Monday, February 26, 2007

Ellen Degeneres is dreadful and other Oscar observations

Some Oscar hosts get panned for not fitting in with the event. David Letterman, Chris Rock, and Jon Stewart come to mind. Last night's performance by Ellen Degeneres was so painful because she tried so hard to fit in, hamming it up with out and out bad jokes about the attendees and silly and desperate self-deprecation. In fact, she was at times just plain awkward. When she made a crack about the diversity of the award show's attendees, it felt as if Joe Biden were up on stage. The subsequent shot of a baffled-looking Steve Carrell said it all. A few other thoughts I had about last night's show:
  • Boy do I wish Al Gore had made an announcement to run for the presidency. The stunt with Leonardo DiCaprio was pretty clever, but it would have been a real Oscar moment if a candidate announcement had been made.
  • What is Jessica Biel doing at these awards? She was on "Seventh Heaven" like five years ago, right? Does that qualify one to present an Oscar? And she was in The Illusionist. Isn't that a poor man's Prestige?
  • Jennifer Hudson's and Martin Scorcese's acceptances were surprisingly touching. Both seemed genuinely humbled by receiving the award which evidences once again that people in Hollywood put a lot of stock into the Oscar, even though a look back at past winners shows some stunning wins and some ridiculous oversights. Take the year 1976 when Rocky--definitely a good movie--won over Taxi Driver and Network--two great movies. If I were a perennial Oscar loser, I would comfort myself by reviewing the unremarkable group of winners of Oscar's recent past, like Best Actress Gwyneth Paltrow in 1998 and Best Picture Forest Gump in 1994. The Academy is not very discerning, often perferring the heart-rending to the subtle and themselves swayed by politics as much as by a good performance.
  • Speaking of Martin Scorcese, don't Hollywood actors realize how disingenuous they sound when they lavish praise on a film impresario? By the end of the night, I'd lost count of how many times someone involved in The Departed said what they wouldn't do to work with Martin Scorcese. Scorcese's a fine director, but I think I heard someone offer to give away one of their lungs to work in a movie with him. Just once I'd like to hear someone say in public what I'm sure is said quietly at many an after party: "he hasn't made a good movie in years, and he's a jerk to work with."
  • A green Academy Awards ceremony with fuel efficient limos is the height of absurdity. Can an event so prodigious and decadent really be conservationist in spirit? Okay, maybe the lights are dimmed a little and the stretch Hummers are gone, but really, the Oscars. When Hollywood actors start lobbying for mass transit in L.A. (and using it themselves!) I'll be a little more convinced.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Thanks to an inadvertent invite, I am now on, a website that combines social networking with book reviewing. You can put up your own reviews of books, list books you are currently reading and those you want to read, and access your friends' reviews of books. It is a nice design, very easy to use, and definitely right up my alley. I am also reminded of the difficulty of reviewing books I have not read for awhile. I definitely have held some books as favorites that I have not read in years, so trying to express why I love(d) those books takes some serious jogging of the memory.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Can't we all just get along?

It didn't take me long to be inspired to blog about something again. All it took was another netroots vs. centrist Democrat flamewar. In yesterday's Post, there's a front page article about the ongoing argument between well-known Democratic net activists like Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos and the group Working for Us against Ellen Tauscher, a Democratic Rep. from California. I am not surprised that Tauscher is slightly put off by this campaign, because it has deliberately called her out as a centrist appeaser, but I can't blame them for doing so. After all, one thing I am constantly amazed at--amazed as in, I want to bang my head against a wall and yell Doh! a million times--is how frickin' quickly the Democrats will cede their battle even if they haven't nearly lost it. The majority of the country seems to be against a troop increase in Iraq, and no one save the very rich are satisfied with our current health care policy and economic situation, and yet the Democrats feel like they have to temper their every move with assurances that they won't move too far to the left. No one cares, guys! Just get stuff done, fercryinoutloud. I know it's hard. We have a media that wants the presidential election to happen tomorrow--not gonna lie, I wouldn't mind if it did--and the Republican party clearly wants to get nothing done unless it benefits rich people who are trying to pass their full estate along to their children, but in spite of this people want to see some results from Washington. No one benefits from the rhetoric of self-defeat except for Republicans, whose interests are very narrow. So please, Ellen Tauscher and the like, don't create a straw man "far left" to bolster yourself. It seems self-serving and disingenuous, and it helps no one.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A hodgepodge

