Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Passion For Blogging is Tested

As it has been a while since I issued any general pronouncements on the state of society, economics, and so forth, I thought I should do something along those lines. But I can't seem to get my thoughts organized on this subject. Indeed, I have already been sucked into wasting two hours already. So rather than trying to craft a comprehensive yet still succinct overview of the contemporary situation, I will simply throw out a bunch of vaguely felt and unconnected ideas. Good?

I am curious about the future. I want to see what happens. Maybe this is a mistake. Obviously I do not anticipate most of the worst case scenarios, such as hunger, squalid third world type housing conditions, active political persecutions, etc, coming to pass, and if they do, most people generally try to live through them anyway, so it appears that hope perseveres even in the most inauspicious circumstances.

I do think fears of an extreme decline in the material standard of living are probably overblown. A certain amount of downscaling seems more likely, but it should not be a tremendous hardship to anyone who has a reasonable amount of personal human capital to draw on. Obviously the widespread fear is that most people--especially other people--do not have this. The markets, government policy and so on, it seems to me, will have to adjust to an increasingly aging population without much money. I know this does not suit some people's ideology or vision of the good life. It does not suit mine either, but that is the reality that faces us.

I cannot seriously believe that genuinely very smart and intellectually curious people who are not rich will be completely denied access to the world of education, learning and culture, as some are predicting. I agree that the current systems of mass formal education, both primary school and college, are probably not sustainable, and that on the surface it will appear that lots of intellectually qualified people will be shut out from opportunity, but in reality the standards for attaining diplomas and degrees in most places are currently so low that I can't see even a fairly strict tightening of access affecting the sort of people who show obvious promise and interest in academics, who are actually the people who write and are most worried about it.

Likewise while the era of cheap and easy air travel might be coming to an end, the idea that people will be trapped in their hometowns are their lives against their wills is exaggerated. There will be less mass tourism if this happens, which would be a positive development in my mind, and I have written elsewhere on this blog that flying into Istanbul for the weekend and being back at the office in New York Monday morning strikes me as rather tawdry. Much real travel (among the non-waelthy anyway) will be slower and require more time and perhaps a little more hardship, which would be a positive development overall. What is being lost is convenience and the ability to go abroad without disrupting substantially your job, your mortgage, your insurance payments and such like, which have nothing to do with travel, meaningful international understanding, or any of the rest of it. And yes, I do all this too, and I will probably be the type of person most limited in his mobility by these anticipated changes; but that is only a further advertisement for its desirability, is it not?
I think my inability to perceive things with fully adult accuracy, while a grave social and professional handicap, is probably my only defense against extreme pessimism and despair. I am able very easily to pretend and convince myself of all sorts of lies, and to be largely oblivious to enormous truths and facts about my life. Therefore nothing I say can really be trusted as having any meaning outside my imagined perception of the world.

I of course have no great issue with a European-style health care arrangement, though I agree that it is no great promoter of a nation's manhood, which is the best argument I have heard against it. However the ship for having a society centered upon clans of truly self-reliant and manly individuals and their dependents sailed a long time ago. More and more people as the years go can't pay the bills themselves and don't have anyone else willing to pay for them, so it is inevitable that this will have to be addressed, though even I have a nagging sense that a truly great nation does not expose itself to bankruptcy providing healthcare. I am confessedly not wealthy so unless the dreaded income tax increases are really huge I stand to be at less expense under socialism than under the current system of premiums and deductibles; however I must try not to let my personal convenience cloud my judgement regarding what some commentators on both sides of the argument believe to be a decision which will alter the fabric of the nation forever. As far as the health risk arguments go, these could take up a whole essay but in brief--the rhetoric doesn't frighten me much. People in continental Europe are clearly as healthy as Americans, and they even are treated for and recover from serious illnesses. I know the great case is made that our research hospitals and drug companies develop these new procedures and medicines that are exported and keep the death tolls artificially low in these socialist system, but this is missing the point. America does not have a crisis at its (very small) top end in most of the national life; it has enormous crises in its (rapidly expanding) bottom and lower middle segments which it is going to be impossible for the government to forestall addressing vigorously much longer.

But why do I even bother with all this when I'd much rather write yet another essay on The Third Man? I am infatuated with The Third Man currently. It will pass on in another week or so but right now it is my portal to escapism, even though people get killed and stuff and a large percentage takes place in a sewer. I realize that it brings three of my pet obsessions together in one place however: the fading grandeur of the Austrian Empire, the British literary tradition and the confident, ascendent America of the 1940s claiming its central position in the civilization of the West, or what remained of it, if you can't accept that Western civilization survived 1945, or even 1914.

Here are the opening credits and the first couple minutes of the movie, which are much better than watching the trailer.

Here is a little compilation of stills from the film and pictures of the stars, including Alidi Valli, of whom it can be said that the circumstance that one American in the movie was her lover and another less brilliant and worldly one perceived himself as able to associate with her as perhaps even more than friends tells more about middle-American confidence in the late 40s than a thousand social histories. There is also more great zither music.

The Third Man is one of Roger Ebert's two favorite movies (the other is Citizen Kane, which features several of the same stars). He elaborates on his enthusiasm here, though there isn't any tremendous insight in the review. Seeing it for the first time in Paris on a rainy afternoon probably did not hurt his positive associations with the film.

No cinematic giant has a stranger or more grotesque collection of footage on Youtube than Orson Welles; wine commercials, hosting Nostradamus documentaries, appearances on Laugh-In and afternoon talk shows in the 70s and 80s, drunken outtakes. Unlike a lot of people who always have to prove they're the smartest guy in the room, Orson Welles actually almost always is the smartest guy in the room, and usually by such a large degree that the older he got it is like he couldn't even be bothered to care anymore. Some of the interviews from the 60s where he is still interested, if slightly impatient, in trying to talk to people, are good watches.

I did see another good old movie lately, the 1952 international, though primarily French, production, Wages of Fear, which is about tough men trying to drive trucks of explosive nitroglycerine across 300 miles of Venezuelan mountain and brush for an American oil company. Long and slow-developing, but oddly compelling. The ethos is ur-existential. My would-be friend the Criterion blogger wrote another of his extensive and very insightful reviews of the film here (#36).

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