22 December 2008

Best Movies of 2008

Another year has passed, and it's once again time for Indiewire's annual film critics' poll. Final results are still being tabulated, but as of this writing, 78 ballots had been posted. My favorite film of the year, Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon, appears to be headed for a somewhat improbable win, with Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale currently running second. My full ballot is here and my annotated Top 10 is below.

1. The Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France)
Lyrical and poignant, the Taiwanese master's first film set outside of Asia further plumbs the aesthetic and existential depths explored in his masterful Café Lumière. The film unfolds in large chunks of real time, with Hou's camera gazing patiently at a world of perpetual flux and evanescence.

2. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, U.S.)
For many Americans of a certain political persuasion, 2008 was, above all else, the year of Barack Obama and the promise of political change. Arriving during the depths of the summer, WALL-E rode that wave, most explicitly in its closing-credits sequence, in which a benign intelligence helps the human race to rebuild the world from scratch. Like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the many references to which feel wholly earned, WALL-E ends on a profoundly affirmative note of transcendence and renewal.

3. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, U.S.)
Van Sant's Harvey Milk biopic was fine and may well score him a long-overdue Oscar nomination, but this multiply-distanced reverie involving an unexplained death and an introverted Portland skater kid, is the far more interesting of his two films this year. Like Lucrecia Martel's similarly ethereal The Headless Woman (a sure thing for next year's best list if it finds a distributor), Paranoid Park probes the loss of reality and the effects thereof on our moral percpetions.

4. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China)
Located in some twilight zone where documentary meets science fiction, Jia's visually astounding meditation on the physical and spiritual displacement caused by China's rapid economic development triumphs through the sheer force of its images, courtesy of the great cinematographer Yu Lik-wai.

5. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.)
As the weather and the economic news both got chillier, this contempoary update of Umberto D began to feel as much a movie of the zeitgeist as WALL-E. Michelle Williams shines as a flawed but sympathetic everywoman on the verge of falling off the socioeconomic map. See "NYFF #2," posted September 27.

6. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, France)
Desplechin's maximalist family melodrama really highlights the aesthetic shortcomings of something like Rachel Getting Married, proving that it is indeed possible to make a movie about endlessly combative relatives that's not excruciating to sit through.

7. Mary (Abel Ferrara, U.S.)
The least heralded film on my list, Ferrara's response to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ continues the Bad Lieutenant director's career-long explorations of the physical reality of New York City and the spiritual aridity of contemporary life.

8. Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, U.S.)
Ben Stiller's work as a director has generally either been damned with faint praise (Zoolander) or outright reviled (The Cable Guy). Most reviews of Tropic Thunder tended toward the former but, like its predecessors, this take-no-prisoners satire of war movies, Hollywood insularity, actorly vanity, and human hubris will gain in critical stature in the coming years.

9. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Hong's body of work certainly hews closely to Jean Renoir's notion that a filmmaker's career consists essentially of remaking the same film over and over. This dryly comic tale of the romantic misadventures of a filmmaker with writer's block may be his film's best iteration.

10. Che (Steven Soderbergh, U.S.)
See "NYFF #3," posted October 5.

Second 10 (in alphabetical order): Ballast (Lance Hammer, U.S.); The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, France); Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, U.S.); Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, U.K.); In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerin, Spain); Iron Man (Jon Favreau, U.S.); Milk (Van Sant, U.S.); My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, Canada); Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (John Gianvito, U.S.); The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, U.S.)

05 November 2008

Post-Election Thoughts

So it's finally over. I'm less elated than relieved. But a little bit elated too. Since I've been trying to give up the dark art of punditry, a fundamentally useless activity that takes up too much of the time of too many smart people, I'll confine myself to a few empirical observations.

1. Barack Obama won this election decisively. As of this writing, with around 97% of the votes counted, he has received over 52% of the popular vote, the second-highest portion for a new president in the past 40 years, and the highest percentage of any Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. If his 12,000 vote lead in North Carolina holds, he'll wind up with 364 electoral college votes, a two-to-one supermajority.

2. The G.O.P. suffered a total wipeout in the northeastern third of the country, with McCain losing the entire New England and mid-Atlantic regions, as well as a continuous stream of states extending as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Minnesota and Iowa. Normally close states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin went to Obama by double digits. Even Indiana went for the Democrats, for the first time since 1964. With the defeat of Connecticut's Christopher Shays, the Republicans now hold no House seats anywhere in New England (they still have both Senate seats in Maine), and only 3 out of 29 seats in New York state.

3. The polls were right. Obama won the election by about six percentage points in the popular vote, solidly within the range predicted by most pre-election polls. The only battleground states where results deviated significantly from pre-election polling averages were Nevada and Indiana, where Obama did about five points better than expected, winning a larger-than-predicted majority in Nevada and pulling an upset in the Hoosier state.

05 October 2008

NYFF #3: Che

Possibly the most anticipated film of this year's New York Film Festival, Steven Soderbergh's Che gets its sole screening on Tuesday night. The film premiered at Cannes to a fair amount of controversy, largely centered on the film's alleged "omissions" of some of the less flattering episodes of Ernesto Guevara's life. Owing to an odd critical predilection for writing about what's on the screen rather than what isn't, as well as the belief that an artist is entitled to his/her own choice of subject, I'll leave such matters to others.

