January 26, 2008

"Margot at the Wedding"

Here's my full review from The American Conservative of the film that was widely expected (before its release) to be an Oscar contender, but was (deservedly) shut out:

Few films have more precisely delineated why younger people loathe their Baby Boomer parents' experiments with sexual liberation than Noah Baumbach's painfully autobiographical comedy about his bohemian intellectual parents' 1980s divorce, "The Squid and the Whale." The adults, both writers, calmly set up a fair-sounding joint custody arrangement that has their two children (and family cat) ceaselessly hauled about Park Slope, a literary neighborhood in Brooklyn, but it turns out to be a logistical and emotional catastrophe.

In "The Squid and the Whale," Jeff Daniels won some long-deserved recognition for his hilarious portrayal of Baumbach's father, a pompous "experimental fiction" author and professor given to dinner table pronouncements such as referring to Kafka as "one of my predecessors."

Despite adoring reviews, most critics missed the 2005 film's point: that the actual villain was Baumbach's adulterous mother. They overlooked its central theme -- the destructiveness of female infidelity -- because it's sexist (and therefore unthinkable) to notice that a wife's cheating is even more destructive for the family than a husband's, for obvious reproductive reasons ... even though countless human cultures have felt that way.

The irony was that Baumbach's bloviating father was equally clueless about his own nature. In theory, he was an artistic genius above all those deadening bourgeois morals like monogamy. In reality, however, he was a mediocre writer but a faithful husband and reasonably diligent provider who deserved better than cuckoldry.

The younger Baumbach's eagerly awaited new movie, "Margot at the Wedding," with Nicole Kidman as a prominent short story writer and unfaithful wife who inflicts her moral and mental breakdown on her adolescent son when she brings him to her estranged sister's second marriage ceremony, makes his prior film brutally clear. To clear up misconceptions about who the guilty party in his parents' divorce was, Baumbach has John Turturro drop by as Kidman's gallant, kind husband, an English professor who tries to save their marriage from her affair with another writer.

Meanwhile, the insidious Margot does her passive-aggressive best to sabotage the upcoming wedding of her aging, pregnant sister (Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh) to an unemployed musician. Jack Black, the usually charismatic star of "School of Rock," does an impression of his typical fan in his role as Leigh's heavy metal-damaged fiancé. Margot liberally displays the IQ elitism of Manhattan liberals, telling her sister that she's too smart for her fiancé, only to be taken aback when her potential brother-in-law mentions that he went to Stuyvesant, the famous science high school that admits only 850 of 28,000 applicants.

Margot's malevolence is both calculated and spontaneous. She indulges the artist's sense of entitlement, the assurance that holding her tongue to be polite would sap her talent. Moreover, Margot likes provoking traumas because she recounts the family's secrets in her New Yorker stories, just as the sometimes self-loathing Baumbach does in his movies.

Sadly, in sharp contrast to "The Squid," "Margot" doesn't really work. Napoleon supposedly said, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence," but Baumbach now appears to have it in for his audience. While his low-budget last film was cheap-looking but at least visually serviceable, this one is intentionally underexposed to look depressing. All the outdoor scenes appear to be taking place during a partial solar eclipse. Likewise, the plotting and editing are carefully worked out to frustrate viewers' desires for character development and dramatic interest.

Worst of all, although competently acted, "Margot at the Wedding" is just not funny. Baumbach repeatedly sets up scenes so preposterously cruel that the audience is primed to laugh in relief, but he is too angry at his anti-heroine character to finish the jokes. The sympathy that made his depiction of his father amusing and ultimately endearing in "The Squid" is lacking here.

Hopefully, "Margot" will be a brief lapse for Baumbach. Worrisomely, though, it's part of an annoying trend toward clever and quirky but unfunny films by high IQ auteurs like Wes Anderson, whose "The Royal Tenenbaums" managed to extract barely any laughs from a cast featuring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray. Indeed, Baumbach collaborated on the script for Anderson's 2004 bomb "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." "Margot" resembles a cross between Anderson's ostensibly comic but humorless movies and the seemingly somber yet ridiculous films like Todd Field's "Little Children." The common denominator appears to be young filmmakers who take their own intelligence a little too seriously.

Rated R for sexual content and language.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

January 25, 2008

Super Bowl QB IQs: 136 and 124

The NFL requires draft prospects to take the 12 minute Wonderlic IQ test. The average score is 21 (up from 20, perhaps due to the Flynn Effect), with each additional right answer the equivalent of 2 extra IQ points.

The New England Patriots' All-Galaxy quarterback Tom Brady (a record 50 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions in the regular season) got 33 right out of 50 for an IQ of 124 (about the 95th percentile). The Giants' younger Eli Manning, little brother of Brady nemesis Peyton Manning (for whom I've seen reports of 108 and 114), scored a 39 for a very high 136.

I'd still bet on Brady (if his foot is okay).

