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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why are oil prices so high? The obvious answer would seem to be because we are running out of it. Peak-oil enthusiasts have argued this for years, but the idea is creeping closer to the mainstream. In the New York Times Paul Krugman argued that prices were based on fundamentals of supply and demand in this column from a week ago. He was responding to the idea that commodity speculators are wreaking havoc on the natural play of economic forces, an argument that fund manager Michael Masters recently presented at a Senate committee hearing. He blames “index speculators” among institutional investors, whose demand for oil futures rivals China:


According to the DOE, annual Chinese demand for petroleum has increased over the last five years from 1.88 billion barrels to 2.8 billion barrels, an increase of 920 million barrels.8 Over the same five-year period, Index Speculators’ demand for petroleum futures has increased by 848 million barrels. The increase in demand from Index Speculators is almost equal to the increase in demand from China!



At his blog, Steve Waldman takes an elaborate look at Masters’s view and asks this pertinent question: “But what if the price-setting speculators are not momentum-driven index funds, but ‘traditional speculators’, correctly predicting that prices are below long-term fundamentals? Then limiting commodity speculation would prolong the mispricing, and cause us to waste resources that are kept artificially cheap.” In other words, we would keep wasting fuel because regulators would be keeping its price artificially stabilized (kind of like they do in Venezuela and Indonesia).


Of course, there are high political stakes in this argument: if it’s speculation and not peak oil that’s driving prices, then we needn’t worry so much about conservation or build any expectation of permanently higher fuel prices into our economic decisionmaking. That would make American automakers happy, at least, and supply political demagogues with an easy target as Americans suffer through “the summer driving season” paying prices at the pump ($4+ a gallon) that they have never dealt with before. As Krugman points out,


Traditionally, denunciations of speculators come from the left of the political spectrum. In the case of oil prices, however, the most vociferous proponents of the view that it’s all the speculators’ fault have been conservatives — people whom you wouldn’t normally expect to see warning about the nefarious activities of investment banks and hedge funds.


Why? Because the conservatives want to pretend America, in its glorious exceptionalism, need not change a thing about its wasteful behavior.


The surprising shift Krugman notes could actually be seen as the return of the old alignment of economic liberalism with political liberalism on one side, and economic conservatism and government intervention on the other, as it was before the Industrial Revolution, when society’s elites (if you accept Polanyi’s thesis in The Great Transformation) attempted to forestall the market’s overwhelming society and all its established mores. In this sociopolitical configuration, conservatism is not about guaranteeing a free market but about preserving the existing distribution of power. For a while, a free market served that end, but conservatives have never cared about freedom per se. Our coming energy problems may make then more than abundantly clear.


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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Holy crap.


Moments after I hit the PLAY key, I thought it was a joke. Children’s theatre, perhaps, performing Day of the Dead. But, no. It’s the sneak peak at the Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel, Let the Right One In (published in America by Thomas Dunne as Let Me In).


I’m a sucker for a good (or bad) book-about-to-be-a-movie, so this one goes right up my To-Read list. It’s been sitting around here for months, daring me to read it. I’ve held back due to the book’s subject matter—I’m not so into young adult vampire novels, especially those addressing big-person themes like paedophilia, prostitution, and murder. This one, I thought, would be like I’m Not Scared—an engrossing, horrifying read—and you need the right mood for such a story.


It’s a mood hard to come by sometimes. This trailer, though, might just get me there…


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Thursday, May 29, 2008
Michael Patrick King takes about two or three season finales' worth of tears and OMG jawdroppers and whacks them together into a big, sloppy, gooey sundae of a film that is, for better or for worse, just like the show … only longer.

