Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A History of Violence, or Why Sarah Palin Knows Exactly What She Is Saying

Why are Americans so enamored with guns and violence? What is the dog-whistle code in which Sarah Palin is speaking when she urges her Tea Party followers not to "retreat" but to "reload" with the "U.S. and Alabama flags" whipping in the wind behind her? Why does she insist on using the images of crosshairs on a map on which she "targets" Democratic incumbents?

Recognizing that the question of why we are so violent and into guns is well covered ground, here are what I would consider the primary historical factors.

First, our country was born out of armed conflict with -- an insurgency against -- Great Britain. Armed revolt holds a hallowed place in our history.

Second, the land on which our country was founded, and on which it grew, was ripped from the original inhabitants at gunpoint and (often) through actual slaughter. Might equalled right of possession in early American history. The image of swarthy savages being held off and precious beacons of (European) civilization spared through the use of violence is a standard part of American mythology.

Third, our nation relied heavily, in the first half of its history, on the peculiar institution of slavery, which was policed and managed through violence. The plantation masters' monopoly on violence and weapons allowed them to contain and discipline their slaves, who of course outnumbered their European masters.

The legacy of all of this is to lend a very special weight to the Tea Partier's -- and especially Palin's -- fixation on guns and arms. They are not simply referencing the celebrated history of armed resistance against the tyranny of King George; they are also referencing the greater firepower that allowed Europeans to clear the land of the savages and the monopoly on violence that allowed Europeans to enslave Africans. That's why, I believe, Palin knows exactly what she's doing in deploying her reckless terminology.

Fear of a Black President

To the Tea Party contingent, guns represent (1) what they view as their sacred right to violently overthrow the tyranny of a government lead by a black, crypto-Muslim man; (2) the power/right with which this land was claimed by their European ancestors (i.e. "true, blue-blooded [sic] Americans"), and (3) the force with which Africans (not so different from the ones currently living in the White House) were kept subjugated and obedient. Given our current position in history, one quickly sees why Palin's choice of words has so much resonance among this crowd. The Tea Partiers represent a dwindling demographic, feeling threatened by the encroaching blacks and browns, convinced that they are oppressed by a tyrannical government (from which a good number of them are happy to receive governmental assistance) run by a socialist crypto-Muslim half-breed.

The crypto-Confederate flag of Alabama, which was flown proudly behind Palin at the Searchlight, Nevada Tea Party rally.

Considering the recent rash of violence and threats in the wake of the passage of Health Care Reform, the charges against Christian militants in the midwest, etc., I hope that the reckless incitements of Palin and her fellow travellers -- and their moral responsibility -- are not forgotten should someone inspired by her or her crowd act upon those words.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Children, Parents, and Merit

As we move into the season of college acceptance (and rejection) letters, anxious seniors tearing open envelopes thick (or thin), my thoughts turn back to that ancient (and tired?) debate about individual merit.

Merit, in the context of school admissions, etc., is, in my view, an interesting and complicated issue that defies simple categories or easy answers.

For example, is the cultured, well rounded, articulate, well travelled high-school senior more meritorious than the daughter of immigrant parents -- parents who don't speak English well? Some kids grow up having Dickens and Austen read to them by parents who themselves went to the finest schools; the parents of these children usually have libraries full of books, engage their children all their lives in intelligent discussion, encourage their children to be well rounded, expose them to art, sports, other cultures, languages, etc. Other kids are raised by parents who don't speak English that well, who can’t afford to provide these kinds of opportunities to their kids, etc. (Many children of non-English speakers will, no doubt, have intelligent and thoughtful discussions in other languages, but that these discussions are not in English has consequences, I believe, on the SAT, in English verbal facility and confidence, etc.)

Is it fair to look at a seventeen-year-old and her accomplishments, many of which were scheduled, programmed, set up, and, not to put too fine a point on it, paid for and guaranteed by her cultured, educated parents and deem all of the seventeen-year-old’s accomplishments her own? Even the seventeen-year-old’s verbal facility, vocabulary, self-assertiveness, etc. -- the very core of her personality and qualities -- are not, if we’re being honest, I think, really her “own” –- whatever that may mean in this context. (And looked at this way, this may make any discussion of "owning" personal qualities impossible, given parenting, genes, disease, environment, etc.)

I don’t envy the position college admissions committees are placed in. The finest and most “meritorious” candidates – based on grades, activities, interests, abilities, skills, etc. -- will almost always come from households of educated parents –- whether those parents are rich or not. Children of parents who speak another language, who lack the same resources (financial, educational, cultural), etc., will often lack an entire childhood of education outside of the classroom.

I don’t know how these disparities should be accounted for. It’s not simply a question of affirmative action, though that is unavoidably part of this discussion. It’s also a question of taking economic and social status into account, and, further, recognizing that class perpetuates itself not solely through money, but through education as well. The children of parents who went to Stanford or Dartmouth or Amherst, etc., are likely to receive the benefits of seventeen years of education and stimulation that children of other parents will not be able to provide. And there's really no way to figure out what a child without such parents would have been able to accomplish if she had had such parents.

I believe what I’m saying is that a child’s accomplishments and achievements are often, to put it too simply, in truth the achievements of her parents.

