Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Reagan Library, or Why Public History in this Country is so Rotten

I grew up just minutes away from the Reagan Library and for much of my life I avoided setting foot there. I refused to go when the hero-worshipping of Reagan was at its peak after his death in June of 2004. I found no compelling reason to go and see this shrine to the "Great Communicator." Yesterday, however, a friend of mine from out of town was going for research purposes and I thought this was a good opportunity to cross something off of my Bucket List. (Let us be clear: this was not high on that checklist, at all.) And I thought to myself: "It can't be that bad." Oh, it is.

The Reagan Library is a shrine, resembling something out of the history of the Catholic Church. He is buried there and the rooms are lined with the saint's relics. His beatific smile is present on every wall and his quotes hang from the ceiling exhorting us all to follow his example. Saint Reagan calls forth for his followers to fall on their knees in prayer or maybe even develop a case of sympathetic stigmata.

The problem lies in the fact that this hagiographic approach is not history. What is offensive in this type of presentation is that anyone who leaves this site will have no sense of the politics and issues of the 1980's. Why this is doubly wrong is that Presidential Libraries are regulated under laws that require archivists working for the federal government to be present in the formation of these exhibits. If this is what a federal archivist considers history why are we surprised when we hear that one in four americans do not know from what country Americans declared their independence (from a recent ABC News poll)? Why should we be surprised when Michelle Bachmann says something idiotic about founding fathers "working tirelessly" to end slavery or that FDR passed the "Hoot-Smalley tariff" which led us into the Great Depression? (For the record: The "Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act" was passed in 1930 under Hoover; it did help propel the world into a global depression). When federally funded spaces such as Presidential Libraries provide such a skewed and ahistorical sense of the past, how can we blame our students for knowing nothing?

FDR began the practice of instituting presidential libraries and the first official such place was for Herbert Hoover in Iowa. FDR believed that presidential papers had to be made accessible to successive generations of historians and journalists and that early papers had been scattered throughout the country, decentralized and some papers were even sold for profit. Nixon provided a problematic example to how a library would be established. When Nixon resigned in 1973 rumors circulated in the Beltway that he was intending to destroy some of his papers (especially those related to the Watergate scandal). Congress passed a resolution that required Nixon's papers to remain in DC, thus when his library opened in Whittier, California there were no papers and thus no regulation from previous laws surrounding these sites. The skewed presentation featured little discussion of Watergate. In fact, the display made it seem as if Nixon woke up one day in 1973 and said to Pat: "Hey, honey, I've had a great run here, why don't we call it quits and go out on top?" The famous photograph of Nixon standing on the steps of the helicopter, peace signs waving becomes an image of triumph not tragedy. A rather sickening display of personal hubris.

Since Nixon's death in 1994, his papers have been placed in the library and archivists have now constructed a more balanced presentation with a room devoted the documents and events of Watergate and adding in the student viewpoint of the Kent State shootings. However, any balance is absent in the Reagan Library.

Presidential Libraries will always present the accomplishments of a President in the most positive light, but in Reagan's the approach to his time in the executive office resembles the philosophical perspective of the British nineteenth-century historian, Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle believed that history could be told as the acts and deeds of a handful of great men. Reagan's library presents his time in office as untouched by scandal or even protest. Reagan single-handedly won the Cold War and solved the economic crises of the 1970s. A person leaving this library would have no clue that it is Congress that passes laws because Congress isn't mentioned. A person also wouldn't know that AIDS erupted in the 1980s under Reagan because it is not mentioned (not once!). And Iran-Contra? Well, the one placard that addresses it gives the perception that Reagan made a calculation to do this in order "to stop communism in Latin America." This one placard manages to exonerate and justify Reagan's actions, although they were illegal and morally reprehensible. (Ollie North is not discussed.)

A presidential library should be teaching those who attend (and pay the exorbitant $12) on how politics work in this country. For instance, what the roles and limits of the executive are in relation to Congress and the judicial branch. But institutions are completely ignored in this presentation. And social politics? There is no discussion of the poor, there is no discussion of race and the only motion towards gender are the displays of Nancy's dresses and a placard (hidden in the back) devoted to Sandra Day O'Connor. There is no sense that major cutbacks to welfare in the 1980s resulted in the increase of homelessness, crime and the closing of veterans' facilities.

Of course, the most egregious bias in this historical representation involves "Reaganomics," a set of proposed theoretical positions that stated that the cutting back of taxes, regulation and government spending spurred on the growth of the economy. There are many people who believe in this "trickle-down theory" (a term of opprobrium developed by more liberal economists). I do not begrudge Reagan and his many acolytes to present this philosophy as a success of his regime, but the playing with numbers and the lack of any discussion of the vehement disapproval of this policy from many sectors of the American public is shameful. The library presents a vision of Reagan's tenure as bringing forth a new, changed America on the date of his inauguration in 1981. But unemployment actually increased in 1982-83 to over 10%, the highest since the Depression (and higher than 08-09). The 1981 emergency economic recovery bill that Reagan passed did not perform a miracle on the economy. In fact, there is the performance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc (latin for: it happened after it so it happened because of it) fallacy in this historical viewpoint. For people like Paul Krugman, the recovery of the economy was due in large part to the policies of Paul Volcker who chaired the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987, where he kept interest rates high in order to break a cycle of stagnant inflation (in the rather clunky neologism stagflation). Even most conservative commentators give Volcker a dose of credit for lowering inflation from 13.5% in 1981 to 3.2% in 1983.  But is Volcker mentioned? Not once.

Reagan did it all. On his own. By his little lonesome. He ended the Cold War, ended economic crises, and gave America faith again.

I slapped my forehead numerous times while walking through this shameless celebration that seemed more akin to a monument to Stalin than to an American president. But the old, white people that were in attendance (and that's all who were there, while I was there, save for the grandkids dragged along and a busload of Italian high school students [they must have rued the day, if I were them I would have preferred Disneyland]) probably saw their narrow worldview confirmed by the loving letters written from Ronnie to Nancy and the well edited clips of Reagan's speeches that demonstrated in their minds that Reagan is tantamount to a political god and Obama is Satan. And trust me, the policies of Obama (and in their mind his many failures) were not far from their thoughts.

And this type of historical amnesia that ignores all that doesn't fit into our convenient narratives of the past is not confined to American political history and their celebration of American exceptionalism.

An ongoing exhibition at the Getty Center entitled "Paris: Life and Luxury" takes the viewer through a tour of the life of the privileged in the eighteenth-century capital. Beautiful rooms filled with gorgeous pieces of French furniture, intricately carved fauteuils à la reine, inlaid harpsichords are put on magnanimous display next to paintings of Boucher and Greuze with mannequins displaying the fashionable dress of the time (robes à la francaise). Yet again, there is no history.

Karl Marx defined the fetishization of commodities thus: "A commodity is... a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. ... This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them." (Kapital, vol. 1, ch. 1). In other words, the products of human labor are seen as imbued with an almost supernatural power, seen as intrinsic to the object rather than made of human hands. 

This exhibit exemplifies this important piece of Marx's philosophy. The beautiful objects are displayed with no notion to how and by whom they were made. We care not how guilds were structured in eighteenth-century France, the grievances of journeymen within those labor structures or the markets that allowed such wealth to grow in a world of increasing imperial expansion. All of these social relations are effaced in order to appreciate how pretty the brocaded wallpaper is. 

Beyond this, the political history of France is completely ignored. The exhibit is structured as a nostalgic exercise mourning the loss of a past seen as glamorous and free of our own economic and social problems. The Revolution is not mentioned and this lack becomes a haunting presence, as if to say, "Look what the Revolution cost us!" 

One placard I found particularly galling paid a passing glance to the debates around "la luxe" (luxury) in the eighteenth century. The statement on the index card said that "luxe" had some negative connotations but that these connotations faded away by the end of the 1780s. Ummm... Wrong! Luxe became a keyword of the 1770s and 1780s, a symbol of the profligacy of a kingdom that could adorn its queen in the riches of the world but could not provide bread to its citizens. The competition for having the most glamorous apartment in Paris became crucial to social status and the enlarging gap between the rich and poor. 

When history is presented so painfully bad, it provides a disservice to not only the visitors of the exhibit but the institution of the museum itself. Schoolchildren leaving these exhibits will learn nothing, except that the French had pretty bedrooms and Reagan was great. Institutions, change and social relations are not even mentioned. The curators and archivists have erased what actually creates history: conflict, continuities and change. In this political climate, however, creating an exhibit that actually creates balanced and objective views of history seems impossible and plays into this new view of the victimization of white people (something Fox News mentions on a daily basis). Hopefully, we can fight this tendency towards replacing history with nostalgia. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Art at the Cinema: Summer 2011 Edition

Not usually do summer audiences watch films of depth in the midst of the heat and humidity. Sequels, comic book flicks, kiddie animated pics, gross-out comedies and blow-em-up extravaganzas are the norm. This year is no different: "Green Lantern," "Transformers 3," 'Cars 2," and "Bad Teacher" all bear witness to that. But beyond this standard fare, interesting small films are being released that speak to other aspects of the human condition told in thoughtful and innovative ways.

