Friday, March 18, 2011

You Don’t Need the Boss, the Boss Needs You

On Monday, I stood in the rain on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento with thousands of students and workers to protest further deep cuts to California’s beleaguered public infrastructure. Last Saturday, over 85,000 people marched in Madison, Wisconsin in support of the basic rights of workers to collectively bargain. What these actions have in common, aside from being largely ignored by corporate media outlets, is a renewed commitment to resisting the relentless assault on the American middle class exemplified by Governor Scott Walker’s phantom anti-worker agenda in Wisconsin and the persistent lack of democracy in California.

In last fall’s elections, Scott Walker did not campaign on stripping the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Yet that has become the non-negotiable central goal of his brief tenure in office. Similarly, the progressives who swept every statewide office in California while continuing to hold commanding majorities in both chambers of the legislature did not campaign on a platform of cutting further billions from California’s education and health care systems. But such cuts are the most conspicuous feature of Jerry Brown’s proposed budget.

Electoral democracy has effectively ceased to function across vast swaths of the federal, state and local governments of the United States of America. This did not happen by accident, but rather is part of a plan orchestrated and carried out by a relatively small group of wealthy plutocrats and radical right-wing ideologues with converging interests. They accept frequent assistance from heedlessly self-interested corporations particularly those in the financial industry along with various fundamentalist Christian organizations. All of this may sound like a conspiracy theory, but I would hardly call it that. Much of this plan has been carried out in the open and there is extensive literature documenting it all the way back to the late 1970s. A recent example of this documentation would be Jane Meyers’ extensive investigative report for the New Yorker on the hugely influential political activities of the Koch brothers, who are well known industrial billionaires that believe in radically remaking the U.S. to have an authoritarian government exclusively of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

For these reasons, elections can no longer be the principal means that the American people use to express their political will because the results of elections have become increasingly detached from actual government policymaking. One can look at the unanticipated but vicious attacks on workers rights across the Midwest, or California’s non-democratic legislature, or the absurdly dysfunctional institution that is the United States Senate, to know with certainty that this assertion is true. Voting is still important and seems to occasionally yield results, but the machinery of governance has become too disconnected from the voting booth for it to be reliable as the primary democratic action. I am advocating that given the deteriorating position of the middle class and the perilous state of global climate systems, U.S. citizenship demands more from those who benefit from its rights and privileges.

But what else can we do? If the electoral process is too corrupt to be effective and a self-selected billionaire elite is systematically dismantling democratic self-government, it would seem that despair is our only option. Except to believe that would only be buying into the modern mythology about ultra wealthy people. We are meant to believe they are wealthy because they are brilliant, or talented, or because they add untold value to our economy, or even due to a preternatural luck that the rest of us cannot access. But in reality, they are only rich because of us. The Koch brothers are nothing more than a pair of clever thugs who have helped push the government to systematically redistribute the wealth of the nation upwards for the last thirty years, some of it into their own pockets. We make them wealthy and we can stop anytime we want.

When I was in Sacramento, there were huge numbers of students from community colleges and CSUs, but very few from the University of California. I think that is because UC students do not understand that we don’t need the boss. Rather, the boss needs us. Put simply: the University of California, the state of California, the United States of America and most especially the moneyed elites that have driven our country into a ditch, can only function if students keep going to school, workers keep going to work, and the police keep securing the institutions of public and private governance against the collective will of the governed. What would happen if we just stopped playing their game?

Crossposted at the Cal Dems Blog.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

But Really, America is Not Broke

Recently, Michael Moore made a speech to protestors in Wisconsin which was published as an editorial in the Huffington Post under the title "America is Not Broke." The idea that America is not, in fact, broke has come as a surprise to many. Don't we have a giant federal budget deficit? Aren't state governments (including our own here in California) scrambling to deal with massive shortfalls? What about high unemployment? And on and on. The geniuses at recently decided to tap into such misunderstandings in order to make the following highly misleading video:

The breathtakingly ugly dude in this video either has no understanding of how finance works, or he is being deliberately obtuse in order to keep his viewers from understanding the financial condition of the U.S. The most obvious way to look at whether the US government is broke is to look at interest rates on federal government bonds. This is the same as looking at how much the government has to pay to borrow money. If we were broke, this interest rate would be astronomical because people would risk lending to us only in exchange for very high returns. As it stands today, the interest rate on government bonds is at record lows. That means it's cheaper for the US government to borrow right now than at any time in recent history. Needless to say, this would not happen if the country was bankrupt unless markets are completely irrational. If Republicans think the U.S. is broke and can't afford to borrow any more money, then what logically follows is that they believe that markets are completely irrational.

