Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

October 30, 2013

The healthcare fiasco

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:33 am

Well the first reports on the effects of Obamacare are in and it’s not looking like the universal blessing promised. And that’s entirely aside from the software snafu.

According to some reports, more people are having their insurance carrier drop them than have been able to enroll in healthcare exchanges. Others are finding their premiums increasing by significant amounts.

It’s difficult to get hard numbers for this as yet and effects seem to be uneven. I walked into a liquor store the other day and talked to two middle-aged men behind the counter who were approximately the same age and I assume in the same state of health.

One told me nothing was changing for him so far. The other said he’d just gotten a notice stating his premiums would be increased 32 percent specifically because of Obamacare.

How did anybody not get this? To lower the cost for the old and infirm, and cover people with pre-existing conditions, the premiums HAVE TO be raised for people who are young and healthy, i.e. those who least need extensive coverage.

And since these are the people mostly likely to not buy insurance (unwise choice) or buy insurance only for catastrophic illness and accident with a high deductible (wise choice), then they must be forced to buy more insurance than they need, at a higher price than they want to pay.

And since the premiums for healthy young people starting out their careers in a depressed economy are likely far higher than the first year’s fine for not buying insurance… well it’s not hard to see what choice a lot of them will be making.

The system is likely to take a serious financial hit the first year, assuming they ever get it off the ground to begin with. The second year of operation is not likely to be much better unless they seriously hike the fines for non-compliance.

Way back when this thing was first formulated and the arguments were going back and forth about what Obamacare would or would not do, I asked the opinion of a recently retired insurance broker.

What he said was, “There were a lot of little things that needed to be fixed in the system. They didn’t need to scrap it entirely and start all over again.”

When I’ve brought that observation up lately I’ve gotten a lot of, “Oh but they didn’t, it won’t change a thing for most people.”

Well, it looks like that’s not going to be the case, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

Let’s go back to economics 101. When you have a demand for goods or services and assuming an inelastic demand, the only way to lower the price is to increase the supply.

Contrariwise, when the supply declines the price rises. And this is the important part, when government legally mandates lower prices you get shortages.

“Inelastic demand” is economist-talk for a demand that stays constant no matter what happens to the price. People are going to buy food regardless of how expensive it gets for example.

A lot of demand for medical care however is not inelastic. If the price rises people are far less likely to go see a doctor for the sniffles.

My father, a retired orthopedic surgeon, used to estimate that about 60 percent of his patients didn’t need to see him. They came in with ailments that were going to get better within a fairly short period of time no matter what he did.

Other physicians in family practice or internal medicine, fields that deal less with actual physical trauma, have told me as many as 90 percent of their patients just need to be made more comfortable while they get better by themselves.

You’d assume when a visit to the doctor gets expensive people would suck it up for minor illnesses, aches and pains. Unfortunately a lot of them turn instead to the emergency room option where the staff can neither turn them away nor effectively collect payment.

We could lower the cost of medical care by increasing the number of medical practitioners. But that might present problems if young people look at the cost of med school and decide the return isn’t worth it.

So what’s the answer?

I don’t know, but I don’t think this is it.

October 29, 2013

Hubble telescope discovers oldest galaxy

Filed under: Science — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:49 am

z8_GND_5296 is not what you call a real exciting name, but the reality is exciting enough.

Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and Keck Observatory in Hawaii have confirmed the galaxy with that unexciting moniker is the oldest and most distant in the universe found to date.

z8_GND_5296 formed within 700 million years after the Big Bang, making it about 95 percent of the age of the universe. It is about 13.1 billion light-years away, which means that we’re seeing it as it was 13.1 billion years ago when it was young and generating new stars at a furious rate.

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990. The idea for space-based telescopes has been around since at least 1923. The advantage of a space telescope versus ground-based astronomy is on Earth the atmosphere creates optical distortions we see as the twinkle in little stars, and absorbs much of the infrared and ultraviolet light.

After the Hubble was launched it was discovered its mirror had been ground incorrectly and it wouldn’t perform at the optimal level expected. It still preformed scientifically useful observations though, and in 1993 the first of four servicing missions conducted from the Space Shuttle repaired and upgraded the Hubble.

The things accomplished using the Hubble, though largely unheralded, are breathtaking. Because of the Hubble we now know the rate of expansion of the universe, a phenomenon first discovered by astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) for whom the telescope is named. And that’s only one of many breakthroughs in astrophysics that have come from Hubble observations.

