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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

Ask any casual film fan about Roman Polanski, the brilliant Polish moviemaker responsible for ‘70s classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, and you’re likely to get the following response: “Wasn’t he the guy who raped that girl and then ran off to Europe to avoid prosecution?” Indeed, eight years to the day that his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in the Helter Skelter rampage of Charlie Manson and his family, the director was to be placed on trial for the seduction, drugging, and ‘he said/she said’ sexual encounter with a 13 year old girl. At the time, it was a true tabloid sensation, a circus wrapped inside the most sizzling of scandals. Today, it’s a story relegated to the above-mentioned gross overgeneralization. Thanks to Marina Zenovich’s brilliant new documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the closest thing to the truth finally gets a much needed airing.


What’s clear is that Polanski and Samantha (Gailey) Geimer did indeed engage in physical contact, forced or otherwise. While the director pled innocent during his initial arrangements, the discovery of a pair of panties led to a backroom plea agreement. What’s also clear is that, through her lawyer, Geimer and her stage door mother wanted this case concluded in the most calm and clandestine manner possible. The early ‘70s was still a time when “accusing the victim” could be used in courtrooms, and while Geimer’s name (and reputation) was not public knowledge in the US, she was already labeled a pariah throughout Europe. In addition, while prosecutor Roger Gunson and defense attorney Douglas Dalton were on differing sides of the situation, both acknowledged that Polanski would not be in self-imposed exile today if it weren’t for the fame whoring judge at the center of the case.


The late Laurence J. Rittenband is painted as a series of concerning contradictions, a man obsessed with high profile celebrity crimes who himself aspired to similar notoriety as the arbiter of same. He purposely asked to be on the Polanski case, and used it as the basis for his own surreal courtroom drama. Zenovich does a brilliant job of deconstructing the truth. As part of his plea, Polanski was promised probation. The judge felt such a stance would get him in hot water with the media. As a compromise, all decided on a 90 day stay at the State Prison at Chino. While it would technically be for further discretionary review, it was farcical formality. Once released, Polanski would be more or less free. And the director actually did go to jail. He served 42 days in isolation, administrators afraid of what the prison population would do to a convicted child molester.


Oh course, what many in the mythology don’t acknowledge - and in turn, avoid today as being far outside the current social stigma - is that Polanski’s case was always going to be probation. He was a foreigner, easily deportable, and rich enough to fight any attempt at long term incarceration. The victim’s reluctance to testify also factored in to the supposed resolution. The reason Polanski served any time whatsoever is that Rittenband wanted to look tough on crimes of this nature. He wasn’t going to let stardom alter his perceived course of punishment. It is at this moment when Zenovich’s story goes from fascinating to sensational, and then shocking. It is clear that the judge wanted nothing more than to maintain a certain reputation with the press. He felt pressure to make sure Polanksi merely didn’t “walk”. Of course, this meant violating every code of judicial ethics that there were by manipulating lawyers into doing what he wanted and reneging on deals that were sealed behind closed courthouse doors.


That both sides now acknowledge that this happened turns the story at the center of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired into one of the biggest miscarriages of justice ever. No one is denying that the director deserved punishment. Even when she intercuts information about Polanski’s past - his family destruction by the Nazis, the death of his wife at the hands of Manson - Zenovich never apologizes for what her subject did. For the filmmaker, his penchant for underage girls was clearly a carryover from a life on his own and a swinging ‘60s sense of invincibility. He never really denied the affair, just that it was rape. We even learn of the long term relationship he carried on with a teenage Natasha Kinski. Surprisingly, few in his homeland were up in arms over their May-December dalliances.


