The revised report includes new information on “rated capacity” in U.S. jails, a measure of how many inmates can be held at one time. Astonishingly, after first being measured in 1982, this figure went up every single year for the next four decades. The break in the trend finally came in 2013, when national jail capacity fell by about 5,000 beds. Numerically, this is a small change, but after 40 years of unbroken increases, it’s a bellwether.
These national statistics resonate with recent on-the-ground reporting on counties and cities that are trying to sell off jails that they can no longer fill with inmates. Some localities are looking to sell off entire jail facilities, but I’d rather they use them to reduce their prison population. States could be pay counties and cities to take less dangerous prisoners into local facilities closer to their families. On the front end, empty jail cells are ideal for implementing swift, certain and fair community supervision programs that can serve as an alternative to being sent to prison for offenders with drug and alcohol problems.
The New York Times has a story about whether Bill Clinton fared better than Obama in an equally- if not more - polarized environment. Is this claim completely ridiculous? Obama has certainly dealt with some challenging political conditions, but as Clinton and various others in the Times piece point out, the forty-second president was impeached and accused of murder. How does this compare to the political environment in which Obama operates? How can we compare the achievements of the two presidents, in light of their distinct circumstances? And are their circumstances different points on the same spectrum, or are they qualitatively different?
Let’s turn first to the question of achievements. The Times piece doesn’t mention this, but Obama was able to achieve several of the signature items that eluded Clinton during this first two years in office. That is to say, both presidents began their terms in environments that were a bit hostile and more than a bit polarized - but with unified government. Clinton struck out on health care reform, “gays in the military” (a phrasing that now seems beyond clunky), and economic stimulus. Obama, at various points and to varying degrees, saw the passage of important legislation on all three.
After the 1994 midterms, however, Clinton worked with the Republican Congress to achieve another one of his promises: to end welfare as we know it. At various points in his presidency, Clinton also backed “tough on crime” policies, and efforts to manage “indecency” on TV - all issues typically owned by conservatives.
Broadly speaking, one lesson we can take away is that Obama did better with unified government, while Clinton’s experience of divided government, while marred by impeachment, also featured some significant legislation.
There are a number of possible reasons for this. Obama’s main political image is that of a liberal, Northern Democrat, while Clinton’s political identity was firmly rooted in the centrist, and Southern, tradition of the Democratic Leadership Council. The two also met different kinds of Democratic majorities in Congress. Obama’s was a newly energized majority; Clinton’s a bit sleepy after a nearly 40 uninterrupted years of control in the House, and only a six-year interruption in the Senate during the Reagan years. Finally, as I’ve indicated in previousposts, timing is everything. The 2008 election presented a clear choice on economic, foreign policy, and social issues (or so we thought; some of these differences have been more apparent than others). The 1992 election, though delivering a rejection for the incumbent Bush administration, was in large part a contest among competing visions of centrism. Although Clinton defeated an incumbent, the sense of a demand for change in policy direction was arguably more clear in 2009.
Substantial evidence suggests that Obama operates in a much more hostile and divided environment than Clinton did, even after the 1994 elections. Congressional polarization has increased. The presidential approval gap has expanded. Right-wing media has proliferated. Some new research that Amber Wichowsky, Jordyn Cziep, and I presented at APSA also suggests that the language used by the Speaker of the House (in floor speeches and other contexts) has become more sharply polarized over time - more negative toward the president and the other party, more negative about the idea of compromise. So if we are going to measure polarization spatially, or in terms of a continuum, Obama’s presidency is pretty clearly more polarized.
The more difficult question is whether the two presidents’ difficulties are comparable. Clinton was more literally threatened with removal from office - it may happen yet, but Obama hasn’t been impeached and the House seems to have lost momentum for its lawsuit.
Clinton suffered from some major early political setbacks. Even before the health care debacle, he began his first term with low approval ratings and a shaky claim to electoral legitimacy. Although the margin was decisive, the 1992 election brought Clinton to office with only 43% of the vote, and in some circles Clinton was perceived as having won only because Perot “stole” votes that would have otherwise gone to George H.W. Bush.
Obama won the largest share of the popular vote of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, and enjoyed high initial approval. But even before the election, Obama’s legitimacy was contested in terms of his religion, race, and background. The most significant of these challenges, of course was the so-called “Birther Movement,” whose core claim was that Obama had not been born in Hawaii as he said, but instead in Kenya, rendering him ineligible to serve as president.
Clinton was the subject of jokes about his class and Southern background, as well as sexist jabs at then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, there’s a case to be made that the kinds of insults directed at Obama are qualitatively different from much of what previous presidents in general, and Clinton in particular, have had to endure. These attacks get at Obama’s honesty - something familiar to Clinton and to other politicians too - but also at the most basic aspects of his identity: his name, his heritage, and the color of his skin.
The discourse surrounding the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency has tapped into broader political conflicts. Racial, religious, and ethnic attacks say a lot about the people launching them, and they bring people who might not have otherwise been as personally invested into the argument. In this sense, the political implications of the Obama presidency have been a lot different from the Clinton presidency. The nature of polarization in the Obama presidency is evidence of a long-dormant, unfinished conversation in American politics about race.
Despite this important qualitative difference, the fact remains that we are having this conversation about the last two Democratic presidents. Reagan and both Bushes dealt with some of the factors inherent to an age of polarization. But were the legitimacy questions the same? They were certainly present to some extent. We saw bumper stickers about “a village in Texas missing its idiot” and declaring “he’s not my president.” But a serious impeachment movement never took off. Bush’s right to be in office - despite the complications of the 2000 election - was rarely questioned; he certainly never had to produce any additional documentation establishing his right to be in office.
Like Clinton before him, Obama has had a rocky and rancorous presidency. The Bush presidency, too, was marked by intense polarization and debate, and the formation of a clear opposition. But there were far fewer protests against his right to hold office. When we ask who had it worse, Clinton or Obama, the premise of the question may be as revealing as the answers. Have the deepest legitimacy challenges been aimed at recent Democratic presidents, while their Republican counterparts have been spared?
So the House Republicans never got around to filing the lawsuit against the president that they were all worked up about a few months ago (a bunch of people noticed; I recommend Kevin Drum’s look at it).
Rather than try to speculate on why not, I’ll just present a special House version of my occasional look at things that haven’t happened or been in the news, which in turn tells us something important. These aren’t minor items they didn’t happen to get around to. This is basically the Republican agenda over the last several years. So before anyone gets caught up in taking seriously their new claims of what they’re going to do in the future, a little bit of dogs not barking:
1. The House didn’t file the lawsuit against Barack Obama.
2. The House didn’t take up several different “piece by piece” immigration bills.
3. The House never considered tax reform. No bill was considered in committee, or even introduced. They did get all the way to the hearing stage on that one.
4. And the granddaddy of them all, no matter how many times they promise it’s going to happen any month now, the House Republicans still have no “replace” plan for their pledged repeal-and-replace approach to Obamacare. No bill, not even real hearings to talk about drafting a bill.
Coverage of the Pew Research Center’s latest study has emphasized the finding that news consumption has become more polarized, each of us preferring All the News that Fits Our Worldview.
But to me the most interesting finding was different: the deep alienation of conservatives from mainstream media and “journalism.”
Get this: among the 36 outlets they studied, there was only one - The Wall Street Journal - that had positive levels of trust among both consistently liberal and consistently conservative Americans.
This was not because of ideological polarization (liberals trust plenty of outlets). It is because conservatives trust so few. Not surprisingly, they mistrust MSNBC and Mother Jones. But they also mistrust ABC News, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. Hell, they even discount Bloomberg, USA Today, PBS and Yahoo News.
Indeed, among the eight news sources they trusted, only one (The Wall Street Journal) can really even be described as a neutral journalistic organization. The others are proudly ideological: The Sean Hannity Show, Breitbart, Drudge, The Glenn Beck Program, The Rush Limbaugh Show and Fox News. And one suspects that the toleration of the Wall Street Journal results from the famously conservative editorial page not because of the journalism, which is high quality but ideologically indistinguishable from the New York Times.
Conservative activists have, of course, railed against the “liberal media” for years, but it’s jarring to see the extent to which American conservatives have abandoned traditional journalistic sources.
How did this happen?
Part of the answer is Fox News itself. When it launched, Fox did not market itself as a conservative news organization. Rather it was “fair and balanced”, while everyone else was biased. Viewers want to think of themselves as fair minded and Fox obliges by explaining (over and over) that they are the neutral ones while the rest of the media has been corrupted by ideology.
Is there any truth to the claims of media bias? At the heart of the argument is the observation that most reporters are liberal. When I worked at newsmagazines, I would look around at my peers and think, yes, more of them are probably liberal than conservative. When I was national editor of US News I even engaged in what I called “conservative affirmative action,” hiring a couple of talented conservative writers (Michael Gerson and Major Garrett) to provide greater diversity of sourcing and perspectives.
Conservatives then go on to say that this numerical superiority of liberals creates bias against their worldview. Again there’s a grain of truth, especially as it relates to the topics pursued. Reporters are genuinely more interested in, say, the plight of the poor than the plight of the small businessman burdened by regulations. One reason I started a website devoted to religion in 1999 (Beliefnet) was my sense that often-secular, urban editors gave short-shrift to matters of faith.
But where the conservative critique, in my experience, goes off the rails is in exaggerating the significance of those tendencies and misunderstanding the far more powerful institutional and commercial biases that actually shape mainstream media.
Indeed, to a professional journalist, the idea that our ideological proclivities drive our coverage is actually a non-sequitur. It’s somewhat like saying a conservative surgeon would only operate on Republican patients or a liberal mailman would only deliver to homes with Obama signs. On some level, the conservative critique assumes that there’s no such thing as journalism as a profession, bound by a certain code of ethics, reinforced by a professional culture.
What are the more important professional pressures, mores or biases?
We all have our list. In my experience, there tends to be a bias toward contrarianism among reporters and toward establishmentarianism and centrism among media executives. The general tendency of reporters to be skeptical of “the powerful” may sometimes tip them against the wealthy but more often it makes them antagonistic to whoever holds office. (When I was at Newsweek, the contempt for the Clintons was intense). At the same time, reporters are human and fall victim to the same adoration of winners as anyone else. I hate to admit it but, at Beliefnet, we named George W. Bush Most Inspiring Man of the Year when he was popular and piled on the criticism once he became unpopular.
Most important, there is a “bias” toward career advancement, which invariably creates the drive to get scoops or drive traffic. That pushes the relentless quest for drama and pizzazz, rarely with an ideological motivation.
Less cynically, what I mostly have heard during my career is a quaint, old-fashioned commitment to accuracy and fairness. I can remember one or two discussions about holding a story because it would hurt a favored person or cause. But I’ve heard countless conversations about whether something was true or fair.
In fact, while reporters are a notably secular lot, they are the most moralistic people I know - as they tend to reject relativism and think there is actually such a thing as “truth.”
It probably surprises conservatives that the bastion of liberalism, The New York Times, has in recent years exposed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s meddling with a state ethics commission; showed how gun regulations are making too many people inappropriately ineligible for permits; and unveiled the corruption of liberal lion Charles Rangel.
This does not compute! How could the “liberal” New York Times be spending considerable resources reporting stories that undercut the Democratic Party’s agenda? Apparently, even if the Times is stocked with liberal reporters, other factors drive the newsroom.
To be clear: that’s not to say that reporters don’t sometimes secretly prefer one side (with a few exceptions, most reporters vote, so they have to be puling the lever for someone). And yes, ideological biases can sometimes bleed into journalistic choices. (The largely pro-choice nature of the press corps makes it hard for reporters to understand the non-cynical, philosophical nature of the anti-abortion position).
But on balance these are minor factors compared to powerful forces pushing in other directions, some noble (professional commitment to truth), some less so (need to boost circulation).
The alienation of conservatives from high quality journalism, revealed in the Pew study, is a deeply unfortunate development. Not only does it lead to the polarization described in the Pew report but also to the erosion of a public demand for “objective” journalism.
This, combined with a growing sense on the left that the mainstream media cannot be trusted (because it’s too corporate), means there is a shrinking public constituency for labor intensive reporting.
The British taxpayer just got an unpleasant surprise. The EU obligates member states with stronger economies to pay more of the EU’s budget than do members who have weaker economies. Having crunched a bunch of revised current and past economic figures, the green eyeshade wearers in Brussels have announced that some countries are due money back and others must pony up more. As the above chart shows, many countries are affected, but most of the action can be summed up simply: The Brits are being touched for over 2 billion Euros, which will fund hefty rebates for the French and Germans.
Whether the revised economic figures are more accurate than the early versions (which would mean Britain is simply being asked to make up for a getting an overly sweet deal in prior years) or whether they are less accurate (which would mean Britain is being mulcted) is beyond my ken. What I find more interesting is how European policy making might change if those who want the EU to be more centralized and powerful succeed in their wish to make equalization payments like these much larger and more frequent.
Politicians are always tempted to give voters more in services than they charge them in taxes, while sticking non-voters with the resulting debt (e.g., children and generations yet unborn). This can clearly work politically, but there is always a risk that voters will eventually notice how much their grandchildren are struggling and begin to hold the political class accountable. The perfect solution for this problem for integrity-free pols is to create international agreements such that the debt burden caused by undertaxation (or if you prefer, overspending) is shifted to people who will never be able to kick them out of office: Voters in other countries.
Imagine a EU centralizer’s dream world in which the equalization payments in question were 50 times what they are today. If you were running a country where the work week is capped at 35 hours, the retirement age is 60 and employees are only expected to come to work 26 weeks a year (the rest of the time, they would be on holiday or on strike), you would eventually be punished by the electorate for delivering little or no economic growth. But if you are in international equalization payment agreements with other countries in which cultural norms and labor rules are such that people work much harder and produce more economic growth, you might be more inclined to lower your own country’s retirement age or the number of allowed hours of work per week. Your own citizens would be happier, and your treasury would get a big check each year from other countries. And if the countries who are paying your bills are historical rivals of yours, so much the sweeter — perhaps even a vote winner if handled properly.
When, back in July, Speaker John Boehner secured House authorization to file suit against President Obama for “changing the health care law without a vote of Congress, effectively creating his own law,” cynical Democrats derided the planned litigation as a “political stunt,” a talking point for the fall campaign playbook. But a report by the apolitical Congressional Research Service (CRS), completed on September 4, but never released by the member who sponsored it, nor mentioned in the press, indicates that the Democrats were not cynical enough.
Now, three months after the party-line House vote to green-light the lawsuit, no complaint has yet been filed. If this stretched out delay means that Boehner has actually redirected his sue-Obama gambit toward oblivion, the reason may be this unnoticed six week old CRS report. While bearing an opaquely generic title - “A Primer on the Reviewability of Agency Delay and Enforcement Discretion,” the report actually targets a single instance of alleged agency delay and exercise of enforcement discretion - the Obama Administration’s adjustments of effective dates for the Affordable Care Act’s so-called employer mandate to offer employees ACA-complaint health insurance or pay a tax. This delay happens to be the basis - the sole basis - for the legal action against the President that Boehner outlined in July. Although shrouded in twelve pages of fine print and protectively bureaucratic phraseology, the report’s bottom line is clear: not merely are the legal underpinnings of the Republicans’ planned lawsuit weak; the report turns up no legal basis - no “there” there - at all.
CRS reports such as this one are generated in response to requests by members or committees of Congress, though the CRS does not make public the identity of the requester or requesters. This particular report - of which House Democrats were unaware until it appeared - bears the earmarks of an inquiry, requested by the Speaker or his allies, to give some color of legitimacy to their charges of rampant presidential illegality. Instead, the result validates the lawyers’ maxim not to ask a question when unsure of the likely answer. The Report offers two conclusions: First, under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), no rulemaking procedure was necessitated by the Administration’s initial one-year delay in enforcing the employer mandate, past the ACA’s prescribed January 1, 2014 effective date. This was so, the Report states, because, “where an agency fails to take a discrete action by a statutory deadline, … no rulemaking is required.” What the Report - understandably - does not say, is that it was this very regulatory delay that first triggered Republicans’ “lawlessness” outcry. Within a week of the Treasury Department’s announced postponement, indignant editorials, op eds, and blog posts popped up in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and other conservative bastions, over professorial signatures from the likes of Stanford’s Michael McConnell and Georgetown’s Nicholas Rosencrantz, all variations on a script alleging serial violations of Obama’s constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Well, the CRS report concludes, actually not. Indeed, its authors note, such delays are anything but unique to the Obama administration’s implementation of the ACA. On the contrary: “Often the agency has simply not been able to accomplish the required action within the time provided by Congress.”
Second, the Report states that, when, in February 2014, the Administration announced an additional year’s postponement of full enforcement of the mandate, until January 1, 2016, “informal rulemaking procedures” appeared to be required. In fact, as the report’s authors reference, the Administration had engaged in precisely the type of informal rulemaking process that, the report concluded, was called for. The Administration’s action finalized a September 2013 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, making adjustments in response to comments from interested parties, precisely as prescribed by the APA. In other words, having been asked whether the Obama administration had crossed all its t’s and dotted its i’s, the CRS’ answer was unequivocal: yes it had. In bland CRS-speak, this seems like a veritable finger in the eye - or perhaps, a blunt warning to the Speaker to drop the lawsuit project.
The CRS has not been alone in cautioning that this sue-Obama gambit would prove an “embarrassing loser,” as former House Legal Counsel Charles Tiefer testified to the House Rules Committee on July 16. Scattered conservative legal scholars summoned the intellectual integrity to go public with skepticism. On September 23, eminent Seventh Circuit Reagan appointee Judge Frank Easterbrook dismissed a case challenging the ACA employer mandate, with a curt opinion that signaled that Boehner’s House colleagues probably would be deemed to lack the personal “particularized injuries” prerequisite for legal standing to get into court. More telling, indeed humiliating, on September 19, Boehner was fired as a client by the firm he had hired to prosecute his suit; reportedly, the firm had been advised by clients that continuing with the representation could harm its credibility.
Whether or not House Republicans heed these omens, more broadly revealing is the fact that they have invested this heavily in a scheme to recruit the federal judiciary for ends so transparently political and legally meritless. Evidently, after years of 5-4 Roberts Court decisions displacing legal precedent to advance Republican ideological and political agendas - in high-stakes fields such as minority voting rights, campaign finance restrictions, abortion, and, last term, religious preferences of conservative business owners versus Obamacare women’s health protections for their employees, conservative politicians and activists have come to count on their political kin on the federal bench to toe their lines.
Perhaps all these cautionary yellow lights flashing at Boehner’s lawsuit foreshadow limits to conservative judges’ tolerance for being viewed as Republican fixers, limits that could be close to being reached, or broached. Indeed, other such straws have appeared in recent winds. The Supreme Court started its new term boosting the number of states where same-sex marriage is legal from 19 to 30, one deft stroke, by simultaneously denying petitions for review of several appellate court decisions invalidating state bans on same-sex marriage. Last week, Chief Justice John Roberts broke ranks with the three other normally reliable anti-abortion justices - Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito - to effectively reopen 13 abortion clinics in Texas, by putting on hold a decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that had upheld a Texas law forcing their closure. Two weeks earlier, Roberts used a widely publicized speech to a University of Nebraska audience to decry the potential for “partisan rancor [to] spill over and “politicize” the Court, sharing his “worr[y] about people having that perception.”
A near-term chance looms, for Roberts and his colleagues to demonstrate his professed zeal to “keep the partisan divide on the other side of First Street.” This involves the latest twist in the litigation threatening to cut off federal subsidies on, Affordable Care Act exchanges in the 36 states where they are managed by the federal government, thereby shutting down those exchanges altogether and stripping nearly five million individuals of health insurance. The challengers’ attorney, Michael Carvin, has asked the Supreme Court to take the highly unusual step of immediately taking control of the case, thereby preempting a potentially adverse ruling by the full District of Columbia Circuit’s thirteen judges. With disarming candor, Carvin recently confided that his serene confidence in success rests squarely on the political leanings of the Supreme Court’s five conservatives, who, he sneered, are not “going to give much of a damn about what a bunch of Obama appointees on the D.C. Circuit think.” The high Court could consider Carvin’s petition as early as an internal conference scheduled for October 31. We could know soon about the soundness of Carvin’s low estimate of the weight carried by legal precedent and judicial practice in the Roberts Court, when the fate of President Barack Obama’s signature accomplishment is at stake.
I used to think that David Brooks deserved some sort of George Orwell ‘best bad modern writing’ award for a phrase in his old attack on Markos Moulitsas.
The Keyboard Kingpin, aka Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way.
It’s hard to beat squadrons of venom-unleashing rabid command-lambs. But then, when doing some background reading for class in re: Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech, I came across this plea from Joseph Joffe:
who will save the American posterior once the chickens of aloofness come home to roost?
Who? Who indeed?
I visualize America so:
I’m sure that there’s a lot of other policy writing with terrible metaphors out there that I’m unaware of. Feel free to provide in comments.
Mark says alcohol creates more social cost than all other drugs combined. I work for a university that has a persistent alcohol problem among its students.
It also has a sideline in big-time athletics, but that operation has made some very bad decisions in recent years and is genuinely desperate for money. Three years ago, we made a three-year deal to let Coors use our name to sell beer. No, really; there was an enormous billboard on the local interstate, but no-one on campus noticed. Last year such a billboard went up again, and the 15-year-old son of a public health [sic] prof noticed, producing some faculty outrage and this 21/XI/13 assurance from Claire Holmes, our Associate Vice Chancellor for PR:
… I am working on this issue with Vice Chancellor Wilton and have a meeting to discuss this with him Tuesday next week. As you know, contracts are binding agreements, so there is a process involved to change any agreements. What I can assure you though is that there are no more beer ads planned for the foreseeable future.
(Photo Terray Sylvester/SF Chronicle)
It appears the “process” didn’t work, or AVC Holmes was misled, or the folks who could sign a three year contract couldn’t foresee a year ahead…or everyone at our higher financial levels missed the MBA class where they explained that any contract can be abrogated for a price (which would be pretty small while Coors had a whole year to figure out how to use the billboard without us). Or maybe our campus leadership just decided $200,000 was an appropriate price at which to sell our students’ welfare and our principles, and endure public humiliation in the eyes of every driver and Chron reader. You might think the 200 large at least went to the health center for alcohol emergencies, or the police and fire departments who have to deal with the alcohol poisonings and sexual assaults on Saturday night, or the undergraduate dean’s office for student alcohol education and safety programs, but as far as I can tell, you would be wrong. The money is Intercollegiate Athletics’ to use as they wish.
