Thursday, March 31, 2011

Argument By Snide Remark

Kevin Drum (pictured above) blogs for "Mother Jones," the venerable leftist rag that gave us "Pinto Madness" (1977).  Discussing the question of whether Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana, should run for the Republican presidential nominatiion, Drum writes:
But the usual question remains: how does he get through the primaries? When he hops over to Iowa, they'll expect him to denounce sharia law, make jokes about Obama's Kenyan birth, throw himself wholeheartedly into the culture wars, pretend that global warming is a liberal conspiracy, and make dire remarks about the specter of socialism taking over America. In other words, he'll have to act like a public clown, and if he doesn't do it, he'll lose. So it's pretty much a no-win scenario for him. If he's smart, he'll wait for 2016 and hope that the Republican Party has come to its senses by then. 
Noman doesn't take liberal advice to Republicans very seriously.  They already have their own party to ruin.  Offhand, Noman would reply that if Daniels believed as Drum did, that holding and espousing such beliefs are clownish, then Daniels probably wouldn't be fit to be the Republican Governor of Indiana, let alone President of the United States.  Moreover, on what grounds are any of these positions execrable?  Sneering aside, do liberals have anything to add to the public discourse?  Even a minute's consideration of Drum's list of topics that are supposedly beyond the pale of serious consideration indicates that you need to be a loon to peremptorily dismiss them, not to call for debate on them.

  • Sharia Law - What's not to denounce?  If he means to say that conservatives fear sharia law in the US, he's wrong.  Conservatives fear Islamic terrorism--and dissipation of the public's will to fight it attributable to political correctness and insane liberal sentiment that ignores, dismisses, minimizes, or justifies it.  

  • Obama's Kenyan Birth - Noman thought it was Indonesian.  Does Drum have information or evidence that the President himself, and the Governor of the State of Hawaii have not been able to produce?  Why should conservatives have to prove a negative when it should be so easy for liberals to prove the positive.  Perhaps lefties should perform the following thought experiment: Imagine that George Bush had been sired by a foreign revolutionary, and raised abroad in his youth.  Further imagine that he was unable to produce a US birth certificate in order to answer questions about his satisfaction of the Constitutional requirement.  Further imagine that his defenders attacked anyone who asked the question...

  • Culture Wars - Drum seems to think that people he disagrees with should just give up, or, barring that, shut up.  Noman sees the light.  What a wonderful world the sexual revolution has actually brought us.  In just 50 short years we've liberated the culture from the evils of stable marriages, commitment and promise keeping, safe wombs, masculine men, feminine women, moderate politics, modesty, self-control, disease free love-making, and joyful procreation.  Alarums by Churchmen and others about the "Culture of Death" are just manifestations of misogyny, homophobia, and medieval superstition.

  • Global Warming - What does this man make of the revelations at East Anglia, or of honestly verified data indicating that the planet has been cooling for decades?  Never mind.  The sky is falling; the sky is falling!  And the only 'correct' option is to immediately regulate procreation, shackle the free market, and forcibly redistribute wealth from developed to less developed nations.  Wait a minute. Weren't those the goals of the Soviet Union?

  • Socialism Taking Over America - Nah.  President Obama is for the free market.  He says so, and that settles it.  We can forget that the Government just took over the 16% of the economy that is health care; nationalized two of the big three automobile manufacturers; forayed through the balance sheets and capital structures of the nation's biggest banks; took possession of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which between them own or guarantee $5 trillion of mortgages; assumed greater control of the credit allocation process via the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and is treating carbon--what humans exhale--as a regulable toxic substance.  Also, ignore government's deficit spending, which is projected to exceed receipts by well over $1 trillion dollars every year for a decade, and longer; the public debt, which skyrocketed from $9 trillion to $14 trillion during Pelosi-Reid's four-year fantasy party on Capitol Hill; and Democratic insistence on raising taxes as the answer to every public ill.  Nothing to worry about hear.  Let's

    Noman says "three cheers for conservative clowns."  They're preferable to the alternative.  And may the Republican Party never come to its senses in the way Drum counsels.

