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Wednesday, Nov 22, 2006

A recent NBER study finds, unsurprisingly, that the burden of child rearing derails women’s academic careers in the sciences: “Women are less likely to take tenure track positions in science, but the gender gap is entirely explained by fertility decisions.  We find that in science overall, there is no gender difference in promotion to tenure or full professor after controlling for demographic, family, employer and productivity covariates and that in many cases, there is no gender difference in promotion to tenure or full professor even without controlling for covariates.  However, family characteristics have different impacts on women’s and men’s promotion probabilities.  Single women do better at each stage than single men, although this might be due to selection.  Children make it less likely that women in science will advance up the academic job ladder beyond their early post-doctorate years, while both marriage and children increase men’s likelihood of advancing.” The explanation for this seems obvious, as Matt Yglesias points out: structural sexism. “Here, as in much of life, women and men are now allowed to compete on ‘equal’ terms. The terms, however, were set up long ago—by men—before that was the case, operating under the implicit assumption that the competitors would be men who, if they had children, would have wives at home to take care of the children.” Part of this structural sexism would have to be a matter of socialization, through which women are encouraged to be nurturers and to find fulfillment in the drudgery of child rearing—thus girls are invited to see motherhood as the culmination of their existence, as the capstone that will complete them as women. Anyway, as Julian Sanchez explains, we have to address this early socialization if we are unhappy with this outcome—like the libertarian in good standing that he is, Sanchez implicitly argues that women should bear the responsibility of their choice to have children and its career consequences (assuming it’s a choice—the essence of social conservatism is to prevent women from making choices about motherhood. As Amanda Marcotte puts it: “anti-choicers are pretty consistent in their worldview—they believe that women are second to men, that women should be punished for having sex, and that pregnancy is god’s way of enforcing women’s second class status.”) Choice in this instance is its own reward, apparently, and not a burden dumped on women (tough biological break for them) that society should structurally compensate for.

Obviously the “internalized stereotype” account points to an element of potential unfairness in the early socialization of boys and girls, but once the preferences are there, I’m not sure to what extent we should regard outcome differences flowing from them down the line as cases of additional unfairness. Or, more to the point, I don’t know what the remedy could be, given that they are nevertheless now genuine preferences, beyond trying to change our educational policies for the next generation. (Raising the further thorny question what kinds of differences in socialization should be seen as inherently pernicious.) Least ambiguous seems to be the case where average levels of interest in hands-on childrearing just differ biologically across genders—here “fairness” doesn’t seem to enter into it at all, unless we want to consider “maternal instincts” as a kind of unlucky genetic disability for which society should compensate people.

In other words, if we want more women to work as academic scientists, we should discourage them from motherhood early—why? Because motherhood, is hard, distracting, indivisible work, at least in Megan McArdle’s view (emphasis added):

Some things I believe:
1. For most people, the most rewarding jobs have the highest degree of autonomy and cognitive content.
2. Those jobs cannot be successfully divided. A very smart expert working 80 hours a week will be more productive than two equally smart people working forty hours a week. Because their jobs involve facts and ideas linking up in new and unpredictable ways, the more time they spend accumulating facts and ideas, the better they will be at their jobs. And the higher the informational component of the jobs, the trickier the handoff between two people. Increasing worker autonomy increases coordination problems exponentially.
3. Whether or not you think they are overpaid, most people with these jobs are making a very valuable contribution to society.
4. Whether you assign it by gender or not, the “Mommy” role is a real thing, and it is not divisible. The gay couples I know with children have found themselves falling into traditional “Mommy” and “Daddy” roles, and not because they’re uncommitted to overturning traditional gender norms. Becoming a parent means taking charge of another person’s entire life, and this is a difficult job to split between two people: imagine having two personal assistants, with neither one in charge, running your life. The co-ordination costs are large for the parents, and made larger by the fact that highly standardized routine is the best way to inculcate good habits in a child. Splitting the labour between two people does not mean that each of them spends half as much time on childcare.
5. Professional organisations cannot produce the same level of output with a significant number of people working half time. Such arrangements are easily incorporated when they are a few exceptions, but when half the team is unavailable at any given time, the coordination problems mount rapidly. Anyone who’s worked for both European and American firms can vouch for the fact that all that glorious European vacation makes everything take a lot longer in Europe than it does in America, because at any given time someone who has a critical piece of information, or decision-making ability, is missing.
This leads to the following conclusions:
1. Even for parents who outsource most of their childcare, having children will make at least one parent less valuable to their employer.
2. The idea of (in essence) splitting one high-powered job between a couple who then spends the other half of their time on childcare, as a substitute for having one high-powered career and one stay-home spouse, is probably not going to work.
3. Ceteris paribus, couples composed of two professionals will see at least one career suffer from the decision to have children.

