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by Rob Horning

10 Oct 2008

Building on a Matt Yglesias post, Kevin Drum sketches an interesting case for income inequality being at the heart of the current financial chaos.

We usually argue about rising income inequality in moral terms, but there’s a practical side to it too: when all the economic growth a country produces goes to a very small class of rich people, stupid things happen. The rich can’t possibly consume enough to spend all this money, so they start casting around for something, anything, to do with all the cash they have sloshing around. And since, in an ever more unequal economy that nonetheless preaches ever rising living standards, the poor need payday loans to keep up and the stagnating middle class needs HELOCs, that’s where their money goes. It still gets spent, eventually, on things like cars and food and new furniture, because that’s what middle class people mostly spend their money on, but instead of being spent directly by people who are earning it, it gets funneled downward to them via increased debt and financial legerdemain that extracts more and more money upward from poor to rich with each cycle.
That’s not sustainable. Median income growth produces not just growth, but stable growth for everyone, the rich included. Top end growth, almost by definition, produces unstable, unsustainable growth. Modern economies are driven by consumer spending, and if you want consumer spending to increase consistently you have to increase consumer income. All the financial wizardry in the world will never change that.
Social justice aside, that’s why the single most important financial statistic for any modern economy is real median income growth. If you have it, you’re in pretty good shape no matter what else is going on. If you don’t, you’re a banana republic. Guess which one we’ve become?

Slavoj Žižek makes a similar case in this LRB essay:

If the bailout plan really is a ‘socialist’ measure, it is a very peculiar one: a ‘socialist’ measure whose aim is to help not the poor but the rich, not those who borrow but those who lend. ‘Socialism’ is OK, it seems, when it serves to save capitalism. But what if ‘moral hazard’ is inscribed in the fundamental structure of capitalism? The problem is that there is no way to separate the welfare of Main Street from that of Wall Street. Their relationship is non-transitive: what is good for Wall Street isn’t necessarily good for Main Street, but Main Street can’t thrive if Wall Street isn’t doing well – and this asymmetry gives an a priori advantage to Wall Street.
The standard ‘trickle-down’ argument against redistribution (through progressive taxation etc) is that instead of making the poor richer, it makes the rich poorer. However, this apparently anti-interventionist attitude actually contains an argument for the current state intervention: although we all want the poor to get better, it is counter-productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element; the only intervention needed is to help the rich get richer, and then the profits will automatically spread down to the poor. Throw enough money at Wall Street, and it will eventually trickle down to Main Street. If you want people to have money to build, don’t give it to them directly, help those who are lending it to them. This is the only way to create genuine prosperity – otherwise, the state is merely distributing money to the needy at the expense of those who create wealth.
It is all too easy to dismiss this line of reasoning as a hypocritical defence of the rich. The problem is that as long as we are stuck with capitalism, there is a truth in it: the collapse of Wall Street really will hit ordinary workers.

Instead of making more money in the wage-stagnant Bush era, most people were merely gaining the opportunity to borrow more from the people and institutions that really were making money, and lots of it. Instead of getting a fair share of general prosperity, we got to pay interest on a simulacrum of it. Now the financial magic tricks don’t seem to be working anymore, and no one has any place to turn for the funds to maintain the facade. So things could get pretty scary for “ordinary workers”. The brownshirt rallies McCain and his disgraceful running mate are leading may only worsen as the effects of the global financial apocalypse pass through to the “real economy.” That may be in the form of layoffs or dramatic drop-offs in production or the disappearance of goods from retail shelves as international shipping, which runs on credit, breaks down. Already it is manifesting as an unwillingness of consumers to spend. Under different circumstances, that might have struck me as good news, but there’s nothing like a Depression to remind us how glorious the world of goods is by snatching it away from us, just as we start to take plenitude for granted. Am I too pessimistic or humanistic in thinking that a lasting change in our consumerism can only come if we volunteer for it, not when it is forced on us by events? Maybe I need to become more materialist in my thinking.

by Evan Sawdey

10 Oct 2008

It’s here! It’s finally here!

That’s right: it’s the first jaw-droppingly fantastic music video from the Chemical Brothers that we’ve seen in some time!

