Wednesday 31 December 2003
Cheaper By The Dozen
I cannot, in all honesty, recommend that this movie be seen by anyone. To begin with, the movie blows chunks: there are a few funny Steve Martin moments, and Ashton Kucher gives such a good performance — uncredited, despite the fact that he plays a major character — that it seems like he’s in another movie (a good one), but on the whole, this one just plain stinks.
But that’s not actually the worst of it. Cheaper By The Dozen was a 1950 memoir written by brother and sister Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, about their actual experiences growing up in a family of twelve children.
Their mother and father, Frank B. (Sr.) and Lillian Gilbreth, were the parents (no pun intended) of the field of motion study, and pioneers in management consulting, ergonomics, and industrial efficiency. Lillian Gilbreth in particular was no slouch, given what was expected of women in her day: she invented and patented, among other things, refrigerator-door sheves, the electric food mixer, and the trash can with a pedal for opening the lid. In their time, both Gilbreths were internationally famous, and their experiments, methods, and discoveries are still taught today.
None of this, though, is in the movie, even in filtered-and-adapted form. It’s rather as if you went to see a movie called Catcher In The Rye, advertised as being based on a novel by J.D. Salinger, and you found that it was about a happy-go-lucky, non-smoking, non-drinking nice poor Southern boy named Holden Caulfield who does well in school and who goes around telling everyone that it’s important to present a happy face to the world and to fit in, no matter what. You might feel that you had been misled, were you to see that movie.
The book Cheaper By The Dozen, and the 1950 movie of the same name, are about how the Gilbreths applied their interest in and knowledge of motion-study and efficiency to the challenge of raising twelve children. The 2003 movie is about a family with twelve children, but — I am not exaggerating in the slightest here — that is the only resemblance to the book’s story. Where the book and original movie were explicitly about how the Gilbreths applied their intelligence and the discoveries they made in the course of their wildly-successful professional lives to the challenge of raising twelve children, the current movie is about how these bumbling parents can only barely hang on by devoting themselves entirely, and exclusively, to their kids.
The current movie is about a family named Baker, of which the paterfamilias is a small-time college football coach, and the mother is a homemaker. There are twelve unbelievably bratty children, who only get worse when the family moves to Chicago when Dad is offered a job coaching at a very, very thinly-veiled version of Northwestern University. Mom has written a book about the experience of raising twelve children, and it’s accepted by a publisher shortly after the move. Mom reluctantly embarks on an instantly-launched two-week promotional tour, and things fall apart immediately.
What with Dad working hard, and with Mom gone for two whole weeks, the kids — who, remember, are supposed to have always lived in a family of fourteen — are all starved for attention. Dad has a high-paying job (the current actual head football coach at Northwestern is paid a base salary of $800,000 per year), but there’s no domestic help in evidence, no maid, no nanny, no nothing. During the first week of Mom’s absence, the youngest kids assault their teacher, the middle kids get into a fight, and the oldest kid gets kicked off the high-school football team and threatens to drop out of school altogether so he can return to their erstwhile hometown to be with his old girlfriend. Oh, and Northwester, uh, Illinois Polytechnic loses a football game by three points, and Dad is immediately threatened with the loss of his job unless he gets his priorities straight. Clearly Dad can’t handle the challenge.
The kids go nuts in Mom’s absence, at one point throwing a hatchet through a closet door in the front hall. The only visible punishment for any of them comes only after the teacher-assault/fight/football team episode mentioned above: they’re grounded. The very next day, they all climb down a rope from the second story of the house to attend (and destroy) a birthday party across the street. There’s no visible punishment for this, but the next day they call a radio show that Mom is on as part of her book tour, and demand that she come home immediately — then destroying the telephone in the process of a fight over who will get to talk to Mom on the air after the initial demand.
Mom cuts short her book tour, to her publisher’s dismay, and comes home. Matters don’t improve much, so at least the movie doesn’t fall entirely into the highly-paid-Dad-is-really-a-bumbling-idiot-but-homemaker-Mom-is-a-saint trap. Things only get better after Dad quits his million-dollar-a-year job and gets another (unspecified) one. In the closing scene of the movie, the kids are shown happily gamboling about the yard, apparently now happy living in Evanston.
So it’s a terrible, terrible movie. Adaptations of books to the screen nearly always suffer to some extent, but usually you can tell that the screenwriters at least read the book. I have no doubt that they actually read the book in this case, but you would never know it; this isn’t so much an adaptation of the book as it’s an adaptation — a liberal adaptation — of the promotional copy on the back of the book.
