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Wednesday, Sep 12, 2007

In the midst of the building craze it was easy to assume that McMansions were being built because vulgar, ostentatious Americans wanted them; in fact, it seemed an emblem of our national character along with obesity and SUVs. That’s not a very generous characterization, and most of us would want to exempt most everyone we know from it, but it still seems sort of true in the abstract. Someone has to be driving all those Escalades and Yukons you see in suburban mall parking lots. Someone is living in those vast vistas of huddled houses in those endless developments across the fruited plain.


But as this article in today’s WSJ suggests, it may have been that McMansions were a structural necessity brought on by the economics of the housing bubble. The article reports that builders are now building smaller homes as jumbo mortgages (too big for the government agencies to insure) are harder to come by for prospective buyers.


More recently, turmoil in the mortgage market has made it harder for buyers to qualify for bigger loans. As lending standards get stiffer, lenders have cut back on mortgages exceeding $417,000. That’s the maximum size loan that lenders can sell to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored financiers that buy mortgages from lenders and repackage them into mortgage bonds for sale to investors.


All this is causing builders to redraw their blueprints. After reducing prices on their current inventories of unsold homes, the next step is to “start building to a new market. That new market is a lower price point at a smaller size. To the extent they can do it, they will,” said Kermit Baker, chief economist at the American Institute of Architects.


The article still wants to pin the ballooning size of homes before the credit crunch on consumers’ desires to flaunt their prosperity, but it’s worth considering the consequences of easy financing itself, which drove up valuations and prices and raised the floor at which real estate deals needed to be made in order to seem worth the trouble. This meant catering only to the high end of the market and encouraging everyone to consider themselves a part of it, whether they wanted to or not. The houses had to be big to accommodate all the money sloshing around in freely distributed mortgages, and to give margins big enough for builders to make money on the inflatedly expensive land they built on. Home buyers became caught up in a nexus of brokers, bankers, and builders that may have obfuscated alternatives to brand spanking new McMonstrosities in what used to be meadows. So maybe we really should feel sorry for the homeowner cited in the article who is angry that smaller houses are going up around his behemoth in a development: “Standing on his back porch, he can look out across the lake and see at least six newer, smaller homes. ‘The garage looks bigger than the house,’ he said.”


So perhaps in this new real-estate climate, Americans can redefine themselves from being a people of outsize excess to something more conscientious, and perhaps investment vehicles like the “energy-efficient” mortgage will allow for it.


The energy-efficient products are structured like traditional adjustable or fixed-rate mortgages, yet they incorporate the cost of energy-efficient improvements, such as insulation, windows and cooling systems, into a mortgage so customers can pay these costs over the life of the loan. When customers wish to a buy a home, they have an energy audit done by a certified third party, which evaluates the home and creates a list of energy-efficient improvements that can save the homeowner money on utility bills. The lender—which will identify a certified auditor—puts the money needed for the improvements in an escrow account and the improvements are made after the home is purchased.


As nice as grassroots efforts at greening America are, it will probably be a matter of more corporate-sponsored efforts like this becoming normal—becoming integrated in the way business is done in America—for the commonsense assumptions about what Americans want to change. The business press tends to report about “greening” of the economy as a trend, a fad, a gimmick uses to dupe silly consumers who want to pretend to be making a difference. But that may be because it clings to antiquated dichotomies that structure its discourse, between conservation-focused environmentalism on the one hand and pro-growth economism on the other. But it seems to be slowly recognizing that businesses are themselves driving the trend toward sustainability because it can drive profits, and not merely by taking advantage of the foibles of consumers. “Green” may be marketed like it is a brand, but unlike brand equity—which is a kind of illusion, a virtual value, part of the superstructure—“green” actually affects the economic base. And it seems backward to see average American consumers as environmentally conscious, as shaping the development of markets (apologists for corporations love to make it seem so since it makes corporation seem like massive agents of the people’s will rather than ill-regulated forces manufacturing it.) In fact, we may be so committed to the values embedded deep in consumer capitalism—of brands and big corporations validating aspects of our personal lives and of rationality being a matter of finding profitability and financial advantage—that environmentalism must generally be rationalized by economic efficiency, even if it’s just a veneer.


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Tuesday, Sep 11, 2007


They say it’s the toughest hurdle for a writer to overcome. Plot and characterization can draw on a dozen different elements, and subtext and themes usually arrive organically through the organization and creation process. But coming up with a title? Yeesh, that’s the benchmark between scribbler and scribe, talent and tool. If you’re looking for proof of such a literary reality, gaze no further than the last 10 years in George Lucas’ production career.