How often in American life do we see two competitors going head to head who average 130? We didn't in the last Presidential, where the average was probably around 120.

A couple of caveats: the Wonderlic is the quickest and dirtiest of the legitimate commercial IQ test, so there's a bigger margin of error. Players are allowed to take it more than once, so these rumored scores might not be their average, just their high scores. And with so much money riding on draft choices, I wouldn't be hugely shocked to find that now and then some player's agent had somehow gotten his hands on the questions ahead of time. (I recall one QB a few years ago who went from something like 88 to 132 when he took it again.)

I don't see a strong correlation between scores and performance for quarterbacks. But there's a substantial restriction of range problem: All NFL quarterbacks were previously college quarterbacks, so the players who were really bad at mastering a complicated playbook were already removed from the picture. I could believe that Dan Marino, who had maybe the greatest throwing motion ever, scored below 100 -- he peaked in about his third season and didn't really adjust after that as the league adjusted to him.

Of course, a lot of what NFL quarterbacks need are cognitive skills that aren't tested well by traditional IQ tests. For example, what the Air Force calls "situational awareness" is very important in a dogfight -- you can't concentrate too much on one thing or you'll get shot down by somebody you weren't paying attention to -- and in a football game. High IQ people, such as mathematicians, can sometimes have too much focus on what they are concentrating upon to function well in daily life.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

Russians and Armenians

From Black Sea by Neal Ascherson, a Scottish journalist, about his travels around the Black Sea region:

The transition to a market economy in the lower Don requires more than laws made in Moscow. It needs nothing less than a cultural revolution, an overthrowing of inherited moral codes no less complete than the transformation which St Cyril intended.

Once in a hotel room at Anapa, I argued late into the night with a Cossack who had decided to start a tourism business. He was eating Azov herrings as he sat on his bed, pulling off their heads and splitting their bodies with a horny expert thumbnail. His idea was to invite rich foreigners down to the Don country for holidays. "You could bring them from Moscow on charter flights," I suggested. "And you could build a dude ranch out in the steppe beyond Novocherkassk, with comfortable chalets with running water, and offer them a Cossack Heritage Experience."

He shook his head. "That would cost money. To bring them by train would be far cheaper. They could stay with local people who have apartments, and would rent them a room for dollars."

But surely, I said, you had to make some sort of investment first to attract foreign customers, so that you could recoup the start-up costs and make a profit by charging high prices. "No, no," returned the Cossack entrepreneur. "The foreigners will pay very high fees, and we will spend as little on them as possible, and in this way we will make more money."

There were two other people in the room. One was a young archaeologist from Tanais, herself of Cossack ancestry. She had been listening to this conversation with rising disgust. Now she said, "We are talking about the sharing of our culture with guests from other lands. For that we do not need this vile commercialism!"

The other person was an Armenian, a Rostov worker who used his car as an unofficial cab. He said nothing. But he caught my eye. A gold tooth glinted. He rolled his gaze upward, and very gently shook his head from side to side in disbelief. Russians!

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

January 24, 2008

Army getting lower IQ recruits

Fred Kaplan writes in Slate in Dumb and Dumber: The Army Lowers Recruitment Standards ... Again:

The latest statistics—compiled by the Defense Department. and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Boston-based National Priorities Project—are grim. They show that the percentage of new Army recruits with high-school diplomas has plunged from 94 percent in 2003 to 83.5 percent in 2005 to 70.7 percent in 2007. (The Pentagon's longstanding goal is 90 percent.)

The percentage of what the Army calls "high-quality" recruits—those who have high-school diplomas and who score in the upper 50th percentile on the Armed Forces' aptitude tests—has declined from 56.2 percent in 2005 to 44.6 percent in 2007.

In order to meet recruitment targets, the Army has even had to scour the bottom of the barrel. There used to be a regulation that no more than 2 percent of all recruits could be "Category IV"—defined as applicants who score in the 10th to 30th percentile on the aptitude tests. In 2004, just 0.6 percent of new soldiers scored so low. In 2005, as the Army had a hard time recruiting, the cap was raised to 4 percent. And in 2007, according to the new data, the Army exceeded even that limit—4.1 percent of new recruits last year were Cat IVs.

The "aptitude" test is the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), which is a highly "g-loaded" functional equivalent of an IQ test. In fact, the military provided Charles Murray with all the AFQT data that makes up the middle section of The Bell Curve.

What's interesting here is how much more the Army values IQ over a high school diploma -- There are roughly as many high school dropouts (25% of all young adults according James Heckman) as there are people scoring at the 30th percentile or less on the military's IQ test (30%, by definition). Yet, the military has only allowed the percentage of new recruits below the 30th percentile to increase from 0.6% to 4.1%. Yet, over roughly the same time period, it has allowed the percentage of high school dropouts it takes in to grow from 6% to 29.3%.