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011

    Marco Rubio, and Common Sense

    Noman hopes that Marco Rubio is for real.  Ironically, his name means "Mark the blonde" in Spanish.  

    His Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, while light on substance, was right on sentiment.

    Noman imagines that he'll only be able to keep this promise if the vote is so lopsidedly in favor of raising it that he can afford the symbolic gesture.  

    The government spends roughly $100 billion per month in excess of its receipts.  Think about that.  Given the $1.3 trillion deficit that President Obama and the Democrats' government is running this year--and they're apparently willing to shut the government down for inability to find $60 billion they can cut--only a couple of months' leeway remain in the existing ceiling before it is reached.  

    Unless the scales fall off of every politician's eyes at the same time that they develop intestinal fortitude, the ceiling will be raised.

    But, Rubio is right to insist that individual and corporate tax rates be lowered to allow the private sector to reassume the economic protagonism that properly belongs to it, not DC; that costly regulations should be voted on by the people's representatives before being imposed on the citizenry by anonymous bureaucrats; and that future generations lower their expectations regarding entitlements--which, by the way, is one reason we couldn't afford yet another entitlement in Obamacare.  

    Noman appreciates and shares Rubio's evident piety towards America for what it is, and always has been, without the need for enlightened socialist reforms to spread the wealth.  You can tell that he, unlike Michelle Obama, has been proud of this country all his life and that he cherishes the opportunities it gave him and his immigrant parents.  

    Importantly, he proposes a workable compromise: "No changes should be made to Medicare and Social Security for people who are currently in the system, like my mother.  But people decades away from retirement, like me, must accept that reforms are necessary..."  

    That seems reasonable and prudent: more responsibility on the young who can prepare for the future; more deference to the aged who no longer can.

    He also proposes that we wind down, and cap, debt at 50% of the economy, and enshrine the principle of balanced budgets in a constitutional amendment.  These seem like advisable prophylactic measures given that the people will need to protect themselves from silver-tongued predators in the future as well as the present.

    Elizabeth Warren Redux

    Noman admits it.  Elizabeth Warren gives him the heebee-jeebees.   The very idea of a charm offensive offends his sensiblities for being so transparently phony, strategic and self-serving a concept.  Nevertheless, today she courted the US Chamber of Commerce in her continued drive for the Directorship of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a position to be filled by July 1st.  (See also "Will the Real Elizabeth Warren Please Stand Up" (3/15/11), and "For Lovers of Unchecked Power" (3/17/11))

    "Rules should be focused, and those that are not useful should be revised or eliminated."  Hear, hear!  But, can she be trusted?  Or will she be like Cass Sunstein, another legal academic who before being named President Obama's head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs co-wrote a book in behavioral economics entitled "Nudge," which argued for structuring social policy in a way to nudge people to "freely" choose what's in their best interest.  Putting aside the philosophical questions about what he means by "best interest," Noman notes that Sunstein (like Warren) is an influential advisor to this Administration, and has advised it in a way that leads Noman to believe that his book might more appropriately have been entitled "Bludgeon."  Given Sunstein's recent work concerning the manipulative use of psychology by fraudulent and deceptive means to achieve governmental purposes--by cognitively infiltrating online groups and websites--perhaps his next book will be entitled "Indoctrinate."  The point is, it doesn't matter what academic regulatory wannabes say while everyone is looking; it's what they say when only their insular communities are paying attention that counts. 

