The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje and Anthony Minghella, 1996
#4, 1996 Skandies

I don't have quite the same animus against this film that Elaine does. There were parts of it I found interesting. I can relate to her complaints, though. The interesting part doesn't come until two hours into the movie.

Before that, we get the movie version of a romance: strangers exchange smoldering glances, have a brief telegraphic conversation or two, then fuck in an entranceway or corridor somewhere, consumed by the urgency of it all. I say "the movie version" because even movies that seem to drag on forever, like this one, really only have at most about three hours to work with, which kind of forces them into an instant-coffee model of love. Sure, they can play with chronology to fit an entire lifetime into six reels, but they still can't capture a relationship growing over time the way a TV show or comic series can — audience time matters. And since I can't really relate to people who pair up without at least a few months of getting to know each other online first, movie love doesn't really work for me. (This movie takes the extra step of portraying the character who talks about how he's known his wife since she was three and how they've been best friends for years as a sad cuckold who turns psycho. Shared lifetime, schmared lifetime! Candles mean love!)

On to the interesting part. The title character of this film is a Hungarian count, László de Almásy, who's part of an international geography association that's been mapping the Egyptian desert. The members of this group are disgusted to find that their partnership has been doomed by their governments' preparations for World War II: "We didn't care about countries, did we? Brits, Arabs, Hungarians, Germans, none of that mattered, did it? It was something finer than that!" They go their separate ways, at which point the jealous cuckold attempts to kill Almásy by ramming him with his airplane. In the crash, his wife Katherine — Almásy's mistress — is badly hurt, and Almásy takes her to a cave and goes off to walk through the desert for three days to get help (much like the Neil Patrick Harris character in that TV movie I talked about a few weeks back). He makes it to a British base, where the soldiers take him prisoner as a foreign spy, dooming Katherine. Eventually he escapes and goes to retrieve Katherine's body the only way he can, by trading the expedition's maps to the Nazis in exchange for a plane that he can use to return to the cave. This ends up having grave consequences, not least for a Canadian spy who is captured and tortured thanks to the intelligence provided by those maps. But Almásy has no allegiance to Nazism — as noted, he doesn't give a shit about nations and their disputes. Katherine was all he cared about. He went to the British to get help for her and the British treated him as an enemy, so he went to the Germans.

When I was in high school Brian DiDonna and I wrote an editoral for the school paper encouraging a similar attitude: that nationalism is a toxic ideology, that we should think of ourselves as global citizens, etc. We had grown up during the Cold War, surrounded by jingoistic cretins who cheered on the idea of nuking Russia, and the world of John Lennon's "Imagine" seemed infinitely preferable: no countries, a brotherhood of man, etc. What the age of globalization has shown is that you can take this too far. A world living as one lacks sandboxing — the boundaries that keep problems confined to their source and allow different societal models to run at once. A tangent: California used to have the best public school system in the United States and the best public university system in the world. Both systems were free, funded by property taxes. In 1978, Proposition 13 slashed property taxes; as a result, the last time I checked California public schools ranked 48th out of 50, and the cost of attending the University of California, which was around $1800/year when I started there, has been doubled and redoubled so many times since that it's about to break the $20,000 mark. Why not just raise taxes again? Because Proposition 13 created a supermajority requirement that allows a small minority of state legislators to block tax increases, and they do so. The majority of these obstructionists come from four southern counties: Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego. Consider the results of Proposition 29, a cigarette tax on last week's primary ballot. Here in the Bay Area it passed by wide margins: 3 to 1 in San Francisco, 2 to 1 in Alameda, Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties, 3 to 2 elsewhere. Yet it wound up failing by 0.8% statewide due to lopsided margins the other way in Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties. It is stupid that these two ideologically distinct populations are grouped together in the same political unit. From Humboldt down to Monterey County, western California wants to be a high-tax, high-service society. The southeastern corner of the state wants low taxes and low services. The result has been an incoherent low-tax, high (but declining) service state, mired by design in a severe budget crisis. The rational solution would be for these populations, hundreds of miles apart, to be placed in separate sandboxes so each can be governed by the philosophy it prefers. That they're not is an accident of history: the entirety of California was admitted as a single state as a trick to keep slavery out of the southern half. This is no longer a huge concern, yet 162 years later the voters of Berkeley remain subject to a veto by those of Bakersfield.

Now consider the sovereign debt crises in Europe. Most of these are the product of an all too familiar story: banksters make wild gambles, pocket the profits when they win, then get bailed out by the taxpayers when they lose. The exception is Greece, in which corrupt governments spent far beyond the tax revenue they received from a corrupt populace, then colluded with investment banks such as Goldman Sachs to cover up the true state of the country's finances. The standard mechanism for recovery in such cases is to default on most debts and let the currency crash, which causes severe short-term hardship, but positions the country for recovery. It becomes an attractively cheap source of exports and destination for tourism, and as long as the fundamentals of its economy are strong — i.e., as long as there are people out there actually making things other than financial derivatives — before too long it is back on a track of solid growth. But Greece can't do this, because it doesn't have control over its currency. As long as it remains in the eurozone, it can't inflate its way out of trouble, and is stuck with no recourse but to accept bailout packages that have come attached to "austerity" measures so counterproductive that the debate is not over whether they are good or bad but rather over whether they are stupid or evil. E.g., if your goal is to revive the Greek economy such that it can repay the loans it would otherwise default on, how do you look at a 22% unemployment rate and decide that the solution is to slash jobs? Somehow the ideology has taken hold that any solution must include mass suffering because suffering — that is, other people's suffering — is inherently salutary. And given that all the empirical evidence shows that this belief is completely wrong, it's hard to understand how persistent it has been except that the people who hold it find it too appealing to let go of — they like watching other people suffer. They feel it serves them right.

What this has to do with The English Patient is this: however Greece got into this mess, its main problem now is that it is part of the eurozone. And it is not part of the eurozone because a bunch of olive farmers took to the streets to demand it. The European Union was dreamed up by elites. The cynical view is that they wanted to expand the part of the world they could exploit beyond their own little countries. The idealistic view is that, like my 15-year-old self, they hoped that unification might be a safeguard against the kinds of wars that had ravaged the continent in the 1910s and '40s. Either way, much of it comes down to the fact that these elites had more in common with each other than with their own people. Of course countries don't matter to Count László de Almásy — he spends all his time with British lords, German industrialists, and Egyptian princes, and virtually none with regular Hungarians. And much as his blithe internationalism has dire consequences for the victims of the Nazis, that of his modern counterparts has caused misery to spread far beyond the walls they've knocked down.

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