I recognize that there’s an interesting discussion lurking here about the beneficial incentives to parents in doing the most they can to “improve” their children, that if the parents put in the effort, have the resources, it is not in the end “unjust” that their children reap the rewards, are deemed more “meritorious.” And I obviously haven't even touched on the issue of why children who have fast responses, whose brains process quickly, who learn quickly, etc. -- perhaps, not to be crass, children who have inherited "good genes" -- should be deemed more "meritorious" than other children. Are we rewarding genetic inheritance? Is it meritorious simply to be born smart? Or should we be instead rewarding effort, discipline, struggle? That is, should merit be something that should have to be earned, not simply inherited? What qualities or characteristics are "meritorious"? In determining merit, should we be attempting to consider individual achievements while correcting for the fortuitous benefits and advantages some children were born into or without (an obviously impossible task)?

Just something I was thinking about. As I said, I think the question defies easy answers. And it’s obvious, and will be the case till the end of time, that most parents (like my own, like yours) will do almost anything they can to try to improve the prospects of their children. That won't change. The question will always be, I think, how we decide which children -- who had no say in their parentage -- will be deemed "worthy" of access to the finest educations and opportunities. (And perhaps there's a question here for a lot of us about what we've actually "earned" and what we've simply received out of dumb luck and/or efforts made by others -- a question with answers that I know, for me, are humbling.)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

View from the Tank: Multi-Pak


A stunning film. Beyond its remarkably balanced and thoughtful treatment of both the resistance fighters and the French colonial forces, the film is also a technical marvel, in its use of music, its editing, and its cinematography. The film is shockingly relevant today, especially in highlighting the fluid and malleable nature of the label of terrorism, the futility of occupation, and the corrosive effect occupation has on the occupiers. Simply one of the greatest films I have ever seen. A+


Gripping, over-the-top, and enjoyable for a good part of the movie. The ending is a bit disappointing, as everyone has noted, though there are minor hints thrown in to try, unsuccessfully, to make the ending more complex than it is. As absorbing as the film is, the effect seems to dissipate immediately upon leaving the theater -- nothing stays with you. B-


In many ways, a hilarious film -- but possibly also a profound film. An often trippy take on the Book of Job, set to Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, and set in the aluminum-sided, squat ranch neighborhoods of 60's or 70's American suburbia. The Coen brothers riff on their greatest works here, but to a new, often dazzling effect. Their movies often feel like they keep trying to say something, over and over, in a way that we ultimately don't quite get (though we're kept thoroughly entertained all the while). Never has that feeling been as acute as it is here.

It does seem that the filmmakers are trying to say something by having the protagonist, Larry Gopnik, say, over and over, as the people around him take action and begin to destroy his world, "I haven't done anything!" Indeed, the film opens with the quote: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Gopnik is hounded throughout the film by someone calling from the Columbia Record Club: they want to be paid for the records they've been sending Gopnik. Gopnik (or his son) has apparently signed up for the Record Club, and they send him records, and charge him, if he doesn't do anything. As Gopnik's wife is telling him she is leaving him, Gopnik protests that "he hasn't done anything," and his wife says, "That's right. You haven't done anything."

The theme of passivity and reception, of allowing things to happen to one is highlighted in Gopnik's opening scene, where we see him in the doctor's office. The doctor is looking into his ear, and then checking his pupils: we're looking at Gopnik's portals on the world. We aren't shown Gopnik's hands or his mouth, with which Gopnik would actively participate in the world -- with which he would take action and do something. (When Gopnik later takes action, the shot focuses on his hands, taking action in the world.)

Later, Gopnik is on his roof, adjusting the television aerial, and as he touches it, he begins to hear television signals: he becomes a receiver, an extension of the antennae. Later, his son Daniel, at his bar mitzvah, is holding a metal staff, pointed at Hebrew script in the Torah. Daniel hesitates and a rabbi pushes the staff across the text -- and there's a sound like a needle across a record (record players keep showing up throughout the movie) and then Daniel catches a groove, and begins to read, singing a prayer, the staff moving along the text as he reads. (Daniel, in his opening scene, is shown in a close-up of an earphone in his ear; the earphone is playing rock music in his ear as he sits through a Hebrew class.)

The idea of simply allowing things to happen to one's self seems to be connected, at a profound level, to the distinctions between ancient Greek and Hebrew thought -- a foundational division in Western thought. Greek (and not-so-distantly related Indian) religion and philosophy emphasized the image, the aspects of vision and form. The Romans continued this. In contrast, God's command to the Jews was often "Hear, O Israel!" Where the Greeks (and Indians) reveled in physical forms, depictions of bodies, God forbade the Jews from creating or worshiping graven images, and emphasized the word. Greek and Indian gods appeared, took physical form; the Jewish God was never seen -- only heard.

So there is plainly a theme here, of being open to the world, allowing it to act upon you -- perhaps as a way of hearing God's voice -- but it's unclear if the filmmakers endorse this attitude toward the world, find it flawed, or simply find it a hilarious premise: have a character to whom things happen, and who is unable or unwilling to actually do anything. The film suggests, undermining its opening quote, that doing nothing is not always the moral, ethical, or wise choice.