Her ultimate conclusion is essentially an endorsement of the status quo: that maybe girls should be socialized for motherhood (it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it), and exceptions like herself will just have to be strong enough to swim against the tide. The alternative would be for your society to die out from attrition, to suffer the decline and fall consigned by demography—if we don’t produce new generations, we have no workers to support us in our old age and no one to carry on our traditions, etc. But her reasons are interesting—motherhood, as an irrevocable decision, may lead to greater happiness, since, as Daniel Gilbert argues, we adapt to accomodate and rationalize choices we can’t reverse. There is presumably no mommy’s remorse. (You can see the seductive elision available to social conservatives here—they can try to conflate irrevocable choices with the eradication of alternatives—shifting the irrevocable decision back to the egg’s original choice of an X chromosome in the fallopian tube.) And motherhood may be a more rewarding job than the ones women typically surrender—again, as a stolid libertarian/economistic thinker, McArdle assumes that if you choose motherhood over your job, it’s because motherhood offers you more utility at the margin. (And maybe it’s lamentably true that women in our current society garner more social recognition for mommying than for scientific inquiry.)

I’m less sure these “choices” women are making aren’t coerced—it’s easy to authorize the coercion along the lines McArdle has delineated—that it’s for the good of society. And I think women end up with the burden of family care not because it’s so fun and superior to office jobs but because men have taken care to rig society in such a way that it falls to women, leveraging advantages held over from pre-capitalist economic formations. (So basically I agree with Yglesias.) Children are necessary, but caring for them involves a lot of self-sacrifice, which capitalist economics assumes doesn’t really exist; rational choice militates against having children, since it’s not clear that the pleasure they may bring will compensate for surrendered wages and costs of upkeep; the magnitude of the reward is not likely to compensate us for the risks taken—unless you a brainwashed by childcentric ideology. Thus women, in order to make such sacrifices, must simply be volunteering to remove themselves from that economy. It seems as though how the inevitable childcare burden is distributed in a society is one of the primary ways it stratifies itself. Also, is it basically true that a growth-oriented capitalist society may come only at the expense of one that truly values and rewards domesticity?


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Wednesday, Nov 22, 2006

A fine article in the New Statesman (Junk cinema) got me thinking about arts education.  As the article notes, it’s usually limited to literary criticism (and even then, it’s limited to “classics”).  But what about criticism of the other arts?  Don’t kids have a right to go beyond books?  State and federal education programs assume that kids need to be taught how to read and appreciate literature and that’s a noble goal.  Why do they stop with books though?  In a media-saturated culture, shouldn’t they also be taught to think critically about TV, movies or even music?  Music programs are usually the first to get slashed in school budgets but any kind of media courses about TV or film aren’t offered until college and there of course, it’s optional.  Political science does take up some slack in terms of deciphering the wily ways of public servants but grade school kids deserve more background and training in the ways of the media.  Otherwise, they stand more of a chance of absorbing everything (or nothing) and not thinking critically about it.

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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006

Love at first sight is such a frightening concept. The notion that, without warning, your emotional circuits could fire all at once, sending you off into sentimental fits so profound that you may never recover from them, is chilling. Some can mistake lust for love, or physical attraction for something far more ephemeral, but when a single glance creates infinite adoration, the possibilities are endless—and so are the potential problems. For you see, love is not an easy emotion. It does not translate well, nor does it affect every person the same exact way. We can try to allude to universal opinions, but the truth is that love means different things to different people. Passion may seem boundless, but everyone has their own set of borders. Crossing over into it can be the best—or the worst—thing that ever happens to you.

