Category: Other

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director and 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie. That was reason enough to read this detailed account of its creation. The book was interesting enough to keep reading, but it wasn’t really worthwhile. I already knew Kubrick was creative and intense. There were some interesting facts about ways the movie might have been different and why certain choices were made. The main thing I learned was how important Kubrick’s many collaborators were (it’s apparently true that it’s a “collaborative medium”). But there was also too much about Arthur C. Clarke, his personal life and the process of writing the novel that went with the movie. I also found the technical descriptions of various parts of the production hard to follow. What the book mainly did was make me want to watch 2001 again. Maybe I’ll see it somewhat differently now that I know more about the effort that went into making it. It might be dangerous if I see it too differently.

The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up On Free Markets by Thomas Philippon

Why do Americans pay more than Europeans or Asians for cellphone service that isn’t even as good as theirs? That’s a question Thomas Philippon, a professor of finance at New York University and an adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, asked himself one day. He attempts to answer the question in this book. His answers aren’t encouraging.

Philippon says he will offer three main arguments:

One: Competition has declined in most sectors of the US economy. Measuring competition is easier said than done, for we can find only imperfect proxies. We will look at prices, profit rates, and market shares. None is perfect, but together they can form a convincing picture.

Two: The lack of competition is explained largely by policy choices, influenced by lobbying and campaign fiance contributions. We will look at the dollars spent by every US corporation over the past twenty years to lobby their regulators, their senators, their congressmen, and members of key committees, as well as to finance federal and state elections. We will show how these efforts distort free markets: … corporate lobbying and campaign finance contributions lead to barriers to entry and regulations that protect large incumbents, weaker antitrust enforcement, and weaker growth of small and medium-sized firms.

Three: The consequences of a lack of competition are lower wages, lower investment, lower productivity, lower growth, and more inequality. We will examine how the decline in competition across industries has effects that reach into the wallets and bank accounts of everyday Americans. We will also demonstrate why lower competition leads to less of the sort of thing that we traditionally associate with growing economies: investment, technological advancement, and rising wages [9].

The author explains that economists look at three main variables “to assess the degree of competition in an industry”:

…the degree of concentration (that is, whether there are lots of small firms or whether the industry is dominated by a few large firms); the profits that these firms are making, and the prices that customers pay….The bad kind [of concentration] occurs when incumbents in an industry are allowed to block the entry of competitors, to collude, or to merge for the primary purpose of increasing their power over market-wide pricing…[25].

In most US industries, market shares have become more concentrated and more persistent. Industry leaders are less likely to be challenged and replaced than they were twenty years ago. At the same tine, their profit margins have increased [60].

The Great Reversal is filled with data and references to journal articles, but the material is presented in digestible form (the more technical explanations are marked off from the main text). One result of all the data and all the related concepts is that the book is a kind of introduction to economics. I came away with a much better understanding of the work economists do when they look for patterns in all the buying and selling a society does.

I also came away convinced that things will only get worse — there will be less competition and more inequality — unless we reform our political culture. I already knew that American political campaigns are incredibly expensive compared to campaigns in Europe. But on average 50 times as expensive? I didn’t realize that the European Union now does a better job insuring competition than we do. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren emphasizes, we need big, structural change if we’re going to increase competition, reduce inequality and deal with the major challenge of global warming.

The book’s title, The Great Reversal, refers to the fact that the US economy used to work better for society as a whole. The data shows that it was mainly in the last twenty years that competition seriously declined. Can the reversal be reversed in the next twenty?

However, after spending “hundreds of hours researching and writing this book”, the author was surprised to realize “how fragile free markets really are”:

We take them for granted, but history demonstrates that they are more the exception than the rule. Free markets are supposed to discipline private companies, but today, many private companies have grown so dominant that the can get away with bad service, high prices, and deficient privacy safeguards. Only two decades ago, the United States was effectively the land of free markets and a leader in … antitrust policy. If America wants to lead once more in this realm, it must remember its own history and relearn the lessons it successfully taught the rest of the world [287-288].

American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology by D. W. Pasulka

I don’t know what to make of this book. The author is a professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. The book was published by Oxford University Press. It’s received positive reviews in a number of reputable publications.

For the most part, Professor Pasulka treats the subject of UFOs or “unidentified aerial phenomena” from a scholarly perspective. She says the book is “about contemporary religion, using as a case study the phenomenon known as the UFO. It is also about technology” [1], in particular, how technology can affect the development of religion. A well-known example is how the printing press allowed the the mass production of Bibles in languages other than Latin. Widespread use of that powerful new technology contributed greatly to the Protestant Reformation. Based on her research, she believes there is a “widespread and growing religiosity focused on UFOs”, not only because of evidence or testimony regarding UFOs, but because the mass media (especially TV shows and movies) have convinced millions of people that UFOs represent highly-advanced technology, possibly of extraterrestrial origin.