Forgive the exclamation marks, but there’s a reason for such enthusiasm.  You see, from very early on, the Chemical Brothers were a powerhouse, spearheading the Big Beat electronica movement in the late 90s that wound up being shared with the likes of Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim, eventually opening doors for even crazier acts like Basement Jaxx to walk through.  Well, part of the charm of the Chemical Brothers has always been their visual element, as this is a band that constantly and reliably delivers excellent, fantastically entertaining music videos through and through.  When Astralwerks released the duo’s “Singles” collection a few years back, the accompanying DVD provided highlight upon highlight, as some of the greatest auteurs to ever control the medium had all had their hand in at least one Chem Bros. clip: Spike Jonze (“Electrobank”), Michel Gondry (“Star Guitar” and the incredible “Let Forever Be”), Chris Milk (“The Golden Path”), and many more.

Yet the Brothers have lapsed as of late, as the videos and singles from album Push the Button failed to make much of an impact, which turned out to be doubly true for their last effort, We Are the Night, as both “Do It” and the regrettable “Salmon Dance” showed that the duo were slowly, painfully running out of steam. 

So it’s nothing but a joy to find the Dom & Nic-helmed clip for “Midnight Madness”, the single from the Chem’s latest compilation Brotherhood, to be exactly what we’ve been waiting for.  Riding one of the must fluid and lucid beats the guys have come up with in years, the video—one of the rare ones to not have an image of the Bros. anywhere in it—features a glitter-suited demon creature coming out at night in some alley, gleefully engaging in jaw-dropping breakdance moves in a frentic display of body kineticism.  The clip is a mixture of well-done computer graphics and live dancing that work quite well in tandem.  It really has to be seen to be believed.

Yeah, maybe the Brothers are finally back on track ...

by Bill Gibron

10 Oct 2008

October continues its mishmash of film and genres. Along with kid vid effort City of Ember and horror romp Quarantine, here are the films in focus for the weekend of the 10th:

Body of Lies [rating: 6]

Anchored by an amazing performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and little else, Body of Lies limps along for over two hours, never amounting to more than a decent, if derivative nailbiter.

Ridley Scott used to make daring, original movies. No matter the subject matter - outer space alien invasion, magical sword and sorcery adventure, revisionist Roman peplum - he’d place his visionary signature on every frame of film. Sure, he dabbled in pseudo realism, taking on the crime genre with Someone to Watch Over Me and a female facsimile of the buddy picture with Thelma and Louise. But when his name was attached to a project, we expected something innovative and outsized. Yet with his latest, Body of Lies, we get nothing more than a journeyman thriller. Even with a big named cast and intercontinental setting, Scott simply shows up and sets things in motion. The results are uninspired, to say the least.  read full review…


The Duchess [rating: 3]

Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined.

There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.  read full review…


The Express [rating: 5]

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy.

Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the mainstream, which sees allegories in all manner of athletic competition, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. As the latest in a long line of race related travails, the history here is loaded with confrontation, outrage, and acceptance. But even with a strong handle on the situation with segregation, the movie can’t manage to overcome its predetermined purpose.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008

Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the mainstream, which sees allegories in all manner of athletic competition, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. As the latest in a long line of race related travails, the history here is loaded with confrontation, outrage, and acceptance. But even with a strong handle on the situation with segregation, the movie can’t manage to overcome its predetermined purpose.

When he was young, Ernie Davis learned to run. It was a necessary survival skill in a small town where segregation and racial hatred ruled. Later, as he grew, Davis learned to use said talent to become an All American athlete. When colleges came calling, he had two choices - the University of Football, otherwise known as Notre Dame, or upstate New York school Syracuse. With an undeniable legacy left behind by a graduating Jim Brown, Davis soon found himself under the tutelage of no nonsense coach Ben Schwartzwalder. After an uneventful Freshman year, the newest Orangeman soon becomes a national name, leading his team to a National Championship and the first ever Heisman Trophy for a black player. Success in the NFL seemed certain - that is, until something unexpected came along to shatter his dreams.

