Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Beatles

Some of my tastes are a little on the peculiar side, and I sometimes wonder what they say about my sanity and my relationship with the outside world. But although I might have peculiar tastes in other areas, a vast majority of music fans and critics agrees with me when it comes to naming the greatest rock & roll act of the 20th century — and maybe beyond. Of course, I’m talking about the Fab Four; the Lads from Liverpool; the Mop-Tops; John, Paul, George, and Ringo — otherwise known as the Beatles. Does this paragraph sound like a trite cliché yet?

I’ve been a fan of the Beatles ever since the age of six, and while most of the music I listened to in my years growing up has lost its punch, I’ve never lost my ear for Beatles songs. Even the tunes I don’t particularly like are still very listenable and hold my interest. As a result, Beatles songs — whether performed by the four guys themselves or covered by other artists — are like mother’s milk to me, and just a few familiar notes from one of their songs can give me a solace that few other things can.

Recently, my admiration of the Beatles and their enormous musical legacy intensified — so much so that I joined an on-line Beatles discussion board, “
BeatleLinks Fab Forum,” to discuss with other fans what we got out of their music. One of the site’s members started a thread titled “I Always Knew the Beatles Were Different,” in which he put his appreciation for the band in rather abstract terms. This was all perfectly fine as far as what the original poster wanted to say, but I wished to continue his thread by putting my appreciation in a language of things more tangible. Written before Phil Spector’s arrest on murder charges, my post read:

I’ve been thinking about what makes the Beatles special as well. What made them more than a flash in the pan? What makes them so enduring? I don’t think that anyone can come up with a completely 100% satisfactory answer. After all, they didn't come out of nowhere. If it hadn’t been for the precedents of Elvis Presley and Phil Spector, I doubt that the Beatles as we knew them would have come about.

Also, the contributions of George Martin to their records can’t be overestimated. A number of people still laugh up their sleeves at Decca Records passing on the group after they made their demos for the company in 1962. But if the Beatles
had signed with Decca, what guarantee is there that the guys wouldn’t have remained a novelty group, one which was not allowed by the label to grow? It’s a bit of kismet that the Beatles and Martin were mutually open to influence and growth — even when such growth seemed to threaten making their records a “hit.”

If I were to name only three elements that set the Beatles apart from the competition, I would limit myself to these:

1. Merging rhythm & blues with Spector's “wall of sound”: I think that the most distinctive part of the Beatles’ early sound was in adapting the elaborate tinkerings characteristic of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” to the relatively spare instrumentation traditionally associated with rhythm & blues. When you try to reproduce Spector-like fripperies with a four-piece rock & roll band, what you get is music like the Beatles played. The addition of relatively complicated three-part harmonies on most of their songs — harmonies more accessible than Elvis’ near-baritone and not as sugary as the Beach Boys’s — enhances the instrumentation. To me, this is the secret of the “Liverpool sound.”

2. Catchy hooks and chord changes: For better or worse, virtually all of pop music depends on these. If you don’t capture the listener with a riveting series of notes and chords, chances are that the song will not be a hit. And the Beatles became the masters of the hooks. In their early songs, the most noticeable of the compelling chord changes are the ending chord, a sixth chord, on “She Loves You” and the change to a minor chord in “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” (Ringo’s beat is helpful, but not essential.) In a documentary, Roger McGuinn says that the Beatles’ chord changes are closer to those found in folk music, rather than in the rock & roll of the era. [And in a recent documentary on the making of the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, cast member Kenneth Haigh says that their melodic style was specific to the folk music of northern England.] Of course, as the Beatles progressed, their music became less dependent on this pop-music idiom, but without such a foundation, would their later experiments have found an audience?

3. An unwillingness to stand still: The Beatles could have spent their entire careers rewriting “Please Please Me” over and over again, but they didn’t. Even in their earlier, poppier songs there was a certain restlessness, whether it was in writing a love song in the second person (“She Loves You”) or incorporating electric-guitar feedback into a pop song for the first time (“I Feel Fine”). By constantly seeking new sounds, and new subject matter for their lyrics, the Beatles expanded rock & roll from a relatively primitive kind of music for juveniles to something much larger. Of course, there were outside influences, such as Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, and the Byrds, but the Beatles chose not to ignore them. By the time the Beatles broke up in 1970, rock & roll was almost unrecognizable from its origins.