Second, and more practically, high-school dropouts tend to drop out of the military, too. The National Priorities Project cites Army studies finding that 80 percent of high-school graduates finish their first terms of enlistment in the Army—compared with only about half of those with a General Equivalency Degree or no diploma. In other words, taking in more dropouts is a short-sighted method of boosting recruitment numbers. The Army will just have to recruit even more young men and women in the next couple of years, because a lot of the ones they recruited last year will need to be replaced.

Third, a dumber army is a weaker army. A study by the RAND Corporation, commissioned by the Pentagon and published in 2005, evaluated several factors that affect military performance—experience, training, aptitude, and so forth—and found that aptitude is key. This was true even of basic combat skills, such as shooting straight. Replacing a tank gunner who had scored Category IV with one who'd scored Category IIIA (in the 50th to 64th percentile) improved the chances of hitting a target by 34 percent.

Today's Army, of course, is much more high-tech, from top to bottom. The problem is that when tasks get more technical, aptitude makes an even bigger difference. In one Army study cited by the RAND report, three-man teams from the Army's active-duty signal battalions were told to make a communications system operational. Teams consisting of Category IIIA personnel had a 67 percent chance of succeeding. Teams with Category IIIB soldiers (who had ranked in the 31st to 49th percentile) had a 47 percent chance. Those with Category IVs had only a 29 percent chance. The study also showed that adding a high-scoring soldier to a three-man team increased its chance of success by 8 percent. (This also means that adding a low-scoring soldier to a team reduces its chance by a similar margin.)

In case you are wondering, here's the Wikipedia summary of the AFQT (which is the crucial subset of the larger ASVAB -- the AFQT determines whether you are allowed in, while the other parts of the ASVAB influence your specialty once you are in).

An Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) score is used to determine basic qualification for enlistment.

AFQT Scores are divided into the following categories:

  • Category I - 93-99
  • Category II- 65-92
  • Category IIIA - 50-64
  • Category IIIB - 31-49
  • Category IVA - 21-30
  • Category IVB - 16-20
  • Category IVC - 10-15
  • Category V - 0-9

The formula for computing this AFQT score is: Arithmetic Reasoning + Math Knowledge + (2 x VE). The VE (verbal) score is determined by adding the raw scores from the Paragraph Comprehension and Word Knowledge tests (i.e., how many questions the aspiring recruit got right on each) and using a table to get the VE score from that combined PC and WK raw score.

AFQT scores are not raw scores, but rather percentile scores indicating how each examinee performed compared with all other examinees. Thus, someone who receives an AFQT of 55 scored better than 55 percent of all other examinees.

Law prohibits applicants in Category V from enlisting. In addition, there are constraints placed on Category IV recruits. Presently, all Category IV recruits must be high school diploma graduates. Further, the law constrains the percentage of accessions who can fall in Category IV (currently, the limit is 20%).

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

January 23, 2008

Accelerating human evolution

Anthropologist Peter Frost has been writing on his Evo and Proud blog about the implications of last month's big paper by Cochran, Harpending, Hawks, Moyzis, and Wang on the recent acceleration in the rate of human evolution. Frost's topics include understanding just how different human races really are:

The rising curve

Thoughts on the EEA

The 99.9% truism

The 85% truism

Why I have no answer:

In my last two posts, I argued against two widespread truisms:

1. The human genome is 99.9% the same in all people.

2. If we look at the 0.1% that does vary, 85% of this variation exists only between individuals and not between populations.

Both truisms are at best superficially true. They don’t mean what many seem to think they mean. Moreover, they’ve been known to be misleading for some time; in the case of truism #1, from the moment it was first presented.

So Mr. Smarty Pants, how much do genes really differ within our species? And how much of this difference clusters into recognizable populations?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

The American Conservative's 1/28/08 issue

It's now semi-online. You can subscribe and read the whole thing here.

January 28, 2008 Issue

The Audacity of Huck
By Michael Brendan Dougherty
The Republican establishment wants Christian voters, not Christian leaders.

Untested Savior
By Scott McConnell
Barack Obama fulfills Democratic dreams for a truly transcendent leader—and Republican hopes for an easy target.

Found in Translation
By Philip Giraldi
FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds’s allegations are too explosive for Washington to investigate.

After Bhutto
By Jason Motlagh
Are Pakistan’s democratic hopes buried with Bhutto?

Honor Killing
By Paul Robinson
A nation’s reputation is less sullied by defeat than by not knowing how to lose.

