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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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Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008

Newsweek Magazine must still be smarting. Back in 2002, as Signs was gearing up for its box office assault, the publication called M. Night Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg”. Aside from the bald audacity of such a claim (is there ANYONE working in Hollywood who can truly stand toe to toe with the man responsible for so much masterful popcorn fare?), the Indian born filmmaker had only made three films previous. Sure, The Sixth Sense was very good, and Unbreakable perhaps even better, but even the writer/director dismissed his first feature film, Wide Awake, as a failure. Still, many found the periodical’s claim to have some minor merit. With what he had accomplished in such a short time, Shyamalan looked like the real deal.


Now he looks like garbage. The Happening, which hits theaters this weekend, is destined to go down as either the kitschiest camp trick ever played on an audience by a former A-list filmmaker, or the last gasp in a career downward spiral so massive that Trent Reznor would be jealous. It takes a bad b-movie ideal, dresses it up in fancy framing and composition, and asks us to believe in its Bert I. Gordon goofiness. Even worse, it doesn’t appear that Shyamalan is simply having a laugh. Pre-publicity has commented on how the director is excited to give fans his first “R-rated” horror film. In interviews, he seems to genuinely believe that this will be a solid scarefest. Clearly, Lady in the Water wasn’t the only delusion this non-autuer suffered from.


With a plot that’s premised on the end of the world, one would assume that Shyamalan’s vision of the Apocalypse would be a bit more - impressive? Having massive groups of people suddenly pause and play a fatal game of statues barely satisfies the genre mandates. We need to see social chaos, the breakdown of order, shock inducing spectacle, and the resulting death and destruction. Certainly we get some initial killings - the “virus” that attacks the Eastern seaboard of the US causes mass suicide - but aside from a sequence where a construction site becomes the place for a series of lemming-like leaps to the ground, all the throat cutting and wrist slashing seems anticlimactic and quite silly.


Even worse, Shyamalan goes with his ludicrous ideas and never once looks back. There are moments in this movie where characters are actually afraid of…wait for it…the wind. Not hurricane force gales mind you, or poison laden zephyrs. No, there is a calculated consensus on what is causing the “event” and so scientific theory (supported by Mark Walhberg’s high school teacher) maintains they make like scared rabbits whenever a light breeze blows by. In a narrative overloaded with seemingly unintentional laughs (our hero has a heart to heart with a plastic plant, The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” is channeled to prove someone’s “humanness”), Shyamalan saves the best/worst for last.


Betty Buckley, the brash Broadway diva who would be Patty LuPone if only she could muster up the same elephantine ego and sense of self, is a last act addition as a psychotic old lady loner who views the trio of survivors darkening her run down farmhouse door as nothing short of the Manson Family. She freaks out when they whisper behind her back (the subject of the conversation - how paranoid and peculiar she is) and ends up adding an American Gothic like gravitas to what is basically Food of the Gods for botanists. By the time our heroes head out into the open fields to face their hay fever styled fate, we are beside ourselves with laughter/spite. The tagged on ending in France only adds to our amuse/bemuse-ment.


Now, there are some who might suggest that this kind of material rarely succeeds. Trying to show how the standard human being buckles under pressure and predicates the destruction of its own existence en mass has forged some fine attempts (Stephen King’s Cell) and some abject failures (1985’s Warning Sign). Of course, you can extrapolate out the premise and come up with some clear cut classics. After all, everything from Night of the Living Dead to 28 Day Later is founded on the frightening prospect of people turning on each other - either for food or anger-inspired fun. True, The Happening is more about self-destruction, but there are still enough post-apocalyptic precepts involved in the story to suggest its placement within this category.


So within such a set up, why does The Happening stink so? Clearly, Shyamalan is one source of creative conjecture. We live in a hard-R macabre marketplace, so-called ‘torture porn’ teaching the fright fan that nothing satisfies like blood…and lots of it. Yet all the deaths in this movie are handled in an old fashioned, almost made-for-TV fashion. CSI offers visuals gorier than anything seen here (with the exception of a surreal man vs. lion showdown at the zoo). Even worse, Shyamalan forgets that threat is key to suspense. The characters must literally fear what will happen next - and we in turn must sympathize and identify with said sense of dread, less we disconnect from all the sequences of drawn out danger. The Happening, unfortunately, does none of this.


