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Patients & L’Atelier

I see a lot of movies—mainly at the theater, occasionally at home—as one may be aware, but haven’t written much on them over the past couple of years. I don’t get too many comments on my movie posts, though have been informed by a number of readers that my reviews are appreciated, and with a couple of friends having told me that they look for my critiques and recommendations of French films in particular. So from now on I am going to have more posts on cinema, promis juré. And as the César awards are coming up (March 2nd), this is a good moment to start.

One film I saw the other day is Patients (English title: Step by Step), directed by Fabien Marsaud, a.k.a. Grand Corps Malade, and Mehdi Idir, and which has been nominated for four Césars, including best film. The pic came out a year ago, got great reviews (3.8/4.4 on Allociné, with audiences loving it), and was a box office hit (almost 1.3 million tix sold, which is a lot for France), but I wasn’t too interested in seeing it at the time, mainly because I find the theme—of people who have been paralyzed—somewhat angoissant.

My mistake, as it is first-rate, indeed excellent. Had I seen it before the new year, it would have made the AWAV Top 10. I had no idea. Here’s a synopsis, culled from the film’s English-language Facebook page (though it has yet to come out in any English-speaking country):

Ben is a newly paralyzed young man in a physical therapy rehabilitation center. His life is changed upside down: he can no longer get dressed, sit, walk, play basketball, etc. His new friends are tetraplegics, paraplegics, or victims of head injury— a peculiar group of friends. Together they will learn patience. They will resist, show off, quarrel, tease each other, and flirt; but above all, they will find the strength to live again. STEP BY STEP is a story of rebirth, a chaotic journey marked by wins and losses, tears and laughter, and especially, encounters with others: healing is a team effort.

There are no reviews in English so far, so for a longer description, go here. The film, which is based on co-director Marsaud’s best-selling 2012 book of the same title, is autobiographical, of Marsaud’s accident in 1997, at age 20, of diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool, which left him a partial tetraplegic, and of his time in a physical rehab center near Paris—where the film was shot—and where, against all odds, he managed to regain most of his motor functions (he now walks with a cane). The final scene excepted, the entire film takes place in the center, where one follows the heroic efforts of protag Ben (who’s Marsaud, played by actor Pablo Pauly), plus the physical therapists and nurses, and of the friendships made with other wheelchair-bound patients, all of his generation—and all but one of whom is of post-colonial immigrant origin (persons of color, in American parlance). The actors, all amateurs, are great (I particularly like the attractive Nailia Harzoune). The film is engaging and inspiring, as Ben and his friends never lost hope. What to say, I was moved by it. Trailer (with English s/t) is here and an interview with Marsaud in Variety is here.

Ben/Marsaud was an amateur basketball player and all-around athletic type when the accident happened, with it becoming rather obvious that he would not be able to pursue his sporting passions, regardless of his physical condition once he left the center. Marsaud thus found a new career, as a slam poet-singer, adopting the stage name Grand Corps Malade (abbreviated GCM; literally, ‘big sick body’), which is how he is known to the public. I am ashamed to admit that I was not familiar with his music before seeing the film. I am now and can assert that it is great, and particularly the film’s theme score, Espoir adapté (with Anna Kova). Now tell me this is not a terrific song! It literally moves me to tears (with this kind of music, it obviously helps to understand the lyrics, of what is being said). Other great songs by GCM I have discovered this week: Funambule, Au feu rouge (on refugees fleeing to Europe; very powerful), and Je viens de là (on being from the banlieue). There are more. I am a fan, point barre.

Another first-rate French film that came out last year—and which bears similarities to ‘Patients’—is the never uninteresting Laurent Cantet’s L’Atelier (English title: The Workshop), which has been nominated for one César (though not in the ‘best film’ category, where it should be). It’s a complex film, about a summer writing workshop of late teens from working class families—all but one of post-colonial immigrant origin (the actors are all non-professionals)—led by a prominent Parisian author (of crime and mystery novels) named Olivia Dejazet—played by the excellent Marina Foïs (nominated for the ‘best actress’ César)—and set in La Ciotat on the Mediterranean, some 35 km east of Marseille, where Olivia has a second home. La Ciotat was long known for its naval shipyard, which closed in the 1980s, and attendant labor and political militancy, the CGT being strong at the shipyard and the town governed for decades by the Communists and Socialists. But that’s all in the past, as La Ciotat, which went into sharp decline, is now remaking itself as a beach resort, and with the main activity at the former shipyard the maintenance and repair of luxury yachts.

