The Golden Age of Film

In the midst of having read the news about the recent Golden Globe Awards and preparing for the upcoming Academy Awards, I watched this film on the life of the great director, Ingmar Bergman.

All this has brought me to a strong hypothesis that I would like to explore in this short essay. It is this: we had a golden age of film in roughly the decades of the 1950s to the early1970s. And, despite all the money and technological advantages that have since been brought to bear, we have slipped badly and find ourselves in an age of film that is mediocre and both thin and bloated compared to that of the golden age.

Though I have seen films in the last few decades that I admire, I will leave it to the reader to advocate for them against some of the films from the past that I will discuss. Some new films surely merit inclusion in a list of greats, but that some, I think, is very few. Further, I realize that the times and fashions of the day, most younger folks might argue, would lead to the view that more recent directors and their films are more compelling and relevant to the current generation. Plus, some will argue that the excellence that was achieved in film 50 years ago has shifted to other, more currently desirable video media today. I recognize and acknowledge all that. But as to artfulness and enduring power, I simply do not think even the best of today holds up to the best of the golden age.

My effort here is simply to look back at the golden age and identify ten of its many extraordinary directors, lay out a few of their films, and invite a counter-argument that would show convincingly that directors of, say, the last 25 years match up. Further, I will only look at foreign film directors because, while we have had great American directors, it is the rise in quality of films abroad during the golden age that is most notable and spectacular, and its fall that is most regrettable.

  1. Ingmar Bergman. I might try in another essay to make the case that there was no figure in 20th century arts who generally matched this giant. But that argument is for another day. Further, as with the other top directors, it would take 500,000 words, not 500, to properly consider their remarkable contribution. But, at least, think of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal in their treatment of life and death; Fanny and Alexander, on childhood, family, ghosts, and life; Persona and Cries and Whispers, on the psyche, emotions, faith, redemption; The Virgin Spring, on cruelty and evil on the most personal level; and The Magic Flute, on the simplicity of beauty, music, love.
  1. Akira Kurosawa was a true giant in film, perhaps matched by no one except Bergman. Think, among many of his great films, of Rashomon, that classic of crime and the uncertainty of truth; Ikiru, on the matter of loneliness and the desire for company and meaning at death; Ran, on epic battle; and The Seven Samurai.
  1. Federico Fellini. (As I think of Fellini, I wonder at my folly of getting into this game of comparing the giants.) Think of La Dolce Vita, on the moral rot and cynicism that began the current era; 8 1/2, on the mix of ego, creativity, fame, control in the artist; and Amarcord, as fantastic a tale on coming-of-age as there is.
  1. Francois Truffaut. Think of The 400 Blows, on hardship, poignancy, and reality in childhood; Jules and Jim, on the mystery of love; The Wild Child, on the primitive, with issues of nature/nurture.
  1. Yasujiro Ozu. Think of Floating Weeds, among others, on core truths of people and family.
  1. Vittorio De Sica. Think of The Bicycle Thief – dispassionate, realistic, poignant, heartbreaking account of people/family in hard times; and The Garden of the Finzi Contini, a lovely, haunting tale of fascism and its price in personal terms.
  1. Jacques Tati. (There should be a playful, deeply comedic director in the bunch.) Think of Playtime, a crazy, comic, always-timely account of the modern city.
  2. Kenji Mizoguchi. While I play too easily with the idea of “the best of the best,” I acknowledge the strength of the argument that Mizoguchi is the best. Think of Sansho Dayu, with the extraordinary imagery and composition in its account of family tragedy; and Ugetsu, a gentle, heartbreaking “ghost” story,” ethereal, mysterious.
  1. Jean-Luc Godard. For those who are forever into “cool,” here’s the true parent of cool. (Who needs the final two hours of a “cool movie” to be senseless violence, Quentin Tarantino? Sorry to break my own rule.) Think, among so many others, of Breathless, on the amorality, deconstruction/worship of Hollywood genres.
  1. Michelangelo Antonioni. Of so many of his remarkable films, think of The Eclipse, on the struggle between materialism and idealism.

Okay, there’s my list of the top ten directors of foreign films from the golden era. Keeping in mind that the criteria are artistry, the power of showing life’s truths, and enduring quality, I invite all comers to pick another era’s directors and beat it.