Dead Wrong
By Daniel McCarthy
Warmonger Seeks Comeback

Shotgun Offense
By Jim Pittaway
Sacking Missoula

The Oilman Bowls Alone
By Steve Sailer
"There Will Be Blood"

Goldberg’s Trivial Pursuit
By Austin W. Bramwell
Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
by Jonah Goldberg

The Long Fuse to the Iraq War
By Philip Weiss
They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons by Jacob Heilbrunn

Living Literally
By Peter Suderman
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs

Forgive Us Our Debts
By Patrick J. Buchanan
Adjustable-Rate Republic

Live Free or Die?
By Daniel Larison
Ron Paul’s New Hampshire Freeze-Out

Voting With My Feet
By James P. Pinkerton
I Heart Huckabee

Fourteen Days: Cravenness Commends Him; Excommunication Bull; Make-Believe Racism

Deep Background: Flight Path to Damascus

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

"We Could Be Heroes"

On Untethered, Dennis Dale posts a gem of a short short story about the fighting in Afghanistan from the American enlisted man's perspective.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Here's my full review from The American Conservative of the Best Picture nominee "Atonement," complete with my usual utter disregard for the taboo against "spoilers:"

Many successful date movies, such as "Casablanca" and "Gone with the Wind," combined a love story for the ladies and a war for the gentlemen. With his 2001 bestseller Atonement, the immensely clever Ian McEwan pulled off the novelistic equivalent, pasting together a scandalous country house romance and the Fall of France. The film version is a likely nominee for the Best Picture Oscar because it's yet another purported attack on the English class system that actually revels in gorgeous Period Porn.

McEwan constructed his book not only for both sexes, but also for the middle and upper brows. For the book-buying masses, Atonement delivers a pre-modern melodramatic plot, and for the critics, a post-modern self-conscious commentary on the novelist's privileges and responsibilities.

One dark night in 1935, Briony, a writing-obsessed 13-year-old rich girl, briefly glimpses a tuxedoed man ravishing her sultry 15-year-old cousin Lola. A budding novelist eager to connect the dots, Briony leaps to the conclusion that the statutory rapist is the housekeeper's son, Robbie, the ardent new lover of her older sister Cecilia. (Robbie is played by James McAvoy, the callow doctor in "The Last King of Scotland," and Cecilia by the bony beauty Keira Knightley of "The Pirates of the Caribbean.") The more often Briony tells her story to the police, the more she almost believes it.

Five years later, the wronged Robbie is out of prison and in the defeated British Expeditionary Force, trudging toward the beach at Dunkirk, hoping to return finally to the still-waiting Cecilia. Meanwhile, the 18-year-old Briony pens a novella about the 1935 incident in the style of Virginia Woolf, full of fine writing about "light and stone and water" but no action, and sends it to the literary magazine Horizon. Its real-life editor Cyril Connolly, whom Evelyn Waugh often skewered in his books, replies with a kind rejection note, advising that even her "most sophisticated readers … retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens." McEwan himself told an interviewer that Atonement is an attack on "modernism and its dereliction of duty in relation to what I have Cyril Connolly call 'the backbone of the plot.'"

Briony struggles with this manuscript (and her guilt) for the rest of her life, completing it only in 1999. In the coda, a TV interview with the 77-year-old Briony (now played, majestically as always, by Vanessa Redgrave), we learn that the story we've just watched is her 21st but most autobiographical book. The elder Briony explains that the happy ending, however, in which her younger self confesses her perjury to the reunited lovers and to the world, is her invention, a respite for her readers from the truth that Robbie died at Dunkirk and Cecilia was soon killed in the Blitz. At the end, Briony wonders, "How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?"

"Atonement" the movie is such a faithful adaptation of the book that it never seems to occur to screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright that a film about a novelist playing God is an oxymoron. Authors can act like deities in their pages, but once they sell the film rights, they're impotent demiurges.

These filmmakers, though, are too in awe of McEwan's metafiction to notice that the storyline glass is both half-full and half-empty. It's swell that a vaunted master of contempo lit-fic has gone slumming enough to offer us proles a dramatic plot; but projected 50-feet high on the screen, McEwan's concoction doesn't make all that much sense.

Briony's lie is so shaky that we're expecting to see next a lurid courtroom donnybrook, complete with, say, a jailhouse wedding and witnesses breaking down in tears on the stand a la Perry Mason. McEwan, however, having ineptly plotted himself into a corner, simply skips ahead a half decade and ushers in World War II to distract us. (And all that McEwan has to say then is that war is a Dantean inferno, something that William Tecumseh Sherman said earlier and better.)

And if "Atonement" is about the power of fiction to harm and heal, what's the point of having the lovers die in the war? Correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression has always been that WWII wasn't actually the fault of a 13-year-old girl with an over-active imagination. It was Hitler's fault.

Rated R for disturbing war images, language, and some sexuality.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

The American Conservative on Sibel Edmonds

Philip Giraldi, the former CIA agent, who writes The American Conservative's gossip column, which is kind of like Liz Smith on a world-historical scale, has an article "Found in Translation" in the new issue that offers the clearest explanation of the Sibel Edmonds' case I've yet seen:

Most Americans have never heard of Sibel Edmonds, and if the U.S. government has its way, they never will. The former FBI translator turned whistleblower tells a chilling story of corruption at Washington’s highest levels—sale of nuclear secrets, shielding of terrorist suspects, illegal arms transfers, narcotics trafficking, money laundering, espionage. She may be a first-rate fabulist, but Edmonds’s account is full of dates, places, and names. And if she is to be believed, a treasonous plot to embed moles in American military and nuclear installations and pass sensitive intelligence to Israeli, Pakistani, and Turkish sources was facilitated by figures in the upper echelons of the State and Defense Departments. Her charges could be easily confirmed or dismissed if classified government documents were made available to investigators.