No, this documentary also indicts America, viewing it in the craven, prurient Puritanical light the country continues to be filtered through. Rittenband’s reactions are seen as the slightly insane ravings of a man perfectly in tune with how La-La land treats the truth. He overreacts when Polanski, on business for an upcoming movie, is photographed seated between two women during Munich’s Oktoberfect. When his very own Department of Corrections releases the director after less than half of his “sentence”, Rittenband takes it personally. Such invested irresponsibility is the real reason Polanski left. It wasn’t because he wanted to avoid further prosecution or his possible punishment. It’s because he could no longer count on getting a fair shake in a system that seemed to be making up the rules as it - or its representative, Rittenband - went along.


Sadly, it seems that no one really pays attention to the truth. Current reviews from Variety on down still tow a simplistic party line - Roman Polanski ran to France to avoid his guilt. In some ways, that’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what happened, substituting liability with legal logistics. Clearly, Zenovich made this movie to clear up the misconceptions, and with the myriad of talking heads she has at her disposal, her point is plainly and efficiently made. What remains is the ancillary belief that, no matter the amount of penance or perceived penance he paid, a severe lack of judgment forever altered the fate of one of film’s most important and influential auteurs. Roman Polanski deserves his badge of dishonor, no question about it. This amazing documentary argues that others need to start sporting one as well.


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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

Steroids - the word alone strikes fear in the hearts of sports fans and athletes alike. Thirty years ago, the anabolic hormone replacement therapy was a common, under the counter practice. Everyone from bodybuilders to professional football players hit the ‘juice’ as a means of getting bigger, training harder, and repairing physical damage faster. Such notable superstars as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan admitted to using the substance to gain that all important competitive advantage over others. But somewhere along the last three decades, steroids stopped being subterranean cool. They went from an accepted unspoken supplement to international pariah. In his masterful, sly documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, former power lifter Chris Bell discusses when he thinks the perception changed, and how little change such renewed awareness has actually brought about.


Bell believes, rightfully or wrongfully, that steroids are immoral. It’s a lesson he learned from his mother, in conjunction with a clear ‘80s kid connection to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No”. When he learns that his brothers “Mad Dog” Mike and “Smelly” Mark both now use the drugs (as part of a desire to be professional athletes) he goes on a performance enhancement spiritual quest, debunking the myths surrounding the subject while uncovering the causes for its continued demonization. One fact that Bigger, Stronger, Faster (wonderfully subtitled “The Side Effects of Being American”) uncovers is that many of the claims about deaths from steroid use are wildly overstated. While the main medical opponent of the substance continues his rallying cry, two other physicians challenge the lack of actual empirical evidence.


That’s the key to understanding Bell’s position. There is lots of anecdotal ‘proof’ that steroids cause numerous, near fatal side effects, and when combined with other elements in an athlete’s strenuous course of preparation, they may (key word - MAY) hasten death. But it’s compelling to watch the film deconstruct Lyle Alzado’s claims that he died as a result of his 16 years of use (there was never an established link between his brain cancer and the drug) or question Donald Hooton on his conviction that steroids led to his son’s suicide. When confronted with other possibilities, the still grieving father reverts right back to rhetoric, restating a non-scientific link over and over. Bell makes it clear that changing one’s natural body chemistry is dangerous at the very least, but by the end of the film, he’s done a decent job of taking the skull off of steroids mass murderer crossbones. 


Sadly, most people will focus on the seemingly pro-steroid message presented here and avoid the more personal problems. It is clear, at least from a contextually lax cinematic standpoint, that Chris’ brother Mike is a mess. After his brief stint as a semi-recognizable wrestling toadie (never a star, but the go to guy when the main event needed a patsy), he seems a broken man. Unable to settle down and longing for a limelight he never really got, he becomes Bigger, Stronger, Faster‘s most fascinating ‘character’. When questioned about his dissatisfaction, he has no real reason for being so unsettled. Later, when it seems his desire to be ‘better than average’ may never work out, Chris again asks about why he can’t be happy just being who he is. The look on Mike’s confused face says it all.