Another way of looking at this question (Is America Broke?) is to look at our debt-to-GDP ratio. This ratio compares public debt to the total wealth of our economy, and its useful for making historical and international comparisons. Our debt-to-GDP ratio is currently high, but much much lower than it was right after World War II. Despite this much bigger public debt after World War II, there was a massive postwar economic boom. In other words, America was either broke during the postwar economic boom that created the modern American middle class or it's not broke right now. You pick.

Finally, this pitifully hideous dude from the video completely ignores Michael Moore's point in favor of making glib remarks about Charlie Sheen. Moore is not denying that federal, state and local governments face significant budget deficits, he is saying that the reason they face deficits is due to a series of government policies in recent decades that culminated in the Bush years. These policies were, in effect, massive wealth transfer policies that redistributed money and economic power from the middle class to the super rich. And while you can quibble about the nature of those policies, what there is no question about is the wealth of this nation. America is still the richest country in the world. We are not, by any means or honest measurement, broke.

Originally posted on March 10, 2011 at the Cal Democrats Blog.

Don't Worry About the Market

After a self-imposed exile from political writing, as well as an accompanying partial news blackout, my growing addiction to movies metastisized to a nearly unfathomable degree. While I will continue to chronicle this addiction regularly, the recent events in my home state of Wisconsin have made it untenable for me to continue avoiding comment on politics, economics and the like. On these subjects, I plan to begin writing about how the radical right wing of this country has been using government to further enrich the rich while screwing the rest of us along with some discussion of how ordinary people can fight back.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

182 Movies, 285 Days

2010. 84 minutes. USA. Directed by Rob Epstein and Friedman Watchdate: 10/9/2010
A terrible disappointment. I haven't seen many movies that squander so much potential in every possible way. Apart from excellent performances by James Franco, David Straithern and Jeff Daniels among others, and the poem itself which is as brilliant is ever, almost nothing worked about this movie. And there were so many good ideas that were so poorly executed! Combining animation with documentary and live action dramatization? Right on, I'm with you. But don't get cheap, generic animation. Don't drop using the documentary footage inserts halfway through the movie. Don't shoot dramatizations devoid of all drama. What a waste of time, especially considering what could have been.

Throne of Blood 
1957. 109 minutes. Japan. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Watchdate: 10/9/2010
Having designed lights for a stage production of Macbeth, I have seen the play and its component scenes dozens of times or more so I know it backwards and forwards. Of course, I didn't really remember how well I knew it until I watched Kurosawa's version on the big screen (Pacific Film Archive, of course). It's a fairly faithful adaptation but changes the setting to medieval Japan (it's Kurosawa, where else?). I wasn't crazy about how Lady Macbeth and Banquo were handled in this version, but Mifune was great as Macbeth and I absolutely loved the ghostly apparition that took the place of the witches. Also, Macbeth's death by ten thousand arrows is one of the coolest endings of any movie ever. So the movie had that going for it.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
1989. 104 minutes. USA. Directed by Woody Allen. Watchdate: 10/7/2010
This would be my third or fourth viewing of one of the best Woody Allen movies. My roommate put it on, and I didn't plan to watch the whole thing but I got sucked it once again. Alan Alda is beyond superb, delivering one of the best comedic performances ever. "If it BENDS, it's funny. If it BREAKS, it's not funny." Interestingly enough,  perhaps the movie's greatest strength and greatest weakness are one and the same: an unashamed willingness to be completely explicit about its themes, aims and purpose.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Too Many Movies, Too Many Days