But Congress has refused to act, and the Justice Department has shrouded Edmonds’s case in the state-secrets privilege, a rarely used measure so sweeping that it precludes even a closed hearing attended only by officials with top-secret security clearances. According to the Department of Justice, such an investigation “could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the foreign policy and national security of the United States.”

After five years of thwarted legal challenges and fruitless attempts to launch a congressional investigation, Sibel Edmonds is telling her story, though her defiance could land her in jail. After reading its November piece about Louai al-Sakka, an al-Qaeda terrorist who trained 9/11 hijackers in Turkey, Edmonds approached the Sunday Times of London. On Jan. 6, the Times, a Murdoch-owned paper that does not normally encourage exposés damaging to the Bush administration, featured a long article. The news quickly spread around the world, with follow-ups appearing in Israel, Europe, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Japan—but not in the United States. [More]

Meanwhile, the Times of London has a new Sibel Edmonds article here.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

Need your help for an iSteve glossary

I was thinking of making up a list of useful terms and phrases I've invented, and I could use your help in recalling them. So please add any you can think of in the Comments. Here's a starter list:

affordable family formation -- The interaction of housing costs, incomes, and ease of raising and educating children that makes marriage and children more attractive.

frauteurs -- The recent Hollywood phenomenon of auteurs (writers-directors) who are brothers, such as the Coens (No Country for Old Men), Wachowskis (The Matrix) , Farrellys (There's Something About Mary), Wayans (Scary Movie), Weitzes (American Pie), and the Hugheses (From Hell).

NAMs -- Non-Asian Minorities.

Watsoned -- Get fired for saying something politically incorrect (as in James Watson).

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

January 22, 2008

Jerry Pournelle

The science fiction novelist and polymath, Jerry Pournelle, has some medical problems, which he discusses on his blog here, but his spirit still sounds indomitable.

My favorite story that Jerry told me about his adventurous life is the tale of his attempt to liberate communist Albania.

Back in the mid-1960s, Jerry, his mentor Stefan Possony, and Leka, Pretender to the Throne of Albanian -- who, by the way, is seven feet tall -- started to organize an invasion of Albania by patriotic exiles to overthrow communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

The larger strategic goal was to puncture the myth of communist inevitability by rolling back one country. Hoxha had alienated the Soviets by denouncing Khrushchev's 1956 policy of de-Stalinization. And he had earlier broken with Tito's Yugoslavia, making his nearest ally Red China. So, invading Albania wasn't likely to start WWIII.

King Constantine II, last King of the Hellenes, lent them his summer palace in Corfu, from which the hills of Albania are visible, as their headquarters.

Their sponsors in the U.S. government didn't want to be seen providing the crucial air cover needed to allow the invaders to cross the channel from Corfu. And without air cover, it would just be another Bay of Pigs.

So Jerry and Co. persuaded King Hussein of Jordan, who owed a lot of favors to the U.S. and was amenable to liberating his fellow Muslims in Albania from the godless Communist tyranny, to promise his British-built air force would wipe out the 11-airplane Albanian air force on the ground in a surprise attack. Jerry thus spent a lot of time in Jordan training their pilots on how to pull off a sneak attack.

Back in Corfu on June 5, 1967, Jerry was called to the radio to hear the news: the Israelis had pulled off their own sneak attack, wiping out the Egyptian air force, and in the subsequent fighting later that day destroyed most of the Jordanian air force.

So, the liberation of Albania had to be called off.

Decades later, Jerry met the President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, who had been Chief of Operations in the Six Day War. Jerry explained how Weizman had wrecked his invasion of Albania. Weizman exclaimed to the effect that: You were that foreigner who was training the Jordanians how to pull off a sneak attack? We thought you were a Russian training the Jordanians to attack us!

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

Oscar nominations for 2007

The Oscar nominations are out. Here are the main categories, with links to my reviews:

1. Best Picture: "Atonement," "Juno," "Michael Clayton," "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood."

Well, at least I've so far reviewed four of the five Best Picture nominees. I must have gotten a half dozen invitations to "Juno." but a quirky teen pregnancy comedy sounded doubtful compared to all the late Fall Oscar heavyweights like "Atonement" and "Margot at the Wedding."

