Wednesday, October 31, 2012

An Unsatisfying Meal

Chicken with Plums
2011.  93 minutes. France. 
Directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi. Watchdate: 4/30/2012.
Chicken with Plums is an entirely pleasant and mild movie that borders on being insufferably middle of the road. The absurdly cartoonish elements aren't particularly funny and the maudlin romantic moments aren't particularly moving, but there are a few scenes worthy of attention, particularly a long sequence that ends with some amusing opium-related comic business.

I haven't seen Persepolis so I can't compare it to the filmmaker's previous work, though I don't feel like I'm in more of rush to see Persepolis based on the style exhibited in this movie.

Sometimes I want to excoriate these middling kinds of movies, but it seems ornery and ideological to do so. What's the point of generating hatred where none existed before?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

California Bassackwards! No on Prop 31

California Forward, a non-partisan front group for sanctimonious centrists who think problems can be solved by anodyne nonsense and half-measures, has polluted the ballot in our state with a truly moronic proposition that would give large businesses the ability to elude environmental regulations by playing county governments against each other. While it purports to move power and authority down to the local level, it would have the effect of giving private business entities the power to rewrite California's laws as long as they can convince already beleaguered local governments to go along with them.

I am a strong supporter of the principle of local control of decision-making. Every day, city governments all over the country enact great policies that federal and state governments are too sluggish and cowardly to touch. But often "bringing power back to local government" is code for "corporate privatization of laws and regulations", in the same sense that "states rights" is often code for "white supremacism." I don't know if the folks at California Forward are actually so stupid as to not know the difference between the two or if they're actually going out of their way to hand power to big monied interests, but based on prior knowledge of the organization I would say it's likely some combination of both.

The "common sense" centrism espoused by groups like California serves two distinct purposes. First, it's a subconscious pose by intellectual lightweights attempting to appear as if they have thought through the issues and come to the conclusion that both sides of the debate are half right. Second, it's an attempt to cloak nasty, brutish policies in the guise of reasonable compromise.

To illustrate what I mean, let's consider California Forward's stance on legislative minority rule in California. Or should I say, lack of a stance on legislative minority rule in California. If you're unfamiliar with California politics, you might not be aware that our state's finances are held hostage to the whims of an entrenched minority in the legislature. Because of an obscure portion of a law passed more than thirty years ago, one third of the state legislature can block any measure to raise new revenue to pay for public goods like education, health care, public safety and transit infrastructure. An entrenched minority has taken advantage of this rule to control the state's fiscal trajectory.

One would think an organization dedicated to reforming political institutions and improving the finances of the state would at least mention this major issue on their website. But legislative minority rule does not receive any attention from California Forward. How could this be?

Well, sensible centrism would have you believe we can't afford to adequately fund public education in California because the people's elected legislators won't vote to fund it. But voters support increased support for public education by wide margins. Likewise, a majority of California legislators want to pass measures like the no-brainer oil extraction fee that would charge oil companies to drill in the state just like Alaska and Texas do. This would bring in new revenue that could fund the public's priorities But a minority blocks all attempts to revenue. So here we are.

I apologize if you read this far expecting a thoughtful dissection of California Forward as a representative for milquetoast centrism that fucks over the working class every day of the week. Unfortunately, it turns out I just have a grudge against them for not backing the California Democracy Act back in 2010. Sorry about that.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Possible Successors to Warren Buffett, "The Oracle of Omaha"

Woodrow Eastwick, The Prophet of Peoria
Hector Wentworth, The Wizard of Wichita
Ray Pinchot, The Shaman of Shreveport
Earl Norris, The Diviner of Duluth
Spiro Fallon, The Telepath of Topeka
Hamish Perlmutter, The Clairvoyant of Cleveland
Hoover Framingham, The Nostradamus of Nashville
Jeremiah Hubbard, The Buddha of Bloomington
Neve Linklater, The Sage of Salt Lake City
Thomas Mogenson, The Enchanter of Evansville
Isaac Fairbanks, The Sorcerer of Springfield
Adam Tertius, The Guru of Grand Rapids
Victor Kerosene, The Mage of Missoula

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Come on Down to Barleycorn's for the Holy Spectacle and an Unbeatable BLT

At 9:01am, Barleycorn's is a church, a temple, a place of worship with mass three times per day, prayer in the direction of the Black Monolith five times per day, and a reading of the Sacred Scrolls of Wisdom by Rabbi Michael Lerner at least once per week. Barleycorn's is located with building that has a steeple, a bell tower, and two minarets, along with stalactites, stalagmites, and many other pseudo-natural wonders. At around 8pm (or just after sunset, whichever comes first), Barleycorn's closes down, the last prayer said, the last mass read.

