29 February 2008
Two more points about The Darjeeling Limited:
1. Wes Anderson's movies are notable for their soundtracks: Rushmore featured the lesser-known lights of the British invasion (most notably The Creation's incendiary "Making Time" which may be on the short-list for greatest rock song, period), The Royal Tenenbaums had the icy melancholia of Nico, Nick Drake, and Elliot Smith, and The Life Aquatic focused on David Bowie, featuring both his own performances, and more prevalently, acoustic Portuguese-language covers by Brazilian actor Seu Jorge. The Darjeeling Limited is equally meritorious, though not as thematically unified, owing to its cultural bifurcation: the incidental music is largely Indian (Mark Mothersbaugh, Anderson's typical musical collaborator, is absent here), while the scenes scored with actual songs feature Western pop, most conspicuously the Kinks.
Indeed, there are no fewer than three Kinks songs in Darjeeling: "This Time Tomorrow", "Strangers", and "Powerman". As with Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic (though less so with Rushmore), it is not unusual for Anderson to lean heavily on one artist . What is unusual is that all three Kinks tracks originate from the same album, 1970's Lola vs. the Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, Part 1. (Yes, the Kinks' most famous track shy of "You Really Got Me", the titular ode to a particularly unconvincing transvestite, is on the record). Lola et al. remains readily available at most reputable music retailers for a price between $9.99 and $11.99. Though perhaps not scaling the same highs as Village Green Preservation Society or Something Else, it is an excellent album by one of rock and roll's most gifted and, at least stateside, sorely under-appreciated bands. If you should catch the movie, and enjoy the outstanding songcraft therein, do yourself a favor and pick it up.
2. Right around the release of The Darjeeling Limited, it came to light that Wes Anderson filmed, back in 2005, a short film starring Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman called The Hotel Chevalier. Chevalier is a kind of prologue to Darjeeling, serving as a frame of reference for the longer film; it is also a stylish entertainment in its own right, a cocktail before dinner. For reasons unbeknownst to me, Fox Searchlight initially ran The Darjeeling Limited without Chevalier attached; sensing that the featurette could potentially garner an Oscar nomination for Best Short Feature, the company decided to tack it on to the front of Darjeeling so that it could qualify for consideration. The film was also made available as a free download on iTunes, which is how I first saw it.
The Hotel Chevalier is included on the DVD of The Darjeeling Limited: you are given the option to watch the two in conjunction, or separately. Though I had already seen Chevalier, I opted to watch them together, and I do believe that it does make a significant difference as to your understanding and enjoyment of the feature. If nothing else, it's another opportunity to look at that ridiculous set of luggage, designed for the film by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton.
Of The Clash's famously uneven 1981 triple LP, Sandinista!, Robert Christgau once wrote, "if this is their worst--which it is, I think--they must be, er, the world's greatest rock and roll band." While I do not consider Wes Anderson the world's greatest auteur, I would make the claim that if The Darjeeling Limited is his worst movie, as many have stated, then he must be at least near the top.
There are two chief offenses for which Anderson's fifth feature has been cited: 1) how closely it hews to his established template (slow-mo shots, British invasion soundtrack, precious tableaux, quirky characters typified by an overarching sense of monied ennui), and 2) its expropriation/exploitation of India, its signifiers, and its people.
Both charges are difficult to defend against, for entirely different reasons. The first because it is completely true. Wes Anderson has developed a heavily regimented, instantly recognizable style, and he seems disinclined to evolve in another direction, either vis a vis form or function. If you liked Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and (especially) The Life Aquatic, the odds are high you will connect with The Darjeeling Limited. If you hated these films, or you feel that their subsequently diminishing returns (an undeniable truth) will preclude your enjoyment of another helping, look elsewhere for entertainment.
The second charge, that Darjeeling is guilty of post-colonial condescension at worst, cultural tourism at best, is difficult for me to respond to simply because I am not among the potentially offended parties. I can certainly see how any film tightly focused on three white main characters set in a primarily nonwhite local can be potentially loaded; certainly Anderson's film does itself no favors by having Jason Schwartzman's character have sex with a gorgeous Indian stewardess aboard the train (it's obviously consensual, but you can't duck the charge of third-world fetishism) and having no Indian characters of real consequence.
Allow me to backtrack: the set-up is that the three Whitman brothers, Peter, Jack, and Francis (played by Adrien Brody, Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson respectively) are traveling through India on the titular train, in a nominal attempt to reconnect with one another after not seeing each other for a year following their father's funeral. The Whitmans are obviously one of those fading ancien regime families, akin to Anderson's Tenenbaums - comfortable in their wealth, though not ostentatiously so, yet completely unmoored by their material security. None has any type of vocation to speak of, and all are self-absorbed to the point of eluding adulthood. Francis (who has a hidden agenda I needn't spoil for you) organized the trip as a faddish attempt to commune via mutual spiritual enlightenment - you know, visit the shrines, walk among the people, engage in the rituals.
Anderson and co-scribes Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman are savvy enough to know the "white people amongst the beautiful, child-like foreigners" trope is a poison pill, and their script actively combats that perception by embracing the obliviousness of the characters, and supplying no "child-like foreigners" apart from, well, actual children. Unlike most "Americans abroad" comedies, little friction is derived from any "clash of cultures"; the Whitmans, urbane experienced travelers, more or less roll with the punches. Yes, of course they behave like tourists, because, well, that how tourists behave. Indeed the very underpinning of the tourist trade is visiting something that is quotidian or sacred, either in a religious or secular sense, to the locals, and oohing and aahing because it's exotic to you. Certainly, it is desirable to be respectful, and there's little suggestion in Darjeeling that the Whitmans are anything but. I fail to see the difference, thematically, between this film and an actual vacation to India, save that the film is acutely aware that its tourists' ambitions re: the spiritual effects of a journey in an alien land are faintly ridiculous. So yes, there are things to offend those seeking to be offended. However, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that those offended parties went into the movie seeking offense; surely Anderson and his collaborators do little to give any.
In an era where the term "indie movie" is coming to refer less to the method of production and more to content, the director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums remains the chief influence. Yet where imitators pour quirks and signifiers into empty vessels and consider the resulting collections of ticks and affectations characters, Anderson never neglects to give his tin men hearts as well. The Darjeeling Limited is thus another curious curio, visually sumptuous and emotionally muted, its protagonists the last of a dying breed.
27 February 2008
William F. Buckley, Jr., godfather of the modern conservative movement, was found dead this morning in his Connecticut home at the age of 82. He was seated at his desk.
In describing the National Review, the journal of opinion he founded in 1955, and by extension the conservative movement whose intellectual home it was, Buckley wrote: "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." It is perhaps the most economical synopsis of a system of political thought ever delineated. In one brief sentence, Buckley identified both the appeal of conservatism and the source of opposition to it.