But this isn’t actually the most offensive part. The true horror comes from the central message of the movie, if it can be said to have one at all:
It’s the brats’ immediate desires that drive the plot; when Dad is improbably offered the job in Evanston, he makes the decision to take it not just because it’s always been his dream to coach at his alma mater, but because the huge salary and housing allowance would make life better for the kids. In podunk, they seem to be sharing a single bathroom, and their clothes are literally falling to pieces.
But when the first week of the school year in a new place presents some challenges — the two high-school kids are made fun of for driving an old beater and for being from a small town, for example — the kids rebel. Ordinarily, they are, all of them, totally helpless. When it comes to attempting to drive away the oldest sister’s boyfriend, or getting their dad fired, or getting Mom to come back home (rather than waiting another whole week), though, they are capable of some ingenuity.
The offensiveness derives from the cynical beliefs that went into this movie. The book is about how two parents applied knowledge and a systematic approach to raising their large brood; the movie is about how two parents living seventy years later, with all the labor-saving gadgetry that implies, cannot pull off the same thing to save their lives. Let me just restate that: the book, written in 1950 about actual events that all occurred before 1924, is about possibility and success. The movie, fictional and from 2003, is about constraint and failure.
Presumably the movie was heavily focus-grouped, specifically designed to show the viewers what they said they wanted. And I think that the result says something bothersome about the times in which we are living.
In the early-twentieth-century setting of the book and first movie, your options were severely restricted: women could only do certain things, society said; children should behave a certain way; certain subjects were acceptable for polite conversation, and certain others were not; and so on.
Today, we have a society in which you are, ostensibly, free to live your life the way you choose to live it — but while enduring being constantly told that you’re Doing It Wrong. A hundred years ago, there was at least one approved way to live; now, none. The movie at hand looks down not only on the family with a dozen children who don’t get enough attention, but on the family living across the street from them, who have a doted-on only child. No matter what you do, you’re going to fail: and nowhere does our society believe this more firmly than in the raising of children.
Drive a big car? You’re doing harm to your children’s future by polluting the atmosphere, and you’re posing a danger to pedestrians (who are assumed in the scold literature to be largely children, though my experience does not bear this out). Drive a small car? You’re putting your children at risk of injury in an accident.
Provide amply for your children? You’re spoiling them. Teach them the value of a dollar? You’re depriving them.
Take a close interest in your child’s life? He’ll turn out to be a mama’s boy. Leave him to make his own decisions? Well, then, he’ll almost certainly wind up doing lots of drugs (or, in the case of a daughter, wind up doing lots of drugs and then getting pregnant).
Keep your child inside and in sight? He’ll wind up playing too many video games, and he’ll be unsocialized and fat. Let him run around outside? He’ll undoubtedly be abducted by a superpredator or pederast, or will himself become a criminal. Oh, yeah, and: drugs.
We’ve always had social constraints on what we could do, of course. In many places, it’s not actually illegal to run around naked in the streets, but very few people do so. Why? Because it’s just not done. You’d look like a fool.
In the past, though, there’s usually been one set of social constraints at a time; today, we’ve got a whole contradictory bundle of them all at the same time. No matter what you do, you’ll be Doing It Wrong according to someone, who will not hesitate to let you know this.
Posted by tino at 15:10 31.12.03
Tuesday 30 December 2003
The topic of the article is that schoolchildren today apparently do not sing classic children’s songs like “My Darling Clementine”, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, “Hokey Pokey”, and so on. My guess is that the largest cause of this is that the media Machine focusses on the tots now; when I was that age, all that was aimed at us was a quarter-page in the newspaper and about twelve weekly hours of television. Kids aren’t singing “Clementine” because they are singing the vastly superior Spongebob Squarepants theme song.
But one of the music teachers quoted in the article made it clear why he or she didn’t teach these songs:
And there’s the whole problem right there: the idea that ‘multicultural’ does not include ‘the American culture’; that you can be ‘multicultural’ while entirely and deliberately ignoring the culture of the world’s third most-populous country; while ignoring the culture of one of the very few places on Earth where your inclusion in the nation and the local culture isn’t dependent on your ethnicity.
