new film review: the reader

I'm not normally compelled to claim a privileged position in regards to a film, namely, of having a reasonable and, dare I say, correct interpretation of a film. But in this case, many of the film critics reviewing The Reader, favourable and unfavourable, seem to have missed the bull's eye. Some critics, like the New York Post's Kyle Smith, were overly distracted by tits and ass like a frat boy at a strip joint and didn't even bother to peek beneath the film's outermost layers. Other's were mercifully less superficial and puerile, but still succeeded in playing a sleight-of-mind trick on themselves.

In New York Magazine, for example, David Edelstein writes:

In the movie’s second half, Michael tries to understand how not-bad people can do very bad things and whether learning to read can make a difference. It appears that the filmmakers have taken Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil” way too literally.
Give Edelstein credit for mentioning Hannah Arendt, but cancel it out for being too cavalier with his "whether learning to read can make a difference" comment. The issue is not whether the Holocaust was evil or not - it was. The issue is also not about reading ability. It's not about sex either, except in so far as it manifests character psychologies. To give Arendt her due as the philosophical progenitor of the moral dilemmas at the story's heart, the issue is about how evil occurs in the world and how we come to grips with it. It's not about the Nazis, but about the German society they existed in and the tragic legacy they left behind for later generations to struggle with. Roger Ebert gets it.

It's too early for me to declare my preference for best movie of the year - a game I don't particularly like to play. But at the very least, The Reader does deserve its surprise Best Picture nomination.

My review at The Front Page Online:

The Reader: Reading History Through a Provocative Lens


CEOs suck

A few months ago, my wife and I received a notice from our car insurance company about a name change. Gone was 21st Century Insurance; the company’s new (well, adopted) nom de guerre was AIG. I admit, I hadn’t really heard of AIG before, but soon discovered two things. 1) AIG is gargantuan; and 2) AIG was one of those companies in need of a bailout. And, oh yes, this little item in the news about AIG executives’ fun-filled, $440,000 trip to a California resort one week after AIG received $85 billion in bailout money.

Just the other day, we received another notice that, henceforth, our AIG car insurance company will no longer be called AIG, but will be called, instead, by a trusted, proven name brand. And that name is…wait for it…21st Century Insurance.

Ah, a corpse by any other name – would stink just as bad.

Do you get the impression that CEOs have an overinflated sense of entitlement? And do you get the feeling they think we’re unpleasant and odourous stains on the bottom of their shoes? Here’s some perspective:
The chief executive officers of large U.S. companies averaged $10.8 million in total compensation in 2006, more than 364 times the pay of the average U.S. worker, according to the latest survey by the United for a Fair Economy.
364 times the pay of the average US worker.

It’s not entirely surprising, though, that CEO salaries have reach aristocratic proportions. After all, CEOs and upper management are very much the modern, corporate incarnation of the aristocrats of yore, and this is a direct consequence of how we conceive the organization of labour in a company. The dominant metaphor is the ladder, more precisely the pyramid. Workers at the bottom, some management in the middle, and senior executives headed by a grand poobah at the top. Implied is a hierarchy not only of job function – upper levels oversee lower levers – but of status. The further up you are, the greater the exclusivity of your position, the better the status. Naturally, with this comes the view of the company as some sort of fiefdom, with the poobah feeling entitled to all the riches and luxuries. Unfortunately, this entitlement has led to the view that CEOs can reap the rewards for sailing the company ship to golden lands without being left to drown if they sink the boat. That life preserver? Yup; it’s made of money. And this is class warfare, pitting the employers versus the employees.

Yet this is the wrong way to look at it, because when it comes down to it, a company would fail without its workers. A CEO can’t be CEO of nothing. Similarly, workers can’t necessarily work towards a common goal without the assistance of someone to coordinate all the tasks and activities necessary to achieve that goal. In other words, the hierarchy is not really a pyramid or a ladder, but a concentric circle (or web of networked nodes) on the same level.