One need not be a historian to understand that, across the long haul, America, and most of the rest of the world, has become progressively more liberal. Indeed, the United States was born in a fit of radical liberalism - a violent revolt against the British crown followed in short order by the establishment of a republic. Certainly, the liberalizing effects of history have not been uniform, either on a global basis or within our own nation. Institutions develop progressively (American democracy vs. European monarchy) while social attitudes do not (pan-European abolition versus America's retention of slavery), or vice-versa. Nor is progress traceable on a straight line - where, for example, does communism - a theoretically economically progressive ideology wedded to a repressive one-party political system - fit? It is against this general trend which conservatism "stands athwart."
A charitable analysis of conservatism cuts in two directions: 1) progress is not the sole preserve of liberalism, and 2) rather than attempting to bring history to a halt, conservatives are like brakes on a car - you want to get where you're going as quickly as possible, but you also don't want to spin out on a tight curve or collide with the driver in front of you. Such conservatism is useful in our society as a (more often than not) dissenting voice; a doctrinal second-opinion, if you will. It is more inclined to view the entrepreneurial aspect of American society as essential to its ongoing vitality; it is more apt to argue for the good of the individual being as worthy of consideration as the good of the whole. This strain of conservatism is not fundamentally Republican or Democratic, though it may be more often identified with the former party. In fact, when Americans on the leftmost end of the political spectrum argue that the Democratic Party has moved too far to the right, it is, in no small part, this influence they detect.
I do not know enough about Buckley's overarching political philosophy to ascribe to it such a moderating character. However, I do know that though the movement he has birthed has not stopped the march of history in this country, it has diverted its course. Buckley's ideology underwrote the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in '64 - a political insurgent both in his party and his country - which begat the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose ascendancy marked both the end of the New Deal era and the arrival of conservatism at the center of our political discourse. Buckley's war against the hegemonic liberalism of his day made these men possible - and by extension laid the foundations for George W. Bush.
It is in President Bush and his coterie that Mr. Buckley's conservatism met its apotheosis and antithesis - the breaching of its outer limits. The religious conservatives cleaved to his defense of traditional values but neglected his exhortation of reason as the conservative's sword and shield; the neo-conservatives took his anti-communism and directed its energies toward an elective war of nation-building and perpetual commitment. Bush himself, though happy to stand athwart history, is too intellectually weak a leader to either adhere consistently to conservative doctrine, or adapt pragmatically to extenuating circumstances. Buckley himself, drawing a fine line between his intellectual tradition and mere reaction, said that Bush was "conservative, but not a conservative."
But perhaps Mr. Buckley's conservatism had found its electoral high tide, and Mr. Bush's chief sin was to try to cannibalize it in the name of perpetuating Republican dominance at the polls. After all, Bush tried to package his mishmash of social obstinacy and aggressive unilateralism as something verging on futuristic. He and his chief political architect, Karl Rove, sold their vision not on the basis of Main Street, U.S.A. revisionism, as Reagan had, but rather as a way forward: that is, as history itself. Bush Republicanism ultimately faltered because it was incoherent - G.O.P. detractors refer to it as "big government conservatism", a dialectical impossibility in their eyes - and because the practical ramifications of his rule pointed not towards the sturdiness of conservatism as an ideology but its ultimate frailty when confronted with the exigencies of reality. Conservatism could not save the citizens of New Orleans, trapped on the roofs of their homes, nor can it furnish us with a solution to our health care crisis.
Indeed, if there is one central aspect of Buckley's conservatism that Bush has cleaved to, it is the idea that perhaps government is not supposed to meet these challenges. Ultimately it is this prizing of ideological purity that may be Buckley's chief bequest to the conservative movement - this deeply ingrained belief that principle should always triumph, even when that principal - that "organic morality" he once wrote of - runs contrary to the very tide of social progress and human necessity. It is a perverse inversion of the greater good, that inequities should persist and people should perish so that the idea can live on. Mr. Buckley, the man athwart history, did not subscribe to such a view of his work, saying "A conservatism that cannot find room in its folds for the actualities is a conservatism that is not a political force, or even a twitch: it has become a literary whimsy." It is a shame that the movement conservatives on whom he has left an indelible stamp have taken such doctrinal inflexibility as their primary inheritance.
The New York Times' obituary is available here.
We have two Democratic candidates who are vying with each other to describe the economic situation worse.Allow me to highlight the pertinent information for you:
The reality is that if you live on Wall Street and you're in the credit markets the world couldn't be worse. If you're a farmer and you're getting $25 for your wheat, you're having a great time. If you're a CEO and you've got a balance sheet that's bullet-proof, you're in a great position. This whole thing is way out of control, way out of hand.
The reality is that if you live on Wall Street and you're in the credit markets the world couldn't be worse.
Those would be the same credit markets, mind you, that gorged themselves on derivatives backed by subprime mortgages. You remember, those subprime mortgages with the usurous back-loaded interest rate hikes that banks doled out to people who couldn't possibly afford them. Those subprime mortgages that those same people are now defaulting on en masse. Now, those people, many first-time home owners, are being foreclosed upon in staggering numbers, their credit destroyed, and the neighborhoods they lived in declining into despair.
Now, I am no Marxist - a great many people who took out subprime mortgages were not as responsible in judging their financial situation as they should have been, and nor did they exercise sufficient caution or scrutiny regarding the terms of the mortgages themselves. While I support government efforts to educate people about home financing, including options for refinancing, and attempts to pressure lenders into renegotiating loans along more favorable (i.e. realistic) terms, these steps should not be interpreted as absolving people of responsibility for their financial affairs.
Yet it is beyond ludicrous to suggest that for those who "live on Wall Street", or rather those who work on Wall Street and live in Manhattan co-ops or posh suburbs where there are no foreclosures, "the world couldn't be worse." Oh, I guess it sucks to blow billions of dollars on an idiotic bet. (It's worth noting that Goldman Sachs, widely considered one of the world's smartest securities firms, has been largely unaffected by the subprime crisis.) However, I note with disdain the number of CEOs who have been felled as a result of their poor judgment and wafted out of their corner offices on platinum parachutes. Though their honor might be stained (which I doubt), surely they will never feel anything resembling economic pressure again. Meanwhile, they need only cast a glance northward to the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx to see what their profiteering has wrought in a place where "the world couldn't be worse."
As for Mr. Zell, who seems oblivious to the fact that the nation is sliding into a recession, I would suggest that the Democrats, unlike the present occupant of the White House, are simply telling it like it is. Oh, I forgot, if "you're a farmer and you're getting $25 for your wheat" or "a CEO and you've got a balance sheet that's bullet-proof," you're doing just fine. Problem is, most Americans aren't.
26 February 2008
25 February 2008
From the New York Times' media blog The Lede:
...many Alabamans did not see initial broadcast of the report, which included new allegations that Karl Rove, President Bush’s former top adviser, waged a campaign against Mr. Siegelman.