    The trouble for Warren is twofold. Part of it is particular to her.  She has spent her career advocating for the agency she currently "advises," and was instrumental in getting it created through the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill  (2010).  Her second problem is that this ill-considered law was hustled through Congress and signed by President Obama before the President's own Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission had issued its final report, while the Republicans were but an ineffectual minority, and while the nation was still shocked and reeling from the crisis, not to mention from the torrid pace of menacing legislative initiatives intended to seize the "opportunity" of the financial crisis, in Rahm Emmanuel's telling phrase.  Warren took advantage of crisis circumstances--that her brainchild, incidentally, would have done nothing to prevent, or resolve--while Republicans and the people were unable to stop the Democratic blitzkrieg in DC.  This behavior, while Democrats held unimpeded sway in the Capitol, does not inspire confidence in her charm offensive, or in what she says while on it.   Democrats exhibited brazen opportunism for two entire years, and bragged about it on television to like-minded reporters.  Elizabeth Warren is cut from the same cloth.  And, should conditions change to enable her to drop the show of empathy and understanding--should she be confirmed to the director position she so transparently craves, for instance--Noman doesn't doubt that she'll seize the opportunity once again to "advocate for consumers" according to her liberal lights, without giving a second thought to industry concerns, or even those of actual (as opposed to idealized) consumers. 

    Noman neither believes nor trusts her.  Fortunately, neither do a number of Senators who will be called upon to confirm her to the post should she be nominated.   Unfortunately, she can count on most of the media to run interference for her, and her party still controls the Senate.  One can only hope that the specter of the 2010 elections still haunts those Democrats up for reelection in 2012.

    Monday, March 28, 2011

    Saving Capitalism From Wall Street--And Washington

    In her introduction, Gelinas compares the market failures of 2008 with those of the 1930's.  Back then, Washington and the public understood that the calamity was "not a sudden outbreak of greed and immorality, but the systemic failure of financial capitalism to regulate itself."  Finance, she believes, threatens the free market itself if left completely unrestrained.  Prior to the Great Depression, financial firms lent freely to investors for the purpose of speculating in securities, thereby allowing short-term gyrations to distort the long term business of borrowing and lending.  "Infusing credit creation with excessive speculation...made the entire economy vulnerable to a financial crisis."  Since bankers had used the public's savings to engage in financial experimentation, they lost the trust of depositors, whose abandonment of neighborhood banks disintegrated the infrastructure of money and credit.

    FDR and his policy wonks set about to protect financiers from themselves, and to protect the economy by "building the consistent rules that free financial markets need to function effectively and support a free economy."  Among them were (1) mechanisms for bad banks to fail in an orderly fashion without imperiling the rest of the economy; (2) the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp (FDIC) to insure the public's deposits; (3) the separation of commercial from investment banking, which afforded deposit-taking banks some insulation from the gyrations of economic cycles; and (4) "clear, consistent limits on risk-taking in the securities business," such as limiting the percentage of a securities purchase that could be made on credit, and imposing an obligation to disclose information fully and fairly.  "Taken together, these regulatory reforms enabled the financial and business worlds to continue to innovate and take risks..."  

    This regulatory structure, Gelinas believes, started to decay in the 1980's.  First, the government bailed out Continental Illinois, a large commercial bank, in 1984.  It was deemed "too big to fail."  Consequently, all of its lenders, and big depositors--whose deposits far exceeded the FDIC's insurance limit--were made whole.  The consequence was that "uninsured lenders to big banks no longer worried that they would lose their investment...  As a result, financial innovations proceeded without the natural checks and balances of market forces."  Banks, which had purposely been insulated from disorderly failure, were now inadvertently insulated from market discipline as well.

    Secondly, the line drawn in the 1930's between the banking and securities industries was blurred by financial innovation, especially in the world of credit.  Long term debt, such as the home mortgage, was converted into tradable securities (securitization), once again exposing the vital business of credit creation "to short-term gyrations between optimism and pessimism."  Early warning signals regarding the conversion of long-term debt into tradable securities--such as the collapse of Drexel Burnham Lambert (junk bonds) and Askin Capital Management (mortgage backed secirities)--were dismissed as aberrations and addressed with one-off, extraordinary solutions.   

    Thirdly, derivatives were created to circumvent borrowing limits and disclosure requirements.  The combination of "unbridled derivatives creation and speculation on long-term credit" nearly enabled Long Term Capital Management to take down the financial system in 1998, and resulted in Enron's demise in 2001.