Lately, I have been wanting in subjects to blog about for various reasons, and because I cannot think of anything coherent to discuss but am smarting about a few things, I'll just jump around.

I finally finished Adam Langer's The Washington Story. It has nothing to do with Washington State or Washington, D.C., (I get enough of D.C. from living here and have little desire to read a novel set here at the moment). Rather, it is set during the time that Harold Washington was mayor of Chicago, from 1982 until 1987. I went back and forth on my opinion of this book throughout it. It is definitely one of the more personal books I've read, considering that the main character worked on her high school newspaper, is a young liberal-minded person, is reform Jewish, and lives in Rogers Park, a neighborhood in Chicago. While I never lived in Rogers Park, it is the nearest Chicago neighborhood to where I did grow up, and I know it fairly well. Other parts of Chicago play a role in the book too, particularly the near South side, which was apparently just beginning to become the fashionable neighborhood it is today in the late 80s.

The Washington Story became a little too zany at times, working off the impulse that many writers seem to have of linking all of a story's characters and their fates with one another. (Maybe such a tendency should be called the Crash syndrome, after the gimmicky Oscar-winner of last year, not to say The Washington Story was inspired by that glib movie). Nonetheless, I found the writing genuine and the sense of transience that Langer conveys about human desires and dreams to ring very true. Now that I'm through with it though, I need a new novel and hopefully one that is at least as compelling. Any suggestions?

In other news, my co-worker's blog has been put on the map by none other than the Food Network's Hungry Detective, a cop named Chris Cognac who sniffs around American cities for hearty meals. The Gourmet Piggy rips into the Food Network and in the process becomes the target of Cognac. Cognac's comments are unintentionally some of the most hilarious things ever ("I have a hot cuban wife and 2 kids that love me, so there..."). I love how the web connects people so easily--could this hilarity ever have ensued without the glorious "series of tubes" we (er..Ted Stevens) call the Internet?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Movie Review: Being There

Do you ever know after the first few minutes that a movie you're watching is going to be one of your all time favorites? That's how I felt as I watched a mysterious but respectable looking man relaxed in a musty parlor of a traditional home, mesmerized by the images on a television, his origins and position in society initially an enigma. Peter Sellars is exceptional in his studied turn as this odd figure, soon revealed as Chance the gardener, a.k.a. Chauncey Gardner, in Hal Ashby's Being There. You will not believe that this man so inhabited the role of the fatuous Inspector Jacques Clouseau sixteen years earlier in the bubbly sixties comedy The Pink Panther.

I implore you not to read on if you are planning on seeing this film, because as with any good movie, the less you know going into it the better. Being There takes place in late 1970s Washington, D.C., which is comprised of two very distinct worlds: the gritty world (seen briefly) of the natural inhabitants of the city and the insular world of its well-off power brokers. Chance, who the audience is early on made to understand as a slow-witted gardener, bridges both of these worlds unwittingly and unintentionally, but the two social sets have very different interpretations of Chance. The more educated set is no more--and in fact less--perceptive as to this unlikely character's true nature. This becomes clear when Chance happens upon a prominent, ailing business man (Melvyn Douglas) and his socialite wife (Shirly MacLaine), who see metaphor in the fortuitous gardener's literal observations about the seasons, and thus feel they have unearthed a wise visionary and a sensual thinker, respectively. In Chance's pleasant interactions with these and other illuminati, including the President of the United States, we are presented a class of navel-gazers, people who see only what they want to. As a result, Chance becomes an natural conduit for their self-validation.

