Saturday, December 29, 2012

Year End Top Films

Fanny Ardant as Maria Callas
Below find a short list of foreign films that will rival any to be found on the usual year-end “ten best” lists.

All of the films on the list are personal favorites of mine. I must confess that I have a preference for “feel good” films. For example, I understand the greatness of Italian neo-realist films but find them almost unbearable to watch. Also, I avoid films where the emphasis is on violence and eroticism.

Although I am a great fan of American films, I believe that foreign films provide an opportunity to see and understand other cultures. In addition to being great stories with great characters, they can open up a window to other worlds. For example, the Israeli film “The Band Visits” not only depicts current tensions in Israel and Egypt but also shows that ordinary Israelis and Egyptians are not much different from each other or anyone else.

The Band Visits: A charming comedy from Israel that depicts a day in the life of a small band of Egyptian musicians that mistakenly winds up in a remote Israeli settlement.

The Importance of Being Earnest: The classic version of Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name. It stars Michael Redgrace and the inimitable Joan Greenwood.

Wings of Desire: A German film that began as a homage to post-war Berlin but ended up as a homage to life and love. It stars Bruno Ganz and Peter Falk in a surprising role.

Bread and Tulips: A modern Italian comedy that depicts the adventures and travails of a housewife stranded in Venice. 

Callas, Forever: Franco Zeffirelli’s homage to Maria Callas depicts his imaginary understanding of the last year of her life. French actress Fanny Ardant is magnificent as Maria Callas.

Mao’s Last Dancer: This Australian film is based on the true story of a Chinese ballet dancer who after getting permission from the Chinese authorities to perform with the Houston ballet, decides to stay in America.

Johnny Stecchino:  This film stars famed Italian comic Roberto Benigni in a dual role as a simple school bus driver and as a Mafioso. One of the great comedies of all time but only available in VHS.

Roberto Benigni as Johnny Stecchino

Always: Sunset on Third Ave.: A charming Japanese film set in 1958 as Japan is emerging from the devastation of WWII. It provides an eye opening view of Japanese culture while at the same time showing that the hopes and dreams of ordinary Japanese were not much different from those of Americans of the same era. This film is hard to find.

I realize that the great majority of foreign films are probably just as trashy as most American films. But this list is taken from the cream of the crop.  They were made by adults for adults.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Message

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

In 1971, an incredible 1.2 billion copies of a single postage stamp were printed by the U.S. Postal Service. It was the largest stamp printing order in the world since postage stamps were first introduced in 1840. It was almost ten times larger that the usual printing of an American commemorative stamp. The stamp was one of two Christmas stamps issued that year. It depicted a Nativity scene by the Italian painter Giorgio Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds.*

The Postal Service probably picked Giorgione’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” because it was one of the most prized possessions of the National Gallery. The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its real meaning.**

This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion.

Merry Christmas

* M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.

** I have discussed this painting on my Art history blog: Giorgione et al...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Newtown Massacre

The massacre of twenty innocent children and six school staff in nearby Newtown, Connecticut was too shocking too write about last week. I know that violent acts are going on all over the world but when it hits so close to home, it breaks through our psychological firewall.

Since the tragedy innumerable words have been written and by now the newspapers are full of articles and letters offering solutions to the problem. Inevitably, most take a one sided view. Some writers call for stricter gun control laws. Others decry the violence in our entertainment media and overall culture. Finally, others call for reforms in treatment of the so-called violent mentally ill.

I would like to suggest all of the above. It seems striking to me that most advocates of stricter gun control are also ardent defenders of Hollywood’s right to do whatever it pleases in depicting violence. At the same time, opponents of violence in the media are often strong supporters of the gun ownership. It seems that it is time for those on both the left and the right to come together and adopt each other’s solutions.

I have never owned a gun and never plan to own one, but I know very good people who do. Two beloved uncles were avid hunters, and so is my younger brother, a retired NYPD officer who also happens to be a fanatic about gun safety. 
Even before the massacre of the children and their teachers in Newtown, it was hard for me to understand the intransigence of some people on both sides of the issue of gun control. On the one hand, I have never been able to understand why a hunter might require an assault rifle or a handgun that is just about the modern equivalent of the machine guns that were banned in the 1930s.

On the other hand, I am aware that even states like Connecticut that have the most stringent gun-control laws are among those with the most violent crime rates. Bridgeport, Connecticut is usually among the Nation’s leaders in firearm related murders. Frankly, I believe that the possibility that a one of my neighbors might actually own a revolver is a real deterrent to crime in my neighborhood.

Still, I don’t believe that the right to bear arms allows me or my neighbor to assemble an arsenal fit for a SWAT team. We have banned especially lethal firearms in the past and we can do it again. I know that criminals will probably find ways to get their hands on assault rifles, but the supply could be limited at the source.

While we are at it, I think that there is another so-called right that needs to be somewhat restricted. Why is it that proponents of stricter gun control laws never seem to oppose the acts of violence that appear daily in films, video games, and on TV?  The release of a new film this Christmas season was delayed because of the massacre in Newtown. Was it perhaps because the film begins with a rooftop sniper looking through his scope at a young girl? You could be watching “Miracle on 34th St.” this season only to see it interrupted by commercials for films full of bloodshed. I can’t imagine the violence that my grandchildren see on their video games where they themselves become the shooter.

