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by Bill Gibron

19 Nov 2008

He may be our most inventive living director - or at the very least, our must idiosyncratic. In his brief tenure as a feature filmmaker he’s made a Hitchcockian thriller (Shallow Grave), a daring dope fiend farce (Trainspotting), a less than routine romantic comedy (A Life Less Ordinary), a flawed idyllic allegory (The Beach), a revisionist horror film (28 Days Later), a feel good kiddie flick (Millions), a stunning sci-fi meditation (Sunshine) and now, a knotty little jewel called Slumdog Millionaire. When he succeeds, he does so royally (the last four films on that list, for example). When he fails it’s the most spectacular of stumbles (the less said about Life, the better).

Most filmmakers don’t often venture outside their own creative comfort zone. More times than not it’s both a personal and professional choice. The aforementioned Master of Suspense rarely tried anything outside the thriller. Steven Spielberg sticks almost exclusively with big budget blockbusters, or important themed dramas. Tim Burton is and will probably always be a good natured Goth goof, while Guy Ritchie has been making the same steak and kidney pie crime comedy since he first merged handheld camerawork with songs by The Clash. There are some who like the shake things up: Peter Jackson has gone from zombie gore to puppet porn to Oscar winning epics; The Coen Brothers often break the gap between genres, doing screwball comedy one opening, a nasty crime drama the next.

But Boyle not only jumps from type to type, he excels at them. Forgiving his flops for the moment, the man who made us believe in the viability of post-2001 serious science fiction, the Brothers Grimm grandeur of drug addiction, and the controllable terror of fast moving monsters so often broaches brilliance that to think of him in any other terms is just absurd. Again, when he’s good, he’s gonzo!  And yet there is that stumble in his catapulting career path, a pair of perplexing entries more concerned about their leading men (Ewan McGregor and Leonard DiCaprio, respectively) than the artistry he would show otherwise.

Naturally, there’s a reason behind his high percentage output. Boyle is clearly a humanist. Strip away the veneer of vibrance and showboating style from what he brings to a project, and his movies end up as very clever character studies. We care about the Scottish smackheads who have getting ‘clean’ - and finding a fix - down to a science (the better to get back on the wicked white horse) and worry about the random patient who wakes up in an abandoned, Rage-infested London. The roommates of Grave get our attention and swayed sympathy because of how rapidly they allow money to change everything - sometimes, fatally so - and the big idea elements of Sunshine still can’t overwhelm the individuals onboard, each one desperate to do their job to save a dying solar system.

His latest, Slumdog Millionaire, is a testament to his continuing affirmation of the dignity and worth of the human being. It’s bleak, bizarre, and often bereft of a single glimmer of hope. And yet in telling the tale of dirt poor Jamal, his brazen brother Salim, and the orphan girl Latika who comes to define them, Boyle brings such perilous poverty to vivid, unforgettable life. Even better, we get a real handle on how everyday existence is metered out in such horrific, merciless conditions. As he does with all his films, Boyle finds the shorthanded way of explaining the pragmatic precepts of making ends meet - scavenging for food, hustling for money, avoiding the law…even defying the laws of physics. We go into his movies as innocents. We come out with a wealth of real life lessons.

In addition, Boyle is a great believer in spaces, be it a ratty Glasgow bedroom/rehab center, the filthiest toilet in all of Scotland, an isolated slice of Thai paradise, or a spaceship’s observational “sun” deck. He uses his locations to illustrate the often unusual or outright odd situations in his story. They often provide a counterpoint to what is happening onscreen. In Slumdog, our characters seek refuge in an abandoned hotel, the proposed opulence overshadowed by its dusty, unused interiors. Similarly, the childhood ghetto of Jamal and Salim is turned into a set of luxury apartments, some of which appear carved directly out of the side of a mountain. It’s such a stunning juxtaposition that we forget all about the people involved - that is, until Boyle sets the last act of his drama directly in the middle of his stifling newly forged suburban sprawl.

But more than just people and places, Boyle is a filmmaker influenced by ideas. All of his films offer unique perspectives on the seemingly mundane - or if not ordinary, the everyman approach to the outsized. When England becomes a pseudo-zombie warzone, the reaction of the survivors is more terrifying than the creatures, while the same can be said for the greedy brother of the kind hearted lad at the center of Millions. Even the angels in A Life Less Ordinary are more workaday than the main characters. All throughout Slumdog, the good natured smiles of young Jamal and Salim annul the horrific squalor they live in, and even when they find themselves a part of an abusive beggar’s school, they remain convinced that happiness is just around the corner.