Instead, just before the segment was to start, people in the northern part of the state who were tuned in to WHNT-TV, Channel 19 in Huntsville, found this on their screen instead:
We apologize that you missed the first segment of 60 Minutes tonight featuring ‘The Prosecution of Don Siegelman.’ It was a technical problem with CBS out of New York.
Upon hearing reports of the missed segment from readers, Scott Horton, a writer blogging at Harper’s, phoned CBS headquarters in New York, which offered him a startling contradiction:
“There is no delicate way to put this: the WHNT claim is not true. There were no transmission difficulties. The problems were peculiar to Channel 19, which had the signal and had functioning transmitters.” I was told that the decision to blacken screens across Northern Alabama “could only have been an editorial call.”
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, American troops continue to fight, and die, nominally to secure the blessings of liberty for the people of Iraq.
24 February 2008
Well, the Coen Brothers cleaned up, with No Country For Old Men winning for Best Adapted Screen Play, Best Director, and Best Picture (Javier Bardem won Best Supporting Actor, as well). At best they seemed bemused; at worst, positively indifferent. Seriously, though, who wouldn't kill to see Henry Kissinger: Man on the Go?
22 February 2008
Los Campesinos! are an indie rock band from Cardiff, Wales who sound like a less Fisher-Price-ified Architecture in Helsinki, with a male vocalist with one of those real flat, sour-milk regional accents, a yelpy female vocalist who occasionally interjects (you can picture her in day-glo Keds), and annoyingly lugubrious/precocious song titles like "This is How You Spell 'Ha Ha, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics'" and "....And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes in Unison". There is much to despise about Los Campesinos!
So you may be surprised when I report to you that the debut LP, Hold On Now, Youngster..., is actually a fairly good record. Retained from last year's Sticking Fingers Into Sockets EP are centerpiece and 2007 highlight "You! Me! Dancing!" (my! teeth! are! clenched!) and "Don't Tell Me to Do the Math(s)'; the rest is new. Well, not new...scratch that, not original: the influences here are knee-deep from the twee-core boy-girl point-counterpoint of Beat Happening, the DIY shambolic-ness of fellow Cardiffers (?) Young Marble Giants, and the rhythmic lockstep of that effervescent lodestar of post-2000 UK rock, The Strokes. Hold On Now, Youngster... works like a steam engine held together with spit, bubblegum, and a wish - the minute it stops running, it falls apart. Luckily LC! keep it moving at max speed throughout; a good thing, as I imagine a ballad by these guys might border on intolerable. There are a few dud lyrics (uh, "It's you! It's me! And there's dancing!" springs to mind), do your best to ignore 'em. I might hate this record in a month.
“Now, this is the way we give them the water cure,” he explained. “Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.”
20 February 2008
The Raveonettes hold the distinction of being the last band whose CD I bought on the merit of a music video. That video, "Attack of the Ghost Riders" (above) was a slick (probably) copyright-infringing visual summation of their Wild One-meets-Psychocandy aesthetic. The accompanying EP, Whip It On, was pretty much stuck in the same gear, though, with nothing matching the peak of "Ghost Riders." I sat out the ensuing LP, Chain Gang of Love, and the 2005 follow-up, Pretty in Black, which I understand traded the Jesus and Mary Chain's love of feedback for their love of Phil Spector. The Raveonettes then presumably got cashiered by major label Columbia, another victim of post-Strokes hype, and had been largely unheard from since. Frankly, I'd assumed they'd broken up.
As it turns out, I was wrong: the Danish couple, Sune Rose Wagner (guitar/vocals) and Sharin Foo (bass/vocals), resurfaced on indie lifestyle brand/record label Vice with their third album, the unfortunately titled Lust Lust Lust, which dropped in the UK in late 2007, and has just seen release in the States. Laurie Anderson once said that "Now is the time, and now is the record of the time" - well, with A Place to Bury Strangers and The Magnetic Fields binging on distortion, it appears, as with Television, Joy Division, Brian Wilson, and Bruce Springsteen before them, JAMC's moment as the chic indie inspiration has arrived. The Raveonettes' faith thus rewarded, they delivered a great record, bringing the girl group-aping aspects of their sound into perfect balance with their enduring love of aural abrasion.
The biggest difference from Raveonettes mark 2002 and now is the obvious exuberance, which if memory serves, was formerly submerged beneath thick layers of ennui and icy detachment. Certainly the mean temperature of Lust Lust Lust is medium cool, but songs like "Blush" and "You Want the Candy" pop with a vibrancy that not only renders the highs higher, but brings the lows into sharper relief as well. The record has an emotional topography that may not matter much in this à la carte age of the iPod, but makes for a consistently engaging listen - no mean feat for a one-trick pony like the Raveonettes, no matter how neat the trick.
The Raveonettes - "Dead Sound":
19 February 2008
Now I may be crazy, but I don't think that this is actually a terrible place for Hillary to be at this point, relatively speaking. Obviously, she would prefer to be out in the lead, or at least trading paint with Barack, but delegate-wise she's still well in contention, it's just in the realm of public perception that she's foundering. If she manages to galvanize her firewall of Latinos, blue-collar workers*, and older Dems (not to mention, uh, women**), she could easily fend Barack off in Texas, thereby shooting the tires out from under his momentum express and taking the lion's share of the 200+ delegates up for grabs in the Lone Star State. Furthermore, by getting up off the mat just as the long knives are beginning to come out, her "comeback" would appear all the more "miraculous", like Popeye downing a can of spinach and punching out forty dudes armed with machetes or something. At the very least, she'd make it a race again, and push the contest to April 22 in Pennsylvania.
For the first time in the campaign, Senator Obama is definitely in the driver's seat: ergo, he has more to lose*** March 4. Win both Texas and Ohio, and Hillary is effectively finished; the superdelegates that have thusfar been deserting her in drips and drabs will begin to abandon ship, and party leaders will start to coalesce around the presumptive nominee. No one, not even the Clintons, are going to be allowed to push this thing through the summer to the convention, not with the White House there for the taking. But if Hillary should pull out either of those two contests, well, she looked dead in the water after placing third in Iowa, and look what happened when she carried New Hampshire.
* According to exit polling I'm reading this morning, they're abandoning her.
** She barely won among women in WI.
***Well, I take that back, seeing as Hillary could actually flat out lose the nomination that day. Duh.
...the Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Party got Wilson elected in 1912 and laid the ground for Republican Progressives to switch allegiances and bring F.D.R. to power in 1932. Go back even further: in 1848, the Free Soiler Martin Van Buren planted the seeds for the arrival of Lincoln and the Republican Party in 1860. Third parties remake American politics when the established parties stagnate and fail to solve chronic, structural problems (slavery, economic inequality); they bring not just a new program but new forms of politics.Of course, the more recent tradition of Democratic defections is not nearly so illustrious, as Packer himself points out: abandoning Humphrey in '68 wrought Nixon, John Anderson's progressive candidacy helped torpedo Carter and usher in Reagan, and, well, there's no need to rehash the 2000 election. Perhaps in some distant future these events will ultimately be seen as net positives by liberals, but it's less the ideas these candidacies espoused than the subsequent havoc wreaked by their more immediate benefactors, i.e. arch-conservative Republicans, that provoked any real change in the Democratic Party. It can certainly be argued that the progressive agenda has more momentum now than at any time post-1980, though I would be more inclined to credit that fact to the successive disasters of the war in Iraq and the destruction of New Orleans, than, say, Ralph Nader.
