Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy Holy-Days

(AP) A Palestinian boy watches the funeral of three children in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip December 29, 2008. Palestinian medics said five young sisters, died in an Israeli air strike in Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza and three other young children were killed when a bomb struck a house aimed at the nearby abandoned home of a senior Hamas militant in Rafah.

Adagio in G minor - Tomaso Albinoni

(AP) Three Palestinian brothers Sidki, 8, Ahmad, 12, and Mohammed Absi, 14, who were killed in an Israeli missile strike, during their funeral in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Monday, Dec. 29, 2008.

More than 360 Palestinians have been killed. U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said 62 civilians were confirmed killed and the number was likely higher. Another 1,450 Palestinians have been wounded.

Two Israelis have been killed by rockets.

Washington Post: Food and Medical Supplies Grow Scarce in the Gaza Strip

Juan Cole: What Is the Israeli End Game?
What I can't understand is the end game here. The Israelis have pledged to continue their siege of the civilians of Gaza, and have threatened to resume assassinating Hamas political leaders, along with the bombardment. The campaign of brutal assassinations launched by Ariel Sharon earlier in this decade were, Sharon, promised us, guaranteed to wipe out Hamas altogether. Do the Israelis expect the population at some point to turn against Hamas, blaming it for the blockade and the bombardment? But by destroying what was left of the Gaza middle class, surely they a throwing people into the arms of Hamas. The US experience of bombing North Vietnam and mining Haiphong Harbor, etc., was that it only stiffened Hanoi's resolve. The massive Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 2006 did not achieve any significant objectives. In fact, Hezbollah was politically strengthened; it now sits in the Lebanese cabinet and has been recognized as a formal national guard for the south of the country. Its stock of rockets has been replenished. There is a UN buffer now, but in the past such buffers have been removed when hostilities threaten.

If the Gaza population doesn't turn on Hamas, and Israeli measures don't destroy the organization (which they helped create and fund back in the late 1980s when they wanted a foil to the secular PLO), then what? They'll just go on half-starving Gaza's children for decades? Malnourished children have diminished IQ and poor impulse control. That would make them ideal suicide bombers. Plus, sooner or later there will start to be effective boycotts of Israel in Europe and elsewhere over these war crimes. The Israeli economy would be vulnerable to such moves.

Of course, there are only 1.5 million Gazans, and they increasingly are being forced to live in Haiti-like conditions, so in the short term the Israelis can do whatever they want to them. But I can't see this ending well for the Israelis in the long term. Very few insurgencies end because one side achieves a complete military victory (I think it is about 20%). But by refusing to negotiate with Hamas, Israel and the United States leave only a military option on the table. The military option isn't going to resolve the problem by itself. Gaza is a labyrinth. Those Qassam rockets are easy to make. There is so much money sloshing around the Middle East and so many sympathetic Muslims that Gaza will be kept just barely afloat economically, making Hamas hard to dislodge. And the Israeli blockade of Gaza is so distasteful to the world that eventually there is likely to be a painful price to pay for it by the Israelis.

Robert Fisk: Leaders lie, civilians die, and lessons of history are ignored
And always Mr Bush Snr or Mr Clinton or Mr Bush Jnr or Mr Blair or Mr Brown have called upon both sides to exercise "restraint" – as if the Palestinians and the Israelis both have F-18s and Merkava tanks and field artillery. Hamas's home-made rockets have killed just 20 Israelis in eight years, but a day-long blitz by Israeli aircraft that kills almost 300 Palestinians is just par for the course. . . .

We hear the usual Israeli line. General Yaakov Amidror, the former head of the Israeli army's "research and assessment division" announced that "no country in the world would allow its citizens to be made the target of rocket attacks without taking vigorous steps to defend them". Quite so. But when the IRA were firing mortars over the border into Northern Ireland, when their guerrillas were crossing from the Republic to attack police stations and Protestants, did Britain unleash the RAF on the Irish Republic? Did the RAF bomb churches and tankers and police stations and zap 300 civilians to teach the Irish a lesson? No, it did not. Because the world would have seen it as criminal behaviour. We didn't want to lower ourselves to the IRA's level.

Yes, Israel deserves security. But these bloodbaths will not bring it. Not since 1948 have air raids protected Israel. Israel has bombed Lebanon thousands of times since 1975 and not one has eliminated "terrorism". So what was the reaction last night? The Israelis threaten ground attacks. Hamas waits for another battle. Our Western politicians crouch in their funk holes. And somewhere to the east – in a cave? a basement? on a mountainside? – a well-known man in a turban smiles.
And where is Barack Obama?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bush Finally Helps the Economy

Forget what the Liberal media says about unemployment reaching a 26-year high. The fact is, George W. Bush has actually helped create new jobs.

