20 December 2007

Best Movies of 2007

Results are in for the second annual Indiewire Critics Poll. The good people at Indiewire polled more than 100 North American film critics, including myself, and our collective choice for the best film of 2007 was the yet-unrleased Paul Thomas Anderson oil epic There Will Be Blood, which hits theaters in selected cities next week and should go nationwide in January.

Below is my own Top 10 list for 2007. I missed a few interesting-sounding films this year, including the Palme d'Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, out of Romania, and Colossal Youth, by the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, which finished #5 and #8 respectively in the Indiewire poll. I'll have more comments about the year in movies in my Academy Awards preview in February.

1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S.)
2. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, Netherlands)
3. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
4. Offside (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
5. Zodiac (David Fincher, U.S.)
6. Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, U.S.)
7. Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran, France)
8. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, U.K.)
9. Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, U.S.)
10. Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali)

03 December 2007

The Vote in Venezuela

Yesterday in Venezuela, supporters of President Hugo Chávez failed to muster a popular majority for an ambitious package of referenda that would have, among other things, changed the country’s constitution to eliminate presidential term limits, allowing Chávez, whose current term expires in 2012, to continue running for re-election indefinitely. Far from concealing his ambitions to be president for life, Chávez used them as a central selling point for his initiatives, which went down yesterday by a vote of 51 to 49 percent.

For Chávez, who, owing to a new constitution that he pushed through early in his presidency and a recall vote orchestrated by his political opponents in 2003, has been elected president by a resounding margin four separate times, yesterday’s vote represents a rare electoral defeat. But once the initial sting fades away, Chávez may realize that, in several important respects, this may be the best thing that could have happened to him. Unlike in other recent Venezuelan elections, no international observers were on hand to verify the legitimacy of the results, leading many to believe that the government would raise cries of fraud in the event of a narrow defeat. But when that narrow defeat came late last night, Chávez conceded immediately, congratulating his opponents and saying of his reforms, “For now, we could not do it.”

Chávez’s government has its problems, but if he were really the crypto-authoritarian thug that his critics—a group that includes the vast majority of the mainstream American punditocracy—claim him to be, it’s unlikely he would have taken the loss so well. By accepting a narrow electoral defeat, Chávez stands to gain far more political legitimacy than he would have from a narrow victory. One of the basic hallmarks of a functional electoral system is that it produces results that all parties believe to be legitimate. In this respect, yesterday’s vote can be seen as a sign of the health of the democracy over which Chávez has presided for the past nine years.

For residents of a country like the U.S., with a democratic tradition that dates back more than two centuries, it’s easy to sneer at the notion that something so fundamental as the willingness to accept the outcome of a close vote should be counted as an accomplishment, but in a country lacking such a tradition, and in a region with a history of authoritarian politics, such fundamentals can’t be taken for granted. It’s also worth noting that our own democracy failed a similar test in 2000, yielding an electoral outcome that millions of Americans consider to have been illegitimate.

03 November 2007

Find the Cost of Freedom

The Reverend Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church were back in the news this week after being hit with a $10.9 million judgment in a civil action brought by Albert Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder, a Marine lance corporal who was killed in Iraq in January 2006. Phelps and some of his church members picketed the funeral, as they have other military funerals in recent years, in the belief that (here’s where things get weird) U.S. deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan represent God’s punishment for American tolerance of homosexuality.

Not surprisingly, the verdict has been applauded across the political spectrum. Liberals, moderates, and many conservatives are repulsed both by Westboro’s views and its tactics, while even those religious conservatives who share some elements of Phelps’s views on homosexuality are appalled by his actions, not to mention mystified by his logic, and are generally embarrassed to be associated with a philosophy best captured by the oxymoronic label of “Christian nihilism.” (The group is fond of declarations like “God hates the world and all her people” and “Thank God for 9/11”).

Still, there exists a minority opinion that Fred Phelps’s constitutional rights have somehow been violated here. The lawyer who defended Westboro in the case made a statement to the effect that the church’s actions were protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and that the verdict was likely to put a chill on political protest in the U.S. As someone who takes a broad view of freedom of speech, it’s an argument that I take seriously.

But is freedom of speech truly the issue at stake here? The answer to this question may lie in the distinction between civil and criminal law. The right to freedom of speech, like other protections in the Constitution, is intended primarily to protect citizens from the actions of their government—in other words, to protect us against the criminalization of speech, except under certain well-established standards, including incitement to imminent lawless action (e.g. “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater”) and, more problematically, obscenity.

The situation is somewhat different in the realm of civil law, which deals primarily with legal actions taken by citizens against one another. The necessary role of government in mediating such actions leads to a legal gray area in terms of the extent to which government can be involved in restricting speech, an area that remains highly contested. Courts have consistently allowed citizens to being lawsuits restricting speech that violates established principles of tort law, particularly that of defamation (i.e. slander and libel). Snyder’s suit against Phelps and Westboro is a civil action; in other words, his claim is not that their speech constitutes a criminal act, but rather that it amounts to harassment and an intentional infliction of emotional distress, two well established principles of tort law.