As for the entirely legitimate question of whether Che glamorizes Guevara, my answer would be a qualified no. Soderbergh's whole approach is based on a studied objectivity. Clocking in at 262 minutes, divided exactly in half by an intermission, Che may be the most plot-driven biopic ever made. The pace of this relentlessly forward-driving film (which certainly doesn't feel like four-and-a-half hours) remains brisk throughout, with a lot of short scenes and almost no time spent ruminating over character psychology. The film makes no explicit effort to valorize or condemn anything onscreen, but merely presents its version of what happened, mostly with as little expressionist fanfare as possible. (The film's first half, devoted to the years preceding the Cuban Revolution of 1959, jived with my scant knowledge of the period, although I'll have to plead ignorance on the second half, set in the wilds of Bolivia in the final year of Guevara's life.)

In its unaccented neutrality, Che is a fitting tribute to a Marxist revolutionary: collective struggle easily trumps individual heroism throughout. This conceptual coherence lifts the movie far above something like Walter Salles's 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries, which Jessica Winter aptly described as "a well-meaning but ostentatious display of solidarity with a vaguely defined ideal, not entirely unlike making the scene in your Che Guevara tank top."

Che avoids most of the obvious semiotic pitfalls, but only at the expense of refusing to define Guevara entirely, other than as the personification of collective struggle. The rich color palette and exquisitely unobtrusive framings make Che an attractive film to look at, but its superficial beauty eventually makes for an alienating experience. (This is perhaps the whole point.) The first half is sprinkled with black-and-white scenes from a 1964 trip to New York, mostly covering Guevara's appearance representing Cuba at the United Nations and an interview by a female journalist. But this too seems deliberately off-putting, more an excuse for Soderbergh to whip up some '60s-style cinema vérité than to provide any meaningful political or psychological insight into his subject. In a sense, the movie's not really a biopic at all; Che basically remains an icon, albeit one put back into historical context. It is a supremely withholding film. Nearly a week after seeing it, I can't decide if it was empty or brilliant.

27 September 2008

NYFF #2: Wendy and Lucy

One of the highlights of this year's main program is Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, the follow-up to her justly acclaimed 2006 indie Old Joy. Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a twentysomething drifter passing through rural Oregon on her way to seek work in Alaska. Her sole companion is her dog Lucy, but the two become separated after Wendy is pointlessly arrested following a pathetic attempt to shoplift a few pieces of food. Most of the film's remainder is devoted to Wendy's efforts to find her dog.

If this scenario sounds unbearably sentimental, it doesn't play that way onscreen, thanks both to Reichardt's laid-back, assured direction and Williams's singular performance; beaten down by the world and constantly on the defensive, her Wendy is simultaneously aloof and sympathetic. Reichardt once again demonstrates a good eye for the landscapes of small-town America, but the setting is hardly romanticized. In some ways, Wendy and Lucy is less overtly political than Old Joy—there's no equivalent here to the earlier film's brilliant use of liberal talk radio as purveyor of both consolation and deeper alienation—but the many references to homelessness and unemployment are impossible to miss.

26 September 2008

New York Film Festival: The Class

We may or may not have our first presidential debate tonight, and we may or may not still have a functional banking system, but one thing that appears certain is that the 46th New York Film Festival will begin tonight at Lincoln Center. I'll be blogging about some of the selections over the coming days and weeks.

This year's NYFF opens with tonight's screening of French director Laurent Cantet's The Class, winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes festival. Set at a high school in Paris's 20th arrondissement, The Class is built around the interactions between François, a teacher played by François Bégaudeau, who also wrote the film's script as well as the book on which it's based, drawing from his own real-life teaching experience. The bulk of the movie consists of a series of tightly framed, briskly edited classroom scenes that capture the rhythm of the relentless back-and-forth between François and his students. The initial takes of these classroom scenes were shot with three cameras running concurrently, one on François and two on his students, and Cantet frequently built scenes around material improvised by his cast of nonprofessionals during these first takes.

It's an effective method, with the semi-improv'd acting largely keeping it real, even as the film isn't above the occasional plot contrivance to move the story along. The Class has a lot to say about the nature of rules, specifically about how excessive reliance on rigid principles and policies can escalate situations to the ultimate detriment of all concerned. And it has what may be the best summary of Plato's Republic I've ever heard.

I'll have another post later today or early tomorrow about a few of the other films showing this weekend.

19 August 2008

Manny Farber (1917-2008)

There's an interview piece toward the back of Manny Farber's book Negative Space in which the great film critic opines on the essential uselessness of opinions. Evaluation, he says, is "practically worthless for a critic. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not: the problems of writing are after that." It's a trenchant position, but one that I've tried to take to heart in my own writing over the years. And surely the essential truth in these words has never been more relevant than now, with the omnipresence of opionionated bloviators of all stripes on all subjects clogging up our headspace.