This leads me to suspect that multiculturalism, as the term is usually used, really means anti-American-culturalism (I mean anti-(American culuturalism), not (anti-American) culturalism, though sometimes I wonder). You can argue that kids in America don’t need to be taught about American culture, as they are surrounded by it. But this is a weak argument, and it’s weakened further by the fact that the multiculturalists feel that it’s vital to teach kids who live in insular black neighborhoods, or in monolingual barrios about black or Hispanic culture. So it’s got nothing to do with any sense that the kids will soak up American culture — other than that part that consists of television and movies — on their own.
And this is what’s truly mystifying. Like many Americans, I would be hard-pressed to give you an accurate description of my actual ethnic origin. That I know of, I have ancestors from Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and England. If you insisted, I might say that I’m of German extraction, but that really is just a reflection of the main cultural identity of the grandparent I knew best. American culture is inherently multi-cultural. The multiculturalists either don’t or won’t notice this, though, because they prefer their multiple cultures under individual bell jars, each ‘unpolluted’ by other ideas.
So this ‘multiculturalism’ involves picking and choosing certain approved cultures for inclusion — much as the mainstream, not-explicitly-multi culture does. There are just two different sets of revered cultures:
These are only a few examples, of course; there are many more. It will be noted that all of the cultures revered by the mainstream are cultures that have been broadly successful, while all of the cultures revered by the multiculturalists are ones that have not been successful. As you run down an imaginary list of cultures that the multiculturalists hold to be holy, you’ll soon realize that every one of them is what you might call a loser culture.
The multiculturalists will complain that this isn’t fair, that Africa, for example, is in the shape it’s in through no fault of its own. European countries raped and pillaged the continent, destroying the social fabric and leaving a metaphorical smoking hole behind. This is true, but it’s also true that lots of other places have managed to crawl out of the crater of colonialism; and it’s undeniably true that postcolonial self-rule in most of sub-Saharan Africa has been a disaster. African culture, in modern times, seems to provide for subsistence and little more. A culture that doesn’t provide for subsistence quickly disappears as its adherents starve to death. Most modern African cultures are on the brink of extinction in a kind of social evolution, and many of them continue to exist at all only by virtue of foreign aid. (See Paul Theroux’s excellent Dark Star Safari for a long explanation of this by someone with great respect for African cultures and people. Theroux suggests that the aid itself may be part of the problem.)
I want to make it perfectly clear: the problem with Africa isn’t Africans. They’re no better or worse than anyone else in the world. The problem is African culture, which, simple observation will show, by and large just doesn’t work. Past European colonialism and current trade globalization are part of our universe; hating them or wishing they hadn’t happened is not going to change the fact that in this universe, the African cultures aren’t working.
Central and South America are a particularly interesting case. ‘American’ culture isn’t ‘multicultural’ — but this uses ‘American’ to mean ‘United Statesian’. Central and South American cultures are certainly ‘multicultural’, despite the fact that these cultures are the result of European conquest, slavery, and everything else that the multiculturalists hate about the history of the United States.
The distinction between the United States and Central and South America is that the United States is fabulously wealthy and powerful, while Central and South American countries, despite having had many of the same natural advantages of the United States, are, to put it mildly, not.
So what is this ‘multiculturalism’ really about? I think it’s part of a larger phenomenon that I have, for a while now, been calling underdogism. Underdogism is the current guiding philosophy of the Left.
Much of the Left quite clearly and directly states that it believes that wealth is not created but stolen, and that people are not fairly employed but exploited. This can be neatly, if somewhat inaccurately, summed up as property is theft.
Now, the Left doesn’t believe that all property is theft, and they don’t believe that all people with property are thieves. But there is a general belief that very wealthy individuals and very successful corporations came by their wealth and power by unfair means, to be best. If you believe that property is theft — or, more accurately, if you believe that the accumulation of wealth is achieved only by the unreasonable exploitation of others, unfair trading, and coercion — then it should follow that you believe that someone’s wealth is a somewhat accurate measure, by proxy, of the blackness of that person’s heart.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, though, the hard Left has been faced with a dilemma: if the communitarian approach is so much better, why is it that everywhere on Earth that it’s been tried has quickly turned into a hell-hole? And why is it that the inhabitants of Eastern Europe appear to be happier now in the midst of their odd chaotic proto-capitalism than they were under perfectly, benevolently planned state socialism? It’s more comfortable to believe, apparently, that true success is evinced by privation: the Poles and Czechs may be eating more, sure, and going more places in their new cars, but at the cost of their immortal souls etc.
