A Fall Harvest of Films

The summer movie season now lasts from May until September and is generally wearying unless you have a bottomless desire for things blowing up, being shot up, driven fast or fought over by brawny comic book dopes, who despite their superpowers can only solve problems by punching each other. The only exception was Gal Gadot’s humane superhuman in “Wonder Woman.”

Now comes Oscar season which often brings its own flood of cliches — throbbing, sentimental melodramas, suffering minorities or other outsiders, and terminally ill or badly damaged heroes or heroines. Nevertheless, among the copious dross a few nuggets of gold do turn up. From the last few months I can recommend the following.

Blade Runner 2049” seemed like a fool’s errand since living up to the original was going to be nearly impossible. Ryan Gosling certainly doesn’t bring to his Blade Runner the cynical world-weariness of Harrison Ford’s Deckard, but since he is a replicant-hunting replicant, he is probably not programmed for that.

However, like its predecessor, the film is cleverly plotted, beautifully shot and art directed, and asks tricky questions about what makes a person human. It even has the geriatric Ford on hand for a last dance with dystopia.

“Wind River” concerns murder on a snowy Indian Reservation. It’s a bit schematic in plot and predicatable in its reliance on fossil fuel villainy, but is redeemed by a soulful performance by Jeremy Renner, with solid support from Graham Greene.

“Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri” is an Oscar-bait starring vehicle for Frances McDormand who plays the mother of a murdered daughter with furious relish. She is consumed with rage at the local cops’ inability to find the killer. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell may also get supporting actor notice if this little Indie movie manages to get the attention it deserves. It combine bitterness and grief with black comic energy.

In 2013, Steven Soderbergh said he was fed up with how difficult it is to get a movie made and said he was kissing it all good bye to become a painter. That didn’t last long. Within months he was directing a TV series, then another, helping cut another director’s film, and working on a stage project. So it was hardly a surprise when he returned to film with “Logan Lucky.”

The film was made by Soderbergh without a studio’s involvement, which may help account for its pleasantly handmade feel. It’s also a hoot, frequently described as a redneck “Oceans Eleven,” though it owes at least as much to “Out of Sight.” Channing Tatum has lost his construction job and is about to lose custody of his daughter. Money would help, and the heist of a Nascar venue is the intricate solution he hits on.

Tatum is the brains of the outfit, but a demolition genius is required. Since he is already in prison it will be necessary to spring him and then smuggle him back into stir for the plot to succeed. Daniel Craig is fabulously unexpected playing an Appalachian pyrotechnician complete with yokel accent, and the rest of the supporting cast is a comic rogues’ gallery.

“Lady Bird,” is a funny, charming story of a strong-willed girl who outgrows her awkwardness and gets her way. It stars Saoirse Ronan as a Catholic high school senior in Sacramento who yearns to escape her class conscious home town, her parents and their parochial plans for her and to flee across the continent to a college they can’t afford.

Her sweet, but down-sized and shame-faced father and her anxious, controlling mother are played to perfection by old pros Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf. It’s a film cut from the same cloth as “20th Century Women” and “The Edge of Seventeen.” If you liked those, I suspect you will like “Lady Bird” even more.

Finally, after years of hearing extravagant praise for Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, who directed his first film in 1927 and his last in 1962, I finally watched a pair of them — “Late Spring” from 1949 and 1953’s “Tokyo Story.” These are quiet, intimate stories of family life shot in long takes that often concentrate on emotions fitting across a face. Nothing much happens, except life itself.

In one, a 27-year-old daughter lives with her professorial, widowed father contentedly, until he is warned that she will never marry unless he persuades her to accept the attentions of a suitor by pretending he is about to remarry. He goes along wth the scheme. And he ends up alone and lonely, and she unsatisfactorily married and missing her old life.

In the second, an aging couple leave their small village to visit their children in the big city.They soon begin to feel, however, that they have worn out their unwelcome and are intruding on the busy urban lives of the young. In each case, trivial domestic misunderstandings have huge effects on those involved. This is humane, beautiful, moving film art created, as the novelist Henry Green once said of his own narratives, out of “a gathering web of insinuations.”

I encourage you to seek out these gems and warn you to avoid “The Florida Project,” which is depressingly predictable and slack, and “Mudbound,” which starts as a tale of interracial friendship and degenerates into Southern Gothic so lacking in subtlety that you fail to feel the emotions it is trying so hard to provoke.

