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Wednesday, Feb 28, 2007

A break from Billy Squier video deconstruction for something more trivial: Yesterday, stock markets around the world fell precipitously: In America the Dow dropped 3.3%, the S&P 500 was down 3.5%. What prompted the sell off seems to have been the Chinese market falling by 9% on Monday (which may or may not have had something to do with Greenspan talking about recessions in Hong Kong) and the report that durable goods orders fell 7.8%. But the truth is, as Felix Salmon reminds us here, that no one knows exactly why this happened.

any halfways-decent financial journalist gets it, and, if honest, would simply write a story saying “the market went down and we don’t know why”. But instead we’re inundated with “explanations”, from an assassination attempt on Dick Cheney (Daily Intelligencer: “Are investors balking because Cheney was attacked? Or because he wasn’t hurt?”) to a drop in one of the most boring economic series in the US. (Go on – quick – tell me what a durable goods order even is.)

CNN quoted Hugh Johnson, chief strategist at ThomasLloyd Global Asset Management, who shares this scary perspective: “Markets can decline in one seemingly isolated part of the world and that decline can be transmitted to other parts of the world through the psychology,” he said. This is by no means an isolated or unusually insightful comment about investor psychology. The Capital Speculator blog echoes the sentiment:

we don’t have a clue about what’s coming. But we do have a firm grasp of history, which is conveniently available for all to see in full clarity.
The fact that China and subprime mortgage markets have slipped may be dismissed as marginal events of no real relevance to the capital markets. But we think such stumbles are early warning signs of things to come. Granted, this is a highly speculative notion and so readers should proceed accordingly. Nonetheless, we think our view has merit if only because bull markets have flourished across the spectrum of asset classes for some time and, well, nothing lasts forever.
As such, we’re keeping a diary of market corrections large and small. If and when they accumulate, the broader investment community may become jittery. It’s virtually impossible to predict market peaks and troughs, but at this late stage in the bull market cycle we’re increasingly anxious and so we’re keeping an eye out for additional warning signs. Having built up a tidy nest egg, we’re in no rush to watch it evaporate. Been there, done that. Wealth preservation, in short, is at the top of our financial priorities at the moment.
It’s never clear what might trigger a broader sell off, but we’re mindful that it could be seemingly low-risk events when the supply of optimism reigns supreme around the world. History suggests no less. No, the financial gods don’t wave flags or ring bells at market tops or bottoms, although sometimes they whisper in your ear and suggest things.

In other words, bull markets last until they don’t anymore. 

It’s disturbing to think that shareholders are like Wile E. Coyote having just run off the cliff, and they can stay aloft only as long as they don’t notice there’s no longer any ground beneath them. Suddenly business seems much more like astrology, and the copious amounts of carfully scrutinized market data (which usually reassure me) become no better than the careful tracking of the stars’ movements and configurations. The data can be verified, but the interpretations seem more and more speculative.

Also, if confidence alone is what props up markets, the business press becomes implicated in either sustaining or undermining it; virtually everything one reads in it must be considered in that light and the optimism expressed must always be discounted: that means this sort of story about stocks bouncing back today must be held in some suspicion (unless, that is, you don’t really care why markets move as long as they move upward)—the headlines are almost always out of step with the information buried in the article. The widely disseminated bias against pessimism has roots in this; it’s a crime against the economy (just as it lets the terrorists win if we don’t go shopping).

For a real dose of unfettered skepticism, you need to dig a little deeper into to the econoblogosphere: Here’s arch-pessimist Nouriel Roubini, by way of macroblog with some unpleasant medicine:

The US is likely to enter into a recession in 2007; and even a likely and early easing of monetary policy by the Fed will not prevent such a recession as there are too many weaknesses in the US economy: a housing recession, an auto recession, a manufacturing recession, a real investment recession (as corporations are reducing real capital investment and inventories are falling), a US consumer that is on the ropes and at its tipping point; a meltdown in sub-prime mortgages that is leading to a generalized credit crunch in the economy. It is already ugly and it will get uglier in the real economy and in the financial markets. We are likely to observe a vicious cycle where a credit crunch and a persistent sell-off in equities leads to a worsening of the real economy with a hard landing (recession) that then weakens further the financial system. One cannot rule out a broader banking crisis if a deep recession occurs.

Dean Baker, after ridiculing the business press’s tendency to get only the opinions of the same prognosticators who failed to see the drop coming (“After all, once we accept that the earth revolves around the sun, we don’t want to get all our information on astronomy from believers in an earth centered universe”), also looks at the fundamentals and doesn’t like what he sees:

The fundamentals I see are the unraveling of a housing bubble, leading to further declines in the housing sector, and a big hit on consumption, as the fuel of bubble created housing equity disappears. The hope that declining construction and weak consumption would be offset by soaring investment disappeared with yesterday’s data showing a sharp drop in durable goods orders. It looks like investment is going the wrong way. Throw in the fact that rising interest rates in Japan may slow the inflow of foreign capital that has kept long-term interest rates so low and productivity growth appears to have slowed sharply (benchmark revisions next week will push reported productivity growth over the last two years downward) and it’s pretty hard to find much positive in this picture.