After all the rumors and innuendos about the various now-defunct shows of HBO’s Golden Age—you know, the ones that ruined us for the increasingly decrepit art of cinema—being turned into theatrical fare, the film of Sex and the City is finally upon us, and its success (or lack thereof) could well determine whether or not we will see the continuing multiplex adventures of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Jimmy McNulty. Obviously there is no single template that HBO would have to follow for film versions of any of these shows, but if such a thing did in fact happen, there are worse models they could follow than Sex and the City. In his wrapup to the half-hour groundbreaker of a sitcom that began on HBO a full ten years ago, writer/director Michael Patrick King takes about two or three season finales’ worth of tears and OMG jawdroppers and whacks them together into a big, sloppy, gooey sundae of a film that is, for better or for worse, just like the show … only longer.


The magnifier of cinematic size does things to the new adventures of this quartet of middle-aged Manhattan ladies, mostly of an unfortunate variety. While it’s all well and good to catch up with them a few years after the show’s conclusion, the pratfalls and complications of a half-hour TV show can seem either trivial or downright crude in a film. The show’s penchant for the occasional bit of embarrassing physical humor is played up here (a protruding gut when one of the ladies overeats to quell her anxieties, rumblings when another has bowel issues) but not in a way that comments on women’s insecurities, simply as a way of playing gross-out for the back row.


It also doesn’t help that King has shot and edited Sex and the City just like the show, only with cruddier cinematography and lousier music cues; where there should be glitz and perfection is only bad lighting, hand-me-down sets, and the occasional visible boom microphone darting down from above. For a story so obsessed with style and glamour, the end result is depressingly downmarket in appearance, looking like the poor second cousin of The Devil Wears Prada (which updated the show’s considerations of women and work so well that it almost makes this film entirely redundant).


All that being said, the whole point of the Sex and the City film was not to make a lasting piece of art, but simply to squeeze more life out of some characters that its audience couldn’t quite let go of, being sick to death of watching the butchered episodes re-running endlessly on TBS. On that front, at least, the film succeeds for the most part, concentrating on running the ladies through an obstacle course of betrayal and dashed expectations, dangling the rose of a happy ending continually just out of their grasp.


For those who have been dragged to the theater by friends or spouses and have never seen the show, a recap of the characters’ basic traits is quickly (if not deftly) handled by clip montages during the opening credits. After that, it’s back to the basics of making love last in the big mean city. In short: Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is living in married bliss, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is out in Hollywood managing her boyfriend’s career, Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) marriage to Steve (David Eigenberg) is struggling, and Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is moving in with Mr. Big, aka John (Chris Noth).


After a rough opening section where things go just a little too smoothly for too long, the hammer gets dropped and three of the women fall into their own little puddles of discontent. About a half-hour in, King finds the right rhythmic mix of discord, romance, and humor, after which the remainder of this surprisingly long film (148 minutes?) zips along with due speed. There are rough patches where it feels as though the script is struggling to shift from one episode to the next, and a surprising number of the characters are given little to do. Charlotte and Samantha play essentially one note and plotline for the entire film, while Steve and Mr. Big (practically the only male characters from the show to have left much of any impression) are only given the minimum necessary lines to break Miranda and Carrie’s hearts, not enough to give people new to the story any idea why these women care for them.


We all know that Sex and the City is really all about Carrie—one of the only freelance writers in New York who apparently can afford to hire an assistant (Jennifer Hudson, flat)—and her search for romantic bliss but was it really necessary to make Miranda even more of a miserable, cynical shrew? There’s a real ugliness to King’s treatment of Miranda, one of the only women here who evinces any intellect, but that’s par for the course with the show, and since the film is nothing but a retread anyway (Sex and the City: The Further Adventures of Carrie) such mean-spiritedness shouldn’t come as any surprise.


As a well-calculated remix of an enduring television landmark, Sex and the City fits the bill, leaving naught but a quickly dissipating champagne buzz. The fact that it stands well above just about any romantic comedy that’s been popped out of the Hollywood jello-mold in the last year or so isn’t so much of a compliment as it is a sign of how devalued the genre is.


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Thursday, May 29, 2008
Aside from the requisite stints in rehab, the Botox and the damage done, and the increasingly profitable reunion tours, not a lot of memorable music gets made after age 30.