And while the Beatles were a particularly special case, something needs to be said for the great musical ferment of the 1960s. The Beatles may have been at the head of the pack, but they were in very good company — not only Dylan, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys, but also the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, Motown, and more. The reasons for this artistic flowering were many and varied, and I won't go into them now. But I wonder if we will ever see such a creative explosion again.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Re: ‘Intaxication’

Economist Paul Krugman
Returning to Phil Dillon’s conservative blog, Another Man’s Meat (which has since changed its name to Fires Along the Tallgrass), I have sometimes written responses to his posts which did not show up on his site.  One such response answered a post of his on taxes.

On August 15, 2007, Phil posted a meditation on taxes, specifically how someone in his hometown of Emporia, Kansas, a Mr. John Peterson, was proposing a tax on the wealthy to bring in some needed revenues. “Intaxication” was Phil’s rejoinder. I submitted a response to his piece, but it never appeared on Phil’s blog. Here is what I wrote:

No one likes to pay taxes. On the other hand, Americans (most of us) like Social Security, Medicare, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and other federal programs. Americans also like to have access to police officers or fire fighters when they’re needed. And Americans like to drive on paved roads free of potholes and have traffic lights that don’t cause any car crashes. These everyday social fixtures that we take for granted must be paid for. What pays for them? I’ll give you a hint: it’s a five-letter word and a favorite bugbear of the Republican Party.

Much of what makes our society livable — not everything, but much — depends on taxes. However, you wouldn’t get that idea from reading “Intaxication.” Instead, Phil likens taxes to “theft,” which he defines as “taking something that belongs to someone else and using it for another’s purpose, agenda, or pleasure.” But aren’t the social fixtures that I mention above a benefit to all of us, not just “another”?

The tenor of the post — especially its references to “theft,” “coveting,” and “mugging” — implies that the best kind of taxation is no taxation at all, or at the very least, a minimal form of taxation that would make April 15 just another day on the calendar. How would this kind of taxation pay for Social Security, policemen, and pothole patches? The post doesn’t say. I get the idea that anti-tax activists think that if you eliminate all taxes, these social necessities will pay for themselves. Such a utopian belief isn’t far from the one that says functioning Jeffersonian democracies will flourish throughout the Middle East just by toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Now, I’m not writing to defend John Peterson’s particular tax idea. Being no economist, I have no idea whether it would be suitable or not for the good people of Emporia (although, as a rule, I find flat taxes regressive). I’m also not saying that some taxes shouldn’t be scrutinized or adjusted or even abolished when appropriate. But some taxes must be — must exist — for the sake of society. The Great Depression (caused by the stock-market crash of 1929) showed us the need for a social safety net: Social Security, the FDIC, unemployment relief, etc. To continue on our present course of taxation could very well force us to slash these social services severely. And I don’t see any acknowledgement of that in “Intaxication.”

Phil’s post pointed me to a 2003 article, “The Tax-Cut Con” by Paul Krugman.

There. I’ve probably lost at least two-thirds of any conservative readers out there just by mentioning Krugman’s name. He is a liberal economist and New York Times columnist who alerts his readers to the flaws (to use a value-neutral word) in the Bush economy. He is also the bête noir of many on the political right, and a small conservative cottage industry has sprung up to refute everything he says as a “lie.” Krugman’s name carries as little credibility with many conservatives as the name of right-wing think-tanker Thomas Sowell (whose writings Phil recommends and whose syndicated column I sometimes read in the Daily News) does with me. Still, I thought that I would compare some of Krugman’s comments in “The Tax-Cut Con” — and a few of my own — with some of Phil’s statements in “Intaxication”:

