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Archive for October, 2013

Lou Reed, R.I.P.

Lou Reed

He was one of my favorites in my mid-late teens—in the 1972-75 years. I loved ‘Transformer’, his chef d’œuvre. ‘Berlin’ wasn’t bad, so far as I remember, and I liked his earlier albums with the Velvet Underground. And I saw him twice in concert: at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater in fall 1973 and in Dayton Ohio in fall 1974 (my freshman year of college). Voilà his best songs: Walk on the Wild Side, Vicious, Perfect Day, Satellite of Love, Sweet Jane, Heroin

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Rush

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I heard on the news this afternoon that the Indian Grand Prix in New Delhi was today. I had no idea there was Formula 1 racing in India. Could I care less? Poser la question c’est y répondre. As it happens, though, I did see this film a couple of weeks ago, which has F1 racing as its subject. Now I have—or had—zero interest in F1 (or NASCAR, or any kind of auto racing), failed to see the appeal of it as a spectator sport, and absolutely did not have this movie on my ‘to see’ list when it came out last month. But then I noted the top reviews—American and particularly the French—and, above all, the gushing reaction of Allociné spectateurs, a certain number of whom seemed to have come across the film almost by accident. Intrigued—and as it was playing at a cinema around the corner from one of my places of work—, I decided to check it out, what the hell.

The verdict: it’s a terrific movie. Absolutely excellent. Top notch entertainment at its best. The pic is about the real life story of the bitter rivalry between two racing car drivers, the Englishman James Hunt (McLaren) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Ferrari), in the early-mid 1970s and that reached its climax during the 1976 F1 season, as they vied for the F1 World Championship. Lauda’s name rang a bell but not Hunt’s and, needless to say, I had no memory of that F1 season (or of any such season prior or subsequent). Hunt and Lauda’s rivalry and detestation of one another was fueled by their diametrically opposed personalities: Hunt the wild-and-crazy Playboy party animal; Lauda serious and straight-laced, faithful to his companion, and entirely focused on his work and winning. But they developed a respect for one another—grudging but that became genuine—in the course of the 1976 season, a respect that was facilitated by their similar class backgrounds and personal circumstances—sons of bourgeois families repudiated by their fathers, who could not abide their career choices—, and the terrible accident sustained by Lauda on the race track that year. Actors Chris Hemsworth (Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (Lauda) are perfectly cast—so it is said by those who know—and the film is faithful to the story of the rivalry (so I understand). And the depictions of the actual races on the track are riveting. I can now see the appeal of auto racing, and particularly F1. This is director Ron Howard’s best film—of the few I’ve seen, at least—since ‘Apollo 13’. When it comes out on DVD I’ll surely see it again. And it’s almost certain to make my ‘Top 10 best of’ list this year. Sans blague.

For the record, I’ve seen two other (sort of) biopics in the past month. One was Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’ (en France: ‘Le Majordome’). Everyone knows what this one is about so I don’t need to recount it here. Reviews of the film by Paris critics weren’t bad and it’s been a big hit among the French cinema-going public, but my reaction was somewhat less enthusiastic. The acting is fine and all—particularly the casting choices for the US presidents—but too much of the film is fictionalized (though French movie goers likely think they’re seeing a true story faithfully reenacted; there is also an important translation error in the French subtitles, but I won’t get into that here). E.g. the real life White House butler, who inspired Forest Whitaker’s character, only had one son and who was not a black power activist. Cuba Gooding Jr’s character here not only never existed but his parcours has chronological problems and with one contrivance after another. Contrivance is a general problem in the film. It’s feel-good Hollywood but the point, insofar as the film has one—WSJ critic Joe Morgenstern aptly calls it an Afro-American ‘Forrest Gump’ (a film that had no point, though which was better than this one)—, is not clear to me. The movie may be seen (at home, via Netflix)—for the ensemble cast and a certain entertainment value—but that’s as much as I’ll say in its favor.

The other film seen of late was Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Behind the Candelabra’, about Liberace (played by Michael Douglas, perfectly cast) and the love affair he had, in the latter years of his life, with the young hunk Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon). In the US the film was only shown on HBO—Soderbergh couldn’t get Hollywood financing for it, the big studios deeming it a sure box office failure on account of its gay theme—but it had a regular commercial release in France last month (under the title ‘Ma vie avec Liberace’), with lots of publicity (Michael Douglas came to Paris to promote it), and good reviews, both critical and Allociné spectator. It’s okay but left me (and the friend with whom I saw it) unsatisfied. Liberace was an interesting personality and an exceptional showman—plus a great pianist—, but the film focuses too much on his homosexuality, his kitschy tastes, and the specific story with Thorson. One gets the idea early on in the film.  At a full two hours, it’s a little long for what it is. In other words, it drags. It may be seen (again, chez soi on DVD or streaming) but is not essential IMO.

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grenada-00cover

That was the code name for the US invasion of Grenada, which happened 30 years ago this past Friday, an anniversary I was reminded of by engagé political scientist Stephen Zunes, who has a retrospective on the event. The episode was so pathetic, less on account of the invasion itself—though rightly criticized as a violation of international law by even America’s closest allies (including Margaret Thatcher’s UK), it could have perhaps been defended as a low cost R2P-type operation against a bunch of thugs who had just seized power in a bloody coup (and the Grenadian people did seem grateful for the US action)—than the reaction of the American public. I remember well the upsurge of patriotic chest-thumping and flag-waving—of America kicking butt in a tiny speck of a country that practically no one had heard of—, commentaries by pundits on how the “Vietnam syndrome” had been vanquished, etc, etc. The best reaction to all this came from Clark Clifford, who sniffed that the invasion was akin to the Washington Redskins playing Little Sisters of the Holy Cross, beating them 451-0, and then chanting after the game “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” Clifford, who had been Defense Secretary at the height of the Vietnam War, was not impressed. The pride Americans take in the US military kicking butt in small countries requires explanation, but which I don’t have. Cf. France, which has militarily intervened in small countries on numerous occasions (Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali, etc) but that has never aroused any kind of patriotic or nationalist sentiment among the French public. So why are Americans different on this score? Ideas, anyone?