At 9:01pm, Barleycorn's reopens as an all-night diner. It serves hot pastrami, corned beef, roast beef au jus, meatloaf, chicken salad, tuna salad, potato salad, bacon, lettuce and tomato, meatball sub, macaroni and cheese, fried mozzarella sticks, grilled cheese, chicken soup for the soul, chicken parmesan, chicken cacciatore, chicken kiev, chicken fried steak, chinese chicken salad, bbq pork bun, cobb salad, taco salad, breakfast burrito, tabouli, all manner of omelettes and benedicts, french toast, belgian waffles, canadian bacon, hot pots of coffee, cold pitchers of beer...
Barleycorn's in the daytime.
Barleycorn's maintains a jukebox from the 70s with decades of records. In the back is a pool table and several pinball machines. It stops serving at 7:30am and closes about a half hour later. If you're in the area, come on down and and have a bite.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Question of Choice

Lake of Fire
2006.  152 minutes. USA. Directed by Tony Kaye. Watchdate: 1/21/2012.
On the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, I watched this frightening but insightful documentary about abortion that actually gives a fair consideration of the morality of the issue without resorting to the false equivalence of "evenhandedness" when examining the political aspects of the same. The pro-life movement is based on patriarchal authoritarianism and the radical parts of it are totally nuts and at times, extremely dangerous. The movie doesn't pull any punches about that reality.

That being said, it does take seriously the philosophical questions that ask about what constitutes life, and the movie shows just enough footage of actual abortions to allow for a real discussion without becoming exploitative. Shot in stark black and white photography, there are a few shots that really stood out to me. It's definitely a thought provoking and worthwhile documentary.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Most Important Political Story of the Year not the United States presidential election. There, I said it. It's not that I don't think it's very important who wins the presidential election. It's very important who wins. For example, if Mitt Romney wins, it's likely his administration will eviscerate both Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, depriving tens of millions of the Americans of health care. That would be tragic.

But the most important political story of 2012 is the growing wave of strike actions at Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the entire world. Wal-Mart is virulently anti-union and entirely non-unionized, meaning these actions are taking place largely outside the federal government's legal framework of labor conflict resolution governed by Wagner Act.

This is huge.

Wildcat strikes at the world's largest employers mean that labor organizing in the United States is far from dead, despite the many obituaries written for it by both conservatives and liberals. And if you care at all about building a more fair and just society, you should be very happy about this turn of events. As Harold Meyerson recently argued, a future without a labor movement is likely a future without any kind of progress at all on a broad range of social justice concerns.
And here's what's truly remarkable: workers striking against Wal-Mart are actually winning. They are beating the 16 billion pound gorilla:
Workers at the Elwood, Illinois Walmart distribution center won full back pay for the three weeks they were out on strike. Workers at the Mira Loma, California distribution center returned to work after two weeks with nobody fired and a commitment from Walmart to monitor its contractors’ safety performance more closely. And groups of Walmart store workers who have struck in cities across the country to protest wages and working conditions have done so without facing company retaliation.
This is by far the most promising sociopolitical news in the United States since the birth of the Occupy movement last fall. In many ways, it's even more promising. And between the two, we may be starting to see the coalescence of a broad alliance of ordinary working people that resembles that which revolutionized this country back in the 1930s after the last Great Depression.
That statement could be fairly called too optimistic. But if you are sick of the direction the United States is moving in, don't sit on the sidelines any longer. Things are starting to change because real people are starting to change it. If you want change, don't just complain; don't sit on your ass and watch MSNBC. Act.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Offensive, Condescending, and Tone Deaf

"I know picking words that don't sound terrible isn't Mitt Romney's strong suit, but..."

