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by Rob Horning

25 Feb 2008

At Economist’s View, Mark Thoma links to an old Paul Krugman piece in which he suggests that socialist economies fail when people cease to subscribe to the ideology that props them up.

neither technological change nor globalization can explain the fact that socialist economies did not merely lag the West: they actually went into decline, and then collapse. Why couldn’t they at least hold on to what they had?
I don’t think anyone really knows the answer, but let me make a conjecture: the basic problem was not technical, but moral. Communism failed as an economic system because people stopped believing in it, not the other way around.
A market system, of course, works whether people believe in it or not. You may dislike capitalism, even feel that as a system it will eventually fail, yet do your job well because your family needs the money you earn. Capitalism can run, even flourish, in a society of selfish cynics. But a non-market economy cannot. The personal incentives for workers to do their jobs well, for managers to make good decisions, are simply too weak. In the later years of the Soviet Union, workers knew that they would be paid regardless of how hard they tried; managers knew that promotions would depend more on political connections than on performance; and nobody was offered rewards large enough to justify taking unpopular positions or any sort of serious risk.

So socialism was finished once workers stopped believing in the utopian possibilities of shared effort and shared goods. Once personal selfishness takes priority over one’s integrity of effort, it becomes a game of manipulating the system and figuring out ways to minimize effort and maximize gain. In other words, one starts acting “rational”—it may be that as Eric Hoffer suggests in The True Believer this sort of rational behavior can only be suspended in times of upheaval and revolution; eventually the egalitarian will to sacrifice fades and the reality of people having differing levels of talent returns to the fore. It becomes clear that everyone is not really equal in terms of opportunities or outcomes, and people search for new ways to bring their personal advantages to bear on their living conditions. This is the lesson of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, which depicts the Brook Farm experiment as a cauldron of thwarted ego and personal jealousies. The lesson there is that charisma can’t be redistributed the same way property can, and it always reestablishes the hierarchies you are trying to eliminate.

Krugman’s aside that capitalism may “even flourish” in a cynical society is what strikes me as most interesting. Rigorous self-centeredness and a refusal to compromise personal interests for collective ideals is what helps capitalism function and what permits zealots to proclaim selfishness is virtue and greed is good. Thereby capitalist ideologues can redefine cynicism: It’s not rejection of shared ideals but the cowardly refusal to compete and the excuses such shirkers and slackers make.

But capitalism does require a certain set of beliefs to reproduce itself. It’s not some remainder that’s left after ideology is purged. But it’s more a matter of believing that work and pleasure are opposites, that cooperation is a tactic, that competition builds character, that identity is built through collecting consumer goods rather than making things.

by Bill Gibron

24 Feb 2008

Leave it to the 80th anniversary of Oscar to throw us all for a loop - at least metaphysically. In one of those years where it seemed like every award was predetermined, Sunday night’s Academy telecast offered a few solid surprises - and a fair amount of sure things as well. It was a strange night overall: Jon Stewart taking his usual post-modern satiric swipe at everyone and everything associated with Hollywood; Daniel Day-Lewis was almost personable; and someone stole John Travolta’s eyes! There were highlights (Once winning Best Song, and Stewart leading co-winner Marketa Irglova - with Glen Hasard - back onstage to give her music cue shortened thank you’s) and lowlights (The Golden Compass beating two better films for Visual Effects), but mostly, the eighth decade of this Tinsel Town trophy fest packed a welcome bit of unpredictability.

It started with the Best Supporting Actress award. No one thought Tilda Swinton had a chance, though her turn as Michael Clayton’s corporate antagonist was cinematically solid. No, everyone had pegged Ruby Dee to take home this prize, and on the off chance she failed to get the career capper, critic’s list favorite Amy Ryan was waiting in the wings. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Swinton‘s name was called. It signaled yet another instance where this category confounded the traditional thinking. Something similar happened when Best Actress came along. From the underdog pinings for Juno‘s Ellen Page to the old world welcome back for the expected Julie Christie, Marion Cottillard‘s work in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose was viewed as quite the long shot. So when her name was announced, the stunned performer literally fell apart. She was so visibly moved during her acceptance speech that you just knew she too thought her chances were slim.