The Hubble is expected to keep operating through at least 2014, maybe until 2020. Considering that Mars Exploration Rover, which landed on Mars on January 25, 2004, is still functioning under much greater environmental stress than the Hubble that’s probably not too much to hope for.

A successor the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is scheduled for launch in 2018. It will orbit far higher than the Hubble and benefit from all the advances in space hardware made since 1990. Given what the Hubble has accomplished, we can hardly imagine what will come from the JWST.

The Hubble’s cumulative costs were estimated at about $10 billion as of 2010. For the JWST they’re talking about $8 billion, but with the way the government works one might expect cost overruns.

Nevertheless I am reminded of something I once heard scientist and SciFi author Jerry Pournelle say at a presentation at Oklahoma University once.

Pournelle observed that when the government gives lots of money to social scientists and educators, very often the results are either nothing or downright counterproductive. You give money to scientists and engineers and though there may be massive waste – at least you get something for it.

I wonder if future generations will look back and think we lived in the most exciting time in history, and never noticed it.

Note: Cross posted from my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

October 28, 2013

Post shutdown game-changer

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:51 am

Well the government shutdown is over, and boy am I glad all that anarchy in the streets is over and we can start picking up the pieces of our ravaged civilization!

Well actually 83 percent of the government never shut down, and most everybody never really noticed anything was different, except for tourists wanting to visit national monuments. And as it turns out, the government actually spent more money shutting down things like unmanned open air monuments and parking spaces than it would have cost to simply let them stay open.

But nevertheless the government financial crisis is over, hoorah!

Well actually it’s not over, it’s postponed. For a few months. But our credit card limit has been raised yet again and who knows maybe something will turn up. Maybe we’ll win the lottery or something.

Obama rejected several Republican plans to fund the government that didn’t include Obamacare. Republicans didn’t stick to their guns on the point of delaying Obamacare. Like that was a surprise.

The shutdown itself wasn’t a surprise. Government has been “shut down” 80-odd times before in different administrations with minimal effect.

But this time Obama played hard ball, “So you want a shut down? Let’s shut it down!”

Tactically it was brilliant. The administration had unstaffed open air monuments barricaded and scenic turnoff parking lots closed with traffic cones. By the time the Republicans caved, their popularity was on par with the strep throat that’s been going around.

But something happened this time, something jaw-dropping. We saw veterans led by 90-year-old World War II vets storming the barricades of the World War II monument and tearing them down. Then for good measure they pushed through the ones around the Lincoln Memorial to one side and strolled in past cops in riot gear who didn’t dare lay a hand on them.

Understand something. It’s easy to get students to demonstrate, easy to turn the demonstration into a riot. You don’t really need a cause, just an excuse, young people are like that. When I was a kid I’d throw a rock at a tank. I knew for a fact I was immortal, and I strongly suspected I was invulnerable.

But when middle-aged middle-class people with jobs and families start to demonstrate, as in the TEA Party demonstrations that started a few years ago, something serious is happening.

However people with jobs don’t riot. In the wake of the TEA Party demonstrations there was literally nothing left behind. No litter, no property damage.

This speaks well of the demonstrators, but also made it easy to ignore them once they were gone. But only for a while.

I saw this in the late ‘90s when I was living in Belgrade during the nightly demonstrations against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. The first night I arrived I saw lots of young people, of course. They were making noise with a variety of home-made instruments such as pop bottles with coins, PVC pipe horns and plain old pots and pans during the “pandemonium half-hour” when the government news broadcast was on.

Then in the middle of this I saw an elegantly dressed lady with a fox fur stole walk up to a dumpster, take a small hammer out of her purse, and start pounding on the dumpster!

Then a little old woman dressed in the babushka style familiar in all the Slavic lands walked by with a bent-over shuffling gait banging on a metal pot with a spoon.

Weird!

Now inter-generational demonstrations have come to America.

What does it mean? I haven’t a clue. If I did, I’d be writing a book about it.

But I am sure of one thing. This is just the beginning of… something.

Note: This was cross-posted on my professional blog at the Marshall Independent.

October 21, 2013

Review: Captain Phillips

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:08 pm

Pirates! Cicero called them “Hostes humani generis,” “Enemies of all mankind.”

Pirates have been the scourge of the seas since ancient times. Julius Caesar was once the involuntary guest of a band of pirates.