During yesterday's presidential debate, Mitt Romney responded to a question about pay equity for women with an answer so tin-earred, it took my breath away:
Thank you. And — important topic and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the — the chance to pull together a Cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I — and I went to my staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are — are all men? They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said, well, gosh, can’t we — can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified? 
And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of — of women. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America. 
Now, one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can’t be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for — making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said, fine, let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you. 
Romney answered a question about gender discrimination by telling an anecdote about how he had to accomodate a woman on his staff who wanted to be home in time to make dinner for her family. This is a candidate who has just demonstrated, quite remarkably, that he is as tone deaf on gender issues as he is on class issues.

The saddest part is that there is absolutely nothing wrong about a mother or father wanting to spend time with their children. A recent episode of the television show Louie sensitively addressed the tension between career advancement and family commitments from a male perspective. Sheryl Sandberg and Ann-Marie Slaughter have had a very public debate about the same topic from a female perspective. Yet somehow Romney has to frame it in the most regressive Leave It To Beaver Back to the 50s way possible. Awesome.

Monday, October 15, 2012

End This Jobs Crisis Now!

If I held public office right now, this is the speech I would make over and over again. I would stand on every soapbox that would have me delivering this message. And I would probably be ignored or marginalized.

"The official unemployment rate is nearly double what used to be considered normal just a few short years ago. And that official rate does not even include millions of underemployed and long term unemployed Americans. Years after the financial crisis, employment in this country is still deeply depressed. Not only does this mean untold hardship for millions of unemployed Americans and their families, but it is also causing permanent damage to our economy since long term unemployment damages the skills and earning power of workers forever. Given this stark reality, it is unconscionable that the leadership of this country is not doing everything in its power to end this jobs crisis now.

"The saying goes that those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. If that's true, a lot of politicians in Washington don't know their American history. We have been through this before. A financial crisis destabilizing the real economy causing a collapse in spending, investment and employment is exactly what happened in the Great Depression. We also know what finally got the country out of the Great Depression. It was the massive effort to prepare this country to fight the Second World War that pulled us out of long term economic malaise. The war effort made it so there was enough work to go around for everyone. 

"This time, we made an effort to deal with the Great Recession early on called the Recovery Act. We came together and starting putting people back to work. And guess what? It's not popular to say this, but it worked. We went from job losses to job gains, from a shrinking economy to a growing economy, from a tanking stock market to a recovered stock market. We've recovered faster than our allies in the UK and Europe, and our recovery is going faster than comparable examples from other countries as well as our own in the past century. 

"The only problem is, the Recovery Act wasn't big enough or sustained enough to finish the job. Now look, this isn't too complicated. When the fire department doesn't have enough hoses to put out a fire completely, they don't just give up and look for an alternative to water. They call for more trucks and helicopters with more hoses until the job is done! That's how ordinary folks deal with an emergency. They roll up their sleeves and keep working at it. They use the best knowledge they have to fix it. Only in Washington do you see people throw up their hands and start working on other problems while the house is still on fire. We can do better. We must do better.

"We have got to put people back to work. That's the number one thing. Ask any business owner out there about what's stopping them from hiring or adding hours or making new investments and they'll tell you, they just don't see the customers. That's not just me talking, that's every survey that's been done - they all show business owners are waiting until they get all their customers back before they start hiring seriously and making big investments again. But a customer is just another word for a worker. More workers means more customers. More unemployment means less customers. The more people we put back to work, the more customers businesses will have which means they'll hire more too.

"But maybe your saying to yourself, a world war isn't around the corner, nor would we ever want it to be, so there just isn't anything we can all come together to work on. I am not suggesting, as Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has said facetiously, that we should waste a bunch of money on a military buildup to combat a fictionalized alien menace. But the truth is, we have plenty to do, and there are plenty of jobs to put people back to work doing. Let's start with the low hanging fruit. Right now, this country has fewer firefighters, police officers and teachers than it had before the financial crisis, even though crime hasn't gone down, fires haven't stopped, and there's even more kids looking for an education. So let's rehire firefighters, rehire police officers, rehire great teachers and then some. Public safety and education are important, let's make it a priority again.

