Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Good Luck, Peasants!

Two days ago I watched The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’albero degli zoccoli), Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 film which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival. The film depicts a year in the lives of four families occupying a farmstead in Lombardy at the end of the 19th century. Olmi, who died this past May, used ordinary people from the Bergamo area instead of professional actors. The amateurs acted anything but amateurishly, giving the film an aura of verisimilitude. 

The families (peasants, in fact) live in a state of semi-feudalism. As an English title board tells us: “Almost everything, even 2/3rds of the harvest, belongs to the landlord.” The Italian board specifies what some of the “everything” is: la casa (the house); le stalle (the stables); la terra (the land); gli alberi (the trees); and some of the bestiame (livestock) and attrezzi (tools). 

The film has the feel of a documentary, depicting the community plowing, planting, harvesting, and transporting large bags of produce to be weighed. The film is not plot driven; but the small stories of the folk are evident throughout. The first story (and the one from which the film gets its title) is that of Minec, the five-year-old son of Batistì, who has been identified by the local priest as a very bright boy and who, therefore, in the priest’s eyes, should be sent to school. Batistì himself, as he tells the priest, has never seen the inside of a school, and complains to his wife, “A peasant’s son going to school, what would people say?” Moreover, his wife is pregnant with their third child, and if Minec goes to school, the family will lose a helping hand around the house.

Nevertheless, the boy does go off to school, walking 6 kilometers each way to the village in his wooden clogs. 

Another resident of the farmstead is a widow with too many mouths to feed. Her only income comes from washing other people’s laundry and the little money her fifteen-year-old son earns from his new job at the mill. To alleviate the burden of her poverty, the priest tells her that the nuns would be willing to take the two youngest children into care. But the son absolutely vetoes the proposal; the family will stick together. 

The life these Bergamese peasants have is the life their ancestors had. They bear their lot and carry on. And no matter how little they have, they will hand a bowl of polenta to a beggar who shows up at their door.

But except for a handout or an occasional boost from the Church, these people have no social safety net. And no idea about acting together for social change. When a radical speaker proclaims his message from a soapbox at the village fair, he is mostly ignored. And as we see when the film for a while leaves the Bergamo area to follow the honeymoon visit of a newly-wed couple to Milan, the soldiers of the state are busily rounding up government opponents, who are led off to prison in shackles. 

Another time when the film moves away from the peasants we find the padrone (the landlord), on the other hand, living a comfortable life. We are able to view it—deliberately distanced from it—through a window. A young man (the padrone’s son?) plays Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” on the piano while his well-dressed audience dozes or exhibits boredom.

The denouement of the film (which I won’t reveal) comes about through the padrone’s exercise of his property rights. He will not be caught dozing when they are violated.


Yesterday, by contrast, I read an article about the egregious Koch brothers, billionaires with no social conscience. Written by Jane Mayer, a long-time tracker of the duo, the article* relates how elder bro, Charles, has eased his sib, David, out of the Koch family business. 

The Koch brothers, through various political action committees, have spent, are spending, and unfortunately for well-being of the Republic, will in future spend even more millions of dollars in an attempt to achieve their goal—what William Buckley, Jr.** once labeled “Anarcho-Totalitarianism.” The money has come from ownership of companies in just about every environmentally-destructive and polluting industry: "oil refineries and pipelines,  . . . lumber, paper, chemicals, coal, fertilizer.” 

Is it any wonder that they wish to destroy the EPA? 

In 1980, David ran for Vice-President on the Libertarian Party ticket. In addition to calling for the abolishment of the EPA, the party’s platform called for getting rid of "all federal income taxes and virtually every federal agency, including the I.R.S., the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the F.E.C., . . . the F.D.A., and the S.E.C. The party also opposed Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, public education, and minimum-wage and child-labor laws."

Welcome to 19th century Bergamo!


      ** I can’t believe I’m quoting Buckley approvingly!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Problems Solved

HG: Today on our blog we have the rare treat of an in-person interview with Herr Antwort Mann . . .

[Cough] AM: Herr Professor Doktor Antwort Mann . . .

HG: Er . . . sorry . . . Herr Professor Doktor Antwort Mann of the Institut für Alles Wissen in Fortzheim, Germany.

[Cough] AM: Pfortzheim!—mit ein puh.

HG: Er . . . sorry, again. Anyway, the Professor Doktor is here to offer scientific solutions to some of the troubling problems of our day.

AM: Dass ist korrekt.

HG: By the way, Herr Professor Doktor, how was your flight from Germany?

AM: Nicht gut! Economy Klasse, as you say auf Englisch, is the pits! I just now have been able to lower my knees from my eyebrows. Ah, but the hotel you booked me into—mit ein minibar mit Schnapps!

HG: That’s great about the hotel. But now let’s get to the issues at hand. First, a headline the other day on slate.com stated, “Goldman Sachs Warns That Rising Wages Could Cut Into Corporate Profits.”* Is that a serious problem? And, if so, what can be done about resolving it?

AM: Dass ist ein sehr serious problem! Especially if you are a Goldman Sachs partner! If the company keeps raising the wages of the workers, there will be less money for the partners to divide up for Christmas bonuses.

HG: But is there a solution?

AM: A solution there is definitely! Und really it doesn’t take a professor from the Institut für Alles Wissen to see it. What Goldman Sachs should do—is fire all its workers! Then all the profits go to the partners!

HG: I never thought of that.

AM: Maybe it does take a professor from Pfortzheim. 

HG: Moving on—our next problem has to do with children . . .

AM: Kinder, ja?

HG: Here in the US we have the problem of the children who have been taken away from their parents at the borders and transported far away from them.

AM: Ja?

HG: And even the problem of these children—as young as one year old—having to defend themselves in court.**

AM: You make ein Witz—a joke—nicht wahr?

HG: It’s very wahr—er, true.

AM: Gott in Himmel!

HG: Speaking of God, then there are all those evangelicals who are clamoring for the protection of the unborn—fetuses, that is—but seem to have no problem supporting a government that won’t promote breastfeeding.***

AM: Breastfeeding is gut; I favor it myself. . . . Vell, for the kinderproblem, here we can rely on the advice of the klassiker dramatist Sophocles. In his Tragödie Oedipus Rex, the chorus proclaims, “best it is never to be born.” 

HG: I don’t get it.

AM: You see, if the fetuses refuse to be born, they will never suffer the miseries of being separated from their parents, having to go to court, or having formula being forced upon them instead of mother’s milk—und  they will always be protected by the evangelicals and right-to-lifers. Alles is solved!

HG: I do perceive one flaw here, though—if the so-called right-to-lifers support the unborn, but totally neglect the born, shouldn’t they be called the “right-to-be-unborners”?

AM: Hmm. I vill haf to think about that on the flight home to Germany. By the vey, you couldn’t make it First Klasse this time, could you?


** The 1-year-old boy in a green button-up shirt drank milk from a bottle, played with a small purple ball that lit up when it hit the ground and occasionally asked for “agua.”
Then it was the child’s turn for his court appearance before a Phoenix immigration judge, who could hardly contain his unease with the situation during the portion of the hearing where he asks immigrant defendants whether they understand the proceedings.
“I’m embarrassed to ask it, because I don’t know who you would explain it to, unless you think that a 1-year-old could learn immigration law,” Judge John W. Richardson told the lawyer representing the 1-year-old boy.