With the recent announcement of the new Indiana Jones IV movie moniker (more on that in a moment), Luke’s legitimate deadbeat dad is three for four in lousy cinematic handles. And if you thought nothing could compete with the serials gone South smell of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, wait until you feast your ill-prepared peepers on this newest nonsensical name. Unless it gets tweaked somewhere between the publicity and the close of production, the man in charge has hobbled pal Stephen Spielberg with the following lamentable label:


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Huh? What’s that again? Since when did this series suddenly see a new age Master of the Universe make-over? What, pray tell, does such a 1930’s name tell us about what to expect come May 2008? With Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade, we at least had some idea of what was ahead – in each case, an ark, a temple, and a quest of some sort. And since each of the previous installments dealt with life or death, good vs. evil struggles, the mental movie began playing before a single section of celluloid was unspooled.


But what, exactly, is a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? At first glance it appears almost like gibberish, as if a videogame designer on a five Red Bull buzz simply typed random power words onto his laptop. Upon closer examination, part of the title entity could be a reference to the pre-Columbian myth surrounding the supposed mystical powers of 13 such carefully carved pieces of quartz. Though many of these relics are now considered to be the work of modern artisans, a legitimate claim of age suggests an ancient, spiritual spook show. Knowing Lucas, it could also be a throwback to the old comic strip hero The Phantom. Crystal skulls were used quite frequently in the masked hero’s adventures. 


So while the spy geek savants over at AICN and IGN decipher and dig into all manner of legal and questionable evidentiary sources in the neverending race for high tech scoops (they’ll figure this fiasco of a name out soon enough), it’s appropriate to pause and consider the overall state of the crappy movie title. There have been a rash of them lately - The Squid and the Whale, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. To be fair, it’s not that these monikers are meaningless. Some are taken from novels and other preexisting sources, while others reference important elements inherent to the storyline. But in many cases, simply stating the obvious doesn’t always provide the necessary understanding or knowledge – not even if you call yourself Scary Movie.


In truth, the worst film monikers are those that come as a direct result of a filmmaker’s unflappable belief in their own ideas. Others derive from studios unsure how to market the original onerous name. Then there are the cases where a foreign film arrives on these shores newly christened, all in an effort to get Westerners interested in what another part of the world has to say. When you add it all together, it’s plain that more goes into a truly terrible label than the “off the top of my head” conceits the concept suggests. Certainly arrogance, incompetence, and overreaching all play a part. But some things can’t be rationalized. After all, is there really a reasonable excuse for calling anything The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies? Didn’t think so. .


Which leads us back to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The rumor mill reports that LucasFilms actually submitted six potential titles to the MPAA and for potential copyright. For the record, they were:


Indiana Jones and the City of Gods
Indiana Jones and the Destroyer of Worlds
Indiana Jones and the Fourth Corner of the Earth
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Gold
Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Covenant


Apparently, old Georgie couldn’t decide which to choose, and threw a dart at his list. Seems his aim was pretty bad. Aside from Fourth Corner of the Earth (which really is no better than the final selection) the other four possibilities actually sound like realistic Raiders sequels. It’s not a clearly definable line – one man’s Destroyer of Worlds is another’s Quest for the Covenant - and let’s not forget that Lucas loves to create chaos where there’s calm. Before the DVD release of the original Indy trilogy, he insisted that the first film change its name to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark to add “continuity” to the releases. Ugh.


And yet, this doesn’t really address the dilemma of a movie hampered by a horrible title. It’s hard to say if a lame name – or even more perplexing, a vague or uninteresting one – really affects awareness. Studios will state, unequivocally that branding is important to the successful selling of a film. But would The Wind that Shakes the Barley or The Shawshank Redemption play better to a mainstream audience if they were retitled The Anti-British Rebellion or Escape from Shawshank Prison, respectively? For that matter, could an obvious step outside the bonds of retail reason like Lust, Caution (Ang Lee’s latest, a WWII erotic espionage thriller) actual overcome both a bizarre moniker and an NC-17 rating to be anything other than an out of the way arthouse critical darling?


It will only get worse in the coming weeks. From the bland and uninspired Michael Clayton (which is really about more than the character forming the film’s identity) to Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (which is a lot like naming something after the classic HR Pufnstuf rhyme “Oranges, Poranges”) the art of summing up a film in a single, significant phrase is clearly a skill many inside the industry no longer possess. Unless it sings of the bleeding obvious, anything illustrative yet esoteric is truly beyond their grasp. It’s the main reason why every facet of a franchise and almost every segment of a series is stuck with a numerical nomenclature – Roman or regular.


All of which makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that much more depressing. It comes from a pair of talents that took American Graffiti and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and turned them into words that actually resonated with some kind of pre-release intrigue. True, both films found the majority of their classicism after they hit theaters – and the same could be said for any of the titles discussed here. But as the proposed Phantom Creeps components of the Star War prequels indicated, sometimes, a dumb name begets an even stupider movie. With its already potent feeling of “been there/done that”, and the ageism issues with the lead, here’s hoping the famed action hero archeologist’s trip to the land of glass heads it’s not a disaster in the making. While the pedigree suggests otherwise, the title tells a different story.