Farber, who died Monday at the age of 91, never really considered himself a film critic—he was adamant that painting was his primary vocation—but nevertheless wound up being one of the most influential writers about film in the history of the medium. This wasn't primarily a function of his inimitable prose style, his keen attention to visual detial, or his discerning taste in cinema, but of a certain attitude, one best encapsulated in his famous concept of "termite art." Termite art, as defined by Farber, "feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into the conditions of the next achievement." This insistence on organically developing one's own aesthetic was both the subject and substance of Farber's criticism, both its content and its form. Farber will be remembered, and rightly so, as an early champion of American action directors—the essential Negative Space contains a pair of key 1969 pieces on Sam Fuller and Don Siegel—but his own termite-like approach was just as effective when zeroing in on the nuances of the more celebrated European art films, whether he liked a given film or not.

Never as widely read as writers like Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael, Farber remains a somewhat rarefied taste. There's a quote attributed to Brian Eno about the Velvet Underground, something about how no one bought their first album but that everyone who did formed a band of their own. That sort of describes Farber's legendary status as the ultimate critic's critic.

I would try to characterize Farber's writing style, but I know when I'm beat. Instead I'll leave you with one of my favorite bits, the final paragraph of a 1968 essay on Jean-Luc Godard, an art film director who Farber did like (I think). This is also found in Negative Space, which you really must buy today if you don't own it already:

Godard's legacy to film history already includes a school of estranged clown fish, intellectual ineffectuals, a vivid communication of mucking about, a good eye for damp villas in the suburbs, an ability to turn any actress into a doll, part of the decor, some great still shots that have an irascible energy, an endless supply of lists. I think that I shall never see scenes with more sleep-provoking powers, or hear so many big words that tell me nothing, or be an audience to film-writing which gets to the heart of an obvious idea and hangs in there, or be so edified by the sound and sight of decent, noble words spoken with utter piety. In short, no other film-maker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass.

09 August 2008

The Righteous Path

One of the innumerable pernicious side effects of the red state/blue state wars of the Bush years has been that it’s once again become okay to bash the South. TV news personalities have smugly railed against the continuing presence of Confederate flags in the region, Democratic political strategists have written books suggesting the party should completely ignore the South, and, in an ironic mirroring of Republican race-baiting, the general idea has taken hold among a lot of otherwise liberal-minded types that this country would be just fine if not for those people holding us back.

I don’t mean to say that none of this is rooted in reality, but of course it’s not the whole reality. Enter Patterson Hood and his band, the Drive-By Truckers, who’ve spent the past decade or so exploring what Hood has termed “the duality of the Southern thing.” Born and raised in the northwest Alabama town of Florence, the son of famed session bassist David Hood began writing songs in grade school. He formed the Truckers in 1996 with Mike Cooley, a friend from his college days a decade earlier. After a couple middling albums, the band scored a major indie rock hit with the double-disc Southern Rock Opera (2001), a loose concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd. This kicked off a run of fine records including Decoration Day (2003), the gangsta rock opus The Dirty South (2004), and (passing quietly over the 2006 dud A Blessing and a Curse) this year’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the band’s widest-ranging album to date and possibly its best. Of all American rock bands, only Spoon has put together four albums as good this decade.

What’s remarkable about Hood’s songwriting is not that his music and lyrics present a multifaceted, morally complex view of the South; this is precisely what one would expect from an artist of his caliber and background. What’s remarkable is that he does so without a trace of rancor or defensiveness. The closest thing to a mission statement in the Truckers’ catalog is a Southern Rock Opera track called “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” The icons in question are former governor George Wallace, legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, and Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zandt (who as Hood dutifully notes “wasn’t from Alabama, he was from Florida”), but Bryant and Van Zandt largely take a backseat in a song that develops into an insightful and nuanced meditation on the legacy of Wallace. Forsaking his usual melodic rasp, Hood skillfully intertwines history with his own biography. Noting that “race was only an issue on TV in my house,” he remembers the shock he felt upon leaving the South for the first time and realizing that Wallace (portrayed in the song not as a hardcore racist but as a cynical politician who exploited prejudice for votes) and the venom he spewed were considered typical of the region and its people by most non-Southerners.

The sophistication of Hood and his bandmates about the Southern thing allows the Truckers not only to preserve the best of the region’s history and attitude but to shine a light on its seamier side as well. With the exception of two songs about the war in Iraq—the PTSD-glossing “The Man I Shot” and “The Home Front,” a heartbreaker inspired by Hood’s encounter with the family of a Truckers fan killed in Iraq mere days before he was scheduled to return home—Brighter Than Creation’s Dark features little overtly political material. And with the exception of a pair of outright country songs from Cooley, including a minor stroke of genius about a small-town guy named “Bob,” there’s little here that strays outside the bounds of Southern rock, as defined on the band’s previous albums. As usual, it’s the acuity and empathy of the band’s songwriters—including Cooley and bassist Shonna Tucker, but especially Hood—that carries the day.

Brighter Than Creation’s Dark encompasses the usual assortment of good citizens and shady characters—as well as some who may be a little of both—all portrayed with some sympathy. Whether an alcoholic dad or an itinerant musician, a war widow or a drug dealer, the characters here are all ordinary people stranded in an indecipherable world. We all make our choices in life and Hood’s not here to pass judgment—he’s the type of songwriter who, even while decrying a friend’s descent into crystal meth addiction, feels the need to throw in “I ain’t exactly a no-drug guy.” Hood’s far more interested in the way his characters view themselves. “I don’t know God but I fear his wrath/I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path,” says one of his southern Everymen in “The Righteous Path," and it’s a sentiment one can imagine coming from nearly any of the album’s characters, including the addicts and criminals. In this version of the American South, everyone’s just trying to get by, and if some are doing so a little differently than others, then well, there’s “no time for self-pity or that other crap.”