Novelist Olivia has assigned her pupils a project, to write a collective novel about La Ciotat. She hopes they’ll focus on the town’s storied history but the young people, while not totally uninterested in that, have other ideas. The generational cleavage is significant, as Olivia’s political culture and references—she’s pushing 50—are not that of her youthful charges. As one critic put it

The Workshop conveys a stunningly authentic portrait of French youth today; their class, racial and occupational concerns. The seven young people in author Olivia’s…class represent a snapshot of France’s colorful young population, no intellectuals with writing experience among them…

And as another critic concluded

In “The Workshop,” the kids call the shots, and the rest of us aren’t owed any explanations.

Of the seven young people, one stands out, Antoine (actor Matthieu Lucci), as he adopts an attitude of defiance toward both the class and Olivia, and which ultimately prompts the latter to kick him out. He is also the one “white” member of the group, and who is, as one learns, riveted to extreme right-wing websites—the fachosphère—and whose older brother is part of a local, weapons-carrying neo-Nazi gang. Antoine is manifestly influenced by all this but, trying figure things out, is maybe not totally set in his ideas. He’s a lost kid who’s searching. The way in which young people can be auto-radicalized via the Internet is well conveyed (and it’s scary). Olivia, learning of Antoine’s political views, is repelled but does not entirely reject him. The second half of the film indeed focuses on their interaction, of the mutual repulsion but also attraction, and with some latent sexual tension. It’s an engrossing film, as Cantet’s invariably are, indeed a borderline thriller. Reviews in France were good to very good, with those by Anglo-American critics tops. Trailer is here.

The Parkland massacre

Credit: NBC News

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Another week, another school massacre in America. Okay, maybe there’s not one every week, but they occur with sufficient regularity that we’re not stunned anymore, or even surprised, when one happens. The only certainties are that there will be another school shooting somewhere in the U.S. of A.—and sooner rather than later—and that the Republicans in Congress will do nothing, no matter what, even if they were all regaled with the details of what it’s like to be riddled with bullets from an AR-15 or some other such semi-automatic rifle—and legally procured by someone who may perhaps be mentally ill but is more likely just an angry (white) male.

It’s nice to see a few conservatives, mainly Never Trumpers, denounce the Republicans and their NRA paymasters on the gun issue, though the response of the latter is more likely to be the one so described by Der Postillon, Germany’s answer to The Onion, in a faux dispatch (kindly translated on my Facebook page by Jeremiah Riemer):

US arms lobby calls for banning schools

Parkland, Fairfax (dpo) – There are already some initial repercussions following the most recent shooting rampage at a school in Florida with a toll of 17 dead. In order to avoid these kinds of unfortunate incidents, the US gun lobby NRA has called for a nationwide ban on schools.

“After a tragedy like the one in Parkland, there are always hysterical voices that want to regulate or even ban guns,” says NRA head Wayne LaPierre. “Yet, according to our surveys, it is not guns that are the main cause of school massacres, but schools.” (…)

“If we want to protect our children, then we need to close these terrible places and barricade ourselves at home, armed to the teeth,” according to LaPierre. “You’ll soon see: Once there are no more schools in the USA, the number of shooting rampages and mass murders at schools will quickly drop to zero.”

The NRA’s plan is expected to find numerous supporters in Washington — after all, schools and the subjects they teach such as evolution, global warming, human reproduction, and other socialist propaganda have long been a thorn in the side of Republicans.

Comme on dit en français: On rit. Jaune.

UPDATE: As expected, Adam Gopnik has an incisive commentary in The New Yorker, “Four truths about the Florida school shooting.”