Mark, at least, seems more levelheaded in his pursuit. Recognizing the need to use steroids to compete with others in the pumped up world of power lifting, he makes a fragile agreement with his wife. After one more competition, he will quit. The reason is simply - they want to try and have a second child. Of course, a casual question from Chris reveals that, as of now, the pact is merely temporary. There is a clear undercurrent of addiction at the center of Bigger, Stronger, Faster - both a physical need for users to continue gaining mass, and a psychological edge that’s hard to shake. When the conversation swings around to sports, the concept of fairness is tossed around quite a bit. It seems to circumvent any discussion about the eventual mental and physiological longing involved with prolonged use.


In fact, as the subtitle suggests, Americans are equally part of the performance enhancement junkie culture. Ben Johnson, the Canadian Olympic athlete who was stripped of his gold medal when it was discovered he tested positive for doping, continues to be denounced. But the second place finisher, Carl Lewis, was also found to be cheating…BEFORE the games had started. Yet his results were covered up by the United States so he could compete in Seoul for the Red, White, and Blue. Jose Canseco, the crackpot ‘roid head with a penchant for backing into the truth, is seen as a smarmy savior to a sport that had a future president backing its “chicks dig the long ball” belief system. From Congressmen who are unsure of the laws they supported to high minded pundits proclaiming a knowledge of a substance that few truly understand, Bell argues that, as long as dingers are heading out of ball parks and favored teams are taking home championships, there are not real victims - only victors.


Of course, all of this leads to the crux of Bell’s position - if steroids are so unproven, so contentious in what they can and cannot be linked to, why are they so stigmatized. Again, sportsmanship is brought up, as is that ever popular politicians’ lament of “for the sake of the children”. The filmmaker may not help his case with his Michael Moore meets Morgan Spurlock intrusive irony. When he asks a male model about steroid use, or a porn star about liquid Viagra shot straight into “the source”, we see the point he’s making in obvious, slightly overbearing obviousness. Similarly, the heart-to-hearts with his distraught mother (very religious, she thought she “raised” her boys to be better than this) have no real payoff, the pain shuttled aside for more shots of Arnold and Sly.


In the end, Bigger, Stronger, Faster is not out to compliment or condemn its subjects. All jocks and jocularity aside, there is a strong core element of cultural brainwashing at work within the revelations. It’s now men who suffer from body image issues, the notion that machismo (and resulting sexual attraction) comes only from six-pack abs and bulging pecs permeating the skivvy social structure. Bell himself admits that as the short, fat middle child, bodybuilding was a way of gaining a certain style of acceptance. Now, years later, when none of that really matters, the fascination with physicality remains. Whether it’s for looks or to be the last man standing, it’s clear that somewhere along its trip from tonic to toxin, steroids have been misunderstood. Bell’s documentary may not change that status, but if anyone wants to have a serious discussion about the entire supplement situation, this excellent film is a good place to start.


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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

When Marvel made the decision to take over the “creative direction” of the big screen adaptations of their characters, geek nation remained skeptical. After all, just because the company knows comic books doesn’t mean it understands the cinematic translations of same. Luckily, Iron Man has quelled a great many of those fears. It stands as Summer 2008’s greatest surprise. Now, hot on the heels of that success comes the reboot of the Incredible Hulk. Yes, Ang Lee already made this movie five years ago, but none except a few clued in critics enjoyed its psychologically-oriented narrative. No, what devotees wanted was a big green giant (and accompanying action “smashing”) they could comprehend and champion. This time around, they more or less got their wish.


It’s been several years since Bruce Banner accidentally overdosed on gamma radiation, changing the entire genetic make-up of his body. Now, whenever he gets too excited, or angry, he turns into a monstrous behemoth, a creature capable of unbelievable strength and unconscionable violence. Just when he thinks he’s stumbled upon a possible cure, Army General Thaddeus Ross reenters his life. The man in charge of Banner’s initial experiments, he lost more than a potential weapon the day his subject went haywire. His daughter, the dedicated scientist Betty Ross, refuses to forgive him for what happened, and she’s now disowned him. When a Russian/English mercenary named Emil Blonsky decides to undergo a similar procedure, he doesn’t become the “ultimate solider”. Instead, he becomes an ‘abomination” that the ‘hulk’ must battle. 