“We’re taxed on every hand. The federal government taxes us; the states tax us, municipalities tax us. … They even tax us when we die.” —Phil

Phil’s statement is obviously a reference to what is officially known as the estate tax or inheritance tax, but which has lately become more commonly known as the “death tax.” However, Krugman explains how the estate tax was cut by the Bush administration and why the phrase “death tax” (reportedly coined by GOP strategist Frank Luntz) is a misnomer: “[Bush’s] 2001 tax cut phases out the inheritance tax, which is overwhelmingly a tax on the very wealthy: in 1999, only 2 percent of estates paid any tax, and half the tax was paid by only 3,300 estates worth more than $5 million. The 2003 tax act sharply cuts taxes on dividend income, another boon to the very well off. By the time the Bush tax cuts have taken full effect, people with really high incomes will face their lowest average tax rate since the Hoover administration.”

Further on, Krugman says: “As demonstrated, the estate tax is a tax on the very, very well off. Yet advocates of repeal began portraying it as a terrible burden on the little guy. They renamed it the ‘death tax’ and put out reports decrying its impact on struggling farmers and businessmen — reports that never provided real-world examples because actual cases of family farms or small businesses broken up to pay estate taxes are almost impossible to find. This campaign succeeded in creating a public perception that the estate tax falls broadly on the population.”

“By the time they’re done with us they’ve taken 50% or more of the money we’ve earned by the sweat of our brows.” —Phil

Krugman: “Very few Americans pay as much as 50 percent of their income in taxes; on average, families near the middle of the income distribution pay only about half that percentage in federal, state and local taxes combined.”

“Prior to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, government controlled about seven percent of our gross domestic product and employed about four percent of the total workforce.” —Phil

The Sixteenth Amendment was ratified in 1913. That year, World War I hadn’t even begun, and the G.D.P. of America was a fraction of what it became after World War II. Today, the United States is a world superpower, with a powerhouse economy, and needs a government (which is financed by our taxes) to match. Is looking at the tax needs of the U.S. today alongside the U.S. of 1913 a fair comparison?

“By 1995, our federal bureaucracy employed nearly twenty million Americans and controlled one-third of gross domestic product. That’s as staggering as it is sobering.” —Phil

Krugman: “To assess trends in the overall level of taxes and to compare taxation across countries, economists usually look first at the ratio of taxes to gross domestic product, the total value of output produced in the country. In the United States, all taxes — federal, state and local — reached a peak of 29.6 percent of G.D.P. in 2000. That number was, however, swollen by taxes on capital gains during the stock-market bubble. By 2002, the tax take was down to 26.3 percent of G.D.P., and all indications are that it will be lower [in 2003 and 2004]. This is a low number compared with almost every other advanced country. In 1999, Canada collected 38.2 percent of G.D.P. in taxes, France collected 45.8 percent and Sweden, 52.2 percent.

“Still, aren't taxes much higher than they used to be? Not if we're looking back over the past 30 years. As a share of G.D.P., federal taxes are currently at their lowest point since the Eisenhower administration. State and local taxes rose substantially between 1960 and the early 1970s, but have been roughly stable since then. Aside from the capital-gains taxes paid during the bubble years, the share of income Americans pay in taxes has been flat since Richard Nixon was president.”

“In about a year and a half the page of history will turn and in all likelihood there will be a complete shift of political power in America. I can only imagine how much more of our property and wealth will be redistributed when that day dawns.” —Phil

The Bush tax cuts have fallen disproportionately on the wealthiest Americans. If more government revenues are needed — and I think they are — the best way to get them would be to roll back these particular tax breaks, sparing most folks in the middle class or below. But which tax breaks (if any) will be rolled back probably depend more on the influence of wealthy campaign contributors — to whom both Democrats and Republicans are beholden — than they do on the candidates themselves. Krugman says: “Wealthy campaign contributors have a lot to gain from lower taxes, and since they aren't very likely to depend on Medicare, Social Security or Medicaid, they won't suffer if the [social safety net] gets starved.” Krugman continues: “And more broadly, the tax-cut crusade [since the Reagan years] will make it very hard for any future politicians to raise taxes.”