I cannot say Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" is an entertaining film. It is a ponderous and slow-moving film, which actually intercuts the story of a post-war American family with a pictorial representation of the world's evolution from the cellular level. Malick, whose reclusive life has become part and parcel of his image, has only directed five films. Some have been gorgeous depictions of relationships on the margins, such as "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," others have been lugubrious and dull retellings of episodes in American history, such as "Thin Red Line" and "A New World" (his version of the Pocahontas story). "Tree of Life" is almost two-and-a-half hours long, and at times the audience feels that length. There is minimal dialogue and little plot. It is heavy on imagery and symbolism, some of which seems fairly impenetrable.

Beyond these seeming drawbacks, the film is one of the most gorgeously shot movies to be shown in general release. Its tone of loss and mourning towards familial relationships helped garner the work the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Malick's camera lingers over his actors faces. While Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn have little to say, their faces communicate a great deal about their characters. Then we cut to a long shot over sunflowers and the shifting sands of the desert. And yes, there are even dinosaurs, but the film is cinematic art with scenes of such striking composition you feel that they should be featured in studies of modern art.

Malick makes a convincing case for the banalization of violence. The juxtaposition of images constructs a notion that cycles of aggressive behavior are learned and continue over time if traumatic experiences are not dealt with and resolved. In one key scene, a fight between a married couple transforms seamlessly into their child's marauding antics with his gang, torturing animals and committing property damage around their neighborhood. Clearly, the model of masculinity in practice in post-war America made belligerence seem a normal part of quotidian life.

On an opposite side of the spectrum in terms of tone, Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" has become the most commercially successful film of Allen's career since "Hannah and Her Sisters" (and that was back in 1986!). Critics have recognized Allen as a great American auteur since the 1970's, so a provocative film from him is to be expected, but such a warm and non-anxiety producing work such as this seems to be a shift in much of his direction. The film follows a screenwriter, Gil (played by the oh so likable Owen Wilson with the crooked nose), struggling with the existential conundrum of what to do with his life. Paris only exacerbates this quandary.

The City of Lights becomes a metaphor for the experience of tourism, bliss and even disillusionment with which succeeding generations of Americans have struggled since the days of Franklin and Jefferson (two of our earliest Francophiles). While Gil visits the French capital with his fiancée (played by Rachel McAdams in one of Allen's problematic portrayals of harpy women) and her conservative family, he explores the streets of the sprawling urban landscape to find the many layers of history that inhabit it.

(Note to readers: I am spoiling a huge plot point at this moment that many reviewers have not divulged, so if you have not seen it, I recommend to stop reading here). As the clock strikes midnight on a drunken sojourn, a 1920's-era Peugeot stops near Gil. He climbs into the car and he is delivered to a swanky party where a man is singing at a piano and a seemingly exotic group of expats and European are decked out in sparkly dresses and tuxes. Gil believes this to be an exhaustively researched theme party, but then discovers that it is Cole Porter at the piano and the blonde woman with whom he is conversing is Zelda Fitzgerald. He wanders around with his new friends only to see Josephine Baker dance, Hemingway slurs his words about sex and writing, Djuna Barnes lead him in a Charleston, Salvador Dali hold forth on rhinoceroses, and Gertrude Stein admonish Picasso for depicting "petit bourgeois morals."

"Midnight in Paris" has some rather profound things to say about nostalgia and our relation to the past. The landscape of Paris has served as a springboard for many Americans to imagine some golden age of creative wonder and insight and Allen has exposed some of the moral predicaments that come from such a position. There in Paris many of us feel at home, while others simply don't get it. Then again, maybe our nostalgic attachments are precluding us from seeing the insights of the present.

With two such appealing and thoughtful works, maybe Hollywood will make more such films geared towards audiences who crave something a bit more profound than "Transformers 3." Since films, such as 'Thor," "Green Lantern," and "X-men 25" have disappointed at the box office the studios may just shift to cheaper and more intelligent fare. We can only hope.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ethics and Government: The Arrogance of Power

The Anthony Weiner scandal demonstrated little we did not already know about politicians: they have a habit of lying to the public, they have a customary and laissez-faire attitude to infidelity, and they come under media firestorms for what becomes an amusing set of peccadillos. The New York Post had a field day with this brouhaha, creating a series of rather tongue-in-cheek headlines: "The Rise and Fall of Weiner," "Weiner Limps Out," "Weiner Pulls Out," "Weiner Roast," and my particular favorite, "Obama Beats Weiner."

Of course, the great irony is that  the Weiner sex scandal had little to no sex (as far we presently know). Apparently, he got off on providing pictures of his pectoral muscles to women across the country and talking dirty to them, usually involving rather ludicrous exchanges involving "stupid" Republicans. No evidence exists at the moment that he ever met and performed physical, sexual relations with these women.

Weiner's biggest mistake was appearing on every news outlet to state that he was hacked. Unfortunately, this tactic of attempting to take control of the situation and wrench control away from the conservative blogosphere of figures, like Andrew Breitbart, backfired because of his inability to think through his story. The story was leakier than a sieve, and comments such as "I cannot say with certitude that that is not me" began to show that there was a shaky foundation to his tale.

Weiner fought the impending resignation with vigor, but ultimately the story was so salacious and hilarious that everyone from Leno to Kimmel to Letterman and Access Hollywood picked up the story. When you have every comedian roasting you on late night, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep office.

The stream of pictures featuring Weiner half-naked buried him. This is in contrast to David Vitter, the Republican Senator from Louisiana, whose name appeared numerous times on the call logs of the DC Madam. Even though it is clear that he broke the law by engaging in the solicitation of prostitutes, he has remained in office, even being re-elected with little issue. He admitted to committing a "serious sin," but perhaps he did not face the uproar we saw unleashed on Weiner or Clinton or Larry Craig simply because there was no humor in the story and no incriminating photos, stories or even phone messages (a la O'Reilly with his shower falafel).

What politicians should be wary of is going on any cable news network and decrying the behavior of a colleague and demanding his resignation. Demanding it forthwith! Humans err, and placing oneself in a position of moral superiority will always look hypocritical when one's own peccadillos emerge. Oh and they will. Larry Craig's inanity emerged after his toe-tapping disaster in an airport bathroom, which exposed a series of rumors emanating from DC and his penchant for young boys, in stark contrast to his voting record against gay rights. Bill Clinton's impeachment turned into a circus when Bob Livingston resigned because he too had been carrying out perfidious relations with other women. And we all know about Newt Gingrich's uncaring ways to the women he has loved.

With every John Edwards, who commits scandalous wrongs and get caught in a series of fibs that spin out of control, there is another stream of ethical violations occurring in every level of government. These strings of wrongdoings involve money, lobbyists, and a flagrant disregard for their constituents and the rules of their governing institutions. Tom Delay has been convicted for being involved in the far-reaching Abramoff scandal, where a lobbyist was pocketing massive amounts of money from clients for whom he lobbied and bought the votes of senators and congressmen. John Ensign's affair with a staffer crossed the line of sexual infamy into moral corruption when he paid off his staff members by funneling money through his parents.

No one called for Ensign's resignation, and no one called for Vitter's. It may be best for everyone to call for an investigation, which will then censure and fine the accused or even indict the criminal, if such legal meanderings can be prosecuted.

A new scandal seems to be looming on the horizon, this time involving Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas, with fellow justices Alito, Roberts, and Scalia, has become the forceful conservative side of the Court. He has provided votes in numerous cases such as Citizens United (2009) that have rewritten laws regarding campaign finance law. His role in these decisions, however, is now under dispute. It appears that his close relationship with the Texan real-estate magnate, Harlan Crow, may have been a decisive influence on certain votes, including one vote that ruled against the American Enterprise Institute, a board on which Crow sits, with Thomas as the SOLE dissenting vote in the opinion.

In fact, Citizens United, who had produced a film about Hillary Clinton, helped during Thomas' confirmation hearings by creating ads that attacked Senators who supported Anita Hill during those salacious congressional sessions. Citizens United has in fact proven to be very useful to someone close to Thomas: his wife. Virginia Thomas created a tea-party PAC, called Liberty Central Inc., which benefits from the Citizens United decision, by now being able to contribute exorbitant sums of money to political campaigns with little oversight from regulators.

Supreme court Justices are not beholden to any code of ethics, unlike Federal Court judges or appellate level ones. The House can initiate impeachment hearings against a Justice for crimes and misdemeanors but that seems an unlikely possibility under the Boehner regime (even Pelosi would be reticent to undertake such actions, which hold little precedent).