2nd UPDATE: Senior editor at The Atlantic, Krishnadev Calamur, has a piece explaining that “The Swiss have liberal gun laws, too: But they also have fewer gun-related deaths than the U.S.” True that, as there are indeed more regulations in Switzerland regarding gun possession than in the US. The gun culture there and attitudes toward violence are also not the same.

It is almost a commonplace among Americans—and across the political spectrum—that America is a “violent” country. On one level, I find this notion absurd, or at least absurdly exaggerated, as individual Americans are no more prone to violence in their personal behavior than are Frenchmen, Italians, Turks, or anyone else. And American cities—a few neighborhoods apart in a few cities—are quite safe nowadays. One does not worry about violence, let alone see it, when walking the streets of Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Washington, or wherever. But it is true that Americans collectively exalt the military and martial values—which is to say, the recourse to violence in dealing with adversaries or threats—in a way that other Western societies simply do not. There is a significant American exception here—and which is partly reflected in the attitude toward guns and the consequent shootings and massacres. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi zeros in on this in his latest piece (Feb. 16th), “If we want kids to stop killing, the adults have to stop, too: America’s rage-sickness trickles down from the top.” Tout à fait.

3rd UPDATE: A citizen blogger in rural Oregon named Anna has a post (Feb. 15th), provocatively entitled “Fuck you, I like guns,” in which she advances an argument that reasonable persons can hardly disagree with (h/t Lori Lippitz).

4th UPDATE: Amanda Marcotte has a good piece up in Rolling Stone, “4 pro-gun arguments we’re sick of hearing: Shootings in the U.S. are too often met with arguments for why we can’t do anything about gun control.”

Der Postillon, 15 Feb. 2018

The Weight of the Words

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

I read about the S.O.B. every day, maybe not obsessively but incessantly, like everyone else outre-Atlantique or who is from there. I have ideas almost daily for commentaries but what’s the point, as we’re all reading more or less the same stuff and thinking the same things. There is, however, one totally excellent essay that you, dear reader, must read if you haven’t, “The weight of the words,” by Jacob T. Levy—the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University—posted February 7th on the website of the Niskanen Center, a smart Washington-based libertarian think tank. The lede

Donald Trump’s words shouldn’t be shrugged off. Presidential speech is a form of political action that sets policy and shapes the public attitudes that sustain, or undermine, liberal institutions.

I won’t say anything more about it except to quote the social media commentary of the very smart political theory professor at the University of Washington, Jamie Mayerfeld: “Amazingly wise and perceptive essay…overflowing with intelligence, and worth reading many times over.” C’est fait.

Of the countless analyses of the unspeakable one’s first year in the White House—a reality I still can’t wrap my head around—one in particular stands out, “Donald Trump’s year of living dangerously: It’s worse than you think,” by Politico’s chief international affairs columnist, Susan B. Glasser, in the January-February 2018 Politico Magazine.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.

UPDATE: Chuck Todd had a great commentary on MSNBC the other day (Feb. 8th), in case one missed it, on how “It’s difficult to take the level of ‘crazy’ of this White House.”

2nd UPDATE: James Kirchick has an interesting post in the NYR Daily (Jan. 17th) on “Trump’s debt to Ron Paul’s paranoid style.”

3rd UPDATE: Quinta Jurecic, the deputy managing editor of the Lawfare blog, has a sobering essay (Feb. 16th) in The Washington Post’s Outlook section, in which she informs us that “Institutions can’t save America from Trump.”

If one didn’t see it, Lawfare editor-in-chief Benjamin Wittes had a must-read analysis, dated Jan. 1st, “Why Trump’s war on the Deep State is failing—so far.” Money quote:

Trump has another personality liability for the project at hand, one that fewer people notice: He is ultimately a wuss. He talks about his boldness all the time, and a lot of people—including his enemies—lap up the self-description. He likes to talk in sweeping, grandiose terms about the things he is going to do and the things he has done. In practice, however, he’s actually very cautious most of the time. Think about it this way: Leaving aside Trump’s words and claims about himself, do the actions of his first year in office generally bespeak boldness? Yes, he left the Paris Climate Agreement. And yes, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And yes, he did the travel ban. But think about all of the bold things Trump has promised and backed away from: scrapping NAFTA and waging a trade war against the Chinese, ditching the Iran deal, walking away from Europe, draining the swamp, and confronting conservative orthodoxy on taxation.