In the bizarre but fascinating opening scene, a husband and wife confront a possible dybbuk -- a possessed body. The husband laughs off the possibility that the visitor is a dybbuk, but the wife takes action, stabbing the dybbuk with an ice pick. The strong suggestion, in my reading, was that the wife was correct to act -- though we cannot say with certainty that she was not wrong, and did not bring down a curse upon the family. Either way, the scene seems difficult to square with Gopnik's story.

Later, the father of one of Gopnik's students, referring to a perplexing situation Gopnik does not understand, urges Gopnik to "accept the mystery." In his class, Gopnik completes a proof "showing with certainty that the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty" (a line that seemed a bit on-the-nose). The filmmakers seem to be trying to underline this theme of allowing the world to happen to one's self and accepting uncertainty, but they show how this posture can lead to the collapse of everything. And when Gopnik does act, at the end of the film, it appears that he's immediately punished for it, with an ominous call from his physician (following up with Larry on the results of the physical exam we saw at the opening of the film). At the same time, a tornado is approaching Daniel's Hebrew school, and the children are milling around in the parking lot, watching it come -- doing nothing -- suggesting that passivity, and allowing the world to happen to you is often a terrible idea.

No doubt, the contradictory messages were intentionally constructed. And perhaps the filmmakers mean for us to accept the mystery of not knowing whether the film is suggesting that we should accept the world as it comes to us or attempt to change it. Perhaps the ultimate answer, as one of the rabbis Gopnik consults suggest, really does not matter -- or we're not entitled to it (if there is one). That the film raises these questions in such an interesting way is in itself a major feat.

The technical aspects of the film are superb. The story of the inscribed teeth, set to Jimi Hendrix, is hallucinatory, incredible. The actors, mostly unknowns in Hollywood, are all excellent. The cinematography is wonderful.

To say to the audience "accept the mystery" could be seen as a cheap cop out -- somewhat like the "twist" in SHUTTER ISLAND. But it feels richer, more substantial that that. This film is full of substance, full of matter to be considered. It is confusing, seemingly contradictory, and not fully coherent, but it feels like an attempt to struggle with how to see the world. But that may be a reading too serious for the film, which in its choice of title, goads us not to take the film seriously, and to laugh at the absurd things that befall Gopnik. A-

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Do Countries Care About Winning Olympic Medals?

I may have brought this up back during the 2008 Summer Olympics, but I’m too lazy to go back and look.

Why do countries care so much about winning Olympic medals?

For example, Australia is apparently one of the top spenders on Olympic programs, investing $250 million dollars in its Olympic program and other sports annually. Canada is currently spending upwards of $150 million on a program devoted to the Winter Olympics called “Own the Podium.” (Notably, U.S. Olympic athletes currently receive little or no government funding; they rely largely on private sponsors.)

Why would Australia, Canada, or their citizens care so much about winning medals? Why would Australia or Canada be willing to spend a lot of money funding programs in efforts to win Olympic medals? Is this effort and expenditure made to demonstrate dominance and superiority for the benefit of a foreign audience? For what purpose? Is it to demonstrate dominance and superiority in relation to other countries for the benefit of the domestic audience in Australia or Canada? Again, for what purpose? To buck up their sense of pride? What is the benefit obtained in that?

I can imagine the ready responses: It’s a natural patriotic impulse, to want to win, and defeat other countries, show that Australians/Canadians are the best. The people of Australia/Canada can experience a vicarious sense of superiority when they watch one of their own win a gold medal. It’s no different than rooting for the Bears if you live in Chicago, or for the UNC basketball team if you go to UNC. (But professional sports exist to make a profit, and college sports often make money for the schools, raise the profile of the schools, etc. What does Canada actually get from winning medals -- besides a feeling of pride?)

Fischer vs. Spassky, 1972

During the Cold War, the Olympic battles between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (and East Germany) were just another front in the Cold War -- a continuation of the ideological battle fought by other means. Olympic victories were seen to validate the ideology and system of the prevailing side. So, the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid demonstrated the vitality and spirit of the Capitalist system; the U.S.S.R.’s domination in figure skating, gymnastics, wrestling, etc. demonstrated the glories of the Worker’s Paradise. The Olympic victories during the Cold War were part of an ongoing propaganda war between the two sides, the purpose of which was to attract or keep others within the Capitalist/Communist fold. But what would Canada or Australia have to prove to other countries? Why would they care what other countries thought of them based on Olympic performances?

(Of course, there could be other benefits. National unity, perhaps providing inspiration for kids to be active and get into sports, thus producing a healthier and more productive population, etc. But these seem like pretty attenuated results.)

Winning Olympic medals doesn’t really achieve anything for Australia or Canada, or earn them anything. It’s just a nice thing, and the Australians and Canadians back home get a nice feeling inside when their athletes win. But what is that worth? I guess there’s no accounting for preferences, and if that is where a country like Australia or Canada wants to spend their money, that’s their decision. It’s probably a better use of money than spending trillions on invasions of other countries. (And maybe that is the very point?)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

BMW's "We Make Joy" Campaign

I wonder if the ad-makers for BMW's new advertising campaign, "We Make Joy" (see ad above), debated whether to use that particular slogan, given the ugly history of the Kraft durch Freude ("Strength through Joy") program, and its associations with the German auto industry under the Third Reich:
From 1933, [Kraft durch Freude ("KdF")] provided affordable leisure activities such as concerts, plays, libraries, day-trips and holidays. Large ships, such as the Wilhelm Gustloff, were built specially for KdF cruises. Above all, KdF was supposed to bridge the class divide by making middle-class leisure activities available to the masses.