    For 25 years, "the financial world operated increasingly freely under a long-running illusion that elegant modern theories and technologies made the creation of nearly all manner of credit...perfectly safe."  Suffering under this delusion, financiers created mountains of debt, and persuaded ordinary Americans to depend more on borrowing.  This merely made them more vulnerable to a contraction in credit markets.  Bankers thus created danger out of safety (rather than vice-versa), turning even people's homes into risky bets.  Unsustainable price inflation came along with easy credit to buy homes.  The illusion created conditions for a collapse.

    Gelinas believes that because financial markets became too free, they destroyed themselves and damaged the economy.  The government was obliged by the specter of cascading failures among financial firms, and the economic damage they would cause, to force taxpayers to effectively assume all of the risk in the financial system.  The financial crisis was "the natural result of two and a half decades of decisions and non-decisions that made the financial regulatory system irrelevant."  She believes that the same regulatory philosophy that saved us from the Great Depression will save us from the Great Recession.  She counsels (1) that a suitable mechanism imposing losses on bondholders (lenders) as well as on stockholders be developed to permit financial firms to go out of business in an orderly fashion; (2) insulating "long-term borrowing and lending" from short-term excesses (presumably by reestablishing some separation between commercial and investment banking); (3) well-defined limits to borrowing for speculative purposes; and (4) extending the reach of disclosure requirements, to prevent financial markets from becoming too opaque.

    Gelinas writes that "consistent, predictable regulation of financial firms and markets is prerequisite for a free-market economy, not a barrier to it."  She believes that the government's new power over financial markets and credit extension--claimed by virtue of its extraordinary interventions during the crisis--poses a threat to the market economy.  Financiers cannot correctly judge the risks and rewards of extending credit if they implicitly understand that the government will save them from their poor decisions.  The distortion of market incentives, caused by a belief that the government will once again save the industry in the next crisis, harms "the private sector's free assumption of financial and economic risk."  Moreover, "the global perception that investors in America can expect fair treatment according to a predictable and consistent rule of law" has been damaged.  Arbitrary interventions such as those at General Motors and Chrysler, "upsetting precedents for treating creditors to bankrupt firms that date back centuries," fuel a perception that "personal contacts and political power matter more than laws and rules."

    Ordinary citizens have consistently defended free enterprise and opposed bailouts.  "Americans enjoy seeing success rewarded with great wealth--as long as they aren't forced to subsidize failure."  What they want is for the financial system to manage the process of credit allocation, and for the government to rationally regulate financial markets.  Unregulated financial capitalism caused the crisis, which could have been prevented.

    Sunday, March 27, 2011

    The Killers

    Everyone's got a weakness.  Noman's is Film Noir.  Say what you will about the hated "studio system" and dreaded "code," Hollywood made some great films--its greatest, in Noman's opinion--while laboring under those dual constraints on artistic license.  Actors had to act, not just emote, grunt or feign a knowledge of karate.  Writers had to be subtle and nuanced with their obsessions; directors had to be delicate and imaginative about portraying them.  The storyline and acting had to carry the movie in those days before the advent of dolby surround sound and computer generated effects.

    All this is by way of introduction to saying that Noman recently had the privilege of seeing "The Killers," a 1946 adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway short story, starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmund O'Brien, Sam Levene, and a host of bit players.  Lancaster is phenomenal as Ole Andersen, a meatball boxer driven out of the ring by a shattered right hand, and into a life of crime.  Ava Gardner is mesmerizing as Kitty Collins, as bad a screen vixen as you'll ever see.  As one online reviewer writes of the scene where they meet, "At about the three-minute mark, Ava sinks her hooks into Burt Lancaster.  And at the four-minute mark, as Ava sings, Lancaster's reaction shot says it all: this man is doomed."

    It's not a happy story, even though the bad guys get what's coming to them.  Film Noir never is; that's why its called "black."  But, it's a great who-done-it (or a why-done-it, more accurately, as you know from the beginning who did what).  The moral is clear, as it always is in this genre.  All that remains when the final credits roll is the interior resolution to stay away from double-crossing dames, big time operators, and crime--which never pays.  Oh, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing you've just watched great character acting.  Ole Andersen is one you feel bad for, even if he is stupid.  Kitty Collins, who is only on the screen for a quarter of the movie, is one you won't forget.