Yet, Chance is hardly written off. Being There is actually a tale of a fool more virtuous than any supposed wise man. Peter Sellars appears truly at peace in this role, so that Chance's simplicity radiates as a redemptive force in a complex, fallen world. As a reviewer on IMDB put it, Chance's inner tranquility is sought out by those who one would expect to be most aloof from such sincerity and such calm. Thus, Being There suggests that everyone, particuarly those with the most the world has to offer, longs for a simpler time, which is why Chance's uncomplicatedness is so alluring to the high ups. When he literally walks on water, Chance's iconically beatific existence has been cemented, as has Being There's place as a fascinating film.

Friday, February 16, 2007

D.C. Drivers, get a grip

I have several gripes against the ethos of Washington D.C. and the rest of the "inside the beltway" territory, and underlying a lot of them is the prevailing Type A attitude of the people who live here. The Type A attitude is on display all the time: when commuters sprint to catch their Metro train during rush hour even though another one is two minutes behind it (running into fellow commuters in the process), when subway riders won't move to the center of the train car to make room for those behind them because they want to be close to the door, when people regard social functions as nothing more than an opportunity to "network," and worst and most fatally of all, when drivers disregard pedestrians merely because they are in a hurry.

I don't know if the bus driver who struck and killed two women who had the right of way at the intersection of 7th and Pennsylvania on Wednesday night was in a hurry, but the driving in this city is so abominable, so aggressive, so careless of pedestrians, so selfish, that this tragedy is not as surprising as it should be. Even today, two days later, as I crossed that same intersection, cars were still racing down Pennsylvania to make the light, broaching the tenuous transition between the yellow and red bulb with reckless nonchalance. Why drivers here are so wound-up is beyond me, because I think they would be happier people if they weren't, but D.C. police need to crack down on the insanity of offensive driving.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A House of Cards Market

It's been unnerving to read about the recent troubles in the housing market, because it seems to conform in some respects to other bubbles we've seen and yet it is unlikely--just as with those other bubbles--that our society will derive any longterm lessons from these troubles. The housing market is beset by twin problems: less demand resulting in depreciating property values and inability on the part of homeowners, especially homeowners with bad credit histories and/or unsavory home loans, to pay down their mortgages. As with so many overheated markets of the past, the housing market, which I recall analysts declaring a solid investment a few years ago, has overextended itself. For this, Wall Street deserves a good amount of blame, as investment banks encouraged a market of loans for people with bad or "subprime" credit. These loans were often complex and ill-fitting for their holders. The problems of the subprime market seems to be gettng a good deal of attention in the business press but less attention in the general press, that is less attention as it relates to the average consumer.

This is a severe oversight, because many people are defaulting on their mortgages and facing foreclosures on their homes. Reporting on the economy tends to focus too much on the performance of stock indexes and too little on the economic well-being of most people. It also tends to only fleetingly acknowledge how the market impacts most people. In the case of a housing market, it looks like another new fad on Wall Street has proven dysfunctional and illusory as a steady investment. At a time when caution and some aversity to risk are undervalued--as seen in the (perhaps soon to end) overabundance of credit--it is a needed (though probably unlikely) change for bankers and analysts to think cautiously and realistically rather than impetuously and riskily about the nature of a good investment.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Music and Lyrics, but no plot

I confess, I saw Music and Lyrics, starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. Do not admonish me too much: I did not have to pay for it at least, as it was being screened in advance of the release date for free. (I think it is officially released on Valentine's Day, conveniently enough). Only my time and incredulity at the sheer badness of Hollywood scriptwriting were spent. I saw the movie in part because my memory of enjoying Hugh Grant had eclipsed my ability to detect that the movie itself looked pretty bad. However, it did not take too long into the film to grasp this. The plot is silly, one-dimensional, and poorly-developed, though probably because there is not much of a plot to develop. 'So?' you say, 'it's a romantic comedy, it doesn't need a strong plot.' I object. Any good movie has a plot that holds up, and there are romantic comedies that are good movies. Still, a strong plot is hard to achieve, and often, romantic comedies feel they can ignore plot considerations like consistency and development in favor of shoveling feel-goodness and sugary "wit" at the audience.