To further her argument, she points out that religious references to supernatural events and entities often sound just like contemporary reports of strange phenomena in the skies and visitations from otherworldly beings. She argues that people who report contact with extraterrestrials are often greatly affected, in the same way that figures from religious history who reported visions (of the Virgin Mary, for example) were said to be affected.

I’m not sure there really is “widespread and growing religiosity focused on UFOs”. Maybe there will be one day. But I don’t think it’s going to happen unless more evidence is provided. One of the problems with American Cosmic is that the scientists and technologists who speak to the author about their beliefs aren’t identified. She says there is a significant group of well-known, extremely successful individuals who are convinced we are being visited by beings from other worlds or other dimensions. Some of them believe these beings are helping us make technological progress, rather like the mysterious black monoliths did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Unfortunately, these respected researchers apparently insist on remaining anonymous out of fear that their professional reputations will suffer. So when Professor Pasulka tells us how she visited a secret location in the New Mexico desert in the company of one of these world-famous researchers, and that they found an artifact there, which other scientists later determined was “so anomalous as to be incomprehensible”, which “could not have been generated or created on Earth”, which “could not have been made in this universe”, we  are asked to take her word for it [240].

I didn’t find the parts of the book dealing with the relationship between religion and technology, or the detailed biographies of various researchers, very interesting. The descriptions of UFO sightings and bizarre visitations, however, were interesting in the way that good science fiction can be interesting. I didn’t come away convinced that all of the incredible stories are true. On the other hand, when you read stories in the New York Times or see something like this on CNN, who knows? (Note: the CNN story features the dangerous clown who lives in the White House for a few seconds at the end. Just a warning.)

Picture by Lillian Ross

Lillian Ross was a writer for the New Yorker magazine for many years. In 1950, John Huston, the director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, invited her to come to California and see how a movie was made. The movie in question was The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel of the same name. It’s the story of a young soldier who runs away from a battle but overcomes his fear.

When Ross arrived in California, Huston and the movie’s producer, Gottfried Reinhardt, were still working on the script. Ross closely observed the whole movie-making process, up until the film’s release in late 1951, spending hours with everyone invovled. She even lived in Huston’s guest house. The process may have changed since then, but I have a feeling the personalities and the power plays haven’t.

On one side, there was John Huston, the acclaimed director with a big personality, and the less flamboyant Reinhardt, an Austrian émigré from a theatrical family. They wanted to make an excellent movie that would also make money. On the other side were Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the management of Loew’s Theaters, the New York corporation that owned MGM. Mayer thought it was a mistake to make the movie, arguing that it had no stars and no story and wouldn’t sell tickets. Loew’s management was even less interested in the movie’s quality. They saw it as a pure business proposition.

The only reason MGM agreed to make the movie was the man in the middle, Dore Schary. He was Head of Production at MGM. He was enthusiastic about the project and convinced Mayer and Loew’s to fund it for $1.5 million, a substantial sum in 1950. Mayer probably agreed to make it so he could tell Schary “I told you so”. The head of Loew’s, who everyone called Mr. Schenk, probably allowed it so Dore Schary would learn a valuable lesson about art vs. commerce.

Ross describes how closely Huston and Reinhardt worked together, trying to keep the budget under control but still making something they’d be proud of. The suspense builds as the film is shot, mostly on location; as batches of film are reviewed at the studio; as the final product is scored and edited, with changes being made all along for both financial and artistic reasons. We see Huston, Reinhardt and Schary constantly reassuring each other that it would be a great picture and also sell tickets.

Finally, The Red Badge of Courage is presented to a “sneak preview” audience. The preview doesn’t go well. That leads to even more changes and more previews. Dore Schary eventually takes control and institutes bigger changes over Reinhardt’s objections, while John Huston sails away to make The African Queen.

The main things I took away from Picture are that a movie’s producer probably has a much bigger role than I realized; that most directors aren’t in total control of their movies, unlike what’s sometimes suggested; that people in Hollywood circa 1950 talked a lot, but rarely listened to anyone they didn’t think was important; and that nobody called it a “movie”, a “film” or a “motion picture” — it was always simply a “picture”, as in “It’s going to be a great picture, isn’t it, sweetie? It sure is, kid!”