I don’t know enough about either the specifics of the case or the vagaries of tort law to know whether Snyder’s suit has merit on these grounds. I suspect that, once the appeals process has taken its course, the verdict will be upheld but the size of the award will be reduced. My point is merely that a blanket appeal to freedom of speech is not necessarily a legitimate defense against this type of action. It is one thing for a government to protect the sanctity of free speech by its citizens; it is quite another to protect those citizens from the consequences of that speech, which in this case take the form of a civil lawsuit. Fred Phelps and his church may have the constitutional right to continue their hatemongering, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be compelled to, quite literally, pay for their actions.

16 October 2007

Karma Police

As nearly everyone has no doubt heard by now, Radiohead has released its new album In Rainbows exclusively (for now) through its website. For a group of Radiohead’s commercial and critical stature, this would be news enough, but of course there’s more: The band is allowing customers to set their own price for the album, meaning that, aside from a minuscule credit card processing fee, it’s possible to download the album for free. Legally.

I preordered In Rainbows and downloaded the album when it became available the morning of October 10. I chose to pay around $10, which according to most economists, would place me somewhere between Forrest Gump and a brain-damaged squirrel on the intelligence scale, since I voluntarily paid for something that the seller was offering more-or-less for free. But as the legions of Pop Tones readers are no doubt already aware, I don’t think like an economist. Neither do a lot of other Radiohead fans, apparently. According to one British survey, the average price paid for the first million downloads (yes, the album went “platinum” in less than a week) was around $8, and only one-third of customers chose to pay nothing.

Nevertheless, I was buying something with my money, and I’m not talking about the ten songs on the album. I was buying into a new distribution model, one that has the potential to fundamentally change the way music is bought and sold. Radiohead may or may not care how much money they make from this experiment (although I predict they’ll wind up doing quite well), but if the offering is a financial success for the band—or rather, if it’s perceived as a financial success—more artists will be encouraged to emulate Radiohead by cutting out the middlemen and selling music directly to the public. (The band plans to release a conventional CD version of the album next year, but no hard date or distribution details have yet been announced.)

Why is this a good thing? For one thing, it should ultimately lead to artists earning more for their work, as well as lower prices for customers. But it's also a matter of justice: the music business is finally getting what it deserves. With the possible exception of the airlines, it’s difficult to think of another industry that has shown such callousness and hostility toward its own customers, overcharging them ridiculously for CDs and now randomly suing people who’ve chosen to rebel against this price regime through illegal downloading. Earlier this month a judge in Minnesota—apparently now ground zero for all manner of legal idiocy—awarded the industry $222,000 in a lawsuit against a woman who had allegedly downloaded 24 songs. If this seems like a reasonable decision to you, here’s a thought experiment: 24 tracks, multiplied by the 99-cent rate charged by Apple’s iTunes store for legal downloads, comes to $23.76 worth of “stolen” merchandise. If someone were convicted of shoplifting $23.76 worth of merchandise from a discount store, would you consider a $222,000 fine to be an appropriate punishment? Unless you can honestly answer “yes” to this question, you now have some sense of the warm feeling I get every time I read a news story about how much money the music industry is losing because of illegal downloading. It’s satisfying to see the public exacting some revenge on the industry, and doing so in the only terms it understands.

Of course the labels are fond of responding to complaints about their high prices and recent litigiousness by saying they’re merely protecting the interests of their artists—an argument that would carry a lot more moral weight were it not for the fact that most artists with major-label record deals make only about a dollar for every CD sold, and many end up in the hole once promotional costs are recouped. For a lot of these musicians, $8 an album might not sound so bad.

20 September 2007

Combat Rock

Sarcasm as an artistic mode is problematic at best. There are, of course, some glorious exceptions—Bela Tarr's 450-minute long-take extravaganza Satantango and Sly Stone's 1973 cover of "Que Sera Sera" jump to mind—but too often sarcasm is the province of the smug, the lazy, or those just not smart enough to be witty.

Certainly none of the above qualities apply to the Sri Lankan-British singer-rapper-producer M.I.A., whose just-released sophomore album Kala surely qualifies for that list of exceptions. First, some recent history: Flush with the artistic and (relative) commercial success of Arular, M.I.A. (aka Maya Arulpragasm) was apparently planning to record her second album with the ubiquitous Timbaland, before visa troubles derailed the collaboration. Indeed, if Rolling Stone is to be believed, M.I.A. was only able to re-enter the United States after Bono, of all people, put in a good word for her at the request of the president of Interscope Records.

So perhaps we have the Bush administration to thank for the globe-trotting Kala. Recorded on several continents, the album draws from sources as musically disparate as Bollywood film scores, raga, hip-hop, and the Modern Lovers—and that's just on the first track, the booming "Bamboo Banger," which reimagines Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" as a portrait of a kid running alongside a tourist's hummer. Not menacing but not exactly friendly, the image establishes an uncertainty of tone, a sense of unknown intentions, that pervades the whole album.