It has to be said that one of the most “incredible” things about this so-called reinvention of the Hulk is how close it is to Ang Lee’s vision. Those who claim it far surpasses the 2003 original are merely applying their own form of aesthetic selective memory. Though Louis Leterrier has a limited pedigree as the creator of big time blockbuster fare, at least his time taking the Transporter franchise through the action genre motions means this version of the Marvel monster can really kick some butt. Sure, our French filmmaker is still enamored with a chaotic, quick cut style of cinema that renders carefully choreographed battles a blur, but there are moments in this movie where his constantly moving lens add authenticity to the otherwise fantastical elements. There is one sequence in particular where Hulk battles the military among the trees and grounds of a college campus. Here, Leterrier’s style clearly complements the ballistics.


The Incredible Hulk also gets an upgrade when it comes to casting. Edward Norton may not be everyone’s idea of a solid superhero, but he brings the right amount of humanity to the role. He manages to enrich even the most routine lines. Similarly, Liv Tyler trumps the zombie like zero that was Jennifer Connelly in Lee’s version. Sure, Betty is still reduced to emotional eye candy, standing by her shapeshifting man through thick…and thicker. But Tyler retains her dignity. Tim Roth’s arrival as the main villain, Emil Blonsky is okay, if nothing truly spectacular. After an opening sequence where he slaughters anything that moves, we never really experience his true evil. It’s just a given, considering the lengths he will go through to get to the Hulk. With William Hurt hilarious in a wry, smirk supporting moustache and Tim Blake Nelson as a helpful scientist with a secret agenda, this is a capable company of performers.


Still, there are parts of the script that can’t help but get in the way. If Banner says it once, he says the “weapons” line about 20 times. It’s as if Norton loved the idea of playing on the “military industrial complex” nature of the character and went overboard. Also, there’s no real backstory built in. The opening credits feature a recreated montage of material straight out of the old TV intro, but we never discover why Banner is in exile, how he has battled the armed forces to maintain his privacy, why Betty would be against his attempts at curing/helping his affliction, and how our hero could continue his research in what looks like one of the more squalid slums in Brazil. Between the initial encounter/take down with the factory worker bullies to the eventual arrival of superbeast Abomination, there’s a lot of interpersonal padding, material that seems mandated by Norton’s desire to tread as close to Ang territory without pissing off that other important Lee - Stan.


Still, when it settles into the standard comic book histrionics, when Hulk gathers all his might and lets out a bellow that raises the hairs on the back of your neck, this movie semi-satisfies. The CGI, used to render both the hero and the horror, looks surprisingly good, if still a little stiff. Unfortunately, no one is comfortable enough with the technology to allow for that all important full blown head on transformation money shot. There is an “almost” moment when Banner is undergoing the experimental treatment that may cure him, but Leterrier’s cutting countermands any awe. In fact, there is so much down to editorial earth control over the context that the cautiousness grows aggravating. We want to see Hulk live up to his past reputation and cause untold damage. Sadly, much of the ‘smashing’ comes a little too late.


There will be those who liken The Incredible Hulk to Marvel’s Iron Man and comment on how correct the decision to take control of their content really was. Granted, the comic company made many of the right decisions, especially when it came to allowing real actors and capable directors to helm their efforts. Yet before the accolades get too bulky, one thing is certain - this reimagining of the big green beast with unfathomable brute strength is not the success of his metal suited brethren. Depending on where Marvel goes from here, The Incredible Hulk will be viewed as either a decent, dependable hit, or a hint that things have yet to be perfected within the company’s still fresh business model. As usual, the box office will be the final determining factor.