America’s first foreign war was against the Barbary Pirates based in what is now Libya. The combined land and sea assault on the pirate capitol inspired the line of the Marine Corps Hymn, “…to the shores of Tripoli.”

Piracy on the high seas diminished when steamships became faster than sail-driven craft. Powered ships require refueling at friendly ports denied to pirates.

But piracy lingers in coastal areas where swift small boats can dart out from shore or operate from mother ships that appear to be fishing boats.

In 2009 the Maersk Alabama, under the command of Capt. Richard Phillips, was sailing out of Oman around the Horn of Africa bound for Mombasa, Kenya, with a varied cargo including a great deal of food aid for Africa. On April 8 the ship was boarded by Somali pirates operating out of the port city of Eyl. This marked the first seizure of an American flagged ship since the 19th century.

On April 12, Phillips was rescued by the U.S. Navy after Navy SEALs killed three pirates holding Phillips hostage on the ship’s lifeboat.

“Captain Phillips” is the story of the capture of the Maersk Alabama and the rescue of Phillips, played brilliantly by Tom Hanks.

Of interest to local audiences, the Somali pirates were played by actors recruited from the Somali community in the Twin Cities in an open casting call.
“Captain Phillips” is both a gripping real-life adventure story, and a character study of the difference between a civilized man and a barbarian.

The crew of the Maersk Alabama were civilian sailors, not military men. Though they had some anti-piracy training, they were hampered by maritime regulations that prevented them from carrying the minimal armament that could have repelled the pirates.

They must rely on fire hoses and what they can improvise. And improvise is what they do in the crisis, whether using their knowledge of the ship’s technology to cripple it in the water or scattering broken glass in a passageway to hinder barefoot pirates.

The crew are disciplined and used to taking orders. They have disputes, which ultimately resulted in a lawsuit filed by crew members against the shipping company alleging Phillips put them in danger.

But they settle their disputes according to maritime regulations, union rules and civil law. The captain does not stifle dissent, he listens to the men’s concerns. But ultimately the decisions are his and his alone.

The pirates are a band of brigands hastily put together on a beach.

The command authority of the pirate chief Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is tenuous at best. He and his crew spend a lot of time arguing and screaming at each other.

There is no discipline to speak of, except the rule of the strong and vicious. They are in an almost-constant state of panic. At one point Muse settles a dispute by killing a fellow-pirate with a pipe wrench.

The pirates handle firearms in a way anybody familiar with guns would regard as criminally reckless. They point them everywhere, fire them capriciously to get attention and beat captives with them. At one point Phillips asks a pirate using his rifle as a window breaker to please take the magazine out first.

There are so many cringe-making moments you expect an accidental discharge that it’s almost a relief when one happens.

This is contrasted with the fire discipline of the Navy SEALs who kill the pirates with one well-placed shot each, using thermal imaging scopes at night, firing from a ship at targets on a small boat tossed on the waves.

What is clear in the movie is that Phillips, though a captive at the mercy of the pirates is not helpless.

Phillips is an active participant in his own rescue. He prepares beforehand through drills and makes contingency plans. He is able to delay and confuse the pirates. He communicates with his men and the Navy under the noses of the pirates. And he keeps his head when they are losing theirs.

The pirates on the other hand seem driven by circumstances once their initial plan is thwarted. They have no contingency plans. Their ability to improvise is nil. They have no chain of command. Once Muse is lured off the lifeboat to negotiate there is no one capable of taking command.

“Captain Phillips” manages to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout, even though you know how it turns out.

Don’t miss it because you do know how it turns out. There’s a lot you didn’t know and a lot of food for thought.

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

October 15, 2013

The worst thing in the world

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 1:49 pm

“Ye tender arms, the same dear mould have ye
As his; how from the shoulder loose ye drop
And weak! And dear proud lips, so full of hope
And closed for ever! What false words ye said
At daybreak, when he crept into my bed,
Called me kind names, and promised: ‘Grandmother,
When thou art dead, I will cut close my hair
And lead out all the captains to ride by
Thy tomb.’ Why didst thou cheat me so? ‘Tis I,
Old, homeless, childless, that for thee must shed
Cold tears, so young, so miserably dead.”

-Hecuba, Queen of Troy, over the body of her murdered grandson.
“The Trojan Women” by Euripides

By now, everybody who pays attention to football and a great many people who don’t, know about the tragedy of Adrian Lewis Peterson, running back for the Minnesota Vikings.