The first three cuts revise and extend the eclectic globo-club music of Arular, while rocking harder and dirtier than anything from the debut. The squawking and clattering "Bird Flu" aims squarely for the central nervous system; the Trinidadian-inflected lead single "Boyz" rides the album's biggest beat. With the fourth track, an interesting development: The album's first conventional "song" is "Jimmy," a lush rendering of a 1980s Bollywood disco tune that a young Maya used to dance to for money at her mother's behest. After a barely decipherable opening verse about Africa ("Take me on ya genocide tour/Take me on a truck to Darfur") she lunges headlong into the original lyrics, attacking the insipid chorus ("You told me that you're busy/Your loving makes me crazy") with girlish (or by her own account, drunken) enthusiasm. It's clear we've entered uncharted territory. What's not clear is exactly what is undercutting what here. Are the casual references to genocide merely a sarcastic send-up of disco vapidity, or also a bitter acknowledgment that the political game is rigged and that those who can might as well dance the night away until the other shoe drops?

M.I.A. may "represent the world town," but she's also pursuing her own singular vision and becoming a global star in the process ("I hate money cos it makes me numb," she says in another song.) Referencing the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" the genre-bending "$20" melds digitally processed Middle Eastern chanting with the deathless bass line of New Order's "Blue Monday". M.I.A. sings "I put people on the map that never seen a map," a boast she's just made good on with a pair of tracks featuring, respectively, a teenage Nigerian MC and a group of aboriginal Australian rappers. Still, as elsewhere on Kala, political ambition is inextricable from the threat of unrepressed violence (the song's title refers to the cost of an AK-47 in some necks of the woods in Africa) and any pretensions to sloganeering are immediately lost in the woozy indeterminacy of the music. Throughout the album, even as M.I.A.'s lyrics reach toward a brave new world, the grooves drag everything back to the grime of the hear and now.

It all comes to a head on "Paper Planes," a song that distills Kala down to its essence. Over the buoyant midtempo pulse of the Clash's immigrant paean "Straight to Hell," M.I.A. raps about a hustler making faking visas, the mock-triumphalist lyrics ("Everyone's a winner/We're making our fame") setting up the ballsiest chours I've heard in years: "All I wanna do is [gunshot] [gunshot] [gunshot] [gunshot] and [gun cocking] [cash register ring] and take your money." By the time she give a shout-out to "third world democracy," the joke's already on us. A masterstroke of world-weary vitriol, "Paper Planes" both returns the gift and swallows its own tail. Just as "Jimmy" is simultaneously pop and anti-pop, it's both political and anti-political.

Nothing could possibly follow it, and so the Timbaland-produced "Come Around" seems deliberately positioned as an afterthought, an ironic nod to the commercial second album that could have been. Timbaland himself sleepwalks through a couple rote verses about picking up some girl in da club, and while the track satisfies in conventional hip-hop terms, its inclusion feels nearly as sarcastic as that of "Jimmy." Or maybe it's just that Tim's beats sound relatively tame compared to what we've been listening to for the past 45 minutes.

What with M.I.A.'s recent bristling at critical insinuations that Arular was masterminded by her former boyfriend/producer Diplo (who worked on three Kala tracks), the type of tired bullshit that, even at this late date, still seems to attach itself to our best female artists, it's tempting to read "Come Around" as an act of aggression: M.I.A. swallowing up and regurgitating in her own image a famous male collaborator. But by this time there's no doubt: Despite the presence of Timbaland, Diplo, primary co-producer Switch, and many other collaborators, this album is no one's but hers. And if anyone makes a better one this year, I'll be amazed.

08 August 2007

Mr. Bonds

At long last Major League Baseball has a new all-time home run leader. Last night San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds hit No. 756, putting him one ahead of Henry Aaron on the career list and giving him sole possession of the most revered record in baseball or any sport. I watched it live, but after months of soul-crushing hype, the event itself seemed little more than an anticlimactic footnote. Events are not what they used to be.

People don’t like Bonds. People, in fact, dislike Bonds so much that there was much talk of whether he would be booed if he broke the record during an away game, a scenario that fortunately didn’t come to pass. Bonds is aloof, egotistical, and difficult to deal with. And then of course there’s the little matter of steroids. Is Bonds’s accomplishment “tainted” by his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs?

As with much else in our increasingly degraded public discourse, in which every issue of the day is presumed to have two and only two “sides,” discussion of Bonds and of steroids in baseball has been dominated by two simplistic positions. Either steroids are the worst thing that’s ever happened to baseball and Bonds is an affront to humanity or Bonds is the greatest player ever and this whole steroid controversy is a product of that sinister beast known as “the media,” a bogus scandal that real baseball fans don’t care about. The latter view is easily dismissed, predicated as it is on the implicit assumption that baseball fans are nothing but beer-swilling morons interested only in dumb spectacle. Proponents of the “nobody cares” argument have attempted to support their position by interpreting the steady attendance at MLB ballparks over recent years as a referendum on steroid use, an argument that makes no sense whatsoever. In any event, polling data tells a different story entirely.

