedge fund has manipulated a mining strike in South Africa in order to buy low and then sell high when the strike is called off, but a glitch in his plan resulted in a loss of $800,000,000. That’s a lot of platinum for two weeks’ digging.

I’m sure that George Clooney, who produced the film as well as starred in it, thinks he’s doing the world a big favor by pointing out the evils of greed and investing, but all he did with Money Monster is point out his own monstrous ignorance. He still has the dark swoony eyes, though. Maybe he should leave the social justice films for a while and make a nice romantic comedy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Money Monster," directed by Jodie Foster. Tristar Pictures, 2016, 98 minutes.



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The Art of the Jungle

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Sometimes a movie should be approached from the perspective of its artistry more than its philosophy or its storyline. The new Jungle Book is one of those films.

Sure, we could examine the underlying theme represented by the “Law of the Jungle”: For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack. We could debate whether this philosophy favors the individual or the community. (I think it favors the individual, since “the Law” feels more like an invitation and a promise than a command or a threat.) We could also comment on the Law of Peace that wary animal species establish in the movie to gain safe access to water during a drought: the animals agree not to attack one another when they are at the only available watering hole. The truce is enforced simply by their own self-interest and their consideration of long-term consequences should they violate it. Isn’t that a lot like the libertarian tenet that commerce or trade is preferable to war for people who have different values and beliefs?

Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

We could also howl at the way the well-structured anapestic rhythm of Kipling’s original language has been marred by the wolves’ substituting And the Wolf that keeps it shall prosper, but the Wolf that breaks it must die for Kipling’s measured scansion: And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die — a small thing, but I shall use it in my intro to poetry courses.

But right now, let’s just focus on the beauty of this film, the quality of the acting, the massive number of people who worked in harmony to produce it, and the amazing technology that made it possible.

The film opens with Mowgli (Neel Sethi), clad in a red loincloth, dashing barefoot through the jungle over rocks, across trees, through bushes until a branch snaps and he plummets to the ground. But there aren’t any trees — or grass or rocks or bushes, or ground for that matter; the movie was filmed entirely through digital animation and live-capture action in a studio in West L.A. The VFX (Visual Effects) are simply stunning, from the realistic blades of grass and bark of the trees to the fur on the animals and the way the wind ruffles the scene. Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

Adding to the sense of realism is the fact that Mowgli has scars, bruises, scrapes, and cuts, as one would expect of a young boy who lives in the wild. (In fact, watch for the scars on his shoulders — one seems to be an R, and the other a K, in a nod to Rudyard Kipling.)

Twelve-year-old Neel Sethi was the only live actor in this film and performed entirely on a blue screen set, assisted by mechanical stand-ins and director Jon Favreau, who often stood just off screen to help focus Sethi’s eye lines. He had to imagine the animals pursuing him, the bees stinging him, the trees he was climbing, and the conversations he was having. As Mowgli, he appears in nearly every scene, so the success of this $175,000,000 production rested on his acting abilities. He is utterly believable and engaging throughout.

Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, Favreau encourages humans to be themselves.

An additional challenge with a film of this scope is scheduling the live work fast enough so the actor doesn’t age over the course of the film. That means all the animation had to be set in stone before live filming began — no retakes are possible when the other cast members require weeks or months to recreate.

The actors who voiced the animals did their work separately within a sound booth, of course, long before Sethi entered the scene. They, too, must imagine the action and react to other characters virtually. They imbue their characters with their personalities simply through the inflection of their voices, and rely on animators to add gestures and facial expressions to bring the characters to life in other ways. Bill Murray as the bear Baloo and Christopher Walken as the gigantopithecus King Louis (an orangutan in the 1967 version) are particularly impressive. Murray’s low-key, offhand, Teddy-bear delivery is funny and endearing, while Walken’s Brooklyn accent is completely different from the way Louie Prima envisioned King Louis in the 1967 version. In fact, Louis’ sinister entrance is reminiscent of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now.

This is not a musical, but it would not be The Jungle Book without some of the beloved songs from the 1967 version (which was the last animated feature on which Walt Disney himself worked; he died before it was released). Favreau introduces the familiar melodies subtly within the background score, and when they do sing, it happens naturally, the way one would sing on a sunny day. Baloo and Mowgli float down a river singing “The Bear Necessities,” but they don’t dance. Other songs from the original also show up, but not until the credits roll (Kaa’s “Trust in Me” performed by Scarlett Johannson, King Louis’ “I Wanna Be Like You” performed by Christopher Walken, and a reprise of “The Bear Necessities” by Kermit Ruffins. So don’t be in a hurry to jump up from your seat when the book closes.

The Jungle Book is a story about self-discovery, manhood, and learning whom to trust. This version also presents a fair view of humans, who can be bad, as represented by their introducing fire to the jungle (never mind that lightning had been causing forest fires long before that!) but can also be very good if allowed to develop in a natural habitat. At first Mowgli suppresses his human qualities of problem-solving and tool-building, guided by his guardian panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and his adoptive wolf-mother Raksha (Lupito Nyong’o) to “fit in with the pack.” But Baloo sees the value of Mowgli’s remarkable inventiveness, and encourages him to use it productively. Eventually Mowgli’s tool-building skills save the pack and everyone else in the jungle.