Nothing gold can stay, wrote Robert Frost. And believe it or not, he wasn’t actually talking about the Greasers and the Socs, or even Ralph Macchio’s ability, post Outsiders, to convincingly play high school kids well into his mid-20s (making the other ageless wonder, Family Ties era Michael J. Fox look like Methuselah by comparison). Frost, of course, was speaking of more poetic matters, like springtime and flowers and innocence and all that CliffsNotes crap.


What he was not talking about, since it had not yet been invented, was rock and roll. So he could not have known that he was providing a very prescient epitaph for what is often the rule and seldom the exception with every great rock band: they age poorly. Aside from the requisite stints in rehab, the Botox and the damage done, and the increasingly profitable reunion tours, not a lot of memorable music gets made after age 30. Consider how many groups have blazed like fevered comets into the public consciousness, then flamed out, leaving a body of work—and sometimes their bodies—behind.


Not counting the careers cut short by death (think Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain or Clapton…wait, Clapton didn’t die? Never mind), and not cherry-picking the no-brainers like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Who, it’s actually easier to identify the groups that have managed to produce work worthy of their salad days—much less work that is worthwhile. The very recent efforts by Portishead and the Breeders, as well as the fairly recent masterpiece by Sleater-Kinney (please come back!) prove that it can be done. The fact that those three bands are fronted by females is noteworthy, and fodder for further discussion: women rock harder and make better music, after 30, than men? It would seem so. Then again, King Buzzo might have something to say about that, although he is probably too cool to even be considered human, much less a man.


But why is this so rare? Certainly the impetus of lean and hungry desperation (not to mention drugs) inspires rock music in ways not especially amenable to other types of art, like literature. Robert Frost was 49 when he dropped Nothing Gold Can Stay; Pete Townshend was 20 when he wrote “I hope I die before I get old”. By the time he was 49, The Who were already recycling their better days on the arena rocking chair circuit.


There are still some legends thrashing about in the mud and the blood and the beer: Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, for instance. Their best days are undoubtedly far behind them, but at least they’re still trying. And yet, the issue isn’t really about trying, it’s about an end result that passes the smell test (mosh pit or mothballs?), regardless of intent or integrity. Perhaps it’s appropriate that one elder statesman who is defying the trend is the golden god himself, Robert Plant. While the world waits to see if the mighty Zeppelin will glide again, Plant paired up with the beguiling Alison Krauss to create Raising Sand, an effort that, not so ironically, sounds better with time. In fact, it surpasses just about anything Plant’s peers have been able to manage since John Bonham died (doing his part to ensure that the best band of the ‘70s would not embarrass themselves in the ‘80s). Granted, Raising Sand is not (nor is it pretending to be) rock music. Perhaps that is the entire point. To be a rock and not to roll? Perhaps this is what Plant meant, way back whenever. Or perhaps it is just the forests, echoing with laughter.


TO BE CONT’D.


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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Revisiting Annie Hall the other evening, this critic was struck at how mature and well meaning the movie was. At the time of its release, it was heralded as a breakout work for its writer/director Woody Allen, and ushered in a change in the comedian’s cinematic style. Where once he favored outlandish farce, narratives loaded with sight gags, one liners, and silent era physical shtick, this new approach combined sly social commentary with a growing urban angst. He would soon be criticized for his overreliance on the psychological foibles of his characters, but Hall made it all seem so fresh, so inviting, so clearly contemporary and of the moment.
 
Allen’s Oscar winner was a critical constant banging at the back the brain while sitting through the otherwise appalling Sex and the City film the other evening. Surrounded by contest winners who were decked out in their Tampa interpretation of New York couture, and harangued by radio personnel making sure that every man in the screening felt uncomfortable, it was clear that this particular night at the cinema was reserved for the ladies. Now, there is nothing wrong with gearing a movie - or a film oriented event - around a single fanbase. Star Wars has been guilty of milking the ever-gullible geek long before mannequin Skywalker was in short pants.  But there is something unsettling about the whole Sex sect - and the proof parades itself proudly during this movie’s mindboggling two hour and thirty five minute running time.


