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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008

Several people in the particular corner of the blogosphere that I frequent have linked to this transcript of a conversation n+1 had with a hedge fund manager. The very existence of this piece is encouraging, because it suggests that the sort of people who are likely to complain vociferously about capitalism are now actually taking a specific interest in the workings of capitalism. (I regard myself as one of those people, and for a long time I was content to complain about corporations without troubling to familiarize myself with a newspaper business page.) But what I found most interesting was this passage:


if you had a pool of half a billion dollars of mortgages, maybe there would be 300 million dollars of triple A paper you would sell to fund that, and then there would be smaller tranches of more junior paper. And the buyers of that paper, particularly the very senior paper, the triple-A paper, were not experts, they’re not mortgage experts, they say, “It’s triple-A? I’ll buy it.” This is money market funds, accounts that are not set up to do hardcore analysis, they tend to just rely on the rating agencies. And again the spread that they’re getting paid is very small, so they don’t really have a lot of spread to play with to hire a lot of analysts to go and dig in the mortgage pools and really understand them, they kind of rely on the rating agencies, and that’s their downfall. It’s kind of an interesting interaction in the sense that a lot of this mortgage project was almost created by the bid for the CDO paper rather than the reverse. I mean, the traditional way to think about financing is “OK, I find an investment opportunity, that on its face, I think, is a good opportunity. I want to deploy capital on that opportunity. Now I go look for funding. So I think that making mortgage loans is a good investment, so I will make mortgage loans. Then I will seek to fund those, to fund that activity, by perhaps issuing CDO paper, issuing the triple-A, double-A, A, and down the chain.” But what happened is, you had the creation of so many vehicles designed to buy that paper, the triple-A, the double-A, all the CDO paper… that the dynamic flipped around. It was almost as if the demand for that paper created the mortgages.


The argument you heard while subprime mortgages were booming was that it represented this great democratization of credit, tapping pent-up demand among the lower classes who had been unfairly denied credit for so long. Never mind all the advertising the mortgage industry took out; that demand was there and latent, it was argued. But as the hedge-fund manager explains here, there were huge incentives for highly leveraged financial players to create demand—they needed something upon which to extend their derivatives business. Knowing how profitable the derivatives would be, they managed to devise a way to let them come into being before the instruments they would be derived from. And this was accomplished mainly by separating competent understand of risk from the investors who were pouring in the money by way of ratings agencies inappropriately certifying the structured vehicles (and collecting their fees). Another thing to remember when you hear that the credit crisis was the fault of the borrowers getting in over their heads.


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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008


On 22 January, the Nominees for the 80th Annual Academy Awards® were announced. In preparation for 23 January’s op-ed piece, here is a list of those chosen for recognition on 24 February:


Best Motion Picture of the Year
Atonement (Focus Features) A Working Title Production: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
Juno (Fox Searchlight) A Dancing Elk Pictures, LLC Production: Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith, Producers
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.) A Clayton Productions, LLC Production: Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent, Producers
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax) A JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company Production: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi, Producers


Performance By an Actor in a Leading Role
George Clooney in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah (Warner Independent)
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (Focus Features)


Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.)
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War (Universal)
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment)
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)


Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Universal)
Julie Christie in Away from Her (Lionsgate)
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (Picturehouse)
Laura Linney in The Savages (Fox Searchlight)
Ellen Page in Juno (Fox Searchlight)


Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There (The Weinstein Company)
Ruby Dee in American Gangster (Universal)
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement (Focus Features)
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone (Miramax)
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)


Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Ratatouille (Walt Disney): Brad Bird
Surf’s Up (Sony Pictures Releasing): Ash Brannon and Chris Buck


Achievement in Directing
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Julian Schnabel
Juno (Fox Searchlight), Jason Reitman
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.), Tony Gilroy
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Paul Thomas Anderson


Achievement in Cinematography
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.): Roger Deakins
Atonement (Focus Features): Seamus McGarvey
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Janusz Kaminski
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Roger Deakins
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Robert Elswit