I suppose it’s a capitalistic attitude that views business through a competitive paradigm – hence clawing and scratching your way to the top – rather than a cooperative paradigm in which workers are valued on equal terms with the CEO, as partners working jointly towards the company’s success. Until we reform our corporate culture – a Sisyphean task, perhaps, dependent on reforming our views of capitalism itself – we shouldn’t be surprised that CEOs misbehave to further their own self-interest that, in all fairness, should be called what it is: greed.


new column: the tortured Bush legacy

Sometimes, you set out to write something and it turns out to be something else. That's the case this week with a discussion on torture that became a verdict on the Bush legacy.

The Tortured Bush Legacy


new film review: IRANgeles

It's ever so fun to discover a gem, even if it still a bit rough. Hence, this week's review of an Echelon Studios release, IRANgeles:

Iran Meets LA: Sweet, but No Shakespeare

And, of course, also available at www.inkandashes.net.

writing exercise on the topic of old acquaintances

And so you’re sitting at the your computer, browser set to whatever homepage you’ve set for yourself – yahoo, perhaps, if you need your daily fix of information, or google if you’re the kind to want the search and nothing but the search. As a lark, you type in your name, just to see what happens, and you marvel at the search results. Your blog. Your website. That letter you wrote to the editor a big-city newspaper. The Internet knows you exist; you have been validated. Validated! Buoyed, you type in other names. People you went to school with. Some you don’t find, and you wonder how it’s possible, in this cybernetic age, for someone to escape the Internet’s notice. But others you do find. Their blog. Their website. A book review at Amazon.

For a moment, you consider finding their eMail address and sending them a friendly “hey, long time, what’s up?” Then, with visions of happy reunions and friendships rekindled, you look up old friends and other people you may have met along to way. Yes, surely you should reach out, build bridges, close the circuit and generate a current.

Then you remember all those search results for your own name. You are easy to find. So easy! Has anyone ever typed your name in the search? Have any of these classmates, these old friends, wondered about you, what you’re up to, how you’re doing? You ask: where is everybody? Then it occurs to you that they obviously haven’t given you any thought, because here you are, sitting in front of that shiny new flatscreen monitor and new gazillion gigahertz toy, with not a word, not an eMail, not an IM. Nothing. Maybe you just weren’t memorable. Maybe you just weren’t anyone special.

Or, maybe, once the irritating self-pity has passed, it’s just the nature of things. You have your own life; they have theirs. Chapters end and chapters begin. You wonder again where everybody is, where they have gone to, but of course you know the answer. All those old friends, those classmates, those missed opportunities, those fulfilled opportunities, all of them; they have gone to the one place, other than that undiscovered country, from which no one returns.

They have gone into the past.

Like Opus, sound and snug in the last page of Goodnight, Moon, all you can do is lay to comfortable rest, in memory, those fondly-remembered companions, and leave the remainder to time.


the only winner in gaza is Death

So Israel declared Victory over Hamas in Gaza; as if over 1000 dead, a large portion civilians, and scores more injured could ever constitute a victory. And Hamas, too, declared victory, for having survived. The propaganda points go to Hamas, because however unprincipled and immoral their rocket-attacks on Israeli civilians are, the sheer brutality and wanton disregard of civilian life makes Israel the villain.

Of course, there are the screamers who will lobby charges of anti-Semitism for daring to suggest that Israel is in the wrong. Still others will complain, forcefully, that this focus on the Palestinian dead and injured is an unfair trivialization of Israeli suffering. But the numbers speak for themselves: 13 Israeli dead. The whole notion that there was any justice in this offensive is a joke given how Gaza is strictly dependent on Israel in terms of getting supplies and managing the flow of people.

And supporters of Israel’s offensive, from Ehud Olmert down to some voices in The Front Page Online, have been quick to blur the distinction between civilian and Hamas fighter/terrorist/what-have-you. As the reasoning goes, Hamas is hiding among the civilians – perhaps even the civilians themselves – therefore anything is a legitimate target. I’m not sure the UN is impressed with this kind of logic.