It’s a worldview about as far from the programmatic idiocy of partisan politics as one can imagine. Neither of the Iraq songs makes any mention of the politics surrounding the war. Hood surely has his opinions and so do you and I, but it’s all been said over and over again by now and he’s smart enough to know that no one needs another lecture, least of all from a guitar player.

31 July 2008

Toward a Unified Field Theory of Bullshit

Preview of Coming Attractions: I’m working on a post about the band the Drive-By Truckers, which I’ll hopefully have up in the next day or two.

But whenever I sit down to finish it, I wind up getting sucked in to the daily coverage of the presidential race again (this is why I couldn’t blog for four months). I continue to be transfixed not only by the abject stupidity of at least 90 percent of what passes for political discourse in our news media but also by how this stupidity is taken for granted by nearly everyone, including both the producers and the consumers of this junk. I don’t understand how a lot of media people manage to go about their jobs with a straight face, how they avoid becoming overwhelmed with the absurdity of the whole dog and pony show. Anyone who takes this meta-universe of constant chatter too seriously is clearly someone not to be trusted.

Nevertheless, it remains essential, if only out of some abstract duty to history, to single out some of the more obnoxious trends, dumbest ideas, and most ridiculous teapot tempests to come out of this year’s presidential race. But the theorist in me yearns for more, for some greater explanation. So consider this an initial stab toward a set of general propositions—call them first principles of my analysis of the presidential race. Any argument that runs counter to these must be regarded with extreme suspicion:

Laziness trumps all. As in most forms of human endeavor, problems in media coverage are far more often the result of laziness than malice. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about so-called liberal or conservative “bias” in the media. And while there are certainly individuals, and even entire news operations, that are indeed slanted this way or that, most of what people think of as media bias is the result of simple human laziness. Given the reality of perpetual deadlines, it’s much easier for reporters to let the campaigns dictate what the “news” will be on a given day than to research and report their own original stories. Hence, we get the daily rounds of dueling press releases from the two campaigns seeking to set the day’s agenda. This is also one of the factors driving the endless repetition of certain stories, including the infantile obsession with showing the same bits of video over and over and over again; sometimes such stories help (or more often, hurt) one candidate and sometimes the other, but the process by which they develop is fundamentally a capricious one.

2. The horserace factor. It is important to remember at all times that the MSM has a significant material investment in making sure that the race is perceived as close all the way to the end. This ironclad reality has led directly to the single dumbest metanarrative of the campaign right now: the idea that Barack Obama isn’t winning by enough. I can’t even count the number of articles I’ve seen over the past week reporting on some new poll showing an Obama lead as being good news for McCain. We’re not gambling on football here. There’s no point-spread. (Except during the primaries, when there kind of was a point-spread on some of the contests, but those days are happily over with).

3. Nature abhors a vacuum. Most coverage of the presidential race is driven not by external events, but by the need for constant content. Like #2, this is fairly obvious, but bears frequent repeating. Hence the large number of pieces to be found on sites like Politico and Real Clear Politics that don’t introduce any new facts or even any new opinions. Most articles labeled as “analysis” or “commentary” exist only for the sake of maintaining circulation, Web traffic, etc. For mostly market-based reasons, such content for content’s sake tends to gravitate toward bogus media-driven stories.

People frequently complain—and usually justifiably—about how the MSM seldom covers serious policy issues during presidential campaigns, but it should be obvious that such policy coverage is completely antithetical to the way the media functions. Detailed coverage of, say, the differences between the candidates’ tax proposals or their contrasting views on energy policy would clearly violate all three of the principles outlined above. Policy coverage requires time, money, and effort for research (as well as reporters with some detailed issue-specific knowledge, a rare species at many MSM outlets), has the potential to upset the horserace coverage by highlighting concrerte weaknesses in the candidates, which may or may not balance each other out, and runs completely counter to the 24-hour news cycle and its constant demand for new content. My next post will have nothing to do with the presidential race. I promise.

12 July 2008

No Weak Sister

Well, it’s been a big week for the Politics of Parsing. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it seems that the type of non-news news stories that dominate the daily coverage of the presidential race take on particular prominence during stretches when nothing substantial is happening. In other words, the less is actually going on in the race, the louder the media chatter becomes. This became clear during the six-week death march between the Mississippi and Pennsylvania primaries, dominated by crazy-pastor news and the like, and we’re currently in the middle of another slow stretch, with running-mate announcements likely still over a month away. Just in the past week, we’ve seen minor flare-ups over such pressing national issues as whether the Obama children should have been allowed to appear in a TV interview, what McCain’s apparently newfound affinity for the Pittsburgh Steelers might say about his character, and (slightly more substantial) some truly asinine comments by McCain senior economic adviser Phil Gramm.