In fact, the final thing that can be said about Boyle is that he’s forever indebted to the forces of the feel good. His movies don’t always end on an up note, but they do tend to trip ever so closet over toward the notion of optimism. Sometimes, such suggestions are studio mandated (the alternate endings for 28 Days Later), while in many cases, Boyle’s approach to the material mandates same. Certainly characters make massive sacrifices to get us to these upbeat finales (Sunshine and Slumdog both moderate tragedy into tenuous joy), and in the end, the success might be temporary at best. But in a world where the downbeat and the dour tend to rule most missives, having someone cater to hope now and again is something worth noting. Where someone as clearly skilled as Danny Boyle goes from here will be interesting to see (there is talk of a Trainspotting sequel!). But whenever it is, he will surely make the journey more than worth our while.

by Rob Horning

19 Nov 2008

Paul Kedrosky linked to this FT article describing life in Iceland after their banking system completely collapsed. The whole thing makes for some unsettling reading, unless you hate Sigur Ros or something and can extract some schadenfreude from the whole situation.

The Icelandic krona’s freeze in the capital markets had now spilled over into the day-to-day transactions of Icelanders abroad. Holidaymakers and business travellers venturing “til Útlanda”, as it is called, found their credit cards refused, and those wishing to buy foreign currency could not find willing sellers, aside from one or two who limited their purchases to €200.
Trust in the banks had evaporated and people were trying to find a safe haven for their cash. One man had waited for six hours in a bank while his life savings, more than £1m in kronur (at IKr200 to the pound), were counted out in cash in front of him. “I feel like an innocent man dragged from his bed, put in a barrel and hurled over Gullfoss!” wrote one journalist that morning.

This is why people used to stuff money into mattresses.

Naturally, Iceland (just like the U.S.) had an irresponsible housing boom alongside its overleveraged banking system.

Easy access to 100 per cent mortgages has seen a change to the traditional pattern of young Icelanders living with their parents until their mid-twenties. The suburbs of Reykjavik have grown by a third in the past decade, most of it housing for first-time buyers. Whole new neighbourhoods have emerged. New streets house young couples, many with children, most with two cars in the drive and furnished with the best that Ikea can provide. All bought with 100 per cent loans, many in foreign currencies.

Also mentioned are the “viking raiders”—brash Icelandic bankers like Jon Ásgeir who have now destroyed their nation.

One of the most telling images was the departure of Jon Ásgeir’s private jet on news that the government had nationalised Glitnir Bank (in which his investment vehicle Stodir was a leading shareholder), wiping out his shareholding and rattling the debt-burdened house of cards that is his Baugur business empire. Painted black and as sleek as a Stealth bomber, the aircraft was photographed taxiing from its hangar by Morgunbladid, a daily newspaper. Like the last helicopter out of Saigon, the departure of Ásgeir’s jet symbolised the end of an era, the last act of Iceland’s debt-fuelled spending spree.

An article from Spiegel also explores what happens when nations go bankrupt. It highlights Argentina’s experience, when people scurried to Uruguay with suitcases full of dollar bills and others slept in front of ATMs waiting for a chance to withdrawal money, if any was left. And it looks at Hungary, the first European nation to be bailed out by the IMF.

Much of the blame for Hungary’s current debacle lies with the failings of the past. The once-successful nation of 10 million people lived beyond its means for years. With government finances spinning out of control, the national debt ballooned to two-thirds of the country’s GDP. “The funding for our excessively high standard of living came from other countries,” admits András Simor, the governor of the central bank, not without a dose of self-criticism.
The Hungarians have always been considered shopaholics. Hundreds of thousands bought themselves big cars and went on shopping sprees in the chic boutiques on Váci Utca in Budapest—all on credit. The real estate market boomed, turning close to 90 percent of Hungarian apartments are privately owned.

This all sounds very familiar. How long will it be before we have to say, “We are all Hungarians now”?

by PopMatters Staff

19 Nov 2008

Check out the PopMatters tribute to the 40th anniversary of the White Album. Side Two songs highlighted below posted today.

