Fourteen years ago, the underrated (or at least undervalued) Michael Kinsley reported in The New Yorker (“The Intellectual Free Lunch,” February 6, 1995, reprinted in his collection Big Babies) on a reputable survey that found that “75 percent of Americans believe that the United States spends ‘too much’ on foreign aid, and 64 percent want foreign-aid spending cut.” (“Apparently,” Kinsley added as an aside, “a cavalier 11 percent of Americans think it’s fine to spend ‘too much’ on foreign aid.”)
The same people were asked how much of the federal budget went to foreign aid, and “The median answer was 15 percent; the average answer was 18 percent.” But “the correct answer is less than 1 percent: the United States government spends about $14 billion a year on foreign aid (including military assistance) out of a total budget of $1.5 trillion.” When asked about how much foreign-aid spending would be “appropriate,” the median answer was 5 percent of the budget; and the median answer to how much would be “too little” was 3 percent, i.e. over three times the actual amount spent.
Kinsley then adds, “This poll is less interesting for what is shows about foreign aid than for what it shows about American democracy. It’s not just that Americans are scandalously ignorant. It’s that they seem to believe they have a democratic right to their ignorance….This is not, surely, a question of being misinformed ….People are forming and expressing passionate views about foreign aid on the basis of no information at all. Or perhaps they think that the amount being spent on foreign aid is a matter of opinion, like everything else.”
Kinsley sees “ubiquitous opinion polls” as “part of the problem”. But he might have added (and maybe he should have added) that part of what makes them so ubiquitous is their constant and automatic employment on the evening news — as if they had something concrete and definitive to tell us about the state of the nation apart from the feverish, voodoo-science speculation of marketers who are habitually blinded by their own self-fulfilling prophecies.
As I pointed out in the Introduction to my Movie Wars, Ernest Borneman said it all over 60 years ago when he published “The Public Opinion Myth” in Harper’s magazine in 1947. Among the many pertinent questions brought up there is the following rejoinder to test-marketing, which follows much of the same mythology as “public opinion”: “Does the whole process of audience testing…really qualify as a democratic process? Does it not resemble an election in which only one candidate has ever been introduced to the electorate?”
One might argue, in short, that asking an ignorant public to hold forth on foreign-aid expenditures and then broadcasting the results is to a certain degree both creating and compounding the problem, not merely “discovering” it. Call it the manufacture of pseudo-knowledge about the public’s ignorance (when calling the public both indifferent to and ill-informed about certain issues and all-too-willing to accept invitations to participate in opinion polls may actually come closer to the mark). And arguably turning all of this supposition into the evening news is to some extent just a further exercise in setting up straw men in order to knock them down. [7/31/09]
Posted Fri, Dec 8, 2006 at 11:21 AM
It’s interesting to see how some of the most difficult and challenging examples of art cinema have become increasingly popular over the past decade. Back in the 60s and 70s, Robert Bresson was virtually a laughing-stock figure to mainstream critics, and someone whose films characteristically played to almost empty houses. Yet by the time that he died, a retrospective of his work that circled the globe was so successful in drawing crowds that in many venues—including Chicago’s Film Center — it had a return engagement. Much the same thing has happened with Andrei Tarkovsky — another uncompromising spiritual filmmaker, and one whose films are even tougher to paraphrase or even explain in any ordinary terms.
I’m just back from a trip to the east coast where I was gratified to find, when I turned up to introduce a screening of Jacques Rivette’s 252-minute L’amour fou (1968) in Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image, that the film was playing to a nearly packed house. (Incidentally, this galvanizing love story about the doomed relationship between a theater director and his wife, played by Jean-Pierre Kalfon and Bulle Ogier, has never looked better to me, though I’ve been a big fan since the early 70s.) Virtually everyone stayed to the end, and there was a lively and enthusiastic discussion afterwards. Better yet, Rivette’s other major experimental work, his over 12-hour Out 1 (1971), was screened for the press in Astoria last week, and I’m told that over a couple of dozen members of the press turned up for the event. The public screening scheduled for this weekend was sold out several days ago, and A.O. Scott reports in today’s New York Times that a return engagement is already being planned for early March. (I’m told that the only thing preventing a Chicago screening is the hefty cost in this case of having to use laser subtitles — which appear below the screen rather than within the film frame, and have to be carefully coordinated to remain in sync.)
Posted Thu, Dec 14, 2006 at 9:14 PM
One way in which I feel estranged from portions of the mainstream movie audience is my total aversion to scenes involving torture, which makes me avoid films involving them as much as possible. (I wound up seeing Pan’s Labyrinth, currently picking up lots of deserved annual awards, which opens shortly before the end of the year, anyway, but this is one of the rare cases where I consider the depiction of torture artistically defensible on some level.) I assume that a lot of people must like scenes of torture because of the success of Saw, Saw II, and presumably even Saw III. One can also derive the rather alarming impression from reading a lot of polls that much of the American public, while currently regarding George W. Bush as a liar and an incompetent, still seem to admire him for standing up for what he believes in even when he’s proved wrong, e.g., believing in torture even though it’s been demonstrated that the results of torture in extracting information are practically worthless and that most of the people being jailed in Abu Ghraib and perhaps tortured as well turn out to be innocent anyway.
