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Thursday, Mar 8, 2007


What a difference a day makes. Yesterday I was comped at one of Tokyo’s finest; today, on my own dime, I am in one of the more plebian of stop-spots. A difference of 2 stars, but in the end, does it really matter? All we peripatetiques require is a hole to sit over to deposit our wastes, a spigot to cleanse us, a bed to lay our heads on; if possible, a television to enlighten or entertain, a closet to hang clothes so they don’t inordinately wrinkle and smudge, a fridge to store and keep some liquids and edibles cool.


The rest? The bidet, the fully stocked fridge, the movies on demand, the internet hook-up, the room service, the pool or exercise room? . . . In the end, like life, it is only a matter of degrees. Everything beyond basic is merely an exercise in ostentation; leaps in perception.


 


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Wednesday, Mar 7, 2007


It’s time to take a step back, to get our motion picture priorities in order. We need to move away from extremes, accept certain elements and ideas as a given, and return to the basics of standard cinematic criticism. In the case of a film like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, this may seem like an analytic impossibility. After all, this was the movie that many considered to be one of the funniest of all time. It was an example of those rare lightning in a bottle entertainment explosions that had individuals on both sides of the phenomenon shoring up their positions and pissing off the opposition. You still have those who recklessly defend the meandering mock documentary as the greatest satire in the last 20 years, while others find nothing remotely funny about a man making jokes at the expense of innocent people’s privacy and personal points of view.


Still, Sacha Baron Cohen touched a nerve, tapping into a zealous zeitgeist that obviously couldn’t wait to see the self-righteous and the self-absorbed reduced to stuttering piles of inarticulate smugness. This undeterred demographic, anxious for the smallest amount of scandal, and hungry for proud non-PC pronouncements absorbed everything this British comic was dishing out, and like a motherly mocking bird, regurgitated it to those they felt would react the same way. The result was the best kind of product publicity, a literal word of mouth that propelled the finished product into the ticket sales stratosphere. While some could argue that Cohen’s appearance in Talladega Nights, or his cult comedy series on HBO Da Ali G Show, were natural stepping stones toward Borat‘s success, it was the ambush antics of the title character that resonated further than any of the comedian’s previous foundational facets.


Similarly, those against the movie and its made-up mannerisms tried to refocused the frequently blurred line between ruse and reality. They leapt on the news of angry lawsuits, and supported anyone who felt used by Cohen and his con artist cinema verite approach. For them, Borat is a miserable excuse for entertainment, a slapdash production that can’t even get its attitude adjusted properly. Instead of making everyone the butt of his jokes, critics point out Cohen’s proclivity for picking on the obvious (white people) and the odious (…umm, white people?). Minorities are made out to be tolerant (the group of African American men shooting crap in Atlanta) or somehow saintly (the actress turned pretend prostitute Luenell). Even its own self-imposed intolerance is pitched so perfectly over the top that the slanderous stereotyping doesn’t really hurt.


So, some six months later, after all the praise and the panic, the backlash and the false Academy bravado, what have we got?  What is Borat, in the end? In truth, what one winds up with is a really well done fish out of water comedy that goes wildly off course after about 45 minutes and never regains its footing. Right around the time of the infamous naked brawl, shortly after the title character has pissed off a posh dinner party by insulting the guests and inviting a prostitute to be his escort, Borat goes bad. Why? Well, it’s hard to say, really. Nothing much changes. We do lose the amazing Ken Davitian as our lead’s producer and sidekick Azamat Bagatov, and the nonsensical narrative involving Pamela Anderson starts to dominate the direction of the film. Then there is that horrendous sequence where Borat coerces a bunch of drunken fratboys into doing what they do best – sticking their inebriated asses directly into each other’s mouths. Maybe it’s the incredibly false moment where our hero is “healed” during a “been there, seen that” revival meeting filled with crazed Christians.


Whatever the case, the chief reason why most viewers are probably experiencing motion picture morning after regret is that, in general, Borat isn’t the second coming of comedy. It barely breaches the tenets of tenacity needed to make such a statement stand up. Over the last two decades, TV shows like South Park and The Simpsons have managed just as much mean-spirited social commentary without having to resort to Howard Stern/Stuttering John or Jackass like antics.  Indeed, it can be said that a well written and performed observation is always better than one captured, piecemeal, out amongst the amiable if awkward public. Any documentary filmmaker will tell you – stick a camera in someone’s face and watch them make a fool of themselves. But in Borat‘s case, the joke is jaundiced by an underhanded conceit that forces foolishness where such stupidity may not exist. Baiting someone into bigotry is one thing. Trying to turn it into an innocent discovery of a deep seeded hatred is another.