Scuttling a prospective Hillary ticket is not going to usher in a new era of progressive politics, destroy a moribund Democratic establishment (nominally headed, it's worth noting, by Howard Dean), or even unify the party behind Obama in 2012. What it will do is keep us in Iraq longer, forestall meaningful health-care reforms, and ensure that our tax policies continue to favor the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the rest of us. Every subsequent setback and disaster will be on the heads of those "Democrats" holding out for a spotless white knight embodying each and every one of their pure-as-the-new-driven-snow "latté liberal" wet dreams to emerge on horse back and spirit the country off to some inconceivable post-partisan utopia. The rest of us, meanwhile, have already figured out that he's holed up somewhere with the Easter bunny and Santa Claus, who also don't fucking exist. This year, to borrow a familiar phrase, you are either with us or against us.
Small admission: I'm not the biggest Feist fan there's ever been. "1234", her biggest "hit" thusfar, doesn't do much for me, even though I enjoy the goofy community theater dance-o-rama video (and I obviously wasn't the only one). Yet two other tracks on the new (well, now recent) record, The Reminder, have lit up the neural switchbord: the piano-pounding of "My Moon, My Man" - also available in a taffy-pulled electro junk remix by Boys Noize - and my present #1 jam, the late-blooming current single, "I Feel It All".
"I Feel It All" is a clatterer; unlike other Feist tracks that roll, skip, or slip, this song falls down the stairs after a running start. One might even say it rocks, after a fashion. It's about a breakup, as approximately 60% of great pop songs are (scientifically proven, that), and the time-honored tradition of reserving the right to break your own damn heart:
I feel it all, I feel it allI feel it all, I feel it all
The wings are wide, the wings are wide
Wild card inside, wild card inside
Oh I'll be the one to break my heart
I'll be the one who'll break my heart
I'll be the one who'll break my heart
I'll end it though you started it
The truth lies
The truth lied
And lies divide
Reading Castro's political obituary, there is little to mourn. He replaced the brutish Batista regime with another jackboot, concealing his iron fist in the velvet glove of socialism - the very definition of "fascism with a human face." Doubtlessly he did much to improve the economic plight of a great many Cubans who suffered under the yoke of an unmitigated feudal capitalism; his rise should remain a cautionary tale to those who continue to shred the social safety net and explode the distance between the wealthiest and poorest. However, the price for these modest gains was systematic repression, political imprisonment, and death - meet the new boss, same as the old boss. He should not be missed.
In the wake of Castro's resignation announcement, President Bush announced that "the United States will help the Cuban people realize the blessings of liberty," calling for free and fair elections ahead of next week's critical National Assembly meeting - a gathering that will ostensibly produce, or at least validate, Castro's successor. A good first step in this direction might be to end the failed sanctions that have been in place for four decades, depriving the Cuban people of economic opportunity and a direct connection to the United States. Opening this potent avenue of exchange would undoubtedly be the most effective method of exposing Cubans to those "blessings of liberty" the president spoke of. The Cold War has been over for almost two decades now, and as another one of its relics is packed away in mothballs, perhaps it's time for America to realize that, yes, we actually did win, and move on.
18 February 2008
The Sixth Sense reignited the "creepy kid" horror movie trope/subgenre, and though it has surprisingly endured for almost a solid decade, the trend has spawned remarkably few worthwhile films. One might be tempted to add Joshua to this scrapheap; the movie, released (dumped, actually) by Fox Searchlight approximately nowhere for a hot minute sometime in 2007, very nearly disappeared without a trace. However, critics latched onto the film as a startling psychological thriller in the vein of Rosemary's Baby without the need for supernatural hokum. Indeed, no movie I know of similarly exploits the heightened emotional tension surrounding a birth, but whereas Roman Polanski's 1969 classic is prenatal, director George Ratliff's terror is strictly post.
The film concerns a well-to-do yuppie couple (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga), who have just added a second child to the family, eight years after their first, the eponymous Joshua (Jacob Kogan). Immediately we detect, as we are meant to, something amiss with the boy: he is preternaturally serious, self-contained, playing Bartok on the family's grand piano and obsessing over ancient Egyptian burial rites. His parents, especially his father, seem both mystified and wary of him. Later, we see Joshua watching video footage of himself and his parents when he was an infant: he is screaming constantly as his mother visibly cracks up under the strain of postpartum psychosis, his father a helpless bystander amidst the unfolding emotional chaos. He suspects, as we do, that his parents don't genuinely love him, and begins to enact subtle retribution.
Joshua's first hour or so verges on brilliant, recognizing the unspoken potential terror of parenthood, namely the fact that you are essentially trapped with something you brought into the world, for good or ill. The film is initially ambiguous as to Joshua's true nature, cautiously laying out just enough string to support several theses. Then, following a harrowing game of hide-and-seek, the movie's grueling pace, essential to developing its merciless tension, unfortunately begins to unravel. The filmmakers ultimately choose to go the Damien route, turning a once-novel take on a tired premise into just another example of superior craft. Yet, to their credit, they never completely tip their hand: we never develop a clear understanding of Joshua's motives, nor a sense of his true feelings towards his baby sister, whose arrival clearly serves as the catalyst for his malfeasance (occasionally, title cards pop up to inform us of how many days old she is). Diminished, but far from crippled by its flaws, Joshua is an overlooked gem that could have been a diamond, an unsettling film that could have been truly disturbing.
I don't like much of what I've heard from Black Lips or Times New Viking: the whole "got ripped on Old Crow, played our guitars with broken beer bottles, and recorded it straight to cassette" aesthetic does not, on its own merits, do a whole lot for me. Memphis' Jay Reatard comes from the same DIY school, but has thoughtfully included the tunes. Punk-as-fuck in the Ramones' two-minutes-and-we're-out sense, but scuffed around the edges, Reatard's 2006 solo debut, Blood Visions, is a lost gem of nouveau garage rock. Now he's jumped up to the majors (well, at least Triple A), signing with Matador Records, with whom he plans to release a series of six 7-inch singles, with each edition in a successively smaller batch. For Reatard fans with a vinyl fetish or a collector's appetite, I'm sorry to say that you are getting a grade-A screwing. For myself, I'd say that there's nothing quite so wasteful in this age of digitization as committing all that raw material to two songs. For everyone else, I'd say fear not, as there are plans in the works to release the contents of these limited edition singles in CD format, you know, the music being the important thing and all.