Because there is no sex involved in cases involving corruption, it is highly improbable that Thomas' quandaries involving his judicial decisions will ever appear on Extra or Leno. The only Supreme court Justice to resign from possible corruption was an LBJ appointee, Abe Fortas, who took money from business interests for advising them, in 1969. Apparently, taking money from lobbying groups and finding in their favor is less offensive than sending pics of your penis to women who follow your twitter. Are our priorities out of whack?

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Republican Field: Has it come to this?

The Republicans running for president appears to be a mess. No coalescing forces have managed to appear around any single (or even a pair of candidates). Granted, it is early and at this point in the 2008 general election, we did not have nominees decided yet. However, the lack of even a decisive pair to be the main stumpers may be a distressing point to many Republicans, and a heartening boost to a troubled Obama.

Mitt Romney has the look of a president, but within his own party he has not proven particularly popular. Some tea-party groups have stated that they will fight him, if he wins the nomination, with their own candidate. Most Republicans realize that three-person race would be equal to handing a second-term to Obama on the proverbial silver platter. (Other tea-partiers have vowed that they would support Romney). Romney's largest weakness is that his state-wide helath reform bill in Massachusetts was the model for the reviled Obamacare that many conservatives see as their number-one issue in the 2012 election. As Michelle Bachmann has grandiosely stated, "I will not rest until we have repealed Obamacare."

This brings us to Bachmann, who it appears is entering this race in order to hopefully garner a Vice-Presidential appointment by the winning Republican. Bachmann must realize that she is not the surest bet  for the nomination: her experience is weak and her hard-right views are divisive to many.  She is crafting an image of the Sarah Palin of 2012 (who has yet to announce whether she will run or not), but her desire to be roguish may deter a Republican from choosing her to be his (notice how I refrain from saying hers here, the Republicans still haven't found viable women to run in their party) running mate. The run, however, could garner her more support in Congress and even some key committee appointments.

The clown of this circus is certainly Newt Gingrich. His run has seemingly imploded. Much of his staff who were directing the campaign in key primary states, such as New Hampshire and Iowa, recently quit, citing that they seemed more committed to his quest for office than the candidate himself. A two-week cruise to the Mediterranean was the breaking point: as his staff slaved away, their boss felt no need to match their productivity level or commitment.   Even the conservative pundit, George Will, had stated that Gingrich's campaign "was not a serious run." Other commentators have stated that his appearance in this race is simply a way to maintain his face in the media spotlight and make more money selling books and DVD's from his numerous companies.

 Gingrich's abrupt 180-degree turns on matters of policy have been bewildering even to his most vocal supporters. One day he stated that if he were Obama, he would have directed military actions into Libya days before, "exercising a no-fly zone." When Obama directed such action with the compliance of NATO allies, Gingrich backtracked and said he "would not have intervened." This psychological game of wanting it both ways was exacerbated when he was on NBC's "Meet the Press" and told host David Gregory that Paul Ryan's budget plan was "right-wing social engineering." The next day he suffered backlash from conservative congressmen, such as Eric Cantor. In the most ludicrous moment of what will most likely be a short run, Gingrich then went on Fox News to state that anyone who quoted him (quoted him!) was committing a falsehood! This Kafkaesque moment was a nail in the coffin; the liquidation of his staff will be the final one.

The other men in this field have a litany of defects in their campaigns. Herman Cain, the purveyor of a Godfather-themed pizzeria, is virtually unknown and has never won an election in his life. Tim Pawlenty was boring before, but after a lackluster performance in the New Hampshire debate last week, he appears to be spineless and inarticulate as well. Jon Huntsman, the other Mormon, has not been able to raise his profile and he may have an uphill battle since he was appointed ambassador to China under Obama, pointing perhaps to some collusion with Obama. Rick Perry is being bandied about as a late entry into the race, but his time as governor has been problematic and a statement saying Texas "could secede" if relations with the federal government could render him un-electable among independents (who actually elect presidents).

More troubling is the fact that no Republican candidate has crafted a policy that would create jobs, invigorate the economy and reduce the deficit and the debt. The common slogan of lowering taxes does not in fact create jobs or spur on the economy. The Ryan plan which advocates Medicare "reform," which in fact effectively ends the program by giving vouchers to seniors does nothing to reduce health-care costs over the long-term. Cutting taxes and federal spending cuts jobs and will not spur the private sector to create new jobs. The lack of credit extensions will have to be dealt with, but few have provided any viable solutions to that issue.

Serious contenders have pulled out, such as Mitch Daniels. Others such as Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush have vowed not to run. It is possible that Romney or Huntsman will pull himself together and become a force to beat, but at this moment, Obama may have something to smile about. Now, if he only he could get unemployment under 8%.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Feminist cinema and "Bridesmaids"

When I first saw the commercial for "Bridesmaids," I shook my head and sighed. Here is Hollywood engaging in another misogynist piece, I said to myself, in order to rein in some profits. The trailer appeared like a horrid rip-off of "The Hangover,"but NOW with women!! Yes, women were supposed to flock to this piece to see their foibles put on screen and laugh along with comedic actresses Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. This was going to be an unmitigated disaster.

I was, very fortunately, wrong. The film blew away my expectations and even the prognostications of Hollywood. The producers hoped the film would be able to gross over $80 million, but has now blown past $125 million with some stellar holds from weekend to weekend. It was expected to make $17 million its opening weekend and instead made over $26 million--a rather huge disparity in this day of precise measurements regarding box-office receipts.

How did this film become a break-out success and one of the most successful comedies of the year?

Kristen Wiig plays the largest role in the film's accomplishments. She stars as the hapless maid of honor who cannot get anything right for her childhood best friend's wedding, played by Rudolph. Wiig cowrote the screenplay with Annie Mumolo, and the earnest and witty dialogue make the movie shine. Wiig has become a star in the last few years thanks to SNL and now she is a bona fide screen star, something that doesn't normally happen to women older than 35.

Judd Apatow, the mastermind behind "The 40-year-old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," has followed up his earlier successes with this one. Unlike Apatow's earlier work, "Bridesmaids" features female characters who are not mere caricatures and scenery for his more subtle and complicated male characters. In this film only one man has any significant screen time, an impressive rarity in cinema. (However, male only cinema is easy to do, think of "Glengarry Glen Ross"). Here women of a certain age (considered old by most Hollywood standards) are flawed and human, with qualities that still make them touching.

With the able direction of Paul Feig, best known for television work, such as "Freaks and Geeks," the film navigates between the most scatological of humor to a character study of two women negotiating changes in their lives and the concomitant stressors to their seemingly strong relationship. A film about a wedding, especially a comedy, often focuses on the bride and groom and the disasters leading to the day of matrimonial bliss, but in this one the groom is rarely seen, instead we focus on the women. I can think only of "Father of the Bride" (and its remake and sequels) that takes such a different approach to marriages. For the first time, we have a movie about what is widely considered in Western culture as the pinnacle of a woman's life narrated and centered solely on the women involved. Quite a brilliant move.

Along with the broad comedy of Rudolph and Wiig, Rose Byrne adds a touch of subtle drama with her bitchy portrayal of a fellow bridesmaid, who manages to drive a wedge between the aforementioned women. She imbues this character with a desperate need for friendship and competition, making her heinous behavior psychologically palpable.

Hopefully, the success of Wiig, and her fellow SNL alum Tina Fey, will give Hollywood reason to make movies aimed at smart, discerning women, women who are not teenagers obsessed with Edward Cullen. There is enough money within studio budgets to allow this, and apparently there is even demand among consumers for such works. Such a welcome change. phew!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Good deal

You can download an MP3 of "Book of Mormon" today (and I think just today) for $1.99...

It is well worth it.

Go here.


"Book of Mormon" was expected to win Best Musical at the Tonys by so many people that even presenter Chris Rock said that the final award felt like "taking a hooker to dinner." The musical, a send-up of Mormon missionaries in Uganda (a country that recently passed a law criminalizing homosexuality, even going as far to place a penalty of death on some offenses), was the brainchild of "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Andrew Rannells gave a rousing rendition of  "I Believe" on the Tony telecast with an earnest charm, which seems to be the warm-heartedness that has impressed so many critics. Parker won in the categories of director, producer, score and book making him one of the most honored men in Tony history (I believe tied with Joshua Logan who won a slew of awards for "South Pacific" in 1949).

Unlike the last couple of years where Hollywood celebs, such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johansson, Marcia Gay Harden, Liev Schreiber, David Hyde Pierce and Geoffrey Rush have walked off with top honors, this year the only film actor to win was Frances McDormand in Abaire's "Good People." The other top winners are widely known within the Broadway community, but virtually unknown outside of that hallowed cityscape. Sutton Foster, Mark Rylance and Norbert Leo Butz all won their second awards, probably to the general consternation of much of the television-watching audience. Butz's win may have been the most necessary of the night, since many pundits had stated that "Catch me if You Can: The Musical" would most likely close without a significant Tony win.