This leads to a belief in a sort of reverse-meritocracy. If the accumulation of wealth is a measure of unscrupulous behavior, then the lack of wealth — and power, because wealth and power are equivalent from the Left’s point of view — is a sign that you are virtuous.So groups that don’t have power or wealth — or who don’t have as much power and wealth as some other group — are as a whole more trustworthy, more ‘authentic’, etc., etc.
It will be noticed that almost any group of people can have less power and wealth than other groups; and the true beauty of it is that it’s all relative.
Saddam Hussein was, until recently, a fabulously wealthy and powerful man by any measure: but he was not as wealthy or as powerful as the President of the United States. So Saddam Hussein was the underdog, and should be supported against the wealthy and powerful (and thus Bad) George Bush.
This leads to some incredible idiocy: the Left purports to be about freedom of conscience, individual liberty, and all that. Yet it’s willing to support (to varying degrees) Robert Mugabe, Kim Il Sung, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and any number of other hideous dictators, as long as they are in opposition to the United States in particular, ‘the West’ generally, and free-market economics most importantly. Domestically, they’ll support violent black separatists, Hispanic racists, Muslim bigots, and anyone else opposed to the majority culture — calling it ‘multiculturalism’, they’ll support people who explicitly advocate cultural apartheid. Or, to put it another way, they carry the principle of Tolerance so far as to tolerate Intolerance — if the Intolerance is of the right thing.
The real problem, of course, is that most of the world’s underdogs are underdogs because they’re doing it wrong. They’re not ambitious, they don’t educate their young, they don’t take risks, they don’t make good investments, and they don’t make life predictable through application of the rule of law. (Or — remember, it’s all relative — they aren’t as ambitious, as well-educated, etc. as someone else.) Revering these people — patronizing them, really — is not going to help them, or anyone else; it’s merely encouraging — ‘enabling’ — them to continue to do the same self-destructive things that have put them in this position in the first place. The adherents to a broken culture are still going to starve to death if they can’t feed themselves, no matter how Good and Right the American Left believes them to be.
Posted by tino at 12:08 30.12.03
Thursday 25 December 2003
Regular complaining etc. will resume here before long.
Posted by tino at 11:54 25.12.03
Friday 12 December 2003
Voting by Machine
Yet nobody in the government seems to be making this argument.
Posted by tino at 14:09 12.12.03
Tuesday 09 December 2003
I just love Christmas. As I said not long ago, I love every aspect of the holiday. And Christmas movies are, for me, a big part of Christmas.
It’s almost impossible to make a bad Christmas movie. A lot of people, apparently, get all stressed out around the holidays because they feel that their real experiences can’t possibly live up to the experiences that the movies tell them they’re supposed to have. I say that no matter what happens on Christmas, it’s still a big win because, after all, it’s Christmas.
Last year, I started making a list of movies that were, at least in my opinion, Christmas movies. This year, I’m finally getting around to putting a list online. This is an incomplete list; if I tried to make it complete, or even something I could with a straight face call ‘complete’, I’d never finish. These are just some of the movies I like to watch around Christmas. If you think I’ve left something out, well, that’s what the comments are for, eh?
And: These are only movies that you have at least a reasonable chance of being able to rent or to see on TV. Some of the (inadvertently) best Christmas movies are those made specifically for television. Unfortunately, though, you can’t generally get hold of those. (That they’re only remembered through a haze of 20 or 30 years might be why they seem so good, actually.)
Posted by tino at 11:44 9.12.03
Tuesday 02 December 2003
MSNBC is right now running a story on ‘why Americans are so obsessed with celebrities and their scandals’ (verbal italics are MSNBC’s). Their main focus is on the recent Paris Hilton B.S.
Now, a lot of things about the news media drive me nuts, but it’s perhaps their almost-total credulity that annoys me the most — and they’re never more credulous than when dealing with celebrities.
Lets examine the situation. Paris Hilton is famous mainly for one thing, the infamous Paris Hilton Sex Tape, a grainy night-vision bit of uninteresting amateur porn.
I knew who Paris Hilton was before the tape, but that’s only because I read Page Six assiduously. On Page Six — and in similar New York gossip publications — Hilton has been well-known for some time. She was referred to in these places as a ‘scenester’, or a ‘socialite’. She was famous mainly for going to a lot of parties.