Like an elegy to the emotion it best exemplifies, Le Notti Bianche is a tender, bittersweet slice of unbridled radiance, an ode to the concept of the instant connection, and a prayer for a preference of the present over the past. Though it only deals with three main characters, it speaks for all individuals caught up in the perplexing feelings of devotion and attraction. It’s a visual representation of complicated thoughts forced into an ethereal, enchanted world. Italian master Luchino Visconti creates a lilting lullaby, a gentle breeze of a movie that wafts over your soul like a sudden zephyr on a hot summer day. Though taking place mostly at night, this is the bright side of love at first sight. Sadly, like clockwork, every evening brings the harshness of day. Just like any emotion, the brilliance of love can—and does—bring about the gloom of unsatisfied desire.

While strolling the streets of a Venice-like city late one night, Mario (Marcello Mastrioanni) runs into a sad and weeping woman named Natalia (Maria Schell). Instantly taken with her charms, he asks if he can escort her home. Reluctantly, she agrees. Over the next several nights, the couple meets—sometimes purposefully, other times by happenstance—and they soon begin to connect. Mario asks Natalia why she seems so sad all the time, and she tells a long, involved story about her present home life.

Her grandma is a near-invalid who repairs rugs for a living. She also takes in boarders to help pay the bills. Natalia helps her grandmother, as she is the last remnant of the old woman’s family (Natalia’s mother and father ran off years ago). She also feels trapped in her surroundings. But that is not what makes her unhappy. One day, a strange Tenant (Jean Marais) arrived at Natalia’s house looking for a room. The young girl, seeing the startlingly attractive older man, fell madly in love with him, and an unspoken affection began. Soon, the Tenant claimed devotion to Natalia, and the young woman, seeing a possible way out of her subservient life, clings to the hope that they will be together. Out of the blue, however, the Tenant announced that he must leave; he is in a lot of trouble and has agreed to go away for a year. The couple then makes a pact—if they still feel the same for each other a year from now, they will meet along the back-alley bridges of the city, where they will rekindle their bond. It has been over a year now, and Natalia has been back every night. That is why she is upset. She has kept her word, but the Tenant has yet to show.

This information complicates things. Mario wants Natalia all for himself. While she likes this new man, Natalia still sees the Tenant as the answer to her prayers. Mario will continue his pursuit, but Natalia will not let go of the past.

Le Notti Bianche is a tragedy. It’s the story of love unrequited and incomplete, set within the shadows of a gloriously gloomy locale. The dreamscape backdrop may suggest a sort of unkind fairy tale, a dour fable without a happily ever after, but the truth is a little more complex. This is myth masquerading as mystery, an enigmatic movie that reveals its layers in slow, deliberate stages. True, the main narrative thread is the poetic pursuit of a perfect, rhapsodic fidelity, but it is foolish to feel everyone in the film will find his or her own Prince/Princess Charming. At least one character seems settled at the end of the film, and the other two are prepared to live off the implications of that, if not forever, at least for the time being. The subject of the setback may seem novel, and the twisting of masculine/feminine roles may require a little getting used to, but Luchino Visconti—as he has done in several other sensational motion pictures—finds a way to shift and shape his story to fit the format of his feelings. Here, love is inscrutable and unobtainable, always interrupted by elements outside the lover’s control. So naturally, the setting should be surreal. Emotional barriers are a lot more transient than real ones.

The first thing you notice about this film is how inexplicably beautiful it is. Le Notti Bianche frequently resembles a series of sublime charcoal sketches come to life. Like walking through a divine gallery where, around every corner, a new masterpiece awaits, Visconti’s monochrome magnificence is heartbreaking. There are times in Le Notti Bianche when you don’t want the characters to move. The scenery is so stunning, so breathtaking in its interplay of shadow and light that you just want to sit there, drinking in the inherent drama and beauty until your unquenchable aesthetic overflows. It’s not just the places and the presence that is rapturous. Visconti employs three amazingly handsome actors—Marcello Mastroianni (looking better here than he did before, or ever will again), Maria Schell, and Jean Marais—and situates them as icons among the everyday people populating the city. As a result, our eye never wants to leave the characters. We want to experience their exquisiteness, and contrast their fantasy facade against the reality that surrounds them.