On the men’s side of the evening, everything went as scripted. Javier Bardem took home the Supporting Actor trophy, touting No Country and his homeland of Spain in the process, while Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis continued to carry There Will Be Blood on his sinewy British shoulders. Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic provided another of the night’s unexpected thrills when Robert Elswit walked away with the Oscar for Best Cinematography. In a career spanning more the 25 years, and dozens of good (Boogie Nights) and god-awful (Moving Violations) movies, this was only his second nomination - and he ended up beating Roger Deakins who was up for two awards himself (No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The man behind the Coen’s bleak Southwestern vision went home empty handed for the seventh straight time.

Elsewhere, there was conformity and confusion. Somehow, Compass did beat both Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for Visual Effects while La Vie en Rose picked up a second trophy for Make-Up work (beating Norbit, Hallelujah!). The Bourne Ultimatum garnered three trophies, all in the technical fields (Achievement in Editing, Sound, and Sound Editing). On the other hand, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street had to settle for a single award for Best Art Design (Dante Ferretti and partner Francesca Lo Schiavo had previously won for The Aviator). Other singular winners included Atonement (Best Score), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Best Costumes), and Juno (Best Original Screenplay). Diablo Cody, author of the feel-good pop culture comedy was another recipient visibly shaken when she accepted her statue. Even her typical ‘too cool for school’ demeanor faded in light of the moment’s majesty.

Another shocker was Taxi to the Dark Side. The story of a cabdriver who died while in US custody (he was arrested and tortured by American forces), beat two other Iraq- based narratives (No End in Sight and Operation: Homecoming) and category mainstay Michael Moore (SiCKO) for Best Documentary. On the other hand, Pixar proved its continuing Oscar dominance by taking home yet another Best Animated Feature trophy for Ratatouille. It’s Brad Bird’s second, a staggering achievement when you think about it. Yet in the end, it was Joel and Ethan Coen‘s night. They took home acknowledgements for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and ultimately, Best Picture. None of these wins was a stunner - the boys had won the DGA and Producer’s Guild Awards - but it was still very odd to see the Academy embrace these particular filmmakers so. The duo have never been known to walk to the industry beat, not in their movies or in their public personas.

So No Country for Old Men will go down as the evening’s big winner (four in total) and the second crime drama in a row to take home the top prize (after The Departed in 2007). Trivia buffs will likely be the only ones who remember the names of the Best Live Action (The Mozart of Pickpockets) or Animated (Peter and the Wolf - again!?!?) Short, or the winner of Best Foreign film (Austria, for the true story of Nazi Counterfeiters). Office pools worldwide will smart over the upsets and eyes will now turn to the ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’. The 12 months of 2007 produced a literal landslide of excellent cinematic fare, much of which never even got a chance at Oscar gold. A year from now, we’ll be having the same argument over 2008’s hopefully abundant crop of celluloid. Here’s hoping next year’s ceremony is even more surprising.

by PopMatters Staff

24 Feb 2008

Tish Hinojosa
Never Say Never Love Again [MP3] (from A Heart Wide Open released 22 February)
     

Volveras Amarme a Mi [MP3]
     

More On This Album

Mike Doughty
27 Jennifers [MP3]
     

Ida
Lovers Prayers [MP3]
     

Hilotrons
Domika [MP3]
     

Black Hollies
Bruised Tangerines [MP3]
     

by Nikki Tranter

24 Feb 2008

It’s almost upon us, Hollywood’s night of nights. I live in a different time zone, so the awards begin as I finish my work day. In true Aussie style, though, I’ve taken half my shift off so I can get home in time to get showered, buy the traditional Oscar-night takeaway of fish and chips, and head to mum’s, ballots in hand. I even have some UDL vodka and green apple cans left over from my birthday celebrations to enjoy as my favourites all get the gold.

Before all that, though, let’s have a look at the Oscar-related headlines currently floating around Book World. Seems you can’t turn a newspaper page this week without spotting Oscar predictions, Oscar fashion flashbacks, snub lists, comments, reviews, facts and trivia sheets. So, a round-up of the best Oscar stories proved difficult. There’s a lot of good stuff out there. I especially liked EW‘s snub list—finally some Oscar recognition for Molly Ringwald. It’s not all that surprising, considering the recent writer’s strike and the number of great books turned into films this year, that there are many great news stories about that focus on this year’s nominated authors and screenwriters. Here are just a few of the more interesting bits from the week.