As I think about all of this, I’m struck by how caught up we are in the notion of Israel’s so-called “right” to exist. But I’m not sure what the word “right” is supposed to mean. Right based on what? Some intrinsic quality in the land itself that a priori entails Israeli ownership? Right based on God’s will? The problem is that property is a legal construct, a contract. There is nothing embedded in the universe itself that says, clearly and empirically, that this land is your land and this land is my land. Thus the need for some sort of shared authority, like God. The trouble is, no one can agree on what God wants, let alone prove God’s existence. This goes for any country; none have a “right” to exist, since there is nothing on which to base that right.

If the paradigm of rights isn’t correct, then we are left with that of necessity, in the sense that everyone needs a home, some area set aside for them to put up their houses. It is pragmatic necessity that explains (but not necessarily justifies) the existence of any particular country, however much that leaves open the possibility that we could abolish nations and borders and simply focus on our own local areas and probably be better off.

With pragmatic necessity, we are left with a social contract, a consensus between individuals and peoples. And this is the dirty little secret: Israel was formed, not out of a political consensus or a strictly pragmatic necessity, but out of military force bolstered by claims to “rights” of ownership to land in Palestine. True, force is at the root of almost every country’s birth, but the 20th century, particularly the end of WWII, has now implanted in us the notion of fixed borders. Hence, the UN, the global wariness of any country’s attempts to redraw the map (cue China). This is the context that makes Israel’s formation so problematic. From the use of terrorist violence on both sides, to the repercussions of British rule, to the 1948 war triggered by Arabs and the 1967 pre-emptive war launched by Israel – Israel was created by violence, not politics, when the problem was inherently political in nature. Had Israel been violently formed prior to, say, WW1, when rival countries routinely used military force to wrest control of regions from one another, Israel’s birth would not be politically different from any other country’s.

Should Israel have waited for consensus before declaring independence? The argument against is Arabs would never have allowed the creation of a Jewish state. Perhaps true, perhaps not. Time has been known to change minds and soften hearts. The question is: is anything worth all this death and suffering? As a pacifist, I have to wonder why Ghandi’s example is never followed, with sustained non-violent campaigns of a resistance. But Irgun’s use of terrorist violence, at a time when Jews were not a powerful State, holds a disturbing mirror to Hamas today. The willingness to kill overshadows the necessity for political compromise. How long until people accept that an imperfect political solution is better than a perfect cycle of violence? It’s up to Israel, I think, to make the decisive first move, that first sacrifice from returning to 1967 borders and dismantling settlements, on account of being overwhelmingly more powerful than Palestinians ensconced in what has been described as a concentration camp. This latest offensive only added to Palestinian anger and desperation – the fuel to the engines of suicide-attacks – which does nothing to solve the problem.


inauguration enthusiasm: neutral

I can understand the feverish excitement of Obama’s inauguration, but like that whole Hudson River emergency plane landing (it's still not a miracle), it’s all a little overblown. Sure, Big O’s no Bush, and he’s no Republican. Hooray for that. But despite all the talk about “yes we can” and calling for an end to a culture of anything-goes, it remains to be seen to what extent he’ll walk the talk – and we already know he won’t walk Dennis Kucinich’s beat.

It’s like seeing a musician at concert. If he or she is a familiar name with a proven track record of good performances, we’ll clap our little hearts out. If it’s someone buzzy and new, unfamiliar, we’ll offer some polite applause but wait until he strums that guitar and sings a few bars before cranking up the enthusiasm.