“I suppose we might ask our founding fathers, who funded a revolution without levying taxes. In fact, wasn’t one of the principle reasons we shook off the tyranny of George III the matter of taxation without representation[?] How did we ever manage to secure our liberty without so much as a hint of an Internal Revenue Service?” —Phil

Is comparing the needs of America today with those of the America of 1776 any more appropriate than comparing them to those of the America of 1913? And is the above sentence suggesting that we Americans (other than the civilian residents of Washington, D.C.) have taxation without representation today? If so, then what do you call all of those people who work on Capitol Hill? Aren’t they called “representatives”?

“Maybe if [government leaders were to read the books of supply-side economists, those leaders would] see that tax reductions actually produce increased government revenues ….” —Phil

Krugman: “[President Bill] Clinton did exactly the opposite of what supply-side economics said you should do: he raised the marginal rate on high-income taxpayers. In 1989, the top 1 percent of families paid, on average, only 28.9 percent of their income in federal taxes; by 1995, that share was up to 36.1 percent. Conservatives confidently awaited a disaster — but it failed to materialize. In fact, the economy grew at a reasonable pace through Clinton's first term, while the deficit and the unemployment rate went steadily down. And then the news got even better: unemployment fell to its lowest level in decades without causing inflation, while productivity growth accelerated to rates not seen since the 1960’s. And the budget deficit turned into an impressive surplus.”

Elsewhere in his article, Krugman says: “It is not that the [economic] professionals refuse to consider supply-side ideas; rather, they have looked at them and found them wanting. A conspicuous example came [in 2003] when the Congressional Budget Office tried to evaluate the growth effects of the Bush administration’s proposed tax cuts. The budget office’s new head, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, is a conservative economist who was handpicked for his job by the administration. But his conclusion was that unless the revenue losses from [Bush’s] proposed tax cuts were offset by spending cuts, the resulting deficits would be a drag on growth, quite likely to outweigh any supply-side effects.”

“…It is our magnificent cultural and economic system which gives [the wealthy] the opportunity to be rich. They should give back.” — John Peterson, quoted by Phil

Throughout “Intaxication,” I don’t see any persuasive argument that refutes this statement. Someone whose perspective approximates Mr. Peterson’s was the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who said, “Wealth is not chiefly the product of the individual, but largely the joint product of the community.”

I also dispute “Intaxication’s” contention that “the power to tax is becoming increasingly the power to control.” Isn’t the disproportionate accumulation of wealth by private corporations, and their allocation of the products we depend on, a power to control as well, a power less accountable to our political processes than taxation is? (Not that I have anything against private corporations as such.) For example, don’t the skyrocketing prices of gasoline (those prices exclusive of any gas taxes) influence our driving habits? However, this is too big an issue to go into here.

Just a few weeks ago, Minneapolis experienced the tragic collapse of a bridge on Interstate 35 that took eleven lives at last count. The devastation was a heart-rending reminder of how our very lives can be dependent on an infrastructure funded by tax dollars — and tax skeptics will correctly remind us that those revenues need to be spent wisely. Was the bridge catastrophe directly traceable to the Bush administration’s regressive tax policies, which leave municipalities around the country needing to stretch the monies they spend on infrastructure? Probably not. But I believe that the tragedy does foretell the multiple mini-Katrinas that could take place around this country if Bush’s tax policies stay on the books.

Suffice it to say that the United States suffers from a peculiar kind of schizophrenia: Americans love, enjoy, and take for granted many of the benefits that come from taxation. However, Americans hate paying the taxes themselves — so much so that even a few middle-income folks passionately denounce taxes that impact only the very rich.

Everybody wants to go to Heaven. Nobody wants to die.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

‘Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point’

As I hoped, Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation has generated some responses. I hoped that this would happen not because I want to see Harris refuted, but because I would like to see some sort of intelligent, respectful discussion of religion in America.