Let’s not address the TV series here. A long running sitcom/comedy/cable show contains years worth of plot points and character development. Arguing that Carrie Bradshaw used to be ‘this’, or that Samantha Jones would never do ‘that’ is like pointing out that the Simpsons used to be more realistic back in the mid ‘80s. Nothing stays the same forever, and if it did, viewers would be decrying the lack of change. For the sake of this piece, let’s look at how the four main characters are portrayed in the film. As an additional part of this dissection, we will also look at the supporting players within their sphere of influence. By analyzing both sides of the interpersonal paradigm, by seeing the ‘who’ along with the ‘who cares’, we can see how bereft of entertainment this dynamic really is.


Let’s start with Sex heroine Carrie Bradshaw, author, columnist, fashion plate, hopeless romantic, and absolute rotter. It’s not that she does things that are blatantly amoral - and she does - it’s that she bathes them in a sugary sweet coating of complete and utter shamelessness. At the beginning of the film, she makes cow eyes at ‘man’friend Mr. Big so that he’ll buy her a luxury Manhattan penthouse. Then, after getting her dream home, she pushes the brazen babe meter a single step further by demanding a new walk -in closet. Her man has just shelled out several mill to get her a pad she doesn’t need or deserve, and she requests remodeling. A little later on, during a particularly sour time in her life, she settles a problem by shopping. If materialism were a salve, Carrie would be Neo-friggin-sporin.


But this is only her outer evil. Inside, she’s a 40 year old emotional virgin. You’d think that someone who writes about the bedroom foibles of a complex urban demographic would understand a little something about the affairs of the heart. Instead, she’s the whiny Goth gal in Gucci heels, complaining that the world has gypped her once again. When her big narrative twist occurs, her reaction is so brattish that it requires a Super Nanny to bring her back to modern maturity. Such a savior comes in the guise of Jennifer Hudson’s “saint” Louise. As a personal assistant, she’s all webpages and day planners. As the typical person of color who teaches the Caucasian how to sync up with their soul, she’s pure Hollywood hokum.


So is Big. Limited to a small percentage of screen time - after all, your average Sex and the City fan isn’t interested in the problems of GUYS - we get companionship as a combination of carnal satisfaction and cash machine. Nothing is out of his price range, unless it’s understanding what women really want. His first hour faux pas which drives the next 85 minutes (yeesh) is not derived as much from fear as from fantasy. Like the Grimms roadmap this flawed fairytale takes, Big has to bungle something if only to make the resolution that’s much more mushy. Apparently, devotees of this half-assed Harlequin shite aren’t satisfied until they’re squirting out a few dozen Croc tears. So Big is the clichéd catalyst, the necessary Fabio to the film’s rom com cover artlessness.


As the broken record with an equal amount of irredeemablity, Miranda Hobbes is hopeless. All throughout this supposed grrl power struggle, her educated lawyer whines like a mofo. Every few minutes, she is pointing out her professional status to a seemingly uncaring clique. Carrie and the gals want to go out and drink. Miranda reminds them that she’s an attorney with a real job (guess that puts you in your place Miss Lady of Letters). Samantha suggests something a tad kinkier, and Ms. Hobbes is yanking out the business card. Even as her marriage is falling apart (in pure “it’s his fault” formulaics), she restates her career gal goals. It’s almost as if she is trying to convince herself that there’s an actual excuse for her pathetic party pooper status. Usually, there isn’t.


Of course, the Brooklyn-ese bartender she’s married to doesn’t make her any more sympathetic. He’s a weak little cuss, deciding that the best way to handle a little bedroom rejection is to find another sack to settle in. Naturally, he just adds fuel to Miranda’s misery. Leave it to a movie like Sex and the City to take two of its most formidable, linked to the real world women and turn them into characters out of something by a batty Barbara Carlton. The whole last hour of this overlong film focuses on how both Carrie and Miranda learn to forgive. Both need a whole lot of convincing, and it’s here where writer/director Michael Patrick King shows his true colors. Men love to think that females are the crueler, more spiteful members of the human race. It verifies their frequent self-imposed (and necessitated) feelings of inadequacy. Sex and the City gives these thoughts horrible haute complicity.