Valley Boys

For the last forty years, we have been taught to celebrate the world of high tech and its wizards — Silicon Valley, for short. Perhaps it’s time to reassess the PR we’ve been swallowing.

There’s no doubt compact computing power and the internet have changed the world, but like all such blessings, this one is surely mixed. And great power always produces great opportunities for mischief and abuse.

“The New Yorker” recently published its annual tech edition, which did not focus on cool new devices or teen geniuses but on topics the industry is less anxious to promote, including its age discrimination practices and, in “The Disruptors,” its bias against and abuse of women.

This article offers one object lesson in the case of a company called Social Finance, or SoFi, which combined the vices of Wall Street and the Valley in one toxic workplace. Not only did its business practices include sexual harassment and abuse, but fraud, labor law violations and so forth.

The article wonders if this “bizarre mishmash of offenses” is a one off. It finds the answer in a fascinating hypothesis offered by Valerie Aurora, a diversity consultant, and Leigh Honeywell, an ACLU tech sector specialist. They have posted their conclusions online in “The Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment.”

It argues that, just as the murderous bootlegger was also guilty of the financial crime that eventually put him in prison, tax evasion, so sexual harassment is often only one symptom of a larger systemic disease.

“People who engage in sexual harassment or assault are also likely to steal, plagiarize, embezzle, engaged in overt racism, or otherwise harm their business” They suggest that the underlying pathology is the belief of such people that they are “entitled to other people’s property — regardless of whether it’s someone else’s ideas, work, money or body.”

The narcissistic sense of entitlement behind such thinking isn’t confined to Silicon Valley, as the cases of Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Charlie Rose and many others indicate. But the Valley Boys have largely gotten a pass because they make cool toys we all enjoy, and because their industry, like some others including finance, are so lopsidedly male.

They have also practiced clever PR. The Jobs product introduction extravaganza, the Gates charitable giving pledge, the Bezos, Musk and Google sci-fi futurism and moonshots. And many of them embrace in a showy way socially liberal causes, like openness to gay rights, abortion rights, a welcoming immigration policy. Aren’t they making the world a more wonderful place? Thanks Silicon nerds.

But all of that masks a deep underlying libertarian, not liberal strain. They favor pro-immigration and anti-discrimination policies because it is in their interest. The industry is dependent on access to manpower from abroad. In fact, tech like finance is as anti-regulation, ruthlessly monopolistic, and rapacious as the Robber Barons of old.

Many of its success stories are built on a foundation of sweatshops and child labor, powered by tax evasion and questionable financial practices, characterized by a lack of transparency and a cavalier attitude toward intellectual property, unless it is theirs.

The Valley Boys have also presided over the creation of products that have put their users at risk. And they have habitually refused to cooperate in attempts to police the crime wave their products have powered, including identity theft, copyright infringement, money laundering, and even an attempt to steal a presidential election.

The internet has been a social good in may ways, but it has also permitted a great deal of social degradation — cyberbullying, anonymous smears, stalking, sexual harassment, slander, and the kind of toxic fake news our president mistakes for reality. The Valley Boys also deserve some of the blame for the disruption of whole industries, lost livelihoods, an erosion of social cohesion and civility.

Not to mention the grotesque increase in income inequality powered by tech and finance. You don’t have to be a Luddite to feel there’s something wrong when the $250 billion in personal wealth of three people — Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Gates — is equal to that of the bottom 50% of the population, 160 million of their fellow Americans.

Change is always disruptive, but the tech titans who have set this process in motion and profited from it deny any responsibility for the consequences, or for curing the ills their cleverness has caused.

On the contrary, they have largely opposed government regulation, oversight or restriction on their freedom, even going so far as to resist cooperating with several investigations to uncover terrorist plots or espionage.

As the Al Capone theory suggests, those who feel entitled are likely to regard themselves as above the law or social norms whether they concern sexual mores, privacy, intellectual property, taxes or working conditions.

It is troubling to realize that, as Valerie Aurora puts it, much of our economy and now our government is controlled by people sharing the same personal flaw, the idea that, “I am more important than all other people.” She finds a silver lining in this grim landscape if more people begin to raise their voice to object, saying, “It’s really helpful to have Donald Trump as President — we now all know how narcissists behave.”