But there was one interesting incident, involving the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who in a careless hot-mic moment, expressed his desire to do some intimate bodily harm to Barack Obama, apparently over his allegedly “talking down” to the black community (Jackson would know, I suppose) in an otherwise noncontroversial Father’s Day speech exhorting black men to be more involved in the lives of their children. The media, rightly I think, portrayed the incident as a political boon for Obama (you just can't buy this kind of publicity), with some even comparing it to Bill Clinton’s hallowed “Sister Souljah moment,” much beloved by the MSM. For those who don’t remember this transcendent act of statesmanlike courage, the phrase refers to an incident in the spring of 1992 when Clinton used a Jackson-hosted conference as an occasion to browbeat the rapper and political activist Sister Souljah over some comments she’d made about the Rodney King riots (and which Clinton had shamelessly ripped out of context). Jackson was furious, but the incident was widely seen as giving Clinton some street cred with white voters nervous about rioting black city-dwellers.

Obama has shown himself to be a far less cynical politician that Clinton, and his Father’s Day speech was largely on point, but Jackson probably wasn’t wrong in thinking that its intended audience included white people, some of whom may have taken an unseemly delight at the sight of a black politician talking tough to people of his own race. Which brings me to a central truth about Barack Obama: He is, in fact, a politician, and a shrewd and skillful one at that. (One doesn’t become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review without being a shrewd and skillful politician.) To paraphrase Bill Parcells: this is a good thing, not a bad thing. Hence, the genius of Obama’s feints toward the center in recent weeks and the misguided nature of the overheated liberal response (although, of course, the elicitation of such a response was part of the point). With the exception of his disappointing cave-in on the FISA legislation, Obama has been able to broaden his appeal without conceding any substantive ground, an exceedingly difficult feat for a Democrat. In the 40 years since the departure of Lyndon Johnson, one of the truly great operators in American political history, Democratic presidential nominees have too often come off as cynical (Clinton) or weak (Dukakis, Kerry), if not both at once (Gore).

Like all politicians, Obama will disappoint even his admirers from time to time; the FISA vote was one such time and, if he’s elected president, there will doubtless be others. But he is a different kind of Democratic politician and not just because he’d never stoop to using a young activist as a punching bag. We’ll also never see him getting his picture taken in a tank, hiring a consultant to teach him how to be a man, or sitting by idly for a month while a bunch of hired thugs assassinate his character.

Here’s the first electoral-map update. I can’t believe I’m even writing this, but North Dakota, a state that’s only gone Democratic in three presidential elections and none since 1964, appears to be in play, with a new poll showing a dead heat. Everything else stays put for now.

STRONG OBAMA (200): California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (15), New York (31), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (11)

WEAK OBAMA (55): Iowa (7), Michigan (17), Pennsylvania (21), Wisconsin (10)

TOSS-UPS/TRUE SWING STATES (62): Colorado (9), Missouri (11), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (20), Virginia (13)

WEAK MCCAIN (67): Alaska (3), Florida (27), Indiana (11), Montana (3), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15), North Dakota (3)

STRONG MCCAIN (154): Alabama (9), Arizona (10), Arkansas (6), Georgia (15), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (9), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (8), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (34), Utah (5), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3)

28 June 2008

Clauses and Effects

Regarding this week’s Supreme Court ruling in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller: conservatives are too happy and liberals are too upset. While the Court did apparently resolve a fundamental legal question, one that had languished for over a century, by interpreting the U.S. Constitution’s oddly punctuated Second Amendment as protecting the right of individuals to own a gun for non-military purposes, the decision is likely to have very little practical effect. Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion did not endorse the extremist view that virtually any gun-control legislation represents an infringement of the right to bear arms; indeed, he explicitly stated that the Court’s opinion allowed for “laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms” and other gun-related legislation. Only highly restrictive gun laws, such as the one at issue from Washington, D.C., that effectively banned possession of handguns altogether for most people, would run afoul of the Court’s decision. There will certainly be lawsuits in a few cities such as Chicago, but the vast majority of existing gun legislation is safe. Indeed, it’s not even clear whether the Heller decision applies to state and local governments; the Court was able to sidestep this issue because the District of Columbia is under federal jurisdiction.

The fact is, very few jurisdictions, most of them large cities where liberals far outnumber hunters, could even pass a law as restrictive as the D.C. ban, which brings me to a larger legal point about the Heller decision. Notwithstanding Justice Scalia’s endless (and highly selective) historical analysis, which I won’t pretend to have read nearly all of, this decision was not a triumph of originalism, the doctrine espoused by some conservative legal scholars that essentially boils down to the absurd notion that we should continue to be governed by the antiquated standards of 1787 (or 1791). Rather, Scalia’s opinion was an example of living constitutionalism in action, based on the type of reasoning that conservatives have disparaged on other occasions as “judicial activism.” While it may ultimately be impossible to ascertain how the founding fathers may have intended the relationship between the Second Amendment’s prefatory and operative clauses, there can be little doubt that the individual right to bear arms has long been enshrined in practice in this country. The law simply hadn’t caught up yet.