Surprisingly, as consumer confidence numbers are down, the stock market is shaky, and job reports are still largely dispiriting, Broadway has witnessed a strong season with 39 eligible shows for Tonys and strong box-office receipts for shows that would seem to be outside the purview of strong commercial returns. A play about a boy and his horse during World War I walked off with virtually all of the production awards and Best Play, while a tongue-in-cheek treatment of Mormons swept most of the musical awards. A revival of subtle and racially-problematic Cole Porter standard has wowed critics and proven to be profitable (a shock to everyone involved). Now many of these shows will get nationwide tours (even the now closed "Scottsboro Boys," the last collaboration of Kander and Ebb).  I guess if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.

Best Dressed of the Evening

Catherine Zeta-Jones

Ms. Zeta-Jones (Aka Mrs. Douglas) shined tonight in this shimmering gown. Her performance last year of "Send in the Clowns" may have been a bit more reminiscent of "Exorcist: the Musical," but she has sympathy on her side after her husband's health crisis and her recently publicized battles with Bipolar Disorder II. Well, you rocked this, madam. 


Frances McDormand won a Tony tonight for what has been called a great performance in David Lindsay Abaire's "Good People." However, her choice in dress and acceptance speech presentation were epic fails. In what looks like a Forever 21 jacket and an American Apparel striped dress, McDormand looks as if she wandered off the subway after a Sunday lounging in the Park. Her spaztastic acceptance speech may lead some commentators to think that she is partaking in some crystal meth (or at least Salvia with Miley Cyrus). Simply tragique!

PS I did not photoshop this. Ms Oscar-winning McDormand decided on her own accord to take pictures holding her Tony as if she were being photographed for intake by the NYPD.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tony, Tony, Tony!

The Tony Award nominations were announced yesterday and for the first time ever, I have seen several of the nominated shows. I was in NYC a few weeks ago and in a whirlwind week, J-bone and I saw eight shows. Before this, the most I could help for would be a show that originated in Los Angeles before making its way to Broadway, such as Sunset Boulevard (1995) or Ragtime (1998).

Of course, the demand for Book of Mormon was so high, those tickets had to be kissed goodbye (and with tickets being over $150 apiece, I preferred the half-price offers at TKTS). Mormon walked away with the most nominations of the year with fourteen, only one less than the record held by The Producers (2001) and Billy Elliot: The Musical (2009). The show has received rave reviews, even from usually caustic critics from The New York Times and The New Yorker. It is guaranteed to walk off with a handful of awards. Other nominated shows, such as Kander and Ebb's controversial The Scottsboro Boys (the show is staged as a minstrel show) and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (nominated in the Best Book category) have already closed. Other shows, such as Catch Me if You Can and Sister Act, do not appear to have the widespread support of critics, who cite these shows as being far more lightweight than the powerhouse comedy of Mormon.

The second-most nominated musical of the year was the revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes. Sutton Foster, who heads this new production, embodies the standard narrative of the girl hoping for Broadway stardom. I know this show far too well since J-bone directed it at his high school this year. In 2000, she was pulled from being the understudy for Thoroughly Modern Millie to become its star. She went on to win the Tony and over the course of the next decade has been nominated four more times. In Anything Goes, she plays Reno Sweeney, the evangelical nightclub singer, with a penchant for booze, good-looking men and God. Her sassy portrayal even dwarfs those of earlier Reno's, the incomparable Ethel Merman (who originated the role in 1934) and Patti Lupone (who headed a revival at Lincoln Center in the 1980's). She seems to have a lock in perhaps the weakest category of the year. With only four nominees for Best Actress in a Musical (thus snubbing Sherri Renee Scott, who starred in the disastrous and closed Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), Foster will beat out past-winners such as Donna Murphy and Beth Leavel, and newcomer Patina Miller in the adaptation of Sister Act for the stage.

Only two revivals hit the boards this season, and it seems that Anything Goes will triumph. How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying hoped to capitalize on two cultural events: the success of the 1960's era fashion craze, inaugurated with Mad Men, and the Harry Potter phenomenon, with Harry himself (the elvish Daniel Radcliffe) starring in this production. Radcliffe's voice has litle power and range but he is suitable for the part, but a supporting cast headed by Night Court's John Larroquette and Tammy Blanchard make the show shine (both received nominations, while Radcliffe did not). The staging of the show is quite impressive, with a massive set (designed by Derek McLane who also designed Anything Goes and nominated for the latter) and quirky costumes. Anything Goes succeeded, however, on a more steadfast cast and choreography that has put every other show on Broadway this year to shame. 

The Best Revival of a Play seems to be far more competitive, with Al Pacino's Merchant of Venice going up against solid and well-reviewed productions of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, which won the Best Play award in 1994. It is surprising that Driving Miss Daisy was not placed in this category, since it was a commercial success this season, and was actually the first Broadway appearance of Alfred Uhry's play (it was Off-Broadway in its 1988 incarnation). Only Vanessa Redgrave received a nomination, not even equally talented peroformances from James Earl Jones or Boyd Gaines. Redgrave, however, will most likely lose to Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, who is starring in David Lindsay-Abaire's new play, Good People (Lindsay-Abaire won the Pulitzer for Rabbit Hole in 2002). Best Play seems to be a close race between the British War Horse by Nick Stafford, about a boy and his horse during World War I (sure to win Best Set Design for creatign a magical puppet horse on stage); and The MotherF**ker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, about a pair of fiery Puerto Rican lovers and their toxic relationship.

The Tony Awards air on CBS on Sunday, June 12. Who's coming by to watch?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bill Cronon, Academic Freedom and Freedom of Information Act

William Cronon is one of the premier academic American historians. He helped to usher in the study of American environmental history with his Bancroft-winning Changes in the Land, a book he wrote before he finished his dissertation. His second book, Nature's Metropolis, traced the development of Chicago, and it has become a classic work of urban, economic and environmental history. Just last October, he was elected to be the new President of the American Historical Association.

After he wrote an op-ed piece, that condemned the attempts of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to strip unions of collective-bargaining rights. As retaliation for this piece, two well-funded conservative think tanks have pressed the University of Wisconsin to make public all the emails Cronon has written and received on his university e-mail address under a state freedom of information act.

The rationale behind this goes as follows: Cronon is a public employee who should submit to transparency on his publicly-funded email, allowing everyone to see what else he has said. But does this logic hold water? The answer is a resounding no.

For conservatives, who have continually celebrated "limited government," this act is far more reminiscent of the authoritarian regimes of East Germany, Stalinist Russia or Mussolini's Italy. How do these conservatives who want taxes for America's largest corporations lowered to nothing and the government's (federal, state and municipal) ability to pay for social services rendered null and void justify an act that takes away the very individual freedoms they extol at all times.

Freedom of Information Acts are wonderful things. They make records public to historians and journalists, hopefully avoiding major redactions and highly classified documents from being hidden from the public. Academics have been some of the most vocal supporters of these acts; however, this act is now being twisted to intimidate historians from using their cultural capital to discuss and sometimes even condemn policies. How is it not a violation of free speech?

The state freedom of information act also stresses that the people subject to the law are "elected officials." Dr. Cronon was not elected to any public office in the state. This is quite an overreach to search his email because he teaches at a public institution.

The other issue that will come into play is that the vast majority of Cronon's emails involve his students. Emails involving student grades, health issues, familial problems, etc must remain confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Cronon's emails will probably find little of incendiary value. There may be some snide remarks about colleagues, some patronizing emails sent to graduate students or angry letters to the chair of the department or to the dean about the budget, but most likely nothing that will result in any headlines. The act of going through emails, which he believed were private, when written is such a gross violation of privacy and even the artificial expansion of a law meant to do good work.

The final thought emerges from this: why are the conservatives so afraid of one lonely historian. Although he is well known within the academy, he is by no means a bestselling author or pundit. Are Scott Walker's policies in such dire straits that one historian can make them topple? If so, we historians are greater than we believe ourselves to be.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Legacy of Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor died today at the age of 79 from congestive heart failure. Her famous eyes, that sometimes turned a shade of violet, her tiny cinched waist, those tiny hips that fluttered from side to side as she argued with her main co-stars from Kate Hepburn to Paul Newman, were the symbols that came to define a woman cursed and blessed with undeniable beauty.

She is best remembered for her eight marriages and her cyclical weight losses and gains, but in the 1950's and 1960's she was one of the premier actresses of the cinema. Her performances in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958) and "Suddenly Last Summer" (1959) marked her as one of the great interpreters of Tennessee Williams, combining the paradoxical strength and fragility of his heroines with her consummate beauty. Finally reaching her apex in 1966 with her performance of the firebrand Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

She began as an MGM contract player in roles in "Lassie Come Home" and "One's Born Every Minute." She became a star with "National Velvet" (1944), a story of a girl in lover with her horse. She was propelled into the limelight. Even the notoriously acrid critic, James Agee, wrote that he had been "choked with a peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were in the same grade of primary school."