Peterson’s two-year-old son died on Oct. 11, in a Sioux Falls hospital from head injuries. One Joseph Robert Patterson, 27, has been charged with aggravated battery of an infant and aggravated assault. Charges will most likely be upgraded after the death of the child.

Patterson, who was identified as the boyfriend of the child’s mother, reportedly has a criminal record for other assaults, including on his own biological child.

Peterson sent a Twitter message thanking all of his fans for their outpouring of support and the “fraternity of brothers” in the NFL.

“God bless everyone and thank u so much,” he wrote.

There isn’t anything I could find so far about the child’s mother, though evidently Peterson has never been married. He has a daughter Adela with his high school sweetheart.

ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols stated on the show E:60 that Peterson has at least two children. “At least” because the news reports have confirmed the dead child is not Adrian Peterson Jr. but another child whose name is “being withheld out of respect for the family and to give them time to make notification,” according to Sioux Falls police.

Having a child die is the worst thing in the world. Having a child murdered is the worst of the worst.

When the death of a child strikes close to me, I pray to a God I’m not always sure I believe in, “Lord, do anything else you like to me and I won’t complain. But please, not that. Anything but that.”

Which will make what I’m about to say sound utterly heartless.

Peterson describes his daughter as the most important thing in his life.

Guys, if your children are important to you, could you consider marrying their mothers?

Ladies, if you love your children could you devote a little thought to the importance of a father in their lives? I don’t mean a visiting baby daddy, I mean a guy who’s there 24/7.

And would everybody stop for a minute and consider some ugly facts we’re all too polite to talk about?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau as of 2009, there are approximately 13.7 single parents raising 21.8 million children in the U.S. That’s 26 percent of children under 21.

It’s a career-wrecking move to point out the figures are astronomically higher in some ethnic groups than others, but never fear WASPS are catching up.

Nor is it a phenomenon confined to the kind of people we see in Wallmart Internet jokes. Peterson is making a seven-figure salary and dates stunningly beautiful, classy-looking ladies.

The fact is, physical and sexual child abuse is ten times more likely to be committed by a live-in boyfriend than a biological father*, or even a respectably married step-father.

Rates of every social pathology you care to imagine: poor performance in school, crime, drug addiction, relationship problems later in life are so much higher among children raised in single-parent households.

This was my generation’s contribution to the American dream. We rejected stigmatizing unmarried mothers and illegitimate children, “shotgun weddings” and “staying together for the sake of the children.”

And this is what we got.

I am NOT condemning a lot of single parents doing a heroic job in a difficult situation. I am one of them, or at least I like to think I am. (The heroic part I mean.) But there’s not a one of us who doesn’t think it’s a rotten break for our kids.

I am NOT saying there aren’t some step-dads and moms out there doing one of the noblest jobs a human being can do, giving a chance at life to a child not their own.

I am NOT saying there aren’t intolerable or abusive marriages it is best for children to be out of.

I’m asking if anybody doubts we’re sitting on top of a demographic disaster that’s rumbling under our feet like a volcano about to blow?

There’s nothing, literally nothing that can be done about the present situation. You can’t undo a baby.

But you can try not to make the situation worse. Don’t make children you don’t intend to stick around for damn it!

*According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

UPDATE: The child’s name is Ty Doohen, the son of Ann “Ashley” Doohen. And Peterson by the latest reports didn’t even know the boy was his until called to his deathbed. Sweet.

October 13, 2013

Review: Gravity

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 2:21 pm

“Gravity” is only an hour-and-a-half long, has only two stars on screen, has more monolog than dialog and less of either than background music. It’s going to knock your socks off.

It was directed and o-written by Alfonso Cuarón who wanted to be a film director and an astronaut as a kid.

As the film opens Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist performing repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope while astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is skylarking around nearby in a jet pack, anticipating this will be his last mission and the end of his dream of beating the world spacewalk record.

Stone is obviously uncomfortable in space, she’s a specialist not an astronaut.

They get word there is a Kessler syndrome event triggered by the Russians blowing up one of their old satellites with a missile.

Kessler syndrome is a theory proposed by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978. If something as big as the International Space Station were smacked hard enough to break it up, it would trigger a catastrophic debris chain-reaction creating an orbiting debris field in near earth orbit which would make it impossible to launch space missions or satellites for decades.

Before they can get back to the shuttle and initiate reentry a cloud of space debris moving at meteoric speeds damages the shuttle, killing all inside and one other astronaut on spacewalk. All communications satellites are destroyed, cutting off contact with the earth.