Borrowing from the Italian fascist organization Dopolavoro ('After Work'), but extending its influence into the workplace as well, KdF rapidly developed a wide range of activities, and quickly mushroomed into one of the Third Reich's largest organizations....

The Nazis also sought to attract tourists from abroad, a task performed by Hermann Esser, one of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda's secretaries. A series of multilingual and colorful brochures, titled "Deutschland", advertised Germany as a peaceful, idyllic, and progressive country, on one occasion even portraying the ministry's boss, Joseph Goebbels, grinning and hamming in an unlikely photo series of the Cologne carnival.

KdF managed to set up production of an affordable car, the Kdf-Wagen, which later became known as the Volkswagen Beetle. Buyers of the car made payments and posted stamps in a stamp-savings book, which when full would be redeemed for the car. Due to the shift to wartime production, no consumer ever received a Kdf-Wagen (although after the war, Volkswagen did give some customers a 200DM discount for their stamp-books). The Beetle factory was primarily converted to Kübelwagen (the German equivalent of the Jeep) production. What few Beetles were produced went primarily to the diplomatic corps and military officials.

Below, a fascinating 1943 U.S. war-effort propaganda cartoon, featuring Donald Duck, and parodying the Nazi's "Strength through Joy" leisure programs.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Soundings (Audio Reviews): Heligoland - Massive Attack (2010)

The tyranny of our best years. In the mid-nineties, opening the mail for the college radio station, finding the promotional CDs the record companies had sent, I stumbled across a sound that immediately sucked me in: bands from England (Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky), with a dark, hopeless air -- like Don DeLillo set to music. There was a certain aesthetic -- of gray, of twilight, of a new Brutalism in a way; a style England -- mother of the theories of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, of the factory workday, and moth evolution affected by industrial pollution -- always seemed to flirt with.

It was music for places shrouded in mist, darkness. There is generally no sunshine in Massive Attack. If there is light, it is artificial, stark, soulless.

Portishead returned in 2008 with the masterful Third. Massive Attack has now returned from the darkness as well, with their first album since 2003.

There is more life in Heligoland than in Massive Attack's last effort, the brittle and empty 100th Window. Whereas 100th Window was flat, and much too thin, Heligoland is thick and layered, like a forest floor, covered in an imbrication of dead leaves in various states of decay, of becoming soil again.

Massive Attack have always seemed to dwell somewhere a few years in the future. Their music was often claustrophobia-inducing, attuned to the absence of choice, the institutional imprisonment of the monetary economy in the era of late capitalism. (I always think of the line "Give me evenings and weekends" from Mezzanine.)

Exemplar of the Brutalist style: Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, by by Mathers & Haldenby Architects (1973)

The glorious Blue Lines had moments of soaring, of emotions other than brooding, menace, and paranoia. The sun broke through here and there. There is more sun on the new album than one would expect.

The first track, Pray for Rain, is a good example. The song proceeds as a somber, electronic funeral dirge for much of the track, aided by vocals from TV On the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, before giving way, somewhat inexplicably, to a few moments of joy. Splitting the Atom bops along in an underwater slow motion, but not unhappily: sort of a low-key Monster Mash. Girl I Love You is like Massive Attack after a big bowl of Fruity Pebbles, brooding with a beat you could dance to: you could put it on your workout mix and you wouldn't slow down too much. The stripped-down but insistent final track, Atlas Air, has the distinct feel of the new, but with a firm grounding in a certain familiar growling, beeping dread.

I've listened to the album only three of four times so far. Right now, it feels like the type of album that will continue to reward repeated listening, as one gets more and more lost in the layers, the heady mix of old and new, the familiar and the strange.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

View from the Tank: Multi-Pak Edition

It's been a while since I've done one of these, so I figured it was time.

LE SAMOURAI (1967). Wildly overrated, in my opinion. Alain Delon is comical (unintentionally so), not cool. The whole super-cool hitman schtick is ridiculous. The story is not nearly as clever or intriguing as the filmmakers appear to imagine it is. (Longtime readers may recall that I had a similar reaction to LE CERCLE ROUGE.) I think most people who profess to love this movie are into it because it is a French "gangster" movie, and that sounds cool. I guess some of the shots are interesting enough, but really, what is the big deal? B-

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) This was the best movie of last year. This may be Tarantino's best film -- or perhaps just behind PULP FICTION. The story is fantastically inventive. The writing is never lazy. I knew something special was going on during the first scene, when Hans Landa (the incredible Cristoph Waltz) is speaking to a French farmer about rats, eagles, and squirrels: the conversation seemed like an absurd tangent, but it was irresistible, deeply satisfying -- much like the opening discussion of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders in Europe in PULP FICTION. The French pub scene must be one of the greatest scenes in any of Tarantino's films.