At least in Turkey...

Stampede for 'Bush shoe' creates 100 new jobs

Ramazan Baydan, owner of the Istanbul-based Baydan Shoe Company, has been swamped with orders from across the world, after insisting that his company produced the black leather shoes which the Iraqi journalist Muntazar al-Zaidi threw at Bush during a press conference in Baghdad last Sunday.

Baydan has recruited an extra 100 staff to meet orders for 300,000 pairs of Model 271. . . .

Orders have come mainly from the US and Britain, and from neighbouring Muslim countries, he said.

Around 120,000 pairs have been ordered from Iraq, while a US company has placed a request for 18,000. A British firm is understood to have offered to serve as European distributor for the shoes, which have been on the market since 1999 and sell at around £28 in Turkey. A sharp rise in orders has been recorded in Syria, Egypt and Iran, where the main shoemaker's federation has offered to provide Zaidi and his family with a lifetime's supply of shoes.

To meet the mood of the marketplace, Baydan is planning to rename the model "the Bush Shoe" or "Bye-Bye Bush".
Meanwhile, the lawyer for shoe-thrower Muntazar al-Zaidi denies that his client apologized for his actions, as had been reported recently. He also claims that al-Zaidi's medical condition is "very bad" after being beaten by Iraqi security.
"Muntazer al-Zaidi considers what he did when he threw his shoes at President Bush as exercising his freedom of expression, in opposing and rejecting the occupation, which has brought misery to Iraq."

Al-Sa'adi said al-Zaidi was not considering giving an apology to the US president, "not now, nor in the future". . . .

"There are visible signs of torture on his body, as a result of being beaten by metal instruments," al-Sa'adi said.

"Medical reports have shown that the beating he was subjected to has led to him losing one of his teeth as well as injuries to his jaw and ears.

"He has internal bleeding in his left eye, as well as bruises over his face and stomach. Almost none of his body was spared.

If you haven't done so already, you can play the "throw shoes at Bush game" at Sock and Awe.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Recent Screenings: 2008

I haven't done a Recent Screenings post since January 2008, which is too bad, because I've seen some excellent films this year.

Alas, few of them were actually released in 2008, so if you're looking for a Best of 2008 list, you'll have to go elsewhere. Here are some possibilities: Roger Ebert, Anthony Lane and John Waters.

Meanwhile, from films I saw for the first time in 2008, here are twenty I enjoyed the most. My Ten Favorite, in alphabetical order, followed by ten more worth watching.

Black Narcissus (1947) - There's no easy way to describe this haunting and mesmerizing film. I avoided it for several years, because the idea of Deborah Kerr playing an Anglican nun made me yawn just thinking about it. But I was very wrong. The great directing team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger create a lush, fascinating world and then delve into some powerful questions. Kerr has been chosen to lead four other nuns in an effort to start a convent and infirmary high up on a mountain in the Himalayas within a strange former palace. Cultures, religions, and individual personalities come into conflict. Erotic tensions build up. The wind howls through the isolated and eerie palace. People lose their minds. British colonialism seems ridiculous and powerless in the face of spiritual and cultural forces thousands of years old. Who is observing who? What does spirituality really mean? Powell & Pressburger slowly increase the pressure until it explodes in a disturbing climax - something like beautiful horror.

Death at a Funeral (2007) - One of the funniest films I've seen in years. A classic in black comedy. Drugs, midgets, closet homosexuals, cranky old guys in wheelchairs, scatological humor, and lots of family dysfunction. All at a funeral. Viewers should know by the end of the first scene if this is going to be their cup of tea.

In Bruges (2008) - Brutal, violent, profane, politically incorrect, and darkly humorous. With surprisingly intelligent contours. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell play hit men sent to the medieval city of Bruges to wait for their next assignment. Gleeson, a tired old pro, calmly takes in the beauty and history of the city. Farrell, who recently botched his first assignment, fumes and rages, a seemingly shallow young man incapable of appreciating the finer things in life. Over time, the men form an interesting bond, as Farrell slowly comes unglued by guilt. The acting is superb all around, with Farrell delivering his best performance ever. Ralph Fiennes almost steals the show, however, as their "complicated" Irish thug boss. I didn't see a lot of new films in 2008, but this may have been my favorite.

Iron Man (2008) - I'm tired of super-hero/comic book movies, but it's impossible not to enjoy Robet Downey Jr.'s performance in Iron Man. A smart, funny, well-paced film that doesn't take itself too seriously - what the Spider Man series had going for it before its abysmal third installment. This one held up well on a second viewing; I have serious reservations, however, about its inevitable sequal.