They are the only survivors, and Stone’s oxygen is running out.

There ensues a desperate battle for survival while racing against the clock. The debris field sweeps by every 90 minutes.

They must first get to the International Space Station in space suits, then to the Chinese Space station Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) to try and find a reusable reentry vehicle.

“Gravity” is set in the near future when we again have a space shuttle. The Chinese have expanded Tiangong, now a one-room efficiency in space, to the ISS-sized station they have planned.

It reportedly languished in development hell for four years while the technology to film it came online. While filming Bullock had to spend nine to ten hours a day in a specially designed chamber hanging from wires in a spacesuit, communicating only through a headset.

It was worth it, and it’s going to be hard for her to top this. Bullock is so good it’s hard to believe they even considered anyone else for the role. She moves from panic, getting a grip, courage, resolution, despair, defiance, and joy in the space of minutes with utter conviction.

There are some technical quibbles. Evidently the Hubble is on a slightly different orbit from the ISS making getting from one to the other in a jet pack problematical. At one point Stone swaps space suits for one off the rack in the ISS. I understand each suit is a million dollar custom-made one-of-a-kind. But since we get to see Sandra Bullock floating weightless in shorts and a T-shirt I’m not going to complain.

Legendary astronaut “Buzz Aldrin” said the view of earth was a bit too sharp – but he loved the movie anyway.

You could say “Gravity” is an action thriller, where the protagonist goes from one hair-breadth escape to another, and you’d be right.

You could also say it’s a special effects movie, with spectacular scenery involving lots of stuff blowing up in weightlessness and the eerie silence of space, and you’d be right too.

It’s a wonderfully precise character development movie. Wisecracking Kowalski brings out everything, I mean everything you need to know about Stone in one short dialog. Stone was a mother once, whose little girl died in a freak playground accident. Since then, she hasn’t had a life, she has a job.

Heck it’s a lot of things. It’s “Men Against the Sea” in space. It’s a fictionalized “Apollo 13” (1995) on “Speed” (1994), complete with Ed Harris back in mission control.

But most of all it’s a story about courage, perseverance and fighting to live when it would be so easy just to curl up and die.

It is in fact about all the qualities we’ll need to take on the endless adventure that awaits us beyond the sky.

October 11, 2013

To end a life

Filed under: Op-eds,Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:12 am

“Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2

Next to a country road in rural Minnesota there is a memorial to a young teenage girl who died a suicide. It features her likeness and words of loving farewell from her kin.

I hate it with every fiber of my being.

My son is 12, my little girl is seven. When we first passed that memorial they of course wanted to know who the pretty girl is. And I had to tell them.

Then I had to tell them that death is final. That the young lady isn’t around to appreciate the lovely memorial.

There are studies of child suicides which found many children plan their own funerals, as if they expected to be there to enjoy them like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

There was a local suicide recently of a woman in her high thirties. She was in the words of people who knew her, “different” and had been tormented for it all through her childhood.

Most of us are not strangers to at least some amount of bullying when we were younger, children can be very cruel, but this evidently never stopped. She was actually on her way out of town when one last vicious prank pushed her over the edge.

We newspaper people are very, very wary of reporting suicides. Adult suicides may get a brief mention of cause of death, and even that gets us some flack. Child suicides are too hot to handle, we often just report them as a death. Period.

In cases like these though there is a tremendous urge to name and shame, drag the heartlessly cruel bullies into the light of day and let the world pour scorn upon them.

And then it occurred to me that this might actually encourage suicides if someone thought they could have posthumous revenge on their tormenters through an avenging media.

Maybe it’s best to grit our teeth and hope their conscience torments them. If they have one.

I have had two close encounters with suicide in my life.

Years ago I worked as an operator and lab tech at a sewage treatment plant. One day I came into work and found everyone sitting around with long faces. It turned out a colleague had hanged himself at the end of a three-day weekend.

If we’d known he was suicidal we might have worried that he was just too cheerful on his last day of work.

It seems his wife was cheating on him, openly, flagrantly and contemptuously. I think this was a sort of revenge to make her suffer.

Except it was his five-year son who found him.

She had the last word though, when she named her lover as an honorary pallbearer at the funeral.

A few years later the 30-year-old son of one of my oldest friends committed suicide at the home of his girlfriend. They were in a contentious relationship, but we really don’t know what motivated him to put the gun to his head that night.