Best Documentary Feature
No End in Sight (Magnolia Pictures) A Representational Pictures Production: Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (The Documentary Group) A Documentary Group Production: Richard E. Robbins
SiCKO (Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company) A Dog Eat Dog Films Production: Michael Moore and Meghan O’Hara
Taxi to the Dark Side (THINKFilm) An X-Ray Production: Alex Gibney and Eva Orner
War/Dance (THINKFilm) A Shine Global and Fine Films Production: Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine


Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Beaufort Israel
The Counterfeiters Austria
Katyn Poland
Mongol Kazakhstan
12 Russia


Achievement in Visual Effects
The Golden Compass (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris and Trevor Wood
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Walt Disney): John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and John Frazier
Transformers (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl and John Frazier


Best Adapted Screenplay
Atonement (Focus Features), Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
Away from Her (Lionsgate), Written by Sarah Polley
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson


Best Original Screenplay
Juno (Fox Searchlight), Written by Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl (MGM), Written by Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.), Written by Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
The Savages (Fox Searchlight), Written by Tamara Jenkins


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Tuesday, Jan 22, 2008

I’m thinking of a Clive Barker line ... let me find the exact quote. “Every body is a book of blood. Wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” The one below is Oscar Wilde’s “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future” from A Woman of No Importance.


Isn’t this just the best? It’s nicked from a LiveJournal blog I’ve steadily become addicted to over the past few months called Bookworms with Ink. The site invites readers to post photographs of their literary tattoos. Scrounge around a bit and you’ll find dedications to everyone Tolkien to Woody Allen to Vonnegut to Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s such a thrill to see certain words and pictures brought to life through tattoos. The site is moderated by LiveJournal user “Oh You Trendy Girl”, and has been up and running since early 2006. A museum of literary skin art—it’s an absolute treasure.


Check out this latest post from Tetaelzbieta:
“I’ve got almost enough money for my first tattoo, and the three things I love enough to put on my body are The Lord of the Rings, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safan Foer and East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I’m either getting Tolkien’s initials or the white tree of Gondor (in black ink) on my left wrist. I think I’m going to go with the word “timshel” on my right wrist for EoE, and I haven’t decided on the EII tattoo yet. Anyone have any Tolkien, JSF or Steinbeck tattoos? From any of their works, I’d love to see them! I’d also love some recommendations for fonts for the EoE tat. What types of fonts look best, etc. Thank you thank you!”


The enthusiasm! It’s infectious. Read just a selection of the daily chatterings here and you’ll spend the rest of the day plotting your lit-tat. Some of those on the site are divine; others, I’m not so sure about. It’s all very much to-each-his-own, and that’s very much the point. Of tattoos in general. It’s all about you, isn’t it? What’s meaningful to you, what generates your desired thoughts and reminiscences. It makes sense, then, that as important as a Vonnegut quote might be to me, a Tolkien quote is to Tetaelzbieta. It’s interesting, too, to note just how many of these literary tattoos are of images from children’s books, suggesting their importance to the tattoo-ees has been lifelong. One of my favourite literary tattoos is the work of my very own tattoo artist, Squirrel from Tattoo Nation in Echuca VIC. He won a National Best Back Award for this:


Today I’m loving this “Hip to be Square” quote from American Psycho:


How affecting, though, must these varied works be to these people? There’s a beautiful sleeve on the site, owned by a lady called “Scum Queen”, that features an illustration from Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Scythe”. Now, this is not Peter Pan quote hidden away on the spine. This is a balls-out, massive half-sleeve. The work that’s gone into the thing, from design through to placement and actual inking is mind-blowing. And it’s on this tiny arm. You display that for life, that one story. What an advertisement— there’s got to be something fucking intense in a such a work for someone to want to be reminded of it every single day. I, for one, am going to hunt it down.


Other literary tattoos can be found at HubPages, and there’s a great essay here at The Believer which is worth a read, too, called “A Blank Human Canvas” by Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo.