Religion has become such a political weapon in this country that any high-profile discussion of a religious subject usually devolves into either a shouting match or some kind of cynical debate where scoring points over one’s opponent becomes more important than expressing an idea. Among religious debaters, popular notions include how “contemptuous” those who don’t hold fundamentalist beliefs are to those who do, and how official institutions (academia, the media, etc.) are actively “hostile” to religion. These are notions intended to kill any peer-reviewed challenge to biblical authority, and they are not conducive to an intelligent discussion. Unfortunately, they are among the positions that some of Harris’ responders fall back on.

One of Harris’ responders is the evangelical Protestant minister R.C. Metcalf with his book Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point. I bought the book from because I wanted to read an enlightened rejoinder to Harris’ original book, hopefully written in a logical, respectful tone. But while reading Metcalf’s book — which is outwardly respectful — I found myself disagreeing with most of his arguments. After I put the book down, I felt compelled to write a review on Amazon, but the website ended up not posting it. So, I thought that I would post it here instead:

I didn’t buy R.C. Metcalf’s Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point with the expectation of writing a review. I bought it because Sam Harris’ books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation make powerful arguments in favor of atheism, arguments that I would like to see addressed.

As an agnostic, I am about as close to an atheist as you can get while still believing in something called God. In short, I don’t believe in a personal God, and I make no claims for an afterlife. So, why do I believe in God at all? Why don’t I just throw out the bathwater altogether? I hoped to be able to answer these questions better by reading God-believing writers responding to Harris, even if the writers’ particular beliefs didn’t exactly match my own. For this reason, I turned to Counter Point hoping that the book would answer Harris’ empirically based, logical arguments in a spiritual manner equally empirical and logical. But I am severely disappointed by what Metcalf has written.

Metcalf begins his book with a fundamental flaw: his assertion that atheists “have nothing on which to ground their morality” (RCM, xi). But this is not accurate because Harris quotes the Jainist saying “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being” (SH, LTACN, 23). Along with Harris, I think that mere compassion for another — sincerely seeing one’s own well-being in the experiences a fellow creature — is a legitimate grounding for a moral philosophy, one that need not subscribe to the existence of an unseen deity in order to prosper.

Another fundamental flaw is Metcalf’s defining “Christianity” in a way that isolates his brand of Protestantism from Christianity’s excesses — such as the Inquisition and the Crusades, subjects of Harris’ criticism — and then blames these excesses on the failings of the “Roman papacy” (RCM, xiii). But Harris has already warned against scapegoating “perversions of the ‘true’ spirit of Christianity” in order to claim one’s particular idea of the religion as the only one that is correct and true (SH, 11-12). Harris is right that Christianity, taking all of its denominations together, is a “muddled and self-contradictory” belief system that can be used to affirm or condemn its own various aspects. How do we know that Metcalf’s version of evangelical Protestantism is the rightful view of Christianity to hold? In other words, if Catholicism was wrong about the Inquisition and the Crusades, how do we know that evangelical Protestantism isn’t wrong about, say, same-sex marriage?

Counter Point makes some reasonable contributions to the debate about God by putting some of Harris’ biblical quotations in context. However, given Metcalf’s flawed foundations, it’s no surprise that Counter Point’s analytical structure collapses. For example, Metcalf takes Harris to task for assuming that “many of the Old Testament laws [e.g., Deuteronomy] continue to bind Christians today” (RCM, 4). However, Harris isn’t saying that at all; the reason why he goes on at length about the Old Testament’s barbaric punishments is to illustrate how Christians are cherry-picking which biblical passages to believe and which to ignore. To Harris, such cherry-picking calls into question any belief in the Bible as moral in its entirety. But Metcalf says that Jesus fulfilled ancient Hebraic law (including Deuteronomy) by changing it with his martyrdom. In this way, the Counter Point author tries — unsuccessfully — to rationalize a context in which cherry-picking and the morality of the entire Bible are not mutually contradictory. Metcalf and Harris are not on the same page.