With the beautiful and tremulous performances of the late 1950's, she blossomed into one of the great actresses of Hollywood. She displayed her inner talents in George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" (1952). She played the object of Monty Clift's affections, the sybaritic rich girl who entrances Clift and drives him towards tragedy. This powerful film became a hit and pushed her to her greatest triumphs by decades end, becoming the only woman in Oscar history to receive four consecutive nominations for Best Actress.

Her status as a camp icon comes from the talent married to the extravagance and absurdity of her private life. After her husband Mike Todd died in 1958, while she was filming "Cat," she found solace in the arms of Eddie Fisher, a mutual friend of the couple; however, Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, in a union celebrated by Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper for its storybook qualities. Suddenly, Fisher was divorcing Reynolds, much to the blonde dancer's surprise and chagrin. (Her bitterness about Fisher would become one of the highlights of her cabaret shows in the 1970's. At an AIDS benefit in 1990, Reynolds came on stage and said: "And now another thing Liz and I share." ba da boom!).

In 1960, Taylor's life resembled her performance in "The Last Time I Saw Paris," where her heroine dies of pneumonia tragically. Taylor was rushed to the hospital for an emergency tracheotomy while she was unconscious from a bout of pneumonia and too much booze. She had just finished filming "Butterfield 8" an adaptation of John O'Hara's torrid melodrama about a call girl. Taylor reportedly hated the finished movie so much that she threw her shoes at the screen when she first saw it on the MGM studio lot. However, the sympathy of Hollywood parlayed itself into her first Oscar for the film. Although she received nominations for 'Raintree County," 'Suddenly," and "Cat," her first Oscar came for her weakest performance of the period.

Then while making "Cleopatra," Taylor ditched Fisher for the bad boy of the British stage, Richard Burton. Burton and Taylor slowed production down on the Egyptian-set drama with their drunken antics. Taylor was somehow able to match the famously alcoholic Burton drink for drink. "Cleopatra" was a major disappointment. The film cost a record-breaking $40 million dollars, which almost bankrupted 20th-Century Fox.

Her greatest triumph on the screen was undoubtedly Mike Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966). She eschewed her tiny waist and immaculate hair styles to gain weight and age herself twenty years to play the bitter wife of an academic whose marriage comes to the brink of disaster during a night-long dinner party with a junior faculty member and his wife. Rather than the brittle woman she cultivated to play Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Taylor created a Martha whose tough exterior covered up an insecure and bitter woman, unhappy with the banality of her life. Her fierceness shined next to her then husband, Richard Burton, whose calm docility in the film allowed Taylor to run wild as her ravings were a cry of desperation to make him pay attention to her. Although Taylor was not the first actress to deglamorize herself in order to gain critical respect and an Academy Award (Susan Hayward was the master of this in the 1950's), but for a woman like Taylor who was celebrated around the world for her face and body, it was a brave act. The performance brought her a second Oscar, and far more deserved than her previous one for "Butterfield 8" (1960). Burton, however, lost to Paul Scofield. Burton famously and bitterly said, "Elizabeth won, and I didn't."

She never had a triumph on the level of "Virginia Woolf" again. Her life devolved into a circus of drunkenness, fights with Burton and divorce after divorce. There were minor hits, such as Zeffirelli's version of "Taming of the Shrew," and there was glamor in the period. Burton gave her two famously large diamonds, worth millions of dollars. The couple fought in public in both restaurants and the yacht that was moored on the Thames near central London.

Her subsequent marriages to John Warner, which helped propel him to the Senate to represent Virginia, and Larry Fortensky, the construction worker she met while in the Betty Ford Clinic, were famously ludicrous. She turned to philanthropy in her later years, raising over $100 million for AIDS research. She was honored by the Academy with a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1992.

Hopefully, her charity and those luminous performances will triumph over the drunken brawls and years of bloated indulgence in the collective memory of Liz Taylor. Those scenes in "Cat" or "Suddenly, Last Summer" when she turns towards the camera in frustration shows her face lighted with her grace and supreme intelligence. Those eyes will continue to bewitch all of those who watch.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libya and the issues of Intervention

Muammar Qaddafi has always been an erratic, violent and unpredictable head of state since he came to power in a military coup in 1969. He refers to himself as the "King of Kings of Africa" and his assumed sense of omnipotence has led to his role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. As his power has eroded in the last weeks he has accused dissidents in his country as dupes of al-Qaeda who have been slipped hallucinogenic drugs in their Nescafe. How should the international community deal with such a man who is now on a murderous rampage against his own subjects.

This week, the United States and NATO entered into military tactics that would hopefully keep Muammar Qaddafi from attacking rebel groups and civilians in the eastern provinces of the nation. However, this military action raises more problems than solutions.

The Libyan rebels, unfortunately, do not have the power and unity of the rebels whom Hosni Mubarak faced in Egypt. Some of the rebels are even proffering views that Qaddafi must fall because he is a Jew, a view certain to be dismissed but indicative of the pervasive anti-Semitism of much of the Middle East.

Of course, NATO, the UN and Obama have averred that this war will last only a matter of days. This statement, however, was said at the start of the American Civil War and the First World War, both of which lasted over four years. George W. Bush also told us that an incursion into Iraq would be quick and effective. Prognostications about how  long wars last are often wrong.

What exactly are the goals of this tactic?  This is the most disheartening questions because there does not seem to be a clear answer. Is Qaddafi's removal from power the goal? If so, there seems to be no one or group ready to fill the position. Do these rebels have the power and unity to find an interim government before elections take place. The UN resolution stated that NATO powers were to protect civilian lives from Qaddafi's brutal thugs.

Obama correctly argued that the United States should step back and Britain, France and other NATO powers must take control of the situation. It appears that Libya is becoming a hot potato. Even though Nicolas Sarkozy took an early lead in this affair by refusing to recognize Qaddafi as the head of Libya's state, Sarko now seems unwilling to follow through with any commitments to aid the rebels. David Cameron, the conservative PM of the UK, has cut his budget so drastically in the last year that the cost of this incursion would negatively effect his grand budgetary schemes.

Hopefully, Qaddafi will leave peacefully and a coalition of dissidents will come together to form an interim government before a constitution with broad civil liberties and republican institutions can be formed. We can only wait to see.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Los Angeles Opera and the 2010-11 Season

Two decades ago, Los Angeles OPera was a rather provincial affair. Maria Ewing was cast in everything even though her voice was uneven and at times purely ugly. Sitting through her Salome, Carmen or Traviata was painful. But since Placido Domingo was appointed General Director in 2000, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion has experienced a renaissance. Ambitious projects have marked this decade and even this year's season with Rossini's "Turk in Italy" (Il Turco in Italia) and Benjamin Britten's "Turn of the Screw" continues this tradition.

From a Ring cycle which was controversially directed by the German director Achim Freyer (audience members booed his appearance on stage; I, however, found it a fresh and invigorating interpretation) to an acclaimed production of Brecht and Weill's "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" (a recording of this production won two Grammys), LA Opera has become one of the cutting-edge houses in the United States along with Houston and Santa Fe but with the added prestige and endowment of New York's Metropolitan. It seems to be a formula for perpetual success.

Rossini's "Turk in Italy" has had a troubled performance history. It was booed by the audiences of Milan in 1814, and has not been performed in America since 1978 and LA Opera's prodiction was raved about by the critics, and for good reason. It was a light and airy piece supported by strong direction that maximized the comedic nature of Rossini's music and Felice Romano's libretto. The strong performances of singer-actors, such as soprano Nino Machaidze and baritone Thomas Allen, led this witty and sensual production. The critical and even commercial reception to this piece show that audiences will flock to an opera that is even little known. It points to the ability of creating more varied and interesting works by the Opera.

And now that "Turk in Italy" has closed, we see the immediate opening of their final work of the season, Benjamin Britten's "Turn of the Screw." Britten's works are notoriously difficult to mount, but LA Opera has made it their mission to become the home of some invigorating productions of Britten's opus. Los Angeles has headed some very well respected productions of Britten operas, including Rodney Gilfry as the eponymous character in 2000, and a calm and reflective version of Peter Grimes a few years later. This new production of "Turn of the Screw" is highly anticipated as the final production of this (sadly) truncated season due to budgetary issues.

Next season, LA Opera will mount Verdi's Simon Boccanegra with Domingo taking one of the most revered parts of the baritone repertoire. There will also be a new "Cosi fan tutte," a mounting of Britten's "Albert Herring," but is there a way that we can convince the Opera to build a new set for Bohème? I am ready for a new production of that standard piece that rivals the reinvention of "Madama Butterfly" of Robert Wilson. That would complete the radical transformation of LA Opera, which we have witnessed over the course of this past decade.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Renewed War Against Women

Planned Parenthood faces a budget cut that eliminate all federal funding. Other federal bills would raise taxes in order to keep women from what is legally allowed to them. A proposed law in Georgia would incarcerate women for miscarriages. Laws in Wyoming that would force women to have no recourse to abortions were barely defeated. Mike Huckabee attacks Natalie Portman for "glamorizing" single motherhood, although she is planning on marrying her baby daddy.