Liberals also stand to gain from this decision in terms of electoral politics. The Supreme Court’s affirmation of the individual right to bear arms should have the effect of taking the gun issue, a perennial loser for Democrats, off the table. It’s now going to be very difficult to make the argument that an Obama administration would be in the business of confiscating people’s guns, a claim the Republicans were able to make very effectively against Al Gore in 2000, despite its lack of any basis in reality. Obama’s own reaction to the decision, a cautious endorsement tempered by an acknowledgment of the need for big cities to have all the necessary tools at their disposal to fight gun violence, will no doubt be characterized as equivocation in some quarters, but seemed appropriately nuanced.

19 June 2008

Against Interpretation

Hello again. I've been neglecting the blog over the past several months; most of my blogging time has gone into obsessing over the presidential election, which I've been unable to write about due to the stomach-churning dread that seized me whenever I began to seriously contemplate the prospect of another Clinton administration. John McCain, particularly in his recent, base-pandering incarnation, would make a far worse president than either of the Clintons in any number of important respects, but I must confess he doesn't quite have the same visceral effect on me. Or it may just be that I don't think he's going to win.

There will be much more time to discuss the race over the next four-and-a-half months, and I'll certainly do so here. But today I'd just like to highlight one aspect of the primary season that will continue to be of relevance going forward. One of the major themes of this campaign has been the tension between Obama's conception of a "new politics" that aims to lower the temperature of partisan discourse in Washington and a news media establishment that's heavily invested in creating conflict for its own sake to provide fuel for the narratives that drive the day-to-day news cycle. Among the deadliest weapons at their disposal for this task is that of interpretation. Ten years after we asked ourselves what the definition of is is, we are now smack in the middle of the Era of Parsing, in which no word, expression, or gesture is too small to provoke the all-important question: What does it mean?

I could easily cite dozens of examples of the politics of interpretation from the recent Democratic primary campaign just by recounting the daily rounds of overheated press releases and conference calls by which the campaigns of all candidates feed the beast. But the purest examples are the stories that seem to gain their own momentum, usually lasting from a few days to a few weeks. Among the greatest hits: Obama's alleged "snub" of Clinton at the State of the Union address, the recent flap over Clinton's RFK comments, and the slightly less recent flap over Obama's "bitter" comments, which approached self-parody when one blogger declared that the problematic word in Obama's statement (made off-camera at a private gathering, let us not forget) was not "bitter" but "cling" (apparently "surprising," "people," and "to" were considered unobjectionable).

I'll continue to expand on this analysis over the next several months, but I'm not above some horse-race coverage as well. I'm a bit suspicious of the predictive power of polls this early in the race; I don't think they have a lot of meaning before Labor Day or so. (Bear in mind that a poll taken five months before the start of the primary season would have indicated that Clinton and Rudy Giuliani would be the nominees.) Nevertheless, a pair of frequently updated electoral-college maps based on polling data can be found here and here. The lists below represent my current take on each state based partly on polling data, demographic trends, and historical patterns but also on my own subjective sense of how the race is going, the same sense that told me Obama was going to lose the New Hampshire primary, no matter what the polls and pundits were saying.

STRONG MCCAIN (157): Alabama (9), Arizona (10), Arkansas (6), Georgia (15), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (9), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (8), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (34), Utah (5), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3)

WEAK MCCAIN (64): Alaska (3), Florida (27), Indiana (11), Montana (3), Nevada (5), North Carolina (15)

TOSS-UPS/TRUE SWING STATES (62): Colorado (9), Missouri (11), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (20), Virginia (13)

WEAK OBAMA (55): Iowa (7), Michigan (17), Pennsylvania (21), Wisconsin (10)

STRONG OBAMA (200): California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (15), New York (31), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (11)

"Strong" states are those that I don't currently see becoming competitive, whereas in "weak" states, I can easily imagine the other candidate pulling an upset. This is merely a baseline for the race; states can and will move among the categories as conditions warrant. The alert reader will note that I've already moved Iowa, a state where President Bush beat John Kerry in 2004, into the Obama column. It's also worth noting that Bush won all six of my true swing states at least once, and most of them twice.

R.I.P. Tim Russert, a journalist who always knew the next question and seldom failed to ask it. He will be missed.

24 February 2008

There Will Be [Fill In Your Own Joke]

One-year wonder or sign of things to come? Either way, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences delivered an unusually defensible group of nominees for the 80th Oscars. Not only is there nothing in this year’s Best Picture field that I hate (rare enough in recent years), but for the first time in nearly a decade, my favorite movie of the year made it onto the Academy’s shortlist. Indeed, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a bold, strange, and deeply impolite film about a misanthropic oilman in early-20th-century California, tied for the most nominations with tonight’s heavy favorite, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men. And had Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score, one of the best in modern cinema history, not been disqualified on a technicality, There Will Be Blood would almost certainly have led the field with nine nominations.

I hesitate to even say this, but it looks like the Academy’s tastes are finally getting a bit younger and hipper. None of the five films nominated for Best Picture this year feel like a typical Oscar winner. At first glance, Atonement might seem to fit the profile: epic World War II romance based on a well-known novel, but beneath all the lavishness lurks a resolutely contemporary sensibility. It’s hardly a great movie, but Atonement deserves props for being literate, not just “literary.” Likewise, the teen comedy Juno and the legal thriller Michael Clayton are far from spectacular, but both have their merits. Juno suffers from severely overwritten dialogue and a directorial style shamelessly pilfered from Wes Anderson, but it’s also a refreshingly female-centric take on its genre. And there’s nothing really wrong with the modest, solidly crafted Michael Clayton aside from its overall ordinariness.