Oddly enough, this week also sees the release of the sensational indie effort The Signal. Unfairly slammed as being a rip-off of King’s aforementioned 2006 novel (anyone whose read the book and seen the film understand the glaring differences), this amazing movie, the work of three different directors, each one helming one act of the narrative, tells a tale of technology run amuck. When we first meet Mya, she is having an affair with Ben. He wants her to run away with him and escape her possessive husband. Typically, she can’t do that. So when she returns home to face his jealous accusations, it’s the standard post-modern kitchen sink dramatics - that is, until her spouse, Lewis, picks up a baseball bat and beats in the head of one of his friends. Soon, the whole city comes unglued, the citizenry randomly attacking and killing each other in extreme and very violent ways.


What we eventually learn is that a ‘signal’ buried inside all electronic appliances - TVs, phones, radios, etc. - is altering people’s brain chemistry. Tricking them into indulging in their worst, most primal desires, aggression and death rule the land. In the end, we follow Mya as she makes her way to a secret rendezvous, watch Ben as he tries to meet her, and see the cuckolded Lewis go on a rampage similar to such spree killing brethren as Jason Voorhees and Mike Myers. All the while, directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry mix enough humor and horror into the storyline to keep us laughing and leery, frequently at the same time. More importantly, they manage to out think and out imagine Shyamalan, someone noted for their thoughtfulness and inventiveness.


Indeed, The Signal slams The Happening down onto the ground and forces it to scream “Uncle”. Everything that Shyamalan gets wrong, Bruckner, Bush and Gentry absolutely excel at. Both movies take a similar narrative approach - tell a small story in such as way as to make it resonate within the larger scope of a Judgment Day dynamic. Each one uses a city setting to establish the terror, and then takes the concept inward. Each one features feuding couples (Walhberg and his woman - Zooey Deschanel - are having some minor marital strife) and both offer up innocent victims as fodder for mindless, murderous fiends.


So why does The Signal work whereas The Happening merely hobbles along? The answer starts in the realm of vision. Shyamalan may think he’s got a handle on his man vs. nature nuances, but to look at his film you’d never think the world was ending. It’s too bright and sunny, events occurring in open spaces with lots of light to illuminate the nonsense. It’s the reason the Buckley material stands out so. Even in a previous visit to an unoccupied home, our survivors appear dappled in well placed illumination. In Bruckner, Bush and Gentry’s world, everything turns tainted and dark. Hallways looks institutional and unkept, the streets of Atlanta (where the movie was made) as foreboding as any dystopian Hell.


Even better, our outsider filmmakers only had digital cameras and $50K to work with, so they had to be inventive in other areas. They use gallows humor and some surreal sequences of crackpot character interaction to soothe us over the rough spots. Shyamalan just manages to piss away over $57 million to make this future flop and everything about it feels redundant and forced. He’s not really doing anything different than what the makers of drive-in fare attempted back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Indeed, The Happening is one of those movies that goes a long, long, LONG way to achieve very, very little. At least The Signal sticks with its premise and doesn’t try to pontificate or change the dynamic into something akin to an environmentalist’s screed.


Yet it’s the notion of intent that probably best describes the reason for both film’s final assessment. Our trio, taken with the way in which humans act with their world wide wired habitat, never lets the populace off the hook. In The Signal, we are responsible for our technological addiction, and the fatal results of same. In The Happening, we appear as innocent victims to some incredibly cheesed off foliage. Clearly, based on how badly he bungles this film, M Night Shyamalan is not the next Spielberg. He’ll still work in today’s Hollywood, but whatever luster he had will be forever tarnished and severely tainted. Of course, he will probably consider himself a victim of a critical community incapable of containing its biased, jealousy based vitriol. In this case, the Fourth Estate is the least of his worries. Any audience member unlucky enough to see this movie may have their own Signal like reaction to what he has to offer.