And pundits keep assuring us that the culture wars are over.

The backlash against feminism, which Susan Faludi tracked so well, is still going strong. Women who were granted as a fundamental right the right to choose abortion under the right of privacy of the fourteenth amendment now face increased difficulty in some states of finding a doctor who provides such services. Women's right to choose has been under attack since the opinion was made by the Supreme Court in 1973, but the renewed vigor of today is upsetting.

Abortion is a prickly and dangerous topic. We are dealing with matters of life and death, and there is a large portion of our population who believe that any abortion should be considered murder. This sense of stopping murderers justifies in their minds the assassination of "abortion doctors," such as Paul Tiller, who was killed in 2009 while in his church by such an anti-abortion zealot. Nathan Lane's quip in "The Birdcage" (1996): "Oh, I know what you are going to say: 'If you kill the mother, the fetus dies too.' But the fetus is going to be aborted anyway, so why not let it go down with the ship" is not far from the strategy proposed by Republicans.

I would love to see a time when birth control has increased its abilities and reach to the greater population that abortions become less and less necessary. The morning-after pill has become a great way for women to take precautions if accidents occur. And it should be standard in rape kits nationwide. However, that time has not yet arrived, and when our last president stressed abstinence-only sex education, the existence of accessible birth control has decreased as well.

The hypocrisy that is so appalling is that these attacks on a woman's right to choose and gay marriage go against what the Republicans tell us is the basis of their party: small, limited government. Spending cuts must happen, they say time and again, because the federal government is too large and incapable of doing all that it claims. Yet somehow having the federal government invade doctors' offices and bedrooms to legislate morality is perfectly acceptable. Or, when "national security" is at stake, we should sacrifice some of our dearest liberties to give the FBI and CIA broad powers over American citizens and any foreigners who may appear suspicious.

 The libertarian side of the Republican party should not be in favor of the social conservative issues proposed. Others however can hold a very paradoxical ideology in their minds: Small government when it comes to taxes, but when it comes to very personal issues the government should be in each and everyone's minds. This partly speaks to a view common among many Tea Partiers that the American way of life (corresponding to an inaccurate picture of Eisenhower-era America [he was pro-union and suspicious of the military-industrial complex]). By keeping women and racial and sexual minorities from fighting for civil rights, it will somehow preserve a vision of an America where nice, white people can do exactly as they please.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has argued that Roe v Wade is premised on shaky legal ground. She believes that the opinion should have been argued for women's rights as in charge of their bodies and hence not inferior to the males of the species, rather than the "right to privacy." This shakiness means that it is at risk under the current Supreme Court. Fortunately, John Roberts has never brought onto the docket any case relating to abortion. Is this because he wants to leave the law in place? Or because any action the Court would take would result in great controversy? We can only speculate. It is clear, however, that the decision would be close. The crucial vote would be Anthony Kennedy whose Catholic roots may swing him to the side of Scal-ito, Thomas and Roberts, but then again Kennedy voted with Ginsburg and Breyer on Lawrence v Texas (2003), which ended sodomy laws. It would be a risky proposition any way they proceed.

Of course, the Republicans have no interest in spending federal dollars to help these children when they are born. They want to cut Planned Parenthood because it funds abortion (but not from federal monies), but that is only a small portion of the crucial work that the organization does. It helps prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place by providing birth control and provides to women a battery of health tests and prenatal care. The Republicans literally want to throw the baby out with the bath water.

The GOP has no intention of providing dollars to help the foster-care system or adoption agencies, but they sure as hell want lots and lots of babies born. As Margaret Cho said: "Most conservatives believe in the death penalty, but not abortion, which proves they like to procrastinate." Enough said.

Do we really want to return to a time of knitting needles and the risk of dying from infection? I hope we the dangerous implications of GOP decisions.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Financial meltdowns and the Shame of Financial CEOs

Two recent documentaries have shed renewed light on the financial meltdown of 2008 that brought the world perilously close to a second Great Depression. "Inside Job," Charles Ferguson's look at the wheelings and dealings of the board of Goldman Sachs, won the Oscar for Best Documentary on Sunday, while Alex Gibney's "Client 9," an examination of Elliot Spitzer's rise and fall, was nominated for the Satellite Award.  These films point to the fact that not enough reform has taken place to insure that small investors do not become the victims of Wall Street sharks who chase after short-term profits and bonus packages.

The narrative of the meltdown is now familiar. Risky mortgages were extended to families making $50k for $500k houses. With raising interest rates, these mortgages were unsustainable and people began to default. The world banking system had believed that it had minimized risk by spreading the burden of handling these riskier mortgages across the system in a series of new financial tools called Collteralized Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps. However, these CDOs implicated the entire system when the house of cards began to fall. Banks, over the course of the 90's and 00's, had lowered the amount of capital they had to keep in reserve and raised how much leverage they could take on. It was a painfully dumb equation.

With hindsight, it seems obvious that there was a housing bubble. Like other historical bubbles, from tulipomania in 17th-century Amsterdam, to the South Seas Bubble and simultaneous John Law Mississippi Land Bubble of 1720, the housing bubble of the 2000's saw housing prices rise far faster than it was justified thanks to the push of financial advisors and banks in creating more untapped markets for homebuyers. Unfortunately, many of these people could not afford a house in the first place.

The reason behind the push for more risk was that it resulted in high short-term profits. In order to create more profits, companies cooked books (much like Arthur Anderson did for Enron in the early 2000's) and took on high levels of risk. The Glass-Steagall Act (one of FDR's acts of his first hundred days) was designed to control speculation, but Clinton and Fed Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan believed it would be best to repeal parts of the bill that curtailed bank profits. By taking on higher risk, a bank could create a huge boon to their profits at a quarterly rate thus driving up stock prices, in term adding more to the bonus packages for the top executives of the company.

Many of the CEOs of Wall Street had (and still have) salaries of exorbitant sums. Thomas Montag of Bank of America receives a yearly wage of $30 million dollars, while Jamie Dimon of Chase receives approximately $16 million. And these are their salaries of 2009.

Angelo Mozilo, who headed Countrywide before its collapse in 2008, sold much of his Countrywide stock between 2006 and 2007, making $139 million before the company went bankrupt and the stock was worthless at the end of 2008. In October of 2010, he agreed to pay $65 million in fines to the SEC in order to avoid formal charges of insider trading.

Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, made $457 million dollars in his last year at the investment bank that closed its doors during the meltdown. How could someone who headed a company that went bankrupt make as much as the GDP of some small foreign countries? If any of us were involved in a company that went bankrupt our $10 an hour would be snapped away, but yet if you as CEO ordered your firm to take on added leverage and more and more risk, you are exonerated from blame and instead rewarded?

No CEO or bank executive has faced any formal charges or jail time for their decisions in this regard. Even Moody's and Standard and Poor, two of the most important rating institutions in the world, have received no prosecutorial paperwork for lying about the riskiness of certain banks' holdings. Their defense? "It was our opinion." And how wrong it was, dear sirs.

What has Obama done to regulate the practices of Wall Street? Well, he has created a Consumer Protection Agency, which, if headed by Elizabeth Warren, could be one of the great federal innovations of the past twenty years. But little else has been done to significantly regulate these practices. The SEC has not been granted any wide-ranging powers and, unlike the EU, no bill has been passed to regulate compensation packages for banking CEOs.

Why hasn't further reform taken place? Unfortunately, Obama has hired as his economic team many of the same players that helped engineer the downfall in the first place. Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, was a former staff member of Goldman Sachs. Larry Summers, before he spouted racist and sexist adages as Harvard President, had advised Clinton to take apart the Glass-Steagall Act.

Elliot Spitzer, who as Attorney General of New York, prosecuted many Wall Street firms for unfair trading saw his career come to a dead halt after patronizing a prostitute. In Gibney's film, the director argues that the enemies he made at AIG and within Republican ranks aired his dirty laundry in order to force his resignation. Yet David Vitter, junior Senator from Louisiana has had two identical scandals, and remains a Senator.

And somehow, when a bill is brought to the house floor to raise taxes of the richest 1% to the levels under Clinton, there is an uproar! Somehow these CEOs who depleted the life savings of thousands of Americans, should be able to keep every penny that they "earn." But seniors and working-class families who have seen their ability to send their children to college thrown out the window should suffer the indignities of a system that rewards the richest for the poorest behavior.

Here are some of the books and films that should be watched and read for more information:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Brief Reflections of the 83rd Annual Oscars

There were few if any surprises at this year's Oscars. "King's Speech" won four of the biggest categories; "Inception" swept many of the technical awards; and James Franco was not funny. The Academy is toying with the idea of moving the ceremony a month forward to late January hopefully to infuse some excitement into the awards.