Why the fat kid doesn’t always stay in the picture
Ireland’s Independent.ie has a great piece by Alison Walsh on “alchemy which transforms a novel into a screenplay”. Walsh spotlights two very different screenwriters, Deborah Moggach (Pride and Prejudice) and Peter Sheridan (Borstal Boy) and gets the lowdown on just how each approaches novel to screenplay adaptation. What they come up with surprising and even prophetic. Moggach says: “If you think of a novel as being a noun, because it is a very interior world and nothing can happen at all, in the screenplay you are into the world of the verb, which is full of conflict and drama.” Walsh takes these comments, as well as other from legendary screenwriter WIlliam Goldman, in an attempt to solidify the distinctions between novels and screenplays in terms of each works or does not and why.

Adapting ‘Atonement’ puts Hampton back in Oscar race
Hollywood Reporter‘s Martin A. Grove talks in depth and great detail to Christopher Hampton about writing the Atonement script. Hampton discussed his original plans for the script and how they evolved and changed and eventually became something altogether different. He comments on his inspirations, how he came to get the job in the first place, and his views on the film’s cast and crew. If you were like me and disliked the film’s handing of the final revelations, this piece might help you to come around. Was I the only one who felt so utterly removed from the story come the end? I still wish they’d found a better way of tying up the story’s ends, but reading this interview, the enormity of Hampton’s task becomes a bit clearer. Perhaps it was the only way.

And the Oscar goes to…
This is a fun piece from AfterEllen that features the site’s favourite movie and TV people making their Oscar predictions. Marlee Matlin praises Marion Cotillard and ponders just much No Country for Old Men might have been improved had Anton Chigurh been a lesbian. Jill Bennett from Dante’s Cove talks about her emotional reaction to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, while director J.D. Disalvatore puts her money of Ellen Page winning Best Actress: “She is so lesbionic.”

Oscars: Mining wealth from the pages of a book
David Ulin, books editor at the Los Angeles Times has a great essay this week that I found in the Salt Lake Tribune. Ulin talks about how Hollywood has long neglected to praise the authors of those books that become great cinematic works (Forrest Gump, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and examines the costs of such snubbing.  But are things changing?

Nominated writers owe debt to books: Adapters identify with source material
Finally, Variety has a wonderful piece on screenplay adaptation that includes comments ion writing from Diving Bell and the Butterfly screenwriter Ronald Harwood, Away from her screenwriter Sarah Polley, into the Wild screenwriter Sean Penn, Zodiac screenwriter James Vanderbilt, and Hampton. Harwood’s task in turning Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir into a film that wound adequately allow the audience to understand Bauby’s sitaution—following a massive stroke, the writer and editor could communicate only by blinking one eye. Harwood says: “The answer I came up with was seeing it from his point of view. So I made it entirely subjective. The camera was him.” Polley’s comments are my favourite—she’s also my pick to win. Away from Her is just a magnificent film, so beautifully lifted from the page. Polley relates her experience: “It was the first time I had thought about what it meant to endure life with someone. It wasn’t about this initial chemical maniacal feeling you have when you first fall in love, but the idea of going through life with someone and the richness of that and the complications of that.”

by Bill Gibron

23 Feb 2008

The test of any great story is its adaptability - that is, how readily another individual or culture can take the basic tenets and make it their own. Myths and legends are a primary source of such interchangeable material, but there have been many ‘modern’ narratives that have found such universality. Though many may argue that he merely channeled the basic stories of the past, William Shakespeare created several plays that have become the standard bearer for dozens of updates and revisions. His most heralded work remains Hamlet, considered a true test of any actor’s mantle. Interestingly enough, it forms the basis for the luxurious martial arts spectacle The Legend of the Black Scorpion. But instead of focusing on the famous melancholy Dane, we get a decidedly female look at the complicated court politics.

This is a movie where Gertrude - in this case, Empress Wan (played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Ziyi Zhang) - is the main focus. We have our Hamlet in the tormented Prince turned tortured artist Wu Lan (a wonderful Daniel Wu) and a backstabbing, scheming Uncle (You Ge) who may have murdered his own brother for the throne. Toss in the unrequited love of Qing Nu (a heartbreaking Xun Zhou) daughter of the crown’s chief advisor, her brother (Xiaoming Huang) exiled to a distant part of the Empire, and a defiant official who pays for his consternation with his life, and you’ve got the Bard’s basics clearly in place. But director Feng Xiaogang isn’t interested in just retelling the well honed saga. Instead, he adds subtle subtext about human nature, the need for individual facades (or masks), and the ruthless nature of power - both personal and political.