This WSJ editorial, hoping to forestall rate cuts by the Fed, blames the mortgage-related securities industry and the repackaged subprime loans that have been unwinding lately. You would think they would welcome rate cuts as stimulus, but that would run the risk of boosting inflation (which is bad for those who don’t live off wages) and also could spur currency movements and jeopardize the mysterious carry trade—borrowing money at low rates in Japan to invest elsewhere, where rates are higher. According to the NYTimes article:

The possibility of rate cuts by the Federal Reserve also kindled concerns that American interest rates might eventually fall far enough to significantly close the gap with Japan’s rock-bottom rates. That gap is wide now. Japanese overnight lending rates are 0.5 percent compared to 5.25 percent in the United States. But if the gap shrinks, it could slow or halt the so-called yen carry trade, in which investors borrow hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Japanese money to invest in stock markets across Asia and around the world in search of higher returns. If this flow of money stops, or reverses, it could prompt larger sell-offs on Wall Street and drive the yen even higher, hurting Japanese exporters even more, analysts said. “Bernanke holds the trigger,” said Kiichi Fujita, a strategist in Tokyo for Nomura Securities. “If he cuts interest rates in America, the worry is that the yen carry trade will unwind.”

I’m sure it’s my financial naivete, but the carry trade (like many forms of currency arbitrage) always seems immoral to me, like cheating—it seems weird to make money not for producing anything but for shifting nominal figures around—but I suppose they are taking on a fair amount of risk. When the value is nominal, it can go against you in a hurry.

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Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007

One reason why we love movies is to watch people who will enact our fantasies.  The Tough Guy is the male counterpart of the Sex Goddess; he’s the Mars to her Venus. While she is pleasure incarnate, he’s the embodiment of violence, just and deserved. The Tough Guy pulls off the deeds we’re forced to suppress for the sake of daily expediency, and he’s uninhibited enough not to wait for natural justice, which is seldom reliable. Born out of the collective disappointment and anger of bleak times, Tough Guys provide us with a relished sense of comeuppance.

The Bollywood Tough Guys share all the qualities of their Hollywood counterparts, they’re brusque machismo serves as a cathartic release for all our pent-up aggression. Indians live for melodrama and when they want to see violence they want the flame-burning, blood-splattering kind. The archetypal Indian Tough Guy took shape from the ancient Vedic epics of wars and fallen kingdoms and evolved into the post-Partition movie stars. 

But oddly enough, the movie Tough Guy didn’t become big till well into the late ‘60s. From 1947 to 1966, all audiences wanted were romantic matinee idols. The entrenched class system, leftover from the colonial days, was still strong and working-class characters weren’t embraced as leading men. By the time Indira Gandhi came to power in the late ‘60s, the system began to break down and populist heroes were the rage in India (as they were in Europe). The workforce wanted stars who they could relate to and through whom they could vicariously live.  And these actors all exuded the menace and hustle of the Bombay streets.

Amitabh Bachan is the most well known, most beloved out of all the movie Tough Guys. His looming stature, well over 6 feet (which in ‘60s India was a staggering anomaly) and his rich baritone are iconic. His physicality and grace call to mind Burt Lancaster and his penchant for playing the introspective cynic is reminiscent of Bogart. His screen persona has become a representation of all that India believes itself to be, imposing, resilient, and unabashedly vocal and patriotic. Vinod Khanna was Bachan’s angry wingman during the ‘70s. Khanna reveled in old-fashioned masculinity playing either tough, tender cops or wily S.O.B.s.  There was dewy-eyed remorse to his excessive machismo, a hybrid between the Matinee Idol and the Tough Guy that was so appealing to audiences. Soon everyone from Feroz Khan to Akshay Kumar adopted it as part of their style.