Oh, make no doubt about it – America is a racist hole. We live in a vacuum of self-subjective import where “love it or leave it” is supposed to sound friendly, not fascist. We smile politely and wear our shallow sensitivity happily along our heart heavy and diverse shirtsleeves. So when Cohen gets a Texas good old boy to lambaste the Middle East, or finds the desire for a return to slavery in the mind of a misguided South Carolina college student, he’s not really telling us anything we don’t already know. In many ways, Borat is aimed at the viewer more or less blind to the realities of the US of Asses. For said generation, feminism is funny on face value, since dames ain’t supposed to be sniveling over their rights. Anything revolving around sex is equally hilarious, since the ongoing battle between morality and reality has resulted in a definite demonization of said basic biological function. On the one hand, this is a movie that plays perfectly to those without a smidgen of big picture perspective. It’s satire – if there is any – exists only in the small, not the substantive. Besides, Cohen is not that coarse. You can see him striving for more than that throughout Borat‘s beginning arc.


Indeed, had he simply stayed with a SCRIPTED look at his Kazakhstani homeland, expanding the characters, his job as a reporter, and the obvious hatred for gypsies and the surrounding former Soviet territories, we’d have an amazing motion picture. Indeed, even if the decision was made to move the lampoon over to our shores, a carefully crafted script which allows for both the shock AND the solution would have served this material much better. There could have also been room for some improvised bits. An excellent example is the bed and breakfast segment. Even with all its anti-Jewish jibes, the joke ends up being on Cohen and Davitian, not the kindly couple. It’s their reactions, not the horribly derogatory things they are saying, that drives the humor. As it stands, Borat is sporadic and sly, cutting when it wants to be, and lazy when the situation requires. You can see it during the opening ride in the subway. The minute Cohen is confronted by a couple “takin’ no shit” city folk, he cowers like a little school girl and shuts up. On the other hand, when the target is in on the ruse – namely Pam Anderson and her peeps – we get the takedown, the tackle and the use of excessive force.


To make matters worst, the recent DVD release offers up several deleted scenes which prove that, when it comes to pushing buttons, even the filmmakers recognize the need for a reality check. A sequence where Borat proposes to adopt a puppy (which he then proclaims he will have sex with and then eat) is so incredibly crass that it’s not funny or informative. Similarly, a moment where a naked Cohen continually mounts a hotel masseuse loses its entire lunatic luster when, for once, the targeted party merely goes along with the goof. From the many missing scenes provided, it is clear that the final version of Borat is a carefully cut together post-production invention. Indeed, one could argue that Cohen and collaborator Larry Charles (director of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) began this project with a collection of stolen moment skits (the interview material) and then mapped a movie around it.


But all of this still doesn’t answer the basic question – is Borat a good or bad movie? In the final analysis, “neither” seems to be the best response. To call it good, or even great, is to find material inside this movie that just doesn’t exist. To dismiss it outright is to underestimate the power in many of the sequences (like Woody Allen before, Cohen is the new king of hilarious self-mocking Anti-Semitism). And no matter how many times it’s mentioned, the notion of collecting gypsy tears to prevent AIDS just SOUNDS funny. No, in the end, Borat is two thirds of a terrific motion picture. Unfortunately, it’s that last fraction that forces it out of any conversation about its long-term legacy. At least one thing is clear. Cohen better enjoy this time as a cultural talking point. His ship has set sail, and a Roberto Benigni style barrier reef is looming, dead ahead. 


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Wednesday, Mar 7, 2007

As a renter, I couldn’t agree more with economist Dean Baker’s thoughts on homeownership here.


Politicians routinely hawk homeownership as an end in itself and have pushed policies that are designed to maximize homeownership. (They have also been assisted in these efforts by private foundations that are committed to assisting moderate income families.) This has often meant promoting policies that provide large subsidies to homeowners, and implicitly neglecting renters.
This single-minded promotion of homeownership is now proving to have disastrous consequences for many moderate income families that bought homes at the peak of the bubble. Many of these families will end up losing their homes and whatever savings they had used to buy a home. Their credit record may be permanently damaged and possibly their aspirations as well.
This is what happens when sound policy is subjugated to political ideology. For many people, in many circumstances, homeownership is a good idea. But it is not everywhere and always better for people to own than rent. With the unwinding of the housing bubble, and the millions of tales of families in distress that will be part of this picture, it will be important for the media to examine the policies that got us here. This means that reporters should go after the ownership at all costs crowd. These people have a lot to answer for.