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy. With trailers that give away one major reveal, and a narrative which foreshadows the final plot twist, this is an amiable if predicable portrait. Directed by Gary Fleder (Thing to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) with all the faked flash of a Tony Scott knock-off, we understand almost immediately where this story of struggle is going. Davis is introduced as a decent little kid picked on horrifically by a band of bullheaded boy bigots. Within seconds, his fleet footed abilities are revealed, and soon the shift is away from prejudice and onto pre-college success. When Dennis Quaid enters the picture as Ben Schwartzwalder, the equally pigheaded coach from Syracuse, we sense a confrontation ahead.

But in one of the few surprises in this otherwise routine biopic, our fabled football sage isn’t a raging extremist - unless you’re talking about football. Then, Schwartzwalder is as old school as George Halas and Vince Lombardi. His is a hard work and waste nothing ethic, the kind of aggressive approach that made Jim Brown into a legendary figure in the NFL. We see the fabled running back as he readies to play with the Cleveland Browns, and his active recruitment of Davis is one of the film’s few sparkling sequences. Otherwise, Brown is held up as a kind of compare and contrast with his protégé. Big Jim gets the concept of social isolation and fights to rise above it. Ernie is as sincere as his name suggests, shocked when faced with separate drinking fountains and restricted hotels.

Part of the pleasure within The Express is watching Schwartzwalder and the team respond to the growing controversy caused by their newest recruit. At first, there is lots of contention and chest puffing. One player in particular makes it his personal cause to give Davis nothing but ethnic oriented grief. But as he starts shining, and by example bringing the team into the national limelight, the differences cool. Soon we see a united front against the ridiculous laws and ways of a pre-Civil Rights South. A trip to Texas for the National Championship game is especially illuminating, since almost everything that happens both before, during, and after the contest speaks volumes for the misguided way of America circa the ‘50s. Had there been more of this material, The Express would play like a leatherheaded Malcolm X.

But Fleder knows that audiences won’t indulge in a film that spends most of its time in controversy and anger. So The Express offers up some moments of minor romance, and the typical non-erotic comedic male bonding that sports tend to mandate. In the lead, Rob Brown makes a convincing Davis. Not required to do more than play proficiently and look iconic, the Finding Forrester co-star fits the bill. Much better is Omar Benson Miller as the larger than life lineman Jack Buckley. Like an overprotective father to Davis’ ill-prepared novice, he’s a gentle joking giant and jester. Some ancillary support comes from Charles S. Dutton (as Davis’ ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ Grandpa) and Soul Food‘s Darrin Dewitt Henson as Brown.

As for Quaid, he’s the film’s toughest fit. While Schwartzwalder was in his late ‘40s when Davis first stepped onto the Syracuse campus, his big screen reflection feels too young for the part. Quaid can give convincing curmudgeon, but his boyish good looks keep getting in the way. Even when Fleder gets in close to accentuate the star’s crow’s feet, the 54 year old’s sunny disposition belies his (and the character’s) age. Besides, we expect more sour mash sass from a man who took a small university and built it into a strong athletic contender. Quaid tries to gruff up his gumption, but it never comes across as organic. And in a film which needs that strong outer source, Schwartzwalder is an incomplete core.

With an ending that attempts to balance triumph with tragedy and a feeling of incompleteness overall, The Express ends up being more and less of the same simultaneously. Anyone with even a minor degree in narrative predictability can see where all the nose bleeds and blurred vision is going, and the link to the classic 1971 weeper is undeniable. Besides, if we didn’t already understand Davis’ place in sports history, his lack of professional stature still wouldn’t be so surprising. When it sticks to the issue of race and how the Syracuse players responded to same, the movie makes us think. The rest of the time, however, The Express suffers from the same creative cruise control that has long since sunk the spotty sports genre.

by Bill Gibron

9 Oct 2008

There’s a very good reason why most period pieces don’t work. Aside from the obvious disconnect from modern social constraints and complications, contemporary audiences just can’t indentify with the intermarrying muddle that comes with the standard bodice ripping. Call it a sense of superiority or settled self-righteousness, but we tend to see ourselves as “above” the kind of passion led plotting that passes for intrigue. The latest look at life in the 18th Century, Saul Dibb’s shallow The Duchess, is supposed to uncover the “scandalous” life of Georgiana Cavendish, fashion plate and harried future Royal. But unless you are a spinster sans a recognizable love life, or someone with little previous knowledge of the genre, everything here will seem rote, baroque, and exceedingly dull.