The boldest step Trump has taken, the firing of James Comey, was an accident. Trump actually appears to have believed that this move would be popular, because Comey had angered Democrats during the 2016 campaign. Most of Trump’s supposed boldness is just tweets and bombast and things he says. It’s a big part of his self-image, but the self-image is mostly a game of dress-up. When push comes to shove, he’s pretty paralyzed by circumstances much of the time.

4th UPDATE: Also if one didn’t see it, James Mann had an excellent essay in the Jan. 18th issue of the NYRB, “Damage bigly,” on Trump’s first year in the White House. The final paragraphs are worth quoting:

It is frequently said that through his incessant bellicosity, Trump is “playing to his base,” but that explanation raises more questions than it answers. His base represents less than 40 percent of the country. The election results of the past two months, particularly in Virginia and Alabama, demonstrate the limitations of merely exciting his base; by themselves, his core supporters are usually not enough for victory. Why, then, does Trump not try to expand his support in the way that other presidents have often done? (Bill Clinton’s strategy of “triangulation” comes to mind.)

One unsettling possibility is that Trump believes that somehow, in some future crisis, his polarizing approach may succeed in galvanizing the country into some new political constellation in which his base of 35 to 38 percent will suddenly jump to a majority. Another possibility, even more disturbing, is that we are witnessing a strategic embrace of rule by minority: Trump may believe that his judicial appointments and his favoritism toward the donor class of the wealthiest Americans, when combined with political tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression, will enable him to govern and win reelection without ever gaining anything close to a popular majority. The third possibility is that there is no strategy at all; Trump cannot expand his support simply because he is by nature unable to do so. He can manage to convey only anger, resentment, and prejudice; he lacks the ability to heal divisions, to win over those who oppose him, to seek common ground.

On the day after Trump was sworn in, more than a million Americans turned out in protest demonstrations in Washington and other cities across the nation. The harm he has caused to the nation since then is severe enough to justify demonstrations many times that size. Street demonstrations, though, cannot remove Trump from office. He will stay on, most likely, for four or eight years, until he is defeated at the polls or removed from office through impeachment or the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. There are now extensive debates among Trump’s many opponents about which of these approaches to pursue. They involve serious questions of tactics and strategy that are beyond the scope of this article.

After Trump’s first year in office, what is clear beyond doubt is that the damage he is causing to the nation, to its domestic and foreign policies, and even more to the rule of law, to its constitutional system, to its social fabric, and to its very sense of national unity, is piling up week by week. The longer he stays, the worse it will get.

We are in a very precarious situation. If the Democrats fail to win even one house of Congress in November or if one of the five non-conservative SCOTUS justices dies before the end of the year, I will fear the worst.

They both died, on January 15th and 23rd, respectively, as one is likely aware, as their deaths were international news stories. To be very honest, neither name rung a bell with me when I first the news, so did not feel personally affected. But then listening to their music on the radio reports and retrospectives, I realized that I was quite familiar with both of them indeed. I just had no idea. Like a lot of people, I suppose, I hear songs and artists—on the radio, at people’s homes, or just being out and about—that I like but can’t identify (thankfully there’s now Shazam, which I only learned about four or so years ago, when I finally succumbed and got a smart phone). As for Dolores O’Riordan and The Cranberries, they were great. I love her/their music: Zombie, of course, but also a lot of their other songs (playlist here).

Likewise with Hugh Masekela. I’m not a huge jazz fan (piano apart) but do like him and, I can say, always have (YouTube mix here). He does it for me: the South African beat and, bien entendu, the politics.

I’ve been travelling in the US for the past three weeks—from New York to Raleigh NC, and points in between—and have been neglecting the blog. Not that there haven’t been things to post about (it’s all Trump all the time here, if one is not aware). AWAV will be back up and running when I return to Paris this week.