"Second, we have a rapidly deteriorating infrastructure. One fourth of all American bridges carry more traffic than their intended capacity or are badly in need of repair. One third of all American roads are in substandard condition. 4,095 American dams are at risk of failure. That number has doubled in the past fifteen years. American sewer systems leak more than a trillion gallons of untreated sewage every single year due to decay and disrepair. We spend more than $50 billion each year just cleaning up that sewage. Why don't we take that money and spend it rebuilding these public systems that are the backbone of our economy and put the unemployed to work doing it? And interest rates are so low right now, it's actually a really cheap investment with a high rate of return since we need this infrastructure in order to function effectively.

"And lastly, we need a revolution in the way we produce and consume energy. Our foreign policy is dominated by concerns about our foreign oil supply. American agriculture is unsustainably dependent on artificially cheap fossil fuels. The burning fossil fuels is poisoning our environment leading to adverse health effects for millions of American families and destroying livelihoods along coastlines every time there's an oil spill. Not to mention that the pollution is destabilizing the climate, causing extreme weather events and further endangering food supply with droughts. A world war might not be around the corner, thank God, but we have a huge project ahead of us, and that is reinventing our energy economy to run on the clean, renewable and increasingly cheap energy sources of the future. We have millions of people unemployed and a massive project to take on the 21st century's biggest challenges just waiting to get started. Problem, meet solution."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Batarang Culture

The Dark Knight Rises
2012. 164 minutes. USA. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Watchdate: 7/20/2012.
If The Dark Knight was The Godfather Part II of comic book movies, this movie is thankfully not The Godfather Part III of comic book movies (that dubious honor belongs to X3: X-Men United). That may not be the kindest way to begin discussing this movie, but it feels honest to me. Leaving aside the tragic events that occurred in Colorado when the movie opened, I see a lot to like about The Dark Knight Rises but it is also clear to me that all of The Dark Knight's weaknesses are present with interest in this sequel - the hurried editing, the narrative overambition, the underdeveloped characters.

However, the biggest problem is that these weaknesses are not excused by strengths nearly as formidable as those of its predecessor. Still, I will give the movie a considerable amount of credit for two of its overarching aspects. First, its sly determination to bring a dizzying coherency to the three movies as a trilogy. Second, and more importantly, its unflinching commitment to exploring complex contemporary political and cultural phenomena without any reliance on pat answers (or even simplistic interpretations) within the vehicle of a loud summer blockbuster. More than any other filmmaker working on adapting comic books in Hollywood, Christopher Nolan continually shows a willingness to challenge the assumptions of heroism itself and to stride into moral gray areas with his 'superhero' characters and massive audience in tow. For seamlessly weaving all of chief tensions of our age into pulpy entertainment, the movie deserves plaudits.

When I promised a follow up to my post about the movie theater shootings in Colorado, I had in mind some grand ambition about drawing together Christopher Nolan's operatic exploration of the War on Terror and post-crisis economic inequality with the horrifying dimensions of the movie theater killer's madness and even including my own personal experience of hearing the breaking news of the midnight shootings as I stood in line for the movie. Now, I think I am incapable of doing so. I'm not even sure doing that would be a good idea.

But I still feel it's important to praise the intelligence and political ambition of Nolan's Batman trilogy in an age of pointedly brainless blockbuster adventures that thoughtlessly glorify stupid violence and substitute explosions and backflipping cars for theme and narrative coherency. Nor did Nolan take the easy route of polemicizing some stance on the War on Terror in The Dark Knight or Occupy Wall Street in The Dark Knight Rises.

Instead, he gave us quiet moments of doubt - Morgan Freeman's righteous protests over the surveillance device in The Dark Knight, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's disappointment with the willfully opportunistic dishonesty (i.e. corruption) of his police detective idols in The Dark Knight Rises. The latter moment probably qualifies as the primary saving grace of a movie that teeters on the brink of being a noisy machine with far less sophistication than the rest of the trilogy. For that reason, a better title for the movie might have been Joseph Gordon-Levitt Rises.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Submerged Jealousy

A few days ago on the way to work, I had a more visceral reaction to literature than I have ever had before. I am currently reading 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. The reaction was caused by a scene in which the scholars Pelletier and Espinoza (a twentieth century Bouvard and Pécuchet to be sure) attack a Pakistani cab driver in London over an insult. The cabbie had called the two of them pimps and their mutual ex-girlfriend a whore. As best as I can tell, this is actually a quite realistic depiction about how much senseless violence gets started in this world. How crude and how ridiculous.