Not generally a fan of drug-testing in the workplace unless public safety is at stake, I do support aggressive testing programs for athletes in baseball and other sports in the belief that players shouldn’t have to risk their long-term health in order to be able to compete on a level field. Having said that, I do not think steroids are the worst thing ever to happen to baseball. Or even the worst thing to happen to baseball in my lifetime. Or for that matter, even the second-worst. The 1994 work stoppage, which led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years, was by far the lowest moment the game has seen in living memory. And nothing of which Bonds has been accused rates comparison with the actions of the still-beloved Pete Rose, whose gambling cut to the very heart of the baseball’s integrity. Rose’s crimes against the game were worse than Bonds’s. Orders of magnitude worse. Yet polls indicate that most baseball fans are willing to forgive Rose despite his having done absolutely nothing to deserve it.

No, what we’re talking about here is merely cheating, pure and simple, a subject that has a long and ambivalent history in baseball. (For some reason when pitchers cheat it’s considered cute and charming, while when hitters cheat it’s considered some horrible affront to the sport.) This particular form of cheating is more dangerous than spitballs or corked bats because of the aforementioned health effects of performance-enhancing drugs, but ultimately the issue has been blown out of proportion, absorbed into a larger social hysteria about drug use, a topic that Americans have been largely incapable of having a rational conversation about since the Reagan administration, if not earlier.

Discussion of whether the record is “tainted” misses the point in at least one important sense. More than fans of any other sport, baseball fans tend to value statistics, records, and history. We love to compare players from different eras, to imagine how today’s hitters would stack up against the likes of Aaron and Babe Ruth. But underlying it all is (or at least should be) a wry acknowledgment that comparing players from different eras is ultimately a futile pursuit. Much is made of the fact that Babe Ruth never had to face any black or Latino pitchers, playing as he did in the era of segregation, but then there are also the advantages that today’s hitters have in terms of smaller ballparks and strike zones, not to mention video technology, which has probably benefited hitters more than pitchers. It would be one thing if Bonds were the only MLB player accused of taking steroids, but contrary to the impression one might get from some of the anti-Bonds folks in the media, this is not the case. Perhaps steroids are best regarded as part of the baseline of this particular era in baseball history, the "Steroid Era” as sportswriters have taken to calling it. And like it or not, Bonds is indisputably the era’s greatest slugger, as were Aaron and Ruth in their own times. Records and numbers may be hallowed things in baseball, but ultimately, when discussing athletic greatness, statistics are only a starting point, not the be-all and end-all.

It was nice to see Aaron last night, albeit via pre-recorded video, graciously offering his congratulations to Bonds. His reaction was a stark contrast to the ridiculous behavior of baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who offered only tepid public statements after both the tying and record-breaking home runs, qualifying his congratulations with dark insinuations about Bonds being “innocent until proven guilty.” (Related topic for another day: When did “he’s innocent until proven guilty” become one of the most damning things you can say about someone? This meaning of this phrase appears to have completely reversed itself.)

Selig was nowhere to be seen in last night in San Francisco—supposedly, he was to meet today with former senator George Mitchell, the head of MLB’s quixotic “investigation” into steroid use, which seems from this vantage to be little more than an attempt to nail Bonds. It’s hypocritical for Selig to attempt to distance himself from Bonds’s accomplishment when so much of the Steroid Era unfolded on his watch. Along with the owners, the players, the media, and of course the fans, the commissioner chose to ignore the issue for years, and now he’s dealing with the consequences. But for today, Selig and Bonds, along with baseball fans of all stripes, can unite in one sentiment: relief that the home run chase is finally over.

01 August 2007

Bergman and Antonioni

It's not exactly John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dropping dead within hours of each other on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but the passing this past Monday of two of the most significant European filmmakers of the past half-century or so, the 89-year-old Ingmar Bergman and the 94-year-old Michelangelo Antonioni, both towering figures of cinematic modernism, certainly qualifies as an odd coincidence.

In his commercial heyday, from the late 1950s through the 1970s—a run that included such films as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and the remarkable Persona—Bergman was perhaps the best-known foreign filmmaker in the United States, his reputation rivaled only by that of Federico Fellini. As has been the case with Fellini, Bergman's critical stock has fallen a bit in recent years (not that one would get a sense of these shifting currents from Monday's New York Times obituary, which may have single-handedly set the cause of film history back 25 years), but he remains a great artist possessed of a singular vision, whose work is instantly recognizable for its religious/spiritual fixations, high-contrast lighting (courtesy of his two great cinematographers, Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist), and baroque dream sequences. A tireless worker during his prime, Bergman divided his career between theater and cinema, and in a way his achievement was ultimately more theatrical than cinematic: finding ways to dramatize the innermost conflicts of the human mind and soul.

If Antonioni strikes me as an artist of a wholly different order, it's in part because he was first and foremost a filmmaker—the awkward English title of the documentary portrait "To Make a Film Is to Be Alive" accurately captures his view of himself and the medium (it is telling that the most dramatic scene of Antonioni’s best-known movie depicts a photographer in the act of developing film). Few have done as much to expand the possibilities of that medium: Filmmakers since the dawn of the talkie era had shown people in conversation, but how to show them in silence?