Map of the Human Heart 
1993. 109 minutes. Directed by Vincent Ward. Watchdate: October 18, 2010.
Map of the Human Heart was thoroughly mediocre. A handful of cool moments, but otherwise a lot blandness and more than a few clichés. Also, Jason Scott Lee was really bad. The beginning was not bad. It seemed like a very different, interesting movie. But as soon as the children grow up, and Jason Scott Lee enters the picture, everything goes to shit, or at best boring mediocrity. The script has some interesting ideas but never really develops them, and while it avoids the worst cliches, it still never hits on anything as compelling as the first twenty minutes. But Jason Scott Lee easily takes the title of the worst part of the movie, singlehandedly draining much of my enjoyment. I hope to never see his face, or his unbelievably limited range again.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger 
2010. UK. Directed by Woody Allen. Watchdate: October 14, 2010.
The new Woody Allen comedy is as confident and funny as Vicky Cristina Barcelona from two years ago, if slightly less novel because it lacks the Spanish setting and any performances quite as electrifying as Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. Still, I enjoyed it a lot with Anthony Hopkins and Naomi Watts really bringing their A game. Also, there's a marvelous scene where Antonio Banderas takes on the classic Woody persona. It's brilliant, especially if you're a big fan like I am. It was fortuitous that I watched Alice shortly before this, because they each offer slightly differing takes on the value of delusion and fantasy in a world that Allen views to be, as always, fairly bleak without some silliness and laughter.

Chimes at Midnight 

1965. 115 minutes. Spain. Directed by Orson Welles. Watchdate: October 14, 2010.
PFA was doing a "Shakespeare on Screen" retrospective so I got to see this and Throne of Blood, but I missed Welles' Macbeth and some other interesting ones. This didn't hold my interest as raptly as the other two Welles movies I have seen, but it still works pretty well. I'm not that familiar with Shakespeare's histories, but the scene where Falstaff is "enlisting" soldiers from the hobbled locals is brilliant as was the ending which is just a really powerful comment on the nature of these sorts of high end friendships. The comically bloated (and heavily bearded) Welles is perfect as Falstaff, since Shakespeare seemed to have thought up enough fat jokes for the character to only work if played by a real meat show.

I Walked with a Zombie 
1943. 69 minutes. USA. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Watchdate: October 13, 2010.

I Walked With a Zombie was fairly good for a B picture. I sort of imagine a situation like out of Ed Wood where Tourneur says the name of the picture and the studio's all for it and then he turns in this sort of Caribbean visual discursion of Claude Lévi-Strauss with just a touch of Frantz Fanon.  Studio must have been pissed! Delightful. Anyway, it doesn't hold a candle to Out of the Past, but I didn't really expect it to...Tourneur's got quite an eye, though. The line about death and decay early on reminded me of Orson Welles describing the sharks in The Lady from Shanghai. Perfectly foreboding. Some great music and photography and a tantalizingly treatment of some really interesting questions of anthropology and decolonization elevate what would otherwise be a forgettable but spooky movie. Tourneur's got talent, no doubt.

Five Graves to Cairo 
1943. 96 minutes. USA. Directed by Billy Wilder. Watchdate: October 13, 2010.
Billy Wilder just makes consistently excellent movies, at least so far as I've seen. This isn't anything groundbreaking, but it's still damn good. It's similar to Casablanca in a lot of ways, but still manages to have its own unique character in no small part due to the brilliant Erich von Stroheim. Akim Tamiroff and Fortunio Bonanova are entertaining if a bit vapid. The best scenes evoke the same finely tuned World War II tension that would be borrowed for some of the most satisfying scenes of contemporary adventures like the Indiana Jones movies and Inglorious Basterds. Oh and the flashlight bit is brilliantly shot.