For some idea how this holy terror actually sounds, you can click here.
15 February 2008
Funnily enough, I thought the whole thing was "keyed" to
For all of you who think that this talk about a false choice between honor and defeat sounds familiar, allow me to reach back through the mists of time to then-candidate Richard Nixon, who promised on the campaign trail to end the Vietnam War by seeking "peace with honor." Incidentally, after taking office in 1969, Nixon expanded the war by secretly bombing Cambodia (which he later invaded) and Laos, while laying waste to North Vietnamese cities and escalating the civilian death toll exponentially. American involvement in Vietnam finally ended in 1973, and the South finally fell in 1975. "Peace with honor", which had prolonged the conflict needlessly for four more years and cost thousands of American and millions of Vietnamese lives, ended up looking a whole lot like plain old peace. Or "defeat".
12 February 2008
11 February 2008
The best-selling title in Continuum's book-per-album (or was that the other way 'round?) 33 1/3 series is Kim Cooper's take on Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. This might not strike you as odd at first, until you get around to the other titles in the series: The Beatles' Let It Be, The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St., Radiohead's OK Computer, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, Nirvana's In Utero, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, etc. So we are not just talking about a bunch of obscurities here, these are some of the best-selling classic albums by the biggest acts in rock 'n' roll history - records that have sold millions and millions of copies, the mere mention of which causes label execs (those that remain) to squirt a few tears for the good ol' days. According to the book (which I have not read - this factoid was cited in a review here), as of 2005 In the Aeroplane Over the Sea shifted a relatively meager 150,000 units since it was released in 1998; compare that to Merge stablemates the Arcade Fire, who moved 92,000 copies of their newest, Neon Bible, in its first week of release. Yet, in the pantheon of pantheons that is the 33 1/3 library, it is an obtuse contortion of lo-fi buzz and lyrical cryptology that never even pawed at the screen door, let alone scratched the surface of the mainstream, that is number one.
I can't begin to tell you why this record has the death-grip it does on some people's ears and imaginations. ItAOtS is hardly inviting at first listen: its ramshackle orchestrations, mastermind Jeff Mangum's piercingly nasal vocals, and the too-clever/strange-by-half wordplay...well, it can be like trying to swallow an entire watermelon at once. It's an album a not inconsiderable proportion of the public might consider as having been inflicted upon them rather than listened to. I myself had an intense allergic reaction to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, derisively referring to it as "Aeroplanes in My Cereal" and other such intentionally mis-remembered sobriquets.
It's now been ten years since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea came out; the only reason I recalled this was that Pitchfork - a publication that infamously expunged its original, insufficiently laudatory review of the record - is running a two-part series celebrating the anniversary. The album is a Rosetta stone of indie tastes - a last gasp at willful obscurantism in the pre-internet age, when you had to make an effort to seek out a record like this without the benefit of eight million blogs posting the same shitty-fi mp3s months in advance. Nowadays indie music's success is a combination of increased reach via the web combined with the mainstream bar plummeting due to the record industry's swan song. The marketplace is so bifurcated as to give the insulated music dork the appearance of having achieved a kind of hegemony, when in fact no one knows who M.I.A. is, or who James Murphy is, and Feist is that chick from the iPod commercials. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea reads like a missive from another dimension when Pitchfork is pumping out fey-pop icons like Sufjan Stevens - a Tommy Stone to Jeff Mangum's Brian Slade.
Mangum disappeared after this record arrived on store shelves. Well not literally, but apart from a collection of field recordings of Bulgarian folk musicians, he hasn't laid a note to wax or plastic since, a fact that has undoubtedly burnished both his and the record's legacy as a kind of misshapen masterpiece that hung a left off Art just before the intersection with Commerce. When he does turn up, as he did a couple years back at a concert by fellow Elephant 6ers (and disappearing act) Olivia Tremor Control, "Elvis is alive, well, and working at a gas station off of I-10 in Louisiana"-type stories pop up across the blogosphere. Will the disciple who once wailed "I love you Jesus Christ" at the 0:22 mark of "King of Carrot Flowers Part 2 & 3" break his unacknowledged vow of silence or recede into the ether once more?
In retrospect In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a sinking ship, overloaded with ambition, emotion, ideas, and sheer virtuosity. It is a bold, brilliant, beautiful album that I'll never get my arms all the way around, never understand the way that those people who really love it do. Sometimes that's the way it's meant to be, I guess. "But now we must pick up every piece/Of the life we used to love/Just to keep ourselves/At least enough to carry on."
08 February 2008
In a smaller field, Romney's strategy of shoehorning himself into the pro-business, socially conservative gap might have propelled him to victory. On the back end of this construction, however, Huckabee proved to be his superior, a genuine bible-thumping clergyman who could talk the talk with the conservative Christians, who, after being lionized in the wake of President Bush's 2004 re-election, have thusfar been an afterthought in 2008. Furthermore, the entire field of Republican candidates, especially McCain and Rudolph Giuliani, seemed to take particular delight in singling Romney out for abuse whenever possible. The Massachusetts governor's "flip-flopping" and win-at-all costs mentality (his campaign was the most aggressively negative) seemed to especially irk his fellow Republicans, and undoubtedly their constant withering fire stripped a lot of the luster off his candidacy, if not his comically immaculate coif.
Underreported, of course, is the extent to which Mitt's religious background derailed his presidential bid. The media is free all day to speculate on whether Obama's blackness or Hillary's gender helps or hurts, both because identity politics play a huge role in Democratic politics, and having an African-American or female president would be a seismic break with tradition. Crossing religious boundaries, or at least, since JFK, coming from a non-mainline Christian denomination, doesn't have a whole lot of national juice (though it's worth noting that Utah went for Romney by an absurd 90%-10% margin). Yet, in large part it was Mitt's religious preference that doomed him; in many swaths of the Evangelical community, Mormons are considered heretics - it's not far-fetched to consider that such bias, or at least discomfort, cost him vital support, especially in Iowa. I, for one, would be fascinated to know how many Republican primary voters were ultimately turned off to Mitt not by his transparent fakeness, but his church.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not sorry for Mitt Romney. His laughably eager-to-please, cynically manipulative style doomed him from the start. Had he managed to attain the presidency - and I think either Obama or Hillary would have eaten him for lunch in the general election - what would he have done? How would he have governed? Given that self-contradiction seemed to be his only constant, we honestly have no way of even speculating what a Romney administration would have looked like. The only thing surprising about Mitt's announcement that he was dropping his bid is that he didn't return to the podium fifteen minutes later and deny ever saying anything of the sort.