Almost all of Antonioni's greatest films—L'Avventura, Eclipse, The Passenger, and of course the oft-misinterpreted Blowup—can be described as mysteries without solutions. L'Avventura is the purest example: Ostensibly about the disappearance of a young woman during a daytrip to a barren island, the movie ends up focusing on the subsequent relationship between the woman's lover and best friend, who like the movie itself, soon forget about her entirely (this unprecedented thwarting of viewer expectations contributed to the film's being roundly booed at the Cannes Film Festival—where it went on to win a prize). But that description doesn't begin to do justice to L’Avventura, a masterpiece of rhythm and pacing that seeks nothing less than to represent the unrepresentable. The movie's ultimate subject is not "relationships" but their inverse—the insoluble gaps, silences, and unanswered glances of which people's lives are often made, particularly people born in the West and into a certain amount of money.

Alfred Hitchcock once defined drama as life with the boring parts cut out. In Antonioni's anti-dramas, the boring parts are most definitely left in. In almost any movie made before 1960, if a character takes 10 seconds to cross a room, the director will edit the scene so that the process only takes three or four seconds of screen time. In Antonioni's middle and late films, if a character takes 10 seconds to cross a room, then it takes 10 seconds on-screen. People don't always look at each other when they're talking and the human figures themselves are often overwhelmed by the landscapes surrounding them, whether natural (the barren island in L'Avventura) or manmade (as in the shot from Red Desert where the sickly yellow smoke of a factory smokestack slowly fills up the screen).

I could go on for hours, but I'll leave off here with one definitive Antonioni scene, the last of Eclipse. The man and woman at the center of the film's story have made plans to meet on a street corner. It's hardly shocking when neither of them bothers to show up. But Antonioni's camera does show up, and rather than ending, the movie simply goes on, depicting the sights and sounds of an unremarkable urban evening for what must be seven or eight minutes of terrifying emptiness. Background has suddenly becomes foreground and there's nothing left to distract us from the spiritual aridity of the world we've been watching for nearly two hours. For half a century, over the course of 16 features and a handful of shorts, Antonioni cast off the conventions of screen drama and trained his camera resolutely on such absences, voids, and silences, illuminating the darkness of contemporary life by inventing whole new ways of seeing. And we're all a little richer for it.

21 July 2007

I didn't break the law! I am the law!

Our president has struck again. In a move that's thus far attracted disturbingly little media attention, the Bush administration has expanded its claim of executive privilege in the ongoing Congressional investigation into the firings of eight U.S Attorneys last year, essentially saying that it will not allow the Justice Department to pursue contempt of Congress charges against any current or former White House officials that it deems covered by a presidential assertion of executive privilege.

The phrase "executive privilege" is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, but as outlined in case law, the concept has been understood as a limited right of the president to get confidential counsel from his advisers. One problem in this case is that Bush has repeatedly maintained that he was not personally involved in firing the attorneys, so it's very difficult to see how executive privilege could apply here. Moreover, as the Supreme Court made clear to Richard Nixon in the Watergate tapes case, a president's right to privacy may be outweighed by the necessity of investigating possible criminal activity.

Even so, Bush is entitled to make his arguments in court, his very low probability of success notwithstanding. What is outrageous, and what could ultimately lead to a constitutional crisis, is Bush effectively ordering the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to ignore a Congressional contempt citation, which as federal law makes clear, the attorney is legally compelled to bring before a grand jury. Bush appears to be attempting to manipulate the legal system, such as to make it difficult or impossible for Congress to challenge his expansive conception of executive privilege in court, by simply ordering the Justice Department not to pursue any contempt cases. In other words, a preisdential claim of executive privilege trumps all. Bush's arguement, in essence: I control the enforcement mechanisms, therefore I am the law.

The legal rationale for Bush's position is a piece of pernicious nonsense known as the doctrine of the "unitary executive." This notion, until recently confined mostly to the ruminations of far-right legal scholars, more-or-less holds that the president has nearly unlimited authority to direct officials within the executive branch. The Bush administration, led by Dick Cheney with legal expertise provided by his chief of staff, David Addington, has expanded the doctrine even further, claiming the power to ignore and/or reinterpret acts of Congress in accordance with the president's conception of his constitutional authorities. Such declarations have largely taken the form of so-called "signing statements," the most notorious of which claimed the authority to ignore the McCain amendment prohibiting cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees in American custody. If this idea is taken seriously, it amounts to a negation of the concept of separation of powers, an idea so fundamental to the Constitution as to shape its very structure.

A follow-up piece in today's Washington Post indicates that the Democrats plan to roll over and play dead on this one (imagine my total lack of surprise)--several former members of the Clinton Justice Department are quoted, thus providing invaluable political cover for the Bush position. One can only imagine that a President Hillary, given the authoritarian inclinations she's expressed in the past, would like to have the power to basically ignore Congress and the courts whenever it suits her fancy.