Particularly disappointing was Hugh Grant's role as the washed up 80s pop singer and resident wag. As has been pointed out often enough, Grant has two characters: the stammering, clever nice guy of his earlier movies and the cad of his later ones. Sometimes the latter role has bits of the former role in it, as in About a Boy, Six Weeks Notice, and Music and Lyrics. (Yes, I've seen too many Hugh Grant movies). In the latter two movies, the stammering cad has morphed a little into a resigned but delighted sell-out whose authenticity is only wrought out of him when he meets and consummates a relationship with an earthy, hippy-ish girl. The wardrobe of Barrymore's character symbolized the true extent of her hippy authenticity, however: apparently bohemian but clearly off the rack of Urban Outfitters.

The two meet at the perfect time: Grant needs to write a song for the most successful pop star of the moment, Cora Corman, and Barrymore, who appears at his apartment to substitute for his normal plant-waterer (yes, I'm not making that up), happens to be a wordsmith, happens to reveal this talent, and happens to be persuaded by Grant's character to write a song with him. The song is everything you would expect of a two-day endeavor, but it is asserted to the audience at every turn that it is a worthy number that will be bastardized by Cora Corman. The problem is, it's a terrible song. Just as last year's Stranger than Fiction averred that the book written by Emma Thompson's character which frames the film is poised to be a masterpiece, absent any evidence that there is anything remarkable about it, so too does Music and Lyrics assert something that isn't true, but rather only expedient for the plot.

And how about that plot? By about forty-five minutes into the film, Grant and Barrymore have already written their song. The movie still needs at least a half an hour more, so it is dragged out with a couple of "twists" (they're asked to write another verse of the song, Cora Corman turns the song into a weird sitar-and-belly-dancing act). A subplot involving Barrymore's character and a college professor with whom she had an affair and soon after became a muse for an unflattering piece of fiction based on their relationship adds to the mess. And of course, Drew Barrymore is very sweet, large eyes and all. In fact, her eyes are so large, they will swallow you. The best thing about Music and Lyrics is the take-off of a 1980s music video, and that comes at the way beginning, so, if you choose to blow money on this one, prepare for the movie to get progressively worse.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Ben Stein Congratulates Himself

Recently, conservative commentator Ben Stein--perhaps most famous as the host of "Win Ben Stein's Money," and for countless "Celebrity Jeopardy" apperances, as well as stints with the government--penned an article about capitalsim, whose conclusion I agree with, but whose substance is completely disturbing in its unaware self-congratulation. My very wise and clever father offers an excellent take on Stein's "The Hard Rain that's Falling on Capitalism". First, here are excerpts of the article:

A FEW evenings ago, my wife and I were standing in the kitchen of our home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., feeding our voracious hounds, when a song came on the radio. It goes, “If only you believe in miracles, baby, so would I...”

Suddenly a flood of thoughts came into my head. I put on my swim trunks, and even though it was 42 degreesoutside, I got into my superheated pool and swam, looking up at the stars, and this is what I thought:

My whole life is a miracle so far. I live in glorious houses — tar-paper shacks by hedge fund standards, but plenty for me. I have a great American-made car. Above all, I have the most wonderful wife and the handsomest son on the planet.

My parents had a great, super life. They went from obscurity and lower-middle-class status in the Great Depression to fame and fortune in the postwar period. Their good fate was attributable mostly to their genius and hard work, but also to two culprits usually criticized in the media: President Richard M. Nixon, who made my father famous and powerful, and variable annuities, which made him and my mom well-to-do.