Best (and worst) movies of 2017

Voilà AWAV’s annual list (for last year’s, see here). The movies here opened in theaters this year in France or the U.S. As usual, several well-reviewed Hollywood movies—and that figure on the “best of” lists of US critics—are opening in France after the new year, so I have yet to see them.

TOP 10:
Afterimage (Powidoki)
Beauty and the Dogs (La Belle et la Meute على كف عفريت)
Get Out
Loveless (Нелюбовь)
Moonlight
Paris la blanche
The Blessed (Les Bienheureux السعداء)
The Florida Project
The Nile Hilton Incident (حادث النيل هيلتون‎)
Wùlu

HONORABLE MENTION:
In Syria (Insyriated في سورية)
May God Save Us (Que dios nos perdone)
See You Up There (Au revoir là-haut)
The Workshop (L’Atelier)
Wind River

BEST MOVIE FROM IRAN:
A Man of Integrity (لرد)

BEST MOVIE FROM GEORGIA:
My Happy Family (ჩემი ბედნიერი ოჯახი)

BEST MOVIE FROM DENMARK:
Land of Mine (Under sandet)

BEST MOVIE FROM SWEDEN:
The Square

BEST ROAD MOVIE FROM ALGERIA:
Until the Birds Return (En attendant les hirondelles)

BEST SURVIVAL MOVIE FROM SOUTH KOREA:
The Tunnel (터널)

BEST CROWD-PLEASING MOVIE FROM PALESTINE:
The Idol (يا طير الطاير)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT URBAN PALESTINIANS CASTING OFF PATRIARCHY:
In Between (بر بحر)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT RURAL BEDOUINS WHO TRY BUT FAIL TO CAST OFF PATRIARCHY:
Sand Storm (عاصفة رملية)

BEST MOVIE FROM GREECE ABOUT A PUDGY MIDDLE-AGED MAN WHO TRIES BUT FAILS TO MAKE IT WITH WOMEN HALF HIS AGE:
Suntan

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT THE ANGUISH OF A FARMER WHO IS ABOUT TO LOSE HIS LIVELIHOOD:
Bloody Milk (Petit paysan)

BEST POLITICAL MOVIE FROM FRANCE:
This Is Our Land (Chez nous)

BEST POLITICAL MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT A CIVIL SOCIETY MOVEMENT:
120 Beats per Minute (120 battements par minute)

MOST OVERLY COMPLEX POLITICAL MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT CORSICAN SEPARATISTS:
A Violent Life (Une vie violente)

MOST OVERLY COMPLEX POLITICAL MOVIE FROM SPAIN ABOUT BASQUE SEPARATISTS:
Smoke & Mirrors (El Hombre de las mil caras)

MOST UNORIGINAL MOVIE FROM BELGIUM ABOUT A MUSLIM IMMIGRANT FAMILY CAUGHT BETWEEN TRADITION AND MODERNITY:
A Wedding (Noces)

MOST WELL-REGARDED MOVIE FROM CHILE THAT WAS JUST AN OKAY MOVIE:
Los Perros

MOST MERITORIOUS BUT IMPERFECT MOVIE FROM THE CONGO:
Félicité

MOST PROMISING FIRST MOVIE FROM ZAMBIA:
I Am Not a Witch

MOST SO-SO MOVIE FROM BURKINA FASO THAT COULD HAVE BEEN A BETTER MOVIE:
Wallay

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
C’est la vie! (Le Sens de la fête)

BEST ROMANTIC COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
Just to Be Sure (Ôtez-moi d’un doute)

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE MAKING FUN OF RADICAL SALAFISTS:
Some Like It Veiled (Cherchez la femme)

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE ABOUT A RACIST PROFESSOR AND A STUDENT OF COLOR WITH ATTITUDE:
Le Brio

BEST MOVIE FROM BULGARIA BY A GERMAN DIRECTOR:
Western

BEST MOVIE FROM THAILAND BY A BURMESE-TAIWANESE DIRECTOR:
The Road to Mandalay

MOST TEDIOUS MOVIE FROM THAILAND BY A JAPANESE DIRECTOR:
Bangkok Nites

MOST UNBEARABLY TENSE MOVIE FROM TEXAS BY AN AMERICAN DIRECTOR:
Nocturnal Animals