Not a great year for movies, at least not for the kind that get Oscar nods. "No Country" tries to be profound by having Tommy Lee Jones mumble Cormac McCarthy's cranky soliloquies about kids these days, but at heart it's a video game on screen, an exercise in pushing a lot of buttons in the brains of males with 3-digit IQs. As I wrote:

Finally, Joel and Ethan Coen ("Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski"), the most gifted of the many brother-act frauteurs making films today, have figured out how to bring the pleasures of a problem-solving first person shooter game to the movie theatre. ...The Coen Brothers have discovered that the paradoxical key to making a video game movie is to slow down the action, allowing the viewer to think along with the hero and villain. Not since the sniper scene that makes up the second half of Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam film "Full Metal Jacket" has a movie played fairer with the audience in detailing the physical puzzles confronting the characters. How, for example, could you best hide two cubic feet of $100 bills in your motel room? And how could your enemy find such well-concealed money?

I know I've seen a well-crafted film when I walk out of the theatre yet still feel like I'm living in the movie. Leaving the amnesia thriller "Memento," for example, I was convinced I'd never remember where I'd parked my car. With "No Country," this post-movie spell lasted longer than I can ever recall. Even the next night, every car that passed me on a quiet street seemed an eerie, sinister harbinger of sudden violence.

2. Actor: George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"; Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"; Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street"; Tommy Lee Jones, "In the Valley of Elah"; Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises."

Daniel Day-Lewis is a given. Excellent choice of Tommy Lee Jones for his stoic portrayal of the heartbroken old soldier in "Elah" rather than for his chatty, ineffectual, and (due to his accent) somewhat inaudible role in the more popular "No Country for Old Men." Viggo Mortensen is a first rate pick in Hollywood's favorite role: the dangerous man with a heart of gold. But where is Josh Brolin, who had a similar role as the hero in "No Country" and was even more winning? They should have dumped Clooney for Brolin. (By the way, Oliver Stone wants to star Brolin in a biopic about George W. Bush. Stone is not quite right in the head, but then so are many famous men, which means his biopics can be sympathetically insightful.) I might have gone for Benicio Del Toro, overacting entertainingly, in "Things We Lost in the Fire."

3. Actress: Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"; Julie Christie, "Away From Her"; Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"; Laura Linney, "The Savages"; Ellen Page, "Juno."

Cotillard's impersonation of the 4'-8" French songbird Edith Piaf would be amazing even if she weren't over 10 inches taller. I can't blame the Academy for skipping Angelina Jolie's critically acclaimed but lousy performance in "A Mighty Heart."

4. Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"; Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"; Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"; Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton."

Affleck's is more of a lead role - he must be on-screen at least an hour. I would have liked 10 minutes of his character, but with somebody so whiny and perturbed-looking, a little goes a long way. I guess Bardem's the favorite for his Terminator-style role as the relentless hit man in "No Country," but if he wins it, the Academy ought to go back and give Ah-nold a Best Supporting Actor for "Terminator." It's one of those one-note performances -- a terrific note, but not a lot of variety there.

5. Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"; Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"; Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"; Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"; Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton."

Amy Ryan, a New York theatre actress, is terrific in a short role in Gone Baby Gone as the coke-addict Boston Irish skank mom of a kidnapped little girl, stealing most of the scenes she's in from Casey Affleck as the detective. But a nonprofessional local from the neighborhood named Jill Quigg, who plays her even skankier best friend Dottie, who is permanently ensconced next to her on the couch in front of the TV, almost steals Ryan's scenes from her. I think there should be an Oscar for Best Cameo for people on screen less than a few minutes.

6. Director: Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; Jason Reitman, "Juno"; Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"; Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"; Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood."

8. Adapted Screenplay: Christopher Hampton, "Atonement"; Sarah Polley, "Away from Her"; Ronald Harwood, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"; Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood."

9. Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody, "Juno"; Nancy Oliver, "Lars and the Real Girl"; Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"; Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava and Jim Capobianco, "Ratatouille"; Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages."

10. Animated Feature Film: "Persepolis"; "Ratatouille"; "Surf's Up."

"Surf's Up" got in on the penguin craze too late, but it's better than you'd expect. Picking this over "The Simpsons Movie" was a good call. Brad Bird's "Ratatouille" is of course excellent, but I've never had much to say about it.

12. Cinematography: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "Atonement," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood."

"Jesse James" is quite beautiful, while "No Country" is not, but the latter is more effective.

18. Documentary Feature: "No End in Sight," "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," "Sicko," "Taxi to the Dark Side," "War/Dance."

20. Film Editing: "The Bourne Ultimatum," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Into the Wild," "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood."

This usually goes to the Best Picture. People in the industry respect film editors, but they don't really know what they do, so they assume that if they like a movie, it must have been because of the editing. The interesting race here is between the two action movies: the state-of-the-art ultra-frenetic "Bourne Ultimatum" and the very deliberate "No Country." I'd vote for the latter.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

"There Will Be Blood," Edward Doheny, and Raymond Chandler

The Daniel Day-Lewis / Paul Thomas Anderson art house film "There Will Be Blood" (which received eight Oscar nominations this morning) is vaguely based on some quite interesting history. From my review in The American Conservative:

No movie of 2007 sounded more promising than "There Will Be Blood," which stars the titanic Daniel Day-Lewis in a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 roman a clef novel about prospector Edward L. Doheny, Oil!