This juxtaposition is important, because it helps to emphasize the theme of isolation and loneliness in the film. Visconti wants his characters to be different and distinct, the better to keep them locked in their own often-oppressive world. Mario is a loner, a man who ran from home, kicked about the country, joined the military, got a job, and basically fends for himself. As the movie begins, he’s only just arrived in this vision of Venice, and it’s a daunting and intimidating locale. He is a stranger in a strange land, lost in his thoughts and sticking to certain areas to satisfy his casual curiosity. This is perhaps why he is so struck by Natalia. Aside from being lured by her looks, he senses her remoteness, her connection to something that is making her sad, and it stirs inside him intense, familiar emotions. The reason we buy the love at first sight angle of this film is that Visconti sets us up with characters who seem prepared—or at least predisposed—to such sudden emotional lightening bolts. Mario wants to care for Natalia the first time he sees her, just as Natalia wants to melt into the Tenant’s arms the minute she sees him. All three characters are lonely, not just alone. Such a shared personality trait brings the story’s triptych tendencies to the fore. This is not just a movie about Natalia and Mario. It’s a film about the Tenant as well, and what he means to the burgeoning couple.

It is interesting to note that, as melodramatic as the premise sounds, Visconti does not fill his film with histrionics. This is a movie about small moments, about the casual glance between hopeful lovers, the sharing of a word or the passing of the hour hand. Visconti avoids crowds at first. He wants his potential paramours to remain mysterious, distant, almost unapproachable. As their affection grows so do the number of people in the streets. In perhaps the most stunning sequence in the entire film, Mario attempts to avoid Natalia (he has his reasons) while strolling through a crowded market square. The press of people and the ever-present glances from other women seem to condemn the man, and Mastroianni orchestrates the sequence exceptionally well. Equally telling is a dance hall scene where Mastroianni thinks he’s won the battle for Natalia’s heart. As the music goes from classical to the slink and sexuality of late 50s rock (Bill Haley and the Comets kicker “13 Women (and Only One Man in Town)” is perfectly placed here), we sense the eventual consummation of the couple’s relationship. They dance with abandon and share a closeness that is almost stifling. Yet the minute Natalia hears it is after 10 p.m. (her ritualistic Tenant time), she completely changes.

Such a switch is at the core of Visconti’s vision. He wants to argue that love is not only blind, but cruel and calculating. Every character here suffers from sentimental shortsightedness. Mario believes he can win Natalia, Natalia thinks the Tenant will return, and the Tenant has either put all his faith in a fickle, unpredictable child, or has used his position of paternal power to turn the head of a naive young girl. No one is really focused on the big picture, of how their passions will play out over decades, not just days. Natalia never exhibits the kind of steadfast resolve we expect from someone convinced of their conviction. Instead, she constantly sways between mania and depression, giggling incessantly or weeping torrents. Mario wanders the streets in kind of a happy daze, never really illustrating his professed isolation. Sure, he seems to befriend anything in his path (including a hungry dog), but we never really feel that this minor man has a major problem. This is why the character of the Tenant is so important. He is a mirror and a blank slate, a way for both Mario and Natalia to project their own images of perfection. She sees him as love personified. He sees him as the mysterious object of an undying desire.

Visconti himself is also guilty of playing with our perceptions. He uses his backdrop deceptively, always hinting at unseen evil in the alleyways, untold vices going on in the barely perceptible shadows. As a filmmaker, he understands that the best fairy tales are crafted out of good and evil, not just straightforward virtue. There has to be a threat—a haunted woods, a wicked witch—to keep the fantasy definable. Visconti achieves this through his amazing visual work in the film. The night shots seem brighter than the day imagery. Crowded streets are claustrophobic and chaotic. Rain becomes a representation of the passion in the air, and a sudden snowfall in the final act seems to suggest a breakthrough in our lover’s lives. With the help of his excellent cast (Mastroianni is just superb) and controlled narrative desire, this is a movie that creeps up on you and steals away your subjectivity. When Le Notti Bianche starts, you want Mario and Natalia to find happiness. As the movie ends, you realize that such a goal was antithetical to what happiness really is.