The film works together the best qualities of Tarantino's earlier work, brings it into an alternate history, imports fantastic German, French, and English actors, and it all works. Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Mélanie Laurent (Shoshanna), Daniel Brühl (Frederick Zoller), and Michael Fassbender (Archie Hicox) all turn in astoundingly good performances -- Kruger and Fassbender in particular. Brad Pitt as Aldo Raines is fine, and not nearly as much of a distraction as I expected. (The one misfire on the casting, I thought, was Eli Roth, who was terrible and over the top as Donny Donowitz, Raines's right-hand man. I cringed every time Roth spoke.)

This is a rich movie experience. It's a movie in love with movies, paying homage to Spaghetti Westerns and the films of Weimar Germany, with sly nods to gangster films, earlier Tarantino films, etc. Writing, story, and acting are all crucially important here. This film is the anti-AVATAR. Whereas AVATAR represents the elevation of the visual and technological above all else -- INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS represents what is possible when filmmakers care very much about each word of dialogue, about the inventiveness and originality of their stories, and the quality of their actors' performances. A+

THIS IS IT (2009) The one thing I remember best about this movie was being shocked by how good Michael Jackson still was, just days before his death. His voice sounded strong, and his dancing, though slightly slowed, remained mesmerizing. There was a moment during the movie (perhaps during "Man in the Mirror") when I formed a Twitter update in my mind: "Put up a satellite. Aim it away from Earth. Play this soundtrack on repeat." Thinking about it now, that would have been a dumb tweet, but it says something about the emotional impact of this film, especially for Jackson fans. We won't see his like again anytime soon. Not a great movie, but a useful historical document. B-

THE HURT LOCKER (2009) I could have done without the little quote at the beginning of the movie, something to the effect of "War is a drug." That's not a particularly interesting or insightful message, but that's all THE HURT LOCKER appears to offer. A friend of mine put it best: "It's like a Fox television show about the war." That observation seemed exactly right to me. This movie looked and felt like the makers of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS had done a show about the war, right down to the jerky, frenetic camera work. The tension inherent in the movie -- it is, after all, mostly a series of scenes about finding and defusing bombs -- works and is handled well, the acting is fine, the dialogue simple and believable, but, still, I left the movie thinking "So what?"

Part of this might have stemmed from my disappointment with the movie's studiously apolitical approach to the war. I can somewhat understand the choice not to delve into the justness or unjustness of the war -- not all movies have to be about politics or ideology -- but the robotically neutral point of view in this movie left it feeling soulless and empty. War is not a drug. War is a choice. And this movie offers no insight into why we made our choice. B-

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) Gimmicky and cloying, with flashes of interest, but mostly mass-produced "indie-friendly" pabulum. Relying on The Smiths and "wacky" Ringo Starr references to establish some kind of "indie" or "quirky" atmosphere is lazy. The random, mixed-up chronological order of the movie was occasionally effective, but mostly felt like a gimmick. In fact, most of the embellishments in this movie (with the exception of the excellent scene set to Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True") felt like gimmicks.

It's my view that this movie felt the need to load up on gimmicks because what was under all those gimmicks was a standard romantic comedy -- something neither indie nor quirky. So swap out Meg Ryan, swap in Zooey Deschanel (who, by now, like Michael Cera, is permanently typecast as herself), throw in some cartoons, an annoying pseudo-ironic narrator, references to The Smiths, a hip soundtrack, a scene with a table Ms. Pac Man, and, Voila! You have tricked out your standard romantic comedy as something palatable for twenty- or thirty-somethings who see themselves as hip. Note that even the title of this film is pointlessly, ostentatiously gimmicky, to no effect. What is the point of putting parentheses around 500? None. There is no point to it (besides weakly gesturing toward stale pomo maneuvers, blah). The title tries to broadcast, loud and clear, that "THIS IS A HIP MOVIE -- NOT AT ALL A STANDARD-ISSUE ROMANTIC COMEDY". It's like putting thick black-rimmed "smart" glasses on Tom Hanks. Speaking of which, Josh Gordon-Levitt is okay here, but nothing special. C

AN EDUCATION (2009) A strong, finely crafted, finely acted film, with a disappointing ending. Carey Mulligan, Peter Saarsgard, and Alfred Molina are all excellent. There's nothing groundbreaking going on here; it's just a compelling, well put together coming-of-age period piece featuring some fine actors. The ending sucked away a little bit of my enthusiasm for the film. Still, a very fine film. B+

Thursday, February 04, 2010

View from the Tank: TOP-SECRET LOST Formula for Success

Here is the Top-Secret LOST formula for success:

(1) kill off characters [for DRAMA!];
(2) introduce new characters [for INTRIGUE!];
(3) include miraculous CPR procedures every other episode;
(4) add close-ups of Kate/Jack/Sawyer getting weepy with the Sad Music (TM) in the background;
(5) have characters leaving "trails" or tracking "trails" in the jungle;
(6) include new mysterious sets in the jungle;
(7) play contemplative music with slow-motion scenes at the end of each episode;
(8) end season with a large explosion;
(9) liberally apply ghosts, time travel, alternate realities, and Smoke Monster.