This suggests that significant portions of the American public are quite happy to tolerate innocent Iraqis being tortured, at least as long as the details and the injustices of this practice aren’t being rubbed in our faces. But it seems like quite a few like fictional scenes of torture to be rubbed in their faces repeatedly. Not a very comforting thought to usher in the holiday season.
(Added on 7/27/09): Two old blog posts, one cheerful and the other one not so cheerful. Two postscripts to the first are worth mentioning: (1) The public screening of the almost 13-hour Out 1 in Queens was such a smash success (many people had to be turned away) that a second screening of it was subsequently scheduled and held. (2) The Gene Siskel Film Center also eventually showed it, laser subtitles and all — not to a packed house, but to a fairly sizable, dedicated, and enthusiastic one that laughed in all the right places.—J.R.
I’m grateful to have Kristin Thompson’s detailed and useful report on the Jacques Tati exhibition at the Cinémathèque Française, which closes on August 2nd and which I won’t be able to attend myself. But there’s one very small point in her account with which I disagree. I’m not referring to her spelling of Playtime as Play Time – a long-standing position of hers, based (I believe) on the styling of the film’s ads and opening title credit — because it’s possible that she’s been right about this while I and virtually everyone else have been wrong. (For me, the cinching argument either way would be how Tati spelled the title himself. I’m sorry that I never thought to ask him, during the brief period in 1973 when I worked for him.)
No, my disagreement has to do with the influence exerted by Tati on David Lynch, which Kristin deals with only parenthetically by noting that Lynch “might conceivably be said to reflect a Tatian influence only in The Straight Story.” I’m not disputing whether or not The Straight Story reflects Tati’s influence; as nearly as I can recall, this hadn’t occurred to me when I saw the film, and she might well be correct. But I do contest her “only”. The only time I’ve ever interviewed Lynch, during the writing of Midnight Movies with Jim Hoberman, was when I conducted a phone interview with him about Eraserhead in 1982, which I believe I did from Jim’s apartment. I brought up the possible influence of Tati myself to him because it seemed quite evident to me at the time in at least a couple of instances: more generally in the use of industrial noise in the background of several scenes, and more specifically in the comic articulation and timing of a moment when Henry (Jack Nance) is waiting inside the elevator in his dingy apartment house for the doors to close, and finally they do slide shut, with a dull thud.
For whatever it’s worth, Lynch confirmed my hypothesis after I cited this elevator scene to him: “You know, I feel like in a way he’s a kindred soul,” he said to me. “That guy is so creative, it’s unbelievable. I think he’s one of the all-time greats.” [7/22/09]
Recommended Reading: An excellent piece about In a Lonely Place, and Nicholas Ray more generally, by J. Hoberman in this week’s Village Voice. My only (minor) quarrel is with the following phrase: “An ex-Communist who was never persecuted, and must have wondered why…” From Bernard Eisenschitz’s definitive biography, one can pretty clearly surmise that Ray was protected from the Blacklist by Howard Hughes, for whom he was a sort of patch-up man, semipermanently on tap — something he must have been perfectly aware of. [7/17/09]
I’m really tired of hearing from American reviewers that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker “isn’t political”. This specious and even insulting claim is clearly part of their effort to convince people to see the movie, and I’m at least sympathetic to that part, since the film is far and away the best new American commercial feature I’ve seen in months — the best constructed and the most thoughtful and entertaining. It’s also the best commercial American film about the so-called “war in” (I prefer “occupation of”) Iraq, at least since In the Valley of Elah, on which writer Mark Boal also furnished much of the material.
First of all, the notion that any American film made today with an Iraqi setting could possibly be apolitical in any shape or form strikes me as being extremely naïve and myopic. Secondly, I can’t imagine what could make the notion of an apolitical film on this subject sound even remotely attractive. Are we really that helpless and hopeless? And are we so blinkered in our perceptions of what politics consists of that we think it’s limited to how we vote in elections? (Spoiler ahead, so if you haven’t yet seen the film, you might want to stop reading here.)
This is a film whose most courageous character is shown to be myopic to the point of insanity when it comes to perceiving Iraqi people in his midst — or at least one Iraqi kid in particular whom he supposedly knows and has some fondness for. He’s so convinced that this kid has been killed by a terrorist that he can’t even see the kid greeting him. This kind of blindness surely implies something about American perceptions of the Iraqi people, the ones whom American soldiers have allegedly been fighting for. It even, I would argue, implies something political. But it would appear that any red-blooded American who thinks The Hurt Locker has anything political to say on the subject will want to skip this movie and watch more Michael Jackson TV specials instead. [7/14/09]
Postscript: Kent Jones has pointed out to me that Bigelow herself can partially be credited with encouraging this denial in one of her recent interviews:
Did you want to make sure that the film didn’t divulge into choosing a political stance?
Kathryn Bigelow: I think that was important. There is that saying, “There is no politics in the trenches,” and I think it was important to look at the heroism of these men.
I don’t think this invalidates my point at all, but it does help to show some of the industry thinking at its roots. [7/15/09]