Though there is a density to Visconti’s designs, Le Notti Bianche is not a deep movie. It is base and broad, a testament to the power of love and an indictment of the blindness in said bliss. It certainly functions like a fable since it appears to offer a sad, succinct moral to what, initially, appeared to be a typical boy-meets-girl panorama. Like that first great obsession that you never quite got over, or that intense emotional pull you experienced from someone who is now no longer part of your life, Visconti wants to exemplify the yin of pain to affection’s extreme yang. For every white night (the movie’s title translation), there’s a dark day, either of location or of spirit. Funny thing is, there is no difference between the two states of being. Both exist within the core concept of love. There is no happiness without sadness to signify the difference—and vice versa. For Mario and Natalia, they see salvation in the arms of another. For both Mario and Natalia, what they want may not be the best thing for them after all. That is the lure of love, and the problems of falling into it at first sight. That is also the message of Visconti’s moving visual feast.

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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006

Small Gauge Trauma [Synapse Films - $24.95]

For a little over 10 years, Canada’s Fantasia International Film Festival has been on the cutting edge of up and coming genre greatness. They discovered such macabre masters as Takashi Miike and introduced J-Horror and other world shock cinema to a ‘desperate for something different’ Western mentality. Offering the unusual, the brazen, and the unique, the festival specializes in both full-length features and an amazing array of short films. At last year’s (2005) celebration alone, over 100 of these truncated talent showcases were presented. In conjunction with Synapse Films, the festival is offering up Small Gauge Trauma, a DVD collection of its most novel and creative contributions. Believe it or not, it’s one of the best film packages of the year.

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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006

A few charts and graphs from recent NYTimes articles to llustrate the income inequality situation:

And here’s one from today’s WSJ:

These come from articles tracking two trendy themes in the business press: One is the question of whether the slightly rich resent the ultra rich? A recent article in Fortune kicked off this meme. The other is summed up by the hed of Eduardo Porter’s Sunday NYTimes story linked above: “If All the Slices Are Equal, Will the Pie Shrink?”—if we divvy up the fruits of economic growth to benefit capital and labor, will the results stifle growth overall? These are variations of the same issue really: Does the invidious comparison that gross inequality prompts create healthy incentives to achieve or does it create widespread unhappiness and discontent with the overall system? Should the less fortunate simply ignore the greater gains of the wealthy and be pleased that the rising tide allegedly lifts all boats? Porter explains, “A shrinking share of the nation’s economic spoils will not only reduce workers’ stake in the current social setup; it will leave them with few resources for investment in economically crucial items like education. Rising inequality will also hamper teamwork. And it may ultimately destroy incentives. If the rewards of economic growth are monopolized by the very top earners, the rest of us may find little reason to make an effort.” The stories about the rich vs. the superrich reveal how this resentment is drifting upward as more and more income is commanded by the economy’s “superstars”—those who, as Sherwin Rosen argues, have suceeded in leveraging a small difference in talent across a huge economy to yield massive gains over the slightly less talented. And then once these superstars have established themselves the fundamental attribution error and network effects kick in to keep them on top. The result, as Porter suggests, is a greater incentive to cheat and resort to white-collar crime—when some CEOs’ incomes seem criminally high already, it may foster a climate of permissive criminality (backdating stock options, etc.) among the rest of the executives trying to keep up.

So what to do? This chart from WSJ has a helpful catalog of the Democratic Party’s ideas:

Ezra Klein, who thinks income inequality is primarily a symptom of the working class’s lack of political power, would probably emphasize the “strengthen union clout” aspect of this—one possibility is to pass a card-check law, which would allow unions to better organize. Whether the ideas about taxation strike you as any good probably depends on how important you regard income incentives in spurring individuals to make efforts to innovate—I tend to think (perhaps naively) that people are motivated by some kind of recognition that money is only a proxy for. Perhaps if people could be paid in meaning…

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