You’re not supposed to do that when you’re 30!

And just this weekend I ran into a friend who is a pastor in a rural church. He had just presided over the funeral of a 27-year-old woman who’d also committed suicide.

He told me that of her entire graduating high school class, the size of which he didn’t know but couldn’t have been large, five were dead already. Some suicides, some traffic accidents.

What he said at her eulogy may have offended some people, may have hurt some.

But it needed to be said.

“I know we’re supposed to say we’re here to celebrate her life, not her death – but this sucks! This is not OK!”

October 2, 2013

Review: The Family

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:27 am

How many times has Robert DeNiro played a gangster?

We could refine that question. How many times has De Niro played a mafioso? As opposed to a Jewish gangster (“Once Upon a Time in America,” 1984), a half-Italian wiseguy (“Goodfellas,” 1990) or Al Capone (“The Untouchables,” 1987).
(Capone was Neapolitan, the mafia is a Sicilian thing.)

De Niro has played young Vito Corleone (“The Godfather Part II, 1974), Lorenzo Anello (“A Bronx Tale,” 1993) and Paul Vitti (“Analyze This,” 1999, “Analyze That,” 2002). The guy either got typecast early or there’s something about him that looks like a mafioso, although De Niro is in fact only part Italian, along with Irish, German, French and Dutch ancestry.

So how often has De Niro played a mafioso? Maybe once too many times.

“The Family” is a French movie directed by Luc Besson. Though made in English with a largely American cast, it has a certain je ne sais quois, a French sort of feel to it. I kind of liked it, but I kind of didn’t feel good about liking it.

De Niro plays mafioso Giovanni Manzoni, a.k.a. Fred Blake because he’s in the witness protection program with his family: wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Dianna Agron), son Warren (John D’Leo) and dog Malavita (title of the novel by Tonino Benacquista it’s based on).

As the film opens the family is relocating from the French Riviera to Normandy. It appears they have a problem being inconspicuous. This is brought home when De Niro unloads a body from the trunk and inters it in the garden of their new house.

Immediately and in spite of warnings by their FBI handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), Frank and Maggie start to use muscle on locals who disrespect them and their children have organized their own mini-mafia at school.

Frank puts a plumber in the hospital for trying to shake him down. Maggie burns down a grocery store after the proprietor and customers are really nasty and offensive to her. Belle beats a would-be high school rapist to a pulp. Warren does the same to the leader of the gang that beat him up the first day of school.

All of this falls in the category of black comedy wish fulfillment fantasy. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if you really could beat those high school bullies who made your life miserable to a pulp? And wouldn’t it be great if you could do it not just with brute force but with masterful planning that made them realize they’d messed with the wrong people?

Ever been cheated by a crooked businessman and been told the cost of the lawsuit would be greater than the sum you recovered? Ever have meaningful fantasies involving baseball bats?

Of course you have, everybody has.

That’s part of the appeal of “The Family,” the dream of obnoxious people getting their comeuppance.

Another part of the appeal is, the Manzoni/Blake family is loving and close. Fred loves Maggie, they both love their children, the family atmosphere is warm and affectionate.

Belle however, wants out of her life on the run and is saving herself for true love. So you know she’s bound for heartbreak.

Maggie is friends with the two FBI guys on stakeout across the street and brings them delicious Italian food. They in turn are indignant about the cad who breaks Belle’s heart.

Stansfield and Fred have a complex relationship. Fred calls Stansfield, “the guy who made my life living hell for six years.”
Nonetheless there’s an element of respect there.

Fred himself is discovering his voice as a writer, which would make any writer envious of the material he has to work with.

There are some very clever allusions to previous gangster films. Watch for the way Belle loses her innocence, the baseball bat and Fred being invited to discourse on “Goodfellas” at a meeting of the local film society.

But… the essence of black comedy is comeuppance. What happens to the victims is supposed to be at least a little deserved. The motives of the avenger at least a little sympathetic.

Black comedy ceases to be funny the moment an innocent is killed.

“Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) was another black comedy mafia film that was pretty amusing, until an innocent woman walks in on a hit and is shot dead by Kathleen Turner.

When the mob catches up with the Blake/Manzoni family due to a chain of incredible coincidences, there is a holocaust of innocents.
The family prevails and all is well – except for the carnage left behind.

There could be a subtle point in there Besson is making. Or it could just be the writer wrote himself into a corner he couldn’t write himself out of.

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

Powered by WordPress