Other aspects of Metcalf’s argument don’t sit well with me. He often quarrels with the particulars of Harris’ statements, instead of engaging the larger issues. For instance, Metcalf doesn’t address the issue of slavery in its larger context — in particular, Harris’ charge that the antebellum American South could use scripture to sanctify this inhuman custom (SH, 19). What Metcalf does instead is define biblically sanctioned “slavery” down to the way it was practiced in ancient times, a way that doesn’t apply to the enslavement of Africans in America (RCM, 20-25).

Also, I don’t share Metcalf’s absolutist view of lust and pornography as inherently degrading (RCM, 26-27). I think of sexual desire as a God-given gift, and while this gift should never be abused (everything from the rude stare to coercive sex), I see nothing intrinsically wrong with respectfully appreciating another’s appearance in a sexual way.

Moreover, I think that Metcalf’s fleeting reference to eugenics is unworthy of a serious discussion about belief in God. Metcalf makes an aside about this dubious philosophy of human engineering: he relates how the first person to conclude scientifically that prayer was ineffectual, the anthropologist Francis Galton, also coined the word “eugenics” and was Charles Darwin’s cousin (RCM, 52-53). This strikes me as a cheap shot to imply that a disbelief in prayer or a belief in evolution leads ultimately to Nazi-style genocide. This unnecessary swipe at evolution ignores the fact that proto-eugenic philosophies existed well before Darwin’s cousin, that Darwin himself did not endorse eugenics, and that Adolf Hitler was a self-identified Christian.

In addition, Metcalf falls back on the familiar rhetorical device of conflating archaeological evidence of some biblical historical figures with evidence that the Bible is literally true (RCM, 39). Other believers in the historicity of the Bible’s stories have made this same hasty argument, but scientific evidence of some of the Bible’s characters does not necessarily confer scientific evidence onto the Bible’s various narratives. In other words, the archaeological discovery of Caiaphas’ bones does not automatically prove that Jesus rose from the dead.

Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point is not a convincing rebuttal to Sam Harris. I give Metcalf credit for attempting to address Harris’ challenge and for the clarity of his writing. But his book doesn’t meet that challenge in a straightforward, reasonable, persuasive way.


I have also bought another response to Sam Harris, Letter from a Christian Citizen by Douglas Wilson. I’ll try to post a review of that book later.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Twilight’

Since I can’t get around as much as I used to, I’ve been feeding my movie jones with a steady diet of Netflix. You don’t have to leave your home; DVDs come to you in your mailbox, and sending them back is easy — you can’t beat that!

I’ve recently been on a Japanese-movie kick (I seem to come down with one once a year). Early last month (October), one of the Japanese titles that I rented from Netflix was Tokyo Twilight (1957), co-written and directed by Yasujiro Ozu. I’m not a big Ozu fan — as many foreign-film buffs are — but I can appreciate his austere, Zen-like style of filmmaking that breaks so many of Hollywood’s cinematic laws. Still, as agreeably unconventional as Ozu’s way of shooting a film is — low camera angles, characters almost addressing the camera, eyeline mismatches, “empty” shots unrelated to the characters’ actions — the narratives that his movies convey are utterly conservative through and through. However subtle and restrained, his films use their exacting style to impart stories that are dispirited by Japan’s postwar modernity and nostalgic for a return to “traditional” Japanese values rooted in feudalism. For this reason, Yasujiro Ozu is not one of my favorite directors. His use of an innovative filmmaking strategy to tell such old-fashioned stories is a bit like a heavy-metal rock song extolling the virtues of prohibition.