If there is a weak link in this loathsomeness, it’s Charlotte York. She’s more than happy to throw her erectile dysfunctional past behind her for the sake of a million bucks and a paid-for flat. Now, life is all about the adopted Asian baby and the happily emasculated husband. Whenever she’s onscreen, she’s like a harpy who finally found a guy who enjoyed her controlling harangues. Harry Goldenblatt is so non-macho his shaved head looks like a baby’s bottom, the spouse shorn of anything remotely resembling gender or power. It’s safe to say that Charlotte’s only contribution to this noxious narrative is a high pitched scream every time something supposedly shocking/sensational happens. The rest of the time, she’s Suzy Homemaker with a bigger bank account. 


Which leaves us, lastly, with saggy Samantha Jones. Here’s Sex‘s strangest dichotomy, an older gal who believes the best way to safeguard her self-esteem and self-import is to sleep around, a proud panther who preys on anything with a crotch and a credit card. In a post-feminist world where women argue for their inner goddess, she’s Medusa. Instead of treating her body like a temple, Samantha prefers a more tract house approach. Every time she spits out her pro-whore stance, you can literally see her friends doing an inner eye roll. It’s like listening to your grandmother defend her love of gansta rap. Not only is Miranda out of touch, she’s out of excuses. By the time an inevitable sequel rolls around, she’ll be working at one of the many Nevada ‘ranches’, defending her choice as “hers” to make.


The best way to understand this otherwise incomprehensible slag is to examine her five year relationship with hunky soap star Jerry “Smith” Jerrod. In the film, Samantha acts as his manager. She dotes on him while shuttling back and forth between the coasts. He is hopelessly devoted, and never even hints at straying or being unfaithful. He even coughs up $50K for a gaudy ring that Samantha wanted for herself. Yet every time our horndog heroine sees her lothario next door neighbor drilling the local talent, she’s awash in nookie nostalgia. Pining away for penis is one thing - everyone has urges. But Samantha is willing to throw away Mr. Right for Mr. Right Now. And her justification - she loves herself too much to compromise her feelings. Not too selfish, huh?


One of the main arguments made against Woody Allen’s New York stories, and something like Annie Hall specifically, is that his characters are all too self-absorbed and neurotic, masking their problems in clever quips and prosaic picture book patina. If that’s the case, Sex and the City is Narcissus with a standing reservation at the Blue Water Grill. Where the ‘70s classic combined its stereotypes with satire to break new ground in both areas, this post-millennial mess is just fake wish fulfillment funny business. When these gals undermine each other, it’s usually at a ‘yo momma’ level, and when they try to express themselves seriously, they’re like high school sophomores giving an oral book report. The hemming and hawing is horrific.


Clearly, a movie like this is going to do its job. It is merely required to preach to a congregation that already knows the sermon and can recite the responsorial by heart. The characters aren’t supposed to be realistic because, like, it’s all make-believe and pretend, right? Carrie Bradshaw and her pals are just idealized representations of what women think about when they get that elusive free moment to themselves, the visualization of their literal one chance to dream. So what if the end result is something reprehensible morally, romantically, socially, and aesthetically? A guy-based fantasy would barely make it past the looser than normal standards of the Internet’s porn community. This is just tit for tat, for tit.


Yet in Annie Hall, and later Manhattan, a true artist like Woody Allen found a way to make similar material sing. His heroine was also after her own sense of self, sleeping around toward part of it, selfishly rationalizing her way toward the rest. The men she met were also superfluous and subjective, props in a play that would eventually leave her alone, unsettled, but satisfied. There was no need for pie in the sky hyperbole - the real world offered its own delights - and the mindless purchasing of “things” never satiated a single broken heart or dream. Some might argue that this is nothing but personal progress, sisters doing it for themselves some thirty years later. If Sex and the City: The Movie represents the revolutionary, the hostilities are already over - and nobody won.


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