King Lear (1987) - Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. With Burgess Meredith as "Don Learo," Molly Ringwald as Cordelia, Woody Allen as Mr. Alien, Norman Mailer as "The Great Writer," and controversial theatre director Peter Sellars, who also worked on the "script," as William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth.

It would take a very long post to properly examine this film, not to mention telling the back story of its production, which is one of the most fascinating (and/or disastrous) in cinema history.

Vincent Canby at The New York Times called the movie "tired, familiar and out of date." Time Out says it's "Godard's dullest and least accomplished [movie] for some time." User Comments on IMDB are filled with hatred and rage.

Meanwhile, Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times hails it as "a work of certified genius," and The National Film Archive of India places it on a list of the Greatest Films of All Time.

There are two important things to keep in mind about Godard and his King Lear project:

1) Godard lost interest in making traditional narrative films sometime in the early-to-mid 1960s. As a general rule, it's always better to approach one of his works as a cinematic poem or visual philosophical treatise rather than a "movie." Anyone who comes to this film expecting a story based on Shakespeare's King Lear will be greatly flummoxed, then furious. Kurosawa's Ran this is not.

2) Nobody seems to read or consider the sub-title of this work - King Lear: Fear and Loathing. A Study. An Approach. A Clearing. No Thing. Does that sound like you're about to enter Kenneth Branagh territory? Yet"a study, an approach, a clearing" is a fair explanation of Godard's project.

When you also take a look at the cast list and the names of some of the characters (Woody Allen as Mr. Alien?) one wonders why anyone thinks this is going to be a normal re-telling of Shakespeare's classic. Yet they do. And they get really, really angry when they encounter Jean-Luc Godard tearing apart the Bard and using him to investigate the very meaning of written and visual language.

Not an easy work, granted (though not that difficult either, if you just let it be what is.) But Godard's King Lear was the most thought-provoking and inspirational film I saw in 2008.

It's no wonder that many critics hate Godard, because he's basically challenging the very nature of narrative film, and making us think about our relationship to words and images. He's been trying since the early 1970s to create a new kind of cinema, and though he's failed in many ways, one gets the feeling that his attempts will be remembered and finally investigated more fully in the future. (The advent of YouTube, for example, seems to fall in line with ideas Godard was working on in the early 1970s.) And King Lear, in many ways, is his main treatise on the subject.

He also explores the historic relationship of the film industry to capitalism and mobsterism. Burgess Meredith is given the impossible task of playing a godfather version of Lear, and he does an amazing job. I scoffed beforehand at the idea of the Penguin playing Lear, but I was wrong.

In addition to being intellectually fascinating, King Lear is also quite funny in parts. And there are moments of stunning beauty, when Godard reminds us that he is a master at creating some of the most powerful images in cinema.

I certainly wouldn't recommend this film to everyone, but if you're willing to drop all expectations at the door and enter in, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Either that, or you're going to hate the movie, hate Godard and hate me.

Modern Times (1936) and City Lights (1931) - I don't know why it took me so long to see these two classics by Charlie Chaplin. My great loss. In Kabbalah, one is not supposed to enter the orchard until his or her fortieth year. Perhaps I had to wait about that long to fully enter into the orchard of Chaplin.

Modern Times was a great place to start. City Lights was both funny and beautiful.

So much cinema comes from these two Chaplin films.

No Country for Old Men (2007) - So much has been written about Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning film that I have little to add. Warning for the squeamish - this is a very violent film. If you can get through the disturbing opening scene, you can get through the rest of the movie. And you should, because it's a powerful film, the best work by the Coens in a long time. One piece of advice: Everything will make more sense, especially the ending, if you think of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh as Death.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) - Werner Herzog does Dracula, with Klaus Kinski as the vampyre and Bruno Ganz and Isabelle Adjani as the young couple he haunts. Herzog creates a beautifully creepy atmosphere from the first moments of the film and never sways. Great for Halloween.

Sherlock Jr. (1924) One Week (1920) The General (1927) - Buster Keaton classics. I had actually seen The General, but it was great to re-watch it after so many years. What an amazing film. Yes, it's funny, but I had forgotten how much of an adventure it is, as Keaton winds up behind enemy lines during the American Civil War.

Sherlock Jr. is like an hour-long catalog of cinematic gags and amazing stunts that would later be used throughout film history. Delightful. One Week reminds one that the early days of film coincided with Surrealism in art, and the two were often much closer together at the time than we realize.

WALL·E (2008) - Ebert calls this "the best science-fiction movie in years." The first 45 minutes miraculously combine Chaplin and Keaton with an end-of-the world scenario out of The Omega Man. Though it's an animated film, the "camera work," editing and and directing feel reminiscent of live-action classics. It may be classified as a "family" film, but it offers up one of the best contemporary critiques of our consumer culture. And a bumbling but deeply curious trash-compacting robot reminds us what it means to be human.