The 2015 College Football Season: Not Quite Saved By the Bell

Candidly, this would have been a nastier essay but for the surprisingly exciting game between Clemson and Alabama.

Notwithstanding a much better-than-expected championship game, college football this year was a tale of two seasons. The regular season was one of the best in memory. It is hard to remember a Saturday during the fall in which there weren’t multiple several exciting games.

There were so many fine games it’s not possible here to list and discuss even a fraction of the great action. But, just to bring a bit of it back to mind, recall: Ohio State-Michigan State, Michigan State-Michigan, Clemson-Notre Dame, Ole Miss-Alabama, Oklahoma-Tennessee, TCU-Texas Tech, Clemson-Florida State, and Stanford-Notre Dame.

As spectacular as the season was, the bowls were mostly a bust.

It began with the usual run of mostly horrible minor bowls. Mediocre teams, for the most part, playing mediocre football. Standards for the first week of post-season football are so low that teams with 5-7 records are invited.

It’s so bad that a bowl can attract virtually no fans and display poor football,  yet make enough money from sponsors from TV to go forward with these games. If there are enough viewers who are bored and desperate enough for bad football, I guess one can argue that satisfying them and the market is good enough. I don’t buy it. Making a little extra money by showing a few extra bad games during the holidays is simply setting a ridiculously low bar. Cut back on the minor bowls.

Next, the powers-that-be chose to produce the big semi-final games on New Year’s Eve. What? “Let’s take on a major national tradition and hope to make the folks adapt.” This was a boneheaded mistake that lost 1/4 of the audience for football and let fans who had other plans miss key games. Further, it didn’t help that the games were busts.

I realize that things move slowly in the world. But does it really have to take years to get to 8 teams in the playoffs? The authorities are lucky they haven’t had huge disasters in the selection process, with some very even teams getting in while others are out. Such disasters will likely happen one day unless the problem is fixed. As it is, we missed strong Stanford and Ohio State and got feckless Oklahoma and Michigan State. Although Alabama-Clemson was exciting, the play was such that either Ohio State or Stanford could easily have shown better. Shorten the season by a game, and create a better playoff regime.

As for New Year’s Day, without placing blame, one can only say it was the worst such day of football in memory. Indeed, except for the ridiculous, but incredibly exciting TCU-Oregon game that a few crazy souls stayed around to see, there wasn’t much of quality in any other of the remaining games.

It’s easy, I know, for sports fans to moan and groan. We do it all the time. We love college football, but the game’s big bosses need to make better decisions to keep and grow the love.

The Economic Value of Student Achievement Gains

I am absolutely fascinated by the recent publication of the working paper, “Economic Gains for U.S. States from Educational Reform.” The paper was authored by Eric A. Hanushek, Jens Ruhose, and Ludger Woessemann under the banner of the National Bureau of Economic Research. A summary of it can be found here: How to make the U.S 76 Trillion Richer.. An actual copy of the paper can be purchased online for a nominal fee.

Essentially, the paper shows that educational achievement strongly predicts economic growth across U.S. states. This is so, the authors show, because there is a strong relationship between growth in the states and the quality of the workforce. The paper consists mostly of an analysis of several models of how various amounts of improvement in the schools can  dramatically improve the workforce and, as a result, economic gains in our states and nation.

For example, the value of reform that would lift each state to the top-performing state would amount to an aggregate $76 trillion for the United States. This would obviously be an extraordinary contribution.

Even lesser levels of improvement, such as achieving a gain of 1/4 of a standard deviation on, say, 8th grade math performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), would generate huge long term growth. Here future increases in state GDP would have a present value of 2.6 times current GDP. For California, this would be a present value of more than $6 trillion; for New York, $3.5 trillion.

There are models that look as well at the substantial gains that would be garnered by improving all students to the basic level on the NAEP or improving state achievement to the level of the best state in the region.

We can better understand the meaning of this analysis by considering the actual trajectory of NAEP performance over the past 15 years. On the 8th grade NAEP, all students improved 10 points from 2000 to 2009. This amounts to the significant improvement of roughly a grade level. Black students improved by 17 points, or over a grade level and a half, over this period; and Hispanics improved by 13 points. At least broadly, these gains, which one sees mirrored in several of the states, represent the improvement that could make a real difference to economic growth.