Unless otherwise noted, all pictures here were lifted from Bookworms with Ink


 


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Monday, Jan 21, 2008

Always at the forefront with important news, Time magazine brings us the gory details of a very important development: people are paying other people to follow them around like paparazzi.


Even as real celebrities battle those pesky cameramen on the streets and in courts for intruding on their lives and trading on their images, some regular folks, from parents hosting teen birthday parties to Gen Xers out on the town, have decided that the attention could be fun—and worth paying up to $1,500 for. Cowher launched Celeb 4 A Day in Austin in November and is expanding to Los Angeles this month and San Francisco in February. There are similar companies, like Private Paparazzi in San Diego and Personal Paparazzi in Britain, and wannabe big shots in other places have taken matters into their own hands, hiring freelance photographers to trail them.


Josh Gamson, a sociology professor, was dragged into the spotlight to explain this curious phenomenon: “If you don’t have people asking who you are, you’re nobody,” he explains.


As absurd as this sounds at first, it’s really no different than hiring wedding photographers. Only instead of restricting yourself to such special events, you can treat every night out with your fiends as if it were your wedding. This seems extravagant and sort of pathetic, but not entirely beyond the pale. It also, however, serves as a reminder of the seductiveness of surveillance, and why it is so difficult for stir people into protecting their rights of privacy. Former modes of social recognition have been superseded by fame, by publicity as an end in itself, and we now all accept that it’s enough to be known, and it is doesn’t really matter what one is known for, if there even is anything. So there is no illegitimate avenue to being famous, or reaping what are percieved to be the rewards of that. As a result, we’ve glamorized being watched to the point where exhibitionism no longer registers as a fetish but is instead almost a baseline norm.


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Sunday, Jan 20, 2008


It’s so high concept and gimmicky that it should crumble under the weight of its own ambitions. It takes an already tired approach - the first person POV perspective milked to death by all the surrounding Blair Witch hoopla - and channels it through a much more coherent and creative ideal. Some have called it an event film, a rollercoaster ride through a city under monstrous siege. Others have referred to it by another, less flattering name - the bile express, perhaps in reference to the motion sickness inducing cinematography. But there’s no denying one fact - the J.J. Abrams produced monster movie Cloverfield is poised to become a true phenomenon. And in these dog days of January, the most lax time for cinematic excellence, that’s an amazing fact.


Yet this has also been a divisive affair, one that has just as many complainers as champions. All appreciation is opinion based, as is consensus. Majority rule does not determine a film’s final assessment as art, nor does the amount of money made instantly mandate a rejection reconfiguration. Basically, people are entitled to their view of the film, even if they use some specious reasons in support of their disdain. As a matter of fact, reading over the initial reactions to the film, certain constants can be gleaned. Aside from the purely physical responses (more on this in a moment), the various grounds for grousing deserve some discussion. In looking them over, one by one, we begin to see how expectations can undermine any entertainment experience. We also see that Cloverfield can create incredibly passionate feelings on either side of the summation. 


Issue 1 - The Camerawork
This complaint is actually a dangerous double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand people who didn’t like the handheld shaky cam POV because it made them ill. Both Blair Witch and the last two Bourne films claimed many a queasy stomach on their way to box office fortunes. So a clear caveat should come with every ticket sold - “Warning: This Movie May Cause You to Lose Your Lunch”. But barking about it afterwards seems like an aggravation sticking point, an “I got sick so it sucks” rationale that just doesn’t float. No, the real noggin scratcher comes from those who don’t like the approach from an aesthetic standpoint.


Now, no one hid the fact that Abrams wanted to make the movie this way. The trailer offered nothing more than starring at the lens logistics. In interviews, he explained that the film was inspired by a trip to Japan where he saw thousands of Godzilla toys. He speculated that it would be interesting to create an American version of said monster, yet handle the narrative in a novel, contemporary fashion - from the perspective of the petrified citizenry, lets say. So anyone mad that the movie ended up as a camcorder creation is misguided. It’s like arguing that a chocolate bar was horrible because it was made with cocoa. Huh? If you don’t like sugar, don’t eat candy. If you don’t want to see grainy, digital photography, you picked the wrong flick.