Ten Other FIlms I Enjoyed.

Ballada o soldate [Ballad of a Soldier] (1959) - A simple, beautiful and powerful film from the Soviet Union.

Forever Female (1954) - William Holden, Paul Douglas and Ginger Rogers in a literary comedy about the theatre world. Alas, we never see these kinds of movies anymore.

In the Valley of Elah (2007) - Tommy Lee Jones kicked ass in 2007.

Juno (2007) - Funny and quirky enough not to slide into schmaltz.

The Limey (1999) - Intelligent Soderbergh thriller with old Brit Terence Stamp in L.A. trying to find out who killed his daughter.

Muerte de un ciclista [Death of a Cyclist] (1955) - The most famous work by Javier Bardem's uncle. Kind of a Spanish Hitchcock/Clouzot thing.

Nashville (1975) - I'm not a big Altman fan, but this was a masterpiece. Henry Gibson and Lily Tomlin - only a few years removed from TV's Laugh-In - deliver amazing performances.

Rendition (2007) - Excellent political thriller with Jake Gyllenhaal.

The River (1951) and Partie de campagne [A Day in the Country] (1936) - Two Jean Renoir classics. The River is based on a novel by Rumer Godden, who also wrote the novel Black Narcissus.

Sang d'un poète, Le [Blood of a Poet] (1930) - Cocteau's first film. A must-see.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Samuel Beckett Meets Buster Keaton

Film (1965) by Samuel Beckett. Starring Buster Keaton.

"The greatest Irish film." – Gilles Deleuze
(Essays Critical and Clinical, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.)

[Note: Don't adjust your speakers. There is no sound, except for one brief moment.]

Cinematographer Boris Kaufman, brother of famous Soviet director Dziga Vertov, also did the cinematography for Jean Vigo's luminous L'Atalante, and for classic Hollywood films such as 12 Angry Men and On the Waterfront, for which he won an Academy Award.

Film was shot in Lower Manhattan on Beckett's only visit to the United States.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Gershwin Friday: Stairway To Heaven

Gershwin - by Warhol

Fifty years before Led Zeppelin tried their hand at the concept, George Gershwin composed "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" for George White's Scandals of 1922. The lyrics were by his brother Ira (under the pseudonym Arthur Francis) and Buddy DeSylva, with whom George had written his first complete musical, the very successful La La Lucille, in 1919.

Probably the most famous version of "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" is the one from the great 1951 musical, An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant, who had been Gershwin's friend and musical interpreter. Georges Guétary performs the song amidst one of those amazing MGM sets, with pink stairs that light up as he ascends, a bevy of beautiful show girls, and Cocteau-like women forming giant, surreal candelabras. The song as originally performed in George White's Scandals of 1922 also involved an elaborate stairway set.

Though Guétary's version is my favorite - love the French intro - musical channeler Rufus Wainwright recently gave the song a good whirl in Martin Scorsese's 2004 film, The Aviator. Here's Rufus performing the song on Conan O'Brien.

Neither of these versions actually contains the complete song. Guétary skips the first half of the first verse, which I like, and which Wainwright nails, especially on the soundtrack. And both men skip the last half of the original.

As far as I'm aware, there is no known version by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

"I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise"
(George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Buddy DeSylva)

All you preachers
Who delight in panning the dancing teachers,
Let me tell you there are a lot of features
Of the dance that carry you through
The gates of Hea-ven.

It's madness
To be always sitting around in sadness,
When you could be learning the steps of gladness.
You'll be happy when you can do
Just six or seven;

Begin today!
You'll find it nice,
The quickest way to paradise.
When you practice,
Here's the thing to do,
Simply say as you go...

I'll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step every day!
I'm going to get there at any price;
Stand aside, I'm on my way!
I've got the blues
And up above it's so fair.
Shoes! Go on and carry me there!
I'll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step ev'ry day.

Ev'ry new step
Helps a bit ; but any old kind of two step,
Does as well. It don't matter what step you step,
If you work it into your soul
You'll get to Heaven.

Get bu-sy ;
Dance with Maud the countess, or just plain Lizzy:
Dance until you're blue in the face and dizzy.
When you've learn'd to dance in your sleep
You're sure to win out.

In time you'll get Saint Vitus dance,
Which beats the latest thing from France.
Take no chances on this Paradise ;
Let me give you advice.

I'll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step every day!
I'm going to get there at any price;
Stand aside, I'm on my way!
I've got the blues
And up above it's so fair.
Shoes! Go on and carry me there!
I'll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step ev'ry day.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The 10 Worst Predictions for 2008

Foreign Policy has the full list. Here are some highlights:

1. “If [Hillary Clinton] gets a race against John Edwards and Barack Obama, she’s going to be the nominee. Gore is the only threat to her, then. … Barack Obama is not going to beat Hillary Clinton in a single Democratic primary. I’ll predict that right now.”