    Saturday, March 26, 2011

    After The Fall

    Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal, wrote  "After the Fall" in 2009, which Noman proposes to review over the coming weeks.  Though the Obama Administration hustled through financial reform (Dodd-Frank, 2010) while the citizenry was still panicked and pliable--indeed, before the release of its own Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's findings (January, 2011)--Gelinas's prescriptions for reasonable regulation according to well-tested principles should provide a useful scale with which to measure Congress's actions.

    Gelinas prefaces her book with a 1993 quote from Wendy Gramm, former Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) chairwoman: "The only reasons...why firms might underinvest to control risk are due to failures in government: Firms may believe that government will not let them fail under a Too Big to Fail Policy...or that the bankruptcy code may not impose sufficient penalties for failing."  Gelinas believes that government worked to create the financial crisis of '08 and the resulting recession by granting "freedom from the fear of failure" to financial firms over a 25-year period, beginning with President Ronald Reagan.  Because government adopted the view that some financial firms were "too big to fail," lenders to those firms no longer feared losing their investment.  Consequently, their actions--i.e., the amounts they were willing to lend, and at what rate--ceased to transmit "vital signals about the prospects for success or failure."

    Firms and bankers enjoying implicit government subsidization became reckless in their measurement of risk-taking, and in the creation of novel instruments that circumvented regulatory limits on borrowing and exposure, and sidestepped disclosure requirements.  It was one thing to let finance evolve while saying that markets could regulate themselves better than government could.  It was another to allow that same evolution to occur while short circuiting the ability of markets to perform their regulative function.  Washington's too-big-to-fail policy prevented the market from reigning in speculative and evolutionary excesses.  

    Financial firms liberated from market discipline lent profligately to consumers, and lavishly rewarded executives and high performers, thereby draining talent from other industries.  By 2007, the market had had enough, and in 2008 Washington was compelled to replace private risk takers in the economy with government capital in order to avert a depression precipitated by the freezing of money and credit markets.

    It is the function of the financial system to determine which people and businesses should have access to capital, and on what terms.  When lenders make mistakes by extending credit to failed institutions, they must take their losses.  That is the market discipline that regulates financial activity, and sends clear signals. 

    The Sound Of One Hand Clapping

    Republicans have gotten the message.  People are alarmed at the size of government, both in dollar terms and in the scope of its ambition.  They don't appreciate its priorities, or its ceaseless subsidizing of personal irresponsibility, opportunism, and dependence.  They are terrified by yawning deficits and Gibralter-sized debt.  They are menaced by the grasping fingers of bureaucrats and scheming politicians who clutch for ever-larger shares of personal wealth in order to pay for their grandiose designs, and lifestyles.  People are wising up to the government-employee-union-scam: government workers earn better than private-sector equivalents, work less, enjoy greater job security, have far superior benefits, boss common people around, retire earlier, and saddle taxpayers with unsustainable legacy costs.  Many are infuriated at Hollywood propaganda, and the culture's hyper-sensualized lures to turn left.  They at least don't want tax dollars funding only one side's message.  

    What Republicans don't seem to fathom, or at least lack the ability to articulate, is that the fiscal piece of their puzzle necessarily connects with a social piece.  It is necessary, but insufficient to say that we need to cut,  starve or repeal the abominations that reckless Democrats foist on the populace.  Democrats see a real problem.  Some people cannot take care of themselves, or get themselves out of intractable messes, and need to be helped, or even taken care of.  This group is the Democrats' mother's milk--or at least its invocation is.