1990. 102 minutes. USA. Directed by Woody Allen. Watchdate: October 11, 2010.
This was among the dozen or so Woody Allen films I haven't yet seen, so I picked it up for a few bucks at a supermarket bargain bin. It took awhile to actually get around to it, but it's actually quite good. There are a handful of inspired scenes that keep the story moving engagingly along. Allen successfully dramatizes the benefits and costs of escapism and superstition. Joe Mantegna, William Hurt and Blythe Danner are all terrific, to say nothing of Mia Farrow or Alec Baldwin. Definitely middle-of-the-pack Woody Allen, but that's not nothing.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Movie Mania

Heavenly Creatures 
1994. 109 minutes. New Zealand. Directed by Peter Jackson.
I loved nearly every minute of this movie. Kate Winslet is always very good, but in her feature film debut she is beyond efflorescent. Peter Jackson constructed a movie as manic and mad as its subject matter. The movie is based on the true story of two young girls who one day decided to kill. The many scenes of the two girls playing outside are frightening for being simultaneously familiar and completely foreign. I was impressed the scenes where their rich fantasy world came to life because they could have screwed up so easily there. But instead it works seamlessly and ably predicts Jackson's later facility with the fantasy worlds of Middle Earth. Movies about madness tend to work best when they glide between unsettling and hilarious without missing a beat, and this movie does that better than nearly any other of its type. The unstinting look at forbidden sexuality and how it affects consciousness more broadly elevated this from superbly entertaining to something more thoughtful. My one complaint is that the ending came off as sort of pat maybe because the rest of the movie has so many elegant twists and turns. The murder scene is still disturbing as hell, though, I definitely recoiled on reflex.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 
1975. 133 minutes. USA. Directed by Milos Forman
Jack Nicholson is my favorite actor. Based on what I had heard, and having read the book, and all of that, I was expecting a lot from this. Probably too much. I think I have to have a new rule about Oscar winners: always lower expectations. Anyway, this was by no means bad. It's actually very good, even great. I love the sequence on the boat, the voting scene, the basketball bits -- all excellently done. The ending part where Nicholson chokes a bitch is astonishingly engaging. Even so, I can't help feeling some level of disappointment. As good as Nicholson is here, he has at least a half dozen better performances. In general, this movie was around or slightly above the level of The French Connection or The Deer Hunter among 1970s Best Picture winners, but I guess I was hoping for something that would approach the greatness of my favorite 70s movies and that just wasn't the case. It definitely made me think a lot about how my expectations affect my enjoyment of a movie.

PS - I mentioned movies about madness that glide between hilarious and unsettling and both of these movies do that to one extent or another, but others that fit into this subsubgenre include the quintessential example of American Psycho along with Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and A Scanner Darkly.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Dream Upon Waking

Institute Benjamenta or This Dream One Calls Human Life
1995. 104 minutes. UK. Directed by Stephen and Timothy Quay. Watchdate: 10/20/2010.
Institute Benjamenta is an exquisitely surreal diversion that reminded me a lot of Guy Maddin's Careful in a very good way. They both have lots of great imagery and are about men training to become servants who get involved in odd, Freudian love triangles.  In Benjamenta, I was especially struck by the bizarre choreography of all the men training to become servants. They move with an eery synchronization, and hit each other with dusty towels and things.

I was also surprised and delighted to realize that Herr Benjamenta was played by none other than Gottfried John, who I haven't seen in anything other than the James Bond movie of the same year. In Goldeneye, G-John takes a completely one-dimensional villain character (he's the underwritten part of a nefarious trio that includes Famke Janssen and Sean Bean) and actually made it a bit interesting to watch. As Herr Benjamenta, he actually pulls off creepy without being just creepy.

Institute Benjamenta also exemplifies a certain subgenre of movies that I quite enjoy. The subgenre generally features surreal elements and may deal with the concept of dreaming explicitly or implicitly. I don't have a name for it, but it's the type of movie that might be best enjoyed in a state halfway between being asleep and awake. The best examples I had before this were The Science of Sleep, Waking Life and Akira Kurosawa's Dreams. But Benjamenta fits nearly as well if not better. These sorts of movies should be experienced in a perpetual state of waking up when your mind is still relearning how to apprehend the world around you. If possible, your own dreams should subconsciously intermingle with the images and ideas of the movie.  Often, one can remove the soundtrack altogether, or use an alternative one in order to focus on the images (obviously this is something to try after a first viewing). Anyway, I'm glad a friend recommended this movie because it led me to articulate my thoughts on this obscure subgenre that exists mainly in my own mind.

PS - Looks like I FELL BEHIND. But soon I will CATCH UP. Don't you worry, dear readers, if there are any of you still out there.