Influenced by 19th-century sensibilities about gender roles and manhood in particular, Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, director Favreau encourages humans to be themselves. By taking care of himself, Mowgli also takes care of the pack. I think that’s a pretty good law of the jungle.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Jungle Book," directed by Jon Favreau. Walt Disney Pictures, 2016, 105 minutes.



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Cat and Mouse, Red Herring, and a Whiff of Gingerbread

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I’m not a blood-and-guts kind of viewer, but I love a good horror flick, the kind that keeps the viewer constantly off balance with neat little plot twists and hair-raising anticipation of terror. Skillful pacing is essential to the horror genre; we need to be confused, soothed, startled, thrown off course, cajoled, fooled, and soothed some more until we are terrorized by the tantalizing anticipation of the monstrously unthinkable event — even if that event never occurs. Maybe especially if it never occurs.

Too many horror films rely on blood and guts to elicit screams, but a brilliant director can deliver the shivers within a PG-13 rating. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, first-time director Dan Trachtenberg does all of this brilliantly.

As the film opens, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is packing hastily, tossing belongings into a bag and grabbing necessities with a deft hand. The scene is filmed as a series of close, panicky shots that create suspense even where there is none; we learn that she has simply decided to leave her fiancé Ben (Bradley Cooper). The last thing we see in the apartment is a close up of her keys and her engagement ring, and then she drives away into the night. Misdirection. In a horror film, it gets you every time.

We need to be confused, soothed, startled, thrown off course, cajoled, fooled, and soothed some more until we are terrorized by the tantalizing anticipation of the monstrously unthinkable event.

It happens again at a dark, secluded filling station. Is someone lurking in the shadows? Is someone following her? I won’t tell. But the tension heightens merely from the anticipation that someone lurking in the shadows. Somehow (I won’t tell you that either) Michelle wakes up in a strange room with an IV needle in her arm, a bloody scrape on her forehead, a brace supporting her injured knee — and a chain attaching her leg to the wall. It’s Misery all over again, we think, only Michelle is the “writer,” and Howard (John Goodman) is the good Samaritan arriving with a plate of scrambled eggs, a fresh bandage, and a petulant, “You need to show me some appreciation!” à la Kathy Bates. Sometimes borrowed creepiness is even creepier.

Howard tells Michelle that Armageddon has occurred, but they are safely secured in his underground survival bunker. He explains that he rescued her from an accident just before the blast happened. But then, why is she chained to the wall? And why does he keep locking the door? And why won’t he let her go to the bathroom without him in the room?

Michelle isn’t the only young visitor in this strange menagerie. Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) — yes, Emmett! Could any name be spookier in a horror movie? — sports a broken arm and a scraggly beard that suggests he may have been down here for a while — or it could just be a fashion statement. We don’t know. But Emmett seems to believe Howard’s story.

But then, why is she chained to the wall? And why does he keep locking the door?

The set is closed and claustrophobic, just three people locked in a bunker playing a mutual game of cat-and-mouse as they wait out the fallout up above, while also waiting out each other’s mistrust down below. Adding to the creepiness is the cheeriness of Howard’s bunker, with its 1950s furniture in the living area, pine cabinets in the kitchen area, fake sunflowers on the table, jukebox in the corner, and board games on the shelf. The vivid colors create a bizarre fairytale effect, almost like the gingerbread house that trapped Hansel and Gretel by baiting them with food.

If you’re feeling claustrophobic from watching too many weeks of that creepy, freaky bully suffering from a perennially bad hair day, roaring epithets at his uninvited critics, then turn off the television, leave the campaign news behind, and go see John Goodman as a creepy, freaky bully suffering from a perennially bad hair day roaring epithets at his unhappy guests. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "10 Cloverfield Lane," directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Bad Robot, 2016, 103 minutes.



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The Olympics and Liberty

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I’m often asked what makes a film “libertarian.” Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority? Many libertarian films do contain those features. But my favorites are those in which a protagonist achieves a goal or overcomes obstacles without turning to the government to fix things.

Two such films are in theaters now, and both are based on true stories about Olympic athletes who achieved their goals in spite of government interference, not because of government aid. Race tells the Jesse Owens story, and Eddie the Eagle tells the Michael Edwards story. Both are worth seeing.

Race is the perfect title for this film that focuses on both racing and racism. Owens was one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century. Historian Richard Crepeau (who spoke at FreedomFest last year) described the 1935 college track meet at Ann Arbor in which Owens, in the space of 45 minutes, set three world records and tied a fourth as “the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.” Nevertheless, Owens (Stephan James) is not welcome at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) intends to use “his” Olympics as a propaganda piece to highlight the physical superiority of the Aryan race, and he does not want any blacks or Jews to spoil his plan. He hires filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) to document the glorious event.