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69700

This is a 3½+ hour, four-part documentary on the history of Jewish-Muslim relations—from the 7th century to the present—by French filmmaker Karim Miské. Parts 1 and 2 aired on ARTE last night and may be watched here (for one week at least). The documentary is quite good and with an impressive number of francophone and anglophone academic and other specialists interviewed. I noted in the credits that the film received the support of the cultural services of the US embassy in Paris. Parts 3 and 4 will air next Tuesday (and which will be on ARTE’s website linked to above).

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GOP Wanker Watch

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[update below]

Wankers. That’s what Bruce Bartlett calls right-wing Republicans (on his Twitter account, at least). An apt expression. (Pour mémoire, Barlett is a one-time conservative Republican and who served the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations, so knows the beast intimately). I’ve read a fair amount on the Republican/Tea Party right over the years and particularly of late, with the shutdown psychodrama and all. Of the many analyses and commentaries I’ve come across since my last post on the matter, let me recommend just one, a short piece on the Foreign Affairs website by Michael Kazin, “American unexceptionalism: the Tea Party is special – just not in the way it thinks.” Kazin compares the Tea Party GOP to right-wing populist movements in Europe, including the French Front National—on which he is particularly well-informed for a non-specialist of France—, and sees similarities. In this, he seconds my long-standing equation of the GOP right-wing and the French FN. Some conservatives may not like the parallel but it’s the truth.

Another article, this in Rolling Stone: “Inside the Republican suicide machine,” by Tim Dickinson. The lede: “It’s open warfare within the GOP – and all of America is caught in the crossfire.” The piece is long but worth the read.

UPDATE: The always interesting Michael Lind—who, like Bruce Bartlett, is a one-time conservative—has a pertinent article in Salon (October 22) on how the “Tea Party is an anti-populist elite tool [a]nd…has progressives fooled.” The lede: “This is not some spontaneous uprising. It’s the newest incarnation of a rich, elite, right-wing tradition.”

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Wealth inequality in America

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I just came across this YouTube, which was published a year ago. It’s 6½ minutes long. Please watch it.

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The Obamacare rollout

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[update below] [2nd update below]

It hasn’t been a success, that’s for sure. I’ve read a few articles here and there that analyze what’s gone wrong. Kimberly J. Morgan’s “Doomed from the start: Why Obamacare’s disastrous rollout is no surprise” is the best. Morgan, who teaches political science at George Washington University, is a specialist of welfare states and social policy—notably American and French (I’ve assigned her publications on France in courses)—, so situates her analysis in a comparative context. As the piece is short, no money quotes. Just read the whole thing (as it’s published on the Foreign Affairs website, it may eventually disappear behind the paywall; if so, let me know and I’ll make the text available).

Ross Douthat, the conservative NYT columnist, has an analysis today on the Obamacare rollout failure. I normally don’t bother with Douthat—who has, of course, opposed Obamacare—but decided to look at this one. It’s not uninteresting. He concludes his column with this

…the wreck of the exchanges may actually be worse for conservative policy objectives than a more successful rollout would have been.

That’s because while conservatives think the Obamacare exchanges are overregulated and oversubsidized, they are actually closer to the right-of-center vision for health care reform than the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which is happening no matter what transpires with Healthcare.gov. So if the exchanges fail and the Medicaid expansion takes effect (and, inevitably, becomes difficult to roll back), we’ll be left with an individual market that’s completely dysfunctional and a more socialized system over all.

In that scenario, the Democratic Party would probably end up pushing, not for the pipe dream of true single payer, but for a further bottom-up/top-down socialization, in which Medicare is offered to 55- to 65-year-olds and Medicaid is eventually expanded even more.

Meanwhile, the task for serious conservative reformers — already not the most politically effective bunch — might actually become harder, because they would have to explain how their plan to build an effective, exchange-based marketplace differed from the Obama White House’s exchange fiasco.

So while Republican politicians may be salivating over a potential Obamacare crisis, the conservative policy thinkers I know are not. They’re hoping, as I’m hoping, that this isn’t as bad as it looks. The chance to say “I told you so” is always nice, but not if the price is a potentially irrecoverable disaster.

FWIW, the right’s leading policy wonk critic of Obamacare, Yuval Levin, has an analysis in NRO “assessing the exchanges.” Not being an habitué of NRO or of Levin’s writings—life is too short—I would not have seen this were it not for The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, who linked to it on Twitter and called it a “must-read.” So I read it. Like I said, FWIW.

UPDATE: Tech journalist Gregory Ferenstein, writing in TDB, says that “Obamacare’s rollout is a disaster that didn’t have to happen.” The lede: “How cronyism, secrecy, and authoritarianism doomed Obamacare, and why it was all so unnecessary.”

2nd UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a typically on target column today (October 21), on Obamacare, its botched rollout, and the right’s efforts to undermine the law.

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