Side Two


Andie Forgie from the recreation of the White Album at Abbey Road on the River 2008
Martha My Dear [Video]

 

Kasabian
I’m So Tired [Video]

 

Bobby McFerrin
Blackbird [Video]

 

Carly Simon
Blackbird [Video]

 

The BeaTrips (Japanese Beatles cover band)
Piggies [Video]

 

Andy Fairweather Low
Rocky Raccoon [Video]

 

Phish
Rocky Raccoon, Don’t Pass Me By [Video]

 

Grateful Dead
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? [Video]

 

Of Montreal
I Will [Video]

 

Ari Hest
Julia [Video]

 

by Rob Horning

18 Nov 2008

One of my favorite features of the Financial Times are the special sections devoted to relatively obscure regions that assess the politics and investment possibilities. Today’s edition included a four-page section on Belarus, home to Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Yes, you can learn a great deal about the city of Grodno, and Belarus’s dependence on Russia’s gas, and its thriving tractor-building industry. But the only must-read is this interview with Lukashenko, in which he proudly, if ironically, seizes the “last dictator” mantle.

You are so lucky to have a chance to talk to the last dictator of Europe. You could only dream of meeting with the last dictator of Europe and see what kind of dictator he is. Touch him, sit at the same table with him. You only read this in books, but now you’ve seen it for real.

It’s probably a stereotype I’ve absorbed from 1980s Cold War films, but this is exactly how I expect Eastern European dictators to sound, contemptuous of Western journalists to the point of mocking them to their faces. (It makes me want to reread the New Yorker article about the mad dictator Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, the self-styled “father of all Turkmen,” or this classic about chess-loving dictator Kirsan Ilyumzhinov of Kalmykia.) Lukashenko dismisses his political opponents (“if they come to power they wouldn’t know what to do ... They feel good being eternal oppositionists”) and declares Belarusian elections “transparent without precedent” before dispensing this brilliant piece of parenting advice.

It is very important for a father to teach his son a real man’s life. And when [my youngest son] Kolya turned one year old, I took him by the hand and brought him to a steam room. Of course he complained and ran out. But now he is four years old, he can endure temperature differences from 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the steam room to 28 degrees in the swimming pool. Plus he endures ice baths. I taught my [two] elder sons to do that. We would cut a hole in ice on the river, dive into it, and then run along through the snow to the steam room.

No wonder my adult life has seemed so inauthentic and unreal—it’s been distinctly lacking in drastic temperature swings and ice baths.

by Rob Horning

18 Nov 2008

In this LRB essay, Slavoj Žižek ponders the significance of Obama’s election. While it seems to represent a temporary triumph over political cynicism—“what the cynics don’t see is their own naivety, the naivety of their cynical wisdom which ignores the power of illusions”—does it also imply some sort of decisive break in historical continuity? Has Obama introduced a whole new game rather than merely adjusting the rules of the existing politics? (See Larval Subjects’ thoughts on that here.) As the transition has been assembled, we’ve seen some of the same Washington power players from the Clinton era shuffled back into prominence, which has led to articles (like this one) pronouncing that nothing’s really changed. This allows some pundits to dismiss the outpouring of emotion when Obama won as overdramatic self-congratulation by liberals who will deserve to be disappointed by politics as usual. (Update: See leftist philosopher Simon Critchley’s view here.)

Of course, politics will largely remain the same—various interests will continue to compete for priority and so on. This is a good thing; dreams of post-partisanship are misguided in presuming some underlying consensus among peopple with irreconcilable differences. Žižek makes this point in an aside: when the financial crisis led to bipartisan action, what that meant in effect was “that democratic procedures were de facto suspended.”

But it’s hard to look at something like this, the first of what promises to be a weekly YouTube chat from Obama, on a government website that is almost unprecedented in its user-friendly slickness, and not feel that something is fundamentally different about this administration. That difference—a comfort with new media and the opportunities that stem from it—seems irreversible. (I’m sure this has already been called Politics 2.0 somewhere.) I have to admit that it’s a little sinister and Big Brotherly in feel, and I am still cynical enough to suspect these traits will help make it go over well with the general public.

What Obama’s team seems to want to do is establish Obama as an untarnishable brand, anchored in images of youth and progress (hence YouTube), that can then be used to win approval for policies without having to convince people of their merits. Participating in politics tends to make people uncomfortable, and few people do it at any level beyond voting. It involves compromise and confrontation and a willingness to be reminded again and again that reality falls short of ideals. But people love participating in brands—no compromise necessary there, as the engagement takes place on the fantasy level and consists of pure vicarious pleasure. If we become invested in brand Obama, we will end up absorbing the progressive ideology he may espouse as a kind of by-product. And this can then inform the polls that inform political decisionmaking by legislators. Maybe this is nothing new; this is the “bully pulpit” theory of executive leadership. We just have been without a credible leader for so long in the U.S. that’s it is hard to remember what that is like.

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