In 1893, Doheny sank the first oil well in Los Angeles, digging 155 feet down by hand. His oil discoveries all over California and Mexico (where he employed a private army of 6,000), enabled him to give his son the most imposing house in California south of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon, Greystone, a 55-room Beverly Hills mansion with a private bowling alley (where the last scene of "There Will Be Blood" was filmed).

During the Harding Administration, however, Doheny, a Democrat (but an open-minded one), became entangled in the Teapot Dome scandal. After receiving a no-bid contract to drill on Navy lands, he sent his son with a "loan" of $100,000 in cash to Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall.

Outraged, the muckraking socialist Sinclair wrote a verbose but well-researched novel about oil, "the black and cruel demon," leavened with some surprisingly affectionate depictions of the old rascal. If Sinclair had waited two more years, though, he would have had the perfect climax. In 1929, having been acquitted of conspiracy, Doheny was still facing trial on bribing Fall, when his son and his son's secretary, both potential witnesses, died at Greystone in a murder-suicide. Who had murdered whom? The police quickly blamed the underling and the newspapers went along.

The Doheny affair was not forgotten, however, by a Los Angeles oil industry executive named Raymond Chandler. When he drank himself out of a job in 1932, Chandler tried writing detective fiction. The ambiguous Greystone killings became the archetype for Philip Marlowe's cases, with Doheny Sr. perhaps the inspiration for the dying General Sternwood who hires Marlowe in The Big Sleep.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

January 21, 2008

"There Will Be Blood"

A brief excerpt from my film review in The American Conservative:

"Daniel Day-Lewis claims he felt like a discriminated-against outsider growing up in England because of his half-Irish and half-Jewish ancestry. In reality, his Protestant Irish father, C. Day-Lewis, was the Poet Laureate of England, while his Jewish grandfather, Sir Michael Balcon, was the head of England's most beloved movie studio, Ealing, when Alec Guinness made his comedies. Day-Lewis's combination of English privileged-class panache and American Method Acting self-absorbed intensity has made him possibly the most formidable of all contemporary screen presences."

Subscribe to The American Conservative here.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

January 20, 2008

Jacob Heilbrunn's "They Knew They Were Right"

I've just started reading They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons by Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at The National Interest. It traces neoconservatism back to the storied Trotskyite alcove at the CCNY cafeteria in the 1930s, but this section on p. 11-13 jumped out at me:

"The neocons claim to be an intellectual movement with no ethnic component to speak of. But neoconservatism is as much a reflection of Jewish immigrant social resentments and status anxiety as a legitimate movement of ideas. Indeed, however much they may deny it, neoconservatism is in a decisive respect a Jewish phenomenon, reflecting a subset of Jewish concerns. ...

"As the children of immigrants who came to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe, the original neoconservatives were steeped in the ideological feuds of the past and present. As Jews, they were exquisitely attuned to the social exclusion and WASP snobbery that their fathers experienced in the early part of the twentieth century -- an attitude they carried with them through the debates of the cold war and the halls of power after 9/11. ...

"At the same time, the neocons are apoplectic about the allegiance of American Jews to liberalism. Irving Kristol made a useful distinction in 1979, trying to account for why so many American Jews, as he saw it, retained lingering socialist sympathies. His explanation was that they were drawn to the prophetic mode of Judaism rather than the rational one that emphasized adherence to orthodox laws. Socialism became a secular prophecy, the new civic religion of American Jews, who embraced secular humanism. ... But Kristol's conceit can also be turned on the very movement that he himself has headed for several decades. The neoconservatives themselves have veered between the prophetic and the rational schools. A good case could be made that they have now gone astray in indulging their own prophetic tendencies. ...

"That [neoconservative] mentality is ineluctably Jewish, immigrant, and conditioned by a highly selective and moralistic view of history as a drama of salvation and idolatry. ...

"[N]eoconservatives are less intellectuals than prophets. They tend to be men (and women) of an uncompromising temperament who use (and treat) ideas as weapons in a moral struggle, which is why the political class in each party regards them with a mixture of appreciation and apprehension, even loathing.

"That temperament is hardly confined to Jews, and it is often objected that not all neocons are Jewish. That is, of course, quite true. ... Despite the fervent protestations of its founders and adherents, then, it is anything but an anti-Semitic canard to label neoconservatism a largely Jewish movement. I hope it's clear, however, that I am talking about a cultural proclivity specific to America Jews of a certain generation, not about something that is "essentially" Jewish in either a religious or a racial sense. The best way to understand the phenomenon may be to focus on neoconservatism as an uneasy, controversial, and tempestuous drama of Jewish immigrant assimilation -- a very American story. At bottom, it is about an unresolved civil war between a belligerent, upstart ethnic group and a staid, cautious American foreign policy establishment that lost its way after the Vietnam War."