    Republicans need to communicate that the country must have fewer, not more, people in this needy class, and that Democratic governance ordered towards expanding, rather than contracting, its size is not sustainable.  Republicans must champion the socially conservative notions that people have a duty to be responsible for themselves, their family members, their fellow parishioners, and the like, in concentric circles expanding outward from the human heart to its natural attachments.  (Democrats go the other way, from some mass phenomenon--real or imagined--inward to the pocketbook of unrelated people.)  Moreover, the government's role is to foster and strengthen intermediary institutions such as the nuclear family, extended family and the church--to honor the "subjectivity of society," in Pope John Paul II's memorable phrase--and not to foment their demise as it does under Democratic sway (e.g., marriage penalties in the tax code; single parenthood subsidized by welfare).  Republicans are the only ones with the moral authority to proclaim the message that economic (classical) liberalism dovetails naturally with social conservatism, given Democrat's devotion to collectivist illusions, cost- and wealth-spreading designs, and debilitating the intermediary associations between the "individual" and the state.

    The broader that Democrat's social welfare net expands, the greater the number of people who are snared by it, or resort to it, who choose dependency rather than responsibility for oneself and one's loved ones, because it pays better, and demands less.  This is the dynamic that is corrupting the country (and alarming its populace) from the inside out, person by person, eroded character by eroded character.

    These reflections are provoked by an article in today's WSJ foretelling of Republicans initial attempt to constrain the entitlement black hole swallowng the nation's economy.

    Republicans want to allow states more latitude on spending federal money (that is, federal taxpayer's money), permitting states to determine where it can best be spent.  In the sane world, this is called an application of the "principle of subsidiarity."  In the liberal political world, "this is yet another indication that a very significant part of the entitlement savings in the Ryan budget will come from severe cuts in health care for low- and moderate-income Americans."  That is not an argument that Republicans will ever win, as the terms undermine them: cost savings vs. care for the needy.  Can it be long before some prominent Churchman regurgitates this soundbite, thereby cloaking it in the mantle of Christian charity?  

    It is ironically Republicans' duty--sooner or later met--to propose the novel idea that people themselves, with their families, churches, neighborhood-associations and the like have the primary responsibility in making sure that the poor and low-income do not suffer from the federal government's transfer of initiative, and authority, back to the people, where they resided and belonged in the first place.  It is the people's responsibility to do this with their own money, of their own volition, without government coercion or confiscation.  If Republicans don't draw the necessary connection between economic liberalism and what goes by the name of social conservatism--adherence to faith, traditional family, personal responsibility, "self"-sufficiency (fully recognizing that the personal self is a social entity), cardinal virtues, respect for traditions and the past, love of country that manifests itself in ways other than criticism and reform agendas, etc--their message will make the sound of one hand clapping, and be only as effective as it is noisy.  The coupling of economic and social conservatism is more than a marriage of convenience contracted in order to win a few political contests.  It is the basis for an enduring philosophy of personal and political self-governance.

    Do I See What I Think I See?

    Noman was heartened by the interview that accompanies this article about Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-MN).  She's a stylish-50-something woman who would be lauded as brilliant, courageous, beautiful, and you-get-the-point if she were a lefty.  Unfortunately for her, but happily for the rest of us, she is a conservative firebrand who seems to think that the people want some hope and change--and action--from the responsible side of the political spectrum.  She has strongly identified herself with the "tea parties," and pays the usual price in liberal denunciations, caricatures, vitriol and abuse.  Bachmaphobia is not as pronounced as Palinoia, yet.  But, it's a good sign that it's as advanced as it is.

    Woman-ridicule is fair game for conservative XX's.  In fact, it's standard.  That's because the identity-politics-left has this crazy idea that being a woman has more to do with one's political ideology (leftist, of course) than it does with genetics or biology.  As Noman says, it's a good sign when the lefties start painting swastikas on your forehead.  It means that they've decided to call you names instead of engage in debate with your ideas.

    What Noman liked about the interview was Bachmann's ability to turn the interviewer's questions in her direction, to her terms and premises.  She's been around the political block in DC, something that Sarah Palin hasn't.  This woman is convinced of the rightness of her cause, and the wrong-headedness of left-wing governance, and Noman wonders if she'll be on the Republican ticket in 2012.  She's ambitious, has guts, and convictions that resonate with beleaguered taxpayers and people who think that family and church, rather than the government, are the solution to people's problems.   She knows what to expect from the other side because she's seen them in action, and crossed swords with their "best," e.g., Nancy Pelosi.  She seems to be poised, capable and venturesome.  What's not to like?  Bachmann-and-whoever, or vice-versa, in 2012.