Though she longs to be with her sexy school chum Earl Grey, Lady Georgiana Spencer is promised to the dour William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, by her scheming mother. As a marriage of convenience and financial windfall, both households triumph. The Duke gets a Duchess to bear him an heir, while the Spencers align themselves with noble lineage. Almost immediately, Georgiana learns her frustrating fate. The Duke is a desperate lover, a horrible conversationalist, and a wanton womanizer. After befriending the fallen Lady Foster, our heroine soon discovers her taking up with her husband. Pursuing Grey, Georgiana becomes an outrage. But her popularity, founded on a love of gambling, fashion, and politics, keeps her favor with the masses. Even as she enters into an uncomfortable ménage a trios with Foster and her spouse, she finds ways to pursue her more ‘private’ passions.

Maybe it’s the casting of Keira Knightley. It could be the compromise of having TV director Saul Dibb behind the lens (apparently, he wasn’t the first choice). Maybe it’s the mediocre allusion to modern times. Clearly, we are supposed to see this Spencer as a pre-dated carbon copy of a certain Candle in the Wind - aka Princess Di. Whatever the rationale, however, The Duchess can’t help but be a massive bore. While others are keening for Oscar noms all around, audiences can expect another helping of half-baked Harlequin romancing draped in the kind of unbelievable beauty of an era unnaturally ornate. Few films reflecting the period play realistically with the obvious issues of disease and hygiene, and it’s a fair cop to argue that viewers don’t want such authenticity. But by prettying up everything, the production removes whatever teeth the tale had to offer. 

Knightley is also a problem here, putting on the pout she perfected while playing pirate for the last few years. Unlike Atonement which allowed her a much larger emotional range, The Duchess demands she be happy or sad, nothing more. Even in sequences where the dimensional arc should be much broader, Knightley offers little nuance. Things aren’t much better for costar Ralph Fiennes. As the dour, glum Duke of Devonshire, his character is more constipated than anything else. We are supposed to see the sadness behind the manor-born, to understand that he is simply playing by prescribed rules laid down after centuries of wealth and ritual. But Fiennes fails to find any spark. He’s so subtle as to be almost inert.

It is Dibb, however, who draws most of our ire. While the locations chosen have all the necessary pomp and circumstance, the spectacle seems to be missing. Crowd scenes feel claustrophobic, while lush interiors are underlit and frequently misused. You can hear the filmmaker defending himself: “this is a film about people, not places.” But part of the allure with such subject matter is the wish fulfillment fantasy of revisiting the days of the decadent, the dandy, and the unctuous uppercrust. For a film founding its narrative on such a supposedly scandalous lady, The Duchess is cloying and conservative. Even the sex scenes, and there are a couple, keep things direct and decent.

Dibb also demonstrates little insight into human nature. Again, it could be the timeframe being referenced, but dramatic license does allow for a few post-modern moments of clarity. When Georgiana confronts William and Lady Foster over their affair, the scene should sizzle. Instead, it’s rendered routine and matter of fact. However, when the Duke gets to gloat over his knowledge of his wife’s trysts with Grey, it’s handled in a much more bombastic manner. One could argue that Dibb is simply staying within the paternalistic power base of the epoch, giving Fiennes the freedom Knightley would never have. But again, this is fiction, not a fully factual recreation. Give your actors some room to breath, or suffer the stifled, uneven consequences.

Indeed, muted and irregular are two concepts easily connected to The Duchess. For every moment of set or costume design glory, there are times when we wish the characters were as detailed and defined. Aside from the lack of a clear contemporary context (the Diana element isn’t even mentioned), one gets the impression that all this plays better on the page, where imagination and inner vision can compensate for the limits of the players onscreen. Someone once said that the further you go back into the past, the more similar to science fiction your effort becomes. That’s because the relationship to the modern world is so alien and arcane. The Duchess wants to draw parallels to the present by suggesting that people in the past were just the same as you or I. And maybe it’s true. After all, the conclusion being delivered here is that, no matter the century, affairs of the heart are often quite boring.

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