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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

David Brooks has written a fair share of conservative party-line nonsense, so it pays to be skeptical even when on the surface he seems to be making sense, as in this recent column about the explosion of American household debt in recent decades. Brooks begins with a paean to American’s frugal Puritanical tradition and then laments at the “financial decadence” that has driven up credit-card debt to record levels.


Over the past 30 years…the social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened.


That seems accurate enough: the greatly expanded reach of media and the advertising that media carries, as well as the infiltration of marketing into virtually every aspect of social being, has made spending seem like the mode of participation in our culture. Activities that have no commercial adjunct—things that require no branded products or have no associated stores connected with them or can’t be reduced to a collection of the appropriate goods—seem vaguely illegitimate. Among most ordinary citizens, political power has given way to purchasing power, which is meaningless when merely potential. We need to spend and collect stuff to make that power (the chief kind of power that is socially recognized) manifest.


Citing a recent think-tank report, “For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture” (unlinkable, alas, as Felix Salmon notes), Brooks explains that America has been divided into the “investor class”—people who save and are well-informed about money management and can hire advisors—and the “lottery class,” basically everyone else. These are the rubes, in Brooks estimation, who are vulnerable to predatory lenders and revolving debt and other tactics by which the ignorant poor are exploited.


Brooks blames “the loosening of financial inhibition” for this class’s indebtedness, which, as Richard Serlin explains in a comment at Mark Thoma’s blog, is somewhat dubious. Serlin cites Elizabeth Warren, who argued that debt is not driven by irresponsible splurging (which would encourage us to have no sympathy for them) but by increasing insecurity and the absence of a social safety net. Medical bills and housing-bubble-bloated mortgages, not flat-screen TVs explain much of the debt.


That’s not to say that Brooks doesn’t have a point about the manifold forces aligned to discourage saving.


Payday lenders have also played a role. They seductively offer fast cash — at absurd interest rates — to 15 million people every month.
Credit card companies have played a role. Instead of targeting the financially astute, who pay off their debts, they’ve found that they can make money off the young and vulnerable. Fifty-six percent of students in their final year of college carry four or more credit cards.
Congress and the White House have played a role. The nation’s leaders have always had an incentive to shove costs for current promises onto the backs of future generations. It’s only now become respectable to do so.
Wall Street has played a role. Bill Gates built a socially useful product to make his fortune. But what message do the compensation packages that hedge fund managers get send across the country?


But I’m not sure fixing the anemic savings rate is a matter of “raising public consciousness” about debt to generate a scold campaign against falling for predatory tactics. How about we dispense with that and head straight for some state laws prohibiting it, with a reinstitution of some aspects of the safety net that leads to the borrowing?


And it’s not very helpful to reduce the issue to this: “There are dozens of things that could be done. But the most important is to shift values. Franklin made it prestigious to embrace certain bourgeois virtues. Now it’s socially acceptable to undermine those virtues. It’s considered normal to play the debt game and imagine that decisions made today will have no consequences for the future.” If people can’t imagine the future consequences, it’s often because poverty has reduced their horizons to surviving in the here and now. They don’t have the luxury of subscribing to bourgeois values of saving and voluntary thrift. And how would one shift values anyway? They are deeply embedded in our culture’s discourse about itself. What to do? Get the business press to stop obsessing over consumer confidence and retail spending figures? Public service announcements about the importance of retirement savings (which could double as a trojan horse tactic for preparing the way for ending Social Security)? Remedial reading courses in Max Weber? Ban advertising that makes spending money on goods seem fun and advantageous? Raise interest rates back to 1981 levels?


You can’t have it both ways. You can’t cheerlead for the benefits of ownership, as a means for supplying a stake in society, and for purchasing power as a kind of empowering democratization of society’s benefits, and then also argue for the “bourgeois virtue” of frugality and saving, of waiting until the time is appropriate for consumerism. Brooks, who seems to be coarsening Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, expects us to believe that we can systematically drill into people’s heads that we live in an ownership society and then tell them they should not do whatever it takes to own things so that they can belong. Thus the ownership society is revealed to be yet another disguise for oligarchy, conserving power in the hands in that investor class and closing its ranks to aspirants. Is it Brooks’s hope that being a second-class citizen in the lottery class should be a spur for them to try harder to save enough to buy a stake on terms endorsed by the already entitled? What’s to keep the overclass from then changing the rules to keep others excluded?