By the 80s, the Tough Guys of the ‘60s and ‘70s - traditional brawny working-class rakes - evolved into grim, hard-bodied nihilists of the Bombay Underworld. Cars, guns, drugs, and all the hedonistic pleasures of alpha-manhood motivated the anti-heroes of this consumerist decade. Sanjay Dutt, son of ‘40s and ‘50s legend Nargis, emerged as the number one action star. With his cartoonishly muscular physique and bloodshot eyes, he was an Amitabh Bachan for an age with less innocence. While Bachan played lovable rogues small-time con men, Dutt mastered the role of the Bombay gangster in its elusive complexity: the vicious killer, the defender of oppressed minorities, the amoral opportunist,  the prince of the mohallas.*

Then there’s Sunil Shetty, the dark horse. A true thespian in a B-movie star’s cover. This Burt Reynolds look-alike is one of the best actors in this group.  Don’t let the gratuitous motorcycle stunts and kickboxing fool you. Look closer and you’ll see a startling inwardness and depth of feeling to his performances that comes across even in his tawdriest movies. Salman Khan, the youngest of the group, is the quicksilver personality—golden-boy leading man, bawdy screwball comedian, and avenging action hero. But years of fast living, brawls, and shady mob affiliations have sucked the vitality out of performances. He’s still a celebrity force to be reckoned with, but haunted by scandal.

It will be interesting to see who’ll step into the role of Tough Guy in the years to come. Ambitious young men from the arid provinces flock to Bombay daily, slaving through grueling workout regimens, queuing for hours for a screen test, waiting to be the next Salman Khan or Sanjay Dutt. Which one of them will bring something new to the screen persona?

*mohallas—a district or neighborhood; In Indian cities like Bombay and Delhi, they’re the equivalent to Manhattan’s Lower East Side—crowded, vibrant ethnic communities.

Amitabh, circa ‘70s

Vinod, circa ‘70s

Sanjay, circa ‘80s



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Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Fountains of Wayne
Someone to Love [Streaming]

The View
Superstar Tradesman [Streaming]

Dogg Pound, featuring Snoop Dogg
Vibe with a Pimp [Streaming]

Jon McLaughlin
Beautiful Disaster [Streaming]

David Wells
Strawberry Letter #23 [Streaming]

Joel Ortiz
Hip Hop [MP3]

The Morning Pages
With the Lord [MP3]

The Feeling
Sewn [Streaming]

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Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007

The Sunday NYT ran a story about a sorority house at Depauw University in Indiana that threw out most of its members in an effort to shed the chapter of its reputation of being for “socially awkward”. Apparently that’s code for not being white and emaciated:

Worried that a negative stereotype of the sorority was contributing to a decline in membership that had left its Greek-columned house here half empty, Delta Zeta’s national officers interviewed 35 DePauw members in November, quizzing them about their dedication to recruitment. They judged 23 of the women insufficiently committed and later told them to vacate the sorority house. The 23 members included every woman who was overweight. They also included the only black, Korean and Vietnamese members. The dozen students allowed to stay were slender and popular with fraternity men — conventionally pretty women the sorority hoped could attract new recruits. Six of the 12 were so infuriated they quit.

Especially mortifying is the account of a recruiting event where “national representatives took over the house” and “asked most members to stay upstairs in their rooms”—basically because they felt the actual members would scare away new prospects. You think these members would have resigned in disgust and contempt right then.

This whole incident seems terrible and unfair and all that, but what kind of organization did these women think they were joining? We’re not talking about NOW; this is a sorority, part of the Greek system, which is a cog in the machine perpetuating all the traditional entitlements and conventional arrangements that have been passed down through the upper middle classes. The Greek system? Biased? Of course it is; that’s it’s raison d’etre by and large. By entering in to the system you confess your wish to have your social life bureaucratically arranged and subjected to conformist codes. “Socially awkward sorority” is thus an oxymoron—sororities are about purging awkwardness and making social life work mechanically. You are looking for official sanction on your choice of friends and activities, so by consenting to that, you have to admit of the possibility that the officials in charge might withdraw their blessing, otherwise it meant nothing in the first place—which it does for everyone outside of the system. Unfortunately, the social networks the Greek system sustains has real power in the world beyond college; so the whole thing is not merely submissiveness and hierarchy for its own sake, but for the sake of anchoring yourself in the broader post-collegiate hierarchy. (I chose to live in darkness, pretending that by rejecting hierarchical systems in college I could somehow deny their existence in the world beyond; this shows I learned almost nothing while in college about the real world.) Is it lame that sororities judge members by their potential attractiveness to men? Absolutely. Is this sort of thing unprecedented in the real world? Not exactly. The nice thing about the Greek system is that, unlike patriarchy at large, women are not forced to participate in it, so they need not endorse a by-and-large sexist arrangement by collaborating with it for tactical gains within a seemingly inescapable system of oppression.