The thing is, voters have more power than they realize, if only they’d exercise it. By not voting for politicians who screw up, for example. Take Ted Stevens: despite being convicted for making false statements in regards to a corruption scandal centered around his acceptance of bribes, people still voted for him. True, he’s had a long, popular career as Alaska’s senator, but shouldn’t the integrity of a political office trump the person holding that office? For a bigger example, look no further than voting for Bush a second time, or Congress’ refusal to launch impeachment investigations against Bush and Cheney. The reason politicians act with impunity is because, at the very least, voters keep rewarding them with more terms in office regardless of how well, how ethically, they perform their jobs.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people,” says V in V for Vendetta. I’m not saying that politicians should have a Salmon Rushdie-with-a-fatwa kind of fear, but they should be aware that there are political consequences to the decisions they make on behalf of the people they are supposed to represent.

It could be argued that voting for Obama is just the kind of chastisement I’m talking about, but if people had been decisive and sensible in past votes, it wouldn’t be necessary to have an Obama to promise change. Of course, Obama’s nomination and win represents, to some extent, the need people seem to have to be led into change instead of embodying the change they want to see in the world. And with that, it remains to be seen whether Obama will truly live up to expectations I’m afraid have been overinflated. The higher the expectations, the harder the fall.

new column: secret tribunals and how the vatican deals with GASS

This week's column at The Front Page Online features some more fun from those wacky folks at the Vatican:

Secret Tribunals and How the Vatican Deals with GASS

I can sympathize with that whole spitting and chewing the Jesus wafer thing. But maybe there’s a glitch in the transubstantiation process, in which the wafer is held to literally become the body of Christ. Setting aside the icky, ghoulish cannibalism eating the Eucharist represents, maybe they just need to offer flavoured wafers. As I recall from my days as an altar boy, the wafer tasted kind of…dusty. Which can make some kind of symbolic sense considering that Jesus is two-thousand years old. But how about some flavouring? Beef jerky wafers – bubblegum for the kids – might offer a tasty incentive to swallow the Messiah.


new film review: the curious case of benjamin button

I enjoyed the story, and looked forward to seeing how they translated it into a film - despite my skepticism regarding the romance. I'm surprised that I didn't enjoy the film as much as I thought I would. In fact, as much as I can respect this or that aspect of the movie, I can't say I quite liked it.

Read The Bloated Case of Benjamin Button at the Front Page Online, also at inkandashes.net.

it's not a miracle

New York Governor David Paterson apparently referred to the perfectly performed emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 as “a miracle on the Hudson.”

It’s not a miracle.

Miracles, by definition, are impossible, violations of the laws of nature usually held to be achievable only through divine/supernatural intervention. So it did take some imaginary entity to pull off the feat of landing a plane safely and without any casualties? Nope; this is strictly human stuff. And that’s the whole thing; if it can be explained naturally, if it isn’t even remotely beyond the bounds of human achievement, it’s not a miracle no matter how unlikely.

Of course, there’s a bit of a problem, namely, that we don’t know the universe close to well enough to know what is truly possible and impossible. We’ve only scratched the surface. And without knowing that, how we can possibly judge whether something is a miracle or not? Oh, I know, this is just rhetoric on Governor Paterson’s part, something to say because it seems so awesome that the plane landed on the Hudson river and no one was killed or seriously injured. But at the risk of being cranky: safe landings are what pilots are trained and paid to do. Remarkable piloting? Sure. But are we so accustomed to incompetence and people screwing up that when it gets done right we invoke divine intervention, even if only rhetorically? Okay, after 8 years of the Bush Administration, I can understand that competence has become a novelty. But still. Let’s all breathe a sign of relief that everyone is safe, step away from the crazy miracle talk, and move on.


what about our classless society?

I recently watched the BBC adaptation of The Buccaneers, Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel about the daughters of American nouveau-riche sent off to England to marry into aristocracy and, through marriage, elevate their families into the New York elite. What begins as an almost insufferable Jane Austen tale of rich young girls looking for love AND money becomes a rather sharp look at class struggle, which led to me to think about class in the US. As much as we hear about the American Dream draped in equality and notions of a classless society, it’s pretty clear – as The Buccaneers illustrates to some extent – that society is stratified. So what do American classes look like? On what are they based? To answer the second question, classes are based on economics, for a rather obvious reason. And I think it’s safe to safe they look something like this:
Inherited rich: the closest analogue to the British aristocracy, these are the old money families whose historical wealth translates into a family name with political/economical/social cachet – think dynasties like Rockefeller, Rothschild, Kennedy, Bush, and so on.