The film reveals the backstage negotiations between Olympic Committee representative Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and the German organizing committee at which Brundage insisted on assurances that Jews and blacks would be allowed to compete. Brundage’s insistence is somewhat hypocritical, considering the treatment Owens and other black athletes were enduring at home, but he was successful in forestalling a threatened American boycott of the Games.

What makes a film “libertarian”? Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority?

Owens faces similar pressure from the NAACP, as he is warned that he ought to boycott the Games to protest racism in Germany. Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order. This is as it should be. What good would it have done if Owens had stayed home to protest German policy? Would it have made any difference? Would anyone even have noticed? I felt the same way when President Carter made the opposite decision in 1980 and forced American athletes to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. What good did it do to destroy the dreams of hundreds of American athletes who had trained their whole lives to compete in a tournament that comes along only once every four years? Did it help anyone in Afghanistan? Did it hurt all those Russian athletes who took home more medals because the Americans weren’t there? I think not.

In the movie, Owens also faces the pressure of athletic celebrity, and Stephan James skillfully portrays the ambition and the temptations of a small-town boy chasing big-time dreams. He is anchored in his pursuits by his college coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) and his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton), who would become his wife and partner until the day he died in 1980. As with most sports films, the outcome of the contest is known from the beginning. The real story is how the hero gets there, and how he conducts himself along the way. Owens was a hero worthy of the title.

Eddie the Eagle tells the story of an Olympic hero of a different sort — one who is remembered for his tenacity rather than his innate skill. Michael Edwards (played by Taron Egerton as an adult and by brothers Tommy Costello, Jr. at 10 years old and Jack Costello at 15) simply dreams of being an Olympian; he doesn’t care what sport. His mother (Jo Hartley) nurtures that dream, giving him a special biscuit tin to hold his medals and praising his accomplishments, even if it’s just holding his breath for 58 seconds. Ironically, Eddie is motivated by a picture of Jesse Owens in a book about the Olympics. By contrast, Eddie’s father (Keith Allen) is a pragmatist, encouraging Eddie to give up his silly dreams and become a plasterer like him. His father isn’t a bad man; he just wants to protect his son from disappointment and financial waste. Fortunately for Eddie, he has the kind of optimistic personality that simply doesn’t hear criticism.

Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order.

Eddie settles on skiing as his sport and manages to qualify for the British Olympic team, but the Committee cuts him because he “isn’t Olympic material.” Read: you don’t dress well or look right and you’re rather clumsy. Undaunted, Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping. If he can compete in an international event and land on his feet, he can qualify for the Calgary Olympics. This is the same year that the Jamaican bobsled team slipped through the same loophole — a loophole that was quickly closed before the following season. Now athletes must compete internationally and place in the top 30% of finishers in order to qualify. But in 1988, if you could find a sport that few people in your country competed in, you could literally “make the team.”

With his father’s van and his mother’s savings, Eddie takes off for the training slopes in Germany. There he tackles the jumps, crashes on his landings, and tackles the jumps again. When he lands the 15-meter jump successfully, he moves on to the 40 and the 70, crashing more than he lands. Low camera angles during the jumps create the sensation of height and speed, providing a rush of adrenaline for the audience. Frequent shots of Eddie tumbling after a crash emphasize just how risky this beautiful sport is. We admire Eddie’s persistence, even as we cringe at his crashes. He believes in himself, no matter what.

Eventually he meets up with Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a chain-smoking, hard-drinking slope groomer who looks incredibly lean and buff for an alcoholic. Peary turns out to be a former ski jumper who lost his chance for Olympic glory by not taking his training seriously. This, of course, sets us up for the perfect sports metaphor movie: unskilled amateur with indomitable heart meets innately talented athlete who threw it all away, and both find redemption while training for the Games.

Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping.

It’s a great story about overcoming obstacles, sticking with a goal, and ignoring the naysayers. It demonstrates the power of a mother’s encouragement, and the possibility that even a poor, farsighted boy from a working-class neighborhood can achieve his dreams — if he doesn’t kill himself practicing for it.

All this allows us to forgive the fact that the movie mostly isn’t true. Yes, Michael Edwards did compete in the Calgary Olympics. He did set a British record for ski-jumping, despite coming in dead last in both events, simply because, as the only British jumper, his was the only British record. His exuberance and joy just for participating in the Olympics led to his being the only individual athlete referred to specifically in the closing speech that year (“some of us even soared like an eagle”). But Bronson Peary never existed, and Michael Edwards actually trained with US coaches at Lake Placid, albeit with limited funds that caused him to use ill-fitting equipment. But that wouldn’t have given us such a feel-good story.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Race," directed by Stephen Hopkins. Forecast Pictures, 2016, 134 minutes; and "Eddie the Eagle," directed by Dexter Fletcher. Pinewood Studios, 2016, 106 minutes.



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