This announcement, delivered to a fawning crowd of imbeciles at the Conservative Political Action Conference who actually shouted, "No!" when Mitt declared he was dropping out, was the final nail in the coffin for any shred of political dignity Romney hadn't already shed during the campaign. During his speech, Romney warned "that unless America changes course, we could become the France of the 21st century" (changes course from what? the Bush administration?), made a cheap crack about Harvard professors being liberal (as an alumnus of that effete, elitist institution, he would presumably be in a position to know), and said, alluding to the fact that if he remained in the running, it might improve Obama and Hillary's odds of winning, "I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror." It was a condensed lesson in why he is exceedingly unfit to be President of the United States. I, for one, am extremely pleased that his life-long dream died a slow, painful death; I only wish he could have burned through another $35 million before it was over.
Consider the following discs/files for your home listening pleasure:
Autechre - Quaristice (Warp)
Magnetic Fields - Distortion (Nonesuch)
Clipse - We Got It For Cheap Vol. 3 (Re-Up Gang)
Cribs - Man's Needs, Woman's Needs, Whatever (Warner Bros.)
Elvis Presley - Elvis at Sun (BMG)
Hot Chip - Made in the Dark (DFA/Astralwerks)
Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (XL)
Miles Davis - Miles in the Sky (Columbia)
Blood on the Walls - Liferz (Social Registry)
Boris - Smile (Southern Lord)
Lime Spiders - Beethoven's Fist (Caroline)
The Vibrators - Pure Mania (Columbia)
Television - Marquee Moon (Elektra)
28 Weeks Later, the 2007 sequel to Danny Boyle's zombie flick resurrection 28 Days Later, is equally as allegorical as it's predecessor: now the pointed target is the American occupation of Iraq. A U.S.-led NATO force has entered post-infection Britain, establishing a command center for reconstruction in London known colloquially, get this, as the "Green Zone." The so-called "rage virus" from the first film has apparently abated as the infected (i.e. the zombies) starved to death, having gobbled all of us normals up, and the military is repatriating U.K. citizens to aid with the rebuilding effort. Predictably (though inventively) an outbreak of infection occurs within the compound, and also predictably, the Americans botch the containment effort. What follows is a lesson in junk politics - primarily amounting to a broad criticism of our inability to tell friend from foe, and more than a suggestion that we might be as bad for the Iraqis' health as the insurgents.
The initial 28 Days Later was a culture shock, primarily owing to the simple fact that the zombies possessed velociraptor-type speed. 28 Weeks Later, lacking this element of surprise, feels in many respects like a quicky retread. Still, director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is an obviously talent, rationing out tension and release in a professional, if predictable manner. Like its predecessor, 28 Weeks Later is the cream of its genre; I just don't know how many more passes we're handing out for English accents and cack-handed pretensions.
07 February 2008
The Re-Up Gang, i.e. Clipse (Pusha T and Malice) plus Philly rappers Ab-Liva and Sandman, has just released the sequel to 2005's seminal We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 mixtape, the aptly (and lugubriously) titled We Got It For Cheap Vol. 3: The Spirit of Competition (We Just Think We Better). I haven't had a lot of time to absorb this yet, so we may come back to it, but time is of the essence as Re-Up is giving this shit away F-R-E-E over at their label website. Do yourself a favor and opt for the Drama-less version, unless you like DJs shouting out their name over your raps, in which case be my guest.
First impression: Clipse maintain the whole "drug dealers who rap on the side" ethos, rather than the more popular "I may or may not have dealt drugs at one point, but now I own three homes and have my own energy drink" ethos. Clearly the commercial failure of 2006's Hell Hath No Fury has had a profound effect on Pusha and Malice: several times on the tape they allude to the fact that there may be more money dealing coke that in hip hop. WGI4CV3 is definitely a hardcore nose to the grindstone affair; "If the album flops, we the Wire season 2 bitches, back to the docks".
Speaking of which...
SPOILER ALERT: If you watch The Wire and aren't up to episode 5 of the current season yet, turn back!
Season 5: B'more Sun plotline = thumbs waaay down; McNulty going haywire = thumbs kinda down; Marlo moving aside Prop Joe and taking over the connect with the Greeks = big thumbs up; Omar pulling some serious Batman shit in his hunt for Marlo = I can't even see my thumb because it is so high up.
Carl Wilson over at Zoilus turned me on to this feature over at the (shudder) Freakonomics blog: "What do Real Thugs Think of The Wire?" It's a diary maintained by Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University sociologist who made his name documenting the Chicago drug trade, recording the reactions of "New York-area gang personnel" as they watch the show. Choice cut, from Part 4:
Flavor, the youngest in the room at 29, felt a strong tie to Marlo. “I can’t tell you the number of these old fools, like Prop Joe, that stand in the way when we try to make things happen. They always talk about the old days. F-ck the old days. I got kids, I got bills, I don’t need no old crumpled up, fat fool telling me to give my money up to n***ers who don’t do nothing for themselves.”R-E-U-P-G-A-N-G, indeed.
06 February 2008
Saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which I will henceforth refer to as TAOJJBTCRF. I don't buy writer-director Andrew Dominick's crucifixion analogy - in fact I think the staged re-enactment of the famous death scene, shown later, with Bob Ford as himself, and his brother Charlie playing Jesse, is probably closer to the truth. TAOJJBTCRF is indeed as meditative as the critics asserted, and at two and half hours, it's probably more than a couple hairs too long. However it is a compelling psychological portrait of that strange breed of person so enamored with an idol that he or she becomes obsessed with subsuming them, and through violence transcending them. As Jesse James was a violent criminal, Robert Ford does not pay the usual price for assassination, and instead enjoys a notoriety, the film makes clear, equivalent to Jesse's. It is this strange, sad coda that is by far the most compelling part of the movie, a clean break with the studied portraiture that precedes it (at points TAOJJBTCRF is over-lovely, like a filigreed tea set in a doll's house ). Ford finally steps out of the role of Judas in Dominick's passion play and becomes a relatable, sympathetic human being whose misguided hopes have been cruelly, if deservedly, dashed.
TAOJJBTCRF was mostly lost in the Oscar shuffle, but it did receive one major nomination, for Casey Affleck's portrayal of Ford. That this nomination was for Best Actor in a Supporting Role rather than Best Actor in a Leading Role suggests that the nominators either had not seen the film or were so blinded by Hollywood's "star system" that they could not accept the fact that Brad Pitt's performance as Jesse James was the supporting one. (Perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on them, as the film was heavily marketed on the strength of Mr. Pitt's cachet, a strategy that did not forestall its inevitable commercial failure.) Regardless of the slight, Mr. Affleck is assuredly deserving of recognition, and I hope that he wins, though I doubt such a thing will come to pass.
Picked this up from Idolator, so you can read that too, but stick with the man if you want the straight dope on this whole "New York's Rock Experience" brouhaha.