As I watched Tokyo Twilight, nothing about the film changed my opinion of Ozu. The story tells of a Father (Chishu Ryu) whose wife deserted him, early in their marriage, for another man, leaving the Father with two small daughters to raise. Now grown to adulthood, the elder daughter, Takako (Setsuko Hara), is in an unhappy marriage, arranged by her Father, and she is the mother of a toddler daughter. The situation at Takako’s house has become so stressful that she and her daughter are staying at her Father’s house until she can figure out her next step. The unruly younger daughter, Akiko (Ineko Arima), is now in her late teens, still living with her Father, and verging on delinquency. In her wanderings around Tokyo, Akiko comes across an older woman, Kisako (Isuzu Yamada), who oversees a low-rent gaming establishment. We later find out that Kisako is Takako and Akiko’s mother, newly returned to Tokyo (the man she left the Father for was killed in World War II). Akiko learns that she’s pregnant, but the young man responsible won’t commit to her. She gets a back-alley abortion, but her experience leaves her emotionally wrecked. When she sees how indifferent the young man is to her ordeal, Akiko kills herself. After Akiko’s funeral, Takako goes to see Kisako and angrily tells her that she is responsible for Akiko’s death. Viewing Akiko’s disobedient personality and her death as what happens to a child raised by only one parent, Takako leaves her Father’s house and returns with her child to her husband.

Got that? A cautionary tale against premarital sex and abortion, women unhappy with their husbands compelled to stay with them, mothers blamed for intergenerational problems but fathers let off the hook — assuming that he could read the subtitles, Dan Quayle would love this movie.

Three days after I mailed the DVD of Tokyo Twilight back to Netflix, I saw in the entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times that there would be a revival of that same Ozu film in just a couple of days at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The announcement came in a capsule review of the movie written by Kevin Thomas. In his article, Mr. Thomas downplayed the film’s conservative messages to concentrate on the singularity of Ozu’s cinematic style and the director’s “compassion” for his characters. I had no intention of starting a debate with Mr. Thomas (which never happened, in any case) nor of discouraging anyone from seeing Ozu’s films, but having just viewed Tokyo Twilight a few days ago, I thought that I would write Mr. Thomas about my differing thoughts on the film. Here is the e-mail I sent:

Dear Mr. Thomas:

I was surprised to see your review of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight in [the entertainment section] because I had just rented the same film on DVD.

I have to disagree with your review, however. You say that Ozu doesn’t judge his characters. Watching Tokyo Twilight, I sensed that Ozu implicitly condemns [Kisako] for deserting her family in a way that he does not criticize the father for arranging an unhappy marriage for [Takako]. To me, Ozu’s message is clear: if [Kisako] hadn’t deserted the family, [Akiko] would have neither had an abortion nor died. Ozu also seems to belittle falling in love — the reason [Kisako] left the family — in a way that he does not criticize miserable arranged marriages, like [Takako’s].

You also say that Ozu “has faith that children have the capacity to learn from their parents’ mistakes and not repeat them.” To me, Ozu seems to be saying that the younger generation has everything to learn from its elders and nothing to teach them. After seeing the tragic results of [Kisako] leaving the father, [Takako] decides to return to her “hard-drinking, thin-skinned” husband for the good of their child — with no adjustment on the husband’s part. What kind of marriage will she be returning to? Will the problems that drove [Takako] from her home be ameliorated in any way? Ozu doesn't seem to care.

For all the critical praise of Ozu’s “radical” style, few have noted how deeply conservative Ozu’s stories are. To me, his later films say that Japan has been corrupted by postwar values and modernity, and that the only way to undo this corruption is a return to traditional Japanese values of patriarchy and filial piety.

I’m not criticizing Ozu for failing to pass some liberal litmus test — there are several movies I like which could be considered conservative in one way or another — but Ozu’s films, like few others, really clobber me in an unpleasant way with their anti-modernity, anti-feminist sentiments. I wonder if some Ozu champions (I’m not saying that you’re one of them) overlook how reactionary his stories are by focusing on the uniqueness of the Japanese culture.

Oh, well, at least Ozu makes distinctive films. And I’m not trying to discourage anyone from seeing them. (Fun fact: Isuzu Yamada [who plays Kisako] is only three years older than Setsuko Hara [who plays Takako, Kisako’s daughter].) I just thought I’d pass along my own thoughts about a film that I just saw this past weekend. Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 2, 2007


I can’t talk about myself without talking about my love for cinema. The moving image in all its forms can fascinate me, but the projected image thrown onto a big screen has a special potency. I realize that most cinema audiences go to the movies in order to get utterly lost in a story, empathizing with a main character to the point of feeling an emotional response to that character’s fortunes. I go to the movies sometimes for that kind of catharsis, but I usually go to delight in the artful artificiality of the movies themselves. The cinema may do its best to duplicate an audience member’s perceptions of the outside world, but movies are not the outside world — and I revel in their differences.