The implicit promise of the consumer society is that money, no matter what its source (inheritance, cheap credit, payday loan kiosk) can be a social leveller via its ability to buy the goods the connote inclusion in the mainstream. We could all belong to the same middle class shopping at the same big-box stores and enjoying the same branded products. Maybe Brooks, like Bell, has a problem with the consumer society as a whole—the sociological positions he hints at in his 2004 book On Paradise Drive occasionally suggest as much. But in that book he is just as eager to celebrate consumption as a mark of prosperity.


Bell, who was railing primarily against 1960s hippies (“the youthful japes of Greenwich Village bohemia”) rather than spendthrift subprimers, solved this particular contradiction of capitalism by urging a return to religious values. So does Brooks, in his own way: “Foundations and churches could issue short-term loans to cut into the payday lenders’ business,” he advises. But it’s not hard to see where this leads—rely on private charity to make up for the social safety net’s failures and keep government out of the business of fixing that net. This column is basically compassionate conservatism cleverly disguised as more palatable complaints about greedy lenders and evil bankers.


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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

Poets usually have a choice between writing on mythical themes or of mythologizing the ordinary.  Anything truly mundane it’s…well, prosaic.  For modern writers dealing with everyday life, there needs to be a kind of transcendence introduced, something larger than life itself.  You’ll find that in the poems of even the most down-to-earth, like Simon Armitage or Wendy Cope—a sense that someone brushing their teeth or reading the newspaper actually represents something more.


Avenues and Runways Aidan Coleman Brandl & Schlesinger 2005

Avenues and Runways Aidan Coleman Brandl & Schlesinger 2005, 66 pages

Of course some topics and themes stubbornly resist mythologizing, as do some locations.  Grimy and degenerate can be poetic – and has been ever since Blake’s reference to “dark Satanic mills”.  But boring?  Boring is hard to make poetic. Sometimes a poet can overcome this with sheer skill.  John Betjeman’s “Slough”, made famous through TV’s The Office, looks at the most extreme example of boring suburbia and in its ennui and pretensions finds something bigger and more universal than the town. Modern Australian poetry faces a similar uphill battle.  The golden age of our national poetry was the “bush poetry” of the late-19th and early 20th centuries.  Now the “jolly swagman” and “Man from Snowy River” are gone and we’re left with a more uniform suburban existence.  We’re a lot like other countries, except newer and less certain in our identity. Adelaide’s Aidan Coleman has it even harder.  The City of Churches is a byword on the east coast for boredom and sameness.  Its residents are forced into a polite defensiveness combined with an awkwardness about talking themselves up lest they be laughed at. So you know what he means when he writes in “Mythology” that:
“Home never seemed worth writing about. The place was post-history”
As a first-generation resident (Coleman was born in Wales), he identifies with his town, but doesn’t see in it anything worthy of poetry.  A bit of a dilemma for a poet! So he does what the modern British poets have done faced with a similar ambivalence towards their own country and a tendency to understate—he sucks it up and writes some poems anyway. Out of it we get a volume like 2005’s Avenues & Runways in which housing estates, airport terminals and government research facilities are given the poetic treatment we once reserved for natural wonders.  And it works because it’s clever and simple and speaks to all the ordinary poetry readers who aren’t blessed to live somewhere timeless and dramatic. It’s the same way that a clever painter or photographer can turn an ugly scene into something remarkable.  It’s the reason we read poetry in the first place.  It’s far less efficient than prose at transmitting facts or information, but it’s much better and communicating the things behind the things, the subconscious feeling that the ordinary isn’t really that at all.

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