Thanks to Nixon’s appointing Pop as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and to TIAA-CREF selling Mom and Pop those annuities, their latter decades were happy and comfy. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am the honorary spokesman for the National Retirement Planning Coalition, one of whose many sponsors is the National Association for Variable Annuities.)

All of the miracles of our lives are because of America and our ancestors’ lucky, brilliant decision to move here from the desperation of Eastern Europe. All of it is thanks to the brave men and women who fought and died and bled on World War II battlefields like Anzio and Tarawa to keep us free, and to the
framers of the Constitution.

But it’s also thanks to capitalism. I realized this as I swam back and forth in my pool looking up at the stars and the contrails. Under capitalism, my grandparents, my parents and I could be paid the value of what we produced.

Their (our) income and position in life were (are) a function of what value we could add, not of the status of poor stateless Jews that we would have been in Europe.

Capitalism values people as individuals according to contract, as we lawyers and economists learn, not according to the status of our birth. This in itself is a miracle.

This miracle has been vibrant in the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans who have gone from nothing to something, thanks to the dynamics of capitalism. They have seen their pay rise and they have been able to convert their sweat and toil and creativity into capital by saving and investing in the stock market and becoming capitalists themselves — myself. [...]

But, as I swam and watched the private jets’ lights as they glided right above my head into Palm Springs International Airport, I had a chilling thought: in capitalism, the most fundamental building block is trust. [...]

When I see what the top dogs at all too many corporations are now doing to that trust, I feel queasy. Outrageous— yes, obscene — pay. Greedy backdating of stock options, which in my opinion is straight-up theft. Managers buying assets from their trustors, the stockholders, at pennies on the dollar, then forestalling competing bids with lockups and insane breakup fees. [...]

Empires come and go. Economic systems come and go. There is no heavenly guarantee that capitalism will last forever as we know it. [...]

If that trust disappears — if the system is no longer a system for the ordinary citizen but only for the tough guys— how much longer can the miracle last?

Now, here's Ronald Meyer's take:

Since I have time, I thought I'd write my editorial thoughts on the attached op-ed, sitting duck though it be.

Fresh from overindulging on munchies and California wine with his wife, Uncle Tzvi* Ben Stein counts his blessing while lapping his pool. The pool is heated, so he can indulge himself at the expense of atmospheric CO2 levels, though it is 42 degrees in his yard. His house in Rancho Mirage is a tar-paper shack compared to the houses of those whose taste matters. It seems that Ben's wife let him into the pool too soon after eating, because he isn't getting enough perfusion to the old noggin as he experiences rapture in the pool.

Not only is Uncle Tzvi's life a miracle, but so were his parents', thanks to Nixon having made Dad chairman of the council of economic advisers and thanks to the TIAA-CREF variable annuities that his parents had no choice but to buy as academics.

There are so many miracles, especially capitalism, which "paid [his forbears] the value of what they produced." Further miracle, "capitalism values people as individuals according to contract... not according to the status of our birth."

But Ben cramps up as he realizes that Capitalism™--the board game is not fun to play when others at the table are cheaters, such as those greedy CEO's.

As Ben seems to be suffering an attack of Republiopia (the ability to see only one side of an argument, and an in ill-informed side at that), here are a few mental status queries to test if Ben's frontal lobes can compensate for his defective visual cortex.

1. Could you turn down the heat on the outdoor pool, Ben, and swim at the local J? That should provide a few carbon credits to offset those cranked out by your Caddy.

2. That sagacious President who set your Dad up as chairman--could his and his vice-president's tax evasion violations have helped to set a bad example for later government and corporate leaders? Hmmmm? How about his Dick's disregard for any rules: could they have been bad for our political culture?

3. OK, so capitalism esteemed all of those Jewish immigrants. What was it that allowed only small numbers of them to enter large swaths of institutions of higher education or corporations because of Jewish quotas? And why did all of those silly lady garment workers and other unionists not at the time see how fairly valued they were? Perhaps the thermostat on their backyard pools was set too low, and their brains had frozen.