Woke Up This Morning

Monday, June 11, 2007

Last night's brilliant installment of The Sopranos, the series' last episode and one of its best, has stirred up a bit of controversy this morning. At issue is the final scene, which played against viewer expectations, not only avoiding the expected melodramatic spectacle but ultimately cutting out in abrupt fashion (anyone who doesn't want to know what happened should check out here).

Going in to last night's finale, I was afraid we might be in for a slow and ponderous affair, particularly given the dire events of the previous week's episode—one of the most brutal and death-haunted of the entire series, which ended with Tony going to sleep in a safe house, holding a shotgun across his chest. The finale opens with the same image, but despite some dark moments, stays light on its feet—indeed, what with A.J. accidentally blowing up his car, some business involving Paulie Walnuts and a stray cat, and a memorable scene in which the villainous Phil Leotardo is dispatched in signature macabre fashion, this was one of the funnier episodes of the final season.

By the final scene, Tony's crew has reached a truce with the New York mob but he's learned that one of his associates is testifying before a federal grand jury, raising the specter of a likely criminal indictment. He arrives at the quaint-looking diner where he's meeting his family for dinner. Soon Carmela and then A.J. join him. The camera keeps cutting away to suspicious-looking strangers all over the diner, including a shady-looking character who walks into a men's room, unmistakably echoing the oft-alluded-to shooting scene from the first Godfather. There is also some crosscutting between the restaurant and the street outside, where a frustrated Meadow is making repeated attempts to parallel park. The editing is nervous and it's clear that we, the viewers, are running out of time. Will she make it in time? In time for what? Finally she gets the car parked and heads for the restaurant. Back inside we hear the front door's chime, prompting Tony to raise his gaze toward the doorway . . . and then nothing. A blank screen for several seconds. What happened? But then the credits roll, and the greatest dramatic series in the history of American television has come to an end with an unanswered look—in cinematic terms, a shot without a reverse shot. Does Tony see something horrible? Or is it finally the hit, the one you never see coming? Maybe, but there's no reason to think so. Most likely it's just Meadow coming through the door, better late than never.

Some commentators are bemoaning the lack of either narrative resolution or crowd-pleasing spectacle (an argument that takes its most venal form in the suggestion that David Chase somehow "owed" a big finish to HBO subscribers—the popular arts apparently being, like pretty much everything else in America, first and foremost a consumer product). Some are even likening the ending to the almost universally despised Seinfeld finale from nine years ago, which likewise played against audience expectations. But the comparison doesn't fly. The Seinfeld ending felt empty and forced because its tone was completely different from that of any other scene in the history of the show. The opposite is the case here—Chase may be needling the viewer a bit with all the red herrings in the final scene, but he's doing so precisely by appealing to the cinematic codes he's created over the past eight years—the same nervous cuts, looks, and gestures that might have preceded a whacking in a previous episode are here absorbed into an atmosphere of more generalized paranoia. As ever on this most Freudian of dramas, no anxiety is ultimately resolved, only repressed for future recycling. The show doesn't even really end; it just stops.

It's an ending far truer to the spirit of the series than some nihilistic (or moralistic) spectacle would have been. The last nine episodes have made it clear—if indeed it wasn't before—that The Sopranos is less a mob drama than a dissection of the contemporary upper-middle-class American family. The scathing critique of American moral blindness manifests itself not only in Tony's sociopathic acquisitiveness, but also Carmela's self-serving rationalizing, the forcible suprression of any occasional qualms about where her lifestyle comes from—a quality apparently inherited by Meadow, who gives an eyebrow-raising speech in the finale about how seeing her father's supposedly unfair treatment by the authorities, which she frames as a mere consequence of his being "Italian," inspired her to study law. Clearly, it's time to close ranks. Only A.J. is able to see beyond the horrible moral logic of The Family, albeit in halting and callow fashion—his recent suicide attempt and newfound obsession with Islamist terrorism represent a sort of return of the repressed—but he too is finally bought off; Tony and Carmela dissuade him from enlisting in the army to fight terrorists in Afghanistan by getting him a job on a movie set.

Despite lives scarred by violence and horror, the Sopranos continue to float through reality on a tide of affluence, paying no heed to the forces that may be closing in. In a minor stroke of genius, the final scene is set to the Journey anthem "Don't Stop Believing" (which Tony plays on the diner's jukebox), recontextualized here as an ironic commentary on dunderheaded American optimism. Friends and relatives are dead and Tony may soon be headed for trial, but the family endures, suspended in time, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the reverse shot. As Sydney Pollock put it in Eyes Wide Shut, "Life goes on. It always does. Until it doesn't."