Before the attack happens at the very end of the scene, I had identified quite deeply with the jealousy that Pelletier and Espinoza felt due to the unraveling of their relationship with Liz Norton due to recent events in my own life. I identified even more with Pelletier and Espinoza's self-mockery of their own jealousy. But when the sequence took a turn for the bizarre with the cabbie's untoward suggestions that his fares were flesh merchants, I felt myself begin to follow Pelletier and Espinoza right down into an abyss self-aggrandizing violence. When Espinoza pulls the cabbie out of the car in order to slap him around, I was cheering his actions. Then as it quickly devolved into a merciless beating, I recoiled in horror in how far I was willing to go to salve my own feelings on inadequacy.

There is a reason that 2666 is the sixth novel by Bolaño that I have tackled this year. This is it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Is That It?

Do the Right Thing
1989. 120 minutes. USA. Directed by Spike Lee. Watchdate: 8/26/2012.
Like La Dolce Vita and In A Lonely Place, Do the Right Thing is one of the those movies that works well enough for most of its running time but then in the final thirty minutes or so launches stratospherically into being one of the most affecting, astonishingly brilliant movies ever.

It may be worth praising the standout performances of Ossie Davis, Danny Aiello, and John Turturro, but this is a case where praising any one part of the movie won't suffice because the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. It's not about what the movie is, it's about how the movies grows to be.

She's Gotta Have It and Mo Betta Blues went along way to convincing me that Spike Lee shares a lot of filmmaking vocabulary in common with Woody Allen. This movie began by confirming that assumption and ended by completely, utterly upsetting it.

Lastly, the more erudite cineaste might downgrade Do the Right Thing for its forthright directness. I would counter that it is direct without being at all obvious, cloying, or easy, and that its climax and denouement ask as many questions as they answer. What I mean to say is that this movie is direct without sacrificing an iota of complexity. I don't think it could be any other way.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Xtreme Weather

The truth is not just inconvenient anymore. It's obvious. Whether it's extended droughts, historic heat waves, wildfires that burn hotter and longer than ever, or more frequent and intense hurricanes and tornadoes, you don't have to go to the Arctic in the summer (where a third of the sea ice is gone) to get that global warming is already having a dramatic affect on climatological conditions all over the world.

As these photos from NASA's Extreme Weather Event Photo Contest demonstrate, global warming is going to be awesome.
Photo Credit: Grant Petty
Photo Credit: Jason Weingart
Not in the "The Black Keys played an awesome show at the Warfield last night" way, but rather the "The shockwave sent out by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs and altered Earth forever must have been an awesome sight" way.

Photo Credit: Meggan Wood
Photo Credit: Brian Allen
Keep in mind, the federal government currently has the ability to borrow money at near zero or even negative yields. To put that into plain English, the federal government can borrow money from lenders who will actually pay us (the taxpayers) for the privilege. We can afford to end our country's leading role in the carbon emission contribution sweepstakes right now. We could responsibly borrow the money necessary to rebuild our infrastructure over the next few years to use sustainable sources of energy.

This would mean an upgrade to electrical grid that wastes ungodly amounts of energy right now. It would mean replacing coal power plants with wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, geothermal power plants, and lots of solar panels. (We could be putting solar panels on the tops of thousands of buildings like Germany has already done.) It would mean weatherizing every home in the country. It would mean building more mass transit networks to take cars off the road. It would mean paying people to trade in for more fuel efficient (electric!) vehicles (Cash for Clunkers was and continues to be a pretty good idea).

Photo Credit: Brian Johnson
The main reason why rebuilding America in this manner won't happen is that the oil companies would have to write off trillions of dollars in assets. Awesome.