—William Kristol, Fox News Sunday, Dec. 17, 2006

After Iowa, Kristol lurched to the other extreme, declaring that Clinton would lose New Hampshire and that “There will be no Clinton Restoration.” It’s also worth pointing out that this second wildly premature prediction was made in a Times column titled, “President Mike Huckabee?” The Times is currently rumored to be looking for his replacement.

2. “Peter writes: ‘Should I be worried about Bear Stearns in terms of liquidity and get my money out of there?’ No! No! No! Bear Stearns is fine! Do not take your money out. … Bear Stearns is not in trouble. I mean, if anything they’re more likely to be taken over. Don’t move your money from Bear! That’s just being silly! Don’t be silly!”

—Jim Cramer, responding to a viewer’s e-mail on CNBC’s Mad Money, March 11, 2008

Six days after the volatile CNBC host made his emphatic pronouncement, Bear Stearns faced the modern equivalent of an old-fashioned bank run. Amid widespread speculation on Wall Street about the bank’s massive exposure to subprime mortgages, Bear’s shares lost 90 percent of their value and the investment bank was sold for a pittance to JPMorgan Chase, with a last-minute assist from the U.S. Federal Reserve.

3. “[In] reality the risks to maritime flows of oil are far smaller than is commonly assumed. First, tankers are much less vulnerable than conventional wisdom holds. Second, limited regional conflicts would be unlikely to seriously upset traffic, and terrorist attacks against shipping would have even less of an economic effect. Third, only a naval power of the United States’ strength could seriously disrupt oil shipments.”

—Dennis Blair and Kenneth Lieberthal, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007

On Nov. 15, 2008 a group of Somali pirates in inflatable rafts hijacked a Saudi oil tanker carrying 2 million barrels of crude in the Indian Ocean. The daring raid was part of a rash of attacks by Somali pirates, which have primarily occurred in the Gulf of Aden. Pirates operating in the waterway have hijacked more than 50 ships this year, up from only 13 in all of last year, according to the Piracy Reporting Center. The Gulf of Aden, where nearly 4 percent of the world’s oil demand passes every day, was not on the list of strategic “chokepoints” where oil shipments could potentially be disrupted that Blair and Lieberthal included in their essay, “Smooth Sailing: The World’s Shipping Lanes Are Safe.”

Hopefully, Blair will show a bit more foresight if, as some expect, he is selected as Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence.

5. “[A]nyone who says we’re in a recession, or heading into one—especially the worst one since the Great Depression—is making up his own private definition of ‘recession.’”

—Donald Luskin, The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2008

The day after Luskin’s op-ed, “Quit Doling Out That Bad-Economy Line,” appeared in the Post, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and the rest is history. Liberal bloggers had long ago dubbed the Trend Macrolytics chief investment officer and informal McCain advisor “the Stupidest Man Alive.” This time, they had some particularly damning evidence.

10. “I believe the banking system has been stabilized. No one is asking themselves anymore, is there some major institution that might fail and that we would not be able to do anything about it.”

—Henry Paulson on National Public Radio, Nov. 13, 2008

Unfortunately for Paulson, shortly after his vote of confidence, Citigroup’s stock price plunged 75 percent in one week, closing below $5 for the first time in 14 years.
My own worst predictions for 2008:

1. Bill Richardson would become president. (I even put money on that one.)
2. Bill Richardson would become Secretary of State.
3. John Edwards would become president. (I even put money on that one.)
4. John Edwards would become Attorney General.
5. I would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
6. Liam would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
7. Liam would at least finish has dissertation.
8. Hillary Clinton would become president.
9. The Beatles would finally re-unite.
10. Big Brown would win become the first Triple-Crown winner in 30 years.
11. Obama would win the popular vote in the Texas primary, putting an end to the Clinton campaign.
12. My wife would throw me out of the house for listening to Waylon Jennings so much. (Thanks, dear.)
13. Spain would find a way to lose the Euro2008 Finals match against Germany. (Viva España!)
14. The Democrats would find yet another way to lose the presidential election. (Viva Obama!)
15. Fred Astaire and/or Lester Young would finally be recognized with a National Holiday.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards

WALL-E was named Best Picture of the Year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association yesterday, the first time in LAFCA's 33-year history that an animated film won the top prize.

Along with The Golden Globes, the LAFCA awards are supposed to be a harbinger of possible Oscar nods.

Except they haven't picked the eventual Academy Award winner for Best Picture since 1993 (Schindler's List.) So I'm not sure this is good news for WALL-E.