Justice on the Court

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The sports world is atwitter with controversy today over the suspensions of Phoenix Suns center Amare Stoudemire and forward Boris Diaw from tonight's pivotal fifth game of the Suns' best-of-seven playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs. For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, a quick summary: In the closing seconds of Game Four, Suns guard Steve Nash, a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, was leveled by a hockey-style cross-check from Spurs forward Robert Horry. Horry was suspended for two games for the hit, but the resulting incident also led to the one-game suspensions of the two Suns players for violating a ridiculously inflexible NBA rule about leaving the bench during an "altercation." Neither player came anywhere near the incident—in the case of Stoudemire, probably the Suns' second-most important player, he took only a few steps toward Nash, who at this point was still lying on the floor near the sideline, before being restrained by one of his coaches. Nevertheless, he was suspended for one game. If online polls and message boards provide an accurate gauge of the public's feelings, a vast majority of NBA fans appear to find the suspensions of the Suns players unjust. Commentators like TNT's Charles Barkley and ESPN's Skip Bayless have complained about the league's excessively literal enforcement of a stupid rule and have rightly pointed out that the suspensions effectively reward the Spurs for starting a fight, since the Suns will lose one of their best players for tonight's critical game while the Spurs only lose a bench player for two games. Others have responded by defending the NBA's decision with some variation of the "a rule's a rule" argument.

Rather than explaining all the reasons why the NBA's decision is moronic, wrong-headed, infuriating, and sadly typical, I'd like to focus on an aspect of the controversy relevant even to non-basketball fans. NBA enforcer Stu Jackson may have summed up the philosophical issue at stake here best when he said yesterday in defending his decision, "It's not a matter of fairness. It's a matter of correctness." Asked to clarify that comment today on ESPN radio, Jackson explicitly equated the two concepts, saying that his decision was fair because it was correct—that is, because it represented a consistent application of a rule that he deemed to have been clearly violated. But is fairness always the same thing as correctness? The equation seems to preclude the possibility that a rule itself can be unjust or that it should be interpreted in light of the specific circumstances of a given situation, notions that I think would seem reasonable to most people. Even so, the idea that fairness is the same as correctness informs much of our social life in this excessively literal-minded era, when everyone from sports commissioners to high school principals boasts about "zero tolerance" policies and our law books are cluttered with mandatory-minimum sentences and "three strikes" statutes. In order to change these policies, it is first necessary to free the concept of justice from the bonds of legalism in the public mind. Many fans hope that this week's incident will lead the NBA to finally rethink the leaving-the-bench rule over the offseason, but it's also an occasion, however trivial, for a more fundamental sort of rethinking.

The Neon Bible

Friday, April 27, 2007

It's been a good spring for new music. So far I've been very news-oriented here but I'd also like to use this space to comment on books, movies, music, and other cultural goings-on. Since I like to be able to live with a record for a while before talking too much about it, it's going to take me a while to catch up on the music alone. There have been strong new releases this year from the likes of Modest Mouse, Amy Winehouse, and the Arctic Monkeys (subject of a future post), but my early favorite for album of the year honors is The Neon Bible from Arcade Fire (not "The Arcade Fire" anymore, apparently).

What's most interesting to me about The Neon Bible is its full-on embrace of rock's epic mode, by which I mean less a style of music than a form of address marked by hi-fi sound, salient vocal tracks, and an overriding concern with all things big. Politics being much in the air these days, the latter tendency finds its clearest expression in the Arcade Fire's obvious drive to create some kind of emblematic Bush-era artifact. The album's most moving song climaxes with the rueful refrain "All the reasons I gave were just lies," and there's also a real toe-tapper of a 9/11 tune ("Antichrist Television Blues"). Elsewhere the band contemplates the encroachments of government ("Black Mirror") and religion ("Intervention") and the entire album is suffused in the sense of paranoia and lowered expectations endemic to the era of homeland security (although nothing here is quite as politically pointed as the despondent "Parting of the Sensory" from the new Modest Mouse album).

Normally all this straining after topicality would be a flaw, and possibly a fatal one, but such is the power of the epic mode. To put it bluntly, the band has made a Springsteen record. Much of the The Neon Bible plays like a lost third disc from The River. Thrilling, propulsive rockers like "Keep the Car Running" and "The Well and the Lighthouse" recall The Boss at his exuberant best and everything from the prominence of the organ to the repeated automobile references evokes epic-mode Bruce. Unusual production choices result in a sound that's simultaneously ornate and austere; guitars, strings, brass, choirs, harps, and other instrumentation are relegated to the corners of the mix, leaving Win Butler's vocals front-and-center, suspended in the band's rhytmic thud.

Butler rises to the challenge, rasping and wailing with enough conviction to survive the occasional cringe-inducing lyric ("Workin' for the church while your family dies"). That he inevitably sounds like a more burdened, less confident Springsteen (I'm hardly the first to observe that one of the most frequently recurring words on The Neon Bible is fear) gets to the crux of the whole thing. The essence of this album is precisely its self-consciously nostalgic appeal to the epic gesture. U2's latest album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was notable as the first album on which the band fully embraced its own outsize ambitions—it was, as Rob Sheffield approvingly observed in Rolling Stone, "grandiose music from grandiose men." But for the creators of The Neon Bible and others of their generation, such ambitions remain tantalizingly unrealizable; their reach will always just exceed their grasp and they know it. Even as it emulates the likes of Bono and Springsteen, The Neon Bible shows that these men are already mythic figures, products of a more comprehensible era that's receded behind some historical vanishing point. By the end of the album, Arcade Fire has left its models behind and is already covering itself: the penultimate song is a gorgeous, balls-out rendering of the band's 2003 "No Cars Go." Amplified in every sense, the new version is a career highlight, resolving an entire album's worth of dread and longing into a blind ecsatic rush of speed and volume.