And this isn’t just a one-year phenomenon: You have to go back five years now to find a “typical” Best Picture. The last four winners have been a fantasy epic, an intimate auteurist drama, a hysterical ensemble piece (yes, Crash was terrible, but it was terrible in new and interesting ways), and a stylish cops-and-criminals flick.

The big narrative coming out of tonight will be Hollywood bestowing its top prize on a pair of indie stalwarts, but it’s fair to say that the Coens met Hollywood halfway. No Country for Old Men is well acted and impeccably made, but it mostly lacks the oddball humor of the pair’s best work (Fargo, The Big Lebowski). It’s a good movie, I guess, but it was all a bit nihilist-chic for my taste; the somber tone, verging on self-importance, didn’t feel wholly earned.

Still, it would have to be considered an above-average Best Picture winner. And the nomination of There Will Be Blood really does represent a massive leap forward for the Academy. Nakedly ambitious, morally complex, and lacking either a sympathetic hero or any romantic interest, it’s precisely the type of prickly art film that the Academy has dismissed out of hand in the past. At 37, Anderson is the best director currently working in American cinema, and as long as his movie takes home at least one or two prizes tonight, there won’t be any complaints from me.

Best Picture

Going into the season, I thought No Country For Old Men would feel too much like a critics’ film for the Academy to embrace, but the inclusion of There Will Be Blood makes it appear positively mainstream. I don’t see an upset happening here. Atonement failed to land a Best Director nomination, Juno and Michael Clayton are too small, and There Will Be Blood is just too weird.

Will win: No Country for Old Men
Should win: There Will Be Blood


This isn’t quite the slam-dunk that Best Picture is, but the Coens remain heavy favorites. With the brothers a virtual lock for the top prize, it’s conceivable that the Academy could honor Anderson for either director or screenplay, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

W: Joel and Ethan Coen, NCFOM
S: Paul Thomas Anderson, TWWB


It’s no secret that merit has never had a whole a lot to do with winning Oscars, but once in a while a performance comes along that’s so incredibly good, it can’t be denied. Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview is well on his way to joining the likes of Charles Foster Kane and Ethan Edwards among the iconic characters of American cinema. Clooney and Depp could both win one of these in the next five years, but not tonight.

W: Daniel Day Lewis, TWBB
S: Daniel Day Lewis, TWBB


Julie Christie’s quietly tragic performance as a woman losing her mind to Alzheimer’s stands to be the deserving winner. Her main competition is Marion Cotillard in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose, which remains unseen by me.

W: Julie Christie, Away From Her
S: Julie Christie, Away From Her

Supporting Actress

The toughest call of the night. Any of the five nominees could easily win.

W: Ruby Dee, American Gangster
S: Saoirse Ronan, Atonement

Supporting Actor

The easiest call of the night. Will Americans ever tire of serial killers?

W: Javier Bardem, NCFOM
S: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Screenplay, Original
W: Juno
S: Ratatouille

Screenplay, Adapted

Animated Feature
W: Ratatouille
S: Ratatouille

Documentary Feature
W: No End in Sight

Foreign Language Film
W: The Counterfeiters


Art Direction

W: The Bourne Ultimatum

Visual Effects
W: Transformers
S: Transformers

Costume Design
W: Atonement
S: Atonement

W: La Vie En Rose

Sound Mixing
W: Transformers

Sound Editing
W: Transformers

Original Score
W: Atonement
S: [reserved for Jonny Greenwood]

Original Song
W: “Falling Slowly,” Once
S: “Falling Slowly,” Once

Animated Short
W: Peter and the Wolf

Live Action Short
W: Freeheld

Documentary Short
W: Le Mozart des Pickpockets

24 January 2008

Best Music of 2007

It took me a few extra weeks to absorb some late-year releases, but here are my top 10 albums of 2007. This year's list runs a lot closer to the critical consensus than usual. I am not sure how to feel about this.

Top 10 albums

1. M.I.A.—Kala
Her plans to record with Timbaland derailed by visa troubles, M.I.A. traveled around the world and conjured up a stateless, genreless masterpiece (see “Combat Rock,” posted September 20). Kala effortlessly blends a cornucopia of musical styles and references, and M.I.A.’s lyrics feint at sloganeering while also embracing the world in all its contradictions. The most politically complex, artistically ambitious, and musically adventurous album of the year lands at number one by a wide margin.
(“Paper Planes” “Birdflu”)

2. Spoon—Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
The most consistent American band of the decade follows up a trio of excellent albums with this, their best to date. Synthesizing an unusually broad array of musical tendencies for a group usually consigned to the dreaded “indie rock” ghetto, Spoon touches on blues, dub, new wave, and Memphis soul as frontman Britt Daniel sings about love, war, and even commercial appeal.
(“Finer Feelings” “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”)