The Runner-Up was The Dark Knight.

Interesting to compare LAFCA's top two picks this year with those from 2007: There Will Be Blood and Runner-up The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But 2008 has had a fantastical element, hasn't it?

It will be interesting to see how the Academy handles WALL-E. Will it receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Or will it be relegated to Best Animated Feature?

I haven't seen a lot of films in 2008, so I'm not a good judge, but this is the first time I've ever felt like an animated film deserved a nomination for Best Picture.

Here are LAFCA winners in other major categories:

DIRECTOR: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Runner-up: Christopher Nolan, "The Dark Knight

ACTRESS: Sally Hawkins, "Happy-Go-Lucky"
Runner-up: Melissa Leo, “Frozen River

ACTOR: Sean Penn, “Milk
Runner-up: Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Penélope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Elegy"
Runner-up: Viola Davis, "Doubt"

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Runner-up: Eddie Marsan, "Happy-Go-Lucky"

SCREENPLAY: Mike Leigh, "Happy-Go-Lucky"
Runner-up: Charlie Kaufman, "Synecdoche, New York"

Still Life“ directed by Jia Zhangke
Runner-up: "The Class" directed by Laurent Cantet

Full list of 2008 LAFCA awards.

And credit to the LAFCA: This year's award ceremony - their 34th - is dedicated to Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira "for his extraordinary contribution to the cinema as he enters his 100th year."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Gene Test Shows Spain's Jewish and Muslim Mix

El Transito Synagogue, Toledo, España, dedicated in 1357.

From an article by Nicholas Wade in last Friday's New York Times.

The genetic signatures of people in Spain and Portugal provide new and explicit evidence of the mass conversions of Sephardic Jews and Muslims to Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries after Christian armies wrested Spain back from Muslim control, a team of geneticists reports.

Twenty percent of the population of the Iberian Peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry and 11 percent have DNA reflecting Moorish ancestors, the geneticists have found. Historians have debated how many Jews converted and how many chose exile. “One wing grossly underestimates the number of conversions,” said Jane S. Gerber, an expert on Sephardic history at the City University of New York. . . .

Because most of the Y chromosome remains unchanged from father to son, the proportions of Sephardic and Moorish ancestry detected in the present population are probably the same as those just after the 1492 expulsions. A high proportion of people with Sephardic ancestry was to be expected, Dr. Ray said. “Jews formed a very large part of the urban population up until the great conversions,” he said.
I was actually surprised by the 20% figure. The Sephardic population was a large and important one on the peninsula for hundreds of years, but I didn't expect one-in-five Iberians today to have Jewish ancestry. And the scientists doing the study believe that's the percentage AFTER the terrible expulsion in 1492.

The 11% figure for Muslim ancestry was closer to what I expected.

This is going to have a significant impact on the study of Spanish history, as well as on politics. Right-wingers like the late dictator Francisco Franco and his current proteges are going to have a harder time now claiming that weird Spanish-Catholic-Visigothic purity.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Personnel is Policy - Obama and the Progressives, Part 2

An interesting exchange last week on The Rachel Maddow Show, between Rachel and David Sirota, discussing some of Barack Obama's choices for his administration:

MADDOW: They are essentially sort of a center-right economic team, no big ideological choices there unless you consider sort of Clintonian economists to be a big ideological statement. . . .

SIROTA: Well, I do think they are ideological. I think they are center-right and they are, basically, a lot of free market fundamentalists. And I think that what Wall Street tends to react to is it likes some of its own. And so, Obama is in this weird position where he has to basically tell Wall Street that he’s going to have some of their own, but he’s also got to tell the public that he’s going to change, that he’s going to push a policy change.

And so, the tough thing for Obama to do -- the question is, is whether he can get some of the people who are at the center of this crisis, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and get them to carry, actually, radically new policies. That’s the trick for him.

MADDOW: Well, Obama advisors are telling the "Washington Post" today that his economic picks, the people who he has chosen, they don’t signal that he plans to govern from the center. They are trying to assure people that he is a progressive. The question is - it’s sort of policy over personnel here. Can he implement a progressive approach to the economy with those folks that are on his team in place?

SIROTA: That’s the question. You know, Grover Norquist, the conservative activist that says, "Personnel is policy." Obama is basically saying, "No, I’m going to be different."

I think it was David Axelrod who told the "New York Times" -- he said, you know, he’s not hiring people for their vision, he’s hiring people to effectuate his vision. Now, that would be unprecedented, to hire sort of ideological economic advisors who are going to carry out a more progressive ideological agenda from Obama.