BEST MOVIE WITH AMY ADAMS IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Arrival

BEST MOVIE WITH JESSICA CHASTAIN IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Miss Sloane

BEST MOVIE WITH FRANCES MCDORMAND IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE WITH ANNETTE BENING IN THE LEAD ROLE:
20th Century Women

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE WITH RACHEL WEISZ IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Denial

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH KARIN VIARD IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Jalouse

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH SANDRINE BONNAIRE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Catch the Wind (Prendre le large)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH TAHAR RAHIM IN THE LEAD ROLE:
The Price of Success (Le Prix du succès)

MOST UNSATISFYING MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH EMMANUELLE DEVOS IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Number One (Numéro Une)

MOST IRRITATING MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH JULIETTE BINOCHE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)

MOST MIND-NUMBING MOVIE WITH RYAN GOSLING IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Blade Runner 2049

MOST EXECRABLE MOVIE WITH JOAQUIN PHOENIX IN THE LEAD ROLE:
You Were Never Really Here

BEST ANGLO-FRANCO-GERMAN BIOPIC ABOUT A GREAT 19TH CENTURY REVOLUTIONARY:
The Young Karl Marx

BEST ANGLO-FRENCH BIOPIC ABOUT AN INFAMOUS NAZI WAR CRIMINAL:
The Man with the Iron Heart (HHhH)

BEST BIOPIC FROM FRANCE ABOUT A FAMOUS SINGER:
Dalida

WORST BIOPIC FROM FRANCE ABOUT A FAMOUS SINGER:
Barbara

BEST INDIE MOVIE ABOUT TWO AMERICAN SOLDIERS IN THE IRAQ WAR:
The Wall

MOST GRATIFYING MOVIE ON THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA:
Hidden Figures

MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ON THE BLACK EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA:
I Am Not Your Negro

MOST OFFBEAT ORIGINAL DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE BY AN ELDERLY NEW WAVE FILMMAKER AND A YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHER-MURALIST:
Faces Places (Visages, villages)

MOST IMPRESSIVE DOCUMENTARY FROM THE CONGO BY A FRENCH FILMMAKER:
Makala

MOST BONE-CHILLING DOCUMENTARY FROM BURMA BY A SWISS FILMMAKER:
The Venerable W.

BEST MOVIE BY AKI KAURISMÄKI:
The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen)

BEST MOVIE BY MICHAEL HANEKE:
Happy End

BEST MOVIE BY JEFF NICHOLS:
Loving

BEST MOVIE BY KATHRYN BIGELOW:
Detroit

BEST MOVIE BY ANG LEE:
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN:
Dunkirk

MOST EVANESCENT MOVIE BY HIROKAZU KORE-EDA:
After the Storm (海よりもまだ深)

MOST SLEEP-INDUCING MOVIE BY MARTIN SCORSESE:
Silence

MOST ANTHROPOLOGICALLY INACCURATE MOVIE BY JAMES GRAY:
The Lost City of Z

MOST MERELY WATCHABLE MOVIE BY VOLKER SCHLÖNDORFF:
Return to Montauk (Rückkehr nach Montauk)

MOST ANNOYING MOVIE BY THOMAS VINTERBERG:
The Commune (Kollektivet)

MOST PERVERSE MOVIE BY FRANÇOIS OZON:
The Double Lover (L’Amant double)

MOST INSUFFERABLE MOVIE BY ARNAUD DESPLECHIN:
Ismael’s Ghosts (Les Fantômes d’Ismaël)

MOST UTTERLY FORGETTABLE MOVIE BY TERENCE MALICK:
Song to Song

MOST WASTE-OF-MY-TIME POPCORN MOVIE FOR THE MASSES:
Baby Driver

WORST EVER DOCUMENTARY FROM ALGERIA:
Bienvenue à Madagascar

WORST MOVIE FROM ALGERIA PERIOD:
I Still Hide to Smoke (À mon âge je me cache encore pour fumer)

Deplorables

[update below]

One of the features of the dystopian Trump regime is the rogues’ gallery of personalities in its inner circle, who have flocked to Trump like flies to fecal matter. They are not just deplorable in their political values but are truly loathsome on the human level. I have come across portraits of two just today. One is by NYT columnist Charles M. Blow, of Omarosa Manigault Newman, Trump’s White House “director of African-American outreach,” who has apparently been sacked. Blow’s revulsion toward this abject woman is manifest from his opening words. One shares the revulsion. Yech.