Self-made rich: actors, athletes, star musicians, business people who have made their own fortunes. More volatile than inherited rich given the lack of a family tradition of wealth, since money gained can be money lost.

Upper middle class (professional): not rich enough to be full independent from the need to work, but working at jobs that pay well-enough that they can have a good deal more luxury than most. Think doctors (specialists), lawyers, bankers, and the like.

Real middle class: Consists of professionals who can afford to own property with some disposable income, but the luxury is restricted and the dependence on a job is strong. In some respects, this is the most fragile class as job losses and increasing costs, combined with a dwindling safety net, means that people who could live well once upon a time are becoming increasingly shut out.

Working class: non-professionals who typically work in manufacturing, retail, and other “blue collar” work. Although unions can offer great benefits, the working class has limited access to property and the luxuries of upper classes. This class is also fragile, as workers are dependent on employers for work – if the employers downsize or go out of business, they can suffer, particularly if they are specialized workers. However, this class also has the opportunity to work themselves up to the middle class.

Poverty class: people who live around the poverty level, entirely dependent on one or several low-paying jobs to pay for the basic necessities.

Homeless poor: no jobs, no homes, no voice in society. My understanding is that there are many homeless vets who slipped through the VA’s cracks, not to forget individuals with mental health challenges and folks who, quite simply, fell into hard times and didn’t have the support network to keep them from falling to the streets.
Not rocket science, to be sure, as far as social taxonomy goes, but I think it meets the common sense test. The question is, what does it mean? Answer:
  1. The greater the wealth, the greater the political power and freedom to live life as one pleases.
  2. With greater access to government, the wealthy have greater control over the agenda and are able to shape it to their own interests, while lower classes have less and less say.
  3. The greater the necessity for a job, the lower the ages, the more a person is dependent on people who provide jobs, the more difficult it is for a person to start their own companies and/or get education/training.
  4. There can be no wealthy class without a poor class to do the work the wealthy don’t want to do. (If no one needs to work because everyone is wealthy, would any work get done?)
Who says there’s no class warfare? With some born at the pinnacle of wealth and freedom, and other born into poverty, there is no equal access to opportunity.


new column: is war politics by other means?

The title is slightly misleading, in the sense that the question is actually the point of this week's column rather than the topic per se, which is actually Israel's horrific, outrageous military assault on Gaza. While I didn't single anyone out for rebuttal, the column is a counter-balance to other op-ed pieces that have been appearing in The Front Page in support of Israel's offensive in particular and the use of war in general. The whole thing leaves me feeling drained.

As is the case with just about anything I write on Israel, I begin the column with:
After a self-imposed partial news brownout – an attempt to regain some sanity after suffering post-election information withdrawal – Israel’s assault on Gaza inevitably made it through my anti-despair filters. And the more I learn, the more it’s clearly the same folly repeated over and over again.
Read the rest of Is War Politics by Other Means?


new film review: milk

With so many movies released throughout the holiday season - there's the problem right there - I'm not quite on the curve of new releases. But that's par for the course, and will correct itself in the next few weeks. In the meantime, this week's review is of "Milk," a film that's been buzzing around lately with good reason.
Sean Penn is the first to be showered with accolades for his work in “Milk”, and understandably so. He dissolves effortlessly into his role as Harvey Milk, the real-life gay rights activist and San Francisco City Supervisor who was tragically assassinated in 1978, without a residual “Penn-ness” to give away the role as a performance. But it would be unfair to single Penn out when there so many other cast members who deliver similarly un-self-conscious performances of equal strength and emotional power.
Read the rest of ‘Milk’ Succeeds as a History Lesson, Character Portrait and Call to Arms.


new column: baseline vegans in napa

Happy New Year, folks. May 2009 be a good one.