4. What percentage of Americans are lucky enough to be able to participate in TIAA-CREF, Uncle Tzvi, and how many are stuck with what they thought were their corporate pensions that the capitalists have devalued or stolen by declaring bankruptcy? How many are thankful that your capitalists' boob--er I mean boy--George was not able to convert the social security benefits into a capitalist's high-fee feeding frenzy?

5. Say, Ben, TIAA-CREF beneficiaries pay pretty low fees and their investments follow the performance of market indexes. Why are so many Americans fooled or forced into buying worse performance for much higher fees from the likes of anarchists such as Merrill-Lynch, Smith-Barney, Dreyfuss, etc? Oops, did I say "anarchists?" I guess they are actually capitalists, aren't they?

6. Finally, Ben, how many laps can you go with your head so far up your butt? Now that is a miracle.
* An Uncle
Tzvi is a Jewish Uncle Tom.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

I Love this Guy

I have recently begun to avidly follow the column of Salon's Cary Tennis. Tennis has been in the job for awhile, but I think the tone and subjects of the column topics seem more relevant to me now that I have been catapulted out of college and into the so-called real world, where choices are not prescribed or easy. Tennis's column is a veritable display of the human condition: it features people who have pursued their dream and people who haven't, people who have been crushed by over-ambition and those who have been crushed by ennui. What it impacts upon me is that old saying that the grass always appears greener on the other side, a thought that actually can become somewhat freeing if one's life has been monopolized by investing so much in a future, in getting to that other side.

Tennis's effectiveness comes in his authenticity. He acknowledges that he hasn't figured it all out and lacks the condescension that is common among career advice givers which makes him far superior to the Ask Amys and Dr. Phils of this world. His writers tend to be very thoughtful people as well: what many among them seem to be looking for is someone who can reason with them--perhaps dispel as irrational their worst fears--without looking down upon them. He tends not to give straight advice but rather to expound on the writer's quandry with a mix of life experience and general reflectiveness. In yesterday's column, he responded to a creative writing student who, in pursuing her dream, had become fundamentally discouraged of her writing abilities and of her old definition of success. This is where Tennis's column becomes therapy--though hopefully not schadenfreude--for me: in seeing that others are also reckoning with past decisions and trying to make new ones and are feeling a little shaky and unsatisfied all the while. In all of this, it is so valuable that Tennis does not blithely and reliably say "follow your dream" on the one hand or "don't risk it" on the other, that he does not proffer a right answer. Instead, he talks about his experience. His answer to the paralyzed MFA student:

Thank you for writing. I am glad you are going to finish the program. No matter what you decide to do later, it is good to finish the program and get your degree.

I went to graduate school in creative writing as an egotistical person. I was concerned with whether people thought I was brilliant.

This brilliance was a brittle thing, a bright, cold shell I had made in junior high to wear to school and around town like a gown of dazzling and invisible power to keep predators at bay; it was a fast-thinking thing, a mean, clever thing, a way to stay aloft and aloof. I took it with me when I left home. I used it to not learn anything.

But you get older and defeat forces you to learn things you didn't think you needed to know, or didn't want to learn or didn't think were important, or thought were beneath you.

Here is the big main thing I learned: My writing is not here to support me. I am here to support my writing.

How it came about was I endured some failure as a writer trying to make money as a writer, and had to work at other things for five years. During that time I wrote but not for money. I wrote on the subway, alone, in a notebook, sitting by myself in the crowd. I wrote to save myself.

It turned out that writing to save myself was the best way to write. Here is why, I think: Our writing is the voice of a person who is innocent, powerless and in need of protection; our writing is the voice of a person who needs to be heard as he or she really is. It is deep stuff is what I mean. And shocking as it is to say, the person who is writing this -- the person I am today -- is the kind of person toward whom I once would have leveled pitiless scorn.