The other is a 4½-minute educational video, “Who is Stephen Miller?,” narrated by actress and HIV/AIDS activist Debra Messing. I’ve read enough about Miller to know that he is a despicable human being but this makes him look even worse. A question to women reading this: can you imagine going out with this guy? My good friend Frank Adler, who posted the video on Facebook, labeled Miller a “fascist pig.” Tout court. As Frank is a well-known academic authority on fascism, I know he chose his words carefully.

And then there’s this report I read today in Slate, about a 100% Trumpian family that is not in the White House but could have been a heartbeat away from it had the 2008 election gone badly wrong, or had Trump chosen the Wasilla whack job as his running mate, which he had contemplated doing: “Sarah Palin’s son, Track, punches through window, beats up armed dad in dispute over a truck.”

What a trashy family. What trashy people there are on the American right.

À propos, James Traub has a pertinent essay just up on the Foreign Policy website, “The United States of America is decadent and depraved: The problem isn’t Donald Trump – it’s the Donald Trump in all of us.” Well, the current problem is Donald Trump and the Republican Party but Traub’s point is well taken. There is indeed a larger problem with the United States of America. And decadence and depravity are the maîtres-mots.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire ce soir.

UPDATE: À propos of deplorables and the Trump regime, Norman Ornstein had a pertinent piece in The Atlantic, dated October 9th, that I missed at the time, entitled “American Kakistocracy.” The lede: “There’s a case to be made that the United States is governed by the least scrupulous of its citizens.” The case, in fact, hardly needs to be made at this point, as it so utterly goes without saying.

On capitalism and democracy

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

If one didn’t see it, uber-pundit Fareed Zakaria, who epitomizes a centrist inside-the-Beltway sensibility, had a column last week in The Washington Post in which he argued that “The GOP tax bill may be the worst piece of legislation in modern history.” No less. Now headlines often exaggerate or misstate the content of the article or column—such as the click bait one on this post—but not here. Zakaria is serious. And he’s right, of course, as, entre autres, the Republican Party no longer even pretends to be acting in the interests of even its own electorate—don’t even think about that of the opposition party, let alone the broader interest of America—but is simply doing the bidding of its plutocratic billionaire donor class. There can be no dispute over this at this point. Democracy in America is off the rails.

À propos of this general topic, Robert Kuttner has a must-read review essay, “The Man from Red Vienna,” in the Dec. 21st issue of the NYRB, on a newly published biography of Karl Polanyi. Money quote

The great prophet of how market forces taken to an extreme destroy both democracy and a functioning economy was not Karl Marx but Karl Polanyi. Marx expected the crisis of capitalism to end in universal worker revolt and communism. Polanyi, with nearly a century more history to draw on, appreciated that the greater likelihood was fascism.

As Polanyi demonstrated in his masterwork The Great Transformation (1944), when markets become “dis-embedded” from their societies and create severe social dislocations, people eventually revolt. Polanyi saw the catastrophe of World War I, the interwar period, the Great Depression, fascism, and World War II as the logical culmination of market forces overwhelming society—“the utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system” that began in nineteenth-century England. This was a deliberate choice, he insisted, not a reversion to a natural economic state. Market society, Polanyi persuasively demonstrated, could only exist because of deliberate government action defining property rights, terms of labor, trade, and finance. “Laissez faire,” he impishly wrote, “was planned.”