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

At least 90% new material!

From my new VDARE.com column, in which I conclude with a quite reasonable suggestion for dealing with the serious questions that a close reading of Obama's autobiography raises:

So, what is Obama, religiously?

No, Obama is not a Black Muslim

…despite his pastor's long association with Farrakhan going back to their 1984 trip to Libya together to visit Col. Qadaffi at the peak of the dictator's terrorism campaign.

Obama was intrigued enough by the Black Muslims to recount respectfully in Dreams (pp. 179-181, 195-200) long conversations in Chicago in the 1980s with an ex-gang leader renamed Rafiq al Shabazz, with whom Obama formed "an uneasy alliance" (p. 196) in their mutual business of extracting money for blacks from the taxpayers, an alliance that didn't go over well with Obama's church lady colleagues.

And Obama occasionally bought Farrakhan's newspaper The Final Call. Reading it, he understood the logic behind the Black Muslims cultivating hatred of whites: to unite blacks. Their racism is morally acceptable to him, in theory:

"If [black] nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence." (p. 200).

But, in his book, Obama dispassionately rejects Black Nationalism as economically and politically impractical.

In the final analysis, the Black Muslims are losers, and Obama, with his two Ivy League degrees and boundless ambition, is a winner.

What's striking about the bemused pages devoted to Farrakhan (pp. 201-204) is the lack of moral outrage at the chief beneficiary of the assassination of Obama's hero, Malcolm X, who was the (nominal) author of his favorite book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Ben Wallace-Wells wrote in Rolling Stone that Obama has "as openly radical a background as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from, as much Malcolm X as Martin Luther King Jr."

Malcolm X broke with the Black Muslims and their belief that whites are intrinsically evil following his pilgrimage to Mecca, where he saw orthodox Muslims of all colors worshipping together. Farrakhan responded: "The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil foolish talk about his benefactor, Elijah Muhammad. Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death…"

Not surprisingly, Nation of Islam gunmen soon rid Farrakhan and Muhammad of this turbulent priest. After Elijah's death, his moderate son Wallace Muhammad led most of Elijah's followers into orthodox Sunni Islam, leaving Farrakhan as Elijah's heir, leader of the racist rump of the movement. (In an ironic postscript, in 1998 Farrakhan appointed one of Malcolm's three convicted assassins, Norman 3X Butler, now out of prison, to head the mosque that Malcolm had once led.)

And, no, Obama's definitely not an orthodox Muslim

…although he spent two years as a small boy at a Muslim public school in Indonesia. This highly intelligent man's personality is complex, but anyone familiar with his memoirs would realize there is little in him that would incline him toward mainstream Islam. That faith is too racially universalist to fill the hole in Obama's soul, his hunger for "race and inheritance" left by his father abandoning him when he was two.

Obama says in Dreams that he was proud that his late Kenyan grandfather had converted to Islam because he saw it as evidence that he was anti-white. Sadly, during his visit to Kenya in 1988, he discovered, to his distress, that Onyango had worked for many years as a domestic servant to British colonialists, and that he had gotten rich by introducing white ways on his farms. As Obama listens to the third wife of his polygamous grandfather tell the old man's story, he writes (p. 406 of Dreams):

"… I, too, had felt betrayed. … I had also imagined him an independent man, a man of his people, opposed to white rule. There was no real basis for this image, I now realized—only the letter he had written to Gramps saying that he didn't want his one son marrying white. That, and his Muslim faith, which in my mind had become linked with the Nation of Islam back in the States. What Granny had told us scrambled that image completely, causing ugly words to flash across my mind. Uncle Tom. Collaborator. House n*****."

So, is Obama a believing Christian, as he claims on the campaign trail?

Eh, not so much ... Prominent British essayist Jonathan Raban writes in The Church of Obama:

"Obama is cagey, in a lawyerly way, about the supernatural claims of religion. Recounting a conversation about death that he had with one of his two young daughters, he wrote, 'I wondered whether I should have told her the truth, that I wasn't sure what happens when we die, any more than I was sure of where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang.' So I think we can take it that he doesn't believe—or at least doesn't exactly believe—in the afterlife or the creation."

The underlying reality, Raban surmises, isn't very exciting. Obama believes, more or less, in nothing. He is, argues Raban, a "scrupulous agnostic."

Indeed, while Obama's 1988 "conversion" in Rev. Wright's church is dramatically described on p. 295 of Dreams, I can't find it, or Christianity in general, coming up again in the last 147 pages of his autobiography, most of which takes place later that year in Kenya. Apparently, his conversion didn't make much of an impression on him.

Fine, but then what has Obama been doing at 11am Sunday morning for the last two decades at Rev. Wright's church? And why, out of all the churches on the South Side of Chicago (and Obama met dozens of ministers during his race organizing years), did Obama choose Rev. Wright? [More]

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer