Friday, July 31, 2009

Bonus Babies

The New York Times provides further evidence of the absurdity that has become our economy today: Bonuses were doled out to 1000s of top traders and bankers on Wall Street last year. Not necessarily for doing a good job, but hey, they had a huge influx of capital. Of course that capital came from the U.S. government; and by extension us. But that doesn’t really matter. These are, as Tom Woolf once labeled them, master’s of the universe. Profits and losses are not really the bottom line anymore. Either is talent, or performance for that matter. Once you rise high enough in the corporate matter, you are paid for being at the top. You are paid to maintain your opulent lifestyle, make sure you can make your payments on the three or four houses you own, the private jet, the jewelry for your wife and lovers and everything else necessary to make the rest of us strive to be just like you. Now Goldman and JP Morgan have reaffirmed their profitability, and emerged as the two winners of the battle for Wall Street hegemony (conveniently, Bernake once worked for one of them). They can pay back the government for saving them and move on to again do what they’ve always done; hopefully with little regulation from that pesky organization that saved them – the government.

This seems to be the emerging theme across the economy. Now that there are the first hints of recovery in the near or not too far future, it’s time to forget all the problems that got us here in the first place. Put government intervention back on the guillotine block – government is again the problem and markets the only solution. Forget regulation, forget consumer protection, forget any radical changes to the economy. Now we need to step back and move slowly. Now we need to give corporations and Wall Street back their power over the economy, and by extension, our lives. Sure Obama won the election to change things, but all we need to do now is forget all that and calm down because America thrives on unfettered capitalism, period. Healthcare reform and further recovery packages are unnecessary. Regulation is for those suckers in Europe. The Welfare State is the organizing principle of a bygone era. Fear should lead us to step back – and by the way, Obama really caused the financial crisis. You didn’t know? All you need to do is forget the past 8 years; or really 25 for that matter. History is for those who aren’t paying attention. What is needed is to blindly listen to the talking heads, parroting right wing ideology once again. The question that remains is whether past is prologue? I think, if nothing changes, the answer is a resounding yes. But as America moves toward another yesterday girl empire, at least we can take comfort in the fact that the super rich will continue to entertain us with their conspicuous consumption and crazy affairs. Not a bad deal, right?

Oh one other thing – it appears unemployment is a little bit higher than we have been led to believe (see 7/28/09 - . . . But don’t worry, that improves the bottom line, and that has to trickle down to us at some point, right (

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Movie Review: (500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer may very well become the Singles, Swingers, Empire Records (kind of) or Reality Bites of its moment. It is that rare animal that is often tried but rarely succeeds, a romantic comedy that attempts to capture the aesthetic along the edges of an epoch’s urban center; the edgy confines of those who can name all the Pixies albums and lead singers of the Replacements, Breeders, Lemonheads, Killers and Velvet Underground, can quote the Simpsons, Shakespeare and Blake at will, discern between surrealists and situationalists, explain existentialism and define irony, know ten bands and authors you’ve never heard of, are fluent in Truffaut and Fellini, can look cooler than you for $10, and otherwise wade in the odd place where high and low culture meet. Like the other films in this genre, it centers around a love affair with a series of side characters to fill in the ambience, though in this case a relationship that is destined for failure and side characters less compelling than the others mentioned above. As the film jumps back and forth in time, with occasional narration, plenty of animation and other effects to heighten its cleverly though clearly “constructed” feel, we find ourselves rooting for Tom Hansen (Joseph-Gorden Levitt) and Summer Finn (the charming Zooey Deschanel) even as we suspect the outcome to come. Summer is the sort of girl that anyone who wasn’t cool in high school can’t help but fall in love with – a flakey, intelligent, flighty girl that floats through life with a keen eye to pleasure and the less discernible beauty that hides on the edges and periphery; the kind of girl that is smarter than you and makes you earn her adoration (but whose worth the effort). The film is a visual bricolage of experimentation and references that breezily move from one topic or technique to the next with little concern for narrative continuity. But it somehow works in the end. The main problem with the film, from my perspective, is the acting job of Gorden Levitt, who I think fails to really capture the pain and exultation of love lost and found. I also feel the character is written with some serious flaws – a sell out with great hidden talent that never really translates well to the screen; particularly given the apartment he inhabits. The sort of drifting undertone of this genre seems to fail a little here as well, as all the characters seem to have money and a little too much material comfort for the roles they play. Yet 500 Days certainly works overall, with one left to wonder in the end if the question of love and fate is really resolved . . . or ever will be. (A-)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Female and Collective Redemption

I am currently reading an advanced copy of a book on the Iraq War and humiliation for a review that should come out in the next few weeks. I don’t want to give away too much of the argument here, but one interesting point the author makes is that Abu Ghraib was reframed by the media as a story about two female soldiers and their “bad apple” actions. The two women were publicly vilified and essentially humiliated to both misdirect the public away from other images of rape and murder from the prison and a broader debate about torture and the war on terror. But the condemnation of these women also served to absolve the country of its blame in the death and destruction of Iraq. Just as a few “bad apples” were to blame for the corruption scandal that plagued the corporate world a couple of years before the financial crisis started, a few “bad apples” were behind the horror of Abu Ghraib – not the administration and its position on torture; nor the majority of the public that supported the war before it started.

An interesting subtext of this discourse though was that women were chosen to be the major scapegoats, just as Martha Steward was absurdly chosen as the scapegoat of insider trading on Wall Street a few years back. And just as French women after World War II became the scapegoats for pretty widespread French complicity and cooperation with the Germans during World War II (see Verhoeven’s underrated Black Book for a wonderful filmic treatment of this dynamic at play). This is simultaneously the case on both sides of the ideological battle over Iraq. Those against the war and occupation used the situation of Iraqi women to fortify their argument, while often simultaneously supporting those that make women second class citizens and worse (Hussein ironically improved the position of women in Iraq dramatically during his reign) and by conservatives to misdirect attention from the failures of the Bush administration and the aforementioned debates on torture tactics, which often involved endangering women or humiliating males by engendering violence and the torture itself.

The point is that women are often the scapegoats for collective national guilt. Relating this to film, I find it interesting that in times of financial crisis the number of horror films increase – where women are tortured and killed in a pornographic display of violence that often involves the metaphoric penetration of women with a knife or other weapon. In Drag Me to Hell, the generally likable character Christine Brown makes an arguably unethical choice against her better judgment to try to win a promotion at work. While this decision was driven by two males, it ultimately leads her on a path toward death and damnation in hell. The question then becomes if she symbolizes our collective degradation as a society based on greed trumping ethics and common decency. Is then a woman the embodiment of this failure; even as men continue to make most of the decisions that lead us in this direction?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Adaptations and their Discontents

Whenever a popular book is turned into a movie, fans tend to debate the choices made, the actors who will play their favorite characters, what’s missing and just as often complain about all of those choices. Whenever a new Harry Potter movie comes out, another comic book is adapted to TV or a popular book like Da Vinci Code or anything by Tom Clancy, John Grisham or the late Ian Fleming is released an outpouring of opinions and critiques emerges on the Internet like a hermeneutic deconstruction that rivals Derrida, the multiple readings of The Canterbury Tales, or even the Bible. It was in this vein that I did the opposite, reading a book, Pay it Forward, a student of mine reviewed after having already seen the rather mediocre film a few years earlier. The student had made some rather innocuous comments about the differences that I found anything but innocuous. So I forged onward to take on the project from the opposite end. The book, like the movie, is in many ways average except in its message – which is uplifting without being completely saccharine or bathed in bathos. But three changes are made which appear to have clear political undertones. The first is that the teacher, Reuben (Kevin Spacey), moves from Black to White. Second, the original book has the teacher’s injuries occur in Vietnam, not from an abusive father. And finally, the lead character, Trevor (played by Haley Joel Osment), dies saving a gay boy who dresses as a women, not a little kid being bullied by local gang bangers.

In all three cases, there is a softening of most of the edge the original book did have. The story, for those who didn’t see it or read it, revolves around a boy who comes up for a project to change the world. Essentially, he will start by helping three people and rather than asking to be paid back, he asks that they “pay it forward” to three more. The idea is that the “payment” is something huge, not just a little favor and that it not be compensated at all. Trevor sets out to find three people to help and in the process starts a worldwide movement that dramatically changes the world. But the film alters the narrative in ways that undermine part of its ecumenical message. The first and most important change, in my mind, is getting rid of the Black teacher and replacing him with Spacey. This decision allows the moviemakers to avoid the contentiousness of a pretty white women actually dating, having sex with and marrying a Black man (in this case a Black man with injuries much worse than those portrayed in the film). Eschewing one of the biggest unspoken taboos in American society and eschews the potential to challenge that verboten mix and its radical potential in confronting racism.

The second change, taking out the literal and figurative scars of war is interesting, as Hollywood certainly is not afraid to take on this topic – but its absence here individualizes the narrative in a particular sense and arguably unravels its more radical statement on social interaction. Finally, is the less than surprising choice to eliminate the hot button topic of homosexuality. These three choices collectively challenge some of the more radical messages of the book, making the story in line with the Jesus savior narrative so common in American films and moving from a communal sense of social improvement to individual mettle and the ability to face the past and turn one’s life around. The film is not unredeemable, but could have done much more to offer a Utopian, counterhegemonic message – instead becoming a feel good film about individuals overcoming their past and building a new future inspired by a naïve but inspirational child with more wisdom than the adults who surround him (a increasingly common theme on TV and movies). To not end on a negative note, it is an admirable idea and one that could do a lot to change the world we live in today, so pay a favor forward some time and see how it feels . . . (B+ for the positive message (B- as a film))

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Post-Racial Dream in Doubt?

In the run-up to the election, after the media decided Obama was “Black enough” to be called a Black candidate for president and absurd theme started to build steam – we were living in a post-racial society. This idea proliferated across the mainstream media like nude pictures of Brittany Spears did across the Internet until it almost became conventional wisdom. If a Black man can be voted President, race clearly doesn’t matter in America. I think we have seen in the past two weeks two rather obvious examples of what a fallacy this argument is . . .

The first involved famed Harvard legal scholar Henry Louis Gates and his arrest for attempting to break into his own house (; something that clearly happens to white folks all the times in the suburbs of America. So what’s the big deal? To some liberals, it was yet another example of the racist police force of not only Boston but most of America. To conservatives it was a good chance to take shots at an uppity negro and put him in his place for daring to challenge said racist cops ( The point that has not been adequately covered is that police are generally racist, do tend to profile and generally don’t go around shooting young white males by mistake (think New York City the past few years). Also worth asking is why a neighbor called 911 in the first place. By placing the focus on his access to Ivy League status and his overreaction to the police (, what was lost was a real dialogue about why police would bother a man dressed like Gates, of Gate’s age, in his neighborhood, trying to enter his own house? And there is, of course, the broader question of whether this sort of thing goes on every day with average Black men across the country. Statistics and my own anecdotal knowledge say yes. Obama made this point in his follow-up press conference on Friday: (though softening his initial reaction).

The second issue involved an image sent out this week by a doctor against the Obama reforms ( The clearly racist image shows the lengths many conservatives will go to get their point across and build on the racism that still lurks barely below the surface for so many conservatives today. Reagan won on the latent racism and conservatives have been effectively using it ever since. We saw this clearly at a number of McCain campaign events leading up to the election and heard it almost daily in the mocking of Michelle Obama and Barack himself – together with the absurd claims that he was a Muslim terrorist.

Both cases bring into clear focus the nature of race relations in America today. The reality is that Blacks (and Latinos) have substantially higher drop out rates (45 vs 30%) and lower college completion rates (15% vs 30%), lower paying jobs (In 2007, $569/week vs. $716 for whites; and even in the same categories), high unemployment and poverty rates, lower income and wealth (the income gap has increased in the past 30 years from 63% of average white family in 1973 to 58% in 2004), much higher incarceration rates (6.4x as likely as whites to be in prison) and lower life expectancy (73.3 vs. 78.3). A study a couple of years ago found that Blacks receive worse healthcare than whites, often even from the same doctor. They go to poor schools that are underfunded with inexperienced teachers and thus perform worse academically. And they are the victims of all sorts of blatant and latent racism that undermine their futures. Now to quote these statistics will be called race baiting by many, but what is the image of Obama really doing?

A third is the Sotomayor hearings ( The conservative argument seemed to center around the idea that Sotomayor couldn’t leave her race at the door when adjudicating cases. Maybe this is partially true, but what it fails to acknowledge is either do whites. We assume in this country that white is a neutral color, but ask most people of color and they will disagree. Whiteness comes with its own biases, prejudices and sometimes outright racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. To question a Latina for her ability to remain objective seems absurd when one moves beyond the rhetoric of the law and justice as a blindfolded woman to recognize, as Gates among many has argued for years, that the law is heavily influenced by the people deciding it and their political and social perspectives. One need only think of Gore vs. Bush as one example among thousands to recognize how important political ideology is to legal decision. Or how about Dred Scott or Plessy vs. Ferguson?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bipartisanship and the Status Quo

When Bush won the election in 2000, the consensus was that he should be bipartisan in his approach to governance. He, of course, did the opposite and charged Democrats with being “partisan” whenever they didn’t agree with anything he wanted to do from deregulation and tax cuts to the rich to the war on terror and foreign policy in general. Luckily for him, they generally followed his lead and had little power to do anything when they didn’t. Now Obama has won the election and elements of the media again place the expectation of bipartisanship on his shoulders ( Complaints have come from across the aisle that Obama has abandoned his “post partisan” ideas and is now running roughshod over them with his “ideological” legislation. Yet wasn’t this the point of the election in the first place? It was not to address the “governmental gridlock” as many argued, but to actually change things in the country (at least that’s my reading). The country was fed up with Bush and not happy with Democrats that lacked the votes or resolve to challenge him. The financial crisis, lurking healthcare, retirement and environment crises and sense that government was serving corporate and elite interests and ignoring the rest of us all pointed toward a strong desire for change: a government that actually listened to and served the citizenry of the country.

A more reasoned argument comes from Ed Gilgore today in The New Republic ( Republicans showed right from the start that they are not really in a bipartisan mood and are in fact partisan girls in a partisan world. Again we see the effectiveness of their strategy, as Obama’s poll numbers drop. We are the sensible ones who want to go slowly. Obama is radical and we need to stop him. But really the Republicans just want to restore the status quo of the past 30 years – small government, limited regulation, lower taxes for the wealthy and the dismantling of social programs. The fact that we remain in a financial crisis, that the healthcare system is in looming doom, that we need to address income and wealth inequalities in this country and that race and gender still matter are beyond the scope of the Republican discourse or ideologically fixed position. The strategy only works when people don’t think or listen and blindly follow the framing the mainstream media offers. One wonders if the resolve exists to actually take on the power elites and make fundamental changes to the country we live in. We shall soon see . . .

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Framing the Debate . . .

George Lakoff has been writing for several years about the importance of framing and metaphors in political discourse ( Conservatives have generally been better at framing debates – for example renaming the inheritance tax the “death tax” or arguing that we must “support the troops” after the war began to dismantle debate – and have thus had the ability to win elections and largely control debate in the public sphere. That was until Barak Obama came along. He ran a brilliant rhetorical campaign based on framing himself as essentially three things: “hope,” “change” and “not Bush.” This strategy helped him handily win the election and pull in larger majorities in the House and Senate.

Since then, the remnants of the old conservative order have been challenging him at every turn. While many have complained about the love affair between the media and Obama (, I believe a closer look in fact shows the power of conservatives to steer the debate to their favor. Obama is receiving the same coverage most new presidents do, and often receiving a more critical eye than most. I remember one article that came out a few weeks after his presidency began that argued that the honeymoon period was already over.

On two issues, I believe we are seeing the effectiveness of the conservative rhetorical machine: 1) the economy and 2) healthcare. While some positive signs are developing on the economy, the fundamental issues remain and unemployment is still rising. But conservatives effectively altered the nature of the debate from the economy to soaring debt and thus undermined any attempts to build a second recovery bill that could push the country forward. In the process, they have put a serious dent in Obama’s approval ratings right from the outset, way before the bill could have any positive effects ( More importantly, they have moved us away from the idea that government could actually help us more equitably balance the needs of the many and the desires and greed of the few – thus returning us the key issue that led to their rise under Reagan.

On healthcare, the fear campaign of the healthcare industry together with a misinformation campaign about what’s happening in countries with socialized medicine ( has dominated the debate, undermining a necessary change in how we structure our healthcare system in America. One wonders why so few talk about the pandemic-like obesity problem, huge rise in diabetes and autism, low life expectancy and high infant mortality rates and the incredibly high rates of unnecessary procedures that plague America today. On top of this is a pharmaceutical industry that claims to need to charge astronomical prices for drugs that are much cheaper everywhere else, because of innovation – even as they spend huge sums on advertising, often to get us to buy drugs we don’t really need for diseases they sometimes create for this purpose like “General Anxiety Disorder.” Who the hell doesn’t have general anxiety in today’s world?

In any case, the power of framing appears to again be serving the cause of conservatives and Democrats and progressives need to be vigilant if they are to counteract current efforts to undermine real change. To miss this opportunity for real change could cost the party its majority in short order and the country its future in the long run.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Shilling the Poor . . . and Everyone Else

A recent study by University of Chicago economists Bertrand and Morse looked at the opportunity costs of payday lending and whether more information would change the behavior of borrowers ( They found that there were marginal changes in behavior when borrowers became aware of the longer term costs of these loans (10% reduction in borrowing). They thus argue for more information disclosure for borrowers. The more fundamental question, of how we can allow 400% interest rates in contemporary society, remains largely unexamined. This is not surprising coming from the epicenter of capitalist cheerleading. But even as Ohio and the military cap interest rates, much of the country has done little to address the general rise in the cost of borrowing for consumers.

Even as interest rates were dipping in the 90s, credit cards and other lenders gained considerable advantages through the banking reform passed late in Clinton’s term. Anyway remember those 30-day waive periods when no interest was charged or $5 late fees? Now banks and credit card companies charge late and over the limit fees the day payments are due and those fees have risen to $35. They also raise the interest rates on accounts the second they are maximized, generally to rates close to 40%. Not only are the poor being screwed by the astronomical rates of payday borrowing, but the average citizen has been penalized by bank efforts to squeeze even more money out of us borrowers. The latest proposal of the banking industry is to start charging people for being good customers (i.e., paying off their balances on time). They want to charge annual fees to this group and maybe even penalties for paying off balances on time. As with the healthcare reforms currently being weakened by corporate interests, the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we really believe that bowing to these interests really serves the common good.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Movie Review: The Girlfriend Experience

Soderberg’s latest, The Girlfriend Experience (2009), continues his trend of intermingling small and large projects. Coming on the heals of the two-part Che series and the entertaining blockbuster Ocean’s Thirteen, the film follows a high priced call girl and her entrepreneurial trainer boyfriend as the financial crisis heats up on the heals of the election. The film was shot on a shoe string budget reported at $1.4 million and stars a real porn star, Sasha Grey. The narrative follows her as she meets with clients, makes business decisions, fights with her boyfriend and is interviewed in a restaurant by a journalist. As with most Soderberg films, hand held cameras capture much of the action and the film jumps around in time, centering on the interview.

What is interesting about the film, besides a decent acting job by Grey and the other relative unknowns who make up the cast, is the film’s underlying message about the cost of centering society on wealth and greed. In Sex, Lies and Videotapes, Soderberg deconstructed the changing nature of desire in a world where video and television had made the approximation of desire more interesting or enticing than its instantiation in the real (at least for some). Here he arguably moves on to a deeper issue, which is the ways in which people have commodified not only themselves but everyone around them. The journalist talks about her “iron door armor” and who she might open it up for. We find out it is not her boyfriend, who she is willing to toss aside after meeting a new client for one day – a client she decides to go away with for the weekend. In the end, the client doesn’t show up, explaining that we would feel too guilty leaving his wife and kids. It is the coldness she shows toward her boyfriend in explaining this new man that perfectly captures the nature of so many interactions today.

People have been taught to brand themselves to maximize their ability to sell themselves to whoever they want to entice, be it a movie or music agent, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a potential life mate or the businessman or boss they want to impress. In the process, the nature of relationships deteriorates, to the extent that instrumental rationality seems to become the foundation of friendship and love alike. This is obviously not the case with all, but I see it a lot in New York City and even more when I lived in Los Angeles. The process of commodification of love, happiness and friendship means more than alienation from others though, it could mean alienation from ourselves and our needs, wants and desires. This is exactly the point Marcuse made in Eros and Civilization and relates to Heidegger’s critique of an inauthentic existence. The character Sasha’s absence of affect as she makes decisions that affect not only her own life but those around her perfectly captures the nature of this alienation. She is not alienated from her labor per se, but from her deeper desiring system and real social connection. We also see this with her boyfriend Chris, who is constantly in the process of selling himself and his ideas, ultimately undermining his primary job.

The film has done only $680,765 domestically and thus has been seen by very few people. While the Ocean series essentially celebrates capitalism, though the sort of rogue capitalism that attacks traditional success (a nod to the true American Dream), here we see Soderberg provide a powerful critique of its deleterious effects on us as human beings and a society. Whether or not this was his intention, he again shows himself as possessing an uncanny ability to coexist in the world of megasuccess and true art, deconstructing society with a keen eye that builds on individual characters and their relationship to the surrounding world. This is what all good art does, and what Hollywood so often neglects to do. Too bad so few will actually see it. (A-)

P.S. On a side note, I happened to catch on F/X a few minutes of another film, Cruel Intentions, that critiques the excesses of contemporary society though with the usual Hollywood sensibility and simple moral ending. I flipped it on just as the infamous scene between Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair in Central Park began. What was odd was that it was missing a kind of essential aspect of that scene – the actual kiss that won them an MTV award. I was baffled until I thought about where it was on the dial and the absurdity and hypocrisy of contemporary American society. It’s certainly comforting to know that we are protecting our children from even a hint of gay sex, particularly as it takes them about ten seconds to find it on Google.

Monday, July 20, 2009

To Be Young at Heart . . .

In some ways, it was a heartbreaking weekend for the old timers – with Tom Watson blowing it on the 18th hole of the British Open ( and Lance Armstrong all but ceding the Tour de France after his teammate Alberto Contador burst ahead in the final 3 ½ miles of the 15th Stage ( On the other hand, Watson’s near victory was an extraordinary achievement at 59. The oldest major winner in golf history was Julius Boros at 48 years old (1968 PGA Championship), with the second oldest being the more famous 1986 Master’s winner Jack Nicholas at 46. But Watson has not had the game to compete with the youngsters in 20 years. It was only in returning to Turnberry, where he won the shootout with Nicholas in 1977 that the old magic that won him 5 British Opens returned. The stage was set, everyone was ready to cheer and then cruel fate sent his second shot over the green and the third putt ran just long enough for his Achilles heal to send spasms of fear into Watson and the millions of cheering fans around the green and television sets. He missed with a weak effort and suddenly a playoff was on. It is the odd tendency of golf to too often end with the leader choking on the last day, or sometimes the last few holes. Crowd favorite Phil Mickelson has made a career of it (with a few stirring exceptions), Greg Norman will always be remembered for it (particularly his masters collapse) and a long list of others are forever memorialized as snapshots of near majesty; at least in their own subconscious bitterness.

Watson’s miss is a bit more bittersweet than most, as it reflected the collective resolve that keeps many of us pushing forward against the tides of age and deterioration. It was more than a golf story, it was the story of humanity itself and our struggles against the intractable march toward obsolescence and our desire to transcend a world that is increasingly defined by the wants, needs and largely manufactured desires of the young. We have deified youth like no previous generation, and particularly in the United States where marketers long ago realized the buying power and manipulative potential of the young. From Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers to the aging Hillary Duff, Amanda Bynes, Christina Aguilera, Lyndsey Lohan and, of course, Brittany Spears, the public sphere of entertainment has become increasingly dominated by those who have the business savy of the middle aged but none of the wisdom that provides anything but cookie-cutter entertainment to their peers. Enough adults play along with these rather crass marketing campaigns to keep a new generation of pre-adolescents dreaming of the fame that a few lucky ones are guaranteed to achieve.

Lance Armstrong’s loss had a similar story line, though at 37 he is only old within the confines of his sport. Armstrong against symbolizes the push against the tide of youth though, together with the broader significance of his achievement – coming back from cancer to win the European-dominated ultimate test of endurance seven times. He is a symbol of American resolve and arguably, because of this, despised by the power brokers of the sport, who are constantly harassing him as a doper. Armstrong did not have the legs to keep up with his younger competitor yesterday, but he does sit in second place and has shown that even at his age, he is among the elites of a sport that is defined by the acumen to accept pain most of us would run away from, not towards.

In both cases I was reminded of an argument made by Hans Gumbrecht ( a few years ago at a summer program I attended at Cornell – that sports offer entryway to the sublime. In sports, we have the opportunity to sit as spectators and watch the fading opportunity for glory – that once defined much of ancient life. We can see the spectacle of physical feats that seem to transcend our limits as humans, to see last second heroics that bring sweet victory, to witness historic wins and losses and to align ourselves with our favorite players and teams and share in their thrills and agony. We experience the heightening of emotions that accompanies our strange identification with the players and teams, our sense that something is at stake in our own lives with each success and failure. In fact, we often speak of “we” when describing the home team, as if we were out there on the field toiling away for victory, as if we were making decisions about the team, as if we had the power to root our brethren toward victory. The truth is we sometimes do – as almost all teams do better at home than away. Sports thus offer not only access to the sublime through its transcendence of the mundane and quotidian, but that sense of community that I believe we all long for. In Armstrong and Watson, we have seen two ad hoc communities form – built around a collective desire for age to win out over youth just one time, to cheat the omnipresent but cloaked hints of death for a moment longer and to prolong that too short march toward the sweet hereafter with dignity and aplomb. Even in loss they have won that battle not only for themselves but all of us.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Horatio Alger Story 2009: Paid for by Uncle Sam

Two articles today highlight the competing visions of America’s future. In the first in the Washington Post, we learn that AIG wants to give its top executives their promised bonuses: Largely unmentioned in the article, is why they should be paid bonuses. Hasn’t AIG contributed substantially to the global financial crisis? Aren’t bonuses usually given for actually doing a good job? And should the tax payers really fund bonuses for those who still have jobs, when so many don’t? On top of these questions, is the reality that AIG could soon be insolvent: ‘“Our valuation includes a 70 percent chance that the equity at AIG is zero,’ Joshua Shanker of Citigroup wrote in a note to investors. He cites the continuing risks posed by the company's exotic derivative contracts, called credit-default swaps, and its sale of assets at low prices. AIG's stock plummeted by more than 25 percent yesterday.”

In the second article in the New York Times, the House has come up with an interesting plan to fund half of the new healthcare initiative – paying for it with a surcharge tax for those making over $250,000 ( This seems in line with the populist undertones that helped Obama win the election, but Republicans and conservative “blue dog” Democrats are already trying to undermine the plan. Will we see a profound change in the way our government does business or eternal return to the same as our future stands in jeopardy? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Taking of My Money 1 . . . 2 . . . 3

Remakes are a tricky undertaking under the best of circumstances. Take Landslide by both the Dixie Chicks and Smashing Pumpkins. I find the former wanting in several ways and the latter a worthy update to the original – written and performed by Stevie Nicks for her father. Clearly the poet of the alt-rock scene, Billy Corrigan, was doing something different with the song and, at least for me, it resonated at a number of levels. The Dixie Chicks remake smacks of interest in fast money, and based on the radio play alone, I assume it has succeeded at that level. But there is not much done to improve the song or make it their own. I also think of Stan Ridgeway and his remake of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. Again the creator of Mexican Radio put his own signature on a classic and gave us his quirky, compelling rearticulation (which I find more interesting than Social Distortion’s take, by the way).

But to a largely unimaginative movie industry remakes tend to be gold on the cheap. Just find a good director, some big (not necessarily good) actors and/or actresses and boom – money, money, money. Making the remake worthy of viewing, on the other hand, is a more complicated process. The first question that comes to mind is why are we remaking this film? Is there a reason, or is it simply to make money? Second, what am I adding to the original? Anything compelling? Third, why should I see this rather than go to the rental store or add it to my Netflix list? To start, I'll offer a series of decent remakes: Casino Royale (2006), The Departed (2006), Heat (1995), The Thing (1982), Scarface (1983), Cape Fear (1991), The Ring (2002), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Fly (1986) and The Count of Monte Cristo (2002). Horror films fare well on my list and that of many others (see for a list, though I disagree with many entries). Making clever foreign films into American fare, less so – as is every Tim Burton attempt (who I consider one of the most overrated directors in the history of film). Here is my long list of forgettable ones from just the past few years: Alfie (2004), The Out of Towners (1999), Sleuth (2007), The Ladykillers (2004), Vanilla Sky (2001 - Original Obre Sus Ojos), The Italian Job (2003), Planet of the Apes (2001), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), City of Angels (1998), The Truth About Charlie (2002), Scent of a Woman (1992; I know many will disagree) , The Invasion (2007), Poiseidon (2006), Pyscho (1998, why?????), The Stepford Wives (2004), War of the Worlds (2005), The Wicker Man (2006), Pink Panther (2006), The Jackal (1997) and The Omen (2006) to name a few. In all cases, the formula involves bringing in a a young or aging established actor is brought in to give us a new interpretation of the classic (Steve Martin appears a couple of times here, the fading Marky Mark twice and exes Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman twice each) and make the film marketable, the story is generally updated to give it contemporary relevance, cinematography and costuming are generally important and, if applicable, the humor is generally over the top and stupid (like most Steve Martin and Robin Williams films in recent years).

And that brings us to the less-talented of the Hollywood Scott brothers. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of the most pointless remakes I have ever seen, and up there on the list of all-time most pointless movies for that matter. John Travolta plays a completely unredeemable character that kills for no other reason than his own greed and revenge against the city that caught him in his Wall Street scam. Caught in the middle is Denzel Washington, who while capable as usual, does little here to keep my attention. After building tension in the middle part of the movie, the first two bad guys are caught too easily in the middle of the street and the final chase scene with Travolta as uninteresting a denouement as one can imagine. The plot twist might make unemployed Hedge Fund traders salivate, but it left me cold. Gone is the clever cynicism of the original, the compelling acting of Walter Matthau, the mercurial malevolence of Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, the frenetic energy of the mayor and police and the buildup to a clever escape plan, only to be foiled in the end. Here the escape plan is faultily hatched and uninteresting to watch as it unravels. The humor is sparse and the pointless death less interesting than any Schwarzenegger film I can think of. Tony Scott has been making bad films for some time now, including the truly terribly Domino (2005), Man on Fire (2004), and the Last Boy Scout (1991), the entertaining (if not good) Déjà vu (2006), Enemy of the State (1998), Days of Thunder (1990) and Revenge (1990). But he did do the classics True Romance (1993), which introduced the world to Quentin Tarrentino (as a writer), and Top Gun (1986). Maybe I was just expecting too much of someone who peaked 16 years ago. (C-)

By the way, I reviewed Public Enemies a few days ago, and while that is a loose remake, it would certainly fit on my list as well. The point seems to be that it is best to leave ideas already created in the can unless you have some way to actually improve on them – as is often the case with horror films, but less so with classics. The point for us viewers is to stop going to these crap fests so Hollywood finally starts to make quality films in months that don’t start with a D.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Palin vs. Obama

Interesting news day. The spectacle of Jackson’s funeral, of course, leads the papers and online mags (, but two stories show the growing chasm between both democrats and republicans and republicans and any semblance of reason. Obama has, in my estimation, taken another step in the right direction by arguing for limiting oil speculating ( This is just the latest step in his attempt to restore some regulation over the markets and corporate activity – a necessary structural adjustment if we are to see a real, shared economic rejuvenation in the future. USA Today, on the other hand, reports that almost three in four Republicans would vote for Sarah Palin for President ( Should I write that again – three in four Republicans would vote for Sarah Palin for president! I thought Bush was the least qualified president in history, but Palin makes him look like a near genius. Has the party lost its way this much? Has the insanity of the lunatic fringe moved to the mainstream? Can anyone truly believe Palin is ready to run the country, dealing with the financial crisis, Iraq and Afghanistan, Healthcare reform, or any of the challenges now facing the country? She seems as petulant and uninterested in anybody else’s opinions as Bush was (outside of Cheney and Rumsfeld, of course), and just as lacking of knowledge about the U.S,. and the world. Isn’t it time to move beyond the cult of celebrity and actually consider worthy candidates for president? Apparently not yet.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Summer Movies

The early summer movies have been pretty disappointing, as has been the case for several years. Wolverine was episodic without any real heart and lacked substance beyond the explosions, special effects and salivating scenes of Jackman’s body (for women that is). The Proposal had some funny moments, but lacked genuine chemistry between the two leads Bullock and the likable Reynolds and sufficient time building up the budding romance so we cared about the de rigeur break up and reunion. Terminator Salvation was interminably long and again lacked sufficient character development to make me care (see below).

Maybe most disappointing is the downward turn in Mann’s talent that Public Enemies seems to hint at. Mann’s best work includes contemporary crime dramas set in Los Angeles (Heat, Collateral), historically compelling films like Last of the Mohicans and the politically charged The Insider. Here he follows his Miami Vice redux with another dud, on the heals of the disappointing Ali. Only Collateral saved a general decline in his work following the success of The Insider. Mann has certainly succeeded in the past with pensive, moody pseudo-thrillers like Manhunter and Heat (that seem to reference De Palma while moving beyond his aesthetic sensibility and adherence to Hitchcock-envy), but here there is little to back up impressive cinematography and acting by the two leads. The story lacks a coherent plot line, sufficient character development and a reason to like Dillinger, besides the fact that he’s played by the aging heartthrob Depp; that both men and women seem to equally love. The movie languors on much longer than needed, placing too much focus on enlongated shoot outs and not enough on what Hollywood has gotten better at – asking the why question regarding our favorite heroes and villains (too much with superheroes in my estimation). And the love story also lacks sufficient development to explain the depth of their connection. Like much of Hollywood mainstream fare these days, the film has all the elements to entertain us but none of the substance to keep up interested. Only Star Trek has really lived up to the hype so far, and this may be because I’ve always liked the series.

Veteran TV executive Barry Diller was recently quoted in Salon as saying “"Talent is the new limited resource . . . There's just not that much talent in the world, and talent almost always outs." ( One wonders if he’s right. There seems to be far too many scions of the powerful acting, directing and producing in Hollywood, huge budgets for subpar films and a general decline in quality even as moviemaking itself improves. The troubling trend I see in American society in general is a growing distance between quality and success (film, business, etc.). What makes it more troubling is the quality that continues to exist on the edges. France’s Tell No One was a great thriller without most of the shortcomings we find in Americans films these days and a great plot twist at the end. The Brothers Bloom, while self-consciously derivative (particularly of the fading talent Wes Anderson), was fun, smart and engaging entertainment. And the crass, stupid The Hangover was downright funny, if nothing else. With so much talent swimming around, one wonders how Hollywood keeps finding ways to make money out of complete crap. But maybe that's because financial success is the only talent America truly esteems.

Side note: I did like Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, which did have a $30 million budget. It was compelling film with a clever intermingling of spine-tingling surprises, over the top blood and gore and humorous mocking of itself.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Pathology of Victimhood

Josh Marshall at TPM has an interesting snippet today on the way that Palin has built her entire career around victimhood at the hands of liberals, elites and even David Letterman: This seems to go with the general pathology of conservatives, who were victims even when they controlled the levers of government for most of the past 40 years. Now that they have fallen momentarily in the hinterlands of their own construction, it is interesting to see them further embrace this notion of victimhood. They are victims of the “liberal” media, victims of liberal professors, victims of liberal elites who listen to NPR and drink lattes, victims of reverse discrimination from women and minorities, victims of gays and their perverse lifestyles and victims of illegal immigrants who are taking all the good jobs in America (cutting lawns, bussing our tables, cooking our food, taking care of our children, etc.) The victim mentality was first harnessed to some success by Richard Nixon and his incantation to the “silent majority,” but reached fever pitch under Reagan – who redefined the elites as those who actually cared about knowledge and truth (see Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas).

But the persistence and growth of this pathology has only amplified under Bush and now those on the outside looking in. Palin is a good example. When she was interviewed by a surprisingly tough Charlie Gibson after being chosen for VP, it was her fault that she didn’t seem to know much about anything of importance. When her teenage daughter got pregnant, again showing the lapsed “morality” of much of the Christian right, it was the media’s fault for bringing up this painful family problem. And now that she makes a near insane choice to leave office 18 months early for no real discernible reason (except to starting running for president really early), it is the media’s fault that they haven’t embraced this decision without question. This weekend I had the opportunity to speak with some sensible and less sensible conservatives, and what strikes me is how far the radical right has moved from any semblance of semblance. They truly have become the lunatic fringe, still blaming Clinton for some of our problems, claiming Obama’s presidency has already failed and that we can’t look back at Bush when discussing the deficit or financial crisis (even though they constantly look backwards for blame), claiming global warming is a corporate conspiracy to make money, etc., etc., etc. I only hope this implosion continues into the distant future; it is a lovely spectacle to witness.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Rolling Stone

Several years ago I received a Rolling Stone with N' Sync on the cover. This followed a Brittany Spears cover and one for Backstreet Boys a few weeks earlier. This was too much for me and I soon sent them a letter I'm sure they never read along with my subcription cancellation. I have never bought an issue since. Maybe a silly elitist stance, or a music snob taking his utterly meaningless revenge on a music industry that has grown increasingly homongenous, uninventive and thoroughly unimaginative. Sure there is still great music on the edges, in local bars, available for download and even among the increasingly undifferentiable mainstream acts. But we essentially have three popular tones today -- the angst-ridden, attitude filled, empowered young female star singing of lost love, sex and the random musings of her mind, angt-ridden, ethereal males exhorting their own failed love, successful love and other largely meaningless though truthful confessional tunes and a variety of geriatic has-beens that continue to play because nothing better has come along to replace them. Nostalgia is certainly a strong impulse, but do we really still need to see the Rolling Stones creak their old bodies across the stage or revive the old Allman Brother with a mere two original members and fewer hit tunes than brain cells since 1973?

A little more than a decade ago, the hybrid move of music showed great promise for the future. Since then, Ipods, p2p and other technological advances have seriously endangered the fate of the music industry. Their response has been to charge astronomical prices for concerts of the hottest acts, to create carefully constructed brands that safely replicate the past and to reduce their catalogs and focus on one has been rejuvenation after another and anything teenage girls and boys will listen to. In line with this general movement is the latest Rolling Stone issue, which treats the maligned Jonas Brothers with far too much earnestness and respect. The boys have no life outside music, of course, except some dating that does not include sex (the three have signed on to abstain until marriage) and seem to have more business acumen than actual talent. Is this really the future we want for our children and our art? It's nothing new really, but the encomiums we too often offer to teenage stars and their skills at branding, marketing and essentially selling themselves as what other teenagers want may be overlooking the overarching trend to commodify everything in sight. I will stop here for now, but continue with this theme this week . . .

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Jobless Recovery: Good for Absolutely No One

The LA Times leads today with the likelihood that we will have another jobless recovery, following those of 1990-91 and 2001 (,0,4591258,print.story). Many jobs have been permanently lost, consumer spending is unlikely to truly recover in the short run and employers will probably increase hours for those who are lucky enough to have kept their jobs before they actually hire anyone new. Two points should be made about this recovery though. First, the magnitude of unemployment is different here – currently hovering at 9.4% and expected to top 10% next year. The reality is that the U.S. has been underreporting both unemployment and inflation since the 70s and the situation is thus even worse than it appears. Second, these jobless recoveries point at a more fundamental problem in the U.S. economy today – namely the lack of quality jobs and consumer spending. The latter has been the driving force of the American economy for some time, but with credit dried up, underpaid and underemployed (or unemployed) Americans can no longer afford to spend money they don’t have. While the recovery will implicitly lead to a rise in GDP, it is unclear that it has done much to address this central problem with the economy today. This is particularly true given the fact that we have permanently lost high paying jobs on Wall Street and among the most well-paid blue collar jobs (in the auto industry). It is further amplified by those who are underemployed (working part-time, without benefits or in jobs they are overqualified for). The large temporary workforce and outsourcing that have grown in recent years increase insecurity and the tenuous line between financial stability and crisis for far too many Americans.

The fundamental issue is the unequal distribution of costs and benefits in society. Since the 70s, the income gap between rich and poor has been increasing and the U.S. economy has continued to grow primarily because of unrewarded productivity increases that have largely gone to the top of the economic ladder and spending far into debt by everyone else. This is unsustainable in the long run. Obama talked about addressing this fundamental issue during the campaign, but beyond rhetoric has done little to really confront the central problem – i.e., government must intervene to ensure more equitable distribution. In fact, the relief and recovery act has done more to exacerbate the problem, by alleviating the risk associated with prior bad decisions for those at the top of the economic ladder while doing little to help the disempowered victims of those decisions. In the long run, this is the only way to have a real recovery that will benefit the average American.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Conservative Discourse

This story is a few days old, but a perfect example of the increasingly common Republican tactic of invoking their victimhood at the hands of a "liberal media," activist judges, successful "feminists" and women in general, Blacks and Latinos, godless liberal professsors and everyone else that disagrees with them in any way. When Bush was in powers, the victim mentality was insane -- but now they can at least take umbrage from the fact much of America disagrees with them. Unfortunately, the feckless "liberal" media does continue to allow Republicans to largely frame the debate and have effectively turned the discussion to deficits at a time that unemployment rates are near 10% and the American economy continues to fester in its worst economic recession since the Great Depression.

Fox News Suggests The Media May Be Pushing Obama's Agenda
By Nicole Belle Sunday Jun 21, 2009 6:00pm
Oh noes! None of the right wing talking points that Roger Ailes has been distributing to his minions seems to be taking hold. Despite their best effort to throw all sorts of poo at the president, Obama still appears to be very popular with the American people. What's a RNC propaganda outlet to do? Declare that the mainstream media is in bed with Obama, naturally.
WALLACE: So let’s go over the record, and let’s put it up on the screen. CBS is running an interview today with Barack Obama , “An American Dad.” ABC is running coverage throughout the day on Wednesday of President Obama’s health care plan including a prime-time town hall. NBC just ran two specials, “Inside the Obama White House.” Tom Brokaw was named this week to a presidential commission. And Newsweek has put Mr. Obama on the cover 19 times since 2004. Steve Hayes, how do you explain all of that?
HAYES: A lot of people call Newsweek now “Obamaweek” because they’ve put him on so often. Look, I mean, clearly, his joke about rolling over and finding Brian Williams is more than just a joke. I mean, I think the sense is -- and you’ve provided evidence that it’s true -- that he’s in bed -- the media are in bed with Barack Obama.
Wow. The media is covering the "leader of the free world"! That's some seriously deviant and ideologically-driven behavior...right? Right?
Or maybe not so much. Aside from the Freudian implications of using the "in bed with" metaphor, I'm curious when Fox News decided they weren't mainstream. Haven't they been insisting that the country is right and they are correctly reflecting the country's values?
But the general lack of self-examination is comical. Fox News--who never met a Bushie that they didn't kneel before and service--thinks the media is too kind to Obama? Uh right. That's why we had stories within the first month all over the media debating whether the honeymoon was over?
Even Mara Liasson, no big friend to the administration, admits that the comparison to the favorable coverage of Bush and Clinton is not entirely fair, since Bush was still embroiled in the aftermath of his contested ascension (and taking vacation days) and Clinton flubbed up badly, pushing too aggressive an agenda. But Wallace doesn't want taint this smear with any actual facts:
LIASSON: On the other hand, some of those numbers are reflective of -- look, Bill Clinton had an incredibly chaotic first 100 days. There was a pratfall every other day to cover. George Bush was the result of -- I’m assuming that was the first term -- was the result of...
LIASSON: ... a contested election. And Barack Obama came in as a real majority winner. He has a big majority in Congress.
WALLACE: Oh, come on, don't you think some of it is because he’s got liberal ideas?
Does Wallace not realize that by characterizing this all as being mainstream--the love of Obama's "liberal" ideas (and as a liberal, I wish he was way MORE liberal) and the monolithic media that love him--he is de facto admitting that Fox is out of the mainstream?
Damn conservatives, their logic fails them every time.
WALLACE: And that was President Obama at a dinner with reporters Friday making his own joke about what many believe is a sweetheart relationship between the White House and the mainstream media.
YORK: You know, this has led to a certain undertone of contempt from Obama to the press. Did you -- I felt that in the Brian Williams joke and at the earlier White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama said, “Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me.”
But the Pew poll that you mentioned earlier about the positive coverage said that in this case, in Obama’s case, as was not the case with Bush or Clinton, an enormous amount of the coverage focused on the president’s personal characteristics, his personal appeal, rather than his policy stuff, what he actually wants to do.
And the question and the test for the press is going to come this summer where we do have a huge debate over health care. I guess ABC has voted already. But we are going to have a huge debate over health care, and will they really cover specifically what it is he wants to do?