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Half Empty Wrap
On deficits democratic, budgetary and artistic
The discourse has apparently decided that the most important question of the day is whether we could make certain classic movies anymore that make copious use of a certain word that is now taboo:
The answer is of course not. You couldn’t make Pulp Fiction today. You also couldn’t make Dumbo, a film I adore far more. But you also couldn’t make Blazing Saddles. Indeed, you couldn’t make The Wizard of Oz or The Philadelphia Story or Ghostbusters or whatever other movies you love from the past, because they are rooted in the past. The reason not to bowdlerize these films is precisely that we can’t make them anymore. To “fix” them we’d have to be able to make them from scratch, as wonderfully as they did then, and we can’t. The best proof is that we do keep trying to remake them, and the results are usually terrible.
On the other hand, if you asked “could this film still inspire filmmakers today,” I really don’t think you’d have any trouble finding young people with cameras who look to Quentin Tarantino as an inspiration. Frankly, there are probably too many of them for our culture’s good.
So what’s the real question behind the apparent question? On possibility is something like the following. Quentin Tarantino conforms to a certain romantic notion of what a filmmaker is, someone who has a powerful and unabashed personal vision and pursues it relentlessly, accepting nothing less than exactly what he’s going for. He never looks over his shoulder in fear of how other people might judge his work. He is focused entirely on what matters to him, and he won’t let anything or anybody get in the way of achieving his aims. And he holds himself to the same standards of perfection that he holds everyone who works with him to. That’s what, I think, people worry we don’t have enough of anymore: artists who are confident and uncompromising in their own visions, and studios who are interested in backing such artists.
The latter certainly is true, but the reason has far more to do with the likely financial prospects of a film in today’s marketplace than it does with our censorious cultural sensibilities. To the extent that it does have to do with those sensibilities, meanwhile, it’s part and parcel of corporate America’s general fear of bad publicity of any kind our a Twitterfied era in which bad publicity is essentially ubiquitous. I don’t know what the solution to that problem might be, because movies don’t mean what they used to, culturally, even as recently as the 1990s, to say nothing of the 1970s. The dynamics that facilitated the rise of a Tarantino, or that enabled the trashy film culture that inspired him to flourish, aren’t going to be repeated in our era. Whatever comes next will be different, and will have to be different.
But is the former true? Are the artists themselves petrified of giving offense and therefore constantly looking over their shoulders? Perhaps. There are definitely films that I thought were crippled by that feeling—I felt that way about the new West Side Story, for example. But of course that was yet another attempt to remake something rooted in another time. I know I’ve seen films released last year directed by people considerably younger than Tarantino that, whether I loved them or not (and in some cases I really did love them), were clearly directed by individuals in determined pursuit of their own visions. If there aren’t enough of those out there, I’m reluctant to blame a lack of artists who care enough to fight for their films.
It’s also possible that they are fighting for their films, but their films just aren’t trying to do what Tarantino is doing—by which I don’t mean that they are too woke but that they aren’t invested in entertaining in the way that Tarantino manifestly is. I think there might be something to that, but still I wish Tarantino weren’t the poster child for this complaint. Ask me who are the heirs to Preston Sturges, or John Huston, or Hal Ashby, directors as different from each other as directors could be, but whose souls have each touched mine in ways that Tarantino never has or could, and whom no one would accuse of not caring about being entertaining.
Myself, I have to believe that the glass is still half full. Right now, I’m working on getting a project of my own off the ground, a film inspired by the work of Mike Nichols. Could you make Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? today? Or Carnal Knowledge? I’m not going to find out—I’m going to find out whether I can make a film that deserves to be described as having been influenced by those films, and by a host of others by other directors, many of them of far more recent vintage. I don’t intend to look over my shoulder as I do so.
(Oh, and if anyone reading this wants to support my effort, don’t hesitate to get in touch. I can use all the help I can get!)
Our Democratic Deficit
Two columns at The Week again last week. The first was a response to Ross Douthat’s much-discussed column in The New York Times attempting to complicate the story of Republicans turning away from democracy and Democrats laboring to preserve it.
I think Douthat is onto something important about the Republican psyche and how Trumpist populism is implicitly democratic in theory even if not in practice. But I am far more skeptical of his take on the Democratic psyche, which he sees as increasingly invested in control by experts against the professed views of the people:
The same Democratic Party that Douthat worries has become less responsive has experienced a dramatic democratization of its finance and governance. Candidates with little plausible chance for victory can now raise enormous sums in small contributions directly from the people, and their choices, not the party's, increasingly determine who is funded and what they run on. Major party leaders like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) fear popular uprisings against them, and have adjusted accordingly to protect their seats even if it makes them less effective. The rise of the left within the Democratic Party may not be nationally popular, but it is populist in the sense of being a bottom-up phenomenon.