James Franco's constant smirks and general demeanor of being stoned do not have appeared to have been a hit with viewers or critics as host of this year's Oscars. It felt as if Anne Hathaway was desperately trying to infuse some energy into his delivery. I am not sure why: a) the Academy asked him when he informed them that he would be unavailable to rehearse during the week, or b) why he would agree to do it if he is so "committed" to his PhD program at Yale. He was floundering through many of his tidbits and numerous jokes bombed. In my house, we were playing a drinking game that stated we had to drink every time that a joke failed. We drank a lot in the first thirty minutes.

I think we have all come to the general consensus that Mr. Franco should take a brief respite from the world. It would allow him to create a new store of "creativity" (I stifle laughter as I type this). And allow me to go on the Internet or watch tv without having to see his snarling, smirking visage. We will all be able to take a deep breath of relief when he has retired to his ivory tower.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar Predictions 2011

It is that time of year again for me to prognosticate the winners of this year's Academy Awards, as if I were the Oracle at Delphi.

Best Picture

Will Win: "King's Speech"

Two months ago it seemed impossible that anything would beat "The Social Network," but after winning the majority of critics' prizes and the Golden Globe, it appears that David Fincher's film has lost much of its momentum. The positive buzz around "The King's Speech" has even propelled this small prestige film to over $100 million at the box office. The film boasts an extremely powerful cast and a tight, snappy screenplay that are incredibly popular with the Academy.

Best Director 

Will Win: David Fincher, "Social Network"

Tom Hooper, the director of "King's Speech," did win the DGA award, but if the British Academy did not give the prize to Hooper, it seems unlikely that the Oscars will either. Fincher is well respected and this may be the consolation prize for the facebook movie not winning the top prize.

Best Actor

Will Win: Colin Firth, "King's Speech"

This is the one category where there is absolutely no possibility of an upset. People were saying Firth would be nominated last year even before the film was out of post-production. He is playing a British monarch with a speech impediment, two of the academy's favorite character attributes: disability and royalty. Firth is also popular and never been honored. His win will surely result in a standing ovation as well. Hopefully, his wife doesn't cheat on him with a Nazi sympathizer, like last year's sure thing winner Sandy Bullock.

Best Actress

Will Win: Natalie Portman, "Black Swan"

Natalie Portman is the clear front runner in this category but there is a dark horse: Annette Bening. Bening is a Governor of the Actors' Branch of the Academy and she has never won before. She lost twice to Hilary Swank and this year she portrayed a lesbian in a well-liked independent comedy. I think Portman will take it in the end, but there could be a major upset here.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Christian Bale, "The Fighter"

Bale has been pointed to as one of the strongest actors of his generation. From intense indie dramas like "The Machinist" to huge blockbusters like "Dark Knight," Bale is accomplished in a number of genres. His performance as a crack-addicted boxer was the highlight of David Russell's family melodrama. If any upset were to happen, it would be Geoffrey Rush as the King's speech therapist.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Helena Bonham Carter, "King's Speech"

Melissa Leo was the clear leader in this race, but then she took a major misstep by taking out large ads in the trade papers courting voters for their votes. Many people saw it as a highly tacky move. I believe she still has the edge but the "King's Speech" steamroller may very well bulldoze this category, too. Carter, a woman noted for eccentricities and her marriage to famed director Tim Burton, may ultimately triumph in this category. But then there is also Hailee Steinfeld, the fourteen-year-old wonder kid in "True Grit." This is one of the only wide open races this year.

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: David Seidler, "King's Speech"

I would much rather see Lisa Cholodenko win here for "The Kids are All Right," but Seidler, with his first nomination with the script he plied around town for years before it was picked, up has a true underdog story. Plus, the film is going to win Best Picture, so screenplay prizes often go to the Best Picture winner as well.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Aaron Sorkin, "Social Network"

Everyone in Hollywood loved Sorkin's work on "The West Wing," and his lock on this prize seems assured. This is the chance to honor a respected writer and a film that has been honored by most film critics across the country.

Best Animated Feature

Will Win: "Toy Story 3"

Unlike most threequels, "Toy Story 3" did incredibly well at the box office (grossing a billion dollars worldwide) and with critics--it was the best reviewed film of the year, in fact. A travesty would occur if this failed to win in this category.

Best Song:

Will Win: The "Tangled" Song

Who knows who will win in this category? Some predict that AR Rahman will repeat here, but since he won just two years ago for "Slumdog Millionaire," I can't see the Academy giving him the prize for a movie that has failed at the box office and not reached the same critical respect as his first foray into Anglo-American cinema. Alan Menken wrote the songs in "Tangled" and he hasn't won since "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas, so this may be a chance to give Menken his ninth Oscar.

Best Score

Will Win: Trent Reznor, "Social Network"

Some think Alexandre Desplat's score for "King's Speech" will triumph here. He has never won and been nominated several times, but the Academy actually has a past awarding rock stars in this category. Prince won for "Purple Rain," and Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne of Talking Heads won for "The Last Emperor." With a new upsurge of younger Academy members, Reznor will most likely be able to beat the established film composers.

Best Editing

Will Win: "Social Network"

I have no clue how "Inception" was not nominated in this category, but with that removed from the running, "Social Network" clearly has the edge.

Best Cinematography

Will Win: "True Grit"

Roger Deakins, who has shot many of the Coen Bros. finest films, has never won an Oscar. This will most likely be his year to shine.

Best Costume Design

Will Win: "Alice in Wonderland"

"Alice in Wonderland" may not have received heaps of praise from critics, but its costume designs were one of the actually unique aspects about it. When Alice shrunk, her dress became a huge mess, and when she grew her dress became small and tight. Something never done in any other adaptation of Carroll's work. It was a brilliant move and may give the film its sole win in this category.

Best Art Direction

Will Win: "King's Speech"

Although "Alice" had the most spectacular sets, most of them CGI'ed, "King's Speech" went for accuracy and simplicity on a shoestring budget. Sometimes less is more.

Best Documentary

Will Win: "Exit Through the Gift Shop"

Banksy's tongue-in-cheek documentary blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction and in the process made some profound statements about art's relation to commerce. Categories like documentary are difficult to predict because for one to be able to vote in this category he or she must be able to demonstrate to the Academy that he or she has seen every film nominated (a regulation not in place for categories like Actor, Actress or Picture). Thus a small group of people who saw all the films may elect a film that has not even been released in theaters to win. "Inside Job," a well-reviewed doc about the meltdown of 2008, may upset here, but I am going with innovation here.

Best Foreign Language Film

Will Win: "Biutiful"

To vote in this category, like in the Documentary category, you have to see all the nominees. I haven't seen a single one, thus I am going with the film with Bardem, only because Bardem is in it. The Danish film may win because of its triumph at the Golden Globes. This category often results in upsets ("Departures" over "The Class;" "Lives of Others" over "Pan's Labyrinth;" "Secret of their Eyes" over "White Ribbon"--that is the last consecutive three years). Frankly, no one can know who will win here.

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: "Inception"

"Tron" had some gorgeous effects but since it seems that is ALL it had, the much smarter and better "Inception" will easily beat the competition.

Best Makeup

Will Win: "Wolfman"

No one could have seen this coming: "Wolfman" will be an Oscar-winning flick. Rick Baker who has six OScars already designed the fur mask for Benicio Del Toro. Why the make-up branch did not nominate films, such as "Black Swan," "Alice in Wonderland," or "Inception," I shall never know.

Best Animated Short

Will Win: "Madagascar, carnet de voyage"

I like the title and it's about Madagascar, so in honor of Jane, I say this will win

Best Documentary Short 

Will Win: "Killing in the Name"

Sounds like a good expose about something violent and without justice.

Best Live Action Short

Will Win: "Na Wewe"

It's about Rwanda, why not?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

State Budget Crises and Union Busting

The events in Wisconsin over the past couple weeks have pointed to a strategy by Republican fiscal conservatives that we may see play out in a number of states where huge budget shortfalls are forcing state lawmakers to make cuts and raise taxes. In Wisconsin, a controversial attempt to end the collective bargaining of unions (especially those of teachers' unions, the most vilified in the media) is being fought in major protests by state workers. Fiscal conservatives point to the fact that everyone has made sacrifices since the economic meltdown of 2008 and the unions need to take similar measures. But is this notion that unions have not made sacrifices true?

The short answer is a resounding no. Unions' ability to negotiate in the time of economic downturns has been made increasingly difficult in the past several years. The amount of money that state workers and teachers are now required to pay in health care premiums have more than doubled in the last decade. The amount of pensions being paid has also been cut and raises have not been paid that accord to inflation.

Why then this new massive attack on unions? Unions serve as the base of the Democratic Party and among the top ten contributors to the 2010 elections, only unions were able to be placed in the top ten makers of political donations among the conservative PAC's that dominated the support for tea-party candidates. With the 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United, we will see a continued rise of corporate monies going to conservative candidates who will repay their donors with major federal subsidies and tax cuts, which will not go to product development or aiding their workers but creating huge bonuses for their executives.