Having spent so much time with The Red Badge of Courage, and having closely followed the addition of this scene and the elimination of that one, I want to read the novel again (it didn’t impress me in high school) and then see the picture again (I think I saw it once and it didn’t impress me either). As they say, that’s Hollywood!

Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman

I’m very glad I read this. I mainly knew of Smith that he wrote The Wealth of Nations and a rarely read book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments; that he explained how productive a division of labor can be; that he was a very good friend of David Hume; and that he is viewed as a champion of “the free market”, especially by libertarians and so-called “conservatives” (who sometimes wear Adam Smith ties around their right-wing necks). The most important thing I learned about Smith was that he wasn’t a libertarian at all. He understood that a market economy cannot work properly without government regulation. He also knew that economic decisions cannot be divorced from politics or morality.

I’ll quote from the book’s last chapter, “Why It Matters”:

How can the benefits of markets be safeguarded and extended, and their ill-effects contained?… We need a new master-narrative for our times. We need better frameworks of public understanding, better explanations … through which we can come to terms with these issues. But to create them, we must return to the dawn of our economic modernity and to Adam Smith himself. Not to Smith the caricature one-note libertarian alternately celebrated by his partisans and denounced by his detractors, but to what Smith actually thought, across all his writings, from ethics to jurisprudence to political economy…

The real Smith was not an intellectual turncoat who switched from altruism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to egoism in The Wealth of Nations. He was not a market fundamentalist, an economic libertarian, or in that strong sense a laissez-faire economist. He was not an advocate of selfishness, … the creator of homo economicus or the founder of predatory capitalism… He is rightly called the father of economics, conceptually because he was the first to put markets squarely at the center of economic thought, and practically because there are few if any economists … who do not stand in his intellectual debt….But his political economy ranges far wider that economics alone, and he could with equal justice be considered one of the founding father of sociology….

For many people, Smith’s political economy will always hold center stage; both as a model of economic analysis and for his specific insights into human behavior, markets, trade, specialization and the division of labor, taxation and the negative effect of subsidies, bounties and protection. Others will admire his moral egalitarianism, his feeling for the underdog, his belief in the importance of dignity and respectability to people’s status and sense of self, the way he minimizes inequality within his “natural system of liberty”, his devastating attack on crony capitalism, his … theory of human development, his historical analysis of the supersession of feudalism by commerce and his extremely subtle exploration and defense of commercial society… Still others will recognize the foundational importance of his theory of moral and social norms….

We have a president who ignores moral and social norms, whose greed is without limit and who fully embraces crony capitalism. But he’s a Republican, so most people would say he’s following in Adam Smith’s footsteps. That does Smith a disservice. The truth is that a progressive Democrat like Senator Elizabeth Warren is much closer to Smith. She believes in capitalism but understands that the government has a crucial role in making sure markets work for the benefit of society as a whole. That is pure Adam Smith.

I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael

Before she became a famous film critic for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote about movies out in San Francisco. She also offered her opinions on radio station KPFA. I Lost It at the Movies includes selections from her criticism between 1955 and 1964.

The single word that best describes her writing is “provocative”. She slams a number of movies generally considered classics (West Side Story, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, This Sporting Life). She also strongly criticizes other film critics, especially Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and the group of critics who subscribed to the auteur theory (film is all about the director). Her favorite films from this period include Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (“perfect”). She loves Antonioni’s L’Avventura but hates his La Notte.

Kael appreciates many popular American classics but thinks the films of the 50s and 60s that have mass appeal tend to be formulaic. She loves a number of movies that appealed to “art house” audiences but makes fun of art house patrons who take obscurity and complexity to be artistic or “deep”. Here she is on her chosen profession:

The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others [308].

I disagreed with a number of her opinions (in some cases, she seems to think a movie misfires because she would have preferred it to be about someone else), but she certainly communicated her enthusiasm to me. So far, I’ve watched a relatively obscure Japanese film she recommended, Kagi or Odd Obsession, about a husband who tries to regain his sexual powers by getting his wife to have sex with their prospective son-in-law, and I’m planning to watch another one, Fires on the PlainThe latter is about Japanese soldiers undergoing pain and privation and doing horrible things in the Philippines at the end of World War 2. She called it a “masterpiece”, writing that “it has the disturbing power of great art: it doesn’t leave you quite the same”. 

After watching Odd Obsession, I read her review again. She did indeed see more in the movie than I did (not a surprise). If I make it through Fires on the Plain, I’ll see if she saw more in that one too.

Note:  Someone identified as “Not Pauline Kael” has posted what certainly seem to be Kael’s reviews from I Lost It at the Movies, including the ones for Odd Obsession and Fires on the Plain. They are worth reading.