Rinse, repeat (for six years).

Congratulations, you have created a Hit TeeVee Show that Smart People (TM) will love!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Pete's Blue Chip in Eagle Rock

I feel like this review will write itself. Pete's Blue Chip, which has apparently been around forever, is a neighborhood treasure, though often invisible, sitting in plain sight on the corner of Mt. Royal and Colorado. It offers an authentic, non-chain, unslick, unsexy approach to greasy food -- an approach that has become rare. Places like The Oinkster make a big deal out of and put a lot of effort into trying to recapture the feel of an old-school neighborhood fast food joint. Pete's Blue Chip doesn't have to put in the effort, doesn't have to hire interior decorators to achieve a retro, nostalgic effect: that is because Pete's Blue Chip is in fact the real thing, not a simulation.

Zucchini fries.

This is a place where the people at the counter remember their faithful regulars, and greet them in English and Spanish. This is a place families come to regularly on weekend mornings for the massive and delicious breakfast burritos, Orange Bang, and crappy coffee. Where Eagle Rock high schoolers and neighborhood hipsters in tight jeans come for cheap but tasty zucchini fries, burgers, and the most incredible milkshakes in the neighborhood.

Orange Bang fountain.

I had my first Pete's milkshake not long ago. It was a vanilla milkshake. At first, the shake was too thick for me to be able to pull up through the straw. I kept at it, and then the first taste of it hit me. I was immediately taken back to those humid New England summers when I was a kid, getting ice cream scooped into those Eat-it-All cones, the taste of non-gourmet vanilla ice cream in that mass-produced cone that felt like styrofoam: rich, delicious, vaguely industrial. It was the best milkshake I had had in years. (I had a chocolate milkshake tonight, and it was equally amazing.)

On that same trip, I tried the zucchini fries for the first time. They were a revelation. The fries had a thick, almost breaded crust -- reminiscent of Burger King's onion rings, with the zucchini still soft and green inside. It was only later that I realized what they reminded me of -- vegetable tempura. They were fantastic with both the ranch sauce they were served with or with ketchup.

Gigantic breakfast burrito.

The garden burger here is decent. Not too different from the garden burger offered at The Oinkster. The fish sandwich I had was forgettable -- sort of an overgrown cousin of a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish.

Fish sandwich.

I couldn't finish the breakfast burrito in one sitting. The thing was gigantic. It must have weighed more than a pound. A very fine tortilla wrapped around massive portions of egg, potatoes, onions, cheese, mushrooms, spinach -- maybe some other stuff. Pete's breakfast burrito is rightly famous. It's enough for two meals. It's a delicious kitchen-sink, Pynchonesque interpretation of the breakfast burrito.

Garden burger.

I almost forget to mention the Orange Bang. People get excited about the Orange Bang here. (Senor Fish also has Orange Bang.) I like the Orange Bang okay. Mostly, it tastes to me like a melted Push-Up Pop.

The food is cheap here and wildly unhealthy. (The menu is extensive: I can't offer you opinions on the various meat offerings here, though I've heard good things.) If you get stuff to go, you'll need a plastic bag, in addition to the paper bags the food comes in, to hold in the grease. I've eaten here a couple times recently for the purpose of this review, and I'm certain I've sacrificed several weeks off my lifespan as a result. This is what I do for you, dear reader. You should go to Pete's and drink in the atmosphere (and a milkshake) -- just don't make it a habit.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mediterranean Triangle in Eagle Rock

Chicken Breast Sandwich

You will like this place.

(I've got to get this review out before all of this leaves my memory: I've recently given up chicken. I'm moving upwards on that busy and productive first week in Genesis. Once I leave behind sea creatures, I'll be up to the third day, just "plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.")

I've been to Mediterranean Triangle dozens of times now. I had to be sure that I wasn't just falling for it because it was in the Super-A-grocery-store mall next to CVS, Subway, and some other nondescript, non-boutique shops, on the south side of Colorado, down Eagle Rock Boulevard, where the expensive baby strollers rarely go (unless they're parked outside of Auntie Em's).

You'll see pictures of this military-looking guy in the four painting reproductions on the wall in the dining room. The paintings are Persian, and they each feature a Persian woman in a garden; this military guy appears in small medallions once in each painting, in a different location, tiny, and a little out of focus, sort of like the royal parents in Velázquez's Las Meninas. The guy behind the counter told me, after some prodding, that the guy done in miniature in all the paintings was the old Shah. He didn't specify which one -- though it doesn't look like The Shah we think about. (The moustache is a bit too big.)

Mediterranean Triangle is trying hard to be a decent Middle Eastern place in a crappy, soulless shopping center. And they are doing a decent job of it. The restaurant is tastefully appointed, with small touches that I found instilled the dining space with some dignity -- like cloth placemats on the tables, with nice lamps hanging down over each table. Not bad for a place that's next door to a check-cashing center. You feel human eating here.