I admire her optimism, but knowing how such creatures look, doesn’t mean we know how to make them stop. As long as they have power, they will abuse it, since they are incapable of shame and can afford phalanxes of legal talent, and pet legislators to protect them from the consequences of their own acts.

Stealing Seats

Anyone poking around in their family history quickly learns that one of the most important resources is the US Census. There, if you’re lucky, you can follow the trail of your people back through history, from the present to the first enumeration in 1790. Where they lived, who they married, when their children were born, the street on which they lived, and in some cases whether they owned slaves or their country of origin.

All of this data s not valuable just to genealogists but is crucial to governmental and private business decision-making. The census shows how the demographics of the country are changing, which places are growing, which shrinking, where new infrastructure, retail or housing construction will be needed, and highlights a thousand other problems or opportunities created by change.

The census is an essential feature of an organized, civilized state. The Bible tells us, appropriately enough in the Book of Numbers, that Moses conducted a census of the Israelites, the Romans counted the empire under Caesar Augustus, and William the Conquerer compiled the Domesday Book of the inhabitants of England in 1086.

Taking a census was the first power described by the Constitution in 1787. You could look it up in Article I, Section 2, Clause 3. There you will find the method prescribed for staffing the lower House: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers.”

Fine and dandy. Big states, lots of members of the house, little states, fewer members. But how was Congress to discover how many people lived in each state in order to decide how many representatives they deserved? By conducting an “actual enumeration” every ten years. And three years later, in 1790, the first took place. There were 3,929,214 of us.

Today, there are somewhere around 323 million of us. The next count, the 24th, is scheduled to take place in 2020. It is vitally important that it be done correctly, thoroughly, professionally, impartially and on time. It decides not just who represents us in Congress, but how tax dollars are allocated for many federal programs, which places prosper and which are shortchanged.

For the count to go smoothly and miss no one, the Census Bureau must prepare years in advance. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Trump administration and the Republican Congress have dropped the ball. They have underfunded the ramp-up to the massive effort that will cost billions and employ thousands of temporary enumerators.

Due to lack of funds, the Bureau has already had to cancel parts of a test-run for 2020, and it is six months late in producing an economic report that is supposed to appear regularly. Is this neglect born of carelessness, anti-government malice of chicanery?

A clue may lie in the Trump administration’s floating of the name of Thomas Brunnell to head the Bureau, a post that requires Congressional approval. It quickly became apparent that Brunnell would face tough sledding, because he is both unqualified for the post and a partisan zealot likely to corrupt the count for political purposes.

You can find more on Brunnell in a “Politico” piece of Nov. 21, “Leading Trump Census P{ick Causes Alarm,” which includes the following facts. Brunnell is a Texas political science professor who has advised Republican administrations in several states on how to redraw districts to maximize seats for their party. In short, he is a gerrymander expert who wrote a book arguing that “competitive elections are bad for America.”

Whatever else you can say about Trump and the Rs, they can hardly be accused of hiding their intentions to twist the census process to achieve their own partisan ends. By proposing such a director for the Bureau they make their motives very clear. They also get high marks for perseverance.

Seeing that Brunnell was unlikely to be confirmed as Director, the administration decided to leave the top job at the Census Bureau empty. Instead they have decided to appoint a Deputy Director to run the operation, and in practice it is normally the Deputy who actually manages the census. And whose name leads the list for Deputy Director — Thomas Brunnell. And surprise, surprise, the Deputy Directorship does not require Congressional confirmation.

Almost always the Deputy Director is a career civil servant, not a political partisan, a person with long experience with the intricacies of the census, and credentials in statistical analysis. Brunnell has none of the above, suggesting he will serve not as a professional manager but as a partisan saboteur.

Once again, the Vandals seem intent on undermining the institutions of a civilized state and breaking what others have built. Instead of a fair and unbiased count, it is possible to produce results that will favor one party over another. This can be achieved by undercounting some demographic groups and fully counting others, or simply neglecting some hard to count communities.

If successful, such a miscount can skew the composition of the House beginning in 2022 for a decade and can make data relied on by government and business less reliable and useful until 2032.

And if the jiggering of the 2020 census works, and Republican hegemony in the House is locked in for a decade, the 2030 census may be conducted in an equally corrupt manner.

This is the way a great power declines, by a slow erosion of little seen, but essential institutions.