Apparently some outfit I've never heard of, Emmis Communications (they apparently own a smattering of FM stations in NYC, L.A., Austin, Indiana, and,uh, Bulgaria) has decided to bless New York City with its third rock radio station, 101.9 RXP, a.k.a. "The New York Rock Experience." According to this here press release, the station will differentiate itself from the competition - Q 104.3 and K-Rock, classic and modern rock stations respectively - by playing "a new adult blend" merging "New Music, Classic Rock, Alternative & Local Rock" a.k.a. "The New York Rock Experience." To wit:
101.9 RXP will feature a variety of rock from artists like Franz Ferdinand, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, Coldplay, U2, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, The Police, Beck, Radiohead, The Who, Oasis, Arcade Fire, Social Distortion and REM ... a playlist not determined by era, but rather by the acoustic quality of each song, as determined directly by on-air personalities and staff.Now, you may ask yourself, is it necessary to have "on-air personalities and staff" "determine" a playlist heavy on Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, REM, and U2? (Oh, right I forgot about the Arcade Fire and...Social Distortion.) Also, what's with this "acoustic quality of each song" nonsense? I'm guessing they mean that their playlist will be determined by either the subjective tastes of their "on-air personalities and staff" or, more likely, the same road-tested melange of Jann Wenner-approved canonical canon-ness that any ol' Clear Channel computer could spit out, neither of which translates as "acoustic quality." Acoustic quality, you see, would relate to the quality of the recording from a technical perspective, as opposed to an assessment of a song's artistic merit; I don't think anybody's gonna be DQing the new Red Hot Chili Peppers product because of digital clipping (if you have ears, you owe it to them to take a gander at Nick Southall's manifesto on the subject, "Imperfect Sound Forever"). Words have meanings, people.
Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to pour on the Haterade. In fact, I think the appearance of "The New York Rock Experience" is a heartening development. A few years ago rock radio in NYC was on the ropes, with WNEW and K-Rock switching to all talk formats, leaving Q 104.3 as the last remaining game in town (though here in NJ you could still pick up WDHA, WRAT "The Rat" - I had an awesome bumper sticker on a long gone Saturn - and G Rock radio ). Since then, K-Rock has abandoned the asinine "Free FM" format, and now we have a new player making the scene.
Look, I listen to a lot of rock and roll: it's what I like the most, and I can't change it and I won't apologize for it. God made me this way for whatever reason. Certainly, I like to think that I maintain an open ear, and I love a lot of non-rock music, but as for what Lester Bangs referred to as "needle time", rock and rock derivatives are the overwhelming favorites. So I cannot begrudge the tastes of people like me who really want to OD on riffs, even if those riffs belong to The Eagles or RHCP or Oasis. Hell, you wanna talk about junk food, give me AC/DC, The Clash, Led Zepp, Springsteen any day of the week - and I have no doubt that "The New York Rock Experience" will give me them every day of the week.
The real question, in my mind, is whether this thing will sink or swim. Obviously, I know fuck-all about the radio biz, but I've seen stations and formats come and go, and I have memories of a youth wasted to strains of K-Rock. Personality, I think, still matters: hence the demise of sonic nightmare Jack FM - simply a playlist heavy on '80s faves programmed and played by a computer; the very definition of impersonality, your car as waiting room. The bond my friends and I formed with K-Rock was certainly based on the music, but there was also a sense that the station was a hub - we knew its disc jockeys, met them at concerts, collected a ton of bumper stickers and other assorted swag. I think those days of centrality are long gone, a victim of the iPod, or the Internet, or whatever other technological and demographic changes are slowly eradicating interpersonal interactions. But the underlying concept of building a listener base by developing relationships that progress beyond playing the same Tom Petty records still holds some water. Still, a little o' this never hurt no one.
- The Republican nomination is McCain's to lose: Mitt Romney, thanks for playing. John McCain swept the big prizes yesterday, winning New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Missouri, and California. Romney took his home state of Massachusetts, and handily won Utah and Colorado handily as well - both states with considerable Mormon populations; he also nabbed a fistful of tiny states: Minnesota, Montana, and North Dakota. Yet the surprise story last night was left-for-dead Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who opened the day with a win at the West Virginia G.O.P. convention after McCain delegates threw him their support in a effort to block Romney (who later cartoonishly criticized Sen. McCain's "Washington insider ways"), and then took Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama in addition to his home state of Arkansas.
For the McCain camp, the big picture is bright: their candidate now has a commanding lead in delegates thanks to the RNC's winner-take-all format, and the chief opposition, Mitt Romney, is clearly on the ropes. All is not rosy on the Straight Talk Express, however: self-identified conservative voters - i.e. the Republican base - went overwhelmingly against Sen. McCain, splitting their votes between Romney and Huckabee. This trend was most obvious in the South, where conservatives actually threw Huckabee a few victories, but was palpable to the extent that only in the Northeast and California, where moderate Republicans are still the majority of primary voters, did McCain win any outright majorities. In the long run this speaks to a general lack of enthusiasm among movement conservatives for a McCain candidacy, as indicated by the vociferous opposition by a number of prominent right wing media figures, among them Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Focus on the Family's James Dobson. Whether or not this will translate into soft support in the general election remains unseen, and probably hinges a great deal upon who the Democratic nominee ends up being.
- Hillary Clinton is in 1st place (by thismuch) : The reality of the situation is that Hillary won a 10-8 decision against Obama last night, winning the big prizes on paper, and emerging with about a hundred more delegates. The perception, which is probably more important, is that Hillary won on a TKO, decisively beating Obama in New York, New Jersey, California, and, unexpectedly, in Massachusetts, where the bulk of the state's Democratic establishment made a big show of throwing him their support two weeks ago. Obama was viewed as making a charge in Clinton's backyard in recent weeks - Slate referred to NJ as a "toss-up" state, even though polls had consistently had Hillary ahead by comfortable, if diminishing margins - but she fended him off, restoring momentum to her campaign in time for what could be a long home stretch.
The good news for Obama is that he not only survived Super Tuesday, but he's still in pretty good shape, having won thirteen states to Clinton's eight. Hillary enjoyed a tremendous built-in advantage, with New York and New Jersey virtually assured to go her way, but in neither state did she run up an enormous margin of victory, winning by only 13 and 10 points respectively (by contrast Obama took his home state of Illinois by 31 points) . In Connecticut, also considered Hillary's backyard, Obama actually managed to eke out a victory. In view of the Kennedy endorsements (and comparisons), losing Massachusetts was definitely a blow, but not an insurmountable one. The fact is that the schedule from here on out - with no more than four states on the table at one time - favors Obama's hands on approach. The more time he spends in a state, the better he does (unlike Rudy Giuliani); furthermore, as evidenced by his surprising pluralities throughout the South, Obama has been able to mobilize African-American voters (whom he carried in some instances almost 90%-10%), a fact that will undoubtedly help him in states like Maryland, Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Obama also enjoys a fund-raising edge, bringing in a record $32 million in January - money that will enable him to endure a protracted primary season.