I’ve always assumed the push for homeownership had something to do with making sure that people were invested in their neighborhoods, and in the overall economic system (“buying into the American Dream”)—if you own something big and expensive, like land, you will support state actions undertaken to protect your claim to it. And if you own your house, you’ll have a vested interest in seeing your neighborhood improve. (This seems to be the idea behind the word gentrification—remove the renters (and absentee landlords), who have no incentive to fix anything up, and replace them with a species of landed gentry.) Homeownership is also useful to the state in the way it instills discipline through financial necessity. Just as private-equity buyout firms will load a company with debt to chasten its managers into prudence, so looming mortgage payments ensure that workers continue to prioritize a steady paycheck over having any of their labor grievances addressed.


Another byproduct of more-widespread homeownership is an increase of NIMBYism, which might benefit individual neighborhoods in some ways but harms social welfare overall, making tragedies of the commons more common. Everyone agrees we need to put prisoners and garbage and junked autos and bus depots and nuclear waste somewhere, but nobody wants it near them. Rather than integrate people into the social fabric, it seems like homeownership could do just as much to encourage micro-protectionism—it makes people think, I’ve got my fortress and screw everyone else.


I’m not sure what the alternative American Dream is though, if it’s not having the ability to acquire the space to insulate yourself from the annoyance of other people. The trends in American mores seem to be running toward more convenience, which tends to be understood as the freedom from having to cooperate or consider anyone else on anything but your own terms.


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Tuesday, Mar 6, 2007


It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work. Lots of late nights. Way too many cups of coffee. Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged.


Beginning in December of 1968 and ending in October of 1969, an unknown perpetrator terrorized the Northern region of the state of California, centering most of his activity in and around the San Francisco area. His were motiveless, random crimes – one couple would be shot while they parked, another would be stabbed as they picnicked near Lake Berryessa. As the investigations began, police and the newspapers started receiving letters from the fiend, along with elaborate ciphers that supposedly explained his rationales. It’s these heinous crimes that make up the basis for this film’s storyline, which also follows the involvement of reporter Paul Avery, cartoonist David Graysmith and police Inspectors William Armstrong and David Toschi.


In the hands of any other filmmaker, someone incapable of placing the darkness of the subject matter directly into every scene he or she puts on celluloid, this would be a magnified TV mini-series. We’d get the snippets of nastiness at the start, the fading film star taking on the daring lead role, and anticipate those little forced fade-outs announcing the next commercial break. But in the skilled cinematic grasp of the amazing David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), a case that pales in comparison to California’s other notorious Peace decade murder maelstrom - Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter spree – turns into a concrete reflection of its tenuous times. It uncovers the flaws in pre-technology crime solving while celebrating those willing to sacrifice their mental lives to overcome these investigative chasms.


The first thing Fincher does right is purely aesthetic. He so perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1960s/‘70s setting that you feel completely immersed in the time period’s patina and gloom. And it’s not just the details – the TNT 8 Track player, the viewmaster sitting on an old fashioned counsel television. No, what Fincher finds in the era between analog and digital, footwork and laptops, is the last legitimate signs of a post-War America. Sure, San Francisco is an amazing city, the backdrop for a hundred well-remembered movies. But here, the city’s not so much a character but a stand-in, a metropolitan mock-up waiting for the inevitable evil to start seeping in. From the first senseless killing (the aforementioned couple parked near an overpass) to the last crime we actually see (a cabbie being shot at point blank rage) death is the disease that begins the process of unraveling our slipshod social fabric.


Similarly, Fincher casts the film flawlessly. Looking – and indeed acting – like a young Chris Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo leaves behind an inconsequential career canon to deliver a true star making turn as Inspector David Toschi. With his hair piled into two shoddily parted slabs and a wardrobe that feels slept and perspired in, he’s the symbolic face of the law. He’s concerned. He’s confident. He’s sure that regular old police work will lead to a suspect – and the lack of one is eating him up inside. Every time Ruffalo delivers a line, it’s a lesson in multi-layered performance. No sentence is simple, each statement covered in concerns, fears and undeniable guilt. Also amazing is Robert Downey, Jr., playing the kind of cavalier jock journalist that would come to personify the decade’s Fourth Estate eminence. He’s the sort of reporter who does as much drinking and disagreeing as he does writing. He’s the first indirect victim of the story, a man made and unmade by what he knows – and by the pieces of evidence he doesn’t have.