    Thursday, March 24, 2011

    A Miracle in Hollywood

    A few years back, Dan Brown's feminist fantasy, the DaVinci Code, was the talk of the globe for its depiction of sacred women, and Catholic bogeymen personified by Silas the murdering monk from a nefarious, woman-hating, history-occulting, enemies-list-keeping, right-wing organization called Opus Dei.  Noman recalls wishing that such bigotry wouldn't resonate so with the public, that the "who-done-it" as a genre would someday experience a renaissance, and that somebody would make a movie about the real organization just to set the record straight.  Little did he know, or believe it possible, that within the decade that movie would be made, and by someone that wasn't a Catholic, or a believer.

    The soon-to-be-released "There Be Dragons" is the creation of Roland Joffe, a twice academy-award-nominated director for "The Killing Fields" (1984), and "The Mission" (1986).  Not to be overlooked are the investors who put up $40 million to make this commercial production possible, and Samuel Goldwyn films, which bought the rights to it.  The story portrays events surrounding the founder, and founding, of Opus Dei.

    Joffe is generally no friend of traditional Catholicism--though that seems to have changed somewhat through his study of St. Josemaria Escriva (played by Charlie Cox) in preparation for this film--as evidenced by his panegyric to liberation theology in the second half of "The Mission."  His movies nevertheless explore spiritual themes, especially those of conversion and forgiveness.  In "The Killing Fields," it is a NY Times reporter who seeks the forgiveness of a Cambodian friend who escapes the nightmare of that country many years after the reporter has deserted him there.  In "The Mission," the first half of the movie is a beautiful story of conversion and forgiveness for Robert De Niro's character, a hardened trader of slaves in South America.  In "There Be Dragons," the conversions and forgiveness are those of Manolo Torres (played by Wes Bentley) and his estranged son Roberto (played by Dougray Scott), as well as those of St. Josemaria's followers who are angry and vengeful at the atrocities committed by supporters of the anti-clerical Republic.

    Noman had the privilege of attending a pre-release screening of the movie this evening, and thinks it will go a long way towards raising the estimation of Opus Dei, Catholicism, the priesthood, and sanctity in the eyes of the movie-going public.  Opus Dei exists to foster the search for holiness and apostolate in the everyday circumstances of ordinary life and daily work.  The movie underscores its lay nature (it is not monkish), the universality of the call to holiness, and the liberty of conscience in political matters enjoyed by members.  It portrays the founder in an appealing light, which, whether or not it draws people to the organization, will undoubtedly draw people to Christ.  That was St. Josemaria's point, though Dan Brown didn't get it.

    The storyline generally follows the divergent paths of two boyhood friends, Josemaria and Manolo.  One chooses the paths of faith, hope and love; the other chooses skepticism, cynicism and isolation.  Not surprisingly, the first discovers meaning and strength, while the other encounters hardness of heart and estrangement, mostly from life.  The context for this drama is the Spanish Civil War, a difficult subject precisely for the brother-against-brother bitterness of the conflict, and the tendency of both sides to slide into barbarism.  The movie captures those warts, and also fairly depicts a saint who by all accounts tried to rise above the conflict to be a sower of peace, despite the imminent danger he was often in.  Finally, the movie entails a love story that diverges from the Hollywood standard, as well as Josemaria's love story, which diverges even more.

    Does Manolo eventually find peace?  Does he reconcile with his son?  Do he and Josemaria reunite?  The reader will have to see for him- or herself.  The movie debuts in Spain on March 25th (The Feast of the Annunciation), and in the US on May 6th.

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    Elizabeth Taylor R.I.P.

    If there was a better and more beautiful actress in her prime than Elizabeth Taylor Noman never saw her.  In the 1960's when Noman was growing up she was already living on her reputation as a beauty, more than being the beauty she was just a decade earlier.  She was starting to have weight problems, and was somewhat of a laughing stock with all of her husbands, and the seemingly endless succession of breakups and reconciliations with Richard Burton.