But that’s essentially what he’s saying. He’s trying to have that -- basically split that difference and tell Wall Street, "I’m hiring some of your own," but he’s also telling America they’re going to carry a progressive agenda. And I think that’s certainly a new thing in our country.

MADDOW: One worth watching and probably worth holding his feet to the fire over, I imagine.
Some questions:

1) Is it true that "personnel is policy"? Many other conservatives besides Grover Norquist think so. Here's just one example, from a 2001 article from The Heritage Foundation: "Personnel Is Policy: Why The New President Must Take Control Of The Executive Branch."
It is often said, correctly, that personnel is policy. The nexus between personnel management and policy management is therefore crucial. Good policies cannot be advanced without good, capable, and committed personnel to formulate, implement, aggressively promote, and steadfastly defend them. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald W. Reagan were noteworthy in this respect for making strong and effective Cabinet appointments and solid White House staffing decisions.
Why do conservatives believe that "personnel is policy," while most liberals seem to think that Obama will put forth policies that contradict those of the people he's hiring to be in his administration?

I don't have an answer.

But, if I may dip into football for a moment. . . . When Eric Mangini became coach of the New York Jets a few years ago, he implemented a new 3-4 defense - his new policies, if you will. The problem was that his nose tackle and middle linebacker had been drafted under the previous coach to play in a 4-3 defense, so they were too small to handle the new scheme. It was a disaster, both for the the team and for the individual players. Jonathan Vilma had been an All-Pro linebacker and the leading tackler in the NFL in the old scheme, but he was getting manhandled in the new one. Finally, after struggling for two seasons, Managini traded Vilma and some others, and he went out and got players who would fit what he wanted to do. In football, at least, personnel is often policy.

2) Is Obama a Progressive? Or does he have progressive policies?

Does it matter? Isn't there more to being a good president than your policies? Does he have integrity? Will he make good decisions? Is simple competence enough at this point?

3) If he's not a Progressive, will he be willing to work with Progressives to implement some of their policies?

Will Progressives ever be able to see Obama and his policies clearly? Can they achieve an un-romanticized, post-Bush analysis of the situation? Or do we just keep hoping makes another video? If Progressives misread Obama, and if they aren't organized and pro-active, will they spend the next four or eight years on the sideline?

4) What is a Progressive, anyway?

Do they have anything to do with the original Progressives, who worked with Evangelicals to push for Prohibition? Are they free-market fundamentalists? Are we just using "Progressive" because "Liberal" became a dirty word?

5) And what is a Liberal, anyway?

What beliefs do Progressives and Liberals hold when it comes to economic policies? Foreign policy? Social policies?

Jonathan Vilma, formerly of the New York Jets. Political Metaphor?

6) For the second time recently, an intelligent Liberal source - Rachel Maddow - has suggested that center-right economic policies like those espoused by the Clintons aren't ideological. A couple of weeks ago, it was The New York Times, as I discussed in my first post on Obama and the Progressives. I thought the Times was being disingenuous, because they believe in and push these economic policies, and I can see how they benefit by making them seem "pragmatic" rather than ideological. Globalization is inevitable. That's one of the primary Neo-liberal mantras to disarm opposition to their policies. Their pre-emptive strike against anyone who would question what are, ultimately, just theories.

But it's interesting to hear a smart person like Maddow falling for this line of thought. Luckily, in this case, someone could say - No, wait a minute, these people are ideological. "Free-market fundamentalists." That doesn't sound so pragmatic, does it?

7) Is it coherent, politically, for Progressives and Liberals to continue to support candidates with center-right economic policies? Why do they complain so much about the repercussions of those policies when they support and vote for the people who implement them? Why do many Democrats seem not to care or even know that Bill Clinton pushed NAFTA on the country? Or financial deregulation? Or media deregulation? Or privatization of the government? Does nostalgia constitute a viable political philosophy?

8) What is the relationship between the policies pushed by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin in the 1990s and the current economic meltdown? If there is a relationship, why is Barack Obama hiring so many Rubin associates and disciples?

9) What does it mean to be "on the Left"? What policies and ideas does someone on the Left in the year 2008 actually support? Is there a Left in the United States? How does it relate to the Left in places like Europe or South America? Do Progressives and Liberals belong "on the Left" - even if they support capitalistic, center-right economic policies?

10) Do linear terms like "Left," "Center" and "Right" do justice to the complex social, economic and political beliefs that most people hold? What are the alternatives?

11) Are you a Progressive if you're against Proposition 8? Are you on the Left? What if you're against Proposition 8 and you support the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA)? Are you still on the Left? Are you still a Progressive or a Liberal? Are you Andrew Sullivan? What if you're against Proposition 8 and you want to invade Iran? What does that make you? Hillary Clinton?