A number of other phenomena that conservatives sometimes characterize as elite conspiracies have also bubbled up from below. Twitter is a radically democratizing medium in the sense that it allows anyone to raise a virtual mob to speak their truth to power — and power is listening. So-called woke capital, social media de-platforming, and much of the racial reckoning that American institutions have been going through is not driven by the elites' own desires, but are the product of public pressure, and of those elites' frantic efforts to avoid running afoul of it.
That characterization even applies to much of the COVID rule-making. Within liberal circles, support for a more thoroughgoing return to normalcy is generally perceived as an elite stance; one reason the Biden administration hasn't pushed harder in that direction is that they know it would face resistance within his own coalition. Throughout the pandemic, there has been substantial popular opposition to opening schools in the face of the views of pediatric and educational experts that long closures did more harm than good. Similarly, today there is substantial popular opposition to ending school masking, again in defiance of expert consensus.
Meanwhile, when there were massive street protests in the summer of 2020, public health experts trashed their own credibility with many conservatives by declaring them a valid reason to gather in large numbers, in contradiction of their own prior expressed views. Far from lecturing the public, they adjusted their rhetoric to avoid getting on the wrong side of public opinion as they understood it. How different is that from Trumpist Republicans who know better refusing to tout the safety and efficacy of vaccines?
The piece continues from there to argue that just as Trumpist populism isn’t really democratic in spirit, neither is this kind of bottom-up left-wing pressure. But if you want to know where specifically it goes, you’ll have to read the whole thing.
And Our Budgetary Deficit
My other column at The Week this week was about the burgeoning federal debt and whether it’s a problem. My answer, after walking through the various reasons why we’re nowhere near a true crisis scenario is, nonetheless, maybe:
Even if an enormous debt can readily be refinanced, interest must be paid. Currently, that interest cost as a percent of GDP is relatively low — about half of what it was at its peak in the early 1990s and only modestly higher than what it was in the early 1950s. But if interest rates were to rise significantly, that cost could balloon. If that happened, either taxes would have to rise or other federal spending would have to be cut, or else we would wind up borrowing more simply to pay the interest on our previous borrowing — digging a deeper and deeper hole.
If you want to paint a plausibly worrisome scenario, then, it would look something like the following. To check inflation, the Federal Reserve would raise rates and shrink its balance sheet and persist in that policy over time to restore confidence in its ability to achieve its aims. Higher rates would drive up the cost of rolling over federal debt as it comes due but would also slow the economy, thereby squeezing the budget from both ends. Unlike in the 1980s, monetary contraction couldn't be offset with fiscal expansion; unlike in the 1990s, fiscal retrenchment couldn't be offset by looser money. Instead, the economy would wind up trapped between a rock and a hard place, with little policy room to maneuver.
How likely is that scenario? It's impossible to say for sure — and there are a lot of ways things could go better. Inflation might turn out to be transitory and pandemic-related after all, and the current robust recovery might prove to have considerable legs. The Fed might be able to shrink its balance sheet without long rates backing up significantly, so interest costs could remain quite moderate. In that case, we'd have plenty of policy room for new spending, notwithstanding the high nominal amount of debt.
If we want to improve our odds, though, the most important thing to focus on is sustaining economic growth.
One again, I encourage you to read the whole thing.
Here and Elsewhere
Only one post on this Substack since the last weekly wrap: an analysis of Disney’s Encanto, which I enjoyed far more than I expected. I’d love to hear reactions from people who also have strong feelings about that film.
Elsewhere, I was surprised by how moved I was by a piece in The New York Times about therapists who specialize in climate anxiety. I think the reason it struck me so powerfully is that I recognized something about myself in these patients: a reluctance to be reassured by an interlocutor without specific knowledge. I don’t suffer from the kind of anxiety described in the article, and it’s easy, if you don’t, to be skeptical that the phenomenon is real, that it isn’t masking some deeper, more personal problem. But first, I’m really not sure that’s entirely true—as I’ve written about before, I think we should take people who profess these anxieties as being honest about their own feelings—but also because dismissing the apparent fear as an epiphenomenon is likely only to prompt resistance. And that does mean that, to be effective, a therapist may have to be able to talk like someone knowledgable and not just like someone good at mounting a genealogical attack on a professed feeling.
I suspect that’s a generalizable conclusion, and not something specific to climate anxiety. If you want to convince despairing people that the glass is still half full, you need to win their confidence that you know something about being thirsty.