    But, there was no laughing at her acting ability.  This being the age of accessible celluloid moments--what with DVDs, Netflix, TCM and YouTube--Noman was able to discover what all of the hubbub was about.  Two movies capture the phenomenon of Liz Taylor for him, both with Montgomery Clift: "A Place in the Sun" (1951) and "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959).  In the first, she plays a socialite in full bloom that falls in love with an ill-fated loner.  Though co-stars Clift and Shelley Winter are magnificent, there is no taking one's eyes off of Taylor whenever she's on the screen.

    She was equally captivating in Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly, Last Summer" as Catherine, the niece of a deranged Katherine Hepburn, and cousin of a man with a secret.  Though whoever posted this video had fun taking liberties with the scenes, it captures the power of her performance.

    One has to mention her performance as Maggie the Cat in another Tennessee Williams drama "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."  She's quite a woman.  And, the movie features one of Noman's favorite Paul Newman performances.

    Liz aged ungracefully.  And, who can forget John Belushi's memorable skewering of her as Senator John Warner's wife on Saturday Night Live.  But, Noman will remember her beautiful face, her smoldering screen presence, and her powerful acting performances.  She was a great one.  Liz Taylor (1932-2011), R.I.P.

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    In Praise of Barry Bonds

    Noman writes on this subject as a fan, not as a moralist.  Respecting the latter, the chances of Barry's not knowing he was using steroids is likely nil.  By all accounts, he can be a wretched human being.  (By some, he can be a prince among men, when he wants to be.)  On the other hand, the prosecution is creepy, obsessed, jails uncooperative witnesses in a matter as trivial in the grand scheme of things as professional sports, and uses Bonds' scorned mistress to make him look bad.  It abuses the law by trampling it underfoot in attempts to prosecute Bonds no less than he did by prevaricating to a grant jury about a substance not banned at the time by baseball.  By the way, as all of the players who testified in confidence discovered to their chagrin, their "confidential" testimonies were less secure than a PC without virus protection.  That was the real scandal, not that Barry Bonds foolishly dodged questions to protect his targeted legacy.  Moreover, Barry Bonds is a baseball player, not the President of the United States.  The public didn't count on his character and veracity other than to know that he wasn't throwing games, and always gave it his best effort.  No one can question that Barry Bonds did everything he could to be the greatest player he could be--just what every fan wants.  And, boy, was he great!

    As the point of this travesty of justice is to discredit Bonds' playing career and records, Noman wishes to say that Barry Bonds was the greatest player he ever saw.  (And, Noman grew up idolizing Willie Mays, a demigod of the sport when baseball was king.)  It wasn't just the home run records, or even predominantly them.  From the beginning of his career, Bonds' sense of timing and flair for the dramatic was uncanny--the playoffs excepted, until 2002.  From the time he came to the San Francisco Giants in 1993, he never ceased to amaze with his batting eye, his base running, his gold-glove defense and, of course, his big bat.  Noman has never seen an athlete rise to the occasion more predictably than he, with the exception of Joe Montana.  By 1998, when Barry allegedly began taking steroids to recover from an injury, he was already a hall of fame player.  In an era when many of (if not all) the big stars were on steroids, including the pitchers he faced, he stood head and shoulders above the rest.  The respect opposing managers showed him was nonpareil.  He was walked hundreds of times per year, saw three pitches to hit per game and still managed to crush them.  He was walked in the playoffs with men on first and second--an unprecedented concession to a batter's preeminence.  After breaking the single-season home run record in 2001, he changed his game to hit for average, winning batting titles in 2002 and 2004.  Noman won't rehearse Bonds' incredible list of accomplishments and honors.  He just wishes to reiterate that Barry Bonds was the greatest ballplayer he ever saw, and was perhaps the greatest to ever play the game.  It was a thrill to root for him.  And, it is appalling to watch Inspector Javert run him down.