Together they combine to bring new life to a classic. The Legend of the Black Scorpion (on DVD as part of the Weinstein Company and Genius Products excellent Dragon Dynasty Collection), for all its Old Vic allusions, is purely Chinese in its execution. This is a film that flaunts massive, impressive sets, long, luxuriant takes, performances pitched somewhere between dour and delirious, and enough Yuen Wo-ping wire fu to soften even the most hardened of martial arts hearts. Thanks to the brilliant art direction, the use of tone and mood, the emphasis on interpersonal passions and pride, as well as the incomparable scope of events, we get a story that soars well above the typical elements. Instead, Xiaogang gives us tragedy as a type of cosmic destiny, a means of making the smallest act seem like the most significant and symbolic step ever taken by a human being.

The Legend of the Black Scorpion is indeed as eye opening as it is thought provoking. From the opening moments when we meet Wu Lan in his beautiful bamboo school, to the last act confrontation at the world’s most sumptuous banquet, Timmy Yip’s stunning designs, loaded with exotic and ephemeral touches, take us back in time and literally out of this world. While most period pieces strive for some semblance of era-appropriate realism, only the warrior uniforms here recall a feudal state. The rest of Black Scorpion shudders like an art gallery come to life, moments so magnificent and masterful that you wonder how they were ever achieved. As part of the new two disc DVD package, we learn a great deal about the production, how CGI and other optical tricks were used to realize some very ambitious aims. It highlights the big budget foundation of this fascinating film.

Yet pretty pictures are nothing without actors and performances to populate them. And in the casting of Black Scorpion, Xiaogang has found a fascinating company indeed. For all her plaintive, porcelain beauty, lead actress Zhang makes a devastating villainess. Perhaps because she is so regal in her demeanor she comes across as even more cruel and heartless. At the other end of the spectrum, no Western actor can out melancholy Wu when it comes to playing our notoriously depressed lead. Instead of being inactive or unable to defend himself, the Prince in this version of the story stands for his principles and fights when confronted. It is only when he sits with the Empress or his love Qing that his true sadness comes forth. Wu is a wonderful martial artist, a man who typically isn’t given much of a chance to highlight his kung fu. Here, he gets a pair of wonderful swordplay scenes, and he really excels in both.

As for his handling of the material overall, Xiaogang can be accused of going slo-mo more than necessary. During the opening attack at Wu Lan’s school, there is a great deal of undercranked blood spray. Indeed, fans of such formal epics may be put off by the amount of gore here. Bodies are bisected with regularity, and one character is beaten to death in a gauntlet so cruel it’s almost impossible to watch. Yet between all the garroting and wound gushing, suicides and mass slaughter, it’s the lesser intrigues that carry this film. And it is here where this director truly shines. The scenes between characters sizzle with unspoken fervor, and the contrasts between close-ups and massive establishing shots never let us forget the “cogs in a bigger machine” theme. In fact, it’s clear that Xiaogang used Hamlet for more than a fictional foundation. Something about the story truly resonated with him.

It’s a fact confirmed by ever-present commentator Bey Logan as part of Black Scorpion‘s excellent digital overview. Spending most of his time comparing and contrasting this version of the Bard with the original, there is a lot of insight in the alternate narrative track. From moments he feels surpasses the classic to times when traditional Hong Kong filmmaking took over, Logan lets us in on all aspects of the production. Perhaps the most engaging material offered centers on the missing scenes - intriguing sequences scripted but never filmed. We also learn who killed Wu Lan’s father, and why such a conclusion was cut out of the film. Along with the standard Dragon Dynasty interviews and featurettes (Xiaogang and Wu get the Q&A treatment, while there are two Making-of documentaries), we truly begin to understand the positives - and potential negatives - of adapting a very famous tale.

Yet it’s that very alteration that stands as The Legend of the Black Scorpion‘s biggest accomplishment. While it seems next to impossible to take Hamlet and make it your own, the creative company behind this film has done just that. There is just enough Shakespeare here to keep purists from crying foul. Yet there is also enough originality and outright vision to keep things looking and feeling wholly unique. Some may complain over the lack of action (there are probably four or five major martial arts sequences in a 140 minute movie), and the open-ended conclusion could leave audiences cold, but make no mistake about it - The Legend of the Black Scorpion is as opulent and overpowering as any version of the famous play you’ve ever seen. It stands as a true work of art.

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