Maybe, most of us wouldn’t be led to commit acts of violence by witnessing violence, but what about the mentally ill? Some will say that exposure to this violence does no harm. Some also argue that it limits free speech and stifles artistic creativity.   If what people see on TV does not influence behavior, why do advertisers spend so much money promoting their wares, or politicians buy so much ad-time to get elected?

As far as artistic creativity is concerned, I believe that I can make a very strong case for censorship. During the 1930s the film industry adopted the now infamous “Production Code.” Faced with the threat of government censorship resulting from a public outcry, Hollywood agreed to police itself. Any new film would have to be reviewed and modified it if failed to meet certain set standards. The Production code was abandoned decades ago but modern filmmakers and critics still bemoan the censorship that gripped Hollywood.

Recently, Turner Classic Movies released DVD sets of some of the pre-code films and a reviewer in the Wall St. Journal thought that the Code had been a great tragedy. However, in his own review he could only point to one or two films of even limited value from the pre-Code era. He failed to mention that the adoption of the infamous Code ushered in what most critics regard as the Golden Age of film.

For example, 1939 is regarded as one of the greatest years in Hollywood history. “Gone with the Wind” swept most of the Oscars, but moviegoers that year also saw: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Stagecoach; the Wizard of Oz; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; and Dark Victory. The next two years saw the likes of Citizen Kane; the Maltese Falcon; and Casablanca—three of the greatest films of all time. Restrictions on the so-called creativity of producers, directors, and artists only forced them to greater heights of excellence.

The  Newtown massacre occurred right in the midst of the Christmas season. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people on both sides of the political spectrum could come together next year to make America a more peaceful society? ###

Friday, December 7, 2012

Tax Rates and Tax Cliff

Bush Tax Cuts and Federal Revenues

An increase in tax rates on the rich, or anyone else, does not always lead to increased government revenues. Historically, almost the opposite has occurred. Over 50 years ago, President Kennedy lowered tax rates and Federal revenues grew dramatically. President Reagan did the same thing with the same result when he took office.
Even the much-maligned Bush tax cuts did not reduce Federal revenues. In 2002 the Federal government collected 1 Trillion dollars in income taxes and 1.88 Trillion in total revenues. By 2007 after five years of Bush “tax cuts”, Federal income tax collections went up by 50% to over 1.5 Trillion dollars, and total government receipts exceeded 2.5 Trillion. In 2007 the total federal deficit was a mere 160 Billion dollars, the same it had been in 2002. Only with the recession did income tax revenues go down to 2002 levels although total government receipts stayed higher.
Today, total Federal government revenues are the highest they have ever been. Unfortunately, in the last five years massive government spending has far outstripped the increased revenues produced by the Bush cuts. Even if the President were to tax those making over $250000 at a rate of 100%, it would not come close to dealing with the massive debt roll accumulated during his previous four years in office.
Ironically for conservatives, it would appear that reductions in tax rates lead to increased government revenues and only enable more government spending. At the same time, it would appear that raising tax rates would actually lead to less revenue for Washington? Why should this be so?
In the last election campaign Governor Romney tried to make the point that lower tax rates would actually grow the economy and produce greater revenues for the Federal government. Most people, including those who should know like politicians and newspaper editors, could not understand the concept.
But there is another factor. Increasing tax rates only increases tax avoidance strategies both legal and illegal. Recently, a noted political commentator suggested a national lottery where people would be entered in the drawing for the huge payout if they would only submit their tax returns to audit. He estimated that 2 Trillion dollars of income goes unreported every year. His scheme is a crazy one but it illustrates the insanity of our whole tax system.
Increasing tax rates on the rich or anyone else will only encourage more tax avoidance since the potential reward gets greater. If someone’s income is taxed at a 50% rate rather than 25%, the potential reward for deferring, sheltering, or otherwise hiding income has doubled.
How many contractors do you know who prefer to receive payments in cash? How many people do you know who receive unemployment benefits, but who at the same time work “under-the–table” somewhere? If people in such negligible tax brackets risk breaking the law for such a small return, what do you suppose the prosperous will do?
For example, you can raise the tax rate on capital gains, but people will only pay the tax when they finally sell the asset that has increased in value. If the government raises the tax rate on dividends, corporations will just reduce or even eliminate their dividends. Investors will also cut back or even sell their positions in dividend paying stocks in anticipation of an increase in tax rates. I’m not making this up. Just recently, Costco announced a record $7 per share dividend before the end of this tax year. The company is headed by one of President Obama’s major supporters in the last election.
Inevitably, increases in tax rates never produce the expected tax revenues. Just look at the state of Connecticut. Two years ago newly elected Governor, Dannell Malloy, and an overwhelmingly Democrat legislature pushed through the largest tax increase in State history. Now, the expected revenues have failed to materialize, and the Governor’s hapless aides can only blame the failure of the economy to grow over the past two years. ### 
Click to enlarge