February 27, 2009

Gun Crazy

A smirk, a smile, guileless and sad fading into the fog: John Dall was not one of Hollywood's leading men before or after making the noir film Gun Crazy, the only other film I have seen him in is Alfred Hitchcock's Rope where he plays a highly seductive, highly intelligent provacateur and murderer. Dall in Gun Crazy plays someone at first sight completely different- a dupe of a femme fatale (I saw the film as part of the BFI's femme fatale season)- harmlessly fascinated by shooting but not by shooting people. The film opens with a scene which stresses Bart's (Dall's character) innocence and addiction to guns- but not to harming anyone. His sister and friends tell a judge that though he finds a gun irresistable: he cannot bare to kill anything, animal or human, rather Bart enjoys shooting for the skill of it, because it is the only thing he can do well. Years later, with the same two friends, he goes to a fairground and manages to beat their leading attraction- the sexy gun slinger Annie Laurie Starr- at her own game. She challenges the crowd and Dall comes forward to challenge her- and he beats her in a shooting contest. Dall drifts into becoming her sidekick on the fair- and later on drifts into becoming her accomplice in a set of robberies. Gulled by sexual attraction and by his innocent trust in Laurie, Bart becomes a hunted criminal and a murderer.

This downwards trajectory seems to be a warning story about being seduced by a 'wrong un'- but the film is much more complicated than that. Bart's attraction to Laurie is about her personality: about her vivacity but also about the fact that she is more experienced than him in the ways of the world. Choosing confidantes in life is about choosing which kind of person you wish to become. When Bart chooses Laurie, it is because she oozes sensuality- one shot where she lies on a bed in a dressing gown and the camera focuses in on her face, as his face moves into kiss it, is one of the most erotic I have ever seen in cinema. But there is more than that. Bart is attracted to Laurie's vicious search for what she wants out of life- predominately things and money- he is attracted to her because she provides him with a confidante, a capacity to be criminal. At one point Bart actually says as much to her, he says he is as guilty of her murders as she is for he lets her do his killing. By the end of the film, he has realised and we have realised that the desire to use guns was a desire to shoot people- but that desire was blocked by something in Bart- meeting Laurie is the best thing that has ever happened to him (from his point of view) because she stiffens him to remove that inhibition, by tempting him to live vicariously through her killings and by allowing him to enjoy his own killings.

This is an exceptional film because it is so normal. There are some fantastic performances here- Dall is perfectly cast, wonderfully inhabits his role, his Jimmy Stewart innocence evolving step by step and with backward glances into a criminal enjoyment, his smile into a smirk. Peggy Cummins is also brilliant- playing a similar part, she gives a better performance than Faye Dunnaway did in Bonnie and Clyde. The chemistry between the two actors is palpable- at times they seem (particularly Dall) like gawky teenagers just catching the first glimpse of a kiss- at other points Cleopatra and Anthony are on the stage. But that sensuality allows something else to prosper, you can see and understand the chemistry as a psychopathic union that allows the criminality to flower in both of them. Laurie we know has killed before- but Bart, save for his curious affection for guns, seems like a country school kid until what was latent is let free, and the kid turns into a killer.

The one thing that I can't get over in the film ultimately is Dall's smile- like that of the Cheshire Cat it lingers over the film- and progressively it gets more and more disturbing, as he makes an impercetible translation from Jimmy Stewart into Clyde Barrow.

February 26, 2009

Free State

The words 'Free State' have fallen out of fashion: at one point in the early modern era, the concept of a Free State was vital to understanding both the concept of freedom and the behaviour of a Republic. The concept of a Free State justified the internal behaviour of the Republican state. Livy uses the concept in this way in a speech that he allows Appius Claudius to deliver to rebuke the Tribunes at the end of Book VI of his History of Rome. At that point in Roman history, according to Livy, the tribunate were asking to be allowed to be elected to the consulate and for a series of reforms. What Claudius argued to the people and the senate were that such policies would lead to dividing the state, dividing the state into conceptual groups. The Free State was threatened with sedition from within and without.

This line of argument is interesting- because it opens up an issue upon which of course Rome based its offer of citizenship: freedom. Claudius does two things in facing the Tribunes: firstly he assures himself and his audience that he has the right to speak, such is the privilege of citizenship in a free state, 'knowing only that my parents were free born and I lived in a free state, how could I keep silent' (VI 40). Secondly Claudius argues that a free state is one in which citizens act in the interests of the state and not in the interests of another power or person- the 'Tribune Tarquins' (VI 40) that he blasts are opponents of freedom because they force the state by the power of their eloquence to support their interests and not the interests of the community as a whole. The predicate free in the hands of Claudius is something that attaches itself to states and to citizens only insofar as they are part of states. One understands this better if you can see that as Claudius says the opposite to freedom is slavery: slavery is the condition that people who are stateless have in the Roman world, people whose states have been wiped out or who are born in states that they are not citizens of. The opposite of slavery is citizenship: which is why the rights of the citizen are so important to a wealthy plebeian, but is also why the rhetorical appeal of an argument which identifies freedom with the city state is so powerful in the hands of the patrician.

Understanding what freedom meant and how its meaning underlies Claudius's speech I think is crucial not merely to understanding this aspect of Roman history, but also to understanding Roman history in the round and how distinct it is from our history. The conceptual vocabulary may sound similar- but the movement from a free state to a free citizen as the unit of liberty involves real changes in politics and ideological options.

February 24, 2009

red state blue state review-part two

I wish to continue my reviews of this excellent work. I hope my previous review has shown how very valuable and interesting this work is. Here I want to focus on a few issues where I think their conclusions need nuancing-and more than they give it as well as one objection raised I think is invalid.

It strikes me a lot of their comparisons/ the implications of their comparisons are diluted by the importance of the African American Vote in the United States. This is around 10% and more of the American Vote. Indeed in one survey I read African American were more likely to vote democratic in the South than Affluent, Gun owning self described members of the religious right were to Vote Republican! African Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic with only fairly minor differences on the basis of whether they are born again or not, rich or poor go to church or not etc. They are also of course disproportionately poor and churchgoing. Thus the effect of their vote-will is to increase the class cleavage and reduce the religious cleavage in American life. It will also make poor voters look like they vote less on religious lines than rich voters- even white rich voters do. Gelman and co make some reference to this -but not enough. In other words the apparent (comparative) weakness of churchgoing and income in the US could be a function of race.

And indeed if you look at white voters the big differences on income are for those earning in the bottom 8% of Americans and the top 3%. This makes a lot of sense since the differences between the two parties on income policies (whether the Earned Income Tax credit or high rate income tax) are concentrated at that level. This is discussed by Byron Caplan in this blog post..

I'm quite certain that lies behind Mississippi having the most republican non-churchgoers of any state (Mississippi has the highest % of African Americans. Similarly as they also acknowledge a lot of the reasons why the income gap is higher in red states is that in the South African Americans are a very high % of the poorest voters (in the other republican presidential stronghold of the rocky mountains the gap is much less apparent)-again they do acknowledge this is part of the explanation.

On international compressions it strikes me there is insufficient attention to the role of "dead" cleavages-and this they don’t really address. That is if a factor (such as religion) or class had a large effect on a generation's parents voting it is likely to correlate with their own voting-because both class, religious affiliation . A fictional example (that is perhaps not that far from some countries actual electoral history) should help.

Say Country X has a rightwing and a leftwing party 80% of churchgoers vote for the right and 80% for the left (let's say for the sake of argument it's a new democracy) .Let's say in the Next generation churchgoing stops having any direct effect on voting patterns. However Say churchgoers/ non churchgoers) are 80% likely to have churchgoing /non-churchgoing children-and right-wingers are 80% likely to have rightwing children. A huge correlation will remain between churchgoing and voting for the right even if it has no independent effect (over 60%).

A classic case of this happening was in post war Canada. In the early and mid 20th Century the Conservatives (latter Progressive Conservatives) were above all the party that sought to build up Canadian life according to a pro British, anti American protestant and centralized model. The basis of their support was Protestant Canadians. Catholics voted overwhelmingly for the liberals. A survey in the 1980's (when the issue environment had changed so much it was unrecognisable) found whether one was Catholic or Protestant was still the best predictor of voting Conservative- a better predication than economic class or religiosity. However this was just because the Catholic Liberal voting’s of the early 20th century had had both disproportionally Liberal and Catholic Children. The best proof of this was that converts to Catholicism who were went to church regularly (i.e. those with whom one can see the effect of Catholicism operating independent of historical tendencies) were actually extremely likely to vote conservative.

It may be the weakness of the churchgoing cleavage in America relative to western Europe is very heavily this effect- the lack of pious/ secular religious cleavages in America in the 1950's and the strength of it in so many western European countries.

I also feel I should defend them from some criticism Gelman that they themselves seem weak in answering”How could it be when here religion is out of the political campaigns and discourse and there is no question whatsoever about the faith of candidates?” For a start the latter claim strikes me as dubious and exaggerated (note how every major French rightwing candidate in the last twenty years has been a practising catholic with no leftwing one being so). . In any cases in America talk of faith by candidates tends to be highly generic –at most generically Christian often frankly generically theistic (in a way that could included theists)-crucially it tends to bi-partisan there is not an obvious difference in the way different parties national candidates talk about Faith. (And its difference rather than level of piety that explains how much people vote on religious lines-I imagine people’s religious views had little impact on their voting in the fifteenth century England!)

. AT the same time the differences between left or right or religiously issues can often be sharper. So for example in Italy (whose overwhelmingly catholic nature means such issues are likely to be more a proxy for religiosity than in the united States the right when last in power restricted IVF and embryo research earlier this decade, the left government then sought to bring in "civil unions" (failing partly due to internal divisions) and the right has now sought more restrictive and tight “euthanasia laws” Even in the United Kingdom there weree huge party parliamentary differences for example on the abortion laws shown in very recent votes. it’s no wonder in such circumstances there’s a correlation between churchgoing and voting. It’s not just a legacy of the past.

February 23, 2009

The silly season: Oscar unreality

It is that time again- Oscar silliness will be a feature of every newspaper this morning and heads in Hollywood will be feeling sore after last night's extravaganza. The problem with this annual farce is that actually it makes little difference to the average film goer- it may indicate some paths along which aspirant directors wish to move, it may even indicate which films will sell most on DVD (a minor foreign film like Okuribito is bound to be boosted by winning an Oscar), but it doesn't say much about which the best film of the year was. There are various reasons for this: take the best actress categories- this year won by Kate Winslet and Penelope Cruz- true both of them may well have given superb performances, but both have done so before. One wonders if the academy is trying to avoid another Scorsese moment (when a great figure in cinema is left without an Oscar for an unreasonable time)- Cruz for example could have won for her magnificent performance in Volver a couple of years ago. There are also odd ommissions from the list- Of Time and the City is a superb film, which beats many on the best film list in my opinion for its imagination, scope and quality but it is not there.

You might get an award wrong, but that doesn't mean that an award should not exist. In this case, I find it hard to sustain the idea of the award itself: it does not make any sense to talk about the best film of a year, anymore than it makes any sense to talk about the best book of a year. The problem is about the nature of the comparison. Films try to do different things. 1959 saw the US releases of Hiroshima mon amour, Ben Hur, Wild Strawberries, Carry on Teacher and North by Northwest. How do you compare that list of films? Carry on Teacher is the one I would least like to watch: but it is not attempting to do what the other films on the list are attempting to do, it is unfair to judge a film or anything else by a criteria that it does not attempt. I would suggest that comparing Hiroshima mon amour to Wild Strawberries or North by Northwest is an impossible task: ranking those three films is a silly endeavour, much better to settle for the fact that all three are great works of art and deserve to be watched on their merit. They are three great films with individual points to make about the world- and those points are more interesting than the rankings we might assign them. Ben Hur, which got the Oscar in 1959, again is a different kind of film, it does not seek to arouse the softness and sadness at the heart of Wild Strawberries, the contemplation at the heart of Hiroshima or even the suspense of North by Northwest- it is about spectacle.

There is a difference between a poor film and a good film, a good film and a great film: there are films that we all prefer to watch and those that it is pure suffering to watch (Rambo IV step forwards): but the best film of a year is an arbitrary decision and not a helpful one in terms of appreciating films. Think about what a film is saying rather than what ranking a film has. Ultimately films are a means of communication, and for those outside the industry, the key issue about a film is what it says not where it stands in comparison with other films of the year. The annual Oscar fest is useful to remind you that someone in the world thinks that Okuribito was a good film- and therefore point you in its direction- it isn't useful for much else. Unless that is you are a director or actor and interested in a free drink and an aftershow party: otherwise its best to leave the judgement of the best film to the industry- and concentrate not on the Oscars and who won and who lost, but on the films, what they say about the world, what they teach us about life, the universe and everything else.

February 22, 2009

Purchasing Power

Wealth, as Mr Hobbes says, is power. But the person who either acquires or succeeds to a great fortune, does not necessarily acquire or succeed to any political power, either civil or military. His fortune may perhaps afford him the means of acquiring both, but the mere possession of that fortune does not necessarily convey to him either. The power which that possession immediately and directly conveys to him is the power of purchasing; a certain command over all the labour, or over all the produce of the labour, which is then in the market. His fortune is greater or lesser, precisely in proportion to this power; or the quantity either of other men's labour or, what is the same thing, of the produce of other men's labour which it enables him to purchase or command. (Smith Wealth of Nations, Chap V, p. 26-7 Everyman 1991 ed.)

I find this passage from Smith's Wealth of Nations fascinating on many levels. It demonstrates his clarity- Smith was one of the masters of expressing complicated ideas clearly and lucidly. He is eminently readable. It also reflects though on the subtlety of his ideas about wealth. For what Smith attempts here is a definition of wealth- building on a key earlier insight from Thomas Hobbes- that seeks to explain what he considers to be that power that wealth wields. Hobbes defined wealth as the power to do something- his key interest was in political power and the wealthiest men in a Kingdom might easily destabilise or threaten the realm's internal security (as for example Hobbes's great contemporary James Harrington argued wealthy classes had threatened the security of first the Norman, then the Lancastrian and later the Tudor state). What Smith does is refine Hobbes's analysis and do it in such a way that the political consequences within his own day would be obvious, but are unstated.

Smith agrees with Hobbes that wealth constitutes a power- but whereas the political philosopher left the definition of wealth to others whilst he constructed his Leviathan- the Scottish moral philosopher turns immediately to define exactly what that power consists of. Smith immediately moves the attention of his readers away from the static form of wealth, to a dynamic social form- purchasing. Purchasing rests of course upon the consent of others to your definition of your own wealth- a point that Smith makes later in the Wealth of Nations when he discusses the fact that money has a rising and a falling value. Perhaps even more interestingly though thinking about purchasing leads to an inevitable question- what kind of power is purchasing? What kind of leverage is the ability to buy? Smith who beleived that the ultimate source of value was Labour can answer that the purchaser purchases the labour of others- he is able to exercise command over labour in proportion to his wealth in the market. That distinction immediately creates a solidity within Smith's speculation that Hobbes's did not have: here we have the root of the power of wealth, it is the power to purchase, to purchase the services that others agree to sell.

What consequences does this intellectual move have? What I think it does is make even more explicit the dependence of wealth on the social structure that reinforces it. If we think of wealth as the ability to make transactions, to extract services, then we realise that it is dependent on the social structures that allow you to make transactions. In that sense what Smith does is change the nature of the discussion- his insight that wealth is about the ability to make transactions makes wealth a dynamic thing (and one of the fascinations about the Wealth of Nations as a book is that it is a phenomenal acheivement of economic history as well as of economics) and it relates wealth to politics. Smith in this sense is not merely an economist but a political economist- understanding that economics, the study of wealth, not merely underpins, as Hobbes would agree, political stability and instability, but that it also depends upon political community. Without that community, the wealthy would be unable to exercise their power to make transactions.