Gonzales and Iraq

Friday, April 20, 2007

Thursday's disastrous appearance by Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee brings President Bush and the Republicans in Congress closer to a moment of reckoning that the party clearly wishes to avoid. I'm not going to waste time here explaining why Gonzales needs to go. We're talking about a guy whose greatest accomplishment prior to becoming attorney general was the concoction of a legal rationalization for torture. And about a guy who claims to believe the Constitution does not guarantee the right to habeas corpus. He should never have been confirmed in the first place. As for the U.S. Attorney firings, let's just say that I'm far less interested in what the eight in question did to get fired than in what the remaining 80-plus may have done to keep their jobs.

Instead, let us look at the Gonzales controversy from a crass political perspective. Yesterday's hearing saw Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) add his name to the list of Republicans calling for the attorney general's resignation. Indeed of all the Republicans on the committee, only Orrin Hatch (R-UT) seems to support Gonzales, albeit tepidly. Yet as of this writing, President Bush has not asked for the attorney general's resignation, setting the stage for a showdown in the coming days between congressional Republicans, who are tiring of the embarrassment and distraction the Gonzales affair has caused for the entire party, and President Bush, who has been unwilling to abandon his old friend even in the face of significant evidence of corruption and incompetence.

So why is this important? The events of the next few days could serve as a dress rehearsal for an inevitable showdown over the Iraq war. By the end of this summer, the so-called "troop surge" will have demonstrably failed and the Republicans in Congress, all eyes on the 2008 elections, will have to decide what they're going to do about an increasingly unpopular war. If congressional Republicans and the party as a whole can't find a way to insulate themselves from Bush's failed policies, it could wind up being a disastrous election season. But if they're unable to find the political will to stand up to the president over something as ultimately trivial as the fate of Alberto Gonzales, then how are they going to be able to challenge Bush on the war that has become the centerpiece of his presidency?

With the exception of Nixon is his very last days in office, there hasn't been a president in living memory more isolated from his own party than George W. Bush is right now. Will the Republicans find a way to distance themselves from Bush over the next year and a half or will they passively follow the president as he leads the party over a cliff?

Comments on Comments

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So once again we have a bona fide media frenzy over some so-and-so's controversial "comments." It seems like this type of story is taking up an ever-greater proportion of our news media's collective headspace. It goes like this: some random celebrity makes some "comments" that some other person or persons deem offensive, or pretend to deem offensive; said celebrity is subjected to a public berating by news anchors, talk show hosts, heads of advocacy organizations, etc.; celebrity responds with disavowal, defiance, or remorse, as appropriate; celebrity is punished or exonerated or the whole thing is forgotten after somebody else says something stupid, thus restarting the whole cycle.

The latest of these tempests, of course, surrounds radio talkshow host Don Imus, who last week in the midst of what otherwise seems to have been a harmless rant about the Rutgers women's basketball team, offhandedly referred to some of the players as "nappy-headed 'hos." The "comments" generated a firestorm that has led CBS radio to suspend Imus for two weeks and MSNBC to drop his show entirely amid growing calls for his firing by the likes of Al Sharpton and Bob Herbert. There can now be no doubt that it is a very, very bad thing to refer to women of color as "nappy-headed 'hos."

Well I guess we can all agree on that. Still, I can't help but wonder what it is about such trivial incidents that triggers such a grotesquely disproportionate response in the national media. I've never listened to Imus much, but it seems like a good part of his appeal comes from his propensity for just the sort of cartoonish jag that got him in trouble this time. Obviously, his remarks can be construed here as racist, sexist, or just plain tasteless, but they certainly weren't malicious, which prompts the question of exactly how low the threshold is for one of these week-long spirals of sanctimony.

The whole incident highlights a few other noteworthy contemporary phenomena that I'll no doubt be returning to in this space. In brief:

1. The Career-Threatening Gaffe In which a public figure commits some sin of speech or action that seriously damages his/her credibility, either reparably or irreparably. Other recent examples range from John McCain's ill-fated stroll through a Baghdad market to Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic rant.

2. The Public Apology Imus has apologized repeatedly for his comments, but it's unclear if he'll be forgiven. Michael Richards attempted to apologize for his racist tirade, but just kept digging himself in deeper. Other sins may be forgivable: John Edwards has apologized for his vote authorizing the war in Iraq and seems to have been taken seriously by most Democrats; Hillary Clinton has refused to apologize for casting the same vote. Is this actually significant? Will the "apology issue" matter in next year's primaries?

3. The Ritual of Public Humiliation Sometimes it's not enough merely to apologize. Some sins are so bad that one must submit to a public berating by some recognized dispenser of justice. As author James Frey willingly submitted to the demands of his Oprah moment, so did Imus dutifully report to Sharpton's radio on program on Monday to get his tongue-lashing in what was otherwise an unfathomable act of masochism.