Then there are the ancillary turns – takes on famous faces (Brian Cox’s brilliant Melvin Belli, a more or less forgotten name in the world of limelight legal personalities) and hardworking underdogs. All throughout Zodiac, Fincher features performers who meld seamlessly, never once coming across as too contemporaneous or outside the era. He’s working off iconography – providing as many human as thematic symbols to illustrate his ideas. Toward the end, when Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Charles Fleischer shows up as a potential suspect, his one time comedic craziness makes a perfect starting point for what ends up being one of the more sinister performances in the entire film. Fincher gets a lot of legitimizing specificity out of these smallish, insignificant roles. They keep Zodiac from slipping into standard, by the book docudrama.


But the real work is put in by Jake Gyllenhaal. His is indeed the hardest part to play. At first, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith is nothing more than a fly on an already filthy wall. He wants desperately to be part of the editorial process, to add what little knowledge he has to the overall reportage of the case. But as an outsider looking in, he is kept at a distance, and this is a risky move for both actor and auteur. For Gyllenhaal, it makes his third act transformation into a sort of ersatz private eye (Graysmith actually existed, and wrote two books upon which the movie is based) a tricky twist to sell. As for Fincher, it needs to feel liquid and inevitable. Such a shift in personal point of view is always difficult for a director, but in the case of Zodiac, we are dealing with a cold case, no real substantive suspects, and a previous path strewn with equally concerned casualties. Turning a hanger-on into a hero is a tough task to accomplish, but Fincher finds a way to make it work. As a matter of fact, the last half of the film is far creepier than the blood and body scattered opening.


This is indeed a directorial tour de force for the moviemaking maverick, a perfect combination of engaging storyline and intriguing style. Fincher loves to look at life through a distorted, twisted lens, and he employs his signature visual variety here. There are certain shots that just bowl you over with their beauty (a tracking shot which follows a cab on its fateful fare, a look at Gyllenhaal’s car crossing the Golden Gate Bridge) while others announce their intention with obvious conceptualization (the time-lapsed construction of the Transamerica Pyramid to mark the passage of time). Still, it’s the way he handles specific scenes that are the most impressive. When the police finally narrow their focus to a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, his interrogation in a factory’s employee break room absolutely sizzles with squalid suspense. Indeed, much of Zodiac crackles with a kind of corrupt electricity, an overriding feeling of discomfort that makes even the conversations between couples ache with an aura of unease. Even at more than 158 minutes, the movie still feels rushed and ready, always on the brink of breaking under its own sustained stress.


There will be those who bemoan said run time, who recognize the non-ending ending the movie manufactures (we wind up with a theory, but no real closure) and simply shout “sell out!”, but that would really be missing the point. Zodiac was never designed as a whodunit. The clues are not clear enough, and the facts more faded than the memories of the people who survived the killer’s slapdash attacks. Fincher never intends a conclusion. Instead, Zodiac is a clever commentary, a look back at how careless and confounding the criminal justice system could be. A modern audience may scoff at how Toschi’s partner William Armstrong (an extremely solid Anthony Edwards) must maneuver through four different jurisdictions and his own internal red tape just to coordinate the evidence, but that’s the way it was back then. Crime was considered local, and even the most celebrated cases played more importantly to the surrounding constituency. It’s also the reason why they call serial killers the first post-modern murderers. It requires contemporary thinking – and techniques – to stop their reign of terror.


But as Fincher so masterfully reminds us, there was no snarky CSI to save us back then. Convictions were built from the circumstantial inward. Even before the closing credits, the film lets us know that certain facts that we feel are incontrovertible have been placed in substantial doubt by computer matching and DNA testing. But since Fincher’s not trying to find the killer, we really don’t care. Instead, we are mesmerized by a movie that takes its time explaining the impact that fear and frustration have on those assigned to bringing the bad guys to justice. When Ruffalo walks away after his final meeting with Gyllenhaal, the look of peace on his face is genuine. Similarly, when Graysmith finds Allen, all he wants is to keep a promise he made to himself and his wife. Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK, that hoped to unravel the contradictory conclusion of the Warren Commission to suggest another theory on the assassination of the President, Fincher is fine with Zodiac remaining an enigma. Besides WHAT he was had more of an impact on everyone involved than who he was.