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Tuesday, Sep 11, 2007

The media has given decidedly mixed results of General Petraeus’ much awaited testimony to the U.S. Congress. After appearing before both houses of Congress, the four-star general has given a frank, yet ultimately unsatisfying, assessment of the War in Iraq. And while the obnoxious protests from the hearing room are making the anti-war left look ineffective and downright silly, there is a prevailing sentiment among the mainstream in this country that finds this war and its prosecution unacceptable. So what’s the Fourth Estate’s role in translating this testimony into decipherable language? When is this war ending? Are we winning? Is this occupation making us safer from terrorism? So far the reporting on this matter has addressed these important questions with just about as much urgency as the general’s rambling, unspecific testimony. Let’s hope we get some more analysis in the coming days instead of the ambiguous reports coming out of the press these past two days. 


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Tuesday, Sep 11, 2007

Like most other viewers, I wasn’t so much appalled as much as bored by Britney Spears’ recent MTV Video Music Awards appearance.  She’s didn’t trip or stumble but she committed an even worse sin on TV- she wasn’t interesting anymore.  Since this was billed as her ‘comeback,’ it was doubly bad for her to get such a horrible reception.  I’m not going to tell you that she didn’t stink (it definitely S-U-C-K-E-D badly) but I still have to wonder about all the hate leveled at her.


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Tuesday, Sep 11, 2007

Yesterday’s FT had an article about Wal-Mart’s recent environmental commitments and whether the company should be lauded or criticized as not going far enough. The gist is that they can function the way the state of California does with auto-related legislation—if the state mandates changes, the automakers must accommodate to preserve access to the largest vehicle market in America. Likewise, if Wal-Mart insists that its suppliers avoid using certain chemicals in its products, they have to change their ways. (Wal-Mart has already ruffled the feathers of the Vinyl Institute with its intention to stop buying products made with PVC.) If Wal-Mart orders a huge amount of concentrated laundry detergent (saves water) or fluorescent lightbulbs, then the price and production of these items are affected accordingly. And Wal-Mart, as one of the nation’s biggest commercial real-estate owners, can have a big impact if it makes all of its sites energy-efficient, as it plans to.


So what could be wrong with all of that—with the world’s largest company using its leverage to force changes for the better. It seems rather straightforward but there are a few wrinkles. First, these environmental changes, laudable as they may be, may be part of a smokescreen distracting Wal-Mart’s critics from its dubious labor practices. By being on the green forefront, Wal-Mart can divide and sap the power of the various groups that had aligned against it and begun to lobby for regulation and state intervention into its practices. It also doesn’t address the fundamental problem of its business model, which is to prevent the lowest possible prices, labor and environment be damned. Generally speaking, Wal-Mart off-shores miserable labor conditions so that it can present its goods at rock-bottom prices with relatively clean hands. And then it can point to its sales figures as a kind of pseudo-democratic endorsement of its methods—see? the people love it! And the low prices are seen as extending more power to poor consumers, who get more bang for their buck. But low prices are a product of failing to internalize the true cost of cheap goods, of the wastefulness of shoddy, disposable products. The blight of consumerism may be considered a kind of moral pollution that can’t be adjudicated economically. Were Wal-Mart truly committed to change, it might make an effort to have prices reflect the true costs (if they could somehow be determined outside of market forces) of its wares, or it might make efforts to attract consumers with some other lure than low prices, though when it tried an upscale move last year, it lost market share (and who is to say an upscale move is any more laudable than a commitment to cheapness; that replaces disposability with a climate of status envy). From this point of view, Wal-Mart’s low prices offer cosumers a Faustian bargain of purchasing power at the expense of political power.


But the main reason that critics need to continue to gripe about Wal-Mart is that its recent gestures toward sustainability and environmental concern are essentially marketing gimmicks, a product of the pressure already put on them by critics—it’s all basically a PR move necessitated by the volume of complaining. Basically, nothing Wal-Mart can do should stop the bad PR, since the bad PR is arguably all that has been demonstrated to motivate the company to change. Otherwise it might revert to being guided by ruthlessly seeking effiency and wrenching out all it can from its supply chain by any means necessary. Currently, Wal-Mart seems to be seeking a middle ground, pursuing green initiatives that are also economically efficient, that won’t be in danger of alienating not-so-green shareholders. Until Wal-Mart makes bottom-line concessions in the name of environmentalism, compromising profits in some explicit way, there’s no reason for critics to temper their criticism. The vehemence of that criticism is what’s pricing the value of Wal-Mart’s moves.


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