3. Radiohead—In Rainbows
So much attention was justifiably paid to Radiohead’s groundbreaking distribution model (see “Karma Police,” posted October 16) that it took me 10 or 12 spins to realize how good the record actually is. Like Spoon, Radiohead has made the loosest album of its career. It’s also the least-brooding effort in the band’s catalog, suggesting that Radiohead, most of whose members will be 40 by the end of the year, should settle into middle age nicely. (“Reckoner” “Bodysnatchers”)

4. Bruce Springsteen—Magic
After meandering through the ’90s, Bruce Springsteen has made a series of solid albums over the past several years, so it’s no slight to say that Magic is the Boss’s best in 20 years, an album that effortlessly achieves the political relevance that the post-9/11 The Rising audibly strained for. Never one to preach, Springsteen keeps the politics mostly low-key. Bruce on the 2004 election debacle: “Woke up Election Day/Skies gunpowder and shades of gray.” Bruce on the war: “To him that threw you away/You ain’t nothing but gone.” Bruce on torture: “Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse/Means certain things are etched in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.” But the album hits its peak with the remarkable “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” on which the 57-year-old Springsteen splits the difference between early Brian Wilson and late Philip Roth.
(“Girls in Their Summer Clothes” “Long Walk Home”)

5. Kanye West—Graduation
Kanye’s third-best album is his weakest as a rapper but Graduation is Kanye the producer’s most musically unified work to date. West may soon be the only artist left who can still afford to clear samples and he takes advantage here with snippets of Elton John, Steely Dan, Can, and of course Daft Punk. The Eurodisco-inflected tracks are good enough to make you wish he’d really gone balls-out with the concept. There’s nothing as sharp and savvy as “All Falls Down” on this outing, but “Homecoming,” which features the Devon, England-born Chris Martin reminiscing about “fireworks on Lake Michigan,” is an ingenious take on dislocation and loss of identity, and the album-closing “Big Brother” is a surprisingly candid reflection on Kanye’s relationship with mentor Jay-Z.
(“Flashing Lights” “Homecoming”)

6. Lil Wayne—Da Drought 3
It’s surely significant that two albums on my list were essentially given away for free over the internet. But while Radiohead’s gambit attracted a lot of fanfare, the underground hip-hop mixtape scene has been thriving for years with relatively little attention from the mainstream (i.e. white) music press. That may finally change thanks to the insanely prolific (and perpetually stoned) New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne, who released two mixtapes this year to wide critical acclaim and has a new official album coming out next month. This two-disc set, available for free download at http://www.datpiff.com/, goes a long way to back up Lil Wayne’s oft-repeated claim to the title of Best Rapper Alive. Lightning-quick musical references collide with semi-obscure sports metaphors and Wayne twists other rappers’ beats to his own diabolical ends, even daring to take on Jay-Z himself.
(“Ride 4 My Niggas” “I Can’t Feel My Face”)

7. Arcade Fire—The Neon Bible
I’m not quite as enthusiastic about this album as I was upon its release back in March (see “The Neon Bible,” posted April 27), but it remains a solid effort, whose reach only slightly exceeds its grasp. I saw the group perform on Randalls Island in October. The rumors are true: they’re markedly better live than on record. It was a great show, but there was something a bit disconcerting about the sight of a crowd full of politically alienated, debt-ridden, middle-class 20- and 30-somethings chanting along with lyrics like “I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”
(“Keep the Car Running” “Ocean of Noise”)

8. The Field—From Here We Go Sublime
This is what used to be called “techno.” The beats here are pretty straightforward for my funk-damaged tastes, but this debut from Swedish producer Axel Willner nonetheless makes for a chilled-out and exceedingly pleasant listen. From Here We Go Sublime is unusually melodic and accessible for its genre, with its best song built around a sample from hipster icon Lionel Richie.
(“A Paw in My Face” “From Here We Go Sublime”)

9. Modest Mouse—We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Isaac Brock & Co. aren’t breaking any new ground here, but the first half contains some of the band’s very best work, not to mention the most bitter good song about the Bush administration that I’ve heard. (“Parting of the Sensory” "Dashboard")

10. PJ Harvey—White Chalk
This was a tough nut to crack, but clocking in at a scant 33 minutes, she can afford to be difficult. (“When Under Ether” “Broken Harp”)

Top 5 songs not on those albums

1. Rihanna-“Umbrella” (feat. Jay-Z)
Just when you thought they didn’t write lyrics like that anymore (“Ella ella eh eh eh”).

2. LCD Soundsystem—“All My Friends”
I didn’t like the album as much as I wanted to, let alone as much as a lot of critics did—too many tracks gave it up far too easily. But this poignant dance-rock epic about the beginnings of getting old is an impressive formal achievement: a seven-minute-plus New Orderish pop song built around a synth pattern worthy of Steve Reich.

3. Paul McCartney—“Ever Present Past”
When I’m sixty-five.

4. Lil Wayne—“I Feel Like Dying”
From Carter 3 Sessions, Weezy’s other big mixtape this year.

5. Amy Winehouse—“Tears Dry on Their Own”
I’m still a little suspicious of the whole retro-soul thing, but this gorgeous song, evoking early-’60s Smokey Robinson, is a fine showcase for Winehouse’s tremendous vocal talents.