For state-by-state breakdowns, as well as the schedule of upcoming primaries, I recommend the New York Times' Election Guide site.
05 February 2008
Being an open-minded, forgiving sort, I would love to write-off Bush as a singular disaster and at least partially exculpate the Republican Party at large for the scope of our continuing national disaster. However, it must be noted that those same "Reagan conservatives" who now cry apostasy at our Bungler-in-Chief for his infidelity to "principle" eagerly lined up to applaud the tax giveaways to the wealthy, the exploitation of national tragedy to cow and subdue political opposition, and, worst of all, the campaign of misinformation ("misinformation" being a polite word for "lies")that led to our abortive invasion of Iraq - a misadventure that single-handedly eradicated any diplomatic or military advantages we enjoyed in that brief atmosphere of post-9/11 international amity. Many still endorse the most profane excesses of the War on Terror, including the unconscionable illegal wiretapping of American citizen's private communications and the use of torture tactics on detainees (Candidate Romney: "My view is that we ought to double Guantanamo.").
If I had to pick between the two Republican frontrunners, I would choose McCain over Romney in a heartbeat. Senator McCain has demonstrated a continued willingness to break with his party and this president, whether on campaign finance reform, reckless tax breaks, immigration, or opposition for torture. He is obviously a man of great personal integrity and intellectual independence, and he would undoubtedly restore significant luster to a tarnished institution. Romney, on the other hand, has displayed an unbecoming taste for political expediency; approaching his candidacy like the business consultant he is, Romney identified a gap in the field for a standard issue pro-business social-conservative, and has offered himself up as such. Unfortunately, such stances contradict his most germane personal and political experience: his four-year tenure as governor of Massachusetts. Indeed, Romney's presidential bid reads like an explicit repudiation of his past; even his signature achievement, an inventive universal health care mandate (the product of compromise with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature)has been treated as a liability at a time when America's health care system is in need of a dramatic overhaul. Given the cynical ambivalence with which he views his own interchangeable "beliefs", it's not precisely clear why Romney is running, what we would get if we elected him, and why we would want to do so in the first place.
Senator McCain is not without his downside, of course. At issue is his continued support for the Iraq war, and his promise to keep us embroiled there for the foreseeable future. He as well as anyone knows that this policy is untenable - even the surge he so avidly championed will soon come to an end as combat brigades prepare to rotate back to the States with no forces prepared to replace them. Furthermore, though the surge undoubtedly improved the security situation in Iraq, much of this success is attributable to alliances of convenience with Sunni militias targeted against al Qaeda in Iraq. With no meaningful headway made towards a political solution, is it reasonable to expect these militias - militias that previously dedicated themselves to attacking American soldiers - to remain in our camp while the Shiites consolidate power? There is no end game, and we need a president focused on the best way to extricate the nation from this mess, not someone prepared to muck about for another decade.
For the necessary change then, we must turn to the Democrats, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. On the major issues, there is little daylight between the candidates; indeed, The New Republic characterized the Democratic primary as a "fight to the death between Diet Coke and Coke Zero." Both propose a phased withdrawal of American forces from Iraq; tax cuts targeted at the middle class and based on expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit or some variation thereof; a hybridized private-public form of universal health care (as opposed to a single-payer, entirely government-funded and administered model); and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in concert with tighter border enforcement. Regardless of which candidate wins, we are thus promised that the restoration of a progressive agenda sidetracked by eight years of neglect and outright hostility will be central to their candidacy and their presidency. Given the alternative - a Hell House of which has been erected for your perusal at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - we can even feel relatively assured that they mean it this time.
Furthermore, for you amateur semioticians and sociologists out there, who these candidates are represents a significant departure from the previous 218 years of presidential precedent. Sure, you can argue that Americans should vote on the issues, and indeed they should: that's why I am decidedly against Mssrs. McCain and Romney and their promises to basically do it the same, but different. As I have just established, however, I don't see much of a policy divide between Clinton and Obama, at least not one I can use as a basis for extrapolation. Yet I also don't see identity politics as particularly useful for making a selection, though if I were a women or an African-American instead of a white male I probably would (or in Romney's case, a Mormon). Let's just agree that the day that either a women or a black man sits in the Oval Office will represent a seismic change from two unbroken centuries of white male monopoly on executive power. Call it a wash.
So why, oh why did I end up picking - not settling for, mind you - Barack Obama? Well, I like to be inspired, and he's inspirational. Frankly, I'm just as cynical as most of you mopes or anyone who's endured the last eight years of terror and the manipulation thereof, rinse-repeat. But why not go with the guy who is talking about hope? The presidency, after all, is kind of a mirror for the nation, case in point, JFK in 1961: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."; George W. Bush in 2001: "Go shopping." What do we want to see in the Oval Office? In my case certainly not a Republican, because you get what you pay for and we'd be stupid to pay for anymore of this, but I don't want the Hillary and Bill Show either, to be perfectly honest.
Clinton's camp has already made it clear that they view presidential politics as an existential knife fight in a phone booth, a perception no doubt colored by the Lewinsky affair. Says adviser Sidney Blumenthal: "It’s not a question of transcending partisanship,”
It’s a question of fulfilling it. If we can win and govern well while handling multiple crises at the same time and the Congress, then we can move the country out of this Republican era and into a progressive Democratic era, for a long period of time.Clinton is more qualified for the presidency (or rather to be the Democratic nominee, which is more than a semantic distinction), the argument goes, because she has already survived the "Republican attack machine." Her team is girding for four more years of the same dogfighting that has persisted since Newt Gingrich tried to crown himself Prime Minister after 1994's Republican Revolution. Obama's appeals for civility and his constant invocation of "hope" are seen as dangerously naive.
Isn't this a reductive argument though? Let's face it, the first Clinton presidency, operating from seemingly the same premise, sure as hell didn't usher in "a progressive Democratic era, for a long period of time." Are partisan politics a zero sum game, where the Democratic interest must always be advanced at the expense of the Republican position, or vice versa? Or mightn't we be able to use someone who can see all sides of an issue?
In all honesty, that's what Obama brings to the table. The reason that he appeals to independents and yes, even some Republicans, is because he doesn't treat their perspectives as obstacles to be overcome but points of view to be considered and perhaps even synthesized. I know that in the Bush era bipartisanship has been equated by progressives with rolling over and playing dead, and not without reason. However, I also don't think that anyone who navigated Chicago's famously murky political waters to get to where Obama is can rightfully be called naive. I think that he's a guy who knows how to push when it comes to shove, whereas I think Hillary only knows how to push.
I voted for Barack Obama because I think it takes guts to talk about hope in America today. It takes guts to talk to Democrats about the need to mend fences and reach out to Republicans after a presidency where we've gotten nothing but the bootheel. It takes guts to challenge the American people to take some responsibility for the future of their country. He talks the talk; I look forward to seeing if he can walk the walk.