A lot of people go to a lot of parties, of course: we call most of these people Big Ten students, and they’re not famous for it. Paris Hilton was a minor celebrity for going to parties because she went to the right parties, i.e. ‘exclusive’ parties. The problem with ‘exclusive ’ parties, though, is that, to keep the thing ‘exclusive’, you can’t invite everyone: there’s a limited circle of people who know about ‘exclusive’ parties, and an even more limited circle who actually attend the things. Thus if your celebrity is based on attending ‘exclusive’ parties, it’s hard to leverage that odd celebrity into national fame.
But Paris Hilton wasn’t just famous for going to a lot of parties. She’s neither interesting nor good-looking nor quite rich enough for her mere presence to be noteworthy. Paris Hilton was, in the end, famous mostly because she had a good PR agent. Without a lot of money being spent, though, a good PR agent doesn’t win you much fame with the Great Unwashed, since the movie studios etc. spend so much on seeing to it that their stars are famous: and movie stars are famous for something that is actually visible to the public, i.e. appearing in movies.
So until the Sex Tape came out, most people in the U.S. wouldn’t have been able to distinguish between these:
That’s a problem when you’re trying to launch a career in the public eye, and when you’ve got a dodgy TV show premiering soon. So what do you do? You — and a friend who’s trying to get an amateur quasi-porn business of his own off the ground — produce a videotape that can’t itself be shown on TV, but that creates an enormous amount of publicity. It’s a masterful scheme: so far today, I’ve received over thirty e-mails trying to sell me a copy of the tape.
I’ve got no problem with any of this. As I said, I think it’s an absolutely brilliant PR gambit, not only in that it gets Paris Hilton an enormous amount of free publicity, but in that it does so without, ahem, actually exposing her to the public all that much. Paris Hilton herself as a celebrity product has a pretty short life: as I said, she’s not that interesting or good-looking. But Paris Hilton as the subject of an enigmatic porn video that can’t be shown on TV is enormously intriguing, and I predict success, at least in the short term, for the insipid TV show, premiering tonight, in which she has a starring role.
This isn’t what you’ll hear from the TV networks and the pulpier magazines, though (non-pulpy magazines choose, largely, not to notice Ms. Hilton at all). They’ve swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker, and, to the best of my knowledge, no one has suggested that they are all being played like a fiddle. I have to assume that this is because they have not noticed.
Posted by tino at 23:06 2.12.03
Monday 01 December 2003
Help Wanted: Editors
Help Wanted: Editors. Apply in person at The Washington Post Company, 1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC.
In today’s Washington Post, there’s a story about a lawyer in Luray, VA, who, in the course of what must have been a nasty divorce, has been prosecuted for criminal adultery of all things. That’s not my point, though. Deep in the story, we find this:
Are there no editors left at the Post? Does no one read this stuff before they print 700,000 copies of it and send it out on the trucks? It’s common when talking about certain things, to use commonplace things as units of measure: The burned area is the size of Rhode Island. Placed end-to-end, the hot dogs would circle the Earth twice. The floor space is equivalent to three football fields. And so on.
A similar practice is handy with money, though the comparisons are usually of the giggle-inducing variety. Bill Gates’ Microsoft stock right now is worth $31,440,446,795.72. That’s meaningless to most people (including, probably, Gates himself): but it’s easier to understand if you imagine it as 209,603 Ford GTs, or 324 copies of Bill’s own house, or 154 Boeing 777-300ERs, or copies of the non-Sunday Washington Post every non-Sunday day for almost the next 288 million years. Or maybe it’s not easier to understand that way.
In any case, describing $10 by analogy strikes me as not too different from describing a new football stadium by saying that the field is ‘about’ the size of a football field, or saying “Rhode Island is a very small state, no larger than Rhode Island.”
And this analogy is particularly stupid for other reasons, too: Starbucks famously sells nothing in a size they call ‘large’, and if you ask for a ‘large’ anything there, they’ll correct you. What a normal person would call ‘small’, Starbucks calls ‘tall’. Medium is ‘grande’, i.e. Italian for large, and Large is ‘Venti’, a trademarked term that’s just the Italian word for twenty: there are twenty ounces in a ‘Venti’ anything.
Should you, for some reason, find it necessary to describe for your readers just how much $10 is worth, you might say that it’s worth about as much as this:
which is a hell of a lot clearer, not to mention more accurate, than going on about some garbage from Starbucks.
Posted by tino at 12:19 1.12.03