According to many pundits and Wisconsin legislators, the state was on the track to have a budget surplus this year, but the new tea-party governor, Scott Walker, created massive tax cuts to corporations that has now created a major budget deficit. Somehow these tax cuts are not the issue, but rather the "entitlements" of unions.

For Republicans, their mantra of budget cuts masks their true conservative agenda that wants to see Planned Parenthood funds cut to nothing. They want to eviscerate the few institutions of power the Democrats may have and that remains the public-employee unions across the nation. The tax burden of the richest Americans is in no way the high burden that many Republicans claim, far lower than most industrialized, Western nations. The tax code needs to be reformed and with this reform a general lessening of maximum tax rates will be achieved, but so many loopholes need to be closed (even Mitch McConnell agrees with this point). Carnival Cruise Lines paid only 1% of their billion-dollar profits to the government last year. General Electric actually received more money from the federal government than it paid in taxes in 2009. Small businesses, however, do not possess two floors of tax attorneys who know how to negotiate the loopholes that result in paying virtually nothing in federal and state taxes.

Many people have been duped by Fox News and its incessant partisan "reporting." The assiduous rants of O'Reilly and Beck tell these people that it is liberal, commie fascists who are out to destroy the American way of life and "bankrupt our grandchildren." As we all know, fear is a great way to boost ratings and a way to mask actual issues and debates and frame them in apocalyptic language that gets us nowhere. (Glenn Beck is currently convinced the end of times is nigh with Obama as the Anti-Christ. How is this news?).

In 1975, New York state faced a dire financial situation. creditors began to fear that the riskiness of the state's holding would result in the defaulting of major municipal bonds. The Governor at the time, Hugh Carey, vowed everyone would need to make huge sacrifices, especially public unions. The rhetoric he used is identical to what we hear today, but what actually was necessary in solving the 1975 crisis. The wealthiest billionaires who find municipal bonds to be a huge boon to their profit margins saw in the 1975 crisis (and our present crises) an opportunity for renewed cash flows. Credit is withheld to fund these shortfalls or create new businesses (something also creating problems on the job-creation front today), until the situation is so dire that major cuts have occurred and these creditors can step in with a magic wand that has huge interest rates that will pay these creditors huge amount of money. So we will sacrifice our unions and pensions in order to give the wealthiest half of a percent of the American population more money? I think not.

Rather than attacking Wall Street investors and their major avarice, we turn on the teachers, federal workers, and state employees, who played no part in the economic meltdown of 2008. That was caused by the cutting of taxes, the increase of spending (especially military) and most importantly the de-regulation of financial investment tools. The attack of public employees is an easy scapegoat in a time when rich conservative fundraisers (e.g. the Koch brothers) can donate massive amounts of money to make sure that these more liberal-leaning institutions are destroyed.

We should all stand with these unions because without them the ability to negotiate with employers will be impossible. Without unions, the gap between the rich and poor will increase to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. The evisceration of the middle class will be complete, and those poor dupes of Fox News will wake up one day to find their way of life is no longer. Hopefully, they will wake up and realize it wasn't Obama's fault.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jane Fonda's Triumph: Moises Kaufman's "33 Variations"

In 1819, a music publisher, Anton Diabelli, developed a scheme that he was sure would be a great money maker for his firm: invite the fifty greatest composers of Vienna to compose a variation on a waltz that the publisher composed himself. Forty-nine composers agreed to contribute to the volume, including Schubert and Weber, but one did not: Ludwig van Beethoven. After Beethoven initially refused the invitation, he began to tinker with the theme composed by Diabelli and created a set of 33 variations, which became Beethoven's last great work after the Ninth Symphony. Along with Bach's "Goldberg Variations", Beethoven's work serves as one of the greatest lengthy set of pieces written for solo piano.

Moises Kaufman's play, "33 Variations," now playing at the Ahmanson Theater, focuses on an academic obsessed with the genesis of Beethoven's Opus 120, the "Diabelli Variations."Why would Beethoven devote so much time to such an insignificant piece of music in the closing years of his life? Dr. Katherine Brandt, played by the regal Jane Fonda, sets out to answer her question while illness chases her down. The similar obsessions (Beethoven's with the waltz and Brandt's obsession with the work) intersect as the play cuts between the two plots, showcasing the similarities between the scholar and the composer.

Similar to his previous plays, "The Laramie Project" and "Gross Indecency," Kaufman weaves the words of his historical characters into his work. In "Laramie Project," he used the words of inhabitants of Laramie, Wyoming in the aftermath of Matthew Shephard's killing. In "Gross Indecency," the transcripts of Oscar Wilde's obsecenity trial served as the basis for a majority of the dialogue in the second act. In "33 Variations," Beethoven's words are used throughout but in the most ingenious use of historical texts in a recent play, Diane Walsh plays excerpts from the variations throughout the play. When the characters discuss, often in quite technical language, the development of chord progressions in the work, the themes are played for the audience to hear.

The thrill of academic work is evident in the play, perhaps the best cultural representation of what a scholar does. The frustration and exalting possibility of the archives is expressed by Katherine repeatedly. The tantalizing notion that all of our academic (and even personal) questions can be answered by the dusty papers in those archival boxes and the concomitant feeling that the papers are not saying what you want them to say. This feeling of dejection by the sources gives way to Katherine (and to all of us who have worked in archives) when she allows the sources speak to us, rather than speaking for them. Her discovery is made and her questions are answered (in a fashion far different form what she predicted) and with this discovery she achieves some sense of peace.

The piece takes on true tearjerker qualities when we discover late in the first act that the illness from which Katherine suffers is ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease). The rare disease (apparently it affects only 30,000 people in the United States and because of this drug companies are wary of soending money on clinical trials for treatments) results in a loss of motor function, and the second act of the play showcases Fonda's formidable talents as she begins to lose her ability to walk and even speak.

Both Beethoven and Katherine in the final scenes fight to finish their work before their health renders them incapable of it. By the early-1820's, Beethoven was fully deaf but fought to still create further works. Katherine as she is unable to move dictates the final edits on her monograph. It is heartbreaking to see two great minds lose their ability to create the works that formed their identity. Along with Margaret Edson's "Wit," "33 Variations" may serve as one of the finest plays about academic work.

The play with a breathtakingly simple and beautiful set composed of coat racks with curtains of sheet music form the backdrop of the emotional turmoil of the cast. (The set won a Tony Award in 2009). The simplicity of the production values contrasted nicely with the intricacy of the music analysis that served as much of the dialogue and the intensely complex characters of Katherine and Beethoven.

The intersection of personal and academic questions frames the work. Why would Beethoven become so obsessed with a trivial and seemingly "mediocre" piece of music, such as Diabelli's waltz? Similarly, why does Katherine's daughter seem to embrace mediocrity? It is the intersection of all of our creative interests that help form the way we approach the relationships that shape our lives. The link between the two is irrevocable and at times blissful, and at times painful.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The most random of musings


Tonight, in my sweet and sour soup, I found a spring. No, that does not mean that I have a spring in my step, or that I found a sprig of parsley. I actually found a black, metal spring. There it was lying in the plastic take-out container, thus meaning I had eaten the entire portion of soup before I discovered that a metallic device had made its way into my potent potable. This situation would make most not want to patronize the sushi restaurant around the corner, but then that means finding affordable take-out sushi will have to be discovered somewhere that is no longer walking distance from my apartment. I am not willing to make such a commitment to another establishment. I would rather turn a blind eye to what may have been the part of someone's watch than lose my favorite eatery of raw fish.


I have recently become obsessed with literary first editions. I read a book about a book thief who had hatched a devious plot where he stole credit cards to buy rare first editions of "The Great Gatsby" and "Far from the Madding Crowd." Because of this, I have been scouring local thrift stores (and most importantly the charity shop around the corner). In my quest, I have found an advance reader copy of John Updike's "Widows of Eastwick" for 2 bucks (worth about $40); a first edition of Whittaker Chamber's "Witness" (worth $150, bought for $4). Now, we just have to see if a used bookshop will think that my purchases warrant them giving me massive amounts of money. If only I could find a first edition of "Interview with the Vampire" or "Gone with the Wind."


Ross and I watched the Grammys this past Sunday, and we had many disagreements with some of the winners and some consternation at many of the performances. When the great shock of the evening, Arcade Fire winning Best Album, we both turned to our internet-loaded devices to twitter, update and doublecheck our reactions with that of our friends and critics. At this point, the broadcast cut to the local news program. The news anchor in his booming voice said:

"At tonight's Grammys, Lady Antebellum was the big winner with five awards. Let's turn to our correspondent, ________, who is live at the Staples Center right now."

The camera cut to an attractive blond, seemingly in her early to mid-thirties. She began to speak:

"Well, tonight globbedy blook, Gooble goobble. Let's look flirtational shooble doo."

Ross and I laughed at her complete incompetence in creating a coherent sentence. The next day, Ross discovered that the aforementioned woman was slurring her words not because she was drunk, but because she was having a stroke on the air.

I felt bad for having laughed at her.