Issue 2 - The No-Name Cast
Remember the pretense here - a realistic depiction of New York being overwhelmed by a giant creature. It’s the event, not the individuals that are important. Sure, we have to warm up to the characters a little before the chaos occurs, if just to keep us locked in during the many action scenes. But why would famous faces make this any easier? Some, including this critic, would argue that recognizable actors would ruin the atmosphere. Being identifiable is one thing. Having sure superstar impact is another. For those who’ve seen the film, imagine the Army triage sequence with someone from The Hills as the victim. Aside from the vicarious thrill inherent in such a fatal set up, such a vacuous celebrity space saver would destroy everything Cloverfield has going for.


Issue 3 - The Running Time
By most accounts, this is an 80+ minute movie that ends up being about 70 minus credits. That breaks down to 15 minutes of party-based premise, and 55 minutes of bedlam. The complaints, however, have ranged from the film being too short (arguable) to being WAY, WAY too long (what?). Many argue that the send-off could be clipped by at least half, and that there needed to be more sci-fi stunting and action. Granted, there is a little down time in between bouts of monster madness, but to say that the film needs more of this material is ludicrous. Again, the intention of Abrams and his crew was not to make the same old horror show. Instead this was a real time type story strategy, letting events play out over a few heart stopping hours instead of several days and night. While it’s possible to argue over the allotment, the movie really seems perfectly paced.


Issue 4 - The Lack of Monster
This is a real deal breaker. You either like the way director Matt Reeves handled the numerous creature reveals, keeping the beast locked in its carnage and not posing or pussyfooting for the camera, or you’re flashing back to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla and cringing in CG-ire. Frankly, the subtle approach has never endeared itself to the masses. Spielberg devotees will never get over the way he handled War of the Worlds’ many army/alien confrontations. One big battle took place completely off screen. Similarly, M Night Shyamalan’s Signs had an extraterrestrial invasion and then went and forgot most of the little green men. The idea of keeping the mayhem money shot just out of reach is one of the reasons Clovefield works. It was also the reason why Frank Darabont’s The Mist was so masterful. Jaws kept its fiend underwater for most of the movie. Doing the same with this skyscraping scrapping entity only amplifies its impact. Still, in the ‘show me’ state of the mainstream, this apparently wasn’t good enough.


Issue 5 - The Downer Ending
It’s SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER time. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to go in 100% untainted as to major plot developments, leave this part of the piece NOW. There, now that all the neophyte tenderfooters are gone…you just know that our main gang of survivors is not going to come out of this intact. We are going to loose a few along the way (and we do) and the death of the beast (if it can be achieved) will come with lots of character collateral damage. We do see a couple of the kids take off in a helicopter. There is no follow up. Of course, our hero, his buddy Hud, and plot catalyst Beth all end up in Central Park, their transport torn apart by the creature. There’s a close-up, a crunch, and some last minute monologuing. We leave our couple cowering as jets fly overhead, delivering an inferred nuclear payload. There’s an explosion, and then silence. Now, ‘Net rumors have unearthed a garbled bit of dialogue that plays over the final credits. Unscrambled, the ominous line has a faint voice whispering “It’s still alive”. Slam! Sequel!



Come to think of it, Cloverfield appears purposefully set up to tweak many a moviegoer’s most cherished viewership clichés. It’s not filmed particularly well, presents actors that don’t inspire a preconceived notion of heroics or hindrance, offers a monster movie with minimal monster, and gets its business over and done with in a short, succinct, and very somber manner.  To many in the plebian viewership (not all audiences, by the way), this will truly cramp their celluloid style. Epics aren’t erratic and scope should come from carefully controlled compositions, not the haphazard luck of a wavering camcorder. And yet it’s these very things, these bows to the You Tube/MySpace generation (to quote craggy members of the older generation) that make Cloverfield a flop. Oddly enough, to others, they’re the reason the film feels like a revelation.


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