This year’s poster has a couple of little logos in the corner saying “Party safe”and “21 means 21″, so it’s fine! Cigarettes are OK with a little health warning on the pack, right? OK, I’m ready to get with the program…but we can do a lot better. At the least, we need to start selling beer at games again. Several years ago, I offered what I thought was a surefire scheme, but so far haven’t been able to sell it. Never mind: how about we partner with these guys, so they can put our logo right on their page as long as they also have a little box that says “Don’t plagiarize!” But the payoff from that deal pales in comparison to what we can get for adjusting research results, from companies who would kill to have a UC study finding their products safe/effective/whatever. A notice on our web home page, and on the title page of each such lucrative report, to the effect that “UC Berkeley does not support compromising academic standards” would surely sanitize such deals.
A monument to deserters from the German army during World War II has been unveiled in central Vienna. This follows decades of controversy over recognition and compensation in Austria. The monument on Ballhausplatz in central Vienna, right by the Chancellery, was unveiled on Friday in the presence of Austrian President Heinz Fischer and representatives of the government and victims’ rights groups. … Around 30,000 conscientious objectors and deserters from the German Wehrmacht were sentenced to death by the Nazi military courts from 1939 to 1945. An estimated 20,000 of them were executed, including 1,500 Austrian nationals. It took three years for all sentences to be overturned by the Recognition Act and deserters or their progeny granted compensation payments on a complex individual case basis.But the complete blanket rehabilitation only came into effect in 2009 – amid fierce opposition from Austria’s right wing parties.
Halloween is almost here, so I will keep the chills coming again this week by recommending Dario Argento’s ultra-stylish, ultra-bloody and ultra nerve-jangling 1977 movie Suspiria. If it’s possible to make a slasher film for the art house set, this is it.
The plot: American dancer Suzy Bannion (An intrepid and likeable Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend an exclusive ballet school. Everything at the bizarrely designed and decorated school is wrong from the very first, with students disappearing, teachers engaging in strange behavior and an atmosphere of menace suffusing every room. As Suzy begins to investigate her mysterious surroundings, she comes to suspect that some supernatural evil is at the heart of the school and that it will not rest until she is destroyed.
If you judge horror films in the most elemental way, i.e., how scared will I be?, this is a classic of the horror genre. In ways large and small, Argento keeps the audience on edge with very little relief. Much of this is accomplished through an invasive, eerie score, extensive use of anamorphic lenses and other camera trickery, madcap set design and a vivid color scheme (with the accent on red of course…). Even the second time through when I knew what was going to happen, I was still holding my breath and tensing my muscles as I rooted for Suzy to overcome the extraordinary dangers she confronts.
Argento made his bones in a subgenre of Italian film called giallo, and one can see those influences here. However, while giallo is often criticized for its typical sexist plot set-ups (e.g., violent powerful man terrorizes and kills hapless young females), in Suspiria the redoubtable characters — good and bad — are all women. And while there is some astonishingly over-the-top gore, suspense is created much more through mood than through a mere parade of on screen violence.
All that said, the script of the film is remarkably uneven. Certain scenes emerge from nowhere and plot points come and go. For example, a young man at the school shows interest in Suzy and the audience wonders whether a romance will develop. Will he help her survive the terrors she faces? But like other story threads in the film, this one vanishes with no explanation. Maybe the editor was in a slashy mood himself, but I suspect these discontinuities are simply the result of Argento being more interested in theatrics than the underlying story.
In that respect, Suspiria reminds me of no film more than John Stahl’s famous “Technicolor noir” Leave Her to Heaven. Both movies overcome numerous script problems with incredible sets, atmospheric music, intentionally overstated color schemes and a strong leading female performance. Though different in other ways, both prove that sometimes in cinema, style really can triumph over substance. That’s certainly the case for Suspiria, making it ideal Halloween viewing for those who are not faint of heart.
Students from elite colleges march off to jobs at the big banks and consulting firms less by choice than because of a rigged recruiting game that the schools themselves have helped to create. By Amy J. Binder 10/01/2014