I get back in the saddle with a report on what I did during the holiday vacation: wine sampling in Napa valley. Or, to be accurate, trying to find something to eat that didn't involve meat.
It’s easy to be vegan at home, when you have total control over ingredients, recipes, and cooking methods. Hard, as my wife and I expected on our recent trip to Napa, is venturing out into the world where eating is left to restaurants who are very much geared towards the fat-laden, meat-heavy, dairy-heavy, “Western” diet. Fortunately, we are what I’ve come to term “baseline” vegans, or bVegans, which means that while we use the vegan diet (no animal products) as a daily standard for what we eat, we have the ideological flexibility that allows for pragmatism – ethical, nutritional, and so on. Typically, this means that we normally eat vegan, but we’ll go to vegetarian, or sometimes further (only to fish, however, and only rarely), depending on the occasion.
Read the rest of Baseline Vegans in Napa: A Culinary Adventure Outside the Home Kitchen

Future blog posts will deal with more results from that goth and politics survey I did for Morbid Outlook (promise!) and the usual potpourri of this and that taken from the headlines and whatever whims I happen to be afflicted by.

cantilevered footwear

Little known fact: fashion fascinates me. I can even fake my way through a conversation on shoes and get away with it. In fact, I'm thinking of starting a separate blog to ramble, rant, and muse about fashion in general and men's fashion in particular. I still have to refine the idea to make the blog distinctive from all of those other blogs. And I have to figure out how to do it in a way that doesn't conflict with my zillions of other writing projects. It would also be nice to use the blog to make some money somehow. Maybe I'm trying to do too much, though, with a resulting dilution of the "Frédérik" brand (whatever that is.) What do you think? Let me know in the comments below. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on intriguing, but odd, footwear, modified from comments I made at the Facebook group "Wicked Shoes."

**** I thought I’d seen something like shoes in the image above before, and sure enough, I did: Victoria Bechkam and her PVC heelless boots. A bit of digging revealed that Antonio Berardi designed these engineering oddities. A bit more digging loosely confirmed my suspicion: the soles at the ball of the foot are most likely weighted. I suppose this is the footwear equivalent of a cantilever, although I can’t imagine that it would be possible for a woman to fully relax her weight onto the heel without tipping over – that is, weight has to really be focused on the ball instead of distributed, however unevenly, throughout the foot. And it undoubtedly requires more muscle power for the foot to pull the weight upwards using the upper than it does with heeled shoes.

Biomechanics aside, though, I think Berardi has essentially taken the stiletto’s fetishied precariousness one step further by creating the illusion of complete instability. The shoe doesn’t merely look unstable; it looks impossible. Does it work? As an abstract, high-fashion concept it’s bold and innovative, making it an ideal runway object. But it seems too far removed from the practical to be anything other than a curiosity. Unlike Aminaka and Wilmont’s equally bold soleless heel, this doesn’t respect the form of the foot. By working against it, it creates an unsettling aesthetic that intrigues
but doesn’t persuade – at least, I’m too busy worrying about the shoe’s engineering to really get into appreciating the shoe as a shoe a woman is wearing.

But here’s a fun variation; pony boots, also available in a thigh-high version.

The whimsy is enough to overcome the initial shock that comes from the absence of a heel - note the horseshoes! But the construction seems far less cantilevered and precarious, even though the foot is elevated at an extreme angle, giving the shoe an engineering elegance Berardi’s shoes lack. It might appropriate to bring in the word “gait,” since these pony boots must result in a rather contrived walk. I’m not entirely sure whose boots these are, but I suspect that these are not from Berardi, but rather from Dressing for Pleasure, a BDSM/fetish/roleplay retailer. That would explain quite a bit, actually.

Edit (01.06.09): the pony boots are called Rancho and are fabricated by punitiveshoes.com
, a BDSM/fetish retailer. Palio is the thigh-high variant. Thanks to Anna Valentina for the link.