Lived experience is in three dimensions — film is a two-dimensional light image projected upon a flat surface. Lived experience is usually perceived with binocular vision through two eyes — film usually portrays its on-screen subjects with a monocular image shot through a single camera lens, and our eyes experience the difference between binocular and monocular images. Lived experience is viewed continuously through our two eyes — films rely on editing, dramatically changing perspectives from shot to shot in a way totally alien to how our eyes work. Lived experience makes itself known to us as we discriminate among the hubbub of input from our five senses — film uses photography, sound mixing, and editing to filter through what the movie-making equipment has captured in order to emphasize what the filmmakers think is important. And most obvious of all: lived experience is never in black & white and does not come with a soundtrack played by an invisible orchestra.

So, when it comes to movies that I like, I usually latch on to how these films are different from the outside world, not how successfully they mimic it. Consequently, my taste in movies leans decidedly towards features, documentaries, and experimental cinema that emphasize and skillfully harness the artificiality of the medium. What about movies where identification with the lead character is (ahem) paramount, and where the cinematography, sound, and editing try to be as “invisible” as possible to facilitate the audience’s empathy? A few movies like that I count among my favorites, but they are firmly in the minority.

My love for cinema started at an early age. Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, the first kind of movies that I really got into as a kid was old horror films, especially the ones from Universal in the 1930s and ’40s. I think that the attraction to horror movies by kids is easily understandable: children have all of these inchoate fears about the big, bad world, and monsters become a momentary physical embodiment of such fears. I checked books out of my local library to read up on the history of horror movies — and on occasion, the history of a few non-horror movies would slip through the cracks. I learned about the history of the twentieth century by learning about the history of movies: for instance, my knowledge about World War II largely came from my realization that American movies made during that super-patriotic time were somewhat different than films made during other times. And in my childhood days before home video, catching an old black & white movie on broadcast television was easier than it is today. As I grew, monster movies would point me in the direction of other kinds of film: an interest in horror movies led to an interest in Abbott and Costello, which led to an interest in the Marx Brothers, which led to an interest in Golden Age Hollywood in general, which led to an interest in foreign films…

However, as my interest in monsters waned, my fascination for film never went away. Perhaps the greatest whetter of my celluloid appetite was a T.V. show on channel 26, the Washington-area PBS station, called Cinema 26. As I said, these were the pre-VCR days, and the nearest revival theatre was a healthy hike away. But here was a movie showcase, broadcast both on weekday afternoons and on Saturday evenings, that featured the magnificent catalogue of films distributed in the U.S. by the arthouse exemplar Janus Films. My first viewings of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon, Federico Fellini’s La Strada, several films by Ingmar Bergman, several Ealing comedies, and many others all were on Cinema 26 — often on a small portable black & white set on the kitchen counter (even on such a small screen, these films lost none of their impact). On much rarer occasions, I was able to get out to the American Film Institute Theatre in Washington, where, on the big screen, I first saw Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.

First viewing Citizen Kane at age 15 especially enraptured me. I left the theatre that afternoon feeling that I had never seen a better motion picture; all these years later, my feeling hasn’t changed. Welles’s masterpiece (his first feature-length film, directed at age 25) has faced some challengers for my personal top spot over the years — Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Sergei Paradzhanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, the films of Wong Kar-Wai — but Kane is still my favorite.

Because of cinema, I wound up making a pilgrimage to Hollywood and studying film history and theory at the University of Southern California. After getting my Master’s degree there, I worked for a while in the lower echelons of the motion-picture industry. At the moment, I’m still in Los Angeles, between jobs, recovering from major surgery, and tapping away at a keyboard writing something for people I don’t know. Funny what the movies can do.