12) Will Obama push for passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement when it comes up for a vote in the next year? Will the new Secretary of Commerce, Bill Richardson, help him push it through? Does anyone remember Bill Richardson's role in pushing through NAFTA? Does anyone care?

13) Do I hold coherent political beliefs? Why do I dislike being thought of as a Liberal? Why did I leave the Democratic Party? Am I a Progressive? Am I on the Left? Am I in the Center? Am I somewhere a little below and behind? Can I be conservative in some things and radical in others? Can one be a Left Conservative? (Norman Mailer thought so. Is that good or bad?) Can you be on the Left if you get tired of Leftists? Can one respect some of Marx's insights and not be a Marxist? What if I listen to The Clash? Is it okay that I like The Clash but despise Communism? Have people on the Left ever really come to terms with the fact that their ideology led to such a horrible end? Can one respect aspects of Capitalism - like buying CDs by The Clash - and not be a Capitalist? Can anyone in 2008 NOT be a Capitalist? Can one respect aspects of Anarchism but think many anarchists are assholes? Can I enjoy watching football and still be a Progressive? What about my inexplicable urge to beat up Weezer fans? If I'm a Progressive, is it okay that I slammed back a few Brooklyn Lagers last night? Can I like Subcomandante Marcos but not like Rage Against the Machine? What if I like Fugazi? Is it okay that I hate the Democrats as long as I hate the Republicans more? Am I just a contrarian? Does all of this go back to not liking bands as much once they get famous? (How to explain my love of The Beatles, then?) Why did it seem like there was a Left in Spain but only Liberals here? Should I support the bailout of the automakers? Haven't they been part of the problem for decades? But what about all of the workers? Why have we given hundreds of billions of dollars to the firms on Wall Street that caused all the problems to begin with? Why did we give them so much money so easily but make the automakers beg in public for a paltry 34 billion? If we bail out the automakers, can we please, please, please stipulate that the Ford family relinquish ownership of the 0-13 Detroit Lions? Seriously. They've had the team for almost 50 years and have driven them into the ground.

13) Why am I writing about all of this?

Sigh . . .

Friday, December 05, 2008

Panic in Detroit

No, I'm not talking about the Big 3 automakers asking for handouts in Washington.

I'm talking Bowie. 1973. Aladdin Sane.

And I'm talking Mick Ronson.

Was Ronson the most underrated guitarist of rock and roll?

Unnamed Corporate Music Magazine lists him at #40 on their 50 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, with "Panic in Detroit" as his "Most Representative Song."

All I know is that I have to be careful listening to this one on my iPod, because I start singing loudly and leaping into air guitar- no matter where I am.

Love Ronson at the end of the song...

"Panic in Detroit"

He looked a lot like Che Guevara, drove a diesel van
Kept his gun in quiet seclusion, such a humble man
The only survivor of the National People's Gang

Panic in Detroit,
Asked for an autograph
Wanted to stay home,
I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit

He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive

Panic in Detroit,
I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home,
I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit

Putting on some clothes, I made my way to school
And found my teacher crouching in his overalls
I screamed and ran to smash my favourite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights

Having scored a trillion dollars, made a run back home
Found him slumped across the table. A gun and me alone
I ran to the window. Looked for a plane or two

Panic in Detroit,
He'd left me an autograph
"Let me collect dust."
I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit
Panic in Detroit
Panic in Detroit

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


It is actually impossible to walk through mid-town Manhattan listening to Count Basie & His Orchestra play "Honeysuckle Rose" (their first recording, 1937) and not develop a jaunty stroll or break into a smile for everyone around you.

Count Basie + Lester Young + Fats Waller = A Force Greater Than You Know.

Honeysuckle Rose - Count Basie & His Orchestra

From: The Complete Decca Recordings

Interestingly, Basie and the boys recorded "Honeysuckle Rose" at Decca Studios, just 20 blocks north of where I was strolling this morning. Can music have a ghost? Can it linger in the streets of New York City for 71 years, waiting for someone to walk by who's listening to it? Is the music always present and we just hear it when we pay enough attention? Was my iPod even necessary?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Who Knew?!?!?

AP: "It's official: US is in recession"

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. economy has been in a recession since December 2007, the National Bureau of Economic Research said Monday. . . .

The White House commented on the news that a second downturn has officially begun on President George W. Bush's watch without ever actually using the word "recession," a term the president and his aides have repeatedly avoided. . . .

Many economists believe the current downturn will last well into 2009, and will be the most severe slump since the 1981-82 recession. The country is being battered by the most severe financial crisis since the 1930s as banks struggle to deal with billions of dollars in loan losses.

"I'm sorry it's happening, of course," Bush said, referring to a global financial crisis that has eliminated millions of jobs and damaged retirement accounts.
50 days and counting...