I haven't had the lamb or beef here (those are from the fifth day, which I left behind many years ago), but the chicken dishes I have had here have been excellent -- moist and tender. The chicken breast plate comes with large chunks of chicken breast, nicely seasoned, not overly marinated or doused in sauce, served on a generous bed of fluffy rice, with a bit of salad and a grilled pepper and tomato on the side. The ground chicken (the luleh) was also nice, with a little bit more of a kick of seasoning. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the chicken breast sandwich they offer at lunch. It was huge, with a delicious sauce, onions and lettuce. It was drippy and messy, but a seriously satisfying lunch.

There's a little bar of side dishes, with Persian equivalents of hummus, baba ghanoush, and some other stuff. I was happy to find that, in addition to the standard soda fountain, they also carry mango juice here.

I have no idea why they call this the "Mediterranean Triangle." The restaurant is run by a family of very friendly Iranians, and the names of the dishes are Persian. Iran doesn't touch the Mediterranean. I guess they didn't want to go with "Caspian Triangle, ""Persian Gulf Triangle," or "Gulf of Oman Triangle." Just another mysterious detail here.

I won't oversell you on the food here: it's good, not fantastic. But for the prices (~$6 for lunch, ~$9 for dinner), you get a very solid meal, with civilized touches. You might even think about eating in here, where the TV hanging near the counter is silenced, and you can sit in peace and contemplate the cryptic paintings, with their Persian maidens, their bowls of cracked pomegranates, and a mysterious old Shah.

Chicken Luleh Kabob Plate

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

View from the Tank: UP IN THE AIR (2009)

Every time there's a scene in a movie where someone runs through an airport, driven by love, I cringe a little. There's a scene like that in UP IN THE AIR, which is a fine movie, but not a great one.

The film is about Ryan Bingham (Clooney), who works for a company that contracts to handle firing employees for employers. Bingham flies around the country to different companies, firing individuals, handing them a glossy packet "that contains the answers to all of [their] questions," and delivering a speech about how everyone who has ever built an empire once sat in the position the person being fired finds himself in. Bingham delivers motivational speeches in various hotel ballrooms about the virtues of living with a metaphorical "empty backpack" -- free of attachments, long-term commitments, etc. All so much dead weight that ties one down -- harbingers of stagnation and death. Bingham loves the regular and standardized comforts of airports, airport hotels, airport lounges, rental cars, etc., and his life goals include reaching a certain astronomical number of frequent-flyer miles.

Bingham's way of life is threatened by two women. His beloved business-class nomadism is threatened when his company hires a young go-getter, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who proposes eliminating the face-to-face method of terminating employees and instead using something like Skype to terminate employees by webcam. And Bingham's "empty backpack" philosophy is threatened when he begins to develop feelings for a fellow corporate road warrior he meets in a airport-hotel lounge, Alex (Vera Farmiga).

A lot has been made about how timely this movie is, how tapped into the current Zeitgeist. There's some of that, sure. And the initial interviews with real-life laid-off people helps bring the pain of the last year and a half vividly to the screen. But there's something glib about the movie's attempt to tap into the pain of the recession. The final interviews suggest that getting laid off is okay, because it helps you realize what's truly important: family, the little things, etc. That may be true, but one wonders how the laid-off feel as the unemployment checks come to an end, as the house is foreclosed, etc. It's just a little too easy for the filmmakers to suggest that, hey, these laid-off people are going to be okay, they've rediscovered their love for their spouses, kids, and pets, etc.

For the most part, UP IN THE AIR does not dwell on those issues -- though it does suggest that the consequences of being laid off can indeed be terrible. But the ending interviews with the non-actors felt a little too pat, and I felt like the filmmakers were, in a way, letting themselves, and the audience, off the hook, by assuring us that these real individuals, whose pain we were contemplating as we sipped our Sprites and munched on our Gummi Bears, had found something deeper and more significant than their former jobs. It all came off as a bit glib.

As did a lot of this movie, which was, undoubtedly, well acted, well edited, and well written. It was a pretty good movie, a fine, mildly intelligent entertainment. It just wasn't a great movie. For the most part, it was predictable and unsurprising. Its main saving grace was a bravely ambiguous ending.

Part of my problem with the movie is that I have a hard time feeling sorry for George Clooney -- and we are supposed to feel, at certain points in this movie, sorry for his character, Ryan. It just doesn't work. Despite the comic antics and grimaces he's picked up from his Coen brothers work, Clooney somehow always ends up playing himself. He's always the same smooth-talking slick guy looking sharp in his suit, whether in MICHAEL CLAYTON, OCEAN'S 11, or UP IN THE AIR. (He did bravely shed his hunkiness and get fat for his relatively minor role in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. And I should note that I haven't seen SYRIANA.) I have a hard time worrying for him, or feeling that things are not going to work out for him -- because he's George Clooney, and things will always work out for him. So, even during the darkest parts of this movie, I had a hard time sympathizing with Bingham, even though the movie was trying to get me to.

Clooney's a fine actor -- but I feel that he still hasn't been pushed out of a standard comfort zone (a zone that has come to include wackiness, in films like BURN AFTER READING, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, etc.). When he's supposed to be crushed, I still end up feeling like his situation is as in INTOLERABLE CRUELTY: he's supposed to be pathetic and sad, but it's cute and funny, because it's hilarious that we're supposed to feel sorry for a purportedly heartbroken George Clooney.