Why this sad story merits coverage in the New York Times‘s front section is worth considering: That this particular chapter, where women were apparently giving each other solace rather than orchestrating ways to attract male attention, has been effectively shut down is presented as a representative example, though I’m not sure how much can really be concluded from one ripe example. Perhaps more significant is how the article gives us a good pretense to exercise our facility for righteous indignation as we consider the callousness of Delta Zeta’s national officers and breathe a sigh of relief that our own lives are not beset by such shallowness (and then we flip to Sunday Styles). But also the story lets us experience the vicarious thrill of humiliation, our secret pleasure in seeing these kinds of codes of comparison being upheld (at a safe distance from ourselves, of course). I was thinking about this while watching the Acadamy Awards show and how comfortable I was in denouncing various celebrities as “ugly”, as if I really cared and as if my opinion mattered in the least. But this is the purpose of the red-carpet show, isn’t it? To give people a chance to pass judgment at home? We all collude in this kind of superficiality when it seems safe to, because we have learned so well its collective power and would love to indulge the fantasy of exercising that power personally. Not to be too trite, but in those fleeting moments of judgment we become convinced that we escape observation ourselves.

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Monday, Feb 26, 2007

That slight electrical buzz you sense in the air is the remnants of an Academy Awards ceremony that went slightly off kilter. With Paramount probably producing brand new stickers to announce The Departed‘s major Oscar wins (screenplay, editing, director AND picture) and the Babel: Special Edition disc more than likely on indefinite hold, the repercussions of Hollywood’s yearly attempt to regain a bit of artistic integrity will be short and succinct – unlike the telecast itself. So as we wait for the final three nominees to make their way onto the preferred home theater format, the divergent choices available this week will have to satisfy your cinematic jones. They may not make up for the Pan’s Labyrinth debacle, but at least a couple will remind you why movies are indeed magic. So, for 27 February, feast your eyes on these motion picture possibilities: 


It’s been a tough couple of years for Terry Gilliam. The one time God of the film geek world has seen his filmic fortunes wane substantially. Part of the problem was his misguided mash-up with Miramax, a problematic collaboration that resulted in The Brothers Grimm. While fighting over final cut with a certain member of the Weinstein Family, the ex-pat Python went out and made this movie, based on the book by Mitch Cullin. And it was critics, this time, that caused the commotion. Resoundingly booed at its Toronto Film Festival premiere, the filmmaker has since launched a one-man campaign to save his cinematic reputation – and, in conjunction, the fate of this so-called adult fairy tale. As with most of his movies, it’s a love it or loathe it affair, with more votes coming down on the negative. Maybe this DVD release will finally settle the argument one way or another.

Other Titles of Interest

Alexander: Revisited

Oliver Stone must rue the day he ever decided to take on the story of this famed ancient great one. All production problems and budget issues aside, the whole bi-sexual angle (or lack thereof in the final cut) has brought this movie more notoriety than box office. Now, in it’s THIRD DVD incarnation, the filmmaker adds 40 minutes of material and declares himself done. Sounds more like a surrender.

A Good Year

In an obvious attempt to recapture the cinematic glory they achieved with Gladiator, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe came together to make this supposed romanticized look at redemption. Granted, the idea of a high powered money man getting all moist over his idyllic past showed some slight promise, but the final film was a cloying bit of claptrap without a lick of likeability or real world legitimacy.

The Return

After the shocking success of The Grudge on these shores (who would have thought that high concept Americans would cotton to the causal terrors that comprise most J-Horror?), star Sarah Michelle Gellar decided to revisit the Asian fright film dynamic one more time. Sadly, the result was this ridiculously routine thriller. Remove the rural setting and you’ve got the same old girl ghost goofiness.

Stranger than Fiction

His performance with Jack Black and John C. Reilly was one of the legitimate highlights of an otherwise dull as dishwater Oscar ceremony. That doesn’t make this semi-serious comedy any more compelling. With a premise that practically screams Charlie Kaufman and weirdly wicked turns from Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, this should have been a cinematic slam dunk. Sadly, it misses the basket by a few unfunny furlongs.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

Farrell’s Academy musical partner also has a DVD out this week, and for fans of his previous incarnation as part of the world’s greatest rock band, this is the movie of the century. Unfortunately, cult does not easily translate into commercial, and no matter his building box office appeal, Black couldn’t put enough butts in theater seats. For true devotees and those looking for a mainstream movie alternative.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Deep Red/ Inferno

Over the past couple of years there’s been a real renaissance in Dario Argento’s cinematic fortunes. His contributions to the Showtime series Masters of Horror have given him a much higher public profile, and after decades of speculation, he is now in the process of filming the final chapter of his Three Mothers trilogy. It’s convenient then that Blue Underground is re-releasing some of the maestro’s best films, including his breakthrough giallo and part two of the aforementioned terror triumvirate. Of the titles coming back to DVD, Red is the best, a deliciously disturbed exercise in murder mystery macabre that deserves to be ranked right up there with some of the greatest movies ever made. Inferno is more frustrating, a clear example of significant style over far too subtle substance. Yet the visuals are so powerful, their effect so overpowering, that we forgive the film its little minor narrative misgivings. Here’s hoping the rest of his considerable canon – including the lost in limbo Four Flies on Grey Velvet – make it back to the digital domain sometime soon.


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