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Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008
Jack Thompson has finally ticked off enough people to get disbarred. The final step on the way to that disbarment was just kind of sad.

“‘I strenuously object?’ Is that how it works? Hm? ‘Objection.’ ‘Overruled.’ ‘Oh, no, no, no. No, I STRENUOUSLY object.’ ‘Oh. Well, if you strenuously object then I should take some time to reconsider.’”
-Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) to Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) in A Few Good Men


For the last day or so, it’s been a little bit difficult to avoid coverage of the disciplinary “hearing” that Jack Thompson took part in last week to determine what sort of punishment he would undergo as a result of his being found guilty of professional misconduct.  Of course, I use the scare quotes around the word “hearing” because it wasn’t really a hearing at all, in that Thompson had no part in it except to fiddle with the podium, berate the judge, antagonize a couple of members of the press, and stomp off in a huff.  As a result, in addition to the case against Mr. Thompson, the prosecutor was also left to offer mitigations, actually helping his case to an extent in, as best as I can tell, the interest of fairness.


They strenuously object.

They strenuously object.


In the midst of his belittling of Judge Dava Tunis, Thompson even managed to forget the lesson offered by the above exchange in A Few Good Men, telling Judge Tunis that he “[objects] strenuously...to the very notion that this proceeding can even occur on various grounds.”


The excellent GamePolitics.com has a transcript of the entire exchange, while the Daily Business Review has the audio.  The audio is particularly revelatory, because Thompson sounds just as unreasonable and as belligerent as the common gamer perception of him dictates.  Is this how Thompson has always been, or has he simply been blasted by so much legal failure and so much internet hate that he’s become the caricature of himself that we’ve been led to believe is an actual portrait of the man?


I believe that, at least at the start, Thompson had good intentions, that he was truly determined to make a difference.  I know that having kids (or a close family connection of any kind, really) can make you want to make the world a better place in the worst way, I know that faith can drive someone as well, and it’s hard for me to believe that Jack Thompson was always a self-aggrandizing propagandist with an agenda, unwilling to hear two sides of an argument.  He has gone on crusades for the causes of censoring the lyrics of rap music, he has taken on morning talk radio, and he most famously espouses the evils of violent video games.  And maybe the man has a point—while violence in video games can contribute to the visceral thrill of the play experience, some would certainly argue that it occasionally has the propensity to get a bit over the top and gratuitous.


A sudden change of heart, or his next greatest foe?(Image courtesy of Kotaku)

A sudden change of heart, or his next greatest foe?
(Image courtesy of Kotaku)


Still, what once manifested itself as legal maneuvering has turned into a glorified ambulance chase.  Thompson has no issue with linking games to major tragedies involving high school and college students, regardless of whether those responsible actually played the games.  He comes off as bossy, ruthless, and a blowhard; obviously, something in him snapped somewhere along the way, and he lost the will to make the world a better place, a drive replaced by the undying need to be right.


It is this need that manifested itself in Thompson’s tantrum in court, and it is this need that bubbled up so far as to not even allow himself to hear any argument that might discredit his opinion.  Now, he’s set to be disbarred for the next ten years.  For a little perspective, that means he won’t be able to practice again until he’s 67 years old.  It’s a sad fate for the man, but perhaps it’s what he will need to regain perspective, and some sense of the honor that he left behind long ago.  I’d like to believe it’s still in him somewhere, that the parasitic brand of self-promotion he has offered can be fixed.  Of course, the next time he appears on a news program after a school shooting as an “expert” in the link between gaming violence and real-life violence, well…perhaps my optimism will be tempered.


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Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008

I don’t often cross-post but I’ll make an exception with Blurt Magazine here.  See my Ye Wei blog for details about the magazine launch.  Yep, I write for ‘em and yes, I’d be a fan anyway even if I didn’t.


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