My advice, George, if you're reading this, is to play a truly dark character -- an irredeemable character -- one that doesn't come out as the hero in the end despite our initial doubts (as in MICHAEL CLAYTON). That would be something to see.

OG Rating: B+

Saturday, January 02, 2010

View from the Tank: AVATAR (2009)

This movie, is, in a way, James Cameron's avatar: it's a multimillion dollar product made with the latest technology, funded by huge corporations, which product Cameron uses to (ostensibly) turn against huge corporations and technology. But what is the purpose of Cameron's AVATAR? To advance his interests or the interests of his corporate backers? Their interests are intertwined: it's symbiosis. Here, the corporate interests profit by coopting protest against corporate interests. All resistance is ultimately incorporated and marketed back to the masses. And here, it's the same old shit, but in a fancy new 3-D package.

As most people on the planet know by now, AVATAR is about, in part, an alien race called the Na'vi, who live on a moon called Pandora. The Na'vi are ten feet tall and blue-skinned. Humans want a mineral ("Unobtanium") available on Pandora. As part of its attempts to convince the Na'vi to cooperate, the corporation that seeks to extract the Unobtanium finances a hugely expensive research project that grows Na'vi bodies from a hybrid of human and Na'vi DNA. Human "drivers" then "link" to these laboratory-grown Na'vi bodies and control them, like a puppetmaster manipulating a puppet. Think MATRIX, but here, the users aren't jacking into a computer grid, but into flesh -- but the concept is largely the same.

I've been fascinated to see so many smart people twist themselves into contortions in their attempts to redeem AVATAR's story and have been wondering if these people have taken leave of their senses. The story is straight cheese. There's nothing remarkable about it -- other than its slavish obedience to predictable cliches and standard genre tropes.

A lot of virtual ink has already been spilled regarding this story, so I'll try to be concise [I would say SPOILER ALERT, but really, is anyone surprised by anything that happens in this movie?]: Jake Sully, disabled former marine ends up becoming an Na'vi avatar "driver" for the corporation planning to mine Pandora; he meets a Na'vi princess and impresses her; they develop a special bond and fall in love and have sex in a magical glowing forest to an Adult Contemporary soundtrack; the princess's father is killed when the corporation attacks; Jake becomes a great Na'vi warrior, perhaps their greatest warrior (see also THE LAST SAMURAI) and decides he must help save the Na'vi from the rapacious evil corporation he works for, so he turns against the corporation and leads the Na'vi (and all of its animals, which he has summoned) into battle against the corporation and its Blackwater-style military forces; the corporation is ultimately defeated, and Pandora saved; in the end, Jake is able, through the magic of the Na'vi's Magic Tree/Great Spirit/Mother Pandora, to transfer permanently from his human body to his bioengineered, laboratory-produced Avatar body.

Sound familiar?

Yes, the world of Pandora is richly imagined, and the technology is impressive (though the power of the 3-D effects wore off on me after about twenty minutes or so), but the story is nothing better than you'd get in a decent anime film (a genre from which this film seems to have borrowed heavily), or a standard sci-fi flick.

I think what's most fascinating is how, even given this technology that allows the rendering of an alien world in minute detail, with extraordinary 3-D depth -- that is, given the ability to imagine and depict almost anything -- Cameron's alien race are ten-foot tall humanoids with blue skin, who ride horses, thank the animals they kill, shoot bows and arrows (complete with feathers), wear loincloths and headdresses, use warpaint, emit war cries, believe in the Great Spirit, etc. AVATAR displays at once both the potential of imagination, and the very real limits of imagination.

Is this movie so new and radical in its sympathetic view of the Na'vi and its cartoonish depiction of a super-evil corporation bent on devastation and plunder?

Is it so radical and bracing to come out against "shock and awe" and fighting "terror with terror" years after the administration that used these terms and tactics is out of power and national opinion has turned firmly against the preemptive war in Iraq?

Is it so radical and bracing to put out a "green" message when Exxon-Mobil, G.E., et al. are all about being "green" these days (complete with a hip soundtrack from The Postal Service)?

In a word, No. (It's funny how proponents of AVATAR's story will blithely dismiss the comparisons to DANCES WITH WOLVES. One wonders, have they seen that film recently? Do they remember its plot? But that's not really the only parallel, of course.)

It's not really new for a film to present a hero who rebels against his own civilization, or who sides with the natives against encroaching imperialists, etc.

The visual effects were impressive, and the film is undoubtedly a breakthrough in computer-generated effects and 3-D. That doesn't really excite me that much. Regardless of the technology, film will live on or die based on story, writing, and concept. Today's mind-blowing effects will soon become standard and expected, just as we got used to the once mind-blowing developments of sound, color, Smell-o-Rama, etc.

As the story goes, when one of the first motion pictures was publicly screened -- the Lumiere Brothers' 1895 short film of a train pulling into a station -- the audience screamed and fled in panic. I feel like the puzzling attempts to find great meaning in the relatively meaningless AVATAR are a higher-order version of that panic in the face of a terrifying new technology of representation. The technology is powerful, strange, and new, sure -- but we'll get used to it soon enough. Probably by next summer. No need to take leave of our senses.

OG Grade: B-