Look at Texas, for example. Students in Texas had been improving on 8th grade math since the state initiated a system of accountability in the early 90s. Black and Hispanic students improved by a stunning 40 scale score points from 1990 to 2011. This is an improvement of almost 4 grade levels.

Hanushek and his fellows demonstrate in the working paper the remarkable economic effect of getting all students to basic or above on the NAEP. In Texas, the percent of Black students at basic or above in 8th grade math went up from 17% in 1990 to 71% in 2011. During that same period, the percent of Hispanic students at basic or above in 8th grade math went up from 29% to 76%. These are remarkable leaps, the sort the paper suggests could make a significant difference in later economic growth.

Yet, if we are to experience the significant economic growth the authors are discussing, there must be sustained improvement along the lines of the models presented in the paper. Here is the bad news: nationally, and in most states, there was no improvement at all in 8th grade math from 2009 to 2015. In Texas, Black students lost 10 points, roughly a grade level, just from 2011 to 2015, and Hispanic students lost 6 points.

Hanushek, et.al, show that there truly is a huge payoff IF we can better prepare our young people to make up a more qualified and productive workforce in the future. We were on that path during the 2000s, albeit with a lot of additional improvement to make. But, we have eased up. We have slowed down. We lost our commitment to being accountable and doing what it takes to have continuous improvement in student achievement at a high level.

This highly important paper shows that while some may be happy and less pressured in this new world of decreased accountability, we and our children will pay a huge price in lost growth for the stagnation that has replaced steady academic gains.

The real bottom line question is this: what is in us and our politics that causes us to be generally unaware of the tremendous and consequential truths in this paper, unwilling to do what it takes to reap these benefits for ourselves and our children, and, worst of all, actually choose a path that will lead us away from such gains and benefits?

Cultural De-Advance

During the holidays, I tend to reminisce.

One of my topics of focus in this holiday season has been to remember fondly the time I served during my law school years as chairman of the UT Cultural Entertainment Committee. Our committee would receive several dollars out of each “blanket tax” students would pay, mostly for the right to get to sporting events for free or at very reduced prices. With these proceeds plus minor charges we would assess, we would build and fund a series of performing arts and entertainment programs for the year.

We had a University administrator who staffed our work as well as faculty advisers who would share their views on artists they thought merited our attention. But the final decision-making was left to us.

I want to list some of the highlights of that 1972-1973 season. And then I want to pose a few questions that baffle me, and, through whatever means of social media you encounter this little essay, I would truly like to have your response to the questions.

Let me say in advance that I am confident that the costs of traveling and performing those many decades ago were substantially less than they are today. But, on the other hand, our budget, even in constant dollars, was pretty meager.

Here are the highlights of that season:

 

  1. Austin Symphony Orchestra, Aaron Copland conducting
  2. Edward Villella Dance Ensemble of the New York City Ballet
  3. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti conducting
  4. Harkness Ballet
  5. Alfred Brendel
  6. Julian Bream
  7. Harkness Ballet
  8. Sherrill Milnes
  9. Julliard String Quartet
  10. Evelyn Lear
  11. Pinchas Zuckerman
  12. Jean-Pierre Rampal with Robert Veyron-Lacroix
  13. Emlyn Williams as Dylan Thomas
  14. San Francisco Mime Troupe
  15. Marcel Marceau
  16. Godspell
  17. Poco
  18. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
  19. Billy Preston
  20. Fleetwood Mac
  21. Jazz Festival, featuring groups of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders, and Herbie Mann
  22. Roberta Flack
  23. Earl Scruggs Revue

Now, here are my questions: 1) How is it with all growth in population, “sophistication,” and the amazing new venues we have in Austin, Texas, that we do not each year bring this caliber of programming to our city today?; 2) Or, do you believe we do just fine and that my tastes are those of an old fuddy-duddy who just does not appreciate the wonders of the new “global style” or how today’s advances in the music scene are really all that matters?; 3) Or is it that the sorts of artists and groups who traveled way back then just do not do so any more, or that it is prohibitively expensive for them to do so on anything like the scale they did back then?

 

I am prepared to believe that the answer to any or all of these questions might, at least in part, be yes. But I hope that you’ll forgive me for thinking that we have not advanced as much culturally as we should have, given all the millions of dollars we have put into our new fancy facilities and the high esteem in which we hold our hot-shot selves and our city. Actually, my hypothesis is that, culturally, we have de-advanced.