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Film (Festival) Wrap
Though, technically, this is mostly a wrap of the week prior; more festival-related thoughts are yet to come
I’m still in Texas attending the Austin Film Festival, and between panels and meetings and screenings and readings and parties, I haven’t had time to write anything here—which is just what I expected. But this morning there are no more panels and I’m not going to any screenings until later this afternoon, so I can at least take the time to wrap last week’s stuff.
Before I do that, though, I just want to say that the experience of the festival has been an absolute delight (as well as comprehensively exhausting). The last time I came, it was with a short film called “Public Speaking” that I had written and directed (which you can still see here), which screened and wound up being a finalist for Best Narrative Short. I loved every minute of it—hobnobbing with fellow writers and filmmakers, gleaning insights from panels on every aspect of the film business, seeing dozens of short films and web series as well as features at every level of production, and most especially seeing my film with a live audience, hearing their reaction, and fielding their questions after. I was determined to come back—but I was also worried that if I came back without a project in competition, whether a script or a film, that I would feel like a tourist, or at best a second-class participant, someone who didn’t really deserve to be there. And beyond that, I worried that I’d strain so hard to rebottle lightning that I wouldn’t allow myself to see and feel whatever new flashes awaited.
I needn't have worried. Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally jealous of the people who have films screening here or scripts in competition. But they have universally been exemplars of grace and openness. Nobody has made me feel second-class or like a tourist. And I got lots of advice as well as offers of connections—to casting directors, cinematographers, editors, producers—from multiple filmmakers, all of which I anticipate will be incredibly useful as I prepare to direct my first feature film next year. And far from trying to recreate the experience of four years ago, I’m acutely aware now of what I didn’t experience then, didn’t learn then, and what, older and wiser and more disappointed with myself as I am in consequence, I am more open to learning now. I don’t know that I’ll be able to come back every year, but I know that I want to, and that I need to be more on guard in the future against those feelings that stop me from putting myself where I know I need to be.
Moreover—and I’m going to write more about this in a separate post—after eighteen months it is of course a delight to be at panels and screenings and readings and parties in person with lots of other people. I know there are those who will deem that choice irresponsible, and that’s something I’ll write about in a subsequent post.
Now: on to the wrap.
Paging Mitt Romney
My latest column at The Week is about Senator Mitt Romney’s child benefit plan that has largely fallen down the memory hole. It starts off by asking whether that plan deserves a new look on the merits in light of evolving economic conditions:
[B]ack in February, Mitt Romney put forth a bold and generous plan tackling one key area of the bill — the child benefit — that would have sent checks to parents with no questions asked. It was so generous and so simple that many progressive observers argued it was superior to the Biden administration's plan. Its simplicity and universality meant that fewer beneficiaries would fall through the cracks, and it established the important progressive principle that the support was for children, not for the parents. The main progressive objection to the plan had nothing to do with its design, but with how it was paid for: by scrapping a bunch of existing benefits aimed at similar problems and populations.
Romney's argument was that his plan would help more families more efficiently without spending more money. The Democratic view was that it would also leave some working poor people worse off than Biden's plan would and would eliminate programs that were popular and that progressives fought hard for. Rather than consolidate the welfare state by eliminating existing programs, any new initiative should be paid for by taxing the rich and corporations. And at the time, with the economy still struggling to come out from under the stifling blanket of the pandemic the Democratic rejoinder made some sense.
Now, though, the economy is in a very different place. Aggregate demand remains very strong, and inflation is higher than expected even as employment growth has stalled. Supply bottlenecks of various kinds (in energy, in shipping, in semiconductors) remain important drivers of price increases, but a major reason why longer term forecasts for inflation remain relatively stable is the expectation that either fiscal policy, monetary policy, or both will be less stimulative going forward. The market, in other words, is now saying: It's time to shift from goosing demand to improving efficiency.
The piece then goes on to describe how Romney’s differences with the Democrats’ plan are different from Senator Joe Manchin’s, and wonders whether it mightn’t have been beneficial to have some other irons in the fire, or some other baskets in which to receive eggs.
Read the whole thing.
My only piece for the Substack last week was about Colin Powell, and how, contra Brett Stephens, he probably wouldn’t have saved us all from imperial decline or the disaster of the Iraq War specifically had he, rather than Bush, been president on September 11th, 2001:
While it’s very clear that the specifics of how the period between 9/11 and the Iraq War were strongly shaped by the particular players in the Bush Administration—Bush’s impulsivity and lack of depth, Cheney’s paranoia and mania for control, Rumsfeld’s desire to reshape American war fighting doctrine—there were also large background forces at work that would have shaped the decision-making space in very similar ways no matter who was in charge. Toppling the Taliban was never going to have been an adequate response to the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. America had remained at war with Iraq all through the 1990s, and support for toppling Saddam Hussein had strong support from congressional leaders in both parties. The Iraq Liberation Act, which made it American policy to remove Saddam Hussein from power, passed in 1998 by a margin of 360-38 in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate, and was prompted signed into law by President Clinton. I strongly suspect that, after 9/11, there would have been a significant push to remove Hussein by force no matter who was in the White House. If that push didn’t come from within the administration, it would have come from outside it.
Nor am I merely talking about being swept up in some kind of unstoppable war fever. Yes, that fever was there; I remember it. But there was also a distinctive cracked strategic logic to focusing on Iraq that might have appealed to any president committed to America’s traditional relationships abroad, as Powell certainly was. After 9/11, Americans learned that the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and that Pakistan was the main source of support for the Afghan regime that hosted them. America’s traditional regional allies, in other words, were the breeding grounds of anti-American terrorism. I remember at the time meeting plenty of people—not right-wing people either—who felt that we had to “do something” about those countries, who were appalled by American support for the Saudi regime especially, and wanted to see action taken. But other than retreating from the region—which would unquestionably have read to the public as giving al Qaeda precisely what they wanted—it wasn’t clear what we could “do” that would count as “something.” Iraq, on the other hand, we could “do.” It was already an enemy, after all, and if we “liberated” it then one could squint and imagine it becoming the linch-pin that could replace Saudi Arabia (as Egypt replaced Iran after the Camp David accords and the fall of the Shah).
In retrospect it’s all bonkers; at the time, plenty of people thought it was bonkers; the most vociferous advocates of “invade Iraq so we can turn on Saudi Arabia” were literal fringe wackos. But they carried the day in an administration and a congress that actually had plenty of members who didn’t write for The Weekly Standard. The skeptics just didn’t have an alternative plan to rally around, and most of them quickly came to support a war they didn’t firmly believe in, just as Powell did. The intellectual battle at the time wasn’t between two alternative strategies, but between doing more and doing less, between ambition and caution. And at that moment in history, reckless ambition had the better cards to play. I suspect they would have been the better cards even with the instinctively cautious, institutionalist and experienced Colin Powell in charge.
Again, I encourage you to read the whole thing, not as an exoneration of Powell (much less Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld) for the mistakes they did make, but as another rejection of the Great Man theory of history that I find so generally unpersuasive.
It’s my birthday. Happy me.