Polanyi believed that the only way politically to temper the destructive influence of organized capital and its ultra-market ideology was with highly mobilized, shrewd, and sophisticated worker movements. He concluded this not from Marxist economic theory but from close observation of interwar Europe’s most successful experiment in municipal socialism: Red Vienna, where he worked as an economic journalist in the 1920s. And for a time in the post–World War II era, the entire West had an egalitarian form of capitalism built on the strength of the democratic state and underpinned by strong labor movements. But since the era of Thatcher and Reagan that countervailing power has been crushed, with predictable results.

I read The Great Transformation in graduate school, in the early ’80s. It’s one of the most important books I’ve read—an important book being one that changes the way I think about something. In view of what’s happening these days, I think I should read it again.

Back to Orwell-land, one has no doubt read about the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the list of forbidden words: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

I try to remain optimistic and tell myself that the nightmare will end, that the Democrats will retake Congress next year and then the White House in 2020, and will painstakingly reverse or repair the damage that has been done. Inshallah. But even if this perhaps Pollyannaish scenario comes to pass, America’s shattered reputation in the world will not be restored. Maybe somewhat but not entirely. America will never live down Donald Trump and the Trumpized Republican Party.

UPDATE: Politico’s Susan B. Glasser has a podcast interview (Dec. 18th) with two charter leaders of the #NeverTrump movement, Max Boot and Eliot Cohen, who assess Year One of the Trump regime. They say that if Trump were operating in a country without America’s constitutional checks and balances, “He would probably be a dictator by now.”

2nd UPDATE: Last week, after the exhilarating victory in Alabama—which had liberals, progressives, and Never Trumpers rapturous, thinking that, yes, maybe the Trump regime’s days are indeed numbered after all—Vox’s Ezra Klein had a sobering commentary on “Why Doug Jones’s narrow win is not enough to make me confident about American democracy.” In it, he writes

The most important concept for understanding what has gone wrong in American politics is political scientist Julia Azari’s observation that this is an age of weak parties and strong partisanship. I have come to think of this as a flaw in the software of American democracy, a vulnerability that can be exploited to send malware ricocheting through the system.

Unfortunately no institutional anti-virus program exists that could remove that political malware from the system.

3rd UPDATE: Will Wilkinson of the smart libertarian Niskanen Center gets it exactly right in a NYT op-ed (Dec. 20th), “The tax bill shows the G.O.P.’s contempt for democracy.”

In the op-ed, Wilkinson links to a lengthy piece by writer John Ganz on the website of the interesting lefty publication The Baffler (Dec. 15th), “The forgotten man: On Murray Rothbard, philosophical harbinger of Trump and the alt-right.”

4th UPDATE: Dissent magazine published an online article (May 23rd 2016) entitled “Karl Polanyi for President,” by Patrick Iber (historian) and Mike Konczal (specialist in finance). It begins

Should health care and education be rights, or products that those with enough money can purchase in markets? About seventy-five years ago, in response to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered, through the programs of the New Deal, an expanded definition of freedom founded on economic security—immortalized as “freedom from want” in his famous speech of 1941. In our own time, severe inequality and the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression have once again brought the issue of what should count as a right to the surface of political debate.

One candidate, Bernie Sanders, has argued explicitly that health care and education—two things that the New Deal mostly left alone—should be rights and therefore accessible to all. While public policy pundits fight over the specifics, they miss that Sanders, by discussing these things as rights instead of just policies, has changed the nature of the debate. This key distinction helps explain why tens of thousands have turned out to Sanders rallies across the country—not to mention the millions who have supported him online and at the polls—demonstrating enthusiasm for a politics that he explicitly identifies as “democratic socialism.” But what kind of socialism?

The vast majority of Sanders’s supporters are not Marxists clamoring for a dictatorship of the proletariat or the nationalization of industry. Most are, probably without knowing it, secret followers of Karl Polanyi. Polanyi’s classic, The Great Transformation, was published in 1944—the same year that FDR promised a “Second Bill of Rights” guaranteeing employment, housing, social security, medical care, and education to all Americans. Today, Polanyian arguments are once again in the air. Since his ideas seem to be everywhere but he is rarely mentioned, a (re-)introduction to his thinking, and its relevance to politics in 2016, is in order.

Continue reading here.

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