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Tuesday, Mar 6, 2007

More on youth and privacy (and lack thereof, as well as indifference and alleged superiority to). In the NYT magazine Alexandra Jacobs took a look at college smut publications—oh, excuse me, I mean provocative sex magazines with “playful nudity” as opposed to “pornography”. These are semi-amateur magazines drawing from the talent pool at the entitlement schools—Yale, Harvard, BU, University of Chicago, etc. It seems the smack of elitism is critical to this entire enterprise; it is what distinguishes the spirit of these magazines from that of Girls Gone Wild or Hooters—these people can afford not to be afraid of the consequences, a reassuring message to the other students for whom the zines are made. Also, they promote the quasi-bohemian idea that sophistication about sex means pretending to shrug it off while exploiting its market value. Jacobs offers this cryptic and highly speculative explanation of the phenomenon:


It’s as if, though curious to explore the possibly frightening boundlessness of adult eroticism, they also wish to keep it at arm’s length, contained within the safety of the campus. The students involved display a host of contradictory qualities: cheekiness and earnestness, progressive politics and retro sensibilities, salacity and sensitivity. They aren’t so much answering the question of what is and what isn’t porn — or what those categories might even mean today — as artfully, disarmingly and sometimes deliberately skirting it.


So the students are going to all the trouble of making these magazines so that they can create a space in which they can remain ambivalent about sexuality if not altogether confused by its economic and social instrumentality?


This explanation, from one of the models, seems more apt:


Oleyourryk said that for her and her peers, the question is not why pose nude, but why not? After all, they grew up watching Madonna (“All she was was naked all the time”), parsing the finer points of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and flipping through Calvin Klein ads: sexual imagery was the very wallpaper of their lives, undergirded by a new frankness about how to protect oneself from pregnancy and disease. “Condoms. They’ve been rammed down our throats ... since we were old enough to start contemplating training bras,” wrote a Boink contributor in an essay called “Fall Fornication Must-Haves,” which apparently included crotchless bikinis and a Swarovski-crystal-encrusted dildo called the Minx.
Sex is “everywhere, and it’s always been everywhere for this generation,” Oleyourryk said. “A body is a body is a body, and I’m proud of my body, and why not show my body? It’s not going to keep me from having a job. Maybe it sticks to people, but it doesn’t have that negative connotation like, I’m going to have to carry around this baggage. Maybe it’s like, I’m going to carry this around and be proud of it and say: Look how I looked then! My boobs weren’t on the ground. I wasn’t 45 pounds overweight. How hot was I? It’s not, like, ‘The Scarlet Letter’ anymore. It’s a little badge of honor.”


The logic here is interesting: the ubiquity of sexualized marketing and entertainment is seized upon as license and provides the curious ethical postulate that you need to “show” whatever you are “proud” of. Self-esteem, here, is meaningless without an audience, and the link to commodified sexuality (a given, we’re expected to believe, for all youth—sex is commodified by definition) implies that sexuality is nothing more than a medium for self-marketing, and attention is the currency in which one is paid and the ultimate measure of that self-esteem: “How hot was I?” In the context of elite universities, this seems like an extension of privilege, of demonstrating how far from necessity one is by squandering a long-conserved resource, one’s private sexuality. (This seemed the principle behind Paris Hilton’s behavior initially, but now her image is big business in itself). The message sent seems to be this: I don’t need to prostitute myself for money, I prostitute myself for the hell of it. This is nothing new—unfettered morals have been an aristocratic signifier ever since the bourgeoisie began; it’s a compact way of demonstrating how indifferent you are to the need for a good reputation (the core of commercial life). Now this may be playing out in terms of privacy concerns, the lack of which signifies less a generation gap, as Nussbaum argued in New York magazine, than a class hierarchy. Some people’s reputation will remain untarnished no matter what they do; other people will not be forgiven the slightest slip. And it’s worth remembering that it requires a good deal of cultural capital to maintain a meaningful online presence; if sexuality is no big deal anymore, it’s because it has ceased to be an end and has become a means to establishing that presence. It is losing its relationship to intimacy, which is probably not a terrible thing unless you happen to think that some evolutionary imperative linked them in the first place, and the decoupling is bound to be untenable. But kids, recognizing sexuality is already lost to commercialization are secretly devising new ways to be intimate, so secret that they haven’t even been reported in New York magazine yet.


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